“You know,” said Betty, her eyes narrowed, “You’re an unusually arrogant human. I can admit I find that admirable. It takes real stones to wear someone’s skin in front of their friends and family.”
Ghede Linto chuckled. “Well, arrogance is only arrogance when you can’t back it up. Isn’t that right, Nash?” He looked from side to side, studying Betty and Samedi. “Neither of you are the slightest threat to me.”
Nash could feel the truth in the words. Perhaps a bit of arrogance tainting them, but not enough to change the fact that he was confident of his victory. It prickled at Nash. His blood was still pounding through his veins from the fight. Fatigue and muscle pains were making themselves known. Even avoiding any serious blows, his body was still feeling the aftereffects of the fight. It took a great deal of effort to fight, especially at the levels that he did. He let his breath come out in a slow rush, and then looked into the shapeshifter’s eyes. “What about me?”
Ghede Linto didn’t answer. His eyes shifted aside, as he frowned. “Well, you’re kind of a threat to everyone, aren’t you Nash? Let me be open with all of you. Blunt. I am working for Prester John. And he is the one who stole your children away, it is true. Not because he wished to harm them. In fact, only one of them needs to be harmed. And that one has already been chosen. Your children will be returned safely to you by tomorrow morning.”
“Just like that,” said Baron Samedi, his head tilted.
“Just like that.” As far as Nash could tell, Ghede Linto wasn’t lying.
“Tell me. You killed Ghede Linto. You killed any of our other people?”
“Now, now,” said the shapeshifter, smiling. “I don’t kill. I eat. And I’m very good at it. I took Ghede Linto for the same reason that the children were taken. To keep you from interfering. Now that you’ve found out, well… Life is precious. I wouldn’t want to take it unnecessarily. Here.”
The dark-skinned little man began to make retching noises. Thick, gagging sounds, choking and unpleasantly organic, the beginnings of sounds, cut off. Glottal. He bent forward, and retched, and then- he twisted, and with a splattering noise, something hit the floor, honey-thick and vaguely flesh-colored. It rebounded and took the shape of a man. Hispanic, dressed in a fine silk shirt, handsome, with hair gone white as snow. Ghede Linto stood up, looking deeply ill, and bemused, his head shaking from side to side.
Domingo Santigo smiled. “You see? Like the Transubstantiation, I can eat of the flesh and the blood, take it into myself, but not diminish what it was taken from. It’s funny, you know. I am the only being that can do so perfectly. In all other animals, when you eat, you diminish what you consume.” He paused a moment, and his eyes went to Betty. “Well. Almost all.”
Nash looked over his shoulder. The only one who didn’t look completely nauseated was Betty. She had her arms crossed, and a frown on her face as she said, “Odd.”
“I am an odd person,” responded Santigo. Nash turned his head, and sniffed at the air. Now that he knew what to look for, he could smell it on the shapeshifter. A peculiar non-scent, almost, like the smell of a new car or a fresh set of CDs. The scent of ozone, so faint it was barely there. He frowned at Ghede Linto. “And how do we know that this is not just another trick?”
“Put him in isolation, bind him in chains, keep him from manifesting until the plan is finished here. I don’t particularly care. I’m doing you a favor, and it’s not my feelings that will be hurt when you don’t trust him.” He winked. “I’m here for a different reason. I’m here to tell you to join us.”
“You’re fucking with us,” said Nash, his voice quite calm.
“Yes, but a little fucking is good for you.” Santigo grinned. “Pardon me if I swear, I’ve still got the taste of Ghede between my teeth.”
“You took away my child,” said the Baron, his eyes cold. “You have been sabotaging my men. You ate Linto. What makes you think for even a second that I’m going to help you, or anyone you are associated with?”
“Let’s go through everyone. Baron Samedi. You want an end to your painful rule. The crown doesn’t suit you. Why do you think I’ve been trying to persuade you to drink?” The rakish man grinned. “You have been struggling against your very nature. Striving to be serious and sober. Destroying your own power by doing so, and making things worse. You could have interfered with all of this days ago. Had you been drinking, as you should, you would have behaved unpredictably. Taken risks. Thrown in sooner, and said to hell with caution.”
“So why keep offering me drinks?” asked the Baron, his eyes narrowed, his nasal voice growing irritable. “Every fucking day, one drink after another. I spilled more alcohol in the last week than I have in my entire existence, and that is a sufficient sin for which to render you down into a fine paste. Why bother?”
“Well, of course, to goad you. To tempt you. To keep your mind on what you were denying yourself, to make you less effective. And if you did drink it, if you gave into temptation… A little something to put you to sleep.” Domingo licked his lips slowly. “I am not much of a carrion-eater, but I can be persuaded to give it a try, for the right god. Dead meat is still tasty.”
“I remember a girl who was into that,” said the Baron, quite levelly. “I unwisely told her to bite me.”
“Funny!” Domingo laughed, though it wasn’t a very pleasant sounding laugh. It came across harsh and monosyllabic. More like a series of very slow coughs than anything else. “Regardless. I am here to offer you all everything your heart could desire. Baron Samedi. You first. Your children, and the children of all of the Loa, to be delivered to you at dawn, unharmed, intact. No more than a few bad dreams.” His eyes drifted across Marinette, Brigitte, and Erzulie in turn. “The same for you three.”
“In exchange for?” asked the Baron.
“Nothing. Sit here. Spend the night in oblivion. Do not help these two. Do not interfere.”
“And in exchange for that, you promise, on your honor, to return our children.”
“Of course.” He was telling the truth, and Nash felt an unsettling sense that the Baron believed him.
The Baron took a slow, deep breath, and nodded, considering. His expression was very grave. “Well. I think that you can take your fucking offer and shove it sideways up your own ass, then jerk yourself-”
Nash rocked back slightly as the tidal wave of invective washed over him. The Ghede family were well known for the curses, among other things. He’d thought he’d seen some real masters at work. He realized, now, that they were like the fumbling attempts of a first-grade recorder recital. Baron Samedi was Bach sitting down at his organ, playing the opening chords of Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565. At a certain point, the words seemed to lose their individuality, and become part of an ongoing torrent of anger and frustration.
Erzulie clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide, her painted lips visible behind her fingers. Marinette winced slightly at one of the more piercing profanities. Ogoun looked faintly ill at one of the more anatomically improbable suggestions. Mamam Brigitte’s cheeks were flushed, and she was biting her lower lip with obvious arousal. Betty looked like she was trying to memorize every word.
“-and the quim-guzzling aristocratic horse you rode in on!” finished the Baron. The agent of the Horsemen rocked back on his feet slightly, and ran a hand through his hair, which looked faintly as though he’d been standing in a stiff breeze.
“I take it that the same goes for you, Bastet, Nash?”
“Oh, definitely,” said Betty. “In those exact words.”
Nash didn’t answer. He just waited for the hook.
“Then how about I tell you something? A plan. Nash, you broke a city, once.”
“I didn’t have much choice. Children were going to die.”
“Yes. And you made a choice. You thought that the way the city was destroyed mattered. After all, the way the children died mattered, didn’t it? Two young lovers, just reunited, and betrayed by a jealous friend. Torn apart. That was War’s plan, wasn’t it? To destroy Zion, and in doing so, incarnate herself in this world, devouring the power of an entire City to become a terror that even the Sisters could not stop. Madness incarnate.”
“More or less,” Nash hedged.
“So, the same is planned now. The essence of Christianity is sacrifice. Prester John will sacrifice his daughter, not out of hate, but out of love. God shall be born, and God’s love shall be bestowed upon all. The promised time, when the Lord turns his face back to his creation. An end to the strife and the struggle.”
“Famine,” said Betty softly. “You fucking jackass moron, you’re going to try to make Famine incarnate. That’s what Tezcatlipoca meant.”
“Not the kind of God I’d want ruling over things,” said Nash.
“Really?” Santigo’s eyes meant Nash’s, and there was something in there that Nash couldn’t identify. Hunger, maybe. “You can’t imagine a Horseman doing good for the world? You, of all people?”
Nash didn’t stiffen. It took everything he had, Pearl’s powers included, to not give away more. Maybe they still didn’t know about War. “I have a counter-proposal. Give up. Surrender to me. Accept my protection. I will not let anyone kill you, or Prester John.” He turned his head towards Marinette and Brigitte. “In exchange, you return all of the children, now, and preserve Paradise.” He turned back towards Santigo. “You can’t beat me.”
“Not in a fight, no. I doubt anyone in Prester John’s employ is so foolish as to give you the chance. But we’re hardly going to let you play to your strengths.”
“One more thing,” said Nash. “Why did you really leave Linto? I can’t help but notice you’re not spitting up the feathered serpent or that parrot.”
“Why, to mess with your minds.” Santigo grinned broadly. “Is he Linto, or is he me? Is he a traitor, or is he a victim? Does he know my secrets, or will it all be lies? Ambiguity is just so… mesmerizing.” He turned, and then laughed. “One more thing. Betty. Legba wasn’t wrong. Horace is in mortal peril.”
And then he was gone.
“Ogoun, get Linto a good seat with locks on it. Erzulie, get the man some pink champagne. He’s earned it. You alright, Linto?”
“Hungh,” said Linto, shaking his head. “Feels like I ate year-old crawfish.”
“Just another Saturday night, then,” said the Baron, jovially. He looked up at Nash. “Hey. I don’t suppose that you could help me out here? You can tell when people have that power in them, yeah? The power of the Horsemen?”
Nash looked away from Betty, who still had a distant look of pain on her soft lips. “Yeah? Yeah. Sorry.” He shook his head. “I can’t promise I can catch it. I’ve always gotten the impression that if the Sisters or the Horsemen really wanted you to not notice one of their servitors, they’d make it happen.” Still. He stood up, and rested a hand on the small, dark-skinned man’s forehead, closing his eyes. The god’s power roiled there, still bubbling away. Nash looked long and hard, but he couldn’t find any trace of Conquest’s power, nothing like the silver worm he’d plucked from Itzpapalotl. He gave Baron Samedi a shrug.
“Mmm. Best I can hope for. So.” The Baron squared his shoulders, and stared at Nash, and a slow grin spread across his name. “You’re the man who fought Izanami and lived, eh? I think you’re the first man to touch her so intimately since she left her husband.”
“That’s right,” said Nash, frowning. “You know Izanami, then?”
“Know her? I’m the one who got her to start smoking!”
“Oh.” Nash shook his head. “Pearl absolutely hated that habit.”
“Course she did!” Baron Samedi laughed uproariously. “Everyone hates a smoker, and everyone hates a drinker, when they’re not allowed to do the same! Not to say Pearl isn’t smoking, though.” He gave Nash a gigantic grin, and a broad wink. “So. You got a message for me, eh? What’s that crazy gender-swapping bitch Tezcatlipoca got to say to me now, eh?” He held out a hand. Nash held out the scroll, hesitated for a moment, and then took a deep breath. The smell of rum and tobacco and embalming fluid swirled around Samedi like a perfume. He didn’t smell of anything like the Horsemen. “Paranoid, Nash?”
“A little.” He handed the scroll over. Baron Samedi nodded sagely.
“Good man. Saved my wife and my friends by being paranoid.” He looked down at Ogoun. “Oy, get up, you big baby, the man barely laid a finger on you.”
“Ah, come on, that hurt,” said the big god, frowning as he stood up. He rubbed his ear. “He was gentle with all the ladies! And they tried very hard to kill him!”
“Oh, walk it off, you big softy,” said Erzulie, but she smiled and kissed his ear, the flesh flowing back together, beads of blood slipping back into the wound. Ogoun flushed like a schoolboy, rubbing the back of his head, but held out a fist to Nash. He hesitated for a moment, but then reached out, letting his knuckles rap against Ogoun’s. The momentary contact felt surprisingly heartening.
Baron Samedi broke the seal, and chuckled as he read over the page. “Well, look at that. The god of blood, the enemy of both sides, wants to chat. Wants to discuss an armistice, and an alliance. You know what I have to say about that, don’t you, Marinette?” He drew this thumb sharply across the edge of the paper, and spread a single drop of shockingly red blood onto the signature line. “About fucking time!”
Smoke billowed, black as pitch, rising from the signature line. It filled the ballroom, gusting out in tremendous sweeping lines, pouring across the people. Some of the lesser Vemana let out cries of shock and fear as the smoke began to retreat.
Standing there, in their full splendor, were the gods of the Aztecs. Xipe Totec, shorn of skin, Huitzilopochtli still bloodied, Tezcatlipoca on one leg, Itzpapalotl all in bones. Tezcatlipoca took an unsteady step forward, and then bowed her head, sinking down onto the knee of her bad leg, her head bowed. “Baron.”
“Not a usual thing, a god as strong as you, bowing their head,” said the Baron, his arms crossed. “Fuck’s sakes, get up, I ain’t going to make you go through this whole rigamarole. You couldn’t get much lower than sending this guy to apologize for you!” He grinned, and held a hand out to Tezcatlipoca. The goddess was not too proud to take it and accept the help standing up.
Bella appeared opposite of Nash, on the other side of the Loa and the Aztec Gods. Baron Samedi and the other gods took an involuntary step backwards from the red-haired woman. “Samedi. I have appraised the gods of the Mexicas of the battle plan. We strike at the golden hour, in a few hours. Ogoun and Huitzilopochtli, you will lead the charge. Marinette, Itzpapalotl, you will be harrying their holdings, shattering and defacing the murals throughout the city. We will force them to take the field. When Michael commits, withdraw, force him to pursue. Do not face him directly. I will aid you in the field of battle. Make things… even.”
Nash’s eyes widened. “Are you sure-”
“We can hardly afford to hold back. The Sisters cannot interfere directly. I absolutely can.” She shook her head. “With every facade, you must choose the perfect moment to drop it. I couldn’t hide this forever. Whatever comes next, victory or oblivion, we’ll face it together.” She smiled. “Nash, Bastet, Legba, Tezcatlipoca, Samedi. The five of you will enter the tower, and capture Prester John. Baron, you can use his blood along with your own and Tezcatlipoca’s to find the children, correct?”
The Baron nodded. “I can. But I’ll need a drink or two to do it.”
Nash frowned. “Really? I thought… Well-”
“What’s the point of being dead if you can’t be inappropriate?” said the Baron, grinning. “For humans, alcohol is a poison. It’s a way to kill yourself, in small ways or big. But I’m already dead.” He looked down at the small hunks of gold that had been Linto’s rings. “I wanted to be sober. But that wasn’t me. It wasn’t doing a service to anyone. I’m not a damn role model, Nash, come on.” He whistled, and a woman appeared at his side, carrying a glass of rum which smelled like it was 300 proof. He tossed it back, and let out a whoop, grinning. “Dead or living, everyone loves a party! You know the tune, Nash!”
“If you’re going to walk into the far and sunless land, carry the world of the living in your bellies, and in your hearts,” said Nash, softly. The room was quiet for a moment. Then there was a distant blast of a trumpet, and a particularly boozy song started. Nash watched as Mamam Brigitte stepped up to her husband, and with a look of some embarrassment, embraced him, planting a kiss on the Baron’s cheek.
“I’m glad, husband. I didn’t like what not drinking was doing to you.” She gently patted him on the shoulder, and the Baron looked embarrassed, and happier than he had since he was there. “Well, we’ve got a few hours. Better get the world of the living in your bellies!”
It was amazing how quickly the party started again, the Aztec gods dispersing among the Loa and the Vemana. Where before there had been fear and tension, the tenor of the night had shifted on a fundamental level. Everyone was getting ready to go to war, to put themselves in harm’s way. Together. Everyone had the same thing to lose, and the same things to win. It could have fostered mistrust, suspicion, anger. But it didn’t. Maybe that was War’s doing, giving them all the common cause.
He saw Bella, in the crowd. She met his eyes for a moment, and then she was gone.
But Nash was getting faster and faster all the time. He moved through the crowd, and caught her by the time they reached the door out onto the streets, catching her by the arm. “Going?”
“I should. I have to prepare.”
“What more is there to prepare?” asked Betty, her hand wrapping around Bella’s other arm. “You’re fighting on the side of the angels, now.” She paused, and considered the statement. “Well, fighting on the side that’s right, at least. We’re going to attack soon, we’re going to throw ourselves into it. Why not have some fun?” She winked at Bella. “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?”
“I-” Bella opened and closed her mouth, and set her lips in a hard line, settling for a glare. Nash tugged her.
“Come on. You want to stop being hated, right? You want to stop being the War that destroys people, families, nations. You have to be close to people to change the way they think about you. I can’t do it all on my own. If you want to be Bella, here’s where it’s important.” He smiled gently.
“What if they remember what I’ve done to them?” Bella asked, and suddenly, her voice held an almost childish tenor of guilt and shame. “I’m responsible for the bad things that happened to them. I embodied them, I encouraged them, I-”
“You acted according to your nature,” said Betty. “That, in and of itself, is not a crime. It may be a cause for someone to kill you, but it can’t be called wrong. What you’re doing now… Maybe it’s wrong, acting against your nature, but it’s also a change for the better. Besides, you don’t think that Nash would let anyone hurt you, do you?”
“I don’t think there’s anyone capable of hurting her that I could stop,” said Nash, and gave a smile. “Come on.”
And so, slowly, reluctantly, Bella joined the party.
She threw back pink champagne with Erzulie. She stole a few canapés with Marinette, and the two of them laughed about the little egg cream custard filling the tiny pastry shells. Samedi swore at her, but she swore back just as vigorously. Nash watched, and he felt that peculiar sense of envy and happiness at seeing someone better than him, and knowing that he was glad they were better than him. He stood next to Betty, the two of them standing in a corner of the room, away from the others. Betty nodded at the red-headed woman. “She’s a real natural at this.”
“War, the concept, can be very attractive. And it really brings people together. Gives them a common cause.” He gave her a smile, and she returned it. She still looked slightly sickly. “Betty. You can go. Your human is in danger.” He was quiet for a moment. “If Ariel was going to die, do you think that I’d be here, rather than tracking down Jack and beating his face in?”
“You’re not a face-beater, Nash.”
“You haven’t seen me when I’m really angry. I can do this, Betty. The whole point is that with two people capable of these things, we can split up.”
She took a slow, deep breath, and shook her head. “I have to believe he’ll be okay. He beats himself up about his uncle dying after the bastard nearly beat him to death. He’s self-sacrificing to a fault. If he found out that I left a world-destroying event unchecked because I was worried about him, it’d just make him feel more guilty.” She frowned. “And I don’t know that Santigo was telling the truth. Was he?”
“I…” Nash shook his head. “As far as I could tell.”
“But you could be wrong.”
“There you go, then.” Her tail flicked, agitated. “It’s just- I never really told him how I felt about him. I mocked him. Teased him.” She looked down at her feet. “All I could think about, when Jack and Jill had me cornered, was how badly I wanted to see him again. How much I would give for someone to save me.” She looked across at me. “He wants to save everyone. He tortures himself day and night, giving everything he has to take care of as many people as he can. For fucks sakes, he works in fast food just to make sure that I don’t starve, and that I have a roof over my head.” She crossed her arms tightly, her expression dark. “Why do bad things have to happen to decent people?”
“Because the universe, so far as I understand it, is cold, vast, uncaring, and inimical to life.” Nash waved a hand up at the ceiling. “I don’t really believe in a God, or anything like that. So far as I understand, existence is full of vast quantities of places that simply don’t care about humans. If the Horsemen won tomorrow, the universe would keep humming along, and it would never notice. We’d be just another species that failed. Even on the Earth, things would keep going more or less like they have for the past five billion years. Everything I know says that the universe doesn’t care about humans.”
“Yeah. But look at the other side of it. In spite of that, humans can still find it in them to be decent. They can care about things. They coordinate with everything. With cats.” He reached over, and scratched behind Betty’s ears. She closed her eyes, and purred, leaning into the scratching. “With gods. With the earth and the sea and the fire and the wind. Humans have to believe in faith, hope, and love, because the universe certainly won’t. I can see a kind of beauty in all of that.” He grinned over at her. “And who would be stupid enough to hurt him? Come on. You’ve got lots of enemies. They’re probably trying to lure you into a trap. They wouldn’t dare kill him. And when you arrive, if they get you over a barrel, you can always call me.”
Betty let out a sharp laugh, and covered her mouth, smiling a bit. “I’m sorry. I’ve never had someone who could talk like that. The other gods didn’t fucking care, you know? They wanted to leave it all to humans. And humans, they cared, but none of them ever seemed to be able to do anything, it’s just…” She shook her head slowly. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one, now. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s fighting.” She looked over at him. “Have you thought about where you’re going after this?”
“I haven’t, really. It’s hard to think ahead. The other cities are in peril, too. I don’t even know what might be happening in them. The last time, I wandered for a year, just trying to find a way in.” He looked down at himself. “I ran into a few agents of the Horsemen on the way. Got into a few fights. Didn’t even realize the scale of the things that were happening. It’s… I don’t know.” He smiled. “I’m kind of amazed by you, Betty. Even as a god, you’ve done this for… how long?”
“About 2500 years that I’ve been freelance.”
“And you’re alive. You’ve been fighting on. I want to be like that. I want to keep protecting people like this. It’s all-”
The two of them looked up. Bella stood on the dance floor. Her expression was as cold as ever. But there was the slightest hint of a quirked lip. She waved for him. He sighed. “Bella, I can’t dance.”
“You fought off three Loa goddesses on this dance floor a few hours ago, Nash. Come.” She gestured again, and he stood up straight, approaching her. She held out her hands. He took them, unsure of where to place his hands. She stepped, and he stiffened, nearly tripping. “Relax.”
“I’d prefer to watch you dance. I’m not good at this kind of thing, Bella.”
“Just follow. It takes two to tango.”
The beat started up quickly. She moved again, and this time, he let himself move with her, trusting her. She took quick, sharp steps, and shifted quickly, forcing him to move with her as the pace increased. Her red dress spun around her. The smell of blood and gunpowder rose around her, ferocious and wild, but behind it was the distant sweet smell of flowers on soldiers’ graves. She sped up, and so did he, and soon, the two of them moved across the dance floor, the beat reaching a wild and fevered tempo beat.
There were people all around them. Watching them. The eyes of astonished gods and heroes and monsters, as she rested her head against his chest for a moment. The urge to become self conscious, to feel anxious and frightened rose up. But he didn’t need Pearl to hold it down. The pace of the dance was enough to keep him distracted. He wasn’t good. He was barely keeping up with her.
Then Bella lifted her head, and those shining green eyes met his.
Nash’s chest ached, and he let go of her, the speed of the dance letting him spin away. He stumbled, but kept his feet, and the music came to a stop. He stood up, breathing hard, and gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Not much of a dancer.” He turned, and moved through the crowd, trying to put some distance. His head was spinning, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the dance, the exertion, or the embarrassment that was causing it. He could feel Bella’s eyes on his back, and he couldn’t turn his head to meet her gaze.
It could be something else.
It could be his soul getting ready to burn.
He stopped short as Betty appeared out of the archway in front, her head tilted. “Doing okay there?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, and he felt the burning flush on his cheeks. His heart had hurt, for just a moment. Like some long-felt numbness had dropped away, and he’d felt the hurt of too much loneliness. He didn’t know if it was his soul regrowing, or just what a person was supposed to feel when they were lonely and hurting. But he didn’t want to reveal that weakness. “Just… Damn. I’m not good at that kind of thing. You know. Anything except fighting.”
“Most people in the world are pretty awful at everything they try, Nash. Most people in the world are lucky to have a single thing they’re half-decent at.” She smiled. “People like a man who can’t dance more than one who can. People who can dance perfectly the first time they try are a bunch of show-off pricks.” She slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. We’re almost at golden hour anyway. Time to finish this.”
“Come on.” He smiled. “You don’t think it’s going to be that easy, do you?”
“We distract Michael, grab Prester John, save the kids. Famine can’t manifest. Jack gives up in the face of the full force of this place, arrayed against him. What can go wrong?” She gave him a sardonic smile.
“You’re just deliberately trying to jinx us, aren’t you?”
“Hey, we’re not going to succeed unless we’re the plucky underdogs. Gotta tempt fate some, so it isn’t a foregone conclusion.” She prodded him gently in the ribs. “That’s the whole thing Bella was pulling with you, and it certainly seemed to work. Happy endings are a thing that only happen in stories. So why not embrace that?”
“Well, in that case.” He smiled, and held out his hand. Betty reached out, and squeezed it. “You’ll get back in time for your human. I promise.”