Life proceeded as usual in the city of Sobriquet.
The morning sun cast an amber glow over the city’s places and people as they stirred awake. It poured over the brick buildings with spires protruding from their roofs, the linen-covered tents of the market place, and caught the light of the copper bell atop the domed palace that overlooked it all.
The juggler, in his shabby velvet garments, grabbed two sumptuous heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market stand, and the farmer squawked in protest. The protest turned to rage as the juggler tossed the tomatoes in the air — and as the tomatoes descended, both narrowly missed his outstretched fingers, falling to the ground and splattering in an array of fleshy carnage.
Across the street, the tea master buttoned his gray vest over his long striped tunic and slipped his feet into leather sandals. Atop his head he placed an embroidered round cap, worn and snug as if crafted only for his skull. With a flourish of his hand and a strike of a match, he lit the incense in the window sill, and cracked the window open. A tendril of sandalwood emanated out onto the streets.
The regulars were lined up outside, eager for their morning cup of jasmine tea, intoxicating and steaming from tulip cups. In the cool morning air, they shook hands with one another in greeting, with fingers still stained from yesterday’s moil — the hands of the laborers were never clean. Among them was the collective smell of work: of metals, and oils, and wood stains.
The tea master unlocked the door, and turned the sign over the wooden sign to say, SAMOVARS: OPEN.
The samovars of tea master Kaspar Samovar had been collected from around the world, painstakingly transported and curated. He had selected each one himself, save for a few special kettles he had inherited. A different samovar, each more elaborate than the next, sat in the center of every low, round table in the tea house. Most new visitors went straight for the gold one in the far right corner of the square shop, toward the tall, elegant samovar bedecked with real rubies. But the regulars knew that the best tea came from the humble copper kettle that had come from Kaspar’s own kitchen.
Every morning, Kaspar smiled at the bustling tea house, filled with joy that people arrived each day to partake in his life’s work, and that they left energized and satiated by his offerings.
Kaspar Samovar’s passion for tea kettles, and the tea they produced, was ingrained in him. It was in his very name. What else could he love?
For in Sobriquet, names meant things. The name was a destiny and a trade fulfilled without question. The luthier’s surname was Springwood, and her stringed instruments were carved exclusively from the maples that grew near the creek. At sunrise every morning, the sounds of Iago Anvilla hammering molten metal awoke the whole city, the repetition serving as its metronome.
Not all names led to such simple destinies.
Some required a moment of thought, their interpretation not immediately clear. Viktor Kosmas served the tsarina of Sobriquet Palace as chief astronomer, spending most of his days in the tower, his eyes straining through a telescope, his pockets heavy with royal coin. His sister, Veronika Kosmas, could be found in the purple tent in the market square, interpreting the universe via tarot cards and crystals that she let bake in the sun, and sold to the jeweler in exchange for copper when no visitors returned for a second reading.
And there were the names that put their keeper at a fork in the road. When those defied their calling, the universe warped just slightly enough for suffering. The juggler was part of a long line of Cirque men, their hair thick and curly, bouncing around their faces. His ancestors had served the former tsars as entertainers, enchanting and bewitching guests and leaders from far-away kingdoms.
No Cirque man could have anticipated that the new tsarina would rid her castle of foolery. A humorless woman, she had no patience for court jesters. As such, the junior Cirque found himself unable to catch tomatoes tossed into the air, unable to train doves to remain still and quiet in the bottom of his bag without suffocating them, unable to successfully perform his version of the Talking Queen card trick to impress Veronika Kosmas.
A name was not chosen. It was simply brought into being by the force of the universe, and found its keeper through familial lines and the flux and flow of generations. If anything, this made it easy for the citizens of Sobriquet, to be told their place in the world and to master it, regardless of the fate it might bestow. One could only hope to be born into a family that was part of an acceptable trade and purpose.
Some families were more powerful than others. But not all names came from families.
A young woman watched the city’s inhabitants from the bell tower window, and wondered what would happen if they all simply dropped dead.
Maybe then she’d get some quiet, true quiet, the quiet of her childhood spent among dark mountains. Maybe then she’d see the stars again as they were meant to be seen: blazing bulbs reflecting the whole spectrum of light and color. Her magic was weak in the city; at full strength, it was a searing orb lodged in the space between her lungs. At present it was fragile in her throat, and she reached for it constantly, like one tongues a sore tooth, prodding at it to test the threshold of pain.
The woman felt the presence of Mikhail Anagog before she heard him. The palace mystic stood in the doorway leaning heavily on his cane. He glared first at the woman’s tawny falcon, perched on its stand, and then at the woman herself.
“The tsarina is ready for you, Ms. Fowler,” said Anagog.
The woman lowered her arm, and the falcon flew toward it, landing lightly on her embroidered glove. She fitted its leather hood on its head.
With the other hand, she scooped up her satchel, onto which her name, Sybil Fowler, had been stamped.
But the falcon was not really a falcon, and the falconer was not really a falconer. These creature’s names were not of earthly origin. Their sounds would be unfamiliar to a human tongue, the limitations of it unable to successfully dislodge a harsh click from the back of a throat or wrap itself around a languid r. Their names were hewn from obsidian and purple fire, spoken at a deep pitch only audible in the infernal depths from which they had been birthed.
In the language only heard and spoken by inhabitants of this cimmerian realm, the bird’s name meant hunter, and the woman’s name meant demon.
The tsarina twisted her neck until it cracked, and the beads of the heavy kokoshnik clinked next to her ears. Prone to migraines, the headdress was a burden on her throbbing head, the pulse of the headache extending to her gut. The pins holding her braids tight to her scalp felt like a dozen tiny cat claws pricking at her hair.
The migraine aura appeared around her, specks of moving light and shapes superimposed onto the black and gold hall before her, and she closed her eyes, just for a moment, pressing a forefinger to each temple.
The falconer came into the gilded chamber through the open double doors, and bowed, keeping her arm steady to balance the large bird perched atop it. Its face was covered in a leather hood, a small feather protruding from the top, and the tsarina thought it looked rather silly.
“I find eucalyptus helps with the headaches,” the falconer said, uninviting.
“Perhaps you can fetch me some from Samovar,” the tsarina said. “Ask him for the fresh leaves, from his storage room.”
Sybil nodded, and looked at the tsarina expectantly.
“Remove its — hood,” she requested, waving a hand toward the bird. Sybil complied, and untied the falcon’s hood, revealing shiny, ebony eyes and a sharp beak.
“I miss when you were a wolf,” said the tsarina to the falcon. “Your fangs were terrific.” The bird looked at her pointedly. If it had eyebrows, it would have raised one.
She sighed, and turned again to the woman. “Gabriel Pinion will be at the tea house. As you likely know, I have little patience for showmanship. Be subtle.”
Sybil Fowler nodded. “As you wish, Tsarina Pyre.” She turned to leave, and paused in the doorway. “I hope your resurrection is swift and painless. I’ll see you soon.”
Tsarina Pyre watched the woman leave, and shivered in the frigid chamber. Winter was bright and cold outside of the palace walls, but the light struggled to reach far into the chamber, fractured by the many slats in the windows. As such, there was little warmth to be found from the sun, and a chill had taken up residency instead.
“Would you like me to light the fire?” Anagog asked. The tsarina shook her head. She knew her mystic was eager for the resurrection to begin, for that was truly his familial trade, and every day spent doing something other than resurrecting was a day spent in turmoil. Anagog lived for the resurrection day in every one of his lifetimes, where he would toss a handful of black sand into the fireplace, and light it with his firestarter that changed forms over the ages — sometimes a gilded tinderbox, or a bundle of twigs, or tiny matchbook.
By his hands, the fireplace would roar to life in a blaze of deep blue flame. The tsarina — who was sometimes a sultana, or a calipha, or a queen — would step into the flame, letting it consume her, until her body was a pile of ashes. And she would awaken in another life, another kingdom, awaiting for the arrival of the demon who would serve her and dispatch the enemies who threatened to disturb the natural order of her reign. In every lifetime, the enemy found her, and the demon would kill it, and the process began again, throughout eras and centuries.
The tsarina — who was sometimes a sultana, or a calipha, or a queen — would step into the flame, letting it consume her, until her body was a pile of ashes.
The tsarina’s limbs felt brittle beneath her gown. The migraines were becoming more frequent. The only solace was that it would be just a few more days of discomfort. The interim, however, would be misery.
No tsarina could rule without pain; that was the cost of being a ruler, and a woman ruler at that. Tsarinas and sultanas and caliphas and queens knew how to bleed for their countries until their bones turned to dust, crumbled in a hearth. Being a tsarina was certainly easier than being a queen, and that had been a welcome respite; here, at least, no one tried to behead her for merely speaking, and she preferred an ornate, beaded kokoshnik to a platinum, jeweled circlet. She most enjoyed her lives spent as a sultana, and the humid nights spent in lush atriums, seeds of bitter pomegranates stuck in her teeth.
Her resurrection was within reach, and she settled against the throne, hoping the falconer would return quickly with the eucalyptus leaves.
Gabriel Pinion went straight for a silver samovar in the back of the tea house, his nose twitching as he passed a smoking stick of myrrh. He recalled the qeres of the mummification chambers in a past life, the bitter and musky scents that enveloped his senses. Humans were foolish; qeres was an annoyance, to be sure, but hardly the most threatening enemy against his kind. Only one thing could kill a man like Gabriel, and it certainly wasn’t frankincense.
He lowered to a round cushion and crossed his legs. The man called Gabriel Pinion opened his knapsack — his name, too, was stamped onto it. But like the demon, the man’s true name wasn’t earthly. The dialect of his people was airy and fluid, impossible for a human to speak with the limitations of their breath.
The man rolled his shoulders back, one at a time, relieving his shoulder blades of the phantom pain that reminded him of his missing anatomy. He often mourned the weight of what he had lost. His legs had grown stronger to compensate.
Only one thing could kill a man like Gabriel, and it certainly wasn’t frankincense.
The tea master himself came over, and handed him an extensive menu with a leather cover. Like the kettles from which the tea was served, the tea itself had been sourced from far and away places. He browsed the flavors, wrinkling his nose at pomegranate, and settled on lemon and vanilla, with actual slices of lemon. The tea master bowed graciously and took the kettle with him to fill.
Gabriel awaited the demon, a hand resting casually across his knapsack. One looking hard enough would have noticed a silver flask, containing water not sourced from the local spring, water that would make the flesh of a demon smoke and shrivel, and the corner of it protruded just enough to catch the light.
Sybil entered the tea house, and no one paid any mind to the falcon on her shoulder. Sobriquet was used to the strange woman and bird in their establishments; it was on the tsarina’s orders that Sybil and the falcon were permitted entrance anywhere in the city.
Sybil noticed the mark in the far corner. It was impossible not to, since the man practically glowed, as if backlit by candlelight. Honestly, didn’t humans notice anything around them?
She approached him, and scratched at her head with a long fingernail lacquered red. Under her dark hair she felt the scar tissue and calloused foundations of the bones that once grew from her skull, reaching upward into points.
He looked up as she neared. Were it not for the faint outline of light pulsing around his whole body, he could have been a librarian, or a teacher, perhaps, with unremarkable features and round-rimmed glasses.
“May I sit?” He nodded, and she sat on the opposite pouf, pulling her skirts around her. The falcon disembarked, settling in the space between the demon and the man. Sybil looked around. “This seems rather quaint. I’m used to open fields or back alleys. I’d hate to get blood all over Samovar’s rugs.”
Gabriel didn’t cower, and that was odd. It was usually so easy for her to kill a mark. Most times, her falcon or wolf or snake took care of them swiftly, and sometimes it was by her own hand with the point of a spear or a bullet from a gun.
“Ms. Fowler, I’m aware of your prowess as a hunter, with the assistance of your magnificent — ah, bird,” The man nodded respectfully at the falcon. “I’m here to negotiate. Our council believes we have mutual interests.”
Sybil expected begging, but not an attempt at compromise. “So what do you want?”
The tea master delivered a silver samovar to their table, along with two glasses that matched. Gabriel took his time pouring them each a cup. Lemon encircled her nose, the brightness and tartness of it tickling her nostrils.
She imagined he wanted territory. Well, they could have Sobriquet, as far as she was concerned. The tsarina and the demon would be off to another kingdom, and his people could have whatever was left of the city and the country to which it belonged. The death of the tsarina would inevitably inspire rebellion and revolution, and Sobriquet would quickly fall into shambles. If he wanted it, good riddance. That was so typical. Men like Gabriel always wanted places they thought they could fix.
“Let me put it this way,” Gabriel said, taking a small sip of his tea. “Don’t your people grow weary serving tsarinas and sultanas and caliphas and queens?”
“No wearier, I’d imagine,” she said, “than your people serving gods and messiahs and prophets and idols.”
It occurred to her then that the man was suggesting war. The thought made her weary. War was so much work. And they had gone to war before, her people and his. The demons had won, and the prize had been the devotion of monarchs and prime ministers and commanders and leaders of the earth and the chance to live outside of the depths their infernal habitat.
And they had gone to war before, her people and his. The demons had won.
Was war any more work than lifetime after lifetime of dutiful servitude to whatever ruler sat on the throne? Sybil had never before questioned her purpose. She was a creature born into this role. Her first memories were of large wings and talons and teeth and weapons in her hands. She was raised in darkness, with only stars as light sources, and that was when she felt the most herself: in the hours during the resurrection, when everything went black, and the tsarina twisted and writhed in the flames.
In these hours, Sybil had fulfilled her one duty, and felt the relief that came with being submerged entirely in a black void as she awaited her next life. A new life brought many new things — animals, food, books, weapons, intrigue — but also took her farther away from home, and subsequently, peace.
If she instigated war, she could help the Gabriel win this time. She’d break the cycle of killing the enemies of the rulers she served, and as such, would be relegated to the darkness forever. And Gabriel’s people would be locked into their own relentless cycles of light and dark, time and place. Sybil sipped her tea, and smiled. Beside her, the falcon rustled its wings, feeling the discomfort at unfulfilled purpose.
The woman named demon shook hands with the man named angel. •