Being an angel had its perks. With only some feathers attached to him, suddenly room and board were free. He received three-course meals without asking and could drink as much alcohol as he could stomach.
The maids made him clothes, though, which he hated. They were so excited to show him the tailor-made, wing- and tail-accessible outfits, but they had so many frills. When they offered to cut and style his hair, he was beginning to feel more like a doll and started declining their animated services. He couldn’t knock them, the maids; it wasn’t like they were acting of their own free will.
The royals didn’t want him “wandering.” He didn’t think he was one to “wander,” but when they’d found him lost in the dungeons, digging into closets he’d picked the locks to, Nero had run down the stone steps and grabbed him. A look of fear discolored his face. Apparently, humans couldn’t see as well in the dark as he could. It wasn’t like he had perfect vision, but he could make do without a candle.
“What’s wrong?” Derek had asked. “I looked. There’re no prisoners down here. Do you really keep people down here? Isn’t that kind of morbid?”
“Not usually.” He glanced around the darkness before taking him back up. “The royals don’t want you underground.”
“We don’t normally—how can I put this—stay underground too often.”
“What, because of the literal Underground?” He’d remembered that from the king and queen. It was the place demons came from. “You know it’s just a basement, right? And I thought that was just a made-up, theoretical place. You mean it actually exists?”
“Of course it does. You’re from the Heavens. Don’t you believe in the opposite?”
To have an opposite opinion, he would’ve had to understand what it meant to live in the Heavens. To him, it sounded like a fantasy too good to be true. All the bad people go to one place, all the good go to the other, and never the two shall meet? That meant he should’ve been the pinnacle of good faith, but what did having faith mean? He was still lost on the concept of God; he’d yet to meet him. Cellena had said you felt him during pretty sunrises and happy moments. Derek had looked everywhere and couldn’t find shit.
He didn’t tell Nero this and only shrugged. “I guess,” he’d said. “Hey, when you go to the Heavens, how do you walk on clouds?”
Nero hadn’t an answer for him.
The “townspeople” supposedly wanted to see him. Like, real bad. Like, some had tried entering the castle without permission. He hadn’t heard about it until Nero told him. It was weird; these people hadn’t even met him, yet they were risking their lives to see a feather.
They wanted to throw a party for him. The royals called it a “festival,” whatever that meant, but at this point, he’d take anything. He was itching to let loose and drop all these expectations they’d placed on him in the ocean. As long as he could drink, though that was called a “sin” if you drank it in large quantities. He pretended to forget every time he took a swig.
What he had with Oliver was definitely considered a “sin.” Not only a demon, not only a boy. They’d mated, or Oliver had, and that sounded serious. He was shy and ticklish and easy to talk to. Derek thought he liked him, but if the king or queen found out, he’d be thrown into that dungeon. Or murdered. Or tossed into the sky to become a Sky Dot. Whatever they did for angelic punishment, he’d receive. Oliver had come back a few more times since that night Derek almost died by Shào’s hands. It was the only time he could relax, and now his relaxation had to be done in secret.
He supposed church was important to the humans, so he kept his opinions about it to himself. He didn’t understand why the book on how to be a good person had super thin pages, and he didn’t like how loud the “church organ” was, but he liked the songs. Or hymns. But it was all negated by the fact that the “sermons” were three hours long and made him want to kill himself.
He always drank before coming in.
He was able to empty out the church just by asking, so it was just him and the family inside with the pastor. Father. The dude who talked fancy and bored Derek. He sat next to Cellena for most of the time, but he usually got bored and walked around, familiarizing himself with this tight space and making it less chest-tightening.
The art was pretty, and the windows with tiny people told stories that were probably in that book he wouldn’t read. He noticed the people—mostly girls with big boobs and long hair—were like him, winged. He spotted a handful of demons being tortured beneath the feet of the angels. His kind had on serene smiles as they ended their lives.
“Is it true you can’t get tattoos?” he whispered to Cellena during a boring part of the sermon. “At all?”
“But the men in the royal line can?”
“And you can’t…” He checked his hand. He’d written all the sins that affected him. “This marriage thing. Once you find someone you love and get “married” to, you can’t get unmarried?”
“You can’t get divorced, no.”
“No sex before marriage? No girls kissing girls? But slaves are okay?”
She winced at the truth. “We don’t really follow that type of thinking anymore, and gendered marriages really only apply to royal families to preserve the bloodlines.”
“But that’s not fair to you.”
“Shh,” Jabel said. He was sitting beside Cellena, pretending to ignore them but finding the time to hush them up. “You mustn’t talk in the church, it’s rude.”
“I’m just trying to learn. You don’t like all these rules either, right, Jabel?”
“I do what’s expected of me,” he said. “I am soon to be king, and as such, I need to hold myself to a higher regard. If you can’t find yourself abiding by these rules, then…hide it. Mask the indulgences. Or. I don’t know.” He pressed his nose into the book. “Listen to the sermon, Your Grace.”
Derek leaned over to better see him. While he couldn’t nail Jabel as any kind of devious rule breaker, he hadn’t expected him to give an understanding second option for those who couldn’t fit into societal boxes. He got behind that part of Jabel he likely hated about himself.
But that name still ticked him off. Call him any nickname you want, but that one, with unreasonably high expectations chained to it, he despised. “I told you, that’s not my name.”
“And I told you to be quiet. You aren’t allowed to talk in church.”
“What, is that another sin? I don’t have enough room on my hand.”
The pastor, who’d been going on and on about a tree, stopped his sermon, making everyone look at him. “Is everything alright, Your Grace?”
Derek, getting heated, got up and started for the door. “I need more ink for my pen, or quill, or—” He tossed the pen/quill away. “I need some air.”
Fresh air was nice.
Fresh air for six hours was even nicer.
He found a library balcony too small for an actual person to stand on and perfect for him to perch on. He’d stolen a bottle of vodka from one of the cooks and nestled into the coldness of the Drailian autumn, sightseeing. He saw just over the forest trees and the tips of the “snow-covered” mountains. Some of the trees were turning orange and yellow for some reason. He didn’t know why, but he liked how it made the world smell like crispy, wet leaves and cold air. Autumn smelled like Oliver.
He bit his lower lip, playing with the ends of his hair. According to the humans, the demons were lustful, hateful, evil creatures who wanted humanity to perish, but he didn’t think that. Call him stupid, but he didn’t think a group of special people should’ve been murdered en masse for existing near other people.
He took another swig of the stuff that burned and kept him warm. He wanted to masturbate, to think of Oliver and lose himself in his own feelings, something no one seemed to care about other than Cellena and Oliver.
And Maïmoú. He kept that secret to himself. He didn’t even know what that was, hearing a little girl in his head. If he started telling people that he was hearing voices, they’d think he was possessed.
He kicked his feet over the ledge, looking up into the sky. The deep blue was dying itself red. The sky dots were coming out, lighting up the Moon that was still with the Sun. He could taste the cold slowly freezing the world. He wondered how cold it got here. Early that morning, he could see his breath.
He could’ve just left, right? Fly into that frosty sky and find a new world to live in. He wasn’t tethered to humanity. He didn’t have to be their angel. Maybe he’d fly until he got bored and planted roots wherever he stopped. Maybe with Oliver, really fuck things over for everyone.
Someone came up to the window and unlocked it.
He turned and found Runa with a handful of books under her arm. “Oh, hey,” he said.
“Good evening. I heard you disappeared from church. The royals have been looking for you.”
“I should be able to go wherever I want to, right? I’m their ‘angel’.” He air-quoted as he took another sip. “Do you go to church?”
She smiled. “I don’t.”
“Do you hate small spaces, too? I mean, if it’s so important to them, why do they make the rooms so small?”
“I don’t wish to upset you with my beliefs.”
His curiosity piqued. “Do it. You won’t, by the way, unless you force me to do things I don’t want to do.”
She chuckled. “My reasons are a little uncouth to share publicly.”
“What, do you not believe it or something, because…”
He stopped talking. Runa looked genuinely worried that she’d been caught in some type of wordy trickery.
“Because I don’t care,” Derek responded quickly, “at all. Honestly.”
“That’s good to hear.” She cleared her throat. “Maybe another time. Since I have you here, I actually wanted to ask you something.”
“I wanted to ask you if the royal family has gone into detail about the origins of the world.”
He thought about it. “Like, a little. Something about dragons carving up the world, humans coming from the Heavens, demons coming from the Underground.”
“Is that all?”
He gave her his full attention. “Is there more?”
She leaned her hip on the windowsill. “Our modern history starts 275 years ago, however, some of our pottery and ancient scrolls seem to go beyond 500 years. We have theories about the dragons carving out the world, but—” She rolled her eyes. “We don’t have any evidence of draconian activity, just stories and paintings done by famous men. I believe there’s something more out there and want so desperately to look into it, but the royals don’t like their ideals being challenged.”
“If—since—you’re from the Heavens, I wanted to know if you knew anything about this.” From one of her books, she pulled out a photo that seemed thousands of years old. It was preserved in some type of lamination and secured onto a piece of wood. Runa was very careful while touching it.
She looked behind her before offering it to Derek. “This is one of the oldest documents we own. We haven’t been able to identify the type of paper nor how to replicate it. The king asks that we don’t look into such matters. We don’t even know where it originated. They want to believe in our God, that He has all the answers we’ll ever need, but I’m not satisfied by that.”
Derek looked closer at the photo. It was smudged and curling like it’d been damaged by water, but he could clearly make out a person’s image on it. It looked to be a person behind a golden sunrise wearing a white dress.
He got closer, admiring it like it was a true sunrise. “Looks like a person.”
“A person?” Runa looked over his shoulder. “I don’t see it, but I trust your judgement.” She took in a big inhale. “Derek, may I invite you to a gathering?”
“It’s an event I host the first Sunday of every month for those who want to learn more about the world.”
“Like a party?” Derek tossed his empty bottle over his shoulder. “Yes. I’ve been dying for a party. What’re we celebrating?”
“A comet is to fly over our skies tonight. It happens once a year, but I find it quite exciting to watch it with Nero and a few of our friends. If you’d like to come, you’re more than welcome to.”
“What’s a comet?”
Her face brightened with the chance to teach. “It’s an enormous piece of fiery rock that flies through the sky. Many people call them a falling star, and some of them are really meteors, but if it lands on earth, it’s called a meteoroid. It’s all very intriguing. If you’d like to learn more about them, I can tell you. Forgive me, I’m a bit of a chatterbox when it comes to things I enjoy.”
“I can tell.” He leaned backwards, catching a few of the sky dots even though the Sun wasn’t ready to set yet. “Yeah, I’ll go,” he said. “Should be fun.”
Sneaking out of the castle was easier when his own knight was the one breaking him out. It didn’t take much convincing when Derek had told him about his conversation with Runa.
Nero licked his lips. “What else did she tell you?” he asked.
“Just that she didn’t like the church. Don’t worry, I don’t care. I won’t ‘tell’ our God or whatever. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t care.”
It looked like a comet was lodged in Nero’s throat. “Okay. Let us go, then. I don’t want His Majesty seeing us out so late.”
He didn’t disagree.
Using a chamberstick as their light, Derek and Nero traversed down the halls and climbed down staircases to reach the bottom floors. It got super cold at night now; Derek needed to wear a jacket his maids had made for him. Nero advised him to wear a hat. Derek would’ve rather died.
They walked out through the kitchen doors and made their way out into the field Derek had first met Oliver. He admired how bright the stars were near the ocean, the massive clusters of rainbow lights.
“What is it about the church that Runa hates?” Derek asked, because he was too curious not to know. “Is it her comet stuff?”
Nero walked slower. His hands were in fists by his side. “Do you know about us?”
“Huh? Should I? What, because I’m a magical angel person and have all the answers?”
“No, I just…our relationship could be considered frowned upon…given how she grew up.”
Derek made a face. Nero had been so strong, mentally and physically. This was the first time he saw him crack.
“She’d asked me to ask you if you knew, and that if you did, that you keep it between us. She doesn’t want it coming out and risking either of our lives.”
“What do you mean?”
Nero fiddled with the ring he wore on his ring finger. Cellena had told him that humans wore them to signal that they had a forever person. “When Runa was born,” he said slowly, “she was born a man. Is all.”
Derek cocked his head.
“A-and if you already knew that and were casting judgements on her, I ask that you refrain from judging her too harshly. She’s a very kind and smart woman, and I know she doesn’t go to church because of this, but I cannot live in good conscience knowing you’re casting judgements on us.”
Derek was still trying to understand half of what Nero was spewing out, but the part Nero was worried about was clear. “Nero, that doesn’t upset me. Like, at all. Stuff like gender and sexual orientations don’t bother me nearly as much as it does with you humans. I’m the same way.”
Nero’s head shot up. “Excuse me?”
“Well, sort of.” This was so much easier with Oliver. Derek rushed through it. “It used to be so simple to get in my head, but living here with all these labels makes it fuzzy. I feel like, back where I’m from, things like this didn’t matter.” He shrugged. “But I don’t mind, and if it could get y’all in hot water, I won’t tell nobody about it.”
An invisible weight lifted off of his shoulders. “Thank you. We were so worried, we’d even plotted out ways to leave the county and join up with the demons.”
Derek turned to him as he walked. “That’s another thing. You seem to care about demonkind.”
“Then why did you become a knight? Aren’t knights supposed to support the king and all of his decisions? He’s been murdering demons for generations and you decided that this was the best job to apply for?”
He struck a chord in Nero. He defended, “I wanted to see change in the royal family. I see it in Jabel and Cellena.”
“It’s still shitty. You could’ve become a historian or horse herder or something. Have you ever killed—?”
“Of course not,” he snapped. “There weren’t…” He grew somber. “There weren’t any left to kill. Look, this isn’t where I wanted the conversation to go. I’ve tried teaching their Highnesses all that I can about fairness and justice. I take pride in that, but I know my work is rooted in unfair acts.”
“Killings,” Derek reworded.
“I was going to say murders, but I didn’t want to sound so hurtful.”
“It’s the truth.”
They walked over a short hill. In the distance was a small cluster of lights illuminating the valley.
“I want to see change in the world,” Nero condensed. “I try to live by my truths and not change for the king. I’ve done many things for demonkind.”
“It’s fine,” Derek said. “You know, I’m sort of a hypocrite, being that I haven’t left yet. I like Cellena too much. Hopefully, with your help, we can change some shit in this backwards country and make Cellena queen.”
“Jabel will become king,” Nero reminded him. “He’s the male heir.”
“Then we’ll change that next. She deserves it.”
“Not for long.”
Out in the valley was a group of maids huddled around a strange contraption. It stood on three legs and lifted a cylinder to the sky, a rocket ready to investigate the sky dots.
Upon seeing them, Runa ran over. “Good evening! Hello! I’m so glad you made it. Are you warm enough? Did anyone see you?”
“Yeah,” Derek said, “and no.”
“We’re okay,” Nero said, and nodded to Runa in a way that meant more.
Runa exhaled, and a little smile tickled her lips. “Oh, good. Thank you for understanding, Derek. That relieves most of my anxieties.”
“No problem,” he said. He knew his acceptance meant more to this couple than he could’ve imagined, but it felt weird. It was like pardoning someone who was afraid of breathing.
“Well then!” Runa clapped her hands. “Come, come. The telescope should be nearly ready. You can be the first one to use it, okay? Do you know how to use it? Do you need help?”
“You’re being overbearing,” Nero reminded her, and the crowd of maids giggled.
One person didn’t laugh. She was sitting on the grass, squatting in a heavy skirt and wearing a knitted hat that couldn’t cover her ears.
“Ah,” Derek said, and pointed at Holly. “You.”
Runa and Nero acknowledged Holly with a bow. “Derek, this’s Holly. She’s one of the breeds that live with demonkind. I hope it’s alright that she’s here.”
“Yeah, I know her,” Derek said, but didn’t rat her out for saving him from Shào. “We’ve met once.”
Holly flicked one of her ears, then fell back on her butt and hid her chin in her knees, watching Derek intently.
“She’s a very timid girl, but she loves being with us when we stargaze,” Runa explained. “She’s a very active listener, even though she has trouble speaking. Now! If the clouds part a bit more, we’ll be able to see the Moon very soon. The comet will pass right behind it.”
A maid at the telescope raised her hand. “I think I found a clear spot.”
Runa helped position Derek behind the telescope. “Now, don’t touch it. Crouch down and peer—Yes, just like that.”
The eyepiece showed him nothing but darkness. Guessing he was doing something wrong, he pulled away to find the magic.
Holly was right up against him, staring down the telescope and blurring his vision.
“Holly, dear.” Runa gently touched Holly’s shoulders and maneuvered her back. “I know you’re excited, but it’s Derek’s turn right now. Do be mindful of her, Derek. She doesn’t often know what’s happening around her.”
“It’s cool,” he said, and tried again.
A messy blur of stars.
Then, a blur of bright white.
It wasn’t the Moon. It looked like a painting, with holes here and there and blotches of grey marking the shadowy parts. Surely, it wasn’t the Moon. The Moon didn’t have this much detail to it.
“You see it, don’t you?” Runa asked.
“What is it?”
“That’s the Moon.”
Derek looked through the telescope, then at the Moon, then at Holly, then back at the Moon. “You’re kidding.”
“I know, isn’t it amazing? Why they don’t teach this in schools is beyond me. I nearly cried when I first saw it.”
“You did cry,” Nero reminded her, “for several minutes, in my arms.”
“Wait until I tell you my theory about the people living there.”
The crowd chuckled.
“No, I swear I’ve seen them! They’re not just rock outcrops, they’re houses! There’ve been people living on the Moon for years and we don’t even know about it! Here, Derek, let me show you, it’s fascinating!”
Derek backed up around Holly’s tail. “Uh, just give me a second.”
“Are you alright?”
Feeling out of sorts, Derek took one more look at the iffy Moon before going back to the castle.
“Where are you going?”
“Just going off to clear my head,” he said, and walked all the way to the other side of the castle.
What else floated above them? Where were the Heavens in all this, and the Underground, did that even exist? How many twinkling sky dots were actually Moons and planets and “stars” in disguise? What types of people lived on the Moon? They said angels came from the clouds, but why stop there? So much more supposedly existed beyond.
He honestly should’ve just ignored the humans’ stress and put caution tape around the thickest evergreen bases that read: STOP FIGHTING, STOP LOOKING UP AT THE SKY, AND INVENT ELECTRICITY ALREADY. ‘What a good plan,’ they’d say. ‘I know,’ Derek would reply, and with demons and humans carousing together, they’d find a way to bring him back home where life made sense.
He walked himself into the garden area built up against the castle. He easily flew over the iron-wrought gate keeping out trespassers. The hedges were tall, creating winding paths for people to wander. Flowers of white and pink bloomed around water fountains. Statues of angels had their wings spread, but they were tied to the ground, imprisoned.
He glanced over to the forest not far away. He wasn’t bound to the humans, so why was he so hesitant on leaving?
One of the gates opened, and Holly, being as graceful as a blind cat, tripped over the iron gating and fell into a bush.
“Above,” Derek cursed, but he smiled at her stupidness and helped her upright. “Why do you keep following me around? You’re gonna get yourself killed.”
She shook out her hair of leaves and spat one out of her mouth. She then looked at him with those wide eyes of hers, as if she was waiting for Derek to tell her something important.
For the first time that week, Derek grinned at the chance to be himself.
He heard that pop whenever a demon disappeared into that blackness, and about two feet from his right, floating in midair, was Oliver, hiding behind one of the bubbling fountains.
Derek, feeling confident, made the first move. “Hey.”
“Good evening,” Oliver said.
“Wow, no stutter? You’re getting better at this.”
“I’m trying. Are you okay? Is she alright?”
“Yeah. She can’t seem to let go of me.” He said this as Holly was currently wrapping her arms around him. When Oliver fell to earth, she let go in exchange for him.
Oliver laughed and pet her head. “Uh, Holly, would you be able to leave us alone for a few minutes? I need to speak with him privately.”
Holly wagged her tail, waiting for her brain to process that request, before she let go and jogged behind one of the hedges she’d fallen into. Her tall ears poked out from above the leaves.
“Loon,” Derek said.
Oliver crossed his feet. “So,” he said, “you’re okay?”
“Yeah, but you should know that already, being all in-tune with emotions. Here to see me?”
“Mm? Hey, are you supposed to be here? You know the humans are just down that way.”
“I know. I just wanted to see you.”
Derek’s feathers puffed out. He tried calming them down with a hand through the flight ones. “Really now? Just me?”
He nodded, and one of the black blobs that appeared when he travelled bubbled around his head. He flicked it away.
“How do you do that?” Derek asked. “The jumping and disappearing thing. I don’t think I’ve ever asked. Seems cool.”
“It’s a power we can do with our dark matter.”
He created a liquidy mass of that dark stuff into his hand. He played with them like balls before making it disappear. “It’s just a power we can use.”
“That’s cool. Hey.”
“Do you ever wake up one day and realize that you might not know anything about the world or where you are in it, but you just want to hang out with your special person and forget about life’s problems?”
Like always, Oliver took his time before answering. His pointed ears fell as he worked out his answer. “Sometimes. I try to do better than I did yesterday, improving little by little until I feel good about being alive.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”
Oliver’s fingers found his tail. “Derek, if this ever becomes too much for you, or if you ever need some place to go, you can find us in the forest. I mean, if you want to. You don’t have to, come with us, I mean. I know how protective the humans are of you, and I know you’re friends with the princess, but we live north of the castle. Uhm, this way.” He used his dark arms to lead Derek’s way. They disappeared behind the forest backdrop.
“I don’t think the royals would like that,” Derek said. “They hate you.”
“I know. I shouldn’t even be here, but one of my friends heard they’re bringing you to Devnya Town.”
“It’s a port town a few miles north. We’ve been taking notes on how the people have been acting there. I wanted to warn you to be careful. Humankind is desperate to see you.”
“I can probably handle it,” Derek guessed. “So, is Holly like a cat?”
“I believe so, yes. A wild cat.” Oliver went to say more, but a human’s boisterous laughter startled him. He jumped back into the air.
“You should get going before one of them notices I’ve been gone for too long,” Derek said.
“You’re right. It was nice seeing you again. I really enjoy our nightly meetings.”
Derek felt himself on the edge of a cliff. His feet teetered off the end, temptation drawing him straight off. “Well, if you ever want to do more than just meet up during the night, I’m down.”
Oliver covered his heart, then his mouth, but he couldn’t cover the stark emotions bleeding into his face. His tail couldn’t curl any more around his leg, but he tried. Good for him for trying to act like he hadn’t wanted to hear that all week.
“I want you,” Derek stated outright, “and I don’t give a damn about what the humans think about it. I want to be closer to you and get to know you better. I want to kiss you.”
“I…” Oliver swallowed loudly. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Are you into it, first off? I know you’re mated with me and I heard it’s a sin or whatever, but I don’t care. I want to know if you’d be into me.”
Oliver looked off to the side, considering the offer, the consequences of a kiss.
It’s what Derek wanted. Screw the king and everything he wanted. Oliver said he had no control over what ailment the humans were dealing with. Why bother with something that wasn’t his business?
This business, however…
“C’mere.” Derek beckoned for him.
He stepped up closer. “A-are you sure?”
Derek readied his lips. Not only a nervous wreck, but a boy his type with an actual stutter he couldn’t seem to control. He’d put that to the test.
Taking him by the horns, Derek pulled him in and took him as his.
His lips were soft. Big and grey and cool and wet, like he’d just licked them beforehand. He was so nervous, barely putting any pressure on Derek’s face. Derek made up for it. He trailed his tongue over Oliver’s lips until he opened his mouth for him. Then Derek couldn’t think. He was an animal indulging in primal cravings. Oliver’s hands, touching him in ways he’d been craving for weeks. It warmed him up by scent and touch. He needed this connection with a person. He needed to feel love and want and needed to go beyond this because his brain, finally switched off, was telling him that these feelings were good.
Humankind called what he loved a sin.
Derek called it being alive.
Oliver pulled back. His pointed ears went up.
He must’ve heard it too late, or his long ears were that good.
The castle had many balconies. Some small enough for birds to perch, some large enough to hold gatherings. The one overlooking the gardens was open, the curtains fluttering in the breeze.
The queen, holding up her dress, was leaning over the railing, watching her angel and her most hated rival share an intimate moment.
Before any of them could defend themselves, the queen clutched her cross and ran back into the castle in fear.