The mood was high when she entered the common room, and she knew the reason. Kiryanova was good at her job, knew how to triangulate voice signals in order to make up pictures of what was happening anywhere in the Cradle. She had uncommon skill, and had directed communications across all three barracks, while there were still two others to support Sergei’s operations.
Now there was only South, the last and least of the three. As he made his way victorious through the front doors, Kiryanova could see that Sergei had restored some of his officers and fighters from those other garrisons, and they were joined together with the South garrison in their puppyish energy as they lingered near him.
First it had been the destruction of the barge, and the total elimination of what radio operators call-signed the Salted Rim. All of the people with high-tech self sustaining yachts who lived, traded and partied outside the mined harbour had been killed or captured. Mostly killed, she thought, since there didn’t appear to be many prisoners.
Their absence was one of Sergei’s hallmarks. He was bloody from head to foot, splashes of it on his body armour, his boots, even in his hair. She knew the nature of his most recent sortie from her listening post on the top floor, and knew that some of that blood belonged to young victims. Miryam was now actively recruiting the Cradle’s orphaned to become child soldiers, and they did about as well against this unruly pack as half-starved children usually did against rabid dogs. She felt her throat sour as his eyes went to hers, and the grin on his face slackened into cold amusement.
He tilted his head, a subtle nod that gave her to understand he wanted to speak to her alone. She acknowledged it, then slipped away from the common room, not wanting to be caught out by these fools, nor to subject herself to their soon-to-be-drunken debauchery. It was always the same with them, chasing the brutalization of their victims with indulgence in drink and whores. It had never been her idea of a party. She’d just as soon return to her office and take up her book, but she knew it wasn’t in the cards.
She arrived at Sergei’s quarters first, and stood waiting by the door, wondering what he wanted this time. He hadn’t called on her since she’d helped him from the infirmary, but as evidence by his swift approaching step and his clear eyes, he was much mended. He nodded when he saw her, the raw meat smell of him hitting her as though she’d stepped into a butcher shop. There was the smell of smoke about him, too, and she recalled the explosions, the sound of fire. It was a tool used by both sides, to destroy cover, to force victims into range or simply to burn them alive, as often happened.
She said nothing, but opened the door to his quarters and waited for him to pass through before placing herself just inside the threshold.
He touched his face, transferring sticky blood to his fingers, then held them up to her and smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s not mine.”
Kiryanova gave the smallest acknowledgement, and waited to find out what he wanted from her.
He laughed softly. “Why are you standing like that?”
“Like you’re on parade.”
She met his eyes. “Is there some other way I should stand, komandir?”
He pursed his lips and shrugged. Then he began to undo his body armour, unbuckling the harnesses and holsters that contained all of the weaponry, letting it slide into a pile at his feet. He reached behind himself and pulled the commando sweater over his head. Under the black tank-top that hugged his torso, Kiryanova could see his bruises were yellowing. Some of the cuts and contusions were weeping. He’d carried himself with his usual stalking grace in front of his men, but she noticed he was moving gingerly.
“Those will get infected if you don’t rest,” she said without thinking.
He raised an eyebrow at her, and she desisted. In spite of that, he seemed to take the point, and decided to address the matter. He went to his dresser and pulled a towel from the top drawer.
“In the freezer — vodka.”
She retrieved it for him. He stood before the mirror, soaked the towel and sponged the open wounds, wincing slightly as the alcohol burned into the exposed flesh.
He spoke over his shoulder to her, eyes directed to her reflection. “There’s someone I want you to find.”
He slid a mobile phone from his back pocket and handed it to her. As with all mobile phones there was no network for it to connect to, but the video on it was perfectly intelligible. It was security footage, and even grainy and stuttered, it was easy to see the subject was a beautiful woman with dark curly hair. Now it changed angle, and Kiryanova recognized the radio console from Central Barracks. The image took a moment to focus, and she could see the woman up close now, blue eyes red and full of tears, but her hands determined as she worked the transmission.
She turned up the sound, listened to the woman’s strange speech. It was a language Kiryanova didn’t recognize, but her voice was easy enough to distinguish, even under the little tear-filled hiccups.
“Who is she?”
She looked up at Sergei and immediately regretted the question. Not because he appeared to be angry, but because he was staring at her with a strange kind of hunger. Wanting her reaction, she thought, to whatever pain this woman had experienced. Pain, she didn’t doubt, caused by him. As though he wanted to experience it translated through her.
“There are details in the phone. I want to know who she sees, and where she goes to ground. Don’t wear my colours. Go in civilian clothes.”
“Just myself?” she ventured.
“Yes.” He examined himself in the mirror, pushing his bloodied blonde hair back. “Unless you’ve think you’ve got something better to do.”
She looked down at once. “No, sir.”
Sergei’s reflection watched her in silent contemplation. He straightened, turned to her, closed some of the distance. He was almost as broad across as two of her, smelled of sweat, of blood, of grease smoke and cordite. His expression was humorous, but she was coming to know him, to understand that every outward expression reflected contrary states of mind.
“You’re the most intelligent person here,” he observed, not intending to flatter, just stating a fact. “You might be the only intelligent person here. Should I promote you? Put you in charge?”
“Please don’t,” she said before stopping to think.
Right now, Viktor Zhukov was the only thing that stood between her and the disgraceful pack of idiots that made up the garrison. Without that buffer, she’d be vulnerable. She was no warrior. She wanted nothing more than to go back to the days when Sergei rarely came here, and she was safe in her transmission rooms, away from the suggestive looks and the barely restrained harassment.
“No,” he mused, giving her a thin smile. “It’s not a good idea, is it?”
She only nodded quickly, and looked down. “If that’s all.”
He went to the door and held it open. She immediately turned to leave, but he stopped her, laying one finger against her shoulder.
“The cameras, do they work?” He did not look at the one aimed at his door, but tilted his head towards it.
“Yes,” she said, puzzled. “They’re monitored in shifts.” It was one of the few disciplines that was enforced at South, because of the tendency for insecurity and thieving within their own ranks. She did not illuminate him on this point.
“Good. Kiss me.”
She almost dropped the phone as she stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve seen the way they look at you. I’ve heard them talk about you and Zhukov, what sport they think you’ll be if he should die.”
“I don’t understand,” she held the mobile to her chest, as though the little machine would protect her somehow. “I mean, I know that, but—“
“Kiss me,” Sergei repeated. “If they believe we are involved, no one will speak of you disrespectfully. No one will think to touch you.”
Heat rushed to her face. She wanted to ask him why not just tell the garrison to leave her alone as Zhukov had, but she realized quickly that it would be useless. Even an order from him wouldn’t give her the same protection. She hated it, hated him for choosing this moment, this caustic kindness to erode her will, her fiercely held celibacy. Her loyalty to the memory of her husband, however faded and threadbare that memory.
“Or don’t,” he smiled, leaning back to let her pass. “Your choice.”
She almost walked out, almost left him on the threshold. She could feel her body tensing as she tried to force herself to make that step. His gaze was so heavy on her, and when she turned, she could see the expectation in those strange, crystalline eyes. Before they had been flat, but now their depths drank her in, pupils dilated like that of a cat watching for a sudden movement.
Her heart thumping, she moved closer to him, raising herself a little on her toes as she put her lips to his. She intended for it to be chaste, for show, but when his tongue teased the seam of her lips, she let them part, feeling his hand go to her cheek. He didn’t press her further, pulled back and gave her a sleepy eyed grin, bedroom eyes and parted lips. It was almost enough to fool her. Enough, she hoped, to fool the camera.
“I want a report,” he said matter-of-factly, though his physical attitude was still intimate. “And Elena…”
She blinked at him, surprised and troubled by the use of her given name. “Sir?”
He tapped his own cheek, nodding to her to indicate her own, then returned to his room and shut the door behind him. It took her a few seconds until she realized what he’d meant by it. There was blood on her cheek from where he’d palmed it. She used her sleeve to wipe it off as she hurried away.