As much as the Trickster trusted Kari, the moment she rode out of their camp to scout Mépsila he felt something was wrong. He tried to ignore it, but as the sun rose higher in the sky that became increasingly hard finally he gave in. Leaving Ulf to mind both the camp and Björn, he set off on Kari’s trail. She had a considerable head start on him, but he had the stamina of a god and the determination of a parent and as he approached the citadel’s gate, he saw her, just up ahead, entering the city. He hurried to catch up, but as he passed through the gateway, he realised he’d lost her again, amongst the crowds of people of the bustling city.
The Trickster felt his fear spike and then spike again as he recognised The Keeper mingling innocently enough with the traders and visitors. If she were here, he and Kari needed to leave. Now. Hermes had warned him that they would be coming for him and Mépsila was intended to be their final target, but if the Keeper was here, so far from her normal haunts, that meant time was up. Her presence also brought with it the spectre of who else might be looking for him.
He needed to find Kari.
The Trickster managed to dodge the Keeper and enter the marketplace, where he saw Kari and one of his worst fears: the cursed Medjai was also here and he’d seen and recognised Kari.
The Trickster tried to reach her, but the crowds slowed him down. He saw them enter an alley. He finally broke free of the crowd and reached the alley in time to see the Medjai stab Kari through the back.
The Trickster was paralysed with fear and with anger. For a moment, he thought of rushing in: the Medjai was alone and unprepared. But then the Medjai broke the collar and the Keeper and the Teacher both appeared in the alley from the far end and, to his shame, the Trickster backed away.
There was nothing he could do for Kari now.
Maybe Osiris would be merciful…and if he wasn’t, the Trickster would make them all pay.
150 Years Later
Osiris hadn’t been merciful and the Trickster’s rage had known no bounds. His only mistake was partnering once more with Björn which had led to a moment of ill-conceived compassion and his subsequent capture. And now he was back in the Temple, being dragged towards his fate.
The Trickster struggled against his captors, but the Warden and the Medjai had iron grips and, with his hands bound and his mouth gagged, there was little he could do save for wriggle and kick out.
And neither Hand reacted to such blows as he managed to land.
The council chamber doors opened ahead and the Trickster found himself propelled into the centre of the semi-circle. Not all of the council were present, just Osiris, Isis, Freyja and, oddly, Quetzalcoatl. Osiris and Isis were inevitable. Freyja was not a surprise, either, but what the Feathered One had to do with proceedings, the Trickster neither knew nor cared.
“Ungag him,” Osiris commanded.
The Warden nodded and removed the gag.
“I will end you,” the Trickster hissed, struggling again against his bonds.
“You will be silent,” Osiris retorted. The Trickster went to open his mouth. The Lord of the Living raised his hand and the Trickster found his jaw frozen in place. “You will speak only to answer our questions.”
The Trickster scowled.
Isis rose gracefully from her seat. “You stand accused of meddling in the affairs of mortals. What say you?”
“I say I will kill you all.”
Isis looked disturbed but nodded and sat.
Freyja stood, her face a mask of cold fury. “You stand accused of corrupting an innocent for your own amusement. What say you?”
“I say she was mine.”
Freyja’s fury spilled over. “She was not your plaything. She was a girl who had her choices stolen by your actions, your greed, your hubris.”
“She. Was. Mine.”
“Enough!” Osiris’ voice was a roar of command and in the aftermath the silence of the council chamber was a tangible thing. He slowly rose to his feet, a towering, terrifying presence. “You have disrespected my laws. You have broken my rules with impunity. By rights, your life is forfeit.”
Despite himself, the Trickster felt a flash of fear.
“But, I also know your heart–“
“He has no heart,” Freyja muttered.
“You would speak against me?” Osiris asked.
Even in her anger, Freyja was wise enough not to answer that question. Instead she sat and glared balefully in the Trickster’s direction.
“Sly one, I know your heart. Your true and secret motivations. I know that you were once driven not by greed but by despair and fear. I know that before your fall you did much that was good and right and that, given time, you may do so once more. So I do not condemn you to death. Instead, I condemn you to life.”
Freyja opened her mouth to object, but it was Quetzalcoatl who spoke: “I am willing to serve as jailor.”
The Trickster saw a look pass between the Feathered One and the Lord of the Living and he realised that at least some of these proceedings had been simply for show. His fate had been decided before he’d set foot in the council chamber. “You will regret this. I will end you all.”
Quetzalcoatl turned a pitying look the Trickster’s way and shook his head until his feathers rustled. “The only one who will regret this day is you, Liesmith.”
There was certainty and knowing in those words, enough that the Trickster felt another frisson of fear. Just what had been planned for him?
A moment later and he had part of his answer, as the gathering was moved, whole cloth, from the council chamber to a dim cavern. If either the Warden or the Medjai were disconcerted by the move, neither showed it.
Freyja was still glaring. “You see merit where I see none. I do not agree with this.”
“It is not merit I see, but potential,” Quetzalcoatl answered. “And you have seen the Seer’s thoughts and the possible threads that extend.”
Freyja snarled and snapped her fingers, making some of the rocks glow to add a level of illumination to the rocky space and revealing the presence, at its centre, of a flat, table-like rock. “And that is the only reason I do not slay him where he stands.”
The Trickster opened his mouth to retort, only to find the gag being thrust back into position by a grim-faced Warden.
“Bring him,” Osiris commanded.
The Trickster found himself once more propelled, this time towards the table by his two jailors and then forced down onto it. Isis and Quetzalcoatl bound his ankles into place while the Warden and the Medjai unbound his hands and dragged his arms upwards and out, ready for similar bindings. By the time Isis and Quetzalcoatl were finished, the Trickster was well secured in a spread-eagle position.
Osiris murmured an incantation and the Trickster felt something change within him. He went to shift his form, thinking his female body might be small enough to slip his bonds, but nothing happened. He turned a terrified, angry gaze on the Lord of the Living.
“You are bound,” said Osiris, “in both form and body. You will not move from here until The Ghost walks the new world.”
The Trickster strained at his bonds, but they were firm, like iron, though they chafed like rope. He growled around the gag. Osiris merely looked grave and then they were gone and the Trickster was alone.
He would escape.
He would show them.
He would show them all. They took his daughter from him; they would learn to regret that.
At first he tried to keep track, counting the seconds to make minutes, then hours, days, weeks, months. Years. But at some point, he lost count. The heat of his anger cooled by degrees until it became the chill of despair punctuated only by the pain of his bonds.
The first time the rain came, he was grateful for the water that seeped into his mouth via the gag, but then it kept coming. More than he could swallow. More than he needed. Drowning him, though death was merely a temporary release. Always he returned, to find himself still imprisoned.
More time passed.
His clothing, not part of Osiris’ binding, mouldered and decayed in the cycle of rain then heat until he was naked, though that actually felt an improvement. No longer did he have the chill of wet cloth touching him. No longer did the sour stench from the remnants of his garments assault his nose and make him choke.
The rains, when they came, still continued to drown him, but at least now the water could wash him clean.
More time passed.
Memories played out like hallucinations. Conversations he’d had echoed through his skull, magnifying the mistakes, until he was a sobbing wreck. Things he should have done, but didn’t. Things he did but shouldn’t. They all piled in until he acknowledged the truth of it all: her death was his fault. He should not have interfered.
There was a pit of madness that lay beyond that realisation and, for a time, he teetered on its brink. Only the shaking of the earth drew him back from the edge and that only by virtue of making him terrified that the cavern would collapse, burying him alive. But, when the earth stopped moving, the cavern was still intact.
At least, that was what he thought in that moment of relief. The rocky ceiling above him was still strong. The walls all still held. Except– There was now a current of air, a curl of breeze, where before there had only been stillness. Something had shifted and the cavern now reached the outside world.
That realisation brought a war between hope and fear. Hope that someone might release him; fear that people might come and stare. Or worse.
He tried to keep silent so that no-one would notice his presence – better to remain hidden than become a figure of fun or some sadist’s plaything – but the rains came again. This time, there was no drowning, but with the added breeze, it left him chilled to the bone and for all his desire to be silent he couldn’t help but moan as every shiver made the chaffing at his wrists and ankles worse.
In his haze of discomfort, he heard the one sound he’d feared and desired in equal measure: footsteps. They were hesitant but definitely getting closer. Then they came to a halt.
“Madre de dios!”
The Trickster squinted. His visitor was an over-lanky and decidedly under-fed young man, dressed in a stained white shift and breeches that reached just below his knees, with a leather strap that secured some sort of pouch or bag running across his body from left shoulder to right hip.. He had the look of the Middle Sea about him with his tanned skin and long brown hair tied back at the nape of his neck, but not, the Trickster thought, the eastern end he was more familiar with. That made sense: Osiris wouldn’t have imprisoned him in a region he knew and especially wouldn’t have imprisoned him in an area as well populated as the Byzantine world.
The most important thing, however, was the expression on the man’s face. True, the man was staring, but there was nothing malicious or cruel to that expression. Just compassion and, perhaps, pity.
That was confirmed a heartbeat later as the visitor called, “I will have you free in a moment, my friend.”
They were words that made the Trickster jerk with surprise. With no further investigation, this stranger was just going to release him? Was the man mad? And what was he going to do when Osiris’ bonds inevitably didn’t part?
But there, again, the Trickster was surprised. For all his visitor’s apparent naivety, he started releasing the bonds from the far side of the chamber and working back around so that he was between the Trickster and true freedom. And another surprise: the bonds did indeed part beneath the man’s knife blade. First the Trickster’s left wrist. Then ankle. Then right ankle and finally, his right wrist.
In the time it took, the Trickster plotted his path to freedom and as the last strands of the bond on his right wrist parted, he twisted, grabbing the man’s knife and slashing out at him, even as the Trickster rolled off the slab. Freed, he felt his power return. He wasted no time in shifting away from the male form he’d been trapped in and moving to a female form, more comfortable and far less tainted. She finally removed the gag and only then did she realise her victim was simply staring at her.
“Why aren’t you bleeding?”
The man stared for a moment, then touched the place she’d slashed at him. “Hand of Osiris,” he murmured faintly.
The Trickster stared for a long moment before tipping her head back and laughing so hard she thought she might pull a muscle. “I’ve been released by a Hand? The universe really does love a good joke.”
“You must be the Trickster,” the man realised.
“Guilty as charged.”
“How long have you been here?”
She gave a negligent shrug. “A while. Time blurs when you’re tied to a rock.”
“You’ve been here all that time?”
“Haven’t moved. Might have drowned a few times when it rained heavily.” She shrugged again, but the way he’d said ‘all’ made her feel uncomfortable. Just how long had it been?
There was a moment of standoff between them. Then: “Osiris wants you back on that slab. I can feel it.”
“I won’t be bound again,” the Trickster warned.
The man offered a small smile. “I’m not inclined to do it. This is inhumane and wrong. But,” he added, “there is a price for my mercy.”
“You forget, I’m the one holding the knife.”
He smirked. “You forget, I’m the one with more than one weapon, the skills to stop you and I’m between you and the exit.”
The Trickster opened her mouth, then closed it and pouted. Damn but he was actually smarter than he looked. “I’m listening.”
“My price is not difficult to pay: vow that you will do no harm from this point on. That you will not cause harm to befall another either directly or by forcing others to do your will. That you will use your mischief and your lies in ways that help rather than hinder.”
“How can a lie help?”
That earned her more amusement and the next words were spoken with a mock wide-eyed innocence: “Oh no, Senor Lopez, I haven’t seen your missing slave.”
The Trickster blinked and a smile spread over her face. “Oh, you are good.” The smile turned to a smirk. “Say I agree to this vow; how will you know I hold to it? I am the Liesmith after all.”
“Because you’re making that vow in a place of power.” He gestured vaguely at the cave. “It will be as binding a vow as the ropes that held you to that rock, but a lot less likely to chafe.”
The Trickster snorted, scowling. “That’s all you know.” Her gaze flitted back to the flat rock. “You’d really rebind me?”
“If you don’t make that vow.”
The Trickster weighed up the likelihood he was bluffing and huffed with disgust before pitching the knife back to him, taking care that it landed safely at his feet. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, take that risk. “I vow that from this point on I will do no harm, either directly or by causing others to act on my behalf. I will lie only when it benefits another. I will cause mischief only when it will amuse. There. Happy?”
The man picked up his knife and sheathed it. “Delighted.” He stepped aside from the cave’s exit. “You may wish to come with me, at least for now.”
“Thank you, no.”
She stalked up the passage, aware that he was entirely too amused. Just how much time had passed? What did he know that she did not? Reaching the open air provided that answer. The landscape she saw in the greylight of pre-dawn was nothing like anything she was familiar with. Too lush. Too verdant. Too empty. This was not the Middle Sea region at all, but somewhere else entirely.
“Where–where is this?” And though she tried, the Trickster couldn’t keep the fear from her voice.
“The island of Cuba, in the New World.”
The Trickster turned to look at the man, no longer caring that her expression revealed her confusion and fear. “What ‘new world’? What happened?”
“The Old World is still there. But it’s the other side of the ocean.”
“Europeans,” and he tapped his chest, “set sail for the west two hundred years ago, give or take.” He paused. “I thought you’d been here before.”
“Years ago,” said the Trickster faintly. “Though further north. Never…here.” She looked around again, taking in the unfamiliar landscape, and felt the last of her confidence drain away. In a small voice, she said, “Is your offer still open?”
“You said I should come with you.”
The man smiled. “That offer has no expiry.” He glanced towards the east and nodded. “But whatever you plan on doing, you should choose now. A naked woman will draw comment once the sun rises and the plantation work begins for the day.”
“I will come with you.” The Trickster knew she had no choice.
They walked, in silence, for about an hour. Long enough that the sky to the east became pink and the first hints of the sun itself were visible. Long enough that the Trickster grew uncomfortable with her nakedness. Then suddenly, they reached a house and her companion smiled. “Mi casa es su casa,” he offered, waving her up a small flight of wooden steps.
The architecture was as unfamiliar as the landscape. Wooden buildings, she knew, but never with this many windows and glass – so much glass. Was her companion that rich or was glass now that cheap? She opened the door and found herself in a cavernously large room with an enormous and obviously new wooden table in its centre. Set in one wall, off to her right, was a large fireplace and she guessed that this was the house’s kitchen. Again the question of finance came to her. None of the Hands she’d known before lived in such luxury. Had the world changed that much?
She hadn’t even taken note of the fact her companion had disappeared until he returned, carrying with him a white shift, similar to the garment he was wearing, though considerably cleaner.
“Here,” he offered. “I hear Guanina moving around upstairs and I assume you’d prefer not to meet my cook naked.”
“You…have a cook?” The Trickster pulled on the shift and found it fell comfortably to her mid-thigh. “Do you mean slave?”
Her companion looked aghast. “No! I would never–“
The Trickster held her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I meant no offence. I am…lost here.”
Her companion frowned for a moment, clearly considering something, then nodded. “Guanina works here of her own free choice, for a good wage. There is more to it, much more, but she is no slave.”
And the truth of that statement was made plain a moment later as a woman, older than the Trickster had expected and dressed in far finer clothes than any slave the Trickster had ever seen, entered the kitchen. The woman looked well-fed. Healthy. Happy, to judge by the broad grin and sparkling eyes.
“A guest!” Those words, the Trickster understood. The next, which were rapidfire, she didn’t. She wasn’t sure what language the woman was speaking but it wasn’t anything she was familiar with and she guessed that was deliberate.
That was confirmed a moment later when her companion answered in the same tongue.
“Why do I feel like you’re talking about me?”
“Because we are.” The answer came from the woman, who was smiling broadly now as she started to tend the kitchen’s fire. “I was asking if you knew who Emilio was. He tells me you do. That makes life easier.”
The Trickster blinked a couple of times, confused, before she realised what Guanina meant . “You know he is…not mortal?”
To her surprise, Guanina laughed. “Of course. He saved my life when I was a child.”
It felt like for each question she had answered, the Trickster found herself with less clarity and more questions. Her companion – Emilio, if that was really his name – simply smiled.
“Come,” he said. “I will show you to your room and you may rest and then, we will talk and I will explain all, or at least try to.” And he led the way up, out of the kitchen, through a plush lower floor and then up to the house’s private rooms.
He stopped at a particular door and opened it, revealing a far plainer bedroom than the Trickster might have expected. And yet, even here, there were things and subtle touches that pointed out how little she knew of the present time. The bed was raised up, off the floor, on a wooden frame. That, she was familiar with, but the frame was far more ornate than anything she’d seen before and the bed linens looked almost Imperial in their quality. There was a table, off to the side, with a pitcher and a bowl made out of a material she couldn’t identify and decorated with painted flowers. There was a chair, finely carved. There were big windows, allowing the room to be light and bright.
She shook her head. “How many years have passed that things are so different?” she asked.
Emilio winced a little. “It has been five hundred years, or so I am given to believe.”
The Trickster sank down onto the chair. She had known time had passed, but… “Five hundred years?” She shook her head again. “So much time, even to one such as I.” She swallowed. “Tell me, who serves now as Hands.”
Her rescuer gave her a cagey look. “Why do you wish to know?”
“Because I want to know who I must avoid if I wish to keep my head and body closely associated.” The Trickster shrugged a little. “I will hold to that vow, you needn’t fear, and that means I am not about to go on some murderous spree, but the same cannot be said for your cohort. The Warden and the Medjai, if they still live, especially.”
Her rescuer nodded slowly. “Jonno and Nick still serve, yes.”
“The Warden, I know, I may find anywhere so he is not so easy to dodge. I assume the Medjai’s domain is still Egypt and the Levant?”
“More or less.”
“Who else must I be wary of?”
Her rescuer sighed. “Sita and Daniil are in India and Russia.”
“The Guardian and the Soldier. I remember them both.”
“Lwasi patrols the southern reaches of Africa.”
“He is not one I know.”
“Simi protects her home against the Spanish as best she can.”
“Another new Hand.”
“Joe infiltrates the English colonies and does much the same. Kahina guards the Maghreb as Chen Zhong guards the Ming emperor.”
“The Archer has not yet laid down her bow?” Though the reference to bows and archery pressed on the old wound.
“Not so far. Murad, the Spider, travels the Steps and mountains of Asia – he is newly raised and would not know you beyond reputation.”
“But I have little desire to travel those lands,” the Trickster admitted. “The scene of my fall and disgrace? No.” She shook her head. “Who else?”
“The Dancer, Maly, still attends the Khmer Empire’s lands, though their empire is no more. Huanca traverses the lands south of here.”
“The Reaper.” The Trickster nodded again. “He, out of all of them, may be the least unhappy to see me. Perhaps his domain is where I should go, once I am properly acquainted with this ‘new world’.”
“Perhaps,” said her rescuer. “Lastly, in the northern lands of Europe, there is The Valkyrie.”
The Trickster froze. “Who?”
Her rescuer looked confused. “I felt sure you would know her; she is of an age with Daniil and Maly and older than Sita.”
The Trickster felt her heart thudding against her ribcage, heard a roaring in her ears. “Name. What is her name?” she demanded.
There might have been more but the Trickster didn’t care. She knew who that had to be and before her rescuer could finish his sentence she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around him, hugging and sobbing and, as Quetzalcoatl had once predicted, regretting bitterly the day of her sentencing. She wasn’t dead. Her daughter, somehow, wasn’t dead.
Her rescuer was stiff in her arms for a moment, no doubt stunned by the sudden flood of emotion, but that lasted only a moment before his arms completed the embrace and he started comforting her. He, of course, had no idea what this was about, but that didn’t seem to matter to this remarkable young man.
Gradually, her tears lessened and she was able to step back. “I am sorry,” she murmured.
Her rescuer gave her a long, shrewd look. “You know her but did not know she was a Hand.”
The Trickster fumbled herself back into her seat. “She was…is my daughter.”
Her rescuer did not look entirely surprised. “I sense a story of interesting proportions.”
The Trickster snorted, though the sound was still entirely too close to a sob. “That is one way to describe it.”
“Should you wish to share it, I will gladly listen,” said her rescuer. “But there is no need to speak of it if it pains you.”
“One day, perhaps,” said the Trickster.
Her rescuer nodded. “There is no expiry on my offer.” He gestured to the bed. “Though it is now after dawn, you may like to take a rest.”
“I think…perhaps I would,” the Trickster admitted. She started to stand, then realised she had one final, pressing, question before he left. “What do they call you?”
To her amusement, he bowed in a courtly fashion. “Emilio Hernadez Lorca, at your service.”
“And as a Hand?”
He smiled. “The Ghost.”
“So, The Ghost walks the New World,” the Trickster muttered. “And here I am, freed.”
“Indeed.” Emilio clearly knew nothing of Osiris’ prophecy from his expression, but as with the tears, he didn’t ask questions to which he needed no answers. Instead, he bowed again. “When you are feeling more recovered, you will find me downstairs, either in the kitchen or in the gardens here. The house is still new and there is much work to be done.”
And with that, he withdrew from her room, leaving the Trickster alone. For a second, she felt panic at the thought of once more being by herself, but then noises drifted to her. Faint sounds of life downstairs that proved to her that this wasn’t the same as her prison: she might be alone but she was far from forsaken.
She gingerly sat on the bed and marvelled again at the quality of the sheets.
Kari was alive and well.
The thought that she ought to travel back to what Emilio had referred to as the Old World and seek out her daughter crossed her mind, but she dismissed it in a heartbeat. As much as she wanted to set eyes on her daughter again, she knew Freyja would never countenance such a meeting and that, perhaps, Kari would be better off if, this time, the Trickster didn’t give in to her impulses.
The Trickster sighed and lay down, marvelling at how soft the bed was. How clean it smelled.
She would leave Kari alone, but this would be a new start. She would do things differently. Do things better. She would learn of this new time period from Emilio and then she would set out and find a place for herself and a role. She’d done good before. Perhaps she could be of help to those Hands defending their homes against incomers.
A wave of tiredness overtook her. Perhaps making plans could wait until after she’d had her first comfortable sleep in five hundred years.