Prague, Czechoslovak Soviet Republic
April 17, 1970
Kazimir took a lengthy drag from his unfiltered cigarette, waited an unseemly amount of time, and then exhaled into Alestair’s face. Seemed about right for the way this whole process had gone. Nadia leaned back against the warehouse wall and waited for the stalemate to break. The Brit, for his part, managed not to gag too violently, but his frown said plenty for him.
“Permit me to get this matter straight,” Kazimir said in bitter Czech. He flicked the cigarette to his feet and crushed it beneath his scuffed-up work shoes. “You are under the impression that, after your organization and your precious cargo got my men attacked, after working with your organization brought down this unholy fire upon them, that we are at fault? That it is our duty to correct this breach of contract?”
“We paid you to deliver our merchandise. Instead, you lost half the merchandise and nearly let the other half sink to the bottom of the Vltava.” Alestair regarded him coolly. “So yes, I’d damn well say we are owed better.”
This was why the Ice should never send a capitalist to manage their affairs. For more than a week now they’d been trying to arrange to get the remaining Hosts from the barge catastrophe shipped safely off, but understandably, no one was too keen on getting their boat set on fire and their men melted. “Kazimir,” Nadia said, switching the discussion into Russian. “If I may—”
“Don’t you say a fucking word, apparatchitsa.” Kazimir’s usually laissez-faire expression contorted with rage as he stayed stubbornly in Czech. “If it weren’t for the devils you keep company with rolling their tanks into my country—”
“If it weren’t for us, then what?” Nadia folded her arms. She stayed loose-limbed, even though every fighter’s instinct she had was screaming at her to square up. “You would be a legitimate businessman, running a legitimate shipping enterprise? Please.”
“I wouldn’t have to deal with the likes of you. Either of you.” Kazimir looked between them. “Witches, heretics, trying to burn my city down. Devil take all of you.”
“We’re trying to save your city,” Nadia snapped.
“Like you saved your merchandise from these green-flamed demons? Bah.” He spat, something viscous and brown. “Our city’s had quite enough of your help.”
“You have no idea how much worse it could be,” Nadia started, but then she caught sight of Alestair and her argument crumbled to ash.
He’d slipped a piece of chalk from his breast pocket and was calmly scrawling a vast circle on the rusted metal warehouse wall. One loop, two, three. Then he began filling in details on the circle, sharp zigzags of lightning and curling tails. His face remained as smooth as glass as he worked.
“Alestair.” Nadia sprang from the wall and stepped toward him. “Alestair, what are you doing?”
“I’m offering your men a choice,” Alestair said to Kazimir, ignoring Nadia. He stepped back from the sigil he’d created: a circle containing delicate whorls, bisected by sharp lines. “With the right kind of blessing from the Ice, you could become impervious to all competition. A fearsome force of the Prague underground, luck constantly seeming to bend your way, and fortune armoring your men against further assault.”
“Alestair . . .”
“Or a pall could descend over your entire operation. Tainting your men’s hearts and sparking malice. Exposing you to all who’d gladly make you fall. Remind me, Kazimir, is it Vladik who swore he’d have your head on a pike and your stores for himself, or was that Anton and his men?”
Kazimir’s face had turned the color of spoiled milk, but he curled his lip and stood up straight. “I don’t fear your magic.” He waved his hand. “All superstition and trickery. We have no need to work for you if you are going to continue to endanger us.”
“Superstition and trickery? Do you really wish to count on that?” Alestair rested his hands on top of the crook of his umbrella. “You’ve already seen what our enemies are capable of. Do you want to find out our power, too?”
Nadia’s hand made a fist at her side.
Kazimir glowered down at Alestair for a moment. Nadia could almost feel the crackle of energy in the air, raising the hairs on her arms, as the men regarded each other. But finally, Kazimir eased back.
“Very well. We will handle your matters once more.”
“With added security this time,” Alestair said.
Kazimir grimaced, but nodded. “With added security.”
Alestair smiled, his grin impish in the poor lighting. “I’m so glad we’re agreed.”
After they’d settled the specifics and set a date for the operation, Kazimir all but threw them out of the warehouse. The world smelled ferrous and damp from the heavy spring rains, and thick clouds overhead warned of more on the way. Nadia preferred this weather for spy work, though. Much easier to hide beneath an umbrella, and fewer distractions along the street, allowing her to keep an eye out for a tail.
And perfect for Ice-related errands...