‘Door, close,’ the woman said. The room and cupboard doors both slammed shut. ‘There. Now we should have a few minutes uninterrupted.’
Irene could feel her heart thudding painfully in her chest. ‘You’re Alberich?’ she said tentatively.
‘Yes,’ the woman said. ‘Our fourth meeting. And I hope that you are paying attention this time. Because if you do not do exactly as I tell you, then your friend will die.’ She paused. ‘That is, he will die first, and with you watching.’
‘We’re listening,’ Irene said. She kept her hands still, avoiding anything that could be taken as provocation to slit Vale’s throat. ‘Please go on.’
She hadn’t realized that a change of skin could be quite so all-encompassing. She (no, he) spoke with a woman’s voice, and it was quite different from the voice she’d heard from inside their ill-fated cab. It was also different again from Aubrey’s voice. Was he transplanting the vocal cords too? No, probably just a consequence of the entire magic transferral of skin, however that worked. It would be so helpful if she could see anything unusual in his (or her) appearance. But there was nothing at all.
‘I’m willing to make concessions,’ Alberich said. ‘You aren’t all necessarily going to die. Be sensible about this, and we can all walk away.’
Irene did her best to smile in response. Somehow I don’t believe you. ‘I’m interested in staying alive,’ she said. ‘So’s Kai. Aren’t you, Kai?’
‘Let Vale go and we can talk,’ Kai snarled. There was something in his voice which Irene hadn’t heard before. For want of a better word, it sounded like possessiveness. A draconic emotion?
‘Silence, boy,’ Alberich said. He very deliberately moved the knife in a fraction of an inch, and a trickle of blood ran down Vale’s neck to mark his white collar. ‘Stay where you are, don’t try to jump me, and let your superior do the talking. Well. Do you have the book, Irene?’
Surely he’d noticed the book in the in-tray? If he hadn’t, then she wasn’t going to draw his attention to it. ‘I can get hold of it,’ she offered. ‘Is that the price?’
‘I want more than that.’ There was a glitter behind his eyes, and that she would recognize if she ever saw it again. A rapacious hunger, an endless emptiness that would never be filled, with all the madness that went with it. ‘I have a number of questions. You can even sit down, if you like.’
‘We’d really rather stand,’ Irene said quickly.
‘Suit yourself.’ His lips curved in a smile that was somehow more a man’s than a woman’s. ‘Shall I go through the usual literary conventions? First I tell you that you’ve been told slanders about me, and you nod understandingly while not believing a word of it. Then I promise that you can go free if you hand over the book and you lie and give me a forged copy. Then I kill you.’ He shrugged. The knife stayed in place. ‘Or shall we break from the usual tropes and actually do something different? Something that might mean you survive this?’
Irene thought about how many other Librarians must have been in this position. There was a reason why he was an urban legend.
Though if they all get killed, who comes back to tell the stories, an irritating part of her mind pointed out. She ignored it.
‘I don’t see how you can use both the Language and Fae magic,’ she blurted out, her mouth running on automatic while she tried to think. It wasn’t hard to sound vaguely admiring, even if he’d see right through it.
‘I’ll give you that one for free,’ Alberich said generously, and Irene mentally lowered the odds on him letting them live even further. ‘Once a person can use the Language, that can’t be taken away. I’ve learned to use chaos since then. It involves a certain amount of personal redefinition. Difficult, but not impossible. One doesn’t have to die. Something to take into account in your future career, perhaps? There are far more opportunities open to you than you might think.’
Opportunities . . . What opportunities did she have right now? Kai might be able to use amazing dragon powers to stop Alberich entering an area, but that wasn’t much use when he was already inside it. And she might be able to force Alberich out of an area using Language, but again that wasn’t much help if he could simply wait outside its boundaries . . .
Boundaries. A half-plausible thought moved through the back of her mind. She wished she’d had more time to ask Kai about his capabilities. When he warded an area, did the warding simply follow the track that he left? Or was it a more metaphysical sort of thing, with the boundaries of his warding being linked to whatever he intended to ward?
‘Let’s reduce the potential hostages,’ she said briskly, ignoring Kai’s intake of breath from behind her. If this was going to work, she needed him outside and free to act. ‘I’m the one you want. As you said, I’m Kai’s superior. Having him stand here and maybe lose his temper won’t help either of us.’ She tried to look gullible. Impressionable. As if she believed Alberich when he said she might survive this. ‘You’ve already got one hostage, and you know I’m concerned about his well-being. If I wasn’t, we’d already be attacking or running away. Let’s clear the ground. Let Kai here go as a start to the negotiations.’
Alberich surveyed her thoughtfully, and again there was that flash of hunger in his eyes. ‘It’s true that my questions concern you, not him,’ he said slowly. ‘And he’s no initiate. I needn’t fear him trying to open a door to the Library behind my back. Very well. I’ll be reasonable. In return for a similar concession from you.’