Excerpt for The Fallen (The Sublime Electricity Book #3) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords











The Fallen



a novel

by Pavel Kornev







The Sublime Electricity

Book #3













Magic Dome Books





The Fallen

(The Sublime Electricity Book #3)

Copyright © Pavel Kornev 2017

Cover Art © Vladimir Manyukhin 2017

Translator © Andrew Schmitt 2017

Published by Magic Dome Books, 2017

All Rights Reserved

ISBN:9788088295563





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Table of Contents:

Prologue, or a Dirigible and a Bit of Fire

Chapter One, or Dances with Snakes and a Bit of Poison

Chapter Two or Old Friends and a Bit of a Riddle

Chapter Three, or a Bit of Death, a Bit of Love

Chapter Four or Spiritualist Seance and a Bit of Mysticism

Chapter Five, or the Amphitheater and a Bit of a Clue

Chapter Six, or Long-Awaited Answers and a Bit of Darkness

Chapter Seven or Iron Cage and Too Much Power






IN THIS WORLD, steam and electricity are the favored sources of power. Science has taken the place of religion, while magic is unknown by all but peculiar outcasts. But the border between reality and the underworld here is extremely thin. Thankfully, the adepts of scientific knowledge have found success holding back the onslaught of infernal creatures. Electricity is stronger than magic, but even it is not all powerful.


A former detective constable for the New Babylon Criminal Investigative Police, Leopold Orso is illustrious. He has inherited a morbid talent allowing him to manifest other peoples’ fears and phobias with the force of his imagination. Dealing with his own nightmares turned out to be not nearly as simple, though. Eventually, Leopold got free of them, but someone clever and very powerful has now drawn him into a dangerous game where the puppet cannot be distinguished from the puppet master. Winning is not in the cards. Defeat will end with a descent into the abyss of hell. Run? The snare is already drawn too tight…












"HEAVEN! NO LOSERS ALLOWED!"


Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band)

Song title: Golem






Prologue, or a Dirigible and a Bit of Fire




SMOKE AND MIRRORS are an illusionist's most trusted assistants. They are the precise factor that allows those deceivers to remake reality and force their audience to believe in the nonexistent. By no stretch of the imagination do they use unlawful magic or wizardry, so reviled by our enlightened society. You see, smoke and mirrors are the simplest of tools. They merely create the necessary atmosphere and give the honorable public an excuse to exercise their sense of imagination.

Yes! The crux of the matter is imagination. It is the conscious mind's very ability to fill in the missing details that allows illusionists to entertain and bewilder their mouth-breathing patrons. After all, we are often glad to be deceived, having mistaken our wishes for reality...


The girl was wearing a shamelessly short blouse, not even reaching the knee. Slender and red-headed, she was spinning in a wordless dance on the backdrop of a gray sky. Not far away, there was a raging sea; I could even smell its salty air. But none of those extraneous details could hold me – not the beam of sunlight rippling off a wave, nor the marble of the ancient ruins –my attention was entirely wrapped up in the dancer.

Her eccentric dance was making my blood run hot; the lady was contorting like a sapling in a wind storm. Sometimes, in a feigned fall, she leaned low over the ground, but she quickly straightened back up, just before the urge go to her aid reached its peak. Time and again, I missed the chance to announce myself, and that was a torment to my heart, tearing it to pieces.

The dancer's uneven movements hypnotized me, driving me mad; I would have lost all control over myself long ago, if it weren't for the silence draped over my body like a down comforter. It was as if I had wax plugs stuffed into my ears: there was no music playing, no wind rustling, no sound from the waves splashing off the seaside rocks. All I could hear was a bizarre, measured chirping reaching out to me from an unfathomable distance.

Just chirp, chirp, chirp. And the smell of char.

Smoke and mirrors...


I coughed from the acrid smoke. My fingers clenched convulsively. Just then, a mass of delicate glass hit a cup, spilling my lemonade. I lurched forward and flew out of my armchair onto a thick Persian rug. Spread-eagled and unable to move, I felt the floor giving a slight buzz and only then remembered who I was and where.

I am the illustrious Leopold Orso, the Viscount Cruce. And now, I am lying in the middle of the state room of my very own dirigible, like a hop-head who just got his hands on some first-class dope.

Smoke and mirrors? Curses!

Smoke was gathering under the ceiling, but there was still plenty of fresh air where I had just landed, so I managed to catch my breath and chase off the delirium clouding up my muddled mind.

With a hoarse cough, I flicked the tears from my eyes and discovered something sticky on my face. Blood. It was blood. I remembered cuts on my palm, left by broken glass. Though the blood had yet to fully dry, the lacerations had already healed over and disappeared without a trace.

No matter! I got up on an elbow and took a look around. There was more smoke in the state room than you could shake a stick at. Smoke, but no mirrors. Where the beguiling dancer had once been, there was now a wordless image of Isadora Duncan, a famous dancer, spinning on a linen screen on the far wall to the measured chirping of a projector. She bore no resemblance whatever to the girl from my visions.

As soon as I glanced up at the screen, snippets of the distant melody started reaching me again. The power of my imagination and my illustrious talent filled in the black and white image with bright colors, giving it depth, and luring me in with all the forbidden draw of a mirage in the desert. Just close your eyes and you'll be at the shore of a distant sea. There, you can take your beloved by the hand and squeeze her tight. And there you will remain, forever...

Damn it! I don't want to live in an illusion!

Devil take this cursed cinematographer and the intoxicating smoke!

My teeth clenched in a wave of sudden rage. I gathered my strength and got up on all fours, but didn't manage to stay up, and collapsed to the floor. My arms and legs felt full of cast lead. In the end, I crawled to the door out of the state room.

In the hallway, I propped myself up on the wall, breaking out a porthole with my elbow. Fresh air immediately rushed in, washing over me like ice water. It became easier to breathe. My presence of mind returned.

What the devil is going on here?! Where were the captain, navigator and steward? Why wasn't the crew extinguishing the flare-up? Perhaps the smoke wasn't caused by a fire, but some technical problem?

I covered my face with my coattails and walked over to the control room, stopping and leaning on the bulkhead to catch my breath from time to time. My legs were quite loath to obey me, and the flames licking my face were starting to really sting. But I had nowhere to retreat to. I could only go forward...

Before me, unfortunately, there was nothing but scorching flames. To realize that, I just had to peek into the cracked door of the deckhouse.

The greater part of the room was engulfed in flame. The stomach-churning stench of burnt flesh mingled with the acrid smell of burning rubber. The navigator was lying chest-first on the instrument panel, flames hugging his body. The captain was sitting back lifelessly in his chair, also not moving. He was dead, too.

What bullshit!

Suddenly, a sharp gust of wind sent a long lash of flame in my direction. I heard a crackling sound as a few hairs caught fire; I took a step back and saw that smoke was rushing out the flung-wide door of the gondola. And what was worse, it hadn't been opened by the wind...

"Halt!" I shouted, but the last of the dirigible crew, the steward, was already stepping out into the fresh air. On his back, I saw the voluminous hump of a bulging backpack.

I couldn't bite back a strong word:

"Devil!"

Devil! Devil! Devil!

The flame, nourished by the current of air, roared up. I ran over to the door, immediately slammed it and hurried to the storeroom where the experimental Kotelnikov parachutes were kept. A gift from Alexander Dyak, they had been acquired in the Russian provinces. But I was met there by stinging disappointment: all the silken domes had been removed from their packs and sliced up with a knife.

The steward! What a bastard! All that remained for me now was to burn alive!

Not getting lost in guesses why, I returned to the internal door. There, I clipped my round dark glasses onto my nose and reached out for my illustrious talent. My ability to embody the fears of those around me was not capable of giving a man wings, just as my imagination was lacked the power to put out a fire, but I wasn't planning to overcome the concept of gravity, or stop the physical and chemical process known as burning. I only needed to overcome my own fear – a fear of falling, a fear of heights. That was both simple and unbelievably difficult at the same time.

Preparing for the inevitable, I unfolded my pocket knife, squeezed the titanium blade between my teeth and opened the cabin door. Down below, very far below, I saw a flickering mountain ridge and the grayish blue mirror of a lake. Uncertainty rolled over me. My knees started shaking. But I overcame my second of weakness and jumped out after the steward.

Outside. Without a parachute. A freefall.

As it turned out, however, the fall was a good deal less free than I imagined. A strong gust immediately flew up to greet me, tearing my unbuttoned jacket, and spinning me in a vortex. My glasses flew off my face. My eyes were instantly filled with tears, but I had already seen the parachute dome, a white spot bloating away on the backdrop of the mountain lake below.

I spread out my arms and legs, managing to stop my spinning and turned toward the absconder, who was hanging from the straps of his backpack. I pressed my arms to my body and sped downward, but not like a stone, more like an airframe – at an angle. The speed of my fall sharply increased. The wind whistled in my ears. My face burned from the chill, and my clothes started tearing.

I slammed into my victim like a hawk after a pigeon, racing towards my target like a loosed arrow. My body started spasming. Holding a true course took a truly massive amount of effort. Even so, I didn't manage to drop right through the hole in the middle of the parachute. Having realized that I'd hit the parachute at an angle, I grabbed the knife from my teeth and found myself immediately spinning like a corkscrew. A moment later, my blade slid through the silk, and I flew free of it, racing toward earth.

The collision with the parachute had only intensified my spinning. At a certain point, I was turned onto my back, and saw a person flicker by above me, feverishly fiddling with straps. With a few sharp swipes, I regained my composure and spread out my arms and legs like an air vane. The whistling of the wind grew slightly quieter. My fall lost its extreme speed, and I was quickly overtaken by the steward, who was now shooting down like a stone. The remnants of his parachute, shredded by my knife, were dragging behind him, slack and tangled.

"Go to hell, jackass!" I shouted, looking at the lake below me. Unfortunately, I was reminded that, when falling from a great height, water can be hard as concrete. But I threw that little physics-class fun-fact from my mind and forced myself to calm down. No fear remained; there was no longer any call for it.

I was soaring, simply soaring through the sky. Then, the smooth surface of the lake suddenly flew up to meet me. Just before striking the ripples of gray water, a question formulated itself in my mind, which had been nagging at me since this whole episode began: why the devil was there a recording of Isadora Duncan among my reels of film? I mean, I wasn’t even a fan!

And immediately after that – impact and darkness...








Chapter One, or Dances with Snakes and a Bit of Poison


THERE'S NO such thing as time.

Time is a fiction, invented by naive romantics and high-minded men of science. People like that are the source of the belief, held earnestly by most simpletons, that time is a set of hands running in a circle around the face of a clock. Something endless, unshakable and unchanging. Eternal.

A dangerous confusion.

Time doesn't exist at all. All that exists is a sequence of events that can be broken at any moment. In the space of an instant, that which took years to build can fall to dust, disappear, and cease to exist entirely.

Life? Yes, life too. Mine certainly. At the very least, life in the sense of the sequential sort of existence we’re all accustomed to.


Sitting on the rocky beach of a tiny island in the middle of a mountain lake, I was feeling bad. But not because my dirigible had just burnt up, not at all. And not even because I hadn't managed to reach the New World. No! I wanted to howl at the top of my lungs because I'd lost the illusion of my personal safety.

Someone had tried to kill me.

Again!

After all, the steward didn't just go mad and fly off the handle. He thought it all out in advance and waited for the best possible moment. A dirigible crashing in the mountains – what story could be more banal? I mean, would they even find the wreckage? Perhaps, in a few years, someone might randomly come upon a piece of twisted frame.

But what was this for? Who might have wanted my death, considering that the world at large had already come to think me dead? Dead, or missing without a trace more than a year ago. One is not much different from the other.

There was no reason to try and kill me!

It could have been embittered malefics, who’d traced my footsteps. That mystical brotherhood brought revenge to the level of religious devotion, but setting fire to a dirigible and faking it as an accident was not their usual methodology. The people of the black book were accustomed to acting in a much more forthright manner, and were extremely predictable in that sense. They put all their eggs into the basket of magic. Buying people off wasn't their style. If this had been their doing, the steward would have doused himself in kerosene and, with a calm smile, flicked a match on the side of a box. A malefic certainly wouldn’t have tried to flee.

I had no faith in the Imperial secret service, either. Crown Princess Anna's guard had no reason to doubt my death: no one could survive having their heart removed from their chest. After I disappeared from the hospital, they might have searched for the people who ran off with my mutilated corpse, but that was all.

The ends weren’t coming together; I was at an impasse.

I had a flash back the blaze in the dirigible. A shiver rolled over me. Fire could undo most infernal creatures, and werebeasts were no exception. But I was lucky that my heightened metabolism had removed the toxins from my system before the fire managed to spread into the state room.

"Devil!" I sighed, finding a flat stone among the little pebbles. With a sharp flick, I released it, skipping it across the water.

A rather commonplace past-time.

I had a hellish urge to eat, but there wasn't even grass growing on this rocky outcropping. I was left only with lake water.

But don't think I spent several days there. Nothing of the sort. It wasn't even a half hour ago that I slammed down not far from here and had a nasty impact with the water. It hurt.

But it was a sharp and fast pain, totally incomparable to the extreme torment I experienced when my broken bones started growing back together, or my muscles and tendons started healing over. When my broken joints finally popped back in place, now that was excruciating.

I am a werebeast, and it isn't so easy to kill werebeasts, even with a fall from a kilometer in the sky. But, healing my body had started the flywheel of my sped-up metabolism, and I needed to eat something fast.

Eat something? Curses! I need to gorge myself! I don’t want to merely eat, but gorge myself. If I don't stuff my gut with meat right now, I'll start digesting my own body.

And the pain... the pain caused by the hunger in my muscles and joints was becoming ever more unbearable.

"Bugger!" My imaginary friend's favorite word tore itself involuntarily from my mouth and I realized that I would not be able to go on like this. A bit more and I'd no longer feel comfortable in my clarity of thinking. The hunger and pain after transforming back often deprived even much more experienced werebeasts of their presence of mind.

I was reminded of my father. Now, I understood the unbelievable effort he had gone through to stop himself becoming a beast once and for all. He was saved by his faith, but man's abilities are not limitless. As a way of coping with the pain, my dad drank and drank and drank. Then he died. Sucking down enough alcohol to kill a grown man day in and day out was just too much, even for a werewolf’s liver.

That thought put me beside myself.

I got up from the stones, picked up my jacket, which was splitting at the seams, and looked around. I was surrounded by the lake, with the green silhouettes of overgrown mountainside in the distance. In the west, the slopes were steeper, some with sheer faces. The color palette there was predominantly gray. Further in that direction, there was a corkscrew of black smoke winding up into the blue sky. That would have been my dirigible, still on fire.

In large part, the only thing stopping me from taking the inevitable dive into the lake was that I was afraid it would ruin my clothing once and for all. The fall had done a suitable number on my getup as it was, but after a second dip, even the highest quality fabric would be inexorably transformed into a dishrag. Looking like that, I might even get picked up for vagrancy.

I took a glance at my lacquered shoes, which I'd fished out of the lake and, with a fated sigh, started folding my jacket, which had just barely dried out in the bright summer sun.

Returning to the metropolis was a mistake – I now realized that very distinctly.

A breeze blew in, and I gave a shiver either from chill or the uncomfortable thought. It was most likely the latter – it wasn't cold. In fact, I was drenched in sweat.

Devil! I should have flown through England!

True as that was, London was also restless: the authorities there had recently led a series of raids on malefics, freemasons and socialists. Unions were leading workers to street demonstrations, adding fuel to the fire of the Irish independence movement. The police were on high alert, and I had absolutely no need to attract the attention of my former colleagues. I’d had a doctored passport made up under a new name during my stay in the Russian Provinces. It passed all imaginable registry checks, but still, the risk always remained of finding an overly vigilant constable or worse – a Department Three spook.

That was the last thing I needed, for someone to recognize me as Leopold Orso, the Viscount Cruce.

But it would seem now that someone had!

It was Leopold Orso precisely they were trying to kill. There couldn't be the slightest doubt in that. Lev Shatunov, as I was called after the document change, wasn't mixed up in any objectionable business. After receiving access to the safe-deposit box, I had left Zurich immediately and traveled the Old World, not staying in any one place for long.

Serious trouble had only befallen me one time, and that was garden variety stuff: someone tried to rob me. And it was my fault, really. At the start of my trip, I didn’t have the good sense to have a checkbook issued, and just dragged a thick packet of francs with me wherever I went. The robber was as savvy as he was cowardly. He simply popped three bullets into my back. When I came to, the robber was clearing out my pockets and removing the gold band of my timepiece from my arm. It's often said that greed can destroy a man. The robber coveted my golden bauble and, in the end, was made to part with his own head. It would be no exaggeration to call what happened a lapse of my self-control.

But was it really an attempted robbery? Or just a link in a chain?

Devil, I really should have flown through London! It was the simplicity of this route that had tempted me!

Heading to the New World through Atlantis was the easiest way. I didn't even have to make a stop in New Babylon. Directly from Lisbon, I was headed for the western shore of the island, where I was planning to fill my reserves before crossing the ocean.

I cursed, turned my head and took a cautious step into the transparent water. Near the shore, I could perfectly make out minnows scurrying over the pebbles. A bit in the distance, mountains and sky were reflected on the smooth surface of the lake.

I did not want to swim. I wanted to sit here, gather my thoughts and wait for something to change, but my hunger wouldn't subside and was egging me on more and more. Good sense echoed hunger. I was aware of the fact that no one and nothing would be coming to the island, so I'd have to swim no matter what. What was the point of wasting time, delaying the inevitable?

But I was so cold...

I returned to the shore and had already begun to unlatch my belt when suddenly...

"Around an island and into midstream," came a well formulated voice belting out from the other side of the island, "the expansive river wave..." (Translator’s note: these are they lyrics to a Russian folk song known in English as The Song of Stenka Razin)

My belt latched back up, I hurried to scramble up the steep stony slope and gave a heavy sigh, not believing my own eyes.

On the backdrop of the gray spurs of the far-off mountains, there was a small pleasure boat gliding peacefully along the mirrored surface of the lake. A demure gentleman of middling years was rowing the boat with even strokes, his head hanging down in a somber fashion; his companion was standing on the bow with a bottle of wine in hand, singing in a high bass with abandon, probably imitating Chaliapin rather than having such a vocal timbre naturally.

I had no intention of missing the chance to get off the island without getting my feet wet, so I waved my jacket over my head.

"Hey! On the boat!"

The oarsman gave a frightened shudder and pulled his short powerful neck into his shoulders. The singer, meanwhile, slapped his hand to his head and said something to his companion. He started rowing with one oar, turning the boat toward the island.

I caught my breath with relief and started getting a look at my approaching rescuers. They didn't quite look like hunters: no dickies, tall boots or rifles. The singer was wearing a light linen suit. He'd gone out for his nautical voyage with his head uncovered; the oarsman, wearing a morning coat and pair of striped trousers, couldn't leave tradition by the wayside and had a boater hat hanging loosely off his crown. And he made the exact right choice: in the midday July sun, one could fry even in the mountains. If one started abusing wine along with that, singing was the next logical step.

By the way, the thin man on the bow of the ship didn't seem drunk and easily held his balance, looking at me from behind the palm he'd slapped to his forehead. Dark blond and with a short, well-trimmed beard, he could have been taken for a very successful lawyer or even a professor if it weren't for a certain levity and even sharpness in his movements. For some reason, I got the impression this man was not cut-out for fist-fighting.

His companion was of a more solid build and worked the oars confidently without the slightest strain. His bushy mutton chops came together into a mustache. Along with the pipe in his teeth, it created the image of a sea captain. That image was spoiled a bit, though, by a thick pocket-watch chain. A merchant? That looked very much to be the case.

"Sirs!" I raised my voice when there was no more than ten meters between the boat and the island. "I feel awfully uncomfortable asking, but could you please do me the kindness of bringing me to shore? The water is awfully cold this time of year. I'll even man the oars!"

"There we go!" grumbled the oarsman, shivering nervously.

His companion, as if apologizing for the man, gave a good-hearted wave of his free hand.

"We'll take you there in fine fashion, have no doubt about it. How could we not help a countryman, Mister...?"

"Lev Borisovich Shatunov, at your service," I hurried to introduce myself.

"More likely, it is us at your service," the oarsman noted cantankerously.

The singer laughed.

"Don't listen to that old grumbler, Lev Borisovich. I welcome you aboard our craft!"

"One minute!"

I came down the slope, but not to the boat, to the other side, to get my shoes. I quickly grabbed them and rushed back, now feeling slightly worried I'd see my rescuers rowing away in the distance when I returned.

But no, they waited for me. Due to the rocks on the shore, the rower wouldn't risk bringing the boat right up to the island, and I had to walk to them in the water with my pants rolled up to my knees. But compared with swimming across the whole lake, that was a mere trifle.

The crooner on the bow of the boat, not at all ashamed at what his new companion might think, put the bottle of wine to his lips and took a good gulp.

"Take heart, Count! We have a great journey ahead of us!" he announced after that.

I nearly fell back overboard when hearing the address.

"Uhh... Count?"

The singer started darting his eyes and sighed sorrowfully. The paddler came to my aid.

"This farce is something even I feel capable of deciphering," he laughed good heartedly. "Lev, as in Lev Tolstoy. And Lev Tolstoy is what? That's right, a Count."

"But please," I disagreed, taking a seat on the bench, "why Count precisely and not writer?"

"Pardon me, Lev Borisovich!" the singer gasped. "But what do you mean writer? A writer is, you know, a person who follows their heart, up until midnight in a dingy apartment. A writer strings chapters together to pay off debts, then burns them in a drunken fit. But Count Tolstoy – he's a Count. A high word count, too. That’s what I say, anyway."

"I won't argue," I snorted and threw my shoes onto the wooden grate that covered the bottom of the boat, then started rolling down my pants.

"With your charades, we forgot all about common decency," grumbled the oarsman, having begun to turn the boat away from the island. "Allow me to introduce myself: Yemelyan Nikoforovich Krasin."

"Ivan Prokhorovich Sokolov," the singer joined his comrade and smiled understandingly: "Count, I suppose there's no reason for us to inquire about the circumstances of your arrival to this patch of uninhabitable land?"

"You oblige me greatly," I sighed, not feeling like inventing a decent lie.

"We expect the same of you," Yemelyan Nikoforovich grumbled.

"I'm such a dolt!" Sokolov suddenly slapped his palm on his forehead. "You aren't any old Count, you’re the Count of Monte Cristo!"

"Alright, that train has left the station," Krasin laughed good-heartedly.

"Just how does one not account for the island?" Ivan Prokhorovich was still lamenting. "Oh well, I'm guess I’m just getting old..."

A gust of wind blew in, rocking the boat. A slight ripple of somebody’s fear pricked me. But such fears had little power over me now; I was looking obsessively for a picnic basket. I knew it was somewhere. I could smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh grub. I swallowed my spit.

A werebeast can only be stopped by silver and electricity, but beyond that, we have another thing hanging over our heads like a sword of Damocles: pain and hunger. The pain is from transforming into human form, or the rapid healing process. After either one of those is completed, the body demands its energy be replenished, giving rise to an unbearable desire to fill one’s belly.

I was devilishly hungry, and the scent of fresh pone and meat pies were driving me batty. Fortunately, Sokolov caught my gaze and offered:

"Help yourself, Lev Borisovich. And feel free to have some wine, as well."

"Wine is a bit much in sun like this, Ivan Prokhorovich," I replied, refusing the drink as I placed the basket on my knees. "But don't you doubt that I will compensate all expenses."

My wallet had not dropped out of my pocket in the fall, and although the bank notes had soaked through while in the water, it wasn't long enough for them to lose all value. Coins included, I had just under fifty francs on me, which was enough for lunch for three, and to get my clothing mended. But from there...

From there, my path was clouded over.

"Shame on you, Lev Borisovich!" Sokolov rebuked me. "Helping a countryman in a difficult spot is the due of every decent person."

All that remained was to be glad that my grandfather had taught me my native language. There was also some thanks to my father, who had a tentative grasp and didn't allow me to forget it. Then, after fleeing from the metropolis, I'd spent enough time to cover my linguistic gaps enough to pretend I was natively born in the Russian provinces without risking being immediately uncovered. Accent? An accent is business as usual for people who dwell in foreign lands.

I opened the picnic basket and nearly drowned in spit. But I didn’t lay into it yet and asked my rescuers:

"Won't you join me?"

The burly rower went pale and quickly turned away, while Sokolov started smiling again.

"Yemelyan Nikiforovich, unfortunately, feels quite unwell on the water. He has no appetite," he said and looked at the bottle in his hand. "And I, thank you very much, will limit myself to wine. This Madeira is ambrosial and delightfully self-sufficient!"

"That's no good for you in this burning heat, Ivan Prokhorovich," Krasin grumbled, confidently working the oars.

The singer began answering at length, but I wasn't listening anymore, clearing out the picnic basket. In the end, I wolfed down a meat pie, an open fish pie, a piece of cheese, a link of blood sausage, a fancy roll and two apples. It killed my hunger, but I wasn't exactly sated. I wanted something hot. Preferably – a first course, a main, and desert. And without fail, a strong sweet tea.

But for now, I leaned overboard, scooped up a handful of water and drank it. That made Krasin plainly squirm. His rounded face and massive jaw instantly attained the color of a fresh linen.

And again, I caught a fear. Viscous and powerful, it tore into my nerves in time with the lapping of the waves on the side of the boat.

Yemelyan Nikiforovich had a panicking fear of water. Normal lake water, cold and pure.

And that seriously surprised me. There is often no logic present in peoples' fears. Agoraphobia, for example. But why go off on a boat ride with that type of nervous-system malfunction?

"I'm afraid I've left you without a lunch..." I muttered thoughtfully, wiping my greasy fingers on a handkerchief.

"Don't worry," Krasin sighed loudly, his fingers gone white in strain from clenching the oars, "we'll take lunch in a restaurant."

At that moment, we came around a rocky cape, revealing a small bay, the calm surface of which was being crisscrossed by a great many pleasure boats. Refined gentlemen and hired rowers were working oars. Ladies were sitting under parasols in tranquil idyll. There was a long quay stretched out down the shore. On its far edge, an open veranda hung out over the lake with tables for those who preferred a mug of aromatic coffee and a sandwich to a boat voyage.

"Montecalida!" exploded out of me. I'd never before had the chance to visit this resort town, but the view was perfectly familiar from postcards. In my childhood, I’d spent hours staring at postcards, dreaming about visiting all the marvelous locations they depicted.

"Uh, yep!" Sokolov said in surprise, pushing the cork back into his emptied bottle. "Is something the matter? It's as if you weren't expecting it..."

"No, no, it’s nothing," I hurried to quash the topic. "Everything is fine."

Visiting the resort town, world-renowned for its hot springs, was not part of my plans, but I'd never have found a better place to crash: this town was directly on the rail line that connected the east and west coasts of Atlantis. With good luck, I could be on the road to New Babylon later today.

The wind quieted down. The waves stopped beating on the sides and rocking the boat; Yemelyan Nikiforovich relaxed and seemingly even grew smaller in stature, having become a well-fed gentleman of middling years. Only in his movements did a distinct uncertainty still slip through, but that was easily explained by the other boaters. Often, they would make very poorly thought-out, if not to say utterly foolish maneuvers right into our path.

I shook out my jacket. I'd had it sewn for me at one of the best tailors in Paris, but now I felt my ears starting to burn in shame. With all the impeccably dressed vacationers about, my suit looked like an old garment taken from a trash bin, and I looked like a vagabond intruding into a celebration of life to pick up a forgotten item.

How could I go ashore looking like this?

"Don't you worry, Lev Borisovich," Yemelyan Nikiforovich laughed good-heartedly, having picked up on the shame overcoming me, "I have an old habit of carrying a cloak with me. I left it at the quay. Life in Petrograd teaches one not to trust the weather, you know."

"You'll look excellent, Your Grace," Sokolov supported his comrade.

"Your Grace?!" I shuddered, not having immediately understood the winding logical path that led him there. "Ah, that's right! Lev is Lev Tolstoy. Lev Tolstoy is a Count. A Count is 'Your Grace.'"

"That's right," said the fairly drunk Sokolov, pointing a finger at me. "You're making progress, Count!"

The wind changed direction and was now blowing away from shore. An orchestra was playing near the quay and snippets of their melody were fluttering down to us. I listened in and recognized Caty Moss's Flower Dance, very popular this season.

To the lapping of waves, our boat nuzzled up to the boards of the pier, and Sokolov was first to jump onto it. I took a chain from him, handed it to Yemelyan Nikiforovich, who was standing heavily and also left the boat. I was feeling devilishly uncomfortable to be in full view of society in this torn suit, but I still noticed the relief Krasin felt following after us. No, I was not wrong – he was definitely scared of having water near him.

But then why take the boat trip? It was beyond understanding.

Yemelyan Nikiforovich walked directly to the cashiers, and we came after. Sokolov walked with the easy gait of an inveterate reveler; I tried to stay behind him, drawn tight like a string, expecting sidelong glances and smirks.

"Relax, Count!" Ivan Prokhorovich advised. "This is Montecalida! Here, if there is a drunk lying in a puddle, it's impossible to say if it's a vagabond or a stylish poet, or even a full-on playwright!"

I nodded and tried to calm myself.

Everything was right: the resort city attracted bohemian artists like a magnet, especially in the heat of summer when all willpower to remain in smoggy New Babylon had dried up. Basically, people came to visit these hot springs from all parts of the Empire, and even from the colonial states of the New World. Albert Brandt always said that this place had a unique atmosphere...

Here, I winced habitually. Many years had passed since we'd last seen one another, but whenever I remembered him, an aching sorrow whirred up inside me. I didn't have enough friends for it not to hurt when I lost one. To be perfectly honest, Albert was probably the last friend I had left.

Yemelyan Nikiforovich exchanged a few words with the cashier, and received a long gray cloak. I put it on and was left utterly satisfied: although it was a bit narrow at the shoulders, and hung quite low, the respectable public stopped lavishing me with their suspiciously surprised or surprisingly pitiful gazes.

"A bit short on you," Sokolov noticed. "You, Lev Borisovich, are no Count. You’re king of the scarecrows!"

"Come off it, Ivan Prokhorovich," Krasin rebuffed, taking a pack of papirosa cigarettes from his pocket. "He looks great!"

But the sleeves really were a bit short. My wrists stuck out of the cuffs like a stick from that of a scarecrow, just as Sokolov had said.

"Shall we hire a cab?" Yemelyan Nikiforovich suggested, lighting his cigarette.

"Drop the lordly manners, mister slave-owner," Sokolov refused. "Let's go to the electric streetcar. I know a decent ready-made clothing store not far from here." And he turned to me: "Or would the Count prefer to visit a tailor?"

"I'm afraid it won't be possible to mend the suit, and I cannot allow myself to wait until they sew me a new one," I sighed, having decided not to ask about the 'slave-owner' thing for the time being.

Ivan Prokhorovich was marked by a tendency for associative thinking. The winding curves of his logic had me at an impasse. As did the man himself: I wasn't able to determine his professional affiliation, or even his social status. But he was definitely not the junior companion of "mister slave-owner." He behaved too unrestrictedly with the man.

"Let's be going, gentlemen!" Sokolov called us, walking down a narrow alley away from the boat dock.

Stylish vacationers were walking out opposite us; a red-faced man wearing a sailor's hat was straining to push a cart full of ice-cream as it bounced on the uneven paving stones; paperboys were running from one mouth-breather to the next, plying their wares. Life in the resort town bubbled over.

After passing by two houses, we emerged onto a wide boulevard. A theater column with a bright poster immediately met the eye. On the backdrop of the local amphitheater, there were images of Caruso and Chaliapin. I didn't have time to figure out the details: a few fragmentary rings came out from the end of the street, and a self-propelled streetcar came around the bend, rolling along iron rails.

"No time to lose, gentlemen!" Sokolov said, quickening his gait.

Krasin took a deep drag and threw his cigarette butt in a trash can; I grabbed the bottom of the cloak, which was dragging on the ground occasionally, and hurried after them.

The electric streetcar line that encircled the city, not quite the oldest in the world, was considered the second biggest attraction of Montecalida after its hot springs. Its blue and white cars were depicted on an unimaginable number of postcards and stamps. The choice of this mode of transportation, so strange for a resort town, was due to the hydroelectric dam, built in the mountains by Maxwell himself, who had spent the last years of his life here.

The conductor reduced his speed. The streetcar came to a stop, and fifteen vacationers got out. Without any hurry, we went into the car, payed the conductor, who was wearing a black pea-jacket uniform and polished peaked cap, and took our seats.

A sonorous crackle rang out. The overhead wire showered electric sparks and the car started moving. We were lightly rocked forward, then the car started gaining momentum, the wheels clunking out time on the rail joints.

I was impressed most of all by the complete lack of smoke. The mountain air was unbelievably transparent. It was amazingly easy to breathe.

We went past the city garden. On the crest at its gates, there was a sign advertising a lecture tonight: "Are Other Planets Habitable?" The sun was scorching with all its cosmic energy, heating the paving stones and warming the mountain air; there was a long line extending from a stall selling mineral water. The light was so bright it made my eyes water. I winced and turned away from the window, having decided to buy dark glasses at the first opportunity. I couldn't very well get by without them...

"Here's our stop," Sokolov warned us, deftly hopping out as he walked from the back platform onto the causeway as if he hadn't just finished drinking a bottle of fortified wine.

I jumped out after him and even had to run a bit to maintain my balance. Krasin followed after us, and we went into a narrow alley between two three-story buildings with mansard roofs, which were made to be rented out to vacationers. Over our heads, there were taught clothes-lines laden with pillowcases, towels and stockings waving dully in the wind.

We didn't have to walk far. As soon as we turned down the neighboring street, we were there. The ready-made clothing store was found on the first floor of a corner manor.

It was a normal, quiet alley: shop signs washed out by sunlight, a cafe with a dusty window. Next to the clothing store was a barber and a pawn shop, its windows barred. Somewhere nearby, a dog was yapping. Behind the buildings, I could hear the knocking wheels of the electric streetcar. At an intersection, there was a paperboy shouting to attract the attention of passers-by.

"So, Count, we'll wait for you over there!" Sokolov said, pointing at the outdoor seating of the cafe opposite. "Not a bad little spot," he told us. "Comfy. Like home."

"Hey, I showed it to you!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich objected.

"That is true," Ivan Prokhorovich smiled. "But, my friend, you did not notice the ready-made clothing store next door, did you?"

Krasin just frowned and went for his wallet.

"Lev Borisovich, do you need some money to tide you over?" he offered.

"Thank you, but no," I refused in the hopes of using my now-dry payment orders, and removed the cloak. "I also thank you for the clothing. You really bailed me out."

"Hogwash!" Yemelyan Nikiforovich waved it off, throwing the cloak over his arm and walking toward Sokolov, who had already taken a seat at the sidewalk table.

"Newspapers! Gentlemen, get your newspaper here!" a boy with a swollen bag walked up to the street cafe. "Battles in Rio de Janeiro! Unrest in India! Kali-Strangler thugees commit yet another dastardly deed!"

Yemelyan Nikiforovich bought the fresh edition of the Atlantic Telegraph. Sokolov took nothing. I just shook my head and pushed open the shop door. A little bell tinkled out over my head, and a doughy clerk rushed to get out from behind the counter.

"How can I help you?" he smiled artificially, not paying any attention to my ripped suit or, to be more accurate, making a concerted effort to look like he wasn’t.

With disgust, I pulled out and set back the lapels of my jacket.

"I need a three-piece suit, undergarments and a dress shirt."

The shop smelled of fur and dust. Suits hung in rows, differentiated only by fabric color and size. The very thought that I'd have to wear such an abomination again after owning a tailor-made suit gave me heartburn.

Or maybe the food in the picnic basket had spoiled in the heat…

The order-taker sized me up with a practiced eye and took out his ruler.

"It won't be easy," he announced, taking my measurements, "but I'm sure we'll find something." After determining my height, shoulder width, leg and arm length, he walked between the hangers and took out a dark gray suit.

"This is not quite the same as what you had," the salesman told me, as if apologizing for the store's poor stock, "but you need a suit fast, am I understanding right? Hence why you came to us..."

"That's right," I confirmed.

"Then please go into the changing room, if you like. And there's also the shirt. But as for undergarments, I'm afraid we don't keep them in stock..."

In the little curtained-off nook, I set my knife, comb, gold cufflinks, coin-clinking wallet and tin of sugar drops on the shelf, took off my old suit and got into the new one. The dress shirt was just right. Its sleeves went right up to the bones of my thumbs. As for the jacket, although it fit snugly, it was much too tight at the shoulders. I needed to maintain a certain caution so it wouldn't split at the seams. I put my own belt into the trousers. They fit nearly perfectly, but needed to be brought in just a little.

"Well, what do you say?" the salesman turned to me with interest.

"The jacket is a bit narrow at the shoulders," I told him.

"Well, I won't be able to find anything better suited, unfortunately," the salesman said, putting his arms out to the side.

"And the trousers need to be brought in."

The salesman marked out the correct length with some chalk, and pointed at a chair behind the curtain.

"You can wait there."

I handed him the trousers and stayed in the new dress shirt, waistcoat and long-johns. A sewing machine suddenly started whirring out from the back room.

I didn't have to spend too much time alone. The salesman returned soon after, faltering obviously, not knowing how to start the conversation.

"This is, of course, none of my business, but..." he uttered, floundering and waving a hand. He then walked behind the mirror. "Please, I'll just show you. Here, see for yourself..."

I turned my head and nearly cursed out loud when I saw the burnt hair on the back of my head. I was immediately reminded of the fact that I had been in a flaming dirigible cabin. A bit of blood even coursed into my cheeks when I realized that I had been walking around town like this.

A darn shame!

And those two... They might have warned me!

My annoyance quickly abated; at the end of the day, I wasn't looking for work as a nanny. And the ripped suit was a somewhat bigger problem than burnt hair.

And my hair, it should be said, was beyond repair – the fire had scorched some spots totally bald.

"I could send someone out for a barber," the salesman offered accommodatingly.

"That would be wonderful," I replied.

I was soon brought the sewn pants and got dressed. But I didn't leave the store – I was categorically opposed to going outside with my hair like this. I'd better just wait for the barber.

"How much do I owe you?" I asked, opening my wallet.

"Twenty-five francs," the salesman answered, taking a look at his ledger.

It was a decent chunk of change, even by New-Babylon standards, and I winced internally, but didn't try to negotiate and set a couple of red tenners with a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci on the counter, adding to them a blue bill depicting Alessandro Volta. Then came the salesman's turn to frown: although the bank notes had managed to dry out, they still looked very suspicious.

That said, the salesman accepted them without question. As he was putting the money into the register, the door swung open and we were joined by a small man with a mustache wearing a white apron – the barber. In one hand, he was carrying a leather traveling bag, and in the other, he had a rolled-up cloth.

"Who needs the cut?" the craftsman asked with a clear continental accent. He noticed me and set about shooting out sentences as if from a machine gun: "Ah-ha! You! And what have we got? Show me. Turn to the light! Oh! You don't say? How about that! You're very lucky, mon cher. The fire only touched the back of your head. But I'll have to take the singed hair. Going outside like this would be the height of bad form!"

"What do you suggest?" I asked, hoping to put a cork in the fountain of his eloquence, but without success.

"Take a seat! Take a seat!" the small man demanded, then started walking around me. "Amazing! There's a bit of burning on the side as well! No, we cannot leave the temples looking like that. I simply cannot, don't even ask. But nothing needs to be taken off the top. Don't you worry, mon cher. I'll make it look great!"

"What are you going to do?" I asked, straining to get a word into his punctuated monologue.

The barber threw a cloth over me, folded it over my collar and took a step back.

"What option do I have?" he balked, looking at me from the side. "Only an undercut can save you, now. It's very stylish... in certain circles."

I cursed out silently. When I worked with the police, I had often had to visit the less fortunate peripheral areas, and young people there often had that very haircut. I had no desire to look anything like one of those underhanded rats.

"There's no other way?" I asked, hoping for a miracle.

The short man smoothed over his sumptuous mustache and sighed.

"Mon cher," he said to me as if talking to a brainless child, "half the back of your head and your left temple are burnt to the skin. I could just try to even all the hair out, but the result is going to look simply obscene. I value my work and respect my clients. It turns my stomach to think of staining my hands with such hack work. But don't you worry. No one is planning to turn you into a caricature from the back pages of the Capital Times. It will all look... very stylish. You'll like it."

I shrugged my shoulders and gave permission:

"Get to it."

The barber nodded and started in. He first shaved the back of my head and temples, then evened out the top, combed the hair to the side and slicked it down with gel.

"Voila!" he said, handing me the mirror.

The man reflected in the mirror was... not me. Or at least almost. My facial features, which were already quite sharp, became even more accented with the new cut. I looked like the kind of person, who had been getting their hair done this way from a young age. A rogue from a bad neighborhood? Oh well, sure. Why not?

An experienced physiognomist could recognize Leopold Orso in me without any doubt. Just as they could associate me with the Lev Shatunov of my documents, but an average person could easily be thrown off by the changes. And that was not so terribly bad. Actually, it was good.

I turned my head from side to side and decided that I liked the new hairstyle to a certain degree. Now, I would stand out from the crowd even without my stylish suit. Cheap and brutish, as they say in Russia.

Brutish? Yes, I now really did have a certain barbarity in my look.

The barber took away the cloth and gave a few spritzes of cologne. I got up from the chair and stood at the body-length mirror, looked over myself from the side and nodded. Not bad.

"So, mon cher, how do you like it?" the barber asked me, stashing his implements in his traveling bag.

"I could never have expected better," I admitted and, in a burst of unjustified extravagance, extended him my last five-franc bank-note. Now, the only thing in my wallet was a rumpled tenner and a few coins. "You really bailed me out."

But as soon as I started for the door, the salesman called out to me.

"Sir!" he shuddered. "Your old suit!"

"Throw it out!" I ordered, and went outside. I stood on the sidewalk for a bit, enjoying the slight breeze. Taking out my tin, I popped a powdered sugar drop in my mouth.

My rescuers were sitting at a table on the street. I didn't walk up to them, though, and slipped into the pawn shop with its barred windows where, among the jewelry out for sale, there were a number of pocket pistols and revolvers. After evaluating the pricing on the golden baubles, I decided not to even try to sell my cuff-links, and took off my timepiece.

"How much?"

The gloomy appraiser took the watch and immediately weighed it. After that, he looked at the stamp through an ocular he placed in his eye. He opened the back lid, immediately closed it and announced dogmatically:

"Thirty francs."

"How much?!" I figured I must have misheard.

"Thirty."

"What do you mean?! Its case is made of gold, and so is the band! It's pure gold – forty grams of it! Even if you sold the metal at half price that would be sixty or seventy francs!"

The appraiser set the timepiece on the counter and repeated:

"Thirty francs."

"It's a wristwatch! A timer! A calendar! We cannot possibly speak of an amount lower than fifty!" I objected. "I mean, if I don't sell it, someone might well rip it off my arm for a hundred and fifty!"

The man picked between his uneven teeth with a sharpened matchstick, then laughed:

"I'm starting to think you might have bought it. Thirty francs."

"I did buy it!" I wanted to bellow out, but held back. I was tall and strong with a characteristic haircut and cheap suit. And my colorless eyes played no role. It wasn't as if there was a dearth of scallywags among the illustrious. Looking like this, where I’d gotten the watch was a foregone conclusion.

And though this morning I could have easily pawned the timepiece for a hundred francs, my ceiling had been lowered to a pitiful thirty.

Curses! I was counting on that! When I’d bought the watch, my idea was to keep a bit of gold on me for the very worst of times, but all it's gotten me is laughed at.

After returning the watch to my wrist, I clicked the bracelet closed and pulled out my wallet. I slid a two-franc coin from it and slammed it down on the counter in annoyance.

"If you'd be so kind," I said, pointing at a pair of glasses among the baubles with round black lenses, reminiscent of those for the blind.

"Here you go."

The glasses clipped onto my nose, I walked over to the window and took a look outside. The lenses were very dark, and the bright sunlight no longer cut into my vision.

"I'll take them!" I decided.

"Yes, please," the fence answered back with a clink of his cash register.

I left the pawn-shop and headed back to my new acquaintances. Ivan Prokhorovich, to my surprise, had ordered coffee instead of wine; before him, there was an empty cup and a dish with the crumbs left over from a croissant. Yemelyan Nikiforovich was sitting back deeply in his chair, poking through a paper and smoking.

Sokolov was first to remark on my changed appearance and melted into a broad smile.


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