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The morning light glittered on the glass windows and on the blades of the guillotines in the central square. Pigeons squabbled noisily in the gutters, audible solely due to the general deadly silence. Only the creaking of cart-wheels and the soft padding of footsteps disturbed the stillness.
Irene could feel an even greater zone of terrified hush surrounding herself and Kai. Passers-by avoided their gaze, desperate not to attract their attention. It was because of their "borrowed" uniforms, of course: everyone was afraid that someday the National Guard might come for them, to drag them away for counter-revolutionary activities. And then would come prisons, and trials, and then the guillotine . . .
It made their outfits the perfect disguise for getting around unnoticed. Nobody was going to look twice at the National Guard. In case the National Guard looked back at them.
With a neat pivot, the two of them turned at the corner of the street and marched down it together, their steps in unison, out of view of the guillotines. Irene felt an illogical sense of relief in response. Even if they weren't out of danger yet, she was spared from having to look at the thing that might chop her head off.
"How much farther?" Kai murmured out of the side of his mouth. Even in the charmless National Guard uniform-heavy black wool coat and trousers, and tricolour sash-her assistant managed to look almost unrealistically handsome. The sun gleamed on his black hair and touched his face with a glow of pure health and physicality. When walking, he paced like an aristocrat, or a predator, rather than trudging like an ordinary man doing a nine-to-five job. There was very little they could do to disguise that, though. Smears of mud would have been out of place on a Guardsman, and disguising him as an ordinary citizen being taken for questioning would have been too risky.
"Next street," Irene muttered back. Next to Kai she was comparatively plain, to her occasional regret, and so she was much better at going unnoticed. Her own plain brown hair and regular features took actual work to make them look interesting, or really any more attractive than "neat and tidy." But since most of the time she wanted to go unnoticed, that was a benefit in her line of work.
Fortunately women served in the National Guard, and she hadn't needed to bind her breasts, or anything like that, to blend in. The European Republic that had spread from the French Revolution in this alternate world was oppressive, vicious, hard-line, and highly dangerous, but it did at least let women get themselves killed in the armed forces. Probably because they needed the manpower, as it were, due to the ongoing wars, but that was another problem.
They turned the next corner, and Irene flicked a glance towards the raddled old building that was their target. It was barely in one piece: decaying brick was seamed with ivy and cracks, the shutters were locked shut in place and covered with graffiti, and the roof was missing tiles. They marched up to the front door as though they had a perfect right to be there. Kai banged on it, waited for a response, then kicked it open. The two of them stomped inside.
Kai peered into the darkness. Shafts of light filtered round the edges of the shutters, enough to let them see the utter ruin of the building's interior. The staircase that led up to the first and second floors looked just barely passable, but all the furniture was gone, and the walls were covered with revolutionary dogma. It might once have been a library, but now it was a decrepit barn of a building that would probably have been turned down by passing cows as too uncomfortable.
"I don't understand how there still can be a link to the Library from this place," Kai said.
"Nor do we. But if it takes us back to base, that's good enough for me." Irene kicked the door shut behind them. Without the light coming in through the doorway, the place was even darker. "Sometimes it can take years for a world's entrance to the Library to shift. Sometimes it can take centuries. But with all the local libraries and bookshops shut down or under armed guard, this is our best bet."
"Would it be out of order for me to say that I don't like this alternate?" Kai asked. He unbuttoned his coat and reached inside, pulling out the book they'd been sent to fetch, and offered it to Irene.
She took it, conscious of its warmth from the heat of his body. "Not at all. I don't like it either."
"So how long before you stop getting . . ."
He was looking for a non-aggressive way of putting it, but Irene was irritated enough about the situation herself, so she felt no need to sugar-coat it. "Before I stop getting all the crap jobs, yes? God only knows. I'm on probation, after all. There isn't a fixed time on that."
And then she felt guilty at the way Kai's eyes flicked away from her, and at the flush on his cheeks. After all, her probation was his fault, in a roundabout way. She'd abandoned her duties as Librarian-in-Residence in another world at short notice, because she'd gone running off to save him from kidnapping and slavery-she'd also averted a war in the process. Clearly she was lucky to retain her post at all, but these types of missions were the price. It wasn't fair to remind him about it. And it didn't help to brood over it herself: the brooding tended to devolve into corrosive anger, or they'll-all-realize-they-were-wrong-and-apologize fantasizing, neither of which helped.
"Let's get moving," she said. "If the guards check their records, they'll realize that we were impostors and they could track us here."
Kai peered into the shadows. "I'm not sure there are any undamaged doors on this floor. Do we need an intact door and frame to get through to the Library?"
Irene nodded. And he was right-the place had been trashed very thoroughly. She wished she'd seen it while it was still a functioning collection of books, before the Revolution had gutted it. "We do. This could be awkward. We'd better try upstairs."
"I'll go first," Kai said, reaching the stairs before she could object. "I'm heavier than you are, so you should be safe to tread on a stair if it'll bear my weight."
This was not the time or place to get into another will-you-stop-being-so-protective argument. Irene let him go first and followed him gingerly up the creaking stairs, treading only where he trod and hanging on to the chipped balustrade in case of sudden falls.
Upstairs, the first floor was almost as ruined as the ground floor, but there was one door off the large central landing that was still hanging loosely on its hinges. Irene breathed a sigh of relief as she saw it. "That should do. Give me a moment."
She focused on her nature as a sworn Librarian, drawing herself upright and taking a deep breath, then stepped forward to lay her hand against the door, pushing it shut. "Open to the Library," she said in the Language. Its power to reshape reality was a Librarian's greatest asset. So in a moment they'd be out of this place, back in the interdimensional collection of books they both worked for, ready to deliver one more volume to its huge archives.
What happened next should definitely not have happened. The door and its frame went up in a burst of fire. Irene stood there in stunned disbelief, barely snatching her hand away from the heat, a concussion of power resounding in her head like a car crash. Kai had to grab her shoulders and drag her back, pulling her away from the flames. They burned hot and white, catching on the wood faster than was natural and spreading across the wall.
"Fire, go out!" Irene ordered, but it didn't work. Usually the Language would interact with the world around her like cogs fitting together and moving in unison, but this time the metaphorical teeth on the cog-wheel didn't catch and the Language failed to grip reality. The flames rose even higher, and she flinched back from them.
"What happened?" Kai shouted, raising his voice to be heard above the crackle of the fire. "Was it booby-trapped?"
Irene gave herself a mental shake and pulled herself together, drawing back from the spreading fire. She'd been expecting to feel the usual drain of power, but what she'd touched had felt more like a live wire-an antithetical surge of power, which had exploded when she'd tried to touch it with her own. Fortunately it didn't seem to have affected her, just the door that could have been their route back to the Library. "I have no idea," she shouted back. "Quick, we need to find another entrance! And before this whole place goes up!" She clutched the book to her chest in a death grip: if she dropped it here and it went up in flames, god only knew how long it would take them to find another copy.
They stumbled to the stairs, smoke already coiling towards them and starting to drift through the shutters and outside. Irene led the way up this time, spurred by the rising crackling of the fire. She heard a crunch behind her as one of the stairs gave way under Kai, but he grunted at her to keep on going up, and a moment later his footsteps were behind her again.
Irene staggered out onto the second floor and looked around. It was as much of a wreck as the ground floor. There were no doors, only empty doorways and broken walls. There was more light, but only because of the large holes in the roof, and the floor was stained where the rain had been coming through.
Perhaps you should have used the Language more efficiently and succeeded in putting out the fire on the first floor. Rather than just screaming "Fire!" and panicking and running away, the cold voice of self-judgement at the back of her mind pointed out. Might it have worked if you'd just tried a little harder? And don't step on those stained bits of floor, the voice remarked waspishly, they're probably rotting and unsafe.
Kai strode across to one shuttered window, peering down at the street below through the cracks between shutter and wall. He went still, and even in the dim light Irene could see the tension in his shoulders. "Irene, I have some bad news."
Panic would be wasting vital time and energy, however tempting it might be. And the fire made it extremely tempting. "Let me guess," Irene said. "The National Guard has tracked us here."
"Yes," Kai said. "I can see a dozen of them. They're pointing at the smoke."
"I suppose it would have been too much to hope they wouldn't notice it." Irene tried to think of alternatives. "If I can stop the fire-"
"Possible-unless it's something to do with the Library or chaos," Kai pointed out. "That's stopped you using the Language before. Do you know what caused it?"
"No." Irene joined him at the shutter. There was a squad of twenty men and women out there, and the fact that the house was on fire was probably the only thing that had stopped them from coming in for the moment. She forced herself to speak with deliberate calmness, ignoring the clenching fear in her belly. "Dear me, we must have annoyed them back there. But I'm surprised they followed us so fast."
"I think I recognize that one." Kai pointed at one of the soldiers. "Wasn't she the one whom you convinced with the Language that we were officials from Paris?"
Irene squinted, then nodded. "I think you're right. It must have worn off faster than usual. Oh well."
Inwardly, she felt far more disturbed than she was allowing herself to show. It wasn't the squad of twenty soldiers outside. She could handle that. Well, she and Kai together could. It was the fact that the attempted gate to the Library had been shut down, and in a way that she didn't recognize or understand. Her current probation status meant that she was getting dirty work and dangerous jobs, such as this little waltz through a totalitarian republic and into their private vaults, to get a unique copy of The Daughter of Porthos by Dumas. But she should have been warned if there was a problem with reaching the Library from this world. It was a simple matter of common safety. If someone had deliberately sent her out here without telling her . . .
There would be time to settle that later. For the moment, they were in a burning house with angry soldiers outside. Par for the course. "Out the back door, then, before the first floor's impassable," she said.
There was a crash behind them.
"That was the stairs," Kai said, deadpan.
"Right." It was amazing how being cut off by advancing flames focused the mind. And not just in the way that the first cup of coffee in the morning helped one concentrate, but more in the way that a magnifying glass directed all the minor fears into a single laser beam of pure terror. Irene had never particularly liked fire. More than that, the idea of fire getting loose among her books was a particular nightmare. Being caught in a conflagration was near the top of her Top Ten Ways I Don't Want to Die. "We break the shutters on this floor, go out, surrender, and escape later."
"Just like that?"
Irene raised an eyebrow. "Unless you have a better idea?"
"Actually, I do." Kai sounded half-proud, half-defiant, but overall determined. "We don't need to come back here, so it doesn't matter what they know. I'll change form and carry us both out of this world."
This threw Irene off balance. It wasn't something she had remotely expected. Kai hadn't bothered keeping his heritage as a dragon secret from her-at least, not after she'd found out about it-but he very rarely offered to do anything that would involve using it. And she'd never seen him in full dragon form before. "They've got rifles," she pointed out practically.
Kai snorted. Or perhaps that was the smoke. Which was admittedly getting thicker. Thank heavens there were no books in here to be burned now. She was a Librarian, after all: destruction of any books was loathsome. "Rifles are no threat to me, in my proper form."
Irene nearly said, But what about me? although she managed to shut her mouth before the words could get out. It was their only hope right now, after all. "Right," she said after a moment. "Do we have enough space in here?"