EARLY IN THE morning is the right time to arrive in a new city. By train, on a plane ?it makes no difference. The day seems to start with a brand new leaf.
In the plane Alisher became taciturn and thoughtful again. I half-dozed almost all the way through the flight, but he looked out of the window as if he could see something interesting on the distant ground, enveloped in night. Then just before we landed, when we flew out into the morning and the plane started its descent, he asked:
'Anton, would you mind if we separated for a while?'
I gave the young magician a curious look. Geser's instructions hadn't involved anything of the kind. And Alisher had already told me everything about his family and friends, or rather, about the fact that he didn't have any.
But then, it wasn't hard to guess what a young guy who had left his homeland at the age of just over twenty might be thinking about.
'What's her name?' I asked
'Adolat,' he replied without trying to deny anything. 'I'd like to see her. To know what happened to her.'
I nodded and asked:
'Does that name mean something?'
'All names mean something. Didn't you ask Geser to give you knowledge of the Uzbek language?' Alisher asked in surprise.
'He didn't suggest it,' I mumbled. But really, why hadn't I thought of it? And how could Geser have goofed so badly? We Others learn the major languages of the world as a matter of course - naturally, with the help of magic. Less common languages can be lodged in your mind by a more powerful or experienced magician. Geser could have done it. Alisher couldn't...
'That means he didn't think you needed it,'Alisher said thought fully. 'Interesting...'
It looked as if Alisher couldn't imagine Geser making a mistake.
'Will I really need the Uzbek language?' I asked.
'It's unlikely. Almost everyone knows Russian... And anyway, nobody would take you for an Uzbek,' Alisher said, with a smile. 'Adolat means justice. A beautiful name, isn't it?'
'Yes,' I agreed.
'She's an ordinary human being,' Alisher murmured. 'But she has a good name. A Light name. We went to school together... '
The plane shuddered as the undercarriage was lowered.
'Of course, go and see her,' I said. 'I think I can find the way to the Watch office on my own.'
'Don't think it's only because of the girl,' Alisher said, and smiled again. 'I think it would be best for you to talk to the members of the local Watch yourself. You can show them Geser's letter and ask for their advice... And I'll get there an hour or an hour and a half later.'
'Weren't you on very friendly terms with your colleagues, then?' I asked quietly.
Alisher didn't answer ?and that answered my question.
I walked out of the airport terminal building, which had clearly been reconstructed recently and looked absolutely new. The only things I was carrying were my hand baggage and a small plastic bag from the duty-free shop. I stopped and looked around. The sky was a blinding blue and the heat was already building up, although it was still early in the morning... There weren't many passengers ?our flight was the first since the previous evening, and the next one wasn't expected for about an hour. I was imme diately surrounded by private taxi drivers, all offering their services in their own particular way:
'Come on, let's go, dear man!'
'I'll show you the whole city, you'll see the sights for nothing!'
'Where are we going, then?'
'Get in, my car's comfortable, it has air-conditioning!'
I shook my head and looked at an elderly Uzbek driver who was waiting calmly beside an old Volga with the black-and-white checkerboard squares of a taxi stencilled on its side.
'Are you free, Father?'
'A man's free as long as he believes in his own freedom,' the taxi driver replied philosophically. He spoke Russian very well, without any accent at all. 'Get in.'
There you go. I had barely even arrived, and already I'd called someone 'Father', and the taxi driver had replied with the typical florid wisdom of the East. I asked:
'Did one of the great ones say that?'
'My grandfather said that. He was a Red Army soldier. Then an enemy of the people. Then the director of a Soviet farm. Yes, he was great.'
'Did he happen to be called Rustam?' I enquired.
The car drove off and I turned my face to the breeze from the window. The air was warm and fresh, and it smelled quite different from how it did in Russia. And the road was good, even by Moscow standards. A wall of trees along the side of the highway provided shade and created the impression that we were already in the city.
The taxi driver said thoughtfully:
'An air-conditioner. Nowadays everyone promises their passengers coolness. But what did out grandfathers and great grandfathers know about air-conditioners? They just opened the windows in their cars and they felt fine!'
I looked at the driver in bewilderment.
'It's just my joke. Have you flown in from Moscow?'
'No suitcase... Ai-ai-ai!' He clicked his tongue. 'Don't tell me they lost it!'
'An urgent business trip. There was no time to pack.'
'Urgent? Nothing's urgent in our city. There was a city standing here a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, three thou sand years ago. The place has forgotten what urgent means.'
I shrugged. The car was certainly taking its time, but it didn't bother me.
'So where are we going? There's the Hotel Samarkand, the Hotel... '
'No, thanks. I didn't come here to sleep. I need the market place. The Siabsky Market, in the Old City.'
'That's the right way to do it!' the driver said warmly. 'The man knows where he's going and what for. The moment he lands he goes straight to the market. No luggage, no wife, no problems -that's the right way to live! But did you bring money to go to the market?'
'I did,' I said, nodding. 'How can you go to the market with no money? How much will I owe you? And what do you take ?soms or roubles?
'Even dollars or euros,' the driver replied nonchalantly. 'Give me as much as you think you can spare. I can see you're a good man, so why haggle? A good man is ashamed not to pay a poor taxi driver enough. He pays more than my conscience will allow me to ask.'
'You're a good psychologist.' I laughed.
'Good? Yes... probably. I did a Ph.D. in Moscow. A long time ago...' He paused and then said, 'But no one needs psycholo gists nowadays. I earn more as a taxi driver.'
He paused again, and I couldn't think of anything to say in reply. But we were already driving through the city, and soon the driver began listing all the places I had to visit in Samarkand. Three madrasahs that made up the Registan, a single architectural ensemble; the Bibi-Khanum mosque ... All this, as it happened, was right beside the finest market in Samarkand, the Siabsky, which, as the driver now realised, was famous even as far away as Moscow. And I also had to visit the market, even before anything else. It would be a sin not to see it. But a good man like me wouldn't make a mistake like that...
The driver would probably have been very disappointed to see me walk straight past the entrance to the market. No, of course I was planning to visit it. There was work to do, but I still had to gather some impressions to take away with me.
Only not right now.
And so I elbowed my way out of the noisy crowd outside the entrance to the market, walked past a herd of Japanese (they'd even found their way here!) who all had the usual tiny cameras and video cameras dangling from their necks and their shoulders, then set off to walk round the Bibi-Khanum mosque. It really was impressive. The ceramic tiling of the huge dome glinted a bright azure blue in the sunlight. The doorway was so huge that I thought it looked bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the absence of any bas-relief work on the wall was more than made up for by the intricate patterning of blue glazed bricks.
But the place I was headed for was no glamorous tourist spot.
Every city has streets that were built under an unlucky star. And they don't have to be located in the outskirts, either. Sometimes they run along beside gloomy factory buildings, sometimes along the railway lines or main highways, sometimes even beside a park or ravine that has survived through some oversight by the municipal authorities. People move in there reluctantly, but they don't leave very often either ?they seem to fall under the spell of a strange kind of drowsiness. And life there follows quite difference laws and moves at a quite different pace...
I remember one district in Moscow where a one-way street ran alongside a ravine overgrown with trees. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary dormitory suburb ?but it was under that spell of drowsiness. I found myself there one winter evening on a false alarm ?the witch who was making love potions had a licence. The car drove away, leaving me to draw up a report noting the absence of any complaints on either side, then I went out into the street and tried to stop a car - I didn't want to call a taxi and wait for it in the witch's apartment. Although it wasn't very late, it was already completely dark and there was thick snow falling. There was absolutely no one on the street, everyone took a different way home from the metro station. Almost all the cars had disappeared too, and the ones that did drive by were in no hurry to stop. But right at the edge of the ravine there was a small amusement park, surrounded by a low fence: a little hut for the ticket-seller, two or three roundabouts and a children's railway ?a circle of rails about ten metres in diameter. And in the total silence, under the soft snow falling from the sky, against the back ground of the empty, lifeless blackness, the tiny locomotive was running round the circle, jingling its bell and blinking its little coloured lights as it pulled along two small carriages. Sitting absolutely still in the first one was a boy about five years old, dusted with snow, wearing a large cap with earflaps and clutching a plastic spade in his hand. He was probably the ticket-seller's son and she had no one to leave him with at home ... It didn't seem like anything special, but it gave me such a bad feeling that I made the driver of a passing truck stop and took off to the city centre.
Allowing for the difference between the cities, that was pretty much the kind of street where the Night Watch office was located. I didn't need a map, I could sense where I needed to go. And I only had to walk for ten minutes from the market place, which was right at the centre of town. But I seemed to have entered a different world. Not the bright world of an eastern fairy tale, but a kind of ordinary, average place that you can find in the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and Turkey, and the southern countries of Europe. Half European, half Asian, with far from the best features of both parts of the world. A lot of greenery, but that's the only good part ?the two- or three-storey houses were dusty, dirty and dilapidated. If they'd been less monotonous they might at least have rejoiced the eye of some tourist. But even that variety was lacking here. Everything was dismally standard: paint flaking off the walls, dirty window's, entrance doors standing wide open, washing hanging on lines in the courtyards. The phrase 'frame-and-panel housing construction' surfaced from somewhere in the depths of my memory. Its bleak bureaucratic tone made it the perfect description of these buildings that had been meant to be 'temporary' but had already stood for more than half a century.
The Night Watch office occupied a small, dilapidated single-storey building that was surrounded by a small garden. I thought a building like that looked just perfect for a small kindergarten, filled with swarthy, dark-haired little kids.
But all the children here had grown up long ago. I walked round a Peugeot parked by the fence, opened the gate, went past the flower beds in which withering flowers were struggling to survive, and shuddered as I read the old Soviet bureaucratic-style sign on the door.
At first I thought I must have gone crazy. Then I thought I must be looking through the Twilight. But no, the inscription was absolutely real, written in yellow letters on a black background and covered with a cracked sheet of glass. One corner of the glass had fallen off, and the final letter of the word 'watch' was tattered and faded.
The same text was written alongside in Uzbek, and I learned that 'Night Watch' translated as 'Tungi Nazoraf.
I pushed the door ?it wasn't locked, of course ?and walked straight into a large room. As usual in the East, there was no entrance hall. And that was right: why would they need a hallway here? The weather was never cold in Samarkand.
The furnishings were very simple, reminiscent in part of a small militia station and in part of an old office from Soviet times. There was a coat rack and several cupboards full of papers by the door. Three young Uzbek men and a plump middle-aged Russian woman were drinking tea at an office desk. There was a large electric samovar, decorated in the traditional Khokhloma folk style, boiling on the desk. Well, how about that - a samovar! The last time I'd seen one in Russia had been at the Izmailovo flea market, with all the matryoshka dolls, caps with earflaps and other goods for the foreign tourists. There were several other desks with no one sitting at them. An ancient computer with a massive monitor was clat tering away on the farthest desk ?its cooling fan ought to have been changed ages ago...
'Assalom aleikhum' I said, feeling like a total idiot who was trying to look intelligent. Why on earth hadn't Geser taught me Uzbek?
'Aleikhum assalom,' the woman replied. She was swarthy-skinned, with black hair ?quite clearly Slav in origin, but with that remarkable change in appearance that happens without any magic at all to a European who spends a long time in the East or is born and lives there. She was even dressed like an Uzbek woman, in a long, brightly coloured dress. She looked at me curiously ?I sensed the skilful but weak touch of a probing spell. I didn't shield myself, and she gathered her information with no difficulty. Her expres sion immediately changed. She got up from the desk and said:
'Boys, we have a distinguished visitor...'
'I'm here entirely unofficially!' I said, raising my hands in the air.
But the fuss had already begun. They greeted me and intro duced themselves: Murat, sixth level; Timur, fifth level; Nodir, fourth level. I thought they looked their real age, about twenty to thirty. According to Geser, there were five Others in the Samarkand watch... and according to Alisher, the members of the Watch in Tashkent were younger. How much younger could they be? Did they take on children from school?
'Valentina Ilinichna, Other. Fourth level.'
'Anton Gorodetsky, Other, Higher,' I said in turn.
'I run the office,' the woman went on. She was the last to shake my hand and in general she behaved like the most junior member of the Watch. But I estimated her age as at least a hundred and fifty, and her Power was greater than the men's.
Another peculiarity of the East?
But a second later any doubt about who was in charge here was dispelled.
'Right, boys, get the table set out quick, 'Valentina commanded. 'Murat, you take the car, run round the route quickly and call into the market.'
And so saying, she handed Murat the key to the huge old safe, from which the young guy took out a tattered wad of banknotes, trying his best to do inconspicuously.
'Please, there's no need!' I implored them. 'I'm only here for a brief, entirely unofficial visit. Just to introduce myself and ask a couple of questions... And I have to call in to the Day Watch too.'
'What for?' the woman asked.
'There were no Others at the border check. There was just a notice in the Twilight, saying that Light Ones should register with the Day Watch on arrival, and Dark Ones should register with the Night Watch.'
I wondered what she would have to say about such a flagrant piece of incompetence. But Valentina Ilinichna merely nodded and said:
' We don't have enough members to maintain a post in the airport. In Tashkent they do everything properly... Nodir, go and tell the ghouls that Higher Light One Gorodetsky is here on a visit from Moscow.'
'I'm here unofficially, but not exactly on personal? I began, but no one was listening to me any longer. Nodir opened an inconspicuous door in the wall and walked through into the next room, which I was surprised to see was equally large and half empty.
'Why the ghouls?' I asked, struck by an unbelievable suspicion.
'Oh, that's the Day Watch office, they haven't really got any ghouls, that's just what we call them ?to be neighbourly...' Valentina Ilinichna laughed.
I followed Nozdir into the next room without saying anything. Two Dark Others ?one young and one middle-aged, fourth and fifth level - smiled at me amicably.
'Assalom aleikhum...' I muttered and walked through the large room (everything was just the same, even the samovar was standing in the same place) and opened the door to the street running parallel to the one from which I had entered the building.
Outside the door there was an identical garden and on the wall there was a sign:
I closed the door quietly and walked back into the room. Nodir had evidently sensed my reaction and cleared out.
One of the Dark Ones said good-naturedly:
'When you finish your business, come back to see us, respected guest. We don't often get visitors from Moscow.'
'Yes, do come, do come!' the other one said emphatically
'Some time later... thank you for the invitation,' I muttered. I went back into the Night Watch office and closed the door behind me.
It didn't even have a lock on it!
The Light Ones appeared slightly embarrassed.
'The Night Watch,' I hissed through my teeth. 'The forces of Light... '
'We've cut back on space a bit. Utilities are expensive, and there's the rent... ' said Valentina Ilinichna, spreading her hands and shrugging. 'We've been renting these premises for two offices like this for ten years now:'
I made a simple pass with my hand and the wall separating the Light Ones' office from the Dark Ones' office lit up with a blue glow for an instant. The Dark Ones of Samarkand were not likely to have a magician capable of removing a spell cast by a Higher One.
'There's no need for that, Anton,' Valentina Ilinichna said reproachfully. 'They won't listen. That's not the way we do things here.'
'You are supposed to keep a watch on the powers of Darkness,' I exclaimed. 'To monitor them!'
'We do monitor them,?Timur replied judiciously. 'If they're right next door, it makes them easier to monitor. And we'd need five times as many members to go dashing around all over town.'
'And the signs? What about the signs? Night Watch? Day Watch? People read them!'
'Let them read them,' said Nodir. 'There are all sorts of offices in the city. If you try to hide and don't put up a sign, you're immediately suspect. The militia will come round, or bandits working the protection racket. But this way everybody can see this is a state organisation, there's nothing to be got out of it, let it get on with its work...'
I came to my senses. After all, this wasn't Russia. The Samarkand Watch didn't come under our jurisdiction. In places like Belgorod or Omsk I could criticise and lay down the law. But the members of the Samarkand Watch didn't have to listen to me, even though I was a Higher Light One.
'I understand. But in Moscow it could never happen... Dark Ones sitting on the other side of the wall!'
'What's the harm in it? 'Valentina Ilinichna asked in a soothing voice. 'Let them sit there. I expect their job's not too much fun either. But if anything happens, we won't compromise on our principles. Remember when the zhodugar Aliya-apa put a hex on old Nazgul three years ago, boys?'
The boys nodded. They livened up a bit and were obviously quite ready to reminisce about this glorious adventure.
'Who was it she put the hex on?' I asked, unable to resist.
They all laughed.
'It's a name ?Nazgul. Not those nazguls in the American movie,' Nodir explained, and his white teeth flashed as he smiled. 'He's a man. That is, he was - he died last year. He took a long time to die, and he had a young wife. So she asked a witch to sap her husband's strength. We spotted the hex, arrested the witch, repri manded the wife, did everything the way it's supposed to be done. Valentina Ilinichna removed the hex, everything worked out very well. Although he was an obnoxious old man, a very bad char acter. Malicious, greedy and a womaniser, even though he was old. Everybody was glad when he died. But we removed the hex, just like we're supposed to do.'
I thought for a moment and sat down on a squeaky Viennese chair. Yes, knowledge of the Uzbek language wouldn't have been much help to me. It wasn't a matter of language. It was a matter of a different mentality.
The rational explanation had calmed me down a bit. But then I spotted Valentina Ilinichna's glance ?kindly, but condescendingly sympathetic.
'But even so, it's not right,' I said. 'Please understand, I don't want to criticise, it's your city, you're responsible for maintaining order here... But it's a bit unusual.'
'That's because you're closer to Europe,' Nodir explained. He obviously didn't think that Uzbekistan had nothing at all to do with Europe. 'But it's all right here: when there's peace we can live beside each other.'
'Uh-huh,' I said and paused before I went on: 'Thank you for the explanation.'
'Have a seat at the desk, 'Valentina Ilinichna said amicably. 'Why are you sitting over in the corner like a stranger?'
I actually wasn't sitting in the corner at all. Timur was finishing setting the table in the corner. The bright-coloured tablecloth that had instantly transformed two office desks into one large dining table was already covered with plates of fruit: bright red and luscious green apples; black, green, yellow and red grapes; huge pomegranates the size of a small melon. And there was very appetising-looking home-made salami, meat cut into slices and hot bread cakes that must have been heated using magic. I remem bered how in one rare moment of nostalgia Geser had started singing the praises of the bread cakes in Samarkand - how delicious they were, how they didn't turn stale even after a week, all you had to do was warm them up, and you just kept on and on eating them, you couldn't stop ... At the time I had taken what he said as the standard old man's reminiscences of the sort 'the trees were bigger then, and the salami tasted better'. But now I began drooling at the mouth and I suddenly suspected that Geser hadn't been exaggerating all that much.
And there were also two bottles of cognac on the table. The local kind ?which frightened me a bit.
'Forgive us for laying such a simple table,' Nodir said imper-turbably. 'Our junior member will be back from the market soon, and we'll dine properly. Meanwhile we can make a light start.'
I realised there was no way I was going to escape a gala dinner with abundant alcohol. And I suspected it was not only Alisher's entirely understandable interest in his old girlfriend from school that had made him dodge an immediate visit to the Watch. It was many years since a visit by someone from Moscow had also been a visit from a superior, but even so, Moscow was still a very import ant centre for the members of the Samarkand Watch.
'I've actually come here at Geser's request... ' I said.
I saw from their faces that my status had soared from simply important guest to quite unimaginable heights. Somewhere way out in space, where Others could not go.
'Geser asked me to find a friend of his,' I went on. 'He lives somewhere in Uzbekistan...'
There was an awkward pause.
'Anton, are you talking about the devona? 'Valentin Ilinichna asked. 'He went to Moscow ?in 1998. And he was killed there. We thought that Geser knew about it.'
'No, no, I'm not talking about the devona!' I protested. 'Geser asked me to find Rustam.'
The young Uzbeks exchanged glances Valentina Ilinichna knitted her brows.
'Rustam ... I've heard something about him. But that's a very, very old story. Thousands of years old, Anton.'
'He doesn't work in the Watch,' I admitted. 'And, of course, he has a different name. I think he has changed his name many times. All I know is that he is a Higher Light Magician.'
Nodir ran a hand through his coarse black hair and said firmly:
'That's very difficult, Anton-aka. We do have one Higher Magician in Uzbekistan. He works in Tashkent. But he's young. If an old and powerful magician wishes to hide, he can always manage it. Finding him doesn't just require someone who is powerful, it requires someone who is wise. Geser himself should search for him. Kechrasyz, apologies, Anton-aka. We will not be able to help you.'
'We could ask Afandi, 'Valentina Ilinichna said thoughtfully. 'He is a weak magician and not very... not very bright. But he has a good memory, and he has lived in this world for three hundred years...'
'Afandi?' I asked cautiously.
'He's the fifth member of our Watch. 'Valentina Ilinichna seemed a little embarrassed. 'Well, you understand, seventh level. He mostly takes care of the office and grounds. But he just might be able to help.'
'I'm almost certain he will,' I said, with a nod, remembering what Nadya had said. 'But where is he?'
'He should be here soon.'
There was nothing else I could do. I nodded again and walked towards the 'empty' table.
Murat got back half an hour later carrying several full bags, and some of their contents immediately migrated to the table. He carried the rest into the small kitchen attached to the main prem ises of the Watch. My culinary knowledge was sufficient for me to realise that pilaf was about to be made.
And meanwhile we drank the cognac, which unexpectedly turned out to be quite good, and tried the fruits. Valentina Ilinichna let Nodir lead the conversation. And I listened politely to the history of the Uzbek Watches from ancient mythological times to Tamerlaine, and from Tamerlaine to our own time. I won't lie ?the Light Ones here had not always lived in perfect harmony with the Dark Ones. There were plenty of grim, bloody and terrible events. But I got the feeling that the flare-ups of hostility between the Watches in Uzbekistan were governed by laws that I knew absolutely nothing about. People could fight wars and kill each other, while the Watches maintained a polite neutrality. But during Khrushchev's time and the early years of Brezhnev's rule, Light Ones and Dark Ones had fought each other with quite incred ible ferocity. Three Higher Magicians had been killed at that time - two from the Day Watch and one from the Night Watch. And that war had also decimated the ranks of first- and second-level Others.
Then everything had gone quiet, as if the 'stagnation' of the 1980s also extended to the Others. And since then relations between Dark Ones and Light Ones had consisted of a rather half-hearted stand-off: more jibes and taunts than genuine enmity.
'Alisher didn't like that, 'Timur observed. 'Is he still in Moscow?'
I nodded, delighted by this opportune change of subject.
'Yes. He's in our Watch.'
'How is he getting on?' Nodar asked politely. 'We heard he's already fourth level.'
'Practically third,' I said. 'But he can tell you himself. He flew down with me, but he decided to visit some friends first.'
The members of the watch were clearly not pleased by this news. Timur and Nodir both looked not exactly annoyed but uncomfortable. Valentina Ilinichna shook her head.
'Have I said something to upset you?' I asked. The bottle we had drunk together obliged me to speak frankly. 'Do explain to me what the problem is. Why do you feel that way about Alisher? Is it because his father was a devona?'
The members of the Watch exchanged glances.
'It's not a question of who his father was,' Valentina Ilinichna said. 'Alisher is a good boy. But he's very... categorical.'
'Perhaps he has changed in Moscow,' Timur suggested. 'But Alisher always wanted to fight. He was born in the wrong time.'
I thought about that. Of course, in our Watch, Alisher had always preferred to work on the streets. Patrols, confrontations, arrests ?there wasn't much that happened without him being involved...
'Well... that's a bit more natural in Moscow,' I said. 'It's a big city, life is more stressful. But Alisher misses his homeland a lot.'
'But we're glad that Alisher's here, of course we are! 'Valentina Ilinichna said, changing her tune 'It's been such a long time since we saw him. Hasn't it, boys?'
The 'boys' agreed with feigned enthusiasm. Even Murat declared from the kitchen that he really missed Alisher.
'Will Afandi be here soon?' I asked, turning the conversation away from an awkward subject.
'Yes, indeed,' said Valentina Ilinichna, concerned. 'It's after two already...'
'He's been here for a long time,' Murat commented from the kitchen again. 'He's wandering round the yard with a broom ?I can see him through the window. He probably decided we'd ask him to cook the pilaf... '
Nodir walked across quickly to the door and called out:
'Afandi, what are you doing?'
'Sweeping the yard,' the fifth member of the Samarkand Watch replied, with a dignified air. To judge from his voice, not only had he been born three hundred years earlier, his body was far from young too.
Nodir turned back to us and shrugged apologetically. He called again:
'Afandi, come in - we have a guest!'
'I know we have a guest. That's why I'm sweeping!'
'Afandi, the guest is already in the house. Why are you cleaning outside?'
'Eh, Nodir! Don't you teach me how to receive guests! When the guest is still outside - everybody cleans and tidies the house. But if the guest is in the house, you have to clean outside!'
'Have it your own way, Afandi.' Nodir laughed. 'You know best, of course. But meanwhile we're going to eat grapes and drink cognac'
'Wait, Nodir!'Afandi replied agitatedly. 'It would be disrespectful to the guest not to dine at the same table with him!'
A moment later Afandi was standing in the doorway He looked absolutely ridiculous. A pair of trainers with the laces unfastened on his feet, a pair of blue jeans held up with a Soviet Army belt and a white nylon shirt with big broad buttons. Nylon is a durable material. The shirt was probably twenty or thirty years old. Afandi himself was a clean-shaven old man (the scraps of newspaper stuck to the cuts on his chin suggested that this cost him a serious effort) with a balding head. He was about sixty years old. He cast an approving glance at the table, leaned his broom against the door post and skipped briskly across to me.
'Hello, respected guest. May your Power increase like the fervour of a man undressing a woman! May it rise to the second level and even the first!'
'Afandi, our guest is a Higher Magician,?Valentina Ilinichna put in. 'Why do you wish him the second level?'
'Quiet, woman!' said Afandi, letting go of my hand and taking a seat at the table. 'Do you not see how quickly my wish has come true and even been exceeded?'
The members of the Watch laughed, but without the slightest malice. Afandi ?I scanned his aura and discovered that the old man was on the very lowest level of Power ?was regarded as the jester of the Samarkand Watch. But he was a well-loved jester: they would forgive him any foolish nonsense and never let him come to any harm.
'Thank you for the kind word, Father,' I said. 'Your wishes really do come true with remarkable speed.'
The old man nodded as he threw half a peach into his mouth with evident relish. His teeth were excellent ?he might not take much care of his appearance, but he obviously attached great importance to that particular part of his body
'They're all young whippersnappers here,' he muttered. 'I'm sure they haven't even welcomed you properly. What's your name, dear man?'
'My name's Afandi. That means a sage,' said the old man, looking round sternly at the other members of the Watch. 'If it weren't for my wisdom, the powers of Darkness, may they wither in agony and burn in hell, would long ago have drunk their sweet little brains and chewed up their big stringy livers!'
Nodir and Timur chortled.
'I understand why our livers are stringy,' said Nodir, pouring the cognac. 'But why are our brains sweet?'
'Because wisdom is bitter, but foolishness and ignorance are sweet!' Afandi declared, washing down his peach with a glass of cognac. 'Hey! Hey, you fool, what do you think you're doing?'
'What?' said Timur, who was about follow his cognac with a few grapes. He looked at Afandi quizzically.
'You can't follow cognac with grapes!'
'It's the same thing as boiling a kid in its mother's milk!'
'Afandi, only Jews don't boil young goat meat in milk!'
'No,' said Timur, abashed. 'Why use milk?
'Then don't follow cognac with grapes!'
'Afandi, I have only known you for three minutes, but I have already tasted so much wisdom that I shall be digesting it for an entire month,' I put in to attract the old man's attention. 'The wise Geser sent me to Samarkand. He asked me to find his old friend, who once went by the name of Rustam. Do you happen to know Rustam?'
'Of course I do,' Afandi said, with a nod. 'But who's Geser?'
'Afandi! 'Valentina Ilinichna exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. 'You must have heard of the Great Geser!'
'Geser,' the old man mused. 'Geser, Geser... Wasn't he the Light Magician who worked as a night-soil man in Binkent?'
'Afandi! How can you confuse the Great Geser with some night-soil man? 'Valentina Ilinichna was shocked.
'Ah, Geser!' said Afandi, nodding. 'Yes, yes, yes! At Oldjibai, the vanquisher of Soton, Lubson and Gubkar. Who doesn't know old man Geser?'
'But who knows old man Rustam?' I butted in again, before Afandi could start reciting Geser's great and glorious deeds.
'I do,' Afandi declared proudly.
'Please don't exaggerate, Afandi,' Timur said. 'Our guest really needs to meet Rustam.'
'That's not easy,' said Afandi, suddenly shedding all his buffoonery. 'Rustam has cut himself off from people. He was seen in Samarkand ten years ago, but since then no one has spoken to Rustam, no one...'
'How do you know about Rustam, Afandi?' I couldn't resist asking. If it wasn't for what my daughter had said, I would have believed the old man was simply stringing me along.
'It was a long time ago,' Afandi said, with a sigh. 'In Samarkand there was an old man, a complete fool, just like these young whip-persnappers. One day he was walking through the town, complaining that he didn't have anything to eat. And suddenly a mighty hero, a batyr, with eyes that glowed and a high, wise fore head, came out to meet him. He looked at the old man and said: "Grandad, why are you so sad? Do you really not know the power that is concealed within you? You are a Boshkachal An Other!" The batyr touched the old man with his hand, and the old man acquired power and wisdom. And the batyr said: "Know that the Great Rustam himself has been your teacher." That was what happened to me two hundred and fifty years ago!'
As far as I could tell, the members of the Watch were as aston ished by this story as I was. Murat froze absolutely still in the doorway of the kitchen and Timur spilled the cognac he was just about to pour into the glasses.
'Afandi, you were initiated by Rustam?'Valentina Ilinichna asked.
'I'll tell everything to a person wise enough, 'Afandi answered, taking his glass from Timur. 'But you can tell a stupid person a hundred times, and he won't understand a thing.'
'Why didn't you tell us this story before?' Timur asked.
'There was no reason to.'
'Afandi, a pupil can always call his teacher,' I said.
'That is true,' Afandi confirmed pompously.
'I need to meet Rustam.'
Afandi sighed and gave me a cunning look.
'But does Rustam need to meet you?'
How sick I was of that florid Eastern style! Did they really talk to each that way in their daily lives? 'My wife, have you warmed a bread cake for me?' - 'Oh, my husband, will not my warm embraces take the place of your bread cake?'
I realised I was on the point of giving way and saying some thing unworthy of a guest who had been met with such great hospitality. But fortunately there was a quiet knock at the door and Alisher walked in.
I didn't like the look on his face at all. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Alisher looking sad. After all, he could have discov ered that his school sweetheart had married, had five children, got fat and completely forgotten about him ?more than enough reason for feeling sad.
But Alisher was alarmed about something.
'Hi,' he said to his former colleagues, as if he had only left them yesterday. 'We've got problems.'
'Where?' I asked.
'Right outside the fence.'