Before Warsaw, I had spent days inventing myself as a pianist. Tailoring my biography, imagining what could happen in my possible lives. Love, perhaps, there was place for love; politics even, for it seemed inevitable. Betraying my kin—and then death—came merely as consequences.
The evening is cold: autumn has taken hold over us already. The train rolls into its final station, accompanied by a grinding screech and thick puffs of steam. People start spilling onto the platform. The sky above us is clear, the air crystalline. Instinct older than any language is tugging at me, forcing me to look up. I gaze into the pallid face of the Moon, and think of it: home.
Warsaw only comes second in my thoughts. I have been fantasizing about what it might be like, to wake and then fall asleep in this unknown city, to find its relentless struggle somewhat familiar to my own. In my first hours in the train carriage, I imagined and reimagined Warsaw, trying to contain the flutter in my chest. It’s been so long since I’ve been allowed the excitement of travel, the thrill of being among strangers. Warsaw was, as my brothers had highlighted many times, best avoided. Nowadays, it was not a city for any of us. Too unstable politically. Too many eyes and ears.
As the train passed through abandoned fields and trampled wheat, soil crusting in September’s early frost, the idea of moving to the capital lost some of its luster. And my correspondence with Abram Heber did not inspire excitement, either. From his letters I knew what I might expect—and that he wouldn’t be particularly enthused to see me in the city.
And he is not. I spot him on the station: black-clad and stern, frown not leaving his face for a single moment. Heber gives me a courteous bow and regards me in silence.
“This is not safe for you,” he finally says, by means of greeting.
“Thank you for your help,” I reply.
I don’t want to have this conversation right now—or ever again, for that matter. We’ve discussed my safety at length in our correspondence. At first, Heber must have thought he was only humoring me: the spoiled little sister of his friends, daughter of his late business partner. He insisted that, at least until the end of the war, I should stay in the countryside and play the role of an ailing young lady, living off slivers of moonstone sold to my father’s Prussian contractors. Then, when my brothers returned—for Heber was too polite to frame that as an if—they could, perhaps, accompany me to the capital. If I wanted to perform, I very well could, he argued—but in the confines of my leisurely living room, to the audience of other, lesser aristocracy; would this not be enough?
“This isn’t help,” he says.
But what Heber fails to notice is that carrying out his scenario, however safe, won’t grant me one thing: a life.
He knows the sense of not belonging all too well. But being confined to one’s household the way a woman is—the only daughter, the younger sister, forever a chrysalis—I couldn’t bear to describe this experience, even in the gentlest metaphors.
In the end, he relented; I had drawn out my plans, and he didn’t have any formal power over me. He calculated that the best thing he could do would be to ensure my safety in Warsaw before I decide that, wartime or not, I don’t need his help in my escapade. He’d found me a place to stay. Arranged my post as a teacher for a middle-class wealthy girl. In the end, booked my ticket to Warsaw.
We ride in a carriage across a city that’s readying itself for another tense evening. Theaters and cafes are still operating, but the air is curdled, and if I look closely into the scarcely lit interiors, I’d see rather meagre dishes on plates, and weary-eyed waiters mostly pretending to do their jobs.
The birth of the Duchy, few years ago, was celebrated: the first step in regaining a state long lost. Then Napoleon came, and we believed we could bring Moscow down. And we did—paying an unthinkable price for it. Thousands of men, exhausted, shivering, walked into the Russian capital—only to find it ravaged, a deathtrap. My two brothers among them. I said my goodbyes, finally, to their memories. Then I left the countryside mansion and the absence filling up all its rooms.
Heber picks at the collar of his coat.
“All this pointless, ambitious war. The front lines are elsewhere, but it’s tearing this city apart,” he says; to me, to himself? After all, he still sees me as Ogiński’s darling daughter. But our correspondence, though it threw him into fits of despair, has forged a connection between us. “The troops in Moscow are holding out, but we are losing, and what do you think, will the tsar let us be? The moment he’s certain Bonaparte is no longer dealing cards, he’ll squeeze the lifeblood out of this so-called independent state and seize what the French haven’t squandered already.”
He bites his lip.
“If it happens—when it happens—my wife and children will retreat to the countryside. Will you join them?”
I find my father’s pendant under my petticoats and press my fingers to the hard edges of the stone. If all else fails, I still have my birthright.
But Heber says, “Moonstone won’t buy your way out of every situation. Promise me, Agata, that you won’t stay in the city when it falls.”
We both ignore the fact that he used my Christian name, breaching all the boundaries of propriety. This is no ordinary situation.
“But you’ve made all these arrangements.”
“No one will hold it against you if you decide to leave.”
Abram Heber, after all, is Earthbound, even if Earth didn’t prove too kind for his kin. But he doesn’t know or understand about us, his lunar cousins, and my father and brothers were not particularly keen on getting into details of what we are, either.
I don’t expect any of the Earthbound to have a grasp on what it means to wake up every day with a feeling of misplacement; despair and longing raw in your heart. With senses too sharp, constantly trying to stump them to human capacity. In the end, to look at one’s skin and, again, remember. Perhaps this is why we’ve become such isolated people, drawn to solitary professions: maintaining ordinary lives would be too much for most of us. And yet, I want to try. If I return to the empty house, I want the decision to return to be my own.
The rest of our journey passes in tense silence, although I’m sure Heber hasn’t given up yet. I’m gazing through the dusty glass, making out the shape of the city. Finally, we reach my new landlady’s house—a somber brownstone—and one glance at it gives me the idea of what sort of person Woźniakowa could be.
Woźniakowa’s maid opens the door, ushers us in and, flickering candle in her hand, disappears in the darkness to bring the mistress of the house. In the scarce light, the apartment seems too big for one elderly widow, inhabited mainly by thick shadows spilling from works of carpentry and heavy frames. I study the decor. To me, nightfall is no different than daylight. But I have to guard myself. It is disconcerting for others when I move about places I shouldn’t know, or shouldn’t see so clearly; paradoxically, the lunar heritage is slowing me down.
Finally, the lady appears, stern in black dress, her graying hair pinned artfully to frame her face. She keeps herself upright, maintaining all what’s left of her dignity—in spite of the fact that she has decided to take in a working woman, and one brought in by a Jew, no less. I imagine she would have never agreed to it if she had any choice in this falling city.
Heber bows. I make a small curtsy, as expected from a younger woman.
“Mrs Woźniakowa, thank you for your kindness and hospitality. May I present Agata Ogińska—” He beckons to me. I curtsy again.
Woźniakowa’s eyes scrutinize me.
“Indeed, madam.” I keep my eyes low, to make sure the lady doesn’t notice my pupils, huge, eating up all of the blue of my eyes. One cannot be too careful.
Something about her tight-lipped smile tell me that soon, my musical abilities will be put to test. The flutter in my chest that arises at this thought is not at all unpleasant.
“Welcome, then. I will not keep you in the hallway.” Woźniakowa nods to the maid, who promptly picks up my suitcase. The smell of tea is already wafting through the air. The examination of my humble persona shall begin soon.
I turn to Heber. Promise me, he insists, fixing me with his eyes.
“Thank you,” I say to him. “Goodnight.”
Our memory runs deep.
It reflects in the numerous, tiny discolorations of our skin—all those lines and blots, not unlike the scarred face of Moon itself. It’s been centuries, but I am sure only we, in exile, were born with those patterns. It’s as if guilt and longing have written on us: remember where you came from.
The Earthbound numerical machines are impressive, but they can’t compete with the levels of sophistication we once achieved. We knew well enough we wouldn’t stay on the Moon; its core was growing cold, unlike the currents of heat coiling under the crust of the Earth. The fact that we survived is, in itself, testimony to the excellence of lunar sciences—as well as to the tragic irony of our existence. We had to abandon their splendor to survive.
Our ancestors had just enough time to design and build ships, fueled by moonstone and ready to soar. But they didn’t take into consideration that sailing the stars and breaking through Earth’s storms were two different things.
So few of us survived, and with each century, fewer still. We flocked to each other. We sought safety. After Poland was divided, many of the people I knew left for Prussia or France. England, perhaps; a country as good as any. My father, though, insisted that he would not give up his home. Not again, he perorated, even years afterwards, raising his hands to show the history written all the way down his palms.
I read this account of all things lost anytime I see my own bare skin. Tiny ridges in the flesh like ancient scripture. Puckered skin recreating the stone-hard face of a dead celestial body. The catastrophe is easiest to remember; but Moon’s vegetation, its lush cities, those turn to dust and erase themselves from our memory.
Earthbound humans can see none of this. It’s as if their eyes didn’t pick up this particular hue. (Birds, though. There’s something about their tiny eyes that makes me believe they know.) Woźniakowa’s maid—however odd it feels to use this word to describe a forty-something woman, not much younger than the widow herself—pays no attention to the history of the Moon scrawling over my arms when she helps me with my hair, no doubt at the order of the mistress, not wanting to add my disheveled looks to her misfortune and shame. The maid hums to herself, tugging at the strands of hair. She sticks the last few hairpins into the ash-blond bun and smoothens out a wrinkle on my sleeve.
“You’re ready to face the city,” she decides.
And I am. Every moment of delay feels like too much waiting.
I would have been happy to walk, but the maid will have none of it; carriage it is, taking us across wide busy streets, vendors and urchins pushing past the working classes. Warsaw is both dirtier and prettier than what I have imagined; although, I also know, I haven’t seen much of the capital, none of its sandstone-white palaces, no famous facades. And anyway, we arrive at the Morawiecki household in no time.
I am moving from hands to hands: Heber’s to Woźniakowa’s, maid’s to maid’s. Morawiecki’s servant exchanges a nod with my guardian and ushers me into the house and past rows of doors. The interior is amiable; ancestors gazing at me from picture frames; porcelain trinkets and other bric-a-brac huddling on mantelpieces, shelves, any flat surface. The place reminds me of our countryside residence in the sense of homeliness, of having deep roots.
The mistress of the house requires first a small demonstration of my skills. I consider my choice of music, trying to gauge her taste. The two other listeners, neither of them the little girl I’m supposed to teach—one, a boy no older than ten or maybe twelve, the other a young woman with auburn hair and wide-set, somewhat wild eyes—might not appreciate it, but I choose a calm, melancholy etude and let my fingers glide over the keys. The melody is simple, but it flows the way a brook rolls over stones.
It could be another aspect of my heritage, the heightened senses and acute reflexes. But I believe it’s something else that makes the piano keys respond to my touch in such a way. It’s the same thing that drove me out of safety of our cottage. I believe in my music like in nothing else.
I glance up and meet the young lady’s face, her eyes ablaze, cheeks flushed.
I should have understood that look at once, shouldn’t I?
Or, at least, I should have known it was worth more than passing a test.
My work, which commences the following week, proves easy enough. My student is Morawiecka’s niece—a bright, even if restless, girl of seven. For the first week, I’m teaching her gentleness as she insists on slamming her octaves onto the instrument. The piano bears it with dignity, but I don’t want to stretch the limits of its patience.
Sometimes I notice the young lady, a glimpse of her auburn locks by the door left ajar, a honey-gold gown. I even consider suggesting she might take lessons too, if she’s interested. But I don’t know if it would be proper, and in the end, I don’t ask.
She approaches me after a few weeks of our practice, when I’ve introduced the youngest Miss Morawiecka to Fréré Jacques, to servants’ mute dismay. I’m gathering my notes when I hear a tapping on the door.
“Excuse me,” says the woman breathlessly. “I believe we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Izabela Morawiecka and, although I am not one of your students, I have heard about you…” she smiles, as if sensing my tension. Did my eyes just grow wide, unnaturally so? “And I was wondering, since you’re new to the city, perhaps you would like to join me and my friends during our weekly dinners?”
This is the life I wanted, I tell myself, propping my chin on the heel of my hand and doing my best to look pensive.
I am thrilled.
I am terrified.
Izabela smiles gently.
“I insist,” she says. And then adds: “May I call you by your first name?”
The moment I enter the cafe, the moonstone’s pull overwhelms me immediately.
Izabela waves her hand at me and I walk towards her as if in a trance, my coat hanging loosely off my arm. Someone takes it away from me. Someone offers a chair. But voices and faces get lost in the haze: there is just the stone resting in the dip between Izabela’s collarbones and calling to me.
“She’s playing with him, poor man.” Someone sighs as Izabela weaves the chain of her pendant between her delicate fingers. I can’t keep my eyes off the glinting raw gem, its purple so deep and—and—
Radiant Moon, I know they can’t see the exact color of it, they don’t feel the force of it, that it’s just another precious stone to them, and awkwardly misshapen as that—I can tell all of this to myself, but I can’t comprehend.
Home, I think. The gem blinks at me. It shines like a living, glistening tissue. In its unrefined state, its pull is even stronger than that of the cut—tamed—version I wear against my chest.
“They should have married long ago,” I hear. “Izabela is not that young anymore, either. But she’s milking him dry of his family heritage. And you bet she’ll leave him when she gets all she could from him.”
I squint at the “poor man”, Ignacy Diehl, again. No; the stone is clearly not his heritage. I’d know. He’s just an Earthbound human with sullen eyes and a haunted look, and a brilliant, passionate mind. Also, I venture, he is not whom, or what, Izabela wants.
With time, I grow used to the stone’s presence. My senses sharpen again. There are a dozen or so people gathered in the cafe. They somehow make up for the place’s lackluster, dusty and faded glamour; they drink from chipped glasses as if it were the finest crystal. Do they care? Not tonight. Tonight they can be beautiful, reckless, safe from war.
And the center of the group, oh radiant Moon, is her. Izabela, the fox-faced girl with a twinkle in her eye that makes you think that maybe, just maybe, she is not as unaware of her magnetic pull as her girly laughter could make you think.
The way the room revolves around her, it’s just natural. There’s no question about who is the Sun of our little system here.
Diehl isn’t remotely as lively and interesting—but that’s an unfair comparison to make, when this quicksilver of a person hooks her tiny hand in the crook of his elbow, when she whispers something into his ear and laughs.
The gentleman sitting next to me looks at them mournfully. He orders us a round of liqueur, something the Frenchmen had shipped all the way to the Duchy. I pick up my glass, but I keep my eyes on the moonstone. Raw, uncut stone is dangerous. Izabela’s pendant holds enough power to tear this room apart.
I need to know where it came from. As the evening progresses, I drift towards the abandoned and sullen Mr Diehl. I have no plan of how to speak to him; and I can’t start questioning him about rare ores.
“That’s a splendid gift,” I say.
He sucks on his teeth and nods.
Looks like he’s all too aware of how the gift will get him nowhere; a token of unrequited love.
“I think I’ve seen it somewhere. The stone, I mean.”
“It’s not terribly practical as a jewel,” he says. “Maybe in Antwerp or elsewhere they know how to cut it, but here—”
We have been selling cut moonstones as rare diamonds for years. My late father, a renowned silversmith, tricked the rich of Europe into buying the glinting gems from him. But Diehl knows it’s something else. Izabela told me he studied geology. He is an engineer. And this is the one area in which he’s certain of his expertise, the stutter in his voice disappearing when he speaks of science. He, just like his friends, Misters Stroynowski and Konwicki, has been participating in the proceedings of Royal Society of Friends of Science.
“I have seen diamonds before, Miss Ogińska,” he tells me. “And I can tell this is something else.”
My mind is racing. Only then I realize I don’t even know others of the lunar species in Warsaw, if there is anyone left besides me—and anyway, we’re scattered, few and far between. I can only be certain that somehow, raw moonstone has been slipped into the hands of Earthbound, something we all agreed should never happen. I have to learn where Izabela’s stone came from—and secure it.
You wanted to have a life, says a nasty little voice in my ear. I have to take this risk.
“I know, Mr Diehl. My father has been working with it. I know.”
It takes weeks to arrange my visit at Diehl’s apartment; me as Izabela’s chaperone, Stroynowski and Konwicki to give it a pretense of a social gathering. But deep down I know it’s only about the moonstone. Diehl gives us a rueful smile as we enter. He takes Izabela’s coat, but looks at me, gauging, guessing.
I encouraged him to make the invitation. It might be my only chance to talk with him in private, to catch a glance of his place. I can’t sense the rest of the moonstone yet, if he has acquired any more of it, but it must be hidden in his rooms; I doubt he’d be keeping it at the university.
I know already he can tell the many ways in which moonstone is different. How the structure, however natural, resembles nothing he knows, how the stone captures and warps light. He might even have some premonition of the stone’s workings, the power in it. According to my best knowledge, no other crystalline structure on Earth holds such energy. For all I know, it might be the mysterious, dreamed-up ether in our hands.
It doesn’t pass my attention that for years, we’ve been using it as mere adornment, stripping the moonstone of its power with drills and blades, letting that energy leak.
I’m all pins and needles, too anxious to exchange pleasantries. Stroynowski’s loud, warm voice—like dripping treacle—goes above my head, and I only give him a dull nod. My mind is with the stone.
And finally, after coffee is served, Izabela and Ignacy exchange looks. They excuse themselves, and I join. There is no way I could ignore the smirk on Stroynowski’s face. I know what he is thinking: yet another token of affection that Izabela will take, and promptly forget about.
As soon as the door closes behind us, we start talking. Izabela leans on the door, listening to every murmur in the corridor. Diehl even seems quite happy that he’d had to include her—as if she would eventually accept him.
“I got it from a distant relative. There was a man. In Siberia,” he says quietly, casting his eyes down. “He had this on him. Tried to sell it around. Didn’t get much for the aesthetic value.” He gives a short, unhappy laugh. “But once people discovered how tough, how resilient it is… you could cut down trees with this stuff if you got a sufficiently sharp piece.”
I look at the moonstone, and I ache for home. A piece of my memory, a connection severed and desecrated.
“Who was this man?”
Even I have heard about Siberia. It isn’t a place where stories matter much: they sift and grind together, false layers over truth; voices interweave until people reinvent themselves, over and over again. The people sent to labor camps tell themselves: this is who I am, forcing their frozen, numb minds to remember. This is who I am; and the dry thud-thud-thud of cut wood; and the soldier, the lady, the doctor are all erased, thud-thud-thud and beneath the crusted bark of hopes there is only soft and vulnerable tissue, and frost bites into it, bites right through the core.
I shudder. How did one of us end up there?
(How could we not know?)
Who was he?
“He went by the surname Gierosławski.” The name tells me nothing. Diehl looks at me quizzically, then sighs. “Not a geologist. Said he worked in the railways. Said his three sisters still lived in Warsaw. Hoped to return to them. One day.”
In the thick silence, he pulls out a lump of stone, a sibling of the gem he gave to Izabela. I glance at her; she’s pressed her cheek to the door, listening out, but her hand is clasped over her pendant.
When I reach for the stone in Diehl’s palm, he withdraws.
“But you know what this is, don’t you?” There is a demanding edge to his words.
“My father has been working with it,” I repeat stubbornly.
He glares at me.
“I haven’t been able to work with it.” He pulls a drawer open, retrieves a folded piece of fabric, stretches it on his desk to uncover a broken blade. Diehl’s smile becomes even more pinched, sour. “I lost my best saw to that stone.”
My throat clenches when I realize what I’m about to suggest. But he’s brilliant, and I glance at all the tools and lenses scattered around—and if we could rein the moonstone again? Can I dream of regaining the splendor of my lost home? Perhaps it takes an Earthbound engineer and a self-made academic, having no memory of the Moon, to dare and experiment with the stone?
“Try using these.”
I unpack one of my few treasures: my father’s tools. I brought them to Warsaw, hoping they would be safer here, if a stray band of once-soldiers should ransack the countryside mansion. Each drill and blade made by my father’s hands, speaking of his diligence and love for the craft. Diehl sighs and runs his fingers along the splinter of foreign rock, picks it up. It glints dark purple and brilliant azure.
In the tense silence, as he fixes the saw, I can hear my own ragged breath. And yet—I don’t notice Izabela coming closer, not until I feel her warm small hand on my back, barely above the curve of my waist. It feels like she could burn my skin through all that thick velvet.
There are three of us, tangled in this not-quite-conspiracy. Diehl, bespectacled and hunched above his desk, a system of lamps turning the space between his hands bright as Sun itself. Me, not sure whose side I am on; are there any sides, really? And Izabela, her breath smelling of mint tea tickling my nape, above the starched collar of my dress.
Ignacy brings the blade to the stone. A piece of my home sits snugly fixed in its cradle, blinking at me. Beside it lie Diehl’s notes and pictures, the intimate portrait of the gem he’s about to cut. The saw grates and rasps, catching on the uneven surface.
And then stone meets stone, and they grind, and my heart skips a beat when it comes to me I might have miscalculated and the teeth could break. Or—worse—if Diehl is less skilled than I assumed, his calculations not as precise; one wrong move and we all go up in flames. Izabela’s hand clutches tightly at my arm. Diehl’s knuckles turn white, his cheeks are slick with sweat. The saw in his hand bites into the stone, the jarring sound a bolt of white-hot pain behind my eyes, as if the blade were cutting my flesh.
And the moonstone splits evenly in two.
Diehl gasps, setting the saw aside and pushing the goggles up, wanting to examine the stone with his own eyes. Purple dust hangs about his hands.
He looks at me. If I’ve been worried before that he’d trusted me too easily, that I should have been more careful. Here I have all the answers I need, written in his face, the burning desire to know for certain; he’s an academic through and through.
He also is, however, a practical mind and a patriot in the times of war. A frown crosses his face. A new idea.
“This,” he says, measuring each word, “could pierce through everything we know. Iron. Steel. Rock.”
“Correct.” I bite my lip. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but the look on his face sets me on edge. It’s so unlike the withdrawn Ignacy Diehl I know. Determined. Cold. Steeling himself against some dreamed-up necessary evil. And I’m complicit.
Give the Earthbound an object of unmatched beauty, a stone to fuel their numerical machines. They will, without hesitation, turn it into a weapon.
Next time I saw Diehl, he had dark rings under his eyes. He told me he’d been thinking of the stone’s properties, of how it could pierce other materials. Against a blade or bullet like this, he insisted, no safeguard could help.
My doubts were not heard at all; waved off as girl’s fears, the talk of an uneducated spinster. I found myself powerless. Again.
(Would we forge a weapon, were we not so few?)
Diehl, however sharp, has fallen prey to Stroynowski’s ravings. It took me too long to notice how he’d gathered it all in himself, all the words hinting at his cowardice, staying in the comforts of Warsaw when he should be at the front lines. It has been welling up, and now he will take his chance; there will be heroism in his science.
It had started with an object of my memory, but it’s been long removed from me, and moonstone is not ours anymore. The moment it passed from the hands of that Siberian prisoner—then it became Earthbound as well. I can’t take it back.
We have guarded our secrets for years, and I let them out—but it was bound to happen one day, I am merely the assistant of change.
Izabela beckons to me after one of her afternoon teas. Her mouth is a hard line, but her eyes still glimmer. It takes her a good deal of strength to guard herself.
“Agata,” she whispers, and I marvel at how my name rolls off her tongue. I stop, my arms half tangled in the coat.
“You seem to know a lot. You definitely talk a lot.” She gazes into me, and for a while I believe she could reach for the lines written on my skin. “Too much, perhaps.” She licks her lips. “If I have noticed, the others will notice it soon, too. They will start asking questions. And they will not be kind.”
At least I hoped it would take longer. I have underestimated Diehl again. With each day bringing appalling news from the front, he seems to be more set in his ways, working more desperately, fighting against time.
Every morning, I remind myself I’m competing against time, too. I go through the piano lessons and meals with Woźniakowa absent-mindedly, still thinking of all I can do.
There is not much. Warsaw has proven quite difficult for a lady, even a working lady; in the country, however dull, there was no one to judge me. Here, I work against a different set of limitations. Even with Izabela by my side, I am confined to my role.
Abram Heber? He doesn’t deserve to be dragged into this. He would pay much more than me; and I’ve caused him enough misfortune as it is.
I am on my own, and I am Diehl’s confidant.
“I have calculated the tensions in the stone,” he tells me one day, pushing a notebook towards me. My eyes glaze over as I pretend to read through his equations and graphs. “In raw form, it seems… extremely unstable, Miss Ogińska. How did your father bypass this problem, if I may?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I clench my hand over the spine of his notebook.
Diehl sighs, studying my face, hoping I will give up the secret. But I don’t.
“This is not as important, though.” There’s a new glimmer in his eyes. “In this case, the tensions will work in our favor.”
Stroynowski places the gun on the table, the barrel incidentally pointing to me. Diehl has been reworking it, embedding splinters of moonstone into the wooden handle. The weapon in front of our eyes is a small, deadly, efficient thing: not a single swirl of decoration. I notice the telltale purple glow.
In his low voice, Diehl explains its inner workings. Once the bullet is shot, the ignition in the chamber will spread to moonstone shards, causing an explosion. Enough of a blast, he elaborates with a small frown, to kill the assassin himself, and perhaps people in his nearest vicinity as well. Diehl dabs at his brow, wiping sweat. One shot with a moonstone bullet. That’s all there would be.
Stroynowski scoffs. “That’s a woman’s weapon,” he says.
I notice Izabela pursing her lips and hope with all my heart that they won’t decide it’s a woman’s task. A woman in the tsar’s court would be inconspicuous. My heart skips a beat.
But no—the idea of a female killer doesn’t cross their minds. Each of them wants the fame for himself. They don’t pay attention to us. Izabela is here because of her putative engagement, and I’m just tagging along—perhaps Diehl’s marital escape plan. I’ve heard the gossip.
“That’s a weapon to kill the tsar,” says Diehl, placid, splaying his fingers on the table. “Something you might be, in fact, able to conceal. Isn’t this the point?”
It is, but I can see the fire burning behind Stroynowski’s eyes. Efficiency doesn’t cross his mind when glory is at stake. Tsar Alexander doesn’t even matter—the true victim is Stroynowski, his pain, his nation’s pain, all that suffering tearing his body apart and laid out for everyone to see as the weapon disintegrates in his hands.
I glance around the table, at the three men, and they all share this smoldering desire. Everyday life is too scary. It makes the abrupt death in a foreign city appear easier, welcoming. And death, I know, will take them gladly: the ever-hungry ghost crowd, long-forgotten but still present, persistent, waiting behind the thresholds of our houses and hiding right behind circles of light pooling from the lamps. Not that their ranks are small, with Napoleonic army pushed back westward, but the ghosts could make some place for one more young, aching man.
We had known for months that we had lost—since the day we learned about abandoned Moscow, about soldiers starving and freezing to death. Napoleon had stretched out the suffering as if he could withstand the icy cold: a long, slow demise. But the final blow was finally landed on the very border, on the thawing banks of Berezina river.
Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the ice floe, men falling into the dark waters, teeth clattering, limbs turning blue. At nights, I heard soft wailing coming from Woźniakowa’s room, but I never dared to ask.
Days later, we meet in our cafe and take our favorite table. We are the only customers and even after serving us, the waiters and waitresses retreat, leaving us to our cups of tea and coffee. Izabela has ordered pastries, but they lay untouched, just like our steaming drinks.
No one has said it aloud yet, but we all know: it is over. The news of Berezina spread like wildfire. Napoleon has lost, and his loss will take us all down: the armies but also our laughable tiny state, held upright by treaties. The previous day Abram Heber paid me a visit. The carriage will be ready in two days from now, he said, staring into my eyes intently. His wife and children would know about me.
“Please, Miss Ogińska, don’t wait until things become ugly.”
I stood in the doorway and thought of my brothers, and the day they joined the army to fight for an Earthbound cause. I still had expected to see them again, until that very moment.
It’s Diehl who speaks first. His quiet voice transfixes us, even as he hunches his arms as if trying to hide, and looks only at his fingers.
“Thank you for being here in such grim times. Thank you for being my friends.” Only then he looks up and we all can see him for what he really is: a needy, sensitive soul. He seeks Izabela’s gaze, but she’s dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a handkerchief. “It was an ambitious goal that brought us together once, but our friendship became the glue.”
We sit in silence. There is nothing more to say: we won’t make any foolish promises of what we will do when our laughable duchy is picked apart.
Konwicki’s brows form two wide thick arches.
“What do you mean: once? We haven’t done anything yet.”
Diehl opens his mouth, but Konwicki is faster.
“Even if we have to sign a treaty, even if—it would mean that the tsar will have to visit Warsaw, doesn’t it? We might have a much better chance, when you think of it—”
He falls back to his chair, earning a sympathetic nod from Stroynowski.
“Our dear friend is right,” Stroynowski says. “This might work in our favor.”
“If we want to ensure the fall of our country, then yes.”
Diehl’s eyes are level. Izabela and I exchange quick glances.
Stroyowski winces. “I am sorry to say this, my friend, but you are too conservative in your ways. You seek compromise even when planning a coup.”
“I suppose,” Diehl draws a breath, “that our coup has been postponed.”
I clutch my hands tightly.
“And I would like to remind you that I’m the keeper of the weapon,” he says, his voice ever so soft. “The weapon of my own design, if you please.”
As if nothing happened, he picks his cup and drains it, closing his eyes. The silence over our table is so thick you could carve it with a knife.
Stroynowski is a step away from slamming his hands on the table, his face flushed.
“This is the problem here. The fact that only you are in charge of the weapon, it has been your decision all along, we could only follow and accept whatever crossed your mind.”
“You may recall,” says Diehl, “that I am the inventor. I merely consider myself responsible for my creations.”
Stroynowski runs a hand across his thinning hair, just where the vein on his temple is pulsing.
“Responsible for your creations, but not for the country, are you? Do you think any of our colleagues and brothers would freeze to death in Russia if you had shared your inventions before? Do you think yourself above saving them from drowning? Getting your hands dirty to save your compatriots and friends?”
Perspiration collects in thick beads on Diehl’s upper lip.
“You’re enjoying here the coziness of Warsaw cafes and pondering the nature of the world while our people are dying.” Stroynowski jabs a finger at him. “Did you ever consider—did you ever do something for the land that had fed you—”
He pauses for a breath, and continues.
“But no, you want to remain pure, indulging us for one act but never committing to what armed rebellion means. Did you ever talk about your invention with any of the generals? Ministers, even? Did you present it in the Society? Did you?”
Diehl looks small and fragile, his eyes huge in his pale face.
“Did you?” Stroynowski has no more anger to spend. There’s disappointment in his voice.
Diehl’s mouth is working, but no word comes out.
“I asked you a question.” There’s something sad and terrifying and hollow in Stroynowski’s eyes.
“And you are very well aware,” Diehl replies, his voice barely a whisper, “what terrible damage the use of this weapon will entail.”
“I know that you designed this yourself.”
“Otherwise it would be only a matter of time, since the Imperial army uses the same weapon against us.” He shivers. “To a much bigger extent. Because they will find out, and if we have found the stone, so could they. Sooner rather than later.”
I’m thinking of the man who fashioned himself Gierosławski and tried to get by in Siberia, selling seemingly useless moonstone. And I’m quite certain Ignacy Diehl is remembering him, too. Then I’m thinking of ships that sailed the stars, of us adapting to short days and nights, scraping off chips of moonstone to get by, of my dead brothers. Stroynowski has no idea of the fire he would start.
Konwicki stares hard at them both.
“We would have to be very fast,” he says. “Take down not just the tsar, but his generals. Leave the Russian court stumped.”
Diehl shakes his head.
“There is no time. We have lost.”
“We have not!” There’s a faint tang of liquor on his breath, but can anyone blame him? Haven’t I asked the waitress to dip some of it into my cup as well? The loss is too big for any of us to bear. “We still have a chance!”
Too much ache in all of us. And now, knowing it will never be alleviated. No grandstands to make. We’d have to trudge on with all the injustice wearing us down.
“We don’t.” Diehl’s eyes are rimmed with red. “Not like this. Not anymore.”
He tries to touch Konwicki’s hand, but Konwicki snaps back.
“This is not your decision to make.”
And before any of us has a chance to react, Konwicki grabs at Diehl’s coat, and snatches the pistol.
We all freeze.
“Don’t do anything,” Konwicki says, his voice trembling. “Don’t, or I’ll blow up us all.” He nods at Diehl. “You. Put your coat on and go. With me.”
Ignacy obeys, his face chalk-white.
“What do you want from me?” He asks.
He is no hero. If he were, he’d be dead by now in some frozen Russian trench, stuck forever in the ghost crowd.
“I won’t harm you,” snarls Konwicki, throwing his own coat over his arms. We all back off when, for the shortest moment, the gun is pointing at us. “For heaven’s sake! We’re still friends. But if you cannot convince yourself, I will do this for you.”
He, too, is on the verge of tears. What is he thinking? How could he believe that hurting himself more could do any good?
Diehl shuffles his feet.
“To your apartment,” orders Konwicki. “Move.”
Stroynowski stares at them, but says nothing. Neither does Izabela, stunned into silence.
And we let Konwicki and Diehl leave.
The door closes, and Izabela turns to Stroynowski.
“We’ve got to do something.”
“We can’t. There is nothing we can do without risking our lives, or—Ignacy’s. And then what Ignacy has said, about others copying his design—it will happen, you know.”
“If we don’t do anything, the same thing will!”
She glares at him. Blood is pounding in my ears.
“I remember you being quite eager to die, not so long ago!”
I don’t listen anymore. I grab my coat and run into the cold November night, under the Moon’s crescent.
The streets are empty. I run through the ghost city, ducking under the few lit windows. I see a thousand reflections of me in the frost.
The two haven’t gotten far. I can see them, Diehl shuffling his feet as slowly as humanly possible. Konwicki, trembling. He’s muttering, trying to calm himself down. I move into the shadows, even though neither of them pays any attention to me.
Diehl, in Konwicki’s grip, small and hunched in comparison, doesn’t stop talking. I can hear his quivering voice.
“Let’s go to the Russian embassy. No, let’s go to the French governor, that scoundrel de la Ville, let us make clear what we think of him ripping our city apart. Let them all know we are no bargaining chip…”
He wheezes, but then continues, and Konwicki falls silent. My heart aches. Diehl is a hero, after all; an unwilling one, shuddering so hard I can see it despite his thick coat. But a hero nonetheless. He would rather die than risk his invention falling in the wrong hands—and there are no right hands to hold such disastrous power; no one should ever wield it. He knows it now. What obscured his thoughts before? Who planted this idea in his head?
So many questions, and I’ll never know.
I follow them, listening to his pleading, to him drawing out a plan for them both, and for the tiniest moment I’m almost convinced to let them go through with it, if their grief for the Duchy is really so unbearable.
But there still would be traces. Someone would link it to Stroynowski or, Heavens forbid, Izabela. Someone would take a second glance at the weird jewel at her throat. There would be so many victims Diehl would never know about.
I need to distract Konwicki. Without a second thought, I smash the nearest shop window with my purse and dodge as glass shatters into the street. Konwicki tugs at Diehl’s coat and spins around.
Brushing glass shards off my coat, I hide in the shadows. I still can see both men, clear as in daylight. Konwicki utters a curse. His hand is clutching the gun.
There is not much more I can do. I throw my tortoiseshell pen casing to the other side of the street. It tinkles and cracks.
Konwicki curses under his breath.
“This is all your doing,” he snarls, letting go of Diehl’s arm.
Which is what Diehl was waiting for. He spins around, grabs Konwicki, and tries to hurl him to the street.
Both men stumble. Konwicki lets out a surprised yelp when he falls on his back into autumn slush and ice. Diehl, the weaker of them two, falls on top of him, and makes a grab at the weapon. I’m seeing it clear as day. I close my eyes the moment before it fires.
There is nothing I can do, so I don’t yell for help.
“Please,” says Abram Heber. “Do this for us. Golda has been worried sick about you.”
I cast my eyes down.
“You can’t hope for anything good in the city now.”
It would be sensible to follow his advice, but I had made up my mind long ago, and now I can’t imagine walking away.
“I can’t leave just yet.”
I see the question in his face—what kind of unfinished business could a woman like me have?—but he only sighs.
“If you need any assistance, please let me know. You know where to find me.”
“I know,” I confirm. “And, Mr Heber, I am infinitely grateful for your help.”
He gives me a stiff bow.
“I wish you best of luck, Miss Ogińska.”
“Likewise,” I say.
Luck has been in short supply these days. By the turn of the year, Warsaw erupted with splendid banquets. The French officials had disappeared. We drank, and danced, and waited for the Russian troops to arrive.
When they seized the city, we swapped our finery for mourning dress, paid the devastating levy, and held the memories of the Duchy close to our hearts.
Stroynowski has taken care of the first part of my unfinished business: in a cafe, he left me a note saying that he has burned all of Diehl’s sketches. I burned the note as well.
But there is still the matter of moonstone.
Woźniakowa’s maid, solemn as ever, takes me to the Morawiecki household. The servants are surprised. This is not the day of piano lessons, and no cat’s music should cut through their day. Not when the preparations for mourning are set in motion.
“This is fine,” says Izabela, her voice rasping. “I have been waiting for Miss Ogińska.”
Her eyes are red and raw. She takes my gloved hand and pulls me in.
I can only imagine the burden of guilt on her shoulders. Not only has she led to all this—in many indirect, convoluted ways; even if the only person to throw accusations is herself—but she is not feeling entirely sad, either. There is a hint of relief to her condition. The dreaded marriage will never happen. Instantly I hate the world that did this to her, that forced her to dance between her own desires and its expectations. Reputation or happiness. But never both, not for women like Izabela.
Now it’s so clear, oh radiant Moon, it’s crystal clear. The looks she gave me. The gifts she collected. Her demeanor, teetering on frivolous, always one step from destroying her good name. She never wanted to marry—and it had nothing to do with late Mr Diehl.
It might have a thing or two to do with me.
Izabela speaks only when the doors behind us close.
“I know why are you here.” Straight to the point, not even offering me tea, although it must be brewing in the kitchen already. “You want the rest of the stone.”
She nods to her own thoughts.
“Why is it so important, Agata?”
I purse my lips, but she insists:
“I’ve been protecting you all along, even though you knew too much. You think the others didn’t ask about you? Do you have any idea how many stories I made up to protect you? Who among us, how do you think, was most likely to be an Imperial agent?”
All blood drains from my face.
“Who else? A stranger, probably a foreigner. An independent lady, someone who has nothing to lose. All her relatives, conveniently, gone. It would be unusual—but not impossible.”
My throat clenches, dry. I can only reply in nods.
“And I can’t—” Izabela’s lip trembles. “I cannot say I didn’t have my own doubts too.”
I reach out to her. She doesn’t withdraw.
Next moment I’m holding her and she’s sobbing, hot tears dropping onto my dress. For Ignacy. For ourselves. For the duchy that never truly was.
I have a brief moment to make my next decision, but it’s an easy one. I wipe my face, lock the door, and tell her all I know of the early history of the Moon.