The day had decided to be one of Cambriol’s rare sunny ones, so the Tembelakan and Shandorian students had pooled their resources and spread their dinners out by the riverside on Tembelakan mats and Shandorian picnic blankets.
“Well, I can tell you that it is illegal to snatch corpses and sell them,” Isakoa said, closing a law book.
“But not really more so than, say, illegal fishing,” Seilu added.
“What?” Eljiah blinked.
“I mean, if you’re caught with a body, there’s a fine.” Seilu shrugged.
“A fine.” Eljiah seemed to have trouble processing this.
“About the same amount you’d get from selling one corpse and two full sets of teeth,” Kara said.
“You have been researching. And holding out on us,” Djaren scolded.
“I like to know what local penalties are. What?” Kara bit a too-large curry pasty, giving herself an excuse not to talk.
Djaren didn’t press the issue. Instead he passed Eljiah one of the spiced teas he and Tallis had brought. “It’s actually a good thing, in a way, the shortage of bodies.”
“Please explain,” Eljiah said.
“Until recently the only corpses it was legal to dissect were those of executed criminals,” Djaren said. “And last century you could be executed in Arien for all sorts of things.”
“Like illegal fishing or hunting,” Seilu said, nabbing a tea.
“So there weren’t any shortages,” Isakoa said.
“Since the Maribelle colonies rebelled, they had to stop transporting criminals there, and then there were too many to jail or execute by the old rules. So now they’ve reformed their legal system, and they don’t execute near enough people to keep up with demand from the growing medical colleges anymore. A good thing.”
“But aren’t they donated now?” Eljiah asked.
“Yes and no,” Kara said, reluctantly. “They get donated from the state-run pauper houses and asylums. Only those have caught on that there’s a shortage, so they’re selling directly to the snatchers wholesale.”
“Does this happen everywhere?” Djaren asked her, struck with a hundred unpleasant questions now.
“Not in places without medical colleges all eager to get their hands on dead people.” She shrugged. “In Corestemar we have a whole caste whose job it is to make sure no one ever sees or touches a corpse.”
“Burial expenses aren’t cheap. Why don’t people donate rather than pay all that? I mean, it’s for science and the good of all mankind, after all,” Djaren said.
“Not allowed by law,” Isakoa said. “I suppose the gravediggers, coffinmakers, undertakers, and groundsmen wouldn’t like it.”
“So the only people who can donate are the ones running dangerously unregulated houses of helpless people, and they’re no longer donating, they’re selling,” Eljiah said.
“No matter how many shiny towers you find in a place, it’s got the same pits as everywhere else,” Kara said.
“I don’t think I’m hungry.” Eljiah set aside his dinner. “Kara, might you give this to someone who needs it rather more?”
“I can’t be seen doing charity,” Kara said. “That marks you for life, you know. They won’t ever let you stop, or forget you did it the once.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll see to it myself. I think we should do some detective work at Paupers’ Field, anyway, so it’s not outside my way.”
“I’ll come along,” Djaren said, finishing the last of his pastry, “and we can give away a load of food if you like. We should tour all the burying yards and see if we can pinpoint the places they’re pulling from. If they don’t have to pay a thing to harvest them there, they’ll prefer that to buying from the houses.”
“We can’t join you Djaren, I’m sorry,” said Isakoa. “I have to finish the term on time and with top marks if I am to return to my people as the King they wish me to be.”
“Of course.” Djaren smiled at him. “We’ll be fine.”
“Who’s we?” asked Kara, frowning.
Isakoa fixed Djaren with a look that could not simply be grinned at. “I am telling you that you will have to be careful, and not do anything stupid, because I do not have the leisure to come rescue you.”
Djaren just grinned.
Loaded down with several baskets of fruit and bread, Djaren, Eljiah, and Tallis walked into the part of town students were warned against. Since it was also the part of town that housed two of the more popular pubs and a student secret society, such warnings were often ignored. They pushed past the popular streets into the dull ones, where rubbish collection seemed not to exist any longer and the houses were stacked so tight against the factories that the air burned with unpleasant smells. Factory children peered down from high windows, then away, called back to the rest of their long days of work. Djaren waved both to them, and to Kara, who was following them by rooftop.
She was more at home here, he suspected, then in the venerable schoolyards of Cambriol. She’d seemed at home in the slums of the port city of Trimela too. He wished she would agree even once to come see Shandor with him, but she was stubbornly opposed.
“It won’t go well,” she’d said. When pressed, she’d exploded at him. “If it’s as much like a fairy tale as you seem to think, I won’t belong. And if I see it for what it really is, I’ll have to tell you, and then you’ll never stop seeing it, too, and I’ll have wrecked it.”
And then he’d said the words she could say all day, but he wasn’t allowed to. “You don’t understand.”
He was realizing a bit more every day why that had angered her so much.