Vale suddenly snapped his fingers. ‘I do! Mrs Jenkins, bring us in to above the British Library, right now, if you please. And be ready for an abrupt descent.’
‘What are we trying?’ Kai asked, looking round from the window.
‘I wouldn’t mind knowing that myself,’ Mrs Jenkins said. The zeppelin wheeled to the left, throwing them all off balance again. ‘We’re three hundred yards off, coming in at forty-five miles an hour, and the landing roof’s only fifty yards long.’
‘On my word, Miss Winters,’ Vale instructed, ‘tell all the structural components of the zeppelin to increase their weight by fifty per cent. Mrs Jenkins, you are to deploy landing flaps.’ He checked his watch.
Another burst of chittering sounded outside. ‘Damn,’ Mrs Jenkins commented. ‘I hate those things.’
‘Which things?’ Irene asked, frantically trying to remember vocabulary for zeppelin parts.
‘Seed ammunition,’ Mrs Jenkins said, adjusting the organ-stop controls. ‘They chew right through an airbag. Stand by for rapid braking.’
‘Now!’ Vale declared.
‘All zeppelin structure parts, increase your weight by a half again!’ Irene shouted, projecting her voice to ensure it would carry through both cabin and cockpit. She didn’t want half the struts deciding to stay their original weight, making the whole thing break up in mid-air. Imagination could supply too many images, and none of them good.
Mrs Jenkins slammed down half a dozen of the organ stops simultaneously, using her left hand and forearm, and threw herself back in her seat.
The zeppelin shuddered, leather straining and metal creaking, and the whirling motors outside howled in near-human agony. Kai had dropped his gun and was hanging on to the straps with one hand and Irene with the other, and Irene couldn’t complain. Vale had tucked his elbow through a strap and was watching the view through the shattered window with keen curiosity.
They were sinking in the air, dragged down as if someone was hauling the craft’s mooring rope from below, but they were still moving forward. The braking flaps were working, but, Irene thought, maybe not fast enough.
‘Should I make it heavier?’ she shouted at Vale, her voice barely carrying above the howling of the air and the tortured noise of the metal struts.
Vale shook his head in clear negation.
It was at times like this that Irene really wished she believed in prayer. Sudden death was easy to cope with, seeing as you had no time to ponder. But their impending crash and burn over the British Museum was leaving too much time for dread, with an inevitable fiery doom at the end. Every second seemed to stretch out into an eternal moment of panic.
Then the zeppelin settled on solid ground with a thump that threw Irene entirely onto Kai, knocked Mrs Jenkins back in her seat, and made Vale drop his watch. Irene could vaguely hear screams and shouts outside. Hopefully anyone who was standing on the roof had had the sense to run away.
With a muffled curse, Mrs Jenkins started throwing switches. The hum of the motors began to slow, as they shut down one by one. Suddenly the zeppelin was absurdly quiet after all the earlier noise, with only the cabin’s creaks and groans as an eerie backdrop.
‘Thank you,’ Vale said. ‘Excellent piloting. I will be mentioning your conduct to your superior.’
Mrs Jenkins looked at him for a long moment, then picked up a rag and wiped her goggles with it. ‘You’ll find the exit to your right,’ she said flatly.
Kai released Irene, and went to open the zeppelin door.
Irene saw it coming, but it was too fast for the Language to stop it. The man in his mini-copter was hovering there, levelling his gun to shoot directly through the open door at the people in the cabin. At Kai standing there with his back half turned.
She didn’t have time to speak, but she did have time to move. She threw herself at Kai, and the two of them went sprawling on the floor together, Kai’s mouth open in shock, as a whirring mass of silver flecks sliced through the air where he had been standing. The metal pieces sliced into the leather and wooden parts of the structure, chewing long gashes into them, and ricocheted off the metal struts, leaving long silver scars against the dark oiled surfaces. A couple of them sliced along Irene’s left arm, cutting through the cloth of her sleeve and drawing blood.
Vale went down on one knee, snatched up Kai’s pistol from where it had fallen, and fired.
There was a long, dwindling scream, and a distant crash.
Irene looked down at Kai’s face for a moment. He was looking up at her with that lost, puppy-like look again, as if she had somehow perfectly filled a hole in his personal universe. It was no doubt immensely flattering, but she didn’t have time for that. She didn’t have time to tell him that she trusted him, or that he could trust her. She didn’t have time for the immense feeling of gratitude that he was safe – or for anything except finding the book, stopping Alberich, and saving Bradamant. She had to finish the job, or all their efforts and the danger she’d put people in would be wasted.
And she couldn’t waste time indulging herself with personal feelings. Even if she wanted to.
‘All right?’ she said briskly, pulling herself to her knees. ‘Good. Come on.’
Vale offered his hand, and pulled her to her feet. ‘Good reflexes, Miss Winters.’
‘Good shooting, Mr Vale,’ she replied. ‘Thank you. Now let’s find that book.’
There were several guards on the roof who would have liked to discuss their crash-landing and the ensuing gunfire. But Vale simply strode past, and Irene and Kai marched along in his wake. Their commanding poise was spoiled a little by Kai’s sidelong glances whenever he thought her back was turned. What did he expect from her?