‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘And you like books.’ She glanced sidelong at him.
He flashed a quick, genuine smile at her. ‘Yeah. That would be it.’
They exited their latest corridor to find themselves overlooking a large hall. Their route continued along a wrought-iron bridge with ornate railings, which arced grandly from side to side above the open book-lined space, staircases winding up the walls to meet it at various points.
‘Hey,’ Kai said in pleased tones, ‘I’ve been in this one before. There were a load of Faust variants down there.’ He pointed over to the lower right corner of the room. ‘I was cross-correlating versions from different alternates for Master Legis. It was a training exercise, but it was one of the better ones, you know?’
Irene nodded. ‘Could’ve been worse. Schalken had us looking up illustrations of mosaics when we were doing training. Far too much time spent sitting with a magnifying glass and a scanner trying to work out if there was a difference or if there was, um,’ she tried to remember the turn of phrase and tone of voice, ‘“a comprehensible yet tolerable deviation from the norm, as expressed in the chosen world, given natural variations in the availability of minerals and colour . . .”’
A soft round of applause made her break off. Both she and Kai turned to look at the far end of the bridge. A woman in light robes was leaning against the railings, skin pale as ice and hair like a dark cap.
‘You’ve captured him exactly,’ the woman said. ‘Not surprising, given how often you had to listen to him say it until you got it right.’
‘Bradamant,’ Irene said calmly. The back of her mind noted that her stomach was twisting, and that she felt sick, and that she was not going to show it. ‘How nice to see you. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?’
‘You can always tell when she gets annoyed,’ Bradamant said confidingly in Kai’s direction. ‘She gets so very correct.’
‘I don’t think that we’ve met,’ Kai said. Irene was conscious of him at her elbow, though her attention was fixed on Bradamant. ‘I assume you’re one of Irene’s colleagues.’
‘Precisely, dear.’ Bradamant stepped away from the railings. Her dark hair was cut smooth and short, like black silk against her skin. ‘I’m here for that assignment you were given, Irene. There’s been a change of plan.’
‘What? Within the last ten minutes?’
‘Plans change so quickly,’ Bradamant said without blinking. ‘Be a good girl and hand it over.’
‘You don’t seriously expect me to believe that.’
‘It’d make life easier for both of us, dear.’
‘Yes.’ Bradamant smiled. ‘It’d mean that the mission was actually completed, for a start.’
‘And leaving aside any questions of your competence or my lack of it,’ Irene said, calmly, so calmly, ‘what could I possibly say to my supervisor?’ She was certainly not going to lose control, especially not in front of a student, just on this level of provocation. But she knew from bitter experience just how poisonous Bradamant could be, and there was always politics under the surface.
Bradamant shrugged. Her sheer garments rippled. ‘That, my dear, is your problem. Though your record is adequate, I suppose. You’ll just be facing a few decades of hard work to get any sort of status back.’
‘Wait just a moment,’ Kai said. ‘Are you seriously suggesting just giving her the assignment?’
‘She is,’ Irene said. ‘I’m not.’
‘I’ll take the student as well,’ Bradamant offered. ‘Dear Kai has such a good record.’
Irene could hear Kai’s suppressed intake of breath. ‘That won’t be necessary,’ she answered. ‘I have no reason to hand him over to you. Although you do have such a good record of dealing with students.’
Bradamant hissed. ‘Slander.’
It was Irene’s turn to smile. Bradamant might call it slander as much as she liked, but the facts were on record. The other woman hadn’t managed to keep a student for more than a single mission, and whenever there’d been a problem with that mission, the student took the blame. Unfortunate when it occurred once or twice, but a nasty pattern when it recurred. ‘No smoke without fire,’ said Irene.
‘How would you know? Keeping track, are you?’ Bradamant seemed disproportionately angry, taking a couple of impatient steps towards them, her heels loud on the bridge.
Irene smiled at Bradamant, making the expression as bland as possible. ‘Now why would I want to do something like that?’
The other woman sniffed, composing herself. She studied her fingernails. ‘I take it that you are going to be stupid, then.’
‘You may take it as you wish,’ Irene said. ‘But I am not giving you my mission, and I am not giving you my student, and if I were the sort of person who kept pet rats, I would not give you my rat. Clear?’
‘Very,’ Bradamant said coldly. She swept a spare swathe of fabric around her shoulders in a loosely elegant motion. ‘Do not expect me to be nice to you when I have to clear up your mess later.’
‘Oh,’ Irene murmured, ‘I’d never expect that.’
Bradamant turned without another word. Her footsteps rang on the iron bridge as she vanished into the dark corridor beyond, then faded into a heavier tapping of high heels on wooden floor, then into silence.