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Chapter Thirteen - Das Vadanya

Chapter Thirteen


Katya has had a lot of tutors, and it’s always the same. They arrive, they teach her for a little while, and then they’re never heard from again. It’s hard to get invested in something when you know that before long there’s just going to be someone else trying to teach you the same things the last one did.

Then when she acts disinterested, they get angry, and that’s just another bit of negativity on the pile of people who are angry with her. Sometimes she hopes that maybe they’ll just leave out of frustration. That happened once. He was a particularly pompous Frenchman and he really didn’t like the tadpole rescue clinic she’d set up in his sock drawer. Natalya was furious with her after that.

The Frenchman was the lucky one, though, as all of the others without fail attempted to stick it out. Natalya and Ivan must have been paying them a lot of money. Why else would they stay in a weird, cold manor-house to teach an unbearable pupil?

Monsieur Borozov is different. He’s just as entrenched as the others were, but to Katya, it seems like something else is driving him. She doesn’t think it’s teaching, as he’s seemed especially distracted as of late over the long, stuffy hours they spend locked in the library together. But for the first time in a long time, he’s actually tried to teach her something. Something that matters. Not just the same lessons on etiquette and French that everyone before had tried.

Sometimes she wonders if he’s even a teacher at all. He seems to know a lot, but not about the ways those things are normally taught. Of all the tutors she’s had, Katya wishes that Monsieur Borozov would give up on her and leave. But she also doesn’t want him to go.

It’s almost like the last two years have never happened, and it’s Monsieur Steel who’s glancing over his book at her with a look of exhaustion. But it isn’t, of course. Monsieur Steel can’t teach her anymore. Not after what she did.

Sometimes she still sees the look on his face, hears that scream of agony in her dreams. Funny, with all the things she’s done after, that that’s the one that sticks with her. She wishes Monsieur Borozov will leave, because she knows that his face will stick with her too.

“Monsieur Borozov?” Katya doesn’t even really know what she wants to ask, even after she’s glanced up from her book on mummies from Egypt and opened her mouth. Maybe he’s too engrossed in his own book to have heard her, or maybe he’ll just ignore her.

He doesn’t, of course. Mishka peers at her over the top of his book, a little annoyed. She supposes she did just ask him another question two minutes ago. And two minutes before that. “What is it?” he responds, hiding the annoyance well.

“Umm…” There’s something that she desperately needs an answer to, something important this time, but she doesn’t quite know the words to say. “Suppose, hypothetically—“

“You know what the word ‘hypothetically’ means?”

She narrows her eyes at him. “Yes, of course I do. It’s a situation that hasn’t actually happened.”

“Okay, I suppose you do. Sorry, what were you asking?”

Katya is actually grateful, as the pause has given her time to compose herself. “Suppose, hypothetically, that you did something bad…”

Chuckling, Mishka shakes his head. “I think even if you know the word, you are purposefully using it wrong.”

“I am not,” she slams her hand down on the table to illustrate how serious she is. Mishka has long since stopped jumping at these outbursts of hers.

“I’m sorry, that was rude.” He clears his throat, embarrassed. “Please continue.”

“Well, say you’ve done a bad thing, and you knew that you were going to have to do the bad thing again soon…”

Mishka is paying attention now, a little concerned. Of course he doesn’t believe this is truly a “hypothetical” at all, but she can’t tell him anything specific, or Natalya will have her hide.

“Is someone… asking me to do this bad thing?”

After a pause, she nods. “Yes, it’s very important that this thing get done. But you’re not sure if you can do it again…”

She can see him trying to put the pieces together, but there’s no way he can ever actually figure it out. The truth is far too strange to comprehend. “Well, I would probably ask this person if someone else could do it instead.”

“But what if you’re the only person who can do it?”

Mishka really hems and haws over it now. “I feel like I don’t really have enough context. I suppose, with no other external factors, I would just tell this person that I won’t do it this time.”

“I don’t know if that’s an option either,” she mumbles under her breath.

Just then, the grandfather clock in the main hall distantly chimes, signaling the end of their lessons for the day. Katya gets up to leave, but Mishka stops her. “Why the specific hypothetical?” he asks.

“No reason in particular.” A pathetic lie, they both know this.

“Keep in mind,” he says. “You asked me what I would do in that situation. But if I were you, I’d probably ask someone for help, someone you can trust.”

He’s offering himself, she can see that. But how would he react, if she told him what she is going to have to do to him? No, this, she thinks, is something she needs to solve on her own.

“Thanks,” she nods. “I’ll think about it.”

Before he can say anything more, she turns and flees from the room.

~~ o ~~

Maria is not feeling well at all. Much to her frustration, she is rarely feeling well these days. As time passes it seems like her attacks are becoming more and more violent, and it scares her. The only thing that she lives for are the brief abatements of her pain, and those are harder to come by these days.

Sometimes she just wants to scream. What did she do to deserve this? Why must her life be constantly filled with a wild throbbing between her eyes? Maria remembers the times where she existed without pain, and she desperately longs for one more shot at them, this time she won’t take them for granted, she promises God, or whoever it was who decreed that this illness be upon her.

She has been laying in bed for most of the day. Ada came round about nine with some breakfast, but all she could manage were a few nibbles of toast, and she told her not to bother with lunch. When they’re especially bad, the migraines cause her stomach to seemingly fold in on itself, and today, it’s very bad.

Maria can’t shake the feeling, while she’s laying in her dark bedroom, her face shoved between two down pillows, that she’s wasting her life on pain. All she can do, of course, is focus on getting better. But she’s not getting better, she’s getting worse, and she has no idea what she can do to make it stop.

Hot, angry tears of frustration are soaked up by the pillows. If she closes her eyes and falls asleep now, sometimes she’ll wake up and the headache will be gone. Sometimes. It’s hard, of course. She spends so much time sleeping. But all she can really do to help the pain is shut her eyes anyway. And oftentimes, sleep becomes an obvious side effect. Maybe she’ll be lucky, and this time she might be able to visit her garden again.

It takes her a while to realize that she’s asleep. Perhaps the blackness is a little more uniform than it should be behind closed eyelids, but for a while, that is the only difference. Even a while after she discovers herself to be dreaming, she allows herself to float through that abyss, just as she always does. Even if she can still feel that twinge in her forehead, it’s distant and dull enough to be rendered largely irrelevant.

Too soon, however, she hears a noise. A faint one, and looking around, it of course is coming from one of those pinched parts of the fabric of void. Vaguely, at the back of her mind, Maria gets a distinct sense of deja vu. But this is always how the dreams go, so she lets it continue.

Usually, those points are small and easy to avoid, just reminders of the existence of other minds besides her own. But aren’t they a little larger today? A little closer? They sound louder too. Behind her: gunshots, off to her side: a crying child. Directly in front of her, in the biggest pinch of all: an ominous, rhythmic creaking. Perhaps if she realized what was happening earlier, that these impressions were closing in on her, she could have stopped it. But here in her sleep there is no gravity, save for those holes where time and space seem pinched together.

They grow closer and closer to her—or maybe she to them. Maria cries out in panic, thrashes about, anything to keep them away. But the rhythmic creaking just becomes louder and louder, and Maria closes her eyes and plugs her ears to try and block it out.

The pain eventually forces them back open. And suddenly, she finds herself somewhere else. Maria’s vision is somewhat blurry, as she keeps bumping her head against the bed post in time with the ever-present creaking. Above her is a ceiling with a very large wooden beam stretching across it. She stares at it to avoid the man over her, thrusting with no small degree of violence. It hurts in a deep, throbbing way, and she wants him to stop so badly, but she can’t scream because his hand is over her mouth.

And even if she wanted to, she couldn’t anyway. This isn’t her body.

As soon as she realizes the unreality of where she is, she tries to push the man away, off the woman, with her own arms, only to find herself falling forward into the snow. A sudden, piercing cold hits her, freezing the skin on her hands exposed from the holes in her bloodstained gloves.

Tears are leaking out of her eyes, only to freeze on her cheeks as she tries to use those red, red gloves to cover up a wound on a man’s chest. She doesn’t know him, but she feels a profound sadness at his passing.

There’s a clicking noise a few feet in front of her, and she jerks her head up in shock as she finally sees someone she recognizes. It’s Ivan. Maria wants to call out to him, but even before she sees his gun pointed directly at her head she sees his eyes. They are so lifeless, so cold, that she thinks that this can’t be Ivan, so she raises her rifle and shoots him.

The sky is dark now, the snow on the ground melted into ankle-deep sludge. The Japanese man on the receiving end of her bullet falls unceremoniously to the mud, a vague look of pain haunting his features, and a hole the size of an orange in his chest. Maria doesn’t look twice at the fallen enemy, because three more are arriving to take his place.

Fuck the Tsar, fuck the mother country, and fuck the one who sent her here. Maria doesn’t care about victory anymore, only about making it out alive. So she runs, the slimy ground of mixed dirt and blood threatening to suck her in. But she keeps going, feeling the crack of bones under her boots as she steps over the bodies of the fallen.

But that doesn’t prepare her for the shell that explodes not twenty feet away from her, sending her tumbling through the air and face first in a pile of mud.

It’s so dark that she can’t see anything, and Maria desperately tries to push herself up. But she can’t, for the mud is now wood and she’s pushing upwards instead of down. The rough, unsanded board is only a few inches away from her nose. She kicks with her legs, but doesn’t get very far, because she’s surrounded on all sides. The only light comes from a few small gaps in the boards, and she realizes she’s in a coffin. And unburied coffin.

Yet somehow, small as it is, she doesn’t think that she’s alone. Something is here with her, inside her, festering, crawling, just under her skin. A voice laughs in her ear, and with a scream she thrashes even harder, for the laughter is coming from her own mouth.

The pressure and pain slowly build to a crescendo, and the thing bursts from her body, knocking the lid clear off the coffin. And outside is not a graveyard, or a forest, but a strange world bathed in green and purple. Odd, half-crumbled structures dot its horizons, and everything is shrouded in a thin line of mist.

In the distance, something is moving. Four legs kick against the nothing, and long, matted fur blows in a non-existent wind. It doesn’t take notice of Maria as it lopes by, licking its lips. Its destination seems to be a speck of light in the distance.

Maria begins to feel a tugging, a nearly gravitational force, as she is pulled after it. She shuts her eyes against the light and sudden whirr of the void and when she opens them again, she finds herself in a place she instantly recognizes.

The cellar looks bigger than she remembers, its stone walls large and imposing. Looking down, the knife in her hands is making quiet clinking sounds against the small ring on her finger, and with dread, she locks eyes with the man knelt on the floor in front of her. Jack.

She doesn’t want to do it. Not to him, not to the only person she’s ever truly trusted. But she’s even more terrified of the consequences if she doesn’t. Maybe she’s imagining it to make herself feel better, but in his daze, Jack seems to blink up at her, once.

So the knife goes into the side of his face. It’s not clean, he struggles. Natalya will be disappointed. But the deed is done, The rubbery piece of flesh is still warm in her hands. Yet something is wrong. Not with the ear, no, but with the moment.

Somehow, Maria knows that Jack is suppose to collapse in pain. But he doesn’t. Instead he rears up at her with a roar, grabbing her shoulders and throwing her down to the ground.

“No, please…” she knows the voice coming from her mouth, though it is not her own. The stone floor is cold and dirty. But Maria is just using those thoughts as a distraction. Pain is all she feels. Everywhere, everywhere, coursing through her entire body. She feels something hot and moist on her face, but as she looks up to see what is above her, what is making those terrible sounds, she screams.

“Maria…” it says to her somehow, gripping her shoulders tighter, but she can barely hear it over her own screeching and the roar in her ears.

“Maria… Maria!”

It takes a bump from the headboard to realize that someone is shaking her. Maria opens her eyes, and everything goes quiet. She’s in her bedroom, blankets and pillows strewn all around the room from her thrashing. In front of her, eyes wide and concerned, is Mishka.

“Maria…” he says her name one more time, and upon seeing her eyes focus on him, he deflates slightly. “Are you alright?” he asks. “I was just heading back to my room when I heard you screaming.”

She clenches her hand into a fist around the covers to keep herself from trembling. “Oh, Mikhail… I’m… quite alright. Just a bad dream, but thank you for waking me.” She shouldn’t bother him with her problems, he’s not involved, after all. She should let him be content for his last few days.

“I hope I wasn’t being… imprudent,” he glances downward sheepishly.

Maria giggles. She finds it funny that for all his embarrassment, he only thought of this now. “I wouldn’t let Natalya or Ivan know you waltzed into a young lady’s room without permission, but no, I don’t find it imprudent at all.”

Their eyes happen to meet for just a second, and Mishka blushes. “I… I heard you were not feeling well again. Is there anything I can do to help?”

She’s heard this question, seen that pitying look that now occupies his features more times than she can count. But with Mishka, she finds she doesn’t mind it as much. So she just shakes her head and musters up the best smile she can.

“There’s really nothing to be done. I’m actually feeling quite rested after that nap. But if there ever is, you’ll be the first person to know.”

That’s his cue. They both know it. Mishka stands and gives her an awkward little bow. “Then I should probably let you wake properly. My apologies for the disturbance.”

He turns quickly on his heel, but as he does so, Maria’s heart starts to sink. She doesn’t want him to leave. Not now, and not in the future. He is the only person in this whole household who can draw just a bit of happiness from her. Like a sunflower, bright and open to the sun, and lovely to behold.

She doesn’t know why she does it, but she calls out to him. “Mikhail, I—…” He faces her again, and she nearly clams back up at his gaze. She had been half-hoping that he hadn’t heard her. “I was lying, just now.” She pauses. “I’m… not alright.”

He sits back down on the bed, and waits for her to continue.

“It’s… more than just my illness.”

“So I assumed,” he nods, not unkindly.

Mishka’s honey-colored, nearly golden eyes are entirely focused on her, and she stumbles all over herself, uncomfortable with the attention. She doesn’t even know why she’s telling him all of this. “Well, I mean, it is, related I mean. Whenever I get my headaches I get these… dreams I suppose you could call them. But they doesn’t really feel like… I don’t know how to explain it.”

His brows furrow. “I don’t really understand, but I have a feeling that might not be possible.”

“I’ve always had them, I suppose,” now that she’s started, she can’t stop the words from pouring out in a flood. “But only with the headaches. And those have keep getting worse and worse over the last couple of years, and up until this point I’ve kept… control in the dreams I guess, but today… I… I couldn’t stop it. I… saw things. Memories, thoughts, maybe. I just… I don’t know anymore, I’m…” she takes in a great, heaving breath. “Scared.”

And the floodgates break. She sobs uncontrollably, ugly, snot is dribbling from her nose. Maria closes her eyes, but opens them again when she feels a sudden warmth. Mikhail’s arms are around her. And for some reason, through the tears and tremors, she continues rambling.

“I’m just… so scared that someday… someday soon, the pain will never go away. That I’ll fall asleep and I-I won’t be able to wake up, I’ll just be lost forever. How… how do I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”

Mishka pulls away and takes her hands in his. “You’re not dreaming.”

“But how can I know that?”

To her surprise, an oddly intense look spreads across his face. “That’s simple.” He leans forward and kisses her, just once, on the forehead. The warmth of his lips linger for longer than Maria thinks it should. “You felt that, didn’t you?”

She nods.

“Then you can’t be dreaming.”

“Please,” she says in a tiny voice, clenching the quilt between her fingers. “One more time, I need to feel it again.”

“This is… rather improprietous,” he admits.

“I don’t care.”

“Then I’ll kiss you as many times as it takes.”

And he does. And finally, for the first time in a very long time, Maria feels something other than pain.

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