Dark Vow: Chapter 5
Content warnings for Part 2 of this chapter include brief allusions to period-typical transphobia, including internalized transphobia.
Part 1: Angel
“Do I look any different to you?” Lian asked Healm the next time she saw him.
He frowned, but didn’t take his attention off of his celestial blade. “Are you asking me if you seem more human now? Because you do, and I’ve told you before that I don’t agree with it. You should stop visiting that girl before she persuades you that feelings are a good idea.”
Lian chose not to react to his comment. They’d had this argument many times before. “But do I look like I’ve been aging? Do I look older than I did when I became an Archangel?”
Now Healm gave her his full attention, his frown deepening into a more concerned expression. “What brought this on?”
“Just tell me if I look like I’ve been aging!” She pestered, but he shook his head.
“Not until you tell me why you want to know.”
Lian puffed out her cheeks as she sulked, her arms crossed over her chest. It was something she’d picked up from Detta. The human gesture drew a worried gasp from Healm, so she sighed and dropped her arms, hovering lower than him in the air. “It’s just… Detta thought I looked different. I wanted to be sure that… I didn’t.”
Healm scoffed and turned back to his work. “Don’t believe anything that human says. She’s not worth your time.”
“But she said-”
“Lian. Listen to me.” Healm dropped his blade in his lap and grabbed Lian’s shoulders. “You cannot allow the human world to sway your perceptions. Humans’ senses are weak; they see what they want to see. When that human was a child, she saw you as a child because she wanted you to be. Now that she’s older, the same is true. You are not changing: her perception of reality is faulty. Do you understand?”
“Yes…” Lian said slowly, though she wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Good. Now forget about that human for a while and concentrate. You know we have a battle coming up. You can’t afford to be distracted because we can’t afford to lose another commander.”
“Yes,” Lian repeated, this time with a weak grimace. She didn’t need any more reminders of the first fight she was about to undertake as an Archangel, where she would be expected to lead troops into battle against the legions while she fought with the high-ranking demons.
“Lian.” A heavy hand settled on her shoulder. The weight should have felt constrictive, but instead it felt comforting. “You shall be fine. I will look out for you. Because you’re new, the Seraphim decided to keep you on ranged attacks only, behind the front lines. We will survive this war- together.”
“Yes.” This time, Lian smiled as she said it, leaning her head into Healm’s shoulder. He initially stiffened, then allowed his arm to curl around her middle. “We will fight side by side and emerge victorious, as comrades and as friends.”
Healm sighed, but for the first time, he didn’t correct her when she called them friends. Then he pushed her away, taking up his blade.
“Concentrate, Lian. You can’t fight if you can’t even control your weapons. Try to hit the target again.”
After a nod, she surged into the air above him with several powerful wingbeats, then pulled the string of her bow back to her cheek, forming a glowing arrow of celestial energy. With a snap, she released the bowstring, and the arrow shot forward to slam directly into the center of the target. Clustered round it were the remains of seven other arrows, all shot by her, that filled the central mark and the innermost ring. Lian couldn’t help but smile at her progress; she’d come a long way.
Part 2: Human
Detta paced from one end to the other of her small bedroom, wringing her hands and talking faster than Lian, who was perched in a nearby chair, could keep up.
“-and she doesn’t want me to even learn maths anymore! I mean, I can understand some of her hesitations; a woman isn’t likely to go to college, so she needn’t learn things like Greek or the Histories of Egypt, but maths is important! How else is a woman supposed to manage her household’s finances? And she wants me to learn how to sew! I am a high class lady, and am likely to be the wife of some lesser noble, or a well-off merchant at least! I would never perform the peasant task of sewing my own clothes! I am learning to be a wife, not a seamstress!”
“Mm-hm,” Lian grunted sympathetically, drawing her knees up to her chest.
“I mean, how dare she call my lack of ‘feminine wiles’ a calamity! I’ve lived my whole life without having to simper and sit quietly and I don’t intend to start now! If God didn’t want me to speak my mind, He wouldn’t have given me a tongue!”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Lian supplied when Detta stopped for breath.
“Of course I’m right! This tutor doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I mean, she hasn’t even read Chaucer! She hasn’t taught me anything new in weeks, and she refuses to teach me what I want to learn! I need to speak to my father about getting my old tutor back. This one is useless.”
“I certainly agree.”
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you.”
“Not in the slightest.”
With a dramatic sigh, Detta flopped down onto the bed. “It’s just not fair! She’s the only woman I’ve ever really talked to, so I don’t know if she’s right about me or if she’s just strict! And the only person I can complain to is you, and you don’t even know what I’m talking about!”
Lian moved to the bed and perched there instead, draping a wing over Detta’s arm and tickling her with the white feathers. “I’m sorry I can’t commiserate.”
“Don’t be.” She sighed again, then started to brush her fingers through Lian’s feathers. “It’s not your fault. I’m sorry that I can’t seem to do anything but complain anymore. I feel like I’m ruining your visit.”
“You’re not!” Lian quickly assured her. “I’m happy to be here no matter what!”
“I know, but I still feel like I’m wasting our time together. It won’t be able to last much longer, you know.”
Stiffening, Lian felt her wings start to shake a little. “What do you mean? Are you saying that you don’t want to see me anymore?”
Grabbing Lian’s wrist, Detta sprang up into a sitting position. “No, of course not! I would never want to stop seeing my best friend! I just have to think realistically, or so my new tutor says.” She made a face. “I’m fifteen now, almost sixteen. I’m not going to be a little girl for much longer. I’m going to be a woman soon, and once I do, I’ll have to get married. Once they start having children, women have to devote their whole lives to raising them. Friendships are overshadowed by the duties of family.”
“But why? Can’t people have both families and friends? Why only one or the other?”
Detta shrugged, but the motion was stiff. “That’s just how it is. A woman’s duty is to her husband and children first. Most friends a woman has are other mothers who equally understand the sacrifice of motherhood.”
Did that mean that in order to stay Detta’s friend, Lian would also have to engage in the human ritual of marriage? But who was she could bond herself to in that way? She had avoided humans other than Detta, so that left another angel. Healm was the only one she could think of, but she quickly banished the notion. He would only ridicule her if she ever brought it up.
“I still don’t understand why, though,” Lian argued. “A few hours isn’t that much to ask! I could come and- I don’t know, help you look after your children! We could all be friends together!”
“It doesn’t work like that.” Detta shook her head. She fisted the material of her skirt, knuckles turning white.
“But why?” Lian insisted.
“Because that’s just the way it is for girls!” Detta slumped back onto the bed. “I wish I was born a boy, sometimes. Then I could keep my friends after I get married, and keep learning maths. If I was a boy, my tutor wouldn’t make me learn to do stupid embroidery.”
At Detta’s words, Lian leaned over her friend with a frown. “Why can’t you just change your mind, then? Be a boy instead of a girl?”
Detta stared up at her in shock. “You can’t just decide to change something like that! Boys are boys and girls are girls!”
“But why not? You said you’d rather be a boy. If you talk to your father, I’m sure he’d understand-”
Detta leapt up and covered Lian’s mouth with her hand. “Shhh! We don’t talk about those kinds of things, okay? A girl will always be a girl and a boy will always be a boy. People who want to change like that are unnatural and Father Hampton says that God hates them for calling His glorious creation a mistake. You couldn’t pretend to be a boy, would you? It would feel so wrong!”
Lian thought about it. She had been using a female persona for so long that it would be difficult to go back to calling herself ungendered, let alone switching to a male presentation. And if it was hard for her, who had consciously made the switch once already, she couldn’t imagine how hard it would be for Detta.
“I suppose you’re right,” she mumbled.
“Of course I’m right- that’s just the way things are.” Breathing a sigh of relief, Detta dropped back onto the bed. “Besides, I’m glad I was born a girl. We wouldn’t have been able to be friends otherwise.”
This drew panic from inside Lian. “What? Why!?”
Again, Detta gave her another one of those funny looks. “Because you’re a girl. Girls and boys can play together as babies, but once they become little boys and little girls they can’t play with each other anymore.”
“But why?” Lian exclaimed again. She was getting tired of asking that question today.
“Because it’s not proper! And because little boys and little girls like to play in different ways. Little girls like cleanliness and dolls and things that are pretty and soft, and boys like gross things and animals and getting dirty and playing rough with one another.”
Lian didn’t mention that she didn’t like any of those things, and had only played with Detta as a child because she wanted to be with her and learn about the games human children played. And together, they had often gotten quite dirty playing outside. Under the age of seven, Detta had not been keen on ‘cleanliness’.
“I guess that makes sense. It’s just very different from what I’m used to.”
“Really? Do they let little boy angels and little girl angels play with each other?”
“Well…” Lian wasn’t sure how to summarize how the angel hierarchy worked, especially since Detta still didn’t understand that most angels never thought of themselves having a gender. “I guess angels just grow differently. Instead of growing up, we’re promoted to higher ranks. Right now I’m an Archangel, but before that I used to be a Principality, and before that I used to be a regular angel. To angels, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a boy or a girl.” Or neither, she added in her head.
“That must be nice,” Detta said dreamily. “I wish I was an angel. Then we could be together all the time, right? Everything would be peaceful and I could even learn maths if I wanted.”
There was a sudden pressure at Lian’s throat as she looked down at her friend’s hopeful expression. She thought of the upcoming battle in which Healm and herself, alongside all the other angels, would stake their lives to push back the demons. The blood and pain she had already endured, and now must endure again with the added burden of command. Her Principality subordinates who would look to her for guidance and protection during the battle. She swallowed thickly against the pressure.
“Yes, that would be nice,” she found herself saying. “I wish we could be together all the time like that, too.”