“What are you?” Cooke said.

“What are we? If only you could hear how ridiculous that question sounds. Ask the sun what he is. Ask the moon what she is.”

“I can ask my ship what she is and she will remain in coquettish silence,” Cooke said. “But I still have a word for her, even if she doesn’t answer to it.”

“The Mayans called us alux, the Spaniards call us duende,” said Vega. “Both are outsiders’ names and bitter on the tongue, but you may use them if you must. Some would call us spirits, but we are quite mortal. Long-lived, if not quite eternal, the precipitate of the natural world made substantial.”

“I don’t suppose you could be more specific?” said Cooke. “This vague talk of spirits and the natural world is the first time you’ve sounded like a real priest since we’ve met.”

“If I cannot be more specific,” Vega said, “then ask yourself this: do you have aught but legend to tell me where humanity came from?”

Cooke bit his lip. “Fair enough.”

“Then there you have it,” the luminous being continued. “We were never numerous, such as we know, but we have become scarce of late. Some, like Sally, live in secret among you. Those that do not wish to do so, we have gathered here.”

“I suppose that’s fair enough,” Cooke said. “A remote mission in Spanish territory…I certainly wouldn’t ask any questions, and I doubt a nuncio would either. But tell me this, why let Mercedes go on her pilgrimage-why conceal the truth of her nature from her–with the risk of her true form being revealed?”

“True form?” Vega laughed. “Such a concept is immaterial to an alux. We can take on whatever guise we think suitable, with enough practice. It is how those of us like Sally walk among you unnoticed for generations. ”

“That’s not what I see with Mercedes,” said Cooke. “She gets more golden than a pirate horde as soon as she hits seawater.”

“It is more an instinct than anything else, I think,” Vega said. “A return to the form she happened to wear when she was born. A joyous day, and a sad one as well. I don’t doubt that, like most of us, she finds it more practical to appear ordinary.”

“A joyous day,” Cooke said. “And a sad one. How would you know?”

“She was born here,” Vega said, sounding a little defensive.

“You’re her father,” Cooke said dully. “Aren’t you.”

Vega folded his wings around himself like a cloak, or a sorrowful blanket. “It’s that obvious, is it?” he chuckled. “I suppose I ought to be flattered that there’s enough of me in her for it to stand out so.”

“So Mercedes is half-human, then,” Cooke said.

“No, no. It does not work that way, Mister Cooke,” Vega said. “We alux are like a bright bonfire; wood and fire come together to create it, but the end result is always fire.”

“And ash,” Cooke said.

Vega choked back what sounded like a sob. “You’re more right than you know,” he said sadly. “The moment of birth, when a new alux comes into the world…it’s a rare event, requiring as it does a human father or mother. But it’s also quite an explosive one, the energy of our world being compressed into a form that can move and talk. It is…not survivable. Poor Julia was consumed instantly.”

“It seems a bit odd, if you knew that, to subject your lover to such risk,” said Cooke.

“Surely you, too, have made rash decisions in pursuit of love, young as you are?” said Vega.

“My rash decisions are my own,” said Cooke quietly. “I’ll not blame love or anything else for them.”

“We thought ourselves special. Immune. And we were so deeply in love.” Vega turned away. “She is the first to be born to us in a long time, perhaps centuries.”

“And you almost lost her to Exposito and his gang. Why did you let her leave Villanueva at all, knowing what she was, what was out there for her?”

Vega didn’t answer.

“What if she’d fallen in love, like you? Would you have let her power consume her lover, like yours?”

“It was her choice to make,” Vega whispered. “I did not want my daughter a prisoner.”

“She wasn’t planning on coming back, you know,” said Cooke. “She told me as much. The pilgrimage was just a ruse.”

“Did she, now?” Vega turned back to Cooke. “Do you see me as an unfit father, an unfit guardian, because of that?”

“It doesn’t matter how I see you, as I’ve no high horse to sit on when it comes to that,” Cooke said. He grinned crookedly. “I’d be a terrible father and any child of mine would be liable to share the same hardships I did on that slave galley. I wouldn’t wish it on any tot. Not existing at all is a better lot than that; never being born is the best gift I can give any children of mine.”

“Many of we alux feels the same way you do. They have sworn themselves to celibacy, or hidden themselves away from temptation, masquerading as we often do.”

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