Cooke tumbled to the floor, coughing. “I’ll thank you…not to call me…Ebenezer,” he choked.

“You’ll have to forgive her, Cooke,” said Vega. “She’s been through a lot.”

“Speak for yourself, old man,” Sally snarled. “I know Cooke better than you, and I’ll be damned if I sit here while he makes light of the catastrophe that has befallen our kind.”

Cooke tottered to his feet. “Making light is the only way I have of dealing with the terror of life and the horror of every day, Sally,” he said. “Don’t mistake my levity for frivolity. Surely Mercedes told you about our prizes and the first officer that I had to promote.”

“You’ll find your pistol a poor match for me all the same, Cooke,” growled Sally. “Turn your levity elsewhere.”

“I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who finds themselves put upon, especially if it is being done so in the name of law and order, as these Spaniards are,” Cooke added. Then, thoughtfully: “What should I call you? Surely Sally Coxswain isn’t your true name.”

“It will do as well as any other,” Sally said. “Surely old Vega gave you his pontification about true forms? True names are the same.”

“To your question, Cooke, there is no question of us remaining here for long,” Vega said. “We shall help you repair your ship, and crack open these monstrosities to give the tormented souls of our brethren peace. Then we shall abandon Villanueva in favor of another retreat. We must ask you not to come looking for us.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Cooke. “But I think that’s best. My men will spin tall tales, but would-be fortune seekers will find only an abandoned mission. What about Mercedes?”

“Yes, what about her?” said Sally. “You never told me that you would hide the truth of her origins from her, Vega.”

“Our situation is so dire that we, like you, must remain as inconspicuous as we can,” Vega snapped. “What better practice than maintaining this charade? And what better way to make my daughter safe?”

“You indulged her too much all the same,” Sally hissed. “A pilgrimage? It could only have ended in disaster for Villanueva. Even if she had made it to Mexico City, what then? Surely the true believers there would have seen through her as easily as Cooke saw through you!”

“When I was eight years old, just a few years before he died, my father took me to Savannah to attend a formal party with him and with Mom,” Cooke said quietly. “He must have known, in his heart of hearts, how it would turn out. Him ejected in disarray after showing up with his freed slave wife and mulatto son, months of harassment on the plantation, and a scandal which saw people turn up their noses when Bess pulled her great trick on me.”

“Why do you think he did it then?” Sally said.

“Love, naturally,” Cooke said. “When one loves deeply, one is blinded to the self and sees only the other. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt since they died, but I think that’s what kept Vega from seeing what would happen as clearly as you do, Sally. I can’t be too hard on him for it. In fact, it makes me wonder if you alux are as alien as you claim. It’s a very human notion.”

“Thank you, Cooke,” Father Vega said. There was a flash about him and he resumed his former aspect as a greying priest. “I wish I would say I agreed with you about love being a human notion. Even in the days of the Aztec, Inca, and Maya we lived in fear of humans, took on frightening aspects to chase them away as often as we blended in with them. Despite our power, we have always been vulnerable and there has never been much love shown us.”

“Enough talk, then,” said Sally. “We must get to work. I fear that this Balthazar is in danger of losing control of his mad dog Exposito. And based on what he told me, that man would murder every single one of us in our sleep if he thought it would bring about the Fifth Sun.”

“The what?” said Cooke.

“The end of this cycle of the world, and the beginning of a new one,” Sally said. “Exposito thinks he’s the one to do something reserved for a god.”

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