Rhianon-7. Queen of Vinor

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Death and the Queen

Waking up, Rhianon was surprised that the town had not yet rung the alarm bell to warn people of the disaster. The words of the angel she met on the street last night were unequivocal. It would be time for the alarm bells to ring. However, the city outside the window was unusually quiet. Rhianon squinted at the bright daylight flooding her bedroom. She didn’t immediately notice the black birds flying outside the window. Crows again? Squinting sleepily, she peered out the window. From here she could see the peaked towers with their brass plating glistening in the sun, the spires of the town hall, and the cathedrals. And everywhere she could see the black specks of feathered creatures flying by. Whole flocks flew over the city.

«They were flying away,» the spirit whispered in her ear. He was awake, but at least he did not disturb her during the night. He must have been a bit gallant, after all, to let her sleep.

«I see,» she admitted that she didn’t feel like she’d slept much, but she couldn’t stay in bed any longer. If the agitated court was already seething against her, then it was time to pack up and disappear. As the instigator of an unwanted war, she could only find herself insulted in Vinor. That means there will be no visit from the angel of death in three days. Or rather, there will be, but to her. If she is denied support here, she does not care that the disease will consume the city. Let herself be. Rhianon felt no pangs of conscience as she prepared to go.

Someone had left her beautiful new clothes. Examining the neatly folded bundles, Rhianon guessed that they were not the work of the king’s tailors, but a work of magical art. The spinsters had done their best. They may have been scheming, but they knew what they were doing. The night passed and they had already made for her a cloak framed with gold lace as thin as cobwebs, several luxurious outfits: green, blue and, to her displeasure, bright red. Though the latter was the prettiest, she wouldn’t dare wear it. And where is the camisole she had ordered. Right now it was far more important to her than dressy rags. Otherwise, how else could she leave the castle unnoticed unless she changed into a man? Under the three folds, Rhianon finally found the last one. The camisole, the shirt, the breeches, everything was in place. The black velvet blended gracefully with the intricate pattern of delicate white lace on the cuffs and collar. How beautiful and discreet. She had expected a brightly colored tunic, like all the courtiers’ dandies. The black and white tones reminded her of something.

Rhianon remembered, and almost let the garment out of her hands. It was the uniform of a student of the School of Witchcraft — black velvet and white lace, with witchcraft symbols skillfully woven into the pattern. Rhianon already recognized them in the intricate ligature. No, she would never wear this. Otherwise, the effect might be unpredictable. She would be bewitched, driven mad, dragged into a cursed place.

«Don’t be silly,» the spirit reassured her. «This will protect you.»

Little did she believe it, and yet the black velvet felt so lovely to the touch.

What better to wear her atypical red dress or this costume» Rhianon thought briefly. The camisole fit her like a glove.

«You didn’t seem pregnant at all,» the soft voice whispered.

Frankly, she didn’t know what was supposed to be happening to her. Her waist was still thin, even thinner than before. The tight clothing accentuated the boyish slimness. Rhianon glanced in the mirror; the simpler the outfit, the more dazzling her own beauty seemed.

There was one detail of her outfit that was missing. She lacked a hat that would hide her hair and make her look like a boy. And she would have needed a sword-band, or at least a short sword. What would a court dandy be without a richly instructed weapon? She didn’t feel like a court dandy. Strict and beautiful at the same time, the clothes were suitable only for a privileged and, of course, a chosen apprentice — a magician from the School of Witchcraft. Rhianon didn’t regret at all that she hadn’t stayed there. She wondered if Madael would have found her there. He might have. After all, everything to do with witchcraft applied to him in one way or another. He would have noticed her there and loved her.

She could have cut her hair, of course, but Rhianon didn’t dare. It was too thick and beautiful. It would probably grow back in just one night, but she wasn’t going to risk it.

She took one last look around the luxurious bedroom and grabbed the doorknob.

«Hey, where are you going, they’ll recognize you!» The spirit resented her, but Rhianon paid no attention. She only twisted her hair into a loose braid and threw it over her shoulder.

The castle really looked like a beehive. The maids scurried forward with trays, not even recognizing Rhianon. A page fell at her feet. Rhianon pushed the frightened heralds out of her way and went toward the throne room. She wondered what was being said. She had expected to hear the Councilors protesting the war they had contemplated, arguing against the foreign princess and her designs, but to her surprise the castle was full of entirely different rumors. Either the spinsters had miscalculated, or something far more frightening had happened. Rhianon could hear the anxious courtiers whispering in corridors and alcoves, but their suspicious conversations never mentioned war or the royal marriage with the witch-like tendencies of the new claimant to the throne. Rhianon listened. They spoke of death, but not about war.

She was uncomfortable standing near someone for a long time and eavesdropping on their conversation, but as it turned out she could distinguish the voices speaking even at a decent distance.

She could hear every conversation in town, let alone in the castle, if she wanted to. She just didn’t realize it right away. As soon as she singled some people out from the crowd, she could hear only their words, no matter how far away they were from her. It was even interesting. Thus she learned a great deal and involuntarily shuddered.

The courtiers were anxious and the servants were on the verge of panic. The servants had to go out into town, for example, to the market stalls or to meet the carriages, and disease was already rampant in the city.

«I presume it was the children who died first?» Rhianon turned to the spirit. She didn’t think he would answer, wasn’t even sure if he was there now, but the voice came back.

«And don’t think. Innocent people always die first… though if you look at the moment from your spouse’s point of view, that is, from heaven, you can see things differently and thus it turns out that there are no innocents. Everyone is guilty of something. For example, the fact that he came into the world.»

«Leave your comments,» she demanded.

«Well, I’d better stop talking, then.»

That’s what she’d wanted him to do more than anything, but not now.

«There are enough people here to keep you entertained,» he finally said.

«Wait! What is in the city?»

«Why don’t you listen and see for yourself,» he advised.

Rhianon listened. All the sounds of the city below came to her in one cacophony. But then, after a second, she began to distinguish between the various sources of sound. Here a carriage carrying barrels of wine rode along the sidewalk, there lace-makers and embroiderers pulled the thread, their fingers slipped quietly over the fabric, somewhere dogs barked as if they sensed the approach of death, spiders weaved webs on the walls of houses, priests read a prayer over the deceased, but not near the deathbed, but kept at a distance. They, too, are afraid of getting sick. How many people have died in the city already? Rhianon listened to the conversations of the people in the streets. According to them, quite a few were already out, and even more were sick. But if you count by the size of Vinor, the number wasn’t too frightening yet.

«It’s convenient to be here and hear them all,» the spirit whispered again. «You know how to do that, unlike me.»

«And you, unlike me, can see through walls,» she retorted, not even thinking much about whether he was joking or serious. No one in the crowded and homophobic hall noticed that she was talking to the emptiness over her shoulder.

«You had better be queen here, no one would dare argue that your inheritance should be returned. It’s always more pleasant to stand up for something that won’t go far from the family later than it is to stand up for an outsider’s property.»

«What are you talking about?» She involuntarily perked up, even stopped eavesdropping on the others’ conversations. The spirit alerted her. She had already guessed what he was going to say next and still she clenched her fists angrily.

«You see, if Loretta is to be considered a mere legacy of the local queen, not a nation of its own, then no one would be strong enough to refuse its conquest. In the meantime, you’re just a guest, and helping you, much less your country, is a moot point. Who wants to go to war over someone else’s land?»

What a flattering voice and what a mean one. If it belonged to a man of flesh and blood, Rhianon would fight.

«Loretta will never be a province,» she hissed. «My country will remain mine.»

«Yes, as it is yours now,» he taunted her.

The sting was very tangible.

«You’d better accept it, my dear, because you’ve already sacrificed your maidenhood, and you’ve had nothing to gain by it. No one’s made you a queen of evil spirits. Although, if I’m not mistaken, your lover promised it, and yet you’re still picking up the crumbs of what he should have given you in full. The situation is different here; not all men lie, and not every man is in such a free political position that he can lie to you. Ferdinand is bound because his subjects are flesh and blood. Even if he does not want to keep his oath, a whole staff of advisers will persuade him, and duty to the people will compel him. Every ruler wants to annex a piece of another country to his own. And here is such a tidbit as a whole kingdom… I wonder how the king of any other country wouldn’t want to get you as his heiress. And if he was already married himself, there would always be single relatives. In this case it would be Leon, whom you have fortunately already got rid of. With your dowry no one would just let you go.»

«Loretta is not just my dowry, it’s my kingdom and only I can rule it.»

«You will only rule your dreams if you don’t compromise.»

Now she was really angry. As painful as it was, he had hit the mark. It was impossible not to admit it, only she didn’t want to. Facing the truth was always too painful. Rhianon wanted to turn away from him and end the conversation, only she didn’t know whether he was behind her, at her shoulder, or right in front of her face. The voice sounded very close, and still it was impossible to ascertain exactly where the disembodied being was. She turned on her heels anyway, and suddenly noticed that one man had separated himself from the crowd and was standing watching her. A minute passed, and he still did not join any of the gossiping groups of courtiers. Apparently he was struck by the fact that a girl in a man’s suit was standing and talking to an empty space. He looked at her as if she were the only one in the room. Rhianon straightened up proudly and looked back. She must not show that he had caught her off guard. No display of consternation or embarrassment. That was what she had been taught at court when her father and the teachers he had hired were still alive. A princess must never lose her temper under any circumstances.

She tried to assess her opponent. It was no astrologer. Judging by the rich attire and gown he could be identified as a royal advisor. He was about to advise Ferdinand to send her out of the country.

Rhianon tensed inwardly.

«Yes, what are you worried about, there will soon be nothing left of the country if the disease spreads,» the spirit interjected again. He must have intended to ruin her, since he was always in the most inopportune situations, deliberately provoking her. Rhianon did not want to fail again. She pulled herself together and tried to address him only mentally, without opening her mouth.

«You were the one who urged me to stay in this country and to stay with Ferdinand. You were the one who told me to hold on to this country and Ferdinand.» She wondered.

«The dance of death has begun… but that doesn’t mean it can’t end at any moment. You have to learn to see the bright side of life. You’re in the mood for mourning, but there are still wedding bells ringing all around you.»

She thought his joke was ridiculous, which she told him just as mentally.

«It’s not a joke, dear,» he sulked. «I’m always serious, unlike you.»

«I can tell,» she hummed slightly, keeping her gaze on the man watching her. He tilted his head slightly in deference, catching her gaze as if she were already queen. Rhianon didn’t like that. It was as if he could see right through her and noticed something about her that wasn’t worth spoiling his relationship with her for now. Or he had already calculated the future and concluded that the new queen must be served. She’s not queen yet… unless the soothsayers had predicted otherwise.

Rhianon sighed in relief as the heralds blew their horns announcing the arrival of the king. Now she would be gone in the commotion and most likely she would never come back.

«Wait, how could it be?»

She could almost feel someone clawing at her shoulder, but his fingers were intangible, so they only glided over the fabric, barely touching it. And still her collar was crumpled. Rhianon reached out grudgingly to straighten it. If only she could have calculated that in the next few moments the royal procession would have stopped beside her. Naturally Ferdinand had no trouble recognizing her in any outfit. And of course he invited her back to take a seat on the throne dais next to him. He probably didn’t even notice how strangely she was dressed. Were it not for the turmoil that reigned around her, Rhianon would have felt rather ridiculous in her boyish attire. But now it was as if everything was in its place. The frightened people were whispering about something unbelievable. Their settled world was already upside down. Some said death was coming to the palace, others claimed to have seen it in the dark alleys of Vinor, still others prayed. Some didn’t want to believe it, some of the court poets were already sketching for poems, some ladies were fainting and being served snuff salt. Rhianon herself would have been dizzy if she had been laced up in a tight corset like the other ladies. The rumors flying around the hall were disturbing. She frowned, remembering the angel’s promise to wait three days until the city was almost deserted. From all the talk around her, the stranger who called himself death was scheduled to come today. The royal guards saw him outside the castle. All he did was touch people and they fell dead. Those he left alive carried his message. He would come to the court. There was nothing more the frightened people could report. Rhianon examined her own hand questioningly, the angel had also touched it, and more than once, but it was still alive. He could empty the city in one day. Why would he need three? Rhianon pondered tensely, and the people parted in advance, preparing a wide passageway for the guest who was not yet there. No one wanted to get in his way, much less feel his destructive touch. The time seemed to be approaching, and he was still not there.

Rhianon had no need to ask anyone about the news; she could hear everything. All she had to do was point out the right people in the room, and even when she turned away from them, she could easily pick up their dialogues. The distance of a hundred paces meant nothing to her. Sounds reached her ears easily, and it was easy to distinguish something in the cacophony.

That was how she knew what time the stranger named death had scheduled his visit. The hands of the large clock over the casement door were just now approaching that hour. The doors themselves were open. Guards with halberds stood in front of them, but even they tried to keep somehow unaccustomed to the side of the aisle. They used to stand closer together. Now it was as if the miasma of contagion had spread everywhere. Rhianon wondered if the ladies were fanning themselves in vain, trying to ward off the contagion. If it is there, it is already everywhere. Every well in the city that we have to draw drinking water from is contaminated. Even if the disease can’t get into the royal palace itself, it will be brought in with the food and drink. They say disease is the destiny of the poor, but if the city below dies out, there is no refuge from death in the castle on high ground either. It will come in time.

If the words of the angel are to be believed, then he chose to come now, not later. Rhianon waited with everyone else. Could it be that her demand had proved so important to him? She herself had not expected him to listen to her when she suggested it. So he had decided to change his plans after all. She wondered if it was for her or for something else.

Her heart began to beat a nervous beat. She wished the tension in the hall would subside. But no, there was only increased murmuring among the assembled crowd. Even the king’s presence did not seem to bother anyone. And Ferdinand himself was clearly not himself today. Was he worried, too? Rhianon looked up and noticed the beads of sweat on his forehead. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the open doors. Apparently today’s news was the first shattering of his life. There had never been a war, much less an epidemic, in his reign. And now a stranger called death, either a ghost or a powerful sorcerer, has decided to show up at the palace. What will he demand?

«Surely your soothsayers must have foretold that I am the cause of this epidemic?»

Ferdinand looked at her in confusion. Rhianon couldn’t quite put his finger on why he was so surprised. She asked the question without opening her mouth. She was too accustomed to making small talk with a spirit to think that it would be strange to do the same with a human. She was already feverishly considering how to justify herself, when suddenly the impossible happened. She heard footsteps behind the swinging door, but there was still no one in the doorway. Rhianon glanced around the room and was surprised to find that none of the motley crowd was wearing the garb of a astrologer.

«He told not to allow any of them in tonight,» said Ferdinand to her unspoken question.

«In that case I am grateful to him,» she answered in a low whisper. «I do not like sorcerers, trying to use the dark power.»

«And who loves them?» Ferdinand said.

«Then why do you tolerate them at court?» She asked. «Are you afraid of them?»

He shook his head negatively.

«I am afraid that one day I may need their help.»

«But they are powerless today.»

Rhianon was convinced she was right when she saw him enter the hall. He looked even more terrifying in the bright light than he had at night in the dark alley. He had seemed merely sinister to her then; now she might have choked with fear. Other ladies had already fainted at the sight of him, and in far greater numbers than before. Seeing him was far more frightening than hearing of him. Here and there frightened shrieks were heard, and men grasped useless weapons. Mortal hands rested on the hilted hilt and hilted sword, and he walked through the hall, immortal, but bearing death. Invulnerable to mere weapons or disease, but covered with sores himself. Even his handsome features looked frightening against such a backdrop. Rhianon would not have been surprised if people were not just dying at his touch, but decomposing alive. She followed his every movement with her eyes. He walked so smoothly, as if he were floating above the marble floor. A gray coat was developing around his body, but the angel’s grace made the rough canvas look better than the most expensive garment. He would wear the badge of shame with majesty, too. He was so graceful, so beautiful and so powerful.

«And I am the bringer of death,» he added with one lip as he approached the throne. He glanced at Rhianon, and his face suddenly turned into a smile that was predatory, full of meaning and seductive at the same time. Had he dreamed of seducing her or to kill her? She looked at him closely, and no one else around her noticed. The frightened people in the hall seemed to have vanished. Rhianon sat upright on her throne. The golden armrests slid beneath her fingers. If it hadn’t been for a spirit behind her, clutching at her shoulders, she would have run toward him.

«Stop, you’ll ruin yourself!» He whispered fervently, nestling into her very ear. His hot breath burned her lobe. Do spirits have breath? Or does he feed on her energy and soon burst into flames himself? What difference did it make to her? She’d rather he left her alone. All Rhianon saw before her was the angel of death. Even if he wore a gray turban and didn’t even want to show his wings to others, or maybe he just couldn’t, even if his tender moon-shimmering skin was pierced with deep sores, even if he carried death and destruction. She no longer cares. After all, he looked so much like her Madael. She looked at him and wanted to see another. Obviously, the angel noticed this, and the smile slowly came off his lips. It was as if she saw a shooting star, and the angel’s features became calm. There was no more of the lover’s teasing smile, only a stern look from under his pitted eyelids, and worms crawling across her tightly closed lips. Words were expected of him, but he said nothing. He only looked at Rhianon, so intently and attentively that the eyes of everyone gathered also turned involuntarily to her.

Ferdinand was the first to pull together. No one had any doubts about who the terrible guest was. But the king had the courage to affirm the obvious.

«Then you are death.»

He didn’t even nod. Moreover, he had no reason to turn on the speaker. Rhianon thought for a moment that his pale lips were curled back into a sneer.

A low, weighty sound echoed through the hall:

«Yes, I am.»

But no one saw the angel speak. How unshakeable he is, after all. Like a statue! Rhianon kept her eyes fixed on him. Sores had built up around his whites under his eyelids, but inside his pupils she could see two slivers of azure sky. True, it was slightly tinged with grayness.

«Do you love me?» She asked mentally. «Would you be willing to stand under my banner?»

She knew she was shocking him and herself with her impertinence. If he became angry, the consequences would be unpredictable. He could do what he wanted to the city, and to her. And it didn’t matter that she wasn’t quite mortal anymore. He could think of something to punish her for such liberties. She thought herself superior to Dennitsa, superior to his former commander, his brother-in-arms and his idol.

«Do you love me more than him?»

So the unspoken words hung over the hall like a golden cloud. The angel’s face was impenetrable. Rhianon was already preparing for the worst, when suddenly the words came to her, addressed this time to everyone.

«I won’t touch this city again.»

«Because of you,» she was the only one to hear.

Rhianon sighed, expecting to fill her lungs with the black miasma of sickness, but the air was fresh. She noticed the admiration that flashed in his eyes for a moment. The golden curls streaming from beneath his gray hood seemed almost white. His eyebrows and eyelashes were silver in the bright daylight, and he himself would have seemed almost translucent had it not been for the ulcers in his shimmering skin. For one more moment he looked at her. Just a moment, but sometimes one look meant more than a physical connection. If they had been in the same bed together, she would not have felt closer to him than she did now. He truly admired her, far more than an ordinary mortal queen, even more than the one who had once long ago led him into that first heavenly battle.

Rhianon wanted to say something, or at least address him mentally with words of appreciation, but her lips would not listen. Consciousness, too, seemed for a moment to be shackled. But the angel was in control of himself. He knew he had to go. There was a moment of perfect understanding between them, and then he suddenly put his ulcerous hand to his chest, to the very place where people’s hearts beat. But he had no heart, only a lump of worms, not muscle. Rhianon shuddered at the thought of what his chest might be filled with. What did he want to show her with it? Could he feel toward her what Madael felt? The leper’s hand froze motionless at her heart, and then the angel slowly bowed to her. It was to her, not to the king. Rhianon clutched at the armrests of the throne. She watched as the majestic gray figure bowed before her, the bumps of hidden wings curving on his back, the silky curls sliding downward peeking out from beneath the hood. How angels are like girls after all, for all their masculinity. Rhianon was captivated by the combination. Everyone in the room shuddered with fear, while she watched with admiration how beautifully the long angelic lashes curved over the festering skin, how proportionate and regular the firm lines of the lips, how exquisitely the long girlish strands slid over the flat man’s chest. He is an angel, as is Madael, beyond a doubt. He would be as handsome as Madael if it were not for his imperfections. Na could have been with him, as she was with Madeel, if it had been safe. But she was a little afraid of his sores and despised herself for her fear. She must have caught her slight squeamishness, so he hurried away. His bow, however, will long be remembered by all.

His footsteps were still in the darkened doorway, and there was already an astonished and enthusiastic whisper in the hall.

«It was death itself — death bowed to the queen.»

Rhianon listened to this in half an ear. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in what was being said, but she was much more fascinated by other things. She wanted to catch the faint sound of his wings and the unimportant words in the distance:

«If you need me, just call.»

Would he keep his promise? Grave worms crawled across the floor where he stood. They died before they could crawl an inch or two, and if he’d wanted them to, they would have crawled into every inch of the throne room. Rhianon waited in vain for another sign from him, another confirmation of his promise. Instead, the spirit’s unsolicited words came to mind: dear, not all men give up their vows so easily. Yes, not all men do. She looked reluctantly at Ferdinand. The gossip that death had bowed to the queen was no longer too preoccupying. She was glad to hear that she was already being called queen.

«So you must be queen after all,» the spirit whispered playfully behind her back. Rhianon ignored his remark and smiled smugly. Perhaps someday she would be able to control him as well, but for now it was time to think about the great things. Was Vinor really better than Loretta? Could she replace one with the other? Queen of Vinor! However, one kingdom is not enough. It would be much more convenient to become queen of Vinor and have Loretta for that as well. She was quite willing to do that.

Queen of Vinor

«I sense something is not right,» Arnaud looked out to sea. He could hear the voices of the faeries in the sound of the surf. They merged with the melody of his harp and almost overlapped it. But the strings still twitched softly, as if they were the strings of his soul. He no longer had a soul, only a body. And that was almost immortal.

He glanced at Madael, leaning indifferently on his sword. The Angel stared blankly at the bloodied blade, and it was unclear which was more coldly glistening, the polished steel, or his blue eyes. Not long ago they had been blue. At the sight of them, Arnaud sighed involuntarily. His master was changing. And it was not for the better.

«He has become even more soulless than then in the war in heaven,» his conscience whispered to him, as well as his soul deeply buried between the harp strings, but Arnaud brushed the intrusive voices aside. He had long ago grown accustomed to ignore them.

The lord’s eyes, after all, are even more suited to the cold color of steel than the blue of the sky. The blade of his sword, by the way, quickly absorbed the blood he’d spilled and turned as blue as his eyes. He’d spilled a lot of blood today, but the sword needed more. It was forged that way. His blade was eternally hungry for blood, for bloodshed. An ocean of blood could be spilled, and it would not rest. As long as there was a shred of flesh on earth, it would seek it out to slay it. The devil’s weapon is indestructible, and only his strong arm can restrain such a sword. Madael, playing with it, handled it, and another angel would not have been able to. And after that, isn’t he the strongest. Arnaud looked almost with admiration at the winged figure in the purple cloak. For a moment he even forgot that his master was also his rival. Only he didn’t know it himself. He has no idea. He’s too self-assured to see that some insignificant insect has a claim on his property.

Except now someone else was claiming it. Arnaud bit his lips bloody in excitement. He could feel it. And he was panicking. It was as if his heart was being ripped out of him, though there was none left in his chest. The trickle of blood running down his lips suddenly became a living worm, which he swept away and crushed.

Though the harp strings were almost silenced, his conscience still pricked him. He should have been grateful to fate. The lowly degenerate had become a servant of the highest lord there could be. He enjoyed serving Madael. Of course, over the days and especially the nights, he had seen many disgusting scenes. Wars, massacres, attacks, the dismemberment of corpses, and the bloody feasts that followed… It would have turned the stomach of a mortal being inside out by now. But Arnaud felt nothing but stony emptiness inside his body. Perhaps there was nothing left inside him. The ritual he had performed was intended to do just that. Only this time the consequences were unexpected. He was changing, but not the way he should have. The change in him would have startled everyone but Madael. He was, as always, terrifyingly calm and completely unconcerned. He had nothing to be sorry about. He had already lost everything.

Arnaud looked at him, and then squinted painfully. It felt as if he was looking at the melting sun from a short distance away. His eyes were about to melt from the sight, too. But perhaps it would be worth it. His new master was incredibly, indescribably handsome. You could fall in love with him, even knowing who he was. Only Arnaud didn’t have to worry about himself. He could not fear that feeling for the fallen angel would enslave him. It was just that he knew the counterpart… a copy of the devil lived in the mortal world. And unless he was wrong, she was going to marry a mortal king.

«She betrayed,» Arnaud’s own voice seemed foreign and distant. Even the sound of the surf was closer to his throat than those words.

Madael turned toward him, brushed a disobedient strand from his face with his thin fingers. In an instant, more bloody scenes flashed across his eyes than Arnaud had seen in all the nights they’d been together on the battlefields. The angel was marching forward with his sword, leading companies of demons to carnage, while the wretched Harper was crouching behind him, thanking fate that his body was immune to spears and arrows. Otherwise he himself would already be dead and animated by magic to serve the fallen. That was roughly what had happened to him, by the way, but he preferred not to remember much about the ritual. He just remembered that it had hurt. And it was better to forget about the spell cast over the cup after the ritual. Otherwise, the lord would see through his mind and know what was going on. Then there would be no escape for him. Arnaud shuddered, hearing the clear voice of an angel. It cut his ears like the blade of a sword.

«How do you know?»

He felt like a fool. He’s just a lowly follower, and before him is Dennitsa himself. Angel is omniscient. He’s no one to teach him. Still, Arnaud muttered weakly in his defense.

«I feel…»

Madael’s quiet chuckle was like a peal of thunder. It was the sound of the echo that startled goblins into their dens, the clang of gold as it swept through dragon caves. The angel himself was suddenly in darkness, covered in golden light. This heartbreak… Arnaud shrank. He suddenly felt unbearably cold in his master’s presence, more than if he had plunged headlong into the icy waves.

«Feelings don’t matter,» the angel turned away from him quickly. «Try to forget everything.»

«But I see her,» Arnaud himself did not know why he was pushing, but there was one vision that kept haunting him. Rhianon is walking on a solemn carpet sprinkled with myrtle beneath the nave of the cathedral where kings are crowned. She must not enter it. She is his master’s chosen one. She would stain herself and him if she did so. He wanted to shout this to her, as if from this distance she could hear him. Only it seemed to him that he was no longer here, but there, sitting on the crossbar under the nave and watching the ceremony from above. He should shout to her, but his tongue would not obey. There is no more blood in his veins and no more ligaments in his throat to speak. For the young queen, he is mute. Who needs a mute minstrel?

«Do you see her? Do you?» Madael suddenly looked at him intently.

Arnaud nodded uneasily. He did see. She was wearing an ermine robe and a golden crown. Her gown was made by mortal tailors, she was led by the hand of a mortal king. Her path is strewn with lilies, and the lilies begin to bleed. He saw everything so clearly, as if he were right there with her. Even more, he became one with her. It was a consequence of the spell. The side effect might well have been. He had counted on this effect and yet now it came as a shock to him. He had failed to bewitch the demon lover and now he would have to look at the world through her eyes forever. It is not he who has rounded her up, but he himself has become part of her being. There, seated on the throne of the new realm, Rhianon had enslaved him without her knowing it, and here on the rocky, cold shore the angel looked at him with a look of such fury that it made the blood run cold.

Arnaud glanced down at the glittering sword. Even after his recent bat, it still demanded blood. Where the master’s hand would guide it now?

«I… I can’t watch her right now,» he murmured apologetically. «Sometimes I feel like I’m dissolving into her. I didn’t mean to, but…»

He took the precautionary step back, but slipped and almost fell.

«So you did it after all,» Madael said, a split second, and he was pinned against the rock. The sword’s thin, cold blade brushed against the back of his exposed neck, its collar and tresses seeming to part on their own to make way for the steel. For all its coldness it burned, sending tingling sparks down his spine from neck to vertebrae.

«I could kill you,» Madael whispered, «you are immortal now, but I could destroy you. With a flick of my hand, your head would be separate from your body, burning eternally in one of my cauldrons below, and I would let the crows peck out your eyes. It was they who seduced you when you first saw a worthy woman’s camp and started chanting charms. You have nothing to offer a woman, only deceptions left. You put a veil over the victim’s eyes and she starts me in you? All spells work the same way. I begin to shine in someone else and seduce on his behalf. That’s when the process of seduction is irreversible. Only with Rhianon this trick won’t work, because she already knows me.»

«I…» Arnaud moved to loosen his grip, but the angel gripped him like a vice.

«Shut up,» Madael pressed his head against the rocky surface with one hand, exposing his neck even more. He pressed the blade slightly, letting the dark blood drain down. Blood poisoned by the ritual. It made the stunted grass beneath it rot more, and even the rocky surface grew moldy, its insects with hellish faces swarming over the surface.

«You’re not dead, but you’re not alive either, just a creature that has no place in life or death anymore. You wanted to be that. It was better to remain an outcast in both worlds than one who exists forever, who does not live. It’s a torment, isn’t it, Arnaud, to exist like that? And what if now you have to exist without eyes? Or without the right hand you used to strike at the ritual? Would you be able to play with one left hand or blindly?»

There was no mocking tone in his beautiful, smooth voice. He was terrifyingly calm. Arnaud sobbed and the strings of his harp echoed softly, as if they felt no danger.

Madael loosened his grip and squinted at the instrument. «You know, they say the voices of the celestials are born in the music that comes from the war, and they no longer exist. But I recognize their singing sometimes. If I spare you, it is for your skill, but not for your own.»

«Yes… my lord,» he felt his grip loosen, and was relieved to sing a hymn to Satan. My lord, my lord, my sovereign… He had so many flattering appellations, and with them all one unchangeable Mastema. But all these meanings coalesced in him.

Arnaud had barely had time to sigh when his strong fingers closed around his wrists, sniping and burning the skin. That’s what the game of cat and mouse was all about. Now he would forever feel pinned against the wall, even when they let him go for a moment.

«Remember,» Madael leaned so low over him that Arnaud could feel his fiery breath. One golden curl snaked down his cheek, Madael’s hair was soft, softer than silk, but it almost scratched him now. Not even a cat’s claws or a hot wire could bring his skin to such irritation. The angel’s whisper was also fiery.

«Just one step toward Rhianon, and even my troops wouldn’t envy your fate. Do you understand?»

«Yes, my lord.»

Madael released him, but Arnaud could still feel his grip on his wrists. Even in shackles or on the rack he would feel more comfortable. His soul was gloomy, and his harp began to play something cheerful as if out of spite. Arnaud thought that Madael would stop it with one look for disrespecting the sovereign of all the damned and his fury, but he merely stepped aside, not even looking at the twitching strings.

Rhianon tried on the diamond jewelry. Which would go better with the dress?

«It looked like tears…»

The voice of the spirit might not have told her that. She saw for herself, so she merely nodded. Her interlocutor, after a moment, was himself disappointedly silent. And it was good. She didn’t feel like talking to him today.

She rummaged through the contents of the boxes herself, without the help of her ladies. She had good taste, and the trinkets the court jewelers had made especially for her were not bad either, but today she noticed that the glittering diamonds looked like tears. Were they tears of fairies? Rhianon had heard somewhere that they could turn into diamonds. She couldn’t remember exactly. She had only recently begun to think that Madael’s tears should not be transparent, but bloody. And his spilled blood could only turn into a ruby.

«Then you must have hundreds of shards of rubies inside you by now,» the spirit gently reminded me.

«That’s not what I meant…» Why should she have to justify her own thoughts to him? Yes, she remembered the taste of angel’s blood on her lips and the incredible sensation of warmth and power flooding her body afterward. It was even more pleasurable than love. A drop of his blood… Rhianon tried not to think about the way she touched the ground and turned into rubies. Madael is invulnerable, after all. He could not be killed or hurt. And he is immortal.

«Perhaps I will die, and he will still kill his enemies on the battlefield… and if only his own enemies, not the enemies of the Almighty…»

«Don’t go into mourning. Not yet. We have a wedding to celebrate before then,» the spirit reminded her. «Then it will be the coronation.»

She nodded again, indifferently. There was a knock at the door. She must go now.

«Couldn’t you…» she turned to the spirit, and then stopped short. No, she wouldn’t do that. No, she wouldn’t send anyone to him now, notify him of her intentions. Otherwise he would come here and ruin everything. She won’t have Loretta or Vinor or hope for the future. She didn’t want that.

«If it weren’t for God,» she’d thought of it so often. «He could avenge for her, return her Loretta and never lost her himself.»

«If there was a god, there would be a devil,» the spirit finished for her. «And if there were no devil, the world would be just. You’re dreaming for nothing, child, the world was already created that way.»

«You see everything in black,» she teased him.

«I can see deeper than mortals like you can,» he said nonchalantly.

He had a point, and yet Rhianon protested:

«I’m not like other mortals anymore.»

«You’re better off if no one else knows about it but me. People don’t like those who are too different from them. Remember, one false step and your recent success in the throne room could backfire on you. If the queen ends up causing displeasure, she too may be burned as a witch. The occasion is already there. Everyone remembers how death worshipped you. Do you think she fell in love with you?»

— He, not she,» corrected Rhianon sharply.

«It is he, not she,» corrected Rhianon sharply.

«What difference does it make? It has not made any difference to you.»

«And you have been watching me the whole time, how could you have known?»

«You look like an angel, my dear, and angels are sexless.» He easily found excuses and turned everything into sophistry. «That’s why it’s easier for angels to choose their lovers. Nothing matters to them but a beauty like yours.»

Someone touched her cheek lightly. Rhianon felt the touch, though she did not see the speaker. It was exciting and unsettling at the same time. He seemed to be leaning over her right now. And there was already a knock at the door.

«Come, they’re waiting for you,» he announced, as if she didn’t know it yet.

Rhianon took one last look in the mirror. She was too pale. The white gown embroidered with pearls and the white myrtle in her hair accentuated the deadly whiteness of her skin. And her golden eyebrows and eyelashes look like painted ones against her. Is this what an angel should look like? More like a marble statue. Rhianon reached for the jars of blush, but someone seemed to have intercepted her spirit. She had barely touched it, and the blush had scattered all over the lace tablecloths in a sea of glitter.

«And yet you’re perfect,» the same spirit whispered in her ear. «The world has never seen a prettier queen. I mean both your world and ours. Don’t take a harpy with you to the ceremony, she’ll ruin it.»

«I’ll do as I please,» she was suddenly angry.

«Of course, darling,» he answered in a venomous tone, and yet the touch on her fingers was immediately insensible. So he let go of her hand. Rhianon fixed the curls in her forehead. Combined with the white flowers, they looked like pure gold. Indeed, she was beautiful. The whole town would notice it tonight.

She just didn’t want the pesky spirit to distract her from the ceremony. She already felt awkward enough before the wedding and coronation. She would be entering the Temple. The thought of it made her sick to her stomach. She felt as if she was betraying someone by entering a consecrated place. Here we go, she was already afraid to even call him by his name. What if he flew in? And then what would happen? He will crush Vinor faster than the epidemic, or just throw accusations in the face of the newfound queen. She is a traitor. And she knows it herself. He can show up here and call her that in front of everyone. Without his cloak he is but an angel with wings, no one can see the devil’s grief in his eyes. And who would be right, he or she?

Rhianon bit her lips nervously. How easily he could have ruined her. Even without sorcery, he could ruin her plans with his mere appearance. If he was jealous of her, he would do so. And if he loved her, he wouldn’t. She had little faith in love. Far more important is desire, especially for the devil. Once satisfied, he can forget forever. Besides, if there is no beautiful body, there is no love. She herself could not fall in love with one of the burnt monsters in his army. So what if they used to be the most beautiful angels, but now they are disgusting. Neither would Ferdinand have offered her to be his queen had he not found her the most beautiful girl in the world. Now of course she could have tinted her face with talcum powder and rouge and lined her lips with carmine, but she decided to leave it as it was. The angelic pallor suited her better.

She had already had an elegant wreath made of gold, adorned with large pearls and sapphires. The cooler shades suited her very well. In the past she would have been glad of ice-colored stones and white brocade woven with flowers, but now she longed for something scarlet. What a pity her new crown lacked rubies.

A drop of blood appeared on her lips, but it was not the usual scarlet color, just the warmth of it. Rhianon tried to brush it away, but only smeared it on her lower lip.

«That’s good,» the spirit whispered approvingly. «At least your lips look a little pink.»

«Yes, now, shut up,» she demanded.

«For how long is it?» His voice was mocking as usual.

«Till tonight.»

He snorted disapprovingly, but obeyed the order. She wondered how long his patience would last.

Rhianon unfurled the puffy ruffles around her shoulders. Made of lace, they still looked like a cloud of eiderdown, a setting worthy of a queen. Gold lace ran along the embroidered sleeves, the tight corset was embroidered with a floral pattern, and the long belt was embellished with filigree. There was no hint that she was pregnant. The very thought of it seemed strange to her. She didn’t feel anything foreign brewing inside her. On the contrary, the fire inside was only a part of her being. Perhaps it wasn’t a child, but just a sheaf of her own flame. She would breathe it out burning the castle and there would be nothing left inside either. They were futile dreams. Rhianon knew that the seed of the fallen angel would not simply be disposed of. It was already forming into a living and omnipotent being, but her waist was still thin. Otherwise Ferdinand would hardly have decided to marry her. Who would want a pregnant bride? And Madael? Would he fly here to claim her and the child if he knew the child was his? Oh, by the way, did he know that? Rhianon had no one to ask. Well, when you look at it from all angles, how could he not know? He’s omniscient. Could such a small but significant detail have escaped his perception? And if he knew, why didn’t he insist on his rights until now? Surely he wants this child, doesn’t he? Does he want it? Or hadn’t he even considered the possibility of having one?

He complained that he was lonely. Rhianon remembered. He had said that he had always been lonely, even there in paradise, when he had been considered a favorite of God. Was his loneliness here on earth even more palpable? He also said that he had missed love long ago before the beginning of time. How strange and cruel, everyone knew him as the favorite of the Almighty, and he felt no one needed him. When there is no love, you are alone even in the noisiest society. Now Rhianon felt it for herself. Enthusiastic crowds had gathered around her, and the nobles were also preparing to rejoice. Everyone was greeting her, throwing the same unfailing flowers at her feet, surrounding her with attention, and she felt so lonely. She was miserable.

That would soon pass when she got Loretta back into her possession. How much she had sacrificed for it, though if she looked closely, there was not much to sacrifice.

Now she even missed the annoying spirit. She wished he would have distracted her with some sharp remark.

«You look like you’re going to the scaffold,» he whispered. Rhianon saw the bales of discarded flowers on the carpeted path, though no one had stepped on them. Her invisible companion was there. And he promised to keep quiet until tonight.

«But you wanted to hear me,» he excused himself. «You were the one who called me.»

His voice was much nicer than the hymns and chants in the cathedral. Rhianon wrinkled painfully when she heard them. Her ears felt as if they were about to bleed. The only thing that saved her was Ferdinand’s arm, which she could lean on. He was handsome in his white brocade embroidered with pearls. And yet he was no angel. Not Madael. Rhianon hastily looked away from his chiseled profile. She wasn’t even sure how old he was. He looked eighteen at most. The wreath of myrtle in his short, curly curls accentuated his fresh youth. Only there, in the cathedral, would he wear the formal crown. For Rhianon’s sake he had briefly abandoned the observance of tradition. It turns out he is also flighty. It was hard to believe he already had two children she had yet to meet. Rhianon preferred not to think about it yet.

She also tried not to think about the fact that there was only a man walking down the aisle beside her. This wedding was in every way a breach of tradition. Ferdinand was leading her forward by himself. There were no best men or bridesmaids, only the uniformly dressed blue brocade maidens carrying her train. Bouquets of white lilies adorned the entrance. Why lilies? Their persistent scent and memories made Rhianon so dizzy she almost fainted. Perhaps she thought she saw Asmodeus’ black claws and mocking eyes behind the lush flowers in the shadow of the nave. He is the harbinger of misfortune. Rhianon shuddered. Maybe she just imagined he was here.

«He’s not the only one,» the spirit whispered behind her shoulder. «The cathedral is always full of them.»

«But how…» «That’s not what religion teaches. It wasn’t that at all.

«And how can people know anything,» the companion said instantly.

He did. Rhianon was hurt by the sight of the lilies.

— «You’d better look up on the North Ridge,» the spirit advised her.

She turned swiftly, and saw nothing but a seemingly motionless statue. There was nothing else. It was only the glint of the sun on the metal. Her fear of heights suddenly receded, but with it came another.

«It’s empty,» she whispered disappointedly.

«What do you mean, my dear?» Ferdinand responded in place of the spirit. She had been as oblivious as ever and had spoken the words to the spirit aloud.

«It is nothing,» she hastened to assure him. Rhianon hoped that Ferdinand would not be aware of her disappointment. He might not understand her, or he might have drawn his own conclusions. He knew about her affair with the demon, after all. And she felt as if she knew nothing. And really, what did she expect to see there, the glint of golden curls and the dazzling ray of angel wings? Did she think that he was sitting there on the roof of one of the cathedrals, immortal, invulnerable and angry? That he would rush down, pick her up, and drag her down with him, like he had done long ago… the very first time.

«That’s exactly what he was going to do,» the spirit said.

«Now, really be quiet,» she called to him mentally. «Let me concentrate. You’re asking me to invite the devil to the wedding. Look, we’re already breaking all the rules. Neither Ferdinand nor I have family or friends here. Only strangers are invited. He’s already broken all the rules.»

«And he’s marrying someone else’s wife,» the spirit eagerly reminded her.

Rhianon wanted to turn around and remind him that she had made no vows to Madael, but she was afraid. What if she saw him behind her, or discerned a winged silhouette on one of the rooftops? It was better to look only forward. Like the flowers beneath her feet. She wondered why people are used to present flowers as a sign of love? They quickly wither? Is it as quickly as fame, youth or love? Love! It’s as if she’s been slashed with a sharp blade. Love is far away. It is in the fringes of heaven, in the cold underworld, or in hell, where exactly now the fallen angel was, she did not know. Perhaps he wandered the mortal world, looking for her, or going to wring her neck. Love and desire for power should not be confused. One day he would understand that.

For the hundredth time, Rhianon wondered why she did what she did. She wondered why she could not have won at a lesser cost. She could have used her ingenuity and sorcery instead of yielding. So why did she do it?

«Yes, because you like a handsome young king, even if he was already married, and you’re also attracted to the idea of becoming queen of Vinor,» the disembodied voice was mocking, but as always it hit the mark.

Yes, she liked Ferdinand, and she wouldn’t mind a kingdom like Vinor, either. In contrast to the flabby body, the empty purse, and the impoverished Duchy of Rothbert, the second offer was too tempting. And she accepted. And now, as in a morass, she walked down the aisle. She feared both revenge and indifference from her former lover. But the main goal of her life, Loretta, was far more important. Let her heart ache. It is supposed to. If it is to be believed that Dennitsa himself laid the foundation for the subsequent betrayals of all lovers on this earth, then they are following a path that has already been beaten. It was meant to be that way. What can you do against fate?

«And yet you could fight it…»

She let the spirit’s words pass her lips. And they didn’t sound any louder than an echo in the dark, airy cathedral. The massiveness of the building overwhelmed her. She felt like a speck of dust lost in outer space. In Madael’s arms she had never felt this way. Though he owned the whole world, it was so warm and cozy with him. The grandiosity of his designs and possessions never pressed her. And the vaults of the cathedral, though stretching to unreachable heights, seemed to close over her head like a tomb. The colored stained-glass windows in the height were beautiful, but they made her eyes sting. Columns of dark marble were lined with white garlands. Rhianon feared that Asmodeus was still hiding behind one of them, but she strode boldly down the nave anyway.

Many people crowded the place, and still the space seemed overwhelmingly large. Mostly the nobility was present. The common people stayed behind the massive doors. Only the most powerful and wealthy people of the kingdom were crowded into the front rows. Rhianon glanced over to see who had caught her talking to the spirit. He was present. He was in even richer robes than before. It was hard to see him in such a crowd. He was squeezed on one side by a number of counselors, and on the other by dressed-up ladies. Still, it was the lily pinned to his buttonhole that caught her eye. He knows, she thought. The flower is a sign to show it to her. Who does he know? She sensed no connection to astrologers or witchcraft.

«Domian, the First Minister,» the same spirit whispered in her ear. «Don’t see that his hair isn’t even gray yet. He’s older than he looks.»

She looked at him briefly, but he caught her gaze and tilted his head in deference. Just like the first time. It was as if he was stalking her and looking for signs of her attention himself, calling out from the crowd, and then happily intercepting her gaze.

She didn’t even have time to be wary. The marriage ceremony had already begun. The coronation would immediately follow. In some distant part of her hearing, she picked up the anxious cries of birds over the cathedral. It was as if they were warning her of something or trying to dissuade her. Such a commotion only came before a storm was coming. Even before an epidemic came to the city the flocks of birds did not seem so anxious.

«No! No! No!» she caught in the birds’ cries outside the windows and the rustle of their wings. There were even a few crows among the disturbed flocks. This seemed strange to her. She had long associated crows with Rothbert’s servants, but these evidently were not. Though who knew them?

She tilted her head so she couldn’t hear them. Still, she thought she could hear more powerful and massive flapping in the fluttering of the tiny bird’s wings. Other wings were flapping over the cathedral, too. They were his wings. Or were they the wings of his servants. She tried not to think about it.

«You’re just an illusion yourself,» Rhianon thought, and turned away. But his dry rustling laughter echoed in her mind. How easily he could have merged with the ringing of bells, the dry rustling of leaves, or the surrounding silence. People at Mass are most often unaware that the silence around them hums not from angelic voices, but from other dark and fearful ones lurking in the darkness. She knew that Asmodeus whispers whatever he wants to clergymen of all ranks, and they obey him. Blinded by their pride, they could not see that they were being led by the devil, or rather, not the devil himself, but his servants. Madael himself would never have condescended to such petty meanness or to such vanity-torn humans. Nor would God himself ever condescend to those who are called his earthly servants. Madael is the former favorite of God, and he imitates him in everything. And likewise, he has his own servants for minor errands. His servants here were just full, right in the darkness of the nave and the stuffy height above the heads of the crowd, while he himself remained unreachable. Quite like a deity. The only thing that distinguished him from a god was the love he had once known. In any case, the capacity to love had once been awakened in him. It was late, but it came to light. And from God, Rhianon only felt something crushing. The cathedral pressed against her. She felt stuffy, and she was glad she’d worn a dress with an open neckline instead of a lace jabot. Otherwise the collar would have begun to choke her. Someone was spreading the veil over her shoulders, but not a man. She felt the subtle touch of her invisible companion. He touched her gently, as if she were a shrine.

«You are the only sacred thing there is, and not for me alone… for him too,» he might not have whispered it. Rhianon covered her eyes. Her golden lashes suddenly became stiff and stabbed her skin. The words of the Archbishop who crowned them were lost in the general hum. There was a murmur in her ears. The light crushing in the colored stained-glass windows stabbed her eyes. In a moment it would burst into flames and burn everything around it. Rhianon was afraid to look up and see one of Madael’s servants sitting high on the balustrade around the dome or one of the rungs below the ceiling. What if he himself is here?

The persistent scent of flowers made her dizzy. There was a sea of them here today. Gardeners must have cut whole plantations of white roses and lilies to garland the apse, and the pulpit, and all the arches or columns. White bows matched the bouquets. Everything here was white against the gloomy background of the majestic structure. Just for one moment she thought the lilies in the bouquets were bleeding.

«Don’t look ahead!» The spirit warned.

But why is it? She is about to be crowned. Rhianon could almost feel the thin golden hoop of pearls and golden prongs being placed upon her head. It was so reminiscent of a ceremonial wreath, only it was not made of flowers but of jewels. It would now replace the myrtle. She bent over as the clergyman’s wrinkled hands placed the wreath on her head. Only when she felt the pleasant cool weight on her forehead did Rhianon lift her eyes. What was so scary ahead that she should not look at? She hadn’t seen anything like that. And none of the local servants, no matter what rank he wore, could see the seal of the devil’s kisses on her lips. They didn’t even suspect. No one in Vinor except the astrologers and the First Minister could look inside her and see the devil in her heart, much less consider the supernatural fiery fruit in her womb. Even more, these people had no idea how dangerous she was. She could breathe fire on them at any moment, easily ignite everything here and burn herself. No, she would not. Rhianon believed that Madael would have pulled her out of the fire anyway. It was as if he were invisibly with her everywhere…

And then she saw the crucifix. The thin gold cross and the figure on it struck her as a symbol of suffering, not as something sacred. Was that what people worshipped? Is that what the legend says keeps dragons away? And would it frighten Madael? Rhianon didn’t know what feelings dominated her now, contempt, apprehension, or fear. At any rate a sense of acute dislike. She felt dislike and pain, and the next moment a trickle of blood was dripping across her lips.

«Turn away!» The spirit whispered furiously, but she stared.

It was partly a deception, how one could deify someone’s torture and find comfort in it. As she looked at the crucifix she felt that she too was being tortured. It was as if it were a symbol of evil. She imagined the thin, glittering serpent coiling around the cross and almost merging with it. They were the serpent and the cross. An expression from the same half-forgotten legends suddenly came to mind. So the cross keeps the demons away. Why didn’t it burn on the spot? If you believe the legends, then long ago she should have turned into a pillar of fire, barely crossing the threshold of the holy place. But it didn’t happen.

«And you’re not afraid to go blind looking at it?» The same invisible companion teased her.

«I’m not,» she whispered back. A trickle of blood still trickled down her lips, causing a pain that was subtle but stinging. The jolt of fire inside her was barely perceptible, either. She did not smell flame or even hot steam on anyone, but those in the front rows, especially the priests, noticed the blood. Were they startled? Frightened? Rhianon could not have characterized the whole gamut of feelings that flashed across their unpleasant faces. Let them be against it. She didn’t care anymore. She was Queen of Vinor now, after all.

They left the cathedral to the solemn ringing of bells. Ferdinand was happy, she was not. She could barely manage to pull a smile. A whole rain of white flowers and grains of rice flew on the newlyweds. One had to rejoice with everyone else, or at least feign joy. Such a beautiful bride the world had never seen before. Naturally, she was welcomed, and she searched with the eyes of a lost angel. Rhianon looked up at the rooftops of the tallest buildings and cathedrals, squinting painfully at the sun, trying to see something. Her eyesight had become especially sharp lately, and yet it was as if a veil covered her eyes. She could not find the one she was looking for, though she felt he was here. He was looking up at her, she could feel it, and she couldn’t even look back. She wouldn’t dare ask the question where you were. She was afraid.

What if he was about to destroy the whole town? Or maybe he would rush down and take her with him? Perhaps he was just waiting for the marriage ceremony to be complete, so that he could now completely break all existing inhibitions? Now that she was a stranger’s wife… Only Rhianon did not feel like Ferdinand’s wife. Everything had been accomplished, and he was still a stranger. She held his hand and felt nothing.

Even the leaden gargoyles and caryatids hunched over the cathedral were closer to her than this lively, warm man. In general, statues attracted her more than living people. It was as if they lived above the city of their own secret life, and came into motion when their actions had no other witnesses but the indifferent starry skies. She was reminded of the seven angels and Setius. They knew how to turn into statues. Were all sculptures like them? Did someone with magical powers or one of Madael’s armies breathe sorcery life into every statue on earth?

She stared up into the height for so long that the sunlight made her eyes tingle. The last thing she needed now was to cry.

Rhianon spotted pilgrims in the crowd, each time trying to see if their wings were fluttering under their rags. Only they were all ordinary people. There were a few wandering wizards in cloaks woven with sorcerer’s symbols, and two or three sad fairies. The magical creatures that danced friskily through the crowd and snatched the purses of the townsfolk for fun better than any pickpockets today looked at her disapprovingly. They enjoyed the festivities and the opportunity to frolic, but they kept their eyes away from Rhianon.

«The Queen is a traitor,» the spirit whispered defiantly, and laughed. Rhianon did not even shake him off. Why should she? He is right. She sighed and was glad that the tiny cloud of fire remained unnoticed. She couldn’t let anyone notice her peculiarities and unusual tendencies today. After the incident in the cathedral, rumors would already be circulating. She had already wiped the blood from her lips, but she still felt the center of attention.

«It is too soon for these people to realize who you are. Let them get used to you first. Then show them your fire. And the power is in your hands. You’re doing the right thing, sweetheart. You’ve learned how to play politics after all. The mistakes of the past have not been in vain for you. You’re smart now, secretive and calculating.»

She ignored the spirit’s words. Why spoil her mood by quarreling with him? Perhaps she could have some fun after all. A feast and an evening ball awaited her at the castle. There, too, she will be decorated with flowers, and she will be congratulated and presented with gifts.

«Don’t let the poison in the cup get to you. You have many competitors,» the invisible companion warned her.

Rhianon let his words pass her lips again. In the castle, the aromas of fresh baked goods and roasts made her slightly groggy. Dishes that would have awakened her appetite even for a well-fed man seemed utterly unappealing to her. Roasted pheasants, quail, capons, and spit-roasted ox and pork reminded her of the feasts of Madael’s servants. She looked at the carcasses of birds, hens, partridges, or turkeys, or the carcasses of wild boars cooked in gravy, and she saw corpses on the battlefield, torn apart by black claws. The wine in the goblets resembled thick blood. Rhianon felt nauseous. So much meat here, roasted, boiled, served in sauce, or laden with herbs and peas. Meat! She couldn’t even look at it. It was carrion. How many human corpses had gone to satiate the inordinate appetite of her fallen angel’s army? And now she watches as people prepare to eat animal corpses. Pigeon pies, pilaf, ham and pâté… how many smells blended into one. She could only smell death in them. The royal hunters, cattlemen, and shepherds knew their business. Rhianon looked at a carcass laden with cranberries and pineapples, and saw a doe beating under a spear. Any of the black creatures of the fallen armies would have enjoyed its taste as much as humans now enjoyed it.

Unlike her, the guests paid homage to all the dishes. The nibbled bones remained on the exquisite dishes. People devoured the meat along with it as if taking someone else’s life. No, only Madael’s subordinates did that, she reminded herself, but she was still disgusted. She would have joined in the meal earlier, too. The pile of stuffed cabbage rolls on the platter in front of her exuded a pleasant, spicy aroma, and Rhianon was about to vomit. She remembered the raw meat on the golden plate, Madael bringing the bloody scraps to her pale lips and blood on them. He eats though he does not want to, only to show her how it is done. In that desolate tower at the edge of the earth, they could do anything together. He could have killed and skinned her just as he did the corpses of defeated warriors. After all, he had defeated her on the battlefield and still he liked having a live toy better. He needed a friend, even a lover. He could not understand his own feelings at the time, nor could he understand why his army needed to feed on raw cape. It was simply their nature. And the nature of men was no better. Rhianon grimaced. She would have gladly gotten up from the table and left, but that would have been impolite. Her first day on the throne should not be marred in any way. So it was necessary to conceal her dislike. But she felt like a fallen angel who suddenly found herself among humans. Heaven no longer exist, there are only creatures like the cattle they consume. And they disgust her. Now, she understood how those who have fallen from heaven feel.

Rhianon was distracted only at the sight of the ripe fruit. The tiered platters in the center of the tables filled with grapes, apples, and pears resembled a cornucopia. She reached for an orange, touched the juicy crust with her fingernails, and smiled. The fresh fruit reminded her of fairies. She didn’t want to eat them at all, but touching them made her feel closer to nature. Perhaps if she walked through the garden and looked closely at the trees, she would find that one of them belonged to a dryad who looked like Phylliss. Rhianon slid her gaze over peaches, pomegranates, gooseberries, black and red currants. The fruits and berries resembled both gems and fresh fairies’ kisses at the same time.

Rhianon remembered herself dancing in a circle of ethereal ladies. Now another company awaited her. The magical society was far away. And yet in the ballroom she encountered a girl who reminded her strikingly of Phylliss. One quick touch left her feeling fresh, as if leaves had slid down her arm. Rhianon turned around, but she couldn’t see the girl in green anymore. But Ferdinand was beside her. They were to open the ball. Several more days of festivities would be, there would be hunting, tournaments, and masquerades. Rhianon had not expected to see her unearthly friends at one of them, and yet a tiny hope lingered in her heart. Her hand, in the place where the stranger had touched it, still had a kind of freshness about it.

Rhianon heard the first sounds of music, felt Ferdinand’s fingers on her waist, she began to move to the beat of the tune. But everything happened so mechanically. She couldn’t even bring herself to smile. Her senses wound up like the mechanism of that huge angelic clock and now she involuntarily moved along the dashed hand. It was as if her desires were guided by extraneous forces. Was this fate? Rhianon did not want to believe in fate. She also wanted to enjoy the dance, but she could not. Maybe it was the white brocade dress that restricted her movement. She felt constrained. The ceremonial attire was heavy, of course, but not so heavy that she could not move. The dance steps were difficult for her. The guests must have noticed that she kept turning away from the bridegroom and not because of her modesty.

She must have thought she saw someone’s wings rustling outside the window. Was someone leaning against the glass? No, then the guests would have noticed it too. True, one of the footmen who lit the chandeliers near the windows was frightened, but Rhianon could not read his thoughts. She felt too weakened and the simplest magic did not even come easily to her. Tomorrow would be different, and today her eyes were closing.

«A feast can be a harbinger of mourning,» the spirit whispered in her ear, «but for now, have fun.

She couldn’t have fun. A large floor clock was striking midnight somewhere in the distance, and she felt as if she could hear the devil’s chimes from a heavenly palace. And they were measuring not the time of her life, but the whole eternity. The countdown had begun. After that the war begins. Everything was written.

Rhianon shook her head wearily. She pulled away hastily, feeling Ferdinand’s lips almost touch her forehead and at that very moment something flashed through the void. She didn’t even remember exactly what she saw. A familiar silhouette flashed somewhere by the fireplace, and then he was standing right beside her. It was her angel, or just a ghost of him. And it wasn’t ruby dust on his cheeks, but drops of blood. Is he crying blood? Why does she think he has a crown of thorns in his hair? Rhianon opened her eyes wide, but she could see nothing. When she was agitated, she couldn’t control her flames. Now it seemed to be just such a moment, because the dress of one of the court ladies suddenly burst into flames. The poor girl didn’t even realize what was wrong. By the time she realized she had to put out the flaming outfit, the fire had already spread to others. There were many servants, it would certainly be put out, only it seemed to Rhianon that there was more to it. It seemed that the stables near the castle and some buildings in the city were also occupied. She could almost see the dwarves running wild, forced out of their comfort zone. She caught their coarse curses. Well, they had every right to hold a grudge if she accidentally set fire to their usual hiding places. Except that she was somehow certain that this time it wasn’t just her fire that had caused the many nighttime fires in Vinor.

Love is a Rose

The stables below burst into flames. The dried hay took over faster than turpentine. Madael heard the muffled shouts of the dwarves hastily leaving the stables. The dwarves who had been combing the horses’ manes up to that point even rushed to dump buckets of water to save their pets. And they, too, were afraid of fire. For a moment he was even ashamed that he had channeled his anger unnecessarily. But he should not have had a conscience. The frail voice that broke through the devil’s mind was quickly silenced. People don’t have consciences, why should he?

He clenched his fingers so tightly that the claws dug into his palm. With these very claws he’d been pounding the city’s roofs today until he could peel away entire strata of iron. Now the deep scratch marks would remain for a long time on the spires of the main cathedrals and the copper plating on the highest roofs. After sitting there all day, he already felt like a statue. In the overcast sky above him, even the birds had fallen away. Today he was angry and desperate. The echoes of the unearthly hours echoed in his mind like hell. There was probably nothing else for them to go on. It was done! He felt betrayed.

It was painful. After the fall, he hadn’t even imagined that there was a pain he couldn’t bear. As it turned out, there was. It turned out to be a pain stronger than any excruciating sensation he had experienced in the past. It overshadowed everything. He didn’t even think such a thing was possible. This acute sense of loss was beyond his perception. The pain became unbearable. It was joined by something else that pinched and crushed him, something he could not define.

It was as if everything was over. And at the same time it was not over. There would be no end to the pain now, no limit. He clutched his head violently with his hands. No, it had happened before. There was to be no end to the agony to come then, either. There wasn’t. He was used to not seeing any light. And now that the light had come and gone, it was even worse.

It could always be worse. No matter how bad it is now, it is impossible not to imagine even greater torment. The higher powers are inexhaustible in their inventions. Or else he didn’t know it before. Madael wanted to laugh bitterly, but the laughter stuck somewhere deep in his throat. No, you can’t laugh. Not here, not in Vinor. The distant echo of his voice could be heard by everyone, even her. He didn’t want to embarrass her. To think, for the first time in forever, he didn’t want revenge. It was so unnatural, it was even frightening. His hand wasn’t reaching for his sword, and he didn’t want to wring the thin neck of the princess. Sure, the blade in his scabbard begged for blood itself, but not her blood. He would not let that happen. What was he to do now? Fly over Vinor and guard her from all the hordes of people who would welcome a new queen one day and may wish to be treacherous the next. He knew people too well to believe in their sincerity. They too easily succumbed to evil whispers. Often there is no need to whisper. Life does everything. It’s in their nature to be sneaky, to betray. Now Rhianon is admired, in a moment she will be envied. If he does not watch over her and protect her, she will be killed sooner or later. She is too different and superior to humans in every way. They will not forgive her for that. She must be protected from them and even from herself. What he did not think of was ever being anyone’s protector. It was his destiny to be the punishing hand of God and to strike, not to be a shield for anyone. Well, he guessed it’s time to reconsider his fate. He glanced up at the dark skies above Vinor. He challenged them. And it was not for the first time.

He was stronger and more experienced now. Sometimes he felt almost free. The shackles that bound him with each passing century were losing their pristine strength. The farther from heaven, the farther from someone else’s power over him. He could break free. It is not too late. Time is his supporter, not his enemy. If only he had not fallen captive again. What made him skitter over Vinor all day, as if he were trapped in an enchanted circle? He hovered above the crowds, himself invisible to no one, but noticing everything below. He didn’t care about the people, he only watched Rhianon. It was always secretly, always with a touch of pain. He understood now why it hurt so much to look at her, because she no longer belonged to him.

It had been like that before. Somehow it had always hurt him to see her in a crowd. He couldn’t remember the first time he’d seen her, but it hurt when he looked at her. It was as if she’d burned him without his knowing it. It had never happened to him before. He was the one who gave that impression to all who looked at him, the sight of him that burned people like the sun. With Rhianon the effect was reversed and unexpected. He burned himself on her.

He tried to remember the very first time he had noticed her. That day he flew to his tower, wrapped his arms around his head, and sat motionless for a long time in front of the open window. Something flowed down his cheeks, scalding like mercury and seemingly ready to ignite. His skin burned, but it was much more painful what had settled inside him. Something was burning him from the inside, leaving him with a sense of painful heaviness and sorrow. It was like a fall. Like that first moment when he felt that heaven was gone and he was falling down.

Now he was hurtling through the sky even more swiftly than when he first fell. Now he could fly again, his wings holding him aloft. For some reason they began to twitch behind him. He didn’t even notice his small servants shaking the dust off them. He only lifted his hand to wipe the moisture from his cheeks and suddenly realized they were tears. He was crying. He was even sobbing. And the tears rolling down his cheeks seemed to be fiery.

«Why is it?» — The black creature was already crawling on the floor of the tower. «Are you in pain again?»

He didn’t even look away. The fall was behind him, they all knew it, but he did not hide his tears. He did not understand what was happening to him.

«I saw her,» he said to himself, not expecting anyone to understand. Who could, since he did not understand himself? «It hurts that she exists. It hurts!»

His fist came down and shook the wall. Crumbs fell from the pillar. His servants crawled nimbly into the shadows. They were afraid of him. He had taught them to be afraid. They were all afraid of him, even though he was so beautiful, but what good was that beauty if you couldn’t show it to anyone, couldn’t even take off your helmet in front of the men without blinding them. And why is it not? She, that girl, has exactly the same beauty as he himself. But she hasn’t blinded anyone so far. Only him…

Madael remembered it now with a very different feeling. He understood now. He knew now where the pain had come from and why. It had not been resentment at being privileged over someone else. It was the first prick of the rose thorns. That was what he called love. Love was a rose. But her name was Rhianon. He was ready to smash the wall again. He wanted to tear and smash so that nothing remained. Where the Garden of Eden had once blossomed, now there would only be ruins. He was betrayed. Now he understood the wrath of God. Treachery hurts too much. And still he wanted Rhianon back for himself.

That was something he could not even think about. If she did not want to return herself, he could not force her. He could, of course. He could even drag her back by force, but then there would be something missing between them. The fragile trust she’d felt for him when she’d first realized he was an angel would be gone. Before, she didn’t want love from a mortal, only from him. So now what had happened?.

Madael wandered through the night city, not even bothering to cover his face with a mask or helmet. No one would see him now anyway. The people are celebrating in the square, and the streets are empty. Vinor is so caught up in the festivities that even an entire army of angels wouldn’t make the right impression on them right now. People are already drunk. And drunk can seem like anything. Those who once tasted intoxicating drinks were so easy to control. They deliberately joined his defeated creatures. Madael did not remember whose dead particles stirred the heat in the wine. All he knew was that it was the blood of those who had died in his war. Their souls, still thirsty for vengeance, imprisoned in the drink, they tried and could guide all who tasted it. He could still summon his dead warriors through the bodies of the intoxicated men, but that was not his concern now. He didn’t even notice that he was already walking instead of flying. The scarlet cloak fluttered behind him, barely covering his wings. They had darkened so much that they were almost no longer glowing in the darkness, and yet they could still be mistaken for worm-gold.

The night wind parted his curls. Madael raised his hand to flick the strands from his forehead and involuntarily turned his attention to the handcuff-like gold bracelet on his wrist. There seemed to be a crack in it. Or was it the engraving that had changed slightly? It could have been. Drawings are messages, too, just like writing. They can change over time. The writings and spells on the gold that held it together were usually excessively strong, but now they were cracked. He looked at the other hand. Two exactly the same massive bracelets on his wrists he hadn’t been able to remove in a long time. They were, in fact, shackles, only without chains. They held him only by a tangible but invisible force. When they came to loosen, they both cracked in the same places.

Before, the feeling of the closeness of freedom would swallow him whole. He would soon be able to break free and live only by his own will. Wasn’t that what he had always wanted? Now he felt almost nothing. He did not even immediately notice that some drunken onlooker had stopped in the middle of the street, dropped the broken bottle and was now staring at him.

— Go away,» the angel whispered coldly but menacingly, but the man was still standing there with his mouth hanging open in astonishment. Though he was drunk, he could still tell the difference between a divine apparition and a delusional hallucination.

Madael raised his head and stared him straight in the eye. He was not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed, much less by such lowlifes. The punishment was instantaneous. The man cried out at the sight, and put his hands to his own burned eyes. That’s the way to look at a deity. The punishment would be immediate. People go blind at the sight of him, and they always will. Madael did not even remember that he was instructed not to appear without his helmet in the presence of vulnerable mortals. He no longer had to abide by any conditions. From now on he was his own master.

He passed a screaming mortal in pain, barely touching it with his wing. The man, however, fell from that light touch. He must have been burned, too. Madael had never felt sympathy for anyone. Why? Would anyone sympathize with him, even after hearing how he stood up for his rights and his defeat? Only Rhianon felt sorry for him. He remembered the long gentle touches, her caresses and her desire to share his pain with him. Her sympathy did make him feel better. And now he wanted to tear the whole town apart, to blind, to maim, to roast all the living creatures present in the fire. Let them all know the same torment that his angels had known. How are humans any better?

He clenched his hand in his fist and felt a few cracks already forming in the bracelet. They were growing deeper and deeper. Soon the shackles would fall away. All he had to do was wait a little longer.

Arnaud was waiting for him far beyond the borders of Vinor. He was afraid to go into town. Madael did not want to bring company with him. He was alone in his grief, just as he was alone in his fall. He needed servants for other things, not to share his pain. Arnaud must have been entertaining spirits or lost passersby with his harp playing now. He likes to hide himself behind a tree or boulder, while leaving the harp on the road to play itself. In this way he has made more than one carriage turn over. After the first sounds of his music no one could hold back the reeling horses. And people went crazy for it. He could have bewitched any girl or any young man with his playing, to enclose them forever in a ring of his charms, but he preferred Rhianon and went mad himself. He was terrified to see her crowned in Vinor. He could no longer hold his own. Now he roamed the wasteland like a ghost, seeking solace in his sorcerer’s game.

Unlike him, Madael was used to loss. He wasn’t afraid to look at the marriage ceremony itself. It was painful to feel betrayed. He had already felt completely crushed when he fell. But then it had only been the pain of shattered bones, broken wings, and burns, and now something more excruciating. Still, he needed to see Rhianon at least from afar, just once.

Was that the last time he looked at her? It was as if everything inside him burned. His eyes tingled. He darted forward as fast as if he could outrun his own pain. The sidewalk of the city was behind him, and he pushed off sharply, then he flew away. First the brass rooftops disappeared from view, then the entire mainland on which Vinor stood and a dozen other states. The starry sky was more expansive than the land. There was room to spread out. After dashing through it faster than a whirlwind, he slowed his flight. Somewhere in the shimmering streak of heaven was still the remnant of the grand structure he’d given to Rhianon. It was impossible to destroy it entirely, for there, like a living heart, was a clock… an eternal clock.

Madael did not think of it. Rhianon no longer needed the castle, which meant that no one else would have it. After all, it had been made for her. And it was with such care.

Columns, fountains, arcades, stairs, and even the curb around the canal were all made of antique scarlet gold, like the chests of sunken ships, and everything exuded a faint glow, and over the golden arbors and balustrades, fragrant clusters of myrtle twined in delicate lilac. The sparkling water in the fountains gave off a pleasant freshness. There was always spring here, even if the frost reigned outside the island. It was… paradise.

«This is our paradise,» Madael affirmed as he brought his friend here. «Only ours…»

Rhianon turned away from him and noticed a real wrought iron chest from a shipwreck, open and full of glittering coins. Coins were pouring out of it by the handfuls, and the very tiny, angry dwarves, holding back their grunts, were melting the coins to make them into flat slabs on the floor in front of the small fountain in the archway, and the diamonds would go to decorate the statue in the lunette behind it. There already the harpies’ claws were quietly scraping the wall, covering it with carvings, and their black wings were like moving extensions of the ornaments, bits of the former hell in hell. Or an illusory paradise, with bits of it left behind that reminded me of what it really was, but the gold was real and the sparkling jets of water. It really was paradise, with Madael’s fluttering wings and fluttering hair and a face that was brighter than daylight against the dim backdrop.

«This is paradise while you’re in it,» he whispered above her ear. «If you’re not here, it ceases to be paradise.»

And so she wasn’t here. Only he, like then in the fire of the battle in heaven, forever alone, forever miserable, but it wasn’t about God’s curse at all, it was about the fact that both there in paradise and here on earth, he was deprived of what he wanted. And what he wanted was…

The columns began to crack, narrow and short at first, and then deep, crossing the entire surface from top to bottom. The gold cracked and crumbled, the arches collapsed, the water in the fountain turned to liquid fire, and smoke billowed from the bursting myrtle. Everything was on fire and in ruins again, and his hands were still bleeding from the thorns of the rose he was clutching. But he squeezed it even harder, tearing his palm open. The pain didn’t matter anymore. There would be no more pain than there was. That battle was just a flash of rage against his father’s tyranny; he had lost nothing but his privileges then, and he did not feel as miserable and rejected as he did now. God lost the best of the best. His most beautiful creation had given up on him. One who had been the object of his pride, out of his control, became a punishment to the creator, one that insulted his power, because such a creature, by becoming independent, could achieve more. It was only a war, only a clash of interests and morals, only a division of power that no one ever wants to share. Everything about him was empty. If the god wanted revenge, he had his revenge. Madael turned away and walked away from the crumbling palace. The harpies were already shrieking away from the flames, hurtling off into the night. The dwarves scattered, and the colonnades collapsed, burying the tiny creatures that didn’t have time to escape. He didn’t care anymore. No, he didn’t. In fact, he wanted everyone to die, humans, supernatural beings, and, of course, his angels. He himself was already dead. And now he had nothing to strive for, nothing to pity, no one to spare. This time the real beast awoke in him for the first time. And it was all because of her.

Rhianon felt the touch even before she heard the rustle of the green dress behind her. Oh, how it reminded her of the rustling of leaves. Both in color and texture, the woman who came up behind her looked so much like fresh green leaves.

«You need help…»

The voice was familiar, too. Rhianon wouldn’t have believed she was seeing her old friend here in the castle if she hadn’t felt a kiss as fresh as dew on her lips. It seemed as if she had licked the droplets off a maple leaf rather than kissed another girl.


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