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Anzu wakes up to utter silence and darkness. Panic rises up in his chest, choking him and he sits up with a lunge and a shudder. He’s sitting on a narrow cot, like one in a train car and it takes him a minute to remember that he’s on a celestial dirigible and realise that he’s in the sleeping quarters. He doesn’t remember getting there, at all – the last thing he remembers is ordering his fourth shot of vodka and then Mogila’s face, concerned and just a little bit peeved, looking down on him. He rubs his face and his hand comes off covered in mascara. He frowns at the stains, realising he must’ve cried. He doesn’t remember the cause, nor the catalyst and he considers that a blessing.
He fumbles for a light-switch, gently running his hands over the walls nearby and behind. Eventually, he manages to turn on a dim electric lamp. It illuminates the narrow sleeping compartment with a feeble, flickering glow. His valise and Mogila’s vast suitcase are standing on the floor, along with Mogila’s high-heeled shoes, but there’s no sign of the woman herself. Anzu sighs and considers going back to sleep, but that seems rather unappealing. Instead, he gets up, switches the light off and totters out of the compartment. He needs to wash his face. And he wants to find Mogila.
He steps out into the softly-lit corridor and finds it deserted. The deep carpet silences his footsteps. He pads down the corridor, gently trying every door handle. They’re all locked. Finally, towards the very end, he finds a washroom. It’s almost as ostentatious as his dress sense. The counters are white marble with pink veins, the taps are gilded, the mirrors are framed in dark, carved oak. Anzu checks his face in one of the mirrors and flinches away from his reflection.
He washes his face with soap and straightens, to check he’s gotten all the ruined make-up off. In the mirror, he can see no one else in the washroom.
He turns around and comes face to face with the pale stranger in the wide-brimmed hat. The stranger is standing stock still, staring into the mirror, where no reflection of them is evident.
Anzu’s blood runs cold. The stranger looks down at him and gives a glassy smile that doesn’t reach their dark eyes.
“Hello!” they chirp and Anzu glances over his shoulder, checking that the exit is clear.
“Ah, evening?” Anzu says, because he doesn’t want to be rude to someone – something – that has no reflection. His heart is hammering somewhere in his throat, making speaking difficult.
“I’m Ae!” says the stranger, cheerfully and extends a hand. Anzu flinches away from it, but the stranger doesn’t seem to notice. They just hold the hand out and keep talking.
“You’re the tall one’s companion, yes?” says the Ae and Anzu nods, almost on reflex.”I forget the tall one’s name.”
“Mogila,” Anzu says, his mouth gone dry. “Her name is Mogila.”
Ae nods and their smile widens. Anzu can see how pointy their teeth are, how unnaturally white and even. He shudders, visibly and takes a step back. Ae doesn’t seem to notice, nor do they lower their hand. Anzu takes another step back.
“You know,” he says, his voice shaking. “I’ve … I’ve got to go now, darling. Ah. Nice … nice meeting you!” He turns around and leaves the washroom not quite fast enough for it to count as a run, but certainly fast enough to be rude.
“See you later!” Ae calls after him, with unreasonable cheer.
Mogila’s in their tiny excuse for a room, thumbing through the romance novel Anzu brought with him. When Anzu shambles in, she looks up and gives him a smile that freezes and cracks when she’s had time to parse his expression. Anzu rushes over to her and grasps her shoulder.
“There’s a creature with … with no reflection here,” he gabbles. “Oh my Lord, there’s a … a Nizn, a nechist … a vurdalak or something here!” He sits down beside Mogila, shaking all over like he’s in the grip of a fever. “Oh Lord.”
“Eh?” says Mogila. “Who is it?”
“The … the tall one in the hat,” says Anzu. “Ae. They … they don’t … I saw them in the washroom …”
Mogila holds up a hand to silence Anzu.
“Anja, breathe,” she says. “Breathe. Then gibber.”
Anzu takes several shuddering breaths and then blurts out, “Ae has no reflection!”
“Oh,” says Mogila. She doesn’t seem at all upset by this revelation. “I thought there was something odd about them.”
“They’re nechist!” Anzu wails, not understanding how Mogila is so calm in the face of this. “They’re … they’re an unclean Spirit, they’re a monster.”
“So are you,” says Mogila. “So am I. We’re bloody well shoggot-descended.” She shrugs. “No reflection kind of pales in comparison to that.”
Anzu gives her a long look, full of disbelief and betrayal.
“That doesn’t even begin to compare!” he says. He’s getting angry at Mogila’s calm. His body heat rises and he quashes down the inner flame that starts whispering to him to set something on fire, just to let the anger out, channel it away, be rid of it. “What if they’re … what if they drink blood?”
“Like you used to?” says Mogila, with a smirk. Anzu bristles. A wisp of smoke rises from the tip of his suddenly-incandescent nose.
“It was spinal fluid,” he hisses at Mogila. “And I … it was … it was Raimut’s idea! It was … it was …” he stutters to a stop, tears coming to his eyes at the memories. “You cannot compare–“
Mogila, looking suddenly uneasy, frowns at him.
“Anja,” she says, her voice heavy and tired. “You’re one of the fucking Vultures. People tell stories of you to scare their children into eating their vegetables. There’s no fucking need for you to be so worried about … a glorified mosquito, if that’s what Ae is.”
Anzu starts, looking up at Mogila in surprise, rendered speechless.
“We’re in no danger,” says Mogila and tries for a smile. “Not with you around.”
Anzu looks away, wringing his hands.
“It was all a very long time ago, darling,” he says, softly and sadly.
For the rest of the trip, Anzu stays in the sleeping compartment.
Mat Nochi, Mir’s largest moon, hosts five habitat domes, the smallest of which is the tiny outpost of Elizaveta’s Vigil – a clump of old-fashioned wooden houses, a factory and a little-used celestial dirigible port.
Anzu disembarks first of all the passengers and the first thing he lays eyes on is a red flag fluttering on the port roof – Elizaveta’s Vigil is under the control of the Peasants and Workers’ Union, the Vodastoj rebels. He breathes a sigh of relief and marches towards the main building of the port, Mogila hurrying after him in her high heels and yelling for him to slow down.
Anzu does not slow down. He doesn’t want to risk running into Ae again. He breezes past the sleepy guards in the uniforms of the Red Front – the Union’s paramilitary force – and then stops, turning around and tapping his foot impatiently. Mogila catches up, wheezing a little.
“God damn you,” she mutters. “Hope you drown face down.” Anzu rolls his eyes at her and smirks. He knows she doesn’t mean the curse, though once she looks away, he makes the gesture of banishing the evil eye. You can never be too careful, where forces greater than mortals are concerned.
The guards give them both a cursory look, but clearly decide neither of them looks dangerous. They don’t recognise Anzu, which he takes as a good sign, an omen that things will go well on Mat Nochi. He smiles at them, gives a sloppy salute and heads for the exit, Mogila following.
“Anyone you know?” she says, jerking her chin at the guards. Anzu shakes his head.
“No, darling,” he says. “I wasn’t even aware the Union had made it to Mat Nochi, to tell you the truth. I thought we weren’t taking the satellites until we had a firmer hold on Vodastoj.”
“We?” says Mogila, with a smile. “Counting yourself as part of the revolution, messenger boy?”
“Don’t make fun,” he says, scowling. “I was a very dependable courier. Ah. Right up until personal life interfered, of course.”
“Right up until you fucked up and lost your only child, you mean,” Mogila grumbles. Anzu throws her a look and shakes his head.
“Youngest child,” he says mildly and quickens his pace, leaving Mogila standing stock still in the doorway of the port.
“Youngest?” she calls. “Anja! You never–“
“You never asked,” Anzu says, looking over his shoulder. Mogila’s face falls.
Anzu turns away and keeps walking.
Elizaveta’s Vigil is a dump to rival Korom’s Might. Two steps onto the nameless, unpaved main street, Anzu trips over an irate pig, a great, grey, bristling beast that makes a noise that’s more of a roar than an oink. Anzu lands in the dust, cursing. The valise goes flying from his hand and skids to a stop at the feet of a tall redhead, who’s staring at Anzu from behind thick glasses. He’s got a heavy, wooden walking stick in one hand and a tatty paperback book in the other. His hair is long, carefully braided and he’s wearing a sombre black suit and a bowler hat. His nose is long and pointy and his eyes are yellow – he’s Spirit-touched, shoggot-descended, just like Anzu.
“New here?” he says, raising an eyebrow at Anzu. Anzu grunts and gets to his feet, dusting himself off as best as possible. Once he’s satisfied that he’s gotten as much dust off as possible, he picks up his valise and addresses the redhead.
“Er, yes, darling,” he says. “Just off the dirigible.”
The redhead nods.
“Only newcomers don’t look where they’re going,” he says, rather cryptically. “Sorry about the pig.”
“Is he yours?” Anzu says, giving the pig a disgusted look. The pig is too busy eating something it found in the ditch by the side of the road to pay him any attention.
“What? No!” says the redhead, affronted. “I’m qeren! The pig owns himself.”
“Er,” says Anzu. “What? How can a pig …”
“‘S feral,” the redhead explains. “It’s … a long story.”
Anzu sizes up the stranger. He’s handsome and he’s got a charming accent, but he’s also qeren and that was the faith of Anzu’s parents. Anzu renounced it wholesale, when he met Raimut Hellewege. The memory sits in his stomach like a heavy stone. Ever since Raimut’s execution, Anzu’s been avoiding those who’d once been his people, out of shame.
“I’ve got time,” Anzu finally says, giving the redhead his best, most luminous smile. Qeren or not, Anzu would like to spend more time in his company. And then, right on cue, Mogila finally catches up with him. She jogs up to where he’s trying to charm the redhead and skids to a stop.
“This place is a dump,” she announces. “I got cornered by a fucking pig that tried to eat my shoe.” Anzu bursts out laughing. The redhead merely looks thoughtful.
“Yes,” he says. “The pigs are rather, er, bold?”
“Fucking shameless is what the pigs are,” Mogila says, darkly. Anzu has to stifle a laugh.
“I’m sorry,” says the redhead. He coughs awkwardly and looks at his feet in their dusty black shoes. “We are hardly a metropolis.”
Mogila crosses her arms and glares in the direction of the pig that Anzu tripped over. Anzu shrugs and pats the redhead on the arm.
“It’s quite all right, sweetness,” he purrs. “The pigs aren’t yours and you’re hardly, er, the god of pigs. What’s his name, again?” He turns to Mogila, who’s been a Vodastoj pagan for as long as he’s known her.
“Grjazov,” says Mogila, promptly. “He’s in the retinue of Svetla-Zemlja. And he’s got a pig’s snout, so you’re definitely not him.” She gestures towards the redhead’s elegantly curved nose. The redhead just nods along, looking a little confused.
“So, um,” he says, drawing circles in the dust with the toe of one shoe. He’s leaning quite heavily on his walking stick. “Do you two have … I mean, er, we haven’t introduced ourselves?” He looks up at them, shyly.
“Mogila Molotova,” says Mogila and reaches out a hand. The redhead shakes her hand, limply, then turns to Anzu. Anzu freezes and considers his options.
He could lie. But he’s a rather famous face and in the past, he’d always ended up caught out whenever he tried to use a false name. He sighs.
“Anzu Menelik,” he says. The redheads eyes widen behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
“The Anzu Menelik?” he breathes. “One of the Vultures of Svet-Dmitrin? Consort and apprentice of the Ghast?” The redhead grins, like he can’t believe his luck. “I … wow.”
Anzu stares at him in utter disbelief. A fan. An honest to goodness fan.
“I’m Samael Fomin!” the redhead hastens to explain. “I’m … I write! I’ve written books about you! Well, er, a fictional version of you.” He blushes a bright crimson, from the tip of his nose to his ears.
“Oh,” says Anzu, instantly making the connection. “You’re the one that wrote The Passion Of Death!” Samael looks up at him, his yellow eyes sparkling, and smiles. It’s a charming, boyish smile, totally sloppy and totally disarming. Anzu smiles back.
“I rather enjoyed that one, you know,” he says, cocking his head to one side. “It was … ah, it was how I wish things had been.” Samael blushes harder. Anzu re-appraises him. Qeren, dressed modestly, but long-haired and clean-shaven and with a public name that’s the name of the angel of death. Anzu is suddenly not only attracted but deeply intrigued. The fact the man wrote a very homoerotic gothic romance about him just sweetens the deal.
Mogila clears her throat and the spell breaks. Anzu looks around, feeling his face grow hot.
“You’ve had romance novels written about you?” she says. “What the hell, Anja, why did you never tell me?”
“I thought you wouldn’t be able to appreciate them properly, darling,” Anzu mumbles.
Mogila gives Samael a suspicious look. Samael just keeps blushing.
“Um, look,” he says. “You two probably have plans but … I live nearby and … well, seeing as you’re the Anzu Menelik … would you like to have tea?” Anzu beams at him.
“We’d love to!” he chirps, before Mogila can interject and ruin his chances. Mogila sighs.
“Sure,” she says. “I could use some tea to get over the fucking pigs here.”
Samael lives in a house that’s far too big for one person. It’s got three floors and an attic. The windows are framed by fretwork, the porch is big enough to be a front garden. Samael looks apologetic as he leads Anzu and Mogila to the house.
“It’s not mine,” he says. “It’s a communal house. The Union assigned us here.”
“Us?” asks Anzu, a little sharper than he’d intended. This would be a fine time to find out Samael’s married, he thinks.
“My sister and I,” says Samael and Anzu relaxes again. “There’s three other people living with us. Er. I hope they don’t mind me bringing you here …” The last part is mumbled and Samael colours red again. Anzu pats his shoulder.
“Oh, don’t worry, darling!” he says. “I’m quite charming. I’m sure nobody will mind.” Samael doesn’t look quite convinced, but he unlocks the heavy front door and waves Anzu and Mogila into the entrance hall.
There’s a man of heroic proportions in the hall, kneeling on the floor and carefully arranging pairs of shoes. He’s in his shirtsleeves and looks rather run ragged. His face is lined, his hair blond gone to white but his features are regular, handsome in the classical way. Hearing them approach, the man turns around.
“Oh, hello, Sam,” he says. “What’ve you dragged in this time?”
Samael coughs and gestures towards Mogila and Anzu. Anzu takes it as his cue to introduce himself.
“Afternoon, darling! I’m Anzu Menelik. Your … ah, housemate has generously offered my friend and me some tea, to compensate for the pigs of your … fine town harassing us.”
The man stares at Anzu for a few seconds, then bursts out laughing. Anzu’s heart sinks.
“Anzu Menelik?” says the man. “And I’m the Deathless Empress of the Orm!”
“His name is Sebastian Solberg,” Samael butts in, clearly missing the joke entirely. Sebastian rolls his eyes and gets to his feet. He towers over Anzu in a way neither Mogila nor Samael seem to.
“I’m not joking, darling,” Anzu says, crisply. “It’s not a goddamn joking matter!” Sebastian eyes him with incredulity, but after a minute shrugs.
“Well, you’ve got the right number of eyes,” he says. “I suppose only an utter idiot would pretend to be one of the Vultures.” He smirks, like he doesn’t believe Anzu at all and is only humouring him.
Anzu shoots him a dour look, not liking the implications behind that seemingly innocent opinion. Samael coughs in the awkward silence. Mogila shifts from foot to foot.
Eventually, Sebastian says, with brightness that’s only a little forced, “so! Tea! Do follow me, the kitchen’s downstairs.”
Sebastian leads them to an airy cellar lit by an oil lamp hanging from a hook in the ceiling. There’s furniture that’s seen better days and a floor of stone slabs covered by a worn but still bright rug. Anzu and Mogila sit down. Samael puts aside his cane, takes off his hat and flops into a chair, looking relieved. He puts his head down on the table and closes his eyes.
“We’ve not had electricity put in yet,” Sebastian explains, as he fills a shiny copper kettle with water and sets it on portable gas stove. “Or gas. We’ve only recently gotten the plumbing, thanks to the Union.” He gestures towards the shiny sink, the newest thing in the whole kitchen.
“The Union gave you this house?” says Mogila. “Huh.”
“Well, the old owner left for Mir,” says Sebastian, with a shrug. “The revolution didn’t sit well with him. So some of the people from the slums over in Whisper were moved here. It’s just the five of us, right now, rattling around like peas in a tin.”
While the water heats, Sebastian sits on the table and folds his hands in his lap, primly.
“So!” he says. “What’s the Vulture doing here, with a companion, to boot?”
Anzu and Mogila look at each other. Mogila sighs. Anzu wrings his hands. After a minute, he says, “well, ah, it’s a long story–“
“We’ve got time,” says Samael, quite suddenly. He sits up straighter. “I’d love to hear it, Friend Menelik.” For a brief second, his eyes meet Anzu’s and Anzu’s heartbeat quickens.
“Well, if you insist,” he says, takes a deep breath and begins to recount the past few months of his life.
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