Pelham rolled across a one-lane bridge on the winding, narrow, gloriously scenic road to Hana, then adroitly squeezed the black convertible onto the minuscule shoulder to let an impatient local in a mud-stained Jeep swoop around them and speed away.
“I was worried this drive would stress you out,” Marla said. They were only travelling about fifty miles, but it was going to take between two and three hours, because the Hana Highway was as twisty as a grifter’s wit, following the coastline through tropical rainforest on a route that included something like sixty bridges, many of them one-lane, plus an effective infinity of blind curves. The trip was stressing Marla out, because two parts of her nature were in conflict: she hated driving, but she was also a control freak. At least with Pelham she was in good hands. When Rondeau had driven this way, they’d nearly died about 125 times, by Marla’s count. This wasn’t a trip to take when you were in a hurry… but unless you had a helicopter or a boat handy (or were willing to brave the risks inherent in teleportation), there was no other way to reach the eastern side of the island.
“Oh, no, this is lovely,” Pelham said. “I suppose it might have made me anxious when I first left Felport… but since then I’ve driven the road of death in Bolivia, and the Deosai National Park Trail in Pakistan – after driving across a wood-and-rope bridge suspended over a chasm, a few blind curves and one-lane stretches are nothing to get worked up about.”
“Ha. I guess not. I’m going to have to get used to the new you, Pelham – I’m still thinking of you as the guy who never left Felport, who’d barely been off the Chamberlain’s estate.”
“The past few months have been most instructive, Mrs. Mason. During our time together I gained some inkling of the divide between my theoretical knowledge and the practical application of that knowledge.” He had a faraway look in his eyes – a trifle worrisome in a man driving along the edge of a cliff towering over the ocean. “I have experienced so much since then. Great kindness and casual cruelty. Amazing food and filthy rooms. Learning a language from books and tapes is quite different from speaking the language with people. I was groomed for service, but the world is so much larger than I ever realized. Thank you for that – for sending me out.”
Marla had been a few places over the years, but always for business, and she’d never explored like Pelham had – had never wanted to, with all her attention focused on Felport’s well-being. “You don’t have to stay here now,” Marla said. “With me, I mean. We can be – bonded, or whatever – without you having to live in a little room under the stairs emptying my chamber pot and cooking me rashers of bacon.”
“With your permission, I may go traveling again,” Pelham said. “But for now, you are in danger, and you are my friend as well as my mistress, and I would prefer to stay and assist in whatever way I can.”
“Ha. ‘Mistress.’ Careful calling me that in public, all right? But I’m glad to have you. I could use the help.”
He glanced at her sidelong. “Mrs. Mason. You’ve changed, too, if you don’t mind me saying. I can scarcely remember you ever admitting to needing help before.”
She sighed, gazing out the window as they passed the burned-out hulk of an old pickup truck someone had shoved into the trees on the side of the road. “I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned this past year, it’s that there are some things you can’t do on your own. Being self-reliant is still important to me, don’t get me wrong… but losing almost all my friends and allies has given me a new appreciation for the ones I have left. You included.”
“Aren’t we on our way to see another of your friends now?”
Marla snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far. She’s a kahuna named Arachne, though she’s not as… spidery as the name would imply. She’s into the weaving thing, though, mostly magics of binding and separating. She weaves together nets and rugs and whatever else as part of her ritual. Arachne’s native Hawai’ian, pretty much a nature magician – you know how much I love those – and I helped her out with a ghost not long ago. She wasn’t too grateful, though. I think she was pissed off that she needed help at all – and, yes, I know, I can relate to that. Seeing me again will probably annoy her – but apart from the surfers who hired me, she’s literally the only sorcerer on the island I’m on speaking terms with. The local kahunas aren’t big fans of haole sorcerers from the mainland. Hard to blame them, since the last haole magus to show up on Maui was an asshole of a guy who turned rival sorcerers into sharks. But you’ve already heard that sob story, and I don’t feel like telling it – we’ve got a long drive ahead of us. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Pelham recited the list of places he’d visited – Malaysia, South America, bits of Eastern Europe, a lot of Southeast Asia, none for more than a few days at a time – and some of the difficulties he’d encountered. Apart from the Nuno, he’d also had run-ins with the iron-toothed Abaasy of Turkey, a Tokoloshe in South Africa, and a Colo Colo in Argentina. The glamour Marla had placed on the steamer trunk had proven an irresistible attractant for minor magical beings, something she hadn’t anticipated – there weren’t a lot of loose supernatural creatures in the streets of Felport, and she hadn’t realized quite how wild some of the remaining wild places in the world could be.
“Did you see anything nice?” Marla said. “I’ll feel like crap if it was all monsters, all the time.”
“Oh, no, it wasn’t all being chased by terrifying or bewildering creatures,” Pelham said. “And, given my extensive studies in magic, I generally knew what I was dealing with, and how to banish them, or at least avoid being harmed. There were many beautiful things. A forgotten temple in Indonesia, still intact, and more ancient than some civilizations. The Hang Son Doong cavern in Vietnam, where holes in the ground above admit water and light sufficient for a small forest to grow over the centuries, creating what is essentially a jungle under the earth – that was like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. The Metéora monasteries in Greece, built atop towering pillars of rock, almost literally castles in the air.” He smiled, his expression going all soft and faraway. “I even met a woman. Nothing serious, of course, just a fellow traveler, but… . Yes. There were beautiful things.”
“Good for you, Pelham. I’m glad to hear it.”
Pelham blushed, adjusted the convertible’s mirrors in a completely unnecessary way, and continued briskly. “I went to Lake Paasselkä in Finland, thinking it might be a good place to sink the glamoured trunk – the lake was formed by a meteor impact, and there are strange magnetic anomalies associated with the place, along with other purportedly supernatural qualities. I decided the magics on the trunk and in the lake might interact badly, alas, but before I left, I saw the Paasselkä devil – a ball of light that seems to move almost consciously. Eerie, and beautiful, and despite the fierce name, I did not find it frightening at all.”
“What is it? The devil thing, I mean.”
Pelham smiled. “I have no idea. Isn’t it wonderful? The world is so big, Mrs. Mason. So full of mysteries, vistas, experiences. At home on the estate, growing up, I thought the world was very small – after all, I could see the whole thing on a globe, or a map. I read books, and believed the whole world could be contained in those books, and in a sense, I suppose they can. But the guidebook is not the experience. Knowledge received cannot compare to knowledge directly perceived.”
“Damn, Pelham,” Marla said. “You’ve managed to make me feel positively provincial, which is a pretty good trick for a guy who didn’t leave the grounds of a mansion for the first few decades of his life.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There is something to be said for the intense knowledge you have about Felport as well. My experiences were wonderful, but in many ways they were shallow. Spending only a few days, or sometimes only a few hours in a place, I could take away only surface impressions – startling and moving impressions, often, but not deep ones. To truly know a place takes a long stay, and the sort of devotion you gave to Felport. When, in my youth, I expressed dissatisfaction with the constraints of living on the estate, the Chamberlain told me that the world was small, but the gardens were vast – meaning, or so I understood her, that close attention could make a place seem to expand, containing multitudes. In my perfect world, I would spend a few months, perhaps a year, living in a place, thereby going a level or two deeper than the average tourist does, before moving on. Combining breadth and depth of experience, and trying to achieve some sort of balance.”
“But wouldn’t you feel, I don’t know, adrift? Not having a proper home?”
“I think home is where you make it, Mrs. Mason. Even if you make it in the inside of your own head.”
“Huh. I – oh, wait, this is close enough.” Marla directed Pelham to pull over into the big gravel parking lot, still half full of cars even this early in the day, surrounded by verdant hills. “Arachne likes to hang out in the woods around here. If I wander around a bit she’ll notice me soon enough.”
“We’re near the Seven Sacred Pools, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, that’s right, you read guidebooks. It’s a pretty place – waterfalls feeding pools, tropical birds, all that. Rondeau likes it over here, except for the drive being a pain in the ass, and all the walking you have to do to see everything. He’d be happier if they’d move the whole park closer to the hotel so he could wander over after his morning Bloody Mary.”
“The effort to get here is surely some of the appeal, though,” Pelham said. “If it were easy, wouldn’t it be less satisfying?”
“Huh. If you say so. I’ve always been more results- and destination-oriented myself. Look, I’m going to head up that hill over there, and try not to kill myself scrambling around on the lava rocks. Arachne doesn’t hang out on the hiking trails with the tourists. But if you want to go hike around, feel free.”
“Shouldn’t I accompany you?”
Marla shook her head. “Not yet. Arachne can be… prickly about outsiders. She pretty much sits in the woods and broods about tourists from Japan and the mainland US all day, as far as I can tell. The ghost we had to banish was some haole who jumped down a waterfall, landed badly, drowned, and ended up haunting the area. She doesn’t mind the ghosts of locals, but haoles like you and me… We’re all invasive species as far as she’s concerned. She probably hates the surfers, too, which is why I think she might be able to give me some nasty gossip about them. I figure nasty gossip is a good thing to hear in a murder investigation.”
“I can find no fault in your methodology,” Pelham said. “I have my phone if you need me. I suppose it might be pleasant to walk. And if you get in any trouble, I should sense it.”
“Arachne doesn’t scare me. Nobody’s managed to kill me with withering scorn yet, and I doubt she’ll be the first.” Marla got out of the convertible, tightened the laces on her boots, and gave Pelham a wave before going up the hill.
It was great to have Pelly back… but he was different. Probably he was just changed from having his horizons expanded and everything, but he seemed preoccupied, too, like there was something weighing on his mind. Pelham wasn’t the sort to share his troubles – having been trained all his life to ease trouble for others – but if he wanted to suffer in silence, that was his business. He did say he’d met a woman on his travels – maybe that was it. Nothing could mess with you like romance, in Marla’s experience, which was why she avoided it as much as possible.
A long green frond brushed her cheek as she tromped up the slope among the greenery. Nature. She’d never even liked going to the park back in Felport, and now she lived on an island that was half jungle. She liked to say that all of civilization was based on the effort to get away from nature, but talking to Pelham had made her reconsider certain of her bedrock assumptions. Maybe her dislike for wild places was just part of her need for control, and her distrust of things she couldn’t control. But she’d believed herself in complete control of Felport, and look how that had turned out.
The surfers who’d hired her were wave-mages, like the Bay Witch, and that meant they didn’t try to dominate the waves: they just worked with them, and chose the right one to get them where they wanted to go. Maybe they had a point. And maybe, damn it, she was kind of provincial.
Marla was so deep in thought that she walked right into a spider web. She wiped the threads from her face, scowling. Life had been a lot easier when she was absolutely dead certain about everything.
Pelham carefully locked up the car, adjusted his broad-brimmed hat – he’d gotten a terrible sunburn on his scalp in South Africa, and didn’t want to repeat the experience – and started toward the nearest trailhead. While he would never be able to dress down to the level of, say, Rondeau – those Aloha shirts! – he’d realized early in his travels that his preferred garb of waistcoats and cravats and perfectly-creased slacks and mirror-shined black dress shoes was impractical, regrettably anachronistic, and tended to draw attention. He had adjusted. Life was about adjustment.
Today he wore a white linen shirt, a tropical-weight sports coat in pale tan, and khakis, with (of all things) hiking boots. He’d felt a bit disloyal dressing down to such a degree while once more in his mistress’s direct employ, but Marla hadn’t commented, and he knew intellectually that she didn’t care what he wore. Overcoming decades of training on the proper attire and behavior of a valet was difficult… but he’d come a long way.
A Hawai’ian man, wearing a blue rashguard and long black shorts, fell into step behind him as Pelham walked along the trail winding through the trees. “Aloha,” the man said.
“Good morning,” Pelham said politely, still walking.
“How’s Marla doing?”
Pelham stopped, scrutinized the man, and shook his head. “I am afraid I do not know you, sir.”
“You do, though. We met in Nepal. I was a little shorter then.” The man paused. “And female. And, you know. More Nepalese. You were feeling awfully homesick, and I made you feel better.”
Pelham exhaled. “Of course. Ms. – Mr. – Reva. I should have realized your… demeanor would be different, here.”
The god shrugged. “Not ‘Mr. Reva,’ please, just ‘Reva.’ You and me, after how close we’ve been, it’s kind of silly to be formal.” He leaned close, put his hands on Pelham’s shoulders, and gazed into his eyes. “Let’s talk.”
Pelham took a step back, clearing his throat. “Ah, can we talk without… such intimacy? I mean no disrespect, and I realize our past history might cause confusion, but I confess I find it disconcerting now that you are in a different body – ”
Reva frowned. “Now that is weird as hell, Pelham.”
“What is, sir?”
“You didn’t – look.” He called out to a middle-aged man trudging past on the trail with a grim expression on his face. “Hey!” Reva shouted. “Come here for a minute. I want to talk to you.”
The man walked over, a strange, faraway look in his eyes, and stopped in front of Reva.
“Where’s your home?” Reva asked.
“Hot Springs, Arkansas,” the man said.
“Beautiful little town,” Reva said. “There’s a swimming hole near there, deep and still, in an old quarry, as nice as any tropical lagoon, isn’t it?”
“Sure is,” the man said, eyes locked on something far off, perhaps in the past. “Went there with my wife on our first date, if you could even call it a date – we were both about sixteen. We swam out to the float in the middle, and she kissed me, and…” He sighed.
“Tell me what troubles you, friend.” Reva rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“This is supposed to be our second honeymoon. Our first honeymoon was just a hotel room in Little Rock, nothing special, so we thought for our twentieth anniversary we’d do it up right, but my wife got a stomach bug from some bad fish I guess. I was moping around the room all morning, and she was moaning in the bed, and finally she yelled at me to go do something so we wouldn’t both waste the whole day, and here I am, did that whole long drive by myself, and now I’m just walking in the jungle, and what’s the point, when she’s not here?”
“Head on back,” Reva said. “When you get there, she’ll be feeling better, and she’ll be sitting out by the pool, wearing that new swimsuit she bought, and she’ll be just as pretty to you as she was when you were both sixteen. Go into the pool with her, slip back behind that little fake waterfall they have, and believe me, you won’t regret it.” He paused. “And you’ll get a free upgrade to first class on the flight back home, how’s that?”
“That sounds good,” the man said, and Reva took his hand off his shoulder. The man shook his head, eyes focusing, and looked around. “Ah. I should get back to the hotel and check on my wife.”
“Safe travels, my friend,” Reva said, and the man gave a wave and hurried down the hill.
“Magic,” Pelham said. “And a rather kind sort of magic, too. But what was that meant to show me?”
Reva looked around, then sat on a big rock by the trail. Pelham eased down beside him. The god said, “When I meet somebody who’s not in the place they consider home – one of my people, whether they’re a traveler, an exile, or just a tourist – I can sort of… cut through the bullshit. I talk to their deepdown parts. They can’t lie to me then. They tell me their true feelings. And I help them when I can. Since I’m a god… I usually can. I talked to you the same way in Nepal, at first.”
Pelham frowned. “I have no memory of that. But I suppose I wouldn’t, would I? I don’t think I’m comfortable with you having direct access to my secret thoughts, to the levers and axles of my mind. Especially considering what happened between us later – ”
Reva shook his head. “No, Pelham, there was no coercion – that’s not how I do things. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to. I did get a sense of your loneliness from our talk, and in that body, with that brain, I thought you were cute, and one thing led to another… but everything that happened was consenting adult stuff. Don’t worry, you don’t do much for me now, this body is pretty firmly heterosexual.”
“Even so,” Pelham said. “To be laid bare that way, to have no choice but to answer your questions… .” He shuddered. “You are not human. You cannot understand why your actions trouble me. It is important for me to remember that.”
Reva sighed. “I guess you could see it as an invasion of privacy. And you’d be right. I am an invader of privacy. It’s just how I get things done, right or wrong – it saves time, and gives me confidence that I have all my facts straight. You can disapprove. I don’t mind – all I can tell you is, I try to use my power to give people better lives. Anyway, I thought I’d talk to you the same way here, but… it doesn’t work. Which is weird, because Hawai’i isn’t your home, and if someone’s away from home, my power always works – ”
Pelham shook his head. “But I am home. I am back with Mrs. Mason. Wherever she is – that is my home.”
Reva clapped his hands together, delighted. “Right! I’ve seen that before, in some lovers, but never in a case like this. But you and Marla have a magical connection, a supernatural bond… it makes sense. She’s your home, but you’re not hers.” He winced. “No offense, I’m sure you’re important to her – ”
Pelham shrugged. “It is the nature of our relationship. It does not trouble me. Unlike non-consensual hypnosis and seduction by a god.” His shuddered at the thought. No wonder he’d felt so instantly comfortable with Reva in his – her – previous form; the god had known just what to say to him, just how to behave, to win Pelham’s trust and affection. It was horrible, but perhaps no relationship between a mortal and a god could ever be truly consensual – there was always going to be a fundamental imbalance of power in the god’s favor. Something withered deep in his heart. A beautiful memory had been made ugly forever.
Reva winced. “Look, I promise not to try to shortcut around your conscious mind again, okay?”
“How noble of you to promise not to do something you are no longer able to do, immediately after trying and failing to do that very thing.”
“Look, we have to move on from this, all right? We’ve got other things to talk about, and anyway, I’m glad you’ve found your home again. So how’s our plan working?”
Pelham closed his eyes. He was involved with this creature now, and he believed Reva did mean well when it came to Marla, so he tried to suppress his revulsion. He said, “Marla seems interested in finding out the murderer’s identity. You were right, I think, that having a difficult project would help take her mind off her exile. But she is still not quite herself. She has renewed her connection with her consort, the god of Death, which may prove beneficial to her outlook, but I am unsure. She seems… uncomfortable in her relationship with him. He did bring another distraction, though – he says her death is imminent. Her enemies are coming for her.”
“My powers aren’t much good when it comes to looking into the future – I’m a here-and-now sort of god – but I’ve gotten a sense of forces gathering, too. From everything I’ve observed, Marla’s tough. The future’s not fixed. Don’t give up hope.”
“I have not.” Pelham was offended at the suggestion. “She has faced terrible foes before, and triumphed. I just worry… she does not have as much to fight for, now. Her city is lost to her. Death is trying to woo her with tales of how wonderful her afterlife will be, in his company. I do not believe she would willingly let her enemies kill her, but what if she lacks the fire, the passion, that has always given her an edge? What if, at the crucial moment, she cannot muster the will to stop her foes from killing her?”
“That’s why she has friends like you.” Reva clapped him on the shoulder. Pelham remembered the god’s touch, using different hands, and shuddered. “And friends like me, though she doesn’t seem to appreciate it. And you say her husband is trying to convince her to choose death? I might have to go have a talk with him.”
“Are the two of you acquainted?”
“Nah, he doesn’t even know I exist. On the scale of gods, Death is like a crowned head of Europe, and I’m chief of an island village so tiny it doesn’t even have a name. Compared to a mortal, or even a sorcerer, I’ve got a lot of power – but compared to Death, I’m an insect.”
“Then what does that make mortals, or sorcerers, to Death? Microbes? Parasites?”
“Exactly,” Reva said. “That’s why things like him shouldn’t be giving mortals advice about their life choices. Which is something I might point out to him.”
“It is brave of you to confront him,” Pelham said carefully
Reva sighed. “You’re thinking things like me shouldn’t be giving advice to mortals, too, aren’t you?”
“The thought had occurred to me.”
Reva nodded. “You have a point, but I do know what it’s like to be human, unike Death. When I instantiate like this, take on a local form, I become a person, with the drives and limitations of a person… mostly. Anyway, talking to Death isn’t all that brave. When you can’t die, Death is a lot less intimidating. I doubt talking to him will do me any good, but I can try. Marla may be his wife… but she’s one of my people. Her home is lost, but if we can help her find a new home, or at least realize that she might someday find a new home, she’ll be okay. Keeping her busy is a good first step.”
“Trying to find a murderer, and prevent yourself from being murdered, is certainly one way to keep occupied. Tell me, Mr. – ah, Reva. Do you know who killed this man, Ronin?”
Reva nodded. “I do.”
“Will Marla’s investigation lead her to ask you?”
The god of exiles stroked his chin. “Hmm. It’s possible, sure. I already introduced myself to her. She knows I know the surfers. She might get around to interrogating me.”
“Will you help her, if she questions you?”
“Depends on whether or not she can figure out the right questions. Just keep an eye on her. I’ll be around.”
“I don’t like deceiving her,” Pelham said. “I had a hard time telling her I just happened to come to Hawai’i, when you are the one who told me she’d been exiled, told me she might need help. And now, having met you again, to keep that fact from her as well – ”
Reva hmmmed. “I think it’s better if she doesn’t know we’re trying to guide her life – she strikes me as the contrary type, one who’d say ‘no’ just because we asked her to say ‘yes.’ But if you feel like it’s a betrayal to keep the conversations we’ve had a secret, do what you must.”
“I was taught to be utterly trustworthy. But I was also taught that there are things one’s master or mistress need not know, things they shouldn’t be bothered with, things they would not benefit from knowing, that might trouble them, and that can therefore be concealed… but it is so hard to know whether this qualifies.”
“You’ll do the right thing, Pelham. Whatever that turns out to be.”
“Mrs. Mason will be most unhappy if she finds you’ve been meddling in her life.”
“I’m a god. Meddling is what I do. It’s what she does, too – I’m just trying to find new things for her to meddle with. Take care, Pelham. Enjoy the scenery. And remember, we’re not conspiring against Marla – we’re conspiring for her.”
“I an unconvinced Mrs. Mason would appreciate the distinction,” Pelham said.