At his floor, Jordi stepped off the lift and went to his room, tossing his key to the desk before he closed the door. Placing the box beside the key, he opened Nico’s envelope first.
The package arrived by courier, who said the contents were for your eyes only and quite urgent. I sent it via a trusted friend on their way to Valencia.
Jordi doubted the “trusted friend” was on the way to Valencia. Nico was far too careful to give away a tactical position in a note.
Glaring at the package, Jordi removed his coat and loosened his collar. Nico’s apartment was known among many rogues as a contact point for Jordi, so it wouldn’t be unusual for him to receive mail for one of Jordi’s aliases.
But why that one? And why Sir George? Sitting at the desk, he turned the nondescript box over. No return address, but several postmarks stamped the package’s route to Avignon.
Sir George Abellio. The name resurrected a memory. Sir George. He was known as Sir George in his last incarnation, during the twelfth century.
Could this be from a nefil from that past life? Perhaps a rogue seeking to reconnect with Jordi? And if so, were they friend or foe?
Better safe than sorry. Jordi traced a sigil of protection over the box and hummed a chord. The red and gold vibrations of his aura charged the glyph. Only then did he feel safe to use the hotel’s letter opener to pry the wrapping free.
Behind the paper was a plain white jewelry box. Lifting the lid, he removed the wadding to find an identical pair of silver brooches wrapped in tissue paper. One was polished to a high shine while the other was black with tarnish.
Despite their conditions, they both depicted an intricately carved angel standing over a lyre. Unlike other angelic drawings from the period, this angel possessed three sets of wings and the feet of a raptor—an accurate depiction of a Messenger in his true form.
The angel on the brighter pin held gemstones set within the silver: jacinth in the right hand and an emerald in the left. The stones sparkled brightly beneath the room’s electric light.
The other brooch sustained damage deeper than tarnish. An indentation in the center made it appear as if someone had struck the brooch with a blunt object. Both the jacinth and the emerald were loose in their settings. Neither stone had clarity.
The banner over the angel’s head in both pieces bore the inscription: Amor vincit omnia.
Love conquers all.
“Love tokens,” Jordi murmured. He caught the scent of fire and metal from a blacksmith’s forge. A hammer struck the anvil with a measured rhythm, like the slow steady beats of a heart. The fires silhouetted a giant of a nefil. Jordi recalled those blunt hands and questioning whether the smith possessed the finesse to craft jewelry. Evidently he did.
Shifting through the tissue paper, he found a typewritten card at the bottom of the box. The note said: Wear your pin so that I will know you in this incarnation. We will judge the traitor in vehmgericht. Watch for me.
Jordi scowled at the word vehmgericht. The vehmgericht were the secret trials the nefilim once used in Germany to root out traitors to the angel-born. Mortals had eventually adopted the word and the custom during the Middle Ages to protect their feudal rights.
But in the beginning, vehmgericht belonged to us.
Jordi scanned the note again for any clues. The signature was nothing more than a hand-drawn symbol composed of a vertical line with two more lines branching upward to the right to make the rune Fehu.
“The letter F?” Why use such an archaic symbol in place of a signature?
Picking up the brooches, Jordi held them side by side. Whose name might begin with F? He kicked off his shoes and drew his feet onto the bed as he turned the pins first one way and then another. Nothing came to him.
“Christ burning in shit, but I hate riddles.”
The quickest way to discover the meaning behind the incarnation would be to read the stones. Unfortunately, the ability to divine the history of jewels was a daimonic skill, and Jordi didn’t trust the daimons in Barcelona. Any one of them would sell him out to Guillermo for a peseta if they saw something to gain from divulging the information.
Good thing he didn’t need them. An ingenious nefil always found other avenues to the same destination. Being more resourceful than most, Jordi had experimented with various substances until he found that opium quickly led him into lucid dreams.
Time to chase the dragon and see where he leads, Jordi thought as he opened his bag again. Beneath a false seam was a metal case next to a small tin of cocaine. Jordi removed both and placed the cocaine on his nightstand before taking the case to the desk.
He opened the lid and laid his equipment on the blotter: a stubby candle, a pin, some foil, and a paper straw. The foil and straw always left him feeling cheap and dirty, like a street addict chasing a high.
Exceptional times call for exceptional means. He selected a small brick of opium. Love tokens sent across distance and time qualified as extraordinary.
With practiced moves, he lit the candle, and then daubed a piece of opium about the size of a peanut from the brick with the pin. He transferred the opium onto the foil. Picking up the straw, he moved the foil over the flame. As the opium vaporized, the liquid oozed across the foil’s surface, writhing like a snake. White smoke rose into the air. Jordi followed the smoke with the straw, inhaling the drug deeply.
The sweet taste of opium filled his mouth. He repeated the procedure four more times before he blew out the candle. Knowing just when to stop is what separated him from the addicts.
He waved the foil gently and when it had cooled, he licked the last of the opium from the blackened surface. Once he had returned everything except the candle to the metal case, he adjusted the pillows and sat on the bed with his back against the headboard.
A feeling of peace and well-being suffused his body. As he moved the tarnished brooch to the nightstand, the jacinth fell free of its setting. Jordi caught the gemstone and placed it beside the brooch.
His memories lay behind the brighter pin. He was sure of it. Cradling the shining silver brooch in his palm, he shaped a glyph over the design and hummed a tune. The opium darkened the edges of his song, deepening the amber vibrations to brown.
Concentrating on the angel’s face, Jordi felt the room drift away. The angel’s smile. So serene, loving . . . loving . . . he was my adviser, my lover . . .
Jordi remembered his previous incarnation when he was known as George . . .
George and the angel burrow beneath the quilts and furs to escape the cold. Drowsy from their lovemaking, they are on the verge of sleep when the music finds them.
Light notes drawn from a stringed instrument with a bow travel over the night and through the shuttered window. A distant voice joins the instrument, a tenor singing in another language. It is the third night the enchanting musician has serenaded them from the town’s tavern.
“Arabic. He sings in Arabic,” whispers the angel. “Last night it was Italian. And his voice . . . I have never heard a nefil with such range. He is the one we need. Find him.”
“In the morning,” George murmurs. He has no desire to leave the bed to go wandering through a night made brittle with cold.
The angel, who calls himself Frauja, isn’t dissuaded. “Have I led you wrong yet?”
No. No, he hasn’t.
“You said you wanted the Key,” Frauja murmurs against George’s ear.
And he does want that song—needs that song—because now that he carries the Thrones’ blessing as king of the Inner Guard, he must shut his brother Guillaume into a prison realm, one where he can never again reincarnate in the mortal world. Then there will be no other nefil strong enough to challenge George’s rule.
“You know I want it.”
“Then I need his voice.” Frauja strokes George’s throat. “The whisper of his darkness to merge with your fire. No other nefil will do. Bring him to us.”
The request irks George. The initial arrangement between them required no other nefil, but George doesn’t argue.
If the Thrones discover he is hiding a fallen Messenger, he’ll be driven from his post as king and Guillaume will once more win sovereignty over the Inner Guard. George is playing a dangerous game and they both know it.
Secrets are like chains, George thinks as he slides out of bed and awakens his mortal manservant with a kick. “Find that musician and bring him to me. Take the guards with you. Don’t come back without him.”
The man stumbles from the room half awake. Another servant enters and adds wood to the fire. Candles are lit.
The covers of George’s bed lie flat. The angel is gone. No one sees him but George.
An hour passes before the manservant returns and leads an unfamiliar nefil into the room. At a gesture from George, the manservant backs into the corridor and shuts the door.
The stranger places his bag at his feet and cradles an instrument’s case in his arms. His clothing speaks of no country, of all countries: a surcoat of black with seams threaded in yellow covers a cote dyed a rich dark green. The loose pants, favored by the Hungarians, are tucked into his worn boots. Long black hair falls beneath a stylish chaperon popular with the Italian merchants, and it suits him well. His eyes are dark and green, surrounded by lashes so thick and black they resemble kohl in the chamber’s half-light.
George remains by the fire and glares at the flames. “Who is your liege?”
“I have none.” The stranger speaks the language with an accent that is impossible to place because, like his clothes, it belongs to no single country.
“You are a rogue?”
“That is your word, but yes.”
“What is your word?”
“I say I am free.” He meets George’s stare as an equal.
The impunity of the act angers George, but he doesn’t admonish the stranger. Until he is certain of the angel’s game, he will move in a judicious manner. “Play for me.” It is a command.
The stranger seems unperturbed. “Will we exchange songs?”
It is a reasonable request and a matter of professional etiquette that when one nefil plays for another, they exchange songs. In doing so, they are able to gauge the strength and color of one another’s souls.
George isn’t feeling reasonable. “Perhaps.”
The stranger seems to intuit George’s mood. His expression is serious as he retrieves a nearby stool. He brings it close to George’s chair and sits. From the wooden case, he removes a Byzantine lyra and its bow.
“What is your name?” George asks as the stranger adjusts the instrument’s pegs.
“Where are you from?”
“Where did you begin?” George snaps the question like a lash.
Balancing the lyra on his thigh, he draws the bow across the strings, testing the sound, and then he measures George with a critical eye. “Is there something in particular you would like to hear?”
He chooses a love ballad and renders it with heartbreaking skill. His voice is as much an instrument as the lyra, and he progresses through chords no mortal and few nefilim will ever sing. When he finishes, the final clear notes of his tenor shades the air in viridian hues the same color as his eyes.
The angel appears behind Yago. “Don’t move,” he whispers.
Yago stiffens at Frauja’s sudden presence, but he doesn’t turn.
Reaching out to twine one slender finger in the black of Yago’s hair, Frauja pronounces, “He is the one.”
The angel’s touch is intimate, his smile more so. Worse still, he has revealed himself to Yago like he has to no other.
Jealousy grabs George’s heart with sharp nails and he winces, because . . .
. . . the brooch pricked his flesh, awakening him from the opium dream. Blinking in the predawn light, he looked down at his palm, where his blood smeared the angel’s lips.
Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly
…the kind of story that casts a spell on readers, immersing them in words as vivid and resonant as the music the nefilim imbue themselves with as they weave their magic. –B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog