‘The second choice is for you to put the book down and walk away.’ He was watching her closely through the stolen eyes of the woman whom he’d killed. ‘Your elders won’t blame you. They know my quality, my power. They’ll consider that you did the sensible thing. I might even agree with them.’
She gave a little jerk of her head in acknowledgement.
‘And the third choice . . .’ Alberich shrugged. ‘You would regret putting me to that trouble.’
Irene swallowed. Her imagination was functional, and thus troublesome. It was now giving her unpleasant ideas about what Alberich might do if he actually exerted himself. If he viewed killing and skinning someone as merely regular business, what would he consider extra effort? Half-formed images nauseated her, and she swallowed back bile. She barely managed to keep her voice steady. ‘I think that’s only two choices, though.’
‘Is it?’ Alberich murmured.
‘I have the suspicion that there’s only one way I walk out of here alive.’
‘Well, true,’ Alberich admitted, ‘but the second option would be comparatively painless for you. My word on it.’
‘Can I ask—’
‘No.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘I think you’re playing for time, Ray. I need your decision now. I’ll throw your friend in as a signing bonus, but I want your decision in five seconds.’
If she swore herself to him in the Language, she’d be bound for life. He wasn’t stupid. He was the sort of person who’d have prepared the wording in advance. There would be no loopholes.
Perhaps people said he’d killed Librarians because nobody had ever come back. But maybe they’d all joined him. She could be joining a secret group who were going to change reality and make the universe a better place.
Maybe someone who went round skinning and killing people (order as yet unspecified) was not concerned with making the universe a better place. Just a thought.
‘Ray . . .’ Alberich said. He had a hopeful sort of smile on his face, as if he genuinely wanted her to say yes.
He probably did.
She was about to die.
What she needed was a miracle.
What she got was a dragon.
Irene had always assumed, when she’d read about dragons roaring, that the descriptions were figurative or at least hyperbolic. She’d thought that phrases like ‘shook the earth’ referred to the awe in which dragons were held. Naturally the world around them would be sundered by their fury. What else should one expect from dragons?
But the physical world wasn’t shaken by a dragon’s roar. Reality itself trembled.
‘What the devil!’ Alberich swore, the words at odds with his prim female persona. His hand visibly tensed on the knife at Vale’s neck, and Irene knew with a sickening dread that he was about to slash the detective’s throat open purely on reflex. Then his eyes narrowed in thought. ‘Too simple. Ray. By my will and by your name, you can neither speak nor move.’
It wasn’t the Language, it had nothing of the Language’s command, but his words had their own power, and Fae magic hung in them like chains. Irene was pinned in place like a butterfly, her brand burning on her back as the Library’s power fought his command. She was conscious of everything around her – the crushed insects, her hurried breathing, the trickle of blood on Vale’s neck, Alberich’s calculating eyes – and none of it was any use. There hadn’t been time to invoke the Library and force him out of the room as she’d planned. She’d been as shaken as he was by Kai’s roar, he’d just recovered faster. It made her feel stupidly embarrassed, but she had to remind herself that this wasn’t a marks-will-be-awarded situation, it was a he’s-about-to-kill-you situation.
But for all her fury, she couldn’t move a muscle.
‘A pity,’ Alberich said. ‘I was really quite impressed with you. Bradamant was efficient, but not remotely as perceptive. I’m afraid you’ve run out of time to decide, if there’s a dragon in the picture, but rest assured that I will remember you fondly.’
The door slammed open, and Alberich’s eyes widened as he saw who it was. He opened his mouth to speak, but three bullets in rapid succession hit him in the centre of the forehead. It was as neat and quick as a sewing machine’s needle rapping down again and again. He staggered back from Vale, arms flailing as his skirts churned around his legs. He grasped weakly at the table, but no blood ran from the open wounds.
‘Vale and Irene, move freely!’ Bradamant shouted in the Language. ‘And get away from him!’ she added in English. ‘I don’t know if that’s killed him.’
‘It hasn’t,’ Alberich said. ‘Gun, explode.’
Bradamant threw the gun aside just in time. It came apart in mid-air in a burst of metal and fire. She ducked at the same moment, moving for cover. Vale threw himself to one side as Alberich gestured. But a ripple of air tore into Vale and flung him into one of the display cases, which shattered in a burst of glass. There was an ugly cracking noise.
Vale didn’t get up again.
‘I really shouldn’t give people so much time to decide,’ Alberich said. He ignored Irene as she stood, frozen. His Fae magic still held her, wrapped in chains around her name and spirit. ‘Bradamant, my dear, would you like to make a deal for the lives of your friends?’