“Soooo,” said Aidra, “what’s on your mind?”
“Aw, c’mon! What’d She say about Red and his highly-mysterious motivations that was so disgruntelating?”
She sighed loudly. “It’s petty, but apparently his secrets and lies are apparently ‘FOR HIM TO SHARE WITH YOU’ or somesuch bull-er, nonsense.”
They were walking ahead of the rest of the group, up the stairs and away from Jöurnalmungandr’s Throne. Aidra was attempting to build some kind of card sculpture on his nose. Abruptly, seemingly tired of card-architecture, he scooped the cards off his face and threw them over the side of the stairs.
At Alice’s startled look, he grinned and held a hand out over the edge, and in a series of improbable motions the cards fell upwards, swirling round his hand to land one-by-one in a neat sorted pile on his palm.
“You must be a hell of a cheater at cards.”
He winked. “I can see the future, I’m telepathic and I’m telekinetic. I’m an absolute nightmare at cards.”
From behind them, Nik piped up. “You’re a menace, and preemptively banned from pretty much every gambling establishment I’ve ever heard of, even the ones in the Carnival!”
“That much of a nightmare,” said Aidra, smugly, shoving the cards back in a pocket. “I send Nik in to make bets for me.”
“Not anymore, you git. That was when I was young and impressionable and didn’t know you were cheating.”
“You’re still young in this world, brother mine.”
“I’m older than you.”
“An impressionable youth of seventy-eight summers!”
“Nine years older than you. Old-er.”
“And yet I’m still wiser!”
“So, wait,” said Alice, “you’re in your sixties and seventies?”
“Yup! Spawn of Nursiir don’t age, basically.”
She boggled briefly. “I mean, yes, you told me that, but I didn’t really… fully internalise it?”
Aidra preened. “I maintain my youthful looks by moisturising.”
“It is slightly offset by the fact that Aidra acts like an overgrown tadpole,” Nik added.
“I’m a polliwog at heart.”
“I did sorta assume you were around my age, maybe a bit older.”
“How old’s that?”
“Ohhh,” said Aidra, “that’s why you’re so short. You haven’t finished growing yet!”
The glare she gave him could have melted through a steel door, let alone stripped paint.
“I’m an adult, you gangly amphibian git. I’ve finished growing.”
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” he replied, neatly dodging the kick she aimed at his shin without looking.
– – –
Red met them back in Foyer, half-heartedly mumbling an excuse about being called somewhere else or something. Alice didn’t buy it for a second, and made that fact abundantly clear to him. It was possible that harsh words and sullen glares might have been exchanged.
“Look, whatever the snake told you, She’s biased, and-”
“She didn’t tell me any of your ‘secrets’! In fact, your blatant arse-covering makes you look even more suspicious than you were already looking!”
He looked taken aback. “Well, hmm. I guess She could be trying to curry your or my favour.”
“She’s one of the few people who’s told me anything even close to helpful in this entire mess, which is more than I can say about you! And, I mean, I don’t trust you to tell me the truth, but-”
She cut him off with a glare. “I hadn’t finished. While I don’t trust you to tell me the truth about stuff, or at least to give me straight answers, I do know you’re on my side. Or, at least, broadly speaking, I can trust you with some bits of my safety. Sometimes. And don’t think the fact I kinda trust you gets you out of having to explain your mysterious dang antics.”
Red looked her in the eyes for a long few seconds before cracking a crooked smile. “Fair enough, I think I can work with that. And well, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to be more truthful with you. I’m a bit too used to being a rascal, but I think I can dial it back.”
She rolled her eyes at that. In the distance, over the quiet sounds of Foyer, she could have sworn she heard Aidra’s voice, shouting something about ‘kissing already’. She ignored it, instead glaring at Aidra where he stood, chattering to Twelfth about something, on the other side of the thoroughfare. He didn’t seem to be doing any subliminal whispering, but it was hard to tell.
Red shuffled awkwardly for a long few seconds before speaking. “So, er. I may have been exaggerating about the biases of Jöurnalmungandr. What did She tell you?”
“The ‘White and Grey’ are after me, plus some people from my Earth, apparently?”
His eyes narrowed. “Ah. Grey and White are pieces of work. I know of them. I’m a bit less familiar with STAR, but I’ve crossed paths with them a few times in the past. If they’re coming here, to the seat of the Library Powers, that must mean they either seek to be discreet, or that they’re coming for a sudden, overwhelming use of force.”
“There’s also a thing under the city, but She’s told, I think, Third Uriel about it.”
Red’s face went pale. “What.”
“Is that bad?”
He started to say something, stopped, and seemed to struggle for words for a good few seconds. “Yes? Well, I mean. The Scripteraphim are, er. I’d normally call mobilising them an overreaction, but since it’s Her Nibs calling for them, I think it might be just enough of a reaction. And that’s kinda terrifying.”
As if in confirmation, what seemed like the entire city rumbled, walkways and suspended buildings shaking and rattling as everything shifted. Red grabbed her arm to steady her, and led her over to Aidra, Twelfth and the rest of the ‘merry band’.
“The takeaway,” he said wryly, “is that Bookbinders are ten-eleven foot tall near-indestructible war constructs who’re apparently insufficient to deal with whatever this is.”
[This Is Undoubtedly Extremely Worrisome.]
“Understatement of the century, Twelfth.”
“Hey,” said Aidra, “this century’s only just begun. Give it time, and I’m sure I can come up with a better understatement. Or maybe a worse one, I’m not sure whether a greater understatement is more or less.”
“Respectfully, brother-” Nik paused as the structure of Foyer shook again – “now is not the time.”