CHAPTER I — BEFORE GOD
ONE | Ruins of the Angel Generation
The great red moon hung above the French countryside. The celestial monument filled a quarter of the cloudless sky, now that she was full. Her crystalline halo girdled the bright body in a calm orbit.
Three figures knee-deep in fen mist made haste across the earth below. The two on horseback kept their mounts at a canter. The third held pace on foot with her eye on Monaco’s glow just past the horizon, kissing the darkness, unmistakable, even at a distance. The lead rider raised a finger to the halo around the moon, sighting something.
They halted. The second rider rifled through the baggage weighing down his wheezing horse to pass the runner a collapsed gold and limestone device. The runner drew alongside the first rider, his arm still raised.
“If my mother only knew what I was spending her loans on,” she said to him.
He sounded an amused grunt. “You’ve never met your mother.”
“I’ve met her coin.”
“That does simplify the relationship.”
“Not when you continue spending said coin on devices of such elegant make.” She wiped moisture from her forehead. “But we must nonetheless survive. Somehow.”
She sighted the gold and limestone instrument. Her fingers laid on the gears and made small touches to the focus. She set beside his aim, feeling the earthy heat coming off him from the long ride.
She put her eye against the skyglass’s small end. What she saw was bright, and blurry, and deep red. She made a delicate adjustment to the largest lens while the first rider held his arm steady so she could see.
The skyglass focused. Out there in the moon’s rings, among the masonry fragments, shattered archways, hovering cathedral steeples, and jagged ice, were angels. The first rider squinted, straining to see something he never could.
“I must continue to compliment your estimations,” the runner said to him, keeping humor in her voice. “Your sights were trained on them. Almost perfectly. Not bad for a man.”
The second rider laughed.
The first rider’s voice was a straight, smooth line. The first few words he formed were a quiet baritone musing to himself, and then deciding something, he crafted a simple question. “What do the angels look like, Layla?”
“Like men,” Layla explained what she observed through the scope. Angels’ bodies fluttered at their edges like vapor rising from water to meet morning—a quicksilver alchemy mid-transition. “Even these resemble simply—unfocused men. Like when one wakes to the dawn and the earth is misshapen by shadow. A gentle fire, unguided. Lovely, and light. Hah! Amazing.”
The first rider closed his eyes as he listened to her description.
“They are countless in number, far above. As many as there are stars in the sky,” Layla said. “Simply—flying out there. Hmm. They’re taking the broken masonry from what's left of the Children’s Wall and working it into something. Are—a-are—they’re making clothes for themselves. Out of stone!”
She exhaled in alarm. She searched her bag for unknown tools.
“Angels are innocent,” the second rider said in a gentle voice, dismounting and walking his horse beside them. Layla calmed at his reassurance. “They wouldn’t make clothes, would they, Akhet?”
“Not of any sort, Zachary, so close to God,” Akhet said. His eyes swung open, stabbing ahead before shifting to his companions in concern and confusion. “Angels such as these are industrious beings. Incapable of destruction or mendacity, only creation and truth. They—the stones you noticed are likely nothing. They are tidying the moon’s rings. The orbit remains in chaos since the Fall.”
“Yea?” Layla asked. “When do you imagine they’ll finish their noble labor against Hell’s chaotic afterbirth?”
“Not in my lifetime. Likely not in yours. Not even in your grandchildren’s.”
“Will they ever finish, then?”
“Not without God’s help. And we cannot help, either.” He squeezed her shoulder to get her attention. “We’re fools to rush in.”
“Eyes will be upon us in Monaco. From all angles.”
“Paradoxical is our curse of knowledge.” Akhet shook his head. Layla took his hand off her shoulder. “We cannot leave the Ark to danger. We must maintain order.”
He took a moment to meet her awaiting look. She had messed hair from the run and she was beautiful. She smiled at him in the cold.
“Need we take further preparations?” she encouraged, nodding at the city. “I will clean the rifles and sharpen the swords before the sun rises!”
“No. The choice is already made and we shall either live or die by sundown tomorrow. Come, we ride to business with soft-skinned nobles.”
TWO | Pages of the Vocalist
After a few more miles on horseback, Akhet sat at an ovular cherry table to the left of the Prince of Monaco. In thirty-six hours, the Prince would be married.
Layla held her place behind Akhet, back to the wall, next to the other pages. All women, all rail-straight at attention with eyes forward, uniformed in cool blue, trimmed with green in emphatic obedience. The Prince surrounded himself with Europe’s finest Vocalists. His bride-to-be rested at his right hand, presenting her concerned expression as motivation.
“Royalty is confronted with threats each day,” the Prince stated to those gathered. “Corporeal and ethereal in equal measure. Christendom has blossomed for eleven hundred years out of those African bogs of shit and piss into a kingdom spanning all three of earth’s continents and each language ever babbled. The kingdom of man is in an era of blessed peace. A peace I shall maintain, on my honor as a holy lord.”
That peaceful era’s ongoing maintenance was an open secret. The Ark had completed its long campaign into the Orient against the Song Empire and the lineage of Asoka in the subcontinent. Fujiwara on the island of Nippon had surrendered without a fight. The power of God had brought unity to all people it touched. The Ark had indeed felled heathen elephants in India, but it was carried on the legs of man. While a man’s soul was immortal, his flesh can, and must, grow weak, lest he tread in the company of angels.
The Ark then traveled up the Nile to its source at Lake Solomon where it defeated heathens and their subterranean demon, Phunbaba. It carried clarity and calm, transforming the African jungles into luscious farmland fit for God’s churches.
At last, the divine warchest returned to the Vatican, where rumor suggested the Pope used it for a footstool in the evenings and as a coffee tray in the mornings. In another open secret, all the world knew the Pope loved coffee from Arabia. That sympathy was less contentious as the years passed. Most in the kingdom of man awaited the day when the papacy might reveal this affectation and the citizens could enjoy the drink freely.
“Rebel angels have threatened the life of the woman who will be my wife,” the Prince said. “They haunt her, appearing to her day and night without provocation. I cannot protect her from what I cannot see. Tomorrow we will be married. Tomorrow, we will be married, gentlemen! Need I elaborate further?”
“Coin is all the necessary elaboration,” Akhet said, speaking and sighing all at once before punctuating, “Majesty.”
Layla laughed in stillness while the rest of the room ruffled. She tried to share the humor with the other pages lined beside her. They had already begun chanting the Page’s Recitation in a resigned, low tone.
“O, God in Heaven,” Layla quickly joined the other Pages’ droning unity. “I love thee, Lord God. Through your light does the world speak, so I might see my mission. Through your voice is truth made flesh, so I might touch my mission. Through your blood is my soul made right, so I might become my mission. Lux. Carnes. Spiritus. Femina.”
“Fem—” Layla mumbled at the Recitation’s end. The other Pages were already bristling and raising their chins to match their stiff arms, chortling then, not at her joke, but at Layla’s looks and patchwork uniform.
Like Akhet, her clothes were crisscrossed with abundant battlefield mending. Her wool sleeves were replaced with Egyptian alligator skins, gifted to Layla by Fatimah herself. Her boots were laced with Bactrian camel gut. Layla had learned survivalist hand-to-hand martial arts during lengthy stays in Jerusalem, much more vicious than what the Swiss Guard practiced.
Japanese Fujiwara steel reinforced the Vatican-issued chain-link whip Akhet kept on his belt.
Their worldliness left them standing out. While Egyptians such as Akhet were becoming a more common sight so close to Rome, Layla’s brown Indian skin was inescapable. Men in white called her exotic, while also left unnerved at each step she took west of Constantinople. Together, Akhet and Layla raised terrific commotion wherever they practiced their craft of vocalization.
The Prince lowered the room’s temperature with an easy sweep from his white-gloved hand. “Speak, Vocalist Akhet, as is your life’s purpose. But take heed, I encourage you to maintain a measure of reverence more befitting your station.”
Akhet eased forward in his chair. He clasped his fingers together. He gathered attention in a passing glance from those surrounding the table, absorbing raised eyebrows and quickened pulses from both the young and the dying.
“The angels are not here for your bride,” Akhet said with rough assertion. He addressed the only woman seated at the table. “Apologies, Princess. But it is true. Women may be born witnessing the traces of angels, and they may summon a preternatural capability for their tongue, but this is no fair exchange to the angels. Angels listen to a woman who speaks with the same intent as, perhaps, a woman listens to a dog who speaks. It is an interesting trick, but truthfully, a woman’s earthly words are of little consequence to the divine. No—pardon my indelicacies, but the angel is here for a different reason entirely. The angel is here because the Prince yearned to flex his station and perform his wedding rites before the holiest of holies.” Akhet, expressionless in the mouth and demanding an answer only with his gold-gray eyes, asked the amazed Prince, “Did you intend for the Ark’s mere presence here in the city to amaze your wedding guests—Majesty?”
THREE | The Name of the Angel
The other Vocalists cleared the room. Zachary entered on his thin legs. The weighty wooden pack rested on his narrow hips with well-placed leather straps. He strode in confidence to Akhet’s side where he and Layla had gathered to speak with the Prince and his bride.
“Zachary—my Fuser,” Akhet introduced the younger man. “He makes machines and armaments. Someday soon, he shall be a greater Vocalist than I.”
“Welcome, child-Zachary, and child-Layla,” the Prince said. “All souls must recognize Christ loves them—even souls of conquered peoples. But, this is your entire class, Vocalist Akhet? Only two to protect you on your mission to speak God’s love?”
“Surprise, noroma,” Zachary said lightly in his own language with a tilt from his mouth. “Minimizes redundancy in opinions and talents.”
The Prince’s eyes sharpened toward Zachary.
“Vocalist Akhet, I do not know what fen you crawled from, but I hold a direct correspondence with the Pope. What I share is of total secrecy. Fail me, betray me, dishonor me, and I shall excommunicate you. Your class shall be ronin. No amount of heathen gold will spare your immortal soul.”
“Layla?” Akhet prefaced, without a spare breath to leave the Prince’s words lingering. “Would you detail the landscape to the man?”
Layla stepped forward to speak to the Prince. Her tone was boisterous and clear. “You’ve brought a hex upon your house, taking the Ark under this roof as your wedding trophy.”
“No, actually, hexes have since been erased from Europe by the Sons of the Pope, darling.”
Layla shook her head, her lips bloodless as she pressed them tight together.
“Angels are most commonly attracted to creative women and emotional men. This is why they are rare in the countryside where few live, and instead fancy city environments. But the angel Chemos, a servant of Lucifer, has made several attempts to seize the Ark since its return from Africa. It is my determination—”
“How do you know this?”
“Because I’ve—seen Chemos, Majesty. When I—saw him, he spoke. And when he spoke, he told me he was a servant of Lucifer. This was—”
“And how do you know Chemos has been attempting to steal the Ark? Speak true, under threat of excommunication.”
“—Quell your heart, Royal. I was explaining that we prevented Chemos from stealing the Ark two years ago while in Africa.”
The Princess perked up, her jewelry tinkling against itself before the Prince could raise his voice again. “You’ve been to Africa?”
“I have. I’ve nearly been south of the horizon where the oceans fall to the abyss. To the heathens’ last front.”
The Prince stammered.
“Gah—!” He batted at the air in disgust. “How can I be certain this is true? She spoke with the angel Chemos? How can you trust her, Vocalist? This could be a deceit! She said herself Chemos was a servant of Lucifer, the Fallen One.”
Layla folded her arms over her chest.
“If you’d like to gamble your betrothed’s life against woman’s God-given grace to talk to angels, then I’m not certain you welcome your wedding vows as seriously as Christ meant you to.”
The Princess squeezed her would be-husband’s dangling hand with pleading urgency.
Continued in Part 2 . . .
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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