EXCERPT FROM THE FALLEN QUEEN
© 2011 Jane Kindred
As any demon will tell you over a bottle of vodka or a game of preferans, Heaven is not the paradise you have been told. Depending upon the demon who holds your ear, he may also tell you Heaven’s last ruler was a tyrant who cared nothing for the lives of the common angel. Never believe it. He was the kindest soul ever born to the supernal House of Arkhangel’sk; Heaven would be blessed to have him now. But put no faith in me, for I am his daughter. I was born within Elysium’s pearly gates and have been cast out.
I do not like to think my impetuosity brought down the throne of Heaven, but on the darkest days, it is what I believe. When Elysium fell to a quiet coup, I was at a wingcasting table in Raqia instead of by my family’s side.
It is a favorite game in Raqia’s dens of iniquity. A fast-moving combination of cards and dice, wingcasting requires single-minded concentration and a certain narcissistic audacity. Challengers who hope to unseat the reigning prince of the game progress from one table to the next until they are opposite the champion.
I only reached this coveted spot on one occasion.
Raqia’s reigning prince that night was a dark-haired demon with eyes as sharp as the waxed points of his hair. He played his hand as cool as you please and barely seemed to notice me, but he put nearly every card I discarded into play with his own and soon had me hemorrhaging both cards and crystal.
Smoke burned my eyes while the demon nursed his cigar in a deliberate distraction. When he took it between his fingers, I could not help following with my eyes. Beneath the tattered lace of his cuffs, black crosses and diamonds, interlaced with characters of an unfamiliar alphabet, braced his fingers between the knuckles like rings made of ink.
He followed my gaze. “Prison,” he said around his cigar, the first word he’d spoken not directly related to the game.
He was trying to unnerve me; there were no prisons in Heaven. There was no need for any among the Host.
Raqia, for the most part policed itself, preferring to game the crystal from wayward angelic youth rather than take it by force and risk the flaming hand of seraphic justice. If he had really been in prison, he was one of the true Fallen who had spent time in the world of Man—though all demons were Fallen, by the Host’s reckoning. Their indiscriminate breeding muddied the cardinal elements by mixing the pure water dominant in the blood of the Fourth Choir with the earth of the Third, the fire of the Second, and the air of the First. Such blending resulted in their sullied complexions and varied hue of hair and eye.
A glance around the poorly lit den revealed half a dozen natural shades of brown and a dozen more who colored their hair and eyes with deliberately wild hues in defiance of celestial purity.
Most who fell to the world of Man bore signs of aging not present in the Host; something in the air of the terrestrial plane made Men’s lives short. A fine layer of stubble that could only have been carefully cultivated and trimmed hid any weathering of my opponent’s skin, but studying his face, I saw the telltale signs: little lines around his deep-set ebony eyes that said he’d fallen more than once.
I tightened the drawstring on the purse of crystal at my wrist, careful to keep the luminous celestine of my supernal ring turned toward my palm and cupped between my fingers while I played my hand.
The demon raised a dark eyebrow, pierced with a thin bar of metal that accentuated his coarse nature. I had put down a card in my distraction without waiting for him to call the die. I blushed and snatched it up again, furious with myself for making such a stupid blunder. His immodest grin said he thought his ploy had worked, but it took more than a small-time terrestrial thief to unnerve me. No novice to the dens or to demon magic, I never came to Raqia without a protective charm tucked into my bodice.
In truth, I had been distracted since climbing down the trellis to sneak out in the middle of a tedious banquet. My younger brother Azel was sick in bed, and my cousin Kae was acting strangely toward his wife, my sister Omeliea—and both circumstances were in some measure my fault.
Though I did not know it yet, the die had been cast against the House of Arkhangel’sk by my unbridled impulse on the day I turned seventeen. On a hunting holiday in the mountains of Aravoth, my father had presented me with a blue roan mare. I was eager to take her out, but the first snowfall had ushered in the season and my sisters were keen to head inside the lodge and curl up by the fire.
I sulked while the groom took my horse to the stable. Not even a gift of a gorgeous red velvet riding cap lined with silver fox could coax me out of my bad humor.
When my sister Omeliea admonished me for being moody, I tossed the cap back at her and announced I was taking my horse out by myself. Mama would never have tolerated such willful behavior, but she had stayed behind with Azel, and Papa was so softhearted, it pained him to discipline his daughters.
When I led the mare out of the stable, Cousin Kae was waiting for me.
“Tell her to stop being such a child!” my sister called, wrapped in a fleece on the steps of the lodge. “It’s freezing out here!”
Kae caught the reins and drew the mare to him. “Stop being such a child.” He winked, stroking the horse’s muzzle. “You can’t go alone.”
I pulled the tether from his hands and swung into the saddle. “Then I suppose someone will have to mount up.”
I trotted the blue roan out to the road and into the wooded heights, on a path muted with preternatural quiet. It seemed nothing but my horse and I existed. Here in the North, we were without the oppressive, constant presence of the Seraphim Guard, which Papa could not abide outside the city. In Heaven’s hinterlands, he said, there was no need for their protection.
After a minute or two, I heard the light clip of Kae’s horse behind me.
“Is Ola angry with me?”
Kae drew up beside me. “Not as angry as she is with me for letting you go.” He shrugged beneath his cloak. “It will pass. Sometimes I think it’s her job as a wife to be angry. She’s very efficient at it.”
I laughed at his feigned look of persecution. “Such trials you must endure for the crown.”
“Yes,” said Kae with a mock sigh. “I shall endure anything to attain the crown. Even bed that shrew of a grand duchess of mine.”
I nearly slipped from my saddle for laughing. Kae adored Omeliea and she, him. They were newly wed, and though betrothed at the cradle, he had courted her since childhood as though it were not prearranged. I could not imagine two people more perfectly matched.
Kae stopped his mount in its tracks. “Did you see that?” His grey eyes fixed on a distant point where the trees met over the road. A peculiar fragrance hung on the air, like the freshly peeled bark of an Aravothan cedar, but I saw nothing. I shook my head, and Kae started forward once more.
The bright snow began to dull, shadowed beneath the silver canopy of gathering clouds. Perhaps my sisters had been right. The cold was already making my hands ache within my gloves. I considered turning back, but the thought of Ola’s smugness made me stay my course. I knew my way blindfolded along the snow-covered path; I’d ridden it a hundred times. Of course, my horse had not.
As a dusting of new snow began to fall, Kae leaned over his mount and pointed. “There! Do you not see it?” He spurred his horse forward without waiting for an answer.
I followed, urging my mare to keep pace with him, but we were falling behind on the softening road. Heavy flakes melted in my hair, and my cheeks burned with cold. I began to regret throwing the cap at Ola.
The road went higher here, and the clouds were lowering, and soon I had to slow my horse to a walk, surrounded on all sides by grey, hanging damp. I called out for Kae, but I might have been shouting into a wet blanket for all my voice seemed to carry.
After a few more yards, the trees grew close, and I was no longer certain we were on the path. Everything looked different coated in new snow, like some fairy world I’d stumbled into. Maybe I’d veered off in the mist? I bit my lip and glanced over my shoulder, but the fog was so thick I couldn’t be sure of the distance.
I opened my mouth to call again, when the sound of approaching hooves broke through the veil of clouds. A moment later, Kae’s horse appeared without its rider. I leapt from my mare and ran in the direction the horse had come, heedless of the precipices that might be hidden from view.
“Cousin!” I stumbled over a protruding root and fell headlong in the snow. For a moment, the world was silent except for the dripping branches over my head. Then the clouds thinned and Kae stood before me in an open glade, stiller than the mountain around us. His eyes were unfocused.
“The most beautiful steed,” he whispered. “I nearly caught her.”
“A runaway?” I got to my feet with no help from him, brushing snow and pine needles from my riding skirt. “All the way up here?”
His eyes cleared. “Not a runaway. She’s wild.” He seemed angry with me, as though I’d intruded. Brushing past me to rein in his mount, he swung himself up into the saddle with a swift and brutal motion. The horse, too, was intruding it seemed, unworthy next to the imaginary steed.
Kae rode off toward our hunting house without another word.
I sighed and tossed the die against the wingcasting table. It seemed a trivial thing, that moment in the heights, that trick of the light that must have made my cousin imagine the wild steed, but his temperament began to change when we returned from the north.
My distracted state cost me another round, and the demon grinned and scooped up his winnings. “Had enough?” He knocked the smoldering ash from his cigar against the side of the table and pocketed my crystal.
“Not by half.”
At the table beside us, the violet glow of eyes dyed with amethyst oil glinted through the smoke from the player next in line to play the winner. I glared back through the ruby red with which I’d dyed my own. I had a right to play so long as I had crystal to bet, and if I had to play all night to beat this demon at a single round, I would.
If only I had known what it would cost me.