Prague, Czechoslovak Soviet Republic
April 28, 1970
Zerena perched delicately on the threadbare loveseat shoved haphazardly against the hotel wall. Terzian had the curtains on the room’s grimy window pulled back so that the sun fell into the room at harsh angles, leaving blades of fractured white light scattered over the neatly made bed, the thin carpet, the scuffed writing desk.
The water ran in the bathroom. Zerena sighed. Crossed and uncrossed her legs. He was taking his time, making her wait. She dug her nails into the cheap, worn cloth of the couch, trying to rid herself of the buzzing electric energy of her anger before Terzian returned to the main room. If she let her expression reveal her inner emotions, then she would have already lost.
The water shut off; the bathroom door swung open. Terzian emerged, his own expression unreadable. Zerena activated her most aristocratic smile.
“I was just thinking,” she said, “what a shame it is that you have to stay in a place like this. I certainly could have found you somewhere more suitable—”
“It’s safer,” Terzian interrupted. “It doesn’t draw attention. Now, tell me what it was you wanted to speak to me about.”
He pulled the rickety chair away from the writing desk and sat down, crossing one ankle crisply over the opposite knee, like a paper crane folding itself into existence. Zerena straightened her spine under his gaze and reminded herself that she had to win this afternoon, that if she did not undo Sasha’s recent infuriating successes, all her years of work would be for nothing.
“I didn’t get a chance to tell you before,” she purred, “but I wanted to congratulate you. On our victory at the docks.”
Was that a hint of smile in the warlock’s craggy mask? If it was, the moment passed too quickly for her to catch.
“The Ice were careless,” Terzian said, flicking one hand. “They gave me the opening to steal the truck with the Hosts.”
“That’s not how I heard it.” Zerena let her voice gush a little. And heard it she had, from one of her whisperers on the scene. The flurry of magical napalm, the Ice falling back in fear. “I heard—”
“Yes, I can imagine what you heard,” Terzian said sharply. “And I’m sure it was all nonsense. Tell me, Zerena, was your source the same incompetent who claimed to know so much about Jordan Rhemes?”
Zerena flinched, and she hated herself for it. “My contacts sometimes fail me,” she admitted, forcing herself to meet Terzian’s dark eyes. “I’ve never denied that. That contact was—punished.”
Terzian leaned back in his chair. “I see. It’s no matter. As you know, your comrade Sasha provided the information I needed.”
At the mention of Sasha’s name, a wild fury surged up inside Zerena; she clamped down on it, distilling it into action. This was why she was here, wasn’t it? To slip her way through the bramble, back into Terzian’s favor. To undo the damage wrought by Tanushka’s vicious betrayal. If only Zerena could truly punish the girl as she would some useless Flame acolyte.
And so Zerena swallowed her anger and her humiliation, and smiled graciously, as if playing host at one of her parties. “Yes,” she said. “That was quite fortunate for us, wasn’t it?”
Terzian watched her. Waiting. He knew she wasn’t here just to offer her congratulations.
“I wanted to make it up to you,” Zerena continued, pushing herself forward on the couch, leaning toward him like a schoolgirl gossiping with a friend. “I think our victory against the Ice should be celebrated, don’t you?”
A quick wave of his palm. Go on.
“Well, we have the Ice’s Hosts. We shouldn’t let them go to waste.”
“You think I would waste Hosts?” Terzian fixed her with a harsh glare.
“Of course not!” Zerena laughed—hadn’t he told her once, a long time ago, that he’d found her laughter charming? “I only think we must consider the best use of the Hosts—or rather, the elementals inside them.”
Terzian said nothing, and Zerena took this as permission to go on.
“You and I both know that controlling a Host can be a difficult process. And with these Hosts having gone into stasis—who knows what will happen when they wake up? If we can even wake them up at all? They’re ensconced in Ice magic. We should be prepared for the possibility that we could kill them in our attempts to rouse them. At which point, we will simply have more loose elementals.”
Terzian leaned forward—she had his interest. “You want to try the Host creation ritual again.”
He was always so quick. Almost as quick as she was.
“That ritual backfired when we attempted it in Cairo, and even the simpler effort to capture the loose elementals failed. What makes you think redoing the Cairo ritual will succeed this time?”
Zerena tipped her head in acknowledgment. “Yes, we have failed before. But we are the Flame! We rise from the ashes of our failures.”
“Is that what you’re doing here?” Terzian smirked. “Rising from the ashes of your failure to gather information about Jordan...