Hm. Wait. Covent Garden usually had a market of some sort in most alternate Londons, whether it was selling flowers or curios or simply a tourist trap. Even if there weren’t many stalls open at this time of night, it should still be busy enough for her to lose her pursuers. That should do the trick.
Irene should have expected it: Covent Garden market was a technology extravaganza. Stalls teetered on collapsible legs and sprayed rays of light from dangling ether-lamps. The path between them was a constantly shifting maze as each stall manoeuvred for yet more space on its automated feet, bouncing and jarring against the ones next to it. Much like Covent Gardens she’d seen elsewhere, there were several open yards, and a central area with a high glass roof and several banks of permanent shops. Pavement cafes added their own influxes of shoppers to the area, and regular jets of steam came shooting out of the sewer gratings and manholes.
She put on a burst of speed as she entered the crowd, before the men following her could get any closer. She then allowed herself to be drawn into a whirlpool of spectators orbiting a display of mechanical exsanguinators. (She decided that the little jabbing steel needles weren’t specifically unpleasant in themselves, but the oiliness from the self-slathering antiseptics somehow made the whole thing inexpressibly gruesome. It was something about the way that it glistened under the electric flares.)
There were as many women here as men, but the real difference was between those she suspected were genuine artisans and engineers and everyone else. The former had neat equipment cases tucked under their arms or chained to their wrists. The latter included wanderers on the lookout for an interesting bargain, slumming upper classes or fascinated onlookers. The women all wore scarves or veils against the sooty fog, just as Irene did, concealing anything from just their mouth to their entire face. Many of the men had wound mufflers around the lower part of their faces in a similar way. It gave the whole place a very seedy feeling, akin to a market for Victorian bank-robbers, a shady shoppery for shady people.
Nearby, bustling market stalls touted portable notebooks with self-adhesive toolsets, and she spotted pocket watches with built-in lasers (she nearly bought one for Kai). Then there were Constructa-Kit automata, followed by freshly fried doughnuts and self-tattooing kits (just add ink!), then shawls with attached portable heating units, then—
It hit her like a whiplash across her back, throwing her to her knees on the dirty pavement. She could feel every inch of her Library tattoo burning, feel it mapped out across her back as clearly as if she could see it. The world shivered around her. She tasted bile in her mouth, and struggled not to throw up.
The words were everywhere. She could see them on the newspaper stands, swimming up through the whiteness to crawl across the paper. She could see them on the back of the paperback novel which the man in front of her had tucked into his pocket, on the crudely printed advertisements fluttering from every stall and on the receipts which the woman to her left was checking. They printed themselves on everything legible in a spreading circle around her.
People were calling out and swearing in surprise and alarm, blaming the engineers and stallholders for some sort of experimental side-effect (and what that said about this place, Irene reflected in some distracted corner of her mind, didn’t bear thinking about). In some cases shoppers were shaking the affected items in the hopes that the words would fall off. Some hope. Irene had never before been the victim of an urgent message from the Library, but she knew the words would be permanently burned in. It was a shocking thing to do to printed media, which was why it was only saved for the most desperate purposes. Members of the public could read them, but at least no one would know what the words meant.
If Alberich was involved in this, then the warning was definitely desperate and necessary.
She pulled herself together with an effort that set her teeth on edge, and glanced over her shoulder to check on the men who’d been following her. Damn. They were closing fast. They must have decided to pick her up now rather than risk losing her.
Irene allowed herself a vicious smile. Pester an agent of the Library, would they? Hassle her when she’d just received an urgent message? Get in her way? Oh, they were going to regret that.
She waited for a breathless half-minute until the shifting patterns of moving stalls closed up behind her, blocking her pursuers. They’d open again in a moment, of course . . .
She spat out in the Language, loud enough for it to carry, ‘Clockwork legs on moving stalls, seize up and halt, hold and be still!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ the man next to her said. ‘Were you speaking to me—’ He cut off as, in a widening circle within range of Irene’s voice, the moving stalls all came stuttering to a halt, jointed legs going abruptly rigid and stopping where they were. The general swirl of people and stalls was thrown into sudden and shocking confusion, far more dramatic than the earlier printing incident. People who’d been preparing to zig suddenly found themselves forced to zag. Piles of goods teetered on the edges of stalls and were barely saved from sliding off – or not saved, in quite a few cases, adding to the general uproar.
Before anyone could come to awkward conclusions about the centre of the circle, Irene darted forward and elbowed her way past several complaining clots of shoppers. She could hear the grinding whir of gears and levers struggling with disobedient mechanical legs. The flow of people carried her forward out of her cul-de-sac, leaving her pursuers trapped behind the barricade of frozen stalls (and, she hoped, being trampled underfoot by angry shoppers). Irene headed for the nearest opening in the maze of tables, then from there to an alleyway. After a bit of rearrangement to veil and jacket, it was out onto the main street again – heading back and round towards Holborn. With nobody following her this time.