002.02

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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?”

Anzu pouts.

“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.

back || forth

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002.01

back || forth

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.

back || forth

001.04

back || forth

Anzu finished his cup of tea and set it gently down on its saucer, watching Genady. Genady was peering into his cup, trying to scry through the tea dregs, but it clearly wasn’t working very well. He shook the cup a few times and turned it around, but judging by his face, that did not improve matters in the slightest.

“‘S useless,” he said. “All I get is the, er, equivalent of ‘motherfucker’ and some circles. First time I’ve had scrying instruments swear at me. Something really doesn’t want us finding your kid, Anzu Tamiratovich.”

Anzu shrugged, heavily. Despite Mogila’s optimism, he had been trying to accustom himself to the idea that Kinneret is gone for good. It was painful, unbearably so, but he knew it was best to kill hope before it grew too big.

Genady set down his cup and got up. He disappeared into his bedroom, leaving Anzu alone with his thoughts.

*

Anzu and Genady were sorting through the books downstairs, mostly on Anzu’s insistence. He had grown tired of the smell and badgered Genady until Genady agreed to go through the grimoires and manuals and manuscripts and figure out which ones could still be saved from the mould and which were consigned to be burned. Anzu was picking through a particularly interesting treatise on the diseases of animals used as wonder-working familiars, when the bell over the door jangled.

Mogila rushed in, carrying a hefty suitcase. She was in her work clothes, streaks of black coal dust still on her cheeks and her hair braided. She was wet from rain and breathing heavily, like she had run all the way to the shop. Anzu looked at her in surprise – he had not been expecting to see her for another few octets.

“Anja!” she cried, rushing forward. “Anja, I think she’s on Mat Nochi!”

“What?” said Anzu, dropping the grimoire. It fell on Genady’s foot, making him yelp. Anzu ignored him and vaulted the counter to run up to Mogila. Her face was flushed with excitement and her hands were trembling a little. Anzu took both of her hands in his and she grinned at him, her eyes wide and full of joy.

“I was talking to the dirigible pilots in the bar down near the mines,” she said, breathlessly. “They’ve … they’re seen her! They said a strange woman wearing a veil was with her!”

“Are you sure it was her?” Anzu said, quashing down the little spark of hope that lit up in his heart. “Darling, you’ve never seen her–“

“Black girl? Three years or so? Blue eyes? Two spirit eyes in the middle of her forehead?” said Mogila, grinning and Anzu’s eyes went wide in surprise. Hope burst like a supernova and he found himself bouncing on the balls of his feet. Mogila nodded, vigorously and then swept Anzu into a bone-crushing hug. He returned the embrace.

“So, ah–” he began but Mogila interrupted him.

“I’ve quit my job,” she said. “I’m done with the mines. I’m … I’m going to Mat Nochi to find her, Anja.”

“Gilja, that’s rather sud–“

“I’m going whether you are or not,” said Mogila, letting go of him and making firm eye contact. He flinched away and looked down at his feet. Mogila’s gaze was fierce, her expression stony and determined.

“All right,” he said. “All right, darling. I … I’m coming, then. We’re going to Mat Nochi and …”

“I’m not going,” called Genady from behind them and Mogila threw him such a filthy look that, despite everything, Anzu laughed.

“I can pay for the tickets,” said Mogila, as thought Genady had not spoken. “And once we’re there … well, ‘s Vodastoj territory. Maybe you can cash in some of your revolutionary renown, Anja.”

Anzu nodded and tried hard, against all reason, to quash the hope growing in his heart.

back || forth

001.03

back || forth

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.

back || forth

001.02

back || forth

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.”

Mogila snorted.

“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.”

Mogila shrugged.

“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.”

back || forth

001.01

back || forth

1572 C.R.
Celestial Station #1A

Celestial Station #1A, Korom’s Might, was situated on a stray asteroid that orbited Mir on an eccentric, elliptical orbit that made it a poor candidate for a moon. The asteroid was a peculiar shape, bearing a deep crater on one side, where the station was nestled like a gem in its setting. Above it, the forcefield that kept the station’s atmosphere in and the aether of the celestial abyss out shimmered in the rays of the sun-star Ain. Around the crater’s perimeter gigantic, gravity-generating, runic columns stood like silent sentinels and their inscriptions shimmered a baleful blue, just barely brighter than the artificial daylight inside the forcefield dome. On clear nights, one could sometimes see the station’s glow from Mir.

The station had been established by the Imperia Gromada Dobra Ormaja (usually referred to as the Orm) but was now independent, self-governing, trading the precious minerals extracted from the asteroid for food and water from the Orm’s enemies. It tended to attract those with something to hide or someone to flee from.

Anzu Menelik was neither.

Anzu was looking for someone.

His three-year-old daughter disappeared from his side down on Mir, in the little hamlet of Vanja’s Bones, not far from Svet-Dmitrin.

Anzu and his daughter, Kinneret, were only there for a few days before she went missing. Anzu had turned the whole hamlet upside-down, but found no trace of her there, nor did the scryer he had hired pick up traces of her aura in the forests around Vanja’s Bones. He was now up on Korom’s Might in a last desperate gambit to find her, following a tip from a retired Navigator, who’d allegedly seen a small, dark-skinned girl with hair like a dandelion puff climb aboard a celestial dirigible heading for Korom’s Might.

It had been fifteen days – almost two octets – since Kinneret had gone missing and Anzu was starting to lose hope – which might have explained why he was currently in a rented room with a man whose name he couldn’t quite hold on to.

The young man in question was snoring now, but Anzu couldn’t sleep. He sat on the windowsill in his shift, binder and stockings and smoked his fifth cigarette of the hour, trying to steady his nerves. They refused to be steadied. Anzu chewed on the end of his cigarette, too lazy to get his cigarette holder from his valise. He stared blankly at the peeling wallpaper on the wall opposite him. It had once borne a jaunty pattern of what looked like stylised, prancing goats and had been either a bright green or a very acidic blue. Now it was faded to almost grey and hanging off the wall in wide strips. Anzu kept looking at it, trying to discern a pattern to the goats and pondered his next move.

He did not have many choices. He could go back to Vanja’s Bones and investigate the nearby expanse of the wastelands that had engulfed most land around Svet-Dmitrin since the Cataclysm. He could stay here and search again, almost certainly in vain, for Kinneret. He had no other leads.

He had seen no glimpse of her, had had no soothing true-dream to lead him to where she now dwelt. He still found himself talking to her, when they passed landmarks and when they saw odd things and when he was cooking or putting on makeup. He woke up in the mornings and looked for her beside him and cried when he found nothing.

A treacherous, filthy thought was circling his brain – maybe she’s gone for good. He chose not to give that thought room to grow.

He smoked his cigarette down to a lipstick-stained stub, tossed it out the window and got up off the windowsill. The young man that had been his night’s companion turned over in his sleep and snorted. Anzu rolled his eyes.

He wrote a friendly but brief note to the man in exquisite handwriting, put it on the bedside table and got dressed. Adjusting his binder until he was certain his chest was flat turned out to be tricky – he was a little tipsy still. He was just about to slip out of the room, valise in hand, fur stole draped on his shoulders, when the young man on the bed stirred and sat up.

“Mpph? Anja?” he said and Anzu swore under his breath, turning it hastily into a cough.

“Yes, darling?” he said, crisply. The man blinked at him, blearily.

“Where’re you going?” he said, a little helplessly. Anzu’s heart gave a lurch and he sighed.

“Back to my room, dearest,” he said, as mildly as he could. It was a lie. He could not afford a room. “I’m sorry, it’s not that … you were great, but I …” he sighed again and rubbed his face with his free hand, trying to soothe his suddenly jangling nerves. He hated to explain himself. “I wasn’t looking for anything remotely long-term, sweetness.”

“Oh,” said the man, sounding disappointed. “Y’know, I hoped–“

“I know,” Anzu said, heavily. “Look, ah. Maybe some other time?” He gave a slightly strained smile. The man on the bed seemed mollified, though even Anzu could tell he was disappointed.

“Sure,” said the man, meekly and Anzu blew him a kiss.

“Sleep well, darling,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you in a few days.” And with that, he slipped out the door and closed it behind him, as firmly as he could manage without quite banging it. He regretted it a little, but given that he hadn’t quite held on to the man’s name during their exertions, maybe it was for the best. He sighed, deeply, an ache settling in his heart.

“I am too sober for this idiocy,” he announced to the corridor and stomped off down the stairs, to the poky hotel bar.

The place was deserted at this late hour, with only a sleepy bartender – Anzu seemed to recall her name was Oyuun – rearranging bottles on the shelves behind the bar. She nodded a greeting to him and went back to her task. She was a tall, statuesque woman who’d once been a general in the Ulsaabarat Khanlig’s army, but she’d lost a leg in their most recent war against the Orm. Anzu had learnt this while she’d served him drinks earlier in the evening – the bar had been deserted for most of the day and Oyuun must have been lonely.

Anzu sat down at the bar and waved at Oyuun. She put the glass she’d been cleaning down on the counter and approached him, wiping her hands with the dishrag. She looked rather happy to see him, though Anzu could never be sure he was reading people’s expressions right.

“Evening, Anzu,” she chirped to him, in accented Ormish. Anzu bowed his head to her.

“Evening, dearest,” he replied, in the same language. It was far from his preference to speak the language of Raimut’s ancestors, but Oyuun did not speak either of Anzu’s mother tongues. “Have you got any of that Chervey vodka left? It was quite … bracing.” He gave her his most charming smile, showing off the gap between his top front teeth.

“What, had a spat with your new friend?” said Oyuun, grinning and Anzu’s smile faltered.

“Not as such,” he said, losing some of his put-on cheer. “We, just … ah. Agreed to part ways after getting what we wanted from each other.”

Harsh,” said Oyuun. “Didn’t take you for a cold heart-breaker.” She winked at him and Anzu laughed. Oyuun put a shot glass full of clear liquid in front of him.

“To your health?” she said. “Or to good fortune?”

“To some peace and quiet, dearest,” Anzu said, and shook his head. He downed the vodka in one gulp, coughed as it hit the back of his throat and gagged at the burning sensation. Tears came up to his eyes.

“Eurgh,” he said, as Oyuun laughed at him. “Well, ah. I did ask for it because it was bracing.”

Footsteps on the filthy carpet of the bar made his pointy ears twitch. A familiar voice said, in the language of the Vodastoj, “‘Scuse me. Sorry for interrupting, but … may I buy you a drink, Sudar?”

He looked around and saw a great iceberg of a woman approach, clad in a shocking red dress, a very familiar fur stole and several strings of pearls. She was at least a head taller than Anzu, with a full figure and full shoulders, her brown arms the arms of a factory girl used to wrangling machinery, anti-magic bracers of jade ringing her wrists. A Spirit eye glowed a gentle amber in the middle of her high forehead and her single-lidded, narrow eyes, the same softly glowing amber as her Spirit eye, were ringed with kohl. Her lips were painted to match the crimson glare of her dress.

There was something naggingly familiar about her and her sonorous voice. Anzu stared at her and she looked back, a small grin on her face and a sparkle in her eye. She had recognised him, that much was clear.

Then it clicked and he realised who she was. His mouth sagged open as he tried to process it. She smiled at him and reached out to tap the tip of his nose, an old gesture of affection between the two of them. That broke the spell.

“Sl–” began Anzu and then shook his head. “No, you must’ve … you must’ve changed your name, darling. Ah. What’s your name?”

“Mogila,” she said, promptly and her smile softened, warmed. “It’s good to see you, Anja.”

“Mogila,” he said, softly. “I–” he stopped, closed his mouth with a click of his teeth and shook his head. He did not know where to begin.

“Mogila–” he began and cut off, the words lost in a mire of emotion.

“Yes?” she said, raising a perfectly-plucked eyebrow at him.

“I’m sorry and … I …” Anzu began, then glanced back at Oyuun, who was feigning disinterest as she cleaned an already pristine champagne glass. Her long ears were perked up. “I think we should have this conversation in private, dearest.”

Mogila smirked and nodded to Oyuun.

“Give us a bottle of … oooh, I think we should go with something fancy,” she said. “Got any foreign shit? Give us a bottle of whatever’s the most expensive and not a wine.” She smiled and winked. Oyuun rolled her eyes, but fetched a bottle of amber liquid from under the counter. The label was in an unfamiliar script.

“Have this,” Oyuun said. “From very far away.” She squinted at the label. “Writing looks Avish. I think this is our last bottle. The guy who sold the crate to me called it whisky.”

“Fantastic!” said Mogila, snatching up the bottle. “It’ll do very nicely. Put it on my tab, Sudara.” She took Anzu’s elbow and herded him away from the bar, towards the corridor leading to the broken-down elevator and the staircase. “C’mon, Anja. I’ve got a room.”

*

Mogila’s room was a little tidier than the room Anzu had just left, but the wallpaper was still faded and peeling and the air was dusty. Anzu perched himself on the sole chair and Mogila flopped down on the bed, holding the bottle of whisky. The mattress gave a protesting creak.

They looked at each other for a very long time, both avoiding making eye contact. Neither would look away until Anzu sneezed.

“You know,” said Mogila, once the silence had shattered, “you can call me Gilja, if you want–“

Anzu felt his throat constrict. Tears once again came to his eyes – before him sat his erstwhile lover, the other parent of his child and she sat before him as a woman, a namekiller, transgender like him, offering him their old, easy intimacy back. It was almost too much to bear. He felt himself grow dizzy.

“Darling,” he said, softly, “if I’m still Anja to you, you’re Gilja to me.” Mogila sat up and leaned forward, the bottle slipping from her fingers onto the bed.

“Anjushka–” she began and then her voice broke up into sobs. “Oh god. Oh my sweet Lady of the dark waters, Anja.”

Anzu got up off the chair so fast that he knocked it to the ground. He rushed to join Mogila on the bed and put his arms around her.

“Don’t–” he said, hoarsely. “Don’t cry. Please, darling, don’t cry. I’m … I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left without a word. I’m sorry I ran. I was so scared … so scared of hurting you … of … of being like him–“

Anja,” said Mogila, her voice shaking. Kohl and mascara were running down her cheeks with the tears. “Anja, you could never–“

“I could, darling,” said Anzu, softly. “That’s the worst thing, my dove, I really, really could.” He hid his face in his hands, but Mogila gently pried his hands away from his face. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead, then leaned away and wiped at the lipstick print she left behind with the heel of her hand.

“You are not Raimut Hellewege,” she said, firmly. “For one thing, you know what remorse is.”

Anzu gave a choked sob, a faint noise of overwhelmed gratitude. Mogila reached out and stroked his close-cropped hair, running her fingers through the stiff, minute curls.

“I should not have left,” he said. “But … but …” he looked up at Mogila, making eye contact even though it was painful and bizarre to look into another’s eye. The Spirit that threaded through all his being rebelled at such rudimentary, Fleshy tactics. “I … darling, I was … you’d …” he swallowed and looked down at his hands. “You’d knocked me up,” he mumbled. “I couldn’t … I couldn’t face you–“

Mogila’s mouth turned into an O of surprise and shock. Her eyes went wide. She took Anzu by both shoulders, her grip firm and said, “did you keep it?” her tone anxious, her voice hoarse.

“Yes,” Anzu said. “I … I kept her. Her name is Kinneret.”

Mogila let go of him and clasped her hands to her face, rocking back and forth.

“I have a kid,” she said, into her hands. “I have a kid. I have a daughter.”

“Ah,” said Anzu and gave a nervous laugh. “Darling, there’s … there’s a small problem …”

“What? You aren’t sure she’s mine?” said Mogila, grinning and Anzu shook his head.

“I never strayed from you,” he said, sternly. “But … ah. I … I lost her.”

“You what,” said Mogila, her voice suddenly low and dangerous. “You fucking– you lost our daughter!” She lurched forward, getting up off the bed in one raging motion. She strode over to the window, her shoulders heaving. Anzu cringed back, startled in a most unpleasant way. Mogila had always been a gentle giant when they had been together.

“Darling, I’m … I’m sorry!” he cried, his voice getting high and nervous. “She … she slipped out of my sight down in Vanja’s Bones and …”

“Vanja’s Bones?” Mogila said and turned around, her long, black hair swinging like a cloak. “The revolutionary outpost?”

Anzu nodded, mutely. He hugged himself and moved forward again, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed. Mogila came closer again, looking calmer. Her eyes were wide and filling with tears.

“I was running messages for the Union,” Anzu murmured. “And the Red Front … and … they wanted me to leave Svet-Dmitrin, for a few weeks, to lie low and she … I lost track of her somehow, I … I …” the tears came back and he slumped forward, keening in despair. “I’m sorry, Gilja, I’m sorry. I …”

Mogila snorted in anger and stared out the window, drumming her fingers on the windowsill. Her shoulders heaved.

“I’m sorry,” Anzu repeated. “I swear on my life, I’m–“

“Shut up,” Mogila said, heavily, her shoulders slumping. “You … you lost her.”

“Yes,” Anzu said, in a small and defeated voice and something inside Mogila must’ve softened, because she turned around, the mask of anger upon her face cracking. Her mouth contorted and she shook her head. Anzu kept sobbing. They remained still like a tableau and then Mogila sighed and came closer. She put a gentle and heavy arm on Anzu’s shoulder. He raised his head and met her eye, briefly, before glancing down again. He could barely see through tears. His nose was stuffed up and he was breathing through his mouth.

Mogila sighed and sat down beside him, putting her arm around him. He sat up and leaned against her side, pressing himself close. They sat like that for a while, before Anzu pushed her away.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I’m so sorry, I–“

“Shut up,” said Mogila, but gently. “Why are you on Korom’s Might, if she disappeared in Vanja’s Bones?”

“A Navigator told me they’d seen her get on a dirigible to here,” said Anzu. “I mean … as far as Navigators can see anything …”

Mogila snorted.

“I suppose their precog means a Navigator’s good to trust on shit like that,” she said and shook her head. “Oh, Anja. How are we going to get out of this mess?”

“I don’t know,” said Anzu, sadly. “I really– I really don’t know, dearest.” He bit his lip, wringing his hands. A second later, he tasted blood on his tongue and slightly relaxed his jaw. Mogila winced and reached out to wipe away the bead of blood from his chin.

“Don’t,” she said, softly. “Don’t– don’t start that again, Anja. It doesn’t help anyone. Least of all you.” Anzu looked away, hiding his face.

Mogila sighed and drummed her fingers on Anzu’s collarbone, lost in thought. Finally, she said, “you know, I’ve got a friend and– well, you’ll see. Tomorrow we’ll go see him and look for her. But,” she looked down her snub nose at him, “you gotta sleep. And me too. You have a room?”

Anzu shook his head and Mogila said, “well, I suppose you can stay here–“

“I can take the floor–” Anzu began but Mogila cut him off with a snort.

“No,” she said. “We were fucking for how many years? We can share a bed.”

“No,” said Anzu, the word almost getting stuck in his throat. “At least … I didn’t think you’d want to–“

“Yeah, no, not like that,” said Mogila, grinning. It was a little awkward and sheepish, an expression that looked alien on her. “We can’t resume what we had, not after how it ended and, er,” she looked down at her shoes and coughed. “I’m only into girls, these days. Sorry, Anja.”

Oh,” said Anzu and laughed. “Well, if I’ve been disqualified from sex, I suppose we can share a bed without it being, ah. More than a little awkward.”

“Just don’t be a blanket hog,” said Mogila and winked at him. Anzu laughed again and patted her arm.

“I’ll try, darling,” he said and gave her his most charming smile. She grinned back and tapped the tip of his crooked nose again, lightly, like a cat batting at a piece of string. Anzu caught her hand in his and squeezed it, gently.

“I’m … I’m glad to see you again, sweetness,” he said and got choked up again, tears starting to spill. Mogila shushed him and brushed the tears away with a careful hand.

“Hush,” she said. “It’s okay. There’s no need to cry.” Anzu nodded, mutely.

Mogila reached behind her and picked up the bottle of whisky again, hefting it in her hand. She set it down on the water-stained bedside table and tapped the stopper twice.

“Tomorrow evening,” she said. “We’ll get drunk on this shit and tell each other about what we’ve been doing. Then we can cry. Now we have to sleep and in the morning, we have to look for your– for our kid. Okay?”

Anzu nodded. Mogila sighed, heavily and got up. She threw off her fur stole and tossed it over the rickety chair that stood three meters away. Anzu grinned at her accuracy.

“Er, I do have to ask, dearest,” he said. “Is that my fur stole?”

“It was!” Mogila said, smirking. “Now it’s mine. You’ve got too many as is.” Anzu pouted, but it lasted all of five seconds before he burst out laughing. There was a faint hysterical note to it. He got up off the bed and shrugged off his fur stole and suit jacket, then started the laborious process of undressing. Mogila, half-out of her dress, looked around at him, her expression thoughtful.

“You haven’t gotten your tits cut off yet,” she said. Anzu bit his lip.

“No, I haven’t,” he said, softly. “I haven’t had the money.”

“And you stopped wearing Hellewege’s ring ’round your neck,” she added, thoughtfully. “That’s good.”

“Like I said, darling,” Anzu said, smirking. “I haven’t had a lot of money, these past few years. I, ah, pawned the damned thing a few months back. It was that or let Kinneret starve and …” he cut off, sighing. “I couldn’t …”

“I’m glad,” said Mogila and when he gave her an affronted look, she added, “I’m glad you have something that matters more than your memories of that bastard.” Anzu looked away and concentrated on taking off the many rings and bracelets that adorned his delicate wrists and hands. His heart sunk into his heels in anticipation of a well-worn and painful argument.

Mogila sighed.

“You know,” she said. “You really gotta start moving on. He’s gone. He’s not going to hurt you any more.”

Anzu looked up sharply and said, his tone crisp and cold as the first frosts of winter, “dearest. He … he was my life. You … you can’t even begin to imagine! So, ah– don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather you shut the hell up about this.”

Mogila looked startled, but only for a moment.

“‘S nice to see you’ve got your bite, still,” she told the floor and Anzu threw his shirt at her. She caught it and tossed it back, grinning. He grinned back, but it felt wooden and false on his face.

“Let’s just sleep, darling,” he said, heavily, the grin disappearing without a trace.

“Point taken,” said Mogila and turned the light off.

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000

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1565 C.R.
Outskirts of Svet-Dmitrin
Vodastoj Krai
The Empire of Orm

The immaculate castle Kostjanicz sat glistening in the morning rays of the sun-star Ain, perched on a high outcrop that jutted out of the wild forest. From a distance, it looked as grandiose as a wedding cake, with many fluted towers and delicate stone lace around the windows. Wards of wonder-work shimmered in the air around it, like mirages in the desert. Scavenger birds perched on the topmost platform, picking at the bones and flesh of executed enemies of the Orm and occasionally bickering among themselves in harsh, rasping voices.

From his tiny cell in the tallest tower, Raimut Hellewege sat carefully filing his nails, deeply stoned from laudanum. He had charmed his guard, a young and impressionable man called Eduard, into smuggling the bottle in for him a few weeks ago. The guard, already besotted with Raimut, fascinated by his reputation, had been easy to convince.

It was his last morning. He would be executed at noon, as the sun-star passed directly overhead. It was symbolic, he had been told – the Ghast of the grand city of Svet-Dmitrin, who had wrought dark and evil deeds by night, would face his just death in blinding noonlight.

“Fitting,” he had remarked evenly and the judge had scowled at him. The memory of the judge’s deeply disappointed face sustained Raimut for the first week of his imprisonment. He was not going to be cowed, not by the law, not by its agents, not by impending death.

The nail file slipped and rasped against the soft flesh of Raimut’s fingertip, making him wince. He very carefully put the file aside, hiding it in a crack in the floor and throwing rotten straw over the spot, then lay back onto his stinking mattress and closed his eyes. He was feeling stupefied, slow and impossibly heavy in a most comforting way and he wanted to savour the feeling.

Just on the point of slipping into sleep, three sets of hollow footsteps roused him. Raimut opened his eyes with some difficulty and sat up again, moving as though his whole huge body was made of lead. Three visitors stood beyond the bars of his cell, throwing grotesque shadows onto the wall opposite. He studied them carefully for a whole minute before recognition sank in through the murk laudanum had made of his brain.

One was Eduard. He was smiling at Raimut, nervously. The other two were identical, young, black persons of androgynous appearance. Both twins were dressed in men’s suits the skirts of which were long enough to brush the floor as they walked. The one who wore a black eye-patch was smoking a roll-up. The one who wore make-up on his angular face was wringing his hands. Neither looked happy to be there.

Their names were Siris and Anzu Menelik – though they’d mostly recently been known as the Dmitrin Vultures, nicknamed by the same journalists and gossip-mongers that had termed Raimut the Ghast. Raimut stared at them for what felt like a long time, before Anzu cleared his throat and spoke.

“I’m sorry, dearest,” he said, in a shaky alto, his mouth contorted in dismay. “I’m so–“

“No, you’re not,” said Siris. She took her cigarette out of her mouth and glared at her twin, then switched the baleful gaze of her sole eye to Raimut. “We’re not sorry you’re here. We’ve come to watch your fucking head fly off and smash like a rotten tomato.”

Anzu gave her a pleading look, but Siris kept staring straight ahead at her former master. Raimut looked back at her, willing himself to keep his expression even and slightly bored. Were it not for the laudanum he would’ve been quite angry, but now he was only dully curious why the Vultures had turned up to see him. They’d testified against him at his trial – Anzu with tears, Siris with only a bitter rage – and he had an inkling that they’d been the ones to sell him out to the authorities in the first place.

He met Anzu’s eye. Anzu blushed and immediately looked away. Raimut allowed himself a smile. His erstwhile apprentice was predictable as always.

“You will come to regret this,” he said, slowly and then sighed, suddenly full of a strange, mournful sorrow that settled in his chest as thick as phlegm. “Oh, Anja. Of all the apprentices I’d had, you surely were the most trouble and the one worth the most. A pity you chose to end it all like this.” Raimut made a careless gesture that encompassed the tiny cell that stank of rotten straw and the gibbet waiting far below in the courtyard. Anzu looked down, biting his bottom lip with exquisite, pearly-white teeth and started fidgeting with the Hellewege signet ring he wore on a chain around his neck. His spidery, long fingers were mesmerising.

Despite everything – the squalid prison, the suit he hadn’t changed for weeks,the nearness of death so close he could almost taste ash – Raimut felt a stirring of lust in his belly. His former lover was as captivating as always, even hollow-eyed on no sleep, face drawn in grief and anguish.

“I had to,” Anzu said, finally and Raimut’s lust died a coward’s death. “I had to do it!” Anzu continued. Raimut scowled in disgust. “You … you deserve to rot, darling.” His lips were parted now, his dark face flushed, his Flesh eyes streaming tears that carried mascara and eyeliner down his cheeks. His six Spirit eyes, three blue dots on each cheekbone, were sparking up like a cat’s fur with static electricity. Raimut could see smoke rise from Anzu’s fingers, betraying that he was upset enough to have almost lost control of his inner flame. Like so many shoggot-descended mortals, Anzu was archetypally volatile, emotional, unable to quite manage the trick of not getting overwhelmed by all the sensations of the Flesh. Raimut smiled again, slowly.

“Do calm yourself,” he said. “It won’t be you on the gallows.”

Anzu wailed in anguish. Siris gave Raimut a look filled with hate and threw her arm around her twin. Raimut snorted in derision and looked away from the pair of them.

“Go,” he said. “If you’re going to have one of your little self-aggrandising prima ballerina scenes, then do not have it in front of me.”

“I hate you,” Anzu managed to say, through tears. “I hate you!”

“As you wish,” said Raimut. He’d grown bored already. He looked at Eduard and smiled at him.

“Edja,” he said, softly. “Get them out of my sight.”

“Right you are, Sudar!” said Eduard, saluting. Siris made a disgusted noise in her throat and flipped Raimut off. He pretended to ignore her.
Eduard turned to chivvy Anzu and Siris along, out of the dark passageway leading to Raimut’s lonely cell and down the twisting, slippery stairs. Raimut sighed. He would not have admitted it for all the gold in the whole of the Orm’s great empire, but a note of regret had managed to creep past his shield of laudanum. Anzu was pretty, Anzu was talented and – before Anzu had found morals down the back of the sofa with the spare change – Anzu had been fun.

And now Anzu was going to be his death. Raimut lay back down on the mattress, trying to breathe evenly. He was steeling himself for the walk to the gibbet. He wanted to go out proudly, not like Anzu would go – sobbing and hysterical – nor like Siris would go – dour and sulky – but with his back ramrod straight and head held high, showing the Vodastoj savages that dared execute him how a real Ormish man could face his unjust death.

A beam of sunlight alighted on his face, the sun-star Ain shining through the bars of his tiny window. Raimut took a deep breath and gagged on the smell of decomposing straw. His eyelids sank down. Inch by inch, he drifted into sleep, like an untethered boat drifting into open sea.

He was in a cellar, smelling earth and damp and rot. Around him, the house creaked and groaned, a veritable symphony. Raimut shuddered, almost jolting himself out of the dream. Above and around, the house responded with more ominous sounds of strained wood. Somewhere outside, the wind howled a counterpoint.

Raimut walked forward. The cellar was dark, but he could just make out the shape of stairs up ahead. He walked slowly, as though through molasses, dragging each foot forward. The stairs did not seem to be getting any closer, until he bumped his ankle against the first step.

He began to climb. Up ahead, the cellar door creaked open, revealing a silhouette that looked almost like a man sitting in an armchair with a low back, surrounded by white light. Raimut quickened his step, tripped and–

He awoke, not quite sure where he was. It took him a minute to place the smell of the straw, the long stripes of light the sun-star made through the bars in the window. He sat up and shuddered. He could hear hollow footsteps approaching – two sets now – and knew it was guards coming to lead him out to the gibbet. Raimut heaved a heavy sigh.

“Any god that may be listening,” he said, softly. “Let not my soul wander.”

“I’ve had a good run,” he told the guards, once they came into view. “The things I’ve seen … you’ll all regret not asking me about them.” The guards, neither of them Eduard, looked at each other, then at Raimut. One of them shrugged and unlocked the door of the cell. He entered, eyeing Raimut like he was not a man but a caged and hungry lion.

“Hold your hands out,” he said, brandishing a pair of handcuffs. “And don’t try anything, or we’ll push you down the stairs and be done with it.” Raimut rolled his eyes. He held out his wrists and the guard cuffed him.

“They should be burning you,” said the other guard, suddenly. “For heresy. Hanging’s too good for ghouls like you.”

Raimut said nothing. He got up off the mattress, squared his shoulders and walked out of the cell, the guard holding on to his bulky arm. The other guard latched on onto the other bicep and Raimut laughed.

“I have to say,” he said, “I have not had the attentions of two young men at the same time in quite a while. This brings back memories.” One of the guards laughed, nervously, but the other made a noise of disgust. They herded Raimut down the spiral staircase and out into the sunlit courtyard, where the gibbet loomed like Podvoda’s last judgement.

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