‘Now the brother had never troubled to look at the mark upon his back,’ Bradamant went on. ‘But that night he sought a mirror and read the writing on his skin, and what he read there sent him mad. He left the Library then and he colluded with its enemies against it. But most of all he swore vengeance against his sister, for she had spoken the words that set him on this path. A hundred years later, his sister returned to the Library following a quest that she had been set, and she was with child.’
‘A hundred years?’ Vale said.
‘It can happen,’ Irene said. ‘If she’d been in an alternate where there was some way to slow ageing – high technology, or high sorcery. But the pregnancy would be the problem—’
‘Yes, exactly,’ Bradamant said. ‘And this caused great trouble, for there could be no birth nor death within the Library. Yet she feared to set foot outside it lest her brother should find her. So in pain she begged them to cut open her belly and take the child out and they did so, and she was delivered of a child. They sewed up her belly with silver thread and hid her among the deepest vaults for fear that her brother should seek her again.’
Irene could feel her stomach clench inside her in cold fear, very slowly and deliberately. ‘So that’s why he wanted this book,’ she whispered. ‘It wasn’t because he could use it to gain power over this world. It was because . . .’ She wasn’t sure how to say it. Because someone knew this about his secrets? If this was Grimm, then it would have been written centuries ago. But time meant nothing in the depths of the Library, as long as someone stayed there. And Alberich was . . . well, nobody knew how old Alberich was. But how old would his sister be? And was she still there?
‘A sister,’ Kai muttered. His eyes narrowed in thought. ‘And his sister’s child. How does it finish?’
‘That is how it finishes.’ Bradamant slapped the book shut, hesitated, then slid it back under Irene’s arm again. ‘There. Now we must be out of here at once. Mr Vale, I hope we can rely on you . . .’
‘I don’t think it would do any good to make the matter public,’ Vale said wryly. ‘I am sure I can find someone to blame for all this – the Iron Brotherhood, perhaps, or Lord Silver. He will be most unhappy to find himself without book, conclusion, or enemy.’ The thought made him smile. ‘But I would value the chance to speak with you all again most highly.’
Irene pulled herself together. ‘That depends on our superiors.’ A nagging honesty pulled at her. ‘But . . . if we get the opportunity, I would like that too. But for the moment – ’
‘Quite,’ Bradamant said. She walked across to the far door. ‘Kai, carry her if she can’t walk.’
‘Some brandy would have helped,’ Irene complained as Kai steered her across the slippery floor. She hoped that Vale wouldn’t get any stupid ideas about trying to pursue them through the entrance. ‘And I’m quite capable of walking without being dragged.’
‘Allow me this small service,’ Kai growled in her ear. ‘After throwing me out and denying me the chance to protect you, and getting yourself quite this badly hurt, I must insist on it.’
Bradamant laid her hand on the door handle, murmuring in the Language, and the air shivered. The door swung open to show rows of shelves beyond.
‘They do tell us not to get into arguments that we can’t win,’ Irene whispered. She was weary now, and her hands were alive with pain.
They stepped through, and the door to the Library closed behind them.
The door swung shut behind them with a clang, iron-bound and solid. Someone had upgraded the warning posters in the Library room. They were all red ink and Gothic font now, and, as her thoughts drifted, Irene wondered if they had been printed or hand-lettered.
‘Sit her down here,’ Bradamant instructed Kai, pulling command around her like a cloak. ‘I’ll go and fetch some help.’
‘Just a moment,’ Irene interrupted. She suspected that once Bradamant was out of here, she wouldn’t be back for quite a while, and there was something very important that she wanted to say to her first.
‘You can barely stand,’ Bradamant said dismissively. ‘You need help.’
Kai looked round for a chair, found none, and carefully lowered her until she was sitting on the floor. ‘Irene, Bradamant’s right,’ he said in the patient tones that sympathetic men use to hysterical women. ‘You’re hurt.’
‘Shut up,’ Irene said, and watched his mouth drop open at her rudeness. She was dizzy, and her hands felt as if she’d dipped them in molten barbed wire. But she had to get this said before she lost the will to say it. ‘Bradamant. You cut in on my mission, drugged me and tried to steal my book, and generally broke quite a number of unwritten rules. True or not?’
Bradamant looked down at her. As usual, even in tattered clothing, her posture was effortlessly elegant, and Irene felt even scruffier than usual, sprawled on the floor as she was. For a moment Bradamant was silent. Then, finally, she said, ‘True enough.’
Bradamant shrugged. ‘I can apologize, but I hope you don’t expect me to say that I’m sorry.’
‘I expect nothing of the sort,’ Irene said carefully. ‘What I want . . .’
‘What I want is for us to stop despising each other quite so much. It’s a waste of time and effort.’