Once his visitors were gone, Genady found a blanket in the mess that was his wardrobe, lay down on the sofa – the bed being taken up by books, magical artifacts and an in-progress Hangman’s Head spread of cards – and uncorked the bottle of barbitone pills. He squinted down the bottle’s neck, disappointed to find that he only had a handful left.
Genady shook out two, swallowed them dry and corked the bottle again. He put it on the coffee table, perching it on top of a stack of dirty plates, and lay back, closing his eyes. Barbitone was barely enough to put him to sleep, these days, but it was the easiest route to a true-dream he knew. A missing child was urgent – he could not afford to waste half a day on trying to entrance himself with breathing exercises and sitting very still.
Genady concentrated, remembering how Anzu’s and Mogila’s auras had felt – the sharp, electric tang of the Vulture’s, the robust and gentle waft of Mogila’s. He focused on the nexus of the two, thought about the many ways they could combine. As he plunged deeper and deeper into sleep, he tried to keep a sole thought going through his head: he must find the child.
He came to in a wet field buffeted by gale. The scant birch trees on the periphery were almost bent double by the wind. He stood up and looked around – the place was unrecognisable, unknown to him. Grasping for lucidity, he shook his head and willed the dream to change, to show him what he wanted to know. The dream resisted and for a few panicked seconds, Genady’s mind fluttered on the edge of consciousness. Then he went down again and the dream finally gave way, throwing him into darkness.
It was cold, far colder than any Vodastoj winter Genady had ever felt, far colder than it ever got on Korom’s Might. He could see nothing, but only felt the cold. It snaked into his bones, settling there like a feverish ache. Genady, suddenly recalling that true-seers had been known to die in dreams, fought to break through the dream, like a drowning man swimming for the ever-distant surface.
He woke up and rolled off the sofa, colliding with the coffee table and banging his elbow hard enough to make his whole lower arm tremble and seize in pain. Cursing, Genady got up and kicked the coffee table, then sat back down on the sofa, breathing rapidly.
“The fuck,” he said to the empty room, “was that?” He shuddered and pulled the blanket around his shoulders, still feeling the phantom chill of the dream. He knew that he owed Mogila to look again, but the thought of finding that unbearable coldness again was nauseating. No, he decided. He’ll explain and send Mogila and the goddamn Vulture to someone else. Someone more experienced and more tolerant of the cold.
He got up, the blanket around his shoulders like a cape, and went to his liquor cabinet. He badly needed a drink. He picked out a dusty bottle of vodka and drank from the neck, until his eyes watered and his throat burned. He put the bottle onto the coffee table and wrapped his blanket tighter around himself, considering his next move.
“Fuck it,” he told the room. “I’ll tell them tomorrow.”
“You look rather gloomy,” said Mogila. Anzu finished applying the last strokes of black lipstick and mock-frowned at her. They were sitting on the hotel bed, applying makeup and planning the day. Outside, feeble rays of sunlight shone down on the settlement from behind a thin veil of cloud.
“Dearest!” Anzu said. “I just felt like bright colours were rather inappropriate for a grieving parent!” Mogila laughed and Anzu grinned, though he could feel tears start to gather. He willed them to disperse, not wanting to ruin his makeup.
“I don’t think Gena’s gonna be judging you on that,” Mogila said and Anzu smirked.
“Of course he won’t be, my dove,” he said. “He’s already judging me for being a Vulture. That’s enough for him. Though I suppose he’s not too happy about helping a painted nancy, either.”
Mogila frowned and reached out to touch Anzu’s arm. He gave her a sidelong glance, not quite sure if she was going to try and stand up for Genady.
“I’m sorry,” she said and Anzu relaxed. “I didn’t know he was … y’know. He accepted me, I thought he’d be okay with you, but–“
“People are mysterious, my dove,” said Anzu and snapped his mirror compact closed. He began putting his makeup back into his valise, not looking at Mogila. “I’m sure he’s a good person,” he continued, forcing lightness into his tone. “He’s helping us. I do appreciate it. I just don’t appreciate him.”
“I don’t blame you,” said Mogila. She shrugged and spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “I just wish it hadn’t happened. He’s, er. He’s the only friend I have in the settlement proper.”
“Oh, ” said Anzu, in a small voice. Discomfort rose up in his throat. “Er–” he cast about for a change of topic and blurted out, rather hurriedly, “what are you doing in the settlement, anyway? If you work in the mines–“
“‘S my octet off,” said Mogila. “I came here to unwind and … well,” she grinned, sheepishly. “There’s a tommy bar on the outskirts. I’ve been hoping to meet a girl or two.”
“A tommy bar?” said Anzu. “Here? That’s … well, ah. That’s rather surprising, darling.”
“Not really,” said Mogila, getting up off the bed and straightening her dress. She was dressed a lot more soberly today, in browns and beiges, and had kept the fur stole off. “Lotsa outcasts here, Anja. Lots of people like us.”
Anzu closed the valise and pushed it under the bed.
“Have you met anyone, then?” he said and Mogila frowned.
“No luck this week,” she said. “‘S why I came home early and found you. Bit of a blessing, really.” Anzu’s face grew hot and he looked away. Mogila gave a small chuckle. “I’d rather meet you than some girl who won’t see me again for six months,” she added. “But c’mon. Quit stalling, we have to go see Gena. Then I’ll take you to the town hall and we can see if we can’t find some orphanages in this place.”
Anzu sighed and got up.
“Let us go, then,” he said, taking her arm. “We’ll have to pretend to be a couple for the officials, I hope you’re aware.”
Mogila shrugged and tapped the tip of Anzu’s nose, twice.
“It’ll be just like the old days,” she said, grinning, but Anzu saw a flicker of regret in her eyes.
Genady’s nameless little shop was dark and quiet, Genady the only person in it, standing half-asleep at the counter. In front of him lay a ledger, opened to two pages covered in elaborate diagrams that Anzu could not parse upside-down. They looked familiar, but only faintly so. When he saw Anzu and Mogila enter, Genady started and swore.
“Good day to you too, dearest,” Anzu said, sourly. Mogila nodded at Genady, who briskly turned away from them, displaying the tea and sauce stains on the back of his housecoat.
“I have no idea where she is and looking for her almost killed me,” said he. Mogila groaned. Anzu just stared.
“She’s somewhere dark and cold,” continued Genady, making Anzu’s heart clench in terror and dismay.
“So she’s dead,” he said, hollowly and Genady snorted with laughter.
“No, no,” he said, turning around. He looked, if possible, worse than the day before. His unwashed hair was standing on end and there were dark circles under his grey eyes. “If she were dead, I would’ve seen something. She’s where I cannot reach. Make of that what you will.”
Anzu began to speak, but his throat constricted and he could only make incoherent noises. Mogila grasped his shoulder, pulling him towards her. He leaned against her side and hid his face in the crook of her arm. Genady snorted.
“I think she’s alive,” he said. “But I don’t think you’ll be seeing her again.” Anzu whimpered.
“Thanks,” said Mogila. “Thank you. I think … I think we’ll be leaving now.”
“I’m just being honest,” said Genady, sounding resigned. “It’s not my fault she’s gone.”
“No,” said Mogila. “But you’ve still got all the tact of half a brick in a sock, Gena.”
That evening, after a fruitless search through the city’s orphanages, Anzu and Mogila finished off the whisky bottle. They fell asleep on each other, still dressed.
On the last morning of her brief holiday, Mogila woke Anzu up and handed him a slip of paper with an address written on it. He squinted at it, then squinted up at her, his expression blank and sleep-fuddled. Mogila resisted an urge to roll her eyes.
“It’s my address in the miners’ dorms,” she said. “I’m going back today, remember? I can’t take you with me immediately, but you’re welcome to come visit.”
“And where will I stay, then, darling?” said Anzu, yawning and showing off the gap between his front top teeth. Mogila frowned – she had been turning over possibilities in her mind, but there was only one remotely feasible one.
Her mouth dry with nervousness, she said, “well, you could stay with Gena.” She smiled, but she knew it was a crooked grimace, a parody of the intended expression. Anzu blinked at her, then snorted.
“Very funny,” he said. “I’m being serious, Gilja.” He sat up in bed and hugged himself, looking at Mogila with a lost expression that made her uneasy. She looked down at her hands, avoiding the glare.
“Look,” she said. “He’s a friend of mine, he’ll … he’ll put you up, for a little while. ‘Til we figure out what to do and where to look next.”
“Look next?” Anzu said, harshly. His voice broke on the second word. “Look next. Darling, there’s nowhere else to look. We’ve … we’ve exhausted the possibilities.” Mogila saw a tear trickle down his dark cheek and reached out to wipe it, out of habit. Anzu batted her hand away and hid his face in his hands.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, his voice muffled. “And … it’s pointless, darling. She’s gone. She’s not in the city, she’s not in any of the orphanages, none of the urchin gangs have seen her … it’s … it’s time to … f-face the truth.” He sighed, a juddering noise full of tears and took his hands away from his tear-stained face. “She’s gone.”
“She is not,” said Mogila and took both of Anzu’s delicate wrists in her hands, gripping them tightly. “She is not gone and we will find her. I won’t let you give up on our daughter. I won’t.”
Anzu looked at her for a long time, blinking away tears, not meeting her eye as usual. Then, without warning, he glanced up and made eye contact. There was a curious, determined spark in his eyes.
“All right,” he said and Mogila had to restrain herself from punching the air and swearing in triumph. “All right, dearest. I’ll … I’ll try not to despair. We’ll look for her. And, ah,” he paused, pulling a miffed face. “I suppose I can tolerate your friend Zharkov for a little while.”
“Good,” said Mogila, thinking that she was probably overdoing it on the heartiness. “Good! That’s the spirit, Anja. It’ll … it’ll all be quite fine. I promise you.”
Anzu looked at her hesitantly, like a caged animal regarding its keeper and said, softly, “oh, darling. I do wish I could trust you in that.”
After seeing Mogila and her luggage off to the ancient steam train that would take her back to the miners’ camp, Anzu – with his valise in one hand and a cigarette in its holder in the other – set off towards Genady’s shop, cursing how easily he had been talked into trying to get along with the man. He did not particularly want to spend time with someone who grew book mould as a hobby, but Mogila had been so insistent that he felt he had no choice. Nor did he want to start sleeping rough again.
Knowing it was the right choice and accepting it in his heart were, however, two completely different things, so when Genady appeared from behind the counter, Anzu gave him his best, most withering glare, his chin stuck out defiantly.
“Gilja says you’d be willing to put me up for a few days, darling,” he said. “As a favour to her, of course.”
“Oh,” said Genady. “Does she?” He rubbed his forehead, looking at Anzu with the filmy, red-rimmed eyes of a chronic insomniac. “Where did she get the notion I’d do it?”
“I have no fucking clue, darling,” said Anzu. “She’s sometimes a little too optimistic about people.” Genady half-smiled at that and took his hand away from his forehead.
“You’re not wrong,” he conceded and leaned forward, studying Anzu with a thoughtful look on his face. “But her optimism is often misplaced.”
“Your point, sweetness?” Anzu said, tartly. “Look, I’ll be blunt. I can’t afford to rent a room. If you don’t let me stay here, I’ll be sleeping under the stars.”
“Oh,” said Genady and sighed, heavily. “Well, I’ve only got the sofa and the bed isn’t usable …”
“Give me a pillow and a blanket and I’ll sleep on the floor,” said Anzu, crossing his arms. “Anything is better than the alternative, since if I stay with you, I will get neither harassed by the pigs nor rained on.”
Genady grimaced at the word Anzu used for “police”, but said nothing. For a few moments, he was silent, staring into space, his lips moving as if he was calculating something. Then his head snapped up and he fixed Anzu with a weary glare.
“Fine,” he said. “You can stay. You’ll sleep on the floor and you will not touch anything in any of the rooms. And you can help out in the shop, if you feel at all indebted to me.” His tone carried the unspoken message of “you better feel indebted”. Anzu resigned himself to trying to rescue the books from mould.
“Fine,” Anzu said. “I’ll do it, darling. I’ll help you run this pigsty.”
Genady smiled thinly.
“At least you look like you don’t eat much,” he said, throwing a critical glance over Anzu, making him feel self-conscious. Anzu hugged himself. For an uncomfortable, tense minute there was silence in the shop. Anzu spent the time trying to breathe through his mouth as inconspicuously as possible.
“Oh and–” Genady suddenly said and ducked behind the counter. “I have something here that might interest you.” He emerged, holding something that looked like a small, brass compass in one hand. “It’s a seeker. Found it last night among some other junk.”
Anzu took the little implement, weighing it in his hand – it was curiously light, far lighter than he would’ve expected.
“It’s hollow inside,” said Genady. “You put something of whoever you’re trying to find in and it should – in theory, anyway – point you towards them. So, you know. Might be more reliable than my head.”
Anzu glanced up, eyes narrowing in suspicion. Genady smiled at him, nervously.
“Why are you giving it to me, then, darling?” Anzu said, slowly. “I thought–“
“You’re a fucking Vulture, yeah,” said Genady, interrupting him. “And, you know. A sodomite and all that. But the kid’s Gilja’s, too. And no one should have to lose a child.”
Anzu sighed and pocketed the seeker.
“Thank you,” he said, quietly. “I’ll … I’ve got some of her hair in a locket.”
“That should do,” said Genady and then added, too quickly to be a natural outgrowth of the conversation, “say, you want some … tea or something?” Anzu looked at him in surprise.
“Of course,” he said. “Ah. That’d be lovely, darling.”
“Well, good,” said Genady, climbing over the counter. “You can put the water on to boil while I hunt the tea tin.”
Stifling a groan, Anzu picked up his valise and made his way upstairs, where it took him some time to find the kitchen door behind the pile of antique furniture that hid it. He pushed aside a stack of finely-carved chairs and a small footstool that looked to be at least two hundred years old and swung open the door into the kitchen.
He had been steeling himself for a mess worse than the shop, but the kitchen was spotless. The brass taps over the sink gleamed like gold and there was not a speck of dust to be seen. Anzu exhaled in relief and opened the first cupboard he saw, in search of a kettle.
A human skull, half-wrapped in tissue paper, stared back at him. Anzu slammed the cupboard door closed, then opened it again – just a crack, to confirm that he was not seeing things.
He was not – the skull remained real and solid and there. Anzu poked it with a long finger, just to make sure.
“I don’t hear a kettle boiling– oh, whoops.”
Anzu turned around. Genady was standing in the doorway, holding a tin container in one hand. He looked faintly embarrassed, like Anzu had just found his underwear drawer.
“Darling,” said Anzu, his voice choked. “Why is there a skull–“
“It’s a relic,” said Genady, off-hand. “You know. For certain rituals? I’m sure a big-shot famous necromancer like you has used many a relic in his day.”
“I told you,” Anzu said, spitting the words out. “That was almost a decade ago! I don’t do that stuff any more. I have a daughter, for the love of the Lord! And we never kept our relics in the fucking kitchen!”
Genady raised an eyebrow at Anzu.
“It was the cleanest place to put it,” he said, coming into the kitchen. He set the tin of tea down on a counter and fetched the kettle from the cupboard next to the one that contained the skull. “I didn’t want it to get mouldy. Some Spirits are really particular about that kind of thing.”
Anzu opened his mouth, but after a moment snapped it closed with an audible click of his teeth. He had far, far too many questions to ask to fit them all neatly into one utterance.
Genady filled the kettle with water from the tap and put it onto the ancient gas stove that stood in the corner. Anzu came over and lit the burner with a click of his fingers.
“I have a lighter, you know,” said Genady. “No need to show off.”
“I was trying to be helpful,” Anzu said, mildly. “But next time, darling, I’ll be sure to refrain from lifting a single finger.”
“Don’t try to be smart with me,” said Genady. “Fetch the cups from the cupboard left of the skull, if you wanna be helpful.”
Anzu, not particularly wanting a fight, did as he was asked.