The war council was held at the same table where Legba and I had made our pact. The candles and lace tablecloth were gone, and a cheap torchiere lamp had been plugged in, filling the room with rich halogen light and the smell of burning dust in more or less equal degrees. Amelie Glapion sat on her throne, surveying the room with a critical expression. Her nap had returned her to sharpness, but I was more aware of her as an old, fragile woman than I had been. To her right, Dr. Inond¨¦ looked like a mildly apologetic salesman. To her left, Sabine sat, her face still full with youth but managing to mimic her grandmother's severity. Chogyi Jake, Aubrey, and I took the other side of the cheap folding banquet table, and Mfume sat at the head, both with the group and also apart from it. Daria was curled on her cot, a sleeping bag pulled up to her ears, snoring quietly.
Some kind soul had run out for coffee. I had a paper cup with caf¨¦ au lait just slightly too hot to drink. The others had drinks of their own, except for Chogyi Jake and Amelie Glapion.
It was ten thirty at night, and dark as midnight.
"We don't know where she is," Amelie Glapion said, "and she can't find us neither. So that's where it stands. Either we keep her held off until Sabine can watch out for herself. Or else we take her on."
Sabine nodded. She knew what was happening. And what was more, I could see from the way she held herself that she accepted it. She was going to be the host of a rider for the rest of her life, and in this place, in this context, she thought it was a good thing. And God help me, I was starting to see her point of view.
"How long is it going to take for Sabine to pupate?" Aubrey asked.
The room went silent, all eyes turning to Aubrey as if he'd said something inappropriate.
"Excuse me?" Sabine said. I hopped in.
"How long before the loa in you is strong enough to fight off Carrefour?" I said. Then, "He's a biologist. He talks like that sometimes. Don't sweat it."
"The longer it goes, the stronger it grows," Amelie said. She was herself; I didn't hear any trace of the rider in her voice. "The child will come into her own, but it ain't all that different from real kids. It happens when it happens, you know?"
"Generally, the longer we can hold her off, the better it'll be," I said.
"Except," Mfume said, planting the word like a flag. Attention shifted to him. "You mustn't underestimate Karen Black. Once, I was able to keep a rough sort of track of her. Once, we were certain that we had time, that we could arrange this confrontation to fit our schedule. Instead, Carrefour has gathered new resources. It discovered us at the temple, and except for Miss Heller's intervention might already have taken Sabine. And it has vanished."
"Yeah, that was me," I said. "Well, us. The wards where it's hard to find with spells and cantrips and stuff? That was our fault."
"We cannot assume that stealth gives us power," Mfume continued. "Karen is very good at what she does. We may believe that we are safe only because she allows us to think it. The illusion serves her, and waiting gives her the tempo."
"But we do know where she is, don't we? We know where the safe house is," Aubrey said.
"And she doesn't know that we three are back in the game," I said. "So she won't know that's compromised. If nothing else, we could send someone out to take a look. And if she's not there, maybe Ex would be, and we could get him back too."
"Ex?" Amelie Glapion said.
"My friend who's sleeping with her," I said. "The one we came back for. He's another problem. He used to be a priest, and he knows how to pull a rider out of the host body."
"So Ex like in exorcist," Amelie Glapion said. "You're telling me this bitch got a warded house and a working exorcist out of you?"
"And a van," I said. "A warded van so she can move around without being seen."
"And you got what?"
I felt myself blushing a little.
"She told me some stories about my uncle. And there was a favor or two she was going to owe me."
"Owe you," Amelie said.
"Owe you like not actually do for you, but maybe someplace down the line."
The old woman shook her head in disgust.
"Either this bitch really is that good or you've got to get a whole lot smarter," she said.
"Little of both," I admitted.
"But the safe house," Aubrey said. "I know going out there's a risk, but-"
Chogyi Jake leaned forward, his fingertips tapping the tabletop like raindrops. His expression was focused inward, the way it did when he was thinking through a particularly knotty problem.
"It may not be a risk we have to take," he said. "I put the wards on the house and the van both. Ex and Aubrey here both helped, but I was central to all of them. If I can be used as a focus, perhaps we can break them through me."
"What exactly did you do with them?" Dr. Inond¨¦ asked, and the conversation sailed over my head like a kite. Medial foci, ekagratva, veve, and primal aether bounced across the room with occasional pauses for translation and clarification. It was like Amelie Glapion, Chogyi Jake, Aubrey, and Dr. Inond¨¦ had turned into occult economists; I didn't know what they were saying, and I was fairly certain anything I said was only going to make me look dumb. Instead I finished my coffee and leaned back in my chair.
There was a certain joy in disengaging from a conversation. It let me see all the things going on at the edges of the talk. The way Sabine leaned in whenever her grandmother spoke, as if she was trying to drink in each word. The way Amelie Glapion's eyes darkened when the rider within her stirred and took interest. Mfume's poker face, built in prison to give nothing away. The angle of Dr. Inond¨¦'s head as he leaned forward, drawing something on a napkin for Chogyi Jake to look at. Mfume and Aubrey started up a side conversation about the geography around the safe house. Sabine said something about Soleil Noir and got shushed. Daria, on her cot, stirred, sat up, stretched.
When I got up to throw away my coffee cup, Daria walked sleepily over to the table and crawled into her grandmother's lap like a child half her age. The old woman or possibly the rider ran long, thin fingers over the girl's back and shoulders, soothing her even as the debate raged on. I thought I saw tears in the young girl's eyes. They should have been a warning.
"We can try it," Dr. Inond¨¦ said. "The only danger is to you."
"I don't think it will be a problem," Chogyi Jake said.
"Um, sorry," I said. "I was just over there. I missed that part. What danger?"
"I have some connection to the wards we put up," Chogyi Jake said. "By using my mind as a focus point and Legba's power channeled through me, we believe I can inhabit the original work and undo them."
"Check," I said. "And the danger part would be?"
"It leaves me open for a time," Chogyi Jake said. "It is possible that in that period one of the loa or a different rider could take up residence in my body."
"And what would we do about that?" I asked.
Chogyi Jake's smile could have meant anything.
"It's very unlikely to happen," he said.
"Lock him in a refrigerator until we get Ex back," Aubrey said.
"That sounds bad," I said.
"It wouldn't be good," Chogyi Jake agreed. "I understand that the stakes are high. But the chances are good. It's a risk worth taking. Safer, for example, than going to the safe house."
The room quieted. I was the only one standing, and all the others were looking at me as if waiting for something. As if it was my call.
Which meant it was. If I said hell no, I wasn't putting Chogyi Jake in harm's way, it would have been off. If I gave the thumbs-up, then it would move forward, and the consequences would be at least partly mine to carry. It seemed unfair at first, but I'd been the one who paid Chogyi Jake's bills. I was the one who'd entered into a pact with a voodoo demon. There was a pretty good argument to be made that I was the boss, and it made me wish I'd understood the mechanics of the thing better.
"It's the right thing?" I asked.
Chogyi Jake shrugged.
"It is what it is," he said.
"Okay," I said. "Let's do it."
Amelie Glapion put Daria down and reached for the metal cane that she once nearly killed me with. Sabine said she'd gather the others, Mfume walked to the back with a clear purpose in mind, and Chogyi Jake and Dr. Inond¨¦ started moving the table back against an empty wall. Aubrey walked to my side, his arms crossed. We hadn't had time to talk, just the two of us, since I'd delivered the verbal smackdown on the boardwalk by the river. Four hours earlier. It seemed like four days.
His brow was furrowed, his lips pressed thin. I put my hand on his arm and he looked up at me like he'd just noticed I was there.
"How are you doing?" I said.
"Like a mouse in a snake pit," he said. "Jumpy as hell."
"Yeah," I said. "I can see that."
"I don't know how they do it. Mfume. Amelie Glapion. They had those things in their bodies with them for years. I had to go through it for, what? Six hours?"
"I think it's different for everyone," I said. "How they come to it. What the rider is, maybe."
"Yeah," he said. "That too. I mean... I look at Sabine. Specifically Sabine. And... I don't know. It messes with my definitions."
I looked over. The girl was back now, helping the drummers set up on the floor next to the cots. She was younger than any of them, but she acted like their natural superior, telling each where to sit, which way to face, which drum to hold.
"She's a black sixteen-year-old girl in a city with no functioning infrastructure to speak of," Aubrey said. "She's got no parents. Her grandmother has had at least one stroke, and maybe several. She's got a little sister to take care of."
"And a demon growing inside her," I said.
"But that's the thing," Aubrey said. "That's what she has going for her. Without being heir apparent to the whole voodoo queen thing, she'd be totally screwed. You look at her situation on paper and you'd think here's a girl who's going to wind up as a prostitute or homeless or something really bad. But she won't. She'll wind up the voodoo queen of New Orleans. Her life is going to be better because of that thing in her."
"Yeah," I said. "I know."
Sabine turned, looking past us, and waved at another of the cultists, her hand fluttering like a bird. The man trotted to her, his head bent at a deferential angle.
"Mutualism," Aubrey said in a tone that meant Who'd have guessed it?
"Legba's not a parasite," he said. "Not technically. A parasite is either detrimental to its host or functionally neutral. Usually detrimental, if only because it's diverting energy resources. But if it's actually doing the host good, that's not parasitism anymore. That's part of a mutualistic relationship. There are bacteria that fix nitrogen for plants, and the plants provide energy to the bacteria. Either one would fail without the other."
The eldest drummer tapped a wide-mouthed pottery drum, a low, dry sound filling the room. He nodded to Sabine.
"I don't know whether that makes me happy or creeps me out," I said.
"How do you mean?"
"Well, either that means Sabine's got a really nice rider and more power to her, or else the world is so fucked up that the best she can hope for is demonic possession."
Aubrey took a deep breath, letting the exhalation filter slowly through his mouth and nose.
"Guess it's how you look at it," he said.
Amelie Glapion returned to the room. A young man at her side carried a bag of corn meal, and together they went to the cardinal directions, the man pouring out the bright yellow meal in shapes, figures, and ideograms of inhuman languages while Amelie and Legba within her intoned words and phrases that seemed to echo in a space larger than the room we were in.
As they progressed, the drummers took up the rhythm of the chant. Amelie Glapion moved from one veve to the next, taking small objects from her pockets-a crow's foot curled against itself in death, a sprig of rosemary, a cheap one-shot whiskey bottle, a handkerchief smudged with lipstick and something else. Her head began to bob and weave in its unpleasant serpentine pattern, and the air around us thickened with invisible things. I could feel the riders gathering, pressing at the film between the real, physical world and the abstract nation behind and beside us. Aubrey felt it too, and his hand sought mine out.
Chogyi Jake stepped in from the back, naked, his head bowed. Someone had drawn symbols on his skin in bright paints. I recognized the fleur-delis on his shoulder, the searcher's X on his breast, but there were at least a dozen others I didn't know. He showed no discomfort at his nudity, but walked to Amelie Glapion, knelt before her with his eyes closed, and raised his palms to her. One of the cultist women yelled and began to sway. Others joined her.
"Kisa sa a ye?" Legba shouted, Amelie's mouth widening more than the merely human would allow. "Kisa sa a ye!"
Mfume, across the room, sat cross-legged. A map was open on the floor before him, and he was passing his hands over it like he was feeling heat radiating from it. The dancing cultists shouted and whooped to the pulsing rhythm of the drums. Against my will almost, I found my body swaying too. My eyes closed almost without me, and I stepped out into the ceremony, drawing Aubrey along behind me.
I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what it meant, but the heat of the bodies before us, the pressure of Next Door, the danger and the lush, complex rhythm, the smell of fire and flesh, made it all feel right. One of the male cultists no older than I was had taken off his clothes, his dark skin shining with sweat. His erection seemed strangely comforting and familiar. It was a reminder that even among these spirits, we were first and foremost human; our animal nature made us part of this world, the physical, immediate, concrete. I heard myself shout, felt the rumble of the air in my throat.
The world became a dance, not bodies, not spirits, but the relationships between the two. Like an optical illusion, I was not my body or my mind, but the space defined by them. I tore free of my own shirt, delighting in the feel of air against my skin. Lust and hunger. Pain, sorrow, and joy. They were the tether of humanity that held me from spinning out into another world, and I honored them, fed them, and trusted them completely to hold me and to pull me back.
Like the report of a handgun, Amelie Glapion clapped her hands. The drums stopped, the dance stopped, and I stumbled, sitting on the floor. My head was spinning and I felt flushed and energized and a little nauseated. Chogyi Jake wasn't more than three feet in front of me, bracing himself with both hands like a man almost too drunk to crawl.
"Did it work?" I managed, and he nodded carefully.
Above us, Amelie Glapion sagged, leaning on her cane. Her face looked drawn. I felt almost unstuck from my body, like I'd just gone through a marathon of sex and liquor. I couldn't imagine how she felt. But a moment later, the half of her face that was still alive, smiled.
"I am never getting tired of that," she said low in her throat, and Mfume shouted.
"I have her," he said. His eyes were still closed. His fingers pressed onto the map like a blind man reading braille. I stood unsteadily, scrabbling at my cast-off shirt. Aubrey appeared at my side, and we navigated across the room.
The map was of New Orleans, but marked with ley lines in black and red and yellow. I saw the yawning darkness of Lake Pontchartrain, the snakecurve of the Mississippi. The gridwork of streets between the two like a crystal growing between the curves.
"Where is she?" I asked, pulling on my clothes. I was hoarse.
Mfume opened his eyes and knelt close to the paper. I could see his fingers trembling.
"She's... in the street," he said. "She's here. She's outside right now."
We were silent for a moment, and then with a roar like a lion, Amelie Glapion strode out toward the front room. I saw the glow of streetlight squeezing past the gray-painted glass as she opened the connecting door.
The explosion lit her in silhouette, a darkness standing against the sun.