Anna looked both ways down a new corridor of the exasperating Derdrein house. Curtains billowed into shapes like people in one direction, and in the other all the dark stained glass windows seemed to have fires burning behind them.
“You would think the engineers of this house could have picked just one scheme, and not made it a bloody showroom,” Varden said. He had finally stopped complaining about the stolen Narmos antiquities in the ballroom downstairs—or was it upstairs?—and gone back to his former complaints about the house in general. Anna wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or a bad one. He looked very strained about the eyes.
Kara squirmed in Tam’s arms. “Out,” she whispered. “Lord Tightbritches has a boiled egg for brains. Put me down.”
“You’re feeling better?” Tam asked her, also in a whisper.
She replied with something quite rude and Tam smiled, setting her gently down.
“Should we let the little foreign girl run about?” Varden asked. “Is she likely to keep her head? Does she speak any Germhacht? Or trade common?”
Kara responded in some language no one seemed to know, but the wicked look in her eyes made Anna think it was something else amazingly rude. Evidently Kara was feeling better, though she still moved stiffly and slowly, wrapped in her cloth scarf. It gave her a deceptively graceful and mysterious air. She knocked a metal urn down from a pedestal and dragged it across the hall to one of the stained glass windows. Her arms weren’t steady, but she hefted the urn in both hands and brought it crashing down through the glass, bending all the little bits of lead piping.
Varden stood there looking stunned. “I say, are you quite sure–?” But Tam was already at Kara’s side, with the workman’s mallet that had been hanging on his belt out and ready. He grinned sheepishly over his shoulder at Anna, then laid to work clearing away more of the glass. In a few moments, Anna could see the outside world again, an alley between the Derdrein and the next house to the east. They must be on the second story now, and the drop didn’t look pleasant.
Anna dashed down the hall and yanked a few sets of the billowing curtains from their rods. She glanced about for something sturdy and, finding a radiator, tied the end of one curtain to it. Tam saw at once what she was about and helped knot the curtains together into a rope.
“I wouldn’t have thought of that,” Varden said.
Anna smiled at him. “You should read more adventure stories.”
Kara, not waiting for the rope, wrapped herself more tightly in her cloth and took a flying leap out through the window. Down in the street there came a thump and a curse. Anna sighed.
Tam tested the knots and handed the finished curtain-rope to Anna. “Look out below!” she called, and tossed it out the window. She tossed her shoes with their difficult heels out after the rope, and quickly shinned down in her stocking feet.
“After you,” she heard Tam say to Varden.
Soon they were all down in the alley, where Kara was sitting and rubbing her ankle. Anna helped her up. The small thief was not fully recovered, however much bravado she might display.
“It’s been an exciting night, but it’s quite late and I think we should all be going home now,” she told Varden. Tam scooped Kara back into his arms, where she settled with only a small grunt of complaint.
“Will you take the girl to the authorities?” Varden asked. “I’m sure the police will have something to say about the evidence of wrongdoing in this house.” He glanced up at the window they’d crashed through, and the domed glass roof beyond it. His eyes were alight again with intent. Probably seeing those stone slabs in his memory, Anna thought. “I’ll make a full report to the Society first thing in the morning. Pumphrey is going to feel the wrath of all true scholars for the travesty he’s made here.”
Anna smothered a smile. He doesn’t sound like Djaren when he says that, not at all, really. “Certainly. You speak to the Society, and I’ll see about discovering what this girl has to do with things.” Or rather, Lady Blackfeather will, once she gets her hands on Kara.
“Very well,” Varden said. “I must say, Lady Anna, you have a remarkably level head for, ah, a companion. In an irregular situation. Um.” He bowed over her hand. “Good night. I hope we can meet next under more calm and civilized circumstances.”
They were at the end of the alley now, and could each see their own carriages.
“Goodnight, Varden,” Anna said. “Thank you for the lovely time at the Berdrach.”
She thought she heard Kara snickering.
Tam tucked Kara into the hotel carriage, and settled a rug about her. “You’re safe as a bug here and no one can find you. We’ll get you back to Lady Blackfeather and she’ll know what to do.”
Kara made little protesting noises.
“Now none of that,” Tam said. “If you don’t want coddling you shouldn’t have ought to go thieving and getting yourself in a mess.” She made a face at him, but there wasn’t any real spite in it. Tam shut her in gently and got the door for Anna next. “I’m worried for the others,” he said. “I want to go back to the hotel.”
“There’s not much traffic. We can probably make good time.”
Tam nodded and took his place in the driver’s seat.
Anna looked over at Kara and Kara looked back at her.
“You’re making a boy collection,” Kara observed. “The new one is pretty, but doesn’t have much sense. Isn’t he one of the enemies of the Blackfeathers?”
“I’m not bringing up your history of thieving or collection of demon artifacts,” Anna said, feeling unreasonably irritated at Kara’s choice of topics. “So please do not presume to know anything about my business.”
“You’re why I hate pretty girls.” Kara wrinkled her nose.
“While I just adore foul mouthed little thieves who I thought might have been improving last year and instead are creating disasters for the world as we know it,” Anna replied.
“If you bring up thickets,” Kara warned mysteriously.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
There were a few minutes of quiet.
Anna decided to try to make up for snapping. “Djaren will be happy to see you.”
“Even if I created a disaster for the world?” Kara snorted.
“Djaren likes disasters, remember? He was going on about comets and plagues when I left. He may be a skinny bundle of ego with no sense of self preservation or restraint, but he seems to like you for whatever reason. Don’t be cruel to him, will you?”
“I’m not a nice person, remember? Don’t try to get me to do any silly girl things, or play at making matches or pleasing boys or other ruffle-brained antics. I don’t go telling you to try picking locks, do I? Shove off.”
“Don’t be tiresome,” Anna said, and then paused, feeling the carriage lurch to a stop. Tam called out, but she didn’t catch the words, muffled through the carriage walls.
Anna yanked a blanket over Kara’s head. “The carriage is stopped. Best you’re not seen. We aren’t supposed to be consorting with you.”
Anna opened the door and saw that they were still a good distance from the hotel. Tam had jumped down and was helping two small figures toward the carriage door. In the light of the carriage lantern, the figures resolved themselves into Jon and Djaren. Both were scratched and muddied, and Djaren had a limp and a missing shoe.
“They took Ellea,” Jon was saying. “Possesed Pumphrites took Ellea, and we tried to chase them, but they had a carriage, and we didn’t.”
Anna wasn’t sure she had ever seen Jon look more desolate, even about the theft of the translation stone last summer. Possessed Pumphrites. She remembered the blank-eyed servants who had stared upward at them when Varden read the Narmos script, and it made her shiver. Ellea might think herself capable of dealing with anything, but she was, after all, a very small girl.
No point showing her worries in front of Jon and Djaren, though. “We’ll find Ellea,” she said firmly. “But first we’ll get both of you looked after. Djaren, you’re a mess.”
* * * * *
Upon hearing only familiar voices, Kara pushed the blanket off her face so she could see. Anna was helping Jon into the carriage while Tam explained, in his backwoods way, about the strange goings-on at the Derdrien house, which Tam insisted on calling the “Pumphrite hide-out.”
Djaren showed no signs of getting into the carriage. “That may be where they’re taking her! You know where it is? We could—”
“No,” said Anna and Tam together.
Anna put a hand on Djaren’s shoulder. She was bigger than him, so it shouldn’t be too hard for her to chuck him into the carriage if he started doing anything stupid. Kara knew, from experience, that she herself could beat him at wrestling. “We should get Lady Blackfeather,” Anna said.
“And the Professor,” Tam put in. “And not go chasing half across the city about to keel over and with only one shoe.”
Djaren winced as Anna pushed him into the carriage. “Sorry, I think I sprained my ankle. Ow, and maybe my wrist. But we have to save Ellea!”
He looked, right now, like somone who belonged in Kara’s part of town—bruised and disheveled, with a whip mark across his face. How did he manage to look twice as unnaturally pretty when he was scuffed up? That bothered Kara.
Djaren hadn’t noticed her yet, so she shoved the blanket all the way off. “You don’t want to go into that house,” she told him, feeling momentarily helpful. She jerked her chin toward the empty spot next to her. “You look like a beat shilling boy.”
“Kara?” Djaren blinked, stopped protesting, and fell into place beside her. “What are you doing here?”
“At a guess,” said Anna, climbing in behind Djaren, “her new client is about as bad as her last one, and things went badly when she stole a dangerous artifact.”
Kara scowled at this all-too-accurate guess.
“Kara,” Djaren said, eyes huge behind his spectacles. “You didn’t. You didn’t deliver the seal of Kesh to Pumphrey.”
“No, I didn’t. That’s why I was in trouble.” She glared at Anna, feeling the carriage moving again. “Because I didn’t. And who’s Pumphrey?”
Jon held his hand out near Kara, the hand with the weird silver marks. They were faint right now, almost invisible. “You don’t have it now,” he said.
“Of course not. I pitched it.”
“Are we heading back to the hotel?” Djaren twisted round trying to see out. “They could still be there, the possessed people. They came right in dressed as servants. They’re horribly strong, and they grab at you.” He shivered, rubbing one wrist.
Kara remembered the man in the mask tossing her easily into the corner, and suppressed a shiver of her own.
“We’ll face whatever is at the hotel together.” Anna looked from Kara to Djaren and sighed. “Though the two of you are a matched set of useless right now.”
“I’m fine!” Djaren objected, then gave Kara a worried look. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” Kara scowled at him. “I’m fine, too.” Or she would be, once this odd crumpled weakness wore off. It had to wear off, didn’t it?
“Something about that house did this to Kara,” Anna said. “But I think Lady Blackfeather can help her.”
“Really?” Kara was dubious. Lady Blackfeather made her nervous.
“Curses and blessings,” Djaren murmured. “Probably. Right then, we’ll go back to the hotel, but let’s please hurry. I let Ellea get kidnapped, and I can’t bear it.”
Kara raised an eyebrow. “Ellea. Kidnapped. I think I feel more sorry for the kidnappers.”
* * * * *
On arriving at the hotel they crept in through the servants’ entrance. Tam went first with his mallet at the ready, Anna brandished a parasol, and Jon walked between them with his hand held forward. Kara followed, with Djaren limping beside her. It felt odd not to be up front. When walking into tombs, or traps, or danger, Kara would usually be in first to spot and avoid things. Walking into nice hotels was less familiar.
“I wish I had one of those bronze swords from last summer,” Djaren muttered.
“I left mine where I’ve been sleeping,” Kara said.
“You still have it?”
“Course. Why wouldn’t I?”
Djaren grinned at the floor, “I think we packed along the small weapons case. Maybe I can get us something from there.”
Kara remembered that amazing armory of pretty sharp things. Especially the big sword that had turned to dark flame in the hands of a certain Doctor Blackfeather. “Is your father’s–”
“No, that’s with him. It wouldn’t work the same for me, anyway.”
“How about me?”
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask it. It’s pretty particular about its wielders. You’re eyes aren’t right for it, for one.”
“What does that mean?”
“They don’t glow with green fire. I’d have noticed.”
“We’re here, quiet a moment,” Anna warned. She knocked on the door of their suite and took up a position beside Tam.
Professor Sheridan’s voice came from inside. “Who’s there?”
“Professor, it’s us,” Tam said.
The Professor threw the door open at once, “Thank the One! We can’t find Djaren or–”
“There you are!” Lady Blackfeather drew them in, grabbing Djaren into a frantic hug. “The staff said there’d been goings on in the garden, and then I found your handiwork scattered everywhere, and holes in the hedge, and people said there’d been screaming.”
“There was, Lady Hellin,” Jon said. He quickly told the whole story, and his voice only quavered a couple of times.
Kara examined the hotel suite while he spoke, without moving very far inside. It was nice. She bet that the vase on the table was real silver. If she felt better or had bigger pockets, maybe she could steal it. She wished it would stop tilting when she looked at it.
She glanced over at Djaren. He stood with bowed head, limp and unresisting in his mother’s hold, as she backed away to get a better look at him. “You’re hurt, dear,” she said, touching his cheek.
“I let them take her,” he said numbly. “I helped her into the carriage.”
Lady Blackfeather hugged Djaren close once more. “It’s not your fault, dear.”
Anna launched into a quick explanation about their adventures in the house with the Pumphrites. The words swam around Kara hazily. The room began to swim, too, and then suddenly Tam was tucking her into an armchair. “I hope it’s right that we brought her here, Ma’am,” he said to Lady Blackfeather.
Lady Blackfeather nodded. “Quite right, Tam. And I agree with Anna—since the kidnappers were clearly affiliated with Pumphrey, the Derdrien house would be the best place to start looking.”
Professor Sheridan was packing things into a case, sliding glass cylinders of sand into copper tubes, and attaching vials of oil and water to rings on a belt.
Djaren cleared his throat, rubbed at his eyes, and looked with interest at what the Professor was doing. “You’ve got copper, river water and border sand. Are you going to fight them?”
“We’re being prepared,” Lady Blackfeather said. “And if they have Ellea, yes, we may be going to fight them.”
There was a loud rap at the door. “Telegram for Lady Blackfeather,” a bored sounding voice announced.
Jon lifted a hand to the door, but no new light poured from his palm. The Professor opened the door carefully, and closed it again before bringing the envelope to Lady Blackfeather. She ripped it open and read with a grim face. “Bring the seal of Kesh to the Mendiheim observatory at midnight, and you’ll see your daughter again.”
“What?” Tam exclaimed. “Why would we have it? Who sent this?”
Lady Blackfeather turned the telegram over. “No name.”
“The Mendiheim observatory?” Djaren said, eyes widening. “I think that’s quite near the Derdrien house. I could get my maps.” He limped off to his room. Lady Blackfeather winced after him in sympathy and shook her head.
“I don’t understand,” said Anna. “We don’t even have the seal. And if we did, we couldn’t give it to them. There’s a demon in it, isn’t there?”
“We don’t have the seal, do we?” Lady Blackfeather looked sharply at Kara, who had been studiously avoiding making eye contact with anyone.
“I pitched it. Threw it away days ago,” Kara said.
“Who asked you to steal it?”
“No one, at first. It was an accident.”
“You stole it accidentally?” the Professor asked.
“Yes,” Kara growled. “And I didn’t like the look of it so I pitched it. And then I got hired to steal it. But it’s gone, and I’m gone next.” She tried to stand up and lurched a little.
Lady Blackfeather pushed her gently back down into cushions. “You’ve been cursed, dear. If you want it undone, staying put will help. We are going to have a conversation about where you “pitched” the demon artifact, and who hired you, but now is not the time. For now, I am merely glad that Pumphrey, or whatever is speaking for him, does not yet have it himself.”
She picked up a little vial of sand and one of water from the table. “This telegram does not change our plans. Tam, could you bring the carriage round again? Then you and Anna can show us the way to the Derdrien. The Professor and I will see about retrieving Ellea at once.”
Tam nodded and went to the door.
“Not alone,” the Professor said quickly, grabbing another vial of sand and joining him.
Hellin knelt beside Kara’s chair. “I think I can do something about what’s binding you, but I have to make sure you won’t be hurt in the process. I need you to try holding something. If it stings, drop it at once. If it doesn’t, all to the good. Do you understand?”
“What are you going to do?” Kara asked suspiciously.
“Just this.” Hellin gently poured a few grains of sand into Kara’s palm.
Kara looked at them.
“Do you feel anything?”
“It’s sand? It tickles? What?” Kara grimaced.
Lady Blackfeather smiled and traced the lines of a four pointed star on Kara’s forehead, with a few whispered words in a language Kara had never heard. Something lit and loosened in the back of her head, and she could breathe more deeply. Her limbs didn’t feel as weak and numb as they had a moment ago. The ticklish sensation in her palm and forehead spread, before melting into a feeling of warmth. Everything stopped tilting and began to behave properly.
“Feel better, dear,” Hellin said. “And please do not leave this house or let my son leave this house.” She brushed the grains back into the vial. “I want to hire you as a guardian, and will pay you upon our return.”
Kara’s attention was diverted from a casual perusal of the items on the table beside her. “You’re hiring a thief to mind your home?”
“To mind my family. I’ve seen how you’ve done it before, and I believe you remember how.”
“Mother?” Djaren had limped back in, holding a map of the city and two daggers from the weapons case. “Mother, what do you mean?”
“I mean,” she said, taking the daggers from his hand, “that you, Kara, and Jon will be staying here, and that Anna and Tam will be joining you as shortly thereafter while the Professor and I deal with things.”
“I can help,” Djaren protested.
“I’d rather you weren’t stabbing the possessed, dear.”
“You think I’ll get in the way.”
“I think you would act as your heart tells you. That’s dangerous when dealing with demons. You need to use your head, and not go in all of a panic, anxious to correct some wrong with gallant action.” She smiled suddenly, ruefully. “Ask your father about that one day. I’d rather you learned that lesson in an easier way.”
“No, love. Watch and defend the others for me.”
Djaren frowned. “You just told them to watch me.”
“So I did. When you are looking out for one another, you all shine marvelously.” She looked from one to another of them. “I know you’re brave, and I have seen how you face danger. I find you darling and admirable, and I refuse to take you into hazards unnecessarily.”
Tam and the Professor returned then, Tam wiping his gumboots on the mat. “The carriage is ready, Ma’am.”
The Professor had a look at Djaren’s map while Lady Blackfeather swept a great many things from the table into a large bag. Some of the copper cylinders looked as if they ought to be quite heavy, but weren’t.
“This seems clear,” the Professor said, handing the map back to Djaren. “You are correct about the Mendiheim and the Derdrein. If we cannot find Ellea at the one we will search the other.”
“Eabrey?” Lady Blackfeather nodded at a closed chest, and the Professor lifted it. It wasn’t small, and he wasn’t a strong sort of man, but it looked light in his arms. He blinked at it a moment, and exchanged a grave look with Lady Blackfeather.
Kara caught the look. This was deadly serious, she realized. They knew they weren’t going somewhere safe. She wished that Doctor Blackfeather was not in the wrong place altogether. The frail scarred Professor and Lady Blackfeather didn’t have wings or magical swords. They just had sand in tubes, and a few books. Did they really know what they were doing? Kara frowned and kicked lightly at her chair. She reminded herself that this wasn’t her business and that she didn’t care.
Hellin leaned down and hugged Jon and then Djaren. “Be well, dears.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Jon nodded.
Djaren watched his mother and the Professor, eyes catching and weighing everything. Kara saw her own worries reflected in his face, but he said nothing, only stared at the door for a long time after it closed behind them.
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