All things start from a perfection and as they increase in complexity, become degraded. Consider the insect’s egg; white, round, and mathematically exact, and then the creature it becomes. (Consider also, how many thousands of years it took our species to develop the tools to create a pure white pigment or a near-flawless sphere.) In order to live, the shell must break, the beast must hatch, and whatever was consummate must be destroyed. And maybe God set up our world this way, to keep us grateful to clutch at our rags, to sicken and die, to be buried in the dust, because whatever passes beyond human reckoning must be an abomination, and live with terrors the egg can’t comprehend. Did the egg know that it would come to sink fangs into vermin, did it know that it would dart monstrously on the ground? The elementary particles that make up my body, in its mocking good health, did they know that I would be responsible for the destruction of the one miracle any of us could hope to see in our lifetimes? Extrapolating from this universal pattern, then, if I had allowed the Polyhedron to stand, what else would it have wrought?
All this I tell myself, in order to be able to live with my sins.
1. In which the Haruspex arrives at the capital, and fails to break an old pattern.
Burakh had asked Kapella once what his color was, Dankovsky’s. ‘He doesn’t have one,’ she told him. ‘He has no place in the world he was midwife to, that was his sacrifice. Can you imagine him here, Elder? He was a dark thing, very beautiful … ‘
‘I can. There should be a little something set aside for him.’
‘Aijan will keep the Slough. As commemoration. I willed it myself, and she would have done it anyway. But I’m begging you, don’t expect him to ever go back there. He’s sensed it himself, I know he has. He left on the train without a word to anyone, even you.’
'Isn't there anything else you can do?'
She gave him the sorrowful look that women give their children when they're too tired to mother them anymore. 'I will try.'
Burakh thought of it now. The guest from the capital had spilled blood on the steppe, on his ground, and coming into his full power he had been able to sense Dankovsky’s lines before even finding the right street. It was unmistakable that he lived here. The sense of him: a sleek blackness, a quickening. His lines were sharp metal and a cleansing flame. His color should have been the same as ink.
Living in the capital, Dankovsky had gotten in the habit of locking his door, and after all the time spent trying to put an end to their silence, Burakh wasn’t in the mood to wait. He’d rather have smashed the lock and gotten it over with (he was aware, suddenly, of how many people were always around you when you lived in a city of this size), but instead, he managed to pay off the old landlady - it was almost a good deed, she looked like she needed the money - who found the unmarked key in a drawer almost by touch. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect her to walk fast, but the whole rest of her moved in slow motion too, her hand when she passed to him, and her eyes rolling towards him slyly, as if stretching out the last moments of her life.
“I’ve tried to visit him - God, he’s a cold one! - I can tell you myself, he’s got nothing in there to steal.”
Burakh was offended. “I’m an old friend.”
“But you’re spying on him.”
“He likes it. Now keep quiet.”
Burakh went back up the unlit staircase. The key fit into the corroded lock with some protest. Burakh left the door ajar behind him. He had the impression that it stuck.
Dankovsky had left on the lamp, which was so dim the light couldn’t be seen through the cracks from the hallway. That hag wasn’t wrong. The walls were unadorned, except for the greasy halo left by cigarette smoke. There was a cupboard and a table. The table had nothing but a broken glass slide with a white powder residue and a samovar, which wasn’t quite old enough to be considered an antique, although it was making an effort. A volumetric flask was next to the samovar, where it had been for a least a day, the water inside had a slick of dust over the top. There was a low, narrow bed beneath the window, either made up carefully or unused. The window itself was more a skylight, the low ceiling was canted, and it was angled so that even in daylight the only thing the doctor could have seen was the sky.
Burakh took a step forward, circling the room, getting used to the feel of being an intruder. The Bachelor had put screens up around his workplace - maybe it was an affect he had learned from the city on the Gorkhon - as if trying to keep out the pressing emptiness of the rest of the flat. (The desk was a disaster area, one that no doubt made perfect sense to Dankovsky. Every intellectual has their own way of making a mess.) Burakh barely had to glance at his work to know that Dankovsky was writing himself into a corner, and fast. It was all theory and no proof, and there would be no proof without Thanatica. Clearly this was something the doctor couldn’t ignore. His handwriting was heavy, the tip of the pen pressed through the paper here and there. Burakh knew how he wrote when he was under pressure.
Burakh spotted a corner of paper, folded and tucked beneath the microscope. Odd. The other notes were scattered or in piles.
It was a letter. One he himself had sent not long ago. ‘I’ll be coming to the capital. I want to see you. Burakh.’ Furrowing his brow, he turned the letter over. Dankovsky had scrawled:
I don’t care what happened to that hellhole. Do you want my professional opinion? If the plague’s come back, burn it to the ground. I’ve reached my limit. I can’t help you anymore.’
A second line, which had been added later, read: ‘If you meant a personal visit, fine.’
Then there was a mark of ink where he had started to say something else, but thought better of it. Burakh had never received a response. Dankovsky had probably meant to rewrite the whole thing after he had calmed down.
There was just the slightest sound, a door clicking shut behind him. Burakh whirled around and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to read someone else’s mail?”
Dankovsky looked exactly as he had on the steppe. His snakeskin coat had been retailored, there wasn’t a scratch on it. (Animal hide won’t stain with blood, thought Burakh, diabolically.) He cut a fine thin figure in the lamplight, his fist clenched, revolver steady, and a look of cold malice in his eyes.
“You have to admit, it has my name on it.” Burakh pushed his wrist to the side. “Oinon, don’t play with guns.” He wasn’t afraid, but it bothered him, how well the man took to a weapon.
Dankovsky holstered the revolver. “How did you manage to find the place?”
“I sent that note to Thanatica. You and Stakh Rubin had correspondence, I found an old envelope. I don’t know how it managed to end up here, some kind soul knew your forwarding address.”
“I know. I was afraid you had burned with it.”
“They gave the order while I was still on the steppe,” Dankovsky said, and he gave Burakh an unnatural smile. “If I had been in the capital, I would have.”
Burakh didn’t quite know what to say. But the Bachelor didn't expect a reply.
“I’m putting on tea, if you want some.” He set down his bag and moved to switch the samovar on. He picked it up the slide with the film still on it and licked it absently.
Burakh kept his eyes on him.
“Do you always carry a gun in the capital?”
“Dangerous man. I didn’t even hear you come in. Did you know I was there?”
“The door was offset by a centimeter. Hard to miss. That and I was on my guard. The landlady was cackling when I came in. Always means someone’s getting robbed.”
“Well, I can’t rightly say I paid her enough not to laugh.”
There was a silence, short and to the point. Dankovsky was trying to figure out his angle. And Burakh was fighting the urge to give him one. He had thought it would be this way, it didn’t come as a surprise. Nothing left to talk about and no way to communicate outside of the mission. They had never been friends. Not really. Collaborators, maybe, was the word.
“So what’s in the bag?” Burakh asked.
Dankovsky wasn’t expecting a question like that. The tension inside him didn’t break, but it did ease off a little. He sighed and stripped off his jacket.
“It’s just groceries. Buckwheat, tea.”
The bag had fallen quietly and unnoticed to one side. Burakh squatted down to put it the right way up, stealing a look over his shoulder at Dankovsky, who was drifting back to the desk as if by natural magnetics. His sleeves were rolled up. And he looked - well, he did look exactly like he had on the steppe, that is, like hell. He wasn’t eating, he wasn’t sleeping, and if he keeled over right then and there Burakh wouldn’t have been too shocked.
“You’re living off cereal and boiled leaf water. Daniel Dankovsky, master chef.”
“Well, the samovar came with the flat, and I can make porridge on the burner while I work.” Dankovsky pulled off his gloves and tossed them on the desk. “Regular porridge, obviously.”
Burakh laughed. “You need a woman, oinon.”
Daniel glanced up. “Oh? And what would you know about that?”
“I’m married myself.”
“A steppe girl.”
“Really, you’re married and you don’t even know her name.”
He had to laugh again. He was surprised at how easily it was coming to him. “You’re right, I’m lying. But it’s only a matter of time. When I was born my father was already old. I barely managed to receive my heritage. The Order doesn’t want to repeat that. Even young Tychik bothers me about it now.”
Dankovsky was silent for a moment, thinking. “Let me guess - this has something to do with why you’re in the capital.”
“Avoiding responsibility, like every young man under thirty.”
“Is that all? Seems unlike you.”
Wariness had cut back into his voice. Burakh shrugged. It was not, in fact, the whole truth, but let him believe what he wanted.
“Where have you been staying?” Dankovsky asked.
“I was renting a room by the day. You’re not an easy man to find. The friends you had in common with Stakh just said they lost touch with you. I was about to start in on mailmen and shopkeepers. I didn’t know who else to ask after the scholar who led Thanatica.”
Daniel gave him that same bitter grin. “You should have asked for the plague doctor. The hack.”
“Everyone in the city knows who you are, oinon. They remember you. I’d even say they fear you. You just don’t seem to have much of a personal life.”
“So did you come to fix that? You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like, by the way, I don’t care. You won’t last long in the capital paying daily.”
“Thanks. I might just do that.” No doubt the Bachelor wanted to keep an eye on him.
There was a pregnant pause. The Bachelor’s eyes flicked to the samovar, to the cracked slide.
“Do you need a rest? I won’t be a good host, I’m going back to work.” There was a split-second pause before he said the word work, which in a man as elegant as Dankovsky, had the same impression as a full body shudder. Burakh noticed he was gripping the desk, looking at his papers the way a man looks at a desert he needs to cross on foot.
“You’re the one who needs it. Go to bed, Daniel.”
Dankovsky wet his bottom lip. “Well, you must need to settle accounts.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Of course not.”
“Your pupils are dilated.”
“Your heartbeat’s erratic.”
Dankovsky caught the wrist that shot out to touch his pulse.
“Don’t bother,” the Haruspex told him. “I can see the vein in your neck.”
Dankovsky let go of him, but his gaze didn't break.
“As I was saying,” he told Burakh coldly, “you can come and go how you like.”
“Why, oinon. After all we’ve been through together, you still won’t do cocaine in front of me.”
The samovar chose that moment to boil over.
“Don’t move. I’ll bring it to you,” said Burakh, brusquely, but his voice a little gentler than before.
If Haruspex was here to make trouble, the right response was simply not to let him. Dankovsky decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was forget the past several minutes, or at least ignore it for as long as possible, so he could turn back to the work he had left. He was really too tired to process the new figure, to do anything other than what he had planned. And he wanted a problem he knew how to contend with.
He was sick with exhaustion and the comedown was hard, but he fought it. So he couldn’t have a pick-me-up in front of the steppe cultist, fine. He’d work through it. He had to. He hadn’t made progress tonight, he had spent the evening correcting a stupid mistake - his own damned fault, always - and he couldn’t in good conscience let himself rest. He had left to clear his head knowing he was at a good place to pick back up, he simply had to write out a formula he knew by heart. He didn’t look up when Burakh pressed a cup into his free hand, and he didn’t place the slight chemical aftertaste until after he had swallowed.
It hit him fast. His body caved in. He grasped for the side of the desk. Burakh caught him easily, his hands on his waist.
“Meradorm,” he choked. “You bastard.”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you,” Burakh said, and he was smiling, “not to drink anything you haven’t seen poured?”
“I’m going to kill you - slowly!”
He jerked Dankovsky away from the desk and wrapped his arm around the doctor, businesslike, pinning his hands without much effort. Burakh’s fingers moved to his belt, unbuckling the holster roughly and letting the gun clatter to the floor. “Don’t fight me. It’s already in your system.”
Burakh hauled him to the bed, nearly knocking over the screen, and threw him down. He opened his hand against Dankovsky’s chest, letting the weight of his body hold him back.
“Stay still, damn you, you need this.”
Dankovsky exhaled, involuntarily, feeling the tension running out of his body, the good, restful pain settling into his back.
“I’ll kill you,” he muttered, again. Then he went silent.
Burakh narrowed his eyes at him. He eased up off of him once he was sure Dankovsky wasn’t planning anything, moving to sit on the side of the bed. He pulled a pack of cardboard-mouthpiece cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one, watching over him with amusement. “Feel free to kill me in six hours, minimum.”
Dankovsky made a soft sound. He moved his hand heavily to Burakh’s thigh, murmuring. He had a smile on his face, again, a strange smile, but it was a small and private and tender one, and it was like the one Burakh had seen on the face of the dying Eva Yahn.
“Look out the window, Artemiy.”
“There’s nothing there.”
“Eight thousand, one hundred and sixty.”
“Eight thousand, one hundred and sixty dead souls. Every day they sent me the count.” His eyes were dim, unfocused, but his face was turned towards the window, the black sky.
"Idiot," Burakh said under his breath. He turned his gaze hard to the ground. He couldn’t look at Daniel’s expression. "You have one foot in the grave. Who do you think needs to be saved?"
*** The Bachelor slept dreamlessly. He woke in the middle of the night, briefly, sensing the heat of a body next to him before he knew anything else. It wasn’t unheard of for men in the capital to share beds, even in this day and age when the housing problem was almost solved, and to avoid needless travel through infected areas Haruspex had slept twice in the Slough. But he was urgently, painfully erect, and the feeling of his shoulder having long pressed into Burakh’s back aroused him. He knew it was a natural biological reaction and a side effect of the powder, had nothing to do with Burakh himself … Intellectually, the only thing to do was take care of it before the super-ego took control again, and that was what he did, his hand slipping easily into his trousers (Artemiy had taken off his belt and shoes), aware of the heat against him, the sense memory of a weight pushing him down. He pulled away from the Haruspex when he was finished, although unashamed of what he had done, and fell back into an anesthetic trance.