“Come on,” I said, running up the stone steps of the cathedral. “Keep up with me!”
I heard Alan scuffling along behind me. He was having trouble running in his choral robe. “I would if you would go faster!”
I didn’t answer him, instead peeking out the top of the stairwell to see if anyone was coming. The small room was empty. I grinned.
“Come on, it’s clear.”
“I am going to get into so much trouble,” he muttered.
There were only three things of interest in the room: the door leading into the triforium, a chair, and a small window overlooking the first level of roof. Unlike its fellows out in the main part of the church, this window wasn’t stained glass or decorated. It was just a plain window for the choir to open up when it got stuffy. It also made a wonderful exit.
I opened the window and hoisted myself out. “This way,” I said, holding onto the window frame to keep my balance. The roof here wasn’t as steep as that out front, but better safe than sorry.
Alan scowled. “You’re mad.”
“And you’re a coward.”
“I’m not going out there. I’ll fall.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the familiar voice of the choirmaster calling, “Alan? Alan, are you up here?”
Alan ran to the window and practically leapt out. His hand slipped from the frame, and I grabbed onto him before he fell onto the road below.
He drew in a shuddered breath. “Colette,” he said. “If I die, I am going to do something horrible to you in the afterlife. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to think of something while you rot away in jail for killing me.”
“Don’t be such a baby. I come up here all the time.”
I kept a hand on him and led him carefully down onto the ledge. Nobody on the street paid us any attention. I was just a cleaner kid, nobody paid us any attention. Alan would’ve stuck out in those bright clothes of his, but again; nobody looked up to notice.
“This better be good,” he said under his breath.
We sidled along the roof until we’d reached the corner. The gargoyle there crouched, watching the busy world below. The area around it was almost flat, with the roof dipping decoratively to accommodate the workers who’d put it in.
“Here,” I said, squatting down beside it. “Now we wait.”
Alan sat down on the other side of the gargoyle. He squinted at it.
The gargoyle was a pig-snouted, bat-winged, fan-eared, bird-beaked, bear-clawed, toothily-grinning monstrosity of scales and stone. It didn’t look at things, it leered at them. It didn’t sit up here, it lurked.
“Ugly thing, isn’t it? Don’t know why they have them around.” He reached out to touch its ears.
I slapped his hand away. “Don’t,” I said. “Don’t talk about it like that.“ I glanced to see if the gargoyle had taken any offense. It still sat there, radiating a light-hearted sense of gloom. The world was a dark and dreary place, and it reveled in that.
There was a long silence between us. Through the other windows going down the side of the building, we heard the choir start practicing for that night’s mass. Every once in a while, the thin, reedy voice of the choirmaster would complain of Alan’s absence.
“I’m going to be in so much trouble,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint, just a calm statement of fact. “They’ll need me.”
I listened. Their music didn’t sound all that different without Alan there, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
“When’s it going to start?” he said. I knew he wasn’t talking about mass.
We resumed waiting.
The carts below us went home. People went either to home or through the big front doors of the church. The sky darkened. Soon the only light came from the stars, moon, and the lights inside the church.
And the gargoyle yawned.
Alan gasped. I tried not to snicker at him.
The gargoyle slowly unslunk itself. Its wings fanned out slightly, causing me and Alan to back away so as not to be hit. The tail it had been concealing before stretched out, revealing itself to be a rat-like whip with a few spikes at the end. When all of it, arms, legs, tail and wings, had been stretched out properly, the gargoyle looked at us. It saw me and nodded, used to my company. At Alan, it tilted its head slightly and moved its beak in a way that looked like it was chattering something, even though no noise came out.
“He’s a friend,” I said. I elbowed him until he gave a meek wave of the hand.
“Hello,” he said.
The gargoyle nodded again, apparently satisfied. With that, he turned back outwards, toward the inner-city. He stood up as straight as he could, puffed out his chest, spread his wings out to the side, and began to sing.
I loved the song, though not many people I’d brought up cared for it. I suppose that’s because they only ever heard the noise part, which was more of a growl than anything else. I tried to tell them they weren’t listening to it right, if that’s all they heard, but they never listened to me, either, afterwards. I closed my eyes.
The song was low to start out with. Not just gravely, but sandy and stony and ingrained with dirt and mud and dust and the smell of dry ground being hit by rain. Then it rose up while still staying down, like there were two voices singing it. This new one was about water and fish and the spray of cool mist and morning fog and dew-
And then a third, about fire. About little candles and well-lit churches and forest fires and cookfires and lightning and speed and the all consuming glory of the flames-
The air grew thicker as he sang, edged with an electric sense of power that sent chills up my spine. The wind picked up, twisting itself around in a miniature tornado, a torrent of leaves and snatches of gossip, but only around us three.
Cities! screamed one voice. Dark places to lurk, to skulk, to hide. Thieves in the night, watching waiting, glass shattering people screaming dogs howling smog and smoke and factories and carts and roads bricks steel-
Cities! screamed the last. Lights and people and shops and roads and laughter and walkways and safety in numbers kids playing family heavy air so full of words and smells and sounds noise and music and light-
I opened my eyes to see how Alan was taking it. He was frowning, but his eyes were closed. That was usually a good sign.
The song ended too soon. It petered out until only the one about city nights was left, and then that, too, faded. The gargoyle grumbled to itself and settled down, back into its usual spot. I got to my knees and crawled over.
“Thank you,” I said, bowing my head.
It made more grumbling noises and nodded.
“Yes,” said Alan, coming up beside me. “Thank you.”
The gargoyle snorted, apparently fed up with the praise. It got itself into position and, with a faint shudder, went very, very solid.
“Come on,” I said, getting to my feet.
“Stone? It never stopped. But yeah, it’s done for the night. Back asleep. Don’t touch it.”
I went along the ledge, perfectly comfortable in the dark. Alan had a little more trouble. We kept having to stop so he could make sure of his footing. When we got to the window, the choir was still in their box, singing the third or fourth bout of hymns. We tumbled through the window unnoticed.
“What did you think?” I said as we went down the stairs.
He sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. I hadn't noticed how pale he looked before, or how he shivered slightly.
“Are you alright?” I said. “It wasn’t that cold out there, was it?”
“No, no, it’s not that.” We turned down and saw the room filled with people. I could get out easily enough, but people would notice if one of the choir singers tried walking out during the worship. We would have to wait for them all to stop singing, then, so it would seem as though he’d just gotten down in a hurry.
“What is it then?” I whispered, watching the crowd.
“I don’t think I liked the song very much.”
Something in his voice made me look back at him. He didn’t meet my eyes. “I don’t think I want to hear it again.”
Before I could say anything, a hand appeared from behind and grabbed his shoulder.
“Alan!” said the choirmaster. “Where have you been?” He dragged Alan back, up the stairs. “Get up there, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. . .”
I watched them go. Alan looked back only once to give me a half-hearted shrug. They soon vanished up the steps.
I sighed and headed for the double doors. Nobody would bother me now that Alan wasn’t there. I stepped out into the street, leaving the sounds of hymns and the choir behind.
Their songs were nice, but it wasn’t my kind of music.
* * *