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The Singer Elizabeth Hunter 2022/7/22 11:38:35

He hadn’t expected to be welcomed into Svarog’s home. The angel’s residence in the small town near Budapest was not nearly as grand as the most humble of Volund’s homes. The entryway was light and airy, with potted plants and many windows facing an interior garden that was a riot of colors, despite the cold air. Svarog must have put an enchantment over the garden to keep the springlike look of the place, even in the dead of winter. Still, it was doubtful the angel truly lived here any more than was necessary to breed with the human women Brage had seen passing. They greeted him with friendly and aloof smiles but did not speak to him.

Most appeared to be pregnant or nursing. The pregnant had the healthy glow he recognized in those carrying angelic offspring. The nursing mothers were in various stages of slow decline, no matter how they adored their beautiful sons. Eventually, their children would drain and kill them.

A small boy skidded into the entry and almost ran into Brage’s legs.

“Szia,” Brage said to the Grigori child.

“Jó napot,” the child replied politely.

“English?” He hoped an adult would appear. He did not speak more than the most cursory Hungarian.

The little one shook his head.

The boy was beautiful, as all Grigori children were. His skin had a faint glow and his eyes were clear blue, the color of a summer sky. He started babbling at Brage, who only watched him with pleasant indifference. It wasn’t unheard of for an angel to keep their offspring near, but it was unusual. Volund had sired Brage, but he’d never met his father until he was ready to serve. Children were not welcome in Volund’s house.

A harried-looking soldier appeared in the entryway and barked at the child. Despite the harsh tone, the child turned to his keeper with a mischievous gleam in his eye that told Brage he wasn’t afraid in the least. He waved at Brage and then trotted off after the grim man, grabbing his hand as he skipped toward French doors that led to a garden.

“He lost his mother only a month ago.”

Brage turned toward the sad voice of the woman who carried an infant. They were wrapped in blankets on a chaise near the windows.

The woman continued, “He seems to be doing well.”

Brage gave her a polite smile. “They always do.”

“Are you here to see the master?”

“He’ll be here soon.”

“I’m sure he will.” Brage didn’t want to speak to the woman anymore. He hoped she’d lose interest in him. They were broodmares to the Fallen, nothing more. It was useless to converse with something so ephemeral. The child she held and nursed was far more valuable than the mother.

The woman’s face broke into a glorious smile when Svarog appeared. “Aranyom!”

The Fallen put an absent hand on the woman’s cheek and smiled at the child in her arms. Then he turned to Brage. “Come.”

The angel led him down a hallway lined with books, then past another sitting room and a large dining room where more women ate and chattered. It was not unpleasant, but Brage wondered how the Fallen lived with so many around him. It was like living with livestock, to his mind. The Fallen led him to a small library where a fire burned. He’d taken the guise of a middle-aged man with steel-grey hair and vivid blue eyes. He was wearing a sweater and slacks, the picture of a successful human in his country retreat, but Brage knew better. Svarog, for all his affection toward his offspring, was a vicious killer who had no regard for any but his own. Humans he didn’t breed with were nothing to him. It was one of the reasons he and Volund had always been allies.

“So,” Svarog said, closing the door behind them, “what does Volund’s oldest son want in my territory?”

“I am looking for someone.” No subterfuge was necessary. Svarog, like all fallen angels, understood vendetta. “An Irin scribe my father wants me to kill.”

“And you know he is here?”

“He was driving from Istanbul to Vienna. I am hoping to catch him before he enters the city.”

Svarog nodded. “Fine. Hunt if you like. But I have a message for your father, and I expect you to deliver it. Your mouth to his ears, do you understand?”

Cautioned by Svarog’s tone, Brage waited.

“Tell him I know what he is doing, and I want no part of it. If he thinks I will roll over as Jaron did in Istanbul, he is mistaken.”

Brage blinked but showed no other outward sign of surprise. “Why do you ask me to deliver this message?”

The Fallen had ways of communicating with their own kind that surpassed human or Grigori understanding.

Svarog stepped closer, letting the human mask fall. The angel’s eyes shone gold and the automatic terror froze Brage in place.

“I want you to deliver the message,” he said, “because I want Volund to know that his most valued son was in my house, near my children, and I let him live. Do you understand?”

“Go. And do not bother telling your father where I dwell. By the time you leave my city, this house will be gone.”

Brage left the house quickly and drove toward Budapest, more confused than ever.

“I know what he is doing…”

What was Volund’s plan? Brage was reminded of his early years as a soldier. The years just before the Irina slaughter had been like this. Mixed messages and mysterious errands. Half-truths and outright lies. He’d understood nothing until the order had come from the oldest soldiers in their house in Berlin. They were leaving the city for some tiny village in the country. They slaughtered women and children, ripping out their throats so they were defenseless.

He’d told himself it was no different from killing humans.

He still told himself that.

“If he thinks I will roll over as Jaron did in Istanbul, he is mistaken.”

He tried to drive the doubt from his mind. Volund would sense it. Doubt was death to the Fallen. Nothing was accepted but utter and complete loyalty. After all, there were hundreds of brothers waiting to take his place if he stumbled.

Brage would not stumble.

A chirp from his mobile phone. It was the number for one of the Grigori who ran Volund’s house.

“Our father has a message for you.”

“Come to the house in G?teborg immediately. He will meet you there.”

Brage stopped the protest on his lips. The scribe was in Budapest, he was sure of it. To pull him away now—

“Do you understand?” his brother asked.

It didn’t matter. He was a weapon, nothing more. Volund’s to command, like the blade Brage wore under his shirt.

“I understand. I will be on a plane tonight.”