March 2008 Volume Two Issue Three
City of Angels - Rosamund Hodge
I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked into the kitchen and saw Mamá making rice pudding. A crumpled plastic bag lay on the counter; I picked it up, smoothed it. Real California Raisins! Taste The Zing Of Sunshine!
"What's happening?" I asked, nervousness prickling my arms.
"Braid your hair and wash up," said Mamá. "It's almost done."
As I went to the bathroom to get some hair elastics, the prickle slid down from my arms to my stomach. The few times that I had eaten Mamá's pudding, my hair had been unbound.
When I got back to the kitchen, Mamá was spooning the rice pudding into a bowl. Her dark hair was already pulled back in a long braid; only a few wisps escaped around her face.
"Here." She set the bowl in front of me. "Eat."
"But I can't do magic with my hair --"
"It's not for magic. The pudding . . . dampens you. Covers you. Makes you less noticeable." Mamá gripped the back of her chair, knuckles white. "We're leaving. Los Ojos killed Peter, and I think he wants you."
Terror sheared through my stomach. Los Ojos was the most powerful lord in Los Angeles; cruelest too, if half the stories were true.
Her hands twisted around the dark wooden bar. "I can't tell you the whole story on unprotected ground. Los Ojos -- may not want you. I don't want him to hear something and start wanting."
I looked down at my bowl, feeling dizzy. It seemed impossible that Los Ojos could know of me, let alone care; more incredible still that Peter could be dead. I'd seen him only a month ago. The wrinkles had been deepening on his face, but he'd still been wiry and energetic. In my head he looked alive as ever.
"Maria! Eat it!" Mamá's voice was high and strained.
I couldn't wait to be gone, but I had never wanted food less. Grimacing, I picked up my spoon and forced myself to eat the pudding. Warm, sticky California slid down my throat, tasting of cinnamon and sun. Arroz con leche, rice-with-milk: that was the Spanish name. Grain and milk are always potent links with the land, but California produces more rice than any other state but Arkansas, and the raisins had grown in the San Joaquin valley alongside vineyards. As Mamá stirred her pudding, she leaned into the steam and whispered the litany of Los Angeles: Northridge, Winnetka, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Glendale, Van Nuys, Rancho Cucamonga. When I finished my bowl, I felt the warmth of the land pulsing in my wrists, and the word Los Angeles hummed in my bones. I could almost touch the land's magic, and my head throbbed with the pressure of my braided hair.
Mamá's smile was tight and small. "Okay. Fill a backpack and we'll go."
"Can we make it out?" I asked. Like every lord, Los Ojos had almost no power outside the city; but inside, if he was really hunting us, I wondered how far we could get.
"We can try," said Mamá. "We've nothing to lose. Just hurry."
I nodded wordlessly and headed for my room. As I threw underwear, books, and keepsakes into my backpack, a splinter of hope edged in through my fear. I'd always wanted to leave Los Angeles, with its heat and smog and endless cement, and I'd always known it was all but hopeless. Not many lords let their vassals go . But now -- now the whole world was open to us -- green hills in summer, ochre-and-bronze maple leaves, frost on the sidewalk. Little towns nestled among mountains and trees. Maybe, I thought, maybe even castles and mist-covered moors.
Heading back for the kitchen I paused in the living room. It was ugly, with its pea-green carpet, dusty bookcases, and the huge, garishly colored painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I'd never see it again. My throat tightened.
A key rattled in the lock. Mamá went out? I thought. Then the door swung open, and an electric tingle shot up from my feet into my throat.
Walking in the front door, smiling like a father coming home, was Los Ojos.
He was younger than I'd imagined; his face was narrow but boyishly soft. His black hair had long bangs that parted in the middle. With a lurch, I realized that he was attractive. Cute, even. But his eyes, los ojos, were blank, unpupilled white.
"Maria --" The words died in Mamá's throat as she stepped out of the kitchen. She gripped my shoulder.
"Good afternoon," Los Ojos said cheerfully. He stepped aside as several armed men walked in. They fanned out around the room, guns held ready.
Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus. The prayer was broken and automatic. I don't want to die.
Mamá stepped to my side. "What do you want?"
"You know, it's almost dinner time. I might like a burrito." He walked forward, and Mamá pulled me closer. "Also a chance to meet my new vassals."
Los Ojos stroked the ridge of my nose, once. Mamá's breath hissed in her throat. The light, tickling touch was charged with power and for a moment I wanted to like him, love him, follow him anywhere, even as my shoulders prickled and stomach turned at the wrongness of this white-eyed thing.
"This way." Mamá dragged me back into the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator, its door a fleeting shield between us and Los Ojos. "Maria," she breathed, "tu papa era un angel." Then she pushed me away. "Go open the window," she said loudly. "It's stuffy in here."
I walked trembling to the window as she pulled out a bag of tortillas. The refrigerator door swung shut, and Los Ojos walked in. He seated himself on one of the counters while his men slid in around the edges of the room.
"I hope you're not planning something foolish, Teresa," he said.
"Of course not," said Mamá. "Just don't be too hard on Maria," and she turned and met my eyes, "or she might crack."
Space is malleable in the side-city, but you can't shift inside a home. In some parts of London, maybe, or Rome; but Los Angeles doesn't go that deep. Our house was special, though: it had a fissure running through it that let you slide out and shift space. Mamá called it the escape hatch, the back door. The crack.
My hands tingled. Probably I could get through: it was right next me, in the corner of the dining room. But they'd see I was escaping; Mamá would never make it out --
Mamá opened a drawer and pulled out a butcher knife.
With jagged, nightmare clarity I saw her lunge for Los Ojos. His men fired before she had taken two steps; the shots were so loud they were a physical blow to my head. Mamá staggered back, red soaking across her chest.
Oh God. No. Oh God oh God oh God.
Mamá slumped against the counter and started to slide down. I wanted to scream, run away, anything to make it stop. Somebody fired again, another blast concussing the air. Mamá jerked, then whimpered. Her face was ugly, twisted as if with screaming or tears.
I looked away. Saw the corner. A shiver ran through me, and without thinking I stepped towards it.
I knew she wanted me to escape, but I didn't run out of obedience. I ran because I was scared, of Los Ojos but even more of Mamá and what was happening to her, because I could not stop it and could not watch.
And I felt the shivery chill of the crack. And I twisted. And was gone.
When I stopped running, I almost thought I was in our old neighborhood. The narrow street twisted and turned; the small houses were old, with salmon or sea-green stucco and shake roofs. The sun glared down, steady and hot, making me squint. The air was still.
I hugged myself, gasping and crying. Mamá couldn't be dead. Just couldn't, because what kind of sense did the world make without her? I wanted to wake up and find that everything was all a dream. Jesus, please, make it not so! But the sky was silent and the memory of her death was hard and unyielding, lodged like a bullet in my brain.
Finally I rubbed at my eyes. The hot, thin air dryed my tears into an itchy ghost. Think, you have to think, I told myself. They're still looking for you.
For a moment I thought about trying to leave, but now my dream seemed pitiful and shoddy. With Mamá, I hadn't even gotten out the door; how far would I get without her? And I couldn't bring myself to care much about anything except living, about not becoming a bloody, writhing mess that was barely human. Spending the rest of my life in Los Angeles seemed a small price for living at all, let alone free of Los Ojos.
I looked up and down the street. But where could I go? Mamá had taught me at home and kept me away even from Peter's other vassals; the one person I really trusted was my online friend Jacki, and besides not knowing about the side-city or magic, she lived in New Hampshire. I hardly knew the names of any lords -- I wished that I had paid more attention to the City, instead of dreaming about other places --
The Sidhe. The thought came to me quickly and comfortingly. They're the most powerful after Los Ojos; they could protect me. There were certainly bad rumors about them; but not as bad as the ones about Los Ojos. And unlike most lords, they never left the side-city. Finding them would be easy.
I started walking. "The Sidhe," I muttered under my breath. "I want to find the Sidhe. Fair Folk, Kindly Ones, Ever-Living People --"
The side-city is not like normal space. Cracked, frayed, and sometimes warped beyond comprehension by the pressure of countless human minds, by their lives and deaths, their eternal joys and griefs, it spins away into its own half-dimension. Birds fly through it, and you can sometimes get electricity; but space shifts, and to find a place you often need only to want it.
Now the houses were bigger; instead of 1950's stucco, they were built in a graceful mission style, with arched doorways and tile roofs. The air was hot and dry, with a thin breeze that brought no relief from the heat, only the heavy scent of roses. I could feel the magic thrumming in my wrists.
"Hello?" I called softly.
No answer. Slowly I walked up the driveway of the house in front of me. For a moment I stood in front of the door, terrified that they would kill me for trespassing; then I crossed myself and pushed the doorbell.
My thumb had barely left the button when the door opened, and a barefoot young man in jeans and a white t-shirt looked out. His pale hair hung in damp threads.
"Is this -- ?" I took a breath. "May I see your lord?"
"Who are you?" he asked quietly.
"Maria Angelita Gonzalez." It was getting easier to speak. "Former vassal of Peter Ng, dead by the hand of Los Ojos. I am looking for a lord."
For a moment he gazed at me with expressionless eyes; then he stepped back, pulling the door farther open. "Come."
It looked like an ordinary house -- cream carpet, cottage cheese ceilings, and a fake chandelier in the dining room. The young man pushed me onto the couch. I sank down, thankful for the cool air, and rubbed at my face, wiping sweat away from my forehead and the sides of my nose.
"Have you any power?" He stepped in front of me.
"A little." I dropped my hands to my lap. "Mostly untrained." Mamá had told me a lot, but she almost never let me do magic. Mamá -- I quickly looked up at the ceiling, forcing the tears back.
"You're running from Los Ojos?"
"Did you kill someone escaping?"
"No! I ran. My mother . . . distracted him, and I ran." My voice quavered despite my best efforts. "She's dead."
He looked away, and for a moment I almost saw emotion in his face -- anger or disappointment, I wasn't sure which.
"Wait here." I heard soft footfalls as he strode away; a door opened and closed.
I took a deep breath. Why did he want to know if I'd killed someone?
-- Mamá whimpered, her face twisting --
I covered my face with my hands, mouthing a silent scream. My throat ached and my nose stung as tears came back into my eyes. Alone. Don't think of -- Oh, God. Help me. Please. Oh, God.
Someone touched my shoulder. I flinched and looked up at the young man. His gray eyes widened, and he touched my cheek with a fingertip. I twitched, and he jerked his hand away. It was the first human gesture I'd seen him make.
"Sorry," he muttered.
I bit my lip, not yet trusting my voice, and rubbed my face dry. Just don't think. Don't think.
"Well?" My voice squeaked a little.
"The Queen will see you." He straightened up, his voice flat and calm once more. "Follow me."
He led me back through a couple of wide, sunlit rooms and pulled open a door next to the stairs. It opened onto another set of stairs, descending; he started down and I followed him.
We emerged into what should have been the basement; but it was huge, easily as big as a church. The air was as cold and still as a museum, but filled with the scent of roses. Rows of square white columns ran around the sides; the floor was covered with a thick oriental carpet, red and blue and gold swirling together.
In the middle of the room sat the Queen of the Sidhe, with three guards on either side. They wore gold circlets and black trench coats; swords were belted at their sides, and they held machine guns ready in their hands. She sat on a cushion with her legs crossed, and roses in her lap. She wore only jeans and a dark green tank top; her black hair fell unbound to the floor. She looked barely nineteen.
"Behold Líadan Ni Breacán, Queen of the Sidhe in Los Angeles," said the young man.
Líadan smiled at me, her gaze cool and communionless. A cat might look at you that way, or an angel.
"Who comes to my hall?" she asked.
"Maria," I said breathlessly. "Maria Angelita Gonzalez. Daughter of Teresa Catalina Gonzalez."
"And why do you come, Maria Ban Teresa?"
"Los Ojos killed my former lord, Peter Ng," I said. "He wants me, and . . . and I come seeking protection."
"What do you bear, that Los Ojos wants you so?"
"I don't know. My mother said that he wanted me, but she died before she could tell me why." The nightmare in the kitchen flashed back, and Mamá's whispered words. "She said -- before she died, she said that my father was an angel." I had a strange, falling feeling; Mamá had always told me that my father was dead. But: Tu papa era un angel.
I didn't think she meant he was in Heaven.
Líadan stood, roses spilling from her lap, and walked barefoot to stand before me. She tilted my chin up with one hand and looked straight into my eyes. Shivering, I tried to return her gaze, but my throat tightened and my knees weakened and my pulse throbbed in my wrists --
She let me go. With a gasp, I looked down at the floor.
"Even so," she said. "The Nephelim have come again."
I looked back up at her, and found it was bearable if I avoided eye contact. She was not smiling, and almost seemed to be looking at me as if I were a person.
"I cannot take you for a vassal."
It took me a moment to respond. "Why?"
"Know, daughter of the sons of God, that Los Ojos has made a covenant with one of the fallen angels, and together they strive to control the city. We will not let him take what is ours, but neither shall we provoke war with his master." She paused. "Yet I would not like him to have your power."
She turned and sat back down upon her cushion. "You shall have our escort out of the city, on condition that you swear never to return. Líadan Ni Breacan has spoken."
They said that they needed time to prepare me an escort; we would leave in the morning. They gave me a bed, but I did not sleep.
Tu papa era un angel.
"Know, daughter of the sons of God --"
I shivered, remembering a passage from Genesis that had puzzled me when I first read it. When I had asked Mamá, she had said something vague about allegory.
Now the Nephelim were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men they brought forth children; these were the mighty men of old, men of renown.
I felt a spurt of anger. So now I'm an allegory, huh, Mamá? Then my throat tightened as I remembered my last glimpse of her. She'd died trying to save me; she'd spent her life hiding me from Los Ojos and all the others who would want . . . whatever I had. I couldn't blame her for not telling me the whole truth.
I had just started sniffling when someone knocked on the door. "Come in!" I called, rubbing my eyes.
The door opened, and the young man who had let me into the house came in. "Hello," he said.
I looked up at him. His eyes were blank, but they didn't have the alien look of the Sidhe's; I could meet his gaze without flinching. He had to be human.
"Who are you?" I asked curiously.
"Niallán," he said. "Taken by the Sidhe nine years ago. You must not leave tomorrow."
He dropped to his knees. "I beg you, do not leave the city. Make yourself a lady, and take me as a vassal. Fight Los Ojos for dominion of Los Angeles."
"Are you crazy?" I demanded. "I'm the Queen's guest; I can't steal her vassal!"
"I'm not her vassal; she took me and bound me as her thrall. And you've eaten no bread and drunk no wine; unless I'm very much mistaken, you have not slept beneath her roof."
He was right: I had not, strictly speaking, incurred any guest obligations. Nor had the Sidhe done anything for me that was not in their own best interest. Still . . .
"Why should I trust you?" I demanded. "Maybe you're testing me for the Queen. Maybe you'll betray me to Los Ojos. Maybe you just want to use me for yourself."
Niallán dropped back onto his heels. "I don't remember who I was before they took me," he said flatly. "I spent a long time looking for someone to save me. I could feel your power, but I didn't think you were strong enough to fight." He looked away. "Then I saw you crying. And I almost remembered what it was like to feel. To be human." He looked at me unblinkingly. "Lady, I'll follow you even if you fail."
He didn't look like he was lying. I took a slow breath.
"Why do you want to leave? They're not evil, are they?"
"They are Sidhe," Niallán said simply. "They make no covenant with Hell. But they have sometimes made bargains, and . . . they seldom have compassion for any but their own kind. They would hand me over to the Devil if it suited their needs; and in the meantime, they are turning my heart to stone. I want to be human again." He gripped my hands. "Please. Take me away. Save your city."
"I can't fight Los Ojos!" He didn't answer, and I sighed. Right. Nephelim. "Anyway, I know he's bad, but he's not that bad. Is he?"
"He would have the whole city under his dominion, side-city and normal world both. He has less compassion than the Sidhe and far more cruelty. He would enslave Los Angeles and all its people."
But I have no idea how to stop him! I thought. If I leave, Los Ojos won't have whatever he wants from me -- that must be enough. And I'll be free at last. Oregon, Scotland, Ireland: the names whispered in my head like an incantation, bringing images of mist and and cold winds, the sharp tracery of barren branches against a cloud-gray sky.
And all its people. Niallán's words echoed back at me, and I thought of my city. Latte-skinned women with their eyebrows plucked out and painted back on. Men selling flowers by the freeway off-ramps. Old ladies with puffy hair and big sweaters. Teenaged girls in tight jeans, scrawny except for the swellings of their breasts and hips. Withered old men at the public library with plaid flannel shirts and long, scraggly gray hair. Middle-aged women in tight skirts and high heels. Everybody, good and bad, young and old, smart and stupid. Slaves or dead.
"Can you get us out of here?" I asked quietly.
He nodded. "Yes."
"All right." I slid off the bed and grabbed my backpack. "Let's go."
I asked him to take me to a church, any church, where we would be safe from scrying and magic until I decided what to do. But when we stepped out of the rift into normal space, we were in front of two dark bronze doors with vague, bumpy bas-reliefs of angels. It was St. Bernadette's, where I went every Sunday with Mamá, and where I'd been baptized. It seemed vaguely appropriate.
I pulled open the door. "Come on," I said when Niallán didn't move.
He shook his head, gray eyes wide. "I'll wait outside."
"You're not Sidhe, you don't even belong to them any more. And I don't want Los Ojos finding you either." I grabbed his hand and dragged him into the vestibule, but he flatly refused to go further. "All right," I sighed. "But do you know why Los Ojos wants me? I mean, why would he need me when he's already got his fallen angel?"
Niallán shrugged. "I don't know; there haven't been any Nephelim for a long time. But there's a limit to how much he can safely blend with the angel. He might want you for a . . ."
"Tool?" I suggested.
"Conduit. Point of convergence. You don't have the walls that normal humans do, and he wouldn't care if your mind was burnt out."
"Great," I muttered, thinking, And I'm supposed to stop him? I pushed open the door to the nave.
"What are you going to do?" asked Niallán.
"Pray for a miracle," I shot back over my shoulder.
St. Bernadette's was a shoebox of a church, with plain brick walls and slit windows of pastel glass. The sanctuary was flanked with felt banners saying "Live the Resurrection Joy!" in pink letters, and on the wall behind the altar was a semi-cubist mosaic of the risen Christ. But the lamp beside the tabernacle held a crimson pinpoint of undimmed light.
I went to the little niche with a rack of candles and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It made me think of our living room, and I bit my lip as I groped in my pocket for a coin.
"Buenas tardes, mijita."
I started at the reedy, cracked voice. A little old woman stood beside me; her splotched skin was covered in a complex tracery of wrinkles, her fading hair veiled with a black mantilla.
"Who are you?" I demanded. My voice echoed aggressively in the silence.
"Only a child of the city, come in to say a quick prayer," she said in Spanish. "Do you know the name of our city?"
"Los Angeles," I said dubiously. Even if she was from Los Ojos, she couldn't work magic in a church.
The woman smiled, showing yellow teeth like the keys of an old piano. "El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles," she said. City of Our Lady of the Angels. "This place has always been full of angels, mijita, even before the Indians knew what to call them. But after Father Serra baptized them, their women no longer feared the fallen among the sons of God. They remember Maria Santisima, reina de los angeles, whose Son set them free."
I was tingling all over. "What do you know?" I demanded.
"Los Ojos fears the wrath of God. He has tattooed himself with an image of Our Lady, and he speaks his confession to a renegade priest. He think that la Madre de Dios can be bound with ink. He thinks that el Senor will be pleased with a false confession."
"What should I do?" I asked slowly.
"You belong to the Lady of the City, and her Son."
I glanced up at the picture; when I looked back, the old woman was gone. For a few moments I looked uneasily around the church; then I slipped a quarter into the box and lit a candle. Looking back at the picture of Our Lady, I took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
Angels. They didn't sound like the effeminate youths I'd seen on holy cards, nor the jeweled wheels and whirling wings I'd read about in the Bible. But sons of God: if they were not exactly angels, they were something closely kin. The woman had implied that not all of them were bad; I wondered if my father had been one of those, or if he had been a fallen angel. Which is only a nice word for demon. Los Ojos thought he could use me for a human conduit. But the old woman said he feared God and --
A shiver of hope ran through me: maybe there was a way to defeat him, after all. Reina de los angeles, the woman had said. Queen of angels. You belong to the Lady of the City, and her Son.
"Thank you," I whispered to the picture. "I think."
Then I turned and ran back to the vestibule, where Niallán leaned against the wall, arms crossed. "Let's go," I said. "I think I've got an idea."
He stepped in front of me. "Swear me first."
"Oh. Right." Fear sizzled through my stomach. "Kneel," I said.
Niallán dropped to his knees and clasped is hands; I knelt before him and wrapped my hands around his. "Do you take me for your liege lady, to be helped and protected?"
"Will you obey me and honor me, nor counsel others to rebel against me?"
"Will you be faithful to me and hold me as one of your blood, nor ever abandon me, as long as we both live?"
"I swear," he whispered.
"Niallán, I give you my name and my household, and declare you under my protection, to be helped and protected like a child of my body, nor ever abandoned on any account, and avenged if you are wronged. This I swear before God."
I heard Niallán let out a long, shaking breath. And I felt him: not just his knuckles beneath my palms, but his breath going out of my lungs, his hair tickling my forehead, and his presence alive and glowing in my mind. It faded quickly, leaving me tired and cold, my knees aching from the hard tiles; but there was still a spark of awareness in my mind.
I let go of Niallán's hands and got up slowly; he stood as well. "Thank you," he said quietly, and the blankness was gone from his eyes.
"Okay." I nodded. "Let's go."
He grabbed my arm. "I don't belong to the Sidhe any more; I don't think I can shield us like I did on the way here. Los Ojos will find us."
"I know." I didn't feel brave, I felt sick. "That's the idea. Look, I don't want you to do anything. If I'm right, I won't need help. If I'm wrong -- I want you to run, okay?"
"I'm not going back to the Sidhe."
"Niallán." I looked straight into his eyes. "I saw my mother die. It isn't easy or glorious. It's blood and fear and degradation and I will not let you do it. You will run, you will live, you will thank God and you will ask Him why you're alive when my mother is not." I struggled for control over my voice. "Okay?"
He nodded, but I knew that I hadn't changed his mind.
We emerged from the side-city under an overpass on the 605 Freeway near Whittier, where cars zoomed past raggedly. Taking a deep breath, I edged my way out from under the overpass and up the ivy-covered slope by the side of the freeway. Eucalyptus trees grew along the top of the slope, art nouveau silhouettes against the evening sky; Los Ojos stood beneath them, flanked by six men. His guards were dressed in black, but he wore jeans and a white shirt. In the darkness, his pale eyes looked very bright.
I clenched my teeth and yanked the elastics out of my hair.
"You've led me quite a chase," he said. His voice was light and sweet, a tenor crooning love-songs. "Don't run; I'd rather not hurt you."
"What do you want?" I asked, combing the braids out of my hair with my fingers.
"Only the vassal I won by combat." He walked forward. "You're a knight without a lord, Maria. Who do you think you are, to stand alone?"
I am the Banshee, come up from the Faery mound to comb my hair for your death.
My fingers pulled out the last of my braids, and I made myself meet his bone-white gaze. "I am Maria Angelita Gonzalez, hija de los hijos de Dios." Daughter of the sons of God.
With my braids gone, I felt a rush of awareness. The land sparked life, the freeway hummed with coiled emotions. Deep in my stomach the rice pudding still made a warm lump, linking me to California and El Pueblo de Los Angeles. I belonged to this city, belonged more than anyone else alive: for I was Californian blood and bone, but also born of the angels that named our city, and baptized child to Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles.
Los Ojos smiled. "Y soy tu papa, mijita." His voice was the same as he claimed fatherhood, but it made my skin crawl: something other and far older than a man had spoken that time.
Mamá had cautioned me again and again about opening myself to the land, but now I pulled down all my barriers. My heart beat in time to the waves on the Santa Monica beach; my spine was a palm tree, supple and strong; my hair was the smog caressing the hollows of the Valley. I was drunk on essence of Los Angeles.
"Does it matter? I am the child of the City, of Our Lady and of God."
"Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." His voice was almost a murmur, but the echo pounded mercilessly in my head. "Do you imagine, child of dust, that you can command the Most High?"
Then Los Ojos was irrelevant as his fallen angel, el hijo de Dios, ripped through my mind in a psychic shockwave. I was barely a shadow before that presence; it was light, it was fire, it was a nuclear blast transmuting all the world to ash. If any conscious will had remained, I think I might have worshipped it.
Its voice was silent, a void in my ears, a night sky pocked with black holes. Who will hear when you cry lema sebachthani? Then it let me go; I was on my knees, bent over and sobbing.
I blinked at Niallán. It took me a moment to realize that the word was my name. That I was being enough to have one.
He pushed me to the ground. "Cover your ears," he whispered; but I was too slow, and cringed as a gunshot punched into my ears, then another and another. I got my hands over my ears and rolled my eyes, trying to see. Niallán crouched over me, firing steadily with one hand. The other hand curved gracefully as he muttered, probably some now only half-effective Faery charm.
Two of the guards were down; then Los Ojos raised a hand. Niallán grasped, dropped the gun, and pressed his fists to his head, but I still heard shots. Blood spattered in my face. My eyes snapped shut and I threw an arm over my face as Niallán fell across me.
I sat up, swallowing against a wave of nausea. My shaking hands managed to find a pulse, but his shirt was soaked in blood, and his breath came in little whimpering gasps.
Jesus, Mary, Joseph! The prayer ripped out of my mind reflexively. I leaned over him in a futile shield. No. God, no, not again.
"If you swear, I can heal him." The angel's voice was almost completely veiled behind Los Ojos's. "If you refuse, I can burn your mind out and use you anyway."
Blood. Death. Nothing easy, nothing sweet, just pain and fear and no dignity or comfort anywhere.
-- Mamá whimpered --
Please. Let me save him. Let me die, but save him!
"Take my covenant. Live."
A car rushed past. Its engine echoed in my head, and suddenly I heard all the ceaseless rushing of all the cars, like waves on the seashore. They were only metal shells, but inside them were millions of people, a ceaseless river of thoughts and emotions. Living and dying, loving and hating, hoping and despairing, they pulsed slowly through the clogged arteries of the freeway system; they sang along it like electrical impulses down nerves. This was the power that Los Ojos wanted, the ability to sip from the minds of Los Angeles like wine from a cup.
It wasn't mine. Never was, never would be. But something more-than-me was using it. The roar of the freeway grew louder.
Use me, I thought, and lifted my head to face Los Ojos.
"I do not stand alone," I whispered, my breath rasping in my throat. "The city stands behind me, God is shining down upon it, and the city is singing." The roar pounded relentlessly in my head. "Do you hear it singing?"
And it came streaming out of my mouth and eyes, more than even an immortal could bear, the song of the city rejoicing in its Maker. The scattered fragments of my consciousness wondered that he, that anyone, could have thought himself capable of harnessing such fire.
I heard the not-voice again, this time in a scream of agony; then there was a silent explosion, and Los Ojos dropped to his knees, his angel banished. The song still throbbed in my chest, and it was as natural as breathing to touch Niallán and heal him. When it ebbed from my veins, I expected to die: surely the city's power had withered me to an empty husk. At least there's no blood, I thought. My vision blurred.
And I saw the mountains, their grass burned golden by the sun, spangled with poppies and mustard, bumpy with the bushes of the chaparral. I saw the city lights from above at night, a gridwork of stars fallen to earth. I saw the cracked cement sidewalks crowned with the soft gray netting of chain-link fences, shaded by the orange tree, the eucalyptus and the palm.
I saw Los Angeles and it was la ciudad de mi corazon, the city of my heart, a lacework of freeways studded with sky scrapers that were spikes of opal and jade glinting in the morning sunlight.
And I heard a voice: Love my city. Guard it well.
My head hurt. I blinked, and realized that I was awake.
"Maria?" It was Niallán.
I opened my eyes. We were still on the slope by the freeway. Niallán had my head in his lap; when I shifted, I saw that he had a knife out.
He touched my cheek gently. Smiled.
"You're okay." My throat felt dry and sore.
"I'm fine. You . . . looked almost dead."
"Sorry." Wincing at sore muscles, I sat up slowly. Los Ojos was nowhere to be seen; cars rushed on as if nothing had ever happened. "What happened to the guards?"
"I told them to leave." There was a thread of amusement in his voice. "They didn't argue."
"They took him. I couldn't see if he was still alive."
I realized suddenly how odd we must look to anyone glancing out his car window: two teenagers, one barefoot and holding a knife, both rumpled and bleary-eyed. We were lucky no one had called the police.
"We need to go home," I said.
Mamá was lying on the kitchen floor, waiting to be buried. Líadan Ni Breacán was doubtless after my blood. Los Ojos might be alive, and I still had no idea how to be a lady and protect my vassals.
Scraps of my heightened awareness still lingered: I heard the crack of gunshots in Venice. Graffiti itched against my mind, and the smog tasted bitter and acid on my teeth. The city was not perfect, never would be.
I realized with an odd, light feeling, that I loved it even so.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Niallán asked.
"Yes," I said. "Come on." I got to my feet, and together we started up the embankment.
And there was dawn in the city of the angels.
- END -