Constantinople is a beautiful city, incomparable. You can fall in love with a place as easily as a person for that is how Averkie Skila found himself enthralled for the first time.
It was not his home by birth. That was a small village along the Mediterranean Sea with the heat of the dessert at its back. He grew strong and quick and restless far too young and found himself sorted into a militia and then into the Turkish forces. It felt inevitable, his leaving that village, his circling north and east along the edge of the Mediterranean — through Alexandria, Beirut, Antalya and Bursa, ever keeping the sea to his left — until at last he reached Constantinople, a city unlike any before it. A city that called him, a city that claimed him.
By then, his skill with a blade was renown. From here, he could join any army, sail to any land. And he did, fighting in whatever war would have him. Coins came, but they were of no concern. The army fed you, and if you were skilled, they fed you well. Again and again Averkie turned down promotions to the bafflement of his superiors.
They would ask him why, he’d shrug, knowing they would not like the answer. Coin and prestige meant little to him, and to be promoted out of the field of battle would kill him as certainly as a blade through the chest. Grow fat on wine and pleasure far from battle? Watch his skill with the blade decay while he should be in the prime of his life? Never. When his commanders became displeased at his rejections, Averkie left. There was always another army where he could test out his theories, refine his form, seek perfection in the art of the blade.
But the pattern repeated. And he grew angry over time, snapping at superiors, defying direct orders. They were wasting his time. He was too well known to be properly punished — they came to him, after all, from new recruits to tenured officers, looking to learn from him — but they could make life for him difficult in other ways.
In the end, he left them all behind, compelled back to this compass north his restless heart had always sought: Constantinople.
Averkie began writing to focus himself as he waited for whatever muse had brought him to the city of towers over the sea. He perfected his forms in a studio bought with coin from his time as a soldier. Took on students — useless, every one of them, the real work was done on a battlefield — dismissed them.
He paid exorbitantly for a mirror to be placed in his studio, one that would let him see his entire body and thus shadowed himself, iterating and exacting every move, improvement visible, but frustratingly slow. His double moved with cold perfection day after day as the forms that had started to come together in his head took bodily shape.
He was waiting, but knew not for what for, or whom.
Averkie, looking for guidance, entranced with the idea that the Zodiac might guide him next in a way that no God had offered to do, sought out an astrologer. He was taken with the very idea of the constellations, if not that they might tell his future. Each star in a constellation looking like a precisely calculated stab seemed terribly beautiful. So even though the astrologist said that something prevented the revelation of his future, and in the end retired from charting altogether never to speak a word about his craft again, Averkie left pleased.
When a thin-armed man in robes approached his studio in the spring of 1689, Averkie thought him another boy looking to spend the lengthening days wasting his father’s coins and Averkie’s time and planned to send him away. But the young man, who haughtily looking up his nose as the taller Averkie, who was looking down his own nose at him, said his master had sent him. That he was looking for the best swordsman and was told that Averkie would know who that was.
“Myself,” Averkie said without a stitch of pride.
The young man rolled his eyes. Just then another man, nearly the spitting image of the first but with a crafty smile, blurted, as if making a joke, “Of all Constantinople?”
“Of the world,” Averkie said.
The first, who gave his name as Nikolsky, sniffed at the boast. “We’ll see what Avram Brankovich has to say about that.”
Avram. Recognition was bone-deep. His compass had shifted.
The second man, who called himself Sevast, regaled Averkie with how skilled and strong and wise their master was, packing Averkie’s belongings without waiting for permission.
As Sevast worked, Averkie stared at himself in the mirror, looking for some sign of the strange hope that had kindled in his breast to be visible in his double. But his mirror self looked on as dispassionately as it ever had, as if waiting to at last get to work.
Averkie had Sevast pack the mirror, too, but packed his folios himself.
He was everything that Sevast said, and more. Diplomat, scholar, and warrior yet lame in one leg. An injury from childhood. Such a blow would normally keep a man to other pursuits but Avram would not be dissuaded. He came into Constantinople riding his war camel and only left it to sleep. A massive man with strength and speed that would never be allowed to weaken, and he wanted only the most skilled swordsman in the world to train him.
His new master, for that was the only title that made any sense coming out of Averkie’s lips, trained as though training for the final battle to end all endings. As strong and swift, his peculiarities made any such training all the more challenging. The camel, for example. But also that Papas Avram only woke at night, sleeping all day, regardless of what was going on. The camel Averkie could work with; learning to match his day to his masters night was harder than he would admit. Together, night after night, each of them holding one of the camel’s reins, they circled each other in a perfectly dark room with only the sound of the slashing blades to speak for them.
Both young men were Avram’s scribes Averkie was to discover, the first, Nikolsky, duteous and dour, the second, Sevast, more adventurous if something of a scamp, were never far from Avram’s call and soon, Averkie found it was so with him as well.
A short time after Averkie himself was installed in the Commander’s suite of apartments, another man came to Papas Avram’s door. Masudi. Although Papas Avram needed no more scribes, needed one less if anyone were to ask Averkie, whatever truths or lies Masudi whispered to his master was enough to find him employment.
And though he liked Masudi more than Nikolsky, Masudi still had the strange gift of being able to unsettle Averkie. It wasn’t apparent at first, but after several months of Masudi’s intense but unspoken interest, he finally asked him what he had been wanting to ask.
“Do you know about dream hunters?”
Tired, longing to refresh himself after finishing a session with Papas Avram as well as wanting to work out on paper a form he had figured out just moments before, replied mildly, “Are they swordsmen?”
“No.” Masudi continued to stare at Averkie, assessing him. Testing a theory. “An old sect. They move in the world conjured by the sleeper. Their lives, their secrets.”
Averkie raised an eyebrow. “Mine would be a poor feast. I only dream of the blade. Perhaps I might defend myself from such a hunter?”
Masudi only inclined his head, and let the matter drop. So did Averkie.
Three years passed. Training with Papas Avram, learning from him outside of their training — how he thought of the battlefield, how he navigated the corridors of power and politics — was the singular focus that Averkie had been missing in his life. He threw himself into his studies, his mirror a blank-faced but faithful companion, his folio thickening page by page.
What had seemed a whim when he had visited the astrologer had become a lodestone that drew him forward in his quest to learn the ultimate strokes of the saber, a true master’s guide unlike any that had been attempted before, each exquisitely fatal, almost transcendent.
He had completed three constellations in the three years since he began his training of Papas Avram: Aquarius, Sagittarius, Taurus.
It was difficult, doing the work to prove the method, as Papas Avram did not leave the city and they were not given permission to leave either. There was only so much that Averkie could test and try in his studio against his mirror, his double’s countenance scowling more deeply every day. But in a city as large and vast and trouble as Constantinople was, there were opportunities to be made if one spoke to the right guard or goaler.
It was heady progress in the beginning. Aquarius became a flurry of slashes up and down and only when the swordsman drew back did each of the many strokes resolve themselves into two jagged lines. When he penned that first finished folio, he did not need to eat, needed no drink, and smiled twice as large as the absence of the smile on his mirrored self.
Sagittarius he designed specifically to fight an archer, a bold stroke diagonally up to disarm them and expose the chest, then a quick cross-cut down deeper to the heart’s blood. Brigands were his volunteers, told them to pick up their bow and try to cut him down. None could. And while satisfied at his work, Averkie did not feel the elation of the first discovery. The work no longer came as easy. Something was missing. Something was stopping him.
Taurus was a beast to name and shape, every inch its namesake. Averkie could feel it in his bones that something more was there under the surface of his work. He could scent it, taste it, and even as he moved one star closer with every strike of his blade on offered flesh, he could not dig the heart of it out to study and understand. When he did at last, it was with a fierceness and desperation that unnerved him — as he completed the stroke, as he recorded it faithfully, hands shaking, in his folio.
And his face in the sword mirror turned bleaker and bleaker, trapped in its mirror, in Averkie’s poses. Bleak with knowledge it would not share.
He stopped looking at it directly.
“Do your dreams trouble you?” Masudi asked one evening as Averkie prepared to join his master in the hall where they trained, the one place where he felt most focused, most alive.
Averkie curled his lip and remembered when Masudi had spoken of the dream hunters. “Why do you ask?”
“You look tired.”
“I am awake all evening putting our master through his paces and awake all day putting myself through my own, unlike you others,” he said, including the two scribes. “Of course, I am tired.”
“Our master dreams quite vividly. I wondered if you did as well.”
Did he? Averkie did not recall his dreams. When he slept, it was as though he had been entirely spent over the course of the day’s efforts, like nothing was holding him up any longer. And when he woke in the morning, he was tired still, as if sleep had not refreshed him.
And his eyes. For too long now he would wake with his eyes crusted over and full. His eyes would be red, and the crust he would claw away crumbled into something as fine and sharp as sand. It was a kind of madness, but it felt like someone had cried through him and he did not understand.
“Our master dreams,” Masudi said, “so vividly, so potently, that I believe he snares others in his wake. It is rare to find one so powerful. I believe, too, he dreams during the day of another like him. Each dreaming the other.”
Averkie considered this. “Is it a purposeful thing?”
“No. It is a tangling of dreamers.” Masudi must have read something in Averkie’s face, for his demeanor changed. “Do not trouble yourself. It’s just a theory, one I cannot yet prove.”
Averkie did not press him, but as he sparred with Papas Avram that evening, as the blades almost cut flesh, so nearly matched that they were, he could not help but wonder if what Masudi said was true. To be trapped within another’s will.
Was Averkie Skila just the dream of this man, who had upended Averkie’s life so? Or of that other that Masudi alluded to? Was this to be his fate, suspended between these two men?
The following day, after digging out the tears of a stranger from his eyes once more, he began to design his stroke that would free him, one way or another. For he was an actor, not acted upon. It affronted his very dignity that he might not be master of his own tale. So as much as he loved Papas Avram, he called upon the only god he ever truly knew to lead him to that final stroke that would either free Papas from the man who dreamed him, or free Averkie himself from both.
He looked to Aries.
News of the battles in Walachia, Papas Avram’s homeland, troubled their master greatly. Averkie could sense the ferocity and determination that night before everything was to change, how Papas held his sword, how he gripped the reins of his camel, how, had Averkie not adjusted for Papas height, his master would have cut him open that evening.
So it was no surprise when all of his servants were given summons to meet with him in his hall overlooking the three seas, Black, Aegean and Ionian, face grave, a table nearby with four fat coin purses, after their training. Averkie, still tense from their grueling hours, knew what it is Papas Avram planned to ask and was ready to say yes. Yes, I will come with you to Walachia and fight for your homeland. I will defend it and all comers, I will defend you.
To begin, after sharing peppered cherry preserves, Papas Avram gave each of them a bag of coin, and said, “I head to war. You may leave my service, or stay with me, but the choice is yours and I shall not begrudge you whatever you decide.”
“You cannot leave your sword man behind,” Averkie said.
Sevast hurried to say, “Of course I would come. We’ll come.”
Nikolsky looked annoyed but nodded after Sevast volunteered him.
Masudi said, “I am your valet, my place is beside you.”
Something in Sevast’s eyes darkened.
Papas Avram’s expression meanwhile softened, as though he wasn’t sure at all what they would say. Two incredibly conflicting feelings fought for dominance inside Averkie’s breast — the first that he had ever doubted them, the second that Papas Abrams needed the others at all.
Then a more calculating look crossed Papas brow, and he took Masudi’s hand, squeezed it, and seemed to wait.
Masudi said low and carefully, “Sire, allow me to return a favor before we part. I shall tell you something that will bring you great joy, for you have longed to hear it. The one you dream of is named Samuel Cohen.”
Averkie’s throat hitched, his body stiffened. The dreamer? The man that bound them all together. Musadi knew? For how long?
Anguished, Sevast cried out that Musadi was lying. He pushed past Averkie with a strength Averkie would never have thought the spindly man possessed, tore Masudi’s bag from him, full of his papers, and tossed it into the fire.
The papers caught immediately. Masudi made the smallest gasp, and then looked utterly resigned to his fate. After a moment of silence, he turned to Papas Avram, not Sevast, and said, “Look at him, Sire. He has only one nostril in his nose. And his pisses with his tail, like all satans.”
Nikolsky held his notebook tight and edged away from Sevast, regarding the man he had been so close with new understanding and fear. Masudi merely watched as everything about Papas Avram’s countenance changed. Averkie knew the old man’s family had had dealings with witches and devils, and believed Masudi’s accusation even as he verified Sevast’s lone nostril. Papas asked what his father’s last words meant, “A bit of wine to wash my hands,” which Sevast quoted back to him without Papas having uttered them, saying only, “You will discover that yourself without my assistance.”
Then Sevast expounded on the three Hells, information, he said, “to add something to your Khazar Dictionary,” a thing Averkie had never heard of but both Masudi and Nikolsky quieted to hear. On the little satan went, explaining that the Hells tormented those of other faiths, not their own, how he could not be judged by Masudi, and why the devils of all the hells had not destroyed them all.
“Each of our steps must fit in your footstep,” he said, hair damp with sweat now, eyes bright like a fevered man. “We are always one step behind you, we eat our dinner only after you have eaten yours and, like you, we cannot see the future. So you are always first, and we follow.”
Such a thought plucked at hidden strings deep in Averkie’s chest and though no devil pursued his footsteps, did he not live a shadowed life? Like his mirror self waiting for Averkie to take the step.
Then Sevast gave a warning, that even should he meet this Cohen, that they each construct the reality of the other and to meet would be their end, that Papas Avram should stay in his castle. To forget the Dictionary.
In the hours after the five parted, along some city street with no windows, where an unlucky man happened to be, Averkie tested the second stroke of Aries, Hamal, and was pleased.
They — Papas Avram, Averkie, and the other three, their satan included — left at dawn the next morning for Walachia.
Papas Avram slept of course, as they traveled the Danube during the day, and ill omens dogged their every step. Swallows flew on their backs, fogs cloaked the river and drowned all noise.
Sevast did not speak of deviltry again or meetings hundreds of years from now, but his friend Nikolsky was no longer. Sevast seemed not to care, but Nikolsky kept wide berth of the man so alike him he might be a brother, looking wounded and uncertain. He threw himself into his books.
The valet, however, has Papas Avram’s ear at night, spinning stories of this Cohen, and how tightly bound they were. Papas spoke little, and dreamed deeply.
After five days of travel, they were hailed by a cavalry unit near Kladovo that led us to Prince Badensky’s camp. Even newly arrived, Papas Avram became a central figure in Count George and the Generals plans stave off the Turkish invaders, including an attack on a fortress that besieged their troops with cannon fire that very night.
Averkie helped Papas select a saber to wield during the battle, and watched as Papas and his cavalrymen, smoking their long pipes, left in the night.
To keep himself occupied, to find outlet for his growing unease, he practiced the third star of Aries, Sharatan, on a few of the captured Turks. Then a Serb guardsman who came along at the wrong time. Messy and unsatisfying work, but he was one step closer. He felt as though he was running towards this knowledge now, and that the echo of another’s footsteps were in his wake.
Later, lit pigeons flew into the sky to the sounds of gunfire and then all went silent. When Papas and the men returned, still smoking, they looked as though they had merely taken a tour of the countryside. Soon after, the Turkish fortress was ablaze with green fire, and the cannons fired no longer. The ground assault could go ahead in the morning.
Papas Avram of course retired to sleep once the dawn came, as he always did, falling asleep beside the tent. Averkie was too tired to sleep; he’d tried, so he stayed awake nearby, hoping the sun would ring the last of him dry as he cleaned and sharpened his sabers.
Nikolsky, ink-stained and churlish, kept to his books as if they were the last thing of importance in the world and he must work twice as hard at his tasks now that Sevast had lost all interest in the written word. Truly, the man, or the satan, drifted careless like one more sack of rations for the soldiers stationed around him. For all his fits and curses, he’d spent the last three days, both while they sailed the Danube and since landing the night prior, playing dice with Masudi. Over and over the rattle of dice, the rattle of cups, both men absorbed in their game. No matter how much money Sevast lost, coin after coin from the purse Papas Avram had given him, he kept playing. And no matter how much he won, Masudi played on, a magnanimous smile on his face, eyes on the edge of camp, as if he was waiting for something.
It was boring to watch them, so Averkie didn’t, keeping his eye on his ever-sharpening saber.
Until the first volley of bullets sounded. Nikolsky was gone in a flash of kicked up robes, while Sevast and Masudi kept on with their game. Such foolishness Averkie would never understand, for entangled as his life might be he wished to keep living it, and so found himself shelter in a nearby shelter where he could see everything.
As the smoke from their guns began to drift up and across the camp, the Turkish soldiers entered the camp, the trenches, slashing with their swords at anything that might move. Their officer, the Pasha, followed behind them, searching the dead. Papas Avram had not woken despite the gunfire, or the men crying out around him, and the moment a Turk spied the one-eyed eagle of the Brankovich coat of arms, he stabbed Papas Avram through the chest so hard the steel of his sword cracked on rock below.
Averkie felt it in his heart, and he stood rooted in place, unable to move, unable to look away.
For Papas Avram woke after such a wound, raised himself up on one arm, a man trapped between living and death, staring, shaking, staring down the world until he laid eyes on a man among the Turks, red-eyed, with a half-grey mustache. When Papas fell back onto his arm, the man he so stared at collapsed, too.
“Is that Cohen who was killed?” the Pasha cried out, and a soldier nearest Avram turned and shouted it must have been a shot, from the gamblers, and cut down the man nearest into pieces. Sevast still had the unthrown dice in his curled fingers. The Turk then went to do the same to Masudi — but suddenly roused, and in Arabic said that the pale man was not dead, merely sleeping.
The Pasha was swayed, but only just. “You will live for one more day, and then the sword.”
Masudi smiled with beatific relief, and nodded.
Avram they hauled away. Masudi took the sleeping man they had called Cohen, threw him over his shoulder, and took him to a tent.
It was not difficult to find a man wearing a Turkish uniform who could be relieved of it with the stroke of Aquarius. And of no trouble to employ Sagittarius to disarm and disembowel the archer who came upon Averkie minutes later, about to cry out that they had an imposter in their ranks. With so many bodies, what were two more?
As he slipped among the Turkish soldiers, he saw them take Papas Avram, still impossibly alive, still bleeding, and wash him while an old man Averkie thought a healer came to see him. Instead the man cleaned and shaved him, as though preparing a body, and brought him back to the Pasha.
Averkie had witnessed the blow, knew as only the greatest saber master in the world might know that the blow was a fatal one. There would be no saving him. Yet that not even the dignity of trying was availed of Papas Avram sickened him. That he still lived, Averkie knew, for the guards around the Pasha’s tent, the curt conversation between his men, said as much.
So instead, not long before dawn, Averkie stole into the tent where Masudi had taken the man Cohen. The man with the half-grey mustache lay still, as though frozen in the Danube’s winter currents, while Masudi sat beside him on the ground, eyes rolling beneath his closed eyelids, in a state of ecstasy that made Averkie’s blood rage.
Whatever enthralled him, he had enough awareness of his surroundings to know he was not alone.
“You are not the Pasha,” Masudi said. Some awareness, but not enough.
Voice cracked with held grief, sounding strange to his own ears, Averkie answered in Arabic, “He wants you again to explain what it is happened to his man. Why did he fall?”
“They are bound, they dream of each other. Your Cohen walks by day and dreams of this man by night. And this man walks by night and dreams by day of Cohen. They each dreamed of the others life but now they dream of death.” Masudi spoke as though enraptured, yet his eyes fluttered like he was in the deepest of sleep. “I am in those dreams now with him as Cohen dreams of Avram’s death. I have traveled the dreams of hundreds, I have seen all the lands of dream there are. But death, I have never seen death. Cohen will dream of it, and so I will dream of it, so long as Avram continues to live. I will know what no man knows. I will know of death and wake from it to tell others.”
He would wake, but Papas would not. Nor this man, this Cohen. For when Papas died, no one would dream of him.
It would be ended.
Yet Masudi grew fat on their circle of suffering like a tick buried in flesh.
It was why he had stayed, Averkie understood. “You wished this to be.”
Dawn crept through the opening in the tent, falling on Masudi’s face. His eyelashes were grey, as though he aged a year for every death Cohen had dreamed of Papas Avram.
“Who are you again?” Masudi said in his feverish joy, now cautious. “Why are you here?”
“I carry out the Pasha’s orders.”
It was not a perfect strike, not Aries in all its promised glory. He was one star shy, but knew in that moment when the final star, Mesarthim, would come. Soon, but not here. However his proof, his Sharatan, was so very fine and quick that Masudi did not even feel his belt fall to the floor and his chest open with a sinuous, gaping slash like a mouth about to sing.
Beside him, Cohen sighed, at rest.
Did Masudi’s blood mix with the ink Nikolsky had abandoned that Averkie was using now? He could not be certain, and did not care. He knew only that with Sevast dead and Nikolsky, the coward, gone with his papers, there was no one left to speak of Papas Avram’s final days. And they must — Papas Avram was owed at least that, at least a hundred times that.
But he had no quill and knew only one instrument he might write with, the one he had used all his life. It would have to suit. Holding the paper in place with his foot, he dipped the tip of his saber into the muddled ink.
Nearby, the Pasha left his tent and with a note of repulsion in his voice, asked for someone to bring him wine to wash his hands.
Averkie began to write.
Letters come to Averkie in the years after he published The Finest Signatures of the Saber, a mix of flattery or questions or sometimes a wrong-headed supplicant attempting to lecture on the incorrectness of Averkie’s technique.
He’s used to it now. He’s kept every letter. Most came in the initial year of publication in 1702, but the letters still arrive as the book is translated and printed and shared among a select circle of interested parties. The purse of gold that Papas Avram had given him was enough to live off of as he worked through the rest of the Zodiac, perfecting his twelve strokes. The other strokes came easily to him, as if they had always been waiting to be released from his hand through steel, unlike the effort the first four had taken.
The revenue from the book was enough to live a modest life in a small apartment in Venice. Water had always soothed him and though he did not wish to return to his homeland, a home without water would be no home at all.
But the letter that came that morning, when the blue of the waters mirrored the blue of the sky, when the guide poles along the canal stood straight as swords plunged in the water, the letter was not effusive praise or cackling contradiction.
It was simple and spare and accusing.
I have seen Aries on the belly of a man killed in a tent in Walachia nine years ago.
It is not the first letter saying so.
It is not the first letter saying so that Averkie has burned.
And yet every time such a letter comes, when the ash is still on his fingers, Averkie, no longer in his prime but every inch of him as confident and sure, goes to his library, pulls out his only copy of the The Finest Signatures of the Saber, and turned to a set of pages softened with his repeated touch.
On the first, the left, a diagram, one Averkie himself painstakingly penned, drawn and redrawn until it was, like his twelve signatures, perfected. It is him, inside a cage of sword strokes so swiftly arced that no matter where an attacker might seek an opening, they would always find steel.
Perfect protection, perfect entrapment. That Averkie, drawn with trembling hands, with its double lips, looks as though another inside wishes to speak.
On the second, the right, and last most page, Averkie’s most powerful stroke, Aries, sinuously cuts through the cage. A second, inked Averkie escapes as though through a wound, his second lips laughing, as it strikes off for a destination off the page.
Ash smears the bottom of the page where Averkie touches it, mingling with prior ash. It is no good for the book, he knows, but it is not a tutor for him. Only a comfort, only a memory.
His eyes drift across his tidy apartment to the drop cloth that covers a rectangle as tall as Averkie is tall. As he has not done since arriving in Venice, with his personal matters sent from Constantinople, he walks to it and takes it in his hand.
With a gentle tug, the cloth falls and the old mirror reveals itself. It arrived whole with the rest of his things, and the wound in the glass is only as old as his life here in Venice. If a guest asks why it has been covered, instead of repaired, Averkie would smoothly lie and tell his guest that the mirror needed an experts hand and turn the conversation away before his guest might offer a name in suggestion.
While the mirror glass is shattered with one long, sinuous line across its middle, not a shard has fallen, not in the years since it bore the wound of Aries, and its final star, Mesarthim. Fine cracks reach upward, reach low, spider-webbing the entire surface so finely that the mirror can still reflect a personage should they stand before it.
So long as they are not Averkie.
* * *