Around his neck, half-buried in the thick fur collar of Oleg’s coat, the black cobra daemon was curled in looping coils, seemingly asleep. Yasenevo, like most of the Iron Lands, was currently caught in the early grip of what was promising to be a long and brutal winter, and although the anbaric central heating was bravely keeping Volos Bastion from turning into an ice block, it was still chilly enough within the stone fortress that everyone was in coats indoors.
Illya opened the file, tilting it so that Morana could see it from where she sat beside him. Even on her haunches, the great white wolf’s head cleared the table; like Illya, Morana was outsized. Her pointed ears pricked up as Illya glanced at the photograph pinned to the documents: it was a polaroid, already fading and a little out of focus, showing the side profile of a handsome, broad-shouldered man, his hair impeccably slicked back, dressed in a elegantly tailored charcoal suit that tapered down to narrow hips. His daemon was perched over his shoulders, a red fox with a white throat and belly, black paws pressed wide for balance, the thick brush of its tail curled around its human’s neck.
“An art thief?” Morana asked, her voice husky, indifferent. "Interesting."
Illya turned a page. “He escaped from the Magisterium in New Denmark?”
“Apparently.” Oleg nodded. “Resurfaced in Tartary. That’s where that photograph was taken.”
Illya flicked through the file quickly. The target’s name was Napoleon Solo, and his daemon’s was Autolycus. The list of his exploits was impressive: most of his thefts had been perfect - his downfall had been a betrayal in a heist in New France, when he had used a freshly-turned Pinkerton informant as a getaway driver. Other than a curt statement about where Solo and Autolycus had been held prior to interrogation (Alcatraz) and an even more frustratingly succinct statement that they had escaped, dated two months ago, there was nothing else. Illya set down the file, puzzled. Usually their briefs were far more extensive.
“If he escaped from the Magisterium then it is not surprising that he has come to the Iron Lands,” Morana suggested. “The Magisterium has no power here. The Iron Church-“
“The Iron Church and the Magisterium are still at war,” Oleg cut in impatiently, “But some things concern us all regardless of war. Have you heard of the Black Compass?”
“A myth,” Illya said dismissively. “A magical instrument that can change the past? A child’s tale.”
“Smoke and fire,” Morana noted, glancing keenly over the table at Oleg.
Their handler nodded. “Morana is right. Whether the Black Compass is a child’s tale or not, what matters is that the Magisterium is worried about it. And, as a consequence, the Iron Church is concerned. The Magisterium did not go after Solo and Autolycus because of some stolen paintings. They expended a great deal of energy to catch him because they believe that he knows where the Black Compass is.”
“And when he fled into the Iron Lands, they asked for a truce?” Morana inquired. When Oleg nodded shortly, she parted her jaws, tongue lolling out briefly in silent amusement. “One hundred years of war, and a child’s tale brings us a ceasefire.”
“Is the Magisterium sending an agent?” Illya asked.
“Yes. From Brytain. She will arrive tomorrow in Tartary, and you will meet her in the lobby of the Grand Eastern Hotel.” Oleg pushed over another file.
This one had a single sheet of paper and a photograph, one of a young, willowy girl, beautiful and fashionable in an orange frock and black boots, smiling sweetly at the camera, her dark hair coiffed over her head, a small black crow perched on her shoulder. Gaby Teller and Solomon, of the Magisterium’s Court of Shadows. There was no record provided of any of her exploits, or any description other than her name. Illya closed the file.
“Our parameters?” he asked.
“The Magisterium wants the Black Compass destroyed - or so they tell us. So do we. Something that can turn back time will unravel the world as we know it. Work with Miss Teller and find Napoleon Solo. Whether you get rid of him after you have the information is of no importance. The Iron Church also does not care about an art thief. We need that instrument destroyed. If it turns out that Teller is there to retrieve the Black Compass instead of destroying it, then get rid of her.”
Illya nodded. He had thought as much. “We will leave immediately.”
“An airship is waiting for you on the roof. It will take you to Tartary, where our ground ops may have more information for you on Solo’s whereabouts.” Oleg rose to his feet, and Illya pushed himself up as well, belatedly. “I expect daily reports and quick results. The Iron Church will be watching this hunt very closely.”
Volos Bastion was busy at any time in the day, and even now, in the dead of night, Illya and Morana had to dodge analysts and staff on their way up to the Sky Tower. There was a lift, installed half a decade ago on the insistence of the Directorate, but it stalled often in the cold weather and was slow. Most people took the stairs, if only to keep themselves warm, even if it meant that the staff sometimes had to rub shoulders with Volos agents. As they climbed, a staffer balancing a crate and a tower of files nearly walked right into them, then hastily sidestepped to get out of their way, his hen daemon flattening hastily against the stone wall to skip out of Morana’s path.
A sleek airship was tethered to the roof, one that Illya recognised immediately. Shaped like a streamlined black fish, it was all sharp, sleek angles with a narrow nose, bars of anbaric batteries wedded to its flanks, glowing a dull blue in the powder snow that flit past, fins banked against the wind. Twisting against the wind, it looked like a hunting animal, straining impatiently against its leash, its black-hulled belly lashed tight to its flanks, the great steel flutes at its tail laced with ice, the rotors in its tail shuddering, but still. Illya got in, having to duck his head at the low ceiling. He nodded his greetings at the pilot, and sat down on one of the benches against the hull, Morana lying at his feet. The airship shuddered as the rotors started up, the ozone smell of anbaric energy growing sharp in the air as the ground crew unlashed the ship, then the low thrum of the blades turned into a dull roar.
Once they were well on their way, the snow-clad grounds of Yasenevo sleeting past beneath them, Morana asked, barely audible over the rumble of the anbaric engines, “Do you believe in the Black Compass?”
“I believe that the Magisterium thinks that it is important.”
Morana let out a low snort. “The schism that created the Iron Church was caused by an alethiometer.”
“Or so the records say. And where is it now, this Golden Compass? Conveniently lost.” Illya glanced out of one of the portholes in the hull, watching the city that huddled around the Volos Bastion go past. “The Magisterium was sundered based on a difference of religious opinion, which caused a hundred years of war. Whether or not it was caused by a magical instrument in the first place matters little to the dead.”
Morana lifted her head, nudging Illya’s knee reproachfully. “I know that. But to turn back time-“
“Put it out of your mind.” Illya curled his hands in Morana’s scruff, petting the thick fur. She watched him, her golden eyes unblinking, then she sniffed and pulled away, curling back on the deck.
“You’ve told me this one before,” Gaby told her daemon absently. She was pretending to read the Times, holding out the broadsheet before her eyes like a shield.
The Grand Eastern Hotel was a bit of a workhorse rather than a luxury destination, set close to the steel arteries that joined up Europe to the Iron Lands by rail. It was crowded with people on business and people on holiday, curious about the so-called gateway to the Iron Lands. Past Tartary, only people with appropriate papers were allowed through or out, but in Tartary one could trade with the Iron Banks, with produce and manufacture from the lands beyond, learn the language and angular alphabet that set a quarter of the world apart from the rest.
“I spy with my little eye,” Solomon said, undeterred by Gaby’s distraction, “Lots of Tartars in their funny hats, and lots of Muscovite women in their little dresses. I say, aren’t they cold?”
“Solomon, remember what I said about your beak and duct tape?”
“Just trying to pass the time by figuring out where the Volos agent is,” Solomon said cheerfully. “D’you think it’s true that they melt the voice boxes of their daemons, to keep them from passing along secrets?”
“Obviously not, and it won’t work anyway. Daemons don’t use true voice boxes. Or few of you would be able to speak at all.”
“A true pity,” Solomon noted archly, with a sigh. “Imagine if the world held only humans. Why, there’d be half the chatter. You lot would have to talk to each other. What a trial. Oh, look over there. That fat Swedish banker. He’s staring at your legs.” Solmon hopped up onto the back of Gaby’s chair and turned around, rudely lifting up his tail and shaking his rump. The banker in question frowned, blinking, and looked away, the mink daemon on his arm scurrying out of sight. “Pah! Take that. Kiss my feathery arse! Dirty old pervert.”
Gaby had to tip up the newspaper to hide her grin. “You’re incorrigible.”
“And you’re too trusting. The number of people I’ve had to beat off over the years…” Solomon trailed off, tipping up his head. “Oh, look at that one. Mister Tall, Blonde, and Angrily Handsome.”
Gaby looked, but in her peripheral vision. Striding into the Grand Eastern was a tall young man, strikingly beautiful, with bright blue eyes and golden hair, neatly combed over his head, holding a leather valise. He was a head taller than most, dressed in a thick wool coat with a fur collar in the Siberian style, and at his feet was a huge white wolf daemon, sniffing the air.
“That’s our man,” Gaby murmured.
“How’d you know? Waverly didn’t give us a description.”
“He’s come from the east. Hasn’t packed much. Must have just landed, and come straight here.” Gaby checked her watch. “We made good time, but the winds are harsh over Western Siberia at this time of year. Besides, he’s casing the place. Checking out exits first, standing within sight of at least two. Also-“
“He’s coming right over,” Solomon said, hushed, and hopped down to Gaby’s shoulder, only the tightening grip of his claws betraying a hint of nervousness.
Close up, the Volos agent positively loomed. Gaby was not tall herself by any means, and as she got to her feet, she still felt like she had to look up too far just to meet the agent’s eyes. His expression was solemn, nearly blank. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Gaby put on a warm, archly delighted smile. “Not at all, darling. How was your trip?”
The Volos agent’s eyes flickered, then he picked up Gaby’s bags and offered her his arm, easily slipping into an improvised role. “Very cold. Have you checked in?”
“Not yet. Though my office has made a reservation under Mister and Mrs Smirnov.”
The agent nodded, and stayed silent as Gaby checked in, and he shook his head at the bellboy who came for their bags as Gaby took the sets of keys from the concierge. They were alone in the lift up, the floor scuffed red velvet and the gilt fittings scratched and faded. The lift smelled of cigar smoke, the metal buttons for the floors nicked around the corners.
“I am called Illya,” the agent said quietly. His English was heavily accented.
“Morana.” To Gaby’s surprise, the white wolf introduced herself. The huge daemon’s golden eyes were appraising and frank. “You are both young for the Court of Shadows.”
On Gaby’s shoulder, she could feel Solomon start to bristle, but she hastily brought a hand up to his fluffed feathers. “I could say the same for the both of you,” Gaby said mildly. Solomon contented himself by muttering darkly under his breath, and Illya glanced at the crow but said nothing, even when they were in their allocated hotel room. He dropped their bags by the bench at the door, and Morana stalked into the room, sniffing, circling around, then she finally nodded and sat down by one of the faded old cloth armchairs. “Clear.”
The Court of Shadows had booked a spacious suite, with two beds and a large lounge space with a balcony, overlooking the sleek, brightly lit sandstone towers of the Komul Theatre, against the sprawling grounds of the Timur park. The open air and the brisk wind called to her, invitingly, but she ignored it, trying not to think of the wrapped length of cloud pine in her bags, the cool light of the stars tingling a little on her skin. Solomon hopped out onto the rail as Gaby stepped out into the balcony, looking around, then up, before heading back into the suite with Solomon on her wrist.
Illya was hanging up his wool coat in a wardrobe, a shoulder holster braced under his arm with soft leather straps. Morana had brought Illya’s valise to the bed closest to the wardrobe, nosing it under the bed. It looked like a practiced routine, so Gaby left them to it, pouring herself a finger of vodka from the complimentary drinks cabinet to calm her nerves.
Eventually, Illya put on a lighter jacket from his valise, and sat down at the couch. He looked relaxed, but his eyes were assessing. “Your file was not very specific.”
“At least you got a file,” Solomon shot over. “We were just told to wait here for you people to make contact. We could’ve been sitting around like a pair of silly ducks for days.”
Illya nodded, even as Morana let out a low huff, as though amused. “If we are going to be partners then I need to know more about what you can do.”
“What about you?” Gaby asked defensively.
Illya allowed her a slight, cold smile. “Everything that you have heard about Volos agents is probably true. You?”
“I’ve no idea what you might have heard of the Court of Shadows, but Solomon and I are full agents.”
“Have you killed anyone before?”
“What? No,” Gaby said, then she bit down on her lip. She shouldn’t have said that. Beside Illya, Morana let out another huff.
“If the Magisterium is so interested in Napoleon Solo, why did they send a new agent?” Illya inquired neutrally.
“Hey,” Solomon objected sharply, but Gaby shushed him with a quick turn of her chin.
“Does it matter?”
Illya shrugged. “Just curious to see if we are wasting our time.”
Gaby grit her teeth, hold in her temper. “Napoleon Solo has been seen visiting the Komul Theatre,” she said stiffly. “He watches a play, and then goes to the bar afterwards, and often he takes someone home. Sometimes it is a woman, sometimes it is a man. Always they are beautiful. The next time he is at the theatre he is alone again. So. One of us should make his acquaintance.”
Illya nodded. “If he is running from the Magisterium, why is he lingering in Tartary, watching plays?”
“We think he is waiting for something. Papers, maybe. It’s not that easy to go east from Tartary.”
“A man who can escape the Magisterium is one who would be resourceful enough to get forged papers,” Illya mused. “But we will see.”
“If your people knew exactly where he was,” Morana cut in, “Why not arrest him and question him?”
Gaby shrugged. “This is the Iron Lands. Granted, that’s not really a big problem - sorry. But we don’t want to spook him. He’s gotten away from us before and he can do it again. If we can get close to him or figure out what he’s up to, he might lead us straight to the Black Compass.”
Illya nodded again, and slouched into his seat, silent. It was Morana who asked, “Solo’s daemon is called Autolycus. It is male?”
“Yes. As you know, it’s not really common for uh, daemons and their humans to have the same gender. It’s how we identified him in New France.”
“Tomorrow,” Morana said neutrally, “Let us try Solo first.”
So he went to the theatre and slept with beautiful people and drank, and tried not to feel trapped. Autolycus was philosophical about it all, firmly patient. Without him, Napoleon would’ve long gone stir crazy, and possibly would’ve tried sneaking south through to Muscovy on his own. Tonight the theatre bar was sparser: winter’s increasing grip was starting to keep tourists and locals alike indoors. Napoleon ordered a scotch and sat at the bar, Autolycus curled on his shoulders, and looked around discreetly.
“Everyone is boring today,” Autolycus murmured into Napoleon’s ear. “We should change hunting grounds.”
“In time.” Napoleon was a bit of a lazy soul, and the Komul Theatre was a short walk from the Grand Eastern.
“I’m going to freeze my brush off. Then there’d be nothing to make you look good.”
“Relax,” Napoleon obligingly tugged out the collar of his coat, allowing Autolycus to smuggle closer. “We’ll stay here for another half an hour, then we’ll go back to the hotel where it’s warmer, all right?”
“Maybe you should take up another hobby. You’re going to catch diseases at this rate.”
“Don’t come crying to me when your dick rots off.”
Napoleon pinched at the bridge of his nose. “You had to go there.”
Autolycus let out a little bark of laughter. “Is it home time yet?”
“Just for that, no.”
Autolycus let out a deep sigh, his furry chest expanding against the back of Napoleon’s neck, then contracting, then his tail twitched up against Napoleon’s chin. “Oh, look who just walked in.”
Napoleon glanced up. The newcomer to the theatre bar was very tall, his hair a pale flax gold under the dimmed light of the bar. He wasn’t dressed for the theatre, wearing instead a loose-fitting bomber jacket over gray trousers, cut close over his long, long legs. He looked curious but a little nervous, a tourist exploring but feeling increasingly out of place, perhaps, hands pushed into the pockets of his jacket. Peeking in after him was a huge white wolf daemon, ears pricked up, openly curious.
“Hello, beautiful,” Autolycus murmured appreciatively, as the tourist wandered in and sat in a corner of the bar, where he could get a good view of the gilt and velvet fixtures. The white wolf loped after him and promptly hid under the small table, a bit of a complex endeavour that made the little one-legged table wobble alarmingly before she managed to squeeze in. “Look at that coat. Those legs.”
“She could bite you in half without even trying,” Napoleon murmured, amused, ostensibly turning back to his drink, though he watched the tourist through the corner of his eyes. Heaven but was he a sight for sore eyes. Napoleon hadn’t seen anyone this beautiful for a while.
“Just my type of female.”
Napoleon waved the bartender over and bought the tourist a scotch. Wine would be too ostentatious, champagne perhaps hit and miss. He was finishing his own glass when the tourist came over, hesitating for a moment before sitting down beside Napoleon, glass in hand. Up close, he was gorgeous, with that self-deprecating, nearly shy smile, those crazily blue eyes. Napoleon felt his cock twitch in his trousers just by being this close.
“Hi,” said the tourist. “Thanks for the drink.” Gods, even his accent was hot, that thick, rich Iron Lands nuance.
“Not a problem.” Napoleon smiled, openly appreciative, not even bothering to be coy, and the tourist blushed a little, which was promising. “I’m Napoleon, and this is Autolycus.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Artyom, and this is Luperca.”
“A goddess? I can believe that,” Autolycus said cheerfully. The white wolf ducked its muzzle, self-conscious, trying to fit awkwardly between Artyom and the bar counter, then giving up and sitting on its haunches between Artyom’s bar stool and the next, as though nervous and embarrassed by its sheer size. Autolycus’ brush flicked against Napoleon’s neck.
“Are you new to Aqmescit?” Napoleon inquired.
Artyom smiled tentatively. “Is it so obvious? First time out of Iron Lands.”
“Technically, you’re not quite out the Motherland yet,” Napoleons said teasingly, and Artyom blushed again, toying with his glass. “Celebrating something?”
“First year in first job.”
“Oh? Doing what?”
“Architect,” Artyom said, with a hint of pride. “Working Eastern Siberia.”
“Things get built there?” Napoleon asked playfully. Artyom scowled at him. Even that was adorable. “Sorry. Bad joke.”
“We make the most advanced snow forts,” Artyom told him, and smirked faintly as Napoleon laughed, startled and delighted. “What about you? You are here on business?”
“Going east, actually. Waiting for my paperwork to clear. You know how that is.”
“Maybe you wait a long time,” Artyom said, with a hint of sympathy. “Winter coming, fewer trains. If you don’t know someone on the inside, is hard.”
“I know. Bit of an oversight there. But on the other hand, it lets me meet people like you,” Napoleon said, with another appreciative smile.
“You pick up a lot of people from bar?” Artyom inquired, though he sounded amused more than anything. Before Napoleon could answer, he added, “Maybe we could have second drink. Somewhere else?” Artyom sounded shy again, as though trying out the words out loud, unsure of himself.
“My thoughts exactly.”
Napoleon got them into the Grand Eastern through a side entrance, dodging staff patterns, and up to the fourth guest floor through the fire escape. He was impatient by the time he unlocked the door, and it turned out that Artyom was too - the moment Napoleon locked them into his room, Artyom was kissing him, tentative at first, then with a flattering sort of enthusiasm as Napoleon opened his mouth. Autolycus had darted off his shoulders, rubbing himself against one of Luperca’s long legs, and she nuzzled the fox daemon tentatively, their daemons' caresses sending a dull electric buzz through Napoleon’s blood, a pulse of mutual pleasure that had Artyom gasp between them and bury his mouth in Napoleon’s neck.
They barely made it to the bed, their daemons a twisting coil of red fur against white by the foot, shoes kicked off, coats hastily shucked. Napoleon pulled impatiently at Artyom’s belt, tugging it free, then greedily worked out his trousers and boxers and drew out his cock, whistling appreciatively as he sat back on his haunches, stroking it lightly in his palm with Artyom splayed under him, thighs parted, wide-eyed and flushed.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” Napoleon predicted.
“I think I’ll taste this first,” Napoleon gave Artyom’s cock a quick squeeze, making Artyom buck for it, “Then maybe I’ll ride it in the morning.”
“S-sounds good,” Artyom stuttered, breathless, his eyes already unfocused with pleasure, and he groaned as Napoleon licked playfully at the tip, long fingers threading carefully into Napoleon’s hair. “Please. More.”
Napoleon had to press the heel of his palm against his own cock to steady himself. Then he gave up on finesse and just took Artyom in, not bothering to hide his hunger, humming as he sucked down as much as he could, wrapping a chuckle around hard flesh as it stiffened further. Artyom let out a stifled sound of startled pleasure, toes curling, then his head snapped back against the pillows as Napoleon squeezed his hand around the rest and sucked.
He hollowed his cheeks and sucked roughly and sloppily until he felt Artyom start to tense up, then Napoleon pulled back, slow and lazy, laving his tongue up the thick vein and up, over the bared tip, lavishing attention on the swollen, fleshy cap as he stroked Artyom off, squeezing tightly at the base and making a firm fist as he tugged up. When Napoleon sank back down Artyom let out a strangled whimper and tried to buck, moaning as Napoleon held him down with his spare hand, making him take it. Long fingers were scrabbling at the sheets, and Artyom was gasping something that wasn’t English, something hoarse and broken and plaintive, then he was choking out an apology as he spent himself in a rush, hissing as Napoleon simply drank it down.
“Your turn,” Artyom suggested, when he caught his breath, and Napoleon grinned, looking up from where he was lazily licking Artyom clean. They stripped down slowly, Napoleon ignoring the urgency in his blood, and kissed, Artyom chasing the bitter taste of his own come in Napoleon’s mouth, then spitting in his palm and rolling on top, stroking Napoleon briskly, his own softened cock pressed against Napoleon’s hip. They were still kissing when Napoleon bucked up into Artyom’s grip and spurted messily on his belly, then it was Napoleon’s turn to hiss as Artyom pulled away and slunk down to lap it up.
Ah hell. Napoleon had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be back at that bar on the morrow.
Artyom shot him a sleepy, faint smirk as he shifted back up and they settled on the bed, curled together. Their daemons were already asleep. “I have uncle in the embassy,” Artyom whispered, as Napoleon dimmed the lights. “Maybe I can help you with papers.”
“Oh?” That would be a stroke of luck.
“No promises. Also,” Artyom added, with another faint smirk, “Depends on how good you are in the morning.”
“This is my favourite kind of deal,” Napoleon laughed, and pushed Artyom over onto his back to kiss him. As he did so, a flutter at the edge of his vision made him look up slightly, but it was only a crow, taking flight off the balcony beyond, and Napoleon forgot about it as Artyom pulled him down. The Black Compass was almost within his reach.