Irene made the proper noises of good morning and yes, I slept very well, thank you for asking and please pass the marmalade as she took a seat. She then inhaled coffee by the cupful until she felt more human, letting the men resume their conversation. Her hand was feeling much better, even if it was still in bandages. Last night’s rain had passed, and outside the window the sky was – well, as clear as could be expected, given the constant smog. Rays of sunlight were filtering down. No doubt birds were singing in the countryside. Things weren’t too bad.
She wondered if she could actually get to quite like this alternate.
The door banged downstairs, and two sets of feet came hastening up the stairs.
‘Ah!’ Vale said, dusting toast crumbs off his fingers with a napkin, and pushing aside the spoon and egg which he’d been using to demonstrate the finer points of zeppelin control. ‘That would be Singh. I know his step. And no doubt Madame Bradamant with him.’
Irene hastily refilled her coffee cup and tried to ignore feelings of imminent doom. It had been such a nice morning, too. ‘They’re up early,’ she commented.
‘Oh, Singh is always welcome here for breakfast,’ Vale said cheerfully. ‘Especially when I’m working on a case that involves him.’
Perhaps that was why Singh had allowed Bradamant to meet them here, rather than keeping her at the station. Irene wondered a bit nervously if there had been any communication between Vale and Singh last night after she’d gone to bed. She stiffened her spine and was smiling pleasantly when Bradamant and Singh came in. Bradamant had somehow managed proper morning dress, neat and pristine in dove grey with violet cuffs and jabot, and had an umbrella tucked under one arm. Singh, behind her, was still in the same uniform as last night, but his moustache and beard had a spruce, freshly combed look to them. He carried a well-stuffed black briefcase that looked as though it had seen an investigation or two.
‘Ah!’ Singh said, his eyes fixing on the breakfast table.
‘My dear Singh,’ Vale said, springing to his feet and seizing the coffee pot, ‘we must speak a moment. Ladies, Mr Strongrock, please excuse us. Miss Winters, please do invite your friend to some breakfast. We will be back in a moment.’ With one bound he had swept Singh out of the room, taking the coffee with him, and abandoning Bradamant in the process.
‘Would you like some toast?’ Kai said helpfully, rising to his feet.
‘By all means.’ Bradamant furled her skirts and seated herself on the sofa next to Irene. ‘Is our host usually prone to such dramatic moments?’
‘I think he wanted to explain something to Inspector Singh,’ Irene replied. Her feeling of imminent doom was getting worse. She passed the toast and butter. ‘They’re old friends, and no doubt they wanted to discuss things without us listening. Quite reasonable.’
‘Oh, absolutely.’ Bradamant drew off her gloves, picked up a knife, and swiped butter across the toast. ‘So what do we all have to say to each other while they’re out of the room?’
Irene ran through her mental list of languages and their applicability to this alternate. She wouldn’t put it past Vale to be listening to the conversation. Imperial Russia had conquered China and Japan a while back in this alternate, so the odds were against Vale knowing Japanese. However, Bradamant did know it, and all things considered, she rather thought Kai would as well. ‘Last night I told Vale the basics of the Library,’ she said bluntly in Japanese.
The toast cracked and splintered in Bradamant’s hand. ‘You what?’
Irene returned the other woman’s glare. ‘We were attacked by Alberich on our way back here.’ She decided to leave Kai’s contribution out of it. ‘He trapped us in a carriage in the river and left us to drown. We escaped, but after that I had to give Vale some sort of explanation.’
Now she recognized the churning in her guts, the uncertainty in her mind. It was the nervous reaction she always used to get when reporting to Bradamant, decades back, when she had been a student and Bradamant had been mentoring her in the field. It was, apparently, something she still had to get over, if she could figure out how.
Bradamant hadn’t been the type to insist on formality while Irene reported back. No, they’d always sat together or facing each other, as comfortable as one could possibly ask. And every time Irene had tried to explain something, she had been wrong. Always.
Bradamant considered the reply, clearly looking for holes. ‘You could have given him a story about a secret society,’ she said. ‘That’s what I told Inspector Singh.’
Irene was going to answer in the negative again, say something like I didn’t think that it would work or I couldn’t think of a way to make it convincing, when she felt Kai’s eyes on her. He clearly understood what they were saying. He was looking at her with something that took her a moment to identify as trust, as expectation that she could handle things. She had to deserve that trust.
She composed herself, took a firm grip on her cup of coffee, and turned to meet Bradamant’s eyes. ‘I took a field decision that Vale would be more useful and cooperative if he knew the truth – well, some of the truth,’ she said. ‘In this place and time, I am not a courtier to present an opinion to a king, but a general in the field, expected to handle things as they arise for the good of the Library. Vale is a highly intelligent man, well informed on the current situation and trained in noticing discrepancies. Alberich had already made reference to the Library, and I was forced to use my own abilities to break free from his trap.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kai relax a fraction, leaning back into his chair. ‘An incomplete story would only have roused Vale’s distrust. We have enough enemies in this place and time as it is . . . Belphegor.’