EXCERPT FROM THE MIDNIGHT COURT
© 2012 Jane Kindred
She is the daughter of a demon, this child of mine. Her birthright as the last scion of the House of Arkhangel’sk ought to be the throne of Heaven, but we are Fallen now and live as demons in the world of Man. In this ice-bound Russian port, this land of sullen winters of perpetual dusk to balance months of midnight sun, we have found a home with the demons who once sought ransom for my life.
I was a fool to think it could last forever.
On the eve of Ivan Kupala, the tranquility of our dacha at Arkhangel’sk began to crumble like brittle autumn leaves. Amid the bonfires of midsummer, a more malicious blaze was kindling. I took it at first for the glint of wishing candles winking in the brief twilight between one northern summer day and the next. It was on such a night I had first met the creatures who called themselves syla, the dainty wood spirits who came to me when I thought I might die of misery after my family fell to my cousin’s sword. The company of my demon protectors was little comfort to me then.
Despite the occasional flickering glow that danced like fireflies in the trees beyond, the garden this evening remained still and empty. I pressed my lips to my daughter’s sun-kissed head. The syla were not to grace us tonight.
As I lifted Ola, heavy with sleep, something flitted on the periphery of my vision. The flat, silvery leaves of the birches moved like the scales of a serpent in a wave across the yard. It wasn’t the nature of the syla I had seen before, yet there was no wind that could have caused it.
Straining to see, I stepped toward the rippling leaves. The wave flowed onward past the gate, moving swiftly and now touched with flame. Ola remained asleep against my shoulder while I ran barefoot along the path of crushed flowers. Outside the gate, a figure poised for a moment, spun away from me, and was gone.
I called out for her to wait. The lone syla winked into the waning light for an instant and once more vanished, but not before I saw her look of anguish. A wind-devil picked up the leaves at my feet. I ran after it as quickly as I could, and followed the fluttering leaves into a bower of thicket. Branches scored my calves beneath the short pants Belphagor called pedal pushers—so much more suitable for mischief than the corsets and gowns I’d worn as a grand duchess in Heaven—as I climbed through into the little hollow among the trees. I paused to catch my breath while the leaves settled to the ground.
The wind wailed through the trees around us like a woman in pain. Then I saw as clearly as Ola in my arms a naked woman with dark hair whipping about her face as if lifted by heated air. She burned from the center of her body outward until all of her had been engulfed in flames. I watched in horror as the vision disintegrated into bits of red-rimmed ash that blew away on the wind like remnants of burning paper.
Another woman’s face appeared within the trees, half formed of leaves and burned away on one side. “The flower.” She gasped out the words. “The queen shall take—” And then she, too, disintegrated.
I held Ola to me and reached out with one hand, as if I could stop whatever terrible thing was happening. Another voice whispered on the wind. I couldn’t make it out, until I heard one word clearly: Seraphim. I turned in a swift circle, afraid the Seraphim who’d pursued me when I’d first fled Heaven had found us once more. But there was no radiating heat or burning, white-hot light.
Ola woke and began to cry. The wind had stilled and there were no more rustling leaves, no half-heard voices. I tried to soothe her, bouncing her on my hip as I climbed back out of the bower. Under the pale blue light that marked summer’s darkest hour, we made our way through the thicket until I stumbled over something on the path near the gate. A pile of leaves seemed to cover a charred tree limb. When I set Ola down beside me, I saw the limb move.
Afraid it was a snake, I snatched Ola up again, but a moan from within the leaves gave me pause. I brushed them aside. Beneath lay one of the syla, pieces of her red tatting dress burned away across her torso, and below that—I pulled Ola’s head into my bosom so she wouldn’t see.
The syla was barely alive. Her shallow breaths seemed little more than the random sounds of the forest, but she opened her eyes and reached for me.
I took her hand, tears obstructing my vision. “What’s happened?”
“The queen.” Her voice was tight with pain. “She knows.”
The words sent a chill up my spine, along with a spark of anger. So Aeval had survived. She called herself the queen of Heaven, but the woman who’d turned my cousin’s head and put him in her thrall was the former queen of the Unseen World. I’d wounded her in my escape from Elysium, and while it may have been naïve to hope the wound was fatal, in a year, we’d heard nothing from Heaven. With each passing day of celestial silence, I’d let myself believe we were safe.
“She knows what? What has she done to you?”
“The flower. The Seraphim punish…” Her breath caught and she twisted in the leaves.
“She knows I had it,” I said.
The syla had enraged their former queen by withholding the coveted flower of the fern—and its attendant power—for more than a century before giving it to me.
“The fiery ones want secret but we do not tell.” She clutched my hand against a wave of pain etched on her delicate features. “They take us one by one. Each syla feels others.”
Shocked tears spilled over my cheeks as I realized what she meant. In the earthly realm, the touch of the Seraphim burned away flesh. From the pattern of her burns, and from the way the others had disintegrated, it was clear where the Seraphim had touched.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. It was foolishly inadequate.
She shook her head. “Syla fail Fallen Queen.”
“No.” I was adamant. “You haven’t failed me; I’ve failed you. This is my fault. If I hadn’t lost the flower—”
“This the syla do not tell. We tell only what we see.” She closed her eyes and was quiet a moment, and I was afraid she was gone before she took another labored breath. “We see Little Queen. Little Queen shall take the flower of the fern.” It was their name for Ola, and they’d seen that she’d take the flower back someday.
The syla’s eyes opened once more, focused on me with sorrow and shame. “We tell what we see.” Her hand slipped from mine and she stared sightlessly into the cerulean light.
Ola fussed, unhappy with how tightly I was holding her. I tried to cover the syla’s body once more, but each leaf that touched her seemed to consume her form, and soon I could no longer see its shape.
When I lifted Ola and straightened, I wasn’t alone. Inside the gate, with chestnut eyes wide and her mouth half open, stood Ola’s young nanny, the gypsy who called herself Love.
Love didn’t believe in the unseen. We had engaged her as both a nanny and an agent of intelligence, for despite her skepticism, she had her finger on the pulse of the gypsies’ underground network in a way no demon could ever hope to. Love used the technology of the world of Man to monitor communications from faraway ports I couldn’t even pronounce, aware almost instantly when credible talk of celestials surfaced. How she managed to sift the credible from the profoundly absurd so abundant in what I’d seen on the glass of her devices, I couldn’t guess—particularly since she thought it all an elaborate game.
“You saw the syla?”
“The what?” Love shook her head as if she thought she might be dreaming. “Why are you outside with the baby at this hour?” She came through the gate and took Ola brusquely from my arms as if I were a naughty child, though Love and I were close in age and she was not yet twenty. Ola wrapped her sleepy arms around Love’s neck. “What were you doing with the leaves?”
“Burying the syla. You saw her.” I turned back, but there was nothing left where the body had been.
“Burying the force?” She translated the Russian word into angelic. Though she didn’t believe in Heaven, she’d humored us in the year she’d spent with us by learning what she called our “code language.”
“No, the syla.” I reached in vain within my knowledge of the language. My grasp of the local tongue would never be quite as good as that of my companions Belphagor and Vasily, who had many more years’ practice in its usage; I could understand it far better than I could speak it.
“Spirit,” I said. It was the closest angelic word I could come up with, but it was inadequate. Though spirit in angelic did mean force in some sense, neither term did the syla justice. I tried the Russian word for the spirit-creatures of the stories in my little brother Azel’s favorite books. “Feya.”
Love regarded me doubtfully. “You buried a fairy.”
It was close enough. “She died. You must have seen her.”
Love turned toward the dacha with a yawning Ola. “The night sun can make you see strange things, Nazkia. You should get some sleep.”
I was tempted to show her some strange things, to release my wings and display the radiance of my cardinal element—towering pennons of water that moved like living crystal. It was, as Belphagor had referred to it once, the terrestrial magic for which the Fallen fell, unavailable to us in the rarefied air of Heaven.
Instead, I made a face at her back like a child.
As we headed in, there was no further sign of the syla. They seemed to materialize from the trees, but I had never known where their true realm lay. Wherever the Seraphim had waylaid them, it wasn’t here. The brilliance of seraphic radiance couldn’t be missed.
Though it was barely an hour past midnight, dawn was already creeping toward the horizon. I paused in the kitchen for a cup of tea while Love took Ola up to bed, the ruby highlights in my daughter’s hair touched off by the unearthly light as they climbed the stairs. She had the honeyed curls of the House of Arkhangel’sk, kissed with the color of fire from her father, with his intense eyes. Fire or water—we had yet to see whose element she would favor. I had never known anyone who had mixed them, though of course the Fallen must do it all the time.
That the dominant element of a demon might be from any one of the four celestial choirs was a testament to the mixing of blood that marked their peasant origins. As an airspirit, Belphagor must have had a First Choir angel—a Splendor, perhaps, or an Ardor, or even an Aeon—far back in his ancestral line. It seemed nearly as inconceivable to me as the Second Choir ancestor who must have once mixed Vasily’s firespirit blood. I shuddered at the thought of being touched intimately by a being of pure, elemental fire. Within the air of Heaven, the Seraphim’s fire was merely an intensely radiating heat, but even standing close to one could be uncomfortable.
Generations removed from those origins, Vasily could temper the heat of his body in ways I’d never imagined. I had certainly never imagined I would relinquish my angelic virtue to a demon of fire, though no one had been more surprised than he when I’d climbed into his bed. Though our opposing elements came together in an unexpected spark of potent radiance, the most astonishing effect of that union had been Ola.
The wooden stairs creaked. I looked up to see Vasily descending, dressed in the white ribbed undershirt and boxers he slept in no matter the time of year. He yawned and rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath the black wire frames of his spectacles, a gesture very like his daughter’s when she was awakened after a few hours’ sleep. I smiled as I turned away from the samovar and stirred sugar into my tea.
With the build and demeanor of a Cossack warrior, he did his best to look fierce. Long, tangled locks in the color of burning embers made him even more imposing—as did the rows of sharp metal bars decorating the flesh on both sides of his neck. But beneath his rough exterior, he had a tender heart, and as Ola grew, I saw more of her in him than I saw of him in her.
“I just heard Love putting the baby to bed.” His rough voice always sounded as if he’d smoked one cigarette too many. He padded down the stairs, his footsteps muffled by the ever-present tapochki, the slippers we wore indoors. “Were you out in the garden at this hour?”
I lowered my head over my cup, wondering what I should tell him. The syla were my secret. But they were in danger, and it was I who’d put them there. “It’s Tvorila Night. Ivan Kupala tomorrow.”
“Ah, your midnight tradition.” He poured himself a cup of tea. “But where’s your garland crown? Didn’t you make one this year?”
I set my cup aside and considered the answer. I had guarded my secret jealously, as if telling it might take this special thing away, and I had lost much. But this was no longer my confidence to keep. “I don’t make them, Vasily.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re given to me.”
He scratched at the rusty sideburns that lined his jaw. “Given to you? By whom?”
I braced myself for ridicule or disapproval. “By…spirits.”
Vasily stopped with his cup raised halfway to his mouth.
“When I ran off into the woods in Novgorod that first Ivan Kupala, I didn’t just get lost. I lied to you.”
His hazel eyes grew shadowed, but he waited for me to go on.
“The spirits—the syla—they led me to their grove.”
“They said they belonged to the Unseen World.” I hesitated. The rest would sound absurd. “They bowed to me and said I was the Fallen Queen they’d been waiting for, and I must take the flower of the fern.”
“The flower of the fern.” Vasily reached behind me to spoon more sugar into his tea, his face guarded, as if he thought the blow I’d suffered from a falling branch that night two years ago had damaged my brain. “And why would these Unseen spirits want you to have a mythical flower?”
“You don’t believe me.”
He lowered his eyes as he sipped his tea. “I’m trying to believe you, Nazkia. I can’t imagine why you’d make this up.”
“I am not making it up. I met them first at the Winter Palace. The one in St. Petersburg, I mean, not the one in Elysium. But they were invisible there. When I found them in Novgorod, they told me they’d manipulated things to bring us to where I could see them.”
Vasily set down his tea and leaned back against the counter. “Wait. When were you at the Winter Palace?”
“When I got lost—actually lost, that time in St. Petersburg after we first fell.” I bit my lip when I remembered where he’d been while I was wandering through the empty museum so like the home in which I’d spent my celestial childhood. “The day the Seraphim caught you.”
Vasily pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose in an unconscious gesture. His poor eyesight, the only thing the unexpected blending of our elements had been unable to fully heal, was a reminder of the pain he’d suffered at the hands of the Seraphim to keep me safe.
“All right, so let’s say I believe these syla brought us to Novgorod to give you this flower. Why did they want you to have it?”
“They said it would protect me when I returned to Heaven. They’d hidden it from the queen who abandoned them, and she was looking for me.” I paused. “They’d hidden it from Aeval.”
He quivered with tightly controlled fury at the mere mention of her name, the shadows in his eyes now red with his element, like a furnace burning deep within. “Aeval? You’re telling me the queen of Heaven isn’t even a celestial?”
I cringed at his tone, though I knew his anger wasn’t really at me. “Apparently she lied, too.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this before? Why didn’t you tell Belphagor?”
“I wanted to protect the syla.” Though having something that was mine alone was closer to the truth. I choked on the next words. “And I failed.”
The flame of his fury went out in an instant. He pushed away from the counter and took me in his arms. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
As always, an involuntary shiver of need went through me at his touch. I whispered against his chest. “The Seraphim—they attacked them. The syla were burning and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
He knew better than I did what it was to be touched by a Seraph within the earthly plane. He’d survived their attack only because of the peculiar spark of our combined elements. Some of it danced over our skin even now, a miniature aurora of pale violet.
“She survived,” I said. “Aeval’s alive, and she knows I took the flower. She’s sent the Seraphim to punish them.”
“Seraphim?” Belphagor’s voice, sharp with tension, came from the stairway.
Jumping at the sound as if he’d touched a live wire, Vasily let go of me.
Belphagor ran a hand through his dark hair as he came downstairs, the tattooed bands and crosses on his fingers blending with the spiked tips. “You saw them?”
I put my hands in my pockets, self-conscious in the face of Vasily’s discomfort. “No, but I saw what they’d done. It must have happened somewhere else.”
Belphagor raised an eyebrow, the steel bar that decorated it glinting in the early-morning light. “I suppose that answers the question of whether Aeval’s still queen.”
Vasily kept his head down, concentrating on his tea. “Was it really in doubt? Surely we’d have heard something if power had changed hands in Heaven.”
“I would have thought we’d hear something—anything—even if it hadn’t. The quiet is a little unnerving.” Belphagor descended the last few steps, his stature changing the physical dynamic between the two demons, but not the emotional.
Vasily’s ruddy complexion turned ruddier as Belphagor wrapped a hand around the taller demon’s neck and pulled his head down for a kiss.
Though I’d borne Vasily’s child, he had been Belphagor’s paramour since long before we met. After the initial surprise at learning his lover had fathered a child in his absence, Belphagor had given Vasily his blessing to maintain a physical relationship with me. Despite his assurances, however, it had been months since Vasily had touched me. He was riddled with guilt—while Vasily had kept me warm through a subarctic winter, Belphagor had been a slave to the queen’s basest whims, and in the end, her whim had been to let my cousin Kae beat him almost to death.
But Vasily had come to save his love—and he hadn’t come alone. A small army of Fallen had assembled for Belphagor’s aid. It was the Code of Thieves. The vory v zakone of the terrestrial demon community looked out for their own.
Belphagor held Vasily’s gaze for a moment, hand gripped tightly around his neck, before letting him pull away. Though Vasily surpassed him in height and sheer bulk, there was no question who dominated their relationship—and that Vasily liked it that way. The look that passed between them as they parted spoke of all they seemed unable to say. As far as I knew, Belphagor had never told him what he’d done in service to Aeval, though Vasily, I think, had guessed at its nature.
When the three of us sat at the table with our tea, Vasily made a point of keeping space between himself and me. Though I’d never made any claim on his affections, he seemed as reticent to be demonstrative with Belphagor in my presence as he was to be seen touching me in Belphagor’s. I worried about what effect this conflict in his head was having on their relationship. I’d neither seen nor heard any signs of their intimate relations since Belphagor’s recovery, and they were not the sort to do things discreetly, no matter how much they imagined themselves to be.
Love’s arrival dispelled the awkward silence. “I guess everybody’s up.” Her soft voice was almost scolding. She grabbed some of Ola’s teething biscuits from the counter and nibbled on them as she joined us at the table. “It took me forever to get Ola calmed down enough to sleep.” Now she was definitely scolding. “And you’re drinking tea, Anazakia. It’s no wonder the baby can’t get to sleep.”
“She’s barely nursing anymore,” I said defensively, but I set down my cup with a twinge of guilt. Love came from a large family, and she knew far more than I’d ever imagined there was to know about the care of infants. She even insisted “the boys” give up smoking their cigars and cigarettes, though I occasionally found all three of them by the garden shed sharing a smoke as though it were an illicit drug.
Opening the portable computer she kept plugged in at the kitchen table, Love began clicking away in a manner that mystified the three of us. Belphagor was somewhat familiar with the device, but he said the “web” Love navigated effortlessly had been little more than a glimmer in someone’s eye the last time he’d fallen.
“Might as well check the chatter,” she said. “As long as everyone’s up.”
The three of us shared a round of guilty looks; the sitting room beside the kitchen was where Love slept.
“Chatter” was what she called the odd bits of information that came to her from various sources, often buried in what she called “clutter”—random messages on discussion forums and in virtual communities that seemed meant to mask the real communications of the underground. Sometimes she even found chatter in games.
“Wait,” said Love, as she always did when she found something of interest, as if the rest of us were on the verge of taking the computer from her to skip past whatever she’d found. As if we could. “There’s something from our old friend ‘possessed85.’” She glanced up at me. “He’s the Romani contact who helped us locate you and Bel.” Roma was the name she used for her people, though she spoke of the “gypsy underground,” just as Belphagor and Vasily did. “He’s sent me a PDF.” She ignored our blank looks. “Looks like a newspaper clipping or a pamphlet. The beginning is cut off. But I think it’s about you, Nazkia.”
“I recognize your name in here, but it’s in that ‘angelic’ script you’re all so fond of, so I can’t really make out much.”
Belphagor stood behind her and read from the screen: “‘Construction on the new wing of the palace—replacing the former Celestial Glory burned to the ground by the Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisonovna of the House of Arkhangel’sk in her fit of madness—to be completed in time for Her Supernal Majesty’s Grand Equinox Gala.’” He gave me an apologetic look. “She really took to that story I made up for her.”
I shrugged, though it was still a sore spot. There was nothing to be done about it now, and he’d meant well. By suggesting I was mad, Belphagor had given Aeval an excuse to let me live. Of course, when fortune had placed me within her grasp, the queen had ordered my execution all the same.
“‘This tragic conflagration,’” he continued, “‘as Host and Fallen alike will sadly recall, took the lives of every worker who came to petition Her Supernal Majesty in the Palace Square that infamous morning. Her Supernal Highness the Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisonovna managed to poison her chambermaid—’”
“I did not!”
“‘—and escape from the comfortable seclusion in which Her Supernal Majesty had restrained her after her first fit of madness cost the Firmament its former principality and nearly every member of the supernal House of Arkhangel’sk.’”
While I seethed silently at this lie, Belphagor swallowed and went on.
“‘On that early summer morning, nearly a year to the day from her first attack, Her Supernal Highness summoned the strength only the mad possess and struck down every agent of the Palace Guard who did not perish in the fire. Her Supernal Majesty the queen narrowly escaped murder at the hand of the grand duchess now dubbed “Bloody Anazakia” by the citizens of the Firmament.’”
“Bloody Anazakia!” My face reddened with embarrassment and outrage. “And now I’m not only the murderer of my family, I’m responsible for the fire her own Seraphim started!”
“There’s more.” Belphagor’s expression was almost meek. “‘Her Supernal Majesty has set aside an official Day of Observance to commemorate the tragic events of the Solstice Conflagration, and to pay homage to the last legitimate heir of the House of Arkhangel’sk…’” He paused and reread this part. “‘The last legitimate heir of the House of Arkhangel’sk, His Supernal Majesty the Principality…Kae Lebesovich, who also perished in the fire.’”
It struck me like a physical blow, much harder than I’d expected. The Kae I knew had died on a winter’s day in the mountains of Aravoth when he’d fallen under Aeval’s enchantment, though no one had known it yet. He’d died to me for certain the night he put his sword through the bellies of my family, including the pregnant belly of his own wife, Ola’s namesake. But now he was forever lost.
Though I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, I’d been harboring a secret hope that somehow I could free him from the queen, that someday he’d return to himself, the beloved cousin of my youth. That hope had been consumed by fire a year ago, and though I’d feared it was likely, we’d heard nothing, and I’d allowed myself to hold on to a fantasy. To hear the truth with certainty was devastating.
I tried to keep the tears from falling. I had no right to mourn him. He had no right to be mourned. I rose and used the pretext of rinsing my teacup in the sink to hide my face.
Pushing back his chair with a jerk, Vasily growled low in his throat. “Tell me you’re not crying for that son of a succubus. You saw what he did to Bel. You were there.”
“Vasya,” Belphagor said gently. “Let it alone.”
“No, I will not let it alone!”
I squeezed my eyes shut and gripped the edge of the sink. A muffled thud followed, as if Vasily had shoved Belphagor away.
“He would have taken you from me. Another day—if I’d wasted one more day—you’d not have survived that filthy hole!”
“Moi malchik.” Belphagor whispered the private name he used for Vasily: my boy. I’d never heard him say it, had only read it once in a note I wasn’t meant to see. Love and pain and desire were captured in that single breath.
“Don’t you dare.” Vasily’s voice was huskier than normal. “You had no right to leave me. Not for her. Not for the odds, not for anything. You had no right to put yourself in that hole and nearly leave me forever.”
There was a moment of pregnant silence before Vasily went to the entryway, kicked off his tapochki as he grabbed his outdoor boots, and departed with a slam of the door that rattled the dacha. Upstairs, Ola began to cry, and Love jumped up out of habit.
“I’m her mother.” The protest came out more harshly than I’d intended.
She sat back down, chagrined, and I hurried up the stairs, glad not to have to look Belphagor in the eye. I took Ola to bed with me and nursed her back to sleep, more for my solace than her own, while I cried silently against the sunset gold of her Arkhangel’sk curls.
The cousin who’d killed everyone I loved had once been my best friend, so close that my sister Omeliea, to whom he’d been betrothed since childhood, had sometimes viewed our friendship with suspicion. But she’d never had anything to worry about. Kae had worshipped the ground she walked on—until the day he’d killed her.