He poured a gold necklace into her hand. It had a small Egyptian symbol:
“That’s the basketball hoop on Ra’s head,” I said.
Walt and Sadie both frowned at me, and I realized I probably wasn’t making the moment more magical for them. “I mean it’s the symbol that surrounds Ra’s sun crown,” I said. “A never-ending loop, the symbol of eternity, right?”
Sadie swallowed as if the magic potion was still bubbling in her stomach. “Eternity?”
Walt shot me a look that clearly meant Please stop helping.
“Yeah,” he said, “um, it’s called shen. I just thought, you know, you’re looking for Ra. And good things, important things, should be eternal. So maybe it’ll bring you luck. I meant to give it to you this morning, but…I kind of lost my nerve.”
Sadie stared the talisman glittering in her palm. “Walt, I don’t—I mean, thank you, but—”
“Just remember I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “If you need help, I’ll be there for you.” He glanced at me and corrected himself: “I mean both of you, of course.”
“But now,” Bes said, “you need to go.”
“Happy birthday, Sadie,” Walt said. “And good luck.”
He got out of the car and trudged down the hill. We watched until he was just a tiny figure in the gloom. Then he vanished into the woods.
“Two farewell gifts,” Sadie muttered, “from two gorgeous guys. I hate my life.”
She latched the gold necklace around her throat and touched the shen symbol.
Bes gazed down at the trees where Walt had disappeared. “Poor kid. Born unusual, all right. It isn’t fair.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why were you so anxious for Walt to leave?”
The dwarf rubbed his scraggly beard. “Not my place to explain. Right now we’ve got work to do. The more time we give Menshikov to prepare his defenses, the harder this is going to get.”
I wasn’t ready to drop it, but Bes stared at me stubbornly, and I knew I wasn’t going to get any more answers from him. Nobody can look stubborn like a dwarf.
“So, Russia,” I said. “By driving up an empty staircase.”
“Exactly.” Bes floored the accelerator. The Mercedes churned grass and mud and barreled up the stairs. I was sure we’d reach the top and get nothing but a broken axle, but at the last second, a portal of swirling sand opened in front of us. Our wheels left the ground, and the black limousine flew headlong into the vortex.
We slammed into pavement on the other side, scattering a group of surprised teenagers. Sadie groaned and pried her head off the headrest.
“Can’t we go anywhere gently?” she asked.
Bes hit the wipers and scraped the sand off our windshield. Outside it was dark and snowy. Eighteenth-century stone buildings lined a frozen river lit with streetlamps. Beyond the river glowed more fairy-tale buildings: golden church domes, white palaces, and ornate mansions painted Easter-egg green and blue. I might have believed we’d traveled back in time three hundred years—except for the cars, the electric lights, and of course the teenagers with body piercings, dyed hair, and black leather clothes screaming at us in Russian and pounding on the hood of the Mercedes because we’d almost run them over.
“They can see us?” Sadie asked.
“Russians,” Bes said with a kind of grudging admiration. “Very superstitious people. They tend to see magic for what it is. We’ll have to be careful here.”
“You’ve been here before?” I asked.
He gave me a duh look, then pointed to either side of the car. We’d landed between two stone sphinxes standing on pedestals. They looked like a lot of sphinxes I’d seen—with crowned human heads on lion bodies—but I’d never seen sphinxes covered in snow.
“Are those authentic?” I asked.
“Farthest-north Egyptian artifacts in the world,” Bes said. “Pillaged from Thebes and brought up here to decorate Russia’s new imperial city, St. Petersburg. Like I said, every new empire wants a piece of Egypt.”
The kids outside were still shouting and banging on the car. One smashed a bottle against our windshield.
“Um,” Sadie said, “should we move?”
“Nah,” Bes said. “Russian kids always hang out by the sphinxes. Been doing it for hundreds of years.”
“But it’s like midnight here,” I said. “And it’s snowing.”
“Did I mention they’re Russian?” Bes said. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
He opened his door. Glacier-cold wind swept into the Mercedes, but Bes stepped out wearing nothing but his Speedo. The kids backed up quickly. I couldn’t blame them. Bes said something in Russian, then roared like a lion. The kids screamed and ran.
Bes’s form seemed to ripple. When he got back into the car, he was wearing a warm winter coat, a fur-lined hat, and fuzzy mittens.
“See?” he said. “Superstitious. They know enough to run from a god.”
“A small hairy god in a Speedo, yes,” Sadie said. “So what do we do now?”
Bes pointed across the river at a glowing palace of white-and-gold stone. “That’s the Hermitage.”
“Hermits live there?” Sadie asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve heard of that place. It was the tsar’s palace. Now it’s a museum. Best Egyptian collection in Russia.”
“Dad took you there, I suppose?” Sadie asked. I thought we were over the whole jealous-about-traveling-the-world-with-Dad thing, but every once in a while it cropped up again.
“We never went.” I tried not to sound defensive. “He got an invitation to speak there once, but he declined.”
Bes chuckled. “Your dad was smart. Russian magicians don’t exactly welcome outsiders. They protect their territory fiercely.”
Sadie stared across the river. “You mean the headquarters of the Eighteenth Nome is inside the museum?”
“Somewhere,” Bes agreed, “but it’s hidden with magic, because I’ve never found the entrance. That part you’re looking at is the Winter Palace, the old home of the tsar. There’s a whole complex of other mansions behind it. I’ve heard it would take eleven days just to see everything in all the Hermitage collections.”
“But unless we wake Ra, the world ends in four days,” I said.
“Three days now,” Sadie corrected, “if it’s after midnight.”
I winced. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“So take the abbreviated tour,” Bes said. “Start with the Egyptian section. Ground floor, main museum.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” I asked.
“He can’t, can he?” Sadie guessed. “Like Bast couldn’t enter Desjardins’ house in Paris. The magicians charm their headquarters against the gods. Isn’t that right?”
Bes made an even uglier face. “I’ll walk you down to the bridge, but I can’t go any farther. If I cross the River Neva too close to the Hermitage, I’ll set off all kinds of alarms. You’ll have to sneak inside somehow—”
“Breaking into a museum at night,” Sadie muttered. “We’ve had such good luck with that.”
“—and find the entrance to the Eighteenth Nome. And don’t get captured alive.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s better to be captured dead?”
The look in his eyes was grim. “Just trust me. You don’t want to be Menshikov’s prisoner.”
Bes snapped his fingers, and suddenly we were wearing fleece parkas, ski pants, and winter boots.
“Come on, malishi,” he said. “I’ll walk you to the Dvortsovyy Bridge.”
The bridge was only a few hundred yards away, but it seemed farther. March obviously wasn’t springtime in St. Petersburg. The dark, the wind, and the snow made it feel more like January in Alaska. Personally, I would’ve preferred a sweltering day in the Egyptian desert. Even with the warm clothes Bes had summoned for us, my teeth couldn’t stop chattering.
Bes wasn’t in a hurry. He kept slowing down and giving us the guided tour until I thought my nose would fall off from frostbite. He told us we were on Vasilevsky Island, across the Neva River from the center of St. Petersburg. He pointed out the different church spires and monuments, and when he got excited, he started slipping into Russian.
“You’ve spent a lot of time here,” I said.
He walked in silence for a few paces. “Most of that was long ago. It wasn’t—”
He stopped so abruptly, I stumbled into him. He stared across the street at a big palace with canary yellow walls and a green gabled roof. Lit up in the night through a swirl of snow, it looked unreal, like one of the ghostly images in the First Nome’s Hall of Ages.
“Prince Menshikov’s palace,” Bes muttered.
His voice was full of loathing. I almost thought he was going to yell BOO at the building, but he just gritted his teeth.
Sadie looked at me for an explanation, but I wasn’t a walking Wikipedia like she seemed to think. I knew stuff about Egypt, but Russia? Not so much.
“You mean Menshikov as in Vlad the Inhaler?” I asked.
“He’s a descendant.” Bes curled his lip with distaste. He said a Russian word I was willing to bet was a pretty bad insult. “Back in the seventeen hundreds, Prince Menshikov threw a party for Peter the Great—the tsar who built this city. Peter loved dwarves. He was a lot like the Egyptians that way. He thought we were good luck, so he always kept some of us in his court. Anyway, Menshikov wanted to entertain the tsar, so he thought it would be funny to stage a dwarf wedding. He forced them…he forced us to dress up, pretend to get married, and dance around. All the big folk were laughing, jeering…”
His voice trailed off.
Bes described the party like it was yesterday. Then I remembered that this weird little guy was a god. He’d been around for eons.
Sadie put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Bes. Must have been awful.”
He scowled. “Russian magicians…they love capturing gods, using us. I can still hear that wedding music, and the tsar laughing…”
“How’d you get away?” I asked.
Bes glared at me. Obviously, I’d asked a bad question.
“Enough of this.” Bes turned up his collar. “We’re wasting time.”
He forged ahead, but I got the feeling he wasn’t really leaving Menshikov’s palace behind. Suddenly its cheery yellow walls and brightly lit windows looked sinister.
Another hundred yards through the bitter wind, and we reached the bridge. On the other side, the Winter Palace shimmered.
“I’ll take the Mercedes the long way around,” Bes said. “Down to the next bridge, and circle south of the Hermitage. Less likely to alert the magicians that I’m here.”
Now I realized why he was so paranoid about setting off alarms. Magicians had snared him in St. Petersburg once before. I remembered what he’d told us in the car: Don’t get captured alive.