As if My Flesh was Summer Soil

I make the bed as my mother taught me,

smoothing sheets corner to corner, curve to curve,

crisp and white, smelling of bleach

and the flowery sachets

she stuffs into linen closets and cedar chests,

as if she could trick those

cramped and lightless spaces to bloom.

I fluff the pillows, three sharp blows,

the feathers expanding inside

as if they might take wing and escape

if only I hit them hard enough.


In my belly, my sparrow stirs,


a familiar flutter beneath my heart.

I smooth my hand over my navel

as my mother taught me,

to hide the jabs of beak and bone,

the stirring of clawed feet,

kicking for purchase as if my flesh

was summer soil, ripe and fertile.

I fold my hand over my belly

as my mother once did

when I too was a tangle of

wet feathers and ancient urges,

as if I, too, could trick nature

into believing there is

life beating its way

out of me.


(Editors’ Note: “As if My Flesh was Summer Soil is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 36B.)


In the winter of 19–, having newly arrived in England, and still recovering from the nervous indisposition which had afflicted me greatly ever since my circumstances during the war, I responded to an advertisement placed in the Yorkshire Post, for the position of caretaker in an old, near-abandoned Elizabethan mansion called Wildfell Hall.

Who in truth owned it, I did not know. I was met at the train station of the nearby village by a young London solicitor, who informed me cheerfully that I was the only applicant.

“It is a bit unusual to hire a woman for the job,” he said, then shrugged, dismissing the matter. “But in truth your duties will not be too onerous.”

He took me for the short drive up to the Hall in his red Triumph Roadster, speaking all the while, and I got the distinct impression that he had partaken of a large quantity of that powder which we used to call “snow”.

“There is a housekeeper as well as a gardener,” he said, “and guests of the proprietor may sometimes come and go at odd times. You may not even notice them, in truth, for the house is rather large. Your pay will be four pounds and a threepence a week, which I trust is sufficient—?”

I indicated that, indeed, it was more than generous, and mentioned that my personal needs were meagre.

The young solicitor nodded pleasantly enough but seemed barely to hear me. We came round a bend in the road, past a flock of sheep in a field, and I beheld the Hall.

It had seen better days. Its architecture, I suppose, would have been in the old Gothic style, though I myself preferred the newer Modernist structures that were coming up everywhere after the war. We drove in through the gates and along the path to the house.

The solicitor pressed the horn of the car several times. A stooped and elderly man with a big bushy beard and eyebrows as thick as branches ambled over holding garden shears.

“You’re making a nuisance to the birds,” he said.

The solicitor, taken aback, laughed nervously. The old man ignored him and shook my hand with his rough, calloused hand.

“Name’s Acton,” he said. “You will be taking over from old Thorp, I take it?”

“I…I suppose so,” I said. I had not given a thought to my predecessor, though naturally enough there would have been one.

Acton grunted. “You will do well not to wander the grounds by yourself after dark, Miss,” he told me. “On account of the animals.”

“What animals?” I asked, mildly alarmed at the prospect. He merely grunted again.

“I shall leave you to it,” he said. He nodded to me pleasantly enough and wandered off, shears in hand.

“A curious fellow,” the solicitor said, “but harmless. Now, shall we go in?”

I followed him through the large doors into a gloomy hallway, where an aproned woman with flour on her hands rushed to meet us.

“Hello, hello!” she said. She dusted her hands on her apron. “You must be the new girl. I’m Mrs. Robinson, but you can call me Agnes. You must be full of questions!”


It occurred to me I had none to offer. The war had taught me not to ponder or to ask. I showed no curiosity of the outside world. I followed only that which was directly in front of me.

“Oh,” Mrs. Robinson said. “Well, that’s easy, then. There are only really three rules. No smoking in bed, no disturbing the proprietor’s guests if any are present, and you must never go into the North Tower.”

I offered in return that I did not smoke.

“Well,” the solicitor said, “when can you start?”

I hefted my small portmanteau and said that now would be as good a time as any.

The solicitor looked pleased at this news. He seemed eager to return to London and with plenty of daylight yet. He bid me farewell, tipped his hat to Mrs Robinson, and soon we heard the roar of the engine as he drove away.

“Let me show you to your room,” Mrs. Robinson said.

I quickly settled into my new life. As the solicitor had indicated, my duties were indeed far from onerous. The groundskeeper, old Acton, ably took care of the extensive grounds. He kept strictly outdoors and never came into the Hall. He lived in a small cottage in the village and always departed promptly before nightfall.

Mrs. Robinson, too, lived in the village. She arrived every morning and left around the same time as Acton. Mostly, she occupied herself in the kitchen, cooking pies and roasts and great big feasts, though who they were all for I didn’t find out until much later. She maintained an air of good cheer and listened to the Light Programme on the wireless, and was an avid follower of a new radio drama broadcast there called the Archers. She kept a running commentary on the doings of these fictional people whenever I ran into her.

Mostly, though, I saw no one. At night the Hall was all but deserted. I took to wandering the old corridors with the aid of a lantern, and my main purpose seemed to be to deter any vandals, or more likely bored youth, from breaking in. It was an old building and the wooden boards creaked when you stepped on them. There were sudden cold spots, and mysterious breezes where there were no windows. Old portraits done in oils stared down from the walls in stern disapproval with eyes that seemed alive with malice. And the place could be very quiet.

I did not mind it. There was nothing very scary about a creak in the night, not after the horrors I’d experienced in Europe during the war. The portraits were just paintings and the cold spots and the draughts no doubt owed their existence to the eccentricity of Elizabethan architecture.

Nevertheless, that is not to say there were no strange going-ons. At certain times I became aware of distant sounds, as though of many feet coming and going. I heard men—they were mostly men—talking, and the clink of cutlery and glasses, and from time to time they would break into song.

These events coincided with the times Mrs. Robinson prepared her feasts, and so I surmised that these must be those guests of the proprietor of whom I’d been told. I tried in vain to locate their accommodations, but whenever I believed I came close I would turn the corridor and the sound would grow faint and then vanish altogether. The voices were indistinct, but from time to time I could make out some repeated words, though they made no sense to me: Angria, Gondal, Verdopolis. And the song they sang was always the same, a mournful yet defiant marching song, of the sort the soldiers in the army used to sing.

It was a soldiers’ song, I was sure of it.

As the months passed I grew more accustomed to the Hall and its little eccentricities. I passed through vast dining rooms where the furniture was covered in white sheets; small bedrooms with unlit fireplaces where no guest had slept for a hundred years or more; curious display rooms where some ancients’ long-forgotten collections were put behind glass. In one room it was stuffed reptiles, another was filled with endless oil paintings of fantastical lands, yet another showed nothing but foreign coins.

Only gradually did I begin to pay attention to the details. The coins, for instance, were from no realm that I knew. Some were from Northangerland, and bore the profile of its duke, Alexander Percy. Others were from The Glass Town Federation, and others still came from the island-nation of Gondal, curious blackened discs with a hole in their centre and a strange cursive script on their sides.

Once, just when I had given up searching for the mysterious strangers who came and went from the Hall at all hours, I was doing my rounds when I stumbled into a room I had never seen before, and much to my surprise it was filled almost to capacity by young people.

They looked up at me in some surprise, and I looked back with an equal bemusement, for I had not heard a sound until I stumbled right into them.

They were young, as I said, dressed in a bewildering array of clothing, and numbered both men and women amongst them. They sat at long, communal tables, where I could discern some leftovers of Mrs. Robinson’s sumptuous food, but what drew my attention, even more so than the military-style maps spread out on the tables, and which they were perusing, were the guns.

They had all manners of side arms and rifles, freshly-oiled, and these young people looked like nothing other than soldiers preparing to go into war.

“Hello, there,” I said.

“Hello yourself,” said a young man.

“Did not mean to bother you,” I said, for I remembered Mrs. Robinson’s instructions.

“No harm done,” he said pleasantly. “You are a friend of the cause?”

“I am merely the caretaker.”

He nodded at that.

“Is that an Enfield rifle?” I said.

“It is.”

“And I see you have a Sten machine gun.”

“You know your arms,” he said, surprised.

“I had seen them used,” I said. “The war—”

“That was only the start,” he said. “Now we must fight for liberation. Too long have the Zamorna clan ruled Angria. The occupation must end.”

“I see,” I said; though of course I didn”t. “Will you be staying long?”

“We will be on our way soon,” he said, though he did not elaborate.

“Then I shall bid you good night,” I said. “And—good luck?”

“We make our own luck,” he said, but he smiled as he said it. “Thank you, Miss.”

As I left them, closing the doors carefully behind me, they broke into that song again, and this time I heard it clearly:

Through Jibble Kumri, the Mountains of the Moon

We march to serve our queen

We sail from Gondal, past the sandy plains of Etrei

We laugh at Gaaldine!


To Sneaky’s Land!

And through the Howard Moors

to Glass Town! To Verdopolis!

We’ll burn Northangria to the ground

To serve our rebel queen

I could hear the song for a long time after that. And then there was silence, and the next night and the next I saw and heard nothing more.

One Sunday, I wandered down to the village for a fête that took place on the green. It was a pleasant day, with nary a cloud in the sky. Laughing children darted here and there like mayflies. I saw old Acton by the cider tent, having a merry old time, and he waved to me cheerfully but we did not engage in talk. I stood on my own awhile, enjoying the relative warmth of the sun.

A band played “Comes A-Long A-Love”, and old and young flocked to dance before the bandstand. It was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder and, turning, saw a young man in a somewhat threadbare suit smiling at me.

“You seem all alone and I’m in need of a partner,” he said.

I said, “I do not dance,” but he merely laughed and took my hand in his.

“Come on,” he said. He led me to the front of the bandstand and before I knew it I was dancing, and enjoying myself, too. I had not danced like that since before the war broke out. I thought I had forgotten how to.

“That was fun,” the young man said when the song ended. He shook my hand, very formally. “I’m Edward.”

I introduced myself and we talked for a long while, very naturally. Edward laughed often, and seemed delighted at the idea that I was up at the old Hall.

“They say it’s haunted,” he said. “And strange lights can be seen moving inside at night.”

“I’m afraid that’s just me,” I said. “Doing my rounds. There’s no great mystery.”

“What happened to the old caretaker?” he said. “Thorp?”

“I…” It occurred to me I had no idea. “I assumed he’d retired.”

Then the band struck again and Edward, laughing, dragged me along for another dance, and then another.

I saw Edward frequently after that, for a while. We took long walks together through the peaceful countryside, and once, on my day off, rode the train to the nearby town to a picture house, where we saw Moulin Rouge with Zsa Zsa Gabor. That film, so full of vivid Technicolor, was a reminder for me once and for all that the grey, oppressive old world I had lived in for so long was gone. It was a new age, with new music, new architecture, a world of the imagination made manifest.

Edward and I rode the train back to the village late that evening, and when we parted ways we kissed.

Usually I remained well within the building in the night-time; but now, as I came in through the side gate after my evening with Edward, I was reminded suddenly and uncomfortably of the groundskeeper’s warning.

While in the daytime the grounds seemed pleasant and well-manicured, I had to admit they had a different aura at night. The Hall seemed distant; an owl cooed disconcertingly and took flight above my head, startling me; the roots seemed to want to trip me as I wandered ahead, half-blind in the moonless dark.

Of course, I knew there was nothing to fear. One should not be scared of an owl. Only children fear the dark. And roots are just the sort of thing you find where there are trees.

But knowing and feeling are not always compatible. I resolved to walk carefully, aiming for the grand silhouette of the Hall that I could see, ahead of me, in the distance. And it was in this manner, quite absorbed, that I proceeded, until I came face to face with the panther.

It was suddenly there, and I froze.

Yellow eyes measured me. The panther was black, almost invisible in the darkness. It opened its jaw and yawned.

I didn’t dare move.

The panther regarded me for a long moment more. I stood there frozen, barely daring to breathe. Then it licked its maw, lost interest in me, and in another moment vanished altogether.

I ran the rest of the way back to the Hall and did not rest until the doors were locked shut behind me.

I continued to see Edward for a while, and we grew close. He, however, was soon offered a position with a large accounting firm in the capital. It was a sad day when we parted ways at the train station, though we continued to exchange letters.

One night, on my rounds, I heard the distant noise of camaraderie and song which signalled the arrival of more guests. As usual, they were in some part of the Hall which I could not reach, however much I tried. As I wandered the corridors I found myself staring at a door I had not seen before and, pushing it open, found myself in an old library.

It was dark inside and when I raised my lantern up I thought, for just a moment, that I could see a human shape, stooped with age and dressed all in black, near a bookcase halfway across the room. As I approached, however, I could see no one, and once more felt myself entirely alone. I moved the light along the shelves all the same, and found row upon row of miniature manuscripts. When I opened one I saw that it was written in a dense, tiny script which was entirely unintelligible to me. There were drawings and maps inside, however, and these I recognised. Here was the Glass Town Republic again, somewhere in an Africa which never, to my knowledge, existed. Here was the South Pacific island of Gaaldine, and here was Sneaky’s Land. There were portraits, too, of Zamorna, King of Angria, and his enemy the Duke of Northangerland.

And for the first time I saw a portrait of that rebel queen, Quashia Quamina, princess of the Ashantee.

Who wrote and drew in these notebooks I didn’t know. They were old, at least a century old. It felt wrong to disturb them. I replaced the volumes carefully on the shelves and departed the library, shutting the door gently behind me. That night, unable to sleep, I stared for a long time out of my window and saw, in the grounds, a herd of lions stalking an elephant in the distance, besides the vanity water feature that was built in the Gertrude Jekyll style.

That night, for the first time since the war, I lit a cigarette, and smoked it reclining in my bed. I soon put it out, and carefully, but still. It occurred to me then that I had now broken two of the three strictures Mrs. Robinson had handed me.

A few weeks later a missive arrived from the solicitors in London. A female scholar was to arrive at the Hall momentarily, and I was to extend her all courtesy. Mrs. Robinson bustled about in the kitchen, and old Acton trimmed the hedges as though preparing for a royal visit. The truth was we never received visitors, other than those mysterious guests of the proprietor’s.

The scholar, a Mrs. Ellis, arrived promptly on the due date. She carried herself with an almost military bearing, but was pleasant enough. Her research, she explained, concerned a family of authors, the Brontës of Haworth. I confessed to not having read them.

“There were three sisters, all quite famous,” she said. “A brother too, but he didn’t publish anything of substance. But I am interested not in their adult work.” She looked at me sternly, as though imparting some great and secret knowledge. “Rather, their juvenilia. As children they developed an extraordinary imaginary world, peopled with the most fantastical creations.”

“I see,” I said, though in truth I didn’t.

“I was hoping I may find some trace of it here,” she said. “One of their notebooks or even a letter. I did discover a map of it that they drew. It is the most charming thing, with place names such as Monkeys’ Island and Gondal and the Forests of Hawkscliff and, well, so on.”

I nodded numbly, but could offer no words of my own. Mrs. Ellis, no doubt dismissing me as something of an imbecile, was perfectly capable of occupying herself. She spent several days in and around the Hall, poking about in the dusty old rooms, then returned reluctantly to London, having found, she told Mrs. Robinson, nothing of interest.

The letters from Edward continued to arrive. He wrote that he enjoyed his work, that his duties weren’t onerous, that the capital thrummed with the sound of rebuilding and that powdered eggs were not so bad once you got used to them. He enquired gently if I would consider coming up to London.

But my duties at Wildfell Hall kept me busy. Each night I wandered the long corridors, tracing endless patterns throughout the empty halls, my feet silent on the threadbare carpets. Several times I heard a commotion in the distance, the shouts of men and the firing of rifles, running feet, the sound of heavy objects being dragged. Then it would all fall silent again.

One night, I turned a corner and found myself again in that long gallery where I had previously encountered the rebels. There was no one there, but the chairs were upturned and there was dried blood on the tables. I saw discarded ammunition and blood-soaked bandages on the floor, and an embroidered banner of Quashia Quamina, the rebel queen, but torn and soiled.

The door at the end of the galley had been left half-open. I walked through that silent, cavernous room, remembering the young, cheerfully determined women and men I had last seen inside it. Now it felt like a tomb.

There was light behind the door. I pulled it open then and stepped through into the city that lay beyond.

For what seemed like hours I walked the deserted avenues of Verdopolis. What must have once been a prosperous, bustling city was now entirely empty. Not even feral cats lived there. The signs on the shops were faded, as though they had hung in the hot African sunshine for far too long, perhaps a century or more. Many of the windows were broken and dust gathered everywhere. Here and there hung framed pictures of Zamorna, the king of Angria, too faint now to even make out his face. In one shop I went to I found mouldy books, the paper rotting to the touch. In the offices of a long-vanished shipping company I found ancient manifestos for commercial cargo destined to Gondal, Monkey’s Island, Sneaky’s Land. The city must have once been vibrant, full of colour, music and light. Now it had the quiet calm of a cemetery.

As I crossed one major avenue I thought I saw a human figure up ahead. Stooped and old and dressed in black, she stood quietly in the shadow of a colonial building. She turned at the sound of my footsteps. I could not make out her face clearly, for she was in the shade. She walked inside. I followed, for she was the first living thing I had seen in all that time there. I followed her in through the door and found myself back in Wildfell Hall.

“I still go there, sometimes,” she said. “In the evening of the evening of my life I think of all that could have been and wasn’t. You should have seen it in its heyday. All the people coming and going, and the festivities and the intrigue…oh, how we loved it there. In England we were girls, then women, but in both cases little more than chattel. Only there, in Angria and Gondal, could we be free.”

“You’re her,” I said. “You’re Quashia Quamina.”

The old woman laughed. “I’m Anne,” she said.

I looked around me, at the oak panelled walls, the deep carpet, the high ceiling, and only then realised I had entered the North Tower—and that I had, however inadvertently, now broken all three of Mrs. Robinson’s rules.

“There was my brother, too, of course,” Anne said. “As the rest of us grew and spent more and more time in the world as it was, he retreated further into the world as we dreamed it to be. In his own way he was as much a prisoner as we were. He might be there, still, though I never found him, no matter how much I look.”

“It is pretty, there,” I said.

“Pretty,” she said, “was never the point.”

“The ones who came here,” I said. “The ones who went, did they…?”

She shrugged. “Dreamers,” she said. “But it is no use. That place is gone.”

“Juvenilia,” I said, remembering Mrs. Ellis’ words.

Anne looked at me sharply.

“Excuse me?”

“It was something that—” I left it trailing.

“Listen,” the old woman said. “Do you have anyone? Someone who loves you?”

I thought of Edward, up in London.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I heard there was a war, outside,” she said.


“Is that why you are here? You are hiding from the outside?”

My silence was all the admission she needed.

“We never hid,” she said. “We never had the luxury. The world was what it was and we were in it fully, in the short time we had. What we made for ourselves, it wasn’t an escape. It was illumination.”

“Yes,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.

She shook her head at me. “This Hall has stood for a long time, and it can weather the years well enough with or without you. Go into the world. Live your life. The world isn’t nice and living isn’t easy, but it is all we have. And if it grows harsh and the lights dim, there is still Gondal, or places like it. They are in your mind and in your heart, and when you need them, they will be there for you.”

She looked at me kindly.

“Go,” she said.

It took me a moment to realise she had dismissed me.

I remained at Wildfell Hall a few months more. I never went back into the North Tower. Then, one crisp morning in the summer of 19–, I made my way to the village on foot, with my meagre belongings in hand, and when the next train came I boarded it.

I did not know where I would go and what I would do; but in the time I still had, I was determined now to find out.


(Editors’ Note: Lavie Tidhar is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

fair exchange

you who bred us for the abattoir,

you who taught us justice

is a nothing-word of poisoned air—

remember us.


you with your honeyed terror and scalpel-lies,

you with a red-soft hollow in your ribcage

in which filth and secrets fester—

here is my eye.


I have plucked it out and pressed it

into this space meant for a pulsing heart, a

peace offering of blood and viscera

when I have nothing else left to give.

take it. crush it. swallow it up.

I dare you.

in return all I ask for is your tooth (for a tooth)

and your claws sharp as fragments of innocence.

for nothing belongs to my kin and

nothing has ever belonged to us—

not our hearts, our eyes,

nor the names torn from our riddled tongues,

certainly not our cheap allegiance.


tell me my sightlessness tastes like sweet guilt down the throat.

tell me it chokes you and keeps you

awake at night with all this seeing,

too much seeing, in the screaming bright.

tell me I am vermin, I am an empty hissing canister, I am

nothing but foul dust in the rain.

tell me something real. now.

since my youth is on the pyre and my future mutilated,

allow me to pawn you a blindfold prophecy

for the price of a song

and the dignity of a good death.


you, my executioner, I have nothing more to say to you.

I am speaking to a crack in a moss-broken wall,

and no words have ever been spoken here.


(Editors’ Note: “fair exchange is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 35B.)

The Trouble Over

16/6 for the separation allowance—

3/3 for the personalization of the headstone.

The star came free, courtesy of the Pale

and Pound’s Stepney, East.

Your blood ran from the Tsar’s army

to fight the Kaiser’s,

your April Fool’s death added rimshot

to the war’s punch line.

Sharp-faced, soft-mouthed Rosenberg in your pink ties,

you painted yourself insolent, photographed shy.

You never knew the worth of anything but your own words.

You cast a bantam’s shadow,

centuries long.

The People You Only Think You Know

[A disclaimer before this article commences. The use of the word gypsy is a privilege of ethnicity, not of gadje, or non-Roma people. It is considered by many Roma a pejorative. While some gypsies are fine with it as common usage—the Romanichal of the UK are often fine with it, and many Spanish gypsies will insist you call them gitanos—it is by no means acceptable by all. Roma or Romany are the proper terms, unless you are speaking to Sinti or Travellers, who should be titled appropriately.]

“Roma/Sinti/Traveller people are people first…meaning we have  different tastes, ideas, interests, abilities. Our ethnic identity is a core part of our lives, but that’s not ALL that we are.” – @ImaniKushan

Let’s rewind in time, almost twenty years, to me sitting in a dank basement bedroom with a gaggle of my fellow nerds about to play a new tabletop RPG. We’re fantasy nerds, a creepy bunch at heart, and White Wolf’s World of Darkness called to us almost as much as midnight runs to McDonalds for fries and shakes.  I’m skimming the book to pick what kind of vampire I want to play, and I stumble across the clan Ravnos.  It’s a pregnant pause.

I’m going to borrow a quote from the fandom Wiki[1] for the abbreviated version:

“…the Ravnos are charlatans who gleefully practice their arts of  deception and theft. Misunderstood as a clan of gypsies and tricksters…”

They later go on to talk about how Ravnos are all criminals whose vices included plagiarism and mass murder. The mass murder is such a nice touch; hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered during the Porajmos—the Romanes word for the Holocaust. Eighty percent of European Roma were eradicated.

When I say gypsy, gadje conjure an idea that’s been reinforced over and over by our fictions. Picture a traveling wagon (a vardo, in Romanes), an old woman with veils and bells telling your fortune over a crystal ball. She has intuition, or magic, as a result of her ethnicity and, if you jingle your coin, she’ll lay an evil curse in your name. Perhaps the image is of a scantily clad woman dancing seductively for the pleasure of men, her body exposed for a leering crowd. Or perhaps there’s an image of a dark young man stealing babies and running off into the night. (There’s a reason “gypped” is rejected by the Roma people.)

These depictions of gypsy identity are flawed.

First things first, a diddicoy (mixed-blood Romany) raised outside of the itinerant culture cannot possibly outline all you need to know about the gypsy people in a single, short article. If you want to explore the subject, I point you toward one of our foremost scholars, Dr. Ian Hancock, a Romanichal of British descent whose scholarship speaks not for all of us, but for many (Dr. Hancock used his own text, We Are The Romany People[2], to teach Roma culture at University of Texas at Austin.) But know that a straight answer to “Who are the gypsy people?” is difficult beyond a single truth: gypsy people share ethnicity. They are real people, not fictional ones. Gypsy is not for any itinerant identity who wants to claim it. Gypsy is not a synonym for wanderlust. Gypsy is not a fashion to don and abandon. Real, actual Romany people are descended from a performer caste of people who abandoned India between the tenth and thirteenth centuries for Europe and then dispersed, integrating their  Indian culture with the culture of the places they traveled. Other scholarly research indicates many Roma are descended from mercenary troops who were “stationed” far and wide but never made it home.

Then there are the years of slavery and forced relocation at the hands of gadje, which moved people around, albeit against their will.

In all of these eventualities, the gypsy people went, and they went far. This expansive diaspora is why it’s hard to make catch-all statements. There are as many as a million Roma in the United States[3]. Eight-hundred thousand in Brazil[4]. Twelve million in Europe[5] by last census counts. Those numbers are likely short, too—we’re hard to track. Gypsy people often live beyond the rules of the gadje world as the gadje world is unsafe thanks to racism and the prevalent reinforcement in media as Roma being dishonest thieves. For this reason, many Roma have two names—one for the gypsies, one for the gadje—and tend to remain insular, only revealing certain information to their own kind, including birth records. As such, a headcount is impossible, but estimates indicate as many as twenty million gypsy people living worldwide.

Twenty million people is a lot of people to do a disservice to when stereotypical portrayals of gypsies are the only representation we see. Let’s circle back around to the problem examples outlined earlier. The magical gypsy. Remember how I said our culture is the result of where we emigrated from and where we landed? Some places we landed (I’ll speak to the Welsh Kale side of things as that’s closest to me) had customs of magic, and so those particular Roma will have personal beliefs that could be considered magical. But many—I’ll go so far as to say most—don’t have that as part of their living truths, and the  assignment of it can be at best upsetting, at worst insulting. Roma have cultural touchstones that are more spiritual than magical. The concept of marime laws, or spiritual and physical cleanliness edicts, is a widely embraced tenet of daily life (that is, like all things gypsy, different from person to person and dictated by who your family is, where they traveled to, and how they’ve integrated traditional customs into modern living). Misunderstood, it’s magical mumbo jumbo. Misrepresenting it as a parlor trick diminishes a key part of core identity.

An example I use so people better understand this: imagine I say to someone of the Christian faith, “How cool that wizard Jesus is, conjuring fish and wine for great parties!” They’d be offended, and rightfully so.  Reducing gypsy custom and spirituality to “a cool magical aside” is equally affronting.

Reducing any part of a people is problematic—I mentioned the trope of the gypsy woman as a seductress. Like most impoverished communities, gypsies suffer staggering rates of sexual assault. Portraying the women as promiscuous (which goes against the reality that many gypsy women are modest, remember those marime laws) reinforces the notion that “they are asking for it.” When you combine that with police antiziganism, not only are gypsies positioned for victimhood, but there’s little recourse for victims post-assault. That same antiziganism among authorities manifests when  discussing Roma and thievery. Any population suffering epidemic poverty will have higher rates of theft as a matter of survival, but the notion that it’s part of the actual ethnicity is preposterous. And yet it persists.

There is much to understand about the gypsy people—everything from how each pocket of the diaspora has its own microculture to how modern gypsies work hard to advocate for their less-fortunate brethren. Millions of people deserve to be seen, to be included in the arts, but the challenge is to present us honestly and fairly, something gadje have yet to do well.

In pursuit of such inclusion, I presented some of the familija with the same question: “What do you wish writers and creatives would do better in their portrayals of Roma/Sinti/Travellers?” Here, presented without editorializing, are their voices.

i think what I most wish creatives would understand is that we have a very diverse culture and aren’t monolithic in any sense of the word. our customs, language, and other cultural aspect vary by vitsa. Furthermore, write about Roma who aren’t mystical!! there are many of us who follow practices that may be considered magical, but there are just as many who are orthodox religious, or atheist. mysticism is in no way innately Romany. Last, i think it’s important the Roms of all skin tones are represented in creative works. Dark skin Roma have stories that need to be told just as much as lighter-skinned ones.” – @risskybitch

“What can people do better? They can look at the history of craftsmanship and invest in creating skilled characters. If it’s set in the future, look into how those skills can develop in the future. What is a tinsmith going to be doing in 2100? Want a ‘fortune teller’? What will a ‘fortune telling’ look like in 2100? Alternatively, what DID it look like? Also remember that not everyone is fantastical, it’s ok to have normal interests and behaviours.

Don’t confuse Roma culture with poverty and the repercussions of slavery. What does, and what would, the home of someone who abides by strict marime (hygiene) laws look like?

Majority of Roma globally are settled. Do with that what you will.

But the golden rule, stereotypes do not need to be repeated to be challenged. Thinking of putting in a line like ‘well some people say they’re x but I’ve only had good dealings with them’ or ‘there are bad apples in my bunch.’ Please STOP repeating and reinforcing stereotypes. I do not see the necessity of having to do this, it’s just racist. This also includes lines such as ‘in the old world they used to call them z but we don’t  anymore’.   Just don’t. If z isn’t appropriate just don’t put it in. I’ve learnt the majority of racial slurs by simply being told NOT to say them.”  – @romagraphic

“Roma/Sinti/Traveller people are people first…meaning we have  different tastes, ideas, interests, abilities. Our ethnic identity is a core part of our lives, but that’s not ALL that we are. We are dynamic. Allow your creativity in making a GRT character celebrate that. It’s too often that you find these character’s sole responsibility is to be the “gypsy” of the story, or their ethnic identity is the main focus of the character in a story where that’s only relevant to that one character. “She’s a detective…and a gypsy…using her powers of intuition” type of things make me want to scream. It corners us back into that ethnic fairy tale box where we are only valuable for the exoticization of us.” – @ImaniKushan

“For things involving GRT people as characters try to include GRT  humour from our own perspective as well as the visual touchstones that are the usual shorthands. I realize that is massively broad, but like, when our culture is so heavily transmitted with stories, jokes, wordplay, multilingual puns and code-shifting it feels wrong to have Gypsy characters whose sense of humour is indistinguishable from that of the gorjers and has none of our collective voice at all.

[Also] you could almost argue that we suffer from hypervisibility-  everyone knows what a Gypsy looks like, but nobody knows any Gypsies. Or, so they think. So, maybe more of us who straddle the line between “fast talking scrap dealer who lives in a twin axle with his wife and six kids” and “settled professional whom you’d never know was Romany unless you asked them directly” because that line is a whole county where most of us live.” – @sivomengro

“Romany traditions are not interchangeable. What is integral to one vitsa may be nonsensical or even marime to another.

– It is not antiziganist to portray Roma in our traditional occupations, like metal work, horse breeding, and divination, but depictions of Roma and crime are so fraught with white supremacy that they’re essentially non-touchable for gadje.

– We are not trapped in the 15th century.

– Most modern Roma are settled. Itinerancy in Europe was essentially destroyed by fascist genocide and communist assimilation, and depictions of our itinerant history, especially whimsically, without addressing its  destruction can be deeply painful to us.

– Most Roma are Christian or Muslim and our ‘traditional practices’ often reflect that.” – @Irish_Atheist

Common themes abound in these answers and act as words of caution re: how books and shows we love inadvertently do harm to an already vulnerable population. The Roma are not here to be racism-enforced archetypes. We’re not token sages, street performers, or thieves. We’re not laying curses (thank you, Thinner) to give other characters agency. We are people. Real people. People with hopes and dreams and identity beyond a handful of misunderstood “facts” that were probably not learned from actual Romany people, but from gadje misrepresenting us.

We wish to be in fiction. We wish to be part of fantasy fandom! We are here, we are part of the wonderful diversity of the world, but we wish to be represented with care, with empathy, and most of all, with an eye on truths and actuality, not opinions and views shaped by people who never understood us at all.

[1] “Ravnos.” White Wolf Wiki,

[2] Hancock, Ian F. “We Are the Romani People = Ame Sam e Rromane džene.” Univ. of Hertfordshire Press, 2007,

[3] Heimlich, Evan. “Gypsy Americans.” Countries and Their Cultures,

[4] Govanhill Voice. “Roma Communities around the World: Brazil.” Govanhill Voice, 19 Feb. 2015,

[5] “Roma Integration in the EU.” European Commission, 9 Dec. 2019,

The Ruby of the Summer King

The Summer King fell in love with the Winter Queen before they even met.

He dwelt in the heart of summer in bursts of fruit and green, a place the denizens of winter did not and could not even consider approaching. But even in summer, tales were told of her stark beauty, of her penchant for tracing a single finger over every patch of ice and snow she encountered, leaving patterns of fragile beauty in her wake. He learned that she never wore the same dress twice, though she only dressed in white and black and grey and darkest blue. That the color red felt abashed to even enter her presence, and she herself had only seen it once, when an attendant had pricked a finger on an icicle, dropping three bright drops of blood. That most of her attendants bled dark blue or even green. That she had once wistfully said that her favorite color was rich purple, a color she could rarely see: less abashed than red, it would eagerly enter her presence, only to be swiftly covered in ice, hiding its richness and depths.

That she spent many days alone, gliding over lakes of silver ice, leaving her court waiting quietly behind on the snowbanks.

He had no idea why any of these things called to him. He himself had a horror of the color black, a horror so great that he forbade it in his court, and often shut his eyes before the sun retired from the day, to keep himself from seeing it—only to open his eyes in terror when the blackness rushed in behind his closed eyes. He seized flowers and plants to comfort him at those times, and kept torches burning through the night. All colors rushed to his presence. He particularly delighted in red, and the way it glowed against his green skin. He usually surrounded himself with his brilliant courtiers, and had even been known to welcome a warm star or two to his bed.

The Winter Queen, it was said, kept the cold stars at a distance.

And yet.

Who else could match him as well?

“The Lady of Spring?” ventured a courtier, bold on too much rich wine. “Or the lord of Autumn? He prefers strong young men, or so we’ve heard, and yet, nearly every one of those has ended up wilting in his presence, and so he still searches. Or any of the months? July? She’s a bit warm for many tastes, but she might suit you. They say she hates nights, thus why they tease her by growing ever longer in her presence.” The Summer King shuddered. The courtier hurried on. “Or May? A vigorous young man, by all accounts, who eagerly expects you.”

But the Summer King only longed for the Winter Queen. Not even the promise of a brief trip from December, who had been known to take warm days to her bosom from time to time, if never for very long, could tempt him. She was too changeable, he complained, too much of a mix of jolliness and despair.


Only the Winter Queen, clad in ice, could stir his heart to flame.

“If I do not have her, I will die,” he declared.

No one wished the king to die, and so, negotiations were opened.

Great blue herons flew to the court of the Winter Queen, messages tied about their necks. Great white trumpeter swans flew back in return, to be much admired, and allowed to preen and swim about in the Summer King’s great lakes. The King spoke of his love, of his longing, of the ripe peaches and raspberries he wished to place upon the lips of the Winter Queen. The swans responded by requesting fresh frogs. The Summer King fell ever more in love.

Finally, a heron returned with a note written in silver on white paper, scribed by one of the attendants of the Winter Court. The Queen had spoken. She would meet with the Summer King once–once. On her terms, and in her court. She would not travel to see him. He could come alone, or with an escort—it was all the same to her—but he must not bring summer flowers. Snakeroot, perhaps, or fall monkshood, or witch hazel, or perhaps the very first of spring daffodils. But no marigolds, or poppies, or orchids, or sunflowers. Especially no sunflowers.

“Tell her I will come,” said the Summer King.

“This is unwise,” said many of the bright members of the Summer Court.

“I will die without her,” the Summer King said again.

“That would be a pity,” said the Lord of Autumn, though it was later determined that he was speaking of a proposal to tear down a palace built of leaves of emerald and gold.

“I will go,” said the Summer King, and reluctantly, his courtiers acquiesced.

But they refused to let him journey alone. He did not know the way, and, his courtiers pointed out, he was a king. Kings could not—did not—travel without escorts. Not, of course, anyone from the Summer Court, who all shuddered at the mere thought of the Winter Court, a place not merely cold, but frozen. But November, perhaps. March was too wild, too unpredictable, and besides, was involved just then in an intense flirtation with the Lady of Spring, as April and May danced nearby and February kept her own counsel. No one in the court of the Summer King even knew how to reach January—or even if such a person existed, in truth, and was not merely an icy myth. December had reacted with rage to her rejection by the Summer King, flinging hard holly berries at the Summer King’s messengers as they tried—with difficulty—to approach. June, it was said, turned stormy at the mere thought, and even August found himself dwindling into darkness. October claimed—not, it must be said, entirely convincingly—to know nothing of the Winter Queen at all, and September was busy with fruits and wines.

November was damp, and had a reputation for changeability, and a bit of frostiness. But he was available, and gladly lent to the Summer King’s court for the purpose, as the Lord of Autumn wished to spend less time in November’s soggy presence, and more time sampling the glorious fall wines.

“Besides, I’m not always miserable,” November noted, as he crept into the court. “In some places, I am even considered overly warm and sunny.”

This was difficult to believe, but the Summer Court prided itself on its courtesy and generosity, and did not quarrel with him. Besides, November was a beauty, in his own way, and none of the courtiers wished to dismiss the idea of a November dalliance out of hand.

The Summer King spent little time in these discussions, apart from noting, somewhat distractingly, that November glistened with a certain wet beauty. Instead, he focused on devising a gift of summer for the Winter Queen. At last he summoned his court for their advice.

“Wines?” suggested one.

Another shook her head. “She has ice wines of her own.”


“Would they survive the journey?”

“Summer silks.”

“How useful would they be, in the Winter Court?”

“Jewels,” said the fierce voice of June.

The King let his gaze travel from one courtier to another. “Jewels,” he repeated.

So common were jewels in his court that the King had failed to consider them. In truth, he was fonder of flowers, but since summer flowers were forbidden, perhaps jewels—however common—might serve.

And so, he called for jewels. Vast chests were brought to him, not without a struggle, filled as they were with heavy gold and stones. The King ordered the contents to be spilled across the grassy floors—with a care for the wildflowers. Even July gasped at the brilliance inside. The Summer King stalked among the gems. His courtiers and guests followed.

August, taking an interest, chose a silver tiara, set with amethysts of a purple so rich they almost seemed black. The Queen’s favorite shade, it was said. But the Summer King, with his horror of darkness, looked at the stones and shook his head. A maple tree fished out earrings shaped like tiny trees, worked from emeralds and bronze. The Summer King considered, but shook his head again. A passing star, delighted by the brilliance before her, selected a single diamond, cold and silvery as snow. The king peered through the diamond—and caught a flash of red. Gently pushing the star aside, he bent to find the source of that light.

It came from a ruby, the size of a robin’s egg, of a color rich as blood, dangling from a golden chain. The King’s hand clenched around it. He could feel the coldness of the stone, despite its color.

A color the Queen, it was said, had only seen once.

A color that still lacked the warmth of Summer.

He stalked to an ancient oak tree that stood at the heart of summer, a tree that, despite its age, still looked fresh and young as a sapling. The tree was a friend of long standing, and an admirer of jewels, and he swiftly raised his branches to the King.

The King of Summer pushed the ruby against the bark of the tree. A sudden chill fell on the Summer Court. The oak tree rustled, and the King pulled his hand away.

The Summer Court gasped.

The ruby in the King’s hand now seemed a living thing, pulsing with red light. Those closest to the King could also feel its radiant heat, and even some of the visiting stars turned their eyes from its brilliance.

“I have never seen its like in the Winter Court,” admitted November.

“Let us be off,” the Summer King said. “I burn.”

Neither saw the oak tree drooping behind them, or heard the sobs of a cypress tree as they left.

The journey between the Summer and Winter Courts is a long one, not straight, nor easy, heavy with fallen leaves and rains. They found themselves lost, and tangled, and lost again. The Lord of Autumn offered no help, busy, perhaps, with the new palace of emerald leaves and gold. The Lady of Spring, too, kept her distance. Birds, always fond of the Summer King, chattered away, but they knew little of pathways on the ground, and could only assure the King that the Winter Queen waited for him in her palace of ice. It rained, again and again, often coldly, and the winds howled. November seemed comfortable enough, and proved a surprisingly pleasant companion, but the Summer King found himself clutching the ruby for warmth.

“We can return,” November said. “Or wait here for the Queen.”

“I must go to her,” the King said, and so the two walked on.

The days grew colder. The Summer King woke to find frost on his shoes and his fine silk cloak. He saw, for the first time, his breath leaving his face and rising into the wind, a wonder to behold. He marveled at the first fragile snowflakes, which melted at his touch. His skin turned pale and grey. It grew hard for him to remember heat, even with summer still flowing through his veins and the still-warm ruby clutched tightly in his hands. But the snow had its own beauty, and November built a fire each night and told jokes and tales. The King told himself he did not mind the cold.

By the time they reached the borders of the Winter Court, the snow fell so thickly that the King could hardly make out the icy walls. Ice covered his feet and hands, and crept upon his face, though the ruby still burned brightly against his hands.

“We do not have to enter,” November said. “It is even colder, inside the realm of Winter.”

“I do.”

November looked at the shivering King. “You may die.”

“Summer is not so easy to kill,” the King said, and stepped into the Winter Court.

The Summer King thought he had learned something of cold from the journey. He had not. Each room of the palace of Winter was colder than the last, and if any fires burned within, he was not privileged to see them. The attendants at the Winter Court wrapped themselves well in thick wool and fur, clearly chosen for warmth, but no less beautiful than the flowers and silks and leaves that draped the members of his own court.

His feet still held enough of summer’s heat to melt the icy floors beneath him, which did nothing to warm him. His outer garments were now stiff with ice, and touches of frost crept upon his face. But the ruby still pulsed within his hand. Enough warmth to let him follow the attendants of the Winter Queen.

They brought him to a magnificent room carved from clear ice, as beautiful as anything in his own court, glimmering in the light of moon and stars. February put a goblet of hot spiced wine in his hands, almost making him drop the ruby, murmuring of the honor. November called for warm furs and wool blankets, and urged him to sit on a hard couch covered with sealskin. The King refused; he wished to stand before the Winter Queen. But he did sip the wine, nodding his approval as snow fell from his eyelashes, splashing into the drink.

It seemed hours before the Queen appeared, dressed simply, in black lined with the lightest of blues. Seven white seals escorted her, but the King did not see them. He saw only her face.

“King of Summer,” she said, her voice colder than the ice of her palace.

He inclined his head. “Queen of Winter. The tales do you little justice.”

“They are tales, not laws,” she answered. “They need not do justice.”

The King allowed himself to smile. “True. Especially since they have served their purpose, and brought me to you.”

“To speak of love, or so your messages said.” Her voice, if possible, grew even colder. “Love does not thrive in the Winter Court.”

A few attendants, who knew December quite well, shuffled in the background, but no one spoke out loud.

Has not, perhaps,” said the King, who had heard some of those tales. “It thrives well in the Summer Court.”

The Queen traced patterns of ice in the air. “A place very far from here.”

“No longer,” said the King. “I have brought a taste of it to you.”

As he spoke, he stretched out his hand, showing her the pulsing ruby.

The ice patterns shattered in the air, as a light mist filled the room.

The brilliance of the ruby seemed to dim, though the hand of the Summer King remained steady.

“Red,” whispered the Queen. “You dare.”

“For the love of the Winter Queen,” the Summer King said, stepping forward, “I do.”

“A lovely thing,” whispered the Queen, with something other than ice in her voice.

The Summer King gave the slightest of bows. “It is yours, if you will have it. As am I.”

And with those words, he placed the ruby in her hand.

The Winter Queen screamed. The seals behind her shot forward, sliding over the ice, knocking everyone down in their way—including February, still holding the goblets of hot spiced wine, and November, intent on the Summer King. Both she and November fell hard against the floor, flinging hot wine and dead leaves everywhere. Snowflakes called out, spinning away from the seals and the Queen and the mist—no, smoke—rising from her hand. The Queen screamed again, cracking the ceiling above, and a third time, sending two stars wailing from the room.

And with that third scream, the Summer King fell to the floor.

The Queen dropped the ruby, and held up her hand, allowing her attendants to see the burn marks on her skin.

The Summer King drew one long, ragged breath.

The Winter Queen held up both hands.

Far away, the Summer Court, the wind began to shriek, loudly enough that July clapped her hands over her ears, and two great branches of an ancient oak tree that had once been a friend of the Summer King snapped off and fell to the ground.

In the Winter Court, they watched in silence as a coat of ice covered the Summer King.

“Majesty,” whispered an attendant, though no one knew which Majesty was meant.

“He came for Winter,” the Winter Queen said, after a long moment, “and Winter he shall have. Dig through the ice on my greatest lake, and let him fall beneath its waters. Send rabbits and swans to his court, to let them know their King knows Winter at last.”

Her attendants bowed.

November kept his head bowed as the Queen departed, and thus did not see what others claimed was a single tear of ice running down her cheek. She did not look at November, either, and thus did not see him quietly pocket the ruby in his great woolen cloak.

Summer did not quite die with the death of the Summer King. But it dimmed. The light never felt truly bright. The warmth never felt really warm. June pined, and fruit trees drooped. July wept, and water overflowed. August mourned, and days grew shorter. The Lady of Spring would not leave her rivers, and her flowers faded. The Lord of Autumn complained that his wines were not as rich, and his apples tasted hard and bitter. The ancient oak tree that had once been a friend of the Summer King lost leaf after leaf, branch after branch, until finally it seemed little more than a dark pattern against a dimmed blue sky, without a hint of green.

Even in the quiet Winter Court, some claimed they felt something odd about the court, though when asked, they could not say what. An absence of birds, perhaps, or of seals. Neither birds nor seals had exactly been prominent in the court before, but they had been there, and their absence was noted. Perhaps the paleness: the Winter Court had never been a place of color, but now, even the rare dark greens and blues of the court seemed covered in thin layers of snow, bleaching them to near invisibility. The attendants of the Winter Court were fond of snow—they could not have lived there, if not—but even their eyes began to weary of the endless white. Perhaps the wine: the sweet ice wines of the court had not lost their tang, but the hot spiced wines they relied on in the coldest halls required both spice and the rich wines of Autumn, and both had faded with the King.

What the Winter Queen thought of this, no one knew, though some claimed that she returned again and again to the lake where her attendants had placed the Summer King, now sealed in thick ice.

Some even claimed to see an icy tear or two upon her cheek, as unlikely as that seemed.

In time, December grew weary of the gloom of the Winter Court, and headed to the halls of the Lord of Autumn. But these halls, too, were quiet, and December found almost no one in the halls other than November. He was wet, and dreary, and the leaves that clung to his cloak were dull grey. She herself had tried to drape herself in the bright red holly berries that grew just beyond the Winter Court, but when she looked down, she saw that those berries, too, had swiftly faded, and she was as dull as anything else in the halls of Autumn.

“Who knew that Fall and Winter were in such need of the Summer King?” December asked.

“Spring, too, if the tales are true.”

December avoided the gardens of Spring, and could not say. “And yet the Summer Court chooses no new king.”

“Perhaps they cannot, without the old.” He frowned at his spiced wine, which was lukewarm, and somewhat sour.

“Perhaps you might return him,” December said idly.


“You did bring him to the Winter Queen.” A few dull berries slipped from her robes.

“At the request of the Summer Court.”

“You could have refused,” December said.

November could not deny this. Nor could he deny that the thought of the King and their conversations on their journey still haunted him. He touched the ruby, still hidden deep within his cloak. And so, after he found a second cloak, to keep the ruby still more hidden—and shield himself, as much as possible, from Winter’s chill—he returned to the Winter Court.

Far away, in the Summer Court, the old oak tree that had once befriended the Summer King fell over in a sudden wind.

All was frozen and silent at the Winter Court. Even November, who had once spent centuries dallying in its icy halls, could not remember such heavy ice and snow. But it was not hard to find where the Summer King was concealed. Seven seals sat in a rough circle on a lake near the great halls of Winter, fresh ice thick beneath them. The same seals who had followed the Queen when she had met the Summer King, November thought, though he could not be sure. The skies were dark and grey, and he was not an expert on seals.

He soon learned, however, that the seals did not want him to approach the Summer King. They grunted and squealed as he strode forward, and then rushed at him, all at once. He was more agile than they on the ice, but they were faster, and had sharper teeth, and he was gravely bruised and bleeding before they retreated. They did not remove their eyes from him.

November tried to cut the ice with an iron knife, but the blade cracked and broke within moments, leaving the ice untouched. He tried to melt the ice with fire, but the fires he built were all cold, and swiftly died. He tried to thaw the ice with heavy rains, but each raindrop turned to snow and ice, leaving the Summer King more deeply buried than before, and November’s own hands thick with frost.

The ruby hidden in his pocket still pulsed, and when he pulled it out, he felt a little warmer, even if the frost lingered on his hands. He placed it upon the ice that covered the Summer King. Behind him, the seals made whimpering noises. But the ruby did little more than turn the ice slick, and no matter how much November pressed it into the ice, he could not make it release its summer heat to free the Summer King.

At last, he pulled the ruby from the ice, and turned to the seals.

“Would you go to the Winter Queen, and tell her that I must humbly beg her aid?”

Two of the seals responded by sliding forward and sinking their teeth deep into his skin.

For the next few moments November was too distracted by pain and teeth to notice that the other seals had all vanished, not even leaving tracks for him to follow. He despaired, but not for long. Even in the halls of Autumn, he had heard of how she was said to return to this place, and study the ice concealing the Summer King. Nor did he believe she would allow November to linger too long on her lakes, unchallenged.

In this, November was right. Some of the seal bites were still bleeding when she appeared, cold and dark, cloaked in midnight blue.

“I cannot free him,” November told her, with a slight incline of his head.

“No, you cannot,” she said coolly.

“But perhaps the heat of Summer can.”

“Where would you find that, in this realm?”

“In the stone he meant for you.” He opened his hand. The ruby glimmered in the harsh moonlight, and warmed his cold fingers. “Perhaps you can release its heat.”

“And be burned again?”

“And let Summer live, unfaded.”

“That is of no concern to the Winter Court.”

“Spring and Autumn as well.”

“Of even less concern.”

Her eyes remained on the ruby sparkling in his hand. “And things of red.”

The Queen stood very still. “They have never thrived in the Winter Court.”

“But they can be glimpsed,” November promised, recklessly enough. His own chests were filled with gems of grey and white and amethyst, and the leaves in his home were yellow and brown. “They may fade here, but you will at least see red again. And again.”

Her eyes turned towards the distant stars, that here in winter seemed always cold and blue.

“Hand me the stone.”

November did, offering his own hand as well.

The Queen screamed again as the ruby touched her skin. The seals behind her whimpered. November felt the heat rising from the ruby, hot enough to burn his own skin.

Enough to melt the ice below.

November shouted as the ice cracked beneath them, leaving them standing on small plates of ice, as the water began gushing below them, warm and hard as a summer’s rain. And shouted again at the sight of a green hand in the water below.

He would have leaped into the water, but the Winter Queen stopped him with her burned hand. “Allow them,” she said, and as he watched, the seals dove into the water, and pulled out the Summer King.

He was still and pale, and November could not see him breathe.

Yet far away, in the realms of summer, three stars watched as first a leaf, and then a branch, rose up from the rough stump of the fallen oak tree, and began to wave beneath the wind and sun.

“Take him from here,” said the Queen. “And do not forget your word.”

The ice of Winter lingered long with the Summer King. His once-rich green skin was first a sickly white, then a sickly yellow, and then no more than the palest green, even after a journey to the gardens of the Lady of Spring, and a swim in Summer’s warmest lakes. His hair remained streaked with white, and he could not look at things of red without a stab of pain.

Yet in time, the Summer King began a dalliance with July, and then with August, and then both at once, before entering into a slow green love with a young maple tree, whose leaves trembled at the sound of his laughter. It was doomed, but the Summer Court rejoiced and danced, and stars spun merrily in its fragrant halls.

The Winter Queen remained on her ice-bound lakes, largely leaving the duties of her Court to merry December and quiet February. (In all of this, no one had found January; some found it comforting proof that January was nothing more than a legend.) The seals who had once followed her had vanished. No one was quite sure where they had gone, though tales were told of the new cloaks November now wore to Autumn balls—cloaks made, they thought, of fur.

But sometimes, the Summer King was seen to look at bright cloths embroidered with the patterns of snowflakes, or gaze at diamonds clear as ice, that could swiftly cut his skin, or ask every torch and fire to be quenched, leaving his courtiers to dance in the dark. And a few—after imbibing some of the rich wines of the Lord of Autumn—even claimed that they had seen rabbits racing to the north, holding something bright and red in their mouths.

And on his trips to the Winter Court, carrying heaps of bright red things, November sometimes saw the Winter Queen let her fingers run across the dark greens of the Winter Court—not summer greens, but greens nonetheless, or turn her head towards the skies and the stars the Summer King was known to love. And once, he thought he saw her place her finger against her chest, as if to touch something hidden there. Something that—he blinked—almost seemed to hold a flash of ruby red. But that was, he knew, unlikely—as unlikely as finding January in the Summer Court.

And so he did not think about it, but returned to his revelries, as the Winter Queen skated on her lakes, and the Summer King pressed sharp diamonds against his palms.


(Editors’ Note: “The Ruby of the Summer King is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 35B.)

Interview: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). Most recently she published The House of Sundering Flames, the conclusion to her Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which also comprises The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. Her short story collection Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is out from Subterranean Press, and her novella Seven of Infinities, a space heist, will be published in October 2020 from Subterranean. “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is de Bodard’s fifth appearance in Uncanny, a compelling mystery featuring fallen angels, witches, and intrigue.

Uncanny Magazine: There is an element of mystery to “The Inaccessibility of Heaven,” which provides wonderful dramatic tension. Some of your longer works also combine mystery and speculative elements. What draws you to mysteries? What are some of your favorite books (or other media) from that genre?

Aliette de Bodard: Mysteries are a favourite genre for me: I read a lot of them as a child, so I think there’s an element of comfort to them. They are a reassurance that the questions asked by the main characters (who stole this thing, who killed this man) will have an answer, which isn’t always the case in real life, where many questions remain unanswered. One of the things they do is provide a great structure as well: to me they are a great way to explore characters and a world without having to worry too much about the plot, because the mystery itself is interesting to the reader and carries its own tension.

Things I’ve loved recently are Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley series, which is always a masterpiece of the impact of crime on different communities; Michelle Sagara’s Elantra books, which often have a mystery plot and have deliciously kind-hearted and memorable characters, and the TV series Lucifer, which is a cross between a mysteries and the disastrous relationships/love lives of immortals in Los Angeles, with terrific acting (it’s really hard to convey being an immortal on TV in a way that’s not cheesy or distancing, and I think most of the cast of Lucifer pulls it off amazingly).

Uncanny Magazine: The characters in this story are well-developed and complicated, and they often turn out to be not how they initially seem. What is your process for creating characters? To what degree do you draw inspiration from real life people?

Aliette de Bodard: I generally get a good sense of my characters through their past, and the events that have marked them, which is why many of my character sheets start with personal histories. I tend to have little cheat cards for them, which list what they love most/hate most/want most/fear most (a technique I got from Tim Powers). This enables me to make sure that everyone is distinctive enough, and also to keep straight the different ways they have of looking at the world, and what their underlying priorities are. I never draw inspiration from real life people unless they’re long-dead historical figures, because it doesn’t really seem fair!

Uncanny Magazine: “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” features many of the same elements as your Dominion of the Fallen novels—what is the relationship of this story to those longer works?

Aliette de Bodard: I wrote two stories in the same continuity as “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” a while back: this is the second one (the first one, the first meeting between Sam and Arvedai, is in the trunk, and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of it, as it was very much a learning experience). I never finished “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” because it was growing too long and I despaired of ever selling it, so I set it aside and cannibalised some of the ideas in it for the Dominion of the Fallen: the Fallen angels, the drug made from their bones, Lucifer as a mentor. The actual Dominion of the Fallen series ended up being quite different: Dominion of the Fallen draws on the French 19th century, whereas the setting for “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is a modern alternate-day city, and the mood is more noir than Gothic, the story more intimate instead of epic, and its codes and narratives have more to do with the golden age of mysteries.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were a character in this story, who would you want to be and why?

Aliette de Bodard: I think I’d actually be Sam: she’s this quite ordinary person (she is a witch, but she’s not a very good one, just an observant one) who’s also quite compassionate, and always driven by a desire to do some good.

(I am definitely not having drinks with Arvedai, because I’m not sure I’d ever make it out of the building.)

Uncanny Magazine: What elements of the story did you need to research? Were there any particularly interesting tidbits that you weren’t able to include?

Aliette de Bodard: I didn’t actually do a whole lot of active research for this, as it drew on a lot of Catholic lore, and on mystery tropes I was very familiar with. The layout of the city of Starhollow includes bits and pieces from history and mythology: the marsh District is a reference to Paris’s Le Marais (which translates as Marsh), the Tollbooth skyscraper to Denfert-Rochereau (a plaza in Paris which is named after the tollbooth that stood there). The other neighbourhoods are named after British mythology (Herne, Prester John, King Arthur…).

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Aliette de Bodard: I’m working on two projects: a space opera novel that’ll be a full-length book set in my Xuya continuity, where Vietnamese culture has become dominant and spaceships are part of families. The other one is a queer space pirates novella that’s based very loosely on the South China Coast pirates, and their troubled relationship with the Vietnam of that time period.

(and hum, other projects as well including short fiction, but these are the major ones).

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Transforming Anxiety

I first encountered one of my favorite werewolf stories in Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance by Leslie A. Sconduto. It’s the poem Bisclavert, written in the late 1100s by a woman known as Marie de France. It was the first story about the ‘noble werewolf’ archetype, rather than about the vicious and feared monster. In it, a knight is cursed by his wife who hasn’t been faithful to him. He is brought back to human life by the love and trust of the King he once served. Queerness aside (untrue, I will harp on the queerness of this story for the rest of my life), I’m drawn to the reliance and faith that the king has in regards to the knight, and the way he is saved by the King’s recognition.

When people ask me why I love werewolves, though, I often just tell them that shape-shifting is sexy. It’s my go-to when I don’t think they want to go too deep into things. It’s not a lie: I think werewolves are hot, in the same way vampire-lovers are attracted to vampires and The Shape of Water fans are far from the first to love fishmen. I love werewolves so much that I’ve been…informed that even my non-werewolf stories are about packs and shape-shifters. When that gets pointed out, I think about Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin: “All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.” Whether that is true for every writer, it’s certainly true for me.

All stories are about (were)wolves. And werewolves are shapeshifters. Shape-shifting is sexy.

Except not every story is sexy, is it? There are so many aspects of our lives, every day, that are so utterly removed from ‘sexy’ that the transitive property of that equation doesn’t work. You can’t even properly say that all werewolf stories are sexy. Werewolves live a life of cages, physical, mental, and spiritual, barriers that keep them from living like ‘humans’. As a writer, I always want to know why I’m working on a project, or why I’m drawn to certain media. I do it to study craft, and to make sure I’m telling a story I think is worthy of telling.

After stripping the veneer of sexiness from werewolves, I had to admit why they still drew me in, and what I found was a story about my own mental illness.

I’ve had ADHD and anxiety most of my life, although I wasn’t diagnosed until my thirties. Before that, I was told that I couldn’t have either of those things, that it must have been depression. My eventual diagnoses were often treated as behavioral issues, like many (especially marginalized) sufferers experience: they were mythical states of being more likely to be ‘laziness,’ ‘challenging authority,’ and ‘just not paying attention’. I remember being sure what was wrong in my head, how I’d lose time or watch time stretch out impossibly and being told my anxiety attacks were my being ‘dramatic’ or overly sensitive. Having my truth constantly dismissed didn’t do much for the anxiety, obviously.

That is probably why the focus in my stories was never after the transformation, but the before. For me it has always been the day or week before a transformation, the build up while the character is unable to voice what’s happening underneath their skin. Stories about people who desperately want to shift and change and claw out of their skin but are instead stuck in bodies that are too small, too tight. There’s mounting fear leading up to the transformation, and the werewolf finds relief in wolf form, or in the joyful emptiness of the morning after. My stories often star characters that have a single mind, except for during the transition where the feral and the human, the anger and fear, all fight for dominance. There are a dozen unfinished stories about werewolves in my files. Stories that read equal parts like queer coming-outs and desperate pleadings. Characters that hoped someone would see what happened the days before the moon rose, when their brain worked too fast and their heart beat too loud, and maybe, if they got lucky, that tension popped, changed, and they didn’t have to feel it anymore.

Werewolves became a go-to for me because their existence is a cycle not unlike my anxiety. Talking about anxiety, in prose, was a way for me to not only confront my own brain, but to attach some level of artistry to the pain. In An American Werewolf in London, the SFX might be exquisite and beautiful in their artistry, but it’s still a moment of physical panic and pain. This made sense to me, this felt like the way the inside of my head felt, and so I leaned into it. Made it a part of who I was as a storyteller, because my anxiety is part of who I am as a person.

Even now, I see the way that my werewolf stories have evolved, as my relationship with my own anxiety has evolved. Stories about lycanthropy, ones that center around the curse, are about curing it, killing it, or coming to peace with it. The noble death of the beast, the defeating of it, used to appeal to me more than it does now. I wanted to be fixed, you see, before I knew that I was trying to fix myself. If I couldn’t be fixed, my anxiety had to be defeated—had to be entirely taken out of the equation.

But if the only option is to kill your leading werewolf…was that saying that I couldn’t live with my mental illness? I was growing tired of killing the beast.

Once I came to understand lycanthropy as anxiety made flesh and fur, however, those endings weren’t as satisfying as they once were. As I got therapy, and coping skills and medication, I started to investigate other options, other endings. What if it wasn’t always a curse? What if the curse was not knowing what to do with this other side of who you are, if it was the fear of not knowing which face you’d see in the mirror, instead?

Which led me down the path of the third kind of story. What does it mean to come to peace with the werewolf, and what does that look like? Is it shortening the moments of transformation so that you easily flow from one mind state to the next? Is it in the way that we weather the storm because we are no longer afraid of what our anger and anxiety will do to those around us? Maybe it’s giving your lone wolves packs that can teach them strategies to not lash out at the ones they love.

Healing and peace can be as complete as the human and wolf sides being indistinguishable. It can be rocky, too, where the full moons are still harsh and terrifying, but you’ve found someone who will leave a folded set of clothes and some water for you when you wake up the morning after. At one point in my life it was odd to discover how many techniques from therapy about calming yourself down come up in werewolf stories; nowadays it seems obvious.

I still sometimes ‘cured’ the werewolf in my stories, although not nearly as much as I once did. Those tales tended to be just for me, tales that were fantasies about no longer having to keep this lunar-cycled beast at bay with breathing exercises and yanking myself out of ‘feral’ spirals of unhealthy thoughts. I dabble in it, but I don’t really wish for it anymore—there’s a chance that one day I won’t have this anxiety-monster inside of me, but I refuse to erase it from existence. It’s a part of me, and I live with it daily. Or, you know, once a month under the light of the full moon.

The Inaccessibility of Heaven

Night. A night like any other in Starhollow: the headlights of cars, small and lost between the skyscrapers; the smell of hydromel and wine wafting from those few bars still open; and above me, the distant light of the stars, a constant reminder of the inaccessibility of Heaven.

I climbed the stairs to my flat, exhausted, my arms covered in claw-marks. At the shelter I worked at, drunken Fallen had started attacking some of the newcomers—and had turned on me when I’d tried to intervene.

I fumbled in my bag for the key, wincing as the leather scraped against my skin. I didn’t blame the Fallen for attacking me or getting drunk: I knew all too well how former angels balanced on a knife’s edge between despair and madness, and how easy it was for them to let go—in a city which sold their bones as drugs.

I turned the key in the lock, dumped my grocery bags in the darkened hall. I was looking forward to lying on my bed, to sleeping without dreams.

All the lights were off in my flat. I was about to press the switch when I realised what had been bothering me for a while.

I always locked my flat with two turns of the key—yet I’d only had to turn the key once to open the door.

Someone had been there.

Someone was still there, I realised, as I made out a dark silhouette, sitting at my desk. My heartbeat quickened in fear—I felt veins quivering in my rigid jaw.

I hit the light switch anyway. It’s just too hard to fight in the dark.

“Ah, Miss de Viera,” my nocturnal visitor said.

I froze, my fingers still clutching the wall. Not many people had that effect on me, but Arvedai was an exception: he was a Fallen—tall, commanding, and with their supernatural strength; he was a gang-lord and a body-looter who owned a sizeable chunk of the town; and more importantly, he carried a long-standing grudge against me for having thwarted him.

“What do you want?” I asked when I had regained a modicum of calm.

He smiled—an expression that reminded me of feral cats and sharks. His eyes, glinting behind his tortoise-scale glasses, were unreadable. “There’s something you need to see. Will you come?”

I stood, not knowing what to say. Behind me, the door closed; I turned, briefly. Arvedai hadn’t come alone. He’d brought along two thugs: a beefy human with arms like tree-trunks, and a slender Fallen who moved with the lethal grace of a fighter. They just stood by the door—but they nevertheless made the threat very clear.

“Cal will find me,” I said, although it was a futile wish—Cal, as usual, would be roaming Starhollow, looking for fellow Fallen she could save from the body-looters—and her mobile would be turned off.

Arvedai’s face did not move. “Believe me, that’s been taken into account. Will you come?” he asked, again, and it wasn’t an invitation after all—at least, not the kind you could refuse.

Arvedai and his thugs drove me to a small, dingy basement in a building in what I guessed was the Marsh District: I caught a brief glimpse of the Tollbooth skyscraper, towering over us, as we walked from the car to the entrance.

We walked past a set of revolving doors, into a windowless room with tiled walls. The sharp smell of disinfectant filled the place, strong enough to make my nostrils itch.

In the centre of the room was a metal gurney, and on the gurney—

It might have been human, once. I saw strips of bloody flesh, hanging on snow-white bones; scattered pieces of organs I didn’t want to dwell on; a whole finger positioned on the edge of the gurney, pathetic in the surrounding mess; and, wafting from the whole, a smell that was old blood and decayed flesh and decomposing perfume…

My stomach heaved—a good thing I hadn’t had the time to eat anything since early this morning. I forced myself to look closer—to make out the skin of the face, torn from the skull and laid aside like a macabre mask.

The skull…

I lifted it from the gurney and held it before my eyes, fighting the nausea welling in my throat—the cloying smell was worse from close-up.

Empty eye-sockets looked back at me. Trying not to focus on what I was actually doing, I hefted the skull: it was quite light, and the cheekbones were higher than a human’s…

Holding the skull in one hand, I carefully ran a finger alongside the jaw—and felt the slight, very slight twinge of magic within the bones.


It wasn’t a human, but a Fallen. Quite an old one, too, if the magic from the Divine City had worn so thin.

I turned to Arvedai. His face, lean and sharp, was the hunter’s face, the gambler’s face—the Fallen’s face: revealing nothing of what he felt.

I thought of what that Fallen must have felt as they died—as the pain of their exile from the City was replaced by another, sharper one—as the skin and organs and muscles were torn from their bones and blood scattered everywhere—and anger tightened my throat until I could hardly breathe. They could have been any of the Fallen our shelter had saved from the body-looters—they could have been Cal—

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, my voice simmering with rage. “I’m not here to witness your handiwork.”

Arvedai watched me without expression. At length, he held out his hand, as if admonishing a young child. “You are mistaken, Miss de Viera. This is not mine.”

Not his work? “Then how do you explain this?” I asked.

Arvedai pursed his lips. “O’Connor found this,” he said. The human thug took a step forward, identifying himself beyond all doubt. “In the Golden Horn.”

The Golden Horn was the western part of the city: the squat, soot-covered buildings in which poor families slowly starved to death. Even Fallen had enough good sense to avoid the area—but I supposed Arvedai saw money to be made from despair.

“Found—?” I asked, stupidly, still holding the skull in my hands.

O’Connor took it from me, and carefully laid it back on the table. “He’s not the first,” he said.

Arvedai gestured to a low table in a corner of the room—I hadn’t seen it as I entered, focusing only on the gurney and its contents.

At one end of the table was a pile of sample bags—but most of the space was occupied by printed photographs. In a way, it was better to see the bodies—what was left of them—on paper, rather than standing by them.

No, it wasn’t any better.

Five of them. Five bodies, including the one on the table—torn to pieces as if by a rabid beast. “Fallen?” I asked.

“Yes,” Arvedai said—right behind my left shoulder. I managed to hide my surprise—I hadn’t hear him move.

“A ritual?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.” His voice was quiet, reflexive. “The bodies were randomly placed within Starhollow, and the times of death don’t follow any regular pattern.”

“Someone hating Fallen—” I paused, turned to look at him. “You—”

“I’m no monster,” he said. He must have seen my skeptical face, for he added, “The angel bones I sell, I took under anaesthetic—and I don’t kill that way.”

In other circumstances, it might have chilled me to hear him talk so casually of what he dealt in. Now I felt deadened, as if the Fallen body on the table had overloaded my senses.

“I want you to find out who did this,” Arvedai said.

I turned round, stared at the gurney again—closing my eyes for a brief moment to banish the image of the eyeless skull. “Why?” I asked. “Why do you care at all?”

He smiled—sarcastic again. “We’re one big, happy family, aren’t we?” he asked. “If someone is after Fallen, it’s only a matter of time until my people are threatened—”

The revolving doors snapped open, banging against the wall with a loud noise. My heart started beating faster and faster—especially when I saw Arvedai slip his hand inside his jacket pocket, a sure sign that he hadn’t expected whoever was coming—

Light filled the room: a soft, sloshing radiance that made everything else seem drab and meaningless. The smell of crushed flowers floated up to me, bringing with it the memory of golden summer afternoons, and of my parents fondly watching me on the park lawn…

A silhouette stood in the door, framed in the light—a tall shape with the shadows of wings at its back—and I knew who it had to be then.


“Sam?” she called, stepping into the room—and then she froze, her head turned towards the gurney. “What—”

I could only guess what she’d be feeling—she, who’d dedicated her life to helping out her Fallen brethren—she, who blamed herself every time we lost a life—

I walked to her before she could focus on Arvedai. “It’s not what you think,” I said.

“Indeed?” Cal’s moon-shaped face snapped up, golden light filling her eyes—she wasn’t looking at me, but at Arvedai.

Cal knew of Arvedai’s existence. She knew of the grudge, which also included her as my associate and fellow trouble-maker, butI’d never seen her and Arvedai in the same room.

They both looked as though they were inches from leaping at each other’s throats. Cal’s face was ablaze with anger. Over my safety? She’d never shown that level of concern previously. “Cal! I’m okay,” I said.

“It’s not about you, Sam.” Her voice was harsh; her body quivering, caught in the instant before the leap.

O’Connor and the Fallen thug moved, coming up with weapons in their hands as they stood by their master’s side—but Arvedai made a twisting gesture with his right hand, and the guns’ aim moved away from Cal, towards the floor.

A moment later, Cal spoke. “Well, well. Involved again, I see.”

Arvedai spread his hands. “I’m not responsible.”

“You never were—not even for what you’d engineered.” Cal’s voice was bitter. “I’m not fool enough to think the mortal world would change you.”

“It’s changed you.” Arvedai’s face was deeply ironic. “Quite the saint you’ve become.”

Cal clenched her hands. “Don’t judge me.”

“I’m not,” Arvedai said. “But then that’s never been our prerogative.” Acid dripped from every word.

“What happened to us was only fair,” Cal said.

Arvedai laughed, briefly and without joy. “Maybe.” His gaze slid away from Cal’s, caught mine. “But that’s not the point, is it?”

Cal walked closer to the table, picked up the pile of photographs and leafed through them. Throughout, her face didn’t change expression. By now, she should have been crying—but she wasn’t. She was—harsh, completely cut off from the world—frighteningly different from the Fallen I’d known for seven years.

“Cal—” I said.

She didn’t turn round. “Go home. And be more careful next time.”

I’d never seen her so—cutting, so distant. “I wasn’t given a choice. They jumped me in my flat.”

“We did.” Arvedai’s face was creased in an ironic smile. “You really shouldn’t blame your friend.”

Cal turned to me, for a fraction of a second. “You need to leave. It’s none of your business, Sam.” Her face was cold: she was not concerned. She saw me as an embarrassment.

It hurt. I hadn’t thought it would, so much. “Cal—”

She didn’t answer. Arvedai was standing by her side, hovering almost like a bird of ill-omen. He appeared satisfied—and why shouldn’t he be? It wasn’t me he’d wanted all along, after all—but Cal, an angel with real magic, with real knowledge.

“And then you’ll find me as you’ve found me here? You’re tracking me, aren’t you?” Like I was a child. Like I couldn’t be trusted.

Cal shrugged, but didn’t deny it. “Go home, Sam.”

My hands closed on the sample bags. It wasn’t even a conscious gesture—I never stopped, for instance, to think of the consequences should the two Fallen realise what I’d done—but I did it, all the same. I pocketed them stealthily—like a thief—and left the room without a backward glance. They’d still be talking, Cal and Arvedai—and the Light knew what they’d be telling each other. The real reason, no doubt, why Arvedai had stooped to ask for help—the reason he was so worried.

In the meantime, I’d make my own inquiries.

Cal didn’t show up at the shelter the following morning—somehow, I wasn’t surprised. I opened the iron shutters, wincing as the wounds in my hands scraped against the metal, and cleaned the place with a vengeance—clearing away the empty plates, the broken bottles and the odd syringe on the floor.

For a moment, as I started the computer and checked the accounts for the day, I contemplated calling Cal’s mobile—but it was a foolish idea, dismissed as soon as it occurred to me. She wouldn’t want to talk to me in any case.

I hadn’t held onto the sample bags for very long: I’d sent them to Lucifer with a note in my best handwriting. If there was one person who could identify an angel from scraps of feathers and bones, it was Lucifer, Star of the Morning, Son of the Dawn, oldest and most powerful among Fallen. He and I had a prickly, distant relationship: I’d long gone past the fear and awe I’d felt when first meeting him, and he was now more of a distant informant, more than anything. I called him occasionally to give him news, and he provided help on cases that amused him—being thousands of years old apparently came with boredom, in his case. I was hoping I’d pique his attention enough for him to take a look at the bags.

Morning at the shelter was quiet—most of our residents didn’t get up until midday, if not in the evening. Fallen were very much creatures of the night. I wasn’t expecting any visitors: when a shadow fell across the doorway, I assumed for a fleeting moment that Cal had come back.

But it wasn’t Cal—not at all. One of Arvedai’s thugs—O’Connor, the beefy human one—stood on the threshold, almost hesitant to enter.

I sighed, trying to make abstraction of my disappointment. “Come in. I won’t bite.”

He shuffled in; given his girth, it was almost comical—had I been in the mood to laugh.

“What does he want?” I asked, trying not to appear scathing—never a wise thing when your opponent is twice your size and not bothered by casual violence.

“He—” he wouldn’t meet my gaze. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Taking some initiative? I’m sure he wouldn’t approve.”

His face was grave. “No,” he said, finally. “But he—he can’t see what’s safe.”

No matter which way I turned the sentence, it didn’t make sense. “Safe?”

His gaze roamed over the kitchen, the piles of dirty plates in the sink—the fridge, its door wide open, its shelves stained with grease and bloody remnants of meat. “He thinks your friend will help him—for old times’ sake or to save his skin, whichever. But I still think it’s wrong to put all your eggs in the same basket. Your friend’s gone soft, Miss—no offence, but she spends too much time saving souls and not enough opening her eyes…”

During that tirade I’d stood motionless—trying at first to piece things together, giving up when it became obvious I couldn’t. Finally I said, slowly, “They’re both in danger?”

His fists clenched. “I—we know who some of the dead are, Miss. He didn’t have time to tell you—” he paused again, his broad face creased in thought. “He knew them—and so did your friend.”

The picture remained hovering at the edge of my mind, tantalizing in its incompleteness. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

O’Connor spread his broad hands over the kitchen table. “Him—your friend—the dead angels—they were all in it together, you see?”

I thought of what Cal had said, back in Arvedai’s hideout, and suddenly things coalesced together. “Fellow rebels?” I asked, finally, aghast. “That’s why they all fell.” That was why Cal and Arvedai hated each other so much—because they both blamed each other for the fall.

O’Connor nodded. “One of the bloodiest in Heaven.”

One of the bloodiest—no, not Cal, why would she have been involved in that? I remembered her attitude with Arvedai, and I understood: she’d been drawn into it. She’d fallen because of someone else’s acts.

“And now some of them are dying, and you think it’s connected.” No. He wasn’t the one thinking that—no, O’Connor, for all his worldliness, remained a mortal. Arvedai was the one who’d made the connection. Arvedai was the one who was afraid.

“Revenge?” I asked, finally, my hands automatically playing with a red-and-yellow sponge.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. But I know who was in it—some of them, at any rate.”

“And you want me to help. Why?”

Again, an expansive shrug. “Told you. Two heads are better than one, and four even more so. The boss and your friend—they’ll find what they find, but they’re too involved in this. Too afraid to think clearly.”

“And I’m not?” I asked, sarcastically—even as I realised that yes, I was—that if someone, anyone was hunting down Cal to butcher her like those poor angels, I’d do anything to find her, anything to save Cal.

O’Connor didn’t move.

“You haven’t told me why you’re here,” I said, softly.

He wouldn’t look at me. “If the boss dies, we’re all back on the streets,” he said—and although it was the truth, it was only part of it—there was a deeper motive in what he was offering me, and I didn’t know what.

I sighed. “All right,” I said, resolving to keep an eye on O’Connor. “Let’s try working together.” I didn’t like it. I knew all too well there was blood on O’Connor’s hands—and angel essence, too—but at the moment it looked like the only viable option. “What can you tell me about the rebels?”

He foraged in his impeccable suit for a while, aligning the contents of his pockets on the table: an empty holster, aspirin tablets, a map of Starhollow—desk junk, staples, paper-clips—” Got it,” O’Connor said, adding a grubby piece of paper to the pile.

I picked it up, stared at the elaborate loops of the handwriting. It was a list of names and addresses, headed by Arvedai and Calariel. Little crosses in the margin—three of them, all in all—were a grisly reminder of the stakes.

Most names were unfamiliar—but there was one, near the beginning: Vazrach—and an address in the Golden Horn.

“First Circle?” I asked, my finger pointing on Vazrach.

O’Connor shrugged. “I don’t know about Circles,” he said.

First-Circle Fallen were extremely rare—-in all of Starhollow, there must have been half a dozen at most. Lucifer had once given me a list; that was why I remembered Vazrach’s name. I wasn’t familiar with the intricate network of alliances that defined the City above our heads; but I did know that a First-Circle would have lost much from the fall: trust, power, influence. All the more reason, perhaps, to keep hatred burning.

And the latest body had been found in the Golden Horn.

“Come on,” I said to O’Connor. “We’re going to see an archangel.”

I’d been in the Golden Horn before: with Cal, on jaunts to recover a young Fallen before the body-looters got at him. As O’Connor and I walked past the dilapidated buildings, I felt Cal’s absence all the more keenly—and it wasn’t a body-looter in an immaculate suit who was going to compensate for Cal’s gravely amused voice, or the golden eyes trained onto mine.

1027 Magus Row must have been a condominium once; now the gates were broken, and famished children chased each other in the ruined gardens. We walked up to the doors of ebony and rang the bell.

A woman opened the door—her sharp features vaguely reminiscent of a fox’s, her aquamarine eyes lost in the paleness of her face. “Yes?” she asked.

“My name is John O’Connor, and this is Sam de Viera. We’re looking for Vazrach,” O’Connor said.

Her gaze took in the striped suit, the polished, gleaming leather shoes; the almost baby-ish roundness of his cheeks. “I see,” she said. She sounded half-weary, half-angry. I’d seen that expression before, in hospital wards—and I suddenly understood that whatever we were going to find here, it wasn’t an angry, vengeful Fallen.

“He’s inside,” she said. “But you can’t see him long—visitors always leave him drained.”

The implications of this were unmistakable. “There have been others to see him?”

She shrugged. “Yes. Fallen, mostly—it’s funny, how news of misfortune spreads quickly.”

She led us down a crooked corridor—past empty rooms with closed shutters—into a wide bedroom. Sunlight fell through the open windows, limning the still figure on the bed; the air smelled of soot and dust—and underlying it was the sour, acrid odour of sickness.

A shuffle of cloth, from the bed. “Martha?” The voice still had the singsong tones of Fallen, but it was weak—almost spent.

“Visitors,” the woman said. She stood in the doorway, watching him as a tigress watches her young. “Don’t be long.”

“You know I won’t.” A chuckle—which halfway through turned into a coughing fit—in the doorway, Martha tensed, ready to rush into the room, but the fit died.

Carefully, O’Connor and I moved closer to the bed.

Once, Vazrach must have been handsome. In the sunken lines of his face you could still see that beauty—and in the golden, slanted eyes, and in the long fingers folded over the sheets.

But time and sickness had taken their toll: through the parchment-thin skin protruded the bones; the hands, like aspens in the wind, wouldn’t stop shaking. Only the eyes were still clear, still filled with ironic amusement.

“Mortals.” Vazrach sounded surprised. “I had no idea I was so popular among your kind.” His eyes narrowed to slits as he considered O’Connor. “Not quite mortals. You consort with Fallen—both of you.”

“How do you know?” I asked, before I could help myself.

“It leaves traces.” Grimacing, he pulled himself into a sitting position, winding the sheets around him as he did so. He was fast; but not fast enough to hide his naked torso—and the huge, infected wounds that ran across his ribs. Claw-marks, I thought, sickened. Claws—like those that had torn the other Fallen to pieces.

“You’re not sick,” I said, slowly.

“It’s not sickness that’s going to be the end of me. Although—” His lips pursed in an ironic smile—”the infections might yet win over the loss of blood.”

“Where did you get the wounds?” O’Connor’s voice, a bare thread of sound in the chamber.

Vazrach didn’t speak for a while. He looked at us—and some of the sarcasm was gone from his eyes. “Late at night—” he whispered. “Walking home…there was—darkness above my head—darkness and claws, and the Light dimming forever…” His hands clenched over the sheets. “Martha—found me—she drove it away.”

“Whatever it was,” O’Connor muttered, sombrely.

Vazrach started to shrug, and then gave up with a grimace. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never found out.”

“You must have some idea,” I said, slowly—he was an angel of the First Circle, after all, he had the knowledge, the power…

And he was dying. I could smell it in the tang of the air, hear it in the raggedness of his breaths. “Darkness,” Vazrach said, and all the light seemed to have fled his eyes. “The enemy of the Light—the hatred that will kill everything, drown everyone…”

“Do you know who it is?” I asked.

Vazrach wouldn’t look at me. I pressed him: “Other Fallen died—other soldiers of your rebellion. Do you think it’s a coincidence?”

His eyes were bleak again. “Few things are coincidence.”

“Tell me about the rebellion,” I said, finally—because it burnt in me, to know how Cal could ever have joined it—how the angel I knew, calm and level-headed, obsessed with her own virtue, could ever have been drawn into such madness—and why she was in danger now.

Vazrach closed his eyes. When he spoke again, something had shifted in him—his frail skin was opalescent, as if hiding some hidden radiance. “It was Arvedai who convinced us—he was always such a smooth-talker—but Calariel was the one who started it all.”

Calariel. Cal.

“No,” I whispered. Not Cal—I’d never asked her why she’d fallen—deep down, I knew there had to be a reason, but naively, stupidly, I’d always assumed it would be something—something forgivable—that she’d been led astray, that she hadn’t understood what she was getting into…

And now Vazrach was telling me Cal had instigated a rebellion—one of the bloodiest in Heaven. That she bore the responsibility for the fall of hundreds of angels, in addition to her own.

Not, I thought dimly, something that would be forgivable. No wonder Arvedai hated her so.

“Calariel didn’t understand—why things had to be so—why humans endured so much suffering—why so few of us could come down to Earth, why we were forbidden from incarnating or helping…why we could only watch…she wanted to throw open the gates of Heaven…” Vazrach’s voice trailed off. “Arvedai was her voice, but we all knew whose words had convinced us.”

“No,” I said. “She wasn’t—”

“She’s always been like that.” Vazrach’s voice was amused. “Always wanting answers. Always trying to do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.”

“And he fell,” O’Connor said, his voice like the shutting of a book. “You all fell.”

Vazrach’s hands clenched again, so tightly his skin turned white. “Yes,” he said. His eyes had grown distant. “Never to see the Light again, never to fly over the streets of the City—every night staring at the sky and remembering the breath of the wind over your wings. Knowing it’s lost forever.”

Because of Cal. Because of Cal and her endless questions and her endless doubts. I thought of her, standing by the window of my flat, twirling a glass of wine between her hands, gently chiding me for my lack of faith. What a lie. She herself hadn’t believed.

Vazrach was saying, “Beimon never forgave them for that.”

O’Connor had been turning away from the bed, his face the bright red of embarrassment—but when he heard those casual words, his head snapped back towards Vazrach. “Who—?” he asked.

“Beimon,” Vazrach said. “Second Circle and never happy with it. He wanted more out of life, even if he had to take it himself. And he’s spent the last few millennia in a gutter—because he once made the mistake of listening to Calariel and Arvedai. And I don’t think he’s quite happy about that, either—” He coughed again—blood came up, a liquid red staining his outstretched hands—and again and again, and the blood flowed from his lungs onto the sheets, he was bent on the coverlet, his face twisted in agony.

O’Connor rushed to support him, but it was obvious he couldn’t stop what was happening—no one could—I stood for a moment in sheer horror, trying to wrap my mind around the idea that he’d die, here and now…

I turned, and screamed for Martha through the closed door, my hands fumbling with the handle—it gave way, and Martha was striding into the room, light spilling between her fingers. She knelt by Vazrach’s side, and the light wrapped itself around him like a cocoon. The coughs diminished, faded away; all that remained in the room was Vazrach’s ragged breaths.

“You know you shouldn’t stretch yourself,” Martha said, bitterly.

Vazrach’s smile was unreadable. “The end…will…come soon…enough.”

Martha stared at him for a while. Then, softly, “If that’s what you want, I don’t even know why I bother. Killing yourself should be easier, shouldn’t it?”

Vazrach’s face had twisted again—in pain, in hatred. He said, finally, “You know I won’t.”

Martha brushed her hands together, as if to remove dust. “No,” she said. “You won’t.” Then, with a visible effort, she turned towards us, pasting a pained smile on her face. “I’ll see you out.”

As we walked back, Martha was silent—uncannily so. Unobtrusively, I studied her—grey hair, face sagging in the folds of late middle age. Nothing remarkable at first or even at second glance. Odd, that Vazrach would stay with her—but then what did I know of Fallen’s whims—of why Cal had stuck with me for so long, when there were other, more talented witches in the city that could have helped her better?

Nothing, I thought, not without bitterness.

“He’s such a fool,” Martha said, as we went past the last of the open doors. “You know why he clings on?”

I thought of Cal and of her burning need to be forgiven, and said, “Suicides can’t ascend into the City.”

Martha turned to stare at me, her green eyes slightly wider. “I have a Fallen friend,” I said, with a shrug—I felt slightly embarrassed, without really knowing why—was it because Cal was still healthy when Vazrach was dying? “I know what they want above all else.”

She nodded, curtly. “His heart’s desire.” Her voice was bitter again. “But he’ll never have it now.”

“Because someone is meddling,” O’Connor said.

I almost jumped—he’d been so silent I’d almost forgotten he was there at all. O’Connor went on, “What did you see, when he was attacked? What did you drive away?”

Martha shrugged. “He thinks I drove it away. I think—it wanted no witnesses for what it was doing—just my being there was enough to defeat its purpose.”

Somehow, it didn’t ring true—not after I’d seen the way she’d tended to Vazrach’s wounds. “You’re a witch,” I said, slowly. “A powerful one.”

Again, a shrug. “I get by.”

She was clearly frightened—and I reckoned I knew why. Power was valuable in Starhollow—and, especially in the Golden Horn, it was unwise to draw attention to your abilities: you’d be blackmailed or pressed into service or killed, but never respected for them.

“We’re not here to cause trouble,” I said, finally. “We’re just—trying to stop things.” To safeguard Cal—Cal, who’d let me go without a second glance—no, I couldn’t afford to think of it, not now…

On the doorstep, Martha turned to look at me. “You’re here for your own reasons. Not to help him.” Her eyes defied me to contradict her—I couldn’t, and she knew it.

“I—” I hesitated, but I couldn’t leave her hanging. “I have a friend who may be in danger.”

“Arvedai?” Martha asked, ironic. “Calariel?”

She must have seen the way my face blanched. “Calariel, then,” she said with a sigh.


“She was there—without you.” Her eyes weren’t looking at me; but her voice was shrewd—too shrewd.

“And Arvedai?” O’Connor asked—slowly, deceptively softly.

She shook her head. “No. Too afraid to go out, that one.”

“There have been other visitors?” I asked.

She didn’t answer—I thought at first she wanted to get rid of us, but then I saw that her gaze looked beyond us—towards the wide gates of the garden, where a tall, elegant man was weaving his way through the press of begging children.

As he got closer, I saw that he was no man—his eyes were the colour of freshly-cut wheat, his hair as dark as ebony, glistening in the sun like underwater jewels. His fingers, folded over the silver pommel of his cane, were slender, curved like a feline’s claws.

Another Fallen?

He stopped when he saw Martha, bowed to her—in a gesture that belonged more in gentlemen’s parties than in the Golden Horn. “Greetings,” he said. “My name is Beimon.”

So that was the mysterious Second Circle—the one who’d never accepted his fall was the result of his own actions. He was, like Vazrach, like Cal, handsome—except that his beauty had never withered. I could almost believe he still belonged in the City—and imagine how much Cal would have envied him, how much he’d have reminded them of what had been lost.

He had a presence, like Cal, like Arvedai—except that it wasn’t simply power he exuded—but something that tightened around your throat, a snake that writhed in your chest, ready to eat your lungs from inside—

I raised a shaking hand to my lips, pretending to cough—or perhaps it wasn’t pretence, perhaps I needed to reassure myself that I could still move, that my will was still my own—and muttered the first words of an incantation. They left a burning trail in my mouth, as if the whole world were fighting against me.

There was darkness, trailing after him—gathered in the folds of his long cloak, spread across his path like slime. And it roiled—extending claws to ensnare the courtyard, the children—to ensnare us…

I bit my lip not to cry out, tasted blood on my tongue—my fingers were digging into my palms, so deeply I could feel the bones of my hands.

Darkness, Vazrach had said. The enemy of the Light—the hatred that will kill everything, drown everyone…


A hand, laid across my shoulder—large and reassuring, an anchor to the world—I turned, slightly, and saw O’Connor standing next to me, smiling grimly—and I knew he’d saved me, I ought to smile back, to thank him in some way—but it wasn’t his hand I wanted, nor his smile, nor his gaze…

I shook my head. It wasn’t the time to grow sentimental—not over a Fallen who’d let go of me.

Martha was still staring at Beimon; if she saw anything of what made me tremble, she gave no sign of it. “I know why you’re here. All the same—drawn to misery like carrion birds.”

Beimon coughed, elegantly, contriving to make me feel uncouth in spite of all I’d seen about him. “I’ve come to see an old comrade, that’s all.” His eyes stopped on O’Connor and I, moved away, dismissing us.

Who did he think he was, I though, suddenly angry—and that emotion was enough to scythe through my shock. “Comrade?” I asked, loudly. “I doubt you like each other.”

Beimon smiled—a brief, utterly unamused expression that only added to my annoyance. “We still look out for each other. And—” his lips pursed again, “it’s sad, to see a First Circle brought so low.”

He didn’t sound sad—he sounded smug, almost proud of himself—because he was healthy, or because he’d finally brought Vazrach down?

“He didn’t do anything to you,” I said, almost instinctively.

His lips pursed again—underneath, his teeth were white and sharp. “Vazrach? He’s a fool, like so many of those who followed Calariel and Arvedai. A—painful reminder of what they’ve done to me.” He stressed “painful” in a slow, lingering way that sent goose bumps through me—and I knew that, whatever I did, I didn’t want his enmity, didn’t want him speaking of me the way he spoke of Cal and Arvedai—or even of poor Vazrach.

Martha, who’d watched us trade hurtful words, said at last, hands on her hips, “Carrion birds. You’re not welcome here, Beimon.”

He smiled again. “I could ease his pain—or perhaps even tell him what struck him down—”

Martha made a sweeping gesture with her hands, and all the sunlight in the courtyard suddenly converged towards her face—her eyes blazed, her skin shone like balefire. The air throbbed with unreleased power, with the heavy feeling that comes before a storm—in the second before the lightning strikes. We all stepped back from her—even Beimon.

“You’re not welcome here,” Martha repeated, and every one of her words made my ribcage tremble. “Go away.”

Beimon’s hands clenched on the pommel of his cane. “You have no idea of the stakes, young witch. But I’ll humour you, for the time being.” His voice was calm, but no longer as assured as it had been before—and when he walked away from us, some of the swagger had gone from his stride.

“We’ll take our leave,” O’Connor said, abruptly—his eyes still on the retreating figure of Beimon.

Martha stared at us vacantly—the power gradually fading from her face, taking its toll as it vanished. Her hands lay by her side, harmless once more. “Yes,” she said, finally. “It would be best.”

She looked so frail, as she turned to go back inside the house—so worn, already defeated by Vazrach’s agony—that my heart twisted in my chest. “Be careful,” I said.

She didn’t look back. “I will. Thank you, Sam.”

“An interesting person,” O’Connor said, as we walked into more affluent streets—and the dreariness of the Golden Horn disappeared like a bad dream.

I shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned—but in truth, Beimon had badly rattled me. I dealt with Fallen daily—but at the shelter they were young, and still filled with that boyish charm, not suave or malevolent, but simply bewildered by what had happened to them. Without consciously passing judgment on them, I’d assumed that they had not known what they were doing—that somewhere, somehow, they could be redeemed—that they were worth nursing through their vomit-stained drinking binges, through their assault attempts and the insults they hurled at me—that I wasn’t trying to save the unredeemable.

But Beimon had known what he had been doing—and so had Cal, a treacherous voice whispered within me. They’d both Fallen for a reason—and Beimon, at least, didn’t seem repentant. I could imagine him waiting centuries to take his revenge, preparing it like a rare course at a banquet, savouring it in advance.

“Do you think he’s behind it?” O’Connor asked, bluntly.

I said, “He’s no stranger to dark magic, that’s for sure.”

“What makes you—” O’Connor stopped, stared at me. “I’d forgotten. You’re a witch, like Martha.”

I shrugged, trying to tear my mind from Fallen—from Cal. “Not as powerful, but yes.”

O’Connor sighed, exhaling from his nostrils. “Fallen,” he said. “They do carry long grudges.” Then, innocently, carelessly—but I was starting to understand that few things about O’Connor were careless—“I wonder what the boss is up to?”

I didn’t answer—but it would take more than that to stop him, of course. “He’s always accepted his part in the order of things,” O’Connor said.

Unbidden, an image, in my mind, a scene I’d witnessed a year ago: Arvedai listening to angel music, his face filled with inhuman longing—nothing of acceptance or meekness in his features, nothing at all…

I clenched my lips on the denial I’d been about to utter. “Maybe. I wouldn’t know,” I lied.

O’Connor’s eyes tightened, but he didn’t insist.

I said, “You want to help him. You said you didn’t want to be back in the streets.” It was a stab in the dark, but O’Connor’s face altered.

“Do you know what they’re like, miss?” he asked. “When they stride into the hovel you call home with the light of Heaven in their bodies, and the wings at their backs beating against the walls, pushing back the darkness? When they”—he shook his head, and swallowed—”when they look at you and see you, and you know that whatever happens, you’ll never be alone again?”

I thought of Cal—of sitting side by side on a sofa, sharing a glass of wine and looking at her, and that slow-rising hunger, that feeling I could almost touch and possess her, reach the City through her. I shivered. “No,” I said.

A laugh from O’Connor. He didn’t believe me. “You know. The boss picked me from the tenements in Black Water when I was fifteen. And he—” he spread his hands. “He can’t help it, can he. They can’t help what we feel when we look at them. But he’s always done right by me.” There was something distant in his gaze, now, some disturbingly serene happiness. “He’s always been there when it mattered.”

“I guess so,” I said. O’Connor’s rapture and happiness were disturbing, and even more disturbing considering it was Arvedai we were talking about, the Fallen I couldn’t imagine being a reliable or steadying presence to anyone.

O’Connor’s face closed. The moment, such as it was, was over. “What now?” he asked.

Well, for one thing, I desperately wanted some quiet time to sift through what I’d learnt of Cal—not to have to endure O’Connor’s disturbing shrewdness or misplaced curiosity, or to dwell overmuch on his real motivations for joining me.

But this wasn’t about my caprices—it was to save Cal, to save all those Fallen who might be in danger—

“Can you find out more on Beimon?” I asked O’Connor.

He shrugged. “Probably.”

“Then you do that. I’ll be checking on some of the other Fallen on your list—to see if there are any dead we haven’t yet found out.”

He looked up at me, sharply—and in his eyes was the same fearful hope as mine—that the five butchered Fallen were the only ones, that we wouldn’t have to deal with more mangled corpses.

I wish I could reassure him—reassure myself—but we both knew I couldn’t.

I spent the afternoon hopping from bus to bus, going in a wide arc that took me from the exclusive houses of Pendragon Hills to the crammed apartments of South Herne Field, from the quaint cafés of Prester John Avenue to the seedy bars of Grace Street. I gleaned little. Most Fallen on O’Connor’s list weren’t at home, or weren’t willing to receive me—or knew nothing of what had happened to their former comrades.

When I arrived at the shelter at seven, completely exhausted, Dee, one of the night volunteers, was already there, aligning frozen breads on the oven grid. She smiled wearily when she saw me. “Hey, Sam.”

“Hey. How is it going?” I asked, opening the fridge to check on tonight’s collective meal.

Dee shut the oven. “Could be worse. Most of them are still in their rooms.”

I nodded. I’d seen a few Fallen in the relaxation room, playing a game of cards as if their salvation depended on it; a few lounging in the dining room, doing their best to appear nonchalant; and a few outside, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes in the courtyard, their gazes obstinately turned away from the heavens.

Dee fiddled with the oven controls, cursing under her breath, and finally leaned on the door until it clicked shut. “Cal’s waiting for you in your office.”

I froze, one bottle of water in each hand. “She is?”

“Yeah.” She looked at me with curiosity. “Something the matter?”

Carefully, willing my hands not to shake, I set the bottles of water on the table. “No,” I lied, as I’d lied to O’Connor. “I just wasn’t expecting her so early, that’s all.”

The lights in my office were all out—for a split second I entertained the illusion that Dee had been wrong—but in my chair sat a tall, motionless figure; and when I pushed the door Cal spoke up.

“I see you’ve had a busy day.”

I reached for the switch, turned on the lights—buying time. “So have you,” I said, trying to bite back my sarcasm. “You weren’t here this morning.”

Cal shifted in the chair. She looked—old, as faded as Vazrach, and for a moment—a moment only—my heart contracted in my chest. “There are—other things at stake,” she said, finally. “I’m not subservient to the shelter.”

“And I am?” I asked—I knew it was unfair, I knew the shelter wouldn’t have existed without Cal—but the words welled out of my throat, uncontrollable.

“You—” Cal made a sweeping gesture with her left hand—”you’re human, Sam.”

“Yes.” Human—I was human, and the internal struggles of the Fallen weren’t my domain—I trespassed, that was why she was trying to tell me. “Is that why you’re tracking me? How are you doing it anyway?”

Cal sighed. “Tracking spell on your mobile. You get into scrapes too big for you, Sam. I’m only trying to help you.”

My mobile. I stared at it. Nothing seemed amiss. I’d not even noticed she’d changed it. I— “You’re not helping,” I whispered, my hand tightening on the phone. “You’re treating me like a child.”

We stared at each other for a while. Cal’s golden eyes held me, without anger, without shame—with only weariness, and disgust—at me, at Vazrach, at Arvedai?

“I’m human,” I said. “Dee’s human. Most of the volunteers at the shelter are human.”

“It’s—” Cal sighed. “It’s not the same. This is—dangerous.”

I laughed. Dangerous? I’d lost count of the number of scrapes we’d been involved in—of how many times we’d had to move the shelter after yet another assault by body-looters. “That’s just an excuse.”


“No,” I said. “If you don’t want to tell me what you and Arvedai are up to—fine. If you don’t want me to know what was up with your little rebellion, or why your veterans are getting killed, fine. Just don’t go around telling me it’s for my own good. I won’t ever believe that.”

Cal had frozen—going as still as a feline before it leaps. Every feature of her face was sharper, growing more dangerous with every second. “Who told you?”

“Vazrach,” I said, quietly—I had enough sense left not to involve O’Connor.

“Vazrach,” Cal’s voice was toneless. “Vazrach.” And this time the expression was unmistakable. Contempt.

“He’s dying,” I said.

Cal didn’t answer. She’d hauled himself out of the chair in a swish of cloth; she stood near me, tall, towering—and part of me longed for the anger to leave her face, to have her smile at me once more—surely we weren’t going to quarrel over petty secrets? But another, colder part of me remembered Vazrach’s words: it had been her rebellion. Her doubts.

When Cal spoke again, her voice was quiet—as silky as a sword’s blade. “Stay out of this, Sam. I know you don’t understand everything—”

You understand nothing,” I snapped. “That’s the whole point—I’ve known you for seven years, and you still feel you should lock me out of your universe—”

“We’re not the same—” Cal started, and, seething, pierced to the core by what I secretly suspected to be the truth, I was about to fling something scathing at her, something that I wouldn’t have been able to take back—when the phone rang.

We turned as one, and watched it ring, stupidly.

“Oh, for the Light’s sake,” I said, and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”

“Miss de Viera?” The voice was familiar, but distorted—by fear, by anguish.

“Speaking,” I started—and stopped, because I did know that voice. “O’Connor?”

“You have to come—have to come, Miss de Viera—Samantha—come—here—have…” It was as if floodgates had opened in O’Connor’s mind—he spoke quickly, jumbling words together into sentences that made little sense. The gist of it, though, was clear enough.

“Where?” I asked, a hollow deepening in my stomach. Silence, on the other end of the line. “O’Connor? Where?” Damn it, please answer me, you idiot, please…

“Miller’s Lane,” O’Connor said. His voice was marginally calmer, but I wasn’t fooled. Something was deeply wrong. “I’ll—I’ll be waiting for you—take you there—” Then he hung up.

The receiver was warm, silent in my hand. Gently, I lowered it, met Cal’s eyes. “We’ll sort this out later,” I said.

I couldn’t read her expression, but at length she nodded. “Let’s go.”

From the outside, I didn’t recognise the building O’Connor took us to—but once we’d walked past the wide, gleaming lobby—once we’d settled into a lift panelled with mahogany, going upwards—I knew where we were: the discreetly opulent decoration, the faint, acrid smell of Mother Essence (manticore heart, myrrh and frankincense)—and the two thugs waiting at the end of the final corridor, wearing three-piece suits as elegant as O’Connor’s.

Arvedai. Not his office—I’d already been there, and the two-panelled gates in front of me weren’t familiar. His private rooms, maybe?

What could have happened, for O’Connor to be shaken so badly?

I glanced at Cal. She held herself straight, almost rigid, staring stubbornly ahead—refusing to meet my gaze.

Inside, more opulence: a tamarisk secretary strewn with parchments, yellowed oil still-lives; and a huge four-poster bed, the sheets stained with blood. The rank smell of carrion filled the room—strong, too strong not to feel queasy.

A silhouette in a scarlet dressing gown leant against one of the bedposts, their face turned away from me; but even from the back, I’d have recognised Arvedai anywhere. Still alive, then, and I couldn’t decide whether I felt relief or a sense of regret.

On the bed…

All that remained was a vague human outline, drawn in blood and scattered, glistening organs—not retch, I must not retch, I must force myself to see—see the bones of the arms, extended on both sides of the ribcage; see the golden necklace still hanging around the meat of the neck—see the skull casually resting on the pillows, grinning at me—

Nausea welled up, uncontrollable: I turned, and vomited over the parquet.

When I rose, Arvedai hadn’t moved. “Who?” I asked.

“A Fallen. His name was Malakiel. Young, and a joy to behold.” His face was grave, ironic as always—but his hands, his usually impeccable hands, were covered in claw-marks.

Cal had been kneeling by the bed to stare at the Fallen, her face utterly expressionless, as if the body—the remains—were nothing more than an abstract problem. The tightness around her eyes, though, suggested otherwise—save that all I could read in her face was the same freezing contempt she’d shown me earlier. Why?

“Drained of magic, like the others,” she said, rising. “What did you see?”

“I saw—darkness,” Arvedai whispered, fear in his eyes—a fear that chilled me, for I’d never seen him display such an emotion. “The night deepening everywhere, and fangs and claws to rend our skin, and tear our souls from our bones. But I wasn’t its target—not this time.” His voice was bitter. I thought of the marks on his hands, and of the only way he could have gotten them—of how, despite his Fall, despite his trading in angel essence, he’d tried to stand between the darkness and Malakiel—he’d tried to make a difference, no matter how small, and who was I to blame him for that?

“Darkness.” Cal laughed, without joy. “It comes for us all in the end, doesn’t it?”

Arvedai stared at her, his eyes narrowing. “Are you drunk?”

“Angry,” Cal said. “That we should have come to this.”

“This?” Arvedai asked. He made a sweeping gesture with his left hand, taking in the bloodied bed, and finishing with Cal herself. “Yes. That would be a reason to be angry.”

“And you’re not,” Cal said, shaking her head.

“No,” Arvedai said. “Whoever did this wanted me to be afraid, or angry, so I wouldn’t think clearly. I refuse to play this game.”

“This isn’t a game!” Cal screamed. “People are dying, damn you!”

“We’re already damned. You keep forgetting that,” Arvedai said. He still hadn’t moved. He could have been a gentleman in a country house, receiving his guests in his private apartments.

“Because I won’t believe it,” Cal snapped.

“As you wish. And I won’t believe in grief, or in anger.” It was a lie—even I could see it was a lie—but Cal couldn’t.

“Then you’re beyond redemption.”

“Perhaps,” Arvedai said.

As before, they talked among themselves, utterly ignoring me. I turned and searched for O’Connor, who was watching me, but making no move to approach. I guessed he didn’t want his involvement with me to be highlighted—after all, sooner or later, when the grief wore off, Arvedai was bound to ask himself how Cal and I had arrived in time to see the remains.

Well, while they were arguing about their principles and the Light knew what else, I might as well do something useful—such as working out how the killer had got into the room, since the door was obviously unbreached. I walked around the room, muttering simple incantations to check on the magical protections. Sure enough, a trail of roiling darkness—the same that Beimon had spread in his wake—led from the bed to the only window in the room. Standing on tiptoe, I managed to stare at the vertiginous height: fifty or sixty floors of skyscraper, and far, far below, the dizzying headlights of cars reflected on the wet asphalt.

It seemed our killer not only had fangs, they had wings.

Which currently felt about as useful as a subway ticket to a man lost in the woods.

“O’Connor,” Arvedai said.

Startled, I looked up. Cal and Arvedai were standing at the exit to the room, Cal leaning against the doorjamb, gracefully waiting. It was Arvedai who’d walked back into the room, towards the waiting thug.

O’Connor remained motionless as Arvedai looked at him, grey gaze taking in everything from the shaking hands to the expressionless face. “You’re exhausted. Get some rest.”

“Boss. Someone needs to clean this mess.”

“Yes,” Arvedai said. “That someone is not you. You can barely stand, and you look like you’ve run a marathon.”

O’Connor’s face was a mask of anguish. “I thought you were dead.”

“Yes.” Arvedai’s face, for a moment, twisted into something terrible—not anger, not rage, but a chasm of that same fear he’d shown earlier, except it wasn’t fear for himself, but for O’Connor. I hadn’t thought he was capable of this. “I apologize for that.”

“There’s no need for sorry.”

“There always is, when the apology is warranted.” Arvedai’s voice was grave. “O’Connor…” I expected him to tell O’Connor it was none of his business, the way Cal had with me, but instead Arvedai merely shook his head. “You want to help. I understand. But no one is getting helped if you work through that kind of exhaustion. Get some rest, and come back tomorrow.” He looked at me. His gaze was ironic again. “And walk Miss de Viera home on your way to your own place, will you?”

“Arvedai,” I said, sharply. “Surely you don’t expect me to stand by.”

A hiss, from Cal. “Sam, please.” The same old thing: don’t interfere, this is bigger than you. The same message: you don’t belong there.

Arvedai’s gaze held me—in the depths of his pupils was a slow, spinning light that would draw me in, given half a chance—a hint of tall buildings, of domes and wings, of never-ending summer…

He laughed. “Avenging the paramour of a Fallen you despise? Have some standards, Miss de Viera.”

And then he was gone, and Cal followed him out.

“Miss.” O’Connor had moved to stand next to me, his face creased in thought. He didn’t look like he was going to talk about what had happened between him and Arvedai, which was good, because I didn’t want to talk about it, either. The stench in the room didn’t appear to bother him. I guessed he’d seen worse things. “Did you find anything about the other Fallen?”

I shook my head. “Nothing relevant. You?”

O’Connor pursed his lips. “I followed Beimon to an esoteric bookshop, The Landgrave’s Deeds. He had a chat with the bookseller about why his order hadn’t arrived yet, and how much he’d ‘enjoyed’ the previous one.”

“He’s taken to witchcraft?” I asked the obvious, even as my mind raced. “Did he give any book titles?”

O’Connor frowned. “Nomarchia Venarum, I think.”

I didn’t know any books by that title—unless— “Are you sure it wasn’t Monarchia Ferarum?”

“Yeah, maybe,” O’Connor said. “I couldn’t hear very well from my hiding place.”

Monarchia Ferarum, “The Monarchy of Beasts”. A Book of Summoning—I hadn’t taken Summoning at university, preferring to focus on Wards and Spell Combinations, but I’d heard about the book. It dealt with summoning animals—starting small with ants and cockroaches, and moving upwards to dolphins, sphinxes, unicorns…“An animal?” I asked, incredulous.

“What?” O’Connor said.

Monarchia Ferarum deals with how to make animals do your bidding.”

O’Connor turned to stare at the mess on the bed—the blood, the bones, the skull—and then back at me. “Claws did this.”

“Yeah,” I said, with a frown. “But it came in through the window. Claws don’t get you in here.”

O’Connor scratched his head. “Wings? I’m not really—”

It did make sense. A really twisted kind of sense, but… “I can find a copy of that book,” I said, finally. Jenny, one of my friends, had taken Summoning at university. “Can you keep an eye on Beimon?”

“Yeah.” O’Connor shrugged. “I still don’t understand—why go to all this trouble now?”

“What do you mean?”

“How long ago was the rebellion? How old is Cal?”

I—I didn’t know. I’d never asked, I realised, my heart sinking. I’d been content with Cal’s company, day after day, but I’d never really sought to know her better—perhaps because I was afraid—of what I’d find, that we weren’t the same at all, afterwards, that she’d been right since the start…

O’Connor was still speaking. “See, they’ve all been here centuries—if not millennia. There’s been plenty of time for revenge. Why wait?”

I shrugged. “Something happened. Something changed. Beimon had a setback? Or perhaps it took him all this time to learn how to use witch magic.”

“There are other ways to kill Fallen,” O’Connor said stubbornly. “You don’t need a complicated book.”

No, you didn’t. But…I stared at the bed again, deliberately not dwelling on its grisly contents—at the opulent room around me, crawling with magical protections. O’Connor was right: to kill a Fallen, all you needed was a silver knife, or a gun loaded with silver bullets.

To get at Arvedai, though—a gang-lord, one of the powerful of this town—you might want heavy artillery.

I called my friend Jenny and recovered her electronic copy of Monarchia Ferarum—telling her a lie about something I had to check. Jenny was a witch, and she was used to my needing her books or her help. She just smiled darkly, and sent me what I needed.

Alone in my flat, I opened the file, entered my ID and password to unlock it—and started to peruse its contents. As I remembered from my university days, the grimoire dealt with every beast upon the Light’s earth: ants, salmons, horses, condors…

The last section was mythical beasts, which needed to be summoned from another plane of existence.

Right, so what was I looking for?

Something Beimon—a newly-minted warlock—could have used to destroy angels. Something magical, obviously. Something with claws, something that was capable of entering a skyscraper’s fifty-first floor through the window—so, both something capable of flight, and something fairly small.

Unfortunately, the number of mythical creatures that had claws and wings, or some other flying method, was astronomical. From the griffins to the chimaeras, from the pegasus to the wyverns…


I looked up from the screen, biting my lip. I was going about it the wrong way. What else did I know about that creature?

Darkness. It brought darkness with it. That had been the first thing both Vazrach and Arvedai had mentioned.


If you added some connection to night, or shadows, the number of possibilities plummeted. I clicked on the most probable link—and finally found what I wanted.

It wasn’t a bird—and to call it a beast was a long shot at best—but it was included near the very end of the “powerful beings” section, almost as an afterthought.

“The Erinyes, or Furies, personify vengeance, and darkness always accompanies their coming. Their precise aspect varies, but they generally have bats’ wings, and claws with which they rend their victims.

“Their number is indeterminate, but it is not recommended to attempt to summon more than two at the same time…”

The Furies. Revenge. Darkness. Madness. I read a bit more of the article, which focused on necessary preparations, on the proper candles and propitiations, but my mind wasn’t on it.

Revenge. Given Beimon’s state of mind, that had to be what he had summoned.

Now how in creation did you banish that?

I scanned the article: it failed to mention any specific method. Great. We were down to basics: either I could convince Beimon to banish the Fury, or I’d have to kill him. Not a good set of choices when dealing with a high-level, powerful Fallen.

I dropped the book and called O’Connor’s mobile, but all I got was his voicemail, telling me to leave a message after the tone—I hung up—it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want.

After checking on the Internet where Beimon lived, I sighed and geared myself for battle—body-suit, silver knife and distilled water.

I was about to close the door when my phone rang. I hesitated over whether to answer, but it could have been O’Connor, it could have been Cal—I ran back inside my flat and picked up the receiver.


“Sam?” A rheumy voice, echoing as if under a great ceiling.

Lucifer. Damn. I’d completely forgotten to tell him we’d identified the bodies and the perpetrator, and that we no longer needed his help. “I—”

“It’s about those samples you sent me,” Lucifer said. I could hear a rustle of clothes—him shifting in his chair, no doubt.

“Yeah, well—”

“I assume they all died in the same circumstances?” He sounded—well, not worried, because I’d seldom seen him get riled about anything, but slightly more intense than usual, and it made me ill at ease—I had a feeling I wouldn’t like what he was about to say.

“More or less,” I said. “What’s the problem? We’ve identified some of them—

“Not enough, I’d wager.” Lucifer’s voice was grim. “What else do you know about them?”

“They were all in the same rebellion,” I started. Except—except Arvedai had said Malakiel was young, which meant he couldn’t have fallen with the rest of them. “Well, save for Malakiel—”

“Malakiel?” Lucifer paused, shifted again. “Arvedai’s latest partner?”

“Yes,” I said. “He died tonight.”

“I see.” Lucifer fell silent—which only unnerved me more.

I said, to cover the silence, “It’s one of them—Beimon, who’s never forgiven them for causing his fall. He wants his revenge—”

“Whatever he wants, it’s not revenge,” Lucifer said. “I have five dead angels, Sam, and a sixth whose name you just mentioned—and together they make up six different circles.”

The room seemed colder. Six circles. “A ritual,” I said. “But Arvedai—”

“Arvedai is far from being wise,” Lucifer snapped—there’d never been any love lost between those two, either. “We have a crest pattern, as the initiates call it, alternating between inwards and outwards: second, fifth, fourth, sixth, third, seventh, and then back to the first.”

I said, slowly, “But there were only six bodies.”

“It’s not bodies,” Lucifer said. “It’s an old, obscure ritual that requires great power—not only that procured by the murders, but something drawn from the victims’ substance.”

He was pontificating again, damn him—why couldn’t he just get to the point? “Lucifer—”

“In this case, the heart, ground into powder and used to draw a heptacle on the ground—a seven-branch figure.”

“I know what heptacles are,” I said, trying to keep my calm—but the more hysterical part of me was remembering the bodies, torn apart—and the chest, always empty. There had never been a trace of the heart. “There’s lives at stake.”

“Only one,” Lucifer said.

“More than one,” I snapped. “And what’s the ritual?”

Lucifer said nothing for a while. “It’s a rite of opening,” he said. “It tears through the fabric of reality to make a gate.”

“A gate?” I felt as stupid as a parrot repeating the words of its master. “What the hell—” and then I understood. “A gate to the City.”

“It’s what the grimoires says,” Lucifer said. “But frankly, I doubt it. If it were that easy to get to the City, Fallen wouldn’t congregate in Starhollow.”

“Then where would it lead?”

“There are other realities.”

I closed my eyes, trying to flip my perception of everything that had gone on since then—to cast Beimon, not as an angry, vengeful angel, but as a Fallen desperate for just a glimpse of heaven. It wasn’t easy—the disguise didn’t fit him—or rather, my blinkered perception of him. “You said seven hearts.”

“Yes,” Lucifer said, and for once understood what I implied. “Only the First Circle is needed to close the pattern.”

First Circle. “There aren’t many First Circles,” I said, slowly, working the reasoning out as I uttered it. “You’re one.”

“Yes,” Lucifer said. “But I doubt anyone would be so foolish as to attack me on my own ground.” It wasn’t a boast—just a quiet certainty.

Vazrach, however—Vazrach, already weakened by a previous attack, not in a state to defend himself—

“I see,” I said. I held the phone—knowing that the moment I hung up I’d have to start running. “Thank you, Lucifer.”

“My pleasure,” Lucifer said. He sounded faintly amused. But then he said, more quietly, “Take care, Sam.”

“Sure,” I said.

I tried getting hold of O’Connor before I left home—heck, I even tried to get hold of Cal, notwithstanding how annoyed I was at her. From O’Connor, the answering machine—from Cal, only static, dwindling into silence.

I didn’t like what was happening—not a jot. I left a message on O’Connor’s answering machine, telling him about Beimon’s true target—and took a taxi into the Golden Horn. At any rate, that had been the plan, in order to avoid walking ten miles to Magus Row—but the cabbie was afraid and left me on the outskirts of the Horn, half an hour’s walk away. I walked the rest of the way on foot, whispering a simple spell of invisibility—and praying no thieves with magical abilities were planning on attacking me.

In Magus Row, the doors to the courtyard lay open—no ragged children, no angry Fallen lying in wait for me. Inside was only darkness, hiding the skeletal, sickly plants and the dried-up fountain—normal, everything was too normal, the Fury should have been there…

I crept up the driveway, my heart leaping within my chest at each shadow—it had got past Arvedai, who was I, fooling myself that I could beat it? That I could unsummon it to whence it had come?

The door of ebony gaped open, exuding only silence—and the musty, acrid smell of old graves.

I slipped inside the house—walking down what seemed like an endless corridor, going for Vazrach’s bedroom—

There was darkness, flowing in—and the smell of blood, strong enough to gag me—and I started to run, knowing it was too late—but the smell grew stronger and stronger, and the universe started to crinkle inwards, like a piece of paper held to the fire—

What a foolish metaphor, I thought, dazedly, as my knees gave way under me—and the shadows rose and engulfed me.

I woke up propped against something hard—a wall, my struggling brain informed me. My head felt split in two by some kind of spell.

I tried to move, and pain flared up in me—climbing from the tips of my fingers to my heart, filling my ribcage until I thought I’d burst open.


My blurry vision finally stabilised enough to let me see what I’d missed: a white line curving around me, with annotations at each quadrant.

A circle of salt. It would hold a witch such as me in an impenetrable prison, every grain on that inscribed line burning me like holy water.

There was a voice, speaking—after a while, I recognised O’Connor’s.

Slowly, cautiously—wincing with every movement—I turned my head. He stood framed in a doorway, holding a gun in his hand—and he was pointing it at Martha.


Martha—something was wrong with her, something hurt my eyes…

Around her russet hair was darkness, congealing like drying blood—and huge wings, beating in the shadows. Her hands, like Beimon’s, ended in yellow, curved claws. The Fury. Martha was the Fury?

“Did you think you’d get away with it?” O’Connor asked.

Martha smiled—a slow, sick smile. “Why not?” she asked.

O’Connor’s hand moved, slightly, to encompass her—and the rest of the room: Vazrach lying on his bed, unmoving, and, spread around the centre, the paraphernalia for the ritual of opening: various jars and containers; yellowish wax candles neatly aligned in a circular shape. “You’re lost,” he said. “Sunken in that thing.”

Martha shifted positions, and O’Connor pointed his weapon to follow her.

“Clever,” she said. “You came prepared.”

“I’ve dealt with witches before.” He gestured to his gun with his free hand. “Rowan, holly, and silver. A painful death if they touch you.”

Martha shifted again—drawing him away from the doorframe, I suddenly saw—why?

And then it hit me.

Rowan, holly, and silver—and salt. All the things that burnt witches, that negated their powers.

But Martha wasn’t a witch anymore.

I rose, heedless of the pain that shot through my outstretched hands, and screamed, “O’Connor! Don’t—”

But it was too late. With the fluidity of a Fallen, Martha had unfolded—the darkness around her spreading and rippling like some huge mantle.

A clatter of metal, as O’Connor’s weapon was swept from his hand—he cried out as her claws sank in his hand—and then she’d toppled him, they were grappling on the ground—come on, O’Connor, please come on—a sweep of her hands, the sweet smell of magic in the air—and she rose, but he didn’t.


Martha stood for a while, watching the body under her—as if it could still move. Then, taking hold of it like a sack of vegetables, she dragged it through the room, dumping it by my side.

“You won’t be able to interfere either,” she said. I’d expected satisfaction, but her voice was frighteningly expressionless. Without a backward glance, she moved away from me, and knelt to touch each of her candles in turn, whispering the beginning of an incantation.

“Why?” I asked. With the circle of salt binding me, it was all I could do to open my lips—every word I uttered seemed to sever my vocal chords. “Why keep me alive?”

She finished her round of the circle before she turned towards me. “You were kind to me and Vazarch. You tried to stand between us and Beimon. That’s a rare enough thing in our lives.” Her voice echoed, as if she stood under a vaster ceiling than the one of the room; but her tone was utterly matter of fact. She was so used to being shunned and driven out that it didn’t even warrant upset anymore. It was so wrong.

“Martha—” I whispered. “Please.”

Bitter laughter. “I had nothing to lose, you see. It’s a simple enough spell to become a Fury, if one is ready to pay the price.”

“Your soul,” I managed, frightened by what she had become. Furies didn’t have souls. To become one, Martha had to have sacrificed hers, and it was that sacrifice, and the revenge that drove her, that currently lent her so much power.

She shrugged. “Not much value to that, Sam. I thought you’d understand.” And she turned away again.

“I—don’t,” I whispered, but she didn’t answer me. My throat ached, as if I’d swallowed burning oil. I knew instinctively that if I ever wanted to speak again, I wouldn’t open my mouth, wouldn’t say anything.

Moving only my eyes, I glanced at O’Connor, who lay in a heap at my side. Blood had pooled under him, but his chest rose and fell with a strong, regular rhythm. Unconscious, then, and the only reason he was still alive was because Martha, focused on her preparations, hadn’t bothered to finish him off…

All of which didn’t help.

Martha had moved to the jars, and carefully spread their contents on the ground: fine, white powder that shimmered with a secret light, that still seemed to beat with its own rhythm. I closed my eyes—for even as powder, they so obviously belonged to Fallen—they still reminded me of the bloody corpses, hacked to ribbons.

I had to do something, to do anything. But I couldn’t.

Martha’s heptacle was almost complete now. Six branches spread out in the centre of the room—the lines shimmered, each with their own colour, each with their own rhythm. I could hear a faint song, like a memory of the celestial choirs—a canon with six voices, endlessly repeating the first bars of a hymn.

The dead. Lirael. Barthemy. Malakiel. And, I, powerless, as trapped as a corpse under the earth. I shifted positions slightly—even that sent searing pain up my back—and felt something hard under me.

My mobile.

Cal had put a tracker spell on the mobile—angel magic, not witch-magic: the circle wouldn’t block it—if only I could reach it…

My hand spasmed when I tried to move towards the phone, fiery pain spreading to every finger and nerve.

Breathe. I had to breathe. There had to be a way.

I couldn’t open and close my fingers in one go. But if I moved, a little—if I could bear the little jolts of pain that came with the minute gestures…

Martha was walking towards Vazrach’s bed. She laid a hand on his chest. I’d assumed he was already dead—that she’d killed him—but his eyes opened, a faded golden, and stared at her in silence. “It’s time,” she said.

“Time?” He looked at her, and I couldn’t read his expression. “Yes, it is.”

Of course. They had been accomplices all this time, planning the killings of the angels. Making sure Vazrach was wounded, to throw others off the scent, or perhaps as a needed part of the ritual.

Vazrach pulled himself upwards, letting the sheet fall—and even in the dim light the wounds on his chest were horrible to behold. Without a doubt, claw-marks made by Martha’s claws. His face was sallow, and he breathed quick, shallow breaths that never seemed to fill his lungs.

As Vazrach moved, so did I. Inch by inch, I pushed, slowly and agonizingly and sucking in burning breaths, towards the phone on the floor, fingers slowly extending, palm stretching open.

Leaning on Martha, Vazrach made it to the centre of the room, and knelt inside the circle of candles, near the missing branch. Martha withdrew a knife from her belt, and moved closer to him. His face as she stood over him was utterly expressionless.

“It won’t hurt,” she said.

He shrugged, a quick movement interrupted by a grimace of pain. “Of course it will. Like the first wounds did—the beginning of death, the beginning of the opening of the gate. But it’s worth it.”

Worth it. I remembered what he’d told me—what he wouldn’t give, in order to see the City again, to be, no matter how shortly, what he had once been. She was doing this for him.

But the door they were going to open, I thought—struggling to focus as Martha made the first cut into Vazrach’s chest, and her magic spread over him, quenching the flow of blood, keeping him alive—the door they were going to open—it wasn’t Heaven, Lucifer had said.

My fingers brushed the metal of the phone. Slowly, ever so slowly, trying not to cry out, I wrapped them around it. Everything burnt, like salt on open wounds. The screen was dim, and there was no signal. Not that I expected any: that wasn’t what I was after.

Ahead of me, Martha had withdrawn the heart from Vazrach’s chest—something that wasn’t meat, that wasn’t even flesh—a luminous, throbbing sphere in her hand, that she laid upon the ground, almost with reverence.

There was little time left before the irreparable.

Somewhere in the morass of agony that was my hand, there was metal—and plastic, and the familiar touch of the phone’s screen—and deeper within, something that wasn’t alive yet beat like a living heart: a beat as familiar as my own, a thread that I recognised, that had always been wrapped around me.

Cal, I thought. The tracking spell. She hadn’t come, which meant she wasn’t paying attention to me anymore: the spell was still on, but had become a distant thought she could ignore. I needed to get her attention back. I needed to tell her to come.


Beyond the circle of salt—beyond Martha’s chanting and Vazrach’s harsh, arrhythmic breathing—I could feel her, distantly—focused on Arvedai, on some question the other Fallen had asked. Something about the price of magic, about whether the dead Fallen’s magic could be mastered.


She wasn’t listening to me, or seeing that I currently was where I shouldn’t have been. Of course. Why would she? You’re human, Sam. Your place isn’t here. Don’t meddle. She was nodding gravely at Arvedai, thinking about the murders. She was with a peer, not some pathetic human hanger-on…

Martha was tracing the last of the lines, with Vazrach’s heart. The heptacle was glowing: a sick, unhealthy miasma that made me want to retch.


She was rising, taking her coat and leaving the room—and her thoughts moved to the shelter and to how she hadn’t heard of me.

The magic wall that separated us suddenly flickered—and I pushed. There was no other word for what I did—and the circle of salt seemed to crinkle and fail, and for a brief second I was on the other side, sliding through Cal’s thoughts like a knife.


Have to come—something bad. Quickly…

A silence. You’re at Vazrach’s place? No, that’s too dangerous, Cal protested, but the wall was back again—the circle of salt’s warding magic like fists pummelling my flesh, and I laid back against the wall, watching blood pooling under O’Connor.

Even in my dazed state, I knew when Martha had finished.

The temperature in the air plummeted. Something floated in the air behind Martha—a hole, torn in the fabric of reality—and darkness was pouring out from it, with vague, formless shadows that writhed, clinging to the walls and the ground like grime.

The candles remained lit, but their flames were green, and gave off the smell of plague and rotting bodies.

There are other realities, Lucifer had said. I ought to have panicked—but I couldn’t move—couldn’t think, couldn’t feel anything, the circle held me tight—and even Martha’s ashen face, framed by the wan shadows of the Fury, wasn’t enough to draw me out of my torpor.

In the growing mist, shadows flitted—misshapen things that seemed to be all sharp teeth and glowing eyes—weaving their way closer to me, hissing like a pack of hyenas.

I could barely see the candles now; where Martha and Vazrach had stood was a thin beam of white light, a wavering radiance that still kept the encroaching mist at bay—but not for long.

Mist oozed in, over the outline of the circle, as if it didn’t even exist. Something clammy brushed past me, sending goosebumps down my arms.

That wasn’t good.

I looked at O’Connor. He was lying where he’d fallen, his eyes open, his face as pale and bloodless as white marble, his breath congealing in the miasma-filled air. Voices whispered around us all—of plague and blood, and rot and death…

“We’ve got to get up,” I whispered, my voice catching in my raw throat. “We have to close the gate.”

Except I didn’t know how, and O’Connor wasn’t moving, and we were going to choke to death here…

There was light, piercing the gloom—light, and the slow beating of massive wings—the shadows around me scattered, withdrawing to the walls.

The smell of crushed flowers filled the room, overlaying that of pestilence.

And then Cal was striding through the mist, calling out my name in a voice like the trumpets of Judgment Day.

“Here,” I whispered—unable to speak more than that through my burnt throat.

But somehow she heard me. Somehow she was at my side, scattering the circle of salt, holding me upright. And the shadows seemed to part before her—as if her presence cut through the mist.

“We’re here,” she said.

We? I glanced around, and saw Arvedai, helping O’Connor to rise. Light streamed from his features, transfiguring his thin, harsh face—a light that spread in a wide circle around us—and I understood: he was keeping the mist at bay. Protecting us.

On his smooth Fallen’s face was an expression I’d never seen before—anger, disgust?

“It’s come to this,” he spat, and Cal said nothing.

“You knew?” I asked, struggling to say something meaningful—as always, they seemed to reduce me into insignificance by their mere presence.

Cal shook her head. “Later,” she said. “How do we close the gate?”

“You’re asking me?” I said—torn between a foolish girl’s pride and anger at her—for not being on time, for keeping me out of her thoughts, for not having seen this earlier. “I’m not that kind of witch. Ask her for the answers,” I said, pointing to the centre of the room. I was being unfair to Cal—she’d rescued me, she was protecting me, even now—but I was tired of being protected, tired of being kept out.

Cal stared in the direction of my hand, at the light that marked Martha and Vazrach’s presence—the light had sunk down, and barely anything remained visible through the mist. Arvedai’s circle still held, still kept the hissing shapes at bay; but beads of sweat ran down his face.

“If we move, can you move it with us?” Cal asked.

Arvedai shrugged, in what must have been an attempt at nonchalance—but it was belied by the grimace of pain on his face. “Perhaps,” he said. “It’s worth a try.”

We cut a path through the mist, the circle following us, growing ever smaller with each step. O’Connor’s eyes were closed, and he hung limp in Arvedai’s arms; Cal supported me on her right shoulder, her eyes staring straight ahead—refusing to see the ever-shrinking circle.

“How did you know?” I whispered.

She didn’t turn to look at me. “We haven’t been idle, Sam. I knew Vazrach had fallen ill some months before; and I recognised it was a Fury from the moment Arvedai showed me the corpse. All that remained was working out who’d summoned it.”

I said, haltingly, “I saw Beimon—darkness trailing after him…”

Cal smiled without joy. “Beimon is strong—but not, I think, strong enough in witchcraft to attempt this. What you saw was Martha’s trail, I fancy. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d had something in store for him, once Vazrach had gone through the gate.” She shook her head, as if to clear a persistent, unpleasant thought. “There’s such hatred in her.”

No, I wanted to say, for I understood, all too well, what was driving her. No hatred, not vengeance—but grief and anger at what she couldn’t change, at what Vazrach had lost by Falling.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to come,” Cal said after a while.

I thought I’d misheard the words at first—her tone wasn’t one of apology—but she was looking straight at me, expecting something. My acceptance? I couldn’t find any words that would fit.

“It’s all right,” I said, knowing it wasn’t enough.

At what had been the centre of the heptacle, the mists congregated most strongly—the miasmic creatures were prowling, hurling themselves forward, and making a wet, mewling sound when they tumbled against Martha’s barrier.

She was kneeling, holding Vazrach close to her chest. Not three paces from her, outside her shrinking wards, the gate she’d opened shimmered—a rent through the fabric of reality, oozing mist like pus from a wound.

She raised her head when she saw us. “Come to gloat?” she asked Cal. “To tell me how prideful I was, to believe I could send him home? That doors to the City would open at my bidding?”

Cal shook her head, slowly. Once again, her face had shut—but I thought I could read the sadness in her eyes. “I’ve learnt not to judge the sins of others.” A joyless laugh. “Lest we be judged. No, we’ve come to close the gate.”

She smiled, bitterly. “It doesn’t close, Cal. It’ll be Starhollow and whatever lies beyond—whatever creatures come out of this to devour us all. What a fitting ending.”

“Everything has a key.” Cal knelt, laid two hands on Vazrach’s pulse. I wondered what she heard, now that no heart beat in the Fallen’s chest.

Martha shook her head. The dark halo of the Fury still surrounded her, but it seemed almost comforting compared to the mist that obscured the room—and the smell of putrescence that hung like a pall in the air. “Don’t worry. He’s still alive, and I’ll keep his heart beating until I have no magic in me.”

She had loved him, so much that it had eaten her from the inside, like a canker in her chest. I should have hated her: for the situation we were in; for threatening Cal and imprisoning me. But I couldn’t find any hatred in me—just pity, and the fear that we were, after all, not so dissimilar. “It didn’t have to go this way.”

Arvedai put O’Connor down. O’Connor’s eyes were open; he stared at his boss, hungrily. “Boss—” he whispered.

“Spare yourself,” Arvedai said, curtly. “You’re safe here, as much as anyone can be safe now.” He picked up O’Connor’s mobile phone, stared at it. “No signal. Not surprising.” He put the phone back in O’Connor’s pocket. Then, without a backward glance, he crossed the edge of Martha’s wards, and scrutinized the gate, his face creased in thought—as if it were an abstract problem.

I remembered what he’d said when Malakiel had died: I won’t believe in grief, or in anger. And I wondered how much self-control it would take, to be attacked in your own fortress, to lose someone who mattered to you—and to go on as if nothing had changed. A lot more, surely, than I’d give Arvedai credit for.

Cal was bent by Vazrach, whispering something to him in the language of the City. And all the while both Martha’s wards and Arvedai’s circle of protection were shrinking, dragging the prowling mist-beasts closer and closer: I could see fangs, glinting green in the sickly light—claws, unsheathed with a wet, unpleasant sound—eyes shining with malevolence, eager to consume us. Every single magic user in Starhollow had to be feeling it, but we were cut off from them, and we didn’t have enough time left. Soon, the entire city would be engulfed. I tried to think back to my university days—to those Summoning courses I’d spent mooning over my latest crush, or talking clothes with Jenny. If I’d known how much need there would be…

“What if we disperse the heptacle?” I asked Martha.

She laughed. “Then my wards break, and they pour in. I told you: this gate doesn’t close.”

“There has to be a way.”

“There isn’t,” Martha said, curtly. “Now leave us in peace.” This last, presumably, was addressed to Cal, who was still talking to Vazrach. At Martha’s words, Cal rose in a single, fluid gesture, and walked to Arvedai, studying the gate.

“Killing the summoner…?” Cal asked.

Arvedai pointed to something I couldn’t see. “No, that wouldn’t solve it. It doesn’t take its energy from her anymore.”

Unsure of what else I could do, I knelt by Vazrach’s side, and took his hand—ignoring Martha’s glare. His skin was dry, and as cold as frozen metal.

He smiled at me, weakly. “All…that…for…nothing…”

I didn’t answer. What could I tell him?

“I…would…still have…liked…to see it,” Vazrach whispered. “Its light…and…its…glory. You…haven’t…been there…wouldn’t understand…Samantha.”

But I could—I’d seen it in all of them, the hunger in their gazes when they spoke of what they’d left behind—the light that seemed to fill them, as it now filled Vazrach—light spilling from his face like a beacon in darkness, the same light that Martha, holding in her cupped hands, was fashioning into her last-ditch wards…

I stared at my hands—which for a split second hadn’t been mottled with the greyish stains of the mist; at the creatures beyond the edge of Martha’s wards, who’d recoiled, ever-so-slightly, when the light had touched them.

I thought of a verse in the Book of the Light, spoken by Metatron, first among the angels of the City: even in the darkest places, I will be there to cast away the shadows.

The Light of the City.

Why hadn’t I seen it earlier—what else was Arvedai using, to protect us?

“Tell me about the City,” I said, loudly enough for Cal and Arvedai to turn towards me—and I gestured for them to join me.

Vazrach smiled, slowly, sadly. “You…wouldn’t…understand…streets so wide…ten…cars…could pass…side by side…Fountains…and everywhere the…breath of…water…”

His ashen face was transfigured—his eyes had turned molten gold again, and the silvery shape of his bones shone under the taut skin.

And the mist was receding as the circle of light widened, as word after halting word conjured a place with no sickness, with no plague or rot—where the trees were ever in bloom, and angels sang the praises of the Light.

Vazrach fell silent—and his eyes closed.

“Cal…” I whispered, and somehow she heard me.

Cal stared at the gate—which was noticeably thinner—and then back at me. She brought the palms of her hands together, and said, “I used to fly through the gardens, early in the morning, when no one was yet abroad—I remember how the fountains whispered their endless song—” Her face twisted. “We’ve lost it, Sam. Because of what we did. Because I lost patience. Because I lost faith.”

The light wavered, and died. The shadows pressed closer—the smell of rot was stronger now, and bile rose in my throat. “No!” I screamed. “You have to—” Keep talking. You have to keep talking.

It was Arvedai who spoke next, slowly, softly, “Once, I gave a young angel peach flowers. He set them in his hair, and day after day after day, they never withered. I wondered, then, what it would be, to live in a place where everything comes to an end.” He stared through all of us, his eyes unfocused. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally.

Vazrach’s hand tightened in mine, so strongly I thought he was going to crush my fingers. “Sorry for what?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“For making it end,” Arvedai said. “For our exile. Once, we scythed through the sky, and we rode the thunderstorms as humans rode horses. Once, we could make a flower bloom with a touch of our hand.” Between his outstretched fingers was a great radiance—and he was weeping, tears running down his harsh face like water over rocks.

“Our…exile,” Vazrach whispered. “We…all…took…part, Arvedai…we…all…” He was saying something, over and over, in the language of the City—and somehow I knew what it was: a lament for the Fallen and a paean to the City they had betrayed, an apology for all the doubts and the lack of faith, and a yearning for what was forever lost.

And then there wasn’t just one voice, but three—and then a multitude, and light spilling everywhere, a blinding, searing radiance that forced me to close my eyes, a great power that lifted me into a timeless place—and for a moment, a moment only, I saw white, blinding walls, and I heard a warm, vast voice, whispering in all our minds, I will stand even by the least of my children…but you have turned your backs on me…

It was speaking to the angels—to the Fallen, to the ones so far beyond me—but then for a brief moment it turned, and it saw me—and the warmth spread to cover me, too, and it was as if I’d been stung by raw electricity.

My children.

All of us. We were all the children of the City, angels and Fallen and humans. And it remembered us.

My children.

When the white walls faded, I found myself kneeling on the floor, still holding Vazrach’s body, still shivering and filled with the memory of that light.

The creatures were gone, and so was the miasma. Vazrach’s eyes were closed, and he was a dead weight in my hands—I couldn’t even tell whether he was alive or not. O’Connor was slowly pushing himself into a standing position, supported by Cal.

Martha’s dishevelled face had gone pale; her gaze moved left and right, encompassing the whole of her failed ritual.

“It’s over,” Cal said.

Arvedai was standing on the edge of the heptacle, his feet sweeping back and forth, scattering the ashes of the Fallen’s hearts. “Yes,” he said. “I should think so. A lesson learnt,” he said to Martha. “Don’t tinker with what doesn’t concern you.” His voice was acid.

Martha’s eyes narrowed. “Tinkering?” she asked—and she rose in a heartbeat, her face darkening with the shadow of the Fury. “It’s your own damn fault we’re here at all—your own damn fault we’d failed.” She jumped—a leap like an unfolding, the shadowy wings trailing behind her, darkening the light of the City.

Too late, I understood what she meant to do—of how her leap would carry her to Arvedai, and how her claws would sink into his chest.

Without conscious thought, I threw myself in her path—but she was already gone past me, and Arvedai still stood frozen, as if unable to believe she’d dare to strike him down.

“Boss!!!” O’Connor screamed—and somehow he was out of Cal’s embrace, and onto Martha’s path.

A ripping sound, as the claws sank into human flesh, grating on the bones of the ribcage. The liquid sound of blood poured on the floor—and Arvedai’s face, contorted in inhuman fury, as he gripped Martha’s neck, and twisted.

Bone snapped, and she fell to the ground, her eyes staring at the ceiling.

Arvedai was already kneeling by O’Connor’s side. But there was nothing to be done. The claws had sunk in deep. We’d all heard them.

“I’m—sorry,” O’Connor whispered. His voice was almost inaudible.

“For dying? Don’t be. The apology isn’t warranted.” Arvedai’s voice was curt, emotionless. A dry, hollow laugh. “Everything has an end, and every field must face the harvest…”

“Boss…” O’Connor whispered.

“Ssh.” Arvedai touched, gently, the place above the claw-marks with one hand—his other one holding O’Connor’s. Light blossomed around him, and the shadow of wings. “I am here. I am holding you.” His lips moved, slowly and silently at first, and then his voice steadily rose, and in my mind was a memory of beating wings, and of great light. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…”

At some point during the Lord’s Prayer, O’Connor’s face went limp, but Arvedai’s grip never wavered. Only when it was over—only when he had whispered about kingdom and power and glory lasting forever and ever did he rise, holding O’Connor in his arms—head lolling back, legs dangling. His face was smooth and emotionless once again, and he walked towards the door without so much as a backward glance.

He paused, once. Said, aloud, “I saw you move to stop Martha, Samantha. I owe you a debt, or a favour.”

He’d used my first name—not an ironic, distant form of address—and I didn’t know, anymore, how I was supposed to feel about this all. “I don’t—” I started.

“You wouldn’t want to collect it from a body-looter? Fair.” I could imagine the shadow of an ironic smile on the face I couldn’t see. “I’m sure you and Calariel will both see the need to remain silent on this.”

And then he was gone, and the room was full of salt and blood and mist, and I tried to pull myself upright and found only jellied legs.

A hand, thrust towards me, shimmering with light. “Cal.”

“Sam. You all right?”

I didn’t trust myself to speak. I reached out, let her pull me up—she was warm and comforting, and everything I’d ever longed for. She let me go, stood watching me. I couldn’t read her face.

“They’re both dead,” Cal said. “She was keeping him alive.”

Martha and Vazrach. “Cal—” I finally said.

She shook her head. “You’re exhausted, and it’s not the time. Come on, Sam, let’s go home.”

I didn’t move. I said, finally, haltingly, “I’m sorry. I intruded on something that meant a lot to you. I didn’t think it through.”

Cal stopped, peered at me. She said nothing.

“I heard. A voice.” I shivered. “It was speaking in my mind.” My children.

Cal cocked her head. “Yes,” she said. And then, more softly, “I’m sorry. It’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? That we’re not superior or closer to divinity. That, out of everything under Heaven, we’re the ones who made the choice to rebel and fall.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, that’s not on you.” Cal shook her head. “And you’re right. You’re not a child. You don’t need to be protected.”

I couldn’t help it. The laughter came welling up out of wrung-out lungs. “Maybe we’re all children.”

“Fair,” Cal said. She smiled, and it was almost like old days—except things had shifted and changed, and would never quite be the same.

But change, perhaps, was exactly what we had needed.

“Let’s get a drink,” I said.

Cal laughed. “All right.”

We walked together out of the room, side by side.

Prayer Room Science Fiction

Seven Fridays ago, the authorities in Indonesia cancelled public religious gatherings, and a state of emergency was declared in my hometown of Jakarta. All due to COVID-19. The mosques, including Jakarta’s giant Masjid Istiqlal, which can house 200,000, are now empty in lieu of five prayers a day. The churches and temples have exhaled people, and welcomed a waiting for pandemicless times. Children at Muslim boarding schools—including my cousin’s wonderfully precocious child, who loves his education there—have been sent home. And my family prays inside our house (instead of in work prayer rooms or mosques or office spaces during the day, though they often work from home), in the house from which I am disconnected, video-chatted into from London for catch-up sessions, a digital, anxious daughter.

Growing up, I was taught that in our Sunni Muslim theology (mixed with different elements from Indonesian cultures), Earth is a mosque. The entire planet we inhabit. This tenet is why you can pray anywhere—conduct the five daily prayers in a parking lot, in a field, at a busy airport terminal. In an empty classroom, in a bed, by a river, on the beach facing Mecca with your feet in the sea. Theoretically, yes, in a fast food restaurant or down by the pumps at a gas station, or up in a tree, facing Mecca. The architecture of mosques facilitates gathering, but in truth, the whole world is holy.

As religious gathering places shut down, the possibilities of science fiction and the books containing them are respite in more ways than one—science fiction calms our spirits through our consumption and creation of stories. And also, if we are spiritual people, sci-fi calms with the understanding that our theologies may exist in other universes. That infinite kinds of theologies, those that exist in the world or those we invent, systems for making sense of spirit and calm and purpose, can exist in sci-fi.

If we wish, we can imagine ourselves in a science fictional landscape with our Earthly understandings of religion and spirituality intact, but expanded. If the Earth is a mosque, other worlds could well be also. More worlds in which we can understand how to diminish violence in landscapes of different spiritualities, to undo injustice and imperialism and patriarchy. Places where imperialism and patriarchy never existed, or perhaps have been eradicated. Fictional settings allow us to adopt more equitable, just, and inclusive versions of our faiths. Where the gloriously multiple genders that existed before colonial laws in Indonesia, for instance, live freely. Where they can pray and lead prayer, no matter how one identifies. Where women are not socialised to always pray behind men. Where traditional, “animist” practices are not seen as anathema to God(s). And, if we can imagine these possibilities, we can find and join with others who are working to make these practices more and more a reality.

Science fiction provides places where the blunders of the world are reimagined as non-existent. Places where Health Ministers, if they exist, do not tell Indonesians to just pray, in lieu of urgent and accurate health information needed in times of pandemic. A place where more true faithfulness to humanity than such abysmal behaviour can be found.

Science fictional worlds are ways we expand our understanding of space, time, and where we can hope—in a way that affirms an understanding of my Muslim faith as one in which everywhere that exists is a place to pray, and to hope. A plurality of hopes. The more universes, the more places to hope, and keep faith, whatever that means to you.

Perhaps we SF/F devotees are all, whether we identify as religious or not, spiritual futurists. As spiritual futurists, we seek to remake the realms of the soul. We can look beyond spiritualities here on Earth that may not serve our purpose, or imagine better worlds in which spiritualities that are disrespected on Earth—Indigenous spiritualities, for instance—are not denigrated. How much more deeply I feel this, this sense of science fiction as opportunities for spiritual futurism, in times of quarantine and lockdowns. Or when, as with many other disabled people, since before COVID-19, I live in bed (not “bedbound”). For days or weeks, to protect my body, or to help it recover, holistically, loving it beyond corporate platitudes of “self-care” that really seek to uphold capitalist status quos.

We need more than prayers in this world, but in the vastness of our science fiction, prayers can be a part of how other worlds function, how other worlds might understand what’s inside us, how other planets’ natures might communicate with our most intimate selves. In science fiction, a single sentence thought by a human in a pandemic, wishing internally, could be felt by an intact, ancient rainforest. And this forest could deploy its medicines to help the humans that are part of its biome, could heal and protect. In other words, in science fiction, there are infinite ways our prayers could manifest real change.

In science fictional situations, God(s), wherever she/they are, in whatever form, can facilitate a sense of hope beyond anything we feel in the present, on this Earth.

And the opportunities for such hope are endless. We are given the gift of imagining other worlds. Within these worlds, we can create entirely new spiritualities or render old ones anew. We can imagine ourselves Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and/or any of the other thousands and thousands of spiritualities, of Indigenous belief systems, that have existed in the world, whether stamped out or extant. In all of these faiths, hope can operate as a tool for felt change.

We could imagine worlds where we could pray inside a blue volcano as it erupts, at the bottom of the ocean as alien life forms protect us, in multiple dimensions simultaneously. We could imagine places where the drudgery and panic of daily lives under capitalism is met with the welcome revolutions this world deserves—deity-approved. We could structure Muslim economics in entirely different currencies and societal frameworks that are actually equitable. We could trace new histories, on new planets, of Minangkabau feminist genealogies (my mother’s culture, the largest matrilineal society in the world) we’d never known before. Hope could exist without the dread that it will never produce our needs. Hope in sci-fi can be expansive, threaded through our soulbodies in infinite ways.

In science fiction, religion can be barred from facilitating oppression. In science fiction, spiritualities can be felt with senses beyond the human. In science fiction, for that is what it is to imagine any world beyond our own, we do not discriminate against those who claim no faith. In science fiction, freedom from harm can be tied to the ability to hope, to pray, wherever one wishes in the vast spread of universes.

Gratitude is a powerful tool in the face of seemingly unending hopelessness. I’m grateful today that the world is a mosque. And, in my mind and heart, so is all of science fiction.