With each step the reality of the message from the Library sank more deeply into her guts. Beware Alberich. Beware Alberich. Beware Alberich.
She didn’t need this. She really didn’t need this. She was already in the middle of a complicated mission, with a trainee to handle on top of it all. She’d given Kai an optimistic summary to keep his spirits up, but that didn’t mean that anything was going to be easy.
And now this.
Alberich was a figure out of nightmare. He was the one Librarian who’d betrayed the Library, got away with it and was still somewhere out there. His true name was long since lost, and only his chosen name as a Librarian was remembered. He’d sold out to chaos. He’d betrayed the other Librarians who’d been working with him. And he was still alive. Somehow, in spite of age and time and the course of years that would afflict any Librarian who lived outside the Library, he was still alive.
Irene found herself shivering. She pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, and tried to rein her thoughts back from a train of needlessly baroque images. Stupid thoughts. After all, it wasn’t as if Alberich was on her trail at this very moment . . .
. . . was it?
The message from the Library couldn’t have been faked. It must have been sent by one of the senior Librarians, probably Coppelia. It wouldn’t have been sent unless things were urgent, which meant that she had to assume that Alberich was in the area. Worst-case scenario.
She glanced back into a shop window. Nobody seemed to be following her.
She needed to talk to Dominic, urgently, but the British Library would be shut at this time of night. He’d be at home – the address being somewhere in the papers Kai was safeguarding. Tomorrow morning would be easier. For the moment, she and Kai had to find a new hotel and go undercover.
Irene wanted to go very deeply undercover. She wanted to go so deeply undercover that it’d take an automated steam-shovel to excavate her out of it. She also had to decide how much to tell Kai. It was too dangerous to leave him in the dark, not to mention simply unfair, but at the same time she didn’t want to panic him. After all, look how panicked she was herself. One panicked person was quite enough. Two would be overkill.
Possibly he’d be ignorant enough not to realize just how bad the situation might be. Possibly he wouldn’t have heard the horror stories that had been traded round in quiet alcoves about some of the things that Alberich had done.
And possibly, Irene decided, as she came into sight of Holborn Tube station and saw Kai loitering under a streetlamp, pigs would fly – which would at least mean bacon for breakfast. Oh well. Hotel first. Dramatic explanations later.
‘I don’t want to complain or anything,’ Kai said, ‘but we’re currently holed up in a cheap hotel.’
‘We are,’ Irene agreed. She sat down and began to work her buttoned boots off, with a sigh of relief.
‘This place isn’t just cheap, it’s filthy!’ Kai gestured round at the tatty yellow wallpaper, the dirt-streaked window, the threadbare counterpane on the double bed, the sallow mirror on the rickety dresser. ‘You can’t seriously expect us to—’
‘Kai,’ Irene said firmly. ‘You’re spoilt. What happened to the shady but useful background? What happened to being a cool street runner who could handle that sort of thing? Have five years in the Library really softened you up that much?’
Kai looked around, and his nose wrinkled. ‘Yes,’ he finally said. ‘They have.’ He sat down on the very edge of the bed. ‘Is this much deep cover really necessary? Couldn’t we, you know, go and hide out at the most expensive hotel in town and claim we’re Canadians?’
‘No,’ Irene said. She removed one boot and started to work on the other. ‘Deep cover. For the moment, I want us untraceable. We’ll clean up tomorrow and find a nicer place.’
‘Is something the matter?’
Irene pulled off the second boot. ‘Oof.’ She had to tell him; it wouldn’t be safe to keep him ignorant. ‘There is a potential problem,’ she admitted slowly. ‘I don’t know that it’s an immediate issue.’
Kai just looked at her.
‘I had an urgent message from the Library.’ The next few words were difficult to say, and even more difficult to keep calm and reasonable. ‘It warned me to beware Alberich. You can pour me some of that brandy now.’
Kai’s hand halted halfway to the brandy bottle, on Irene’s list of essential supplies. ‘Wait,’ he said slowly. ‘When you say Alberich, do you mean the one who’s supposed to be . . .’ He trailed off, leaving it hanging. And, Irene noted to her displeasure, not pouring her brandy either.
‘No,’ Irene said. ‘I don’t mean the one who’s supposed to be. I mean the one who is. Not that I’ve ever met him, and with any luck we won’t have to, and this is just a precaution.’ She hoped. ‘Now can I have that brandy?’
‘He’s real?’ Kai said. Still no brandy.
‘He’s recorded in the Library. How could he not be real?’
Kai looked blank. ‘He could be fictional?’
Irene gritted her teeth. ‘No. He was formally marked for the Library, given the initiation and everything. That’s why he can’t go back there. It’d know he was there. But it proves that he is real, that he’s not some sort of urban legend like the thing about the pipes and the tentacle monster.’ That had been one of the popular ones when she was a trainee. The logic was that if rooms of the Library could be connected by the plumbing, then there was some sort of dark central cistern with a huge tentacle monster living in it which ate old Librarians. And of course it was all covered up by order from on high . . . She and other trainees had spent several hopeful hours rapping on pipes and trying to pass messages or find tentacles. ‘Brandy?’ she finished.