Red Dragon Inn
Dreamweaver's Lair => Dragon's Tales => Topic started by: Kasimir on March 30, 2017, 02:45:53 PM
(Three years ago?)
At his back, the sky is a vast sheet of lustrous, beaten gold.
The sun is rising, and the light crawls syrup-slow, catching in the puddled mud, turning filth to precious, blinding brilliance. It?s an illusory tableau his shadow knifes through pitilessly as he ascends the naze.
She waits for him up there.
Her small, bare feet have left molten prints, brightly gilded as all else, and there?yes, trenches in the muck, the place where she must have fallen, his panicked quarry, and picked herself up again.
All those years she boasts of, and she hasn?t the wisdom to avoid the wilds.
She hasn?t hidden herself. He sees her almost immediately when he reaches the sprawling promontory at the peak of the climb, slumped and splay limbed, a wounded fawn of a girl, though he knows better than to fall for the pastiche. The delicately lace edged slip in virginal white is a travesty. The fullness of her harlot mouth incongruous with the delicate appeal she intended, and the Celestine blue-grey of her eyes too full of an old woman?s bitterness.
He laughs because he can?t help himself, his amusement candid. In no hurry to bring the fiasco to its inevitable conclusion, he allows her a moment to deliver the requisite acerbic condemnation. He listens with an equanimity which only has her delivering her words with more venom.
She?s chosen a commendable proscenium for her last moments, with the waves rolling in stately serried ranks below, and the dead trees she?s crumpled beneath stretching knobby branches like sun-bleached finger bones. He considers letting her live for long enough for the sun to fill the bowl of the valley and overflow across the flat headland, to glaze her in its amber warmth.
An ugly, choking sound interrupts her, and she paws ineffectually at her throat.
The blood is gathering in the hollow there, a cup runneth over to streak her chest with a single, livid line, rubine and glossy. His eyes linger there as much for the way the slick looking silk clings to her breasts as they do for the evidence of her injury. Barely a woman. She always had preferred the nubile state at the cusp of adulthood. Reliant upon the predictable desire she could induce in those who might otherwise oppose her.
He moves across the sere ground, whilst she cringes backward, mud-slick feet bloodying themselves against splinters and lichen stained rock. There is nowhere to go but to huddle into the tree.
?You?re making this more difficult than it needs to be,? he tells her doucely.
She says nothing for a moment, but the wheeze of her breathing, the struggle, makes her look no less fierce in her disgust. She bares her teeth at him, pink patina distracting. ?And what was the casus belli for you, Kasimir? Did they fill your head with fabricated misdeeds, or did they bribe you? Was the promise of another ten years enough? Or did they threaten you with ?Null? again??
All those things and more. Worse. But she?ll be dead in a moment, and he hasn?t come to confess his sins and have her voice echoing in his ears for days. Only to kill her.
He grasps a slim, milk-pale ankle in his hand, and drags her, to Hell with dignity, towards the edge of the drop.
?They?ll never cut the cord, fool!? Her voice is strident, catches in her torn throat. ?You?re meat like the rest of them. Carrion. Killing me won?t save you. It won?t buy them more time. The culling is desperation, fear-- get your ****ing filthy hands off me you mongrel bastard!?
Her weight is nothing to him, but her thrashing coupled with the silk makes her difficult as writhing polecat to keep hold of. For all the slip covers her now she might as well be naked, but her flesh can?t distract him, nor the clawing nails at his face, though he twists away as she attempts, amidst banshee shrieks to blind him.
By the time her strength leaves her, her youth is all spent; there is too much blood lost for her to maintain the facade. She weighs no more than a ten year old, and her hair is falling away from her scalp in silvery threads, the sullen mouth shrunken over teeth grown long and brown.
He can?t blame her for the flesh she kept young, but he feels immeasurably more sympathetic towards her seeing her ancient, wasted. Not that it would have altered his decision.
She?s half-conscious at best when he lets her slip from his arms, and strikes the cliff face before she reaches the bottom with the nauseating crunch of things coming apart.
(Three years ago...)
?Are we secure??
?We are, sir.?
?And are things favourable in our glorious capital??
In fact they were. Clement weather and a room with a view. A skyline full of monumental spires and none of the utilitarian-ugly, industrialised blocks of the eastern limits to sully it. Here Kasimir could convince himself, even if only briefly, that the whole world was as immaculately made, newly minted every morning, burned clean of the filth.
In reality, that task sits cradled by his own lap. Or so the Director would have him believe.
?Everything was accomplished as per orders, sir, if that?s what you?re asking.?
?And she had no suspicions?? The polished voice presses, a basso-profundo capable of soothing one moment and becoming violently peremptory the next.
Kasimir keeps his own a study in neutrality. ?Her venom was all for Dhavernas. If she had any knowledge of our interference she would have said something,? he assured, in louche recline upon the edge of the bed.
The death of Natalia Leonidze has been a happy case of striking down two birds with one stone. It had been required of him by the Dhavernas High Council, and by the ophidian intelligence who?d decided that their reign, and that of all Methuselah bloodlines, needed curtailing.
This is his m?tier; Kasimir Aslanov, professional catspaw.
To the High Council, he is an Aspirant, a talented internal affairs investigator under consideration for elevation. To the liberation front, he is their snake in the grass, surreptitiously rearranging the playing field while eyes are turned.
He?s been groomed for this.
He?s been effectively and brutally brainwashed for this.
It?s only in the past six months that fissures in the fresco have begun to make him question the cause.
The manufactured smiles, faithful reproductions of studiously examined photographs and thespian tutelage are just as easily delivered to the Director?s lackeys when they come calling. He knows how to feign and flirt, to ply his voice with inflection commensurate to each and every situation. They were the ones to teach him after all, until he could no longer distinguish between Agent Aslanov, their zealous comrade, and Kasimir. If there was even anything intrinsically him remaining.
That terrifies him, sometimes.
?It?s a step in the right direction. There?ll be dissent from the Leonidze when she doesn?t return on schedule, so keep us informed of developments when you return to your sponsor. Whatever Dhavernas means to do, make yourself available.?
?Of course, sir.? He slips from the hotel bed?s wrinkled linens, barefoot on cool stone, and looks out over the city. It?s possible from a vantage so high to pick out the manse sprawling along the bank of the Samtredia River.
Home. Yet it feels like a gallows walk every time he sets foot past the front gates.
?You?re a credit to our cause, Aslanov. Don?t think you?ll go unrecognised when our goals are realised.?
Snakes turn over in his gut, and he puts the smile in his voice even if it bypasses his lips.
?All for the greater good, sir.? Clich?, but appropriate.
He tries not to remember having overheard the Director discussing him with one of his peers, the unreserved insouciance in his voice as he blithely consigned him to the role of poster boy at the imagined pinnacle of their success.
What a ****ing piece of propaganda that face would be. Let him reap the rewards before he?s put out to pasture.
The Director?s laugh, indulgent, warm, is a practiced masterpiece aborting the memory. ?We?ll be in touch.?
The line goes dead.
(Three years ago...)
Ch?emo dzvirp?aso Kaśka,
I know you?ll forgive me for being slow to reply.
You and father need to seriously consider the satellite link so you won?t need to rely on my letters. All too often I?m away from Quel?sin, and your words stack up on my desk like a landslide, all the news gone stale.
The capital is beautiful this time of year. Councillor Dagenais has Mushmala trees ringing her gardens, like the ones we have in our summer home. If I?m permitted a visit next year I?ll bring some of the fruit with me so we can compare. A winter leave of absence seems unlikely. You?ll have to eat all the satsin without me (I know it will be a trial for you, but I have faith in your stomach).
Kaśka, there is nothing I would like more than to tell you of my work and put your mind at rest, but I must ask that you bear in mind the nature of my position when you ask me questions. Aspirants take oaths on acceptance and I would no more dishonour myself for idle gossip than you would accept a betrothal from that Pasha boy who took a belt to our Kassian.
Be content knowing that I am safe and doing my best to serve our country. I have so many things to tell you about the places I?ve visited and the great men and women I have been introduced to, but even now my hand cramps ? it (and my penmanship I?m sure you?ve noticed) have grown lazy.
Look after the family for me. I hope what I sent with this letter helps in some small way.
With much love,
Kaśka, you would hate it here.
You would not stand to be amongst them for even a day before the mendacious bastards had you wanting to call them out for every contrived smile. It would strip the filter off your propriety faster than a bottle of maraska.
Once upon a time he?d penned his sister the truth of it, in the smooth and slanting hand he was still perfectly capable of. Now even his penmanship must tell lies for him. Once he?d finished it, an exercise he?d found dangerously cathartic, he?d consigned it to flame.
He?d turned the ashes over with a poker five times that evening, fearful some scrap might have risen above the smoulder and survived to tell tales.
Now he folds the thick, watermarked paper into thirds around the funds that will help see the family through the winter, guiltily imagines their disappointment and the desultory comments. Wealth has never meant much to a people so self-sufficient, and he has nothing else to offer.
How long before Kaśka starts to believe he?s been swallowed up? How long before his desk no longer hides under her affectionately rambling essays?
He seals the envelope and leaves it in the care of his secretary to see it delivered.
He knows Kaśka won?t be the first to open it.
(Three years ago...)
[size=18]Aspirant performance evaluation[/size]
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Reviewing date: 10/10/2014
Full name: Kasimir Valentin Aslanov
ID #: KA44N42E
Sponsor service/status: Dagenais, Sidonie/Active
Agency: QIA (Quel?sin Internal Affairs)
Current psychological profile: (Excerpt from analysis performed by Staff Psychiatrist Giorgi, Razmadze, Dr)
In conclusion, Aspirant Aslanov presents as stable, alert and cooperative in keeping with previous clinical history. No reports from supervising staff of performance or behavioural concerns.
Consistently high performing in routine and specialised IQ/Philosophical/Academic testing.
High stress tolerance and continued lack of post-traumatic symptoms following Methuselah exchange indicate ideal candidate for elevation. Recommending Sponsor Dagenais put Aslanov forward for High Council approval.
Councilwoman Sidonie Dagenais harbours an uncommon dislike for the Aspirant stood across the desk from her. At a glance, he?s soldat material, a prime physical specimen and, according to Dr Razmadze?s assessment, precisely the kind of mind that would cope with Methuselah longevity. She would like to report to the High Council that he?s belligerent, possessed of an unforgivable hubris, that it would be judicious of them all to recognise him for what he is; a charming sociopath who serves no purpose but to hinder the progress of other candidates.
Gut instincts aren?t going to persuade anyone however, though they might succeed in earning her a psych review of her own.
Kasimir is no more fond of his sponsor than she is of him. The phlox coloured grease she?s painted her lips with is a garish distraction in the subdued, wood panelled austerity of her office, but she?s made herself young and desirable today, eschewing the steel-haired severity and doyenne maturity she parades around more often. She can pull the phlox off, a pop of colour in contrast to the snug, black sheath dress and weapon-grade stilettos.
She spins the document to face him, emblazoned with its bright new rejection stamp, and doesn?t wait for him to speak. She?ll never know that he?s secretly relieved.
?Contrary to what you seem to believe, not everyone is waiting with baited breath for your every word. The sun isn?t waiting for you to rise every morning so it can go sit in reserve while you go brighten everyone?s lives.? She eases back into exorbitant leather, laces her fingers loosely. ?I will hold you here until you either drop out of your own accord or word comes from above that I have no choice.?
?That seems masochistic, if I may say so,? Kasimir replies, and his tone is deliberately, aggravatingly phlegmatic, even if it?s a glass smile he offers her.
?For both of us. Now we find out who has the greater tolerance for pain.?
She dismisses him with a flick of painted nails, but even beyond the arctic territory of her office, he shudders. Wishes himself anywhere else.
It?s several hours later that he finally gets opportunity to call in the result of the appraisal and reassures the liberation front that he?ll be remaining safely (reluctantly) in-situ for another six months.
(Three years ago...)
The gallery is unlit, and the darkness soothes like cool fingers across the eyelids.
The music is muffled, four stone walls away, but still the occasional shriek of violins reaches him through the masonry. A strident laugh, the ring of champagne glasses kissing a toast. Outside in a dimly lit hallway, the wheels squeak on the caterer?s trolley and the staff talk in urgent whispers like unsettled ghosts.
He?s sure there are plenty of ghosts in the home of Sidonie Dagenais.
The Governor of the Dacian province, Theodore Gruzinsky, is visiting for the first time in three centuries, and the coffers have been raided to fund a gathering of such lavish extravagance that half the city of Quel?sin might have been fed for a year on the expense. Instead the gluttonous feed.
The maraska and the rakia flow, famed vintage wines from the Caucasus Mountains have been brought out from the dusty cellars, and the guests pluck dainty appetisers embellished with gold leaf and white truffle from the trays of dignified staff under strict instructions to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
The entirety of the High Council in-situ in the capital have turned up for the event, and there is nowhere to look without being dazzled. Refracted light catches brilliantly on flawless diamonds draped artfully over collar bones, it winks on the colossal chandeliers, and the mirror-gleam of the floors reflects it all faithfully until the lambency of it burns itself into the retinas.
Kasimir has weathered it with impeccable savoir-faire, as polished in manners as appearance, and he is not unaware of the effect his finely honed charisma has where he chooses to wield it, as sure a weapon as any.
His pocket is stiff with the embossed cards surreptitious fingers have slipped there.
Of course, he is on assignment, which might severely inconvenience his chances of any sexual engagements this evening if it hadn?t been considered an acceptable means of accomplishing his goals. It?s distinctly seedy, and he is not unaware of the implications, what he is for plying the crafts of seduction, but it is rarely a part of the job he doesn?t enjoy, and there are so many things far worse to weigh him down in guilt that he dismisses it entirely.
He has excused himself from the elite to catch his breath, to consider his strategy, but instead he finds himself staring up at the vast oil painting situated opposite his bench.
Malide Dhavernas stares down at him from eight feet up. She has the soft, down-tilted eyes and the small solemn mouth of a Toreli masterpiece, the lustrous, dark hair parted in a saintly fashion, her brows thick and straight. She is a blank he cannot read. She is the matriarch of the bloodline he means to topple.
The artist has captured her faithfully, strong boned but not beautiful, regal in the way that only five centuries of sitting the throne can instil. It is hard to imagine the young woman portrayed as being responsible for The Purge, the mass execution of her opposition, and of anyone suspected of harbouring those involved (proven or otherwise). But he remembers the grainy footage from fifty years prior, the public declaration condemning the would-be usurpers, criminalising so much as a murmur of dissent.
Were Kasimir found out, he would face the same grisly execution. He can imagine Sidonie taking a front row seat to watch him burn.
His thoughts are interrupted by the gallery door opening, spilling a shaft of amber light towards his feet. The roar of the orchestra clarifies for a heartbeat before it clicks closed again.
It?s unusual for his quarry to come looking for him, but he?s an accomplished enough liar to gloss over his surprise with a smile. He has his excuse in one hand, the cell phone he?ll claim he was handling business on. He is never unprepared.
?Mr. Aslanov,? she begins, settling beside him on the bench.
?Kasimir,? he corrects her, and adapts his body language, invites her attention without adopting any louche impropriety.
Theodore Gruzinsky?s daughter is no simpering child he can seduce with flattery and unchaste glances. She is Methuselah, and can boast the better part of one hundred years. This evening she is twenty, flesh tight and supple, her gown a boldly risqu? cut in the red of crushed pomegranates.
He doesn?t prevent her from taking his phone, from setting it on the bench beside her where he cannot reclaim it without having to reach across, indecently close. His emptied palm she fills with her own hand.
?You?ve been so attentive all evening, and now I find you sitting in the dark. What would Ms. Dagenais think, to find you avoiding her guests??
?Or to find her guests drifting about unescorted off-limits,? he counters, skimming a touch across her knuckles with his thumb.
He suspects he?s being approached with a proposition. She has lived long enough not to be coy about her desires, the chase is nothing novel. Still, he needs her in his confidence, not burning out her curiosity for him in a single, sweat-slick evening. Internal affairs wants the Gruzinsky family probing, and the revolutionaries want them courting for the same reasons.
The Dacian Governor is under suspicion of being sympathetic to the opposition. His ?visit? to the capital is not of his own devising, but a command from Malide Dhavernas herself.
?I?d think she?d be more concerned about the venality of staff willing to whisper the location of stray Aspirants,? Ms. Gruzinsky ? no Mariam, he reminds himself ? tells him.
?Perhaps she should consider raising their income,? he suggests, laying the bait.
To imply that his sponsor was staffing her home with underpaid workers was entirely unprofessional, even if he did say it in jest. The Methuselah regime and all those they sought to elevate should not interest themselves in the well-being of the mundane flock. It was worse than military officers dining with the grunts. Still, should she chastise him for it he has the excuse of too much broskvovice in his system. He?ll make light of it.
Her hesitation is, he thinks, almost as measured as his own behaviour. No condemnation, only a painted smile.
?My father and I will be staying until the end of the month, Kasimir, and I have not visited Quel?sin since I was a child. He will be occupied with diplomatic matters while the rest of us entertain the parade of wives and grasping underlings hoping to stretch their reach to Dacia.?
?Charming people,? he deadpans, and takes pleasure in noting the clench of her perfect teeth as she smiles. ?But it would be a wasted opportunity not to see the sights and enjoy the city.?
?Precisely my thoughts, though it would be so much more enlightening to do so in the company of someone who knows all the best places to visit. Someone, perhaps, who was once an outsider too for the sake of perspective??
He realises then that he isn?t the only one who?s done their research.
There is entirely no reason for a Governor?s daughter to know the particulars of each Aspirant, and his provenance would have been a natural deterrent to most.
Bastard born son of a run-away Methuselah.
His mother?s whereabouts, still unknown after twenty-six years, were one of a great many mysteries he hoped to unearth if the rebellion ever gained enough momentum. It is his onus, they tell him.
It seems judicious for the moment to tread lightly.
?I believe I may know someone who meets your requirements,? he tells her, masking all traces of unease behind a veneer of faux-conceit.
Mariam hums a pleased sound and releases his hand with a long-fingered squeeze. Her eyes light upon the image of Malide looming over them. ?How benign she looks.?
How benign, this young woman whose hands are bloodier than those of all the world?s armies.
?You don?t hold an empire by being benign,? he remarks blandly, and slides his phone back into his pocket as she rises to drift away across the darkened gallery.
?They have you well trained,? she tells him as she slips out.
And whether the lingering look is an intimation that she knows, or that she truly believes him a model Aspirant, he still isn?t sure.
(Three years ago...)
?It?s not a romance. It can?t ever be that.?
Lesson number one.
Kasimir has never forgotten it, never been challenged by it. Nor is he, as he cages Mariam against the bookcase, her arms outstretched like a victim of crucifixion. Her heels are digging into the backs of his thighs, knees pinching at his hips, body gone bowstring taut.
Then the clutch. The shuddering gasp.
She?s an oddly silent lover. No filth, no endearments, no ragged calls to God. She demonstrates her eagerness through touch, in each uncontrived snake and sway of her body.
She closes her eyes in the end, her cheeks flushed and her brows drawn, victim of an exquisite agony. Kasimir watches unashamed, and decides it might be easy for another man to fall in love with a woman like her. Like so many other facets of his life however, he?s been educated too thoroughly, can?t accomplish anything without thinking it all to death.
?You take a Methuselah to bed and it?s about sex. About what they stand to gain from the encounter beyond the bedroom. Once you come to terms with that, realise that you?re limited by your longevity, the relationship will be much more tolerable. Fail, and you?ll start wishing the subject were repulsive instead. It?s much easier to fake attraction than it is to mask a genuine affection.?
Affection of the non-platonic variety remains an enigma.
Kasimir knows better than to keep a lover that isn?t assigned him. He knows that friends are a liability. Sometimes he even wishes that he?d no living family ? no Kaśka or Kassian, no father with hopes thoroughly pinned on his Atlas strong shoulders. One day they might well be used against him. For now, they ensure his good behaviour, even if neither the Methuselah regime, nor his Ophidian superiors, have reason to suspect they might one day be needed.
After all, he?s been so reliably good at his job(s).
Mariam shifts uncomfortably against a volume digging into her spine, skims her fingertips over his shoulders. It?s all the cue he needs to return her to her feet.
?Perhaps one day we?ll make it as far as the bed,? she jests, turning her back on him to head from the reception room of her suite toward the bathroom, as comfortable in her nudity as she had been in her risqu? evening gown.
With considerably less grace, Kasimir steps over the strewn clothing to head after her, divested of the spent condom swinging repulsively between finger and thumb.
Two weeks since the extravagant gathering at the Dagenais residence. Since their furtive little meeting in the gallery. For propriety?s sake Mariam had waited a day before commandeering him as her guide of the Capital, and another twenty-four hours before enticing him between her legs. Not one of them has mentioned their intentions beyond pleasant reciprocity, but it hovers there behind it all, fragile potential neither can risk mishandling.
Impatience might kill it all prematurely, but they?re working to a deadline.
?My father returns to Dacia at the end of the week,? Mariam tells him, soaping her shoulders and breasts languidly, watching him through the steam of the shared shower. ?A shame your sponsor hasn?t put you forward for ascendency yet. We might have offered you a position in the embassy.?
?Ms. Dagenais likes to keep me on a tight leash.?
?With a choke chain, no less.?
Kasimir hasn?t kept the animosity between himself and Sidonie a secret. One more piece of bait on the hook.
?Mari, even if there were an opening in Dacia, I?d be a fool to take it.?
?We?re too back-water for you? The provinces aren?t appealing to a boy from the Caucasus?? She phrases it as a tease, but he reads between the lines. How much more could he achieve in the Capital, right under their noses, than he might out of sight, across the great inland sea? ?You might be surprised by how lively it is. Dacia isn?t some sleepy little country on the edge of the Empire, you know.?
The Director tells him it?s a hotbed of dissent, that the dissonance has taken root in the military under a particularly ruthless Dacian General. The full scale of it hasn?t yet reached internal affairs where he works in an official capacity, but a dossier of likely purge candidates grows thicker by the month. He?s been doing his best to turn investigations to disturbances closer to home, to better known threats like Natalia Leonidze, but he can only do so much before his actions draw suspicion.
Taking the bottle of shower gel from her hands, Kasimir turns Mariam about, waiting for her to pull her hair forward over one shoulder before attentively lathering her from nape to buttocks, kneading into the streamlined muscle in a way that makes her moan appreciation entirely unlike her mute lovemaking.
?If it?s so lively, I doubt an eligible young Methuselah would find her interests held by a mere Aspirant,? he reminds her. ?How long before she grew bored of him??
?Well that would depend entirely upon how much effort he made to impress her.?
Mariam side-eyes him over her shoulder. Bats lashes wetted to dark spikes only to startle into delighted laughter as he cracks a palm playfully against her slippery backside.
?Kasimir, I think you should come and meet my father before we leave,? she tells him as he chases the last of the suds down her spine with a washcloth. ?Nothing formal. Just come to dinner one evening.?
Kasimir waits for something more. An I?m sure you?ll have lots to discuss, or You have such similar interests, but Mariam leaves it hanging there instead, as if she?s simply some girl wanting to present a new beau to a watchful parent. He feels a flicker of resentment for the way she phrased it. As if she?s ever been anything other than Methuselah. He has to remind himself that if she really is ready to help the uprising however, there?s enough difference between her and the rest of the regime to excuse the slip.
The meeting could be precisely the opportunity the Director has been hounding him for, or it might be nothing more than a dull evening he can safely report back to Sidonie.
He has nothing to lose either way.
(Three years ago...)
The footage is old and raw, taken from 16mm film run so many times through the projector that scratches and light leaks are emphasised to a glaring distraction the eyes chase compulsively as they pop and flicker across the screen.
Kasimir has suspicions about what he?s going to be shown. He?s seen similar segments from old broadcasts during The Purge, when the punishment for rebellion was televised to millions in all its sickening brutality. He?s watched every public execution, recalls every detail of the haggard faces, has slept through countless hours of nightmares as a child, and can?t remember at what point he numbed to them.
He knows now why his father allowed it, understands how impressionable young minds are. Heteronomous morality. His father had seemed a towering figure of virtue. With such obscene images as evidence of his righteousness, how could Kasimir ever have doubted him?
Your mother, Kasimir. The people who ordered this took her away from us.
The nail in the coffin.
Now he sits with Mariam, her hand cool atop the back of his own, while her father, Theodore Gruzinsky, occupies the lone armchair, and stares at the high contrast images, grainy and fogged, with a singular intensity.
Six are bound and naked, five men and a woman, spines straight to the stakes erected behind them. They are all imperfect, soft and fleshy, degraded by age. Humans, without a doubt.
They?ve been doused at the feet with an accelerant of some kind, and the flames race up their quivering legs in a shocking burst of brilliance that leaves the picture out of focus. There is little fuel between them. Their burning is to be long and painful, not cut short by the poisons they inhale, and it seems to take a long time ? far longer than the others Kasimir has been shown ? for the blackening figures to cease struggling, for heads to bow with jaws sagging slack and hair all crisped away.
There is no audience for this execution. Whomever the rebels had been, they?d warranted a private culling.
The footage cuts off abruptly, and black and white ants prickle across the screen until Gruzinsky raises the remote to power it off.
He?s a thick-set man who?s chosen to present himself this day as he might have been in his fifth decade. Not yet old enough to seem feeble, but with adequate maturity to suggest authority and influence his young visitor. He has Mariam?s dark hair, without a single thread of silver, and a blue-grey shadow discolours his jaw as if no amount of shaving would ever see it gone completely. His eyes, when he turns them to Kasimir, seem as cold and dead as a shark?s. It is his voice which carries the tremor, and betrays him utterly.
?They were mine.? Theodore lets his admission sit heavy between them. ?They were my children.?
Kasimir?s mind is a fortress against the kind of shock that the footage should have inspired. He can?t naturally produce the kind of horrified compassion it should have evoked, not even for a potential ally. Instead he does some hasty mental arithmetic; the ?children? were not immortals. They must have been born to a human mother. Not full siblings to Mariam, whose hand has remained atop his own, still and impersonal despite the intimacy it suggests.
?One member of the family becomes suspect, and all are tarred with the same brush. I?ve seen it before,? Kasimir tells them, ?which leaves me to wonder, how is it that the rest of you were spared??
?Malide thought it would be more damaging to her reputation to have such an ancient family line eradicated for disloyalty, than dangerous to permit survivors. Their fates have been a secret for decades. Their dishonour never made public.?
Theodore leaves his armchair. Heads for the liquor cabinet to pour himself a glass of Slivovitz, but does not offer any to his daughter, nor to his guest. ?The immortals serve no one but themselves? is a popular phrase amongst the common folk, and even if Theodore means to upset the status quo, some habits die hard.
?Which of them had joined the uprising?? Kasimir asks, trying to recall their faces, but temporarily able to conjure nothing more than their heat withered remains, stripped of gender and individuality, rendered grotesquely uniform and anonymous.
?All of them.?
Kasimir knows that the malaise must have begun somewhere. Has imagination enough to put their human mother?s lips at their ears, discontent with her status. They would have been as easily indoctrinated as he had been by his own father. He wonders if this is why Gruzinsky has sought him out, a parity between families on opposite sides of The Black Sea. Almost poetic, if anything should come of an alliance, but Kasimir hasn?t a heart for poetry any longer.
?You understand now, I think.? Theodore turns back to them where they sit on the couch, studies his daughter, the one remaining child. Fierce, paternal protector segueing into cool distrust as his gaze moves on to Kasimir. ?Our position is precarious. We have had to be patient. We have the luxury of time for that, but Malide?s memory is sharp still. Here we are again, under her lens. She has nothing to accuse us of, without evidence, but this invitation,? and Kasimir can taste the poison in that word, ?is her warning to us.?
?I?m surprised that you brought Mariam with you,? Kasimir confesses, and turns to glance at her, expecting reprimand for marking her a victim. Instead he finds her lost to thought, her glossy-dark eyes hooded and attention elsewhere.
They are none of them comfortable in this borrowed room. It cannot be doubted that the lavish apartments they were provided with for the duration of their visits are bugged. Even Kasimir, on Mariam?s arm, had been thoroughly searched for wires before he?d been given access to the head of the Gruzinsky family in the antiquated, though not inexpensive hotel room they?d hired for their meeting.
?Mariam?s presence was ordered,? Theodore admits grimly, ?for leverage, of course.?
?Of course,? Kasimir echoes, and turns his hand beneath hers to squeeze it, a gesture unexpected judging by her flutter-blinked return from introspection. ?And now the two of you return to Dacia, under watch and on your best behaviour.?
Mariam angles an arm along the back of the couch, twists sinuous to face him with the pointed, bouvardia red toe of her stiletto nudging into his calf. ?I?d like to think we have a new arrow in our quiver.?
There?s a palpable tension in the aftermath of those words, father and daughter appraising him with faces serene, and threats unspoken. If he refuses them, they will have no option but to kill him. They?ve been too open with their dissent, and to allow him to knowingly return to Sidonie with news of Dacia?s rebellion would be suicidal.
Mariam will not hesitate. The sex was a hook, even if she hadn?t known it played both ways.
?always about what they stand to gain beyond the bedroom.
The voice echoes across the years as he peers into expectant eyes, and smiles.