VINCENTI STEPPED INTO HIS LIBRARY, CLOSED THE DOOR, AND poured himself a drink. Kumis. A local specialty he'd come to enjoy. Fermented mare's milk. Not much alcohol but quite a buzz. He downed the shot in one swallow and savored its almond aftertaste.
He poured another.
His stomach growled. He was hungry. He should tell the chef what he wanted for dinner. A thick slab of teriyaki horse steak would be good. He'd come to like that local specialty, too.
He sipped more Kumis.
Everything was about to unfold. His intuition from all those years ago had proven correct. All that stood in the way was Irina Zovastina.
He stepped to his desk. The house was equipped with a sophisticated satellite communications system, with direct links to Samarkand and his corporate headquarters in Venice. Drink in hand, he saw an e-mail had arrived from Kamil Revin about a half hour ago. Unusual. Revin, for all his joviality, distrusted any form of communication save face-to-face, with him controlling the time and location.
He opened the file and read the message.
THE AMERICANS WERE HERE.
His tired mind snapped alert. Americans? He was about to hit "Reply" when the study door burst open and Peter O'Conner rushed in.
"Four helicopter gunships bearing down on us. Federation."
He darted to the windows and gazed west. At the far end of the valley four dots pricked the bright sky, growing larger.
"They just appeared," O'Conner said. "I'm assuming this is not a social call. You expecting anyone?"
He returned to the computer and deleted the e-mail.
"They'll be on the ground in less than ten minutes," O'Conner said.
Something was wrong.
"Is Zovastina coming for the woman?" O'Conner asked.
"It's possible. But how would she know this fast?"
Zovastina would never have imagined what he was planning. True, she distrusted him as he distrusted her, but there was no reason for any show of force. Not now, anyway. Then there was Venice, and what happened when he'd moved on Stephanie Nelle. And the Americans?
What didn't he know?
"They're swinging around to land," O'Conner said from the windows.
"Go get her."
O'Conner dashed from the room.
Vincenti slid open one of the desk drawers and removed a pistol. They'd yet to hire the full security contingent the estate would ultimately require. That would all be done in the coming weeks, while Zovastina occupied herself preparing for war. He'd planned to use that diversion to its fullest.
Karyn Walde entered the library, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. Standing, on her own. O'Conner followed.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Better than I have in months. I can walk."
Already, a doctor was en route from Venice who would treat her secondary infections. Lucky for her, they were remediable. "It'll take a few days for your body to start a full recovery. But the virus is right now being assaulted by a predator against which it has no defense. As, by the way, are we."
O'Conner assumed a position at the window. "They're on the ground. Troops. Asians. Looks like they're hers."
He faced Walde. "Seems Irina may want you back. We're not sure what's happening."
He stepped across the room to a built-in bookcase with ornate glass-fronted doors. The wood had come from China, along with the craftsman who'd made the piece. But O'Conner had added something extra. He pressed a button on a pocket controller and a spring-loaded mechanism above and below the cabinet released, allowing the heavy case to rotate one hundred and eighty degrees. Beyond was a lighted passageway.
Walde was impressed. "Like in a damn horror movie."
"Which is what this may become," he said. "Peter, see what they want and express my regrets that I wasn't here to greet them." He motioned to Walde. "Follow me."
STEPHANIE'S HANDS STILL SHOOK AS SHE WATCHED ELY DRAG THE body around to the rear of the cabin. She still did not like the fact that Zovastina knew they were in the Federation. Not particularly smart to alert a person with the kind of resources at her disposal. She had to trust that Thorvaldsen knew what he was doing, particularly since his butt was on the line, too.
Ely emerged from the cabin's front door, followed by Thorvaldsen. He held an arm full of books and paper. "I'll need these."
She was watching the lane leading back to the highway. All seemed quiet. Thorvaldsen came up beside her. He noticed her shaking hand and calmly grasped it. Neither of them said a word. She still held the gun, her palm sweaty. Her mind needed to focus, so she asked, "What exactly are we going to do?"
"We know the location," Ely said. "Klimax. So let's go see what's there. It's worth a look."
She fought to recall Ptolemy's words and repeated them, "Climb the god-built walls. When you reach the attic, gaze into the tawny eye, and dare to find the distant refuge."
"I remember the riddle," Ely said. "I need to check some information, spur my memory, but I can do that along the way."
She wanted to know, "Why did Zovastina go after the elephant medallions?"
"I pointed out a connection between a mark on the medallions and the riddle. A symbol, like two Bs joined to an A. It's on one side of the medallion and in the riddle. They had to be significant. Since there were only eight known, she said she'd acquire them all for comparison. But she told me she was going to buy them."
"Not hardly," Stephanie said. "I'm still baffled. All of this is over two thousand years old. Wouldn't anything that existed have been found by now?"
Ely shrugged. "Hard to say. Let's face it, the clues have not been out in the open. It took X-ray fluorescence to find the important stuff."
"But Zovastina wants it. Whatever it is."
Ely nodded. "In her mind, which I always thought was a little weird, she's Alexander, or Achilles, or some other epic hero. It's a romantic vision she seems to enjoy. A quest. She believes there might be some sort of cure out there. She talked about that a lot. That was most important to her, but I don't know why." Ely paused. "I won't say that it wasn't important to me, too. Her enthusiasm became infectious. I actually started to believe there might be something to find."
She could see he was troubled by all that had happened, so she offered, "You might be right."
"That would be amazing, wouldn't it?"
"But how could there be any connection between St. Mark and Alexander the Great?" Thorvaldsen asked.
"We know that Alexander's body was in Alexandria up to 391 CE, when paganism was finally outlawed. But there's no mention of it ever again, anywhere, after that. St. Mark's body reappears in Alexandria around 400 CE. Remember, pagan relics were routinely adopted for Christian purposes.
"There are lots of examples I've read about from Alexandria. A bronze idol of Saturn in the Caesareum was melted down to cast a cross for the patriarch of Alexandria. The Caesareum itself became a Christian cathedral. My theory, from reading everything I could on St. Mark and Alexander, was that some fourth-century patriarch conceived a way to not only preserve the corpse of the city's founder, but to furnish Christianity with a potent relic. A win/win. So Alexander simply became St. Mark. Who'd know the difference?"
"Sounds like a long shot," she said.
"I don't know. You tell me Ptolemy left something in that mummy in the basilica that led you straight here. I'd say theory is now firmly entrenched in reality."
"He's right," Thorvaldsen said. "It's worth going south to take a look."
She didn't necessarily agree, but any place was preferable to here. At least they'd be on the move. But something occurred to her. "You said the area where Klimax is located is now privately owned. We could have trouble gaining access."
Ely smiled. "Maybe the new owner will let us have a look around."
MALONE WAS TRAPPED. HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. VIKTOR HAD led him straight to Zovastina.
"Come to save Ms. Vitt?"
He still held the gun.
Zovastina motioned. "Who do you plan to kill? Choose between the three of us." She pointed at her guardsmen. "One of them will shoot you before you can shoot the other." She displayed her knife. "And then I'll cut these ropes."
All true. His options were limited.
"Take him," she ordered the guards.
One of the men rushed forward, but a new sound captured Malone's attention. Baying. Growing louder. The guard was ten feet away when goats rushed from the other path that led back to the buzkashi field. First a few, then the entire herd exploded into the clearing.
Hooves thumped the earth.
Malone spotted Viktor atop a horse, keeping the oversized animals bunched, trying not to break their advance. A lumbering pace increased into a rush, the rear shoving the front, forcing the confused goats forward. Their unexpected appearance seemed to generate the desired effect. The guards were momentarily confused and Malone used that instant to shoot the one in front of him.
Another pop and the second guard dropped to the ground.
Malone saw that Viktor had fired the shot.
The goats crowded the clearing, milling into one another, still baffled, slowly realizing the only way out was through the trees.
Dust stirred the air.
Malone spotted Zovastina and pushed his way through the stinking animals toward her and Cassiopeia.
The herd retreated into the woods.
He arrived just as Viktor slid from the saddle, gun in hand. Zovastina stood with her knife, but Viktor was holding her at bay, a few feet from the ropes that anchored the two bent trees.
"Drop the knife," Viktor said.
Zovastina seemed shocked. "What are you doing?"
"Stopping you." Viktor motioned with his head. "Free her, Malone."
"Tell you what," Malone said. "You free Cassiopeia and I'll keep an eye on the minister."
"Still don't trust me?"
"Let's just say I prefer to do this my way." He raised his gun. "Like he said, drop the knife."
"Or what?" Zovastina said. "You'll shoot me?"
He fired into the ground, between her legs, and she recoiled. "The next one's in your head."
She released the knife.
"Kick it this way."
"What are you doing here?" Cassiopeia asked him.
"I owed you. Goats?" he said to Viktor, as the other man untied Cassiopeia.
"You use what you have. Seemed like a good diversion."
He couldn't argue.
"You work for the Americans?" Zovastina asked Viktor.
Fire boiled in her eyes.
Cassiopeia shook the ropes free and lunged toward Zovastina, swinging her fist and catching the other woman square in the face. A kick to the knees and Zovastina stumbled back. Cassiopeia continued her attack, planting her foot into Zovastina's stomach and slamming the woman's head into the trunk of one of the trees.
Zovastina shrunk to the ground and lay still.
Malone had calmly watched the assault. "You get all that out of your system?"
Cassiopeia breathed hard. "I could have given her more." She paused, rubbing her wrists from the ropes. "Ely's alive. I talked to him on the phone. Stephanie and Henrik are with him. We need to go."
Malone faced Viktor. "I thought Washington wanted your cover protected?"
"I had no choice."
"You sent me into this trap."
"Did I tell you to confront her? You didn't give me a chance to do anything. When I saw your problem, I did what I had to."
He didn't agree, but there was no time to argue. "What do we do now?"
"We're going to leave. We'll have a little time. No one will disturb her back here."
"What about the gunfire?" Malone asked.
"It won't be noticed." Viktor motioned around him. "This is her killing field. Many enemies have been eliminated back here."
Cassiopeia was lifting Zovastina's limp body from the ground.
"What are you doing?" Malone asked.
"Tying this bitch to those ropes, so she can see what it feels like."
STEPHANIE DROVE WITH HENRIK IN THE FRONT SEAT AND ELY IN the rear. They'd had no choice but to commandeer the guard's car since theirs had four flat tires. They quickly left the cabin, found the highway, and began the trek south, paralleling the Pamir foothills, heading toward what over two thousand years ago had been known as Mt. Klimax.
"This is amazing," Ely said.
She saw in the rearview mirror that he was admiring the scytale.
"When I read Ptolemy's riddle, I wondered how he would convey any message. It's really clever." Ely held up the scytale. "How did you figure it out?"
"A friend of ours did. Cotton Malone. He's the one with Cassiopeia."
"Shouldn't we go see about her?"
She heard the anticipation in his question. "We have to trust that Malone will handle his end. Our problem's here." She was talking again like the dispassionate head of an intelligence agency, cool and indifferent, but she was still rattled from what happened at the cabin. "Cotton's good. He'll deal with it."
Thorvaldsen seemed to sense Ely's quandary. "And Cassiopeia is not helpless. She can take care of herself. Why don't you tell us what we need to know to understand all this? We read in the manuscript about the draught, from the Scythians. What do you know about them?"
She watched as Ely carefully laid the scytale aside.
"A nomadic people who migrated from central Asia to southern Russia in the eighth and seventh centuries before Christ. Herodotus wrote about them. They were bloody and tribal. Feared. They'd cut off the heads of their enemies and make leather-bound drinking cups from the skulls."
"I'd say that would build you a reputation," Thorvaldsen said.
"What's their connection to Alexander?" she asked.
"In the fourth and third centuries BCE, they settled in what became Kazakhstan. They successfully resisted Alexander, blocking his way east across the Syr Darya river. He fought them fiercely, was wounded several times, but eventually made a truce. I wouldn't say Alexander feared the Scythians, but he respected them."
"And the draught?" Thorvaldsen said. "It was theirs?"
Ely nodded. "They showed it to Alexander. Part of their peace with him. And he apparently used it to cure himself. From what I read, it appeared as some kind of natural potion. Alexander, Hephaestion, and that physician's assistant mentioned in one of the manuscripts were all cured by it. Assuming the accounts are accurate.
"The Scythians were a strange people," Ely said. "For example, in the midst of one fight with the Persians, they all abandoned the battlefield to chase a rabbit. Nobody knows why, but it's noted in an official account.
"They were gold connoisseurs, using and wearing enormous amounts. Ornaments, belts, plates, even their weapons were gold adorned. Scythian burial mounds are full of gold artifacts. But their main problem was language. They were illiterate. No written record of them survives. Just pictures, fables, and accounts from others. Only a few of their words are even known, and that's thanks to Herodotus."
She could see his face in the rearview mirror and realized there was more. "What is it?"
"Like I said, only a few of their words survived. Pata meant kill. Spou, eye. Oior, man. Then there's arima." He shuffled through some of the papers he'd brought. "It didn't mean much, until now. Remember the riddle. When you reach the attic. Ptolemy fought the Scythians with Alexander. He knew them. Arima means, roughly, place at the top."
"Like an attic," she said.
"Even more important. The place the Greeks once called Klimax, where we're headed, the locals have always called Arima. I remember that from the last time I was there."
"Too many coincidences?" Thorvaldsen asked.
"It seems all roads point here."
"And what do we hope to find?" Stephanie asked.
"The Scythians used mounds to cover their kings' tombs, but I've read that mountain locations were chosen for some of their most important leaders. This was the farthest reach of Alexander's empire. Its eastern border. A long way from home. He would not have been disturbed here."
"Maybe that's why he chose it?" she asked.
"I don't know. The whole thing seems odd."
And she agreed.
ZOVASTINA OPENED HER EYES. SHE WAS LYING ON THE GROUND and immediately recalled Cassiopeia Vitt's attack. She shook confusion from her brain and realized something was tightly gripping both wrists.
Then she realized. She was tied to the trees, just as Vitt had been. She shook her head. Humiliating.
She stood and stared out into the clearing.
The goats, Malone, Vitt, and Viktor were gone. One of the guardsmen lay dead. But the other was still alive, propped against a tree, bleeding from a shoulder wound.
"Can you move?" she asked.
The man nodded, but was clearly in pain. All of her Sacred Band were tough, disciplined souls. She'd made sure of that. Her modern incarnation was every bit as fearless as the original from Alexander's time.
The guard struggled to his feet, his right hand clamped onto his left arm.
"The knife," she said. "There, on the ground."
Not a hint of pain seeped from the man's mouth. She tried to remember his name, but could not. Viktor had hired each one of the Sacred Band, and she'd made a point not to become attached to any of them. They were objects. Tools to be used. That's all.
The man staggered to the knife and managed to lift it from the ground.
He came close to the ropes, lost his balance, and fell to his knees.
"You can do it," she said. "Fight the agony. Focus on your duty."
The guard seemed to steel himself. Sweat poured down his brow and she noticed fresh blood oozing from the wound. Amazing he wasn't in shock. But this burly soul seemed in superb physical shape.
He raised the knife, sucked a few breaths, then cut the bindings that held her right wrist. She steadied his shaking arm as he passed her the knife, and she freed herself from the other rope.
"You did well," she said.
He smiled at her compliment, his breath labored, still on his knees.
"Lie down. Rest," she said.
She heard him settle on the ground as she searched the forest floor. Near the other body she found a gun.
She returned to the injured guardsman.
He'd seen her vulnerable and, for the first time in a long while, she'd felt vulnerable.
The man lay on his back, still gripping his shoulder.
She stood over him. His dark eyes focused on her and, in them, she saw that he knew.
She smiled at his courage.
Then aimed the gun at his head and fired.
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