High Priests of America
⚞ ♗ ⚟
Venice. Ten years later.
Blaze still could not believe that he had agreed to come here under the false pretense of a pilgrimage.
Everywhere he looked, he saw the visions of Hell.
Disheveled revelers in ludicrous costumes and near identical masks caroused in the streets. Men wearing dresses and cat masks meowed at passersby while actual kittens squeaked in their baskets, costumed degenerates made idiots of themselves regardless of whether they were actually dressed like jesters or not. Courtesans hung their bare breasts out of windows to advertise their services. And from what Blaze had heard the church actually allowed the latter to help the more traditional female prostitutes with the rise of the cross-dressing cat-basket-wielding male prostitutes who were now stealing their business.
Trying to stay uninvolved in all this chaos, the archpriest found a shadowy corner of the square they were supposed to meet in and endured there. He resolved to never come to this infernal place again. But at least for now, with his simple clothes and commonplace bauta mask, he was managing to avoid interaction with the rowdy crowd. None of them gave any attention to him or the single light violet feather in his tricorn.
At least not until some woman in an expensive dress and a beautiful gilded mask appeared next to him seemingly out of nowhere and touched his forearm with her gloved hands.
Blaze recoiled. For all the anonymity, people here really had no concept of privacy.
“S-sh, it’s me.” A familiar voice sounded muffled coming from behind the full-face mask. Shaazgai’s blue eyes were laughing beyond the ornately carved eye holes.
Blaze relaxed and scrutinized Shaazgai for a moment instead. “Are you a woman now? You failed to mention that in the last letter.”
“In costume only.” Shaazgai chuckled. “Why go to a masquerade if one does not take advantage of it? Now, lead the lady to a revel. It’s down that street and the third alley to the left.” Shaazgai nodded to indicate the direction.
Blaze took her arm and led the way, but grumbled while at it. “I hate this place already. A den of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah is what it is.”
“Ooh how biblical of you, you’re getting the hang of Christianity already. Talk to me dirty, archpriest of Christ,” Shaazgai purred.
Blaze rolled his eyes, and pulled Shaazgai a little closer. “As you wish, my Whore of Babylon. I will let you show me this god-forsaken city, and by your side I will endure it. I hope you have brought my package.”
Shaazgai snickered behind the mask, clearly having a great time. He pressed closer to Blaze. “Yes, I brought your things. At this point I am dying to know what they are. Some mementos from Mesoamerica I would guess?”
The priest glanced at him surprised. “Really, you have not looked?”
“What am I? Pandora? Lot’s wife? Women can’t help sticking their noses into everything, as a man I have no such weaknesses. Or do you want me to play the role better?”
“Well, it is up to you, really,” Blaze said with amusement, turning his head to glance at the blue eyes beyond the gilded mask. “Later tonight you will find yourself facing the last opportunity to look through those mysterious contents. The choice will be yours.”
Shaazgai’s eyes narrowed. He said nothing, and as they approached the turn into the alley, he pulled Blaze gently down the right path towards a palace where a slightly less crude revel was underway.
They spent the evening there together, talking, dancing and just enjoying each other’s company. Blaze also tried some of the wines and the exquisite tapas, but only a little, out of respect for Shaazgai, who due to the shape of his mask could not eat or drink anything.
When the night was done, Shaazgai led him to a private gondola that took them to the palace where the man was staying alone. As the two of them sat next to each other in the gondola, Shaazgai began planning their next visit to Venice, perhaps in another ten years. Blaze said fifteen. Shaazgai laughed, it was much better than ‘never again’.
They arrived together in a smallish, but richly decorated private residence that Shaazgai had rented from one of the city’s wealthy merchants. There Shaazgai finally removed his mask, and Blaze had to admit, even without it his partner could have passed for a proper lady, if perhaps a bit of a stern-faced one. His beauty never had the cherub quality that was prized in women, and he liked it that way. Blaze liked it too. It was good to see him again. He truly hadn’t aged a day since they last met and as always was content to hear about it. Shaazgai himself appraised Blaze’s new face rather positively as well.
As a first order of business they sat down to dinner that had been prepared and set by servants that were nowhere to be seen. Shaazgai’s elegant dining manners showed not a hint of the hunger he had to be feeling after going without food or drink for a whole day. As always he ate with polite deliberation.
When they were done with the food, Shaazgai led the way to his large lavishly furnished bedroom, where Blaze’s possessions were stored in a locked chest. Shaazgai retrieved them and carefully laid the neatly wrapped package on top of the chest.
“Well, sate this lady’s curiosity, why don’t you?” he cooed humorously.
“Oh, I don’t know anymore. Perhaps I have changed my mind.” Blaze picked up the package and sat with it on the bed. “But maybe if the lady asks me real nicely.”
Shaazgai gathered his skirts and knelt in front of Blaze. Seeing as Blaze did not remove the package from his lap, Shaazgai waved a hand impatiently, “Must the lady ask you to let the lady ask nicely too, you tyrant?”
“You and this depraved city are really worth each other.” Blaze touched a hand to Shaazgai’s cheek and leaned forward, until their faces were close. “A kiss is what I had in mind,” the priest said, and brought their lips together.
Shaazgai let Blaze kiss him and languidly reciprocated, until the man withdrew. Then he smacked his lips and leaned his elbows on Blaze’s knees, resting his head on his hands. He looked up at Blaze, his blue eyes glinting curiously. “Alright, now show me the stuff, you tease.”
“Get up here, and I will.” The priest patted the space next to him and when Shaazgai joined him on the bed, he unwrapped the burlap around the mystery. A layer of much finer fabric was revealed underneath.
“Ah, the gifts of Cortés. A fine treasure!”
“It is merely a cover for what is important,” Blaze said enigmatically.
Shaazgai browsed further until feathers and herbs came to sight between the layers of fabric. He gave Blaze a quizzical look, but said nothing. He carefully put the fabric and its contents aside, revealing another, thinner stack of fine cloth.
“Here. Beyond this layer lie the treasures. You can do the honours.” Blaze indicated the last layer of fabric to him.
Shaazgai lifted the fabric, biting his lip in anticipation. His expression turned to dismay. “Ack, but these are my old drawings! Did you haul this rubbish all the way here from America?! They’re not even very good!” Shaazgai pouted and lifted a small note that rested on top of the drawings. “‘Keep them safe.’ Truly? Is this some kind of joke?” He looked at Blaze incredulously.
“It is not a joke.” Stern gray eyes with specks of lilac met blue as Blaze looked at him. “They are very dear to me. Back there, in Mexico, I knew I was meant to meet you, because I had divined it, in a vague way, years before. That divination was why I stayed in Cholula. But it was these drawings, and those long conversations in the sunlit garden that we had over them that made me decide I would follow you to this new old world. So yes, they mean a lot to me. And so do you. And I… I apologize for moving away from Toledo,” the priest said somberly and shook his head. “I understood well from your letters that you were displeased by my decision and I am sorry for making you feel that way. But it really was not the place for me.”
Shaazgai stared at him. His face was a beautiful mask, and whatever was happening behind it was safely hidden away in his mind. Blaze managed to read a hint of surprise and feeling, then Shaazgai looked away, focusing on the floor under his feet. “Are you truly happy in Milan? Why not Rome? We could probably make you Pope.”
Blaze sighed. “Rome is just a different shade of too much than Toledo was. And while I do not doubt that we could, I have no such aspirations. I was supposed to stay in the shadows. Milan is perhaps not optimal for that either, but it has been working out for me so far.”
Fireworks cracked outside, and Shaazgai got up and slowly walked over to the window. He lifted the curtain to watch them. His face, that briefly reflected in the dark glass as light exploded above the Venetian lagoon, was expressionless. “I am bored in Spain without you. There are not many worthy interlocutors or lovers. You have spoiled me. And now you have to pay the price.” Shaazgai let the curtain drop and turned to look at Blaze with a slight smirk. “We will meet here in another ten years. Not fifteen.”
“That is fine with me.” The priest nodded. “You can visit me in Milan as well, you know. Why didn’t you? You are always welcome there.”
Shaazgai looked openly baffled for a moment, then he regained his composure. “I was busy. I don’t know if I will be able to visit you in Milan. My line of work is unpredictable like that.” He looked away again, frowning, then touched a hand to his waist. “Ugh, this thing has choked me long enough, come help me out of this velvet prison.” He waved the priest over.
Blaze smiled, set the drawings safely aside, and got up to free him as instructed.
* * *
Less than two years from their first visit to Venice, Blaze was attacked in Milan. He managed to strike Tecocol down this time, and promptly sent a message to Shaazgai, who miraculously found the time to come to Milan soon after and demonstrated a significant degree of amicable concern. So much that he even scouted the spirit world alongside Blaze. But no matter how much they looked, they could neither locate any mark on Blaze or any trace of the vengeful spirit’s journey to him. Somehow Tecocol found Blaze. And from the looks of it, he would do so again.
That was the only time Blaze saw Shaazgai or Tecocol for another eight years. In his letters Shaazgai claimed he was extremely busy with work. And maybe he truly was. But he promised to still make time for their meeting in Venice. Blaze found himself actually looking forward to going there again, but the years seemed to be passing slower than usual. It was a while before Blaze understood why. He really was missing the man. It was hard to believe that he still had this in him, but Shaazgai had once again managed to ignite what Blaze thought long forgotten, and this time it was a spark of something romantic rather than purely sexual. Yes, he was looking forward to going on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Venice again.
But before their planned meeting arrived, Blaze received another letter, written in a near identical hand, but signed as Calisto, Alfonso Shaazgai’s son. Calisto’s parents had been slain in the family home by a violent intruder, who was in turn killed by the guards. Shaazgai’s son was planning to travel to the tomb of St Mark in Venice to pray for the soul of his deceased father and mother. Blaze met him there.
Calisto had decided to perform his pilgrimage in the best tradition of his dead father and came to Blaze wearing an even fancier dress and mask. When freed of them by nightfall, he lived up to his name and proved to be most beautiful and youthful. They spent several passionate nights in Venice together, and whiled away the days talking, walking, dancing and revelling in costume. And this time Blaze left with an even more positive impression than the first time. The capital of sin was slowly growing on him. As was his anger at Tecocol, who had slain not just Shaazgai, but also his innocent wife.
The next time the spirit came to Blaze in 1548, he was expected.
* * *
Blaze held Telpoch’s head underwater just long enough. He pulled him out by the hair.
The bound man took a violent gasp of air and coughed. The body of the young craftsman the vengeful spirit had possessed was lacerated as if after an encounter with a huge beast. Dry blood stuck the fabric and skin together.
Telpoch glared at Blaze hatefully, his teeth bared. “Wretched shapeshifter!”
Good. Blaze wanted Tecocol to be mad at him in particular.
“Where are your rain gods now when I drown you like a dog?” the archpriest mocked.
“The gods are right where you left them. And I will gladly die a thousand times over in their service, false priest.” Telpoch’s body quivered, but there was determination in his eyes.
”Then you will.” Blaze shoved him back under and held him until he sensed the first tentative touch of death. Then he let the man come up for air again, coughing and splashing. “But should you? Did the rain gods promise you that you would rejoin your family in the afterlife if you serve them well? I bet they did. But did you actually see them? No? I thought so. And you know why that is, Telpoch? Back in Cholula after you’ve been disposed of, I sent orders to have your family sacrificed to Ahriman. The rain gods saved you from his grasp to use you, but do you really think they extended the same grace to your useless kin?”
The man struggled violently, snarling, but said nothing. Blaze felt he’d struck a nerve.
“Yes, I don’t think so either. And even your own usefulness is questionable. With all the skill to track and kill multiple jaguars you could not see through the simple truth that Ixtli could not be working on his own. All that he did, he did on my orders. And then you came to me laying accusations against my own servant. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.”
Tecocol stopped struggling and stared at him with narrowed eyes. His lips curled into something that could be equally a snarl and a smirk. “Next time, I will hurt you more than you can imagine.”
Satisfied with the response, Blaze pushed the man’s head back underwater.
This time, he never let go.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
Shaazgai strode through the narrow Venetian streets, careful not to dirty the long expensive skirts of his dress. Men stopped and gaped at his elegant waist, women glared enviously at the silks he was wrapped in. It was nice to be at the center of attention. As he entered the quieter side alley, he found he’d mesmerized some reveller enough that the man followed. Shaazgai stopped on a small hunchbacked bridge and had to turn his head a little to look at the man from the corner of his eye. He pretended to be adjusting his skirts, not to betray that he was aware of his stalker. It was then that he noticed his pursuer was not wearing a mask. He looked like a dock worker, and he appeared neither lecherous nor mesmerized. The man looked confused. But he was slowly approaching Shaazgai. A glint of steel. There was a knife in his hand.
Shaazgai’s hair stood on end. He knew exactly who this man had to be. He’d turned forty two recently, and apparently, that did not qualify as young anymore. He recognized Tecocol, and the vengeful spirit had recognized him, but was baffled by the dress. Shaazgai knew better than to waste that confusion. Pretending not to see the man, he left the bridge, and acting carefree, strolled peacefully around a corner.
There he looked around wildly and then, seeing an opportunity above, lifted his skirts and, using a windowsill to boost himself, jumped up and gripped the railing of a second story window. He pulled himself up and with great care, climbed onto a balcony nearby.
Tecocol entered the alley a moment later, and even more confused than before, looked around for his missing quarry.
Shaazgai leapt down on him, striking him in the face with his heels as the man looked up. They fell to the ground together, but Shaazgai rolled through it, while Tecocol landed in a heap on the ground and lay there momentarily dazed. Shaazgai scrambled over to the knife that now lay on the cobblestones between them. He grabbed it and, before Tecocol could come to his senses, stabbed the man in the neck, then violently jerked the knife out, retreating to avoid the spraying blood.
Tecocol gurgled and spasmed, hands going to his gored throat, but Shaazgai did not wait for him to die, he pushed the man onto his side to make him look more like a drunk and tossed the bloody knife away. Then he hurried in the direction he was originally walking in.
Shaazgai checked his reflection in a window as he walked — there was no blood on his mask or dress, only dust from the tumble. His black velvet gloves had a little blood on them, but it would not attract attention. He looked over his skirts and sleeves and was pleased to note as far as he could tell, the dress had not cracked a seam. He made a mental note to use the same tailor again. And bring a weapon next time he went to Venice while older than forty.
He dusted himself as best he could, and finally checked one last thing before rejoining the crowds — his fake bosoms. They were still in the right place and shaped as one would expect. With a sigh of relief, Shaazgai rejoined the jubilant crowd.
He found Blaze in a safe distance from the scene of the crime, and without warning wound both arms around the man’s arm.
The priest startled and turned to him. “By the gods, do you really want to die by my hand on one of these occasions?”
“I missed you too,” Shaazgai purred. “And I hope you can forgive me. I was bringing you such a fine gift tonight, but I seem to have lost him. Let’s not go looking for him, and hope nobody else does either.” Shaazgai tugged on Blaze’s arm and led the way towards the nearest gondola stop.
“You’re talking in riddles.”
“Does my dress look good?”
“As good as ever.”
Blaze narrowed his eyes. “Maybe a little dusty, upon closer inspection.”
“But not at first glance?”
“No…” The priest was looking at him suspiciously now. “What is this about, Shaazgai?”
Shaazgai paid a gondolier, and when the two of them sat down together, and the boat left the quay, Shaazgai leaned in and whispered into Blaze’s ear. “I just killed Tecocol.”
Blaze turned to stare at him, disturbed. “Here? He was here, and he went after you? No… this was not supposed to happen… Are you alright?”
Shaazgai could see Blaze giving him a concerned look from behind his mask. He snorted. “Of course I am alright. Surprisingly so is the dress, I am quite impressed on that account. So, what were you trying to do? Lure him towards yourself instead?”
The priest looked away, and reluctantly admitted, “I thought me and him had last parted with that understanding, yes.”
“Hm, he must be smarter than we thought then. Ah, no matter. I can take care of myself even unarmed and in a dress. He does not stand a chance.” Shaazgai patted Blaze on the knee affectionately. “But thank you for the concern.”
Blaze looked back at him. “I must admit that is quite a feat. I do not think I could take on Tecocol in a dress. Though I suppose his puzzlement at the sight could give me a momentary advantage. Perhaps next time then.” He mused, slowly growing more relaxed.
“Yes, the element of surprise helped,” Shaazgai said and leaned in close to Blaze.
“Speaking of surprises…” the priest pulled something small out of the pouch on his belt. “I have one for you.” He opened his hand and in his palm, there was an exquisite silver brooch in the shape of a bird in flight. The bird’s wings were inlaid with bright turquoise while lapis lazuli decorated its head.
Shaazgai took the brooch and inspected it, then burst out, “It’s an azure-winged magpie! Where on Earth did you find someone who could make one so accurate?” He turned the brooch around in his fingers, admiring it, then handed it back to Blaze. “Attach it to my chest this instant. I cannot see because of the mask, but I must wear it at once.”
“Your wish is my command, and vice versa.” The priest leaned in and carefully pinned the brooch to the dress under Shaazgai’s collar, where the shawls that covered his hair and flowed down around his neck connected. “If it is to your liking, I would love for you to wear it next time we meet here as well. Is it truly a decent likeness of the magpies of Mongolia?”
“Yes, it is. And I will love to wear it. I would give you a kiss as thanks, but that will have to wait.” Shaazgai chuckled and took Blaze’s hand into his. “Thank you. I will treasure it.”
Blaze intertwined his fingers together with Shaazgai’s gloved ones, and pulled him closer, as the gondolier maneuvered them through the narrow Venetian canals.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
It was truly a puzzling thing how after hating the city of Venice with all his soul, Blaze found himself wishing to be there again with all his heart. Service to the Christian god grew mundane as time passed, the novelty of the new old world wore off, and suddenly the archpriest caught himself daydreaming about going to the city of masks and canals again, where a mysterious beauty would single him out from the crowds.
As if punishing Blaze for the distance the priest put between them, Shaazgai was always too busy to visit Milan between their trysts in Venice. But he wrote letters, and those were not just any letters. With each passing year those grew heavier with innuendos and thinly veiled erotic subtext. Perfumed silks or little romantic mementos would sometimes come attached to those messages. And Blaze found himself responding in kind, not caring what anyone would think should the letter get intercepted. Clearly sharing a similar longing, they were now meeting in Venice every five years, not ten. But even those five years dragged on and on each time like they never had before.
Blaze was starting to seriously consider the offer that Shaazgai had made, perhaps in jest, during one of their masked rendezvous. The man said he could build Blaze a church, somewhere between Madrid and the Shaazgai residence, and even though Blaze just snorted at it back then, his thoughts were coming back to that moment more and more. Perhaps he should not have moved so far away after Tecocol’s first attack. The avenging spirit was not taking his bait the way Blaze thought he would have, and the priest found himself remembering the stay at Shaazgai’s mansion rather fondly all in all.
Shaazgai was a reasonable man, perhaps should Blaze move closer again, he could be convinced not to plan out his entire weeks for him this time. As long as they did not find themselves in another Cholula situation, where he would be reminded of Shaazgai’s awful lack of compassion, the priest could see this arrangement working out quite well.
* * *
The lavishly decorated ballroom was filled with masked men and women, dancing and flirting, watching the acrobats and listening to the musicians. Polished brass chandeliers lit up the room, fine wines poured in abundance. The city of Venice was once more engulfed in the carnival, and this revel was but one of many. And yet, it was a special one indeed. It was here that they were meant to meet. Even though they had not seen each other for just five years, somehow it felt like half a century.
Blaze arrived first. Wearing a simple white bauta mask and black cape, he blended in with the other men in every way except for an ostrich feather dyed light violet that was tucked in his tricorn. He found himself waiting for Shaazgai with greater anticipation than he had ever remembered feeling before their reunions. The priest tried to soothe it with a glass of wine. The man was bound to be here soon.
The noise of the ballroom seemed to momentarily cease as a new figure appeared in the doors leading into the hall. Countless white bautas and a dozen black morettas all turned towards the new arrival.
She stood, a goddess in silks of royal blue and midnight black. The pattern on her gilded full-face dama mask matched the one on her gold-embroidered blue silk skirts. Pearls and lapis lazuli hung in many rows, framing the beautiful mask, silk shawls below them obscured her hair and wound tightly around her swan-like neck. The shawls were held together with a brooch of a blue-winged bird in flight. Not a slither of skin could be seen, but the dress, so tight around her wasp-thin waist, her graceful gloved hands and the way her skirts flowed like she was floating rather than walking kept the eyes of the entire room on her as she descended the steps.
Rumors had it an Eastern princess was in town, others said a daughter of an Ottoman caliph had fled to Venice, yet others suggested she was one of the queens of Europe, traveling incognito.
They were all wrong. She was not a she at all.
Shaazgai floated through the frozen ballroom like an ethereal ghost, slowly and confidently towards the one man he was here for. Blue eyes met gray-lilac. And behind his mask, Blaze thought Shaazgai was smiling as he offered one graceful hand wrapped in velvet for him to kiss. The masked priest did not recall ever having his breath taken away this way. But even stunned by the scene, he would not make the mysterious beauty wait. He brought Shaazgai’s gloved fingers to his lips, and bowed, inviting him to a dance.
People parted before them, as the musicians regained the ability to move, and the revel came back to life. Shaazgai’s skirts flowed with the rich rustle of layers upon layers of silk, while his precise soundless footwork created the impression that this foreign beauty did not need to touch the ground at all to move. And as the dances progressed, and they got to the volta, the suspected princess truly left the ground, lifted high up, safely in Blaze’s arms.
Other pairs paused their own dances as they watched, but Blaze did not care. He was mesmerized by the smiling blue eyes behind the mask, by the touch of velvet-clad fingers in the moments the dance brought them closer together. Absence made the heart grow fonder, but it was not just that. Blaze felt this tryst would be different somehow. There never had been a feeling quite like this one between them.
They danced until both of them were hot and breathless and then retreated to the sidelines. Blaze got a drink of wine and wondered how Shaazgai coped, never able to eat or drink at these balls, as he firmly refused for a bauta mask to ever mar his pristine aesthetic. Shaazgai was always willing to sacrifice comfort for beauty, and Blaze wished the man to know his sacrifice was appreciated. “Clearly the heavens are missing a star tonight,” he said, and Shaazgai drank his words like the finest wine.
“Sounds like a good time to make a wish then.” Shaazgai chuckled softly and took Blaze’s hand in both of his, drawing him back towards the dancing crowd as soon as Blaze was done with the wine. And so they danced on, and even though the whole ballroom was watching him, Shaazgai seemed to have eyes for Blaze alone.
Eventually the ballroom assembled for a contra dance, and not willing to share Shaazgai with anyone else, Blaze led his partner out into the fresh night air instead. After the stuffy ballroom it felt almost cold outside, and as they walked over the embankment overlooking the lagoon, Blaze draped his cape around Shaazgai’s shoulders, and Shaazgai leaned closer in response. The priest wished to hold him in his arms for all the years that he had missed out on, but this stroll was their little ritual, and Blaze loved each moment of it too.
The crack of fireworks came from a boat on the lagoon, and bright blots of color exploded in the sky. They watched them for a while. No words were exchanged, only subtle tender touches. Gloved fingers explored Blaze’s palm idly, as Shaazgai leaned into him and rested his head lightly on the priest’s shoulder. Blaze hugged him by the waist, gently pulling him a little closer. He stroked his side as they walked together through the bright Venetian night.
At the end of their walk, a boat was waiting for them that took them to one of the smaller islands. There in a palace secured through Shaazgai’s wealth, they would spend the rest of the night in private. That prospect thrilled Blaze now like never before.
As soon as they set foot within the quiet, dimly lit hall, the priest pulled Shaazgai close, holding him tight in his arms. Blaze’s eyes burnt with passion as he slipped one velvet glove off at a time, kissing Shaazgai’s slender fingers again and again. The man let him do it, but after a moment withdrew, taking one of Blaze’s hands into his and leading him deeper into the house, up the stairs through the halls and into a candle lit bedchamber.
Blaze, unlike his usual self, just tossed his bauta and tricorn onto a chair. Shaazgai remained more careful, hands busy trying to undo his mask and complicated arrangement of shawls.
“Let me.” The priest stopped him with soft words. He came closer and gently undid the magpie brooch that held the shawls together, letting them cascade all around the man. Then he slowly brought his hands up to Shaazgai’s mask. He smiled at the clever eyes watching him with reciprocation as he carefully untied the ribbons and removed it.
The mask was gone now, but the mysteries remained, hidden behind the blue eyes that still smiled at him. Tonight Blaze did not feel like they had known each other for over a century. Tonight was like that night on the ship, and Shaazgai had so many layers to him that Blaze wished to unravel, and it was not just the embroidered silks that he helped Shaazgai slip out of one by one. Even without them, the man shone like a diamond, and Blaze wanted to caress and learn his many facets.
And tonight it felt like Shaazgai was trying to unravel him too. His touch was tender and explorative. He did not urge Blaze on like he usually did, he did not mercilessly tease, instead he just let Blaze hold him and caressed the priest’s face, neck and shoulders, as he looked upon him like never before. When they finally kissed, it was soft and tender, but all the more intoxicating for it. Blaze could not tell for sure how long it lasted, but the fireworks outside ceased, and so did most of the other carnival noises, and they were still kissing.
They lay naked in each other’s arms, foreheads touching, their caresses lazy, until the slow tender kisses reignited a more restless passion. It was then that for the first time in their acquaintance Blaze truly made love to the man who brought him home to his old world.
It was nothing like the many nights they’d shared before. Blaze could not bring himself to be anything but exquisitely gentle. Even though normally Shaazgai seemed to prefer a rougher touch, this time he seemed to relish in the soft caresses, and when they were both sated, he lay under Blaze breathing heavily with the most vulnerable tender look on his face Blaze had ever seen. Shaazgai’s eyes were closed, and his arms held Blaze gently but firmly in place, clearly communicating he did not want the man to withdraw even though they were done.
Blaze lingered. There was nowhere else in the world he would rather be. He had known Shaazgai for so long, and yet he did not truly know him. This night had brought them closer than ever. In the waking light of day, Shaazgai was like a painting, but behind that perfect landscape and the ornate frame that Shaazgai so liked to show, there was an undersketch of a past unexplored, of centuries untold. There was yearning and hurt, there was… something so incredibly human. Tonight Shaazgai was not a heartless servant of the god of chaos and darkness. He just was.
Finally, Shaazgai’s eyes fluttered open, and he looked away, then after a longer while he almost timidly met Blaze’s gaze. Suddenly these blue eyes were not the eyes of a cold-blooded schemer or a self-absorbed narcissist. There was doubt and worry in those eyes, hope and fear, and a desperate want for something unspoken.
Blaze watched him fascinated at first, and then more than just that, as he understood that perhaps for the first time ever, Shaazgai had laid himself entirely bare and open before him. It had been so long since Blaze had been in love. He thought himself too old to ever feel this way again. But right here and now, he knew that he could love this man. The priest’s brows furrowed, and he watched Shaazgai with affection and care.
Something in the blue eyes changed. As if scalded, Shaazgai violently climbed out of Blaze’s embrace and almost fell off the bed. The priest looked around in alarm, expecting the avenging spirit was upon them, but looking behind, he found no one. They were perfectly alone in the room. Slowly, questioningly, he turned back to Shaazgai.
The man stood by the wall, clutching the covers to his chest. Whatever affection and vulnerability had been there before, was gone now. Instead, his beautiful face was contorted in a look of anger and hurt.
“Do- Do you think I am so lowly as to need this?! Do you think I’m some naive love-struck thing?!” Shaazgai spat angrily. “You keep nurturing your deficiencies, clinging onto that ridiculous humanity out of some senile sentimentality, but don’t expect such failings of me! Who do you think I am?! Do you think I’m like you?! That I would want to be with you?!”
Blaze frowned at him with confusion. He rose from the bed, but Shaazgai only withdrew further.
“Look at yourself! No matter what body you’re in, you are a pathetic old man!”
Blaze looked. Indeed his body was nothing that could ever compare to Shaazgai’s. Even though it had been more than this once, he did not care about his looks, he did not groom it the way Shaazgai would expect him to. It was not that he could not look young, but that he could not act young. Blaze knew that was what Shaazgai meant as well. He always knew it, but now the understanding sank even further in. He really was too old for this.
Shaazgai was yelling at this point, his voice and body shaking with rage. “I gave you every comfort! I practically dragged you up to where you are and rescued you from that Mesoamerican quagmire, and you dare insult me with your would-be- what is this even supposed to be?! Feelings? I don’t do feelings, you should know that by now!” The man hissed, his face growing dark. “I was having fun, and you had to ruin this! Get out!” He pointed at the door with one furious digit.
Blaze just stood there, his lips no longer able to smile.
“Now! Leave!” Shaazgai screamed.
“Can I dress at least?”
“Dress in the corridor!” Shaazgai’s voice was still dripping with malice. “I can’t stand to look at you for a second longer.”
With his heart heavier than ever, the priest turned to gather his clothes. “Are you sure you want me to go?” He tried to look at those stormy blue eyes as he stood there with his belongings, ready to leave, but wishing to stay.
“Go!” Shaazgai shouted furiously.
Blaze turned and left.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
Shaazgai stood stiffly, finger still pointed at the door until he could no longer hear Blaze’s steps. Then his legs gave way, and he sunk to the floor. He pulled the covers tight over himself, but he still felt cold. Cold and empty.
He ruined it. It was not Blaze, it was him. He was a naive love-struck thing. He wanted this. But he ruined it. And not just it, whatever it was. He destroyed their friendship. That look in Blaze’s eyes when he left. He never saw the man so hurt. Not when Cholula fell, not when they left Mexico to be plundered by the Spanish. He hurt his only friend. Possibly broke his heart- No, Blaze couldn’t love him. Nobody could love him. Not on his terms. That’s what he got for making wishes, for having dreams. It was an idiotic fancy to imagine this could have gone any different. Blaze left. Blaze would have always left. Everyone would always leave him. Shaazgai wept.
He looked at the door hoping desperately that he was wrong, that any moment now Blaze would walk back in to question what it was, to ask him again if he had truly meant what he said. And this time Shaazgai would sob like a child and fall into the priest’s arms and tell him those were all lies. Spiteful lies of a man who was too afraid to risk getting his heart broken again.
But Blaze never came back. Of course, he wouldn’t. Not after all that bile Shaazgai spilled on him. He truly ended their friendship. What an absolute cowardly wretch he was. He did not deserve a friend like Blaze in the first place. It was only right to let him go.
He couldn’t face Blaze, even if the man did come back. Not that he would. But if he did, how could he make up for the things he said? The hurt he caused?
Shaazgai struggled back to his feet. He found his ordinary clothes, quickly dressed, stepped over the discarded extravagant costume that cost more than the whole palace he was in, collected what few essentials he needed and fled the place through a back door, too afraid of facing Blaze to risk going through the main entrance.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
Blaze stepped into the palace, climbing the steps back to where nearly an hour earlier everything had fallen apart. Shaazgai’s words still stung, ringing true in his ears. The man might have not wanted his love, but Blaze was not someone who just walked away. They needed to talk about this, they had to set things right between them. He hoped Shaazgai had cooled down enough for it by now.
The rooms of the palace they were supposed to stay in for weeks together were empty.
Shaazgai had already left.
And in the empty halls, he left behind, discarded, the dress, the mask, and the brooch shaped like a magpie.
As Blaze tried to trace his steps, he found out that the man had left not just their quarters, but Venice itself, departing that very day. Blaze assumed he was going back to Toledo. He wrote an apologetic letter and sent it in Shaazgai’s wake. He stayed in Venice for a bit longer, because unlike Shaazgai, always so young and vigorous, he truly was an old man, in soul and in his habits alike, and he moved slowly about his day.
But when the night fell again and the music and laughter filled the streets, one voice was missing. Wherever the priest turned his head, couples danced, sat embraced in gondolas carried along the canals, or strolled side by side. Blaze looked at them, filled with sadness. He had come here for one purpose only — to be with Shaazgai. But Shaazgai was gone and with him was gone all the meaning of this place.
And so Blaze left. It was the last time he had ever set foot in Venice.
* * *
Blaze knew that he could not return to his cathedral in Milan this soon. He was supposed to have gone on a pilgrimage to Rome after all. And so, to Rome he would truly go. Nothing like a long, gruelling journey on foot to clear one’s head.
He walked and walked until one sunset a shadow followed in his wake.
It wore a shape of a man, but his presence bore the clear marks of a spirit. It was about time Tecocol reappeared, and so Blaze turned back, striding towards the man to drive a dagger through his heart for a start.
But as he lifted his hand to strike, the stranger made no move to defend himself at all. He just stood there. And so the priest stayed his hand and instead pressed the shadow about the reason he was following.
When the man spoke at last, the words were not in Nahuatl as Blaze had been afraid they would be.
“You had something that is mine,” the stranger rasped. He looked at Blaze accusingly, and in his dark eyes there was something dead, crazed and demanding.
But when the priest asked him to explain what he meant by that, the man looked confused and could not answer.
“You do not have it anymore,” he concluded dejectedly. And yet he still followed Blaze in some distance, stopping whenever the priest did.
Two days later, Blaze confronted him again.
“I thought we established that I do not have what you seek. What is it then that has you still following in my footsteps?”
“You cannot have had what was mine and not have anything to give me,” the man said and looked at him with his mad dead eyes.
He looked like a kicked stray dog, rabid perhaps, but Blaze was used to dealing with all kinds of spirits and attending to their business. This one appeared as pitiful as it got, and Blaze was also used to taking pity. “What would you say to a job offer then?”
“That would do.”
“I could use a bodyguard,” Blaze said. Tecocol was bound to appear sooner rather than later and Blaze did not fancy the thought of being attacked as he stopped for the night on the road. “But you will need to do better protecting me than you did protecting yourself from me.”
“I can do that.”
And so they travelled together from then on. Blaze asked the man for his name, but he replied that it did not matter. Nothing mattered to this stray lifeless shadow, but he seemed satisfied with a semblance of purpose and direction that Blaze provided him with. And when Blaze called him ‘Erro’, wanderer, to call him anything at all, the man seemed satisfied with that too.
Erro did not talk unprompted, he hardly ate and hardly slept, but he kept the pace. Blaze appreciated the company, and to put his mind off things, he talked to Erro, even if he hardly ever talked back.
Tecocol never appeared, but the stray spirit followed Blaze all the way to Rome. From there, the priest let this strange shadow of a man come with him by carriage back to Milan, where he found him an occupation and accomodations. He left Erro there, seemingly less apathetic than on the road to Rome, and instead of attending to the matters of the cathedral, he travelled further, to Toledo, looking to make amends with Shaazgai.
But he did not find the man there.
Reaching the Shaazgai residence on the road between Toledo and Madrid, he learned that it had changed hands and now belonged to a different family of nobles. The Shaazgais, so firmly rooted in Spain that everyone had thought they would be here forever, had suddenly left and moved to Britain. That was all that Blaze managed to find.
On his way back to Milan, his thoughts were clouded with melancholy.
Blaze was not a fool. He knew that Shaazgai had felt something for him that time in Venice at the break of dawn, and that it scared him to realize that Blaze had seen through the cracks in his walls. He was certain that Shaazgai had not meant the things he said, but even so, he had still been right in having said them, because they were true.
Blaze was really too old to be with a man who could fold his entire life and just flee this way. Perhaps it was for the better. And yet even so, as he reached Milan, Blaze sent another letter, hoping it would reach Shaazgai in Britain.
But when the letter arrived, the man and his clan had already been aboard a vessel, sailing back across the ocean.