Елена Вахненко

Selling your soul

He believed that the most important thing was to enjoy life as much as possible. Well, he had been given such an opportunity... But it turned out that sometimes the price of pleasure is your soul.

Russian version of the story

 

It happened in early spring around midnight.

Nature didn’t seem to have decided yet whether to finally give up the colds, and the weather had been changing almost daily, so melted snowdrifts coexisted with liquid mud, and the wind hurled the rain-and-snow mix into our faces.

The night was special: the darkness turned into the deep, all-pervading infinity... it had enveloped deserted streets in the soft velvet, and only a ghostly light given by the thin сrescent moon, was timidly illuminating the dark alleys with silver strokes. And a single lantern struggled to beam its uneven glow.

I shivered not with cold but with a presentiment of danger. I never believed in intuition, but now I had a strange and not too pleasant feeling of impending troubles or maybe changes. Well, I couldn’t define that fragile and almost unreal feeling that existed right on the edge of my awareness.

From the outside, I seemed fearsome to a few occasional passers-by. It's small wonder, just imagine: a tall and tough guy hiding in a particularly dense shade around the house corner. I don’t belong to harmless people, but at that very moment, I was interested in none of the late wayfarers.

Once I thought about it, a new character had literally materialized out of the night darkness (at least it seemed so) in the nearest alley, a character, who couldn't leave me indifferent. Through the yellowish liquid light of a single lantern, I was able to discern a tall slender silhouette in a long black cloak. My attention was attracted by a special grace and truly royal bearing, noticeable even at a distance and in the twilight. The stranger looked around slowly, nodded to some of his thoughts and walked with jaunty steps into the darkness of the courtyards. Obeying an incomprehensible impulse, I put out my cigarette hastily and followed him.

He turned the corner, stopped and gave me a disgruntled look. The night traveler had an expressive face with a bit oriental features: swivel-eyed, with high cheekbones and black, thick eyebrows. Jet-black hair fell on the ears with soft waves and a noble stature gently hinted at considerable force.

-What do you need? - he asked in displeasure, his voice was also expressive: low, deep, not very loud, but surprisingly clear.

I was confused. What can one answer without fully understanding the meaning of his own actions?

The stranger had been examining me for a few seconds, and there was a new expression appeared in his eyes - eyes whose color was difficult to disassemble in such thick darkness. And again, I had lost myself in conjectures, unable to determine the meaning of this expression. Annoyance? Satisfaction? Watchful curiosity? Or, perhaps, the gaze of the wanderer who interested me included a lot of different shades and emotions?

-Aren't you going to regret? - asked a man, with a slight irony in his voice; his thin lips twitched in an unkind smile. - Believe me, it's worth considering. However, the one fact of you seeing me is evidence of the choice made. And yet - won't you change your mind?

I was seized by a strange panic, sweat droplets appeared on my forehead (despite the evening dampness!), and a wave of sickening horror whelmed my soul. But where had this almost animal fear come from, after all, I was not a coward, quite the contrary?! Having such an adventurous character, I was constantly looking for thrills able to quench the irrepressible thirst for new experiences, and the adrenaline rushing in my blood could be the best way to combat boredom! So what was happening to me?!

I straightened up and forced myself to firmly answer:

-I never change my mind! - there was a mockery in my voice, at such ambiguous moments I deliberately behaved aggressively, trying to be rude instead of being confused. Here and now I smiled impudently and added insolently: - Maybe you are afraid to lead me?

What the heck am I saying?! Where could he lead me?! However, the stranger did not show either surprise or anger. He just shrugged his shoulders and said laconically:

-Let’s go!

And I swear, it was simply impossible to resist the will concluded in this short order! Like an obedient little dog, I followed after my guide, wondering in my mind what kind of adventure I was doomed to…

Oh, if only had I known! However, probably, it would not have changed anything... I never listened to clever advice.

* * *

We turned into the nearest lane, in the silence of the night our steps echoed resoundingly. I nervously looked around, although it was not my first time to wander at night. I was used to living a nightlife…

-Who are you? - I asked, just to break the silence having become oppressive. However, I really wanted to know who my new acquaintance was, although I doubted that I would hear the answer (in any case, a truthful one). I was right - the man turned for a moment, and I managed to notice a grim smile on his lips.

-I can not say who I am, - he answered coldly, without slowing the pace. His voice sounded as if from afar. - And you don’t need to know.

-But at least tell me, what's your name? - I demanded, irritated and offended at his derogatory tone. What the ridiculous mystery?!

There was a muffled laugh, followed by words soaked with irony:

-Oh, I have a lot of names! Which one would you like to hear?

I no longer felt fear, anger had eclipsed all other feelings. He really fancied himself!

-Any of them! - I cried emphatically. - Name the one you consider the most important.

-Oh! - he turned for a split second, his faint smile flashed again, and a shiver pierced me to the bone. - You want a lot! This name is too personal...

-Well, well, - I snorted trying to make my own voice sound arrogant. - Then reveal any of your names.

Thinking, he paused for a moment.

-Well ... let Don be. Is it ok?

I shrugged contemptuously and frowned:

-Don means "mister"? Don Carlos...

-I don't know anything about Carlos, but "mister" is quite suitable, - Don replied cheerfully.

I only clenched my fists in silence. The irritation had reached the point of explosion, and I kicked the nearest stone with all my might, just to throw out the accumulated anger. For some reason, I didn't want to get rid of rabies throttling me in the simplest way, which I usually used in such situations - namely, by provoking a fight with an offender. The instinct told me that the outcome of such a clash would be predetermined in advance, and I would not be the winner…

We entered one of the houses, it was dark and damp inside. However the darkness did not prevent me from navigating in space, I was used to strolling along such unlighted staircases during moonless nights…

Don was also moving easily and noiselessly, as if making similar walks every evening (and why not?). He walked up to the third floor (of course, I followed him as his silent shadow) and pushed the door opposite the elevator. He neither knocked nor rang the doorbell, but just pushed the door to find it, to my surprise, unlocked. Don disappeared into the depths of the apartment, I, being a little surprised, hurried after him.

I did not have time to look properly - my companion crossed the narrow entrance hall very quickly and entered the room. When I reached him, Don was already standing near the wide open window.

Taking advantage of a short respite, I looked around with secret curiosity. It was too dark to see details, but even such scanty lighting made it possible to state with confidence: there was nothing special about this room. Ordinary room with ordinary furnishings. I could not help feeling disappointed: I was expecting to see something intriguing! Maybe a candle-lit hall with old furniture, or stone walls, or something else of the sort... And here I had only found simple sofas and cabinets, which you were free to buy at any specialized store!

The gush of the icy wind burst into the open window, and I shrinking with the cold frowned in confusion: what did this Dan hope to see through the darkness? What was he waiting for?

-It's time… - the one who I was thinking about whispered softly, and added in a low voice: - Come on! Repeat after me!

Why could not I resist the strength of his quiet voice ?! I, whom all our company was afraid of, I, the soul of so many insane enterprises?! And, nevertheless, I was helpless…

Don climbed onto the windowsill with a light leap which would have recommended even a circus acrobat. Then he quickly waved his hand, silently ordering to follow him. I humbly stepped forward and suddenly backed away. The horror made me become covered with a sticky sweat, so the frost had seemed much colder and damper.

-Are you crazy?! - I shouted hoarsely.- I'm not going to commit suicide! And I will not make you a company in this venture!

I expected any turn of events, up to participation in the bloody massacre, but this outcome was still a surprise - and extremely unpleasant one. I was far from being a saint (to put it mildly), I had experienced a lot, despite my youth (after all, I was only twenty-seven - a real childhood for a man of nowadays!), but I had never, even in the most unpleasant moments of my life, thought of suicide. Each of us is given a unique opportunity to think, feel, breathe... whatever! And voluntarily depriving oneself of this great gift always seemed a madness to me!

- Do I look like a suicide bomber? - Don inquired coldly and finally deigned to turn around.

I cooled off a bit and, shivering under his fixed piercing gaze, replied reluctantly, trying to look away:

-Probably not. But it seemed to me that you were about to jump out of the window ...

-So it is, - he agreed immediately.

I looked at the interlocutor with surprise. The expression of his face remained completely unruffled.

-But… - I did not know what words to choose, how to show bewilderment and fear… because I already knew that I could not resist the desire of this terrible (truly terrible!) man! - But doesn't the aim to jump out the window mean committing suicide?

-Of course, - he nodded with a cold, mocking smile, still standing on the windowsill and looking down at me. - For people - yes. But I'm not really a human.

I believed him. He was not human at all... but I was!

He read my thoughts:

-Yes, you are human, but I can lead you. The only condition is unlimited trust and obedience. And you will follow me to my world. A moment of hesitation or doubt - and you will die! Or maybe not… after all, it's only the third floor.

Only the third floor! I swallowed nervously and asked uncertainly:

-What is your world?

-You'll see, - Don replied.

- And there is no other way to reach this very place?

He shrugged his shoulders and explained, being obviously irritated:

-Well, this way is almost the only one, the best... so far. A few others are even worse. This one is my favorite. I always enjoyed flying.

So did I... Had I known what my love for flying would lead me to!

-Well, are you going? - Don asked impatiently. - Nothing will happen to you, I promise, if you follow my advice and stop worrying. I promise.

And I gave up. For a moment I closed my eyes trying to relax and believe in the truthfulness of his words. "I promise"... He didn't seem to be the one who squandered empty promises…

-I don't advise anyone to repeat my experiment, - a soft distinct voice resounded as if through cotton wool. - But I can take you to my world, only me.

I opened my eyes and climbed onto the windowsill; I'm afraid I was moving without Don's agility and gracefulness. My strange companion took my hand and looked into my eyes, finally, I saw their color - black and green... A second later I'd lost the ability to think, I seemed to have dissolved turning into the air, into this cold starless night... I had disappeared or maybe become someone else…

Don stepped into the void, I blindly followed him... In future, I sometimes tried to remember that I was feeling in that brief moment of the transition from my world to his world. There were almost no memories left, but I could say with certainty that this flight was completely different from the fall. So, Don did not deceive. He really could go into his reality in such an unusual manner...

* * *

I was still standing on the windowsill when the ability to think and feel came back to me. For a moment I was surprised and partly disappointed; was that flight just a dream? But the next second, I turned awkwardly and looked with horror and delight at an unfamiliar room sunk in a twilight.

Without paying any attention to my understandable stupor, Don jumped off the windowsill and receded from view at the far side of the room. Being in some kind of trance, I took ground too and gazed eagerly into the darkness that remained impenetrable not for long. Soon, I was able to discern the slightest details, as my companion was slowly lighting candles in luxurious bronze candelabras arranged in corners and decorating tables… And then, a few minutes later, there was a huge hall appeared in a trembling ghostly light: a hall with stone walls, a smooth marble floor, ancient heavy furniture upholstered mahogany and purple silk... I felt a smell of something sweet, and this fragrance was only strengthening the oppressive feeling of unreality of what was going on.

I swore under my breath. Don looked at me briefly, a gloomy displeasure had flashed in his green eyes.

-Why are you so surprised? - my guide inquired coldly.

It cheered me up:

-Why? Do you want the full list?

-It may be a list, - he shrugged and went on to the next chandelier. The spacious hall had been gradually filling with soft, subdued light. How many candles were there?!

-Okay, as you wish! - I tried to carry myself in the same icy calmness way as this amazing gentleman did, but a bitter irony sounded in my voice, a sure sign of concealed excitement. - Ignoring the fact that I managed to jump out of the window and find myself alive... and still standing on the windowsill... this fact is undoubtedly easy to explain! But this room ... and it's not a room! Rather, this is the palace chamber! Where did it come from in our modern urbanized world?!

Don stopped near a long shelf with thick book volumes in battered leather bindings resting, and gave me a thoughtful look. A faint smile had wrung the corners of his thin, bloodless lips.

-The key word is OUR! - he uttered the last word with pressure. - Why do you think this world to be yours? The one you are used to?

-Yes, really… - I muttered a little crossly. - And why should I think so?

I walked around the hall, trying to seem relaxed and unconstrained - but, judging by Don's mocking look, I did not succeed in this endeavor at all. In order to break the gloomy silence, I noted with carelessness waving my hand:

- Funnily, candelabras turn out to be able to light the hall quite well!

-I suppose you mean candles, - he corrected me with a grin, carefully watching every my gesture... and making me really nervous!

-Yes, yes, - I said, although the problem of illumination bothered me less than anything in the world at the moment.

After a short pause, Don said:

-Continuing the theme of your and my worlds... look at your clothes!

I looked down in bewilderment, expecting to see my favorite back skin, but instead, I had found something like a dark swamp velvet jacket embroidered with silver threads and decorated with rhinestones. Never in my life would I go out wearing such a dress! Swallowing, I grabbed the lacy gate of a snow-white blouse and groaned aloud:

-What have you done to me?! I do not want to wear this crap!

-They expect it here, - Don said indifferently. - And personally, I did nothing. The reality itself creates the world. You can not be in this environment wearing your usual clothes. Do you understand?

-No! I objected angrily. - You are the same as before!

He looked at his own long black cloak with a smile and explained easily:

-I dress in such a way on purpose as so to remain myself in any world. I have to travel a lot, you know!

-And what else has been changed in my appearance?! - I hissed faintly. - Hairstyle?

I palpated my hair, and the worst suspicions had been confirmed - a short pig shave turned into soft curls.

-Go to the mirror and see for yourself, - suggested Don, clearly amused.

I obeyed and almost ran to the half-walled mirror framed by gold. Staring at the reflection, I began to examine my losses.

The trousers appeared to be even worse than the clown caftan: too narrow, black, shiny, resembling leggings, with something like short bloated bubbles from the top. Patent leather boots, lots of silver embroidery and transparent iridescent stones, velvet black beret with a white feather... The face and figure, thanks to heaven, remained the same, but a hairdo! Hair managed to grow to the middle of the neck and treacherously scrolled - I knew my chevelure had that unbearable feature that made me very ashamed.

-I look like a jester! - I muttered doomedly. - A nightmare, a complete nightmare...

-It's just a habit, - Don said. - Everyone dresses like that, so it seems quite normal.

-It seems! - I mocked him angrily. - Yea, it only seems so!

-I'm afraid the change in dress was hardest for you, - Don stated with surprise and shook his head in bewilderment. - Well, perhaps you will not refuse to have dinner with me?

-It's a bit late for dinner, - I grumbled, but a riotous appetite awakened by emotions defeated pride. - Although I do not mind.

-Then let's go, - Don grinned.

* * *

The dining room was quite spacious, although it was inferior in the size to the room we'd just left. Faithless trembling twilight created by several candles in the center of the table acted oppressively. And in general, the entourage was "disturbing": stone walls, uneven and rough, dense shadows in the corners, the ceiling lost in the darkness... I involuntarily cringed.

Still, there was something delighting the eye in this dark, damp room. Namely - a variety of dishes placed on a long and narrow wooden table. The number of dishes exceeded a dozen, and each of them exuded an unusually appetizing aroma which caused a hungry spasm in my stomach. I swallowed trying to cope with the instinct urging me to wire into a meal and managed to squeeze out an implausible laugh:

- It’s a real charm, huh?

Don looked at me attentively and nodded briefly; then he sat on a chair having chosen the one with a high carved back and pointed with the inviting gesture at the wooden stool next to him. But not wanting to be so close to him, almost shoulder to shoulder, I made myself snug in front of Don and stared impatiently at the stew exhaling the thick steam; I was ready to pounce on the food hungrily.

-May I get a treat?

-Wait, you will be served, - Don said with a wry smile, and I turned around uncomprehendingly.

It turned out there were three more people in the dining room: two men in simple black suits and a pretty young woman in a brown uniform. I sighed disappointedly: the girl could not be called unsympathetic, but her expression remained absent, her gaze was sliding indifferently around the subjects, not a drop of emotion in a pale emaciated face…

-Who are they? - I asked in a whisper.

Don shrugged indifferently:

- Slaves.

-Servants? - I specified.

A strange feeling flashed through Don's black-green eyes.

-No... - he drawled slowly, with an obvious pleasure, completely incomprehensible to me. - Not servants. Slaves.

I winced and looked at them more carefully. The girl was silently buttering the bread and putting transparent slices of cheese on the top; then she passed the ready cheese sandwiches to one of the guys who was filling a platter with them. The second man was skillfully slicing off pieces of a well-roasted chicken. I shivered: there was no liveliness in quick coordinated actions of servants (slaves?), movements seemed mechanical... They weren't slaves, but robots!

-What's wrong with them? - I asked demandingly.

Don leaned back in his chair letting the girl, who had gone thorough-stitch with sandwiches, put a fair amount of omelette with something like fried bacon onto his plate. At the same time, one of the men took up my still empty plate.

-Someday I'll tell you, - the owner of the mysterious mansion promised. - But not now. Now I advise you to pay attention to dinner.

Oh, I had taken advantage of this advice very willingly; moreover, just a minute later I stopped noticing the servants obediently scurrying around the table and deftly filling the plates and glasses. Three human beings seemed to have turned into a kind of wordless noiseless shadows to me, into a kind of moving details of the interior, and for the first time, I shared the arrogance of true aristocrats who did not consider servants to be equal people.

We switched to dessert when Don finally spoke. Unlike me, he ate very moderately and even did not touch the omelette.

-I see you like to eat, - he remarked beginning on the blueberry pie.

I smiled contentedly and took up a large portion of chocolate ice cream, although I had already stuffed down my throat with a fair share of fries, three sandwiches, sausage sliced, and many other delicious dishes.

-I'm a fan of pleasure, - I confessed, sipping a third glass of wine.

Don nodded.

-I know.

This confident statement made me shake myself and remember where I was. Straightening up in my chair, I looked at the interlocutor with watchfulness:

-You know? But how?

- Oh, I can read by face.

-Physiognomist? - I inquired sarcastically.

-Something of the sort, - agreed Don. - But my abilities are wider than those of ordinary physiognomists. Although facial expressions and gestures can tell a lot. But not only they.

-And what else? - I grumbled discontentedly, pushing the vase with ice cream, reduced by a half, and without much desire, more automatically, proceeding to the plum jam.

-Emotions and feelings are very brightly reflected in the aura, - he explained, as if it was a trifle.

I stared at him in amazement.

-In the aura? Oh well!

-If you can not see the aura, it does not mean the others are just as blind, - he said indifferently. - I can tell a lot about you.

-Well, come on, I listen carefully, - I said coldly, having been deprived of my appetite completely. - What can you tell about me?

He inclined his head and peered at me. I shivered under his steadfast unblinking stare. Don seemed to be looking at something inaccessible to me.

-Your ideology is based on the fact that the most important thing is the pleasure the life brings.

-And what's wrong with that? - I asked defiantly. - Life should bring joy.

-That's right, - Don didn’t argue. - But your concept of joy is limited by the level of instincts.

-And again, what's wrong?

-I'm not going to moralize, - Don smiled subtly narrowing his eyes a little. - Trust me, your convictions benefit me.

-Why so?

He hesitated before answering:

-I'll tell you, but a little later. First I'll continue. So, you like tasty food, expensive booze, good cigarettes, strong coffee… You love a society of bright frivolous women, you love gambling and computer versions of reality… sometimes you prefer to spend the evening in the company of loyal friends, drinking beer and eating snacks…

I was amazed not even by the murderous accuracy he used to describe my life, but the very fact that a person living in a medieval castle knew about computers and other stuff. I looked at him with horror, but could not read his concealed thoughts, he had too impassive countenance!

-The only thing you avoid is drugs, - he added in surprise.

-Well, of course! - I blurted out, coming to my senses. - I'm not a suicide.

-It all depends! - he grinned and took a gulp from his glass. I followed his example, for I needed to calm down, and as soon as possible. - But we will continue. You like the thrill and crave for variety. You are ready for much for the sake of money... or rather, not for the money itself, but for the fact that you can buy with them.

-You guessed right again, - I tried to squeeze out a laugh. - Who told you so much about my personality?

-You're an orphan and had been brought up in an orphanage, and it left its imprint, - Don said thoughtfully, ignoring my remarks. - Now you're renting an apartment with your friend, you do not officially work anywhere, but, nevertheless, you have money... sometimes a short period of lack of money comes, but it doesn't last too long.

- Do you even know how I make a living? - I asked hoarsely, all covered with a sticky sweat. Did he really know?!

His eyes, blacks with a green gleam, came to rest on my face, and I went cold. He knew, knew, knew! But who had told him?!

-You have a lot of sins, I do not consider it necessary to mention them, - he declared with his icy smile. - This is not the point.

But it was the point to me! After all, he'd known the truth from somewhere! However, I did not have time to question him, Don had already continued:

- So your life goes, Stas. You live for the sake of pleasure, you pay a considerable price, both literally and figuratively, and you do not consider this shameful.

-You even know my name, - I said tensely. - Who told you about me?

He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

-I explained it at the very beginning. You yourself.

-Stop spinning a story! - I got angry. - I do not believe in that! Who?!

-In that case, you should not believe that you are sitting in front of me in this room and devouring this excellent dinner.

I froze not knowing what to say. Don waited a minute and spoke again:

-And your behavior is a bit dangerous… did you think about it?

-Bullshit! - I waved aside. - A lot of people live this way. And my buddies as well.

-But you are special, - Don shook his head. I looked at him in confusion. - Yes, do not compare yourself with ordinary people. You are a very strong person.

I involuntarily felt a rush of pride, although I had never doubted the strength of my character.

-And strong people have a bigger responsibility, - added Don. - Do you realize it?

-Why bigger? - I frowned.

-Well, that is the way of the world. I'm also among the strong ones. And we are talking about the strength of the spirit, not the body; we’re talking about special people with a burning soul, both men, and women… and not necessarily good people… They’re are often not very moral, you know. Here you are, for example.

-And you? - I asked in a bad temper.

-Well, perhaps, that's me, too, - he chuckled. - But, unlike you, I'm well aware of my every action. I understand what I'm doing and why. And you… you don't understand.

-Well, and what are you doing and why?

-I am ready to give a lot for the sake of power and real fullness of life, - Don said softly and distinctly, looking into my eyes and almost hypnotizing me. - You have not experienced the fullness of life yet.

-I don’t agree, - I objected stubbornly, forcing myself to look at his beautiful face, which lacked even a hint of emotion. - I know what the interesting life means.

-Maybe. But you have not tried ALL the sides of this life, - he said insinuatingly, and a faint smile touched his subtle lips. - But I can show and teach…

-If you're talking about drugs again… - I began, but he interrupted me with a disdainful gesture:

-No, I'm talking about something else! So, do you want to know the taste of the real life?

I was seized by the same unaccountable horror I felt a couple of hours ago in a dark alley. Although now my fear was much easier to explain: what did this strange man mean when talking about pleasures if it's not about drugs?

-What's the price? - I tried to make the voice mocking. - My soul? It seems it's the way to conclude such a deal?

- Would you agree? - He glanced at me curiously.

I answered cautiously, weighing every word:

-First, I would find out what exactly is meant by such an exchange... What would I lose? What would I get?

-You’ll find out, - Don nodded. - Of course, you will.

- And signing in the blood? - I was really amused now.

-There is no need to sign anything, - Don grinned. - The main thing is to give your absolute and aware consent. Are you giving it?

- To sell my soul in order to get the abstract fullness of life in return?! - I asked indignantly. - I'll see you damned first! It'd be a very tricky deal!

-Okay, do not worry, I don't need your soul, I have mine, - he wiped his lips with a napkin and smiled reassuringly. - In any case, I do not need your soul in the sense being usually meant. I just suggest that you become my disciple.

I gazed at him in disbelief. My school memories werevery vague and not very pleasant, so I was not inspired by the prospect of continuing my studies.

-What do you want to teach me? - at last, I asked being curious.

Don shrugged his shoulders.

-Well, what? Black magic.

For a moment I hoped that I had misheard. Then I laughed nervously.

-Magic?! What a funny magician would I be!

-You have all the makings, - my awesome companion shook his head, maintaining complete equanimity. - Believe my experience.

-Yes? Have you already had students? - I muttered grimly. - And where are they now, what are they doing?

-Those who had passed the tests are quite successful, - he smiled me back.

-And those who hadn’t?

He preferred to remain silent, and I said anxiously:

-Then I refuse. I'm sure I'll fail all your trials.

-No, I do not think so, - his smile caused a shiver, I guess no one had ever seen such a smile. - Are you capable of a vicious act?

-Of course, - I nodded angrily. - But depending on what kind of “vicious act”.

-After being under my tutelage you will be able to do anything, - Don assured me, but I jutted my chin out aggressively:

-Then what is the reason for the failures of your other students? Why do you think I am better?

-You have a very strong spirit, - my potential teacher said firmly and persistently. - You do not even imagine the whole reserve of the magician's abilities, especially black ones.

-Why - especially black?.

Don sighed:

-Isn't it clear? White mages are full of taboos and bans. They are real monks who are in constant prayer and committed to asceticism. Would you like to give up everything and become an ascetic?

I grinned, imagining myself in the cassock of a monk, with a knapsack for bread, walking barefoot on the streets. A smile spread over my face, and Don, correctly interpreting its meaning, nodded vigorously:

-Do you understand now? The black magicians have more possibilities, their freedom is unlimited.

-But I cannot imagine myself a magician! - I was still trying to resist though weakly. - What will you teach me?

-I'll teach you how to make your life truly complete; how to enjoy every moment of your life.

I had already mentioned my inability to resist him. So, how do you think what answer I'd given to him?

* * *

The next morning, when I woke up in a completely unfamiliar room, my life had changed radically.

I had never been among the people who choose a gray routine and boring daily occurrence; I always knew how to brighten my everyday ordinariness. But in comparison with the unreal changeability into which my life had turned from now on, the adventures of the past seemed almost mediocre pastime.

The bedroom allocated to me by Don was not very big and cozy, but I never aspired to comfort, and the energy of secrecy, a touch of medieval romanticism and the fragrance of adventure had justified both dampness and constant chill with usury…

Ancient oak furniture, stone walls, candles, a magnificent lookout over the well-wooded park with shady alleys and a fountain, the smell of wax and incense: all these things quenched an irrepressible thirst for variety and the agonizing emotional hunger forcing me to rush from one adventure to another. I would be completely happy just spending all my days in this ancient park with marvelous white marble benches, making a feast of delicious dinners, wearing faddish clothes (how quickly I got used to it!)... it'd be quite enough! But Don reasoned otherwise, so there was never a dull moment.

Every day started with a warm-up resembling yoga poses, followed by a hearty and tasty breakfast. Then Don devoted several hours to what he called "lessons of magic," although I could not see anything magical in those lengthy discussions. I often lost the thread of the story, and my new-found teacher had a chance to ridiculed me quite skillfully. He liked to break off in mid-sentence and bombard me with questions, and God forbid anything to be missed! The black magician had been narrating about many things: about the Universe and the cosmos, about the existence of a huge number of realities where our analogs could live, about the spirit and the soul, about the body and emotions... Sometimes he managed to quicken my interest in his story, but usually, I got confused through first five minutes, unable to understand all the intricacies of Don's worldview.

However the evenings and partly the nights were occupied by all types of enjoyment, and a few days later I had to admit Don's rightness: I really did not understand before now how many treats the real pleasure could offer to you.

The magician moved with ease through realities and worlds that differed from each other like sin; not being in a hurry to teach me this art, he invariably allowed me to follow him. What places had I visited, what sort of men and women had I met! Knight tournaments, gladiatorial fights, the most beautiful ladies, adept at love and ready to fulfill any desire, the best wines, and snacks, the sweet dope of hookah, gambling with the slave’s life as a bet… And also there were hunting in the wilds of the tropical jungle, participation in sacrifices, watching the medieval executions of criminals, bullfighting, etc... I got used to the smell of blood, the sight of death turned into a game, and I huskily echoed to my new friends screaming with the full power of the lungs: "Kill!"; and I, too, was pointing my thumb down, thereby signing a death sentence to the gladiator who’d failed…

I returned in the morning and, being flaked-out, fell to the bed.

Don rarely made me company. He escorted me to some reality, showed me where it was best to spend the evening, and then disappeared... in order to return closer to the morning and take me home. All these entertainments must have become boring to him a long time ago, - at least that's what I thought.

One day during the afternoon lecture, Don asked (we were strolling through the park, as always):

-How did you like last night? Did you enjoy it?

I, just a second ago trying to discern the essence of the complex universe idea, failed to immediately switch to another topic and had been staring at the teacher for a few minutes. He smiled slightly.

- What were you doing?

-Ah! - I came to my senses and nodded vigorously: - It was amusing! A fight of gladiators and I’d won! The gladiator I was betting on killed an opponent!

- And what did you win?

-Not what, but who. A woman! - I licked my lips, remembering a luxurious brunette with bronze skin and a delightful body having all the necessary bends. - Or rather, the night with her. A very famous hetaera! I've never had such a woman!

-Of course, - he grinned, and asked thoughtfully after a pause: - Didn't you get bored with all these entertainments?

-Get bored?! - I almost choked with indignation. - It's impossible!

-Well, for me, it is quite possible, - he disagreed. - There are pleasures even acuter than these ones.

- What do you mean? - I asked greedily, having managed to lose the remnants of caution in the past couple of weeks. Had he told that he wanted to give me some kind of drugs for testing, I would have risked it!

-Death and life, - the magician said quietly, and my enthusiasm had evaporated without a trace. Don immediately noticed the change and added sarcastically: - Are you a coward? It's easy to put someone else's life at stake but how about yours?

- This is silly! - I swallowed hard. - Why should I risk myself?

- To experience the acute pleasure of winning, - the magician replied. Secret passion in his gaze and voice (and any passion was a rare visitor to Don, who was so scant of emotions) made me a little interested so that I asked with cautious curiosity that could not be misinterpreted:

-And if I lose?

-Well, what pleasure without any risk? - Don grinned.

I was silent for a couple of seconds, gathering strength.

-Have you tried playing this game yourself?

He laughed with his jerky laughter:

-Well, of course! By the way, do remember what I was telling you about the game with death a couple of days ago.

I taxed my memory, mentally swearing Don's ability to suddenly ask questions. What was he talking about a couple of days ago?!

-You said… that no one knows when he will die, - I finally answered, hesitating and glancing sidelong at the magician whose face remained impenetrable. Having listened to me politely, Don snidely inquired:

- Well, that's it? Didn't I say anything else? You think I simply expressed this very "original" idea that the hour of death is unknown to anyone? By the way, I did not tell ANYONE. I said - ALMOST nobody knows. There are always exceptions. So, I did not mention anything else, did I?

I blushed.

-You mentioned... that you must constantly remember about death... - I plucked up my spirit and resolutely finished: - I'm sorry, Don, I can not say anything more. You see, at that moment I was too dumbfounded by your words, I tried to decide for myself whether I agreed with them.

-And what do not you like about them?

-Why should I always think about death? - I asked. - What's the point of this? To live in eternal fear?

-And why should you be afraid of what will happen in any case? - Don seemed genuinely surprised. - Death can be a continuation of life if you really want it. But be afraid… What's the point?


 

-And why think about it? - I insisted. I really was interested in this question.

-In order not to waste in vain a single moment, - the magician replied stiffly and straightened up, although his posture had already been royal. - It must be remembered that you are only a temporary guest on this planet, you have a certain period of time to perform a certain task, and you don't even remember this task, you don't know the deadline... You need to speed up the pace of life, otherwise, you can not make it. They will ask for the answer, but you have not yet had time to read the assignment.

I diligently considered his words. I didn't like something about them, something causing a vague indefinite alarm. Finally, I managed to formulate my own thought:

-What is this task that we need to fulfill?

Don looked at me carefully.

- This question is not for me. Black magicians do not ask such questions. White magicians philosophize on this subject.

-But… but then I do not understand anything at all! - I was confused and angry at the same time. - What was the point of telling me a story meant for the white mage's ears?!

Don seemed to enjoy my indignation.

-Oh, the theory of magic can not be white or black, - he smiled thinly, with a grin of superiority that caused a storm in my soul. - The theory is one and only, and I'm stating it to you. But the application of this theory can be different. And we are talking about the application now. So if you're curious about what your task is, ask Alex.

-Whom? - I asked in surprise.

-Alex is also a magician, like me... but his color is the opposite. He is my main rival in this reality. - Don paused and suddenly added with a completely different intonation: - And remember, Stas…

His voice sounded insinuating, almost affectionately, and this honeyed tone had literally paralyzed me:

-Yes? What to remember?

-You’ve made your choice. If you decide to go to the other side… or if you stop following my… um… advice… you will join the ranks of my personal slaves.

I froze.

-So these servants… - the tongue did not obey me, a sweat on my forehead. - These servants… are they your former disciples?

He smiled with his lips only, his black-green eyes remained motionless and dead:

-Yes. And therefore I repeat the question: do you want to play a game of chance in which your life will be the bet?

And I realized that I had no choice. I could not answer “NO”... could I?

* * *

The rest of the day I had spent in nervous expectation. What did Don mean? What intrigue did he conceive? Probably he was going to offer his own version of the Russian roulette when the revolver is loaded with only one deadly bullet, and you’re shooting at random hoping for the best. At the thought of such a "game" that Don may propose me to play... thinking that I would have to pull the trigger and wait for death with chilling horror... and dream of hearing a dry click... oh, God, this terrible thought made me really sick! I had never, never in my life experienced such fear!

Even at dinner, I lost a fair amount of appetite and managed to cram into myself only a piece of roasted meat and a little stew of carrots. My mood must have been reflected in the expression on my face, since Don, when he started the omelette, inquired me:

-Are you unwell? You look bad and almost don't eat.

I looked at him with hatred. Here's a hypocrite! As if he didn't understand the reason of my bad mood!

-You don’t eat either, - I said gloomily not feeling the ability to really snap at him.

Don smiled.

-I always eat a little if you have paid any attention.

That was true! I've always wondered how Don managed to resist temptations. And why?

-You’re a strange black magician, - I said frowning at the plate and wondering if I could swallow another slice. - You don't eat, drink a little, you're ignoring fun...

-Why do you think so? - asked Don, skillfully wielding a knife and fork. - You speak with such confidence as if watching me!

I got a little confused.

-Well, I can see you not eating, - I finally said, carefully choosing words for fear of offending my mysterious friend. - And as for fun and entertainment... You're not going anywhere with me.

-Do you know how old I am? - Don asked unexpectedly. I shook my head negatively not understanding what he was hinting at. - I'm not young, you know... not young at all! In actual fact, I'm much older you can possibly imagine! I guess it was obvious to have lost the taste for food. I have eaten too many exotic dishes, drunk a huge number of cocktails and wines, so now the food is just energy for my body. Rarely, very rarely, I can really enjoy its taste. Sometimes I almost regret it…

-Does it apply to other pleasures? - I asked pushing aside the plate. The thought of the coming evening "entertainment" did bother me, and I simply could not eat.

Don was keeping silent for several minutes concentrating on the well-roasted steak. Then he said:

-Perhaps, yes... You are right, in this life stage, I'm usually enjoying other things.

-Which ones?

-Let me not answer, - he smiled thinly and pointed with a fork at a bowl of vegetable salad. - Eat, gain strength! In the evening you’re going to have a merry event, you need to be in shape!

Blimey!

-I AM in shape, - I said through clenched teeth and turned away.

* * *

It was about ten in the evening when somebody knocked at my door. Of course, the night guest was Don, however, I was already waiting for him.

-Hello, - said the black magician, greeting me with a slight smile. I was sitting by the window, strained like a compressed spring, and tried in vain to calm down. - Ready?

I gave him a short nod, rose, wrapped my frock coat, pulled the beret... I knew that the style of clothing would change a little in any case, adjusting to the fashion of the reality in which we would find ourselves. At first it frightened me, then amused me, but in the end, I began to treat this phenomenon quite calmly and almost as indifferently as the Don did. You get used to everything…

My escort was dressed in his favorite black cloak as usual. Don generally preferred dark garment and allowed himself to decorate the collar with a thin silver embroidery only in rare cases.

- By the way, today I’m going to introduce you to my student… a girl.

At that moment I was attaching a huge dagger to the leather belt provided with a silver buckle, its hilt was glittering with several large rubies and one emerald.

-What? - I looked up and stared in amazement at Don, I thought, I just misheard. - I thought you did not have any more students…

-I have, - said the magician. - A sweet girl of the Middle Ages. The Inquisition wanted to burn her as a witch at a stake a couple of years ago. Bell was sentenced to auto-da-fe.

I swallowed.

- Did you rescue her?

-Yes, I did... - he nodded lazily. - And I decided to teach her a few magical tricks... so that there would be something to die for!

He laughed, and this dry snicker reminded me of a shot, and my thoughts returned to normal. I shivered coldly:

-You said it so angrily... and what was Bella's fault? Why was the Inquisition pursuing her?

Don answered with irritation, as it seemed to me:

-Why? Because she has beauty, daring temper, sharp mind and craving for knowledge! She belongs to an ancient aristocratic family, her whole life is in sight…

-I see… - I muttered and sighed heavily. - Well, I'll get acquainted…

“If I stay alive," - I added mentally.

Don smiled and headed for the exit. He lingered by the door for a moment:

-Well, yes, Bella is temporarily staying with us. Do you mind to have such a charming neighbor?

I felt cold inside. His words might have meant that Don foresaw me not coming back, so my place would be taken by someone else…

Cursing the moment when I decided to follow the stranger in a black cloak, I forced myself to respond with all the indifference I was capable of:

-I never mind having a charming young lady as a neighbor…

* * *

-Today I’m starting to teach you how to travel through realities by yourself, - Don said as we left the castle and headed for the gate.

It was already quite dark and cold, but I was too nervous to feel it. I still had not been able to pinpoint the season where I was living right now: early spring, autumn? The foliage remained dark green and did not seem to fall, but frequent rains, dampness, the cool of the evenings and mornings did not allow to believe in the summer with its stuffiness and the sweet fruit aroma…

-Usually, we do not even leave the castle, - I said, looking around. I had never visited any places outside the park, I just did not see such a need: the garden was huge and luxurious, and night walks through different epochs and worlds quite satisfied my thirst for diversity. Now, however, it was too dark to observe the terrain.

-It'd be psychologically easier for you if we move simultaneously in the reality and in space, - Don explained vaguely, moving along the fence. I barely kept up with him. The gravel was rustling softly under my feet, and the wind made its way through the thick fabric of the frock coat and brought the smell of grass with its waves…

- And what should I do? - I inquired nervously. It was not a very good moment for the studying process, for all my thoughts were focused on another matter... Or Don decided to distract me specifically? No, he could hardly be moved by such noble motives!

-For now, just try to imagine that you're walking along the seashore. Now, when it’s the late evening, the curtain of darkness will help you create a believable illusion.

I smiled crookedly, doubting the power of my fantasy, but honestly tried to imagine myself on the seashore. I tried to believe that the sound of the wind in the foliage was a rustle of waves and the air was full of marine dampness, not autumn one…

-And what was the point of doing this? - I asked hopelessly a couple of minutes later. Nothing happened at all.

-Do not rush, - Don reassured me. - Be patient. Today you are unlikely to succeed. You need time to learn. Just go and think about what I said. That's all. I will help.

I obeyed (and what else could I do?), and these forced attempts had a beneficial effect on my nervous system. In any case, I calmed down a bit and started thinking not of death but of moving through realities. I don't know whether Don was pursuing this very goal, but I was a little grateful to him anyway. Otherwise, I could completely go crazy anticipating the psychological torture that was impending every instant.

- It seems to me, or I really feel the smell of the sea? - I whispered after a lapse of twenty minutes. I really felt a fresh salty aroma, and the ground beneath my feet made of hard rocky soil became soft... like walking on damp sand…

-Yes, perhaps, - Don replied calmly.

I was seized by a fit of glee, mixed with incredulous astonishment:

-Oh, my God, I did it?!

I saw Don sneering, and my enthusiasm evaporated without a trace.

-No, you didn’t, - he said softly. - I did. You have not succeeded so far. But don’t be upset, it’s ok.

And yet I was upset… it is always more pleasant to feel special and gifted… for it's always a bit humiliating to belong to a number of mediocrities.

-We are here... - Don's calm voice took me out of sad contemplation. Moving literally to the touch, I was freezing to the bone. I'm afraid, but I'll never forget this walk on the cold shore!

Finally, in the distance, the light dawned, and I cheered up. Accelerating the step, I overtook Don and enthusiastically asked:

- And what is it shining over there?

-The pub, - Don replied laconically.

My mood had risen another few degrees. I usually associated a pub with warmth, wine, and snack, and all this was just the limit of my dreams at the moment.

-The pub is wonderful, - I said, rubbing my hands.

Don glanced sideways at me:

-Well… I'll introduce you to my student and then I'll bow out. She will explain the terms of the game.

-Will she play, too? - I was surprised.

-Of course! And one more amateur of the thrill will play, Count McMander, either. He had tried everything he could think of and went to the game with death.

I smiled nervously. One of us was going to die today… My chance to live up to the morning was not too promising…

-Don't you want to join us, to cast the mind back? - I suggested with exaggerated irony.

Don laughed softly and shook his head.

-I'm constantly playing with death. I'm living this fight.

-Even now?

The magician nodded almost solemnly:

-Yes, every second… I had explained it to you, even twice, but you did not feel it necessary to listen for real.

-You mean the tale about the necessity to think about your death all the time? - I asked, somewhat irritated. - Well, it's not a very dangerous game!

-I don’t agree, - said Don. - Had everyone followed this rule, there would have been much fewer mistakes being made... And life would bring a lot of pleasures. People just do not notice half the reasons for joy, they're too busy with their imaginary experiences.

Fortunately, at this moment we approached a low white fence, and I was spared the need to respond.

The pub turned out to be one-story building, its semicircular windows were attracting with the dispersed golden light; the clanging of dishes, muffled laughter, and merry drunken voices were coming from the half-open door. Having crossed the threshold after Don, I inhaled the warm, soaked with appetizing fumes air and felt a fit of hunger, after all, I had not gotten my portion of calories during lunch.

We found ourselves in a rather large, stuffy room illuminated by an ancient chandelier consisting of a dozen glowing candles. The main space of this room was occupied by small wooden tables surrounded by narrow benches. On the right, there was a bar which fenced the door into the utility rooms, and the wall behind it contained shelves with a very rich collection of spirituous liquors. An old gray-haired innkeeper in a dirty white apron who was pouring into tumblers a dark cherry drink from a dusty pot-bellied bottle looked at us briefly and without much interest. Don slowly looked around and headed for the far table in the corner.

Two persons sat at this table: a young woman with a skin as white as sugar, and short curls of red and gold color, and a man of about forty with a grayish unhealthy face, sunken eyes with crimson veins and brown blond hair.

Don greeted them and introduced me:

- This is my friend Stanislav, shortly - Stas, and this is his Excellency Count McMander.

I answered the Count's rather flaccid handshake.

-My good friend Bella. She prefers not to mention her surname, - Don continued to introduce us to each other.

I looked at the girl more attentively. A broad face, green almond-shaped eyes, slightly upturned nose, thin brows of walnut color…

Soft, full lips quivered in a smile so charming that the words of greetings I had prepared remained unsaid. I blushed and muttered something unintelligible. I'd met a lot of beautiful women, especially recently, but this one… she had something aside from ordinary attraction… something magical! No wonder the Inquisition had paid so much attention to her person! Or the witch's charm had appeared after Don's lessons? It's curious, how their lessons were passing?

Bella put out her thin white hand, and I leaned and touched her cool soft skin with my lips. I hesitated for a moment, the temptation to prolong the kiss was too great... But I remembered Don's irony and straightened up immediately.

-Nice to meet you, - said the girl, still smiling. For the first time I heard a real chest tone and had to admit: it was the last stroke complementing the image of the enchantress.

-Yes, really nice, - I croaked unable to tear my eyes from her. A pearl-gray dress diverging from the hips down to the ankles snug around Bella's slender body. The low neckline emphasized the seductive fluffiness of the bust, a pearl thread was wound around the neck several times, large pendants in the same style swayed in the ears, and the silvery crest adorned the curled hair…

Hearing Don's chuckle, I came to my senses and hurriedly looked at Bella's neighbor. The count was dressed even more vividly and pretentiously, but neither the silk snow-white shirt nor the azure vest or the massive rings could conceal the swelling of the face, the fullness under the eyes, the unhealthy skin tone... McMander must have been fond of the bottle or suffered from some kind of sickness. Judging by Don's story, the first option was the true one.

Here I should make a small digression. Apparently, I need to explain what language we spoke... So I have to call to mind the very first lecture, which I listened to the day after my move to Don's castle.

"The highlight is the ability to speak all languages at once," Don said walking along the path. "Otherwise, the whole charm of traveling through realities is lost"

"And how can I learn this trick?" - I worried imagining thick volumes with abstruse names. I'd never been a polyglot.

"While you're traveling with me, there's no reason to worry," Don explained. "I'm an experienced… m-m… wanderer, if I may say so. Your vestments, clothing will be adjusted to the new reality, as well as your language, your ability to understand someone else's speech"

"So I'll start speaking in a foreign language? - I was amazed. "Right away?"

"In a way, - Don smiled. - But it's much more complicated... though let's choose this model. Let it be so - you will immediately learn a new language, although temporarily"

"Wow! - I admired. - Cool!"

"Wait to rejoice," Don interrupted me severely. "All this is only true as long as I'm your escort. When you learn to travel alone, you will have to remember a lot of things so as not to get trapped. And one of those things is speech. Never forget that!"

But while I was not able to travel independently, so the ability to understand another's language and even speak it came by itself… Perhaps it was true for Bella either…

-Don, are you staying? - Bella's charming voice penetrated my thoughts and brought me out of my reverie. I looked at Don, who was obviously about to leave.

-No, I can not stay.

- You can, - the girl firmly objected and slyly smiled.

I could not help but snorted derisively. I wondered what our black magician would say in response to such a categorical statement? The witch looked askance at me and suddenly winked. I answered with a smile - as I had hoped, at least half as charming as her own.

-Still, I can not, - Don repeated coldly.

Bella pouted. I was sincerely admiring her, every movement of this young witch made an impression of impeccable and thoughtful one.

-Are you impolite enough to refuse a lady? You have no urgent business. That's how I feel! You taught me yourself…

And again an unpleasant thought flashed through my mind: how exactly was he teaching her? Had she tasted, like I did, all the kinds of pleasure? For some reason, I felt uncomfortable imagining this red-haired beauty participating in some orgy…

- Come on, Don, don’t be a bore! - the count said, finally. His voice was low and hoarse as if his possessor was severely ill. - Join us! Sometimes you should have fun too…

-Exactly! - I snickered. - And what kind of entertainment can be more exciting than playing with death? Right?

The magician looked at me, and his eyes flashed with demonic fire, his lips curved in a grin.

-All right, I'll keep you company. I'll play the judge.

-Give it a shot, - Bella agreed with a small sigh.

The count sighed in disappointment.

-So you do not intend to test your destiny yourself? It's stupid... you're losing a lot...

- Yeah, - I got angry. - A lot of things!

That's a scoundrel! He dragged me into an incomprehensible adventure but appeared to be too clever to put his own life on the line! A true black magician!

-We're going to enjoy a refined dinner, - having missed my words, the sorcerer told and settled himself on the bench near Bella. I felt jealousy for the third time (though why?), but, on the other hand, was not too saddened by the opportunity to sit opposite the red-haired lady and admire her without interference. My neighbor was a count who was emitting a wild mixture of heavy perfume, fumes, and sweat. I involuntarily frowned and moved to the very edge of the bench.

-Usually, self-service is accepted here, but they'll make an exception for me and his Excellency, - Don said glancing at the counter, then nodded briefly. A minute later, the innkeeper stopped near our table and asked in a hoarse voice:

- What do you want?

- Mushroom soup, braised rabbit with carrots, baked potatoes, rice balls, roasted perch, vegetable salad, for sweet - pudding with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, buns with poppy seeds, hot chocolate… As for drinks, I choose "Barisslen" wine. 200 years of aging!

Had I heard such an order a couple of months ago, I would have probably been amazed. But after more than satisfying lunches and breakfasts in Don's castle, I had gotten used to the variety of dishes, so that not a single muscle flinched on my face. The count remained indifferent either, and not surprisingly, after all, he was an aristocrat and obviously not from the poor ones. I looked with curiosity at Bella - women in my home world were worrying about diet thing, but the witch did not seem to care much about the figure's problem. The corners of her beautifully delineated lips twitched slightly, light green eyes flashed with cunning, but I doubted that this thoughtful grin had been evoked by thoughts of food.

-So, these bottles will determine your destiny, - Don said. Thrusting his hand into the pocket of the cassock-like cloak, he took out a crystal rounded bottle with a curiously faceted lid in the form of a strange flower. Carefully putting an elegant glass vial on the table, the magician took out two more bottles. And if the flacons themselves were identical, the contents differed: the first bottle was filled with a pale pink liquid, the second one included a turquoise drink, and there was a sparkling-purple mixture flickering in the third. I could bet: leaving the castle Don didn't have these "jars"!

-Well, and what is in these banks? - I asked rudely, not wanting to demonstrate the nervous tension that had seized me. I glanced sideways at Bella. The girl seemed serene, calm, but after all, women are rather actresses... Surely she was just acting the part! She should have been scared!

-These banks, as you put it, contain your destiny, - Don explained indulgently, and ran a finger along the smooth edge of one of the bottles. - A teaspoon of liquid mixed with wine provides one of three options: eternal sleep, strong sleep or prophetic sleep. It all depends on personal luck!

-Mixed with wine only? - said the count.

Don nodded.

- Yes, and the quality of the wine is especially important. I'm a good judge of wines, - then the magician allowed himself a slight smile, - and I will be able to taste to determine whether the innkeeper has deceived us. However, Jacques is honest and knows me. He will not slip a substandard product.

"Of course!" - I thought looking at the flasks on the table and feeling as though they were atomic bombs ready to explode any moment.

-The shade of these infusions makes the wine unique, - Don continued in a completely calm tone. - The taste of the wine itself will be completely lost.

- And more details, please? - McMander asked with greedy curiosity. For the first time during the evening, I noticed signs of excitement on his face: the count's eyes ceased to be foggy, and an uneven blush appeared on his sunken cheeks.

-I don’t want to deprive you of pleasure, - Don laughed. - You'll try and say it yourself. I, of course, know what is contained in each particular vial, but I will not reveal the secret. The pleasure consists in unexpectedness. A surprise is the guarantee of the most delicate pleasure, isn’t it, your excellency?

-Oh, certainly! - McMandry whispered with some avid excitation peering into the bottles, his glance was feverish. Was he really enjoying what was happening?! Personally, I was hardly alive with horror, and Bella had finally lost her composure. She was still smiling, but her fingers toring into the wooden countertop were shaking. I do not know how it characterizes me, but I felt an absurd relief, making sure that I was not more a coward than a woman. In the end, I also tried to keep self-control though I really could not say how successful my attempts were.

-You mentioned the eternal sleep, the sound sleep and the prophetic sleep, - I said. - What exactly do you mean by this?

Don readily explained:

-The drinks will work in a few hours, and the effect will not be sudden, but gradual. The eternal sleep is, of course, death. The one who has drunk the cup of death will fall asleep and will not wake up again. A good sleep is a sound sleep. The person who drank this sleeping liquid will not be able to wake up during the day. But he will wake up with completely restored forces, vigorous and energetic, as never before. Well, a prophetic dream… it's not quite the right wording. This is not a dream about the future, it is, rather, a dream about yourself. In a dream, you will see the depths of your own soul. Sometimes it's crazy because to recognize the fact that you're actually a monster may be a difficult task.

Perhaps he was right, but at that moment I was ready to confess all my secret sins and vices (especially since I did not consider myself a saint), just to avoid the fate of a suicide bomber. I looked more closely at the bottles wondering which one of them contained a dose of poison. Probably a purple one…

-Wonderful… - the Count whispered.

I squinted at him with displeasure. McMander looked a little insane, his narrow face was covered with red spots, his eyes burned with lust, and moreover, his lordship was constantly licking his lips.

-Yeah, wonderful it is! - I chuckled with keen sarcasm. Catching Bella's approving look, I involuntarily heartened up and added with a simulated calmness: - I think the best option is a sound sleep. I've been dreaming of sleeping for so long!

-Yes, of course, - Bella agreed. She seemed to be a little hoarse; having cleared her throat, she said more confidently: - Although it is also useful to learn something about yourself. Who chooses the drink first? Or we cast lots?

Her voice sounded cheerful, but slightly hysterically.

-Why? - Don softly objected. - The lady should choose in the first place. Then goes the Count as a titled person...

Makmandr straightened, and I clenched my teeth in frustration. Don turned to Bella.

-So?

The girl, biting her lip, fixed her eyes on the sparkling bottles as if she hoped to detect the presence of poison in appearance. Finally, she swallowed and smiled nervously.

-Well, I choose pink color… it seems the most harmless.

-Now it's my turn? - inquired the earl impatiently, bent low over the table and, squinting, peered at the colorful beverages. Having licked his narrow colorless lips, he said hoarsely: - Perhaps, this one, the blue one... or what is this color called? Turquoise?

I had frozen. I was definitely going to get a glass of poison! The purple drink was obviously poisoned, without any doubt! I was seized with a crazy desire to grasp the hateful bottle and empty it in a very simple way, by just splashing Don's face with its contents!

I was able to restrain myself only thanks to Jacques who returned to us with a loaded tray. While he was setting out plates that exuded odors capable of seducing even an ascetic, I thought with melancholy that at least we were going to eat to repletion before dying.

When the innkeeper left us again, Don uncorked the bottle decorated with a black and gold label and filled the empty goblets with the wine adding the chosen "sleep drink" into the each one. We were watching the magician with ineffable attention, and while the Count's face was burning with excitement and excitement, my ability to play the hero had finally dried up. I noticed droplets of sweat on Bella's forehead, her fingers with neat nails were crumpling a lace handkerchief, the lip was bitten again... And only Don seemed absolutely indifferent.

- Let's empty the first glass before the feast starts! - said the magician raising his own wine glass.

I looked with disgust at my wine, which had turned into a pale purple hue.

-Come on, - the count agreed instantly.

We clinked glasses, McMander drank his portion almost in one gulp, Bella hesitated for a moment and then took a sip… The blood was pounding in my temples, I, unable to move, stared blankly at my glass.

-Well, Stas, it’s your turn now! - Don rebuked me. I threw an angry glance in his direction and made the first little sip. A hot, literally glowing liquid had almost burned my tongue and gums, I closed my eyes for an instant waiting for the smoke coming from the ears. Strangely enough, this hot wave brought me to life, I relaxed and finished my wine without any fear. Perhaps, besides poison, this swill contained some kind of drugs?

"How much longer am I going to live? - I thought absentmindedly. - A few hours… What will I say beyond the veil? I have lived stupidly and died as a fool… I did nothing useful…"

-Delicious, - Bella's voice had broken the silence. Smiling, with her face turning pink, she obviously also experienced the beneficial effects of the drink. - Reminds of warm cherry juice.

-Warm? - I grinned. - In my opinion, terribly hot. And nothing cherry. Some kind of pepper tincture, although it's not so bad.

Don looked at me mockingly.

-Each one has its own taste. How do you find yours, Your Excellency?

The count smacked his lips delightedly. He looked very pleased with his life.

- Mm... Not bad, dear friend, not bad at all... Icy, with a lemon tint, refreshing... invigorates... Thanks for a wonderful evening, old man! You know the sense of entertainment!

-And I'll thank you tomorrow, - I said through my teeth. - If I wake up.

The Count threw an arrogant glance at me:

-There are little excitement and passion in you, young man. Who is having fun with such a lenten look?

-Look at yourself, sir! - I threw away all manner of politeness. Why is it needed, if there is nothing left to live? - With a face like yours, you can scare children at night.

The count was clearly taken aback and did not know what to say. Bella shook her head reproachfully.

-You are Stas, right? You should not be so rude. Politeness is a special art.

I grinned like a smiling predator. At that moment I hated them all: Don who had dragged me into this crazy adventure, the mad aristocrat, and even our young beauty with Titian curls…

-Cutie, tell me, what good wind brings you here? - I inquired and poured some hot mushroom soup into my bowl. - You're young, pretty, maybe smart, why should you die?

- And you? - after a pause, she inquired and also began to fill her plate.

I stopped and frowned at the interlocutor for a while, then shrugged my shoulders:

-I don’t want to die at all! But that bozo, - I nodded toward Don, - he has a tremendous hypnotic gift.

-It's easier just to shift the blame on a stranger, - the girl said.

I got angry and threw back the spoon.

-But I'm telling the truth! - I raised my voice so that all people present in the tavern turned around in surprise. - I did not want to participate in this venture! I was left with no other choice!

-There is always a way out, - my charming companion shook her head. - It's just that sometimes it's very cleverly hidden, but you can find it if you want.

Breathing hard, as if after a long jogging, I looked at the girl with impotent rage. There is always a way out! Don hinted at a very unpleasant "way out", something about me becoming a slave!

The black magician himself interfered in our conversation, and I had almost forgotten about him in the fuse of the dispute:

-It's not worth quarreling, gentlemen and ladies, - he remarked with a smile that had aroused a new wave of anger in my heart. - Although your nervous tension is understandable. I think, your Excellency, you will forgive Stas's outburst.

I squinted at the count. He did not look understanding and ready to forgive, his face expressed an extreme degree of resentment. I seemed to be the first one who dared to offend him! This thought amused me a little and improved my mood. I greedily wired into the soup which cooled down but did not become less tasty. Spicy, with large mushrooms and finely crushed boiled egg, it was thick and very nourishing.

-Eat, your Grace, perhaps this is your last meal, - I said sarcastically, reaching for a slice of bread.

The count frowned.

-Who are you to talk to me in such a tone and in such a manner, boy? - he inquired coldly. - You have ruined all my pleasure.

-But I've improved my mood, - I grinned.

The rest of the dinner passed in a dead silence. I had eaten more than ever in my life, and all the time I had been listening to myself: my body, my heart, my breath... I had not tended to sleep yet, but it was probably a matter of time…

Eventually, having finished off the third portion of ice cream (which made my teeth ache), I felt that I could not move and was ready to die right here at the table. Don, who was starving again, dabbed at his lips with a napkin and stood up.

-It's time, - he said, looking over the table that had been devastated by us. - It's already a deep night…

I did not remember my getting to bed. I was not going to sleep, I did not want to succumb to the poison, but by the time I was near the bed, the forces had completely left me. I did not understand anything, although I was not drunk at all. I collapsed onto the soft sheets and fell asleep without undressing...

* * *

He resembled an angel or, perhaps, an Elf according to Tolkien's version: tall, slender, white-skinned and gray-eyed, with aristocratic-thin features and long blond hair smoothly combed back and gathered into a ponytail. The angel's vesture included a brown knee-length robe girded with a pearly sash, wide trousers, and leather boots.

We sat on the grass, there were endless meadows stretching around us and a gray cloudy sky extending above our heads... The dank wind blowing made me shiver from the cold. I was looking curiously at the stranger.

-Who are you? I finally asked.

The man grinned, and this smile gave additional attractiveness to his handsome face.

- Some people call me Alex.

-Oh, Don told me about you! - I was delighted.

Alex raised his eyebrows in surprise - coal-black, despite the light hair:

-Don?

-Black magician, - I explained.

The elf-like man frowned.

-You're his apprentice, aren't you?

-Yes, - I answered defiantly, and added: - You're judging me?

Alex shrugged his shoulders thoughtfully.

- I don’t like to judge. In the end, you have every right to throw your life in a trash.

-In what sense? - I stared at the white wizard in bewilderment. -Maybe I'm not particularly moral, but throwing it in a trash can is too much!

Angelic man's lips were touched by a sad smile:

-Alas, you're mistaken... there are only a few days left... you're melting visibly...

-Melting? - I asked worriedly. - Am I dying? So there was some poison in that glass, right?

Alex shook his head.

-I'm talking about something else. But you can't say much in a dream. If we meet in life, ask me. And I will explain.

-Explain now! - I protested excitedly.

-Now I can't. Time is fleeting here. And you should go...

Everything around me had become hazy, covered with a colored mist... I was speeding away, I was returning to the world I was used to living in... I was waking up...

* * *

I woke up at once, instantly, as if I had been poured ice water over my face. Breathing hard, I gave a glance around the room, trying to get my thoughts in order and understand what had happened to me.

- Well, such a dream! - I muttered in a hoarse voice and sat down on the bed. The ivory-colored silk blanket slipped to the floor, and I grabbed the slippery corner; it was the moment when I finally regained in memory all the details of the last evening. I had instantly sweated, although the room was very cold - as always, indeed. Of course, there was a fireplace at my disposal but it could hardly be compared with the usual central heating batteries... However at that moment, I did not feel the cold, on the contrary, it became unbearably stuffy, as if the air had heated to the temperature of boiling tin.

If I was alive, then who had died? Bella?

Having fallen asleep fully dressed, I didn't need so much time for the morning procedures: I just washed my face with icy water from a copper basin, smoothed the hair and pulled on my boots hastily. I literally flew into the dining room and flopped down to the nearest chair.

-You said Bella would live here! - I said hoarsely, looking around the dining room with an anxious glance. The girl was not there, but Don, an early bird, was already sitting in his favorite chair with a high back.

-Yes, I said so, - Don agreed lazily. There were the servants squirreling around him, but I didn't notice them probably influenced by the magician's recognition about these people's past. After all, I could join their ranks soon enough… Shivering from this thought, I angrily exclaimed:

-Well, and where's your new guest?!

-What do you think? - Don grinned and raised his unfathomable glance at me; the black-green eyes of the sorcerer were by no means a mirror of his soul, they didn't reveal the secrets of his master...

A thin girl's hand set on the table next to me a deep plate filled with steaming chunks of juicy meat, and I grimaced at nausea. The thought of food was arousing only disgust, and I rudely demanded:

-Take it away immediately!

The servant obediently and, as it seemed to me, frightenedly pushed back the bowl. I peered into the girl's pale face that still did not express any feelings and emotions. Were slaves capable of truly realizing themselves and others? I would have liked to receive an answer to this question before… I shook my head and clenched my fists without giving myself the opportunity to finalize the thought. I won't become Don's servant, I will not!

The black magician watched me closely.

- Aren’t you hungry today? - he inquired, at last, piercing the fried mushroom with a silver fork. Trying to calm down, I mentally counted up to ten, for venting your anger on sorcerers is dangerous for life and health. In the end, I found the strength to respond with icy calmness:

-I'm not hungry at all. So where is Bella?

-Sleeping, - Don said laconically. I felt so relieved that I was ready to embrace the maidservant filling my glass with dry red wine.

-She'll wake up tomorrow, - Don added melancholy. - But the Earl will never wake up. By the way, how do you want to enjoy yourself, what fun do you prefer today?

I froze with a glass in my hand, gently put it aside and frowned at the white starched tablecloth. McMander didn't make a favorable impression on me, but still, at the thought of the death of this man, I felt a strange emptiness inside. Playing with death... Was it really a game? It looked more like suicide, and the fact that Bella and I stayed alive didn't matter: we were as guilty as the count. We were just luckier…

The last magician's question didn't immediately reach my consciousness, and Don was forced to repeat louder and more insistently:

-So what? How would you like to have fun this night?

But I was simply not able to put Don's words into understandable images. What does it mean, - having fun?

-Perhaps the execution of the escaped convict? - inquired the magician, turning his hands to croutons with apparent pleasure.

I asked in a muffled voice, without looking up from the countertop:

- And what is his fault?

-Unacceptable speeches about the Emperor, - Don shrugged his shoulders and sipped from the cup of cherry juice. - What's the difference?

I threw up my head and, with a crooked smile, said hoarsely:

- Really, what's the difference? And where did you get that I could want to look at someone's execution? What makes you think that I'm interested in watching the process of killing?

Don looked at me carefully. I managed to meet his eyes with confidence, although it was not easy.

-Earlier you did not come up with such questions, - said the magician.

I bit my lip. The monstrous pictures of the last days (or rather, nights) came to my mind. These nights consisted not only of merry drunks and passionate embraces with the best whores but also of death, blood, pain... Pain that was not mine. And death, too, was not mine... I remained just an observer... a spectator... And how could I calmly look at the executions and torture?! I never considered myself particularly cruel! I was mocking, selfish but not cruel! The Count's death seemed to have sobered me, for I was first confronted with the death of a man whom I had known... McMander was not an impersonal object to me like any gladiator. Only now I finally realized that every man who had died in front of my eyes possessed the ability to think and feel and, probably, had some plans for the future… And I, too, shouted in a hoarse voice: "Kill!" when one of the gladiators triumphed over the other! I, too, sensed the excitement of the death smell... So, am I a monster, a killer? Can I live being constantly aware of the undeniable fact that I had become a real executioner?!

-Tell me… - I finally managed to say. At that moment I almost wanted to die, to fall into the eternal dreamless slumber. - Tell me… What does Alex look like?

Don frowned in surprise.

-Alex? Hmm… why do you need to know what he looks like?

-Maybe he's a tall blond with long hair? Very handsome, although a bit schmaltzy? Well? - I peered into Don's face.

The wizard hesitated before answering:

-Well… well… Alex looks exactly as you described… How did you know? - the sight of the magician's eyes slid over my face, his lips clenched into a thin stripe.

-I saw him in a dream, - I explained reluctantly. - Today. I had a prophetic dream, didn't I?

Don grunted and reached for his glass. After sipping the wine, he dabbed at his lips with a napkin and looked at me with interest. He did not hurry to break the silence, and I was kind of glad about it. I myself could not understand my thoughts and feelings and did not seek to confess to the black magician. Instead, I followed the example of the companion and took a sip of wine - the appetite never woke up.

-You are a strange character, Stanislav, - said Don. I looked at him warily waiting for the continuation. - There's too much in your soul. I thought I understood you and the motives of your actions…

-I don't understand anything for a long time, - I sighed. - From the very moment when I met you.

-You followed me of your own will. I warned you, - Don noted softly. - Do you remember?

I nodded convulsively. Of course, I remembered, I had nothing to say against it...

- So, what have you decided, Stas? - the mage raised his voice. - What are you going to do tonight?

I swallowed:

-I prefer to get enough sleep if you allow me... I have no strength to go anywhere... - I paused and after hesitating added carefully: - And I ask you to give me a little rest, for a day or more. I'd like to wander around the neighborhood and think.

-Think, - Don nodded not taking his penetrating gaze from me. - But remember, the choice is simple: either you remain my student, or you become a slave. And the fate of a slave is unenviable, believe me.

I said nothing in response.

* * *

After all, I had stuffed into myself a piece of bread with butter and cheese and devastated several cups of very strong tea without sugar (though I was used to sweetening my tea even excessively). The wine drunk on an empty stomach caused a bit of dizziness, and for this reason, I forced myself to chew a single sandwich; as for bitter tea, I hoped to calm my troubled mind with its assistance. It helped, I managed to thank Don for breakfast quite politely and ask (for the second time) a permission to walk outside the castle.

-Go, I already said, - the magician replied irritably. - I don't like to repeat a hundred times.

Having gotten to my place, I went to the mirror. A tall man with a strong constitution and a bush of slightly curly chestnut hair had reflected in its smoothness. The man frowned and looked from under his brows. Really, I could hardly recognize myself!

My face was swollen, the eyes turned red, as though imitating the "vampire style", and the skin had acquired a grayish shade... Well, nightly amusement walks seemed to have imposed their imprint on my appearance: I was not even thirty, but I looked almost forty!

-We need to do something, - I said glumly to my reflection. - You understand? And it's urgent! You look like poor fellow McMandr now!

Of course, my reflection answered nothing, only frowned. I made him a face (my mirror twin repeated this grimace) and left the room. I wanted to get out as soon as possible, a breath of fresh air was so much-needed!

* * *

The sky reflected my mood: just as dull, a color of bleak gray mist... A piercing icy wind was scraping me to the bone, but I didn't mind, it brought me quite a relief: I seemed to have plunged into a cool river at the height of a hot summer.

Don's three-story mansion was built on a low hill, beyond which there was a small village stretched away: now, in the fading light of an overcast day, it was causing a rather dull impression. I found a stony path covered with bushes on both sides and began to descend hastily. Curiously, who was Don for the inhabitants of this village? Their suzerain?

At the foot of the hill was located an impressive boulder blocking the path to a dusty road which was, probably, often used by riders. However, overcoming this ridiculous barrier was worth nothing, but I did not seek to leave the castle. What would I win? Nothing at all... In the end, I'll have to serve him at the table.

Feeling utterly helplessness, I sank to the boulder and gloomily stared at my own knees. I did not know why I decided to take a walk, I could not determine exactly what I wanted to think about, but I firmly understood one thing: my life was at an impasse, and I did not like deadlocks.

There was a subdued knocking sound, I looked up and squinted, peering into the distance. Raising the thick dust clouds, a silvery gray horse with a snow-white mane was rushing along the road with a swift pace. I had never seen such beautiful horses, even in the movies, and therefore, stunned by the strange sparkling color, I did not discern the rider immediately. Small pebbles flew from under the horseshoes, the wind diligently helped raise clouds of dust, and soon I coughed and covered my face with my elbow. Straightening a minute later, I found that the rider was already dismounting.

-My clever girl, Inessa, take a walk for a while… - patting the horse gently on the withers, the rider whispered and released the animal. Then he turned to me: - Greetings, young man! A good day, huh?

I looked at him in amazement and distrust. It was Alex from my dream! Just as tall, slender, with the same light long hair... delicate features, probably indicative of aristocratic origin... And he was even dressed in the same way, except for the beige cloak maybe!

However, Alex (Alex, really?) eliminated this difference: dropping his cloak, he settled himself on the ground and began to unwrap some rag packet.

-Will you keep me a company? - offered the stranger from a dream, nodding at his packet. There was provision inside: half a head of cheese, a few impressive slices of rye bread, a white flask, melted butter in foil, a handful of shriveled dried berries... The sight of this rather simple food aroused my lost appetite, and I quickly said:

- I think, yes…

-Fine, - the guy smiled. - Then join!

Soon I was happily devouring a meager breakfast that consisted of the dry bread smeared with brackish oil and fresh cheese and warm sour wine. There were sweetish dried berries for dessert, they reminded me raisins. Oddly to say, this meal seemed almost more luxurious to me than the most exquisite dinner in Don's mansion.

- Are you a traveler? - taking the second homemade sandwich, I decided to start asking.

The man nodded.

-Yes. My name is Alex.

-Alex? - I glanced anxiously at the wanderer. - Don't you think... umm... that we've met before?

The look of bluish-gray, transparent, water-like Alex's eyes rushed to me.

-Yes, we have met, - the white mage agreed gently. - True, not here. In another world.

-Oh… - I was confused. - That is… I also think so…

I finally got confused and fell into embarrassment. Alex laughed.

-Oh well. It seems to you now that you have seen me in a dream, right?

-Well, in general, yes, - I agreed warily.

-When you die, the whole past life will seem like a dream to you, - Alex remarked continuing to smile a little. - Or maybe it'll turn out that you have lived in vain! Only a few of us are able to move from this world into the world of shadows without losses and in full consciousness.

-But... what is this shadow world like? - I asked in a husky voice, for Don didn't like to discuss this topic. - Why does someone forget everything, but someone remembers?

Alex settled on the dusty ground comfortably not caring at all about the safety of his road attire, and replied thoughtfully:

-For the same reason, why only the chosen ones remember real dreams…

-The real dreams? - I frowned.

Alex shrugged.

-Well, agree, a heap of awkward nonsense which some people remember, can not be called a real dream.

-Why? I think that all dreams are like that.

-No, - Alex shook his head. - It's just a brain-processed information for the day. Impressions, fragments of memories, chewed emotions... Occasionally this mass gets an echo of the real dream, and these dreams are called prophetic.

-And why do most people have no real dreams?

-They have them, - the mage said softly. - They all have real dreams. But most people cannot remember them.

-Why? - I repeated insistently.

Alex sighed:

-Well, why… Because the poor mind needs to do something with such a colossal amount of constantly incoming information! Sleeping is the only time when a person allows the mind to understand the accumulated rubbish!

I thought about these words for a couple of minutes:

-Well, but how do the Chosen Ones whom you've mentioned cope with this problem? - I finally inquired with some malice.

-They live differently, - Alex explained vaguely. - Their minds do not heap together all the information they receive, impressions and emotions, but immediately resolve it into components.

-And mine, then, heaps together? - I was offended.

-Do you disagree? - his gaze lingered on my face, and for some reason, I was embarrassed again. - After all, you, like most people, live by the principle of some kind of machine.

- Where can you know about cars from if in your world you manage without this stuff? - I interrupted angrily. Over the past few months, I'd gotten used to thinking of myself as special: after all, the disciple of the black magician! And Alex had destroyed the image of the chosen one, and did it in a whisk!

-If I live here now, it does not mean that I never visit other worlds, - Alex said quietly. - So, how do people live? They react to external stimuli according to someone's prescribed rules. Like machines that perform their tasks and nothing beyond that.

I frowned feeling like a complete idiot. I understood little from this brief speech... Perhaps, the expression on my face eloquently reflected the feeling that gripped me, as Alex taking the last sandwich (the third one) explained condescendingly:

-Speaking of external stimuli, I mean the various problems that each of us is compelled to face. We get frustrated when it's accepted to get upset, we get offended - when they offend us, and so on... See?

-And what, you need to rejoice? - I asked skeptically. - It would be strange!

-You try it, - the white magician advised. - Try to react outside the box. Do not act the way you always do. If you are used to screaming, when someone raises a voice - try next time to laugh in response. The offender will be surprised, especially if he is already accustomed to being fueled by the energy that you're thoughtlessly squandering through outbursts of anger. Another option is to ignore the stimuli. But indifference must be not only external, otherwise, nothing will come out. The most important thing is indifference internal. This method disarms the enemy perfectly.

- And no more secrets? - I tried to make my voice resound mockingly. - Your rules seem pretty simple.

-First of all, they're really simple, - Alex nodded his head. - Secondly, first try, and then comment. Well, and thirdly, the main problem is that most people are wrong about the past, the present and the future.

-Yeah? - I twisted my lips in a mistrustful smile. - And why is it wrong?

We had a strange conversation that somehow reminded me the morning philosophical talks with Don.

The white magician seemed completely serene. For a moment I wanted to anger or hurt him, but I was sure that the task would be difficult to accomplish. Alex made an impression of a cold-blooded and balanced man, someone like Don. Though in fact, they were representatives of opposing camps!

- Well, how do people think about their past? For the umpteenth time, they are scrolling a conversation, mentally continuing to argue or wondering what else it was necessary to say to this insolent fellow! They dream of turning back time and changing something…

-Don told me quite the same, - I said trying to look intelligent.

Alex grinned.

-No doubt. Black magicians also don't like to spend their energy in vain. It is foolish to think about what has already happened and is not subject to change. It is much more reasonable to accept a problem and try to benefit from what happened.

-I've often heard this thesis, - I said irritably. - But no one can really explain it. What is the use of the problem?

Alex laughed.

- I've been teaching my students this art for years, and you want to learn everything in a couple of minutes? No hope! And then, your memory has already accumulated too much negative. Such a load prevents living, creates complexes, affects the character… Until you get rid of it, there is no point in hoping for true freedom, - and without letting me speak, he added condescendingly: - I'm forestalling your question. To get rid of this load of your past, you need to call back all your life memories.

-In what sense? - I asked, uncomprehending.

-You need to find in your past the roots of those complexes and internal contradictions that affect your actions, and therefore, life in general!

-Oh, I see, - I said. - Our psychologists work in this direction.

-I'm not arguing, - the mage shrugged. - Further. Thinking about the future, it is worth paying attention only to those goals that you strive to achieve. Worrying about possible problems, unreasonable fears - all these things are compelling our strength from us not allowing to concentrate on any specific tasks.

-I see we got to the present, - I muttered, trying to get used to the idea, that all I did was wrong. - How should we think about the present?

-We should think about it at least sometimes! How often do we think about what is happening here and now? I can answer: not often enough. That's all simple rules.

- Yeah, simple! - I said sarcastically. - By the end of the day, I would have gone mad if I tried to live by such rules!

-I'm not suggesting you follow my rules, - Alex said with a chuckle. - You are not my disciple, so the problem of your immortality should concern Don, not me.

I pricked up my ears:

-What do you mean?

-If a man has never been able to realize himself before his death, I'm afraid his life will not be taken into account, - the magician said with concealed sadness. His gaze rushed beyond the horizon as if Alex had seen something that was inaccessible to me. - If life turns out to be empty and meaningless, what is the use of keeping it forever? But without this life, there will be no you, right? Who you were before your birth, and how you feel yourself at this moment - it's a great difference, agree?

-Before my birth? - I repeated incredulously. - Nonsense!

Alex looked up at the sky.

-Oh, gods, Don is a disgusting teacher! In any case, agree, without the memories of this life, you will not be yourself.

-Perhaps, - I said uncertainly, and suddenly straightened up. I remembered my conversation with Alex in my dream. Licking my parched lips, I hurried on: - Listen, what could your twin mean in my dream?

-My twin? - Alex was surprised. - It was not a twin, it was me! The realm of dreams is real!

-All right, - I said impatiently, not wanting to argue. - But what did you mean? You told I was melting…

-You're breaking up with immortality, - Alex said, frowning. - And you know what will remain of you then? Body and emotional cloud, a weak likeness of the soul. You will be almost real... only without a soul.

For the first time in the morning, I felt cold.

-But… but it's just nonsense! - I cried hoarsely. - I do not believe a single word!

-It's your business, - Alex said, indifferently, and, rising, began to pull on his cloak. I was still sitting on the boulder and so looked at the magician from the bottom up. - You've decided everything for yourself, Stas. Goodbye!

I did not even ask where he had gotten my name from. I was just sitting on a cold stone, in some kind of drugged state. I watched Alex galloping away, raising clouds of sand…

* * *

I didn't remember the way back and regained consciousness only in my bedroom. Surprisingly looking around, I stood motionless for a few minutes in the middle of the room, resembling a statue, then sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at my fingers.

So, that's it, Don!. You have stolen my soul, although claimed you had no need of it…

And I'm also a fool! Why did I believe Don?! This Alex was obliged to tell the truth, only the truth, and nothing but the truth… And Don could easily lie. Why on earth did I believe him?! Why didn't I wonder how miraculously he managed to live for so many years?! He casually mentioned that he was much older than he looked! And I did not bother to ask what he meant! And what if Don lives at the expense of his students? Pretty business! So, I'm his next donor? Like poor Bella…

I lay down and turned my face to the wall. The mood was so disgusting that I wanted to fall asleep and not wake up again - never before had I felt such an inner emptiness…

I stared blankly at the wall, and thoughts were hovering around Alex's story and Don's monologs... Why was I listening to him half-heartedly? I should have known better! However, Alex was even worse! A pretty fellow, indeed! Why couldn’t he help me? Not fair!

I gritted my teeth in frustration. I would give a lot for the opportunity to return to my world and forget about all that had happened. I'd like to become again an ordinary guy who cares only about a few joys of life…

When the clock announced the approach of 7 pm, I forced myself to get out of bed. Usually, I had dinner late at night in another reality, but today I had no intention of leaving the castle. I listened to myself. A light breakfast at Alex's company had been forgotten long ago, and I began to feel hungry, but the thought of high-fat food caused nausea. I would be more than happy to dine off black bread with dry cheese but it wasn't possible. The bread was always new and fluffy on Don's table, and cheeses were melting in the mouth...

Still frowning, I went down to the first floor and entered the dining room. Stopping on the threshold, I prepared to answer the slippery Don's questions, but, having scanned the room with a quick glance, I was very relieved to see that my tormentor was not here yet. A second later I felt a new wave of joy: the black magician's student was sitting at the long table already crowded with various dishes. Pale after a long sleep (probably she had not yet had time to put on her usual makeup), with a disheveled curly hair, the girl was wrapped up in a black and gold negligee and kept yawning covering her charming mouth with her palm. Looking up at the sound of footsteps, the witch smiled and said cheerfully:

- Well, at least someone! And I thought I'd have to eat alone ...

-Where's Don? - I asked settling myself in front of her.

Bella shrugged.

-I have no idea... And, frankly, I'm glad for his absence, - she added quietly. There was a cool note in her voice.

-Why? - I asked.

The girl was silent for a moment before answering:

-I do not know what to say to him... I... it's disgusting. And he is repulsive, and I am to myself - too.

I confessed with a wry smile:

-Okay, I understand you well! I've spent an entire day trying to comprehend what happened.

Bella shivered shyly and turned away, dryly said:

-Yes, I already know that the count died...

- Really? Had Don time to tell?

The corners of the pale pink lips quivered slightly. Bella turned her head and looked at me sideways.

-No, Don has nothing to do with it... I found out from the servants, - she explained insinuatingly. - I asked where you were. Frankly, most of all I was afraid…

The girl turned pink and cut herself off in mid-sentence. Avoiding my gaze, she took a hasty sip of wine. I looked at her with admiration and tenderness, afraid to believe the thought flashed: was Bella most afraid to find out that I was the one who had died? Did I manage to make a favorable impression on her? However, why not? I was by no means a freak and belonged to a completely different era. This fact, probably, made me even more appealing to her.

-I look awful, - said Don's charming student with a slight embarrassment. These words were so untrue that I could not help laughing. I liked her the way she was right now, such a disheveled morning image, soft and very young…

-Nonsense! - I said with conviction.

Bella smiled, a light glow on her cheeks and her green eyes sparkled with mischief. I, in turn, took a sip from my own glass and asked cautiously:

-And how in heaven's name did you come here? How did you manage to become a witch?

Bella frowned and looked at me with a sidelong glance.

-Do you really want to know? - having caught my affirmative nod, she said, displeased: - But then you'll have to tell me your story…

- Of course! - I promised. I was all ears.

The girl biting her lip was staring straight ahead. Then she shook her head as if gathering strength; a thick mass of red and gold curls spread out over her face. The almond-shaped eyes flashed with determination, the voice sounded calm and confident, but the gaze remained unfocused:

-In the world where I was born and where I had been living for twenty-three years, the Inquisition holds a tremendous power. I think you know what kind of institution the Inquisition is, - I nodded but Bella did not look in my direction and continued to speak monotonously. Obviously, she wasn't very pleased remembering those distant events. I almost regretted my request to tell about her past, and only an acute desire to learn a little more about the beautiful sorcerer prevented me from feeling pity and interrupting her. - In my home world, it is dangerous to engage in science, even more dangerous - to get involved in philosophy, because philosophers can be burned as heretics. And if you are a woman... besides - a beautiful woman... a smart, but reckless one... who doesn't care to hide her dangerous passions... then auto-da-fe is almost inevitable. A miracle can save her, and, incidentally, it was a miracle that saved me.

Bella smiled a little and looked at me for the first time. The smile turned sad, but even it gave the girl's pale face extra charm.

-I had a rather comfortable free life, - the red-haired sorceress confessed after a moment's pause during which we had been looking into each others' eyes with particular understanding. - I was just a girl, fifteen years old when I was forced to marry a rich elderly count. Parents sought to kill two birds with one stone: first, he was a profitable party, and secondly... secondly, they cherished the hope that I could settle down…

- So what? - I asked. - Has something come true?

She raised her head again and smiled more cheerfully. I could not resist smiling back at her, although I had no mood for it.

-You think I could settle down? - the girl asked with an ironical smile. - I was afraid of thinking about the children, and so I ran away from my husband at night. In addition, my intimacy with him did not inspire me. A few years later, I was convinced that you could enjoy the love game, moreover, I learned about existing special tools aimed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. In my world, there is nothing like that…

I frowned, I was uncomfortable with hearing about her love past. Bella, not noticing my grimaces, calmly continued:

- My husband tried to lock me in the bedroom, but I went out through the balcony. I loved to greet the dawn in nature's lap... I loved horse riding... My husband could not understand anything of the sort, of course…

Her voice sounded sullen regret, lips curved contemptuously... Sighing, Bella was silent for a second, thinking over her story.

- And he was irritated by my strange and suspicious passions. The ladies of fashionable circles usually spent their spare time drinking tea, gossiping, reading romance novels and memoirs... They watched the maids, arranged celebrations... I always hated gossips and tea parties, and I preferred to read forbidden authors. Do you think they wrote something like eroticism? Nothing of the sort! The ideas of these books seemed to the Inquisition... well, let's just say, unreliable and wrong! Everything beyond the canons of faith was forbidden. And my husband was an ardent supporter of rules and laws. Perhaps that's why he put me to death... having allowed the Inquisition to arrest me.

I dropped the glass spilling all its contents, so now I was exuding a thick wine aroma. However, at that moment I did not care much. I stared in disbelief at Bella, who met my gaze very bitterly.

-Did your own husband betray you? - I asked hoarsely. The girl nodded, and I exclaimed with indignation: - In my opinion, it's people like him who should be burned!

The witch huffed approvingly and reached for the vanilla cookie. While she was quenching her hunger, I stared into vacancy trying to comprehend what I had heard. Bella seemed to be younger than me - probably something about twenty-five years... but she'd experienced, perhaps, more…

-Anyway, I was placed in a special prison cell with good service, - the girl finally said. - I'm from a decent family, so my parents tried to take care of me. And my husband… I can understand him. He's just a coward who is afraid of someone else telling about my dangerous hobbies. In this case, we both would have had to die.

-That's an excuse! - I snorted.

Bella shrugged:

-I agree with you, but the fact remains that not everyone has the courage. In general, my camera was considered good, but I was used to living among the excess luxury and permissiveness!. First, I was tormented by the inability to leave these miserable five square meters of space. Secondly, scanty food. Poor people could have liked it, but I always ate the most delicate meat, skillfully cooked fish, the best sorts of cheese and bread, fresh vegetables and fruits, sweets from all over the world… So I was frustrated with the limited menu: mashed potatoes, some fresh porridge, stale bread, fibrous meat, poor sweets... Also, I was oppressed by the inability to look after myself. Cold water and soap, that's all I had! And I could not imagine life without lavender water, fragrant soap foam, powder, and other stuff... But most of all I was suffering, of course, from constant interrogations.

She fell silent again, this time for a long time. Bella seemed to be recalling to mind something truly terrible, and my skin involuntarily ran creepy. Was this little woman really tortured? How, in that case, did she manage to keep her charm?

-At first, they just asked, - the girl's voice grew tighter, her eyes narrowed. - My parents hired an adviser for me... you would have named him a lawyer... But his advice failed. He achieved only that the Inquisition considered it possible to apply to me more stringent methods of interrogation, based on torture, as you probably understand. For starters, I was almost sheared off and transferred to a smaller cell already contained a lot of sufferers. When I'd seen them... when I realized what was waiting for me... Poor things didn't look like women at all!

I got covered with a sticky sweat. What a glorious time I lived! It's terrible when you're forbidden to really think, hope, search, live!

- Fortunately, it did not come to the torture. Don appeared just in time to help me avoid this whole nightmare. He came at night dressed in his black cloak and offered to run. He asked everyone who was then in the cell but I was the only one who had the heart to escape.

-But why did no one else decide to escape? - I was perplexed.

Bella looked at me almost with pity:

- These women were fervent believers. The fact of being victims of the Inquisition did not diminish their faith. You're unable to understand me... you have a completely different upbringing. And then, after everything they had experienced, they were no longer able to fight for themselves. Their destiny became indifferent to them. As for me, I was still full of strength and energy. Now imagine the picture! Dead of night… a stranger in a black robe... someone who looks like an alien from the moon... and he miraculously managed to pass the guards... He seemed a messenger of hell!

-And he was such a messenger of the sort... in a way, - I interjected with a nervous grin.

Bella frowned.

- At that moment I did not care. I followed him. Since then, about a year and a half, I have been his student. And almost a half a year has gone to restore my mental health; thank goodness, they failed to cause me physical harm.

- Talking? - Don's slightly mocking voice came over us. I flinched and looked up. The black magician stood not far from us and smiled: - Do not worry, I was not going to interrupt you. I'm just hungry.

He settled himself beside Bella. The girl squinted in his direction, hurriedly rose and, muttering an apology, rushed out of the room. I wanted to follow her, although I almost did not touch the food, but Don stopped me:

- Wait! Before you leave, answer my question.

Displeased, I fasten my eyes on the magician. How could I, a sober and rational man, manage to contact this type?!

- What decision did you make?

I clenched my fists.

-What decision have I made? You will not let me go, will you?

-I will not, - the magician agreed easily. - You know the options.

- Then why are you asking such stupid questions?! - I got angry, threw back the napkin and, having risen, looked down with hatred at him: - You know that neither I nor Bella has a choice.

-There's a choice, - Don said softly. - And you know it.

Cursing through my teeth, I rushed out of the dining room. I was so close to throwing a sugar bowl at his direction!

* * *

Several weeks had passed.

All this time, both I and Bella refused to travel in the evening, preferring to stay in the castle. Don remained indifferent - at least, outwardly. I still had to attend his lectures although it was easier to endure these tedious monologues in a company of the young witch. However, now I listened to the magician's stories more attentively and soon found out that his narrations were not so boring.

I was spending my free time with Bella, and for the first few days, our relations did not go beyond friendship. We just talked, retelling our past, discussing Don’s theories, trying to find a loophole that would allow us to escape from his trap...

Of course, I dreamed of more than just friendship, but I was being stopped by one simple thought: how many lovers did she have? Will the night with me have any meaning for Bella? That's why I did not make any efforts, so the initiative came from the young witch. And the attack was so sudden and impressive that I had no chance of winning. Well, I may say, it was the sweetest failure I've ever had!

On the fourth evening, Bella came into my bedroom in such a breathtaking manner that I became speechless. Her magnificent body was enveloped in an absolutely transparent robe of a malachite shade - and she wore nothing else! The hair turned into curly locks, and her lips, rouged with something juicy-scarlet, flamed against the sugar skin like a candlelight... The girl closed the door behind her and gave me a mocking appraising look. Unable to find the right words, I silently looked at her.

- Are you afraid of me? She finally asked with irony. I licked my dry lips and gave a hoarse sound:

-No... not at all...

Bella smiled a little and suddenly slipped to me, wrapped her arms around my neck; I was numb, lost control over thoughts and consciousness, at that moment I had only one ability: to feel, touch…

-You're afraid, - the sorceress's lips whispered in my ear hotly. - You're afraid of being one of them, aren’t you?

-Yes, - I said without recognizing my own voice.

Bella ran a finger along my cheek and softly cooed:

-You're wrong. You will be the first, the first one I love. Believe me, I did not love anyone before. They were just lovers.

Could I refuse?

* * *

We tried to hide our burgeoning love affair from Don, but either our acting abilities turned out to be mediocre, or the black magician showed extraordinary insight once again, in any case, he guessed everything right away. His malicious remarks made me frown while Bella was blushing.

-The night of love is beautiful and gives extraordinary memories, - he murmured the next morning when Bella and I went down to breakfast and ceremoniously greeted the magician. I entered first, and my new lover appeared five minutes later. Having blushed and not looking at anyone, she wished us a good morning and settled herself as far as possible from me and Don.

-Love is truly wonderful, - the sorcerer continued with a light, carefree smile, he raised his glass of wine as if proposing a toast to us.

I frowned and discontentedly agreed:

-Wonderful, who's arguing…

In my memory, the images of last night were being resurrected, one after another. I really wanted to meet Bella's gaze, but I stubbornly did not raise my head. I was already feeling choky despite a pretty cool morning, and my charming little witch's smile would surely bring the blood into a boiling state.

-Perhaps you'll let the maid put you a salad on the plate? - Don suggested with a grin. - Do not be greedy…

I noticed that I was absorbing the mixed vegetables directly from the salad bowl. I did not even notice the taste of food, although I wanted to eat so much: at night I'd spent a lot of energy…

- So what? - I inquired defiantly with my mouth full.

Don shrugged his shoulders.

- There are just rules of decorum, you know…

I rap out an oath and streamed out almost half of the contents of the salad bowl on my plate. Part of the tomatoes cut into semicircles fell on a light tablecloth leaving mayonnaise stains on it.

-I told you that slaves should be engaged in servicing, - the black magician noticed lazily watching me with mock interest.

I turned red with anger mixed with embarrassment and snapped:

-I don't want servants coming near me!

- Why not? - Don asked gently.

I gritted my teeth. I was terribly anxious to grab this salad bowl and throw a mixed vegetables saturated with fatty sauce into his head!

-It doesn’t matter, - I muttered irritably. For some time there was a tense silence being broken only by sounds of cutlery. I ventured a sidelong glance at Bella. The girl sat very straight, cutting a ruddy chop with a silver knife diligently. If it were not for her straight back and excessive concentration on the process of absorbing food, one would believe that Bella cared only about breakfast.

-You're a great source of energy, - Don said suddenly. I flinched and looked at him in bewilderment. The sorcerer smiled a little: - Yes, yes. You are so easy to control…

- Nothing like this!

- You think so? - Don doubted. His thin lips smiled a little, while the look of the black, bottomless eyes remained cold and indifferent. - So why did you kindle like a dry straw? The energy release was really colossal! The energy is low-grade, of course, but the black magicians are able to absorb it anyway…

-But you're deliberately making me angry! - I shouted throwing back my fork which fell to the floor. However, I was in no hurry to pick it up. I was all simmering with anger. - You are knowingly tormenting me!

-And why are you reacting this way? - asked Don, unperturbedly. Barely able to cope with the reckless desire to ventilate my anger, I glared with a furious look at him.

-How am I supposed to react? - I hissed at last. - I'm just a man, after all!

The sorcerer studied me with some kind of research interest.

- A man? A man is someone who has learned to curb his emotions.

-How to do this, curious to know? - I inquired sarcastically.

Don shrugged his shoulders.

- To begin with, at least think about what exactly motivates you to react to someone's words and actions in a strictly certain way. After all, you can just ignore the potential abuser! Why is the opinion of this or that person so authoritative for you, that you allow it to achieve the goal and break through your protection?

I could not find anything to say, but Bella intervened.

-Well, what should be done if it had happened? - the girl's voice sounded lower than usual. - What should I do in this case?

The magician looked at her.

- Then it is best to direct the emotion in a positive way.

- This is the second time I've heard about this method! - I said irritably. - But how, tell me, will you achieve this?

The magician sighed.

-So little imagination! Well, for example, fear is an unpleasant feeling. But the fear of being burned accustoms us to be careful when dealing with fire.

-Clever, - I admitted, pushing back my plate. - And, for example, anger? Irritation?

-Anger can produce a miracle, - Don said thoughtfully after a pause. - Being angry, a person sometimes performs an act which he was not able to do in a calm state.

-You mean, that after being angry, you can kill the offender? - I pointed out maliciously.

The magician shook his head in despair and raised his eyes to the ceiling.

-Well, I'm saying - poor imagination! Why kill? Righteous anger can cause a person to perform a feat.

- And if there is no opportunity to prove yourself as a hero? - I asked sarcastically wanting to find some loophole in the flawless structure of his logic. - Then what to do with your anger?

-Then, instead of drowning out anger, at the risk of getting a nervous breakdown, it's much better to give yourself up to this feeling, throw it out, but so that you do not regret later. You can, say, beat the dishes or throw a vase into the wall…

I imagined myself overturning our dining table, and then explaining to Don: "Yes, it's just anger, I decided to throw it out..." Suppressing a chuckle, I said calmer:

- Okay, okay, you made me change my mind. I'll try to follow your covenants. Only one question: why does a black magician need all this stuff? I heard similar words from Alex, but he is bound to be righteous! And what is here for us?

-Well, if you want your energy to be used all around… - Don said. - But where then will you take forces for performing things which ordinary people call miracles? For traveling through realities, for example? If you've spent all your energy to create your own pedestal, don't be upset at being unable to go through walls.

- I didn't create any pedestal! - I exclaimed.

Don laughed:

- I've never met people without pedestals! Well, I met them, but very rarely. You cannot get these people angry. They don't care about your opinion, moreover, they don't care about their own opinion!

-Okay, I'm a complete egoist, I'm not arguing, - I nodded vigorously and caught Bella's grin with my eyes. - But among my acquaintances, there were also individuals with an inferiority complex! So, they have funeral pits instead of pedestals, yeah?

My analogy obviously amused Don, now he was actually smiling.

-Well, in a sense, yes. But this notorious pit is also pernicious. A person should stand on level ground because maintaining a pedestal with plus or minus symbol requires a huge amount of energy. Honestly, this energy could be used much wiser, for longevity, or what!

-But… - I was confused. - I don't see any difference between you and Alex! Your theories are so alike!

Don's gaze settled on my face, causing me to blush.

-And when you understand this… - the sorcerer said quietly, - then I’ll say that you have moved on to a new stage of magical learning.

- So do I? - Bella asked, discouraged.

Don nodded in agreement, and I and the girl exchanged puzzled looks.

* * *

For a few weeks, Don and I hardly spoke, except we had to communicate during his morning lectures, combined with walks in the garden.

But the nights belonged entirely to me and Bella. Only after sunset could we dare to surrender to our unrestrained passion, and this passion being heated by restraint of feelings during the day exploded with great frenzy able, perhaps, to crush any obstacle on its way.

Bella's company had been brightening up my evening hours; though, fearing Don's reaction, we were still trying to keep some distance from each other and confined ourselves to conversations. Strangely enough, this pastime did not bother me at all. For the first time, I had met a really smart woman! I used to evaluate girls only in terms of their attractiveness. Now I was surprised to note that besides the purely physical affection, I appreciated Bella for her mind. I realized that if the red-haired sorceress disappeared from my life, I would miss not only the insanity of our nights but also the amazing inner harmony that I was constantly feeling in her presence.

And then... then Bella fell ill, became tired, weak, lethargic, and these symptoms were getting worse every day. Eventually, when on the fourth day Bella could not get out of bed, I desperately rushed to the dining room, hoping to find Don.

He had already begun to eat breakfast. When I ran into the dining room, the mage looked up and greeted me:

- Good morning! Will you join me?

Out of breath from the impetuous run up the stairs, I did not immediately understand his question. Finally, after a short rest, I shook my head and said:

-No, no, I just want to ask... you could not help noticing... something wrong is going on with Bella…

He smiled and said softly:

- You're right, you’re right…

-But… - I stopped and stared at him in astonishment, not understanding the reason for his fun. - What's wrong with her?

-I should ask YOU about this, - the magician said almost affectionately. - Yes, sit down, sit down!

I plopped down on the nearest chair, still looking at Don. A hot lump seemed to get stuck in my throat, preventing me from expressing my feelings through words, but the magician came to my rescue and continued:

- You've won this battle, that's all.

-What battle? - I did not understand.

Don sighed and explained dryly:

- The battle of the magicians, of course. Well, the disciples of the magician.

-But I did not participate in any battle!

-You're wrong, - the sorcerer disagreed. Picking up a slice of cheese with his fork, he examined it carefully and then turned to me with a slight smile: - It's an excellent cheese, is not it? Try it, today it is especially good...

I angrily asked:

-What does your cheese have to do with it?! What's wrong with Bella?!

Don didn't hurry to answer. Having eaten the self-made sandwich, he immediately began to spread butter on the second piece of bread. I watched the magician with impatience, and this feeling threatened to grow into an uncontrollable frenzy. He's mocking, honestly!

-Bella is giving you her life, isn't it clear? - the tone of the magician remained so serene as if speaking of a bad weather.

-I did not ask her to give me her life! - I exploded. - I've had enough of mine!

-Not enough, - the magician shook his head, biting the second sandwich. - You're learning magic, you need more energy. And where can you get it? I explained you and your girlfriend how to avoid the mages' battle, but did you listen to me? Of course, no! You are now burning with anger, and I have often repeated about the perniciousness of such emotions!

-I have a reason for anger! - I fell into a passion.

Don shrugged his shoulders.

- And you always have a reason. You have never honestly admitted that there was no reason for irritation, and you just like to throw a tantrum.

- I like to throw a tantrum?! - I jumped to my feet and shouted so loudly that, in theory, the crystal glasses had to burst. Never in my life had I experienced such rage! - It's a lie!

- And now what are you doing? - inquired Don. My cries did not impress him at all. - Calm down and listen. So, I have given both you and Bella the opportunity to bypass the battle of the magicians. You did not use it. But you had been traveling through realities and worlds every night, you're learning magic, all this stuff requires energy! Or did you think that I was going to share mine?

- As if you knew how to share something! - I muttered angrily. I was still filled with anger, but I could already speak without raising my voice.

- So, you had two choices: either exhaust all your internal resources and die or, like an energy vampire, drink someone else's life. And since I don't want to act as a donor, Bella came to the rescue. Your love affair had played into your hands. Bella gave you her life voluntarily, you did not have to make the slightest effort. Now you should look for a new victim. I find this way of being somewhat tedious, so I prefer to follow the simple rules that I have told you about a hundred times.

I had a feeling as if I had been hit like a ton of bricks. Thoughts were confused, and I could not formulate a nightmarish idea: I turned out to be the one to blame! Even Don could not be blamed: in the end, I really did not listen to him! Of course, he warned me of the consequences…

-But what should I do now ?! - I asked hoarsely somehow coping with the voice.

Don raised his eyebrows in surprise.

- What exactly do you mean?

- I cannot let her die, don't you understand?

-I'm afraid it's too late, - Don said serenely and smiled slightly. His smile made me shivered.

- Ah well? Do you think you're the smartest? And there are no methods against you?

- Are there any such methods? - Don grinned looking at me almost enthusiastically. - Come on, give me an example!

And I said as if rushing into a bubbling stream:

-How about Alex? He is also a magician and a strong one!

His face tensed for a moment, but the next second the sorcerer was smiling again:

-You think Alex knows something I don't know?

I shrugged my shoulders irritably.

-No, but he is a white magician. Maybe you just don't want to share a secret with me? And he will share!

-And aren't you afraid to lose your identity by returning Bella's life? You may turn into one of my slaves! - Don's black eyes, sometimes flashing greenish cat's shine burned me with the icy flame, and there was not a drop of heat left in this fire…

I swallowed and answered tensely:

- I'm ready to take a chance.

-You mean, to sacrifice yourself? - said the magician with a scowl.

I was silent for a second listening to the rapid beating of my heart. I never thought of my being able to sacrifice myself... I'm selfish to the core! But, probably, everyone can become a murderer and a hero! Or not everyone but only a person with a burning and hot heart? Don had mentioned something of the sort at the first meeting... something about a strong personality and increased responsibility... That's what he had meant!

-I'm ready, - I said angrily after a pause. - You can make your black ritual this very second. Come on, go ahead!

The magician looked at me attentively.

-No, you'll do it yourself, trying to find Alex, - he said softly, shaking his head. - Come on. You made a choice.

I left the dining room. My head was buzzing with unasked questions and mind-filled thoughts, there was a strange ringing in my ears, and in general, I felt myself as if being asleep. But I did not fear. Well... almost did not fear.

* * *

I did not remember me climbing into Bella's bedroom and leaving the castle. I left it, holding a fragile jewel in my arms: my red-haired sorceress...

I had come to myself only at the foot of the hill, where I met Alex not so long ago.

I sat down on a cold stone carefully holding Bella. The girl was dozing in my arms, but now she seemed to be awakening: her eyelids trembled sleepily, and almond-shaped green eyes looked inquiringly at me.

-Where are we? - the voice was no louder than a whisper that caused a new storm of pity and fear in my soul.

I tried to answer lightly:

-I want to take you to one person who will surely be able to help.

-What man? - she muttered indistinctly, no blood left on her cheek...

- I told you about him. I mean Alex.

-Ah… - the corners of Bella's mouth turned up, it was probably an attempt to smile. - A white magician… and where will you find him?

If I had only known! But I did not show my doubts out loud.

-I think it won't be so difficult, - I remarked with deliberate cheerfulness. - I just…

-It's really easy, - a confident voice said above us.

I shuddered and looked up. Next to me stood a tall blond man in a gray road raincoat, and he was thoughtfully smiling. I was staring at him for about a minute unable to collect my thoughts, I could scarcely believe my eyes! Was I asleep?! Gone crazy?! It was too fishy coincidences!

-Coincidences are generally rare, - Alex agreed with my thoughts. - Come on, there's my crew nearby. We must hurry, your bride is very weak…

I decided not to ask any questions. At least for the time being…

* * *

The white magician helped me to settle in a black carriage. There were two upholstered in purple velvet benches inside, and I sat on the edge of one of them. We put Bella on the other seat using it like a bed while my knees were serving as a pillow. Holding my dear girl, I was peering anxiously into her emaciated little face.

-She will not die, right? - I asked in a trembling voice.

Alex frowned slightly.

-We'll try to save her life. Okay, I'll be a coachman, so see you soon!

And he left the carriage.

I had an inexplicable vague feeling that everything in my life would soon get better. Perhaps the reason for this was the presence of a man as strong as Alex, but I calmed down believing in the possibility of a favorable outcome, not only for Bella but for myself. Alex could really know some special aspects of magic inaccessible to black sorcerers!

I did not try to look out the only tiny window curtained with a dense purple cloth. I was completely indifferent to where we were going, I was not thinking about a possible trap... I was looking at Bella and mentally praying unknown gods to save her.

When the carriage suddenly braked, I was thrown forward by inertia. I lost my balance and managed miraculously not to let Bella slip onto the dusty floor. Having felt such a sharp push, the girl woke up and asked weakly, turning her head to me:

-And now where are we?

-In the carriage yet… - I answered vaguely.

At that moment the door swung open, and the face of the white magician appeared in this opening.

- We've arrived, - Alex announced with a smile, helped me to take Bella out of the carriage and added noticing me looking around: - This is my family estate!

I was looking with some surprise at the three-story mansion that could be visible behind the high lattice fence. This luxurious house, surrounded by a dense garden, was even better than Don's palace! What an "ascetic"!

-You do not look much like an ascetic, - I said.

Alex turned in confusion.

- And where did you get that I'm an ascetic?

-Well, what about white magic? - I explained a little embarrassedly and blushed when I heard Alex laugh.

- White magicians do not have to be ascetics at all. At will, perhaps.

- Who would want it? - I muttered watching Alex give a short order to a man in bright clothes that reminded me of the musketeers' outfit in the film by Dumas. The Musketeer immediately rushed to open the heavy metal gate.

-You're wrong, some people like extremes, - the mage said. - Come on, we have no time to waste.

-You have servants too! - I exclaimed and asked sharply: - And who are they? Servants or slaves?

Alex, moving quickly towards the entrance to the mansion, turned for a moment, and I was amazed at the angry grimace that distorted this chiseled face.

- Of course not! - Alex was outraged, his eyes narrowed. - Every servant has his own duties. Our family is five centuries old! My last name is very ancient. These people serve me and live with me. I could let them go, but why? Where will they go and what will they do? I'm not bad as an overlord. Sometimes I even carry out some duties on my own - like being a coachman today, for example.

His lips were touched by a slight smile, and I frowned and continued stubbornly:

-But all this does not go with the norms of white magic!

- What do you know about white magic? - Alex snorted contemptuously running up the stone steps that led to the oak entrance door.

I did not object for two reasons: firstly, in a sense, he was right, and secondly, climbing the stairs with a woman in your arms and arguing at the same time is a rather difficult task.

We found ourselves in a spacious hall, lit by a huge number of candles. Looking around, I was more and more confused. Nothing corresponded to my ideas about white magicians: neither an elegant staircase of pinkish marble nor golden candelabra or portraits painted in oil... I was surprised and annoyed at the same time: why then had I sold my soul?! Don told me that white mages were all ascetics! But maybe only a noble person is allowed to live on the fat of the land…

-Not only a noble one, - Alex said. Probably, he had telepathic abilities. - The question is, what is the luxury for you and what are you willing to pay for its acquisition. I got everything by inheritance. I didn't have to sell my conscience for the right to live in this house. Clear?

-It's quite clear, yeah, - I uttered, and looked gloomily at the staircase. My hands began to ache, as soon as I thought about walking to the third floor.

And again Alex seemed to read my thoughts:

-No, we'll settle Bella in a cozy room on the first floor.

I glanced at him suspiciously.

-Tell me, are you a telepath?

-In this case, not at all, - Alex chuckled heading for the far door on the left. -Your expression said it all!

I flushed keeping silence. Well, what could I have said?

* * *

-Come on, we'll have lunch, - Alex suggested when I put Bella on the bed with his help. This room was very small, and all around was lapped in beige color, sometimes diluted with gold and white.

- What do you mean?! - I was indignant, although I had not eaten today. - First, you need to help her!

-She's going to be alright, - Alex promised softly. - Servants will take care of her.

- Servants! - I muttered. - I hate this word…

Alex shrugged.

-Ok, but do not confuse them with Don’s slaves.

-But what can they do? - I inquired peering at girl's deathly-white face. - Even Don was powerless to help!

-In this case, everyone but the culprit of her condition is powerless, - having become stingy, Alex explained.

I bit my lip and turned to the white magician.

-Don said I was the culprit… - I mumbled, scowling. - But if it's me… I don’t know how to cure her!

-It does not interfere with healing, - Alex answered mysteriously and touched my shoulder. - Come on, she's just asleep. It's necessary in order to fully restore her strength.

I caught my breath for hope. I really wanted to believe him...

-Okay, let's go, - I nodded uncertainly and, with a last look at Bella, followed the owner of the mansion.

* * *

Alex's dining room painfully reminded a similar room in Don's mansion. I even winced, the associations that had arisen were too unpleasant.

-Well, sit down and help yourself, - Alex asked. I reluctantly settled myself on one of the chairs and looked suspiciously at the magician:

-And you? Will you join me?

-I will, - he smiled enigmatically. - But first... I'll change.

-What do you mean? - I was surprised, studying Alex's costume with my eyes.

The white magician, grinning, seemed to have held his breath for a second and then, suddenly, turned around his axis. I watched him foolishly. Maybe he had gone mad? But I failed to ask him any question: having finished his strange dance, Alex froze and gazed into my face with his black eyes... black?!

I gasped and jumped to my feet, my heart beating violently. Pale skin, broad-faced face, black-green eyes, raven hair, silk cassock…

-Don?! - I cried with a horror trying to grope for the dagger. Damn, was I fool enough to leave it in my room?!

The man (Alex or Don?) kept cool coolness. Nothing in the world seemed to be able to unsettle him.

-That's one of my names, - he said sitting down on one of the chairs. - Alex is also my name.

-But... but... - I choked on the feelings overwhelming me. My head was spinning, I wanted to ask a thousand of questions at the same time. - But Alex is completely different!

-You mean the appearance? - Don specified. - Sit, sit.

I obeyed, still thinking badly.

-But Don is a black magician, and Alex is white! - in the end, I mumbled helplessly.

-You're wrong, - my strange companion minded calmly. - I have no color. The division into black and white belongs to the third dimension, and I've been living in the fourth one for a long time. It seems that I mentioned this in one of the lectures. You should have guessed long ago. I’m really surprised you didn’t.

-I misunderstood you... - I whispered staring at the tablecloth and trying to remember that long-standing lecture. - I thought you were just looking for an excuse for your way of life: they say, the division into good and evil is very conditional, and you can commit any sinful act with a clear conscience!

- Yes, you can, - Don (or Alex?) nodded. - Why not? The point is the price. Everything has its price, and if you are willing to pay - just do it! As I told you recently, I've inherited this mansion on the hillside. To get it, I just had to be born in this family. The price is moderate.

-Just luck, - I muttered, barely audible.

Don raised his eyebrows.

-Luck? Oh no! All we have, we've chosen.

- And why would someone choose poverty? - I asked skeptically.

- Why not?. Beyond this life limits, we are not the same as here. And this life is like a performance for an actor. Tell me, does the actor refuse to play the role of a beggar if he likes the play?

I had not found convincing arguments. Don waited a moment, smiled victoriously and continued with the same indulgent indifference:

-It is necessary to remember that this is only a game. Moreover, roles can be changed during the play. If you are tired of playing a beggar, try the prince.

-And will they crown me as a real king? - I couldn't help laughing.

-Maybe, - uttered the magician nimbly moving the fork and knife. I, as if hypnotized, watched his deft movements. - Everything happens in life. But we talked about the price. So, sometimes the price of an overly luxurious life is a soul.

-So you've sold your soul, yeah? - I could not control myself, I wanted to hurt him, I would be more than happy to discover that Don was as much a man as I was; a man capable of getting angry, flaring, screaming…

-No, I did not sell my soul. I've already explained to you that all this luxury was inherited by me. Someone receives such a valuable prize as a result of hard work, someone is studying a technique so popular in your world, something like "how to attract money"...

-And does it work? - I asked sadly, still not touching my food.

-Yes, - Don nodded seriously. - But I must warn you that you'll have to work really hard! But there is a third way - to sell the soul.

-For example, to kill your aunt for the sake of inheritance? - I said with a laugh.

-Yes, just do not look at me with such malice. I did not kill anyone for the inheritance.

-And what does it mean to sell the soul? - I inquired.

-It means losing it, - Don explained. - The substance called spirit will tear the thread connecting it with the body. And you will not understand that the person has already died: the emotional cloud will create the illusion of having a life. After death, the emotional cloud will have been gradually dissipating...

I shivered and asked, trying to cope with the voice:

-And these slaves who served you at the table...

-Yes, they are such living corpses, - Don sighed. - They are really my students. But, unlike you, they proved to be unskillful.

Suddenly I got angry:

-Naturally! You provoked them, and you did the same thing to me!

-Only with your consent, - he protested. - Consent given beyond this life. The method is risky, but it allows you to step over several steps at once.

-But you did let Count McMander get poisoned! - I shouted. - And you let me drink poisoned wine...

-Why didn't you pour out the contents of your cup? - inquired Don. - You wanted it so much!

I turned pale with anger and uttered hoarsely:

-And all these shows?! The Battle of the Gladiators? Executions?!

-Over the past few weeks, you and Bella have refused to attend such events, and have I opposed it? No, - Don shrugged, approaching the dessert. - By the way, notice, I've never accompanied you. I am not fascinated with such "shows" as you named them.

-Well-well! - I was breathing heavily and could not think of a worthy retort. Anger literally strangled me. - Was I such a fool that I wanted to bring myself to this terrible test?!

-In a way, you had no choice, - Don said thoughtfully. - You are too strong and contradictory. If it was not for me, no one knows where your need for adventure would have led you to!

-Well, where could it lead me? - I grumbled irritably, grabbed a fork and poked it into the nearest dish, which turned out to be stewed potatoes. I began to chew, absolutely without feeling taste.

-In your last life, such a need had led you to the guillotine.

I choked on the potatoes. Coughing, I closed my mouth with my palm and stared at him with mistrust. He was serenely smiling.

-What guillotine? - I asked in a hoarse voice.

-The one where the head is being separated from the body, - the sorcerer explained graciously. - Another your life had ended tragically too: you were almost burnt at the stake as a heretic. You survived, but that experience had sent you mad.

I did not know whether to laugh or cry. His story seemed delirious, but something was whispering to me: it's true. I could almost call to mind details…

-But how do you know? - I asked angrily at last.

-You told me yourself, - the magician replied indifferently, biting into a blueberry pie with obvious delight. I grimaced with disgust and dropped the fork.

-When did I tell you this? And where?

-When and where are the concepts not quite suitable for that form of existence, - Don responded absentmindedly.

I snorted:

-And why didn't I do much easier? Why didn't I just give my poor earthly twin a full memory?

Don stared at me with genuine bewilderment:

-First, the human brain is not ready to perceive this kind of information yet. It takes years, that is, centuries, of evolution. And secondly…

-Secondly? - I hastened him.

Don frowned.

- I'm no judge of the meaning of life, and why we need this series of lives... We can build millions of theories, and none of them will come close to the truth. However, I still have the right to guess - taking into account my experience.

-Well, then guess something, - I snickered leaning back in my chair. Crossing my arms over the chest, I tried to look carefree. - In any case, I myself have no assumptions.

- Perhaps, That Primordial Something, called God, the Creator, the Absolute... perhaps It (any pronoun is inappropriate) seeks to know itself?.. with the help of... umm... how to express my idea more accurately?

- With the help of Its agents? - I joked frowning.

Don laughed:

-By the way, in a sense, you guessed right. That's why I say: the division into black and white is arbitrary.

-What about wars, cruelty, violence? - I interrupted him. - Are you ok with this kind of stuff?

- And what about a small child who does not understand that he cannot paint wallpaper with a felt-tip pen? It's easier to just say that spoiling thing is a big taboo... Evil. Only becoming older, the little man realizes a completely logical reason for this taboo.

- You compared the war and the damaged wallpaper! - I continued to argue.

- It's just an analogy, - the sorcerer said coldly, obviously losing his patience. - Someday you'll understand, Stas. If you do not understand now, you will understand later. But, believe me, you had no choice but to take such an adventure. You despaired of awakening a real memory in yourself and decided to try out such a shake. At the very outside, you would lose only one life.

- Only one life! - I exclaimed indignantly. - This life is all I have. I'm not familiar with the person who supposedly spoke to you in a world without time and space and who seems to be me too!

-Not bad, - Don smiled. - You're right: you do not know him, but the purpose of life is to get acquainted! You've taken a big step towards that.

I cast a displeased glance at my interlocutor. It seemed to me that the expression on his face was too self-satisfied, and I decided to spoil his mood:

- By the way, you said that I would become a slave if I took Alex's help!

Don answered me with an unflappable gaze.

-It's a shame to believe a man you consider a black magician! - said the sorcerer edifying.

I frowned:

- Well, then why didn't you calm me down when you were Alex?

- It would be a bad lesson then! - Don seemed amused. - You had to take a chance or guess yourself.

Although he had an objection to any of my arguments, I wasn't ready to concede my point:

- And are you forgiven for your way of life?

-My way of life? - Don raised his eyebrows in surprise. - Did you see me doing something reprehensible? Maybe I was torturing people? On the contrary, I seemed to have saved Bella from being tortured. If you remember...

The mention of Bella stirred a new wave of anger in my soul.

-And what did you do with Bella?!

-YOU did, - Don corrected me sternly. - You cannot even imagine, Stas, how many energy vampires and donors there are around! But she's alive. You've left off in time. Now she'll be fueling with your strength. This is possible only for the very reason you really love her.

-And if I hadn't loved her? - I asked in a hushed voice, glaring at the magician. - Would she have died?

-Yes, - he nodded. - But a proud woman like Bella would be unlikely to have given all her internal reserves to a man who did not really love her.

I did not know what to say. Indeed, he was right... suddenly I gave a start:

-But she's alive?

-Yes, - Don repeated wearily. - She'll sleep until evening, then she'll wake up healthy.

I bit my lip.

-A... and then? Where should we go?

-You are my students. So, it's up to me to decide where you should go, - Don grinned good-naturedly.

I looked up, the magician was smiling almost cheerfully.

-But... but what will you teach us now? - excited, I started to stutter.

-O, magic is vast and multifaceted! - Don responded carelessly.

-And can we manage without executions and torture this time? - I said anxiously. Don burst out laughing.

-Of course! By the way, the main lesson of the first-second stage: henceforth try to control every emotion. It's foolish to give hard-won forces to the first comer.

-I promise! - I said joyfully and helped myself with fried potatoes.

After all, life was beautiful!

 

EPILOGUE

When Bella woke up, I was sitting next to her bed on a three-legged stool and gripping the girl's palm.

-Where are we? - Bella asked. And although her voice was sleepy and quiet, it had been filling out with the former strength.

-I'll tell you later, - I promised, smiling. - Now I have more important information.

- Really? She smiled, too. - Which one?

-I love you, - I whispered, bending to her very face. - Do you hear? I love you... I have proved it in practice.

I didn't know what the future held for us, but now, oddly enough, I didn't care. In the end, Don Alex was right. The only thing that really matters is the present moment. And the present moment meant Bella.

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