There are three ways to die in Norylska: The cold, the cold, and the cold.
—D Puskyn, Exile
When winter blew in, the bottom fell out.
Gen worked the fleshracks at the rendering plant on the skirts of the Filth for three years before life took a downward turn. It plummeted like a bird shot in the breast, spiraling to the ground. Day in and day out, he’d render fatty layers of the great beasts of the taiga, tearing muscle from bone with the big saws.
The Filth. If the world was an apple, the Filth was its rotting misshapen core. The district’s original name had been lost along with the lives of the city planners, and now it was simply The Filth to anyone who lived in Norylska. At the northernmost point of the city, ringed by factories, ore refineries, and rendering plants for the megafauna that fed the country, it collected the refuse of Kievan in its streets.
Gen’s job was to hang severed flaps of meat on hooks to drip onto the stone floors, driving his shoulder under a flank and heaving upward, nearly a hundred pounds of meat working against his strength and gravity. A shift in weight, a misstep, and it would pop his arm out of the socket as easily as a man rips a bone from a chicken wing.
Once hung, men with curved knives on poles worked their blades beneath the thick skin, pulling down, stripping it away and exposing the fatty layer beneath. Gen moved on to the next slab, hoisting it so the cutters could get to work.
Hung on the scales, life and death weighed out that way. The balance of risk and reward. In this case, for a paltry ten koyln a week
What might it be like to buy a sack of potatoes and still have money left for oil, or a necklace for Irina?
He lived in the Filth his entire life, scraping for every clipped cent. What he couldn’t buy, he stole. What he couldn’t steal, he sometimes beat out of a more fortunate man. When he joined the militsiya, he’d only made ten koyln a week from soldiering. When he retired, his pension paid the same ten. Then, when he found work at the factory, another ten. To his parents, twenty would have been a fortune. For his parents, the state hadn’t yet begun to tax them to fund the wars, and now his pension was down to five a week. Twenty in their day would have bought food, clothing, and kept a roof over their heads for months. He’d lost a quarter of his pay to the men who’d sent him to die, and all in the name of ‘reconstruction’. For Gen, supporting a new family, fifteen barely stretched to make ends meet. At fifteen, a single overspent koyln could land he and Irina in the street.
He heaved another slab of flesh onto a set of hooks, metal protesting against the sturdy steel rail they hung from as the weight of the meat settled. A wave of stink rolled from the raw flesh as it stretched. The stink clung to everything like putrescent perfume. A thick, musky, gamey stench crawled into his head like a cold, and hung out until he thought he’d retch. But then, everything in Norylska stunk. The rendering plants, the oil lamps lighting streets and taverns, the runoff from the stone mines, the acrid stench of rain turned caustic by the smoke belching into the sky. Ash and grease coated every surface of this pit of a city. It clung to his fingers when he touched a doorknob, made his shoes slip on the cobbles, and sat in the back of his throat like a film waiting to be spat into the street.
The saw tore through the flank of another paracera. Inches thick in places, the skin pebbled like river stones, meat laid in thick striations beneath. The blade whirred, driven by steam superheated by coal, ripping into the side, sending a wash of gore across the surface of the cutting table. The gamey stink hit him again, even through the bandana over his face. As bad as it was, nothing stank like Irkysk. Like the war.
Nothing sounded like it, either. Or so Gen thought.
The braying howl of someone nearby snapped Gen from his thoughts. His head jerked to the left to find the source.
He’d warned the man, again and again: keep your sleeves rolled, your apron strings short. The warnings weren’t enough, the young man had nodded and smiled each time, as if Gen had just shared a joke. Gen wanted to tell him it wasn’t a fucking joke, but some men just don’t listen.
Gen watched as the big blade hooked Misha’s shirt, rolling the tough fabric up like a stray piece of yarn, until it snagged flesh. The saw belched, thick and wet as it dug into Misha’s meat.
Misha screamed, the noise a swirling mix of desolation and despair. The sound of a man who saw the end coming, but insisted he still had time. The sound of life draining away onto the snow.
Gen had heard screams like that before. He’d been the other side of the street from a whorehouse. A pimp snipped a man’s balls for refusing to pay, leaving the would-be client rolling in the alley, clutching the bloody wasteland of his manhood, a crimson stain spreading between his fingers.
Now, the young man from Khozo, who, just a day before, bragged about how his girl moaned when you slapped her a little, became a red ruin. The blade unraveled flesh as easily as Gen’s wife undid a knitted cord.
Misha’s skin parted, tendon and muscle laid bare before the saw peeled them away. Next came bone, young and strong, but still no match for a machine made for the big beasts. It ripped and split, marrow leaking out like sap from a fresh cut board.
Misha grabbed the upper part of his arm with his free hand as the saw yanked him in, teeth on the blade catching meat and bone like the inevitable turning of a gear. His fingers scrabbled for purchase on the slick flesh, slipping on the blood.
He braced his feet against the table, halting the agonizing process for a second. His eyes bulged, tears running freely. For a moment, it seemed he might even win his battle. He opened his mouth to say something, cool relief flitting across his features amid the fires of his agony.
Then the saw lurched, internals squealing as the belt overcame resistance, and yanked Misha forward.
Arterial spray arced, spattering Gen in the face. He stepped back in reflex. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help. But he’d been frozen by… something. Memory? Fascination? Death was always the same. It wasn’t that. The method—the way men traversed from this place to the next, was the interesting part. No two men died the same. That feeling held him in place, and he watched. He knew the only mercy he could offer the man would be a quick blade across the throat.
A deluge of blood spilled in a wave and headed to the drains, mingling with runoff from other stations. The screaming held Gen’s attention. Memory rippled briefly through his skull.
A soldier beast snatching an infantryman from the trench and tearing into the victim’s torso with teeth like knives of ice.
Gen couldn’t say what possessed the beasts to do that. He figured maybe, taking who a man was and trapping them mind and soul in a monster the size of a shack might make them brittle. Angry, even. Ready to take a little bit of sadistic rage out on the world.
Someone jostled him, and the memory burst, leaving him standing alone. The screaming stopped. Misha lay prone on the saw, staring to the side, eyes milky. The blade finally halted at his shoulder, standing out like a serrated wing from his back. Blood pooled beneath the man’s body, the stink of voided bowels so strong it crushed the gamey odor of cut beasts.
One of the other men—Vitaly—shouldered past Gen, hook on a pole in hand.
“Gonna help?” he asked.
He snagged the kid’s body with his tool, giving the corpse a shake. It made wet squelching sounds on the table but refused to break free. Vitaly grunted and waved to another man further down the line, getting a shout in return. In a moment, the other man came trotting around the corner with his own pole-hook. Together, they caught Misha’s shoulders with the poles, tried to pull him up and back, grunts and curses mingling as they worked.
Gen looked around for some way to help, and found Vlad standing at his shoulder. The slight, bald man with a pate full of wrinkles wore an apologetic smile and a single stone around his neck. Memory? Skill? Personality? No, couldn’t be personality. Vlad always looked as if he might deliver bad news at any moment.
Your wife has died. Your children were sold into slavery. I ate your cat. It was delicious.
He passed for a simulacrum of humanity in a place like this, one of the few men not covered in gore. He gave his sorrowful smile and gestured for Gen to follow.
They made their way across the factory floor, the plant already lurching back to life as recovery was underway. Misha wasn’t the first man killed here and wouldn’t be the last. The city needed heat, needed oil, needed meat.
Best not to think on it.
You couldn’t forestall winter any more than you could stop a cavalry charge with a stick.
Gen nodded at a few of the men he ate lunch with and climbed the clanging metal and wood staircase behind Vlad.
“You getting time off?” A man called from his line, chunks of fat sliding past on rollers.
“Lucky bastard!” someone else shouted. The room echoed for a moment with laughter before the noise of the stairs and the immediacy of the job cut it off.
The heels of Vlad’s boots made a different sound than Gen’s as they climbed. Good soles, not the shit boots he could afford. Why own something you didn’t need? That was a question about the wealthy all the philosophers in Kievan couldn’t answer. He wondered what possessed men to take a job like supervisor in a slaughterhouse. Seemed to be more honest to at least take part in the cutting, instead of putting on airs above the floor. Man’s only as good as the work of his hands, his father used to say.
He suspected the answer to both was simple: they’re pricks.
Never trust a man without dirt under his nails. Or in this case, blood.
Service guarantees citizenship slipped into his head, that old propaganda chestnut the state hammered into them time and again. Property, pension, the good life. Pick up a rifle and kill some Altin Ordu, that’s all they asked. On that, at least, Gen could agree. Altin Ordu needed killing.
Vlad led them through a simple door with a glass window, his name and title stenciled on it. In the office, noise from the work floor fell to muted levels. It even stunk a little less. A simple desk, with a chair on each side, stood near the opposite wall. Behind that, a shelf, various objects piled atop it. Vlad collapsed into his chair and gestured for Gen to do the same.
Gen glanced around, at the knickknacks on the shelf. A sketch of a plump woman, done in broad strokes. She was pretty, in her own way. A piece of wood carved to look like a Khagan tower—slender, with a cupola atop it, and words burned into the base. A paracera tooth. Gen flicked his gaze away, to the stack of papers clinging to the edge of the desk like a handful of promises, and finally sat. Vlad leaned forward, fingers interlaced, hands on the bald wood surface. He still wore that half-sorrowful smile, and Gen wondered if the stone hanging around his neck had something to do with it. Which traits might it have? Which memories?
“You’ve been here how long?” Vlad asked.
Gen’s stomach threatened to flip. No one who ever meant to deliver good news started it with an accounting of time. “Three years, sir.”
“Three years.” Vlad turned in his chair, until he could look out the thick bubbled glass overlooking the factory floor. “That’d make you a junior man here, yeah?”
“Yes, sir,” Gen said. Cold certainty pushed into his bowels like a worm.
“Hard times. Hard times,” Vlad said. “Things aren’t what they used to be. Lost two teams to a herd of paracera last month. Did you know that? Yeah, two teams. Getting harder to hunt the bastards. And then there are the exiles. Flesh carvers, you know? Eat a man alive. And now winter’s coming, that cold bitch. Can’t send anyone else out until the thaw hits.”
He spun his chair back, leaned forward on elbows sharp as knives, and tented his fingers. He looked at Gen through the web he’d made and gave his sad smile.
Like an erection on a dog.
“You see my problem? Not enough men out there, too many men in here. I can’t send you out there because, well, I don’t run that business. And the men in here have been here. Not that you haven’t, you understand. But they’ve had their positions longer. You have to reward loyalty like that, yeah?”
A memory, cold and nasty, hovered at the edge of Gen’s thoughts. The man’s words echoed those of the state, before they gave the men who bled for them the shove-off.
Vlad paused. Gen didn’t know what the man expected from him.
Does he want acknowledgement? Some sort of understanding? Absolution?
Gen offered none of those things. The cold worm in his gut turned, sunk needle teeth into his spine.
He was numb, disconnected. He nodded mutely; only half-aware of the words spilling from Vlad. Irina. The baby. How would he feed them? How would he house them? Every winter was a killing winter, and without fail, when the thaw came, refuse and bodies frozen to the cobbles choked the alleys.
“You’re a military man, right?” Vlad asked.
Gen nodded again.
“Good, good. You’ll find something. Plenty of work for strong, willing men out there.” He took a breath, licked lips cracked from the perpetual cold. “Now, don’t look as if I’ve just stabbed your puppy. You’ll be fine. You’ve got your pension. That pretty wife. She’ll keep you warm.”
For a moment, like a spark threatening to catch dry leaves, rage welled in Gen’s chest, and the numbness fled. He imagined taking this man, grabbing the back of his head and smashing his skull into the worn desk until there was nothing left but splintered wood, shattered teeth, and gore.
“We’ll send your things. You understand,” Vlad finished.
I have no things.
The company provided lockers for the workers, but what would he keep here? A service revolver? Then he could dirty the floor with his brains when the pain of twenty years lay on him like a lead weight? Hell of a retirement plan.
Vlad gestured to the door at the far end of the room, indicating the interview had come to a close. Gen blinked once, rage receding. He stood and, without another look, trudged out of the room. The door shut with a small click behind him.
Gen took the stairs, one at a time, footfalls echoing in the empty stairwell. Shame rose in him, followed by a black wave of depression and fear threatening to overwhelm and subsume rational thought. He fumbled with the exit door, stumbling into an alley stinking of smoke and rancid fat.
He leaned against the wall; bricks cool against his back. Wind snapped through the city, stirring papers at his feet. For a moment, the world smelled of ice and rage. Memory chased its heels and smashed into him for the second time that day.
Irkysk. They fought for seven days, no sun. Only hazy light varying in intensity from hour to hour. Smoke obscured it, a black fist clenching the fiery disc as if it could quench the flame. Early on, they’d traded artillery barrages with the Altin Ordu. The shells digging great smoking holes in dirt and men, the bottom of the trench a carmine river, body parts like shoals of broken fish floating past.
Then one of their own guns misfired. The detonation took out their right flank. The enemy cavalry wheeled in to fill it, hacking with sabers, opening men like bags of suet, insides spilling out in a haruspex’s wet dream.
Great soldier beasts—monsters with the minds of men, thanks to the efforts of the veneficum and their stones—tore men limb from limb or met their Altin Ordu counterparts on the field.
The cold set in. Rivers of blood froze, making footing treacherous. The dead stuck to the ground, limbs sometimes trapped at awkward angles, a nightmare forest of petrified flesh. Where soldiers were able to break or hack them free, they piled corpses as high as possible, a makeshift barricade of arrested rot where the craters left their lines open.
Still the Altin Ordu came. Pale skin and eyes. Uniforms decorated with frippery—ribbons and medals, ropes and braids. They wore mustaches over their lips and plucked their eyebrows. Some powdered their faces before battle, others drowned themselves in perfume, until it smelled like a cathouse come calling, razor in hand.
Decadent. Iniquitous, his instructors had called them.
Gen remembered thinking they left ‘deadly’ off the list after a quarter of his line fell to men with lightning-fast reflexes and thin, wicked blades.
In return, Gen did what he had been trained to do. The only recourse they left him. He killed them—young and old, fat and skinny, weak and strong. If they stepped within range of his rifle, he put a round in them. When the rounds ran out, and the cavalry horses were panting and lathered with foam, and the bastards were still sliding into the trenches, he killed even more.
No gods. Only men. Save yourself.
If there were gods, this might have been avoided. Surely no beneficent deity allowed slaughter on such a scale.
Dimly, he was aware of the saber he held, blade dull and heavy. His shoulder was throbbing, body aching, weaving on his feet from lack of sleep. And still he killed. Not killing meant joining the vast pile of dead to the north.
Those days, he had youth. He had plans. No, death wasn’t in it for him. Not until he had the chance to crack the bones of the earth and suck its marrow.
The stupidity of youth.
And so, he cut, a butcher with an endless supply of meat.
When it ended, warmth swaddled him like a newborn. A dripping sound accompanying it as he sank to the ground. Red obscured his vision.
The blood of others helped take the sting out of winter.
The wind kicked up again, cold battering. He looked up from the memory, saw the alley. Saw the trash at his feet. Recollection and experience littered his heart much the same way. Reality came back like a thug kicking in a door, murdering everyone inside. He’d lost his job. His income. Irina. The baby. How would he care for them? His nerves tensed, and he tasted bile.
He needed a drink.
A veneficum is part sorcerer, part alchemist, and part psychologist. Theirs is the art of drawing memories and personality traits from people and storing them in stone. In polite society they are therapists, dedicated to helping people. They draw out painful memories and dangerous traits so their patients may lead healthy, productive lives. The stones storing dangerous and unhealthy memories and traits are destroyed.
But there is a dark side to the art. What is stored in stone can be accessed by anyone touching it. Back-alley veneficum buy or steal pleasant memories and useful personality traits from the desperate to sell to the powerful and hawk cheap stones to the poor. Bravery. Inventiveness. Compassion. What is surprising, however, is the demand for less savoury memories and traits.
Unable to sleep, Katyushka rose before the sun. She slipped from bed, careful not to wake Fyodor. Collecting the wool shawl from the back of a chair, she threw it over her shoulders, padding barefoot to the kitchen. Each breath plumed before her like tiny a tiny cloud. The ancient wood floor, shellacked in varnish, grumbled and creaked with each step.
She first heard those words from a retired soldier, days before father brought them north. That was three years ago. One night in Kievan’s northern-most coal mining city and she understood. Norylska was never silent. The smelting furnaces worked night and day, belching smoke and soot. A constant flow of coal wagons, hauled by massive aurochs, rumbled the streets, shaking the walls with their passing. The reducing-factories growled and screamed like rusting grinders, turning the paraceratherium and other megafauna of the ancient Taymyr Forest into the fat, oil, meat, and furs Kievan relied on. The cold shrank wood and iron, squeezing it in an icy fist. Douse the fires of the furnaces, stop every coal and meat wagon, freeze every person motionless, from the highest chancellor to the lowest prostitute, and Norylska would still moan under the crushing pressure.
Katyushka found the woodstove dead, filled with ash. The woodrack sat empty and accusing. She’d been too excited about her first day at work and forgotten to fill it. Fyodor would be angry. He hated being cold, hated waiting for his morning coffee.
Collecting the hemp sling she used to carry wood, Katyushka stepped into her boots. Somehow, they were colder than the wood floor. Her feet ached. Not bothering to lace them, she unlatched the door and stepped into the dark. The sun, far to the southeast and never much clearing the horizon this time of year, had yet to blush the sky. If there were stars above, the belched vomitus of the coal furnaces occluded them.
Huddling in her shawl, she hurried to the woodpile. Her nostrils froze closed with her third inhalation. She’d heard stories of people’s lungs freezing and tearing from the cold, their teeth shattering. Every day the sootmen who cleared the streets, collecting the filthy coal-stained snow in their wagons and hauling it north to the forges and furnaces, found rigid corpses. She’d seen a few frozen dead. Most still had their teeth. She wasn’t sure about the condition of their lungs.
Sheltered in a narrow alley, the woodpile was mostly snow-free. Filling the sling with wood and kindling until she struggled under the weight, Katyushka returned to the kitchen to find Fyodor slumped in one of the chairs.
Rubbing his eyes, he peered blearily up at her. “You let the stove go out.”
“Sorry,” Kat said, stacking the wood in the rack.
He watched, glancing toward the cold kettle with a frown of disappointment.
That stung. As the youngest lawyer at Kuznetsov and Alyokhin, it wouldn’t do for him to arrive at work looking like he’d done menial labour. The partners were particular about the types they hired and not terribly picky about who they fired. Last week Fyodor told Katyushka they let a junior partner go because he went to court with mud on his shoes.
‘The sacrifices we make now,’ Fyodor often said, ‘will pay off later.’
He had a five-year plan. The long game, he called it. Once he made junior partner, they’d get married and move into the southern quarter, to somewhere less embarrassing to live. In this little shack, with but one slim alley separating them from Middle Street, he could never invite senior lawyers to dinner.
They made sacrifices, both of them. Fyodor worked long hours, often returning late to shovel food into his mouth and collapse into bed. Sometimes the lawyers met at The Golden Chalice, a drinking and gambling establishment located in the legal district. He hated it. Disliked crowds and the social pressure to match his vodka intake with the other young lawyers, whom he complained outweighed him by a good twenty pounds.
‘No one likes a weakling,’ he’d say. ‘A man is judged by how well he holds his vodka.’
And so, at the end of each week, he stumbled home drunk, pipe and cigar smoke not quite concealing the expensive perfume of the waitstaff.
She’d learned not to complain. Doing so only upset him and made things uncomfortable. Anyway, it wasn’t so bad. Once he made senior partner, he wouldn’t have to attend these functions every time.
Katyushka did her part too, handling the messier tasks so Fyodor wouldn’t have to waste time scrubbing dirt from his fingernails every morning before work. She did the shopping in the northern markets, where the coal and butchery workers shopped, because it was cheaper. It was a long walk, hauling bags of groceries nearly an hour each way, but it meant Fyodor could afford to keep his only suit in good repair. There were nicer markets a few minutes south, with better selections of fruit and vegetables, and meat. Fyodor said the prices would beggar them.
With the fire lit, Katyushka took the bucket outside to fill it with snow to be melted and filtered for coffee.
Fyodor waited, fingers drumming impatiently on the tabletop.
“I’m going to be late tonight,” he said, when she finally placed a steaming mug before him. “Alyokhin wants me as Second on the Teplov case.”
“Is that the one where the neighbor’s dog keeps crapping in the magistrate’s garden?”
Who cares about a garden buried under two feet of snow?
Fyodor shook his head, distracted. Sipping his coffee, he grimaced. “Maybe we can splurge a little. Just on coffee.” Pushing the hair from his eyes, he dashed her a boyish grin. “I can pick it up while I’m at work, save you the walk.”
He bit his bottom lip, nose wrinkling, and she knew what he was going to say. They’d argued about it for weeks.
“Do you really think,” he began, hesitating, and then reconsidering his approach. “The partners… We’ll be fine without…”
She hoped he was smoother in the courtroom.
“Working in the north quarter?” he asked, all doubt and concern. “All those men… militsioners?” he added like it was a dirty word. “Maybe it’s too dangerous?”
Maybe. That word. Always that word. Half question, half suggestion. His unwillingness to be definitive was the only thing she disliked about him. By asking questions instead of making statements, he left little room for discussion.
“I’ll be in the secretarial pool,” she said, retreading old ground. “The most dangerous part of my day will be the walk to work.”
“That’s dangerous enough!”
“I make the same walk to buy groceries,” she pointed out.
“You know I hate that.” Fyodor’s eyes changed, like the man she knew stepped back and someone altogether different took control. “You know I worry about you. If anything happened…” He gave his coffee cup a despondent look. “I’m working as hard as I can. As soon as I make junior partner, you’ll never have to shop in the north end again.”
“It’s not that bad.”
In the north, her rough clothes didn’t draw the same looks of disdain they did in Norylska’s southern quarter. She was just another woman shopping for her family. Not once had anyone bothered or accosted her.
Kat wanted to say that taking this secretarial job would ease the pressure on him, get them out of this border district faster, but knew he’d see that as a condemnation. Her employment was a slight to his manhood. Supporting a wife and family was a man’s duty—not that they were married yet. If she lacked something, he felt it was his failure. She went to great efforts to want as little as possible.
She’d heard things were changing in the capital. So many men died during the long and bloody war with the Altin Ordu, now women were forced to take jobs. A few years ago, an employed woman would have been unthinkable. Now, in Khagan, women worked factories and assembly lines. Daughters of wealthy families worked in corporate positions, stepping in to fill vacancies left by the deaths of firstborn males. Little of that had reached Norylska. This far from the hustle and bustle of the heart of Kievan, such things were still seen as gross contradictions of the natural order.
After a quiet and uncomfortable breakfast of cold sausage and boiled potatoes, leftovers from last night’s dinner, Katyushka and Fyodor left for work. Fyodor headed south to the legal district. Kat walked north.
Squat and grey, with wrought iron bars on every window and crenellations lining the roof, the Chernyshevsky Street Militsiya Bureau looked like a prison. All it lacked was an outer wall and rifle towers. The massive iron-bound oak doors were no invitation to enter. Broad-shouldered no-necked men in black militsioner greatcoats stomped in and out. Each wore a standard militsiya-issued iron-tipped cudgel, but many also wore a selection of personal equipment. Knuckle-dusters and an array of vicious, serrated blades seemed to be favourites. Officers, always from the better families, uniforms crisp and creased, wore polished revolvers.
Katyushka’s uniform, never before worn, starched hard and merciless, itched and scraped as she walked. The shirt chafed at her armpits and neck. The ankle-length skirt, stiff as a board, made a grating swish with every step. She wasn’t sure if it was designed by someone who’d never seen a woman, or by someone who never wanted to see one. Unlike the black of men’s uniforms, hers was the sickly blue she’d been informed was standard to the Secretarial Pool. Heading up the steps, she saw no other similar uniforms, no other women at all. Judging by the looks from the men, eyes widening and then narrowing as they searched for some hint of curve or femininity, they hadn’t seen any women recently, either. At least not in the precinct.
Shoulders hunched, Kat tried to shrink to nothing, make herself invisible. When a man with head like and anvil, cigareta clenched in angry yellow teeth, stomped through the front doors, she ducked in behind him. Inside, she found a long hall lined with plaques of wood and bronze, names carved into each one. Avoiding the centre of the hall, she stayed near the wall, reading as she walked. Militsioner Preobrazhensky – fallen in the line of duty. Militsioner Kuznetsov – missing and presumed dead. Fallen in the… Missing… On and on, hundreds of plaques.
The man at the front desk, old and bent with age, black uniform faded grey and wrinkled, watched her approach with a jaundiced eye. An equally frayed patch covered the other. With a shaking hand missing two fingers and a thumb, he lifted a crumpled cigareta to wrinkled lips, inhaled hard, and blew a cloud of smoke into her face as she arrived. Somewhat concave, his face looked as if it had been shaped by decades of smoking. Beyond him, chaos. Scores of desks, all littered with loose paper spattered with ink and hastily scrawled notes in the blunt hand of the poorly educated, were scattered at random. Cheap hand-rolled cigareta, clamped in stained teeth or used to punctuate whatever the men were yelling about, turned the air blue with smoke.
Saluting, Kat said, “Katyushka Leonova reporting for duty, sir.”
He either winked or blinked at her, jamming a bent, yellowed finger under the eyepatch and rummaging around as if searching for something.
“Secretarial Pool,” she added, when he said nothing.
“Didn’t think y’were a door-kicker,” he grunted.
An officer cleared his throat at her side. “Excuse me, ma’am.” An elderly gentleman, bent at the shoulders, he wore three stars and two stripes on the epaulettes of his uniform. Where most men got fatter as they aged, he seemed to be going in the opposite direction. A black cigareta dangled, forgotten, in his mouth.
“Colonel,” she said, starting to salute.
Catching her arm, he said, “We don’t do that here.”
“Is old, and this is Norylska.”
Uncertain, Katyushka glanced from the officer to the old man at the desk. Shift Sergeant, she remembered, belatedly. He’d already gone back to shuffling crumpled papers and raining ash all over his paperwork.
“I’m Colonel Grinin.” The officer studied her, looking her up and down. There was nothing vulgar about the appraisal; he might have been checking a potato for blemishes. “You might do rather well for a project that’s landed in my lap.” Remembering his cigareta, he inhaled hard. A lazy worm of smoke coiled from his nostrils as if exhaling demanded too much effort. “Follow.”
Without waiting, he spun on a polished bootheel and strode away. He led with his forehead as if he’d ram through anyone who got in his way.
Everyone scattered from his path.
Noting the downcast eyes and concealed looks of fear on these hardened militsioners, Katyushka obediently followed.
A monstrous oak desk, no doubt hauled here from Khagan, filled most of Colonel Grinin’s office. The walls were bare, devoid of family portraits or awards. An oil painting of Tsar Khromov sat propped in one corner as if someone had been distracted as they were about to hang it.
Shoving aside a pile of papers, Grini perched on the corner. Stacks of bound reports filled the chair on the far side. He drew an ornate cigareta tin from the breast pocket of his uniform, and lifted it in offering. When she shook her head, he selected one for himself, using the nub of the previous smoke to light it. Though sunken and frail with age, his eyes remained bright and alert.
Crushing the finished smoke into an overflowing ashtray, he said, “There is a project. A new project.” Smoke leaked from his nose as he talked. “Orders from Khagan.”
Katyushka read nothing in his expression, no hint of emotion.
“Tensions are rising in the west. The Altin Ordu army gathers on the border.”
“War?” she asked. “Again? So soon?” The last war, a decade-long conflict, ended two years ago. Kievan still reeled in the aftermath, the majority of the empire’s young men buried in shallow trenches far from home.
Colonel Grinin ignored her questions. “I have been instructed to place a few women into… active duty. As a test.”
A test? For what?
Not daring to ask, she said, “My training is secretarial.”
“Memory stones from retired…” he inhaled, leaked smoke, “from retired officers will give you the knowledge you need. Have you ever fired a weapon?”
“Of course not.”
“Have you ever been in a fight?”
Shocked, she shook her head.
“Soft, then,” he said. “The veneficum will fix that.”
She’d never worn stones before but had heard horror stories of back-alley veneficum tearing memories and personality traits from helpless victims.
Grinin focussed on Kat and she suddenly understood why all those militsioner scampered from his path. “I want you to volunteer.”
Is that an order? She didn’t know how to ask.
“I’d have to discuss this with—”
“The pay is double that of a secretary.”
Double? That would get her and Fyodor out of the north-end much quicker. She could really contribute!
“I’d make what the men make?” she asked.
“Don’t be silly, girl.”
“Right. Of course. Sorry.”
“I’ll assign one of my best officers to look after you. You’ll be perfectly safe. I promise. This is purely for show. I’ve been instructed to make sure this little project succeeds.”
“Why?” she blurted.
He scowled. “A good militsioner does not question a superior officer. You’ll know that once you have the right stones.”
The right stones. Fear shivered through her. At least if they were giving her stones, they weren’t carving out parts of her personality. When she removed the stones, she’d be herself again.
Grinin spoke like she’d already volunteered. Maybe she had. Father always sounded bitter when he talked about ‘volunteering’ to move the family to Norylska. Maybe sometimes you were volunteered.
What happens if I reject the offer?
She didn’t want to find out.
And double the pay!
“Dismissed.” So that’s what volunteering feels like.