crossed out. In place of it, in rushed familiar writing,
The bullet gets him in the left arm.
The pain is blinding, drawing an inhuman cry out of him as he falls to his knees, then drags himself to the wall, leaning against it, and fumbling in the pockets of his coat, as his ears sing and a dizzying warmth soaks down the cuff or his left—
Aiming unsteadily, he pulls the trigger.
Noise of a body falling to the ground. He flinches, then. Belatedly. Eyes pressed shut. Damn it, he thinks. Damn, futile waste.
The wound is shallow but disorienting.
The stitching is poor. He curses, looking down at himself in the mirror. Nothing wrong with the sutures now, but they might need re-doing. He might need help, he thinks furiously, swallowing the novocaine dry.
His left hand is shaking now, an inadvertent tremor. Shell shock? Or disability? Cursing again, he folds his finger in a fist. Under the blood, his knuckles whiten.
He says, “I don’t like you, Bachelor Whatever.”
Daniil winces in distaste. “I don’t need you to like me. Like I said, I need you healthy, quiet and at hand. To do with this wretched plague. I didn’t come here to argue with local—”
“How did you come here,” Burakh asks, surly. “I was the only one on my train.”
Annoyed, he starts towards the desk. He snaps, “I walked.”
This, eerily, is what throws the Haruspex off balance. A silence sets upon them, and when Dankovsky looks at him, he finds the hardened look of his face relented into confusion.
He tilts his chin up, slightly. “I launch myself across the dry and open narrows …”
“From the Capital.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. The gloves, much like the rest of his person, still smell acutely of antiseptic phenols, by this point far overpowering any attempt of using cologne. But the acrid, hospital scent grounds him. These days, he nearly misses the pungent fumes of formaldehyde dawdling permanently at the morgue at Thanatica. “Oh, have mercy on me. Obviously, I took a train first. Moscow-Irkutsk, the only one running. Or so they told me,” he adds, accusingly, gesturing at Burakh. “But then, yes, I’ve walked, miles and miles knees-deep in the horrid grass, until … until I saw it.”
The path of logic, meandering from the to-be-burned premises of Thanatica, and following—scrupulously—Isidor’s thread to the centre of the labyrinth. What he’d expected was something belonging to the micro-scale of things: radiation wavelength, a foreign body or organism, God’s particle. What he found towered over the dry and open narrows instead: the stunning shape suspended in the air like a star of Bethlehem.
The Haruspex watches him without speaking. He looks suddenly, offensively sleepy.
“The Polyhedron,” Daniil clarifies, impatient, puncturing the words with a sharp gesture. “Have you not noticed? You’ve called yourself blind before but this is a little—”
“Yeh. I’ve seen it from the train,” Burakh mutters.
“And it didn’t beg the question?” Dankovsky asks, doggedly. “What is it doing there? What is it?”
Burakh’s gaze is impassive. “I had a lot on my mind.”
Daniil purses his mouth. “I see.”
On the twelfth day, he wakes in his bed. Light floods in, clear now, clearer than he’d seen here, and somehow assaulting. It crawls over his body, wrenching it into consciousness, and he recoils, cowering.
Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat, he thinks. All hours wound, the last one kills.
The Polyhedron, he knows without seeing, is no more.
His legs carry him, pliant and untethered, to the Broken Heart. The inside treats him kinder, dim and scarce, sheltering. Hunched, he aims for the corner, tending away desperately from the day, brimming with taunting brilliant light. With unreachable beginnings. What he sees is only end. No more.
Before he can take last refuge in proper oblivion—drink, for the first time since University, ’til he can’t think straight or hold himself such—he’s found out.
Burakh lowers himself heavily onto the seat in front of him. He smells of dirt and blood, and he looks half-dead himself.
“Oynon.” He sounds relieved.
“Haruspex,” Dankovsky says, an echo of scathing in his voice. “Good game, dear colleague. Za vashe zdorov’ye. This, I guess, is goodbye.”
Burakh stills mid-reaching for one of the bottles. His oddly perceptive eyes lock on Daniil.
“You’re leaving?” he asks. He’s strangely alarmed, but Daniil is too far gone to dissect it, the room swaying lightly in a faint haze of painkillers and alcohol.
His left arm twinges, a sting of pain coursing down, to the very tips of fingers, which grow numb. He flexes them helplessly; nerve damage. Inhales.
“Ha,” he says. “What else would you have me do?”
His own mouth twists unawares into this odd phrasing. The question itself is inane. Rhetorical.
“Just live,” Burakh says, disarmingly plain.
For the first time, Dankovsky looks up at him with a semblance of sobriety. God, he thinks, disquieted, you’re young. We both of us.
Then, I’ve thought this before. When?
He pulls his features back into a scowl. Curtly, “Not for me, I’m afraid.”
“The Thanatica—my work—” he begins, and instantly can’t bear to finish.
The work of my life has met its end.
The work was my life.
He clears his throat, “Those with the power to send me here want me back now. And want me quiet. In saecula saeculorum, amen. If you get my meaning.”
There’s a pause.
“Stay,” Burakh says, bluntly. “And just live. We’ll find a way. It won’t be so hard.”
It startles a laugh out of Daniil, helpless and discomposed.
“No—thank you. But no.”
“Where else will you go, oynon?” Burakh presses. “You want a life of a fugitive?”
The naivety of it pulls Daniil’s mouth into a last sardonic smile.
“Thou makest thine appeal to me,” he mutters, dimly. “I bring to life, I bring to death: The spirit does but mean the breath—I know no more.”
In front of him, at Burakh’s side, Stamatin curls in on himself in restless sleep. He’s breathing woefully, as if wounded. Barely there, Daniil thinks. Hanging on by a thread.
He’s no wish to hold on.
“I’m done with,” he says, harsher now.
In front of him, Burakh jerks in understanding. Startled in turn, as if dragged momentarily back from the edge, Daniil looks at him.
For a moment he seems to hesitate, as though wanting to reach out. Some fatally endearing quality he has, Dankovsky thinks, to seek out the lost and try to reel them back in. And yet, here, something does hold him back. A distance between the two of them, a crawling ravine of cold draft.
Strange thought comes to him, I do. I do see life in you. I am outside of it. It’s piercingly sad.
Something changes in Burakh’s face. A light, tentative as it may have been, snuffed out. Hope? Somehow, it unnerves Dankovsky, to find himself the reason of such visible dejection. It’s far from rational: they’re strangers. He’s been too tired by far for pretences of kindness or compassion.
He frowns, sharp pain immobilising the digits of his left hand again. Like poison creeping into Socrates’s body, it heralds something—
“This can’t be the end,” Haruspex says, voice low and so wretchedly concerned. And he almost believes it, damned twyrine and all, he almost does.
Shaken, a little more than he’s a right to be, he opens his eyes. “Funny,” he mutters, hiding the rueful smile with his half-dead hand, “Finis coronat opus. I was just going to say that it is.”
By the title, scrawled, a number.
The leather of his gloves drags roughly across the paper. The page is the last of appendices. Surprised, he recognises in the writing his own hand.
From the stage, a bright and blinding light.
At first it’s merely disorienting. A moment’s pause. A déjà vu, strange sense of recognition belied by misplacement. He’d turn away from it, scoff, and go on.
If it didn’t keep happening.
Before the gunshot sounds out, he knows the direction it will take him from, the slant and angle of it. He’s overcome, for a split second, with a paralysing conviction, a shard of pain through his left arm as if in anticipation. Senses kick in too late. He recoils, but too slowly, movement jerky and blind.
It gets him in the side instead, pain searing up from the abdomen.
There’s more blood.
“Fuck,” Dankovsky grits out, fumbling for the gun. At least his aim is good. Right-handed; it only takes a shot. Better. Cleaner.
As opposed to when? he thinks deliriously, slumping against the wall. Thick dark blood pools and gushes through the fabric of his garment. He feels dizzy.
Last time, his mind nonsensically supplies.
He doesn’t know how he manages it—to drag himself across the district, vest bunched up and pressed against the wound under the coat with his rigid left hand, bent in half and nauseous, ears ringing.
The stitching is poor. Nothing wrong with the sutures now, but they may need re-doing. I might need help, he thinks deliriously, pressing the pills of novocaine into his mouth with fumbling fingers.
What? Dankovsky thinks. I haven’t stitched a thing.
He slumps heavily against the warehouse door. He feels, eerily, like his thready pulse is setting his whole body into spasmodic, arrhythmic movement. Exhaustion threatens to cut the cord of conscious thought. Curtain call, any moment now. If only he could—
He raises a fist to bang on the door, and loses strength midway.
It yields anyway—a miracle! someone’s young and resonant voice rings out from the confusing recesses of memory.
His knees give out and he falls in, expecting something like a collision with the floor.
Instead he’s met with a new solid shape.
“Haruspex. Help me,” Dankovsky grits out.
Wrenching himself from the man, he stumbles blindly inside and nearly collapses. He’s cold now, sweat sticking to his skin, shaking. Fever? So quick? Or simply haemorrhaging? How much blood has he lost by now?
“What’s wrong?” Burakh asks, searching him for signs of—trickery? He’d laugh, if nausea didn’t threaten to overtake him. Instead he braces himself against the slab of stone, and pulls apart his coat. Peeling away the bunched-up velvet (hurts, like flesh from flesh) the white cotton underneath is soaked in deep red, too, blood still oozing from the gash.
“Shit.” Burakh inhales sharply. Suddenly close, he manoeuvres Dankovsky upright, then pushes him down roughly onto the stone.
He’s almost relieved, when the back of his head hits the cold hard surface, though sharp pain tears at his side. Breathes heavily, shallowly, staring at the ceiling as the menkhu inspects him.
“This wasn’t done right,” Burakh mutters. “Ought to have braced the wound. You’ve lost too much blood like this.”
“I know,” Daniil says through gritted teeth. “I was—preoccupied—with—walking—”
“Infection can take,” the Haruspex mutters, ignoring him, “I’ll have to clean it and sew you again, erdem. And you’ll need antibiotics. But let’s close you up first.”
“I’ve …” Each word draws sharp pain from his ribs. “Novocaine.”
“Not enough,” Burakh pats his knee in a gesture which might be meant as grounding. Daniil jerks, involuntary.
“Sorry. Hold on, oynon, I’ll be right with you.”
He moves away, presumably—hopefully, for God’s sake—to clean his hands. Daniil closes his eyes, trying to even out his breathing.
“I’m out of painkillers,” Burakh’s voice comes drifting back, somehow genuinely apologetic, as if Dankovsky’s surface comfort were anyone’s priority right now.
“That’s fine,” he says curtly. Then he bites down at the inside of his cheek. “Have you any alcohol?”
His vision swims in twyrine, dulled and hazy. He breathes slowly, laboriously, cradling the bottle to himself as his eyes scan the dim curved spine of the ceiling. A cradle vault, simple build. But he’s got the strangest impression, at times, swimming in and out of focus—that it changes, ribs morphing into curved lines of piping, into something like a catwalk, bending over them in dim scattered candlelight, like a—
A child’s voice, sullenly challenging, cuts through the thick dense haze, prying Daniil’s eyes back open.
“She’s talking to me again.”
Murky, Dankovsky thinks, seconds before the other voice chides, patiently, “Not now, Murky. Go find your brother, and bring him here, I’m going to need his help.”
He frowns, attempting to chase the vague strands of recollection. Where the hell would he know the name from?
Inhaling, he curls his fingers around the neck of the bottle. Burakh has dug the bullet out of him, and cleaned the wound. Is, now, sewing him back with deceptive ease, like he’s practiced at it. Of course he is, Daniil thinks, in dazed irritation, he’s a surgeon. The Ripper, yargachin. He knows the lines.
Yes, of the ceiling, scattering shadows on the paper—how strange. His eyes blur when he tries to focus on the text, line by line. It trembles in his hands.
Another grounding squeeze to his knee. “Don’t strain yourself, oynon. Hush now. No talking.”
He realises he’d spoken aloud. His eyes flutter open as he croaks out, “How dare you patronise me.” Then, “You say you know the lines—how do you mean, the lines? Which lines?”
There’s a pause. Then Burakh speaks, low and surprised, “When have I ever mentioned that to you?”
“I want to understand,” Daniil insists, petulant. If he does sound like a child now, well, so be it. “How do you know—”
“I have received medical training, emshen.” An edge to it, as if Dankovsky’s doubt irks him. “In your Capital, no less.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve mentioned,” Daniil mutters, impatient, the memory of antagonism rippling to the surface. So, rivalry, it is?
He inhales sharply, squirming, and feels Burakh’s hand pin him in place, firmer now.
A warning. “Don’t move.”
His wandering eyes trace the fickle ceiling, old warehouse again. Lines, lines. It reminds him of something, and wistfulness tugs at his chest, violently. Simple build, yes, hardly the ornate palm vaulting at—
“Thanatica,” Daniil whispers. “Have I ever told you about my Thanatica? Yes, I’ll tell you, I have yet to tell you. One day, all of it,” he goes on, fervent, vowels and consonants spilling together, “I’ll tell you … like a close, intimate friend.”
There’s a lull. The room dims. As if to cling to it, his eyes strain to find Burakh’s face, and the confused expression upon in.
“Am I one?”
Odd question; odd because it ought to be—
—straightforward. A straight line, no bends of doubt or hesitance.
But in the haze of pain and alcohol, the lines of the menkhu’s face seems illogically familiar, well-learned. He’s got bright eyes, curiously kind.
“I … don’t know,” Daniil mutters, genuine. “Do you?”
Burakh hangs his head, as if abashed. Or simply focused, as he should be. But Daniil’s blurred honesty seems to have unbalanced him.
His voice comes quieter now, “Don’t waste your breath, emshen.”
So he watches, half-lidded, chest moving strenuously. His vision splinters and blurs, until it fades back into darkness, and spindles of a different ceiling, stretching low over the rows of—
He comes to suddenly, body alert and aware of unexpected movement, its axis of balance disrupted. Someone is carrying him, then laying down on the cot, wrapping with coarse linen.
He can’t open his eyes, they’re leaden and cinched shut. “Thank you,” he says through clattering teeth, barely audible.
He fancies a hand touch his face. “Sleep, oynon.”
And he does.
Next time he wakes, he is alone.
No light penetrates the Lair, stale with the stench of old blood and Haruspex’s makeshift herbarium.
He thinks, dimly, of the Polyhedron, and of eerie light scattering over the steppe at dawn as he neared the city, breathing in, dazed, the heady scent of wildflowers. Sees himself, distantly, knees-deep in grass and water, walking into the day.
Something is wrong: an effect of twyrine, perhaps, or long exhaustion. He finds himself forgetting the precise details of his arrival. When had he left the Capital? His apartment, the view from the street, samovar in the kitchen alcove and the steam on the window. All of it blurry, as with milk spilt over it, and blended with Stillwater. A superimposed experimental photograph.
He remains like this.
Too distracted, too absent, limping through the ghastly streets without clear aim, feeling suddenly powerless to persevere. Everything is distant, even the very high idea which guided him.
He feels for all of it, at most a vast, consuming apathy.
“Listen,” Burakh implores in front of the Cathedral, all hard lines and insistence, gathered in himself as if to intimidate or demand, “The Town … we have to save it. It’s alive, oynon, like you and me. It has to live. ”
To Dankovsky, the words carry no meaning. But hardly anything does, the edges of perception and logic thinned as in a long, confusing dream.
And truth be told; as it stands, brawny and blind as he is, he trusts Artemy’s judgement more than his own. It’s, he tells himself, a testament to how little certainty in his own perception he’s got left in him, more than a pledge of allegiance.
Save the town. Perhaps it must happen. He feels like it already has.
Well, so be it. He falters.
“Alright,” Dankovsky says. “Have it your way. I acquiesce.”
Burakh is thrown. He looks younger, then, in these moments of surprise: the premature lines of his face untwisting, smoothed momentarily. Young, Daniil thinks, jolted. We both still are. Briefly, he imagines this face lit up with laughter.
“You mean it?”
Still the mistrust. Warranted, he supposes. But he’s hardly any drive to be anything but earnest.
Stiffly, he nods.
Haruspex reaches forward abruptly, squeezing Daniil’s wrists in his. “Thank you, oynon.”
His voice sounds earnest as well. Laden with relief.
“Yes, yes,” Daniil says, wincing, tugging his hands jerkily free. “I’ll see you at the Cathedral.”
Instead of the Cathedral, the Haruspex finds him at the Broken Heart.
He’d think it deeply ironical, if he wasn’t preoccupied with testing the dim conviction it will happen the entire time. If he hadn’t gone there, in fact, angling for it—as though to push at the limits of this unnatural latent knowledge of his, and test the give of it.
The satisfaction is short-lived, clouded with a pulsing, harrowing migraine.
At the sight of Dankovsky already watching him like a shabby hawk, Burakh lets out a sigh of something like relief.
“It’s nice to see that you’ve survived, oynon.”
Hoarsely, bitingly, Daniil manages, “Is that so.”
Burakh nods, unheeding of the sarcasm, and lowers himself to the same seat as—in the same movement—casting the same glance to the Stamatin as—
Dankovsky closes his eyes, nauseated. Touches the finer of his left hand to his temple.
“Have you ever considered angels, Burakh?” he mutters, sourly. “How do you imagine them?”
A pause. “Can’t say I—”
“An angel is a nightmare,” Daniil whispers. “Their purpose is to instil primal, oppressive horror. I think, if angels existed, they’d resemble a divine pillar of light—from the heavens of the earth. Devoid of anything remotely human.”
“Not nearly enough. I’ll drink to your health, though, before leaving. Emshen—did I say that right? No, what did you say, about … about … closing the throat—ah, what does it matter. Up yours, Artemy.”
He downs the rest of the twyrine.
“You’ll leave?” comes Burakh’s voice, alarmed. Again, Daniil is too scattered to dissect it, the room swaying in a haze of alcohol and an oppressive, echoing recollection.
“What else could I do?”
And, there it comes, the exact words he’d been dreading all the while, in Haruspex’s kind warm voice, “Just ... live. We’ll find a way. It won’t be so hard.”
It rattles him, the sudden violent nausea. I see life in you—
“Excuse me,” he says, and retches.
He’s walking to the edge from the audience, between rows of seats covered in cloth, obscuring something harrowing he knows not to look at. Up on the stage, a girl is walking, repeating the same phrase to a lilting intonation, as a man watches.
But he keeps his eyes trained lower, on the edge of the stage, where a man sits, shoulders defeated, head bent.
Slowly, excruciatingly. He keeps walking.
He walks so slowly.
He drums his gloved fingers on the wood of the table. Turns his head to where the Haruspex had drawn to a halt, half-outside the circle of light emanated from the Bachelor’s lamp, waiting.
He takes a steadying breath.
“We can become enemies so easily, Artemy Burakh, that it would be best for us to make every possible effort to stay friends until our points of view diverge irreparably,” Daniil says, forcefully. With an air of ceremony, he rises, and outstretches his hand. “I am Bachelor Dankovsky. Do you agree with me?”
Not a muscle of Burakh’s face twitches.
“With the fact you’re a Bachelor? Sure.” There’s an odd twist to the phrase, which Daniil can’t parse. His hand twitches, but before he can withdraw it, Burakh does grasp and shake it, quite roughly.
Somewhat disoriented, he rights himself, leaning on the desk.
“Yes, well—what do you say to my offer?”
“And what have you offered me?” There’s that look again, in Haruspex’s eyes, which Dankovsky suddenly decodes as a tired sort of amusement. Oh, bastard.
He sets his jaw. Well, better this than hostility. “A truce, you ingrate. You owe me, if you’ll recall, for saving your life. What I propose is a union, scientific … conjunction of minds. So to speak. To find a solution, we ought to join forces and work together.”
There’s really no mistaking the shit-eating little smile on Haruspex’s face after this, but Daniil keeps his own face stony.
“I see. Well, at your command, then,” Haruspex says. “Dear colleague.”
The ease with which they navigate each other is—jarring.
It’s in silence, mostly, not quite companionable but hardly hostile. Yet, as the hours drag on in the cold hush pervading the Lair, he finds himself compelled to break it.
And finds himself speaking before he deconstructs the root of this impulse.
“Do you ever feel like …”
He catches himself. The thought is nebulous at best, and frankly, borders on ridiculously histrionic.
“Mm?” comes from Artemy, a gentle push to continue. He hadn’t looked up from the stone where he guts the innards of the bull. For a moment, Dankovsky struggles to look away from his hands, gloved and almost perversely drenched in red. “Yes, oynon?”
“Do you ever get the feeling,” he picks up, at length. That nature’s playing tricks on us. “That the choices you make are not really yours? That you live in this … illusion. Game. Of free will. And it doesn’t matter what you endeavour, not really. You shall not win. It isn’t ... yours to win.”
There’s a silence. He realises belatedly that Burakh has stilled, and is watching him now.
His voice, though on the surface teasing, is oddly tight, “You know, erdem, of all people—I wouldn’t expect you to take to this sort of thinking easily.”
Dankovsky huffs. “I’m no positivist, Burakh. There are things in this world beyond our mundane perception.”
“True,” Artemy mutters, refocused now on his work. “I just figured you’d—”
“I’d what?” he asks, perhaps too defensive.
To his surprise, Haruspex smiles, somewhat lopsided, and shrugs one shoulder.
“That you’d choose,” Burakh says, “to look away from those things.”
Dankovsky’s face twists, involuntarily. “Haven’t I just insinuated to you I feel like a—pawn or puppet, at the hands of powers that be?”
Even to his own ears, he sounds acerbic.
Burakh huffs a small laugh, returning to his task. “Well, at least, you’re better-crafted than me,” he says merrily. “Look at us. You’re probably right. I’m not a toy to keep, though—unbending, leather-made, old, shabby. You, on the other hand, are an entirely different thing! I’m surprised they’re playing such a bad game with you …”
“You’re enjoying yourself,” Daniil notes, disturbed. Artemy raises his eyes, bright in the wan light.
“I’m making an effort,” he says. “To be your friend.”
Close and intimate, Daniil thinks fleetingly. Then schools his face into cold detachment.
“What a noble sacrifice, doctor,” he says, clipped, and turns back to his work, as Artemy laughs, loud and strangely young.
… to Beckett’s cynical revisiting of Proust in his 1930 essay and his later presentation of characters who are trapped because they cannot remember—or trapped because they cannot forget, modernists have taken memory as a literary focus and as a theoretical concern …
“Words, words, words,” someone mutters, voice low and close.
“Well, what else?” he muses, frowning.
After thirteen hours, he nearly gives up on Haruspex returning from the Abattoir at all.
And, as if on cue, there he is.
He hears the dragging heavy footsteps, signalling the return before he shows. His gait is heavy, uneven, the bad leg—and how does he know this, that he’s got a bad leg, a wound in the army? Unclear—straining to uphold his weight, forcing a limp.
He looks battered. The left side of his face is bruised, a mosaic of cuts and rough discolouration, rising from jaw to temple. Daniil wants to draw a cloth against the line of it. Wipe it clean.
There’s something ominous about it, this passivity. Something wrong.
“I’m fine, emshen,” Burakh says before he as much as twitches, a wheeze to the words belying whatever poor performance of good health he’d meant to give.
Dankovsky snaps out of his trance.
“What a diagnosis. Forgive me if I have my doubts,” he retorts, folding his glasses and pushing himself from the desk, trying to mask his own overwhelming relief somehow. He stands, dragging the chair with him, and walks over to where Burakh is standing, still clothing the sack with vials, too drained to keep his posture right.
Deftly but firmly, he detracts the sack out of the menkhu’s hands, and sets the chair between them. Then pushes Burakh down by the shoulder to sit.
“Let me see,” he says. “Repay the favour.”
There’s a sudden pause. It’s disorienting—he can hardly think of what he could’ve said to bring it about. But the Haruspex’s body grows taut like a wire. He laughs, shortly, an uncharacteristic heavy tension in the sound.
“What favour?” he asks. “Didn’t you say I owe you?”
There’s a pause. Briefly, Dankovsky finds himself unbalanced. At length, he manages, “Indeed I have.”
Then, “I forgot.”
Again that laugh. Like a bark, warning, or scared.
“Is that so?” Burakh says tightly. “I have already got used to the fact that the Changeling can’t remember what happened to her five minutes ago, let alone yesterday, but you didn’t … seem to have this problem before, oynon.”
There’s something stilted and strange in his words.
The way Burakh is looking at him: wary like a stray animal ready to jump to the throat if threatened. But then, with such reckless hope in his eyes. Hope for what, Dankovsky doesn’t know, a dissonance clouding his thoughts. He knows he’s got no bite in him, now.
It’s gone completely, now they’re face to face. It had been gone, the moment he’d seen him at Stillwater. It feels implausible to have ever really been there at all.
Eventually, he speaks, with smooth detached cordiality, “Repay me, then, by letting me take care of you. As I said—I need you healthy.”
At once, almost disorienting, Haruspex’s keen eyes lose their hard edge. He looks like he’d been punched.
“Quiet and at hand, huh,” he mutters, under his breath. Hangs his head.
Dankovsky finds himself smiling. “Oh, bravo, good patient. Perfect memory.”
Artemy snorts again, but it’s softer now. He mutters, “You’d be surprised.”
But Burakh doesn’t answer. Instead he hangs his head. “I need to get back to the Lair. The panacea—”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Dankovsky says, surprising himself with own conviction. It’s perhaps even more surprising that Burakh stills. “Who do you think I am, to push you in while you’re one leg in the grave?”
“Eh,” Artemy says, pulling a face. “Not that bad.”
“I have a bed,” Daniil says. “And I’m offering it to you.”
“Damn you,” he mutters, head bowed. “I’ll take it.”
Slowly, meticulously he sinks the needle in the infected tissue, along the atrium, and extracts blood.
He’d worked extensively with literature pertaining to immunology before. To a narrower extent, he’d brushed shoulders with people who tended to the specifics; Glenny’s method of inactivating tetanus toxin with formaldehyde, then, as late as ’26, the vaccine against diphtheria. But he’d hardly expected it to fall into the scope of his own work, not something so specific as survival from one aggressor solely—no, what he sought was an over-arching theory, a full reprieve, where choice would dictate the onset of death rather than death take away the choice—
The hand wielding the syringe spasms, and blood trickles, staining the gauze. All of the sudden, the well known scent of antiseptic becomes oppressive. He braces himself against the desk, body stiffened from hours of focus.
Wincing, he flexes the hand. Left, the heart’s side. First to numb in the event of cardiac arrest, a warning cry of the organism. His very weak point. Since childhood, at times, waking, he’d find the left numb—compromised nerve endings, bad circulation. Or something else, an omen. A creeping necrosis. But it would pass—sensation would return, sharply, harsh and painful. As if the blood, too thick and coagulated, violated the veins ’til they’re forced into feeling.
He’d seen a specimen, once, in the archives of Thanatica, Palmam sinistram integram, the whole left hand, cut clean off the body and encased in crystal. Grey, suspended in formaldehyde like a vial-shaped Purgatory.
It was labelled with a name, which meant nothing. Faceless, voiceless. Dead but persisting.
He frowns, unsettled.
Death. Where lay the start of this morbid predilection? He used to think he’d chosen it, sometime within the hazy childhood memories, pinning a beetle with slow precision to inspect its soundless death. But perhaps not. That cursed feeling, of … inevitability. That plagues him.
Dankovsky closes his hand, willing it not to tremble.
Perhaps it was preordained, a strange echo of Calvinist thought, or, more accurately, Greek Fatum. Maybe she’d marked his aim and walked him to it, held by the hands like a trusting child. Someone so hollow and pliable, strung along by an enticing thread, connected to something vague and unreachable: an idea.. Up, up, above everyone’s heads, eyes trained just so. A string under his chin and jaw; a string, then, fastened around his throat. The string which held him together.
Cut the string altogether, and the puppet will collapse. Look down, to the mud and earth, lose focus and stumble in awe—the very string will strangle you.
Involuntary muscle spasm. Blood deficiency, malnutrition. He probably lacks iron.
The voice is sleep-rough and muffled. Eyes scan the room until they find Burakh, shrouded in shadow, face half-hidden. It’s dark now, properly, night late and thick. He’d lost track of time, frozen at his desk lifelessly, as if truly inanimate.
“I’m fine,” Daniil says, and finds his voice breaking. “It’s only—”
He shuts his eyes. “No.”
Haruspex says, “Come here.”
A whole other can never to open, precarious as his stature is. But he’s exhausted. On his last legs. Sanity, self-preservation, even so baseline, feel dim and laughably abstract. He’s cold, shoulders and back stiff and aching and he wants—he wants—
At times, he’d bristle to find himself wanting to be more tethered to the ground, to the present and physical. Reminded, by some simple and crude mechanism, like perhaps touch, that he’s alive yet, and corporeal, that he has a body which lives. Which can be held.
He tenses. Then yields to it.
Divesting himself from his overgarments (cold, sharply so), he walks to the bed. Turn off the light on the way, his only condition.
He doesn’t need to ask. Burakh gathers him closer as on unspoken cue.
It’s a moment before Daniil dares close his eyes.
He stands in front of the stage, in front of the man with his head bowed, at the edge of it.
Reaches out. Says:
He wakes rapidly to a vague, harrowing dread. At first he doesn’t comprehend: it’s dark, entirely. A foreign pressure weighs on his chest: he thinks for a moment he’s losing breath again, has a thought that he’s in a coffin, lungs compromised with the Pest.
But its’s something else.
A sound ruptures the air. It strikes him that Burakh is crying.
He holds Daniil fast against himself, arm wrapped too tightly round his chest, breath shallow and unconscious. Like he’s trying to anchor himself, perhaps them both. But his body is shaking.
“No, I can’t. Why would you make me … Don’t. I didn’t want to. Don’t make me. ”
Choked, ragged, “River of … No, no. No.”
Struck with a sudden impulse, Daniil moves abruptly, turning on the bed. Firmly, he takes Artemy’s head face in both hands, and presses his lips to his forehead.
Slow, deliberate, he says, “It’s not real. Do you hear me? It’s not real.”
He keeps repeating it for a while, low and monotonous, until the words lose their meaning.
Gradually, Artemy stills. He shudders, arms relaxing around Daniil, hands fisting in the fabric of his shirt. A time passes, and his breathing evens out.
He doesn’t let go.
Wake up. Wake up!
Light, gauzy and bland, spills inside through the window. It’s too bright and assaulting, and he struggles to keep his heavy eyes opens, a warm inertia stymieing his movement.
He focuses on the body instead, languid and heavy post-sleep, foreign almost in its discordance, sensations as if witnessed rather than felt. How strange, he thinks. And lets himself react unthinkingly: turn and lean into the lines of the body beside him, the warmth and solidity of it.
Inhaling, he cards the fingers of his hand through Artemy’s short hair. Lets his eyes close again.
There’s a lull. Then a voice, “What hour is it?”
“Early,” Daniil says, not opening is eyes. “Sleep. There’s still time.”
Another pause, lingering. Artemy tightens the grip on Daniil’s side, draws them even closer for a brief moment, as if unwilling to part. Then he shakes his head.
“No,” he mutters, voice muffled in Daniil’s left shoulder. It should twinge under the touch, with that unwarranted phantom injury. Instead the skin prickles. “There’s no time.”
Daniil blinks. He stays the movement of his hand, which has taken to carding through his hair mechanically. He feels Artemy tense along with it, face still buried in his shirt, breathing in the smoke and blood and antiseptic surely pervading it.
Dreams, even at the most beautiful and illusory, all have their tell-tale signs of incoming collapse.
Fixing the buckles and clasps of his smock, large hands still deft and cautious. He avoids Daniil’s eyes as he lies motionless, watching him through half-lidded eyes.
Finally he looks up, face taut.
For a moment he seems like he will do something, surge forward and reach for him, kiss him goodbye.
He doesn’t. But as Dankovsky catches his conflicted, wanting eyes, he thinks that he might as well have. That they both know it.
That, perhaps, it would make no difference.
It’s both surprising and not, afterwards, that on the eleventh day, the Haruspex takes no convincing at all. He seems lost, more beaten up than he’d been, reluctant to mention much of anything at all. Hollowed-out. And oh, isn’t that a familiar thought, a cold shiver down the spine. He doesn’t look Daniil in the eyes, as if afraid to find—what, there?
He wants to reach out, somehow, but finds he categorically can’t. His hands are idle and cold. His body resisting and unkind.
What came so easy half-asleep, at night, doesn’t come now.
As the Polyhedron burns bright and magnificent in the night, he realises his mistake. He’s saved it; he hasn’t saved himself.
And he realises he has to leave. An imperative: strong and mind-numbing, once again invoking the image of a thick thread in his mind, pulling him forward. Into the dark, grey-swaying grass of Asphodel fields of the steppe at night. But coming from who? Leading where?
A light touch to his elbow. He can hardly move, hardly turn his head, senses so hazy and dim. Like agency itself has been shucked out of him, leaving behind only frail strands of something like involuntary reflex.
The Haruspex stands before him, outlined with warm darkness and the ashy specks of the strange light rising over the town like radiation, the fallout of violent seismic activity.
Nothing burns, not even the sun, except the Polyhedron.
“Where are you going?” Haruspex asks, quietly, as if unwilling to share his voice with the night.
Daniil blinks, untethered. His thoughts come slow and tangled, unclear. At last he manages, “I hadn’t known …”
The thought escapes him. In the dusky lowlight, flanked with the low singing of the unnatural wind, Burakh himself seems made out of different matter, nocturnal particles foreign to his own.
He’s fading, descending inwards, even as he speaks. “This town is no longer mine. No longer human. No longer rational. It doesn’t … accept the likes of me anymore.”
“But it does,” Haruspex says, urgent. “It accepts all kinds of—”
“No. You don’t understand.”
The hand at his elbow, firmer now, “Wait.”
The loud wind pulls at Haruspex’s clothes and hair, warm night wind pervading the very touch attempting to anchor Dankovsky back in the reality he’d already left.
Words muffled and full of something big and clumsy, he says, “You know, humans … are all about warmth. All that happened is just a consequence of that. Warmth and love … Although, I’m not a fan of the word. But … do I make any sense?”
Daniil doesn’t speak. A phantom sensation, like a burn mark, lingers on the crook of the elbow where he’d been touched. But there’s a searing, dull ache of cold through his left arm, crawling upwards through nerve ending, to the chest. Constricting, like coils of thread. He doesn’t move. He no longer knows how to.
Dejection fills his Haruspex’s face, slowly, and he lets go. Turns away.
Dankovsky watches him walk away.
The wind picks up.
Sometimes it will go differently, sometimes by far, with tangled lines of stage directions stretched and coiled around us, indefinitely. I will find myself on the same train as you, in the same compartment. You’ll look younger than you’ve ever been to me. For a moment, I’ll wish we weren’t strangers.
Oh, damn this sentimentality. Damn it to hell.
There is no hell—except still existing. Except still not living.
I got a letter from the Capital, from the Powers That Be: You have failed. I have failed, he writes in a scrawl, huddled in the corner on the floor, hurrying before the interval end, I will always fail.
We will always have ended up here in the theatre.
“Wake up,” the voice is grating and acute, and punctuated with a shove to his shoulder. He can barely feel it, whole body sewn with overwhelming pain. His lungs and head and limbs, all in unison producing some noiseless howl of agony, in protest before wakefulness. “Wake up, hey, wake up. Mister Bachelor.”
His eyes open, as by sheer force of surprise. Sticky’s gaunt dirty face swims in hazy focus above him, a death grip of his bony hand shaking his shoulder.
“What—” the devil, he thinks, because walls of narrow wood are holding his body rigid, digging between the shoulder blades, and into the poorly stitched, torn-up left side. Carious wood, splintery, held together by nails carrying the nasty implication of gangrene. What the devil, because to find himself awake in a coffin should bring about more outrage. It would. Were he not so—
—so inconceivably exhausted.
Sticky shoves something into his face, cold and wet, and for a moment he’s the ridiculous thought he’s being stabbed with a knife, ’til he chokes and it’s—water. The boy must’ve thought he’d asked for water.
“There you go,” Sticky says, voice still jarring, “We did it! You’re alive again.”
“You were ill,” Sticky says, “awful ill. Kept raving on about birdies. Birdies birdies round the marble nest or … whatever. Looked pretty much as good as dead to me, if I’m being honest. But Murky got you the schmowder.”
Ah—well, that explains the leaden feeling in his insides, and the cold-sweat weakness and trembling. He’d contracted the Sand Pest, damn it all, and had it expelled from his organism in the least dignified way he can conceive of.
“Well, trust your good kind emshen,” he spits out, and, lent some spiteful strength by own resentment, heaves himself to the elbows in the coffin. A cold shiver wracks through his body. His chest heaves, straining. Undeterred, he goes on, “To treat his patients with rat poison and leave with—children—as an aide, as he—where is he? Picking—flowers, surely! I’m thrilled he’s not opted to wait out my death instead, to get a hold of the juicy liver—”
There’s a strange silence. Breathing heavily, he looks to Sticky, who stands unnaturally suspended, still.
“What?” he asks. “Where is Burakh?”
The pause is dense, jarring. Then,
“Dead,” Sticky says, the word like a gunshot in silence.
For a moment, he watches the boy, still breathing unevenly. It’s not so much a feeling that overtakes him, as a wave of cold.
“What?” he repeats, harshly. “That can’t be right.”
“He told us to find you,” Sticky offers, as if that explained something.
“What.” Cold but awake now, finally, Dankovsky digs himself out of the coffin and drags to his feet, leaning against the wall for support. “What—nonsense. Why haven’t you given him the schmowder?”
“He said it wouldn’t work,” Sticky says, tightly.
“What do you mean, it wouldn’t work,” Daniil spits out, harsh. The Haruspex is dead. It’s possible, of course. It could have happened, statistically speaking, they both hovered on the very edge of infection precariously. But then, why does it feel so—so oddly—
“We only had one schmowder,” Sticky says, “and he told us to find you.”
A cold shiver runs through him, full-body.
“What for?” Daniil whispers.
“He said you’d know,” Sticky says, and for the first time, there’s fear in his voice, buried deep under snaps defiance.
“I don’t—” he doesn’t finish. Breathing heavily, he drags himself to the window.
What for? What could possibly be the reason, for the Haruspex to want Dankovsky’s life saved over his own? It’s inconceivable—no, illogical. Their interest had deviated along the entire length of the axis, except perhaps in purest theory: to find the cure, to defeat the Pest, to—
“The Polyhedron,” he breathes out, involuntarily, only half-aware he’s said it out loud.
Sticky’s voice drags him back to Earth. “What about it?”
As he stalks, fast and urgent, through the Stone Yard, he runs into Clara.
“Made your decision?” she says, voice half-cold, half-mocking.
Momentarily distracted, he narrows his eyes at her. “The Polyhedron must be saved.”
She lets out a small laugh. “Of course.”
He picks up his pace, determined not to look back at the mould-ridden, rotting corpse of the observatory. “There’s nothing else to do.”
“Of course. I’d expect nothing else from you,” she says, quietly. “Typical. One could say, heartless.”
“Rich!” he throws over is shoulder, stalking away. “Coming from you!”
She laughs after him, but it’s mirthless. Taunting. “You don’t even know what you’re looking at! You cannot grasp it!”
“Oh, what do you know, you wretched ... plague rat!” he snaps, and stalks away.
Polyhedron looms, numbing the mind, soothing the synapses briefly into a sort of dizzy rapture.
But he looks down. Distracted.
What was it about his hands?
He half-expects to find them bare and blood-stained. But all he sees is the leather of his gloves.
The night is dark and empty. He’d lost sight of the children, abandoned somewhere to the unearthly town, becoming parts of it. Ghosts, roaming ruins in perpetuum.
Something is odd about all this, wrong. His own awareness, the sharpness of his mind, disturbs him. The weather ought to be warmer by now—or maybe he’s simply lost the ability to retain—
(something derails the thought, a nagging persistent voice)
—warmth. Warmth and love. Do you understand?
“No,” he says quietly, “I don’t.”
You don’t even know what you’re looking at.
Still so cold. It creeps up on him in the uneasy night, as he fixes the coat around himself, and turning his face back from the town.
“There’s something wrong,” he says, quiet but aloud, head bowed. The wind stifles his voice. It hardly matters—he hardly knows who he’s addressing. Suddenly, he feels lost.
He has to leave. There’s nowhere else to go, to be. But something is wrong.
He searches his mind, desperately, finding nothing, finding void where there ought to be—what? He thinks, in slowly creeping hysteria. Ought to be what? He’d failed, somehow.
He’d failed, but he can’t grasp how or why.
He flicks through the pages in panic. His hands shake. Rushed, hurried, he writes,
There’s an otherness inside me. That I can’t grasp or dispel. That finds me, at times, so stranded. There are echoes in me, of men who have lived lives and died deaths I know nothing of, and said words I could’ve said but hadn’t, couldn’t—except I carry a memory of them, inaccessible, but felt like …
... someone had cut off my left hand, and put it in a jar, and I go on thinking, blindly, I still have it.
I feel like I’m losing my mind.
I am losing my mind.
He doesn’t wake as much as find himself suddenly mid-awareness, mid-thought, mid-stride. The sharp realisation of agency and consciousness comes with a jolt, an involuntary spasm of muscle. He halts.
Memory trickles slowly like a poorly sutured wound. Long term memory, localised, in futile attempts to understand the human psyche, within the hippocampus. Half-unrealised, sometimes entirely involuntary.
Invoked on accident.
Blinking, he turns on his heel and starts towards the Earth Quarter.
He bangs his fist at the door to the warehouse.
“Burakh!” he shouts. “Open up! I need to talk to you. It’s imperative that we—” The door relents, swinging open, inwards. He pauses for a moment, an exhale of stale cold air.
Then, “Ah, damn it.”
His eyes are still open. He’s cold to the touch.
It comes with very little shock, all in all, and scarce reaction. This should warrant concern in and of itself, perhaps. Cold demon.
He’d defend himself, that he’s hardly any claim to strong emotion over the death of a short-lived colleague—friend, even—he’d barely spoken to, and about wrong business altogether. That he’s no time or sanity to spare for grieving. That he’s got nothing to grieve for, god’s sake, nothing substantial between them to warrant it.
But defend himself to whom? The crux of the thing is, where there ought to be feeling, there’s only that gradual burst of something like apnea, creeping up the lungs and ribcage like ivy. Something wrong.
Stiff, mechanical, he draws a makeshift shroud—the rags from the unmade, austere bed—over Burakh’s body. Can’t bring himself to cover his face. Instead, he draws a gloved hand over it, and forces his eyes shut.
He mutters, “Ave atque vale.”
Still no shock. There is, instead, a strange and sick vindication.
I knew this would happen, Dankovsky thinks, the thought as surprising as it is honest. I knew it had happened before I set out on my way here. I knew—
Just as he knows he is sick now. Infected. His hand travels up, to the solar plexus, the centre of his own chest. Yes, he’s sick. The fist tightens in the starchy cloth. He can’t be certain, and yet he knows it with unmoved conviction. The symptoms undetectable yet, or indistinguishable from simple starvation—
A thought, searing, Is this how it caught you? Too proud to rest, perhaps you never realised …
The emotion erupts sharp and violent, tearing through the apathy so forcefully he has to grasp the edge of stone to hold himself upright.
Yes, cold, burning anger; ripping through his body like the very rat poison that could’ve cured Artemy, had it been delivered to him. Had Dankovsky found him earlier.
He exhales shakily. He knows this particular emotion by heart. His anger is futile and childish; had always been. Targeting what’s immune to it most. I will have such revenges on—
How will you defeat death, Daniil? How?
Maybe he did choose it, to an extent. Something in him, some resistance, wrote this story of petty spite, or simple, low resentment.
Death, his arch-enemy.
“You idiot,” Daniil whispers, closing his eyes, which burn now, too.
He bows his head, resting the forehead against the chest of the shrouded body. His thoughts race, cleaved in parallel strands, Or have you known, Haruspex, that you were dying? Have the lines told you? You and your—
“Idiot, Artemy Burakh,” he grits out, “to trust like this—to put trust in—”
Something tightens his throat shut.
Anger relents into exhaustion. If the pest is eating at him already, clock ticking ’til fever claims him into unrestful delirium ... Fleetingly, he thinks, What did you choose for yourself, Artemy?
“He chose everyone else. He steps lightly, but he’s shortsighted—”
Dankovsky rubs his temples, wincing, “Yes, yes, we’ve heard this before,” he says, out loud, “And I’m the cold demon, spare me the threnody—”
The realisation is clear and clean. Clara. A memory invoked.
“You can’t grasp it!”
Well, he thinks, jaw tightening. He’s a man of science. If he can’t grasp it, he’s damned if he doesn’t try.
He pulls the shroud over Burakh’s face.
The path leads nowhere, held together by impossible laws of nonexistent physics, shaped from something like paper, yet unmoving even in the gauzy fog and wind. His footsteps sound muted and arrhythmic as he climbs the stairs, in silence broken only by wind’s dim whispering, and something not quite like music.
And the voice, too, could be the wind itself, whispering strange thoughts into his head. “Is Daniil Dankovsky ready to die?”
Yes, he thinks, I am. I’ve been.
But he wavers at the edge. And turns.
She stands behind him, head tilted to the side. Pale blue eyes and the unsettling unpredictability of reaction. A duality of medium.
“So you woke up at last,” she says. “Well done.”
He watches her for a moment.
“I’m not quite sure of that,” he says, at length.
She smiles, “Good. Don’t your philosophers say it—I know that I know nothing. Made peace with it yet?”
He still can’t move except search her young face, face of a child, the muscles of his own tense and wary.
“How long have you known?” he asks.
She doesn’t as much as blink. “Always.”
Yes—he supposes that makes sense.
He nods, slowly. Then, hesitant. “And how many times …?”
He feels that she won’t answer. Instead she watches him with those large perceptive eyes. “What does it matter.”
He inhales slowly, then raises a hand to his temple.
“There are …” he begins, unevenly, “memories inside me, strange and terrible. Consuming. They’re mine, but they don’t feel it. Or the other way, they must be mine, but can’t be. I fear, if I touch them, if I look straight at them, I will lose myself. Lose my mind.”
To his surprise, Clara laughs, loud and genuine like a child. It’s jarring.
“You’re very confident that you had a mind to lose to begin with,” she calls out, grinning.
“A mind—of course I have a—” Cogito ergo sum, that much he knows. Had known. Had—hoped. With a sick desperation, at that.
“Cold or not,” he grits out, “I’m still human.”
She looks at him, expressionless.
“I am human,” he repeats. “I am!”
He’s almost ashamed, as soon as he words leave him. It sounds suddenly so pitiful to his own ears, the volume, the shrill childish lilt to it.
Clara speaks, slowly and defiantly, “And so?”
“That’s—” He jolts again, away from her. But then something clicks.
“You’re mimicking him,” he says, understanding. “Tricks, again. Deception.”
“What if I am?” she says. “I know his lines.”
He hesitates. Then, a ragged, “He’s gone.”
A sudden prickling in his throat. Damn this sentimentality.
She watches him, impassive. “Have you really learned nothing?”
The words feel like a slap to the face.
“He told me once, that he wanted to live until eighty.”
There’s an edge of hysteria in his voice.
“Oh. Well, surely, by now, it’s been—more than,” Clara says, unruffled. “Will be even more.”
“That’s not what—” he braces himself. “He wanted to live. Have … bonds, build something. Build a life. But he died. And I think he ... he chose to die. This time. More times, maybe. I can’t know for sure.”
“Well, isn’t that just what you sought? In your studies, the ability to choose just when—”
“He pushed it onto me,” he spits out, anger erupting again. “The choice.”
“And why does this disturb you so?”
“Because I can’t—!” Again this futile anger. He tries to get a hold of himself. “I’m not right for this.”
“I was supposed to to defeat death. But instead I just wanted to … live. Me,” he breathes out. “I wanted to live.”
Her voice is flat, “That is human of you.”
He closes his eyes, shakes his head, “It didn’t use to be so. I’ve lost my aim.”
And, when she doesn’t speak, “I want out now.”
I have what I wanted, Daniil thinks, and I don’t want it.
“But you won’t,” she says it out loud, a smile in her voice. “Death won’t have you! What a twist, isn’t it. You never even had to fight it. It never wanted you in the first place.”
He swallows. “You said I can’t grasp it. The Polyhedron.”
“Did I?” she says, absently.
“Show me, then,” he says. “Tell me. What am I missing.”
“Polyhedron, some say, can trap a soul. Keep a dead person alive,” he gestures to him, as if to indicate the earlier sentiment concerning Burakh.
“But others say it stores dreams,” she goes on. Her voice seems softer now, changed. Perhaps it’s the other one. Perhaps the transition comes too seamlessly to be caught like this. “Allows to revisit and share them. And so we gather—”
She starts along the very pink-lit edge of the impossible construction, in a swaying dancelike step, with eyes closed. “Sleepwalking unawares, stumbling against each other like moths.”
She pauses, a length of distance from Dankovsky. The wind pulls at her scarf, light seeping through the fabric as if dissolving it.
“We live inside a dream,” says the Changeling. “A question, then. Who’s dreaming?”
When he looks up, she’s gone.
So, down again: he’d worried the clasp undone. Something red bursts through. He tugs it off, left, then right, to reveal the smudges: along the line of from ulna to metacarpus and the phalanges, there’s blood on his hands.
The vital organs, including the heart, he knows, have no colour. Cleaned and cleared, the tissue of human organism is grey, colourless. Blood is an exception, a warning sign.
With shaking hands, he hides the gloves in the inner pocket of his coat. Left side, over the heart.
He stands at the edge.
The wind pulls at him, inviting. An old friend welcoming home.
Vale, thinks Dankovsky, and takes a step.
Hypnic jerk. The sensation, muscle spasm, as you cross the threshold of consciousness as though missing a step in a staircase. Heart tugs, something wild and frantic, before everything realigns.
He inhales sharply, stunned, surrounded with sudden studious darkness. Dimly, a source of light looms, somewhere undefinably above. Mostly he can hear his own breathing—and heart. It races, dull and scared in the ribcage.
Soft laughter, then, footsteps. And then, someone’s hands reaching for him, pulling him upright.
“Careful,” a voice, “You fell off the stage.”
It had to have happened.
Two of them, circling the same damn tower, iterum atque iterum, playing cat and mouse. Clara sitting on top of it, legs dangling in the air.
When the bullet digs into his side, he almost laughs.
Clumsily, he takes Artemy’s hand, still wielding the scalpel, and guides to his abdomen. Presses through the fabric to the burning up skin, until it draws a hiss of pain from him.
Artemy looks at him, furrowed brows and a guarded expression. Layers and layers of it, mistrust and hesitance. Not enough time. Not nearly.
“You’re feverish,” he says gruffly. His other hand goes to Daniil’s forehead. “It’s gotten infected.”
Concern deepens his frown.
“No …” He is, deliriously so. His brain is aflame. He feels like a scream is pulling his mind apart, as if in violent protest. But he opens his eyes, despite it, just to watch Burakh’s face, study it for signs of understanding, “You’d said—you’d said you knew the lines. That you could see them. And—and right here, look, look.” He presses the hand even tighter, pain dulling into one expansive wave of dull sensation. “Your own cut. Your own line. Can you see it?”
Their eyes meet. Something in Burakh’s expression shutters. Fear—then, at last, something else.
Daniil’s grip loosens, dizziness winning over his will. But he thinks it was enough.
“Oynon,” Artemy says, voice distant. Then, “No, no, don’t sleep.”
Well, he’s falling. Down from the Polyhedron, through the gauze of fog, down and down, ’til there’s nothing left but broken bones scattered over the steppe and a body on the wooden floor.
“Danya. Don’t sleep.”
He blinks. The spine of the ceiling curves, dark and looming above.
“You …” this cottony silence again, between them, “call me that?”
There’s a pause, or there isn’t, time trickling slowly and deceptively. It dawdles ’til an answer comes.
“Not yet,” says Artemy, quiet.
“Oh.” Daniil’s hand finds his again, locking weakly around it; no strength to it. His vision swims in red, head falling back. Something clouds his speech; blood or simply a sensation of—cotton? in his mouth. He coughs weakly. “I’m …” Edges of words elude him, slipping away in a haze. Is it the twyrine? “I’m very tired.”
The eyes close. There isn’t—anything else. Left. That he can do.
He thinks he hears the Haruspex call his name again. Feels nothing more.
He wakes up folded into rags in the austere bed deep in the Lair, sticky with sweat and weak but starkly clear-headed. The fever is gone. The wound is sewn shut.
He doesn’t have to ask for the Polyhedron to be preserved—Aglaya informs him of it as a deed already done. It’s disorienting. He feels—mostly—like he’s drifting in water, body carried by the current with no control over the directions.
“We win,” she says, smiling, and he struggles to understand it.
Night falls again, blue-grey and unearthly. He stands at its edges, the brink of it.
Holds his breath.
Like a shiver, or cut, right through him. He turns in the night wind.
Burakh, closer already than expected, reaches for him. Touches his face.
It’s almost painful. Perhaps more so than if it were a strike. Struck, he’d at least know how to progress—to harbour resentment or deflect from it into the usual apathy.
Instead he inhales unevenly, and shuts his eyes. The blooming twyre dizzies, but the point of touch is grounding.
His words, still, come clouded and vague, “This has happened before.”
He sees it, himself, iterated over reflections of this: shot in the steppe like a wounded animal feeling the trap; hanged at first light before morning, with only a letter to send from the grey light of the cell in the Capital.
“Not like this,” Artemy’s voice is rough and curt. Hopeful again. “You never stayed.”
He blinks. “I can’t stay. It’s not how this works.”
Artemy is shaking his head, face pinched, a gesture as though he wants to reach for him with his other hand. Instead he lets it fall to the side.
Dankovsky looks down. Cold, it’s so wretchedly cold.
“There’s something wrong with me,” he says, slowly. “Something missing.”
He gestures vaguely to his chest with his numb left hand. The soul’s mechanics mirror the body’s. A cold line from his hands, inside. Were he a menkhu, knowing the lines, he’d cut himself open and see in; open the ribs to reveal nothing.
“I don’t see that,” Artemy says, so maddeningly stubborn.
“Well, I’ve always said you’re blind. I—” It can’t leave his throat. Sounds off and empty, stilted like borrowed words. Poorly delivered. “This town isn’t mine anymore. Not human anymore.”
Artemy’s face twists. “Danya. We’re not—”
Human, goes unspoken.
The simplicity of it undoes his resolve.
I am human, he’d shouted to Clara, days or years ago. As if it mattered. Cogito ergo sum.
Sentio, ergo sum humanum. He raises his eyes.
“… No,” he says, “I suppose not.”
He pulls them into the steppe, away from the frozen fugitives on their aimless paths. He’s never noticed it before, how time halted and traps them mid-motion. How cloudy and unseeing their faces were.
It’s still wrong. He’s aware, dimly, that it won’t hold, whatever thread has them twisted together now. It’s too thready. Unraveling.
The wind picks up, and with it, a haze of red dim particles rises into flight. The twyre, luminescent in the hazy unnatural night.
“You could get drunk just by breathing,” Daniil observes, inanely, as he stumbles in the grass. Artemy throws him a look, which he belatedly learns to recognise as amusement.
He’d thought it was stilted earlier—following the motions without conviction. But now he’s truly at a loss. I don’t know how to do this, he thinks, and holds himself from saying it.
“What,” he says instead, choked on twyre, tugging on his cravat.
He shakes his head. Turns to face Daniil again, and takes his left hand in his. He flexes the fingers, instinctively, lacking feeling. He’s close to voicing it, this way or other—a hollow chest, or however it went—but Artemy takes the words from him, unclasping the glove and tugging it off, roughly.
He almost jerks his hand away. The sting of wind is shocking. The skin itself pale, unmarked. No blood.
“What are you—”
“Shut it.” He undoes the other glove, and tosses them both to the ground.
Daniil sighs, “You and your manners.”
Artemy kneels on the ground, and pulls Daniil with him. He goes without protest, a tight, fatal feeling in his chest.
Haruspex presses the heel of his right hand to the ground, covering it whole with his own. “Feel it? The Town’s pulse.”
He’s almost too distracted by the rough, warm touch of Artemy’s skin on his to focus.
But then, there it is. Low, rhythmic. Strangely familiar.
“I can,” he says, not as much jolted as simply moved by it. “You’d meant it literally—the heart of the land. When you went to the Abattoir—”
“That’s not all, oynon.”
Clumsily, shifting on his knees, Artemy takes Daniil’s other hand and puts it to his own chest. What was it about hands? His left hand—
“It’s the same,” Daniil says hoarsely. Artemy nods.
“Yours, too,” he says, abandoning the ground to touch Daniil. “That’s how I knew. That I wasn’t going insane. We are connected, it all is. And unending.”
What was it about hands?
When I look at you, I get the feeling that nature is playing jokes on us. It’s as if both the left and the right hand have clutched the head to realise for the first time that they are two parts of a single whole.
He can’t say it. Instead he squeezes Artemy’s hand.
“I’ll remember,” he says, earnest. “I’ll remember this.”
A shadow crosses Artemy’s face. For a moment, he thinks he’d made a mistake.
Then he’s pulled forward, close. Fearing if he moves, something will shatter, he shuts his eyes and holds on till he can.
Listlessly, he says, “I don’t believe you. And I don’t like you. Actually, that’s too mild a statement. I feel an innate resentment toward you.”
Her face twists into something like a smug, mocking smile.
From the edge of the stage, a sigh. “I don’t like you, either, girl of faith.” A pause. “But not just you. I’m not sure I know how to love.”
He laughs, sharp and jarring, and too loud, either for the theatre or the empty night. An ugly, desperate, choking sound.
“You don’t know how to love,” Daniil chokes out, leaning heavily on the proskenion. “You—”
He crosses the stage, or room, and crouches near the edge of it. Hesitant, puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Artemy,” he says, and the name, the well-worn fondness of it, makes Burakh startle, wary, and look him in the face. In the flimsy candlelight, shadow draws long deep lines in his face, like incisions.
“You don’t know,” Dankovsky says, squeezing his arm, “how to do anything but.”
It floods out of you like blood, ‘til you bleed dry.
He’s dead again. His face looks younger, somehow, lines smoothed in unconsciousness—Daniil frowns. Draws his thumb past one gristly cheekbone. Unconsciousness? It’s involuntary, somehow, to think of him like he is merely sleeping. Absent, momentarily. Able, still, to return.
His hand stills. He must, Dankovsky thinks, the very doubt almost unbearable. He must be.
“Is this because of me?”
The Changeling sighs, “Now, that’s self-centred. There’s a plague, Daniil.”
He shakes his head. “I did something wrong. I must have.” Frowns. “We came so close.”
“Close is relative. And you die, too,” she offers. “More often than you realise.”
“I realise,” he says tersely. He can picture her smile, thin-lipped and half-mocking.
“But there’s more to it,” he goes on, fisting his hand in his lap. He’s sitting on the edge of the cot, staring at the grimy floor. “If I’m the death, and he’s the life in this—”
“Oh, you do,” she says, “have a flair for pathos.”
“And you’re the in between.”
There’s no answer. Either he’s right, or the tiredly conjured manifestation of his conversation partner has no comment to offer.
“Then, this,” Dankovsky says, “this makes no sense. It’s like ... cat and mouse. I choose a way, and it leads nowhere.”
Blindfolded, Artemy called himself. Myopic. But Dankovsky feels his sight deceive him.
“It’s rotten work,” he says to the swevery and twyre he cuts with a knife to the instructions left in Artemy’s notes: the length of a femur, see-through sandy feathers of young stalks tangling with his fingers, as though in affection, “staying.”
It won’t reply, or it will take a long time to speak in its own incompatible words; with yellow dust of pollen smudging the untrained hand that crushes it to make panacea for the last of the sick. It will say, Dankovsky thinks, something along the lines of, How so?
He can’t really explain it. Not in so many words.
“Humility,” Clara reminds him, at length. “You’re not a leader.”
He sets his jaw. “So I need it to end—his way?”
“What’s his way?”
“Killing the Polyhedron,” he says, without conviction. “But it feels—counterintuitive.”
“Well, it would, to you. Wouldn’t it.”
He fastens the cork on the last vial of panacea.
Wipes his forehead.
“Counterintuitive,” he insists. “Because I’ve done this before, and I could never remember. Not fully.”
“Things could go different now. They deviate, always.”
“So I should just risk it? Risk having to start all over …” he trails off, suddenly hollow. “Oh, God, have I? Started over before? Forgotten. Statistically speaking, I must have—I—how many times?”
The lack of answer seems to mock him.
It would be easier, he realises, to break out of the pattern alone. It ought to be the only way—or the only way he’d consider. It isn’t one he considers now.
A noise startles him. When he looks up, his eyes red-rimmed eyes prickle from exhaustion, and he’s no longer alone.
A boy, in the corner. Large, narrowed eyes darting between Daniil and the covered body behind him. In defiance or question.
Daniil exhales. “Where’s your sister, Sticky?” he asks.
He shakes his head, then collapses it into his hands. “Interconnected, he said. Me, him, you, even. The goddamned earth. I can … I can almost see it. But I lack something. I don’t know how to connect it.”
There’s a pause. “Well,” Clara says slowly. “Leave it to him, then.”
They find her at dusk, hovering by the abandoned carriage.
“It’s okay,” he says quietly, and stretches out his hand. “Don’t be scared, Murky. I’ll find him.”
Hypnagogic, pertaining to the experience of the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, a state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. (The opposite transitional state from sleep into wakefulness is described as hypnopompic.) Mental phenomena that may occur during this phase of “threshold consciousness” include hallucinations, lucid thought, lucid dreaming, and sleep paralysis—
Up on the scene, a little danse macabre. Disjointed images, sharp and fleeting and full of dim warm light, rhythmic footsteps on the wood. Clara’s stories, blending into one another: when I was six, I loved a boy, when I was seven, I had a sister, when I was eight, I died. Then I kept dying.
He’s stumbling in Latin, half-conscious, words like rain against the window in sleep. Can’t move, can’t look away, “Ave … ave at …”
But someone keeps speaking to him.
“No,” he says, stubbornly. “That isn’t how it happens.”
“Yes, yes, and you didn’t remember me. Tried to shoot me, you bastard, tried to ward me off, and then you died on me, because of your shitty stitching.”
“I didn’t remember, either, not at first. Not a word. But Murky did. Remembered you. Said you carried her home, put her to bed and gave her a beetle. I couldn’t get it. When. When the fuck, and why, would Bachelor Dankovsky deign to pick beetles for my Mishka. And Sticky knew how to use my equipment, and where you kept your diagrams. There were letters in your coat. I’d feel bad, Danya, only they were addressed to me. Each and every one.”
A hand on his shoulder, holding tight. Something pushes at the chest. It hurts, presses. Lips to lips, cold, rough, until the air fills his lungs till it’s agony, and it bursts out of him in a cough. His heart hurts.
A hand forces his head up, forces water and something else, vile and putrid, into his mouth. He chokes, but swallows it down. It burns down his insides like—
“Fucking … rat poison.”
“Hush, now. Hold still.”
But how difficult to hold still. He hears footsteps around him on the wood of the stage—is he on the floor? The ceiling, again, feels so far—but they are herded away. Inconsequential.
Someone’s rough warm hands unclench his own from rigor mortis, and grasp them.
“However,” he says, “when I look at you. I get the feeling that nature is playing jokes on us. It’s as if both the left and the right hand have clutched the head to realise for the first time—for fuck’s sake, Dankovsky, wake up.”
And he does.
Breathes in, roughly, achingly, “That’s my line.”
This time he can hear his own voice, though hardly recognisable.
He opens his eyes. The world is hazy and blurred, uneven. Through cataract-bleary eyes, he watches Artemy till the other relents, his forehead falling to Dankovsky’s aching chest.
“You did it,” he says hoarsely, addressing either him or his newly beating heart. Unclear. Not enough data points for conclusive—
The light of the lantern spills around them like a shroud. It’s night, outside of Stillwater. He’s not in the coffin, but laid out on his own bed.
Dankovsky’s fingers grope blindly, then clutch: one at Artemy’s hair, too tight for the lack of proper feeling, the other the fabric of his clothes, pulling weakly.
He goes pliant, lying heavily next to him, half-on-top of him, face still buried in his neck. As if, Daniil thinks blearily, to feel the pulse point.
He could say so many things to him. If only he knew how to.
“You said it wrong,” he says instead.
Artemy bursts with coarse laughter. His breath is warm against Daniil’s throat, as he manages something like a curse.
Mutters, “Bad memory.”
“Is that so?” Clumsily, Dankovsky takes his face in both hands. He’s no gloves. Artemy’s skin is bristly, rough in touch. Warm.
He can trace the lines pulled by his smile.
“You know me,” he says. “Artemy no like big words.”
Dankovsky looks him in the eyes. “Mendax es.”
A bad ending, late and failed. He knows it, dimly. It’s dark and dusty in the world like the inside of a train car, or a coffin, the Pest having eaten through it to corrosion.
They’d pulled the curtains shut. Artemy still holds him.
In a hushed voice, in a hushed house, in the spherical room, he talks.
“We remember a shared past, which has never happened. Which has happened, independently, in our heads, a million splintered times, in a million broken fragments. We’re stuck in a dream. There’s a question to pose.”
Artemy noses at his neck. His breath is hot on Daniil’s skin. “Is it a good one?
“Wrong answer,” Daniil says, but lets his eyes fall shut with a sigh. “The question is: who’s dreaming?”
There’s a beat.
“Damn,” Artemy mutters. Dankovsky almost smiles.
“If it’s one of us,” he goes on, his hand resuming its rhythmical movement. Tracing lines of his own, along the planes of Artemy’s skin, his ribs, forearms and shoulder blades, “that one has to remember. But if we take turns—if we share it, somehow, and we must—then it has to be all of us.”
Artemy is quiet.
“Are we real?” he whispers, uncharacteristically meek. “Are we the real—you know.”
“I know,” Daniil says, choked. At length, he goes on, with a small laugh, “What is real? That which cannot be replaced.”
I will vanish; others will come here, what is that? An old question.
Turning, committing to touch, he breathes out, “Feels real enough to me.”
They walk in silence, arm in arm.
“Take my hand,” he says.
Clara waits at the top.
They stand next to each other, arm in arm.
His eyes open first.
He’s standing on the catwalk. A trail of stage lights, dispersing the dark below.
He looks down onto the page. Ave atque vale, the scrawl says, running across the overriding trains of thought and dialogue, kheerken.
With two trembling hands, he tears the script in two.
Then steps forward and down, against direction.
The lines strain and break.
He falls to his knees, strings cut.
It’s dark. Perhaps it’s the eerie dusk of the Kin magic swallowing the steppe.
Perhaps simply night.
The scent of blooming twyre fills his lungs, dizzying. Wind pushes the thin long stalks into slow movement. It pulls at his dirty clothes and unruly hair, warm and insistent. Curious, inspecting, licking at the new idea in it. A life. Around him, the twyre sings, dimly, though it ought to have died and quieted.
But so had he.
Instead he’s kneeling on the ground. Body so arrestingly physical: the cut of the grass on his skin, the hammering of his heart. In the distance behind him, there’s a dim warm light, spilling into the open like a cut.
But he’s afraid to turn and face it.
Instead he shuts his eyes. Bows his head, as in surrender. The wind no longer pushes at him; and nothing pulls. A quiet has settled over his head. What now?
He shudders, thinking in circles. A word.
Again, and real, this time. If fate allows.
Someone, suddenly close. Pulls him up form his knees.
Says, voice well known by now, “Come home.”
“Well, we are objects in a wind that stopped, is my view. There are regular towns and irregular towns, there are wounded towns and sober towns and fiercely remembered towns, there are useless but passionate towns that battle on, there are towns where the snow slides from the roofs of the houses with such force that victims are killed, but there are no empty towns (just empty scholars) and there is no regret. Now move along.”
— Anne Carson
The bullet gets him in the left arm.