The city seemed a living thing, a stone leviathan harboring secrets beneath its scales. She heard its breath beneath the rumble of collapsing buildings and boiling firelight, a voice like the continual percussive thundering one heard when one put one's ear to the waves of the sea. It was the sound of millions and millions of creatures running and struggling and dying. A sound of pain. Of suffering.
The city was an urban pattern glowing in hues of orange, ginger, and ochre, its center a roiling surface stretching equally in all directions. Its towers and churches and bridges, its domes and bell towers and quaysides, curled black like kindling. The red moonlight did little to illuminate her body under the smoke, and the fire seemed hesitant to cast shadows. Even the horizon was lost, the black sea beyond the Thames bleeding seamlessly into the sky. The city seemed almost fractal, the architecture iterative, like stone cracking in the heat. Between splintered pavingstones, like tiny islands, were nestled clusters of red light, the reflections caught in the crushed-glass surfaces, casting a shimmering haze over everything.
As she walked, she was hardly aware of walking, her footprints washed out in brightness. There were ghosts in this place, she realized, with a thrill she could not place, could not name, but there was nothing haunting about them. The histories were too real, too fresh. The sense of presence seemed somehow dense and heavy and she had to fight the urge to rear back her shoulders, to glory in her being unable to decipher, or care about, really, the solemnity, the sadness, the horror, of the burning city.
The Thames ran beside her, sure and swift and boiling in the firelight, a ribbon of magma, dead-eyed treasures floating to the surface of the current and percussing against the shore: river-bloated rats, cold-meat corpses, eels plucking at their tender fingers and toes.
She chanced a glance down at her feet, wondering, for a moment, if the river had broken its banks. She waded through a substance dark brown, like wet grass, soaked in mud. It was warm and it smelled like a coin might taste under one's tongue... and it was unaccountably and indescribably good. It was thick, viscous, and went on, endlessly, for miles, sloughing between the buildings and heaving up in billows, tossing itself in the fire and dashing itself to a fine red mist upon the broken masonry, the currents beaten by the bodies of the dead.
The red current wasn't so much deep as bottomless; it held her in its grip, not allowing her the sweet absolution of her drowning. The streets beckoned her to submerge herself beneath their surfaces, to glut herself on the viscera, but a part of her she no longer recognized was afraid of the bones splintering between her teeth and tearing to ribbons the soft, yielding flesh of her esophagus. The world’s carcass had withstood centuries of storms and now, robbed of the change time brought, it stood muted and lame, a temple without parishioners, a faith without cause.
Millions of souls. Millions.
Mine, she thought. Mine mine mine.
Hers to consume.
She was an ocean of ghost nets, waste and festering flesh that piled up inside her sternum, burying her, suffocating her. Her hips and legs becoming one with the smoke and shadow, trapping the last core of herself deep inside, immobile, before it too began to flake like shale, falling away into brittle bone shards as she withered and wasted away, each chip a chunk of her soul. A pound of flesh. Her ember-colored eyes bled black, trailing down her face, eating away at her skin, slicing fine cuts into her neck, then her shoulders, her breasts, the neglected space between her legs, until all of her burned and stung and itched like mad, invisible lacerations flaying and flagellating her skin.
But the whispering she felt was just a feather’s touch inside her head.
“The risk is too high. What shall we create?”
Crackling laughter wriggled through her, like maggots burrowing in her flesh, black and necrotic. And yet she was struck dumb with fear. It was sheer, bloody terror, she realized, the kind reserved for death and judgement, when her mind had no means of concocting a defense against the dark, to save her from the fire and blood and bodies. It was the most primitive, most powerful emotion of all, and she had never, ever felt anything quite like it before. It wasn't just a fear of losing her life, but a fear of losing her soul.
Another wash of sensation, a sudden sharp awareness of the wall of bone around her mind. Constraint, power-bound, grounded. No choice. No food. No freedom.
A horrific hybrid of shrieking, of curious murmurs, of angry snarling vibrated through the enamel of her teeth. She started praying, silently, worshipping, praising, pleading. But He was not listening to her... God had forsaken the burning city. So she began to run, straining every muscle. Feeling for the currents of hot air, letting them lift her with every stride, the world beginning to shake as she pounded ahead.
And leapt from Tower bridge, over the Thames, into the nothingness.
She felt herself buffeted on a blast of boiling breath, her hands full of bone and her lungs full of smoke, the ground somersaulting over her and the thunder passing under the top of her head, her legs kicking the sky. She let go, and the world spiraled endlessly around her.
The sky was an angry, swollen maelstrom, a festering sore of light. The stars paled in insignificance; the city jumped and twitched as shockwaves fanned out in corolla-like bursts, fire and pumice and shell smoke rising up from the ground, bursts of flame and the thick guttering of black ash haloed by the geometry of the boiling, feverish firmament. A crimson streak smoldered over the silhouette of the city, a simmering bloodline.
Something in the darkness met her gaze, ordered her: “Don't close your eyes.”
A pause; she could see the Nightmare weighing its words. When they came, they were quiet: “Do you still let yourself remember what grace was like, before you fell from it?”
The air whispered out of her. Somehow the Nightmare felt what she did. She wanted to hold on to it to keep herself from floating away.
But her body was laughing again, her eyeballs buzzing in their sockets, nodules in her skull grinding against one another faintly. Tiny lightning-bolts of disdain shot through her heart: hatred for the Nightmare, the Creature not commanding, not controlling. Because the Nightmare did not have the wisdom. It did not have the knowledge. It did not hold the power.
She did. SHE DID.
“Give her back!” ordered a Voice -- not the Nightmare. Someone else. She could see the old wounds in the Voice's eyes.
“She’s mine,” she growled. “I found her. She’s mine!”
A shiver of certainty. She sank her fangs into the Voice’s shoulder, suddenly urgent, unmindful of her God.
"Clipă de clipă, secundele bat ritmul unei melodii; dansatori fără voie într-un vârtej anonim. Singură la fereastră îmi amintesc chipul tău.“ She murmured, “Maestrul meu..."
Then she saw it: an unnaturally slender creature with long black hair flying about its face like a thistle cloud, with large nose, large ears, slightly pointed, a high forehead, eyes the color of embers. The creature held itself with a sort of graceful tension, as if each slow, careful movement was made in preparation to suddenly spring away or strike out. It wore a long, carefully cultivated red coat and wide-brimmed hat. St. Jerome. But then its mouth stretched into a leer that near about dislocated its jaw, and she saw the large, sharp, slanting teeth in its skull, and knew the monster was a far cry from anything saintly. A strange chill curled from the creature like smoke from a thurible, and even though the world was teeming with little red lights, darkness veiled her Creature, her Nightmare. Shadows that seemed to boil and shift, percolating like weeping sores along the floor...
“Too many lives. Too long.”
The Nightmare looked into her face. Despite the dimness, the monster's pupils had shrunk to point singularities in pools of blistering red, as though too much light had been poured into them.
“Let her go,” the Voice ordered.
“Let her go!
She screamed as a man's arm slid around her chest and lifted her off the mattress.
Her hand shot out, her knuckles making contact with something fleshy but unyielding, cartilaginous. She heard a high, startled yelp.
"Goddamn Red, calm down!"
"León, you're bleeding..."
"No shit, Four Eyes. Hold her, 'fore she bashes your pretty face in, too."
"Miss Esther... Miss Esther, Miss Esther, wake up. It's us... it's us."
Esther whimpered in anticipation of a blow, of pain, her heart pounding in growing panic. Her throat caught, her breaths coming out in rapid, staccato pants as something in her chest withered. A hand touched her crown, gently, tenderly, and Esther twitched, feeling someone tuck a strand of red behind her ear.
Her eyes flew open. When a figure crouched down at her bedside, it seemed to take ages for her to turn her head to see who it was. All she could make out at first were two dark shapes, vague outlines of heads and shoulders silhouetted against the light streaming in from the street, the rest of their bodies lost in the shadows of the room. One had blood seeping from his nostrils.
"Father Garcia," mouthed Esther. Her head felt fuzzy. She sucked air through her teeth, chest tight with anxiety. She wanted to void the contents of her stomach.
"Glad to see you're still with us, kid," said León thickly, nasally, blood dripping down his lip as he spoke.
"Oh... your face..."
"You gotta mean right hook, Red. Good to see my lessons are payin' off."
Getting a pat on the head from Father León Garcia de Asturias was not unlike being pawed at by a particularly affectionate St. Bernard dog. He was big and warm and burly, with a robust frame and a general air of negligent repose -- dashing in an earthy sort of way. He couldn’t have been more than a decade older than Esther at most, though he acted far younger. Roused from sleep, his dark hair furled down the nape of his neck while his fringe covered the right side of his face, going a little past his jaw-line. His eyes were bold, black, like that of a child, framed by thick lashes. He wore concern strangely on his boiled-leather face.
An anxious feeling skittered through Esther's belly, then quickly disappeared. Her gaze swung towards the second occupant in the room.
Father Nightroad seemed dazed. His eyes looked unnaturally blue against the flush of his face, their depths suddenly misty beneath a fan of thick silver lashes.
To the casual passerby, Abel Nightroad’s appearance would not have inspired much confidence. His mantel was patched in spots, his cassock frayed at the cuffs. Peaking above the neck of his uniform was an old shirt that, Esther knew from her forced proximity to the man, was missing a button and splotched with his syrupy, sugary tea. The ribbon with which he used to tie back his hair was knotted not once, but thrice, as if he'd forgotten whether he'd tied it and, rather than glancing in a mirror to check, had simply tied it again... and again... for good measure. His silver tail fell over one shoulder in a slack rope, and his frosty eyebrows rose from his forehead like two great snowy horns, curling over a pair of bent and foggy glasses as thick as bottle bottoms. All in all, he looked like someone who'd gotten dressed in the midst of a whirlwind and, thinking he still looked too presentable, had thrown himself down a flight of stairs.
It was when Esther looked in his eyes, winter blue and wide, that everything changed.
Reflecting no light save their own, they shone brightly in the shadow-muffled night, and there was in them a look of such uncommon energy and kindness and understanding that she forgot entirely about the stains on his cassock and the fingerprints on his glasses and that his hair tie was knotted thrice over. She looked in them and knew that she was in the presence of something beautiful, of someone magnificent.
"Father Nightroad…" Esther tailed off. She realized, with a start, that Abel's fingers still hovered near her hair. León coughed conspicuously, and Abel's elbow hinged back, snatching his hand away.
“So, err…” León’s dark eyes darted between the two. “You… you all right, Red?”
Esther felt so foolish. “Yes, Father. I had a bad dream.”
“Hell, I’d say.” He touched the back of his hand against her forehead. "You don't have a temperature or nothin’."
“It’s all normal, then.”
A gentle smile played across León’s face. Although it was bumpy because a great many of his teeth were jagged and broken, it was a warming, infectious smile. It made Esther flash grin in return, if only for a moment. "I ain't sure she's ever been normal, eh Four Eyes?” León looked directly at the other priest and the former's dark eyes twinkled, a gleam of deviltry in them.
But Abel wasn't listening. He stared at the floor with a blank expression.
Esther suddenly found the urge to cry out almost overwhelming, a scream building like bile at the back of her throat. She wanted to let a gut-wrenching howl rip from her chest. She wanted to shout every swear word she’d ever heard León whispering under his breath. Esther would have settled for a cut-off whimper, just so long as it elicited some kind of reaction from Abel.
“I’m sorry… this latest case, perhaps,” Esther heard herself saying. “I never sleep well on assignments. Stress, maybe…” She stopped again. She was babbling uselessly, just to get some response. But she had never seen Abel so numb.
Well... not since Carthage...
León glared sidelong at Father Nightroad. “Yeah, well… the old grumblies reporting to Cardinal Sforza have been ponying up reports of bloody fights in the Oltrarno District, from the Santo Spirito to the Ponte Vecchio, for months now... men and women getting beaten up and the bastards who done it doing a runner ‘fore the guards can catch ‘em. Guess murder’s a step up from back alley scraps, though, ‘specially since we’re well within Rome’s jurisdiction. Can’t blame you for getting… you know…”
“Frightened?” Esther’s tone was so vinegary the words were pickled by the time they reached León’s ears.
“I was gonna say rattled… but, yeah.”
Esther rolled her eyes heavenward. Leave it to Father Garcia to worry about murder being too much for her feminine persuasion, yet think nothing of her fighting half a dozen Methuselah before she’d even had her breakfast on the regular.
“I’m all right, Father,” insisted Esther, again. “I’m very sorry for waking you. Please don’t let me keep you.”
León didn’t look too happy about the dismissal but decided not to argue, perhaps aware of Esther’s attempt to salvage whatever remained of her wounded dignity. “Right. We’ll be—“
But Abel, still, made no motion to move.
“I’ll be,” León amended irritably, “right next door. You just holler if you need anything, yeah?”
“Thank you, Father Garcia.”
“‘Course, kid. G’night. Hey, Four Eyes…?”
Abel looked up from where he stood. He blinked owlishly behind his spectacles.
“Uh, right. I’ll just…” León hooked a thumb over his shoulder, “go then.”
Father Garcia shut the door behind him, muttering something to himself about stubborn ecclesiastical morons and their bleeding hearts.
Esther saw the expression on Abel’s face, and she flushed, deeply, realizing that she hadn’t thrown a robe over her nightdress, or even pulled the sheets up. In her fit, she'd kicked the duvet clear of the bed, and the hem of her clothes had ridden up around her thighs. Esther hugged her knees, frightfully embarrassed, and faced the window, listening to the soft sound of the night wind. She felt as though, in that moment, she and Abel were the only people -- perhaps the only living creatures -- alienated from the lighted windows and the warm hearths of the city, very aware that they were of the world but not a part of the world at that moment. It was a thrilling, almost erotic feeling -- an illicit discovery of self, separated from everyone and everything else.
Esther’s blush deepened, until she reckoned she could have vanished against the crimson brocade wallpaper.
She sat up. She took a deep breath -- in through the nose, a beat of silence, and out through the mouth. León had opened the window by her bedside. The sill had that patina of age over the bronze frame, likewise the surface of the glass was splotched black in places. On the night air drifted a scent of cold stone, moistened soil, the peppery perfume of the cypresses, the burnt-bug buzz of the street light below her window. Esther took a long, appreciative breath. No sulphur. No smoke. No burning.
Esther felt the grainy fingerprint of the cool night air spread over her skin, as though she was halfway through undressing. Her body had a strange, dreamlike weightlessness about it. She could be a memory of herself. Conjured by the sleeping city.
The sight of Florence beyond the sill, the cluster of churches and palaces tiered like liveried regiments on either side of the Arno, Santa Maria del Fiore floating on a tide of mist, as inviolate and inaccessible as a private longing, seemed in that moment as familiar as the back of her hand and yet as surreal as her nightmares, the Burning City in the dark, taunting her with its spell of sudden inaccessibility.
Since the advent of her stint with the AX -- well, since a looming, unconscionably lanky priest had somehow managed to bumble and burble and, against all odds, charm his way into her life -- many things had happened to Esther that she could not have possibly imagined. She wondered if the pervasive itch of expectancy was one of the subliminal reasons soldiers waged war, Methuselah preyed on humans, Cardinal Sforza and the AX took in strangers and strays: to increase the daily frequency of surprise and shock, fury and fear. The forerunners of revelation, perhaps.
“What did you dream about?” asked Abel finally, breaking Esther from her reverie.
He didn’t look her way, but stood at the window, counting the cobblestones on the Florentine street four stories below. “Are you lying?”
Esther pursed her lips into a thin, bloodless line, the starchy bedclothes crunching in her fists. She did not have an answer... at least, not one that would absolve her of Abel’s concern. He was not her Father Confessor, she told herself... she was under no obligation to unload her burdens on his shoulders. Abel played his secrets close to the cassock. Esther had half a mind to do the same. He could not fault her for that which he would readily do himself.
But then his winter blue eyes held hers for the barest beat of a moment, some essence of his being conveying itself to her, and all at once Esther’s heart quickened in sympathy for him. She had the horrible feeling of looking into the eyes of a ghost.
There were ghosts in this place...
He murmured, “Are you all right?”
She managed a single syllable: “No.”
Without a word, and quite without her expecting it, Abel put his arms around her and held her. Esther was too startled by the sudden contact to do much more than swallow, thickly.
“You were crying,” he said. “But you didnt wake up.”
The words expressed some imperative deep down in her blood. Like running fingers over the edge of things in pitch darkness.
Silently, they sat there, Esther sitting back against the headboard, Abel on the edge of the bed, an arm around his novice’s narrow shoulders. Continuing to stare into her pale, damp face, Father Nightroad shook his head with a slight frown, as if finding the sight of her distress distressing in turn. Esther imagined it must have been, on some subconscious level -- Abel was not a man who felt things in halves. Seeming unable to help himself, he reached out and pulled her against him, his arms wrapping around her as he tried to comfort her. There was nothing... illicit in the embrace -- though Esther had no doubt it would have garnered a puerile wolf whistle or three from León, and was part and parcel of the reason he'd left them alone.
Even so, it somehow managed to feel far more intimate than it had any right to be. Abel’s arms were strong, thin and long and corded, holding her steady while his breath fell in moist, hot surges against the top of her head. Strange, she thought, how vulnerable the back of her neck felt as she listened to his breathing. He was so much taller...
Eventually, against her better judgement and dignity both, Esther scooted to her left, settling closer to Abel, snuggling her head into the crook of his shoulder and placing a hand on his chest -- she tried, for Abel’s pride’s sake, not to giggle when his diaphragm spasmed in a nervous hiccough. Carefully, his hand wandered higher, and he combed his fingers through her untidy shock of scarlet while his other hand pulled the blanket up to her shoulders.
She imagined, for a moment, somewhere other than Florence: them sitting together under a tree by the Tiber, in the shade of the gardens overlooking the Palazzo Corsini, the champagne colored nimbus on the marble façade reflecting the benediction of the sun’s dying rays over the city, just enjoying each other's company, her head on his chest, his arm around her.
Before the nightmares, not long after their return from the Empire, Esther had a recurring dream where she and Abel stood in the Tiber looking around amongst the river stones for something or other -- on some nights, it was Father Nightroad’s security pass, on others, her rosary -- when Cardinal Sforza would strut from Trastevere in that imperious way she often did, drag her mitre through the shallows, and throw it, as though saluting a lover on a departing ship. A sheet of water would come sailing towards them, a veil billowing in the air, and fall down over Abel’s glinting silver hair and Esther’s thatch of red, soaking them both to the bone. Then Caterina would fix her crown back on her head and leave them standing there in the glistening river, shining like the apostles.
Esther and Abel, drenched in the unsolicited ablutions of their souls.
She realized, suddenly, how desperately lonely she had become.
“Go back to sleep, Miss Esther,” whispered Abel.
Esther nodded slowly, while the surge of heartache transformed into a sense of inconceivable comfort. A friend he had been, a confidant he had become, but a companion... the one thing Esther had never let herself hope for, the stipulation her station, while no longer forbidding on moral grounds, ecclesiastical or otherwise, still managed to cast into uncertainty. Surely, their shared illusion of closeness couldn't last -- somehow, someday, it would be taken away from her. The peeling-plaster walls of their Florentine motel formed a boundary that marked a single place, delineated a solitary moment: a fence, a circle of cushions, a stolen half hour. The blaze of a shooting star, burning bright and fast and falling, quickly, to ash.
But, as Esther began to drift off, she thought, until that day came, she would cherish this moment. Beyond all of those other times, in spite of all those other places, they would always have now. She pressed tighter into Abel’s embrace, and Esther was certain the contact had forever in it. Time couldn't end it, nor even the limits of life. Not distance, not duty... not the wastes and shades and shadows of her nightmares.
"Yes," she said, her voice muffled against his cassock. "Goodnight, Father.”