After a long shower, Mashka changed into some of the clothes from the ornate wardrobe in the corner. She chose a demure, black skirt and a high neck turquoise blouse and avoided looking at the tags, knowing by touch, that the fabrics were more expensive than she would buy, unless she found them second-hand. As the sun rose and shone through the window, warming her back, she braided her hair, pinning her dark brown curls into a bun, which she tucked under a new, red headscarf.
The whole world felt surreal. How suddenly she was bathed in luxury, and every moment she felt less imprisoned. She felt foolish.
'Is this really all Aleksei and I were running from? A posh bed and nice clothes?' She shook her head. 'I can’t forget. I don’t know what these people want from us.'
A knock at her door caught her off guard. “Oh! Um, come in!”
The door swung inwards, and a boring-faced, uniformed security guard leaned in, as if hesitant to invade her space. “If you are ready, you have an appointment with some of the staff.”
Seeing her uncertain face, the guard smiled disarmingly. “It’s just some routine tests. The Administrator told you earlier about them.”
“Oh, I wasn’t actually very conscious then.”
He chuckled good-naturedly. “Hardly any of us were conscious at two in the morning. I hope the few hours of sleep you had were invigorating.”
“Da, spasibo. I was very comfortable.” It was then that Mashka realised she was engaged in friendly banter with a complete stranger, one who was guarding her door.
She rose hurriedly and said, “Lead the way.” ending the conversation. This is too strange. Am I really… a guest?
Mashka was escorted into a plain, black walled room. Her guards left her with no more than another disarming smile. The only furniture was a metal table with an assortment of knives and other small, sharp objects. Her stomach lurched in worry, until she turned around and saw the young woman from the construction site follow her in.
“Dasha?” Mashka asked.
The woman smiled and ran her fingers through her short brown hair. “Actually, my name is Anya.” She extended her hand and Mashka shook it politely. “I apologise for having to deceive you, but desperate times…”
“Spasibo for the apology, even though we did almost die,” Mashka responded warily.
Anya chuckled reassuringly, “We had safeguards in place and everything was planned out," she chuckled, "even the sparrow. The reason for the test was to see what kind of person you were.”
“And what did you find out?” Mashka asked with hidden ire.
“That you have natural skill and a desire to help people.”
Mashka was taken aback momentarily. “A personality test would have been far less harmful!”
Anya scratched the back of her head awkwardly, “Da, well, we have superiors and acts speak much louder than words. Both Iosif and I were against the test. But we got you here, did we not?” She smiled meekly.
“What about my brother? Where is he?” Mashka asked.
“Da… him…” Anya sighed, “We are looking high and low. I guess The Czech, and that idiot at the school, spooked him. I certainly don’t blame the boy for being frightened.”
Mashka fell silent.
Anya noticed Mashka’s face, and decided to change the subject to business. “Let me explain why I called you here. Over there towards the wall there are three targets.” She pointed at three dense foam circles. Then she walked over to the table. “These knives on the table here are what you’re going to use to hit those targets. This is to test your enhanced hand-eye coordination. I’m here of course to teach you how to balance them.”
Anya reached down and picked up a small, four-pointed disk. “These are hira shuriken. They are easy to use because they have enough blades to, almost definitely, stick to what they hit. You just need to know how to hold them. There is a caveat, of course. They are difficult to keep on a straight course. But in this closed room, it should be fairly easy.”
She threw sharp disk at the nearest target, making a bull’s-eye. She gestured for Mashka to try.
“How is this relevant to me?” Mashka asked. “The Administrator promised me that I wasn’t going to be used to kill. What else are these knives for?”
“Knives are more than just killing. They demonstrate control, calculation, eyesight, dexterity, I could go on.” Anya again gestured for Mashka to try. "Besides, these disk blades were never meant for killing. They are meant to be more of a nuisance."
Mashka picked up a shuriken and held it like she had seen Anya do. Anya examined how she held it and nodded approval. She aimed and threw, but the disk went off to the left, and clattered against the wall.
“The trick is to know when to release.” Anya advised. “You must release it just before your hand is pointed at the target.”
Mashka tried again; this time she hit the outer ring of the target. Anya clapped, “Not bad! You catch on quick. But we specifically want to see what you can do with your ability. You are a sensory type from what we’ve seen, so you have enhanced perception, sight included, da?”
“Umm,” Mashka hesitated, “I will try.” She closed her eyes and felt an odd tingling, then she opened them. She glanced at Anya who, to her relief, did not shrink back.
Anya saw two golden eyes. The irises had expanded so much, only a little of the whites were visible, and the pupil had elongated into a slit. She attempted to seem indifferent, but a hint of a shiver ran down her spine, as she looked into the cat-like eyes.
Mashka picked up another shuriken. "Please throw another one so I can watch."
Anya nodded and obliged, and in a swift motion cast another blade, this time Mashka's eyes caught every detail, every motion, and subtlety of posture.
As quick as she could, so she would not forget when she saw, Mashka threw her own shuriken, mimicking her experienced instructor down to the position of her fingers. The blades wistled and made a loud thump in the centre of the farthest target.
“Well then,” Anya huffed in bewilderment, “I suppose we can proceed on to the kunai.”
Midday sun peaked through the clouds and trees as Beredei walked around the house to see the boy’s progress. He noticed that Aleksei had chopped the last of the wood and was nearly done stacking it into the pile, which rested under the overhanging roof of the house. The young man was even trying to fill in gaps in the stack to conserve space. Beredei was impressed. He had not seen it packed so tightly in a long time.
“You’re very good at this.” he complimented.
Aleksei laughed modestly, “I always loved jigsaw puzzles, and I figured this was a similar principle.”
“That mindset would come in handy.” Beredei seemed amused. “Now, it is about time for me to go to town, and I think your work is satisfactory.”
Aleksei turned and replied, “Spasibo Gn. Stepunin. I’m ready to go.”
“Ha-ha,” Beredei’s laugh rang out like a church bell, “Don’t be in such a rush. We still have your coat and jeans.”
Aleksei looked down at his borrowed garments in embarrassment. “Da… I’ll change out of these.” He hurried towards the door.
“And I would like you to grab some stuff from inside!” Beredei added, “Duscha will give it to you.”
“Da!” he answered before disappearing indoors.
Aleksei climbed up the stairs to the guest room where he found his jeans, coat, and Yegor’s hat. It felt odd putting the hat on, as he could very clearly smell his friend. It was something he never noticed before, but Yegor did have sweet, familiar scent. Lord God, I miss him. Please take care of my friend.
Setting his jaw in determination, Aleksei looked at the small mirror on the wall. He thought it was interesting that he was wearing all black. Pulling the hat bill low over his face, he observed that he looked rather intimidating.
There was a knock on the door behind him.
The girl stepped in and handed him a dark grey sweater with a high neck. “This will help keep you warmer than just that coat. It was my uncle’s before he moved.” She paused a moment, looking away, and said, “You know, father enjoyed your help a lot. I’m sure if you continued to work, he would be more than willing to have you for a farmhand.”
Aleksei sighed, “You know I can’t do that, more than anyone. My sister needs me, remember?”
“Will-- will you ever come back?” the girl stammered shyly.
He turned to look at her, caught off guard by the question. He answered carefully, “I probably will not. If I succeed, I will be going far away from here with my sister. But I tell you what, if I fail, or if things calm down, I will do anything in my power to come and visit sometime.”
“Oh,” her voice trailed off.
“Duscha,” Aleksei began, “I know I may seem like some amazing fairy tale. But like all mysterious things, I need to fade away. Make me into just a simple daydream that passes from memory.”
“Is there any way I can really help you?” Duscha asked.
“What I need to do is find out what I am. I don’t think you can help me much with that.” Her face fell, causing him to think a moment longer. There was still one way she could help. “Please pray for me.”
Her eyes widened a moment, “Stay here, I will be right back.” She dashed out of the room.
He wondered what she could possibly be doing. He got his answer when she returned. She handed him a necklace with two small medallions: one showing a humbly dressed, bearded man with his hands held up in benediction, and the other a woman with an anxious face, cradling the Holy Child. “This is Saint Seraphim of Sarov,” she said pointing to the man, “He’s the patron saint of my family, and known for his mercy towards those who wronged him. He was a healer of many. The other is Our Lady of Vladimir, Holy Protectress of all Russians. Keep them with you--,”
“I couldn’t possibly take such important items from you.” he pleaded.
Duscha shook her head violently. “No, take them, and know that within them you have my fervent prayers that I have whispered every morning.”
Aleksei smiled unable to refuse her earnest face. “I will wear it always, spasibo.” He examined the charms. They were probably made of tin and mass produced, but they were nevertheless beautiful, made even more precious by their giver’s innocence.
Duscha smiled radiantly, then handed him a bag. “This is my dad’s lunch.” Then she stepped out of the room and disappeared around the corner.
Aleksei put the sweater on under the coat. Then he took the necklace and slipped it over his head, tucking it under all the layers where it rested right over his heart. Thanks, Duscha.
He put on his hat, grabbed the bag, and walked down the stairs. Then he hopped into the truck and handed Beredei his lunch. The vehicle was enjoyably toasty and Aleksei relished every moment as he rested.