The people who move in the margins, the pretenders and tyros who think themselves sorcerers because they’ve read a few books or called up a forest spirit, believe that the body and the mind are enemies; that if you choose to walk the path of magic, you must neglect the strength of your body. This is true of some of us, but it’s very risky. How can you fast for nine days and nights if your body is already close to starvation? Could you wrestle a spirit if you couldn’t even wrestle a man? Age and sometimes corruption take its toll, but there is no law forbidding a magician from being physically powerful. Valentin is proof of that.
With us it’s often hard to sift out the whispers that are true and those that are just true enough to lead you into a field of lies. I had heard that Valentin was anything from a Cossack descended from generations of Cossacks to the son of Rasputin himself. Whatever the truth, he was as far from the image of the scrawny, bookish sorcerer as it is possible to be. If you had put him in uniform and slung a rifle over his shoulder, thugs would have backed away before making a run at any building he guarded. He looked like the man who finished a bar fight and then took the wallets of the men he had beaten senseless to buy himself drinks. He had the sort of looks that always make women run as fast as they can – either sensibly away, or right into his arms, thrilled by his aura of danger and what an American had once told me they called “ugly sexy”.
My legs were stiff from sitting on the pavement. We strolled along the sidewalk, hands stuffed in our pockets against the cold edge of the wind, sharper now as the sun began to set. People hurried past us, at times stepping into the street to give us room.
“So,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve heard.”
Some of it was testing me, to see if the contacts we’d used to arrange this meeting were as reliable as each of us thought. Some of it was an old game, the sort of exchange needed among people who carefully protected their names, among whom even asking for a name was at best rude and most likely a threat.
“I can discount the story about your being the bastard child of Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless,” I said. “More credible reports say that you tracked a leshii messenger through the forest and caught it. Some say it was a devil. Records list you as a hero of the battle of Stalingrad, though under another name, which I assume is false.”
He stared at me for a moment; I tensed, ready for an attack, and then he threw back his head and laughed. He wiped tears from his eyes. “Baba Yaga,” he said. “What idiot rumors some people will spread. I will tell you for nothing that some of what you heard is true.”
“A leshii? Forgive me for being forward, but you seem more powerful than if you had caught a forest-dweller.”
“Not a leshii. An angel.”
The word he used was not Russian, but Aramaic. Angel and messenger were the same; I didn’t know how he meant the word. “Meaning?”
“I am a good tracker,” he said. “I was taught by my father. I found its footprint in the forest. I sharpened a new knife, and cut the messenger’s footprint out of the fresh earth. I brought the footprint back to my home, and drove the knife through the footprint, after performing a few minor rituals I won’t bore you by reciting.”
Meaning, of course, that he wasn’t about to spell out for me the specific rituals he had performed to bind the messenger. Magicians rarely disclose their tricks, even to fellow travelers. I was a bit surprised by his account, though; I knew that you could catch humans, and sometimes spirits, by collecting their footprints, but I’d never heard of a messenger being substantial or perhaps foolish enough to leave one behind.
“And then?” I asked. “You bargained with it?”
“I did not bargain. It was my prisoner. I kept it for three days and three nights.”
“And at the end of three days, it told you its secrets?”
Valentin smirked. “At the end? From the beginning, it begged me to listen to its secrets. I bound it to my home. For three days and three nights, I raped it. I violated it in every way you can imagine. I was sore when it was done, but I was much better off than the messenger. The spell of the knife kept it helpless. It took three days before I was tired of it, and yes, when I was finished it gave me what I wanted to let it go. I was a koldun before, a cunning-man with a few threads of knowledge, but I had true power afterward. And I kept the knife.”
We had stopped walking. Valentin stared down at me, watching to see how I would react. I didn’t know how much of his story was true; that’s part of the game we play. Enough to keep me guessing, and perhaps it was the whole truth, though if it was, he had made himself some very powerful enemies. Perhaps that was the message he meant to send me: that if he had lived this long in spite of such danger, I had better put aside any thoughts that I could be any threat to him.
“I hope you’ve gotten it out of your system, then,” I said.
His eyes measured me; then he laughed, loud enough that some of the people rushing by us turned their heads warily to look. “Three days was more than enough,” he said. “There are plenty of girls willing if I wanted that. You have nothing to worry about. Now, as to you, my friend, there are many interesting stories that I have gathered.”
“You can forget the one about my being the Wandering Jew,” I said. “And by the way, I find that one very unimaginative.”
“Bah, that I knew. I met the Wandering Jew once. During the war.”
“You did?” I asked, genuinely interested. “I never have. I thought he was, what’s the phrase, an old wives’ tale?”
“I’ve no idea. He told me he was the Wandering Jew. He had power, and he didn’t seem insane.” Valentin shrugged. “His Russian was very bad. He was pretty good with a rifle, though.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was shot in the Tatinskaya Raid. He died, so he must not have been the Wandering Jew after all. I always wondered who he really was.”
“If you really want to know, and you remember where he’s buried, I can ask,” I said.
Valentine waved his hand in the universal gesture of not important. “So, not the Wandering Jew,” he said. “You have no name. You hid it away where no one can find it, or turned it inside out, yet you found a way to retain your power even without drawing on it. You made a bargain with Koschei the Deathless and bought the knowledge of how to protect your name from prying ears. Your name cannot be pronounced by human tongues, and those who attempt it die horribly. There are all kinds of stupid stories, and the truth I am able to sift from this nonsense is that you are nameless.”
“I’ll tell you this for nothing,” I said. “It’s not a trick. My name is not hidden in a needle in an egg in a duck and I don’t remember the rest of it. I am nameless. If you were me, and the Devil offered to make you Tsar in exchange for your name, you’d be shit out of luck. But I think that you already know this, because whatever spells you cast at me when I was drawing on the sidewalk were about as useful as trying to clutch a handful of fog.”
He stepped back, still staring at me, but now there was an element of – respect? wariness? that I hadn’t seen before. “You could feel it?”
“I didn’t live this long by offering my back to those with knives, Valentin. If you didn’t try something when I was distracted you’re an idiot, and that’s one of the few stories I didn’t hear about you.”
He ran his eyes over me again, thoughtful. I wondered if the messenger had seen that same look on his face right after he drove the knife into its footprint.
“All right,” he said, finally. “We don’t need to talk business out here. Somewhere warmer?”
“Not your house,” I said.
He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder hard enough that I missed a step. “You know, I don’t trust you,” he said. “But I like you. No, we’ll go somewhere with good food, where the waiters mind their own business. And we’ll talk.”