The Girl at Midnight - Melissa Grey

PROLOGUE

The Ala had gone to the library in search of hope. She walked through the stacks, one hand tucked into the pocket of her trench coat, the other trailing over the cracked spines of well-loved books and through the dust collected on those lesser-loved ones. The last patron had departed hours earlier, yet the Ala kept her sunglasses on and her scarf wrapped tightly around her head and neck. The dimness of the library made her black skin appear almost human dark, but the feathers she had in place of hair and the unrelieved blackness of her eyes, as wide and glossy as a raven’s, were pure Avicen.

She was fond of books. They were an escape from responsibilities, from the other members of the Council of Elders, who looked to her—their only living Seer—for guidance, from the war that had raged for longer than most could remember. The last great battle had been fought more than a century ago, but the threat of violence lingered, each side waiting for the other to slip up, for that one tiny spark to ignite a blaze beyond anyone’s control. Her fingers stopped their slow dance as a title caught her eye: A Tale of Two Cities. It might be nice to read about someone else’s war. Perhaps it would make her forget her own. She was about to pull the book off the shelf when she felt a feather-light tug on her coat pocket.

The Ala’s hand shot out to grab the pickpocket’s wrist. A girl, skinny and pale, clutched the Ala’s coin purse in a tight, tiny fist. She stared at the Ala’s exposed wrist, brown eyes unblinking.

“You’ve got feathers,” said the girl.

The Ala couldn’t remember the last time a human had seen her plumage and been so calm about it. Dropping the girl’s wrist, the Ala pulled the sleeve down over her forearm, straightening her coat and scarf to hide the rest of her.

“May I have my wallet back?” It wasn’t a wallet, not really. In place of money, it held a fine black powder that hummed with energy in the Ala’s hand, but the girl didn’t need to know that.

The thief looked up at her. “Why do you have feathers?”

“My wallet, please.”

The girl did not budge. “Why are you wearing sunglasses inside?”

“Wallet. Now.”

The girl looked at the small purse in her hand, seemed to consider it for a moment, then looked back at the Ala. Still she didn’t relinquish the item in question. “Why are you wearing a scarf? It’s June.”

“You’re very curious for a little girl,” the Ala said. “And it’s midnight. You aren’t supposed to be here.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the thief replied, “Neither are you.”

The Ala couldn’t not smile. “Touché. Where are your parents?”

The girl tensed, eyes darting around, scouting an escape. “None of your business.”

“How about this,” the Ala said, crouching down so she was level with the girl’s eyes. “You tell me how you came to be in this library all alone in the middle of the night, and I’ll tell you why I have feathers.”

The girl studied her for a moment with a wariness at odds with her age. “I live here.”

Scuffing the toe of one dirty white sneaker against the linoleum floor, the girl peered at the Ala from under thick brown lashes and added, “Who are you?”

A multitude of questions wrapped in a neat little package. Who are you? What are you? Why are you? The Ala gave the only answer she could. “I am the Ala.”

“The Ala?” The girl rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t sound like a real name.”

“Your human tongue could never