Tru was serving up hot crimson tea in the kitchen when Durga, Yun-Qi and I arrived back at the penthouse, fully dressed and less purple than I remembered, though there was still a tinge of it around the eyes. He glanced over at me, the first to notice, then tore his gaze away with a small shake of the head.
The seven very confused refugees were camped out around the sofas, where fidget boy was poking his fingers into the puncture holes left by the exorcist incident and pulling out small feathers one by one until they formed a small pile on the surface of the cushion. Tez sat with them, still holding the hand mirror, all smiles as he engaged them in conversation. Snatches of it reached my ears, small talk mixed with options for homecoming logistics.
Bathed in the warm glow of the interior out on the balcony, Apollo was pacing up and down with a worried expression, hands in pockets. Near him, blood smears trailed across the tiles before truncating in front of the sliding doors, tell-tale evidence Mayari had made it back for restoration. Though she was currently nowhere to be seen.
The last body making up the scene was Lucy’s, in person this time, hands wrapped around a long cardboard tube resembling a map roll well on the ridiculous end of nonstandard printing sizes. It was fooling no one, the flimsy packaging insufficient to disguise the raw power emanating from within. Even Yun-Qi and the tourists from Singapore seemed able to sense something, stealing peeks at the package from time to time. Although they could have just been staring at Lucy. He did tend to have that effect on people.
I sidled over and joined him in leaning against the far wall as Durga spotted her boss and headed outside.
“Aren’t you worried bringing this so close to Tru will trip the alarm prematurely?”
“It’s a possibility,” the devil said, not taking his eyes off the scene in the living room. “Leaving it unattended would be worse. What you don’t see is the protections I’ve added to this building. If there’s one thing I’ve had extensive practice with over the years, it’s warding against surveillance. This residence should be safe. The moment I take it anywhere else, things get shaky.”
“Still.” I glanced down at the cardboard tube of death incarnate. One good poke with its contents was all it would take to send me back to the void, with no way out the second time round. “Don’t let it out of your sight.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied, his face surprisingly grim. “I won’t.”
Tru placed the last tulip-shaped glass down in silence amidst the backdrop of cautious chatter. The apartment was warm, sliding doors holding the winter chill at bay, and rich aromas were wafting up from the tea. Hospitality thus accomplished, Rap Boy retreated to the sanctuary of the kitchen and pulled up a stool at the island as if paying attention to the wider conversation. From the distant quality entering his eyes, however, I was willing to bet there was a good chance he was accessing his powers.
“Lucy,” I picked back up, folding my arms, “where have you been hiding Gungnir all this time? And what else do you have in there?” Behind the words, the real question lingered unspoken: why hadn’t he told me?
Or perhaps, how many times had he told me already?
I’d expected he might evade the question, but instead it was a small hum that escaped his lips. “When Dad made me, it was because he needed a custodian."
I sniggered through my nose. “And all this time, here I was assuming it was out of love.”
To my surprise, his head snapped towards me, back straightening from the wall. One of the arms holding the map roll dropped, and the tube made an almost imperceptible shift towards me.
Before conscious thought caught up my with actions, my legs were already in motion stepping back.
“Oh, he loves,” Lucy contended. He glanced at the tube and moved it to the opposite side of his body, away from me, where he cradled it in the crook of one arm. “That’s what makes it worse. He genuinely believes he’s acting in everyone’s best interests doing what he does. Keeping the other gods in line.” He hesitated. “He’s not entirely wrong.”
“Who are you and what have you done with Lucifer?” I demanded.
“I’m serious. Don’t you think you could do a better job in his position?”
“Only because the first thing I’d do would be to dismantle it,” I said. “New leaders come with new rules, and you couldn’t pay me to sit in that cursed throne.”
“Are you sure? Think about it: the power to right all the wrongs in the world. Don’t you find that even a little tempting?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re really trying this on with me? ‘Take my hand and come to the dark side?’ We’ve had this conversation. No one with that much unilateral power is going to make the world better for it on the other side. You could put Lofn in power, and she's adorable. But I guarantee you in nine months the world’s population would double and everyone would be too busy mating like deranged turbo rabbits to produce the resources required to feed it. And before you say it, if you even think about consigning me to a life of tedious administration, I swear my first order will be to make everyone shave off their eyebrows.”
Lucy shrugged. “I mean, there are worse things.”
“Spoken like someone who hasn’t yet experienced their eight hundredth memorial to Eyebrow Day. Wait until you see the themed canapes.”
“Made with spite,” Lucy noted.
“That, and reanimated eyebrows.”
A rush of cold night air accompanied the rasp of the sliding doors as Apollo and Durga re-entered the building. The former, still frowning, strutted over to join Tru in the kitchen, while the latter made a beeline for the kids, pulling out a sneaky handful of feathers from the folds of her sari as she did.
“What if it was me?” Lucy asked, recapturing my attention. “What then?”
I looked at him properly, my ninety per cent certainty he was joking not providing quite the reassurance I was looking for. “Well,” I began, feeling my voice soften, “since it’s you, I suppose I could give you a couple of years before coming after you.”
“Alright,” he said, leaning back against the wall. “Case made. You’re not the best example. You see my point, though. We need some checks and balances before we start removing the barriers to ultimate power. For all Dad’s faults, he understands that and does it well.”
“Agree to disagree. Anyway, he hates you.”
“He killed your siblings.”
“That’s not hate,” said Lucy. He drummed his fingers on the outside of the map roll. “That’s fear. That’s the problem with life at the top. The more you have to lose, the harder it hurts to see it taken away. Even a small setback or perceived threat can seem a tremendous blow. And for Dad, it’s all about influence. Whether you love or hate him is secondary to whether you challenge his authority.”
“And here I was thinking it was all that dirge music his churches sang. I’d hate everything if that was all I listened to for the last thousand years.”
Lucy snorted. “What saved me was getting in first and bearing the full brunt of discreditation. No one was going to take me seriously after that. But the others? People love angels. There were days where you could show folk a glimpse of your wings and they’d do anything you asked. No matter how loyal, it was only a matter of time before they started resenting having to give Dad all the credit.”
“And the power that came with it,” I finished. “I don’t blame them. Odin was a shitty boss, but even he saw the benefit in keeping people on side. Until he didn’t.”
I straightened up as Yun-Qi approached with two glasses of tea, inclined his head slightly, and handed each of us a glass before settling down with the tourists. Lucy took a sip from his beaker while I cradled mine in hand and frowned.
His missive needed retrieving at some point, preferably sooner than later. Now would have been the perfect time - if not for the fact we were about to dive straight into some first-order trouble. A message seemed benign enough, but ordinary words wielded enough power on their own, let alone when geas-powered. I probably wasn’t at risk of unleashing the second coming of Pandora here, but there were less egregious screw-ups people had made which had still come with dire enough consequences.
Besides, if the Odin bust went bad, chances were I’d soon be dead. Fat lot of good a geas would do me then. And I didn’t fancy my chances of it turning out to be a ‘get-out-of-dead free’ card were especially high.
My eyes wandered from Apollo, who had dragged Tru into a conversation involving copious amounts of wanton finger-pointing, to Tez, who had moved onto listing comparative five-star hotel recommendations. His audience didn’t quite appear to know what to make of this, or indeed of anything that was going on, but a veneer of normality could be an enticing lure and Tez knew it.
Seer interference was also an obstacle, as was the chance either or both risked catching the geas if things went wrong. I stroked my chin in thought as my gaze returned again to the enigmatic academic.
An elbow nudge broke me out of my reverie. “You should just ask him,” said Lucy, following my gaze. “Get it out of the way.”
“I’ve already made up my mind,” I replied. “And I don’t remember telling you about questions needing asking.”
“You didn’t. Apollo did.”
“Wrong seer, Lucy,” I said, grinning, and took a sip of the tea. “Fifty-fifty chance and you chose wrong.”
“Spill it. What do you know?”
“It’s your geas,” he voiced, the bombshell leaving his lips like someone else might comment on the weather. “I highly doubt you’d go to all the trouble of leaving a message for yourself only to lace it with self-defeating booby traps.” A surprised expression crossed his face as he said it, to be followed with one of delight.
I blinked. “I might. Depends on whether I’d expect someone else to get to it first. But I can’t –” I broke off. I probably could scrape a specific geas together if I spent some time practicing my runic magic under the right conditions. But not at my current skill level. And I would have recalled putting in the effort –
Effort which meant nothing in the face of someone who could gloss over specific memories.
I lowered my voice. “So I did this? Are you sure?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t watch you bestow it. But that’s what you told me, and it’s him. I don’t forget a face.”
Lucy had been there during the original phone call, but this was the first time they'd actually laid eyes on each other. If he was right, no wonder Yun-Qi had been trying to track me down. “So what was it about, then?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You came to me one day, towing this anonymous shellshocked man behind you, with that face you get right before an unwise decision comes back to bite you in the rear, and asked me to erase all your memories from the previous two months. You gave me strict instructions to leave him in the middle of China for some ongoing mission. And then you put a second geas on me so I couldn’t talk about it. It’s been very annoying, let me tell you.”
It must have been important – and dangerous – for me to go to such lengths to keep a secret. Something I couldn’t afford to let Providence get their hands on. Which, given they already controlled everything from the world’s magic supply to preventing the launch of unexpectedly effective toe creams, left me mystified. Damning information, perhaps? A hidden artifact?
I eyed the map roll in Lucy’s arm. A weapon?
The other problem with this scenario was that even catering for the possibility I’d been capable of rustling up a geas, I wouldn’t have had access to my magic.
“When exactly was this?” I asked, as a sudden suspicion occurred to me.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said with a grin, which was a phrase I never liked to hear coming from someone for whom it was theoretically plausible. Even knowing it was just a figure of speech. He quaffed another sip from his glass. “It was before your induction into the family snake pit. Like I said, we’ve known each other a while.”
“And this is still within ‘seven or eight conversations’ territory, is it?” I asked, my fingers tightening around my own glass. “How much of my memory has been eaten away over the years, really? Or are you just telling me this now because the real geas is what hospital boy over there is carrying and you’ve been infected?”
The reproachful look he gave me didn’t quite manage to outweigh the excitement creeping in around the corners of his eyes. “Don’t be like that. I haven’t been able to talk about this in a long time. Which is on you. And it’s true. If anything, I’m less compromised now than I have been in lifetimes, waiting for you to ask me about some hastily thrown-together plot you came up with four centuries ago. ”
“Yun-Qi wasn’t even alive back then,” I protested.
“Evidently he was,” said Lucy.
I frowned. “He talked about growing up as a child, his university studies.”
“Did he put a date on them?”
“Then there you go. Classic cost of making assumptions. Ignoring the fact they could all have been lies to begin with.”
Four hundred years ago I’d been barely keeping Providence off my tail, with a number of close calls. It had taken a while to stamp the divine population into complete submission, but the lingering wave of post-war anarchy had passed as hope had dimmed. Rebellion had simmered into resentment, and bloomed into productivity. All while the tyrant’s resources needed dividing among fewer fugitives.
It had been one exhausting event after another. Never knowing if I could let down my guard, not daring to sleep; an endless cycle of new faces and locations. Some of which were mine, and some the people around me I’d learnt not to trust.
I didn’t remember encountering Lucy among it all, but if there’d ever been a time for putting contingencies in place, that would have been it.
“He seemed sincere,” I muttered, feeling my brows knitting. “Speaking of assumptions, bold of you to assume longevity. It could be any number of things.” I waved my free hand to illustrate the point. “Maybe the geas is hereditary.”
“Hmm. Maybe it is. Or maybe I am infected and trying to steer you astray. Either way, you know what you need to do to find answers.” This last part was accompanied by a pointed nod in Yun-Qi’s direction.
I still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t an unexploded timebomb waiting to go off.
“Gungnir,” I reminded the devil, returning the conversation to its original subject. “You were going to tell me where it was.”
I could see I wasn’t fooling him, but he didn’t press the issue. “As I said, I was originally in the custodian business. For souls, true. But if you can manage a few million dead, inanimate objects are a pushover.”
Earlier in the week I’d spent fifteen minutes just trying to find a particular coat in my shoebox apartment, but decided not to bring it up. “This stash, then. Would it be open to visitors?”
“I won’t steal anything,” I promised. “I’m just curious. Very curious. The corporate machine generally sniffs out those hiding spots before long, and there’s every chance I’ll be in the market for one in a few hours.”
Lucy drained the rest of his tea, the empty glass vanishing from his fingers. A tell-tale clink sounded from the kitchen sink. “If it comes to that, you can hide out there as long as you want. Though you might not want to. It’s not the treasure trove you think. Actually, it’s mainly full of kids.”
My eyebrows rose high enough up my forehead they may as well have been skimming the ceiling. “You put one of the finest weapons ever forged in with your firstborn collection? That sounds like it’s asking for trouble.”
“It does, doesn’t it? For what it’s worth, they’re under my control.” A fleeting bittersweet expression passed across his face as he said it. “Besides, they make excellent sentries, and most of them have been kids for a very long time.” He patted the cardboard tube. “They brought it this far. I trust them.”
“It’s similar to a pocket dimension,” he spoke over me. “To answer your question. Like a soul jar, just bigger. It was never going to bypass the afterlife edict, but I can at least do something about the souls signed over alive. Ironic that the outcasts ended up getting the better deal.”
It was hard to miss the similarities to Mayari’s bunker, only for a different demographic segment. But while the moon base was just kicking off, Lucy’s project must have been steaming ahead for a while.
“How big is it?” I wondered aloud. For it to get around the dimensional erasures, chances were it would exist under heavy restrictions, much like Providence’s demotion facilities.
“Not big enough. I’ve done what I can, but it’s been running out of space for a while. But it’s that or the void.”
I didn’t ask for more detail, my imagination already filling in a few unpleasant blanks. “So when you said you had no recruits -”
“I’ve yet to pitch the question. I’ll give them a choice, of course. I’m not my father.”
“That you are not,” I agreed, finishing my tea. A moment later, a second clink emanated from the direction of the sink. “We will make him stop.”
“I hope so.” His fingers tightened around the roll.
In the kitchen, Apollo gave Tru a pat on the back and lifted one of the used glasses out of the sink, tapping it on the side with the kind of silver spoon he’d been born suckling on. A small creak sounded in the ensuing silence as Mayari emerged from the bathroom in one of Tru’s endless supplies of dressing gowns. Her hair was soaking wet, her feet wrinkled and bare, but of her prior injuries there was no sign.
“Now that we’re all ready, deferments are over,” announced the treacherous Head of Security. “Don’t get comfortable. It’s time to kill a god.”