Audit

Papak looked up from the plate filled with dolma—little balls of rice and lamb enveloped in green leaves—to the tall,young man standing in front of his table. The clean shaved newcomer was pale and wore an expensive black suit. His brown hair was cut short following the fashion that was so predominant among both the old and the new money of Baku. A light scarf around his throat was the only thing that distinguished him from the many other people that enjoyed the warm summer night.

The man pointed at the free chair and said, “May I sit?”

Papak picked a ball with two fingers and said, “Depends, do I know you?”

The man smiled and Papak shivered. “You may be the one that knows me most.”

He popped the dolma in his mouth and began to chew. He gestured the man to go on, then took the glass of wine and drank. He never took his eyes away from the man as he sat down and gestured to the waiter.

The night was filled with the sound of traffic and tourists. A steady breeze blew from the Caspian Sea over the walls of the old City, while in the distance the images of fire projected on the curved steel and glass surfaces of the Flame Towers danced over the Azeri capital. Papak took his napkin and cleaned his fingers. “You are late.”

The man looked briefly up to the waiter that had just arrived. “Ayran please.” After the waiter left he turned to Papak and said, “I’m never late. But I admit it took me longer than usual to find a way here. By the way, why here?”

Papak shrugged then looked over the plaza. Dozens of tourists were still milling around, taking photos and enjoying the evening air after a hot day. The Maiden Tower, thick and solid like a fortification ought to be, stood tall and illuminated by carefully placed spotlights. At a first look it seemed almost unchanged in its long years of vigilance, yet he could see all the little traces of time and the efforts made to mask them. “Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic. Sometimes it feels good to relive some past memories. And I also think it may be apt, seeing as we are repeating this farce again today as we did all those years ago.”

“I don’t know about how it feels reliving memories, but yes, I can see how this place may be the right one.” The man chuckled. “And you are being unusually verbose. And a bit bitter. You know that we don’t have to do this, right?”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” Papak sneered at the man. “I don’t give up, Angra Mainyu, I never have and won’t now.”

“Oh, I didn’t hear that name in a long time. You are really feeling nostalgic.” The waiter returned and put a glass full of yogurt in front of Angra Mainyu. As the waiter left the man took the glass and drank. “Ah, that hit the spot. Where was I?”

Papak took another ball and pointed with it at Angra Mainyu. “You were rambling about me being nostalgic.” He bit down on it and chewed slowly.

“Right. Well, the point is I would probably be a bit sad if you gave up. I find this little game delightful. I even keep far away from you between our meetings so that you can surprise me. I always played it straight with you, can you believe that?”

“No, but that’s not important.” Papak sipped from his wine. “Why the scarf and why the ayran? You don’t need either of them.”

Angra Mainyu put two finger at his neck and pulled the scarf aside. A thick bruise ran around his throat. “It took me a while to climb down, and you can’t really pretend for me to parade around with this and a black suit. There’s a reason I prefer when people go for poison. As for the ayran”—he grinned as he pulled at the scarf tightening it again—”I like to confuse the coroners.”

His glass emptied, Papak took the bottle of wine and filled it up again. “If there’s something they learned to do over time, then that is better alcohol.” He raised his glass. “This is one of the reasons I never regretted our deal.”

“That may be one reason, the other is that you are a wonderful specimen of amorality. Lesser individuals would have balked under the price ages ago.”

Papak took a sip from his glass and looked over the people milling around the plaza. “Because they are weak. That didn’t change and never will.”

Angra Mainyu finished his drink and said, “Well, back to business. What do you have for me this time? Let me guess.” He leaned a bit back and looked at Papak, at his tailored brown suit, at the polished shoes, the golden watch. “Seems you went for the respectable path this time, at least for your appearance. We are in an open, public place so you are not a notorious criminal. I don’t see any bodyguards, which seems to exclude nowadays being a politician.” He brought a hand to his chin and looked up.

Drumming with his fingers on the table, Papak shifted on his chair. “How long do you want to continue with this charade?”

“You are no fun, and now I thought that after all this time we had built some kind of relationship. Sometimes I like a bit of showmanship too.” Angra Mainyu sighed. “Well then, go on, what do you, Papak of Istakhr, offer me for another twelve hundred moons on this earth?”

Papak leaned back and mumbled, “Took you long enough.” He cleared his throat as an unnatural silence fell upon the plaza. People froze mid step and the temperature dropped. “I offer you ten thousand lives. Each died only for this sacrifice. I offer you this for twelve hundred more moons on this earth.”

Angra Mainyu raised an eyebrow. “Let me see this offer, then I shall decide if I will accept them. Where shall we go so that you can show them to me?”

“Oh, I will show them all here.” Papak moved the plate with the food aside and leaned down. He pulled up a leather briefcase, opened it and took out a tablet. He passed it to Angra Mainyu. “Here, each dead documented in detail. You will find that it’s quite exhaustive.”

The silence was lifted and people began to move again. A warm wind blew the cold away.

Angra Mainyu took the tablet. “This I’ll have to see.”

Time passed, the plaza emptied.

“This are all deaths during industrial accidents or because some kind of poisoning through pollution.” Angra Mainyu put down the tablet. All traces of levity had disappeared from his expression. “Did you decide to end your existence and thought this would somehow be amusing?”

“Nothing of the kind. As I said, each dead was only for this sacrifice.”

Angra Mainyu bowed forward. “Explain.”

Papak picked up his glass and drank, then leaned against the back of his chair. “Times changed. The first time I offered my reign, the second the memory of my glory, the third time my love. Well, you remember them.”

“Indeed I do. Your third offering was one of the sweetest.” Angra Mainyu grinned. “I still don’t understand.”

“This things I can’t offer anymore. I cannot create a new legend worth of an offering, memories became too long for that. I can’t offer a reign, as those can’t be conquered simply with blood and bronze today. I can’t offer you love, as I have not loved anything for centuries.”

“The cult you created for your eighteenth offering was a nice idea.”

“And would you accept another one?”

Angra Mainyu drummed with his fingers on the table. “Probably not. It would really depend but I don’t think you could outdo yourself.” He hit with his hand on the table. “I see your point. Very well, color me intrigued about what you have done this time.”

“I became rich. There was a considerable amount of gold left over from the last time, so I created a company. In time I had interests all over the world. Mines, factories, I think even some kind of newspapers.” Papak grinned as he leaned forward and tapped with his finger on the tablet. “Each and every death her was caused by something I expressively ordered. Each cause was something that cost me money and could have been done in a safer and cheaper way. None of the deaths would have happened if not for the sacrifice. The blood of nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine people drip from the company. All of them for you.”

“You said you offered me ten thousand. Where is the last one?”

“Well, I thought you wouldn’t simply accept a mountain of dead.” Papak opened the briefcase again and pulled out another tablet. He put it on the table in front of him and pointed at it. “Right here. I wanted to offer it directly in front of you.”

“Another accident waiting to happen? A last poor soul whose life will be snuffed out for this world to suffer more under you?” Angra Mainyu smiled. “Even considering you haven’t offered me fresh blood in quite a while it still isn’t all that interesting. I can accept it for the sake of tradition, but—”

“Oh no, this is something akin to me. One of the few beings strong enough to maybe do what I do. And I created it.” Papak chuckled. “You see, I hadn’t anything to do with the company for fifteen years. It runs alone, has his own desires and his own personality. It is as alive as anybody else.” He glanced over the plaza, then snorted. “It’s probably more alive than anyone else here except for myself.”

“You claim to have created life?” Angra Mainyu stared at Papak unblinking. “Prove it.”

“It’s all on the tablet. Look at the last fifteen years. I swear upon my name and my life that I have not done anything for the whole time.”

“Your name already belongs to me, as for your life we shall see.” Angra Mainyu picked up the tablet and began to read.

The plaza emptied. Tourist disappeared, other patrons left. The waiter came but a glare from Papak sent him scurrying back without a word.

The clock hit three in the morning.

Angra Mainyu put the tablet down, leaned against the back of his chair and began to laugh. His laughter bounced from the windows covering them in ice. It resonated between the walls and the alleys, blackening stone and corroding metal. Nightmares haunted the city and raced from dream to dream leaving a trail of fear and desperation.

Papak smiled satisfied as the laughter pandered out. The waiter laid in fetal position near the entrance of the restaurant, foaming from the mouth.

“I admit you surprised me. I never would have taught that this day would come, but here it is.” He slapped his hand on his thigh. “Today I accept the sacrifice of something even more abstract than myself. I have only a question, how do you kill it? Because from what I have seen it is more vast than many nations.”

“It is.” Papak tapped on the tablet in front of him. “And for that reason I poisoned my child many decades ago. I grew and educated it and I did the same with its enemies. Here is a bundle of documents that will bring it all down. The moment I send them those who want the downfall will stab it and let it bleed to death. It will be my last sacrifice, something created to die, something that would never have existed if not for me to live another twelve hundred moons. So, do you want to wield the dagger?”

Angra Mainyu looked at the tablet, then shook his head. “As tempting as that is, it’s your sacrifice, it’s your role to kill it.” He looked up at the sky. “And you will have to do it before dawn. You are not trying to leave the responsibility to me, are you?”

With a swipe Papak activated the tablet, tapped a couple of times on the screen, then passed it to Angra Mainyu. “Done, you can follow its slow agony here if you want.”

“I will. This promises to be interesting. Will you not stay here with me?”

“No, the pact is sealed, it’s time for me to have a new life.” Papak looked at the waiter laying motionless at the door of the restaurant, while the flickering of flames could be seen from the kitchen inside. “There is a war in the south. There is always a war, and that’s always a good way to emerge in the world again as someone new.”

Without looking up from the tablet Angra Mainyu said, “Then go and have fun. See you in a century, friend. Oh, and prepare another surprise like this one please. I’ve rarely been this delighted in the last three hundred years.”

Papak stood up, opened the knot of his tie and pulled it off. He threw it down and stretched. “See you in a century.” He walked to the Maiden Tower and put a hand on the walls. Then he turned around and disappeared in the night, flames rising from the restaurant while Angra Mainyu sat at a table, quietly chuckling to himself.

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Audit

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