‘Stay up here!’ an elderly gentleman sputtered behind her. ‘Dash it, girl, don’t go committing suicide! Wait just a minute and the police will be here – ’
No. She couldn’t wait. She tried to rationalize why, as really all the screaming, shooting and sounds of ripping flesh were irrelevant to her mission to get the book – to her duty as a Librarian. She could just stay put. But as she tried to shut out all the unimportant noises, she found herself already acting. She swung away from the man and dropped onto the floor, running for the other table.
A man was lying under it, tumbled across a fold of fallen white cloth. He was bleeding freely, which meant that he was still alive.
Irene pulled herself up onto the table, vaguely conscious that her skirt was fouled with blood and salmon. ‘Bradamant!’ she called, pitching her voice to carry above the noise.
‘Yes?’ Bradamant came stalking down the table, brushing aside other men and women by sheer force of personality. Her hair was still perfect, and her gown was only stained at the very edges. ‘I hope you have something useful to say.’
Irene forced down her hostility. ‘I do. I have an idea, but I’m having problems with the Language. I need your help.’
For a moment she wondered if Bradamant was going to put conditions on that help, but the other woman barely hesitated. ‘What do you have in mind?’
Irene pointed up at the chandelier – the elegant, huge, electric-lit chandelier. ‘The things on the alligators’ heads are specific and discrete. Use the Language to call electricity down into them. Even if it doesn’t kill them, it’ll wreck their control systems.’
Bradamant turned her head to follow Irene’s gesture. ‘It might also kill some of the guests if they’re in contact,’ she said neutrally.
Irene hadn’t thought of that. It only took a moment to imagine Vale or Kai with their blades in an alligator. ‘So be precise in your language!’ she snapped. ‘Or do you want me to find the vocabulary for you?’
Bradamant sniffed. ‘I don’t think that I will need your help for that endeavour.’ Her tone suggested Irene’s total incompetence would render any assistance worthless.
Irene should have let her get on with it, but a sudden thought struck her. ‘When did you come through from the Library?’
‘We have no time for this discussion,’ Bradamant declared. ‘Stand back and let me work.’
Irene stepped back and scanned the crowd as Bradamant prepared. Silver was easiest to spot. He’d found an ornate pike and was busy impaling an alligator with it, gullet to tail. Vale and Kai were back to back, surrounded by half a dozen alligators. No one else was being targeted so heavily. She couldn’t recall anything from Dominic Aubrey’s notes about the Iron Brotherhood. They were fairly obviously anti-Fae, what with shoeing their alligators with cold iron and staging the attack here and now. But she wouldn’t have thought that made them anti-Vale. Quite the opposite, really: Vale clearly had no particular liking for the Fae, and his attendance here was adversarial rather than friendly towards Silver. Were the alligators being somehow specifically directed? Or were they simply attacking those people who offered the most resistance?
Irene turned back to Bradamant as the other Librarian called out a crisp string of orders in the Language. Fortunately the people around her were too preoccupied by the alligators to pay much attention.
The chandelier trembled where it hung, then shattered, prisms chiming and blowing apart in puffs of crystal dust. Electricity forked down in visible arcs of lightning, targeting the alligators’ electronic attachments. The reptiles spasmed and thrashed, tails sweeping in wide curves as their jaws opened and closed on empty air.
Irene watched in relief as Vale and Kai dodged the alligators that had been surrounding them. ‘Nicely done,’ she said to Bradamant.
Bradamant sniffed, somehow managing to suggest that the words Of course were simply beneath her. ‘I can’t see why you didn’t do it yourself,’ she said.
‘Chaos contamination,’ Irene replied reluctantly. The alligators were slowing their thrashing now, their wild spasms becoming mere squirming wriggles. ‘The door to the Library was sabotaged on this side. We think it must have been Alberich—’
‘Wait.’ Bradamant grabbed her shoulder. Some of the high colour drained from her face. ‘Alberich is here?’
‘Yes,’ Irene said bluntly. ‘Didn’t you get notified?’
The expression on Bradamant’s face spoke for itself. Belatedly, Irene put two and two together. ‘You’re here without authorization, aren’t you? You came here even though this is a quarantined world and it was my mission—’
‘And I just saved you and your student from getting eaten by alligators,’ Bradamant snapped. ‘You owe me. I want the precise details about Alberich being here. Now.’
‘So why did you come here anyhow?’ Irene asked, ignoring the demand, as she checked there was still enough chaos to cover their conversation. She and Bradamant weren’t the only people to be staying up on the tables. A lot of other people were waiting to be absolutely sure that the alligators were dead before they came down to ground level again. ‘To this party, that is. Not just to this alternate.’
Bradamant was silent for a moment. There might even have been a trace of shame in her eyes, but Irene wasn’t sure if it was shame at having stolen another Librarian’s mission, or just embarrassment at being caught. Finally she said, ‘I needed to investigate the Iron Brotherhood.’