She didn’t look like much from across the room. The Priory was not one of Renoir Karzai’s better establishments, but it was extremely secure, and the patrons who paid heavily to drink in peace were always easy to clear out.
It had once been a small Catholic mission chapel, established some time during British occupation, and an earthquake had buried the little stone structure in 2025. The seismic activity and rising waters had unearthed part of it, while Radhesh’s jackhammers had opened the way inside. That was back when Karzai was still part of the Old Guard, to hear him tell it.
It was cozy, close, and lit by candles, with only a few tables where the pews had been rearranged to face each other over the tables. The priests had good taste in sacramental wine, and had used the chapel to smuggle it along a very profitable chain of eastern dealers, with the result that the best wine left anywhere in the world had remained cached in this mostly-underground structure, stacked in neat little barrels.
Lucretia listened to Karzai explain this gently to the woman as he led her, blindfolded, to one of the pews. She was thin but not insubstantial, with close cut brown hair. The blindfold once removed revealed a pale heart shaped face with large brown eyes, and thin, but expressive lips. A slavic face, with strong bones that saved her from being called mousy, or plain, but still a face that could easily disappear into the masses.
She did not seem frightened or even agitated. Karzai spoke to her kindly in Russian, then nodded in Lucretia’s direction. Having been given her cue, she slipped off one of the three bar stools and sauntered over to the girl, looking her over again. When she got closer, she perceived her brown eyes contained depth to them, honey coloured facets that absorbed the candlelight, giving her an alert, inquisitive stare.
“Who the hell are you?” Lucretia asked with a smile. “And what the hell do you want?”
“Lucretia,” Karzai said in a moderating tone. “You remember the radio tower—“
She held up a hand and looked directly at the girl. “Speak for yourself, won’t you.”
The woman shrugged and gave a weak smile. “My name is Elena. My English is not so good.”
“I expect cutting your tongue out won’t improve it,” Lucretia drawled. “But it would stop you lying to me.”
The woman blushed slightly, looking down at her knees, then met her eyes again. “I understand better than I speak,” she said, her Russian accent distinctive now. “I understand many languages, I just do not speak them. I am Elena Kiryanova. I am the chief radio operator for the Alpine Guard.”
Lucretia raised an eyebrow at Karzai, but he was busying himself drawing wine for them. She turned back to the young woman, trying to imagine her in Lammergeier fatigues. She was so ordinary, her manner so dignified, it was very difficult to picture.
“What do you want?”
“I want to give you a warning,” she said in that accurate, but halting English. “Komandir Vetrov sent me to find you. To spy on you, and bring back intelligence about you. I do not think this is for a very good reason.”
“That’s touching,” Lucretia said as she accepted a cup of wine from Karzai, and a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. A warning, perhaps.
“Your husband was my friend,” he said to Kiryanova as he handed her a cup. “I am sorry for his loss and the loss of your boy, as well. I wish you’d come to me instead of Zhukov.”
Kiryanova looked at him with a frown, holding the cup in both hands like a child. “But I could not find you, Renoir. You blow away in the wind. Viktor protected me for a long time. He could not know what Sergei would do.”
“Yes. I am sorry for that too, my dear. ”
Lucretia understood why Karzai wanted to be here for this meeting. He was being very gentle of this woman of such improbable origin. She wanted to question her, to find out how she’d survived at the very core of Sergei’s operational matrix without surrendering her own goodness, or innocence, or whatever it was that seemed to protect her.
There was a chance that she was just a supremely good liar, but all of Lucretia’s instincts said no. Picturing her in a room with Sergei was another thing entirely. He was a man who liked to break things for the crime of being fragile.
“Why did Sergei choose you?” she said, intent but not aggressive. She was genuinely curious.
Kiryanova blushed, her frown deepening. She didn’t look away, but she didn’t answer immediately either, evidently struggling for the words. She glanced at Karzai, then back at Lucretia, as though asking permission.
“Please,” Lucretia indicated in Karzai’s direction. “If it’s easier.”
She spoke rapidly in Russian, her tone more confident in her own language. Karzai nodded along, waiting until she slowed down to give him time to translate.
“She said that she helped tend Sergei’s injuries in the barracks infirmary when the men were afraid to do it. He chose her to carry messages because everyone else in South Barracks is untrustworthy, because he thinks her more intelligent and useful than the garrison. He also…”
Kiryanova paused, and her blush deepened. She spoke in a low voice, relaying something intimate and difficult. Lucretia felt her hackles rise slightly, and the fresh scar across her belly tingling, but she held her silence.
“She says that after she took his orders to find you, he asked her to kiss him. She says… for the camera, so that the rumour would get around that she was his bed warmer.”
“To keep the other men away…” Kiryanova flapped a hand in the air. “They do not like me because I am not…”
“Like me,” Lucretia finished for her with a cold smile. “They don’t like you because you’re not a licentious harpy. You’re an ordinary woman who’d rather mind your own business than bed, kill or trouble yourself about them at all.”
Kiryanova’s eyes flashed, her comprehension total. She nodded, clearly pleased at being understood. Lucretia imagined it wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but she also knew without being told that Sergei had picked up on it too. In the life before, he wouldn’t have taken notice of this woman, and neither would she have reason to be in his way. It was death of the ordinary that made the intersection.
She pulled a mobile phone out of her pocket and held it out to Lucretia. It was unlocked, an older iPhone model that was a little cracked in the corner. She viewed the Notes app, where a string of Cyrillic letters spelled out incomprehensible instructions.
“In the pictures,” Kiryanova pointed.
Lucretia flipped back through the photos. There weren’t many of them, less than a hundred, but they spanned an interesting timeframe. Her investigative instinct told her to view the most recent first, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to look into Sergei’s past.
She scrolled all the way back to the first photos, taken not too long before the Fall. They were almost all of a business nature, which was to say, proof of death photos. A few of them were more recreational in nature, or else the women, illicit Vory wives and girlfriends, were blackmail targets. Lucretia, alumni of the same school, easily recognized the standard male perspective from above, just as she recognized that strong hand strategically placed on smooth female flesh, their identifiable faces contorted with ecstasy.
She decided to skip over the videos, and brought the viewer up to the present day. For a moment she was baffled by the consistency of theme, until she realized the blood soaked, flash lit photos weren’t from his own CV. They were from hers.
She could tell by Kiryanova’s concerned expression that she did not connect Lucretia with the subject matter, but Karzai’s face had closed slightly. She didn’t think he was passing judgement, but he had never fully appreciated the nature of her work. At least not until she’d been forced to kill his young friend Nasser to preserve her cover.
She ignored his gaze, and opened the last photo. It showed a Dublin police sergeant she remembered well. She’d invited him to take her to his home, talked him into letting her play with his handcuffs, then edged him all the way to his death and left him bleeding and begging for his colleagues to find. The image showed his corpse, presumably shortly after her departure. It was her last assignment before her early retirement to the European continent. Ironic, given the Amsterdam-bound ferry had turned out to be her salvation after Europe and every other continent sank below the waves.
She pulled open the meta data.The photo had been added a few days prior, from the USS.WALSH.NAVSEC server, with archival tags showing the source origin as some obscure British intelligence office.
And there, below, in the “additional information section”, her former paramour had added a little memo for her.
was it good 4 u 2
She dropped the phone on the table and sat back, her whole body tensing. Before she could stop him, Karzai picked up the phone and looked at the screen. His expression compressed even more, but she knew it wasn’t a rebuke. The message there was clear enough.
“You’re not the same,” Karzai said in a low voice, a slight plea in it, as though trying to convince himself. “You know that.”
Lucretia gave him a tight smile, wanting to reassure him, but they both knew it wasn’t perfectly true. Yes, she had staked her moral ground, and she protected those she cared for, but beyond that, there wasn’t another human alive with anything close to her record of sin. Sergei didn’t need to make it explicit, nor did he need to draw the obvious comparison that his violation of her barely ranked. He need only admire her to sully the parts of her that weren’t the Morrigan. As a reason for killing him, she liked it less than her planned coup. Vengeance felt better. Conquest felt better. It was to revenge herself, not to smash this tawdry mirror.
Kiryanova watched her compassionately. It was likely, Lucretia thought, that Sergei had expected her to walk into interrogation and torture, and that she would have the mobile forcibly confiscated. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he had some scruple in choosing this innocent, self possessed woman to deliver his grotesque message. Kiryanova was everything Lucretia was not, and she didn’t know whether to pity the woman, or disabuse her of her own instinct to pity Lucretia herself.
“You said he kissed you?”
Kiryanova nodded, touching her own cheek, as though some phantom caress had left its echo on her skin.
Lucretia smiled bitterly. “Any good?”
There was a little flash of guilt in those soft brown eyes. “I am not sure.”
“Don’t act the fool with him,” Lucretia said, eyes flicking to Karzai, who was watching her steadily. “You might think you’re protected now, but the closer he gets to you, the less true that is.”
She rose, and lifted her shirt to show the fresh scar. Without looking, she knew what the other woman was seeing — a diagonal slash, ruby red under neat stitch marks. A cut as deliberate as any butcher’s. It was still tender and inflamed.
Kiryanova hissed in breath, then looked up at her with wet, sympathetic eyes. “He did this?”
Lucretia nodded. She didn’t say that Sergei had been within his rights to defend himself, that she’d probably earned it, that bleeding out in the back of that jeep would’ve been a suitable end after all the harm she’d caused, but she decided to let the woman keep her illusions. She lowered the shirt.
“I don’t want you in the middle of this lover’s quarrel,” she said with a smile. “So I want you to listen very closely to me, Miss Kiryanova.”
“Elena,” Kiryanova corrected gently.
“Elena,” Lucretia agreed. “Give him this.” She opened a new note in the mobile phone and entered coordinates into it, then locked the screen and handed it back. “And tell him Lukretsiya is challenging him to single combat, at a place of her time and choosing, to the death.”
Karzai seemed about to speak, but quieted when Lucretia glanced at him. The old man had learned the hard way not to interfere with her aims. They could never go back to the days before he learned to fear her, when he could simply adore her. She felt bad about it, but he knew better than to speak out of school.
“He will kill you,” Kiryanova said flatly as she accepted the phone, her eyes wide. “I do not want this. You have enough hurt by him already.”
“I’m ready.” Lucretia smiled grimly. “Bring him to my arena and let him do his worst.”
Kiryanova bowed her head in assent, then looked to Karzai. He rose, took her arm gently, and looked between both women.
“Elena, please accept my protection,” he pressed. “Don’t return there. We can issue this challenge ourselves.”
“Ourselves?” Lucretia said coldly, causing him to grimace. “Is it ourselves, Renoir?”
“I have to return,” she said. “I need to close the radio operations. Besides. I do not think he will hurt me.”
“Why not?” Lucretia prompted, though she thought she understood.
“He likes having a woman to speak Russian with,” Kiryanova said quietly. “I do not think he knows that he miss the sound of home.”
“Well,” Lucretia said, squeezing the other woman’s shoulder. “Let’s send him back there.”