Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light. Her back was complaining, but that was only normal after an evening’s work cleaning. The cleaning was certainly necessary. The pupils at Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys managed to get just as much mud and muck on the floor as any other teenagers would. Clean indoor studies in the dark arts, military history and alchemy didn’t preclude messy outdoor classes in strategic combat, duelling, open-field assassination and rugby.
The clock in the study struck the quarter-hour. That gave her forty-five minutes before the midnight orisons and chants. She knew from weeks of experience – and, to be honest, her own memories of boarding school – that the boys wouldn’t be getting up a moment earlier than necessary. This meant most would be dragging themselves out of bed at eleven forty-five, before heading to the chapel with hastily thrown-on clothes and barely brushed hair. So that gave her thirty minutes before any of them started moving.
Thirty minutes to steal a book and to escape.
She propped the mop in her bucket, straightened, and took a moment to rub her knuckles into the small of her back. Sometimes undercover work as a Librarian involved posing as a rich socialite, and the Librarian in question got to stay at expensive hotels and country houses. All while wearing appropriately high fashion and dining off haute cuisine, probably on gold-edged plates. At other times, it involved spending months building an identity as a hardworking menial, sleeping in attics, wearing a plain grey woollen dress, and eating the same food as the boys. She could only hope that her next assignment wouldn’t involve endless porridge for breakfast.
Two doors down along the corridor was Irene’s destination: the House Trophy Room. It was full of silver cups, all embossed with variations on Turquine House, as well as trophy pieces of art and presentation manuscripts.
One of those manuscripts was her goal.
Irene had been sent by the Library to this alternate world to obtain Midnight Requiems, the famous necromancer Balan Pestifer’s first published book. It was by all accounts a fascinating, deeply informative, and highly unread piece of writing. She’d spent a month looking for a copy of it – as the Library didn’t actually require an original version of the text, just an accurate one. Unfortunately, not only had she been unable to track down a copy, but her enquiries had caught the interest of other people (necromancers, bibliophiles and ghouls). She’d had to burn that cover identity and go on the run before they caught up with her.
It had been pure chance (or, as she liked to think of it, finely honed instinct) that had prompted her to notice a casual reference in some correspondence to ‘Sire Pestifer’s fond memories of his old school’ and more, ‘his donations to the school’. Now at the time that Pestifer had written this early piece, he’d still been young and unrecognized. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that in his desperation for attention, or simply out of the urge to brag, he’d donated a copy of his writings to the school. (And she’d exhausted all her other leads. It was worth a try.)
Irene had taken a few weeks to establish a new identity as a young woman in her mid-twenties with a poor but honest background, suitable for skivvying, then found herself a job as a cleaning maid. The main school library hadn’t held any copies of Midnight Requiems, and in desperation she’d resorted to checking the necromancer’s original boarding house. Beyond all expectation, she’d been lucky.
She abandoned her cleaning equipment, and opened the window at the end of the hall. The leaded glass swung easily under her hand: she’d taken care to oil it earlier. A cool breeze drifted in, with a hint of oncoming rain. Hopefully this bit of misdirection wouldn’t be necessary, but one of the Library’s mottos was borrowed directly from the great military thinker Clausewitz: no strategy ever survived contact with the enemy. Or, in the vernacular, Things Will Go Wrong. Be Prepared.
She quickly trotted back down the corridor to the trophy room, and pushed the door open. The light from the corridor gleamed on the silver cups and glass display cabinets. Without bothering to kindle the room’s central lantern, she crossed to the second cupboard on the right. She could still smell the polish she’d used on the wood two days ago. Opening its door, she withdrew the pile of books stacked at the back, and pulled out a battered volume in dark purple leather.
(When Pestifer sent the book to the school, had he fretted and paced the floor, hoping to get some sort of acknowledgement back from the teachers, praising his research, wishing him future success? Or had they sent him a bare form letter to say that they’d received it – and then dropped his work into a pile of other self-published vanity books sent by ex-pupils and forgotten all about it?)
Fortunately it was a fairly small volume. She tucked it into a hidden pocket, returned the other books to cover her tracks, and then hesitated.
This was, after all, a school that taught magic. And as a Librarian she had one big advantage that nobody else had – not necromancers, Fae, dragons, ordinary humans or anyone. It was called the Language. Only Librarians could read it. Only Librarians could use it. It could affect certain aspects of reality. It was extremely useful, even if the vocabulary needed constant revision. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on pure magic. If the masters at the school had set some sort of alarm spell to prevent anyone stealing the cups, and if that worked on anything that was taken out of the room, then she might be in for a nasty surprise. And it would be hideously embarrassing to be hunted down by a mob of teenagers.