“The first Martian War was won not by man, but microbes. The second we fought with Martian weapons that nearly broke the world. The third invasion we stopped by our own hands, using magic.”
—Wei-Yin Sun, Imperial Historian in the Court of the Empress Dowager, Restoration Period.
Marrakesh’s streets were a dizzying affair at any time. But at midday they were unbearable, a churning morass that moved to their own rhyme and reason. And though Minette called the city a second home, navigating its roads was a feat of skill, luck and perhaps, she was willing to admit, sheer stupidity. She dodged a rider on a high-wheeled electric velocipede and rounded about a diesel trolley—only to be brought up short by a young woman who stood in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, beseeching a stubborn goat to follow. Yet no matter how hard she pulled the taut leash, it would not move. The girl yelled, then begged. But the goat only bleated its obstinacy, having decided to start its revolution here and now. Minette slowed to watch, momentarily lost in the goat’s stubborn cries—and was nearly runover by a rickshaw. A tall dromedary pulling the two-wheeled hooded vehicle of gilded iron pulled up short, jostling its two occupants. Both gasped, their sculpted eyebrows rising above long overlapping rose-colored veils. But it was the camel that turned an irritated glare Minette’s way.
“Mind where you’re going!” it brayed, making a gesture with its split upper lip she knew for a curse. Minette frowned at the discourteous display, and with a suck of her teeth shot back a curse in Kreyòl. The camel’s eyes widened at the unfamiliar words and it might have said something in return, but she had already moved on.
Of all the creatures gifted sentience with the return of magic, the good God Bondye alone knew why those rude beasts were chosen. But that was the way of magic, unpredictable in its movements, its choices and ceaseless permutations. That’s what all of this was about—why she’d canceled morning classes and now rushed to a meeting to which she wasn’t invited. Because someone had to speak for the unknowable in magic, the non-linear, the indefinable.
Someone had to save her Martians.
She stopped out of breath, just across from the Flying Citadel. The stone fortification sat atop a jagged rock that floated like an unmoored mountain peak high in Marrakesh’s skyline. Its ivory walls and gold domes looked stolen out of time—or perhaps beyond it—spreading a shadow on the streets below where hawkers sold magic rope and enchanted rugs to gullible tourists along with more useful thaumaturgical devices. A fleet of lavish vehicles were parked nearby: wheeled automobiles driven by golden metal men; air balloons of giant puffer fish that pulled at their anchors; and gilded carriages drawn by fantastic beasts. One of them, a spotted ocelot large as a horse, lapped a blue tongue against its fur and held up a snow-white wing like a canopy beneath Marrakesh’s glaring sun. The vehicles bore insignia from over a dozen nations, evidence that the Council was indeed meeting.
Minette swore. Looking around she caught sight of a few taxis, ferrying tourists up to the citadel by way of flying carpets. Absurd. Fortunately, she had other methods. Closing her eyes, she composed a quick prayer.
The loa could be persuaded to answer the call of a Mambo in need—as drawn up in the new understandings (they bristled at mention of the word contract) that now administered interactions with their priests. All part of bringing them more devotees in this modern world, where spirits and gods walked unbidden, ever competing for the attention of mortals. Of course, the loa acted in their peculiar time, and followed their own interests—new understandings or no.
After two attempts, she was set to call again when the image of a man in a broad brimmed hat flashed across her thoughts. He held a mahogany smoking pipe precariously between pursed lips and his leisurely gait resembled a dance. Legba, the Keeper of Roads, opening the Door. A flaming ram followed. Bade’s sign, who she truly wanted. His presence stirred against her with the weight of a feather and the pressure of a mountain all at once. She hashed out a quick agreement—some offerings to perform, a drapo to commission—and was fast swept up in gusts of air. An accompanying rumble of thunder startled those below. Bade’s twin, Sobo. The two were inseparable and you didn’t get one without the other.
Bade kept to the pact, sending Minette soaring up to the Flying Citadel. Looking down she saw the winged ocelot had paused its cleaning, and now stared up at her with four red sapphire eyes. She shook her head. The powerful and their toys. On a draft of wind accompanied by peals of thunder like drums she rose higher still, above rounded minarets, to reach the citadel’s upper levels.
Her feet struck stone and she stumbled once before breaking into a run along a lengthy parapet, holding the ends of her white dress up so as not to trip. She moved into a passageway, easily slipping through a set of wards meant to deter interlopers. Aziz’s work, and predictable as always. Well wasn’t he in for a surprise. She stopped at reaching a red door inscribed with repeating calligraphy. Taking a breath to collect herself—it did no good to look hurried—she tightened the white cloth that wrapped her hair, adjusted her spectacles, and (remembering to release the grip on her dress) stepped inside.
The Council on Magical Equilibrium was a rare gathering. And, as it was, featured an impressive who’s who, and what’s what, from across the world. Some faces Minette recognized. Some she couldn’t see, and others she didn’t know at all. Each however turned from where they were seated about a curving table to stare at her entrance. Aziz, who sat at its center, broke off his words entirely.
“Minette?” His call came too familiar for colleagues. He must have realized as much because he coughed into a waxed moustache before starting again. “Please excuse the interruption. May I introduce Professor Francis. She teaches here at the Academy and comes to us from Port-au-Prince—”
“Port-au-Prince!” a small slender woman in a crimson gown repeated in a throaty slur. A veil of swirling gray mist obscured her face, all but her eyes—black on black pools, deep as a fathomless sea. “Aziz, you did not tell us the Academy held a Mambo in residence. I see no distinct loa hovering about you. One of the Unbound then?” She craned her neck and inhaled deeply. “Oh! But the magic in you is no less for that.” Those black eyes narrowed hungrily, and Minette fought the urge to step back. It was unwise to show weakness to their kind. They remembered that.
“Professor Francis is one of our most valued researchers,” Aziz interjected, seeming to sense the danger. “She has done wonders with Martian-human interactions. She was the one who first made the—ah—discovery.”
Minette raised an eyebrow. Were they so afraid to just come out and say it?
Another woman at the table gave a derisive snort. She looked older than Minette by a decade or more. But the body beneath her burgundy military uniform was solid, and the dark hands folded before her thick and scarred. If the number of medals decorating her breast was anything to go by, she knew how to use those hands too. She pinned Minette with the one eye not covered by a black patch—an owl examining a mouse—and flared her generous nostrils.
“And,” Aziz went on, “though the professor is one of our finest faculty, I don’t recall her being summoned to this meeting.” That last part was said with an unspoken, and you should leave now. But Minette hadn’t come this far to be scolded. She tried to ignore the gazes of the two women and stepped forward.
“Apologies, Director Aziz. And to this Council,” she began, reciting what she’d hastily rehearsed on the run here. “I only learned you were meeting this morning and thought my expertise might be valuable. I’m certain my absence was an oversight.” She met Aziz’s gaze squarely at that. It was petty of him not to invite her. But rather than taking up the challenge, his eyes creased with concern. That only annoyed her further.
“Well, she certainly is direct,” the mist-faced woman slurred. “I for one would like to hear what the Mambo has to share. I say she stays. Any objections?” None around the table gave a reply—though the one-eyed woman shrugged indifferently. Aziz put on a resigned look, beckoning Minette to sit.
“Come, Mambo, whose scent of magic is sweet enough to taste,” the mist-faced woman purred. “You may sit near me.” She patted an empty chair with a long-fingered hand, pale as alabaster. Those depthless eyes looked even hungrier.
Minette politely declined the offer three times (any less was just inviting trouble) and took a chair several seats down—feeling peculiarly conscious of her smallness between a broad giant in a blue turban and a fiery djinn encased inside a towering body of translucent glass.
“We were discussing,” Aziz began anew, “what we are to do with the three entities following the recent revelations.”
Minette’s heart drummed. There it was. “There’s only one,” she spoke up. Heads—and other things much like heads—swiveled back to regard her. “You’re calling Them three, but there’s actually only the One.”
Aziz blinked but then nodded at the correction. “Yes, of course. Professor Francis is referring to how the Martians see themselves. Three are required to form their collective consciousness, and then They become One. The professor is one of the few non-Martians to successfully join a triumvirate.”
“Join?” It was the one-eyed woman. She now glared incredulous. “So you allow the beasties into your head?”
Minette paused, trying to place that English accent. “They aren’t beasts,” she replied. “They’re sentient beings, like us.”
The one-eyed woman’s laugh was brusque. “So you say, Professor. But I’ve grappled with them face-to-face, not all tame like in your lab.” She tapped a finger at her missing eye. “And they’re damn beasts if I ever seen one.”
Aziz coughed again. “Professor Francis, this is General Koorang. She’s here representing the Nations League Defense Forces.”
Minette’s eyes widened. The General Koorang? Who had broken the Martians at Kathmandu? So, that accent was Australian then. No wonder the woman was so hardline.
“In my time in the triumvirate,” she tried diplomatically, “I’ve found Them to be capable of many emotions. They have been kind, even gentle.”
General Koorang sputtered. “Kind? Gentle? Is that why they set about invading us three times?”
“Not every Martian was a soldier,” Minette reminded, speaking as much to the others gathered. “The One I joined with were worker drones. They never even saw fighting. That’s why it was so easy for the Central Intellect to abandon Them in the retreat.”
“And what did they work on?” the general asked, unmoved. “Was it their stalking dreadnoughts? Their infernal weapons what almost blew us to hell? Come visit the Archipelago sometime, Professor, and I’ll show you Martian gentleness.”
Minette bit her lip to keep from replying. That was unfair. The Archipelago was all that was left of what used to be Australia. The waters of the South Sea were mostly off-limits now: teeming with monsters that wandered in through torn rifts between worlds That it was humans playing with Martian weapons who had brought on the disaster seemed to matter little to the general.
“Perhaps we should get back to the heart of the matter,” Aziz suggested, breaking the tense silence. “We must decide what is to be done with the entities, um, Them, in light of Professor Francis’s discovery.”
Minette felt a flurry of annoyance. Were they going to dance around this all morning? “By discovery, you mean that Martians can perform magic,” she blurted out. Her words sent up murmurs through the Council. Aziz gave her an exasperated look. The general cursed. And the mist-faced woman’s eyes creased with a hidden smile.
Minette took the moment to press on. “What we should do with them is clear. They are a conscious soul, protected within the Nations League Charter on Magical Practitioners drawn up over a decade ago in 1919. They should be encouraged to develop those talents.”
“Outrageous!” General Koorang roared, her face a thunderhead. “The Charter wasn’t made to protect bloody Martians!”
“But it does not exclude them,” the mist-faced woman interjected. “The Charter was made quite broad in its application—as evidenced by the makeup of this very Council.”
“Precisely,” Minette said, seizing on the opportunity. “We already accept a diverse world of spirits, gods, and no end of magical beings. The previous head of this Council was a minotaur, and she served with distinction. How is this any different?”
“A point of clarification,” a squat shaman at the far end of the table called, raising a hand that rattled with ivory bracelets. “The Charter the professor references was created to protect unique magical abilities in their nascency. Have these Martians exhibited some magical talent indigenous to their…kind?”
“Not yet,” Minette admitted. “But I believe it’s only a matter of time,” she followed quickly. “The triumvirate I share, They claim Mars once had magic. But it’s been lost, much as humanity lost it once, too concerned with our factories and industry. Through the rituals to the loa, they’ve shown that they can understand and practice magic—something we once thought impossible. They’re on the verge of self-discovery. We should allow them that right.”
“Martians don’t have any rights as citizens,” General Koorang countered. “They’re not even from this world. Just because the Academy lets you keep a few as pets, doesn’t change the fact that these creatures are prisoners of war.”
Minette clenched her fists to keep calm. “We aren’t at war, general.”
The older woman leaned forward, imposing in her size. “Oh? Did we sign some peace treaty that I’m unaware of? Is there a Martian consulate? A Martian ambassador?”
Minette pressed on, counting in her head to keep calm and trying to forget she was arguing with a living legend. “The Martians invaded three times, precisely three years apart, on the exact same day. The last war was in 1903. It’s been more than thirty years, and we’ve seen no sign of another invasion.”
The general smacked the table heavily and Minette was proud that she didn’t jump. “Damn right! Because we beat the hell out of them last time! And we did it with magic. That’s our greatest defense, the one thing their calculating overgrown minds can’t understand. And you just go ahead and give it to them.” She shook her head, that single eye glowering. “I expected more, from a Haitian.”
Minette felt her face flush at the insult. The houngan Papa Christophe had been the first to use magic in the Third War, halting the Martian dreadnoughts and sending their armies into disarray. The rout at Cap-Haïtien set an example for the world. She was fiercely proud of that fact and didn’t need reminding—not like this.
“I didn’t give them magic,” she said tersely. “They were drawn to the loa and the loa to them. None of us have the right to stop this development.” She turned her appeal to the wider Council, moderating her tone. “I’m not just being an idle academic here. I’m not insensitive to all of your concerns. I understand the suffering the Martians caused this world. But I believe there’s a practical side to all of this.”
The general folded her arms and struck the posture of someone politely suffering a fool, but Minette continued. “The rediscovery of Martian magic could be a new step for all of us. A new magic system built on Martian ingenuity. Think of all the possibilities! The Martians here on Earth could become valued citizens, sharing what they know. If Mars invades again, as the general believes, we would have a valuable Fifth Column ready to come to our defense. What if this curtails their appetite for conquest? What if it helps them find themselves again, the way we have? We should seize this opportunity to integrate them into society, not shun it.”
“Or we should be frightened,” General Koorang grumbled. She spared a glance for Minette before turning to the Council. “The professor’s determined, I’ll give her that. But let’s say she’s right, and there’s some old Martian magic waiting to be tapped. What happens when they rediscover it? Can we trust they won’t give it up to protect their own kind? The last three invasions decimated the old powers of this world. Europe’s a blasted-out hellhole that might never recover. We’re barely managing that refugee crisis as it is. I for one have seen enough of Martian ingenuity. When the fourth invasion comes—and it will come—do we want to look up to see new Martian dreadnoughts powered by magic marching across Cairo, New Èkó or Delhi?” She let her one eye latch onto every gaze before continuing. “I’m a soldier, not a diplomat. Thinking about peace isn’t my job, and I’ll admit I’m no good at it. But I know how to keep us safe. First rule of military defense: deny your enemy any chance of mounting a challenge. The professor’s admitted these Martians haven’t found their lost magic yet. She says we should give them time. Well I say we use that time to stop this threat in its tracks. Now—before it goes any further. Because allowing these Martians to have magic is a risk we can’t afford.”
Minette felt the weight of those words, settling down with the force of a hammer. So, it seemed, did the rest of the Council. Fear, it turned out, was a potent weapon of its own. And General Koorang was as skilled in persuasion as she was on the battlefield. When the motion was made to declare the prospect of Martian magic “a threat to global security and magical equilibrium,” not one voice rose in dissent.
The beat of drums guided Minette’s movements. About the room, the loa that had been invited into the Hounfour danced along. Others like Papa Loko only sat watching. The First Houngan had been convinced by his wife to accept the Rada rites of this new world. Now he kept strict governance to see they were properly followed. He was especially taken with the Martians.
With their bulbous heads, it was easy to at first mistake them for giant octopuses. But where an octopus was reduced to flimsy sacks of flesh out of water, Martian bodies were quite sturdy. Their skin was pale verging on a dull violet that extended the length of sixteen thick tentacles, the latter of which were remarkably malleable. At the moment, they intertwined like roots to form the semblance of a man beneath each head—with arms, legs and even a torso.
Two of the triumvirate moved gracefully to the song, swaying in hypnotic undulations. A third used myriad tentacles to beat a steady rhythm on a batterie of conical drums, matching the rattling shells of Minette’s asson. On the ground, Papa Damballah’s veve lay etched in white. He sat as a white serpent, coiled about his shrine and the feast prepared for him: an egg on a mound of flour, bordered by white candles, white flowers, and white rice. His red eyes watched the writhing limbs of the Martians and swayed with them. A current filled the room, and it felt as if they were no longer within this plane, but some other realm of existence where every star in the cosmos danced.
Then it was done, and she was back in the room at the Academy she’d transformed into her own Hounfour. She let herself fall, weakened after housing the loa. Martian arms caught her, strong but gentle, leading her to sit. They sat in turn about her, keeping their semi-human forms and regarding her with round, silver eyes that never blinked. A tentacle extended to wrap warm and sinuous about her wrist: an invitation to join the triumvirate. Still flush from the loa, she accepted.
“That was…nice,” came the harmonious voices in her head. They layered each other: the three that were One.
“Wi,” she answered back, also in her head. The Martians had mouths, sharp beaks like birds. But their speech was beyond human ears. This was much easier.
“Nou danse kont danse nou,” They remarked, switching between English and Kreyòl much as she did. “I am very fond of Papa Damballah.”
Minette didn’t find that surprising. Damballah was the Great Creator of all life, peace and harmony. He was also the protector of those who were different. It made sense that the Martians would be drawn to him, and he to Them.
“You are quiet,” the voices noted. “Sa ou genyen?”
“Mwen regret sa,” she apologized. “My mind is elsewhere.”
“On your meeting with the Council.”
Minette frowned at her lapse, building up her mental guards. In the triumvirate, your mind was an open book if you weren’t careful.
“Aziz was there,” They said, catching a stray thought. “Was it difficult seeing him again? Much time has passed since the two of you last coupled. But your feelings for him remain disordered. Perhaps the two of you should couple again?”
Minette flushed, absently pulling her dress more tightly about her. An open book indeed. “Non. I won’t be coup—intimate, with Aziz again. I explained before, nou te mal. We let things get out of hand.” He was married for one. And they’d collected too many gray hairs between them to be getting on like schoolchildren.
“I have made you uncomfortable,” They said contritely. “Mwen regret sa. I am not always aware.”
“It’s not your fault. I just….” She sighed. There was no easy way to say this. So instead she let down her guards. Her memories of the past morning flowed to the triumvirate at the speed of thought. The Council meeting. The debate. The final decision. They examined each recollection and in the silence that followed, Minette waited.
“Your Council is frightened,” the voices said finally.
“Wi,” she replied in frustration. “It’s disappointing they give in to their fears.”
“Their reasoning is not unsound.”
Minette’s alarm reflected back to her in six silver eyes. “How can you say that? It’s pre-emptive nonsense. They’re punishing you for something you might do—not what you’ve done. It’s wrong!”
There was a pause as three heads cocked as one, considering her statement. “I do not say I welcome their verdict. But the fear is understandable. My people have not been kind to your world. Even you were frightened of my kind once.”
Minette’s memories intruded without invitation. She had been a girl of thirteen during the Third Martian War. She remembered hiding in the shelters of Gonaïves with Grann Louise, who whispered assurances that Papa Toussaint and Papa Dessalines would not allow the island to be invaded again. She had grown up with all the fears about Martians, until attending university and becoming fascinated with courses on them. She’d jumped at the chance to study with the three housed here at the Academy, even if in faraway Marrakesh. It had taken her a while to see them as more than “specimens,” and even longer to see them as less than monsters. But it was difficult to convince others to understand Them as she did.
“You’ve read my thoughts,” she said. “You know what they plan to do.”
“Separation,” the voices whispered.
The word struck Minette as hard as the first time she’d heard it. General Koorang had called for euthanasia. But the Council balked. What they proposed, however, was little different, and perhaps crueler. Martians abhorred individualism. Separated, They would lose their single consciousness: effectively cease to be. Like cutting a human brain into three separate parts. It was a murder of the soul, if not the flesh.
Her guilt pulsed through the bond. “If I hadn’t introduced you to the loa none of this might have happened. Li se fòt mwen.”
“Non!” The sharpness of the voices startled her. “This isn’t your fault. You have given my time in captivity meaning. I would not undo this, even at the rescue of my life.” There was a pause. “I have something to show you. Es’ke ou ta vle promnen?”
Minette frowned at the question. Go for a walk? But she gave a tentative mental nod of acceptance. She barely had time to brace herself before their combined consciousness enveloped her whole. The world broke apart, shattered, then reduced to a pinpoint of light before expanding everywhere at once—taking her with it. When she found her bearings again, she stood on the edge of a calm moss green sea. Strange plants tall as trees rooted in the russet soil, with wide blue petals opened to a sky blanketed by clouds.
“Do you like it?” They asked. The three that were One stood about her, their human forms abandoned, and tentacles gliding freely just atop a field of mustard colored grass. The air here was thick, almost viscous, so that she could feel it hugging her skin. Above them, a flock of featherless creatures soared on broad flat wings that looked more like flippers.
“Se bèl!” she breathed. “What is this place?”
“Home,” They answered, with longing in their voices.
Minette gaped. Mars? But how? They had shown her their world in similar mental visions before, taken her to the sprawling subterranean mechanical cities, to the magma fields beneath the birthing catacombs and to the hanging megaliths that housed the technocratic Central Intellect. But the surface of that Mars was lifeless, scoured sterile by the relentless march of Martian industry.
“This is how it was before,” They explained, hearing her unspoken thoughts. “The memory lay within me, passed on by forebears millions of years dead, for no consciousness truly dies. The loa awakened it again. And awakened this.”
There was a wave of tentacles, and from them flowed a ripple through the air.
Minette gasped. They were symbols and patterns of a multihued cascade, with dimensions that defied description. She reached to touch one with a finger, and the sound of hundreds of chimes trembled the world. In a rush, it all vanished and she was back at the Academy.
“Was that…?” She couldn’t even finish.
“The magic of my people,” They replied.
“You’ve recovered it?”
“That is difficult to say,” They answered. “I have been trying. But it is not easy working with something from which I have been so long separated. It is alien to me and will take time to understand.”
Minette sighed wearily. But there was no time. Once the Council moved to separate the Three, the possibility of Martian magic would die before it even had a chance to begin. “Do what you can,” she told Them. “And if there’s a way I can help, you must let me know.” She was set to say more when a tremor shook her. She turned with the triumvirate to look to the door, sharing their preternatural senses.
“Someone has come to see you,” They said.
Minette withdrew from the One, returning to her singular consciousness and feeling suddenly very alone—her mind still ringing with what had just been uncovered. She was prepared to tell whoever it was to go away. Between housing the loa and joining the triumvirate, her body was weakened almost to the point of exhaustion. But it was rare they received visitors. Fear lanced through her. Was this the Council? Had they come for her Martians already? Gripped with trepidation, she forced herself up on wobbly legs and made her way from the room through the hallway. Reaching a door, she paused to lean against it for strength before pulling it open to reveal a stone courtyard where the Martians were allowed access once a day—and found an unexpected sight.
It was six-wheeled white carriage, pulled by a giant winged ocelot—the very same she had seen beneath the Flying Citadel. The door to the conveyance opened and the haughty beast turned to regard her with four sets of expectant sapphire eyes. Hesitant, Minette stepped forward and climbed inside. Naturally, the carriage was larger within than without, revealing a room lit by flickering tallow candles. At the far end of a long black lacquered dining table sat a familiar figure in a high backed red chair.
“Greetings, Mambo,” the mist-faced woman slurred. “Please, you will sit?”
Minette remained standing. Such offers had to be thought through.
“You may put away any fears, Mambo. True enough, your delectable magic is like sugar to me. It is why I have placed such distance between us—to avoid temptation.”
Minette weighed that. She could walk out now. But curiosity gnawed. What was a councilmember doing here? “I accept that and no more,” she said sitting.
“And no more,” the small woman agreed.
“Your visit is unexpected.”
“Of course. That is why it is a secret visit.” She placed a shushing finger to the place where her lips might have been. “I have come to save your Martians.”
Minette sat stunned. “But you voted with the others.”
The woman waved dismissively. “That cause was lost before it began Mambo. General Koorang will have her way. But perhaps you can have yours. My sisters would like to take in you and your Martians. We would offer them sanctuary, away from the prying eyes of the Nations League.”
For a moment, Minette only stared. Sanctuary? “Where?” she finally managed.
The woman wagged a scolding finger. “A secret, scrumptious scented Mambo, would be less so if I told you. But I am willing to provide passage to this place.”
A hundred hopes flared in Minette before she smothered them with doubt, remembering who (and what) this creature was. “Why? Why do you care about Them?”
“Why, for the magic,” the mist-faced woman admitted openly. “My sisters and I make no pretenses to our desires. We devour magic, savor its many essences. The possibility of Martian magic is most appealing! So exotic and untried. How we would like to taste it!”
Minette grimaced. There was always a price. “So you just want to eat them—drain them of magic.”
The woman sighed. “Our kind are too maligned in your fairytales, Mambo. Contrary to those stories, we are not like the boy with the goose and the eggs of gold. We would not deplete something so precious as to not see its like again. Think of this as an exchange. We offer sanctuary. In turn, we take only small bits at a time—as one would any delicacy.”
Minette’s stomach turned. Bon mache koute chè, she thought darkly. Like soucouyant she’d known back home, these vampiresses couldn’t be trusted. That was certain. But a secret place, where her Martians could be together, and They could explore their newfound magic. That couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Her mind worked anxiously. There had to be a way. She had negotiated agreements with loa and demigods. She could handle this.
“You will promise by heart, head, and soul that no lasting harm will come to either myself or the Martians in your care,” she stated. “We will hash out a binding compact with a fair exchange between us and your sisters, where any offer of their magic is willingly given. Any breach of our agreement and I will have each of your names.”
Those black eyes above the misty veil narrowed to slits, and Minette thought she heard a low hiss. A minor gale picked up, bending the flames on the candles. To demand the names of their kind was as good as asking them to offer up their cold barren souls. The mention alone was offensive. Minette held fast, however, a few choice charms at the ready in case she needed to make a hasty exit. But the gale fast subsided and the woman slurred pleasantly, if also a bit tight: “Heart, head and soul. Or our names be given.” Her eyes creased into a smile. And Minette had the distinct feeling that beneath that misty veil awaited a mouth of grinning fangs. “Now, crafty little Mambo, let us see to that agreement.”
It was two days later that Minette walked Marrakesh’s night market. The Souq was held beneath a full moon and spread out between alleyways and courtyards covered by colorful tents. Hawkers competed for customers, crying out their wares. Behind her followed three figures, two men and one woman. Some might have noted their odd gait: a glide just above the stone streets more than a walk. But in a city brimming with magic this was hardly worth a second glance. Not that a third or fourth glance would be able to penetrate the glamour now enveloping the three Martians.
They seemed to relish their freedom, casting human eyes in every direction. At the moment, they were taken by a guild of harpy artists whose talons inked henna that bled and slithered across the skin. Under other circumstance Minette might have been sympathetic to their gawping. But as it was, she simply wanted them to move faster.
The mist-faced woman had offered passage and sanctuary, but escaping the university was left to her. There was a dirigible waiting at the dockyards waiting to ferry them off. Minette just had to get them there. So far, that had been a success. Concocting a medsin that left the guards who watched over the Martians standing in an awake-sleeping state was simple. Now they only needed to reach their destination before the ruse was discovered.
As the four stepped from beneath a canopy, the dockyards became visible. And Minette dared to believe they just might make it. Until someone called her name.
She went still as stone, heart pounding at the familiar voice. Turning, she found herself looking at Aziz. He was striding towards her hurriedly, four Academy guards at his heels. Beside him was another recognizable figure. She cursed. General Koorang.
Panic blossomed in Minette. She thought to shout for her charges to run. She would somehow allow their escape. But as she saw the rifles in the hands of the guards, she faltered. The second the Martians ran they would be cut down. Uncertain of her next move, she resolved to stand her ground as the group reached them.
“Didn’t I tell you?” General Koorang declared boldly. “Didn’t I say she’d try something like this? Your professor’s spent too much time in her Martian’s heads. Can’t find her way out again. Good thing we had them watched.”
Minette glared at Aziz. “You had me watched?”
“And for good reason it seems,” he retorted. “Do you know how much trouble you’re in?” He ran a hand over his mouth, the way he did when thinking hard, then leaned in close. “We can still fix this. We can say the Martians coerced you, did something to your head. Just get them to return. I’ll talk to the general. Maybe your post can be salvaged—”
“I wasn’t coerced,” she said tightly. The nerve of him to think she was simply the dupe of someone else’s machinations. He damn well knew her better than that. “I planned this, Aziz.” The disappointment on his face only made her want to punch it.
“Enough for me,” the general rumbled. She looked over the Martians still cloaked in their glamour. “Arrest her. Then take these creatures back to their cages. If they give trouble, use whatever force is necessary.”
The four guards advanced. Minette glanced back to the dirigible meant for them, wanting to scream in exasperation at the nearness of freedom. So close! So infuriatingly close! Something slender and warm curled about her hand. She turned to one of the Martians, the unspoken request writ plain on that human mask. She consented, joining the triumvirate. The sound of drums flowed through their bond, the rattle of an asson, falling white petals, and the call to the loa of the batterie.
“Open the Door for me,” the voices came.
“There’s no time for this!” Minette said.
“Open the Door,” the voices asked again.
She shook her head. “Now? I don’t understand!”
“You asked how you could help. I think I know. The magic. I have been trying to make it work as a Martian. But I’m not a Martian anymore, am I? My magic was born of two worlds. It is that two-ness, I must embrace. Open the Door. Be our Mambo. And I will show you.”
Minette looked into those unblinking human eyes, that seemed to plead, and did as they asked. Her spirit moved in time to the music. And though she had no tobacco or fine things to give the doorman, she sang:
Papa Legba ouvre baye pou mwen, Ago eh!
Papa Legba Ouvre baye pou mwen,
Ouvre baye pou mwen, Papa
Pou mwen passe, Le’m tounnen map remesi Lwa yo!
Papa Legba came as called. There was a look in his eyes beneath that wide-brimmed hat that Minette had never seen before. He thumbed his pipe and instead of going his usual way, settled down to watch. In the bond, a mix of Kreyòl and Martian tongues sent a current flowing through Minette. One that she’d only recently felt before. Martian magic, both alien and exhilarating. It blended with the song, played along with the batterie and asson, merging her voice and spirit with the three Martians until all became One.
On the ground a symbol appeared all around them, drawn in ghostly white. Damballah’s veve: serpents winding along a pole. The flows of Martian magic superimposed themselves upon it, creating multiple dimensions that folded and bent one on the other, calling on the loa who was their protector.
Papa Damballah appeared. But not like Minette had ever seen.
This Damballah was a being made up of tentacles of light, intertwined to form the body of a great white serpent. And she suddenly understood what she was seeing. The loa met the needs of their children. Papa Damballah had left Africa’s shores and changed in the bowels of slave ships. He changed under the harsh toil of sugar and coffee plantations. And when his children wielded machetes and fire to win freedom, he changed then too. Now to protect his newest children, born of two worlds, he changed once again.
Minette opened up to the loa and Martian magic coursed through her, erupting from her fingertips. The guards, General Koorang and Aziz drew back, as the great tentacles of Papa Damballah grew up from her, rising above the market tents as a towering white serpent: a leviathan that burned bright against the night. For a moment brief as a heartbeat—or as long as the burning heart of a star—it seemed to Minette she saw through the loa’s eyes. The cosmos danced about her. It trembled and heaved and moved.
And then Damballah was gone.
Minette staggered, so weakened she almost fell.
Once again Martian hands caught her, lifted her, supporting their Mambo. She caught a glimpse of Legba and her thoughts reached out to him. Had she seen another face of Papa Damballah? Or was this the birth of a loa? Something old, yet new and different? But the Keeper of Roads didn’t answer. He only smiled—as if to a child asking at the color of the sky. With a flick to the brim of his hat, he vanished.
Minette returned fully to the world to find Aziz staring. His face was rapt, gazing over both her and the Martians—and every now and again glancing skyward. He had seen Damballah. She looked about. All through the Souq, tongues had quieted as eyes watched both she and the Martians—gaping at the phantom glow in the night sky left in the loa’s wake. They had all seen.
“Nice show you’ve put on,” General Koorang growled. “Doesn’t change anything.” Her voice was brusque as usual. But something of it was less sure than before. Oh, she’d seen too. But this woman was too tough—too stubborn—to be quelled by even a passing god.
“Actually, this does change things.” Minette turned in surprise to see it was Aziz. His voice tremored but he turned to address the general. “The Martians have shown that they can create their own magic. You saw it. Felt it. Everyone did.” He gestured to the gathered crowd. “That at the least allows them protection under the Nations League Charter.”
General Koorang’s jaw went tight. To his credit, Aziz didn’t back down—though Minette was certain the woman could go through him if need be. The guards at her side looked on nervous and uncertain. Finally, something about the woman eased: an owl deciding perhaps there were too many mice to snare at once. She spared a withering glare for Aziz before eyeing Minette. “Do what you want with your Martians professor, for now. Just you remember though, laws can be changed.” Then turning on her heels she stalked off, shouldering her way through the crowd.
“She’s right,” Aziz said, releasing a relieved breath. “Things could be different by morning. The world will be different by morning.” He nodded towards the waiting dirigible. “Wherever you were going, you should get there. At least until we can sort all this out.” There was a pause. “I should have backed you.”
“Yes,” she told him “You should have.” And then, “Thank you.” She thought she even meant it.
Not waiting for things to get awkward, she allowed herself to be helped by the Martians to the dirigible. Once inside, she slumped into a seat just as the craft lurched off the ground and watched their slow ascent into Marrakesh’s night and down to where Aziz still stood. He grew smaller as the pulled away, melding into the city. Turning, she looked to the Martians that sat nearby. No longer wrapped in the glamour They regarded their mambo with silver eyes. Expectant eyes. There was more to show her.
When a tentacle extended in invitation, she gladly, eagerly, accepted.
And the Four became One.
(Editors’ Note: “If the Martians Have Magic” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42B.)
© 2021 P. Djèlí Clark