“Pardon me,” I said, my voice soft, my eyes downcast. “I am looking for Atina LeRoux.”
The red-headed woman behind the desk lifted her eyes, and met my gaze. She studied me for a moment, with the kind of cool and steady appraisal that a bouncer uses. Is this person intoxicated, are they violent, are they armed, are they bigger than me, can I take them. My tongue flickered out, and I had the impression that it was rare she met someone that she couldn’t take, and rarer still that she met someone she didn’t think she could take. She was a violent creature. Not like me, then.
I am capable of violence, I am even skilled at it. But I don’t enjoy it. Hurting humans is anathema to me, though I have done it many times before. And it always leaves me wounded when I do. But I must keep my word, and I have sworn to protect a man, and sometimes the only way to protect one man is to harm another. Humans are stubborn that way.
“Do ye have an appointment?” asked the young woman, and I noticed she had one foot on a soccer ball. She had an Irish brogue that rendered her nearly unintelligible, but the language of impending ejection was universal to all secretaries.
“Yes, I corresponded with Atina online. I believe the name I used was ‘Snow Jobs’?”
She paused for a moment, and then looked down. “Aye. Come in, Miss Jobs.” She met my eyes. “You make any trouble fer Miss Atina, Aye’ll crack yer noggin like a nut.” She spun the soccer ball on one toe, and I nodded in respect. Guardians were meant to be fierce. If they were not, how could they protect their charges? I could stand to be fiercer, but I was never a particularly good guardian.
The door opened, and Atina stood there. She was a striking woman, and I imagine she would have been quite attractive if I had been the type to desire women. She towered over me, forcing me to crane my neck. She paused a moment, and stared at me. “Did you seriously come to my office with white hair, red eyes, and a kimono?”
“I am very stealthy when I wish to be,” I said.
“Whatever you say, Uzumaki.”
“Li Xue Zi.”
“It was-” She shook her head. “Come in. Come in.” She held the door for me, and I nodded politely as I stepped into her office.
I was struck with an overpowering memory of Randall. Life with him had been… savage. Painful. He had given me only scorn and disgust, and it had been a thin gruel to subsist on. It had been better than I deserved, but I could admit some small resentment for him. Randall lived his life in a perpetual war against the supernatural, and from the look of this room, this woman did the same. I recognized the little touches. The iron chair for dealing with creatures of fables. The garlic hanging on the walls, providing a pleasantly spicy scent to the room. The doorknob had been silver, to warn her of demons like me. I didn’t recognize the large tank of water, though. It hummed softly, puffing out mist. I pointed at it. “May I ask, who is that for?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Perceptive. It’s a humidifier. I keep it stocked with holy water in case of Undead. How’d you know it was for dealing with the supernatural?”
“Everything in here is. You feel besieged. It reminds me of my third master. He didn’t think he could trust anyone. In the end… he was right.”
“And you? Can I trust you?”
“I swear to do you no harm.”
“Pretty simple oath. And harm is-”
“Up to you, Miss LeRoux. If you should decide I offend you, if you decide I am discourteous, if you decide I might be working against you, simply declare me a liar, and I shall die.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “That’s… interesting.” She took a seat at the far end of the desk. It looked very comfortable. The seat in front of it was not. “You told me, over the e-mail, that you had questions for me. Why me?”
“Because you are on the internet. There may be greater sources of knowledge, but they are locked away in far places, and they trust no one. You allowed me to make an appointment. And…” I looked down. “You do not seem to hate supernatural things. Most humans who are aware of us have spent a lifetime in conflict with our kind. They look on us as predators. And humans-”
“Hate predators.” Atina frowned. “Li Xue Zi. Beautiful…?” she paused, waiting for me to continue.
“It was the name the first human I ever met gave me. He found me, when I was still just a snake, lying in the snow.” I stared out of the window. It was midsummer. The time of passion, and life. It was warm outside, and pleasant. But I could still feel the cold. “I do not know how I came to his country. Perhaps I had been imported. Perhaps I had been unlucky. But I was dying in the cold. He took me in, and fed me, and made a place of warmth for me. He told me I was beautiful, and named me Li Xue Zi. Beautiful Snow Son.”
Atina paused for a moment. “Son?”
“So you’re male?”
“Huh.” She coughed, and shifted in her seat. “Well, that’s interesting. The very few demons who I’ve talked with are… reluctant, to discuss their origins. The thing is, demons can’t lie directly. My favorite line is when they say ‘You’ve read books about us, haven’t you?’ which was funny the first two or three times and got annoying really quickly after that. A lot of them want people to think that they’re fallen angels, that they’re some fantastic beings from the dawn of time, but if they were, they could just say that, and there’d be no gainsaying them because of the whole lying thing.” She paused for a moment. “Animals… That’s very interesting.” She met my eyes. “You said you wanted to meet with me, but were reluctant to say why.”
I nodded again. “I wanted to make sure that you were…” I blushed. “Genuine.”
“I understand. I take it I’ve done enough to at least somewhat impress you?”
“Yes.” I took a deep breath. “I want to know what I am.” I saw the curious expression on her face, and dropped my head. “The monk, he was a good man. An incredibly good man. He had dedicated his life, marshaled his soul, his Hearth, so as to grant himself immortality.”
“Hearth?” Atina frowned.
“A concept among some circles I travel in. The Hearth is an expression of the soul. It is what you are down in your heart. It is what I feed on. It is… what you are to those around you. My first master had the second strongest hearth of any human I’ve ever met. He was able to cultivate it to make himself live effectively forever. He had lived for four hundred years when I met him. And… I killed him.”
Atina gave me a level look. “I’ve heard that one before. Did you shove a knife in his neck?”
I looked aside. “No. Nothing so obvious. Nothing so simple. I was told… My third master told me that I stole his immortality. That the burden I placed on his soul was too much. He did not have enough energy to sustain his immortality. One morning, I woke up, and he was…” I shivered. “My third master told me that I was a very special kind of demon. A White Snake. We are born when a human gives up immortality in one form or another, for the sake of a snake.”
“Mmm. I know that story. I always kind of liked it, because it was a horror story that became a romance. Weird how often stories of snakes stealing immortality comes up in myth. What do you want to know?”
“I want to know how not to kill my master. My first master I killed through ignorance. My second master I killed through weakness. My third master I killed through duty. I do not want to kill my fourth.”
“Well, we learn from our mistakes. First things first, I’m a lawyer, which means that I have to give you a long list of things I’m not. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an ancient master. What I can do for you here is provide some advice, but I would recommend you consult a yogi or something before making any serious spiritual decisions.” She smiled. “I’ve got to cover my ass on these things. Now, your first master died because he was an immortal who couldn’t sustain himself and you at the same time. Is this a danger with your current master?”
“He is not immortal, so no.” I privately suspected that even if he were, it would not be a problem.
“Good. How’d your second master die?”
I looked down. “I was not there to protect him. I had been knocked unconscious. When I awoke, he was dead, and his brother had become my master. My third master always blamed a god for it.”
“Well, I don’t know if I can help you with that. I’ve never really studied how things like you get stronger. As far as I can understand, it’s a simple matter of age and connections to people. It sounds like running away from your master wouldn’t be a satisfactory answer, either.”
I thought of the cold, and shivered violently. “No. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from him since he became my master.” I’d been away less than six hours, sneaking here on a bus. After this conversation was finished, I’d return to his side.
“How did your third master die?”
I looked down at my feet. The sound of breaking bones echoed in my memories, the sight of blood dripping down a young man’s face. ‘They’re nothing but animals’, Randall’s voice murmured, ‘And they’ll bow to fear even if something that loves them is dying. They don’t know what it means to die for a cause.’
“He gave me instructions to protect his nephew. To ensure that he was not harmed by any being, supernatural or human.” I hadn’t spent more than a few hours away from Horace’s side since then. Even if he had rarely seen me. “Then my third master sought to harm him, because of a disagreement.”
“Sounds like a bastard.”
“He was, in many ways, but the disagreement was significant enough that it was not surprising. I fought against my master. I accomplished little, but I was a part of the chain of events that lead to his death. It was a terrible mistake.” I shook my head. “And now…”
“Do you think your master’d ever try to hurt someone he cares about?”
“Not intentionally,” I said, very softly. Atina’s eyes narrowed a bit, and she leaned forward. “What is the matter?”
“Did you know, you have human body language? Each time you talk about this guy you’re protecting now, you groom your hair.” I stiffened, becoming aware of my fingers twining through a lock of hair. “Sorry to embarrass you, but that’s really interesting. You’re not even a human, but you’re displaying unconscious human behaviors. Unless you’re trying to mess with my head and are doing it to fake being more human.”
“I…” I frowned. “That is a very paranoid state of mind. But no, I had no idea I was doing it until you pointed it out.” I placed both of my hands in my lap.
“Most demons I meet seek to engage the attention of humans. Lots of them use addiction. Drugs, sex, fame, power. A few of them tend towards more… domestic things. Emotional connections. Romance.” Her eyes became distant for a moment. “Cooking.” She looked back at me. “From what I understand, people connect with each other, which nourishes what might be called the soul. Like… trade, say. Both give up something, but receive something they value more in exchange. Wealth is created. And so demons are somewhat like pirates. They make a connection, and take, but don’t give. Metaphysically speaking, it’s parasitism.” I looked down, my lips drawing tighter, and Atina continued. “But, it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Uh?” I looked up, and frowned.
“When you look at the world and think that there’s only one thing worth having, you lose track of what other people value. What does he want?”
I bit my lip. “I think… he wants other people to be safe. To be able to protect them. To care for them. I think he wants to know that he’s not a bad person.”
“Do you talk with him much?”
“No.” I looked down. “I’ve barely spoken with him since we met. Not at all in the last few months. I do know that the closer the connections between a human and a demon, the more power the demon takes from them. I try to keep at arm’s length. That was how my third master wanted it.”
“Have you ever,” Atina asked, and then her face flushed. “Have any of your masters ever… you know?”
I stared blankly.
She coughed, and decided to try another tack. “When was your first… intimate experience?”
My cheeks grew very red. “Oh. That, uh.” I looked down. “You won’t tell anyone, will you? I feel… guilty about it. Ashamed. It was… not something I was supposed to do.”
She placed a hand on mine, comfortingly. “It’s okay. Those kinds of things, they’re not really something for you to be ashamed of. I can offer confidentiality in helping you talk about these things.”
I took a slow, deep breath. The very memory of it brought back terrible shame, and more terrible pleasure. “It was… one of those things that I knew was wrong. That I had been told not to do. But, I was lonely, and it felt good, so I didn’t fight, and…” I buried my face in my hands. “I kissed him. My fourth master.”
“… Oh!” Atina sat there for a moment, as I remembered the burning shame at the action. Intimacy with a human, with my third master’s nephew no less. The warmth of it all had made me feel like I’d spent my entire life cold. “… That’s all?”
“Twice. Once on the lips, once on the cheek.” I groaned softly. “I am a terrible guardian, to do such things.”
“Okay. Let me try to get a handle on this. Most demons define themselves in one of seven ways. Demons of Pride rely on the worship of others. They use power, fame, and so forth to attract human attention. Demons of Wrath rely on fear. They use anger, force, terror. Demons of Envy rely on the inadequacy of others. They use perfection, abundance, carelessness. Demons of Sloth rely on the dependence of others. They make people lazy, do things for them, so that the person relies on them to live. Demons of Greed, demons of Gluttony, demons of Lust… I’m sure they’re all quite self-explanatory. So. Which do you think-”
“Lust,” I said, glad to be back on solid ground.
Atina tapped her fingers on the table. “What makes you say that?”
“I like when people desire me in that way. To see the want in their eyes. The hunger. It feels…” I shrugged. “Flattering. And satisfying. I like to be wanted in that way. I have not felt it much in my life. My first three masters did not have any such desires.”
“Okay. So… You’re a lust demon, who’s freaked out by intimacy. Have you ever had sex?”
I flushed. “That’s something you’re supposed to do with someone you love, and who loves you. That is what I was told.”
“Jesus. You’re a cock-tease demon.” She shook her head. “Okay. And you love this guy.”
“I… I don’t really know what it means to love someone,” I said, flushing a bit.
“Yeah, well, not wanting to kill them and wanting to kiss them are pretty good starts. Look, it sounds like you’re dealing with a relationship problem here, first and foremost. You want this guy to feel about you. So… What are your problems?”
“I suppose there are three of them.” I bit my lip. “First, there is someone else. I suspect she wants to put a claim on him.”
“Yeah. That’s tricky. Well, do you think she’s better than you for him?”
“Then get better. Unless you want to drop your feelings entirely, then try to be a better person. Stronger, more caring, more of what he needs. If that’s what you want to do. If you were human, I’d say that you shouldn’t focus so hard on romantic attraction to someone else, but I rather feel as though with you, it’d be like telling a starving person that they shouldn’t be so fixated on food.”
I nodded slowly. “The second problem is… I do not know what he needs from me. I don’t…”
“Talk to him,” Atina said. “Even if you’re not going to do whatever else, sit down with the guy, and talk with him. About anything. Listen to him. People who are putting themselves out there, who sacrifice a lot, need something like that from time to time. I know you’re afraid of intimacy, but… I have never heard of someone dying from sharing their souls with demons. The things that the demon does to make a human obsessed with them are what makes something horrible happen. People can die from the consequences of a demon’s actions. But I’ve never met a demon, a fairy, or an undead who had to kill to survive. Help him find some balance. Introduce him to some more human activities. And if that brings you two closer together, so much the better.”
I nodded again. “The last problem is that I do not think that he likes men.”
“Ah.” She tented her fingers. “Well, that is a tricky one. I don’t suppose you could shapeshift?”
“I could, but…” I frowned. “Wouldn’t it be a lie? To take the shape of a woman, when I was born male?”
“I mean, you’re getting into a heady philosophical argument there. But you were born in the shape of a snake, right? But you present yourself as human, at least most of the time. You can change.” She frowned. “I suppose it’s a question of how much it would bother you to be female.”
I looked down at myself. “I suppose… I can give it a try. Your suggestion makes sense. And I can’t deny the idea has… appeal.”
I’d not truly chosen my shape. I’d taken it on without thinking about it. Out of a desire to appeal to those I wished to appeal to. My true shape was that of a snake, something they despised. The thought of that was… curious. I could see the idea taking form in my head. Be what someone desired, whether that was male or female… Well. I couldn’t be overt about it. People hate to be pandered to. I slowly inclined my head. Atina smiled. “Anything else?”
“No. I think I can take it from here. When you are in need of aid, I shall owe you a favor, as long as it does not conflict with the plans or morals of my master, or require my certain death.” I bowed my head. “Thank you, Atina LeRoux. I hope we will talk again. For now, I must catch a bus.”
The ride back was uneventful. I left Port Authority, and walked through midtown, considering my strategy. I was a subtle creature, because subtlety was the only way I could overcome my foes. As when I had been a mere beast, I won through surprise. The first step would be getting Bastet out of the apartment. This turned out to be less of a challenge than I expected, because when I entered the small studio apartment Horace was working his ass off to afford, Bastet was filling a backpack with an annoyed look on her face. “Going somewhere?”
Her tail fluffed out, hairs standing on end, and she took a moment to turn around, which was how I knew I’d scared the hell out of her. She gave me a baleful look, and I smiled innocently. “As it happens, I need to go upstate, to investigate another Shark Belly Slashing. Though I think this one was just a plain old robbery.”
I frowned. “I thought they’d stopped.”
“They had. After you caught those two fish, and let them get away,” she added very tartly, “the attacks effectively stopped. We haven’t heard anything about them in months. If this is just a robbery, no big deal. If it isn’t…”
“Ah,” I said, and nodded. “Makes sense.” I paused for a moment, and considered my options. “I intend to seduce Horace.”
“That’s nice,” she said, rolling her eyes as she packed. I frowned. Frankly, I’d expected her to try to disembowel me.
“I thought it only fair to warn you. It is not meant as an attack, but I will win his heart.”
“Good luck.” She frowned, and fished out a scarf. “Have you seen Horace’s Love God t-shirt?”
“He’s been hiding it from you, underneath the bed.” I huffed out a breath, nonplussed. “I honestly expected you to put up more of a fuss. Do you not wish to stake a claim on Horace?”
Bastet paused a moment, and turned. “Li, come on. I don’t wish to stake a claim on him. I already have. He’s mine. Do you really think you,” she said, with the most dismissive flick of a hand I’d ever seen, “can compete with this?” She drew her hands down her sides, showing off. She was not currently wearing any clothes, and it made an annoyingly good point. My shoulders sagged slightly. “Come on. We’ve both seen the way that Horace looks at me.”
“Yes, well.” I straightened again, lifting my chin. “I thought it only fair to warn you. Good luck in Binghamton.”
“Don’t get all clingy and despondent if he turns you down. Men hate that, you know.” She smiled. “Good luck failing with Horace tonight!”
I watched as she left, and very nearly gave up right there. She had a point, harsh though she was. What was I thinking? What did I even have to offer? Horace needed a master of magic to make him the hero he wanted so badly to be. He needed to win the lottery. He needed Phoebe, Randall, and his parents not to be dead. I looked around the apartment, and tidied it up after where Bastet had been, moving everything into its proper place. Then, I looked at the stove.
When the door opened, Horace had a stungun drawn and leveled at me. He stared for a few seconds, his mouth open, his finger still on the trigger of the taser. I stood by the stove in the small kitchen area, the rice nearly finished cooking. “Oh, Horace. You’re home early. Please, sit down, dinner will be on the table in a moment. Was work well?”
“Christ, when I smelled food cooking, I thought someone had broken in.”
“Your first instinct was not that someone you know might be cooking, but that it must be a hostile intruder?” I frowned at him. The depressing part was that he had a point. “Well, Betty is out for the next couple of nights, following up on a lead. I am here-”
“Oh, shit.” He looked around quickly. “Is there something wrong? Is something about to attack?”
That… hurt. Confessedly, he had precedent on his side. Almost every time I’d shown myself to him, it had been to save him from a violent death. But it still hurt. “No. Nothing wrong. I wanted to do… something, for you.”
He nodded. “Alright, then… I guess you were feeling a bit lonely, wherever you were off hiding?” He smiled cheerfully. “It smells great. What is it?”
“Rice.” I smiled. “My special rice.” The secret ingredient was salt, fat and various meat drippings. This is the secret ingredient to nearly all good cooking. Horace stepped over towards a small table, and knelt down by it. He placed a small stick of incense into a holder in front of a small golf trophy, and lit it. The scent of lavender filled the air. I carefully ladled the rice into bowls, steam rising from it. It was a simple meal, but satisfying, full of carbohydrates and fats and proteins, all the things the body needed after a long day on your feet. Horace worked fast food because that was the only jobs he could find, and they tended to fire him once or twice a month.
I had never been quite certain why Horace could not find steady work. He worked hard, and I found him charming. For a moment, I thought about the people around him. They always seemed to do well. Two of his human friends had received great success and recognition in the crisis last September. I wondered for a moment just how much of himself Horace gave away. Then I realized he was speaking. “Sorry? My head was miles away.”
“I was just asking how you’d been. It’s been weeks since I last saw you. I’ve been worried.”
I’ve been no more than a few hundred feet from you for most of the last nine months. I watch you sleep at night. I like the way you smell. These are all fantastic examples of things that I could have said that were absolutely true, and would have been terrible to admit. My shoulders lowered a little bit. What on earth did I think that I was doing? I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t become close to him. I couldn’t even admit my true feelings to him. I was nothing but a stupid, thoughtless snake. I lowered my eyes to my food, and stood up. “I should go. This was a mistake.”
I took three steps towards the door, and he caught me by the hand. His fingers were so warm they almost burned. The air around him seemed to light on fire. The old man in Tibet had been the second strongest Hearth I had ever felt. Horace’s hearth left it far behind. I didn’t know why. His father and his uncle had not been peculiar in the strength of their hearth. His mother had been, so far as I knew, perfectly ordinary. So far as I could tell, Horace was simply a freak of nature. His soul burned ferociously, and he gave all that he had away to others. “I’d really like it if you stayed here a little longer.”
I had one thing Betty did not. I could be honest with him. I turned to him, and said, “I think that I love you, Horace.”
He froze, obvious tension in his eyes. “Li… I, ah…”
“If it is because I am a man, I will change that, if it is because you have feelings for the others, I can tolerate unfaithfulness, if it is because you are worried that I will be weak, I will be strong, but I do not want to simply forget about it and give up! I do not want to go back out into the cold!”
One of those things I shouldn’t have said. I saw the way his lips formed a hard line, and turned my head away. “I like you, Li.”
“But not in that way,” I said, doing my best not to be bitter. I felt lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. What could have possessed me?
His arms slid around me in a hug, and he squeezed me tight for a long few seconds. Then he let go of me. The warmth lingered. “Have you ever had… just, a wonderful dream? You fell in love, found just what you wanted, and then, you woke up?”
I frowned. “I don’t really dream. But I think I can imagine what that would feel like.”
“Yeah.” He took a seat, and I sat down across from him. “It feels like I’m in a dream. Like… things finally are in a good place. Like I finally found happiness. And that makes everything feel so fragile. Like there just has to be one small shock, and it’ll all be gone. Dying… That’s not the scariest thing I can imagine. The scariest thing I can imagine is…”
His eyes turned towards the statue, and there was a hollowness in his eyes. “Losing people,” I said very softly.
“Yeah. And so it’s scary to be offered something like this, but I care about you, and if I reciprocated those feelings, what would happen with Betty? The way things are now, it’s not quite heaven, but it’s…”
“Balanced.” I looked down at my feet, my shoulders sagging a little bit.
“But I’m really glad to see you again. I like having you around. And this…” He dug a spoon into the rice, and took a bite. He chewed, closed his eyes, and smiled. “Is an amazingly nice thing to come home to. I do care about Betty, but she doesn’t do this kind of thing. You know?” He was quiet for a moment. “I want you to be a part of my life, Li. I just don’t think I could promise to make you the only thing in my life.”
I felt a little spasm of anger at myself. Addiction. Consumption. Greed. “I don’t want that,” I said, a bit too quickly. The truth was that I did, but I couldn’t have it. Humans could be greedy. Humans could ask someone to be theirs, and theirs alone. I absolutely couldn’t. That would make me just a demon. “I want… to give you something. In exchange for what you give me.”
He smiled. “I don’t really know if there’s anything I need.” I looked around at the small apartment. The handful of possessions. He didn’t keep much of anything for himself. He flinched away from gifts, from offers, from everything that was given to him. I had not seen him much growing up. I wondered what on earth made him refuse to allow himself to be rewarded.
“I have stories,” I said. “About Randall and Oliver.” I noticed the slight widening of his eyes. “They had many adventures. They did many heroic things, in their time. Randall lost his spirit, and he was never a kind man, but there were moments when he was magnificent. And your father was so kind, sometimes.” I was quiet for a moment. “I could tell you about them, if you’d like.”
Horace nodded, very softly, his eyes a bit wide. And I felt the warmth of his Hearth, deep in my chest, pulsing from his excitement. I held the smile from my lips. This was something I could do. It was greedy. I was the only one who could tell him these stories, now. To use them as a way to win his heart made me feel guilty. And yet… It also felt good. I couldn’t be a demon.
But I didn’t have to be a saint.
“Once, when your uncle and father were only twenty three, the Order of Set found itself beset by a cult that worshiped a word…”