Casiopea knelt in front of the chest. It was very simple, with carrying handles on each end. No decorations except for the one image painted in red, the decapitated man. When she ran her hand along its surface, she discovered shapes that had been carved and painted over. She could not tell what they were, but she could feel them. She gave the chest a push.

It was heavy.

Casiopea rested both hands on the chest and for a moment considered leaving well enough alone. But she was angry and, more than that, curious. What if indeed there was money locked away in there? The old man owed her something for her suffering.

Everyone owed her.

Casiopea inserted the key, turned the lock, and flipped the lid open.

She sat there, confused at the sight of what lay inside the chest. Not gold but bones. Very white bones. Might it be a ruse? Could the prize be hidden beneath? Casiopea placed a hand inside the chest, shoving the bones around as she tried to uncover a hidden panel.

Nothing. She felt nothing but the cold smoothness of the bones.

This was her luck, of course. Black.

With a sigh she decided enough was enough.

Pain shot through her left arm. She pulled out her hand from the chest and looked at her thumb only to see a white shard, a tiny piece of bone, had embedded itself in her skin. She tried to pull it out but it sank deeper in. A few drops of blood welled from the place where the bone had splintered her.

“Oh, what foolishness,” she whispered, standing up.

Blacker than black her luck. The daykeepers would have laughed predicting her life, yet as she rose, the chest…it groaned, a low, powerful sound. But surely not. Surely the noise had come from outside.

Casiopea turned her head, ready to look out the window.

With a furious clacking the bones jumped in the air and began assembling themselves into a human skeleton. Casiopea did not move. The pain in her hand and the wave of fear that struck her held the girl tight to her spot.

In the blink of an eye all the bones clicked into place, like pieces in a puzzle. In another instant the bones became muscle, grew sinews. In a third blink of the eye they were covered in smooth skin. Faster than Casiopea could take a breath or a step back, there stood a tall, naked man before her. His hair was the blue-black of a sleek bird, reaching his shoulders, his skin bronzed, the nose prominent, the face proud. He seemed a warrior-king, the sort of man who could exist only in myth.

Unnaturally beautiful the stranger was—this was beauty sketched from smoke and dreams, translated into fallible flesh—but his dark gaze was made of flint. It sliced her to the core, sliced with such force she pressed a hand against her chest, fearing he’d cut through bone and marrow, to the very center of her heart. There was a song the girls of her town sometimes sang; it went “Now there, mother, I’ve found a man, now there, mother, I’ll dance along the road with him, now there I’ll kiss his lips.” Casiopea did not sing it because, unlike the girls who smiled knowingly, who smiled thinking of a specific young man they’d like to kiss or whom they’d kissed already, Casiopea knew few names of boys. She thought of that song then, like a pious person might have thought of a prayer when caught in a moment of turmoil.

Casiopea stared at the man.

“You stand before the Supreme Lord of Xibalba,” the stranger said. His voice had the chill of the night. “Long have I been kept a prisoner, and you are responsible for my freedom.”

Casiopea could not string words together. He had said he was a Lord of Xibalba. A god of death in the room. Impossible and yet, undeniably, true. She did not pause to question her sanity, to think she might be hallucinating. She accepted him as real and solid. She could see him, and she knew she was not mad or prone to flights of fancy, so she trusted her eyes. Her preoccupation was, then, very simple. She had no idea how to address a divine creature and bowed her head clumsily. Should she speak a greeting? But how to make her tongue produce the right sounds, to pull a breath of air into her lungs?

“It was my treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, who tricked and imprisoned me,” he said, and she was grateful for his voice, since she’d lost her own. “From me he took my left eye, ear, and index finger, as well as my jade necklace.”

As he spoke and raised his hand, she realized he was indeed missing the body parts he had mentioned. His appearance was so striking one could not notice the absence at first. Only when it was highlighted did it become obvious.

“The owner of this abode assisted my brother, enabling his plan,” he said.

“My grandfather? I doubt—”

He stared at her. Casiopea did not utter another word. It appeared she was meant to listen. So much for thinking of proper greetings or feeling poorly about her clumsy silence. Her teeth clacked together as she closed her mouth.

“I find it fitting that you have opened the chest, then. A proper circle. Fetch me clothes; we will journey to the White City,” he said. It was a tone she was accustomed to, the tone of a man directing his servant. The familiarity of such a command managed to rouse her from her confusion, and this time she delivered a whole sentence, however stilted.

“Mérida? We, meaning the two of us…you want both of us to go to Mérida.”

“I dislike repeating myself.”

“Pardon me, I do not see why I should go,” she said.

The retort came unbidden. This was how she got in trouble with Martín or her grandfather. A scowl here, an angry gesture there. She could control herself most of the time, but after a while dissatisfaction would boil in her belly and escape, like steam from a kettle. It never failed. However, she had not talked back to a god. She wondered if she might be struck by lightning, devoured by maggots, turned to dust.

Gods of Jade and Shadow