“If you truly believe Allah redeems, what difference will one more make?”

Aleksandr Tsarnaev glared at Nasrin from the passenger’s seat, gagged with gauze bandages, and bound to the seat. He still appeared woozy from the blow to the head she’d given him. He growled something through the gag, chewing uselessly to try and separate the gauze with his teeth. She smiled at him, reached out and patted his cheek.

It had been a bit of luck that they’d been expecting a delivery from South — a weapons-laden Pinz driven by the junior Tsarnaev cousin had shown up just as the conflagration had progressed to the barracks wall. Nasrin looked around, and made an instant decision. Her two officers, handwringing lackeys, were not going to be any use to her. She’d made it quick, putting a bullet in each of them before they had time to notice. A shot to the back of the neck, and her unfortunate colleagues were now limp, empty sacks of flesh on the floor. 

She felt nothing. She had always, in spite of her years of loyal service to Sergei, held herself in readiness to betray that loyalty. The time was now. She ensured she had her weapons. and calmly strode out to the outer gate to “confer” with Sergei’s young bodyguard. 

Overawed by the size and scope of the destruction, Tsarnaev did what the Tsarnaevs generally did when faced with any challenge above their pay grade — panic, and look around for a grownup to tell them what to do. She ordered him to get into the passenger’s side, turned the Pinz around, and clubbed him with her pistol. Then she’d made a single Morse tap on the dashboard radio before putting the lumbering vehicle into gear. 

One quick stop at the western basement emergency exit to exfiltrate some very precious cargo, and she had all she needed to make her bid for freedom — or at least, to return to being a free agent. She’d needed to keep the children bound and blindfolded to prevent them from escaping prematurely, which she regretted, but it was unavoidable. 

As tears of frustration and impotence filled her captive’s eyes, she decided to have mercy. In spite of his confirmed lickspittle status, Nasrin liked Aleksandr well enough, and thought he might mature into a competent officer if ever learned to think for himself. Keeping one eye on the road and her hand on the wheel of the Pinz, she reached over and tugged out the gag. 

“The komandir is going to tear you apart,” he spat, not surprising her in the least. 

“The komandir is finished, little boy,” she promised him. “There’s no one left at North. You think Zhukov’s garrison is any match for Rachel Kori? Look at around you.” She indicated the blasted tunnel before them, still occupied by the two burnt out tanks. “She did that with her own hands.”

He glared at her, angry tears of self pity in his eyes as he tongued the raw corner of his mouth. “Why didn’t you shoot me like Vasily?” 

“I didn’t shoot him,” she said with a yawn. “He ran. Unlike you he isn’t a complete idiot.” 

“I don’t understand. You want us to change sides?” 

“We’ll see,” Nasrin said, guiding the Pinz over the high road’s now dented asphalt. “Even if there was a side that would have you, I want you to think. Think whether you really want to spend the rest of your destined-to-be-short life wiping blood off another man’s boots, following around at his heels, and catching his bullets.”

He frowned at her. She ignored him, focusing on maneuvering around the breaks in the road as she guided the personnel truck past the twisted, blackened lead tank into the damaged tunnel. She turned off the headlights as she urged the Pinz into the darkness, then pulled to a stop. 

Headlights flared into life, blinding them. Men and women with guns issued from the vehicles, aiming all manner of rifles and pistols at them. Nasrin raised her arms above her head as she got out of the driver’s side. She squinted to try and pick out her contact. Renoir Karzai and his son Reza emerged from a battered old electric Honda. 

“They’re in the back,” she said, nodding towards the open canvas. “Along with AKs, grenades, ammunition, probably more I don’t know about. And I have Aleksandr Tsarnaev in the passenger side, he’s restrained.”

The two children, Iris Kwan and Stepan Mohammed, were at once freed and conveyed to one of the vehicles. Once having overseen their release, Karzai drew a pistol, and made his way over to her. Two others wrestled Aleksandr out of the Pinz and dropped him at Karzai’s feet.  

“Sergei’s little guard dog. Where’s the other one?” Karzai sneered. “They usually come in pairs, don’t they?”

Nasrin unloaded her pistol and offered it to him. “Interrogate him if you want. Vasily deserted before I could take custody of him.”

Karzai spat on the ground. He looked Aleksandr Tsarnaev over. “You like to watch your master do his atrocities, do you?” 

Aleksandr just stared blankly at him. Deciding that Nasrin was again his superior officer, he looked to her to instruct him, but she gave him nothing. 

“This is what you would have made our children into,” Karzai said contemptuously, turning back to her. “These half-men. These cup bearers of blood.”

Reza approached, the young man she had prayed with down in the basement of Central Barracks. He put a hand on his father’s arm. “She protected me from the shaytan. She stood between him and the others.”

“It would be a favour,” she said, her eyes on Aleksandr, his increasingly desperate eyes on her. “If you truly believe Allah redeems, what difference will one more make?”

Karzai considered it, looked back at the gathering of others, this little class of shadow rulers, then turned back to her. 

“Fine. But if we don’t kill both of you, this one is your responsibility now. Perhaps you can repair him, that’s your business.”

He ordered their hands bound, and put into separate vehicles. Nasrin he ordered put into the back of his car, but not gagged or blindfolded. Reza got into the driver’s seat, and Karzai surprised her by taking the seat next to her in the back.

“Tell me everything,” he said in a low, intent voice. “I want to know what that shaytan will do before he does it. I want access information to his facilities. I want to know the weaknesses of his staff. I want to know the habits of the Okhrana, where they drink, where they fuck, who it is they love and hate.” 

“I would like to wash first, please,” she said, meeting his eyes, giving him to understand she meant more than just physical cleansing. 

He looked at her searchingly for a long moment, his intense dark eyes looking for something beneath the surface. She had no illusions that he would detect worthiness there, but she knew her score with Allah, and was satisfied that it was fair, given all He had decided to visit on them. After all, in her position, Renoir Karzai might have seen fit to render his service to the Evil One — especially if it meant his own neck, and keeping food in his child’s mouth. 

He said none of this, but she knew he understood. She had been a fighter since she was a teenager, stolen from one tattered nation and taught to kill by another. Self preservation was a code that had been beaten into her, and if any of these angry, righteous hypocrites wanted to claim she had violated some moral order, they would need to reckon with their own betrayals. None of them had chosen to bear the burden of trying to maintain such order. And whoever bid highest for her would not do so in order to demand her atonement. 

She stared back at Karzai. She couldn’t know if he was making the same calculation, but she had a fair guess. He wasn’t a fool, and he didn’t believe in justice any more than she did. Not in this life, anyway. 

He nodded to his son. “Take us home.”