Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
January 21, 1970
Tanya peered out the window at the street below. The lamp at the corner burned yellow, but otherwise the street was dark. Empty, too. Good.
She checked that the window’s latches were still locked and then drew the thick curtain across the glass. At the same time, she snapped the braid of dried herbs she carried in her left hand, releasing a scent like old tea. The magic wafted on the air around her: a simple spell, designed to make passersby on the sidewalk below ignore her apartment building.
The windows in her kitchen and her bedroom had already been secured. She cut across the apartment to her door, and for a moment she laid her ear against the cool, slick wood and listened to the sounds of the hallway outside. Music drifted from Mrs. Budny’s apartment across the way, but that was expected: Every evening Mrs. Budny’s radio was a constant hum in the background. Tanya ran her fingers over the lock, made sure it was clicked into place. Then she crumbled the herbs and sprinkled the dust on the floor.
Everything was where it needed to be. Everything was secure.
Tanya slipped into her kitchen and knelt to open the small cupboard next to the refrigerator. She couldn’t remember the last time she had cooked with most of the tarnished pots crammed inside. She removed them one at a time, careful that they didn’t clank as she lined them up on the linoleum.
When she had set the last of the pots on the floor, she reached deep into the cupboard and pressed the latch that collapsed the false wall at the rear; there was a sharp pause, like the apartment was holding its breath, and then the back of the cupboard slid into Tanya’s hands. She set it aside and leaned into the hidden compartment. Her hands found the radio, cold metal and rough dials. She pulled it out and sat on her heels. The radio was a small thing, scuffed from use, the numbers fading away into ghosts. Tanya stood up and set it on her kitchen table, then slid into a chair and switched the radio on. She didn’t bother plugging it into the wall; this radio didn’t need electricity to run.
The radio flared with static. Tanya turned the dial, ears straining. She wasn’t listening for music or messages from the Party. This was not that sort of radio.
The static roared. Tanya edged the dial forward. Maybe he wasn’t going to speak with her today. Sometimes his voice didn’t come through. Sometimes conditions weren’t right.
But then she heard it, a familiar whisper in the radio’s white noise. Tanya froze, finger hovering near the dial.
“—Ya, my little bird—”
She let out a long breath. Nudged the dial. Instantly, the static vanished, and the voice rang out through her apartment like a bell.
“Dyedushka,” she murmured. “Are you there?”
“I am here. I am always here,” the voice said. Tanya slumped back in her chair and closed her eyes. That way it was easier to pretend her grandfather was in the room with her, and not lying comatose in a hospital bed in Moscow. That this voice was really him, and not a magical recording, trapped inside a plastic-and-metal box and enchanted to speak and respond as if it really were her flesh-and-blood grandfather. “What matters do we need to discuss tonight?”
Always straight to business. That was one way the disembodied voice captured her grandfather. That was the Ice, really.
“There’s a Host in Prague,” Tanya said.
“Have you secured this person?”
Tanya opened her eyes and looked down at the radio. The dial was set to 1320. The channel was different every time, as if her grandfather’s enchantment was floating aimless through the radio waves.
“No,” she said. “I gave her a pitch and two days to make her decision. I was certain she’d come with me. But she didn’t.”
A long pause. Tanya could hear the static through the speakers.
“She’s frightened,” Tanya said, defensive. “The Flame sent a construct after her. It was her first real experience with magic.” Three nights ago she and Andula had met in the shadows of Letná Park. They had strolled through the frozen trees, and Andula had babbled her reasons for refusing: “I have obligations, to my family—my mother hasn’t been the same since my sister vanished two years ago.” And: “This is not my world.” And: “I’m not sure I believe you.”
“The Flame,” her grandfather’s voice scoffed. “Yes, that sounds like them. Always so showy. The old ways are better, yes? We don’t frighten the Hosts.”
“Of course not,” said Tanya. “But she’s still refusing to exfiltrate with me. We’re watching her, we have her under protection—” She sighed and glanced at the curtains covering her windows, keeping her shielded from the outside world. As a little girl she’d been close to her grandfather, who had been warm and loving despite the formalities of Ice propriety. Sometimes she hated that all she had left of him was this voice in a box, this clever simulacrum. She knew she was perhaps being greedy, that...