Her nails dug into her palms as she forced herself into proper posture and composure. She walked across to look at the document on the desk. It was a basic note of admission to the Liechtenstein Embassy, for tomorrow night, for a Grand Ball.
It was signed, Silver.
‘I’ve found out all about it,’ Kai said as he sliced a bread roll into halves. ‘Hey, this is real butter. Cool.’
‘We’re lucky that it isn’t flash-frozen with chemical additional supplements,’ Irene said. They’d had trouble finding a restaurant that wasn’t billing itself as all new and all special, equipped with the latest scientific devices to preserve, enhance and cook the food that was served inside. Post-meal condition of the diners was not mentioned.
‘It makes a nice change,’ Kai said. He laid the knife down between the two pieces of buttered roll. ‘So, do you want to go first, or me?’
Kai was clearly bubbling with enthusiasm to tell her all about his investigation. Irene couldn’t help but wonder just how discreet a criminal he’d been in his own alternate, before joining the Library. She made him keep quiet until the waiter had brought their wine and retreated into the curtained shadows of the restaurant, and tried not to be too amused by it all. Five years of enforced study had clearly left him with enough spare energy to run the lights for most of London.
‘You first,’ Irene said. ‘Give me a full breakdown.’
‘All right. Now, first of all, Liechtenstein is a major power in this world. They do the best zeppelins. And everyone knows it. That newspaper-seller was right. And they do sell information, but not their big secrets.’
‘No industrial espionage?’ Irene asked. ‘No reverse engineering of technology or attempts to invade other countries?’
‘Ah, there’s a reason for that.’ Kai took a sip of his wine. ‘Hey, this isn’t bad. For a cheap little hole-in-the-wall place like this.’
Irene nodded. ‘So, what’s the reason?’
‘The Fae keep them out. They keep the entire country well protected to shield their own goings-on, and it keeps out the industrial and national spies as well. Remember the bit about the Ambassador being one of the Fair Folk?’ Kai pressed his lips together for a moment, in a gesture of pure disgust. ‘It’s not just him. There’s a lot of them in Liechtenstein. They spawn there, or breed, or something. It’s a nexus for their filth. The local populace tolerates them. They’ve been bought off with trinkets and flashy glamour.’
Irene frowned. It didn’t sound as if Kai was going to be thrilled that they were going to the Embassy Ball tomorrow night. ‘Ah,’ she said neutrally, and sipped her wine. ‘So it’s quite normal for Fair Folk to be amongst the Liechtenstein Embassy staff?’
Kai nodded. ‘They’re known for it, even. Newspaper reporters were trying to get interviews at the Embassy gates. One said that other nations dealing with the country carried cold iron talismans now – it was that bad.’
‘Good to know that works,’ Irene said. ‘Assuming it does?’
‘Well, they wouldn’t carry them unless it did,’ Kai said. ‘Unless . . .’ He paused. ‘Unless the Fair Folk are just faking the whole thing in order to lure their victims into a false sense of security.’
‘Well, that’s possible too,’ Irene agreed regretfully. She held up her hand to pause him as the waiter arrived with their soup, and they were quiet until the man had left. ‘All right,’ she said, picking up her spoon. ‘Go on.’
‘The current Ambassador has held the post for the last eighty years,’ Kai said, picking up his own spoon. ‘His name is Silver. Or rather, people call him Silver. It seems nobody knows his real name outside Liechtenstein, if anyone does. Though the fact that it’s apparently a reportable fact about him that nobody knows his real name . . .’ He sighed. ‘Fae. The reporter that I was talking to said that he hadn’t changed at all in the last eighty years, except to update his wardrobe. He’s got a fairly typical reputation for a Fair Folk. Seductive, arrogant, party-going, patronizes artists.’
Irene thought about that. ‘Does he patronize engineers?’ she asked.
‘The reporter didn’t mention that,’ Kai said. ‘Why?’
Irene shrugged. ‘It just seemed relevant, given we’re told this alternate favours technology, and if Liechtenstein’s economy is based on airships. By the way, you know a lot about the Fair Folk.’
Kai looked as though he was considering spitting on the ground. ‘Those creatures – we had something like them in the alternate that I came from. Pervasive thieves, wasters, destroyers – they make their way into society and tear it apart. They destabilize reality. They’re tools of chaos. They are chaos. You can’t expect me to approve of things like that.’
‘Look, calm down,’ Irene said. ‘Have some soup. I agree that they’re malign. But we’re not here on some sort of campaign to root them out. Remember the mission.’ She was surprised by his vehemence; it was more than she’d expect from a trainee. But personal experience was probably behind it. She wondered how personal the experience might be. An involvement with one of them? The loss of a friend or lover? ‘Our job is to get the text and then we can get the hell out of here.’
Kai stared at her for a moment, then lowered his eyes. ‘I apologize for my improper behaviour,’ he said, suddenly formal. ‘You are the head of this mission, of course. I just wish to convey my feelings on the subject. My extremely strong feelings on the subject.’