With a certain amount of pushing from below and pulling from above, Irene was assisted up the swaying rope ladder. She decided to be grateful that firstly, she hadn’t just been left behind, and secondly, that she was wearing traditional underpants rather than anything scantier. The rest of her mind was preoccupied with clutching the rope ladder with sweating hands, trying not to fall off and die.
The pilot was a woman, in canvas and leather clothing – the first that Irene had seen in trousers so far in this alternate. Her goggles were shoved back over a coiled heavy braid of hair and she looked more suspicious than the guard had been. ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ she said, ‘but I’ll have to see some authorization.’
‘My name is Vale,’ Vale announced. ‘I require your assistance to reach the British Library as fast as possible.’
‘That and a shilling’ll buy you a pound of onions,’ the woman said. Unimpressed, she leaned back in her seat, a hammock-like sling of leather straps and creaking rubber. ‘Go find some other poor sod to risk their job if you want to chase criminals.’
Irene considered the possible mental damage of what she was about to do. Librarians were generally supposed to avoid it, because of the risks of imposing on people’s minds, not to mention the universe occasionally backlashing in interesting ways. But they were running out of time. ‘Miss Jenkins—’
‘That’s Mrs Jenkins to you,’ the woman snapped. ‘I’m a respectable married woman, I am.’
‘Mrs Jenkins,’ Irene continued, switching fluidly into the Language, ‘you perceive that the detective here is showing you reliable and acceptable authorization.’
Mrs Jenkins frowned, staring at Vale. ‘. . . well, I can’t say as I like it,’ she finally said, ‘but that seems to all be in order. British Library, you said?’
‘At once,’ Vale said, with only a quick frown at Irene. ‘There is no time to lose.’
‘Very good, sir,’ the woman said. ‘Kindly have you and your friends hang on to the straps further back in the cabin. This is going to be a bumpy ride. The wind’s against us.’
Irene heard shouting in the background and looked down. Silver was standing on the roof, his cape billowing behind him as he pointed at the zeppelin.
Kai saw him too and took rapid action, casting off the mooring cable. The whole zeppelin rocked, and Irene had to grab for the straps, but they were moving, jerking away from the museum at the sudden loss of their tether.
‘Damn dilettante amateurs,’ Mrs Jenkins muttered, and ran her hands over the controls, flipping two switches and spinning a dial before hauling on a joystick. The zeppelin tilted and jolted into forward motion. ‘Passengers, we are now in the open air and heading for the British Library. Please talk among yourselves while I pilot this damn thing because I don’t like being distracted.’
‘Yes,’ Vale said, turning to Irene. ‘We need to talk, Miss Winters.’
Irene could think of so many things that Vale might want to discuss that it wasn’t even funny. But she was going to sit down first.
She decided, as she perched on a ledge which might be a seat, that this sort of transport must be reserved for very small antiques. The compartment was cramped, with hardly enough room for the three of them, let alone the storage of large items. The engine was also incredibly noisy, which was good – Irene didn’t really want Mrs Jenkins listening in on this.
Vale himself remained standing, holding on to an overhead strap, using the advantage of his height to tower over Irene. Possibly in response, Kai also stayed on his feet, moving over to loom behind Irene’s shoulder supportively.
Irene wished that they’d both been poisoned too: perhaps then they’d be a bit more understanding about wanting to sit down.
‘Miss Winters,’ Vale said, retreating into formality, ‘am I to understand that you have the Fae-like power to glamour and delude the minds of others?’
Oh. So that was what had disturbed him. ‘No,’ she said, then qualified it with, ‘not precisely. And you’re probably wondering why I didn’t do such a thing before.’
‘Or why you suddenly revealed it now, after using it on me without my realizing it,’ Vale suggested, brows drawn together suspiciously.
Damn. It was a logical suspicion which she’d been hoping that he wouldn’t have. Why did he have to use those qualities that she admired against her? ‘I’m hardly that stupid,’ she said.
‘But you might have been that desperate,’ Vale answered. ‘An explanation, if you please.’
Irene sighed. She’d been hoping to avoid this. ‘All right. You know that I can use the Language to, in blunt terms, make things do things. I can’t change a door from a locked door to an open door, but I can make the lock on a door open itself. There are some subtleties to this, but I hope you’ll understand that I can’t explain everything in full detail and with footnotes. I can get away with telling my superiors that I explained some things to you, but there are limits.’
‘You show a sudden high regard for your superiors’ opinion,’ Vale commented.
She was suddenly furious, his words reviving Bradamant’s taunts on not involving others and doing the job – no matter what. ‘I’m not supposed to be sharing anything with you at all!’ She could feel her control slipping, which just made it worse. She should be handling this dispassionately like a capable Librarian, as Bradamant would have done. She shouldn’t feel this sudden lurch at the thought of ruining any sort of friendship with Vale. She was not supposed to be involved with him at all. With anyone. ‘Standard procedure is getting in and out, leaving no traces. Standard procedure does not involve investigating local murders, going to local receptions, getting involved with local secret societies—’