Irene tried to think of a way to respond which wouldn’t seem dismissive. And he was shifting speech patterns again – from slang to formal and back again. She wondered if he’d noticed it himself. Possibly the influence of the Library, compared to his previous edgy lifestyle?
She set those thoughts aside for later consideration, and did her best to smile. ‘It’s all right. Really. You aren’t the only one who’s had problems with chaos. But we can’t assess how to handle the situation until we have a full picture of it. Please tell me more about Liechtenstein and the Embassy.’
Kai returned a thin smile, but it was clearly a duty rather than a pleasure. ‘Well, as I was going to say, the Fae infestation in Liechtenstein seems to help keep out neighbouring countries. Maybe because they’re not sure what the Fae could do, or maybe they’re worried about the Fae expanding into their countries. And Liechtenstein’s a peach that a lot of people would otherwise want to pluck from the branch and sink their teeth into.’
Irene raised her eyebrows.
‘Okay,’ Kai said, waving his spoon, ‘a dramatic simile, but have you noticed how very balanced and counterbalanced this whole world is? If you take Liechtenstein, there are mad scientists everywhere. The people I questioned implied some kind of mad scientist race. I know I’m just a trainee, but surely the influence of science there could only be to balance the amount of chaos the Fae bring to the table – especially in Liechtenstein itself?’
‘Or maybe the Fae are telling stories about science,’ Irene hypothesized. ‘Or being involved in stories about science. Or maybe Liechtenstein is taking on the role of Belgium in this alternate. My father once did a check on it in as many alternates as he could find. Belgium always seems to get invaded, fall prey to meteorites or get infested by alien fungus or something . . . and don’t look now, but someone’s just come in and is staring at us.’
‘It must be you he’s looking at,’ Kai said hopefully, tilting his spoon in a vain attempt to catch a reflection of the room behind him. ‘Do something odd and see if he reacts.’
‘He’s coming this way,’ Irene said briefly. He appeared every inch the wealthy aristocrat. From the top hat to the silk-lined cape to the silver-headed cane (a sword cane, she suspected). His eyes were fixed on Kai. ‘Quickly,’ she murmured, ‘did you do anything that you should have told me about?’
‘Definitely not.’ Kai turned to follow Irene’s gaze. ‘Hm. Wait. I saw him at the Embassy.’
‘As I saw you, sir,’ the man said, doffing his top hat in a small bow to Kai, then a subsidiary one to Irene. ‘May I join you at this table?’
Kai flicked a glance to Irene. She nodded slightly. He turned back to the man. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Though I don’t think we’ve been introduced?’
A waiter had come dashing up with an extra chair, and withdrew with the man’s hat and cloak.
The man seated himself and leaned forward, steepling his fingers. ‘I trust I may speak freely before your associate?’ He nodded towards Irene. ‘Some of what I have to say may not be fit for the ears of one of the gentler sex.’
Kai looked at Irene for a moment. Irene hesitated, then looked down at her plate in a docile manner. She’d had to play this sort of role before, though admittedly not when coaching a junior at the same time. ‘Please let me stay, sir,’ she said to Kai. ‘I will simply take notes as normal.’
Kai nodded to her in a lordly manner, then turned back to their guest. ‘I assure you that Miss – ’ he barely faltered – ‘Winters here is entirely trustworthy, and is a valued associate of mine. You may speak freely in front of her. Though I would be interested to know what you propose to discuss.’
Part of Irene’s mind was surprised at Kai’s sudden elegance of speech. He’d shifted again into that extreme formality which she’d noted earlier. And while she could manage such linguistic shifts easily enough from experience in various alternates, she hadn’t thought that he’d be so capable. Stranger and stranger from a boy who claimed to be from a cybered-up alternate, where he was a petty criminal. She very much wanted to talk to Coppelia about this. The other part of her mind wondered why he’d dubbed her ‘Winters’ and what the cultural reference might be.
She watched their guest from under her eyelashes. He had relaxed a little now, and was leaning back in his chair. He was a very aquiline physical type, with a well-defined nose, deep-set shadowy eyes, high cheekbones and long delicate fingers. The perfect example of a lead protagonist in certain types of detective fiction. In fact, she wondered if . . .
‘Very well,’ the stranger said. ‘Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Peregrine Vale, fifteenth Earl of Leeds.’
Kai gave a little nod. ‘Kay Strongrock, at your service. Might I ask the nature of your business?’
The waiter cleared away the soup course and brought the main meal for Irene and Kai. He also brought a spare glass for the visitor, filling it unbidden, before retreating again. The intrusion allowed Irene to bite her lip and refrain from kicking Kai under the table, as she’d just managed to work out where he was getting his pseudonyms from. Strongrock – Rochefort. Winters – De Winter. She would have to explain to him why it was a bad idea to pull pseudonyms from literary sources. If the other person had read the book, it gave them far too much information. They’d start looking around for three possible Musketeers or mysterious Richelieu-like manipulators behind the scenes.