The meeting

And at some point I guess I’ll have to explain who Valentin is.

            “Are you sure this is it?” Valentin said.

I showed him the piece of paper in my hand, scrawled on both sides with Cyril­lic let­ters. “That’s what the direc­tions say. We’re sup­posed to bypass the usual secu­rity, but keep your eyes open.”

We walked up a gravel dri­ve­way for what seemed like miles. Petrakos’ dacha looked neat and invit­ing. “I was almost expect­ing it to be on hen’s legs,” said Valentin.

Maybe it is and we just can’t see them,” I said. “You don’t think he’s got a glam­our on it?”

Of course he does. I was just expect­ing to see through it.”

He’s got a lot of resources,” I said, and sud­denly we were at the front door, an arch of bleached oak twice my height. I’m not that tall, but it was still pretty intim­i­dat­ing. There was an old-fashioned turnkey in place of a door­bell. Valentin reached out and turned it before I could stop him. A harsh bell rang some­where in the dacha, far from us.

A man in a char­coal pin­striped suit opened the door. Not Petrakos, of course, but one of his ser­vants. In some way I’d expected his but­ler to wear a morn­ing coat, as if we were in Eng­land. The ser­vant was one of those peo­ple who looked middle-aged at thirty and stayed that way with only the slight­est decline well into his sixties.

He held the door for us and allowed us to step into an entry­way just large enough for the three of us. An arch­way opened onto a slightly larger room. “I apol­o­gize,” he said in Russ­ian, “but I must ask for your weapons. They will be kept safe for you.”

I didn’t want to hand over my knife, but there was no polite way to refuse; besides, if Petrakos turned nasty I wasn’t sure the knife would make any dif­fer­ence. The but­ler took my knife and Valentin’s black rope and placed them in a cup­board. He bowed and made a ges­ture that invited us to step through the archway.

We were in another foyer, sim­i­larly dec­o­rated. An arched hall­way stepped ahead of us. “May I also take your coats?” the but­ler asked. “I believe you will find the house suf­fi­ciently warm that you will not need them.”

Valentin shrugged out of his anorak before I could respond and handed it to the but­ler. I didn’t have much of an option other than to take off my coat as well. There was a row of coathooks along one wall that I hadn’t spot­ted before; it was on these that the but­ler hung our dis­carded coats.

Some­thing nagged at me. There was noth­ing rude or unusual about ask­ing your guests to please set aside their coats and weapons when vis­it­ing a pow­er­ful man at his home, and yet some­thing about his actions seemed familiar.

May I ask you to remove your shoes?” he asked. “I apol­o­gize for the impo­si­tion, but the weather out­side is less than ideal, and Mr. Petrakos would pre­fer that you did not track salt and mud into his home. Some of the car­pets in the dacha are quite del­i­cate and grit would dam­age them.”

Valentin leaned against the wall and pulled off one of his boots. “Valentin,” I said. “I don’t think we want to do this.”

Why not?” he said, and yanked off the other boot. “Don’t you ever take your shoes off at home?”

This isn’t home.”

Mr. Petrakos prefers that guests remove their shoes,” the but­ler said. “It is the cus­tom of the house.”

Valentin dropped his boots on the floor and stepped through the arch­way. Past him I could see a long hall­way that turned at the end, with more rooms like the one we were in, prob­a­bly with alcoves in each like the one here, where the but­ler care­fully tucked away our boots, and some­thing glit­ter­ing in the ceiling.

Valentin, wait,” I said, but he was already past me, through the arch­way, with the but­ler fol­low­ing def­er­en­tially behind him.

I locked my elbow around the butler’s neck and drove a foot into the back of his knee. He buck­led, and I fol­lowed him down to the floor, hard, shov­ing my other arm against the back of his neck. He clawed at me as I pressed an arm against his wind­pipe. He was human after all, or some­thing like it.

Valentin shouted at me. I ignored him. I squeezed the butler’s throat until his face turned dark; then I let up a bit, allow­ing him to suck in just enough air that he wouldn’t die.

Cus­tom of the house, eh? Where have I heard that before? What were you going to take next, our jew­elry?” I slammed the side of his head against the ele­gant tile floor. Out of the cor­ner of my eye I saw Valentin flinch. “Then our clothes. Right? You were prob­a­bly going to give us some song and dance about wear­ing spe­cial smok­ing jack­ets instead. Cus­tom of the house.”

Valentin grabbed at my shoul­der. I shook him off. “We’d have been hung up on those hooks like sides of beef and taken to Petrakos in a sack.”

What the hell—“

Do me a favor. Count the arch­ways between the front door and that bend in the hall. And tell me if you don’t see a hook hang­ing from the ceil­ing down there.”

Silence, then, and I knew that Valentin was count­ing and finally get­ting the same num­ber I did: seven gate­ways, and yes, that glim­mer far down the cor­ri­dor was a hook, or more likely two, set in the ceil­ing. Now I remem­bered. It was a very old way to strip ene­mies of their power, one I hadn’t even read about in cen­turies: lure them across the thresh­old, remove their pos­ses­sion at every gate­way, their clothes, their orna­ments, their weapons, every­thing they car­ried, until they were naked and alone, like a corpse read­ied for the grave, and then they were help­less. It is the cus­tom of this house. I didn’t doubt that for a minute.

Heads up,” Valentin whis­pered in Eng­lish. I heard the foot­steps as soon as he did. With­out let­ting go of the choke­hold, I turned slightly so that I could see down the hallway.

Alexan­der Petrakos was dressed in a dark suit, like his but­ler, but nobody could pos­si­bly mis­take him for hired help. Even some­one blind to magic could feel the per­sonal power that radi­ated from him, the sheer pres­ence of the man. If he’d stayed in the every­day world he would have been a cap­tain of indus­try, or a politi­cian, top­ping the lists of ‘the world’s most influ­en­tial men’ and ‘the world’s most eli­gi­ble bach­e­lors’ in the vapid media. Valentin and I, with our eyes trained to see such things, per­ceived that there was far more to him than a strong per­son­al­ity and looks. Valentin backed away; I don’t think he even real­ized he had done it.

Please let go of my manser­vant,” he said in Eng­lish. So much for pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with Valentin.

I’m sur­prised that he’s so weak,” I said.

Petrakos smiled. “It’s a waste of effort to keep spe­cial ser­vants around for every func­tion. I promise you that if you don’t allow him to breathe you will kill him, and that will put me to unnec­es­sary effort.”

I looked up at Valentin. His face was gray. “All right,” I said. “But you need to give back what­ever was stolen from my friend with your lit­tle trick with the gates. Agreed?”

Instead of a reply, Petrakos motioned behind him. A young man, hardly more than a boy, dark-haired, dark-eyed, so pretty that he even over­shad­owed Petrakos’s good looks, stepped into view. He ignored me and ran his eyes over Valentin, not just undress­ing him, strip­ping him. Valentin backed up half a step and then the boy was on him. He wrapped him­self around Valentin, fin­gers wind­ing through his scruffy hair, bod­ies and mouths pressed together. I’ve seen lovers sep­a­rated for years greet­ing each other with less hunger than Petrakos’s boy kiss­ing Valentin. The sickly gray color faded away from Valentin’s skin.

I barely real­ized that I had let go of Petrakos’s but­ler. I stood up as the man rolled onto his stom­ach and gagged, suck­ing in lung­fuls of air. His face, too, came back to its nor­mal color.

Let him go,” I said. “What is that thing?”

Petrakos made a click­ing noise with his tongue and the boy let go of Valentin. My com­pan­ion stag­gered and grabbed at the wall for sup­port. The boy smirked and returned to his master’s side. I was sure I saw him lick a drop of some­thing bright from one cor­ner of his mouth.

Cold,” Valentin said. He shivered.

Every­thing taken has been returned to him,” said Petrakos. He stared at me, his gaze tak­ing in as much of me as the boy had of Valentin, but with very dif­fer­ent intent. “You appear to have lost noth­ing. Interesting.”

That is some­thing that we should dis­cuss. I have a propo­si­tion that you will find very attractive.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “A propo­si­tion. Come into my house, then, and we will talk in a more com­fort­able setting.”

The but­ler had man­aged to get to his feet, although he looked and acted exactly as you would expect a man stran­gled to within an inch of his death to act. Petrakos nod­ded at him, appar­ently a dis­missal, and the man walked down the hall­way as fast as he could with­out break­ing into a run.

You didn’t answer my ques­tion,” I said. I jerked my head toward the boy. “What is he?”

Dead,” Petrakos said. “That is, the body is dead. He is rid­den by some­thing that finds this form par­tic­u­larly attrac­tive. I am sure I don’t have to explain fur­ther. Would your friend like time alone with him?”

Valentin clutched at my arm. “No. Valentin should be with us for this meet­ing,” I said, before he could speak. I didn’t doubt that given half a chance he would have gone off with the thing that wore a beau­ti­ful boy’s corpse as its cloth­ing, and then I would have been col­lect­ing what was left of him in the morn­ing for burial.

The thing pouted, but spun on its heel and fol­lowed the but­ler down the hall­way. Petrakos smiled at me. He ignored Valentin, which was just as well; Valentin was just the go-between, and the more I kept him out of the con­ver­sa­tion the bet­ter the chance that he would walk out of this meet­ing in the same con­di­tion he walked in.

Please, this way,” he said. He swung open a door I hadn’t noticed before. I fol­lowed him, drag­ging Valentin along behind me.

 

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