Vale shook his head. ‘I know no player in London by that name. But for the moment, yes: I think we can work together.’
‘Excuse me,’ Kai said. Irene turned to look up at him. He was clearly holding himself in check with a great effort. ‘May I speak to Miss Winters alone for a moment?’
‘Certainly,’ Vale said. He rose from his chair. ‘I will have some tea fetched. That is – your Society does drink tea?’
‘Always,’ Irene said.
‘This is a bad idea,’ Kai said as soon as the door had closed behind Vale.
‘I am listening,’ Irene said as she began to pick at her bandage, ‘and I am paying attention, and if I do scream, it’s because my hand is in worse condition than I thought. Go on.’
‘Why do you trust him?’ Kai demanded.
‘I don’t.’ Irene didn’t look up from the tightly wrapped bandages. ‘Not totally. But I think he’s telling the truth about his family and about his gift. I’m not sure he trusts us, either.’
‘And that’s another thing,’ Kai said. ‘How can we possibly trust someone who’d betray their family?’
Irene let the bandages be and looked across at him. He had clenched his fists in his lap so tightly that she could see all the bones of the hand, and the blue veins up the inside of his wrist, clear beneath his pale, pale skin. ‘We don’t know the whole of that,’ she said. ‘We don’t know what they may have done to drive him away. If—’
‘But he left them!’ Kai was nearly shouting. He controlled himself with an effort, rising to stand in front of Irene. ‘He admitted as much. If he really disagreed with them, then he should have stayed with them and tried to change them from the inside. To just leave them, to walk out on them, to disobey his own parents – how can that possibly be justified?’
Irene looked down at her hand again, partly to think, partly so that Kai shouldn’t see her own expression. Didn’t he realize how much he was giving away about himself? Or did he just not care? That sort of openness was, in its way . . . intoxicating. ‘I hardly ever see my own parents,’ she said, and wondered at the quietness of her own voice.
‘But you haven’t defied them or deserted them.’ Kai dropped to his knees, looking up into her face. ‘You’ve followed their tradition. They were Librarians and so are you. I’m not saying that he should love his family, not if they really were malicious, but he shouldn’t have left them. You can’t trust a man who’d do that.’
‘I’m not saying we should trust him,’ Irene said. ‘I’m saying that we need to work with him.’ She felt very cold, and she wasn’t sure if it was because of her hand, or the earlier shock, or her own words. ‘To serve the Library, I would work with murderers, or thieves, or revolutionaries, or traitors, or anyone who will give me what I need. Do you understand me, Kai? This is important.’ She reached out with her unwounded hand to touch the side of his face. ‘I am sealed to the Library. I can make my own choices to some extent – but at the end of the day, bringing back the book the Library wants is my duty and my honour, and that is all there is to it.’
‘Have you ever been forced to choose between the Library and your honour?’ Kai demanded.
‘Kai,’ Irene said, ‘the Library is my honour. And if you seal yourself to it, then it’ll be yours too.’ She could feel herself smiling grimly. ‘But you’ve already told me that you don’t have any living family, haven’t you? So it’s not a choice you’ll ever have to make.’
Kai didn’t even flinch at that, he simply glared at her. ‘You’re confusing the issue. There ought to be a way of finding our book that doesn’t involve allying ourselves with an honourless, family-betraying creature like this. Irene, please. Walk out now and tell him no. We don’t need this kind of help.’
Irene tried to think of a way to make him understand. Perhaps she was being too abstract in an attempt to make him comprehend this specific case – but, damn it all, he was going to have to face tough moral choices himself some day. If he really wanted to be a Librarian. If he survived.
‘Leaving aside the question of his personal honour,’ she said, ‘we’re not in a good situation. Dominic Aubrey’s dead. There’s an enemy in the city, quite possibly Alberich, and maybe others too. We’re cut off from a direct retreat, and though I may be able to open a way back—’
‘May?’ Kai broke in. ‘What do you mean, may?’
Irene raised her bandaged hand. ‘I mean that I may be chaos-contaminated. I need to find out. It should get better in a few days, but at the moment I may not be able to open a way to the Library. It would keep me out in the same way that it’d keep out anything chaos-tainted. So we don’t have a convenient escape route.’
‘Oh,’ Kai said. He bit his lip.
She was actually far less certain than she was willing to admit about how long it might take for her to access the Library again. It wasn’t something that had happened to her before. She knew the theory, but this was her first case of actual contamination. Thinking about it made her feel ill. She wanted peace and quiet and a chance to actually look at her hand, plus a small library where she could run some tests.
Unfortunately, what she had here and now was a nervous and highly principled subordinate to reassure. It wasn’t a leader’s place to cast oneself trembling on a junior’s shoulder and confess uncertainty. It wasn’t even a leader’s place to suggest that they might be in an indefensible position and should be grateful for any allies that they could get. It was a leader’s job to project a calm mastery of the situation, while also encouraging subordinates to develop decision-making skills. Assuming that they made the right decisions.