‘Come in,’ Irene called, turning her chair to face it.
The door swung open to reveal a young man.
‘You must be Kai,’ Irene said, rising to her feet. ‘Do come in.’
He had the sort of beauty that instantly shifted him from a possible romance object to an absolute impossibility. Nobody got to spend time with people who looked like that, outside the front pages of newspapers and glossy magazines. His skin was so pale that she could see blue veins at his wrists and throat. And his hair was a shade of black that looked almost steely blue in the dim lights, braided down the back of his neck. His eyebrows were the same shade, like lines of ink on his face, and his cheekbones could have been used to cut diamonds, let alone cheese. He was wearing a battered black leather jacket and jeans that quite failed to play down his startling good looks, and his white T-shirt was not only spotlessly laundered, it was ironed and starched.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I am. You’re Irene, right?’
Even his voice deserved admirers: low, precise, husky. His casual choice of words seemed more like affectation than actual carelessness. ‘I am,’ Irene acknowledged. ‘And you’re my new trainee.’
‘Uh-huh.’ He strode into the room, letting the door close behind him. ‘And I’m finally getting out of this place.’
‘I see. Please sit down. I haven’t finished reading Coppelia’s email yet.’
He blinked at her, then strode across to the nearest chair and flung himself down into it, triggering a choking cloud of dust.
Handle matters smoothly and efficiently, and you may expect some spare time for private research when this is over. I regret having to send you out again this fast, but needs must, my dear Irene, and we must all make do with the resources available to us.
Irene sat back and frowned at the screen. She was no conspiracy theorist, but if she had been, she could have constructed whole volumes based on that paragraph. ‘Coppelia says that you’ve got all the details on the mission,’ she said over her shoulder.
‘Yeah. Madame Coppelia,’ he stressed the honorific slightly, ‘gave me the stuff. Didn’t look like much.’
Irene turned to face him. ‘If you wouldn’t mind?’ she said, extending her hand.
Kai reached inside his jacket, and pulled out a thin blue envelope. He handed it to her carefully, making the gesture courteous rather than a simple transfer. ‘There you go. Boss? Madame? Sir?’
‘Irene will do,’ she said. She hesitated for a moment, wishing she had a paperknife, but there wasn’t one to hand and she didn’t feel like showing Kai where she kept her hidden blade. With a slight wince at the inelegance, she ripped it open and slid out a single piece of paper.
Kai didn’t actually lean forward to peer at the letter, but he did tilt his head curiously.
‘Objective,’ Irene read out obligingly. ‘Original Grimm manuscript, volume 1, 1812, currently in London, parallel B-395: closest Traverse exit within the British Library, located inside British Museum, further details available from on-site Librarian in Residence.’
‘Fairy tales, I imagine.’ Irene tapped a finger against the edge of the paper. ‘Not one of my areas. I’m not sure why I’ve – why we’ve been assigned it. Unless it’s something you’ve experience in?’
Kai shook his head. ‘I’m not well up on the European stuff. Don’t even know which alternate that is. Do you think it’s something that’s unique to that world?’
That was a reasonable question. There were three basic reasons why Librarians were sent out to alternates to find specific books: because the book was important to a senior Librarian, because the book would have an effect on the Language, or because the book was specific and unique to that alternate world. In this last case, the Library’s ownership of it would reinforce the Library’s links to the world from which the book originated. (Irene wasn’t sure into which of the three categories her latest acquisition fell, though she suspected a case of ‘effect on the Language’. She should probably try to find out at some point.)
If this Grimm manuscript was the sort of book that occurred in multiple different alternate worlds, then it wouldn’t have warranted a specific mission from Coppelia. By the time that senior Librarians had become senior Librarians, they weren’t interested in anything less than rarities. An ordinary book existing in multiple worlds would simply have shown up in someone’s regular shopping list, probably along with the complete works of Nick Carter, the complete cases of Judge Dee, and the complete biographies, true and false, of Prester John. The question of why some books were unique and occurred only in specific worlds was one of the great imponderables, and hopefully Irene would actually get an answer to it some day. When she was a senior Librarian herself, perhaps. Decades in the future. Maybe even centuries.
In any case, there was no point standing around guessing. Irene tried to phrase her answer to make it seem sensible, rather than simply shutting Kai down in the first ten minutes of their acquaintance.
‘Probably best to find out from the on-site Librarian, when we reach the alternate destination. If Coppelia hasn’t told you, and hasn’t told me . . .’
Kai shrugged. ‘As long as it gets me out of here, I’m not going to complain.’
‘How long have you been here?’ Irene asked curiously.