“God, if that man grabs my shoulder again, I’m going to put him in the ground,” Michelle smiled and waved to an investor, talking through grit teeth.
“Looks like I was right to buy you those Tae Kwon Do classes,” Miles laughed, plucking her empty glass from her hand. “You might need a refill after that conversation.”
Michelle nodded, giving him a pitiful face. “Before I scream.”
“Down tiger, I’ll be right back.”
“A pinot grigio, please!” She called after him.
Michelle paused to contemplate the room after her husband slipped into the crowd. Many of their guests seemed to have forgotten their checkbooks this evening, preferring to keep conversations on the upcoming holidays or current events. With tonight’s abysmal turnout, their wing would take at least two more years in order to get built. They were right when they said that the move up to administration was a headache and a paycheck, but she had no idea it would be this tedious. Her beaded clutch vibrated in her hand. She undid the clasp and checked her phone, suddenly flooded with notifications. Six messages from Bones.
She glowered at her phone. Another night with Kostya back in town, drunk and looking for a diversion until his next layover. Rolling her eyes, she swiped away the notifications.
“Something wrong?” Miles returned, with a new glass of champagne for the both of them. A brave choice, considering that he generally didn’t take his alcohol well.
“No, just checking to see if I have any messages from the dog sitter,” she shook her head, locking her phone.
Her husband gave her an indulgent smile, his almond eyes curving into gentle half-moons, “Don’t worry about the dog, Jenna’s got it.” He took the cell from her hands and slipped it into the pocket of his dress pants.
“Miles,” she protested.
“Uh-oh, looks like you should hold onto this instead,” he handed her the glass of champagne.
“Okay fine, you’re right,” she said, reaching out to accept.
“Be here now,” he rubbed her back through her portofino.
“Thank you, Dr. Ngyuen.”
“Of course, Dr. Spotleva,” he said graciously, draping her hand over his outstretched arm. He lead them through the glass atrium of the western wing of the college.
She’d first seen Miles here years ago, when he started as an adjunct here, working fervently to finish a PhD track, and just as fervently concerned with making a good enough impression to get hired Post-Doc.
Michelle taught a class down the hall from his, and it was hard to forget how soulfully he stared out the windows of the atrium when his classes let out, in his own world. She wondered what he was constantly working out in his mind, staring out at the courtyard below like it was a silent council.
She finally decided she liked him after she observed him teach at a guest lecture, when he rolled up the sleeves of his sweater and she could see his delicately wiry wrists below. Miles spent the entirety of the lecture speaking to an empty corner of the room, too humiliated to address the crowd behind him. Then, with a small voice, he thanked them for coming and wrapped up the seminar.
After the lecture, Michelle decided to do something about things.
As Miles packed up his things into a small, black tote, she focused on his hands, slipping things into the bag. The din of the closing seminar grew silent around her and she could feel herself loosen from time, just slightly. She took the moment to impose her will on the space around him, pushing into the psychic static like a magnet pushing against the same pole. She pushed until she could feel a soft pop in reality.
As if on cue, Miles stopped, forgetting what he was reaching for on the desk. Turning away from his overlooked car keys, he left without remembering to check for their weight in his pockets. Without another glace, Miles set his eyes on the ground and left the room immediately.
Michelle laughed at herself, a little ashamed that she was using such a dirty trick to catch him alone. She took her time putting away her things, telling her friends she would catch up later, moving towards the door only when everyone else had cleared out of the seminar hall.
Then, she simply pulled out her phone and waited. Before long, she could hear his shoes coming back down the hall. Just as she could hear the steps near the door, she stepped out, looking down at her screen.
Miles ran into her, dropping his research papers on the ground.
She regarded him over the top of her phone, “Oh, I’m sorry. I just stayed behind to send a quick email.”
“No, that’s fine, I was just--” he went to gesture politely but could only just stand there, looking flustered.
Michelle stooped down in her pencil skirt to help him pick up his research, “Pardon.”
“No--that’s on me, Doctor Spotleva. I’m sorry to bother you.”
She paused, surprised that he recognized her, “How’d you know that?”
“Your name?” He smiled shyly, towards the ground, collecting his papers. “Your translation of Brothers Karamazov is pretty well known here, not just in Humanities. I was actually pretty surprised you came. Didn’t know neuroreceptors were your thing.”
Her brows furrowed, feeling like he was putting her on, “Really?”
“Yes,” he said, now visibly coloring. She could tell that he was avoiding specifically looking at her legs.
“Plus there’s the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
He shook his head, his jet black hair covering most of his mortified face. “No, sorry, it’s not work appropriate. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
“The what?” she smiled wickedly, holding his papers hostage.
He stared helplessly at her for a moment before hanging his head. “The chili pepper.”
She was confused for a moment. “The chili pepper?”
“On Rate My Professors. You have a chili pepper on your page. Quite a few, actually.”
“Well,” Michelle tried to hold back a stunned laugh. He was far more forthcoming than she expected him to be. “I guess my reputation precedes me. Or at least my chili peppers do,” she relinquished the papers to his grasp, brushing dirt off her skirt delicately. She felt his gaze follow the path of her fingers.
“You’ve been getting quite a bit of renown, too, from what I hear,” Michelle stood, holding out a hand to help him up, “Miles Ngyuen. Proponent for treatment of PTSD with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.”
Miles paused for a moment warily before accepting her hand, “You got me.”
She handed him his emptied folder, “You’re not looking into starting a new religion here at Harvard? I hope
I’m not disappointing you in letting you that’s been done already.”
His lips twisted sardonically, “No. My sister’s a veteran in treatment. I’m not here to beguile any co-eds during my tenure.”
“I take it you’re not the beguiling type?”
“I never said that,” he said, giving her a discreet smile.
Michelle admired the string lights they hung for the night’s Gala, a nostalgic smile playing on her lips. “You remember we met here, not too far from here?”
“I remember I was picked up by a gorgeous blonde after losing my keys, yes,” Miles replied.
“I think the only thing getting picked up there was your research paper,” she teased.
He laughed, before taking a step back and regarding her at arms length, “Mmm, yup. Still gorgeous.”
She appreciated the way the soft light above hit Miles, falling in his coal black hair, and warming his tawny face. The burnt orange button-up was a fitting choice, doing lovely things to his light brown eyes and slightly flushed cheeks. “Do you want to get out of here?”
He groaned, leaning back, “Dear Lord, I thought you’d never ask.”
The keys clattered to the marble countertop, the loudest noise in their quiet apartment as they came home. The front door shut behind them, the outdated holiday wreath attached to it swinging softly.
“I’m going to take it a lot easier on my wine next time,” Miles said, folding his blazer over the kitchen counter stool.
“You’re such a lightweight,” Michelle laughed, leaning down to take off her sling-backs. She could see him wobbling slightly, standing there and holding onto the stoolback. “I could’ve sipped you under the table three times over already.”
“Oh I see,” Miles laughed, his olive face flushed, “You were trying to get me drunk.”
“Well it does get you frisky,” she smiled charmingly across the kitchen, knowing it would take her shy husband off-guard.
He pulled her in by the waist, “You don’t have to get me drunk for that.”
She pulled his head down and kissed him, tasting the sharp bite of his merlot. She could feel his hands, slowly and searchingly working her blouse out of her skirt. Sighing, she closed her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of his hands undoing her bra.
Then faintly--so softly she thought she was imagining it--she heard a lighter go off. That was when she realized the balcony was door open. Michelle’s body froze, trying to remember if she’d forgotten to lock it from earlier. “Miles,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “Did you open the balcony door just now?”
He took his face from the crook of her neck and looked behind him, at the curtain flapping in the mild wind. “No, Mich. I don’t remember doing that.” He reached for his phone, eyes trained on the open screen.
“I’m going to call the cops.”
“Don’t,” she said, frustrated. She could smell them now, Marlboro Reds. She only knew one person still smoking them. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Take care of it?”
She poked her head out onto the balcony and sighed when she saw Kostya’s moonlit outline.
“Bones,” she said, stepping out in her bare, stockinged feet, “Don’t you believe in making plans?”
“Only if you believe in picking up,” he said, flicking his cigarette over the railing.
“Are you here to cockblock me?” Michelle said asked.
“I block nothing,” he held up his hands defensively. “Just bored tonight.”
“Use the door next time, you have keys for a reason,” she said, feeling a growing weariness as he padded inside with his boots on, treading over her new cream-colored rug.
“Hello Miles,” Kostya replied, sliding into the counterstool cooly. Even sitting down, he towered over his hosts. “You guys coming back from a date?”
“A fundraiser,” Michelle said, rubbing her temples. “For the new research wing of the College.”
“Kostya,” Miles said, reddening when he saw him. “Nice of you to drop by.”
Michelle shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t that Miles didn’t like her childhood friend, but rather that Bones completely unseated his calm. The fact that he commonly barged in on them like a drunken frat boy, or the general size of him wasn’t quite what irked Miles.
Rather, it was the gravitational magnetism of Bones that flustered Miles, who was so used to taking the world at his own speed. There was a hurtle to everything about the scruffy libertine slouched on her counter stool, a momentum that felt hard to throw the brakes on once he got started.
Being the master of himself was something Miles took pride in, but decimating control was something Kostya sipped on like a fine wine. She knew that first hand. Michelle began to feel a deep exhaustion setting in. Before it could overtake her completely, she tried to cross the kitchen, “What are you having, Bones? I’ll fix something for you.”
He stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder, ice cold. It made her wonder how long he’d been out there on the balcony, waiting for them to come home. She wondered if he got cold at all anymore, like her.
“No, no, no,” he insisted, moving to the bar “You relax. I’ll make you two something I had in Dubrovnik.”
She met Miles’ gaze in the kitchen and gestured her head towards the couch. He nodded and settled onto the soft creased leather with her. She tried to give him an apologetic look, but he seemed like he was reaching his daily limit of polite interaction.
“Where are you headed to this time, Bones?” She asked, watching him fiddle with the mesh filter of their cocktail shaker.
“Prague,” he answered vaguely, stooping down in front of their service bar, “Do you have any red pepper flakes?”
She pointed towards the kitchen, “Bottom right cabinet, on the spice rack.”
Miles tried to hide his mildly disgusted face, but Michelle caught him, laughing silently. She looked back over to the oversized manchild raiding a spice cabinet that he was too tall for, wondering what in the world he could possibly want in Prague. It hardly seemed like a party destination fit for Kostya, with all its manicured castles and farty old tourists.
He must have sensed that she had her attention trained on him, because Kostya turned around with red pepper in hand, winking as he tossed it gently in its small glass jar. After a moment of mad scientist mixing at the bar, he returned to the couch, placing their drinks neatly in front of them on the coffee table. Then, without invitation, he sighed tiredly and settled between the two of them on the couch, still in his boots and coat.
Michelle could tell by the look on Miles’s face that he was quickly approaching the limit to his patience. Even so, she watched him straighten out his rumpled dress shirt and politely ask, “What’s waiting for you in Prague?”
Kostya lifted his drink to his lips, inhaling. “Just a bit of R and R.”
Reading people was Kostya’s specialty, but Michelle had known him long enough to know that he was full of shit. Her guess was that he was hitting up an old flame--the idea of it giving her a dull sort of pain.
He was a man that was hard to pin down and even harder to understand in his frenetic moments, no catching on to his irrational flight patterns. She couldn’t count how many times they’d tried to stay abreast of each other’s comings and goings, but he was always off chasing his next new fascination. She tried to swallow down the wall of dissonant nausea, climbing up her throat.
Kostya cocked his head to the side, regarding her over his glass. He must have sensed a surge of something off her, which made her kick herself. Usually he was the only one showing up drunk, and she was a lot more careful at keeping charge of her feelings. She had to be, at least, unless she wanted to be completely undone by his chaos.
“Relaxing is good Bones,” she said, giving her husband a pointed look over Kostya’s head as he bent down to untie his boots. “Miles and I don’t do enough of it.”
“I can see that,” Kostya said, getting up and crossing to the other side of the couch. He grabbed Miles good-naturedly by his narrow shoulders, “This poor guy is wound up like a clock.”
Miles jumped looking mortified. He turned to her for help, but she was moving in slow motion through a champagne haze, and she was too in her cups but do anything giggle.
“Bones you brute,” she said, yelling at him across the couch like an inattentive pet owner, “Take it easy on Miles, he’s a person, not a chew toy.”
“I think Miles can speak for himself,” Kostya rebuffed, massaging his shoulder like a prize-fighting champ.
Her friend gave her a look from over the top of Miles’s dizzy head, before leaning down, “Do you know how long I’ve known this freckled rascal over there?”
“How long?” Miles said, suddenly distracted by Kostya’s ministrations. Bones had a way of intimidating people just to put them off kilter enough to pay perfect attention to his captivation. He was the perfect conqueror.
Kostya waited on her for an answer, and before long, both men were.
She cleared her throat, taking a sip of Kostya’s cocktail, “Twenty-seven this year. I think that’s your lucky number, isn’t it?”
“Twenty-seven years this September,” he confirmed with a wink. “This little lady taught me how to speak English. I was months away from being left back a year.”
“Lucky guy,” Miles echoed, giving her a weak smile.
“No, I think that’s you,” Kostya smiled at her and she felt her stomach bottom-out from the mischief laden in it. He slipped a hand down the front of Miles’ unbuttoned shirt, running his fingers across his delicate collarbone. “You’re married to this enchanting creature.”
Miles’ heavy eyelids fluttered, mouth fumbling for the right words. All this time around Bones--Miles had never acted anything but irritated and bowled over. But the deeper truth of it seemed to be that he was flustered by him. The thought of it admittedly turned her on far more than she wanted it to. “I don’t think—” he said and then trailed off.
Kostya looked at her for approval, like a dog waiting for the command to kill, poised over Miles’ throat.
Her husband looked at her, eyebrows furrowing, and it made her pause, questioning whether or not she wanted she wanted to take it anywhere past here. They were hurtling along at Bone’s speed, not their own.
She felt his eyes burning into her and she remembered that look. He had it every time he was about to get her into an enormous amount of trouble. Michelle risked a glance at him and was immediately pinned by his knowing smile. He was pushing her over a fence she had no idea she’d been sitting on, all just by showing up and pushing the right buttons. She hated that Bones had come to reassert his presence in her life, and he wouldn’t leave until his work was done.
“Miles,” she asked softly, “How are you feeling?”
“Good,” he hummed, woozy and cheerful. “Like the room is spinning.”
“You really are a lightweight. Maybe we should send Kostya home and go to bed,” she reached out to Miles, brushing a thumb over his parted lips. Miles smiled softly into the pressure her fingers, grabbing them and kissing them tenderly.
“I think Miles can speak for himself,” Miles said smiling softly, when he opened them again, his eyes were full of an electrifying confidence, “We don’t have to send Kostya home.”
She didn’t need to look at Kostya to feel the triumph radiating off him in waves, and all her mind could think of saying was simply what a bad influence.
“I like Miles when he’s drunk--he’s honest,” Kostya said approvingly, tugging the man’s shirt open so he could spy downwards.
Miles hummed warmly, putting a clumsy hand in her hair to draw her close. She kissed him, feeling his other hand brush over her shoulders, pushing her shirt off.
Kostya leaned down and nuzzled Mile’s sensitive neck, earning a shy gasp out of him, which grew into a full-fledged moan when he reached the spot behind his ear, just where his slender neck met his lobe. Bones was reading Miles like an old favorite book, making him shiver into her lips.
Michelle pushed the coffee table back, slipping down onto the carpet in front of Miles. She took her time to undo his belt, watching as Bones made him shiver with the sandpaper-rough texture of his beard. She was thrilled and shaking when she pulled him, hard from his pants, half-dazed in disbelief. She darted her tongue over the small bead pooling at the tip of his cock, feeling her face grow red with warmth.
Kostya framed Miles’ delicate face in his huge hands and tipped it backwards. He kissed him deeply and
Michelle swallowed the length of Miles, feeling him buck upward and moan into Kostya’s mouth.
Miles buried his hands into Michelle’s hair, pulling her downwards desperately. His quiet insistence, gently tugging hands, and flushed face were maddeningly beautiful to behold, like a butterfly pinned to cork.
Michelle hollowed out her cheeks and swallowed him down, nails grazing the soft flesh of his trembling thighs. She lavished the underside of his cock with the softness of her lips, running her tongue along the vein there.
Miles’ breaths began to grow short and Kostya pulled away, crossing to the other end of the couch to loom over Michelle. He scooped her up off the carpet by the waist with scarily little effort and pressed her against him.
Dazed, Miles watched Kostya take Michelle by the jaw and kiss her, his hands roving her, squeezing her breasts and pulling them from her black lace bra. He kissed them softly, cupping them in his rough, calloused hands. They roved farther down, over her skirt, pulling it upwards to dig his nails into the shiny nylon of her stockings.
“Get up on the couch, on your knees” he growled, and his voice made her breath catch in her throat.
Michelle complied, feeling her face burning as she kneeled on the couch in front of her husband, her skirt flipped upwards. She heard Kostya unzip his pants and felt it hard to stop the flood of old memories of him. It had been years since they’d been in an even remotely similar situation, but her body somehow still remembered.
Kostya stooped behind her on the couch, his knee dipping the cushion. She was startled when she felt him pinch her stockings and bite into them, shredding them in one, jaunty tug.
She could feel Miles’ eyes on her as Kostya rested his palm on her shoulder, slipping his cock in the newly ripped space between her nylons and the small of her back. He rocked back and forth against her. The pressure of which made her curl backwards, gasping. Miles slipped his hand under her jaw, pulling her mouth towards him.
She nuzzled Miles’ thigh, kissing him softly on the head of his straining cock, and taking him back into her mouth.
Kostya made a pleasant sound at the sight unfolding before him, grabbing Michelle by the hips before entering her roughly.
Michelle cried out, bracing herself by digging her nails into Miles’ soft thigh. She took a deep breath, heady with the feeling of Kostya pressing into the deepest parts of her, hands grabbing her greedily. She felt as if she were falling, a pad of butter melting into them both.
His hands scraped over her torn stockings, hard enough to leave marks, but not for long. They were to remind her of the same ferocity that made her stomach quiver, deep inside herself. A reminder that control, pain and pleasure were inextricably tied together for him. It was his unpredictability that left her winded and shaking in need. Kostya grabbed her firmly by the base of her neck, plunging into her.
She felt herself bottoming out, moaning helplessly around Mile’s cock. Kostya pushed her down onto Miles until she was at the base of him, choking on tears. Her husband came, and Michelle saw stars, coming so hard that all she could do was lay there, head spinning until she could gain some semblance of composure again.
Miles was languid and slow, enjoying the soft daze for minutes, stroking her hair gently. He was asleep, not too long after, curled up on the couch in a drunken stupor.
Michelle got up and went to make tea in the kitchen as Bones stalked off wordlessly to the shower. She enjoyed the sweet, uncomplicated silence for as long as she could before he returned. Why was Bones rushing off to Prague after just coming stateside? It was a nagging question she couldn’t shake from tonight, among so many others. Though she was surprised at herself for caring more than usual.
He was just padding into the kitchen drying his hair when she began to pour her boiling water in her mug. He gave her a comfortable smile, one she hadn’t seen in quite some time.
She blew cool air over the water, to cool her tea down. Then, she leveled a serious stare at him from across the kitchen counter. “I erased the last couple hours from what Miles is going to remember about tonight.”
He nodded to himself like she was confirming something. “Way to make the uninteresting choice.”
“How many times are you going to make me do this, Bones?”
He laughed, but it was a dismissive one, lacking mirth, “You’re the master, I’m the familiar. You call the shots here.”
She knew he was mocking her, and she weighed the options of fighting with him now, feeling spent from the day’s whirlwind. Quelling her anger, she tried reasoning with him. “It’s not right Bones, you know it’s not.”
“He’s human, Mich. We do this all the time to other people.”
“He’s not other people, Bones, he’s my husband. I have to live with him.”
“That’s honestly not my problem, Michelle. I’m not the one playing house with humans, pretending she’s one, too.”
Michelle felt her hackles rising, gripping the handle of her mug so hard, she could feel the flesh on her hand burning. “I have every right to live my life as I see fit. I’ve earned that right.”
“And what happens when he dies? Gets sick? Becomes a vegetable? Start all over again with some other poor sap?”
She paused, knowing he was right, and suddenly faced with Miles’ startling mortality made her feel ill. What would she do when her husband began to grow old and noticed she did not?
“You my dear,” Kostya said, switching to Russian. The words slid off his tongue like hot oil, sizzling when they hit their mark, “Are a Koldunya. You live to probe the depths of the unknown, obtain knowledge unreachable by mortals. You’re meant to watch civilizations grow and crumble before you. But you squander it all on living like a human.”
“You were a human once, too,” she said finally, exhausted.
“Yes, and now I’m not. Through no choice of my own, may I add. But at the very least I’m taking advantage of the situation, not hiding out.”
“Lower your voice,” she hissed, looking over at Miles sleeping soundly on the couch. Before he woke again, she would have to wipe what happened from whatever he remembered about tonight. “I don’t know what you want from me Bones. Some sort of stupid selflessness? You want me to save the world?”
“I want you to be honest. About what you actually are. What you actually want.”
“I want to be normal,” she spat.
“We will never be normal,” Kotsya said, eyes sparkling with bitterness.
“And that’s why I wish I’d never fixed your leg.” She said, beyond caring about the fact that she couldn’t take it back.
That made Bones stop, the look on his face taking on a hard, darkened expression that was hard to discern. That was usually the cue that she had cut him deep--a rare occurrence for someone who barely ever took his own life seriously. He looked down at the ground for a moment and then nodded, as if he were silently confirming something.
“Why are you going to Prague?” she said, throwing her hands up helplessly.
“Someone there that I need to pay a visit,” he said.
Michelle shook her head, surprised at herself for expecting him to be more forthcoming--to have thought that tonight would have gone any differently, He was the same maddeningly secretive ass he’d always been, and no amount of time seemed to have changed the fact.
“Just be safe,” she asked, feeling tired, sad and angry with him all at once.
“I always am,” he said, giving her a tight smile as he laced up his boots. “Take care of Miles, will you? Poor guy can’t hold his liquor at all.”
“I will,” she said, holding the door open for him. It was hard to describe the feeling of Bones slipping away as he strode through the door, and the feeling of loss he left in his wake.
“Paka,” he said in Russian, from the elevator doors. A temporary goodbye for what seemed like the beginning of an extended absence.
2. Clockwork Apostles
The cable car came to a halting stop, and its eggshell doors slid open, letting out the polite masses onto Old Town Square. Kostya stepped off, pulling a cigarette out of his coat pocket to shield him against the misty evening chill. As he tried to light his cigarette with gloved hands, his breaths came in transparent puffs from underneath his scarf.
He slid into the dinnertime procession in the Old Town, hands in his pockets. Passing under the covered alleyways, he admired how quaint the town could be, gearing up for a beautifully austere holiday season.
But for now, the uneven cobblestone streets were slick with rain.
The tall, thin buildings, with their almost candy-like facades, felt strange to him--a misplaced European transplant, flying solo with an American passport. Everything here felt strangely storybook and meticulous, where small, modern shops shunted between manicured medieval structures. It was easy to get lost in all the narrow, meandering side streets.
Pulling a crumpled note from his pants pocket, he checked the address he wrote down again, ensuring he was still going in the right direction.
“Jewel of Prague” -- across the square from the Orloj.
Kostya squinted at his own, awful handwriting and felt his stomach sink. He should have been a little less sloppy with the address he’d scribbled down, but the tip had come in on a late-night phone call while sleeping over someone’s house. The best pen he could come up with at the time was a grungy tube of black eyeliner from the bathroom.
He didn’t have the faintest clue what an Orloj was, let alone if he had spelled it properly while he was transcribing numbly at four in the morning. Stopping at a kiosk, Kostya pulled his scarf away from his chilled face, addressing the attendant hiding under the awning. She was a brunette, bundled and shivering, but in good spirits.
“Promiňte,” he stumbled in his broken Czech, trying not to look like too much of an American, “Mluvíš anglicky?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding encouragingly. “Are you lost?”
“In a word, yes,” he tapped the address in his palm, looking helpless, “I’m looking for the Orloj. But I don’t know what that is.”
She laughed softly, and Kostya enjoyed the warm wave of attraction that rolled off of her. “It’s a clock,” she gestured a wide circle, “A big one.”
He fixed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and cocked his head to the side, “The Orloj is a what now?”
“A clock,” she said, her voice genial with amusement. She pulled a tourist map from under the counter, clearly used to giving out directions. “The Orloj is an astronomical clock. The oldest working clock in the world,” she circled a spot on the map with her marker and handed it to him.
He paused for a moment, smiling, “Are you sure?”
“A map for the lost,” she smiled back.
He gave her a charmed nod before stepping back out into the mist, pulling his jacket around himself. Orienting himself with the castle towering baroquely out of the skyline, he wended his way through tiny side-streets, heading towards the square.
There was an alien pleasure in traveling for him, losing himself completely in things he could not recognize--feeling weightless in space and time--just an anonymous soul melting into the Prague woodwork. He let the bustle of unfamiliar words, smells and cafe noise draw him deeper into the heartbeat of the city, the tangible vascular system of thoughts, feelings and daydreams coming from the people around him.
Normally, he was more careful about opening up himself to the psychic noise around him, but something felt senseless about it, a strangely comforting obliteration of his ego that he welcomed. It soothed his nerves.
Before he could get too overstimulated, Kostya heard bells chiming overhead. He stopped and followed the gaze of a group of tourists, their phones pointed upward. They were all recording the Orloj, the gigantic, moving clock hewn directly into the wall of Town Hall. He paused, taking in the impressive size and unique face.
Situated above a gold, stained glass window, the clock face was a series of stacked concentric circles, all turning around a long, graceful clock hand. On the innermost circle sat all twelve houses of the zodiac, and a dial that pointed to dusk. The middle circle told the time of day, and the outermost marked the date.
In the windows above the clock, passed a procession of clockwork apostles, ringing their bells on the onlookers below. Kostya stood there, unable to shake the feeling of great significance coming from the medieval clock. He watched the tourists recording video, pointing to the carousel of painted figures. They didn’t quite understand what it was, and he only had slightly more of an idea.
Blinking, he caught himself, noticing that the clock had stopped chiming, and the crowd around him had changed. His hearing flooded back to him, along with the uncomfortable awareness that there was an unmistakable presence of old magic here.
He frowned, checking the address in his palm once more. Across the Square from the Orloj.
Glancing across the square to the covered arcade, he could make out a few winking windows of shops across the misty square. He saw a small, wood panelled shop that was thin and long like most of the buildings in Old Town, and it receded back into a stone-covered alley.
The walnut-lacquered sign read simply The Jewel of Prague: Bookshop and Antiquities. Stepping inside, Kostya was surrounded by the comforting smell of books and old leather. The walls of the shop were covered from floor to ceiling with gilded tomes, some of them unspeakably old. He understood very quickly that this shop was not a shop run for humans.
Proceeding to the back of the store, he saw a man perched behind a cluttered counter, and an iron spiral staircase that curled upwards behind him. Buried behind a mountain of books, the man sat tapping his pen on his ledger in a smart turtleneck and a dust smock. His thin, metal glasses blended like quicksilver into his white hair in the lamplight. The man seemed engrossed in his work, not even lifting his head at the sound of the door.
Kostya approached, noticing a steaming mug steaming beside him on the counter. He could smell what it was without having to check--he knew the swampy, wet-laundry smell anywhere. It was mugwort. For dreaming.
“I was wondering when you’d arrive,” the man murmured, eyeing him calmly over the rim of his silver glasses. He had a soft Czech accent that curled his ‘r’s and ‘l’s in a pleasant way. “Had a nice time touring the Old Town?”
“It’s my first time,” Kostya said, looking around.
“Quite a charming town, no?” The man asked, with a twinkle-eyed mirth. He stood, flipping his book closed. Kostya was only able to make out countless rows of unintelligible letters on the page. “I dreamt about you. A man of bones, but not a man at all.”
“Could be someone else,” he smiled vaguely, not wanting to play all his cards all at once with this strange bookseller. “I’ve heard from someone that you have a specific book here. A Russian one.”
The man nodded, taking off his glasses and folding them in his hands, “One with a lot of history attached to it.”
“I was hoping to purchase it off you,” Kostya said, holding off his please.
“I’m afraid that would be a pricey purchase,” he replied.
Kostya pulled a checkbook and a pen from his pocket, “I’m prepared for the expense.”
The door creaked at the front of the shop, letting in the cool air and a small group of tourists. Kostya turned to appraise them--human, non-American tourists, probably from the UK. They held on tightly to their camera straps and began to peruse the shelves, squinting up at the incomprehensible book titles.
“Funny, I figured this was a books and antique shop, given the sign,” one of the tourists murmured to one of their companions. “I haven’t seen a single antique.”
This made Kostya turn. He’d seen many antiques while walking in, how any of the tourists had missed the enormous hammered brass vases, icons and hanging lanterns in the thin shop was beyond him. He watched them, walking straight past the oddities cabinet, and glass cases of old relics, feeling a dumbstruck awe for whatever magic was keeping them from interacting or seeing the items.
After they left, Kostya looked back to him, and the bookseller simply tapped the side of his nose discreetly in response.
“The book must valuable to you to forgo even asking its price,” he said, launching back into their conversation.
“I don’t need to,” Kostya said.
“My, my. You’re unrelenting.”
“You didn’t dream that part, I guess?” Kostya dropped his eyes coyly, tapping his pen on his checkbook.
The bookseller look seemed entertained by his response, his bright blue eyes twinkling. “No, but I dreamt that you would come to me wounded. And that you would require more patience than a normal man.”
Kostya took a breath to swallow the sudden sick wave of nausea that he’d been punching down his entire red-eye flight. Thinking about Michelle was a trap right now, and it would keep him from staying rational. He tried to disassociate, re-adjusting his psychic lens on the man in front of him, seeing what he could read.
In a discomforting realization, he realized that could feel absolutely nothing from him, a complete puzzling absence of feeling--simply unavailable--like someone had blotted the man out or hidden him. He ran his eyes over the table before him, wondering how many warlocks had come to this man, how many of them had come telling him their reasons.
“I have a condition I want lifted,” he said to the man.
The man gestured behind him with his glasses, “That book is about the Domain of the Snow King. Everything under his purview is desolation. Are you afflicted with a curse?”
“Something along those lines. I was hurt years ago. I was given a master to heal, but the contract was unfulfilled for years.”
“Fascinating. So you’re here to sever your contract?”
“Yes.” The moment the word left his mouth, Kostya realized what he had wanted for a while now--a way to break his connection with Michelle--the one that gnawed at him from thousands of miles away, under the cover of liquor, drugs, and whatever warm guest had let him in for the night.
“The cases of familiars breaking their contracts are rare,” he said, giving Kostya a serious look, “Even ones such as strange as yours.”
“Even if it’s unwillingly written? And improperly fulfilled?”
“Breaches of contract are taken seriously, of course, but incredibly hard to prove. But occasionally, exceptions can be made for an annulment.”
“An annulment?” Kotsya asked.
“Your contract is dissolved and a new familiar is given the contract in your stead. Permission would have to be granted from your Patron, however.”
Kostya chewed the information over, feeling stuck. How could he possibly ask permission from an entity he’d tried to find for years? For all intents and purposes, the man who made both him and Michelle was a legend, nothing more than a nursemaid's tale, fashioned to make little boys and girls behave.
The man nodded, as if understanding he was in a predicament. He rang a small bell on his desk and after a moment, a starkly beautiful young man peered out from the back of the shop, long and pale, with a black buzzed head. He laid his inquisitive gaze on Kostya and gave him an acknowledging nod, familiar to familiar.
“Is this the guest you were expecting, Klaus?” he asked the older man, placing a hand on his master’s shoulder.
“Yes, my dear. Do get me that book I put aside for him?” Klaus said, giving the pale hand a tender squeeze.
He complied, laying a brief kiss on the side of the warlock’s head, disappearing back into the stacks. The small scene of tenderness needled at Kostya, catching him off balance.
“Is he your…?” Kostya asked, flicking a thumb back to the back of the store.
Klaus nodded, a smile playing on his lips. “Filip? Oh yes. I keep the little devil busy organizing the stacks. Or else he gets mischievous.”
After a moment Filip returned, with a book wrapped in oilskin.
He handed the book to Kostya, catching his gaze for a moment. There was indeed a mischief there in his eyes that Kostya wholeheartedly respected. A single opal dangled from his ear, catching the light like a pale, green fire.
Kostya ran his hands over the supple leather before folding it back to view the book.
Even with the leather and his gloves to act as a barrier, he could feel how deeply the book itself was, like someone had stored it in an icebox. He looked down into the gently shifting Cyrillic letters on the cover, like the letters on his bones, feeling a distant kinship with them. He folded the leather back over the book and looked up at Klaus.
“It’s a loan,” Klaus smiled, and it crinkled the corners of his eyes. “When you figure out what needs to be done, return with the book.”
“That’s an awfully generous loan for someone you just met,” Kostya replied, warily.
“Consider it an investment. No one has been able to touch the pages, let alone read it in quite some time. I would hate to take a dead man’s last check.”
Kostya considered this for a moment before tucking the book underneath his arm. “I’ll be back then.”
“Good luck to you Bones.”
Kostya paused at the door, struck by how strange his childhood nickname sounded in this stranger’s mouth. He nodded, flicking a small salute to Filip, who regarded him through the closing glass door like an impassive, green-eyed cat.
All illustrated works are done by Artist Sam Dutter. You can commission him or enjoy his incredible work here: https://www.artstation.com/samdutter