‘I don’t mean to pry,’ Kai said unconvincingly.
He looked almost human. He had scales in the hollows of his cheeks and on the backs of his hands, as fine as feathers or hair. He had claws, manicured to a mother-of-pearl sheen. He had horns. His eyes were like gems in his face. His skin was the colour of fire, and yet it seemed natural; my own skin was blotchy and dull in comparison.
‘There isn’t much to tell,’ Irene said. ‘He let me go.’
He discussed the poems in the scroll. He complimented me on my taste. He explained that he did not expect to see me or any other representative of the Library in that area again. I nodded and bowed and thanked him for his kindness.
‘Just like that?’
No language that I knew had any words to describe him.
Irene tried to look nonchalant. ‘As I said, he approved of my literary taste.’
An hour later, Irene was buttoning herself into a jacket and long skirt while Kai sat outside the dressing room on a rickety chair and read through the dossiers. The cheap clothing shop which Dominic had directed them to was certainly cheap, very definitely cheap, and had little that could be said for it other than the fact that it was cheap. If they were going to infiltrate high society, they’d need better clothing. And costumes that didn’t rely on heavy overcoats.
‘These lists don’t make any sense,’ Kai complained. ‘They say the same thing on both sides of the page.’
Of course, he was looking at the Language vocabulary pages. Since he wasn’t a Librarian, he’d be seeing his native language instead of the Language. ‘Yes,’ Irene agreed, ‘they would, to you. Should I be surprised that you’re trying to read them?’ She arranged her blouse’s neckline so its ruffles sat above her jacket collar, and opened the dressing room door to join him.
‘Can’t blame me for trying,’ Kai said cheerfully. He looked her up and down. ‘Are you going to wear the hairpiece? Most of the women we’ve seen so far wear their hair longer than yours.’
Irene looked unenthusiastically at the tattered partial wig that lay on the table like a mangy dark squirrel. ‘Wearing that thing’s going to cause more problems than going without,’ she decided. ‘I’ll be counter-fashionable. Let’s just be grateful that corsets aren’t required wear any longer.’
‘Why should I be grateful?’ Kai asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘Because you don’t have to deal with me while I’m wearing one,’ Irene said flatly. ‘Now, give me a summary on what you’ve just been reading. Think of it as—’
There was a crash from the street, and the sound of screaming. She turned to look at the window. Some sort of huge wind was blowing the smog outside into long grey veils, ripping through the sky like claws.
‘As?’ Kai asked. He came to his feet in a single neat bound, assuming a smooth attitude of superiority and lack of distraction.
‘Imminent disaster takes priority over on-the-job testing,’ Irene said. ‘Let’s see what’s going on out there.’
Kai made it down the stairs and outside first, and promptly stopped dead, face turned up to gawk at the sky like everyone else in the street. Irene, a step behind, looked up as well.
Five zeppelins hung in the foggy sky, their propellers cutting through the clouds. While all displayed the same dark blue and red livery, one was much larger than the vessels that had taken up positions around it. This particular zeppelin trailed glittering, somewhat tawdry, gold streamers, and flaunted a coat of arms on its side.
Irene strained her eyes, but she couldn’t make it out. ‘Kai,’ she muttered, ‘can you see the design painted on that airship?’
Kai raised his hand to shield his eyes, and squinted. ‘There’s an eagle top left, in black and white on gold. Top right is a green crown on diagonal black and gold stripes. Bottom left is a vertically divided shield in red and white. And bottom right is some sort of harpy, again in black and white on gold. A hunting horn is right at the very bottom, with a horizontally divided shield in red and gold in the middle.’
Irene frowned, trying to remember her heraldry. She’d been to a few places where it had been important, but surely something that crowded would have stuck in her mind . . . oh, wait, that was it. ‘It sounds,’ she said slowly, ‘like Liechtenstein.’
‘I thought that didn’t exist,’ Kai said blankly.
‘Course it does!’ a newspaper-seller scolded. He was perched on a battered stool next to his newspapers and a dramatic board that declared – MURDERER STALKS LONDON. ‘Best zeppelin-builders in the world, ain’t they?’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ Irene said. ‘My friend’s from Canada and he doesn’t know much about Europe.’
‘Oh. Oh well, then.’ The old man nodded as if it made perfect sense. ‘Wanna buy a paper, love? Got all the news on the horrible murder of Lord Wyndham.’
‘Pay the man, Kai,’ Irene directed, and picked up one of the papers. It was thin, coarse paper, with thick black ink that threatened to come off on her gloves.
Kai handed over a few of Dominic’s coins. ‘Have they made an arrest yet?’ he asked.
‘Naaah.’ The old man leaned forward and tapped the side of his nose, glancing at the zeppelins. ‘But you know what they say?’
‘That the Liechtensteinians were involved?’ Irene guessed, pointing with the rolled-up paper at the zeppelins above.