Xuanzang lead them up an impossible bridge to one of the sections of the Heavenly Palace. There were people up here – other gods, Cassandra guessed, and probably some other beings that didn’t fit into the normal categories of God, Monster, or Human. She’d known from Bast that demons and angels did exist, and Nabu was a Curator – a concept she still didn’t fully understand – so these people were probably in a group like that. I’ll just think of them as Spirits until I get a better word. They couldn’t all be gods, that Cassandra was sure of – there were far too many of them. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
It was a city contained in a palace, and Cassandra felt like she was an intruder among this sea of serene faces. Cassandra took a step closer to Dianmu, waiting for someone to see her, recognize what she was, and cause an uproar. How could they not know what she was? She could hear all their hearts, couldn’t they hear how her own was pounding. Try to relax she told herself. You’re being absurd. Dianmu wouldn’t bring you here to let you get torn apart, and if something happens, you’re not helpless…and Dianmu will protect you.
Something in that thought rang a bit hollow, and Cassandra had to turn the thought over to contemplate it further. In truth, Cassandra was realizing she knew very little about the goddess she’d followed to this beautiful land of floating palaces and impossible bridges. Bast hadn’t mentioned Dianmu, and all Cassandra had really seen Dianmu do is annihilate a host of Cardiophages with sunlight.
Cassandra’s heart started to beat even harder. Ryan had promised her protection, but what if this was Dianmu’s way of getting rid of the Anthropophage? Bring her to the Heavenly Palace, out her to the other gods up here, let them tear her apart, and then go back sad to Ryan and say “So sorry, I did everything I could, but I was outnumbered?”
Stop it, Cassandra told herself. It wasn’t impossible, but if Dianmu wanted to do kill Cassandra, there were about a dozen better ways to do it – including having told Ryan he had to choose between helping Cassandra and Dianmu’s support, and then cutting her down when Ryan chose Dianmu. Why wouldn’t he? With the entire world at stake, every bit of aid mattered. The fact that they were going to work with Horus again, knowing what he was and what he had done, made that abundantly clear. There was no reason to believe Dianmu was that vicious or petty.
And yet, Cassandra worried. It must have shown on her face, because Dianmu gave her a curious look, and slowed down slightly to let Cassandra catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I just…feel exposed,” Cassandra said, after a momentary hesitation.
Dianmu’s forehead furrowed. “Because of your condition?”
Your condition. Such a delicate way of putting it. You have an insatiable hunger for hearts. It’s a condition. “Yes.”
“I understand. I think it’s good that we encountered Xuanzang first. He’s a very understanding sort. He spent centuries standing up for…him, after all.”
Dianmu nodded. “He’s impulsive, reckless, and an absolute pain to deal with for any extended period of time. He aided Xuanzang on the Journey as a penance for everything he had done in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xuanzang made no friends defending him, yet he did anyway. He has this absurd belief that with patience and understanding, even the most monstrous being can be reformed.”
Cassandra’s heart sped up further. “Absurd belief?”
“Yes. Absolutely absurd that he holds onto it, in the fact of so many people insisting he is wrong. And yet he’s been proven right, time and time again. It’s almost like the belief is absurd not because of what he believes, but because those that refuse to believe it create self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves. Treat someone like a monster and watch them act like a monster. Treat them with respect, and they often live up to earning that expectation.” Dianmu gave Cassandra a level gaze. “I’ve never heard of an Anthropophage reforming. Yet I’ve also never heard of one trying. I’d have faith in any who attempted.” Her eyes slipped over to Xuanzang and back to Cassandra, and Dianmu winked. “If such a being existed, I’d like to meet them.”
“It would be…interesting,” Cassandra said, knowing how weak her voice sounded. Can she read my mind? Or perhaps thousands of years of knowing people had given Dianmu some insight into how people thought. Given that Dianmu didn’t respond to Cassandra’s mental inquiry, it seemed like that was the more likely option. But one data point was hardly conclusive.
Cassandra gave Dianmu a smile, and very determinedly imaged the poised goddess shoving a finger up her own nose and rooting around. It was difficult to get the mental image to form, but once it did, she watched Dianmu’s eyes carefully. There was no reaction. If she’d seen what Cassandra had thought, she was impossibly good at hiding her reactions.
“Thank you,” Cassandra said, realizing she’d been staring blankly at Dianmu for the last dozen steps.
Dianmu cleared her throat and gave a nearby being a sideling glance before turning her gaze back to Cassandra. “For what? Idle speculation?”
Cassandra bit her cheek and nodded. “It’s an interesting intellectual exercise,” she said, a bit too loudly. Xuanzang didn’t turn around, but his head tilted to the side.
“Mind if I intrude into the discussion?” he asked.
Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.
“Perhaps later,” Dianmu said smoothly. “Girl talk.” She winked at Cassandra.
“I see.” Xuanzang did look at them now, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Well, in that case, I suggest you table the discussion for now. We’re here.”
“Here,” apparently, was home that was comparatively humble to the splendor around them. Comparatively was a relative term – it was still a mansion in the Tang dynasty style, six smaller buildings that wrapped around an open courtyard with a four pointed pavilion in the center. But unlike the other buildings they’d seen so far, the walls were simple wood and relatively unadorned, the roofs green tiles and nothing fancier, and the jīnzhuān bricks were replaced with simple clay ones. It was still gorgeous, but it had a humble beauty.
Perfect, in fact, for the man that was leading them now.
Xuanzang led them to one of the buildings. There was a place where they could take off their shoes before entering, and inside were simple fabric slippers to cover their feet. Cassandra did so and sat on the floor next to Dianmu when Xuanzang motioned for them to do so.
“The Jade Emperor has concerns,” Xuanzang said, the human fading from his eyes, “about your recent activities, Dianmu. You are developing a reputation as being somewhat of a rogue, and there are…concerns.”
Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”
Cassandra settled in to listen.