When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, it was an issue of great importance.
When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, merchantry stopped and schoolchildren craned through windows to see.
When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, Ravena never bothered to stay on the ground. Instead, she slipped out of the loop that tied her to the other students and scrambled up a lamppost to see.
It was easy. Everything was easy, no matter what she tried.
The doors opened with a ponderous speed and a ringing, grinding that reminded her of sword-hilts on stone, if swords could be so large they belonged to giants bigger than the distant mountains. They rumbled, those doors, and she could feel them with the lamppost gripped tightly between the arches of her bare feet.
What would it be today? An army? A collage of dragons, dripping with jewels and chains of sparkling metals, claws full of rings large enough to circle her wrist? A cloud full of fairies on leashes connected to ugly big trolls who smiled kindly and spoke with the quiet, rumbling fire of the forge?
It was none of those things. The doors had opened for one weird guy wearing weird clothes.
He had great big curls for hair (she couldn’t have resisted the baby-desire to yank on them, had he been closer), sorrowful green eyes, and a sort of dress-robe-thing that looked like one white sheet wrapped around his body. He didn’t carry much; if he was a merchant, he didn’t have anything to sell. A small leather pouch hung around his neck (she knew enough to recognize that as holding one of Hestur’s coins, so that was all right), two other small bags of indeterminate nature, and a knife, which he carried as if he had no idea what to do with the thing.
She huffed. This was a man not meant for survival. Hestur had taught her. She knew. This stranger was practically a daisy-fingered princeling, wealthy and spoiled and unable to even wipe his own hairy bottom.
Still, the doors had opened. Anyone they opened for had to be worth something.
The man walked through the doors as if they were just any old doors, looking around without the surprise that always accompanied visitors, but with intent as if looking for someone.
Others moved forward, adults. Guards with weapons – though the doors had opened, and the man had Hestur’s coin, so what did they think they were doing?
That was teacher’s voice, but Ravena had no intention of returning. She slid down the lamppost, held up her skirt, and raced between the merchant stalls so she could hear what the stranger said.
The man had amazing green eyes.
It wasn’t normal, that green, and there was something hypnotic about them. Even looking into his eyes from so several stalls away, Ravena had to concentrate to keep her focus from going fuzzy.
“Name yourself,” said one of the otoroshi-guards, pointing with his crescent-bladed spear.
The man with green eyes blinked slowly, as though this question were one of great heft. His brow knit. “I have been called Blood,” he said, and his voice was soft. It felt like a hand inside velvet, a pleasant caress.
Unfortunately, he had Pael for an interrogator, and Pael had not an ounce of poetry or sense in all his bones. “Your name, or your blood on the ground!” He poked, dimpling the man’s skin.
The man did not react to that either, ignoring the spear as easily as he ignored Pael’s tusks and bright blue mane. “I have chosen a name for myself,” he said.
Pael scraped the spear down, breaking the man’s skin.
The man was suddenly naked.
He’d ripped off his white robe, holding it away from the small rivulet of blood Pael had drawn, and Ravena’s mouth fell open. The man met Pael’s eyes, frowning. “This stays clean.”
Pael (who seemed more surprised at the swiftness of the man’s behavior than anything else) reacted by trying to stab him again.
And the man –
The man turned into –
The man was suddenly dust, particles, swirling sparkles that coalesced behind Pael with such speed she wasn’t sure she saw it happen, and then the green-eyed man’s velvet voice became thunder. “It stays clean!”
“Enough!” and that was Hestur’s voice.
Now, true authority had arrived.
Ravena stood behind the fruit stall and bowed low, same as everyone else. She couldn’t help it; that’s what the magic wanted. And it was normal, too.
Hestur, General of the Seven Armies, Black Hoof of Abaddon, and Kelpie’s Own King trotted forward, parting crowds like hands parted hanging cloth. Most bowed; many murmured thanks or words of worship, and Ravena found murmured them, too. He’d saved her. He’d saved them all. Without him, she’d be….
“I see you have found your way here at last, Night-child,” said Hestur the great and mighty, and he stomped one hoof.
They knew each other?
Those who bowed, bowed deeper. Those who murmured fell silent. Raven struggled to peek up, to see what was happening.
The green-eyed man had not bowed.
Ravena inhaled. No one refused to bow before Hestur but the four-winged Shaqalu, and they were different.
This man did not bow. “Horse,” he said.
“I am here.” The green-eyed man held up the little leather coin-holder. “I have brought the coin, as bidden. Now what must I do?”
“Continue to ask that question,” said Hestur, shaking his mane, “and I will continue to answer. This is now your new home. Do you accept this?”
“I thought I had to prove my worth,” said the man.
“You already have. We know of you, child of night, drinker of blood. Mighty against sword and stone, able to wisp into ash and fly, able to rend meat from bone. I have heard of you, child of Night, and I know of your mighty deeds. You have proven yourself worthy. This is now your new home. Do you accept this?”
Ravena’s mouth hung open. What was this person? A god?
The man looked around. “If it provides me with what I seek.”
“To stay here, only one thing is needful. Only one, and no more; you must swear yourself to me. You will love what I love and hate what I hate; you will protect the things I find precious, and stomp underhoof that which I abhor. Do you so swear?”
Ravena tensed. That was ritual wording. What was happening? Hestur was binding this man to his service already? But Hestur hadn’t saved the man – had he?
“I swear,” said the green-eyed man.
He’d said it. He’d just said it, like it meant nothing more than a vain promise to pick up flowers on the way home from dance.
“To be here, to find your path, to be granted forgiveness, you must be mine. I will protect you, Night-child. I will guide you – if you swear yourself to me, and only me. Do you swear?”
“I swear,” said the green-eyed man (surely “night-child” could not be his name) as if it meant nothing, and this whole conversation merely a way to fritter time.
The second time! Second question! One more and he would be –
“I will shape your path; I will feed your mind. You will follow my hooves all the way to the end, and I will give you your earned freedom. Do you swear to follow me?”
There it was. The third question. No one moved in all the world, waiting for the answer, waiting for the reply, waiting for the green-eyed man to at least ask a question of his own.
The man eyed Hestur for a long moment, unafraid of him, unafraid of anything, even Pael with his spears. And in that moment, Ravena envied him. His fearlessness; his power. The way he stood now, willingly oathing himself to bits as if he had a plan for escaping.
“I swear,” said Night-child, and at those words, thunder clapped in the clear blue sky. Some ducked and screamed. Ravena did neither; she watched the green-eyed man.
He frowned up at the sky, visibly annoyed at its odd behavior, as if he did not know the magical contract he’d just put in place.
“Welcome, Night-child,” said Hestur. “Welcome to your new home.”
And came a swift shadow and a rushing of wings, came Adam – down from the skies, down from the walls, down from the hallowed heights of leadership. “It will not hold him,” he said in Pjael, the language of the Saqalu.
Most here did not speak it. The stranger certainly would not.
Ravena spoke enough to understand those impossible words.
“It will hold,” said Horse. “Night – come with me.”
“Yes, please,” said the man called Night.
The man put it back on.
“Better. You are now a member of Az’Kabek, Night. That means none of these people are yours to harm. Do you understand?” And he tossed his head toward Ravena as if she were one he would harm.
The moment she met his eyes, her body stopped working.
She could not move. She could not shout. She could only stare at him and his hunger, a living and terrible hunger, so fixed and strange and huge that she wanted to run away screaming.
He was going to eat her.
Two long, thin teeth appeared in his mouth. He licked his lips, showing them more.
He was going to eat her, bite her with those teeth over and over until she died.
Tears slid down her cheeks, but she still could not move.
Then the man shuddered and looked away. The grip of his magic released her, and she exhaled, shaking, her mouth soured with unfamiliar fear.
“I won’t harm her,” he whispered.
But he almost had.
“Exactly,” said Hestur, and led the man away.
Still trembling, Ravena looked up at Adam, who watched them leave with disapproval but did not stop this from happening.
It will not hold him.
What had they done, these protectors of the city? They had brought within its gates one who could and would devour it. They had brought in a monster and tested its willpower against her life.
They had brought in one strong enough to break Hestur’s oath spell.
Ravena did not speak. She felt very old just then, and wise. Maybe he would eat her and maybe he would not, but either way, she would find a way to watch him.
She would learn his secrets. She would learn how he was so strong.
Then she would learn how to be so strong herself, and not even Hestur could tell her what to do.
“Ravena!” called her teacher from the other side of the square, definitely annoyed.
Ravena went obediently. Soon, she’d be free of everybody’s rules. Soon, she’d be like the green-eyed man, and would never be afraid again.