Mangled wings flopped open onto the crushed remains of Noon’s clock. Pursing his lips, Midnight blew off the tiny yellow splinters clinging to his palm.
The child dropped to her knees within an eddy of stardust and gently picked up the wrenched cuckoo to cradle in her hand. Her glance flickered to the now silent Twelfth Hour whose eyes were closed in a pale, expressionless face. Only the edges of Twelfth’s golden robes moved in the twinkling wisps of wind.
“Do you believe me now, Zoe?” Midnight said. “Clocks are fragile and easily broken.”
The girl leveled him with a curious gaze. “Did you make her go to sleep?”
Midnight nodded. The child stood, gently slipping the cuckoo into a pocket at the front of her jumper.
“She was really, really mad at you. She said there would be kay-oz. Why did she say that?”
The question carried through the silence like a haunted echo.
Midnight looked down at the child. She did not appear to expect an answer from him, gazing as she was upon the sun and moon overhead, seemingly lost in her thoughts. Her eyes, so like her mother’s, were surprisingly calm. He’d expected hysterics of some sort after witnessing what happened with Noon. Why wasn’t the girl crying or throwing a –what was it called again?– a tantrum. Didn’t mortal children do that all the time? But Zoe was proving to be an exception.
Why hadn’t she reacted other than clutch that toy contraption of hers tighter to her chest when her mother had transported them to this place earlier?
“Is the raven here?” had been the question she’d asked when they’d first arrived at the Circle, her glossy black curls bouncing as she glanced about.
“Do you mean this?” The umbrella tucked under his arm transformed back into his cane. He raised the carved raven head handle to her.
The girl had shaken her head.
“No. It was sitting in the tree outside.” The child looked around some more. “Is mommy here?”
And wasn’t that the most intriguing of all. Had she known all along he wasn’t who he appeared to be when he’d arrived at her school, her day care –another quaint expression– to fetch her?
He’d successfully used Eleventh’s memories to learn where Zoe would be during the day as well as to assume the guise of her mother’s mortal human appearance. Not knowing what garments Twenty-third had worn that day, Midnight had chosen the last garb Eleventh had seen her in. Blue jeans of Levis and a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon tee.
The dark side of the moon. How apropos.
So what was it that had given him away? Was it her mother’s change of clothes? If the child had known from the start that he wasn’t Twenty-third, it meant she’d been playing along with his ruse and willingly left the day care with him.
He would never have expected such a scenario.
As there’d no longer been any need to continue with pretense…
Twenty-third’s long, auburn tresses he’d donned shrunk back and frosted to silver, her delicate facial features growing craggy and timeworn. Midnight’s beard and brows twirled lightly in the breeze as his appearance returned to that of his true self.
Though he’d stood there in all his magnificence with ebony robes and silver staff, the child had been totally nonplussed. She’d barely spared him a second glance. In fact, she’d yawned and rubbed at her eyes.
Could he have ever expected a reaction like that?
But then he hadn’t expected either to see what he had come back to after leaving the child here alone to fetch Noon. He’d returned to the Circle with the Twelfth Hour in tow to find the girl quietly seated at the center of the Circle, still holding her toy.
No, the child was not an exception. She was an enigma. One Midnight was growing ever more eager to solve. The answers, however, would have to wait until Twenty-third’s watch. Patience, he reminded himself. The time would come.
He rubbed his aching temple. The battle with Twelfth in her Here and Now had drained him. Her resistance had been more intense than he’d anticipated, not that he expected his headstrong sister to go willingly into that good night… dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared. But if she’d been prepared to launch an assault against him once at the Circle, the presence of Twenty-third’s child had completely unnerved her.
Midnight smirked as it all played back in his mind…
“Brother, you can’t do this. There will be chaos. You cannot seize the watches for yourself.” He could tell the moment Noon saw through the cloak he’d raised over part of the Circle so Zoe wouldn’t see. The heated colour drained from her face when she sighted each of the Morning Hours one by one, standing as sentinels in the pitch darkness.
Then she caught sight of Zoe, the child having risen to join them. His sister was rendered speechless by the child whose lineage he had no need to prove. The girl’s eyes were an exact replica of Twenty-third’s.
“I… I don’t understand. How can this be?” Noon finally stammered. “Who are you girl? Who are your parents?”
“I’m Zoe. My mommy is Maya Linden. Daddy went to Heaven before I was born.”
“Heaven?” Midnight laughed. “Look around you, Zoe. This is Heaven, where we live. Mortals return to the dust.”
The girl’s lips set in a grim line but otherwise she did not respond.
Noon spun round to face him.
“Let her go, brother. What harm can a mortal infant do to you?”
He took Noon’s arm and leaned in close to her ear. “Mortal infant? Come now, Twelfth. You can sense as well as I that this is no ordinary mortal child. I plan to have a nice long chat with Twenty-third about her… hmm… unnatural carnal transgressions, shall we call it, when she gets here. For now —forever– take your place, Noon. I want Zoe to see.”
Noon stood her ground.
“Now, Twelfth.” She grimaced when his grip tightened.
He lowered his voice even further. “Lest you want me to show the child how I can shatter any one of you here rather than just your clocks? No? Then move.” The force of his last word jolted her forward, her steps wooden and slow. The last walk of the condemned towards a gallow of eternity.
As she advanced toward her sigil, a trembling Noon’s mortal clothes liquified into spinning streams of sun gold cloth. Her upswept copper hair unravelled to flow down her back. His sister spared a glance at Zoe who followed in Midnight’s stead, managing a faint smile perhaps to comfort the girl.
Noon dragged her gaze back to him. She handed over her Clock, her sunset eyes smoldering in banked rage. His staff came alight when he tapped the end upon her brow. Noon gasped a final harsh, uneven breath, her eyes closing as she went perfectly still.
Ah, what a satisfying memory to savour for time immemorial.
Midnight shifted his staff to his other arm. The burst of light it released pierced the curtain of night he’d drawn across the earlier Hours. And now it was the child that gasped.
Puffs of sparkling stardust rose from her footfalls as she ran toward the shadowed form of the Eleventh Hour who stood immobile upon his sigil.
“Uncle Kanja! Uncle Kanja!” She tugged at his robe. There was no reaction from the Hour who continued to sleep.
Finally, an expected reaction.
The girl, now with tears running down her cheeks, took notice of the other morning Hours standing like silent sentinels in similar pose. Midnight cocked his head when she bolted towards First. She did not clasp his robe but stood before him, sniffling.
Midnight took his time walking over to join her.
“Do you know First?”
The little girl nodded. “Doctor Oskar. He comes and visits Mommy. She said he helped me be born. He listens to my heartbeat, looks into my eyes, asks me to hold my breath. He tells Mommy I’m very healthy. That makes her smile. She’s always nervous when he comes.”
So First had known about Twenty-third’s child. It made sense. Twenty-third must have reached out to the only Hour with medical knowledge for mortals.
“No need to be alarmed, Zoe. Doctor Oskar is sleeping. So is Elev—your Uncle Kanja. They are all your uncles and aunts, did you know?”
She wiped across her cheeks with her free arm, the toy contraption still tucked beneath the other.
“But you can’t wake them,” Midnight said.
“It’s an important day today, Zoe. They need to rest… before it ends.”
“Because it’s my birthday? I was born at the last minute.” The girl’s eyes glistened with her tears as she looked up at him. He could see the twin suns of his reflected in hers. The light from his gaze lit up her ruddy cheeks and she squinted at the brilliance.
“Yes, your birthday. I’d forgotten.” Midnight opened out his hand and summoned another of the cup cakes. Not sure what manner of cups these cakes were prepared in, he’d chosen to use wooden mugs. The mortal daycare keeper had given him an odd look when he’d handed her a bag of them from behind his back when she asked if he’d brought them, or rather, if Zoe’s mother had.
“When your keeper asked if I’d brought your birthday cup cakes, I didn’t set one aside for you before we left. Here.”
The child reached up and took the cup. She wrinkled her nose.
“That’s not a real cupcake. You got it wrong.”
Midnight bristled. Impertinent brat.
“I only bother to observe humanity from time to time, Zoe. I don’t obsess with them as the others have so I don’t know every little insignificant detail of their so-called cultures and habits. They would be of no interest to me regardless, except to prove that they are beneath my notice.”
The child frowned again.
“You don’t like my reply, Zoe? Tell me then. What else did I get wrong today? You knew I wasn’t your mother when I came?”
She did not reply.
“Do you know who I am, Zoe? I have yet to tell you, don’t I. How unpardonably rude of me not to have properly introduced myself with all that’s happened so far. I am the Twenty-fourth Hour of the Day. The supreme Hour of the Circle. That is my sigil at the very top.”
He pointed to the symbol so the child may see. “You may call me Midnight, if you wish. Has your mother talked to you about me or the Circle here?”
The girl shook her head then turned to face him. The weight of her gaze now unsettled him. It was as if ancient eyes peered at him from a young face. Nonsense. Even if her mother was a guardian, this was a mortal’s get.
The way the child kept holding her contraption irked him. “And you have yet to tell me what that toy is exactly, Zoe.”
“It’s my birthday present from Mommy. It’s a poejector. It tells the time with the sun and moon and stars.”
Midnight burst out laughing once more. “Your mother bestowed a clock upon you? Look around you again, Zoe. This here, this Circle, is the only true celestial clock!”
He leaned down, much amused. “Maybe you best keep holding your little toy substitute tight. Clocks are fragile as you saw. Easily broken, just as all your aunts and uncles’ clocks were.”
The child’s back stiffened at the remark. “People can’t be clocks. You can’t break time like that. If time stops the speed of light becomes zero. That’s what the theory of relatives says. Everything goes pitch black. It’s a poof. I read it in a book from the library.”
Midnight blinked. The girl had a most unusual manner of speech, sounding at once adult-like and childish. The theory of relatives? Poof? What nonsense was the child blabbering?
“Noon and her cuckoo clock weren’t enough? You require more proof, child? Fine. You’ll see the truth for yourself. I’ll prove it to you.”
“Wait here, Zoe. Don’t go running off the edge or you’ll fall into the cold vacuum of space.” He became amused again when a flash of fear crossed her face. “You’ll get to see more uncles and aunts throughout the remains of the day”
He made a grand gesture of sweeping his arm toward the center of the Circle. A pitcher of water and some more cup cakes appeared. Then he paused and scratched at his beard, contemplating the child for a moment. With a huff, he made appear a clay pot.
“If you’re hungry or thirsty, help yourself. The pot is for any bodily waste you need to pass.” He could not quite keep the disgust from his voice. “I can’t have you using the Circle like a toilet.”
Zoe wiped at her cheeks with the sleeve of her jumper.
“Don’t worry. Your mother will arrive later on, when it’s her watch. We’ll welcome her here together, you and me. I very much look forward to talking with her, Zoe. Meanwhile, don’t mind your other uncles and aunts who will be showing up without me. Try not to disturb them when they appear out of thin air. They’ll already be asleep when they arrive. Feel free to take a nap yourself if you wish.”
He summoned a blanket in afterthought and left without another word.
Zoe stared at the empty space where Midnight had just been standing. Then she ran back to the angry lady he had made go to sleep just before.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of your little bird.” She fished the brilliant yellow cuckoo looking like new from her pocket. Casting one last sad glance at her Uncle Kanja and Doctor Oskar, she ran past the stupid things Midnight left for her to get to the other edge of the Circle. She stopped when she reached the symbol to the left of the one he’d shown her.
Sitting down crosslegged upon it, she placed her projector before her and clicked it on.
***A Note from Elisabeth: You’ll find the remaining parts of this story over on Wattpad.
⇛ Next part: to be continued
⇚ Previous part: IX – Post Meridiem
Love this new chapter. I can’t wait to read more.