In the latest novel in Genevieve Cogman's historical fantasy series, the fate of worlds lies in the balance. When a dragon is murdered at a peace conference, time-travelling Librarian spy Irene must solve the case to keep the balance between order, chaos...and the Library.
When Irene returns to London after a relatively straightforward book theft in Germany, Bradamant informs her that there is a top secret dragon-Fae peace conference in progress that the Library is mediating, and that the second-in-command dragon has been stabbed to death. Tasked with solving the case, Vale and Irene immediately go to 1890s Paris to start their investigation.
Once they arrive, they find evidence suggesting that the murder victim might have uncovered proof of treachery by one or more Librarians. But to ensure the peace of the conference, some Librarians are being held as hostages in the dragon and Fae courts. To save the captives, including her parents, Irene must get to the bottom of this murderbut was it a dragon, a Fae, or even a Librarian who committed the crime?
About the Author
Genevieve Cogman is a freelance author who has written for several role-playing game companies. She currently works for the National Health Service in England as a clinical classifications specialist. She is the author of the Invisible Library series, including The Mortal Word, The Lost Plot, The Burning Page, The Masked City, and The Invisible Library.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
My lord father,
Please forgive the haste and informality of this letter: you know my respect for you and my obedience to your will. You will have heard that I was expelled from the Library’s service under conditions of high scandal and because of personal fondness for one of the Librarians. This is absolutely not true and is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.
Minister Zhao, a high-ranking royal courtier, was assassinated. You will have heard of this, my lord father. The Queen of the Southern Lands then held a competition to fill the minister’s position from the dragons who had been in his service. What you may not know is that a junior Librarian was implicated in grave misconduct relating to this competition. And Irene, my current superior at the Library, was tasked to investigate. I accompanied her.
We were eventually forced to give evidence before the queen herself. Irene capably and efficiently identified a member of the queen’s court as the guilty party. You would have been impressed by her bearing and her intelligence, Father: though she is only a human, her self-control and courage are truly admirable, and she carries herself with an inner power and strength that reminds me of the best of us.
However, as I am a dragon, and was working for the Library, I was in serious danger of compromising both us and the Library. I was forced to claim I’d joined the Library as a boyish prank, without your knowledge. I told all present that I’d been in human form, so the Librarians were unaware of my true nature. As a result, I had to renounce my position as an apprentice there.
I realise that this is not in accordance with your greater plans, Father. Although my joining the Library was irregular, you had seen advantage in my gaining influence with the Librarians. You have said many times that they are secretive and take full advantage of their ability to hide in their Library between worlds. And while our kindred are not currently hostile to them, more information and access to their secrets can only serve our cause. My lord father, you are the eldest of the dragon kings, and the most respected of all the dragon monarchs. What serves you serves us all. It was my honour to be able to infiltrate their ranks and observe their behaviour.
I do not wish to now disappoint you by failing. I no longer have any formal ties here, but I humbly beg for your permission to remain in my current location, so I can consolidate my contacts. Notably, Vale, a master detective, and Irene, my former mentor.
Naturally I will return at once if you desire my presence, my lord father. Your word is my command. But I would not want to leave my work half-done.
Your obedient son,
Note at bottom, in different writing—“Tian Shu, the boy’s babbling. I haven’t heard so many excuses for dubious behaviour since that duel defending his mother’s reputation. Find out what’s going on, and for the love of gods and men alike, don’t let him get anywhere near the peace conference.”
The braziers in the torture chamber had burned low while Irene waited for the count to arrive. The stone wall behind her back was cold, even through her layers of clothing—dirndl, blouse, apron, and shawl—and the shackles scraped her wrists. Down the corridor she could hear the sounds of the other prisoners: suppressed tears, prayers, and a mother trying to soothe her baby.
She’d been arrested at about three o’clock. It must be early evening by now: there were no windows in the dungeons, and she couldn’t hear the bells in the castle chapel or the village church, but it had been several hours at least. She wished that she’d had a bigger lunch.
The door opened, and one of the guards poked his head in to check that she was still there. It was a pro forma inspection, not serious; after all, she was chained to the wall, in a locked torture chamber, deep under the castle. How could she possibly go anywhere?
His assumptions would have been correct, if she hadn’t been a Librarian.
But for the moment, they thought she was a normal human, even if they did believe she was a witch, and she had to play the part.
Irene knew that the people in the small Germanic village next to the castle would be particularly devout in their prayers that night. For another witch—namely, her—had been arrested by the count’s guard and hauled off to be put to the question. Otto, the Count of Süllichen—or rather, the Graf von Süllichen—was superstitious, paranoid, and vindictive: he was constantly on the watch for witches and plotters against his rule. The villagers would be afraid that she’d name them in her inevitable confession.
The sound of weeping was hushed as the thump of marching boots echoed down the corridor. Irene swallowed, her throat abruptly dry. This was where she found out if her plan had been quite as clever as it seemed earlier.
The dungeon door was flung open brutally, crashing into the wall. Haloed in the torch-light beyond, the Graf loomed there, his arms folded. His heavy black velvet doublet suggested shoulders wider than was actually the case, but the two soldiers at attention behind him were muscular enough for any manhandling that might be necessary. He considered Irene, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“So,” he finally said, “the newest witch who dares sneak into my domain and plot against me. Have you not learned, wench, that all those who came before you failed?”
“Oh, forgive me, most noble Graf!” Irene begged humbly. She knew that her German was too modern for this time and place, but he would probably be only too happy to take it as additional proof of witchcraft. “I was a fool to come here. I cast myself at your feet and beg for mercy!”
The Graf looked surprised. “You admit your guilt?”
Irene looked down at the floor, trying to squeeze out a tear or two. “You have chained me in iron, Your Grace, and there is a crucifix on the door. I am bound and my Satanic master will no longer help me.”
“Well.” The Graf paused, then rubbed his hands together. “Well, this makes a pleasant change! Perhaps I will not have to question you as harshly as I did your sisters. Confess all your evildoings and name your accomplices, and you may yet be spared from damnation.”
“But I have done such dreadful things, most noble Graf . . .” Irene managed a heartfelt sniffle. “How can I befoul your ears with my confession? You are a nobleman, far above such things.”
As she’d hoped, that got his full interest. “Wench, there is nothing you can tell me which I have not already read. You may not know this . . .”
In fact, she did know it—and it was the reason she was there.
“. . . but I am the most learned man in all Württemberg. Men come from across Germany to admire my books. Many of the treatises of the great holy men and witch-hunters adorn my library. The Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer was my childhood reading. I have studied the confessions of witches from across the world. Yours will be no different.”
An idea of how to get rid of at least one guard came to Irene. “Then I beg you to summon a priest, most noble Graf. Let me make my final confession to him as well as you, so that I may be saved from the flames of hell.”
The Graf nodded. “You show wisdom, woman. Stefan. Fetch Father Heinrich here at once.”
“But, sire,” the guard protested, “he said that he wanted nothing more to do with the questioning of witnesses—”
“Fool.” The Graf cut him off. “This witch is begging to confess her sins. Hah! This will prove to him that I was right in my suspicions all along. Fetch him and be quick about it . . . I don’t care if he’s in the middle of mass or the middle of supper, but drag him down here so that this foul wench may cleanse her conscience.”
Irene noted that the guard rolled his eyes heavenwards but that he was careful to do it when the Graf had his back turned. “Of course, sire,” he muttered, and left at a trot, closing the door behind him.
“Now, wench.” The Graf was practically salivating at the thought of licentious confessions. “Tell me what brought you to my domain and into my hands. And the hands of Mother Church, of course,” he added as an afterthought. “Be warned: if you attempt to hold anything back, I will be forced to put you to the question after all. You see those irons heating in the brazier? You see the rack, and the iron maiden in the corner of the room? Many before have tried to keep silent and have failed.” He pondered. “Tell me first why your hair is shorn in such an unwomanly way. Did you sacrifice it to your dark master in return for powers of seduction or disease?”
Irene couldn’t think of a way to get the second guard out of the room. She’d just have to deal with him before the first one came back. Time to move to stage two of the plan. “He cut it from my head as I knelt before him, most noble Graf,” she confessed. “He spoke words of power as he did so.” Not remotely accurate. Her hair had been cut by her friend and ex-apprentice during a recent excursion to Prohibition America. It was so difficult maintaining a consistent hair-style between alternate worlds. But nobody in this place and time—sixteenth-century Germany—would believe that a woman would choose to have her hair cut short.
“Really?” The Graf walked over to where a book lay open on a lectern and dipped the quill there in the open inkwell. “Recite his diabolical words for me, so that I can have a record of these spells.”
“He said—” And Irene shifted to the Language. The time for pretence was over. “Ink, fly in the eyes of the men: chains, open and release me.”
One of the many useful things about being a Librarian—as opposed to being a witch—was that Irene could use the Library’s Language to change the world around her. Even if she was in manacles and chained to the wall.
Which she wasn’t any longer. The heavy iron cuffs fell open, releasing her. She prudently took a few steps to the side before the guard, who was currently rubbing his eyes and howling in rage and fear, could think of attacking where she’d been standing. “Breeches, bind your legs together and hobble your wearers,” she ordered. After all, she was wearing a dress, not breeches, so the only people it would affect would be the guard and the Graf.
“Witch!” the Graf screamed, thrashing on the floor with futile kicks.
“I thought you already knew that,” Irene pointed out, picking up a twisted piece of ironwork that was probably an instrument of torture. At the moment, the most important thing about it to her was that it was a heavy blunt instrument that could be applied to people’s heads.
Two thumps later, and with the room a great deal quieter, she opened the door and stepped into the corridor, fastening her discarded wimple back over her hair. The key—also cold iron—was conveniently hanging on the wall, and she used it to lock the door before going any farther. She had until Stefan got back with the priest. That should be long enough.
Another whimper came from one of the other cells, and Irene found herself torn. Her objective here was to acquire a book from the Graf’s private library. It wasn’t often that she got to do her job—that is, to steal books in order to maintain the balance of the universe—with such a thoroughly unpleasant and deserving target. She should be focusing on that and not on his lordship’s other victims. And if she spent time on them, it might jeopardise her chance of securing that copy of the Heliand. Which was much more important than the lives of a few peasants who would never know about the Library or understand its mission . . .
But releasing all the prisoners would be a big distraction. It was a convenient counter-argument, which satisfied her conscience and very nearly her sense of duty. Of course, that could just be a specious rationalisation. But it meant that she didn’t have to abandon the Graf’s prisoners, so she could live with it.
Five minutes later, she’d released two prisoners—whom she left in charge of freeing the others as she sneaked up the nearest stairs.
The next obstacle presented itself quickly enough. The guard-room was at the head of the stairwell, and it was occupied. This whole place was like the Graf himself—utterly paranoid. There was no cover either: the stairwell was plain rough-hewn stone. And although it was only lit by torches, there were no places where one might hide if the guards ran to investigate the distraction below. But Irene did have one trick up her sleeve.
She marched up to the guard-room door, opened it, and walked in.
The four guards were lounging and sharing an illicit jug of beer, and they stared at her in shock. Fortunately none of them had the wit to immediately shout, “Witch!” or launch himself at her, which gave Irene the time to speak.
“You perceive,” she said, using the Language again, “that I am not the witch you’re looking for, but just another guard on an errand for the Graf, and that it is entirely normal for me to be passing through and not worth your time or interest.”
The headache hit her. Using the Language to confuse people’s perceptions was a strain at the best of times, and doing it to four people simultaneously made it worse. But it worked: they gave her no more than casual nods, as their brains reinterpreted her presence as unimportant. Two of them turned back to their argument over dice, while the third returned to polishing his sword.
The fourth kept on staring at her. Irene’s throat was dry as she walked across the room, passing between them, concentrating on not doing anything that might shake their delusion. It wouldn’t last long in any case. But if that fourth guard had somehow managed to see the truth . . .
“Hey, Johann,” he grunted. “Did you have a word with Lise about your sister?”
Irene shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, feeling the flesh crawl down her back. Three more steps to the door at the far side of the room. Don’t notice anything, she prayed, don’t notice anything . . .
One of the dice rollers looked up, confused. “Johann?” he said. “That’s Bruno.”
The original questioner frowned. “No, that’s Johann—”
Irene threw herself through the door and slammed it shut behind her. “Door, lock and jam!” she gasped. She heard the wards in the lock click into place a moment before someone yanked on the door handle on the other side. The door strained in its frame as more guards added their weight to the handle, shouting in an attempt to raise the alarm.
So much for her margin of safety. Irene ran down the corridor ahead of her. The stonework was smoother here, and the torches better quality. This meant she was getting closer to the Graf’s quarters at the top of the castle, but it also meant she was more likely to be noticed. Even if nobody recognised her as the “witch” who’d been brought in earlier today, they would see her peasant clothing and ask awkward questions.
Irene mentally reviewed her experience as a Librarian. From all her years of stealing books, to maintain the balance between order and chaos, what would serve her best? Maxims such as When in doubt, hide the evidence or Deny everything and ask for a lawyer flickered unhelpfully through her mind.
I want everyone out of my way while I head upwards. So what if they all focus downwards . . .
This part of the castle was for servants. Kitchens, guard-rooms, laundries, bedrooms. The smell of boiling cabbage and turnips coming from ahead of her indicated a kitchen nearby. That would do nicely.
Irene waited for someone to emerge. It was a male servant with a harried look, carrying a stack of folded uniforms. She caught his arm, and before he could react, she told him, “You perceive I’ve told you the Devil is loose in the dungeons, and that this is absolutely true. And you must rally the guards to go down there and save the Graf.”
Then she let him go and stood well back, taking an alternate route through the servants’ passages as the alarm was raised.
Irene repeated the manoeuvre several times as she made her way up through the castle. This place had a superfluity of guards, and they were all converging on the lower parts of the castle. Even if they didn’t all believe in the Devil, they did believe in the Graf—and in what the Graf might do to them if they didn’t respond enthusiastically enough. Or perhaps they did believe in the Devil. In the febrile atmosphere of panic and suspicion that surrounded this place, it was easy enough to believe in evil.
Finally, with a sigh of relief, she set foot on the stair leading to the Graf’s private quarters and library. The plans she’d memorised had proved accurate—so far. There was a great deal of confusion going on below—she had heard screams and crashes, and she thought she could smell smoke—but the focus of interest was still downward, not upward. She had a pounding headache, but also some anachronistic aspirin hidden in her bodice, for when this was all over. So far the mission was going according to plan. Well, more or less. Somewhat. She was still alive and nearly at her objective. And if there was a little bit of regime change going on below stairs, well, these things did happen.
She used the Language to open the heavily locked door, closed it behind her to cover her tracks, and wearily plodded up the stairs, admiring the tapestries and embroidered rugs on the landings. Like the rest of the castle, this tower was heavy stone, constructed to last for centuries and keep out both draughts and invaders. It was why she’d devised this whole infiltration. The Graf and his guards were too paranoid for her to have entered the place under any normal circumstances. She’d had to lure him into bringing her inside himself.
But getting out was going to be difficult. It all depended on whether the Graf’s private “library” was as large as he liked to claim.
The rooms at the top were laid out in a spiral around the ascending stairs, each one heavily locked. As she unlocked and checked each, Irene saw that inside they were scrupulously clean. The shelves were rich with the smell of beeswax, and the heavy covers of the books gleamed with inset jewels or gold lettering. Either the Graf did the dusting himself—unlikely, Irene judged—or the maids were escorted up here daily. There was no way any mere servant would have been allowed the keys to the Graf’s pride and glory. Oil lamps burned continually in all the rooms, making them much better lit than the rest of the castle below.
Fortunately the Graf did have some organisation to his collection. Most of it concerned witchcraft, demonology and diabolism, and horrific crimes (presumably in case any had been committed by witches). But he’d put the few works that were actually connected with theology and hagiology in a small side bookcase in the fifth room. Irene knelt down to sort through the books. Since they were all large, heavy volumes, and most had their names on the fronts, not the sides, she had to slide each one out to check it.
The silent footsteps from behind took her by surprise; if it hadn’t been for the shadow that fell across her book, she wouldn’t have been warned at all. She threw herself to one side, letting the book fall and feeling a pang of guilt as it thudded to the ground, bringing her arm up to shield her face as she rolled. A thin line of pain scored her forearm.
Irene came to her feet, grateful for the loose skirts of her dirndl, and took the other person in. It was a woman: she was in a silk shift, wildly inappropriate for anything except bed, her blonde hair falling loose over her shoulders and down her back. In one hand she clasped a needle-pointed misericord dagger. She was holding it point-up in a knife-fighter’s grip, rather than the more amateur point-down position. And, Irene noted with growing dismay, the blade had an unpleasant black stain from hilt to point.
Irene’s arm throbbed. Right. Poison. She had to take care of that, but she had to take care of this woman first. She’d heard that the Graf had a mistress (it had been the first thing the village gossips mentioned), but she hadn’t realised that the Graf kept the woman in his private library.
The woman shifted her weight from foot to foot, watching Irene carefully, then slid in for another attack, her blade moving to slice rather than stab. She was keeping a defensive position, going for flesh wounds rather than serious injury.
Irene blocked the woman’s thrust with a self-defence move. Something from an unarmed combat class, years ago and in a different world. Irene caught her wrist and twisted hand and wrist round behind the other woman as she kicked the woman’s knee out from under her, forcing her to the floor. “Drop it,” she ordered.
“Witch!” the woman spat. “Do your worst!”
Irene tried not to consider this a challenge. Instead she simply wound her free hand into the other woman’s flowing hair and banged her head against the floorboards a few times, till she stopped moving.
Her arm was really aching now. She needed to get that poison out of her system fast.
Prudently she kicked the dagger well out of the other woman’s reach, then peeled back her own sleeve. It was a shallow cut, but deep enough for something to get into her bloodstream.
Irene settled back on her knees. “Poison or any other substance on the dagger, leave my body through the route that you entered!” she commanded.
A sudden spurt of blood came from the wound, spattering across her skirts and over the floor. Irene gritted her teeth as she swayed with light-headedness, waiting till the flow had stopped before turning her wimple into a tourniquet and bandage. She couldn’t actually see any poison in the blood, but then one wouldn’t, would one?
The little voice of common sense at the back of her mind pointed out that she was getting distracted. And she needed to tie up the Graf’s mistress, find that book, and get out of there.
Irene shook her head and pulled herself together. Priorities. Right.
The book turned out to be on the next shelf down—rather than, as Irene had been starting to fear, the last book on the entire bookcase. (Sometimes the universe had an unpleasant sense of humour.) Her Old Saxon was shaky to non-existent, but the title was clear, and she’d checked beforehand what some key phrases in the text should be. It was the full version of the Heliand, rather than the partial ones the Library had already taken from this world—the life of Jesus in verse form, in Old Saxon, composed sometime during the ninth century. And this one, unlike versions of the Heliand from other worlds, was supposed to have some interesting divergences from the New Testament that made it unique.
Mission accomplished. Now Irene just had to get out of this castle—and out of this world.
The Graf’s mistress lay bound and unconscious on the floor. Irene stepped over her and walked to the open door, the book a heavy weight under her arm. She closed it, the iron handle cold against her hand.
Now, would this work or not? Reaching the Library from one of the thousands of alternate worlds required a sufficiently large collection of books. The Graf’s library was reasonably large—well, for this time and place—and was certainly dedicated to the function of being a library, rather than simply a showplace or a warehouse. It would make her life a great deal easier if this did work . . .
“Open to the Library,” Irene ordered in the Language, and pulled the door open.
The room on the other side was as far from the stone tower stairway as possible. A meshwork of metal shelves covered the walls and spun out across the ceiling, firm under the weight of piles of printouts and books bound in gleaming white cardboard and slick plastic. In the centre of the room, a set of computer screens hummed in an electronic Stonehenge of server towers, dark mirrors that reflected the rest of the room.
From the floor, the Graf’s mistress gasped in shock.
Irene stepped through the open doorway, but before closing it, she turned to address the other woman. It seemed unfair to leave her with all the blame. “I suggest you tell him that you stabbed me and I vanished with a scream,” she offered. “You’ve got my blood on the floor and on the dagger, after all. And it’s a good ending for a story about witches . . .”
And then she shut the door and broke the link to that world.
Several hours later, Irene had deposited the book in the Library’s central collections system, where it would be delivered to the proper place for reading and archival. And now that world had stronger links to the Library, it should be protected against the forces of chaos. She’d treated the cut on her arm with more up-to-date medicine and bandages, taken several aspirin, and changed her clothing. For her next location, her current home, was very different—a vaguely Victorian England with a tendency towards steam power, zeppelins, libertines, and Great Detectives.
And now she was sitting in this Great Detective’s lodgings. Peregrine Vale was the nemesis of criminals across Great Britain and—rather to Irene’s own surprise—her friend. For whom she was about to do a minor favour.
A society blackmailer had stumbled across a compromising document in Ottoman Turkish, regarding British troop dispositions. And while Vale had been quite capable of getting his hands on said blackmailer’s entire stock of private documents, he couldn’t read Ottoman Turkish or identify the specific letter. Which was why Irene had dropped by. Well, one of the reasons.
The other reason sat across the table from Vale, sorting through the large pile of documents that had been dumped at the centre of the table, the ether-lights turning him into an illustration by a master ink painter. His dark hair fell carelessly round his face; his skin was as pale as marble, his eyes a blue so dark that it mirrored the lightless depths of the ocean, and his bones could have been the work of a master sculptor.
Kai was Irene’s previous apprentice. He was also a dragon prince. He’d had to abandon any career he might have had as a Librarian (though frankly, Irene doubted he’d have made it his final choice) due to political complications, and they had publicly parted ways. But public declarations of sadly, you are no longer my mentor didn’t cover private meetings in the houses of mutual friends. Irene didn’t know how long they could carry on like this. So she was already preparing herself for the moment when the theoretical separation became a reality. But for the moment, she was going to enjoy Kai’s company as long as she could.
Except, of course, when the Library sent her on urgent missions. To be honest, she found the timing of the recent Heliand recovery a little suspect. Possibly even a subtle hint that she should be spending her time purely on Library business? But the good thing about subtle hints was that one could ignore them as long as the actual work got done. She’d done her work. Now her time was her own.
Irene did technically have a higher purpose. The infinite array of alternate worlds was unstable, veering between chaos on one end and order on the other. Entities from the far ends of this reality—Fae representing chaos and dragons standing for order—threatened to destabilise the worlds for their own purposes. They were capable of dragging them to the brink of war or even destroying them. But the Library maintained the balance between worlds by acquiring and keeping (the keeping bit was very important) unique works of fiction from the different alternate worlds. Usually without asking first. This had a massively stabilizing effect on those worlds. And Irene’s duties as a sworn Librarian were far more important than personal indulgences.
On the other hand, there was little she could do in pursuit of said higher purpose at two o’clock in the morning, on a foggy London night in December. So she might as well look over Vale’s documents, have a glass of brandy, and spend what was left of the night chatting with friends. And then possibly something else, with Kai.
And when it came to personal indulgences . . . Kai had made it quite clear that he would be pleased to share her bed. But it wouldn’t have been appropriate to their mentor-apprentice relationship. Yet now she was no longer responsible for his welfare, well . . .
The ether-lights on the walls had been turned up to full brightness, throwing the black and white of Kai’s evening dress into sharp relief and lingering on the battered collar and cuffs of Vale’s favourite dressing-gown. Kai held up one of the letters to inspect its watermark. He sniffed it, and his nose wrinkled. “This one doesn’t give any names at the beginning or end,” he reported, “but it’s all about romance, the target has scarlet hair, and the writer has an unfortunate taste for sandalwood.”
“Probably one of the Chisholm sisters,” Vale said, not looking up from the sheaf of invoices he was flicking through. “Put it on the pile to my right. If you’ve recovered from your journey, Winters, pull up a chair and lend us your assistance. Strongrock and I have made a start, but I would like to get these sorted and cleared before dawn to avoid any possible awkwardness.”
“It’s always a sensible idea to get things neat and tidy,” Irene agreed. And to get rid of any compromising evidence before police can show up and search the place. She pulled the spare armchair up to the table and chose a few papers. “Was it an interesting night?” she asked Kai.
He shrugged. “Sometimes life can be cruel. I had to stand on the roof while other people”—he caught Vale’s glance—“ah, acquired papers. If we have to do this again, I’d like to take a more equal share of the job.”
“Such an event is highly unlikely,” Vale said firmly. “I do not descend to criminal actions—unless the cause is good and the action is absolutely necessary.”
Kai and Irene exchanged a sidewards glance but had more sense than to disagree.
Irene found herself relaxing as she looked through the documents. With her own duty put aside for the moment, she was among friends, and that was still a new enough experience that she wasn’t completely used to it.
Over the last year or two, she had gradually become accustomed to the feeling that there were people in her life whom she could rely on. Whom she could trust. Even if one of them was the greatest detective in an alternate Victorian London, and the other was a somewhat-out-of-favour dragon prince in human form. Even if she was supposed to have parted ways with the dragon prince, rather than publicly associating with him. But this was her life now, a permanent assignment as Librarian-in-Residence to this world. It wasn’t what she’d planned.
But plans rarely worked out.
“Irene?” Kai asked, turning to look more closely at her. “Is something the matter?”
She hesitated, trying to think of what to say. With a mental sigh she dismissed sentiment and got back to practicalities. “Metaphysics,” she said with a shrug, “and how we got to where we are now. Nothing important.”
Carriage wheels creaked and came to a stop in the street outside, and Vale frowned. He rose and walked across to the first-floor window, drawing the edge of a curtain back to peer out. “A private carriage,” he reported. “Not the police, not even Singh. And not Lady Rotherhyde . . .”
He paused, looking genuinely surprised. “Winters, I do believe it is your associate Bradamant. Why would she be looking for you at this hour?”
Downstairs the doorbell rang.
“I don’t know,” Irene said, jumping up from the table, “but I’d better go and find out. I apologise—”
Vale shook his head. “Not important. But do go and see to her, before she rouses the housekeeper.”
Kai half rose from his seat, but Irene gestured for him to stay put. “We’re not supposed to be associating, remember?” she reminded him.
Kai snorted. “As if Bradamant’s going to believe that.” But he sat down again.
Irene reflected on the virtues of plausible deniability as she ran down the stairs. Hopefully Bradamant wasn’t here in any sort of official capacity.
The doorbell sounded again as Irene reached the entrance hall at the bottom of the stairs. She hurried to throw back the bolts and open the door.
Bradamant had one hand raised to push the bell again, but she lowered it as she saw Irene. “Thank god you’re here,” she said. “I tried your lodgings first, but you weren’t there and you hadn’t left a note.”
“I wasn’t expecting visitors,” Irene said, beckoning Bradamant inside and closing the door behind her. The other woman was muffled in a thick grey velvet mantle trimmed with ermine at the cuffs and collar—slightly out of period for the world and country in which they were both standing, but very warm, and certainly very stylish. Her black hair gleamed with tiny dewdrops from the fog. “Is there an emergency?”
“There is,” Bradamant said. “But you’re not the only person I’m after.”
Irene’s mind immediately went to Kai, and her heart sank. Was this some sort of formal separation demand? Had someone in authority decided to enforce a ban between them? “Oh?” she said, trying to control her pulse. “Who else?”
“Vale.” Bradamant nodded towards the stairs. “I’m glad to see that he’s in. There’s been a murder, Irene. We need a detective, and a good one. Or things are going to be even worse than you can possibly imagine.”
“Who’s dead?” Irene demanded. “Is it someone I know?” She was tempted to add something about how she could in fact imagine pretty bad situations. But then she took another look at Bradamant’s face and decided—just this once—not to be sarcastic. Bradamant, normally one of the most cool and controlled Librarians Irene knew, was worried. Being witty could wait.
Unless Bradamant gave her a genuine excuse to indulge.
“No, you don’t know him,” Bradamant said quickly. “At least, I don’t think you’ve ever met him. It’s not a Librarian. It’s—look, can I just come upstairs and tell you and Vale both at once?”
“Bring your colleague up here, Winters!” Vale called from his room. He’d obviously been listening.
Irene gestured Bradamant towards the stairs. “You know the way, I think.” She locked the door, then followed Bradamant up the stairs and arrived in Vale’s room in time to see Vale and Kai hastily rearranging the chairs. A spare sheet had been thrown over the table, papers and all, in a vague attempt at plausible deniability.
Bradamant gave Kai a cool glance. “And I suppose you just happened to be in the vicinity,” she said.
Kai returned an equally frosty look, and Irene remembered that his protective instincts towards her involved a certain amount of antipathy towards Bradamant—even if she and Irene had technically agreed to be on polite terms now. “I’m visiting my friend Peregrine Vale,” he said. “Is there some sort of problem with that?”
Vale regarded the two of them with an expression that was partly a plea for heaven to give him patience, but mostly a weary impatience for them to cut the chit-chat and get on to the gory details. “Madam Bradamant. Kindly take a seat. I perceive that you have recently come from another world where it happens to have been snowing.” He flung himself into his favourite armchair. “Strongrock, Winters, sit or not as you wish, but I believe the lady’s business is urgent.”
“I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask to speak to you in private?” Bradamant said. “And how did you know about the snow?”
“Very little good,” Vale replied. “And it would make me very curious about why you are trying to keep secrets from my colleagues. As to the snow, while your clothing has had time to dry, the marks on the hem of your dress indicate you have been walking through dirty snow, which left traces on the fabric as it dried.”
Irene treasured a little spark of delight at the word colleagues, taking a seat in one of the spare armchairs. Kai dropped into another, leaning forward with interest.
Bradamant turned her hands over in her lap. “Before we start,” she said, “what I have to tell you mustn’t go beyond the walls of this room. And I don’t mean the local newspapers. I’m talking about Fae, dragons, or even other Librarians—if they aren’t already involved.”
“Involved in what?” Irene asked. She’d always tried to stay out of Library politics, but a creeping feeling of doom was suggesting she should have paid more attention. What exactly had she managed to miss?
Bradamant looked between the three of them—Vale, Irene, then Kai—then took a deep breath. “A peace conference has just started,” she said, the words spilling out too fast, as if she was trying to complete her statement before someone stopped her. Or as if she was afraid of what she was saying. “Between the dragons and the Fae. The Library’s playing mediator. And there might be a genuine chance of it working.”
“And I suppose,” Vale said drily, “I’m to attend as a representative of humanity. Those mere common mortals who people the worlds.”
“You must be joking,” Bradamant said, dropping all semblance of tact. “They barely listen to us. What makes you think they’re going to listen to ordinary humans? No, we need you there because the second negotiator on the dragon side has been murdered, and it looks as if the whole thing is going to fall apart. Vale, if you’ve ever felt you owed anything to the Library, if you have any regard for the safety of other worlds besides your own, then I’m begging you to come and help us. The Library can offer you whatever you want. But we need to know who did it, before someone starts a war.”
There was dead silence in the room.
Finally Irene said, “When the hell did this happen?” She saw Vale twitch at the vulgarity. “Please excuse my language,” she added hastily. “But seriously, how? It’s only been a few months since the Alberich drama.” That was the short way of putting it. It sounded better than since Alberich tried to destroy the Library, nearly killing all of us. And I can only hope that he’s dead and stays that way. “How on earth is all this supposed to have happened since then too, and how can you keep something like this hushed up?” The dragons and the Fae came from opposite ends of the universe and were creatures of order and chaos, respectively. The dragons embodied pure natural forces, and the Fae represented fictional narrative tropes—so they were polar opposites. And they didn’t just dislike each other—they loathed each other. Humans were caught in the middle—possessions to be protected, or playing pieces to be used in their games. While individuals from either side might be reasonable and occasionally willing to negotiate, the idea that the two sides might be willing to make peace was something that Irene had never even considered in her most spectacular daydreams.
“What I want to know is how it could have happened at all!” Kai was as stiff as a carved statue in his chair. The colour had drained from his skin, leaving him paler than marble, and his fingers dug into the arms of the chair—as though he would break it apart in order to assert reality as he knew it. “And it is impossible that any of my kindred would consider peace with such beings as the Fae!”
“These are both valid points,” Vale said. He settled back in his chair, calm with the ease of a man who didn’t have an immediate personal stake in the matter. Or perhaps he was simply allowing Irene and Kai to act as lightning rods and ask the questions he wouldn’t know to ask. While his voice was all smooth reason and logic, his eyes were hard and suspicious. “Maybe you should begin from the beginning. Assuming that we aren’t required on the spot immediately?”
“We’ve got long enough for me to explain this to you,” Bradamant said. She folded her hands over each other, stilling their trembling, composing herself. “The scene of the murder’s being kept as untouched as possible. It did get disturbed when the victim was found but hasn’t been tampered with since then.”
Kai swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment as though he didn’t want to ask, but it came out unwillingly. “Who is the victim?”
It might be someone he knows, Irene realised. It might be a friend, or family . . . She reached across to touch his wrist for a moment, in a vain gesture of reassurance.
“Lord Ren Shun,” Bradamant said. “He was a liegeman of—”
Kai’s sharp hiss of indrawn breath cut her off. “He’s the sworn man of my lord uncle Ao Ji! What was he doing at an event such as this?”
“Well, that’s part of the problem,” Bradamant said. “Your uncle is there too. He’s . . .” She looked as if she was remembering something extremely unsettling, and her hands clenched in her lap. “Deeply unhappy.”
“My lord uncle has a temper,” Kai agreed, his tone as carefully neutral as Bradamant’s was carefully controlled. “But how could such an attack have happened?”
“Perhaps if you were to permit Madam Bradamant to tell her story without interrupting, we’d find out,” Vale suggested. He was watching Bradamant from under half-closed eyelids, as if he suspected the whole story was an elaborate hoax.
Irene might have agreed with Vale—after all, Bradamant had lied to both of them before—but this time she felt the other Librarian was telling the truth. Those hints of distress were a little too real to be faked. And she could guess why Bradamant was off balance. If she’d been anywhere near a dragon king who had lost his temper . . .
She made her way over to where Vale kept the brandy, splashing some into four glasses, then returned to hand them round. Bradamant took her glass with a nod of thanks, but both Vale and Kai ignored theirs for the moment.
Bradamant sipped the brandy and pulled her usual air of calm composure around her like the mantle she still wore. “From the beginning, then,” she said. “It all goes back to when Kai here was kidnapped by the Fae.”
“In order to start a war between the dragons and Fae, I thought,” Vale said.
“Yes,” Bradamant agreed, “but when the abduction went wrong, you could say that it galvanised those on both sides who hadn’t originally wanted one. A war, that is. When they saw just how close they’d come to being embroiled in a conflict, one that they really weren’t interested in, just because one dragon princeling had been seized by a pair of manipulators, a number of them reconsidered the status quo. It began to seem like a good idea to get a non-aggression pact up and running. Or so I’ve been told, you understand. I wasn’t actually involved in the early parts of this myself. I only found out about it two days ago.”
Kai was still frowning. “And I didn’t hear anything about this when I was visiting my family—and that was less than a month ago.”
“It must have been kept very secret, even within both sides,” Irene said. She considered. “Were the prime movers planning to spring a peace treaty on their allies as a fait accompli once it had been agreed, and hope that they’d go along with it?”
Bradamant nodded. “Or at least the instigators hoped the allies in question wouldn’t object too strongly. And once one little peace agreement had been reached, more might have come in time. It was a very tentative bridge. But it was a bridge.”
Vale nodded. “And when precisely did both sides approach each other? And when—and why—did they approach the Library?”
“I don’t know exactly when contact was made,” Bradamant said, “but Fae and dragon representatives contacted the Library shortly after Alberich was destroyed—wanting us to act as mediators.”
“You mean, once they’d seen that we were safely back on our feet and he wasn’t going to wipe us out in a ball of flaming debris?” Irene said wryly.
Bradamant shrugged. “Consider their attitude to be a compliment to us—or rather you—for getting rid of him. Ultimately he was a danger to them as well as to us. Library power in the hands of someone who didn’t even pretend to neutrality? Not something that either the Fae or the dragons would sanction.” She must have seen the expression on Irene’s face. “No, I don’t trust either side myself, but what do you actually want us to do about it? Stand on our pride? Or accept the realpolitik and do whatever we can, with the goal being to establish a non-aggression pact which both sides would sign up to?”
“You’re veering between peace treaty and non-aggression pact,” Vale commented. “Which would you say is more accurate?”
Bradamant paused, then shrugged. “It’s still being hammered out. I’d prefer the first one, but I’ll take whatever we can get. Lord Ren Shun was doing a lot of the negotiating. To be honest, he and the Fae second in command were getting on a lot better than the two principals.”
Vale nodded. “A situation not unknown among human beings. Very well. And your Library was brought in as a neutral party?”
“Exactly.” Bradamant sipped her brandy again. “I don’t know the full details—I haven’t been told the full details—but the original idea seems to have been that we organise the location and act as arbitrators. Both sides knew that if we swear to something in the Language, we have to keep our word. That way they could be sure that we’d stay neutral. And I think there are going to be clauses in the final agreement, involving us not ‘acquiring’ books from treaty signatories . . . which could be inconvenient. Anyhow, we ended up booking hotels in Paris, in a different world to this one.”
“Hotels?” Vale queried.
“Three hotels,” Bradamant said with a sigh. “One each for the two sides and a third one for negotiations to take place. Both sides refused to share a hotel. And this was as neutral a world as we could find.”
“‘We’ booked hotels . . . ?” Kai said. “I thought you said that you’d only just come in on it.”
Bradamant flushed but kept her tone level. “The senior Librarians organised them. I was using the collective ‘we.’ If I may continue?”
Vale waved a lazy hand for her to go on.
“So skipping over the background, which I can give you on the way there, the crime boils down to this. The second dragon negotiator, Ren Shun, went out yesterday evening—not telling anyone exactly where he was going. He was found the next morning, stabbed in the back in a conference room belonging to the negotiations hotel. The Fae were accused, of course.”
There was a shocked—or possibly thoughtful—moment of silence. Kai opened his mouth. Then he shut it again. Finally he said, “While the personal agenda seems obvious, I wouldn’t have expected any Fae to be so stupid. Unless they actually wanted to cause a breakdown in negotiations.”
Irene was conscious of how large a concession that was from Kai, who had absolutely no reason to like the Fae personally, and whose lifelong antipathy towards them gave him every excuse to think the worst. “I’m guessing any Librarians on the spot stressed that point heavily.”
Bradamant nodded. “Kostchei—he’s one of our lead arbitrators—said that they managed to talk His Majesty out of anything immediate. His Majesty being Ao Ji, head of the dragon contingent. Kostchei promised on behalf of the Library that we’d investigate, as the neutral party, and find the murderer.”
“And who put Vale’s name forward?” Irene asked. She was torn between pride that they’d come to him and concern for Vale himself. There was no way that this could be described as safe—for Vale, or for his world, if things went wrong . . .
“That I don’t know,” Bradamant said, so smoothly that Irene was sure she was lying. “But I was told to fetch him as soon as possible.”
Vale frowned. “You say the murder was discovered this morning? Or rather, yesterday, since we’re past midnight already?”
Irene could see his point. It did seem a curiously long delay.
Bradamant put down her empty glass and spread her hands. “I know we should have reacted faster. But first the senior Librarians present had to decide on a course of action. And then they had to negotiate who’d be doing the investigation—besides Vale—with the parties involved.”
Vale’s eyebrows rose. “Besides me . . . ?” he said flatly.
“It wasn’t easy,” Bradamant said quickly. “Everyone wanted their own people looking into it. In the end it was thrashed out into a three-person team who’d be assisting you, one person from each group.” She sighed. “I know it sounds as if they spent hours talking rather than actually doing anything practical. But it took that long to come to an agreement.”
Vale shrugged. “I am not unfamiliar with politically awkward situations. I can work with this, as long as it is understood by all parties that the observers aren’t to get in my way.”
“Well, at least one of them should suit you.” Bradamant nodded towards Irene. “The Librarian member of the team is Irene here.”
“Me?” Irene said, then felt foolish. Apparently some responses were hardwired into the human brain, right up there with this isn’t what it looks like when caught with an open safe and a stolen book. Her second reaction was pure relief that she’d have some influence here—be able to help Vale, to protect Vale, and to actually do something to help sort out this disaster. The more cynical third reaction was to wonder why her. “Surely they’d have wanted someone more senior on the job. And I don’t just mean the Librarians who’ve been masterminding this, I mean all factions. I may be competent, but I’m still junior.”
“No doubt the Librarians believe you’ll be able to sway my judgement, should it prove expedient in some way,” Vale remarked, proving that he was just as cynical as Irene. “Or they think having you around will convince me to accept the case.”
“But you are accepting it, aren’t you?” Bradamant demanded. She clearly didn’t like the idea that Vale might even consider saying no.
“I am taking it under consideration.” Vale steepled his fingers and regarded his nails thoughtfully. “Were all three factions required to approve all the team members?”
A nasty thought trickled into Irene’s mind, spreading like a cloud of ink in water. “Kai isn’t the dragon representative, is he?”
Kai straightened in his chair. “But I’m the logical candidate!” he protested.
“How did you deduce that?” Bradamant asked wryly.
“You’d have said if he was.” Irene put down her still-full glass of brandy. “Besides—forgive me, Kai—the only logical reason for your uncle to choose you as dragon representative would be if he thought you could influence Vale.” Kai was a very young dragon, after all, and even if he was the son of one of the dragon kings, he was the youngest son, and Irene had heard a number of other dragons describe him as “low-born” on his mother’s side. She hadn’t asked for an explanation, but it didn’t seem a recommendation under the current circumstances.
That didn’t mean that she was happy to be going into this without Kai. Far from it. But perhaps there were ways around it . . .
Bradamant apparently took Irene’s comment as agreement with the situation. “I’m sorry, Kai,” she said. “But I hadn’t even expected to find you here. According to Irene’s report, you’d stopped working with her. I don’t even know what you are doing here.” Her glance towards Irene promised later pointed questions.
“Strongrock is visiting me,” Vale put in before Kai could declare his absolute freedom to be anywhere he felt like. “Can you tell me who the dragon or Fae representatives are, Madam Bradamant?”
“No. But they should be meeting us in Paris, at our hotel. I’m assuming they’ll be competent.”
But competent at what? Irene wondered. Competent investigators? Or competent politicians who’ll just want to cover this up and make sure the treaty gets signed? Unless their goal is for it not to be signed. And if I’m being honest with myself, what’s actually more important—the crime or the treaty?
First things first. Get the facts, then decide what to do next. And hope that there is a next.
“And what are the other possible motives for the victim’s murder?” Vale asked.
“What do you mean?” Bradamant said.
Vale gestured impatiently. “Do not attempt innocence, madam. It doesn’t suit you. We’ve all agreed it would be extremely stupid for any member of the Fae peace-seeking faction to commit a murder like this. But what about those who don’t want peace? And what has been suggested as a motive?”
“I didn’t want to prejudice you,” Bradamant said stubbornly. “And I’ve probably already said more than I should in front of Kai.”
Kai’s jaw set in lines very similar to Bradamant’s—though neither of them, Irene thought, would have welcomed her pointing it out. “I’m of the opinion you haven’t said enough,” Kai replied.
Irene rose to her feet. “Kai,” she said. “Bradamant has a point. This is Vale’s case to investigate. Perhaps we’d both better leave the room for a moment, in case she has something that she wants to tell him. She is his client, after all. And you and I can discuss where you’re going after this.”
For a long moment Kai stared at Irene. Then he stood. “As you wish,” he said. “My coat’s downstairs. I’ll see you all later. Vale, I hope that you can resolve this situation.”
“It has its interesting points,” Vale said. His glance to Irene suggested that he knew exactly what she had in mind and that he wasn’t going to stop her. Instead he leaned forward towards Bradamant, beckoning her to continue. “Motives—” he began.
Irene led Kai down the stairs to just inside the front door—and safely out of Bradamant’s earshot, as long as they kept their voices down—before turning to him. “I want you there,” she said softly. “Vale needs you there. And I think your uncle could use your help in Paris. But do you think you can actually support a peace treaty like this?”
In the near darkness, Kai’s face was troubled. “There was a time when I would have said no,” he answered quietly. “The Fae are creatures of chaos, and they aren’t healthy for humanity—or anyone else. But I am prepared to consider a non-aggression pact, if they are willing to abide by it. And if my lord uncle Ao Ji is in favour of it—he of all people!—then I can follow his lead.”
“He isn’t usually in favour of such things?” Irene guessed.
“Of all my uncles, he would be the most strongly set against it. He’s never made a secret of his opinions. He loathes the Fae. He considers them a pollution that endangers all human beings—and we consider it a duty to protect those humans who dwell in our realms. He would like to see the Fae scoured from the surface of every world they’ve touched.” Kai shrugged. “But perhaps he’s decided that confinement is an acceptable strategy. And if he’s willing to negotiate it, then I can do no less. So what have you got in mind?”
Irene felt her lips quirking into a smile. He knew her quite well by now. “Since you clearly know him reasonably well, could you realistically feel a sudden need to visit your uncle?”
“Unlikely but not unrealistic,” Kai judged. “Of course, the moment I turn up, people are going to suspect collusion.”
“Plausible deniability,” Irene said firmly. “Try to look innocent. Try really, really hard. Besides, if your uncle thinks that you might be able to exert influence on Vale, he’s likely to want you to stay.”
“You think that he’ll want to affect the outcome of the investigation?”
“Your uncle is a ruling monarch. He isn’t going to throw away a possible tool, even if he doesn’t end up using it. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Kai nodded. “And I can make sure you get reliable information, once I’m there. Or deal with any of my kind who might be trying to sow dissension. That was why you marched me out of there right now, wasn’t it? So that I can get there as soon as possible and already be there when you turn up?”
“Pretty much,” Irene admitted. “That whole plausible deniability thing. And I suspect Bradamant may not want to admit how much she’s already told you. We’ll see.” She knew that Kai—like all dragons—could travel between worlds to a person he knew well, wherever that person was. He’d probably reach that world long before she and Vale did, since they’d have to travel through the Library to get there. “Play it by ear,” she instructed. “And try to keep your options open. Is anyone expecting you to be anywhere else?”
“My father’s servant Tian Shu had written to say he’d call on me,” Kai admitted. “I think he wants more details about the recent business in America. But I think I can get away with avoiding that for a while . . .”
“If you’re sure it won’t be an issue,” Irene said. “I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
“It’s my decision to make. And I thought the two of us weren’t supposed to be teacher and student any more. Or superior and inferior.”
Irene flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Some habits die hard.”
“I’d be a fool not to listen to you.” He caught her by the shoulders and pulled her close, brushing a kiss against her forehead. “Be careful, Irene. My lord uncle Ao Ji has little tolerance for impertinence.”
For a moment Irene let herself enjoy the feeling of his body against hers, and bitterly regretted abandoning certain plans that she’d had for the rest of the night. But there was, after all, a crisis.
When wasn’t there a crisis?
“Be careful yourself.” She pulled herself away, giving his hands a squeeze. “There’s already been one death. I don’t want you in danger.” She considered exactly what they were all walking into. “Well, not any more danger.”
“The story of our lives,” Kai said with a sigh. He caught up his coat from the rack by the door and strode out into the foggy night.
Irene trotted back up the stairs, hoping that she hadn’t missed too much. She knew that Bradamant would realise she’d been talking to Kai. She hoped—for the sake of peace and non-aggression between Librarians for at least the next few hours—that Bradamant wouldn’t figure out what she’d been suggesting. She was sure Vale had guessed (that is, deduced) what she had in mind, but he’d be glad to have Kai as potential backup.
As she walked back into the room, Bradamant was saying, “And there’s the Library’s motive.”
Irene stopped dead in the doorway. “The Library’s motive?” she demanded. “What sort of motive would the Library have?”
“I’m no happier about it than you are,” Bradamant said bitterly. “But His Majesty Ao Ji says that the night before the murder, Lord Ren Shun said something about a mysterious book. And given that he’s now dead . . . Well, who else would kill someone over a book?”
Excerpted from "The Mortal Word"
Copyright © 2018 Genevieve Cogman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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