Probably her current urge to grab everyone she met and check that they weren’t Alberich in disguise would eventually go away. She hoped so.
Finally she trailed off. It seemed that they had slipped back into the casual banter of previous assignments. Everything had been simpler then, and arrogance had made it easy for Irene to talk glibly about secrets, about how elder Librarians could use her as a pawn. Now that that had probably happened, it was much less intriguing. It was like a splinter in her mind, which ached when she considered it. ‘Could you have given me more information?’ she finally asked.
‘You were warned about Alberich as soon as we were certain he was within that alternate,’ Coppelia said gently. ‘Before that, you might have been able to complete the mission on the information given. Do you actually feel any safer, with your current knowledge, understanding he suspects that you have it?’
She was about to reply, No, not really, but there was more to the question than that. ‘I feel better able to handle matters now I’ve an idea about what’s going on,’ she said. ‘People having nervous breakdowns due to knowledge that man isn’t meant to know – that happens in horror literature. Not real life.’
‘Yes.’ Coppelia sighed. ‘And yes, I know you prefer crime literature.’
‘Detective stories,’ Irene corrected her.
Coppelia raised an eyebrow. ‘And is there anything else?’
Irene tried to guess her meaning, then gave up. ‘Like what?’
‘This from someone who claims to be an investigator.’
‘But I didn’t ever claim—’ Irene tried to put in.
‘I must say that I think you could have done a better job as an undercover agent.’
‘But it was a very complex scenario, with limited information,’ Irene blurted out. This was like an examination from her nightmares. She could feel herself cringing back against the couch.
‘Oh?’ Coppelia folded her arms in a manner that practically telegraphed stern judgement. ‘Young woman, even though you’re my student, you have overstepped a number of lines on this occasion. You’ve revealed facts about the Library to at least two uninvolved parties.’
Irene decided to just give up.
‘You encouraged the manifestation of a dragon in public.’
‘Excuse me.’ That was a bit too much. ‘I wasn’t aware that was an offence against Library rules, and the Library sent him with me in the first place!’
‘Your comments have been noted,’ Coppelia said. She was sounding almost bored, but there was a spark of amusement in her eyes. ‘Naturally I shall give them full consideration. I will also try to present them in a proper and reasonable light to the elder Librarians, should I need to justify your actions. Rather than treating them as a pitiful string of excuses.’
Irene glared at her. This was beyond unfair. This was outright unreasonable.
‘I had expected better. Such a pity.’ Coppelia tapped her fingers against each other. They clicked like death-watch beetles. ‘Fortunately, as your mentor, I am competent to deal with this matter and there is no need to refer it up higher.’ Now the message in her eyes was clearer. It was a warning. Irene just wished she had a better idea what it meant. ‘As I said earlier, we are Librarians. What we don’t know, we research. And you, my dear Irene, have a great deal to research.’
‘I do?’ Irene said, feeling her way carefully. ‘I suppose that perhaps I do.’
Coppelia nodded. ‘Yes. Exactly. In fact, I believe I am within my rights to place you on location duty in that alternate. That is until you’ve cleared up a few loose ends in the investigation. Your apprentice will stay with you, of course.’
Irene had an extraordinary sense of being on a lift in free-fall. ‘But – I – Alberich – ’
‘Him at least you don’t need to worry about,’ Coppelia said. ‘Quite without any sort of proper training, you’ve actually managed to banish him from that alternate. I’m impressed. Nine out of ten for inductive reasoning. What you have done will have set up a resonance in the interworld barriers which will stop him from entering it again via chaos-linked magic. And of course he can’t use the Library itself. It will also cause serious inconvenience to local Fae, but I don’t consider that particularly important. At least, not to the Library.’
‘You’re wanting me to go back?’ Irene squeaked. She took a deep breath, and forced her voice lower. ‘That is, you want me to go back there on detached duty?’
‘Precisely,’ Coppelia said. She smiled warmly, in much the same way that an alligator, cyborg or otherwise, might smile after a full meal of whatever alligators ate. Librarians, maybe. ‘I think that, at this moment, it’s the best possible place for you. There is also a Librarian-in-Residence position vacant and you are familiar with the world.’
‘That could almost sound as if you think it safer than the Library,’ Irene said tentatively.
‘You might very well think so,’ Coppelia said. ‘I couldn’t possibly comment.’
Freefall had given way to an enormous vertiginous drop, but it wasn’t actually that frightening any more. It was even exciting. ‘I’ll need an expense account to support myself and Kai, of course, and identity papers.’
‘Irene,’ Coppelia said severely, ‘I expect you to manage your own identity papers. Really. Here.’ She reached for a small leather briefcase, and offered it to Irene. ‘This contains Dominic Aubrey’s full particulars, including his bank accounts. See about getting the money transferred. Have Kai pose as his long-lost cousin or something. I’m sure your friend Vale will be glad to help.’