The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman

To: Kostchei, Senior Librarian From: Catherine, Senior Librarian Cc: Gervase, Coppelia, Melusine, Ntikuma Kostchei, We have a problem. Yes, I know we always have problems, but this one may derail the peace conference before both sides have even formally agreed to meet. I’ve just had word (it was a ‘polite notification’, but you could read between the lines) that Minister Zhao’s dead. He was one of the dragon candidates for the upcoming Paris summit. I find it impossible to believe that the timing is an accident. And no, there wasn’t any information about how this happened. ‘Tragic loss to us,’ et cetera. But this is a significant problem for them. The Queen of the Southern Lands is going to have to send another dragon representative. And she’s having to scramble to fill Minister Zhao’s post in her own court. He was extremely senior. It’ll be at least a few weeks before the final candidate’s settled. But let’s be honest – for high-ranking dragons, that’s unseemly haste. The Fae aren’t trying anything yet, but they’ll be on the situation like sharks on steak if they smell blood in the water. Any weakness amongst the dragons is an opportunity for them.

Our best course of action is probably to stay well out of the whole business. We must concentrate on our side of the deal, and we absolutely have to maintain our neutrality. If either side decides we’re biased or that we’re playing both of them against the middle, then the whole plan goes out of the window. And I don’t need to tell you what might happen to the Librarians in the field. Besides, we’re understaffed. We need a recruitment programme (as I’ve said before, repeatedly) and we need it now. Alberich’s actions during the recent crisis only made things worse; the problem was already in existence. Hopefully this current mess won’t involve any of our people, as it’s making the political situation potentially explosive. As always, it’s our duty to stop the Fae and dragons from turning a mere disagreement into a world-destroying war. Let’s try and maintain the balance where we can.

Catherine, Librarian PS – Will someone please show me how to turn off the automatic signatures on this piece of software? You all know who I am. PPS – Kostchei, you still have that copy of T.H. White’s The Book of Mordred signed out to you. Would you kindly finish reading it and pass it back into general circulation? Some of the rest of us would like a look at it too. CHAPTER ONE ‘My dear girl,’ the woman sitting next to Irene sniffed, ‘if you haven’t opened your veins before, then do let Mr Harper do it for you. He’s had a lot of experience with nervous young things like you.’ Irene looked down at the scalpel lying in the saucer next to her cup of tea. She was trying to think of a way out of the situation – one that wouldn’t involve her fleeing the house and slamming the door behind her. She’d visited multiple alternate worlds in order to obtain books.

She was capable of dealing with different customs and knew all sorts of polite manners. But she didn’t want to serve herself up as the dish of the day. ‘Nobody actually said there were going to be vampires attending,’ she said mildly. ‘I wasn’t expecting this.’ ‘Bah!’ another of the elderly women snorted. Irene was the youngest person in the crowded room, trapped in a nest of chairs and little tables that were encrusted with ornaments. The thick curtains were drawn tightly against the night outside. The tea was cold. The cakes were stale. The atmosphere was thick and heavy, and if it hadn’t been for the fragrance of the log fire, Irene had a suspicion that it would have smelled even worse.

‘I don’t wish to sound harsh, but in my day a young woman knew her duty! If this Miss – Miss . ’ She trailed off, trying to remember Irene’s name. ‘Miss Winters,’ Mr Harper said. His hair was a grizzled white that retreated in a pronounced widow’s peak, and his eyes were black as coal, sunken deep behind half-closed eyelids. He hunched in his chair, tilting forward like a vulture scouting for prey. And whenever he spoke he bared his fangs. The one highlight of the evening so far was that he wasn’t sitting next to Irene. He was apparently one of the minor vampires attached to the household; the more powerful ones hadn’t risen yet that evening. Small mercies. ‘So nice to have some young blood present at our little soirée.

’ Of course, if Irene had known that it was going to be a soirée, let alone have vampires present, she wouldn’t have attended. Which was probably why they hadn’t told her. She’d thought this was going to be just a straight book exchange. The negotiations had all gone through smoothly, and she’d been looking forward to collecting a new book for the Library’s collection – without violence, drama, or running down corridors screaming. Apparently she’d been mistaken. ‘I had absolutely no idea I’d be mixing with such important people when I called,’ she fluttered, putting on her best air of innocence. ‘I only wanted to exchange these books, as we agreed—’ ‘The books, yes. As we discussed.’ It was the first time the woman at the far end of the room had spoken. The background whispers fell silent at her voice.

She touched the red leather binding of the book in her lap: her pale fingers were thin and wrinkled, given an artificial colour by the firelight. ‘Indeed, I think we should discuss that in private. If you will all excuse us for a moment?’ She didn’t bother pausing for any possible disagreement. ‘Miss Winters. Do take a little stroll with me.’ Irene put down her cup and saucer – and the scalpel – and rose to her feet in a rustle of skirts, picking up her briefcase. She’d dressed politely and soberly in response to her invitation, in a dovegrey jacket and skirt with dark green trimmings. Given the circumstances, she was wishing she’d accessorized it with garlic, silver and running shoes. ‘Delighted,’ she murmured, and followed the other woman out of the room. Along the corridor and up the stairs, old-style gas lamps burned, rather than the newer ether-lamps.

Dark portraits gazed out from gilded ornamental frames. Irene could see the family nose and brows in many of them, mirroring the haughty face of the woman ahead of her. She really wished she hadn’t come here. She’d just wanted to exchange a book, rather than stealing it, for once. Her virtue was not being rewarded. Quite the opposite. Mrs Walker – referred to as Lady Walker by the rest of the household, even if Irene hadn’t come across any trace of a title when she was researching the family – came to a stop in front of a particularly dramatic picture. She turned to look at Irene. Her eye-patch hid her right eye, but the left eye was considering, thoughtful, evaluating. Since Irene preferred to be underestimated and ignored, this wasn’t welcome.

‘So you are the notorious Irene Winters,’ she said. ‘How convenient that you’ve come to me, rather than me having to come to you.’ ‘Really.’ Irene decided to drop the act. It seemed she’d acquired a reputation, so she might as well throw any plans to dissemble out of the window. Which was where she’d like to be right now. ‘Might I ask your sources?’ ‘Family connections.’ Mrs Walker shrugged. The jet ornaments on her dress shivered and danced in the gaslight. ‘Just because I prefer to spend my time up here rather than running off to frivol in the fleshpots of London .

but I digress. I assure you, Miss Winters, I know more about you than you might think.’ ‘Oh?’ Irene said, in the conciliatory tone of voice she’d had the chance to practise in the past. Do tell me more, it implied. You’re so clever. ‘Good.’ Mrs Walker looked positively approving. ‘Just the sort of thing I’d have said, in your place.’ Damn, Irene thought. ‘Perhaps we should skip the preliminaries and get to the point,’ she suggested.

Mrs Walker nodded. ‘Very well. Here it is. I know you’re part of a power play by one of the other families. I want to know what is going on. I want to know who you’re working for. And if you hope to leave this house alive, you will tell me.’ Irene blinked. She’d been ready for various possibilities, ranging from I know you work for a secret interdimensional Library to I have evidence of your criminal acts and plan to blackmail you, but this was unexpected. ‘Dear me,’ she said.

‘This is so sudden.’ ‘Your cover story was quite impressive,’ Mrs Walker granted. ‘Claiming to be a freelance translator and book-collector, and suggesting an exchange. A copy of Marlowe’s lost play The Massacre at Paris in return for our copy of John Webster’s Guise. Both of us would have profited by the deal. And it seemed credible enough to be genuine. But an offer that tempting seems like a fairy story, doesn’t it, Miss Winters? And we all know that fairy stories don’t happen.’ ‘They happen more than you might think,’ Irene said. In a high-chaos alternate world like this one, narrative tropes had an unfortunate way of coming true. Unfortunately the traditional heroine-getstrapped-in-household-full-of-vampires story seldom had a happy ending.

At least, not for the heroine. ‘Honestly, I don’t understand why you think I’m an – er, what do you think I am?’ ‘A spy,’ Mrs Walker said. ‘A spy?’ Irene said in tones of mild horror. What precisely did Mrs Walker know? Irene was an agent of the Library, and it was her job and her duty to retrieve works of fiction from alternate worlds. Bringing them back to her interdimensional Library home created links with these places. And thus did the Library help preserve the balance between unfeeling order and uncaring chaos, across a multitude of worlds. It was a noble calling and a lifetime commitment, and it allowed her to use the Library’s special Language to command reality. It also often involved her stealing books and running away. So technically, yes, ‘spy’ wasn’t entirely inaccurate. But it sounded as if her cover might still be in one piece.

Even if her chance of obtaining Webster’s Guise was looking less feasible by the second. ‘Yes, a spy. Scheming for one of the other families,’ Mrs Walker elaborated. The gaslight flickered, making her look even more like a barely preserved corpse than before. She was thin enough that, in her heavy black dress, she resembled a marionette from the sort of Punch-and-Judy show that ended in a zombie apocalypse. ‘Weren’t you listening? Personally I suspect you’re working for the Vale family in Leeds. You’ve been seen associating with Peregrine Vale in London. He’s supposed to be estranged from them, but that could be just a cover story. Or maybe I should look more closely at the Read family in Rotherham. I’ve been wondering about them for a while.

They’d be delighted to have a spy within my walls.’ Irene had known, in a technical sense, that the north of England had its share of vampires. Vampirism wasn’t actually illegal in this Great Britain, though killing people by draining their blood was still classed as murder. She’d even been aware that this household she was visiting had some vampires in it. But she hadn’t expected quite such a convoluted nest of plotters or network of feuding families. ‘Mrs Walker,’ she finally said, ‘you are completely wrong. I’m not some sort of spy or secret agent, or a minion of your enemies. I’m not involved with your family’s affairs. I just came here to make the exchange.’ She indicated her briefcase.

‘And I have my share of the deal.’ ‘You’re wasting your time,’ Mrs Walker said. ‘We don’t have the Webster here, in any case.’ ‘Then I might as well leave,’ Irene said coldly. She made a mental note to find out where they did keep the Webster, and then remove it. Without offering payment this time. She didn’t appreciate being jerked around on the end of a string, even if the bait was books. Ignoring her statement, Mrs Walker looked Irene up and down assessingly. ‘There are ways to bind you into the family, if you know too much. It might be the best option.

’ Irene gave in. Sometimes it was easier to play along with conspiracy theorists than convince them they’d got it wrong. ‘And if, hypothetically, I was to decline this honour?’ ‘You are in a house full of vampires, several miles out of town, surrounded by countryside, and it isn’t even midnight yet.’ Mrs Walker’s lips curled in a thin smile. ‘The rain outside is getting worse. No tracks will be found. It’ll be days before anyone even realizes you’re missing.’ ‘Yes, they’ll probably assume I’ve locked myself away with a good book and didn’t want to be disturbed,’ Irene agreed. ‘Might I ask what makes me particularly suitable as a member of your family? I’d honestly never seen myself in that sort of position.’ It would probably have been more truthful on her part to say No thank you, not in a million years, excuse me while I kick the door down and leave.

But she was curious. ‘You’re intelligent,’ Mrs Walker said. ‘You’ve proven your abilities – and we can’t allow you to leave now, anyway. You needn’t worry about your job, either.’ ‘Really?’ Irene said. ‘Of course not. Once you swear loyalty to my family, you’ll be far too compromised to keep up your current job. You can leave it to the colleague with whom you share rooms. Incidentally, where is he?’ ‘Out of London,’ Irene lied. Kai had gone to a family party.

And given that he was a dragon – even if he was currently in human form, and working as Irene’s assistant – that party was in an alternate world. It was a relief to know he was out of reach. Mrs Walker might appreciate an extra hostage in order to persuade Irene. ‘I’m honoured to have been, um, invited into the family like this,’ she dissembled. ‘But I have other responsibilities, which I need to discuss with my colleague—’ ‘Of course. After you’ve sworn an oath of loyalty in our basement chapel,’ Mrs Walker broke in. ‘And made the usual formal pledge of blood. I wouldn’t want you changing your mind between here and London.’ Awkward. Irene was quite capable of lying, but the ‘formal pledge of blood’ sounded potentially dangerous.

Besides, she didn’t want to see what sort of chapel a houseful of vampires had in the basement. ‘I’d like a few minutes to think,’ she said. ‘It’s a very big decision for a young woman to make.’ Mrs Walker didn’t look at all convinced, but she did nod. ‘Yes, Miss Winters. But I’d advise you not to wander around the house on your own. The inhabitants receive their food from the local hospital’s blood depository, but there is such a thing as provocation. Your wrists—’ Irene looked at the lacy cuffs of her blouse. ‘Are what I would call indecently exposed.’ Irene decided to give reason one more try.

‘Let me ask you to reconsider before this goes any further. Please don’t put us both in a . difficult situation.’ ‘Begging will get you nowhere,’ Mrs Walker said coldly. ‘I will expect you downstairs in a few minutes. If not, we will be coming to look for you.’ She swept along to the head of the staircase, her watered silk skirts hissing against the thick carpet, then turned to give Irene the sort of measuring look which counted every drop of blood in her veins. ‘And that includes my husband.’ Irene watched Mrs Walker glide down the stairs and considered her dwindling options. The Webster had been her latest assignment from the Library, and this swap had been the quickest and easiest way to get hold of it.

Losing this opportunity was inconvenient, but not disastrous. Her priority now was to get herself safely out of here. She put down her briefcase; it would only be a hindrance to her escape. She’d obtained the copy of the Marlowe play that it contained in an alternate world, where the play was commonplace. So that wasn’t a significant loss. The portrait they’d been standing beneath seemed to frown at her, its imagined gaze a cold spot on her back. She turned to glare back. The dim lighting and the picture’s age made it difficult to judge when it had been painted – or, indeed, what the figure was wearing, or even what the features were. There was an impression of swooping brow, beaky nose, dark mantled clothing and terrifying eyes. Like everything else in this household, it showed the signs of age.

She crossed to the window and dragged back the heavy brocade curtains. Behind the curtains, in front of the glass, were heavy iron bars. Irene finally smiled. Cold iron could stop a human. It could seriously inconvenience a Fae. But it was nothing at all to a servant of the Library. Rain slapped against the window from outside. It was night, it was raining, she was several miles from the nearest town, and she was probably going to be chased cross-country by vampires the moment they realized she’d left the house. And the River Ouse was flooding again – apparently a regular occurrence in these parts – so there wouldn’t be any traffic on the roads. She should just stick to taking books in the future, rather than trying to make a fair exchange.

Quicker, quieter, and less trouble with vampires. She leaned close to the iron bars, keeping her voice low, and addressed them in the Language. ‘Iron bars, bend apart quietly, wide enough for me to pass through, ’ she murmured. The bars quivered in their sockets for a moment, then slowly curved like warmed wax, dried paint flaking off them to rustle to the ground. The windows were locked – but again, that wasn’t an issue for the Language. ‘Windows, unlock and open, as quietly as possible.’ The lock scraped as it released itself, the dry tumblers grating as they fell into the open position, and the hinge rasped as the window swung back. There was no drainpipe, but the thick ivy running down the side of the house would do. Irene bundled her skirts round her waist – quite indecently for this time-period and culture – and climbed out of the first-floor window. The ivy was sodden wet, making it treacherous.

She paused, hanging outside, to murmur, ‘Iron bars, resume your former shape: window, close and lock, ’ before starting to climb down. The longer she had to make her getaway before they realized she was gone, the better. Half a minute of heart-in-mouth scrambling later, she stepped on something wet and squishy, lost her balance and sat down in the mud. Rain poured down on her. It was very dark. The problem, Irene decided as she struggled through abandoned lavender bushes – she could tell by the scent – was that she’d become far too used to having backup. As a Librarian, she shouldn’t expect that. But oh, right this minute it would have been so useful. Lightning flashed overhead, and thunder rumbled two seconds behind it. Irene listened for pursuit.

Hopefully the weather would obscure her trail. Something called in the darkness behind her. It was a hollow sort of call, somehow lungless, avid, thirsty. Another cry like it answered the first one, further off. The hunt was up, and she was the quarry. Rain soaked through her pinned-up hair and dribbled over her face, ran down her jacket and skirt and did its best to get into her boots. North to a probably empty road, or south to a swollen river and more fields? Right now, the river was the fastest means of transport around. Her research on the house had mentioned a boathouse . A convenient flash of lightning showed her a shed-like building, positioned on what would have been the river bank. It was now a foot under water.

It also showed her a dark shape crouched between it and her. ‘You’re not leaving,’ Mr Harper snarled, drawing himself up to his full height. ‘Get out of my way,’ Irene shouted, angry now, raising her voice to be heard over the wind. ‘I’m declining Mrs Walker’s request.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ The water trickled down the vampire’s long bony fingers and dripped from his nails, and his eyes glowed like coals as he gazed at her. ‘I don’t think so, Miss—’ ‘Earth, open and seize his feet and ankles, and hold him fast, ’ Irene ordered. ‘Boathouse door, unlock and open!’

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