Going Under, the first book in the Something in the Water series, arrives Tuesday, September 5!

 

Chapter II [Bad Spirits]

Chapter II [Bad Spirits]

He was met at the station by two men in black suits and dark glasses. They looked prim and proper, and neither of them said anything. One of them put his hand on Ilya’s back, steering him toward a black car parked by the culvert, just a few feet away from the station. Tiny twin flags fluttered in wind, anchored to the car near the front ferring.
He sat on the cool leather and stared at the driver for a moment, before he was jostled from side to side by either of the suits sliding into the car. He was, for all intents and purposes, trapped in the vehicle with them.

They didn’t speak until they’d pulled out of the station parking lot, onto the street. “We’re sending you to Norcross,” the one on his left informed him. He was smoking a cigarette.
“Norcross?” he asked, blinking. He’d heard the name before. “Where is –”
“It’s the Nord capital. About four hundred and thirty miles northwest of here.”
The man on his right handed him a packet of crumpled papers. “I trust you’ve been taught to read.”
“Of course,” Ilya snorted, then carefully unfolded the first sheet of paper. It was thin, so thin he could read the other sheets through it. Thick black ink had been poured over it in a hasty scrawl; the paper was blotted here and there.
The man on his left blew smoke into the air and Ilya inhaled the sharp scent of used nicotine. He glanced back at the paper.
“Nobody knows exactly where Norcross is,” the man on his right said. He was facing forward, but his glasses hid his eyes and Ilya couldn’t tell what – or who – he was looking at. “The drop point is about three hundred miles from the city. From there, it’s up to you to make your way into the city.”
Ilya frowned. “But –”
“Of course, it’s nothing but mountains and forests. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a path and you might find a village where someone will take you to the capital. Otherwise, you’re on your own.”
The man on his left shifted. “The Nords’d be suspicious if we brought ya in ourselves. They don’t use cars, they don’t use trains, and they sure as hell don’t use planes.”
“As you know, the Nords are on unfriendly terms with us now. They see our actions in the tundra as hostile, and they are still upset about the territory they ceded to us at the end of the last war.”
“Then why do you want me to go there?” Ilya asked, unfolding another sheet of paper.
The man on the left knocked the ashes off the end of his cigarette, pulling a face as he did so. “The Nords are hoarding their natural resources. We’ve tried negotiating with ‘em, but they jes don’t wanna cooperate. They don’t understand that if they’d share with us, we could make the world a better place – for everyone, not just Nords and Rus.”
“They refuse to strike a deal with us. This is strictly confidential, but we are preparing to go to war with them about the territory to the north. Our operations have been established there for three decades now, and they’re threatening to shut us down.”
“So we’ll shut ‘em down instead.”
“And we need you to gather intelligence about the Nords – their weapons, their armies, their leadership.”
Ilya folded the papers up again, very slowly, considering each crease. “Why me?” he asked, glancing at either of the goons in turn. “I’m no spy, I’m just some kid you guys picked up off the streets –”
More smoke billowed into the air as the man on his left grinned broadly. The man on his right continued to face forward; his face was blank. “You were selected precisely because of your abilities, Ilya. We have been aware of you for some time.”
“Yer half-Nord. We can’t send a full-blood Rus in there; they’d sniff ‘im out in a minute. But you – you look Nord. You’ll blend in.”
He waved the cigarette a little bit. “And you’ve already proved yer a sneaky little bastard – we know all about yer sticky fingers, how ya can git in and git out, jes like that.”
He snapped his fingers.
The car jerked to a halt. The man continued to grin nastily at him, even as he forced open the door.
“C’mon,” he said, stepping out of the vehicle onto the tarmac of the landing strip. Ilya stared at the blinking lights that marked out the strip in the early morning fog.
“No,” he said when he finally found his tongue. The word shook, but he felt confident.
“Whaddya mean, no?”
“I mean no,” he growled. “Find some other sucker to do this – I ain’t gonna! I ain’t gonna do nothing for you –”
“Yer country needs ya, Ilya –”
“What the fuck has my country ever done for me?!”
Something cold pressed up against his temple. He took a deep breath, then forced himself to relax.
“I don’t think you quite understand us, Ilya.”
He swallowed.
“You don’t have a choice in this.”
He closed his eyes. He imagined his mother was spinning in her grave right now.

 

*
“You look peaceful when you sleep.”
He sat up bolt right and stared at the wall for all of thirty seconds before he turned to Timmo. Timmo just simpered. The barrel of the gun remained at his temple, kissing it lovingly. Ilya gritted his teeth when Timmo clicked the safety off.
“I think I’d like to see you wear that expression for all eternity.”
Ilya couldn’t manage anything more than an animalistic growl in response. He bared all his teeth, like a cornered beast.
“What?” The Nord looked surprised by that. “I’d be doing you a favor, killing you in your sleep, shooting you through the head. You’d never even know – you’d die in your sleep.”
Ilya pushed the blond’s arm aside, slightly surprised that he allowed it. “I’d prefer not to die today,” he snarled, then rolled out of bed.
“Tomorrow then? Just tell me, whenever you feel like it. It can be arranged. My schedule’s pretty clear for a while now.”
“If you’re eager to shoot someone, how about starting with yourself?”
“Oh, you are cruel, aren’t you.” He watched Ilya cross the room and lift the blanket to peer outside. The sun shone brightly now, light all but dripping into the room. Steam was rising from the saturated fields.
Ilya let the blanket fall back against the dirty panes of glass. “We should go,” Timmo said when he turned to face him.
The Rus snorted. “Why?” he asked. “So I can walk out there and you can give your little buddies the signal and they can shoot me?”
Timmo shook his head. “Honestly,” he huffed, “I only tried that once –”
Ilya slammed his hands down on the mattress, making it jump. Timmo’s eyes widened a little bit. “Tell you what, here’s what we shoulddo. You should call off your mongrels, you should leave, you should crawl home with your tail between your legs. I don’t know who sent you out here to kill me, but –”
“Nobody sent me,” Timmo snapped. “I don’t get orders any more – that’s it, I’m done. They took everything – my house, my farm, my job, my papers, my dog, my kids, my wife –”
“You’re not married,” Ilya growled.
“Oh, I was. Then they shot her.” He grinned ruefully and Ilya rolled his eyes.
“You’re a liar.”
“My point is that they’ve taken everything – I’m nothing but an obstacle to them. They’re just as interested in seeing me dead as they are in seeing you dead.”
Ilya struggled to remain unconvinced. Timmo was a good liar, he reminded himself, and he was about to be duped again.
“You don’t believe me.” He sounded hurt.
“No. Do you blame me?” Ilya replied.
Timmo just shook his head, then reached for his discarded jacket. He produced a crumpled piece of paper from the breast pocket. He tried to smooth the crinkles in the paper, then handed it to Ilya. “Do you believe me now? There’s the warrant for my arrest. They’ve got these damned posters plastered everywhere. There’s a bounty on my head.”
Ilya studied the paper for a moment, then handed it back to the Nord. It looked official – the paper was the right weight for letterhead; the seal was even printed in the right shade of blue for the Nord crown seal. But, he thought, Timmo could easily have had the papers forged. He had access to the Crown printing press if he needed it. He could have had a warrant for his arrest drawn up if he thought it would be helpful to his cause.
“Why do you have something like that?”
“Mm?”
“Most people don’t carry warrants for their own arrests with them.”
Timmo smirked. “Sharp as a tack, aren’t you? I liked the photo. I think it makes me look dashing, don’t you?”
Ilya grunted. “That’s not a good reason –”
Timmo leaned forward. Ilya tried not to be impressed by how very blue the other man’s eyes were, tried not to admire the cut of his nose, the high bones of his cheeks. “I thought you might like to have something to remember me by.”
Ilya jerked back angrily. “Don’t fuck with me, Timmo –”
“Nn, I think I like you angry. It’s such a good look on you, Ilya.”
“Stop. Just stop – get out of my house, get out of my life.”
The Nord rolled over. “How about you get out of mine?” he snapped back. “You’re the one who steamrolled into Norcross and started lighting fires. This whole goddamned war is your fault.”
“It is not. Rus was going to war with Norcross anyway –”
“They wouldn’t have moved if you hadn’t sent them back a certain piece of information. If you hadn’t shot the Queen –”
“I was just following orders –”
“And because you followed orders, two hundred thousand people are dead – another fifty thousand are homeless. Norcross is nothing, smoke and rubble and ruins, and the Rus are slaughtering us left, right, and center – because you followed orders.”
They stared at each other for a moment, before Ilya hissed, “Anger is not a good look on you, Timmo.”
The blond’s mouth snapped shut; his nose twitched with disgust. He turned away. “Look,” he snarled, “I didn’t come here to blame you for this – I didn’t even come here to shoot you. Killing you is a mercy. I came here to drag you to hell and back again, and then kill you. I want you to suffer, suffer like all those people you killed, suffer like –”
“– like you suffered?”
Timmo shut his eyes tight, but the grimace gave him away. He schooled his face and said, very calmly, “I want you to experience the living hell you put the rest of us through. If your mother knew this was what you’d do to her kindred, she would have murdered you while you were still in the womb.”
Ilya slammed his fist into the blond’s face, sent him tumbling onto the floor.
“Leave my mother out of this. And I didn’t want anyone to die, Timmo. I didn’t want Norcross to go up in flames. Rus would have sacked Norcross no matter what, whether I’d been there or not. They were preparing for war before they even dispatched me; they’d been planning it for a long fucking time.”
Timmo glared at him, licked blood from the corner of his lip, but remained silent. Ilya clenched his fists and closed his eyes, tried to quell the rage inside of him. He’d been used, and he knew it. He could have disobeyed his orders; he could have fought on the Nords’ side against Rus.
It wouldn’t have changed anything. He still would have been wanted; he still would have been on the run. Either way, he was a dead man, which was what the Rus had wanted from the very beginning. He was tainted with Nord blood, so he could never truly be Rus. And as far as the Rus were concerned, the Nord were vermin that needed to be eradicated from the face of the planet.
He inhaled sharply, prepared to speak –
The window shattered, filthy glass splintering and cascading all over the floor. The plaintive sound of a bullet shrieking through the air filled the hovel; the scent of gunpowder was thick on the air.
“Shit,” he spat, which was far less eloquent than whatever he’d been planning to say before.
“I told you we should have left,” Timmo grumbled, struggling into his shirt. He slammed the magazine into the pistol before darting to the window. He fired off a round blindly, then ducked down. He gestured to Ilya for more ammunition.
Ilya kicked the tin across the floor, wincing at the noise it made. Timmo glared at him, but reloaded the gun, then fired another round into the world outside the window.
“Don’t you have a gun?” he hissed at Ilya.
The Rus shook his head. “I gave that up,” he said blandly. “I’m a peasant now – peaceful. I don’t fight wars, I don’t kill people –”
Timmo nodded, eyes wide with rage. “Excellent decision,” he spat. “Too bad you couldn’t have decided to be a pacifist before you ignited a war! What a wonderful idea, giving up arms when people are out for your blood. You fucking idiot.”
“I don’t need it!” Ilya cried.
“It’s called self-defense, man!” Timmo barked, shooting another round, then peering cautiously around the jagged edges of the window, hoping to locate the enemy as the smoke cleared away.
He squinted a little, frowned when he found the landscape empty, except for a couple of peasants standing slack-jawed in the middle of the pathway. How quaint.
Still, the lack of persons with guns concerned him a little. Either they were sniping from a distance – which was highly unlikely, given the frequency of the shots – or. . .
The house exploded with the rattle of an AK-47 and bullets ricocheting off walls. Ilya had frozen, face set in a grimace. The walls became decidedly more flimsy as the bullets tore through rotting wood.
Timmo gritted his teeth, then dropped to the floor. Ilya met him somewhere between walls. “They’ve got us surrounded,” the blond surmised. “What now?”
They both ducked a little more, although they couldn’t really get much closer to the floor, when another salvo of lead ate through the thinning walls of the shack. One of the bullets took a bowl clean off the table, shattering it in midair. The pieces bounced across the ground.
“I’m not that stupid,” Ilya huffed, putting special emphasis on “that,” and Timmo looked like he was about to contest that, when the Rus tugged on a little latch and pulled up part of the floor.
They stared into the abyss for a moment or two. “So this is what you’ve been doing out here,” Timmo murmured.
“Let’s go,” Ilya huffed, tugging on the sleeve of the other man’s shirt, before dropping down the hole himself.
Timmo followed a moment later. Ilya scrabbled at the floor panel, attempting to put it back into place – they knew their tails would be looking for anything that seemed amiss; it was what they themselves would do. The last thing they wanted was for someone to drop into the tunnel with them and fire at their backs. A long, narrow passageway with one exit and one entrance was not the best place to get caught in crossfire, and they both knew it.
The tunnel was rough-shod, probably hewn out by hand, but Timmo didn’t bother to comment on it. The light was doused suddenly as the floor panel slid back into place. Neither of them had brought a match; even if they had, they wouldn’t have dared light it. Anything unnecessary was a risk.
“We’ll stop for supplies in town,” Ilya hissed, pushing by the Nord. For twenty seconds, they were caught against each other. Neither of them would admit it, but those few seconds seemed like eternity, dragging on into some hellish kind of infinity of pressure and flesh and warmth.
Ilya took the lead, Timmo following along behind him, a silent shadow. They paced themselves based on the muffled sound of their footsteps. They didn’t dare speak, just in case one of their tails had discovered the panel and followed them into the tunnel.
They bumped into each other only once, when Ilya paused to listen to the hush of the underground and Timmo underestimated the distance between them. Ilya gritted his teeth and ignored the pressure of fingers biting into his sides, the thundering pulse in Timmo’s wrists. “Sorry,” was mumbled, and they untangled. Ilya shook off the lingering feeling of fingers ghosting over his skin.
Time dragged on; seconds stretched into days and weeks as the lack of light and sound destroyed their circadian rhythms. Still, they walked, confident that the tunnel would end soon enough.
They emerged into the sunset. The sky had turned red and the sun was sinking toward the horizon, a fiery ball of orange that cast long, black shadows over the world. They both squinted at the light. Ilya wiped at his face, then frowned at the mud caked on the palms of his hands.
“The next village is about a mile from here,” he said.
“How far away is the village we just left?” Timmo glanced back over his shoulder.
Ilya shrugged. “Three, four miles?”
The Nord frowned. It wasn’t far enough for his liking; it showed plainly on his face. But it would have to do. Night was falling and there were more than just armed soldiers roaming the countryside.
Ilya glanced at Timmo, then pulled his hat off, settled it on the blond’s head. “We’ll find dye,” he murmured. “Hide that.”
Timmo blinked. “What –”
“You’re a Nord. We’ll get killed if anyone even thinks you’re Nord – hide your hair. It’s a dead giveaway.”
Timmo considered that for a minute, then pulled the hat lower over his head. He smeared dirt across his cheeks. “How’s this? Do I look like a Rus day labourer now?”
Ilya studied him for a moment. “No,” he admitted finally. He flipped up the collar of the shirt, so that it hid the tell-tale hairs on the nape of the other man’s neck. “Look at the ground and don’t say anything. If anybody talks to you, play stupid.”
Timmo nodded slowly. Ilya gave him one last glance, then sighed – it would have to do. They were only four miles from the other village, had another mile to walk through the open countryside, and the light was fading quickly.
He stepped forward, but was tugged back by a firm grasp on his wrist. He turned about, genuinely surprised when Timmo smiled at him. The Nord swiped his filthy fingers across his cheek, which was smeared with mud.
“Seems to me that you end up covered in mud a lot.”
Ilya frowned. “Maybe I do,” he replied, looking away. He knew exactly what Timmo was referring to, and he didn’t like the fondness in the blond’s voice. It was awkward. Timmo was one person who should have never been fond of someone like Ilya. But looking back on it now, the memory was tinged with a sort of sentimentality – even if it was only eight months ago, it seemed to Ilya that he was infinitely younger when he first arrived in Norcross, sweaty, bloodied, filthy, and exhausted.
The memory was almost fond, as though it were part of some secret past, some happier time and place that had existed before all of this misery. It hadn’t been, of course – he’d still be on a mission, and the threat of death was ever imminent, but somehow, those days seemed lighthearted and cheerful compared to what he had now.
“Let’s go,” he said curtly, tugging free of Timmo’s grasp. He started to walk down the path, quick as his legs would carry him. He didn’t glance back at the Nord, but he hadn’t missed the look of pseudo-disappointment on his face.
Ilya shook his head. That was stupid. This was stupid. They were both wanted men; they were both dead anyway. Nothing should have mattered to either of them, especially not stupid memories of how this whole mess had started.

 

*

He arrived streaked in mud, unwashed for days, blood spattered here and there across him. He stared at the city with hollow eyes as it sprawled out in the valley beneath him. He heaved a sigh, a rattling breath that shook him right down to his core.

They’d dropped him about a hundred miles south of the city, sure enough, and their last words to him had been, “Your name is Alexius.”
If the walk had been over flat plains, then it would have been a hundred miles. But there had been hills and vales, rivers and mountains, and he was quite certain that if they flattened out his route, it would exceed a hundred miles.
And he certainly felt that he’d been walking for more than a hundred miles. He had climbed more than a hundred miles; he had swam more than a hundred miles. He felt as though he’d walked from one end of the earth to the other.
Norcross lay in a tiny valley between two cruel and steep peaks. Forest surrounded the city, and it was little wonder to him that their aerial sweeps had missed the city; despite its towering peaks and the glittering warmth of lights in the alpine twilight, it was nearly hidden between the domineering mass of rock on either side of it, and the trees were tall, thick, densely packed together. If it had been a misty day, it would have been easy to mistake or even miss the city.
He stood atop the crest of the hill, nested between shrubs, and surveyed the city, attempting to take in its geography. This would be important; there would be a test later.
The largest building was smack-dab in the center of the city; it towered over everything else, spires aspiring to the sky, softly lit with glowing lights in the coming dusk. It seemed … warm, almost ethereal, a whole city constructed out of the gossamer threads of his wildest dreams.
He lowered his binoculars and started the slow descent into the valley. Snow and rocks cascaded down the incline ahead of him, warning him of the dangers of making one false move. The land was inhospitable, to say the least; he hoped that the inhabitants were more welcoming.
It was fully dark as he lighted on the first path into the city. There was no asphalt; the road was pure mud. A couple of small houses had been erected along the pathway; warm light poured out of each window, and a lantern was hung on a rod near the door, illuminating the doorstep of each dwelling. The moon shone down brightly, but he had no use for its light; the entire pathway was lit by the yardlights, which became more and more plentiful as he walked further into the city.
The night was quiet, even as he worked his way deeper into the city. There were hardly any people on the streets; a few people were standing on porches, smoking something that smelled vaguely of apples and cinnamon. It was sweet and fragrant, not at all like the acrid scent of tobacco. There was no hum of machinery, no roar of car engines, no buzz of electricity. The night was silent and pure, and he wondered how a place so different from Rus could exist.
He remembered to keep his gawking to himself, however, feeling the wary eyes on him as he passed parties of smokers on their porches. The Nords were an extremely close-knit and suspicious group; outsiders were usually sniffed out and removed before they got much further than Norcross’s outermost boundaries. He was already doing well, but he needed to be on guard lest he give himself away.
He watched as one of the smokers elbowed another. They watched him pass, their violet eyes narrowed dangerously, glinting in the lamplight, and he tried not to think about how much different from the Rus they seemed. He looked at the path instead, at the glittering granite that was slowly being unearthed by feet wearing away the soil that had buried it.
He paused and stared at the wooden sign hanging outside of a large building – the largest one he’d seen thus far. A small lantern hung beside it, illuminating the words, laid on the wood with paint. He squinted; he could barely read Rus, and Nord was still foreign to him, all squiggles.
A hand clapped down on his shoulder and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He glanced up at the tall man above him. He gritted his teeth when he realized the man was in uniform – either a soldier or a police officer.
“Are you lost, son?”
Ilya opened his mouth, then clamped it shut and shook his head. His Nord was very poor, and he’d almost answered the man in Rus instead. He tried a smile. “It’s fine,” he managed, almost wincing at how he pronounced the words.
The officer winced as well, then glanced left and right, before looking Ilya straight in the eye. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Ilya shuffled his feet. “Is my Nord bad?” he asked, feigning innocence. “I am sorry – Father only taught me a little.”
The officer glanced to his right, then clapped his hand on Ilya’s back a bit. “Say son, you need a room fer the evening?”
He nodded enthusiastically and the man steered him toward the large building he’d been eyeing before. He could have sighed in relief; his Nord wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought it was. He’d suspected the place was an inn, even if he couldn’t quite make out the sign.
The officer walked him up the front steps, into the front hall of the inn. Ilya studied the plush carpet under his muddy shoes. The interior was poorly lit, almost dark, with candles in brackets against the walls as the only source of light. The clerk glanced up from the guest ledger. He smiled at the officer, then frowned at Ilya.
“What can I do for you this evening, Sargent?”
The officer glanced at Ilya, then back at the clerk. “I need to book this fellow here into a room.”
“Does he have cash?” the clerk hissed.
Ilya offered him his credit card, never once letting the stupid smile slip from his lips. The clerk eyed it, then Ilya, then handed him back the card. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think you belong here. We’re cash only.”
Ilya looked confused. The Sargent cleared his throat. “Just put it under the police account, Jurgen. We’ll sort it out later.”
“Ah,” the clerk said, then proceeded to scribble down a few things in the ledger. He handed the Sargent a key. “Room 105.”
“Thanks.”
His hand was heavy against Ilya’s back as he guided him down the ill-lit hallway. Their shadows flickered across the wall. The Sargent was silent, his face stoic, and Ilya struggled to keep his breathing under control. He’d never done anything like this before. He was alone in a foreign country, pretending that he was one of them, that he belonged there. He didn’t think proficiency in stealing apples at the market qualified him for this job. He’d always thought spies were smooth and slick, smart, well-educated, trained for years – not just some guy picked up off the street, thrown through three weeks of what was essentially boot camp, then shipped off to spy at foreign courts.
The door to the room slammed shut. The tumblers clicked. He stared at the floor as the Sargent strode around in front of him. He had his hands tucked behind his back. He paced around Ilya once, then walked to the bedside table. Ilya kept his gaze glued to the floor. He heard the hiss of the match as it lit. The Sargent lit the candle, and the flame danced about wildly, letting the shadows wheel.
“Look at me.”
Ilya looked up. The Sargent looked down at him, pursed his lips together as he considered the younger man. “You’re not from around here,” he said. There was no question in his tone.
“No.” Ilya had been instructed on exactly what he was going to do in this situation. There was no getting around the fact that he wasn’t naturalized Nord.
“You’re not Nord.”
“My father was,” he lied. He held up a finger, then produced a bundle of papers, a bunch of falsified documents that the government had provided him with before they reached the drop point. He handed the top sheet to the Sargent.
The man took the paper, eyes never leaving Ilya’s face. He glanced down at the paper at last. His frown got deeper and deeper.
He glanced at Ilya again. “You were born in Rus.”
“Yes.”
“Your mother was Rus.”
“Yes.”
“Where is she now?”
“Dead.” That wasn’t a lie. “She died when I was very small. I remember that she got very sick … ”
He trailed off a little, shuffled his feet and looked at the carpet, as though remembering her death pained him. In reality, the thought of his mother’s death bothered him very little; she’d been shot in the crossfire between gangs when he was two years of age. He hardly remembered her. He’d never known a father.
“And your father raised you.”
“Well,” he said, “mostly, yes. You could say that. He—I did not live with him, if that is what you mean.”
He pursed his lips. “My father was very busy,” he said. “I saw very little of him. His work was very important.”
The Sargent was frowning even more. Ilya looked to the floor again. “And,” he added, very slowly, pacing out the words, “it would not have looked good, for word to get out here.”
The man folded the paper up again, handed it back to him. He nodded, then put the paper away.
“Why’d you come here?”
He allowed himself a half-smile. “My father tried to cover up,” he said. “But they knew. The men who killed him. They want me dead too.”
“Why?”
“Why?” Ilya parroted back. “Because I am his son. Because I am half him, half-Nord.”
“You’re half-Rus.”
He shook his head. “You do not understand. They believe any Nord—even one tiny drop of Nord blood—is as bad as being full-blood. And my father was a great enemy of their government. They want me dead. It would be safer for them—if I were dead, I wouldn’t be here telling you this. I would not tell you it was the government that shot him.”
He crossed his arms, nodded slowly. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Alexius.”
The Sargent gave him a sharp look. “Alexius Archangelus,” he said, nodding.
“Your real name, kid.”
He shook his head. “I cannot tell you that. It’s too dangerous—anyone might be listening. Please—”
He caught the officer by the arm, gave him a pleading look. “I have no one left to turn to. They killed my father. He worked for you, he loved this country—more than anything, he wanted to come back. My mother’s people have abandoned me—please.”
The Sargent licked his lips nervously, then glanced at the door. He put his hand on Ilya’s hand. “You just hang tight here, kid.”
And then he made for the door, disappeared into the hallway. Ilya sighed heavily. He stood in the middle of the room for a moment more, then hastily made his way to the washroom. He washed the mud and blood off his face, straightened out his hair. He frowned at the fact there was no toilet, and no running water. There was just a basin of water, so he scrubbed his face clean. He patted his skin dry on the towel.
He stepped into the main room again, glancing about. There was no phone, no electric lights, no power outlets. He wondered what the hell was wrong with these people; how could they live like this? Yes, Rus was filthy and the air was sour in his mouth, like choking poison down, and yes, Rus was noisy, so noisy he couldn’t sleep at night and he stared up at the ceiling endlessly, waiting for the world to sleep, but Rus never slept. Night never came; the stars were blotted out from the sky. But they had creature comforts; life was better in Rus. There were lights, burning into the darkness, and he could see without squinting, and they were brighter than the soft, flickering lights, more steady. The water ran fresh out of a tap, like a stream, hot or cold as you liked it; the toilet was fresh and clean—outhouses were a thing of the past. Rus, for all its ills, was better.
Still, he couldn’t help but be struck when he walked into the main room and the  courtyard was spread before him, just beyond the panes of the window. It was dark outside, so dark he could hardly see into the night, but he could see the moon and the stars in the clear night sky, and there were trees in the yard, their leaves illuminated by a pale glow that seemed to be emanating from within. Transfixed, he moved closer to the glass. The lights—there were many of them, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred, maybe more—flickered and flared, and as he watched, he became aware that they were moving. He stared at the window, slack-jawed in amazement, eyes widening as he realized that he was watching some kind of animal or—or maybe even some kind of spirit—move through the trees.
The first noise he heard was the click of the gun as someone readied to fire into his temple. He stiffened, stood perfectly still as cold metal kissed his skin. An arm wrapped about his shoulders, holding him in place. A glance down at the hand told him this was a man, and the strength and the shape, the poise of the body behind him confirmed that.
“Your name.”
“Alexius.”
“Your father’s name. His real name.”
“Väino.”
“Your birth date.”
“The sixteenth day of Kalt.”
The gun was slowly lowered. He was spun about to face his assailant. He stared into blue eyes, eyes that bored into him, electrified him. They were just as shocking as the lights in the tree outside, perhaps even moreso because there was so much more intensity in those irises. Still, he wouldn’t back down; he stared back, despite the fact he knew he looked shell-shocked.
The man’s eyes narrowed and he snorted. “You’re from Rus, huh?”
Ilya nodded slowly.
“Where in Rus?”
“The capital,” Ilya replied without hesitation. It wasn’t a lie; he was from the capital. He had been born there, had lived his entire life there.
The blond had the gun trained on him again. “Hands on top of your head. Move to the bed.”
He did as he was instructed, moved slowly to the bed, purposely avoiding that icy gaze. He forced himself to lie still while his pockets were raided, his person forcibly stripped down to his underthings. The barrel of the gun was pressed to the back of his skull the entire time, reminding him of who was in charge of this situation. If he made once false move, he’d be killed.
He fought the blush on his cheeks when his various orifices were investigated—probably searching for drugs or explosives or something.
The man let him up. “Dress.” His voice was gruff.
Ilya didn’t dare disobey. He buttoned his shirt hastily, glancing at the man. He had no doubt that he was part of some special operatives team; his examination had been thorough, commanding, and expertly executed.
“Who are you?” he asked, turning about. It was difficult to meet that gaze, and even more difficult once he’d been bare in front of those eyes.
The man narrowed his eyes dangerously. Ilya almost grimaced; he’d practically given himself away. He sounded too authoritative, too angry. “Who the hell do you think you are, touching me like that?” he managed, grinding his teeth together. It was normal to be angry and confused after something like that.
The man coughed. “Just following protocol … sir,” he replied.
“What is your name?”
The man’s eyes narrowed again. “That’s none of your—”
“I want to complain to your supervisor.”
The blond stared at him for a minute, then started to laugh. “My supervisor?” he chortled. “My supervisor?”
His grin took a turn for the wicked and Ilya almost physically recoiled from him. He looked ready to take his head off with his teeth. “I am the supervisor.”
He grabbed Ilya by the arm and dragged him toward the door. “Come along now.”
Ilya tried to wrest out of his grasp, twisting and turning, but the only thing he managed to accomplish was letting those fingers smear bruises across the whole of his arm. “Where are you taking me?!” he cried. He slapped his hands against either side of the doorjamb and pushed, attempting to stop his forward motion.
The blue-eyed man just lifted a leg and kneed him in the back, sending him sprawling into the hallway. Several other people, swathed all in black, scattered as he tumbled to the ground in a graceless heap. He struggled to sit up, then gritted his teeth and glared at the blue-eyed man as he stepped into the hallway.
“Where do you think we’re taking you, Mr. Archangelus?”
His tone was so snide, Ilya could have choked on it. He let his fingers dig into the carpet instead.
“Not to worry,” the man said, hauling Ilya up by his hair. “We’ll be taking you to see Her Majesty.”
He gestured to the others—his lackeys, the rest of his team no doubt. One of them yanked Ilya’s arms behind his back; another slapped on the handcuffs. The cool metal mocked him, making him shudder.
“Alert the court officials,” he told one of the lackeys, who nodded and was gone just as quickly, disappearing into what seemed to be a flurry of snow. Ilya stared at the place she’d stood just a moment before, at the snowflakes slowly fluttering to the floor, melting on the carpet.
“I wish she wouldn’t do that,” one of the remaining team members murmured, rubbing at his arms.
“I—she just—what just—” Ilya jerked his head back to stare at the team leader.
A quirked eyebrow was his response. “What? Your father didn’t tell you much about us then.”
He gave Ilya a rough shove forward. Ilya grunted and tried to maintain enough balance to stay on his own two feet. He’d lost enough dignity.
The blond yanked on his arms, dragged him back. Ilya tensed, forced himself to face forward. He could feel breath on his neck and he squared his shoulders a bit. A finger ran down the back of his neck, next to his spine.
“You look good like that,” the blond hissed at him. “I think I’ll keep you cuffed, permanently.”
Ilya couldn’t help the snarl that rose up out of him, and the man laughed, slapped him on the back, sent him stumbling forward. All of the lackeys were laughing now too. “That’s a good one, Captain!”
“Ahahaa—that’s too much!”
“You always did like fucking with their heads, Sir!”
A gun was pressed to the small of his back, and he was marched through the city like that, the officers laughing all the way.

 

*
The night got deeper as they all but crawled through the flooded fields. The path was too risky; they didn’t want to be spotted by any unwary peasants on their way home, or any scouts who had been sent ahead.
Their hands splashed through puddles; their shirts and their pants were soaked through. They were streaked with mud. More than once, Timmo winced, then paused in pain, clutching at his side. The bandages were probably soaked through with mud and water now. Ilya gritted his teeth at the thought; the idiot would probably contract tetanus and die.
They crawled up out of the ditch at last and sat on the edge of the pathway, panting and trying to dry off before they headed into the village. They could see the harsh glow of electric lights, illuminating the boundaries of the tiny town.
Timmo touched his hand to the wound again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Ilya asked, glancing nervously at him.
Timmo didn’t reply; instead, he pulled his hand away, looked at the reddened fingertips. Ilya gritted his teeth.
The innkeeper seemed shocked to see them. Ilya supposed that only made sense; they were quite the sight to see, covered in mud, soaked to the bone, and Timmo’s shirt rapidly turning red.
“My gawd,” the man drawled, “what on earth happened to you two?”
Timmo let his head loll forward. He squinted, but said nothing. It was painfully obvious, however, that he’d understood nothing the Rus had said.
“Please,” Ilya said, putting one hand on the desk. “We need a room. Immediately.”
“What the hell happened?” The man tapped out his pipe and stared at Timmo.
“Please,” Ilya pleaded, “we need a room. Now. He can’t wait—he needs medical attention—”
“I’ll call a doctor—”
“No!” Ilya cried, then glanced about. A couple of maids were looking at them funny. “Just a room, please. We … we wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
The man handed over the keycard. “Upstairs, on yer left. Did he get shot?”
“We got caught in some crossfire. We were just coming home from work. I have no idea what was going on. They just started firing—”
The man gestured for them to head upstairs. He was already reaching for the phone. “I already told you, no doctor!” Ilya snapped, then wrenched on Timmo’s arm. The Nord glared at him, wincing as he shifted, but he followed Ilya up the stairs nonetheless.
The stairs creaked under their footsteps, and the door squealed on its hinges when Ilya yanked it open. Timmo limped into the room ahead of him, then leaned against the wall, leaving a bloody smear down it as he slid to the floor. He sighed, whether in pain or relief, Ilya didn’t know, and pulled the cap off his head, tossed it by the wayside, then shook out his hair. He gritted his teeth, then checked the wound again. “Shit,” he spat when his fingers came away dripping blood. “I didn’t think … ”
Ilya started unfastening his shirt. His fingers were quaking and clumsy, and more than one of the buttons went flying, rolled across the carpet and under the dresser. He chanced to look up when he started pushing the cloth back from the Nord’s shoulders. Timmo was grinning at him.
“What?” he huffed, flushing, then looking away as quickly as he could. He knew what; he didn’t really want an answer either.
“Oh, nothing,” Timmo replied easily, as though he weren’t bleeding out all over the carpet of some shitty little inn eight thousand miles deep in enemy territory.
Ilya gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. He hoped his expression of disgust and rage held, but he could feel his lips twitching, threatening to pull into a smile when the pads of his fingers made contact with skin. “Honestly,” he growled, “I don’t know what you’re thinking—”
Timmo snorted. “I just didn’t know you were so eager to have me out of my clothes, Ilya.”
Ilya spluttered indignantly, but before he could form a coherent reply, Timmo was glancing about the room. “Say,” he mumbled, “you haven’t got a smoke, have you?”
“No,” Ilya replied, tossing the blood-soaked shirt aside.
“I’ll settle for tobacco, if you have it,” the Nord informed him. His expression was serious, but Ilya still didn’t know whether or not he believed him. Timmo never smoked tobacco; thought the stuff was disgusting. He only smoked acacia.
“You know I don’t smoke.” He tried not to think about the way the Nord winced as he reached around him, arm brushing against the wound. He tried not to think about how close they were. He tried not to think about the rhythm of Timmo’s body: the pained rise and fall of his breathing, the drumming of his heart. Tried not to think about his skin, his warmth, how very easy it would be to just lean up and—
“Ow,” Timmo hissed, recoiling a little bit, hand clapped firmly over the wound.
“Sorry,” Ilya muttered, although he wasn’t really sorry. Timmo had caused him a lot of pain; it was about time he made the man start paying his dues. A little brush of the fingers across a gaping wound wasn’t much compared to what he’d made Ilya suffer.
“You’re so disingenuous,” the Nord spat, pushing him back. “Don’t apologize if you’re not sorry.”
Ilya narrowed his eyes. “What the hell would I have to be sorry for?” he growled. “You’re the one—”
“I missed you,” Timmo blurted, then stared at the Ilya for a good long while, as though the younger had grown a second head or something. Finally, he let his head fall back, hitting the wall with a hollow thump. “God, you make me say the stupidest things.”
“I make you say the stupidest things,” Ilya huffed. He wrenched on the wraps a little harder than he had to. Shit, that was a lot of blood. He’d thought they’d gotten it cleaned and wrapped; there shouldn’t have been this much blood. It should have been healing.
He paused, then handed Timmo a cigarette and a lighter, scowling as he did so. Timmo made a face at the soggy roll, then tried flipping the lighter. He shook his head when it refused to flare, broke the cigarette in two.
“I don’t know,” he muttered. Aggravation was clear in his voice, even if his syllables weren’t. “It’s like … I don’t know. You make me stupid. This is stupid. You’re stupid. We’re both stupid.”
“You like that word a lot today,” Ilya remarked, almost terrified by the cheerful, chipper note in his voice.
“It’s fitting,” Timmo grunted, wincing as Ilya prodded at the wound. “Your presence destroys my lexicon. It’s like you kill brain cells.”
Ilya grunted in reply, frowning. “How are you bleeding this much? The bullet’s gone, even if you opened it up again—”
“I don’t know,” the older man muttered. “You’ve made me do a lot of stupid things. It’s your fault I nearly got killed.”
Ilya snorted. “Don’t blame me for your problems, asshole. You brought that down on your own head.”
He got to his feet. “Lie on the bed. I’ll actually be able to see what I’m doing.”
“It really shouldn’t be bleeding this much, should it?”
“Hold that.”
Timmo, surprisingly, did as he was told, holding the towel over the wound with as much pressure as he could apply. He shivered. “Is it cold in here?”
“No,” Ilya replied tartly, tearing up one of the bedsheets with as much precision as he could manage. The innkeeper could be pissed all he liked, but what was one lost bedsheet?
He tried to keep his face straight as he straddled Timmo’s waist. He refused to look up at the blond. He had a task to perform and that was all this was. He wrapped the linen about the wound, worrying as the blood came seeping through it, almost faster than he could wrap. He pulled it tighter, and he could feel the Nord breathing. Why the hell was this so difficult?
They’d never shared anything more than longing looks, if that, and neither of them would admit it if they had. They had always hated each other. Since that first moment in the hotel room, with the barrel of the pistol pressed up against Ilya’s temple, they had been sworn enemies.
Ilya tried not to think about how guilty he had felt during the days at the court. He tried not to think about the fact there maybe hadn’t been nothing but enmity between them; he tried to forget that Timmo had even been remotely nice to him, ever. He tried to forget the clear night sky vaulting over his head, the glow of the faeries in the trees below, flitting here and there, tried to forget the glow of blue eyes in the darkness, the curl of smoke in the cool of an early spring evening, with the trees just beginning to bud. He tried to forget the taste of acacia smoke, acrid on his tongue, yet so fragrant and alluring as he swallowed it, tried to forget how it was tainted with blood and sex and danger, because Timmo’s lips had been wrapped around the same filter. He tried to forget the warmth of the words between them, however few of them they’d been coherent enough to speak, and he tried to forget the weight of Timmo’s hand over his own and—
“Dammit,” he spat, shutting his eyes in a vain effort to block out the images. There was only one thing he needed to remember about Timmo and that was that no matter what he thought of the other man, he hated him. It was simple; it was easy; it was Ilya.
Then why was it so goddamned hard? He’d tried to forget everything to the contrary, and he’d tried to remember everything that hardened his resolve, and he thought he’d been doing well at it; he thought he’d buried everything but the hate, but now that he was beside Timmo, everything was so muddled up again that he couldn’t tell up from down or left from right or Nord from Rus, and he had to wonder, did it even fucking matter?
“What are you thinking about?”
“How much I hate you.”
Timmo smirked. Ilya tried to hate the hand on his back, but it was warm and heavy. Timmo was right; it was cold in the room.
“I think you could hate me a little harder, Ilya.”
He wanted to smash the jerk’s teeth right down his throat; instead, he sneered at him, let him smirk like he’d won.
“Do you remember,” he started.
“I don’t want to remember,” Ilya snapped, shoved him against the bed. It wasn’t really fair, because he had the upper hand—Timmo was injured—but Ilya didn’t care. How many times had the Nord had the upper hand? How many times had he been helpless in Timmo’s hands? “I don’t want to remember any of it. I just want to live my life, until I die. I don’t want to be … ”
There was a timid knock at the door. “Excuse me, Sirs?”
The door squealed as the maid pushed into the room. “Father sent me up with some extra towels and to tell you that the physician is on his way —”
She cut herself short and stared at the two men, who were staring back at her, wild-eyed. Her cheeks flushed crimson. “Oh! I, uh, I’m  … sorry, terribly so—”
The color drained out of her face and she stared at Timmo for a second, a minute—it might have been all eternity—but something rose up in her eyes in a flash, exploding and smoldering there. Her face morphed into something more brutal, something beastly and full of hate, full of the most base drives.
Ilya tugged a pillow over Timmo’s head, but it was too late. She’d seen.
“Nord,” she spat, and before the word had time to echo once in Ilya’s skull, she was gone, storming down the stairs in a cloud of apron-strings and hostility. Her footsteps sounded more like gunshots echoing through the silence than anything else.
“Shit,” Ilya spat.
Timmo threw the pillow off. “What the—”
“Why’d you take the hat off, you idiot?! She saw you, she knows what you are—”
He grabbed him by the shoulders, started shaking him roughly. “How are you even a spy?!” he roared, frustration boiling over, spilling out of his eyes. “How are you still alive, if you blow your cover that easily?! You stupid, idiotic, moronic—”
“Down,” Timmo commanded, and Ilya ducked, instinctively, narrowly dodging the shot that the Nord fired straight into the skull of the innkeeper. Ilya grimaced and glanced over his shoulder, stared at the smoking barrel of the gun for a moment. The air reeked of gunpowder.
“Father!” the girl shrieked.
“Was that really necessary?” Ilya hissed at Timmo, who just stared at him blankly.
“Considering he was carrying a double-barrel rifle, locked and loaded? I think it was.”
They rolled clear of the bed. The girl had hefted the rifle now. Timmo sighed. “Ilya.”
“What?”
“Get that thing off her.”
“Are you fucking insane, she’ll shoot me!”
“Better you than me. And do you really think she knows how to—”
He twitched as the bullet whizzed by his head, clipping a few hairs loose. They fluttered on the air, floating down to the floor.
The maid was panting, barely standing from the shock of the recoil, but her face was set in grim determination. Her eyes were on fire with rage.
“I think you forgot where you are. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Everyone knows how to use a gun.”
“Damn,” Timmo muttered.
“Too bad she didn’t get you with the first shot,” Ilya said. He closed his eyes and turned his head, listening to the sickening thump of a body hitting the floor. The rifle clattered to the ground.
Timmo looked at the ceiling, then holstered the pistol. He grabbed up his shirt. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said, clapping Ilya on the shoulder as he passed.
Ilya sighed, opening his eyes. He surveyed the mess on the floor, the blood pooling and soaking into the thirsty floorboards.
“Yeah,” he muttered, listening to Timmo’s hurried footsteps down the creaking stairs, before he picked his way across the impromptu battlefield and followed him down the stairs.

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