Irene raised her eyebrows. ‘You don’t think that telling you my story is going to be stimulating?’
Coppelia chuckled a wheezing little laugh. ‘To me, perhaps. To you, it will merely be desensitization.’
‘How dull,’ Irene said. Then she sensed the gap at her side, the empty space between arm and ribs where she had been clasping the book. She flailed around with her bandaged hands, trying to find it. ‘The book – the Grimm – ’
‘Only seven out of ten for immediate reactions, I’m afraid,’ Coppelia said happily. ‘Yes, we have it safe, and Wyndham’s letter as well. I suppose it would be too much to hope that you didn’t read it? Of course it would. What on earth would anyone do under those circumstances?’
‘Well, ah, yes,’ Irene said, hoping that sympathy would translate into lenience. ‘Of course I had to check that it was the right one.’
Coppelia’s voice stayed merry, but her eyes hardened. ‘And you knew to check that it was the right one how, precisely?’
This was where she decided how much she wanted to sell Bradamant down the river. Well, Bradamant was trying to steal the book. Before I could bring it back, she poisoned me and left me in what she admittedly thought was a safe place. But she despises me and I don’t like her much either . . .
‘I met Bradamant there,’ she said, grateful that they were talking in English rather than the Language. She wasn’t actually going to lie, but there was . . . well, there might be an element of flexibility. She knew it, and Coppelia probably knew it, but that was best left unsaid. ‘When she discovered my mission, she provided some additional information that helped us identify the book. She helped us fight Alberich too.’
‘Demerit for using the verb “helped” twice in succession,’ Coppelia said. ‘And then? I take it she also read it?’
‘Only as much as I did,’ Irene said, feeling on metaphorically thin ice.
‘Which was?’ Coppelia pressed.
‘The eighty-eighth story.’
She genuinely liked Coppelia, and she thought it was reciprocated. Not just the sort of friendship that could flourish between any mentor and student, but a real, honest affection. It caused her to bring books back from assignment merely because Coppelia might enjoy them. It saw her oiling Coppelia’s clockwork joints, or just spending hours talking with her in the timeless Library, where there were neither days nor nights. There was companionship under those constantly burning lights, as they observed the changing windows on the strange world beyond. She thought of all that, and felt a barrier rise between them as Coppelia’s eyes narrowed.
‘And your conclusions?’ Coppelia said, entirely neutrally.
‘Alberich had a sister,’ Irene said. This was not the time or place to pretend to stupidity. ‘The sister had a child. And Alberich either wants to hide the information, or he’s looking for them, or both. Or perhaps it was just because the book was linked to the fate of that world, and so it could bring Alberich power. The story about the siblings and the child could be pure coincidence. But I don’t think that. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you I did.’
‘And that’s all you think?’ Coppelia pushed. The dry twist at the corner of her mouth showed tacit agreement with Irene’s last statement.
‘That’s all I can be sure of.’ There was a spike of pain in Irene’s temple, and she raised a bandaged hand to rub at it. ‘I can’t see why Alberich would have gone to so much trouble to find the book, if it had just been some kind of diversionary tactic to distract from some larger plot. And he’d gone to such efforts merely for some scheme relating to that alternate – but hunting the book seemed so very personal to him . . . But if Kai hadn’t been with me, I’d have died.’ She did her best to give Coppelia a reproachful glance. ‘You knew about Kai.’
‘What you can work out in a few days, I have at least a sporting chance of noticing over several years,’ Coppelia said smugly. But there was still that edge of caution behind her eyes. ‘Does he know I’m aware of his nature?’
‘I don’t know,’ Irene said. ‘He knows I know.’
‘Well, clearly,’ Coppelia said. ‘And does he know that you’ll tell me what you know?’
‘He’d find it astonishing if I didn’t,’ Irene said, after a moment’s thought. ‘His views on loyalty are very definite.’ She noticed that Coppelia wasn’t asking whether or not she liked Kai. And seeing that she did, she felt it was best kept to herself. If they were looking for an excuse to assign him elsewhere, which was the last thing she wanted, acknowledging that she was less than objective about him would certainly do it. Which would be bad. So she would avoid subjectivity, or at least being caught at it.
‘Well, he is a dragon.’ Coppelia nodded. ‘Kindly don’t speculate too much to him about how much we already comprehend about him, unless the situation requires it. You’ll know when. For the moment, we’ll have to assume he understands that we know all.’
‘We are the Library,’ Coppelia pointed out. ‘What we don’t know, we research. Now tell me the rest.’
Irene gave a brief, factual report of the details . . . and then there was Alberich. Alberich took up a great deal of the report. Even then, Irene found it not only easier, but essential to her sanity, to be minimalist in her descriptions.