Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Sublime Electricity, Book 3

The Sublime Electricity:
The Fallen
by Pavel Kornev

Read The Sublime Electricity series from the beginning:

Book 2: The Heartless

both books are available on Kindle Unlimited

Book 3: The Fallen will be released August 7, 2017

This is heaven! No losers allowed!

Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band)
Song title: Golem

Prologue, or a Dirigible and a Bit of Fire

SMOKE AND MIRRORS are an illusionist's most trusted assistants. They are the precise factor that allows those deceivers to remake reality and force their audience to believe in the nonexistent. By no stretch of the imagination do they use unlawful magic or wizardry, so reviled by our enlightened society. You see, smoke and mirrors are the simplest of tools. They merely create the necessary atmosphere and give the honorable public an excuse to exercise their sense of imagination.
Yes! The crux of the matter is imagination. It is the conscious mind's very ability to fill in the missing details that allows illusionists to entertain and bewilder their mouth-breathing patrons. After all, we are often glad to be deceived, having mistaken our wishes for reality...

The girl was wearing a shamelessly short blouse above the knee. Slender and red-headed, she was spinning in a wordless dance on the backdrop of a gray sky. Not far away, there was a raging sea; I could even smell its salty air. But none of the extraneous details could hold me – not the beam of sunlight rippling off a wave, nor the marble of the ancient ruins –my attention was entirely wrapped up in the dancer.
Her strange dance was making my blood run hot; the lady was contorting like a sapling in a wind storm. Sometimes, in a feigned fall, she leaned low over the ground, but she quickly straightened back up, just before the urge go to her aid reached its peak. Time and again, I missed the chance to announce myself, and that was tearing my tormented heart to pieces.
The dancer's uneven movements hypnotized me, driving me mad; I would have lost all control over myself long ago, if it weren't for the silence wrapping my body like a down comforter. It was as if I had wax plugs stuffed into my ears: no music was playing, no wind was rustling. No waves splashed off the seaside rocks. All I could hear was a bizarre, measured chirping reaching out to me from an unfathomable distance.
Just chirp, chirp, chirp. And the smell of char.
Smoke and mirrors...

The acrid smoke made me cough. My fingers clenched convulsively. Just then, a mass of fragile glass hit my cup, spilling lemonade. I lurched forward and flew out of my armchair onto a thick Persian rug. Spread-eagled and unable to move, I felt the floor giving a slight buzz and only then remembered who I was and where.
I am the illustrious Leopold Orso, the Viscount Cruce. And now, I am lying in the middle of the state room on my personal dirigible, like a hop-head who just got his hands on some first-class dope.
Smoke and mirrors? Curses!
The smoke was gathering under the ceiling, but there was still plenty of fresh air where I had just landed, so I managed to catch my breath and chase off the delirium clouding up my muddled mind.
With a hoarse cough, I flicked the tears from my eyes and discovered something sticky on my face. Blood. It was blood. There had been cuts on my palm, left by broken glass. They had already healed over and disappeared without a trace, but the blood would take some more time to dry.
No matter! I got up on an elbow and took a look around. There was more smoke in the state room than you could shake a stick at. Smoke, but no mirrors. Where the beguiling dancer had once been, there was now a wordless image of Isadora Duncan, a famous dancer, spinning on a linen screen on the far wall to the measured chirping of a projector. She bore no resemblance whatever to the girl from my visions.
As soon as I glanced up at the screen, snippets of the distant melody started reaching me again. The strength of my imagination and my illustrious talent filled in the black and white image with bright colors, giving it depth, and luring me in with the forbidden attraction of a mirage. Just close your eyes and you'll be at the shore of a distant sea. There, you can take your beloved by the hand and squeeze her against your body. And there you will remain, forever...
Damn it! I don't want to live in illusions!
Devil take this cursed cinematographer and intoxicating smoke!
My teeth clenched from a wave of sudden rage. I gathered my strength and got up on all fours, but didn't manage to stay up, and collapsed to the floor. My arms and legs felt full of cast lead. In the end, I crawled to the door out of the state room.
In the hallway, I propped myself up on the wall, breaking out a porthole with my elbow. Fresh air immediately burst in, washing over me like ice water. It became easier to breath. My presence of mind returned.
What the devil is going on here?! Where were the captain, navigator and steward? Why wasn't the crew extinguishing the flare-up? Perhaps the smoke wasn't caused by a fire, but some technical issue?
I covered my face with the tail of my jacket and walked to the captain's cabin, stopping and leaning on the bulkhead to catch my breath from time to time. My legs would hardly obey me, and my face was stinging worse and worse from the flames. But I had nowhere to retreat to. I could only go forward...
But before me, there was nothing but scorching flames. To realize that, I just had to peek into the cracked door of the crew cabin.
A large part of the room was engulfed in flame. The disgusting stench of burnt flesh was added to the acrid smell of burning rubber. The navigator was lying chest-first on the instrument panel, embraced by fire. The captain was sitting back lifelessly in his chair, also not moving. He was dead, too.
What bullshit!
Suddenly, a sharp gust of wind lashed a long tongue of flame in my direction. I could hear a few hairs catch fire and crackle; I took a step back and saw that smoke was rushing out the flung-wide door of the gondola. And what was worse, it hadn't been opened by the wind...
"Halt!" I shouted, but the last of the dirigible crew – the steward, was already walking out into the fresh air. On his back, I saw the voluminous hump of a bulging backpack.
I couldn't bite back a strong word:
Devil! Devil! Devil!
The flame, nourished by the current of air, roared up. I ran over to the door, immediately slammed it and hurried to the storeroom where the experimental Kotelnikov parachutes were kept. A gift from Alexander Dyak, they had been acquired in the Russian provinces. But I was met there by stinging disappointment: all the silk parachutes had been removed from their packs and sliced up with a knife.
The steward! What a bastard! All that remained was to burn alive!
Not getting lost in guesses as to why, I returned to the internal door. There, I clipped my round dark glasses onto my nose and reached out for my illustrious talent. My ability to embody the fears of those around me was not capable of giving a man wings, just as my imagination was in no condition to put out the fire, but I wasn't planning to overcome the concept of gravity, or stop the physical and chemical process known as burning. I only needed to overcome my own fear – a fear of falling, a fear of heights. That was both simple and unbelievably difficult at the same time.
Preparing for the inevitable, I unfolded my pocket knife, squeezed the titanium blade between my teeth and opened the cabin door. Down below, very far below, I saw a flickering mountain ridge and the grayish blue mirror of a lake. Uncertainty rolled over me. My knees started shaking. But I overcame my second of weakness and jumped out after the steward.
Outside. Without a parachute. Into a freefall.
Although, I only imagined the fall would be free. A strong gust immediately flew up, tearing my unbuttoned jacket, and spinning me in a vortex. My glasses flew off my face. My eyes were instantly filled with tears, but I had already seen the parachute dome, a white spot bloating away on the backdrop of the mountain lake below.
I spread out my arms and legs, managing to stop my spinning and turned toward the runaway, who was hanging from the straps of his backpack. I pressed my arms to my body and sped downward, but not like a stone, more like an airframe – at an angle. The speed of my fall sharply increased. The wind whistled in my ears. My face burned from the chill, and my clothes started tearing.
I slammed into my victim like a hawk after a pigeon, racing towards my target like a loosed arrow. My body started spasming. Holding a true course required a truly massive expenditure of effort. Even so, I didn't manage to drop right through the hole in the middle of the parachute. Having realized that I'd hit the parachute at an angle, I grabbed the knife from my teeth and found myself immediately spinning like a corkscrew. A moment later, my blade slid through the silk, and I flew free of it, racing toward earth.
The collision with the parachute had only intensified my spinning. At a certain point, I was turned onto my back, and saw a person flicker by above me, feverishly fiddling with straps. With a few sharp waves, I regained my composure and spread out my arms and legs like an air vane. The whistling of the wind grew slightly quieter. My fall lost its extreme speed, and I was quickly overtaken by the steward, who was shooting down like a stone. The remnants of his parachute, shredded by my knife, were dragging behind him, slack and tangled.
"Go to hell, jackass!" I shouted, looking at the lake below me. Unfortunately, I was reminded that, when falling from a great height, water can be hard as concrete. But I threw that scientific fun-fact from my mind and forced myself to calm down. No fear remained; there was nothing more to be afraid of, and really no reason.
I was soaring, simply soaring through the sky. Then, the smooth surface of the lake suddenly flew up to meet me. Only a moment before striking the ripples of gray water, a question, which had been nagging at me since this whole episode began, surreptitiously formulated itself in my mind: why the devil was there a recording of Isadora Duncan among my reels of film? I mean, I wasn’t even a fan!
And immediately after that – impact and darkness...

Chapter One, or Dances with Snakes and a Bit of Poison

THERE'S NO such thing as time.
Time is a fiction, invented by naive romantics and high-minded men of science. People like that are the source of the belief, held earnestly by most simpletons, that time is a set of hands running in a circle around the face of a clock. Something endless, unshakable and unchanging. Eternal.
A dangerous confusion.
Time doesn't exist at all. All that exists is a sequence of events that can be broken at any moment. In the space of an instant, that which took years to build can fall to dust, disappear, and cease to exist entirely.
Life? Yes, life too. Mine certainly. At the very least, life in the sense of: the sequential sort of existence we’re all accustomed to.

Sitting on the stony bank of a tiny island in the middle of a mountain lake, I was feeling bad. But not because my dirigible had just burnt up, not at all. And not even because I hadn't managed to reach the New World. No! I wanted to howl at the top of my lungs because I'd lost the illusion of my personal safety.
Someone had tried to kill me.
After all, the steward didn't just go mad and fly off the handle. He thought it all out in advance and waited for the best possible moment. A dirigible crashing in the mountains – what story could be more banal? I mean, would they even find the wreckage? Perhaps, in a few years, someone might randomly come upon a piece of twisted frame.
But what for? Who might have wanted my death, considering that the rest of the world had already come to think me dead? Dead, or missing without a trace more than a year ago. One is not much different from the other.
There was no reason to try and kill me!
It could have been embittered malefics, who’d traced my footsteps. That mystical brotherhood brought revenge to the level of religious devotion, but setting fire to a dirigible and faking it as an accident was not their usual methodology. The people of the black book were accustomed to acting in a much more forthright manner, and were extremely predictable in that sense. They put all their eggs into the basket of magic. Buying people off wasn't their style. If this had been them making a move, the steward would have poured kerosene all over himself and, with a calm smile, flicked a match on the side of a box, not tried to flee.
I had no faith in imperial secret services, either. The people from Crown Princess Anna's circle had no reason to doubt my death: no one could survive having their heart taken from their chest. After I disappeared from the hospital, they might have searched for the people who ran off with my mutilated body, but that was all.
The ends weren’t coming together; I was at an impasse.
I remembered the flame-engulfed cabin. A shiver rolled over me. Fire could undo most infernal creatures, and werebeasts were no exception. But I was lucky that my heightened metabolism removed the toxins from my system before the fire managed to spread into the state room.
"Devil!" I sighed, finding a flat stone among the little pebbles. With a sharp flick, I released it, skipping it across the water.
A rather commonplace past-time.
I wanted devilishly to eat, but there wasn't even grass growing on this rocky outcropping. I was left only with lake water.
But don't think I spent several days there. Nothing of the sort. It wasn't even a half hour ago that I slammed down not far from here and had a nasty impact with the water. It hurt.
But it was a sharp and fast pain, totally incomparable to the extreme torment I experienced when my broken bones started growing back together, or my muscles and tendons started healing over. When my broken joints finally popped back in place, it was excruciating.
I am a werebeast, and it isn't so easy to kill werebeasts, even with a fall from a kilometer in the sky. But, healing my body had started the flywheel of my sped-up metabolism, and I needed to eat something fast.
Eat something? Curses! I need to gorge myself! I don’t want to merely eat, but gorge myself. If I don't stuff my gut with meat right now, I'll start digesting my own body.
And the pain... the pain caused by the hunger in my muscles and joints was becoming ever more unbearable.
"Bugger!" My imaginary friend's favorite word tore itself involuntarily from my mouth and I realized that I would not be able to go on like this. A bit more and I'd no longer feel comfortable in my clarity of thinking. The hunger and pain after transforming back often deprived even much more experienced werebeasts of their presence of mind.
I was reminded of my father. Now, I understood the unbelievable effort it cost him not to turn into a beast once and for all. He was saved by faith, but man's abilities are not limitless and, in order to reduce the pain, my dad drank and drank and drank. Then he died. Sucking down enough alcohol to kill a grown man day in and day out was just too much, even for a werewolf’s liver.
That thought put me beside myself.
I got up from the stones, took my jacket, which was splitting at the seams and looked around. All around me was the lake and green silhouettes of overgrown mountainside. From the west, the slopes were steeper and had sheer faces. The color palette there was predominantly gray, and a corkscrew of black smoke was winding up from it into the blue sky. That was the dirigible, still on fire.
In large part, the only thing stopping me from taking the inevitable dive into the lake was that I was afraid it would ruin my clothing once and for all. The fall had done a good number on my getup as it was, but after a second swim, even the highest quality fabric would be inexorably transformed into a dishrag. Looking like that, I might even get picked up for vagrancy.
I took a glance at my lacquered shoes, which I'd fished out of the lake and, with a fated sigh, started folding my jacket, which had just barely dried out in the bright summer sun.
Returning to the metropolis was a mistake – I now realized that very distinctly.
A breeze blew in, and I gave a shiver either from chill or the uncomfortable thought. It was most likely the second – it wasn't cold. In fact, I was drenched in sweat.
Devil! I should have flown through England!
True as that was, London was also restless: the authorities had recently organized raids on malefics, freemasons and socialists. Unions were leading workers to street demonstrations, adding fuel to the fire of the Irish independence movement. The police there were on high alert, and I had absolutely no need to attract the attention of my former colleagues. I’d had a doctored passport made up under a new name during my stay in the Russian Provinces. It passed all imaginable registry checks, but still, the risk always remained of finding an overly vigilant constable or worse – a Department Three spook.
That was the last thing I needed, for someone to recognize me as Leopold Orso, the Viscount Cruce.
But here, they had!
It was Leopold Orso precisely they were trying to kill. There couldn't be the slightest doubt in that. Lev Shatunov, as I was called after the document change, wasn't mixed up in anything objectionable. After receiving access to the safe-deposit box, I immediately left Zurich and traveled the Old World, not staying in one place for long.
Serious trouble had only befallen me once time, and that was garden variety stuff: someone tried to rob me. And it was my fault, really. Initially, I didn’t have the good sense to have a checkbook issued, and just dragged a thick packet of francs with me wherever I went. The robber was as savvy as he was cowardly. He simply popped three bullets into my back. When I woke up, the robber was already clearing out my pockets and removing the gold band of my timepiece from my arm. It's often said that greed can destroy a man. The robber coveted my golden bauble and, in the end, was made to part with his own head. It would be no exaggeration to call what happened a lapse in my self-control.
But was it really an attempted robbery? Or was it just links in a chain?
Devil, I really should have flown through London! I mean, the simplicity of the route was tempting!
Heading to the New World through Atlantis was the easiest way. I didn't even have to make a stop in New Babylon. Directly from Lisbon, I was headed for the western shore of the island, where I was planning to fill my reserves before crossing the ocean.
I cursed, turned my head and took a cautious step into the transparent water. Near the shore, I could perfectly make out minnows scurrying over the pebbles. A bit in the distance, mountains and sky were reflected on the smooth surface of the lake.
I did not want to swim. I wanted to sit here, gather my thoughts and wait for something to change, but my hunger wouldn't subside and was egging me on more and more. Good sense echoed hunger. I was aware of the fact that no one and nothing would be coming to the island, so I'd have to swim no matter what. What was the point of wasting time, delaying the inevitable?
But I was so cold...
I returned to the shore and had already begun to unlatch my belt when suddenly...
"Around an island into midstream," came a well formulated voice belting out from the other side of the island, "the expansive river wave..." (translator’s note: these are they lyrics to a Russian folk song known in English as "The Song of Stenka Razin")
My belt latched back up, I hurried to scramble up the steep stony slope and gave a heavy sigh, not believing my own eyes.
On the backdrop of the gray spurs of the far-off mountains, along the mirror of the clear water, there was a small pleasure boat peacefully gliding by. A demure gentleman of middle age was rowing evenly, his head lowered morosely; his companion was standing on the bow with a bottle of wine in hand, singing in a high bass with abandon, probably imitating Chaliapin rather than having such a vocal timbre naturally.
I had no intention of missing the chance to get off the island without getting my feet wet, so I waved my jacket over my head.
"Hey! On the boat!"
The oarsman gave a frightened shudder and pulled his short powerful neck into his shoulders. The singer, meanwhile, slapped his hand to his head and said something to his companion. He started rowing with one oar, turning the boat toward the island.
I caught my breath with relief and started getting a look at my approaching rescuers. They didn't quite look like hunters: no dickies, tall boots or rifles. The singer was wearing a light linen suit. He'd gone out for his nautical voyage with his head uncovered; the oarsman, wearing a morning coat and pair of striped trousers, couldn't leave tradition by the wayside and had a boater hat hanging loosely off his crown. And he made the exact right choice: in the midday July sun, one could fry even in the mountains. If one started abusing wine along with that, singing was the logical next step.
By the way, the thin man on the bow of the ship didn't seem drunk and easily held his balance, looking at me from behind the palm he'd slapped to his forehead. Dark blond and with a short, well-trimmed beard, he could have been taken for a very successful lawyer or even professor if it weren't for a certain levity and even sharpness in his movements. For some reason, I got the impression this man was not cut-out for fist-fighting.
His companion was of a more solid build and worked the oars confidently without the slightest strain. His bushy mutton chops came together into a mustache. Along with the pipe in his teeth, it created the image of a sea captain. That image was spoiled a bit, though, by a thick chain of a pocket watch. A merchant? It looked very much to be the case.
"Sirs!" I raised my voice when there was no more than ten meters between the boat and the island. "I feel awfully uncomfortable asking, but could you please do me the kindness of bringing me to shore? The water is awfully cold this time of year. I'll even man the oars!"
"There we go!" grumbled the oarsman, shivering nervously.
His companion, as if apologizing for the man, gave a good-hearted wave of his free hand.
"We'll take you there in fine fashion, have no doubt about it. How could we not help a countryman, Mister...?"
"Lev Borisovich Shatunov, at your service," I hurried to introduce myself.
"More likely, it is us at your service," the oarsman noted cantankerously.
The singer laughed.
"Don't listen to that old grumbler, Lev Borisovich. I welcome you on board our craft!"
"One minute!"
I came down the slope, but not to the boat, to the other side, to get my shoes. I quickly grabbed them and rushed back, now feeling slightly worried I'd see my rescuers rowing away in the distance when I returned.
But no, they waited for me. Due to the rocks on the shore, the rower wouldn't risk bringing the boat right up to the island, and I had to walk to them in the water with my pants rolled up to my knees. But compared with swimming across the whole lake, that was a mere trifle.
The crooner on the bow of the boat, not at all ashamed at what his new companion might think, put the bottle of wine to his lips and took a good gulp.
"Take heart, Count! We have a great journey ahead of us!" he announced after that.
I nearly fell back overboard when hearing the address.
"Uhh... Count?"
The singer started darting his eyes and sighed sorrowfully. The paddler came to my aid.
"Well, even I am up to deciphering this charade," he laughed good heartedly. "Lev, as in Lev Tolstoy. And Lev Tolstoy is what? That's right, a Count."
"But please," I disagreed, taking a seat on the bench, "why Count precisely and not author?"
"Pardon me, Lev Borisovich!" the singer gasped. "But what do you mean author? An author is, you know, a person who follows their heart, up until midnight in a dingy apartment. An author strings chapters together to pay off debts, then burns them in a drunken fit. But Count Tolstoy – he's a Count. With a high word count, too. That’s what I say, anyway."
"I won't argue," I snorted and threw my shoes onto a wooden grate covering the bottom of the boat, then started rolling down my pants.
"With your charades, we forgot all about common decency," grumbled the oarsman, having begun to turn the boat away from the island. "Allow me to introduce myself: Yemelyan Nikoforovich Krasin."
"Ivan Prokhorovich Sokolov," the singer joined his comrade and smiled understandingly: "Count, I suppose there's no reason for us to inquire about the circumstances of your arrival to this patch of uninhabitable land?"
"You oblige me greatly," I sighed, not feeling like inventing a decent lie.
"We expect the same of you," Yemelyan Nikoforovich grumbled.
"I'm such a stick in the mud!" Sokolov suddenly slapped his palm on his forehead. "You aren't just a Count, you’re the Count of Monte Cristo!"
"Alright, that train has left the station," Krasin laughed good-heartedly.
"Just how does one not account for the island?" Ivan Prokhorovich was still lamenting. "Eh, I'm getting older all the time..."
A gust of wind blew in, rocking the boat. A slight ripple of somebody’s fear pricked me. But such fears had little power over me now; I was looking obsessively for a picnic basket. I knew it was somewhere. I could smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh grub. I swallowed my spit.
A werebeast can only be stopped by silver and electricity, but beyond that, shapeshifters have another thing hanging over their heads like a sword of Damocles: pain and hunger. The pain is when transforming into human form and the unbearable desire to fill one’s stomach is when the body demands its energy be replenished after transforming or repairing itself.
I was devilishly hungry, and the scent of fresh pone and meat pies were simply driving me batty. Fortunately, Sokolov caught my gaze and offered:
"Help yourself, Lev Borisovich. And feel free to help yourself to some wine."
"Wine is a bit much in sun like this, Ivan Prokhorovich," I refused the drink, placing the basket on my knees. "But don't you doubt that I will compensate all expenses."
My wallet had not dropped out of my pocket in the fall, and although the bank notes had soaked through while in the water, it wasn't long enough for them to lose all value. Coins included, I had just under fifty francs on me, which was enough for lunch for three, and to get my clothing mended. But from there...
From there, my path was clouded over.
"Shame on you, Lev Borisovich!" Sokolov rebuked me. "Helping a countryman in a difficult spot is the due of every decent person."
All that remained was to be glad that my grandfather had taught me my native language. There was also some thanks to my father, who had a tentative grasp and didn't allow me to forget it. Then, after fleeing from the metropolis, I'd spent enough time to cover my linguistic gaps enough to pretend I was natively born in the Russian provinces without risking being immediately uncovered. Accent? An accent is business as usual for people who live in foreign lands.
I opened the picnic basket and nearly drowned in spit. But I didn’t lay into it yet and asked my rescuers:
"Won't you join me?"
The burly rower went pale and quickly turned away, while Sokolov started smiling again.
"Yemelyan Nikiforovich, unfortunately, feels quite unwell on the water. He has no appetite," he said and looked at the bottle in his hand. "And I, thank you, will limit myself to wine. This Madeira is ambrosial and delightfully enough on its own!"
"That's no good for you in this burning heat, Ivan Prokhorovich," Krasin grumbled, confidently working the oars.
The singer began answering at length, but I wasn't listening anymore, clearing out the picnic basket. In the end, a meat pie and an open fish pie, a piece of cheese and a link of blood sausage, a fancy roll and two apples killed my hunger, but I wasn't exactly sated. I wanted something hot. Preferably – a first course, a main, and desert. And without fail, a strong sweet tea.
But for now, I leaned overboard, scooped up a handful of water and drank it. That made Krasin clearly squirm. His rounded face and massive jaw instantly attained the color of a fresh linen.
And again, I caught a fear. Viscous and powerful, it tore the nerves in time with the lapping of the waves on the side of the boat.
Yemelyan Nikiforovich had a panicking fear of water. Normal lake water, cold and pure.
And that seriously surprised me. There is often no logic present in peoples' fears. Agoraphobia, for example. But why go off on a boat ride with your nervous system on the fritz like that.
"I'm afraid I've left you without a lunch..." I muttered thoughtfully, wiping my greasy fingers on a handkerchief.
"Don't worry," Krasin sighed loudly, his fingers gone white in strain from clenching the oars, "we'll take lunch in a restaurant."
At that moment, we came around a rocky cape, revealing a small bay, the calm surface of which was being crisscrossed by a great many pleasure boats. Refined gentlemen and hired rowers were working oars. Ladies were sitting under parasols in tranquil idyll. There was a long quay stretched out down the shore. On its far edge, an open veranda hung out over the lake with tables for those who preferred a mug of aromatic coffee and a sandwich to a boat voyage.
"Montecalida!" exploded out of me. I'd never before had the chance to visit this resort town, but the view was perfectly familiar from postcards. In my childhood, I loved to look at them, dreaming about visiting all the marvelous places.
"Uh, yep!" Sokolov said in surprise, pushing the cork back into his emptied bottle. "Is something the matter? It's as if you weren't expecting it..."
"No, no, nothing," I hurried to quash the topic. "Everything is fine."
Visiting the resort town, world-renowned for its hot springs, was not part of my plans, but I'd never have found a better place to crash: this town was directly on the rail line that connected the east and west coasts of Atlantis. With good luck, I could be on the road to New Babylon later today.
The wind quieted down. The waves stopped beating on the sides and rocking the boat; Yemelyan Nikiforovich relaxed and seemingly even grew smaller in stature, having become a well-fed gentleman of middling years. Only in his movements did a distinct uncertainty still slip through, but that was easily explained by having to account for the other boaters. Often, they would make very poorly thought-out, if not to say utterly foolish maneuvers right into our path.
I shook my jacket, which I'd had sewn for me at one of the best tailors in Paris, and felt my ears starting to burn in shame. With all the impeccably dressed vacationers about, my ruined suit looked like an old garment taken from a trash bin, and I looked like a vagabond intruding into a celebration of life to pick up a forgotten item.
How could I go ashore looking like this?
"Don't worry, Lev Borisovich," Yemelyan Nikiforovich laughed good-heartedly, having picked up on the shame overcoming me, "I have an old habit of carrying a cloak with me. I left it at the quay. Life in Petrograd teaches one not to trust the weather, you know."
"You'll look excellent, Your Grace," Sokolov supported his comrade.
"Grace?!" I shuddered, not having immediately understood the winding logical path that led him there. "Ah, that's right! Lev is Lev Tolstoy. Lev Tolstoy is a Count. A Count is 'Your Grace.'"
"That's right," said the fairly drunk Sokolov, pointing a finger at me. "You're making progress, Count!"
The wind changed direction and was now blowing away from shore. An orchestra was playing near the quay and snippets of their melody were fluttering down to us. I listened in and recognized Caty Moss's Flower Dance, very popular this season.
To the lapping waves, the boat nuzzled up to the boards of the quay, and Sokolov was first to jump onto it. I took a chain from him, handed it to Yemelyan Nikiforovich, who was standing heavily and also left the boat. I was feeling devilishly uncomfortable to be in full view of society in this torn suit, but I still noticed the relief Krasin felt following after us. No, I was not wrong – he was definitely scared of having water near him.
But then why take the boat trip? It was beyond understanding.
Yemelyan Nikiforovich walked directly to the cashiers, and we came after. Sokolov walked with the easy gait of an inveterate reveler; I tried to stay behind him, drawn tight like a string, expecting sidelong glances and smirks.
"Relax, Count!" Ivan Prokhorovich advised. "This is Montecalida! Here, if there is a drunk lying in a puddle, it's impossible to say if it's a vagabond or a stylish poet, or even a full-on playwright!"
I nodded and tried to calm myself.
Everything was right: the resort city drew bohemian artists like a magnet, especially in the heat of summer when all willpower to remain in smoggy New Babylon had dried up. Basically, people came to visit these waters from all parts of the Empire, and even from the colonial states of the New World. Albert Brandt always said that this place had a unique atmosphere...
Here, I winced habitually. Many years had passed since we'd last seen one another, but whenever I remembered him, an aching sorrow whirred up inside me. I didn't have enough friends for it not to hurt when I lost one. To be perfectly honest, Albert was probably the last friend I had left.
Yemelyan Nikiforovich exchanged a few words with the cashier, and received a long gray cloak. I put it on and was left utterly satisfied: although it was a bit narrow at the shoulders, and hung quite low, the respectable public stopped lavishing me with their suspiciously surprised or surprisingly pitiful gazes.
"A bit short," Sokolov noticed. "You, Lev Borisovich, are no Count, but a boogie-man king!"
"Come off it, Ivan Prokhorovich," Krasin rebuffed, taking a pack of papiross cigarettes from his pocket. "He looks great!"
But the sleeves really were a bit short. My wrists stuck out of the cuffs like the staff of the very same boogie-man Sokolov had just compared me to.
"Shall we hire a cab?" Yemelyan Nikiforovich suggested, lighting his cigarette.
"Drop the lordly manners, mister slave-owner," Sokolov refused. "Let's go to the electric streetcar. I know a decent ready-made clothing store not far from here." And he turned to me: "Or would the Count prefer to visit a tailor?"
"I'm afraid it won't be possible to mend the suit, and I cannot allow myself to wait until they sew me a new one," I sighed, having decided not to ask about the 'slave-owner' thing for the time being.
Ivan Prokhorovich was marked by a tendency for associative thinking. The curves of his logic put me into a dead-end. As did the man himself: I wasn't able to determine his professional affiliation, or even his social status. But he was definitely not the junior companion of "mister slave-owner." He behaved too unrestrictedly with the man.
"Let's be going, gentlemen!" Sokolov called us, walking down a narrow alley away from the boat dock.
Stylish vacationers were walking out opposite us; a red-faced man wearing a sailor's hat strained to push a cart full of ice-cream as it bounced on the uneven paving stones; paperboys were running from one mouth-breather to the next. Life in the resort town was bubbling over.
After passing by two houses, we emerged onto a wide boulevard. A theater column with a bright poster immediately met the eye. On the backdrop of the local amphitheater, there were images of Caruso and Chaliapin. I didn't have time to figure out the details: a few fragmentary rings came out from the end of the street, and a self-propelled streetcar came around the bend, rolling down the iron rails.
"No time to lose, gentlemen!" Sokolov said, quickening his gait.
Krasin took a deep drag and threw his cigarette butt in a trash can; I grabbed the bottom of the cloak, which was hitting the ground occasionally, and hurried after them.
The electric streetcar line that encircled the city, not quite the oldest one in the world, was considered the second biggest attraction of Montecalida after its hot spring. Its blue and white cars were depicted on an unimaginable number of postcards and stamps. The choice of this mode of transportation, so strange for a resort town, was due to the hydroelectric dam, built in the mountains by Maxwell himself, who had spent the last years of his life here.
The conductor lowered the speed. The streetcar came to a stop, and fifteen vacationers got out. Without any hurry, we went into the car, payed the conductor, who was wearing a black pea-jacket uniform and polished peaked cap, and took our seats.
A sonorous crackle rang out. The overhead wire showered electric sparks and the car started moving. We were lightly rocked forward, then the car started gaining speed and the wheels started clunking in time on the rail joints.
I was impressed most of all by the complete lack of smoke. The mountain air was unbelievably transparent. It was surprisingly easy to breath.
We went past the city garden. On the crest at its gates, there was a sign advertising a lecture tonight on the topic "Are Other Planets Habitable?" The sun was scorching with all its cosmic energy, heating the paving stones and warming the mountain air; there was a long line extending from a stall selling mineral water. The bright light even made my eyes water. I winced and turned away from the window, having decided to buy dark glasses at the first opportunity. I couldn't very well get by without them...
"Here's our stop," Sokolov warned us, deftly hopping out as he walked from the back platform onto the causeway as if he hadn't just finished drinking a bottle of fortified wine.
I jumped out after him and even had to run a bit to maintain my balance. Krasin followed after us, and we went into a narrow alley between two three-story buildings with mansards, which were made to be rented out to vacationers. Over our heads, there were taught clothes-lines. The pillowcases, towels and stockings above us were waving dully in the wind.
We didn't have to walk far. As soon as we turned down the neighboring street, we were there. The banner of the ready-made clothing store was found on the first floor of a corner manor.
It was a normal, quiet alley: banners washed out by sunlight, a cafe with a dusty window. Next to that was a barber and a pawn shop, its windows barred. Somewhere nearby, a dog was yapping. Behind the buildings, I could hear the knocking wheels of the electric streetcar. At an intersection, there was a paperboy shouting to attract the attention of passers-by.
"So, Count, we'll wait for you over there!" Sokolov said, pointing at the cafe street tables opposite. "Not a bad little spot," he told us. "Comfy. Like home."
"Hey, I showed it to you!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich objected.
"That is true," Ivan Prokhorovich smiled. "But, my friend, you did not notice the ready-made clothing store next door, did you?"
Krasin just frowned and went for his wallet.
"Lev Borisovich, do you need some money to tide you over?" he offered.
"Thank you, but no," I refused in the hopes of using my now-dry payment orders, and removed the cloak. "I also thank you for the clothing. You really bailed me out."
"Hogwash!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich waved it off, throwing the cloak over his arm and walking toward Sokolov, who had already taken a seat at the sidewalk table.
"Newspapers! Gentlemen, get your newspaper here!" a boy with a swollen bag walked up to the street cafe. "Battles in Rio de Janeiro! Unrest in India! Kali-Strangler thugees commit yet another dastardly deed!"
Yemelyan Nikiforovich bought the fresh edition of the Atlantic Telegraph. Sokolov took nothing. I just shook my head and pushed open the shop door. A little bell tinkled out over my head, and a doughy clerk rushed to get out from behind the counter.
"How can I help you?" he smiled artificially, not paying any attention to my ripped suit or, to be more accurate, making a concerted effort to look like he wasn’t.
With disgust, I pulled out and set back the lapels of my jacket.
"I need a three-piece suit, undergarments and a dress shirt."
The shop smelled of fur and dust. Suits hung in rows, differentiated only by fabric color and size. The very thought that I'd have to wear such an abomination again after owning a tailor-made suit gave me heartburn.
Or maybe the food in the picnic basket had spoiled in the heat?
The order-taker sized me up with a practiced eye and took out his ruler.
"It won't be easy," he announced, taking the measurements, "but I'm sure we'll find something." After measuring my height, shoulder width, leg and arm length, he walked between the hangers and took out a dark gray suit.
"This is not quite the same as what you had," the salesman told me, as if apologizing for the store's poor stock, "but you need a suit fast, am I understanding right? Hence why you came to us..."
"That's right," I confirmed.
"Then please go into the changing room. And there's also the shirt. But as for undergarments, I'm afraid we don't keep them in stock..."
In the little curtained-off nook, I set my knife, comb, gold cufflinks, coin-clanking wallet and tin of sugar drops on the shelf, took off my old suit and got into the new one. The dress shirt was just right. Its sleeves went right up to the bones of my thumbs. As for the jacket, although it fit snugly, it was much too tight at the shoulders. I needed to maintain a certain caution so it wouldn't split at the seams. I put my own belt into the trousers. They fit nearly perfectly, but needed to be brought in just a little.
"Well, what do you say?" the salesman turned to me interestedly.
"The jacket is a bit narrow at the shoulders," I told him.
"Well, I won't be able to find anything better suited, unfortunately," the salesman said, putting his arms out to the side.
"And the trousers need to be brought in."
The salesman marked out the correct length with some chalk, and pointed at a chair behind the curtain.
"You can wait there."
I handed him the trousers and stayed in the new dress shirt, waistcoat and knickers. A sewing machine suddenly started whirring out from the back room.
I didn't have to spend too much time alone. The salesman returned soon after, faltering obviously, not knowing how to start the conversation.
"This is, of course, none of my business, but..." he uttered, floundering and waving a hand. He then walked behind the mirror. "Please, I'll just show you. Here, see for yourself..."
I turned my head and nearly cursed out loud when I saw the burnt hair on the back of my head. I was immediately reminded of the fact that I had been in a flaming dirigible cabin. A bit of blood even coursed into my cheeks when I realized that I had been walking around town like this.
A darn shame!
And those two... They might have warned me!
My annoyance quickly abated; at the end of the day, I wasn't looking for work as a nanny. And the ripped suit was a somewhat bigger problem than burnt hair.
And my hair, it should be said, was beyond repair – the fire had scorched some spots totally bald.
"I could send someone out for a barber," the salesman offered accommodatingly.
"That would be wonderful," I replied.
I was soon brought the sewn pants and got dressed. But I didn't leave the store – I was categorically opposed to going outside with my hair like this. I'd better just wait for the barber.
"How much do I owe you?" I asked, opening my wallet.
"Twenty-five francs," the salesman answered, taking a look at his ledger.
It was a decent chunk of change, even by New-Babylon standards, and I winced internally, but didn't try to negotiate and set a couple of red tenners with a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci on the counter, adding to them a blue bill depicting Alessandro Volta. Then came the salesman's turn to frown: although the bank notes had managed to dry out, they still looked very suspicious.
That said, the salesman accepted them without question. He also put the money into the register when the door swung open and we were joined by a small man with a mustache wearing a white apron – the barber. In one hand, he was carrying a leather traveling bag, and in the other, he had a rolled-up cloth.
"Who needs the cut?" the craftsman asked with a clear continental accent. He noticed me and set about shooting out sentences as if from a machine gun: "Ah-ha! You! And what have we got? Show me. Turn to the light! Oh! You don't say? That's what I'm talking about! You're very lucky, mon cher. The fire only touched the back of your head. But I'll have to take the singed hair. Going outside like this would be the height of bad form!"
"What do you suggest?" I tried to put a cork in the fountain of his eloquence, but without success.
"Take a seat! Take a seat!" the small man demanded, then started walking around me. "Breathtaking! There's a bit of burning on the side as well! No, we cannot leave the temples looking like that. I simply cannot, don't even ask. But nothing needs to be taken off the top. Don't you worry, mon cher. I'll make it look great!"
"What are you going to do?" I asked, straining to get a word into his punctuated monologue.
The barber threw a cloth over me, folded it over my collar and took a step back.
"What's on the table?" he balked, looking at me from the side. "Only an undercut can save you, now. It's very stylish... in certain circles."
I cursed out silently. When I worked with the police, I had often had to visit the less fortunate peripheral areas, and young people there often had that very haircut. I had no desire to look anything like one of those underhanded rats.
"There's no other way?" I asked, hoping for a miracle.
The short man smoothed over his sumptuous mustache and sighed.
"Mon cher," he said to me as if talking to a brainless child, "half the back of your head and your left temple are burnt to the skin. I could just try to even all the hair out, but the result is going to look simply obscene. I value my work and respect my clients. It turns my stomach to think of staining my hands with such hack work. And don't worry. No one is planning to turn you into a caricature from the back pages of the Capital Times. It will all look... very stylish. You'll like it."
I shrugged my shoulders and gave permission:
"Get to it."
The barber nodded and started in. He first shaved the back of my head and temples, then evened out the top, combed the hair to the side and slicked it down with gel.
"Voila!" he said, handing me the mirror.
The man reflected in the mirror was... not me. Or at least almost. My facial features, which were already quite sharp, became even more accented with the new cut. I looked like the kind of person, who had been getting their hair done this way from a young age. A cutthroat from a bad neighborhood? Oh well, sure. Why not?
An experienced physiognomist could recognize Leopold Orso in me without any doubt. Just as they could associate me with the Lev Shatunov of my documents, but an average person could easily be thrown off by the changes. And that was not all so terribly bad. Actually, it was good.
I turned my head from side to side and decided that I liked the new hairstyle to a certain degree. Now, I would stand out from the crowd even without my stylish suit. Cheap and brutish, as they say in Russia.
Brutish? Yes, I now really did have a certain barbarity in my look.
The barber took away the cloth and gave a few spritzes of cologne. I got up from the chair and stood at the body-length mirror, looked over myself from the side and nodded. Not bad.
"So, mon cher, how do you like it?" the barber asked me, stashing his implements in his traveling bag.
"I could never have expected better," I admitted and, in a burst of unjustified extravagance, extended him my last five-franc bank-note. Now, the only thing in my wallet was a rumpled tenner and a few coins. "You really bailed me out."
But as soon as I started for the door, the salesman called out.
"Sir!" he shuddered. "Your old suit!"
"Throw it out!" I ordered, and went outside. I stood on the sidewalk for a bit, enjoying the slight breeze. Taking out my tin, I popped a powdered sugar drop in my mouth.
My rescuers were sitting at a table on the street. I didn't walk up to them, though, and slipped into the pawn shop with its barred windows where, among the jewelry out for sale, there were a number of pocket pistols and revolvers. After evaluating the pricing on the golden baubles, I decided not to even try to sell my cuff-links, and took off my timepiece.
"How much?"
The gloomy appraiser took the watch and immediately weighed it. After that, he looked at the stamp through an ocular he placed in his eye. He opened the back lid, immediately closed it and announced dogmatically:
"Thirty francs."
"How much?!" I figured I must have misheard.
"What do you mean?! Its case is made of gold, and so is the band! It's pure gold – forty grams of it! Even if you sold the metal at half price that would be sixty or seventy francs!"
The appraiser set the timepiece on the counter and repeated:
"Thirty francs."
"It's a wristwatch! A timer! A calendar! We cannot possibly speak of an amount lower than fifty!" I objected. "I mean, if I don't sell, someone would rip it off my arm for a hundred and fifty!"
The man picked between his uneven teeth with a sharpened matchstick, then laughed:
"I'm starting to think you might have bought it. Thirty francs."
"I did buy it!" I wanted to bellow out, but held back. I was tall and strong with a characteristic haircut and a cheap suit. And my colorless eyes played no role. It wasn't as if there was a dearth of scallywags among the illustrious. Looking like this, where I’d gotten the watch was a foregone conclusion.
And though this morning I could have easily pawned the timepiece for a hundred francs, my ceiling now was a pitiful thirty.
Curses! I was counting on that! I'd bought the watch with the idea of having a bit of gold to keep on me for the very worst of times, but all it's gotten me is laughed at.
After returning the watch to my wrist, I clicked the bracelet closed and pulled out my wallet. I slid a two-franc coin from it and slammed it down on the counter in annoyance.
"If you'd be so kind," I said, pointing at a pair of glasses among the baubles with round black lenses, reminiscent of those for the blind.
"Here you go."
The glasses clipped onto my nose, I walked over to the window and took a look outside. The lenses were very dark, and the bright sunlight no longer cut into my eyes.
"I'll take them!" I decided.
"Yes, please," the fence answered back with the clink of his cash register.
I left the pawn-shop and headed back to my new acquaintances. Ivan Prokhorovich, to my surprise, had ordered coffee instead of wine; before him, there was an empty cup and a dish with the crumbs left over from a croissant. Yemelyan Nikiforovich was sitting back deeply in his chair, poking through a paper and smoking.
Sokolov was first to remark on my changed appearance and melted into a broad smile.
"That's a new one!" he said, his arms split wide. "I was intending to recommend you buy a hat, but, I see that you've solved the problem on your own and in fantastic fashion. You've practically split the Gordian knot! Your middle name wouldn't happen to be Alexander, would it?"
"Come off it," Yemelyan Nikiforovich asked from behind his paper. "When you talk like that, you get totally lost in names and confuse me."
"Shall we have lunch?" I suggested, taking in air with my nose.
"Well, not here!" Sokolov gasped and got up from the table. "Yemelyan Nikiforovich, let's go!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming," he called out, pressing his papiross cigarette out in the ashtray and starting to fold up his paper.
"Throw that filth out!" Ivan Prokhorovich suggested, smoothing over his skipper's beard. "What are you doing reading press for? Trying to spoil your appetite?"
"I'm interested in what's going on in the world!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich objected. "It's not like I'm reading the society pages!"
"And what's on the first pages of the paper? What events?"
"Everything is as normal." Krasin buttoned on his boater's hat, throwing his cloak over his folded elbow. "War with the Aztecs, skirmishes in the Sea of Judea. There’s also the bubonic plague and unrest in India. A full set."
"They haven't rounded up the thugees yet?" I laughed. "Astonishing."
In recent time, the Kali Stranglers had been constant features on the front pages of newspapers the world over. The sect of devotees to the goddess of death, destroyed in the last century by the English, had arisen from nonexistence much to everyone's great surprise. And now, the fanatical killers were dispatching imperial civil servants, soldiers in the colonial armies and clerks of the All-India Company with dispiriting regularity. And no one was even counting how many Indians had been killed and buried in their shallow ritual graves.
Ivan Prokhorovich was clearly unhappy with my observation.
"Caught?" He threw up his hands. "What are you talking about, Count? If Colonel Slimane with his authority unbound by rights or morals, never managed to cauterize that infection once and for all, what chance do his successors have? Not even the ghost of one!"
"Well, India and the stranglers are far away! Where we will be eating is what I'm interested in now!" I hurried to distract my companions from discussing recent news and change the topic to something more relevant to me.
"What do you mean where? Terem, naturally!" Ivan Prokhorovich laughed.
"Never heard of it? It's a Russian restaurant. All our countrymen gather there."
"If you say so."
We walked down the street and Sokolov did not fail to return to the previous topic.
"Yemelyan Nikiforovich, answer me this: does everyone in progressive society still demand the Indians be given independence?" he asked none-too-politely, elbowing his comrade in the side.
"Nothing less," Krasin confirmed.
"I don't understand a thing in this life!" Ivan Prokhorovich shook his head. "Who are those people? In the last war, they sent telegrams of congratulations to the Emperor of the Celestial Kingdom. Now, they're on the side of the Stranglers. How can they do such things?"
"First of all, they struggle to remain objective. They're calling for us not to repeat the errors of our past and lump everyone into one box," Yemelyan Nikiforovich noted judiciously. "If a person is Hindu, that doesn't necessarily make them a Strangler. The presumption of innocence..."
"Come off it!" Sokolov waved. "Hindus are like cockroaches. They're everywhere! And they also have the smarts to powder the brains of civilized people with their mystical nonsense. Now, even Englishmen are starting to worship Kali! English, French, Dutch! Can you imagine?"
I could, but didn't want to. I wanted to eat. So, I looked around and asked in confusion:
"How do you find your way around in this town?"
"Come now, Count! Getting lost in this city is impossible!" Sokolov assured me. "It's totally surrounded by the electric streetcar line and cut into neighborhoods by radial boulevards, like a Neapolitan round pie..."
"Pizza, surely," Krasin hinted.
My stomach gave a grumble.
"Pizza, that's right! All the radial roads lead to Maxwell Square," Ivan Prokhorovich confirmed and waved his hand. "It's over there. You can't miss it."
I looked where he was pointing and saw a dirigible hovering above the city.
"Has someone flown to their vacation?" I joked, rubbing my freshly shaved head in confusion.
"What?" Sokolov asked, following my gaze. "No, that belongs to some noveau-riche from the New World. He decided to help reconstruct the amphitheater. It'll be open soon, then the rent prices will grow like a proofing dough ball."
The news left me ambivalent, in that I wasn't planning to stay in town anyway. I'd eat to somewhat reduce the searing pain in my stomach, and then head straight to the train station.
"Not noveau-riche, he’s a millionaire philanthropist," Yemelyan Nikiforovich reproached his comrade. "Believe you me, the reconstruction of the amphitheater set him back a pretty penny!"
"No, believe you me!" Sokolov flared up. "He'll get it all back with interest! Such people never let themselves stay in the red. Capitalists..."
"Let's not fight," Krasin looked gloomily in reply. "By the way, we're here."
And in fact: on the facade of the two-story manor, there was a bright painted banner reading: "Terem." Before the high granite stoop, there were several open carriages awaiting clients and, at the exit, guests were greeted by a servant wearing a long-waisted blue coat, a vest and a pair of trousers tucked into well-blackened boots.
The servant knew my companions and hurriedly threw open the door before us. Yemelyan Nikiforovich stayed back to hand him some pocket change.
Inside, it was noisy. The spacious room, with palm trees in planters along the walls and a huge chandelier under the ceiling, was filled with droning voices; music was playing, someone was trying to do a poetry reading. A number of open tables met the eye, but Ivan Prokhorovich led us to the second floor. It was just as busy up there.
"France is just a nightmare, gentlemen!" a stately young man with a poufy hairdo announced to his drinking buddies in a crisp voice. "Filth! Physically and, all the more horribly, morally!"
We walked past to a free table, and then Sokolov threw out carelessly:
I turned and looked at the gentleman who he had characterized so straightforwardly.
"As in 'trash can,' I hope?" I then asked Ivan Prokhorovich. "Surely, that isn’t what you think of the piece?"
My companions laughed.
"Nothing gets past you, Count!" Sokolov shook his head. "You'd cut the soles out of my shoes while I walk!"
The waiter came up and read out the menu in Russian.
"What can I get for you, gentlemen?" he inquired.
Over the last year, I had done a fair job improving my language proficiency, so I didn't get confused in the Cyrillic menu. I ordered a bowl of ukha (Translator’s note: a Russian fish soup), a black tea and a big skillet of fried potatoes. I could have wiped out a whole suckling pig in one sitting, apples and all, but I was constrained by limited funds.
Sokolov decided to order Siberian pelmeni and pickled vegetables. He asked a decanter of vodka be brought out with them.
"But make sure it's cold," he warned. "Not like last time. That junk was undrinkable."
"We'll get it from the ice-house, sir," the lackey assured him.
Krasin, panting heavily, wiped his reddened face with a kerchief and pointed his plump finger at a line showing a cream soup.
"Pickled watermelon and a basket of bread?" the waiter clarified.
"That’s right," Yemelyan Nikiforovich waved his hand and turned to me: "Lev Borisovich, would you mind enlightening us as to how you earn your keep in life? Forgive me for the insolence, it just seems like the best way to start a conversation."
"I don't earn, I spend," I smiled neutrally. "I'm spending my inheritance from my mother, traveling the world, seeing new countries and getting to know new people..."
"That's something," Sokolov nodded in approval. "Well, Yemelyan Nikiforovich and I have to earn our daily bread with the sweat of our brow."
"Well, the sweat of my brow," Krasin objected. "But you, Ivan Prokhorovich, like a leaping grasshopper, just fly from place to place."
"Sure, I do sweat less than you," Sokolov said, stroking his dirty blond beard. "But I have to stay on the move. It's just the kind of work I do. But like a wolf, my good friend makes a living with his legs." He turned to me and announced in an official tone: "Ivan Prokhorovich Sokolov, special correspondent for a number of leading Russian newspapers and magazines. Outside of that, I publish feuilletons under the pseudonym 'The Naked King.'"
"Ah, I get it. Like the Russian phrase 'naked as a hawk,' 'gol kak sokol?' Is that from your last name?" I guessed and rubbed my chin. "As for the king part, I'm not so sure. Does that refer to John (Ivan in Russian) of Patmos’ and Domitian?"
"Cut from the same cloth, you two," Yemelyan Nikiforovich snorted. "The pair of you would never be bored together."
"And what fates brought you here?" I wondered politely. "Just a detox?"
"I wish!" Sokolov sighed tristfully. "I'm here for work!" He took the cork from the freshly delivered decanter, poured himself a shot of vodka, then splashed a bit in his tea saucer for some reason and inquired: "Lev Borisovich, would you like a bit?"
"Thank you, I'll refrain," I refused, observing Krasin's manipulations with unhidden surprise. He placed the end piece of his white bread in the saucer of vodka. "It's hot today."
"It's always hot here," Ivan Prokhorovich assured me. "It's hot and crowded with famous figures. The whole beau monde is here for the opening of the amphitheater. They even expect Her Imperial Highness to attend. Have you heard?"
"No," I answered, giving a nervous shudder. Crossing paths with my crown-bearing relative, and more importantly her inner circle, was the last thing I needed.
I'll eat lunch – and straight to the train station. Without delay.
But will they be waiting for me there? Or maybe not even me, but the dead steward? After all, without a doubt, he purposely planned the time of the fire in order to parachute down in the area of Montecalida and roll out from there on the train. They might just be expecting him.
I immersed myself in strained thought and nearly missed Sokolov's story about the reason for his visit to the resort town.
"I've been sent here as a society commentator," Ivan Prokhorovich announced, "and my daily allowance is next to nothing. Believe you me, I'll soon start begging for charity."
"Your good friend will never get used to that," Yemelyan Nikiforovich noted grumpily, turning his bread over. "Many think it completely normal to sling mud at someone in the newspaper, then ask that same man to borrow a silver ruble for vodka."
A vein popped out on Sokolov's temple, but he held back.
"Who else can I borrow from?" the reporter asked with a crooked smirk. "Creative folk are always without a kopeck. You know that better than me."
"I do," Krasin confirmed and turned to me: "Lev Borisovich, I'm a literary scout in a certain way."
"A slave-owner," Sokolov injected. "He buys up poets and writers by the lot and sells them off. Some poor guy loses it all on cards, but here comes Yemelyan Nikiforovich with a cannibalistic offer. How can he refuse?"
"Don't exaggerate," Krasin waved it off, took the vodka-soaked bread end, broke it in two and stuffed it down his throat. "To your health..."
"To yours!" Ivan Prokhorovich saluted him with the shot glass and drank it down.
I finished my tea.
"Lev Borisovich, I can see an unasked question in your eyes," Yemelyan Nikiforovich smirked. "You see, I am somewhat afraid of water."
"Rabid," Sokolov laughed soundlessly, hinting at the other name of rabies – hydrophobia.
"You don't drink anything at all?" I clarified.
"That's right," Krasin nodded, taking a pickled mushroom on his fork and popping it into his mouth. He shrugged his shoulders and started carefully cutting up his watermelon. "I'm used to it already," he said calmly after a brief pause. "I eat soups, and I make up for the lack of moisture with fruit. Watermelon, for example, is almost totally made up of water. But this is just an appetizer. I eat a few pieces of fresh fruit, and that tides me over."
I didn't inquire about the circumstances that led to such a strange quirk of the psyche. I asked about something else:
"But, Yemelyan Nikiforovich, what were you doing on the lake then?"
Krasin looked gloomily at Sokolov. He laughed.
"You fight fire with fire, Count! Fire with fire! It's elementary, my good boy!" he announced. "Sakes alive, I was sure that our trip around the lake would easily rid our dear Yemelyan Nikiforovich of such an inconvenient phobia. You cannot even imagine how much effort was put into getting him down to the docks!"
"A wager in cards is sacred," Yemelyan Nikiforovich said, and with a gloomy look sent a second portion of vodka-soaked bread into his mouth, then waved his hand. "Pour me another!"
I quickly finished the ukha, and drank my tea. My hunger let up, but only a bit, which is why, when they brought out my fried potatoes, I spread out a napkin on my knees and started filling my stomach, absolutely uninterested in how respectable I looked doing so.
A balalaika (translator’s note: Russian stringed instrument), which had been jingling out for some time on the first floor went quiet, and an orchestra started playing. Sokolov, sending glass after glass of vodka down his throat, quickly became drunk. Krasin wasn't far behind with his vodka-soaked break and, when they started playing "Marusya was Poisoned" (translator’s note: Russian folk song) for the umpteenth time, put out his papiross cigarette in a dish and decisively got up from the table.
"I'll have a Russian vodka, merchant-class," he announced and stepped off to the stairs.
I looked at my watch and went up after him, taking out my wallet.
"I think it's time for me to pack it in."
Outside, it was an order of magnitude darker. The main chandelier had been turned on in the restaurant, but on the second floor, the tobacco smoke continued hovering in a light haze, so light didn't especially reach us.
"Stop, Count! Stop!" Sokolov grew startled, having already abandoned all hope of foisting a glass of vodka on me. "Yemelyan Nikiforovich will be back soon, and we'll show you a really special place. It's just amazing!"
"It's no use," I refused, and placed my last tenner on the table.
But I didn't manage to get away. Down below, they were drawing out the sung phrase: "Hey, my little box is so full," (translator’s note: from the Russian folk song Korobeiniki) and, before I got up, Yemelyan Nikiforovich returned.
"Are you getting ready?" he asked and nodded: "Yes, we can go too, I suppose."
We paid up and left the restaurant. Our new acquaintances were intending to continue the evening in a gambling establishment not far away, which they both assured me was marvelous. I didn't want to go anywhere. My hunger had retreated. My clarity of mind was back. And I suddenly realized that I didn't really know the first thing about my companions, and carousing all night long with random people was not the most intelligent activity in my position.
The gas lamps were burning everywhere but, when we returned from the side street to one of the radial boulevards, it was immersed in darkness. Light crept out of some of the electric lamps, but only nearer the square, between the buildings. The gas lighting there had been changed out already. The old lights were already screwed out, and there were new ones already in place, even including wires, but they hadn't managed to actually get them lit. There was a ladder leaning up against one of the posts. The worker at the top of it was attaching a loudspeaker under a dome light. On the road, there was a self-propelled carriage with an open body, where there were tools lying, extra speakers and gas lights screwed in; a chauffeur was smoking nearby.
We walked up to the illuminated sidewalk and, there, I finally decided that I didn't want to go to any gambling house. I had to get to the train station and handle getting tickets to New Babylon, not piss away the night playing cards.
All I needed was a plausible reason to retreat, and I found it when we walked past the Three Lilies cabaret. At first my gaze caught on the flashy playbill with the white ovular face of a mime and the tagline: "The Incredible Orlando," but it didn't occupy me for long. I was somewhat more interested in the drawing of a girl in a semi-transparent exotic outfit. She had on a turban and her face was covered with an Indian-style scarf. The artist had also depicted a fairly large boa constrictor perched on her shoulders. On the sign on the other side of the entrance, there were torn up legs, lavish dresses and colorful chorus-line outfits.
"Sirs!" I stopped. "I'm much obliged for the rescue, but I have to stop you. To be honest, I don't particularly enjoy card games. I'd rather ogle some dames."
My companions exchanged glances.
"You crazy young guys!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich drew out, taking out his pack of papiross cigarettes.
"Girls on the brain all the time," Ivan Prokhorovich echoed him.
But my compatriots didn't try to talk me out of it or change my plans.
"Lev Borisovich, you won't reconsider?" Sokolov only turned when I had walked up onto the porch and stopped in hope that I wouldn't even have to go inside.
I waved my hand goodbye and opened the unyielding door. A soft darkness reigned in the hallway. Through the curtain blocking the main room, I could hear a blazing fast melody.
"Entry is five francs!" announced a strong-looking guard with a black beard that went down to the middle of his chest.
"How much?" I was startled. "Why the devil are you gouging people like this, my good sir?!"
"Today, there's a performance by Black Lily," the man explained. "An exotic and mysterious dancer with snakes. She's a priestess of Kali. Ever heard of such a thing?"
"No," I admitted, but still took out my wallet. Something in the drawling wouldn't allow me to turn and leave. I'm not sure where from, but I got the desire to see the dance in real life. What was more, my new acquaintances were walking very unhurriedly after the large meal, and the last thing I wanted was to run into them again back outside.
I had to get five francs out of my wallet and hand them to the doorman.
"Welcome," snarled the man, smiling unevenly due to knocked out and chipped teeth.
He was probably also here as a bouncer.
With an inexplicable curiosity – as if I'd never visited a cabaret before! – I slid the curtain aside and walked into the room. The bar stretched out along one of the walls. Behind it, a tall swarthy bartender was standing in a turban, either a real Indian, or a local worker dressed up for the occasion. All the tables were occupied. Scantily clad waitresses were bringing out appetizers and drinks. Some of the audience were seated along the walls. I joined them, taking in the beauty of the ballet troupe, stretching their toned legs on stage and shaking their fluffy white skirts.
The suspicion gradually crept in that the doorman had thought me a simpleton and swindled me, but the memory of the skillful drawing of the lady with a snake calmed me down and forced me not to come to any rushed conclusions.
It was hot in the room. It smelled strongly of eau d'cologne and tobacco smoke. My throat instantly dried out. I wanted to drink. And it wasn't only the sultry air and over-salted potatoes served in the Russian restaurant. No matter how you spin it, watching a dozen nearly naked girls dance had a fairly predictable outcome; I even got the desire to leave the establishment through the back door. But then, the music went silent and the dancers ran backstage. To replace them, there came out a crimson-faced master of ceremonies in a checkered jacket, bright blue shirt and vulgar bowtie – pink with mother of pearl accents.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he announced, talking over the viewers' conversations with surprising ease. "Say hello to our lovely and totally safe mummies! Not long ago, they danced in the court of the pharaoh, but now, they are here to sweeten your gaze with their unbelievable abilities!"
The MC made an unexpectedly deft jump from the stage and the light of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling suddenly went dim. On the backdrop of the black velvet curtain, there appeared two white figures. The orchestra started playing an unfamiliar melody and the dancers, wrapped head to toe in bandages, started imitating an Egyptian dance to the best of their ability and understanding.
The viewers watched after them, holding their breath. And it was no wonder! The beautiful ladies weren't wearing any clothing at all other than the several layers of bandages. In the gaps between the fabric, there was white skin shining through. I finally started feeling unwell.
Fortunately, after that, the tap dancers came on stage, famous figures from the New World. That said, the color of their skin was explained, probably, more by a wax than a natural blackness. After that, there came a Persian fire eater and, after him, Chinese acrobats. The next act was a fakir, a snake charmer.
The swarthy old man in a colorful Indian garment sat down on a cane mat, crossed his legs and started playing a quiet mournful melody on an exotic flute, which grew thicker in the middle. Silence immediately came over the room. The harmless canvas sack before the charmer suddenly started moving, and the head of a snake poked out. There was no trickery, either – it really was a cobra. It darted from side to side, flaring out its hood threateningly, allowing me to make out the eye-glasses-like pattern.
The master of ceremonies had a fearful respect for it and got up on stage only after the old fakir had tied the bag shut with a rope and started to roll up his mat.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Say hello to the Incredible Orlando!" he cried out. "He can do everything that Harry Houdini does, but without wasting all that time on chit-chat!"
Laughter was heard.
I took a look and noticed with a certain surprise that the address "ladies and gentlemen" was no exaggeration. There were plenty of women in the crowd. And these weren't the promulgators of commercialized intimacy out on a night-time prowl. These were decent ladies, accompanied by no less decent-looking gentlemen.
The mime came out on stage. His dark outfit dissolved in the shadows. His whitened face had brows drawn on it, making it look like he was wearing a mask. His white gloves flew on the backdrop of the black curtain like frantic birds. For a moment, I lost my place.
The mime's very broken movement was spellbinding; despite all his eccentricity, it seemed he didn't make a single movement out of place. Pigeons flew out of his white gloves and objects appeared miraculously, their owners at the other end of the room. But there was no magic in this at all. It was just sleight of hand. The mime wasn't even illustrious; I caught the gaze of his hazel eyes on me several times.
While Orlando distracted the public, taking burnt cigarettes, game cards and flowers from the viewers' pockets, his assistants rolled out a decently sized barrel on stage and started carrying buckets, filling it with water; I heard a splashing, and water flew on stage. When they were done, there was a small puddle on the floor.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" The master of ceremonies suddenly announced, attracting the audience’s attention to himself. "I'm sure you're prepared to admire these tricks until morning but, today, like every Friday, we're going to have a visit from Black Lily, so Orlando's time has come to an end. And, you know something...?" the MC asked, walking along the edge of the stage, "our wordless friend takes simply exorbitant fees but, today, we won't have to pay. Judge for yourselves: why pay a corpse? Orlando, if you please!"
The mime returned to stage and I caught my breath with relief. The thought that he would walk up and pull a lit cigar from my ear was making me nervous.
With Orlando was standing next to the host, two assistants emerged from back stage. One was carrying a dish with a pair of handcuffs. The other was carrying the lid of the barrel. The master of ceremonies asked the mime to extend his hands and cuffed his wrists in the steel shackles. After that, he did the same procedure to his legs and joined the cuffs with a short chain, as is done with the most dangerous prison-dwellers.
"No tricks, see for yourselves!" he proclaimed after that.
A few people came on stage at once. One of them, a strong middle-aged man with a crooked nose, assured the audience that what we had just seen were nothing less than standard police handcuffs.
"God knows I've been in them a hundred times," he added with a smirk.
"Is it easy to get out of them?" the master of ceremonies asked insinuatingly.
"To some," the audience volunteer answered significantly.
"Well, of course!" the master of ceremonies laughed. "Such a capable man as the Incredible Orlando can be free from fetters with no effort! But will he have enough air to do it?"
The host pushed the mime in the chest, sending him into the barrel. He fell back-first into it. His shoes fell in, and water splashed out onto the stage. The master of ceremonies hoisted the lid and set it in, sitting on top for good measure. A drum roll rang out. A pocket watch appeared in the artiste's hand.
The room froze in muted delight. An incredible mixture of different emotions rolled over me, generously topped off with fear. The lid received a few strong bumps from inside, but the master of ceremonies was in no mind to stand, and just kept looking at his watch. Only when the audience's nerves were stretched to the very limit did he jump up and announce:
"The five minutes are up!"
Then the drum went quiet. The lid was no longer moving.
Someone touched me on the shoulder. I frantically waved it off and suddenly discovered that, by some incredible turn of events, I was at the center of attention. I turned. The mime was standing behind me. There was water dripping from his clothing and his hat looked glued on his head, but his makeup hadn't even run.
"The Incredible Orlando!" the master of ceremonies barked at the top of his lungs. Then, he overturned the barrel, and water gushed on stage.
People were whistling in the room, and legs were thrumming as people clapped and shouted. The mime, in a mockingly practiced motion, pulled a jack of spades from behind my ear, and waved the card, demanding I let him through. I moved aside mechanically. Only when Orlando had walked up to the stage did I feel the blood returning to my face. How many times had that happened today? But now, it wasn't embarrassment, but anger. And no, not even anger – just pure unmitigated rage. My lips pulled back to bare my teeth. My fingers clenched into fists. I wanted unbearably to grab the jackass, knock him off his feet and jump on his arms and legs, then grab him by the chest and slam the back of his head into the floor a few times...
I shook my head, chasing off the flood of emotion and hurried to get lost in the crowd so I could stop feeling the derisive gazes of my neighbors. My legs carried me over to the bar. I asked there, without particular hope, for a lemonade; the Indian, looking composed, filled a glass from a bulbous carafe with a thick glass bottom, and generously filled the glass with chopped ice.
I paid up, tried the lemonade and nodded in approval.
"Great!" I told the bartender. The Indian remained calm.
Unhurriedly drinking the refreshing beverage, I looked for a free spot at the wall and leaned against it, waiting for the show to start back up. The custodial staff on stage were working very lazily, drying the water spilled from the barrel. Soon, they were hidden back stage, the girls from the ballet troupe came out to replace them. The orchestra started playing again. I glanced at my watch and winced: it was late already. But I didn't want to leave. I'd lost too much time to leave the cabaret without watching the performance of tonight's star. For some reason, the image of the dancer at the entrance had lodged itself in my memory like a harpoon in a whale.
After deciding to wait another five minutes, I downed my lemonade in a few gulps and raised my empty glass to a passing waitress. She gave a playful wink, and I pretended not to notice. Near the end, the pleasant sourness of the drink had been overtaken by a sugary sweetness, and I got the urge to drink again. But I'd learned my lesson. I was not planning to throw my money to the wind! Swindlers! Nothing but swindlers around here!
After undoing the top button of my vest, I took yet another look at my watch, and then the music went quiet. The dancers left the stage and the master of ceremonies came back out.
"And now, the reason you're all gathered here today!" he announced. "A performance from the brilliant, enchanting and mysterious Black Lily, a priestess of Kali herself!"
A viscous melody started playing. The musicians tried to imitate the snake charmer, and did a bad job. A flute was soloing. After that, a svelte woman slipped out from backstage, wrapped in semi-transparent silk robes. All I could see were the curves of her figure, her bare feet and thin-fingered hands, her bright illustrious eyes and... a fairly large boa constrictor, which was lying on her shoulders leading its head and tail from side to side smoothly.
Instantly, all conversations fell silent. The only thing audible was the rustling of clothing and breathing of people. Then, the girl said ceremoniously:
"In the name of Kali, Mother of the Universe and Goddess Most High!"
A woman's scream was heard – one of the exulted ladies at a table near the stage lost her senses; I remained composed.
India, Kali and her ritual stranglers had been all over the first pages of the papers, and all the bohemians were simply mad for the topic. For that reason, you'd be hard pressed to find a move captivating opening to a performance.
Black Lily walked forward fluidly. Her robes fluttered up and instantly fell back down, streaming over the seductive curves of her feminine figure and it became clear that I was in for much more than a typical belly dance. The girl started gradually increasing the speed of her fluid motions and soon, in the dusk of the stage, it started looking like the constrictor on her shoulders had turned into a second pair of arms. The audience was simply entranced.
The dancer's eyes were glowing softly in the darkness but I’m sure almost none of the audience took her for an illustrious lady. Beyond all doubt, the girl was now using her talent, but she was doing it so subtly and unconsciously that I couldn't even sense the presence of any external force. Just an influx of power. And I wasn't the only one to feel it.
People started blushing. Their eyes were burning in elation. One gentleman even tried to climb on stage, but a bearded bouncer pulled him back deftly and dumped water on him from a specially prepared bucket.
Then, Black Lily crawled back behind the curtains. The room erupted into applause and whistling. My head started splitting in pain. In expectation of the dancer's return for an encore, I wiped the sweat off my reddened face and ordered another glass of lemonade from the Indian. The cold drink and chopped ice slightly mitigated the roasting heat of the room, but it was ultimately powerless. My head was spinning.
Black Lily didn't return for an encore, and the viewers started to disperse. I placed my unfinished glass of lemonade on the bar and also headed for the exit. There, I discovered the Incredible Orlando. The mime was trying to get the attention of the people leaving the theater, scrambling to entertain any and all.
I didn't want to catch his eye and once again find myself an object of public mockery, so I went past the stage to the back door. I felt as if everything around was wrapped in a cloud. The floor rocked underfoot. It felt like I was skipping breaths. A wave of nausea rolled over me, but I gathered my will into a fist, walked past the dressing room and turned down a side hallway, dark and unpeopled.
The bearded doorman popped up like a jack-in-the-box.
"You can't come back here!" he announced, placing his wide palm to my chest. "Back!"
I was rocked. In an attempt to maintain my balance, I pawed at the bouncer, and at first even hung off him. After that, I carefully lowered down onto the floor and unclenched the fingers from my thick throat. Everything happened on its own. I had no thought of depriving the doorman of his consciousness, I just wanted unbearably to leave the building and get some fresh air. And also – my head was spinning faster and faster.
Nearly losing consciousness, I took a step past the doorman and walked to the back door. The floor kept rocking underfoot with greater and greater intensity. Something in my head was swaying in time with it, so I literally tumbled out into slight chill of the summer evening.
It was as if I tumbled out of a boat into icy water.
A moment later, I was well...

Book 3: The Fallen will be released August 7, 2017

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