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Excerpt

A Kiss At Midnight
Bantam

Serath glanced behind her, at the women gathered near the base of the wall amid the thicket, staring up at her. Most of them were young, wide eyes and open mouths, pure astonishment. Beyond them stretched the compound of the convent, her prison for the past nine years.

And on the other side of the wall, precious freedom: dark woods glimmering with red-fire moonlight, beckoning her.

She might break her bones in the fall. Surely she would. But they weren’t close enough yet to stop her, and perhaps she could limp away to hide—

“Serath! Climb down immediately!” The prioress was coming so near, wrath and fury in every line of her.

Serath placed one hand on the bundle still slung over her shoulder, so that she would not lose it in her leap. A heated wind came and pushed her cloak and skirts in front of her, drenched red.

Someone screamed, and the girls on the other side of the wall shrieked again, pointing up into the sky.

Slowly, reluctantly, Serath looked up, past the blood moon, and saw the stars begin to fall around her, streaks of silver and gold against the indigo night, raining down around them. It was the bishop’s shower of fire, a true portent, unfolding right now in dizzying threads of beauty shot across the sky.

Serath felt the last of her courage desert her. She stood still on top of the wall, caught in the terrible splendor of the moment, watching the heavens fall to earth.

From the woods erupted noise and movement where there should be none, a commotion of thick mass, spilling out into the clearing by the wall. The turmoil became riders, many of them, men wrapped in metal and weapons, scarlet and stars glittering off them—the demons Alva predicted made awfully, completely real.

The prioress and her group stopped, clustered in a tight knot, gaping at the riders.

Moonlight revealed the crest on the shield of the leader: a red dragon writhing against black.

“Lord save us, it’s the devil himself,” gasped one of the nuns.

Serath gazed down at the apparition before her, surrounded by the falling sky, feeling strangely calm at this, what would be the end of everything after all.

The devil broke away from his group, taking his crimson steed up to the base of the wall.

“Serath Rune,” said the devil, looking up at her, his face alternately masked and then lit by the blood light and the falling stars.

She heard the deep command in his voice, felt her body move in response. She sat down on the top of the wall, staring at him, and the unnatural breeze came again and played with her hair, loose and blacker than the night, bringing it up to dance around her face.

“Come,” said the devil to her, and her feet obeyed him, beginning to descend the wall, and then her hands, and the climb was almost easy now, effortless. Simple.

She made it down in what seemed like no time at all, her feet touching the soft earth again, and then she turned to face him.

The devil towered above her on his demon steed, and the blood moon was his, and the streaking stars outlined him to show her only shape and form: huge and solid, utterly black but for the gleam of red on his shoulders and hair.

“Come,” said the devil again, and he leaned down from his saddle to reach out one hand to her.

“She is cursed,” whispered one of the women loudly.

There was nothing else to do. With all the nuns watching, still as death, Serath Rune accepted the devil’s invitation and took his hand, allowing herself to be pulled up into his saddle in front of him.

The world below her now seemed so small, more distant even than it had from the top of the convent wall. The nuns of Saint Basilla’s dwindled to a shrunken terror, each face revealed to her in pale ovals of crimson.

The devil placed his arm around her waist, securing her against him. Serath took the bundle of cloth from her shoulder and moved it to her lap, holding it with both hands.

And he wheeled the demon horse around in the clearing, carrying her to his dark group and then beyond it, out into the blooded woods, the sky still hailing silver and gold around them.

Excerpted from A Kiss at Midnight by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2000 by Shana Abé. Excerpted by permission of Fanfare, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.