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New Decameron Forty-Nine: C. S. E. Cooney

The Twice-Drowned Saint: Being a Tale of Fabulous Gelethel, the Invisible Wonders Who Rule There, and the Apostates Who Try to Escape its Walls
 

by C. S. E. Cooney
 

II. 

Interior: The Celestial Corridor

In fabulous Gelethel, we citizens of the Angelic City operated on a fortnightly calendar: fourteen being the perfect number. Each day was a feast day named after one of the fourteen angels. Each feast day had its own bespoke rituals and miracles.

And then there was the fifteenth day.

Officially, it didn’t exist. But everyone observed it anyway. Gelthic citizens reserved fifteenth days for our most distasteful chores — in memory of Nirwen the Forsaker, the Fifteenth Angel. She’d abandoned Gelethel about a century ago, ascending the impenetrable blue serac that surrounded and protected our city, and shaking our dust from her feet.

This royally pissed off the other angels, who proclaimed Nirwen’s memory disgraced forever. They scorched her face out of every wall mural, scratched it off every bust and statue. All references to Nirwen the Artificer (as she’d once been known) in the Hagiological Archives received a black slash through it.

Not that Nirwen cared. As far as we knew, she’d picked up and left the day her last saint died, and she’d never looked back.

Petition days in the Celestial Corridor were always on the fifteenth day.

My earliest memories of petition days were of pilgrims coming from outside Gelethel to beg the boon of citizenship from the angels. The Holy Host would lower a long bridge from the ramparts of the serac, and then a small group of pilgrims — chosen by lottery in Cherubtown — would ascend and enter Gelethel.

It used to be, they’d bring gifts with them. Something precious and particular. Something that meant a great deal to the pilgrim personally, which they would then offer to the angels in hopes of winning their favor. That was how my dad gained his citizenship — as well as Quicksilver Cinema, Gelethel’s only movie palace, which he ran for many years.

I’d practically grown up in the Quick, and now I owned it. I’d also grown up with a soft spot for pilgrims, because, well … Dad. That was not true for most citizens of Gelethel.

These days, petitions were less about gifts and more about sacrifice. They’d become sort of a spectator sport for Gelthic citizens — with pilgrims acting as unwitting gladiators and angels playing the dual roles of monsters and referees.

Dad had stopped attending petition days years ago, when the war in the Bellisaar Theatre had grown so bad that Cherubtown, once a small shrine outside the serac for pilgrims seeking congress with the angels, swelled into a refugee camp with a population double the size of Gelethel.

They came to be safe. Everyone knew that the Angelic City, protected by its fourteen Invisible Wonders, was the only haven left in this part of the world. Dispossessed families came by the thousands wanting in.

Impregnable Gelethel! Immaculate, untouchable. Where the war could not hurt them anymore.

They came with very little to offer, these new pilgrims. Some offered nothing but themselves, in exchange for citizenship for their children. Some offered the lives of their aged parents, or superfluous orphans, or an enemy they’d made in Cherubtown.

And the angels, who rarely refused a sacrifice, were hooked.

It was like nothing they’d ever tasted before, the death offering of a human being. Oh, the jolt of it! The juice! The effervescent intoxication! No longer could the Invisible Wonders who ruled Gelethel rest content with a steady snack of life-long worship from their long-lived worshippers. And why should they, when they could just mainline pilgrims instead?

So bright, so foul. Such meat to feed on.

Thus, every fifteenth day, we let the bridge down. We invited the pilgrims, in groups of fourteen, into Gelethel. Seven of these were hand-picked by the self-designated sheriffs of Cherubtown — officials on the take from our Holy Host, willing to do us favors in exchange for goods passed to them over the serac. Those chosen seven were quietly given to know that the angels were happy to hear their petition for citizenship, but would require a sacrifice — of the human variety. Cherubtown’s sheriffs left it up to the pilgrims to choose whom they would bring over, usually by force. The unlucky seven never saw what hit them.

Alizar the Eleven-Eyed, alone among the fourteen angels, did not partake of the sacrifices. He attended petition days, but recused himself of the feast. Some of his colleagues looked at him askance, some scoffed, but in the end, they allowed him this eccentricity; after all, it meant more for them.

Every time I asked him why he refused his sup, Alizar gave me a different answer:

I do not want to be beholden to strangers. Or, I’m saving myself for my true love. Or, Some habits reward one with diminishing returns.

The Seventh Angel may have been gentle and vain, may have liked pretty, silly things — but he was not a liar, and he was not stupid. His reasons for abstention, vague though they may have seemed to me, made sense to him — and, I have to admit, it was a relief to be spared sharing the feast. Bad enough for me to catch the ricochet when the other angels fed. But if I had to experience it directly, through him? I wouldn’t have remained his secret saint for long.

I knew this much: angelic politics were vicious. Alizar had been out of favor with the other thirteen angels ever since Nirwen the Forsaker left Gelethel. The two of them had been the fastest of friends. Her disgrace had also been his, and Alizar bore it proudly, held himself aloof and lonely. A few of his former allies among the angels tried coaxing him back to the fold from time to time. Others, like Zerat and Rathanana, thought him weak.

Alizar longed for Nirwen — but he took comfort in me. I, in turn, had Alizar and my family and that was it. It wasn’t that saints couldn’t make friends. It was just, as I got older, I found our secret too burdensome for intimacy. Alizar saw how it weighed on me, kept me isolated, disinclined to engage with my peers. To make up for it, he did his utmost to be all things to me: friend, confidante, beloved. He rarely asked me for favors.

Except, that morning, he had.

Like Dad, I tried to stay away from petition days whenever possible. But today, the Seventh Angel let me know — even before my eyes came unstuck from sleep — that my presence in the Celestial Corridor was requested.

Something is about to happen, he’d told me in his inimitable way, humming behind my eyelids and in the pits of my teeth.

Something is coming from beyond the serac, he said. Something I was promised a long time ago. And, Ish — he’d added outrageously — I am going to need an extra pair of eyes.

* * *

“You,” said the Heraldic Voice, pointing at a pilgrim. (deleted second part of sentence here.)

“Herald,” replied a young man who was standing right next to me.

“Step forward and state your petition,” said the Heraldic Voice.

They were resplendently dressed in voluminous purple silk, with wide sleeves that covered their hands, and filigreed cuffs adorning the tips of their ears, proclaiming their position as official interpreter for the angels. Set against the backdrop of the Celestial Corridor, which was vast enough to engulf several city blocks and white enough to write on, they looked properly imposing.

While not themself a saint, the Heraldic Voice, through long exposure to the divine and rigorous study, could take all of those pressure-cooker, biting-on-foil, blood-on-the-boil, icicles-in-your-organs sensations that were the sound of angels singing, and translate it into words for the laity. It was a thankless job — which was why the saints did not do it. It may also have been the reason that the Heraldic Voice’s face was so stern and set. They were like the Celestial Corridor: as hard, as dazzling — as if they, too, were composed entirely of bricks of compressed salt.

The Heraldic Voice stood at a podium at the foot of the Hundred Stair Tier, around which the fourteen pilgrims from Cherubtown had been corralled. The rest of the Celestial Corridor was crammed full of Gelthic spectators, there for the best entertainment Gelethel had to offer. The Invisible Wonders watched over the proceedings from fourteen empty thrones at the top of the stairs. Between them and us stood rank upon rank of the Holy Host.

I was among the bystanders — as close to the pilgrims as I could get. After all, Alizar had told me to keep my eyes open.

The boy upon whom the Heraldic Voice had called now shuffled forward a few steps, dragging with him what appeared to be a sack of rags and ropes. He stood hunched, head bowed, as if it would take too much effort to straighten up. None of us in the Celestial Corridor were allowed to sit. Sitting was for angels, who didn’t need to.

Typical pilgrim fare, this one. Fresh from Cherubtown (which was to say “fetid”), where conditions were rife with drought, starvation, lawlessness, crime, and disease. A stunted gangle, more marionette than flesh. Short on chin, long on nose, snappable at wrists and ankles, desiccated as a desert corpse. His eyes were pitfalls. He had a brow on him like a pile of rock at the point of collapse: the brow of a powerful but perhaps not very thoughtful man, a brow he had yet to grow into. His skin and hair might once have been a handsome bronze; now he seemed to be flaking all over into a friable rust. He smelled oddly sweet beneath his stale sweat, a little like fruit, a little like yeast, though from the look of him I couldn’t imagine he’d been anywhere near food like that for fortnights on end.

“Herald,” the boy rasped into the waiting silence. “I am Alizar Luzarius.”

I shivered inwardly at his forename and took a cautious step closer to him. Was he the one the Seventh Angel was anticipating?The promised “something” from beyond the serac? His name couldn’t be a coincidence — could it?

“I have come,” continued the boy in his flat whisper, “to offer sacrifice to the Invisible Wonders who rule Gelethel and to petition them for citizenship.”

He had the words exactly right, by rote — but he’d mispronounced Gelethel. A point against him. You can always tell a foreigner by the way he pronounces the name of the Angelic City. He softens the “g” almost to a “zh”. His first syllable holds the accent, making his “zhgel” rhyme with the third syllable’s “thel.” Natives of Gelethel know that the “g” is hard, that the accent is on the second syllable “leth,” and that in “thel” the vowel is swallowed.

Dad, who wasn’t a native, says it makes more sense the way natives say it; the Angelic City, he says, deserves no poetry.

Between the boy and the angels stood a thousand shining warriors of the Holy Host. They stood, ten to a stair, a hundred stairs to the vertex, shields locked, spears sharp, white-eyes shining and mouths smiling like benevolence itself. From the polished bronze and boiled leather of their armor to the jaunty tips of their plumes, the Holy Host was the dedicated force of Gelethel, trained up at the Empyrean Academy from adolescence to adulthood, and committed — body and soul — to the objectives of the angels.

The boy’s tarpit-on-fire gaze lingered lovingly on their ranks before lifting and peering beyond them.

He could not, of course, see the angels. But he could see the fourteen vacant thrones, each carved and bejeweled with the various aspects of the angel who sat upon it. His face shone with a ferocious light — ah! An ascetic. Having grown up with Mom, I knew the signs.

We had our cynics in Gelethel: Dad, my bad uncles, and myself among them. But there were others — devout and pious types — who, after years of careful observation, might be rewarded for a lifetime of worshipful attention by fragments of angelic discernment. The lightning flash of an eye; the scintilla of a pinion; one wet ruby heart beating mid-air, two separate hands skewering it on long silver fingernails; a rotund belly like a great fissiparous pearl swollen to the splitting place; a capillary-popping pressure on the ears and eyeballs that meant the angels singing.

It was the most anyone but saints ever perceived of the angels. Some people spent their whole lives pining for a single glimpse. Some hated the saints for being so blessed. Others worshipped the saints as second only to angels, even petitioning them as intermediaries for their deepest concerns. I didn’t know which this kid might be: saint-hater or saint-prater. I only knew that he wasn’t a saint.

The sack at his feet, on the other hand...

A buzz in the back of my skull alerted me to the Seventh Angel’s interest in that sack. So while the Heraldic Voice was asking the boy all the usual questions (“Tell the Invisible Wonders of Gelethel,” stressing the correct pronunciation, “why they should choose you for their citizen, Pilgrim Luzarius?”), I sidled in for a closer look.

It was a person. A girl.

She’d begun to stir, then to writhe, when the boy first dragged her forward — probably just waking up from the clout or drug that he had used to knock her cold. A pointy chin emerged from the sacking. A compellingly large nose, wide mouth.

I pegged her for the boy’s sister, maybe cousin. Of the same too-skeletal, too-sunburnt, too-seldom-washed pilgrim type, she nevertheless seemed more lively than her upright counterpart. Even lying there, trussed and gagged, she bore a greater resemblance to a stack of dynamite than a lamb for slaughter. Her hair was short but heavy, nearly black at the roots, glinting red at the tips. It curled around her head like a nest of vipers. Her skin was starved-to-rusting dark, but her eyes were light. If lucid were a color, that would be the color of her eyes.

Her gaze was fixed, unerringly, upon the Seventh Throne. She was a saint.

What’s more, she was his saint. Alizar’s. Like me.

“Shit,” I said aloud.

The Heraldic Voice tripped on their tongue and turned a bespectacled and accusatory scowl upon me. “I beg your pardon?”

“Sorry,” I whispered, offering no further excuse for the Heraldic Voice — and therefore the angels — to examine me too narrowly.

As I sweated in my coveralls, the Heraldic Voice went on to grill the boy: “Pilgrim Luzarius, you claim that your father was a citizen of Gelethel.”

I turned from the girl — the saint — to look at the boy. I’d somehow missed that part. But hey, you can’t catch everything when you’re in the middle of a divine revelation. Right, Alizar?

“My, my father was born in Gelethel,” the boy stammered his reply. “He t-told me I was named for the Seventh Angel himself, that citizenship was, is, my birthright …”

The Heraldic Voice interrupted him. “This morning, you arrived with the other pilgrims from Cherubtown — from outside the Gelthic serac — did you not?”

The boy nodded.

“Those who come from outside the Gelthic serac have no rights in Gelethel. Citizens of Gelethel never venture beyond the serac, for they know that to do so means their citizenship shall be revoked, and they shall be named traitor unto the angels who succored them —”

Here the boy interrupted him: “My father was no traitor! He was born a citizen of Gelethel — he said so! He was named for the Seventh Angel, and I am named for him too. He told me I was entitled —”

“He told you lies,” snapped the Heraldic Voice. “You are entitled to nothing but what all pilgrims who come to the Celestial Corridor are offered: a chance to humbly beg the boon of offering sacrifice unto the angels, who may, if pleased, decide to grant you leave to stay in fabulous Gelethel.”

Their inflection promised nothing, hinted at grave doubt. I watched the boy struggling to decide whether or not to argue. Or perhaps he was just gathering his strength.

And then I stopped watching him, because an eyeball popped open on the back of my hand, right under my knuckles.

It looked up at me imploringly. My mouth filled with the taste of ghost pepper and ozone. My ears began to ring.

Oh, bells.

Fucking angel bells.

Furtively, I cast a glance up at the Seventh Throne. It was hard to miss, decorated as it was with eleven jewels cut into the shapes of eyes. But those gleaming gems was lost to me today; I had eyes only for the Seventh Angel — who’d apparently gone totally lathernutted.

A green-gold glow beaconed out from his paper-lantern skin. Each little insect wing and bird-like bit of him was fluttering with adoration and distress as he divided his attention between preening for the new girl — who was staring at him, open-mouthed — and pleading with me. One of the cabochon eyes that grew in a collar about Alizar’s throat was missing. Because it was on my hand.

Nirwen sent her, Ish! Alizar told me excitedly. Nirwen sent her here to me! She’s the sign I’ve been waiting for! We must help her! A pause.Don’t let the other angels see you do it, though.

“Fine,” I breathed — not so much speaking as grinding the chewy gong of Alizar’s entreaty between my teeth. Unobtrusively as possible, I scooted closer to the girl, reaching for the penknife in my pocket. Carefully, I palmed it, unfolded it, used it to cut a hole in my canvas pocket, and then let it drop down the length of my leg.

It slid soundlessly off the side of my boot and onto the floor, spinning to a stop near the girl’s right ear. Distracted by the movement, the girl turned her head and met my gaze. Her limpid, cunning eyes narrowed. Her gaze went right to my hand and the glossy red eyeball protruding from the back of it. It rolled at her in bright excitement, then blinked gratefully up at me, then disappeared.

A moment later, on the Seventh Throne, the Seventh Angel pulsed vividly, all eleven of his eyes restored to him.

Meanwhile, the other Alizar — Alizar Luzarius — had decided to escalate his argument with the Heraldic Voice after all.

“When I am a citizen,” he rasped, “I mean to serve as warrior in the Holy Host.” The real Gelthic citizens let out a corridor-wide gasp at his audacity. “My father was a soldier. Like him, I am strong and able,” he continued, mendacious but determined, “and I will train at the Empyrean Academy, and become the pride of the Holy Host …”

Thoroughly nettled now, the Heraldic Voice said witheringly, “Your father may have been a soldier, but he was never one of the Holy Host. Nor can you be, Pilgrim Luzarius — even if the angels grant you citizenship. You were not born in Gelethel.”

“Give me a sword,” the boy returned implacably. “I will use it to defend the angels — and Gelethel. I will prove myself to the Host. I will —”

I lost the thread of his boast as I looked down at the girl again. Her eyes raptor-bright, her face furious, she had rearranged her body to mask her hands, which were working my penknife for all it was worth. She had lots of knots to deal with — the boy had been nothing if not thorough — but my penknife was a gift from the Seventh Angel himself, manifested for me on my thirty-seventh birthday; I was pretty sure it could cut through ropes or even chains like so many silken threads.

“ — and then the Host will name me their captain, and follow me into battle!” the boy finished in a blaze of triumphal delusion.

The crowd laughed; the boy was amusing. But the Heraldic Voice was finished arguing. Adjusting a piece of parchment on the podium, they asked merely, “And what is your sacrifice to be, pilgrim?”

Alizar Luzarius bent down, grabbed the trussed-up girl by her ropes, and hauled her to her feet. “I offer my half-sister, Betony Luzarius, as sacrifice to the angels!”

The angels reacted immediately, with pleasure and approval.

I knew it at once, but it took the Heraldic Voice a few seconds longer. When they finally got the message, they gave an involuntary start, and hissed. Their fingers twitched. They threw back their head, every tendon in their neck straining as they listened to thirteen voices singing rapture and rhapsody and euphoric acceptance of the sacrifice. Probably to the Heraldic Voice it sounded like being on the receiving end of thirteen static shocks in close succession.

It was worse for me, being a saint. I could hear the angels with absolute clarity, at full volume, with all the bells and whistles layered in. But I’d been learning to control my expression for decades. Right now, I was doing a damned fine impression of a cow waiting placidly in a squeeze chute.

I’d never seen Dad look so sick with disappointment as he did the day he watched my face as I watched my first human sacrifice. When he saw no change whatever in it. But what could I do? It was either go cow-faced or tell-all. I couldn’t risk letting go, not even a little. Couldn’t surrender, even for a moment, to the sensation of angels sucking up death offerings. To do so would have sent me into total transverberation. I’d’ve been lifted aloft by the sound of their singing: all those angels, all experiencing such orgiastic ecstasy. No, I couldn’t let anyone see me crack, not even Dad. I had to be icy as the Gelthic serac. I’d promised Alizar. Like he’d promised me.

But, this being her first time, it was even worse for Betony.

Good for her that no one, human or angel, expected a full-grown woman — or older teenager, anyway — and a pilgrim from Cherubtown at that, to suddenly turn saint. Anybody looking at her might mistake her trembling for fear, perhaps devotion.

But I knew what those short, sharp convulsions meant. I saw her toes curl, her feet leave the floor — just half an inch, just for a few seconds. This was not the angels in full voice. No one, after all, had been sacrificed yet. Their singing was merely anticipatory.

But Betony heard it all. And understood it perfectly.

At the top of the Hundred Stair Tier, thirteen angels leaned eagerly forward in their thrones, urging the Heraldic Voice to move things along. I tried not to look at any one of them directly but kept my eyes vague, receptive at the periphery. Even so, even after all this time, the angels left a deep impression, like a bright scar on my brain.

In order of their feast days, they were: Shuushaari of the Sea, crowned in kelp and bladderwrack, her body an ooze of radular ribbons, like a thousand starveling oysters without their shells; Tanzanu the Hawk-Headed, whose human-ish shape was just that — an assemblage of hawks’ heads; Olthar of Excesses, also called the Angel of Iniquity, who was three big shining bellies, each piled on top of the other like giant pearls, each on the point of splitting open; Rathanana of Beasts, all matted fur and bloody fang, snarling maw, curving claw; Murra Who Whispers; Wurra Who Roars; Zerat Like the Lightning; Childlike Hirrahune, solemn and sad; Thathia Whose Arms Are Eels; Kalikani and Kirtirin, the Enemy Twins; Impossible Beriu and Imperishable Dinyatha, who had only one heart between them.

As they sang, red mouth slits began to gape open on previously smooth expanses of angelic skin or hide or chiton. New, raw, wet lips, parting like cruel paper-cuts, appeared on shoulders, backs, arms, palms, throats, beaks, tentacles, tails.

All of the angels were singing, and all of them sang: “Yes!”

All of them but one.

Alizar the Eleven-Eyed, as usual, sat apart from the sacrifices, and sang nothing. He sat very still, looking anxious and troubled. Strange, to watch a creature who was mostly eyes and incandescence cogitate so desperately.

He was coming to some momentous decision; I could tell by the way he kept smoothing down the curling blue feathers on his arms, tugging and twining the trailing plumes around his pinkie talons, then letting them spring back in release. Thin coils of gold pushed out of his pores and wound up his limbs like morning glories, occasionally lifting bell-like blooms as if following the path of the sun. They all yearned toward the girl, Betony.

But when it came, Alizar’s resolve was absolute. He shook his head sharply, saying something to the other angels that pierced their song like a wire going right through my right nostril. 

An emphatic, No! — angelically-speaking.

The Heraldic Voice shook their head, trying to interpret this new message. At my feet, Betony went into micro-convulsions again, her left nostril beginning to bleed.

Her half-brother noticed nothing of this, too busy watching the Heraldic Voice’s fraught face for any sign of the angelic approval.

“Well, Herald?” asked the boy eagerly. “Will they accept her? Am I to be a citizen of Gelethel?”

“It is unclear,” said the Heraldic Voice. “There is some … division. That is, I think …”

Outraged at the Seventh Angel’s interference, the other angels overrode his song, upping their decibel level and drowning him out. I slowed my breathing as my molars tried to dig their way deeper into my gums.

As this went on, the Heraldic Voice gradually lost their lost expression. The angels were very explicit. They communicated the strength of their desire, their wholehearted approval, and their eagerness to get the hell on with it.

“Yes, your sacrifice has been deemed acceptable by the angels of Gelethel, Pilgrim Luzarius,” the Heraldic Voice told the boy, almost kindly. “Leave it at the bottom of the stairs. We will present you your citizenship papers when the sacrifice is complete.”

Radiant with gratitude, the boy complied. His grip tightened on his half-sister’s ropes, trying to drag her forward as the Heraldic Voice commanded.

But Betony abruptly jerked away from him, the ropes falling at her feet. Up flashed her hand, slicing the gag from her mouth. Then she leapt forward and jammed the point of her penknife — my penknife — beneath the boy’s chin.

“Lizard-dick!” she bellowed. She had a deep voice, a smoker’s voice. “Beetle-licker! Should’ve left you in the desert. Let the Zilch eat you. You’d make better barbecue than a brother. Just like your fucking dad.”

“Don’t you talk, don’t you dare talk about my father!” The boy’s monotone cracked down the middle; he looked ready to burst into tears. “You — you’re a bad girl, Betony. A burden. A liar. Loose and wanton. You’ll, you’ll do anything for scraps.”

A stunned pause. Betony stared at him. Then her long mouth tightened, her bony fist whitened around the knife.

“Scraps I shared with you!”

“I would have rather starved,” the boy retorted.

Throat-cutting words if I ever heard them. Betony stepped closer, knife still raised to his throat. A tiny thread of blood ran like a worm down the boy’s skin.

“You are offal,” he whispered, the frail sandpaper of his voice fraying. “Kill me, I die a martyr. But you are offal, and offal is for sacrifice.”

At a gesture from the Heraldic Voice, two warriors of the Holy Host marched off the Hundred Stair Tier to flank the girl. Bronze gauntlets clapped heavily on her bare shoulders, on the flesh above her elbows, but Betony ignored them, her gaze burning into the boy’s face.

“You aren’t my brother anymore!” she spat. But she didn’t strike him down. She withdrew instead, slumping into the fists that gripped her as if suddenly spent.

Despite her skin-and-bone appearance, her dead weight must have made her unexpectedly heavy to the Hosts; their biceps bulged to keep her upright. The penknife, I noticed, was gone. Disappeared, between one blink and the next — I’d bet, up her sleeve. I hadn’t seen sleight-of-hand like that since my bad Uncle Raz, “the Razman,” pulled a contraband Super 8 camera out of his hat for my thirtieth birthday. The high-end, newfangled kind, that also recorded sound.

“Take her to the sacrificing pool,” the Heraldic Voice commanded.

I followed where they dragged her. I, and her half-brother, and the other pilgrims, and everyone else in the Celestial Corridor who wanted a front-row view of her death.

The sacrificing pool was at the other end of the Hundred Stair Tier: a deep, round tank made of gold-tinted glass, redolent of warm brine and eucalyptus oil. It had been cleaned and refilled to brimming for petition day. Water sloshed over the sides onto the floor around it, which, unlike the rest of the corridor, was paved in red brick, not white. New flooring had to be put in a few years ago after surplus water from the pool damaged the original salt-based tiles beyond repair. A golden staircase with wide steps and delicate rails led to the top of the pool, where a shallow lip, like a gilded pout, allowed a Host to kneel as they held the sacrifice under.

At the sight of the sacrificing pool, Betony remained limp. Oddly limp, I thought, for a girl with a hidden knife and a strong grasp on reality. She didn’t struggle (and at this point in the proceedings, most sacrifices usually did, even the very old or infirm), remaining completely flaccid when one of the two Hosts slung Betony over her massive shoulder and began carrying her up the golden stairs.

The other Host stood guard at the bottom, spear planted before him, the white shine of his eyes warning all of us who stood too close to come no nearer.

The warriors of the Holy Host were called “hosts” because they were sworn receptacles of the Invisible Wonders who ruled us. At need, the angels could fill them with their influences, their attributes, puppet them around Gelethel like angelically-endowed meat-sticks. In our poems and literature, the Holy Host were referred to as “chalices of the angels,” sometimes “chariots to the angels.” But my bad uncles said that the Hosts were more like “cheesecloths for the angels.” They said that my good uncles, themselves all high-ranking warriors on the Hundred Stair Tier, spent so much time in the Celestial Corridor that they’d become practically porous. Ripe for possession. Ready garments for any angel to put on.

The Host standing guard at the bottom of the sacrificing pool was but lightly possessed at the moment. No particular angelic attribute had manifested on his person, as it would have done if an angel were paying the Host more than passing attention. But if I squinted and looked sideways, I could see a sort of shimmering tether in the air, connecting him to the angel Beriu.

The Host who was carrying Betony, however, was rapidly filling up with angels. Three this time, I thought.

All warriors of the Holy Host were strapping. They had to be; it took a lot of muscle mass to host an angel, and then to recover from possession afterward. This warrior, already a tall woman, was growing taller with every step. Angelic influence flowed into her, augmented her.

The angels took take turns on petition days, sharing sacrifices between them. Seven deaths between thirteen angels. But not all deaths were equal. Some of those pilgrim sacrifices came to them practically mummified already, so catatonic with despair and trauma that it was as if the animating spirits had already fled their bodies. To the angels, these lives, given up so lethargically to them, would hardly seem a morsel.

But this girl Betony, however, they'd deemed a feast. Three angels had elected to feed on her death—and the most rapacious of the Invisible Wonders, too: Zerat, Rathanana, and Thathia. Her soul, they’d decided, was large and lively enough to satisfy.

So eager were they for Betony's oncoming death that they began engorging their Host too quickly. Not only was she swelling in size, but angelic attributes from all three angels began popping out all over her skin like boils — blue sparks, foul smoke, a slick of aspic, a roiling patch of fur. The rapid intensity of her transformation startled the Host, slowed her down as she mounted the steps, made her movements stiff and clumsy.

So when, at the top of the golden stairs, Betony blazed into action, the Host did not react quickly enough. She staggered, simultaneously flailing for balance while trying to pull the penknife out of her neck.

Freed from that sinewy grip, Betony went from limp to monkey-limbed in a shaved second. She twisted herself down from the Host’s shoulder, dropping to the slippery lip of the sacrificing pool with the hardened agility of a street fighter. From there, she immediately barreled into the Host’s knees, tripping her up.

The Host flew backwards. She landed hard, cracked her head on the side of the pool. And then she rolled off the edge, fell five feet to the floor, and hit the bricks with a moist thud.

Three angels screamed at once, fleeing that broken body like rats from a plague ship.

They could have healed her — she was one of their own! — but I hadn’t seen the angels heal anyone for years now. Their excuse, according to Alizar, was that what with the fortnightly influx of pilgrims swelling the population of Gelethel, it was impractical to continue healing our sick or miraculously extending our lives the way they’d done since time immemorial. What if the citizens of the Angelic City should bear fruit and multiply to the point where the serac could no longer contain them?

Still, the Host was their responsibility. And the angels were not above bending their own rules from time to time, so long as they all sang an agreement. So we waited, we citizens of Gelethel, breathless, expectant. All our eyes had tracked the Host as she fell. But when she did not again stir — when the angels did not surprise us with mercy — we turned away and looked for the next moving object.

This should have been Betony, atop the sacrificing pool. Only she was no longer there. Or anywhere else to be seen.

I smiled to myself, hard and dry as the salt pan, a smile I’d learned from my bad uncles. Betony had done it — what no other sacrifice had managed before. She’d killed a Host and escaped her fate. A true saint — and this, her first miracle. She was gone.

Not yet! Alizar groaned, and my salt-hard smile melted, brine-splashed. She hasn’t made it to the doors!

That was when, from behind the clear gold walls of the sacrificing pool, I heard a familiar deep boom call out: “Tiers one through five: activate!” 

The Hosts stationed on the first five levels of the Hundred Stair Tier descended in perfect lockstep. White eyes shining, fifty warriors marched off their steps and into the crowd of pilgrims and Gelthic laity gathered in the Celestial Corridor. We heaved, adjusting. Alizar Luzarius, probationary citizen, reeled drunkenly, lurching into me as he tried to see what was going on. I automatically reached out to steady him. He didn’t even know I was there. He was moaning:

“I gave her a chance. One last chance to do something good. To be righteous. But she is ruinous. She always corrupts everything.”

My hand tightened on his elbow. “You brought her here,” I growled. “What do you think they’ll do to you?”

Bewildered at such venom from a total stranger, Luzarius glanced my way — first at my hand on his bony arm, then at my face. So close to him now, I saw that he was much younger than I’d thought — too young for peach fuzz, undersized for his age.

Withered child of a war-ripped desert, this boy had nothing — had never had anything — except his faith in the angels. I doubted he could’ve overpowered Betony and dragged her this far had it not been for some stronger will puppeting him over the serac. Luzarius was the angel Nirwen’s tool — and he didn’t even know it.

I released him like noon-baked scrap metal, and turned away, standing on my tiptoes to scan the teeming corridor. Nothing but confusion: the Hosts on the floor conducting a systematic search, the citizens eager to help.

“Run, Betony,” I breathed, so sub-vocally that only the Seventh Angel, eavesdropping on the inside of my throat, could hear me. “Run, Saint Betony. Run.”

And then the angel Alizar lent me his sight, and I glimpsed her.

She'd made it to the far doors at the end of the Celestial Corridor. Each door was hewn from chunks of salmon-pink salt crystal as large as the Hundred Stair Tier was tall. Each door was as wide as three banquet tables set side by side and carved in reliefs of the original fifteen angels, along with their aspects and attributes.

The face of the Fifteenth Angel had long ago been gouged out. Because of that, Nirwen was the easiest angel to recognize at a glance: a featureless giantess with a tool in each hand, surrounded by a knot-work nimbus of her Lesser Servants, lab-created creatures whom she’d taken with her over the serac when she’d abandoned Gelethel.

Betony made it to the doors, but not past them.

I may have lost sight of her for a moment — so had the rest of the laity — but Alizar and the other angels had not. The Seventh Angel knew it, and despaired. Once the angels had marked her for sacrifice, Betony was theirs. Alizar the Eleven Eyed’s claim on her as his saint meant nothing to them; they’d drowned out his protest before he could fully voice it. And now they would drown her, with even greater glee and giddiness and appetite than before.

Because Betony had run.

And angels liked when sacrifices ran.

* * *

What is the sound of thirteen angels slavering as they sing? It is the sound of scalding solfatara and bitter saliva. Is the hard trill of a dentist drill going right down to the root. It is the sound of children throwing live frogs into their campfire, then throwing back the ones who leaped out, but not before smashing them dead with a rock.

The angels reached out, and claimed what was theirs.

* * *

Today it was my good Uncle Razoleth, oldest of the Q’Aleth boys, who caught Betony.

I’d thought I’d heard his voice earlier, bellowing out the order to activate the five tiers, but I hadn’t seen him, jostled as I was by the crowd. Now there was no unseeing him. 

The angels Thathia, Zerat, and Rathanana, fleeing the slain Host who’d fallen at the foot of the sacrificing pool, had scarpered across the room to inhabit their most trusted and senior warrior: Razoleth, Captain of the Hundred Stair Tier.

All my uncles — good and bad alike — were tall. But Razoleth, oldest of Mom’s younger brothers, was tallest. His bronze helmet sported a comb of fourteen spikes from forehead to nape, the first spike topped with a round nob proclaiming his rank. Captains of the Hundred Stair Tier always got the biggest nobs because, and here I quote my bad uncles, “they were the biggest nobs.” Now, trebly swollen with angelic intent, Razoleth expanded as he walked, increasing in size until he was twice the height and girth of anyone in the room, massive and slab-like.

Unlike the dead Host, who was currently being cleared away from the corridor floor, Razoleth grew more graceful with each incursion of angels. He moved more easily, more swiftly; he wore his angels well — even when the attributes of the three angels, pouring into him at speed, began to warp him out of all recognition.

First, the kidney-pink leather of his breastplate glowed like flayed flesh. And then it became flayed flesh. The angel Rathanana of Beasts was draping him all about in freshly skinned animal hides, tacky and membranous, still dripping blood.

My uncle did not have to roar like the angel Wurra to make room for his progress through the Celestial Corridor. Not with the angel Zerat inside him. No, pilgrims and citizens sparked away from him on contact — for he crackled with Zerat’s lightning as he paced forward, his dark brown eyes swamped in blue electrical fire, the smell of singed hair filling the air like burning feathers.

Razoleth had become a mass of muscles, a rockslide tearing across the room towards Betony — all except for his arms. These were lengthening and slimming down to a filament-thinness. From his shoulders to his fingertips his dark skin was ghosting to gray-white, glistening with mucous. His elbows and forearms were fringed with delicate fins. Where his hands had been a moment ago were now two bulbous heads. His fingers fused into needle-fine jaws curving away from each other, lined in hooklike teeth.

Now he had the angel Thathia’s arms. The angel Thathia’s reach.

And the angel Thathia reached — the other angels with her — through my uncle’s body, for Betony.

They snagged her snarled hair in Thathia’s eel-mouths. The shock of Zerat’s lightning bolt blew the rags off her feet, set her tatters afire. Rathanana’s cloak of raw flesh peeled itself away from Razoleth’s broad chest, flew off of him, and flung itself around Betony’s bucking body, rolling her up like a carpet.

Caught.

Without a pause, Razoleth bent down, picked up the bundle and carried it back to the Hundred Stair Tier, to the sacrificing pool.

As my uncle passed me, he looked down and gave a short nod. My good uncles were not as loquacious as my bad ones, but they still held me dear: the only daughter of their only sister. I couldn’t bear to meet his eyes, and he was too tall this way besides, so I dipped my head. Best, with the good uncles, to show a subordinate face.

By now, Betony had recovered enough to squirm an arm free of Rathanana’s foul cloak. It was all I could see of her: one bare arm patterned in branching red ferns — a new red tree blooming out from the seed of her lightning strike — one desperate hand, fingers stretched as far as they could reach. Muffled by the stinking skins that wrapped her, she screamed, “Alizar! Alizar!”

Beside me, the half-brother who bore that name trembled. He shook his head, covered his ears. But it was not to him she cried out.

I glared up at Alizar — the other Alizar — he whom Betony had known and loved the instant she had beheld him. Alizar the Eleven-Eyed, to whom she had been sent, all unbeknownst to her, by the Fifteenth Angel — a gift from across the serac. Alizar, the Seventh Angel, who had made Betony his saint. His second saint. Something none of the other angels had.

“Do something!” I hissed at him aloud — though he could have read my thoughts just as well. No one else heard me; all attention in the Celestial Corridor was fastened on Razoleth, who, with Betony in his arms, was mounting the golden steps to the sacrificing pool.

High above us, the angel Alizar shifted on his throne, his inner glow increasing until it overspilled his skin in an agitated nimbus.

What can I do, Ish? Oh, Ish, what must I do?

During the New War, when the Koss Var Air Force tried to bomb Gelethel the way it had bombed our neighboring city-states Sanis Al and Rok Moris, the airborne ordinance would make a certain sound when it dropped within two hundred meters of our city. It was the sound of a glass mountain shattering. The bombs never made it into the city; it would simply atomize. A smear of light would streak across our skies, and Gelethel would tremble within the cold blue diamond of its surrounding serac. The serac itself would whistle and tinkle, like wind chimes made of ice. And then the Angelic City would fall silent, unhurt and untouched. Nonplussed but undaunted, the KVAF tried again and again to bomb us into memory — hoping to one day surprise a way past our defenses. They never did.

That glass-shattering sound was just a memory. But it was what I heard when Uncle Razoleth dumped Betony into the sacrificing pool. It was the sound of Alizar’s heart breaking. Or mine. Not much difference between us these days.

Inside the pool’s deep glass bowl, raw animal skins unfurled from Betony’s body like a ball of flowering tea. They drifted away from her, floating in clouds of their own blood, helped by Betony, who was thrashing herself free of the last of them. Bobbing to the surface, she splashed her way to the pool’s edge, surprisingly nimble in the water for such a sand cat.

But Uncle Razoleth was kneeling on the lip of the pool, waiting for her. His hands-turned-jaws grabbed Betony by the hair and thrust her back down.

Betony gasped hugely and in vain before the water closed around her. I moved closer to the sacrificing pool, helpless, reaching out.

Her eyes met mine through the gold-glazed glass between us.

So did the large pale eyes of Thathia’s eels, the eels that were now my uncle’s arms. Were the angels suspicious? Was Thathia herself watching me, and through me, Alizar?

I couldn’t be sure — and anyway, Uncle Razoleth was merely possessed of angels, not an angel himself. I was allowed to see him fully, just like everyone else, and if his fingers wanted to have a staring contest with me as they drowned this girl, well, there was nothing I could do about that. Better to stare into those eyes than watch Betony refuse and refuse and and refuse and then, finally, take that fatal, watery breath.

I tasted brine all the way down my esophagus.

Thathia, Zerat, and Rathanana shrieked in three-part discord as they fed on her death. Their jubilation, their rapture, and the intense, disorienting bliss they communicated through song blacked out the rest of the Celestial Corridor to my sight, just for a moment — until the angel Alizar, high above me on the Hundred Stair Tier, flamed up hugely like a pillar of fire.

Then flickered out. Like a snuffed candle. Like the light in Betony’s eyes.

I gasped, gut-punched.

Alizar’s thirteen colleagues twisted in their seats to look for him. But he was no longer there. The Seventh Throne was as empty to their angelic senses as it was to the Gelthic laity. They stirred, uneasily. My molars started up the root-canal ache of their singing. They were calling for him, demanding he return. But they could not reach him, and it frightened them.

I swallowed a yelp as Alizar flashed into existence right in front of me.

Opposite Uncle Razoleth, who could not see him, he landed on the rim of the golden pool. On toes like golden claws he perched, clinging like a bird, glowing down into the pool intently, frowning with all his eyes.

And then a new voice sliced through the enamel-stripping song in my mouth. It flooded my tongue with copper and gentian, like biting down on a toothy bit of aloe vera.

Alizar the Eleven-Eyed was speaking from two red mouth slits that had appeared like slashes down either side of his face. He spoke softly, his words a prayer — a prayer not unknown to the other thirteen, who reacted variously: some crackling with rage, or cackling with terrified laughter, some sweating crystal clusters of resentful orpiment, others exuding miasmal perfumes of admiration.

It was the prayer of an angel declaring his saint for the first time in a generation.

Of course, no angel had claimed a dead person for their saint before; there wasn’t a song for that. But now that the sacrifice was complete and Betony dead, Alizar could do with the body as he pleased; that was canon.

The angels watched him, fascinated. A few protested, others silenced them. The angels Zerat, Rathanana, and Thathia were practically formless with repletion, oblivious to events. These were Alizar’s greatest critics, the only ones who might have stopped him — but they could not be bothered to move.

The waters in the sacrificing pool began to boil. Host Razoleth snatched his hand from Betony’s hair — it was a human hand again, bereft of angels. Blisters immediately formed on his skin. He was abruptly off-balance, half the size he’d been just a moment before, stripped of the armor Rathanana had turned into animal skins. 

Like all Hosts after a dispossession, my good uncle was urgently sapped from holding so much heat and light for so long. He swooned — and this time, his comrades of the Holy Host were there to catch him as he fell. They lifted him onto a stretcher, and bore him out of the Celestial Corridor — not without a few curious glances behind them at the foaming sacrificing pool, where Betony’s body, released from Razoleth’s drowning grip, was rising to the surface.

Eucalyptus-scented brine boiled and foamed around the corpse. After so many sacrifices, I knew that men mostly drowned facedown, and women face-up. This was not always true, but it was true today.

The angel Alizar made a quick, crooking gesture with his finger. No one saw this but myself and the angels. Everyone else simply tracked Betony’s body as it skidded across the water toward him. Alizar flicked his finger again — one long golden talon entwined with trailing plumes and bell-like blossoms — and the body floated right out of the sacrificing pool.

It hovered above the surface, water sluicing from its hair and the torn remnants of its clothes onto the floor. A small wave ran over my toes, soaking my sandals. Corpse water. Martyr water. Dozens of pilgrims rushed in with kerchiefs and cloths to soak it up, to hoard as holy relics or to sell. Scavengers.

Other than me, only the dead girl’s half-brother didn’t fall to his knees and scrabble in the wet. He had raised his face blearily to the body buoyed up only by air, and I did not know what his expression meant. Regret, perhaps, at a loathsome necessity. Some fear. Some relief. Mostly regret.

He stretched his hand toward the body, as if wanting to snatch it down from its levitation, eager perhaps to honor it in death. But his half-sister’s body was too high for him to reach, and out of his purview besides. He couldn’t stop whatever was happening now, any more than the angel Alizar or I could have stopped Betony from drowning in the first place.

The Seventh Angel made a complicated gesture with his talon. Betony’s floating corpse spun around until it hung just before him, its face level with his. A third mouth slit appeared below the three green eyes on his chin, curving upward in a red bow, like a smile.

Live!

And then, aloud, for everyone in the Celestial Corridor to hear — and shining so brightly that everyone could also see, just for a moment, the fire and feathers and flowers and eyes torqued into the shape of a man — the Seventh Angel sang:

“LIVE!”

A jet of water shot from Betony’s mouth and nose, voiding her lungs.

For the second time that day, three of the fourteen angels screamed in outraged agony. Their sacrifice was coming unsacrificed, the feast falling away from them. Bliss blinked out; they were left sullen and starving as a saint was resurrected before their eyes — and there was nothing they could do to get her back.

At my side, the boy Luzarius groaned and bent double, as though felled by cramps. He groaned again when the Seventh Angel reached out his golden talon next and touched the un-drowned girl on her water-beaded brow.

All eleven of Alizar’s eyes slid from their fixed marks on the lustrous parchment of his skin, and sank into him. This left his aspect weirdly naked: a collection of rainbow plumage, fronds, blooms, and green-gold flickers of light. A second later, those eleven eyeballs all popped up again upon Betony’s brow, forming a perfect circle around it.

The next moment, everyone in the Celestial Corridor gasped. This, this they could see!

Now it was not Alizar’s eyes that adorned her brow, but jewels — eleven jewels, set at perfect intervals into a braid of shining platinum. There were two star sapphires, a black pearl, three square-cut tourmalines, a chunk of polished tiger iron, three faceted red beryls, and a yellow diamond. The scorched shreds of Betony’s clothes melted away into a shimmering, and the shimmering resolved into gleaming garments: silver satin, silver lace, thread of silver embroidery, and more twinkling silver sequins than had been worn by all the dancers put together who had ever appeared onstage at the Sexy Seraph Cabaret on robot burlesque night.

Turning to the Heraldic Voice, the angel Alizar said something in a stentorian tone.

The Heraldic Voice understood the order immediately. Cracks appeared in the lenses of their pince-nez. Two capillaries popped in their left eye. Their right nostril began to bleed. But they nodded at once, and gestured for a nearby warrior of the Holy Host, who stepped forward and saluted.

“Take her to the Seventh Anchorhold,” the Heraldic Voice told the Host. “Show her all reverence due a saint of Gelethel.”

“Yes, Herald,” the Host replied. She mounted the steps and approached the saint, arms held before her in worshipful salutation. “Come, my saint. I will bear you home.”

The Seventh Angel (eyeball-less now, but more for show and shock than because he couldn’t manifest more of them) smiled approvingly at the Host with all of his mouth slits. But his flirtations were, as usual, wasted on her; she could not see him. Nevertheless, Alizar sent his saint wafting toward her with little puffs of the tiny insect wings that glittered and chittered all over him. Betony floated into the Host’s waiting arms.

At this, the boy Luzarius squawked, “A saint!”

He slopped through the mess on the floor to fall at the feet of the Heraldic Voice. “Herald, my sis — Betony — she, she cannot be a saint. She is smirched. She doesn’t even believe in, in the angels. She worships the false god of Cherubtown … she is unworthy!”

The Heraldic Voice paused, uncertain of procedure. The angels were reacting variously, some affronted at the very idea of a god so close as Cherubtown, some still howling with disappointment over the lost sacrifice, and many, many of them casting furtive, fearful glimpses at the Seventh Angel, Alizar — who had just done what none of them could do — who had resurrected a pilgrim girl to be his saint.

Resurrection was not an angelic talent. Resurrection was for the godhead, and the angels of Gelethel had eaten their god long ago.

The angel Alizar said quietly, for my ears only, I am spent, Ish. I must conceal myself awhile and gather strength. I will come to you anon.

“Don’t let the others find you,” I told him in the quietness of my mind.

I could only imagine what they would do to him, weakened as he was, and after such shocking behavior.

And how.

And he vanished, agitating the other angels all over again.

“You, young person,” the Heraldic Voice was coldly informing the boy Luzarius, “are in a precarious situation. We must consult the Hagiological Archives for precedent. Meanwhile, your citizenship shall be held in abeyance until such time as this matter is resolved. Until then, you shall be kept prisoner in our saltcellars.”

With that, they nodded toward the Hundred Stair Tier. A detachment of the Holy Host stepped down at once to drag the wailing boy away.


***********************************************

Maya shudders. "Wow!"

"I'm kind of glad that wasn't the last time we read before sleep," he admits,

"It's really vivid and a really great world, and I really want to read the rest of it, but you're right, it might have given me nightmares," Maya admits.

The library is very dark outside their little circle of light,

"I think this will be less stressful," he says, picking up the other book he brought down. "It's by Kate Heartfield, and it's called In a Hansom Cab At The Liberty Street Ferry Terminal."

And they lean together in the light and read.

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