EXCERPT FROM THE ARMIES OF HEAVEN
© 2013 Jane Kindred
A priest may tell you there’s no suffering in Heaven—easy enough for him to say, as he has never been there. Perhaps there is another Heaven in which the children of the world of Man take respite when their brief lives are extinguished, and I hope with all my heart that it is so. But in the Heaven where I was born, a veneer of pearl and diamond hid the festering underbelly of a hell that rivaled those created by Man himself.
I began my life in the celestial city of Elysium surrounded by all things honest and just, all things pure and lovely, and knew only that which was of good report, of virtue, and worthy of praise. All else drained down with the night soil into the Acheron River and collected in the gutters of Raqia.
It was in Raqia, once a Heaven in its own right and now reduced to a demon ghetto on the outskirts of the Princedom of the Firmament of Shehaqim, where one might say I was reborn. In the backroom of a den of iniquity known as The Brimstone, I left the Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisonovna of the House of Arkhangel’sk in a pile of discarded silk and honey curls and became the boy “Malchik” to flee Heaven for the world of Man. A pair of cunning demons had disguised me thus to hide me from my cousin’s sword when he left my family in a pool of blood.
My second rebirth was also there in Raqia, drunk from an apothecary’s flask on the very spot where The Brimstone stood before vengeful Seraphim burned it to the ground. Meant to be a temporary disguise, the glamour gave me the appearance of a female demon in the apothecary’s employ. But for a drop of my daughter Ola’s blood, I might have remained in this other woman’s skin—and that one drop changed me yet again.
Ola’s father, one of the cunning pair with whom I fled Heaven, is no demon after all, but the bastard son of a wayward duchess and a rogue Seraph guard. In our daughter’s veins, this Seraph blood of Vasily’s is strong, and though none of us knew it then, taking that single drop from Ola to restore my appearance had given a strain of the Seraph to me.
With each turn of the seasons, I have become someone new, just as the trees flower, fade, and die, to be reborn in spring. Like the Seraphim consumed in their own element and emerging eternally from the flames of the River Pyriphlegethon in the frozen north of Heaven, I seem to be forever rising from ashes.
But it is Ola who burns in my dreams.
Since the unmarked passing of her second birthday a week ago, I have woken every morning in the hours before daylight screaming my daughter’s name. It is the same dream again and again: Ola standing in a column of flames. I cannot reach into the flames to save her in this dream, and she neither sees me nor hears my cries. When I wake there is no comfort from the terror of the dream, for she is gone, taken as a pawn in the revolution against the queen of Heaven.
Vasily’s strong arms surrounded me, enveloping me in his comforting heat, when I woke from my latest nightmare shortly before dawn. In the darkness, the glow of aether moved between our skin like lavender bioluminescence beneath the surface of the deep. It still astonished me to realize the blending of our dominant elements of water and fire had come to anything, let alone the elusive fifth element of aether.
His warm lips pressed against my temple. “Belphagor thought you’d want me here when you woke up.” It was a touching gesture on Belphagor’s part. Vasily had been the dark-haired demon’s companion since before I was born. “Same dream?”
I nodded against his tangled fire-red locks, mindful of the spiked piercings adorning the sides of his neck.
“When is that field marshal of yours going to make some progress with this useless angel army and go kick Helga’s ass?” His voice took on the deep, gravelly pitch of emotion only a half-blood firespirit could achieve, as if burning coals shifted in his throat. He wouldn’t say my cousin’s name, and I could hardly blame him. Though Aeval had been the author of his actions, Kae had taken my family from me and tortured Belphagor almost to death. I hadn’t forgiven him his unforgivable crimes; I had only chosen to use every tool at my disposal in the coming war against the armies of Heaven. As the former commander of Queen Aeval’s forces, Kae was an invaluable weapon in my arsenal.
I stroked the pale radiance along Vasily’s arm. “They have to find her first.” Leader of the demon rebellion—and my own childhood nurse—Helga Semyazovna had stolen my child. I swallowed the rage and heartache I could not afford to indulge if I meant to go on. “But she can’t hide much longer if she expects to gain enough support to overthrow the queen. As soon as she shows herself, we’ll make our move.” I only hoped it wouldn’t be the same moment Aeval made hers against Aravoth. We had few enough men as it was without splitting them between two battlefronts.
Now that spring had come to the north, the queen was certain to move against us soon. Aeval wasn’t one to tolerate insubordination, and the princes of Aravoth had made it quite clear they didn’t recognize her sovereignty over the princedom.
It was nearly three months since the mutiny at the Citadel of Gehenna. Sar Sarael of the Virtuous Court of the Elohim had opened his home to us at Pyr Amaravati while we prepared for battle and waited for the thaw. Icebound much of the year among rugged mountains, the rivers of Aravoth were rushing now and all was green. It would only be a matter of days before we heard the clashing, steel-shod hooves of the horses of war.
After my morning lesson with Margarita, I wandered in the garden to cool down. I was trying to learn in a matter of months what the Muscovite Nephil had acquired through years of training and Special Forces missions with the Russian Spetsnaz. Mornings, we worked on the hand-to-hand combat techniques of Systema; afternoons, we practiced sword fighting. It didn’t take me long to discover I was no natural with a sword, but I’d managed to progress somewhat in sparring against Margarita with fisticuffs and kicks. If I couldn’t yet strike her quickly and hard enough to knock her down, I could at least remain on my own feet more often than not.
Spotting Lively’s mud-brown hair where she bent over a lapful of sewing on a bench beneath the willows, I hesitated among the wisteria. The pregnant demoness cursed, sucking blood from the finger she’d pricked while working on her layette. I had no desire to become engaged in a discussion of baby things, but when she saw me and nodded, it seemed rude to turn and walk the other way.
Lively was growing round with Vasily’s child, while mine was lost. But as much as it pained me, her presence at Pyr Amaravati couldn’t be helped. Like my cousin, she was a tool that had been placed within my hand. Where Kae knew the weaknesses in Aeval’s army, Lively knew Helga’s. The leader of the Social Liberation Party had been a fool to leave her niece behind at Gehenna to die.
“You’re very good.” I sat beside her and admired her work. “Domestic skills were never my strength.”
“You forget I was the seamstress for the apothecary.” She cut off a knotted end of thread between her teeth. “Of course, I had no servants to make my gowns when I was growing up. Necessity is an excellent teacher.” Lively cupped her stomach as the baby kicked. “Goodness, he’s lively today.” She laughed, drawing her embroidery needle through the woolen sweater she was decorating. “That’s how I got my name. You might not have guessed it when you met me in Raqia, but I was a bit of a hellion as a child, even in the womb. Master Apothecary cured me of that. At least in his presence.”
I fidgeted with the fine Aravothan wool, conscious of my privileged childhood. “It must have been hard to go to work so young. To leave your family.”
Lively shrugged. “The work wasn’t hard—’cept when I had to bed him. Thankfully that didn’t happen much as I got older, because so did he.”
“Lively!” I lowered my voice to a horrified whisper. “The apothecary forced himself on you?”
Her brow wrinkled in irritation above her grey-green eyes. “Forced me? It was nothing like that. He’d paid his price and he was free to do as he pleased. He never hurt me. He was a nice old man.”
“But you were a child!”
“I was old enough.” My dismay clearly annoyed her. “He brought me on as his apprentice when I was twelve. It was quite an honor, I’ll have you know, to be chosen as the first female apothecary’s apprentice in Raqia.” Waving away my concern, she went back to her embroidery. “You angels are so uptight about sex.”
Self-conscious heat bloomed in my cheeks. “That may be, but Host or Fallen, no one should have the right to buy or sell another person, nor to use a person that way—especially a child.”
Lively made a dismissive noise. “And I suppose the first thing you’ll do as soon as they crown you queen is sign that musty old Liberation Decree and free the Fallen.”
“As a matter of fact, I will.”
Her loud laugh must have prompted the baby to kick again, judging by the way her hand rested on the mound above her lap. “That’s what they all say.”
I looked away as she caressed her belly, pricked by another reminder of what she had that I did not.
Lively’s expression turned sober. “Auntie wouldn’t hurt Ola. I’m sure she’s being cared for.”
I looked at her through stinging eyes. “Then why do I keep dreaming she’s burning alive?”
Lively stopped fiddling with her embroidery and glanced about to see if anyone else was in earshot. “In these dreams, does she actually burn or is she just surrounded by flame?”
“What’s the difference? Aren’t they one and the same?”
“Not really. If she isn’t consumed by it, perhaps it’s coming from her.” Lively looked around again. “The spells you and I have been working on… There’s one that might let you join her in the dream. Not just to dream of her but to contact her on the dreaming plane. Maybe that’s what she’s doing from her end—trying to reach you, to tell you something.”
Lively had been tutoring me in the ways of demon peasant magic, something I’d learned a little of on my own when Raqia still had a thriving Demon Market where enchantments and glamours could be had for a price. I’d hoped the Seraph’s strain imparted in the drop of Ola’s blood might facilitate this magic, giving it potency, but so far I’d had little luck at anything other than the quickening of candles. Such a small amount, it seemed, was negligible in the aetheric air of Heaven.
I frowned, unconvinced. “How could she be contacting me? She’s only two years old. How would she know this magic?”
“You really don’t understand what the aether is.” Lively set the embroidery aside. “That’s why Aunt Helga wanted the Seraph blood. She reckoned aether was the one element Queen Aeval couldn’t manipulate. The Fallen have long believed the right combination of elements would produce an aetherspirit. We’ve always thought it would be fire and air or perhaps all of the four, but it seems your water and Vasily’s fire are the perfect match.” She moved her hand to her belly as if hoping her impure waterspirit blood mixed with Vasily’s would be the same.
I tried not to think of that. “Aetherspirit or not, it doesn’t explain how she could do magic without anyone teaching her.”
“She might not know she’s doing it. That’s what makes her so potentially powerful. We know what it means to manipulate a single element—or all four, if you’re Aeval—but no one knows what it means to manipulate the aether. Maybe for Ola, all it takes is distress to unleash her element and tune in to the magic of the spheres.”
It was an unhappy thought. If Ola was in distress now and hadn’t been when Helga’s Nephilim conspirators had first taken her from us in the world of Man, what could be happening to her? Of course, she’d had her nanny, Love, with her then.
Lively picked up her sewing and pushed herself from the bench. “Let me show you. It’s a simple spell. You can try it when you go to sleep tonight. If her element in your blood is strong enough, you should have no trouble tuning in.”
I followed her to the private workshop Sarael had provided. Peasant magic wasn’t strictly forbidden in Aravoth as it was in the Firmament where I grew up—most likely because there were so few Fallen here in the Second Heaven—but it was suspect and frowned upon. It seemed easier to keep it hidden than to explain to the kindhearted but morally absolute Virtues who saw the Heavens in comforting tones of black and white. Their lives were spent in pursuit of truth and purity; choosing to take up arms against their queen in support of my claim to the throne had been hard enough for them without adding the stain of magic to it. Kae had his hands full trying to turn the cultured warriors obsessed with rules and fair play into a cold-blooded, efficient army.
Inside the workshop, I watched Lively measure out oils and powders from her rows of flasks. As she muttered over the concoction she was blending, the rear door leading into the stables opened. I turned with a start and found my cousin Kae standing in the doorway. He seemed just as astonished to see me, his single milky eye gazing from beside the leather mask covering much of his face. When not training his troops, Kae was confined to his “cell” inside the stables. He’d asked for the arrangement when he turned himself in for his crimes against the House of Arkhangel’sk, refusing to enter Sarael’s manor, which he felt he had no right to do. In the beginning, I’d kept him shackled because he’d tried more than once to kill himself.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded. Beside me, Lively looked up from her work with a guilty jump.
Kae backed into the stable. “I’m sorry.” His hoarse voice, damaged in the fire that had scarred him, was now rougher than Vasily’s.
I swept across the room and grabbed his arm before he could escape. “I asked what you were doing here.”
He flinched from my touch as if it repulsed him. “I heard Lively. I thought she was alone.”
Lively’s dusky cheeks were blotched with red. “I gave him the key. It was so much warmer in here during the winter with the brazier. It didn’t seem right to leave him shivering in a drafty barn.”
“So you gave him the key and full access to any poison he might need to kill himself.”
“Which obviously I haven’t,” Kae snapped.
“Give it to me.” I held out my hand, and Kae slapped the key across my palm. I had no pockets in my sparring uniform, so I closed it inside my fist. “You haven’t explained what you were doing here, key or no key. What business do you have with Lively?”
“No business at all. Conversation.”
“Conversation? What conversation could you possibly have with her?” A horrible suspicion struck me that she might be milking him for information, working for Helga as when she’d first led us to Gehenna under false pretenses.
“Conversation, Nazkia! Nice weather we’re having. The roses are blooming. How’s the baby?” His voice seized on the word and his scarred face went pale and clammy. Lively’s growing belly was not only a reminder to me of my lost child but a reminder to Kae of the first Ola, my sister Omeliea, eight months pregnant when he’d murdered her under the influence of Aeval’s spell. I couldn’t fathom whether he sought out this reminder as a way to redeem himself or as a punishment.
“If I were you, Lively, I’d keep my pregnant belly away from him.” I fixed my eyes on Kae, whose chest rose sharply beneath his habitual black shirt. “Or he might cut it out of you as he did with his wife.”
Kae went still as stone. “I never did that. Never.”
I wanted to strike him. “Don’t you dare lie about it. Don’t you dare dishonor Ola by denying what you did to her! You came here to surrender to me, to take responsibility for what you’d done.”
“I never did that!” He tried to shout the words and coughed violently, holding his throat. “Don’t you think I remember every horrid, hideous moment of it? My hands and mouth acting as if they weren’t my own? I remember every black drop of blood upon my blade—putting my sword through my Ola.” He expelled her name with a choked gasp as he regarded me fiercely. “And through you, though somehow, mercifully, you lived. I am trapped within a dream from which I cannot wake, a nightmare of such ugliness that I not only wish I were dead, but that I’d never lived. But I never, ever did what you are saying.”
Clutching the key so hard the iron cut into my flesh, I tried to breathe against the tightness in my chest, misery and hatred threatening to overwhelm me. “You’re a monster. A monster or mad!”
To my horror, Kae began to laugh, a rough, ugly sound of bitter mockery. “My dear Nenny.” He spoke my childhood nickname with vitriol. “I am both. But I know full well what I’ve done and what I have not. Full well.” He stepped back and slammed the door.
“Then who did?” I flew at the door and pounded on it in fury before locking it with a jerk and turning to lean against it. Angry tears scored my cheeks. I’d avoided any contact with Kae, avoided saying any of the things that had just erupted from me, knowing it would only make me feel worse. As it had.
Lively stared at me, holding her stomach as if I were the one who might cut out her baby. “I’m sorry.”
“Just give me the damned spell.”
The magical objects were contained in a muslin bag inside a small silk pouch, sewn shut by Lively with a few expert stitches. The red pouch, fragrant and aromatic, went under my pillow while I whispered three times as Lively instructed: “I shall see Ola in the Nightworld and she shall see me. There shall be no barrier between us.”
When I slept, it seemed I didn’t dream at all, yet I was aware of sleeping and time passing, as if I waited in the wings between dreams, an intermission between acts. I wondered if I’d done something wrong, or if Lively wasn’t the apothecary she claimed to be. And then in the empty space inside my head, I saw her: Ola. But not my child. I gasped and stumbled in the stuff of dreams, falling at her feet and looking up at her in disbelief. With my heart so full of joy and grief at once, I could do nothing but weep. My sister had come to me.
“Nazkia!” Her eyes were wide with astonishment. Ola took my hands to lift me up, solid, warm, and real.
I fell into her arms, clinging to her as if I could keep her if only I held tightly enough. Her dark honey curls were just as I remembered them, tumbling over one shoulder from a loose, upswept coiffure. We’d always prided ourselves on how the four of us looked a set. “Four heads of honey hair,” my father would say when we huddled together laughing. She was dressed as I’d last seen her, in a simple gold chiffon with an empire waist to accommodate her belly…only there was no belly now. And no blood. Mercifully, no blood.
I looked up into my oldest sister’s deep blue eyes, full of tears as mine were. Though Maia and I, the “Little Pair,” had been closest in age and close companions, Ola had always been dearest to me. But I wanted them all. I wanted them with me. “You all left me. How could you leave me alone?”
“Nazkia, dearest.” She stroked my hair. “I told you to run. And I’m glad you ran. I couldn’t bear it if you’d suffered as the others did. You are our little light in Heaven, the proof we were there once and not forgotten.” Ola tucked my unruly curls behind my ears as if I were still the impish little girl who had to be looked after to make sure I was presentable. “And he couldn’t have borne one more death upon his hands. He couldn’t have come back from that. Not from you.”
I drew back and looked into her eyes, full of wistfulness and sorrow. “What are you saying, Ola? Who couldn’t have?”
She smiled sadly. “Kae, of course. My poor Kae.”
I stepped away. “How can you say that? How can you speak of him tenderly? He murdered you! He murdered his own wife. That was enough not to come back from!”
“He couldn’t see us, Nazkia. I don’t know what he saw, but there was something in his eyes. He was full of rage and fear—and madness. He wasn’t himself.”
“Not himself! What kind of an excuse is that for slaughtering your family? Not oneself is when you say an unkind word to the ones you love, not thrust a sword into them!”
“You know he was not himself.” She reproached me as if I were being impolite. “You must take care of him. He has no one else.”
“Ola!” I couldn’t respond, horrified that she grieved not for herself, or for me, but for the one who’d killed her.
She lifted my chin, again relegating me to the part of the willful child. Though Azel had been five years my junior, his status as heir and his poor health placed him in a different role within the family, and I had always remained the baby.
Ola held my gaze with hers, allowing no prevarication. “I was his sweetheart, Nazkia, but you were always closer. You were his dearest friend.”
I shook my head, unable to speak.
“Please, at least try to be kind to him. He’s lost everything.”
Like the child I’d been reduced to, I put my hands over my ears to shut her out. Ola looked back over her shoulder and it seemed dawn approached, a strange pinkish light bleeding across the ephemeral place in which we stood.
“I have to go, dear Nazkia.”
“No!” I clung to her hands. “Please don’t leave me again. Stay with me!”
“You know I can’t.” Her form grew less distinct as the light advanced. “Promise me you’ll at least try to do what I’ve asked. As long as Kae is heartbroken, I cannot rest. It hurts so to hear him weeping.” Her hands within mine now felt as formless as water.
“Oh, Ola.” I bit my lip and shook my head in defeat, unable to deny her anything. “I’ll try. But he doesn’t even own up to what he’s done.” My voice was bitter. “He denies that he butchered you, that he cut out his own child!”
Ola was fading. “Oh, Nazkia, no!” Her voice had become a distant echo. “It wasn’t him, it…”
“Ola, come back!” What was she saying? Who had done it if not him? She was gone, and I was only dreaming. I screamed her name and surged out of sleep to find Vasily’s warm body against mine, his arms holding me close.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “Hush.” He kissed the top of my head and I burst into tears.