Not just the window.
The whole carriage came apart. First the window, splintering into shards of glass, then sections of the carriage were toppling away from each other like a badly glued model. She barely had time to feel the splinters of glass in her arm before the water came in like a hammerblow. And, surprisingly clearly in the near-darkness, she saw Kai’s face looking strangely decisive. His mouth was moving, he was saying something –
She had several seconds of thrashing panic before she realized that she could breathe.
The three of them were drifting along together at the bottom of the river, enclosed in a long continuous coil of dark water. It was a flexing shifting visible current in the river, separate from the rest of the water. It even felt cleaner. The shattered remnants of the carriage were already invisible in the shifting mud of the bottom, some distance behind them. Above, through the surface of the water, streetlamps glimmered in hazy balls of white and orange. Kai floated a few paces ahead of herself and Vale, moving at the same pace as them. He was saying something, but the river water filled her ears and she couldn’t hear him.
Vale grasped at her sleeve. He mouthed something that was probably What is going on, Miss Winters?
On the positive side, Irene reassured herself, he must be feeling more composed if he was back to calling her Miss Winters. She shrugged as obviously as she could, gesturing soothingly. It is all under control, she mouthed back.
Vale didn’t look as if he believed her, which was a shame, because she was now sure that things actually were back under control. To the extent that the three of them weren’t about to drown, at least.
No, the real problem was something else entirely. Now she was sure what Kai really was. A river-spirit might have changed himself to water to save them, and a nature-spirit of some other type might have cajoled or persuaded the river to help them, but only one sort of being would give orders to a river.
Kai was a dragon. What the hell was she supposed to do about that?
And he’d chosen to reveal himself in order to save them. Not himself: he would presumably have managed quite comfortably on his own. But them. Her and Vale. It was a commitment on Kai’s part that made her worry whether she would be able to answer it. She didn’t like commitments to other people. They could get . . . messy.
The tumbling rush of the current veered towards the far bank, and then lifted the three of them out of the water itself, rising in an arc of dark water. They were placed on the dockside, deposited as lightly as driftwood. A couple of beggars who’d been nursing their hands over a small fire just sat there, looking at the three of them numbly as the water sloshed over the pavement and ebbed back to the river again.
A curl of the river still held itself aloft, curving towards where Kai stood. It wasn’t quite like a serpent: the head had features something like a human and something like a dragon (yes, that again). There was also something of the lion, mane wet and draggled with weeds and dirt. Its eyes gleamed yellow as fog lamps, burning under heavy brows. This spirit was as polluted as the water itself, its body entwined with fragments of garbage and long streaks of filth. A heavy smell of oil and weed clung to it, wafting thickly along the dock.
Kai faced it and gave a small, precise inclination of his head. ‘Your service is acknowledged,’ he said firmly. ‘Return with my thanks and the thanks of my family.’
The river-spirit bowed its head in a long fluctuation that rippled along its body, then reared up and crashed back into the river in a spray of black water. The eyes were the last thing to vanish beneath the surface of the river, disappearing slowly rather than simply closing, visible for a long moment under the dark water.
Vale took a step forward. ‘What was that?’ he demanded, shocked. ‘What did you do? What is it that you have brought into my London, sir?’
Kai turned with a snarl, his eyes an inhuman shade of blue, as fierce and dangerous as gas flames. ‘What it was, sir, was—’
‘Was under my orders,’ Irene said, stepping between them. She couldn’t allow this to degenerate into a shouting match. And more than that, she could sense something archaic and furious within Kai, the dragon under the human skin now very close to the surface. She had to divert it now, give him familiar channels to work in, and give Vale a target – herself – who he simply couldn’t shout down without shattering his own rules of custom and propriety. She regarded Vale firmly, refusing to show him an inch of fear or terror or even, she hoped, nervousness. ‘I have promised you more information, sir, and you shall have it, but I suggest we return to your lodgings first. Mr Strongrock acted on my instructions to protect and save us all.’ It was a fairly small lie, really only a half-lie as lies went, because Kai had certainly known she would want him to protect all of them. ‘And this is no time for us to be arguing, when we are all fighting a greater enemy.’
Vale regarded her for a moment, then granted her a small nod, nearly the mirror-image of Kai’s own salutation to the river-spirit. ‘Very well, Miss Winters. We shall return to my lodgings. I can only have faith in you, I suppose, as I have done before.’
That stung. As no doubt it was meant to. She smiled as sweetly as she could, then turned to Kai. ‘We can talk later,’ she said softly, ‘or we can talk now, but either way, I know what you are, and it doesn’t matter.’
‘You think very highly of yourself,’ Kai answered, equally quietly, but far more deadly, ‘if you believe that it doesn’t matter.’