Irene had to stop herself grinding her teeth. ‘A Librarian is supposed to be about subtlety,’ she muttered. ‘Getting the job done. Not being noticed—oh, sorry.’ She removed her hand from Kai’s forearm and watched Kai affrontedly smooth out the wrinkles on his jacket sleeve. ‘Um.’ She could feel herself flushing. ‘I apologize.’ What she wanted to do was scream How dare she! until the chandeliers tinkled. But she couldn’t.
‘Perhaps she has important information and wanted to talk to you,’ Kai said.
‘But how would she know we were here? Or – wait.’ Irene frowned. ‘Dominic Aubrey could have told her – did she enter this alternate before he died?’
‘Or did she have something to do with it?’ Kai said slowly, completing Irene’s own thought.
Irene was silent for a long moment, turning possibilities over in her head. ‘Unthinkable,’ she finally said. ‘I won’t believe that of her.’
At that moment the crowd shifted again, and Bradamant turned her head. She looked across the ballroom, and for a moment their eyes met. And in that moment, Irene saw something in Bradamant’s face which she hadn’t expected to see. Shock.
‘She didn’t expect us to be here,’ she murmured.
Bradamant recovered almost instantaneously, and turned away with a contemptuous little twitch of her shoulder to bestow her attention on the man next to her, a skinny white-haired man in his eighties with his chest so encrusted with military medals and orders that it was a wonder he didn’t fall over.
‘Why don’t you introduce me to Miss Olga Retrograde,’ Irene said to Kai, composing her face into what should with any luck be a pleasant smile. She’d work out what was going on. And this time she wasn’t going to be Bradamant’s stalking horse, decoy or tool.
Not this time. Not again.
‘Very well,’ Kai said, glancing at Bradamant over Irene’s shoulder. ‘But what is she doing here? I know she said she wanted the mission . . .’ His face lightened as a thought obviously occurred to him. ‘If she’s your senior, then maybe she has clearance now for you to cooperate on the mission. That would make things simpler, with the chaos contamination.’
‘Such a thing is possible,’ Irene said slowly, to give herself time to think and to find an answer why this could not, would not be the case. She wasn’t sure that she would be able to physically obey if it were. Her loathing of the other woman was too bone-deep for that. ‘But if it were the case,’ how careful, how conditional, ‘then she would have some sort of token from the Library, and she’d show it to me. She hasn’t even tried to find me yet. So I’m dubious.’
‘I trust you,’ Kai said. He touched her hand briefly, reassuringly. ‘I do trust you, Irene. I wish that you could tell me why you don’t trust her.’
She could have said, It’s private, but something in her felt that he deserved better than that from her. Instead she said, ‘It’s personal, and if you really do want to know, I’ll tell you later. It doesn’t make her any the worse as a Librarian. Just as a person, to me. But later. All right?’
Kai nodded, and then they were there. ‘Miss Retrograde?’ he said. ‘May I introduce my friend, Miss Winters?’
Irene gave a small curtsey. ‘Miss Retrograde. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
‘And you, my dear,’ the elderly woman said. Close up, her face was all rouge, white paint and beauty patches. She deserved an award for thoroughness in concealing wrinkles, if not for artistry in doing so. Her dress might be heavily corseted and old-fashioned, but the fabric was high-quality, and the diamonds on her fingers looked genuine. ‘I understand that you’re not from these parts.’
Kai must have given her the Canadian cover story. ‘Oh no,’ Irene agreed. ‘But I’m working as a freelance reporter at the moment—’
‘Oh no you’re not,’ Miss Retrograde cut in.
Irene shut her mouth before it could gape open too wide. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she hastily said.
‘My dear,’ Miss Retrograde said, ‘I make it my business to know all the members of the fourth estate in London. I wouldn’t have missed an intelligent-looking girl like yourself.’
Irene would have given Kai a venomous look, along the lines of what have you got me into and why didn’t you tell me more about this, but it would have been too obvious a betrayal. ‘I’m very new on the scene,’ she said quickly.
‘I’ve been watching Silver,’ Miss Retrograde said. She leaned forward with a creak of whalebone. Her beady eyes focused in their heavily shadowed sockets. ‘He spoke to you. I’d like to know why.’
Irene suspected that playing the innocent wasn’t going to work here. She could feel Kai’s arm tense under her hand, waiting (hopefully) for her to tell him which way to jump. ‘I’m afraid that would depend on why you want to know,’ she finally said, letting the humour drain out of her face.
‘I could make it worth your while,’ Miss Retrograde said, rubbing the ball of her thumb against one of her diamond rings suggestively.
Irene tilted an eyebrow. There was some sort of noise in the corridor outside, thumping and crashes, but she didn’t take her eyes off the older woman. If the Iron Brotherhood, or whoever, was attacking, then hopefully someone else would deal with it.
‘Oh, very well,’ the woman said pettishly. ‘That was crass, I admit it. Let’s get down to business. Take a seat, young woman. Have your bodyguard – I’m not stupid, young man – have your bodyguard fetch us both some more wine. Then we can discuss matters—’