The shrill woman with the robe and the laquered fingernails smoothed out a sheet of crumpled paper, fussily. Kara waited, impatient, while the woman meticulously unwrapped each fragile object and inspected it, as well as each crushed bit of paper Kara had used for wrapping. She made distressed little noises over a smeary wet wad that had met an accident with a puddle on the long slog here. Kara waved smelly incense smoke away from her nose and sighed.
“Well, it all does seem to be here,” the woman said thinly. “Rather more, even, than we were expecting of you, I must say. You have earned our trust.”
“Yes, well, I’m talented.” Kara made a face.
“Mmm.” The woman eased apart two wet sheets and blinked at them. “Well.” She set them aside and templed her fingers, regarding Kara sternly from under her purple hood. “This next task will be much more complicated and vital. You will need all your wits and talents to accomplish it and you will, of course, be rewarded even more richly.”
Kara thumbed through the roll of paper Germhacht money she had just earned, and frowned suspiciously. “How difficult, and how much more richly?”
“Lord Marlton Chauncellor of Arien is here, at his summer estate outside of town. He has lately returned from Narmos, and is rumored to have brought back a few small items. Bring these to me, and you will be greatly rewarded.” The woman opened a purse full of gold. At Kara’s glance, she sighed. “In silver, or paper, or sandwiches, or whatever annoying little boys want.”
Kara grinned abruptly. “Deal.”
“You will have to get into the manor house,” the woman said. “It is guarded, and there are dogs. We don’t know where in the house these artifacts might be.”
“Small objects from Narmos?” Kara paused, wondering how far to push this for a higher offer. The woman made a distressed face over another sodden lump of papers, and Kara decided not to press her luck. “I think I can handle it.” The artifacts were, after all, behind the brick where she had left them, and she couldn’t really fence them for more than she was being offered by this gullible sod, anyway.
“It is terribly important to us that you do,” the woman said fervently. “For the good of all spirits.”
“It could be tough,” Kara said. “But I’ll do it. The spirits just better pay that carriage fare up front.”
Kara left with a down payment in her deep pockets, and a feeling of wicked exhilaration. Finally, her luck was changing.
* * * * *
Anna adjusted a new hat on her curls, piled high today in a style favored by Lady Blackfeather, and smiled at her painting mirror. Through a funny, stilted little conversation via visiting cards, she and the very correct Lord Varden Chauncellor had agreed to meet at the front of the Berdrach manor gates later in the afternoon. Anna had pinned up the collection of cards with their stiffly polite little queries on a corkboard. She stopped adjusting her hat ribbons at the sound of the bell. Visitors already? Surely it wasn’t another addendum to the note collection. He wouldn’t dare cancel. Not when she’d finally got both her hair and her hopes up. She swept into the hallway and paused, unsure whether or not it was proper for young ladies to charge up and fling doors open breathlessly. Djaren shot past from his room, and threw the door open breathlessly. “Is it Ka—” He cut off abruptly, finding himself face to face with Mister Pumphrey and the ever-present spiritualists in a bunch on the doorstop.
“Hello, young Master Blackfeather,” the shrill woman cooed. “Has your dear father found an opportunity to read Mister Pumphrey’s book?”
Djaren made a small noise in his throat and tried to shut the door again, but some sparkling personage had their umbrella blocking it. Djaren threw a distressed glance over his shoulder at Anna, who ducked back out of sight. Tam looked out from the boys’ room, across the hall, and started, letting out a colorful bit of invective in Shandorian mountain speech. Anna tried unsuccessfully to smother a giggle. Tam must have heard it, because he looked at her and his face turned red.
“Is that your Mother?” the shrill woman asked Djaren. “I simply must speak to her.”
“Is your father well enough to take visitors?” Pumphrey asked.
“He’s, ah . . .” Djaren looked from face to face, clearly horrified.
“Hiding,” a snide voice with an Arienish accent spoke from behind the group. “Out of my way, I have important business with Blackfeather that I don’t believe he’ll want discussed in public.”
Djaren jumped. “Mother!” he called. “Pumphrites! And Marlton Chauncellor.” Anna had heard him yell, “Avalanche! Run!” in the same tone. What was Varden’s father doing here?
Lady Blackfeather appeared from the parlor, her eyes wide. She bit back an unconscious repetition of Tam’s outburst. “Oh, dear. No, I’m sorry, this is a very bad time. The Doctor is not—”
Marlton Chauncellor succeeded at last in elbowing the weakly protesting spiritualists out of the way with the aid of his decorative cane, and entered the room with purpose. “Doctor Blackfeather will face me at once to answer for the theft of my property! Here lad, why don’t you take me to him.” He reached a hand for Djaren’s shoulder.
Lady Blackfeather grabbed Djaren’s arm and pushed him around behind her, out of Lord Chauncellor’s reach. Tam rushed out to back her up, and Uncle Eabrey emerged from the rear study, looking concerned.
“I will ask you to remove yourself from my sitting room immediately,” Lady Blackfeather said to Marlton Chauncellor. Tam stood tall behind her, and Djaren attempted to as well, but was blocked by his mother’s back.
“Don’t pretend outraged innocence at me,” the elder Chauncellor said coldly. “I am nobody’s fool. I shall soon be able to prove that you and your family were behind the theft of my antiquities. You’ll be expelled from the Society, and from every other academic institution on the continent. I can see to that.”
“You quite forget yourself, Lord Chauncellor,” Lady Blackfeather said. “My family has had nothing to do with any of your dealings, or misfortunes.”
“Hah!” said Chauncellor. “I saw him. I saw your boy talking to the little foreign thief. That strongly implies that you’re in league with criminals. Where is the ever mysterious Doctor Blackfeather? Is he hiding from me, or is he gone, fraternizing with the same vandals who robbed the Society library last night? What other disappearances of valuables has he had a hand in? I know he wanted the seal of Kesh for himself, but to think he would stoop to this kind of petty rivalty, really. I have no choice but to make a report to the Society about this.”
The group of Pumphrites twittered in alarm and exchanged shocked whispers.
A worried whimper from across the hall drew Anna’s attention. Jon stood in the doorway of the boys’ room looking at his open palm, which was glowing with a strong silver light. He stared from it to her, and tried to smother the light in his shirt tails.
Tam turned, looking alarmed. Jon sprang back into the boys’ room.
“Out, at once,” Lady Blackfeather ordered. “If you will bring slanders, bring them with some semblance of evidence. Baseless theorizing is a weakness that is neither charming in your writings or your person. Good day. All of you.”
Marlton Chauncellor resisted his expulsion more strongly than the flustered Pumphrites. “I will not be bullied, madam.”
“Fine. Neither will I. Out.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this.”
Lady Blackfeather shut the door on him, and he withdrew to save both his dignity and his foot from being smashed.
Lady Blackfeather leaned on the closed door and sighed.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Djaren said.
Jon and Anna emerged again and joined the party in the sitting room. The mad glow in Jon’s hand was just beginning to subside. Tam took his brother’s hand and examined it, worried.
“I’m sorry, Tam,” Jon said. “There’s something up with them. Whenever they’re around, this happens.”
Anna and Tam exchanged a frown. “That can’t be quite right,” Tam said.
The Professor studied the fading lines of silver in Jon’s palm. “Did it begin glowing when Pumphrey’s people arrived, or later, when Chauncellor came to the door?”
“I don’t know. It was all rather fast, sir.”
“It’s quite all right. But next time your hand glows, let us know and we’ll see if we can pinpoint what has triggered it. It may awaken in the presence of demonic power.”
Jon looked down at his palm and made a face. “You mean my hand sees demons?”
“Speaking of demons, and artifacts and possessions and things,” Djaren said, “do you think Chauncellor really meant to say he’d had the Seal of Kesh and lost it? It rather sounded like he did.”
“Oh dear,” Lady Blackfeather said. “That’s very worrying.”
“Jon, when else did your hand glow?” Tam asked.
“Around Pumphrey,” Jon said, “and that once on the train.”
“When only Kara was there,” the Professor said, setting down a volume he’d picked up from the shelf.
“She stole the seal,” Djaren’s eyes widened. “But when? Was Chauncellor on the same train you came in on?”
Tam scratched at his neck. “The train guards were looking for a thief, before Kara came by.”
“But Chauncellor was only robbed the day we were at the gallery,” Anna pointed out. “A full day later.”
“Or that’s just when he went to unpack,” Djaren said. “Remember it took me two weeks to work out she’d taken my spectacle case.”
“So Kara had the seal of Kesh,” Lady Hellin said.
The Professor rubbed at his temples. “I think that qualifies as the wrong hands.”
“I told her what it was,” Djaren said. “In the library, there was a picture in my book, and she asked what it was, and backed away. She didn’t like it.”
“Then she didn’t have ought to go stealing it,” Tam said.
“The question is, who hired Kara to steal it?” Lady Hellin said. “We know her last employer was more sinister than the usual antiquities dealer. Who is she working for this time?”
“You don’t suppose,” said Jon, frowning, “that one of the Pumphrites is possessed?”
“What, with the seal of Kesh?” Djaren asked. “They wear some fairly gaudy jewelry, but I’d think we’d have noticed that.”
“I really couldn’t think much of any demon who would possess a Pumphrite,” Ellea said.
“They don’t strike one as the most powerful champions of the age,” Djaren agreed.
“How do I fight them, though?” Jon asked. “I mean, if one of them really is possessed?”
“With great care and planning, and never alone,” the Professor said. “That’s what our research is for. Different powers have different idiosyncrasies.”
“If they’re all bodiless, I guess you have to wait until they’re in a person. Then can you just whack them on the head with a mallet?” Tam wanted to know.
“But can’t you cure someone of possession?” Jon asked. “You must be able to make them right again, somehow. I don’t want to hurt people.”
“It’s somewhat complicated,” the Professor said, “and the person has to want to be cured.”
“Well, I aim to bring a mallet along with me just in case I see someone not right in the eyes,” Tam said, buttoning his jacket.
“I really must advise against hitting strangers in the head,” Lady Blackfeather said firmly. “We should rely on more evidence than odd looks to determine who is behind all this.”
“Maybe I can learn something at the Berdrach, from Varden,” Anna said. “But I really can’t learn anything if we don’t go now. We’re going to be late, Tam.”
“Oh, right.” Tam scrambled for his new gumboots.
“You’re still going?” Djaren asked. “But no Chauncellor is going to want anything to do with any Blackfeathers.”
“Unless it involves strangling,” Ellea added.
“I’m not a Blackfeather. I’m Anna, who happens to be staying at the same hotel. You were the one seen consorting with a thief.”
“The Chauncellors are thieves!”
“Children!” Lady Blackfeather interrupted their argument. “Anna, Tam, go along to the collection. I’m sure it will be a good educational experience for you. I will trust you to be very careful. Don’t go surrendering your own good sense. Djaren, I think you and Ellea had both better stay out of trouble. I know you admire Kara, but her inadvisable actions could create unpleasant consequences for everyone near her. You’ll be staying in the hotel today.”
“We cannot afford to be expelled from the Society. I won’t have it. Not because of that . . . fool, Chauncellor. We shall have to be carefully above reproach.”
“Mother—” Djaren looked miserable.
“At least until this mess is over, dear,” Lady Blackfeather said. “Besides, I’ll need both you and your uncle to research exactly what might happen if the seal of Kesh is awakened by amateur hands, and how to fight it.”
“Oh,” said Djaren.
“What about me, Ma’am?” asked Jon. “I can help research.”
“I am counting on your help, dear.” Lady Blackfeather smiled at him. “That hand of yours is a shield and a warning against evils. Of all of us, you will probably be able to do the most good if things turn unfortunate.”
“Really?” Jon’s eyes lit, and he swallowed. Ellea took and held his other hand with a little smile. Anna thought they looked adorable.
“I am going to send word to Corin,” Lady Blackfeather said. “If the seal of Kesh is here, he needs to be told at once.”
Jon looked at her carefully. “Your pardon, ma’am, but what exactly do you mean by sending word? Isn’t he hundreds of miles away?”
“Yes, and so in this case, words will have to travel by telegram.” She smiled at him. “We’ve been sending on our relevant research that way, about the location of the inner temple, the things said to guard it, and so on.”
“So he’s been having all the adventures up till now,” Djaren said. “It will be good to have Father back.”
“I hope he can return soon, but hundreds of miles are just that. Eabrey, would you mind picking up a few useful things just in case?”
“Of course.” Eabrey nodded. “I’ll go at once.”
Lady Blackfeather handed him a velvet bag. “These should cover the expense.”
The Professor begged his leave, and went out. Tam had his boots and buttons in order now, and he opened the door for Lady Blackfeather, who had gathered her bag and hat. She paused at the door, looking back at her son. “And, Djaren—”
“Please don’t answer the door.”
“I’ll remember, Mother,” Djaren sighed.
Tam shuffled his feet in his new gum boots. “Well, let’s face it then,” he said to Anna. He looked like a young man on his way to a funeral, not an art gallery.