‘Don’t waste that on my hands,’ Irene mumbled. She hadn’t even realized that she’d picked the book up. She let Bradamant ease the book out from under her arm. ‘I need a drink.’
‘Miss Winters!’ Vale exclaimed.
‘Make that two healthy drinks. I’m in shock. Give me brandy.’
‘But your hands,’ Vale protested. ‘They need immediate care.’
Irene didn’t want to look, but she forced herself. There were deep cuts across both palms and the insides of her fingers. Flaps of skin hung loose, and she thought she could see bone. She looked away before she embarrassed herself by throwing up. The skirt of her dress was wet with her blood. She must be in shock, or it would be hurting even more than it already did. She’d never hurt herself this badly. She wasn’t even sure if it could be fixed. ‘There are people in the Library who can deal with this,’ she said firmly, desperately praying that she wasn’t lying to herself. Her words came spilling out, quick and professional, a distraction from the reality of her hands. She could hear the forced lightness of her tone. Her speech sounded as if it was coming to her from a great distance, like the chirping of little birds very far away. ‘Mr Vale, thank you for your assistance, and I’m sorry that you were dragged into this. Bradamant, please can you check the door – the inner door, the Library ingress – for any traps?’
‘I don’t think there could be any alien influences, after you invoked the Library inside this place,’ Bradamant said gently.
‘Oh.’ She must be more in shock than she’d thought. ‘All right, then. Kai, please help me stand.’
Kai slipped an arm around her, helping her to her feet. Under other circumstances she might have been more careful about leaning on him, but at the moment it really didn’t seem that important. So she was leaning on him. She was injured. He was her colleague. It was only sensible.
His clothing was disarranged, but still there. So turning into a dragon didn’t mean that you lost all your clothing. This seemed unduly significant, and she filed it away so she could ask questions later. ‘Are you sure about this?’ he asked in an undertone.
‘I think it’s best that we’re out of here before any questions need answering.’ That piece of wisdom was drilled into all Librarians very early on.
‘Ahem.’ Vale brushed at the trickle of blood on his collar, rather pointlessly, considering his generally dishevelled state. ‘While I am willing to abet Singh in, well, covering this up, I would also be interested in finding out more about this. Before you go, Miss Winters, all of you . . . can you tell me about the last story in that book?’
Bradamant opened her mouth, and the first word was obviously going to be No, and so were all the rest of them.
Irene held up one hand to stop her. ‘Mr Vale, are you sure that you want us reporting to our superiors that you read it? Whatever it is?’
‘I find it hard to believe that they will assume I didn’t read it,’ Vale said drily.
That was true enough. ‘I suppose there’s no reason why you shouldn’t look over our shoulders as we check that it’s the right book,’ Irene said slowly. She cast a quick glance at Kai, but he had enough sense to keep his mouth shut and not mention they’d already done so. ‘Bradamant, you said to check the eighty-seventh story, correct?’ She indicated the book, now in Bradamant’s possession. ‘I would open it myself, but my hands – ’
Bradamant pursed her lips, then nodded. Perhaps she sympathized. Or perhaps she intended to blame every last bit of unauthorized exposure on Irene. She wiped her hands clean of dust and blood on the battered skirts of her dress and flipped the book open. ‘The eighty-seventh story, yes. The Story of the Stone from the Tower of Babel.’
She breathed a deep sigh. ‘It’s here. Eighty-seventh of . . . eighty-eight?’
The silence hung in the room as they all considered that point. If it was unusual that an eighty-seventh story should exist, Irene thought, then what was the eighty-eighth doing there? Could Bradamant have been given a mere indicator, as opposed to the true reason why the book was so important . . . ?
‘My German’s not very good,’ Kai said plaintively.
Bradamant gave a put-upon sigh. ‘Once upon a time,’ she began to translate, ‘there lived a brother and a sister who both belonged to the same Library. Now this was a strange library, for it held books from a thousand worlds, but lay outside all of them. And the brother and sister loved each other and worked together to find new books for their Library . . .’
‘No wonder your people didn’t want this one getting loose,’ Vale said with satisfaction.
Bradamant paused to raise her eyebrows at him before continuing. ‘One day, the brother said to his sister, “Since this Library contains all books, does it contain the story of its own founding?”’
‘No,’ Irene said.
‘Surely it must,’ Kai said. ‘We probably just don’t have access to it yet.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ Bradamant said.
‘I beg your pardon,’ Kai said. Bradamant nodded coldly, and went on. ‘“I suppose so,” the sister said. “But it would be unwise to seek it.” “Why?” the brother asked. “Because of the nature of the Library’s secret,” the sister answered, “that we both wear branded upon our backs.”’
‘It has the proper cadence for a Brothers Grimm story,’ Vale said helpfully. Irene felt her back itch.