“Mmmm?” Chaac looked up from her tea.
“What’s it like to drink someone’s blood? I mean… fresh.”
“Ah.” She pondered the question for a moment. “Messy. You want to go for a vein. Arteries leave such a mess everywhere.” She tilted her head. “Or do you mean how does it feel emotionally?”
“Emotionally, though I’m sure that advice will come in handy if I ever get hungry during a fancy party,” I said, smiling slightly.
Chaac had tried to kill me, mostly indirectly, but with extreme enthusiasm. She had been indirectly responsible for the death of my first boyfriend. She had tried to kill Atina, and Polly, and Alfred, all in order to get to me. This entire brutal savage escapade had been because, when Chaac was a little girl, her nation had wronged another nation, and the Camazotz, a race of immortal bat-like vampires who were the next best thing to gods, had taken vengeance. They had destroyed her village, and over the next few centuries she had destroyed them, one by one, until the only ones left were her, and I. And she’d been stopped. And she had taken a long moment, and looked at everything that she had done, everything she had sacrificed, and how utterly alone she had become.
Atina had offered her and the other conspirators a choice: spend the rest of eternity making up for their mistake, or greet the dawn. Every one of them except Chaac had taken the contract. Chaac had waited for the dawn, because she hadn’t seen anything else. She’d waited for the dawn with Atina, alone, and I had watched. I had thought about whether it would make any damn difference to kill her, if it would make a point, or if it would just lead me to the same lonely place she had found.
Atina always told me that someone had to be the first to forgive. You didn’t have, necessarily, to let someone off the hook. But you had to be prepared to say “The world is better with you in in it, no matter what you’ve done.” “Someday, you might be forgiven.”
I was still probably a long way from forgetting what Chaac had done. But I was glad that she had not died in the sun on that morning. If nothing else, she had revealed that I could stand in the sunlight again. As the two of us sat on her porch, her solidly beneath the shade of the overhang, me resting in the sunlight with my cup of tea and enjoying the brilliant July summer, I had to admit that she had done me a great favor there, even if it was done in total ignorance.
“Of course, the emotions behind feeding… vary. Doing it for food, doing it out of intimacy, doing it to kill, doing it to create… Are you planning on drinking someone’s blood?” Chaac asked, an amused expression flitting across her features. “Don’t tell me that you’ve finally found someone you wish to bestow the gift to.”
“No. I think I’d need to be a great deal more certain about its status as a gift. And imagine the trouble it would cause if I simply gave that kind of power to anyone…”
“Ah hah. Yes. You know, Hun-Came spent quite some time investigating. She had her ways. Questioning the ancestors, and all that. She was very certain when it came to you and your boyfriend. In all this city, she thought the two of you were the most ideal specimens she could find.”
I blinked. “I thought were just… convenient. Chosen at random.”
“At random? After five hundred years, deprived of the last enclaves of our kind, and forced to change our ways, and you thought she would leave it up to chance? No. She saw something in you. In your poetry. She only occasionally shared her mind, but she believed that you would bring beautiful things into this world. That your creativity would brighten existence. Whatever path you took, you would make it a better one by adding beauty to it.”
“And…” I looked down at my hands. I hated to think about Tony. It ached, and it didn’t stop aching, but I saw the undead women around me who never stopped hurting when they thought about the people they loved, and I tried not to dwell so much on those thoughts that they ate me up. But sometimes you had to prod the tooth to see if it still hurt. “What about Tony.”
“He… was a principled young man, wasn’t he? Determined. Fierce, in his own way. You have a type.”
“I suppose I do.”
“He would have made the world a better place in a different way.”
“Ah.” I looked down “Subtraction, rather than addition. Did he… really strike you as the kind of man who would be that way?”
“Let me say simply that he seemed like the kind of man who could be that way, to Hun-Came. Of course, of the two of you, yours was the more important. He was intended to be targeted against whatever was killing us. Which, as it happens, was me. Your job was to return life to the line of the Camazotz, to provide a path for us to return.”
I nodded slowly, looking down at my hands. “I do not know if Hun-Came chose well. I don’t think that I’m a very good choice.”
“She was not omniscient. But she was very good at reading people. Far from perfect, though.” She smiled. “As I aptly demonstrate. But why do you think she was wrong about you?”
“It doesn’t feel like… creation OR destruction are going to help anything here. Making a new Camazotz isn’t going to help the situation we’re in. And there’s no one for me to destroy. I can beat up symptoms as they crop up, I can save people for a little while, but the only thing I really want is for Alfred to survive this, and… I don’t know if I can.”
“You could always bite him,” said Chaac, quite frankly. I looked up, a bit surprised.
“Turn him into a Camazotz. The two of you could live together. Love between immortals is… difficult, prone to occasional breakups and drama that would make a playwright blush, but there are those who have spent an appreciable fraction of human history locked in the bonds of love, and not all of them did it solely out of habit.”
“I don’t think that Alfred would appreciate being turned into a vampire. He does enjoy the sun.”
“People will do very dramatic things when given a choice between that and death,” said Chaac, with a slight smile. “Float the idea to him. He would make a fascinating Camazotz.”
“I’ll consider that.” I cast about for another subject. “Coyote has been in town.”
“That old bastard?” Chaac said, her eyes narrowed. “All of the people who died in the colonization, and to think, he survived… Well, he always knew how to survive. I suppose hoping for anything else was pure wishful thinking on my part.” She sighed. “How is he doing?”
“He… gave me something.”
“Oh, dear. Well, there are a great number of free clinics-“
“Very funny.” I quirked a lip.
“Who’s joking? What did that old bastard scavenge?”
I reached into my pockets, and gently withdrew the cacao beans. Chaac stared for a moment, and stiffened slightly. “He had those?”
“Bastard. I always wondered.” She glared at the cacao beans. “Do you know why I do not create more Camazotz?”
“I… always thought it was to do with your old plan. You seemed to really want the Camazotz to die out.”
“I have put that behind me, more or less. The brutality of the Camazotz, the things I hated about them, are buried in the past, and that is where they belong. That…” She frowned. “On occasion, a new Camazotz was offered a gift from one of the old. They would take it, and they would… change. Become colder, crueler. Much more powerful, too, of course. The wisdom of the elderly. They would no longer be themselves. That was the path to quick, easy power. It was the path that, eventually, I took.”
“Oh,” I said, softly.
“I saw Hun-Came. Older than me. More powerful. I would never match her, you understand me? I would never be able to beat her, or the rest of them, unless I made that choice.” She looked down at her hands. “I often wonder what happened to that girl, the quiet little girl from the village. I left it all behind, and now… I do not even remember my own name, anymore.” She looked up. “It had a consequence. A dire one. That power ravishes your creativity. To create children, with your body, with your blood, or with your mind… That’s the price it takes.”
“That’s…” I frowned. “But- I mean, there are myths. There are gods of creative endeavors, there are demigods…”
“I do not know the specifics. Perhaps it varies. Perhaps you would still be able to be a poet, a speaker, a mother. But, I do know this. The Camazotz could not continue the bloodline when they had taken that gift. Some, those who embraced it even further than I did, became something more than a Camazotz. A god, perhaps. Free of their vampiric frailties, the thirst for blood, the vulnerabilities, but so distant, and cold. I never gave into the power enough to do so. If you do choose to embrace that power… Whatever you valued so deeply, whatever you were willing to sacrifice everything for, may no longer matter to you. The Camazotz line will end with you. Learn from my example. Things that seem worth sacrificing everything for are so often… dust, in the wind.”
I nodded slowly, looking down at the beans. “I’ve been hurting people.”
“Really? The contest you told me about?”
“Yes. I hurt people. More, only a few days ago. The people I love are being hurt by those who take advantage of them being soft, and it sickens me. This entire trial against Alfred relies on the idea that he will be gentle with those who try to kill him, that he will not fight with all he has. I’ve seen it happen again. If he wanted to, he could have killed Sidney Dimmock. Even taken by surprise, even wounded, I know all too well what he’s capable of, and an iron sword can kill even a Jotunn when Alfred wields it. But he’s not a killer. Atina’s not a killer. None of them are killers. They’re not even maimers. The worst Alfred did was break Queen Aniss’ nose, and even that was mostly out of annoyance. And they keep pushing him, further and further, and I’m…” I rested my face against my hand. “You’re going to tell me that I should not hurt people.”
“Do you like hurting other people?”
I looked up sharply. Chaac stared at me, her expression unreadable, her dark hair braided and slung forward over one shoulder. “That’s…” I pressed my lips together. “I don’t know.”
“I felt great satisfaction from what I did. Killing the monsters that had killed my family, my humanity, my innocence. I relished every death. I believed wholeheartedly that I was right to do so.” She leaned back. “Monsters are rarely ravished with doubt.”
“I would think you’d tell me I shouldn’t be hurting people. That I should learn from your example.”
“I do not regret the Camazotz lives I took. They were monsters, old and imperious. They were heartless and savage creatures, and they did not wish to change. They did not wish to stop being monsters. The world is a better place with them in the grave, and their bloodline left to take a new path.” Chaac’s eyes darkened. “This world has no need for immortal monsters. The moment that I began to do wrong was when I allowed Tony to die, and when I set you up. When I decided that I wanted them to suffer further.” She smiled. “What you do with the power you have been given is yours to decide. But if you are fighting for those you care about, rather than for vengeance, or yourself… Well, anyone can be your friend, yes?”
I looked down. “I suppose so.”
“These people are being used, yes?”
“So you can save them all. That is the thing to focus on. You have to hurt them, perhaps, but they learn from it.” She looked out at the yard, leaning back in her chair. The usual heavy clouds around Chaac’s estate lessened the sunlight, but it was still a brilliant summer day, the warmth comfortable, the clouds keeping the temperature moderate. “What a beautiful day.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I sighed. “I wish I knew who was responsible for this. Without that… I don’t suppose you’d be willing to help out with this?”
“I’m not sure what use I would be. My talents lie elsewhere, and the contract was very exacting.” Chaac smiled, and it was not exactly a nice smile. “I’m afraid that you cannot rely on me to save you from this situation, even if there were something I could do. You said that Buddhist priest that your Jiangshi friend hired is arriving today?”
“Perhaps they will help.”
“Perhaps. I’m still suspicious of it. I mean… What kind of Undead learns to taste sunlight?”
“He’s a Buddhist monk. Ever heard of a Sokushinbutsu?” said Li Fang Fen. She had the top up, her arms held firmly inside the car. She’d been tender about sunlight for the last year. It was a shame, the convertible was quite fun with the top down.
“No,” I said, earnestly. “My family was always Shinto.”
“Aaaah. Well, it was a very rare practice even at the best of times. Kind of a form of suicide. Always unnerved me to read about it. It takes a lot of willpower to die willingly for what you believe in. Letting go of the body, of sensation- It’s not an easy thing to do, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
“So, what makes him particularly weird is that he remains as ascetic in death as in life. Very unique among undead, Sokushinbutsu are able to go without any kind of food. They’re basically human. They don’t make pacts. They just dedicate themselves to… experience. Apparently there’s an order of them. They don’t get new members often, but they’re so damn inoffensive that they’ve never LOST a member, either. This one dedicated himself to sunlight.”
“And… how exactly did you meet him?”
“While tracking down a way to restore my honor, back when I left town. Atina gave me a line on him, and I investigated.” She looked out the window, silent. She had sacrificed her own honor in order to defend me, breaking her word. It had had consequences. I knew that Li Fang Fen’s reputation had suffered a blow. Even with the best of reasons, the Undead took oathbreaking seriously. The impact on her hunger, her sensitivity to sunlight, all of it tied into that one act of sacrifice. She’d done all of that for me. She’d paid such a price in order to give me just a little more chance at a happy life.
“He directed me onwards. To… other things.” Li had talked, briefly, with me about the events of New York. They had been, apparently… traumatic. That did not make me feel better.
“Li… If you ever want to talk…”
“It’s alright.” She smiled, and the pain vanished like water on a griddle as she chuckled. “I’m well out of it now.” She pulled up to the airport. Standing in the sunlight was…
Well, to call him a dessicated corpse would be impolite, and wholly accurate.
Naught but skin and bones
The lingering scent of pine
You are obsession
I considered the poem in my head as the elderly man approached us. He was exactly what you would expect from the stories. His head was bald, and he wore a large set of wooden prayer beads around his neck, passing his fingers over them in a continuous loop. His saffron robe hung loosely over a body that was emaciated to the point of being skeletal, his lips drawn back from his teeth, and the smell of pine. He smiled as he held out a hand to the air, and then frowned. “Ah. Sunlight… Not very good. Thin. Too much rain. Funny. Even near the seas, it rarely gets this bad.” He sniffed. His English was heavily accented, but simple enough to understand. I opened the back door of the car for him. “Ah. You’re… sunlight vampire. Yes?” He chuckled. “Always interesting to meet. After I finish, would you share? Always interesting to taste a new light.”
“It won’t hurt you?”
“Ah, no. No power to burn. No impurities, no stolen life, in my veins. Sunlight just tingles.” He smiled. “But, business first. Come. Let’s go check this thing.”
Back to the office once again. I glared down at the floor. The only thing keeping the room from having a decent layer of dust was the fact that the door was kept close most of the time, leaving nothing to create dust in the first place. It felt unchanged from when we had first investigated the room. The shark jaws still lay shut, the case of glass orbs still sat on the table. The monk stepped forward, and looked towards us both. “You should step out of the room. These are… potent.”
Li Fang Fen didn’t waste any time fleeing, but I stood in place. “I’d like to experience it, if I can.”
The monk nodded. “It is interesting. Human senses can be very able. Even more so when distractions are removed. Have you ever been truly aware?”
“How would I tell?”
He laughed. “Ah. Funny. But you are an artist. Yes? Li told me about you.”
“Yes. When she told me why she broke her word, why she sought a fix. It convinced me to help her.” He raised one of the orbs, slowly trailing his fingers across it. “That perfect moment. When you are utterly aware of your surroundings. When the mind is stilled. When the chattering of thought disappears. When you are no longer thoughts, or fears, or regrets, but simply… in the moment.” He smiled. “You are a poet, yes?”
“I… suppose so. Hardly a successful one.”
“Making the poetry is nice. You have something?”
“It would embarrass me to show it.”
I contemplated for a moment. I didn’t usually share the haiku. The little descriptions. It was… unnerving, to expose myself. But then, I decided. I shared the one I had made about him.
“Nice,” he said, nodding.
“Good. Good effort, pleasant.” He chuckled. “I like it.”
I nodded, and felt a little more relaxed. Then he cracked open the egg.
The last time, the blast had been diffuse, scattered. I closed my eyes, and breathed sharply as I felt the sear of the sunlight, brilliant enough to prickle the skin, but not painful. I felt the strangest tingle of nostalgia as it poured over me. I heard Li step back into the room, and turned towards the monk, rubbing my arm a bit. It did not hurt, but it definitely tingled.
“Ah… Mmmm. Familiar. Very interesting…” He smacked his lips slowly, with a sound like dice rolling together. “Yes… Yes, I believe I know this.” He breathed in, and let out a slow breath, hissing, from between his teeth. “The Mie Prefecture. The City of Ise. The shrine. Yes, this is a familiar sunlight indeed. The sun peeking over the trees to the east as dawn rises…” He breathed in, and out, nodding.
“The shrine at Ise?” I said, frowning.
“Indeed. The taste of the sunlight is distinctively Japanese.” He smiled.
“Ise?” said Li, and then her eyes opened slightly. “Not…”
“The shrine to Amaterasu,” I said, and frowned. “My father took me there when I was six. I remember walking through the forest with him, the green-“ I noticed Li’s expression.
“Are you certain?” she said, staring down at the glass balls with an expression of dread.
“As sure as one can be in these matters. Though…” The mummy studied me, rubbing his chin. “Young lady, may I?”
“Ah… Sure.” I held my hands together, shifting so I had my back to Li. I closed my eyes, and felt the warmth spreading through them. The light flared before me, and the monk took a slow, deep breath.
“Curious,” he said, and I frowned as I released the flow of power, feeling the tingling heat dissipate from between my fingers. “It tastes… Mmm. I would hate to introduce confusion, but that… Mmm. It is very much alike.” He closed his eyes, smacking his lips again, the rattling sound filling the air. “Could be. It could be. Hmmm. Doesn’t taste like anything new world on you.” He frowned down at the orbs. “Can’t tell you which it could be, I’m afraid.”
“Really?” I said, frowning.
“The sunlight varies every day. There are patterns, themes, things that are shared between them. This sun, it could be you. It could be the sun over the shrine. It has many things in common with both.”
“So it could be anything?” said Li, hopefully. The hope died as the monk shook his head.
“No. This girl’s sunlight… It feels like home.” He smiled at me. “Still remembering home, eh?”
“Well, I admit, I didn’t go home for the summer vacation. I’ve missed them.”
He blinked. “You’re not American?”
“No. You thought…”
“Ah. Just… You know.” He shrugged. “Assumptions on my part. Is that racist?”
I blinked. “I’d be hard-pressed to see how it is. Thank you for visiting us. Do you have a place to stay? We may need your testimony.”
“Of course.” He smiled. “I am interested to experience the sunlight of this place.”
“I have to warn you, it’s very cloudy here.”
“Then its sunlight will be all the more precious.”
As we parted ways outside the campus, Li Fang Fen and I got into the car, Li sheltering herself with her umbrella. She sat at the wheel, and did not take off immediately. I leaned back and looked out the window. “Not hugely helpful.”
She didn’t answer.
“I suppose it tells us a bit, though, if it’s Japanese flavored sunlight. Gives us a clue as to where this came… from?”
Li Fang Fen was shaking. Silent tears were dripping down her cheeks. I’m not sure I’d ever seen Li frightened. Angry, defiant, worried even, but her face was screwed up, trying to hold back the tears, a hand over her eyes, even as the tracks made their way down her cheeks, carrying a trail of makeup with them. “I didn’t think I would react this way.” She opened her mouth to continue, and choked a bit, wiping at her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
I rested my hand on her shoulder, and then, because this seemed wholly insufficient, I hugged her tight. It took her a few seconds, but eventually, the tears stopped.
“I didn’t think that I would be so affected by this. Still. It has been close to a year, and it still…” She drew in a deep and shuddering breath. “I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. I need to… I’ve got to leave the city. If Amaterasu is back, I’m not safe, I have to go. Now.”
I squeezed her arm. “Li, this happened six months ago. If it were Amaterasu, and not just- someone, stealing my power, or simply trying to frame me- she certainly would have acted by now.”
Li crossed her arms tightly over her stomach, staring down at her knees in her light sundress. “I used to like the sun so much, you know. It felt nice, even when it made me hungry. It could be fun. Now, it just reminds me of…” She bit her lower lip. I’d heard her story. Amaterasu had threatened her with a nightmarish fate, had tried to force her to betray people she’d grown to trust. For someone like Li, to be at the mercy of someone that powerful…
I knew what that was like. “I’m sorry.”
“No. No, I’m sorry.” She took out a handkerchief, and dabbed at her eyes. “Dear. I look a frightful mess, don’t I?” She smiled wanly at me. “I’m sorry to make you worry.”
“You were there, you were forced to do those things, because of me. Because of what you sacrificed for me.”
“No. I made that choice, Jenny. You were simply thrown by circumstance into a difficult situation.”
“Aren’t we all.” I was quiet for a moment, and then squeezed Li’s arm. “You still don’t have your honor, then?” I asked, looking out the window.
“I may never. Oathbreaking is a-”
“Serious issue,” I said, and nodded. “If she comes for you, she’s going to be looking for her head in the local river. I promise.”
“I could not stand to see you hurt on my behalf,” said Li, softly.
“The feeling is mutual. You are safe here. I will be sure of it.”
It was a hot summer. It stayed hot. And I continued practicing. Even with the Summer contest behind us, I trained hard. Day after day in the sunlight, swinging the blade.
The truth was, to a certain degree, I did enjoy hurting people. I enjoyed hurting people who hurt my friends. I enjoyed seeing people who thought they could take advantage of the people I love, the companions who had protected me, on the floor. Bleeding. Screaming for the mercy that they never, ever would have given had our positions been reversed. The memories came back and danced before my eyes. Fantasies of violence and protection.
If Amaterasu came here and tried to hurt Li, I would kill her. If I found who was responsible for framing Alfred, I’d kill them. If someone tried to hurt Alfred again…
I needed to be stronger. Every day, I took the cacao beans out, looked at them, and placed them back in my pockets. I kept them on me constantly. I wondered, for a moment, if it was their fault. If by simply accepting them, I had taken in some of their power, and some of their personality. If I was changing.
“Good evening, Jenny,” said Alfred, smiling, as he approached me. “How have classes gone?”
“I’m not sure I’ll be continuing them,” I said, softly. “I’ve taken a semester off. Already talked with my family about it.”
“Oh?” He frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not sure if it’s the right path for me, anymore. I’ve got eternity in front of me. I’ve got a fortune, even if I don’t like to use it myself. I’ve got a meager talent at best for poetry.” I looked down at my hands. “I like hurting people, Alfred.”
“Balderdash,” he said, and that was odd enough for me to look up at him. He was standing with his armor slung over his shoulder, a gym bag hanging with it. September was on its way out, but the weather was as hot, sweltering, and summery as ever, as though the heat had continued on unabated.
“It’s true, I-“
“You have been going out, picking fights with strangers, looking for situations where you can hurt people?”
“I pay attention.” He smiled. “I know you quite well. You’re learning the joys of being a knight.”
“I think you’ve lost me,” I said, looking to one side, my cheeks flushing. It was moments like these that made it hard to believe myself. If Alfred could still make me blush like this…
“You enjoy fighting to protect people. You enjoy being able to do something. You enjoy not being helpless, and more, in being able to make others feel less helpless. A taste I know well.” He laughed. “I think that, when push comes to shove, you’re the kind of person who’d never draw a sword, save to help someone.”
“Hmph,” I said, and it was an embarrassingly childish sound. Weeks of brooding darkness, and he cut me down to the bone with a meager handful of words.
“I think you should continue your studies. Perhaps a semester off will be just what you need to revitalize your spirit. But get ahold of yourself, Jenny.” He smiled. “I like you a lot better when you’re not trying to be all grim and determined. You are a ray of sunshine. I like you a lot more like that.”
“Shut up and teach me,” I said, my cheeks flushed. And he cleaned my clock, as usual, but at least this time I could claim I was genuinely distracted.