Chapter 19


Riyad dropped the stack of books loudly on the counter of Alan’s shop, hoping that the noise would draw the proprietor to the front of the store. He was too tired to care if he damaged the bindings, and had just enough of a hangover to have no problem ignoring the fact that the volumes, which had made it through the Cataclysm, really should have been kept in a sealed vault, not in the back room of a rundown shop with blackout curtains hanging in the front display windows.

They had drunk the last of two bottles of Du’shan’s coconut wine the night before during their private memorial, and tomorrow he would have to dress all in white and kneel on a hard floor for hours during the funeral proper. Nyr had slept in Du’shan’s bed every night since the attacks; Riyad had no patience for any complaints Alan might level at him about the books.

The street where Alan’s shop was located had been seedy before the demon attacks, but now it looked like bombs had gone off in every other storefront. There was masonry and glass and what might have been blood in the walkways. Only Alan’s shop seemed to have escaped the destruction, and Riyad wondered if Quinn had anything to do with it. The demon had never seemed as savage as the attacking monsters had been; his presence alone might have bought him immunity from an attack on his own territory. Looking around the store, Riyad couldn’t see any signs that there had been a struggle on any level, and it occurred to him that this probably would have been the safest place to be that night.

Du’shan had been saving the wine: one bottle for Riyad’s marriage day and one bottle for the birth of his first child. Riyad closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, but his mouth curled into a caustic smile. It had been wishful thinking on Du’shan’s part to think he’d ever live to see the day that Riyad Shihar would marry and have a family.

“You really should be more careful with those.”

Riyad turned toward the voice and for a moment froze in animal panic at the figure standing in the curtained doorway behind the counter. Quinn gazed back at him with dark eyes and moved forward to stand across from him while Riyad was busy forcing the terror out of his muscles. The affected slowness with which Quinn moved only exaggerated the animal grace rippling beneath his skin.

Quinn’s ears twitched as he ran his fingers over the cover of the topmost book. “You’re done with them?”

Riyad had to swallow twice before he found his voice. “Yeah.”

“That was faster than I expected.”

Than Quinn expected? Alan had been the one to loan them. “Well, Du’shan was reading them.”

He left it at that. Something in Quinn’s eyes expression shifted, but his voice had the same husky, murmuring tone as always when he asked, “Should I get Da for you?”

Riyad gripped the edge of the glass display case. How could this thing call Alan his father? How could Alan allow him to stay after everything that had happened, no matter what the two of them had gone through together?

Quinn eyed him searchingly. One of his ears twitched again, lifting as though he could hear some faint noise in the back of the shop that was beyond Riyad’s ability to pick up. The tip of his tail flicked back and forth like a cat’s.

“How could this happen?” Riyad’s voice was a dull whisper. “Everything we thought had to have been wrong. Alan said they were connected. So why did Du’shan die, while Ath’ran’s still alive? Why couldn’t they touch me? What makes me so different from the others?”

He searched Quinn’s eyes, but only saw his own face looking back at him.

“Du’shan read the books, right?” Quinn’s fingers shifted the volumes and opened the one that had been at the bottom of the pile. “He’d have known he could do it. He’d have read that, he could separate his life from his cousin’s on a whim if he wanted it so.”

“What?”

Quinn pointed out a passage in the book with one long finger, but didn’t take his eyes off of Riyad. A smile flickered around his mouth, showing a hint of long canines behind his lips. “It wasn’t my kin that killed him, Riyad Shihar. He killed himself when he released his body’s hold on Ath’ran’s soul.”

Riyad’s mind reeled at the thought that Du’shan had already been dead as he’d been ripped open. Something in the vicinity of his stomach unknotted. It was as though he had been forgiven a sin. Du’shan had saved him without having to suffer in his place. He didn’t feel so guilty about drinking the dead man’s wine, in that case.

As he mused in silence, Quinn reached out and plucked at the chain around Riyad’s neck until the cross beneath his shirt was revealed. Quinn held the pendant in the palm of his hand, gazing at it with an expression that shifted from curious to contemptuous.

Riyad blinked up at him, looked down at the little cross, and then back up at Quinn. Somehow, he hadn’t been startled by that spindly hand reaching for him, and it occurred to him that the demon’s motions were restrained, as though he was holding himself back. Was it to keep Riyad calm, or was it because there was something more savage in him that he didn’t want to lose control of?

“What is it?” Riyad asked, but Quinn said nothing.

After a moment, he dropped the pendant and wiped his hand on his pants, as though the cross had left a greasy feeling on his skin. He grimaced, curling his upper lip in a rather feline show of distaste “I thought that might have been your protection, but it wasn’t. It’s just a film on it.”

Riyad closed his hand around the cross. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s got love clinging to it.”

Love? Riyad stared.

Quinn waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s not what saved you. It’s the goddess in you that did that.”

“The... What?” Bewildered, Riyad shook his head, letting his curls obscure his vision. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

“The goddess.” Quinn dipped his head to look into Riyad’s eyes again, the tips of his ears twitching. “You saw her, didn’t you? Down in the rift? She laid her eyes on a human being for the first time in...” He chuckled. “Well, in longer than this planet itself can remember. And that stayed with you. Her gaze clung to you--still clings to you.”

Riyad stared unseeing at the creature in front of him, his mind in the metal and glass container he’d made the crossing in. The fog that obscured his vague memories of that time was rolling away, and he felt the echoes of a psychosis that was half awed terror and half ecstasy.

“What....” He licked dry lips and tried again, “What goddess?”

Quinn straightened up, his tail lashing in satisfaction. “Kitaan. The creator of everything that is at the beginning of time.”

Mind reeling again, Riyad looked around the shop. The bottles and books and charms that surrounded him seemed like they belonged to a world that was far away, ordinary and recognizable in a way nothing else seemed to be anymore. A gentle, long-fingered hand on his shoulder brought his attention back to the demon behind the counter.

“Thank you for bringing the books back.” Quinn’s ear was twitching again, angling back. Riyad wondered what it was he was listening to.

“Y-yeah.” He gathered himself. “Just, you know, taking care of loose ends.”

The expression on Quinn’s face wasn’t sympathy, but Riyad wondered if it wasn’t something like it. “Things will change, Riyad Shihar.”

“...Thanks,” Riyad said after a moment, although he wasn’t sure if it was encouragement or a warning.

“I’ll tell Da we’ll hear from you?”

“Yeah. Not real soon, but we’re still going to do business.” He allowed himself a small smile. “I’ll see you.”

“Yes. You will.” Quinn gathered the books on the counter and disappeared behind the curtain with a flick of his tail.

Riyad stood there a moment more before leaving the store. The bell on the door chimed as he exited; the cheerful noise seemed to fill the desolate street.