When the dreams came, a few things were always constant. The angel was always present, of course. It walked in the body of a boy Menchú once knew, mottled from face to fingertips with blood. The dreams always brought back the cries of the boy’s parents as they watched their son lovingly tear away their skin in thin, precise strips.
The dreams forced Menchú to relive the way the cobbles of the market square ran with streams and rivers of blood, deep and wine-dark in the rising sun. God help them all, it had been beautiful, in its way.
Then came the emptiness. Enduring the silence left in the angel’s wake, surrounded by the bodies of everyone he’d loved and everyone he’d failed, was worse, even, than the sounds of their suffering had been. Their dying hours were spent begging for their lives, but their silence afterward spoke of blame.
Menchú had sat in the pools of blood all that first day, listening to the unspeaking dead, and for a time it seemed he would never move again. But the flies had gathered, and the carrion birds. He stirred to perform the one service he owed them: He gave his flock their last rites, every soul. He also laid to rest the spirits of the soldiers and rebels who had perished here; forgiving them might one day light the way to forgiving himself. It was a start.
At dusk he began to dig a grave for them all in a fallow field nearby. He worked for hours without rest, until the skin of his palms was shredded and his muscles ached as much as his heart. The dead must be buried. He was still digging when Father Hunter arrived.
Those dreams were the worst: the ones where Menchú dug endless graves, where there was nothing left for him but grief and guilt. That and the memory of pale, inhuman eyes watching, judging, mocking.
Menchú woke shivering, his face wet. There was no light from his window; it was painfully early. He rose anyway and splashed water into his eyes and on his cheeks, then leaned heavily on the edge of the basin.
Hannah’s voice whispered in his ear, in his imagination. Not so far in the past as it had been:
Put your team together. You’re going to want them for what’s coming.
Menchú knelt on the tile floor and prayed for guidance.
An envelope waited for him at the Archives, centered neatly on his desk. The paper was thick, and of course black for dramatic effect. The looping silver ink gleamed faintly in the artificial light. Not that this particular envelope needed to be addressed at all. Menchú wondered, not for the first time, how it had arrived in his office; his usual mail was delivered to a box in a bland office in another building. If he asked, the Swiss Guard posted outside the door would insist that nobody had come in or out. Likely nobody had.
It was a stroke of good fortune that the Maitresse was, if not a staunch ally, at least not a staunch enemy.
Menchú pinched the bridge of his nose. Now, with his head still full of nightmares and their resources stretched too thin, was not the best time for reminders of all the places where he and his team were powerless.
Under the circumstances, the idea of walking into a marketplace full of supernatural phenomena and needing to maintain some cordial degree of diplomacy was actively repugnant. And not mere cowardice; he was rattled, and that would affect his ability to play the required role. If Liam came to him in this state, or if Sal did, he knew what he would tell them: Stay home. Someone else can go.
He weighed the envelope in his hands. “Stay home, Arturo,” he said aloud. “Someone else can go.”
There was a swish of fabric, and Asanti was at his desk. Her brows drew together. “Were you speaking to me?”
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “It’s early.”
He looked at his watch. “I could ask the same of you,” he said. “Am I not allowed to be here?” Menchú regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth; they were beneath him. And yet, he couldn’t stop himself lately. For a breath, he hoped that Asanti would make up for his shortcomings. Not so long ago he could have relied upon her to do so.
Instead, her lips tightened. Before she could frame a response, he pushed the envelope across the desk toward her by way of apology. “’Tis the season,” he said. “I’m sure you and the Maitresse have some catching up to do, so you should go this year, Asanti. Perhaps you and Frances? You’d get more out of it than anyone else.”
Asanti picked up the invitation. “I’d already begun to make the arrangements.”
Menchú quirked an eyebrow at that; his was the name was on the invitation, not hers. But this time he kept his tongue in check. There was a looming absence between them, only detectable because once, not so long ago, something had been there.