Bradamant raised her eyebrows. ‘My dear Irene, for me to despise you, I would have to bother to—’
‘Oh, please,’ Irene cut in. ‘You told me all about it, remember? You think I’m a spoilt brat and you’d be quite happy to have me fail publicly and obviously, even if you’d rather not see me dead for it. You wouldn’t bother putting an insult like that together if you didn’t want it to sting.’ She saw the colour rising in Bradamant’s cheeks. Kai’s supporting arm behind her was a comfort that helped her hold herself together. ‘I think what you want – what we both want – is to genuinely serve the Library.’
‘Split infinitive,’ Bradamant spat.
‘Put it in your report,’ Irene said, tiredness dragging her down. ‘Just don’t waste time hating me any more, all right? And I’ll try to stop doing the same. Because I don’t think it’s helping. I don’t think it’s helping either of us.’
‘Get that help now,’ Kai said sharply to Bradamant.
‘Please?’ Irene forced herself to look up and meet Bradamant’s eyes. ‘Think about it?’
‘I thought you wanted us to stop thinking about each other so much,’ Bradamant said coldly. She turned on her heel and walked away, skirts swishing.
Irene’s vision was narrowing, as Bradamant faded from view. ‘Think about it,’ she mumbled, the words thick and heavy in her mouth.
Kai’s fingers bit into her shoulder hard enough to make her refocus. ‘If you pass out on me now, I’m going to kill you,’ he said conversationally.
‘A bit counter-productive,’ Irene said.
‘It’d cheer me up like nothing else.’ He leaned in closer, his face inches away from hers. ‘You sent me away, you sent me away and you nearly got yourself killed. Do you have any idea how stupid that was?’
Perhaps his control was slipping, because his skin was like blue-veined alabaster, and his hair seemed dark blue as well, so dark that it was nearly black. There was a deep fury in his eyes that was a long way from human anger. It was about possessiveness, pride and a sort of ownership as well.
‘It worked,’ Irene said, managing to return his stare. His pupils weren’t human any longer either. They were slit like a snake’s, like that other dragon she’d met. But the person behind them was more real to her than Silver and his apparent humanity. Or whatever had looked out at her from Alberich’s stolen skin. She wanted to find the words to tell him as much. ‘We drove him out. Thank you.’
‘He endangered you!’ he broke in. ‘I shouldn’t have left any human alive in there!’
She could have thanked him for obeying or trusting her, or maybe because she could trust him. But for some reason, perhaps to divert him, she said, ‘For helping me save Vale’s life. I like him.’
To her surprise, that made Kai turn aside and duck his head, a scarlet flush blossoming on those pale high-boned cheeks. The fingers digging into her shoulder relaxed their grip, and there was something more human about his face. ‘He is a man to be valued,’ he muttered. ‘I am glad you approve of him as well.’
It might be a major concession for a dragon to admit he liked any human at all. ‘Right,’ she muttered. ‘Definitely. Could you get me some cotton?’ She realized that she’d used the wrong word. ‘Coffee. I mean coffee. Bit dizzy.’
‘Stay still.’ How stupid of him; did he really think she was going to go running off somewhere? ‘Bradamant will get help.’
‘It’s just a flesh wound,’ she murmured, then darkness came down over her eyes and swallowed her up.
Light came back grudgingly, filtered through long window blinds. Irene was lying on a couch, her heavily bandaged hands neatly arranged in her lap. She was in one of the rooms that overlooked the unknown city outside the Library walls. Someone had taken off her shoes and arranged the folds of her dress so that they covered her stockinged feet. That small thing, petty as it was, allowed her to relax. There was only one person who’d go to that trouble.
‘Coppelia,’ she said, raising her head to look for her supervisor. The tension inside her uncurled a little. Coppelia had always been fair. She was other things as well, such as sarcastic. And her level of expectations would challenge an Olympic high-jumper. But she could rely on Coppelia.
‘Clever girl.’ Coppelia was sitting in a high-backed chair near the couch. A portable desk covered her lap, stacked with hand-copied sheets of paper thick with the Language. She was sitting so the light fell across her desk, but left her face and shoulders in shadow. She shifted, and her joints creaked. ‘Do you think you’re strong enough to give me a report?’
Irene rubbed at her eyes with her forearm. ‘Could we have a little more light in here?’ The fluorescent panels in the ceiling were unlit, and the only meagre illumination came through the blinds. It left the whole room feeling dim and unreal, like a black and white film, where bleakness was a deliberate part of the artistry.
‘Not quite yet,’ Coppelia said. There was something guarded about her voice, although her face was as bland and unreadable as always. Her bright white hair was braided back under a navy cap, showing in stark contrast to her dark skin. In the dim light, it formed a pattern of brightness and darkness to Irene’s weary eyes. The artificial carved-wood fingers of her left hand tapped on the edge of her desk, something Irene found comfortingly familiar. ‘You’ve put stress on your body in a number of ways that you don’t even understand. We’ve been bleeding off some of the excess energies, but for the moment you need to be strictly under-exposed to any sort of stimulation.’