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His body closed like a fist, each muscle trying to tear free of bone. He snarled through his teeth, watched the angel with slitted eyes.
"You can still change your mind," the angel said reasonably, "and obey me." It raised its feathery wings. Its face, as always, was a mask of light.
Peter tasted blood in his mouth, but he managed to get the words out as he wanted, clear and measured. "I am Peter Alexeyevich! I am the tsar of Russia. You cannot command me."
"I am an angel of God."
"You are not. You are a betrayer and a liar."
"I saved your life. I saved your empire. I helped you control your Old Believers. You were happy to tell them I was an angel."
Peter scooted against the cabin wall and dug his hands into the deep pockets of his coat. His face, which often slipped his control, spasmed terribly. "What do you want?" he demanded. "What do you devils really want?"
"Only the one thing I asked. Have I ever asked for anything else? Any reward for my services?"
"It isn't one thing. It's everything. I know you now."
"I doubt that. But, very well, if you insist on dying."
Peter pulled something from his pocket—a small cube with a circular depression in the top. It was humming, a single clear note.
The angel paused. "What is that?"
"Something a friend gave me. A wise friend, as it turns out." He placed a sphere the size of a musket ball in the depression, and a shriek cut through the fabric of the universe. Peter felt it in his bones. The angel felt it, too, anddripped fire into Peter's veins, even as a wind came that tore it apart, each feather dissolving into a line of smoke.
The death of the angel did not stop the pain. A wave of agony crested over Peter's head and dragged him under; and suddenly he had no weight at all, as if he were falling from a height with no end.
Red Shoes jerked awake to find himself already on his feet. He swayed there for a moment, trying to remember where he was, but the otherworld sight was still wrapped around him, making the trees, the earth he stood on, the stars themselves too strange to recognize.
He found his pipe and a pinch of Ancient Tobacco and lit it from an ember that had strayed from the remains of the fire. The warm, musky smoke strengthened the breath in him and curled from his nose. Gradually the world came clear.
He was Red Shoes, war prophet and miracle maker of the Choctaw people, and he stood on an earthen mound in the Natchez country, near the Great Water Road. The mound's top was as broad as a village, and around it lay swamp, the underworld kissing the earth from beneath.
A soft cough came behind him, and he turned to regard Skin Eater.
Skin Eater was Natchez man, a descendant of the Sun, his dark skin mottled with even darker tattoos, blurred by the eighty winters of his life.
"I felt it," Skin Eater murmured. "Do you know what it was?"
"No," Red Shoes admitted. "Something important, something strong. My shadowchildren died bringing it to me."
"From the West."
"Yes. Since the strange news from the West began, I have sent my children out to watch. Now they have seen something."
"West is a big place," Skin Eater observed.
"I know. But my shadowchildren tell me no more than that. If only I knew where in the West ..." Red Shoes trailed off, thinking.
Skin Eater reflected for a moment as he lit his own pipe. "You are more powerful than ever I was," he said, "perhaps the strongest there has ever been. But your people are younger than mine—there are things the Natchez remember that the Choctaw do not."
"I acknowledge that, great-uncle." It was a title of respect, only. He was not related to the old man.
Skin Eater swept his arms around. "This place is an image of the world—do you see? The deeps of the beginning times below and around us, the earth raised up with a face for each direction. The flat top here is the whole surface of the middle world. Like those paintings on paper the French use."
"You mean a map? But maps have things marked on them. Rivers, mountains, towns—"
"But if a town should move, will it move on a French map? Not unless they draw another map, yes? Here, however, you have only to know how to look. Here, the world can always be seen true."
Red Shoes frowned slightly as the implications of the old man's words sunk in. He took another puff of his pipe, and began chant-
ing, walking in widening circles upon the top of the mound, giving smoke to the directions. His feet sank back into the world of spirit, of dream.
Posted January 23, 2009
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