The wizard knew perfectly well that he was a pitiful figure. Everything about him spoke of being broken: his spine, bent by the weight of time. The soft folds of his face and body, marked by deep fingernail gouges—not scars, just grooves where flesh was missing. The pitiful beard singed at the tips, the stained and threadbare clothing.
Once he had been mighty, an inferno of power consuming all he desired. Now he was ember and ashes, abandoned by the world.
Ingrid sat across from him, pouring thimbles of vodka. She had grown tremendously; the last time he’d seen her, she had been a small, eager thing, begging him to show her how he could make sparks from his fingertips. She had grown, in many senses: in height, in confidence, in power. He pressed his thumbs into his eyes. So much time gone, wasted. And what did he have to show for it? Nothing: decades gone in a blink, while he squatted in this hovel in the Yablonoi Mountains.
Once she had treated him as a toy, or perhaps a jester, brought in for her sole amusement. She had always been an insightful child. Now she assessed him in the way that Antopov himself would judge and measure a knife. Was it sharp enough, hot enough?
Well, was he? Or had his glory been extinguished under decades of ash?
No. There was still fire in him somewhere. After all, he’d once been called the Blood Count of Mongolia for a reason. He threw back his vodka and set the container down sharply. The liquor ignited something in him, some warmth, some heat. He drew on his frayed scraps of dignity to slowly coax himself toward who he used to be. “How can I be of service?” he asked.
“I hate to trouble you,” Ingrid said, “but I have some news to give you. And a favor to ask, on behalf of my family.”
She was too cunning to spell out how much of a favor he owed the Engström clan, or perhaps more accurately, how much leverage they had over him. But they both knew. After his . . . accident . . . some decades before, he had been entirely incapacitated. He had always cultivated a close friendship with Ingrid’s great-aunt Zilla, and she was the harbor he had fled to. Zilla had arranged for his care all these years. Such as it was.
Well, nothing in life was free. “You know I would do anything for you,” he said, raising his cup in another toast. “You have only to ask.”
Ingrid smiled politely, and didn’t return his toast. “To be honest, I’m doing you a favor as much as you’re doing one for me,” she said. “There are some people in London troubling us lately, and one in particular I think you would like to know about.” She leaned forward, the curve of her lips as deadly as a scimitar. “Uncle Yuri, I have reason to believe that you once met a woman named Grace.”
“Laundry is stupid,” Grace said, with as much venom as she might otherwise have reserved for murderers, demons, or the agony of watching the people she loved speed-age around her. She crouched in front of a washing machine, watching a collection of undergarments tumble in the suds.
“If I wanted to do laundry,” she said, “I could have been a farm wife in China and died forty years ago. But here I am. Washing clothes. With water. And soap.”
Sal looked up from her bench, across the laundromat. She’d been leafing through a celebrity magazine they’d found that somehow dated to 2003. The toothy blonde on the cover was captioned Hilary Duff, and Grace was moderately sure she’d never heard of her before today. “Something wrong?” Sal asked mildly.
Grace turned her attention back to the spinning laundry. It wasn’t that the labor was particularly backbreaking or difficult. Laundry now was a far cry from the daylong ordeal it had been; no more stones or washboards, no more crouching in a river until your hands and back cramped up.
Not that Grace had ever done that, either. Even then, city people with enough money sent their laundry away for someone else to deal with. It was the only civilized way to handle it. And later, in the Vatican, the nuns had handled her laundry and other personal tasks; she’d been a tool, a weapon, not to be wasted on menial chores that anyone at all could do. She’d grown accustomed to that frictionless existence.
“I can’t believe I’m wasting hours of my candle watching someone else’s underwear get wet, all because Liam had to go and—”
Even as she said it, Grace knew this wasn’t fair. The laundromat they used to send all their laundry to had been destroyed, to be sure, but Liam had vanquished the demons that were responsible, and the owners were planning on rebuilding. Liam hadn’t put the demons there.
But in the meanwhile, the team still had laundry to do. There weren’t any laundromats in Weird London that stayed open...