Eljiah helped Tallis stand, and Tallis immediately went for Djaren’s coat. Djaren sputtered, but let it be taken away, and put up with being turned round under Tallis’ sharp eye.
“Oh, Djaren, no,” Eljiah said, fingers hovering above the newly carved marks that were oozing black.
“That’s a Corestemarian religious symbol, no?” Tallis asked.
“Can I have my jacket back?” Djaren said, red-faced.
“We should clean this out,” Tallis said.
“The cultists did this.” Kara frowned. The mark was familiar. Vashiel Sky Lord. It looked different carved into skin, but even that was familiar. She grabbed Eljiah’s shoulder and yanked back his shirt in the same place. The scar was very old, crisscrossed with new, but still visible. She’d pulled a dark bit of something like glass from it last summer.
She let Eljiah go and examined the new marks on Djaren more carefully. The black ooze in the cuts had a familiar feel.
“Ow,” said Djaren.
“Hold still,” Kara said. He did. She concentrated, as she had before, finding all of the black oiliness and pulling it together, up out of the place it didn’t belong. Djaren made a distracting noise as she began to pull it out. She grabbed his opposite shoulder and dug her nails in. “Still,” she commanded, and willed the stuff out. It resisted, and she reached and grabbed at it, a solid shape like a letter in stone. She pulled the now solid piece free, making Djaren howl, and dropped it to the floor where it shattered like black glass.
Eljiah quickly applied pressure to the open wound, and Tallis took over Kara’s job of holding Djaren up.
The cultists were watching, lined up against the wall, being read out a statement of rights by the Damaeras. Kara glared at them with as much venom as she could muster. That’s right. Whatever you do, I’ll undo.
“It’s going to leave an ugly mark. I’m sorry,” Tallis said. “But it’s probably best that it’s out, whatever it was. Left alone, I’m not sure into which of your systems it may have eventually oozed.”
“Um, right,” Djaren said weakly. “I really wish I could forget that. Uh, thank you, Kara.”
She looked back at him. He meant the thanks. He meant them earnestly. He was pale and pretty and disheveled, and he would be in danger every minute he spent near her, not after all because they shared enemies, but because she’d let them become friends. Kara clenched one of her hands into a fist at her side and the shards on the floor twitched. A child of the master.
You knew you were a monster. Why are you surprised? Tallis knew now, too. He wasn’t talking, just watching. Maybe he thinks you’ll be like him, a pet monster kept by kind people who don’t know when to stop.
Djaren’s skin was marked with filth and blood where she’d touched him. She was covered in it. From the looks of him, Eljiah had been a beautiful boy too, before he got those scars.
“I can’t be your bodyguard,” she told Djaren.
“I don’t blame you for what happened!” Djaren said. “You did right, rescuing Seilu. I let myself get nabbed, and it all came right.”
“That’s not why. They’re following me.” She nodded at the cultists, who were being led away.
“You think some of them will find you again?” Djaren asked.
“They always do.”
“Then let me be your bodyguard.”
“No. You can’t even save yourself.”
He looked hurt. “Maybe not, but we share friends who can. And we’re stronger together, aren’t we?”
“We’re a bigger target.”
“All the better to trap our enemies with.” He grinned at her hopefully.
“Are you trying to make being used as bait sound exciting and adventurous?”
He shrugged and winced. “I can try. They want us both. We’re weaker alone. So let’s thumb our noses at them together, and have cakes and tea while they lurk. We’ll make them ever so jealous. I don’t think they get cake.”
“I can’t think of cake when we’re up to our elbows in corpses.”
“We can probably leave.” Tallis gestured to where Damaera men and Lory were just looking their way.
“I’m very sorry I took your sword,” Eljiah said, presenting it back to the officer of the Damaeras. “I wasn’t sure how to get you to come with me.”
Lory, arms crossed Isakoa-style, looked at the officer sharply.
“We won’t press no charges, seeing as how you helped bring attention to these illegal proceedings,” the man said, glancing aside at his prince. “And I see your friend is well?” This last was more of a question, as Tallis lurched over, trying to hold a bandage to the awkward place on his back.
“I’m only a little stabbed, thank you,” Tallis said amiably. “Though I’d like to go do something about that now.”
“Of course, of course,” the man said. “You’re free to go, though we’ll want a word with you all within the week. I’ll ask you not to leave the country in that time.”
“Term’s not over for a few weeks anyway,” Djaren said.
Isakoa cursed quietly. “I have a paper.”
“I think maybe you can get it forgiven, or extended,” Djaren said, “considering the circumstances.”
“You got us all into this. You’ll help me write it,” Isakoa said.
“Right, I shall, though I’ll have to explain this all in a letter to Mother. Are you going to help me with that?”
“You are asking an orphan to help write a letter to your mother?”
Djaren looked stricken until Kara and Isakoa exchanged victory fists. “He is so easy,” Isakoa said. “You can write Seilu’s paper as well.”
“I’ll take dictation,” Djaren sighed, “but you will both have to supply your arguments and conclusions.”
“He’s an orphan, too. A concussed one.” Isakoa nodded over as Nahaka met them, carrying Seilu.
“I still have a certain level of academic integrity,” Djaren said.
“I say,” said Lory, catching them up as they began to travel back through the tunnels. “Are you awfully good at writing papers?”
“Only for orphans, apparently.”
Lory frowned, but shrugged that off. “Because I should rather like to put forward a legal proposal to fix this sort of madness. Do you know that those bodysnatchers back there had desecrated the tomb of my great-grandfather? And they had their grisly den right under the royal mausoleum. This can’t stand.”
“Wells was from Maribelle, wasn’t he?” Kara mused.
“The former Isella Colonies?”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Djaren said. “Those colonies rebelled against your great-grandfather, and renamed the new nation after a farmer’s daughter, instead of Isella, for your grandmother.”
“How does any of what they’ve done make sense?”
“Just that Wells was a politically-minded bodysnatcher with something of an ancestral grudge, or maybe a Maribellan sense of anarchy.”
“Well, that in there is the work of bloody beasts, and I think they may have deserved the end they got. I want to see to it that new laws are passed that punish bodysnatchers much more severely.”
“Couple that with allowing people to freely will their bodies to the study of medicine or art, milord, and you may have something that truly helps,” Eljiah said.
“I’ll write up a proposal for you as soon as I’ve stopped bleeding,” Djaren promised.
“Right. Oh, dear. I can have my physician sent to you at your rooms.”
“That’s not needed,” Tallis said. “We might puzzle him no end. Though I’d love the chance to talk to him.”
“Are there royal baths?” Isakoa asked.
“There are, in fact. Close.”
“Take us there, then,” Isakoa decreed. Lory did, and the others followed after. Kara lagged a little, to take up the rear guard while Nahaka moved to the front. There was still someone walking alongside her, though, back away from the rest.
“Promise you won’t leave?” Djaren asked her.
“Why would I, when I have a chance to steal things from the royal baths?”
He made a face at her, and said the next things silently. “Please.”
“It’s not safe together,” she answered in kind.
“What would either of us do, honestly, with safe?”
For the first time, Kara considered that. “Not safe” had been a constant refrain for as long as she could remember. Maybe she’d been using it an excuse to avoid a lot of things. But at the same time, a safe life wasn’t something she fantasized over, or deserved, or even wanted. “I’d muck it up somehow, by breaking a rule, and you’d muck it up by being unable to stop poking at questions, and we’d be in a mess.”
“Only, see, I’d call it an adventure, and we could invite the crown prince of Arien, an immortal ancient child, and an islander prince and his friends along on it if you wanted, as well as our more ordinary friends and my terrifying little sister, and we could have equal parts spiced tea and curry pies with our mortal danger, and make even more unlikely friends, and travel the world and see how much waving diplomatic immunity about and running like hell might help.”
“Just because you grew up with a wolf man and the walking dead and an invisible angel, you think all sorts of impossible things are so.”
“Says the child tomb thief, internationally recognized lock pick with supernatural abilities, who can learn fighting styles by watching them and can kick holes in brick walls. Tell me you’ve never had odd companions before.”
“None as crazy as you. No one else was stupid enough to like me.”
He just grinned at her. “I do, you know.” And then he was pulled up the line by Isakoa to explain some legal point to Lory, and she was walking again behind the rest.
It was going to end in a mess, she knew, and that was going to hurt like hell. And she didn’t think she could let go until it did. She felt she ought to be more angry about that. But she wasn’t mad at Djaren at all, or even at herself. That was a change. She felt tired, bruised, and oddly warm and cheery.