Djaren liked the weekly dinners at the embassy, when he got to share a table with Eljiah, Kara, the elderly ambassador, and today, Tallis. Kara sat as far from the skeletal medical student as possible, and eyed his empty plate with a frown.
“Did you find anything exciting today?” Djaren asked her, passing a bowl of Shandorian seed-fried bread.
She made a face, but took the whole bowl. “No more bones.”
“We found something,” Eljiah said. It was still strange to look directly across at the Professor, and not up. His expressions were subtly different too, less sure. “It’s not polite dinner conversation, though.”
“We’re young and rebellious,” Djaren said, nodding at the stack of books he’d put on the table, in defiance of the rules at home. “We can talk about anything. Hather won’t mind.”
“Hmm?” Ambassador Hather looked up owlishly from the book he’d been reading himself.
“We’re talking about mutilated corpses, I believe,” Tallis informed him.
“Ah, very good. Are you sure you won’t have something, my boy?” Hather pointed a wizened finger at Tallis’ bare plate and single glass of red wine.
“I’m quite all right, thank you,” Tallis said.
Kara gave Djaren a look.
“He’s not a demon or a vampire,” Djaren thought at her.
No words came back, but the impression of “How do you know?” seemed to float in the air between them.
Eljiah told them the story of the irregular corpse presented at lecture, and about Tallis identifying the rest of Ilna’s bones.
“That’s certainly suspect,” Djaren agreed. “If dame Ilna donated her body properly to science, why was her body, or part of it, dragged through or dumped down a sewer? We should ascertain where the medical school is getting its bodies. Since the scandal with the asylum being shut down, and the new ban on jails and paupers’ houses selling off their dead instead of burying them properly, everyone’s been looking to be more choosy about where corpses come from. Or at least that’s what I thought was the understanding.”
“People aren’t always choosy,” Tallis said quietly, “and now two sources have dried up.”
“Oh, dear, this really isn’t dinner conversation.” Eljiah pushed his plate away.
“Have you ever bought a corpse for dissecting or anything?” Djaren asked Tallis.
“I’m not made of money.” Tallis shook his head. “And I get along well with the morgue keepers, so they let me know if anything interesting is wheeled in. I can study at school. And I always wonder, what does one do with the bodies after? They would clutter the place awfully, even cleaned up neatly into skeletons.”
“Is that where Ilna came from? A body tidied up by a student?” Eljiah pondered.
“He’d need the right chemicals and equipment, to break all the soft bits down and off the bone. And it’s a messy, smelly sort of process,” Djaren said.
Kara and the others looked at him.
“Or so I’ve read,” he said. “Bad loosebacks. Penny dreadfuls. What?”
Kara shrugged. “Seems an overly involved way of stashing a body.”
Now everyone was looking at her instead. “There are loads of ways to just ditch one. You could think of four yourself, with a cool head and a few minutes.”
“In which to forget we have consciences?” Eljiah asked.
“I can think of about eight, though I’m not sure they’re all practical,” Djaren offered sheepishly.
“Perhaps here, with the market as it is, you might even sell your problem at a profit.” Tallis mused.
“Is that what you think happened with the sailor?” Eljiah asked.
“I think,” said Djaren, “we should find out where the school is getting its bodies.”
“I don’t think they’d tell just anyone,” Eljiah said. “Though if a medical student were to ask, it would seem more reasonable.”
“Let me,” said Tallis. “I’m used to be stared at uncomfortably. It’s no bother.” He saluted them with his still full wine glass.
Djaren and Tallis found the correct clerk to speak to about the medical college’s dissection acquisitions after first worrying four incorrect ones. The right man was a nervous, sandy-haired fellow who seemed to be going bald rather sooner than was fair. He blinked up at Tallis with some confusion, and Djaren repeated their question.
“Where do the corpses come from?”
“I am not sure what you two are after,” the man said, frowning. “What is this about?”
“It’s about the cadavers,” said Tallis, more loudly, in case the man couldn’t hear them properly. “Is it somewhere new lately? They seem different. Lighter. Missing bits.”
A passing secretary skittered away from them mid-step, like a leaf across flagstones. A student with a stack of books who’d been walking toward them turned around to find another path. Djaren had to try very hard not to smile, as the clerk reddened.
“Look here, who sent you?”
“No one,” said Djaren. “Should someone have? I imagine there have been complaints. Who are those being referenced to?”
“Look, I told the dean and the council that there will be no more irregularities,” the man said, flustered.
“Splendid! Then you know where the bodies come from?”
“I am not at liberty, that is, all of this is confidential. Delicate. Not for the public knowledge.”
Tallis looked at the clerk intently. “That sounds very suspicious. You do know where they are procured, don’t you? They’re meant to be donated, after all, is that not a fact? I mean it would be very awkward if you didn’t. They could be from anywhere, be anyone.”
“We are very selective and have high standards for our specimens,” the man cried, defensive.
“Except in the recent past. What changed?” Djaren leaned in as the man leaned away. “We’re keen to know where the odd ones are from, and how that happened. Are you quite sure that business is over?”
“Because you seem very nervous about it,” Tallis observed.
“Out!” the man said. “I am not authorized to answer questions about private donations or procurement! Out!”
“That could have gone better,” Tallis observed, as they walked back under stone arches toward the student cottages.
“Or worse.” Djaren shrugged. “We might have had Kara along and let her do all the talking with her fists, as she does.”
“She might have learned more,” Tallis said. “He was hiding something.”
“Pardon me, young masters,” a greasy man with a thick, lower-class Arienish accent addressed them from the shadow of an arch ahead. “I heard something. I heard you might be wanting something in the way of a body. On account of you’re students, right? It might be I know where you can get a fine bargain for your, uh, academic studies.”
Djaren and Tallis paused, and looked at the man.
“Are you actually offering to sell us a body?” Djaren asked, looking about to be sure there were no carts of coffins in the surrounding area. It was the first time anyone had offered him a corpse.
“I’d have thought that was illegal,” Tallis said.
“Learning should never be illegal, they say,” the oily man said. “Now keep your voices down and maybe we can help one another.”
“You really sell bodies? In the street like this?” Djaren asked.
“Hush now, quieter. I only talks to parties who seem to be interested. You’ve been asking questions, I’ve been told.”
“That was quite fast,” Tallis observed.
“What kind of resurrection man would I be if I didn’t mind the medical college?” The man straightened his fraying collar. “And seeing as how the other gang passed you right up, I thought I’d be a gentleman and help you out.”
“The other gang?”
“The clerk is on their pay, or they’ve something on him. They’re trying to have the whole market, and that’s not a bit fair. Now my merchandise is top quality. You need something rare or real specific, and it might take a bit, but we can supply you with anything you might need.”
“Like a middle-aged man with cancer of the stomach, and a case of gout, preferably one hundred ninety pounds, and the native of a country known for its fishing industry?” Tallis asked. “Drowned is fine.”
“That, ah, that’s very—look, it’s less coin for just parts you see, a liver or the brain or some such, more for a partial body, a torso or some limbs, and a bit more for a full corpse. For specifics tight as that, well, we’ll have to look into it.” Now the corpse seller was looking a little uncomfortable.
“It’s just, the university may just have chucked one,” Tallis explained. “I wondered where they’d found him.”
“I don’t think anyone asked for him,” Djaren said. “You’ll have to explain the cancer diagnosis later.” He looked at the corpse seller. “And what if I had a grandmother I needed made into a skeleton, is that something you do as well?”
“Now what’s this about?” the seedy man asked, becoming guarded.
“Nothing,” Djaren assured. “We’re just not sure yet what we want. Where can we, uh, find you when we know?”
The man frowned. “I’ll find you.”
“No one seems to want to talk to us,” said Djaren, after the man had fled into the back alleys again, with several suspicious backward glances.
“That happens quite often, I find,” Tallis agreed.
“Ellea could have gotten everything we needed without a word.” Djaren sighed.
“You two are the worst information gatherers in the world,” Kara informed them, dropping down from a drainpipe.
“Hello!” Djaren grinned at her.
“You’re just lucky I was trailing you, and then trailed him back to his shop.”
“He sells corpses out of his shop?” Tallis asked. “That’s pretty brazen.”
“No, he doesn’t. He’s not an idiot. He sells candles.”
“Oh, well, that’s . . . oh. That’s really disturbing when you think about it,” Djaren said.
Kara sighed. “Do you really want to break up the ring of bodysnatchers instead of studying?”
“There’s two, at least. Rings. Gangs. Rivals.”
“Wonderful,” Kara said.
“I think I do, if they’re stealing the bodies.”
“They always steal the bodies.” Kara said. “No one gives something valuable away for nothing. And no one pays when they can nab something someone else left unattended.”
“Buried six feet in earth under a marker is unattended?”
Kara shrugged. “One man’s trash. Or corpse.”
“Those are very valuable,” Tallis said. “They hold secrets.
“You,” Kara frowned at him, “go do whatever it is you do. Djaren, Isakoa will club you if you don’t get back in time to help tutor him.”
“Right,” said Djaren. “Justice. More fun when chased than studied, but, oh well. Books today, candles tomorrow.”