Kai forgot moral scruples and leaned in closer. ‘What is it?’
‘Some sort of leather.’ Irene rolled back her sleeves and pulled it out. It was larger than it looked, thin delicate stuff with long trailing attachments. She shook it out to get an idea of its full length and shape, then froze, horrified. Behind her she could sense Kai’s stillness and shock.
It was a complete human skin, all in one piece, with a single slit down the front from chin to groin.
It was Dominic Aubrey’s skin.
Kai drew back with an indrawn hiss, raising his hands in front of him like claws. The skin lay there on the floor, limp and wet, staining the polished boards with vinegar.
Irene swallowed, holding on to the smell of the vinegar to keep her own nausea at bay. Dominic Aubrey’s features looked so different like this. The flattened face was recognizable, but lacking shape, spirit and the congenial warmth that had animated it just the day before.
‘Is it some sort of fake?’ Kai demanded.
Irene flipped it over. The Library mark ran across its back in a complex tracery of flourishes. It was unmistakeable; the Language couldn’t be faked, even if someone tried to copy it. She felt the mark across her own shoulders twitch in a kind of sympathy. ‘No,’ she said, numbly. ‘It’s real. But it’s not possible for someone to shed their skin like this . . . I mean, it may just be possible to remove your skin, if you consider some wilder fictional texts, but you couldn’t remove the Library’s mark and survive.’
‘Alberich,’ Kai said.
Irene didn’t need to ask him what he meant. ‘Certainly possible,’ she agreed. ‘Even likely. But there’s the Fae to consider as well, and there may be other factions at work. Right. We have to report this.’
Kai sighed deeply in relief. ‘I was afraid you were going to say that we had to investigate it ourselves.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Irene said briskly. ‘We may collect fiction, but we are not required to imitate the stupider parts of it.’ And let’s hope we don’t just get told to investigate this mess without backup anyway. ‘First things first. We’ll hide this thing again, then I’ll open the door to the Library.’
The handle of the outer door began to turn.
Irene barely had time to think But I know I locked it! She hastily shoved skin and jar behind one of the display tables and rose to shield it further with her skirts.
Kai managed two paces towards the door before it swung fully open.
A tall young woman stood there, clutching some books to her chest. She looked at the two of them.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ Irene said quickly. ‘Mr Aubrey isn’t here yet. Can we help you?’
The woman stared at the two of them. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said slowly. ‘Who are you?’ Her brown hair was looped untidily on the back of her head and smeared with dust, and there were traces of dust and ash on her grey skirt and jacket.
‘Vermin preventative defence,’ Irene invented quickly. ‘We’re working through all the rooms, looking for signs of infestation. Tell me, Miss – ’ She paused invitingly.
‘Todd,’ the woman said. ‘Rebecca Todd. He told me to come in this morning about the Lamia manuscript.’ She shifted her grip on her books.
‘He should be in soon,’ Irene said. ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t ask you to wait inside because we need to deploy some hazardous chemicals while we’re testing for silverfish. Would you mind waiting outside in the corridor? We’ll be out in a minute.’
‘Of course,’ Miss Todd said readily. ‘If Mr Aubrey does arrive while you’re still testing, I’ll let him know.’
‘Thank you,’ Irene said with a smile. She waited until Miss Todd was safely out of the room before breathing a sigh of relief.
‘Silverfish?’ Kai muttered.
‘Hush,’ Irene said. ‘We’ll be out of here before she knows it.’ She knelt down again, avoiding the growing puddle of vinegar, and hastily stuffed the skin back into the jar. ‘Ugh. I need to wash my hands. Actually, I’ll take this with us. Perhaps Coppelia or one of the others will know what it means.’ She passed the jar to Kai. ‘You hold this.’
‘Must I?’ he said, taking it distastefully.
‘I need to open the door.’ Irene walked across to the Library door. She remembered seeing the chain last time, but she rather thought it wasn’t in use then, perhaps freed by their own journey through the door. It was clearly for show rather than substance, presumably to discourage outsiders from using it. And, of course, anyone like Irene could just use the Language.
‘Chain, open,’ she said, laying her hand on the padlock.
It didn’t explode. It burst open. It unfurled like a chrysanthemum and then fastened onto her palm, spreading across her skin in a slick of white-hot metal. But there was more to it than heat. Through the acute pain, Irene sensed active malice and deliberate will. Behind it all, as she almost lost consciousness, she caught a dazzle of brightness that ultimately faded to darkness.
‘Irene,’ Kai was saying, but she had fallen to her knees, and didn’t have the space in her head to register his words or his expression. Or anything except the blazing pain crackling from her hand to shoot up her arm. ‘Irene!’
The mark across her back flared to life, automatically resisting the invasive chaotic forces linked to the padlock. Order and chaos now battled for authority over her body. And it was too late to recognize this as a trap laid for someone who’d use the Language, even though it was so clearly that in hindsight.