D A K H M A
Dressed stone had never seemed so close to comfort beneath her sleeping bag as Susan opened her eyes, to dust-grey walls and light made feather-soft and reticent, as though held between two hands. A long night and a day passed over her amid the cold smell of wind and water; a pulsing pain redoubled in her mouth when she turned upon her back, encased in the stale warmth of clothing that had dried around her while she slept. Shuffling sounds and faint, blown smoke curled in through the arch that stood open to a formless, cloud-coloured sky. She paid them as much heed as the hands that sometimes parted her cocoon to wipe at the smears on her face and chart the bruises mottling through a dull, plumbaceous spectrum on her left side. Dimly, beneath hooded lids, she saw fresh scars sawed into the skin of the attending arms. Water swayed in a pail set by her side, its thin steam redolent of greening metal. She ignored her name and was allowed to, and went back to sleep.
Through the arch another day declared an end, recalling the colour loaned to the vaulting overhead and leaving them in variated monochromes. Her gaze followed the fluted shapes in stone toward the wall, noting for the first time that it bore an image in the plaster elsewhere dissolved and sloughed away, the robust and wide-eyed figure of a mounted saint. His halo seemed no less sturdy than his plicated robe, its royal blue deposed by natron grey where the tempera proved as perished and forgotten as the order that had raised the remote redoubt.
From somewhere overhead the smell of another fire issued its primal invitation, en suite with the echoed, disjunct sounds of someone moving with a purpose she could scarcely envision, pain and torpor having pupated into something far more comprehensive. In its depths she was grateful for the enclosing seclusion provided by the surrounding structure, a quality promoted from its former station as the blandest facet of entitlement and beatified alongside the faded saint. Her pack lay against the wall, half-gutted of its contents. Banks of needles crowded the corners of the chamber, sere tokens of abandonment and solitude.
She rolled onto her side and was struck immediately by a sensation like the intrusion of a blade, an outward-looping vertigo drawing back the walls and floor as though on rubber bands. They swayed, one version doubled over the other, returning only as the agony began to slacken, leaving her tightly knotted. Susan opened her mouth to breathe and inched backward onto her shoulders, the taste of festering gore flushed from under her tongue as she stroked her broken tooth and the flesh that pounded all around it. Though startled by the hinges grinding by the rust-streaked door she lay still as Sachiin eased a dark shape balanced on his head around the partition, a copper pail in each hand, nodding the bundle of fraying fabric onto the floor and arranging its cache of fresh pine needles against the wall. With the same discretion he set down the carton of cigarettes beneath his arm, letting himself onto his knees beside the smaller pail.
"It'll be warm for about ten more minutes." Allowing for her apathy, he waited half that time before reaching back into her pack for her face cloth. "The drool is fucking with your bloodstains now, poupée..." he added, attempting remediation from which she rolled toward the wall despite the toll exacted by her tooth. Sitting back, he sighed and took up the box of cigarettes, plucking the golden tab encircling its cellophane and drawing out the crisp, beguiling sounds of its removal.
"Just give me one and go away." she croaked, clearing her throat.
"I thought you were giving up." he smiled to himself, sitting the damp, balled flannel on the side of her head when she did not reply. Susan turned again toward him, dark stare framed by strands of rain-washed hair and fluvial deposits, then dragged herself onto her hands, leaning over the bucket to lap the water from its rim. "How's your tooth?"
"Where is everyone?" she murmured, lapsing back against the stone.
"He's out jerking off somewhere. Haven't seen Pet yet."
She lay still.
"Now I can't call him Edward." He waited for her to elaborate with the same forbearance, two fresh cigarettes parked between his teeth. "It sounds... wrong... once you've seen him... doing things."
“I know. It's like calling Satan Toodles. Kar-lar-amaat-yah…” he suggested in a lugubrious tone, though she did not seem to have heard him. Squinting, Sachiin lit the cigarettes and piped the smoke from the corner of his mouth. "Allez... a problem shared is everybody’s problem.” He shrugged at her lack of response. "Well, I've got nowhere else to go, so y..."
“Stop being so fucking nice..." she snapped. He glanced around himself uncertainly. "I ran away and left you, alright? They could have been... ripping your fucking arms off...” The feeble glow from the arch diminished again as the sun dropped beyond the unseen horizon. Sachiin folded his legs.
“I can't say how it looked to you, but I don't think we were ever going to be dancing around with their nutsacks on our heads, so don't feel like you stole our chance at glory. If you hadn't been there, personally I’d still be headed downstream like there was a fucking inboard up my arsehole." He smiled and offered her a cigarette. "We made it out in three good pieces... pas de probléme." A glance related the inadequacy of his assurances and he reclaimed the damp cloth, warming it once more in the bucket. She did not protest its application. "I've always thought the chick who wrote The Art of War should have done one called the art of not getting into shit in the first place, but then none of the hot mess headed for the front line actually fucking read, do they? I mean, I look like I fell out of a fucking cement mixer and I didn't get that way smoking a bowl in a titty bar after bugging out of Nuristan before I got my head kicked in..." he laughed. "And that's because I'm a retard. But like I said, pas de probléme... if you live, pick up your ninja wings... you just qualified. As for running like a little bitch, I think that was me powering right past you. I probably pushed you over trying to put on speed."
She closed her eyes again against his arguments.
"You're not fucking useless... I am. I can't carry my pack, you had to go back and get it... I can't do fucking anything."
"Silence, mortal." Sachiin pronounced. "Would I steal a box of home-brand Ukranian cigarettes from a vampyre for a useless person? I went back for your pack because I'm too much of a fucking gimp to watch you suffer." He lifted the end of the sleeping bag and made a quick survey of her feet. "That's not heroic, and it's all bullshit anyway... heroic people are just impatient cowards. The dickhead who throws himself on the grenade is the same dickhead who would have bolted like everybody else if he'd thought about it, but then boom... he's human stucco, and stucco can't express regret. So stop feeling bad, immediately. How's your tooth?"
She drew her feet beneath the covers.
“Pet doesn't want me here.”
“Did she say that?"
"She didn't have to."
"Ouais, she's suffering you in silence because politeness is like a religion to her." he laughed, rolling his eyes. "Christabel, you just startled her dead arse.” He reached back toward her boots. “Come on... you can bring your hump upstairs.”
With the night settling around them she could not reconcile the ruin’s shape with her uncertain memories, following a curving case of steps cut into the boss of stone shrugged out from the mountainside like something worn upon its shoulder. The pain in her skull flared with the effort of the ascent but she kept her hand from her face and her head down, mouth pressed tightly against any verbal demonstration. The colonnade shared its contour with a surmounting parapet, castellated by ragged failures and dressed with supple, intrepid birches, their white shapes persisting in the darkness. It hemmed the eastern edge of a roof yard, bare but for an orphaned bench and narrow wooden table silvered by the elements. The supporting ridge rose sheerly to the west in a face like blank ship steel before leaning once more away. Behind an arm of rolling cloud the moon paid scant regard to the land laid out beneath her, couching it in flattened shades of sooty black and benthic blue. No light or road or sign of habitation troubled the darkness.
“Where is this?” Susan asked, the sleeping bag still clasped around her shoulders.
“It’s all Dacia to me. But it’s very roomy and scenic, poupée, honestly... no rent, no…” Sachiin extended the syllable and then smiled again, gesturing toward the steps. “Look, they have piglets...”
A small and strangely-formed intruder skipped up onto the roof with an air of slight, inquiring disapprobation, quadrupedal, jacketed in longitudinal stripes of creme, sable and russet and wearing a pair of bat-like ears on its narrow head. Small bronze eyes followed a questing snout; the piglet paused, peering at her suspiciously before trotting across the flags on tiny hooves and placing its nose against her leg in a brief, assertive nudge. Susan bent down to touch its back but was checked hard by her tooth, an imposition it scurried from anyway with its tail erect. From the same steps came the ruin’s heavily-swathed chatelaine, coat fastened about her neck as though the swiftly-settling cold demanded it. An almost clockwork transit took her along the parapet, though for a moment the vampyre paused and frowned at the sight of her porcine companion standing on its hind hooves and gazing up at Sachiin, who stroked its velvet ears and picked it up.
“My little darlink Fyodor.” Petrouchka sighed. Her stare settled on Susan, who had sat down on the stony margin and embraced herself beneath her quilted cloak. “You... walk to here?" Her guest nodded without looking up. “My god. Now I know why you look such a horror.” The observation finally commanded Susan's attention, but the steps projected the small sounds of Edward’s approach, distracting them both. He carried a pair of loosely gracile shapes in the crook of his arm; two hares twitched stiffly in the rigor of their recent deaths when he lay them in her lap, the warm blood oozing from their mouths soaking her jeans while one kicked against her stomach. Susan sat imprisoned between dread and disbelief, looking up at him with both flagged in her expression. His mouth drew back over his teeth in a strange, embryonic expression of contempt, its brevity integral to its power.
“Where would you be if nothing ever died for your convenience?” he asked her. Across the yard the vampyre tisked and rolled her stony eyes, both of them watching Susan rise and let the dead beasts slide onto the flags before retreating to the corner of the parapet. Sachiin berated him acidly. "Sis'thle vahd'ya si srihyaan." Edward muttered as he quit them. Fresh tears slid down her face as she turned it toward the gorge, her misery unwittingly compounded by its spectators. Petrouchka regarded Sachiin implacably from across the yard as he concluded his admonition.
"Avai'sahdi..." he sighed, looking back to Susan. "I'm sorry... I do have to go and walk the river. If we have to get out of here we need to know where to get across." She sat hunched as he kissed her head and took the stairs himself.
Her hostess came forward and shooed the piglet from the dead game where it had fallen on the flags; she took them up and set them on the table between them, producing a folding, pearl-handled knife from the pocket of her sable. Petrouchka used the blade to strip the hares of their elastic hides, turning them over and dressing them without pause, except to lick the fresh blood from her fingertips.
“My mother’s mother, she was old bajorai countess from Kaunas... her family have many bad time. She say to us, know how to eat rabbit and you will never be slave." the vampyre began, small voice winding around Susan's shoulder though she spoke with an almost recessed disinterest. "Why do you leave from Gévaudan? Here is no place for you.”
Susan took a long time to reply.
“I’ll go if I’m not welcome.”
“Go? Where do you go? You know good hotel?” Tart amusement sharpened the vampyre’s smirk. “No... you won't go... you have what you want, so you stay here, feel sorry for you. You bite, but you can’t chew."
“Does this look like something I wanted?”
“You come here from Auberjonois, who care for you like prince... these two, they bring you safe, fight alujha for you... Kala'amātya, who hate to kill a thing that can’t talk back, he give these, and you have Sachiin, all for yourself, who has never said a word to you in anger, who live only to please you...”
"He lives whether I'm here or not."
Petrouchka wiped her blade on the dry fur, small teeth shining in the darkness of her sardonicism.
"Who must we blame for this outrage? Pauvre de toi." A wind had risen from the gorge, climbing up over the drop and blowing their hair across their faces. "What has happen, kotik? You see something of yourself and you don't like?" Her trenchant analysis met with a gaze that fell again toward the flagstones. "I think so. You find that face in mirror."
Misery intermingled with the poison leaking from Susan's tooth, striking down her will to speak in her own defence. Petrouchka obviated the need to do so by cutting sharply across the yard and scowling down over the wall onto the slope below where it lay thickly strewn with fallen debris.
“Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” she called, the sudden, argute volume of the demand lifting Susan’s head. “Allez-vous faire voir! Otyebis!” The vampyre’s curt manual dismissal, tossed out over the drop like refuse, translated her remarks. Three figures in hooded black and olive camouflage stood upon the hillside, their mirrored, skyward stares the last thing Susan could have wished for. Two of them shared enough of their dark, parochial physiques to have been brothers while the other wore a severe, shadow-like crop and two stars tattooed on his wide throat. In the midst of her affronting scorn Susan saw that her hostess quartered the strait of forest behind them, while the alujha persisted with their own argot, its imperfections antagonizing her further. "Zatk'nis, you pigs! Idi na khui! You don’t come here to tell to me... I tell to you! I am surioarã!” she shouted down at them, flying into a Russian tirade enlivened by the choicest local epithets while Fyodor stamped and squealed at the hem of her coat. Susan took herself back into the ruin, unable to bear the sound of their voices even as the brothers walked out of the trees behind the visitors with their rifles in their hands, absorbing the details of a situation they had overheard from halfway down the gorge.
Their business concluded on the slope below, Edward returned to the cheerless exposure of the roof where he found Petrouchka still partaking of those qualities. There they remained, together and apart through the unlamented hours that were the claim of the long-lived and the long dead. Behind them the moon bore her own waning scale toward the horizon, a pitted, barren planet in place of that distant emblem glimpsed between the structures of urbanity, the sky arrayed with stars that wheeled as though pinned to her black skirts. Petrouchka raised her head and voice together.
“All this time, all of this long way, and Helaine is still with you. I see her, in your eye.” she observed. “You are not alone, at least.” She shrugged her chin down into her coat. “It will be ugly winter... no place for that girl. I don’t like her always in front of me.”
“I told him to leave her in France."
"Pozhalujsta... you thought he would?"
"They won’t stay here.”
“And you? What do you do?”
“Rebuild some capital.”
She contemplated his response for some time before steeling herself to deal with more immediate concerns.
“These mudilo wolves, they have offend you? How many die for it?”
“No more than necessary.”
“I did not trust them, but they bring, from town for me, when I need...”
“If you need something, I'll go for it myself.”
“Maybe. Maybe, I don’t need, anymore. But these alujha, they are chefur govno... they crawl in from all over... next week, I don’t know which one I talk to, and you know a wolf as well as I... they will come back to you for this.” She smiled to herself, staring up into the impassive darkness. “You don’t care, I know… you want for them to do this, but Kala'amātya…” the vampyre urged, awaiting his gaze. “Look at me and ask if you can wash her off your skin with blood.”
Daylight caught her eyes with its slanting, assaultive slivers as Susan leant out across the stone footing the archway. The contents of her stomach poured in a long slick down the rain-streaked rock below; frothy golden bile signaled their end, its way greased by the liquids she had already divulged. Coughing out the last of it, she lay in silence on the broad sill with her arms compressed beneath her, the bass pounding in the hotly bloated sections of her face racing with her heartbeat. Her knee crushed a box of UHT milk lying on the floor and the thought of it pushed her out again over the drop, the rolling heave answered only by stained saliva and she slid down to lie against the wall. Though vertigo had abated, its violence was redeployed by the infection in her head until light and sound began to distort at its evil behest. Susan heard hinges grinding as something distant and academic and felt the hands beneath her arms as half-imagined adjuncts to her desire for her makeshift bed, but she was laid out on stone instead of mounded needles. She lifted her head to cough again and dry-retch, spitting out the taste of the necrotic tooth. Someone wiped her chin with something soft and warm. In the midst of screwing up her face she looked into the bright colours of the brothers' stares and grew still, breathing slowly.
"It's better..." she croaked, trying to rise between them.
They ignored the shabby perjury, the cordon of fait accompli closing in an arc as she was forced back down, Sachiin taking her head and shoulders into his lap until the stripe of silver in Edward's hand became a knifeblade and she cried out, scrambling from torpor into desperate rigor and kicking out. Her feet caught a hold on Edward's trousers and shoved him backward, surprising him with the strength that was left to her. He reached across and seized her left arm, using it to drag her toward him and secure her head in the crook of an elbow while he pinned her flailing legs with one of his own.
"Get off me, you... fucking sadistic mental case!" she snarled, still twisting in his grasp; his hold tightened until she conceded and lay stiffly, breathing hard and shying from the hand he laid against her cheek. It found the buried heat and brought his fingers to the broken premolar directly despite the clenching of her jaw, a measure she was compelled to give up as blood poured from her gums. Susan screwed her eyes closed. "Don't let him do it... not him, please... I don't trust him..." she sobbed. Sachiin glanced up at his brother as she lapsed into despond between them, tears pooling in the hand he slid beneath her cheek. Edward loosed his hold, settling her head on his thigh and stowing her hair behind her ear.
"Prends ton courage á deux mains." he told her.
Blinking up at him slowly, she looked to Sachiin, who closed his hands around hers. Edward slid back her lip with the side of his thumb and in his free hand flipped the knife, swung the horn stock downward and struck the dead tooth loose. While she coughed out a cry he tore it free and Sachiin spat a wad of bark into his hand, watching the new blood well and flush the wound before applying his palliative chemistry, taking her in both arms and speaking again into her ear. The task discharged, Edward drew the face cloth from the pail and dropped the extracted tooth into the water.
Susan was grateful to be able to lie on her side in the darkness, carefully tonguing the smooth new vacancy between her teeth and wishing the scent of the needles padding her repose had proved more soporific. Beside her on his naked back lay Sachiin, arms strewn beneath his head and a rifle set between him and the dark legs of the painted horse, as indifferent as ever to exposure in his somnolence. Her restive gaze wandered across his softly glowing pallor until his arm slid out around her seemingly of its own volition; she shrugged it off and spread her sleeping bag across him, sighing as it sloughed away. The wind had dropped and settled stasis on the gorge, allowing her the sounds conveyed beneath its auspices; fluting south-bound trains of migrant birds, the tiny, squeaking-wood cries of bats hawking across the colonnade and the languid repeat of her companion's breathing. That he would never be conscious of the beauty he wore in repose was a notion that added to the mass that held sleep so steadfastly at bay.
Between her own slow breaths came a distant, concerted strike or clatter, strangely repetitious and insistent; she sighed, sat up and eased her feet into her boots. He handed her the rifle without opening his eyes, which she accepted and then abandoned by the door.
The zip tab beneath her chin chimed as she climbed down the outer steps, her hand against the cold wall of the hillside. Low clouds leant the night its sequestered nature and pallid reflet, loosing harbinger flakes that dissolved against her outline as they drifted earthward, under no apparent duress from gravity. At the bottom of the flight she sat down and pushed off the landing stone with both hands, onto the broken suggestion of a path that skirted the base of the pile toward what might once have been its kitchen gardens, the stretch of half-leveled slope upon which the alujha had stood to issue their complaint. Blocks of toppled parapet lay strewn across its width like pieces swept from an enormous chess board and stamped into the ground, casting little shadow.
Edward stood amongst them beside a great cache of windfall timber. He swung skyward then hurled down the head of an axe dragged from a store in the bowels of the ruin; the ancient implement sectioned the limbs with little aid from its dull edge, driven deeply into the wood with a force that shuddered through his daunting frame. His pullover hung from a waiting branch like the upper half of a form he had abandoned. The crack of the blows flew back at him from the wall then away into the encroaching forest, the trees standing as though they had climbed the slope to satisfy a morbid curiosity. Susan stood hoping for an acknowledgment, but he did not pause to look at her and she sat down on a cap stone in a hunch against the cold, her mood settling around her like the sleeping bag, imposing its dense black presence between her spine and lungs.
Within the fixed frame of her stare and its own mechanized trajectory, his shape suffered shade-like alterations so fluid and persistent that she was forced to blink them away before they became too disturbing. They led her to ponder what he battered so unceasingly when the wood began to blur; through his eyes, she saw so much lie down beneath the blade that she ceased to wonder at his dedication and began to make her own grim offerings, throwing the aborted shapes of spite and insufficiency under the steel. The snow did not melt on his shoulders as he worked, but lay in narrow drifts until it slid away along his back under its own weight. Susan could not bring herself to examine the disfeatured archives on his arms, her stare falling instead to the naked foot with which he pinned the branches and its narrow adjacency to the point where the blade cleaved them. That she minded its atrocious potential more than he did seemed a thing of inexplicit poignancy, referring again to their dispirited impasse until clarity urged her to her feet.
He had set down the heavy haft and stooped to toss the cut wood over the wall, where it cleared the parapet and clattered audibly on the floor of the yard. Her careful navigation of the slope toward him caused him finally to pause, albeit with an expression that should have halted the intrusion. Frowning to herself as she stepped over the branches, Susan encircled him with both arms, turning her head against him.
“We do love you, Kala'amātya.” she sighed. “Please don’t be so sad.”
He smelled of the night and green fir balsam and stood completely still, feeling so much like and yet unlike his brother that she suffered a moment of baffling agnosis, meeting reserve where Sachiin wore invitation, a desolate parity with the granite of the ruin and the snow that fell around them so that she might not have distinguished him from either.
“Let me go.” he said, almost in resignation.
“Make me.” she replied, frowning in the expectation that he might. “Thank you... for my tooth, and... everything.”
“Tout le plaisir est pour moi.” he assured her. Susan released him, but grasped the arm he offered as she stumbled backward over unseen timber. She stooped to pick up one of the lengths, shuffling a small way down the slope and wheeling her arm in a circle before letting the piece fly in the hope it would clear the parapet, which it did not, hitting the wall and bouncing back at them. He put out a hand and caught it before it could strike her, committing it to the yard himself and shaking his head faintly at the smile she turned to him. Her gaze followed him to the edge of the cut wood, where he began to sort the pieces too large to throw.
"Do you mind... being called Kala'amātya?"
"Not any more." he admitted. She was led toward her few coherent notions of Helaine de Marchand, imagining her voice as the analgesic agency that had cleansed the word of its pernicious connotations. She bowed her head and blew warmth against her hands.
"I am sorry, for calling you a sadist..."
Dragging another branch from the pile, he shrugged in a brief concession.
"Never apologize to one." The set of her mouth changed with her appreciation of the remark as he took up the axe again. The first log flew in two directions across the snow; Susan watched him halve another dozen lengths. “You look cold.” he added with his back to her, and she smiled at the unsubtle denotation; the crack and buffet of the wood proved so sapid that she was loath to leave it, but he looked to her and changed his grasp upon the weapon, and she shuffled off in the direction she had come.
Drawing on experience, Shaw had been careful to pack a set of aging jeans and sweatshirt to replace those casual garments issued to them at the time of their departure, the latters' institutional flavour so devoid of anonymity that few dared to wear them. His companions, two men his own age, had taken no such measures and crossed the road before him stiffly in their new gym-grey and naval blue ensembles, boots still carrying their factory dust over the muddy tarmac toward a roadside inn. Its ponderous stone frontage was set back beneath a slatted balcony painted a fading pale milk chocolate. Slits of light fell through the yellow bottle glass windows and their thin render of dirt, to lie upon the sodden road. The trio paused to allow the passage of a pony ambling before a trailer of corrugated iron hammered over wood, its mismatched tractor tyres shrieking as they swayed upon their axles. Drifts of misting rain so fine that it settled on their clothing without soaking through blurred the darkness of the hills, their cobalt ramparts penning the listless village like some huge stockade.
The tavern door was manned by an ancient rustic seated beneath the sunken black felt of his hat; he squinted at the Americans as they ducked the lintel and stood before the counter in the shifting glow of christmas lights entwined around its timber fixtures, alternating red and green. Their leader scanned a gloom composed of candlelight and the malted stink of upset beer and smuggled cigarette smoke. Wessner was the tallest of them by half a foot but carried enough muscle to offset any impression of idle length, his face a neat, squared, close-shaven summary of his Pennsylvania Dutch extraction, his pale stare guarded by a forehead promising resolve. Belying these cues, he turned his back to the imbibing locals and reached down into his pocket to consult his GPS device for the third time since their arrival. Their communications officer leant over the small appliance himself, unduly invested in his vacillation. Amis was slender, watchful and dark-haired, possessed of a limpid gaze and restless limbs; Shaw murmured, too late to prevent the staring habitués emptying their vessels down their throats and departing in a flat-footed mass, the exodus leaving a single clique seated at the far end of the narrow room.
Its members sat behind imported beer bottles, nursing half-closed and blackened eyes and other undisguised contusions, their battered faces sharing the colours guttering in the grate of the tiled stove beside them. The shadowed atmosphere agreed so closely with the dark woodland pattern of their partial fatigues that their limbs merged with the furniture. Turning again, Wessner addressed Shaw beneath his breath, looking back toward the bar.
“They’re not our source.”
“We can't look like this.” Shaw muttered, glancing back at the remaining patrons while Amis sucked a corner of his mouth between his teeth. One of the trio beside the stove addressed them loudly from their crowded table.
“That’s okay, you know... your source, he talk to us, and he’s cool. Very, very cool.” he called to them through a smirk, lifting one booted foot and setting it on his knee. Their predacious smiles lit the silver in their eyes and spread into a slow, smug chuckle that they shared, exhaled with cigarette smoke. One of them kicked out a bench from beneath the table; before Wessner could object, Shaw moved to accept the invitation, standing before the stove. Their self-styled host’s star tattoos moved slowly on either side of his throat as he spoke. “You know, I was thinking about this so much... what gets black op guys all the way to here? Maybe it’s big and not so friendly and maybe it likes English girls... because, I think I know where you can find this.” He folded his hands behind his head and leant back against them.
Taking a look around them, Wessner issued a reply without returning his eyes to the alujha, and Shaw withdrew, retracing his steps toward the bar. The thin plank door in the shadowed wall beside it cast a line of light across the floor, and he put out a boot and pushed it inward. Behind it, one of the bright blonde bargirls stood bent over a trough-like sink beneath a naked bulb, her head pulled back by the fist wrapped in her ponytail; it belonged to a youth in a camouflage parka and combat boots, addressing himself with single-minded emphasis to the posterior revealed by the brevity of her denim skirt. She abused Shaw’s intrusion while ash fell from the delinquent guard’s cigarette over the rainbow tattoo on the small of her back; the latter slowed their conjugation and with one hand swung the assault rifle from his shoulder at Shaw’s features. He retreated slowly, looking into the pink-pencilled pout of the older barmaid as she sat upon a high stool, a glass of white spirit at her elbow.
The stove-side conclave adjourned, the sound of shuffled benches drawing the alujha guard from his tryst into the bar, zipping up his pants as he emerged. Shaw looked to his colleagues expectantly as they stepped out onto the street, hunching against the slight slant of the drizzle.
“It was positive.” Wessner assured him, against the weight of his own frown.
"You got a location?" They headed south along the side of the road, the few headlights pushing past them blurred by the mist beading around their eyes.
“Posted on the sat nav... advised on terrain, ordinance...”
“What’d they want?”
“They took a five year NOMO.” Shaw stopped before the turn they were about to take, blinking into the weather; Wessner’s scowl deepened as he looked back toward him. “Is there something you want to say, Shaw?” The demand turned Amis’s head to them as though pulling string knotted beneath his chin.
“These crews know we don’t have a presence out here... they want cash, not non-molestation bonds... they’ve been all about buying land since the eighties.”
Wessner shook his head as though at an absurdity.
“You're saying I should run this entire operation off of hearsay? We gave them what they asked for... what is your personal experience with this genera?” he demanded.
“Eight years, six campaigns, five on point.” The taller man’s stare faltered.
Shaw's impetus carried him past both men and onto the narrow lane running from the main road, the clay turning his boots a claggy yellow by the time he had made their billet in the hamlet’s collective-era grainstore, its blockwork stained with long streaks from the rusting lights on its facade. Josephine sat on a ply chair, eating her rations from a foil tray. Eight black sleeping bags were laid out in rows upon the concrete in the rear of the hangar-like structure; the conscripts assigned to them stood in a line with their hands clasped to the backs of their heads, their faces pressed to the furthest wall in an attitude of punitive immobility. She glanced up at Wessner as he brought his scowl inside, shaking the rain from his jacket and staring at the arrangement of his personnel. One of the entailed men turned slightly toward them and began to speak, shouting loudly over the blade-like tone still screaming in his head, but Josephine reached again for the poison-orange fob clipped to her belt and chastened his presumption. Wessner leant over her while she cornered the last element of her meal against the tray with her fork.
“I left orders for them to be sleeping off their air tranqs.” he hissed.
“I deal with verbal insub before it escalates.” she told him. He shook his head bitterly and looked back toward the punishment detail.
“Hit your bunks. We break at o-four hundred.” he declared. “Shaw... first watch.”
Shaw took a rain-damp chair sited by the door.
With her small torch propped against her pack Susan changed into fresh clothes and tied up her hair, all the while subjected to the vigilance of the piglet standing four-square in the doorway, its narrow head wearing the shadow like an operatic villain. He could not be tempted in with clicking fingers or offerings of dehydrated fruit and regarded her inscrutably, grunting and moving to precede her as she switched off the light and made for the door.
Sachiin had furnished, lit, and begun to neglect a fire on her behalf by the time she climbed the steps toward them in darkness, its low coals sprawling and collapsing around its glowing remains. The face of the peak bounding the yard had rebuffed the layer of silvery white that had alighted elsewhere upon the flags and castellations and Kala'amātya and Petrouchka pursued an almost wordless game of bezique beside it at the refectory table. The vampyre's mannequin features and obsessive intent proved less useful than her opponent's barbaric statistical command; Susan paused by his shoulder to look at his cards, then removed herself to the pyre, standing with her pink hands stinging over the ebbing flames. Sachiin sat in a chair before the parapet. Its stout legs had been reduced by their contact with the damp floor of an inner chamber, his own lying propped on the stone as he contemplated the benighted panorama. The snow had settled on him in an eccentric distribution; he made room on his legs for her, using his elastic dimensions to confound her half-hearted attempts at repulsion as she sat down, pressing a kiss to her ear, and she sighed, showing him the thorns still buried in her palms and fingers. On the ground beside his chair a strange collection of dark, egg-sized objects sat on a stripe of bark, from which a peculiar aroma rose with the faint heat of the fire, roseate and linseed-oily.
“Cul de chien.” he told her as she reached down for one. “Medlars. Found an old tree down the hill.”
“They’re rotten.” Susan observed, curling her lip.
“Bletted.” he insisted, pressing a finger into the soft heart of the largest fruit and committing it to his mouth.
Sampling its yielding flesh doubtfully, she was startled by its fudge-like savour, the creamy tastes of date and cooling caramel paired with strange, sylvan associates, awakening her moribund appetite. She consumed several in untidy succession, addressing the remainder with more consideration, then sitting up suddenly and staring at him.
"You're freezing cold..." she complained, pressing a hand to his face upon perceiving his condition through their clothing.
"It's snowing." Sachiin reminded her. "Wait a minute..." His face became entirely expressionless as he took her hand in both of his; their temperature climbed slowly until it was indistinguishable from her own, as though flushed through with hot water. "There you go... thirty eight degrees C."
Her mouth fell open.
"Are you only warm for me?"
"I'm hot for you, poupée." he smiled. She exclaimed again to herself, sliding his hand into her jersey and laying back against his shoulder.
"God, that feels so dodgy. You do have a superpower, though... I knew it."
A dry halo clasped the moon, arrayed in shards of spectral lavender and silver and they considered it together.
“More snow coming.” he murmured.
Even in the hands of six sweating conscripts the folding spades that had been dropped with the rest of their equipment from an unmarked helicopter made scant impression on the root-bound soil. They toiled in mottled darkness beneath the trees, the drop chute lying flaccid over the bracken while Amis and Wessner dismantled the package it had purveyed.
“A Two, Three, get in and assist. I want that chute covered in five.” the latter muttered, directing the two conscripts standing guard; they complied, but soon demurred, climbing back out of the shallow depression.
“Sir, we got a great big fuck-off rock under this shit.” A Four declared, scratching at his black-greased neck. Josephine frowned, took up the welter of silky olive folds and rolled it in both arms, dumping it into the depression with the dismantled crate to expedite their concealment. While the conscripts were set to shoveling debris on top of them she found Amis poring over his GPS and stowed her rifle, taking the appliance from his hands.
“Something wrong?” she asked, looking up through the grease stick slashes that flattened and dissembled her features as she scrolled through its screens; he made an abortive move to reclaim it and then shook his head, folding his arms.
“Some kind of mode issue.”
Josephine slid her own device from the side of her pack and pressed it on him, glancing up from beneath her black cap when he began to object.
“It’s the same unit.” she assured him.
“You don't have the data... I need those coordinates t...”
“Get them from Wessner.” she told him over her shoulder. "And get some mud on your boots. I can see them from half a click out." Shrugging her pack onto her shoulders turned her about and brought her face to face with Shaw, who lifted his gaze in a pretended survey of the evening sky, partially visible through the canopy.
They waited while the single file arranged itself and moved off, assuming the posterior guard, both glad at least of the waning moon's half-light upon the deer track; the boots preceding them had churned it to a slippery ribbon tracing the contours of a steep rise. They crested it together, pausing to quarter the grassy glade beyond while the advance party shuffled into the trees. A raised hand urged them onward, and they had taken their first step with that intent when a high scream pressed them onto their knees and brought their weapons to bear in its direction.
The cry was quickly stifled; Josephine looped around the glade, meeting the tail of the compressed procession as Wessner dispatched a new point past the dark shape of the longhouse. C Two lay on his back, hands pawing at those held tightly to his mouth and nose by grimacing companions. She hissed the overlooking men out of her way and threw off her pack, stooping to search out her emergency appurtenance. The stout brown teeth of a gin trap had met two-thirds of the way toward the conscript's right knee, severing everything in its hunger for bone. His features were shock-white and shiny under his greasepaint; standing with a foot on either side of his leg, she popped a heavy silver syringe from its plastic cell, leant down and stabbed it into his thigh, dispatching its twinned doses. The man sagged, eyes rolling beneath lids already suffused with contused blue, the colour blackening his lips. Josephine looked up into Wessner’s face. It was as tight and slick as the dead man's, and she rose as he nodded slowly, wiping a hand over his nose.
“That’s... that's... good job.” he told her. The other conscripts scowled bitterly at the praise as they freed the corpse’s leg and dragged it into the trees. She threw down the syringe in favour of her rifle once more as another cry went up beyond the eidiré, just as quickly extinguished by the small point team.
The second victim began struggling at the sight of her, requiring his cadre to restrain each one of his desperately crawling limbs while she shouldered her way into the affray and pressed a boot to the side of his head. He threw his loosed hand against the fresh needle, piercing it through and prompting her to whip it back and slap the dose into the side of his sweating neck.
A scout from her own detail returned to Wessner with news of the second longhouse, then doubled back toward them, eyes wide.
“He says we gotta bunk in these." he told her, cocking his head toward the black bulk of the eidiré beside them. "We got this one, they got the one up the way.” Glancing in the prescribed direction, she rose and capped the needle.
The dumb acceptance conferred by sleep relieved little of the disgust Josephine felt for the conscript's ruined and brutalized faces. Rain that had begun as shiftless mist condensed the smell soaking the timbers of the structure around them and it could scarcely have done more to discourage occupation. The forest without had affirmed her worst suspicions as she returned from watch, no wind stirring the branches that dripped so ponderously onto the leaking thatch, the weeping trees destructing the silence of the grove like colluding militants.
The binocular elements over her eyes painted Shaw in pointilistic green against the gable wall. He looked up over his shoulder from the crouch he had assumed to plumb the contents of her pack, holding perfectly still for an elastic moment before shifting a hand toward the assault rifle on the floor beside him. She covered the movement with her own weapon and he abandoned it, sitting on his haunches. Pushing back her visor slowly, Josephine stood in the glow of the night light hanging from the rafters while the rain dripped from her fatigues and he awaited the subtle easement of her posture that would allow him to rise. She looked instead at the sleeping figure on the floor nearby and kicked at its legs.
“A One...” she muttered. “Get up.”
Two hours squatting in a bed of gleaming briar canes had deadened Josephine’s feet to the point where she could barely own their presence. Beside her, hunkered amid their weapons, Shaw and the four conscripts watched the second eidiré through the same barbed tracery, the treeless midst of the surrounding glade guarded by one half of the remaining C corps. Any loyalty they felt toward their isolated compatriot had proved soluble in rain and darkness; the smoke drawn from his cigarette drifted toward them, the slow precipitation blurring his shape and hissing as it struck the solitary ember. Shaw experienced his vulnerability as a constriction of his throat. The sentry opened the fly of his camouflage trousers and released a steaming stream onto the rank, bowed grass.
Behind him, the vapour lying stagnant under the trees began to drift, curling around the corners of the longhouse and creeping forth between its stout, drab piles. Josephine sank further and dropped the visor to her eyes as the figures she awaited began to coalesce beneath the eidiré, gathering black materia from the obscuring mist and drawing it into determinate shapes, their stares flashing like coin silver in the darkness. An arrant, dreamlike silence bore them out into the rain and two broke from the incursive party, passing through the grass toward the oblivious sentry as he stood wiping his hand on the leg of his pants. They closed on him from either side, so unhurried that his notice seemed assured until they seized and gagged their victim in a smooth, wordless accord, slicing open the great vessels in his thighs with dripping blades before he could utter a syllable.
While he bled out, the remaining the alujha turned back toward the longhouse, Josephine's visor casting them in cold, tarnished relief through the pluvial static until they were lost to observation. That they had somehow ascended into its interior was betrayed by the cries escaping it, then stuttering volleys of automatic fire crashing wildly through the thin plank walls. Two inmates struggled from the doorway, lost their footing and fell in a tangle, Wessner kicking free from his subordinate before they were both snatched up and dispatched like cattle drafted onto a killing floor. The percussive speed and terse perfunction of their deaths worked on the hidden conscripts; they shuffled thickly, altering their grasp upon their weapons and working their jaws so that only the rain preserved their concealment. Familiarity had muted Shaw’s own reaction, the same dull principle warning him of the decapitations that were an inevitable sequel, that they would be performed with no particular efficiencies or flourishes. From doubling over the corpses, the alujha rose in turn with smirks greased red, swallowing down the morsels they hacked out of and sliced from their victims, grunting over their division. They had set down the choice munitions and equipment looted from the eidiré; with their trophies consumed, it was examined and re-packed, then passed amongst their number. Saplings cut from the edge of the forest were replanted in the glade, their denuded crowns replaced with the slack-jawed heads of the slain, their labile fluids oozing thickly down the smooth bark.
When they had disappeared into the southward trees the conscripts remained within their crouching silence while Shaw examined the glade through two sets of visors. Declaring it clear, he rose and gave the signal to advance, only to look back to find he had stepped out alone and that the men had lain down and writhed amid the thorns, clutching their heads. He strode toward their tormentor.
"What the hell are you doing?" he hissed, snatching at the fob in Josephine's hand. "We are done. We walk out, right now."
Her victims climbed back onto their feet, shedding the wet debris gathered from the ground by their clothing, still too impressed by their erstwhile adversaries to audibly deplore their treatment.
“Toss their bunks.” she told them. Shaw put out a hand to stay the remaining corps, but they looked to Josephine, and pushed on into the glade.
“I lisp now." Susan sighed, sliding her tongue between her teeth; her hand lay open on Sachiin's knee and she peered down at her open palm while he leant over it, working the thorns free with the point of a folding blade.
“You don’t lisp.” he chuckled.
They sat on the parapet and chair respectively. A ceaseless wind, cold and bone-dry, blustered over the edge of the yard under the midday sun, its distant solitaire lost in a sky of insuperable, gaseous immensity, snapping through the clothes and strips of hare meat on the drying frame they had improvised from branches. It curled against the hill and swept back toward them, dosed with the smoke still rising thinly from the remains of their laundry fire. Below the forest formed a sea of undulous shadow green in which the bald peaks rose like desert atolls, thick skirts of snow still lying, topaz blue, amid their shade. She looked up, the sun flooding brightly-veined crimson through her lids, then returned to examining his peculiarly toneless expression, an effect of his devotion to his task; Sachiin's colours were favoured by the light that dramatized the landscape and her gaze enjoyed him in the same leisured and impersonal way. The thorns he cut free left behind a shallow, sapid burn, relieving the pressure of their intrusion. Susan closed her eyes; in her pellucid mood the sound of him leaning in his chair to discreetly address the tin of condensed milk secreted beneath it did not move her to active intervention.
"You'll get diabetes." she murmured.
"I don't care. This shit is incredible. It’s...”
“Ten years past its use-by date... sickly and disgusting?”
"Sans déc. It’s the Hello Kitty of food... like someone dipped a cow in gur. What's caramel?" he added, frowning at what he could make of the recipe printed on the tin.
“Stop eating it! It’s not even ours.”
When she swatted impulsively at the can he rose with it and walked some distance from her, leaning over the edge of the roof to vomit the substance into the void beyond, the polka dotted fabric of her underwear sagging on his hips.
“There’s fucking miles of it down there.” he assured her, referring to the aging cache they had discovered in the alcoves below and taking another from the portion they had requisitioned, peeling off its lid with an ecstatic murmur. His small porcine devotee squealed impatiently at his feet and danced in anticipation as he bent down and offered the treat to its questing snout.
“Give that one to him and get another, for god's sake. And put some pants on.” she complained, easing herself from the chair and crossing the yard to take his jeans from the line; cognizant of her intent, he stepped up onto the parapet and used its broken length in a leisurely evasion, scooping what remained from the tin.
“Hey, if only the black helicopters could see me now. I dare you!" he declared, shaking a fist at the sky.
“They'd have to fly back to base and bleach their eyeballs for an hour, so stay up there.” she observed, feigning resignation before lunging sideways at him. He walked over the chair and took refuge behind the fire where she cornered him, Fyodor dashing after them.
“You can’t forcibly re-pants a spirited ch... child of...” The protest was interrupted by the re-emergence of the second tin of milk, which he bent over to eject. "Nature... is that caramel?" he inquired, nodding down at the ground. As she kept hold of his wrist and shook out his trousers he lost his elusive verve, standing tranquilly and smiling at her as she hauled the garment up over his legs. “While you’re down there.” he grinned, enjoying the slap to the rear that his remark inspired. “I can't help this, you brought more underwear than I did.”
“So did Kermit the bloody frog.” She buttoned his fly and shook her head at another of his new scars, a wide, slightly corrugated crescent on his hip that he twisted to see for himself.
“Well, at least I didn't get it in a tranny fight at Taco Bell, though that would have been a fuck of a lot more glamorous.”
“We should have let your brother turn them into kebabs when we had the chance.” Susan muttered, walking back to the chair. He paused to douse his head in the bucket of water.
"Alas no, my bloodthirsty petal... an alujha death feud is a game nobody wins."
"Aren't we in one anyway?"
"Technically no... they started it, so if we don't do anything else, it's not on." He consulted the tin in his hand once more. "It says... caramel happens when you heat it up." he added, gaze shifting to the cans that formed part of Susan's rations and equipment, the former assorted into daily allowances, the latter cleaned, examined and laid out to dry. Sachiin edged one toward the coals with his foot whilst dipping a finger in the can and applying it languidly to his neck and chest. She let her head settle against the chair.
"If you're going to do that, your name has to be... mmm... Richard... you have to be new in town and just looking for a place to stay, and you're going to be passed around a lot of strange... I think this time... strange firemen." she informed him, smiling at his groin's gentle and intermittent conjunction with her ear. He rolled his eyes.
"Your name is the least pornographic part of you... I can't help that. How can you have ants in your bloody pants? We just washed them." The narrow shadow in the corner of her smile granted it a strangely endearing quality.
"Les dents du bonheur." he contended at the sight of it, touching his thumb to her lip. "And it's happiness. I have happiness in my pants."
"I know. It's poking my eardrum. Sit down... if you don't stop eating that rubbish I'll have to tie you to something. Have a go at the back of my head."
Susan knelt over the stone and he sat on the edge of the chair to work the tangles from her hair, searching out the thorns that had lodged in her scalp. The stroke of his hands closed her eyes; he leant down to set the tin on the ground for Fyodor, who nosed it greedily.
"Do you ever think about how strange you are?" she inquired.
"How do you mean?"
"I mean... do you feel it?"
He looked out toward the mountains.
"Parfois. Sometimes I feel... loose. Like the parts are rattling around... talking about me behind my back."
"You have parts?" she laughed. "How many?"
"Three. One at the back, and one behind each eye. The left one has a creepy voice... go platinum blonde, drink a case of Pernod, light curtain fires..." He adjusted his intonation accordingly. "I try not to listen but he's very persuasive."
"How can you be three things at once? Who am I talking to now?"
"My threefold shit is all up in your grille, poupée... every part likes you. Je suis désolé."
From looking at him she took another measure of the encircling horizon, resting her chin on her hands.
"If I'd known you were this creepy I would never have slept with you in a million years." she smirked. He ran his tongue over his teeth inside his own smile.
"Now you're stuck with me in a place where there's absolutely nothing else to do. The very heart of darkness."
"Yes, and I'm not overly fussed about staying.”
“Give it a couple of weeks."
"You’ve got some carbs to suck down before we take a run at the border. You’ll have to walk behind me when we do, though... Gévaudan’s gone straight to you arse and it’s giving me a special feeling.”
“Make the most of it. It'll be fit and sporty by the time I’ve hauled it back to civilization.”
“Don’t say that, Christabel... rub some butter on it.” he exclaimed, edging the chair forward so that he could enjoy more intimate contact with her posterior. She reached back in a futile attempt to deter the attention. “What do they say... starve a cold and feed a booty? An arse in the hand is worth two on the dancefloor? A hot rack is silver but trunk junk is gold? A double-down donk is a man’s best friend?”
“It’s speaking is silver but silence is gold. Silence. And stop that.”
“I can’t.” She shook him off and climbed up onto the parapet to lie on her stomach, taking advantage of the meagre warmth afforded by the stone; he let himself down on top of her, blowing a rolling purr on the back of her neck and watching her ears turn pink. "Un petit coup en vitesse?"
"You have to say it slowly." Susan complained.
"It loses its charm." he laughed, settling beside her with his back to the drop and his head propped on his hand. His eyes shared their hue with the distant trees behind him so that they seemed to have commandeered his gaze, his stare undermining the quietude that she encouraged by closing her own. “I was going to tell you something, but if you don’t want to hear it... alright then."
Sachiin maintained his threatened embargo for longer than she anticipated, though he began flicking his teeth with a fingernail.
"Tell me or I'll push you off.”
“I just wanted to say that I was worried... you know, that Ed had done the right thing... the grown up thing... by letting Frost go. I’m glad I was too needy and pathetic. So... thanks, for not running off screaming.”
“I did run off screaming.”
“Thanks for not running off screaming from me specifically.”
“I’m not planning on running ever again.” she assured him. "But... I would hate to be sitting in bloody Hackney right now wondering what you were doing and realizing I'd just made the most sensible adult decision ever."
He clapped a hand to his heart.
"My left ventriloquist is having an erection."
Susan accepted his kiss with some hesitation, wary of its nebulous, luring gravity and pushing him back onto his side when he slid an arm and leg across her.
"I hope it doesn’t cost anything to get wherever we're going because I’ve about ten francs and change left. What've you got?”
“Fifty lei, in my good pants. I dropped my last US on Azeri single malt in the Nizami küçəsi."
“So... we're skint?”
"And you're not bothered?"
“You sound like such a rich kid."
"Is that good or bad these days? I don't know, Christabel, I just can't get all bent about money. It comes and it goes... we just have a casual thing."
"I don’t know if I can go from tooling around in a Jag to... panhandling, probably, in eastern Europe...”
“No prise de tête. Auberjonois’ll sub me whatever we need. If there’s something he loves more than pulling thirty percent for sitting on his hairy fucking arse eating cheese, he's too ashamed to tell me.”
He groaned as he sat up and let his legs hang over the drop, and she curled around him.
“Your walking away from a Jaguar is a lot sexier than driving around in one like a dick.”
"It took me forever to find that fucking car. I was trying to impress you."
"Do they not come with a key and matching doors?"
"I asked my inner lady what she thought about the guy who drives a minty XJS and she said she just couldn't imagine wanting to fuck him."
"Your inner lady should buy some underwear." she laughed.
"Well, first we'd have to hit the lending arm of the international bastard bank of Kala'amātya, but that's cool... he’ll pay me to go away in a fucking heartbeat.”
Her frown returned.
“I don't think we should leave him alone at the moment.”
“It’ll do him good, the sulky prick. You're the first person to survive calling him a sadistic mental case in the last two thousand years, though... that's progress now that I think about it."
"I wish we could send him to counseling."
He laughed, its strange sound falling over the wall and booming down the slope.
"You girls and your Jesus complex... he's just not a modern guy, Christabel. Skullfucking, unsolicited amputations... it's all ikebana to him. Leave him to the expert."
"She left him."
Sachiin issued a dramatic presentation to the gorge.
"Kala'amātya in therapy... what seems to be the problem, Mr Lamb? Why are you such a creepy, twisted fuck? I don't know, but I start stabbing clinical psychologists if I can't find my skull bag, and what the fuck did I say about eye contact?" He made a splattering sound between pursed lips. "Clean up in cubical four."
Having wiled his way into the narrow space between them and under his arm, Fyodor set his little hooves against her to complete his usurpation.
“That pig is in love with you.”
“I’m in love with him. But I’m not in love with my brother, and there’s something about the way he was grazing me with small arms fire the other night that tells me I’m getting to the end of what I can do for him in his present state.”
They remained in their respective silences for a while, Susan biting at a fingernail.
"I really do not want to stay here. Petrouchka's avoiding me, and when she isn't, she's giving me looks. I'd rather sleep under a tree."
"I don’t know the technical shit involved in the whole undead conversion thing, but I do know the human brain probably isn’t designed to be flogged five hundred years past its use-by date, especially when it wasn’t your flashest feature in the first place. She's petite noblesse... she can marry well and find veins and that's about it. Don't take it personally.”
“Stop trying to make me feel superior.”
“You are superior.” he assured her.
“What, because I have a pulse?”
"Give it two weeks, cloudcheeks. Fourteen tiny little days. Pour moi?"
Muttering, Susan set the pig down on the roof and sat up alongside him, pushing a hand into his hair and attempting to derange it to her satisfaction, only to see it slide back in its sericeous disregard.
“I never thought I’d miss midnite madder, but I actually do. If we can go pretty much anywhere, I fancy India. For Diwali or something."
“Long walk.” She groaned but he remained resolute. “It’s lo-fi pedestriation until we lose the heat. You get safety or you get convenience. They don’t hook up.”
“But I like convenience...”
“I like not having the door of my condo kicked in at three in the morning by black op freaks or roidy bloodsuckers." He glanced at her fondly. "And I love a feral pants-optional destination so what about Holi, somewhere backwards and country... I'll trade plumbing and florists for not having to worry about you so much.”
“Having me around must be like this nightmare egg and spoon race that just keeps going.”
He shook his head at the exoticism of the activity to which she referred.
"If I had known you were this weird, I would never have slept with you." Sachiin smiled, lurching perilously at the shove she applied to his shoulders.
“About your brother...” He put a hand to his throat and commenced a doleful choking but she persisted. "When I think about it, he's probably the smartest person I've ever met, so he must know if he stopped sulking and got on a plane he could actually be with Lilian.” she insisted.
"He's smart enough to know you can't fix a fleshwound with a fucking machete. Frost cut him a break... I never thought she would... if he jumps the rope and goes after her it'll end in a smoking hole in the ground and I'll be the one who needs a fucking shrink."
"Everything ends badly." she observed. He stepped over her and walked back toward the remains of the fire.
"Trust me, it's a matter of degree. Christabel, I know what you're saying... a year ago, all this was me. I was the one humping his leg trying to get his attention. He told me himself, over and over... get off my dick, Sachiin... no really, I prefer my own company... strictly no romanticizing my evil, Sachiin. And he was right. He’s the scorpion, not the frog... don’t get it twisted.”
She murmured something toward her chest.
“I said they both drown.” she sighed at his insistence, lowering her voice as he leant over the shifting red glow of the coals as though listening to something obscure within them. As she opened her mouth to ask, a cracking report sent a spray of caramel bursting from the can he had left upon the coals. Wiping a hand over the streak of browned milk decorating his midriff, he murmured to himself and licked it from his palm.
Burning resin spat from the tall splinter of pine that Sachiin pushed down into a narrow fissure in the table, hissing where it fell onto the back of his hands. Their gracile shapes were painted in a flickering orange degraded into umber and obscurity by the light of the flame at the end of the wood, its plume of oily smoke snaking toward the ceiling of the chamber. That it had once been a refectory was evidenced by the gaping, crater-like fireplace standing at the far end of its rectangular extent and still housing the great kettles and cauldarium, rusted and overturned. The dusty black scent flushed down the chimney flue was overlaid by the amberous emissions of the living flame; Susan leant back as she sat before it, another glob of hot sap landing on the wood before her.
“That had better not explode.” she murmured. A pile of medlars gleaned from beneath the two trees of Sachiin's discovery lay in repose upon the table, their strange autumnal smell reminding her again of their equally peculiar savour. He sat down across from her, easing his long legs over the bench. She dealt seven cards from the slick airport pack in her hands, face down onto the dusty grey timber.
"You have to be quiet for this. I'm going to pick up a card, and you have to tell me which one it is. If you only get a colour, just say which one." she instructed.
"I'm not psychic."
"You don't know that."
"Yes I do." he chuckled dryly. "The universe has spoken."
"Just do exactly as I say."
He set his chin on his hand, murmuring answers as she worked through the suite. Her perplexity, writ faintly at first, deepened as the experiment concluded.
"You got every last one wrong." Susan frowned, gathering the cards and suspecting the blamelessness of his expression before looking round the feeble details allowed by the torchlight. “No Petrouchka again.”
“A girl’s got to eat.”
“Eat what? I’m the only thing on two legs for god knows how far...”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
"I told you... she's avoiding me."
In entering the chamber Kala'amātya troubled the smoking flame but made no sound, and Susan quashed an embarrassing start, keeping both feet on the ground. While he surveyed their seclusion mutely it occurred to her that he was providing an opportunity to demonstrate disinclination; when she made no obvious objection, he sat down at the end of the table and chose two medlars for himself. The torch stood mirrored in the polish of their eyes as a golden ellipse, and she was struck, then disturbed by the idea that they would have dispensed with it altogether if she had not required it, contenting themselves with a darkness that was no more opaque to their perception than rain was to her own. The glow was returned by their faces, its effacement of all minor detail rendering them so perfectly alike that one might have been the reflection of the other, though when she made a deliberate attempt to confuse them, she discovered it was not as easy as she feared. She shook her head at Sachiin none the less.
"You're dyeing your hair." she told him.
Kala'amātya drew his knife through the medlar in his palm and ate as though unaware of the scrutiny she accorded the entirely novel tableau; Sachiin’s stare narrowed in sympathy with the rest of his expression, shifting with the pressure Susan placed upon his foot under the table. She addressed herself to their visitor.
“Have you seen Petrouchka?”
“She left three nights ago.” Kala'amātya replied, while she selected her own piece of fruit.
“Because of us?"
"No." Sap sparked again from the torch.
"What do you think the weather will do?”
He cut around a blackened portion of the drupe; she spectated patiently, leaning on her elbows.
“We won’t get stuck here, will we? I thought we might get going, in case that happens.”
Again she waited, leaning further over her arms in an unconscious attempt to discern the wordless aspects of his discourse, finding only subtle disapproval of the inquiry in his gaze.
"Will we? Get stuck here?" she pressed. Kala'amātya chose another medlar.
“Christabel, he's not going to putt a fucking box of chocolates out his arsehole.” his brother assured her dourly. She sighed his name. “Susan…” he countered, wide-eyed. "You don't have to pretend it's not gruesome... look at him... it's like trying to small talk with a giant fucking shrunken head."
She examined their guest again, revealing a tilt in her expression that grew while Sachiin continued to enumerate objections until they seemed more to obscurely commend than execrate their object. Dealing seven cards for Kala'amātya, she explained the procedure briefly, receiving his silence as assent; he looked from each toward her as he rendered his verdicts.
"Six of clubs. Black king. Red queen. Ace of spades. Two of hearts. Small red. Black jack."
Susan frowned as she attempted to articulate her findings.
"You um... you got them all right..." He watched her colour at the implications as she stared at them in turn. "You're not... are you?" she demanded. Even as she spoke Kala'amātya's gaze caught and bound her own, altering to the colour in the foot of the flame, its consuming, gem-like blankness stoking her dismay.
"I can only read you when you're looking at me." he told her. In the darkness of the wall against which he had leant Sachiin rolled his eyes and sighed at her horrified credulity, picking up one of the cards.
"He's fucking with you. We can see them in your eye." he laughed, leaning forward so that she could perceive the red queen miniaturized upon the surface of his own. Susan snatched it back from him, including them both in her admonition, her tormentor receiving it with the faintest of half-turned smiles. Sachiin shrugged. "Yeah well, I warned you about him."
“What did those alujha want the other night?" she demanded. "Did they talk to you?”
“They came to troll Pet for putting us up... she called them a bunch of banjo-picking ballbags and told them to fuck off.”
“And what else?”
His reply was complicated by another medlar and she turned to Kala'amātya for clarification.
“They were looking to be compensated for their loss of personnel.” the latter explained.
“You’re joking... what, money?"
"We told them we weren’t carrying any currency. Any claim they might have had was voided by their offensive anyway.”
Clearing his throat conspicuously, Sachiin let his stare settle on his brother’s face.
“See the rainbow this morning?” he asked. She grinned as she shuffled the cards.
“No... you’re not still afraid of them, are you?”
“It’s not fear, it’s respect.”
“I used to be scared of vacuum cleaners.” Susan chuckled, looking back to Kala'amātya. “So, what... you told them we were broke... and?”
“They said they’d take you, in lieu of money.” That she did not at first believe him was expressed in laughter and he elaborated. “Your inamorato explained his objections the only way he knows how, and since negotiating with someone aspirating their own blood presents difficulties, I was forced to support his position. After which they left.”
She scowled again at Sachiin.
"I thought you said it wasn't on."
"They started it."
“So... you beat them up and they went away with nothing?” The cast of Kala'amātya's gaze confirmed it. “Good.” she concluded, returning her attention to him. He bore it stoically, the lack of unequivocal refusal in his demeanour like some persisting mirage. She decided to test it further. "What's India like?"
"Difficult to summarize." he replied.
"Could you have a go?"
"It's adjacent to Afghanistan."
In the ensuing silence she turned her expression to Sachiin, who smiled back at her contentedly.
"I know it's probably horrible, but I really want to go to Afghanistan for some reason." Susan declared.
"I don't care for it myself."
"Shall we just go to India then?"
His disinclination was tangible, like a change visible through his skin. The thought that his plans might diverge from their own in actuality was like a kick from a stranger, and something she could not immediately accept. Taking the box of cigarettes from the end of the table she applied herself to picking out the gold tab from its cellophane.
"Why were you pretending to be an artist?"
"High spirits got the better of him." Sachiin mused.
"I don't understand why you weren't allowed to make anything. It just seems completely mad."
Her knowledge of the ancient interdict sent Kala'amātya's gaze back to his brother, but he replied in his own time.
"It is the axiomatic fundamentalist ultimatum. All creation performed outside the divine inceptive act is necessarily profane, and ours was a profoundly idiopathic subversion of the natural process... any hieratic structure was obliged to instate an orthodoxy emphasizing absolute legitimacy to confute the presumption inherent in all independent creativity."
She emitted a smoke ring, watching it slow and double over as it dispersed.
"It suffices to say my motives may not have borne sustained inquiry."
Susan's frown migrated to the side of her face.
"I don't know about that... I just... I'm not convinced you ever do anything you don't really want to."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"I don't know why... will you please just go back and find Lilian, for god's sake? It drives me mad just looking at you." Kala'amātya greeted her impassioned observation darkly. "Do you honestly believe she never wants to see you again? And don't say you don’t want to go against a woman’s word... you're not fucking pro-choice when it comes to teeth.”
“Would you have preferred to die of sepsis?”
“Some arguments are academic, some are not.”
Sachiin received her exasperation with equanimity, though the sound of his brother rising from the table pulled her off the bench in an impulsive attempt to prevent his departure. He stood as though awaiting some concession from her; Susan was loath to provide it, sitting back down only when he moved to do so, wary of any further evasive measure.
"I... while you're both here, there is something we should sort out." she told them. "I do know that if anyone's going to get dragged into an unmarked van, it's going to be me... if that happens, I want..."
"If you get picked up, we come and bust you out. Je m'en fous." Sachiin interjected.
"The only thing that can't happen, Christabel, under any fucking circumstances, is us getting pinched together. If I'm collared, you have to get as far away as fast as you can."
"There are fifty billion of me... you're all that's left of you. I mean it... do everything you can to help each other, but don't get caught on my account... promise me that."
The brothers looked to one another in a mirror-like consensus.
"If we end up in the pokey it's because we were dumb, or drunk, or both. I wouldn't pull his arse out a wet paper bag and the feeling's pretty fucking mutual."
"You haven't even thought about this, have you? You could wake up in a steel box with air holes and be stuck there for the next two hundred years while they do god knows what to you! You won't even get the chance to blag your bloody way out of it."
"That's the point of individual responsibility." Kala'amātya reminded her.
"I said I wouldn't bust you out." his brother muttered. "We got her into this shit and it fucking behoves us to get her out of it, if it comes to that."
"How long could you watch someone taping electrodes to her before you agreed to whatever they wanted?"
Susan slapped a hand to her forehead.
"Thank you. If anything happens to me, drag him in the opposite direction."
"The fuck he will."
"Acquire some defensive capability and it might not come to that." said Kala'amātya. Susan dropped her head and shook it wearily.
"Will you both stop nagging me? I told you... I hate guns, and I'd be complete rubbish at them anyway." She lit another cigarette, squinting when the smoke from the torch swung back into her face. "I did mean to ask you, though... what's it like, being shot? Out of ten?"
"Twenty nine." Sachiin muttered. "We don't have a luxury shock reaction. We get it all, the going in, the hitting the bone, the turning round, coming back out again... it's very detailed."
"Is there anything you can do to stop it happening? Magic words... getting your tits out?”
Kala'amātya appeared to deliberate upon the extent to which he should oblige her inquiry, the pause lending such weight to his reply that she was startled by, then suspicious of its brevity.
"He's being polite." Sachiin sighed. "Do you really want the R-18 version?"
"Do you want to stop being a patronizing muppet?"
"Out of any ten people with a firearm, seven will be competent to hit a stationary object at close range, five at a distance, two if it's mobile." Kala'amātya continued, unexpectedly. "Ballistic weapons are the friend of the contemporary imbecile. If you have a brain, use it if you don't want it emulsified. Being female is to your advantage if you're willing to embrace the fundamentals."
"How do you mean?"
"Without training, you're too small to hurt anyone conventionally, so don't try, except in extremis." She was less than pleased by the blunt nature of his assertion, but did not interrupt. "Always cry. A significant proportion of human males from any cohort cannot execute a weeping woman. And offer sex. Feign enthusiasm. Someone will eventually cut your hands loose." Susan folded her arms, looking away from him. "There's no more discredit in that than there is in eating their food. If you're committed to survival, the only failure is to waste an opportunity."
"I don't know if I could."
"I'm pretty sure most of us would fellate a fucking warthog if it had a nine to our ear." Sachiin assured her. "You do whatever you have to do... I've done it, he's probably done it... live, and have a breakdown later." he added, far more gravely.
"How hard is it? To shoot someone, when they're looking at you?"
Kala'amātya did not respond and his brother interceded.
"It depends who you are... some people can gut you with a clawhammer but can't pull a trigger... others can strafe you stupid but couldn't slap a douchebag if he was teabagging their grandmother on the front lawn." She screwed up her face; he leant across the planks and took a hit from her cigarette. "Some people are born lucky and can do you both ways, right from the get go... the tueur fou, ange de la mort... but you really should learn to pop a cap, cloudcheeks, allez. It's not like we're asking you to hang someone from a fucking light cord and go at them with a baseball bat. It's baby steps to the psycho shit... for erm, most of us." he chuckled blackly.
Sachiin's companions looked to one another in silence.
Susan had come to recognize the small cues provided by their detection of approaching parties, and sat up while their erstwhile hostess shuffled along the passage outside, tripping over the heaps of plaster lying by the walls. She could smell Petrouchka before the latter hove into view through the arch in her saturnine mink, hands and mouth, chin, collar and sleeves blackened thickly by fluids that had lost their sheen and settled into tarry craquelure.
“Look... is like chernozopy hut, in Akusha..." the vampyre gurgled, laughing at the humble nature of their arrangements. “Black hair will grow from your ears.”
The clotted purple stink of her victims' blood was effused by the waning warmth it had confided, rolling over Susan when she slumped down with them. A bottle of stolen home-brewed spirit and a flask wrapped in camouflage mesh clattered onto the wood before her; she pushed the former toward the brothers with a grimace, screwing the stopper from the latter and sucking down a long draught. The sluggish consistency of its contents was demonstrated by the toiling undulations of her throat when she lifted the vessel skyward. To Susan’s unique perception she was transfigured by her meal, overpainted with the dilute semblance of life, though the pulse-pink and infant blues had already begun to degrade. More troubling was the flailing anima that still struggled within her enclosing skin; it held her eyes wide and worked her chest with the long-forgotten exertions of laboured respiration, pulling back her lips in a stranger's grimace over her half-translucent teeth. From behind the flask Petrouchka caught sight of Sachiin exchanging a discreet manual remark with his sibling and spluttered blood that ran from her chin and down her creaseless neck, smudged against it by her collar when she moved.
"What you say? Don't, unless we all can hear!” she warned shrewishly, voice leaping from her throat. "Po'shyol 'na hui... I know what you say... she eat alujha mudak and is drunk, like soldier. These wolves, they don’t like me now, because of you but I don't care..." Her eyes grew wider. "I dujju them, why not?” She shoved the bottle of spirit toward Susan and sagged on the bench, still clutching her flask in her small hand. “You are still here? Look at you, sitting like princess... drink, govno... get drunk." she told her. "You don't have much time, 'suka."
Sachiin's glance was pointed and she returned it in kind, sinking into the fur.
“How many?” he asked.
“One, darlink... two, maybe. I dujju two. I don’t think they miss. They weren't pretty, but... facile. Trés facile.”
She began a loose, divaricating monologue in three languages during which Susan turned slowly to him in search of reassurance; in reply he made a gnathic face, allowing his eyes to roll up into his head in imitation of the vampyre’s inebriety. She sucked in her lower lip to contain her reaction to his impression, while Kala'amātya partook of the făţată sparingly, privately ruing his own broad comprehension.
“But don’t you feel sorry for them... they were lucky... the deer dies with the wolf, but the wolf, he die alone, they say... these wolf don’t die alone.” the vampyre concluded, her observations meeting with a silence that spoke too plainly on the part of her companions. She gave vent to a brief, roaring spate of embittered laughter, its alien nature prompting Susan to flinch away from it; Petrouchka reached out and snatched her arm, drawing it into the dense pelt in her lap, stroking it slowly. “I forget... you are young and stupid.” she told her. “You know how old I was, before this happen to me? Fifteen year. My father, he marry me to a man of fifty... oslayob... who force himself on me, every day, and flog me like plough horse when he could not. What you do at fifteen? Live in pretty house with family who love you... like him.” She nodded at Sachiin. “You can see in their face, these ones who were loved. Look at this one...” she muttered, gesturing to Kala'amātya, her voice sinking into the thickly pleated vowels of her native tongue. “Nobody love him when he was young.”
Petrouchka slid her tongue over her teeth and used a second hand to encircle her guest's arm as though the first had called for reinforcement. It burned with the strain of resisting the vampyre’s grasp, though Susan bore it as stoically as she was able.
“I know you could not be happy, Sachiin, as I am... you can’t smile until every body love you. If I was Auberjonois, I would break her neck for you sending her to me. But he think to have you back.”
“How bad is that stuff?” Susan asked him, reaching for the bottle of spirit and swigging from it before he could warn her; her spluttering recoil prompted another round of barking laughter from the vampyre.
“Is bad!” Petrouchka roared, the sound percolating in her throat as though the blood itself were speaking. “Now we are friend, I think you tell me... you know of Sachiin, before he have you?”
"No, I fed her ketamine and chained her to an engine block." he assured her; Susan took another pull from the bottle, shaking her head as she replied.
“I knew there was something wrong with him before he opened his mouth.”
“Yes...” the vampyre cackled. “Of course he tell... he know you are not clever... your curious is poison, and it bite you for him...”
“She’s the biter.” said Sachiin morosely.
“Will you please stop telling people that?” Susan lost patience with the vampyre's grasp, twisting her arm then jerking it back toward herself. Petrouchka’s head snapped sideways, small face lit by the frozen glitter of her gaze; she lurched at her, but Kala'amātya's fist caught the collar of her coat while Sachiin vaulted the table and sat down between them. Planted in her seat, Petrouchka was held still until they were satisfied the impulse had passed, the brothers' dispassion lending the act a plangent surreality. Susan settled on the far end of the bench, clutching her parka about her neck; slowly, marking the vampyre closely, she reached around her companion and retrieved the bottle, lifting it over his arms.
Their hostess reeled as she was released and took some time to reclaim what she had lost, her gaze and then her hands falling to Sachiin's where it lay upon the table. He bore her wandering examination patiently until she addressed herself once more to Susan.
"You think I am a horror, but you love this..." she murmured, tracing his eccentricities with her fingers. "So much you don't know." Petrouchka took her guest's hand in her own and passed it through the torch flame, chuckling to herself while the sinuous plumes licked around his palm and between his fingers where they should have blackened them and conferred irresistible agony, turning cool velvet blue and remaining in an almost wistful association when he slid free of her grasp. "See, kotik? When you want to push him into fire, he won't burn. Eto prosto pizdets." She received no answer, and looked down at her coat, brushing small crystals of ice from its glossy nap. “Look... did I say? It snows. Is snowing now. I don’t like anymore... I think too much of de Marchand... it bring her back.”
Pearls of cold rosé pink were born in the corners of her eyes and spread across them slowly, holding on her lids before breaking down her face. She slid toward Kala'amātya, staring up at him with a mouth bitterly downturned.
"You think you were the only one to love her, but you don't know either. Before you, she go to sleep with my hands in her skirts. I give her pleasure, and she give to me..." His silence drew at her as surely as any audible solicitation. "Sometime, she speak words, over man... from village, sometime, from town... she bring, into her bed. I look while he serve her, and I lie with them and take his blood, taste everything they do. If I had life, you think she would choose you?" Whatever she had sought from him seemed to elude her, and she lapsed back from her study. "The snow always bring her back. How can you look at it? Sometimes, I cannot look, and I sleep, all through the winter, so I don’t see her. I am careful for so long..."
“Belyaev...” Sachiin murmured. “No one can change what’s done.”
“Be quiet!” she cried suddenly. “What you do for her? You are like him, you do nothing…”
“Belyaev.” he interjected, shaking his head at her gravely. Cognizance of his caution slid across her red-stained eyes as though she had blinked, but it was not enough to stop her. Her murmur recommenced, turned with her gaze toward Kala'amātya.
“Do you know she did not trust you? One night, before winter, she undress and look at me, and she say Trouchka... I am with child." The vampyre met with lithic disbelief, which she disregarded. "How can it be, I ask... have you known only this creature Kala'amātya? She ask spirit, and they tell her... Walpurgis, on the Brocken altar, when everything is too close... it open her to you. Was she happy? No... she weep, because she know... you only want what does not need, and have nothing to give. She drink the cup of roots, and was happy to be rid of this poor little thing, and we promise together, never to tell you..." She looked up at the ceiling rendered so faintly overhead. "When I see her in your house, I thought I die again, of joy, but she come for you... I cannot bear! You are more dead than I, you poison thing...”
Sachiin stood and stooped to slide his hands beneath the arms of their intoxicated hostess, lifting her from the bench and setting her on her feet, walking her toward the black shape of the doorway. Susan sat with Kala'amātya, the flame settling once more into strict verticality. The dread spirit of Petrouchka’s revelations hung about them in the air, neither undone nor redacted by her departure; she felt them keenly even in her innocence, and how they fared amid the agonizing context borne by her companion was something she did not care to contemplate. Returning alone, Sachiin used his gaze to suggest an exit, to which she assented. His brother lifted the burning pine from the table and handed it to her as she passed him, remaining alone in the spreading umbra that closed around him.
Powder white swept in through the arch and lay in a shallow little pile on the floor of their chamber, a token of the snow descending in the darkness outside. Sachiin lay down on the sill with his hands upon his face, greeting the flakes that settled on him as a blessing so gratefully received that she could not begrudge the cold. She shuffled down beneath the sleeping bag with her back against the wall, conscious that their companion saint might not have sanctioned the long draughts of the liquor she awarded herself. Its influence delayed her reaction to the flurry under the quilt until it came in contact with her leg, and she threw it back in dismay to discover Fyodor, no more appreciative of her presence than she was of his.
“What did you do with Petrouchka?” she asked, reinstating the cover.
“I put her to bed.”
"Was any of that true?"
He could not reply directly, and she waited without further insistence.
"If it's Helaine and Kala'amātya, you don't need to make it up." Sachiin sighed. "I never knew... but... I just can't, cloudcheeks... it's too much. Talk to me, about something else."
“She’s going to hate us even more when she finds out Fyodor's defected.” He lay with his eyes closed. "Are you alright?"
"Snow makes it better."
“I had no idea you were this attached to winter.”
"I am the white witch. It's always home."
“Do you ever miss it? Where you come from?"
“No... and yes... every day.”
“You haven’t told me why you left.”
His eyes slid open at the softly reproachful tone of the remark.
“Honestly, I’m not sure it’s something you want to hear after half a pint of mystery schnapps.”
“Is that what this stuff is?" Susan allowed herself to smile. "Remember the mystery jam? I was up late, and you came in and I made you help... I think that was when I fell in love with your shoulders. And your neck.” The intelligence restored something of his ease; he glanced along his nose at her.
“You with my what now?”
“You were looming, and I was thinking god, you’re such a giant shambolic monstrosity, then I saw that actually, you did have lovely shoulders, especially that bit there, that comes down from your neck..." She stroked her own in demonstration. "It made me think hmm, you’re quite fit really, even if you do eat buckets of pills and drink from the tap like a Bromley fox. Tell me, though.”
He sat up slowly.
“I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.”
“Why you left where you came from...”
“It’s complicated.” he murmured.
“Oh well, cut it short then because I’ve got a hundred other fucking things to do, obviously.” she reminded him aridly.
“Oh Christabel... it’s not a happy story.”
“Yes it is. If you hadn’t left, you wouldn't be here with me.” He looked into the darkness overhead, then back at her, deeply thoughtful. "It's strange to tell me, isn't it? And don't say yes and no."
He brought his legs up into a lotus pose upon the sill so that he seemed like a panel from a Khmer frieze, strangely transposed.
"When I was young, we were taught to believe... and I did... that we were apart from all else for good reason. I believed the moon was the first of our mothers... I believed that we, like all righteous beasts, were her children, given to her sister earth because she had no means to raise us. But I didn't believe what they did to Kala'amātya was her judgement, that he had been born to it and I hadn't. When he was made bai'issātva, I never thought I'd hear from him again. I heard of him... rumours always came back with the baby priestesses every spring, when they went to give them instructions... they said he was in charge, and did as he pleased, but since what he pleased kept the i'ss'it from the mountains, no one interfered...
One day a message came to me... to meet him, through about a dozen people. I didn't think he'd really be there, but I waited the whole day at the edge of the hills just in case, and at the last minute... there he was." The dust thrown up by his brother's horse as it turned before him swept past his face again. "I didn't know it at the time, but the sthali'sātva... the priestesses... had tried to make him poison all the wells down on the plain." Susan scowled at such a measure, unable to encompass its vicious rationale. "He wouldn't do it, and he'd been exiled, so he must have thought it was the last time we would see each other. He said nothing for a while, and then he asked me... Sachiin, are you content?" Its haunting emphasis returned to him. "I had no idea what to say. It was like asking a cow if they liked grass. I couldn't answer, and then... avoir disparu... he disappeared. No one knew where he'd gone, or what had happened. After a while, they made it official, saying Kala'amātya had been exiled, which was the same as dead.”
“Did you believe it?”
“He wasn’t with us, and he wasn’t with the bai'issātva, and I didn't know that there was anywhere else you could be. About a year later they held the T'shibai’sailye... the Green Star Night, around a little lake, a thing that everybody came to and where the sthali'sātva dropped the dime about your future. If you were an eyeroller, a backchatter, a slightly imperfect, you were sent down... made bai'issātva. If you’d survived the apprenticeship you made your sthali'sātva bones and became a priestess. Nyāti was getting her pointy hat that night. If you were just old enough, you got the ball and chain, shotgun Vegas styles, with whoever they’d picked out for you. Rana was hot and highborn and out of my league... I was a trashy twink, and Kala'amātya's brother, and I remember not believing they had chosen me, but... it made my mother happy... I suppose they thought Rana would keep me out of trouble. What was I supposed to do?”
“If you don't know by now, I can't help you." she sighed.
“There was no no. So yes, I was pencilled in as Rana’s bitch and was polishing my cherry, minding my own business with Bede down by the water, when everything went quiet. I remember it so well, and I knew even before I saw him that there was only one person who puckered that many arseholes at the same time.”
The expression on his face became so irradiant that she chuckled into the bottle.
“Kala'amātya was meant to be at the bottom of the ocean, and then he walked into the Green Star Night. Ana'siām'ilye was sending the new bai'issātva down... she stopped in the middle of it and looked at him. I could see them both from where I was, and I remember feeling as though the air had turned to stone and wouldn't let me breathe. Everybody waited for her to say something, but... what could she say? He was carrying a siitān, a sacred bird that came over the mountains with the rain. I had never seen one that close, and the thought that he could hold it in his hands was like... watching someone carry Al Buraq into the Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām. It was dead... I could smell the poison it had swallowed from where I stood. He lay the bird at Ana'siām'ilye's feet, and then took something, from here..." He lifted a hand from the folds of the remembered robe. "He had found her comb in one of the wells... at first I thought no, he wouldn’t... but he took it...” Sachiin performed the act that he narrated slowly, bringing his hand to the priestess's head. “And put it back, into her hair."
Ana'siām'ilye's face flickered, as black and white as she had seemed.
"The other sthali'sātva stepped away from her, as one. He was profane, and had profaned her, and now it was Ana'siām'ilye who had to go into the sea. She took off her robes and jewels... everything else that made her what she was, slowly, as though she couldn't believe what she was doing, turned from us and started walking... and that was the last anyone saw of her. I was too amazed to notice that Kala'amātya had gone too."
"I ran to the top of the hill and saw him following the stream, and then I ran until I caught him. ‘Go back, Sachiin’ he said. ‘They will forgive you.’ But I followed him down the valley, and he looked at me again and said ‘Go back, or I will use my knives on you.’ I didn’t know at the time that he meant it, but when he saw I was still there, he knocked me down, put me on my face and was just about to do it when Rana called out that if anyone was going to lame me, it was her.”
The soporific values in his voice had stilled her amid the sleeping bag, the bottle resting at a forgotten angle in her lap. Snow had banked on the sill beside him, softly bouffant, and settled on his shoulders. Susan shrugged the bag around her ears.
“What did she do?”
“Tried to drag me back... she almost pulled my arm off trying to get me across the river, but Kala'amātya saw I didn’t want to go, and wouldn’t let her take me." His brother's features spoke the words again, for the first time in two millennia. "He told me that if I went with him, I would never see my mother, my wife, or this place again... that it was no small thing to turn my back, and nothing I should do on his account. ‘Do not think me blameless, Sachiin.’ he said. ‘I am everything they say of me, and worse.’ I had three seconds to decide.
I could see it in his face... that moment he always gives you, but I didn't think him blameless... I thought him my brother." She smiled at the profession. "He took my arm and pulled me back over the river, and Rana really lost her shit. She came at him, but he got hold of her and threw her on the ground like a big sack of potatoes, then off we went. At first I didn’t realize, because I was too busy staring at the back of Kala'amātya's head, but she came after us again.
She couldn’t go back without losing face... we didn’t even really know each other. It was just pride. He took us past the poisoned wells. Kali’niah... that’s not something you ever want to see with your own eyes. We followed the river west, all the way to Paršvãb... Samarkand... and that was my first city. Before we came to the town, we saw a shepherd and his wife on the side of the road, eating curd, and they were the first people I had ever seen, close up. I just... could not believe it... they were so like us. We'd always been told the i’ss’it were... you know... hideous devil creatures...”
“Thanks very much.”
“I wish you could have seen Rana’s face. Kala'amātya asked her what she thought about the dogma now, and she said that if we had been born women we would know that the i’ss’it were created by witches, out of envy, and it was obvious that they hid their monstrous errors and deformities beneath their clothes. At that point Kala'amātya paid them both a good year’s wages to take their clothes off, which they did, and Rana got down from her horse and examined all their parts, and said nothing more about her superior knowledge of the world.
We rode into Samarkand, and the buildings were the first that I had ever seen... the shapes were like things in dreams, and I asked Kala'amātya if the wind had made them out of stone... he said the i'ss'it had made them through their labour, which I didn't believe. I had never stood between two walls, and I walked along with my hands on my head thinking they'd fall on me, until little i'ss'it started walking beside us doing the same. I thought I was doing well until a camel train came in from the east and passed on either side, and I got down on my hands and knees and threw up in the road. It was like the entire world had crashed into my head. I lost it and passed out. They had to carry me to Kala'amātya’s house.
It was a palace of whiteness, and... what are those things? Rectangles... I had never seen a rectangle before. Everything made out of straight lines... another universe, and it all belonged to him. In the courtyard there was a kind of water that did as it was told... a chahār bāgh, with peach trees and Persian roses, and I couldn't look at them and smell them at the same time. I just stared and stared and couldn't speak."
"A runner had gone ahead to let them know we were coming, and all the women of the house came pouring into the garden... Uighur, Russian, Rajastani, Greek, local girls, all in their best clothes so that they looked... like birds had married flowers... with gold and silver on their necks and arms and bells tied in their hair, and they smelled of everything wonderful... champa and cinnamon and attar. And they were doing this strange thing with their mouths...” Sachiin pulled up the corners of his own into the shape of a smile with two fingers. “They were happy to see him. Sobh bexeyr, Kala'amātya.” he intoned, recalling the lilting, knowing fondness of their greeting. “Before that, I could have counted the number of people who'd been pleased to see my brother on two fingers, but there they were, smiling at him like he was the sun in winter, bringing us water and asking who I was. Their hands were warm, and every woman was a different shape and colour, which was so strange to me... even their voices were a hundred kinds of gold, the words tied like a necklace, with empty spaces in between.
They took me into the house and fed me fruit and honey, brought new clothes and washed my feet and laughed and called me bakareh... virgin... because I was so modest and stupid. All I could do was stare at them, but I decided then and there that exile was the life for me, and eating dirt at twenty thousand feet could go straight to fucking hell for all I cared.”
“I bet it could...” Susan laughed, but the colours of the image darkened with his silence while she drew another mouthful from the bottle. “How long before it started going bad?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember everything.”
“Yes you do.”
“It took about a year. We stayed with Kala'amātya, and he lived large. Every summer he would put a corps together and go off fighting, then hit the silk route caravans when that slowed down... all of that paid out, and he was gone for half the year. Rana stayed in her room at first and kept threatening to go home, but I could feel it changing... I could see, every time I tried to talk to her, that something was going wrong inside her head, I think because in her heart, she couldn’t leave the mountains. It was like watching a wound turn bad. I knew what was coming, but I didn’t know how to stop it.
In summer most of the women did their own thing, the witches heading up into the mountains to study, some riding with my brother or with their own crews... hoes heading west to work the Caspian boats... but with Kala'amātya gone so long, the girls who stayed home started looking at me a certain way. I didn’t think that Rana cared or even knew... stupid, I know, but I was stupid... I had no idea that people went crazy over that sort of thing.
One day she came to me and said ‘Sachiin... did you know that you may kill these creatures, merely by striking them?’ And I walked out into the garden and found that she had beaten one of the kitchen girls to death. In autumn, when Kala'amātya came home, he threw her out into the street. I tried to talk him round but he threw me out and told me... a'ma sa'anae sahai'is siith nala elaiinae... come back when you've had enough.
Living alone with Rana was... hellish, really, in ways I had never imagined, but if I ran to his house she would follow me and beat his slaves. After a while, when I left she would just walk into the bazar and kill whoever she got hold of... twist their arms and legs off. That would go on until I came back. One year Avi'ashān arrived, from nowhere, and then Nyāti, looking for him... everything was coming apart in the mountains, with Ana'siām'ilye disgraced... people were leaving every day and going into the sea, but we didn't know until they told us. For a while, Nyāti handled Rana better than I could, but it didn’t last. Losing the mountains was the final straw for her. Kala'amātya would ask me... nala siith i’nala elaiinae... have you had enough, Sachiin? But I could never say yes, because I knew once I did, everything he'd do to make her go into the sea would be on my head. When I looked at her mad face, I knew I was too weak and vain to think of myself as the one who had wished death on her." The snow slowed in the darkness until each mote seemed shed in bitter accord with his account. "If I hadn’t been that way, who knows how many people would have lived another day... Kala'amātya might have had the time he needed with Helaine. Her death wasn’t even Rana’s fault.” he admitted, his voice so quiet that she closed her eyes to hear it. “It was mine.” He brushed the snow from his hair. “His never saying it is hard... I wish he'd grab me by the throat and dangle me off forty storeys... but he won't.”
Susan leant over her lap and assured herself of his attention before speaking to his admission.
“When my parents died they were on their way to pick me up from my aunt’s house." she sighed. "I was supposed to stay the weekend but she’d found some cigarettes and I don’t know... condoms, I think it was... in my handbag, something completely stupid and we’d had this horrible fight, so I wanted to go home. I had to go and live with her after the accident. I asked her once if she blamed me, and she said yes... she blamed me, my parents, the car, the other driver, the weather... herself… but she said that's just what you do when you’ve lost someone. I was shocked at first, then I thought, god, I actually blame her, so I understood. That's just... normal.” When he opened his mouth she shook her head. “That’s not my point, though. Your brother isn’t normal, and I don't think he blames you. Mostly he’s just glad to have you... you're lucky to have each other. And I am glad to have you..." she smiled. "You don't miss her, do you?"
"Rana? No... it feels like something that was biting my arm has gone away. After everything she did, it's just... peaceful."
The dowager moon breathed her last into the clouds, her glow borne earthwards in the silver cells of every frozen element, as though the air were haunted by expiring spectres, their light extinguished as they met the ground.
"I wonder if they knew when they first saw him..." she murmured. "The priestesses... did they know he was the end of them, or did they make him Kala'amātya?"
"I've never known. Helaine once told me we all take our own lives, one way or another, and I like to think Ana'siām'ilye was cutting her own throat with those blackthorn branches. That would be..."
"Poetic." Susan smiled. "You're very zen about the strangest things."
"What can you do? I'm not the sharpest apple in the bucket."
She spluttered liquor and wiped it from her chin.
"Well, we're probably made for each other, then. Priestesses never get it right."
Susan shuffled on her knees toward the window with the sleeping bag, grinning at his wary face then lifting the bottle to his lips, its contents prompting him to shudder at the flash of bitter fruit and ethanol.
"Mmm... génial..." he coughed. "Merde, c'est bordelique." He turned his head from the kiss she bestowed in remediation. "Cloudcheeks, I'm too cold..."
"I don't care." she insisted, taking his face in her hands. His mouth was perfumed by the hueless liquor, tasting of distant apple and anise, and of the newborn winter descending behind him, the season that had settled in his skin and drawn his pupils into snake-like straits. She pressed her lips to his left lid, chuckling as their warmth reversed the transformation, if only unilaterally. "Is this you, when you're at home?" The cover cosseted their voices as she pulled it over their heads. He nodded, and she kissed him again, taking his hands and drawing them beneath her jersey so that they closed upon her waist, their breathtaking differential sliding slowly into novel, delicious inverse on her skin.
"You're making me feel like an enigma wrapped in a something else." he whispered.
"I know there'll always be some monsterism, but most of you is five-star." Susan admitted. He sighed softly against her neck.
"That kind of talk just won you a super-deluxe trip downtown."
"Speak more French..." she urged, grasping his neck as he hoisted them both out of the window and dumped her down onto the pine needles.
"Je ne peux pas le faire... pour le principe... c'est pour ton bien..." he murmured while she dragged his shirt over his head and struggled to assist in the removal of her trousers, stifling the laughter prompted by discombobulation. "I do miss parts of summer, if I'm honest... the only thing standing between me and la petit gâteau was half a foot of fresh air, or knicker elastic that was suicidal anyway..." He paused to suck the cache of freckles on the face of her thigh.
"I miss mattresses. Missionary with a mattress... it always feels like I'm going to hell for it with you. I don't know how you manage it." She closed her eyes as her legs were persuaded into dissociation.
"Whatever you're doing has to stay under the blanket, and en francais."
"Ça va sans dire."
To take the steps that turned down into the ruin and away from its starlit yard was a choice that Susan made with imperfect grace, shaking her fading torch and hoisting the piglet that had sagged under her arm as she descended.
The lowest row of cells within the monastery had been hollowed into the mountain's fundamental stone and shared its exanimation, the spinal passage lined with cells declared by the same blank style of arch that pierced the colonnade. The cold air stood in staled suspension between smoothly-hewn walls that threw back the shuffling of her boots as they bundled settled dust. Time was chastened by the entombing geology, the cool reptilian smell of the stone lying heavily under a paler note of incense cedar, the ghost of an expired consecration. Her own scent seemed so invasive and inapt that she grimaced to herself, shuffling onward in a darkness relieved only by the docent beam before her. It swept over a stout plank bench against the wall, the worms fretting its timbers betrayed by the mound of frass sifted beneath its legs, and she paused, bending to push a finger into the wood and waving away the powder that flew up at her face. Beneath her arm the pig began to grunt and move its soignée legs, impatient with her circumspection. She scolded it softly; the torch beam met a mounded form upon the ground that stiffened her with fright until she recognized it as one of Petrouchka’s furs. With the dying orange light she examined the arch beside it, lifting a hand and knocking upon the granite, ruing the stupidity of the gesture as it bruised her knuckles. Something in the dark beyond assured her of an answer.
"I brought Fyodor...” she offered. "I thought you might be missing him.” The remark was greeted by a period of deliberate silence, then an equally tenebrous reply.
“I don’t miss."
"I just... I feel... bad." Susan admitted. She stepped beneath the arch, only to be checked by the failure of her torch in a gloom so complete that she would not have seen a hand before her face. The pig’s hooves scurried against her arms, the animal leaping to the ground and trotting swiftly back the way they had come in an action no more diplomatic than it was ambiguous.
"You feel bad?" Petrouchka murmured. "Maybe you have disease."
Susan stepped back as she perceived the darkly-glassed shapes of the vampyre's eyes, gleaming in the blackness like the inlaid gaze of a funeral effigy.
"What you want?"
"Just to talk..."
"You people... all so in love with your own voice. Go away. I don't want talk."
Tiny rasping sounds informed Susan's drifting stare that her hostess had shifted, though she could not locate her black-draped form until a white, abortive flare hissed and died against the vampyre's hands, her outline suddenly elaborated as a bundle of matches held their flame and lit a slag-like mass of tapers on a socket in the wall. Their lazy glow illumed a face that still wore the slack, livid vacuity of solitude, and an unsuspected shape beside her that proved a tall expanse of shelving, the upper and lowermost compartments deeply shadowed by the candles. Each aperture was neatly stocked with a row of human skulls, flensed and desiccated to a narrow range of flecked and ashen eggshell and pallid sepia. Susan stared wordlessly at the baffling array, their order and spotless aspect damping the horror they might have otherwise inspired. Their hollows shifted with the flame stirred by her breathing as she examined the sutured features of each cranium until the blind orbits became a leitmotif far too relentless for sustained perusal. She looked from them to the surrounding cell, the space proportioned exactly as their own, though half-buried and windowless. While her eyes adapted she made out sounds of movement through the vaulting overhead; footfalls, then Sachiin’s chuckling address to Fyodor as the pig returned to the object of his transferred affections. His words were, for the most, part distinct. She closed her eyes at the thought of everything the vampyre had been party to while Petrouchka observed her mortification with a lean amusement.
Some of her coats hung, faintly delineated, on the wall beside the arch like the mortal leavings that they were, beheaded and transfigured as though by maleficia. The vampyre muttered, looking over the ossuary with a proprietary eye.
"Some, I kill. But most, they die. I saw them come into this place... little boys, then old, so soon.” Behind a dark length of the heavy woolen stuff that had clothed the tenant monks lay her makeshift divan, composed of worn furs heaped into a pile. At its far end a doting little doppelgänger arrangement lay upon the floor by an earthenware bowl half-filled with water; Susan’s heart sank further at the sight of it.
“I’m so sorry about Fyodor” she lamented. Petrouchka sat back down.
“I already say... everybody love Sachiin. Nobody love a dead thing.” Her accent embellished the sentiment with macabre dignity. “If you won't go away, then sit.” she added, offering a bearth. Susan quashed her reluctance and accepted, hidden timbers creaking beneath her weight. They remained too long without speaking while the candlelight settled like dim water around them.
“There’s a lot of snow out there now.” she ventured.
“Where I come from, snow is blue, like eye, and hard, like jewel. If you are still, the winter take you... put arms around, and crush. This... is only pretty snow.” To her increasing discomfort the vampyre’s glances, so slow and grudging, had coalesced into deliberation and Petrouchka rose, crossing to the sagging bulk of a leather-bound coffer beside the ossuary. From this she withdrew two objects, a brush and hand mirror in silver that wore the orthodox red and halcyon blues of Slavic enamel, thickly studded with bosses of cabochon gems. “Sit sit, like this.” she urged, beckoning her sideways. “You are big mess. I fix.”
Susan ducked as rigid yellow bristles sank into her hair and snarled amongst its knots. She pressed her hand to her scalp before it could be stripped by the vampyre's stiff, perfunctory attentions, though Petrouchka paused to examine the side of her neck where it was exposed to the candle light. Her voice had descended to the volume of a prayer murmured over tightly-clasped hands.
“So many scar now... ugly, kotik... make you look like camp whore. Lucky Sachiin have so many himself, he don’t care... I don’t think he care, from what I hear at night.” Her narrow little fingers snagged the hair that they had massed into a tail.
"It could have been worse."
“You think was good that I beat this creature who try to eat you? Some time, when you are old... grand-mére, with no petits-enfants... you will be sick and sad like me, not even with the blood of others as a comfort... you will lie as I do now and hear what you can't have. When Sachiin finish with you, you will wish I met you first.” Susan sat amongst the silence while it served the vampyre like a hand pressed to her mouth. The cold, dry points of the creature's knuckles drew a line beneath her scars in a mute coda to her admission. “You see I am more evil than the man I run away from, but I make no secret... I tell to you. You know sometime, at night... I think, while you are sleeping, how good to cut you open, see everything come out of you... make Sachiin and Kala'amātya dig a hole and cover you with stones.”
Though she had been leaning forward slowly, Susan grew still as the vampyre's fist closed in her hair, unwilling to allow evasive latitude while she indulged herself.
"Don't run..." Petrouchka whispered. Her chin touched her guest's shoulder as she stroked down the restive shedim roused by the prospect of blood-warmed skin, even as it twisted in silky knots inside her throat, muting her counsel. "Be still for me. I don't want to smell your blood here." The rows of empty skulls swam as one of the wicks perished in the wax. The joints inside the vampyre's fingers clicked as they slowly unfurled, partitioning her hair and commencing a narrow braid. Susan let her eyes lose their focus on the black wall before her. "You are so much your blood, milaya moya... you call sweetly to the knife. Look how good my english become when I imagine taste of you."
Susan murmured, tilting her head as her hostess worked the hair behind her ear.
“How long have you been like this?”
“I die before the devil come for Ivan Groznyi."
“How did you know? That you were dead?”
Petrouchka's hands grew still again, but the time she took to furnish a reply, the perils inherent in retrieval did not diminish the inquiry's imperative.
"When it fall on you, you don’t think now I am dead thing..." The vampyre avowed, as though dismissing an assumption. "You think... something has happen... maybe bad... but you don't know." She doubled the end of the first braid back into the weave and began another. "Some time at night, I go from my husband's house and walk along the road. I want only to breathe with no one to hear. A upyr, he find me... he do to me. I go, on hand and knee, back to the house, with nothing where my throat should be. At first, they nurse me, but... when I do not grow well, my husband, he bring an old priest. They take the covers from my body and in their hands..." The sound of Sachiin easing the door closed overhead pushed through the stone. "In their hands they have sword. That night, they kill the pigs before the winter. I wake in that hole, under the dirty pieces of a hundred swine." Susan pressed her eyes closed as the vampyre tore out a knot from her nape. "I run, back to my old home, thinking my father, my sisters, they would have pity. But no... they scream for god and do not know me. Was like a knife into my head, again." Her hands slowed. "Then, I know. The living put you in your grave. They say that you have died, and are accursed. Until they do, you think it all a dream."
"Did they never talk to you again?"
"I saw them no more, but for one time. My young sister, Galina... at ball, in Ostankino... she so old I could not recognize, but she see me. All her beauty gone, so few pleasures, but she look at me, and...” Her voice grew lower still. “I don’t go back. The places that were alive to you are gone... you cry outside the door... nobody hear you. So I find new places... to Paris, and to Frankfurt, then... why do you want to hear? You are tourist...”
"I live here now." Susan assured her.
"You don't say that to upyr. This death, it never finish with us. You die, but is beginning... you are still losing, so much... you lose feeling... for thing, for people... I try to keep a memory of feeling, but I can't have. I kill people for their feeling... but it fall out of me, like I am made of bad cloth. Life is shadow on my face. My body serve only the evil that is in me, and I sicken myself to please it. I am charogne. I drown, in my hole, with the pigs.”
Again the vampyre lapsed into a silence thick with her own battered spectre.
“When I think everything is gone, I meet de Marchand. If she was not evil, she was not good, but she find a way to live so you are not sorry. She say to me, Trouchka, what is death, but the breaking of our only chains? For a time, I hold her hand, and her face was the star that I had lost.” Susan touched the antiquated composition in her hair, and the vampyre took the mirror from her lap, holding it before her. “There. Pretty now.” she pronounced, turning the blackened glass upon her own flame-lit features. “They say we cannot be seen like this, but is only dead who cannot see. The truth... the one that make you more than you were a day before... is lost to us.”
“As much as I don’t know him, or Helaine... I don’t think Kala'amātya loved her to spite you. I don't think we have a choice.”
“I lie when I say she would not choose him. Would she choose me? He walk into her house, enough life in his great body for one hundred people, and no fear of what she was. From the first, they were vyehs' to one another. Helaine live, and then she die... I was dead, and try to live, but you can have no more when it has gone... not another moment, if you beg one hundred saint and paint their feet with blood. You have only time. Ask Kala'amātya, if time is good for company."
Leaning back into a curl against the wall Petrouchka gathered her skirt over her legs, regarding Susan with her darkest aspect.
"I lie too, to him, in what I say last night... Helaine find that she was enciente, and could not believe... but when she tell to me, she smile, and say... we never thought ourselves enough for this small creature, and I am happy to be wrong... I hear these words, and I want to cut it from her. I cut it from her heart. I tell her everything she dread... herself, of him, of what could come, and in a week, she drink the cup, make me promise never to tell. When he come home from Paris, I take his hand, I smile, and I wish him joyeux noel. But vengence taste like blood you lick from hole in your own skin." She touched her own face as though doubtful of its shape. "If Helaine come back to him... udači... I wish good luck. The darkness love her and has no patience. Of her Art... I don't know what she find, behind a door closed so long.”
Rising, the vampyre hoisted the lid from the trunk once more and leant over to lift something pale from its dusty bowels. The gesture redoubled Susan’s desire to escape, throwing a ripple through the candle light that made the creature's small shape slide out of focus with her attendant shadow.
“I want for you to have.” Petrouchka handed her the bundle; she mutely refused, but the vampyre grimaced and raised a hand to her head as though to ease some harping pain and spoke through heavy, torpid loathing. “Don't say you can't take... you already take from me... but I want for you to have. If you stay, and I hurt you, I won’t feel bad.” Her face lapsed into a smirk, the black holes in her eyes licking at her face. "If I do, it will not be for hunger... I don't feel. I will do because I am écœurant, et affreux.”
Her smile blackened again, blooming horribly and sending her eyes backward into her head.
“I love so much your great disgust.” Petrouchka soughed, looking down at herself. "This... is not even the worst I could be. In Praha I see this thing... never hungry, but always at the feast, where it devour, and exalt itself. I thought there was nothing more, but soon I will wake in that garden, where black flowers turn toward you, and the trees are all aflame." She dropped the mirror into Susan’s arms. “Sachiin will stay long enough to make you hate your own face, and Kala'amātya, he will leave you when you need him. Be careful.”
Though she had risen slowly, Susan had to stop halfway up the stairs to catch her breath, leaning over herself as she struggled with the asphyxia pursuing her amid the ascent into her throat of the contents of her stomach. When she emerged into the clear air of the yard a distant sunrise had slid fingers of gold and ibis pink beneath the cloud sealing the valley, its light striking Sachiin's face as he looked up from cutting wood. With Petrouchka's voice still rolling in her head like a black draught from the gorge itself she closed her eyes at the sight of him, the vampyre's gifts clasped to her chest. He smiled and set another piece of wood upon its end.
When the inquiry was ignored he interrupted his swing and turned back to where she stood, plaster-white and breathless by the parapet, her hair confined to a strange, confluent web of braids.
"She’s underneath us...”
"Ça va, cloudcheeks?”
"Do I look like I'm alright?" she exclaimed. "This is doing my fucking head in. We're not staying here.”
Putting down the axe, he came to her and took the bundle from her arms, looking over the mirror in surprise before setting it down upon the row of stone; he lifted a garment from the shroud of disintegrating linen, its shattered atoms drifting around them in a haze of white while a dress fell open from his hands. Composed of heavy lunar samite, its high-waisted bodice was densely figured with a nebula of hand-cut gems, finch-yellow and violet sapphires and rock crystal, as coldly lustrous as Olympian ichor where they were clasped to the silk by gold thread curling into buds and tendrils. Susan closed her eyes, its cynical splendour so much more a cage than an adornment that it overwhelmed her.
"I'll have get it altered.” he lamented, regretting his flippancy at the sight of her reaction.
“If we had a toilet I would flush the fucking thing. She doesn’t want us here, I told you... why do I have to keep saying it? I'm not spending one more night in the same building with a... a fucking dead person, in a downward bloody spiral who lies awake at night and listens to us fucking...”
“You have to let the drama queens bust a move, Christabel... just wait til they get it out of their systems.”
“They’re not drama queens, they are psychopaths! Psychopaths who can't stand the sight of me." She dragged down the fabric of her collar to reveal the scars on her neck. His eyes drifted over their ragged topography, though he knew every ridge and hollow. “You can be as stupid you like! This is how I end up."
"I don't think staying where we..."
"You don't think, that's your fucking problem! I can't spit the fucking bullets out, and I can't take someone else trying to kill me, Sachiin... we are going. I'm not asking you!"
He took a slightly flattened pack of cigarettes from his pocket, holding one between his lips while he retrieved his lighter, never more aware of her gaze in spite of his deliberate silence.
“I’ve never really done this before, so it might lack credibility." Sachiin admitted. "But this is my foot, and it's coming down. There's too much snow. I’m not losing you to something as fucking stupid as hypothermia... so c’est comme ça... you'll just have to trust me. Nowhere for a week."
She clasped her own face, everything she had stamped down in her chest emerging in tears. He looked out over the parapet with a hand on his nape, his struggle manifesting in a deep tic that worked across his shoulders, deforming his resolve.
"You didn't hear what she was saying... for fuck's sake, what am I doing here?" she demanded of herself, sucking a broken breath through her hands.
"Christabel..." he exclaimed softly, immersed in her dismay. "I’m saying no to you... be proud of me.”
She struck at him as he touched her arm, turning to stride across the roof into the darkness of the ruin, snatching up one of Petrouchka's forgotten coats in the midst of tripping over its crumpled form and following the steps down to the postern door. The effort required to heave it open checked the blurred impetus of her descent; she sank down into a crouch against the stone of the mountainside where it neighboured the weathered timbers, wiping at her eyes with her parka sleeve. In doing so she caught sight of Kala'amātya returning from a solitary foray. He ascended toward her slowly with no need to question the colour of her face, standing with his rifle on his shoulder while he waited for her to compose herself.
“You hate this place as much as I do.” Susan murmured. "And your fucking brother’s morphed into a fascist who knows what’s best for me, so can we please take him to a town where he can buy drugs and go back to being no fucking use to anyone?”
"You'll lose too much condition trying to walk in this, and there's more to come. Wait a week." he told her, his study of her referring him to the unspoken elements of her distress. Looking up into his illegible features, she knew she could not command everything required to disclose Petrouchka's admission, the failure sitting like lead inside her stomach.
"You must want shot of me more than ever."
“You could have stayed in Gévaudan.”
Susan shaded her eyes from the sky, shaking her head and expressing an arid obscenity.
"If you don't know why I didn't, I can't even feel sorry for you.”
He slid the rifle from his shoulder and made an offer of it, which she ignored until he took her wrist and pressed it into her grasp, meeting her glare without a word. Susan threw it down onto the snow and dropped onto her backside to push off the edge of the steps, carrying on stiffly down the hill alone.
A tumble of dry powder descended the slope with her, settling on her lashes and catching on the lush pile of the coat around her shoulders from which it shook loose, banished as it might have been from the back of an animal. She marched on down the incline, making long bear steps that compacted the crusted snow. It was not until she was reminded of the river by the sound of unseen water that she slowed, standing on a narrow piece of level ground and looking around herself. Cold crept into her sleeves but made no headway against the warmth haloed about her neck and chin by the fur; the gorge accepted venous tribute from the slopes on either side of its sunken, blackened crevice and she followed the tiny streams of melt to the edge of the drop, sitting down on a drift to take in the sight of the half-buried river. The cliff beneath her was not nearly as tall or forbidding as she had expected, its steep degree built up by enormous boulders cast from the ridges into a broken but passable grade, the great blocks ignored by the water shouldering past them, as dark as graphite in suspension. Fine spray settled on the fur as she devised a way over the descent to a point where the river was pinched so tightly between outcropped stone that she might have leapt it; she wiped a drip from her nose, folding her arms and sitting in her hunch until the sun had shifted overhead and tipped her shadow backwards.
Susan looked to the north and south and climbed slowly from the drop on all four limbs, rising to her feet once more where the hill leveled into a broad shelf. The air glittered with buoyant whits of ice in flues of sunlight drifting down from slim rifts in the cloud. At first glance the trees seemed placed as though by careful hands at some considerate distance from each other, and that they cultivated sophistry, their slim shade cutting the white with stripes of matte grey, snow lying on their branches like inverted shadow. Shrugging off her coat, she hung it from a sapling and lay down, first in profile, then on her back, imprinting two versions of herself into the pristine little plain. Her own small scale annoyed her as it had always done, seeming closer to some minor, nameless scion of her order than the species to which she belonged, though she drew consolation from the adult nature of the impressed proportions. A brief exam of her surrounds yielded broken wood, pebbles and bracket fungi; knocked from the fir they climbed in velveteen succession, the shapes of each were pressed into service as features on her effigies. Crouching for a moment at their feet in the grip of a vague dissatisfaction, she leant forward and planted a cigarette in each emblematic mouth. The effect was so displeasing that she flicked them away along with those remaining in the pack, tasting wet ash on her tongue and noting the narrow slash of red on the back of her finger before the discomfort of the scratch itself, hands almost disembodied by the cold's numbing, insidious empery. From them she looked up through the curling tendrils that had escaped her braids, glimpsing movement flickering amid a copse of pines recently carbonized by lightning.
Two birds rendered in black and chatoyant purple stood in heraldic confrontation amongst the ravished trees. Their feet, scaled and pipe grey, cut runic prints into the snow. Its crystals sucked a sweet and thickly-staining pink from the small carcass lying between them, of some luckless stoat or ermine; the ravens had hollowed its eyes and stolen the tongue from its mouth before opening its flank with their blade-like beaks. Their act of disposal was ennobled by hues and textures both stiff and elastic, blue and indelicate crimson, softly furred and dripping. All was pried apart and swallowed, the birds ignoring her observance, dragging the last secrets from between the ermine's ribs, sacred instruments about their sacred task. When she looked up from them the ruin had retreated overhead and she could see nothing of the rooftop yard, though she frowned and squinted until the hollow beating of the ravens’ wings turned her back in their direction. Together the corvids made a concerted ascent and stood amongst the branches, looking toward the south like sombre weathercocks and croaking brusquely. With her eyes still on the birds she sank down, one hand seeking the strap of the rifle while its absence and the rasp of an unfamiliar tread closed her eyes. She remained bedded like a stone even as the sounds described the stiff, braced stance the stranger assumed before her.
The sight of Susan Christabel in such incautious isolation seemed illusory to Josephine. She blinked hard, but made no other move to reassure herself.
“Move slowly, do exactly as I say.” she called as she withdrew a heavy black pistol. “Lace your fingers behind your head. Lie face down.” The girl glanced up toward the ruin. Josephine covered her carefully as she rose to stand, charged with the bright, self-conscious rigor of refusal. Her head turned toward the sound of the water; she looked back once at Josephine, then ran.
The dead trees of the clearing were quickly swallowed by the hillside though she did not look behind her, pushing her lead by skidding over a shallow bluff onto the more familiar ground of her previous ascent. Her boots punched into a cracking tangle of wind-banked branches; tipped forward, she kicked free and stumbled on toward the gorge, bursting through fingerling saplings that whipped back at her face. While her headlong velocity left Josephine in her distant wake, the latter's voice echoed down the hillside to direct another; the unseen party closed on her as they emerged together onto the level ground, catching her right arm and spinning her hard into the snow.
Petrouchka suspended her careful ascent toward the yard, lifting her hand to spare her flooded gaze the daylight; though feeble and colourless, it roared and boiled around her, casting the steps in white hot relief and glowing with the infernal hue of crucible steel. It rippled through the liquid in her eyes, her surface guarded only by clothing and the shadow she had followed from inside the ruin. Halted by its failure at the floor of the roof she stood, awaiting Sachiin's attention. He was tying back his returning hair, the handle of the axe propped against his thigh, and formed a pier of scalding brilliance, his eyes rendered in lustreless, infra-red darkness.
"From the way she freaked at me and peeled out, I'm guessing you dropped some epic shit down there." he suggested tersely. Petrouchka lifted the black cloth from her shoulders over her head. "I trusted you not to fuck with her, and you went right at it. I trusted you not to fuck with him."
"You accuse me? Of what?"
"Dépravation." he replied, wearily. "Déshonneur." The charges carried deeply into her empty chest, the day shuddering around them in agreement; she murmured, and lifted her draped arm as much against his stare as the sky, and he spoke more gently to her. "Do you not love me, Belyaev? How have we sinned against you?"
"I am dead, Sachiin." she confessed from underneath her cowl. "You ask so much of me."
The haste with which Kala'amātya climbed toward them drew him past her with none of the inquiry her presence might have otherwise inspired. She watched him confide something to his brother, then catch his arm as the latter broke toward the stairs, wide-eyed and silent, forcing Kala'amātya to exert the whole of his strength in halting him beside the vampyre and pinning his shoulder to the wall.
"What did you tell her?" he demanded of her.
"Sh'ih in'nai'ama. If they have her, they can't have you." hissed his detainer. Their struggle escalated until Petrouchka was sucked into its throes, her two-fisted hold setting her dead weight against him.
"Sachiin! You think she want this? Go now, or you won't."
He dragged them from the wall with him into the sunlight, her right side bared by the loss of her shawl; she sank to her knees beside his leg and clawed it back over her head, her cry prompting him to throw his brother off and aid her, though not before the caustic sky raised plumules of flame on the backs of her hands. Crouching in the shadow, Petrouchka pressed her burnt skin to her dress where it smoked like a brazier of blackened myrrh, uttering advice deeply coloured by the dark purl of her accent.
"They won't give you a cage with her. Be free. You know there is nothing else."
As she tottered back into the ruin Sachiin dropped onto the step beneath him as though suffering the same malaise.
Shaw pressed the girl's shoulder to the ground with his knee while he patted his belt for the cuffs he feared lost in his acquisition of her. Silence settled in the blue shade, the smell of stone and soil flushed from the riven snow beneath them. She lifted her head to look at him, astonished, then incensed.
“Relax. The less trouble you give, the less you get.” he muttered, forcing the cuff down over her wrist.
"Let me go.”
“Can’t do that.”
"Let me go." she hissed, provoked as much by the ease of his refusal as her own predicament. When he did not reply but sat back to consult his com, she suddenly contracted, planted her feet and threw herself sideways, tipping him onto his rear and scrambling over the top of him. Wedging her elbows into the snow, she sprang up and ran off along the slope toward the drop, the cuff chain flapping from her arm. Josephine leapt free from the saplings on the hill overhead and caught the fugitive from behind, seizing her hair and taking her once more to the ground. “Get off me!” she snarled through bared teeth; in reply her captor smacked a black steel truncheon across her elbow. The pain left her rolling and coughing snow from the back of her throat while the webbing was strapped around her right arm. As it compressed the small bones of her wrist the girl's dark eyes flicked open; she snatched the stranger's jacket front and jerked her downward where she bit hard into her cheek, her teeth skidding, then tearing into the smooth skin. Josephine punched her stomach with a knee until Shaw pared them apart, keeping her assailant pinned where she lay.
The blonde woman pressed a hand to the lush colour smeared across her face. It bled through the crooks of her fingers while she tore supplies from her pack, the girl spitting its raw taste into the snow.
"I want their location." she hissed, slapping tape across the gauze that had stuck to her wound. Susan's eyes found Shaw again. "Where are they?" Josephine shouted down at her, fingers blanching on the handle of the baton. Her victim's red-stained teeth flashed as she cracked the weapon across her shins; at its impact she stared wildly and gasped for breath, but uttered nothing more. Shaw turned from her, keeping his remarks confidential.
"This was too damn easy."
"They're here." Josephine assured him, scorn lowering her voice.
"You don't know that... you think they're just going to sit this out while you go hard on her?"
"Look at her neck. That's a fatality right there, and there's a bad contact on her arm. Where do you think she'd be right now if they weren't committed to her survival?" She waited for him to conclude his incurious survey. "Take all the time you need."
"That's not what I got at the house." he insisted.
"What you got at the house put us out here. Now get on her. I need bloods."
Josephine's pack yielded a number of discreet kits, each sleeved in a different shade of green from which she slid a selection of tools and appurtenance. With a small black camera she bent down again, grasping the girl's throat and snapping detailed shots of her face, front and profile, disregarding its expression and the blood around her mouth. The subject lay so indifferent to the blinking shutter that Josephine began to suspect her acquiescence and stowed the camera; with a plastic bag over her hand she grasped a section of her hair, winding it around her gloved fingers and ripping it free from the braid.
"The tent lab can get all this." Shaw muttered from his position at her feet. The girl saw nothing of the collection tube pressed to the skin beneath her ear, its cannula drawing a snaking line of blood into the plastic.
“She’s a warm ride, she could be holding both their DNA. If we have to cash her in I want her swabs on file so get her fucking feet.”
Their captive twisted from the hands that grasped the front of her jeans, thrashing hard and catching Shaw in the throat with her boot when he lost control of her legs. He sat back, struggling with the insult to his airway while Josephine cursed them both, winding the miscreant with the baton and climbing to her feet.
The conscripts negotiated the slope within formation in response to her summons, their thickset, pale-eyed uniformity suggesting them as the product of some failed fascist métier, their defects almost sarcastic. One by one they took a moment from their slit-eyed vigilance to look the girl over, returning their interest to their surrounds as circumstance dictated the emphasis. Their leader shrugged while shaking his head in rueful illustration of his misgivings. Built like a massive bipedal saurian, he sported a white blond crop and eyes that seemed perpetually inflamed by some chemical irritant.
"From point... looks clean." he reported, watching Josephine consult the compass on her wrist. Shaw shook his head at her ascending glance.
"Set up sensors... I want coverage at thirty metres." she instructed. "We'll tune her here. If it moves, get on it."
The conscripts spread away from them, placing laser-sighted units in a perimeter and hunkering down with their weapons to their chests. Fighting the acquisition of her hands until she was flipped onto her stomach, the girl blew snow and loosed hair from her mouth against the ground. Shaw stood peeling the plastic from an energy bar and planted a cursory boot on the back of her knees as per instruction; Josephine uncuffed her left fist and prised the thumb from it.
"You can see where this is going..." the former explained to the subjugated party with his mouth half-full, favouring his bruised throat as he swallowed. "I can't help you if you won't give back. Anything you know is good."
Josephine unclipped a multitool from her belt, setting the deeply-cleated plier jaws around base of Susan's thumb nail.
"Where are they?"
Her silence closed the jaws and crushed the nail frozen white, then concentric blue and red. The girl almost tore free in the comprehensive violence of her response, writhing behind her arm with the demonic strength of some inviolate possession. Blood fled the split that buckled open in the half moon of her nail but her expression conferred nothing beyond agony; Josephine released the jaws, knowing circulation would reprise the sanction. In Susan's stare the looming birches came to sudden life, branches bleeding like veins of watered ink into the sky.
"Last time. Where are they?" Josephine's reiteration sounded as though spoken through a wall; she looked out along the slope, then selected another finger, adjusting her grip on the tool.
The girl's eyes flew open; her teeth appeared behind her lips and Josephine loosed the jaws, then struck her dripping finger a swift blow with the tool. Susan lapsed slackly onto the snow and away from her hand into a spinning, silvery daze while the conscripts kept their wary eyes on the hillside.
"Down there." she gasped, spitting out the words along with the saliva that had slid into her airway.
Shaw dispatched himself down the slope and blew hard as he toiled back to them while Josephine unrolled a slim chain from her belt and dragged the girl's dead weight toward a tree, securing her to the trunk. He took their discussion to a discreet remove.
"Like I said... tracks go right down to the drop." he smirked. "They cut her loose."
Around them the corps stood like some crude henge, fists closed tightly on their weapons.
"Did I tell you to come in?" snapped Josephine, turning her attention back to Shaw's gloating reportage. "How is it possible for her to have a hand up your ass when she's tied to a tree? I could do her like that all day and she won't make a sound. Ask yourself why."
Snow had began to fall again, drifting between them, and she paused, turning to look through it at the conscripts that had begun to scratch at the edge of her attention like a hatched blur; they cringed hard and doubled over as though her anger had effected it, weapons forgotten at the cold burn of the screaming tone inside their heads. Shaw's hands retreated to his rifle and Josephine looked down at the split ring hanging from her belt, gaping, misshapen and emptied of its orange fob. The missing unit almost glowed in Susan's bloodied grasp as she slid her thumb back from the button, sitting on her knees in the half-regarded distance and watching the tormented men recover, her mastery of the effect becoming clear, like something patiently explained. Looking up at the pistol in Josephine's grasp while the latter strode toward her, she hoisted her swollen elbow onto her knee and used both arms to throw the fob to Shaw.
The men said nothing to the baton blow that knocked her onto her side.
"Get back out on point!" Josephine shouted over her shoulder. The command met a thick, shuffling silence. Shaw nodded toward Susan, stowing the orange unit on his own belt.
"Get her up." he told them. "We're done wasting time."
Two conscripts lurched forward uncertainly, trudging past Josephine while she blew a dry breath at the sky.
"What now, Nathaniel?" she laughed sourly. "Slay us with your exit strategy."
"I... We call this in..."
“You don’t dial in a jugfuck, man..." A Two volunteered. "We come up empty, they’ll frag us from the fuckin hawk. I seen them do that shit three times.”
"We're not empty... we got her." he reminded them, nodding to the base of the tree where Susan lay on her side. Taking the small locator unit from her breast pocket, Josephine offered it to Shaw.
“So call it in. Thirty to pull pitch, two hours flight time... they'll be here before we lose the light.” Conscious of the eyes on him, he made slow time in checking his watch and compass, setting his rifle strap across his shoulders and ignoring her demand for a decision. "Call them." she insisted. He turned toward his abandoned pack, speaking with her scathing stare still crawling on his profile and muttering in reply.
"I'll make the call tomorrow early. We pitch here tonight."
No more snow fell earthward and Susan lay staring up into the vaulted night, its fabric stained, from the gravid hearth-grey of afternoon to a blackness pillared by the birches, their limbs arrayed like charred bones. Without its stars the sky seemed starved and vacuous, its morbid sable breathing down upon her face while the icy ground beneath conducted her extremities into insensibility, claiming her swollen, leaking hand and block-like feet, on which she had been made to stand until she could no longer do so. Lying prone replaced shuttered exhaustion with a forest viewed in yawning, supine peripheral, the depths of an unknown ocean, her hopeless flesh confiding to its drifting horrors as though it were blood spilled into the water.
Staring at the sky quieted the flashbulb flickers at the edges of her vision and dimmed their association with the silver-foiled eyes that might have stared back from between the trees. The prospect of captivity beneath an eidiré with the woman standing guard as her only companion shared its colour with the interstellar spaces. That no one would come to intervene was something that lay like the snow, anaesthetic once accepted, its principles and mechanism just as spotless and pristine. When Susan closed her eyes she saw the face that Sachiin turned to her in another kind of darkness, discovering the ease with which those most private of exchanges could serve as a farewell, its tender, down-like irony bending the trees once more as tears beaded between her lashes.
Josephine shifted in her seat upon a fallen bough. The girl had turned her face away, rolling into a curve around a cough between the two chains that held her in the mist of the small clearing. Her hair, still gently blue, retained its close-set braids, the tortuous romanticism of the arrangement skewed by the blind rote of their construction. Slowly, she returned to lying on her back. Josephine counted off the hours the hostage had already passed in silence while the prospect of captivity grew protean features and an intent tuned to her darkest spectrum. She had seen its nightmare aspect rend and gut resolve and knew that it required no assistance, thinking herself privy to one of the small concessions dowering submission when she saw the girl's attention had shifted toward her.
A closer look revealed that it did not solicit or even consider her, but had settled on the darkness over her shoulder. Reclaiming her weapon, Josephine turned and beheld the shape that had come forth between the branches. An owl grasped a slender limb at the edge of the clearing, wearing a white far warmer than the snow and as plush as winter ermine, the disquieting schematics of its pallid, annular mask laid round eyes like polished domes of quartz. It shrugged its pinions before blinking from the way ahead, setting a stare on the girl as she used her arms to rise and sit back on her knees. Josephine oversaw their exchange with the suspicion she accorded all requited silence, opening her mouth in unformed objection while Susan reached out slowly and took up snow between her fingers, touching it to her brow in deference to the visitor. The beam from her guard's torch crossed the branches and found the bird's glowing eyes; it clapped its beak, put out its wings and flew on over their heads.
The same light blanched the girl's face when Josephine turned it on her, studying her for a while.
"Call to them." she instructed, her voice echoing slightly in the quiet. The captive sat without moving, her saturnine refusal drawing Josephine from the fallen tree. She unclipped something from her belt as she approached. "Put your back into it." Susan let the woman loose the chain from her hands without looking at her. The ruby binding of her multitool was empurpled by the darkness, like the ends of her own fingers. "Do it now. Nice and loud or I will hurt you, just like before." She felt her cold hand flattened across her knee and pinned fast at the wrist. When she would not comply, the woman closed the alloy jaws on her bitten index finger and prised the riven nail from its bed.
Susan did not know which of Sachiin's names she screamed into the trees. One of the conscripts, his skin prickling with its shivering abandon, halted at the northern end of the clearing with his rifle in both hands, his frown hardly distinguishable from his customary expression.
"I gotta relieve you if you can't keep her iced." he called, making a careful study of the surrounding trees as Josephine rose. In watching him return to his unseen station, she pressed her boot down on the girl's bleeding hand, leaning over as she twisted it slowly into the snow and desisting only when her full weight did not elicit any more audible response.
One and Three lifted Susan from the ground together, bruising the crooks of her arms and availing themselves of fumbling manual gratuities while Shaw lifted a scope to his eye and played it once more over the visible ruin. He muttered to himself as she was dragged past him, glaring at Josephine's back while she stooped to collect the sensor units.
"Called it in yet?" the latter inquired. His silence prompted her to reach into her shirt and retrieve the locator beacon once more. "We've got a good window to get the choppers here."
"The snow's done. We're walking out." Shaw told her.
"I lived half my life in Telluride, and if this snow's done, then you're exactly the kind of charismatic overachiever we need in a leadership role." He stuffed the scope into his pack. Confident she had attracted the conscripts' attention, she blew the moisture from the sensors as she packed them away. "So today we're going to haul her dead weight through hostiles waiting to burn us with our own gear... I guess, to a town, stacked double-wide with tipsters, off-season mercs, so you can... maybe blow off the pick up and run for the border? Try and turn her in? They'll do the flyover, look at your log pics and want to know why you left that shady..." She nodded up toward the ruin. "You'll say you just had a feeling it was clear. They'll promote you and give these guys a ten g bar tab."
Behind her their subordinates dropped the girl into the snow and devoted themselves to his response, snorting and wiping their noses with their gloved hands. Their captive's voice issued from within the copse of black-clad legs encircling her, barely loud enough to penetrate them.
"None of us will get anywhere." she observed, examining the blood crusted on her fingers.
"Why's that?" Shaw asked of her, scowling again.
"The other things... the wolves."
"You made contact with them?"
Her laconic delivery did not moderate the impact of its substance on the conscripts; she watched their boots shift in the snow before her while they absorbed it.
"They'll kill everyone. There's ten of them to every one of you."
Josephine smirked and tightened the straps of her pack, hoisting it onto her shoulder.
"Which is why the two subs are sitting up there, waiting for us to walk into them."
"If they were here, they would have come down the hill with knives and cut your fucking heads off." Susan observed, to which Josephine smiled again, dryly.
"If they were here, that's what I'd say too."
"They cut you loose." Shaw reminded her. "Bailed... walked out right over the top of you, and it looks like that total lack of interest in your welfare's gonna work out great for them. How's that feel?"
The girl seemed to ponder his inquiry.
"Not as bad as letting you go when I should have let them hack you into dogfood." she admitted. "You fucking weasel knob end."
"She let you go? I don't remember that in your report." chuckled Josephine, adding another strip of tape to the gauze on her face.
"He was hiding behind a door." the girl informed her, watching the woman extract grim pleasure from the intelligence. "You're all fucked, alright? Just let me go."
"I know dodging contact is a thing for you, but that's not why you won't head up there, is it Nathaniel?" Josephine inquired, both hands on her hips.
Shaw fired his pack so hard at the ground that its lid lapsed open and spilled its contents onto the snow, leaving him to stand with empty hands. The conscripts backed out of his way around the girl; he dragged her to her feet and held her for a moment, unable to decide on a reprisal, then thrust her once more at them.
"Two, Three... take the hill, keep a tight line... you see something, you get low." he told them, walking away from the disturbance Susan caused by refusing the climb. Josephine strode toward her and kneed her hard onto her face.
"Walk or lose a finger."
The pale ground sloughed from under the girl's soles, pitching her into the hillside. She laboured under a slack, cygnet-hued weight that was almost visible about her head and shoulders; halting their companions, Josephine took the chain from the prisoner's tightly-cuffed hands, assuming her custody while the monastery stood in its eternal remove, neither friend nor conscious obstacle. They toiled on over the shoulder of the supporting spur, forced into a line that played out loosely until she called to it, wary of the split in their formation. Scuffed free by the boots of the advance party, a slip of snow sucked mass and pace from the incline, rushing by to the east of both women and breaking like a wave around the stout trunk of a dead pine. It shook free the white mound that had swamped the surrounding bracken, revealing the slick black rock that formed the edge of the narrow scarp beneath. The girl sprang from her haunches behind Josephine and threw herself at the drop while the chain between them flew after her and snapped tight, ripping her captor onto her back. Josephine caught the links and slid toward the defunct tree, boots slammed into the wood by the weight strung out of sight against the rock face.
It shadowed the fugitive's features as two conscripts leant out over the void, dusting her with snow and hauling on the suspending chain. She made no sound even as her wounded hands were dragged beneath her by their brutal effect of her ascent.
Flat-faced boulders parted from the ruin's footings and mottled with tea-green lichen bordered the curve of intervening ground that stretched before the walls, the steps up to the postern door terminating at its south end, the north littered with the leavings of the axe. Slumping where she was shoved, Susan drew her legs into her stomach and leant against the ledge behind her, its low rampart cutting off any view of the monastery. Splintered waste wood squealed and cracked beneath her, water tapping her shoulder from a trickle dripping off the stone. She lifted her hand to the cold flow while Josephine payed out a telescopic mirror and scanned the face of the ruin.
"I want their positions." she told her while Shaw kicked himself a berth into the ground beside her.
"Susan, we got you. We had you when you set foot in that compound... it's done. If you care, then do them right, and if you don't, just give them up." he told her.
The girl had let her head fall back against the stone but glanced toward him, then at the conscripts aligned beside her. In the face of their concerted expectation she turned away and proffered silence. Shaw seized her arm and dragged her forward, crushing her face into the shallow burn of melt and wet snow that undercut the brittle debris. She gasped a breath; he swore and held her down until Josephine looked down, pulled a humming sensor from her pocket and blew the pine dust from its display, Two reaching for his own version of the instrument and squinting at it.
"Decomp." he called, dismissing the reading and tucking it back into his clothing. Beside him, Four muttered at his chest and struggled with his garments as though something live had fallen into them, pulling back his armoured vest to inspect his belt.
"The fuck? My loc's lit up..." he cried, his suspicion confirmed by the dull red light that flashed at his waist and prompted him to look up at the sky in pavlovian alarm. Shaw checked his own, then stared at Josephine, who did not share the sentiments expressed by her companions, as charged as anything that might have emerged from their weapons. They cursed the activation of their locator beacons hotly, kicking stones and earth down the hillside in a embittered and childlike display of pugnacity. Their self-styled leader stroked a hand over his cropped head, shaking it to himself.
"What did she do?" Susan murmured, wondering at the fusion of inertia and violence surrounding her as she righted herself.
"In two fuckin hours there'll be airborne out here lighting all this up with fifties... the only things dodging shit'll be your fuckin tricks. Crazy fuckin bitch." the conscript beside her grunted, careless of whichever woman claimed offence.
"I don't know why you're still here." she admitted, laying her head down onto her knees. "It's not like they can stop you. She's mad, and he's a gutless numpty. I'd have shot them both and gotten it over with." The words cleaved swiftly to the notions already taking shape inside them. "You could have been over the river by now."
Shaw's execration was superseded by another advisory from the corps.
"I ah... shit, yeah....got decomp again." said Four, rubbing a hand across his mouth and lifting a furrowed expression from the instrument in his grasp. He turned his crouch in the direction indicated by the pulsing dial but did not dare to raise his head over the ledge, lifting it instead to mark the sun, a little past its apex in the wool-grey sky. "Fuck... it can't be rolling, we still got a fuckin tonne of lux..."
Shaw demanded the instrument from him and examined the reading himself.
Their mirrors rose again like the stalk eyes of an insect. The glass found a figure seated midway on the steps. It was so much smaller than Josephine's expectation that her eyes at first dismissed it as some disfeature of the shade, until it lifted a face that had taken a bright icy blue from the sheltering umbra, floating almost in isolation over a coat of engulfing fur. She threw down her mirror and tore a lanyard from inside her shirt, stuffing pendant yellow buds into her ears.
Susan hoisted herself up to the edge of the stone where she caught a glimpse of the figure on the steps. The vampyre seemed like something that might be blinked away, the distant sun dismissing her beauty like a vapour and casting her as ruined as the battered leavings of her feasts. As she was dragged back onto the crumbling ground a voice began to flow across the clearing and roll down onto their heads like a spill of cool, heavy gas. She watched the men stab soft buds deep into their ears and sit knotted up while Petrouchka's voice welled all around them, seeping through the cracks in the rock and soaking through the fibre plugging the passages into their heads. Despite their cold-sweating terror it began to stroke and coax their bones and muscle, twisting them as though between two fists and sucking them, one by one, onto their knees, and then onto their deadened feet. The voice pulsed with all the flushing speed of blood along their neural traceries until its invitation became the only course of action. Indemnified by the scars upon her neck, Susan could hear nothing of its lure and watched Josephine shout futile commands while Shaw's hand clutched her tightly against the sucking draw that he himself resisted only with his hold on her.
One by one, the conscripts heaved themselves up over the ledge like pinnipeds striving onto a shelved beach, boots battling the wet stone, eyes bulging in their hollows. The vampyre awaited them, seated in the heart of her smiling insistence while they pounded across the narrow clearing toward her. She rose to meet them with a handgun; it blew sputtering holes into the foremost's chest and face until he fell against the steps, still reaching for her. The second stumbled over him and threw himself at the same cursory fate, staggering along the wall and rolling slowly while the third swallowed her last rounds and crashed into her, crushing her small frame against the stone and wrapping around her in a sightless rapture. Susan watched Petrouchka climb the tall man swiftly and grasp his head in her little hands, tearing at his red-flushed face and disgorging gouts of blood that doused his inarticulate cries. He staggered backward from the steps and toppled down into the smothered daylight.
She fell with him, and the sun struck her through the cloud. The blackness coiling in the heart of her remaining cells burst in gentian flame that garbed her tightly, leaping skyward from the crown of her head; the man's pale hair caught, his face scorched quickly to a mask of soot and yawning blisters while his clothing melted and she savaged the new shapes of his torn face. They sank together onto his side where she let go, rising while he lay kicking, the fire eating his skin and turning his eyes a blank matte white. Blood boiled over her chin and streamed from her gaze in two dark fingers, the stench from her flickering fur redoubling as she threw it off beside the burning man.
The last of her supplicants crawled on the stone between her and his lost redoubt, faltering in his desperate need to satisfy the summons she could no longer sustain. She sank to her knees in the hissing immolation, its flames breathing flesh and air and parting the snow as it began to drift around the ruin. A black stain spread beneath her palms, hands curling inward as her form grew indistinct and lapsed into the shallow pool beneath her until it was no longer possible to discern what fueled the blaze. It sank from the height of a woman's shoulder to that of an infant's sleeping form, and then to nothing, leaving only a darkness upon the rock like the shadow of a bird between the earth and bright midday.
Shaw's mirror showed him the remaining conscript emerging from his suicidal transport. Scrabbling to his feet, the man stared up at the over-looming parapet as though waiting for it to pronounce a deferred doom. The wind flapped his clothes against his body and snow blurred him momentarily; when nothing more occurred, he murmured and began to brush himself off with mindless hands that fell once more to slack disuse while Susan searched the empty castellations on her own account, closing her eyes and dropping back onto her knees.
Still in a crouch of his own, Shaw began to struggle out of the ephemera that was strapped to him. Josephine snatched up the tracking device he had cut loose and threw it back at him, striking his shoulder.
"You won't get clear... " she promised, watching him upend his pack and gather what he needed. "She'll spill everything when they get her in the chair..."
"This place is fucking empty, she doesn't know shit and you..." Breaking off, he lunged forward after Susan's hands, too late to stop their lashing strike. She punched the split length of silvered pine butted in her fists into Josephine's thigh, committing her entire weight to the assault; driven deeply, the dry wood pierced her skin, skidding then stubbed blunt between the knot of bones and sheaths inside her knee. The woman retched out a rasping cry, clutching the leg as the shard shifted in the flesh contracting round it and Susan launched herself at her, clubbing furiously at her face with both bound hands. They slid together down the wet slope; Shaw shouted after them, but as he struggled to his feet it was the sucking crack of a bullet loosed from the ruin that stilled the women struggling below.
His head snapped forward on his neck and opened, expelling wet red and thick sodden pink through the outward dissolution of his features. The hot matter struck the side of Susan's face; his body listed, dropping to and falling forward from its knees. On the ledge the remaining conscript caught a second round and toppled before the sound of the first had died away. Susan kicked back from the woman underneath her, fingers sliding on a small stretch of half-buried black, a pistol jogged from its holster and stamped into the thin snow. Snatching it up, she planted her boots against the woman's hip and aimed the weapon at her face.
Her shot threw the pistol backward in her hands. A knocking report swept down the hillside as a booming seashore echo, leaving a dark puncture in the snow by Josephine's left ear, but before she could amend her aim, a grasp closed on her jersey and hauled her sideways; keeping his hold on her, Sachiin swung his rifle from his shoulder and struck the stranger senseless with its stock.
The soft sound of his voice puzzled Susan, seeming new to her while behind them his brother cast fresh snow over the ledge in dropping from it, holding his rifle clear. The chain still bound her to the nameless woman and she exclaimed in sudden and visceral repugnance, casting up screeds of dirty snow as she pounded her boot against the latters' arm and ribcage until Sachiin cut the black cuffs from her wrists. With her freed, he sat down on the slope as though his legs had failed him, finding the hand that hung by her side with his own and breathing a prayer of thanks, his eyes still wide and holding a ghost of their commonplace shade. Shaw's stricken body shifted weakly in a slow, petering contraction, closing on itself with a series of little shudders, like a child wracked by the distant passage of a dream.
Susan cleared her throat and slid her hand from his to push back her loosened braids. The snow wandered against her face as she drew her sleeve down over her wrist and used it to wipe the thick pink spatter from her mouth.
Blushing pulses of pain roused Josephine to the sight of dark eyes in a pale scowl blurred down to lithic tones and shifting, misted shapes. The girl wrestled her black boot from her left foot, wrenching the leg that had swollen around the shaft of wood still buried in its knee. With her head to the foot of the ruin, Josephine saw the curving wall loom in a dreadful grey parabola, black cuffs securing her hands at the small of her back, though she could no longer feel them. Her former captive shuffled her feet into the warmth of the stolen boots, walking a short distance and stopping to rock back and forth, then stooping to lace them with her best hand. Josephine's rifle slid forward against the back of her head from where it hung across her shoulders.
The small party had chosen sparingly from the vanquished corps' equipment, satisfying necessity more than preference, Susan taking obsessive care to locate those samples wrested from her person. Having segregated them in the midst of the clearing, she looked again toward the survivor and stamped her new boots over the fragile receptacles, splintering and kicking them into oblivion. Behind her, Sachiin lifted her pack to test the balance of the load, cheating Fyodor's questing snout of the rations stowed in its compartments. Shaw's body lay like refuse, limbs left skewed by their passage over the stony ground; a florid drag had trailed the remaining portions of his head like effluent bleeding from a rusting pipe.
Josephine did not know that her weatherproof garments had been awarded to Susan, feeling only random and dissonant elements of her own exposure, pinching pain and blue-hued absences. The fraternal creatures standing before her claimed the whole of her faltering attentions, the fauna of a lost continent that drifted away slowly while they walked its distant shore, a paradox that crowded all else backward. Snow embraced them as surely as it reviled her, closing like the jungle around the oscillated feline and leaving nothing to explain. She ate what she could get of them until the memory began to seize and fracture, choked with their detail, closing her eyes only when the frowning girl complained to a companion of her stare.
The shadow had been scoured from the wall beneath the steps since Petrouchka's demise. Sachiin followed its curve to her remains, where his hands moved in a simple observance, articulating sorrow and gratitude. That which had been spared by her immolation was already half-interred by snow, its sated darkness consumed in turn.
"I don't think she did it for us." Susan ventured, standing at his side. He half-turned to pick her up and held her dumbly. "Breathe." she urged into his ear, appraised of the suspension he still suffered despite her warmth and sentience. His brother brought tape from Josephine's kit and Sachiin set her down to wrap her injured fingers; she watched their crushed colours disappear, letting him go to make a final sweep of their surrounds.
"They could have had us all by now. You should have gone." she told Kala'amātya. He did not reply.
"I put my foot down." Sachiin admitted.
"Again?" Susan's face slackened into a half-formed smile, but it was dismissed by the purpose that turned her back toward Kala'amātya and prompted her to trail him as he performed his own final survey of the debris broadcast around them. "Petrouchka was lying..." she whispered, wiping stiffened hair from her cheek and awaiting some sign that he was attending to her communique, "She told me Helaine was happy, and then sad... not the other way around." His acknowledgement was wordless and delayed, evinced as an expression he turned away from her, but she was gratified, and stood to work a glove over her injured hand. He emptied the rifle he had used to kill Shaw and the conscript, laying it out beside Josephine in an act that Susan came slowly to appreciate. "That cow was the one who did this to my fucking hands." She leaned once more over the woman's leg, examining the wound she had inflicted with a satisfaction as plain as carbon daubed across her face. "It looks bad..."
Josephine's gaze continued to mine the precious values of Kala'amātya's surface. He returned her stare with something forged beyond the windblown, fox-grey span of prosaic indifference.
"Will she walk, if she makes it out of here?"
"Eventually." he conceded. Susan squinted at her own irresolution when his silence became expectant.
"So it's up to me..."
"She's your mark. You get the horns."
"I think I'll leave it. It sort of feels like throwing back a live grenade." she declared, taking out the pistol and directing it at Josephine in passing. "It won't be your fucking knee next time." she promised her, joining Sachiin as he moved out, the piglet trailing him closely.
They skirted the stiffening remains of the corps; Susan held her companion's hand in negotiating the drop onto the snow-blurred trail, blowing the flakes from her fringe and urging him onward. The narrow way curved to the east with the hollow leading from the weathered spur, the clouds lowering to graze the apex of the tallest pines. Where the steps diverged they halted, the brothers murmuring to one another, Kala'amātya offering a handgun and a fold of bills to Sachiin and accepting a camouflaged bag in the exchange. The latter lifted Fyodor from the snow and over his shoulder, stuffing the small animal under the cowl of his pack.
"Sis'thle bai'in." he said softly, addressing the brief courtesy to his brother.
"What's this? Where are you going?" Susan demanded.
"West." replied Kala'amātya.
"East." Sachiin confirmed when she looked back to him.
"But... when will..." The question's plaintive irresolution and the expression that accompanied it took them both by surprise, Kala'amātya shifting the rifle to his left shoulder. He waited momentarily, then lifted the hood of his sweatshirt, stepping up onto the westward flight. She caught his arm and turned him back toward her. "Wear you teeth, and don't be such a bastard." she whispered, wresting something small from the pocket of her jeans and pushing it into his grasp. "It's got a filling, but don't throw it away... it's definitely lucky."
He looked down at the tooth in the palm of his hand, then turned again and began the long climb toward the wooded ridge, his footprints first softened, then obliterated by snow. Blowing on her hands, she watched her breath curl in plumes as he was lost to them, still frowning to herself.
"Do you know where he's going?" she asked her remaining companion.
"Yeah..." Sachiin admitted through a seasoned scowl. "I'm pretty sure I do."
He held out his hand and she stepped down with him in the opposite direction, beside the course of an infant spring, its silvered flux slicing through the snow in its desire for the darkness of the gorge.
f i n i s
~ the second half of this cycle still to come ~
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