Gray stone facade, four stories, bars on the windows, canted roof for snowfall, single front entrance with a heavy door. It sat squarely at the top of the T-shaped intersection, with a clear view of all three roads. Identical to the two buildings on either side of it, and the two beyond that, wall to wall to wall, with minuscule patches of dead grass and snow around the front steps. Plain and utilitarian. Standard design from the glory days of the Soviet Union — at least on the outside. He had no doubt that Tarasenko had extensively renovated the interior, if the incomplete schematics he had acquired were any indication.
Defensive wards stained each corner of the building, roof-level and street-level, painted onto the stone with a combination of salt water, mud, and blood. To the mundane eye, they looked like odd folk art or graffiti — but he saw them for what they were. Nasty, aggressive, spiky wards. Not nice, at all.
But that was Tarasenko. Why simply encourage would-be thieves to Look Away when he could maim them, leaving them with permanently damaged minds and spirits?
Vesa crouched around the corner of a low, snow-covered stone wall, not quite a block from Tarasenko’s building, in the shadow of another development that looked almost exactly the same. The street was nearly deserted, the windows mostly dark; too cold for tourists, and the locals were up the hill getting ready to party. He sucked on a chip of ice and waited, messenger bag tucked tight against his feet, the sky gradually darkening overhead. The woolen mask rolled down low around his ears and the wool jacket and gloves were enough to keep him warm for now.
The sounds of celebration echoed down the streets and between the buildings. Up the hill to the north, up the cobblestone street lined with boutique shops and restaurants, the gold and blue-green dome of old Saint Andrew’s Church gleamed. The windows blazed with candlelight, and the saint’s banner rippled in the low breeze. The procession would begin soon.
Nine months. Nine months of organizing, of bribing informants, of planting misinformation, of digging through moldy blueprints, of waiting and watching. Nine months to get Tarasenko out of town with a false lead, to make sure that his wife and his mistress and his teenage daughter were all out of the house, leaving only a few guards on-site. … Nine months since Rabbi Leifkowitzki had come to him with a hint, barely a rumor. Shorshei ha-Shemot, he nearly whispered. It is found .…
And it was found. And now it would be returned to its rightful owners.
For years, the Rabbi had helped Vesa recover other people’s lost treasures. Now Vesa could finally begin to repay that debt … not that Leifkowitzki saw it that way ….
He broke another chip of ice off the wall and popped it into his mouth before his breath could warm enough to form a visible cloud. The sun touched his back as it sank lower in the west, streaming down the street and squarely hitting the windows of Tarasenko’s building; they turned gold, the metal bars dark streaks.
A flicker of light and shadow and air at the corner of his eye. He turned his head a bit, acknowledging the wisp-thin luonnotar as it twisted and twined with the subtlest air currents. It shifted in shape: now a leaf, then a feather, now a cloud, now something only vaguely human, and back again.
The sprite whispered, twisting and dancing. He listened, eyes narrowed. When the luonnotar finished, twining through the air in front of him like a winged fish, he nodded and reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a small glass vial — flat on the bottom, straight and narrow at the top — and flicked off the cork stopper with his gloved thumb.
The scent of hot sand and curry rose out of the bottle, tinged a faint golden-brown.
The sprite dove and spun around the scent cloud, ecstatic, gathering it up. It rapidly shifted between a dozen different shapes in the blink of an eye and the golden-brown cloud vanished.
With one last grateful touch, sliding along his cheek and ruffling the edge of his hair, the luonnotar danced away into the darkening sky.
Slipping the empty bottle back inside his jacket, Vesa pulled out three more, fitting them into the palm of his hand. Reaching up with his free hand, he pulled off his cap, popped the cork off one bottle, and dumped the contents over his head. He hastily pulled his cap back on as the cool, purple liquid settled on the top of his skull then began to slowly roll down his scalp. He shivered as the spell settled around him, a cloak only slightly warmer than the surrounding air.
Don’t get dead, Audra had said before he left Boulder.
There will be pain, Elžbieta had warned him, staring into the distance.
Vesa preferred to avoid both, but would take pain over dead any day.
Now, he rose to his feet as the sun disappeared beyond the western horizon. He unrolled the cap into a full mask, covering his mouth, leaving only his eyes visible. The knots in his stomach tightened. He slung his messenger bag over one shoulder, and made his way up the street to Tarasenko’s building. The windows were all dark, except for a faint illumination that spilled through from a room at the rear of the first floor. Steady, even steps; not too fast, not to slow.
A car came around the corner from behind him, speeding passed. It took a sharp right at the intersection, slid on the ice, straightened, and roared off.
He paused at the corner, looking up and down each street: left and right and behind him, and left and right again.
He crossed the street and headed left down the block until he reached the end of the row of buildings. Around the corner, and it was only another thirty feet to the narrow service lane that ran along the back, separating this row of buildings from the next.
The purple liquid slid further down his scalp, warming almost imperceptibly. He offered a quick prayer to Mielikki, shadow-loving mistress of the hunt, and his ancestral haltija, and hastened his steps.
He hung a right into the alley. Trash cans here and there, a few overflowing. Back doors to each of the buildings, some with lights overhead, here and there piles of shoveled snow and patches of ice untouched by the sun, and a few empty porches high up on the third and fourth stories. Passed the first building, passed the second. One more and he would be at the rear of Tarasenko’s building.
With a squeak and a loud creak, the back door of the third building opened and an old woman stepped out, a heavy paper bag in her thin arms.
The woman stepped out into the alley, awkwardly bracing the bag against her chest. She took a handful of unsteady steps over the ice and bent to set her bag beside the trash can. Straightening, she pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her front pocket.
Her eyes swept the alley as she lit the cigarette, hands shaking. Her gaze touched on her neighbors’ doors, the trash cans, slid right over Vesa towards the near end of the street. She shivered and took another pull on the cigarette. Vesa held still, breathing shallow. There was a shout from inside the house. Grumbling, the old woman dropped her cigarette and ground it out with her heel. Still muttering, she turned and stepped gingerly back through the door. It closed with a squeak and a creak, and a lock thunked into place.
Exhaling long and low, Vesa walked the remaining few steps to the rear of Tarasenko’s building. He stopped on the far side of the door, just out of range of both the security light and the spiky, nasty ward that glared from above the door.
One minute. Two.
The sounds of cheering and singing rolled down from the church.
The liquid slid further along his scalp, dampening his hair. It was getting warmer.
Long, slow, careful breaths.
A rumble and a cough, and a delivery truck pulled around the corner and into the alley — just as the sprite had said. It barely fit between the buildings, knocking aside at least one trash can and splitting open a plastic bag as it chugged passed. The headlights swept across him as the truck pulled up to and just passed the door. риба Мельниківці was scrawled across the side, followed by the promise that they carried the best seafood in all of Kiev. The cab doors opened and two men jumped out, one on either side. The passenger — muscled, mustachioed, coat zipped up tight, cap yanked down low over his head — pulled on his gloves as he walked down the side of the truck, passed Vesa, and knocked at the door. He shifted on his feet, breath clouding. He looked around vaguely, gaze shifting, sliding across Vesa and back again to the door.
A voice called through the door. “Tак?” Yes?
“Pакеt,” Mustache snapped, and banged on the door again. Package.
Locks slid back, two, three, four, and then the heavy door swung open. A growling exchange followed as another man stepped out, pistols stuffed into his shoulder holsters; his hands were bare, the tattoo on the back of his left hand visible. A second guard — bulkier and nearly bald — appeared behind him, scowling. Pistols stomped his feet and waved a hand at the truck and then pointed to his watch, berating Mustache for being late — he was missing his football game. Mustache responded with complaints of his own — the people on the street, the snowstorm in Oslo that had delayed the shipment in the first place — only to have their argument cut off by the driver as he hoisted the back gate and yelled at them both to come help.
Still grumbling, Pistols stepped out into the alley, clapping his hands. His silent companion followed, breath clouding.
Vesa inched towards the door, sliding his feet. The liquid grew warmer against his scalp, slipping down towards his ears.
The truck shifted as the driver and Mustache climbed in and carefully hoisted a long, narrow wooden crate down to the waiting guards. Pistols groused at Mustache, at the driver, at Baldy as they swung the box around and made towards the open door. Behind them, clucking his tongue, the driver pulled down the back gate of the truck. It locked with a solid, metallic ka-chunk. He waved, Mustache muttered, and the two climbed back into the cab.
Pistols edged passed Vesa, walking backwards through the door. He slipped on the ice, swore, and hastily righted himself. Baldy chuckled. The guard glared. Baldy shrugged. They continued through the door, Baldy giving a shove as they crossed the threshold.
Vesa flipped around on the balls of his feet, sliding in directly behind Baldy, steps in time with his, so close that the man’s elbows grazed the very front of his jacket. Eyes locked on the ward overhead, Vesa followed them through the door.
Exhaling softly, Vesa felt one of the knots in his stomach loosen.
Still snapping at one another, the men continued further into the building: through a back storage room, down a hallway, around a corner, to a heavy wooden door.
A door covered in wards and invocations. They slashed and curled and heaved across the wood, stained dark red, a wild mix of Norse bind-runes and Hebraic curses and Aztec death mantras.
Pistols muttered low under his breath, finagling the crate to balance against his belly while he half twisted and pressed his left palm to the center of the door. The tattoo — a circle with a star, the tips separated by a jagged break — turned opalescent. A moment later, he hissed and snapped his hand away. A dribble of blood slid down his palm. He sucked at the wound as the door soundlessly opened, parting neatly down the middle.
The purple liquid rolled down passed Vesa’s ears, down his neck.
This is going to hurt.
The guard backed through the door, tugging on the crate.
Baldy hesitated, dragging his feet, bobbing his head at the wards and at the guard’s hand. Another argument ensued, Pistols pulling, Baldy hefting the crate, but refusing to cross the threshold. The yelling grew louder.
The liquid began to evaporate, pooling for a moment in the hollow of his throat before it began to dissipate.
Out of time.
Baldy bent, preparing to set his end of the box on the floor so Pistols could drag it the rest of the way into the room.
The last traces of the Look Away spell evaporated.
Pistols’ eyes widened, fixed on Vesa, and for a split second the guard hesitated.
Vesa dove forward, smashing into Baldy and ramming him through the doorway.
The wards flared, dried blood vaporizing in an iron-scented cloud. Pain spiked up and down his arms and legs and blinding white spots tore through the backs of his eyes. Beneath him, in front of him, Baldy took the brunt of the bind-runes and the curses and the mantras: he gagged and twitched and retched in midair.
They landed hard, half on top of the crate, half on the other guard. They tumbled and rolled, tangling.
Gasping, legs shaking, Vesa threw himself forward, reaching blindly for Pistols. He hit a knee. Reaching out, he slammed one of the glass bottles against the body he could barely see. The guard wrenched away too late. Blinking rapidly, Vesa could just make out the icy blue cloud that spread up from the guard’s thigh. Tiny slivers of glass twinkled as the cloud wrapped around the guard’s torso and then his head. He batted at it madly, briefly, and then collapsed.
Still blinking, Vesa pushed himself upright. He rubbed the back of one hand over his eyes and his vision slowly cleared.
The two guards — Pistols unconscious, Baldy unmoving and bleeding from his ears and nose — plus the crate, half smashed, plus …. Yes.
Books. Books and scrolls and papyri and stone tablets and clay tablets and even stone bowls and woven baskets, geometric patterns speaking of hidden power to those who could understand. The room was smaller than he had expected, only about twenty feet square, but it was lined on three sides with a waist-high counter. Tarasenko’s treasures were displayed on metal stands and glass pyramids and inside decorative cases. The gentle, diffused light from overhead was enough to illuminate the room, but not damage the fragile texts.
He began with the Shorshei ha-Shemot, displayed halfway down the left counter. He pulled a half-dozen large, cloth-lined plastic envelopes from inside his messenger bag, carefully wrapped the Shorshei ha-Shemot in one, and slipped it back inside the bag. The Torah followed next, pulled from the hands of Rabbi Leifkowitzki’s father even as the Nazis slaughtered his congregation and bombed his synagogue.
He made a quick survey of the rest of Tarasenko’s collection; or, at least, this portion of his collection. The man had been aggressively, mercilessly pursuing magical and mystical texts around the world for decades. This vault had to represent only a fraction —
Vesa staggered to a halt, breath catching.
The lettering on the cover was neat, the thirteen-pointed star beneath it glimmering a dull silver. Homeric Hymns with Inspired Commentary by Lady Claudia Willemette.
He carefully lifted the book from its stand. It fit snuggly in his palms. He wrapped it and set it down in his bag alongside the Shorshei ha-Shemot.
Three more bags. Choose quickly.
La Voisin’s Book of Omens, no. The Hidden Book by Zhuge Liang, no. A page from the Almagest of Cleopatra, no. A clay tablet bearing a lost hymn to Ishtar by Enheduanna — yes. The Feast of Michael Scotus by Fra Salimbene, no. A cup belonging to Apollonius of Tyana, no, too big. A page from The First Testament of Honorius, yes. An illuminated, hand-written edition of the Corpus Hermeticum by Ficino himself, yes.
Go. Out of time. Go.
Through the wooden door, the wards exploded and useless. Down the hall. Around the corner —
The third guard was fast, gun out its holster and swinging up even as Vesa loosened his fingers and flung the glass vial. It smashed against his right cheek, tiny glass slivers leaving thin red lines in his flesh as the opalescent black fog billowed out. It rolled across the guard’s cheek and slipped into his nose, into his mouth, into the corners of his eyes.
The gun cracked, the bullet slamming into the corner of the wall beside Vesa. He dove to the side, leaping over the guard as the paralyzed man dropped to the ground, eyes locked and staring.
Almost to the —
Oops. Driver and Mustache peering through the door, and a fourth guard, already charging towards Vesa.
Back the way he had come. Over the paralyzed guard, back around the corner, passed the vault, to the stairs at the far end of the corridor. Up the stairs, two at a time, breath too loud in his ears. He sucked the mask in with every inhalation, but he didn’t dare take it off. Pounding steps behind him, shouts for him to stop. Another crack and another bullet roared passed his head, slamming into the wall at the turn of the staircase. He threw himself around the corner just as something caught his left ankle —
He fell, banging his hip.
Something inside the bag cracked.
Growling, he twisted around. A baton. The guard had tripped him up with a damn police baton. He kicked it away and the guard was on him. He kicked and twisted and bucked and punched, flinging the guard around and slamming him into the wall. The gun rotated in the guard’s hand, towards Vesa. He grabbed the guard’s wrist, yanking hard and smashing his hand into the wall until the gun dropped. A fist in the guard’s belly and the man gurgled, doubling over.
Last bottle. He dropped it at the guard’s feet and backed away. The opalescent black cloud twirled and slithered, finding its way easily. The guard slumped over and tumbled back down the stairs, eyes wide.
He didn’t even hear the other guard, just caught a flicker of shadow from above. There was a flash of pain along the right side of his back, along the bottom of his ribs. He hissed, snarled, spinning out of the way in the narrow space even as the guard lunged —
Not a guard.
Galina. Tarasenko’s daughter, black braids, blue eyes, all of five feet and ninety pounds. She was supposed to at school in Bern, she was supposed to —
The knife was still coming towards him.
He slid to the side, trapped her arm with his hands, and pulled her around, pushing her into the wall. She braced herself, lifted her legs, and caught him square in the chest. He grunted, moving back a step as he tried to regain his balance. She dropped the knife into her free hand and swiped at him again. It caught on the high collar of his jacket, missing the skin of his throat by a few threads of wool.
“Не гарно,” he snarled. Not nice.
She smiled at him.
Feet still planted firmly against his chest, she swung at him again.
He caught her wrist on his forearm and she kicked him in the face. His head snapped back and he fell around the corner, further up the stairs. Something cracked inside his bag again. She came down on top of him and kept coming, her head aiming for his nose. He jerked out of the way with a fraction of a second to spare, and her head collided with his left cheek. It hurt. Sparks danced behind his eyes.
Growling, he heaved her up and over his head, her legs flailing. She squealed and came down at the top of the stairs, sliding on the rug that lined the corridor. He rolled, pinning her knife hand, lurched onto his knees on the next step up, and slammed his fist into her face. Her eyes rolled back. He grabbed her knife and threw it away, farther down the hall.
“Little girls should not play with knives!” He was yelling. He shouldn’t yell.
He needed to leave.
He pushed himself up and staggered around her. Found the knife, dumped it in his bag. Window. There should be a door with a balcony. There. The corridor to his left, lined with antique tables and vases of fresh flowers and busts of great kings and warriors. At the far end, along the back wall of the building. Pretty french doors with pretty lace curtains.
A ward, directly above the door.
He needed something, something organic to burn the ward. Flowers?
He dropped a glance at Galina. She moaned slightly, eyes closed, bleeding from her nose and upper lip.
He bent close, making sure she was still unconscious. Then he heaved her into his arms and jogged down the corridor to the pretty french doors with their pretty lace curtains and that nasty, fatal ward.
Hefting Galina up so that she draped partly over his head and shoulder, her braids tickling his nose through the mask, he stretched out her hand and slapped it against the ward. The sigil flared, and then went dark.
He tentatively kicked at the door frame. The ward stayed dark.
Setting Galina against the wall, blood dribbling from her nose and the palm of her hand, he straightened and kicked the door again. Wood creaked and metal groaned. An alarm shrieked, echoing through the building. Another, harder kick and the doors flew open, the one on the right sagging in its frame; spider web cracks ran through the glass.
Out onto the balcony, looking up and down the alley. Lights were popping on the length of the street, neighbors cautiously peering through locked windows and doors.
Ah, the fish truck. Convenient.
Tucking his bag close to his body, Vesa heaved himself over the railing and onto the roof of the truck almost directly below. It bobbed slightly under his landing. Shouting from the driver and Mustache, still huddled near the door. He dropped onto the cab, then onto the hood of the engine, finally sliding on his hip down to the street.
He ran. Legs pumping hard, one arm churning while the other held his bag close, he ran. Gunshots, a half dozen. Screaming; from the sound of it, a teenage girl. He ran, all the way to the far end of the alley, a hard left, and up the street, up the hill. Up, and up. The cut on his back burned and pulled. Asphalt gave way to cobblestone, darkened windows to bright lights and streamers and crowds of people.
He dove into the mass of celebrants.
He ripped off his mask, stuffing it into his bag. He unbuttoned his coat, exposing the green and gold scarf he had on underneath. He pulled off the coat, flipping it around to reveal the alternate green exterior, and pulled it back on over his bag; he just hoped the green was dark enough to hide the blood from his back. He shifted the messenger bag around so that it hung in front of his belly, giving him a paunch. He slowed to a walk, matching his steps to those around him and wrapped the scarf around his throat.
An old man was handing out small Ukrainian flags. Vesa smiled and took one, mouthing the lyrics as those around him sang of the Saint and his voyage up the Dneiper River, bringing word of the Savior. A little girl, hand clasped tightly in that of her mother, smiled up at him shyly. He winked at her and she giggled.
The crowd wound its slow, melodious way up one side of the hill and down the other, circling the church. He caught a reflection, once, of Galina standing high on someone’s shoulders, craning her head as she surveyed the crowd; he was careful not to turn around, to keep pace with the rest of the celebrants.
He thought he could hear her screams of frustration over the singing.
Three hours later, he found Daumantas waiting for him in a busy metro parking lot near the river; even at this hour, buses were coming and going, carrying pilgrims and workers to and from their homes and their jobs and their cars.
A tiny Lithuanian flag was set on the dashboard of the vehicle. Daumantas, tall and skinny with a beard too big for his face, just as Audra had described him, was leaning against the car, smoking and trying to read a newspaper by the overhead lights.
Vesa scanned the parking lot and approached him cautiously. Daumantas’ eyes slid from the newspaper and up towards him.
“I’ve never been to Vilnius,” Vesa said, his Russian only slightly accented.
“I have, many times,” Daumantas responded.
“My friend recommended Samogitian Alka.”
Daumantas grinned and dropped his cigarette. Folding up his paper, he opened the back door. “Food, water. Oh, and a first aid kit. Audra said that Elžbieta said that you might need it.”
Vesa half-laughed, and gingerly slid into the back seat. Daumantas climbed in a moment later and the engine turned over. The interior quickly began to warm up. Vesa carefully peeled off his coat as Daumantas steered the car out of the lot and onto the street.
“It’s about eight hours to the station in Zhytomyr. We should get there in plenty of time for you to … eh … go wherever you are going.”
Daumantas shifted in his seat, not looking at Vesa in the rearview mirror.
The cousin of a cousin, distantly related by blood and marriage. Smart enough to not ask questions, and to be willing to do a favor for Audra in exchange for a little help; in this case, a hand-crafted fertility tonic for Daumantas and his Ukrainian wife, grown desperate after five miscarriages.
Vesa grunted an answer, leaning down to pull the medical kit off the floor and onto the seat beside him. He pulled his sweater over his head and then, even more carefully, the t-shirt. He winced as muscles stretched, the partially dried blood sticking to his skin and shirt. He found an alcohol wipe in the kit and wriggled around enough to reach the cut, grimacing at the sting of the antiseptic. A gauze pad with medical tape followed; it felt crooked; he would check it in the restroom when he got to the train station.
In the meanwhile …. He stowed the kit back under the seat, then slipped his sweater and jacket back on, and pulled the messenger bag onto his lap. He was careful not to remove any of the contents; the less Daumantas knew, the better for everyone.
He hissed when his fingers encountered a gritty powder. The Torah and Shorshei ha-Shemot were fine, as were The First Testament of Honorius and the Corpus Hermeticum and the Homeric Hymns. But the cuneiform tablet had shattered into at least four pieces; most were still inside the padded envelope, but one had slipped out and been ground into yet smaller pieces.
Scooping up the loose fragments, he wrapped them in his bloody shirt and stuffed it down into the bag, his mask adding another layer of protection. The bloody knife shifted and tumbled to the bottom of the bag.
Hopefully the tablet could be completely reconstructed. He knew a priestess in Asheville who would be very happy to provide the hymn with a proper home.
Daumantas honked his horn, the car pulling around a stalled truck. “You hungry? My wife packed kepta duona and bulvinių kukulių sriuba.”
Vesa shook his head. “Thank you, no.” He looped the bag’s strap over his head, crossing an arm protectively over it.
“Should get some sleep, then. I wake you when we get to Zhymotyr, yes?”
He was exhausted, he realized, and sore, and bleeding. His face felt hot and puffy, and a bump was growing over his left cheekbone. And he was angry, mostly with himself. That should have gone much more cleanly. Galina should not have been there; he should have made absolutely sure. And the wards …. Vesa shivered, sliding down in the seat. He twisted to the left, taking some of the pressure off the injury on his right side. If the guard he had shoved into the vault wasn’t dead, then he was at the least permanently damaged. If Tarasenko had bind-runes and curses and death mantras like that around one of his smaller vaults, Vesa could only imagine what he had protecting his truly precious collections.
He slid lower until his knees bumped against the back of Daumantas’ seat. Not enough room. Grimacing, he flipped around and stretched out as best he could, the bag still tucked against his chest. He whispered low, offering a prayer of thanks to Väinämöinen and Mielikki and his ancestral haltija, promising them fresh offerings on his return home. He was asleep in moments, and dreamt of little girls with knives.
“Look at you. You didn’t get dead.” Audra grinned at him from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. She absently patted the nose of a large white stallion, her smile fading as her eyes tracked to the bruise still visible on his left cheek. “Guess Elžbieta was right. Need some water for that?”
Vesa shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but that would be a waste. Save the spirit’s healing gift for an emergency.”
“Ominous.” She turned away from the fence and the half-dozen horses, crossing the muddy yard with him towards her small cabin. “You taken up fore-seeing? Give Elžbieta some competition?”
“Hardly that. Someone else may have greater need of the water than me.” Granted, he was still sore and exhausted. The long train ride from Zhymotyr to Istanbul, followed by the even longer flight from Istanbul to Algiers to Miami to Los Angeles. An indirect route, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Once he had handed the Shorshei ha-Shemot and the Torah over to Rabbi Leifkowitzki — the elderly man so grateful that he was sobbing — Vesa was back in the air again. And now, finally, he was back home in Boulder.
He had no idea what day it was.
Audra quirked an eyebrow at him.
“I was careful while liberating Tarasenko’s illegally-obtained treasures. He won’t find me.”
Audra stepped up onto the porch, turning to drop into one of the rocking chairs. He remained standing, hands in his pockets.
“But …,” she prompted.
“This was just a small vault, and some of the objects it contained — most of them were documented, but others were barely rumors, legends, whispers. He had a page from the Almagest of Cleopatra. La Voisin’s Book of Omens.The Feast of Michael Scotus. And I had to leave them behind. What else does Tarasenko have in his possession? How many people has he robbed, extorted, or murdered to acquire such treasures?”
She peered at him from beneath her hat. “Dozens, hundreds. Maybe more. It took you nine months just to get into one place. You could spend years tracking down Tarasenko’s other vaults, and never find them all. Even assuming you could, then what? Break into all of those vaults, steal all of those hundreds or thousands of magic and sacred and rare books, then spend more years tracking down their rightful owners? Most of whom are dead, by the way.”
“‘Cause that would be impossible. And very dumb.”
His jaw tightened. “Thank you for expressing your opinion so succinctly.”
Audra sighed. “There have always been people like Tarasenko in the world, and there always will be. I don’t like that fact, but I would be stupid to not acknowledge it. Tarasenko is a ridiculously powerful sorcerer with lots of money, lots of thugs, and lots of guns. You, on the other hand, are a very … talented witch with … a nice book collection ….”
She leaned forward in the rocking chair. “I will continue until you get my point.”
“Point gotten.” He dropped into the chair beside her, letting his gaze wander across the meadow and the forest beyond, the land sloping sharply as the mountains rose towards the sky. The large stallion watched him suspiciously, massive head extended across the fence. The rest of the horses ignored him. “So, I should leave it be.”
She reached out, curling her fingers over the top of his hand. “We all serve in different ways. I serve my Gods and my community with this sanctuary. You serve your Gods and the community anonymously — I mean, the Gods know who you are, but not everyone else — by finding that which has been lost or stolen. When people reach out to you, you help them.”
His phone pinged. He dug it out of his back pocket with one hand, wincing as the knife wound pulled. He flicked on the screen and found a text from Rabbi Leifkowitzki.
New inquiry. Herbarium of Anne Boleyn. Payment in trade. Yes? No?
Audra leaned over for a quick peek, and snorted a laugh. “The Gods have ears and impeccable timing. So, what’s it going to be?”
He stared at the screen for a long moment, weighing her words. The memory of Tarasenko’s vault and its priceless treasures crowded his mind.
A flicker of movement caught his attention and he looked up to see the stallion step away from the fence. The herd moved across the field towards the woods. As the horses reached the shadow of the trees, they shifted, heaving upright onto two legs. Their fur fell away as their faces shrank and became human. Naked, silent, they disappeared into the forest.
Safe, here, in this one place, thanks to Audra.
His grip tightened around the phone and he typed out his answer.
He turned to Audra. “Perhaps I will take some of that healing water, after all. As you said: the Gods have impeccable timing. And they are no more subtle than you when they are trying to make a point.” He tucked away his phone. “I have a job to do.”