"Pretty wild place," Madisen said, stepping aside to avoid a drunk retching his way out of a strip club. Madisen splashed through a puddle of rainwater and beer, breaking up the reflection of neon signs and streetlights. The air smelled of liquor, smoke, and sweating bodies.
Samaelle snorted. "Gomorrah was a wild place. This is a playground. Why couldn't we go to Bangkok?"
Madisen took her arm. At six-foot-two, Samaelle topped him by four or five inches. They strode down the middle of the street, and the crowd of drunken pedestrians parted before them, unaware of the angels in their midst. "Eight-year-old prostitutes make me uncomfortable, and Beelzebub is there, testing plagues. You know how he feels about me. I like New Orleans."
"Bangkok's better," she said stubbornly. Samaelle had relinquished her armor and black wings in favor of a tank top and ragged denim shorts. She kept her sword, strapped firmly to her back, but no mortal would see it. They never did, until the last moment.
A red-bearded man with a dozen strands of beads hanging around his neck lurched toward them. "Aren't you hot in that?" he asked, pointing at Madisen's red velvet tuxedo.
"I've been hotter," Madisen said, stepping past him.
They passed under a wrought-iron balcony packed with leering, shouting people. Dance music thundered out of the bar below. "Hey!" someone called. "Hey, Red! Show me your tits!"
Samaelle looked up and pointed to herself. The man on the balcony nodded and held out a handful of beads. Samaelle smiled.
The man squawked and tumbled headfirst over the railing. The small portion of the crowd that noticed gasped. A moment later the man stood, unharmed by his fall to the street, and let out a whoop of triumph. He high-fived random members of the crowd. People applauded.
Madisen tugged her arm. "Samaelle, we've talked about the value of subtlety."
"You didn't have to cushion him," she said, irritated. "It was only a one-story drop. You're no fun any more."
"I don't want a repeat of our last vacation."
Samaelle rolled her eyes. "It was only a small village."
They shouldered their way through the crowd, passing drunk college girls lifting their shirts for beads, hard-bitten middle-aged women drinking daiquiris, and serious bald men with video cameras. "We could have at least come during Mardi Gras," Samaelle said. "I hear it's a thousand times--"
A quartet of black-clad teenagers passed them. A boy bumped into Samaelle hard, almost knocking her over. Madisen hooked his fingers under the boy's leather collar and pulled. The boy squawked. His dyed-black hair stuck up in rooster-tufts, and silver rings glinted in his eyebrows and nose.
"Apologize," Madisen said. Samaelle stood smiling, her arms crossed.
"Fuck that!" the goth-boy said, trying to twist out of Madisen's grip. Madisen pulled harder, and the boy gurgled as leather bit into his throat.
"Don't be a dick, Jimmy," one of the girls with him said. "This guy's cool. Check out his tux." Her green eyes glinted with good humor and provided the only touch of color in her flour-white face. She wore a silver choker, a purple plastic skirt, and at least a dozen pairs of earrings.
Something about her face tickled Madisen's mind. Why would a mortal look familiar? She made him think of television, but he'd only seen TV twice, both times certainly long before this girl's birth.
"All right," Jimmy said, standing on tiptoes to keep from strangling. "I'm sorry."
Samaelle smiled. "Not good enough. Lick my shoes and we'll call it even."
"No way! You've been walking through shit on Bourbon Street all night!" A couple of his friends laughed behind their hands. The familiar-looking girl only smiled.
Laughter makes me think of her, too, Madisen thought. Who is she?
"Jimmy just wears that collar for looks," the girl said. "He's never licked a shoe before. I tell you what." She took out two of her earrings. "I think you'll like these. You can have them if you'll accept his apology and let us leave." She held out her hand to Samaelle, who took the earrings and examined them.
"Let him go," Samaelle said. "These are nice."
Madisen let go. Jimmy scurried to stand, scowling, behind the green-eyed girl.
Samaelle held out her hand so Madisen could see. The earrings were tiny silver swords, long, thin-bladed and intricately detailed. They looked remarkably similar to Samaelle's sword.
"Jimmy made those," the girl said.
Madisen looked at the goth-boy. This rat in black was a silversmith?
"Come on, Thalia," Jimmy said, and pulled the girl by the wrist. She waved jauntily with her free hand, and they disappeared into the crowd.
Thalia. Madisen remembered her now.
"I wonder how she knew I'd like swords?" Samaelle put the earrings in. Her ears weren't pierced, but she shoved them through the lobes anyway, drawing blood.
"She knew because she saw your sword."
"Don't be dumb. Humans never see my sword unless I want them to."
"She isn't human." Madisen started through the crowd. "Let's follow them."
"I wish I understood what you were talking about sometimes," she complained.
"Don't you recognize the name?" Madisen said, walking slowly through the darkened street. Jazz music played somewhere nearby, a trumpet wailing over the distant crowd-sounds. "Thalia? Didn't you study the other pantheons?"
"Not really. I saw Gomorrah before it burned and went swimming during the Deluge. You always studied too much." She snapped her fingers along with the music. She got the rhythm all wrong.
"I'll give you a hint. That girl, Thalia, has a few sisters. Urania, Calliope, Polymnia, five others. I can't remember their names."
"Not ringing any bells," Samaelle said. She held a cup in each hand. She'd insisted on stopping for drinks, and now they'd probably never find Thalia. Madisen didn't blame her, though. Wearing human flesh meant being able to get drunk, a pleasure they seldom experienced.
"She's a Muse. Thalia is usually associated with comedy, but the Muses dabble in everything. In the beginning, they weren't even differentiated. Their individual personalities only developed over time."
"Muse." Samaelle spat, then drained one of her drinks, throwing her cup into the gutter. "Silly Greek posers. Our job's more fun."
"Agreed." Madisen put his arm around her. "But Thalia isn't allowed to inspire any more. Zeus has forbidden her to practice."
"What'd she do?"
He laughed. "She inspired performers. She inspired some of them to death. There was this television show--"
Madisen gestured helplessly. "It shows pictures. . . like a play in a little box."
"I never liked plays. Never saw the point."
"Me either. Anyway, there was a television show, with an ensemble cast, some of the best comedians around, I understand. Thalia inspired a few of the actors, but she drove them too hard. They died of drug overdoses, in car crashes, maybe some suicides, I don't really remember. That wasn't all of it. She worked with stand-up comics, and authors. . . Many of them came to bad ends, burned out, killed by success. Even the ones who didn't actually die fell apart in other ways, lost their gifts, became like ghosts of themselves."
Samaelle laughed. "Sounds like she was doing our job."
"Exactly. Zeus reprimanded Thalia for driving humans to destruction. She said it wasn't her fault, that she wasn't responsible, but Zeus had just come off a bad love affair and he wasn't willing to listen. He forbade her to inspire humans any more, and she ran away."
Samaelle finished her other drink. "So she kept on inspiring humans. But why would she get a guy to make jewelry if she's the Muse of comedy?"
Madisen shrugged. "Maybe because no one would expect it. A jeweler isn't likely to become famous, so Zeus won't ever notice. I bet she's still dealing with performers, though, just not famous ones."
Samaelle stopped walking. "All very fascinating, but why are we following her? She's not even part of our pantheon. If she's disobeying authority and misbehaving, shouldn't we support her, just on principle?"
"Well. . . If we threaten to report her to Zeus, we'll have some leverage if we ever need anything from her. . ."
Samaelle put her arms around his neck and looked at him. "Oh, Maddie, more blackmail? You've got dirt on half the immortal beings in the universe, and you never use any of it. What could you possibly need from a Muse?"
"You never know," he said, embarrassed. "Don't you believe in insurance?"
"I'm the reason people need insurance." She drew a fingernail down his chest. "I've got an idea. Instead of chasing Thalia, let's find a room, and a bed, and enjoy having human bodies. We are on vacation."
"That sounds good," Madisen admitted. "But I hate to pass this up. How often do two fallen angels meet a Muse? It seems like we should do something."
"We can. Tomorrow morning we'll look for Thalia."
"Why, if not to blackmail her?"
"Maddie, I told you already, we're on vacation. We'll find her, and we'll fuck with her. We'll have fun. She can't tell anyone in her pantheon if we mess with her, because she's practicing illegally." She grinned.
Madisen grinned back. "You're the best."
"You're a close second," Samaelle replied.
"Andrew Jackson. Was he one of ours?" Samaelle squinted at the statue in Jackson Square, shielding her eyes from the morning light. The smell of fresh-cut grass and flowers filled the air here, unlike the beer-soaked atmosphere a few blocks away.
Madisen turned from his contemplation of Tarot readers and beggars. He squinted at the monument's plaque. "Hmm. Not sure. He did some impressively nasty things to the Cherokee, but he wasn't all bad. He loved his wife."
"I'll never understand His criteria for what makes a good person," Samaelle said, rolling her eyes upward.
Madisen chuckled. "Come on. Some of the shows are starting. Thalia's probably around."
Samaelle shaded her eyes. She pointed to a bearded black man in a ragged camouflage coat. He gestured violently and shouted at a trashcan. "Is he a street performer?"
"I don't think so," Madisen said uncertainly. Angels, fallen or otherwise, weren't known for their appreciation of human art. "I think he's a paranoid-schizophrenic. That guy with the fifteen-foot-high unicycle, I'm pretty sure he's a street performer."
They joined the crowd gathering around the unicyclist. He'd set up in front of a large church, and he exhorted the crowd to move in closer, off the church steps, because otherwise the police would arrest him for obstructing the entrance.
"Sounds like our kind of guy," Samaelle said. "You really think Thalia will be here?"
"Street performers are perfect for her. They aren't famous, they leave no artifacts, and they turn into nobodies as soon as the show's over. If Thalia's working with any performers, it'll be these, because Zeus would never notice. Why else would she come to New Orleans?"
"So where is she?"
"There," Madisen said, and pointed. Thalia, still in black but without her goth friends, stood on the edge of the crowd, in the front row. The unicyclist ran a constant patter, waiting for the crowd to get bigger. The tourists were laughing already, and Madisen imagined their wallets bulging, ready to disgorge cash in exchange for a good show.
He looked around. A jazz quintet played a few benches down, and a mime performed beyond them, fencing with a nonexistent sword against an invisible opponent. Neither had a crowd comparable to the unicyclist's. "Having a Muse is good for business," Madisen said. He and Samaelle stood near the back of the crowd, where Thalia wouldn't notice them, but they had a decent view.
Thalia stepped into the cleared space and spoke to the unicyclist, then kissed him on the cheek. He grinned, tipped his ragged top hat, and blew a whistle. "Come closer! Come on!" the unicyclist called to the audience. Thalia stepped back to watch. She bounced on the balls of her feet, delighted, clearly thriving on the audience.
The performer mounted a small unicycle and pedaled, rolling to the edge of the crowd and back. He juggled a handful of oranges, then threw them into the audience. He cracked jokes and did stunts as his crowd grew larger.
"This is art?" Samaelle said. She'd once said the same thing in the Louvre.
"So it seems. I don't pretend to understand."
"Should I throw my sword into the spokes of his wheel?"
"Let's wait a while. He's just getting started."
The show went on, and the crowd swelled. The unicyclist rode back and forth on a narrow board resting on two sawhorses. He balanced on a makeshift see-saw. He told stories about being arrested, and made fun of tourists in the crowd, who laughed good-naturedly at being singled out.
After about ten minutes he called for volunteers to help him mount the fifteen-foot-high unicycle. Three men held it while he climbed, finally settling himself, arms extended for balance.
"Now?" Samaelle asked.
The unicyclist pointed to a small boy in the audience. "Hey, kid! See those torches? Pick them up -- by the white ends, not the black ends -- and throw them to me one at a time!"
The boy threw the torches underhand to the unicyclist, who caught them to "oohs" and "ahhs" from the audience. The unicyclist lit the torches and juggled them while pedaling inches from the edge of the crowd. The audience applauded wildly.
"I've got an idea," Madisen said. He knelt and touched the little boy on the shoulder. He whispered without speaking, and the boy giggled. Madisen stood up.
"What'd you do?" Samaelle asked.
"What we always do. I made a suggestion."
The boy ran into the square and shoved the unicycle. The rider shouted as he fell forward into the crowd. The torches flew from his hands. People screamed and tried to dodge out of the way. The falling unicycle didn't hit anyone, but the rider tumbled to the edge of the church steps. One arm twisted under him unnaturally, and he screamed.
"That's entertaining," Samaelle said.
"Look at Thalia." Madisen pointed.
The Muse pressed her hands to her face and shook her head, as if denying what she saw. A few people helped the cyclist get up, but Thalia didn't approach him.
Madisen and Samaelle sauntered toward her. "Hi, Thalia," Samaelle said. "That was a hell of a show. I loved the grand finale."
She looked at them, bewildered. "What? I--"
"We know who you are, Muse," Madisen said. "Do you know us?"
"Imagine me with wings," Samaelle said.
Thalia took a step backward, toward the wrought-iron fence surrounding Jackson square.
"The sword might have tipped you off," Madisen said. "Didn't you wonder why she was wearing it?"
Thalia looked at them, wide-eyed. "People do weird things in New Orleans. I don't associate swords with . . . angels?"
"You should," Samaelle said. "We're fond of them."
"We're fallen angels, actually. Not so different from you. We both put . . . ideas into people's heads."
Thalia stiffened. "You did this? Why? What have I ever done to you?"
Madisen and Samaelle exchanged glances. "You haven't done anything to us," Madisen said.
"We do things to others," Samaelle said. "Because we like to. Because it's fun."
"Certainly you can relate."
Thalia tightened her hands into fists. "I'm nothing like you. I help people, inspire them, and you. . . ." She shook her head.
"Drive them to destruction. Like you do, if I recall. A matter of a few dead comedians?"
"Your kind did that," she said bitterly. "If anyone did, if they didn't do it to themselves. Zeus blamed me, but I made their lives better. Not like you."
"You talk pretty big for somebody who's been kicked out of her own has-been pantheon," Samaelle said. "Do you know how many artists we have in Hell? Do you think their painting, or singing, or whatever stupid crap they did, keeps them from the fires?"
"I'm almost certain it does," Thalia said. "Inside, where it counts, I'm sure it does."
"Don't you have some other artists to attend to, Thalia?" Madisen said casually.
Thalia crossed her arms over her chest. "What are you going to do?"
"Follow you around," Samaelle said. "Ruin some careers. Tempt a few artists to more interesting pursuits. See how long it takes you to crumble."
"Then we'll probably report you to Zeus."
"Why?" Thalia backed up against the iron fence.
"We're on vacation," Madisen said.
"It beats the hell out of sitting in a bar."
Thalia drew herself up. She barely topped five feet, but she seemed much taller for a moment. For the first time, Madisen felt uneasy. The Muses were old, maybe older than he was.
"No," Thalia said. "I won't allow it. Not this time."
"How're you going to stop us?" Samaelle said. "Inspire us to death?"
"Good idea," Thalia said.
Something hit Madisen in the back of the head, stunning him. Everything went fuzzy, and he fell to his hands and knees. While in human form, he had human vulnerabilities. When his vision cleared, he saw a silver trombone lying on the bricks, a head-shaped dent in the bell. He looked up groggily.
The white painted mime ran toward Samaelle. She drew her sword, snarling. The mime made a sword-drawing motion in the air. Samaelle lifted her sword, startled, to parry his intangible strike. With a clang and a shower of sparks, her sword spun away. The mime extended his empty hand as if it held a foil, and a drop of blood appeared at the base of Samaelle's throat.
This can't be happening, Madisen thought, and then a clarinet bounced off his head. The members of the jazz band bore down on him. None of the tourists, walking and talking around them, seemed to notice. The protective coloration of the supernatural, Madisen thought clinically. A black man jammed a flute into Madisen's stomach like a cop wielding a nightstick. Madisen doubled over, coughing.
"We're going to get you for this, Thalia," Madisen said. He struggled to stand upright. "You'll never get away."
"Think so?" Thalia said. "This is only half what I'm going to do to you."
A caricaturist rose from a nearby table and flung sheets of paper and sharpened colored pencils at Madisen and Samaelle. The wind blew the paper into Madisen's face, blinding him.
He heard the clang of a guitar striking something solid, and the back of his head exploded into pain. His eyes filled with white light, and he fell.
Madisen opened his eyes and looked up at fluffy white clouds. His skull thundered. I see a rocking horse, he thought. And there, in that big cloud, a dragon.
He moaned and sat up, touching the back of his head. His fingers came away bloody.
Shattered instruments, paper, and pencils littered the bricks around him. He crawled toward Samaelle, who lay prone on the ground, and touched her shoulder. Someone had hit her in the forehead with a saxophone. The imprint of sax keys stood out on her skin.
Madisen blinked. Everything looked strange. Instead of seeing people and buildings as he always had, he saw their essential shapes, their underlying structures. He admired the church's spires, and noted the shifting of light and shadows on the ground. Must be the head injury, he thought.
Samaelle opened her eyes. "That bitch," she slurred. "Let's get out of this skin and go after her. She can't knock us out when we're ethereal." She stood and tottered toward her sword.
Madisen sat on the bricks, frowning. He picked up a red colored pencil and looked at it, then at Samaelle. The pencil almost exactly matched the shade of her hair. He reached for a stray sheet of paper.
Samaelle returned with her sword. "We have to move fast, before there's an ambush. She said she was going to do something else, right? What do you think she's planning?"
Madisen scribbled something with the pencil.
Samaelle looked around suspiciously, tapping her foot. "What are you doing, Maddie? We have to get going."
"Hold on," he muttered, drawing furiously. "Just a minute, I want to finish this."
"Finish what? There's no time!" Samaelle swung her sword in angry little arcs.
"Come and see," Madisen said, lifting the pencil from the page.
Samaelle knelt, frowning.
Madisen had drawn a picture of her, barely sketched in, but capturing the lines of her face and the fall of her hair. "What do you think?" Madisen said, his voice anxious, as if the answer mattered very much.
Samaelle looked at the picture. She chewed on one long red fingernail.
"It's pretty good," she said.
Copyright © 2000 Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt is a southerner, a graduate of Clarion '99, a fantasist, a poet, an occasional writing teacher, a lapsed performance artist, and an inveterate list maker. He'd like to dedicate "The Fallen and the Muse of the Street" to Donna Bond, who made it happen. For more about him, see his Web site.