Anzu woke up early, long before Mogila and a short while before dawn. He was too nervous to sleep, too excited from the night before. His head felt fuzzy and his thoughts meandered through fog, always slipping away whenever he tried to hold on to them.
He got dressed and retreated to the windowsill, where he smoked three cigarettes in a row and watched the empty street outside, trying not to think of how hungry and tired and wrung out he was. His free hand worried at the peeling flakes of paint on the wood of the sill. The texture nagged at him, but he didn’t dare deface a hotel room.
He tossed the cigarette stubs out of the window, shivering in the chilly morning air and went to sit down on the bed beside Mogila, watching her breathe and marvelling at her presence in his life. Her return was a sign, he decided, one that meant that not all things lost would stay so. Thinking that, he reached out and gently shook Mogila’s shoulder. She grunted and shifted her position, making the mattress groan, but she did not open her eyes.
Anzu sighed and poked her in the ribs. That elicited a louder grunt and Mogila opened one eye, glaring at him like an angry cat.
“Go away,” she said and closed the eye again. Anzu prodded her in the ribs again and got no response.
“Fine,” he said, barely containing his laughter. “Be that way, darling!” He got up, straightened the skirt of his suit and then realised he had nowhere to stomp off to. This was not their old flat, where they had had a tiny nook of a kitchen where he could disappear to. It was a hotel room far from home, on a rock that wasn’t even qualified to be a moon. He shuddered and sat down on the bed, head in hands. His situation suddenly seemed quite bleak and hopeless.
“Hey,” said Mogila, her voice soft and a little indistinct from sleep still. “Anja. ‘S not all that bad.” She sat up and carefully put a hand on Anzu’s shoulder. He did not stir, but nor did he move to shrug her off. Her mere presence was a comfort.
“I just … ah,” he began. “I remembered our flat. And …”
“Oh Lady,” said Mogila. “That dump.”
“It was our dump, darling,” Anzu said into his hands, and Mogila sighed in response.
“Don’t be so fucking sentimental,” she said, “there’ll be other dumps.” She patted him on the back. Anzu whimpered.
“I should’ve stayed,” he said. For what felt like a very long time, Mogila said nothing. Then she edged closer and clasped Anzu into an embrace, tight and bone-crushing. Anzu rested his head on her shoulder and started to cry.
Down on Mir, it was late spring, the month of Polelun. Up on Korom’s Might, it was chilly and damp. The Orm had not put great stock in making the climate livable, and so a miasma of late autumn clung to it year-round. Yet, it was too warm for a fur coat. Between ruining his shirt with sweat and freezing, Anzu chose the latter and was now huddled against Mogila as they made their way down the main street, looking for her friend’s little establishment. Mogila was wearing a light autumn coat that was far from adequate for the weather and she, too, shivered and shuddered with each gust of wind.
Anzu’s feet in their high-heeled boots ached. He could barely feel his toes and fingers and his nose was icy cold. It began to drizzle, just as Mogila lunged to the right, grabbing Anzu around the waist and pulled him with her into a poky shop. Ancient wonder-working amulets danged from the ceiling, giving off auras that made Anzu’s Spirit eyes itch.
There were shelves of books, piles of books, a display stand showing off fortune-telling cards and sets of rune stones and a counter piled high with yet more books, ledgers and assorted junk that gave off auras of varying strengths – it seemed that the proprietor had been doing some thrift-store crawling. The whole place stank like an alchemist’s lab, of sulphur and formaldehyde and Lord knew what else. The proprietor was nowhere in evidence.
Mogila marched up to a tiny door in the back, moved aside the pile of books blocking it and rapped out a sharp rhythm. The door creaked open and a pale, straw-haired man of middle age peered out with watery brown eyes. He peered up at Mogila and gave her a wan smile, then transferred his gaze to Anzu. At first, he just looked, while Anzu carefully avoided meeting his gaze. The man kept looking. Mogila shifted from foot to foot and Anzu stared at a nearby book, feeling his face grow hot with embarrassment.
“Is that one of the fucking Vultures?” said the man, at long last. Mogila smacked her forehead in frustration. Anzu turned to glare at the man, his face twisting with equal parts dismay and rage.
“That was almost ten bloody years ago, sweetness,” he said and crossed his arms. “I have a name, you know.”
“Gena,” said Mogila. “You’ve got as much tact as half a brick in a dirty sock. Stop gawking.”
The man shrugged and stepped out from behind the door. He was wearing a tatty housecoat and slippers. His big toe poked through a hole in the right slipper and his left slipper looked like it had seen its share of spilt tea. He ran his hand through his unwashed hair and shrugged again, his expression helpless.
“I’m Genady Vasiljevich Zharkov,” he said to Anzu, giving a perfunctory bow. “You’re … hrm. You’re Anzu Menelik.”
“Yes, darling,” said Anzu. “Anzu Tamiratovich to you.”
“Of course,” said Genady, bowing again, this time lower. Anzu inclined his head, reluctant to be polite. Genady didn’t seem to care – he turned to Mogila, who was fidgeting with her antimagic bracelets and looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“What’s this about, Gilja?” he said.
“We need your services,” said Mogila. “‘S private. And really delicate. I can pay.”
Genady titled his head to one side and said, “no, you can’t pay. Not on a miner’s wage.”
Mogila bit her lip. She looked like she was about to object, but Genady put a hand up to silence her.
“I can do it for free, if it doesn’t involve sacrifice,” he said. “Though haruspicy I can do if you pay for the animal.” He shook his head. “We’re friends, Gilja. You don’t have to pay me.”
“Well, the thing is …” began Mogila and then cut off. “Look. We need to talk somewhere more private than your shop. Can we go up to your rooms?”
Genady wrinkled his nose. Anzu watched him from across the room, feeling ill at ease and curiously doomed, like he was a mouse and the shop was an elaborate mousetrap.
“I suppose you can,” said Genady, with a heavy sigh. “Just don’t rummage. In fact, just don’t touch anything that isn’t furniture.” He gestured for them to follow him and disappeared through the door at the back.
The wooden stairs up to Genady’s room were narrow and cramped, the boards warped with age and damp. They creaked mightily as Anzu, Mogila and Genady made their way up, making Anzu worry about their structural integrity. He did not want to die by falling down the stairs in a smelly fortune-teller’s shop.
The upstairs, where Genady presumably lived, was as cluttered and pungent as the downstairs. The books up here were older and some of them bore not only water stains but also what looked like mould colonies. Anzu began breathing through his mouth.
Mogila sprawled on the overstuffed, stained sofa and put her feet up on the coffee table, between mugs, plates and conical flasks. Anzu perched beside her, trying to touch as little of the sofa as possible while still technically sitting down. The place’s mess disturbed him on some deep level he could not quite fathom. He wanted to scour the whole place with bleach and possibly some judiciously-applied fire.
Genady did not sit down. He stood in the middle of the room, looking at Anzu and Mogila, his gaze sharper than Anzu would’ve expected.
“So,” Genady said. “You brought one of the Dmitrin Vultures here and you tell me you have a private problem.” He gave Anzu a suspicious look and Anzu responded with a glare. “What is this about?”
“We need you to find someone,” said Mogila. “A child. Our child.”
Genady’s jaw dropped open and he blinked at the pair of them. Anzu, feeling the rise of shame in his stomach, looked down at his hands and hunched his shoulders.
“You had a child,” he said. “Out of wedlock. With Anzu Menelik? Were demonic rites involved?”
“Fuck you, sweetness,” Anzu snapped, raising his head. “I’m not a demon.”
“Might as well be,” said Genady and then turned to Mogila, looking pointedly at her and her only, though Anzu noticed he didn’t try to force eye contact. “If this is a joke, Gilja–“
“This is not a joke,” said Mogila, sharply. “Look, it’s a long story and …” she looked at Anzu and then leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Can I tell him? He knows … he knows about me.”
Anzu threw a look at Genady and then sighed.
“You can tell him,” he said, softly. Mogila clapped him on the back, then rested her arm there, squeezing his shoulder.
“You know I’m a namekiller,” she told Genady, her voice trembling only a little. “Well, Anja is too. We had the kid the usual way. Before I … before my change.” She swallowed and looked down at her feet. Anzu reached over to squeeze her hand.
“Oh,” said Genady. “Hrm.” He gave Anzu a calculating look. Anzu let go of Mogila’s hand and hugged himself, as though trying to shield himself from Genady’s stare. “I suppose that does make sense. But you know, it’d be easier to find demon-spawn than an ordinary child.”
“And it’d be far easier for me to do the divination myself, using your guts, dearest,” said Anzu. “Shut up.” Genady’s expression remained mild, much to Anzu’s disappointment.
Mogila sighed. Her free hand was clenching and unclenching and she started to drum a nervous pattern on Anzu’s collarbone, again. He put his hand over hers to stop her – it was not a pleasant sensation, for one’s bones to be part of someone else’s nervous habit.
“Gena,” Mogila said, heavily. “Please. We need your help.”
“I suppose I can help,” said Genady, with a careless shrug. “But it’s a trivial matter. You could’ve gone to any damn true-seer in the settlement.”
“Yeah,” said Mogila. “Except I’d rather not out myself or Anja to any more people. Don’t be a swine.”
Genady looked away and Anzu thought he caught the shadow of embarrassment pass over his features, but it was gone before he could be sure it had even been there. Genady kept looking at the grubby wall, as though fascinated by the suspicious reddish stains on the antique wallpaper and said nothing.
“Gena–” Mogila said, her voice pleading and lost. “Please …”
Genady turned to look at her, his mouth a crooked grin that did not reach his eyes.
“All right,” he said. “I suppose I can. But,” he turned to face Anzu and smirked at him, “let it be known: I’m not doing it for the bone-polisher there. I’m doing it for you, Gilja.” Anzu felt his inner fire raise its head within his soul. Smoke rose from his fingertips, tickling his nose and making him sneeze. His skin was growing hot and he felt feverish, sick and trapped. Mogila’s face was stony, but the hand on Anzu’s shoulder was gripping hard enough to be painful. Later, Anzu found bruises on his soft skin where her fingers had been.
Genady ignored their reactions. Perhaps he simply didn’t care to notice – he turned away and carefully picked his way through the stacks of books to a small, ancient cabinet that looked like it had been shot at least once. The glass panels in the front were cracked and stained. He opened the bottom cabinet and took out a small brown bottle that looked suspiciously medical.
“The child has Spirit heritage,” he said, half to himself. “It should be easy to search for a Spirit in my dreams.” He turned to Mogila and Anzu and waved towards the door.
“Get out,” he said. “Come back in the morning. I’ll have news for you, then.”
Anzu got up and dusted off his skirt. He was out the door while Mogila was still saying her goodbyes to Genady, her tone forlorn and a little strained. Anzu took the stairs down three at a time, skipping a little as he ran. He crossed the shop in five strides, slammed the front door shut. The bell jangled, jarring against his strained temper and he had to bite his lip to stop himself from crying out or accidentally igniting something.
He breathed in fresh air like a drowning man finally rescued.
“What a vile place,” he told the sky. “What a vile little man.”
Anzu and Mogila lay side by side on the hotel bed, both still fully dressed. Anzu’s head lay near Mogila’s feet and his stockinged feet rested on one of the sad, flat pillows the hotel had provided. The whiskey bottle sat unopened on the bedside table. Beside it stood an equally untouched jar of pickles, two tins of herring and half a loaf of rye bread. Mogila had procured the food before they’d set off for Genady’s shop, but neither she nor Anzu were hungry now.
“He’s a fucking pig,” said Anzu, at length. “Like all men.”
“That include you?” she said, grinning at him. Anzu frowned in response and sat up, hugging his knees. He looked at Mogila for a long time, his head cocked to one side, and then shook his head.
“I don’t think I’m a man,” he said and when her brow creased in confusion, he hastened to add, “I’m not a woman, either, darling, but … ah. Both labels are ill-fitting. Being called a man makes me feel less awful than being called a woman.”
“Hrm,” said Mogila and shrugged. “Hell, ‘s your body. You know what it should be called better than I. That mean you changed your mind about the sideburns?”
Anzu sighed and made a vague gesture in the air, lifting one hand palm-up towards the water-stained ceiling and waggling his fingers.
“Not really, dear,” he said. “I still want facial hair. And no tits.”
Mogila rubbed her chin, looking at him thoughtfully.
“Y’know,” she said. “I could help you get hormones. I mean, not here, but maybe if I ever get off this damn rock–“
Anzu considered this and shrugged.
“It could be good for me,” he said. “But, ah, where?”
“Not on this shitty fucking rock, that’s for sure,” said Mogila, glumly. “But if you’re ever getting off it, there’s a sawbones down in Chervey who’s interested in helping poor wretches like you and I.” She smirked, but it turned into a sad grimace almost immediately. “He’ll probably call you a girl and insist on interviewing you for his case files, but he’ll give you the stuff.”
Anzu frowned and moved closer to Mogila, putting a hand on her arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said, softly. “That must’ve been … humiliating. To say the least, darling.”
“I don’t have to see him that often,” she said, but her voice had pain in it. “He sends me the pills every six months. He only puts my initial of my old name on the package, too, so the boys down in the mines don’t find out.”
Anzu leaned forward and embraced her. She put an arm around his narrow shoulders and pressed him against her breast.
“You deserve better,” Anzu said, softly and Mogila gave a sad chuckle that turned into a sob. Anzu squeezed her upper arm. They lay like that for some time, Anzu listening to Mogila breathe, nostalgia for the old days weighing heavily on his heart.
Mogila sat up and picked up the hunk of rye bread and tore off some, then put the rest of the loaf on Anzu’s chest. Anzu squinted at it and shook his head.
“I’m not hungry, darling,” he lied. Mogila snorted.
“You never are,” she said. “You’re just gonna … waste away one day.”
“I’ll be fine,” Anzu said, his voice strained. He did not appreciate having this conversation again, either. “Please … darling. Take the stuff off me.”
Mogila shrugged, but obliged. Anzu sat up, brushing crumbs from his suit jacket. He watched Mogila eat for a few minutes, then reluctantly reached for the jar of pickles. He fished one out with his long fingernails and stared at it for a long time before popping it into his mouth.
“Well done,” said Mogila, through a mouthful of bread and herring. Anzu mock-scowled at her and reached over to grab the loaf of bread. Pickles on their own were not a pleasant meal. Mogila grinned at him and gave him a thumbs up.
“You’ll stop being a bag of bones soon!” she said, the forced jollity in her voice annoying Anzu. He frowned at her and shook his head.
“Please, darling,” he said. “Let’s not talk about that.”
They finished their makeshift meal in silence. Anzu reached for the bottle of whisky.
“You know, sweetness, you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here,” he said, uncorking the bottle and taking a swig from it. “I thought you were quite happy in Svet-Dmitrin? Why come here?”
Mogila shifted, awkwardly and reached over to take the whisky from Anzu. She drank deep from the bottle, coughed and said, a little hoarsely, “it reminded me too much of you. I wanted a new start. I went to Chervey but there wasn’t much work and then this hunk of abyssal debris liberated itself and I thought, why not? I’ve been a factory worker all my life. Mining can’t be that different.”
Anzu shook his head.
“But darling, it’s so dangerous–” he began, a pleading note creeping into his voice and Mogila glared at him so fiercely that he cut off, feeling his face grow hot.
“Don’t,” she said. “I know. Okay? I fucking know. Spare me, Anja. I’m young, I’ve got plenty of Spirit, I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sorry, ” said Anzu. Mogila waggled the bottle of whisky at him.
“Let’s just drink and talk about something else,” she said. “Please?”
“As you wish, dearest,” Anzu said, inclining his head in small bow. “As you wish.”