The carriage tumbled as it began to sink, rolling over as the river tugged at it. The three of them automatically grabbed handles and benches, wedging themselves into corners until the vehicle came to a jolting stop on its side. Black Thames water covered the windows, not entirely cutting off all light, but making it only barely possible for the three of them to see each other.
‘The usual protocol in these cases is to wait until we are fully submerged, then open a window to equalize the water pressure, and swim up to the surface,’ Vale stated. Irene could hear the sheer control in his voice, over the creaking of the carriage and the slow trickling sound of water. ‘But if that person has sealed the carriage, given that I could not break the window earlier, this tactic would be ineffective.’
Right. She had to explain to Vale about Alberich. She owed him an explanation about a great many things now. But what was the point, if they were just going to die – well, it did remove the need for justifications. Yet there were other ways of dodging that sort of thing, and she was avoiding the subject again. And the water was pressing down, and they were all going to die . . .
He doesn’t just want us dead. He wants us dying in fear, in the dark, and slowly. This isn’t just wanting to get us out of the way, so he can work undisturbed. It’s malice, pure and simple.
She had been afraid. She had been so very afraid that she’d been cringing in the corner, unwilling to speak, let alone act. But now something else woke in her.
I will not tolerate this.
‘Then we’re just going to have to find a way to break it,’ Irene said. She forced herself to lean forward. ‘What one man can do another can undo.’ Saying the words made them possible, gave her strength.
‘But you can’t touch his magic!’ Kai said. ‘When it infected you before it nearly killed you!’
She wished that she had time to think this through calmly, to plan, to consider. ‘Wait,’ she said, pulling the glove off her damaged hand and pointing her fingers at the window. ‘I’ve got an idea.’
‘Would you care to explain?’ Vale invited tensely.
‘I was attacked by the same forces he used earlier,’ Irene said. She could feel the cold water soaking into her slippers and stockings, curling up around her ankles. ‘If I can identify them and expel them, it should break the binding, and we can swim out of here.’
‘Very good.’ Vale eased himself further back in his seat. Perhaps it was only the dim light that made Irene think that he was trying to position himself as far away from her as possible. She’d sort things out later. She’d explain things later. Right now she just had to make sure there would be a later.
Irene held her fingers a fraction of an inch away from the window and focused – away from the water, the darkness, the two men in the carriage with her, and into a world where language structured reality.
It was a fact that Alberich controlled and used chaotic forces. The chaotic forces must therefore be discrete and identifiable. But she had no words in the Language for these forces, and she could only control what she could name or describe.
However, she could name and describe herself.
It wasn’t a thing that the Librarians did very often. Oh, certainly if you had a broken left arm you could try saying, ‘My left tibia is in fact not fractured but perfectly whole.’ But while your tibia might obey, your muscles would still be torn and any wound would still be open. Unless you could name every single thing that required naming, you would probably end up with a partly healed wound that would be more trouble than letting it heal in the normal way. While some Librarians went in for that level of detail, and were very sought-after, Irene was not one of them.
But a person, especially a Librarian, could be named and described holistically as a single entity. She bore the Library’s mark on her flesh, and her name was in the Language. If she could enforce that strongly enough, deliberately enough, there would be no space for the chaos forces inside her. Without that to contend with, she could finally access her full powers as a Librarian.
This was not something she’d ever tried. Then again, she’d never been infested to this degree before. Only imminent death would force her to play with dangerous, untested, theoretical techniques, otherwise maybe she’d have thought of this earlier.
Her life was far too full of learning experiences.
Before she could lose her nerve, she shaped the words with her lips, barely audible, speaking in the Language. ‘I am Irene: I am a Librarian: I am a servant of the Library.’
Her brand burned across her back as she enforced her will. But she felt curiously distanced from the pain, as though she could shrug it away and wish it gone. In a flash of insight, she realized that would be disastrous. What she felt in her was the conflict between self-definition and the contamination. She couldn’t afford to ignore it. She had to embrace it.
But it hurt. She heard her breath catch, the sound strange in her ears.
‘Irene?’ Kai said, his voice concerned. It was too dark to see him now.
With a racking surge, like vomit after eating spoiled food, the chaos power came jolting out of her. She tried not to think of the buffet earlier that evening (salmon, mussels, crab, soup, little prawns in sauce) and failed. It spilled from her hand, boiling off her fingers in waves of shadow that rippled in the air – and like any living thing, it looked for shelter, for something like itself.
It jumped for the window, arcing through the narrow span of air, and crackled into the glass. Irene had just enough time to wonder if she should jump away from the window, when it broke.