When an angel slips through the synagogue's window on Sabbath evening, followed immediately by the god Mercury, Aster does not scream. She stares, she forgets to breathe, forgets about the service, but does not scream. Mercury stops and perches on the window sill, coming no further. The angel, however, enters fully and stretches its wings, huge and golden, across the span of the room. Aster's parents take no notice. Her younger sister yawns as the prayer reading continues in the light of two slowly burning candles. Aster remains silent and petrified.
"She is clearly bound to come with me, Malakh," says Mercury, and Aster jumps, hand clutching at her mother's robes. Her mother tsks and smooths her hair, a slight line of annoyance engraved between her eyebrows. No one else reacts. Aster chokes down fear. This is something mortals should not see.
"Aster!" her mother hisses. "You're too old for this fidgeting."
Aster stills, not because of her mother's scolding, but because the angel is speaking.
"Her faith will deliver her to me. It is stronger than you think," Malakh says. "Besides, she's in her own synagogue, what do you think her first impulse will be?"
"To follow someone she recognizes, someone whose face she has seen hundreds of times in stone and paint - someone familiar. Not the messenger of a severe and invisible god." Mercury sounds smug, playful, in contrast to the angel's even and expressionless voice.
"She will know her true God when she sees me," Malakh says. "This is not your temple."
Mercury dangles a leg carelessly inside the window. Aster can see the gleam of white feathers on his sandals. Between his fingers he twirls a thin staff and it hits her that he is here in his capacity as psychopomp - conductor of souls to the underworld.
Someone is going to die.
In quick succession, Aster fears for her mother, then for herself, then for her sister, before remembering that "she," of course, could mean any woman in the synagogue. She peers around in suppressed panic, half-expecting someone to fall bleeding and shrieking to the floor. But the service continues peacefully enough.
No, she thinks, it can't be real, it can't be. It's a vision, she's fallen asleep, she's hallucinating - she grasps at any explanation except reality. She knows everyone here in this room. They are her family and her family's friends, a tight-knit community of permanent outsiders in a varied, ever-changing world. None of them - "None of them will die," she hisses under her breath.
As soon as she speaks the words, two inhuman gazes snap towards her. Mercury sits bolt upright. Malakh's wings stiffen.
"Malakh," Mercury says, "that little girl can hear us."
"And see us, no doubt," Malakh replies, still calm and meditative. "Perhaps she is of a line of prophets."
"It's unwise to spy on gods."
"Yes." Malakh takes a step forward and his wings pass through the columns and people and candles as if they were air.
Aster's thread of courage breaks. She whirls and dashes through the congregation. Her mother hisses her name, but she takes no heed, slipping away through the crowd.
Outside, the air is cool and quiet. She has not escaped. Her breath rings in her ears and her eyes fill with light as they come: descending from above, the wind from their wings smelling of fire and lightning. It freezes her to the spot.
"Do not fear," Malakh says, neither threatening nor kind. "Prophet child, you must know that an angel of God will do you no evil."
"So he says." Mercury alights on the ground and circles her with delicate steps. "Your master is a harsh one, Malakh. Perhaps he'll smite the child for idolatry. She must believe in me to see me, yes?"
"But she does not worship you. And why should He smite her whom He has gifted with sight?" Malakh counters.
"Perhaps he's not the giver."
The two of them look at Aster and she finds she can breathe now, though fear still pulses in her throat.
"Well, little one? Do you think this vision is a gift from your god?" Mercury says, half-mocking.
If an angel and a god don't know the answer, then surely she cannot, either. But in the cold center of her fear, an idea sprouts.
She speaks up with more confidence than she feels. "It's clear what has happened. I was permitted to see you so I could perform a Judgment. Like Paris," she says. "To choose who receives the - the prize."
Malakh and Mercury appear mildly skeptical, but interested.
"You believe you are qualified to judge between us?" Malakh says.
"Well, Paris was chosen because he was innocent in the ways of the world, wasn't he? And unbiased?"
"So you think yourself innocent and unbiased?" Mercury this time.
"The scriptures say children are."
"That is true," Malakh says, even as Mercury protests, "They are wrong." They glance at each other and both fall silent.
"Why else would you appear before me just when this dispute arose?" Aster hurries on.
Mercury shrugs as if the whole matter is beneath him. "It is all one to me," he says. "Since she knows our old stories so well, she will likely decide in my favor, anyway."
"She is Jewish!" Malakh protests.
Aster listens to them argue with astonishment. There is a distinct lack of divinity to the squabbling. In the end, they harangue each other into agreeing, perhaps as much to their own surprise as hers.
"I will defer to your judgment," Malakh says finally. "I swear it upon our God."
"And I swear it upon - myself," Mercury smirks.
Aster draws herself up as tall as she can. "My judgment is this: you must ask the dying person what she wants, and then abide by her decision."
Mercury needles her a bit about her judgment being to ask someone else's judgment; but not long after, the congregation begins to file out (Aster spies her mother's thunderous face, no longer as intimidating as it seemed in the past) and both Mercury and Malakh grow very still. It is old Sarah who falls stricken to the dust. Aster covers her face with both hands, feeling tears begin to come. There are shouts and calls for help. Someone runs toward Ostia for a doctor. She hears Malakh speak.
"Both of us have a claim to be your soul's guide after death. You must decide what you want. We have both agreed to comply with your own desire."
Aster is close enough to hear the old woman sputter, "But - I don't want to die," close enough to see identical expressions of pure annoyance on two unearthly faces, close enough to witness Sarah's miraculous recovery from what a moment ago had seemed to be a fatal fit. And too close to escape her mother boxing her ear as she laughs and laughs, the loudest sound in the sudden silence brought about by an absence of divine messengers.