They called the thief the Spider of Breven.
In return, the Jansai called slander. They lifted their voices in a chorus of outrage; they banged on the table with heavy fists, their bejeweled wrists and fingers flashing in the candlelight, their heavy jowls trembling in indignation, howling that the criminal could not possibly be one of theirs.
Archangel Nicolas didn’t argue. He left it to Phillip to reason with them, to elucidate how, while it was true that reports of the Spider had come from across Samaria – from the filigree towers of Semorrah to the streets of blue Luminaux, from the sprawling homes of the Mandaavi to the market town of Velora at the foot of the Eyrie – their seemingly random nature in fact coincided precisely with the movement of certain Jansai caravans.
It was a canny choice on the Archangel’s part. The Jansai liked Phillip. At least, they liked the fact that he was a mortal, being suspicious of angels in general and Nicolas in particular. But still they refused to admit to any wrongdoing, claiming that they were honest men, traders and merchants merely trying to scratch out a living from the poor soil of Breven.
Clint had known Jansai wealthier than any Mandaavi landowner, and he had never met one that he would trust to watch his back. In his carefully-considered opinion, they were all con-men and thieves. But… well, one thing was true: they were not sneaks. They would rob you blind, but they would do so from the other end of the negotiation table, smiling widely as they spoke of tariffs and taxes and transportation fees. They were thieves, but they had elevated their larceny almost to an art form, and practiced it in broad daylight.
The Spider, however, was a creature of the shadows.
Later, after the summit, Nicolas took Clint aside. “I need you to find this Spider. Stop him. Quietly. But quickly. Before spring.”
Clint frowned, incredulous. “You think some petty thief is a danger to the Gloria?” It was difficult to imagine one man disrupting a gathering of such magnitude. And for what purpose?
“This is not just any thief. And this is not just any Gloria,” said Nicolas, whose twenty-year term as Archangel would end this spring. His successor had already been chosen by Jovah: the angel Maria, leader of the host at Monteverde. Clint liked Maria, her cleverness and her determination, but it would be some time before she had a tenth of Nicolas’s experience and command. Could the Spider be some deep-laid Jansai plan to undermine the office of the Archangel at a moment of weakness?
“Why me?” he asked Nicolas. There were near fifty other angels at the Eyrie, many of them the Archangel’s cronies, most with greater stature and influence among the host. It was difficult to believe that an important assignment would be entrusted to someone who’d spent most of his youth making a pest out of himself.
“Because,” said Nicolas gravely, “I trust your eyes.”
So Clint flew to Castelana, site of the most recent theft, launching himself from the tip of Mount Velo as the perpetual harmonies rose and fell behind him. The crisp autumn air felt good on his skin, the currents strong and steady as they swept up from the foot of the mountain. The clouds hung low, the same steely-gray color as his wings; he considered gaining altitude, climbing above the cloud deck and enjoying the sunshine, but in the end he did his duty, staying low enough to the ground to spot plague flags or caravans in distress, signs of flooding or the earmarks of drought.
I trust your eyes. It was something, at least. Clint knew he had no talent as a diplomat, and no taste for leadership. He was not the fastest flier, or the strongest, and his voice was only middling. Oh, Jovah always granted his prayers, of course, but not with the same alacrity as when the weather intercessions were sent up by other angels, like Jemma or Leo. He signed up for harmonics, but only because it was expected of all the residents of the Eyrie, and the mortal shop-keeps in Velora had long ago learned not to bother asking him to sing for their patrons.
But his vision had always been good. Nicolas often had him fly patterns across Bethel, looking for stranded travelers out of Semorrah, sick famers down by the Corinnis, and foolish folks attempting to ford the Galilee. He’d even been known to warn Edori tribes when Jansai caravans are near, although strictly speaking it wasn’t part of his job.
Noontime came and he considered stopping to eat and rest at Mt. Sinai, a tall, craggy peak to his north, but the new oracle there was somewhat… disconcerting. The man had been to the Eyrie a handful of times, and while Clint had no cause to doubt his intelligence or his ability, there was something in his eyes that spoke of danger, and of anger just barely contained.
It was said that some oracles, newly called to serve the god, found their isolation to be a difficult adjustment. The oracle of Sinai, Clint suspected, might in fact do better to be kept away from others.
Still, he could ask Jovah who the Spider is. The god knew every man and woman on Samaria, angel or oracle or mortal, following their lives through the crystalline Kiss in their arms, and the oracles knew the language of god. He could ask. But surely it couldn’t be that easy, or Nicolas would have already done as much.
So Clint landed on a grassy plain in the shadow of the mountain, ate some food from his bag, rested his wings for perhaps a quarter-hour, and then continued on his way.
The Spider’s victim in Castelana was an irascible mortal named Anthony who, according to his neighbors, was actually a Mandaavi transplant rich enough to buy and sell the entire city several times over. Clint wondered what could possess anyone to move from the fertile north of Gaza and the luxuries of the landed gentry to this humble, unpretentious river city… until he met the man. And his workshop.
“Yes, I’m an inventor,” said Anthony, in the voice of a one obligated to make the same explanation on a regular basis. “No, my family didn’t approve. Yes, I have issues with my father. No, I don’t want to discuss them. Now, do you want to see what he took?”
Getting inside the workshop was a rather difficult matter. In the holds, and the cities servicing them, architecture was built on an angelic scale, with wide doorways and chairs meant to accommodate wings. In these more provincial environs, no such consideration was given. Thankfully, Clint was able to squeeze into the low-ceilinged room without losing more than a feather or two.
There was much to see, and most of it he could make no sense of: gears and cogs, models of unknown contraptions, wood and wire frameworks. “Jarvis!” Anthony called, and a tall, pale man emerged from an adjoining room, a dented metal box in hand.
“Well?” demanded Anthony, gesturing impatiently at the box. “Do you have an explanation for this?”
“I can’t say that I do,” admitted Clint, bemused. “What is it?”
“A component from one of the music rooms at Windy Point,” said the Mandaavi impatiently. “It stopped working a few months ago. I’m trying to figure out why.”
Clint had no problem imagining that such a man might be invited to the hold to consult on such a problem, but the leader of the Windy Point host, Virginia, was usually more… oh. “Virginia doesn’t know you have this, does she?”
Anthony blustered. “That’s not really the issue.”
“Of course it isn’t.”
“Are you saying that she sent the Spider to recover this? Because that would be…”
“No,” said Clint quickly. Great Jovah singing, as if he needed more proof that he wasn’t meant to be a diplomat. “How do you even know the Spider was involved?”
Anthony grunted and motioned for Clint to come deeper into the workshop. His wings brushed the rafters as they approached the window.
Like the others Nicolas had mentioned, the pane of glass was broken. Lines radiated out from the center, jagged cracks mimicking the fine threads of an impossibly-delicate spider web. In the center was a smudge of rust that must once have been bright red: blood. The sign of the Spider.
“If he took your box,” wondered Clint, “how is it that you have it back?”
“Because the cretin didn’t keep it,” said Anthony. “He dropped it five miles north of here on the river road. A traveler found it, showed it to Jarvis, and he brought it to me. Otherwise I might have never seen it again.”
“Yes, well, then you and Virginia would have had something in common.”
Anthony scowled, pressing on. “As you can see, it’s been damaged. There’s no way of knowing how badly. Critical parts may be beyond even my skill to repair!”
“I understand,” said Clint, although he didn’t. Not at all. Why travel to Castelana, break into the workshop, leave the sign in the window… and then abandon the metal box on the road? Had the Spider taken the wrong object, and only later realized his mistake? Had he dropped it by accident? Neither possibility seemed credible.
North. The river road led north to Semorrah.
Exhausted by his flight from the Eyrie, he spent the night in Castelana. It was an uncomfortable experience – the inn was no more built with angels in mind than Anthony’s workshop – and he was eager to leave come morning, despite the threat of rain.
Once again he flew low, watching for suspicious, solitary travelers following the Galilee, as well as those in peril, but the roads were empty on both sides of the river. Clint guessed that the inauspicious weather had kept would-be tradesmen snug at home, and he considered going aloft for an intercession, but the fact was that the farmers of Bethel and Jordana needed the rain. Besides, prayers took time to deliver, and a man on foot might well have passed through Semorrah before he was done. His much-vaunted eyes would do him no good if there wasn’t anything to see.
He reached his destination in the midst of a smoke-gray twilight. The domes, towers, spires and arches – as pale as milk in sunlight – seemed to drink in the darkness of the Galilee, which rushed past on both sides of the island city. The webbed bridge from the Jordana side swayed precariously in the wind, and the boats which ferried passengers from the Bethel shore were all safely stored away in preparation for the storm.
It would be a storm; Clint was sure of it now, as only an angel who has spent half his life in the skies can be. He could feel it on his skin, and he could smell it in the air.
What had the Spider come here to steal? He had been here before, nearly half a year ago, in one of his first known transgressions. Clint couldn’t remember offhand what had been taken, but there was all manner of wealth in Semorrah: gold from the mountains, jewelry from Luminaux, fabulous white-stone mansions reaching towards the sky, merchants and servants and bondspeople who – it was whispered – were in some households little better than slaves.
The rain began abruptly, the drops falling like needles against Clint’s skin. The streets, avenues and alleyways below, looking something like a spider web themselves, emptied as residents and tourists, rich and poor alike, scrambled for shelter in houses and hovels, cafes and clothiers. Clint’s wings were sodden in a matter of moments, and the fitful winds buffeted him from side to side.
There were many hotels in the city, several catering specially to angels, where he could find a hot meal, a comfortable bed, and even a change of clothes. Still he soared over the deserted streets, wheeling above the churning river, coming around for another pass, threading his way between steeples and spires as fanciful and delicate as spun sugar, his passage silent, the faint rustle of wet wings hidden beneath the moan and whistle of the storm.
And then he saw it.
A flash of movement, gray on gray, half-hidden in the shadow of a domed and columned structure. Clint beat his wings, fighting to remain aloft as the winds shoved at him from every side, keeping his eyes trained on the small speck of movement, the even stride, the flutter of cloth.
I have to get lower.
An angel was not a gargoyle; they were made to glide through the air, not hunch atop eaves or gutters. But there was one building with a series of flat, receding roofs, each with an overhang, like a fantastical wedding cake. He managed to land beneath one such awning, three stories above the ground. At least it was mostly dry under here, and he was able to shake some of the water from his wings, and watch.
The figure, cloaked and hooded, continued up the street. It might have been some unlucky mortal caught in the storm with no easy refuge, or one charged with a task too important to wait. Maybe this person was going for a doctor. Maybe he was a doctor. But there was something that piqued Clint’s interest, something in the way the man walked: with ease, with confidence, as though the rain and wind were not a bother, as though they were in fact his allies.
The figure turned a corner – Clint followed, stepping carefully on the rain-slicked stone – stopped in front of a stately manor house, and began to climb.
He moved quickly, finding foot and toe-holds where there should have been none, ascending so smoothly that he might have been floating, and stopping only when he had reached a certain second-story window. Then he balanced on the narrow ledge, raised the sash, and slipped inside.
Is it that simple? If it was, Clint was shocked that more mortals hadn’t turned to thievery long ago. Of course, nothing had been easy about the figure’s trespass; the manor house faced a busy street, and the thief would never have been able to make his climb if the rain had not driven all other would-be witnesses indoors. And surely there weren’t many with the talent and nerve to climb a sheer brick wall with such ease.
Clint thought about going down, knocking on the manor’s door and introducing himself to the owner, and going upstairs to catch the thief in the act. He would have done it, if he hadn’t been alone, if there wasn’t such a good chance that the man in the cloak would slip back out the window and melt into the dripping streets before Clint could explain the situation. The Archangel should have sent two of us, he thought. But then there were so few angels in the world, and so many jobs to do.
Still, as he crouched beneath the overhang, measuring time in drips and gusts and waiting for the thief to appear back at the window with his ill-gotten goods, he began to worry. What if the Spider – if this was in fact the Spider – had graduated from burglary to something worse? Something violent? Violence was rare – Samarians held the Librera close to their hearts, and the Librera extolled harmony above all things – and most of it, in Clint’s opinion, were perpetrated by the Jansai against such unfortunates as the Edori. But it was horrible to imagine that he was sitting here, doing nothing, while unknown horrors were being perpetrated…
And then the sash went up again, and the man in the cloak slipped back onto the sill. Or was it a man? It was hard to tell, beneath the layers of wet cloth, but it seemed that the figure was small and slight enough to be a boy.
Lightning flashed, a sudden hot streak against the sky, and the figure looked up. Directly at Clint.
The hood fell back, and a second bolt of light illuminated the face within: a pale oval, set with wide green eyes and framed by wet red curls. Not a man. Not a boy. A woman.
And not a Jansai.
She started at the sight of him. One foot slipped off the ledge, one hand flailed. Clint took a step forward, flared out his wings… and for a second, only a second, he hesitated. He could almost hear the Archangel’s voice in his ear, coldly practical: if she falls, the problem may well solve itself.
But in fact there was little he could do. If he was not a gargoyle, he also was not a hummingbird, to hover in place against the side of a building, in the midst of a storm. It was different, going aloft to pray for rain or sunlight or grain or medicine from the god, up above the clouds, where the air was so thin he could almost see the notes ascending to Jovah’s ear. There was nothing so beatific here, only water and wind and the falling woman, and he jumped from the roof, gliding down as close to the manor as he dared, settling onto the wet earth beneath her window, thinking to catch her, or at least break her fall.
But she did not fall.
Her arm swung back up, a move as graceful as a dancer’s, and her hand caught the lintel above the window. And she climbed up.
The manor house was only two stories, a rarity in Semorrah, where every inch of land was developed and the only direction left to go was up. The thief vanished over the edge of the roof as Clint stepped back, readied himself, flared his wings, and jumped into the wind.
A gust almost smashed him into the side of the manor; he struggled, cursing aloud, and just managed to clear the roof. It was not flat, but the pitch was gentle and the tiles reassuringly rough beneath his feet.
The woman was standing at the topmost ridge, just above a small dormer window with mullioned panes. She noted his arrival, paused, and shed the cumbersome hooded cloak. The cloth fell to her feet and was almost instantly whisked away into the night.
She was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman, angel or mortal, that Clint had ever seen, not just because of her face or her eyes or her hair – which were all lovely – but the way she moved, with calm confidence, even here on the wet ridgeline, one move away from death. She was not frightened. She was not angry. Dressed in close-fitting clothes not unlike his flying leathers, he could easily behold every line and curve of her body, yet what held his eye was the way she looked at him: challenging, mocking, expectant, appreciative – it was all of these things and also none of them.
“I had no idea I warranted an angel,” she said, lifting her voice above the rain.
Her voice was the purest music, as powerful as the wind, and for a moment he couldn’t think how to respond. “We thought you were Jansai.”
For a moment she looked sad, but her mouth softened only an instant before tightening again, her eyes flashing as water traced the lines of her face. “The Archangel sent you, then. Did he tell you to kill me?”
“No!” said Clint, horrified, but… well, Nicolas had never truly said what he wanted done with the Spider. Stop him. The fact that the Spider was a woman shouldn’t matter, not when two of the three holds were led by women, not when Jovah had called Maria to be Archangel, and yet Clint found himself instantly repulsed by the idea of doing her harm. Still, she is dangerous. To Samaria. To me. He didn’t know what that meant, but he knew that it was true.
“Will you put me in a cell, then?” the woman asked, putting one hand to her hip. The way she looked at him chilled his bones and warmed his blood at the same time, and he wondered inanely if he would melt or boil away. “I hear there are places in the deep darkness of Windy Point where a man’s screams might never be heard.” Before he could object, she nodded to his bracelets, whose sapphires marked him as an angel of the Eyrie. “But you are not from Jordana.”
“I was born there,” he blurted. “In the foothills of the Heldoras, to a mortal woman.” He’d never met his angelic father, did not even know his name, for it was a subject his mother had refused to broach. He had a sense that his father had been a cruel man, and that they had been better off without him.
The woman frowned. She was soaked through, and must be cold – mortals’ blood did not run as hot as angels’ – but she seemed not to notice the discomfort.
“I was raised there,” Clint continued. It seemed that he was not speaking loudly, and yet he knew the woman could hear every word. “With my mortal brother. It was remote. No one thought to find an angel in such a place, so no one looked. I was thirteen before I set foot in one of the holds.”
The Spider lifted her chin. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I think you’re planning on jumping off this roof, and I’m trying to stall you.”
She tensed. So did he. He was not sure if he could clear the dormer, reach the ridgeline and leap after her in time, so he continued, speaking as quickly as he dared. “I think you expected to be caught, but not here, not now. I think you have the look of the Mandaavi, but by your actions we were meant to think you were Jansai.” She hadn’t seemed surprised when he’d said as much before. “Why did you come here tonight? Whose house is this? What did you steal?”
For a long moment he did not think she would answer, and yet he feared to take another step. Finally her hand dropped away from her hip, rain dribbling from her fingertips, and her green eyes clouded. “I didn’t come to steal,” she said dispiritedly. “I came for new orders.”
“Orders?” Clint gaped. Jansai did not live in the city, certainly not in manors such as this. “You’re working for a Semorran?”
“I was. You’re right that I was not ready to be caught.” And with a wry half-smile, she stepped back, and fell out of sight.
He reached the ridgeline in two long strides, gritting his teeth as he prepared to launch himself into a dive that might smash him into road or wall, but in the gray stormlight, as he watched the woman vanish below the eaves, he saw something else: a rope, affixed to a metal stanchion driven into the roof.
Instead of diving, Clint launched himself into the air. It took several hard beats of his wings to gain a safe height. By the time it was safe to look down, he saw only the end of the rope swinging a few feet above the ground, in a service alley on the west side of the manor. But of the woman, the red-haired, green-eyed Spider, there was no sign.
He did not imagine he would ever see her again. He certainly had no thought that he would meet her that very evening.
And yet, when he retired to his room to sleep – having eaten his supper in the hotel’s common dining room, and being spared the need to sing for the mortals by the presence of two more talented angels – she was there, sitting on his bed.
She was dressed in a fine gown, as black as night, as her red curls were pulled back from her face. She had a relaxed air about her, and an almost contented expression, but Clint had no delusions that she was here for a pleasant chat. “Hello,” he said carefully, closing the door behind him.
The Spider stood. She had been lovely by stormlight; by candlelight, she was so gorgeous that it made his heart hurt. “Who are you?” she asked boldly.
Clint chuckled. “You managed to get into my room before I did. You must know my name.”
She smiled without warmth. “The angel Clinton, of the Eyrie. I know your name. I want to know who you are.”
There was a set of chairs in the room, cut to accommodate angel wings, comfortably upholstered. He took one of them, always careful to keep the woman in his sight. If she would jump off a roof in the middle of a storm, she might do anything, and while he could not remember hearing of violence perpetrated against an angel in his lifetime, he suspected that this woman was capable of any act. “That makes two of us,” he said mildly. “Can we come to an agreement, then? An answer for an answer?”
She nodded minutely.
“Then I think it’s your turn. You already know my name.”
Another smile, this one not quite so humorless. “You can call me Nat.”
“Not a name from the Librera.”
“Neither is Clinton.”
He shrugged. “Folks in the Heldoras can be a bit odd. It was my grandfather’s name. But the Jansai preferred to call me Hawk.”
The statement surprised her, as he’d expected it would. “Why?”
He pretended to misunderstand her question. “My wings were darker when I was a child,” he said, self-consciously ruffling the feathers.
Nat made an annoyed sound. “No… I meant, why would the Jansai call you anything?”
“They know every inch of Samaria, just as the Edori do. My mother would trade with the caravans sometimes, for things we could not make ourselves.”
“So the Jansai knew that you were there. But they did not tell the other angels.”
“They said they were happy to keep our secret.” The way the traders had spoken had made Clint feel as though the secret were one that had to be kept, that his mother had never presented him at the hold for some dark, crucial reason… not simply because she was too unwell to make the long trip to Windy Point. Ultimately he had come to fear his angelic brethren, sight unseen. “When my mother died, my brother was determined to travel to Luminaux. He wanted to be a musician, a craftsman, a performer… anything, as long as it meant being around people. I was too afraid to go, to be found. He left without me. I was stubborn, and scared… just a child, still… but before I could make up my mind to go after him… the Jansai came.”
Nat sank back down onto his bed, transfixed. “And then?”
Clint smiled. “Your turn.”
She blinked, and gave him a hard look. “I was born in Gaza, as you guessed,” she said shortly. “Near Monteverde. My mother was an angel-seeker, they say, and as you can clearly see, I am not an angel.”
Clint shook his head in disgust. He knew of angel-seekers, of course, although Velora did not teem with them the way Monteverde did. He would have nothing to do with the sort, unable to look at the women without seeing his own poor mother. “She abandoned you?”
Nat shrugged. “An angel baby would have gained her universal acclaim, and a place in the hold for the rest of her days,” she said acerbically. “The instant the midwife told her I did not have wings, I’m sure she counted me as a lost opportunity, and a wasted nine months.”
“And what happened…”
“Her family took me in. An aunt, a cousin… for a year, or maybe two, and then I was passed on to the next. I was sent to Semorrah to live for a while with an uncle. I waited at the docks all night. He never came. When I told the harbormaster his name, he said there was no such man in Semorrah.” She folded her hands in her lap, and raised her brows expectantly.
Clint sighed. “The Jansai were on their way back to Breven. When I understood their intentions, I tried to fly, but they were faster. They tied me up and put me in their cart. From what I gathered, they thought it was a brilliant stroke of luck. I could scout for their caravans, they thought, and look for Edori to capture or harass. If nothing else I would be an amusing curiosity: a pet angel, kept like a trained falcon… or a hawk, and they could earn some coin that way.”
Nat sniffed. “They would never have gotten away with such a thing for long.”
“Nor did they. Before we even reached Breven I was discovered.”
“By the Archangel?” she guessed, glancing at his sapphires again.
He could see that this amused her. “I thought he kept house for Nicolas at the Eyrie.”
“He’s one of the Archangel’s most trusted advisors. He was born in Luminaux, but raised in Breven by his merchant parents, so the Jansai see him as… something like one of their own. Nicolas had sent him there to negotiate some matter of trade, and he was returning to the Eyrie, going south of the Caitenas. He says that when his carriage passed my caravan, the Kiss in his arm began to glow, and burn with a cold heat, as though Jovah were trying to get his attention, to tell him that I was there.”
Nat smirked. “The children’s stories all say that Kisses only alight in the presence of destined lovers,” she said dryly. When he ignored her, responding instead with pointed silence, she pouted and gave another little shrug. “The harbormaster knew a man, who knew a woman, who had a brother. They taught me many things, and made it clear I was beholden to them for the learning.” Almost unconsciously, her right hand brushed against her left arm. Her dress had long sleeves, and he wondered what scars they might hide. “They planned to use me… to discredit the Jansai and then, when I was discovered, embarrass the Mandaavi. Two very wealthy birds with one stone, and ultimately, they thought, the power-mongers of Semorrah would be the ones to benefit.”
Clint leaned forward, his wing feathers rustling against the floor. “You’ve been from one end of Samaria to the other since then. Why not simply… leave?”
She stared at him. Searching. Wondering. “Where would I go?” she asked. “I am not an angel, with a ready home at any hold. I had no Phillip to find me as a child. I was such a shame to my family that I was not even dedicated to Jovah.”
Was that what the sleeves were meant to hide? The lack of a Kiss in her arm? No wonder that Nicolas had never suggested that Clint speak to an oracle; they must have asked the god already, and received no reply. “Surely there is some place that would be better than this.”
“Some place?” She rose to her feet. Again, he was reminded of a dancer’s movements, and also of the motion of the Galilee: liquid, and full of power. “A place where I could starve?” she asked quietly. “A place where I must steal for survival, instead of pretense?” She took a step towards him. The room was not large. “What do I know, Clinton of the Eyrie, except how to sneak, how to slip through the shadows like a mouse and scale walls like a spider?” She put her hands on his shoulders. She was not a tall woman, and in his chair he found they were nearly of a height. “Should I take after my mother, and spend my life trying to find some angel to put his child in my belly?”
The thought kindled something within Clint… wrath, perhaps, or even jealousy towards this imagined man, and he took her face between his palms, and drew it down, and kissed her.
And she kissed him… with fervor, with passion, and perhaps with anger as well.
He realized, as he unbuttoned her dress, that he had never told the end of his story: of coming to the Eyrie as a scared, confused, hot-tempered adolescent… searching for his brother without luck… making his way in the world as part of a great, thousand-year tradition, and yet also feeling utterly apart, terribly alone…
She brushed her hands across his wings, tentatively, smiling as he shivered with pleasure. And he brushed his lips across each of her scars as they were revealed, and tried to forget that he did not really know her name.
And in the morning, she was gone.
Clint spent the eve of the Gloria in Nicolas’s pavilion on the Plain of Sharon, among angels of all three holds and influential mortals from all three provinces. There were Maria and her mortal angelico, Steven, who would lead the prayers come sunrise, affirming to Jovah that another year had passed in relative harmony. There were Jemma and Leo, whose voices could reach the god’s ear like no others, and who had promised fair weather for the ceremony. There was the dark-haired oracle of Sinai, and Melinda, Maria’s successor, and Virginia from Windy Point… who, rather amusingly, brought along the Mandaavi inventor, Anthony, as her guest.
There were many more he did not know: a tall, blond Semorran and his smaller, darker brother… a lovely Edori girl who was introduced as Skye… a handsome Gaza sailor who claimed to have sailed around the entire continent… and more. Many, many more.
And there, in the middle of it all, was the woman who had called herself Nat.
She wore the black dress, and her hair was pinned up in elaborate red whorls, and she smiled to see the look on his face. “Angelo,” she said respectful, smiling as the orchestra began to play. “Will you dance with me?”
“Angels don’t like to dance,” he informed her. “It’s too easy for clumsy mortals to step on our wings.”
But of course he danced with her anyway.
The dress covered so much of her skin, but he could still feel the shape of her beneath it, and of course he could remember. He put his hands on her waist in a gentlemanly pose, resisting the urge to pull her close so that she could not vanish again.
“Aren’t you worried for your wings?” she asked him at last.
“What damage could you do? You’ve already broken my heart.”
Her smile melted away. “I’ve heard a thing or two of angel hearts. It’s said that they’re not easily damaged.”
“And how many angels have you met, besides me?”
She scoffed. “Tonight? Many.”
“And before tonight?”
Her lips did not move, but her eyes were laughing. “I have known only one angel,” she admitted. “An odd sort who hailed from the Heldoras, with a strange mortal name and a penchant for flying in storms.” She tilted her head, and a red curl brushed against her cheek. “He told me once that there must be some place for me, some better place, and I wanted to believe him. I went looking for it. I sailed the Galilee, and camped with the Edori, and made my way from one province to another. Still I could not find the place he spoke of. And somehow I found myself here, along with half of Samaria. And I wondered if this could be the place.”
Clint’s mouth was dry. “The Plain of Sharon?” he asked, only half-joking.
She rolled her eyes, but she smiled, and leaned into his arms. “No,” she said. “Here.”