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In Vivo

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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:

‘Artemiy,

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.”

“Thanatica burnt.”

“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?”

“On occasion.”

“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.”

“To whom?”

“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.”

Haruspex advanced.

“Your pupils are dilated.”

“It’s dark.”

“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.”

Dead silence.

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.”

Daniel swore.

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.”

“What?”

“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.

Chapter Text

Thanatica was empty. The equipment hadn’t been moved in yet, and soon it would be different: cabinets, folders, his handpicked assistants. Human activity. But right now, the floor was as white as he imagined heaven - if he had been one to consider heaven - and his footsteps echoed while he walked. Taking the measure of the place, he knew it for certain, the purity of his mission. This was it, the antechamber, the crucible in which the course of human destiny would be reformed.

She watched him from the doorway, which opened into the dazzling light, the noontime sun. Her eyes were bright, her hair afire. She spoke to him. “Bachelor Dankovsky. Welcome home.”

***

Morning came. The sunlight more or less completely failed to stream through the window, which was made of aged and poor quality glass. The light that made it past cast the room in an incandescent, yellowish glow. Burakh was an early riser (like the children of Boddho, who wake with the dawn) but the strange light must have confused his body, because he woke up long after Dankovsky. The first thing he recognized was the sound of a pen nib scratching against paper. He lay there for a moment, listening, realizing that from the bed he could hear Dankovsky working behind the screen. And then the whole of last night came back to him. Seemed so pointless in the daylight - most things do. He sat up, the mattress creaking. He had a slight headache. (Why him and not that medic? Burakh thought irritably. He hadn't had anything stronger than dinner.)

"Burakh, are you awake?" Dankovsky called from behind the screen. "Good. Open up that book, I need to copy something. Thanks."

'That book' could have been nearly anything (there were at least a dozen on the floor of Dankovsky's ground zero alone) but Burakh glanced over the work. He made a mention of the Menshikov-Hauptmann-Weissmann experiment, published with notations by Gardonyi and Adam...

"Dankovsky, this is more like ... physics," said Burakh, finding the book for him. He’d complain about being treated like a serf once Dankovsky officially retracted his death threat. "It's a miracle I can follow along with it, as a surgeon. I understand it has limited applications when it comes to, say, the transfer of energy in electronic currents, but..."

"Call it quantum biology. I don't blame you for not seeing as far as I do,” said Dankovsky earnestly. “It'll all make sense when I'm done.” He was making Burakh tired, watching him work standing up. He mentioned once that it helped him think better.

"Take it easy today, please.”

“Don’t push it, Ripper.”

“Still after my blood?”

"I was an hour ago, but then I went back to work,” he said, grinning.

The gun wasn’t on the floor, it had disappeared somewhere. Small mercies. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“You don’t have to."

“As an apology.”

“The largest pearl in history, dissolved in a glass of wine.”

“If they have it at the grocer’s, it’s yours.”

Burakh ended up trying to make cheese pancakes on a burner (he was the type of man who took it as a personal affront when his food didn’t do what he wanted it to, and cursed Dankovsky a thousand times for not owning a stove, and then the old lady, who was somehow renting flats without them, a thousand more) and in the end, the best things that could be said about breakfast was that it was nutritious and it didn’t taste bad enough to kill them.

Dankovsky was trying to eat and look through a reference at the same time, his face darkening. “I wanted to finish up this analysis, but this isn’t making any sense.”

“Give it to me,” Haruspex said. He took his notes. “Right, carbon dioxide and oxygen don’t compete for binding on hemoglobin. Werigo never proved it experimentally.”

“What? ... Oh! Right.” Dankovsky rubbed his face. He stayed like that for a moment, his gloved hands hiding his eyes, then sat up straight again. “It was only something I was doing to kill time. Trying to find - patterns, something that would suggest some kind of ... “ He searched for the words.

“Underlying universal truth?”

“Exactly! I’m not a biochemist or a physicist, but if there’s something worth pursuing there ... I can learn it, if I have to.” He tapped the journal that the Haruspex had brought him earlier. “No, I want to think about this now.”

Dankovsky’s behavior was erratic - even his science, his thinking.

“You’re stretching yourself too thin.”

“I don’t know what else to do, Burakh. Do you see anything here I can use here, one single lead? I’m wandering in the dark. I can’t rule out any path.”

"I just meant," Burakh lied, "don't read while you eat."

He took the journal from Dankovsky and pushed the plate at him.

“I wrote Veronika,” said Dankovsky, and then paused thoughtfully so he could finish chewing.

“Is there a particular Veronika I should know about, or did you just pick the name out of a novel, scent the envelope with perfume, and leave the mailman to play Cupid?”

Dankovsky ignored this. “She’s a colleague of mine, we worked together in Thanatica. Properly, she should be called Princess Veronika ... “ he added, delicately.

“So, she has a lot of money ... “ Burakh prompted in the same tone of voice, teasing. He wasn’t much for delicateness.

“And it’s arranged. She wants to meet you, but it’s just a formality.”

“Dankovsky, did you marry me off?”

Daniel made a face. “Well, I thought you should have an assistant’s salary. I mean, if you’re planning on staying for awhile,” he said. (He had obviously made up his mind that Burakh was, and probably plotted out the next several years of breaking the boundaries of science together as well.) “You’ve barely been here a day and already you’re invaluable. And you’re taking care of my living expenses.” Burakh had bought enough groceries to feed every man in the Abattoir for three days.

“I don’t remember being consulted about this.”

“Just stay for a week. Two, three. More if you want. It’s free money, and I already arranged everything this way, so forget it.”

“It's not about staying here. It's that I’m not the type of man who gets on with high society. I'm not going to live in her pocket.”

“She’s an intellectual, not a dilettante, she has a genuine scientific mind. I never would have hired her to work at Thanatica if I thought otherwise. And now she’s my patron. Be kind to her, she’s a good girl.“

Burakh sighed. “No use trying to argue with oinon. Not enough hours in the day.”

“Good. We’ll arrange everything later.”

“Sure you won't get sick of me?"

"No. I remember how you think," said Dankovsky, simply. "Or some other reason. It’s hard to explain why, exactly. Maybe it’s because you’re the only other person who knows about the terrible plague and what happened there. But I feel that somehow you’re necessary to me in this endeavor. When I look at you, it's as if through a clear lens. And just personally - it’s good to have you around.” He wiped his mouth and stood up.

“The Sand Plague...” Burakh murmured to himself.

Saying it aloud, in its proper name, had a strange effect, made the shadows in the room a shade deeper.

Dankovsky’s mouth thinned. “I need to ask you something.”

Burakh didn’t like where this was going.

“Were you in the Polyhedron on the final day?”

“Yes.”

Dankovsky said nothing.

The Haruspex had the feeling he was staring down an oncoming train. He had to approach this carefully.

“So you know,” he began, “that we’re not -- “

“What I know,” Daniel hissed, and he put his face very close to Burakh’s, “or what mystics like you and that bitch Impostress would have me believe - is that we’re going to make the same decisions over and over again, some version of us, in a distant place, and we won’t be able to deviate from that path. But I want more, Artemiy. I still do. I can’t get it out of me. I can’t help it.”

“Your lymph nodes are swollen.” Burakh touched the side of his neck.

"I know."

"Open your mouth. I want to check your throat."

Dankovsky’s pulse quickened. Must be bracing for a fight. Burakh met his eyes.

“You will never die.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock, and the door opened.

"Hello hello!" said Veronika, brightly.

Actually, she did everything brightly, Burakh could tell just by looking at her. She had a small, square, healthy face that seemed to converge on her upturned nose, which wrinkled whenever she smiled. Dankovsky went to the door and kissed her.

"Verochka, this is the subject of the message I sent you."

He rose, bowing his head slightly.

"Wow, you're tall! Do you really manage to live together here? Dankovsky's probably squished flat, between you and his ego."

"It's a daily struggle," Burakh said drily.

Daniel shot them both a look. "When the two of you are done with the character assassination, I need you to take a look at this. You're a physicist by training, unlike myself ... " He veered off towards a stack of notes and books.

"Oh, God! Now? I have a half-day off!" ("Tell 'em, Vera!" said Burakh.) "I wanted to stop by and invite you both, I told Alyosha that Bachelor came out of his cave and he’s going to get everyone together tonight."

“You could have sent a note back through the pneumatic system at the library ... “

“So I could have! And then you would have turned me down!”

"I can turn you down right now."

"Try it. You're too polite."

"Veronika, I can't go. I'm just starting to form an incredible idea. If it's worth following, I can start asking for grants, I might even get lab space ... "

"Maybe I'll look over it at the party," said Veronika, gently. "Danko, you haven't been out in months."

"It's not necessary for me. Some people get lonely, I have a different temperament. I'm an intellectual, I'm happiest in the company of my work."

"So naturally, the second your old colleague shows up, you go and force him to move in with you."

"He's my assistant, my amanuensis," Dankovsky insisted. “I needed one.”

"You didn't need one yesterday!"

(Burakh watched all this with amusement.)

"About the party, we'll be glad to accept," said Burakh.

“Et tu, Brute?”

“Well, I’d like to be mutual friends with the Princess, and you’re not going to abandon me alone with strangers, are you?”

***

“...and it turns out it wasn’t even thrombocytopenia, it was a heat rash!”

Dankovsky, who was very drunk, fell onto Burakh's shoulder, laughing with embarrassment. Burakh slung his arm around him.

"Where'd you be without me, eh?" He took a hit off the hookah that so-and-so's brother had brought back from a campaign in the south. It was shaped somewhat like a bud of clover, made from brass. The smoke in the room, the low ceiling, and the dark walls seemed to seal one off from the rest of the world, you alongside your companion, and the Thanaticians sat in a tight circle around the pipe.

“You’re hardly flawless!”

“Any stories from the trenches, Danko?” Veronika wrinkled up her pretty nose at him.

“Of course! Rubin needed a living sample taken from the tissue of the vascular system since the disease in its incumbent form doesn’t last long in a dead organism. So, out of all the people, Burakh decided to cut - “

“Daniel,” said Burakh softly. The smiles of the Thanatica doctors faded, all in a row like blown candles, as it occurred to them what it meant to take from the tissue of a living heart.

Dankovsky had a distant, confused expression, his mind hazy with liquor. He smiled, and it looked a bit manic.

"I have a better one," interjected the pleasantly-named Ilya Aliyev, who as far as Burakh could surmise was a chemist in his thirties with a clever, easygoing mien. “A farmer has chickens who are sick with the plague. He calls on Dankovsky, Artemiy Isidorovich, and Vera for help. Dankovsky looks at the chickens and tells him he knows what's wrong with them, but not how they got it. Artemiy Isidorovich looks at them and says he knows how they got it, but not how to fix it. Just then, Veronika runs in with her calculations and cries, 'I have the solution! But it'll only work on a spherical chicken in a perfect vacuum."

Veronika gave him a smack and laughed. The good mood was at least somewhat restored.

"But, going back to the city on the steppes,” said Veronika, “it's amazing how little we've managed to hear about it, considering your victory. That general and the Inquisitor made official statements but they were so vague!“

“What was it that woman said?” mused another Thanatician, the one Veronika called Alyosha. “‘Justice was assuredly carried out under my command, but to protect certain parties who behaved under the duress of an unnatural situation, to which our system of law cannot apply ... ‘“

Veronika kicked him under the table.

"At least give us a general picture," urged another colleague, whose name Burakh didn't know.

“Well,” said Dankovsky. His voice was flat. He spoke as if he had rehearsed this, at least to himself. “The Stamatin brothers had built a structure with a deep foundation. The foundation penetrated a primitive underground sewage system that the steppe people had been using for countless generations. It created a sanitation problem, so we ordered it to be destroyed. When I distilled the event down to its basic elements, disregarding madness, sentimentality, impossibility, and fear - disregarding mysticism - the solution became clear to me. It was a simple decision based on rationality and fact.“

“I won’t contest Dankovsky’s interpretation,” Burakh said. “And I have nothing to add.”

He shifted in his seat, rearranging, however slightly, the arm over Dankovsky's shoulder.

“But about the nature of the disease - and the formulation of the cure!” said Alyosha.

“Home remedy,” Burakh replied. “Not important.”

That got a laugh from Aliyev, but Alyosha looked put off. Veronika stepped in.

“Look, the point is that you were treated so unfairly. We all were. You need to publish!"

"Think about it," said Aliyev. "You - the both of you and Rubin, singlehandedly - subjugated a contagious illness with rapidly accumulating casualties in less than two weeks. You developed a vaccine and then a cure. Honestly, the rest of us can't even handle the grippe."

Burakh glanced at Dankovsky, who didn't meet his eye. Both of them knew that it wasn't for them, what had happened there.

"Think of it on a spectrum," Dankovsky said. "You can't promise to solve death and then be responsible for - casualties. Nearly ten thousand."

"Not according to the politicians, who know nothing, but the scientific community - I'd say your victory puts you in the running for the Demidov Prize."

"To the laureates!" Veronica cried, reaching for a bottle. Everyone did another round of shots.

"To your happiness, Burakh," said Dankovsky quietly.

"To yours, oinon."

They touched their glasses together, privately.

The Haruspex fell into a congenial, inebriated inattention. The conversation turned to some kind of politics which he wouldn't have listened to anyway - somebody got tenure, or didn't refill the coffee pot, or whatever. (He felt a longing for the naked simplicity of the steppes, but then again he always did, it was only a matter of volume. The earth sang within his blood, regardless of whether he listened. It sang to him, and for him, alone.) The woman said something which made everybody laugh a notch too loudly.

Dankovsky gave Veronika a fond look.

“Come here, Verochka! Give me a kiss.”

“Oh, you don’t mean it ... “ But she left the oriental-style sofa she was huddled on and crawled in his lap to kiss him, rather chastely, at the corner of his mouth.

Burakh took his arm from Dankovsky’s back. “I’ll step out for a bit, I want some fresh air.”

“Don’t run too far, please.” Dankovsky turned his face from Veronika’s. She followed the feel of his stubble with her smooth skin. He had a melancholy look about him. “I like you, Vera. You know how to live. You remind me of someone, I think ... ”

Burakh had had enough.

The club was in a quiet location, although it was in a busy part of the capital, it was just off a small park. There was a path with intermittent trees, and a waterway that Burakh only knew from the moving reflection of lamplight in the dark.

"Artemiy Isidorovich!"

Alyosha had trailed after him, leaving the man, the woman, and their colleagues alone.

“Yeah?”

Alyosha took off his glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve, sighing. If you don’t want to have this conversation, Burakh thought, then don’t.

“So, you’re Dankovsky’s ... ?”

“Subbotnik volunteer.”

“Oh, well put!” Alyosha’s glasses had become extremely clean. Maybe even the cleanest Burakh had ever seen. “So, was Dankovsky popular with the ladies in your city?"

“With the ones that weren’t dead, yes. Even then I could name a few.”

“I ... see.” Alyosha considered it. Whatever conclusion he came to, he put his glasses back on. “I don’t blame you for leaving in a hurry. To be honest, I don’t like it when they’re carrying on either. They hate each other, really.“

“They could have fooled me. Unless you think he’s trying to turn the princess back into a frog.”

“It’s like a game for her. She needed a procedure done and went to Dankovsky. It put her in a delicate position.”

“The French disease or an abortion?”

“I couldn’t say.“

“But it’s blackmail?”

“Let’s just say Vera wants to avoid a potential situation. It’s all in her head. I don’t think Dankovsky would do anything to hurt her, he was never one for intrigues, it’s just that he’s different now. I can’t explain, but we all feel it! Veronika doesn’t trust him.“ He mulled this over. "I think she does long to be close to him. But at this point it's mostly for her own safety."

“Is there a reason why you’re bothering me with this? I don’t actually care.”

“It seems you have some influence over him...“

“So take care of him.”

“Yes, and ... please try to remind him that he could be doing a little more to preserve the reputations of the former members of Thanatica. We were here when the fire team came, they pulled us right out of the labs - "

"Stop talking."

Alyosha blushed. “Don’t misunderstand me! No one loves him more than I do. He was the most audacious, the most clever out of any of us. He was our leader, and we needed him, all of us. It’s just that we’re human. We have to live in the world, even if he doesn’t.“ Alyosha was cleaning his glasses again. Burakh was disgusted, by the tic if nothing else. He hated a man who hid behind gestures. “Sorry, I got emotional.”

“I’m getting tired of you capital people. You’re so damned inhibited.” Burakh gave him a nasty grin. “Have you ever seen a dancing girl fall into an ecstasy, so that she begged you to let her blood onto the ground?”

The look on his face was worth it.

“Don’t antagonize the city folk, Burakh,” said Dankovsky, tiredly. He drifted up to them, his hands in the pockets of his snakeskin jacket.

“Oinon, I wish you made noise when you walked.”

Alyosha said something about going back inside that neither of them paid any attention to, and scurried away in a hurry.

Daniel joined him on the promenade.

“I keep thinking there’s a saying, after a certain number of shots you find the one with sadness in it,” Daniel said.

“So take another. I like you when you’re drunk.”

Dankovsky was looking at the water, at where the water would be if it wasn't dark. Burakh could just about make out his face in the dim gaslight from the club's doors.

"There were a lot of things I wanted to ask you about then, back in the city on the Gorkhon, but somehow I can't think of them now," Daniel said to him.

"I killed the girl because I heard you were going to meet her. It was too late to find you at the Slough. I didn't want you to have to do it, and I didn't have time to stop you."

Dankovsky gave him a look Burakh found hard to interpret, somewhere between pity and self-disgust. "I had stepped over enough bodies by the time I met you that I could never call myself a good man."

“She would have been dead by morning. There wasn't anything either of us could have done," said Burakh, and he saw the gears clicking away in Dankovsky's mind- they could have given her feromycinum, powder, kept her alive until there was panacea to spare, until the town was cleansed. Sure. And they could have done that for everyone else in the city, if there were supplies, if there was time. Curious how it all looked like a chess game from here; how easy it is to forget, living in comfort, how tired you were and how deprived; how you had struggled nearly to the death to save the ones who needed you and in the end you couldn't have done more. Burakh remembered her round mouth, pronouncing his title so deliberately, as if she were fascinated just by the words - the beautiful guest from the capital.

"I was the butcher," he told him. "It fell to my hands.”

"She was the humpback's daughter, he offered money," and he paused again, Burakh could tell, to come up with an interpretation of reality he was comfortable with, "to make sure she was safe. I needed it, enough for a bribe, there were innocent men in the prison. It turns out that Rubin needed a sample from a native, but she wasn't from around here, the caravan ... "

He spoke quickly, as if it mattered, as if after all these months, he had to hurry to fill him in. And then he trailed off. There was no point in counting the whole list down.

"It's over now. It doesn't matter," said Burakh.

"It's over," Daniel repeated, as if the words were a foreign language. He gave the Haruspex a hard look. Even in the night, Burakh could tell that his eyes were so dark. "Haruspex. Enough. I need you to tell me why you're here."

"You didn't answer my letters."

"Did it ever occur to you that I didn't want to?"

"I figured that was a given. But I thought you were too well-bred not to send me a kiss-off."

"What do you remember after leaving the Polyhedron?"

"Well, the Cathedral."

"Of course. After that."

"I slept. I couldn't think of anything else to do."

"And when you woke up, on the day after the plague, what's the first thing you remember?"

"Aglaja."

"How very touching," said Dankovsky, and his voice was colder than Burakh had ever heard.

He wasn't playing. Burakh had that feeling again, the oncoming train.

"I fell asleep. I woke up briefly to the sound of the guns."

"Where were you?"

"My father's laboratory, where I had gone to bed."

"Then what?"

"Then it was morning. The children were out, the water carts were moving again. The Inquisitor went for a walk with me. She wanted to stay behind for a while, in the city. I think by the time I woke up that morning, the army and their train cars had left."

"Maybe."

"What do you mean, maybe? They either did or they didn't."

"I went to sleep too, after the Cathedral. I spoke to you. Remember? I wanted to ask you what you were going to do next." His eyes closed briefly - Burakh could see twin points of light, a minute reflection, disappear in the dark. "It was the last thing I said to anyone."

"Did you hear the guns?"

"I didn't hear anything. I woke up on the train to the capital."

"So what's your problem?"

"How did I get on the train? I fell asleep in the Slough."

Burakh's heart beat fast.

"You were tired. You forgot from the fatigue, you were sleepwalking."

"I nearly dropped dead of exhaustion over the course of that ordeal and I remember every second of it up until that day. I have a gap of nearly sixteen hours."

"So the soldiers carried you! I don't know!" And there it was. The headlamp, the pilot, his neck beneath the driving wheel; and the sound of the engine was deafening. "I talked to Kapella that afternoon. She told me you got on the train without finding me because you didn't feel like saying goodbye."

"I wanted to. Don't be naive." Those points of light were fixed on him again. "After everything, you still think a Mistress will just hand you the truth? You may see a child, but don't forget what she is. Quamvis sint lenta, sint credula nulla fluenta."

"Shut up."

"I threw myself off the Polyhedron. On the final day. I remember seeing the ground come up to me - and then I was right at the top again, as if I had just blinked. It wasn't over yet. I had to make the decision. There must be something left that I haven't done, that I have to do now. I was called back. And I need to know who all this is for."

"What do you mean, for? You're a man. Do what you want." The Haruspex turned away. He couldn't look at him.

"Don't you dare -- " Dankovsky grabbed his arm.

Burakh caught his throat with his palm, slamming him down into the dark. Daniel gasped and his back arched in pain - the rail was closer than Burakh expected. He pressed his weight over him, feeling Dankovsky's body bending strangely backwards, giving into him, almost like a woman...

"Is this what you want? If it's what you want, then I'll give it to you. You want to live? Say it!"

Dankovsky didn't resist. Not even his hands, still gripping his jacket. Burakh squeezed his throat, pressing into him, his knee between the both of them to hide that in the altercation Burakh was getting hard, and although Daniel's body struggled to breathe against his will he said nothing. Burakh could feel his cold fire, that part of Dankovsky that was resolute and implacable, and even in all his power it dwarfed him. At least this time.

He let go of him, feeling impotent. He sat down on the sidewalk, leaned his back against the rail, and sighed.

Daniel righted himself (the motion reminded Burakh of a toy snake he once had, made of interlocking wooden parts, which you could click into position rearing up). He slid down the handrail next to him. The Haruspex put his arm around him, against his better judgment, and pulled him roughly to his side. His temple came to rest against Burakh's shoulder.

They were silent for a moment. A long one, a good one.

"What is this?" Daniel asked him. He made a lazy, drunken gesture with his hand. "What are we doing? The two of us."

"You're a doctor," Burakh began, and he told him the story the way he wanted it to go, the way he would will it to be. "And I'm a surgeon. We worked together once, and then we didn't speak again for a long time. I came to find you, to keep you company, to make you safe. We're friends."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"Okay."

"Don't look at me."

Dankovsky said nothing.

"You wanted the power to resurrect the dead. Eight thousand souls - you think they're calling you? No. They want your gift. Be grateful."

*** The thickness of his waist is the bull's haunch, the hang of him is the bull's genitals, the flat of his stomach is the land. His rutting moves the stars, his cry pulls the sun. And you, man of blood, so despised by the world, joyous will be the day when you accept that you were made for Him.

Chapter Text


I spoke to the twyre and the twyre spoke to me, the herb of the wastes with the stem filled with blood. I saw a raw and difficult land, and I saw those who were made to fall by that land, and I saw the stain on the stones and a dolmen from an unknown tribe, I heard whispers in a language not a single man alive could understand.

I didn’t know, when I met again you on the banks of the river Gorkhon, whether you wanted to cure death out of intellectual ego; out of childlikeness and naivete, because it had simply occurred to you that you could; or because you had seen so much suffering in your short life that the only thing that could justify it would be to transcend the boundaries of death itself. This is a thing which the dolmen culture had completely failed to do. Through the twyre it dreamed to me, the way it must dream to all artists at least once in their lives, that many among their kind had known suffering more incredible than even the survivors of the second outbreak had known. They had known rape, murder, torture, war . . .I don’t mean that. I don’t mean in the sense of a tribal history. I mean that an individual once grew and died. Heartbreak. They had known heartbreak ... loneliness. They had survived their sons. They fell in love with a young woman, about which they never breathed a word, they loved their mother and they hated her, they burned their hand quite badly as a child, spilling a pot of water set to boil. They were gutted in the plains, they cried for a long time before they died, and now the world has forgotten so much of their suffering that we don’t even comprehend the language in which they screamed.

And me, what, did I become enlightened? I saw nothing, even in the twyrine I saw nothing, I was given no purchase. I feel that I could have heard them now, my companions in the dirt, that I could even begin to communicate with them, if I had had one more moment of life in which to drink, to tear down the horrifying curtain that the girl Laska no longer sees. I would have understood everything! The dead must tell their stories. But for a drop more ... a drop more. My agony is unheard, I have a mouthful of sand, all but the girl, the girl ...

I can see you from where I lie. Playing, as if none of this terror had ever occurred to you in the darkness and the blindness, when even your heart was silent and you were most alone. Be careful! Be careful. Think hard ... what have you seen burnt?

Twin scars. Where have I heard that phrase before? Am I forgetting the course of my life? My spirit might become the grains that make up the sand and even after that become nothing. I’m grateful, there’ll be an end to it ... no, I’m afraid! I want it to stay with me, I want to be able to stay within it, I want to carry my suffering forever and I want the pain that I went through to be written in the stars. The world must never allow torture to be forgotten; and neither compassion, nor sympathy, nor joy. Nor love, nor my love. More than anything else, I wanted a monument to my love, pain and joy living in twin spaces, swinging back and forth, neither of them deciding which is the real me. Laska ... ! Tell me, will I die a final time? Laska, spare me your milk ... I can’t see the colors anymore.

...

What a gift was given to you, my Maria, and you scorned her, ingrate; the woman with the blood of heroes would have lain herself down in your bed, asking of you not even the miracle she deserved. You were beautiful to her, my colleague, but not only because you had a fantastic dream.

I liked you. I decided just then. You were a good man. Tell me that you can’t feel her all around you now, even in the final hour. I think of the scent of night-blooming flowers, the sun long-ago set in the steppes, the night so black as to make it impossible to draw a boundary line between the clay and the sky. The fireflies are rising in an infinite expanse, and I think of endless starlight, on earth and in the heavens. It is her. It amazes me to know that out of all the world’s worthless children only I saw these things, that anyone else could see them without a perfect image of my beloved coming into their mind. I only wanted to connect the two forever. Even if just within the limits of Utopia, within the limits of one little town.

When you were a child, an older child, old enough to have an instinct of longing, did you feel alone in the fields at twilight, in a time of great beauty, without knowing who was missing from your side? It would have been the sound of her voice. And I’ll never get a chance to ask you - what monument would you have made for him, man of blood, snake-womb one, whose wounds don’t heal, who makes no sound when he walks? You never loved the city you gave him.

The dead shall rise, my colleague. In fact, we never went anywhere at all.

It didn't happen the way Burakh would have wanted it to, and in fact, he didn't want it to have happened at all.

Artemiy knew he should have left that night, taken the late train back out towards the steppes, let Dankovsky live his life in his own way, regardless of the consequences. He went to bed as soon as they returned to the garret and lay there with his eyes closed, a little heady from the drink, seeing himself pack his bags, take the tram to the station, wait, smoke, look at the schedule until he knew it by heart, all this the moment Dankovsky was sleeping. Daniel had turned the lamp on low and was moving around doing something or another (not working, Burakh could tell from behind the screen that he wasn't standing by the desk). Eventually the light went off and he came and sat down on the edge of the bed. Burakh could hear the businesslike sound of the removal of his clothes. Then he was still.

Artemiy could sense Dankovsky's eyes on him. He wanted to ask him what he was thinking about, but of course, they never spoke like this. It was an unspoken rule, whenever two men share a bed, that they don't talk once the two of them are laying down. Burakh could smell aftershave, green chypre. He felt an ache in the pit of his stomach, and then he stopped thinking about the train.

Dankovsky sighed. He seemed to have made up his mind about something. He lay down, and both of the men fell into a troubled sleep.

Things progressed in about the same way, for a while.

It was early in the evening. Dankovsky had been silent for a long time, working. (A long time meant, by their standards, a stretch of several hours. They didn't talk much, not after the night at the club. They ate together, worked together, and fell asleep in the same bed, but somehow...) Burakh was watching Daniel through the gap in the screen, leaning up against the table with his arms folded, waiting to be asked for something, to finish up a bibliography or some other drudgery, or to be called on for advice. He’d let himself get lost in thought, read a book or run an errand or do a chore, but mostly, he just watched. Burakh would have expected it to make Dankovsky self-conscious. It never did.

"Mind if I smoke?" Burakh asked. He knew they both smoked at their pleasure here, but he usually asked, it seemed right to.

"Sure."

It was affecting, hearing his voice so promptly, knowing that Dankovsky was still there with him in the seventh hour.

"And actually, could you hand me the Dodelin while you're up? It's the thin yellow volume. Thank you."

Burakh turned it over in his hand. "I've owned a copy myself. It's a guide to surgical obstretrics. Why do you need it?"

"To stop death I'd like to look at the origins of life. We have to be molded and changed by the composition of the womb, we begin there from a clot. So there might be something about the cells, or the special chemical properties. Even the physical structure of the ... I'm saying too much. I told you, my idea won't be clear until it's already done."

Bachelor never offered up more than was necessary, and for this reason, Artemiy didn't like to ask. He couldn't make heads or tails of what he was trying to do, and he was afraid that neither could Daniel. A week ago it was physics. What now?

Artemiy shrugged, handed the book over, and went for his jacket. His papirosy weren’t in there. Instead, there was a cigarette case with plique-a-jour so revolting Burakh couldn't look directly at it. Inside were cigarettes of a few different makes.

Haruspex was not amused.

"Dankovsky, what is this?"

The Bachelor quit working for a minute. He dug up the packs, apparently quite pleased with himself.

"I got the case for you. The cigarettes too. Look, here's the brands, so when you find the one you like..."

"I like Belomor."

"Don't be ridiculous. You can afford better now." He pushed open the screen and pressed the packs into Burakh's hands.

"Imperia Gold," Burakh read. "Guelder Rose. Stola ... Really, oinon? You want me to smoke a cigarette named after ladies' formalwear? Really?"

"It said it's 100 percent premium tobacco on the pack."

"They all say 100 percent premium tobacco on the pack!"

Bachelor looked annoyed. "I got this for you because you're my colleague. I want you to have the best."

"Dankovsky, you smoke Primas! You dry them out on the damned heater!"

"I got used to it in college."

Haruspex decided to approach this diplomatically. "I’m upset because you’re implying that my natural likes and dislikes, my taste ... “

“Well, I think there’s objective levels of quality in agriculture and manufacturing, and in the cultural impression of -- “

“Damn it, you threw out my stuff!”

"In order to replace it with better 'stuff'."

"You treat me like a trained dog."

"You treat me like a child."

"Only when you act like one."

Dankovsky fell completely silent and disappeared behind the screen. His displeasure was palpable in the room. It set Burakh on edge. He said aloud,

“You know, when I attained the position of Elder, I didn’t expect I’d spend the rest of my life playing errand boy for some dandy from the capital.”

“So don’t. Go back to the steppes. You’re free to come and go as you please. I don’t care.”

“One of these days, oinon, I’m going to call your bluff.”

Dankovsky slammed down his pen.

"I'm going to see Veronika."

"Great, a party. Can I come?"

"No."

Bachelor crossed the room and started putting on his coat. "Don't wait for me. I won't be back until late. In fact, don't expect to see me until morning."

Artemiy realized he was serious. He caught up with him at the door. "Don't do anything you'll regret."

"Oh, I don't plan on regretting a thing."

"Stop smiling." Artemiy reached over his shoulder, putting his palm on the door to hold it shut.

"When I was twelve years old my father took me to the lodge outside the cemetery. The children of Boddho had cast out an addict. He was having seizures and they feared the taint of his death in the Apiary. It took hours for him to go. And when he did we cut him apart. Let me tell you something, man of blood, let me speak to you in a way you'll understand: if that same fate befalls you, I won't even wait for you to die."

"Get out of my way."

Burakh took his hand away. "Sure. What does it matter to me if you go and spend a little time with some woman or junk up your body with powder? I'm your flat-mate. 'Amanuensis.' I don't care."

"I know what you did, Burakh."

Dankovsky slammed the door in his face.

Burakh stood riveted to the spot until the sound of Dankovsky's footfalls had vanished somewhere beyond the last step on the staircase. Then he threw everything off the Bachelor's desk onto the floor.

He couldn't think of anything else to do after that. He sat down on the bed with his head in his hands, which didn’t improve his mood. He tipped over his bag on the mattress and made sure he hadn't lost anything in the boarding-house. Silk sutures, painkillers, the wudei of his father (Dankovsky had noticed it with his medical supplies and asked if it was spare parts, which made Burakh's blood boil, remembering it in the mood he was in now). Things he was used to carrying, when he wandered, taking a semester here or an apprenticeship there, even learning what he could from local bonesetters. Knowing he had lived that life made him sick. He'd have a girl or two, maybe help out an old widow, there'd always be somebody around his own age to drink with, and then he'd leave, and he wouldn't think about them much (and they wouldn’t think of him in return), except to know that their wretched lives would continue in more or less the same way until their deaths. Aside from his education, he had no distinct memories from that time. And now he was doing the same thing again, acting worse than a child. The hierophant, whose destiny was bound up with the town on the steppes, willfully trapping himself in someone else's hovel like a starved rat. What a humiliation. Why was he here? He had a moral duty, at least, to watch over that place and its children, and he was giving up his heritage, to come here. And to what end? If it was for Dankovsky's welfare, well, he was doing absolutely nothing for him. What could he possibly give to Daniel? He knew exactly for what he had been born.

He lay down on the bed and his palm went heavily to the indent in the sheets that Dankovsky’s body had made. He moved his hand down the mattress, and when he found the place where Daniel's prick might have been when he slept on his stomach, he clenched the sheets tight in his fist. He could feel the hum of it, the blood he had shed there, the lines of his body. The other night, when the Bachelor was getting ready for bed (summer had set in with a viciousness and even in the dark of midnight it was too hot to sleep in an undershirt), Burakh had noticed that somebody had tried to gut the man from stem to stern back in the city and the last inch of his wound still hadn't healed. It hadn't been a deep cut, but it was a long one, and Dankovsky had sewn it up himself (crouched behind the Abattoir, working upside down, bleeding buckets, and under the influence of half a bottle of painkillers, according to the Bachelor himself, who was getting defensive and pretending he knew all along how to correct the wound himself and simply hadn't gotten around to it). It was remarkably good work, considering, and had mostly healed up fine, but the edge of the laceration kept getting pulled open. It was a difficult place, at the base of his abdomen. Burakh's training as a surgeon had included repairing sutures and correcting cicatrization, and when they were all well-rested he insisted on working on it, even though the Bachelor claimed it didn't bother him at all.

"Can you feel it?" he had asked him.

"It's still numb."

Burakh leaned forward and bit the suture clean. Daniel inhaled sharply and sucked in his stomach.

"Hurts?"

"No, you're just a little close. I wasn't ready."

He had without realizing wet his lips and taken his blood in his mouth. And then Daniel, whose curiosity overcame his pride, started asking him to teach him this-or-that technique and Burakh had laughed at him - "You realize this is physically, materially, and in all of the senses your own stomach you want to practice on? ... Fine. Take the needle driver, lunatic. What I gave you was a horizontal mattress stitch."

Afterwards Daniel had asked him why he carried all this, and Burakh had given him some useless answer. "Habit," he said, or, "It reminds me of who I am," rather than explain to him all his irrelevant and useless years. He figured Dankovsky would appreciate a clean little thought, a turn of phrase wrapped up in a bow. The Bachelor had just looked at him, with his dark clever eyes.

“You think you’re nothing more than the surgeon?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Sorry, but whenever I’ve been told ‘not necessarily’, it’s by someone who was avoiding a valid question.”

“I don’t want you applying anything I say to yourself. We’re different people.“

“And yet ... “

“And yet?” Burakh asked.

“I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

“You’re the worst hypocrite I ever met in my life. Come on, let’s go for a walk. I want to buy you dinner.”

It was a warm day, Burakh remembered, it was warm and the sky was clear. He sat up, pulled everything back into the bag, and then put it beneath the bed again, where it was going to stay, he knew, for a while. And he went back to doing what he was used to - he leaned against the table, he folded his arms, he smoked, and he waited for Daniel.

A knock sounded at the door. Burakh snuffed his cigarette out against the bedpost and strode across the room, trying to seem unhurried. Daniel, he'd tell him, you don't have to knock. I'm not angry.

He opened the door. Standing there was Veronika, wrapped in a fur coat in spite of the heat. She was hugging her furs to herself and crying.

“He’s not breathing.”

Burakh’s heart seized like a fist. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “Woman, you tell me what’s going on, or I’ll...“

She wiped her face on the back of her wrist. “Please, you have to come. Ilyukha is outside with a car.”

Burakh pushed her out of the way and took the steps two at a time. Aliyev was standing outside smoking. His face had gone very white. The moment he saw Burakh he jumped into the driver's seat.

"Aliyev!" he called.

"Artemiy Isidorovich, there's no time!" Aliyev started the engine. "Foolish girl, she came to get me first. I'm a chemist." He turned the words over in his mouth, murmuring almost to himself. "What can I do, I'm a chemist..."

"I couldn't go right to you," said Veronika shrilly, "You, you're just a bonesetter, Daniel said you weren't even a surgeon..."

"How long has it been?" asked Burakh, who wasn't even sure at this point what had happened.

"I don't know. Veronika had to find me on foot," said Aliyev. "I drove us there and when I realized what had happened came straight to you. I couldn't tell you if it's been fifteen minutes or forty-five."

"And you saw him, after Veronika walked to get you, you saw him?"

"Yes!" said Aliyev, through clenched teeth.

"And he was alive then."

"I don't - "

"You worthless - haven't you seen a dead body before?"

"It may come as a surprise to a pair of bastards like you two, but most people damn well haven't!" Aliyev calmed down long enough to say, "But yes, he was alive."

After Veronika came and got Aliyev on foot, he was alive. Burakh relaxed by a hair. If he really wasn't breathing he'd have been dead a moment after Veronika first left him. If Dankovsky was hanging on, then there was a chance even if he was late.

"Where is he now?"

"At my estate," said Veronika. "We're almost there, I promise ... "

"And not the hospital? I'm warning you, don't say anything about your reputation."

"You can't possibly understand."

"Goddamn it! If I wanted to deal with intrigues I would have stayed in the steppes with the Kains. If he dies tonight, I swear to you, there won't be enough of you left to make plans."

A figure leapt out in front of the headlights and Aliyev slammed on the brakes. It was Veronika's doorman. They had nearly driven into the gates.

"Couldn't you have told him to leave them the hell open?" snapped Aliyev.

"Damn it, I'm not going to wait ... " Burakh grabbed his bag and ran up the yard.

"On the top floor," said Veronika, trailing after him, "In the bedroom. Go to him, hurry...I'll give you anything, please."

He reached the front door before anyone else. Throwing open the door and seeing the dark, narrow hall solidified the reality of it in his mind, and for just a split second, the Haruspex stopped short. This was it, he told himself, he'd walk into the bedroom and he'd find either Daniel or a corpse.

But he was a surgeon! Even a moment's pause had no place here.He steeled his resolve and ran up the flight of stairs.

Dankovsky was lying on top of the sheets of a four-poster bed. His long coat was off, and one of his sleeves was rolled up to the shoulder.

"Daniel," Artemiy whispered. He rushed to the side of the bed.

From the doorway he had looked like a corpse. His lips were blue. Artemiy checked his neck for a pulse - it was there, but it was weak - and then he realized that now he really wasn't breathing. Artemiy lifted Dankovsky's chin, pressed his mouth to his, and forced his breath into his throat.

Come on, he thought, come on. Take what I give you. His heart was beating hard, but he made himself focus on breathing slowly, shallowly, keeping his mouth on Dankovsky's, feeling his breath circle in the other man like a dry husk. It occurred to him that he had been longing for this only an hour ago, and self-hatred boiled up in his stomach at the perversity of this thought.

Then Daniel shuddered and gasped beneath him. He woke up briefly, his eyes unfocused.

"Artemiy..." He grabbed his forearm, tried to sit up, and promptly passed out.

Burakh took his hand and pressed his lips to his fingers, distractedly. Dankovsky wouldn't be alive for long, not if his breath was starting and stopping like this. All he had was more painkillers and tools for surgery. Think. He had apprenticed as a feldscher for about a year, and in that godforsaken settlement there had been more than one doomed souls. They brought in one of them - they had done what for him? Burakh searched his mind.

Suddenly he realized that the other two had joined him in the room. "Where's his bag? I know he brought it."

"There, in the corner." Veronika pointed.

"Give it to me." He took his eyes off of Daniel long enough to go through the bag - useless, all of it was useless - and then he saw what he needed. In a little leather case there were two clean syringes, and a vial each of caffeine dissolved in a saline solution and camphor. Dankovsky must have known this might happen. He drew the caffeine up into a syringe and looked for a vein. Daniel didn't even respond to the needle entering.

"It's not working," said Aliyev.

"Give it a minute." Burakh was drawing the camphor. It was thick, suspended in sesame oil, and was taking a dog's age. Hurry, he thought to himself, damn it, hurry up!

He gave Dankovsky the last injection. Then he pulled away from the Bachelor. "Well," he said.

"Well, what?!" Aliyev cried.

"I mean, there's nothing more we can do, goddamn it, other than to make sure he keeps breathing and wait for him to get out of it on his own."

Aliyev nodded stiffly. "Should we take shifts, or ... ?"

"No. If you're tired, go home. I'll watch over him myself."

"I'm staying." There was a card table at the other side of the room. Aliyev and Burakh took a chair each, and put them on either side of the bed. Veronika stayed at the table. She watched the two of them, frightened.

"What do we do if he won't wake up?" Veronika asked.

"Cry?"

"Oh, I wouldn't even know who would bury him ... I won't let you! He told us all about you, you're going to cut him up!"

"I won't cut Bachelor." He was too tired to argue with her. And he hated talking about the living as if they were already dead.

"He hasn't spoken to his father in years," said Aliyev. "I wouldn't even know how to get in touch with him. Artemiy Isidorovich, do you know him?"

He knew he should be glad for it, but instead it was a thorn in him, realizing like this that before Dankovsky had been on his land he had had a whole other life which had never been mentioned to him at all.

"Know him? I don't even know Daniel. We worked together for a week and a half. I never even learned his patronymic."

"So whatever are you here for?"

Burakh rounded in on her. "You! You go in the other room and find some clothes to put on so you can take off that damned coat. Running around the city like that - and when you come back don't speak unless spoken to, understand?"

Veronika hurried off. She hid herself in some other room for a long time, and after a while it was clear she wouldn't come back.

Burakh dropped himself in the chair and rubbed his face. There was nothing better to talk about, so he asked:

"So he doesn't speak to his father. Do you know why?"

Aliyev shrugged. He either didn't know or wasn't comfortable talking about it. "I figured you'd know more than we do, living with him," he said.

"I told you, I'm nobody." Aliyev didn't make a comment. Burakh lit a cigarette, and he stared down at Dankovsky for quite a while before ashing on the side table and saying this:

"When he eats he bites delicately, with his front teeth, like he broke a tooth in the back once and remembers that it pained him. But all the same, he talks with his jaw clenched when he's angry, or passionate. He stands up when he works, paces, makes a fist; and when he tries to explain a mathematical idea he draws shapes in the air with his hands. He's unaware of his mannerisms and not conscious of his body, he has bad posture, walks into things, and doesn't seem to realize his height or the size of his feet. But he moves just a second too slowly, as if his real body is somewhere in a dream, and so something about him looks elegant. These are just some of the things that I know about him."

The chemist tried to think of something to say. Burakh leaned over and pulled back Dankovsky's lip. "Look, I was right, it's gone, the last wisdom tooth on the left. Either somebody tried to bash his face in, or he needed to have it removed."

Aliyev had an odd look on his face. "Artemiy Isidorych, I know you're a surgeon ... "

"Don't manhandle the patient. Sorry. I usually get in a little more than just a finger."

"Eh...Burakh, I'm politically sympathetic, but there are some things I just don't want to hear."

"...I meant scalpels."

Time passed, not quickly. The two of them settled in for the long haul, a servant brought a few candlesticks in and Aliyev somehow managed to find a cigar. Burakh's hand didn't leave Daniel's wrist, he kept his thumb on the smooth underside, the blue veins that were delicate and easily broken. He knew how easily someone could slip away. If he died on his watch, would he remember what little thought or conversation had distracted him?

"When all this is over and I finally go home," Aliyev said, studying his cards through the smoke, "my wife is going to ask, 'Where were you tonight?' and I'll say, 'I played cards and waited for Dankovsky to die.'" The chemist tossed his hand on the Bachelor's body. "Gin."

"He's a fighter," said Burakh. He brushed the hair from his eyes, as if there was something he'd be able to see, and he knew that the man longed to die. "And I'm the son of my father. If he won't breathe, I'll cut a hole in this throat and make him. And if he isn't gone by now, he won't go."

Aliyev looked hard at him. "You know, it was an Isidor Burakh who sent Dankovsky that letter, about the man with the extraordinary longevity and will to live."

"What of it? I'm under the impression that our mutual friend was somewhat famous. Isidor was fascinated by modern medicine. He'd always send me some paper or another even if he hadn't personally understood it. He just liked the sound of the words."

"I meant that at the same time our superior, Dr. Telman, received instructions to approve the visit from some kind of Authority. He was eager to send Dankovsky off, the two of them never got along. Telman was the appointed head of Thanatica (although Bachelor was the founder both practically and in terms of the ideal) but Dankovsky was handsome, passionate, and likeable and so he got all the attention. He wasn't subtle about being the real boss, either. And Telman blamed Dankovsky's celebrity for subjecting our lab to public opinion."

"Wanting Bachelor out of his hair doesn't mean he's a criminal. It means he has a pulse." Maybe that was a poor choice of words. "He couldn't have known what would happen."

"Which brings me to the one thing I can't figure out. Even before Daniel had left there were rumors about a murder, an outbreak. I think Telman started them. We all knew he was sending our Bachelor off to die, or at least to be blamed for a serious disaster. But according to the message Daniel sent us, that man - I think his name was Kain - wasn't killed until almost the moment he arrived."

"So Telman had foreknowledge of the murders, the plague."

"Yes! From the Authorities. I can only imagine they're the ones who burnt Thanatica because they oppose to the "artificial" extension of life. God knows what they wanted to do to him personally. I'm saying that these three figures - the Authorities, Telman, and Isidor Burakh - wanted Daniel in that hellhole, and two of them wanted him to die."

"And then some 'Isidorovich' shows up."

"Yes."

"You think," said Burakh, "you think I'm here to - "

"Finish the job? It occurred to me, yes."

"And you let me drink with him. You let me live with him! I could have strangled him a thousand times over! Are you mad? You intellectuals are no better than bureaucrats, you'd have felt clever for figuring it out if Dankovsky turned up dead, but you never took any action to stop it, and that's why he's living in that rat's nest and spends half his nights doing this." Burakh waved his hand over the Bachelor's body in disgust.

"Artemiy Isidorovich," Aliyev replied, his lips tight. "Let me give you some advice. Dankovsky is a man. You can't control him."

"If I could, do you think he'd be laying here like this?"

"Look, I didn't doubt you, not seriously. Daniel trusts you completely. If there was any question about you he wouldn't haven taken you into his home. And everything is proved by your actions here tonight."

"You'll be happy to know that my father was the second victim."

"I'm very sorry. I believe you. " Aliyev sighed. He shuffled the cards, contemplating. "But ... listen, having said all that, now that we're all squared up, there's something else I wanted to mention. Especially, as long as Vera's out of the room. It's not right for mixed company."

"Go on."

"I don't think Dankovsky is safe as long as Telman is alive."

"Why? What happened after Daniel secured the victory and came back with his life?"

"Nothing. Telman disappeared before that happened, as soon as Thanatica was burnt to the ground. I don't mean in the detective-novel sense, there's no investigation, or whatever, but he hasn't shown himself anywhere in society. We tried once or twice to contact him but of course we never loved him much. I think the bastard shut himself up in his mansion to lick his wounds and plan."

"There's no Telman anymore. He played his role. I wonder how come all the rest of you are still alive..."

Aliyev gave him a strange look.

"Forget it, I was quoting a play." Burakh sat back in his chair and folded his arms. "Be straightforward, Ilya Aliyev. What are you thinking?"

Aliyev kept his gaze on the cards, as if he was embarrassed to be caught talking this way. "In the morning papers: a double attack against Thanatica's major figures. Bachelor Dankovsky was poisoned, and Doctor Telman, who unfortunately did not recover, was assaulted on the same night. Certain parties are above suspicion, having spent the whole evening at Dankovsky's side, which can be confirmed by V. Malinovskaya's doorman."

"Think about what you're saying."

"I'm saying you were right. We don't do enough for him."

"Don't try to manipulate me. It's not about you or Alyosha Karamazov or even that damned Veronika. People do nothing for one another. They all live as if behind a glass; they watch, they listen, and then they note it down, even laugh. And that's all. People who bother to break the barrier are called heroes for some reason, when in fact, they're just not complacent." He added, "I wouldn't call it a conscious decision. It's not even a gift."

"Do you consider yourself - how can I phrase this without sounding like I'm in a bad book - a person who can help him?"

"His champion? No. I was that to others, but not him. We are not compatible people. I never should have tried to join with him."

Naturally, the chemist was having some trouble following the conversation. It didn't matter, Burakh was only thinking aloud. He wiped a spot of saliva off the corner of Bachelor's mouth with his sleeve.

"It's a lot of trust to put in one doorman."

The chemist looked up quickly. His mouth thinned.

"My Russo-Balt is bright red, and the engine is loud. The neighbors know we're here."

"So they'll know when we leave."

"Not if we go on foot."

"And Veronika?"

"It'll benefit her to play along. She won't want negative attention."

"You've thought this out. It must have been on your mind for a long time. Why didn't you bring it up with Daniel?"

He shot Dankovsky's body a guilty look. "I couldn't. He's just a kid ... "

"You'd be surprised."

Aliyev looked ill at ease. "I've tried very hard not to change the way I think about him. He doesn't say much, but what he does say is terrible."

"Yes. And think of how you act when you're plotting something. Can I trust the Princess to do this? Will she know it benefits her to do that? Remember when she was just a colleague of yours?"

Ilya Aliyev sat back in his chair, and shuffled the cards again. It was beginning to get on Burakh's nerves. The chemist had a strange look on his face.

"We need to do this. I won't back down."

Burakh checked Dankovsky's pulse.

"Get the princess in here."

Aliyev jumped up and moved out into the hall. The estate wasn't modest and Burakh could hear his voice echo from the other room. "Veronika? Can you come here for a moment? ...No one's angry with you, sorry if I yelled."

Veronika slipped into the room, giving the Haruspex a frightened look. She was wearing a house coat, which she wrapped tightly to herself, but at least underneath it she had on a dress.

"Do you know how to take his heart rate?"

Veronika nodded.

"Good. Watch the Bachelor. Check his wrist every five minutes. If he stops breathing again, you can push air into his lungs with an arm press, like this." Burakh demonstrated. "If his heart stops beating, it's your choice. Call an ambulance or let him die."

"What about the method you were using before? Rescue breathing?"

"That I've already seen you perform."

Veronika looked at him furiously, but took her seat in the chair Aliyev had left. Her hands moved like trained birds; gripped the bedspread, then Bachelor's wrist, and then stroked his hair, all in quick succession and without much conviction.

"Where are you going? You can't leave him."

"My professional advice as a surgeon is this: don't ask too many questions tonight."

Aliyev pulled his gloves on. "We have to get going. It's less than three versts from here, but that's twenty minutes on foot, maybe more." He turned towards the woman. "Vera, listen ... "

He couldn't finish.

"Don't have the guts for it? All right. Not to put too fine a point on it, Princess, but if you tell anyone we were gone, we'll kill you. Cheers."

Burakh got up and left. The chemist backed out of the room, murmuring 'I'm so sorry' and 'I'll explain later' and then something like, 'Dankovsky is in danger' and 'everything we do tonight is for our friend, I promise.'

They left the mansion and darted down the lawn, sticking close to the darkness of the tree-lined drive. The hierophant popped the car door.

"Burakh, what are you doing? We just agreed we couldn't take the car." Artemiy didn't answer, only grabbed the tire iron from the back seat and slammed the door.

"What do you need that for?"

Artemiy weighed it in his hands. The metal was solid, unrusted. It was a good weight.

"You'll find out."

They said almost nothing on the way to the manor, but Aliyev tensed whenever the tram passed, carrying university men on the top level whose conversation was loud and deformed by drink and the speed of the tram, or sometimes, sitting close together, workers with pallid faces who rode in silence because they were too tired to hear their own voices. There were no other pedestrians. Strange for a warm night, a pleasant one. Pleasant in spite of everything.

"Stop freezing up, it'll make people notice you," said Burakh, which of course made the chemist freeze up even more.

"We're almost there," Aliyev told him. "That's it over the bridge."

Small house, certainly not a mansion or a manor, with darkly-painted walls. (Maybe he was expecting something like the "Cold Hall", which Bachelor had taken him on a special trip for.) But it was an accomplishment just to own property in the capital. As to be expected, the front door was locked. Ilya Aliyev gave Burakh a helpless look.

"If you want to call the whole thing off, I won't think any of less of you," Burakh said. "I only came to prove to you that Telman isn't there. And, Aliyev, don't hate him. You wouldn't have played the role differently, if you could."

"No. No, if the bastard's still in the city, then it has to be done."

"I understand."

Burakh kicked the door in. He knew to aim for the part just beneath the lock, where its grip was weakest. The chemist flinched, but the door came open with a bang. For whatever reason, Burakh was careful to close it quietly behind them.

The foyer was lit by moonlight which came only from small, stained glass windows set alongside the topmost parts of the walls. There were no lamps to light. The house seemed smaller than it did from the outside. Burakh noticed that the two of them were moving silently. Why? Anyone home would have heard the door. They walked like they were criminals, like they knew their steps brought evil here.

"I had a nightmare like this once," he told the chemist, forcing himself not to whisper. "Recurring. I was a child of the steppes, it took me longer than most to learn how to move indoors. I had a fear of baroque architecture. Narrow hallways, dark colors, huge embellishments, hardwood walls. I kept dreaming that I was lost in a building without any windows. There were no exits, only doors."

"God, that wallpaper," Aliyev murmured. "It's - strange. Doesn't it strike you as strange?"

"I thought it was paint."

"I did too. It's red, dark red. There's no pattern. There's no texture. Why get plain red wallpaper, instead of paint? It doesn't feel right."

"You're panicking. Knock it off."

They moved into the dining room, or some part set away from the rest of the kitchen. Telman - this stranger - owned a table with multiple chairs, but it was a low, cramped table with bloated legs that would hurt your elbows and knees if you weren't careful, the kind of furniture bought by people who didn't really want anyone else to use it. He realized that Dankovsky had been in this house, in this room, with the lights up and music on, drank late at night at that table, gone over papers, laughed about something with Alyosha Karamazov or his A. And now he had managed to trespass in this world, to stand in the very same place, in the dark and dust and everything in the house unlit and unseen ...

"I don't think you should be here," said Aliyev. He licked his lips nervously.

"Obviously, neither of us should."

"No," he said, and looked at Burakh, his eyes glassy. "I mean, I get this strange feeling, I mean specifically you."

Burakh felt sweat prick at the back of his neck. "Ilyukha, tell me," he said, "Who was the architect of this house?"

"How the hell should I know?"

A gruff voice sounded behind them.

"What - " it said; and the man was clearing his throat and trying again, trying to make himself sound intimidating. "What the devil are you doing here? Aliyev!"

That doctor Telman was at the door, in his bedclothes, holding a lamp. He was overweight, balding, with a face that had gone heavy and ruddy with idleness and drink. It was the kind of face you saw only in the city; in the steppe the people's senses stayed keen with hard living and a dangerous air, and it showed in the angles of one's face (not even excepting Fat Vlad). Telman's best years as an intellectual were behind him. Attaching himself to Thanatica must have been the only way he was ever going to do anything worth remembering before his death.

Aliyev's eyes went wide and submissive when Telman barked out his name. He looked to Burakh for guidance.

"You heard the doc. Tell."

Telman snorted through his nose and turned his attention to the hierophant. "I'm not surprised to see a chemist of no particular significance resorting to common burglary, but you, you're a complete unknown to me."

"Don't mind me." Burakh smacked the tire iron against his palm. "I'm just here to help."

"You sent Bachelor to the murrain!" Aliyev's fists were balled tight. "You ruined our dream. You knew he was the spine of Thanatica and the soul of our ambition and we needed him. You're the cause of all this!"

Now Telman was starting to look a little scared. "Bachelor Dankovsky ... I was promised that I'd never hear that name again. If he's not dead now, he'll die soon."

Burakh dropped the iron, grabbed Telman by the collar of his striped nightgown and slammed him against the wall. He put his face very close to Telman's. "You have thirty seconds to tell me exactly what that means."

"I - "

"The Authorities promised you what?"

The collar ripped, sending a tear straight down the threadbare garment, and the doctor's corpulent nakedness fell entirely out of his robe. Burakh placed his boot on his throat, looking at him squirming on the ground with disgust.

"You maggot."

"Please - gospodin! - "

"You may address me as Elder."

He jerked his head towards the tire iron. Aliyev scrambled to get it.

"When did you last have contact with the Authorities?"

"I - last autumn. They told me I'd just have to wait for him to die! They put it like that in the letter. 'Just wait, just you wait', in those words. I know I haven't been forgotten, I know they wanted to see me succeed. They were so excited ... "

"Last autumn." He swore through his teeth and lightened the pressure a little on Telman's throat.

"Burakh," said Aliyev, under his breath, "Were you hoping to contact them?"

"Yes."

"And what would you have done?"

"Begged for the Bachelor's freedom."

"From the Authorities?"

"No," said Burakh. "I meant his freedom from me."

He swung the iron down on Telman's skull. It hit the corner of his eye socket, and Burakh felt a little give as the bone burst open.

Then it was done.

Burakh grunted and stepped off of him, satisfied. "Only one blow. I thought it'd be a real bloodbath."

The grandfather clock sounded in the foyer. The two men held still as it sounded, and then the noise faded, leaving the house just as silent as before.

Aliyev stared at the blood and brain leaking out onto the parquet. He squatted down by the body and tilted his head like a bird, trying to look Telman in the eye.

"I feel closer to him now. Bachelor. Don't you?"

"I don't know."

"I lied to you," he began, quietly. "I wanted ... It was all of ours, his dream. We served it and belonged to it. And then we lost it, and he wouldn't even tell us what happened. We were suffering, and we didn't even know the reason why. It was almost as if it didn't happen, like everything we felt was being swallowed up in the dark. I just wanted to merge with it. I was in so much pain."

"He believed in something different than you did. Humanity. Decency. He wanted to believe that even blood and flesh could be made a tool of salvation and what he really wanted to make immortal was the human soul."

"And now, he's like this. He did this, multiple times. He felt the way that I feel now. The way you felt when you split his skull."

"Yes."

"Was it like this?"

"Yes. Over and over again."

Aliyev straightened up. His arms hung at his sides, as if he was unaware of them, like a very small child.

"I'm going to go upstairs. I want to find the letter, or letters. If I can."

"I won't tell you not to read them. You deserve to make the choice yourself. But I will tell you to be careful of what you might find."

The chemist disappeared up the stairs.

He was covered in blood. The Haruspex, as he had so many times since receiving his heritage, set to the drudgery of cleanup alone.

One of the doctor's eyes, the right one, was sagging out of its socket. It rolled back into place and fixed itself on Burakh.

"Hey, Ripper," the corpse whispered, "Did you ever tell your Bachelor why he doesn't hear the voices of the dead when you have your hands on his body?"

Haruspex started. And then he heard Aliyev tearing down the stairs at full tilt, shouting, "Fire! The house is on fire!"

"Ilyukha! What the hell's going on?" He cast a frantic look down at the body, but it was silent, the watery blue eye still hanging out of its skull.

"It came out of nowhere! The whole upstairs is gone! Run!"

Haruspex felt the blood drain from his face. "We have to get back to Daniel, now!"

They ran all the way there. Devil take how it looked. (But all the same it occurred to Burakh that it wasn't strange to be seen running from a fire, and he felt a wild resentment pump through his veins at that self-preserving thought.)

O Boddho, enemies will come from the west of me, from the east of me, and from the north and south. I was born into this world with two hands for weapons, but swallow up the ones who try to take me from behind.

He didn't know any other prayers that asked for the preservation of life.

The princess was waiting for them on the top of the hill, standing at the threshold, the door to her manor wide open, her hands at her sides clenching her dress. Her knuckles were white and there was something manifest in her eyes, something Haruspex knew well. Eyes wide open, mouth set in a grim line. To him it looked something like fury. It was the look of having seen the inevitable truth of humanity, the look of one who's just seen death.

"Vera! What's going on?" called Aliyev.

"I can't be in there," she said. "I can't watch it happen to him."

Haruspex shouted to her from halfway across the lawn. "Where's the ambulance? Why didn't you call the ambulance?"

Veronica's voice carried across the yard. "If I brought outsiders in it would ruin your alibi, even ruin your plans. You told me to choose and I did. Better to die in the bed of a woman who loves him than to leave him to whatever the Authorities had planned."

"You knew we were going after Telman!" Aliyev cried.

"I'm a physicist, not a debutante. And I can see his district burning from the widow's walk."

"You're lying. I never should have trusted you. Alyosha told me that you - " Haruspex stopped himself short when he finally reached her. "I can't believe I'm down here wasting precious minutes talking - it's not too late, it can't be. Come on, the both of you!"

He ran up the stairs and found the bedroom. He was choking. His body was lifting itself off the bed with the effort to breathe. Haruspex's heart leapt. Daniel was dying, but he was still alive.

"Those gasps ... " said Aliyev. "I've never heard anything like that before. What's happening?"

"There's a blockage. Bring the light close." The muscles of the throat were weak from unconsciousness and the sedative effect of the drug. He had tried to vomit up orange foam and fluid was caught deep inside. "I can't clear the airway with my hands. Veronika, open my bag. I need iodine. Aliyev, pin him down."

He stroked Daniel's throat with his thumb, calling on his lines, finding the blockage. He would make a small cut, just 3cm. He painted a symbol onto Daniel's skin. "Scalpel."

One of them pressed it into his hands. He made the first of a series of superficial cuts that would open up the thin layer of skin and lay the muscles of his throat bare. Blood ran smoothly down his neck and pooled in his collarbone. "Get the cotton and take care of the blood."

"I can't find it," said Veronika. Her voice sounded as if it was coming from far away. He suddenly saw the container rolling under the bed when he had emptied the bag before. What else could be missing? His eyes darted to the bag. All he needed was the silver tube, anything else he could do with a dull razor if he had to.

"Use the bandages or I won't be able to see." It wasn't as sterile, but there was nothing they could do. There shouldn't be so much blood. There was already more than expected, and he had only made the first incision. Could there be a problem with clotting? Haruspex's heart beat faster. He knew that if he looked at Daniel's face he'd lose composure. "I need haemostatic forceps."

"I'll give you all the forceps, I don't know which they are." Veronika handed him a bouquet of instruments.

Haruspex took the one he needed. "Smart girl. Don't put that down, I'll need the ones for dissection in a minute. Aliyev, bring me the hooks." He clamped onto one edge of Daniel's wound. Before he could lock the instrument and let go, he felt a strange gurgling beneath his fingers, and then -

"Burakh, what the hell are you doing?" Dankovsky jerked up and away from him, away from the tool in Artemiy's hand, and he saw the flash of red on his white throat before letting go. He had ripped open a flap of skin the length of his palm. Daniel's eyes went wide with shock.

"Ilya, hold him down!" He panicked, went for the bag himself, threaded the needle, heard his father's voice in his head, the voice he always heard when he scolded himself - Pathetic. I wanted you to be more than what I am and now look at you. You're not a surgeon. You're not even more than animal.

"Oinon, don't move. Look me in the eyes. Good. Keep your eyes on me. It's almost over." He forced himself to meet Daniel's small, frightened face, stitching the wound shut as fast as he could, letting his nature guide his hands. "Just keep looking at me. I'm here. I'm so sorry, I know it hurts. I never would have chose this. Good oinon. You're doing well, I promise."

You worthless bastard.

He bit the suture clean. Then: nothing.

Yes, it was done. He rested his face against the side of Daniel's neck, cupping it with a blood-soaked hand, and exhaled. He hadn't realized he was holding his breath.

Dankovsky pulled away from him and puked the rest of the fluid out on the carpet.

"Ugh ... Artemiy ... " He struggled to sit up.

Burakh uncapped the half-full bottle of twyrine he kept in his bag and held it to Dankovsky's lips. "Drink. I can't give you more than this for the pain." The color immediately came back into Bachelor's face, and his breathing became much less shallow.

"It's over," Burakh said aloud. And he felt something inside himself give way.

"Dankovsky, you child." He pressed their foreheads together, cupping his face. Bachelor moved his arms around him. A tiny, shaking life was coming back into Daniel's body, in the midst of great darkness and silence. Burakh could feel it against his own. He wanted to stay close to that small, tender, animal thing, the quickening inside of him, as if he could capture it, will it on. For some reason he thought of having fireflies between his hands in midsummer.

"Veronika, don't stare," Aliyev hissed. Haruspex let go of him.

"Why do you smell like fire?" Dankovsky mumbled. "More so than you usually do...now it's on your clothes."

"He's going to be fine," said Burakh. "Better if we stayed, but I want him in our bed tonight. Help me get our things into the car. Where's his coat?"

"I hung it up." Veronika hurried away.

"I think I can walk," said Daniel, "But not by myself." Burakh slung his arm around his shoulder. They caught up to Veronika in the hall.

"You stay away from him, girl," said Burakh, as they passed.

"It's up to Bachelor what he does," said the Princess. "And I've sacrificed more for him than you know."

"Vera..." muttered Daniel. "Someday, when everything is made right again, I'll come back and give you all that you're owed."

"No, Daniel," she told him. "When that day comes, it certainly won't be you."

He met the Princess's gaze over his shoulder, and didn't break it until Burakh hurried them away.

Aliyev was waiting outside by the Russo-Balt. He helped the Haruspex lay Bachelor down in the back.

"Artemiy Isidorovich, can you drive? My hands are shaking."

"I've only ridden in an auto a few times before. I don't like trains or cars."

"Brr! Well, at least give me a cigarette to steady my nerves ... Hey, are those Stola? My Ruslana smokes those."

When they reached the boarding-house, he shook Burakh's hand, and that was the end of it.

"Send me a letter in the morning and let me know how the both of you are doing."

"I'll send. If you get nervous, come to me instead of blabbing."

"Well ... thank you. Good luck with Bachelor. Take care of him."

The two of them collapsed into bed. The Haruspex lay awake, watching Daniel (or the silhouette of Daniel in the dark). Now that the night was coming to a close, he found he couldn't sleep at all - then he realized it was the twinge of his surgeon's instincts. He could hardly believe it, but somewhere less than three hours had passed since Daniel's injection. He wouldn't be completely safe until it was all of his system. He would stay up for an hour or two, just to be safe.

"Daniel."

The slender figure rustled. Then, blearily - "Well, what? You're still up?"

"Do me a favor. Go to sleep on your side, in case there's anything left in your stomach to get rid of."

"What?" mumbled Bachelor. "I can't fall asleep on my side, only on my stomach or back."

"You can fall asleep the way your surgeon damn well tells you to! ...Fine, forget it. If you're well enough to complain about it, then you don't have to do it."

Daniel moved over on his side, facing away from Haruspex.

"Thank you." Haruspex reached out and clapped his shoulder. He kept his hand there, not knowing when to pull away, and then decided that he didn't want to.

The Bachelor didn't move. He fell asleep quickly, and after the clock downstairs had distantly struck an hour, the Haruspex did too, to the sounds of sirens and men shouting in the night.

He still hadn't cleaned off the blood on his hands.

Bachelor slept through most of the next day, and Burakh found reasons to be out of the house. The image kept coming into his mind - Daniel's frightened face, his lips parted, trying to breathe, his eyes on him.

The city was a devil to walk through. Parts of the capital were still burning, and obviously there would be no way to get through an extensive barricade even if Burakh had wanted to, but the fire had put a reddish cloud in the sky which cast a bloody glow over everything, even the light in the garret, and the air was gritty with ash. In the evening, Burakh brought the mail back to Daniel with an interesting note.

"The Princess and Aliyev are gone," he told him, "A. sent us a letter. They're evacuating the district that caught fire and some adjacent to it according to the wind. They're going up to Ruslana Aliyeva's dacha to wait for it to end."

Bachelor was doing better than Burakh had expected, had even taken a bath and later gone out to look at the sky. The Haruspex was entertaining the idea that the twyrine had the properties of an opioid antagonist. He wished he could have Stakh look into it. As for his wounds, they were already healing - the cut was extremely superficial, barely worse than a skinned knee - the stitches were in fact a little excessive - and it had scabbed over completely in the night.

Now Daniel was awake and not resting, but simply being idle, sitting on top of the covers in his fine coat, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. Something was on his mind. He followed him with his eyes. "Come and see if I have a fever. I can't tell."

Haruspex sighed and sat down at the edge of the bed. He rested his palm on Daniel's forehead, and he didn't take it off again. The Bachelor closed his eyes.

"Thank you."

"What do they tell you, when they speak?"

"You're a good man. We love you. We're proud."

The Haruspex didn't respond.

"Tell me how it happened," said Daniel. His voice was quiet.

"I talked to Kapella. I just said there should be something more for you than what you got. I didn't ask her to do anything. I didn't know you would suffer." He ended, pathetically: "I didn't mean to."

Bachelor went quiet. Then he murmured, "After everything, that's all it was. I imagined it was something like it. Are you certain you didn't want me to be like this? Helpless and disgraced. It would appeal to your ego, like the Inquisitor did."

Artemiy felt sick.

"If I did anything, I gave you over to the earth. Now you can say the same thing about yourself that can be said about anyone else, that you came into this world simply because someone willed you to be. Without any more reason for it than that, without any purpose, without even the imperative to cause them any joy. You can live and die as thoughtlessly as an animal and your unclean flesh will be left to the ground. So you got what everyone else has. That freedom. Exactly the same."

"Do you really believe that?"

An ugly thought pushed into his mind: if he really wanted Bachelor to be free, he should have just let him die.

"Don't get emotional. I'm just talking in abstracts," said Bachelor.

"You're looking for meaning where there isn't any."

But he took his hand away from him, and kept his gaze on the ground.

"You're being awfully calm about this," he told Daniel.

"Oh, I considered murdering you when I figured it out. But I didn't think it would help."

Artemiy laughed in spite of everything, the kind of laugh that was painful because you didn't want it to come out of you, a short, harsh bark. He could feel Daniel smiling.

"Hey, Haruspex. You know, when you made that silly threat towards me, that you'd cut me and wouldn't wait for me to die? And then I woke up in the middle of that botched tracheotomy ... "

"Until you ruined it, that tracheotomy was going fine."

"The pulmonary situation resolved itself, you shouldn't have jumped the gun."

"Letting you choke to death was indeed the more tempting option."

"Why are we fighting?"

It was the kind of thing you said on the off-hand - hey, buddy, why argue on a fine night like this! - but somehow it came out of him like a real question. Daniel's voice didn't have a smile in it anymore, but it was still kind. It was the softnesa of his voice that cut Haruspex to the quick.

He was in some ways the god of that small place, the one who knows the lines, who knows the Sought-after, the Betrothed. He was in himself the time when herbs on the steppe would bloom and the time when blood would be called up from the earth. All this he kept and would keep, but not Daniel.

Artemiy rose. "Oinon. If they're carrying out evacuations, it'll disrupt the schedule of the trains."

Daniel's face changed. He got up off the bed. "Wait."

This was getting out of hand. Artemiy knew that if he didn't leave now, he'd never go. This is the last time you'll see that face, he told himself, with viciousness.

"I don't want to talk philosophy anymore."

Bachelor caught his shoulder and then placed himself in front of him. "I killed three men the day I met you. Look at your hands. How much blood is on there because of me?"

"Don't remind me."

"Think, Burakh." He was speaking desperately, quickly.

"I've fought you, oinon. I've fought for you, because of you, alongside you, and against you."

"So have I. And I never had a choice in the matter, whether I loved you or hated you. There was only the enemy to contend with and a victory to attain."

He was standing close enough to him that Haruspex could feel the heat of his body. He took the measure of him - he couldn't help but take the measure of him - bright face, dark lashes, sober expression. A slender waist and a pale mouth.

"Why do you think you're still alive?"

"I won't do this."

"I am Bachelor Dankovsky, healer, and the master of the crucible, Thanatica. I create life out of death, health out of sickness, and enlightenment from ignorance. You think I couldn't create love out of what you gave me?"

"Daniel ... "

"Molon labe, Haruspicus."

Burakh closed his eyes. He didn't know why he did it, and in split-second Daniel's warm mouth overtook his. He felt his gloved fingers at his jaw, his cheek, trying to find a place to rest.

“Don’t,” he murmured, “Don’t.” He could feel arousal splitting him to the core, leaving a hollowness inside of him, an empty gratefulness, and he pulled Daniel tight into his arms. Daniel’s lips parted to him, the heat of his breath and the wet of his tongue, and Artemiy knew this was something forbidden to them.

Daniel pulled away from him, his breath shaking, pulling at his shirt, whispering, “Come. Come ... “

He backed into the screen and it fell over with a clatter. Artemiy caught him by the forearms, lowered him down onto the bed, and felt something give inside of him, a hook unhooked and a door unlocked, letting slip something that let Daniel draw him in. He moved on top of him, making a low sound in the back of his throat when he felt their hips align. Daniel pulled off his gloves, not taking his eyes away from Artemiy's. For all his bravado, there was apprehension in his eyes now. With clumsy fingers, Daniel cupped Artemiy's neck, his face, as if he wasn't sure what to do with his hands. Artemiy didn’t break their gaze. He caught his wrist, pressing his mouth to it: “Shh. Shh.” Then: "Take off your clothes. I want to see you."

Artemiy pulled up far enough that Daniel could move quickly beneath him, pulling off his jacket and shirt. Daniel helped Artemiy take off his top, turning his keen eyes to his body, touching his sides, his well-worked arms, with the delicate fingertips of an academic but also, with a reverence that Burakh found touching.

Artemiy pressed his face openly to Daniel's bare chest, feeling the rapid heartbeat beneath his mouth, the lines of his body humming. Not knowing what else to do, he moved his mouth down Daniel, feeling his lips brush up against the scar on his stomach. He liked the feel of it, the familiarity, dragged his teeth down Daniel's sutures, his eyetooth catching on the fine ridge between the knots. Daniel's back arched, responding. Artemiy kissed the ridge softly, lapped it clean of the drop of blood, and he pressed his tongue to it, just the tip, feeling it refuse to give, wondering, vaguely, deliriously, if he could work him open like a woman...

"Artemiy," said Daniel, touching his hair. "What the hell are you doing? Stop."

Burakh pulled back, wetting his lips. "I don't know how to do this to you."

If he had been a corpse, he would have known.

"Do it quickly. Hurt me. I don't care." Daniel stroked his hair, his eyes catching the last of the light, and then crawled out from underneath him. He knelt on the floorboards, pawing through his coat.

"Oinon ... "

Bachelor Dankovsky pulled the gun from his jacket. His wrists were shaking. He gripped it with both hands and aimed it at Burakh.

"Daniel."

"Does this make it easier for you?"

Burakh jerked up out of bed. Daniel leapt to his feet, the gun still trained on him.

The fear was doing something to him. He moved towards Daniel, who took a few nervous steps backwards before slamming into the desk. Burakh advanced on him. He took his wrists in both hands.

"Let go of the gun."

"You're an unconvincing actor."

He sank his knee into Dankovsky's stomach. Daniel gasped and bent double, Burakh backhanded him upright and watched his spine arch up. The revolver went clattering somewhere across the room. Daniel's fingers grasped for something to balance against. Burakh pushed them out of the way, not knowing exactly what he was doing. He shoved Daniel down on top of the desk, pushing the few stray books out of the way, pinning him down with his weight. Bachelor tried to move the hand running up his neck, the new and painful sutures.

"Cover my mouth."

"No."

Burakh grabbed at his trousers. Daniel's legs hooked around his waist, having nowhere else to go. Artemiy felt his tip catch against Bachelor's hole and he knew he had to enter him. He pressed his mouth hard against Daniel's, petting his hair - he knew it would hurt, he did - and drove himself in with one firm thrust. Daniel cried out, louder than Artemiy knew to expect. He wanted to wait a moment, to give Bachelor time to get used to it, but his heart jumped feeling him surround him and he drove himself the rest of the way in. And then he moved again, he had to, feeling that; and he didn't give Bachelor the time to steady himself, to swallow the sound of his voice. Daniel kept his legs hooked tight around Artemiy's waist and pulled himself up against his stomach, his cock pressed tight between them, moving underneath him, bucking, trying to get himself off against the hardness of Artemiy's muscles. Artemiy seized his hips and held them still, feeling Daniel's body trembling with need as he emptied into him. He pulled out and Daniel sank back against the desk.

"Artemiy, suck me," he panted, "Do something. I'm so close."

"Wait," he hissed, resting his sweat-soaked forehead against Daniel's, fumbling, pushing Dankovsky's hands away from his still-hard cock.

"I can't."

"Wait."

"Just let me get myself off."

"Beg me."

"Please."

Burakh grit his teeth, his prick taut and painful again. He was filled with an intense desire to give Bachelor real pleasure. He picked up his light body and tossed him back on the bed, running his palms down his sides, feeling the glow of his lines, stroking them. He moved his cock against Bachelor's hole again, which was slick with him and easily opened. It would come to them better this time. He moved his lips over his hairline, felt a pull in his heart when he kissed his wet mouth, and within a few moments they had both managed to find total peace.

There was a line on the Haruspex's stomach. The scalpel had been on the desk and Daniel had grabbed it by instinct. But he hadn't used it. It had stayed pressed between them until getting lost somewhere in the fray.

Everything was complete. They had both been longing for many nights to lay there holding the other, so they arranged themselves in the bed until they forgot where the other began. Burakh wondered if there was going to be a general restructuring of things, a change in the colors, the language, the victory conditions, and he knew he might have given it all up for a night where he felt this close to him. He drew the shape of Daniel’s tender face with this thumb. Daniel's eyes glittered in the dark.

***"Almost immediately after Bachelor Dankovsky left the steppes and returned to the capital, the steppe people ascribed new appellations to him [...] which, although superstitious and derogatory, resembled somewhat the modes of address which are discussed elsewhere in this history. There appeared to have been a fundamental shift in the way they considered him, which foreshadowed the fantastic role he was to play in events to come." - An Ethnographic Record of the Second Outbreak, V. V. Olgimsky, Churaevka Press, XIX

Chapter Text

(We hit the midpoint in the last chapter, so I wanted to write a recap before I updated again to make sure everybody’s following the plot, especially since I’ve been getting questions. I don’t mind the questions! I will be glad to answer anything.)

The story so far:

Summer in the capital. Several months ago, Bachelor Dankovsky chose to destroy the Polyhedron and save the town on the Gorkhon. Artemiy Burakh, who has assumed the role of Elder, has been making efforts to contact him. Letters sent to Thanatica have gone unanswered. Dankovsky hasn’t been heard from since the defeat of the Sand Filth.

Burakh arrives in the capital to look for him and finds Dankovsky at his wit’s end. Thanatica was shut down and the laboratory burnt. Dankovsky’s colleagues appear to have moved on, although his wealthy friend, the physicist Princess Veronika Malinovskaya, has put him up in a cheap bedsit. Dankovsky has become a casual drug user and has shut everyone but the physicist out of his life. He spends day and night locked away in the garret aimlessly searching for a new angle at which to attack the problem of curing death.

When Dankovsky and Burakh reunite, Bachelor seems to find new inspiration, and believes Burakh’s presence to be necessary to his work. He claims to have a new and exciting idea, but his work doesn’t seem to be very fruitful or even competent and coherent, which worries Burakh. Dankovsky asks Veronika to give Burakh a modest salary so he can move in and work as Dankovsky’s research assistant/housekeeper. Burakh decides to stay on in the capital until he can be sure that the Bachelor is relatively stable.

The former members of Thanatica have a get-together in order to get to know Burakh, the hidden purpose of which is to get dirt on what happened in the steppes, and to coax Dankovsky into publishing about his victory over the plague and restore his reputation as researcher and physician. (And by association, theirs.) Daniel is reluctant to discuss what happened in the steppe, and of course, knows next to nothing about the panacea, which was created by Burakh.

At the party, a Thanatician nicknamed Alyosha K. confides in Burakh that he thinks Dankovsky and Veronika’s relationship isn’t as innocent as it seems, and that the two of them have some kind of sordid past (Alyosha theorizes that Veronika went to Daniel for something illicit - an illegal abortion, syphilis treatment - and she takes care of him in order to hush it up). Alyosha believes that the two of them secretly hate each other.

Later that night, Burakh realizes the source of Dankovsky’s personal torment - it seems that the Authorities had intended to put him to rest after the events of Day 12. His last memory is of the clock striking midnight. After that, the next thing he remembers is suddenly gaining consciousness on the train back to the capital, not having any recollection of how he got there, and losing nearly 24 hours of time. Dankovsky believes he was brought back into the game (so to speak) for some specific purpose, and he needs to find out what his mission is.

Burakh knows the truth - that the moment he woke up coincides with a conversation Burakh was having with the new Mistress. He had asked Kapella about the Bachelor’s fate. When he was told that the Bachelor had no place in the town anymore, Burakh insisted that Dankovsky deserved one. Kapella assured him she “would try.” Burakh comes to the conclusion that Kapella misinterpreted his comments and that Dankovsky has been resurrected specifically for him - something that disturbs Haruspex because of the mutual attraction growing between them. Burakh is worried that Dankovsky was remade by Kapella to please him - helpless, worthless, submissive, and sexually responsive. Artemiy has unintentionally enslaved him.

Artemiy believes that, if this is true, it would be morally wrong for him to act on his attraction. He makes the decision to stay in the capital as his friend and caretaker anyway. Some time passes. Dankovsky and Burakh get into a spat, and Daniel, who’s sensed that Burakh is jealous of the physicist and dislikes her as a person, storms out in the middle of the night to see Veronika. Burakh considers leaving the capital that night, in order to remove his influence from the man he’s come to love and to give Bachelor back his freedom. Before he can go, however, Ilya Aliyev (a chemist from Thanatica) and Veronika show up at his door in a panic. Dankovsky has overdosed on opiates and needs medical attention. Burakh rushes to Veronika’s manor and treats Daniel, who has fallen unconscious.

Aliyev and Burakh monitor Dankovsky, waiting for him to come to. While they’re waiting, Aliyev tells Burakh about Telman, their superior at Thanatica, who was jealous of Bachelor and sent him to the steppes on the order of the Authorities. Telman seems to have had foreknowledge of the terrible plague and hoped that Bachelor would lose either his reputation or his life. Aliyev tells Burakh that he thinks Dankovsky is in danger as long as Telman is still alive, and that they should kill him together.

(This turns out to have been a ruse. Aliyev only wanted revenge, and to get closer to understanding the violence and horror that Dankovsky saw, which ruined Daniel and led to the downfall of Aliyev’s life’s work at Thanatica. Telman went slightly mad and has become a harmless recluse. By the time Burakh realized that, it was too late to turn back.)

When Burakh kills Telman, his house mysteriously catches fire, and the corpse appears to speak to Burakh for a moment - taunting him, asking if Bachelor knows why he doesn’t hear the voices of the dead when Burakh lays his hands on him. Burakh has a bad premonition. He and Aliyev hurry back to Dankovsky, who (although Veronika was left to watch him) is choking to death on pulmonary fluids. Burakh nearly performs a full tracheotomy before Dankovsky wakes up under the knife and manages to cough up the fluids himself. While leaving, Dankovsky promises Veronika that someday he’ll come back and give her everything she’s owed. Veronika responds to this coldly. Their friendship appears to be over.

A day passes. The fire that consumed Telman's mansion has spread, and continues to rage in the capital. Aliyev sends Burakh a letter saying that he and Veronika were evacuated from their district and have gone to stay with Aliyev’s wife in her summer home.

Having recovered somewhat from his ordeal, Burakh discovers that ever since Daniel's revival, he does in fact hear the voices of the dead, beckoning him to rest. (The late Petr Stamatin speaks to him in the opening missive.) The voices do go silent when Burakh touches him.

Daniel tells him that he’s figured out the secret of his resurrection on his own. In spite of everything, he chooses through sheer force of will to believe that he genuinely loves Burakh. He tries to bring him to bed, but Burakh has no experience with a man and doesn't know what to do with his body. Dankovsky misinterprets it badly and pulls a gun on Burakh, asking him if the element of violence, of opposition, makes it easier, if even in their bed they have to follow this role. (Kinky bastard.) When the last chapter ended, they had fallen asleep together after making love.

Chapter Text


The Polyhedron is absolute. It is complete. It is a fixed point in time. The thrill of love becomes comfort. Passion becomes indifference. Suffering becomes ease. The first blush of anything contains decay and a terrible promise, that eventually, none of this will matter to you at all. With your death, even the corpse of these memories are erased from the world, where they had first died in your heart. There is no possibility to create anything from it. There is no hope for justice or redress.

I didn’t understand. I had a feeling, as I often did, that he was speaking of a terrible violence. Of these things I have no knowledge.

So don’t think about suffering, about return. Think about love. What did you love as a child? What did you hope you would be? he asked me. How fair is it that time went on, that you were beaten down and changed, and now you laugh at the day when you squeezed your fists tight and wished for it with all your heart?

The tower lasts, he told me. In lasting, it would have been the first time the human race truly experienced - compassion.

"His name is Artemiy. Artemiy Burakh." He had never mentioned the man’s name before - when he spoke of him, it was the Haruspex, the cultist, the butcher. He whispered it instead of speaking it aloud, something inside him stilled, and I knew he had been carrying that name inside him like a precious thing.

He showed me the letter; laid back on the bed with me and placed his thumb over where Artemiy Burakh had signed his name.

"What interesting handwriting." (I wanted to say something good.)

"Yes. He has fine hands. He was a surgeon."

"Really, how is that possible?"

"I meant he was a bone setter. But among bone setters, a surgeon."

"And he tried to stop you, defeat you? I still don't understand. You both cared only about beating the disease. How could someone be out to get you because of that?"

"It seems that simple when you say it," he told me, a touch darkly. "I admire you.”

“Oh, don’t talk to me like I’m a child, Danko.”

“I want to show you something - I wrote a reply down quickly, without thinking, on the back...”

He held it up to the gaslight on the ceiling. The paper was of a make I had never seen before, it resembled parchment, and it shone through almost like glass. He turned the paper to the side, so that I stopped seeing the letters as letters, and I saw the patterns their handwriting made when they combined.

“It’s beautiful.” (It was.)

“No. Watch carefully. Watch...”

He kept turning the paper, and when I saw it - I should have known on that night that he was lost to me forever.

I thought I felt him, the surgeon, before I ever saw him for myself. There was a presence in the world. I don’t know when it came to me. Maybe it was always there, and I couldn’t put to it a name. But it was large and rough, its breath was hot, its dark shadow lived in alleyways and in places where it was impossible to see. Its body filled the gaps in the world. I kept dreaming of bulls. Bulls and women.

“I dreamt about her again,” I told Daniel.

He knelt on the floor, he folded my dress up to my knee, and he kissed my thigh. His lips were cold from morphine.

“What did she look like? Did she have dark hair, or light?” He murmured this in a caressing voice, as if he intended it to be taken as bedroom conversation, but he opened his eyes, and the look in them gave me a chill.

She stood in the ruins of a theater, on the stage. The roof had burnt off and the walls had come down and I could see starlight, but water gushed from the soles of her feet. It sprang up like a well where she walked.

She touched my face, my cheek, she smiled at me as if she knew all my thoughts. She asked me a question. She called me - Dankovsky. Or was it Burakh? She was tall and yielding, like the willow. She lowered the bough of her body towards my ear and she whispered to me - you have no idea how frightened I am …

“I told you, I don’t remember.”

“If we’re going to do this,” he reminded me, “you can’t keep secrets from me.”

“Tell me what happened in the town. During the plague.”

“...It’s simply not relevant, Vera.”

“Tell me about Artemiy Burakh.”

“You want to know him that badly, do you? Maybe he’ll come. I won’t say a word to him, I don’t dare risk it. But maybe he’ll come, nonetheless.”

“When he does I want to see him.”

“I know. I do too.”

He was a beast. He was worse than a beast. His shoulders were as broad as an ox’s, he carried himself like a king, and he looked at me like he hated me. And he touched Daniel, I think, without even realizing he was doing it, when passing through a doorway he put his fingertips on the small of his back. I happened to glance out a window the night that we met and I saw him bending Daniel over a rail, he was choking the life out of him, and before I could move or say a word the tension broke like a taut string and they were on the ground together, Daniel’s head on his shoulder.

They’re locked up in the garret. They never leave. They express everything through glances. They sleep in the same bed.

“He seemed to know about the panacea.”

‘Home remedy’, he called it.

“He helped me out back then. He’s a very intelligent man.”

“You wouldn’t know it from looking at him.”

“And I need him. Please, this is important. I showed you the letter - everything.”

I’m being shut out of my own plan. He’s not cunning enough to hide it. I know I am.

“I can’t work tonight. I’m sorry. I need to clear my head.”

“It’s fine, Vera. I should go home to him anyhow. The time’s not right to tell.”

There’s a place I like to go, almost at the other end of the city. It takes some travel, but I like it there. It’s one of those establishments called ‘a center of moral depravity.’ I met a curious woman there one night. It was obvious she didn’t belong, although she was trying. She had a straight back, and so elegant! Her hair was curled, I think with an iron. She didn’t have a meal or a drink, she was smoking and looking over a book. (In a taproom like this - a book!)

I sat down right next to her. She looked like she needed a friend.

“It’s your first time here, isn’t it? First or second.”

She looked up at me from her book. A simple thing, but I somehow found something so significant in that gesture. She gave me her complete attention, and I felt that I had been graced with it.

“Now, whatever would make you say that?” she asked, and her tone was curious, playful. I had the feeling that she wasn’t at all bad.

“You don’t wear makeup often,” I told her. “Almost not at all. Look, you have too much on your eyes, and your face! You look covered in flour.” I tried to say it as gently as I could, it was touching to me, like she had been painted up by a little girl. I touched her cheek and showed her the white that came off.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I’m humiliating myself and I didn’t even realize.”

“Don’t worry, my dear, no one cares here...it’s a place to go to be coarse and alone. To be alone, even amongst other people.”

She sat back in her chair, tapping out her cigarette, and a thoughtful look came into her eyes. “And let me guess what pressures are driving you to come here, to come here to be alone. With your permission of course.”

I had to smile. “Everyone likes to have a conversation about themselves...especially when the other person is describing.”

“You’re a philanthropist, an intellectual, or both. You come from a wealthy family. You have sisters. They’re wild women. They waste their money, their beauty, and their natural blessings. You work hard to do the opposite. Out of basic decency, you’re embarrassed to have more than other people do without taking full advantage of it - and maybe, because it’s because it’s not politically advantageous to be wealthy and useless in this time. The days are over when a depraved personality impressed the common people, and the worse you were, the more they loved you. You know that well. You feel like being born into a rich family is a mark of shame, and you’re always looking for a way to prove your worth and to spare your own name. It might drive you to extreme acts - or maybe you’re practical, and you know how to balance ambition, fantasy, and everyday life. Either one is a rare gift.”

I bristled a little. Maybe I was too forward, telling her how she looked. She was better at this game than I was. In fact, she was exactly right. “And what makes you say all that?”

“Because I just described myself.”

That put me at ease. “And when I commented on your makeup I was describing myself too. It wasn’t so long ago, in fact.”

“It’s always really about them, whenever anyone makes a comment about a person other than themselves. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I would, but I’m no good at philosophy. Especially about our social lives. It’s not my realm.”

“So an intellectual! Of course.”

“I’m a physicist, in fact … “

“Should I call you doctor, or magister?”

“Unfortunately, my proper title is Princess.”

Princess Veronika Konstantinovna Malinovskaya-Lamarka - I wondered if I could trust her with it all.

“And I’m a nobody! Just Stella Karstlych, a student.”

Maybe there was a way to save this now.

 

That night Burakh dreamt of the shabnak. He was in the house of the Thanatician, where he knew Daniel had once been, and the fat corpse of the doctor Telman lay before him on the ground. It moved - and the points of articulation weren’t its joints, but a spark of life inside its bones. It sat up by its shinbones, which cracked like dry bread, and it hopped towards him, knees bent, corpulent and naked, like a little satyr. With each hop its bones punched through the floor.

"Ripper, Ripper..." it called softly.

"What are you?" asked Burakh. He gripped his iron tight. "Who am I speaking to now? Telman? The Authorities?"

"Neither of those. If neither of those, then maybe I'm the goddess who is created by the gaps, the one who rises up between the lines of an error. Maybe I'm the clay cannibaless. Maybe I'm Suok."

"Are you lying to me, right now?"

"Oh, yes! Artemiy Burakh, left the steppe and went to the West to be educated ... I'm surprised you still believe in such nonsense."

"Tell me what you want."

It smiled at him unpleasantly. It grabbed its own wrist and pushed the flesh up, the way human men roll up their sleeves.

“Let’s talk about Dankovsky.”

Burakh felt a surge of revulsion, hearing it come from the shabnak’s fat, bruised lips. “I won’t let you say his name.”

"You thought to yourself in an idle hour that you'd give up everything for the man of blood. He thought the same thing of you. The thoughts eclipsed one another, and created a rare chance for a reckoning."

The shabnak was still circling him. There was the sound of a skull cracking. Burakh could hear - sense - the black face forming on the back of its head. He wished he could get a look at it, but the shabnak weaved and dodged, it was fast on its spikes.

“Tell me something, Artemiy Burakh. If you had a chance to make the decision, would you save the Polyhedron?”

“No. The town is the udurg. The sacrifice was its equivalent, and the sacrifice can’t be revoked.”

“Would you stand back and leave the decision to him?”

“No. And it wouldn’t matter, he took my side.”

“Would you lay down your life for him, on the final day?”

“...I have to live. Not for myself, but for others. And you’re just asking the same damned thing.”

The shabnak nodded, and its smile was vicious.

“So much the better! Just don’t start crying when it doesn’t end the way you want it to. You have one more chance, little hierophant, so listen closely. Here is an order for you. You take your pleasure with him while it lasts, and the next time he displeases you, you snap his little neck!”

“I won’t do that. I will never do that.”

“Did you think you could have him so easily?”

"I'll make it that easy."

"And yet you just named all the things you won't give for him."

“No, I will,” he said, deciding. “I will give up my life. You kill me, you bastard, but you leave him alone!”

But the shabnak was fading. In a moment there was nothing but its voice.

When all of this is over, Haruspex, and you go back to Mother Boddho, then I'll show you my true face, and tell you what you live and die for. And then it seemed to reconsider, and a touch of pain came into its voice. It must have been its other face. But please, live a long life, Artemiy...

Burakh woke up alone.

The second he came to, he felt it. He sensed the absence of him before he could reach for his body. The apartment was still.

Everything was just as it had been the other night. The things Burakh had knocked off the desk were still on the floor. The screen that had fallen over hadn't been picked up. All of this had been done so quickly and passionately - seeing it now, in the ash-colored morning, was somehow inappropriate. It seemed less like a still life and more like a corpse.

He probably regretted everything and decided to do something dramatic, he thought. Gone off to join the war, like in some ballad. He’ll send me yellow roses every year on this day, until he forgets. Well, I’ll wait until the recruitment office sends him home for being too skinny, and then I can shout at him in person.

In the meantime, he decided, sitting up and pushing off the bedspread, he should make them both something to eat.

When he moved, he saw the letter at the foot of their bed. It was addressed to Elder Burakh, in violet ink.

It wasn't Daniel's handwriting.

He jerked up out of bed. There was no earthly way for that letter to be in here. The door had been locked. The window didn't open - and who would crawl in from the roof?

He tucked the letter into his shirt and hurried downstairs. The foyer was empty.

"Old woman," he called. "Respected mother ... "

"I'm here, I'm here," said the landlady, coming into the front room from the kitchen. "No need to get sarcastic."

"Where the hell is Daniel?"

"The scholar you're shacked up with, Dankovsky? Should I hire a man to follow him around so I can answer when you keep asking these questions? Keep him on a leash if you're so concerned ... if you don't already ..." She sniggered.

"You're always in the front room watching the door."

"So I went in the back to have a bath. If it's a problem for you, then kill me. I'll tell you a secret, the police don't even come to this neighborhood anymore."

"Just answer the question."

"I haven't seen a person all day, me."

"And if personhood can be neither confirmed nor denied...you didn't see a bird in a bird's mask?"

"A bird in a bird's mask. How would I be able to tell? Maybe a pretty girl came and sat on your bed to watch you while you sleep. A sight like that would be dear to somebody, wouldn't it?"

"We're about to run out of money," said Burakh, "you're not getting anything."

"A pity! Well, I'll send your boy up if I see him."

"Don't bother."

He retreated back up to their garret. He wasn't going to read the letter in front of her. But now the little room seemed to have been cut open like a body, as safe and private as a bloody field. He pictured an axe murderer underneath the bed, and resisted the urge to check.

He opened the envelope.

Dear Artemiy!

I knew you were here almost as soon as you arrived in the capital, and I've been trying to find the way to contact you all this time. I understand why you've been silent. We must both have the same motivation - to not exacerbate the mental condition of our mutual friend (who would never call me such, but who I really do like, and for whom I feel sorry).

I'm glad to hear about the rekindling of your friendship. It's difficult for me to tell you this, but my intention is that the two of you can preserve honesty of intent, trust, and true feelings. Dankovsky has been working in secret to rebuild the Polyhedron.

The Cold Hall burnt yesterday. When I was just a girl I used to think it was miraculous myself. It was a sight to behold, the building was so long and tall, the hanging gardens, but what I remember most were the tendrils - the ice and frost preserved even the tiniest detail. The gardens were perfect down to the point.

As it turns out, there was no miracle. The Stamatin brothers had appropriated a mechanism to keep the air cool, and when the fire reached the machinery, it short-circuited. The ice melted, and even the pools of cool water weren't enough to prevent the flames. The plants were more than a decade old and at least it all went up quickly. It burnt away to reveal a vault.

I sent a missive to Veronika Malinovskaya who has been working closely with the Bachelor. I can only assume that Dankovsky gave her no knowledge of the Sand Filth and the terrible consequences that would result, or she chose to help him in spite of that. She told me she left a letter for him in the vault, assuming he'd come before anyone else had the chance, in order to explain to him her motivations. If he's at all interested, and I assume that he isn't, it's there.

I’ll leave it up to his good conscience to explain to you what role she played.

If you don't believe me, then check his notebooks, the ones he won't let you see. Put them in conjunction with the useless labor he asked you to do. If you apply a simple cypher, you'll see his real work appear before your eyes, where you once believed it was incomprehensible. (Even in plain vision don’t look for specifics, but a certain pattern and force of will). I'm sure he's congratulating himself for building a prism for you with his mind.

It was risky for Dankovsky to let you get as close to the project as you did - if it consoles you any, he believed you were necessary as a focusing lens, a point of origin, the place where a shaft of light hits a glass and shoots off in multiple directions. His method was the same as Petr Stamatin's, an attempt to surrender himself to the depths of his psyche. You yourself seem to be at the heart of him.

Petr Stamatin is, as you know, deceased; there was never any hope that Dankovsky or Malinkovskaya would understand the drafts without him; and so there's no chance that the tragedy of the Second Outbreak will reoccur. (You know better than anyone, Elder, what consequences would come if the sacrifice was revoked.) It’s tragic that he has given himself over to madness and bitter genius all the same.

Please do call on me when you get the chance, and even bring dear Daniel if you can convince him. There's no reason for animosity between the three of us now.

Yours,
Aglaja Lilich, Inquisitor

P.S. I really am concerned about Dankovsky's emotional state. He's not making threats to himself or to others ... suicide, perhaps? I know you’d rather handle everything yourself, but think of your guilt if you fail him! The best and even the worst sanatoria are crowded in this country (and obviously neither of us want to restrict his freedom and this is a last resort) but if it comes to that, I'll sign off on the permissions myself.

 

There was no time. Dankovsky could tell by the reddish-greyish color of the sky that the fire had left yesterday’s districts and had moved to a different part of the city, and soon there would be people in the Hall, to protect His Imperial Majesty’s property and to clean up.

The trams were running. The trams were always running. He took one as close to the Hall as he dared, one stop over, and hurried on foot the rest of the way. (As if anybody was watching him coming and going! And the simple act of being near the Hall was no crime. But these little rituals, as useless to protect as a chant or a talisman, at least help to steel one’s nerves.)

He had never been impressed by the Cold Hall. It was a nice trick, but an obvious idea, and it paled in comparison to everything else the Stamatins had done. And yet, seeing it like this, a husk …Once, it had been designed so that you couldn’t quite tell whether you had come inside or were still outside, the grey interior was barely distinguishable from the frost on the plants, and at a certain point the wide hall around the core of the building would suddenly reveal itself to be a cloister. Now, the hanging gardens were totally gone, and there was so little left of the outer facade and colonnades that from the street Dankovsky could see the marble and tile inside.

There was a lone figure in the ruins. A guard.

But there wasn’t anyone else around. The vault was impenetrable without the key. Maybe they hadn’t been discovered after all.

And maybe he could reason with him. Stamatin had been the architect to the Imperial family and Veronika was of course a Princess, she gave him the key, he had a right to be here, but the guard would demand he open up the vault in front of him, to prove it …

Dankovsky fingered his scalpel. He hadn’t brought the gun - a gunshot could be heard by a thousand people inside the city, and it wasn’t as lawless as the steppe.

Could he take one last life? And could he do it here, in the capital? He thought about the apartment he had above Thanatica, the bath with the brass handles, electric lamps, his old bed. He had a full complement of memories, things that comforted him, places of silence, to which he could return, at least in his mind. And of course in reality this was all ashes, and now the capital would be stained with blood like everything else.

So be it. He knew exactly where to cut so that the opposition felt nothing and died without making a sound. It was difficult to do and took accuracy and force. It didn’t always work, of course, but every time it hadn’t, well, he still lived …

He gripped the weapon in his hand and edged forward. All the lives that had been spent so far - it was his responsibility to make sure all of them added up to something. To die for a mortal general or for an idea that could only be understood by your generation was nothing. If he could only hold on for a while, then because of their sacrifice, human life would be changed, and it would be changed forever.

They were weak and he was strong. They were good and he did terrible things. This was already the reality he lived with. Any gasp of air he allowed himself was taken from the dead.

Getting closer, he was able to make out the guard clearly - the shape of its mask, like a hook in the dark. Dankovsky’s blood froze.

The Executor didn't turn, didn't acknowledge him in any way. They were too proud for that. Maybe he could cut him anyway, he thought, but the masks were padded leather, strong - might even be reinforced at the neck.

And curiosity was getting the better of him.

"Well, you're here for me, aren't you?" Daniel called. He lowered the hand with the scalpel.

"Bachelor Dankovsky!" the Executor cried. It seemed overjoyed. "Oh, the bower has been cleared just for you … there’s a message of course. I’m guarding it, to make sure it’s read only by you. You may step inside."

"And behind me, will you slam the door shut and lock?"

"To affect events in this way - what a compliment!" But the beak-head demurred. "That's not my job."

"Stay away from Burakh."

"Not my choice where I'm sent, dear physician. Exactly the same as with you."

"I have autonomy. I'm proving it now."

"Well! Go on, then, I won't argue."

"What a pleasant surprise."

So the beak-head had been posted to wait for him. To expect him. Something was wrong. A trap. How exciting.

The bower that had covered the vault had indeed been burned bare. It was recessed into the building, just slightly, there was a set of stairs, not a long one. Daniel felt like a burrowing animal, going down them, even under the best of circumstances the temperature would drop.

At least the locking mechanism was still working. Dankovsky had absolutely no trouble opening the door.

He stepped inside. The vault was marble-walled - good! It protected well from the fire - and he expected it all to be exactly as he had left it.

But the vault was empty. Not from damage. Somebody had cleared it out. There was nothing left but a single shelf. His work was gone. Maybe, he thought, ice-water still running in his veins, maybe Veronika had protected...?

On the shelf was a small earthen jar like the ones that had contained the panacea. Dankovsky felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Did he really want to see - Yes. Yes, he had to.

In the jar there was nothing but ashes. Ashes, and a crumbling bit of paper, so the Bachelor would be unable to mistake what had been burnt.

Veronika had destroyed the drafts to the Polyhedron.

Beneath the jar there was a letter.


My dear Princess!

In spite of everything our colleague hasn't told you about the Sand Filth, by now you've heard my real name. Out of respect to you and to our new friendship, I'm writing to give you a warning. I’m risking everything, but I wish to protect you from the Authorities, who you fear so much.

I'm curious, even now, about the exact details of your collaboration. Recently, Karminsky interrogated Dr. Alexey Kalyavin (who you so charmingly call Alyosha K). Karminsky, who doesn't have a soft heart, found him personally unpleasant, maladapted to the world of human beings, and prone to clammy-handed suspicion and fantasy. After hearing his wild talk Karminsky informed me that the only verifiable proofs were that Kalyavin was asked to provide Dankovsky with access to the library at the university; from which he took a treatise on opticals but also several practical manuals on obstetrics, and that afterwards there was a certain secrecy and tension between the two of you. He seems to have misinterpreted the situation wildly; being innocent in intention, I have decreed him above punishment. Because I can't divine your role in all this, it's possible that you may be too.

I have not yet made a formal accusation. I have decided on three possible scenarios for my argumentation -

- You collaborated like mundane scientists on an earthly project; he needed your knowledge as a physicist, or possibly also as an anatomical model and example of a living matrix. In this scenario Bachelor's heart is youthful and good, and he even planned to refine the drafts so that the rebuilding of the Polyhedron could not result in death. I would like very much for this to be true.

- He appealed to your ego in some way and led you to believe that you could imitate Maria Kain’s ascension. Maria Kain was an extraordinary woman; this would not have been possible for you. It’s not my place to make an assumption about whether or not he sincerely cared for you and desired this in earnest. He could have wanted to use your beautiful heart to nourish the tower - or he could have wanted to place a more worthy soul inside your body.

- Karminsky believes Alyosha's fantasy was correct, if only by coincidence, and the abortive tissue was kept for experiments in the Cold Hall. (And has Daniel gone as far as to tell you that the Stamatins came up with a way to contain a child's soul?) If this is true then I will not write down my guess as to who is the father.

I'll leave the absolute truth to the outside observer. There’s an argument to be made for every side, and maybe the reality is actually something quite different. The results remain the same. I'm confiding in you that I'm aware of the vault, but I have not yet got a warrant to investigate Imperial property. After the first stage of my argumentation, I will have convinced the Inquisition that the warrant is necessary, the vault will be opened, and whether or not the case against you proceeds to the point of an arrest and a formal accusation will depend entirely on the evidence found. Come tomorrow or the next day, it’s possible we won’t find a single clue that Dankovsky so much as daydreamed about the tower again. And then all this will be over.

Recall that the Authorities ordered your laboratory condemned and set a legal precedent against scientific extremism in every form, and especially, against attempts towards the unnatural extension of human life. In no case will you be totally blameless.

If, in spite of everything, you wish to protect your work and stand by your colleague until the end, regardless of the consequences, allow me to convince you otherwise. Instead of describing the Sand Filth, which the Bachelor will deny had its origins in the tower, and frightening you with mythology that as an educated woman you will not believe, I would like to convince you that Dankovsky is no longer competent to rebuild, using the following proofs.

First of all, you respect and admire him because of his victory over the plague. You regained your faith in him after Thanatica fell because of this. Know that Dankovsky had nothing to do with the development of the panacea or the vaccine. His companion Burakh developed the panacea entirely by himself, and the vaccine was created by the bone setter Rubin. Dankovsky does not understand it, the victory wasn’t his.

Second of all, Petr Stamatin is deceased, and without him you could never hope to understand the blueprints. I imagine that Dankovsky has made no progress since the day he returned to the capital [...]

The letter went on like this for a while, and then it was signed:

Aglaja Lilich, Inquisitor.

So. Veronika had panicked. She burnt the blueprints just like the Inquisitor wanted - which she had always wanted, her aim was never to bring them to trial - was the little physicist so naive as to think Lilich did all this out of friendship? If Veronika had been willing to throw them both to the dogs in court, then the drafts would have been held as evidence, and there would have been some chance of retrieval. Even if they had both been hanged, at least the blueprints would have gone on to exist, after them. Hadn’t this occurred to her?

Or maybe she really did think he was incompetent and a bastard, and this was her revenge.

Daniel Dankovsky felt nothing. Some part of him had turned inward, gone still and cold. He crushed the letter in his hand, and as he was leaving the vault, only one thought came to his mind - Artemiy Burakh must never learn of this.

But Artemiy Burakh was leaning up against the far wall, what was left of it, with his arms crossed, waiting.

"Well, oinon, it looks like it's my turn to sneak up on you."

Dankovsky went completely silent.

"Come here." Burakh jerked his head.

Looking at Daniel, with his eyes full of cold fire, his lips thin and his skin grey, a scalpel in his hand ... yes, this was the enemy he had known. Seeing him like this, everything in Burakh's life made an infinitesimal shift and he saw the intention behind Daniel's actions. The force of will. How willing he was to accept that Dankovsky was pathetic and weak.

"I got a letter today," Artemiy told him. "And I see you found one too."

"Seems to be the day for it."

"Give it to me."

Dankovsky's eyes narrowed. He was circling him just like the shabnak. "No."

"She told me everything. There's nothing left to hide."

"She doesn't know a thing."

"So let me see how wrong she is."

"Artemiy. I'm begging you. If you read that letter, the way you see me will change. If what I am to you matters - "

"Don't you dare."

Daniel froze. Burakh lunged forward, snatched his wrist, and ripped the papers out of his hand.

"The Inquisitor filled the letter up with lies. She needed to frighten Veronika," - he was speaking very quickly - "Aglaja is wrong. Karminsky is wrong. I would have found another way." He said, for the last time, "Don't."

And then, as if realizing that it would do no good, he shut his mouth and stood there, still. His face was expressionless.

Artemiy read in absolute silence. He appeared to stop at the same place Bachelor did, and dropped the papers on the floor.

"Are you going to leave that letter on the ground? For just anyone to come along and read?"

Daniel's lips moved, but nothing came out.

"Pick it up."

He looked up quickly, keeping his eyes on Burakh’s as he knelt down. Burakh knew that look well. It was the look of a creature trying to keep its life by matching a predator’s line of sight. Dankovsky’s fingers were shaking.

Burakh's foot caught his collarbone. Bachelor fell to his side and lay there, his hand over his stitched-up throat, gasping. Artemiy followed up with a blow to his shoulder. The kick connected solidly, knocking Bachelor onto his back, and it gave Burakh more than a little satisfaction.

Artemiy knelt and put his face close to his. "Answer me one question. Just one. I don't care whether or not you butchered your child. I don't care whether or not you tried to put Maria's soul in the body of your colleague. I don't care that you were playing me for a fool. You were hiding the fact that the panacea wasn't yours. Is that why you killed my Stakh?"

Bachelor's emotions were always written on his face. He couldn't hide that cunning smile of his. And this time, Burakh could tell from the shock and hurt in his eyes that Bachelor was telling the truth. "What are you talking about? Rubin's dead?"

"He was an eager pupil. He wrote Thanatica asking for advice. He wanted to lecture, to publish, just like oinon."

"I remember,” said Dankovsky, still trying to speak quickly despite the pain in this throat, trying to explain himself and buy time. “They knew he didn't have a formal education. They imagined that he had done errands while I developed the vaccine and believed himself to be more valuable than he was. They were charmed by him, but they didn't take him seriously, even as a self-educated man and a diamond in the rough. I let them think what they liked."

“He was a war hero and my father’s apprentice.”

“I know. Please, just tell me what happened.”

"The Kains and Petr Stamatin committed group suicide after the Polyhedron fell. The followers of the Scarlet Mistress accused him of trying to profit from her death. They threw him back in the prison - they went mad - I stayed with him. I saw him hanged. I don't even remember what for. I'd believe anything of you right now, even that you ordered them to do this."

Bachelor had nothing to say. His lips moved alongside Artemiy’s words, trying to process what came out. Then he lay his head back against the floor. His eyes slid shut.

"...Maria...I never heard her voice. I always thought there was a chance. But maybe her soul's gone completely out of this world. Maybe, she never had one at all."

“Yes, she was a woman worthy of you, oinon.”

“...Artemiy. I’m sorry.”

It could have been the secret of her ability to do her work, that she accepted that she was an idea and a vessel, instead of a living thing. But he had wanted her to be one. He had wanted that for them all.

And then he opened his eyes again: "When the hell were you going to tell me? The Kains, Stakh Rubin, the Stamatins ... I only learned about Petr last night. He spoke to me. And I knew it was over then, Artemiy. I came here to get the drafts, I didn't know they were destroyed. And - I don't know what I was going to do next."

So the drafts were gone. Lilich hadn’t been entirely clear about that.

"Get up. I can't talk to you while you're lying there."

Bachelor pulled himself to his feet.

"So all of this - all of it," said Artemiy, "was part of your debauch."

"I'm not saying a word to you about this."

"Is that why it was so easy for you? Because you were working against me."

"I thought you wanted this for me, Artemiy."

"And yet you didn't say a thing."

"I had to find the right time. If I was wrong, you would have stopped me. You would have killed me."

"Why would you ever think that I wanted you to revoke the sacrifice? It would have risked the town and Aglaja!”

"I hand-delivered the drafts to the Inquisitor," he said, his voice thick with self-disgust. "Before I knew her plans. I assumed she destroyed them herself. And when I woke up on the train, the blueprints were in my things. Which means that either you willed it for me or I can't exist without trying to do this."

"You're existing just fine right now."

"For what good it does me."

"Why didn't you take them right back to Stamatin?"

"There was something ... wrong with them. I can't explain. But parts were missing. Maybe these parts were irrevocably connected to Petr's life. But I thought it was because of me. I couldn't face the Stamatins with this bad copy. I had to find a way to fill it and correct it, with physics and with math, and when that wasn't enough ..."

"With me."

Dankovsky's throat tightened. He didn't want to say it aloud. It seemed uglier, the way Burakh had phrased it. "...Yes."

"So you knew Petr Stamatin was dead yesterday. Everything was done. Then why did you do what you did last night?"

"What do you mean, why? Because things were getting out of hand. Because you would have left before you ever decided to act on it. Because my dream was over and I was alone, Artemiy, and if you left I would have nothing. And I - " He cut himself off abruptly.

"Say it."

"Not here. Not like this. Not in this disgusting place with your bootprint on my neck." His eyes flickered to the vault.

Burakh said nothing.

Dankovsky turned to leave - Burakh almost grabbed his wrist, where the hell are you going, we're not done yet - but he was only going as far as the wall. There was a tile mural there, it made an abstract pattern in white and cold grey, the color of each tile barely distinguishable from the rest, but all together, somehow evocative, like clouds or like fog, or like what they call 'louche'. Even like looking directly into the sun. It wouldn't have been truly visible beneath all the plants, but it would have been their backdrop, made it difficult to discern where the garden really ended and the wall and the building began. Daniel removed his glove and placed his hand over the tile. It reminded him of Petr Stamatin, the way he used to have been. Maybe this was what the Mistresses meant when they went on about someone's "color."

He pulled his hand away and rubbed his face. "Do you think Veronika tried to kill me? It's not like me to misjudge a dose."

"I don't know. She seemed genuinely panicked when she came to me for help, and she did come. Maybe she regretted it at the last minute. Or maybe it was all an act. She could have come to the Ripper instead of a medical professional because she assumed I wouldn't be able to do anything, and she'd appear to have acted in good faith." He added: "But she said that she loved you."

"To you, who she was so afraid of? Those words are only easy if you don't mean them."

Burakh shrugged.

"She was never like this, Burakh. None of them were. Alyosha Kalyavin was different back then. He was my teacher at the university. He was handsome and tall, with a grey streak in his hair. His back was as straight as a soldier's. He had no time for women, he loved his work too much. In spite of that, he resigned for me, when I built Thanatica. I remember his exact words - 'Well, young Daniel, someone has to make sure you don't do anything too depraved.' Something happened when I came back. I heard that a year ago, in the autumn, he started having nightmares ... "

"Aliyev and I killed Telman that night. It was Aliyev's idea."

"Telman?" Dankovsky's eyes widened, and for a moment Burakh saw straight into Dankovsky's past, to the young intellectual to whom a murder would have come as a surprise. "My God, why?"

"I couldn't follow his logic. It's not important. That's how the fire started. Aliyev knocked over a lamp, I don't know. Or it could have been heat lightening and the summer air. I don't feel guilty, there was no will behind it."

"Amazing ... "

"That night I thought I heard Telman speak to me, with his brains all over the floor. I was afraid it was the shabnak. But even if it was, the body burnt."

"Of course it didn't speak to you," he murmured. "But it's not strange to imagine things, during such a violent scene."

"No stranger than falling asleep and forgetting what you did that morning, or not remembering every last thing in your luggage. Especially in times of trauma and regret. In fact, hearing voices is common under stress."

“And so is being comforted by the touch of a friend.”

Daniel was quiet. He was still looking at the tile, not at Artemiy. There was a little color in his cheek. He was tired and ashamed, and he wanted, without asking, for Burakh to tell him what he thought about all this and what he planned to believe, and what he was going to do with him now.

"Hey, Daniel. How about we go home, put the screens away, and spend the rest of the day in bed?"

Dankovsky pulled back from the wall. He nodded once, stiffly. His eyes were dark and soft.

The letter was still on the ground. Burakh lit a match and tossed it down. It wouldn't leave a cupful of ashes. He went over to Daniel and put his hand on his shoulder, and then, something in his heart surged, and he pulled him into his arms. Dankovsky stiffened, and then he held him tight.

"There's something wrong with me, Artemiy," he said, and his breath was catching in his throat. "I saw it in the drafts. I can feel it inside of me. I hear voices. I know they're not the voices of the dead."

"The drafts are gone. The plague is gone. Nothing bad is happening. It's over." Artemiy didn't know what else to do besides hold on to him. "Everything is going to be all right."

When Daniel was ready, he pulled back. He looked at the mosaic again, and it calmed him. Artemiy followed his gaze, but he didn't see what Daniel did. He kept an arm around his shoulder.

The morning was coming in oddly, insular and hazy. The sound of the city was muffled. So much the better. Burakh couldn’t have tolerated city noise just then.

“I feel like everything is coming to an end,” he told Artemiy.

“I feel it too. And in ten year’s time, we’ll look back on our little premonition and laugh.”

“How long do you think we’ll be able to live like this?”

“I don’t know. But I'll stay with you as long as I can." He moved his hand between Daniel's shoulders. "Come on, I'm taking you home. I'll pay for the tram."

When the tram came they went up on the top level, in the open air. After all that heat, there was a chilly morning. The city never worked the way the steppe would, the way Burakh wanted it to, it was impossible to know its comings and goings. The clouds were obscured, the wind burst against the buildings, and you couldn't see the horizon. “It’s getting hot out,” he said. “Let me hold your coat.”

Dankovsky took it off without saying anything. Burakh folded it on his lap. He put his arm back around Daniel's shoulder, holding him to his side.

“Be careful. People can see us from the windows.”

“We’ll say that you’re drunk.”

At the doorway to their garret Daniel stopped him. "I don't want to be kissed."

Haruspex closed the door behind them, keeping a hand on Daniel's side. He touched Daniel's face, cupped his jaw in his rough palm. Daniel's eyelids slid shut. His lips parted to Burakh's without any more protest. Artemiy lay him down on the bed, burying his face in his neck (his white skin, his stitches, he hadn't shaved). He moved his hands over Daniel's legs.

"I don't deserve this."

"Neither of us do. I don't care."

Daniel turned his face away. "I have grease in the bag."

"And you didn't say anything last night?"

"I forgot."

Daniel was responsive, he was soft and pliant, and he gave to him easily. It was good for him, to feel this way, and it was good for Artemiy to know that some part of him was gentle.

They spent the rest of the day in bed, to the point of pain and exhaustion. It was too difficult, after the time of restraint, to let Dankovsky pass back into the world of the living, button his white shirt, turn his attention to something else, knowing that Burakh could pull him down to the table or the floor and Dankovsky would always, always give in. And sometimes Daniel's body would move over his with sharp insistence and Artemiy would do what he asked.

Eventually, somehow, it became obvious that some kind of emptiness would set in if they went any further and they pulled back from each other (Burakh's hands in his hair, over his soft back), not wanting to ruin what little they had won. Dankovsky dressed and went over to the desk, his lips tight, putting the notebooks together to destroy. Burakh watched him from the bed (the screens had been folded up and tucked away somewhere, they wouldn't be put up again). Burakh sighed and slid down to the floor. He covered the distance between Dankovsky and himself on his knees. He knelt down in front of Daniel, his hand on his thigh, turning him gently, taking his top button in his teeth. It was tight against the fabric.

“Go lay down. We can deal with it later,” he murmured. He let go of the button.

“Artemiy - “

“Don’t be sad."

They managed to sleep a little in the afternoon, or Daniel did, Artemiy stayed awake. He liked being drowsy and still. He kept his arms around him firmly and his ear against Bachelor's chest, listening to his heartbeat. The elegant doctor from the capital, he thought to himself, the beautiful guest with the black eyes.

He must have laughed, made a sound to himself.

"Yes, what's so funny?" said Dankovsky, irritability. He made a rough noise in the back of his throat, reached up and rubbed the sleep out of his eye.

"...master of the crucible, Thanatica..."

"Get out of my bed."

"You're cute, Daniel."

"Well, I had to do something to build up my confidence. You're not an easy man to approach, Haruspex. You're at least 205 cm. "

Burakh took a moment to mentally convert into the old measurements. "I'm not quite that bad." He moved up to kiss the stitches in Daniel's neck. "You like big guys, eh? Strong?"

"...Yes." He ran his palm over Burakh's arm.

“Tell me something more about you. I want to hear about Thanatica. A good story.”

He tried to come up with a memory. What he did remember, outside of the steppe was underdeveloped and from no particular angle, as if he couldn't remember his place in the room. The same way that one remembers dreams.

"There aren't many. I keep thinking of the night I met Lilich, when I gave a presentation on a woman who rose from the dead. She used a different name, she wore a long shirt."

Different outfits, different names - it must have been some other role. They just sewed me a new dress, she told him. He wondered why he didn't have any memories of being used in this way. But Aglaja wasn't the same as him.

He pressed his lips to Daniel's hair. He would lose his mind trying to work this out, and it didn't really matter. They were free if the tower was gone, or so he liked to think. And even if they weren't, in their bed, it meant nothing at all.

“I remember - this is the clearest and best memory I have, and I like it very much - it was Aliyev and Ruslana’s wedding. Back then it was Aliyev and Vorobei. Somebody decided they should hold it at Thanatica, because they met there, and because we had a dining hall. Our team wore lab coats over our formal clothes. Ilya’s idea. It was the kind of thing he was always coming up with, he had a sense of humor. He made me get up in front of everyone and give a speech. I think I prepared it beforehand. I started off with, ‘I hope that I myself will find a wife...’ Not because I meant it, but because it was the way you start toasts at weddings. And somebody called out - it must have been Veronika - ‘Dankovsky can’t get married, he’s just a baby!’” He smiled. “I had only just earned my degree. I thought it would be best to talk about Ilya and Ruslana’s contribution to our ideal, about our goals there and our methods, but everyone was so drunk they got up and started arguing with me! I was almost angry.”

“How old were you then?”

“It doesn't matter. It wasn't so long ago, now..."

There came a knock at the door, as if the things Burakh had been trying to keep out of his mind had torn up the veil they had built. A male voice: “Open up!”

Artemiy and Daniel exchanged looks. Artemiy cupped Daniel’s jaw. “I’ll take care of it. Put something on.”

He pulled off of Daniel, who sat up and reached for his shirt. “Do you think anyone heard us?”

“Oinon, I think everyone heard you.”

“That’ll be a fine headline. Disgraced doctor of Thanatica, arrested last night for pederasty.”

“In this neighborhood? They have bigger things to worry about. I’m sure everyone’s just touched that somebody managed to find love.”

“I keep telling you to cover my mouth,” said Daniel, trying to do up all his trouser-buttons at once.

“You keep making sounds I want to hear.” Artemiy went for the door. “Yes?”

There were two guards, relatively well-dressed and clean-cut. In the capital one doesn’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel finding volunteers. The position of watchman had been held in good esteem for more than a hundred years.

“Finally. Can’t find the landlord, the two of you will have to do. We’re giving evacuation orders. The wind’s going to change and the fire’s expected to spread here, according to the city barometers. You don't have to go more than a district over, just get out of here by dawn.”

“Thanks,” said Burakh. He wasn’t sure if he needed to tip them, or salute, or something. He settled for closing the door.

Bachelor was still on the bed. Burakh put his arms around his waist and lowered them both back down on the mattress. He put his face against Daniel’s shoulder, the clean, cold linen.

“I'm not going back there. I can't face that town again."

“There’s nowhere else for us to go. We’re going to run out of money.”

“I could go on the lecture circuit. There are still people interested in my ideas.”

"We'd need money tonight, for a place to stay. Maybe we have enough for tonight, but not tomorrow, so tomorrow we'd have to get on the train anyway."

"So after all this time, I come back to the steppe on a ...technicality."

"I need to go home anyway. I couldn't stay here forever. I've been avoiding what I need to take care of."

“Do we have enough left to get us both out of here?"

"When I came to the city I set enough aside for two tickets."

"Do you think we can afford first class? I want to be alone with you.”

It didn’t occur to Artemiy until they were packing up that when Thanatica burnt Dankovsky must have lost everything he owned. There was his bag of supplies, his coat, and almost no other luggage. He only had what he had taken back from the steppe.

“You broke my microscope. It was imported from the West. I’m not angry. I don’t need it. I’m just sorry to see it go.”

“You can have Rubin’s.”

“...Thank you.”

At the station, Dankovsky stopped to take one last look at the capital. Images came to him - the mosaics, the balconies, the shadows of staircases, how courtyards and moss-covered fountains appeared in the smallest spaces, between the close-together homes. The capital was full of private and beautiful places, and in its own way, it was free just like the steppes. Somehow, in all of these months, all of these things had been invisible to him, as if they didn't exist there any longer. He wished he could have seen them one last time.

They managed to get a private sleeper. It was a good room, wood-paneled (but aside from that undecorated), with two beds across from each other and a door that locked from the inside. The window had curtains, and there was a sliding panel made of brass on the door that you could close, or open and look through if a steward happened to knock.

All the same, when they undressed that night, Dankovsky told him that they couldn’t share the same bed.

“I think the panel door is coming loose. Somebody could look in.”

"I slept in the same damned bed as you, every night since I found you again in the capital," Burakh complained. "I got used to it."

"All the same."

In the evening, Daniel reached across the gap between the beds and held his hand, and when Artemiy woke up in the middle of the night, he found Daniel tucked next to him on the floor, his head on his arm, their fingers still tight together. He brought him up into the bed, and for the next few nights they slept together. On the last Haruspex lost control of himself and had Daniel with his hand clamped over his nose and mouth, his face pressed hard into the mattress. Daniel came up gasping.

Artemiy held him, waiting for his breath to slow down. He took the nape of his neck in his mouth, holding without biting down. It was a comfort to Daniel.

Daniel moved his fingers over Artemiy's hand, the well-articulated veins on the back. He closed his hand around the Haruspex’s wrist. It wasn’t aggressive. He was keeping Burakh’s arm against his body, reassuring him that he wanted him there and he would not leave.

“Why did you want to go back to the steppes so badly all of a sudden?”

There was no point in hiding. “It’s time for the harvest.”

“Do you have to do it every time?”

“Yes. There are other menkhu families, but none so respected as mine. And they wouldn’t do it the right way. I know how to make it come quickly.”

You have one cut. Take swift and deep action. In a single stroke, sever the vagus nerve, the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries, and jugular veins. The cut of the nerve ensures painlessness. Blood pressure in the brain drops almost instantly. Consciousness is lost. Death occurs within seconds.

“It used to be that anyone who cut incorrectly would be put to death. You opened up the ribs and you squeezed the heart until it stopped beating, that was the method of slaughter.” He added, “For bulls. I think it was considered purer. You fought with it, in a way, you squeezed the life out of it with your bare hands. It reminded you that you are an animal. At some point in time the Abbatoir began mass production and the rules changed.”

“You’re the Elder. If the rules changed once, then can’t you put a stop to it?”

“I tried. It was during the plague, when I first came back home. A group of them were out on the steppes waiting. I didn't even a raise a hand against them, I just said I wouldn't do it. It’s important to them that the women die, at just the thought of it being otherwise, they flew into a rage and set on me like dogs. I had to kill every last one of them. The only thing that would happen if I tried to change all this is that I would be dead and disgraced and whoever comes after me would hurt the girls so that they writhe on the ground for an hour before they go. Yes, I do cut the women. I’m not ashamed at all."

Daniel turned around in Artemiy's arms and put his lips to the bridge of his nose.

"Have you thought about what you’re going to do in the town?” said Burakh, who wanted to get off the subject as soon as he could.

“You mean for a living?”

“I’ll support you. I don’t mind. I just know you want something to occupy your time.”

“I don’t think there’s any use for me. I’m almost hoping there’s a disaster ... I don’t do well left on my own. You know, when I was younger I used to work so hard, studying, because if I didn’t my mind would start screaming. Devouring itself.” He sighed.

“I want you to help me take care of the children. They’re always beating each other up and spreading the flu around, and somehow they get their hands on that powder. We could use a real doctor.”

He smiled thinly. Artemiy could feel it against his cheekbone. “I don’t have much practical experience. I was a researcher.”

He could tell it sounded tedious to him. “Just try it for a little while. You don’t have to do it forever. And you don’t have to stay.”

“Okay.”

Daniel spent a long time sitting up looking at the world going by outside the window. He did it most often at night, when there was nothing outside the car but a darkness that was featureless and complete, a black backcloth. Except occasionally the signal lights would illuminate a flash of something in a bloodless, vivisected white - a patch of sedge, a fallen tree, and once, thrillingly, a deer.

“The whole world over looks pretty much the same anyway,” Artemiy told him. “I don’t see what you’re so fascinated by.”

Daniel lifted his chin towards the window. Artemiy bent down to look, and he could see the blot on the horizon. It was the silhouette of the monstrous Abattoir.


*** Before we do anything else, Burakh told him, I want to do this, and they stole out together to the warehouses and then to the dry grass of the steppe. You can be as loud as you want here, he said, but he was whispering, as he usually did when he spoke to Daniel that way. He moved him down on the ground and found the places that he had learned about, the lines on his body. He knew where to put his mouth on his ribs. He knew where to put his teeth on his neck.

"Artemiy - don't stop - Artemiy..."

"Look at me when you say my name."

"I can't."

"Open your eyes."

He tried, but he couldn't keep them open in the final moment, and Burakh laid him back, let his back arch, he seemed to relax into the earth. Then he half-remembered himself and blinked his long lashes.

"Artemiy?" he asked. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Where he lay him, twyre had bloomed.

Chapter Text


I am the heart of the world bull. I am the horns of the udurg. I am the will of the Land. I have separated the dark from the light, the bride from the husband, and the father from the son.

I have placed into the taglur companions for you - the light from the capital, the cold dream, the sleeper, who will defend Simon Kain's magnificent tower even as you work to protect those who traverse the flesh of Bos Turokh. The warrior Rubin, whose lines are Bloody, who will oversee the sale of wives, the scourge of the gatherers, the opening of bulls, and the sacrificial flesh, both male and female; and I will make him your brother if you turn away from your terrible role.

I have foreseen for you a dark woman, from as far away to the west by six days but as close to the town as the river Vein, who wishes to combine your lines with hers. Only with her death will there be a true end to the plague. All this is right and proper for the hierophant, who strikes down lives in the turning of the wheel. This is the secret behind your ability. You should suffer, beyond all else, the worst of the pain. And from the pain of living, no father can protect his son. Don't hate me because I wished for you a real wisdom and the memory of a cleaner life. I suffered without you, and so did the land. We missed your good hands and bright face.

If you come - and you will come, won't you, my boy? - then the guest from the capital should arrive on the same day. Perhaps by your combined actions a city will be born that can become greater and more brilliant than ever before.

 

The twyrine bride. A woman who knew the dances, the songs. She had a sacred right to the grass on the same order as the menkhu clans. But everyone wanted roots and plants, to take what they could from the earth, and so every gatherer had himself a bride. Or what he called a Bride. A woman like Eve who didn’t know the first thing about the land, but who happened to fit their desires. A woman they hated, sometimes. And whenever the harvest obeyed only the vagaries of the natural world, they killed her, to pretend as if they still had some power in a situation in which they were helpless. This was the purpose of prayer. To give oneself something to do.

It was supposed to be her last and willing gift, returning to Boddho a warm, wet, mellifluous power. The Land gives, the woman takes, the Land grows dry; it falls beneath the hunger of the grass, and when you can't give to your woman then your woman must give to you…

What a fairy tale. Maybe nobody else in the whole town ever heard it that way, and growing up they were told that of course the herbs only grow on top of rotted organs, and women aren’t good in a knife fight.

Artemiy Burakh reminded himself, for the thousandth time, that he was the only man in a hundred versts who knew how to ensure a painless death.

Stamatin opened his eyes only halfway. There was a certain glint in them, all the same. He reminded Burakh of a dragon sunning itself on a rock, trying to decide if you were worth the trouble of defending itself.

"It's the surgeon, come here so late...or is it early? I can't tell. Do you want to sell me twyre? I'm paying more since it seems to be becoming scarce. Why is that, I wonder?"

Burakh leaned close, jabbed a finger into his chest. Strange being so near Stamatin, the dim heat of his body. Everything about him was lean, grey, and thirsty, like Daniel had been, when he was found in the capital. "You turned him into a bride."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I don't know how these women are chosen but I know it has something to do with you!"

"The Worms seem to know. Or maybe they just take who they like. Kidnapping isn't uncommon, and a lot of times a woman is taken even if she doesn't have this power and has no debt to the earth. According to whispers, anyway. The fact is, I've never seen anyone call up twyre with my own two eyes.”

(Of course you wouldn’t, Burakh thought, you don’t pay the women to do rituals, you pay them to smoke opium and strip for you.)

"I have. I saw it just now."

“...Well. It's a comfort to me knowing you don't lead my tame girls to the slaughter just for fun. Why are you angry, anyway? Did you fall in love with this one? If you weren't so careful she would have run away from you in the end. They crave freedom just like you do, man of the steppes. Believe it or not, I provide that."

"I brought him back from the capital. I know you hate him now." He could barely manage to get the words out.

He could see the gears turning as Andrei caught up with Burakh's side of the conversation. He had a decadent little look in his eyes, it had piqued his interest. It surprised him in his languid fashion that such a thing could happen on this land.

"No, I don't hate him." He took a drag from the silver decanter on the table. Burakh waited, but he didn't extrapolate.

"But he -- "

"-- He killed my brother," said Andrei, his voice raised by just a notch, "my woman, and my lover. And he destroyed every one of their works. The only reason I’m still alive is because he didn’t bother leaving me enough to properly motivate a suicide. If you've been doing something depraved and the earth recognizes him as your bride, I won't defend him."

"Ah, but you don't hate him. Not at all."

"What for? I’m as bad as he is. And in fact he’s the same as me. The list of people he couldn’t keep alive is an exact copy of mine. I’d be grateful to learn that one of us bastards can still live and die, if there’s enough left in his heart to allow it.”

“He’ll live. And he’ll live for a long time. He’s mine. No one would dare cut him but me.”

“But you stole warmth from the Earth to enslave him. Ever since you left for the capital, the girls have grown intoxicated by herbal fumes again, and the earth refuses their blood. Incidentally, because of the volume of our argument, everyone in the tavern knows who’s responsible, now.”

“You -- “

“Oh, but I value your company! Let’s just drink, talk, and maybe play a game with a loaded gun … he’s an incomplete conjure. It disturbs me to think about him," said Stamatin. "And, Elder - although I also prefer to watch lady dancers, I had the original. I truly feel sorry for you if your copy doesn't make the same cries."

Burakh broke his nose.

 

“Now, this will only take a minute. But I’m not going to give you an anesthetic because it will teach you a lesson about properly taking care of your teeth...“

Something shot out of Artemiy's hideout, got as far as the door he had just opened, and launched itself into his arms, wrapping its legs around his waist and clinging for dear life. It had the mossy rain-smell of a badly-laundered fur collar.

"Calm down. He's only joking." Burakh glared at Dankovsky, who had his sleeves in garters and his viewing device out, and was looking rather annoyed.

Burakh carried Klara inside, carefully removed her, and sat her back down on the table next to his equipment. "Now, tell me what's wrong."

"Don't let him hurt me! There’s nothing wrong, I only wanted to come see you. I lied...oh, why did I say a toothache? Anything you do to a hurt tooth is frightening..."

Dankovsky pointed his device at her. "A lie can't create a hole in your mandibular second molar. You've been eating sweets and not brushing." He rifled through his bag. "And anyway I have cocaine hydrochloride, you won't feel a thing."

"Give her novocanium," said Burakh.

"Why? It's another anesthetic alkaloid, it's just the same."

"Well, I took the powder and threw it away. I'm glad you haven't noticed for so long."

Dankovsky was too occupied to get angry. He peered into Klara's mouth, muttering to himself, "And when I throw things away..."

"I heard that."

Klara giggled.

"Don't move," said Daniel. "Burakh, try not to amuse our little patient. By the way, what the hell went on at the tavern? Andrei Stamatin - of all people! I thought he was gone - Andrei Stamatin showed up at the door with his nose all out of alignment. He said he got into a fight. Judging by the contusion on your jawbone, you were there too." He sighed, pulled away from Klara, shot her an appraising glance, decided he didn’t mind, and then cupped Artemiy’s face. “Anything broken?”

“Ten fingers, ten toes.”

“Don’t do it again, please.”

He bent back down and Klara obediently re-opened her mouth.

It must have been a touching reunion, Burakh thought. So he was at least going to be cordial to Bachelor...but he didn't mention Daniel's fate. He's leaving it up to me.

"How odd it is!" said Klara. "Who would challenge him, especially there? The odonghe are afraid of him, and the townspeople love him, even when he steals their daughters. It's because he gives them twyrine.”

"That is a very cynical observation for a girl of your age and also, probably the truth," said Bachelor. “Now, hush for a moment. I hate doing this. I'm not a dentist and I barely have supplies. I wasn't prepared to become a country doctor. "

"At least try to look confident, you're scaring the kid."

There was a bottle of extract on Burakh’s table, with a note. 'To Daniel. From Andrei.' (A broken nose doesn't need much attention, you only have to push it back into place, and a man like Andrei whose knife had tasted blood must have known that. It was likely that he came just to see Daniel. Burakh knew he should have come straight to the hideout to check on him, but he had stopped at the Clot to demand an audience with Kapella, and had been told by one of Notkin's boys, in no uncertain terms, that she didn't feel safe seeing him until all of this was over. Burakh didn't like the implication in her words.)

The bottle was half empty, and next to it, there was a teacup (well, his father didn’t keep any other cups around, at least not in the factory district). Burakh could smell the fumes clinging to the empty thing from halfway across the room. Stamatin wouldn’t have given him a bottle that was halfway used up, and there was only one cup, so they didn’t share … Bachelor must have wanted a shot after Stamatin had left, and then found that it had no effect on him. Half the bottle later he had just given up. And he was as sober and clear-minded as Burakh had ever seen him. In fact, he looked healthier.

The twyre nourished him. It knew him. It didn’t bewitch him at all. The herbs didn’t have to seduce him, because he was already theirs.

Burakh felt Klara’s eyes on him.

“I can’t do anything. The cary is too big,” said Bachelor. He straightened up and put his hands on his hips, glaring at Klara’s mouth. “It could be saved if I had an electric drill and something to make an amalgam - which I don’t even know how to do - if waiting wasn’t too painful for the girl, I could send away to the capital for references and supplies. If I had any money. We’re going to have to extract it.”

“No!”

“Stop moaning, you’re only doing it for attention. You won’t feel anything more than a tug.”

“Daniel, you’re harsh...” said Artemiy.

“Sorry, but I would rather not do this kind of thing in such conditions. It’s a minor operation but it is oral surgery … if there’s an infection or she loses the clot … Burakh, you’re a surgeon, why don’t you take care of it?’

“I don’t have to do it here,” said Klara. “I only came to the town to see the both of you. I’ll leave again soon. I can’t stay.”

“And you’ll go to the city, with enough to provide yourself with everything you need and also to pay for the dentist?”

“I can do things like that,” said Klara.

“I believe you,” said Bachelor, although his tone of voice was wary. “But if you come back later I won’t shame you. And your breath smells strange. How are you feeling, otherwise?” He began to poke and prod at her.

“Come on, I’ll walk you back to the Saburovs before Daniel decides to put you in a jar.”

“Normal children need regular checkups!”

“Hey, don’t look so worried, I made sure he left his jars at home.”

If Kapella wouldn't help him, then maybe Klara would.

Bachelor and Haruspex had set up shop in Isidor Burakh’s old workplace after arriving on the train earlier. It was the house of his inheritance and also part of his lines, so he kept it and considered it his, but all the same, Artemiy didn’t feel comfortable in his childhood home anymore, which he remembered and didn’t remember all at once (and weren’t the doors and the halls much larger before?) Living alone in a house of that size was a talent he lacked, it was his steppe blood - a rough place that provided him with his work was suitable to him. (At some point in the distant past, he had hoped that maybe Bachelor would come live with him in the House of the Silent and he would feel differently in time. Worthless fantasy.)

When they left the machinery for the dirt-colored sky, Burakh noticed the scent in the air.

“Klara showed me a neat trick earlier. If you cup your hands close to the soil, a sprig or two might pop up. It was funny to me, my hands are colder than hers, but only I managed to do it. Amazing! The weeds around here are thermotropic...Do you ever notice them move with the sun?” He had a pensive look on his face, which Burakh knew well. He must have had a couple theories about the herbal brides which he was dying to share - maybe, for instance, the fearful superstition came about after someone had noticed them growing in the heat left after intercourse, childbirth, or slaughter, any of which might involve a woman with her back to the earth - but thankfully, he had enough tact to realize that this was a forbidden topic. “You know,” he said, a little more quietly, “I had the feeling that in showing me she was trying to humiliate you, or something...”

The air smelled like intestinal blood and camphor.

“We’ll talk about it later.”

Dankovsky started walking quite far ahead of the both of them, caught up in a thought or two - undoubtedly about botanical tropism, if he happened to know enough about it sustain an internal conversation - probably without realizing that Klara's steps were small, and Burakh was taking pains to match them.

“What’s the matter with you,” Burakh hissed, when he was sure that Daniel wouldn’t hear them. “Showing him this. You don’t know what he’ll do. Don’t think you’re so old I won’t box your ears.”

“And what’s the matter with you, Ripper? You only think you copulate. At night you act out disturbing pantomimes.”

Haruspex wasn’t looking forward to muddling through a conversation with such a mercurial personality, but there must be some motive behind her actions, and he needed to know it, now. “And is this the other Klara I’m speaking to?”

“I am always the same wonder-worker here."

“What do you know about copulation, anyway? It’s an awfully big word, and you have it confused with something else. At least that’s what I’m hoping.”

“No. A spirit of Love has come over you. It’s real. I never could have anticipated,” said Klara. “I love Bachelor, even though he’s a demon, because you made him my brother and the same as me. I know everything that he knows, but I can keep secrets from him.”

“Good to know, thanks. I hope you closed your third eye during the grown-up parts.”

“Isn’t Bachelor angry? If not now, then he will be, when he wakes up."

“Sorry, too late, I'm done feeling guilty. He knows everything and he still asked for me, little Klara.”

“You need to let him out onto the ground. You and Bachelor are still on opposite sides. Don't be deceived. There's no time left. One of you is going to have to acquiesce to the other. And whatever else happens, you have to outlive the man of blood. Do you understand that you never should have done this? The fact that you tried to be a part of him has already taken lives."

What did she mean by that? Daniel hadn't bothered keeping what they had with one another a secret in front of her, but did she learn about the fire, about Telman?

She continued: “Bachelor would love to die, and would do it as quickly as possible if only he knew! He has beautiful work that can’t be completed until the event of his death.”

“You really think he’d give up his life for an extra quarter of twyre to harvest? You remember him, back then, how he fought tirelessly under that banner … he’s the same as he always was. He never would have lived beyond his losses if he wasn’t.”

“He’s the same? Is he really? Or is he fawning and weak, the way you think about capital people, the way that makes you feel like a man? You longed to be useful to him, to be responsible for somebody other than yourself. In reality this was just a way of subjugating him to feed your own ego. In order to need you, he had to be worthless. And haven’t you noticed that you knew a little more than you should? Didn’t you do badly in math, and hardly studied physics at all? He wanted you to be convenient to him, and to do what he said. And that’s high praise, coming from him … he feels things severely in his heart, but he’s selfish … the only way he can love you is to make you an instrument of his.”

“You have some nerve, girl. You can call me a sadist and a Ripper all you want, but you don’t know a thing about his heart. Although, I see the pattern here. Next you’re going to say that when her star rises and a little graveyard girl wants to be a savior, we take on the aspects of demons.”

She narrowed her eyes. He thought of lights in the theater, cut by panels and colored glass. “I know what you asked for from Kapella. If you had the choice again, would you do it?”

“Yes. I would ask for him, and I would take him, and I would make things right."

“Then why did you say otherwise? Why did you say, like a weak man, ‘I didn’t mean to?’ Why does it twist your stomach even though you shrugged at the capital fire because it wasn’t your intention to burn the city down? Why do you feel that Bachelor has been manipulated, and badly used, and even betrayed, and that someone has to be guilty over it? Whose perspective is this? This was never your point of view. Is it possible you’re not the architect of this fantasy?"

“Stupid girl. People are complicated. Just because I reacted to something one way doesn’t mean I can’t feel differently over something else.”

“You hate the smell of cigarette smoke.”

Burakh took the unlit cigarette out of his mouth.

"When neither of you have total control, and so can’t bend the other to his will to some degree, you set upon each other like dogs. You long to be kept and formed by the other, and when you can't be held within his teeth the only option is mutual destruction. It may not look it, but you both have an equal degree of influence this time, which means there must be a clear victor, if you want this world to survive. And that victor is you. The Polyhedron has vanished and the capital is gone. When the torpor sets in, just what is it you think he’ll do?”

Artemiy Burakh kept his silence. He didn’t want to argue about this with some chit of a girl. It was utter nonsense (and it revealed that she had something to gain out of all this), and in spite of it being utter nonsense, it was causing him pain.

Klara’s face relaxed. He noticed that she was gazing at Daniel openly, with the naked adoration of a child. (He had seen that look before, hadn't he? It was the look that Daniel gave him when Artemiy lay him down on the bed, when Daniel watched him with his lips parted and his eyes open wide.) If it were any time other than now, Burakh would have imagined that she had a little crush on him. Or at least that she couldn't help but notice his beauty, and didn’t have the self-awareness to hide it. It would have made him laugh.

“I’m glad that you love him. I know that love couldn’t have come between the two of you easily, and not unless by mutual agreement. And originally, it was Bachelor’s idea. There was so much he tried to give you … Please believe me when I say that. It’s a miracle that you’ve managed to live within one another for so long, even if your devilish natures changed the blessing into a curse. But the world is coming apart. It’s long ago been dreamt of that the both of you would dam the Gorkhon with corpses, until none were left alive but the other.” Klara took a glance at the figure walking ahead of them lost in thought. She slipped her hand in Burakh's. "When you lay him to rest and you’re alone, you can take from the women any one you choose without offending him, because they really are just vectors of your will. I suggest you take the woman whose tekhe you asked for, since you’ve already done enough to hurt her.“

“Know that I’m swearing it on my father’s grave when I tell you this: I won’t leave him to his fate.”

Bachelor had reached the Stem and was waiting for them. Klara lowered her voice as they drew near.

“You want to find a way around this, that’s the path you’ve chosen to take? I’m telling you, it’s impossible … You might try. I don’t really know what you can do. If that’s your goal, then I must hurry ... But be careful. That's not Bachelor," she whispered, and then ran up the steps to the Stem and was gone.

 

“Ospina,” he called. There was something about her doss-house he didn’t like, that old fear of dark buildings, the way the hall twisted in on her bedchamber - as if he were wrapping himself around a shadowy core and might never come untangled again - and the crates in the corners, her dolls, piled straight to the ceiling and waiting to fall in on him. The dolls, at least, seemed to have vanished.

Ospina always dwelled in the back (the far back, like a cornered animal, Artemiy thought). She was there, as if waiting for him.

“I finally got to see the face of our Elder again. We’ve left you so many gifts in the House of the Silent, waiting for your return … we even brought flowers and bracelets for the man of blood. We all approve of what you do. You had your victory, and then you pulled him up out of the ground by the hair, to humiliate him in this way before giving him his final punishment...the town’s children are playing a new game, The King and His Dog. “

“And if I ever catch them at it, I’ll thrash the life out of them!”

Ospina laughed her childlike laugh. The sound was very pure. “But when are you going to cut him? You’re in danger if you wait much longer, Burakh … The Order has grown impatient, because you stole power to make him. The plague-girl told me that you made him not of the earth but of dust from a viper’s pit, and not of clean blood but of blood that Suok rejected. She told me, 'He has infected the tower with his rot, and the children’s hearts have filled with blood. Where he walks the earth will boil black, the air will be poison and the water will clot. Infants and calves will starve.' Isn’t it a blessing on him, that the Land will take his bitter taste into her maw?”

“He had the blueprints. He’s been stopped.”

(He wondered, exactly, what difference there was between Daniel and Petr that his work on the drafts got such a reaction … but Petr was an innocent, he wasn’t like Daniel and Andrei. Even reality was too painful for the other Stamatin to handle, and he never could have managed taking lives.)

“Good. But you must cut him! The twyre isn’t coming up, and the local economy - “

“Look. Look at my face and tell me how much I care about the local economy.”

Ospina didn’t bother. “This is Kapella’s true gift. Having given us nothing, and achieving nothing, he was finally made to have a place here … that place is feeding the ground. Mother Boddho made the twyre to obey him as a guide to you, so you’d know next what to do. I think he doesn’t deserve such pity at all!"

This conversation wasn't going the way Burakh needed it to. Doors were closing to him, and they were closing fast.

“Ospina, you’re a servant to the Order.”

“And also to you. This is my lot in life, and I’ve taken to it like an animal bred.”

“So you’ll do what I tell you?”

He was expecting to get lip out of her and was surprised - she simply said, “Always. I hope that I’ve proved that to you.”

“Go to the people who know more than I do, and find out everything you can about the brides. Don’t even hint towards my intentions. I’m going to see Young Vlad. There might be something in Baur-meges or The Tales of Daughters.”

“But what exactly are your intentions, hierophant? Are you giving up your enviable gift as a man, to be able to shame your rival with your body and your hands?"

“If you plan to obey me,” said Burakh, “then I expect you to do it without question.”

And then Bachelor kicked in the door.

He stormed down the hall. There was blood in his hair and his eyes were wild. His rifle was up to his eye. “Where the hell is Artemiy Burakh?”

“Daniel?”

“Artemiy...” Seeing him, Bachelor managed to calm down. He rested the muzzle of the rifle on the floor and wiped the blood dripping down his forehead. “Damn it, I thought you were dead. Four butchers approached me tonight. I took them out. I know they hate me, but they leave me alone unless I go where I’m not wanted. It must have something to do with you.”

Ospina looked at the blood on the butt of his rifle. “Did you know that a rifle isn’t a club but a tool made to throw bullets?”

Dankovsky smiled tightly. “Well. I thought of them hurting Burakh.”

“I’m fine,” said the Haruspex. He shot Ospina a hard look when the Bachelor looked away from him to reload. Don’t you dare say a word … “And it’s still Artemiy to you.”

“Right. I’ll remember next time, I promise.”

Artemiy touched his shoulder. “I’m taking you home, Daniel. Don’t worry."

Daniel closed the bolt with a snap. He was restless, and he didn’t quite believe Artemiy. “Where’s home? The hideout in the warehouse district?”

“I’m getting tired of the stink in there.” And he didn’t want Daniel to see the gifts they had left, gifts for a woman in the house of the Elder. “Let's go to the Slough.”

How was he going to manage this? Daniel fought them off this time, but that was only once. If Artemiy could keep him out of the Bull Project until he had a clear idea what to do ... he should set them both up in the Cusps, at the Slough. It was well-lit there, well-guarded. The worst and most superstitious people in the town still feared the domain of the Scarlet Mistress, as if her ghost could walk. Walk and search for him. But what if he befell the same fate as Stakh? No, he had gained so much favor from the Kains, living and dead, that if Maria's followers believed some part of her still existed, he would be protected by her memory alone. And then it was the same as with Stamatin - they might be trusted not to put him in an early grave, but he had done enough that they wouldn't defend him, either. It was going to be Haruspex and Bachelor against, if it came to that, Klara, the Order, and maybe even the entire town.

He would fight that battle if he had to.

Daniel dismissed Aijan for the night when they got to the Slough, and when they were alone upstairs, Artemiy brought his mouth down on his.

Artemiy was surprised by the way he kissed Daniel. Even when he felt passionate, the first kiss he gave was always a small one, tentative and grateful. Daniel's lips cold as a needle. And then Daniel's dark body, that thing which seemed to contain such power, would respond, rise to meet him, move underneath him and then Artemiy would kiss him the way that he needed, his mouth open, their breath hot, Artemiy's hands on his face, keeping Daniel’s mouth close to him.

Daniel brought Artemiy to the bed. Underneath Artemiy, he opened his legs, positioned himself underneath him. He knew what he was doing, what he wanted. Artemiy felt his blood surge downwards, leaving him hard and heavy, almost helpless, the way Daniel drove him wild, drew him in.

Daniel moved his hips up into Artemiy's kiss, pressing Artemiy's erection into his through his trousers. Artemiy's head was swimming. He moved his hand between them, cupping Daniel's prick over the fabric, clumsily, groping, wanting to feel it all at once, the weight, the shape, how hard he was getting.

He moved his hand backwards, stroked his middle finger down the split in his sensitive ass, even with his clothes on, it was enough to make Daniel take in a breath, sharp and harsh. How responsive you are, oinon...

"Take off your clothes," Artemiy told him. They parted, momentarily, to strip, Artemiy's forehead against Daniel's, and when it was done Artemiy moved his lips and tongue where he had just had his hand. He could barely graze his lower lip there and Daniel would be gasping. He liked it, how those small, quick, light movements worked him up so badly, and of course, they called to him, Daniel's excitement, how he'd grip his hair hard and plead for him, so shamelessly ... And if he tried to hold it back, to swallow his words, the sounds he'd make in the back of his throat would be worse. Artemiy could never stand it for more than a minute, when Daniel called to him, a part of him he couldn't describe, a part that started in his heart and washed downwards towards his trembling stomach and over the body beneath him, that part wanted to come to him, to fall into him, and he would always hitch Daniel's hips up and drive his thick cock hard into his body just before he was ready, and he'd cry out, and when he heard it Artemiy would lose all control.

"Artemiy," Daniel moaned, his hand on the back of his neck, pulling him in up to the hilt. "Artemiy. That's it. Stay there for a moment ... oh, God."

"I can't. I have to move. It's killing me." Artemiy's hips shook with the effort of holding back.

"Please, please, just for a second. I want to feel this."

Artemiy couldn't respond. He exhaled, his breath wavering and desperate. He waited, waited for the moment he would finally feel Daniel pull for the first time, the drag and catch of his tight body. He wanted it to take him over completely. Daniel's dark eyes had slid out of focus..

And then it was Daniel who started moving, in quick, disjointed circles, trying to fuck himself on Artemiy's cock. And Artemiy surged forward, grabbing his thighs, pressing his legs open while he pounded into him.

"Yes," murmured Daniel, "Yes. Harder. Damn it, harder. Artemiy. You have to... " His teeth clenched in effort, working beneath him as best he could. His teeth clenched in effort, working beneath him as best he could. Artemiy knew what he needed. He hauled Daniel's body up (Artemiy took a moment to savor the way the body felt moving around his cock) and then he pushed Daniel off of him onto the cold, hard floor.

He climbed off the bed and onto him, before Daniel could catch his breath and his body forget what the shape of Artemiy was inside him. He hauled Daniel roughly to his hands and knees. And now he could really do his work. He fucked him as hard as he could, the muscles in his legs cramping up, and every time he hit into him Daniel would cry out in short, fast, cut-off moans. His fingers splayed on the hardwood, his arms shaking, head bowed, his mind whiting out, unable to focus on anything but the effort not to collapse.

"The knife," Daniel whispered, gasping for breath, "The knife ... "

It had fallen out of one of their jackets, into the pile of clothes Artemiy was kneeling in. He knew what Daniel wanted, grabbed the handle and pressed it hard against his throat. He took his hand off Daniel's waist as he fucked hard into him. If he gave in and fell forward, he wouldn't save him.

Daniel's neck was arched back. Artemiy's blade found the satisfying little ridge the stitches had left. Artemiy felt a rush of pleasure as it fit right in.

"Come for me. Come. I have to fall, it's too much," Daniel begged. "Please. Hurry. Don't hold back." A pleased whimper hitched in his throat as his arms shook and the blade cut in by a millimeter. It seized Artemiy's body like electric shock. "You like this body, don't you, you like me, well, take it," Daniel pleaded, "Take it, drive into me, come in me hard, take - " And his words broke off into a moan as he felt Artemiy go taut and cold as he grabbed his thigh and held Daniel forced back against him, so he could empty into him as deep as he could.

Artemiy listened to his breath slow.

"Now please help me come. I want it to be you," said Daniel. He was whispering. Artemiy felt dizzy and sick and tender. He moved his fingertips to stroke Daniel's belly, the soft skin and the line of black hair, and somehow that was enough for Daniel to make a quiet sound and release on the back of Artemiy's hand.

Artemiy dropped the knife. He looked down at Daniel's neck, the droplets of smeared blood, the ugly scar that was developing, the patches of stubble where he was shaving badly to avoid the wound. He still wanted something. He sank his teeth into Daniel's neck and bit hard, and he held his grip until the feeling subsided. Daniel,silently, let him. Then Burakh let go, and Daniel, exhausted, move to lay on his side in the pile of clothes they had left on the floor.

“Come on, not there.” He looked small and hurt, laying there naked on the ground. Burakh cradled the back of his head and lifted him onto the bed, letting Daniel’s hand on his neck guide him down over him. They lay there like that, Daniel’s breathing shallow and sleepy beneath him.

Burakh touched his throat. It had been so fine and white before, smooth ... now he couldn't kiss it, caress it, without seeing what he had done. He moved his hand beneath Daniel's back, to where he had left a bruise on his spine against the rail, so long ago, when everything between them was new, and he didn't know how this was going to end.

"I belong to you," Artemiy told him. "Completely."

"You know that it's the same with me," said Daniel, softly, half-asleep.

He knew what he had to do.

"Daniel. Do you trust me?"

He opened his eyes and touched the bruise on Artemiy’s jaw. “Yes. I do.”

“I need to get you out of the city. I’ll give you money. You have people who will help you, I know you do. Don’t go back to the capital, but someplace where they’d never look for you. When I can, I’ll find you, I promise.”

Artemiy ran his hands through Daniel's hair. He really didn't want either of them to speak, to move ... But Daniel struggled to sit up beneath him. “Idiot. Do you think I’m going to leave you alone after hearing this? I’m staying here to defend you. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Once you leave the steppe it’ll be over.” This wasn’t true. Artemiy would be dead as soon as they figured out that he had let the “bride” escape. Maybe opening his lines would be enough to restore power to the earth, he didn’t know. He was the sorcerer who had taken it. The Burakh taglur would be over, he would die not having kept his father’s lines. The sacrificial flesh would suffer, and after the death of Rubin there would be no one left to call himself a menkhu but those of the least competent blood - but this was the exchange he would make for Daniel. Yes, this was his equivalent.

“Don’t tell me this mysterious problem is about me.”

“It is about you. In fact, it’s entirely about you.”

“Then I have a right to know what’s happening.”

Fine, there was no way around it. “The plants don’t respond to heat. Any other person in the town could try to call them, but they only obey you. I saw them come out of the earth, when we left the train and went to the field. You’re a bride, and a real one. It’s because I pulled you from the Land, I took its warmth to make you, and the butchers want it back.”

“I know. I listened to you and Klara. But this is ridiculous. They’re clearly thermotropic.”

Artemiy saw an angle. “Fine, believe what you want. But they want you dead, and isn’t it better if you leave town until all this blows over?”

“...You’re right.”

Burakh moved up off him. “You need to leave as soon as possible. Get your bag. Bring only what you need. I’m going to the House of the Silent and getting you money. Wait for me at the station. I’ll be there.”

“...And you’ll come when you can, you’ll find me. Won’t you, Artemiy?”

“I love you, Daniel.”

It gave him pleasure, hearing it, even now. Bachelor closed his eyes.

Artemiy pulled on his boots. “Start packing. We don’t have time.”

Burakh didn’t encounter anyone in the streets but an old drunk. When he came to the House - yes, Ospina was right, there were gifts, piled at the door like a memorial … it reminded him of Laska’s little collections in the cemetery.

He took the money, packed away the food and anything else that looked useful, and threw the flowers and bracelets off the bridge and into the Gorkhon. The flowers spun for a bit in the night-black water, and then were sucked down beneath the surface as if pulled there by force.

Burakh crossed into the warehouse district. The raw light of the lampposts looked like an animal’s eye. Artemiy took pleasure in it, once, following the tracks out to the steppe, but somehow - there was something in the town, something coursing through the vein of the udurg, and for perhaps the first time in his life he felt like a vulnerable thing, out there alone in the night.

He saw Daniel through the evening fog, arguing with two guards. He swore to himself. What he wouldn’t give for that man to go half an hour without making trouble. There was a bundle next to Bachelor’s feet - his luggage? No, it was longer and larger, wrapped in burlap.

Daniel’s eyes were wide. They were catching the light.

“Hey! You there, from the bridge!” called the guard. He sounded almost - bored. “Sorry, but from tonight on we’re all barred from travel. Young Mistress’s orders. We set men out to light the signal fires just now.”

“What? Was there a death? A murder?” (Not the butchers Daniel had taken out?)

“Well...that is to say...”

“This is him, the surgeon,” Daniel barked. His voice was strange. Loud, but flat. “Show him.” He jerked his hand towards the burlap. The other guard took a sanitized cloth and pulled the corpse out of the sack.

It was a butcher, one of Burakh’s own. His hands were locked in the shape of claws, in the way that sometimes happens to those who die in the grip of intense pain. His eyes were fixed open in death, and Burakh could see that his suffering had been so great that his capillaries broke and dark blood had pooled in his eyes and in his nose.

The man had died of the plague.

Dankovsky was staring at the body. Burakh grabbed Daniel’s arms and forced him to face him. “Go. Get to the Slough and lock yourself inside. Don’t go out until I come to you.”

“No. I’m collecting samples. We need to confirm. To decide on a plan of action. I can’t - ”

“Fine, collect, I don’t care. But stay inside.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the Abattoir.”

...Light where there shouldn't be light, and shadow where there shouldn't be shadow. Living things. Lost souls. The chronology of life. Death, slaughter, shit. And when he found his throne in the depths, and sat beneath the skull of the primordial bull, all he could see was its teeth.

It never occurred to him to bemoan the role set out for him by the chance of his birth, or by fate, but he should have asked the Authorities - what was it about him that resembled this? Him, more than any other being or person. Probably nothing. It was just the way the cards were drawn.

He stood at the pier - he couldn't think of any better word to call it, although there was some word in the worker's language - and looked into the pit. It was dry, but he knew that he could call up the blood as easily as turning a spigot. There was a true deepness down there, it was hollow. One could hear the way it echoed and amplified the sound of human and animal movement. He thought for a moment that he could hear his own breath.

One of the butchers approached him to speak. He was a man of thirty or thirty-five, which Burakh was beginning to recognize as a dangerous age. Young enough to still be ambitious, but old enough to think he knew better than Isidor Burakh’s pup. Artemiy was familiar with the man. He was named after the hero Raga, whose story was lost to all the living but whose burial mound had kept its name. The butcher was from the Kruk clan, one of the last few remaining menkhu families, and another haruspex. Though menkhu, the Kruk lineage was no more respected than Oyun’s. They could never truly master the lines. And this pitiable fool was going to go the way of the Besech clan that had ruined itself by twyrine. Burakh knew his cuts better than he knew his face, they were ragged. Even the late Stamatin could slice his own paper.

Raga spoke to him: “You’re asking for the gift without the sacrifice, Bloody one."

“This is nothing more than a continuation of the Second Outbreak. I need no other sacrifice. I only have to call the blood up from the earth.”

"And if the blood won’t come?”

“Then I’ll have communed with the land and, having been asked by the Great Mother personally, will have no desire to refuse.”

"They are dreaming that shabnak-adyg walks.”

The menkhu didn't have to explain himself. A shabnak would come bearing a greater plague. An epidemic. And what did this shabnak look like to them? Was it a girl, or an old man with his skull bashed in? Or maybe a young one, with dark eyes?

Artemiy could appreciate a challenge on its own merit, but this idiot was walking around whining and making insinuations, which absolutely nobody would listen to during what may very well be the Third Outbreak. The people of the Order had been too wise to dispose of even Oyun and break the chain of command during a crisis. Raga wasn’t going to win the popular vote for his greater wisdom, behaving like this.

“They say you behave strangely with the captive-slave. Captives walk one step behind you, and don’t begin to eat until you’ve finished halfway. Or did you forget, in your years away from Boddho’s Vein, how proper respect is gained?”

Burakh lost his patience. “I won this role on the proving grounds. If it’ll make my evening go quicker, I’ll meet you there right now.”

“I won’t trouble you with the walk.”

Raga lunged. Burakh feinted, and when the menkhu came up for a punch it was faster and more exacting than he expected. And then Burakh remembered - didn’t remember, didn’t have the capability to have such complex thoughts past the purity of the adrenaline, but sensed, all at once - that this man was a champion in the Circle of Suok. In his wanderings, in the capital, Artemiy had met softer men than those who burned in the fires of utopia. But this place was home to Raga too, and he couldn’t rely on being the only one who had survived on his wits and his hands.

Raga grabbed him - he was taller than him, Artemiy realized, his animal instincts at once all aware of his size - and so few people would ever dare to grapple with a man of Burakh’s strength that Artemiy was totally unprepared. Fighting with the dead Oyun he had known to stay back, to use his size, speed, and youth, and if Oyun landed more than a hit or two he’d be finished, but here and now, he was already gone.

As Raga landed his worst blows, fury coursed through Burakh’s veins. He was Elder, he was hierophant, he was himself the long taglur. And he was a surgeon. And he was armed.

He sank the wudei underneath the breastbone, angled upwards, so that it pierced Raga’s heart. Raga made a sound that Burakh had heard enough times to call it by a name.

The chant of the steppe people surged up in his chest and it took only one syllable before the men of the abattoir matched it.

Was he going to have to do this for the rest of his life?

Probably.

He voiced the last tone, and he felt the will in his body and heart leave his mouth and hang in the air. He let it hover there, honing it, pleased by it. It felt like a sword. All he had to do was bring it down.

He gripped the wudei and kicked Raga’s corpse off the bone.

The crash of Raga’s tremendous body caused the stone to shake, and Burakh heard the movement of liquid beneath the earth, the sound of contractions, of vomit. The gutters in the basin opened, and through each one came … only a small stain of blood. It spattered, and one even found enough energy to run weakly towards the center for a foot or two. But that was all.

Most of the lake of blood had gushed out of the base of the Polyhedron, and that blood had been the first breast of the reborn town. But Burakh knew - he knew! - there should be more than that left.

So the incompetent Raga was an unworthy sacrifice. This did not come as a surprise to Burakh. And he knew without knowing that the Elder of the Abattoir would, as before, be one too. The blood of a menkhu wasn't what the Land had asked for.

Eyes were on him. These were eyes that had seen the spill of blood, and had taken to it like the body of a lover, these were bodies that had seen the spill of blood, and had taken to it like the cry of a lover, and he knew they would respond to it tonight.

Burakh wiped the weapon on his shirt. “Find Aijan of the Boisa clan. Tell her to bring me the man of blood.”

A roar went up in the slaughterhouse.

 

Burakh left the temple by the Gates of Sorrow and when he did, he saw that Klara and the Bachelor were waiting for him. His heart knifed sideways when he saw Daniel, wondered if he could see the stain of blood in the dark.

"We need to get out of here. It's dangerous for you to be so close to the Abattoir. They're looking for you," said Burakh. "I told them I'd cut you myself to buy us time, but if they catch you out here they'll rip you apart."

"That's why I'm armed."

Burakh touched Daniel's wrist. "Open your hand," he told him. Daniel did. Burakh put a bottle in his palm. "I can't call up the blood. It won't come except for another sacrifice. There was only enough to make three bottles of the panacea. There’s one each for you and Klara. And I want you to have the one left for me."

"Sacrifice ... this word has no meaning in the practical sense," said Daniel. "What happened is that you used it all up during the Second Outbreak, or more likely, that the blood's been stopped up or rerouted somewhere. Think. Has anyone done anything stupid, like try to dig another well?"

Klara looked back and forth between them.

Haruspex reassured her. "The first thing Kapella and I did once everything calmed down was require a permit for adventures in plumbing and architecture. People like the utopians refuse to believe that taboos could exist for a reason, but they'll listen to the good sense of permit laws."

“Klara said to come get you. She has something to show us."

"Yes," said Klara. "Your panacea won't work on this plague, Haruspex. I can prove it."

"How do you intend to do that?"

"By showing you where it came from."

Klara turned on her heel. Dankovsky and Burakh exchanged glances, and then followed. She could move quickly, balancing on the train tracks, and she followed them all the way out past the end of the cableway. They were indeed lighting the fires - it was a clear night on the steppes, and silent. From a distance Burakh saw nothing, and then nothing would flare up with light and silhouettes would appear in the black. He stayed close to the Bachelor.

Dankovsky was about to ask - so where is this proof? when the smell hit him.

“It’s a GI bleed,” he said, without thinking. Old, liquefied, half-digested blood …

“Look closer,” said Klara. She stopped him. Dankovsky saw that the field glinted in the starlight.

“It is blood! It poured out of the earth. It’s everywhere.”

“It’s exactly as it was when the guns popped the cork,” said Burakh. “But there was nothing like the tower out here. And this isn’t the smell of Bos Primigenius. It’s different blood.”

“Artemiy Burakh … you were born of the heat of the land. Daniel, my brother, you were the son of heavenly flame. Neither of you have mothers.” Klara pointed to a dark patch in the earth. “This is where the star hit, when it came back to the earth. That star was his soul. His body was made from what came up. Unclean blood and dust.”

Dankovsky was glad, at least, that Klara admitted that he had a soul. He had imagined once, what it would be like, if the three of them stood together and looked up at the stars.

“I heard of that meteorite, in the papers,” Daniel said. “It landed somewhere in this part of the country and made quite a commotion … I thought I dreamt about it, on the train.”

“And somehow this heavenly object broke the ground? Right in this field, are you sure?” Burakh asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “It was shallow earth, and impure.”

“So what does this have to do with the deaths?” Burakh asked. “The Stamatins and utopians brought a harsh punishment down on the town because it pierced the body of the land. But this was hardly intentional.”

“It brought strange material from another place. This, the outer vein of Bos Primigenius, was infected with celestial rot. The sickness and the cure have both changed, and the deeper blood in the lake beneath the Abattoir is useless. You wanted to merge with him, Haruspex … your child is this new plague.”

Burakh felt like tearing her apart, but Dankovsky was all business. His eyes narrowed in thought. “And so what would you have us do? The blood here is drying. We can’t use it for the panacea anymore.”

“You need blood from a different source. Because of your resurrection, your body also has the traits of celestial rot.”

“Theoretically possible. I suppose if the star hit the earth nearby, it must have flown over my train … I could have inhaled something, absorbed some kind of radiation … ”

Klara turned towards Burakh. “You are to cut him apart and deliver his power back to the earth. I’ll transform his blood, and once he’s drained of every drop, you’ll have enough to make the panacea and save everyone.“

“I don’t want to kill Bachelor. And nothing you say here tonight is going to make me change my mind!”

“Easy, Artemiy … Just to play advocate, would my blood be enough? There won’t be so many plague victims so quickly this time. Saburov agreed to put up a quarantine right away...Ah, hell! I only asked for the Bull Project to be guarded, because the first infected was a butcher. I never see them far from the Abattoir. But if this is the nidus, then the sickness traveled to him across the entire town. We’re by the river Throat. That's halfway to the Slough.”

“It’ll be enough. But you really will need every drop. And it’ll only be enough if you hurry! The plague can only spread so far in one night. You might have one more, but if you wait longer than that, the town is lost!”

"I can't believe we're having a discussion about this," said Burakh.

Daniel walked out into the black field, and bent down to inspect the grass. There was enough to draw up a sample. “The burden of proof is on your shoulders, girl. Falling stars make for a good fairy tale, but it won’t hold up beneath my microscope.”

“Then let’s go and look,” said Klara. “Take action! Don’t waste time!”

Burakh had, as promised, taken Rubin’s microscope out of the prosectorium. It was set up in the Slough, right where Dankovsky’s old one had been before Burakh had retired it in the capital. To Daniel, approaching the Cusps from the steppe made the absence of the Polyhedron seem even more wrong. There had been a clean delineation between the wastes and the civilization, and now, without that broken silhouette, the steppe grass seemed to have advanced in on the town … there should have been a lake of blood, Dankovsky thought to himself, there should have been debris, stone and glass … the tower vanished, as if it had never existed at all.

Bachelor set to his microscope without a word wasted to anyone. A bit of the “heavenly” blood from the site near the river went on one slide, and a bit of the panacea he had received earlier went on another. Burakh, not having anything better to do with himself, stood in a corner and glared. Klara sat on Dankovsky’s bed and watched Artemiy with those clear eyes of hers.

“Knock it off,” Artemiy told her. She fixed her dizzy gaze on Dankovsky instead. Seeing her turn her lamplit eyes was a bit like watching the phases of the moon.

How long could it possibly take to look at some germs and try and recall if they looked the same as some other germs?

“Well,” Daniel said, straightening up. His face was unreadable. “I’ll need to sample my blood.”

Klara slid off the bed. “I’ll have to transform it first.” She took his hands between hers and went silent for a moment. “Oh...there. All right.”

“I don’t feel any differently.”

“It’s been done all the same. Go ahead and draw.”

Burakh looked away.

After a moment, Dankovsky stepped away from the microscope. He considered what he had just seen. He had that thoughtful tilt of the head.

“Klara, be a dear and help me with the trigger, will you?” Then he turned his rifle the other way around and put the barrel in his mouth.

Haruspex pushed her back. “No!”

Dankovsky whipped the rifle back around, faster than Burakh had expected. “If you think I’m going to let you live with the memory of killing me, you’re wrong.”

“Daniel. Don’t do anything stupid.” Burakh’s heart was beating hard in his chest.

“Not another step forward. Do you think I won’t shoot you in the leg? It’ll heal, Haruspex.”

“Daniel, please.” And then he gathered himself, started talking quickly. “Look, it won’t work unless I cut you. I know how to release your power. I have to do it myself. If you kill yourself here and now it won’t do a goddamned thing.”

Dankovsky’s eyes darted to Klara. “Tell me, girl. Is this true?”

Klara nodded.

Dankovsky parted his lips as if he wanted to say something, made a pained sound, and then lowered his gun. “Fine. Then what do we do now?”

“You need to go with Aijan and ask her to show you to bring up enough twyre for Artemiy to use. Artemiy … you already have my advice.”

“Not an option. What else can we try?”

“It’s okay if you can’t do it. But the only other choice is to be comfortable watching the entire town die.”

“I’ll have to take him to the Abattoir. I’ll have to hang him up by his feet and cut his throat so that all the blood runs out of his flesh. His jaw is going to hang open. His eyes won’t stay shut.”

“You can take him out into the field like any other bride. You know where to spread his organs so that they warm and heal the earth. I will take his blood.”

“I’m going to go to Saburov," said Dankovsky. "Right now. The sick need to be rounded up, same as before, and in this case it’s even more crucial so that we can administer the cure."

“So that I can administer the cure. You’ll be in the damned thing!”

“Slip of the tongue … I’m sorry, Artemiy.”

“Aha, now it’s Artemiy - not Burakh, not Haruspex, not Ripper. Go away now, Klara. I want us to be alone.”

He would have liked for her to praise him and say it was all for some kind of universal goodness, which would have felt good even as it threw him into a rage, but Klara merely scurried out.

“Stop being so calm. It’s pissing me off.”

“Relax. I know that in the heat of the moment, I acted rashly, but something just occurred to me. If I was affected by atmospheric contagions, then it’s possible that many other people were too. I’m going to check the blood of the townspeople. I’m not looking for a scapegoat, but for enough bodies to draw from so that no one has to die. And if I alone can make the serum, so be it. I can stop up the bath and take a razor. “

Daniel.

“I’m sorry,” he told him. “I’m worried. I know about your position as Elder. I know what the people of the Abattoir are thinking. They seem to need you to do this.”

“Don’t imply that I’d ever lay a finger on you for - for ambition.”

“I know you wouldn’t under normal circumstances. It’s just that I doubt you’ll be safe here either.”

“We’ll find someplace to go so we can live together from now on.”

“...Artemiy. Listen. Maybe it’s better that it happens this way. My role in this world has always been to fight the plague and save the tower, so that a victory can be gained for life over death. The Polyhedron is gone and so is Thanatica. There’s nothing left for me but the disease.”

“You have me. I’m here. I won’t leave.”

“You won’t be enough.”

“Yes, I forgot, oinon is special. Settling down with someone, starting a family, and going to work every day like everyone else isn’t good enough for him. He has to cure death. You know what, Daniel? The status of bride can be passed from mother to child. If you just let Veronika have your daughter like a normal human being none of this ever would have happened.”

The silence fell like a guillotine.

Until it sunk in fully that Burakh never should have said this, Dankovsky waited to speak.

“So,” he said, when he voiced it. “So. Not only did you decide to believe the torturer Karminsky and Aglaja Lilich, you decided it was a daughter, too. I see.”

"...Tell me I'm wrong."

"I have."

Daniel moved to the bed, sat down, and began unlacing his boots.

"Daniel," Haruspex said, "Listen to me. I don't - “

When his shoes were off Daniel grabbed Burakh by the front of his shirt and brought him down hard on the bed. When Daniel kissed him it was gentler than Artemiy expected, and Daniel’s mouth could find the places where his body softly gave. Hard for him to take pleasure when he was born to give it, but there it was. The tender spot behind his ear, caressing.

The scruff of his neck pleased Daniel, how tan it was, damp with sweat on his shaved-rough hairline, the resolute muscle of his shoulders and back. He stayed his hand firm there when he had him, as if it were something he could keep.

“You make me happy,” he told him, after. “Not always. Not enough that you could say I lead a happy life. But here and now, in our bed, I feel content.”

They knew this time was the last.

 

Artemiy entered the infected house. He knew it from the smell of sick breath, day-old twyrine poured in a room where the air didn't circulate, and the flaps of dead white flesh, sheets and blankets, making it hard to move without their pallid dampness wrapping itself around your neck. The townspeople thought disease was caused by bad air (and in a way, Artemiy knew, it was). When man, woman, or child fell sick in their house, they diluted twyrine, or more often the cheaper extract, and dipped the linens in and hung them up, built shadows and screens to hide behind. It did nothing, of course. Artemiy pressed the sterilized cloth to his mouth.

He nearly stepped on the woman. She had gotten tangled somehow in the hanging linens and brought them down on the ground with her. She was right next to her bed, curled around the leg, but too weak to get up on the mattress. If Artemiy had come any later, or not come at all, she would have died that way, on the floor.

"My back hurts so much," she said, nearly crying. The dehydration, Artemiy realized, kept her from managing it. "I just want to die in bed..."

Artemiy picked her up and set her down on the bed, as requested. Her shoulders relaxed, the hard knot of her muscles emptying their pain out on the mattress. She went quiet.

"I'm going to help you," he told her. "Lie back. Do as I say." Daniel had given him vials, enough to test out new mixtures. He tilted the woman's head back and fed her his panacea, rubbing her throat to make her swallow. This was the basic concoction. The same twyre added in the same proportion, but Daniel's blood and not that of the aurochs. She shook in his arms. The color started to come back into her cheeks. The pain subsided, and she went to sleep. He'd check her blood to be sure it was free of pathogens, the Bachelor would demand that, but he had seen the miraculous panacea work before. He knew this was the cure. He was expecting that he'd have to modify the recipe to some extent. But no - this was it. All they needed now was Daniel's death. It was starting to make a loathsome sort of sense.

He heard the sound of jackboots on old floorboards down below. He called over the guards, both Saburov's (or Bachelor's, since presumably his authority as plenipotentiary had been restored), who were rounding up the sick for the quarantine.

"She looks all right," said the guard.

"I've examined her. She's healthy. Did you set aside a place for uninfected evacuees yet? Better not leave her in the plague-house."

Didn't matter if she got infected again, now that they had the cure.

"Is there anyone else?"

"She lives alone."

There had been one other woman in the house - a sister, a friend? He had tried the childrens' powder on her, and now there was no other soul to speak of.

He knew it was a mistake the second he gave it. Even if the powder worked on this plague - which he hadn't managed to get evidence of either way - most of its victims wouldn't be able to handle such a scouring treatment once the disease reached a certain level of destructive progression. It was no replacement for a universal cure.

Dankovsky never would have chosen to extend his own life in exchange for this.

(Strange how he phrased it, even to himself - Dankovsky, as if this entity who had fought the plague and defended the Polyhedron up until the final moment was somehow distinct from his Daniel. Somehow, it meant more, thinking it that way - Daniel who longed to die would never make the choice Artemiy had, but neither would fierce Bachelor.)

Haruspex made his way downstairs. Daniel was with the guards, helping with the woman. There was a look in his eyes, focused and cold - one Artemiy had seen enough of during the Second Outbreak - but it softened when Daniel saw him.

"Artemiy - I heard you were in the infected district. I've been looking for you."

"You took the samples from the uninfected?"

"Yes, from Lara Ravel, several other people whose names I don't know, and Andrei Stamatin. And he had his gatherers and dancing girls lined up for me. Statistically speaking, this is enough to represent the whole town."

"What's the verdict?"

"Useless."

"Klara said she transformed your blood. Is it possible that the blood won't appear to have special properties beforehand?"

"Naturally, I considered it. I took Klara with me. She said there was nothing she could do."

"She wants you dead. According to her sick religion, your existence breaks the Law. Do you trust her?"

"...If the transformation only she can perform is necessary for the panacea, then we have to."

There was a momentary silence between them. Daniel kept looking at him, somehow softly. Artemiy couldn't meet his gaze.

"Let's talk out in the street. Better air." He opened the door for Daniel.

"I traded for the powder," he told him, as they stepped out into the black street, "but it's not useful here."

"And the panacea?"

"You saw the woman. Rosy cheeks, restful sleep. I tried it on her."

Daniel looked up at the signal the guards had put up - dead rats strung on a pole, recently killed, mouths still dripping foam. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

Artemiy wasn't really expecting that.

"Nauseated, but I think it's just nerves."

"You should, just in case - "

"I'm not drinking your blood, Daniel."

"Then stay away from sources of infection."

"Sure, I'll sit back and do nothing while my town rots and you take another step closer to the grave. Good plan. Look, what are our other options? You must have thought of something."

"If I'm right and the meteorite caused some kind of deformity in my blood, then if we extract it from the earth we can experiment with the material and the blood samples I took from the town, and see if we can't get a substance that fights the disease. As far as I know, there's nothing special about my circulatory system. It should be able to work on anyone. Maybe my bright Julia will help us. Or whoever excavated Young Vlad's secret well."

"I need to see him, in any case." But somehow the problem had become greater than the original one. At this point, it was the least of what he had to deal with, that Daniel had somehow become wedded to the earth.

"However ... Artemiy. Klara told me that I have maybe forty-five hours to give her what she asks for, and if it isn't done by then, the plague will have escaped from our grasp. It'll be spread too far to be cured by my blood alone. We can spend two days, six days, twelve, tinkering with an extraterrestrial mineral and growing no closer to a cure than before ... Or we can use the solution set in front of us, which has been proven tonight through your work, with a minimum of lives wasted and the absolute minimum sacrifice."

"...I'm going to find diggers."

"Artemiy - "

"Daniel. Let me try tonight. Go to bed, it's so damned late. I'm headed to Young Vlad's. If the rock isn't excavated by sunrise ... We'll consider your solution."

Daniel glanced over his shoulder at the long road back to the Slough. "I don't know what to say to you right now. Just remember that if we don't cure this we'll both be dead no matter what. I'm a condemned man. How I get there makes no difference. The results are the same."

"I'll be there when you wake up."

They parted ways.

Of course, Burakh knew there would be no diggers. During the excavation of the well there had been a cave-in, and after that, the workers reported muffled whispers, singing. His father's voice. No threat, no command, and no amount of money whatsoever would lead anyone in the town to dig into the body of Mother Boddho again. At least not the members of this generation.

But Artemiy had no intention of talking to Olgimsky anyway. He had a different plan. Once he was certain Daniel was gone, he made his way to the house of the usurer Var.

 

He followed the sense of old, yellowed milk, up the stairs to the room where the smell was the heaviest. Artemiy thought of darkened rooms and a childhood fever; too-bright candles, strange tresses and ribbons, toys still as corpses, a throat burning dry. The freak kept his lamps turned all the way up, the light harsh and stale. He ran his fingers through a tangle of cheap jewelry. He turned his dead eye on Burakh.

"You! I figured it all out, you! You're the Haruspex who killed my Vera! The slave of the Olgimskys!"

The dancing girl, presumably. Vera - Artemiy was starting to hate that name.

"The Bachelor was spreading lies about me. In fact, it was he who killed her. He charmed her with his looks and asked her to meet him in the Carnal backyard. That's where they found her dead."

He waited. Fortunately, recognition dawned on the Hump's face.

"But he was there on my command. I paid him to take care of her ... "

“He wanted her heart. For experiments."

"Hell! ... I believe you. Last time we met he put a bullet in me. I was in delirium for ten days. He ruined my plans. But he didn't finish me off, a burglar's knife made him run ... What have you come for, bringing me news of my Vera? It's common knowledge in the town that Haruspex and Bachelor are acting like friends. Although the steppe people don't believe it at all."

"I want your debtor's contracts. The arsonists who tried to burn the Apiary, and then the rest of the town ... How many will take action, if you call on them again?"

"More than enough. But do you expect me to make a present of them out of gratitude? Poorly played, Elder Burakh."

"If you've been listening to the gatherers, then you know that I promised to spill Dankovsky's blood. Most of the organs are meant for the ground, but if you give me the contracts, I'll bring you his heart."

"...I'll sell all my men to you for that price. And what do you plan to do with them?"

"Grant your wishes. But properly, this time. Did you think you could burn the whole city and everything in the White Mistress's power by throwing bottles of vodka at guards? You need the keen mind of an architect. Give me twelve hours and I'll know where to light the fires. And we're going to start with the Abattoir."

"Good ... I want the flames to consume everything that took my daughter. The music that tempted her, and the games of children. I knew there was a reason I stayed alive all this time. I was simply waiting for this night. But can I ask your motive? I thought you were minister, Elder, and oinon. Although, there has indeed been dissension."

"Do you remember the Fire, in the Abattoir, some years ago, that they've only mentioned in whispers? And how, although devastated, the town and the Order survived?"

"Not well."

"The Elder is the heart of Bos Turokh. All blood and all nourishment flows through him, and he chooses who receives safety and succor, and who is left behind in Suok's dark body, cowering and blind. The Burakh line was made up of healers. By tomorrow night, the only ones willing to submit to our ideals are the only ones who will be left alive."

The people, the healthy, would escape across the Gorkhon or to the bog. If they could only be patient, then when Kapella and her generation rose, the town would be built anew on the far shore, just as it would have been under the gaze of Wild Nina. And it would be built in the image of the Burakh taglur and of Daniel, the man from Thanatica, the dreamer from the capital. No sacrifices. No sold women. No brides.

You are the Flail of God. Had they not created great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like You upon them.

 

They got the missive that morning. The number either unaccounted for or confirmed dead: 41. In the quarantine: 19 infected.

The afternoon and evening stretched on..

Dankovsky worked in the Slough from morning until night. Artemiy was back after a long and difficult labor, and now he was leaning up against the wall, watching him through the screen. How familiar it was...he had watched Daniel work like this before, so long ago now, and this was how they had spent their nights in the capital.

"You're doing better," said Artemiy, after a time.

"I feel best when I have a little job," said Daniel. "Like certain breeds of working dog."

Artemiy felt an ache he didn't know how to deal with. He wanted to hold Daniel, but there and then, it didn't seem right.

"How are we doing?" he asked, instead.

"I experimented a bit trying to create a vivifying environment - heating the normal blood to body temperature and exposing it to mine, for instance - but the trace particles in my system don't seem to be strong enough to act as a contagion." He pulled away from the microscope and his hair fell back into place, but not before Artemiy saw that the gash on his forehead had turned a strange color and started to boil. There was a shadow underneath his eyes.

"You're not well," Artemiy told him. "It's not the plague, but if you don't start to take care of yourself, it will be."

"One of the Olgimskys sent an emissary with gamma tablets. We don't have time for me to lay around being sick."

"Nothing's over yet. And I'm working on a new solution, I promise. But it won't be worth anything if you keel over a day into your newly-saved life."

"I'm not doing this for myself, Artemiy. I'm doing it for you."

Artemiy got up and put his arms around Daniel. He had to. He hid his face in his hair, looking for the scent of Daniel's skin, his natural scent, without accompaniment. How many times was he going to be near him again? Surely, this was the last.

He heard the door open downstairs. It was time.

"Who is that?"

"I'll get it in a minute."

If he drew this moment out - Daniel would get suspicious. The thought hit him like a shot of vodka, the shock of cold water, but the chill was what he needed right now. He let it sink into the heart of him.

"I have to leave, but I'll be back tonight. If you need to find me, go across the river Gorkhon. You can find me on the far shore."

"...I will."

That was easier than Artemiy could have hoped for. He pulled away, sighed, ruffled Daniel's hair - he made such faces in the lamplight - and then went downstairs to meet Andrei Stamatin and Aijan.

"Remember," Artemiy told Stamatin. "Don't let him leave until you see the fire, and when you do, take him across the Gorkhon. Only the Gorkhon. The marshes are full of gatherers, and that's where I sent the Humpback to wait for Bachelor's heart."

"I remember it clearly, Elder. I brought a strong tincture, the familiar kind. Somehow it got here from the capital. It'll be a good distraction for the both of us."

"And your schematic, it's exact?"

"Not for nothing have I been sentenced to death four times."

Artemiy gave a stiff nod. When he reached the door, Andrei caught his arm.

"I want everything, Elder. The best twyre, the brewing secrets. And I want my dancers left alone."

"It'll be yours when we rebuild. Just keep him occupied, and then get him out of the town safely tonight."

"Well - once the drink is gone, I'm sure we'll come up with something to pass the time."

Stamatin had the keys to the Slough. He imagined Daniel clawing at the windows, the house filled with smoke. He couldn't risk his plans by starting a fight, and under no circumstances would he risk Daniel. He said nothing to Andrei at all.

Aijan peeked over Stamatin's shoulder at Burakh. She was expecting the fight, and hiding behind him. Artemiy couldn't help but notice.

Andrei laughed in his face. "You've been alone too long, butcher. You don't believe in anyone beyond yourself. But I'm loyal to him. Completely. When I look at Daniel, I see myself ... And my brother. Go, Haruspex. He's in the most respectful hands."

Burakh heard the door lock shut behind him.

Artemiy checked the time. He didn't have a spare minute. He wouldn't have wanted one in the first place.

When he got to the Hump's house, there were men crowding the halls. They cast him hungry, searching looks, over their shoulders, arms folded, squatting in the doorways or roaming the halls. They were impatient, they were armed. The collective energy roused something in him, like it would in any man. He felt his heart beat a little quicker. Something would be destroyed tonight.

The Hump was lingering upstairs, in the bedroom that Burakh knew was a woman's. Silently, Var handed him an explosive.

"I have enough maps for every four men," said Burakh. "I'm dividing them into fire teams. Tell them not to start until they see the blaze from the team before them, and tell the first team not to start - under any circumstances - until they see my signal. I'll time my throw so that it explodes above the Gates of Labor. If it's staggered correctly, everyone can complete their work before the patrolmen even know direction to run in."

"And the heart of Bachelor Dankovsky?"

"You'll get it in the bog. Don't linger in Cusps. The plan's been adjusted to account for the summer wind and the dryness of grass. If it all goes up at once, the plague will end here tonight."

Artemiy left with the first fire team. The Hump stayed behind. He was used to the silence of living alone, and even the silence that came, like a thunderclap, in the wake of dangerous men. He wanted a last moment to linger in the room that still smelled so strongly of Vera and the milk of her body.

That was where Bachelor Dankovsky found him.

 

The men Burakh had commandeered were intelligent. He had worried that someone would forget the plan and ruin it - not before doing some damage, certainly, but it wouldn't accomplish everything he needed it to - but then he went over the map one last time with his fire team, and managed to put those fears to rest. Idiots didn't last long in "utopia." And some of them were even loyal to the Elder Burakh. None of them knew his true goal, but they did believe that it had something to do with removing the Olgimsky influence from the Abattoir, and for that, at least, they could be thankful.

Burakh lit the explosive, raised it in his hand. Andrei had given him an exact time at which everyone should be in position. It was coming up around the bend. And then it hit him, in a way that resembled homesickness, that he was about to destroy the one place in the world that belonged to him, and what he felt was not the children nor the people, but the way the ground looked there, the stalks of sedge and wild grass ...

What do you look for, when the sky is the same color as your eyes? What do you look for, when the blood in your veins is the same as the rain? In the place where you have gone, does the earth curve up to meet your feet? Does the grass spread itself before you, and does the sand on the riverbanks dry itself in the sun to make a bed? What scent is like the scent of steppe herbs? What expanse is like the land?

Come home, oh, light-eyed one, wanderer, to the place where you were a child. The feathergrass will be your cradle again.

A shot rang out. The mixture in Artemiy's hand burst. Gasoline ran down his arm. One man in the fire team looked behind Artemiy's shoulder, turned, and ran. The others stood their ground.

Artemiy put a hand on his shotgun. Coward - if he can't face one guard -

Daniel.

'It's the Elder's woman,' said one of the arsonists to the others, in the steppe language. One by one, they lowered their weapons, and waited to see how this would turn out.

His rifle was slung low, towards the ground, a trace of smoke from the barrel. Grey rain began to fall. How small he was, Artemiy thought, and defeated. He was a man ready to acquiesce to him completely.

"Your people will die, Haruspex," he told him, and his voice was choked with an emotion that Artemiy could not define. "They won't make it to the bog or across the shore. And your Kapella and her generation haven't risen yet. They don't have the strength to build a town. Your children may inherit, they may change, but it was only the power of Nina Kain that could create this place from raw cloth. I know all this. Do you?"

"Daniel." He looked to the arsonists, then up at the sky. They were waiting. He unhooked another mixture from his belt. "Leave. Get across the Gorkhon. Go!"

"You never would have thrown it. And you won't throw it now."

"You're wrong. I would have razed your tower to the ground to save Aglaja, and I'll burn this town to save you!"

"Maybe for Aglaja, but not for me. We mean more than just ourselves."

"That's not true. The Impostress corrupted you."

Dankovsky didn't seem to hear him.

"Did I tell you why I saved the town and destroyed the Polyhedron? Because ... human life, Haruspex. Simply, human life." He dropped his rifle to the ground. "Isn't that what you believe in?"

Artemiy felt the explosives heavy on his hip. All he had to do was take one and throw, and set into motion events that neither he nor Daniel could change. But the strength was draining out of his body. Maybe Daniel was right, and he never had that will to do it in the first place.

"I won't let you destroy the town," Daniel told him. "Don't make my sacrifice and all my suffering worthless."

Artemiy turned to the arsonists. "Get out of here!" he barked. They scattered. The other fire teams would get the hint soon enough. The signal would never come.

When they were alone in the Great Gap, Daniel came to him and put his arms around him. Burakh held him tight.

 

It was late at night, but Daniel wanted to die clean-shaven. Aijan had him sit in her kitchen, and made hot water and a warm towel while Artemiy went to find his shaving kit, which was lost somewhere in his luggage. When he came back, Daniel's hair was in little pigtails and Aijan was giggling. Daniel was doing his best to maintain his dignity. Artemiy could see the anxiety in her eyes, and he knew that Daniel was doing his best to calm her. He was good with women and girls.

Artemiy took a chair from the table and swung it down in front of Daniel. He sat down and folded his arms over the headrest.

"I should have given you a child, Daniel."

"I hope you planned to be the one to carry it," he said gravely. Aijan laughed and untangled his hair, and then prepared the soap for his face.

Artemiy guided Daniel's chin up with his fingertips. (A surgeon's hand, Daniel thought, every time he did it.) He was used to taking care of Daniel, he insisted on it when Daniel got cut. He could shave carefully around the stitches, better than Daniel could in the mirror.

"Doesn't surprise me that your blade is new. I've never met a surgeon who could shave worth a damn." He smiled to himself. "Your face is so rough. I don't know why I find you so damned attractive."

"Neither do I. So where's your own razor?"

"I used it."

"I can hang up a strop." (Why? He wouldn't need it in the morning. Artemiy burned with shame when he realized what he had said, but Daniel hadn't noticed.)

"Better if it's sterilized," said Daniel. "I was doing the same as you. Hunting, listening, working against you to save your life. I knew you visited the freak from the Ace of Diamonds caravan. I thought it was nothing. Money, twyre. Then you had some mysterious business on the far banks of the Gorkhon ... I figured he had something to do with it. That's how I found you out. I simply reminded him that I have a degree in keeping people alive for a very, very long time."

The question had been nagging at Artemiy, so he asked it. "Where's Stamatin? He swore to protect you."

"Yes," said Daniel. "He did."

Artemiy took the towel, wet it, and touched it to his face. Daniel let a breath out, one Artemiy didn't realize he had been holding, and he closed his eyes.

"Is there a ceremony?" Daniel asked. "I mean beforehand."

"No. You just die." The implications caught up to Artemiy the second he closed his mouth. "We can have one, if you want."

"I don't. It’s fine for other people, like Ruslana and Ilya, who are different, but I never liked the idea of having a wedding myself. Dragging out my love in front of people who don't feel it and couldn't care less. As if it were something commonplace. Cheap. What a desecration."

Artemiy became aware, not for the first time, that Daniel was unhappy, lonely, and afraid. And now, because of him, he always would be. There wasn't enough time left to change.

Aijan tapped Artemiy's shoulder. "Sit normally?" she asked him.

"Yes, ma'am." Artemiy turned around in his chair. Aijan perched herself on his thigh. How small she was. She fit into his side with room to spare. Artemiy put his hand on the small of her back. It was good and pleasant to feel the hands of a woman, even now.

"Please watch over the dancers. Don't let things change."

"They wouldn't even if I wanted them to."

"I envy master," said Aijan. "I would have liked to be a bride, to be taken up with passion, to live and die for something as real and lasting as the earth. Yes, it's difficult to die like this, but how difficult it is to die at all! To grow old, to become useless, and know your suffering and death is worth nothing. What oinon gives is small ... but it's something. It's a gift to him. He would have died anyway, and his corpse would have rotted and become something disturbing to look at. But because we don't shy away from this, we can make something beautiful out of it. And this is all that we can do. Do you understand?"

"But you left the women of the Order," said Burakh. "You danced for Stamatin, and he gave you to Daniel, to take care of him and his house."

Aijan smiled prettily, her nose wrinkling up, and she shook her long hair. "I want to live more. Regardless of everything, I want to live more! Oinon does too. And so do you."

Daniel had been listening, almost asleep, his head cradled against his shoulder and his eyes half-closed. He grasped Artemiy's arm.

"Don't come follow me, Artemiy," he told him. "I know what you were thinking of."

"Do I have to promise?"

"Yes. You do."

"Then I promise. I won't follow you, oinon."

Artemiy picked Aijan up and set her upright on the floor. "I don't know about you, but Daniel and I are going to bed."

"You don't have to leave tonight," said Daniel. "I'd like a warm presence here, in the Slough."

Aijan bowed to him and backed out of the room.

"I have a present for you," said Artemiy. "I would have said something earlier, but I didn't know when it would be the right thing to give. Took some effort getting it from the Saburovs. They didn't want to do me any favors. So I lifted one of Notkin's boys up to the window."

Daniel smiled, just a bit. "What is it?"

Artemiy pulled a heavy package wrapped in newsprint from his pocket. Daniel unwrapped it.

His face contorted. For a moment, Artemiy thought he was going to shed tears.

"It's the Cathedral key." Daniel turned it in his hands. "...Thank you."

"Go, Daniel. I'll be here when you get back."

"How long can I stay with her?"

"As long as you have to. But please be here with me tonight."

Artemiy was asleep when Daniel came back. He didn't know how long it had been, only felt the weight on his bed and a presence wake him up. Daniel's lips and hands were cold with night air.

"Did you go to the Cathedral?" Artemiy asked. "Did you see her?"

Daniel was silent.

"Do you love her?"

"I don't know. I didn't even know her."

"More than me?"

"Never."

He said this with such conviction that Artemiy's heart was instantly calmed. (And why would it have mattered now? In a matter of hours, Daniel would never belong to anyone again. And yet, all the same, his instincts were to possess him and to keep him, and he couldn't help what he felt.)

"Can I ask you for one more thing?" said Daniel.

"Name something, and it’ll be given to you."

"Don't go to Lilich after I'm gone. Anyone else, but not her. Because you saved her, but not me. I want something set aside for me, a thing that she doesn't have."

What would it matter? Artemiy thought to himself, you'll be dead and gone and won't know, and I'll be the one suffering and left behind. All comforts should be afforded to me. But he agreed to it all the same.

"If I don't sleep tonight," said Daniel, "it'll prolong my life a little more. At least by a few hours. But I get such pleasure out of it." He was curled to Artemiy tightly, gripping Artemiy's hand with both of his.

"Come sleep. You won't dream. I'll watch over you."

 

Artemiy woke up before dawn. He pressed his face to Daniel's shoulder and thought to himself - Father, come help me. Fix this. I love him, and I don't want to do this. Please don't make me do it.

But he had meted out this suffering to enough people that there would be no justice in the world if he himself could avoid it. The sacrifice of the bride would be his honor and his pleasure as hierophant.

He pulled himself out of bed and put on his working clothes.

 

Four or five AM. There was no one in the city. Not a dancer, not a drunk. Perhaps they knew better than to show their faces to the menkhu who was giving everything in the world he found worthwhile to them. All the same, he wouldn't have found them lacking.

He would have liked to bring Daniel to the children and shown him the future he was providing. Their hopes and dreams, their whispers. Pale colors. Long-boned Mishka will become a tall and beautiful woman, love might arise between Kapella and Khan. Artemiy's color was charcoal. Daniel's color was too bold for this fledgling place. He should have been the same as ink ...

Only brave Klara stood there in the street. She had been waiting.

Daniel dropped to one knee. "Come here."

Klara ran into his open arms. Daniel hid his face in her damp collar. Artemiy watched them for a while.

"What's going to happen now?" the hierophant asked.

"I'm not needed anymore. Daniel's blood has already been made perfect. I'm leaving now. I'm going to rejoin my sister. With Aglaja Lilich gone, the only one who has to live here without their doppelgänger will be you."

"Is it possible," Artemiy asked, "is it possible, that Daniel might come back? You know, he was on top of the Polyhedron, and ... "

"No," said Klara, sharply. "You must never think that. Believe when I tell you here and now that it can never happen again!"

"I wouldn't expect it to," said Daniel.

"I know you have questions," she said to Burakh, "but there are things that shouldn't yet come to you. The world is being harshly used. And to a wicked and deceitful end. Everything has been tuned to a higher pitch, and anything you might guess will come true."

He had thought about asking her sometime about Karminsky, about Lilich ... But somehow, it seemed worthless now. It didn't matter at all.

Daniel moved to look at Klara's face. "The world is still like that? Even now?"

"With your death, it'll get a little better. Artemiy will be able to live here for a while."

"That is all I can ask for from you.”

"I'm afraid of you, but I love you both."

"I know, little girl," Daniel told her.

 

There was a ger set up for them far out on the land. He knew it was some rough place left for ceremony by the gatherers, but he was reminded of the tradition among the steppe nomads, for a newlywed couple to have the people around them build them a home. It was at some distance from the town on the Gorkhon. Artemiy thought for a while about how good it would have been to ride horses instead of walk. But he liked to be alone with Daniel, and even animals would have broken the silence he enjoyed. The fire was roaring, although there was no sign of anyone in any direction.

"Let's rest again, for a little," said Artemiy. He held the flap open for Daniel. Inside it was warm and humid, and it smelled like animal felt.

There was a bed made for them. Good textiles, pillows, and some furs, in a pile on the floor. Daniel curled up on it. Artemiy lay down next to him, propping himself up on his arm so he could look at him. The light inside of him had already gone out. Daniel was preparing to die. He reached for him and Daniel stiffened.

"Daniel. Don't. I won't surprise you with it."

"No, but you'll surprise me the warning," he said.

"Let's agree that I won't do anything until the sun reaches this point." He pointed through the smoke-hole on the top of the ger, at random. They would have at least four hours.

"Do people usually have the girls, before? The haruspices, I mean."

"I'm not sure. I don't think so. Maybe they can if they want. During their life, they shouldn't be touched, they're betrothed to the earth."

And odonghe and a woman of the Order are forbidden, but a bride at this stage isn't a woman but condemned. In some way, already dead. It had never occurred to Artemiy. He realized before he said it that he couldn't offer to ask Young Vlad or Ospina.

"I would have liked it if we could," said Daniel.

"I'm too nervous. I already know that. We could try it the other way, if you want."

"No, I'm nervous too. It's interesting to me, realizing. The last time we had was really the last. And somehow we never knew."

"I feel like I did."

"Well..looking back on it, I did too."

"Come and rest."

Daniel moved his body against his, and was still.

A brief rain came and passed before they left the tent again. They lay there together, listening. Daniel might have slept, Artemiy didn't. When Daniel stirred, he told him how to count thunder and gauge the distance of the storm. They went out on the steppe to smoke and watch the clouds roll out, taking the rain somewhere north of their ger.

Daniel found discs for the fire and tended to it. His sleeves were rolled up. He had good arms, confident and young. It made Artemiy desire him a little. And, watching him work, it impressed upon him, though not for the first time, that Daniel was a man.

How similar he was to him. In more ways than this.

Artemiy came and sat down beside him.

"After today," Daniel told him, "twyre will grow in the southeast, in abundance. Saviyur and whitewhip. Or I don't know what the others are called."

"How do you know?" said Artemiy.

"It came to me just now. I just thought it was something I should say." His eyes were still on the horizon, and the corner of his mouth turned only slightly up.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Yes."

"Simple humanity. What you meant."

The words came easily to Daniel.

"I was too tired to conceive of miracles anymore. I fell back into my old ways of thinking. I thought to myself, that using plain logic, the tower was the nidus and it was the cause and cure of the sickness, and that I was a healer and you offered a cure, and I didn't have to look beyond that ... and then, once I was in the capital, when I was comfortable and safe again, I learned to regret. And then I wondered - I still wonder - if I had the force of will to sacrifice thousands of lives, when a cure was promised to them. Even though I know that saving the tower would have given those lives meaning. If I didn't have that force of will, and it wasn't just my mindset, then that makes my weakness a horrible crime. A crime against the tower, and a crime against them. In the end, my answer isn't humanity. I was just trying to think like you. The answer was fatigue."

"You're a good man, Daniel." He wasn't sure if it was true, but he also wasn't sure what else to say.

Daniel smiled thinly. "They brought me here to be a cruel one. That was what I was called."

"I think we're more similar than we seem," said Artemiy. "You know, you've been spending all this time trying to prove to yourself that you can take lives, and I've been trying to prove to myself that I can't. Even now, I'm not sure whether we proved ourselves wrong or right."

"So tell me a little bit about human life.”

"We exist - if we're human - as the final product of an unbroken line of pairs, male and female. The best we can do is send our bodies out into the world, to let our essence out into the long generations, to have children, to save them, and finally, through letting our bodies disseminate, to become the earth. Roots will feed off you, Daniel, and the grass will nourish bulls, and the bulls will feed the people, and the wheel turns."

"And if we're not human?"

"Then we'll exist in some way in the memory of children, we'll be perfectly preserved, and when the last of whatever it is we're written on turns to dust, when the town is returned to the sand, then we'll finally disappear. But maybe we influenced something. Real people. Who in turn might have sent out their bodies differently ... if they had real compassion, real choices to make. Or maybe their world is too vast for it. In a way I think we're blessed. The Land was false, but it could change."

"And in order to find beauty in the turning of the terrible wheel, the wheel of sex, flesh, and rot, you need to find it beautiful ... simply because the wheel turns. You don't want to try for anything greater. You're thinking of the old philosophical game, where crushing a butterfly in one world causes a hurricane a thousand miles away. And the hurricane takes lives, ends your unbroken chains. That's not real freedom, real influence - it's accidental. It's removed from your personality, your force of will, your hopes and dreams. It's not enough ... If the Polyhedron stood forever, Artemiy, if I made myself live forever, when civilizations rose and fall and spread out into the stars to escape the sun ... the memory of you and your suffering and the fact that I loved you would last and last. I would have given that to you. I promise."

"Eventually the human race would become something we can't fathom, something incapable of comprehending what you want to preserve."

"I don't believe that," said Daniel firmly.

Artemiy took his hand. "Bos Turokh defeated the void by creating the universe around it."

Daniel's fingers laced through his.

"Do you think the lake of blood is dry?” he asked Artemiy. “If so, then this is truly the end of all plagues in this town. And even if not, then I'd like to think we found the secret to my life. I came back for a brief hour, I prevented a third outbreak, and then they laid me down again. Or Klara says it's the other way around, that the plague exists for me and because of me. But I don't want to believe that. I don't want all this to be for nothing."

Daniel thought, in this moment, of telling Artemiy that part of the reason why he had given up the Polyhedron was Artemiy himself. Because he knew. And because he seemed to have some knowledge that Daniel didn't, and because it was his town. So many times Daniel had found his steps drifting towards him, to the wisdom that he so admired. In Daniel's exhaustion, he had needed him and loved him. He had loved the strange heat of his body. Maybe he really was born of the warmth of the Land.

"It'll get cold later," said Artemiy, but there wasn't anything left for the fire.

“Yes," said Daniel, "Although it's still summer. Even on the hottest days, in late summer, you can feel the chill in the air, and you know that all the things around you are going to perish. I shouldn't have waited. It's hard to die so late."

Having said the word aloud, the two of them could no longer avoid it.

Artemiy lay him down in the grass, and there it was, he saw it, the same look of apprehension in his eyes, the one he saw in their bed every night, just before their bodies found each other. After all this time, it was the look of an animal awaiting its death.

"I want you to know," Daniel whispered, "that I - "

Artemiy clamped his hand over his mouth, pulled out his knife, and cut Daniel in a deep, quick line, from the underside of his chin to the base of his stomach. He pressed him down into the dirt until he stopped convulsing, and then he fed him to the earth.

There was enough panacea to cure the sickness in all who had survived.

 

It wasn't until walking back to the Slough that Artemiy began to panic. He thought to himself, he should have kept something. His pack of cigarettes, his scalpel, a lock of his hair. Where was his coat, his bag? They disappeared.

 

"Do you hear him? What does he say to you? I want to know if he's in pain."

"Oh...no, I can't hear him, Elder. You gave him over to the land."

"But you hear the others."

"Yes. Their souls exist under the earth. They appear to be suffering, but they're only becoming more pure. Soon they'll be able to fly towards the sun."

"And it won't happen to him?"

"I don't know, Elder...I don't follow your ways. But from what I understand..."

"Go on."

"You fed his body to Boddho and his liquids to the people and then Suok. I imagine he'll be gnashed between their teeth for all eternity."

"...Let me go to him, Laska. I need to."

"I'm sorry."

He thought to himself dully: and here is where Dankovsky would have pointed out that even joining the sun was no guarantee of immortality, because the sun lives and dies like every other thing in creation. In several billion years (and he would have been able to name the figure) it will grow old and die, and in dying expand and consume the earth. Every endeavor we have on this planet is worthless.

He went home.

He never dreamt about Daniel. It would have given him relief. He lay in bed for a long time, wishing for it each night, hoping he could will it to come by making Daniel the last thing on his mind. He saw himself finding Daniel, bruised and bloody, in Boddho's dark vein, and he saw himself able to take him away. He thought about sleeping by his side, of wonderful conversations. But he never managed to see him in a dream, and when he lay in bed and reached out for his lines, the hint of warmth he had been able to sense for so long, he couldn’t feel them. Daniel had passed out of this world completely. Knowing this, the Haruspex nearly went mad.

 

There was a voice in the foyer. “You still live here in Verbae, do you...? Oh, it’s not strange at all. I was just wondering.”

It wasn’t a bad house. The carpets were made of velvet, and the house itself was like velvet, plush, dark, and uncomfortable. It was a woman’s house, which was clear to anyone, but when a man and a woman live together, it’s always the house of the woman - at least by Artemiy’s estimation.

Artemiy had been waiting in the back room all day, looking out the window at the dry husks of bushes that never seemed to bloom, feeling restless in a way he couldn’t describe. Why did the trains run so late? he asked himself. He got up and went into the hall.

“I always wondered, Anna,” said Lilich, “Where did you get this painting of the cat? It’s the same as the one the children called ‘transparent’, isn’t it?”

“Oh...I painted it myself. That was back when I used to like singing and painting, now I don't care about that. The artwork on my wall, I made it because I once saw the cat.”

Lilich smiled at her. “It showed itself to you! You must be a very special girl.”

Instead of looking pleased, Anna lowered her eyes and made something like a grimace, as if the Inquisitor’s words had given her some pain.

When he saw Lilich, a thought came to his mind, an echo of something he once thought when he saw Bachelor - that this small, dark creature was so elegant, what were they ever doing talking to him? (Had he had that thought towards Dankovsky first, or towards Aglaja? Hard to remember, just now.)

“Aglaja?” said Burakh.

They embraced. She was wearing a good fragrance, expensive-smelling - it was floral, but a raw scent, green - maybe it was violets, or what he thought they called chypre. Why? It wasn’t more pleasant than the scent of a woman’s skin. Artemiy kissed her cheek and they moved into the parlor.

He took the pack and tapped a cigarette out on the table. “Smoke, Aglaja?”

“I have my own.” She leaned forward so he could light it.

“Hey,” said Anna, “where did you get those cigarettes? You know, they’re a woman’s brand."

"It's one hundred percent premium tobacco. It says so on the pack."

“All the same … “

“I’m 45 vershoks tall and I cut up bulls for a living, Angel. The only one brave enough to mention it is my wife.”

Aglaja was watching them closely and doing a good job of pretending not to.

“Well, I’ll bring out the tea...” said Anna, timidly.

“You do that.”

She did. The three of them sat in silence for a time.

Anna looked uncomfortable.

“You know, I haven’t smoked since I was living with Daniel,” Artemiy said, and tapped his cigarette into the crystal sugar bowl his wife liked to use for ashes.

Aglaja was allowing herself to look at Anna with open curiosity now. But she had absolutely no reaction to his mentioning Daniel at all (even though it was the first time in the length of their marriage that he had). Anna’s face was absolutely calm.

It was then that the Haruspex knew that he would never understand his wife, and moreover, that he didn’t really care.

She rose and went into the other room. “Well, I’m sorry to leave, but I forgot I scheduled a play-date … “ (She returned with a bundle.) “One of the girls just had her own son. Maybe they’ll be good friends, like you and Stakh Rubin.”

Artemiy’s lips tightened by a miniscule amount at the mention of his name. He was sure Aglaja noticed. “At this hour?” Artemiy asked.

“It’s not so late! In fact, we won’t be back until morning. It’s a sleepover.” She dipped the bundle towards Artemiy. “Give him a kiss goodbye, go on … oh, don’t just lay there, so stubborn ... "

“My son doesn’t have to kiss me if he doesn’t want to.”

“Well, all right … “ Anna straightened up, nodded to Lilich, and left.

When he heard the door shut, Artemiy sighed and looked to Aglaja. “Well, she’s obviously inviting us to have a tryst.”

Lilich smiled wanly. “And you’d like to get right down to it?”

“Good joke.” Artemiy stubbed the cigarette out in the bowl, and waited for Aglaja to tell him what she really came for.

“What did you name him?”

“Afanasy.”

“It’s a good name. It has a good meaning.”

“Yes.”

“I like Anna,” said Aglaja, looking over her shoulder at where she had left the room, as if the young woman had left a trail there.

“Well, I do too, obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have married her.”

“Don’t lie to me. You don’t have to. You wanted to live in a house of suffering, and picked out a woman who’s like you in appreciating pain.”

“She came to me while I was drinking. I had been in the house for the past two days. She came in without knocking, hugging her shoulders like the ghost of some waif. She told me that the people of the Abattoir thought I had locked myself up to contemplate my victory and determine my fortune, but some of the townspeople knew better.”

“And then what did you do?” Aglaja twisted the dead cigarette out of her holder and dropped it in the ash.

“I threw her against the wall. And then, well, I married her.”

“What a nice story that will be for your child.”

"It's worse than that. The women in the town were worried and wanted to send someone to check up on me. Lara Ravel made them draw straws."

Lilich sighed.

“I’m sorry, Aglaja,” he said, although he didn’t really know why.

“Artemiy,” she began. “Do you believe that love can extend a human life? Even artificially - spinning a moment out into an hour, and the hour spun out into years?"

“No.”

Look at how well I’m behaving, Daniel, he thought, and when his name came to mind it seared him with pain that was greater than he had expected.

Aglaja drew in a breath. Her lips were painted pink. “I consider us to be friends.”

“Yes, friends. I agree.”

“I know you’re alone.”

She touched his hand. He didn’t pull away. He didn’t have to. He was like a stone.

“I killed Daniel,” she told him.

“Funny, I was under the impression that I did. In fact, I gutted him. I remember it very, very clearly.”

“I know why the plague-girl, the death-bringer, came back to this town to spread the sickness. She told you that your actions made the Land call for her, and she had no choice in it, but it might as well have been our own will.”

“Aglaja. Tell me, is anyone living today going to die if you don’t give me the speech you’re about to give? Will there be a great catastrophe?”

“No.”

“Then don’t tell me.”

Aglaja continued. “You see, if the Polyhedron - “

“I don’t want to hear another word about the goddamned Polyhedron!”

Silence in the room. It had a sharp edge on her part.

“...I’ve insulted you. I’m not speaking to you the way that you deserve. I don’t mean it, Aglaja. I’m just tired.”

“I know you are.”

It seemed to Burakh like this was something Dankovsky would have said in this situation, and that only made it worse. “Why are you telling this to me alone, in my house, at night? I could have beaten you to death, is that what you wanted?”

It was clear on her face that she wasn’t angry or afraid. The conversation simply was over. “If you had wrung my neck, it wouldn’t have mattered. I’ll be going very far, and if you don’t want me now, then you can’t ask for me again. And don’t look for me. I won’t be able to be found.”

“I’ve learned by now not to ask for anyone.” But he smiled a little, emotionlessly, to show her that it wasn’t a barb. “I’m glad you came. Sorry that I don’t have words left to say to you anymore. I don’t have words left for anyone.”

“I hope you loved him, Artemiy. I hope you truly did. Hold on to that. It’ll be a comfort to you in the long and difficult years to come.”

Later he found a lady's derringer in the house with two bullets, unused.

Anna started bothering him, after that, about going to visit Aijan in the Slough. He refused her every time.

(He had been with him there, Daniel's hands in his hair, his strong legs around his waist, lifting himself up eagerly, begging. "Artemiy, Artemiy, please, I need it all the way, come in all the way, I trust you, I need you - " and the breath was knocked out of him when Burakh drove in up to the hilt. He knew he was pleasing him when Daniel lost strength in his arms and Artemiy moved over him on the mattress, Daniel's eyes half-lidded and neck turned for Burakh's mouth, whispering to himself, as if it caused him pleasure, realizing it - "I need you. I need you.")

Her mouth wasn't the same as his mouth, her hair didn't have the same texture, her back was curved and ample. It was impossible to mistake them for the other. He had tried it from every angle. The only place on her body that could have resembled him was high up on her ribs where Bachelor liked the most to be kissed, and he hated the idea of giving that pleasure to her. In any case, his wife was a good-looking woman, and he was, after all, a man. He managed to get some satisfaction out of her on her own merits. Still, as often as not he thought of Bachelor's cries, which always drove him to finish, and when he did he felt alone to the point of fright and he knew he had done something wrong.

"What's your favorite memory?" she asked him, after.

"What for?"

"I want to know."

(Daniel's sitting up on the bed, reading by the light of the oil lamp. He cuffs are undone, his shoes are off. He looks up at Artemiy and smiles. Artemiy takes off his shoes and gets in bed with him, puts his arm around his shoulder. They stay like that in silence until bedtime. Artemiy drifts off once or twice.)

"Throat-singing with my father," he said.

 

When Afanasy was old enough, Artemiy had a thumb guard made for him from cheap leather and he took his son to the outskirts to shoot at a sick bull tied to the cableway with a bow and arrow.

"When you can hit it at twenty paces, I'll finish it off and we can go," he told him.

He hoped without hoping that when his son was born his hair and eyes would be dark. Sometimes he looked at Afanasy, searching, and he tried to find a quickness of mind in him, a flash of cold fire, but they weren't there. And twyre didn't grow in the southeast portion of the town, at least no more or less than before. Afanasy lay on the ground.

"Get up," Artemiy told him. "They're children of God. They love to die."

He was seized by a bad impulse, which came on him quick as fury, and he took the arrow, fit it beneath his son's chin, and lifted it up. He looked Afanasy in the eye and whispered, "You won't be enough."

 

*** He called for you, and you heard the voices of the dead. He sewed your stomach, a hole opened up in your throat. He made love to you, and he gutted you like a fatted calf.

He looks for you in the grass and he looks for you in the tendrils and he looks for you in the bone ash and the blood. You are never to be found. In the heat he imagines your laughter, in the rain he knows the coolness of your skin, and in a crowd he pictures you with children, although your life was a short and cruel battle, and he never once saw you happy. You were a conduit of death from the moment you were dreamt into creation to the moment you were finally put to rest, and he loved you in all of your horror, he saw your heavenly flame. The hierophant is drinking, he is drinking so that he can can keep hold of his pain for as long as he can and make a monument out of his heart. He reaches out for his lines and can't feel them, and yet he believes that they are there. The drink smells like the herb that only grows in the wastes, which is good and right for such poison, and it makes his heart search for you, it makes his heart gentle and wild. He remembers a woman in the steppe grass, her hands in her hair gone thick and tangled from the rough wind, as though she longed to dance. Her child is in swaddling-clothes, her child drinks the heat from the earth, and he would give anything for you to see what he sees now. He is waiting, he is begging for you, although he knows the shadow of your half-life can never come around again.

Come, love, come, the hierophant thinks. Don't be afraid. I could never hurt you, and you can do no wrong tonight.

Chapter Text


Av0s: wtfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff
mrkULTRA: I see you finished Pathologic.
Av0s: yeah (not exactly, I did everything on the last day but wait for the clock to runout so I can see the ending cutscene) (already saw them all on the internet anyway)
mrkULTRA: What do you think?
Av0s: you do realize that the plot twist is that video games arent real right?
mrkULTRA: ...when you put it that way…
Av0s: yeeeahh i dont fucking get it
Av0s: i just wasted my whole summer on this bullshit
mrkULTRA: I think it affected you more strongly than you’d like to admit and that’s the only reason you’re acting like an ass right now.
Av0s: it's addictive in a fucked up way tho
Av0s: I opened up the console and started dicking around
Av0s: just to see what kind of shit I can do
Av0s: wanted to see if I could mod it to use the flamthrower or grenades
mrkULTRA: Whatever did you need with a flamethrower?
Av0s: I dunno
Av0s: burn the fucking Polyhedron
Av0s: thought it would look cool
Av0s: it was weird tho
Av0s: like i said I was just fucking around in there
Av0s: switched the player character to haruspiciciuses or whatever his name is
mrkULTRA: Yeah, translation is potato. Sorry. Should have played it in Russian.
Av0s: but I borked something and then the game started really messing up
Av0s: like
Av0s: bachelor’s character model keep generating
Av0s: around the polyhedron
Av0s: in it
Av0s: I know the game prolly just needed someplace to spawn it but it like he was trying to protect it or something
mrkULTRA: Now I KNOW the game got under your skin.
Av0s: whatever i just thought it was funny he didn’t like
Av0s: spawn at that bikini chicks’ house or whatever
Av0s: thats where you would find me lol
Av0s: but nope, right to the polyhedorn
Av0s: ghey
mrkULTRA: ...
Av0s: fucked up my inventory too
Av0s: i went for my stuff and found like
Av0s: the fucking polyhedron drafts (t it was corrutped, for instance i couldn’t get the description text)
Av0s: they were just there for a sec and then they were gone
mrkULTRA: I wonder what the characters would have made of all this, if they noticed.
Av0s: probably nothing? because they’re not programmed to? lol game’s got you brainwashed
Av0s:I’m gonna go
Av0s: open up my save again, see if I can just play it normally
Av0s: finish out the game
Av0s: I guess I feel like I sort of have to.

Artemiy takes alone at night, habitually, when it’s late and he can’t sleep and drinks and sorrow and daydreams can’t soothe him. When he takes to the streets, it’s always to the Bridge Square that he goes. Maybe only because that’s the natural progression, from one end of the city to the other, and when he sees the dull water of the Gorkhon, cloudy and ugly with life, he knows that it’s time to go home.

One night something changes. There’s a light on in the Slough.

Aijan spends her nights at Stamatin’s (it’s still called Stamatins, and never went back to its old steppe name). With Daniel gone, there’s no one’s beck and call to be at, and a woman who is still young would rather spend her nights dancing. She wouldn’t be back home before midnight. Maybe she had taken ill, or there had been some kind of trouble there. Artemiy hasn’t been to the tavern tonight.

He walks on.

No, something is definitely different. Something about the trees looks off, and the chill in the air isn’t right. Maybe he’s getting a fever. He had felt something odd, for a moment, back there. It was just like vertigo …

He catches it out of the corner of his eyes as he passes, on the far wall of the Slough it is written, in paint red as blood: in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni ...

And the massive silhouette cuts through the night-time fog.

The Polyhedron. The Polyhedron is standing. It is unmistakable. It is larger than memory. It slices the night.

And then he sees the figure on the Polyhedron’s stairs. Slender, small. A snakeskin coat and a doctor’s bag.

Artemiy breaks into a run.

The figure sees him, drops his bag, has just a moment to wait in apprehension, his dark eyes and white face, before Artemiy finds him, taking the stairs two at a time at a dead run, and falls on his body, his arms around him, their faces pressed together.

Artemiy’s mouth finds Daniel’s. Daniel breathes, his lips tentative, his hand tight in Artemiy’s hair. Artemiy pulls back to see him.

“ - I love you, Artemiy Burakh,” Daniel tells him, and he had been waiting to say it for so long.

Artemiy takes Daniel’s face in his hands and turns it up towards his.

“I’ve been dreaming about this for years.”

“Artemiy,” said Daniel, and he searches his eyes. “What happened? Did you die, like I did?”

Maybe someone got him with a knife to the back, so late at night. “I don’t care. I’m with you again.” He presses his forehead hard against Daniel’s.

Daniel grips his wrists. “Darling,“ he whispers, his voice close to silent, tasting the word, experimenting, strange in his mouth.

Artemiy sucks in a breath and pulls back. He unties the scarf from Daniel’s neck. He touches his thumb to his Adam’s apple, tracing the smooth, unblemished place where his scar should have been.

Daniel takes his hand and guides it beneath his clothes, a button pulling open from his shirt, and even through the gloves Artemiy’s fingers know the harsh ridge of Daniel’s makeshift stitches, and he finds the place where his wound came open again.

Their eyes meet.

“You tried to burn the Polyhedron,” Daniel tells him. “Klara said she knew how to keep both the tower and the town. But you didn’t believe her. You kept using one of your steppe words, udurg. And you wanted to save Aglaja. Or because she took Rubin first, before we got to you. You gathered weapons and men.” A smile played vaguely on his lips. “I’m proud of you.”

“I don’t remember this. I don’t understand.”

“We needed a way to paralyze you until Klara was done with her work. We put you inside the tower. We made a paradise for you.” His eyes flicker to the tower’s core. “Klara said the Polyhedron will be different now, because of me. She laughed at me, because almost as soon as I had heard of it, I conceived of a way to use it as a weapon. But it wasn’t like that, Artemiy. You loved the world so much you could destroy anything for it. I wanted you to know what it was like to transcend dead flesh. To dream about that.”

“So everything,” Artemiy begins. “Everything, you and me. You weren’t there.“

Daniel’s face changes. “Haruspex. Please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying.”

“Everything is just the same. I was in there with you. I love you. I promise.”

He hides his face in Daniel’s hair. It's his voice, it's his scent, the firm corner of his mouth.

“Time moves differently in the Polyhedron. I thought you would live for a long time in the tower, with everything having been finished your way. I didn’t expect to have to come to you. I didn’t know your paradise involved me. I never could have hoped for it. You and Kapella called for me, and you came as far as the capital. But the capital isn’t a part of you. It exists for me. I had to be in there to create it, but then the dream started coming apart. On the outside, Klara couldn’t bring all of this to an end - she tried to explain to me why - because it was my decision, and I needed to exist out here, in order to continue that influence. Both worlds began to rot. Petr knew the Polyhedron, she had him call to me, but he was dead in your imagining, it was - strange. It wasn’t right. Klara came in to get me. It wasn’t easy, because if it was done incorrectly, by pulling me out like a stray hair, then you could have just called me back, the way you and Kapella did the first time. I had to die - and the capital had to die - by your hand, in a way that you would accept.”

“The fire,” says Artemiy. “Your breath stopped that night, and when it did, the capital burst into flames.”

“Yes. I woke up, and everything came back to me, and - it’s difficult to explain - I had to go back in somehow to keep my influence and make sure the capital stayed standing while you were in it, and I found the nearest … “

“You spoke to me through Telman.”

“I did. I was angry at what you had done. I didn’t understand that I really loved you until afterwards. It hasn’t been so long as you, but I had some time to think, out here.“

“Five years,” says Haruspex. “Five years, I mourned you. And it never got any better, oinon. It never got any easier. Not once.”

He has been waiting for this, the anger. “I got you out the moment Klara told me it was over. That there wasn't enough time left for you to change things. She asked me not to. She let the Inquisitor in with us. I think she wanted to prolong her life a little more. She told Klara that she left you there because you were happy, that you had a wife and son. I knew she was lying. Nothing can be born inside the Polyhedron. Not like that. She wanted all this to end without my ever seeing you again.” Daniel’s eyes search the black for the position of stars, hidden by clouds. “We only have a few minutes left, now. Miracle, that you managed to die at just this time.”

“Happy? I wasn’t happy ... I do have a son,” says Artemiy, and the words make him dizzy as they fall from his tongue - I can’t be dead. Who’s going to take over the Abattoir? Afanasy’s barely four. He’s an orphan, now.

“Artemiy...“

The tone of his voice lodges in Artemiy’s throat, and he feels more ashamed of himself than he has in half a decade. “It wasn’t Aglaja. It was someone else. I didn’t break my promise. I don’t care about her. It’s not important.”

“Listen. Do you remember the voice of your son?”

“...No.”

“His eyes. How about his eyes? Think! What color were they, when you looked closely?”

“They were buttons. I never noticed. They were buttons! He was a doll.”

“He was worse than a doll. Just a piece of scrap that was found. And in fact, everything was a bad copy. I’m sorry. It was hasty and rushed, and I am neither an architect nor a child … did you notice that the buildings weren’t complete, that there weren’t enough people in the city or the town?”

His wounds didn’t heal. He made no sound when he walked. When Artemiy found Daniel in the capital, he looked exactly the same as he had in the town.

“I need to sit down.”

Daniel brings him up to the ledge and puts his hand over Artemiy’s heart. Artemiy leans into Daniel, slipping his hand into his shirt, spreading his palm over his stomach. It feels the same as it had before, flatness and muscle, the sewn-up flesh. He knows it well.

"Why did you have to die in my paradise? I won't believe even for a second that I would have wanted that to happen to you."

"Paradise might not even mean a good ending. Paradise and Utopia might be the same. A place where, finally, in spite of natural and artificial Law, the world extrapolates from your will, where love exists, and real freedom, and a human being can have a destiny, even within a limited role. Someone explained it to me once. Similar to that way."

"I think I understand."

Daniel presses his temple to Artemiy’s collarbone. He keeps his eyes out on the horizon and listens to the sound of his heart. Artemiy watches the glow of the tower move over his hair, and it doesn’t look like normal light, somehow. Like fireflies gliding over black.

“Impostress says that all our memories are false. They’re less like memories and more like - premises. Sometimes left over from a different game. And we have so very few of them. Klara wanted you to know that only the twelve days we fought here were real for us. So you’ve known me all my life.”

Artemiy moves his hands again, confirming his touch on Daniel’s body, keeping it tight against his own. “I’m glad. Not that you never had anything more than this. Only ... you understand? That I knew you, all the same.”

“It’s coming, Artemiy,” says Daniel, to the void. They can’t see the city from the tower, it gets that dark at night. “Midnight. I vanished, according to you. I didn't belong, I went off into starlight. If Impostress won, then does that mean it’ll happen again? And to you too, Artemiy? I don’t mind if it’s me, but you … "

"I'm not ready to let you go."

"There was a piano at Aliyev's, I never played it for you. Eva left her phonograph, I thought I'd teach you to waltz. I’m so sorry, Artemiy. I’m sorry for the things I didn’t give you, the things that I forgot to do.“

Haruspex feels a longing for a thing he cannot define. It’s elusive, at the corner of his mind, has something to do with fir trees in summer, his native language, a soliloquy with meaning, Daniel's skin. Things he has known, things he hasn’t, but whatever it is, it's in him, in Daniel, a whole way of living. A body that contains a world.

"Stay with me. If some part of us continues after this, don't leave my side." Artemiy grips his hand. “I want something after all of this. I want you.”

"Klara says all this might be a cycle. She says that we try to kill each other, time after time."

"Let's agree that no matter what happens, what we're made to do and what we become, we love each other all the same."

"I don't know if that's for us to decide, Artemiy. I don't know what I'll remember. It's so hard to keep hold of what happened out here, between us. You know, to try and burn the Polyhedron, you must have had outside help. A guide who loved the both of us very much. I wonder what our minds really are. Maybe they’re thinking about us."

"I know it won't happen," says the Haruspex. "I know our role is done. But you'll stay, en-Daniel? If we do go on after this, in whatever our being is written in. Could you stay with me?"

“Yes,” he tells Artemiy. “I'll be with you. I want to.”

Daniel turns away from the sky. Artemiy touches his face. They're both thinking, without words, that if it all ends like this, then we will wait gazing at each other, and make his face the last thing I see. His eyes are so light, Daniel realizes.

The clock of the city strikes midnight.