I stood on the hill, watching as my people died. Chankpe Opi Wakpala continued to flow. The Ghost Dancers continued their shuffle in the name of a messiah who would never materialize.
It could have worked. If it had only been a few years earlier, it would have worked. The ghosts and gods of this beautiful land could have fought back, could have saved their people, if we had just worked a little earlier. If we hadn’t let things get so bad. If that damned city hadn’t been built on our shores.
I could feel it from here. Over a thousand miles away, but I could feel the way it walled off our world from this one.
When the massacre was over, and the last prisoners had been shuffled off, I made my way down among the dead. I soothed souls and saw them pass on. It had not been a good way to die, but I could ensure that they passed on. A peaceful afterlife was all I could still offer them. As the snow fell in gentle sheets, turning them from people, from mothers and children and fathers and humans, into anonymous lumps of white.
“Come on, come on- Hah!”
I turned my head sharply. A Lakotan man crouched by one of the bodies, and held a boot triumphantly. He set it down in the snow and began to work on the other one. He pressed his heel against the corpse’s, and nodded triumphantly as he worked it off. The boots were streaked with blood. He picked them out and started walking towards the stream. “What is wrong with you, Mica?”
He turned, and smiled, that wild coyote eye flashing, as he hefted the boots. “They fit me. And they’re damned good leather. These would last a decade of hard walking, at least. Got to look on the bright side.”
“Bright side,” I said, numbly. “Look at this. This was their last shout into the night. This was their last attempt to not fade away. All they wanted was a bit of fairness.”
“Well, talk about your impossible dreams,” said Coyote, chuckling. “Come on. Isn’t it a bit funny? They died because they martyred themselves to a foreign god. They though the White Men’s god gave a damn about them. Hell, their own gods didn’t give a damn about them.”
I looked down. “You’re right. I could have fought-“
Coyote slapped me across the cheek. I stumbled back, a hand going to my cheek, and glared at him. His face was hard.
“You are not a goddess of war. And even if you were, you could not have changed the tide of this battle. This was decided a long time ago. We have profited off the white men for hundreds of years.”
“What on earth are you talking about? They came-“
“Hundreds of years ago. They were the one who brought the horses who we rode so eagerly. They brought the diseases that wiped out our enemies and allowed us to cross the Missouri. We have profited off them for a hundred years. It just finally caught up with us. We didn’t see the bigger pictures.” He chuckled. “But thankfully, neither do they.”
“That doesn’t seem to matter. Our people are being whittled away. Dying slowly. Children and families split apart, the remaining people driven into smaller and smaller groups…” I looked around the humps of bodies. “All of it will be forgotten. We’ll die, forgotten.”
“Oh, please. These White Men are not monsters, though they certainly can behave like them. They are still human. And that means that we can use them.” Coyote grinned. “They are drunk on blood and conquest, now. They are surrounded by violence, and thus, they are lethal. But the time will come when they will become rich, and fat, and soft because of it. We cannot win a war against them. But we can win a peace.” He waved a hand around the battlefield. “Just think, White Buffalo Calf Woman. Just think of the guilt they will feel when they remember that they slaughtered their fellow humans, just because of the color of their skin. Just think of what we will be able to bleed from them.”
I stared down at the ground. “So we are to become scavengers? Surviving on the pity of those who destroyed us? You can be satisfied with that?”
Coyote gave me a very level look. “Did you forget what I am?”
I looked down at the bodies in the snow. “Then you have a place. That is all very well for you. But I am not a scavenger. I cannot just grow fat.”
“No, you’re right. You’re a teacher. You need students, you need people to understand. If the lessons you teach are forgotten, they may never be learned again.”
“If there are any Lakota left to learn,” I said, looking down at the bodies. “Maybe they will simply wipe our people out. Breed them away until everything that made us unique is gone.”
Coyote stared at me. He took a step forward, and I realized he was, in fact, quite tall, his shoulders broad. He cringed habitually, bending his shoulders, lowering his head, looking smaller than he really was. He reached out, and pinched my arm, hard.
“Ah! What are you-“
“Where was the thing that made them Lakota?” he asked, still holding a fold of skin between two fingers, the bronzed tone paled slightly as he pinched off the flow of blood. “Was it there? In the color of the skin?” He released me, and flicked my forehead. “Or was it in there?” He turned, still holding the boots in one hand. “You can stay here, and feel miserable about it, or you can come with me.” He grinned over his shoulder at me. “So long as we are alive, so long as we still have each other, the Lakota will never die.”
Three months later
“Again?!” I said, furious, glaring at Coyote. He stood naked as the day he had been created by whatever mad and impetuous god had been responsible for him, a broad smile on his face. “I am sorry, I must have misunderstood you when you told me that you did not want the Lakotans to die out. I had assumed that you meant you wanted to encourage our culture to survive. I did not realize you meant that you wished to fuck half-blood bastards into white women!”
“Now, now, come on, I know that you want to see the white man humiliated as much as I did. So, when I saw that governor’s pretty wife, with that skin like milk, that hair like spun gold-“
I looked down at my own skin, bronzed and calloused, and my hair- which, while very fine, was about as far from spun gold as you could get. I looked up at him, and glared, and Coyote cleared his throat nervously.
“I don’t care a thing for her! She was just a good lay. A really good lay. My god, you would not believe some of the disgusting things those white women do. She had this thing she did with her finger, and I’m not usually the kind to experiment, but-“
“-felt like a damned angel was tonguing my-“
The words were soft. He stopped mid-ramble, and frowned at me. “Huh?”
“Enough. I’ve had enough of this discussion with you. I’ve had enough of being with you. Thank you for what you did, Mica. You saved me, in many ways. Gave me something to fight for. Gave me something to strive for. And I am grateful for that. But you are an awful person, and a pig of a man. Get out.”
“Ah. I understand.” He bowed his head, and then looked up. “You wouldn’t happen to have a hundred dollars, would you? Only the governor’s wife has expensive tastes, she asked me to take her out for dinner, and-“
I am very strong. Coyote left the hotel room in the white men’s city, and my life, through the still-closed window. It wouldn’t kill him, despite the significant fall. But it would make an impression on him.
I was never going to make that mistake again.
It was the last great Indian War, at Wounded Knee. Three casualties, two of them dead Native men, the other a crippled U.S. Marshal. The Elders gave up in the face of an overwhelming and unbeatable Federal force. Doesn’t life just repeat itself?
I watched as my people walked out of the town under the cover of night, defeated, their shoulders slumped. Eighty years of working, struggling to be recognized, to get some justice, and this- A simple desire by these poor people to have a president for their tribe who actually represented them- had ended with us facing off against the white man again, their countless guns levelled at us. Two men dying, and that was a cost we could not afford nowadays.
I turned, ready to smite. When I saw who it was, I found myself with a supreme temptation to smite anyway. “Coyote. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know.” He smiled, shrugging innocently. “Heard there was this really pretty activist who’d argued day and night to not give in, to take back control of the tribe. And how, in the end, she got outvoted.” He sighed. “You’ve been fighting for a long time, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t seen you in eighty years, and you come back for… what? To gloat?”
“Hey, hey, now. I always enjoy a good gloat, but… not at your expense.” He waved an arm. “Come on. Walk with me. Let’s talk for a bit.”
I gritted my teeth. But there were things that I couldn’t discuss with any living member of the tribes, that I couldn’t share. “It’s just… all so petty. You know how much I’ve done? Fighting for the right to self-governance, watching good men put their life on the line for this nation of interlopers, men dying for the sake of a nation that is not their own. We might well have won the pacific front with our code-talkers, and that is to say nothing of the men who died on foreign soils, where their ancestors will never know them. And for what?” I waved an arm. “We’re still interlopers in our own lands. What the hell did we fight for?”
“Mmmm.” He gave me a slow look. “You’re getting worn out, out here.”
I looked away.
“You should go to the city.”
“And what? Be another poor beggar, looking for a handout? Depending on these goddamn bastards just to make it through the day? It wasn’t something I could stomach when it was just the humans I had to deal with, you think I want anything to do with their gods, their monsters?”
“That’s the thing,” said Coyote. “It’s not just about you. You’re tough, I know. You’re never going to lose your way. You can keep yourself going, even as the magic drains out of the world, because you’re kind of on the border. I’m the same way; We can survive a lot. But, we’re not the only people involved.” He looked out across the small town. “Our world’s getting pared down. All the gods of the land, all the old spirits, they’re disappearing. Seeking a place of sanctuary, and there are precious few of those. Some of them being enslaved in Paradise, some of them taking vows and entering Shangri-La. None of them desperate enough to swear fealty to Avalon yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“And what should I do about that?” I asked, feeling about a thousand years old. Which was really only fair.
“I think you should go to The City.”
I stared out across the land. “Zion.”
“You have the sway, the power, the confidence. You can make a home for our people. You can show us the way. You could finally carve out a place for us.” He smiled. “I’d be on your side the whole way. Back you up. Help you however I can. The bite to your butt.”
“Oh, yes, I’d forgotten how you focused on that.” I ran my fingers through my hair. It was tempting. But… “The last time we were together, you betrayed me. I can’t accept that from you again. I need you to swear, to promise me, that you will not take another woman.”
He held a hand over his chest. “I swear to you.”
I stared at him for a moment, and narrowed my eyes. “You are planning on breaking your word already.”
“Well, I had intended to be faithful, but you know I can’t resist a challenge.”
“Can you try?”
He gave me a very solemn look, his face downcast. “I wish I could. I desperately wish I could not go after some of those Greek girls, or those pretty little Asians. But would I be me if I did?”
“No,” I said, and sighed. “Could you pretend to try?”
“For you, darling, anything.” He smiled. “My impending infidelity aside, we both know I’m right.”
“It just feels like… surrender.” I sighed. “Going off into the other world. Hiding from all that’s going to happen.”
“Oh, dearest.” He leaned up against me from behind, those strong hands kneading my shoulders, and I could not help but melt up against him, my eyes closing as he let out a warm breath across my shoulders. “We are not surrendering. We are placing ourselves on the front line. When this whole damned mess flies apart, it will be at Zion.”
Two weeks later
“I warned you, Mica,” I said, quite levelly. He raised his hands, which exposed his genitals. He was nothing if not gifted, but that would be a great deal more appreciable if he were also faithful. The young woman next to him was scandalously young. “That girl cannot be legal.”
“Seventeen. Technically still a girl, but of legal age according to the laws of the state. I would never break my word to you- She’s not a woman yet.”
“Hey!” said the young woman, giving him a dark glare. She was Greek, and toned. Muscular, indeed. Dark hair, and an expression like someone constantly waiting for a fight to break out with the universe.
“Please forgive him,” I said, grabbing him by the throat, and lifting him into the air. “He simply cannot help but speak, even when it is unwise.” I launched him at a flat trajectory through the window of the motel, and through the tree outside. And I swore to myself that if I ever thought I should give him another chance, I would remember this moment.
At a certain age, you start to want to make the mistakes. I looked at Coyote as he shaved in the mirror. “How long have you been without a place to live?”
“Having your own place to live is a terrible inconvenience. It’s infinitely wiser to rely on the largesse of others, and enjoy their places. Among other things, you don’t have to clean the place up after a party.”
“Unless, of course, you finally alienate everyone.”
“Well, there is that.” He smiled. “But you’re not my last resort, Megan. You never were.”
“I am going to stop you right there,” I said, sitting back in my chair as he finished his shave and lay back on the cot in the clinic. “I have had a very long forty-something years. You can stay one night. Tomorrow morning, you are gone.”
“How has Zion been?”
“Destroyed, Coyote. All that work I put in, and-“ I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and set my shoulders aggressively. “I am not falling for this. Your little concern and good advice thing. The first time, I wasted eighty years on building the tribes only to see them collapse ever further. The second time, I wasted forty years on a city which was destroyed just as I was becoming comfortable with it. God only knows what you will convince me to do this time.”
“You can’t tell me you regret the things you did.”
I looked away. “Maybe not. Maybe it was for the best. But I refuse to believe it turned out that way because you planned it.”
“Why not? Perhaps it all went precisely according to my plan.”
“Because I ended up throwing you through a window both times.”
“Perhaps I’m a masochist.”
“… Well. I suppose I could hardly argue with that. You are a glutton for punishment.” I smiled to myself. “I’ve got a bottle of good wine. You want to get shit-faced?”
“Drinking, Megan?” He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have any pot?” He reached into his jacket, and withdrew a small bag. “How fortunate for you that I am here. Get out that lovely pipe of yours, would you?”
“God. Been a while since I indulged.” I handed over the pipe, and watched as he produced a lighter, crumbling the leaves into the mouth of the pipe, holding the lighter over it, and taking a deep breath. He handed it to me, and I breathed in, holding it as long as I could before coughing it out. “Heavens help me, Coyote! Where the hell did you find this, growing on the corpse of a skunk in a ditch?” I handed back the pipe, and he grinned.
“Coyote? Not Mica? Bloom off the rose?”
“I’m not letting you seduce me, Coyote,” I said, my voice soft. “I’ve got more things to worry about.”
“Ah, that’s right. What were you doing while you were away from Zion?”
“Ugh.” I glared into the darkness. “Met a vampire. Italian. Learned that the Camazotz were going extinct. Met this odd young white woman, who managed to tease out the truth. One of the Camazotz had been executing her fellows, vengeance for the method of her conversion ages past. And old Tadodaho, that psychotic maniac, she offered him a position in the Binghamton Night Court. It’s the single largest point of First Nations power in the world, now. And it’s because she pushed them to take it. She convinced the Camazotz to stay alive, too. And…” I sighed. What a curious young woman. “Life is so strange, isn’t it? I barely had anything to do with it. I have barely had anything to do with anything.”
“Oh, that doesn’t sound like you. I just bet that she learned about all the important parts from you, didn’t she?” Coyote grinned. “I followed maybe a tenth of what you just said, but, it sounds like it was an interesting time. Why’d you come back?”
“Because…” I sighed. “I ran away. From the failures, here. Those god damned towers. The towers I built. The towers that were supposed to offer us sanctuary. The damn things are condemned, but the city still hasn’t gotten around to tearing them down. They’re just a couple of symbols of my failure. A reminder that, despite my best attempts, everything I make just… falls apart.”
“Hmmm.” He grinned. “Want to burn them down?”
“That’s an awful idea. Why would I ever think that was anything other than an awful idea?”
“No, listen. They’re pretty far from the rest of town. This isn’t exactly a fire hazard county. They’ve been abandoned for some time. And that land probably isn’t going to be built on again; this town isn’t going to be growing anymore. So, why not burn the damn things down? Set some gasoline at the foundation, light them up, and watch them burn down. I think it would do you a world of good. A little catharsis for all you’ve lost, you know?”
“No. No way. I have more sense than that.”
I suppose the thing about Coyote that attracted me to him is that he was always right. He always had a point, and ultimately, it was only when I grew angry at him, tired of his excuses, refusing to accept it anymore, that the spell was broken. Before that, he was persuasive to a dangerous degree, always capable of jollying me along and making me see his side of things. By inches and degrees, I wound up following him along. And I, in turn, encouraged him. My confidence in him made him stronger. He was after all a con-man, the oldest and greatest of them all, and it was belief in him that made him so strong. Perhaps all the gods and heroes and monsters were merely con-men.
As I watched the buildings burn over his shoulder, I supposed that I must still be fairly stoned.
“You know,” I said, “the difference between a Fool and a Trickster?”
“Mmm?” he asked, shifting slightly.
“A Fool rushes straight forwards. They achieve their goal through ignorance of the obstacles, relying on strength to push them past. A lot of heroic people are Fools, because if they knew the odds, they would never do the things that make them heroic.”
“I- ah- see,” he said, shifting his knee under mine.
“A Trickster, on the other hand, must be circumspect. A trickster uses their mind to understand a problem, and circumnavigate the problem. They get around it.”
“Look, Megan, if this is a subtle hint about how to get this bra off, then perhaps you could be a bit less subtle. Do you keep a combination lock on the damned thing?”
“Are you a fool, Coyote, or a trickster?”
He paused, frowned, and then nodded once. Then he tugged the bra up, and a rush of cold air ran across my chest. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but frankly, that was part of the fun. “Point taken.” He leaned forward and began to nibble at my neck in the way that always made it so hard to concentrate.
“But, my point is- Mmm. It was, uh…” I frowned up at the stars. “What was my point? I know there was one.”
“Oh, here it is,” he said, and his hips shifted forward. I let out a little gasp of surprise, and frowned up at him.
“You pervert. It was, mm…” I closed my eyes, and sighed. “Third time’s the charm. Maybe this time it’ll all work out. Maybe this time, you won’t cheat on me, and I won’t have to throw you through a window. That’d be so lovely, wouldn’t it? If you could just be all mine, if I could just be all yours, if…” I sighed, and arched my back in response to something he was doing. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it felt fantastic. “Can’t you try?”
“Oh, most certainly. I can try with all of my heart.”
I stared up at the sky. “You’re going to fuck around behind my back, aren’t you?”
“Well, I can’t deny the possibility.” Coyote grinned down at me. “But the important thing here is, I will always return, and you will always forgive me. We have a cycle. We make the same mistakes, over and over again, because they’re such fun mistakes to make. And perhaps I will change. A man can change, after all. And a woman, too. Speaking of which…” He grinned. “Just the tip?”
I woke up the next morning, pleasantly sore. The towers had burned through the night, collapsing into their own footprints, leaving behind simply ash, and a great deal of smoke. Two people stood over me. Coyote was lying on top of me, pleasantly warm, and also still aroused, which was making this very awkward. I coughed softly.
“I don’t know what you see in him,” said Crupky.
“He makes me laugh, and do certain other loud and involuntary things,” I murmured. I shifted a bit, and Coyote bit my shoulder. “Ah! You lout, we have company!”
“Wuh?” Coyote opened his eyes, and rolled over on his back. Officer Crupky glowered. Reynard raised an eyebrow in amusement. “What the hell are the two of you here for?” he asked. “Here to ask for a three-“ He paused, and looked at me, and bowed his head. “Sorry. That would have been quite impolite to you.” I stared at him for a moment, not quite sure what to say. That was not something I was used to. Maybe… Well, maybe he had changed.
“Well,” I said, turning my head back. “What did you need me for, Crupky?”
“Oh, I just wanted to tell you you’re a damn fool for this, and also, I wanted to talk with you. Over breakfast, maybe, at Ariel’s diner. I’ll drive you there. But first, Reynard just had something she had to say.”
“Indeed,” said the fox woman. She nodded her head. “Do you two mind if we have a little privacy?”
“Of course,” said Crupky. She reached down, pulled Coyote up by the scruff of the neck, and marched him towards the car, carrying his clothes. I was entirely confident that he would not successfully cheat on me with her; Crupky was a straight-laced woman. I’d never known her to show sexual interest in someone, and also, she loathed Coyote.
“So, what is this about, Reynard?”
“Ah, yes. In the past year, you worked with the Strix, if my information is correct. Yes?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said, and frowned. “You’re familiar with them?”
“Of course. That is to say, my direct employer is.” She smiled. “You are familiar with Athena, Goddess of Wisdom?”
“And war,” I said, frowning. “I know of her myths. She-“ I paused a moment, and considered. “The owl. Athena. She is connected with the Strix?”
“I am given to understand that she helped them to survive a war between the factions of the Undead, and as such, earned their undying loyalty. She has let them grow on their own for some time, but became interested in them again after last year. She also has noted a particular interest in a young woman, a lawyer from that city, Binghamton. One who you apparently contacted sometime last year. What was your impression of the young woman?”
I paused, considering. I’d known her for a little over a week. “Dedicated. Focused. Loyal. Put another way, stubborn. Obsessive. Ruthless. I imagine she and your lady would get along like a house on fire; lots of panic, screaming, and property damage.” I frowned at her. “Why?”
“Because my lady wishes to have someone keep an eye on her. To provide her with… guidance. Support. She is a small piece, little more than a pawn. But a pawn is capable of so much, isn’t it? In the right place, it can topple a king. It can become a queen.” She smiled.
“I suspect, from what little I know of her, describing the woman as a pawn would be a fantastic way to enrage her and set her as a deadly enemy.”
“See? That’s why my mistress is so interested in having you be close to her. Go to Binghamton. Go to that center of power for your people. Get close to her. And provide us a way to talk with her. I will not ask you to give her poor counsel, nor to lead her astray. I simply trust your judgement on introducing her to the concept of a God. I won’t even ask for her to be respectful about it. But…” Reynard smiled. “Athena has a job that needs doing. And a lawyer would be very useful to have. Especially one with such an open concept.”
“I do not wish to go to Binghamton,” I said. “There is something there.”
Reynard paused a moment, staring at me, and then burst out laughing. “The dragon?! Really. You believe in that kind of thing? You could hardly be so credulous.”
“I have been a part of this land for a thousand years. There was something there when the First Nations arrived. Those sorts of myths do not spread without reason. There is always a kernel of truth.”
“Bones,” she said, smiling. “Of ancient predators, mistaken for something more recent. That’s all they ever were. There’s no such thing as dragons, Doctor Smith. Not anymore.”
I sighed. “And what would I receive in exchange for this service? I should warn, I am not much for empty promises.”
“Sanctuary, in Avalon.”
“Hm. Not worth the paper such a promise might be printed on.” I shook my head. “I’ll consider it.” I stood up. “Now, please allow me to dress.”
Ariel’s diner was surprisingly crowded, a number of people there to see her. Nonetheless, Crupky and I managed to get a seat, and soon, a pair of steaming platters sat before us. A dazzling array of meats sat before Crupky, smelling of grease and making me faintly nauseous; my vegetarian omelet steaming in the light. A pair of cups of good black coffee provided a bulwark against the laziness of the morning.
“So. You’re back with him,” said Crupky. “I can’t say I approve. You know how I feel about tricksters.”
“Yes, I do. Which, I suppose, is why your interest in that hero is so unexpected.”
She froze, her flaming eyes wide. “How- Who told you?”
“You did,” I said. “That little disappearing act you pulled was hardly subtle.”
She looked down. “Then… you think he knows?”
“I suspect so.” I sipped at my coffee. “What do you intend to do?”
“I don’t know.” She looked down. “I don’t know if he even feels anything about me. He’s a hero. I’m a monster.”
“You are a maiden,” I said. “I think…” I smiled into my coffee. “I think, you should take a chance. What is life without a little chance?”