Misha was taking too long.
Emil fiddled with his mug of sahlab and peered down the street. The Graeco-Roman Museum was just a few blocks from the coffee shop where he’d set up position. Misha had gone inside nearly forty-five minutes earlier. Normally, he would have been back by now.
Which meant something must have gone wrong.
Emil closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help. A list ran through his head of everything that could have possibly happened. An over-vigilant guard, a particularly well-placed security camera, a tourist in the wrong place at the crucial moment… or perhaps someone had noticed their counterfeit.
He shook away that last possibility. No one had ever discovered one of his reproductions before. It was a source of pride, of personal satisfaction.
Too bad he couldn’t brag to anyone.
Emil checked his watch. Forty-eight minutes. A knot formed in the pit of his stomach. He downed the last of his drink.
At that moment, a familiar figure strode through the doors of the museum. Emil let out a relieved breath. Misha slung his beat-up backpack over his shoulder and strolled down the sidewalk towards the tea shop. He caught Emil’s eye, and kept walking past his table.
Shit. Something had gone wrong.
Emil stood and left twenty piastres next to the saucer. He fell into step behind Misha. “What happened?”
“Not sure. Mukhabarat, I think.”
“Damn it.” The last thing they needed was to end up on the radar of the secret police. Emil tamped down the tension rising in his chest. “Did you make the switch, at least?”
Misha slowed until they were walking side-by-side. He let the backpack slip off his shoulder and opened the zipper a crack. Emil peered inside. The corner of an ancient-looking tablet greeted him.
Emil gave a quick nod. Misha zipped the backpack shut again and slung it back over his shoulder. He looked behind them. Air hissed through his teeth.
Emil followed his gaze. A trio of men in nondescript, Western-style clothes were coming down the front steps. At first glance, they appeared just like everyone else on the street. A closer look, however, and their military bearing gave them away.
One of them, the apparent leader, broke away from the other two. He trotted between the museum’s impressive columns to the sidewalk and scanned the street both ways. Emil didn’t look away fast enough. Their eyes locked.
Emil quickly faced forward again. “Damn it.”
Misha didn’t look at him. “Run?”
Emil glanced back again. The three men were starting down the sidewalk behind them. He nodded. “Run.”
Abruptly, Misha cut out into the busy street. A symphonic accompaniment of horn blasts filled the dusty air. Emil swallowed a curse and followed him into oncoming traffic. Tires squealed. Brakes screeched. He steeled his nerves and kept moving.
By some miracle, they reached the other side in one piece. Emil looked back once. The three men were already starting across the street after them.
Misha looked over his shoulder. His lips thinned. He jerked his head in a follow-me motion and sprinted into a narrow side street. Emil struggled to keep up. Weather-beaten buildings rose on both sides of them, plunging the street into sudden shade. The air cooled.
Footsteps echoed off the walls around them. Emil looked behind them, swore. How had the men caught up so quickly? He didn’t have a chance to dwell on it. Misha ducked down another, narrower street. Emil followed.
They stumbled into the middle of an open-air souk. Tiny storefronts lined the dusty backstreet, packed to bursting with vibrant silks, antique furniture, glistening copper coffee pots and brass shisha pipes. The heavy smell of spices and animal dung filled the air. Misha plunged ahead into the attending crowds without breaking speed.
It was all Emil could do to stick to his heels. Even with the backpack weighing him down, Misha was the faster runner. He wove through the hordes of people without breaking stride. The back of his head grew steadily smaller as he pulled farther and farther ahead.
Emil called to him, but his voice disappeared into the bustle. He looked back. He couldn’t see all three men anymore. The face of the leader appeared in flashes through the marketgoers. Emil looked ahead again.
Misha was gone.
Alarm tightened his throat, but he couldn’t stop. Not with the man gaining ground behind him. Emil redoubled his pace, constantly scanning the full street. He told himself Misha couldn’t have gotten far, but he knew better. Puzzle was like a wraith when he wanted to be. He could already be halfway back to the Château Triomphe.
Emil gritted his teeth. Suddenly, a vise-like hand closed around his arm from behind. Alarm threatened to morph into full-fledged panic. Emil tried to yank free. The hand tightened, and dragged him backward towards one of the street vendors. Emil fought the entire way.
Suddenly, he was on his knees in the dirt. Brightly colored galabeyas and kurtas on hangers flapped around him, blocking his view of the street. “What the—”
The hand disappeared from his arm, only to clap over his mouth. At the same time, an arm snaked around his chest, yanked him back against a hard, familiar body. Warm breath tickled his ear.
“Bozhe moi. Shut the fuck up, Emil. You’ll get us caught.”
Emil sagged back and released a breath against Misha’s hand. Misha stiffened, but didn’t move. Emil closed his eyes. Misha’s heartbeat drummed steadily against his back. Outside the walls of their impromptu shelter, the bustle of the market faded to a dull drone. The air felt thicker. Emil told himself it was just dust.
Minutes ticked by. Still, Misha made no attempt to move. Emil forced himself to keep breathing evenly. The hand splayed across his chest felt like a brand. No sooner had the thought flashed through his head than his body started to tighten.
His next breath was downright painful. Emil fought down the giddy lightness in his belly and rocked forward onto the balls of his feet. Misha hissed. “What are you doing?”
“One of us has to check if they’re gone.” It was the best excuse he could come up with. Any longer in Misha’s arms and he’d… well, that was the problem, wasn’t it? He didn’t know what he’d do.
He reached out to flick aside the hem of an extra-long kurta shirt. Misha’s hand came down hard on his wrist. “Stop.”
Emil turned to look at him. Mistake. Their heads were too close together. If he took a deep breath, he’d be able to taste–
Misha’s eyes were almost black. A vein leaped in his forehead. “I’ll do it.”
Emil couldn’t speak. Misha released his wrist, reached out and teased back a corner of the kurta. He scanned the street outside, and Emil pressed his lips together. The other man’s neck was a mere hairsbreadth away. He closed his eyes.
“Okay. I don’t see them.”
Emil opened his eyes again. Misha had moved back and was watching him, forehead creased. “Are you all right?”
His first reaction was a dry laugh. Emil swallowed it and nodded. “Must be the heat.”
Misha leaped to his feet in a fluid, catlike motion and reached down a hand. “Come on. Let’s get back to the hotel.” He patted the backpack. “You can rest up before you start translating this thing.”