Chapter III [Bad Spirits]
The palace was brightly lit, even at the late hour. Hundreds of lanterns burned softly in the darkness, eating away at it. Their soft glow made the white marble walls of the palace seem even more evanescent. The walls themselves seemed almost luminescent. It was bright, it was white, and somehow, it seemed so pure. It almost burned at Ilya’s eyes.
The blond man grabbed him forcibly by the arm, dragged him past a brightly-uniformed guard, flashing some sort of sign to the man as he went by. Ilya wanted to watch, but he couldn’t; the light hurt his eyes.
It was no darker inside; it was worse than the florescent lights in the detention centers in Rus, but he managed to squint up at the man as he turned to Ilya, smirking that disgusting smirk and Ilya felt something twist up through his spine, something like hatred.
“Welcome to Norcross,” the man informed him, acid oozing from every syllable. Ilya ground his teeth together; there was nothing more he would have liked at the moment than to claw the bastard’s eyeballs out, or maybe knock all of those annoyingly bright teeth out of his mouth.
“Why are you treating me like a prisoner?” he whined, trying to offer some futile resistance as he was dragged along down the sickeningly white corridor. The only place he’d ever seen white like this was a hospital, and it had smelled of chemical, of sterility. This place didn’t smell; if it smelled of anything, it smelled of fresh snow on a winter’s day—crisp and clean and natural.
A gun butted up against his back, between his shoulder blades. He glanced over his shoulder at one of the other team members. The woman looked at him, then looked back down at the barrel of the gun, as though it were easier to focus on his back. Harder to think of him as anything more than a body that way.
“Because you are a prisoner,” the team leader replied, sadistic glee discernable in his tone. Ilya hated him a little bit more.
“I came here in peace!” he protested. “I come to you because I see what the Rus are willing to do—”
They paused by a twisting staircase. Ilya craned his neck upward, but the stairs seemed to spiral on into oblivion. He couldn’t see the top; hell, he could hardly see the floor above them. It seemed to meld with the rest of the white, white building.
She paused, as though she were thinking better of delivering her message. “Her Majesty says she will hold an audience in her private chambers.”
The leader frowned. “Freja, please tell Her Majesty that I think that would be ill-advised—”
Freja squared her shoulders. “She said you’d say that. She also said that when you did, I was to tell you that you’re disobeying direct orders and she would like to remind you exactly who is in charge.”
Ilya stared at her, an incredulous smile rising to his lips. He liked the Queen already, he thought.
The leader snorted, looked away, then looked back at Freja with the same kind of incredulity on his face. He shook his head a little bit. “All right then,” he spat at last, disbelief still clear on his face. “I still think it’s ill-advised.”
“You’ve already checked him for weapons, right?” Freja glanced at Ilya, the first time she’d done so. Her eyes met Ilya’s, and he was almost startled by the vibrant color of her irises, a deep shade of blue, bordering on indigo. It seemed unnatural.
She looked back to her leader. “I have,” he announced, giving his captive a little shake, as though that would make him drop anything he might have been hiding.
“And he hasn’t left our care since; there would have been no opportunity to arm himself.”
A quick breath. “No. You’re right. Let’s proceed.”
Up and up and up; the stairs seemed to go on forever. The gun was still pressed firmly between his shoulder blades, a lovingly cold reminder that one false move would be the end of him.
The Queen was seated on a stool. One of her ladies-in-waiting was brushing out her long, pale locks, while the other stood at the ready, waiting for her mistress to call her into service. They were both dressed in black from head to toe, a striking contrast to the Queen herself, who was swathed all in white, just as pale and pure as the rest of her home. Even her eyes were pale: a pale, pale blue that reminded Ilya of ice in the middle of the winter, when the deepest cold had set in, and the warmth of far-off spring hadn’t yet started to melt the snow.
The only thing seemed to have any colour was her lips, now painted with red, red rouge, so bright he could hardly take his eyes off them. She waved her hand and the maid pulled the brush through her locks one last time, then gracefully stood aside, as though this had been practiced a hundred times before. They reminded him of the ballerinas he had once watched at the opera house in Rus. He’d been in love with one of the ballerinas. He had also been young and stupid, and he’d watched from the very back of the auditorium, hoping the ushers didn’t spot him with their flashlights. Of course, they had, and that had been the end of his adventures at the opera house.
The Queen folded her hands and tilted her head. “Now,” she said, looking directly at Ilya, “what seems to be the problem here, Timmo?”
Ilya glanced at the blond man, filing away his reaction to the name. He wasn’t sure if it was a code name or his real name—Freja most certainly wasn’t the girl’s real name—but it was something to call the asshole by and something he could check into, see if he couldn’t dig up something on this guy. Just as soon as he got his hands free …
“Well,” he said, lifting his head a little bit, after a moment of initial hesitation. Ilya wondered how long he’d had this job. “This … gentleman … was stopped by one of our patrol officers, who thought he looked a little lost.”
He cleared his throat, glancing nervously at Ilya. “He’s not from here, Your Majesty. He’s from Rus.”
The two maids gasped in terror. “From Rus?” the Queen asked, blinking. She looked confused, as though she’d never heard the word before in her life.
Timmo nodded. “Yes, from Rus. We have yet to discern his intentions, but he claims to be the bastard son of the late Ambassador Väino.”
The maids started whispering to each other, glancing furtively at Ilya. “Silence!” the Queen thundered, her brow clouding as she slammed her hand down on the smooth varnished wood of her vanity. A couple of things bounced; the brush clattered to the floor. The maids were silent, standing straight up.
“Now,” the Queen said, gesturing to Timmo to bring Ilya nearer, “what did you say his name was?”
“He gives only the name Alexius Archangelus.”
“It’s been confirmed as a cover,” Freja said, only to be glared at by the Queen and her superior. She glanced at her other teammates, at Ilya, then licked her lips and stood up straighter.
Timmo turned back to the monarch. “He has admitted that it’s a pseudonym, designed to protect his true identity. He doesn’t know whether he was tailed or not.”
They were silent for a moment, staring at each other, eyes boring into each other, and Ilya wondered, for a brief second, if the Nords could read minds and nobody had bothered to tell him. Why would information like that be important on a mission like his? He’d always known it, but this just proved to him that the idiots who were ran the Rus government really were idiots.
The Queen looked away at last. “And?” she asked. Her fingers slid under Ilya’s chin, tilting his face up. She turned his head from side to side, as though she were appraising a fine piece of jewelry.
“He has the papers to back up his claim. He can tell us what his father’s name is—his real name, not his codename, and he can tell us his date of birth.”
Her expression was dull. Up close, underneath all her make-up, she seemed more human somehow. Plain. Ugly, even. The frown that tugged at her lips did nothing to seal the illusion of her beauty.
“Useless information,” she murmured, then pushed Ilya back, turning to Timmo as she did so. “Have you checked him for arms?”
“A search was completed before we brought him any further into Norcross, Your Majesty.”
“Release him,” she said, a smile lighting up her face.
“Excuse me?” Timmo spluttered.
“Milady!” the maids gasped.
“Your Majesty, I beg your pardon, but that is most ill-advised, he might be dangerous —”
A door slammed into the wall, knocking plaster loose. “What in the world is going on in here?!”
A short, bald man stormed into the room, eyes blazing with righteousness. His face was red with rage; he was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and he seemed almost to glow. “Mathilda, what have I told you about this sort of thing?!”
“Riesgaard,” she grumbled. The maids made a disgusted sort of face.
The man elbowed his way through the little crowd surrounding the Queen, sneering at Timmo as he passed. “I’ve told you time and time again that these little—soirees of yours simply aren’t becoming! You’re to stop them at once; do you know the rumors that go flying around in the daytime about you?! The servants see things; these two can’t keep their mouths shut!”
He pointed an accusing finger at the maids, who clapped their hands over their mouths, then huffed angrily, tossing their heads imperiously.
“Riesgaard,” Timmo said.
The short man whirled about, pressing his finger firmly to the tip of the blond’s nose. “And don’t even get me started—why, this is all your fault! ‘Milady, I have urgent business,’ ‘Milady we must discuss this now’—and you don’t even refuse when she says, ‘Why yes, please, let’s discuss in my chambers’—I bet you even say ‘Why, Milady, please, don’t trouble yourself with getting out of bed, I will come to you—’”
Timmo’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “What are you saying?”
Risegard backed away, grinning broadly, shaking that finger all-knowingly. “Ah-ah, you don’t fool me, not for one single second. I know your type, I know your game; you think you are so smooth, so slick. What on earth could you need to see Milady about in her chambers at this hour, hmmm, Timmo? Certainly not the kind of business that proper people take care of at their desks during the day—”
“I hardly consider any of my business to be the kind that is well conducted at a desk during the daylight hours. Assassinations generally aren’t routine sorts of thing, Riesgaard.”
“And they aren’t generally something that you ought to discuss with the Queen in her chambers at an hour when normal people are all abed!” the short man roared.
“He tried to object,” Freja interjected weakly, holding up a hand and glancing nervously at the other occupants of the room.
“Of course he did! But was there any real bite to it, did he dig in his heels? Of course not! In a moment, you’ll decide what to do with the trash—”
“—she’ll send away the char women—”
The maids gasped indignantly. Spittle was flying from Riesgaard’s lips. “And he’ll send you to take out the trash, while he stays up here with Her Majesty, and—”
“No!” Freja cried, clapping her hands over her ears and shutting her eyes tight.
“Riesgaard, perhaps we shouldn’t be having this discussion in front of a prisoner,” Timmo ground out, teeth dragging against one another.
“Are you attempting to question Timmo’s honor, Riesgaard?” The Queen drew herself up a little straighter. Her eyes were cold now.
“Of course I am!” he thundered, whipping about to face her. “He’s a no-good, low-down, snake in the grass—he’s only trying to better his own position, calling these late-night soirees for nothing but the purpose of seducing you and sullying your good name—”
Timmo grabbed the man by the collar of his tippet and shook him. “Listen you—”
“Riesgaard.” Mathilda’s voice cut through the room, and Timmo dropped the hold he had on the old man.
“Perhaps you ought to inquire as to what is going on before you begin flinging accusations. We were just waiting on you. Now, if you please, give us your opinion on the boy.”
She pointed at Ilya. Riesgaard’s lips twitched with distaste, before he turned to Ilya, frowning. He squinted, then leaned in close, studying Ilya’s face in great detail. Ilya turned his head to the side, trying to ignore the disgusting warmth of the man’s breath on his cheek.
“Hmmm, hmmmm,” he mused, pulling back at long last. “He looks like he’s a goddamn curr.”
“You’d be right,” Timmo said.
“Does he remind you of anyone?” Mathilda asked.
Risegaard leaned in again, stroking his chin. His eye twitched. “Yes,” he spat. “He reminds me of this goddamned Rus I had the misfortune to meet. Goddamned swindler, I don’t know how he got past the border guards, nearly shot me dead, swindled a good woman out of her honor.”
“He claims he’s Väino’s son.”
Risegaard’s face twisted in disgust. “Väino?” he all but spat. “Väino would never lie with one of those beasts; he was far too refined for that. He looks nothing like Väino, absolutely nothing at all—”
“We have it on record that Väino did, indeed, sire a son while he was stationed in Rus.”
Riesgaard made a noise like he was choking, then whipped about. “The man I know would never do anything like that! How dare you defile his character like that, you—”
“And yet it’s fine for you to go around slandering people,” Timmo sneered.
“It’s not slander if it’s true!” the bald man cried.
“And it is true that Väino slept with a Rus woman and sired a bastard child!” Timmo thundered.
“Even if he did, that brat looks nothing like Väino—”
A terrible crash brought everything to a grinding halt, even Freja’s wretched tears. Everyone stared at the maid in the doorway, who stared at Ilya with a look of sheer terror on her face. She shook herself violently, then looked at the mess of food she’d dropped on the floor. She fell to her knees, dabbing hastily at spilled cream with her apron. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she murmured, her gaze glued to the floor.
“Are you all right, Inge?”
She started to pick up the pieces of the shattered plate. “Yes, yes, Milady, I’m fine.”
She looked fearfully at Ilya again. “It’s just that … ”
She closed her eyes tight, gritted her teeth.
“Just what?” Mathilda asked, leaning forward.
The woman bit her lip. She shook her head slowly from side to side. A few stray, silver strands of hair tumbled out from beneath her headdress. “He looks like my husband,” she whispered. Her voice was choked with tears. “I thought I’d seen a ghost, I thought that he’d come back from the dead, that maybe the rumors weren’t true—”
Timmo sighed heavily. “Well,” he muttered, “I guess that’s the end of that.” He unlocked the handcuffs, releasing Ilya’s wrists.
“What?!” Riesgaard spluttered angrily. “You’re going to believe that old hag?! Nobody knew Väino better than I—”
Inge towered over him, glaring down at him. “Nobody,” she growled, “knew my husband better’n I did. Got that, you little rat?”
She shoved him away from her, let him stumble back a few steps toward the Queen, as though Her Majesty would protect him. Mathilda said nothing, however; she pursed her lips and looked at Ilya instead.
“Your name?” she asked, extending a hand toward him.
“Alexius, Your Majesty.”
A soft smile curled around her lips and her eyes were full of some strange feeling that Ilya couldn’t name, but knew, deep in his heart, and it made apprehension bloom in his veins, bursting beneath his skin, as though something terrible were about to happen. He studied her hand instead, how soft and smooth and pale her skin was, how perfectly manicured her nails were, painted white, like the rest of her.
“You are all dismissed,” she said, standing, but the motion was too fluid to seem abrupt. She moved effortlessly, as though she were made out of the very air they were breathing, smoke on a gentle zephyr. “I will take my leave of you.”
She retreated into the shadows, blending, melding into them effortlessly. Her ladies-in-waiting followed her, shutting the door to Her Majesty’s inner chambers with an audible click.
The only sound in the room for a moment was the tinkling of china as Inge continued to clean up the wreckage of the tea things she had been bringing to the Queen. The woman remained on her knees, eyes all but glued to the floor as she worked silently.
Timmo clapped Ilya on the arm. “We should go,” he said, pushing the other man toward the door. “It’s late.”
Riesgaard cleared his throat. “I will handle this from here,” he said, stepping between Timmo and the former captive. He gave the blond a long, hard look. Timmo was silent, but relinquished his hold on Ilya at last, stepping back.
“Very well,” he said with a nod of his head, “I’ll leave the rest to you.”
He turned to go, then grabbed Ilya by the sleeve once more. “Don’t think this means that I’m not watching you,” he all but snarled, sadistic grin staking its claim over his features again. “Understand?”
Ilya swallowed and nodded, unable to look away from those startling blue eyes. There was something unnatural about them, how bright the color was, how luminescent.
Riesgaard coughed into his hand. “Don’t you have better things to be attending to, Lieutenant?”
Timmo didn’t reply to that; instead, he turned back to Freja, putting an arm about her shoulders, planting a hand between her shoulder blades and steering her toward the door. He glanced back at Ilya once more before he was gone, and Ilya was left with the image of those eyes burning into the moonlit room; when the candles had been snuffed out, he didn’t know, but the only light left in the room now was the ethereal beams of moonlight filtering in between red velvet drapes.
“Let’s go,” Riesgaard said, taking the first steps forward, tucking his arms behind his back and lifting his head a little. “Milady would wish you to be well accommodated for this evening.”
They picked their way about Inge, who said nothing as they passed, but she glanced up at Ilya, tears in her eyes, before she hurriedly looked back at the broken china strewn over the rug. Her hands were trembling. He forced himself to look away as he stepped into the hall.
Risegaard turned to him with a pleasant smile after they were doused in the soft lights of the hallway. “Is this your first time in Norcross?” he asked. His expression was warm and pleasant, but his eyes were cold. Ilya had seen that expression before; he knew he’d worn it himself on many occasions.
“Yes,” he replied, hoping his own face reflected nothing of his suspicion, his nervousness. He’d made it past the first hurdle; they didn’t trust him entirely, but they hadn’t shot him and they hadn’t deported him. It was a good start. He needed to continue to build trust; even if he hated Riesgaard with every fiber, every sinew of his being, he couldn’t make any false moves. The time for hate would come.
That smile stayed affixed to the man’s lips. “Ah, well, welcome to our fair capital. Tell me, what did your father tell you about us?”
“Not … very much, I’m afraid. He was a very busy man; we did not talk a lot.”
“Of course,” he said, turning about again. “Well, you should know that the Nords are a very special breed, superior to Rus, to any other human being on the planet.”
“Is that so,” Ilya murmured, glancing about at the candles flickering on the walls. If the Nords were so far advanced, then why did they use such outdated, inefficient technology? They could have had it, if they wanted; Rus was more than willing to export its technological wealth to anyone who wanted it—for a hefty fee, of course.
Riesgaard tipped back his head, studied the ceiling. “Yes,” he said with a satisfied sigh, “the Nords are very special. We have evolved differently from everyone else; we’re set apart.”
“I see,” Ilya muttered, almost snorting. Sure they were special. That was why the Rus had banished them here centuries ago.
They passed by a window and Ilya stopped dead, staring at the soft lights in the trees. He squinted, but when he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, he frowned. “What are those?” he asked at last. “Do you really put lanterns in the trees? That’s stupid; it’s wasteful and dangerous—”
Riesgaard snorted. “Lanterns? Don’t be an idiot. Of course that’s wasteful and dangerous. Why would we need to put lanterns in the trees? No, those are star faeries. They only come out on clear nights like this, to absorb the starlight.”
“Faeries?” Ilya sneered. “Don’t be ridiculous —”
He’d believed in faeries and fairy tales when he was a child and when he’d still believed that there was magic in the world. That was a long time ago now; there was no such thing as magic. Science ruled the world: he could understand anything and everything, if only he put his mind to it, and science would solve every ill the world had. Science was logical, reasonable, and it proceeded forward. It helped society, it helped human beings, making their lives better, easier, faster, smarter. Magic was a poor excuse for those few idiots who couldn’t understand, or what science had yet to explain. Magic wasn’t magic at all; magic was a lack of knowledge.
Riesgaard gave him a worried look. “Yes, faeries. They’re quite common here, really. You’ll probably see more in the daylight—most of the visible ones are active by day. Star faeries are really the only ones you can see at night. The rest of them work invisibly.”
Ilya snorted. “Faeries?” he asked, feeling the incredulous grin pulling at his lips. “Really? A man your age believes in faeries?”
Riesgaard pursed his lips and studied him for a moment or two, solemn silence pervading the space between them. “Alexius,” he said at last, “you went to school in Rus?”
“Of course,” he replied offhandedly, even though it was a blatant lie. He’d never gone to school; he’d never set foot in a school building. He couldn’t afford it. He didn’t have time to waste learning useless things like addition and how to write words and the history of the whole world before he’d lived. He was too busy trying to survive. But Alexius, Alexius Archangelus, bastard son of Väino, would have attended school in Rus.
Riesgaard clucked his tongue. “A shame,” he murmured, “if your father had really cared, he would have sent you here, to Norcross, for your education.”
Genuine pity rested in every crease of the old bastard’s hideous face and Ilya gritted his teeth, clenched his fists until he could feel his blunt nails biting deep into the skin of his palms, a warning that he needed to remember not to do anything stupid. But, goddamn, he would have liked to punch the bastard.
“What?” he managed at last, his voice tight with ill-controlled rage.
Riesgaard held his hands askance, shrugged as though it didn’t matter. “You’re half-Nord. Although, I suppose that’s the problem. Maybe if you’d been full-blood he would have cared about you.”
Ilya narrowed his eyes. “What are you trying to say?”
“It’s obvious Väino didn’t care about you as a real son. You said it yourself, he never had time for you.”
“I didn’t say—”
The old man held up a finger to shush him. “What is not said is just as important as what is said,” he informed the younger man with a knowing smile. “You didn’t say it, but you said he was always too busy for you. You didn’t talk a lot. He provided for you, but he didn’t love you.”
“It is something you will have to accept,” he said with a sage nod. “He’s dead now; there’s nothing you can do to change it. There’s no point in lying to yourself about it.”
He coughed, then gestured for them to continue on their walk. “But I’m sure he had good reason. No doubt it hurt him to realize you’re not fully of Nord heritage. Väino was a proud man and he was even prouder of his heritage. I find it difficult he’d even think of sleeping with a woman of that disgusting race … ”
He cleared his throat, schooling his expression into something much softer, much more palatable than the sheer rage that had crossed it before. “But, desperate men do desperate things,” he added, smiling pedantically at the younger.
Their footsteps echoed through the empty hall as they descended the stairs into the foyer again. “But we’ve forgotten the original point of conversation. If your father had loved you, he would have sent you here to learn the truth about the world. He wouldn’t have let those idiots in Rus stuff your head full of that science nonsense they’re so damned proud of.”
“Science is not nonsense,” Ilya gritted out. “Faeries are. They don’t exist.”
“Don’t exist? How can you say that? You saw them, just outside the window there, with your own two eyes. Isn’t that enough evidence for you, Professeur? To see is to believe, is it not?”
“But believing isn’t knowing,” Ilya replied tartly. “I saw the lights, yeah, but they might not be faeries. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for—”
“Faeries don’t exist!” Ilya cried in frustration. He was getting nowhere with this man; they were chasing each other around in circles. “Why can’t you just accept—”
Riesgaard whipped about, pressing a finger against the ball of Ilya’s nose. His eyes flashed dangerously. “Why can’t you just accept that they do? Maybe they don’t in Rus; I wouldn’t doubt it. Your kind treats the land so badly, like it belongs to them, it’s little wonder to me there’d be no faeries left. They probably left a long, long time ago.”
Ilya tried to think of something to say, some rebuttal, but he found all he could do was clench his teeth and glare back at the old man.
Riesgaard pulled back, still staring at Ilya, gaze boring deep into his eyes. “But in Norcross, they exist. It’s a fact of life, just like eating and drinking. Just because something is a fact in one place doesn’t mean it’s a fact in another.”
“But … ”
He turned away, sticking his nose in the air. “This is exactly what I’m saying—if your father had cared about you in anyway at all, he would have let you come here, and learn all of this. The Rus may not believe in magic anymore, but the Nords always will. You idiot Rus are too wrapped up in your science, thinking it’s the be-all, end-all. But can your science explain all the glory of this world?”
“Of course it can!”
Riesgaard shook his head slowly. “Of course it can’t. It’s too cold. It offers nothing. That’s why your idiot government can’t defeat us. And as long as they believe in science, they won’t be able to.”
Ilya snorted. “Are you trying to tell me that magic trumps science? Science is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”
“Not all knowledge is scientific.”
“And magic, magic is just an excuse to go on being ignorant.”
Riesgaard snorted in amusement. “I hope your attitude changes shortly; otherwise, we’ll be shipping you to the government authorities quite soon, I expect.”
Ilya sneered at the back of the man’s head.
“But I’m quite done debating with a pigheaded moron,” the wizened Nord said as they paused by one of the doors. He unlocked it, then flung it wide open. “Your chambers,” he announced, turning to Ilya with a flourish.
He knew he made a face like a guppy, floundering for words, but all he seemed to be capable of saying was, “My … chambers?” in a voice that made him sound prepubescent.
He’d never had a room, a bed, to call his own before, never mind chambers. He knew Alexius Archangelus would have, but even with that knowledge, it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by the very concept.
“Of course,” Riesgaard almost sneered, and there was a knowing little smirk catching at the corner of his lips. “You’re our guest, Alexius. Where would you expect us to let you sleep? In a gutter?”
“N-no,” Ilya managed, shaking his head. “Of course not. I just. Your hospitality is admirable.”
The words were forced; he couldn’t help but wonder when guests being arrested, held captive, and marched before the Queen for questioning had become part of “hospitality.” He swallowed thickly.
“I’d always heard that Nords were … extremely suspicious and cold toward newcomers.”
Riesgaard’s lips twitched into something like a frown. “Well now,” he said, “I guess that’s true—but we’re not bad people. And we do know how to treat our guests.”
There was something in the way he said “guests” that made Ilya want to shudder in terror, but he managed to reign himself in. He passed by the short man with a curt nod, mumbling, “Thank you.”
“Sleep well,” Riesgaard said as he shut the door. “I expect Her Majesty will wish a proper audience with you tomorrow.”
The door clicked shut, leaving Ilya alone in the darkness.
Smoke curled up from the cigarette. Timmo exhaled, letting smoke drift into the air, wafting away on the breeze. Ilya ignored him, glanced up at the moon, then winced as he listened to the wild dogs howling at each other. He wondered how many more hours there were until dawn; the night seemed infernally long, minutes dragging on. It was almost insufferable and yet, he’d been through worse.
Timmo crushed the cigarette, then flicked the butt away. He sighed heavily, leaned back and stared at the sky. “Lovely night, isn’t it?”
Ilya glanced over his shoulder, shuddering as the yapping of the dogs drew closer. “I’d rather be inside.”
Timmo glared at him. “Well, I’d rather be inside where the innkeeper isn’t going to kill his patrons over a little racial prejudice, mm?”
Ilya leveled a glare at him. “Like you’re some saint. I’ve heard you talk about the Rus.”
Timmo winced, then glanced down at his bloodied side again. Red was seeping through the stolen shirt. “It’s hard,” he mumbled, “when you’re indoctrinated like that. Everyone thinks that about the Rus in Norcross. Nobody says, ‘Hey, you think they might actually not be so bad?’”
He snorted, then let himself fall back on the earth. He threw his arms behind his head and stared up at the moon. “Of course, you guys are that bad.”
“It’s just that the Nords aren’t any better. We’re all the same in the end: we eat, we breath, we sleep, we fuck, we live, we die like pigs. We fight and kill and where the fuck does it get us?”
Ilya didn’t need to look at him to know he was smirking up at the moon. “It’s disgusting, when it all comes down to it.”
“I hate all this, y’know? The guns, the blood, the killing, the hate.”
“Yeah.” The grass was dead beneath his feet, matted with mud, backlogged with water.
Timmo rolled onto his side, propped himself up on an elbow. “Y’know, I’ve been thinking.”
Ilya couldn’t help the smirk that rose to his lips. “Oh yeah? You’d better stop; you might hurt yourself.”
Timmo made a face at him. “I’m being serious here, Ilya. You could at least hear me out.”
“What’s the use?” he asked. “You don’t want to listen to me. I said I’d explain, but you—”
“I’d like to try it,” Timmo said slowly, and Ilya froze. He stared into the darkness, eyes wide, and he knew the Nord could see the fear on his face.
He turned to face him, question on his lips, but Timmo had closed his eyes.
“Living without hate,” he muttered. “I’d like to try it. Get away from all of this, run away to the country and just … live. Quiet. Peaceful. Never mind all this politicking and hate-mongering and them versus us bullshit.”
“It is them versus us,” Ilya grumbled. “No matter where you go. Me versus the peasants, all of us trying to survive, trying to outdo the other … you versus them. And them, they’re still after us you know. We can’t let it go; if we stop killing, then we’ll be killed.”
Timmo’s shoulders slouched. “I know,” he mumbled, dropping his gaze. “I know.” His voice was so soft, Ilya almost had to strain to hear it.
“That’s why we had to do what we did in the inn,” he said slowly, reproachfully. “It was them or us. If we hadn’t killed them, we’d be dead.”
“Shit,” Timmo spat, dragging a hand down his face. “I should be past all this crap. Ideologies are for people under thirty. The world isn’t perfect, isn’t anywhere close to it. But … ”
He let the rest of his words die on his lips. He was somber and Ilya had to look away from him, away from those eyes, the sorrow hidden deep inside them.
“You can dream,” he murmured after a moment of stillness. “That’s allowed.”
Timmo snorted, then laughed. Ilya frowned at him. “What?” he asked.
The blond shook his head. “Nothing,” he murmured. “Just odd to hear something like that out of you. I didn’t think you put much faith in dreaming …”
“What good is the world without being able to dream?” he asked. “I mean, I can’t make a better world if I can’t dream of it first, right?”
“Hmm,” Timmo replied.
Ilya turned to him. “Besides,” he hissed, “I know for a fact you’re not over thirty yet.”
The Nord quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? You know it for fact, do you?”
“Just like you know my name. I’m not as inept as you like to think I am, Timmo.”
The Nord winced at the sound of his name, then glanced away. “Did you hear that?” he asked, slowly getting to his feet.
“Hear what?” Ilya asked, exasperation seeping into his voice. Just like him, really; changing the subject when they were about to have a serious conversation. Not that Ilya really wanted to have this particular conversation, but he’d realized that if he was going to be near Timmo any length of time, they did need to say something about what they’d done to each other. They couldn’t pretend it had never happened; they couldn’t bury it alive and allow it to fester in the shadows, growing and growing until it consumed them both.
The Nord held up a finger, then cocked an ear to the forest, listening intently. Ilya glanced about, but all he could hear was the dogs yowling to the moon goddess about their latest kill. “I don’t hear anything,” he huffed at last.
“Voices,” Timmo hissed, practically diving off the path, back into the ditch, taking Ilya with him. They rolled through the mud, water splashing. They crouched against the lee of the ditch, hoping to hide in the shadows. “We need more cover.”
“The only place we’re gonna get more cover is the woods—and I’m not going in there, not with one gun between us and you bleeding like a stuck pig.”
“Then we’ll get gutted on the path. Your choice, Ilya.”
They stared at each other for several minutes, before Ilya finally conceded, looking away. “Fine,” he muttered.
They ran bent-doubled, Timmo clutching at his side the entire way. Their feet splashed through the water; mud sucked at their shoes, threatening to drag them down, down, down. The moon shone down on them, a vindictive eye, revealing them, even when the shadows so desperately tried to conceal them. Ilya tried not to remember how very bright the moon had been in Norcross, how low it had hung in the velvet sky, how very ephemeral and gossamer the world had seemed when they’d stood on that balcony, overlooking the city below them, all lit up with starfaeries and the soft glow of lanterns burning beneath the stars.
He glanced toward the path and sure enough, he could see fire, bright and burning. Those lights weren’t soft; they were angry, leaping and licking, hoping to burn the world up and start anew. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He tore his eyes away, focused on Timmo’s retreating back as they ducked into the cover of the woods.
They dropped to their knees in the underbrush, sticks and dead leaves crunching under them. Timmo’s breath was ragged; each inhalation was pained and he shook with every exhalation.
“Fine,” he wheezed, giving a weak nod. The moonlight was weaker here, but it made the Nord seem even paler somehow. His skin seemed almost translucent.
His eyes, however, were brighter than they’d ever been, almost glowing in the darkness.
“You sure don’t seem okay.”
“It’s fine.” His hands were batted away as the Nord got back to his feet. “Let’s keep moving. I doubt they’re going to let this go.”
“Mm,” Ilya murmured, glancing over his shoulder again. “Let’s hope they got scared by all the noise we made, think it’s a wolf and head home.” He tried a shaky grin.
“I wish you wouldn’t say stupid things,” Timmo almost groaned.
“Like what?” Ilya snapped, turning back about. He opened his mouth, fully prepared to chew the Nord out, but allowed himself to remain slack-jawed when he realized they were surrounded by glowing eyes.
“Nords?” He grinned nervously.
“I somehow doubt that.”
Ilya grimaced. “Starfaeries?”
Timmo tossed him the pistol. “Last time I checked, starfaeries didn’t live in Rus. But wolves sure do. And these fuckers look hungry.”
Ilya fired a warning shot into the nearest tree, listening to the satisfying crunch of the bark shattering under impact. The air smelled of gun powder and smoke curled up from the barrel, but the beasts didn’t move. Their teeth flashed in the rum light, wicked, yellowed fangs.
“You should know better by now,” Timmo huffed, clapping his hands together. “Buy me some time—you have a good shot, maybe picking a couple of ‘em off will scatter ‘em.”
“I kind of doubt it,” Ilya muttered, then aimed and let the bullet rip clean through the forehead of one of the beasts. Blood exploded everywhere; the animal collapsed in a heap and the pack erupted into cacophony of barks and howls, snarls and growls, and there was fur, there were fangs, claws and saliva everywhere. Ilya shot blindly into the fray, grunting when one of the wolves landed on top of him, dead weight and fur matted with blood. He shoved it off and continued firing.
“Any luck?!” he barked to Timmo, who shook his head furiously and rolled out of the way of another lunging set of jaws.
“Too many of ‘em! I can’t stay still long enough—or I’ll get eaten!”
Ilya fired a blank, then stared stupidly at the pistol. Slowly, it dawned on him that the gun was out of ammo. He had nothing on him; even if Timmo did, it would be too much to try and reload the gun now.
“Climb!” he roared, leaping to the lower branches of the nearest tree. The wolves jumped too, jaws snapping at him as he started to climb. Bark bit into his cheek, but anything was better than being devoured by wild beasts.
He gritted his teeth and clung to the tree hard as he could. His knuckles turned white under the pressure, but he didn’t dare let go; he knew what came next. He took a deep breath and steeled himself.
The wave crashed over them, thundering and rumbling. It rose up out of nowhere, towering high above the trees; its shadow blocked out the moon as it loomed over them. There was a split second where it seemed to hover over them, frozen in time, before it broke over them, thundering through Ilya’s ears. The world was silent for thirty seconds after that, immersed deep under the water, and then the wave had passed them by and all he could hear was water pouring everywhere.
He started to breathe again and he choked on air. He coughed violently, then shuddered in the wake of the tsunami. He glanced back at Timmo. The Nord was soaked through to the bone, his hair plastered to his head.
They stared at each other for a moment, then started to laugh. Timmo clutched at his head. “Now we’ve really got to get the fuck out of here.”
They shimmied out of the trees, landing in the mud of the saturated earth. Puddles lay everywhere; branches had been sheered from their parent trees and the forest floor was unsettled. Everything had been washed away.
Timmo swayed on his feet and Ilya shook with the cold of the night setting in on his damp skin. Timmo slung an arm about his shoulders and they shudder and stumbled together. They kept laughing, like drunken men.
“The gun’s useless now,” Ilya chuckled. “I’m out of bullets and the powder’ll be soaked right through.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Timmo said again, and they looked at each other and stood there, frozen, as though captured by bright eyes in rum moonlight. They smiled shakily at each other, and Ilya could feel his lips moving, some kind of thanks on the tip of his tongue, before it died away in the silence of the night.
Timmo’s arm slid away. “Um. Well.”
“You’re right. Let’s go. I bet the villagers are already on their way back to see what just happened.”
“And you’d be quite right about that,” the Nord replied, clapping him on the shoulder, “if those torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding persons heading down the path are any indication.”
“Really?” Ilya asked, eyes widening as he glanced over his shoulder.
Timmo clapped his shoulder again, then took a couple of steps forward. “I think now is an opportune time to go, seeing as how the gun’s out of commission and I really don’t think I can do much about them right now.”
Ilya watched the lights moving toward them. He could hear the voices now, rough and angry.
“Run!” Timmo barked at last, then turned about and dashed off headlong, mud and water sloshing up from under his feet.
“W-wait up!” Ilya dashed after him, following as he wound his way through the woods, as though he knew them, as though he’d walked through this forest every single day of his life.
Timmo didn’t wait. He kept running. The voices got louder.
He remembered very clearly the first time he’d ever witnessed what the Nords called magic. He hadn’t wanted to believe it; he knew there was a logical, reasonable explanation for the phenomenon—science dictated that there simply had to be—but he could come up with nothing except sheer awe as he had watched Timmo wash the street clean. Everything had been swept away in the wash; he couldn’t explain where the riptide had come from, how it had come to exist in the middle of Norcross, so far from the ocean. It might have been lake water, he reasoned; they were near enough a lake, but it smelled sharply of salt and sea. And even if he’d been able to deny the scent, there was still no explanation for how a wave came to exist in the middle of that crowded city street.
He’d been in Norcross a week when it happened, and things had continued to get stranger and stranger. Riesgaard had told him, flat out, that the Nords were different, somehow, and he knew there was something that was fundamentally strange to him, something that seemed almost inhuman, almost supernatural, although he refused to name it or recognize it.
Maybe it was their eyes, so bright and pigmented, almost like gems. Those eyes seemed almost to glow sometimes; when he looked at himself in the mirror, his own eyes seemed dead and dull by comparison. In Rus, he’d always been told that his eyes were bright, colorful, and he supposed now that was the influence of the Nord blood in his veins. But these full-blood Nords, true Nords, had eyes that were ten times as bright as his and it was almost frightening, in a beautiful sort of way.
Their eyes came in a wide variety of colors. Green and blue eyes were most common, but there were about six shades of either hue, ranging from the lightest jade to the deepest navy blue. Others had gorgeous violet eyes; some had pale, pale eyes that seemed almost to have no color at all, except a tinge of icy blue or soft lilac.
There wasn’t the variation between them that there was in Rus. For the most part, they were tall and slender. The women weren’t overly shapely, and the men weren’t muscle-bound. They seemed willowy. Some of the older Nords were heavier set, and a few of them were relatively short, but the striking similarity of almost all the inhabitants of Norcross made Ilya nervous. He felt as though he were standing in the midst of an army of clones or robots, all manufactured using the same parts, the same paint, just assigned different numbers. He supposed, however, that was the end result of inbreeding the same gene pool for generations. He could only imagine what kind of genetic defects afflicted the Nords.
He could hardly tell one from the other, however, and that was what scared him the most. He knew Riesgaard, because he was dumpy and short, fat and bald, a rarity even among Nord men of his own age. And he knew the Queen because she moved most gracefully and he rarely saw her without the vestiges of her position: crown on her head, robes flowing behind her.
And he knew Timmo because the bastard followed him everywhere. The blond had made it no secret that he didn’t trust Ilya, and that he was going to be keeping a close eye on the half-bred stranger, no matter what the Queen thought of him. Timmo didn’t trust him, even if the Queen did.
When Ilya met with the Queen, Timmo was there, at Her Majesty’s side, blatantly watching him. When Ilya went to the market, Timmo was there, stalking him from behind barrels and creeping along rooftops. Sometimes, he sent Freja in his place, but she was even more obvious than her superior. Her pistol was always in her hand, always trained on Ilya, and she was always trembling with fright. He began to sense that she was new to the job. Perhaps she’d never killed a man yet. Ilya wanted to tell her that it was okay; he was new to his job too, but he knew he would never be able to foster camaraderie between the two of them, not without revealing far too much—and he would never be like she was. Much as he was new to the job, he’d killed people before. He’d held and fired a gun, he’d shot a man before his fifteenth birthday. It had lost its novelty, its strangeness. Death was just another thing that happened.
Days that Timmo didn’t stalk him were fewer than days that Timmo did stalk him, so he counted them instead. He’d grown accustomed to the eyes on him, following him everywhere. He felt like a superstar, being stalked by the paparazzi, except that Timmo wasn’t interested in taking pictures. The only thing he wanted was for Ilya to make a mistake; he wanted Ilya’s life. Sadly, that wasn’t too far off from some of the paparazzo in Rus; they would kill to get that perfect picture.
It was a sunny afternoon, with just a hint of cold in the breeze that ruffled through the tender leaves of the budding trees. The last vestiges of snow had melted away weeks ago and the world was slowly springing back to life. Songbirds called from the trees and everywhere, what the Nords called faerie song could be heard. Ilya still hadn’t seen a faerie up close, and he still didn’t believe they existed. He couldn’t deny the song, however; it was stunningly beautiful and serene, like nothing else he’d ever heard. He felt, deep within his being, that a bird simply couldn’t be responsible for such a song, but there was nothing to prove to him that it wasn’t a bird that the locals simply called “faerie.”
He was at market, picking through the first of the spring vegetables—peas, asparagus—when he heard the shot. He stood straight up, eyes wide, and stared at the vendor, who seemed completely unfazed.
When he realized the shot hadn’t been fired at him, he slowly turned, peering over his shoulder toward the narrow alleyway that emptied into the large square. No one else was paying any heed; they continued about their shopping as if gunshots were part of the daily experience. Maybe they were. They had been in Rus.
“Hey,” the vendor said, leaning forward. “You gonna get those, sonny-boy?”
Ilya couldn’t reply; he was too busy watching the man backed up against the wall, gun pressed to his forehead. He was shaking badly and it was pretty obvious to anyone who cared to watch that the man wasn’t Nord; there wasn’t even a drop of Nord blood in him. Ilya swallowed thickly, tightened his jaw as he watched the hooded assailant cock the gun. His lips were moving, but Ilya couldn’t hear him.
But he knew what that man sounded like.
The shopkeep’s hand settled over his. “Hey,” he said, his voice rough and low. “Don’t watch that; yer just invitin’ trouble. Come on, be a good lad; pay attention t’ what yer doin’. Ya want some peas?”
“Be quiet,” Ilya hissed. It didn’t matter anyway; all he could hear was his heartbeat thundering in his own ears. He couldn’t look away.
The assailant leaned in closer and the pistol was kissing the man’s temple. The victim was shaking his head, mouthing “I don’t know, I don’t know” over and over again.
“Don’t kill him,” Ilya murmured. His lips were numb and clumsy, but the words dropped between them, even before he realized that he’d thought them.
The shopkeep gave him a worried look. “C’mon,” he urged again. “Look ‘ere, we got some fine asparagus, fresh from the fields, raised on Lake Valhalla water. You’ll never taste anything finer than—”
“Don’t shoot him, please, don’t shoot him, Timmo—”
The hooded assailant jerked to a halt, as though he’d been stung. He pulled the gun away from the man’s temple, looking around furiously. Ilya stared at him when his gaze came to rest on him; there was suddenly no crowd, no one else in the space between them, just the two of them. Ilya stared back blatantly; he couldn’t help it. Timmo’s eyes were arresting and once he’d been found, he knew there was no escape.
Timmo’s gaze narrowed a bit. He gritted his teeth, then turned back to the man he had pinned to the wall.
Except that the man was no longer at gunpoint, and, desperate as he was, he slammed his elbow into his assailant’s solar plexus, then kicked him to the ground. Timmo crumpled up on the dirt path, coughing and spluttering.
“Better luck next time, cocksucker!” the man cried, pushing his way into the market throng, hoping to disappear.
“Sir!” Freja was at Timmo’s side.
“Go after him, idiot!” Timmo barked at her and she winced, then took to the rooftops, chasing after the runaway. Her movements were uncoordinated, frantic, and Ilya could practically feel the anxious tension in her every limb.
“Calm down,” he muttered, then jerked his gaze back to Timmo when she disappeared from the skyline.
The blond had his hands clapped together; his face was pulled taut into an expression of intense concentration. His lips were just barely moving, tracing over faint words, words that weren’t really words in Rus or Nord—or at least, no words Ilya could recognize. He slammed his hands to the ground a second later; his eyes snapped open, blazing bright blue, the brightest blue Ilya had ever seen and he stumbled back against the rough wood of the market stand.
He heard the vendor cuss; he saw the bright runes swirling on the ground, blue and bright just like Timmo’s eyes, just as unintelligible as his expression. The world started to shake, violently, and Ilya felt his knees buckle. A shadow fell over the marketplace and he stared up at the towering wave, looming over them, rolling toward them at a reckless speed, so fast it seemed it would never reach them.
Screaming rent the air, but the din was drowned out by the wave itself, the sound of an entire ocean crashing down on them and for thirty seconds, a minute, forever, Ilya was drowning, drowning in the ocean.
He came up spluttering and coughing as the wave splashed through the streets, ricocheting off buildings, ripping whole walls out of houses, sweeping away the market produce, the people with it. He clung to what was left of the vendor’s shoddy little stand, sliding to his ass when the wood gave way, collapsing and spilling what was left of the produce all over the muddy square.
“Wh-what the hell was that?” he panted, staring senselessly at the sky. The horizon was clear; there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
“You,” Timmo snapped, grabbing him roughly by the arm, forcing him to his feet. “What the hell were you trying to do?!”
“Ow, ow, ow, hey! Stop that—ow!”
He twisted Ilya’s arms behind his back. “We are going straight back to the palace and you will explain to Her Majesty why you felt the need to meddle in our affairs—”
“Ow! What did I do?! I didn’t do anything, I wasn’t meddling—”
The Nord gave him a shove forward and he stumbled. He had no choice but to start walking, Timmo marching him along at gunpoint.
“Sir!” Freja called, waving triumphantly. “I caught him, Sir, I—”
Timmo didn’t turn to her. Her arm dropped; the smile fell from her face. She watched her superior march Ilya out of the market, then gritted her teeth. She turned about and backhanded her prisoner, before forcing him to his feet and marching him out of the square, leaving behind her a mass of confused and terrified Nords.
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