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Opulence amused Taras Oleksei.

The Dvoryanskoe Gnezdo bled opulence, from the gold walls and plush Persian rugs and the crystal chandeliers. It glittered in the center of Leningrad, the kind of restaurant where people went to see and be seen, the women dressed in silk and furs and jewels and the men wearing the finest winter weight wool suits.

They were slender and soft, those people, complacent in their finery, as if money and material possessions and influence raised them so far above the masses they were untouchable.

That amused Taras, too.

His walk was a saunter and his smile was a smirk as the maitre d’ led him upstairs to the private dining rooms on the second floor. Those rooms were for private matters, dealings not spoken of, nor recorded.

For the occasion, he’d dressed up. Nice suit. Nicer watch. Camouflage, though not much of a disguise.

In face and form, he was hopelessly working class, coarse and pugnacious, thick of jaw and wide of brow, chin slanted and cleft, mismatched eyes and dark hair cropped as close as a convict’s. The suit didn’t hide that he was built like a slaughterhouse butcher, thick chest hard and solid with muscle.

None of that mattered, though, given whose company he was keeping tonight.

Taras had only needed to drop a single name and the maitre d' had whisked him away without question. That was power that had nothing to do with accident of birth, and everything to do with ambition.

He liked the taste of it, as hot and vital as blood.

They stopped at a door.

"Sir," the maitre d' said, knocking once, and upon hearing an answer, opened the door to let Taras in, then closed it behind him.

Inside, the private room was just that, plush, well-appointed, intimately lit, somehow comfortable in spite of the elegance.

A man sat at a rounded table across from the door.

Dark and light, this one, a fine suit and hair of white gold, his features sculpted in ice by the hand of an artist, handsome and refined. As elegant as any other diner, though Taras knew the savage disposition that pulsed under the veneer of aristocracy.

Taras smiled, mildly.

“Nice place,” he remarked.

Date: 2008-02-07 09:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
"Comrade Oleksei," acknowledged Ilarion, with ironic decorum. "Please."

Ilarion indicated the seat across from him, lifting his chin in a slight cue to the houseman, who pulled the high-backed armchair out for Oleksei, and shook out a snowy white napkin, draping it carefully across his lap.

Isaev saw Oleksei smirk transiently, a vicious bloom that soon died away, but betrayed his pleasure in that instant.

Such details appealed to his associate's ever rarifying sense of aesthetic, and Lasha never failed to note this and apply it. It was professional courtesy to make sure the guest was entertained.

Alexandr had reminded him of that only this morning, actually, and it was fresh in Lasha's mind as he nodded to the sommelier to pour for Oleksei, allowing him the ritualistic first taste, and subsequent approval.

A bottle of pinot noir had been opened to breathe, precisely ten minutes before he arrived. By now it should be well open and vigorous. It was a vintage he particularly liked- earthy with peat and an aftertaste of raspberry on the palate. Tannic at the outset, but it finished quick.

As he waited for Oleksei to settle in and verify his selection, he relaxed, leaning back in his armchair. Violin was faintly audible from the room next door when the maitre d' departed, receding once more when the upholstered door shut behind him.

Perhaps they would have time for some music, when all matters were settled and accounted.

In the meantime, he regarded his company with dispassionate approval.

Taras Oleksei was a brute, even in perfectly tailored gabardine. He was also wholly unabashed of this fact, a trait that exonerated him in Ilarion Isaev's perspective. Taras was no barbarian, disguising his mien under cologne and pomade. Taras was a barbarian in the purest form.

He did not so much aspire as he did invade.

His father had called him at the office the evening before, sounding pleased.

"This is a man who has done well, Lasha. Reward him. Show some appreciation."

Show him a good time, Aleksandr had said. Meet him somewhere nice, buy him a girl. Get him drunk. Something that would please a man of his station.

By "nice", Aleksandr had not suggested anything quite like The Noble Nest, but Ilarion had found a certain satisfaction in taking Oleksei into increasingly posh and elite establishments.

Lasha knew Taras Oleksei's particular taste extended well beyond what his father gave him credit for, despite his rough edges. He hungered- not to be refined, but to possess refinement. He lusted to touch fine textures at odds with his own callused, criminal hands.

"And how does that please your palate? Do you find it to your taste, comrade?" he asked, casually.

Date: 2008-02-07 11:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras set down his glass, pressing his lips together as he considered.

The wine was different than what he was used to, though not displeasing. Smooth but robust, crisp without being harsh, with a tartness that lingered.

An acquired taste, but one he decided he could acquire fairly easily, if he wanted.

He nodded to the wine steward.

"It's fine," he said, and waited as the steward poured a half glass for both of them, then departed.

He picked up his glass, swirled it, then regarded the man across from him.

"How have you been, comrade?" he inquired, politely.

Isaev seemed to expect a little small talk, which Taras didn't mind. That was how it went. No one started off a fine meal with talk of bloodied hands, and dark deeds.

"Well, I hope?"

Date: 2008-02-08 05:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion picked up his wine and held it, mindlessly letting the curve of his cupped palm warm the stemless balloon glass. He admired the deep garnet liquid, swirled it slightly and observed the structure of translucent legs cascading.

Thick and sweet, honey made from the nectar of grapes.

Lasha tilted his head, slowly, contemplative.

"Did you know that this is the only proper red wine glass, comrade, by epicurean standards? The width of the bottom allows for more surface area to be exposed to oxygen, and the manner it is held-" he raised his hand, slightly, cradling the glass in his palm- "warms the wine to an ideal temperature, which further develops the nuance and finer points of the vintage."

He raised his gaze to Oleksei's.

"Broad...and shallow," he said, deliberately.

Taras' oddly bi-tonal eyes remained neutral and studious, holding his own. Lasha was used to their unorthodoxy, and Oleksei's intense regard didn't faze him.

It was few and far between that Isaev met a man who could meet and match his gaze, and he enjoyed the novelty when it occurred.

"...The perfect vessel to absorb its environment, and open its essence to new dimensions in taste and complexity by breathing deeply and immersively of rarified air."

He paused, taking a sip, inhaling lightly so that the tannins kissed his palate. Impressions, no more.

"And all this, of course, is facilitated by being held in the right hand."

Date: 2008-02-08 08:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras smiled very slowly, and sat back in his seat.

He regarded the wineglass, which felt heavy and solid in his hand, somehow more substantial than a stemmed glass, which had always seemed flimsy to him, not that he'd had much occasion to hold one.

"No," he said, finally.

"I didn't know that, comrade."

Taras shifted his gaze to regard Isaev, brows slightly raised.

His voice was almost idle, but his regard was not.

After a few moments, Taras took another sip, and let the flavors permeate, learning to savor them on his tongue.

"Clever bastard, whoever came up with that," he remarked, offhand.

Date: 2008-02-08 08:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Lasha's pause was slight, almost negligible.

"Da," he responded vaguely, reluctantly dismissing the significance of his previous words.

You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.

A smile threatened his lips at the memory of Nikanor Liadov's oft-drawled axiom. Elitist prick, Nika. Far more so than he himself, though he doubted Liadov would ever accord to it.

He felt dull pain, somewhere incorporeal.

He pushed it back and lashed it down with wire.

Collected, once more, with no external hint of dischord in thought other than the scantest lapse, a slight quietude that had murdered an embryonic smile and rendered it stillborn.

Isaev set down his glass, glancing at the door.

"I've already ordered our dinner. Five courses, naturally. For the entree itself, I hope you don't mind medallions of dry-aged chateaubriand."

Ilarion raised an eyebrow, voice conversant and deceptively light.

"I find they acquit continental fare most admirably."

Oleksei held his glass mindfully now, thoughtfully, and Isaev could almost see the gears revolving behind his motley eyes. Unraveling the class tapestry by a stray, loosed thread, and exposing glints of a new reality beneath.

Ilarion tilted his head, subtly intrigued.

Perhaps his careful words had not been entirely wasted after all.

Time would tell, as it always did.

"I think we should speak of business first," Ilarion said, his tone shifting, becoming arctic and passionless. "For that is the matter at hand, and easily concluded. The sooner resolved, the sooner we can devote ourselves to pleasure."

Date: 2008-02-08 09:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras took another sip and set his glass down, then sat back in his seat.

His posture was relaxed, quietly assured, untroubled by their surroundings, though he understood well what Isaev had done, in requesting that they meet here. It was a concept that anyone who fought for what they had knew: home turf.

Here, Ilarion was clearly in his element, had the advantage of familiarity with his surroundings, with the cult and culture of the affluent.

It was not Taras' world, or at least, not the one he'd grown up with.

Like the wine, an acquired taste, not one that was grasped immediately.

Thus, the advantage would have been Isaev's, if this were a battle, though it was not so much conflict as a more subtle challenge, a feeling out of position, a test of tactics.

Chess, he decided, and wondered if Ilarion still played.

Ilarion had led with an aggressive benevolence, the firm hand of a man who could master a vicious dog, earning its devotion and loyalty through the doling out of attention and reward.

Wearing a collar wasn't exactly Taras' style, though there were all sorts of loyalty.

"Fair enough," he said with an untroubled smile.

"What is it that you need to know?"

Date: 2008-02-08 10:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
"Izvinitchye, comrade," Ilarion said, unmoved. "I was under the impression that this was only your first housekeeping task for our particular household. Not your first experience with heavy housework, period."

For the first time since Oleksei's arrival, Isaev frowned.

Protocol in these clandestine matters was generally benign and purposeful. Information was communicated in affirmatives and assurances, meaningful nods and concrete statements of neutral brevity.

The last deep-cleaning domestic help he'd engaged had strolled in and pulled off his gloves. "Done," he'd said, and thrown an envelope onto the table. "For Aleksandr's records," he'd added, with a dark undertone that bled through, and Lasha had coolly taken the envelope and put it directly in his inner pocket with only a cursory glance, enough to tell that something else contained inside had also bled through. There was no need to verify the contents.

"I must assume this, because I know you aren't toying with me," Ilarion added with a smile. "That would be anathema, even for you."

He leveled his gaze, fingers rested neatly on the edge of his wine glass.

"You were asked to do some heavy labor," Ilarion said calmly, the words like bloodless ash.

"Is it done?"

Date: 2008-02-08 07:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras smiled, amused and tolerant.

He met Isaev's eyes directly, watching him, unfazed by the hoar of Ilarion's arctic regard.

"Is that all you wanted to know? And here I thought you'd want to hear the details."

His voice was low and lightly goading, and he paused to lift his glass and take another sip before he continued.

"'Heavy housework' isn't exactly the sort of job you give to a man you don't trust," he said, mildly. "Seems like the sort of job you'd give to an old family friend."

Taras raised his brows.

"The type of person you'd ask to spy on a Muscovite housewife with no questions asked, and not a word to your father about it."

He spoke of the favor he'd done for Ilarion openly, pointedly, in counterpoint to Isaev's euphemisms and veiled references.

Taras set his wineglass down, and sat back.

"I know you'd know that sort of person wouldn't show up to a meeting like this unless the 'housework' was done, so..."

Taras trailed off for a moment, smiling.

"...I assume you must be toying with me."

Date: 2008-02-08 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion didn't reply at first, but let the subsequent lacuna luxuriate for a dozen audible ticks of the expensive watch on Oleksei's solid, punishing wrist.

Lasha raised his wine glass to his lips, as the silence was interrupted and a waiter appeared in carrying two wide, shallow bowls. He served them swiftly as a winged angel, his face masked, unresponsive beyond the point of noncommittal.

"Lobster bisque," he said, and was gone.

The bisque was very rich, a pale, fragrant orange, the scarcely viscid consistency of a velouté, and smooth as velvet. It was served in small, potent quantities, merely an inch of opaque liquid beautifully pooled and lining the shallow bowl, garnished with a dusting of cracked pepper and a touch of grated white truffle.

Lasha smiled, slowly.

"Da, Tarashik. I know that. Though you shouldn't taunt me."

An expansive silence ensued while they regarded each other. Neither gaze flickered, or betrayed an inch.

"...We're not children any more."

He picked up the ornate soup spoon that lay beside the plate.

"This was a personal matter, not a matter of commerce, and for that reason, I chose a friend. A good friend, and a very bad man. I would not do that if I did not trust him. But you must also understand that this is another matter altogether from where we've been before, and we should not be careless here on the precipice."

Ilarion glanced down at the innocuous bisque, warm and delicate, waiting to be consumed with leisurely delectation.

"I do not engage associations lightly, Taras. I think you understand my position. I cannot possibly allow anyone within range that I do not have absolute disclosure from, and confidence in. Some good faith is in order, if the next level of our relationship is to...flourish."

Ilarion paused, looking up, his expression hard and unvarnished.

"If you value my friendship, comrade, you will tell me that Masha's undesirable was expunged permanently, unceremoniously and expediently. Without complication or incident."

He laughed, softly.

"Do that for me, Taraschik, and I may propose marriage."

Date: 2008-02-08 08:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras chuckled, and relented.

He smiled, his good humor genuine now, instead of sardonic.

"Lasha. You don't need to worry. No complications, no incidents. No one saw. He didn't even know what was happening until the end."

The boy's only crime, as far as Taras had been able to tell, was being both bourgeois and foolish enough to court a daughter of the Ministry. Ilarion's sister was fetching, to be sure, but her father's position should have been enough of a deterrent to discourage suitors outside of her station.

It was too bad that the boy had to pay such a price for being a lovesick fool, but sometimes that was the way the world worked.

"No one will find the body," he told Ilarion, with quiet surety. "And even if they somehow did..."

He shook his head.

"...there's no way to identify it."

Date: 2008-02-08 10:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion raised his eyebrows.

"Good," he said, succinctly. "That's very good."

So was the bisque, he thought. Taras had yet to disturb the surface of his own. He was missing out, thought Ilarion, obliquely.

"And he never saw it coming."

Rhetorical, because of course the idealist prick wouldn't see Taras coming. From what he'd heard, no one ever did. Not that he worked with such finesse, but rather he struck with absolute and unhesitating brutality.

Utter commitment.

Lasha relaxed, visibly, and laughed quietly to himself.

"Much ado about nothing." A shrug. "But what can be done, comrade. Custom is custom."

He settled into the armchair, unguarded now, reaching for his wine once more and taking an appreciative sip.

After a suitable pause, Lasha pulled a black attache case onto the table and opened it, tossing a single file onto the table between them.

"In the interest of being a good husband."

He watched as Oleksei regarded the folder with benign interest.

"...You'll be pleased to know that your record has been wholly expunged, comrade."

Ilarion watched him intently, smiling all the while.

"Burned clean. Cauterized, sterilized and reborn as the firebird. You, my friend, are a decent citizen."

For the first time since you left the nipple, he thought.

Lasha paused, as Taras reached for the file, noting a scalloped edge of green- black design on his wrist, just visible beneath the cufflinked edge of his sleeve.

"On the other hand," he observed, with arid amusement, "There's nothing I can do for your private record keeping. That seems to be...indelible ink."

Date: 2008-02-08 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras glanced up, then followed Ilarion's gaze to his wrist.

He smirked slightly as he saw it, the tip of his dagger-and-snake tattoo, the edge apparent but still largely obscured under his slouched sleeve.

Taras had been careful to allow no tattoos that were visible when wearing long sleeves and normal clothing. Some men in the gulag had gotten tattoos on their necks and hands, even the top of their shaven heads, but Taras had been thinking of the future.

He looked back at Ilarion.

"It is," he said, modestly. "And that's not the only one, of course."

Taras wondered if his comrade would be shocked to see them all, designs intricate and simple, their variety and number and placement. Nothing that Isaev hadn't seen before on the bodies of innumerable criminals, Taras supposed, but perhaps it would be different to see them decorating the skin of a childhood friend.

His eyes went to the file.

Taras opened it carefully, as if he expected it to disintegrate at this touch.

It was not that he didn't take Isaev at his word, but rather, that he wanted the pleasure of seeing it for himself.

The folder was real under his fingers, if gratifying slender, and as his eye scanned down the simple, unremarkable record, his lips curved into a smile.

"This...does please me, comrade," he said slowly, and set it down again.

Taras had been hoping for this very eventuality as a result of doing favors for the Isaevs. He hadn't been expecting it this soon, but he found it wholly agreeable, nonetheless.

Opportunities that had been closed to him before were now possibilities.

In the eyes of the State, he was a whole new man.

Belatedly, he picked up his spoon and tried the lobster bisque, finding it to be incredibly rich and smooth on his tongue, tangy, with the consistency of a heavy cream.

It was exquisite, and a taste Taras found he acquired immediately.

After a few spoonfuls, he sat the spoon down and paused to wipe his mouth on the pristine napkin.

Taras' gaze turned thoughtful.

"I suppose I'll accept your offer."

His mismatched eyes narrowed with amusement as he regarded Ilarion.

"I'm finding the dowry to my liking."

Date: 2008-02-09 02:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
One side of Ilarion's mouth drew into a pronounced smile.

"Wait until the honeymoon."

His voice, though wry, held enigmatic promise.

Lasha paused as a pair of attendants ghosted through once more, collecting the first course and laying out small cold dishes- caviar, creme fraiche, toast points and paté, as well as two shots of premium vodka, the chilled surface still frosted.

Ilarion watched them idly, then they were gone once more. He liked the service here. They knew they meaning of unobtrusive, and excelled in the art of self-effacement.

"But there's no hurry to rush to consummation," Lasha resumed, with a quiet laugh. "It's been a long time, Taras."

He glanced at Oleksei again, his eyes seeking the wrist that hinted at the living gallery beneath. All signs of its existence were hidden now, as Taras had covertly adjusted his sleeve after Ilarion had mentioned it.

He was silent for a moment, wondering how far the network of cautionary icons extended, and what tales it told.

Over time in the Ministry, both he and Nika had become quite expert at reading the semaphore behind the tattoos. They were often blackly amusing, or the images innocuous in relation to the things they stood for.

He knew he could read Taras' body like an open book of criminal history, if the opportunity ever arose.

"I'm sorry about your time in the North, comrade," Ilarion said, pouring him more wine. "We intervened as soon as we were able."

Date: 2008-02-09 07:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"Don't apologize, comrade."

Taras looked across the table at Ilarion, his gaze shadowing, slightly.

"I'm just grateful for what you did."

Six months, he'd spent in the Zone, six months out of a five-year sentence that would have been served in full if not for the Isaevs' interference on his behalf.

Taras had come out with mind and body intact, which was more than many could say.

He shook his head.

"It wasn't a good place, but I'm sure you know that."

Taras let the understatement hang in the air and turned his attention to the food, which was laid out on small plates like samples. He followed Ilarion's example, serving himself, trying each, sipping wine in between.

"Delicious," he pronounced, finally, then sat back in his seat.

Ilarion looked far more relaxed now, less removed and distant than he had when Taras had arrived. Spring thaw. It eased the angles of Ilarion's face and recalled the far younger man that Taras had known well, back when life was simpler.

He raised a brow.

"Speaking of Masha...how is your sister doing?"

Date: 2008-02-09 07:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
"She was upset," answered Lasha, succinctly. His voice softened. "One might even say hysterical."

He drank more wine, savoring the way it mingled in complement to the salty brine of the caviar.

"And yet, she'll forget him soon enough, the moment the next one comes along."

He paused, looking up.

"Someone will have to marry her some day. I'm not enamored of the idea."

Ilarion absently took in the dichotomy of Taras' strange odd lot eyes.

"...Pity there are no good men."

Date: 2008-02-09 08:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"Oh, none at all?"

Taras raised a brow, studying Ilarion idly.

"Maybe you'll have to settle for a bad one, then. You could do worse."

The lightness of Taras' gaze had returned fully now and he smirked, faintly.

He took a sip of wine and considered Ilarion for a few moments.

"What about a family friend?" he added. "Someone...trusted."

Taras leaned back in his seat.

"I'm sure you could find someone reliable, someone your father knew...say, someone with a clean record."

Date: 2008-02-09 09:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion studied him, beginning to smile.

"You almost had me, comrade."

He nodded knowingly, slowly.

"I'll grant you that much. But I know you, Taras. Power is your sex. Violence is your love. Even when you want a woman, I doubt very much she winds up an honest one."

He gave a clipped laugh, and a dark wink, sipping his wine.

"But one thing I know. A man like you would have no use for some cold-hearted pedigree from a gilded cage."

Ilarion raised an eyebrow, and his smile intensified.

"However, she's rebellious enough to favor the idea. Beware how you tease, or you're liable to wind up a wolf-in-law."

Date: 2008-02-09 09:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras smirked.

"And here I'd thought you wouldn't want her to steal me away from you."

He had seen Mariyja before, on occasion, mostly from a distance. They had never been formally introduced, not that Taras would have expected such a thing.

Ilarion had been particular about shielding her from Taras, which had not escaped his notice. Taras had spent some time deciding if he was going to be offended, but ultimately decided not to be. A man had the right to be protective of his sister, and keep her safe from proletariat thugs.

Masha was a pretty girl, with the striking features typical of the Isaev clan, graceful cheekbones and smoky eyes, and the most refined of sardonic curves to her lips. Not unlike Ilarion himself, or Lasha's younger brother, for that matter.

"Maybe you're right," he said with a shrug.

His gaze went to Ilarion, goading, but dark.

"Look at what happened to the last bastard who had his eye on Masha, after all."

He laughed at that, then downed the shot of vodka, a toast to the dead boy who'd thought he could rescue the princess from her tower.

"But I suppose there's always your brother."

Date: 2008-02-10 12:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion blinked.

To the casual observer, it would have been nothing. To him, it was a reaction analogous to a physical start, a hurricane in a teacup.

Taras was surely joking, in their customary black manner, and he would normally never feel the impact of such offhand jest in his bones this way, but something about the way that Oleksei threw off the jab, something about how easily it flipped from his tongue...

As if he scented the iniquity that had once lain between Andrei and himself, like a wolfhound uniquely sensitive to tracking the sweet tang of all natural corruption.

But that was preposterous in the extreme. Taras knew nothing of his siblings, aside from their identities; he'd had the occasion to brush shoulders with Andrei only in passing. Lasha had been careful to keep them separated from his own dealings. Oleksei had seen Andrei fight, however, and perhaps something had been given away then, something perhaps, during the catastrophic bout with Tourangeau.

His cheekbones grew hot thinking of the aftermath, and his fingers tightened around his glass.

But the instinct of self preservation was strongly ingrained, and an arctic chill settled over his shoulders, blunting and smoothing his emotions into cool detachment.

"My brother," he said.

He paused, then raised his brow slowly.

"Well, I suppose a man acquires certain tastes in the Zone."

His smirk followed at a leisurely pace, nearly a ten seconds upon.

Date: 2008-02-10 07:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras held a straight face until Isaev smirked, then he laughed, and shook his head.

"Your face, comrade. You looked like you just found a weevil in your caviar."

He held up his palm to signal for a truce, shoulders still shaking with laughter.

"Don't worry, Lasha. Your brother's virtue is safe."

Deliberately, he turned his attention back to the food, pausing to finish up what was left of the paté, which he found to be quite rich and intricately flavorful, but at the same time pleasantly smooth. It occurred to him that he had yet to try a single thing here that he had ever eaten before in his life, save for the thin triangles of bread, though even they were better than what he was used to.

He imagined such a meal to be incredibly expensive, though something Ilarion enjoyed as often as he wanted.

Taras sat back, and regarded Ilarion.

"Actually, I haven't seen your brother in quite a while, now that I think of it. The last time..."

His brow furrowed, remembering.

"Was the night of the fight."

Taras shook his head.

"I remember it well, comrade. I made a lot of money that night."

It was barely a joking matter. Isaev's younger brother had killed his opponent, not in a single blow or unlucky combination, but rather through sheer brutality, pummeling the frenchman again and again until the man had simply lain where he'd fallen, and never got up again.

The killing itself did not bother him, but Taras had found the display remarkable, unlike anything he'd seen outside of the Zone.

Something changed in a man when he fought for his life. An animal instinct awakened. That was what he'd seen in Andrei, a particular mercilessness that he'd found familiar.

It had caused Lasha concern, Taras recalled, and of course there had been a cover-up. Andrei had faced no repercussions about what he had done.

Taras gave a casual shrug.

"How is he doing? Is he still in the army?"

Date: 2008-02-10 09:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
"Spetsnaz," replied Lasha with a smile. "An elite squad based out in Tselinoyarsk. I hold out hope that he'll come to his senses, and return to Leningrad soon. And be idle."

He frowned.

"I don't want him doing this work."

It was unvarnished, plain and sincere. Taras was one man with whom Ilarion had never deigned to gild the lily.

Omission, perhaps, in the case of his darker secrets, but more often disclosure when it came to intimacies of thought and expression.

Naïve, thought Lasha cynically, to want to shield him from his MVD legacy, when GRU had made him a cheerful murder machine.

The waiter brought tiny silver spoons and two minute ramequins of a single tiny scoop of raspberry sorbet, garnished with mint.

Ilarion took up his spoon, brandishing it in his tapered fingers as the server departed.

"Sorbet," he explained. "To cleanse the palate before the main course."

He nicked the ball of rose colored ice and took a bite.

"You'll find it to be very sensual, as well as enhancing the flavor."

He nodded.

"Try it, comrade. Try it."

He found something inexplicably appealing about showing such things to Oleksei, who was such an apt pupil, hungry for new experiences and horizons.

Hard, and yet unjaded.

There was a lot of potential to be found in a man like that, of human clay and stone resilience.

Ilarion paused, while he considered his companion for a moment, with mildly slatted eyes.

"...What do you think of it, Taraschik?"

He set his spoon down carefully.

"This work," he added, to clarify.

Date: 2008-02-10 12:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Carefully, Taras scooped a tiny spoonful of sorbet and let it dissolve on his tongue.

Flavor and temperature permeated his mouth, the sensation of melting ice refreshing and cleansing.

Taras licked his lips, shaking his head.

"I think the sorbet's damn good, comrade, but the work..."

He paused before taking the next scoop, looking across the table at Ilarion, who watched him with a coolly interested gaze.

"I think you're right not to want your brother to do it. Not that he couldn't. He'd probably like the challenge. Man against man."

From what he'd seen from the younger Isaev's fights, Andrei would probably take to that part of it with relish, he thought.

Taras considered.

"But...seems like there's a price to pay."

He shrugged.

"Though once you pay it...."

Taras took in another scoop of sorbet, savoring the flavor, letting it last on his tongue.

"You're entitled to enjoy the the benefits, I'd say."

Date: 2008-02-11 12:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
Ilarion nodded, twirling the sprig of mint between his fingertips.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, indeed you are."

He glanced around the room, sitting back and crossing his legs, knee over ankle.

"All this, you see...is well and fine. Luxury is better than want, leisure is better than toil. I have no quarrel with finery. I was born in a gilded caul, comrade. I nursed on the nectar of pearls. As did Andrei, as did Mariyja."

Lasha paused, watching the remnant of his sorbet soften slowly into a jewel-toned slope like a tiny, fantastic peak in a sugary wilderness.

"But for me, there was a price for that birth."

He reached for the spoon once more, and caught the last of the ice, bringing it to his lips absently. Saving it from languishing by giving it oblivion. Consumed to salvation.

"For I was also born to this uniform." He smirked, darkly whimsical. "If you were to strip me naked, Taras, you would see nothing but blightless buttermilk. Well fed and well bred. There are no tattoos of iniquity. But I am branded, nonetheless."

He hesitated, as if shaping his words behind his lips before he spoke them, shearing them like topiary.

"I took up this calling at an early age. Like the tsarevitch grows with the knowledge that Russia will one day weight his shoulders, I knew this cap would weight my brow. As such, I embraced it utterly, for there is no power in resignation. No percentage in martyrdom."

Taras was watching him, his expression attentive as a cat's. A tomcat, thought Lasha vaguely. Yes, that was what Oleksei resembled. An animal that had never been a pet, unaltered and grown to its natural state, with overdeveloped mandible and brow, bossed and bruising.

Ilarion smiled, faintly, a wine-dark stain across pale lips.

"And yet, the devil is ever an honest businessman. Never let it be said, comrade, that men sell their souls without recompense. Not the money. The money is a mere trapping of prestige. Some of it is blatnoy, and some of it is old, but I would have had it regardless."

A pause, as he rubbed the surface of his MVD ring idly.

"No, Taraschik. What I gained in my surrender to fate was unchecked power. And that can be a great consolation, if you allow it."

He closed his eyes briefly.

"Like an orgasm that never recedes, distracting from all pain of severed limbs. Like the burn of vodka against cold. You are immune to the frostbite of our Mother, impervious to her strangling embrace."

Exhaling slowly, his lashes swept open once more, and his lips twitched, repressing a laugh.

"You see that I enjoy my power, Taras. I indulge it, let it take me without shame."

Lasha looked up, his northerly gaze tempered by intention.

"We are all in the Zone, comrade," he said softly. "I prefer to inhabit my own prison."

Date: 2008-02-11 12:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ilarion-isaev.livejournal.com
The door opened, and the server brought in the main course, the perfect medallions of steak done rare, with tiny new potatoes and spears of white asparagus, and sauce bearnaise on the side in a silver boat.

The scent was rich and blooded, and aroused his newly refreshed senses.

Lasha paused, as the waiter poured the wine and left wordlessly, then leaned forward.

"You, Oleksei, were born to a prince's life as well. You were not born a wolf, but a black sheep. Prince of ruin, standing knee-deep in the blood of his fellow ovine. You have paid your own ransom through scars and hardship, and taken what you have through ruthless and callous indifference."

Ilarion raised an eyebrow, deliberately.

"I admire that, Taraschik. The brutality of your will. And it has served you reasonably well in our shattered system. Indeed, it brought you into the wings of my family's nightmare ballet. And it led you here, tonight, to dine with me. You have courted this congress, my friend, like a slow romance, and it pleases me to be romanced."

His words were edged with ice, but sueded soft and polished well.

"Where you are, where you sit at this moment...you are a friend, a sidearm. All this," he gestured- at the exquisitely prepared cuisine, the carpeted walls, the view of a lighted harbor and evening sky, the chandelier that crowned the ceiling above their heads- "is within your touch, because you are my comrade, my associate. When you kiss my lips, vicariously, you will taste all that I survey. And that must please you, or you would not have pursued it so cannily."

Their plates steamed before them, unnoticed.

Taras had not touched his food, but was listening, unmoving, his regard for each word like a suckling child, voracious and rapt. Devouring each, and making them part of his tapestry.

"Money is comfort, and comfort is yours. I offer you these things, but they are yours already through our association. Money is but a pleasure, when you have it, and lightly given to those that favorably impress us."

He paused, sitting back, coolly.

"My father would offer you protection, and compensation. But Taras, I would offer you something more. We have long been friends, but tonight, you came with your lust unchecked and flung down the trophy down before me like a token of intent. An Antony who would demand the consort of his Julius from bended knee. And Caesar cannot help but respond in kind. I admit, this mutual seduction has intrigued me."

Lasha met Oleksei's arresting eyes, one earthy brown, one blanched to pure blue like his own, like a half-wolf cur.

"No more stolen kisses. I am prepared to invite you into my bed."

There was a breathless silence, as the words lingered between them, suspended in ether.

The metaphor was loaded, conveying the full extent of his sentiment on the matter, with all the gravity and blood lust and intimacy accounted for, as well as the surrender of precious and rarified territory.

"This work, is what I offer you. A place at my side, a black sheep in wolves' clothing. Your record is clean, Oleksei. You can have more than crumbs from the table, now."

Lasha took a sip of wine, and frowned.

"The Ministry is not for everyone, but for those who have the nature, it offers pleasures you cannot imagine."

Date: 2008-02-11 07:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras leaned forward, a willing captive of Ilarion's words.

He was aware of the quickened pulse in his throat and the roughened edge to his breathing. The perpetual amusement that let Taras smirk at the world's artifice had fallen from his face in his distraction, leaving an expression that was instead open and unedited.

Isaev had illustrated his offer in fine charcoal strokes, his speech like light and elegant curving shapes, each seeming merely decorative at first, idle designs sketched by a distracted hand. But with Ilarion's final, decisive shadings, the entire picture had become clear.

"The Ministry," Taras murmured.

The enormity of Ilarion's offer settled on him, and Taras found its weight agreeable.

A job in the Ministry. A chance at power. A place at the side of the winter-haired prince, who, one day, would inherit.

Instead of a lifetime of sucking the marrow from the bones of society, Taras could have the fresh kill.

Taras' father was a shadow-man born, a leg-breaker in his youth and a fixer now, a man who brokered criminal favors. It was a legacy Taras stood to inherit as well, but at the same time, Taras wanted more for himself, saw a scope that went beyond the life his father led.

He'd had plans for the newfound legitimacy of his purged record, ideas for ways to let corruption ride on the coattails of business. His connection to the Isaevs entered into his plans, though only in terms of favors, and percentages tithed to look in other directions.

Even as Taras had considered his ambitions, he'd wondered if he'd find satisfaction in them, to be so far removed from the beating heart of conquest.

But this...

Taras became aware that time had passed and he had not moved, or looked away from Ilarion.

This was something entirely different. Never in his imaginings had Taras expected this kind of legitimacy, to not only be a decent citizen, but to be an authority figure. The Ministry had so much power at its disposal that it would be a travesty not to use and abuse it.

A clever man, a thinking man, could live by his own rules within the boundaries of his position.

Taras was just that kind of man.

He made himself sit back in his chair.

His heart still raced, aroused and passionate, and he drew in a slow breath.

The smell of the rare and tender meat hit him suddenly, and the scent of blood made his mouth water.

Taras licked his lips.

"I accept," he said, quietly, and with a rare gravity, holding Lasha's gaze.

August 2010

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