Chapter Three–A Most Unpleasant Artifact

Ellea knew more about her father’s odd talents than he guessed.  She knew about his wings, of course, and the old sword he had taken with him, and that he had gone looking not for history, but for one artifact that could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.  Ellea was very good at keeping secrets.  She locked them away in her mind where they wouldn’t show through even in her feelings.  Ellea prided herself on having a tidy mind.  It was like her own half of the room she shared with Mother; spotless and well organized, with neat compartments and boxes.  Secrets, puzzles, memories, other people’s memories, other people’s secrets.  She stood with the Gardner boys in the drawing room, where Mother was carefully unpacking the somewhat squashed cakes onto a silver tray.  Tam glanced out the window from between thick curtains.  “They’re still there.”

No one asked who.

“Well, one good thing about the very exclusive Archeological Society is that followers of the church of Pumphrey can’t follow us in there,” Mother muttered, taking a few roses from the urns and strewing their petals across the tray to disguise squashiness.

“And there is a huge library,” Ellea put in.

“Library?” Jon sounded suddenly very happy.

“That’s why we needed to get admittance.  That, and not all the articles in their journal are rubbish,” Mother said, stepping back and giving the tray a critical eye.  “There was a rather insightful one by the younger Chauncellor that quite surprised me.”

“That looks really nice,” Tam told her, beaming at the tray of cakes.

Ellea carefully extended a hand toward one of the corner cakes, but Mother intercepted her by putting the tray up on a table stand.

The suite doors burst open then, admitting Djaren and Anna, a folding easel, a painting satchel, wet canvas, and the thick smell of turpentine.

“The front was absolutely crawling with Pumphrites, so we had to come in the back way,” Djaren announced.  “Hello, all.”  He would have waved but he was weighted down with the easel, satchel, and canvas.

“I told you I could carry some of that,” Anna told him, sounding a little cross.  She looked up at the Gardner boys and smiled.  “Hello, Tam.  Hello, Jon.”  She smiled up at Uncle Eabrey.  “Hello, Professor.  How was the journey by train?”

Tam grinned, but couldn’t seem to find anything to say.

“We saw Kara,” Jon said.

“Really?  She’s here?” Djaren nearly dropped the wet canvas, but Tam caught it, grinning all over again at Anna’s look of gratitude.  Ellea sighed.  Whoever thought age an indicator of increased intelligence was clearly not examining the evidence sufficiently.  Ellea made another try for the cakes.  She had to climb up onto a chair to get high enough to reach the tray.

“Lunch should be ready downstairs.  If you hurry and get cleaned up we can all go down together,” Mother said, picking Ellea up in both arms, and swinging her gently round.  Mother set Ellea down on the floor while Ellea silently cursed her own small stature.  “Go change for lunch,” Mother ordered her, not unkindly.

Ellea tried being direct.  “I want a cake.”

“And don’t I know it.  After lunch and not before.”

“Oh, those are lovely!” Anna said.

“They’re for you.  You like cake, right?” Tam said.

Ellea rolled her eyes and stalked off to her room to change.

She emerged ten minutes later, tugging irritably at her hair ribbons, to find Djaren causing trouble.  “I’m not going.  Why are you going?  Why are we going?”  He was waving his arms about and looking outraged.

“Because we want to know what Marlton Chauncellor is up to, and what he did in Narmos that’s causing us so much difficulty with our papers,” Mother answered, putting one last amber pin in her high copper colored curls.

“Oh,” Djaren said.  “Well, yes, we should do that.  But to have to sit through a whole lecture of that obtuse and insult—”

“It might not all be rubbish, dear.  Truth hides everywhere, remember?  And young Varden may be presenting his new paper on Narmos’ history.  You remember his piece in the journal.”

“I didn’t think it that original.”  Djaren frowned.  “Hepler had nearly the same conclusions.”

“I’ll be attending.”  Anna emerged from her room in yet another new frock.  Being sick seemed to mean you got everything nice, including your own room.  Ellea was a little jealous.  She’d never been sick.  Neither had Djaren.  She remembered how frightening it had been, watching Anna so pale and motionless, and worrying she might never leave that bed again.  Ellea was immediately sorry she’d been jealous and ran up to give Anna a hug.  Anna hugged her back, and then fixed her hair ribbons.  “Sweet Ellea.  Tam brought cakes.  Would you like some?  I know you like lemon, so I’ve set those all aside for you.”

Ellea gave Anna an extra hug and took her hand. “Thank you.  After lunch, please, I would like the lemon ones.”

Djaren was still frowning.

“I feel badly for the Chauncellor boys.  They’ve been living at schools for most of their lives.  Neither of them has had the kind of experience you’ve enjoyed, dear,” Mother told Djaren, straightening his collar.  “You learned to walk at dig sites and could read hieroglyphs along with your alphabet.  Varden’s only just been published last autumn, and you’ve helped me with your father’s last two books.  I do think the scholarly world will prove big enough for the both of you.  Divergent viewpoints round out the world and make it spin properly.”

“He says the demon god Kesh was a hoax perpetuated by priests to consolidate and hold political power,” Djaren said.  “The god’s possession of wielders of the seal, he claims, was merely something priests pretended at, to make their enemies fear the power of their mythical god.”

“I rather hope he’s right,” Mother said.

An item that gives its bearer the powers of a demon god wouldn’t be friendly to have about,” Ellea said, mind to mind, so only Mother and Djaren could hear.  “Is that what Father is finding?”

Shh,” Mother said, in the same way.  “Here are the boys, and it’s time for luncheon.”

*  *  *  *  *

Kara hated new cities.  People didn’t all talk trade common, like they were supposed to.  Boys with ugly pink faces shouted what sounded like insults at her.  Kara had to bloody several puggish noses and then retreat as more loud foreign boys arrived, attracted by the howls of the first.  Kara hopped three carts, and was chased off two and threatened with a beating before she reached a part of town that looked promising.  She now knew the Germhacht words for “dark,” “foreign,” and “rat,” and had given as good as she’d gotten by teaching them the Corestemarian words for “fat,” “red,” “pig,” and “your mother.” At last Kara found a nice dark corner in a nice dark alley that was uninhabited and had three easy exits.  The smells from the nearby sewer seemed to keep the area clear.  She sat on a coal bin and pulled out her spoils, to unwrap like presents.

Treasure Man

She set the gold face out first to glitter in the coal dust, mirrored its grimace back at it, then grinned.  She unwrapped the next one with deft fingers and found it to be a mosaic of carved gems, very old, on a soft gold plate.  She set that under the face, to make a kind of torso, and unwrapped the next one.  Finding someone to buy these treasures in a strange country might be hard, but somewhere in her future, a very big meal waited.  Kara found several unset carved gems, almost like hard candies, and made them arms and legs, and then a pair of beaten gold earrings with emeralds and little gold goats, which became feet for the treasure man on the coal bin.  The small silver and gem-studded statuette in the next parcel made a friend for him.

Kara unwrapped the very last parcel, a bit bigger than her palm, and shivered with a sudden cold.  She adjusted her ragged coat closer around her and fished a bronze chain from the paper wrappings.  She pulled on it, and out came a large medallion, gold, encrusted with rough-cut gems.  It glittered in suddenly failing light.  The alleyway was very cold now, and shadows played on the high brick walls all around.  There were whispers somewhere, a dark voice speaking words Kara didn’t know, not in her ears but in her mind.  The amulet brushed her fingers on its next swing, and all the stones went black.  Kara swore and dropped the amulet.  On the opposite side from the gems was another gold face, its jaws wide, as if screaming.  Two black gems were fixed in its eyes.  For one moment they blinked at her, like real eyes.

Kara grabbed at the parcel wrappings and used them to snatch up the amulet. She dashed down the alleyway with it, hearing screams in her head now.  At the first corner she found what she was looking for: a sewer grating.  She threw the amulet and its wrappings as hard as she could down into the sewers.  She heard a splash, and then the screams slowly faded.  The air was warm again.  Kara bit back a stream of furious curses and jogged back to find treasure man and his silver friend still sitting on the coal bin, untouched, and perfectly ordinary, at least for treasure.  She wrapped them back up, found a loose brick in the alley wall, shoved the wrapped treasures into the hole, and jammed the brick back in place.  “I hate archeology,” she muttered.  “I hate it.”

She had to move soon, and she knew it.  Her contact was waiting, as was the job she had to do here.  She wiped her face with a dirty sleeve, hopped down off the coal bin, and kicked it for good measure, to relieve a little tension.

The place was easy to find, by smell alone.  The scents of tea and perfumed smoke billowed out from a door in a back alley.  Inside, patrons were too woozy to note that a small, dark skinned urchin could have no honest business here.  Kara held her breath and found the back room.  The air was clearer there, and a man in a blue robe stood by a second door.  Kara said the words she’d memorized, and he opened the door for her.  Inside the room, a robed and hooded figure in purple stood behind a broad table covered with papers.  Different, equally perfumed but less affecting smoke rose from sticks on the table.

“Welcome, visitor from afar,” a woman’s voice said, in overly dramatic trade common.  She paused.  “Johan, are you sure this is–”

“I’m small.  Accept it and move on.”  Kara glared, and stepped up to look at the papers on the table.  They were floor plans for a large building, with writing on them that Kara couldn’t read.  That was not a surprise, as Kara couldn’t read much of anything.

“Um,” the woman said, gathering herself, and adjusting her hood to be even more concealing and mysterious.  “You have journeyed far, to complete an important mission, for which you will be well rewarded.”

“That was the contract,” Kara agreed.  “Get on with it.  I’m hungry.”

The woman in the purple robe made a disapproving little cough.  “All you need to know is on this paper.”  She held out a sheet of parchment, written in flowery script.

“I can’t read,” Kara informed her.

“Oh.  Mmm.  Dear.”  The woman made clucking sounds.

“Just tell me what and where.” Kara sighed.  “I’ll figure it out.”

“It’s a library,” the woman began, sounding unsure now.

Kara sighed.  This was not her day.

“There are certain papers–”

Even better, Kara thought sourly.  I get hired to steal paper.

“–in a room with some antiquities.  You shall retrieve the papers in the gilded cabinet, and whatever objects you find there.  It’s this room,” the woman indicated on the floor plan with a long laquered fingernail.  “In the library of the archeological society.”

It would be, Kara thought.

“Know that your work for us will harm no living creature.  This important task is for the good of all spirits, and shall bring you a great reward.”  The woman sounded very earnest and cordial.  Kara disliked her shrill voice immensely.

“You’ll have them tomorrow night,” Kara said.  “I’ll need ten percent of my great reward up front.”

“Of course,” the woman said, and set down a small bag of coins with a theatrical flourish.  Kara opened it to find gold colored disks inside.  She bit one.  It was real.  “Lady, do I look like someone who can walk into a money-changers to get real silver for this?”

The woman made an exasperated noise and produced an ordinary looking handbag from under her chair.  She dug with colored nails in a sequined coin purse and made change in paper bills and silver coins.

“Right.”  Kara pocketed the money and waved.  “See you tomorrow night.”

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