THE CHAIKHANA, OR tea hall, was gloomy and dirty. Fat bluebottles buzzed as they circled round the weak light bulbs in fly-spotted shades hanging from the ceiling. We were sitting on greasy bright-coloured cushions or small mattresses around a low table, only about fifteen centimetres high. The table was covered with a brightly patterned tablecloth, and it was dirty too.
In Russia a cafe like this would have been closed down in a moment. In Europe they would have put the owner in prison. In the USA the proprietor would have been hit with an absolutely massive fine. And in Japan the boss of an establishment like this would have committed seppuku out of a sense of shame.
But never before had I come across smells as delicious as those in this little chaikhana that was absolutely unfit for tourists.
Once we'd got away from our pursuers we had split up. The Dark One had gone to find his colleagues and report on what had happened. Valentina Ilinichna and Nodir had set out to gather together the Light Ones who were reserve members of the Watch and to call Tashkent and request reinforcements. Alisher, Afandi and I had caught a taxi and made our way to this chaikhana beside a small market on the outskirts of Samarkand. I had already begun to suspect that there were at least a dozen markets in Samarkand, and there were certainly more than all the museums and movie theatres taken together.
On the way I cast a masking spell on myself and became Timur's double. For some reason young magicians think it's a bad sign to assume the appearance of a dead man. There are all sorts of beliefs attached to this superstition, from 'You'll die soon' to 'You'll pick up someone else's habits.' Anybody would think that habits were fleas that scatter after their host dies and look for someone who resembled him as closely as possible ... I have never been superstitious, so I didn't hesitate to adopt Timur's appearance. I had to disguise myself as a local in any case. Even in this chaikhana a visitor with a European appearance would have looked as much out of place as a Papuan at the haymaking in a Russian village.
'The food here is very good,' Alisher explained in a low voice after he had ordered. Since I didn't know a word of Uzbek, I had kept quiet while the young waiter was with us. Fortunately, so had Afandi: he only croaked every now and then as he rubbed his bald patch and glanced proudly at me. The meaning of that glance was quite clear:'We showed that deva what-for, eh?' I nodded amiably in reply.
'I believe you,' I said. There was a massive Chinese music centre standing by the wall, with huge hissing speakers and blinking coloured lights. The cassette that was playing featured some Uzbek folk music that had originally been very interesting but had been hopelessly spoiled by the pop-music rhythms introduced into it and by the quality of the music centre. But at least the volume was set so high that I could speak Russian with no worries about attracting glances of surprise from the people nearby. 'It certainly smells delicious. Only, I'm sorry, but it is rather dirty in here.'
'That's not dirt,' Alisher replied. 'At least, it's not that kind of dirt. You know, when people come to Russia from Western Europe they frown too, at how dirty it is everywhere! But it's not dirty because no one ever cleans anywhere! In Russia the soil is different and there's more ground erosion. That fills the air with dust and it settles everywhere. Wash the sidewalk with soap, and in Europe it will stay clean for three days. But in Russia you can lick it clean with your tongue, and the dust will settle again in an hour. In Asia, there's even more dust, so the Europeans and the Russians say: "Dirt, ignorance, savagery!" But that's not true! It's just the way the land is. But when you find good smells in Asia, that's not the dirt. In Asia you have to trust your nose, not your eyes!'
'That's interesting,' I said. 'I never thought about it like that before. That must be why people in the East have narrow eyes and big noses, then?'
Alisher gave me a bleak look. Then he forced a laugh.
'Okay, that's one to you. It's funny. But that really is what I think, Anton. In the East, everything's different.'
'Even the Others,' I said, with a nod. 'Alisher, I didn't believe in the deva. I'm sorry'
'You know, from your description, it wasn't the same one who followed me,' Alisher said in a serious voice. 'He wasn't so tall, but he was very agile. He had legs. More like a monkey with horns.'
'Curses on them, foul belches of creation, creatures of feckless magicians!' Afandi put in. 'Anton and I defeated that licentious, depraved deva! You should have seen the battle, Alisher! Although a young boy shouldn't really watch pornography . .'
'Grandad Afandi... ' I said. 'Please!'
'Just call me Bobo!' said Afandi.
'What does it mean?' I asked warily.
'It means 'grandad',' said the old man, slapping me on the shoulder. 'You and I defeated those devas, and now you're my grandson!'
'Afandi-Bobo,' I said. 'Please, don't remind me of that fight.
I feel very embarrassed that I couldn't overcome the deva straight away'
'Devas!' Afandi repeated firmly.
'Deva?' I suggested naively.
'Devas! There were two of them. The big one was holding the little one in his hand and waving him about, left and right, left and right!'
Afandi got halfway to his feet and gave a very graphic demon stration of the behaviour of the 'devas'.
'Hai, great warrior Afandi,' Alisher said quickly. 'There were two of them. Anton was so afraid he didn't notice the second one. Sit down, they're bringing our tea.'
We spent ten minutes drinking tea and eating sweet pastries. I recognised halva, Turkish delight and something like baklava. All the other sweet miracles of the East were new to me. But that didn't stop me enjoying the way they tasted. There were different-coloured sugar crystals (I preferred not to think about what they had been coloured with), skeins of very fine, very sweet threads, something that looked like halva, only it was white, and dried fruit. They were all delicious. And they were all very sweet, which was particularly important for us. A serious loss of Power always leaves you with a yearning for something sweet. Even though we operate with Power that isn't our own and simply redistribute it in space, it's not easy by any means. Your blood-sugar level falls so low that you can easily slip into a hypoglycaemic coma. And if that happens in the Twilight, it will take a miracle to save you.
'Next there'll be shurpa broth and pilaf,' Alisher said, pouring himself a fifth bowl of green tea. 'The food here is simple. But it's the real thing.'
He paused, and I realised what he was thinking.
'They died in battle. The way watchmen are supposed to die,' I said.
'It-was our battle,'Alisher declared in a low voice.
'It is our common battle. Even for the Dark Ones. We have to find Rustam, and no one is going to stop us. But I feel sorry for Murat... he killed those men, and then he couldn't live any more.'
'I could have,' Alisher said morosely.
'And so could I,' I admitted. We looked at each other with understanding.
'Humans against Others,' Alisher sighed. 'I can't believe it! It's a nightmare! They were all enchanted ?that's a job for a Higher One.'
'At least three Higher Ones,' I said. 'A Dark One, a Light One and an Inquisitor. A vampire, a healer and a battle magician.'
'The End of Time has arrived,' said Afandi, shaking his head. 'I never thought the Light, the Dark and the Fear would all join together... '
I glanced at him quickly ?and just managed to catch the brief instant before the stupid expression reappeared on his face.
'You're not nearly as stupid as you pretend, Afandi,' I said quietly. 'Why do you act like some senile old man?'
Afandi smiled for a few seconds, then became more serious and said:
'It's best for a weak magician to appear like a fool, Anton. Only a powerful one can afford to be clever.'
'You're not so very weak, Afandi. You entered the second level and stayed there for five minutes. Do you know some cunning trick?'
'Rustam had a lot of secrets, Anton.'
I carried on looking at Afandi for a long time, but the old man's face remained absolutely impassive. Then I glanced at Alisher. He was looking thoughtful.
I wondered if he and I were thinking the same thing.
I was sure we were.
Was Afandi Rustam? Was the simple-minded old man who had meekly cleaned a provincial Watch's office for decades one of the oldest magicians in the world?
Anything was possible. Absolutely anything at all. They say that the passing years change every Others character and he becomes less complicated: a single dominant character trait overshadows everything else. The cunning Geser had wanted intrigues, and he was still intriguing to this very day. Foma Lermont, who dreamed of a quiet and comfortable life, was now tending his garden and working as an entrepreneur. And if Rustam's dominant character trait was secretiveness, after living so long he could quite easily have become totally paranoid and disguised himself as a weak and dim-witted old man...
But if that was so, he wouldn't open up to us, even if I told him what I suspected. He would laugh in my face and sing an old song about his teacher... After all, he hadn't actually said that Rustam initiated him! He had told the story in the third person: Rustam, a foolish old man, an initiation. We were the ones who had set Afandi in the role of the foolish old man!
I looked at Afandi again, with my inflamed imagination ready to see cunning and morbid secretiveness and even malice in his gaze.
'Afandi, I have to talk to Rustam,' I said, choosing my words carefully. 'It's very important. Geser sent me to Samarkand, he asked me to seek out Rustam and ask for his advice, in the name of their old friendship. Advice and nothing more!'
'It's a fine thing, old friendship,'Afandi said, nodding. 'Very fine! When it exists. But I heard that Rustam and Geser quarrelled, that Rustam spat after Geser as he walked away and said he never wanted to see him on Uzbek ground again. And Geser laughed out loud and said that in that case Rustam would have to put out his own eyes. At the bottom of a bottle of fine old wine there can be a bitter sediment, and the older the wine, the more bitter the sediment gets. In the same way an old friendship can produce very, very great pain and resentment!'
'You're right, Afandi,' I said. 'You're right about everything. But Geser said one other thing. He saved Rustam's life. Seven times. And Rustam saved his life. Six times.'
The waiter brought our shurpa, and we stopped talking. But even after the young lad had gone away Afandi sat there with his lips firmly clamped shut. And the expression on his face suggested that he was figuring something out in his head.
Alisher and I exchanged glances and he nodded very slightly
'Tell me, Anton,' Afandi said eventually. 'If your friend was distressed when the woman he loved left him - so distressed that he decided to leave this world ?and you came to him and stayed with him for a month, drinking wine from morning until night, making him go to visit friends and telling him how many other beautiful women there are ... is that saving his life?'
'I think that depends on whether the friend really was prepared to leave this life because of love,' I said cautiously. 'Every man who has ever gone through something like that has felt that there was nothing left to live for. But only very, very rarely have they ever killed themselves. Unless, of course, they were foolish, beardless young boys.'
Afandi said nothing again for a while.
And then, as if it had been waiting for the pause, my phone rang.
I took it out, certain that the caller was either Geser, who had been informed about what had happened, or Svetlana, who had sensed that something was wrong. But there was no number or name on the display. It was simply glowing with an even grey light.
'Hello,' I said.
'Anton?' It was a familiar voice, with a slight Baltic accent.
'Edgar?' I exclaimed in delight. No normal Other would ever be glad to get a call from an Inquisitor. Especially if that Inquisitor was a former Dark Magician. But this was a highly unusual situ ation. Better Edgar than someone I didn't know, some zealous devotee of equilibrium hung from head to toe with amulets and ready to suspect anyone and everyone of being a criminal.
'Anton, you're in Samarkand.' Edgar wasn't asking, of course, he was stating a fact. 'What's going on there? Our people are putting up a portal from Amsterdam to Tashkent!'
'Why Tashkent?' I asked, puzzled.
'It's easier. They've used that route at least once before,' Edgar explained. 'So what's up down there?'
'Do you know about Edinburgh?'
Edgar snorted derisively. Right, what a question to ask. There probably wasn't one single trainee in the Inquisition who hadn't heard about the attempt to steal Merlin's artefact. So what could I expect from the experienced members of staff?
'Everything indicates that it's the same team. Only in Scotland they used paid mercenaries, but here they mesmerised local soldiers and policemen. Loaded them up with amulets and spells, charmed bullets...'
'I can see this is the end of my vacation,' Edgar said gloomily. 'I wish you hadn't stuck your nose into this! They pulled me back in off the beach! Because I have experience of working with you!'
'I'm very flattered,' I said acidly.
'Is all this very serious?' Edgar asked after a pause.
'A hundred men sent to attack both the local Watches. As we withdrew two Light Ones were killed. And then we were attacked by a deva, who bit a Dark One in half. It took me three minutes to beat it down!'
Edgar swore and asked:
'What did you beat it down with?'
'Dust and Ashes. It was lucky I just happened to know it... '
'Tremendous!' Edgar said sarcastically. 'By sheer chance a young Moscow magician happens to remember a spell against golems that hasn't been used in a hundred years!'
'Are you trying to stitch me up already?' I laughed. 'Come and join me, you'll like it here. And by the way, swot up on those spells against golems ?the word is that there's another one on the loose.'
'This is an absolute nightmare...'Edgar muttered. 'I'm in Crete. Standing on the beach in my swimming trunks. My wife's rubbing suntan lotion on my back. And they tell to be in Amsterdam in three hours and set out immediately for Uzbekistan! What do you call that?'
'Globalisation, sir,' I answered.
Edgar groaned into the phone. Then he said:
'My wife will kill me. This is our honeymoon. She's a witch, by the way! And they summon me to lousy Uzbekistan!'
'Edgar, it doesn't become you to say "lousy" like that,' I said, unable to resist another jibe. 'After all, we all lived in the same state once upon a time. Consider it your deferred patriotic duty'
But Edgar was obviously not in the mood for sarcasm or exchanging jibes. He heaved a sigh and asked:
'How will I find you?'
'Call me,' I replied simply, and cut the connection.
'The Inquisition,'Alisher said with a understanding nod. 'They've caught on at last. Well, they'll certainly find a few things to do here.'
'They could start by cleaning out their own backyard,' I said. 'They've got someone beavering away on the inside.'
'Not necessarily' said Alisher, trying to intercede for the Inquisition. 'It could be a retired Inquisitor.'
'Yes? Then how did anyone find out that Geser had sent us to Samarkand? He only informed the Inquisition!'
'One of the traitors is a Light Healer,' Alisher reminded me.
'Are you saying it's a Higher Light One from our Watch? A Healer? Working for the enemy?'
'That could be it!' Alisher said obstinately.
'There has only ever been one Higher-level Light Healer in our Watch,' I reminded him calmly. 'And she's my wife.'
Alisher stopped short and shook his head.
'I beg your pardon, Anton! I didn't mean anything of the kind!'
'Ai, that's enough quarrelling!' Afandi said in his foolish old voice. 'The shurpa's gone cold! And there's nothing worse than cold shurpa. Apart from hot vodka!'
He looked around stealthily and passed his hands over the bowls of shurpa. The cold broth started steaming again
'Afandi, how can we talk to Rustam?' I asked again.
'Eat your shurpa', the old man muttered. And he showed us how.
I broke off a piece of a bread cake and started on my broth. What else could I do? The East is the East, they don't like to give a straight answer here. The best diplomats in the world come from the East. They don't say 'yes' or 'no', but that doesn't mean they abstain...
It was only after Alisher and I had finished our shurpa that Afandi sighed and said:
'Geser was probably right. He probably can demand an answer from Rustam. One answer to one question.'
Well, at least that was one small victory!
'Coming right up,' I said, nodding. Of course, the question had to be formulated correctly, to exclude any possibility of an ambiguous answer. 'Just a minute...'
'Why are you in such a hurry?' Afandi asked in surprise. 'A minute, an hour, a day... Think.'
'In principle, I'm ready,' I said.
'So what? Who are you going to ask,Anton Gorodetsky?'Afandi laughed. 'Rustam's not here. We'll go to see him, and then you can ask your question.'
'Rustam's not here?' I asked, struck almost dumb.
'No,' Afandi replied firmly. 'I'm sorry if anything I said might have misled you. But we'll have to go to the Plateau of the Demons.'
I thought I was beginning to understand how Geser could have quarrelled with Rustam. And I thought that Merlin, for all his evil deeds, must have been a very kind soul and an extremely patient Other. Because Afandi was Rustam. No crystal ball was needed to see that!
'I'll just be a moment... 'Afandi got up and went towards a small door in the corner of the chaikhana that had the outline of a male figure stencilled on it. It was interesting that there wasn't any door with a female silhouette. Apparently the women of Samarkand were not in the habit of spending time in chaikhanas.
'Well, this Rustam's a real character,' I muttered while he was gone. 'As stubborn as a mule.'
'Anton, Afandi's not Rustam,' Alisher said.
'You mean you believe him?'
'Anton, ten years ago my father recognised Rustam. At the time I didn't think anything of it - the ancient Higher One was still alive, so what? Many of them have withdrawn from the active struggle and live unobtrusive lives among ordinary people?
'My father knew Afandi. He must have known him for fifty years.'
I thought about that.
'But what exactly did your father say to you about Rustam?'
Alisher wrinkled up his forehead. Then, speaking very precisely, as if he was reading from the page of a book, he said:
'Today I saw a Great One, whom no one has met anywhere for seventy years. The Great Rustam, Geser's friend, and then his enemy. I walked past him. We recognised each other, but pretended that we hadn't seen anything. It is good that an Other as insignifi cant as I has never quarrelled with him.'
'But what of it?' I asked ?it was my turn to argue now. 'Your father could finally have recognised Rustam, disguised as Afandi. That's the point.'
Alisher thought about that and admitted that yes, it could have happened like that. But he still thought his father hadn't meant Afandi.
'But anyway, that doesn't get us anywhere,' I said, gesturing impatiently. 'You can see how obstinate he is. We'll have to go to the Plateau of the Demons with him ... By the way, what is that? Only don't tell me that in the East there are demons who live on some plateau!'
'Demons are the Twilight forms of Dark Magicians whose human nature has been distorted by Power, the Twilight and the Dark. They teach us that in one of our very first lessons. No, the Plateau of the Demons is a human name. It's a mountainous area where there are boulders that have fantastic shapes - just like petrified demons. People don't like to go there. That is, only the tourists go ??'
'Tourists aren't people,' I agreed. 'So it's just common or garden superstition?'
'No, it's not all superstition,' Alisher said in a more serious voice. 'There was a battle there. A big battle between Dark Ones and Light Ones, almost two thousand years ago. There were more Dark Ones, they were winning... and then the Great White Magician Rustam used a terrible spell. Nobody has ever used the White Haze in battle again since then. The Dark Ones were turned to stone. And they didn't dissolve into the Twilight, but tumbled out into the ordinary world, just as they were ?stone demons. What people say is true, only they don't realise it.'
I felt my heart suddenly seared by a cold, clammy, repulsive memory. I was standing facing Kostya Saushkin. And from far away Geser's voice was whispering in my head.*
( * This story is told in the third part of the book The Twilight Watch)
The White Mist,' I said. 'The spell is called 'the White Mist'. Only Higher Magicians can work it: it requires total concentration and the bleeding of all Power from within a radius of three kilometres...'
It was as if Alisher's words had broken open some lock in my memory. And the door of a closet had creaked open to reveal an ancient skeleton, with its teeth bared in a bony grin ...
Geser had not simply given me bare knowledge. He had trans ferred an entire piece of his memory. A generous gift.