It was four days after I got back from Herefordshire that I got around to talking properly to Nightingale. There were a lot of reports to file, a lot of references to follow up in the library, a lot of loose ends to tie off, the paperwork associated with not-Nicole's placement and a somewhat frazzled social worker to take over her case who needed calming down and a sanitised explanation of the situation. At least, that's my excuse for why I didn't get into the subject straight away.
But finally over breakfast I started to work up to it. "I talked a bit to Hugh Oswald while I was up there," I said, and took a sip of tea. For some reason known only to her, Molly had provided nothing but Earl Grey today, and it wasn't really strong enough to wake me up. I've got a decent coffee machine in the coach house, and it occurred to me that if I didn't get into this subject now, I would have time to go make myself something strong before practice. But perhaps a calming drink wasn't such a bad idea for this conversation.
Nightingale nodded. "I'm glad he could be helpful. He knows a great deal about the local folklore. Though not, it seems, as much as one might have wished."
"Apparently I have a nickname," is what came out of my mouth next. Bottling out again. "Did you know? 'The Starling', he called me." I didn't add the bit about how Hugh had explained that Nightingale had wanted a tough and clever apprentice, and I was it. But I had thought about that a lot, mostly when Nightingale was endlessly criticising my form during practice.
The corners of Nightingale's mouth twitched. "I can see how they arrived at that. Though I'd have said a magpie, myself. Curious and distracted by shiny objects."
"I think The Starling is a much better superhero name, thanks."
Nightingale's half-smile vanished. "Peter, these nicknames do not denote any special--"
"I know, I know, it was a joke." He's always very down on anything that might inflate my ego even a little bit. He was still frowning, so I said, "I'll be the Magpie if you want, sir."
Nightingale took a bite of toast, apparently pacified. I spread some marmalade on my own toast, stared out the window at the dog-walkers in Russell Square, and finally blurted out, "He told me about Ettersberg too. About the Black Library, about what you did there."
Nightingale's head whipped around to look at me, then away. He set his toast down, but said nothing. The silence hung between us. I recognised it from my court appearances, the silent wait before the verdict is pronounced. Guilty, not guilty. I thought about that, and put my toast down too. It had never occurred to me that he might care about my opinion on this.
"You've been guarding the Black Library ever since," I finally said. "Behind that door downstairs. All these years. Why not destroy it? Nobody would have known. It won't be long before you're the only person alive who remembers it even exists. You could have just burned it. Hugh said you wanted it destroyed in the first place."
He blinked slowly. "This is my post. I didn't make the decision to retrieve it, and I can't make the decision to destroy it." He sighed. "Besides, one day we might need it. Like the nuclear deterrent. Something you only use when the alternative is even worse."
"And would you use it?" I leaned forward. "Have you read any of it?"
Now I felt like we were in court too. Nightingale sat very straight. "No." Pause. "I saw what it did to the people who read it. When I got back to England, when I got out of hospital. David had already shot himself by then. Travis drank himself to death. Pritchard broke his staff and emigrated to Canada, died a year later in an accident."
"Then why keep it? Who's going to read it or use it?" I spoke quickly before he could keep going. I suspected the list of deaths would be long.
"Our adversary. The 'Faceless Man'. Or so I conjecture." The words came as slowly as if they were being dragged out of him. "At the Greek Street club, in the back rooms, I saw things I haven't seen since I was there. The same experiments. It's not coincidence. He's seen at least part of it, and he's putting it into practice."
I stared at him. "Why haven't you mentioned this before? Didn't you think it was important? If we want to figure out who he is--there can't be many people who've had access to it or who've heard about it from others--the connection could lead us to his real identity, sir, you need to--"
It was Nightingale's turn to interrupt me, his voice and back equally stiff now. "I know what the connection is. Geoffrey Wheatcroft had access to it, and he read a good deal before breaking his staff and going to Magdalen. And I don't need to run everything in my investigation past you."
"No, sir. Sorry." I thought about that for a minute. "So--do you think we'll need to read it?"
"I hope it will never come to that. But if it does--there will be no 'we' involved." He gave me his most forbidding frown. "If I deem it necessary, I will read it. You will not be involved."
"I don't want to read it," I answered. "I mean, I really, really don't want to read it. But--it's magical experiments mixed with science, right? Quantum physics, advanced biology, that kind of thing?" I tried to come up with a tactful way to say I had to teach you what the small intestine was for. "If understanding it did turn out to be vital--it would need both of us, sir."
Idiot, I berated myself even as I spoke. Whatever's in there is so horrible and evil that people kill themselves after reading it. And you're volunteering.
Nightingale gave me a look as if he could read my thoughts and agreed with them. Then he gazed out the window, picked up his cooling tea and took a sip. "I had no way to get you back, when you gave yourself to the Queen. Did you know that at the time?"
The change of subject made my head spin. Except that it wasn't a change of subject, I recognised a beat later. "No. But once I got into the parallel universe, or whatever it was, I suspected as much."
"It's possible I would have worked something out in time. But Beverley Brook saw a solution immediately. You were fortunate in your friends then." He looked directly at me. "When I invited you to be my apprentice, I didn't imagine I would be placing you in these kind of situations. Especially not so early in your training. I thought we'd have enough time for you to achieve mastery before--before things got bad."
"Lesley said it would start seriously kicking off in a year," I blurted out.
"If we're lucky," Nightingale said. "There's too much I can't shield you from, and it's going to get worse. As you've seen these past few months. And I'll admit you have a knack for sticking your head into the lion's mouth and getting out unbitten. But the Black Library--Peter, I will burn it before I let you near it."
His voice rang out as if he was giving orders on a battlefield: Ajax spreading his shield over the son of Menoitios. Nightingale keeps threatening me with the Iliad, but we haven't got there yet, so I hadn't known what Hugh was talking about at the time. I'd looked it up afterwards, and discovered that the son of Menoitios was Patroclus, and he was already dead when Ajax was protecting him. So it wasn't the most consoling image in the world. But I didn't feel inclined to argue.
Nightingale sat back, subsiding as if he regretted showing even that much of his feelings. "But it's unlikely to come to that. The Library is my responsibility, and you don't need to worry about it. What you do need to do is concentrate on learning your formae. And it's time for practice, so be in the lab in ten minutes, please." He paused, looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. "Starling."
"'The Nightingale's starling'," I corrected him impulsively. "That's what Hugh said."
"Hm. We'll see how I feel about that after practice." But there was a glint in his eyes as if he wasn't entirely displeased. "Off you go now."
I stood up and took my now-cold toast with me, taking a large bite as I pushed my chair in. Nightingale frowned reflexively at this lapse of manners, but then said in a quiet voice, "I'm glad he told you."
"Yeah," I said after I swallowed the toast. "Yeah, me too."