The Snake and the Mirror

 

Memory of Butterflies

October 9th, 2024

 

Mariposa Huerta slid off of her bike as she reached her destination. She resettled the broad hat on her hair and got her clothes unwrinkled from where the warm wind had whipped at them. She wanted to look halfway decent, but in truth she was stalling for time. She had ridden about an hour outside the city center to come to her destination, the large gate of an old and opulent estate that was locked tight, not just with steel locks and bars, but with a more arcane kind of protection.

The name on the side of the gate was engraved “ALDOBRANDINI”.

Mariposa had been told to wait outside the gate and someone would come to fetch her. So she stood there feeling slightly foolish as she looked through the gates towards the distant manor on the hilltop. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she saw the shape of someone coming down the hill. She was …nervous she settled on the word, though simply nervous didn’t seem to cover the level of fear and anxiety that sill squirmed like slugs in her belly. She hadn’t wanted to come here, she wanted to be anywhere else, but she needed to be here. Mariposa needed to put her fears to rest.

The young woman who came to greet her was about her age, with tied back blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

“Morning,” she smiled “You must be Mariposa, Cat told me about you…er, Miss Aldobrandini told me.”

“That’s right,” Mariposa nodded nervously. “I’m here to…” She found herself having trouble even choking up the words.

“Don’t worry, I know,” The woman smiled. “My name’s Alicia, part-time caretaker.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mariposa, and she stepped inside as Alicia swung the gates open for her, stepping out of the way as Alicia moved to lock them again. Together, the pair of them began making their way back up the hill.

“Sorry if the place is still in a bit of a state,” Alicia said. “Definitely not a job one woman can do part-time by herself.”

“I-it’s fine,” Mariposa said. “It’s a very nice place.”

“We try to keep it that way,” Alicia said. “The garden is a mess though, and we’ve had to board up a lot of old wings to focus on getting the necessaries up and running.”

“Right…” Mariposa trailed off. She appreciated what Alicia was doing, trying to distract her from why she was here. But nothing she said would calm her nerves.

“So…” Mariposa began, speaking slowly as if choosing her words with utmost care. “What is she…like?”

“She’s a bit of an enigma, and I think she likes it that way,” Alicia said, instantly picking up on who Mariposa meant. “She can be a bit patronizing, sometimes to the point of being an ass, but I don’t think she’s outright…malevolent. Cat doesn’t seem to think so at least.”

“So she’s not…cruel?”

Alicia shook her head. “I wouldn’t say so. I think she’s…seen a lot. From what I’ve picked up, the things she’s been through it’s…hardened her. It’s like she’s made of stone now. But she’s still human…heck, I think she even still has a sense of humor, if a bit of a black one.”

“That’s something,” Mariposa said, and she felt Alicia put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’ll be fine,” she said. “I think if she’d be open and honest with anyone, it’d be you.”

“Well…I guess we’ll have to see,” Mariposa said. “Where is she?”

“She wanted to meet you in the sitting room,” Alicia said, opening the front door and guiding her into the manor. “Can I get you two anything? Tea? Coffee?”

“No,” Mariposa shook her head. “I’ll come find you when…when we’re done.”

“Sure thing,” Alicia said. “I’ll be nearby so don’t hesitate to call.”

Mariposa nodded, and Alicia left her by the entry into the sitting room. Taking one last deep breath, Mariposa steeled herself and stepped inside.

The main sitting room of the Aldobrandini manor was built around a massive stone mantle carved into the fashion of Greek pillars. The walls were covered in portraits of past generations, both realist and abstract. Large statues stood in the corners of the room, cast in darkness in the limited light. The thick curtains of the large windows had been mostly drawn, allowing only a thin channel of white light to shine in from the morning sun outside casting most of the room into a serene sort of half-light.

Sitting in a high-backed leather chair was the woman, Gisela Silva. She was finely dressed in a clean white buttoned shirt that was loosely undone at the top. Beneath that was a slimming skirt of deep violet worn over black stockings and similarly shining black shoes. Her dark hair hung loosely over her shoulders and reached mostly down her back. Her eyes remained focused on Mariposa as she entered, a distinct and shimmering violet color.

“Good morning,” Gisela inclined her head politely before gesturing to a chair across from her, which Mariposa took nervously. “I’m Gisela Silva.”

“Mariposa Huerta,” she inclined her head in turn. “Thank you for meeting me.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded, her face was inscrutable, her tone utterly flat. “I believe I know why you’re here; you were the vessel for the will of Itzpapalotl during the Battle of the Black Sun.”

“And before,” Mariposa said. “I was like a…sound piece for her.”

“So then it’s only natural,” Gisela said. “That you come to me to ensure that it won’t happen again.”

“More than that,” Mariposa said. “I still have…nightmares. She’s still in my dreams.”

“Hmm,” Gisela looked her over carefully.

“I need to know where she is,” Mariposa spoke more quickly. “I need to make sure that wherever she is and whatever she’s doing…I’m not involved anymore.”

“You’re no reason to fear,” Gisela said calmly. “The Butterfly Shroud is broken and with it her power in Rome.”

“But she wasn’t just a goddess to me. She was in my head, controlling me…”

Mariposa shivered. She could still remember the fear, the frequent night terrors, the long gaps in her memory. The times when a foreign goddess had used her body like a puppet, commanding her without her even being aware. At times it had been like going mad.

“She was not possessing you like some sort of demon,” Gisela said. “You were not even her champion. You were…enchanted by her, ensorcelled by some dark blood magic.”

“But I still need to know,” Mariposa pressed. “Now and forever, is she out of my head?”

Gisela stared into her eyes, and for a moment Mariposa swore she saw a glow behind them, a shining in the vivid violet of Gisela’s eyes.

“Whatever spell she put you under, whatever power she had over you is gone,” Gisela said. “She can no longer command you to act or enter your dreams and visions. You are no longer her mouthpiece.”

Mariposa felt some bit of relief wash over her, but it wasn’t as much as she had hoped. In the back of her mind, in the corners of her anxieties, she knew she would always fear that Gisela was wrong.

“And the nightmares?” Mariposa asked.

“The natural result of going through such trauma,” Gisela said. “Becoming the tool of a goddess, particularly one as cruel as she can be, is going to leave scars on your mind and soul.”

“I sort of figured that…” Mariposa said, eyes moving downwards.

“As for the goddess herself,” Gisela continued, causing Mariposa to glance back up. “Her power is broken, so all of her influence in this country is now tied to me. I am her sole able representative. She lacks the power to take hold of you again, and it would be much more difficult to do a second time even if she could.”

“Do you see her?” Mariposa asked. “Is she…around?”

“Rarely,” Gisela said. “She prefers not to be seen more often than not. But there are…reminders, signals of her passing, making sure I remember who it is that holds my contract.”

“Why are you her champion?” Mariposa asked. “A goddess like Itzpapalotl is…”

“That is a long story,” Gisela said. “One I have neither the time nor inclination to tell you. Rest assured it was an act made in desperation, one made to save my own life. I sold my soul to the Obsidian Butterfly and became her herald as a result.”

“Miss Aldobrandini said you were helping her,” Mariposa said.

“Itzpapalotl plays a very long and strange game,” Gisela said. “Whether training Catarina to defeat Primordials is in her interest or not I cannot say. This could be my quiet rebellion or it could be playing directly into her hands.”

“Then why do you do it, if you can’t be sure?” Mariposa asked.

“Because there is always more to things than there appears,” Gisela said. “The gods wear many masks, many of them innocent and many of them cruel. The balance between order and chaos can alter the face that they wear. What I can hope…All I can hope, is that what I choose to do is right, and in this case I believe it is. The right choice for me, for Catarina, for Rome, and for the world.”

“I see…” Mariposa nodded. She looked at Gisela, regarding her for a moment.

The woman could be intimidating to look at to be sure. She had an expression of utter determination on her face that seemed to override everything else. But Mariposa could have sworn she saw more behind it.

When Itzpapalotl had been using her, stealing her body for hours at a time or compelling her to sing the song of calling for her monstrous star-children, it had been a like a living nightmare for her. The goddess’ presence tainted everything it touched, the traces of the Obsidian Butterfly always visible in the corner of her eye and audible in a range just outside her hearing. It was like being spied on and hunted at all times by a monstrous force you could never hope to confront.

Mariposa had lived with that feeling for nearly three months, ever since her night terrors had begun and up until the Battle of the Black Sun. But looking at Gisela now, she realized the young woman had been living with the goddess’ presence for years. Every step across continents had been haunted by Itzpapalotl, her rattling sword-breath and the great flapping of heavy black butterfly wings hounding her every move. Gisela had known precisely what had stalked her, and could do nothing about it.

“Thank you,” Mariposa said. “You’ve been very…reassuring.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Gisela said, and she did seem to be sincere about it at least, though her expression hardly changed.

Mariposa rose to her feet, before walking to Gisela and offering a hand. Gisela rose as well and politely shook it, and Mariposa quelled a shiver at the coolness of her touch. She really did seem almost made of stone.

“I hope this will help you recover,” Gisela said. “I will not attempt to justify my patron’s callousness. It was cruel what was done to you.”

“Thank you,” Mariposa nodded, but even as she did she couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else hoped for a similar recovery for Gisela, or at least freedom from Itzpapalotl’s presence. Could a deal with a god be broken? Could the god themselves be changed?

Mariposa was a radio singer, it’s who she is and what she was good at. She planned to return to work soon and sing with her own voice, not with Itzpapalotl’s. It was not her place to question if Gisela could change her patron’s nature, or at the very least be freed from her constant presence.

As she left the sitting room, Alicia coming to meet her and guide her out, all she could hope for was that Gisela could find similar relief and reassurance. Or at least hope that she could find a bit of peace to hold onto.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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