Djaren stopped and ducked behind a rain barrel, quieting his breathing and thinking fast. He might be able to convince them that he was local, but he had only one name to reference, and no strength or martial skill to back that with. He didn’t know what he’d say in class to excuse the bruises. He checked his pockets and found only a few coins. Would they be insulted he had so little money? Djaren hadn’t been mugged before, and he wasn’t sure how it was done.
A door opened, back in the direction from which he’d come, and a woman threw some wash water out into the alleyway. Djaren recognized her as Missus Cranderly, his own dear aggrieved charwoman. She looked over at him, crouched behind her neighbor’s rain barrel, and her brows drew down.
“Help,” he mouthed.
She squinted down the alley at the toughs, who were working on stepping back into shadows a little too small for them.
“And what are you doing here, anyway? In. And don’t you leave dirty footprints in my kitchen. I’ve had quite enough of cleaning up after you.”
Djaren scuttled gratefully inside, and was careful to keep to the mat, and off the fresh-scrubbed kitchen floor. “Thank you ma’am,” he said, once she’d closed the door. Missus Cranderly’s house was small and thin, in a tall row of similar houses, with the front door just one room away from the back door.
“Why any of you students think you should wander down this way I don’t know,” she said. “Only I do. Why someone with your baby face thought you could get a drink in one of those pubs in the first place, I can’t imagine.”
“It’s not what you think, Missus Cranderly,”
“Oh, isn’t it? A dare, was it, then?”
“I’m investigating suspected grave robbers,” Djaren admitted.
Missus Cranderly looked at him incredulously. “Whatever for? And in these gray hours and in this piece of town? I thought you were the clever one. Haven’t you enough schoolwork to do, or aren’t they keeping you busy enough up there?”
“I don’t know.” Djaren said. “It seemed really wrong of them to do, and exciting, and I can’t stand sitting in a hall all day when there’s injustice.”
Missus Cranderly threw down some fresh straw over the stones, and guided him across it with fussing noises, into the little room with stairs leading up that was her front parlor. “You’ve just got a bug up your shirt that’ll never let you rest. My son’s the same. When he’s at home from sea it’s one disaster after another. Well, you can’t stay here, you understand. It isn’t proper. And like I said, I do enough looking after you in daylight hours.”
“If I could just use your front door to leave, that’s all I can ask,” Djaren said.
Missus Cranderly frowned. “It’s not the neighborhood it was when I was raising my own. You can’t gad about at night out there.”
“I’ve a friend nearby that I can call on.”
“Oh, and you are far too young to be visiting those houses!”
“Missus Cranderly, I swear I’m only looking into corpse thieves. My friend’s in the graveyard, I think.”
“You need to get straight away back to school and to bed and make better friends.”
“Yes, thank you, Missus Cranderly,” Djaren said, ears burning.
“And in return, I don’t ever want to find fish entrails on the floor, on the window sill, or in any other part of your suite again. And if ever one of you takes chalk to the walls again—”
“That was me. Never again, I promise.”
“Good.” Missus Cranderly looked out the front windows. “Your friend isn’t that tall dark fellow with the hat what’s been following you lately?”
Djaren found another small pane. He recognized the man who often lurked about the outer buildings of the university, and whom he suspected of following Kara. The man had sharp eyes, a notebook, and a chain trailing from a pocket so flat that it must be for a lens, not a watch. Djaren had been trying to find out who the local constabulary employed for investigations of theft, but doing so in any thoroughness without Kara finding out was impossible.
“He’s an inspector,” Djaren guessed.
“Well, I insist you leave off for the night. Unlike your dashing savage roommate, you don’t have bodyguards.”
“Well I’ll be off then.” Djaren smiled, waved, and darted out the front, right up to where the mysterious inspector was looking quite startled at his sudden appearance.
Djaren waved reassurance at Missus Cranderly, and smiled at the man. “Who are you working for?” he asked him.
The man blinked, but gathered his composure quickly and showed no further sign of his consternation. “That’s in confidence.”
“It’s just that I hope you’re not attempting to make trouble for my bodyguard. It would be unpleasant if there were to be an international incident over a misunderstanding. So I’d like to understand.”
The man lifted his eyebrows. “Your bodyguard? I have noted no Shandorian bodyguard assigned to your service, young master Blackfeather.”
“Openly, no. Discretion is one of my guard’s peerless skills. I do believe, however, that as his employer, my diplomatic protections apply to my bodyguard’s actions while in my service. I might feel called to resent any individuals making it difficult for my bodyguard to execute his duty. I would like to know to whom to bring my complaints.” Djaren hoped that sounded appropriately pompous and intimidating. Isakoa could do imperious really well at the drop of a hat, and he’d had to, to get any respect from some of his ruder peers at Cambriol.
“Just what services does your bodyguard render for you?” the investigator asked him, eyes calculating.
“What?” It was Djaren’s turn to try to brush down confusion and annoyance. He wasn’t so good at that. “We’re friends. We have each other’s backs. We’ve seen things, faced adventures. I don’t have to answer to you. Back off.”
“And where is your bodyguard right now?” the man asked, tapping his cane with a sound that told Djaren it wasn’t just a cane.
“Near,” Djaren said vaguely. “Now look, I don’t want to see you again.”
“Tell your bodyguard,” the man said, in a voice loud enough to carry to sharp ears nearby, “that whatever the Shandorian government is paying her, my employer will double it. And that if she comes to us, she won’t have to serve any pale lordling from sheep country ever again.”
Djaren made a noise of objection that came out more like a squawk, and the investigator tipped his hat to him and walked away.
Djaren was still trying to think of a comeback when the man passed the alley of the toughs, and two of them sidled out to confront him. The investigator lifted his cane, and stepped away from them. He then turned his back and walked away. The first tough to lunge after him was knocked down by a man in black robes who had been huddled invisibly on the other side of the street. A second form in black robes hopped down from a windowsill, a knife shining is its hand. The investigator just walked away, never looking back at the sounds that came from the alley.
Djaren ran the other direction, cursing silently. The investigator clearly did not work for the local constabulary. This was really, really bad.