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Muse

Mercy - 3

by

Rebecca Lim

To Barry and Judy Liu,

with thanks.

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

WILLIAM BLAKE (1794)

1

‘Mercy,’ I hear in the darkness behind my eyelids.

‘Where are you?’

It’s a young man’s voice, achingly familiar.

My eyes flash open, and I raise my left hand to the base of my throat. The fingers of that hand seem to burn with a customary fire, a faint tracery of pain that dissipates almost immediately. The palest, pearlescent glow comes off the surface of my skin.

It’s pitch dark in here, and I remember that I do that — glow — when there are no external sources of light around.

I take a long, trembling breath, expecting to feel a gunshot wound beneath my fingers, its edges ragged, bloody, fatal. But there’s no wound, and no blood.

I lie here whole, and unmarked, breathing easily. Not dying on the floor of a dingy cafe, blood filling my lungs, crowding my airways, cradled in the arms of a man called … Sulaiman?

I feel my brow furrow. Everything’s out of order; I can’t make things line up. Because when I remember Sulaiman’s stern face bent over mine, I see someone else there, inside him, inhabiting his body, lurking beneath his mortal skin. A shimmering being; one of the elohim: Gabriel.

And I am Lela Neill again, for one kaleidoscopic instant in which I feel the death rattle, the harsh susurration of her breathing. Feel myself mired in her body, which is cold and growing colder. Cold, too, the cracked linoleum upon which I lie.

Every sense is fading, the world turning to sepia before my eyes. Until there is a sensation, a sharp tug, as if some kind of cord has snapped, the bonds between myself and Lela’s body beginning to loosen. I feel myself become something like mist, like fog.

But it is illusory, this confused jumble of imagery and sensation, already memory. That jump-cut moment in which I seem to be two people at once, in two places at once. Because I’m not really there. I can’t be. I know for a certainty, with a clarity that defies logic, that Lela is already dead.

And I give a single, piercing wail, my fingers flying up to my face in horror, the sound escaping before I can stop it. Its sonic aftershock seems to hover in this high-ceilinged room for an eternity. An elegy to the fallen girl.

I’m suddenly flooded with grief, with white heat, with a sensation like panic, and I fight my way out of the featherdown bedding I am inexplicably wrapped in, like a corpse in a winding sheet.

And though the blackness of the room should be impenetrable to my eyes, I see every chair, every ottoman, every vase, tasselled reading lamp, gilt-edged painting, porcelain ornament, every useless, luxurious appointment in this spacious chamber as if it is bright day and not night. Because I can see in the dark, like a cat.

No, I correct myself automatically, better than a cat. No creature under heaven can see better in the dark than I can.

The air in here is cold, the kind of sharp cold that presages snowfall. There’s a window open somewhere.

I slide off the bed and make my way unerringly towards a set of deep curtain-covered windows, touch the plush, heavily embroidered fabric with my fingertips. Shove the whole mass aside until I encounter the icy glass in a partially raised sash window. I study the view over the rooftops of the moonlit city below and see that it is no longer truly night, but the early, velvet morning. Every star in the sky seems etched upon the inky blackness.

There is a catch in my breathing as I study the floodlit church that dominates the view from my bedchamber. I feel the pupils of my eyes contract in shock.

I know this place.

Like a crazy confection, a riot of arches, pinnacles, fretted spires, flying buttresses, statuary and stained glass; like a waking dream, a conundrum, the church is both steadfast and airy, hundreds of feet deep, wide, tall. Monumental. It is the Duomo, one of the greatest cathedrals in the world.

And the realisation hits me a second later that I am in Milan, in Northern Italy.

Milan.

A city of infinite treasures. A city I once loved and wandered at will. Though when, and as whom, I do not know. Again, I feel a brief jolt of dislocation, as if I am caught between past and present, fully inhabiting neither.

Then the sensation leaves me, and I realise that it is two hours before matins, before dawn.

In front of the Duomo, dwarfed by it, is a gleaming Christmas tree at least one hundred feet tall.

Glorious Milan. In December.

Before I can process anything more, there’s a series of sharp taps upon the door.

I do not turn away from the window. Instead, I shake my long, unbound hair over my face, dig the toes of my narrow feet into the soft, plush pile of the carpet and pull the cuffs of my long sleeves over my hands. So that no part of my skin is visible from behind. It’s become almost a reflex these days. Hiding this little light of mine.

The door opens behind me, before I can find my voice.

‘Irina?’ someone says blearily into the darkness. ‘I heard you cry out — you scared me to death! Are you all right?’

Through the curtain of my long hair, I quickly scan the figure silhouetted in the doorway before returning my gaze to the city framed in the window.

A short, slender young woman — in her late twenties? — with jaw-length straight hair cut in a sleek bob stands there. The light behind her casts her face into shadow. I have no idea who she is. But she has a cut-glass accent, of a kind I’ve heard before. English, supplies my inner voice dryly. She’s English.

How do I even … know that?

‘What’s the matter with you?’ the girl mutters. ‘Cat got your tongue? Hard to believe.’

She snaps on a lamp by the door. The sudden flare of light makes the pupils of my borrowed eyes contract into pinpoints, but I adjust to the change in illumination instantaneously, without flinching.

The light of the lamp has extinguished the strange glow of my skin. I turn to face the stranger warily, uncurling my fingers from inside my sleeves, senses on high alert.

Who is she? What does she want from me?

The day can’t come soon enough when I’ll never again have to grope forward through the fog of a stranger’s life, trying desperately not to give myself away.

The girl shakes her head in exasperation and tightens the belt of her patterned, blush-coloured kimono before heading purposefully across the room towards me. She stops a short distance away, looking me up and

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