February 19, 1970
Zerena Pulnoc strolled across the Malostranské Square, her heels clicking against the stones. A basket with the first of the day’s purchases was tucked into the crook of her arm. Most of the preparation for tonight’s party she had delegated to her battalion of servants, but there were certain items that required a more refined taste, and these she bought herself. Already in her basket were two bottles of imported wine to be saved for the Indian ambassador; a new necklace—purchased discreetly on the black market—that would look stunning with her gown for the evening; and an assortment of French cheeses. She was on her way now to pick out the flowers. She hoped to find something that suggested spring. That would be a lovely touch, wouldn’t it, even as the Prague winter dragged on? The right flowers, the right combination of colors for the linens, and her guests would almost feel a hint of warmth in the brisk air.
She’d always thought the neighborhood flower shop had the best selection, and the owner, Aleksander Hruška, was an elegant man with an impeccable sense of taste for someone with his background and breeding. But the shop was also conveniently located a few blocks away, and when people saw her coming and going, they would never question it, because why wouldn’t Zerena Pulnoc, wife of the Soviet ambassador and hostess of all the best parties in Prague, frequently visit a flower shop?
She clicked along the sidewalk until she came to the little park, which wasn’t really a park at all, but a courtyard, tucked in between two of the heavy stone buildings. In the summer it was lovely, a verdant patchwork of green doused in the sweet scent of roses, but now it was just a plot of cold mud punctuated by thorny shrubs.
Zerena followed the stepping-stones to the bench in the corner, where she sat delicately, setting the basket at her side. She reached into her purse and pulled out her cigarettes and lit one, the smoke twining up to the steely sky. Pedestrians passed by on the sidewalk, but they paid no attention to her, this woman taking a break from her shopping. As she smoked, she slid one hand along the back fold of the bench. There had been an advertisement for Russian dolls tucked into her newspaper this morning. A bit of a joke, really—who would buy such a thing these days, in this place? But that was the sign, the secret code. I have a message for you.
Her fingers hit the bit of paper stuck into the bench’s wirework; she enclosed it in her fist and brought her hand into her lap. She kept her hand there as she smoked. When she finished, she dropped the cigarette into the mud, gathered up her basket, and continued on her way.
She did not look at the message until she had nearly reached the flower shop. The shop’s bright, hand-painted sign swung back and forth in the wind. There were ferns in the windows, feathery and prehistoric. Zerena unrolled the paper with her thumb and glanced at the text, taking it in quickly before crumpling it into a ball and tossing it into a patch of lingering snow, where she stepped on it, puncturing and ripping it with the heel of her shoe, before breezing in through the doors of the shop.
We must meet, the message had read. 11 a.m., Rousseau’s Bakery.
It seemed Mr. Komyetski had taken her party preparations into consideration. It was a small consolation.
Jordan ran a rag over the inside of a beer glass, giving it one last polish before setting it back in the cabinet. The bar wasn’t going to open for another couple of hours, but she liked getting the easy chores finished early, before she started in on some of the orders for charms and potions and other bits of magic that were still outstanding.
She tossed the rag over her shoulder and gazed out at the room, checking over her domain. Everything looked good: The floors were swept and mopped, the chairs straightened, the mirror behind the bar polished to gleaming. Cleaning was mindless work, but that was what she liked about it—magic forced her to dive too deeply into her own thoughts sometimes, like she was pulling herself inside out.
The air tightened, squeezed, and exhaled. A prickle of energy rushed over Jordan’s skin. She cursed under her breath.
Something had tripped the protection charms.
Such charms were strewn all over Bar Vodnář, a hodgepodge of magic that Jordan had assembled over the years. Some were twisted into the walls of the building itself, family heirlooms that had been here since the beginning. Others, less permanent, were made to look like decorations: bunches of dried herbs in a chipped vase, polished stones scattered around the tables. She used a blend of some staid Ice magic and a few select Flame spells, as well as some of the homey folk magic she’d picked up in her travels. It was an effective arrangement, and it didn’t miss much.
It was still thrumming. More strongly, now, more insistent.
Jordan sighed and slapped the rag down. She sidled...