Муравьёв Андрей Леонидович: другие произведения.

Scourge of Tyrants

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  • Аннотация:
    First chapter of Karabaris in English. It would be very kind to get feedbacks about quality of translation.

Andrey Muravyov

Karabaris, the Scourge of Tyrants

To my parents

Chapter 1.

An Offer

   Karakuluchi Hasan Turger kicked a motionless body. A torturer eager to please his master grabbed a tied prisoner under his armpits, but it was clear even without his help that the man wouldn't be able to speak anymore. The spy's blue eyes burned with madness.
   `I told you just to question him, didn't I?' the Turk's voice sounded toneless, but it didn't delude the executioner. The officer was enraged.
   `I'm sorry, effendi. He turned out to be too weak'.
   Karakuluchi stroked his groomed moustache regaining his temper. The executioner bent in a low bow and kept silence.
   `For how long have you been doing this, Ali?'
   The executioner bowed even lower.
   The janissary's voice rose to a shriek.
   `Five men! I've lost five men to capture him! Reaya! Kafir!' his eyes shot daggers at the fat man in front of him.
   `You! The fat pig! I knew some of them my whole life!'
   He clenched the handle of his kilij.
   The torturer flopped down on his knees and then spread on the floor in front of his enraged master touching the floor with his forehead. The officer went berserk with fury. His fingers closed tightly around the hilt of his sabre were turning white ... A minute passed... Then another one...
   Karakuluchi's face was changing, his anger slowly fading.
   `Allah, be His will done, taught us to forgive wrongdoers... That's why I won't kill you today...'
   The executioner blew out a sigh of relief.
   `But!' the janissary's voice was ringing. `If this piece of meat doesn't speak before Cumartesi, on Pazar you'll be standing next to him waiting for your execution! Do you hear me, Ali?!'
   Ali Azik, the executioner, whined and reached out to touch the soles of the janissary's yellow babouches, but the officer dodged and kicked the fat man kneeling on the dusty floor in front of him.
   `You have three days!'
   The 15th of July, 2006. Budva, Montenegro.
   Inhale-exhale... inhale-exhale... inhale-exhale. One intake of breath, one steady sway of arm, leg kicks. Effortlessly and swiftly he was swimming through the warm azure water of the Adriatic Sea.
   Twenty meters more away from the swarming beach Alex turned to backstroke. The salt water allowed the swimmer to float easily. It felt good... The young man recovered his breath and dived. The sea strived to push his body back to the surface, but the swimmer was tough. His muscular legs and arms worked steadily to bring him down to the bottom. His fingers touched the pebble. He jumped out of the water like a cork from a bottle of champagne holding a fistful of sea-smoothed stones in his hand raised high above his head.
   `I told you! Told you!' Nelly never bothered to restrain her emotions showing all her feelings blatantly. A sixteen-year-old beauty jumped about waving her towel in triumph.
   Innokenti Makarych winced but didn't say anything. He liked the peace and quiet of his life on the yacht too much to interrupt it with quarrels with his hot-tempered granddaughter.
   Alex swam closer to the yacht and caught the rail of the ladder going down to water.
   `I bet Master that you would touch the seabed!' the girl blurted cheerfully.
   He smiled and grasped her outstretched hand. It was good to know that someone cared about him.
   It was sort of amusing to know someone needed him... Some six months ago Alexey Potemkin's life was a matter of interest only to his dorm mates and maybe the dorm's head and a commissar from the local military mobilization office.
   Drying himself with a big soft towel the young man looked over his shoulder.
   A tall silver-haired old man.
   ...That's how Innokenti Makarych looked like when they first met. It happened in the reading hall of a new library. The student was delving in volumes with recollections of the Time of Troubles contemporaries when a stranger came up to him and asked what Alex thought about a certain book. They plunged into a conversation that marked the beginning of their unusual friendship.
   Innokenti Makarovich (or Makarych, as the old man preferred a simpler folksy variant of his patronymic) Zavolyuzhniy, an old hereditary sorcerer and witch doctor as he called himself, practiced divination and communication with his clients' late relatives. Channeling and search of missing people brought him a modest income and some connections, but at the same time his activities caused him jitters, troubles, resentment and threats from the men of consequence.
   Alex's memory didn't register the exact moment when he started to work for his new acquaintance. The psychic had practically no interest in things going on around him, but he desperately needed a person who would gather information on new clients for him. Not for work, no! For strategic purposes: it's common knowledge that the most important thing in a good job is not to get into troubles. A single mention of a service to a criminal or some gang can ruin even the most spotless reputation and cost the sorcerer all his respectable clients who would be warmly welcomed by his numerous rivals. That's why Master decided to have an extra member in his team, a young educated man well-grounded in Internet technology and other high-tech fads.
   Now Zavolyuzhniy had two assistants: Nelly and Alex.
   While it was natural for Nelly as the psychic's only granddaughter and a medium (a gift inherited from her mother) to help her grandfather, a student without a paranormal gift or extraordinary talent was quite a strange choice of an aid to a sorcerer. As much as Alex valued himself he measured his skills reasonably enough and had a down-to-earth approach to life. That's why he asked to clarify his functions as Master's assistant immediately after he was approached with the job offer.
   The old man didn't hesitate for long. He didn't like to lie.
   Zavolyuzhniy said that beside Potemkin's knowledge he was attracted by the young man's unusual aura. It was somewhat strange, irregular. Master claimed that with a single glance at a person he could describe his past and predict his future: his victories and defeats, his deeds, choices and, consequently, his probable destiny. The image he saw reminded him of a tangled net with a hundred of knots, or a lock of clotted hair. His main task then was to help his client to get rid of these knots and to disentangle from a difficult situation. But Alex's net had a visible gap as if someone took a part of his life away without leaving anything in return.
   Potemkin was puzzled with such an answer but not for too long... It took him a short while to ponder over the offer which he finally accepted with enthusiasm.
   Now it was time to enjoy all the perks of his new job.
   The guy stretched out with pleasure in the shade of the deck tent.
   ...Brilliantly blue sky, transparent water, tasty food, lots of sunshine and no worries - that definitely was a perfect holiday.
   He smiled and turned to lie on his stomach on a see-through deck to enjoy the sight of undersea life. Deep under water he could clearly see the pebble covering the seabed. A dive seemed enough to reach the underworld kingdom... A dream...
   `Master, I found quite a nice villa for you... The atmosphere and all that... The tiles are as ancient as a mammoth's poop... Well, you'll be pleased,' the last phrase was obviously out of place. Especially from such a weasel as Seryozha Burlov.
   Potemkin and Burlov exchanged unfriendly looks. The sorcerer's assistant and the client's representative were not overfond of each other.
   Nelly, on the other hand, liked Sergey. He was a tall, handsome, powerfully built man every girl dreams of.
   `Any chance your villa has a decent bathroom?' she was flirting desperately with the burly guy, but he kept ignoring her attempts.
   `Didn't check on that. But there is a cool room with old rugs and a pile of antique stuff. A real deal to furnish the place'.
   `Your place, maybe,' Zavolyuzhniy corrected. `For my work a room in a hotel would do pretty well'.
   Occasional sharp remarks were all the old psychic could allow himself to voice.
   The situation was pretty tense.
   In spite of the sun, the sea, the luxurious yacht and apparent freedom no one of them felt totally free. However, this point deserves a closer attention.
   ...A month ago unusual visitors knocked at the door of Zavolyuzhniy's modest flat. Extraordinary individuals were not rare among the sorcerer's clients, but this very job proved to be really peculiar.
   Serious boys in immaculate suits and heavy shoes turned out to be from a certain commercial organization that needed a special type of help. Well, that was not a one-of-the-kind situation... But the services that Sergey Burlov's anonymous boss wanted to get were unusual even for a sorcerer.
   Not that he wanted to get something impossible, quite the opposite. The old man and his assistants were to become a part of a mere scam.
   One of the major shareholders of the company Zavolyuzhniy was told about had fallen asleep in the Lord not long before. Although Sergey opted for `kicked the bucket' in his story the meaning of the term remained the same. The man died, and his dumb blondie of a wife, or a widow to be more exact, turned out to be a tough chick. Instead of contenting herself with the dole from the rest of the shareholders she started to talk about an independent audit, her late husband's papers and archive and demanded astronomical sums of money. The situation was aggravated by the interest that a certain foreign consortium showed in the assets of the deceased. An impasse as Burlov put it. On the one hand, they couldn't opt for the 1990s-style gangster variant with the stupid doll being made away quietly and the ashes of her husband' papers being scattered on the grave of the unfortunate spouses. On the other hand, the shareholders were most unwilling to pay her the money she demanded. So they needed an original plan, an `elegant' and simple solution to their problem. Finally, they came up with a certain idea.
   The widow, a sturdy fifty-year-old from Nefteyugansk, turned out to be an adept of occult science and other unscientific nonsense. She happened to resort to the services of a divinator and according to some gossip remained completely satisfied with the result. Burlov, who was entrusted with the task to deal with this problem, found the psychic who had impressed the stubborn dame and according to some more gossip had a certain influence on her. That's how Zavolyuzhniy got involved into the scam.
   The client's idea was simple: since the widow was a no show in Russia and preferred to live at foreign resorts under protection of a security agency, the op was to be carried out there. The bait for the woman to swallow was the old sorcerer with whom Burlov's men were to organize a casual encounter. The rest of it was even simpler: the old man was to manipulate her into thinking that she should sell her share to the good guys from the company and not to the bad ones from abroad, the woman would get hooked and everyone would get their big prizes!
   It was a murky plan... But there was no choice. The shareholders played good guys only when they dealt with their former fellow's widow. The reasoning they used with the psychic was accompanied with a peculiar sound of a hammer being cocked and rustling of some green notes.
   Zavolyuzhniy agreed.
   So, they were basking in the warm Adriatic sun for almost a week now while Burlov's agents were preparing for the next stage.
   The widow heard a thoroughly orchestrated gossip that a renowned sorcerer was on holiday at the seaside, and then the agents made sure she heard the name she recognized with delight. So now they had only a few technical moments to take care about.
   She called him first. They agreed to meet on Sunday. According to Burlov, all they had to do was to find a proper place and to rehearse the show.
   The psychic winced. The widow asked to arrange a communication session with her late husband. That meant she was going to ask him for advice.
   The 17th of July, 2006.
   Yesterday night they explored the setting.
   On closer examination, the old villa situated at the foot of the Bloody Tower in the centre of Herceg Novi didn't look as a fashionable residence. It was a dilapidated house with a small garden located in a narrow street. The gate crowned with bison horns led into a courtyard paved with ancient tiles. There was a smell of Time... Ancient time, to be more exact. The house had three floors with three rooms on each. There was also an annex to the main building that used to serve as a stable, but at a certain moment in the past someone transformed it into a workshop. All that didn't add to the image of a thriving sorcerer's residence. A least Zavolyuzhniy thought so. But Burlov ignored the old man's grumbling.
   Serbian women hired a day before cleaned the neglected house up. The spotless floors were shining, the furniture and stairs gleamed with polish, the ceilings and walls showed their original colour. Heavy curtains and clean draperies disguised timeworn windows and cracked plaster that needed more time and effort to repair.
   Burlov swaggered about as if the whole house makeover was a result of his own hard work. However, the renovation really was something to be proud of as now the house looked completely different.
   `Innokenti Makarych, the show time is tomorrow evening. So make yourself comfortable and get into your character'.
   Burlov gestured at one of the rooms.
   `My boys bought some stuff you may need for dИcor... Um...like candles... Some old books in Latin... Some other crap.
   The old man sneered.
   The client's representative paused for a second to see his reaction. Then cleared his voice and added:
   `I hope tomorrow everything goes smoothly... without any tricks'.
   He made a second lingering pause.
   `Seryozha, dear! What a nice blazer you have!'
   Nelly fluttered out from behind her grandfather's back and hugged the stunned muscleman.
   `Uh... that's... er...Versace...'
   Nelly kept chattering:
   `It's cool! You look really handsome!'
   The girl stroked the lapels of his blazer, her big mesmerizing brown eyes gazing into his. Suddenly Burlov blushed, he was obviously embarrassed. He swallowed nervously, made a few steps back and then turned around and made for the door.
   `I count on you, Innokenti Makarych! See you tomorrow!'
   The young witch giggled behind the gangster's back.
   `Look! That's from his pocket,' Nelly gave Alex a folded piece of paper. `Now, who's the smart girl, huh?'
   Potemkin unfolded the paper taking a closer look.
   `Yeah! You know how to make your living, if not by the sweat of brow, then at the expense of someone else...'
   Nelly pursed her lips.
   `Interesting...' Alex took another look at the paper. `Looks like an electronic airline ticket'.
   `Burlov booked a flight... Business-class... That's posh...'
   The girl drew nearer.
   `Where is he flying?'
   Potemkin paused to think.
   `Where?' Nelly tugged on the piece of paper to have a look.
   `You'd better ask when'.
   `I don't get it'.
   Alex pointed at the date in the ticket.
   `He flies to Vienna tomorrow... At noon'.
   The sorcerer's granddaughter stared at the figures.
   `But the sИance is planned for the evening...'
   She jumped.
   ...They found Innokenti Makarych in the main hall on the second floor. He was trying to hang a large beautifully framed mirror on the wall.
   `Sometimes even gangsters can be useful. Just look at this!'
   In spite of its age the mirror looked magnificent. The time almost didn't touch its golden carved frame while the surface was only a little dim. If not for the half-polished scratch on the lower part of the frame, the mirror would look almost as a new one. Innokenti Makarych held it in his hands trying to put it on the wall.
   Nelly interrupted her grandfather:
   `Just listen what we've found out about Burlov! He scrapers tomorrow!'
   The old man sighed, blinked his short-sighted eyes and sat down.
   `Ah! I'm tired...'
   `Grandpa, do you hear me?'
   Zavolyuzhniy rubbed the nape of his neck.
   `I'll have a headache by night'.
   `I got it! Got it... Don't worry, everything will be okay'.
   That didn't calm Nelly down.
   `Are you sure?'
   The psychic chuckled.
   `I am a sorcerer! Do you mistrust your own grandpa?!'
   The granddaughter grinned.
   `I trust you...'
   She kissed the old man on the cheek and fluttered off upstairs.
   `Maybe, we'd better leave the town now?' Alex suggested hesitantly. `Seems they don't trust us. We might get into a trap'.
   Zavolyuzhniy kept silent for a long moment.
   `No, Alex, we are not going anywhere ... I don't lie when I say I can see the future...'
   The old psychic motioned the young man closer.
   `If we leave now, our lives will be very short ... If we stay ... Well, it depends...'
   `What do you mean?'
   Zavolyuzhniy sighed.
   `Believe me... We'll be okay'.
   `The sun will shine, the sun will burn this dry and dusty camel thorn'.
   Potemkin just left his room. Although he felt a bit sleepy he hummed merrily a catchy popular tune.
   Nelly, cheerful and energetic as ever, caught up with him at the landing.
   `Alex, have you noticed that the ceiling on the ground floor is much lower than upstairs?'
   The girl looked puzzled but it didn't keep her from jigging up and down. Sometimes she was literally bursting with energy.
   Potemkin halted:
   Nelly tapped her foot.
   `All the floors look the same from the outside, but inside you can see that on the ground floor the ceiling is much lower'.
   "So what?'
   She shot him an indignant look.
   `Tell me why?!!'
   Alex honestly tried to find an explanation. A moment later Nelly seemed to give up hope to get an answer. She just waved a hand and ran away.
   An hour later they met again.
   Beaming Nelly tapped Potemkin at the villa's gate when he was heading for the beach, and dragged him into a small dusty room on the first floor.
   `Here!' she exclaimed triumphantly poking her finger into the wall.
   Nelly gave him a foxy smile and ran up to the door. With some effort she pushed the door frame. It suddenly sank and at the same moment a part of the wall slided somewhere sidewards with a loud screech.
   `So what do you say to that?' the girl beamed enjoying the effect.
   Having appreciated his dumbfounded look she immediately produced a matchbox, several lighters and a piece of an old newspaper from her pockets.
   `I tapped on the floor, it obviously has hollows. Then I noticed that a part of the wall also sounds hollow. And then I found it!
   `Well... Interesting,' Alexed peeked into the hole. `What's there?'
   The girl shrugged.
   "Nothing... Seems like someone built a spare storage room. Or a secret chamber,' she drew closer to whisper this into his ear. `I found out that in the late seventeenth or eighteenth century this house belonged to a Turkish executioner. They say this place is soaked with pain and loathing of his victims...'
   She made big eyes. Alex grinned and a second later Nelly joined him in laughter. They couldn't associate this popular seaside resort with some long forgotten mysteries.
   `Dust, dust, dust ... He could have left at least something... a shoe... or a sabre', Nelly hit the door frame one more time and the hole disappeared.
   The next moment the fidget sneaked a peek into the young man's bag and moaned just like a spoiled baby:
   `I want to go to the beach too!'
   Potemkin swore under his breath. Now he had to take this little she-devil with him.
   The evening sИance started a little later than they had planned.
   For starters, their client had to leave her Peugeot-406 Coupe somewhere halfway to the villa as it was impossible to drive through the narrow medieval streets.
   Then they had to deal with one more unpleasant circumstance. The woman was as drunk as a skunk.
   She wasn't actually interested to hear what her late husband's soul had to say about the forthcoming deal. She didn't ask questions. Instead, she was spewing numerous reproaches at her husband, first of all blaming him for keeping back the number of a vault in one of the Baltic banks where he kept some `bling-bling' for a rainy day. Now Nelly, who spoke on behalf of the deceased, had to listen to the choicest swearwords judging by which one could assume that the late oligarch had found himself a wife among the roughnecks at one of his drill sites.
   The woman wasn't going to stop yelling at the medium as she craved to disclose her husband's secret.
   Alex winced and left the room. While Master was trying to bring his client back on the right track of conversation he wouldn't need Alex's help. That meant he could have a smoke or drink some ice-cold juice.
   Potemkin went downstairs (the sИance was held on the upper floor) and entered the room with the secret passage.
   `Huh! The flashlight is already here', at a glance Alex registered Nelly's preparatory work.
   It seemed that the girl was determined to solve the mystery of the secret passage: she brought a rope, a chisel, a hammer and two flashlights. Alex pushed the door frame. The wall opened. He peeked inside the hole.
   At night the place looked creepy.
   A shriek rang upstairs.
   The young man listened. Silence...Then he heard Master's agitated voice, several pops.
   Potemkin rushed upstairs.
   The door wrenched open and then the time slowed down...
   Alex saw the back of a stocky man dressed in black. Not far from him the small sИance table laid turned upside down. On the floor on the left from the table he saw the client's unnaturally twisted body. Blood was flowing from under her stomach forming a dark pool, her left leg was still moving. At some distance from her Master sat leaning against the wall and nursing the head of his granddaughter lying on the floor near him. One would have said Nelly was sleeping if not for a scarlet stain on her chest. The stain was growing rapidly.
   The man in black turned to face the newcomer. A pair of faded eyes looked at Alex from the holes on his knit balaclava. The stranger raised his right hand... and pointed the black muffler barrel at the young man...
   Instinctively Alex threw whatever he was holding in his hands and pushed the door with all his might. The massive leaf hit the door-post. The stranger swiftly dodged the flying flashlight and with a smooth catlike movement jumped sideways. One more shot and the closed leaf of the wooden door burst apart with a spray of splinters. Alex rushed downstairs.
   `This idiot didn't bring her bodyguard! Left him to ward off the locals from her car. In Montenegro!'
   Potemkin dashed along the narrow corridor hearing with horror the steps of his chaser behind him.
   `Seryozha! Burlov! Sonofabitch!' both fear and fury flooded him.
   The first floor ...
   He heard the rustle of gravel from outside. Another killer?!
   The young man lurked into the room where the secret passage was still open. The second flashlight. The door. A push to the switch. The wall slided back with a swish to leave him in complete darkness.
   Holding his breath he tried to hear at least anything.
   Several steps boomed outside. The killer reached the ground floor. Then a door was shut with a loud bang. The gunman seemed to decide that his last target was trying to hide somewhere in the courtyard.
   Alex waited for five long seconds more and got out of the secret room. While the killer was outside he had to help the Master. Time was too precious!
   He hurried upstairs to the sИance parlour.
   The client wasn't moving anymore. Nelly's pale features sharpened. But Master was still alive! His eyes were half-closed. Point-blank shots left several scorch marks on his shirt. He was muttering something under his breath.
   `Innokenti Makarych, we must go! There is a room downstairs, we'll hide there!'
   Alex grabbed the old man's hand and a moment later found himself crouching on the floor by his side.
   The sorcerer opened his eyes.
   Potemkin tried to object but Zavolyuzhniy's fingers clenched tightly around his hand.
   `My lifeline ends here, but yours and hers are not...' his cracked voice was fading, the endings of his words hardly audible. `You must make it in time!'
   The old man pulled Alex nearer to the dying girl. Then he put his granddaughter's cold hand into his. Alex managed to notice that the psychic himself was leaning against the antique mirror lying on the floor.
   Whisper! Whisper! Whisper!
   His head burnt.
   Alex strained but didn't pull his hand out. Zavolyuzhniy always knew what to do.
   He saw circles dancing in front of his eyes...
   Somewhere in the periphery of his consciousness he heard Innokenti Makarych saying:
   `You'll have time! Save her!'
   The last thing he heard was a sound of an opening door.
   He was falling into darkness...
   Whisper! Whisper! Whisper!
   The headache was splitting.
   Alex tried to move and understood that he was tied.
   He slowly opened his eyes. The light was pleasantly dim.
   Across the room near the opposite wall he saw an urchin rocking to and fro on the floor. His bony face was black with suntan, his long grey beard ran down to his waist where a rope was wound to prevent his worn kaftan from falling from his frail body. He kept his eyes closed and was mumbling something in a whisper. Sinister, thrilling whisper!
   Alex shifted his gaze further.
   `I swear by Allah, you did it!' a fat richly clothed man exclaimed trying to hug the urchin. `You did it! You are a real pir! It's magic! It's worth of Abdul Alhazred, may he rest in peace!
   The only thing that Alex knew immediately was that the language the fat man was speaking was not Russian. At the same time he could... understand all the words?!
   `Where am I?'
   The words of his native language were suddenly too difficult to pronounce.
   The fat man gave the prisoner a puzzled look. Potemkin's hoarse voice interrupted the flow of compliments addressed to the urchin that finally stopped quacking.
   The pir stood up. He was visibly shaking. Now Alex noticed that under the old man's' worn and ragged kaftan his body was covered with numerous already yellowish bruises.
   `Will you keep your promise, effendi?'
   The fat man picked up the flaps of his clothes and gave a solemn nod:
   `My words are as solid as gold, yazid'.
   He clapped his hands. The door opened showing a burly man wearing a leather butcher's apron over his naked torso.
   `Show our dear tabib out'.
   Alex saw the fat man winking to his hulk of a servant. The man grinned, nodded and opened the door a bit wider. The old man followed the burly scraping his feet along the floor.
   The fat man turned to face Alex.
   `You scared me, my little kafir! You scared me!'
   `Where am I?' he spoke Turkish with a slight accent. Potemkin was surprised to hear himself speaking it. But these were his words, his question!
   The fat man's face wreathed in smiles.
   `These are wrong words, my dear kafir... Wrong words, wrong question. It is as odd as a baklava served with pilav, my dear...' his broad smile was sincere. But there was something sinister in this evil grin. `We have only one question to answer here, that is who are you?'
   The fat man grabbed a pair of tongs from a shelf and leaned over his prisoner's body.
   `Now I am going to be careful. Twice, thrice as careful, Allah be my witness! But you... you are going to tell me everything... Everything you know... and don't know!
   They threw him in dungeon only by morning...
   Filthy swine! Fat sonofabitch! Rotten bastard!
   Alex tried to turn around to lie on his stomach and hissed with pain. His burnt side was on fire. His heels ached, crippled fingers on his left hand throbbed.
   The fat scumbag asked Alex the same question again and again... He didn't believe a word. He was laughing ... then turned pale ... He was yelling at the prisoner to stop playing the fool... and tortured him!!!
   He looked at the wall in front of him as if through a bloody-red haze. Waves of pain washed over his body.
   A couple of times during the torture the executioner fumed his prisoner with a strange smoke that dulled his senses, but the he never stopped tormenting his victim.
   Now his whole body was on fire... His skin, muscles, joints...
   Where am I?!
   Why is this mad Turk torturing me?!
   Can it be Burlov's bosses and their sick fantasy?! What have I done? Why?
   And finally, why do I speak and understand the language I've never learned before?
   His tongue was swollen. He was thirsty.
   Slowly Alex singsonged the first thing that came to his head:
   `The sun will shine, the sun will burn this dry and dusty camel thorn...'
   His Russian sounded good... without any accent, although his voice sounded a bit unfamiliar... But this was his native tongue! So why...
   His thoughts were interrupted by another voice coming somewhere from behind his back, from the farthest corner of the cell:
   `Are you Russian?'
   He opened his mouth to answer and... didn't say a word... Again some foreign words! Again he understood them! What the hell!!!
   `Are you Russian?'
   What language is it? His consciousness prompted: `Serbian'. Damn! So now he speaks Serbian?! Yesterday he didn't know a word and today he can speak Serbian?!
   He heard some rustle. Then someone touched his foot... his broken toe.
   Alex turned around bellowing with pain and swearing loudly.
   In front of him he saw a dark-haired young man sitting on rotten straw. Rugged shirt and short blue pants made of harsh wool were full of holes and looked more like macramИ. The guy was not tall, but well-set and looked... absolutely exhausted. His eyes sunk and his swollen lips were covered with dried blood. His clothes failed to hide brutal bruises covering his body...
   Alex shifted slightly.
   The Serb stared at him unblinkingly.
   `It's true, then...'
   Potemkin interrupted his cellmate:
   "Where are we?'
   The Serb stammered and gave him a surprised look. In his big black eyes there was a glimpse of... sympathy?
   `Don't you know?'
   Alex lost it. He was yelling in Russian.
   `Bloody bastards! I left a note for my friend! If you don't let me go, he'll report to FSB! Interpol! You'll rot behind the bars! You'll sweat for this! For Innokenti Makarych and Nelly!
   He got a lungful of air:
   The Serb was silent. The corridor behind the cell door was silent too. Not a single sound came from a narrow gridded window near the ceiling...
   He was yelling and cursing for two more minutes, and then the door finally opened.
   A stocky man entered the cell. His body was black with suntan. He wore a short waistcoat over a grey dirty shirt, a strange taqiya, short breeches and funny slippers on his bare feet. In his hands he had a short stick. When he entered he lazily swept his eyes over the cell and asked in Turkish:
   `What is it?'
   `Who are you? Why?' Alex found it hard to formulate a question.
   His body ached all over.
   The Serb crouched back to his corner dragging his left foot covered with blood-stained rags.
   The guard bent over Alex... The blow came into the bloody mess of his burnt side. A wild howl tore from Alex's throat. Potemkin curled into a ball on the floor, drifting in bloody haze... sinking into oblivion... He still could hear the distant voice of the guard:
   `One more sound and you won't see the morning light...'
   The terrible sound vibrating on the verge of ultrasound was his howl... This was the last thing Potemkin understood before the blessed unconsciousness fell upon him.
   A splash of water hit his face.
   Alex stretched. It was a nightmare... A mere nightmare...
   At the same time he felt a pang of pain in his side. His head throbbed painfully. The young man slowly opened his eyes and swore through his gritted teeth. He was in the same cell.
   `Not a nightmare...' he pinched his hand and squealed.
   A searing pain shot up his hand that was covered with scabbed burns.
   `Does it hurt bad, Russian?'
   It was that Serb with a broken leg. Alex noticed a fresh bruise on his face. He apparently missed something while he was unconscious.
   The pain was wearing off becoming dull and exhausting. He must never let it overwhelm his body, or it will wash over him again turning him into a whimpering animal... Alex pulled himself into a sitting position.
   `Yes, it hurts...' he took a sweeping look around. No pitcher or jug to be seen. God, he was thirsty... `Who are you?'
   The Serb unearthed a cracked jug from a pile of straw and handed it to Potemkin.
   Warm, a bit smelly water flowed down his throat. For a second even the pain faded.
   `Thank you...'
   The Serb nodded.
   `My name is Zoran. Zoran Mitic'.
   Alex extended his hand for a handshake. At least he had someone whom he could call a friend.
   Zoran was about to go on with his questions, but Potemkin also had a few issues he wanted to clarify.
   `Where are we? Who are those thugs?'
   It turned out he could speak Serbian rather fluently. He hesitated a bit only over the last word.
   The questions took Mitic by surprise.
   `We are in Herceg Novi. This is the Bloody Tower. Where did you think you were, Russian?'
   Alex breathed a sigh of relief.
   `Herceg Novi... Thanks God! It's not far from the Bloody Tower... Here are throngs of tourists...' he pointed at the window. `Why are you not screaming? Even if the cell is far from the street, someone will hear us screaming... They will call the police, gendarmes. Who is it here?'
   Zoran stared at his Russian cellmate in surprise.
   `Gendarmes are in Naples... We don't have someone of the kind in sanjak. The only law here is Dahij Saly Agha, the janissaries commander. Kotor and Herceg Novi are under control of his right hand, karakuluchi Hasan Turger, the Bloody Hasan... You are in his dungeon...
   `Where?' Alex didn't quite understand.
   Potemkin waved off and grimaced with pain. His left hand was burning.
   `You said sanjak? Where is it? Isn't Herceg Novi in Montenegro?'
   The Serb chuckled.
   `It has never been under Vladika...' he gave his cellmate a puzzled look. `Where did you think you were? In pashalik?
   Alex was about to lose control.
   `Sanjak? Pashalik? Why should I think that I'm not in a... sanjak, but in pashalik? Can you stop speaking puzzles?!
   Zoran answered with a hint of irritation in his voice.
   `Well, if you are not in Pashalik of Belgrade, then you are in Sanjak of Scutari... The Russians could have given their emissary a better training.'
   Potemkin clutched his head. He was talking to a lunatic... So, he is in a booby hatch or asylum... That scumbag of Burlov!!! Locked him away to cover up tracks!
   He was about to yell again, to call a keeper, but... a bloody stain on the Serb's leg wasn't something you normally get in a mental home... He was not getting treatment either... At all... If it really was an institution, then probably it was a private one... with the staff being pretty sick themselves...
   The Serb didn't say a word. Alex kept silent too.
   `Listen, why did you get here?' Potemkin broke the silence.
   Zoran shrugged.
   `Janissaries are seizing everyone at random now... They threw me in prison for fishing...'
   He said this in a strange voice... As if his cellmate was to understand all implications immediately. Then again, one word was familiar.
   `What janissaries?'
   Mitic waved his hand towards the door.
   `They own everything here now...'
   Janissaries, sanjak, pashalik... The Turkish language... Associations were not good.
   `You said we are in Herceg Novi?' Potemkin asked again.
   The Serb nodded. Bad associations started to grow into a bad feeling.
   `What year is it now?'
   Zoran looked into Alex's eyes and said slowly:
   `The second...'
   `It's been the second year after the Russians made friends with the Turks... Since the creation of the world it's...'
   Alex yelled:
   `Christian calendar! Damn it! What year is it since the birth of Christ?!'
   The Serb stammered.
   `It is 1799'.
   The pain that faded a little washed over his body with one more powerful wave as he was getting nervous. He was shaking. For some reason the Russian believed his battered cellmate immediately. A single word escaped his cracked lips:
   In the evening they took him to another interrogation. Now the whole situation didn't seem as phantasmagoric as the day before. Now he could understand at least something.
   First of all, he got into the Past. Probably his dying brain was playing tricks on him after he was hit by the killer's bullet. Or maybe it was a kind of comatose delirium. But for Potemkin all that was a gloomy reality since he had no proof it was an illusion.
   Master Zavolyuzhniy had many talents. He seemed to have decided to set some of them apart until his last day. Now the psychic's assistant had a chance to realize how powerful his late patron had been.
   From 2006 he got to the distant 1799...
   Sounds crazy...
   Second, his body was not his own. He hadn't understood this before only because he had been tortured from the first moment he got here. Hands and legs belonged to somebody else. Fingers became thinner. He was not as tall as before... The thick stubble he felt on his upper lip turned out to be a modest moustache.
   When he realized that the dying sorcerer put his soul into a body that belonged to someone else, Alex asked his cellmate to describe his new appearance.
   According to Zoran he was in his mid-twenties. He was a man of medium height with dark hair and blue eyes.
   Rubbish! Raving nonsense...
   All that made Alex fall into a muse for half an hour. He didn't react to the Serb's words that simply flew past him without making sense... He woke up to reality only when he heard a familiar word.
   `Russia? What did you say?'
   Zoran pausing in mid-sentence gave his cellmate a puzzled look.
   `I said, I'm glad my death won't be in vain... If Russian troops come here...'
   `Wait! I've lost the thread of conversation... You are speaking too fast... And after the beating I... have some problems with my memory...'
   Alex strived to recollect everything he knew about this historic period... He could remember only small bits of information. Napoleon, France, Austria, agonizing Ottoman Empire... but nothing significant, nothing particular... The only thing he was sure of was that Russian troops wouldn't come here in the near future.
   `Tell me, my friend, what has been going on here in the last... five years? My memory doesn't serve me well...'
   Mitic gave his companion in misfortune a sympathetic look, pulled himself closer to Alex and grimaced with pain - his leg hurt.
   `Sorry to bother you. You are injured. Do you want a break?' Potemkin looked at fresh blood stains at the dirty dressing on his cellmate's leg.
   Zoran traced his gaze and gave him a crooked smile.
   "It's not as bad, you know... Anyway, why care if you are a dead man the day after tomorrow?'
   `Me?' Potemkin didn't get it.
   `Me too...' the Serb chuckled again. `Turger is called Bloody Hasan not for nothing. They save me for Pazar... You may make me company... or not. Probably, they will try to beat everything you know out of you and then...'
   `What do they want me to tell them?'
   Zoran shrugged.
   `You tell me... The coast is buzzing that the Turks captured a Russian emissary. I'm glad this is true... It means there are people who care about our cause'.
   Alex shuddered.
   Damn! He got into a body of a condemned man!
   What if he told the Turks? But what exactly? Is it possible at all to convince them he is... Not to blame? Not a Russian?
   Potemkin shook his head.
   He is alive only because they need him or they think they do. This is the only explanation. It means... It means that he must convince them he knows something they want to hear... He must make them believe, give them a bait to swallow...
   His head ached terribly. If only his head wasn't aching...
   The Serb was saying something else.
   Alex strained to listen. Now the cellmate was his only source of information about the world surrounding him. Forewarned is forearmed? Not yet... but maybe he would get a hint giving him a chance to stay alive... at least to survive without getting completely nuts.
   ...There was something rotten in the Ottoman Empire. The janissaries, the Empire's major military force, had long ceased to be the monarch's main supporters and now minded only their own problems rather than those of the state. Of course, when their own interests were concerned, the ever rebellious aghas led their troops to fight insurgents or invaders, but... that corrupted the country even more. The Empire's treasury was empty, and the moustached kapikulu, or `the sultan's servants', demanded new privileges and liberties, money and estates... When they thought they did not have enough, they simply took more themselves, and there was no one to stop them...
   Alex had read about it. A majority of the Ottoman noble families were of former Christian origin. Their ancestors were captured as prisoners in early age or taken as the devshirme. The neophytes made good servants not related and not indebted to influential families. They owed only to sultan himself being his loyal servants... That's in theory. A man who managed to tame a vulture can't really turn his back to it. So more and more often the Emperors felt as if they were surrounded by a pack of mature wolves who were too difficult to control. The new servants didn't have numerous relatives, but at the same time they didn't feel they owed something to their ancestors either. The sultans of the Sublime Porte were getting closer and closer to the idea that they were losing the leverage over those who surrounded them. At the same time yesterday's servants having experienced the taste of power were ready to rethink their role... More often than not the grand viziers were appointed upon consent and later upon demand of those, who were supposed to protect the Empire not to rule it.
   The High Porte was in turmoil. Officials, governors or officers - all who got inside this giant mechanism of state administration - could see that the central power was really weak at that moment. The sultan's firman had practically no value in the periphery of the Empire. The feeling of permissiveness was intoxicating. One after another those who were supposed to care for the country's might and unity were all out for getting their own big fat piece of common pie throwing the country into anarchy and chaos, decadence and degradation.
   Sultan Selim III, who enthroned in 1789, and a group of his supporters from the courtiers elite carried out Nizam-i Djedid reforms and established new order. He tried to control everything: economy, administration, and army. He encroached upon the whole system and among other things decided to disband the Janissary Corps that was getting less efficient and more demanding.
   Naturally, such a decision caused a widespread anger among the janissaries not only in the capital but also in provinces including the near-border Pashalik of Belgrade inhabited by the Serbs. Not long before it had been a battle scene. Many Serbs had been fighting as volunteers in the so called Freikorps formed by Austria to combat the Ottoman army. When the war was over, a part of them crossed the Danube and fled to Austria in fear of persecution. Then the Pashalik of Belgrade suffered hunger and plague. That made more people seek refuge somewhere else, but local janissaries seemed not care at all. Having divided the country between four commanders, or Dahijas, they robbed and exploited those who still lived there. One of the Dahijas, Ahmed Agha the Mad, terrorized both Christians and Muslims. He killed fifteen sipahis, Turkish landowners. The new governor of Belgrade, Bekir Pasha, decided to do away with the janissaries. He invited sipahis, village elders and knezes to gather in Niš. Ahmed Agha the Mad was to come too. Bekir Pasha ordered to kill him at the steps of his place and after that he read out a Porte's firman declaring amnesty to janissaries but ordering them to leave Serbia.
   What is more, in order to get back at least a part of this strategic near-border region Sultan Selim III granted the reaya, or Christians of Belgrade Pashalik, some privileges. He gave the Serbian knezes a right of local self-governance and allowed to establish a fifteen-thousand Serbian Corps to fight the renegade janissaries.
   Probably, that could have turn out to be a long-term solution to the problem, but in 1798 the fierce Corsican, the Scourge of Europe and the Pride of France, decided to conquer Africa. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, that officially was a province of Porte where janissary's positions were still strong, made the Ottoman Empire adjust its foreign policy. Turkey dissolved its two-centuries alliance with France and for the first time in its history joined Austria and Russia in the war against it.
   At first the French army was quite successful. Napoleon occupied Alexandria and Cairo, troops of the French Republic invaded the Mediterranean coast belonging to Austria. They also occupied the Bay of Kotor that since the annexing of the Republic of Venice in 1797 had been another Austrian possession.
   Then the allies had their share of victories. Nelson and Ushakov controlled the Mediterranian Sea blocking Napoleon's Egyptian expedition. Suvorov leading the Russian-Austrian Corps defeated the froggies in Northern Italy where only Genoa remained loyal to the Republic. The British were acting on the offensive in Belgium.
   The Turks decided to act local. The janissaries that earlier had been granted amnesty got their power back and sent their assault troops to the Balkan coast. They put their former lands to fire and sword. Austria, whose forces were controlling Italy and heading for Paris, turned a blind eye to such acts of its ally while the Germans had their own problems to deal with.
   `Do you know what is the worst part, Russian?' Zoran drew nearer.
   Mitic gave him a gloomy smirk.
   `The worst part is that the janissaries went ashore from your ships... The locals cheered and welcomed ships with Russian flags, but those ships were full of Turks ready to attack them'.
   Potemkin's heart began to beat faster.
   `Wait! You say Russia and Turkey are allies? So why do they hold me prisoner?
   The Serb tilted his head.
   `You got it wrong... Seems you really lost your memory... Have you ever seen Russians and Turks to be allies? You have a common enemy now, but everyone watches over their own interests. While France was strong, there was a kind of amity between allies. But now, when Austrians are about to occupy Paris, the Turks are looking back at their Northern neighbour more and more often. Your emperor Pavel is too willing to fight. They dropped you not far from Montenegro, a longstanding friend of Russia. So it seems your mission is not really a fancy promenade too. They dropped you at night, in secret as far as I know, with a group of Carbonari to crown it all'.
   He drew nearer and gave Alex a sly wink:
   `So, Russian, do you still have nothing to tell me?'
   Alex shook his head gloomily.
   `Um...Well... Think it over... Seems you desperately need some friends now'.
   Karakuluchi is a janissary officer (Turkish analogue to a European lieutenant).
   Reaya (rayah): here a peasant of non-Muslim origin.
   Kilij is a type of sabre.
   Saturday. A Muslim week starts on Friday (Turkish: Cuma, or meeting), it is followed by Saturday (Cumartesi, a day after Friday), Suday (Pazar), Monday (Pazartesi), Tuesday (Sali), Wednesday (гar?amba, or the Fourth), Thursday (Per?embe, or the Fifth).
   Babouches are slippers without heels. Yellow is the colour of a true believer.
   Translation of a song by a Russian popular group "Diskoteka Avaria"
   Pir is a spiritual guide, a bearer of special knowledge.
   Abdul Alhazred is the author of the Kitab al-Azif, the book that later became known as Necronomicon.
   The Yazidis are Kurds professing their own ancient religion, Yazidism (Iraq, Turkey). In the Ottoman Empire the Yazidis were subject to persecutions as devil-worshippers.
   Tabib is a doctor.
   NB. FSB is Russian Federal Security Service
   NB. Short, rounded cap worn by Muslim men.
   NB. Prince-bishop. The title of a Montenegrin ruler.
   Sanjak and pashalik are administrative units in the Ottoman Empire. The notions correspond to modern regions or provinces.
   Starting from 1498 the Turks considered Montenegro a kadiluk ,or a province governed by one judge, or kadi, in Sanjak of Scutari. De facto Montenegro gained independence after the victory in the battle of Krusi on October 3, 1796. Its sovereignty was recognized by the Sultan's Firman of 1798. The bay of Kotor with the ports of Herceg Novi, Kotor, Risan and others was still considered to be sanjak's territory that was temporarily conceded by the Sublime Porte first to Venice and then to Austria.
   Agha is a janissary higher officer.
   Devshirme is the so called blood tax, an obligatory draft of boys in some Christian regions of the Ottoman Empire. Christian boys, aged 7 to12, were taken from their home environment to be converted into Islam and raised by Muslim families. They were to attend a special school controlled by sultans so that later they could join military units waged by sultans. The Janissaries, or the infantry, gained widespread renown and fame in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Ottoman court officials of different ranks up to the grand vizier originated from this very group too.
   NB. Both the essence and implementation of the reforms were more complicated, but the Serb described them this way .

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