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.