‘Five years.’ His tone was smoothed to careful politeness, like sea-worn stones. ‘I know it’s the policy to keep new people here till they’ve studied the basics and they’re sure we’re not going to do a runner, but it’s been five sodding years.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Irene said flatly as she tapped in a quick response to Coppelia’s email.
‘Yes. I was born into the job. My parents are both Librarians. It probably made things easier. I always knew what was expected of me.’ It was quite true; it had made things easier. She’d always known what she was being brought up to do. The years in the Library were rotated with years in alternates, and they’d gone by one after another, with study, practice and effort and long silent aisles of books.
‘I don’t expect that waiting has been . . . fun.’
‘Fun.’ He snorted. ‘No. Not fun. It was kinda interesting, but it wasn’t fun.’
‘Did you like Coppelia?’ She dispatched the email, then logged out neatly.
‘I’ve only been studying under her for the last few months.’
‘She’s one of the more . . .’ Irene paused, considering what words she could use that wouldn’t get her into trouble later if repeated elsewhere. She personally liked Coppelia, but words such as Machiavellian, efficiently unprincipled, and ice-hearted didn’t always go down well in conversations.
‘Oh, I liked her,’ Kai said hastily, and Irene turned to look at him, surprised at the warmth in his voice. ‘She’s a strong woman. Very organized. Commanding personality. My mother would like – would have liked her. If. You know. They never take people to work here with close living relatives, right?’
‘No,’ Irene agreed. ‘It’s in the rules. It’d be unfair to them.’
‘And, um . . .’ He looked at her from under his long eyelashes. ‘About those rumours that sometimes they make sure that there aren’t any close living relatives? Or any living relatives at all?’
Irene swallowed. She leaned across to turn off the computer, hoping that it’d hide the nervous gesture. ‘There are always rumours.’
‘Are they true?’
Sometimes I think they are. She wasn’t naive. She knew that the Library didn’t always stick to its own rules. ‘It wouldn’t help either of us for me to tell you they were,’ she said flatly.
‘Oh.’ He leaned back in his chair again.
‘You’ve been here five years. What do you expect me to say?’
‘I was kinda expecting you to give me the official line.’ He was looking at her with more interest now. His eyes glittered in the dim light. ‘Didn’t expect you to hint it might be true.’
‘I didn’t,’ she said quickly. She slid the paper back into the envelope, and slipped it into the pocket of her dress. ‘Here’s my first suggestion to you as your new mentor, Kai. The Library runs on conspiracy theory. Admit nothing, deny everything, then find out what’s going on and publish a paper on the subject. It’s not as if they can stop you doing that.’
He tilted his head. ‘Oh, they could always get rid of the paper.’
‘Get rid of the paper?’ She laughed. ‘Kai, this is the Library. We never get rid of anything here. Ever.’
He shrugged, clearly giving up on the enquiry. ‘Okay. If you don’t want to be serious about it, I won’t push it. Shall we get going?’
‘Certainly,’ Irene said, rising to her feet. ‘Please follow me. We can talk on the way.’
It was half an hour before he began speaking again, apart from casual grunts of acknowledgement or disagreement. She was leading the way down a spiral staircase of dark oak and black iron; it was too narrow for the two of them to walk side by side, and he was a few paces behind her. Narrow slit windows in the thick walls looked out over a sea of roofs. The occasional television aerial stood out among classic brickwork edifices and faux-Oriental domes. Finally Kai said, ‘Can I ask some questions?’
‘Of course.’ She reached the bottom of the staircase, and stepped aside so he could catch up. The wide corridor ahead was crammed with doors on either side, some better polished and dusted than others. The lantern-light glinted on their brass plates.
‘Ah, if we’re going by foot to the exit point, isn’t this going to take a while?’
‘Fair point,’ Irene said. ‘It’s in B-395, you remember?’
‘Of course,’ he said, and looked down his nose at her. He was several inches taller than her, so that allowed for a fair amount of condescension.
‘Right.’ She started off down the corridor. ‘Now, I had a look at the map before you came in, and the closest access to B Wing is down this way and then up two floors. We can check a terminal when we get there and find the fastest way from there to 395. Hopefully it won’t be more than a day or so from where we are.’
‘A day or so . . . Can’t we just take a rapid shift to get there?’
‘No, afraid not. I don’t have the authority to requisition one.’ She couldn’t help thinking how much easier it would have made things. ‘You need to be at Coppelia’s level to order one of those.’
‘Oh.’ He walked in silence for a few steps. ‘Okay. So what do you know about B-395?’
‘Well, obviously it’s a magic-dominant alternate.’