Sergei was dirty, scratched up and a little bloody, but appeared to Nasrin to be otherwise unharmed. Still armed and armoured, he dropped down into one of the chairs they rarely used, in this conference room where the Okhrana rarely conferred. Nasrin had noticed early he often preferred to give his orders directly, dividing his captains where necessary, or overseeing them personally. He either didn’t care or didn’t want his army to operate with a stable chain of command.
He took a deep breath and let his head drop back, basking in the afterglow of combat. After a moment, he sat up and focused cold, hungry blue eyes on her.
“Tell me everything.”
“No problems. We took Stepan Mohammed, Veda Singh, the Kwan twins and Reza Karzai. Some injuries, no deaths.”
“No injuries to the kids?”
He gave her a silken smile. “But you made their families watch, as I ordered.”
Nasrin nodded. “I sent Stepan and Iris Kwan to North Barracks.”
He nodded back, seeing the wisdom in this. “So we have Singh, the other Kwan and Karzai here.”
“They’re in the cells in the basement, the ones that used to be hydro testing stations and offices.”
“Good,” he said, though she could tell he was already growing bored.
She nodded, then rose, hesitating for a moment as she evaluated him, his mood, wondering what her next words might cost her. He was not naturally gifted at detecting the subtle shift of human emotion, but was nonetheless attuned to his elite officers. He sat up, fixed her with an inquiring look.
“What is it?”
She considered her words carefully as she met his eyes, flat, blue and becalmed as they always appeared to be when he was between amusements. She put her hands on the back of the chair, steadying herself.
“I want you to stay away from them.”
It was clear from his face he hadn’t expected this. He sat back, propping his chin up under his palm, his face caught somewhere between a frown and a grin as though he found her deeply curious.
“Are you going to stop me?”
“They’re mine now,” she said, finding her calm as she always did. “You will not harm them. You will not speak to them outside my presence. You gave me this operation. I mean to see it through.”
His nostrils flared, almost as though sniffing for weakness, eyes scanning her expression, processing it, comparing it to whatever emotion database he had instead of natural faculties of recognition. Then his mouth twisted up in the corners into an indulgent smile. He raised an invitational hand.
“Say I agree. What will you do?”
“To be loyal?”
“To do whatever it takes to survive.”
He put on a grotesque little simper. “And you don’t trust me with them.”
Nasrin held his gaze. “Are you asking me to lie, Commander?”
Sergei considered her, and his expression mellowed. He leaned back in his seat, his powerful body relaxing into something indolent and feline. Nasrin could imagine his tail twitching as he waited for her to further tempt his interest.
“You have always been straight with me. It’s never been personal for you. Why now?”
Nasrin did not sit, though she did run her fingers over the back of the leather chair, trying to mentally compress her reasons into something he could understand. Sergei could descend into a deadly boredom when presented with the expectation that he should empathize, and yet he did on occasion condescend to listen, when he was in the mood for a story. Now it seemed he wanted hers.
“I was placed in a “secular deradicalization” school in Israel,” she said, keeping the whole of her pain concealed from him. “It seemed innocuous on the face of it but it was really about manipulating the families, deterring them from performing acts of sabotage or terror because the government had their children. Many of these schools were placed near the 2030 wall.”
“So they’d be in rocket range,” Sergei said thoughtfully. “Smart.”
“Yes,” Nasrin agreed bitterly. “In any case, it was effective. Time was, the IDF would shoot up an entire Gaza neighbourhood if some kid broke a wing mirror on their patrol vehicle. That was fine when the Americans and the Russians were funding the Israeli economy through the military, but it stopped working when that funding ended.”
Sergei fixed her with a pointed gaze. “Why is it personal, Nasrin?”
She met his eyes. “Because it fucking worked. When I broke the rules and tried to pray, they put me in rooms with no windows so I couldn’t face qibla, but I didn’t understand at the time what they were doing. I’d already been in the integrated forces for years when they started doing investigations.”
“That makes you angry.” He made it a cold, clinical observation of fact.
Nasrin paused, took a breath as she tried to guess how she might convey any ideas of emotional substance to him. Then she threw caution to the winds, taking her chair and setting it close by him before sitting down, making the distance between them intimate. He seemed intrigued by this, inclined to bestow his close attention on her. She folded her hands together and rested her elbows on her knees as she leaned forward.
“Three years ago when you pulled us out of the sea and lined us up on that beach, you made a promise to us, which you have kept. That’s the only reason I follow you anywhere. You made good on your word when you made us your Okhrana.”
“I also showed you what would happen if you did not follow me.” A thin smile played around his mouth. “Don’t tell me watching me cut that sailor made your cunt wet. You’re not that kind of killer.”
“You showed us the knife once. You’ve been showing the knife to those children for the last three years. Everyone knows that’s what makes your cunt wet.”
Now he sat up. The corner of his mouth twitched, and a line appeared in his muzzle just above the twist of scar tissue. “Get to your fucking point, Lieutenant-Commander.”
“You are not equipped to carry that promise any longer,” she said, giving it straight just as she always had. “Not to them. Not to anyone. So I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it right.”
“That does not sound as though it will make these children effective negotiating tools,” he observed with a sneer. “Respect comes from fear. Their parents understand this.”
“You want respect?” she countered. “You have to create rules that your inferiors can follow. Inside those rules, they have freedom. They have the power you give them, more than they get from their families. Outside the rule, death. Inside… security.”
He held her gaze for a moment, his ire seeming to cool somewhat. He shrugged, now leaning back again in his chair. “If it matters that much to you.”
“Vikram expects you to abuse them, and will use that against you.”
He laughed softly. “But Vikram and I are closer than brothers. He gave his blessing for this little project. He wouldn’t dream of turning his backs on us.”
“He only gave his blessing because he wants you to overreach, so he can encourage the people to rise up in revolt.”
He smiled at her, and for an instant she thought it might be genuine. “You have a gift for understanding all the things I don’t a give a fuck about.”
“These children are our responsibility. You took them from their families,” she reminded him. “If you truly want to put fear into the hearts of their parents, you need to become their new family.”
His eyes were hard as they stayed fixed on her. “What is the point of hostages that can’t be harmed? How do I leverage them?”
“That’s the beauty of your position, commander,” she said dryly. “What happens behind the scenes is immaterial to your negotiating position. Your reputation alone makes the idea of you staying your hand… difficult to comprehend.”
He appraised her once more, then let his attention drift, a sign that he was losing interest. “All right. Take them in hand. I want them ready to join my Okhrana in the coming months.”
Nasrin stiffened. “Join the Okhrana? They’re still kids.”
“Call them a youth auxiliary,” he said dismissively. “The beginnings of something larger. If you want this project, make it worth my while.”
“Fine.” She rose, and turned for the door.
“Nasrin,” he called after her, and she turned, feeling a prickling on the back of the neck.
Sergei propped his feet up on her unoccupied chair, and raised his chin to her, a contemptuous little twitch appearing in the corner of his mouth.
“You are a good officer, and a good fighter. You know that I trust you.”
She nodded, waited for the threat, and was not disappointed. His smile emptied of all superficial affection and turned cold as winter steel.
“I would be sad if I had to kill you. But I would find a way to enjoy myself.”
Nasrin smiled back in equal coldness. “The last thing I want to do is make you sad, Commander.”
She left before he could dismiss her.