“Mama, why does the mantis watch me?”
“Mhmm. Lots of times”
“Remember, the mantis is one of the many forms our Creator takes, so He can keep watch over us all”
“No, not like that.”
“How then, baba?”
“Sometimes, in the morning, when I’m going to—“
“Sit still, Ana! Or your hair will be uneven.”
“In the mornings, when I go greet the sun like you told me and I’m walking to the hill just behind the old tree, then all the mantises come out and they look at me.”
“All of them?”
The first and most important rule of any con is to always maintain the line. The one between the real world and the pack of lies you tell to pull the wool over that world’s eyes. If you don’t, you get caught.
By the time a team breaks down the door to Cy’s cubby and hauls him out of bed and into cuffs, he’s broken that rule a hundred times over. He’s lost count of how often the line blurred, how he found himself believing the fabrications that make up his identity here in the shadowy, brutal world where rebellions are fostered.
The small unit he’s called home for months feels packed to capacity and claustrophobia gnaws at Cy’s insides while he watches Zeb, the team leader, rifle through his belongings. When he pulls out a touchpad that comes to life and reveals the warning Cy coded into the system to prevent exactly what was happening, the man’s stony mask slips and reveals a world of betrayal that Cy realises is the inevitable outcome of any camaraderie they had once shared. When you don’t maintain your line, people get hurt.
Someone’s com crackles with static, and then a voice.
“The captain’s a few minutes away.”
It’s Zeb who shifts, speaks into the small black square affixed to his jacket. “We’re ready.”
“Unlike myself, my sire was not a great lover of words. His art was war, and now the history books hail him as one of the world’s fiercest warriors, a fine king, a destroyer of worlds and, somehow, the builder of them too. That was the way of his life. History’s relationship with my father is complicated because he broke and shaped society with equal ease and determination. If there is anything of my father in me, then, it is my ability to destroy as easily as I create. In my younger years, it was a part of myself that I loathed. Older now, and wiser, I have come to understand that it is a necessary balance, the spark that sits at the heart of me, the driving force behind the story you now find at your hands, bound in countless tomes for your reading pleasure.
An Alexandrian librarian gifted me with a love of books and study, taught me to read and write, passed down the ancient, noble art of observation and chronicle. And one other thing. True tomes, Nizam told me, require a special composition: only the most durable calfskin leather, dried and cured till soft but firm, for the cover; fine paper, malleable but not too thin, able to withstand the press of a quill’s point and hold the ink’s bleed; sturdy binding, done with hands and heart and imbued with the sacred knowledge that the final piece will contain a story and nothing is more precious. Were Nizam alive now, he might think that I have forgotten most of the lessons he so painstakingly taught me. Perhaps, though, he would be pleased to know that his secret formula of making books to hold stories is one I have carried through more centuries than I care to count.
Gabriel doesn’t speak to him for weeks.
The truth is, Michael doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. Except, the silent treatment begins after Uriel’s birthday party and there’s a lot of the night that Michael cannot remember. And he’s anxious because Uriel texted him the next day with vague allusions to the Lord’s chosen doing unspeakable, drunken things.
Gabriel keeps saying nothing, ducks sideways when he sees Michael coming down the corridor and ignores the many texts and missed calls. Acts like they haven’t worked together for years, gone on many a-mission, fucking saved people side by side. Gabriel doesn’t even glance his way, ever.
That’s why Michael is fucking flabbergasted to find Gabe in his office, sitting in his chair and incongruous, all soft blue leather and copper studding against the neutral decor, feet on the table, the sole of one boot adorned with a smear of ash from a recently crushed cigarette (angels are not supposed to goddamned smoke). Michael veers between hyperventilating and the fucking unholy heat clenching in his stomach.