‘It’s part of the scientific ethos of this place. Zeppelins, death rays – they haven’t quite got those working properly yet, though – and other instruments of destruction. Also they have biomutations, clockwork technology, electrical healthcare spas . . .’
Irene glanced at Kai. He was wearing an expression combining acute interest with admiring attention. ‘I told you I dislike chaos infestations?’ she asked. ‘This is why.’
‘But zeppelins are neat,’ Kai protested. ‘We couldn’t have any in my old alternate because of the pollution, but I guess they’d be kind of cool. Up there in the sky, tossed by the winds, driving across the curve of the world with the lands and seas spread out beneath you . . .’
‘Falling a very long way down,’ Irene added.
He just looked at her.
‘I do apologize,’ she said hastily to Dominic. ‘Please go on. Tell us about this cat burglar.’
‘They call her Belphegor,’ Dominic said. He seemed more amused than annoyed by their interruptions. ‘She’s tall. Very tall. Apparently she wears a black leather catsuit and a golden mask.’
‘Any details on the mask?’
‘I think people are usually too busy looking at the black leather catsuit.’
Irene sighed. ‘So we have an incredibly glamorous female cat burglar who slinks around in a black leather catsuit, who kills vampires in her spare time?’
‘I’ll tackle her,’ Kai said enthusiastically.
Irene raised an eyebrow. ‘How do you know that I don’t want to tackle her?’
‘Involvements with glamorous female cat burglars never end up well.’
‘And you’ve had some?’
‘One,’ Irene said, and hoped that she wasn’t blushing too badly.
‘Oh, you’re that Irene,’ Dominic said in tones of surprise. ‘I remember Coppelia telling me about it now. Didn’t you end up having some sort of showdown in the middle of a reception and—’
Irene held up a hand. ‘Could we possibly concentrate on the current problem? Please?’
‘It’s a pleasure to see that you’re taking to this so cheerfully,’ Dominic remarked. ‘Now some junior Librarians would be running for the Traverse at this point and trying to ditch the job. But not you. No, I can see you’re up for the task and all eager to go.’ He smiled toothily.
Irene took a deep breath. ‘I’m looking on it as a challenge,’ she said blandly. And I’m damned if I’m going to let Bradamant manage this instead of me.
Kai raised a hand. ‘May I ask a question?’
‘Please do,’ Dominic said.
‘Do you have any sort of dossiers about this place that we can read up on?’
Dominic nodded. ‘I’ve a rough set of notes on current affairs, history, geography, all of that. I’ve also set up some spare identities, both male and female, for when I have Librarians visiting. I’ll sign over a couple of these to you, together with funding and so on. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hang you out to dry. I just wanted to see how you’d react to the situation.’
‘Frankly,’ Irene said, ‘it sounds like a penny dreadful.’
‘Frankly,’ Dominic said, ‘it is.’
Irene sighed. ‘Well. So Lord Wyndham is dead, and not even undead any longer. The book is presumed stolen by the cat burglar Belphegor, and – there is more, I take it?’
‘Not much,’ Dominic said apologetically. ‘All this was only a couple of days ago, you understand. The newspapers are still buzzing about it. In fact, if you want to be researching the story for your cover . . .’
‘Good point,’ Irene agreed. ‘What’s the gender situation here?’
‘Women are generally accepted in most trades, except as serving soldiers in the army. They often end up in engineering divisions there. Nothing unusual about a female reporter, though they often end up with the high society and scandal pages. So that’ll be entirely appropriate.’
‘So is there magic?’
‘Not per se,’ Dominic said slowly, ‘though we have vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures and so on. I’ve got a theory that the weird technology of this place is actually a structural evolution of what would elsewhere have manifested as directed magic, but I can’t prove it.’
Irene nodded. ‘Do you have any theories about the lack of draconic interference?’
Dominic snorted. ‘Typical bureaucratic miscomprehension in summarizing my reports. The dragons don’t intervene here because they don’t need to. There may be a high level of chaos infestation, but there are also a lot of natural spirits inherent to the local order buzzing around the place – metaphorically speaking, that is – and they seem to be acting as a counterweight. In fact,’ he said enthusiastically, ‘I think we have grounds here for an entire study on how a high level of magic in a world responds to a chaos infestation by working in non-chaotic ways. So, the natural order is reinforced via technology with weird science, and also strengthened supernaturally. The latter happens via a hierarchical structure of guardian spirits and fundamental reinforcement—’
‘But you can’t get the funding for it?’ Irene said sympathetically, before he could get any further.
Dominic slumped. ‘Philistines,’ he muttered.