The celestial dirigible is late. The waiting passengers, all twelve of them, crowd behind a heavy velvet rope, watching the empty landing platform and the skies above it. Beyond the clouds, in the far distance, the forcefield of the habitat dome shimmers.
Anzu Menelik, resplendent in furs and silk and a top hat, is standing next to Mogila Molotova, smoking his seventh cigarette of the hour through a holder that’s almost two hand-spans long. It juts into the air, a hazard to the eyes of anyone passing by – or at least anyone who’s as short as Anzu. Mogila’s been thinking of asking him to put the holder away, but she does not want to argue, not when they’re both so high-strung. She checks her pocket watch, shifts her significant weight from foot to high-heeled foot, sighs, tries to imagine a calm seascape.
It does not work. She’s irritated and impatient and her mind keeps trying to shove images of flame to the forefront of her brain. The antimagic bracelets that ring her sturdy wrists are barely keeping her inner fire at bay – they itch and tingle and yet she can still feel the steady rising of her body temperature, see little wisps of smoke curl up from her fingers. If she can’t get a hold of herself, she’s apt to set something on fire and even the antimagic bracelets won’t help. She feels faint, like she’s about to topple over like a grand oak tree in a storm.
She takes off her own fur coat and hangs it over one brown arm.
Anzu makes a quiet huffing noise, exhaling white cigarette smoke through the nostrils of his long, crooked nose. His dark face is wearing a thunderous expression and when Mogila lays a hand on his shoulder to steady herself, she can feel the heat of his body through his fur stole. She takes her hand away, grimacing.
“You’re burning up,” she says, quietly, but her sonorous voice carries. She can see a few of their fellow passengers look around.
Anzu rolls his eyes, his perfectly-painted lips coming together in a pout.
“I’m just frustrated!” he says, in a slightly wavering alto. “I want to be off this useless goddamn rock!”
“And on another useless goddamn rock?” says Mogila, smirking despite everything.
“Mat Nochi’s a bigger rock, sweetness,” Anzu says and he can’t quite keep a smile off his face. “And it’s a moon, not a wretched asteroid.”
Mogila shrugs her full shoulders. Mat Nochi is a proper satellite of Mir, while the nameless asteroid the station of Korom’s Might is built on barely merits the term, with its orbit being far-flung and elliptical. But in her eyes, Mat Nochi is still yet another rock in the sky, barren without the application of some hefty – and unreliable – magic. She’s not thrilled to be going there, but she knows it must be done, if she ever wants to see Kinneret.
Anzu smokes the rest of his cigarette down to a stub, flicks it away and immediately shoves another one into the cigarette holder. He lights it with a click of his delicate, spidery fingers and takes a long drag. Mogila watches him with some jealousy. She’d quit smoking when she started working in the mines on the asteroid, to spare her lungs at least a little, but now that Anzu is back in her life and she’s free of the mines, she’s been considering taking it up again.
Mogila’s bored, restless and she starts looking around, sizing up their fellow passengers. There’s a trio of young girls, no older than twenty, huddled together. Their coats are shabby and they’re hatless – they look rather like they might have spent their life’s savings on the dirigible tickets. Thinking this, Mogila feels a pang of guilt.
Next to the girls is a pale, young person in a coat far too heavy for late spring, their hands stuffed into pockets. They’re wearing a wide-brimmed hat that hides most of their face. Their lips are bloodless, their nose a little too pointy. Beside them stands an elderly matron, surrounded by bags. She’s reading a hardback novel sans its dust jacket and seems quite engrossed by it.
Far away from the commoners stand five diplomats in stern black suits, clutching briefcases. They whisper to each other and throw glances towards the trio of girls and towards Mogila and Anzu. When one of the glances shoots her way, Mogila returns it with a glare of such loathing and peevishness that the diplomat goes tomato-red and hurriedly looks away. Beside Mogila, Anzu giggles in approval.
“Tickets, please,” comes a drawl from behind Mogila. She turns around, smartly and pulls the gilt-edged tickets out of her bright red handbag. She hands them to the clerk, who’s small and mousy and harried-looking. He peers at the tickets. Mogila holds her breath, praying to Podvoda that he doesn’t ask them for identification – she’s got her passport and Anzu’s got his, but they’re both transgender, name-killers, and neither could get their documents altered. She does not want to have to explain this to the mousy clerk. Clerks are not known for being understanding and Mogila has butted heads with enough of them to be wary – and she does not want to be called something she most certainly is not.
Out of a corner of her eye, she sees that Anzu’s hands are trembling. He’s afraid, too. He puts a hand on her arm, squeezing it gently and she smiles with the corner of her mouth. The clerk hands the tickets back to Mogila without a word and moves on. Mogila breathes easier and Anzu slumps against her in exaggerated expression of relief.
“Thank fuck,” he says, quietly and Mogila nods. She puts an arm around his shoulders and he inclines his head, pressing his temple against her bicep. From afar comes the gentle whir of a celestial dirigible’s wonder-working motors. They both look up as the dirigible approaches and lands, with all the grace of an elephant lying down. It’s a magnificent thing, the gondola sleek and inlaid with brass filigree.
The clerk that had been checking tickets moves the velvet rope aside and waves the waiting passengers through. Mogila and Anzu pick up their suitcases – large and black for Mogila, a small, beige valise for Anzu – and enter the dirigible gondola.
It’s warmer inside than outside. The air is lightly perfumed with incense and Mogila’s feet sink a good few fingers into the fluffy carpet. There’s brass filigree where there isn’t plush upholstery and a pair of smiling attendants stand to either side of the entrance to the passenger quarters. Beyond them, glitters a chandelier – Mogila is disappointed to see it’s electric, but she supposes gas or candles would’ve been too dangerous on a dirigible.
“Tickets, please!” says one of them and Mogila hands him the tickets with trepidation, but he’s no more interested in their other papers than the clerk was. He tears off the ticket tabs and hands the remainder back to Mogila. His fellow attendant waves Mogila and Anzu through to the passenger quarters.
Anzu bows to both of them, shallow but respectful. Mogila inclines her head at them and then goes through the door. She has to duck just a fraction – the lintel is unusually low and she’s tall even without the spike heels ten fingers in height.
Anzu takes the tickets from Mogila’s hand and examines them with a critical eye.
“Says we can sit anywhere we like,” he tells Mogila, who knows this. She nods, nonetheless – she doesn’t want an argument, she doesn’t want a petty argument, she just wants to be on Mat Nochi and resuming the search for their daughter.
Anzu leads the way to a booth near to the centre of the passenger quarters and sits daintily down, skinny legs in their high-heeled boots crossed at the ankles. Mogila sits down beside him and takes off her hat, then lifts the top hat off Anzu’s head and puts it on the mirror-polished oak table in front of them.
Anzu slips his cigarette-holder into the valise and leans against Mogila, eyes closed. The paste jewels in his false eyelashes sparkle in the light from the chandelier. Mogila puts her arm around his narrow shoulders, a sisterly gesture.
The young person in the wide-brimmed hat walks past and Mogila thinks they’re walking a bit odd, almost like a marionette. They sit down opposite Mogila and Anzu and Mogila briefly thinks that there’s something very odd about them, but she’s not been trained to see auras and all she can tell for sure is that there’s suddenly a lot more ambient magic in the air. Anzu sneezes and gently prods the six bright blue Spirit-eyes on his cheekbones, feeling the magic, too. Mogila puts a hand over his hand.
“Don’t pick at them,” she says. “You’ll regret it.”
Anzu moves his hand to his lap, but he still looks uncomfortable.
The diplomats take their places behind Mogila and Anzu and the trio of girls sit beside the young person in the wide-brimmed hat, still huddled together like sparrows in a rainstorm. Anzu gives them a cheery smile and a small bow of the head and Mogila smiles and waves. One of the girls smiles back, but the other two look away. Mogila wonders why and then decides the wondering will lead to no good thoughts.
Someone towards the entrance to the passenger quarters claps their hands and Mogila turns to look. The captain, dapper in a suit ostentatious enough to rival Ormish military uniforms, is standing there, looking around at his passengers with a glassy smile pasted on his face.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he declares in a booming voice. He’s speaking Ormish with a heavy accent that even Mogila, who barely speaks the language, can pick up.
The captain gives a short speech, but Mogila understands none of it. She turns to Anzu, who’s watching the captain with a bored look. Anzu waggles his fingers, noncommittally.
“He’s telling us he’s thrilled to have us on board, darling,” Anzu drawls. “And that he hopes our bloody two-day trip across the celestial abyss is pleasant, despite the dirigible being, for all intents and purposes, a big coffin strapped to a balloon.”
“He didn’t really say that,” pipes up one of the girls opposite, the one that had smiled at Mogila and Anzu earlier. “He’s just wishing us a pleasant trip.”
Anzu rolls his eyes and waves the girl’s comment away.
“I know, I know, darling,” he says. “But that was the gist and anyway, this thing is a flying coffin.” He shudders, theatrically, the feathered collar of his jacket rustling. One of the other girls turns to look at him, thoughtfully.
“Say,” she says. “You look kind of familiar. Are you from the flicks?”
Anzu looks at her for a second, struck silent, then bursts out laughing. He shakes his head, but is too overcome to speak again. Mogila swoops in.
“No,” she says. “Though he’s very flattered you think so–” she gives Anzu a doubtful glance and amends with, “I think. But no, we’re not actors.”
“You look like actors,” the girl says. “And her face is very familiar.” She nods at Anzu, who stops giggling and freezes, unnaturally contorted. Mogila holds her breath.
“I’m not a woman, darling,” Anzu says, crisply. He rearranges himself into a more comfortable pose, glaring at the girl. The girl goes bright pink and her companions both grimace.
“You look like one,” she says. “Sorry.”
Anzu’s face has gone stony. He ignores the apology and ducks down to retrieve his cigarette holder and cigarette case from his valise. He bounds to his feet and leaves the table in the direction of the observation deck. When Mogila moves as though to stand up, he holds up a hand and hisses, “stay put, dearest,” at her.
“I said sorry,” says the girl.
“He knows,” Mogila says. She gets up, too and bows shallowly to the girls and the young person in the wide-brimmed hat, who’s looking quite befuddled by the goings-on.
“Excuse me,” Mogila says. “I’m going to the observation deck, too.”
The observation deck has three walls made out of small, square panes of glass and a wooden floor with a chest-high railing. There’s brass filigree everywhere, just like inside. Late spring sunlight drifts through the glass, illuminating the little deck like it’s the inside of a gas lantern. Anzu leans against the sole wall that’s not made of glass and stares into the distance.
He is shaking too much to light a cigarette. He can feel the heat of his inner fire in his palms, but he can’t concentrate long enough to let out just a tiny spark – every time he thinks his fingers will ignite, he feels an awful, huge wave of fire push against the proverbial door and he has to shut down the exits again and collect himself. When Mogila’s heavy hand lands on his shoulder, he twitches.
“Gilja, go away,” he says, hoarsely. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“‘S fine,” says Mogila. “I’m not here to talk about it. I’m here to make sure you don’t throw yourself off the dirigible.” Anzu gives her a cold look, but says nothing.
An attendant bustles into the observation deck, sees the pair of them and tuts.
“Passengers are advised to remain inside the dirigible during ascent,” he says, like he’s reading off a cue card. Anzu gives him a dour glare, but Mogila takes Anzu by the shoulder and steers him back inside. To soften the blow, she leads him not towards their seats, with the dubious company, but towards the bar nestled in the corner. One of the diplomats is sitting at it, his head already down, back hunched. The bartender looks a touch alarmed.
Anzu shrugs off Mogila’s hand.
“There’s no need to baby me, darling,” he says and Mogila shakes her head, sadly.
“I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay,” she says. He shakes his head.
“I’m fine, darling,” he says. “Just ducky. Please … just let me get a little drunk and forget this ever happened. We’ll all be happier that way.”
“Anja,” says Mogila and Anzu’s heart breaks a little at her exasperated tone, the tired look in her eye. “You don’t–“
“Darling,” Anzu says, sharply and then again, softer, “darling. Don’t. Hush. I can look after myself.”
Mogila looks unsure. Anzu tries for a reassuring smile, but he can feel how fake it must look. Mogila shakes her head and pats his shoulder.
“All right,” she says. “You get sozzled, I’ll … I’ll go read or something.”
Anzu mock-salutes her.
“That’s the spirit, sweetness!” he says and turns to the bartender. The bartender’s a short man, bald as a rock and red as a sunset. Anzu gives him a thin, insincere smile.
“Give me your strongest vodka, darling,” he says. “Ah. Please.”
The girls are nowhere in evidence when Mogila returns. She sits down and rummages around in Anzu’s valise until she finds a romance novel. She’s not usually a big reader, but she’s very bored, right now. She’s just about to start reading when a polite cough draws her attention. She looks up and meets the eye of the young person in the wide-brimmed hat, who’s staring at her like a rabbit in the headlights of a motorcar.
“Excuse me,” says the young person. “But can you please explain what just happened?”
Mogila is too stunned to respond, at first. But the young person’s face is guileless, their eyes wide and confused. Mogila clears her throat, uncomfortable with the request but unsure how to deny it.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she finally says, gruffer than she meant to. The young person shakes their head, helplessly. Mogila takes pity.
“It’s not a good feeling,” she says, “to be taken for something you’re trying so hard not to be.”
“Oh,” says the young person and cocks their head to one side, like a curious bird. “I don’t understand.”
Mogila wants to snort. She wants to be curt and unpleasant. She quashes the urge down, because she’s in public and Anzu is off getting drunk and won’t be around to back her up, so she merely gives a tight, fake, little smile and says, “I don’t think I can explain, then.”
The young person shrugs, helplessly. They look so lost that Mogila almost takes pity, but the thought of outing Anzu – or herself for that matter – is unbearable, untenable. She says nothing.
There is silence. Mogila reads and re-reads the first page of the romance novel, absorbing none of it. She keeps sneaking glances at the bar, where Anzu is on his third shot glass of vodka.
“Um, by the way,” says the young person, quite suddenly and without preamble. “I’m Ae.” They pronounce it like “Ay”. Mogila barely recognises it as a name.
“I’m Mogila,” she replies, looking up. The young person nods and smiles, the smile as awkward as Anzu’s when he’s caught off-guard. “It’s, uh. Nice to meet you, Ae.”
Ae beams at Mogila and extends a long, white hand. Mogila shakes hands with Ae and on reflex, out of a desire to be polite, she says, “where are you from, Ae?”
“Oh, you know,” says Ae, vaguely. They withdraw their hand and look away. “Around.”
“Around,” says Mogila. She considers the possibility that Ae is intoxicated and does not question further, though she’s burning with curiosity. Instead, she resumes trying to read the romance novel.
Eventually, the girls come back and take their seats opposite. Anzu stumbles back, staggering in his high heels, his makeup smeared across his cheeks in a way that suggests he’s been crying. Mogila wants to ask what sort of hellish chain of thought the girl’s assumption set off, but it’s far from the time – and Anzu slumps against her and falls asleep before she can suggest they slip off back to the observation deck and talk.
She keeps reading. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do.