‘Even I’d heard about him,’ Kai put in, not very helpfully.
‘Kai is my junior,’ Irene said before Vale could ask for clarification of that statement. ‘And I know that the idea of an evil rogue Librarian must sound like some kind of rumour. The sort of rumour which gets passed down through the years to frighten the novices. But there were stories about things happening to people one actually knew.’
‘Things?’ Vale asked.
‘People dying,’ Irene said bluntly. ‘With pieces of them being sent back.’
Kai started. ‘Was that why Dominic—’ he began, then stopped a fraction too late.
‘I don’t know,’ Irene said. She turned to Vale again. ‘What Kai is trying to say is that the Librarian who was supposed to be stationed locally, in this alternate world, has apparently been killed and mutilated. We found out just before I triggered the trap I mentioned – a trap set using chaos forces. These – forces – are something that Alberich uses.’ She couldn’t keep the distaste out of her voice.
Vale nodded. ‘So chaos . . . Is that what we would term “magic”?’
Irene tried to think how to explain it. She’d been planning to sidestep this part as much as possible, given Vale’s apparent dislike of magic. ‘Not exactly. According to our cosmological model – ’ there, that was tactful and avoided saying, this is how things really work – ‘there are lawful and chaotic forces active in all worlds. Sometimes they take on a physical form, appearing as entities – or personifications of law or disorder if you like. The lawful forces support reason and natural laws. The chaotic forces support impossibility, and things that are blatantly irrational or disorderly. For example, dragons are lawful forces and the Fae support chaos. Fact versus fiction, if you like.’
Vale stiffened like a hound catching the scent. ‘So Lord Silver is a supporter of chaos itself?’
Irene nodded. ‘This alternate is strongly affected by chaos. Silver is certainly at least one of the lesser Fae, who are usually confined inside a single alternate. I don’t know if he is one of the greater ones, but I sincerely hope not. Such creatures even have the power to move between worlds. But they have nothing to do with the Library.’ She wanted to make this extremely clear. ‘We do not associate with them.’
‘Except when obtaining party invitations,’ Vale said drily.
‘I want that book,’ Irene said flatly. ‘So does he, it seems. And so does Alberich. I need to know who has it. If Silver or Alberich already had it, they wouldn’t be looking for it. Once I have it, Mr Strongrock and I will be out of this alternate and won’t need to bother you again.’
Vale nodded. ‘Very well.’ Again there was the feeling of a confrontation being postponed until he had sufficient ammunition. Perhaps he wanted to bring her to justice as well. Or perhaps he simply wanted to visit the Library. ‘So, tell me,’ he went on, ‘when was the Librarian stationed here murdered, where, and how?’
Irene glanced at Kai. ‘Well, it must have been somewhere between yesterday afternoon and this morning, because we first met him yesterday afternoon when we came through from the Library proper. The entrance is in the British Library,’ she added, a little reluctantly.
‘Really,’ Vale said thoughtfully.
‘And when we came back this morning to speak with him . . .’ Irene trailed off, wishing she didn’t have to go into the next bit. ‘Ah, we have reason to assume that he was dead by that point, possibly for several hours.’
‘Why?’ Vale demanded. ‘You found his body?’
‘We found his skin,’ Irene said. ‘In a jar of vinegar.’
Kai reached across and touched her wrist. She knew that it was inappropriate for her to show weakness, but she found it comforting.
Vale sat back in his chair. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘That must have been a great shock for you, Miss Winters.’
Irene remembered the pungent smell. Her stomach twisted. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It was. I am sorry, I’m afraid I find it difficult to be as detached as I should be.’ He’d been friendly, helpful, kind, just simply nice . . .
‘And you are quite sure that it was your contact?’ Vale prompted.
Irene nodded reluctantly. She hadn’t wanted to admit this bit if she could have avoided it. ‘All Librarians have a mark on their body,’ she said. ‘It looks like a tattoo done in black ink. It cannot be removed.’
Vale was quite clearly considering asking whether he could see hers, but after a moment’s hesitation he nodded. Possibly the fact that she hadn’t offered to show it was hint enough. ‘And – if I may be frank – would the trap that had been set possibly have killed you?’
Irene had been trying to avoid thinking about it. She had plenty of productive ways to occupy her mind besides yet one more way in which she had almost died in the last couple of days. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘If Mr Strongrock had not broken my link to it, it might well have done. It would certainly have incapacitated me and left me helpless. And . . .’ She frowned, her mind sensing something important. ‘Let me think. Alberich would have known I would touch the door, not Mr Strongrock, because only I can access the Library. Even if I survived, he’d know the chaos contamination would prevent me accessing the Library. He’d also be aware that the contamination would only last for a few days.’