She could smell something burning. That would be her dress. Fabric was so flammable.
‘Get me loose,’ she gasped. If only she could break the physical link that held her to the padlock, or the forces powering it, that might be enough to let her regain control and finish cleansing herself.
Kai closed a hand round her wrist and pulled. He didn’t try touching the padlock.
The padlock was stuck to her hand. She couldn’t even shift the grip that she had on it; her fingers were locked round what was left of it in a spasm that she couldn’t break. Through the agony, she recognized this as a chaos-fuelled trap. A normal human being, one not sealed to the Library, would already have been warped to something on the verge of possible. Or they would have been accelerated all the way into something that couldn’t exist in this alternate, and outright destroyed. Though a normal human being wouldn’t have triggered the trap . . .
She felt her grip slipping.
For the moment her Library seal was saving her, but it couldn’t last. The two competing forces would burn her out like an understrength fuse if she couldn’t break the connection somehow.
‘Irene!’ Kai yelled in her ear, as if volume would make a difference. ‘Can I get you into the Library? Will that help?’
She jerked her head in a shake. ‘No,’ she gasped. She couldn’t enter the Library in this state. ‘I’m polluted – can’t –’ She tried to think of any teachings covering this, but could only remember it was called the ‘Babelfish Principle’, which was no use. And it was hurting, it was hurting . . .
Then a solution came to her. But if the Library door wasn’t the trap’s power-source, she was so screwed. ‘Break my link to the door . . . break the chain!’
‘Right,’ Kai said as he pulled the chain taut, trying to wrench out the flimsy-looking loop holding it to the wall by brute force. It shifted, but not nearly enough, and he slipped a knife from his sleeve, trying to prise open the links. One parted with a sudden snap, weakened by the forces flowing to the lock. Then the chain whipped free, and he yanked it through what remained of the original padlock.
With the chain gone, the power circuit broke – and the padlock clicked open to fall from Irene’s hand to the floor. Irene knelt there, breathing in deep sobbing gasps, unable to quite look at her hand yet and see what damage had been done.
‘Irene?’ Kai said. ‘What the hell was that? Are you all right? How did you get it loose?’
She looked up at him. Her vision was a little blurry. Maybe that was why he was swaying. ‘It was a trap,’ she tried to explain. ‘Set to react to the Language and bind to the user, using the Library door as an energy source. That was why it stopped functioning when you broke the chain. It was very energy-efficient.’ There was a buzzing in her ears. ‘Kai? Can you hear something? Is it the silverfish?’
‘Irene,’ Kai said. He went down on one knee beside her. ‘Are you all right?’
Irene looked at her hand. It was red all over the fingers and down the palm. ‘Oh,’ she said, in deep comprehension. ‘Kai. I think I’m . . .’ The buzzing was getting louder. ‘I think I have to lie down for a bit.’
The world slipped sideways. She felt him catching her as it all went dark.
When the lights came on again, they did so slowly and blearily, through a haze of smoke and a drift of odd smells. She was propped at a strange angle, her skirts carefully draped to hide her ankles. The back of a sofa dug into her shoulders and her head was tilted to one side, hat still pinned to her hair. Someone had pushed a cushion under her cheek. It was horsehair. It prickled.
From under her eyelashes, she could make out a room that had been forced into ruthless order by someone who believed in making large piles of things. Books. Documents. Clothing. Glassware. A dream-catcher in Lissajous lines of wire and ebony spun in the window, turning slowly in a drift of breeze and fog. The walls were also crammed with books, and someone had hung paintings and sketches in front of them, and piled small objects on top of the shelves. The place was crammed with . . . with stuff. She was surprised there was room for her on the sofa.
Her hand ached less now. Someone had slathered it in something wet and wrapped it in bandages, and it lay like a foreign object in her lap. She twitched a finger, stifling a scream, and was pleased to see that it functioned.
‘Irene!’ Kai said from behind her, far too loudly. ‘Are you awake?’
‘Yes,’ she murmured, ‘but please don’t shout.’ She pulled herself upright and managed to knock the horsehair cushion to the ground. ‘Sorry. Where are we?’
‘In my rooms.’ Peregrine Vale stepped forward. ‘Mr Strongrock brought you here an hour ago. Miss Winters, you have been the victim of an appalling assault. Do you feel well enough to speak?’
Irene put her undamaged hand to her head. ‘I’m so sorry. I have a dreadful headache,’ she said, not entirely untruthfully, ‘and I don’t know what’s going on. The last thing I remember is touching this door handle which was booby-trapped . . .’
‘It was some sort of electric shock,’ Kai said helpfully. He went down on one knee next to her, looking up into her face. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to try to get somewhere safe while we worked out what to do next, Irene. The only person who I was sure we could trust was the Earl of Leeds here—’
‘Please,’ Vale interrupted, ‘call me Vale. The title is unimportant. What is important now is locating and arresting the fiends who set this lethal trap.’