The café was lit by a warm and sacred sun, the heat seeping into Marc’s skin as the coffee seeped into his heart and bones. He sat across from a man with a golden goatee, dark eyes, and a needle-sharp smile. The occasional glances of the wait staff and the patrons around them always slipped right around his odd company, seeing him, so rarely perceiving him, instead letting their gazes wrap around the scar-like smile lines and glowering confidence of the most treacherous priest in all the world.
“You and I aren’t all that different, you know,” came the serpentine words of his companion. He struggled to keep his espresso steady, through a tremmoring hand. As slowly as he could, he set the ceramic ounce glass down on its plate, struggling to steady it with his other arm. “Strange as it may be for me to say this.”
Over the overture of finely ground coffee and cinnamon and biscotti was the smell of stagnant rain puddles on scorching hot asphalt, the faintest hint of exhaust, and a tinge of hot rubber. A thousand sneakered people must have passed on the sidewalk that morning, the lifeblood of urbania, each destined to a different faceless concrete tower. Deferred raindrops slid slowly down the canopy overhead, dripping to the ground below
“I’m sure we have plenty of differences,” said Marc.
“But not enough,” said the man, before he could continue. “You are a turncoat. You’re a back-stabber, in the eyes of many of the gods. You will help them one moment, and scold them the next. You will risk your life to bring them closer to their goal, then cripple them before they get there. You would do the same to me, were the moment to arrive.”
“No,” said Marc. “Any shaman would. The only difference is that I have the knowledge to go through with it, and the dignity to be open about it. Also, the talent to receive such opportunities. But I’ll give you this, I do have intentions of my own. I have goals of my own, representations, things I hold to be sacred. I don’t keep them secret, either.” He stared down into the inky blackness of his coffee cup, pondering how to continue.
“If only anyone ever listened,” said the man. “But then if they listened, you might not have such a reputation. These ‘opportunities’ would never come about. These crimes, well, they would never be committed. They would never need to be committed.”
Marc smiled, and nodded to the man, taking another sip. “Perhaps I’ve underestimated you, just a little. Maybe, at least socially, we do have a thing or two in common. But knowing that, I wonder how much I would trust you with. How much I would tell you about myself, I mean.”
“We are outcasts, you and I. The only difference is your mortal blood. Your,” he said, pausing, tasting his words before speaking them. “Forgetability.”
“Oh, I imagine I’ll be thought of long after I’m dead,” said Marc. “Just, you know, by other names.”
“Death. Reminds me. You know I’ve been responsible for that more than once now.”
“Yeah, you’ve actually done that a lot,” said Marc.
“Most famously Baldr.” The man smiled again, toothily, the kind of facade of happiness one wears when inside, he is being torn apart by wolves and lions; the smile of despondence. “Of course I didn’t kill him directly. Höðr did that, kind, jovial, and drunk as he was. Also blind.”
“I’m sure that helped.” Marc gave him a look somewhere between cynicism and aloofness.
“But contrary to popular, and rather arrogant, belief, I never imagined that I would get away with it. Not once. One does not orchestrate the assassination of a loved god, and then just live it down. I gave them a run, but I was caught, and tortured for a very, very, long time.”
“So the stories go.”
“Also in opposition to popular belief, I didn’t do it for myself. I did it to maintain a sacred balance in the universe, a balance that these other half-wits were aching for the chance to defy and destroy. They tried to make Baldr immortal. Truly immortal. Without opposition. And believe me, before you accuse me of overreacting, that immortality and immutability would become a punishment for him that was much greater than anything I dealt out.
“See, that’s what we have in common,” said the old god. “We’re both turncoats and back-stabbers. We are both opportunists, even war profiteers. We are rust, and ash, and all of the wearing things. We are the stress that makes metals break, and the water that bleeds the words from the page. We are the slip of the tongue and the birth of the rumor.
“That’s the only thing we need to have in common. And do you know why this is? It’s because we know how the world works, we have a rough idea where it came from and where it has to go. You hurt them out of love, not hate; and then you just let it go.”
Marc choked back a laugh. “You aren’t trying to recruit me, are you? Because for a moment there, that’s what it sounded like. It sounded like you were trying to get me to swear allegiance to you.”
The old god smiled back, the one reflexive expression he seemed to have left. His fingers trembled again, his breath quick and heavy; he struggled to still it. He was mildly offended, but let it go. “No, you fool. Those that take oaths are never true followers, they are bound by a few words, maybe a burn or a little blood if they want to look tough, nothing more. You follow your own path, that’s what makes you so beautifully dangerous, and frankly, it’s a path I can get along with. But in the end, after you cross them,”
“—if I cross them,” Marc interjected.
“After you cross them, they will catch you. And maybe they won’t be able to take your life, or your memory, or your legend, or whatever; but they can be surprisingly petty. And they will find what means the most to you and take that. For such petty people, they can be very patient and persistent in doing it.” The god lifted his espresso once more, with a visibly trembling hand, and watched the disturbed rippling of the syrupy liquid within it. “They took more from me than I ever thought that they could.”
Marc observed the symptoms of his anxiety, and made an effort to pay his words at least a little attention. “So that’s the point of this meeting, then? I’ll try and remember it.”
“Do that. But no. Sometimes I just want a little company. I was locked up for a very long time.”
“Well, Loki, feel free to call me up. When you’re feeling sociable.”
“If I’m feeling sociable,” said Loki. His lips twitched, the kind of honest smile that one tries so desperately to hide. He waved his hand to one of the wait staff, slipping like liquid back into the world of the perceived for just a moment, then dropped it back to the table. “Check please?”