Book I – Prologue
“Oh!” said the Nightingale. ”Do not do anything so barbarous and so unbecoming as to kill me. Remember, I never did anything wrong — and I would be only a mouthful for one such as you. Why do you not attack some larger bird, which would be a braver thing to do, and would give you a better meal, and let me go?”
“Yes,” said the Hawk. “You may try to persuade me if you can. But I had not found any prey today until I saw you. And now you want me to let you go in hope of something better! But if I did, who would be the fool?”
* * *
Roxana Nicolescu stayed in the hut for as long as she could stand the smell. Her mother had ceased to breathe two days before, but Roxana waited beside her in hopes she would begin again. She prayed, lit the candles, and left them to burn until they melted all the way down, puddling and spilling off the table in a stationary waterfall. While she asked God to give back what He had taken, her mother’s skin began to marble, turning a sick bruise red.
Then came the flies.
By then, Roxana could feel the same thickness in her own lungs. Her breath began to crackle as the congestion in it foamed, congealed, and popped rather like the packing bubbles they used to get whenever the nice man in the purple uniform visited their home in Bistritz.
Roxana had been three at the time, so she did not really remember Bistritz in detail. She remembered tall buildings, or so they had seemed to her at the time. She remembered a countryside of rolling hills and jagged mountains, so much more amenable than the one where she lived now. Her six year old mind recalled the way the grass would turn electric green in the slate grey evenings. Then, the rains would come, and the picnic would end.
She closed her eyes as the memory of hard rain pounding on the roof of their car drummed through her mind. It had frightened her at first, but became a soothing rhythm. The thought of rain made her throat close, and she wanted to cry.
When she opened her eyes, her mother’s face looked back at her, only it was no longer her mother’s face. Her soft brown eyes had sunk back into the sockets, flat and filmy. Her jaw had fallen open, listing to one side, hyperextended in a way that spoke of death so completely that Roxana had to admit defeat.
God must want this, she decided. God must hate them.
Flies buzzed in and out of her mother’s open mouth, but Roxana waved them away as she bent over her body. She put her lips to the sweetly rotten flesh, just on the cheekbone. Then, her little legs weak from three days without a meal, she walked unsteadily from the plywood shack into the acid white morning.
Himalaya, as always, fought her as she tried to make her way towards the high road. It had been the steepest place in the world, and now it was the only place in the world. She bent, using her hands to help her half-crawl, half-scramble over the rough stone face. Below, the slums perched on the narrow strand, clinging to the base of the mountains with a similar desperation, as though they would be swept away. Beyond them, the sea rolled in, sluggish and ubiquitous. It filled her vision when she looked over her shoulder, everything a pale sickly green blue, each little island receding into nothing but the flat expanse of water. A blue shroud for the dead world.
They said it was impossible. Roxana didn’t know what that word meant, didn’t understand why her mountains had gone, along with her electric green grass, and worst of all, her grey evening rains. She thought often maybe she had dreamed them. She had been so young when the ARC had fallen. She still wasn’t completely sure what an ARC was, only that everyone said it was the reason why the flood had come and swallowed up the rest of the world. The people from the church said that it was God’s judgement. The True Revelation. Roxana didn’t understand these things, only knew it was the reason her mother had carried her away from their collapsing, drowning home, and had found them space on a ferry to this, the promised land.
She struggled on the steep narrow track, her eyes on the great arches of the high road, following the progress where it punched through the spurs of the mountain. It was beautiful, with its curving supports and its flat, undulating surface. Beautiful, and impossibly far away.
She could feel the wheezing in her lungs as she climbed slowly up the path. If she stopped, if she lay down here, no one would find her, and her remains would disappear from the earth in a matter of hours. If she could make it to the high road, to one of the district centres, she might find someone to help her, to take her in. But adults had little use for children, except for the adults that used children in ways that Roxana didn’t like to think about.
That prospect took the strength out of her, but she crawled along, unable to stand, to run the way she used to. She could feel the eyes on her, the other slum dwellers, their goggle eyed children not moving an inch to help. They saw clearly what she was now realizing as the black shapes began to light on the cluttered plywood roofs. She tried to shut out the vision of them, but the wings of fate beat the air as they carried their owners closer, closer to their prize.
She would not lie down, Roxana decided, even as she coughed, bringing up a thick clot of red. She did not want to die like her mother, alone in a shack, her mouth hanging open and her eyes filming over. But she knew from the experience of watching others crawl along in this very fashion, even on this very track, that she would not have to suffer that fate. It made her angry, because she had not helped them either. Maybe she deserved this.
The golden shadow blotted out the sun as it descended, its broad dark wings flapping so hard it created a breeze on her face. Golden eyes rimmed with red stared at her above black streaks that ran like tears of bile. It cocked its head, and she felt the certainty settle over her.
“Ossifrage,” she murmured in a tiny, cracked voice. It bowed its head, seemed to acknowledge the title.
The Penitents called it the evil spirit. The Buddhists claimed it bore souls to their next lives. As Roxana lay down in the gravel and the dust, and its lesser subjects hopped and fluttered closer in a squall of black feathers, she decided both faiths were wrong. It was just another Lammergeier.
It would wait politely until the others had taken her flesh, her entrails, and all her soft tissue. Then it would plunder her meagre little skeleton, take her bones and skillfully crack them on the jagged rocks below so it could more easily consume them, dissolving them in its battery acid stomach. It would take less than an hour to obliterate all traces of Roxana Nicolescu. To erase her remains so completely it would be as though she had never lived at all.
Her vision turned to black and gold as the vultures closed in.
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