Kara gripped the ladder rungs and clambered swiftly up to her favorite place atop the moving train. There was a breathless instant as she moved from the steel rungs to the smooth roof surface, and a windy scramble for a good seat, and then she had it. For a moment, Kara was completely happy. The mountains of southern Germhacht flew by like something from a picture card. Little cottages perched about blue lakes full of little boats, seeming as unreal as toys or a window display. The air smelled of mountain meadows and pines as it whipped in her short cropped curls and her big black coat. It was almost like flying.
Sadly, Kara was not flying. In another moment the men following her would discover where she’d gone. Kara sighed and edged out further along the top of the train toward the next car. She made the giddy jump and won the scramble for good footing on the other side. Things were never easy, at least not for a professional thief.
Kara was a good thief, possibly the best of her age. She didn’t know precisely what that age was, apart from older than twelve. She looked about ten, but knew she had to be older than that. It was an advantage sometimes to have no age, no parents, and no responsibilities in the world. This was not looking like one of those times. A shout came from several cars back. Kara looked over her shoulder to see one of her pursuers climbing up to the top of the train car she had started from. She let out a few of her favorite curses and, deciding it was time to be reckless, began to run along the top of the train and took the next gap at a flying leap. If she could get to the passenger cars well ahead of pursuit she might find a good hiding place. And if she could do that before the approaching tunnel it would be even better.
Kara swore again, seeing a head emerge over the top of a car four down, in the direction she was heading. She dropped and flattened her small body to the top of the train, and watched with a grin as the men before and behind took cover between cars as they approached the tunnel. The moment they were in darkness, Kara pushed herself to the edge of the car and looked down over the side. Her eyes adjusted perfectly to the dim light, as they always did, and she found the nearest window and pried it open. She slid down and flipped over, vaulting in through the small window to drop, rolling, into an upper class sleeper car.
She heard people approaching from the stateroom beyond, but a steamer trunk stood unlocked just feet from her. Kara pulled the window shut and pushed open the trunk, curling into it and closing it behind her even as the train emerged into light again.
Kara found herself in what were obviously a noble’s belongings and began systematically rummaging about for useful items. It was a man’s trunk, and smelled of some kind of cologne and shaving cream. Her fingers found a tin of complexion powder, and she concluded that the man was vain, or the victim of bad skin. She paused in her investigation as she heard the stateroom door open and waited, frozen, to be discovered or not.
“I’ve won us a victory, Varden. Stop sulking,” a man with an Arienish accent said. “The find is mine, is ours if you like, and that backwoods mystic with the irregular degree is left empty-handed and looking a fool. You might try to celebrate.”
A younger man’s voice answered with the same accent and a low, bitter tone. “We’ve been banned from the country, father. All foreign nationals of every academic discipline have been banned from the country. No one will get any kind of discovery for fifty years or more. But you’ve won. Should I order champagne?”
“You might try to be a little grateful, Varden. ” There was disappointment and a certain oiliness to the older voice. Kara decided the face powder must be his, and set it aside. “This was for you, as much as for anything. Your dissertation–”
“Has to be entirely re-written,” the younger man snapped, “now that my area of research has been slammed shut because you wanted to deprive a rival of some artifact.”
“Listen to me, boy.” The older man’s voice went cold. “Governments are made of men. All that is required is to be a greater man. The greatest explorers and discoverers of our time have known how to work beyond the laws of the ignorant. Science and learning can’t be bound by the restrictions of the uneducated. The great make the laws, and the lesser live by them. I’ll write a letter to Lord Halsingram. He has some influence in that area since his company bought the salt mines. We could be back in a few months.”
“Through bribes and blackmail, wonderful,” the younger voice retorted. Kara grinned dryly. Nobles, sure enough. Well, that meant there should be some good finds in this trunk.
“I will not be spoken to in that tone,” the older voice said. “Change your precious dissertation. Write whatever you like about Narmos, or choose another ruin. There are plenty of ancient civilizations to choose from.”
“For you to plunder without the least documentation, and to sell to whatever museum will mislabel them–”
“For you make your precious reputation on,” the older voice said. “And if you want to keep attending strings of universities on my benevolent fortune, you’ll be civil. Any other son might be happy to have a prestigious archeologist as a father.”
And I thought I was a thief. Someone had told her once that archeologists and tomb thieves were the same. She’d met an assortment of both now, and had to conclude that certain tomb thieves and certain archeologists were far from being anything ordinary at all. Judging by the contents of this trunk, these were the ordinary thieving variety of archeologists. Good. Kara rifled quietly through support stockings, several starched cravats, and a coat with tails, and then she heard the name that froze her in mid-action.
“And if he brings a petition to his contacts as well?”
“Blackfeather can petition the Society as much as he likes, but he won’t get a permit. And I already have what he’s after.”
Kara had mixed feelings about hearing the name Blackfeather. When she’d first found the job in Germhacht she had been pleased, knowing the Blackfeathers would be there. That feeling had shifted toward annoyance as she realized that the Blackfeathers being there meant they would interfere while she was trying to pull off her job. She’d been hoping recently that she might just avoid them entirely. She ought to have known she wasn’t that lucky.
“You think Blackfeather planned to dig up all of the lost empire of Narmos for a single item?” The younger voice sounded skeptical.
“Oh, he pretends to catalogue everything, and to turn in full and tidy lists to the governments and the Society, but he pockets things like everybody else, and I’ll swear it’s the seal of Kesh that he’s after. I saw that lackey of his, Sheridan, in the library poring over texts about it. Mark my words, he wants it.”
The younger man’s voice was like ice. “You jeopardized my entire academic career on a petty—”
“I told you I will not be addressed in that tone. I created your career and I can end it.”
Kara was getting bored with the family bickering. She stopped listening and ran her hands around the lining of the case, looking in all the usual places for secret pockets and compartments. The back of a drawer proved to have a false bottom, and Kara was made happy by the discovery of several small parcels. She pocketed them for later.
The boring argument was abruptly broken off by a sharp and insistent knock upon the door. It was a knock of authority, and Kara froze again, knowing what it meant. The younger gentleman opened the door with an annoyed question, and the train guard answered him with a half-heard apology and inquiries as to whether either gentleman had seen any trace of a ragged dark-skinned boy in a black coat. The younger gentleman answered rather rudely that they had not, and when the train guard suggested that he might make a search of the compartment, the older gentleman tiraded him with language that impressed even Kara. The danger of the train guard having been soundly rebuffed, the door shut again, closing Kara in with the two bickering nobles.
Kara unwrapped one of the smaller parcels and deduced by feel that it was a metal face. She tried her teeth on it and decided it was gold. Her luck was getting better. The door to the train compartment opened again, and both men abruptly stopped speaking.
“Father, Varden, is something wrong? I heard shouting from this carriage. The guard says there’s been a thief through some staterooms. Did he come in here?” The new voice was a child’s, accented like the others.
“No, Morly, everything’s well,” the younger man said quickly.
“If the thief had tried coming in here, we’d have pitched him out the window,” the older man said, in a voice both jovial and false.
“It’s terribly exciting, isn’t it? And we’ll be rounding the Hillesbrau falls in another minute, come see! Please come see.”
“All right, we’ll come.”
Kara sighed with relief as the compartment door slid shut behind them. She crept out of the trunk, rubbing at her cramped legs, and slipped to the door. Peering out, she saw that the noble family had not gone far. They all stood looking out the window across the narrow passage: an older man in a frock coat and face powder; a tall, thin young man, handsome but for his scowl; and a small boy with long, messy black hair and a wrinkled cravat. The small boy was bouncing excitedly and pointing at things out the window. Kara paused for a moment, unsure where to go next, and then the little boy pulled the two men further along the corridor for a view out another window.
Kara eased the compartment door open soundlessly and crept down the corridor in the opposite direction. After crossing three cars without incident, Kara breathed easier. All these cars had already been searched, and she was in lower-class territory now. If people could find anything to steal from the passengers in these cars, no one cared. A compartment door opened suddenly just ahead of her, and a small boy with blond hair stepped out into her path.
Kara stopped, frowning down at the boy. She recognized him. He was a little taller, but no less wide-eyed and gullible-looking than he’d been last year. If anything, Jon Gardner’s blue eyes had gotten bigger. He smiled at her. “You’re here! Djaren said you would come. How are you?”
“Fine.” Kara looked both ways, watching for guards, and peered into Jon’s compartment. His older brother Tam was there, too, a bit taller and even more awkward than last year. His hair looked like it had been cut by way of a bowl and some pruning shears. His big hands fumbled with a paper, and he dropped it as he looked up and saw her. “Kara?”
“Shut up, you talk too loud.”
“Hello, Kara,” a mild adult voice greeted her. Kara jumped, as the scar-faced and slender Professor Sheridan looked around the corner of the door. He unnerved her even when he wasn’t popping unexpectedly around corners. He wasn’t right, somehow. He was too young to be a Professor, his clothes were a good forty years out of date, his ears were strange, and his otherwise handsome young face along with all his visible skin was covered in a web-work of faded scars. That, and he shared some kind of mysterious past with the undead monster that had attacked him, the Gardner boys, and the Blackfeathers last summer at an archeological dig Kara happened to be robbing. He smiled at her, seeming unbothered by her grimace. “You may want to speak inside the compartment. There were some guards through earlier looking for someone.” His look said that he guessed who that someone was.
“They were rude fellows, too,” Tam put in, his backward Shandorian accent much thicker than his little brother’s. “They gave us suspicious looks.”
“I can’t stay.” Kara frowned. “I’m not here to chat.”
Jon looked hurt, but before Kara could be ruder, or instead say something nice, she noticed a silvery glow emanating from his hand.
“You still have that thing you found in the tomb, eh?”
Jon looked down, surprised, “It doesn’t normally show so much.” He stared at his palm, glowing with a lacy silver design, and then shoved his hand deep into his pocket.
“Explaining that to Ma was difficult,” Tam said. “She still seems to think that enough soap will eventually make it go away.”
“But really,” Jon said, “most of the time it’s quiet, nearly invisible.” He glanced down worriedly at his now glowing pocket.
“Right. Well, I don’t envy you.” Kara sensed movement a car down, and looked up to see a guard walking the length of the car ahead. “Look, I’ll see you later.”
She walked off without waiting for an answer, trying to walk casually. Time to find a nice quiet luggage car to hide out in for the rest of the trip, and avoid people, noble and strange, altogether. It would be nice, just for once, to have an uneventful summer. She could steal things in peace and quiet.