To Emilian David Armstrong
I dreamed a limitless book,
A book unbound,
Its leaves scattered in fantastic abundance.
On every line there was a new horizon drawn,
New heavens supposed;
New states, new souls.
One of those souls,
Dozing through some imagined afternoon,
Dreamed these words.
And needing a hand to set them down,
PROLOGUE: the mission
Three is the number of those who do holy work;
Two is the number of those who do lover's work;
One is the number of those who do perfect evil
Or perfect good.
The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.
The wind it brought with it was as foul as the devil's own breath and it stirred up the peaceful waters of the sea. By the time the little red boat that the three women had chosen for their perilous voyage had emerged from the shelter of the islands, and was out in the open waters, the waves were as steep as cliffs, twenty-five, thirty feet tall.
"Somebody sent this storm," said Joephi, who was doing her best to steer the boat, which was called The Lyre . The sail shook like a leaf in a tempest, swinging back and forth wildly, nearly impossible to hold down. "I swear, Diamanda, this is no natural storm!"
Diamanda, the oldest of the three women, sat in the center of the tiny vessel with her dark blue robes gathered around her and their precious cargo pressed to her bosom.
"Let's not get hysterical," she told Joephi and Mespa. She wiped a long piece of white hair out of her eyes. "Nobody saw us leave the Palace of Bowers. We escaped unseen, I'm certain of it."
"So why this storm?" said Mespa, who was a black woman, renowned for her resilience, but who now looked close to being washed away by the rain beating down on the women's heads.
"Why are you so surprised that the heavens complain?" Diamanda said. "Didn't we know the world would be turned upside down by what just happened?"
Joephi fought with the sail, cursing it.
"Indeed, isn't this the way it should be?" Diamanda went on. "Isn't it right that the sky is torn to tatters and the sea put in a frenzy? Would we prefer it if the world did not care?"
"No, no of course not," said Mespa, holding on to the edge of the pitching boat, her face as white as her close-cropped hair was black. "I just wish we weren't out in the middle of it all."
"Well, we are!" said the old woman. "And there's not a thing any of us can do about it. So I suggest you finish emptying your stomach, Mespa—"
"It is empty," the sick woman said. "I have nothing left to bring."
"—and you Joephi, handle the sail—"
"Oh, Goddesses…"Joephi murmured. "Look ."
"What is it?" said Diamanda.
Joephi pointed up into the sky.
Several stars had been shaken down from the firmament—great white cobs of fire piercing the clouds and falling seaward. One of them was heading directly toward The Lyre .
"Down!" Joephi yelled, catching hold of the back of Diamanda's robes and pushing the old woman off her seat.
Diamanda hated to be touched; manhandling , she called it. She started to berate Joephi roundly for what she'd done, but she was drowned out by the roaring sound of the falling star as it rushed toward the vessel. It burst the billowing sail of The Lyre , burning a hole right through the canvas, and then plunged into the sea, where it was extinguished with a great hissing sound.
"I swear that was meant for us," Mespa said when they had all raised their heads from the boards. She helped Diamanda to her feet.
"All right," the old lady replied, yelling over the din of the seething waters, "that was closer than I would have liked."
"So you think we are targets?"
"I don't know and I don't care," Diamanda said. "We just have to trust to the holiness of our mission."
Mespa licked her pale lips before she chanced her next words.
"Are we sure it's holy?" she said. "Perhaps what we're doing is sacrilegious. Perhaps she should be left to—"
"Rest in peace ?" said Joephi.
"Yes," Mespa replied.
"She was barely more than a girl, Mespa," Joephi said. "She had a life of perfect love ahead of her, and it was stolen."
"Joephi's right," said Diamanda. "Do you think a soul like hers would sleep quietly, with so much life left to live? So many dreams that she never saw come true?"
Mespa nodded. "You're right, of course," she conceded. "We must do this work, whatever the cost."
The thunderhead that had followed them from the islands was now directly overhead. It threw down a vile, icy rain, thick as phlegm, which struck the boards of The Lyre like drumming. The lightning came down around the trembling vessel on every side, its lurid light throwing the curling waves into silhouette as they rose to break over the boat.
"The sail's no use to us now," said Joephi, looking up at the tattered canvas.
"Then we must find other means," said Diamanda. "Mespa. Take hold of our cargo for a few moments. And be careful."
With great reverence Mespa took the small box, its sides and lid decorated with the closely etched lines of talismans. Relieved of her burden, Diamanda walked down to the stern of The Lyre , the pitching of the boat threatening several times to throw her over the side before she reached the safety of the little seat. There she knelt and leaned forward, plunging her arthritic hands into the icy waters.
"You'd best be careful," Mespa warned her. "There's a fifty-foot mantizac that's been following us for the last half hour. I saw it when I was throwing up."
"No self-respecting fish is going to want my old bones," Diamanda said.
She'd no sooner spoken than the mottled head of a mantizac– not quite the size Mespa had described, but still huge—broke the surface. Its vast maw gaped not more than a foot from Diamnda's outstretched arms.
"Goddess !" the old lady yelled, withdrawing her hands and sitting up sharply.
The frustrated fish pushed against the back of the boat, as if to nudge one of the human morsels on board into its own element.
"So…" said Diamanda. "I think this calls for some moon-magic."
"Wait," said Joephi. "You said if we used magic, we would risk drawing attention to ourselves."
"So I did," Diamanda replied. "But in our present state we risk drowning or being eaten by that thing ." The mantizac was now moving up the side of The Lyre , turning up its enormous head and fixing the women with its silver-and-scarlet eye.
Mespa clutched the little box even closer to her bosom. "It won't take me," she said, a profound terror in her voice.
"No," said Diamanda reassuringly. "It won't."
She raised her aged hands. Dark threads of energy moved through her veins and leaped from her fingertips, forming delicate shapes on the air, and then fled heavenward.
"Lady Moon," she called. "You know we would not call on you unless we needed your intervention. So we do. Lady, we three are of no consequence. We ask this boon not for ourselves but for the soul of one who was taken from among us before she was ready to leave. Please, Lady, bear us all safely through this storm, so that her life may find continuance…"
"Name our destination !" Joephi yelled over the roar of the water.
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