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The Bookshop

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Zhu Irzh considered the shop again.

Technically, he was meant to be in the area they called The City. Trade delegation. Infernal business affairs. That usually meant tedious meetings, even more tedious people and the worst kind of food. Even demons should have some kind of standards. And western meals were so bland.

He was meant to be there an hour ago, but the streets were so tangled he’d ended up getting turned around. He hadn’t even been able to find someone who could see him to point him in the right direction, even a demon.

According to the reports he’d read, infernal interference in Europe varied by country. Technically, there were hands-on staff, but from the sounds of things, both sides used propaganda more than anything else. There were plenty of churches everywhere. Throw a rock, you could probably hit one.

And that really didn’t explain the book shop.

Tucked between neon lights of the strip bars and defiantly unheterosexual pubs, it looked out of place anyway: old-fashioned windows, even more old-fashioned leather-bound books. Hells, it even had a hand-painted sign.

But that wasn’t what had caught his attention.

It was the feeling of the place.

It felt… good.

At home, it was easier to tell. Celestials had a particular scent, all peach blossom and incense. Holy wasn’t usual tea – Earl Grey? – and old paper and sandalwood. It definitely wasn’t wreathed in the stench of the pleasure districts, where sex hung in the air.

A sex deity, then? But they rarely radiated warmth and comfort.

Gods damn it all, he was too curious and if he didn’t get the answer, he knew it would bother him all the way home.

He could imagine his father’s ire when the only thing his erstwhile son brought back from London was an unanswered question. On the other hand, they had sent him to London in the first place. They knew his foibles and yet, they still seemed to think he would be a compliant useful member of the clan. Was it his fault when there were questions that needed answers?

He strode towards the door, decision made.

The brass handle didn’t burn his skin, which was good, but strange. Zhu Irzh frowned. There were no protections against demons – even local ones. He stretched out his senses, frown deepening. There were no wards at all. What kind of Celestial didn’t protect itself?

The door swung open, the bell above it jingling.

If the feeling of warmth and comfort was strong outside, it was like stepping into sunlight inside.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Crowley!” A voice called out, further in. “Shut the door! You’re letting the wind in!”

Zhu Irzh shut the door. “Excuse me?” English wasn’t his strongest language. “I am not Crowley.”

There was a muffled sound from the back of the shop, hurried footsteps. A small, plump golden-haired man in a pale suit bustled in, then stopped short, eyes widening.

“Oh my!”

Zhu Irzh’s own words dried up. Small and unassuming as the man might appear, the aura of power around him was enough to make any demon take a cautious step back. Zhu Irzh could see the shadow of pale wings behind the… the what? Celestial, definitely, but European mythology… an angel? A messenger of the Western God? An old one too. The scent of paper and dust was more than that. Parchment and oil and a sharp, bitter fruit.

The angel was looking at him now, eyes still wide. “What do–” His brows drew down. “Pardon me, but why are you here?”

Zhu Irzh pointed at the door like a stupid child. “I saw the shop. I come in.”

The blue eyes narrowed. “Yes. But why?”

Because he couldn’t help his curiosity? He had walked into a Celestial domain uninvited. The rules in these lands might well be different. There were plenty of tales of angels slaying demons. Custom and propriety were…

The angel sighed. “Look, I’m rather busy. Are you here to attack me or are you looking for a book? If it’s neither of those things, then I really must insist that you be on your way.”

Technically, it wasn’t running away if you were asked to leave, was it?

Zhu Irzh hesitated. Maybe it was pushing his luck, asking for help from a Celestial, but it was easier than trying to flag down a cab in an alien city, where only a tiny minority of people could even see him. “I go to the City?” he asked. “Which way?”

The angel’s expression softened. “Ah! I can give you directions.” He hurried across the shop and riffled through a pile of paper. “I ought to have a map… aha! Here we are.” He unfolded the map and traced out a route with a finger. “It’s not too far. Along here. Up here. A right there... and there you are.” He smiled up at Zhu Irzh as he held out the map. “Not far at all.”

Zhu Irzh bowed his head. “It is very kind.”

The angel flapped a hand dismissively. “Oh, I’m only doing my job. Enjoy your stay!”

Zhu Irzh nodded, bewildered. He hadn’t encountered many celestials before, but he couldn’t think of any who would say helping a demon was their job. He groped behind him to pull the door open, a gust of cool night air bringing the reek of sulphur, flame and the same sharp, bitter fruit.

A man – no, not man. A local demon was standing on the doorstep. It lifted a pair of sunglasses away from blazing golden eyes. Zhu Irzh nodded in hasty greeting, stepping around it into the street.

Behind him, the demon spoke.

“Entertaining foreign demons, eh, angel? Trying to make me jealous.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” The angel’s laugh was warm. “Come in. It’s awfully windy.”

Zhu Irzh glanced back as the bell tinkled and the door closed. Demons and Celestials were allies in this province? He wrinkled his nose. Western countries were definitely very strange.