Viktor raised his hands to meet the bear's paw, yet the slice never came down. A streak of grayish-white that flew off the top of the embankment saved him, ripping into the bear, clinging to the animal by nothing but its powerful jaws. Both bear and shadowy form smashed into the ground, and as Viktor recognized his rescuer, a spark of hope ignited his chest—the ghostly wolf guard had come to his aid!
But could it hold the black bear at bay? Not for long, because the beast snarled and regained its ground. The wolf circled the more powerful animal but was forced back until it had no choice but to pounce. Anticipating the move, the bear let loose a downward swipe, one so powerful that its foe was hurled to the ground, reduced to a pile of whimpering fur.
Beady eyes turned back to Viktor. The king would have its kill. Viktor was powerless to stop it. Again, it pulled back its paw, and yet this time, it was a noise that made the bear pause—a sizzling, sparkling hiss.
Man and beast cocked their heads toward the embankment, where a shimmering orange orb whizzed into view. It connected with the bear's shoulder. An explosion of flesh, fur, and blood filled the air. The force knocked Viktor back, but it was the bear that took the brunt of the blast. It bellowed in pain, stumbling backward.
Then a second orange bomb went whirring through the air, closely followed by none other than Romulus himself. The boy had tossed out the projectile before him and jumped off the embankment with as much speed as his wolf. A second explosion ruptured against the bear's flank, knocking the animal off balance. As it fell, its claws missed Romulus' knife hand, which soared through space at its neck. With a deafening crash, the two parties hit the ground, sending up a shower of dirty leaves.
All was quiet while Viktor rose up with trembling limbs. With the dust, he couldn't tell who'd won the fight; his life rested on the outcome. Then a gust of wind cleared the air to reveal the boy of the forest standing over a coal-black mountain of fur with a reddened dagger in his hand.
"One good skin! Would it kill me to get one good skin?" Romulus growled, staring from the bear's slit throat to the patches blown out of its coat. The wolf slunk over to his side, nuzzling against him. "Oh well … at least you made it out alright, my friend."
Viktor's mouth hung open as he stood next to a lifeless bear, in front of a wild youth with a wild wolf, in a dangerous forest, in the twilight. It was unreal. He could not think of anything to say.
"I'm sorry! I followed you into the forest and got lost!" Viktor finally blurted out.
Romulus pushed back his tangled blond hair and stared at Viktor as if he were the outsider. "Why'd you do it?"
"It was because …" Viktor paused, unable to bring up mention of the card. He was too worried about how Romulus would react. Even now there was a strange glint in his eye. "… because of a … a dare."
Romulus stalked forward, dagger still in hand. "A dare? So you wanted to see if I was what the other boys said—a fiend?
Viktor shook his head and edged backward. "No, I don't think that! I'm not like them!"
"You're a bad liar. Tell me your real purpose. Why did you follow me?"
The wolf's throat rumbled.
Romulus made no move to stop the animal from approaching Viktor.
"No!" Viktor said. "It was a … a dare—Boris and … and Fredek … they made me—"
"You're lying!" Romulus bellowed. "You put your life at risk following me in here! Why did you do it?"
Just as the word fell out of Viktor's mouth, so too did the dagger fall out of Romulus' hand; its blade stuck into the mud. All anger was gone from the wild boy's eyes, replaced with deep eagerness.
"What do you know of cards?" he whispered.
"Not enough," said Viktor, "but enough to know that your king of spades could get you killed."
Romulus tilted his head with a new thought. "That first day at school—you wrote our names on our group's map. Is it true that you can also read?"
"I wonder—would you repay me with a favor?"
Viktor was in no position to refuse. "You saved my life. I'll do whatever you ask."
Romulus nodded. "Then meet me at King's Corners tomorrow—at midnight. We'll go to the walls covered in card graffiti, and you'll read the messages to me. That's my only request. I have my own interest in cards, and I've always wondered about those marks for years."
What is this? Viktor thought. Are my nightmares coming to life?
"Can you not do it?" Romulus asked, examining Viktor's worried face.
"What? No, I'll do it. I'll be there."
And Viktor would be there, because there was something about this meeting that felt destined. His sole peer with a deep interest in cards had rescued him and asked him this lone favor, like fate incarnate. Besides, it wasn't much of a decision. One way or another, he went to the Brass Art every night.
Romulus grinned and held out his cut, battered hand. Viktor took a deep breath and then sealed the pact with his own hand, bloody and dirty though it was.
"You know what this means," Romulus said, gripping tight, the blood commingling and dripping off their fingers to the forest floor. "We're blood brothers now."
"Blood brothers," Viktor murmured in wonder.
Mikhail had once told him about the ancient deal—a pact made as one's blood mixes with another, a sworn loyalty in the face of danger and trials—but never did he think he would ever be a part of such a deal, especially with a boy like Romulus.
The wolf barked; Viktor jumped.
"Viktor, meet Blizzard," Romulus said.
Viktor froze. Blizzard? Did Romulus actually expect him to pet the wolf? Still … it did help save his life. Against every instinct in his body, he stretched the back of his hand out toward the wolf. It simply sniffed him. Viktor melted in relief.
"Well, that's that," said Romulus. "Are you ready for me to lead you out of here?"
Viktor glanced at the fallen bear, his curiosity suddenly sparked. "Hold on—you threw something explosive at that bear. What was it?"
"First tell me what you want to be when you're older."
"What?" Viktor said. "I'll be a miner, or whatever job Molotov assigns to me after school ends."
Romulus snorted. "Forget serfdom. As for me, I'll be an inventor—that's what I do out here. I work on anything I can imagine, from snares to recipes. What you saw me throw at that brute was one of my inventions I'm rather proud of."
Viktor looked on in amazement as Romulus reached inside his fur coat and pulled out a round object wrapped in orange yarn, complete with a green wick.
"It's gunpowder and sawdust—an Orange Split."
"Why'd you name it that?"
"Because," Romulus answered, "it looks like an orange, and when it's lit, you and that thing better split."
Viktor's nerves screamed as Romulus struck a match to the Orange Split and pushed it into his hand, the fuse flaring.
"Now split!" Romulus urged.
Acting on reflex, Viktor hurled the shimmering bomb as hard as he could through the air. Thirty yards away, it struck an elm tree and burst apart with a brilliant bang: Splinters of bark flew in every direction.
Romulus laughed like a bark at Viktor's expression and waved for him to follow. "Come on. I'll lead you out of here before you freeze to death."
"Wh-What about you?"
"Ha! Do you think I sleep outside?"
And just like that, Romulus was off, racing through the trees with his wolf. Thus, Viktor befriended the cleverest, most daring, and most dangerous boy he would ever know.
Viktor barely remembered running home after Romulus led him to the edge of the forest, back into his civilized world. He didn't recall scrubbing clean his wounds and dirty clothes with ice, and he forgot how he'd intruded upon dinner, mumbling about how he wasn't feeling well. Just two thoughts stayed with him as he collapsed into bed: Romulus had killed a bear to save his life, and the boy of the forest had become his blood brother. Oddly enough, for the first night in many years, Viktor Vassinov slept peacefully.
Morning, however, was painful. The cuts and bruises that made his body look like a patchwork quilt told Viktor that yesterday's events had been no dream. Still, he felt eager at what the coming night might bring. He would take Romulus to the Brass Art graffiti, and maybe, just maybe, he would uncover the secret of the cards.
After all, Romulus seemed to know the forest better than any trapper in the entire Urals—who knew what other secrets he might keep?
Viktor tied strips of fabric around his sliced shoulder, changed, and put on his coat to hide his cuts before gobbling down breakfast. His mother fussed over his bruised face, but he insisted he was fine, muttering half-truths about an argument with the Spektor brothers. The slow start made Viktor late for school, yet Miss Dimovna didn't give him raps; she glanced from his limping leg to his bruises and smiled as if to say he'd already gotten what he deserved.
At lunch, his classmates were more confrontational.
"We told you he was dangerous," Fredek said, "but you thought you knew better. I would've kept my head down all day too, if I looked as pitiful."
"That explains why I didn't see your face," Viktor said.
Fredek started forward, but Boris clamped a hand around his thick neck. "Easy, little brother, we've got a common grudge now."
"No, we have nothing in common," Viktor shot back. "Romulus isn't the villain who you make him out to be."
"Not the villain? Tell that to my scars!" Boris shouted.
"Viktor, what really happened?" asked Ollyver. "Mikhail and I waited until dark for you to return. You never showed!"
Mikhail paled. "He's put you under his illusion!"
"Oh, shut it!" Viktor said. "None of you went into the forest with me, and none of you were there to help me when I lost my way. I would've died if Romulus hadn't found me and led me out, and it all would've been because of stupid rumors that I had been stupid enough to believe."
His friends held their tongues.
Boris did not. "But you lie to yourself, Viktor, ignoring the real question. Why does Romulus have to hide in the woods? What is he running from?"
"Two ugly trolls," Viktor answered, turning away and forcing himself not to dwell on the legitimate query.
Fredek frowned stupidly. "Trolls—in the forest?"
Boris pushed past his brother. "Mark my words, Viktor! He'll betray you! Maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day, he'll turn on you like a mad dog!"
Those words echoed in Viktor's head many times before midnight came, though they were not enough to deter him. He waited until Grandpap began to snore to slip out of their shared bedroom and steal quietly out the front door. It was near midnight as he hurried down the road leading to King's Corners, the crossroads that lay east of Prospekt Street. The moon was bright in the sky as he ran; the night air stung his face. Occasionally a vagrant walked down the road, and Viktor ducked off, waiting for them to pass. At last, he reached Romulus, who looked out of place in King's Corners, without Blizzard by his side or his signature fur coat on his back.
"You made it."
"Aren't you freezing?" said Viktor.
Romulus shook his head. "No, but eat this. It'll help."
Viktor looked down questioningly at the gnarled root in his hand. "What is it?"
"Ginseng root. It's pure energy. I already had some."
Viktor bit off a piece of the fibrous root and felt his limbs warm. Together they set off to Aryk's heart. Already Viktor was burning to ask Romulus a hundred questions, but he refrained, not wanting to break their first fragile ties of friendship. Instead he spoke quietly about the rumors and legends of the drawings he had heard as a child. It seemed in his solitude that Romulus had missed these stories growing up, for he listened with a fearsome hunger and looked disappointed when the Prospekt Street sign came into view too quickly.
"'No playing cards, no graffiti, no firearms,'" read Viktor. "'Failure to follow these laws may result in severe punishment, imprisonment, or death.'"
Romulus raised his eyebrows. "Right. Reading does come in handy. Maybe you could teach me sometime. I'd be willing to teach you the secrets of the forest in return, you know, if you want."
The generous but perilous proposition caught Viktor's tongue in his throat. He nodded dumbly, his imagination racing at the possibilities.
"Keep to the shadows," whispered Romulus, his footsteps soundless.
They set off down the large main street, passing closed-up shop windows and rows of candlelit street lanterns. A beggar sat outside of a shop named Drapes and Dress. He jingled his jar of lonely coins as they passed; Viktor turned out his pockets to show he couldn't help. Dirty-faced peasants slept by buildings, trash blew down the street, and jeers and laughs echoed off walls. As they neared a street corner, a bearded man stumbled by them in a long black cloak, breathing raspingly. Down a side street, an angry drunk woman was yelling at a well-dressed man with a cane. The man struck her with the walking stick. Two guards on patrol laughed and pointed.
"This is exactly why I avoid this place," Romulus growled.
"I see your point."
In the distance, a gang of youths walked down the main boulevard, laughing wildly and calling out insults and chants. Some of the boys were tall and slim, two were heavily muscled and shirtless even in the cold, and one—the loudest—was tiny. A girl, too, was among them, her laugh pure like chiming bells. But something about their colorful coats and unruly bearing gave off a threatening air, so the blood brothers were keen to duck down a side street to avoid them.
Viktor led the way deeper into Prospekt Street, weaving through passageways and cutting between buildings, trying his best to avoid the glowing street lanterns that cast their magnified shadows on walls. The only people around were peasants that slunk into shadowy corners. After they came to a narrow lane, Viktor's boots pattered to a stop, and Romulus silently drew up next to him. They were alone.
"This is it, right?"
"It's just ahead," said Viktor. "Are you ready?"
"I've been ready for years."
Smoke poured out of a vent in the alleyway, but the moon was bright, and the drawings gleamed. Romulus took in the full expanse of the gray-bricked walls, staring in wonder as his breath rattled in the cold. Viktor felt like he was back in one of his dreams. It had been many months since he'd dared come here in the physical. Now he found himself glancing into the darkness expecting a wolf or bear or masked man to lunge at his throat, or even Romulus to turn and strangle him.
Romulus did no such thing. He skimmed his hand along the wall's old messages, bidding Viktor to read aloud: "'The cards alone know the way to their house…. Corner Kings in King's Corners…. Shadow the vines.'"
"Hmm … 'Shadow the vines,'" Romulus repeated. "Any idea what it means?"
Viktor shook his head, watching Romulus for any indication of recognition. "No. What about you? Do you know anything about the graffiti that might be of use?"
"I know less that you."
Viktor couldn't pretend that this wasn't disappointing news, but he continued reading phrases for Romulus. Sometimes they stopped and discussed them; sometimes they mulled them over quietly.
"'Cloverpaws…. Spades under Mother Russia…. The fifth player goes under the table…. Lean on the Cornerstones.'"
"No, no, no," Romulus growled. "I can't make anything of this. These are all just mindless riddles!"
"'Four suits, three decks, two tones, one trump.'"
Romulus gritted his teeth. "I finally hear them, but I can't understand them!"
"'Hearts are chosen…. Clubs are crowned… Diamonds are formed under pressure.'"
An hour whittled down as Viktor and Romulus pored over the wall. After pondering over countless phrases and pictures, they were no closer to an epiphany. Romulus' temper was running high, while Viktor felt frozen in place. The temperature was so low that frost had formed across the entire wall, and to clearly see the art, they had to scrape off layers of ice.
"It's getting late," Viktor said. "Let's go back."
"Five more minutes." Romulus kept moving down the wall, picking away ice with his nose close to the bricks. "Ah, here it is. Viktor, you've got to see this."
"What is it?"
Romulus spun around holding out his king of spades playing card at chest level. His eyes danced wildly. "Remember this?"
"Are you insane? You brought that?" hissed Viktor.
"I told you I always keep a card up my sleeve."
"I thought that was a figure of speech."
"But you actually brought it into town! You're going to get us killed. Don't you understand you're breaking the first law? But of course, you don't care, because you're the boy of the forest, outsider above the law!"
"I'm flattered," Romulus said sarcastically, "but now please pull yourself together and read this last phrase—the one above the drawing."
Viktor gaped: On the wall was an exact sketch of Romulus' king of spades card. Above it was a hastily scribbled message. "It reads 'A father rejoices in faithful sons.' But what does that mean? Do you know?"
Romulus must have had some idea, because his eyes danced with wild delight. Then his neck twitched. "Hold on. Someone's coming."
Sure enough, strained ears could hear the footsteps of hard-bottomed boots echoing off the ground from both directions of the alleyway. The legs were running, and the sound was getting closer on each side, closing them in.
"We've got to get out of here!" Viktor said.
"The only way out is up. There! Use that vent to climb."
Romulus boosted Viktor up the wall to the vent, where he pulled himself onto the roof, then lay down on his stomach and offered a hand down to Romulus. The boy leapt off the wall, and Viktor clasped his arm in midair. It took all his might to pull his friend up to the tile roof.
"I know. That was close."
"No. You dropped it—it's down there," said Viktor, pointing toward the ground.
Romulus looked over the edge of the building and saw his playing card lying on the ground. He almost leapt off the roof, but Viktor grabbed his shoulder.
"Even if you don't break your leg, they'll see you. We have to leave it behind."
"That's not an option," Romulus said, pulling out of his pocket a thin green rope made of interwoven cloth.
"Forget it … please just forget it," Viktor begged.
The voices were terribly close now.
"I can't leave it. It'll come straight back to me. And you." Romulus tied the rope to the chimney on the roof.
"Who goes there? Show yourself!" called a voice near the front of the alley. It sounded like people were coming from the back, too.
Viktor snuck a glance over the edge of the roof. "It's bad, eight-guards-and-a-dog bad. You can't go down. They'll see you, and even if we survive, we'll be hunted down."
Romulus pulled a bundle of maple seeds out of his back pocket. Each seed had a pod and a membranous wing at one end. Short wicks were attached to the their stems, which Romulus twisted together.
"You're throwing spinning leaves at a time like this?" Viktor moaned.
"The seedpods are filled with a formula. They're Blackbirds now."
"Black-what? Are you mad?"
Romulus ignored him, readying a match. By now, the guards were directly under their position on the rooftop.
"Where are the trespassers? Did you check your side, soldier?"
"Captain Ulfrik, sir, we saw no one."
Viktor's eyes widened. This was the military man and his dog he'd seen four years ago. He was the one who'd hanged the prisoner for having a two of spades!
"I loathe these miserable cave paintings," Captain Ulfrik growled, puffing a cigar in the corner of his mouth. He'd smoked it so short that it looked like it would catch his beard on fire. "If that peasant lied to make me come here, I'll tear his head off."
The dog began to bark.
"Hold on, Major Canis found … Wait … No, it cannot be! The king of spades card? No one touch it! Lieutenant Vyrhus!"
A tall man with bleached white skin and blood-red hair stepped forward. "Captain?"
"This is far worse than an ill omen. Assemble a full Mummer's Dance. Go!"
The lieutenant's footsteps echoed down the alleyway. Viktor glanced down at the remaining group, puzzling over how a lone playing card could inspire such fear in grown men.
"Well, that's my cue," Romulus muttered, lighting the wicks. "Do hold your breath."
With an underhanded toss, Romulus threw nearly twenty Blackbirds into the night sky. As the leaves slowly descended toward the ground in the alley, they spun madly in little circles, and to Viktor's amazement, they all began smoking furiously, each seed creating a thick column of black smoke as they fell. As the large plumes of smoke spread and curled together, the captain barked orders to his men, who began to cough and choke violently. Clutching the rope, Romulus rappelled straight off the roof into the giant cloud of smoke that shrouded the alley.
Viktor was blinded to the action below. He could hear guards wheezing and the dog retching, but the pungent smoke had already dried out his eyes and throat. A tug on the rope came, signaling that Romulus was climbing up the wall, and Viktor pulled him up as a big gust of wind blew through the passage, clearing out the smoke. Romulus collapsed onto the hard tile roof, breathing hard.
Down below, Captain Ulfrik howled murderously upon seeing the card missing and a rope swinging from the roof. Viktor grabbed at the cloth rope to pull it up, but a tremendous weight yanked the line through his hands, giving him a searing burn. Somehow the rope had gotten looped around his ankle, and now it went taut, slicing into his pant leg and cutting into his skin: Ulfrik was climbing!