She was tired.
Not old in years. Just tired. While her vocation called to her as powerfully as it had always done, the reality was a relentless workload that offered little time for the life of study and reflection that she craved.
But this was the life the Lord wished for her and so this was the life she would live.
The worn black fabric of her habit brushed the wooden floor as she walked down the aisle, checking the pews for items left behind by the faithful. Father Pierre was getting on in years so, though he always offered to close up the church, Constance was the one who did it every night. At least she didn’t have to deal with the homeless. Her closest friend in the order, Maria, who was in a house of worship in a more derelict part of town, often had to nudge out those unfortunates.
It made her question her faith on a daily basis.
“Should we not provide sanctuary, Sister Constance?” she’d ask when they gathered at the order’s simple house for their late dinner meal. “And yet I must push them out into the dark and the cold because, elsewise, they defile the church. Why, the other day, I found a vampire feeding from a drug-addled young man right out in the open.”
Constance had no answers for Maria, but she’d volunteered to take charge of that church next year, to help balance the load. For they must all do their duty.
Ah, it looked like someone had left behind a coat.
They would surely return for it, she thought as she moved down the pew.
Then the coat moved. Heart thumping, she stopped . . . and realized that while the pale blue fabric was of a coat, that coat was on a person. A small person. A child.
Close enough now to see the peacefully sleeping child’s golden-skinned face and soft hair so pale it was almost white, she looked down and saw the child wore a dress of soft pink broderie anglaise. The stockings on her little legs were white with blue butterflies along the sides, her shoes a shiny black.
This was a child who was loved, who’d been dressed with care.
A little bag sat next to her, printed with the image of a storybook princess.
Constance whispered a prayer and looked around in case she had somehow missed one of the faithful, but no, she was alone in the church but for this beautiful child, who couldn’t have been more than five years of age. Not knowing quite what to do but aware she couldn’t let the child sleep on the hard wood of the pew, she bent to lift her into her arms.
The child awoke. “Maman?”
It was a hopeful word but the little girl’s lower lip trembled.
Constance replied in the same tongue. It was not her own, but she’d lived for many years in this land of corner bakeries and stylishly dressed people and hidden avenues cloaked in darkness. “Your mother is not here yet.” She held out a hand. “Come, we will go have hot chocolate and cookies while we wait for her.”
“I have toys,” the child said, picking up the princess bag before slipping her tiny hand into Constance’s with the sweet trust of a being who had never been hurt, who knew only love. As she walked the child to the back room, where she and Father Pierre often did the paperwork of an afternoon, she caught sight of a stark white envelope in the child’s coat pocket.
She didn’t reach for it until her small guest had taken off her coat and was happily eating a cookie, Constance having made her a hot chocolate in a chipped but pretty red cup she thought a child would like.
The envelope proved to be the size of a photograph. That was what lay within it, along with a letter written in a lovely hand:
To the sister and the father who care for this church—you don’t know me, but you were so kind to me when I first arrived in this distant land that was not my home but that became my sanctuary.
I know your souls are full of light.
Please watch over my Marguerite and keep this photograph of us together for her. I will return for her within the week. She is the very beat of my heart. If I don’t return . . . then I am dead and Marguerite is an orphan. Call her that if the worst happens, but please, please do not ever say that she was abandoned. Do not ever let her believe anything but that she was my greatest treasure.
The only reason I won’t return for her is if there is no life left in my body. Even then, you must never allow her to become suspicious and search for the truth—that way lies only horror and death. I would have my baby live her life free of the shadow of fear.
Tell her I love her.
The child looked at Constance with eyes of silvery gray, a smudge of chocolate on the edge of her lips. “Will Maman be here soon?”
Constance swallowed, touched trembling fingers to that hair so delicately pretty. “Your mother loves you very much.”
And the child smiled, as if that was a simple fact of life.
Two years had passed.
Two years since Alexander woke.
Two years since the last confirmed sighting of Zhou Lijuan.
Two years since Illium threatened to burn up in a catastrophic explosion of power.
Two years while the Cascade seemed to hit Pause.
Elena was fucking over waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Come on already,” she muttered up at the sky, Manhattan a toy borough hundreds of feet below the edge of the railing-free Tower balcony on which she stood.
“Speaking to your ancestors, Elena-mine?” The voice came from behind her, familiar and imbued with a power so violently deep that the mere sound of it engendered fear in the hearts of mortals and immortals alike.
It made Elena’s own heart ache, the love she felt for her archangel a painful, terrifying thing in these times of uncertainty. If she lost him . . . No, she couldn’t think that way. Even if that damn other shoe was still smirking at her, just waiting to thunk down on top of her head when she least expected it.
“Whoever or whatever it is that controls the Cascade, that’s who I’m talking to.” She leaned back into Raphael. The position trapped her wings in between, but with Raphael, she could be vulnerable, she could be weaponless, and still be safe. Not that she wasn’t armed to the teeth, but that was habit and none of it would ever be turned against Raphael except when they sparred—or when he pushed her buttons a little too hard.
Her archangel hadn’t quite got the hang of the fact he wasn’t lord and master over his consort. He tried but a thousand-five-hundred-years-plus of power had a way of messing with his attempts at seeing his once-mortal lover as an equal when it came to their personal relationship.