by Dawn Vogel
The thing Rozaliya hated most about being Erina's navigator was she could never see the ground beneath them, as Erina flew their wood and canvas biplane perfectly parallel to the ground. It made her job nearly impossible and left her feeling superfluous.
On top of that, Erina didn't appreciate Rozaliya's humming to pass the time.
"Would you cease that infernal claptrap?" Erina sputtered over the wind whistling through the biplane's wings.
"It isn't claptrap. I am serenading you with a wonderful waltz. I thought it apropos, as we are to bomb the composer's countrymen."
Erina's tone grew sharp. "If your wonderful composer was alive today, would he be saluting us or Der Führer?" Erina made the German words sound wretched, like curses upon the earth and all who dwelt there.
Rozaliya frowned. She didn't want to argue with Erina. Erina was one of the best pilots in the 46th, and she'd never failed to return them home without a scratch on them or their plane. Hoping to divert her pilot's attention, she asked, "We should nearly be to our target, should we not?"
A sharp tapping came from the cockpit, followed by Erina clearing her throat. "Er, the clock has stopped. I thought we fixed it."
"Nothing in this hunk of junk stays fixed for long." A glint of light off the starboard wings drew her attention. "Did Olga send more than just us?"
"She said only one plane for this mission."
Rozaliya watched for what could only be another plane, but the cloud cover was increasing. "Fly faster," she murmured, too softly for Erina to hear.
Normally, her magic had no effect on machinery. Nonetheless, she felt a tingle in her fingertips, and their plane sped up.
The burst of speed would have been to their advantage if she hadn't noticed the other plane too late. It emerged from a cloudbank and released a hail of bullets into the side of their rickety plane. No bullets hit Rozaliya, and that Erina did not cry out suggested either the pilot had also not been hit, or the bullets aimed toward her had killed her instantly.
Regardless, the plane was going down.
Rozaliya crawled from the wreckage as soon as the plane had finished digging a long, wide furrow through the German countryside. Her arms and legs collapsed beneath her, and she crumpled to the ground, the earthy loam filling her senses. Beneath her fingers, the soil felt as it did in the Motherland, but they had crossed the border some time before. The earth still comforted her, and she let herself slip toward unconsciousness.
Rozaliya jolted from her torpor and looked around. The landscape swam before her eyes, blurring the brown of the earth with the brown of their plane, with the brown of Erina's hair, jacket, and cap. Rozaliya reached toward what she thought was Erina, but her fingers touched nothing.
She awoke to men's voices, speaking German. She lay still on the ground, now cold beneath her body, and peered out from behind slit eyelids.
"This one's still breathing," one of the voices reported from somewhere in the distance. They must be talking about Erina, not her.
"Good, we'll take her in." The second voice had a hard edge to it. "What about the other?"
Rozaliya gulped in a breath, remained curled up and unmoving, her face turned toward the earth. Let the dirt fill her nostrils, if she must. Anything to convince them she no longer lived.
Something jabbed at her side, but she lay as though she were little more than a log on the ground.
"This one's not moving," a third voice said. Young, not skilled enough yet to notice that she breathed through her nose and tried not to shiver.
"Then there is no sense in dragging her corpse back to camp. Let it rot here with this contraption the Russians seem to think is a plane."
Rozaliya allowed her eyelids to open just a fraction more, so she could see these men and which direction they were taking Erina. She wanted to shoot them, but Erina always made her leave her pistol in her bunk.
One of the German soldiers tossed Erina over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. There was a jeep nearby, still running, that Rozaliya had slept through arriving. The officer, wearing a heavier coat and looking better groomed than the two soldiers, took Erina, placed her in the front seat of the jeep, and smoothed a curl away from her face.
"A pretty one, eh?" He was the sharp-voiced man, and his laughter matched. The others joined in, but it was the officer's laughter that chilled Rozaliya's bones.
He turned toward Rozaliya, and she feared she must have whimpered against her will. He shook his head. "We'll have to come back and burn this thing once we've gotten her back to camp."
Rozaliya committed his face to memory. She'd be long gone before he returned, but that didn't mean she wouldn't find him again.
The jeep had moved too quickly for Rozaliya to follow on foot, but there was only one road nearby, and she had seen which way the jeep had gone. She followed the road in that direction until she heard a vehicle in the distance, which drove her back to the rough earth alongside the road. As the jeep drew nearer, she recognized the same men who had taken Erina, though Rozaliya's pilot was no longer in the vehicle.
Again, she wished for her pistol. Magic had nothing on cold steel. A few quick shots into the tires to disable their vehicle, and then she could murder these Nazis, one by one.
Instead, she turned up the collar of her worn wool jacket, covering the lower portion of her face. She rose and waved, and the jeep slowed to a stop beside her.
Muttering an incantation under her breath to make the men believe she looked appropriate to her surroundings, and also to amplify her natural charm, she looked at the driver. "Give a girl a ride?" The less German she spoke, the better—though she knew their language, her accent might give her away as Russian.
The driver began to nod, but the officer sitting beside him shook his head and placed a hand on the driver's shoulder.
"No, no rides."
Rozaliya focused on the officer, the same one who had moved the curl from Erina's face. At his throat, he wore a medallion bearing a stylized pillar and a series of runes. She didn't recognize their origin, other than Nordic, but it didn't seem to matter. Her magic wasn't working on him. She nodded. "Sorry to trouble you."
As Rozaliya walked back into the field, the jeep continued toward the wreckage of the plane. Rozaliya hazarded a glance in their direction, and was unsurprised to see the officer still staring at her. She hoped he hadn't studied her face as well as she'd studied his.
By the time she came upon the downed plane, it was a bonfire, and the jeep was again driving away, heading farther down the road toward where she now noticed a steeple. A town.
She followed, kept upright now by her anger. She hummed under her breath as she went, now that Erina wasn't here to complain about her humming. She had been fed a steady diet of opera as a child, thanks to her grandmother's roots in that art form. Now, the songs of revenge sung by women and men alike filled her brain and drove her forward.
The town was full of Nazi jeeps, but she found the one she was looking for parked outside a ramshackle building. As the door thumped open, the smell of schnapps, the tune of a piano, and the flash of glittery clothing all wafted out.
Rozaliya's eyes widened. She'd heard about the German cabarets, but never dreamed she might see one. And the Nazis who had taken Erina were likely inside.
She slipped around to the back of the building just as a gaggle of chorus girls, their faces made up with exaggerated lips and eyes, poured out the back door, lighting cigarettes and shivering in the cold.
Rozaliya moved toward the door, gaze on the ground, the collar of her wool jacket turned up again.
"You're late," one of the chorus girls said, a sneer pasted across her features.
"Sorry," Rozaliya said.
The woman pulled the door open wider. "You'd better get ready fast. We've got five minutes until we're on next."
Rozaliya nodded and ducked beneath the woman's arm. The backstage area was dim, and she stumbled over random detritus as she searched for the dressing room.
A full rack of chorus girl costumes greeted her within, and she stripped and redressed in a flimsy glittery blouse and short skirt that matched what the other girls were wearing, tucking her flying clothing into a corner beneath a broken feather fan. A quick glance in the mirror assured her she looked frightful, but there wasn't time to do much more than run her fingers through her short hair before she pulled on a headband, pinched her cheeks, and bit her lips.
And then the dressing room was filled with other young women, chattering and giggling in rapid-fire German. Rozaliya followed well enough to catch the instructions about lining up, choreography, and the song they'd be singing, an old bierhaus standard.
She didn't know the words, but she smiled, moved her mouth, and kicked at the appropriate times. And watched the crowd for her targets.
The stage lighting was bright enough, and the cabaret dark enough, that the men in the audience were but silhouettes facing the dancing girls. But the song went by in a blur as Rozaliya stared out into the crowd, a smile plastered across her face, searching for her quarry.
As the song reached the final chorus, the girls on either end of the stage began descending into the crowd, stopping at some of the tables near the stage to favor the gentlemen with smiles and delicate hands placed on shoulders. Rozaliya's smile became genuine as she followed their lead.
Picking her way through the crowded maze of tables, she paused long enough to share a flirtatious smile with the men, long enough to get a good look at their faces and determine they were not the one she was looking for.
Finally, she spotted him. The officer who had moved Erina's curl from her face, calling her pretty and sneering at the same time. A quick glance at the other cabaret girls confirmed what Rozaliya had hoped. A number of them were now seated with the men in the club, some on tables, some on laps, some on abandoned chairs, while other girls were dancing with the men to the faint strains of the band, overlain by chattering, laughter, and beer steins clinking. Here in the heart of the Axis powers, there was merriment aplenty.
Not for Rozaliya.
She moved toward the Nazi officer, singing as she walked.
Not only are you the God of mercy,
And forgiving grace, but also in your anger
God of battle and of vengeance,
For as that God I worship you,
Oh hearken, hear my prayer!
I had no soul in the world except my sister,
No parents, no husband, no, none that could replace her,
She has been stolen from me, she has been ruin'd,
Oh let me find the man and have my revenge on him;
Lord, who is not only the God of mercy,
And of pardon, oh hearken, hear my prayer!
"What is that song?" a man asked as he grabbed her arm and spun her around. He stank of beer and stale sweat as he leaned in close to her face. "What is that beautiful song?"
"It's from Doktor Faust." Rozaliya favored him with an artificial smile. "Do you like it?"
"I like your voice. Will you sing for us more?" He gestured to a table filled with other young men, all looking as inebriated as he was.
Rozaliya shook her head. "I'm sorry, I've got to get to the bar now."
"Just one more song?" he pleaded.
"Sorry, I can't." She tried to pull away from him, but his grip on her arm grew tighter.
"Then what good are you?" he asked, spittle flying from his lips.
That spurred Rozaliya into action. She shoved him away with her free hand and stomped her heel onto the toe of his boot at the same moment.
In his shock, he let go of her arm, but then reached out for her again.
Rozaliya scooted backward, just in time to move past a dancing couple, who interposed themselves between the drunk man and her. When he grabbed again, his hand fell on the officer's sleeve, bringing the dance to a halt. Rozaliya didn't stick around to see the aftermath, but continued on toward the officer she had identified.
The false smile plastered onto her face again, she batted her eyelashes as she reached his table. "Hey there, soldier," she said, draping an arm across his shoulder.
Though his body tensed beneath her arm, he favored her with a smile. "What is your name, darling?"
"You may call me darling if you like."
"Very well." His lips twitched toward a frown. "Your accent, where are you from?"
"Debrecen," she said, gaze downward. The city was far enough from where they were now and recently destroyed, so she hoped he would not pursue it further.
"Ah, my condolences."
"I would rather not think of it tonight." Steeling herself, she asked, "Might I interest you in a walk instead?"
He inclined his head toward the stage. "Don't you have more dancing to do?"
"Not soon enough to interrupt a short walk." She glanced around, feigning nervousness. "The bosses don't want us girls to smoke in the club. We have to go outside."
He smiled and rose from his chair, presenting an arm to her. "Then we shall take the air. But, I insist, when we are outside, you must tell me your name."
Rozaliya smiled and took his arm. "Rosa," she whispered, as they slipped out into the street.
"Pretty name for a pretty girl."
She pulled closer to him as a gust of wind, chilly in the early spring, raised her skin into goose pimples. "Can I get one of your cigarettes?"
He pulled a pack from his pocket, allowed her to take one, and tucked another between his narrow lips before lighting it. Then he leaned close to her and lit her cigarette off his, his cold blue eyes boring into her dark eyes.
Rozaliya glanced away. It was easy to look embarrassed under his penetrating gaze. She didn't want him to look too deeply into her soul, lest he see the truth of her plan. "Where shall we walk?" Her voice was husky from the first drag off her cigarette. The German tobacco was fragrant, so much better than the stale cigarettes she and the other girls had smuggled into their camp.
"That depends on what you have in mind, Rosa," he said, winking at her.
Rozaliya arched her eyebrow. "I thought you were concerned about me getting back to dance, earlier. And anyway, I still don't know your name."
"Friedrich. Are you allowed schnapps in the cabaret?"
Rozaliya froze, unsure of the answer, but she recovered and shook her head. It might not be true, but he wouldn't have asked if he already knew. "No, no drinking on the job. Though I'd rather have vodka."
"Vodka?" He grimaced. "Vodka is forbidden. At least until Russia is defeated."
The words "Mother Russia will never be defeated" leapt to her tongue unbidden, but she kept them from escaping her lips by swallowing hard, as though the words themselves were a strong drink. They burned going down, just the same. "Of course. Schnapps is just so sweet."
"You don't like it?"
"No, but if you give me schnapps, I'll drink it."
"Then come with me to my room, and I'll share my schnapps with you."
She blushed, and the reaction was real. Officer or not, she should not accept his invitation to join him in his room. Her family would be scandalized, and the priests would never forgive such an act.
Then again, she planned to murder him, as soon as she knew where to find Erina. So perhaps the state of her immortal soul was of less concern. She gave him a shy nod and allowed him to take her by the hand.
The room was small, but it was still far more space than Rozaliya was accustomed to in the women's barracks. Friedrich kissed her as soon they were inside the room, and she took her time prying herself away from him, certain she could wrap him around her finger even without magic.
"Lie on the bed." Rozaliya gently pushed him away as she reached for the buttons on the front of her borrowed costume.
"Don't you want some schnapps first?"
Once he was on the bed, she undid her buttons slowly, not removing the shirt, but letting it hang from her shoulders, just covering her bare breasts.
A flush crept over his pale skin as she bent over, rolling down her stockings and removing them. Stretching them out in front of her, she smiled and sauntered toward the bed.
She unbuttoned his uniform shirt, peeling it off his arms, and punctuating the motion with delicate kisses. She tried not to look at the pendant he wore, the thing that prevented her from using her magical charms on him. Her mundane charms would suffice tonight.
When his shirt was off, she lifted his wrist to the wooden bedframe and wrapped her stocking around both.
"What are you doing?" he asked, resisting her grip.
"Relax, darling. You'll enjoy it more this way." Rozaliya finished knotting one stocking. She straddled his chest and began tying up his other wrist as she kissed him. When she was finished, his breath came in shuddering pants.
"Good." She climbed off Friedrich and the bed, unbuckling his belt as she did. She pulled it from his belt loops and moved to the foot of the bed, where she slung his belt around her neck and began to unlace his boots. But rather than pulling them from his feet, she tied the partially unlaced boots snug to his feet, and then to the bedframe.
With Friedrich restrained, she pulled his pistol from the holster he had set down with his jacket and tucked it into the waistband of her short skirt.
He gulped, choking down air. "What are you doing?" he gasped.
"Don't worry, darling. Tell me what I want to know, and I promise I'll make it quick." She leapt from where she stood to the bed and sat hard on his upper chest. Seized with a sudden aching to bend his will to her own, her fingers fumbled at the chain that held the talisman close to his throat, but they found no clasp anywhere along its length.
"You will not take my faith in the Old Ways from me, even if you kill me."
Rozaliya laughed. "Old Ways? My ways are the Old Ways. Yours are misguided. But don't take my laughter at your belief to mean I won't kill you. You'd best start talking. What did you do with the downed pilot?"
Rozaliya sighed. "Don't play dumb, Friedrich."
He shrugged in spite of his restraints. "But I don't know what you're talking about."
Threading his belt behind his neck, she began to cinch it around his throat, blocking her view of his talisman. Her inability to see it didn't negate its power, but at least she didn't have to look at the damn thing, stupid Aryan magic that somehow counteracted her spells. "Let's try this again. You found a pilot in a downed Russian aircraft earlier, yes?"
He started to nod, which tightened the belt at his throat. "Yes," he gasped.
Rozaliya loosened the belt's tension, just enough so Friedrich wasn't prevented from breathing. "Where did you take her?"
"Who are you?"
She looked at him and shook her head, tightening the belt a touch. "Try again. Where did you take her?"
Friedrich's gaze narrowed. "You are Russian?"
"Oh, yes. But you're not answering my question." She pulled the pistol from her waistband, leaned back, and tapped the barrel against his left kneecap. "Do you like walking? Then tell me where you took her."
"We just took her back to camp. She'll be held there until they try her as an enemy combatant."
She watched him, loosening the belt slightly more. He sweated profusely, his face pale, and his eyes wide with fear. She had no reason to doubt the information he was giving her. "Very good. Do you prefer strangulation or a gunshot?" She paused, quirking one side of her mouth into a smile. "I am a navigator, not a markswoman. It might take a few gunshots."
"No, don't kill me, please. I will take you to her."
"Sorry, Friedrich. I'm sure you would take me right there, but that won't get her or me free of this wretched country and this wretched war. But you're sweet. I'll strangle you. The pain won't last long. And I'll sing to you, if you like."
"No, no, just let me go, you crazy woman!"
Rozaliya shook her head. "Stop being rude." She tightened the belt to cut off Friedrich's windpipe, preventing him from shouting.
"Ah, flee the traitor, and let him cozen you no more," she sang, pulling the belt tighter still. Friedrich's tongue lolled from his mouth and his eyes began to bulge.
Rozaliya squeezed her eyes shut as she pulled, slowly rising to make the belt even tighter. "Deceit is on his lips and falsehood in his eyes. From my suffering learn what it means to trust him—"
His feeble attempts to free himself from the restraints or the strangulation abated.
She dropped the end of the belt, and spared Friedrich's body one last glance, his face purple and still. "And be warned in time by my plight."
By the time Rozaliya returned to the cabaret for her clothing, the officers and the girls were long gone. She'd ransacked Friedrich's things, hoping maybe he was holding out on the forbidden vodka, but she had only found the promised schnapps. Instead of drinking it, she'd poured it over his corpse and left a smoldering cigarette tucked between his lips. If she was lucky, all evidence of her having been there would be obliterated before anyone had a chance to look for her.
She hoped Friedrich's jeep would still be parked outside, but there were no vehicles in sight when she came out the back door of the cabaret. Instead, she set out on foot in the direction the jeep had come from.
She was glad for the heat of her anger as she made her way across the cold and barren landscape.
The borders of the Nazi camp were not well guarded. Rozaliya watched for a long time, just to make sure her assessment was correct, but no guards patrolled the outer edges of their tents.
Rozaliya slipped into a tent, found a discarded uniform, and changed her clothing, bundling her own clothes into a knapsack this time. Once her hair was tucked beneath a soldier's cap, she checked her reflection in a polished piece of tin. So long as she kept her head down and didn't speak, she'd do well enough to blend in.
She had hoped for a pistol in the tent where she had found the uniform, but she hadn't lingered long enough to root through all the soldier's belongings, and she'd left behind Friedrich's pistol in his room. Since no weapon had presented itself, she went unarmed.
Her evaluation of the camp from outside had given her no sense of where they might be keeping prisoners within. There were no stockades, not even any permanent buildings in the area, save for a lone ramshackle barn, still stark white and red against the brown and gray landscape.
As she drew nearer, her heart surged with the surety that this was where the Nazis were keeping Erina. Two soldiers guarded the entrance, both carrying rifles. Rozaliya took a deep breath, muttering an incantation to help her to blend into her surroundings, as she approached the door.
"What's that?" one of the soldiers asked, jerking his head toward her knapsack.
"Medical supplies." She kept her voice quiet so as to not give away its higher pitch.
The two soldiers exchanged a glance, but one of them stepped toward the door and opened it for her.
"Thank you kindly." The moment the words had slipped past her lips, she was sure her overly polite German would draw unwanted attention. Neither soldier stopped her, though, so she continued into the barn.
The smell inside assured her she'd picked the wrong place, and the soldiers believed she was there to minister to a cow or horse within. As her eyes adjusted, though, Rozaliya saw the pale flesh of people, crowded into the stalls previously inhabited by the animals. The stench was a mixture of the uncleaned stalls and the human waste that now mingled with the animal waste.
She scanned the faces for Erina. None of them were right, all too thin, too hungry, too scared.
And then she saw her. Erina had shoved her way to the front of a stall and was staring at Rozaliya with unbridled hatred.
Rozaliya let out a half sob, half laugh, pulling her soldier's cap from her head. "It's me," she said in Russian.
The corner of Erina's mouth quirked up in a half smile. "Do you have a plan, little sister?"
Rozaliya blushed at her pilot's use of the nickname she'd earned around their camp, always helping out with the tasks of the other airwomen. Rozaliya nodded toward the back of the barn, to another set of doors. "Are those guarded as well?"
Erina shrugged. "One way to find out."
Rozaliya undid the latches that kept the wooden gate of the stall closed, releasing Erina and the prisoners who had been contained with her.
"You'll have to remain as quiet as you can," Rozaliya told Erina's stallmates. "We can't let the guards know what we're planning."
The prisoners nodded, but as the two Russian women opened more stall gates, the prisoners reunited with friends and family members, and the volume of the crowd grew.
"Check the door," Erina said.
Rozaliya looked around for anything she might use as a weapon but saw nothing. But if nothing was done, the guards would come in soon, and though their rifles would not kill many prisoners, she suspected they would aim bullets at her and Erina as the obvious ringleaders.
She eased the door she had come through open just a crack and smiled at the soldier there. "Sleep, sweet prince," she said in Russian, wiggling her fingers in his direction.
Instead of slumping to the side, he peered at her more closely. "What was that?"
Rozaliya scrambled for the right words in German. Her magic normally worked regardless of any language barriers present, but tonight had not been a good night for her magic. She tried again in Russian, though she put more force behind her voice.
The soldier blinked several times before falling over.
"What?" The other soldier outside the building yanked open the door Rozaliya was hiding behind, gun pointed at her chest.
She lurched toward the now sleeping soldier and scrambled for his gun. Her sudden motion surprise the soldier who was still standing, and she was on her back, the sleeping soldier's pistol aimed at the other before he had even brought his gun around to bear on her new position.
"You can sleep too." She pulled the trigger.
Erina was at the door before Rozaliya was back on her feet. "What are you doing out here shooting the guards?"
"Making sure no one notices the noise inside."
"As though the other soldiers will not have heard that shot?"
Rozaliya sighed. "It was me or him, Erina."
Erina shook her head and helped Rozaliya to her feet, leading her to the larger central area of the barn. There, Erina addressed the assembled prisoners in German. "Anyone who can fight will follow Roza and me out the back doors. If we encounter any soldiers, the rest of you should keep moving. There's a copse of woods not far from here, and if you can make it there, the soldiers won't pursue you." She glanced over at Rozaliya. "My friend will make them believe it's haunted."
"She's a witch?" one of the prisoners asked.
"She's an opera singer," Erina replied, smiling at Rozaliya.
Rozaliya returned Erina's smile. "My spells are in my songs."
She and Erina shoved open the back doors to the barn together, and Rozaliya began to sing, without complaint from Erina.
Tell her that the wrongs against her, I'm going to avenge, that only of killing and death as announcer will I return.
Dawn Vogel writes and edits both fiction and nonfiction. Her academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is being published by Razorgirl Press, with the second book, Brass and Glass 2: The Long-Cursed Map, available in May 2018. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.