I woke from yet another dream of Gentleman Death and knew instantly that there was someone in my little shack by the stable. There followed a long moment of frozen terror before I realized who it was and the terror transmuted to outrage. Imarte? What the fuck?
“You glow,” Imarte said, calm as you please. “It’s nearly enough to read by.”
My eyes having adjusted, I could see that, my God, she actually did have a book in her hands, a little paperback, a Bronte that had made it out west as part of Oscar’s stock. It was dark in my room, just little bits of spectral blue glow dying away now, but of course Imarte could have read by starlight on a moonless night. I wished she’d go outside and do just that.
“Here to gloat?” I snarled. “Are you going to report me?” She could go over Porfirio’s head, if she really wanted to be rid of me. I had no idea how much power Porfirio had to protect me, or how far he’d be willing to go on my behalf. I’d never beg Imarte for anything, I decided, but I couldn’t help shaking in fear at the thought of being recalled, having my work taken away from me, working as a receptionist in gray underground Company tunnels for the rest of eternity, or worse.
Imarte shook her head, her glorious ringlets bouncing. “Don’t be stupid. Porfirio discussed it with me weeks ago. And by discussed I of course mean he ordered me to pretend I never saw anything. Infuriating man.”
“Then why are you here?” I growled.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
I was about to hurl invective at her, or possibly just roll over and try to go back to sleep- ha, as if that were possible, with the nightmare still pounding through my veins- but something made me pause, and pay more attention. Her breath stank of gin and Theobromos. That infuriating calm was actually something else.
“Are you okay?” I said, like an idiot.
“I can’t sleep,” she repeated, like that was an answer to my dumb question.
I got up. It was chilly outside, but I got the fire going so we could have hot chocolate. I tried to move quietly, but I’m sure I woke up Porfirio anyways. If he was even asleep. I don’t think he sleeps much.
Things were better for me outside. There was a breeze coming down from the hills, the smell of sage. I wasn’t glowing at all anymore. There was a half-empty bottle of gin by the fire, so I drank that, deciding not to partake of the hot chocolate myself. Imarte sat by the fire, wrapped in one of her lacy shawls, shivering a little.
“It’s that damn movie,” she said, “I haven’t felt right since we watched it.”
I didn’t say anything. What could I have said? I’ve never felt what she felt. Never loved a place like that. I love my Ventana, my redwoods and mountains, but when they’re gone I’ll find some other wild place to love. At least I hope so.
“You wouldn’t have liked Babylon,” she said at last. “It was jam packed with mortals. Sweating, diseased, all rubbing elbows with each other. No plants, except in the hanging gardens. Well, you’d have liked those.”
“You were a priestess of Ishtar, right?” I said. Maybe if she talked about it a bit she’d feel better and I could get some sleep. Besides, I was a little curious. I’d never really asked before.
“It was a good position,” Imarte said. She sounded really zoned out, compared to her usual sharp-tongued self. “By the time I was born it was a lot harder to get anywhere in the priesthood as a woman than it had been back in the good old days before the Assyrians. But there were a lot of women serving Ishtar, of course. I fit right in.”
“Did you believe it?” I asked. “I mean, did you believe in Ishtar?” I thought of the tears I’d wept, once, because I could not believe in my parents’ tragic suffering Christ, or in Nicholas’s Protestant God.
“Of course not,” Imarte said with a sniff, sounding a little more like herself, but then she sighed, and stared into the flames. “Well. I don’t know. It was so beautiful. The rituals, and the incense, the songs, the dances, the darkness of the desert and the million lights of the city, so large and full of life. My wife used to say a good dance was the only way to shut me up.”
I choked and coughed on smoke. When I could finally speak, I said hoarsely, “Your wife?”
“Yes, she was part of my cover for a few years. She was a naditu priestess of Shamash- a celibate, you know. Which only meant she didn’t have sex with men. I think her name was Kabta,” Imarte said, but she sounded uncertain. “Or was it Khanasu? No, it was Kabta.”
I’d thought our memories perfect, but perhaps after so long a fog did descend. Or perhaps it was a protective scab, formed over memories too painful to carry with such clarity through the centuries. Maybe one day I would forget my Englishman’s name. Maybe his face would become a blur. It would be nice to think so.
“Of course it wasn’t the same thing, legally, as a heterosexual marriage. We did sign a binding contract, but I couldn’t sell her possessions or have her drowned for running away from me. It’s always irritated me, the way future mortals like that Griffith will romanticize Babylon as a haven of gender equality. It was better than most of what came after, true, but still-”
“Did you love her?” I asked. A stick on the fire, a little too damp, crackled, and sparks flew up into the void of the night sky.
“No. Don’t be silly. She was a very pleasant and intelligent woman, very resourceful. She made the best of her position in a male-dominated society. I was glad when she died of a fever. She wouldn’t have liked Babylon under the Persians.”
“Oh,” I said. “Uh, do you want some more hot chocolate?”
Imarte put her head in her beautifully manicured hands and sobbed.
The fire crackled. The wind blew, cold down from the San Gabriel Mountains. Off in the canyons, a coyote howled, lonely, desolate. Imarte cried.
I’m not good at this. I never have been. I remembered, with sudden vividness, Lewis crying, his head in my lap, alcohol on his breath, in the air-conditioned cool of the New World One bar. His narrow shoulders shaking under that perfectly pressed jacket. “You’re too good for him anyway,” I’d said, because that was what you were supposed to say and in this case it was true. Lewis was always too good for them and maybe that was why he was so unlucky. If I’m being really charitable, I can imagine that it would be hard to date someone like Lewis. All that pure earnest good nature would just reflect your own faults back at you, and that’s probably why his lady and gentlemen friends always ended up being cruel to him.
“Oh, it’s not that, really,” Lewis had said, wiping his nose delicately with his handkerchief. “It’s just that it all seems so hard, suddenly. There’s never anything new here, is there? We’re all just going through the motions.”
I thought to myself that Imarte would definitely break Lewis’s heart if they ever met, and I hoped they never did, and then it occurred to me that they very well might have met, a thousand years before I was even born, and it hit me, the way it does sometimes, that immortal hearts have been broken thousands of times before mine was, that it’s all inevitable and like Lewis said, nothing is ever new.
I put my hand on Imarte’s shoulder, cautiously, and instead of shoving me off like I expected she curled up against me and sobbed. Her big skirt had so many layers, crushed up against my thigh. She wasn’t wearing a crinoline, thank God, but still all that silk rustled loudly. Her bare skin was hot even through my shirt.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just let her stay there, while her system metabolized the Theobromos and the crying produced the right hormones to calm her down. I meant to just stoically endure the whole ordeal, but I couldn’t stop comparing this to that time with Lewis, and noticing how differently I felt. Maybe, I tried to tell myself, it was just the darkness, the primal glow of the fire and smell of the sage, stirring my blood the way New World One’s air conditioning certainly hadn’t. But it was impossible to pretend that the maternal care and sympathy I’d felt for Lewis then bore any resemblance to my reaction to Imarte draping herself half on top of me, her chest heaving.
How horribly embarrassing. I was very glad Imarte was too occupied with her own feelings to scan me.
She stopped crying after a while. I looked down at her, awkwardly, my neck sore. “Do I need to carry you to bed?” I wondered, and she responded with an incomprehensible curse, and shoved me, and I shoved her back, and she shoved me back, harder, I think, than she meant to, and we both went down into the dust, her on top of me, curls all tumbled, both of us breathing hard. I wished I hadn’t drank so much.
“Fuck you,” she said, and then somehow we were kissing. It wasn’t like Nicholas at all. It wasn’t like Joseph and Nefer always made it sound, like messing around with another operative was mechanical, choreographed; maybe the mind-altering substances were bestowing us with some human chemistry. She was very sloppy, for such an accomplished courtesan, but I guess I wasn’t getting her at her best. She bit me. I might have bitten back.
We fooled around a little, right there in the dirt by the fire, out under the eyes of whatever God might be watching. It didn’t go that far. It was so damn cold, and clothing here and now wasn’t as conducive to a roll in the hay as it had been in sixteenth century England. I had no idea what I was doing, and Imarte, the expert, had no patience for me. It was instructive, nonetheless.
After maybe fifteen minutes, Imarte fell asleep on top of me. I really ought to have somehow gotten her to bed then, like I was her duenna or something, but instead I kept looking at the stars, clearer and clearer as the fire burned lower, and somehow then the sun came up and it was morning and we were still lying there both pretty frozen. Time-slip, but I don’t think it was Chrome’s in that instance, just sort-of-fugue, like I’d come to know very well in my Ventana, or maybe it was like what poor crazy Einar yelled about, being in the present and the past both at once, time passing like a glacier and a torrent; I was aware of Imarte’s every heartbeat, of my own, but the hours still evaporated like the morning mist.
Imarte got up slowly. She didn’t say anything to me, just brushed her skirt off unsteadily and staggered into the inn in the direction of her bed. I stayed outside a while longer, birdsong and insect noise rising around me, until I sensed JB and Porfirio getting up and went back to my bed to avoid them.
It was a slow day. No stages raised dust on the road, no travellers passed by. Einar was out collecting, JB stayed holed up in his room with his birds, and Porfirio, clearly bored out of his skull, went into town for the day, saying we shouldn’t expect him back until late. I wondered if he was planning on salvaging our operating budget with some time in Los Angeles’ gambling establishments. Any of us immortals can make money that way in a pinch, counting cards or calculating dice trajectories, but making a lot of money off of it and then getting home unstabbed requires fancy facilitator training.
The sun was low on the horizon when I entered Imarte’s chamber of delight, intending to ask her what she wanted for dinner. “Mendoza,” she said in greeting, and I stopped where I was, suspicious, because from her tone I knew there was something coming.
She wasn’t the same woman who’d cried on my shoulder ten hours previously. She was perfectly made up, her curls arranged artfully, looking up at me through long, long lashes, those striking green eyes perfectly sober and lucid and distant. “You did me a favor last night,” she said, the same way she’d say “You stole from me last night, you bitch.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said. “Please.”
“Darling, you should know I can’t stand to leave a favour unrepaid. I’ve been thinking about it. I know you’re going just completely stir crazy here, so I’ve decided to take you on a trip.”
I stared at her. “Excuse me?”
“Mount San Antonio,” she said. “I’ve heard there’s a Mormon settlement up there, and I’d just love the chance to document their isolated lifestyle. And you can collect, er, mountain plants.”
“You want to climb up a mountain with me?” I asked in shock. I turned my head to look out the little window with its open shutters, which conveniently happened to be facing the mountains that were our constant companions. The San Gabriels. Mount San Antonio with its big bald spot, that the Yankees would eventually call Mount Baldy, because of that bare fluvial cirque, so popular as a ski spot for future Angelinos.
It was insane, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: it’d be yellow pine forest up there, probably, and the lower hills so much greener than here, from all the mountain mist...
“That’s a multi-day trip,” I protested. “We can’t just go off like that.”
“We’re both ahead of our quotas,” she said, confidently. “I read Porfirio’s files all the time.”
I opened my mouth to say something stupid and naive, Don’t you get in trouble for that? Like a neophyte. I closed it. Clearly not, since she was still here after two thousand years. Or maybe her age had made her reckless?
I thought, very briefly, of my father. Imarte is much, much older than me, or almost anyone else I know, but she’s an infant compared to Joseph. I used to think it was age that turned my father into a perfect clockwork devil, but that can’t be right, because I’ve met Neanderthals who were very nice, well-balanced people, as much as any of us are nice or well-balanced. So now I wonder if it’s all those millenia of exposure to mortals. If Imarte will be just like her nemesis in another eighteen thousand years. If she’ll lose those occasional hints of wild madness, if all the passion and grief in her will be ground away.
“Will Porfirio really let us go by ourselves?” I tried. “Two women on our own, going into rough mountain areas like that?”
“We’ll dress you as a man,” she said, with an airy wave of her hand.
I was briefly very unclear whether I was stunned or enraged, and she took advantage of my silence to say, “That’s settled, then. Let’s leave tomorrow morning.”
All right, I thought, stomping back to my room, all right, if that was how she wanted to play it, then fine. I would go, and I would have the time of my life, no matter what she did, no matter what cutting comments she might make. A trip to a new ecological area! Chaparral! Multiple pine types, and if I climbed high enough, subalpine systems! Maybe I’d even make a special discovery, be rewarded with a transfer away from here, imagine what Imarte’s face would look like then.
I got to see a different, yet just as satisfying version of Imarte’s face when I came into her room the next morning dressed in Oscar’s clothes. He was the only one anywhere near my size, and I’d still had to roll up the sleeves and my pants legs, but he’d said I did a perfect haughty ranchero, my hat at a jaunty angle. Imarte just stared at me, apparently speechless, her mouth slightly open, and I smiled at her, cool, arrogant.
“Well,” she said, “that certainly looks- well- acceptable-”
This time I was the one who kissed her.