The Hidden Goddess: Prologue

Sunday, June 15, 1876
Mexico City

Naked, Lieutenant Utisz stood on a frost-rimed block of black obsidian before two tall doors made of intricately arranged human bones. A red-robed Temple acolyte knelt before him, washing his bare abdomen with a flaccid sponge, dipping it in ice water that smelled of blood.

It will be an honor to serve my country.

He tried to conjure the conviction with which he’d spoken these words to General Blotgate, and willed himself not to shiver.

The lieutenant was in a small anteroom that echoed with the sound of water rushing through deep unseen channels. The Purification Crypt, it had been called by the attendant who had escorted him from the steamy heat of jungle summer into the frigid depths of this cavernous necropolis. The attendant had explained that all who would enter the Calendar Chamber must be ritually cleansed then anointed with bitter oils. And then the attendant had relieved the lieutenant of his uniform, from epaulettes to skivvies.

Utisz clenched his jaw. Apprehension beat against his neologism–the magical ward behind which his emotions were locked. He regarded his own fear with dispassionate distance, as if listening to the far off screams of a woman being chased by men who would brutalize her. Dissecting it, he decided that it was attributable merely to the coldness of the sponge, (now passing over his genitals, damn it!) the disorientation of having been led into this place blindfolded, and a lingering fear of the dark—gained at the orphanage—that he’d never been able to entirely root from his psyche. None of it was pertinent to the task at hand.

The task at hand stood behind the two tall doors of polished bone. In the Calendar Chamber, where she waited—Itztlacoliuhqui, the Black Glass Goddess, the Goddess of Obsidian Knives.

Lieutenant Utisz closed his eyes, ignoring the servile hands traveling (less disturbingly, now) over his calves.

I am sure you have heard rumors about the recent … unpleasantness … at the credomancer’s institute in New York?

He remembered the words, spoken by General Oppenheimer Blotgate, Director of the Erebus Academy—the highest-ranking magical practitioner in the United States military. A man rarely seen and never spoken to. This in itself had been enough to make an invitation to his rosewood-paneled office unsettling. But adding to Utisz’ disquiet had been his inability to imagine any professional matter on which the General might concievably summon him. He’d only just graduated as a second lieutenant, and hadn’t even received a posting yet. Utisz had been left to conclude that he was being called to discuss matters of a more … personal nature. Word around the barracks was that the General had never once taken exception to his wife’s serial indiscretions with much younger men—she had a renowned fondness for cadets–but it would be just his luck if he was the first to be called on the carpet.

So when the General had commenced the interview by asking about unpleasantness and credomancers, Utisz had been extremely relieved, if no less puzzled.

“I heard that Captain John Caul was killed,” had been his crisp response. Back ramrod straight, eyes unwaveringly forward. “Murdered, sir.”

“A profound tragedy,” General Blotgate confirmed solemnly, light catching on the thick-seamed scar that ran from his ear to his shoulder. His voice was a thick, crackling rasp. “He was extremely well-regarded by the President. Grant kept trying to promote him, and Caul kept convincing him not to. He could have had the command of all the Army’s magical divisions—but Caul was a soldier. A man of action. He preferred to operate independently, with a small hand-picked unit of the finest Maelstroms.”

“His murder will be avenged,” the lieutenant said, guessing that was the ultimate aim of the General’s impromptu eulogy. But if it was, the general didn’t notice the young officer’s cleverness.

“Captain Caul was a true patriot,” he continued. “Sadly, there is a fine line between patriotism and paranoia.”

Blotgate reached into a carved box on his desk and withdrew a cigar. He did not hurry in lighting it, but rather left Utisz standing while he pierced it, clipped it, and lit it with snapped fingers and a guttural command summoning flame.

“Son, have you ever heard of the Temple of Itztlacoliuhqui?”

“A sect devoted to the worship of an Aztec goddess, sir. It is said that they seek to destroy the world in a great blood-apocalypse called temamauhti.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth.” Blotgate waved the cigar dismissively. “Why would anyone want to destroy the world? A misapprehension spread—with the best of intentions, no doubt—by Captain Caul. The truth is, the Temple seeks to remake the world, with themselves and a select group of allies in positions of leadership. We intend that the United States play a key role in that future leadership.”

He tapped ash.

“Captain Caul’s death has provided me with the opportunity to instruct the President on the true nature of the Temple’s intentions. I must say, it took some doing to dislodge the misinformation Caul had hammered into Grant’s thick old skull.” Blotgate paused, half-smiling, as if recalling a pleasant memory. It made Utisz wonder just how much convincing the President had required, and how precisely Blotgate had gone about it. “In any case, I am pleased to say that the President has finally relinquished his stubbornness. I have been given approval to proceed with a course of action I have advocated since before the war—a formal military alliance with the Temple of Itztlacoliuhqui.”

The general took in a mouthful of smoke and rolled it over his tongue. It was as if he were waiting for a round of applause. But his air of self-satisfaction dispersed as quickly as the smoke, replaced with a bitter frown.

“Of course, we should have embarked on this course a decade ago,” he said. “The delay has given our enemies time to work against us.”

“Enemies, sir?”

“Captain Caul was not the only opponent of the Temple’s plans for the great remaking,” Blotgate said. “There is also a group of Russian scientists called the Sini Mira. They have created a poison called Volos’ Anodyne. Our intelligence indicates that it is a truly monstrous and inelegant weapon, designed to pollute the global mantic well at its very source, rendering the working of such an immense magic—indeed, of any magic at all—utterly impossible.” The general peered at Utisz through a veil of haze. “I am sure you agree that such arrogant foreign interference in our national destiny, and in the magical destiny of all mankind, must be swiftly and thoroughly curtailed?”

“Yes, sir!”

“I kind of thought you would,” the General said. “And to do that, we have to get the acorn.”

Acorn, sir?”

“Of course it’s not the acorn we want, rather the redskin Witch inside it.” The general leaned back in his chair, savoring the lieutenant’s confusion. “The formula for the poison was hidden long ago, and we believe she knows where it is. But for some blasted reason the stupid squaw shed her human body and transferred her spirit into an acorn. And now she and the acorn are under the protection of the credomancers at their institute in New York.”

Credomancers.” Utisz frowned. “A mongrel horde of Jews and foreigners and other undesirables. Why their tampering with the minds of patriotic Americans continues to be allowed by our elected officials, I shall never understand.” Utisz, realizing suddenly that he had not been given permission to speak freely, reddened slightly. “Sir.”

“Indeed,” Blotgate allowed. “There are many things I do not understand either, Lieutenant. But as men of magic—and officers of the United States Army—sometimes we must accept what we cannot understand.” General Blotgate rolled the cigar between thumb and forefinger, contemplating it.

“But what I will not accept, Lieutenant,”—the General released each word like he was dropping it into a pond, letting it fall to the murky bottom—”is that a project that has the capacity to shift the balance of global power, and thrust this great country into the position of world dominance that it is destined to occupy, should be threatened by an Indian in a nut.”

He vehemently ground his cigar into a large brass ashtray.

“Before his death, Captain Caul was overseeing a secret project to stockpile huge amounts of chrysohaeme. He had convinced the President that this arsenal of refined magic was necessary to defend the United States against temamauhti. Now that the President has come to recognize how he was misguided, he has agreed that the arsenal should be put to a far more important use. It will be delivered to the Temple to aid them in their great work.”

After this, the general did not speak again for a long time. Instead, he rested his elbows on his desk, clasped his hands together, and stared at Utisz. He stared so long that the lieutenant began to feel very uncomfortable. Heat crept up under his collar. He felt, strangely, as if he should fall to his knees and beg for mercy. He did not know why.

“It is my understanding that you have not received a posting yet, lieutenant,” the general finally said.

“I have not, sir,” Utisz managed, his throat bone dry.

“Then it’s your lucky day,” the general said. “I am appointing you Army liaison to the Temple of Itztlacolihuque. You will be given command of a squadron. You and your men will deliver the chrysohaeme Caul stockpiled—as well as the bulk of the Army’s reserves of Black Exunge—to the Temple. Once the delivery has been made, you will stay to serve the Black Glass Goddess in whatever capacity She requires. Do you understand the vital importance of this mission?”

“Yes, sir!”

“And do you accept it?”

“Yes, sir!” Utisz had ignored the soft, predatory tone of the question. He had lifted his chin resolutely. “It will be an honor to serve my country.”

An honor to serve my country.

Lieutenant Utisz shivered with remembered pride, and from the feather-light touch of the Temple acolyte touching bitter oil onto his ice-washed skin. He recognized the places where the oil was being touched: the brachial arteries along the insides of his arms. The femoral arteries along the insides of his legs. And finally, on his throat, the carotis communis. The bleeding places.

“She will receive you now,” the attendant said, when the Temple servant had touched the last drop of oil to Utisz’s goosepimpled skin and had bowed his way backward into the shadows. The doors of bone grated open; there was only gaping blackness beyond.

The attendant escorted Utisz through a close unlit corridor into a enormous room that seemed to expand around them as they entered it. It was like emerging into a winter night of deepest stillness and chill, all the stars blotted out by an angry hand.

The floor was deeply channeled in an intricate circular design that Utisz recognized as the ancient Aztec calendar for which the room was named. Black Exunge ran in these deep channels, outlining the vast pattern in bubbling stink. Mold-frosted leaves of diviner’s sage smoldered over white-glowing charcoal in a hundred brazen tripods, thickening the air with narcotic clouds of smoke. Light from a high aperture in the domed ceiling sliced downward through the blue-silver haze, illuminating a deep, bowl-shaped pit in the calendar’s great center.

The pit was deep and unlined. Thick hairy roots extended from the crumbling soil of its sides, piercing the surface of a whale-sized reddish-brown lump that glistened like congealed blood-jelly. Half-submerged in a bitter soup of Exunge, the thing shuddered and spasmed irregularly, making obscene plopping noises.

Lieutenant Utisz could not take his eyes off of it. It was so arresting, indeed, that he hardly noticed the approach of a very fat man, his hands extended in jocular welcome.

“The High Priest of her sacred splendor,” the attendant whispered in Utisz’s ear. Only the hissing sibilance allowed the Lieutenant to tear his gaze away from the mound of throbbing flesh. “Her tonalpoulque, keeper of Her consecrated calendar.”

The High Priest wore a plain, ill-fitting black suit—a shoddy background to the lavish ceremonial torque he wore around his neck. It was an extravagant, gaudy ornament; beads of gold and jade big as walnuts were strung through with brilliant, iridescent plumes. Twelve pendants were spaced along the necklaces’ length, each pendant a golden cage—and in each cage, a piece of dried human flesh. Most of the bits were utterly indistinguishable, but Utisz recognized some of them—a shriveled section of leathery intestine, a whole dessicated brain (which rattled in its golden cage like a little nut) and a small, hard heart.

“Thank you for coming, Lieutenant.” The High Priest caught Utisz’s hand, pumping it with gusto. “I am Selig Heusler. I trust your journey was comfortable?”

Utisz appreciated plain speaking and plain dealing. The words, spoken to him rather than above him, made him take an immediate liking to the High Priest, feathers and flesh-chunks notwithstanding. “Yes sir, th-thank you. I would p-present you with my papers, but . . .” Utisz clenched his teeth to stop their chattering, and spread his hands to highlight his nakedness.

“No need. Your men have already been hard at work unloading your government’s tribute of chrysohaeme and Black Exunge.” Here, Heusler leaned in close to murmur in Utisz ear, “They’ll all have to be killed, I’m afraid. They cannot be allowed to leave; with temamauhti so close, the Temple’s location must remain a closely guarded secret.”

Utisz blinked once or twice. But before he could even form words of protest, Heusler laid a hand on his arm to guide him toward a pyramid at the far end of the room. It was constructed entirely of human skulls, and blanketed in heavy, sparkling frost. “Come, let us make haste, for She is expecting you …”

As they passed the huge lump of flesh spasming in the pit, Utisz slowed for a closer look.

“The Liver,” Heusler said, seeing the direction of the young man’s gaze. “Incredible, isn’t it? That, Lieutenant, is the engine that will power the Remaking. If the Indian in the nut doesn’t stop us first.”

“I have come with a plan,” Lieutenant Utisz said, the words tumbling out on a silvery cloud. “The acorn—I know how we can retrieve it.”

Heusler lifted his eyebrows in astonishment. “Do you? How quickly you work! You shall distinguish yourself in Her service, I can see.”

“Dreadnought Stanton is the key,” Utisz said.

“Dreadnought Stanton?” Heusler’s brow knit suspiciously. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Surely you’ve heard he is to be made Sophos—Master of the credomancer’s institute. He will be invested on Midsummer’s Eve. Once Stanton assumes formal control of the Institute, the Indian in the nut will be under his protection.”

“Believe me, young man,” the High Priest said with something like relief, “Stanton would never help us.”

“Not willingly, perhaps.” Utisz dropped his voice. “But love can encourage a man to compromise. He is engaged to be wed, the poor fool—”

Doest thou know, tonalpoulque, that the Chinese believe that the liver contains the ethereal spirit? The words rang through Utisz’s head with an odd reverberance that made it seem his skull was carved of brass. And the Egyptians, when someone is greatly beloved of them, say that person has a piece of their liver.

“Then you must be very greatly loved, Mistress,” Heusler said loudly, his voice ringing against the unseen walls, “for the piece you have is so very large.” Heusler hurried the lieutenant toward the pyramid. “She stirs. It is time. Save your plans for her, my boy. Though I warn you, it has been my experience that the most carefully crafted plans of mortal men are no match for the whims of a goddess.”

The pyramid was surmounted by an altarstone, and on the icy block a woman’s body lay beneath a translucent veil of white silk. But she was not dead, Utisz saw; her breath made the thin silk tremble, and he could sense a pulse at the wrist of the slender dark-skinned arm. Utisz stared at her face—or rather at the mask that had been placed over the woman’s face. It was a hideous contorted sneer of carved ebony, dominated by curving fangs of amber-smoked ivory. Long braids—sliced from the scalps of long-forgotten victims—mixed with the woman’s own glossy black hair, twining down over her smooth bared breasts, brushing caramel-hued nipples.

“Her vessel waits atop the sacred teocalli,” Heusler said. “Just a local girl from one of the villages, but we do try to find the best. Her Divinity burns through a new one every time she awakens, and if we don’t get her a pretty one she pouts.”

“Very . . . pretty,” Utisz mumbled, trying to imagine how a goddess might pout.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, she must be fed.”

The High Priest scaled the steep teocalli, and was puffing hard by the time he reached the altarstone. He removed his coat and then his shirt, revealing plush rolls of white flesh intricately decorated with writhing black tattoos. The inked designs covered him from throat to wrists to belly, vanishing below his belt like dancing snakes.

Lifting his hands, Heusler began to speak in low, resonant tones:

“Rise, ancient powers of blood.”

The words shuddered off the walls of glass, making the Exunge in its channels vibrate, slicing through the thick smoke like flying knives. Tendrils of crackling chain lightning danced over the surfaces of the room—flashes of brightness, viscid translucent cobwebs of bruise blue and bacterial yellow. The smell of ozone and charred bone layered itself over bitter incense and the reek of bile.

A rising light, cutting through the gloom of the place, caught Utisz’ attention. The Liver, in its pit of Black Exunge, was starting to … glow. It was transforming the slick tarry Exunge around itself into a luminous golden substance—chrysohaeme. The golden blood of the earth, magical power in its rawest form. Utisz could barely breathe for astonishment. This … thing could transform Black Exunge into chrysohaeme? No wonder Blotgate had wanted to ally with a goddess who had such power. And no wonder Caul had wanted to destroy her.

The glow spread outward from the Liver, and the Black Exunge in the channels that outlined the great calendar luminesced as if they’d been touched with a torch. The glowing streams flowed toward the teocalli, snaking up the pyramid of skulls to the altarstone. Like sharp golden needles, they pierced the dusky flesh of the goddess’ vessel.

“Feed, Blade of Obsidian.”

Far beneath the floor, the rocks of the earth churned. The woman’s body on the altarstone spasmed wildly. The covering of white silk fell aside, revealing the woman’s jerking limbs, bound by twining ropes of chrysohaeme—unwitting prey caught in a nest of vipers.

“Awaken, Dread Mistress.”

At the words, the ropes of power jerked together at once, flaring to a supernatural brilliance. Utisz winced, shielding his eyes. When he brought his arm down, the light was gone utterly, replaced blackness as dark as the light had been bright.

The goddess stood before the altarstone, looking down at him.

She was no longer a woman, that much was clear. All the feminine softness of her vessel was gone. She was a pillar of glossy black hardness, her form molded of smooth black glass, her fingers edged like flint-chipped blades. Utisz watched the High Priest carefully lift the ceremonial torque from around his neck and place it over the Goddess’ head, arranging it around her frosty throat. She tenderly stroked one of the golden cages as she glided down the teocalli, vitrine feet barely brushing the skulls.

Utisz legs buckled beneath him. He fell to his knees without conscious thought. He could not take his eyes off of her.

In a moment she was standing before him, huge and black, her edges indistinct. Waves of bitterest cold swirled around her, but Utisz could not even summon the will to shiver. She ran long sharp fingers through his dark hair, tilting his head up, seizing his gaze with hers. Her eyes were shifting traps, ancient abominations, the screams of a thousand generations of massacred innocents.

Such a tender young man.

Utisz was bare before her. He was nothing before her eyes—eyes that were the march of brutal history, oppression and apocalypse. The light of torches glowed through her, flickering small as if smothered by her mass. She placed a bladed hand on each side of his head.

You have come to be Initiated into our service, the goddess said. For this, the ward that binds your emotions must be released. She did not need to ask his neologism, for she already knew it; she knew all. She leaned down and softly whispered it in his ear. His brain exploded, emotions surging through him like a hurricane flood—fear, hate, regret, remorse, terror. And at the crest of each wave rode terrible visions—visions of beauty and power:

The earth seen in a smoking mirror, twisted and tortured and transformed. Black slime gushing up from deep cracks in the earth’s crust … every living thing withered, frost-blackened, destroyed  … winter-blasted air choked with the screams of the dying …

Itztlacoliuhqui, the Goddess of Obsidian Knives, enthroned atop a pyramid of skulls as high as the moon; rivers of blood cascading from her feet, gory rushing torrents . . . and at her side, a High Priest in feathers and jade, with a hand-shaped mark over his heart.

The world become ice and blood, as terrible in its beauty as the Goddess herself.

Temamauhti.

The Remaking.

With his last ounce of free will, Utisz lifted his hands to his throat in defense. Blotgate couldn’t have meant this. This went beyond national destiny, beyond human destiny … this was the end of all of that. This was the end of the world. But the Temple attendants had taken his alembic, his only source of magical protection. All he could do was scream as the goddess’ voice caressed his mind.

Dear child, do not resist us. The fortunes of a little country, a fleeting thought in the infinite dream, do not matter. Our true aim is greater. It will be your honor to help us achieve it.

The goddess lifted her free hand and held it out as if an invisible maidservant were placing a bracelet around her wrist.

Die for us, child.

The brilliant magic that hummed in the air coalesced around her outstretched hand, becoming a gleaming obsidian blade, long and slender. She closed her fingers around it delicately.

Her eyes held his, and Lieutenant Utisz knew that he would die for Her. He knew that he would die, and that it had always been his place to die, and that it would be the greatest pleasure he had ever known.

 

 

Heusler missed the moment when Her blade slashed downward, opening Lieutenant Utisz’s throat at the seventh cervical vertebra. He felt rather disappointed that he had missed that, but waking the goddess always left him drained. Leaning heavily on the altarstone, it was all he could do to remain standing.

The young officer’s trachea gaped as blood fountained from the two huge arteries that ran along it. Blood showered the goddess as she watched the body struggle, then falter, then fall. She was bathed in the lieutenant’s blood, drenched in it; steam from its warmth rose up in clouds from her body. The mask’s ivory fangs were stained red, as if she’d been rooting in the belly of a corpse. She stroked a finger along one of the tusks, then licked it, savoring the taste with great thoughtfulness.

Poor lost orphan, She nodded, as if replying to some silent supplication. Be joyful. In our service, your blood will have its revenge on the blood that abandoned it.

The goddess made a small movement with her sharp fingers and, slowly, the lieutenant’s slashed throat began to close. Tiny stitches of magic darted along the lips of the wound, pulling them together. When nothing remained but a white-seamed scar, she lifted a negligent hand.

Arise, new-born. Receive the blessing of your Goddess.

The young man’s body rose from the ground, upright but slack, a puppet on invisible strings. Leaning forward, holding his face in her hands, she pressed icy black lips to his forehead.  His eyes flew open. He gulped air deep, gasping like a drowned man pulled from the ocean’s depths. When she released him, he sank to his knees, whimpering and moaning in a mix of terror, heartbreak and ecstasy.

The goddess’ kiss had been tender, but even from atop the teocalli, Heusler could see the mark it left—a violent bruise, an oblong mark right between the young lieutenant’s eyes, as if he’d been struck by a hammer.

We have taken your life, and given it back, she said. Do our will faithfully, and you shall be rewarded.

Turning from him, she did not watch as red-robed acolytes swarmed from unseen alcoves to carry the lieutenant away. She moved toward the center of the Calendar Chamber, her cold black feet gliding over the inscribed channels of Black Exunge. She stopped at the railing that surrounded the pit. She stared down longingly at the trembling mound of glossy flesh. Its glow had faded, and once again it swam in bitter, slimy black. Her gilded nails hammered against the silver rail like tiny smiths.

Heusler carefully made his way down from the teocalli to where she stood.

He lowered himself to the ground (an indelicate and undignified maneuver) and stretched his arms out before himself.

“Does he please you, my Divine? He will make a fine servant. The debt he is owed is powerful. In asserting his claim, he will be able to unlock doors that would not open before.”

There was a long silence, in which Heusler furtively watched Her for a response. Finally, the Goddess shrugged indifferently. Never once did she take her eyes from the Liver.

He is not who we want, she said softly.

Heusler despised the pathos in her tone. This ancient manifestation of the darkest of powers, the Killing Frost, the Obsidian Blade, feared and adored … mooning over a lost love. For all that she was a Goddess, Heusler thought, it was still greatly disappointing that she was nothing more than a female.

He had served her faithfully for more than three hundred years—his life preserved by its proximity to her divine magnificence. But it was impossible to remain in the company of a female, even a divine one, for so long without suffering some form of disillusionment. He knew Her shameful secret—Her sordid feet of clay. It was not for the exaltation of her own magnificence that She pursued the great work of temamauhti; no, it was for the resurrection of one man—one miserable human man! Xiuhunel, the Aztec High Priest who had perfected the blood-soaked magical ritual that allowed the Goddess to manifest herself within a mortal body. Her time upon the earth was always fleeting; her vast power would destroy the fragile vessels she inhabited within a few short hours. But those hours had been enough. He had taught her the pleasures of incarnate existence—killing-frost thawed by the warmth of a living embrace; razor-edges blunted by desire. She had fallen in love with him.

In his idle hours, Heusler sometimes amused himself by trying to concieve of a crime a mortal man could commit that was more monstrous than making a goddess fall in love with him. He had never succeeded.

When Xiuhuniel died upon a Spanish blade during the fall of Tenochtitlan, the savage rites to incarnate the Goddess ceased, and Itztlacolihuque was left to brood and pine in Her own incorporeal eternal realm. Why did he not send for her? She did not learn of his death until many years later, when Heusler—then a mercenary Warlock in service to the Spanish crown’s ambitions in the New World—had come across a description of Xiuhunel’s great rite in a war-tattered codex. He had decided to give it a try.

Heusler shuddered at the memory.

She had never quite forgiven him for that first time, when she had woken in a new vessel, only to find that Xiuhunel was gone, lost forever. She had grieved on a divine scale, wreaking her awful vengeance on the city that had once been the capital of the great Aztec empire. She massacred two thousand Spanish in one magnificent night, their bodies slashed into unrecognizable ribbons of flesh. Soaking the ruins of Tenochtitlan in the blood of usurpers sanctified her great vow—that she and Xiuhunel would be reunited, their bodies whole and undying, even if the entire world had to be torn to shreds.

It frequently astonished the High Priest that something as seemingly simple as the former should require the unthinkable profligacy of the latter.

Love, Heusler sighed. Such a lot of damn fuss.

He discarded these thoughts quickly. She could so easily read his mind if she chose. It would not do to annoy Her with such impertience, not after decade upon decade of exacting preparation. Not now, with the final culmination so near. Before the moon was new, the calendar would ripen in its most powerful configuration in fifty-two years. In a year governed by the Jeweled Fowl, the year of greatest sorcerous potency, she would come into Her greatest strength on 1-Cuetzpalin, the trecena of her ultimate apotheosis.

June 30th.

The last day of the month. The last day of the world.

We have heard, Keeper of the Calendar, that humans deem June an auspicious month to wed.

The strange question startled Heusler out of his reverie. His legs and feet had gone all pins-and-needles from kneeling so long, and he suddenly realized just how long her silence had been.

“Indeed, my divine. By the debased mortal calendar, June is the month for weddings.”

Is what the Initate said true, tonalpoulque?

Heusler wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but he sensed danger in the question.

“He said many things,” Heusler said cautiously.

Is Dreadnought Stanton is to be wed?

Heusler wiggled his sleeping toes. So She liked the young lieutenant’s idea, did she? Of course, he could see why she might find it satisfying—on many levels. “There is girl from California. A Witch. She was at the Grand Symposium.”

Is she pretty?

Heusler frowned. Certainly, he had found the girl toothsome, but he wasn’t about to tell her that.

“How can I answer, my divine?” He said. “When I am in your presence, Your beauty makes it impossible for my weak mortal mind even to conceive the face of another.”

She laughed, a deep chiming sound that started in her throat and expanded as it spread downward, making the earth beneath her feet shudder. One of the smoking braziers toppled with a resounding clang.

Flatterer, she thought. You have never even seen our true face.

“I have seen it in my dreams.”

And the Witch’s name, tonalpoulque?

“Emily Edwards,” Heusler said.