THE GRAY KEEP, THE KINGDOM OF HELL
I stand on my tiptoes to slide a book with a thick black spine adorned with golden skulls—Being the Rules of the Kingdom of Hell, Vol. 99—back into its place on the shelf. The candle in the nearest sconce gusts flame.
“That is where it goes,” I say. “Between ninety-eight and one hundred.”
The invisible demonic wraiths who keep these tomes in tidy condition are rightly finicky. Another burst of flame crackles in answer. Fine, I interpret it as, if you say so. But we’re checking later.
I’m a certain way about books. I get it. My useless undergraduate history degree was motivated in part from a deviant level of enjoyment in research. The near-apocalypse by misunderstanding I helped save the world from came from my love of books too, in a roundabout way: I accidentally bought a real grimoire for my family’s escape room business, a cult showed up to steal it, then conjured Luke, prince of Hell (now my boyfriend), and chaos ensued.
Anyway, I always knew that one day I’d walk into a library, the perfect library, and it would instantly be my favorite place on Earth. All the other libraries I’d flirted with would just be warm-ups.
The Earth part turned out not to be true. But the warm-up part’s truer than I ever imagined. Hell’s library tried to drive me to madness the first time we met, but after a few weeks with open access, it feels almost like … home.
I turn and take it in for a breath. An actual breath, a deep inhale of old-book goodness. The stacks loom thirteen stories tall up to the domed ceiling mural of Lucifer presenting a book—aka access to knowledge—to a horde of falling angels. Typical Lucifer overstatement. The population of this library is usually low.
I have it to myself for the moment, though Luke should be here anytime. And, of course, there’s the only person who the library truly loves back.
“Milady!” Porsoth says by way of greeting as he clicks in from the corridor. He’s trotted out this overly formal hello the past couple of times I’ve been here.
“Just Callie. I’m not a lady. Well, I am, sort of, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Porsoth says. “I merely hold you in high esteem.”
A month ago, having a conversation with an owl-faced, pig-bodied scholar of a demon would have been odd. Today, we’re arguing etiquette.
“We’re friends,” I say. “Friends don’t need to call each other fancy things.”
That sets Porsoth back on his heels. I forget how sentimental he is. He stops and puts a wing with a small hand on the end to his breast. “Friends,” he repeats. “Oh, milad—Callie. We are friends.”
He has a suspicious shimmer like tears in his eyes. He’s a good friend to have. Especially as I’m reminded that he can also be several stories tall with a frightening manner when he summons his more booming voice, “Agnes! Don’t dawdle! Callie needs help with a book.”
I know he’s trying to be helpful, but Agnes hates being ordered around. Given that she’s one of Hell’s lost souls, a former human, she spends a lot of time grumpy.
Scowl in place, she stomps into the doorway in a tunic and boots. Her face is small and heart-shaped. Her dirty-blond pigtails droop. She’s still an eleven-year-old girl, at least on the outside.
“I can get it myself,” I say, and pluck volume 100 from its spot.
Agnes stalks over and puts her hands on it too. “Allow me.”
We have a brief tug-of-war, in which I feel about eleven. She has this effect.
Agnes glances down and sees what book it is. She lets go. “That my last chance? Good luck with that,
Maybe I’m making it up, but I think I detect an emotion other than crankiness buried underneath the words. Besides sarcasm.
“Agnes, I meant what I said. I’m going to find a way. What happened to you is unfair—and Porsoth says you’re far from alone.”
“Most people would be grateful at such a generous attempt on their behalf,” Porsoth says to Agnes.
“Perchance, I won’t get my hopes up,” Agnes says dramatically. “She’s on the last book of rules and nothing. I am doomed to remain here. Hell is forever. You brought me here, you should know.”
Porsoth’s head dips. “I had no choice.”
When I first met Agnes, it took me a few days to pull her story out of each of them. Agnes stole the illuminated Bible from her town’s church, high up on the sin scale. “I wanted to spy the pictures up close! But girls weren’t allowed!” she said, defiant, telling me about it. She promptly ran into the street and got mowed down by an ox cart. Yes, she essentially got hit by the equivalent of a bus in the Middle Ages. At the time, eleven was plenty old enough to be considered an adult—and so she came here, to Hell, by way of Porsoth. When he left his job torturing and assumed his current form, he brought her to the palace with him as a library assistant. She says it’s just torture by another name. Bottom line is, even a demon understood she doesn’t deserve eternal punishment.
And my idea of second chances for Agnes and people like her was born.
Porsoth says I’ll never get anywhere with a new policy without a precedent to cite. A time when such a major change has occurred. I’ve been combing over the rules and regulations ever since, searching for something to help make our case.
Assuming Lucifer will even hear us out. But we’ll cross that burning bridge when we come to it.
I feel like I might finally be about to find a purpose in life. Beyond dating Hell’s most eligible bachelor. Porsoth says I’ve got fresh eyes from not being part of the system. And I’ve gotten the sense lately that Lucifer might even be the tiniest bit pleased with Luke’s new, somewhat more focused approach to the afterlife—and that maybe he’s impressed with my not seeming (too) afraid of the devil. This formerly aimless bookworm is starting to have plans.
I settle into a leather chair that looks severe and straight-backed, but is surprisingly comfortable, with the volume. Porsoth sends Agnes for tea and she returns with a tray for him alone. I don’t take it personally.
I’ve gotten used to the way these books are constructed, and I can afford to skim. They aren’t written by any one wraith, but linked to Lucifer’s will and changed automatically whenever he adds or—I’m praying—takes away or changes an operating principle. So far the text has been additions. I’m about halfway through the book when I sigh and lean my head back against the chair, frustrated.
Hands cover my eyes gently. I inhale a scent even sexier than old books. Luke. With a grin, I slide my fingers up Luke’s arms and tug away his makeshift blindfold. I stare up into his impossibly handsome face, crowned with a shock of tousled blond hair. His blue eyes nearly make me forget we have an audience.
He seems to get more gorgeous with every passing day. It’s seriously insulting.
Or it’s because you’ve fallen in love with him. But we haven’t said that yet. Neither of us.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
An affectionate smile plays at the edges of his mouth.
“Watching you read? A while,” he says. The smile grows lazy, flirty. “It is one of my favorite hobbies.”
I fight a blush. “How’d you keep Agnes from tipping me off?”
We look over and she holds up half a cupcake from the kitchens. “Bribery,” she says around a mouthful.
“I take it you’ve had no luck?”
Luke assures me he’s behind my idea all the way, but he pitches in on the reading lightly at best. I suspect this talk of souls and redemptions hits close for him. He admitted to me the other day that he’s still not sure what his having a soul means. Long-term. I’m not sure he believes he has the ability to change, that his demonic nature doesn’t define him.
“I told her it was a fool’s errand,” Agnes says.
“But Callie doesn’t give up because someone tells her to,” Luke says. “It’s one of the—first things I learned about her.”
Was he about to say something else? I search his eyes, but his expression is back to contained beauty.
Copyright © 2022 by Gwenda Bond