The night stars had changed a little, Kara noted. The constellation she called the running dog was now racing for the southern horizon. The night crew wasn’t practicing now; they were resting, recovering from a harrowing series of adventures she was still working at pulling out of Rades and Hirnar.
Djaren sat beside her on the deck, quietly watching the same stars. They’d given their old cabin over to Professor Hallowfield and an injured member of her team. Djaren claimed that sleeping above decks was better anyway. It was colder, at night, and they’d come to a silent agreement not to notice or mention when they pulled closer together for warmth or woke curled a little too near.
“I can’t go back to Shandor with you,” Kara said, breaking the quiet with the words she’d been trying to get out for several nights now.
“Is it all right to ask why?”
“I understand that you’re scared. You shouldn’t have to face anything alone. We’re allies.”
“I have plans for you,” the rotting man had said. About Djaren. She wasn’t going to lead that thing straight to his home. It had wanted the Professor dead. How easy would that be now, with him so small and helpless? Doctor and Lady Blackfeather had once seemed invincible. Now they clung to one another when they thought no one could see. They’d rescued every missing Shandorian and a lot of strangers, but Kara had a sense there were others they hadn’t been able to save, and couldn’t speak about in front of children. Wherever she went, in all the world, the men in black robes could find her. They’d proved it. She said nothing.
“Right,” Djaren said at last. “Then I won’t go to Shandor, either. Where are we going?”
She glared at him.
“I’m serious,” he said. She missed his stupid glasses. Without them, his eyes could be unbearably intense.
“That’s why I’m mad at you,” she said. “You’re stupid enough to mean that.”
“We need to talk,” Lady Blackfeather said, walking up behind them and effectively ending the conversation. “Inside.”
They followed her to a little room off the kitchen. Doctor Blackfeather was already waiting. Djaren and Kara took seats at the table and looked up.
“Kara,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “The Shandorian government wishes to hire you.”
“We can’t go on ignoring events as countries change and modernize around us,” he went on. “Shandorians have a particular view of the world, and the world offers only a particular view to us. You grew up in another world entirely.”
“Yeah,” Kara said, carefully leaving out the swear words she’d usually have accompanied that with.
“Your eyes and ears see things few of our agents can,” Lady Blackfeather said.
“Shandor has spies?” Kara asked.
“Shandor has visiting scholars, nontraditional archeologists, and tourists with their eyes open. What we do not have are trained watchers who can survive anywhere they are placed.”
“You want me to be some kind of spy for you?”
“We want to pay you fairly for what you already do, fairly enough that you will not need to steal to eat and travel,” Lady Blackfeather said.
“I won’t take help from anybody,” Kara warned.
“Which is why I am offering a way you can instead help us,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “And in future, if it is something you wish, we can provide you with training. You can hone the skills you began learning with the night crew. You can tell us where you want safe houses, and we’ll create them for you. Jon has offered to keep tutoring you at your convenience, and if there are any other gaps in your education you would like filled, we can find teachers wherever you choose to roam.”
“Though we’re hoping you’ll be willing to take on an assignment that involves staying in one place,” Lady Blackfeather said. “We’re sending a future Shandorian diplomat to Cambriol, in Arien. He’s a challenging charge who will doubtless attract trouble, enemies, and chaos. He needs a bodyguard he won’t try to escape.”
Djaren’s eyes widened. “What? Really? You had better mean me because if you’re sending someone else—”
“We mean you, love.” Lady Blackfeather patted his hand.
Kara swallowed. A secret agent, traveling in any car of the train she wanted. With tickets, even. She could walk in the front doors of hotels wearing Lady Blackfeather’s sort of clothes, with money enough to prove she could be there. Did she want that? Doesn’t matter, you can’t have it. They still don’t know what you are, and what’s hunting you.
“I have to think,” she said, and stormed out. Her chest hurt. Why did they always find ways to make her want impossible things? She leaned against the rails of the Land’s Wings, looking at the dark ocean with blurry eyes.
“Kara?” It was Jon’s voice, behind her.
She turned, ready to curse him off, but he was blurry-eyed too, and not who she wanted to hit. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“Not me, the Professor. Tam’s frantic. Says we’re losing him and there’s no time to get him to the Queen. He, he went in there and now he’s not waking up either!”
Kara darted for the cabin the Gardner boys were sharing with the Professor. All looked peaceful enough inside. The Professor lay where he’d been laying all this time, little and scarred and not at all Professor-like. Tam sat beside the cot on a chair, slumped over asleep, holding one of the scarred little hands.
“They won’t wake up,” Jon said. “I don’t know what to do, and my hand won’t help, and Tam sounded so scared.”
“Why did you come and get me?” Kara asked, staring in dismay.
Jon shook his head mutely.
Kara put a hand on the Professor’s forehead, like Anna did to see if people had fever. It didn’t tell her much. “Go get someone helpful!” she snapped at Jon. He turned and ran.
Some instinct made Kara move her hand along through pale hair, past the Professor’s funny triangular ear, around to the back of his neck. Then she felt it. Darkness, solid, and lodged where it shouldn’t be. She scratched at it with her fingernail, and was alarmed to find she’d broken skin. Blood pooled in her hand. Panicked, she dug at the shape, slippery now with blood. She couldn’t grip it. She focused on it, glared, demanded that it give under her hand, just like she did with locks. It slipped free, a black crystal, followed by a small torrent of blood that she had no idea what to do about.
She swore and clamped her hand down tight over the wound. Don’t come out. No more blood. Thicken, already. It didn’t work, not the way it worked on her own wounds. I’m killing the Professor. Great.
Stop, she told the blood, more firmly this time, focusing on the wound, on the Professor, on how he wasn’t like her at all. His pattern was different from hers, as different as lace from leather. She willed more finicky little lacy bits to build up and bolster the weak parts in his pattern. It would have been easier if he weren’t all complicated weak bits. She found five more little crystals, close to the surface, and pulled them out carefully, two from his side, one from his right arm, one from his left foot, and one from a place beside a recent scar. They came out easier now, leaving only small cuts in their wake, less important to staunch.
If it was difficult to make the Professor’s body stop bleeding, it was frighteningly easy to make the black crystals move. The last two slipped free without her touching them at all. She crushed them in one bloodied fist and they crumbled to wet grit. When she wiped the mess off on one leg it melted in. Just like the rotting man’s poison.
She didn’t have time to dwell on that, though, because Doctor Blackfeather burst in, and dropped to his knees by the bedside, gripping Tam and the Professor’s other hands, his eyes burning that intense pale green he usually hid.
“Come back!” The demand was deep and loud enough that Kara twitched at it, though it wasn’t directed toward her.
Tam’s eyes opened, and he lurched. “Loud,” he said, wincing.
“I am sorry,” Doctor Blackfeather said.
“You’re right easy to find when you want to be,” Tam said woozily. “I didn’t know.”
The Professor’s eyes opened next, clear and blue, almost as big as Jon’s, and with eyelashes as long as Djaren’s. He wore an age as inexplicable as Djaren’s or her own. “Corin?” he said.
Doctor Blackfeather hugged him tightly, and didn’t let go.
* * *
“I had to go fair deep to find him, and once I was there, I got lost like. I was slipping right along with him, without even my name to guide me by. I couldn’t find Jon, or I got him confused with the Professor or some such,” Tam said, over tea and porridge. “I’m not good at explaining these things. It was dark and getting darker, and then, well, something broke loose in the walls, and there was light again. And then you went and yanked at me, like, and I grabbed at him so we wouldn’t be separated and out we came like fish up into a boat.”
Tam looked at the faces around him. “What? I said I wasn’t good at explaining.”
“I think we may owe you again,” Doctor Blackfeather said, staring intently at Kara.
“You don’t,” Kara said bitterly. She set the last black crystal on the table, and smashed it to a liquid with one hand, watching their reactions. Djaren, curse him, looked happily interested. “That’s not all either,” she growled, and pulled out the medallion she’d got off the cultist, threw it on the table. “Men in black robes keep following me. They had that.”
Doctor Blackfeather looked at the medallion, and then at her. He stayed annoyingly calm. “Since Alarna, I am guessing.”
“Yes,” Kara said, uncertain now. She wasn’t sure what she’d thought they’d do, but staying calm wasn’t it.
“Then the first skill you should learn is how to walk unseen, as I do.”
“What?” Kara stared at him.
“You aren’t the only unusual child to be hunted by Vashiel,” Doctor Blackfeather said, glancing over at the small wide-eyed Professor, bundled and bandaged in a sandwich between Jon and Tam. “But I will do my best to see that you are the last.”
He honestly didn’t realize that she was a monster. Strange creature that he was, with his odd wife and odd children, he saw her as one of them. It hurt and warmed, both at once. Kara looked at the others, to see if any of them realized his mistake. If they did, it didn’t show on their faces. Kara felt frantically worried for them. “I wouldn’t be a bodyguard, I’d be a target! Everyone who’s ever tried to be kind to me died!”
“Except us,” said Djaren.
“But you keep pressing your luck,” Kara snapped at him.
Lady Blackfeather was suddenly hugging her. It was so unexpected and alien and so achingly nice that Kara was almost in tears. This was how a mother held her children, and no one in the world had ever dared to offer Kara so much before. She was so startled that she didn’t squawk or pull away. And then it was too late, and she didn’t want the whole fairy tale to end again. She’d given the Blackfeathers up twice already, and each time it left her emptier. She was crying now, and couldn’t get out of the hug without letting the room know. Lady Blackfeather didn’t let on, or seem to mind tears and other things leaking onto her soft shawl.
“We’re ever so hard to kill, dear,” Lady Blackfeather whispered. “And we don’t ever abandon our allies. I’ve been wanting to capture you into our safekeeping for so long. Please let us. Just a little. I promise we won’t leave you.”
“Won’t you want me to change?” Kara sniffed, muffled.
“Only what you decide to change for yourself. I think you are talented and delightful and strong-headed and loyal even when you wish you weren’t. And I think you can win the war you’ve been having with the world, but only when you’ve stopped fighting with yourself.”
Kara pulled away at last, a little reluctantly, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I only work for real paper money. No weird Shandorian coins or whatever.”
“We’ll have to go to the exchanger and see what these are worth, then.” Doctor Blackfeather handed her a dark-colored crystal, not at all like the ones that had come out of the Professor. It was a knuckle-sized black diamond. Kara could feel the realness of it in its pattern. Going legally to an exchanger, not a fence, that meant more money. Kara wasn’t sure how much, only that it was enough for more things than she could reasonably carry even if she bought a coach.
“Welcome to our operation,” Lady Blackfeather told her. “What should you like to wear in Cambriol? I hear it rains there often. Perhaps you’ll want a new longcoat.”
Djaren was grinning at her, his eyes a little blurry, too.
“What are you going to wear?” she asked him. “More leathers and braids?”
“I was thinking of facial tattoos, like the Kaunatoans,” Djaren said mischievously, looking sideways at his mother.
She smacked the back of his head. “Careful, love. Pick your enemies and take one revolution at a time. We’re letting you go away to school, but you’re not out of my care yet.”
“So Djaren’s going to Cambriol?” the Professor’s unexpectedly young voice said.
“Along with the Kaunatoan king, with any luck. Next term, if he gets his papers together by summer’s end.”
“I’ve been thinking,” the Professor said, untangling his hands from the blankets and looking at them with some confusion. “I will need a new identity now. Again.” He blinked up at the Blackfeathers. He’d become so much smaller than them. “I was already looking too young for my last one. And this, well, let’s just say that no one I knew at Cambriol fifty years ago would recognize me.”
“You are certainly not the uncle we left with,” Djaren agreed.
“I know the place, or knew it, and I’m something of an expert on attending universities.” The Professor fidgeted, looking anything but an expert. “Perhaps I can gain some insights into modern perspectives on scholarship. I think I may have been becoming old-fashioned. Again. This, ah, unexpected turn may provide an opportunity to remedy that.”
“Whatever you wish,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “You have more than earned some time and rest. I am so grateful to have you alive that I would grant you anything.” He smiled. “Though tutoring Djaren and the Kaunatoans is unlikely to be restful in any way.”
The Professor smiled at Djaren and Kara, awkward. “It might be better if you just called me Eabrey now.”
“How about Eldjiah?” Tam said quietly.
“Oh,” the Professor said, looking at Tam with wonder. “I think . . . that is . . .You found my name.”
“It looked like something missing, earlier, so I grabbed it.” Tam shrugged.
“Isn’t that a word in Ancient?” Jon asked.
“I think it means something like ‘to restore,’” Djaren said.
“Well, that’s right, then,” Tam said. “If you’re needing a new last name to go with it, it’d be fine if you’d want to use Gardner.”
The Professor smiled up at Tam. “I would count that a great honor.”
“Do you know,” Djaren told Kara, out on the deck again, under stars. “When I left Shandor, on this boat, I was being rather an idiot, all worried I’d never be seen as an adult, or do anything exciting or heroic. And here’s Uncle, ah, Eldjiah having to live his life all over again from our age, and jumping right into it with no complaints. You’re right when you think I’m spoiled. Remind me not to be an idiot now and then, will you?”
“I’ll punch you when you need it,” Kara said, amiable. “And now? More school, you’re sure?”
“Now, you and me, we can do anything. Be anything, Take on the whole world.”
“Burn it down, more probably,” Kara said.
Djaren grinned at the stars. “Ellea said something like that, too.”