The hastily built tavern blazed with light, driving back the Long Dark through sheer force of will. Lanterns and candles and glowstones shone through the open windows, the scent of their burning oil and wax nearly overpowering that of the gathered crew of the Tooth and Bone below. The crew’s tendencies to split into their own groups had been somewhat thwarted by careful coaxing by Grodd and herself, though the free application of spirits hadn’t hurt.
Liquor flowed like water, rum and mead and ale and even wine, lubricating voices and limbs into relaxed looseness. A few ambitious souls had even broken out instruments—fiddles, drums, and pipes—and were attempting what might charitably be called dancing music.
It was close enough for Alatu’s taste. Her bare toes tapped against the pounded dirt floor in time to the thumping beat of Killian Northstar’s bodhran.
The bottle of rum she’d started the night with was now half empty and herself warm straight through, though two short cups full sat untouched across the table from her. One was muddled with chili peppers, as red and bright as a dockside doxie’s lips, the other with chunks of briny gray sea salt.
“Aye, an’ will either of ye be dancin’ wit me tonight, my loves?” she murmured to the cups. “For sure an’ I be lonely, will ye be keepin’ me company?”
There was no response, but the hairs on her nape rippled and Alatu looked up, catching the eye of a handsome man outside the tavern door. A painted skull on his face flickered into vision for a moment as he raised a hand to her in salutation: the cup of peppered rum safe in it. Her lips curled into a satisfied smile: the Baron come courting after all, well dressed in imperial violet and plum, an ebony cane in his other hand.
“Dinner, sweet?” came his voice in her ear, all honey and smoke, and she knew the place and time he set.
“I will be seeing you there,” Alatu purred, and leaned over the table with her eyes fixed on him until his chuckle ghosted over her ear and the feel of warm fingers brushed across her bare shoulder—the Baron was gone again.
Jack Again dropped down from the rafters and flung himself into her arms, the small squirrel monkey shivering his anxiety. This Jack was a fearful thing, unsure of the bond, unsure of the new and strange things he could see and hear and feel. Alatu gathered him up, his tail curled tight around her arm, and scratched through the soft fur until the trembles subsided.
“How can they drink,” grumbled Esté, one of the fair few crew who’d taken to following her around and mimicking her in perverse flattery. They had the form, but not yet the purpose. “How can they dance, when death is coming for them? It is not right.”
“Death be coming for us all, my love,” Alatu said, releasing Jack to crouch upon her shoulders. “An’ why should we not use what time we be havin’ left to us in pleasure? We be snatchin’ these souls back from death every day. Let them use it!” She poured a cupful of rum and thrust it into their hands with a laugh. “Drink! Dance! Live!”
She took the rest of the bottle and danced her way through the crowd to the door, ignoring the prickle and stabs of pain through her bare feet as she spun with this or that crewmate. She supposed the pain Lunacy’s revenge for not getting Alatu’s last breath immediately. The goddess was impatient; she would just have to learn otherwise. Alatu went unshod as often as not since; shoes and sandals made the pins and needles worse.
Her disciples, those aping her dress and manners, weren’t yet ready. She felt it, as she felt Jack Again or the pull of the Sea, or the subtle twistings of living voodoo from the souls on the island and tied in her knots. They were too immured in the death-seeking, death-fearing, morte-centered culture of their times. The lighthouse called them, Lunacy and Hella called them, even as they pretended not to hear.
And who would not, under the Long Dark as they were? Who would not do what they could to ensure their deaths and what came after were as pleasant as could be managed.
But even in the night, life goes on.
Spurred by drink and dance, by visceral desire and thousands of years of instinct, life was going on. In bushes, beneath trees, in beached longboats and hastily pitched tents: the murmurs and moans, sighs and gasps, writhings and secretive rustlings of life, continued.
Alone, Alatu swirled and danced in slow spinning circles down to the water’s edge, dipping and turning as though in the arms of a partner. When she stopped, skirts spinning around her calves, she was several strides out into the bay, seafoam curling between her toes and the water as solid as earth beneath her, an illusion borne on the hands and backs of the drowned souls who held her up. It was the only place she could walk without pain, and she murmured her thanks to the dead.
“Hello, Maman Mer ,” she said, dipping low to brush her fingers through the surf. “My love to you, Maman Ciel, Maman Vent ,” and she stretched upwards, encompassing the dark sky and gentle breeze. With these as dancing companions she wound her way back to the beach.
“Maman Terre, ” Alatu crooned as her toes touched sand again with prickles and stabs. “An’ how lovely you are being tonight!”
Jack Again made sleepy chirrups into her hair, his tail curled around her arm as though she were a tree in high winds with all her dancing. “Aye, Jack. You be comin’ with me, now, and we be findin’ ye a bed. An’ for me, I need be speaking with Les Mamans , hmm?”
Les Mamans. Alatu paid court to Death Gods aplenty, but it were the Mothers who she gave her adoration, her worship, her love. The Mothers were a comforting whisper in the dark of the lands ruled by a pantheon of lords who ruled the shadowlands and thresholds.
Everyone knew Davy Jones. Baron Samedi was a name to conjure by. Hella and Lucifer, Lunacy and Charon, the Red Dragon, even Mictlāntēcutli: the Lords of the Dead were plentiful and frightening.
And all their power was stolen from the Mothers.
Her disciples weren’t yet ready for the Mothers. They barely grasped their own lives, how could they yet worship the source? But soon, soon.
The Mothers brought forth every life the Dread Lords claimed in death. Without them, without the new lives borne from the Mothers’ flesh, their priestesses taught, the Dread Lords would wither as their power became as stale and decayed as death itself. If the Lords believed it too, they’d never let on to her , but their constant siren-calls to the living seemed to give lie to their silence on the matter.
The Mothers were never silent, Alatu reflected, stepping inside the cabin she’d claimed as her own. Jack Again jumped into the rafters as she shut the door with a swish and rattle of her strung charms. There was a little nest the last Jack had made, of palm leaves and cloth scraps and string, and Jack Again climbed into it and curled into a sleepy ball without hesitation.
She lit lamps and incense and candles from the embers of her brazier, turning her cabin into an oasis of light. It would be a beacon for the poor souls who’d no doubt be seeking her later, after the rum had worn off or the fights ended. But for now: it was her place, and hers alone.
Les Mamans rites were conducted in secret, and in quiet. So it had been, passed from mother to daughter, from aunt to niece, from sister to sister. The women carried it, and the women nurtured it, and every woman who shared their rites returned to the Mothers to become one themselves once their breath left their flesh. Mother Earth, Mother Sky, Mother Sea and Mother Wind were only some of the Mothers gone before, the ones easiest to see and hold.
“Hear me, Mothers,” Alatu murmured, as she set the salt wards and strung the scarlet cord in the circle of cleared space in the center of the room. Bayberry and rosemary scented the air, and she set out the polished onyx mirrors at the compass points just as her mother had taught her, to keep unfriendly eyes from watching. “See me, Mothers. Be keepin’ me, Mothers. Be speakin’ to me, Mothers.”
Not every daughter became priestess, as Alatu was. Not every daughter gave themselves over fully to the worship of their forebears. But Alatu had, enraged on their behalf at the Lords of the Dead. She would steal back their power, make the Mothers a name to be heard again to more than just their daughters.
Alatu knelt, closed her eyes and breathed, listening for the whisper of Les Mamans. They were never silent, for those who knew to hear. Their voices sang in her blood and bone, a legacy of life ongoing. Sometimes they murmured advice, sometimes they sang spinning and planting songs, sometimes they hummed lullabies close against her skin.
“Hear me, Mamans, see me, keep me,” she finally murmured. With a damp cloth she cleaned the cosmetics from her face, leaving her bare before their gaze within the circle. She had no need of pageantry with her Mothers like she did with the crew, with those mortal men, to keep their eyes proper respectful.
“It bein’ a narrow path I be walkin’, Mothers. I had one o’ dem boys wrapped around my fingers an’ I be meanin’ to do it again. I mean to get them Dread Lords tangled up in each other ‘round me, for men are men, is it not so, Mothers? Dead men, god men, or no: they all be havin’ a taste for our sweet flesh. An’ when they be scrappin’ like tomcats, either way this Queen be comin’ out o’ it wit power for you, my Mothers. So be keepin’ me Mothers, for I be doin’ this all for you. An’ if I be in your good graces, Mothers, be givin’ me a daughter o’ my own once more.”
The Mothers’ voices, when she was quiet again, rose in a tide of murmured love, and Alatu listened, reassured.
Only when the candles burned low and sputtered in their pools of molten wax did she break the circle and turn the lamps low. She settled to sleep on a pallet of sheeps’ wool and sail canvas, beneath gauze netting and her own thatched roof with the rum still humming lazily warm in her blood and the taste of chilis on her lips a promise.
The wind blew all her charms to their chiming rattles; shells and bone and carved wood. Dawn would be coming. Life went on.