Overview: Irene must be at the top of her game or she'll be off the case - permanently...

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own. Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake.

 

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman Book Chapter One

 

Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light. Her back was complaining, but that was only normal after an evening’s work cleaning. The cleaning was certainly necessary. The pupils at Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys managed to get just as much mud and muck on the floor as any other teenagers would. Clean indoor studies in the dark arts, military history and alchemy didn’t preclude messy outdoor classes in strategic combat, duelling, open-field assassination and rugby.
The clock in the study struck the quarter-hour. That gave her forty-five minutes before the midnight orisons and chants. She knew from weeks of experience – and, to be honest, her own memories of boarding school – that the boys wouldn’t be getting up a moment earlier than necessary. This meant most would be dragging themselves out of bed at eleven forty-five, before heading to the chapel with hastily thrown-on clothes and barely brushed hair. So that gave her thirty minutes before any of them started moving.
Thirty minutes to steal a book and to escape.
She propped the mop in her bucket, straightened, and took a moment to rub her knuckles into the small of her back. Sometimes undercover work as a Librarian involved posing as a rich socialite, and the Librarian in question got to stay at expensive hotels and country houses. All while wearing appropriately high fashion and dining off haute cuisine, probably on gold-edged plates. At other times, it involved spending months building an identity as a hardworking menial, sleeping in attics, wearing a plain grey woollen dress, and eating the same food as the boys. She could only hope that her next assignment wouldn’t involve endless porridge for breakfast.
Two doors down along the corridor was Irene’s destination: the House Trophy Room. It was full of silver cups, all embossed with variations on Turquine House, as well as trophy pieces of art and presentation manuscripts.
One of those manuscripts was her goal.
Irene had been sent by the Library to this alternate world to obtain Midnight Requiems, the famous necromancer Balan Pestifer’s first published book. It was by all accounts a fascinating, deeply informative, and highly unread piece of writing. She’d spent a month looking for a copy of it – as the Library didn’t actually require an original version of the text, just an accurate one. Unfortunately, not only had she been unable to track down a copy, but her enquiries had caught the interest of other people (necromancers, bibliophiles and ghouls). She’d had to burn that cover identity and go on the run before they caught up with her.
It had been pure chance (or, as she liked to think of it, finely honed instinct) that had prompted her to notice a casual reference in some correspondence to ‘Sire Pestifer’s fond memories of his old school’ and more, ‘his donations to the school’. Now at the time that Pestifer had written this early piece, he’d still been young and unrecognized. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that in his desperation for attention, or simply out of the urge to brag, he’d donated a copy of his writings to the school. (And she’d exhausted all her other leads. It was worth a try.)
Irene had taken a few weeks to establish a new identity as a young woman in her mid-twenties with a poor but honest background, suitable for skivvying, then found herself a job as a cleaning maid. The main school library hadn’t held any copies of Midnight Requiems, and in desperation she’d resorted to checking the necromancer’s original boarding house. Beyond all expectation, she’d been lucky.
She abandoned her cleaning equipment, and opened the window at the end of the hall. The leaded glass swung easily under her hand: she’d taken care to oil it earlier. A cool breeze drifted in, with a hint of oncoming rain. Hopefully this bit of misdirection wouldn’t be necessary, but one of the Library’s mottos was borrowed directly from the great military thinker Clausewitz: no strategy ever survived contact with the enemy. Or, in the vernacular, Things Will Go Wrong. Be Prepared.
She quickly trotted back down the corridor to the trophy room, and pushed the door open. The light from the corridor gleamed on the silver cups and glass display cabinets. Without bothering to kindle the room’s central lantern, she crossed to the second cupboard on the right. She could still smell the polish she’d used on the wood two days ago. Opening its door, she withdrew the pile of books stacked at the back, and pulled out a battered volume in dark purple leather.
(When Pestifer sent the book to the school, had he fretted and paced the floor, hoping to get some sort of acknowledgement back from the teachers, praising his research, wishing him future success? Or had they sent him a bare form letter to say that they’d received it – and then dropped his work into a pile of other self-published vanity books sent by ex-pupils and forgotten all about it?)
Fortunately it was a fairly small volume. She tucked it into a hidden pocket, returned the other books to cover her tracks, and then hesitated.
This was, after all, a school that taught magic. And as a Librarian she had one big advantage that nobody else had – not necromancers, Fae, dragons, ordinary humans or anyone. It was called the Language. Only Librarians could read it. Only Librarians could use it. It could affect certain aspects of reality. It was extremely useful, even if the vocabulary needed constant revision. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on pure magic. If the masters at the school had set some sort of alarm spell to prevent anyone stealing the cups, and if that worked on anything that was taken out of the room, then she might be in for a nasty surprise. And it would be hideously embarrassing to be hunted down by a mob of teenagers.
Irene mentally shook herself. She’d planned for this. There was no point in delaying any longer, and standing around reconsidering possibilities would only result in her running short on time.
She stepped across the threshold.
Sudden raucous noise broke the silence. The stone arch above the doorway rippled, lips forming from the stone to howl, ‘Thief! Thief!’
Irene didn’t bother pausing to curse fate. There would be people here within seconds. With a loud scream she threw herself down on top of her mop and bucket, deliberately sprawling in the inevitable puddle of dirty water. She also managed to crack her shin on the side of the bucket, which brought genuine tears to her eyes.
A couple of senior boys got there first, scurrying round the corner in nightshirts and slippers. Far too awake to have only just risen from sleep, they’d probably been busy with some illicit hobby or other.
‘Where’s the thief?’ the dark-haired one shouted.
‘There she is!’ the blond one declared, pointing a finger at Irene.
‘Don’t be stupid, that’s one of the servants,’ the dark-haired one said, demonstrating the advantage of stealing books while dressed as a servant. ‘You! Wench! Where’s the thief?’
Irene pointed a shaking hand in the direction of the open window. It chose that moment to swing conveniently in the rising wind. ‘He – he knocked me down—’
‘What’s this?’ One of the masters had arrived on the scene. Fully dressed and trailing a drift of tobacco smoke, he cleared a path through the gathering mob of junior boys with a few snaps of his fingers. ‘Has one of you boys set off the alarm?’
‘No, sir!’ the blond senior said quickly. ‘We just got here as he was escaping. He went out through the window! Can we pursue him?’
The master’s gaze shifted to Irene. ‘You, woman!’
Irene hastily dragged herself to her feet, leaning artistically on the mop, and pushed back a straggle of loose hair. (She was looking forward to being out of this place, so she could have hot showers and put her hair up in a proper bun.) ‘Yes, sir?’ she snivelled. The book in her skirt pocket pressed against her leg.
‘What did you see?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, sir,’ Irene began, letting her lower lip quiver suitably. ‘I was just mopping the corridor, and when I came to the door of the trophy room here,’ she pointed it out needlessly, ‘there was a light inside. So I thought that one of the young gentlemen might be studying . . . and I knocked on the door to ask if I might come in to clean the floor. But nobody answered, sir. So I began to open the door, and then all of a sudden someone pushes it open from inside, and it knocks me down as he runs out of the room.’
The audience of boys, ranging from eleven to seventeen years old, hung on her every word. A couple of juniors set their chins pugnaciously, clearly imagining that they themselves would have been ready for such an event. They would undoubtedly have knocked the intruder unconscious then and there.
‘He was a very tall man,’ Irene said helpfully. ‘And he was all dressed in black, but something was muffled round his face so that I couldn’t see it properly. And he had something under one arm, all wrapped in canvas. And then the alarm went off, and I screamed for help, but he went running down the corridor and escaped through the window.’ She pointed at the clearly open window, an obvious – perhaps too obvious? – escape route for any hypothetical thief. ‘And then these young gentlemen came along, just after he’d escaped.’ She nodded to the first two arrivals, who looked smug.
The master nodded. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘Jenkins! Palmwaite! Take charge of the House and have everyone get back to preparing for chapel. Salter, Bryce, come and inventory the room with me. We must establish what was taken.’
There were muffled noises of protest from the milling crowd of boys, who clearly wanted to leap out of the window and pursue the thief – or, possibly, go down to the ground floor and then pursue the thief without leaping out of a second-floor window. But nobody actually tried that.
Irene cursed inwardly. A large-scale attempted pursuit of a non-existent intruder would have confused matters nicely.
‘You,’ the master said, turning to Irene. ‘Go downstairs to the kitchen and have some tea, woman. It must have been an unpleasant experience for you.’ Was that a flash of genuine concern in his eyes? Or was it something more suspicious? She’d done her best to leave a false trail, but the fact remained that she was the only person in the vicinity, and something had just been stolen. Most of the masters round here ignored the servants, but this one might be the unfortunate exception to the rule. ‘Hold yourself ready in case we need to question you further.’
‘Of course, sir,’ Irene said, bobbing a little curtsey. She picked up the mop and bucket, and pushed through the crowd of boys, heading for the stairs, taking care not to walk suspiciously fast.
She’d need two minutes to get to the kitchen to dump the mop and bucket. Another minute to get out of the House. Five more minutes – three minutes at a run – to get to the school library. She would be cutting it fine.
The kitchen was already bustling when she got there, with the house maids preparing kettles of post-chapel porridge. The housekeeper, butler and cook were playing cards, and no one had bothered to investigate the alarms from upstairs.
‘Something the matter, Meredith?’ the housekeeper enquired as Irene entered.
‘Just the young gentlemen being their usual selves, ma’am,’ Irene answered. ‘I think it’s one of the other Houses playing some sort of prank on them. With your permission, may I step out to the washroom to get myself cleaned up?’ She indicated the dirty wash-water stains on her grey uniform dress and her apron.
‘Be sure not to take too long,’ the housekeeper said. ‘You’ll be sweeping out the dormitories while the young gentlemen are in chapel.’
Irene nodded humbly, and left the kitchen. Still no alarm from upstairs. Good. She quietly opened the boarding house door, stepping outside.
The boarding houses were in a row along the main avenue, with a central quadrangle holding the chapel, the assembly hall and – most importantly to her purposes – the school library. Turquine House was the second along, which meant there was just one house to pass, preferably without drawing attention. Not run. She mustn’t run yet. If anyone saw her running, it would only attract suspicion. Just walk, nice and calmly, as if she were simply running an errand.
She managed a whole ten yards.
A window flew up behind her in Turquine House, and the master who’d spoken to her earlier leaned out. He pointed at her. ‘Thief! Thief!’
Irene picked up her skirts and ran. Gravel crunched under her feet, and the first drops of rain slapped against her face. She came level with the next boarding house, Bruce House, and for a moment she considered abandoning her arranged escape plan and simply ducking into there in order to break her trail and slow down pursuit. But common sense pointed out that it wouldn’t work for more than a few minutes –
The whistling screech from behind warned her just in time. She dived to the ground, throwing herself into a roll, as the gargoyle came screaming down, its stone claws extended and clutching for her. It missed, and struggled to pull out of its dive, its heavy wings sawing at the air as it laboured to gain height. Another one had swooped from the roof of Turquine’s, and was circling to reach a suitable angle of attack.
This was one of those moments, Irene reflected bitterly, when it would be wonderful to be a necromancer, or a wizard, or someone who could manipulate the magical forces of the world and blast annoying gargoyles out of the sky. She’d done her best to avoid attention, keep her cover, and not endanger bratty little boys who left mud all over the floor and didn’t bother to hang up their cloaks. What had it got her? A swarm of attacking gargoyles – well, only two gargoyles so far, but still – and probably a mass assault by pupils and masters within a few minutes. So much for the rewards of virtue.
She quickly reviewed what she knew about the gargoyles. There was one on the roof of each boarding house. They were even listed in the boarding school prospectus as a guarantee of student safety – ANY KIDNAPPERS WILL BE TORN TO BLOODY RAGS BY OUR PROFESSIONALLY MAINTAINED HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS! Though after working here for several months, she thought the pupils themselves were much more lethal to possible kidnappers.
On the positive side (one must always look for the positive side) the gargoyles were extremely showy, but not actually that effective over a short space of ground. On the negative side, running in a straight line to escape would make her a beautiful moving target. But getting back to the positives, the gargoyles were made of granite, as lovingly described in the prospectus, unlike anything else within earshot.
This would need careful timing. Luckily the gargoyles weren’t particularly intelligent so they would be focused on capturing her, not on wondering why she was standing conveniently still.
She took a deep breath.
The first gargoyle reached suitable swooping altitude. It called to the other gargoyle in a carrying screech, and then the two of them dropped towards her together, their wings spread in wide, dark traceries against the sky.
Irene screamed, at the top of her voice, ‘Granite, be stone and lie still!’
The Language always worked well when it was instructing things to be what they naturally were, or to do what they naturally wanted to do. Stone wanted to be inert and solid. Her command only reinforced the natural order of things. It was therefore the perfect antidote to the unnatural magic keeping stone gargoyles in flight.
The gargoyles stiffened mid-stoop, their wings freezing in place, and overshot her easily. One thumped squarely into the ground, pounding out a crater for itself, while the other came in at more of an angle. It ploughed a wide groove along the nicely smoothed gravel path, before colliding with one of the stately lime trees bordering the avenue. Leaves rained down on it.
There was no time for her to pause and feel smug, so she ran.
Then the howling started. It was either hellhounds or teenagers, and she suspected the former. They’d been in the prospectus, too. The prospectus had been very helpful about the school’s security precautions. If she ever had to come back here again, perhaps she could sell her services as a security consultant. Under a pseudonym, of course.
A sudden burst of red light sent her shadow leaping down the avenue ahead of her, and proved the hellhound theory. Right. She’d planned for hellhounds. She could plan for organized magic, even if she couldn’t perform it. She just had to stay calm and cool and collected and get to the fire hydrant ahead before they caught up with her.
Among its modern conveniences, the school included running water and precautions against fire. Which meant fire hydrants spaced along the main avenue. The one that lay between her and the school library was twenty yards away.
Ten yards. She could hear pounding paws behind her, throwing up gravel in a rattle of ferocious speed. She didn’t look.
Five yards. Something panted just behind her.
She threw herself at the hydrant, an unimpressive black stub of metal barely two feet high. But as she did, a heavy scorching weight collided with her back, slamming her to the ground and pinning her there. She wrenched her head round enough to see the huge dog-like creature crouching on top of her. It wasn’t quite burning her, not yet, but its body was as hot as a banked stove. And she knew, if it wanted to, it could get much, much hotter. Its eyes were vicious coals in its flaming head, and when it opened its mouth, baring ragged teeth, a line of searing drool dripped across the back of her neck. Go on, try it, it seemed to be saying. Just try something. Give me an excuse.
‘Hydrant, burst!’ Irene screamed.
The hellhound opened its jaws wider in lazy warning.
The hydrant exploded at approximately knee level. Fragments of twisted iron went spraying out in all directions with the first intense burst of water. Irene was torn between thinking Thank goodness I’m on the ground and That’s what comes of sloppy vocabulary and word choice. A bit of metal sheared through the air a few inches above her nose and slapped into the hellhound almost casually, sending it cartwheeling backwards with a howl of pain.
It took Irene a moment to pull her wits together and scramble to her feet. The water should slow the hellhounds and douse their fires for a while, but she didn’t have any other backup plans. And she still had to get to the school library. Her dress wet and her shoes soaked through, she broke into a stagger, then into a run.
The library doors were made of heavy studded wood, and when she yanked them open, warm lantern-light spilled out over her. Making you a target for anyone looking in your direction, her sense of self-preservation pointed out. She stumbled into the vestibule and swung the heavy door closed, but there was only one large lock on the door, and no key. But then again, she didn’t need one.
She leaned over and murmured in the Language, ‘Lock on the library door, lock yourself shut.’
The sound of tumblers moving into the locked position was very satisfying. Especially when the next noise, a couple of seconds later, was the heavy thud of hellhound hitting the door on the other side.
‘What’s going on there?’ an annoyed voice called from deeper inside the library.
Irene had scouted out the place earlier, with a duster and wax polish as an alibi. Directly ahead were the non-fiction stacks, shelves full of books on everything from astrology to Zoroastrianism. And to the right, there was a small office where books were stored for mending. More importantly, the office had a door she could use to get out of here and that was what she needed.
There was another thump from behind her. The main door shivered slightly under attack, but stood firm.
She didn’t bother replying to the voice she’d heard. Instead she brushed the gravel from her clothing, forcing herself to calmness. The atmosphere of the place soothed her automatically; the rich lantern lights, the sheer scent of paper and leather, and the fact that everywhere she looked, there were books, books, beautiful books.
Another thump from the outer door, and the sound of raised angry voices. All right, perhaps she shouldn’t relax too much.
She stood in front of the closed office door, taking a deep breath.
‘Open to the Library,’ she said, giving the word Library its full value in the Language, and felt the tattoo scrawled across her back shift and writhe as the link was established. There was the usual flurrying moment of awareness and pressure, as though something huge and unimaginable was riffling through the pages of her mind. It always lasted just that little bit too long to bear, and then the door shuddered under her hand and opened.
A sudden burst of noise indicated that her pursuers had managed to enter. She spared a moment to regret that she hadn’t had time to grab any other books, and quickly stepped through. As the latch clicked shut behind her, it re-established itself as part of the world she’d left behind. However many times they might open it now, it would only ever reveal the office to which it originally belonged. They would never be able to follow her here.
She was in the Library. Not just any library, but THE Library.
High shelves rose on either side, too high and full of books for her to see what lay beyond. The narrow gap in front of her was barely wide enough to squeeze through. Her shoes left wet prints in the dust behind her, and she stepped over three sets of abandoned notes as she edged towards the lit area in the distance. The only sounds were a vague, half-audible creaking somewhere to her left, irregular and uncertain as the slow oscillations of a child’s swing.
The cramped space abruptly opened out into a wider wood-panelled room, with a wooden floor. She glanced around, but couldn’t identify it offhand. The books on the shelves were printed, and some of them looked more modern than any from the alternate that she had just left, but that in itself proved nothing. The large centre table and chairs were covered with dust, just like the floor, and the computer sitting on the table was silent. A single lantern hung from the ceiling, with a white crystal burning brilliantly in the centre. In the far wall, a bow window looked out over a gaslamp-lit night-time street, and a wind tugged at the tree branches, making them silently bend and sway.
With a sigh of relief, Irene sat down in one of the chairs, brushed loose gravel out of her hair, and drew the stolen book out of her hidden pocket. It was safe and dry. Another job done, even if she had been forced to abandon her cover identity. And she’d even given the school a legend. The thought made her smile. She could imagine new boys being told the story of The Night Turquine House Got Burgled. The details would expand over time. She’d eventually become a world-famous master thief that had infiltrated the place in disguise, seduced half the teachers, and summoned demons to aid her escape.
Thoughtfully she looked down at the book in her hands. After all this trouble to get hold of it, she was just a little curious about what great secrets of necromancy might be revealed within. Raising armies of the dead? Invoking ghosts? How to unnaturally extend your life for thousands of years?
She opened it at the beginning. The page read:



It is my theory that the greater truths underlying life and death can best be understood as a parable – that is, as a fiction. There is no way that the human mind can understand, let alone accept, any of the fundamental principles that govern the transmission and return of souls, or the flux of energies which can bind a body on the line between life and death, in practical terms: the laws which other people have discussed, proposed, or even affirmed, in higher texts on the subject, slip past the boundaries of that level of understanding which would allow true inherent cognisance and manipulation of those necessities.
Too many commas and overly long phrases, she decided.



I have therefore decided to describe my work and my experiments, and the understanding which I have derived from it, in the form of a story. Those who wish to do so may take what they can from it. My sole desire is to explain and to enlighten.
And, Irene hoped, to entertain. She turned the page.



It was on the morning of Peredur’s birthday that the ravens came to him one last time. He had been three weeks at the house of the witches, and they had taught him much, but he had long been absent from the court of Arthur. The first raven stooped down, and took on the form of a woman. When the morning light struck her, she showed the form he knew: a withered old hag, scarcely able to bear the helm and armour she wore. But when she stood in shadow, then she was young and comely: never had hair been so black or skin so pale, or eyes so piercing sweet.
‘Peredur,’ she said, ‘in the name of the Ladies of Orkney, I ask that you remain here one day longer. For my sisters and I have searched the stars, and I tell you that if you leave us now, then you will perish before your time, and that in a fool’s quest: but if you stay one day more with us, then your path will be steady and your sister will meet you before all is done.’
‘I have no sister,’ said Peredur.
‘Aye,’ the raven witch said. ‘None that you have met . . .’
Irene shut the book reluctantly. Of course she had to send it to Coppelia first, for inspection and evaluation, but perhaps after that she could get her hands on it again.
There was nothing wrong with being curious about how a story turned out, after all. She was a Librarian. It went with the job. And she didn’t want great secrets of necromancy, or any other sort of magic. She just wanted – had always wanted – a good book to read. The being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up was a comparatively unimportant part of the job. Getting the books, now that was what really mattered to her.
That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she’d been taught, anyway. It wasn’t about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction, and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice. Anyone who really loved a good story would understand.
And if there were rumours that the Library did have a deeper purpose – well, there were always so many rumours, and she had missions to complete. She could wait for more answers. She had time.