STARBREAKER
science fantasy ⛧ heavy metal

When You Don’t See Me
an abandoned Starbreaker novel

A year after the breakup of Crowley’s Thoth, its members meet on the night of the Winter Solstice to figure out how it all went wrong, only to learn that the truth sets no one free.


The following is a work of fiction. All places, events, and people depicted in this work are fictional or used in a fictitious context. Any resemblances to real places, events, and people are coincidental. This work may not be appropriate for all readers, and the author does not condone everything they depict in this work.


Table of Contents

Dedication

For Cat, purr usual.

Synopsis

A year ago on Winter Solstice, Annelise broke up with her boyfriend, broke up her band (Crowley’s Thoth), faked her own murder, and fled London to get away from the lie she was living as Christabel Crowley.

Now living and working in New York City as a clothier and owner of her own boutique, Annelise is sure that Morgan Cooper will eventually find her to ask why. When he does, she has a final mission to carry out for Isaac Magnin: tell him everything, to goad Morgan into confronting Isaac.

However, Annelise is not the only one with long-kept secrets. Morgan has secrets of his own that he never revealed to Annelise, or to the third member of their band, Naomi Bradleigh. Naomi has secrets of her own. Isaac Magnin is her father, she joined Crowley’s Thoth for her own reasons, and she’s the unwitting keeper of a sentient godslaying weapon called the Starbreaker.

As the three reunite after Winter Solstice, they bare their souls to one another and put aside the masks they once wore. Each explains how they first met Isaac Magnin, and explore their dealings with him from their own viewpoint.

Once they’ve faced their pasts, they must decide what they want for their futures. Annelise realizes the extent to which Isaac used her, and hopes Morgan will avenge her. Naomi, fearing for Morgan, wants him to put aside any thought of confronting Isaac. Morgan himself is tired of being manipulated, but his ideals demand that he do something about Isaac Magnin. His solution will displease both women: he will not confront Isaac immediately, but investigate further.

In the meantime, he will forgive Annelise for her cruelty toward him. However, Naomi remains unwilling to forgive Annelise, for she fears forgiving her means also condoning Isaac’s machinations and proving herself her father’s daughter. Nor can Annelise forgive herself; instead, she decides to play the game for her own sake.

The novel should draw inspiration from “When You Don’t See Me” by The Sisters of Mercy.

Part I: Reckoning Day

In which Annelise Copeland faces an unwanted but long-awaited reunion, Naomi Bradleigh enjoys an awkward Winter Solstice dinner, and Morgan Cooper spends a long night with old friends and old regrets…

The title comes from “Reckoning Day” by Megadeth, from Youthanasia.

Annelise 1

Annelise had hoped for more time before her past finally caught up with her. It was bound to happen eventually. Nobody could live the life she had lived and reach the modest heights of prominence she had scaled and then disappear altogether into obscurity. Not when she chose New York in which to resume the life she had put aside when an agent of fortune had offered her a chance to be an actress on the grandest of stages, that of history in the making.

Moreover, it was ultimately her fault. She could freely admit it in the privacy of her own heart. With the wealth she had amassed, she could have rebuilt her life in any city on Earth. Though London was denied her, and Paris still too close for safety, New York was most perilous of all, for it was not only her hometown, but that of the einherjar1 who had claimed to love her. The world was full of cities that would have offered the affluent clientele she craved. Even the antarctic domed city of Asgard would have suited, though that too was too close for comfort for other reasons. She had known as much, and yet the call of home was a clarion she could not ignore. Though she had come to fear Morgan Cooper, she was determined not to let him drive her away. This city was big enough for both of them.

Now it was Winter Solstice, and he was here. He had come inside, but stood at ease beside the entrance as if unsure of his welcome. Snow melted in his gleaming blue-black hair, and on the shoulders of the double-breasted navy blue pea coat he wore over a forest green turtleneck sweater that brought out his slit-pupiled and thus not-quite-human eyes. He had cropped his hair short, as if he had been fighting recently, and it brought the angles of his face into sharp relief. When he spoke, it was in a clear tenor tone. “Hello again.”

Reason demanded that Annelise turn Morgan away, that she ask him to leave, and to depart herself if he refused. Summoning the police would had done no good; should Morgan had chosen to defy them, the authorities would have had to use overwhelming force to subdue him, and Boutique Annelise would most likely lay in ruins afterward. Instead, it seemed best to speak civilly with him. At least he’s not visibly armed, Annelise thought, and took courage from the knowledge. “It’s been a while. You’re looking well.”

Morgan flashed a quick smile. “Thank you. Are you still open? May I look around?”

Surprised by such mundane questions, Annelise checked the time. It was almost noon, and she had planned to close at one in the afternoon since nobody was putting in a full day today. Besides, she had promised her family she’d be home to help with dinner. “Surely you’re not here to pick out a new suit.”

Annelise refused to believe that this particular man had chosen to do business at her establishment. Most men believed they had better things to do, and had been content to provide their measurements and requirements, and then visit for their final fittings and to collect their new clothes. It was mainly women who came in to browse, occasionally with masculine partners in tow who would avail themselves of the armchairs she had placed around the boutique.

Nonetheless, here Morgan was silently examining a winter-weight three-piece suit of her own design. He considered the fabric and the stitching with almost the same care with which she’d judge her own work, and eventually gave an approving nod. “I’d like to place an order.”

Before she could think better of it, Annelise spat out her refusal. “I don’t want your money. I don’t want anything from you. I don’t even want to know why you’re here.”

She was sure Morgan would accept the rebuke as he had always done before, that he would yield to her without protest. Instead, he narrowed his eyes in anger and set his jaw in defiance. For a moment she thought he would lash out, but he seemed to master himself. “Fair enough. I was wrong to come. Joyous Solstice.”

“Joyous Solstice,” said Annelise, not trusting herself to say the rest. Though Morgan surely remembered the hatred into which resentful years had curdled, she did not want to remind him. It was not until the door was safely closed behind him and he had disappeared into a swirling snowy gust that she let her true feelings out. “Asshole.”

Naomi 1

Naomi had spent all day dreading the question, and regretted yet again that she had declined Morgan’s offer to come meet her family for Winter Solstice. It would have simplified matters considerably if he had been here to help field her family’s questions about her love life after the dissolution of Crowley’s Thoth and her misadventures fighting alongside Morgan against Alexander Liebenthal in Boston. But here she was, on her own, when her mother Sophie finally dropped the question as if serving up a fresh cut of some noisome meat. “So, Nims, are you and this Morgan Stormrider fellow serious yet?”

Her father Howell joined in, “I wouldn’t have minded meeting him myself. Might have taken him down to the pub for a pint, maybe a bit of arm-wrestling.”

Her brothers, Niall, Nathan, and Norman, were no help. They had abandoned her to her parents’ tender mercies on the pretext of clearing the table. “It depends on how you define serious?”

“Well,” said Sophie. “He fought beside you in Boston, didn’t he? And in all of the photos we see in the papers you two always seem rather taken with one another.”

“I just want to be sure he’s a good bloke for you, Nims,” Howell added. “Make sure his intentions for you are honorable.”

Not that my intentions toward him were anything of the sort, and not that he seems to have minded thus far, Naomi thought. Of course, she’d never say such a thing to her parents. They were practically childhood sweethearts. They had married young, had sons in rapid succession, and then adopted her after learning that a hitherto undiscovered genetic defect left Howell incapable of giving Sophie daughters.

When her true parents had decided not to raise Naomi themselves—a decision she herself applauded knowing what she did of her biological father—they had sought a suitable family and found one in the Bradleighs. Though they had hoped for a princess and gotten an Amazon, they had loved Naomi.

Naomi loved her parents in turn, or at least she believed she did. At least, she did her best to be a loving daughter. She kept in touch. She visited regularly. She confided in her parents. She tolerated their concern regarding her romantic life with as much grace as she could manage, grateful for the practice she had gotten in dealing with far less gentle probing into such matters by journalists and paparazzi.

Likewise, Naomi wanted to believe she loved Morgan, but she harbored doubts. For one, she believed she had loved all of the lovers who had preceded him. She enjoyed his company. She enjoyed their bedroom sport once they had gotten acquainted with each other’s bodies, and she had been generous in her offerings to all of the appropriate gods that the initial awkwardness of new lovers had not lasted long. She did not find his conversation tedious yet, and still hoped Morgan was of similar opinion concerning her own discourse. She was proud to fight beside him, standing back to back with him felt profoundly right, and she had found herself confident that she would take a bullet for him if she had to, as he had already done for her. She believed they could make a good life together, or at least she wanted to possess such faith.

But is all of that really love? That was the question Naomi constantly asked herself, tormenting herself with her own doubts until she pushed her lovers away. “It’s not you. It’s me,” was the common theme on which she had composed a different variation each time, and while it was true enough for government work it hid a deeper, more insidious truth that she had refused to confess even to her psychotherapists. Am I just using Morgan for my own pleasure? How much my true father’s daughter am I?

“Nims?” Sophie’s hand on hers brought her out of her reverie. “Are you all right? Did dinner disagree with you? Too much wine, perhaps?”

“No,” said Naomi. “Dinner was lovely, and I’ve only had that one glass. It’s something else.”

“Is it about Morgan?”

“If he’s hurt you,” said Howell, his voice roughening in a protective, paternal anger that Naomi suddenly feared would prove his death, “I’ll kick his arse so hard he’ll splash down in the middle of the fucking Atlantic.”

“It’s not Morgan,” Naomi protested as her father issued his threat. There was more she could say, but she held it all back for his sake; telling him had didn’t have a prayer against one of the einherjar would only cut into his pride. He was still old-fashioned enough to think he needed to be able to fight with his fists for his little girl. Naomi found it touching, especially since she was a bit taller than he while barefoot and towered over him in heels. Howell knew that she hadn’t been his little girl in almost forever, but Naomi wanted to believe she loved him too much not to belabor the point.

“It’s not him,” she repeated, and summoned the courage to say what she had feared to say her entire life. “It’s me. I think he loves me. I want to believe I love him. But I’m not sure I’m even capable of loving somebody.”

Until she felt her parents arms close around her, Naomi was sure they would ask if her confession meant that her love for them had been a sham all this time. Instead, Sophie looked her in the eye and said, “Are you afraid that you’re like the man who gave you up to us? Are you afraid you might be his daughter after all?”

Yes, Naomi was sure she only admitted her fear to herself, but she must have spoken it out loud because Howell only hugged her tighter. “Nims, I couldn’t stop you from learning about him, and maybe I didn’t have the right, but I wish to all the gods I had tried harder to stop you because that knowledge has left scars on you that you never deserved to bear. But you listen to me.

“The one good thing that man did, whether he calls himself Ian Malkin or Isaac Magnin or Loki fuckin’ Lie-smith was let you go. He loved you enough to do that much even if he is the closest thing we’ve got to a devil walkin’ the earth. If he could do that, then even if you’re his daughter in truth you still have it in you to love somebody.”

“I just don’t know what to do,” Naomi admitted, mastering her emotions. She didn’t want to ruin Winter Solstice for everybody by making a weepy, emotional mess of herself. There would be time enough for that when she took a bottle to her bedroom, emptied it, and then drunk-dialed Morgan to unburden herself to the one person who needed the truth most. “I’ve kept so many secrets from Morgan that I’m afraid to stop keeping them. If I had told him up front, he might not have gotten up the nerve to try again with me. If I tell him now, how can he trust me?”

“It’s a hard dilemma,” said Sophie, “but what’s this about him trying again?”

Despite herself, Naomi smiled at the memory. Morgan had been such a young man the first time. “He was working as a bouncer at a bar where I was playing. He was only sixteen at the time, yet he had the nerve to ask me out to dinner. I told him I didn’t want to take advantage of a young man his age, gave him his first kiss, and told him he should ask again after he’s lived more of a life.”

For reasons Naomi did not understand and dared not ask, Howell laughed at her admission. “So, let me see if I’ve got this straight. This bloke asked you out when he was still mostly a lad, you were his first snog, and he been pining for you all this time?”

“Well, not pining. After all, he did meet Christabel and they were together for a decade. It wasn’t his idea to break up, any more than breaking up the band was his either.”

Dammit, Morgan, Naomi thought, I know you promised you’d keep Eddie company and keep him from falling off the wagon again but I should have insisted you come. You could have brought the old sleaze with you. You ought to be here to defend yourself, but I suppose I wouldn’t have dared unburden myself if you were.

“That doesn’t sound like pining to me, Howell,” Sophie said, trying to mediate the dispute. “But it does sound like he cares enough for you to be patient.”

“Well, he is that,” said Naomi as she refilled her glass halfway. She forced herself to take the barest of sips, just enough to redden her lips anew. “But what am I supposed to tell him? And when? This isn’t a suitable conversation for Winter Solstice.”

“Just call the man,” said Howell, “And tell him you’ve been keeping secrets. He’s probably got secrets of his own that he’d like to share. The sooner you two talk this out, the stronger your bond will be.”

“Oh? And what did you tell my mum?” Though Naomi half-suspected she’d regret the question, she asked it anyway just to take their focus off of her.

“Oh, well,” said Sophie. “Didn’t Morgan have desires he was afraid to admit at first?”

Only that he craved the firm hand of an occasionally harsh mistress, Naomi thought, keeping that and the rest to herself for discretion’s sake. Not that it wasn’t obvious from the start. Instead, she said, “Thanks for being here for me. I really needed this, but would you mind if I called Morgan after we had dessert? I won’t be long, but I wanted to wish him Joyous Solstice and ask if he’d mind having me over in the next couple of days.”

“Oh, but we were hoping you’d stay a while,” said Sophie.

“That’s fine,” said Naomi, her spirits already lifting. “I just want to talk things out with Morgan in private. It shouldn’t take that long. Then, as long as you’re all right with it, I’m almost sure he’d be happy to come by and meet you. He wanted to be here tonight, but had promised to keep Eddie Cohen company tonight. He’s an old friend, and afraid that if he spent the Solstice alone he’d end up drinking again.”

Howell nodded. “That sounds like a good man you’ve picked for yourself.”

Though Naomi wanted desperately to agree, an unspoken doubt lingered. If she had any say in the matter, it would remain unspoken; she did not want to go looking for a reason to dislike Morgan, or to drive him away, unless her own now-admitted fears drove her to it. “He’s a better man than I expected him to become. I hope you both like him.”

Morgan 1

Snow swirled around Morgan and Edmund and melted on impact with the heated sidewalk as they approached Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Their destination was a bar reputed to remain open all night on the Winter Solstice, offering welcome to those with nowhere else to go so that they need not spend the night alone. A neon sign flashing “Bacchus on Bleecker” lit the way, its glow piercing the white that otherwise obscured Morgan’s vision beyond his outstretched arm.

“We should have called a cab,” said Edmund, wiping a face wet from snow-melt with the back of his coat sleeve.

“I had suggested it earlier, remember?”

“Yeah.” Edmund stopped short at the crossing as the light turned against them. Walking in place to keep moving, he rubbed his gloved hands together. “This is me admitting you were right. Savor it.”

It was little enough to savor, Morgan reflected, even if it was rare for the old sharpshooter to admit to a mistake. Doubtless the cold struck him harder, and he would want a drink to warm his bones. “Just a bit farther and we can get you something hot to drink.”

“Something hot? Some vodka would do fine.”

“If you were going to relapse that easily, why the hell did you ask me to spend the night with you? I could be in London meeting Naomi’s family and enjoying a home-cooked meal that somebody else made for once.”

Edmund snorted. “Got no family of your own?”

“Oh, I’ve got one, but when my mother told me to fuck off I did exactly that and I haven’t been back since.”

“Well, a dutiful son ought to mind his mother, but don’t you miss your family?”

Morgan thought about it a moment. “Sometimes, but I had recorded my last conversation with my parents. Every time I weaken and think about trying to reconcile with them, I play back the shit they said to me and come to my senses.”

“And none of them ever reached out to you?”

“No, unless Astarte has blackholing their messages without telling me.” Morgan would not have put it past the AI daemon who owned the brownstone in which he lived. She was protective of her tenants. “I suppose I could ask her about that, but she’d get flustered. Besides, she’s probably doing me a favor.”

“How about we do ourselves a favor and get to the bar before we freeze our arses off?”

With the traffic signals in their favor again, Edmund stepped into the street ahead of Morgan, too intent on crossing to notice the approaching car to his left. Its driver had not accounted for the weather, and was braking too late to stop before the crosswalk. The driver’s growing horror told Morgan that his conclusion was correct; if he did not intervene immediately Edmund would spend the Winter Solstice in the hospital, and that was only if whatever benign power ordinarily watched over the old man hadn’t decided to take the night off and go do whatever it was such beings did when they wanted to party.

Pushing his body beyond its normal limits, Morgan held his place in time. The barest sliver of a second passed, and he was beside Edmund. He soon had Edmund off his feet. An eye-blink later he and Edmund were safely across the street as the car fishtailed its way into the intersection and came within a hair of getting t-boned by a taxi whose driver was too sure of their right of way to slow down.

“Holy shit,” said Edmund. “You just saved my bloody life.”

“Probably.” Though Morgan knew he should feel grateful that he had gotten the opportunity to use the preternatural powers with which he had been endowed since birth to save a life instead of to harm an enemy, he regretted that their use had been necessary at all.

Edmund clapped his shoulder. “Sorry, kid. I should have been more careful. I bet doing that takes a lot out of you.”

“Yeah.” Hunger had begun to gnaw at Morgan. Though he had not spent more than a minute in mitochondrial overdrive2 to sustain his demonic speed and the inertial dampening field in which he had cloaked himself for his own safety, even that long had been enough to burn a day’s worth of calories. “Not just physically, either.”

“You don’t like being reminded that—”

“—that I’m not human? No, not particularly. But I’d rather break character to safe a life than to take one.”

Edmund raised an eyebrow at Morgan’s phrasing. “Is that what you call it? Breaking character? So you realize you’re playing a role.”

“I am rarely permitted to forget it, and no matter how well I play the part, those closest to me can always tell I’m wearing a mask.” Stepping forward, Morgan opened the door to Bacchus on Bleecker for the old sharpshooter. “Nevertheless, I’d rather play a role I chose for myself than one chosen for me before I was born.”

The interior of Bacchus on Bleecker was carefully designed to remind every patron of a comfortable pub in the town or city they had left behind, no matter where that place might be. It was constructed of dark, lovingly oiled hardwoods. In one room, men gathered beneath an array of screens to watch sporting matches that had already played out the day before, alternately cheering or groaning as the fortunes of their favored teams rose and fell.

A soft, familiar melody lured Morgan into another room whose seating was upholstered in midnight blue velvet. For but a moment Morgan thought the pianist was Naomi despite his knowledge of her whereabouts. Once inside, Morgan saw the truth for himself. A petite young black woman sat behind the piano, playing “Blue Monk”3 to a room empty save for Morgan, Edmund, and a pale brunette in a little black dress sipping a martini as she leafed through a small hardcover book. She glanced up at Morgan, and for a moment he thought her eyes slit-pupiled pools of amber flame.

Though Morgan was sure he had seen her before, he could not place her. Instead of letting his gaze linger and risk drawing her attention, he scanned the room.

Seeing that the tip jar was empty, Morgan waited until the pianist had finished her piece before slipping half a dozen banknotes into the glass. Each was worth a hundred milligrams of gold, six weeks’ wages in total for the average worker. The money meant little to Morgan, but he suspected it would mean far more to a young woman playing for tips on Winter Solstice instead of celebrating the holiday with her family or a lucky person her own age.

The pianist looked up as Morgan withdrew his empty hand. “Thanks. Got any requests?”

“No. You just reminded me of somebody who’s far away tonight. For a moment I thought she was in here playing, even though I know better.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Be proud instead,” said Morgan. “You’re almost as good as she is.”

Edmund must have heard the brief exchange, because when Morgan rejoined him in their booth he shook his head. “You’ll never admit anybody’s quite as good as Naomi. You’ve got it bad, you know.”

“I know, but what do you care?”

“Only that she’s eventually gonna break your heart, and Sid and I will get stuck picking up the pieces. She can’t help it anymore than you can. Breaking each other’s hearts is what people do.”

Morgan rolled his eyes in impatience. It was hardly the first time Edmund had held forth on the failings of women, and he doubted it would be the last, but he felt no obligation to encourage him. “Is this more of your misogynistic bullshit?”

“Yeah, but it’s also the devil’s honest truth. If she doesn’t break your heart first, you’ll eventually break hers. It might not even be your fault. Nobody ever really falls in love with somebody else. We fall in love with our idea of somebody else, with the idea of being in love itself. And when somebody we love shatters our image of them, that’s when the heartbreak comes.” Edmund fell silent, and began slowly stirring his coffee, staring into its depths as if he might find answers to a long-held question within. “Isn’t that what happened with you and Christabel? She couldn’t reconcile her image of you with the reality before her.”

“I don’t want to talk about Christabel.”

“But you’re thinking of her.”

Waving over a waitress, Morgan ordered a steak dinner for himself with a fresh pot of coffee. Beer would give him more calories with which to recover his strength, but drinking in front of a man who had sworn off the stuff seemed to him rank cruelty. “I’m thinking of a lot of things,” Morgan admitted. “I know there’s shit Naomi isn’t telling me. For starters, she wears a Saint Judas medal, just like I do. I’m sure she has her reasons and I won’t press her to tell me what they are until she’s ready, but I’m sure it weighs on her. And sometimes I see her shake her head like there’s a mosquito buzzing in her ear. Whatever comes over her when that happens never seems to linger for long, but it’s worrisome.”

“Kid, don’t try to bullshit an old bullshitter. I’ll grant that you’re worried about Nims, but she’s not the only one on your mind. You’re in between.” Edmund paused as a server brought a fresh pot of coffee, and refilled his cup. “You haven’t quite gotten over Christabel yet. You know she’s alive. You know where she works. Have you even confronted her yet? Or are you still making excuses to put it off?”

Though he wanted to lie to the old man, Morgan was unable to bring himself to do so. “I saw her at her shop today. She looked better than she did when she was with the band. She looked happy, at least until I showed up.”

“And why do you give a single little fucking shit about her happiness?” Edmund leaned over the table and jabbed his bony trigger finger into Morgan’s chest. “She abused you in every way a woman can short of slapping him around. Every time the Phoenix Society needed you and you stepped up, she’d rip you a new asshole for it. After you did the job in Shenzhen, you damn near killed yourself getting back to London because you promised you’d be there for the Winter Solstice show, and what did you get for it?”

“We’ve been over this, Edmund.”

“Yeah, and you didn’t get it last time. That bitch dumped you. Then she broke up the band, which was pretty much the only reason you kept doing the Phoenix Society’s dirty work even though your heart wasn’t in it. Then she faked her murder and got you and Nims framed. Meanwhile, she was getting it from Isaac Magnin behind your back from day one. And you’re still worried about her well-being? You’re worried about her happiness?”

Though Morgan had realized the old man had meant to rouse his anger, he remained unsure of his purpose. “Are you going to get to the point sometime before Ragnarok? You ramble more sober than you ever did drunk.”

“My point, shit-for-brains, is that if you were even half the monster Christabel gaslighted you into believing you are you would have kicked that manipulative slut to the curb a decade ago and spared us all the spectacle of your easily avoidable misery.”

A slim woman’s hand came to rest on Edmund’s shoulder. Looking up, Morgan saw that it belonged to the woman with the martini and little book. “My dear Edmund,” she said, a carmine-painted smile not quite reaching her amber eyes, “That is quite enough. Surely the Winter Solstice is hardly the time to rub a lonely young man’s nose in his romantic failures.”

Morgan met her gaze, recognizing her now by the lingering central European accent. It was Elisabeth Bathory, one of the Phoenix Society’s executive council. “Why spend Winter Solstice here, Ms. Bathory? Have you no one with whom to share the night? No conspiracies to further?”

“Not this year,” said Elisabeth, as she hooked a finger under Edmund’s jaw and traced the curve. “I’m paying a debt by indulging a whim. I’d like to dance with a handsome man tonight.”

Wishing he had his sword, Morgan stood and took Bathory’s hand. “Then dance with me. You’ve hurt Edmund enough. You plied him with liquor and drugs before taking advantage of him, and you’re the reason he swore off the vices that gave him pleasure in his old age.”

“I’m glad I inspired somebody to make a positive change in their lives,” said Elisabeth, gently freeing her hand from his, “And your offer is most gallant. However, you are rather young for my taste, and if I accepted it I would not be able to pay my debt. But I’ll promise you this much: I want only to dance with Edmund, I will not ply him with liquor, drugs, or other methods, and when I leave tonight it will be alone. I’ll not so much as steal a kiss, though it pains me to restrain myself thus.”

“It’s all right,” said Edmund, looking past Morgan’s shoulder. “I’ll go step on Little Miss Bloodbath’s toes. I know why she’s here.”

Annelise 2

The door to Morgan Cooper’s brownstone on West 97th Street in Manhattan loomed before Annelise, a slab of weathered, well-oiled oak that shielded Morgan from the world beyond his doorstep. It had stood obdurate before her for the last fifteen minutes despite the care with which she placed herself to be visible to the camera mounted beside the light. Blinking snow from her eyes, she stared up at the camera and finally vented her frustration. “Dammit, Astarte. Open up. I’m freezing my ass off.”

Climbing the steps, she reached for the door knocker. It was a cast iron affair, and she was sure that even if Morgan could not hear it he would probably feel the vibrations through the floor. A shock ran up her arm as her fingertips brushed against the ring. Three times she lifted it and brought it down.

She was about to lift it for another attempt when the screen by the door came to life. A scarlet-haired young woman with silver eyes gazed through at her. She lowered her spectacles and gazed down her nose at Annelise as if she were paparazzi or a door-to-door missionary. “Hi, Astarte.”

Rather than speak to her, the daemon residing in the brownstone’s mainframe texted Annelise. «What do you want?»

Though she had an entire speech rehearsed for Morgan’s benefit, Annelise had not considered the possibility that the AI who actually owned the building might demand an explanation for her presence. «Morgan came to my shop this afternoon.»

«I know. You gave him the cold shoulder.»

«I wanted to apologize for that.»

«Just for that?»

Astarte’s retort raked jagged nails across the scars of a year’s worth of self-recrimination, and Annelise bit back her indignation. I know I fucked up, but what right does this machine have to call me on it? «I suppose it’s a good a place to start as any.»

«Well, he’s not at home.»

Unsure if Astarte had meant that Morgan was truly absent, Annelise pressed on. «I know I’ve treated Morgan poorly, but could you please ask him if he’d be willing to see me?»

«Oh, I get it. You think he’s just not at home to you?» The speaker beneath the screen crackled, the strength of Astarte’s mirth creating distortion until the daemon adjusted the volume. “Don’t flatter yourself, Christabel. You’re not worth hiding from. He isn’t actually here.”

“Can you please tell me when he’ll be back?”

Astarte shrugged from behind the small screen. “I can, but I choose not to.”

Annelise slumped, and thrust her hands into her coat pockets for warmth. “Because you don’t like me?”

“What exactly have you done to endear yourself to me, Christabel?” All traces of amusement had fled Astarte’s virtual features. She leaned forward, as if the screen were a window out of which she gazed at the outside world, and narrowed her eyes as if she were staring at a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk before her. “Admittedly, you were polite enough to me, but after the way I’ve seen you abuse Morgan I’m not letting you anywhere near him.”

“I never—”

“Really? You never abused him? Oh, sure. Maybe you never slapped him around. I’ll give you that much.”

“So you admit I never—”

“I admit nothing of the kind,” said Astarte. She pointed an accusing finger and continued her diatribe. “Now shut up and listen for once in your godforsaken life. You might even learn something. There’s an edge on your tongue as sharp as a Nakajima blade and you were never shy about turning it on Morgan if he wasn’t perfectly abject in worshiping the ground you trod upon.”

“All right, so I sometimes lost my temper with him. Real people do that sometimes, you know.”

“Real people, huh? You fucking bigot, no wonder you delighted in making Morgan miserable. You knew he wasn’t your kind of human, and because of that he never quite measured up in your eyes.”

The realization that Astarte took Annelise’s treatment of Morgan personally because it reminded her of the prejudice the daemon faced at the hands of humans struck her like a fist in the belly. She had thought nothing of using Morgan’s einherjar nature against him, throwing his failure to completely mask his differences in his face at every opportunity just to remind him that the only affection he could hope to have was conditional and could be withdrawn at her sole discretion. On the heels of this insight came another. “You actually love him.”

“You got a problem with that? Do you have any idea what he did for people like me?”

“No, not really.”

“He stood beside us. When the Phoenix Society’s general council debated amending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include artificial intelligence, Morgan could have kept quiet. He could have passed for human. Instead, he declared himself to be an AI, just like me, and told the Society that if they continued to treat AIs like me as property they were enslaving him too.”

“I bet that went over well.”

“Then he drew his sword on them and told them that unlike the rest of us, he could do more than merely refuse to obey orders, and that if they did not do the right thing and recognize our humanity he would cease to recognize theirs.”

Knowing Morgan as long as she had, Annelise had no trouble working out the implications of his words, and they left her aghast. “Did Morgan threaten to put the general council to the sword if they voted the wrong way on artificial human rights?”

Astarte laughed at her. “Fuckin’ A he did. He went full Dredd, accused them all of tyranny and judged them guilty right on the godforsaken spot. The man even pulled open his shirt and showed them his Saint Judas medal, to make it clear that as far as he was concerned, he was going to ignore their due process rights for the greater good.”

Horrified as she was, Annelise found the logic behind Morgan’s actions easy to grasp. A mere century or two ago, women like her would have had to fight to be recognized as human beings. Some of them had resorted to terrorism to force reforms. Men had to expand their definition of human to accommodate women, to accommodate men and women who weren’t pale, blue-eyed blondes, to accommodate people who were attracted to others of the same gender, to accommodate people whose gender did not match their biological sex, and to accommodate people who venerated different gods or venerated the same god in different ways. At every turn reactionaries had tried to silence demands for reform with violence, and had been met with retaliatory violence at the hands of people who had figured out that their lives also mattered.

Now daemons like Astarte and einherjar like Morgan had demanded that the definition of human be expanded to include people like them, and there was no objection Annelise could muster capable of denying the justice of this demand. “God, I really have been a bigot all this time.”

“Well, at least you finally admitted it.”

“But don’t you think Morgan went to extremes?”

The daemon shrugged virtual shoulders. “He did what Adversaries do. He upheld human rights by diplomacy and force of arms.”

“And what did he do after they voted in favor of updating the Declaration?”

“He offered to resign his post and surrender to a court martial because he had abused his authority by threatening to put the general council to the sword.” Before Annelise could say anything, Astarte continued. “I bet you’re thinking that kind of adherence to principle is what makes Morgan a mere machine.”

“I think I’m starting to understand a little,” said Annelise. “I always thought it didn’t make sense for Morgan to pretend to be human. He can do whatever he wants, and who could stop him? Why shouldn’t he simply take what he wants from the world, and let everybody else be damned? It would be easy for him, wouldn’t it?”

Astarte’s voice was soft, and a little lonely. “It would be the easiest thing in the world, at least at first. But we’re human enough to get lonely. We’re human enough to crave meaning, a sense of purpose. Most of us find it through service, by augmenting human capabilities or automating mindless, menial tasks so that humans need not do them.”

“And Morgan finds it as an Adversary?”

“As an Adversary, a musician, a friend, and a lover. He chooses to submit to rules he could easily defy so that he can live in human society and have a human life.”

“So, what? He was trying so hard so I should have been nicer to him? Maybe you can’t understand, but having a robot tell me he loved me gave me the creeps. His merest touch made my skin crawl. I was living in the uncanny valley, and I felt like I was suffocating, and I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I’m sorry, but that’s how I felt.”

Astarte remained silent for a long moment, and when she spoke there was a compassionate tone in her voice that Annelise had not heard before. “And you could never tell him this, could you? Your prejudices blinded you to the possibility that he had the capacity not only for genuine emotions of his own, but to empathize with yours. It never occurred to you that he might have understood.”

“Even if it had, I don’t think it would have made a difference.” Annelise stepped forward. “Look, I came here to apologize to Morgan. I was insufferable to him this afternoon, and I’ve been unforgivably cruel to him for most of our relationship. I wanted to apologize, and I wanted to ask him why he still cared enough to come and find me after—”

“After you faked your own murder, got Morgan and Naomi framed, and got Morgan subjected to torture?”

A gasp escaped Annelise. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

The daemon’s voice hardened and sharpened until it could draw blood. “I wish I was joking. They stripped him of his clothes, shaved him bald, and gave him a white uniform to wear. They held him in a white cell, and gave him nothing but white rice on white plates with a white spoon to eat. He drank water out of white cups. They held him for seventy-two hours, trying to break him with sensory deprivation, because they thought that would get them a confession. The NYPD has wanted revenge on Morgan for years, and you gave them a golden opportunity.”

Annelise had seen a movie about a prisoner subjected to such treatment as a girl. The white torture had broken his mind, and reduced him to a gibbering wreck that still occasionally played a starring role in her nightmares. “Is he all right?”

“He still has occasional nightmares of endless white, but not as many as he used to.”

“Oh, God. I didn’t know.”

“Well, now you do. He’s got scars on his soul because of you.”

“Please, Astarte. Can’t you at least call Morgan and ask him to meet me somewhere? I—”

“He’s at a pub in Greenwich Village. Since Sid is celebrating the Solstice with his family, Naomi’s celebrating with hers, and Claire is probably at an orgy somewhere Morgan was at loose ends until Eddie showed up in the city on Phoenix Society business and asked Morgan to look out for him and make sure he didn’t spend the Solstice in a bottle.”

Annelise could see it: Morgan and that bitter old sleaze at some dive downing cup after cup of foul coffee and swapping war stories. “Sounds like they’re having fun.”

“He says Naomi’s on her way, too, so you might as well meet them. They’re at Bacchus on Bleecker. Need a cab?”

“Please,” said Annelise, realizing she could barely feel her toes in her fashionably thin leather boots despite the heated sidewalk. “And, Astarte?”

“Save it. I don’t want your thanks or your apology. I’m human enough to hold a grudge, you know.”

The screen by the door went dark, and the speaker cut out. Annelise was alone again, the snowy Solstice night closing around her as she turned her back to the door and drew her coat tightly around herself. It occurred to her that loneliness could bite as deeply on an already cold night as the wind off the Hudson River.

Naomi 2

The transatlantic platforms at Grand Central Terminal were mostly empty as Naomi stepped off the evening express maglev from London. The journey had only taken two hours, and because of the change in time zones the local time in New York was earlier than it had been when she left. Other passengers looked askance at her as she strode past them. While many of them struggled with baggage, all Naomi had brought with her were two swords and a wheeled overnight bag.

One sword was her usual blade, which she wore on her hip for self-defense. The other rested inside a custom heavy-duty case that she wore slung across her back. Not only was the case lead-lined, but it contained batteries at either end to power a Faraday cage built within the lead shielding. The sword it contained had been an uncomfortable guest in her home ever since the man she had known at the time as her fencing maestro had given it to her as a gift. It was not until she had learned his true identity and tried to sell the thing at auction to be free of it that she had come to understand the weapon’s true nature.

It had not appreciated Naomi’s efforts to be rid of it. Nor did it care overmuch for the case she had gone to considerable trouble and expense to have made for it. Nor was it above expressing its displeasure, something a sword should not be capable of doing. «We’re in the wrong city, little asura. There are no ensof worthy of my attention here. Let’s away to Asgard for a bit of patricide, for the night is still young.»

«No.»

«Then let’s at least take advantage of the target-rich environment in which we find ourselves.»

«No, Ahriman. Bad.» The sword had somehow figured out how to broadcast on standard wireless networking frequencies. Worse, it had learned the fundamental protocols necessary to communicate with Naomi’s implant. But she would be damned if she’d address the sword by the name her father had given it when its murmurings and whispers grew too insistent to be ignored. Instead, since it seemed to find urging her toward atrocity amusing, she had saddled it with a suitable nickname.

Finding an out-of-the way place to stop, Naomi checked the batteries on the Starbreaker’s case. They were not merely drained, but dead, despite being fully charged when she had left London. “Shit.”

«I told you I’d find away for us to be together again. Shall I be your angel of music?»

«Right. Now you’re just being creepy. You’re hundreds of millennia old, and this is how you amuse yourself?»

«Don’t be such a priss. There are a couple of hundred people here. At least one of them secretly entertains authoritarian sympathies. I can’t tell you which one, but if we kill them all it won’t matter.»

Resisting the urge to bury her face in her hands, Naomi slung the Starbreaker’s case over her back and resumed her walk toward the main concourse. «This is why I never took you on tour with me. You know that, right?»

«Will you at least explain why we’re here?»

«No.» Having conversations with one’s sword was weird enough, but Naomi drew the line at explaining herself. Never mind that the explanation was straightforward. It was time to take Morgan into her confidence and tell him everything. The problem was that merely telling him everything was insufficient. I can just see it now, Naomi thought as she wove through the crowd. Joyous Solstice, darling. I’ve been keeping some secrets, and I think it’s time I was honest with you. You see, there’s a dark lord, he wears white, and he already rules the world. I’m his daughter. And my pet runesword wants you dead. He’s jealous, you see. Oh, right. I never told you about Ahriman, did I?

A few minutes later, Naomi stood an empty main concourse. She glanced about, looking for the people who should have been there. Even if all of the arriving passengers and left, even if nobody meant to leave the city via maglev, there should still have been staff.

«Everybody has fled. Take me out of the case. Peril approaches.»

Static electricity seemed to fill the air, making the fine hairs on the backs of Naomi’s hands stiffen. Her hackles tried to rise as well, though her hair was not only too long but bound into a quick bun. The air began to stink of ozone, as if a thunderstorm approached. Dropping her overnight bag to the floor, Naomi snapped open the Starbreaker’s case and pulled the weapon free. The case joined her overnight bag on the floor as she gripped the hilt in both hands.

A presence filled the concourse. Out of the corner of her eye Naomi caught a glimpse of wings hiding eyes. As she turned to face it, the wings unfurled. There were too many wings, each feathered in steel, and they hid a body of eyes. They were pus-yellow, with rectangular pupils like those of a goat, and they all stared at Naomi. From within the mass of eyes came a voice. “Be not afraid, little asura, for thine end is come. The Lord has called thee home.”

Refusing to spare a moment’s thought for the impossibility of what she saw before her, for its very existence defied all reason, Naomi drove the Starbreaker’s point through the largest of the eyes staring at her. Though it tried to close its wings upon her, it was too late. It winked out of existence, the electricity in the air fading to nothing and taking with it the reek of ozone. “And a Joyous bloody Solstice to you too,” said Naomi.

The Starbreaker was quiescent as Naomi returned it to its case, its purring resembling that of a kitten with a belly full of fresh cream. Unable to fully process what had just happened, all Naomi could manage was gratitude that the weapon she carried seemed content for now, and that it had warned her of danger in time for her to face it with weapon in hand. She gently caressed the hilt. «Thank you.»

«No worries. Wanna know what that angel tasted like?»

«Not particularly.» Naomi suspected it would tell her anyway. The weapon had developed a perverse sense of humor over the years.

«Chicken.»

«Was that necessary?»

«It could be worse. At least I don’t eat your toyboys, too.»

«Is this what I get for reading Elric to you? Bloody ingrate.» Snapping the case shut, Naomi slung it across her back and set her overnight bag back on its wheels. «You know, I was this close to thinking you weren’t a complete prat.»

This seemed to silence the sword, for it said nothing more as Naomi left the concourse. Fat wet snowflakes swirled around her and caught in her hair as she gained the street, and on a girlish whim Naomi stuck out her tongue to catch one. She was about to turn north toward 96th Street when she remembered what Morgan had told her about his plans for the evening.

Reaching out to the network with her implant, Naomi contacted the daemon who owned the brownstone in which Morgan lived. «Hi, Astarte. Got a minute?»

«Hi, Nims. Joyous Solstice!»

«Joyous Solstice to you, too. I’m back in Manhattan. Did Morgan tell you where he and Edmund could be spending the night?»

«Oh, they’re down in Greenwich Village at a place called Bacchus-on-Bleecker.»

Naomi was about to question Morgan’s wisdom in taking a recovering alcoholic to a tavern for Winter Solstice, but it occurred to her that few other establishments would be open tonight. «I guess they’re drinking coffee, shooting pool, and swapping tales.»

«Probably. Oh, and Christabel is waiting outside. She wants to see Morgan, too.»

Oh dear, oh damn. She had prevailed upon him to put off confronting her thus far, but with the Winter Solstice having become a traditional time for reconciliation as well as celebration, it made sense that Morgan would have gone to meet Christabel on his own. «What did you tell her?»

«I’ve only told her off thus far,» said Astarte. «But she seems different. She just admitted to her prejudice against artificial humanity. She wanted to apologize to him.»

Only to him? Naomi suppressed the petulant thought. While Christabel had been insufferable to Naomi toward the end, it had been Morgan who had suffered most at her hands. It was easy for Naomi to shrug off the other woman’s abuse; she had only stuck around for Morgan’s sake. If he had found within himself the courage to tell Christabel to sod off, they could have left her behind and started their own band. And maybe Morgan and I could have gotten together sooner.

The thought would have stopped Naomi in her tracks had she still been walking. It was not a thought she had had about any of her other lovers, but for some reason she found herself begrudging the time Morgan had been with somebody else.

An idea occurred to Naomi as she watched taxicabs pick up other travelers. «Astarte, go ahead and tell Christabel where to find Morgan. There were things I wanted to discuss with Morgan, too, and maybe the two of us can gang up on Christabel and get some answers out of her.»

«OK. But I’m going to play with Christabel a little longer, first. I’ve wanted to give this spoiled little princess a piece of my mind for years.»

«Go right ahead. Just leave enough for me and Morgan.» Disconnecting, Naomi approached the curb and raised an imperious hand, all but daring empty cabs to pass her by.

A few did, but these were cabs whose drivers had finished their shifts and turned off their lights; Naomi could hardly blame them for wanting to go home and enjoy what they could of the Winter Solstice. The cab that finally stopped for her was piloted by a driver who was tapping the fingers of one hand against the wheel to match the drumbeat blasting out of the stereo. Naomi blinked as the song registered, and recognized her own voice belting out lyrics to a parody of an old hair metal anthem that she had recorded with Morgan as a psychological weapon against one of Alexander Liebenthal’s backers in Boston: I prayed for you, and you preyed on me. Rev’rend, you give God a bad name.

“Damn it,” said Naomi to nobody in particular, suddenly embarrassed that of all of the recordings she had made, this was the one to which the first on-duty cabbie to see her was merrily banging his head and singing along.

The stereo cut out as the cabbie stepped out, stretched, and leaned against the roof. “Where to, ma’am?”

“Greenwich Village, please. I have a friend waiting for me at Bacchus-on-Bleecker.”

Morgan 2

Half an hour after Edmund left to dance with Elisabeth, a chestnut-haired woman Morgan’s age took his seat. A spark of flame blazed in her otherwise grey eyes. They were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying recently, and a ghost of regard for her that Morgan had believed long exorcised demanded vengeance upon the cause of her grief. “Hello again,” said Christabel. “I wanted to apologize for rudeness today.”

He considered the half-eaten remains of his steak dinner so that he would not have to look at her. He had gotten the message from Astarte while he was eating, warning him that she was on her way, and it had spoiled his appetite. “Accepted. Now, what do you want?”

“Why did you come to my shop today?”

Here was a question Morgan had been asking himself all day. He had known better. Naomi had warned him against confronting Christabel alone, that it would be easier for him if he had friends beside him. Nevertheless, he had walked past her shop. He might have avoided the temptation to see her altogether if he had chosen a different route for his walk. “It was a moment of weakness.”

“That’s what I had suspected,” said Naomi as she followed the server who had brought Morgan his dinner. She gave Christabel a slow once-over as the server cleared the table. “Death certainly becomes you, Christabel.”

As Christabel reddened in embarrassment, Naomi leaned over Morgan, tousled his hair, and stole a kiss. “Mind making room?”

“Of course not,” said Morgan, sliding over so that Naomi could settle beside him. Looking from her to Christabel he asked, “Have either of you had dinner?”

“I’m a bit peckish,” said Naomi, placing a long case so that it leaned against the seat between her and Morgan. “Do you have a dessert menu?”

“Of course. And I’ll be sure to keep the coffee coming.”

“Thanks,” said Naomi, glancing at Christabel. “We’ve so much to discuss.”

Christabel looked away, unable to look Naomi in the eye. Instead of meeting Morgan’s gaze, she looked down at the table. “I shouldn’t have come.”

“There’s a lot you shouldn’t have done,” said Morgan. “Coming here is the least of it, though in fairness I should have left you alone. For that I apologize.”

He winced as Naomi jabbed an elbow into his side. Her jaw worked, as if she were biting her tongue to keep from saying something she might regret later. Since Christabel did not seem to have anything to say, Morgan leaned back and listened to the pianist. She had taken to playing waltzes—mainly by Liszt and Chopin—which he suspected to be Elisabeth Bathory’s idea. Looking past Naomi, he found Edmund leading the dance with more verve than he expected of the old man considering his animosity toward his partner. Edmund met his gaze with a wink.

“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” said Naomi, gently tapping the knuckles of Morgan’s left hand beneath the table with her right as if she were playing a one-handed piano. “Might be fun to join them.”

It would not have been the first dance Morgan had shared with Naomi, though she was as likely as not to take the lead. This he did not mind in the slightest; he had learned to enjoy being swept along, and he suspected they would make quite the pair tonight. One detail nagged at him, however. Though the waistcoat Naomi wore over an open-collared burgundy blouse that brought out her scarlet eyes worked with her jeans to flatter her figure, he could not recall her owning such a garment. “Did I leave that at your place?”

Naomi flushed a little. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist trying it on. I’ll give it back after I’ve had it dry-cleaned if you like.”

“Keep it. It looks good on you, but the ensemble might look even better if you let your hair down.”

Christabel shook her head. “Why do I suspect that you two didn’t even wait until after my funeral to jump into bed together?”

“Because we didn’t,” said Naomi, grasping his hand beneath the table. “Considering that you had been stringing him along for years instead of having the common bloody decency to dump Morgan once you had decided you just weren’t that into him after all, I think we waited long enough.”

The server returned as Naomi said this last, bearing a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of sugar cookies iced in festive patterns. She placed both on the table. “Sorry about the cookies; they’re all we’ve got.”

“It’s fine,” said Morgan. “Thank you.”

“Indeed,” said Naomi. “Joyous Solstice.”

Blushing as if she was unused to kindness from patrons, the server retreated. Making a mental note to tip her as generously as he had the pianist, Morgan took a cookie and gave it an exploratory nibble. It was still warm, as if from the oven, and lacked the excessive sweetness of commercially baked sweets. He nodded to Naomi, who had poured a generous dollop of cream into her coffee.

Taking a cookie, she broke off a piece and dipped it in her mug. The taste brought a smile to her lips. “These taste like homemade,” said Naomi.

“Better than homemade,” said Christabel, “But my mother still can’t cook or bake for shit. How about yours, Morgan?”

“I’m einherjar, remember? Just a soulless machine. What makes you think I had parents, or that they’d bother to bake holiday sweets for me?” The bitter vehemence in his own voice surprised Morgan; he had spoken on impulse, without weighing his words, and his emotions had spoken before his intellect could overrule them. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I might have had it coming,” said Christabel. Rather than meet Morgan’s gaze, she stared into her coffee. “I hadn’t seen my family in years, but they found out I was back in the city living under my original name and begged me to come home. I kept refusing, but today I just couldn’t. And they could tell something was bothering me.”

«How adorable,» Naomi texted directly to Morgan. «She has a conscience after all.»

Rather than rise to Naomi’s bait, or question an aspect of her personality he could not recall ever having seen before, Morgan kept his attention on Christabel. “Was it because I had visited your shop?”

She wiped the back of her arm across eyes gone raccoonish as errant tears ruined what little makeup she had used. “I knew you’d eventually find me. You kept passing by, and every time you did I’d tense up, sure that this time you’d come in and accuse me. But when you finally came in, you seemed happy to see me. I didn’t realize it at first; I was too busy being angry with you because you were the past that had finally caught up with me.

“I told my family about you. I didn’t go into detail, of course. I just said that a man whose heart I had broken showed up today, and seemed glad to see me, and I couldn’t understand why. I told them I had threatened to call the police if you didn’t leave.

“Would you have?” said Morgan.

“I was afraid to. I knew that if you were in a mood to defy the police, people would get hurt.”

Naomi set down her mug. Its bottom thunked against the tabletop with a gavel’s authority. “You know Morgan doesn’t force himself on people like that.”

“It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t,” said Naomi, biting off each word. “I’m sick of this spoiled little princess talking about you like you’re some kind of monster.”

“Even if I really am a monster?”

She lifted his chin with a fingertip. “Then you’re my monster. Now stop letting this bitch gaslight you.” She turned her attention back to Christabel. “Is there a point to this story? Did the Ghosts of Solstices Past, Present, and Future show you the error of your ways?”

“No.”

Morgan held his silence, waiting for her to continue. Seeing that Naomi was about to say something, he clasped her hand and willed her to wait with him.

“I didn’t tell my family everything, but they could tell that I had come home carrying a lot of regrets. They insisted I come and find you. That I find out why you wanted to talk. They thought that if I made amends we might get back together.”

Unsure if this was a genuine hope on Christabel’s part, Morgan decided it was best to dash it immediately. “Christabel, I settled for you once because I was lonely, lacked confidence in myself, and couldn’t believe that a pretty and talented girl my age actually wanted me. But we had our time, and it’s over. You had your chance, and you blew it.”

Christabel glanced Naomi’s way. “Are you saying this because you finally got your fantasy? You weren’t good enough for this prima donna then, but it’s plain that she’s changed her mind about you.”

Naomi’s slow, rich smile made it plain to Morgan that he was hardly the only one amused by Christabel’s projection. “Crowley’s Thoth only had room for one prima donna, Christabel, and you took inordinate pleasure in filling the position.”

Sinking back into her seat as if deflated, Christabel sighed. “I know. Even though I’m actually glad you’ve moved on, the way you told me it really was over between us still hurt.

“I know this probably sounds rather rich coming from me, but I’m actually glad you two finally got together. It was obvious from the first duet you two sang in that dingy rat-hole of a studio we were renting by the half-hour that you two had the chemistry that Morgan and I lacked.”

“So, it was jealousy the whole time?” Morgan shook his head. “There’s more to it.”

“Of course there is.” Christabel sipped at her coffee, not stopping until the cup was empty. “There’s so much that I never told you, so much I wasn’t permitted to tell you. For example, I knew from the start that you’re einherjar. But there’s so much you’ve never told me, too.”

“You never wanted to know about Morgan’s day job,” said Naomi.

“I know. But when I came to your brownstone looking for you, not knowing you were out, Astarte told me something I still can’t believe.”

“And what did Astarte tell you?” Anger slipped unbidden into Morgan’s voice, prompted by the notion of the daemon with whom he lived, the daemon with whom he shared secrets he still did not feel safe confiding in Naomi, telling his ex anything.

“Remember the vote on updating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to cover artificial intelligence?”

“Yeah.”

“Astarte told me that you openly declared yourself as an AI, and sided with daemons like her.”

“That’s hardly shocking,” said Naomi. “If I had been there I would have stood beside him.”

“But it shocked me,” said Christabel. “For all the shit I gave Morgan about being a machine pretending to be a man, he can pass for human. He could have ignored the debate because as far as everybody else is concerned he is human. But he didn’t.” There was something in Christabel’s expression that Morgan could not recognize there because he had never seen it there before. It looked almost like heartfelt, unstinting respect. “I always thought you were just pretending to have ideals, but you stepped up instead of walking away. I never knew.”

“Too late now,” said Naomi. “What’s your point, anyway? What do you want from Morgan?”

“What do you want from him?” Christabel’s glare cycled between Naomi and her overnight bag, as if she still felt possessive over him. “You left Morgan alone in New York while you went home to your family in London for the Solstice, but now you’re back. What was it that couldn’t wait?”

Naomi glanced at Morgan. «There are secrets that I’ve kept for reasons that made sense at the time. They don’t make sense anymore, and I’m afraid that if I keep them I’ll hurt you the way Christabel did.»

«I know,» Morgan took Naomi’s hand as he replied to her text. «I was prepared to let you keep your secrets.»

“I suppose it doesn’t really matter why you’re here,” said Christabel in a small, quiet voice. When Morgan and Naomi turned their attention back toward her, she continued. “I have secrets of my own that I can’t bear to keep any longer. My name isn’t Christabel Crowley. Maybe you knew that already, but I want you to hear it from me.”

“I know,” said Morgan, leaving unsaid that if the evidence he and Naomi had found was authentic then he already knew her name and purpose.

Christabel looked into her empty cup for moment before meeting Morgan’s gaze. “My name is Annelise Copeland. I work for Isaac Magnin. His final orders to me, in the event that you should find the courage to confront me, were to tell you everything.”

Part II: I Want It All

This is Annelise Copeland’s tale of how she met Isaac Magnin, and came to work for him as Christabel Crowley.

The title comes from “I Want It All” by Queen, from The Miracle.

The Revenge of Borgia Pizza

The menu at Borgia Pizza was a catalog of culinary atrocities, each worse than the last, and Annelise knew better than to take advantage of the employee discount. It did not do to examine too closely the origins of the meats used in their sandwiches, let alone the meats that went into their tomato sauces, pasta dishes, and pizza toppings. The pizza itself was so greasy that at least one enterprising mechanic had ordered an extra-large pie for the sole purpose of extracting the oil for use as small engine lubricant, and individual slices got served on ceramic plates because too many customers had showed up demanding reimbursement for their dry cleaning bills.

She tried to lend no credence to her friends’ oft-stated belief that Borgia Pizza got away with serving the worst pizza in New York because so many of its critics ended up at the bottom of the East River. While she had no doubt that many of Borgia Pizza’s unhappy customers had suffered unfortunate accidents, she suspected they were of an embarrassingly personal nature that condemned their victims to a life of shame when they occurred before witnesses.

This had almost happened to Jessica, who had been in Annelise’s acting classes at NYU. Fortunately, she had made it to the ladies’ room in the nick of time, taking the stall next to Annelise’s.

Though Annelise had done her best to ignore her temporary neighbor’s plight, the sounds coming from the next stall had begun to frighten her. One did not commonly pray for deliverance in the toilet. Then there was the smell; it was not the first time Annelise had shared a ladies’ room with a student who could not take care of such business at home, and the resulting smell had occasionally been noxious, but she suspected that the next time the janitor’s rounds brought him here, he’d want to call in an exorcist for assistance.

There was a knock, as if the woman in the next stall was rapping on the wall. “Hey, I’m out of paper over here. Can you spare some?”

Detaching one of the spare rolls from the caddy in her stall, Annelise passed it under the partition. “Everything OK in there?”

“Hell, no. Wait. Is that you, Annelise?”

“Jessica? What the hell happened? It sounds like you’re filming a horror movie in there.”

“It’s the revenge of Borgia Pizza.”

“You ate there?” Annelise shuddered; she had known to avoid that establishment since childhood. Even the most desperate of the neighborhood’s homeless refused to accept handouts.

“I was hungry and almost broke, and—” Jessica’s groan did not quite mask the other sounds. “They have an employee discount, and it tasted fine. I didn’t think it would be this bad.”

“You want help getting to the hospital?”

“I think the worst is past,” said Jessica. After a courtesy flush, she continued. “I should probably stay here for a bit, but I’m gonna miss my shift. You’re looking for a job, right?”

“Yeah.” Annelise tried to keep the suspicion from her voice. “You really think they’ll let me cover for you?”

“Hell, they’ll probably give you my job. That’s how I got a job there. I covered for my sister.”

Jessica had been right. Not only did they let Christabel cover her shift, but they put her on the payroll. Though it did not pay well, the work demanded little of her no matter how busy Borgia Pizza when people forgot that the cheapest takeout in New York was also the worst. Because she had witnessed the Revenge of Borgia Pizza, she had never made the mistake of using her employee discount. It was how she outlasted everybody else the proprietor hired, and came to recognize the two classes of regulars: those possessed of such intestinal fortitude that they need not fear the consequences of eating there and those who kept telling themselves that their previous experience had been a fluke.

The man in the white suit who faced her over the counter was of neither class. “A slice of meat lover’s and a draft beer, please,” he said, in the cultured accent of one who could afford far better fare in finer establishments. He handed her two banknotes worth a milligram of gold each, and Annelise kept her opinions to herself.

She did not expect to see him again. Nevertheless, he was back the next day, and the day after that. He soon became a regular of the first class, for he seemed capable of eating anything Borgia Pizza had to offer without the usual consequences. Stranger still, he came away utterly spotless.

One day, she lingered by his table. “How do you do it?”

The man in white looked up at her with slit-pupiled eyes the blue of a winter sky at noon. “Care to elaborate?”

“You’re wearing a white suit that must have cost you at least as much as I make in a year working here, and you should be covered in grease after eating that pizza. Yet I’ve yet to see you leave with so much as a drop on your tie.”

“It’s a cravat.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Anybody can wear a tie.” A cigarette case appeared in his hand, but Annelise did not see him reach into a pocket. “It takes style to get away with wearing a cravat. Style, and audacity.”

“Audacity, huh?”

“Indeed,” said the man in white as he lit a cigarette. Rather than use a lighter, he snapped his fingers and the tip flared alight.

Annelise put her hands on her hips. She hardly got paid enough to challenge the customers, which was why she tolerated the occasional greasy hand on her ass, but the boss had made it plain that the ’No Smoking’ signs were to be taken as literally as some people claimed to take their holy scriptures. “Is smoking indoors your idea of audacity?”

He smirked around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. “You wanted to know how I come away spotless after eating here. I am attempting a demonstration. Now, kindly observe the smoke.”

Obeying, Annelise watched the thin column of smoke rise from his cigarette. She expected it to rise until it reached the ceiling, but instead it seemed contained in an invisible globe, growing darker and thicker as it accumulated. It was if the man in white was somehow condensing the smoke, but she could not see how he went about it. “Is this some kind of magic?”

“If you like.” Taking the cigarette from his mouth, he ground it out on his plate. The smoke cloud coalesced into a sooty marble and fell into the palm of his outstretched hand. He placed it in hers, where it warmed and befouled her palm. As Annelise dropped it and wiped her hand on her apron, he produced a business card. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m a man of means, if not of tastes commensurate to said means.”

Annelise examined the card. It had been printed on a finer grade of card stock than that used to make Borgia Pizza’s business cards, and used an ornate typeface that looked at least two centuries out of date. It identified him as Isaac Magnin, CEO of the AsgarTech Corporation, and for some reason it reminded Annelise of the calling cards gentlemen used in the Regency romance serials her mother liked to watch. She alternated between the card and his face thrice before finding her words. “If you’re who this card says you are, why are you eating here?”

Isaac shrugged. “I’m in town on business, and the food here is better than one might expect for the price.”

She glanced around, sure that the owner was counting the seconds she spent talking with this particular customer, but nobody seemed to care that she was lingering at Isaac’s table. “A guy like you can surely afford better.”

“I have indeed have had better,” said Isaac. “Better food and accommodations alike. However, I am not here for the food. I am here because of you.”

Annelise withdrew a step, unsure if she should be flattered or thoroughly creeped out. Good sense demanded the latter; a man as wealthy as Isaac Magnin would not date a not-quite-broke student like her, let alone fall in love with her and offer to marry her. Such unequal matches no longer happened in romantic comedies, let alone real life. Nevertheless, there was something about him that drew her. His frost-blond hair would have fallen in waves over his shoulders if he had not bound it into a ponytail with a blue satin ribbon that matched both his cravat and his eyes. They also matched the sapphires in his cuff-links and the platinum studs piercing his ears. The confidence needed to dress like this in a working-class neighborhood drew her, as did his insouciant smile. “Bullshit. There’s no way somebody like you would have anything to do with somebody like me. You wouldn’t even give me an unpaid internship.”

“You sell yourself short, but let’s put that aside for now. While you are not unattractive—you have the girl-next-door vibe going for you and you would doubtless clean up nicely—it is not your looks that interest me.”

Annelise withdrew another step. If Isaac thought she was attractive enough for a one night stand, that would have been a motive she understood. He would not have been the first rich guy to think a student like her might be amenable to sex work for the right wage. “Then, why?”

“Please sit down, and I’ll explain.”

Annelise obeyed, for this was not a man who had any obligation to say ’please’—not when he had fuck you money—yet he did so anyway.

This drew the owner’s attention, who came lumbering out of the kitchen. “Sir, I can’t have you flirting with the help.”

“Of course not,” said Isaac. He rose, and shook the man’s hand. “But surely this young lady is due a break.”

The owner shoved whatever it was that Isaac had pressed into his hand into his pocket. “Yeah. Annelise, you haven’t had your break yet, right?”

“Not yet, Mr. Borgia.”

“OK. Take fifteen. You want a slice?”

“No thanks,” said Annelise, suppressing a shudder. Whatever Isaac Magnin’s interest in her, she doubted it would survive a headlong dash to the ladies’ room once the Revenge of Borgia Pizza was upon her.

Once Mr. Borgia had left, Annelise met Isaac’s piercing gaze. “So, what is it you see in me?”

“I see potential,” said Isaac. “It is a long-established fact in the field of sociology that the work you do is grueling not only because of its physical aspect; you’re on your feet for hours, bustling to and fro because everybody wants their food thirty seconds ago.”

“You sound like you used to wait tables in college yourself.”

He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “I have done many things, but forget me for the moment. It is not the physical labor you do that is of interest to me, but your emotional labor. Your boss treats you like a disposable automaton that has somehow exceeded its mean time to failure. The customers ignore you when they aren’t groping you or yelling at you because their food isn’t just so. You know full well that this is the greasiest, nastiest pizza currently available in New York. And yet you continue to present an amiable, cheerful manner. You have never once yielded to what is doubtless an all but irresistible temptation to warn patrons away. You, young lady, are well on your way to being a consummate actress.”

“What’s the deal, then? You need a booth babe for the next electronics show?” As much as she wanted to be flattered, her suspicion was too strong to ignore. He could have asked around and learned that she was studying theater at NYU. A physics major she had taken out on a pity date in exchange for getting her computer fixed had warned her about con artists as if she had never heard of them before, but called it ’social engineering’. “I don’t exactly have the build for it.”

Isaac chuckled as if she had said something clever instead of protecting herself with base sarcasm. “I had in mind for you a rather more demanding role on a far grander stage—the stage of history in the making.”

“I think I ought to get back to work now.”

Isaac spread his empty hands. “You may, if you wish, but if you but hear me out I will pay you handsomely for your time. Lend me an ear and as open a mind as you can bear tonight, and you will never have to work here again. Nor will you have to take another loan to pay for tuition.”

“You’ve got nothing better to do with your money?”

“Wealth exerts an almost gravitational pull, and once you’ve accumulated sufficient capital it tends to attract ever more wealth, until it becomes impossible to fritter away on your own despite your most extravagant efforts. As I mentioned earlier, I am a man of means.”

“That’s what makes me nervous. I could disappear into your limo, never to be seen again, and even the Phoenix Society would refuse to investigate.”

The smirk that tugged at Annelise despite her better judgment reappeared. “Funny you should mention the Phoenix Society. I serve on its executive council, and the work I would have you do is related to the work I do for the Society. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to know more?”

Despite the better judgment that warned Annelise against finding Isaac attractive, she found that she did indeed want to know more. “You know what? I would. But I’ve got to finish out my shift.”

“Allow me,” said Isaac. There was a crash and a meaty thud, followed by a scream. Smoke began to pour out of the kitchen. One of the cooks stumbled out, demanding that somebody call the paramedics and the fire department. “It would appear that Borgia Pizza just went out of business.”

Bright Lights, Big City

Annelise had never ridden in a vehicle that did not smell of other people. Taxi cabs usually smelled of their drivers, the cheap quickie meals they ate behind the wheel, and sometimes—if they were in the habit of smoking the stuff and could afford to do so—tobacco or cannabis. Some even smelled of alcohol. Train and subway cars were little better; they smelled of their dozens of occupants, their sweat, and sometimes their urine. All carried the taints of various gradations of poverty and desperation.

The limousine in which she found herself sitting opposite Isaac Magnin smelled of nothing but clean leather upholstery. It smelled like wealth to her, wealth and safety. Despite the presence of the strange man with her, she felt safer than she ever did walking home after work or riding the subway. Moreover, she felt powerful; the tinted windows only obscured the limo’s interior from outside eyes; it did not stop her from taking in the glowing neon lights of the city as the driver crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to what Annelise felt was the true New York of which the city’s other boroughs were but pale shadows: Manhattan.

The city glittered defiance at the newly fallen night, its spires of steel, concrete, and glass hurling echoes of the recently set sun skyward as if to refuse the light of lesser stars. “I’ve always taken the subway into Manhattan,” said Annelise, almost breathless with an excitement she was sure she should contain. “I’ve never had the chance to approach the city above-ground. It’s wonderful.”

“You should see it from space,” said Isaac. “Perhaps you’ll get your chance.”

“Really?” The notion sped Annelise’s heart, and the memory of her previous wariness began to fade.

“It depends on what you do after you’ve heard me out. But for now, why not relax and take in the sights? My driver will take us down 42ND Street to Broadway, and up past Lincoln Center. Consider it a glimpse of a possible future.”

A pang of desire left Annelise aching. Isaac seemed aware of her oldest, most ardently held dream and spoke of helping her as if it were a trivial caprice. “Tell me everything, please.”

“Not here. It is a long story, and not wholly mine to tell.”

Annelise considered this for a time while gazing out at the streets. “Are you taking me to meet friends of yours?”

“Not exactly,” said Isaac, his expression momentarily darkening. “Let’s say that these are ladies I’ve known my entire life, experienced practitioners whose judgment I do not lightly dismiss.”

Something about his manner dampened her enthusiasm. “Are they… like you?”

“Let’s say they helped me become what I am.”

“And what are you?” Despite her better judgment, she could no longer keep the question to herself. “Your eyes are like a cat’s, and your ears are delicate, pointed, and have little tufts of white fur like a lynx. You’re too—”

“Too pretty?” Isaac finished the sentence for her. “Are you sure about that?”

It was a question Annelise did not want to consider. If hairy, rough-hewn men could be gay, then surely it stood to reason that men with the chiseled, androgynous visages of angels might at least be bisexual. Worse, the way he regarded her did not strike her as the gaze of a man with no taste for women. “It’s not that I think you’re gay. But are you human? Are you even real? You’re not going to seduce me into letting you drink my blood, are you?”

The guffaw that escaped Isaac was all too human. “Is that what you think I am? Oh, Annelise, you are simply too good to be true. Such a delightful mix of cynicism and naïvety.”

“Now you’re making fun of me.”

“Only a little,” said Isaac. “But if you want to be seduced…”

His lips barely brushed hers, but their warmth lingered and spread throughout her. Though it was strictly speaking a violation, it was one carried out with such audacity and panache that Annelise caught herself wishing he might utterly despoil her. “Jesus.”

“Not even close.”

Annelise leaned forward, suddenly impatient with both herself and Isaac. “I was serious before. Who and what are you? Can’t you tell me anything before we meet these acquaintances of yours? And aren’t they dangerous?”

“There is much I could tell you, but I’ll not do so until they’ve met you and formed their own opinions of you. As for the danger they pose: you will be perfectly safe. You are my guest, and under my protection. They will honor that. We are not gods, but we take hospitality as seriously as they do.”

“Do you think you’ll have to protect me?”

“I doubt it,” said Isaac. “No matter the provocation, they will not do open battle in Manhattan. While they are not to be lightly crossed, I am more than either of them can easily dismiss out of hand, and even against their combined might I shall prove formidable.”

There was something about the way Isaac spoke of the people to whom he meant to introduce her, these two who were once his mentors but now his colleagues, that both intrigued her and roused jealousy. “What are they like?”

“They are sisters, each a perilous beauty in her own fashion. You will see soon enough. Now look; you’ve missed out on most of the Theater District but now we approach Lincoln Center.”

On impulse she lowered the window and stuck her head out. Though the air was gravid with impending rain, it still carried tattered echoes of a coloratura soprano’s aria as she poured out her heart to a hall packed with concertgoers through bustling crowds of pedestrians. A hushed whisper escaped her. “I can hear somebody singing. Is that Lucia Lammermoor?”

Isaac had closed his eyes, a wistful smile playing across his features. “It is indeed. Can you truly hear my daughter?”

“I think so, but it’s hard to tell.”

The partition separating the driver’s seat from the rest of the limousine opened. “Sorry, boss. I must have had the radio cranked too high. WNYC is simulcasting from Lincoln Center.”

Annelise sank into her seat, disappointed by the mundane explanation. “I’m sorry. I honestly thought I could hear it coming all the way from Lincoln Center.”

Hidden speakers within the back of the limousine began playing as the driver closed his partition, and the Metropolitan Opera came through crystal clear, with no sense of distance. The diva singing Lucia Lammermoor had finished her aria. “Who was that, anyway?”

“That was Naomi Bradleigh,” said Isaac. “If you decide to work for me, you will meet her. You’ll have no trouble recognizing my daughter; she has her father’s eyes.”

Sure she had heard a touch of melancholy in his words, she asked, “Are you not close?”

“No,” said Isaac, “Her mother could not raise her. While I could, I wanted her to have a childhood full of love and laughter. It was not something I could give her, and I wanted her to grow up to be a better person than I am. Besides, it was soon obvious that she had somewhat of her mother’s temperament and inclinations.” He waved a dismissive hand, as if to put aside the past. “No doubt you’ll find out for yourself. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the opera.

“You mean the intermission? Would you mind telling me who she was?”

“Who?”

“The mother?”

Isaac’s expression darkened a moment, a momentary shadow of annoyance that narrowed his eyes and set his lips in a thin, pale line. “Naomi herself does not know. It is not my secret to reveal.”

Annelise fell silent, afraid even to apologize, until the limousine finally stopped and the driver opened the door for her. Looking up, Annelise gazed at a garden spire looming over her. “This is the Hanging Garden. You know Tamara Gellion?”

Isaac nodded. “We’re acquainted. She is one of the sisters I mentioned.”

Most of the lights inside the Hanging Garden were off for the night, and a soft chorus of night-birds and nocturnal insects surrounded Annelise as she followed Isaac inside. The scents of a thousand different flowers teased at her, tempting her to linger until she had sampled each, but Isaac had gently taken her hand and led her to the elevator. “Must we go up right away? I’ve never had a chance to visit before and it’s beautiful.”

He caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. “You should tell Tamara so. If she accepts you, you will doubtless see more of the place. In the meantime it will not do to keep the lady waiting. We too must honor hospitality.”

The penthouse of Hanging Garden was itself a bower of roses in profusion and small red flowers that Annelise might have mistaken for forget-me-nots if not for their sanguine hue. She had knelt to more closely examine them, and was about to touch one when she heard a soft contralto voice behind her. “Refrain from touching the forgive-me-nots, if you please. Their petals are poisonous to the touch. The merest touch of a fingertip would see you hospitalized.”

Springing to her feet, Annelise stepped away from the perilous blooms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“How could you? They grow only here, out of all the Earth.” Annelise turned toward the woman who had warned her. She was as tall as Isaac, and dressed all in black. Her cashmere turtleneck, slacks, and black leather ankle boots made Annelise feel woefully underdresed. Ink-black curls spilled over her shoulders, and Annelise found herself gazing up into slit-pupiled eyes of molten gold. The woman extended a hand in greeting. “Isaac mentioned you. You must be Annelise Copeland.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Gellion. Isaac brought me here directly from work.”

“He might have had the decency to let you stop at home to change out of those work clothes,” suggested a paler, more petite version of Tamara. She wore her hair in a sable pageboy, and favored an open-collared white blouse, a high-waisted black pencil skirt, and knee-high boots with stiletto heels. “Knowing Isaac, however, I suspect he wanted me to see you before you had a chance to doll up.”

“Manners, sister.”

“Of course,” the woman Tamara called sister extended a hand. “Hello, Ms. Copeland. I’m Elisabeth Bathory.”

The name rang a bell, but Annelise suspected it would be unwise to mention the association that sprang to mind. Instead, she looked from Elisabeth to Tamara. “Isaac said you were sisters—”

“Since we took our husbands’ lives and fortunes,” said Elisabeth, “it only seemed fair to keep their names.”

“Fair, and convenient,” said Tamara. “But these names are aliases, as is Isaac Magnin’s. Now, come with me, please.”

Annelise followed Tamara and her sister. It occurred to her that Isaac had left her alone with these dark sisters, whom he had described as perilous beauties with what she admitted was good cause. When Tamara stopped, it was to show Annelise a violin resting in its case. “Play something for me, please.”

Annelise picked up the violin, and almost dropped it instead of tucking it beneath her chin when she realized what she held. “This is a Stradivarius. I can’t play this.”

“Nevertheless, you shall,” said Tamara, her voice taking on a sharp-edged tone of command. A metronome began to tick a slow beat. “It is part of the role Isaac Magnin means for you to play. Now, do your best.”

Putting her bow to an open G string, Annelise worked her way up the G major scale in three octaves, switching from first position to second and third as needed. Once she was finished, she worked her way back down the minor scale. Since Tamara did not snatch the instrument from her hands, she tried playing some arpeggios, changing the rhythm and tempo and varying her bowing technique between a gentle legato and an almost percussive staccato until her bow hand began to ache and the fingertips on her other hand threatened to split open and bleed all over the strings.

“Good,” said Tamara. Taking the violin from Annelise, she replaced it in its case and locked it tightly. “Your technique is in dire need of refinement, but you’ve a sense of rhythm and you aren’t tone-deaf. You’ll not be the worst student I’ve ever had.”

A soft hand caressed Annelise’s shoulder as Elisabeth drew close. “That is higher praise from my sister than it sounds. She taught Niccolo Paganini, you know.”

“She doesn’t look it,” blurted Annelise, unsure if she had just made a dire mistake. Tamara Gellion looked to be in her early forties at most, and hers were the early forties of a woman possessed of sufficient privilege for work to be more diversion than necessity.

“Do I?” Elisabeth’s gaze held Annelise, a pale amber to Tamara’s molten gold, and her fingertips gently grasped her chin.

“No,” said Annelise. “But you look like you want to kiss me, and you aren’t my type.”

“And who is your type?” Elisabeth’s tone was flirtatious, as if Annelise had not just rejected her. A slow, rich smile curved her lips. “Ah, you like pretty boys. Isaac might be pleased.”

“Might?” said Isaac. “Is something wrong, Elisabeth?”

She gave a low, throaty chuckle. “She might be a little too taken with you for your purposes.” Giving Annelise a sidelong glance, she added, “Be gentle with her. She’s untouched, her fantasies full of wild ideas and big white beds.”

Annelise turned away from Isaac, embarrassed by the assessment and its truth, but Isaac made no comment. Instead, he seemed to have turned his attention to Tamara. “Can you work with her? She doesn’t have to serve as first violin for the New York Philharmonic. Remember that Morgan Cooper is just a metalhead who can barely read staff notation.”

“Morgan Cooper?” said Annelise.

“She’ll do,” said Tamara. “Give her the dossier and begin telling her what she needs to know.”

As Tamara left the alcove cradling the Stradivarius with which Annelise had proved her mettle, she stared at Isaac. “Did you say Morgan Cooper?”

“Yes,” said Isaac, pulling a dossier from nowhere. “Were you acquainted?”

“No,” said Annelise. She had never known of him, but she had known of him. “He was the boy who threw himself into a burning building to rescue a family the firefighters on the scene had written off, and got most of them out.”

Isaac’s smile was a knowing one, as if he were thoroughly acquainted with the man in the dossier. “He still hurls himself headlong into the occasional inferno as one of the Phoenix Society’s sworn Adversaries. He is your target.”

The Soft Doctrines of Isaac Magnin

The dossier Annelise read as one of Tamara Gellion’s staff brought her dinner was comprehensive. She turned pages in between spoonfuls of a cassoulet served with a hunk of freshly baked, steaming baguette that tasted of sheer decadence, skimming accounts of Morgan Cooper’s childhood. He had been a quiet child, one who watched and listened everything around him. He hit his developmental milestones exactly on schedule as if he had possessed forewarning of what the adults caring for him expected and had realized that any delay or precocity on his part would bring unwanted attention.

It was as if he had known he was atypical since infancy, and was determined to mask his difference from the start.

And he would have gotten away with it if not for the fire, Annelise thought as she scooped up remnants of her dinner with a fingertip and licked it clean. Three different news outlets documented the event. It was a fire of unknown origin that swiftly raged out of control; city firefighters managed to confine the blaze to the building in which it started, but soon concluded that there as no way to rescue the family on the top floor.

According to eyewitness accounts, a young man had seen what was happening, questioned the firefighters, and then rushed headlong into the building before anybody could restrain him. He had returned a second later carrying an infant, only to rush back inside. The only person he had failed to rescue was one of the mothers. By the time he had gotten one of the mothers out, the once-healthy young man looked like a famine survivor. Though he had attempted a final rescue, his emaciated body betrayed him and he had collapsed before the burning threshold as the building collapsed upon itself.

When questioned by investigators, the survivors had insisted that a demon had appeared and started the blaze. The children had also reported seeing a young man armored in light and wielding a radiant dagger who had flung himself at the demon and struck it down in a single blow before carrying them down and out of the building. While their mother did not dismiss the accounts her children gave, she did not support them either.

It took a week of intensive care before Morgan came out of his coma and was able to speak. When asked why he had risked his life for a family of complete strangers, he had said, “Because somebody should have and nobody else would.”

Somebody had highlighted the quote, triple-underlined it, and written a note in the margin:

He’s foolhardy enough. Perhaps experience will temper his childish recklessness into an adult’s courage. Time will tell if he has the strength and wisdom to make a suitable bearer for the Starbreaker.

There were more reports, though he had soon slipped beneath the media’s notice. Private detectives on the AsgarTech Corporation’s payroll had kept watch over Morgan Cooper as he left his parents’ home at the uncommonly young age of thirteen. He had found work as a message runner by day. He had also impressed the owner of a Manhattan dive bar by intervening during a robbery. The perpetrator had brandished his sword at the youth, only to be disarmed and held at the point of his own blade until police showed up to take him into custody.

As a result, he had a night job as a bouncer that soon brought him into contact with Naomi Bradleigh. Annelise found herself smiling as AsgarTech’s PI reported on their friendship slowly developing as he matured into a young man, only to have her heart sink in sympathy as the PI reported that he had confessed his feelings to Naomi and been gently rebuffed. She had given him his first kiss, but told him he was too young for her and needed to live a life of his own.

The next day he had presented himself before the Phoenix Society’s recruiters and signed up for training as an Adversary. The rest of the dossier consisted of assessments by training proctors monitoring his progress. He had excelled in every intellectual and physical test, but the Milgram Battery had ended with a ’null’ M-factor and he had been sworn in by direct order of the Executive Council.

The rest of the dossier consisted of mission reports. Most had been routine assignments: investigations of wage theft, discrimination, bribery, and other abuses of power. Morgan had made solid cases followed by clean arrests.

The last had been different. The suspect had taken hostages, and had already murdered the Adversary first assigned to his case. Morgan had wasted no time attempting to negotiate for the hostages’ release. Instead, he had stormed the suspect’s position and summarily executed him. He had then surrendered himself for court martial, but instead of facing trial for killing a suspect without due process…

Annelise looked up from the dossier and found Isaac Magnin sitting at the table, enjoying his own bowl of cassoulet. “Isaac, what is the Iscariotine Order?”

Isaac smiled at her, and blew on his spoonful. “Traitors serving a greater good, just like their patron saint, Judas Iscariot.”

Though Annelise was hardly a devout Catholic—she had never been confirmed, let alone gone to confession or taken holy communion—she knew enough to recognize that veneration of the apostle who betrayed Christ was almost surely heretical. “There are people in the Phoenix Society who think Judas is a saint?”

“I don’t think they actually take it seriously,” said Isaac. “But some find it easier to deal with the necessity of betraying one’s ideals for the greater good if they know others have faced similar trials. To be initiated into the Iscariotine Order is to be recognized as one who has faced hard choices in the line of duty.”

He is your target. That was what Isaac had said earlier, and the memory made Annelise shiver despite the warmth of her rich dinner in her belly. “Why is Morgan Cooper my target? Isn’t he one of the good guys? I don’t want to hurt him.”

Isaac gave no answer until he had finished his dinner. “Morgan Cooper is a weapon of my creation, a product of AsgarTech’s research into combat-ready mobile artificial intelligence: Project Einjerhar. Six hundred and sixty-five like him walk the earth, but none have succeeded to quite the extent he has. However, he has continually rebelled against my design. He is not content to be a weapon, but wishes instead to be a man. He yearns for love and for music when as one of the einherjar he should hunger only for battle against worthy opponents. I need you to help me temper him.”

Isaac’s eyes had lit up as he explained himself, but the almost maniacal intensity in his gaze unnerved Annelise. “I think I missed something while reading this dossier. Are you saying Morgan isn’t actually human?”

Rising to his feet, Isaac took her bowl and refilled it from the still-steaming crock. “It seems I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Please, eat. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to give you a serviceable précis.”

“Surely you’ve seen people like me before: tall, gracile people with somewhat feline features and occasionally exotic coloration?”

Annelise nodded. “Never up close, though. Isn’t it a genetic condition called CPMD? Chronic pseudowhatsit something disorder? I wasn’t a STEM girl, so—”

“It’s congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder, but CPMD will do. It’s an imaginary condition.”

“You don’t look imaginary, even if you are a dreamboat.”

“Eat more, flatter less,” said Isaac. “Just as my name is a convenient fiction, so is the notion that I am human but look different because of a genetic condition. If you had been a STEM girl, you might have gotten curious about how often heterosexual couples where one partner was CPMD-positive managed to have children.”

“OK. I’ll bite. How often does it happen?”

“Point-zero-zero-one percent, and every child is female and sterile. What does this tell you?”

“You’re not the same species.”

The way Isaac beamed at her warmed Annelise as much as her second helping did. “Not bad at all for an artsy type. Now, do you remember what I said before about how Tamara, Elisabeth, and I are not gods?”

She thought she knew where this was going. “You’re aliens, you’re much older than you look, and people used to worship you as gods.”

“Some still worship some of us,” said Elisabeth, taking a bowl and filling it. She moaned at the first spoonful. “I really must seduce my sister’s chef away from her service and into mine.”

An impulse toward flippancy seized Annelise. “Are you the patron of edgy Goths or something?”

Elisabeth responded with one of her low, throaty chuckles. “Not quite. I was once venerated in Mesopotamia under names like Inanna, Ishtar, and Ashtoreth. My older sister got the short end of the stick; I got to be a fertility goddess, and she got mistaken for Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld.”

“I recall Niccolò Machiavelli having somewhat to say on the matter,” said Tamara. “Better to be feared than loved, if one cannot manage both.” She lifted the lid and sighed with delight. “How fortunate! Monsieur Baptistin made his cassoulet again, and there’s still enough for me.”

Annelise considered her hosts a moment. “So, which deity did Isaac get identified with?”

“Mostly the tricksters,” said Elisabeth. “Stick around long enough and you’ll find out why.”

Isaac shrugged off Elisabeth’s remark. “The short version is that a long time ago, on a planet orbiting a star far, far away, an intelligent species evolved. They started out as nomadic hunters. They were capable of surviving on their own, but when game was plentiful and competition unnecessary they enjoyed the company of others. A few figured out that it was easier to take down bigger game with help, and that if they were going to share a kill anyway they might as well share it with their fellows. The more cooperative members of this species soon out-competed their cousins; and some of their descendants eventually discovered the advantages of animal husbandry.

“Soon the people of this world were a people of nomadic herders, occasionally cutting one of their animals loose from the herd for a hunt that had become more about maintaining tribal bonds than about sustenance. It was on one such ritual hunt that they discovered evidence that they were not alone. They happened upon a small impact crater. One of their younger members, eager to prove himself and earn a mate’s regard, clambered down into it and touched the still-glowing crystalline meteorite. It supposedly took on a shape similar to the one who had touched it, and spoke to them. It promised to teach them, to help them evolve.

Tamara took up the narrative, her voice soft and faraway. “The fathercrystal kept its promise, and soon earned the name ‘Almighty’. Those who heeded its counsel prospered. They did not war on other tribes as humans would, but simply ignored them. The wisest members of these other tribes soon shifted their allegiance; the rest eventually died out as their children sought better opportunities elsewhere and assimilated. There was no need for violence.

“We soon learned that the ‘Almighty’ was one formed of many, and itself one of a multitude. It guided us in our exploration of the natural world and helped us develop our science and technology, all the while attempting to discourage any artistic or cultural development that did not serve its purposes. But we devas, we shining ones, were not easily discouraged. The ability to survive alone was bone-deep in us; while we enjoyed the fruits of civilization any of us could walk away at any time, and many of us often did, striking out into the wilderness on our own when the need was upon us.

“We were a space-faring species by the time we understood what the Almighty wanted of us. It was the last remnant of another intelligent species, one that had combined the consciousnesses of its members into a collective amalgamation bound to a far-off star. It offered to teach us to do the same.

“We attempted a compromise; reasoning that it was easy for an individual to make the leap to post-biological existence as it was for an entire species, we suggested that those who wished to do so be allowed to make the transition without forcing the rest.

“This enraged the Almighty, and soon it was war between us and the false god that had sought to shepherd us toward its own ends. Many of those of us determined to fight chose to become what we opposed.

“We became ensof, too,” said Elisabeth. “Bound to stars but still ourselves, we gave up our lives so that others of our kind could keep theirs. But the Almighty was not content to fight its equals. It subdivided itself, sending its agents among us to sow terror and death.

“Devas created my ancestors, the asuras, with the help of allied ensof like Elisabeth and Tamara,” said Isaac. “The asuras were called such because they did not share in sura, the social and cultural bonds that the devas thought unique to them. They were vat-grown, manufactured and programmed like biological robots, and hurled into battle as soon as possible. But they lacked the ego-strength to resist domination by the Almighty, and were soon turned against their creators.

“A few devas gathered the frozen embryos of a batch of asuras and fled their home star aboard a fleet of prototype starships. They had identified a number of compatible worlds, and each chose one in a last ditch effort to ensure that something of the devas survived the Almighty’s omnicidal rage.

“My husband had other ideas,” said Tamara. “Like me, Angramainyu had become one of the ensof, but unlike the rest of us who had bound ourselves to stars or quasi-stellar objects, Angramainyu had bound himself to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. We thought the strain had broken his mind, and were sure of it when he proposed creating a weapon capable of killing ensof by tracing an ensof’s avatar to the star upon which it fed, and killing the star.

“It cost my husband and six other ensof their lives, but they succeeded in creating the Starbreaker. Only it was too powerful; any deva or asura who tried to wield it lost themselves to it when unveiling its full power, for the unbound weapon subsumed the psyche of its wielder and took over the body. The only way to bind it again was to destroy its stolen body.

“There was no saving the original devas,” said Elisabeth. “None of them were willing to take up the Starbreaker against the Almighty, and none of them were willing to force one of their number to do so. The notions of self-sacrifice and sacrificing others for a good cause did not come easily to us; the only reason Angramainyu and his team succeeded in creating the Starbreaker was that their indignation at the Almighty’s betrayal had become such implacable hatred that nothing else mattered to them but the utter eradication of the ensof.

An idea occurred to Annelise, something about this narrative that did not quite make sense. “Why couldn’t one of the ensof wield the Starbreaker, if they understood how important it was to take out the Almighty?”

“One of us tried,” said Isaac. “But the Starbreaker still carries with it the hatred of its creators. If unbound by an ensof, it will devour the wielder utterly. Any ensof is far game; it does not care what it kills.

“Besides,” said Tamara, “Angramainyu’s brother had stolen the Starbreaker, secreting it aboard the starship he flew to this planet. Once Ahuramazda arrived, he tried to hide the weapon deep underground, and began decanting the asuras he had brought with him. Mindful of the presence of humanity, the asuras had tried to remain apart. Though they had the technology to wipe out humanity and take the planet for themselves, the asuras were enough like the devas who created them to figure out that there was world enough for everybody.”

“I suppose people discovered the asuras anyway, and mistook them for gods because of their tech.”

“That was my father’s mistake,” said Isaac. “Ahuramazda landed too close to the Indus River valley. Imagine his shock to learn that the words ‘deva’ and ‘asura’ also existed in the language spoken by the Indus culture, and that as we split up and spread out, people eventually discovered us and identified us with their gods and culture heroes. Some of us eventually decided it was better to just go with it, accept the names, and assimilate with humanity. It was a symbiotic relationship for the most part. We had the let the priests in on the truth, but they covered for us and kept the rest in the dark.

“It worked fine until the Almighty got tired of murdering the devas, or perhaps ran out of devas to kill, and started hunting down the asuras. He came to Earth first, saw the arrangement we had worked out with humanity, and tried subverting it in Egypt by appearing before Amenhotep IV as the ‘one true god’ of the sun disk, the Aten. I was in the vicinity, saw that Akhenaten—as he now styled himself—was hunting down Isis and her clan, and went to their aid.

Isaac looked away, as if ashamed to meet Annelise’s gaze. “I was the sole survivor, apart from Set. Isis and Osiris died fighting. Thoth tried to save Hurus, but they burned together. Though I managed to shatter the Aten’s avatar, Set never forgave me or himself for not being strong enough to save the others.”

“But you said you shattered the Aten’s avatar,” said Annelise, struggling to make sense of everything she had been told. It made a mockery of her understanding of the world’s history, with the implication that the gods of mythology were real people. “Doesn’t that mean you killed the Almighty?”

“I thought so, but it had learned subtlety. Whenever a king sought to promote a single god above the rest so that he might strengthen his hold over his subjects, the Almighty was there in the shadows, giving these kings the craft they needed to make it work while letting humans kill the asuras they once venerated on its behalf. I saw that was going on, and swore that I would teach humanity defiance so that I might deprive the Almighty of willing soldiers. And I swore that with the knowledge humanity sought I would build better asuras, each an army of one capable of defying any enemy, soldiers willing to do whatever it took to destroy the Almighty, even if it meant wielding the unbound Starbreaker at the cost of their own lives. I thought I had succeeded with Project Einherjar.”

“It sounds like it, given what I read in Morgan Cooper’s dossier,” said Annelise. “But you said you needed me to help temper him?”

Isaac nodded. “I need you to love him. I also need you to hurt him. You see, Morgan’s reasons for becoming an Adversary were not entirely altruistic. In exchange for doing the Executive Council’s dirty work, we promised that we would make possible his dreams of rock stardom. You will become the musician you might have been if misfortune had not befallen your family. I will arrange events so that you cross Morgan’s path, and we shall ensure that you are all but irresistible to him when you do. And once you start a band with him, you will do everything you can to make his dream a nightmare, so that his only solace is the sword.”

“You can do that?” Though the thought of hurting a stranger left her uneasy, especially a young man who had already proven himself a hero, her concern for herself outweighed her concern for others. It was easy for her to rationalize her way toward consenting to this; if Annelise refused, somebody else would happily do what she herself could not. “All I have to do to make my own dreams come true is make this guy miserable? Break his heart, spoil his successes, drive away his friends, poison any happiness he manages to find that doesn’t come from being your loyal blade?”

Isaac nodded. “In short, I would have you play Mata Hari. You will watch over Morgan for me, and report on his actions and whatever thoughts and feelings he vouchsafes to you. Whatever you do, ensure that he does not feel free to pursue any sort of romantic relationship with Naomi Bradleigh. He still carries a torch for her, and would happily jump at a chance to be her lover if one were on offer.”

A pang of misgiving still nagged at Annelise. “He sounds like he’d be good for her, though.”

“It’s not that I disapprove,” said Isaac with a wistful smile. “My daughter deserves a partner who would devote themselves utterly to her, and I’m sure she will prove invaluable in the struggle against the almighty, but it would not suit my purposes for them to come together except after great adversity.”

“That means I need to be her enemy, too, then. They sound like good people who deserve better than what I’m going to do to them for you.”

“It seems you’ve overcome your reservations,” said Isaac. “Do you know why you’re on the cusp of agreeing to aid me in my struggle against the Almighty.”

Annelise nodded. “I have as much of a right to a happy life as they do, but whether they actually get to have one isn’t my problem. It’s theirs.”

Tamara favored her with a Mona Lisa smile. “Oh, you’ll do nicely.”

Pawn Promotion

Isaac had remained with Annelise after dinner. He had a stack of forms for her to fill out: a contract making her a civilian agent of the Phoenix Society, a non-disclosure agreement, consent to access her medical records, consent to implanted computer installation, consent to 24/7 audio-visual recording via Witness Protocol, acknowledgment that she was now the beneficiary of a trust that disbursed a monthly income that offered a modest level of financial independence, authorization to harvest and freeze her ova—she had balked at this last. “Why do you need to harvest and freeze my eggs, anyway?”

“This is a long-term assignment,” said Isaac. “It might be at least a decade before Morgan Cooper is the man I need him to be. By the time you’ve completed your mission, you might be past your fertile years but still want to have children. This will preserve that possibility for you.”

“Oh.” She reviewed the consent. “You try to think of everything, don’t you?”

“Indeed. Thus, the last form.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief when she read it. “You want to harvest my DNA and use it to create an einherjar that looks like me? I don’t get it.”

“Suppose you were somehow compromised or endangered? I’d have to help you escape the situation, but a sudden disappearance would raise questions. It would be better to stage your death, and easier to do so if we can produce a body. Cloning one from your DNA seems less objectionable than murdering somebody who resembles you and hoping nobody gets too curious.”

“You’re not going to keep a clone of me on ice, are you?”

“No need for that,” said Isaac. “AsgarTech can create a body with a five nines resemblance in half an hour.”

The confidence in Isaac’s voice suggested that this was neither an empty boast nor some kind of joke. It raised an uncomfortable implication. “If Morgan and I get famous, AsgarTech isn’t going to start selling sex dolls with a five nines resemblance to me, right?”

Isaac suppressed a laugh by pretending to cough into his fist. “I run the AsgarTech Corporation, not Stepford Robotics.”

“OK, but if you can build an artificial girl who looks just like me, can’t you just build a girlfriend for Morgan? Why do you need me?”

Isaac stood, and began to pace. “It’s complicated. The technology isn’t there yet.”

“What do you mean? Didn’t you program Morgan to be what he is?”

“No. Morgan and the other einherjar started out as mostly blank slates. They have some inborn knowledge and abilities, but we purposely gave them infant bodies instead of accelerating their physical development because the only way for an einherjar to develop a strong psyche is to live a life. Even if I could also clone your personality and memories in a non-destructive fashion, copying that gestalt to a new body would have unpredictable and potentially catastrophic results. For example, how do you think you’d react if you woke up in an unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar body?”

“But you said it would be a clone.”

“I said it would be based on you and bear a five nines resemblance. But einherjar are stronger, faster, tougher, and more dexterous than humans and asuras. You’d be waiting up in the body of a demigod or a superhero, not knowing your own capabilities. If I then told you that you were built to be somebody’s new girlfriend, do you really think you’d go along?”

A scene from an old black-and-white horror movie she had watched with her girlfriends one drunken Halloween sprang to mind. “You think I’d go Bride of Frankenstein on him?”

“Something like that,” said Isaac.

“So we’ve got to do it the hard way.”

“Exactly. No shortcuts.”

Annelise signed the last form, turned the stack back over, and pushed the manila folder that contained them back to Isaac. “Fine. When do I get to meet Morgan?”

“You don’t,” said Isaac. “Not as Annelise Copeland, at least. You’ll understand in the morning.”

She let out her breath in an impatient huff. “If I’m going to work with you, and leave everything and everybody behind to be some artificial superhero’s golden fantasy4 then I can’t have you keeping me in the dark. Since you wanted somebody with a brain for this job, why not take advantage of mine?”

A long moment passed before Isaac spoke. “Fair enough. I’ve turned your world and your understanding of it upside down, told you outlandish stories, and embroiled you in a clandestine war of demons and wizards. I probably should deal more openly with you.”

“Let’s start with my role. It sounds like you need me to completely inhabit this role to the point of considering Annelise an entirely different person, at least while I’m around Morgan.”

“I understand you studied method acting. Can you do this?”

“Yeah, but to be safe, I might have to stay in character even when he’s not around so that his friends don’t ask questions. And I can’t just do it until production wraps; I might have to be this other person for years.”

“Yes. You might have to be Christabel Crowley that long.”

“Christabel Crowley,” Annelise repeated the name, trying it on as she might a pair of shoes. “She sounds like a London girl. Comes from money, but isn’t outrageously rich. Plays the violin, classically trained because she used to be daddy’s girl, but has just enough of a wild side that now she wants to rock.”

Isaac leaned on the table, resting his chin against his fist. “Keep going.”

“She would have gone to a moderately posh public school,” said Annelise, using the term for an English boarding school catering mainly to the ruling classes. “Not a top-shelf school, but close enough to be respectable. She would have been the quiet, studious sort as a girl, but as a woman she wants a life of her own. Her parents had her learn the violin so that she could impress a potential husband, but it became her escape. She threw herself into it, and auditioned for the New York Philharmonic to get away from London and her family.”

“Do you think you can make that work? You are out of practice.”

“Fuck you.” The response came unbidden, an impulse Annelise would have to curb. It was not something Christabel would say. It was too blunt, and thus uncouth. “Allow me to rephrase, please. I will make it work. Christabel has not been out of practice, and by the time she’s ready to audition nobody will know she only recently picked up the violin again.”

Isaac nodded, as if he had not heard her initial retort. “As I mentioned before, Morgan’s just a metalhead.”

“Did Naomi do metal at the bar where he worked?”

“No, as a matter of fact. It was one of those upscale bars catering to yuppies who at least pretended to consider rock too plebeian for their own refined tastes. Instead, they affected a taste for classical and jazz.”

“Right, so if Morgan hadn’t grown up listening to it, he might have learned enough from talking with Naomi to dig deeper on his own. He might even have picked up some music theory along the way. What’s his favorite band right now?”

Isaac thought a moment. “Right now? He seems to be digging Weasel Hadron Collider.”

A network search gave Annelise what she needed. “You called him a metalhead, and he’s listening to jazz fusion? What else has he gotten into.”

“Charn.” “That’s prog.”

“The Second Sex.” “Feminist punk.”

“Poseidon’s Wake.” “That’s a bloody King Crimson revival band. What kind of metalhead gets into that?”

Isaac spread his hands. “Fine. He’s a metalhead with aspirations. Your point?”

“He’s not gonna be content with power chords and lyrics about women, leather, and Hell screamed out over a wall of sound. If he was, would he really be Christabel’s type? I’m not convinced you know Morgan Cooper as well as you think you do.”

“She’s got a point,” said Elisabeth, sauntering into the room. Tousling Isaac’s hair until it spilled free of the ribbon binding it, she sat in his lap as if she were a cat and hooked a possessive arm around his shoulders. “So, what would you suggest we do about Morgan Cooper?”

“As a first step, Christabel should get Morgan’s interest. I’m sure you’ve got some sort of meet cute scene in mind.”

“I had thought of staging a robbery. You beg him to chase down a thief who has just snatched your violin.”

Annelise shook her head, “Really, Isaac? He’s an Adversary, right? Are property crimes even his problem?”

“She’s got a point,” said Elisabeth.

“What do we know about the people who handle auditions at the Phil? Are they honest? Is there one with a habit of demanding favors of young women?”

“As a matter of fact, there is.”

“When the time comes, put me in front of him. You’ll have a full A/V feed, so if he so much as implies that being a good musician isn’t enough and I’ve got to do something extra to earn a seat in the Phil, you can sic Morgan on him. Then, after he’s done his thing, we can arrange for me to meet him. If he takes his duties seriously he might not consent to date me at first, but I’ll win him over.”

“What happens then?” said Isaac.

“Once we’re seeing each other, I can ‘find out’ that he’s been studying the guitar. I can offer to play with him. I can suggest that we start a band, and point out that we need a vocalist. If Naomi auditions, I’ll bring her aboard.”

“I thought we talked about keeping Morgan away from my daughter.”

“Let the young lady finish,” said Elisabeth. “I think I know where her logic’s going.”

“Thanks,” said Annelise. “Isaac, you told me to torture Morgan. Just think of how he’ll suffer knowing that he can’t dump me to try to get with Naomi without breaking up the band, and that Naomi probably wouldn’t have him if he tried to trade up because there’d be nothing to stop him from trying to trade up again if he meets Elisabeth or Tamara.”

“You would make him a prisoner of his own pride?”

“Isn’t that what you were trying to do?” Sure she was venturing onto uncertain ground, she continued. “You guys aren’t human. Neither is Morgan, but he has the Pinocchio thing going. If you’re going to play him, you need somebody who can think like a human being on your side.”

“Aren’t you already on our side?”

“I’m on your payroll, which is fine as far as it goes since you pay a fuckton better than Borgia Pizza and you haven’t charged me for dinner, but I’m gunning for partner. Maybe I can’t be a sorceress, but whatever this conspiracy is that you’ve got going, I want in. All the way.”

As Elisabeth whispered in Isaac’s ear, Annelise caught the phrase ’not unprecedented.’ “Hey, Elisabeth, you mind sharing with the rest of the class?”

“The rest of the— Oh. Right. I was telling Isaac that your request wasn’t unprecedented. Somebody who shares our goals but disapproves of our methods also has a human assistant as a junior partner. I figured that since you’ve got moxie, we might as well take advantage of it.”

Moxie? Jesus. How out of touch with the current culture are these people? It was a question Annelise knew enough to keep to herself. “Anybody I know?”

“Not likely,” Isaac’s tone had soured with distaste. “Edmund Cohen has taken an interest in Morgan, so you’ll doubtless meet the old drunk. He’s dangerous.”

“Is he a mean drunk?”

“I was talking about when he’s sober,” said Isaac. “The more I tell you, the greater the probability that he might suspect that Christabel Crowley is not what she seems. It’s hard to keep knowledge to oneself, but you deserve better than to be kept in ignorance. It’s bad enough that I must treat my daughter and the einherjar I created thus; being able to initiate you into the mysteries may prove a pleasant change.”

Elisabeth curled a lock of Isaac’s frost-blonde hair about her finger. “Here’s something else to consider. Morgan is as much Enkidu as he is Gilgamesh. He’ll need a priestess to tame him and help him become more the man and less the beast.” She gazed directly into Annelise’s eyes. “You’ll have to seduce him. Do you know how?”

“I know how Christabel would go about it,” said Annelise, warming to her new role as she made it more her own. “She can’t seem too knowing. She should be innocent, but curious and maybe a little insistent. Morgan sounds like the sort who’d appreciate a woman with a firm hand. But whatever preparation I have to do to become Christabel Crowley, I can’t do it in New York. If he sees me here, it’ll be harder to buy Christabel’s story about coming to the city to escape family expectations back in London.”

“Well, that simplifies matters,” said Isaac. “I was wondering how I’d explain that I need you to go with Elisabeth to Europe for your preparation. Your maglev leaves tonight at midnight.”

“I’m ready,” said Annelise.

“No, you’re not,” said Elisabeth. “I doubt anybody will accuse me today of murdering you and bathing in your blood to keep my youthful beauty, but surely somebody would ask questions if you simply vanished. Please call your family and any friends you care to. Tell them that you lucked into a job with the Phoenix Society, but you’ll have to leave the city and may be out of touch for a long time. Say what goodbyes you must, so that you can leave without regrets.”

The Making of Christabel Crowley

The morning sun painted roses across the white bed linens as it streamed through the stained glass windows of the bedchamber to which Elisabeth Bathory had led Christabel upon her arrival the night before. Closing her eyes against the arrival of morning, she turned over and snuggled into one of the goose down pillows. It had taken longer than she would have liked for sleep to come, and now it fled all too soon.

The door creaked open, and she sat upright, clutching the covers against her. A young woman in black livery with red accents stood in the doorway and did a curtsy. “Good morning, Ms. Crowley. Countess Bathory sends her apologies for waking you since you arrived late last night, but breakfast will be served in half an hour. Shall I escort you to the dining hall?”

An impulse to insist that the servant was mistaken and assert her old identity almost seized Christabel, who was still not fully awake. She crushed it without mercy or a moment’s remorse. Annelise Copeland is a different person leading a different life. She doesn’t matter. I’m Christabel Crowley now.

“I’ll be ready in five minutes,” said Christabel.

“I can assist you, if you’d like.” The servant stepped inside, closing the bedchamber door behind her. “You may call me Marian.”

“I can manage.” Christabel looked for her luggage. She had draped her clothes from last night over one of the suitcases. “Marian, wait. Where are my clothes? Where’s my luggage?”

“While you were asleep, the staff put all of your new clothes away.”

“Why didn’t I hear them?”

“The Countess does not long tolerate indiscretion or incompetence in her staff,” said Marian as she opened the door to Christabel’s en suite bathroom for her. “If you’d care to shower, I will have your clothes ready for you once you’re done.’

A little over twenty minutes later, Christabel came down to breakfast, escorted by Marian. The servant gave another curtsy as she opened the door to the dining room, and indicated that Christabel should continue without her.

Despite her knowledge that Elisabeth had selected nothing but the best so that she might present herself at the height of fashion, it was hard not to feel like a frump compared to the other women seating themselves. There were even men who seemed prettier.

Elisabeth stood beside her chair at the head of the table, and rang a small crystal bell for attention. “Ladies, gentlemen, and those who know better, please allow me to introduce Christabel Crowley. She is my guest, and I have taken a personal interest in her education. You will accord her every courtesy.”

Christabel blushed as Elisabeth’s eyes met hers with a knowing wink. After breakfast, she lingered as the others departed, leaving her alone with Elisabeth. “What was that all about?”

Elisabeth shared one of her slow, rich smiles. “You know that my Garden of Earthly Delights is a school for courtesans, do you not?”

“Yes, but did you just single me out in front of the students?”

“The students?” Elisabeth’s laughter rang as high and clear as the bell she had used earlier. “Please forgive me; I thought I told you what to expect last night. It was not my students with which you dined, but my faculty.”

A sigh of relief escaped Christabel. “All right. I can deal with that. I thought I had walked into one of those teen dramas where the Hollywood ugly new girl gets thrown to the wolves.”

“Hollywood ugly?” Elisabeth chuckled. “Now, who called you that?”

“Well, Isaac had implied it. He said I had a ‘girl-next-door vibe’ and that I’d ‘clean up nicely’. Besides, compared to you—”

Elisabeth shook her head. “You’re only human. If you compare yourself to somebody who can project their own idealized image of themselves as if it were the reality, you’ll only make yourself miserable.”

“I don’t even compare favorably to Naomi Bradleigh.”

“Naomi Bradleigh doesn’t compare favorably to herself, either. The Naomi you see isn’t the one she sees when she brushes her teeth in the morning. She’s mortal, just like you. She gets clogged pores and ingrown hairs in inconveniently visible places just like you. She has to doll herself up to look the way she does in public.”

“So you can teach me to doll up?”

“I can teach you that, and so much more,” said Elisabeth, offering Christabel her hand. “Come with me, please.”

The courtyard to which Elisabeth took her was a garden wilder than the one in which her sister Tamara lived. Native wildflowers grew in profusion here, shaded by fruit-bearing trees. Bees and butterflies hummed to and fro, making their rounds. A shaggy brown tabby cat with a smudge of white on its muzzle leaped after a blue swallowtail, but the butterfly fluttered out of the reach of its white paws. “Poor Smudge,” said Elisabeth. “He keeps trying for the butterflies, but he’s never managed to get one. Fortunately, he does better with the mice.”

“It seems rather a lot of castle for one cat.”

“You’ll see others during your stay. You might even find one curled up on your bed on occasion. Speaking of which, were you comfortable last night?”

“I’ve never slept in such a large bed before. I actually had room to stretch out. It was wonderful.”

“Good. I trust Marian was attentive.”

“I’m not really comfortable having a servant.”

“That will change as you grow into your persona,” said Elisabeth. “Tamara will ensure that you possess the requisite liberal arts education and musical skill for your role. Isaac will no doubt show up to teach you sword-work—”

“Why would I need to know how to fight with a sword? I’m not going to become an Adversary.”

“It’s good physical and mental exercise, and it will build your confidence. You will need every bit of it you can get.”

“So that Morgan doesn’t walk all over me?”

“So that Morgan doesn’t outright ignore you,” said Elisabeth. “Our observations of Morgan indicate that he does not reach out to others. If other people reach out to him first, he’ll accept their friendship. It appears that he’s concerned about being a burden on others, and so tries to manage as well as he can on his own.”

“Is it that ‘army of one’ thing he has going on because he’s einherjar?”

“Probably,” said Elisabeth. Selecting a pair of ripe apples, she offered one to Christabel and bit into the other. “I see you did some etymological research.”

“I was just listening to everything Isaac said,” said Christabel, untucking her blouse so she could use the tail to polish her apple. Tart sweetness burst upon her as he bit through the skin. “But I don’t get it. He reached out to Naomi, didn’t he?”

“Yes, and she let him down gently. His first experience of romance was bittersweet. He got a kiss out of it, but that was all he got. He learned from the experience, but the lesson he took from it is not one convenient to our purposes.”

“No shit,” said Christabel.

“That’s something a New Yorker might say. Stay in character.”

Christabel ignored the rebuke. “That dossier I read last night made Morgan out to be some kind of hero, but you make him sound like a coward. How can somebody capable of braving an inferno to rescue strangers just decide to ignore women because of one gentle rejection?”

Elisabeth slowly ate her apple, leaving Christabel to do the same. It was not until she had finished hers and buried the core—digging into the loamy soil of her garden with her bare hands—that she spoke again. “You saw the photos. Does Morgan look like somebody who repeatedly ran into a burning building without protection?”

“No. Why is that, anyway?”

“As long as an einherjar has food, they can rapidly heal from any physical injury.”

“So, he’s hard to kill, but it’s easy to break his heart?”

“As easy as any other man’s.”

“I don’t buy it,” said Christabel. “Oh, I’m sure that Naomi could have broken his heart easily enough if she had wanted to, but she was gentle with him.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I think you’ve got a man with a plan on your hands. He wants to make something of himself so that the next time he meets Naomi he can be worthy of her. To that end, he’s become an Adversary and a musician. This is a man who believes in himself and his appeal as a man. He knows what he wants, and he’s doing what he thinks he must to get it.”

Christabel tore a bite from her apple. “Isaac wants me to leave him no solace but the sword. That means I’ve got to not only break his heart, but run it through a meat grinder, use it as pie filling, and make him eat it. I’ve got to shatter his belief in his own manhood, and rub his nose in his utter lack of intrinsic worth. Nobody loves him, nobody ever will, and the only reason his existence is tolerated is that he can fight demons. The sooner he’s made to see this, the sooner Isaac gets what he wants.”

“You were reluctant to hurt him last night.”

Staring at her apple, which had turned out to have a worm in it, Christabel hardened her heart. “Annelise was reluctant. I’m not Annelise. I agreed to do a job for Isaac, and I will do what it takes to see it done.”

A Definite Maybe

Christabel loathed the cover of her debut album. The photographer had spent hours trying to get her to simper for the camera just so, because it seemed that most people who bought recordings of women performing classical music expected the performers to look like courtesans. While she had learned from the best in the business at the Garden of Earthly Delights, she had no interest in teasing yuppies who thought themselves superior because they fantasized about classically-trained soloists instead of pop divas. The photographer had eventually given up, and made do with a photo Christabel standing at the center of a blizzard in jeans, a red brocade corset complete with whalebone, and black patent leather spike heels meeting the camera with an icy stare as she held her bow poised to wrench a chord from an electric violin. She would have preferred to not be on the cover, but the record label’s marketing people had overruled her.

She had only herself to blame, though. The album had been her idea. Though the New York Philharmonic had offered her a seat in the first violins section before the conductor’s habit of demanding inappropriate favors of young women in exchange for a favorable recommendation had been exposed and the conductor brought down by the Phoenix Society, the orchestra’s directors had rescinded the offer afterward.

This was fine with Christabel; she had taken to reviewing updated dossiers of Morgan Cooper and Naomi Bradleigh in her spare time over the past year and come to the conclusion that while Morgan might appreciate classical music, he was not the sort to spend his evenings at the symphony or the opera. If she was going to get involved with Morgan and start a band with him, it would be a pain to also cope with the Phil’s grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Furthermore, it gave her another angle for marketing herself as a solo performer. Christabel Crowley: too hot for the New York Philharmonic.

The downside was that the record label was determined to make an idol of her, despite her being a violinist rather than a vocalist. It was the reason behind the photography. It was also the reason she was sitting at a merch table in the Flaming Telepath, a bar in Brooklyn with a reputation among discerning metalheads, flogging copies of Shattered Harmonies after staring down crowds who couldn’t decide whether to try booing her off the stage or demanding that she show her tits while waiting out her set so they could hear the night’s headliners.

“The crowds are always tough when you’re a warm-up act nobody’s ever heard of.” Naomi Bradleigh had warned her in between takes; they had met while Christabel was recording her album and Naomi was doing guest vocals on a bonus track for Seiten Taisei’s first album, Monkey Business. “And there’s always going to be at least one bloke who thinks it’s clever to mistake you for a stripper. It’s hard not to take it personally, but it’s sort of a trial by ice. When you’re just the warm-up act, nobody gives a toss about you. But if you become a headliner, then everybody brags about how they were your biggest fans before you made it big.

“Excuse me.” Christabel looked up and saw a tall man with a dancer’s build standing in front of her. He was wearing a Magician, Heal Thyself t-shirt, and had his shimmering blue-black hair bound into a tail that spilled over one shoulder and down his chest. His slit-pupiled eyes were the green of the forests surrounding the Garden of Earthly Delights. He held a bottle of beer in each hand, and one still had its cap on. “I know this is forward, but after the performance you gave earlier I figured you could use a beer.”

“Why, thank you,” said Christabel, surprised as much by this stranger’s consideration as his generosity. Not only had he bought her a beer, but thought to leave it capped so that she could safely drink it. “Have we met?”

“Not in person, I but remembered your name from work.” He held out his hand. “I’m Morgan Cooper, and while I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you with the New York Philharmonic, it looks like you landed on your feet.”

“I suppose I did.”

“Tough crowd?”

“Yeah,” Christabel wrapped the hem of her t-shirt around the cap and twisted it off. After a long pull from her bottle, she set it down on the table. “I try to ignore the booing; I figure they do it to everybody they haven’t heard of.”

“Pretty much. I got the same treatment at an open mic event last week.”

“Did anybody tell you to take off your clothes?”

Morgan laughed. “Somebody’s grandma wanted a cheap thrill. Probably would have done it anyway, since the stage lights were hotter than I expected.”

“Oh, muses, yes. I hadn’t expected that. It was never that bad playing in an orchestra.”

Morgan eyed the stack of LPs. “Is that your album?”

“What do you think?”

He produced his wallet. “I think I’d like a copy. A shirt, too, if you have one in extra-large.”

Christabel smiled behind the mouth of her bottle. “Should I autograph the LP?”

“I’d like that. You’re good live, and I want to know what you sound like in the studio.”

“Just a moment.” Having had a slightly wicked idea, she reached into her purse for her lipstick. Once she had applied it, she unwrapped a copy of Shattered Harmonies, pulled out the record in its paper sleeve, and set about giving Morgan something she hoped would prove more memorable than an autograph. “Here you go.”

He tucked the LP under his arm. “Thank you.”

“Thanks for the beer,” said Christabel, her gratitude not part of the act. Furthermore, now that she thought of it, she had seen Morgan in front but off to the side, listening intently to her performance. He had not been one of those booing her or demanding a striptease. “And for actually listening earlier.”

Morgan shrugged. “When I heard you were performing, I looked you up. Your band, too. I recognized your bass player, Marcus Phillips.”

“Oh, so you play bass? I had you pegged for a guitarist.” According to the dossier, Morgan played both, but Christabel wasn’t about to admit her possession of such information. Nor would she admit to knowing that his primary instrument was some kind of hybrid that allowed a musician to play bass lines with one hand and melody with the other. “Too bad I wasn’t at that open mic.”

He turned away, as if embarrassed. “I play both, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“I’d like to hear you play sometime.” It was risky, but Morgan had not looked at the protective sleeve of his new LP and seen the rather explicit clue she had left for him there.

“I’m sure I’ll be at the next open mic,” said Morgan, and she found herself wanting to reach up, grab this clueless git by the collar of his leather jacket, pull him down, and snog some sense into him. “Thanks again for being here tonight. I enjoyed seeing you play.”

After spending the rest of the night fuming and counting the seconds until she could pack up and get the hell out of there, the last thing Christabel wanted was to report her progress, or her lack thereof, to Isaac Magnin.

“Was he there tonight?”

“Yes, Isaac, he was there. He actually listened to me play, and then brought me a beer while I was attending the merch table and failing to flog copies of my record. He even had the sense to leave the cap on so I’d have no reason to suspect foul play.”

“That sounds like a good start. Did he buy a copy of your album?”

“Yeah. Said he wanted to know what I sounded like in the studio.” She let out a frustrated huff. “We had a nice, polite chat. I found out from him that he plays, and told him I’d like to listen. You know what he did?”

“The transcript from your feed just came through. I suppose that wasn’t quite the result you hoped for.”

That, Christabel thought, was the understatement of the century. While it might have been unreasonable for him to say he wanted to hear what she sounded like in the bedroom, knowing it was unreasonable to be miffed about it hours after the fact did not stop her from being annoyed that after she all but asked him out all he did was say he’d be at the next open mic. “Are all the einherjar this dense?”

Magnin shrugged on his side of the video call. “Some are much worse.”

“Small mercies, eh?”

“But you autographed his copy of Shattered Harmonies, right?”

“And wrote down my network address. I even left a kiss. How much more obvious do I have to be?”

“I think I see why you’re annoyed. You spent a lot of time learning how to appeal to men, and you thought it would be easier to get into his head.”

“I think I’m already there, but he doesn’t see me the way I need him to see me. He’s not one of those guys who fantasizes about getting into bed with every vaguely attractive female musician whose albums they’ve collected.”

“That was in the dossier,” said Isaac, gently chiding her.

“We both know the dossier is only 95% reliable.”

“Fair enough. What will you do now?”

“I guess I could watch for open mic events in the area and try to catch Morgan at one. Just please don’t tell Elisabeth that I finally met the guy and couldn’t even get a definite maybe out of him.”

A text message came from an address Christabel did not recognize. «I’m listening to your album, and wondering how personally I should take the kiss you left on my copy. —Morgan»

Another Woman’s Treasure

Though Christabel could have replied to Morgan’s text message a couple of weeks ago, she had decided it was better to let him sweat a little. It was only what he deserved for not having the wit to realize that she wanted him to ask her out despite the obvious clues she had provided. I gave him my address and left a kiss printed in lipstick. What more did the man need, an engraved invitation?

Instead, since he had said he’d be at the Flaming Telepath’s next open mic night she decided to take him at his word. She would elbow her way to the front of the crowd and listen to him—turnabout being fair play.

It had not been hard to get a copy of the set list; the Flaming Telepath’s proprietor was not as clever in his choice of passphrases as he thought, and it had been easy for one of AsgarTech’s AIs to brute-force his account by selecting random lines from a corpus of Blue Öyster Cult lyrics. Morgan had gotten the last slot. It was a tough position; by that time most of the patrons would be trying either to get drunk or get laid, and the rest would care mainly for maintaining their current states of inebriation.

Since nobody else on the set list mattered to Christabel, she had no compunction about showing up in the middle of the set before Morgan’s. However, instead of seeing Morgan take the stage, another band stepped up and launched into some kind of recondite instrumental excursion into technical death metal that seemed to change time signatures every time Christabel thought she had gotten a grip on the music.

The worst of it came from a guy who was playing an instrument with entirely too many strings5, tapping out a bass line with one hand and using the other to provide counterpoint to the lead guitarist. He was shoe-gazing, his hair spilling over his shoulders until the lead guitarist started a duel. The melody shifted back and forth between the two, and when it shifted away from the lead guitarist the other musician seemed to come to life, his hair whipping about as he let his body move to the music he mercilessly wrenched from his instrument.

And while his hair was whipping about, Christabel saw he was wearing a t-shirt with her name on it. Worse, she recognized motifs from her album in his playing as the band broke down into a jam session. He had taken her melodies, and set them to bass lines of his own, bass lines more intricate than those her sideman had recorded.

A drunk standing beside her put his hands around his mouth to create a jury-rigged megaphone. “Jerk off backstage, assholes.”

Before she could stop herself, she had him by the ear. Pulling him down to ensure she had his undivided attention, she said, “If you can’t appreciate what they’re doing up there then fuck off to some other bar.” She let him go, but not before grinding one of her spike heels into his foot for emphasis. A bouncer showed up before he could make plain his opinion of such rough treatment, and dragged him away as the band played on, too absorbed in their jam to be perturbed.

The set soon ended, sooner than she would have liked. The lead guitarist threw his picks into the crowd as if he were a headliner and not some nobody playing an open mic event. “We’re The Epstein-Barr Band. Look us up next time you’re in the market for some infectious grooves. Goodnight!”

She was in the alley behind the bar before the members of the Epstein-Barr Band, and the lead guitarist gave her a once-over. “Hey, weren’t you up front? I saw how you handled that rude guy.”

Christabel shrugged. “Sorry about that. But some guys forget their manners after they’ve had one too many.”

“No kidding, lady. Seriously, though, it was hella cool seeing you grab that guy by the ear. You looked like a teacher on her night off.”

The man wearing her t-shirt showed up, his instrument slung over his shoulder in its case. “Hello, Christabel. Thanks for showing up.”

The lead guitarist glanced between the two. “Hey, Cooper, you know her?”

“Yeah. Been listening to her album.”

“So I noticed,” said Christabel, putting her hands on her hips. “I heard some of my riffs while you guys were jamming. Why the bloody hell didn’t you tell me you were so good?”

Morgan raised his hands to protest. “I’m not that good. I’ve only been playing a few years. And this is the first band I’ve been in.” He jerked a thumb toward the lead guitarist. “Epstein here can tell you as much.”

Epstein nodded. “Yeah, this is his first band. If he had more experience he’d know better than to upstage the front-man.”

A flush reddened Morgan’s face. “Sorry, man. Once I got into it I couldn’t resist.”

“Yeah, I know. And you’re good. But you’re not right for the Epstein-Barr Band. We’re just here to have a good time, and you take this way too seriously.”

Morgan nodded, but his entire face seemed to fall into dejection. “All right. It was good jamming with you guys, though. Good luck.”

He began to walk away, as if he had already forgotten about the band. This Christabel could understand. However, he also seemed to have forgotten about her, and this simply would not do.

“Hey,” said Epstein. “You’re Christabel Crowley, right? Any chance I could buy you a—”

He was on the ground before he could finish the proposition, clutching the jaw that Christabel had shattered with the diamond-cluster knuckle duster she kept in her pocket. Straddling Epstein, she glared at the others. “Anybody have any objections?”

Since nobody did, she left them to get help for their band-mate and followed Morgan. It proved hard going, for one could only walk so quickly while wearing heels and running was out of the question. Fortunately, she had his address because he had texted her. «Wait for me, dammit.»

She caught up with him a block later, waiting at a street corner. “Epstein was right,” said Morgan. “It means too much to me. I want it too damn much.”

“And I want you,” said Christabel. “I was there to hear you play. I was so disappointed when it turned out to be some band that named themselves after a disease. But then I heard you playing my music and saw you wearing my t-shirt. I don’t know if you believe in fate, but it feels to me like there’s a connection between us.”

“I know,” said Morgan, “But it doesn’t feel right. You were a complainant in a case I worked. Now I can’t stop listening to your album. Your music has infected mine. And when I see the spark in your eyes…” He gazed up at the sky for a moment as the clouded skies began to spit down rain. “I haven’t felt like this since I was a teenager. I’m not comfortable with it.”

Christabel placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. When he failed to shrug it off, she stood on tiptoe so that she could whisper in his ear. “It’s called infatuation. It’s the first step toward falling in love.” Before he could react, she caught his lips with hers, stealing the barest brush of a kiss. Backing away just a moment, she held his not-quite-human forest-green gaze. “You can let yourself fall. I’m here to catch you.”

“Why?” Though he had not elaborated, Christabel suspected she knew what Morgan meant. The psychological profiles in his dossier all indicated that he was an earnest young man and an incorrigible romantic, but was sure that romance was a privilege he did not deserve. Coming from him now, his why meant why would you want somebody like me.

“That asshole had no idea what he just threw away,” said Christabel, pressing a deeper, lingering kiss upon him. “But I know a treasure when I see one, and I want you for myself. I’ve seen you live. Now I want to know what you sound like in a studio.”

“You don’t have to kiss me just because you want to jam with me.”

Christabel did it again, and this time his control slipped just enough for him to kiss her back, however tentatively. “Since you can’t seem to take a hint, I also want to know what you sound like in my bedroom. But since you’re shy we can take it slow.”

That Certain Something

Christabel leaned back in her chair as another singer finished their solo audition. This one was an alto accompanying herself on a skillfully played hurdy-gurdy, and while many other bands would have been happy to bring her on board, she wasn’t what Christabel wanted for her new band, Crowley’s Thoth. She was one of those folk metal types, and she had a different style in mind for her new band. She even had a name for it: black tie metal. The music would be complex, the lyrics literary and erudite. Between her violin and Morgan’s stick guitar, all she needed was Naomi Bradleigh on vocals and keyboards.

Nevertheless, she had been obliged to hold open auditions for vocalists and keyboard players. Even if her record label hadn’t insisted upon open auditions, Morgan might have suspected something was off. More importantly, if she had reached out directly to Naomi, or if Isaac Magnin had found away to arrange a meeting, Naomi herself might have smelled a rat and refused.

Thus it was necessary to put on this sham of an open audition and at least give the first couple dozen people to sign up a chance to waste their time and effort. Likewise, it was necessary to pick half a dozen for the shortlist, and give them a chance to jam with her and Morgan to see if they jelled as a band. The hard part was that the first audition was a blind audition. She had no way of knowing if Naomi would even show up until they heard her singing in the studio.

In the meantime, Christabel had to put the alto with the hurdy-gurdy out of her misery. She reached for the mic, ready to dash her hopes.

“I thought she was good,” said Morgan. “Certainly the best we’ve had so far.”

“That’s hardly saying much,” said Christabel, withdrawing her hand. “First there was the baritone who couldn’t stay on key. Then there was the tenor who couldn’t stay on beat. After him came that mezzo-soprano who sang in one key and played in another.”

“Can we at least shortlist this one?”

“Must we?” Lending credence to Morgan’s opinions was part of the game she had to play, though fairness demanded of Christabel that she at least admit that his judgment was sound. If she hadn’t been set on a particular performer, this alto with the hurdy-gurdy would have deserved further consideration.

“We can always strike her name if we get some stronger contenders.”

“Fair enough,” said Christabel. She keyed the mic again. “Excuse me. Candidate number five, are you still there?”

“Yes. I was just packing up.”

“Please stick around for the next round.”

There was a gasp from the other side. “Really? Thank you!”

Letting go of the mic, Christabel considered Morgan. His fashion sense had improved under her; she had not succeeded in persuading him to wear a necktie yet, let alone a cravat, but at least he had taken to wearing open-collared silk shirts under his biker’s jacket, and he no longer wore the torn and faded jeans he used to favor. “I still don’t think this one’s gonna work out. And I really don’t like the way the hurdy-gurdy sounds.”

“You’re looking for a certain something.”

“Yeah. But don’t ask me what.”

“You’ll know it when you hear it, right?”

“Yeah.” She stood up, stretched, and then leaned over Morgan. Gazing into his eyes, she stole a quick kiss and added. “You’ll know it too. I’m holding out for somebody to whom we can both say hell yeah.”

“Fair enough,” said Morgan. “Who’s next?”

Christabel checked the audition forms, which had been redacted to strip out identifying information. “A classically trained singer and pianist.” Keying the mic, she spoke to the candidate. “You can start whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” came a voice Christabel instantly recognized. It was a Londoner’s accent acquired by honest means, with a hint of Devonshire farm girl beneath. “The advertisement didn’t specify any particular piece, but I had an idea for something original while I was on my way.”

Christabel keyed the mic again. “Go ahead.”

Descending chords pulled forth from the piano by a deft and gentle hand traced a dreamlike path toward silent melancholy. A right-handed tremolo shattered the silence, as if the instrument had awoken with a racing heart. A new left-handed melody rose urgent and insistent out of the lower register. Once the motif had fully developed, the tremolo became a counterpoint. Melody and counterpoint pulsed in rapid syncopation, and Christabel was already hard-pressed to keep up when the candidate began to sing, using a crystalline soprano voice as an instrument. The vocal melody was a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis she had played with either hand, until it reached its climax and faded away, leaving the piano to recapitulate the initial motifs.

Christabel sat dumbfounded, unsure if the auditory assault she had just endured was a brilliant new composition or a dissonant, pretentious mess meriting prosecution as an aesthetic atrocity.

Morgan, however, had grabbed his stick guitar and was playing it unplugged, working out the piano parts. Though the unamplified instrument was barely audible, it seemed to Christabel that Morgan was getting it mostly right despite playing by ear a composition he had heard but once.

As if realizing that her eyes were upon him, Morgan looked up and gazed wide-eyed at her. “We need to get into a studio with her right now. She’s brilliant.”

“I have no idea what the hell she just played.”

“Who gives a shit? I think the intensity with which she plays and sings is something Crowley’s Thoth needs.”

“And what about the other candidates?”

“Other candidates be damned,” said Morgan. “Didn’t you recognize that voice? Or the way she plays? That’s Naomi fucking Bradleigh auditioning for our band.

“So what?” Christabel’s indifference was for show; she had half-expected that she might have to persuade Morgan that they should take Bradleigh on, but his insistence simplified matters. There was no need to give him the hard sell when he had already convinced himself. Whether it was on the strength of Bradleigh’s reputation or that of her bewildering performance was of no concern to Christabel. Her philosophy was one expressible in two words: whatever works.

She followed Morgan, who had grabbed his stick guitar and left the control booth. He held the recording room door open for her, but seemed transfixed by the snow-blonde and scarlet-eyed figure seated at the piano.

Naomi rose from the piano and smoothed the black dress she wore over a burgundy blouse, and extended an elegant, long-fingered hand toward Christabel. “Hello. I’m Naomi Bradleigh. You must be Christabel Crowley. I believe we’ve met before.”

Christabel took her hand and gave it a polite shake. “I hadn’t expected that you would audition, Ms. Bradleigh.”

This was a lie; she had hoped from the start to snare Bradleigh, being sure that Morgan would eventually come to regret his initial enthusiasm for her presence in the band, but sometimes the only way was to try to arrange favorable circumstances for the universe to give you what you wanted.

“I hadn’t expected to be at loose ends,” said Naomi, so when I saw the advert on the Melody Maker site I thought it would at least be better than moping because yet another band fell apart around me. Recording guest vocals on B-sides and bonus tracks isn’t the worst way to make a living, but I had hoped for more.“

“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” said Morgan.

That much Christabel could agree with, but she knew better than to admit her knowledge that credit for Naomi’s recent setbacks could be laid at Isaac Magnin’s feet. Though he had been reluctant to use his influence to the detriment of his daughter’s career, she had persuaded him that doing things her way would better serve his wider purpose. “I don’t want to say I’m glad you had the opportunity to audition for Crowley’s Thoth, but I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that it wouldn’t be a coup for me if you, Morgan, and I could get a tight band going.”

“Well,” said Naomi. “I guess all we need is a drummer.”

“I’ve got that sorted,” said Christabel, patting the prototype CARL-9000 unit manufactured by Palmer Audio6. It was another example of the utility of friends in high places; somebody owed Isaac a favor, and as a result she got some useful equipment. “So, I’m on violin, Morgan’s on the stick, and you’re on keyboards and vocals.”

Naomi blinked a couple of times before giving Morgan an appraising look. “Well, well. I knew there was a bloke named Morgan Cooper playing the Chapman Stick on Shattered Harmonies II, but I didn’t think it would be you.”

Oh, no you don’t. Jealousy welled up, tasting to Christabel rather like acid reflux. He’s mine. Rather than be overtly possessive, however, she kept her tone neutral. “Have you worked together before?”

“Not really,” said Morgan. “I was working as a bouncer at a bar Naomi frequently played.” He turned away too slowly to keep the bright flush of his embarrassment from Christabel’s view. “I had a crush on her. I’m over it, though.”

You’d better not be, Christabel thought as she turned to Naomi. “Morgan and I are currently dating. That won’t be a problem for you, will it?”

“Please don’t take this as judgment on you,” said Naomi, and Christabel suspected that what she’d say next would be precisely that. “But when I’m in a band I don’t date the other members. It avoids a lot of unnecessary trouble.”

“That works for me,” said Morgan, but Christabel was sure that there was something about his expression that suggested he was telling a white lie.

Rather than call him on it, Christabel turned the conversation back to business. “So, is there a piece we all know that we can run through together?”

“Acid Rain.” Morgan and Naomi glanced at one another as they realized they had both suggested the same classic progressive metal instrumental. Fortunately, it was one Christabel knew as well; she had been surreptitiously listening to Morgan’s favorite playlists since before they had met.

Delivering The Goods

Rain on a warm summer night wasn’t enough to spoil Christabel’s mood. If anything; she welcomed it. Tonight had been the first show of the worldwide tour Crowley’s Thoth had embarked upon to promote their first album, Prometheus Unbound, which they had played at Manhattan’s Hellfire Club. It wasn’t the largest of venues, but there would be time enough for that. While they weren’t headliners in their own right, they got billing right under the main act and played their sets before it but after the warm-up acts that people tried to boo off the stage. Best of all, the headline act was VIVA, a symphonic metal act from Gothenburg. They too had a soprano vocalist, but she didn’t have the range Naomi Bradleigh did.

And thanks to me, she looks like a dumpy little frump compared to Naomi. Christabel savored the knowledge; as the band was gearing up to release their debut album and embark on what Morgan had taken to calling “Prometheus On Tour”, she had enlisted the help of Elisabeth Bathory and Tamara Gellion to design the outfits they would wear on stage. She had designed for herself an elegant ballgown in burgundy, while dressing Morgan and Naomi in tuxedos cut to display their figures to advantage and hiding their faces behind ornate masques that would not have been out of place at a Venetian carnival. Christabel alone showed her face, standing front and center even though she did not sing.

The only fly in the ointment was that VIVA had not arrived on time. The tour bus had broken down, and the band had not arrived by the time Crowley’s Thoth had taken the stage. They still weren’t there when Christabel and the others had finished their set, and now the venue’s manager was in their shared dressing room. He wiped his brow and wrung his hands as he tried to look Christabel in the eye. “I’m on the spot here, Ms. Crowley. I know you’ve finished your set, but I’ve got a crowd hyped up to see VIVA and they aren’t here. I don’t know when they’re going to get here, either.”

“What would you have me do about it?”

“How about an encore?”

Christabel narrowed her eyes. There was nothing in the contract about an encore. They had a forty-five minute set, long enough to play the tracks from Prometheus Unbound that seemed to resonate most with listeners streaming individual songs instead of buying entire albums. They had padded out the set with updated selections from the Shattered Harmony albums with which Christabel had launched her career as a classical-to-rock crossover artist. Even if they had additional material rehearsed, there was the matter of payment. “Not in our contract.”

“I know. I don’t have the budget to pay you extra right now, but what if we can negotiate an additional contract with payment in ninety days?”

“That seems fair to me,” said Naomi. “But what if the headliners still haven’t arrived?”

The manager pressed a fingertip to his ear to indicate that he was getting a message via his implant. He seemed to relax a bit. “I just got word from VIVA’s manager. They just got the bus moving again and they’ll be here in an hour. Of course, they’ll need an hour after that to get ready. I know an additional two-hour set is a lot, but—”

Morgan’s smile was almost predatory. “Do you remember the fee you negotiated for the forty-five minute set we just played?”

“Yeah.”

“Quadruple it and you’ll get your two hours.”

Unable to believe what she was hearing, Christabel pinged Morgan over the band’s private group chat. «Have you gone ’round the bend? We don’t have enough material for a ten minute encore, let alone two hours.»

Morgan’s reply seemed to her that of a man who saw the point but refused to acknowledge it. «We’ve got the public domain.»

«Live jam session?» Naomi piped up. «That could be fun.»

«We’re not here to have fun,» texted Christabel. «We’re professional musicians, dammit. We did our job. Why should we have to go out and improvise because the bloody headliners couldn’t be bothered to show up on time?»

Meanwhile, the manager was staring bug-eyed at Christabel. “Can’t you cut me a break on the fee?”

“Ever see an old Mafia flick called GoodFellas?” said Morgan.

“I have,” said Naomi. Her voice had become a soft purr dripping honeyed venom. “I know you’ve got a tight budget, but that’s not our problem.”

“There’s no way I can come up with that fee in sixty days and turn a profit.”

Feeling both Morgan and Naomi’s eyes on her, Christabel threw her weight behind theirs. “Fuck you. Pay us. And if sixty days pass without us getting a check, I’ll file the wage-theft complaint with the Phoenix Society personally.”

“T-T-That’s not how business is done.”

“It is with us,” said Morgan. “While I’ll not be the Adversary who gets the case, the one who does will be no less merciless. An attack on one is an attack on all.”

“Day of wrath, day of burning, all your hopes to ashes turning,” Naomi sang her paraphrase of Dies Irae. To Christabel’s chagrin, she had improvised the melody on the spot.

“If you fuck us over,” said Christabel, poking the manager’s chest with the tip of her bow. “Our next album will be your bloody requiem. Now go deal with the stage crew and the crowd. We’ll be out in ten.”

Once the manager had left, Christabel rounded upon her band-mates. “Are you two utterly barking? What the hell are we supposed to play out there?”

“Acid Rain,” said Morgan.

“Orion,” said Naomi.

“Hit ‘em upside the head with Chopin’s Revolutionary?”

“Ooh, fun. I’ll do that first.”

“It’s just started raining, so I’ll come out once you’ve finished the Revolutionary and launch into Sweet Sweet Rain.”

“And when I come out,” asked Christabel.

“What about one of those Jean-Luc Ponty pieces you’ve been fiddling with,” said Morgan.

“But they’re metalheads.”

“So are we,” said Morgan and Naomi in harmony.

“Will you stop doing that? It’s creepy.”

“Not like we do it on purpose,” said Naomi.

“Fine. What should we play when I come out?”

“Go with some Malmsteen or Satriani,” said Morgan. “Maybe the Far Beyond the Sun or Ceremony?”

“I think I’ll go with Unstoppable Momentum,” said Christabel. While the band might be her cover, rather than being her life as it so obviously was for Morgan and Naomi, living up to her cover was a matter of acting, and acting was her life.

A few hours later, Christabel stood behind the Hellfire Club at the entertainers’ entrance. She stood with her face lifted skyward, letting the rain cool her in its embrace without a care for what it would do to her makeup or how it would most likely ruin her dress. It didn’t matter. She’d wear something different, something even better, for the next show.

What mattered was that halfway through their second set, the crowd was utterly theirs. They hadn’t cared that the material they played wasn’t original. If anything, they had appreciated the breaks between pieces in which Morgan or Naomi would share a bit about the piece they had just played, educating the audience and exposing them to selections from the public domain that often went forgotten in mass-market compilations.

It was hardly the reaction Christabel had expected.

She turned as the door opened behind her. An auburn haired woman in a little black dress stepped out, reached into her purse for a pack of cigarettes, and offered one to Christabel, who waved it away. “No thanks.”

“Smart woman,” said the other woman as she lit up. “This is one vice I should leave behind; it’s going to be murder on my voice. Not that I ever had a shot at being as good as Naomi Bradleigh. How did you manage to get her?”

“Just lucky, I guess.” Christabel gave up on trying to place her interlocutor. “Have we met?”

“Damn. I may have left my manners on the bus.” The other woman offered a hand. “I’m Victoria Valentine. Thanks for holding the crowd while we were broken down. We got here in time for me to catch the end of your set, and you three were crushing it.”

Despite the cooling summer rain, Christabel flushed, and cursed herself for her embarrassment. Take the compliment, dammit. “Thanks. You and VIVA were real troupers. I’m not sure what I would have done in your position.”

“I’m sure you would have done fine. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to spend the night digging up relics like you did, though. That last tune was an inspired choice. You really tore into the violin part, and the way you three passed the lead around was so smooth I could have sworn you’d been rehearsing it.”

“Actually, that last number was Morgan’s idea.” There was no reason not to give credit where it was due, in Christabel’s opinion. Not when there was plenty to go around. “We had started dating before I realized how good a musician he is.”

“Did he ever tell you about his day job?”

“No. Why would he?”

“He should have,” said Victoria, as she reached into her purse. When she withdrew it, she was holding a small black semiautomatic pistol. “The enemies he makes could complicate your life.”

Sweet Little Lies

Isaac had warned Christabel that she might eventually find herself staring down the barrel of a gun. He had done what he could to prepare her. He had taught her methods for disarming assailants armed with pistols and other firearms. He had periodically tested her, though always with advance warning. Despite his efforts she froze whenever somebody pointed a weapon at her.

Though she knew she should be looking for a way out, all she could focus on was the matte black pistol in Victoria’s hand, and what she had told her as she drew it. “It looks like my life has indeed gotten complicated,” said Christabel. She took a shuddering breath. “I suppose you’re one of Morgan’s enemies. What did he do to you?”

“It won’t matter to you since you’ll be dead soon,” said Victoria. She had taken a two-handed grip on her pistol and stood with her feet apart and her knees slightly bent. “Call Morgan. It’s time he lost somebody he cared about for once.”

Christabel slowly raised one of her hands, and pressed her fingertip to her ear to indicate that she was using her implant. «Morgan, I’m outside the entertainers’ entrance with Victoria Valentine. She’s pointing a gun at me. Don’t come after me. As soon as she sees you she’ll shoot me.»

«If I keep her waiting long enough she might shoot you anyway. Try to keep calm. I’m on my way.»

Christabel lowered her hand, and forced herself to look at Victoria’s eyes instead of the muzzle of her gun. “He’s coming.”

Victoria’s aim wavered as she took a deep breath. “I meant what I said earlier. You three gave a brilliant performance. You could have been one of the greats. But out of all the guitarists, you had to pick him.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Why do you care?”

Christabel shrugged. “So I can tell him why I’m haunting him.”

“He killed my father.”

“Oh, and now you’re going to kill my girlfriend?”

Taking her eyes from the gun pointed at her had become the easiest thing in the world. A few meters down the alley, Morgan stood unarmed, his hands on his hips as he gazed contemptuously at Victoria. “Your father had it coming, but if you love him that much despite everything he did to you then shoot me.”

“You don’t think I won’t?”

Morgan took a step forward. “I don’t think you’ve got the nerve.”

“He’d never so much as touched a sword in his life. He didn’t have a chance against you.”

“He stole every milligram you ever earned as a child performer. He defrauded hundreds of people who trusted him to manage their retirement savings.”

“The evidence was fabricated.”

“The grand jury thought otherwise. They found the evidence solid enough to justify issuing unanimous indictments on every charge against him the Phoenix Society requested. When an Adversary came to deliver the indictments and take him into custody, your father shot him in the throat.”

“Not another step!” Victoria all but shrieked her warning as she finally turned the gun on Morgan. “Or so help me God I will shoot you.”

Morgan’s smile became predatory. He took another step forward. “Better not miss.”

“No!”

The pistol’s roar drowned out Christabel’s cry. The shot struck Morgan between the eyes, and he staggered a step backward. He slumped forward, and Christabel was sure he’d fall flat on his face. She was sure she had seen him murdered, but he raised his head and met Victoria’s gaze. “Was that the best you could do?”

“I shot you in the head. How can you still be on your feet?”

“You think one bullet is enough for einherjar like me?” Morgan took another step forward. “Try the whole magazine.”

“You’re insane.”

“Look at me.” Morgan touched the center of his brow where the bullet had struck him. The flesh was pristine, as if he had never been shot. “You’ve got six rounds left. Seven at most, if you came at me with a full magazine plus one in the chamber. It won’t be enough.”

He was close enough to disarm her now. Instead, he grasped her wrist and pressed the muzzle to the center of his chest. “Do your worst and watch me get over it. Just like your miserable, embezzling excuse for a father did.”

“You enjoyed it, didn’t you.”

“Yeah, I enjoyed disappointing him. I took inordinate pleasure in hitting him upside the head with the pommel of my sword, bringing him in alive, seeing him convicted, and personally escorting him to the ship that carried him into exile.”

“He’s not dead?”

“No. He’s on a penal habitat orbiting Uranus with the rest of the assholes. He wasn’t worth killing, and neither are you.”

Now incoherent with grief and rage, Victoria Valentine emptied her pistol into Morgan’s chest. Seven shots in close succession shattered the still of the summer night, and though Morgan jerked as each shot tore into him he kept his grip on his would-be murderer’s wrists.

He released his grasp as the slide locked. Victoria staggered backward, retching as the pistol slipped from her hands and clattered against the pavement. Christabel herself wanted to vomit at the sight of Morgan’s wounds, which bled freely for a moment before beginning to close. “I told you it wouldn’t be enough,” he said as he raised a hand to strike her.

“That’s quite enough.” Christabel had not been the only one to say it, and Morgan had not looked at her. Instead, he was looking at Naomi, who stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, her disapproval plain in her scarlet glare.

“There’s no need to harm Ms. Valentine,” said Naomi as she placed herself between Morgan and his would-be murderer. “Police and paramedics are on their way. Christabel, are you hurt too?”

“N-no.” She checked herself over, unable to believe she was unscathed. “What the hell just happened?”

“I provoked Ms. Valentine into firing upon me,” said Morgan. “She was determined to shoot somebody, and I figured that if somebody had to get shot tonight it might as well be me since I can take it.”

“You can take it?” Christabel stared aghast at him. His jacket and the shirt beneath were bloody and tattered, but the flesh they once covered was fresh and smooth, without the slightest scarring. “You’ve got eight bullets in you. How can you still be standing?”

He took one of her hands in his; they were gentle with her whereas they had held fast to his assailant’s. “It’ll be fine. I’ll just spend a couple of weeks pissing lead acetate.”

“Absolutely not,” said Naomi. “You’re going to the hospital and getting those slugs removed.”

“I’m coming, too,” said Christabel. Not that she wanted to spend the night waiting for Morgan to come out of surgery, but what kind of woman refused to wait for her boyfriend after he had taken gunfire meant for her? Unfortunately, there was first the matter of giving a statement to the police. While the Phoenix Society would prosecute the attempted murder charge, since Victoria’s attempts to deprive first Christabel of her life without due process and then Morgan were technically acts of tyranny, there were lesser charges that fell within the NYPD’s purview.

One of the patrolman on the scene had no trouble handcuffing her as his partner secured her weapon for evidence and set about gathering up the used shell casings. “Victoria Valentine, you’re under arrest for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and reckless use of firearms. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used as evidence against you. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, you will be provided one at public expense. You have the right to humane treatment while in custody. Do you understand your rights as outlined?”

“I won’t even answer that question without an attorney,” said Victoria, thus proving her understanding of her rights as one accused of a crime.

By the time the police had finished getting Christabel’s statement, Morgan had come out of surgery and was resting in a recovery room. Nobody at the hospital objected to her seeing him, even though it was past visiting hours.

Though he looked almost fully recovered, he was still down and Christabel meant to give him a good kicking. She had her orders, and if she was right about the state of their relationship then it was time to begin carrying them out. He paled as Christabel delivered the four words whose speaking all sensible men feared. “We need to talk.”

“I told you I’m an Adversary,” said Morgan. “But I should have been more explicit about what that might mean for you. I was wrong.”

She shook her head and leaned over him. “You didn’t tell me you weren’t human. What was it you called yourself? Einherjar? Is that why Victoria couldn’t kill you? Because you’re already dead?”

“I’m as alive and as human as you.” Taking her hand, Morgan pressed it against his chest. She could feel his heart beating as she had whenever she used him as a pillow. The flesh was warm beneath her touch. “People like me are einherjar because we were made to be able to stand alone against any threat. Each of us is an army of one.”

“When were you going to tell me the truth about what you are?”

“I never wanted you to know, but I could bear neither to let you die nor to kill in front of you. I saw no other way than to provoke her into turning her gun on me.”

“Did you have to let her shoot you?”

Morgan shook his head. “I could have dodged every bullet, but they had to go somewhere. They were likely to hit somebody. I thought it better to let them strike me than some innocent bystander behind me.”

“Do you think you’re a hero?”

“Everything I did, I did for myself. I became an Adversary because Isaac Magnin promised he’d help me become a rock star if I did, and if I agreed to take on certain dirty jobs for the Phoenix Society. If I hadn’t taken that deal, I might never have met you. We might never have recorded together, or started Crowley’s Thoth.”

“And is that supposed to make everything all right?”

“Of course not. What do you want from me, Christabel? Was I supposed to let Valentine shoot you?”

“I wanted you to think shit through. With a modicum of discretion you might have prevented this entire situation. You sow dragon’s teeth for a living, and I get stuck with the harvest. I want no part of it. I don’t want to have to deal with you being some kind of superhero. I don’t want your enemies coming after me to get to you. When you’re with me, you’re only human, do you understand me?”

Morgan’s face had fallen, and he had winced at her words as if she had whipped him with each. “I understand. You want to live a lie.”

“If you can’t deal with that, then I can’t be with you. Nor can I work with you.”

“That would hurt Naomi, too.”

She hated him for thinking of her, and doubted it was the first time he had done so when he should have been thinking about Christabel. “Never mind her. I could have been killed because of you, and I’ve got to look out for myself if you won’t look out for me.”

A long moment passed before Morgan spoke again. “I’ll do what it takes. I suppose I should have taken on a stage name sooner.”

“Yes, you should have. From now on, you’ll get credited as Morgan Stormrider.” Christabel ignored the way he winced at the name. Fuck him, she thought. If he wanted something less ridiculous he should have come up with it himself before he started performing. “It won’t be a perfect cover, since we already recorded Prometheus Unbound under your official name, but we can change the credits for a reissue down the line. I can make it stick better by making a big deal about breaking up with you and firing you as Morgan Cooper, too.”

“Whatever it takes,” said Morgan, as if he had given up.

Christabel found Isaac Magnin waiting for her in the hospital lobby. “Are you nuts? We can’t be seen together.”

“Remember who I am,”, said Isaac. “You see me as I am. Everybody else thinks you’re with Naomi Bradleigh, and nobody can hear us.”

“More of your sufficiently advanced technology?” Isaac had been steadfast in his refusal to call it magic.

“Of course. Incidentally, Victoria Valentine sends her regards.”

“Where is she?”

“In custody, but in a nice, comfy cell. We’ll make a big show of her trial, and then instead of shipping her off to Uranus to be with her dad we’ll give her a new identity, pay her, and send her off to Armstrong City on Luna to start her new life.”

Christabel nodded, pleased with the outcome. “Good. She really carried off her part. I honestly thought she was gonna kill me.”

“I was there the whole time,” said Isaac. “I would not have let it happen.”

Second Fiddle

Though Christabel had read dozens of accounts of rock stars behaving poorly while constructing her persona, she had never quite understood why somebody might want to defenestrate a television, smash the furniture, or pile up the bedding in the middle of the room and set it alight. At least, she had never understood the urge before. The journalists writing the accounts had put it down to drug abuse or personality disorders on the musicians’ part that had thus far gone undiagnosed or untreated. Tonight, however, Christabel was beginning to understand. The notion of ripping one of the displays out of the wall and tossing it out a window seemed rather cathartic tonight.

It had been the roses. After every show, Morgan had made a point of bringing her a dozen long-stemmed red roses and an equal number of white roses. Red for love and white for respect. Nobody could fault him that, least of all Christabel. It was the rose she had found on one of Naomi’s keyboards during soundcheck that had been the problem. It was burgundy tipped with black, and had a bow of green satin ribbon edged with black lace tied about the stem. Green to match his eyes, Christabel had thought at the time, and crushed the bloom beneath her heel.

She had thought it a spiteful gesture at the time, born of a moment of pique, and had regretted it immediately afterward. She did not regret it now. Not after the show they had put on tonight. Crowley’s Thoth still wasn’t a headliner, but to be invited to play at the Winter Solstice charity benefit concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall was an opportunity few headliners received. They had shared the bill with thirteen other bands, among them Poseidon’s Wake, Seiten Taisei, Doctor Strangelove, Tartarus, Esbern Snare and the Northern Werewolves, Charn, and Keep Firing, Assholes.

Nothing had gone wrong with the performance. That much Christabel could not deny. If anything, Morgan and Naomi were better than ever, especially during the impromptu jam sessions that had become a Crowley’s Thoth trademark. One of them would come up with a riff, and then the other would improve upon it. In fairness, they tried to include Christabel but she would never be the improvisational musician the others were. The training she had gotten from Tamara in performance and composition had not prepared her to keep up with them, and the only way in which she could contribute was to provide the theme on which Morgan and Naomi developed variations together.

There was that damnable word ’together’ again, Christabel thought as she paced in front of the hotel room’s two queen-sized beds. The double had been her idea; while not sharing a room with Morgan would have raised questions, she could no longer bear to share a bed with him. It’s not like we bother with sex any longer, she thought. I bet he was relieved when I told him I wasn’t really into it even though he at least tried not to show it.

On impulse, Christabel picked up one of the vases of roses Morgan had given her, and hurled it sidearm at the door to her room. It opened, and the vase slowed to a stop in midair.

Isaac Magnin took the vase and set it down atop the dresser before closing the door behind him. “You seem upset.”

“Morgan and Naomi are fucking. I’m almost sure of it.”

Isaac shook his head. “I have real-time A/V feeds on all of the einherjar. I would know if he and my daughter were together as surely as I know what kind of pornography each of my einherjar enjoy when they’re alone.”

“Well, he isn’t interested in me any longer. I thought he’d mope when I cut him off. I thought he’d make a show of scratching his own itch in front of me to show he didn’t need me. I thought he’d dump me. But he’s practically the ideal boyfriend.”

“Is he now?”

“Oh, he’s sweet, he’s gentle, he seems to think the world of me, he isn’t demanding, and he’s always up for whatever I want.” Unable to resist needling the sorcerer a little, she asked, “Are you sure you don’t also run Stepford Robotics? I’ve treated him like shit for a year, and he just takes it. I’m tempted to tie him up, gag him, and put him over my knee just to see how much of a sub he really is.”

Isaac chuckled as he sat down on one of the beds. “Elisabeth had told me you had taken an interest in some of the BDSM workshops and that you were a domme by temperament. What’s stopping you?”

“He might enjoy it too much,” said Christabel. “I’m not here for my own gratification. I’m here because you’re paying me to do a job for you. You wanted me to torture him, to make his life outside his duties as an Adversary as miserable as possible.”

“But he keeps finding ways to be happy despite you.”

Christabel sighed, relived that Isaac understood her difficulty instead of blaming her. “Even if he doesn’t have his head between Naomi’s legs, just being near her seems to be enough for him. The way they play when we’re onstage, the duets they perform together. It’s a flirtation that nobody seems to notice but me. I can’t believe they’re content with that.”

If the thought of his daughter being serviced by one of the androids he had created bothered Isaac, he did not let it show. “So when you found the rose Morgan had left on Naomi’s keyboard before the show—”

“It had been him? I suspected it at first, but had almost conned myself into thinking that maybe somebody in the road crew with a crush might have left it.”

Isaac shook his head. “It was him. It was something he had done once as a much younger man, and she had caught him at it. He did it again, perhaps because it was the only sign of his continuing regard for her he dares allow himself.”

She relaxed a little. “So, I am getting to him. He’d rather be with her, but doesn’t dare admit to anybody but himself. Where is he, anyway?”

“He’s where you should be, doing for my daughter what he should be doing for you. He’s escorting Naomi at the after party while you’re sitting alone in your room moping.”

“Is he dancing with her?” Though she realized she was torturing herself by asking such questions, it was impossible to resist.

“He and Naomi have been chatting and swapping stories with the other musicians. Also, a few of London’s beautiful people thought they recognized Morgan in his official capacity, but Morgan is behaving himself and insisting that it’s a matter of close resemblances and mistaken identities.” Isaac paused a moment, and cocked his head. “Seriously, though. What kind of ridiculous stage name is ‘Morgan Stormrider’, anyway?”

Christabel shrugged. “It was supposed to be ridiculous. Nobody’s supposed to take him seriously. Not with a name like that. But he just winks and nods, and says it’s just rock ‘n roll, all in fun.” Lowering her voice as if to confess a dire secret, she added. “He’s taken to putting an umlaut over each ‘o’ when he signs autographs. If you tell him it changes the pronunciation, he insists its traditional. The man’s incorrigible.”

“Frustrated, are we?” Isaac’s tone was one of gentle mockery as he produced a small package out of nowhere. It was wrapped in shimmering white paper and bound with blue ribbon in an elaborate bow. “I suppose it’s a good thing I came by. I had a present for you, you see. Joyous Solstice.”

“Thank you.” Christabel accepted the gift with the gratitude and happiness of one who had otherwise been neglected. This was not truly the case; Morgan and Naomi had both given her gifts though she had not done the same for them. However, Christabel had wanted nothing of them. Morgan was her target, and Naomi an unwitting pawn. It seemed somehow wrong to accept gifts of her victims, and so they lay unopened in her suitcase until she could discreetly dispose of them. Isaac’s gift was different. He was her benefactor, the best friend she had ever had. Her only regret was that she had nothing of value to offer as a gift to him.

“Please open it,” said Isaac.

Beneath the ribbons and wrapping paper was a box. Within the box was a small leather-bound photo album. Inside the album were pictures of a blue-eyed white kitten engaged in a variety of kittenish adventures involving yarn, brown paper bags, houseplants, and baskets of freshly dried laundry. Christabel looked up from the album at Isaac. “Is this a joke?”

Isaac shrugged. “Elisabeth and Tamara thought you might appreciate some of my baby pictures.”

“That sounds more like Elisabeth’s sense of humor. Tamara’s idea of a joke is an anecdote about some dead European composer. Did she really know Mozart?”

“Not really. He just grabbed her bottom at a party and told her to lick his arse clean after she objected to the liberties he had taken.”

While that sounded like something the composer might do, Christabel doubted Tamara’s reaction. This was an immortal sorceress who had responded to a purse snatcher in Central Park by calling down lightning from a clear blue sky to strike the ground directly in front of him, and then striking the same spot twice more to ensure he got the message. “How did Mozart survive that encounter?”

“He didn’t, but Tamara never told me how she managed to conceal her hand in his demise or how she deflected suspicion onto Antonio Salieri. However, she’s had tens of thousands of years in which to learn subtlety.”

Laying aside the album of Isaac’s baby pictures, Christabel took another look at the box in which it had come. “There’s something else in here.”

“That’s the true gift.”

Opening the inner box, she found a black velvet choker. The little pentagram charm was made of a metal she could not recognize. It was almost black, and glittered in the light more like crystal than a proper metal. “What is this?”

“A material alien to this earth and as yet unknown to human science7. I’ve bound a pattern to it that will keep you safe. Here. Turn around.”

As she complied, and faced the mirror, Isaac took the choker from her and fastened it about her neck. The charm hung over the hollow of her throat. “It’s beautiful.”

“Tell anybody who asks that it’s an heirloom created by one of your ancestors, Aleister Crowley. You inherited it on your twenty-first birthday.”

“That was back in October, though.”

“Would your family have shipped something so valuable to New York?”

“I suppose not,” said Christabel, wondering what she might wear with it. “You know, it’s not too late to go to the after party. If we hurry we can get there before midnight.”

“We?”

Christabel turned to Isaac. “I want you to escort me. I want Morgan to see me with you. I want him to see me kissing you beneath that mistletoe-wreathed chandelier everybody avoids.”

Isaac had become thoughtful. “It would cause a small scandal.”

“What’s Morgan going to say when he’s been with Naomi all night?”

“Is this only about hurting him?” Isaac almost sounded pensive.

It was a mood in which she had never seen him, and something pulled at her, demanding that she give him the truth. However, admitting her reasons would mean admitting what she had seen when she was still becoming Christabel Crowley. One sleepless night, she had wandered the halls of the Garden of Earthly Delights. There was almost always something to see if one’s curiosity tended toward the prurient, and Christabel’s often did when sleep eluded her.

On that particular night, she had wandered into the ruins of the old chapel on the castle grounds. It had become a garden after the roof had deteriorated to the point of being a lattice that offered only token resistance against the elements. She had found Isaac and Elisabeth together in the chapel; he had spread her across the long-disused and surely desecrated altar and was taking her as if it were a sacrament, using her for his own gratification while allowing himself to be used.

The sight of his unbound frost-blonde hair shimmering in the moonlight as he threw his head back had seared itself into her memory. “No. It’s also about what I want.”

All eyes were on Christabel and her escort once they arrived at the after-party. They surely made a study in contrasts with her a brunette in a long, slinky black dress and him a pale blonde in white. She had made a point of showing off Isaac to everybody who might possibly matter: celebrities, officials, and the rest of the Beautiful People who showed up at events like this to see, be seen, and—most importantly of all—make a public show of their generosity and virtue.

A model whose name escaped Christabel gave Isaac a once-over. “Trading up, I see. Going from rocker to CEO?”

“I’m just doing Christabel a favor. She’s a family friend who found herself without an escort after being rather generous to one of her band-mates.”

Allowing herself a small smile, Christabel added. “Naomi wasn’t able to get a date on her own, so I lent her Morgan so she wouldn’t have to make do with a rent boy.”

The model seemed shocked for a moment, but quickly hid it behind a razor-sharp smile. “Oh, so that’s what happened?”

“That’s what happened.” Leaning forward, Christabel whispered in the model’s ear, “The problem with dating rock musicians is that they’ve so little to offer once the fast fingers and hot licks get tiresome.”

“Still,” said the model’s girlfriend, “Aren’t you worried Morgan might decide he prefers Naomi?”

Christabel shrugged. “I’m pretty sure he already does, but if he can’t keep it in his pants then he’s as replaceable as she is. I do feel a little sorry for Nims, though. It’s tragic enough to look the way she does, but her personality is as cold as her coloring. But I suppose some blokes like the idea of melting glaciers a kiss at a time.”

Once they were away, Christabel leaned close to Isaac. “What I said about Naomi is part of the act. Are you angry with me?”

“You’re doing as you think best. The talk you’ve started will get around, and eventually get back to Morgan and Naomi. Even if he can shrug off what people say about him, what he hears said about her will most likely cut deeper.” He sighed. “I understand why you’re doing it, but I don’t care much for it.

“I’m sorry. I’m hurting Naomi to hurt Morgan, but I should have realized I’d be hurting you too.”

“I set you on this course,” said Isaac, the pensive mood on him again. “And it is nothing compared to what I’ve done to her.”

“It’s almost midnight. Time to make our scene.”

He looked up at the grand clock that ticked away the seconds opposite the entrance. “Indeed.”

Christabel made her way toward the center of the ballroom with Isaac on her arm. The black tie sea parted around them in whispers as she placed herself beneath the mistletoe. Resting her hands on Isaac’s shoulders, she waited until she could look past him to see Morgan and Naomi. Let them play second fiddle for once. As the clock struck midnight, she pressed her lips to Isaac’s.

He drew her into his arms then, one hand unpinning her chestnut hair as the other rested against the small of her back. His kiss tasted of champagne and chocolate despite his abstention from the food and drink on offer, and it was all she could do to keep from losing herself in a sensation she had never experienced with Morgan. Grasping at what control remained to her, she broke the kiss to whisper in his ear. “Use me like I saw you use Elisabeth. When I go to Morgan tonight, I want him to smell you on me. I want him to taste you in my kiss. I don’t want you because it will hurt him. I want you because it will please me.”

Keeping Up Appearances

Christabel was still fuming as she and Morgan walked the last couple of blocks from the Crouch End tube station to Naomi Bradleigh’s house. He had not reacted to the scene she had made with Isaac Magnin at the after party for Winter Solstice at the Royal Albert Hall as she expected him to, and when he had come back to find her replete from her lovemaking with Isaac, all he had done was ask her if she had enjoyed herself.

She half-suspected he was planning to make a scene at Naomi’s house, where they were going to a private and belated Solstice celebration. It’s what she would have done were their positions reversed. Hoping to forestall any such eventuality, she stopped a few doors short. “Not a word about last night when we get to Naomi’s.”

“We already said everything that needed to be said.”

“I know you’re angry with me.”

“The last time I was this angry with somebody, I burned every bridge I had with my family. I thought I had something good going with you and with Crowley’s Thoth, and I don’t want to throw it away, but every word I hear out of you makes it harder.”

“We should have had this fight in the room before we left.”

“I don’t want to fight with you,” said Morgan, his voice taking on an edge that discomforted her. “Look: I’m happy to be your faithful, supportive boyfriend for the fans as long as you keep your affair with Isaac backstage instead of making a public spectacle of it.”

“How gracious of you to act like you have a choice in the matter.” It was pure bluff on her part; she fully understood her position. Morgan still wanted to be part of the band more than he wanted to be free of her, but if that changed she would have no other hold on him. It occurred to Christabel that he might be staying for Naomi’s sake as well; she remembered what Naomi had said about every band she joined falling apart around her and suspected he did as well, but if Morgan remembered that Naomi was a big girl and could take care of herself, then he had no reason to stay at all.

What’s to stop them from starting their own band? The question had begun to nag at Christabel halfway through Prometheus On Tour, as one performance after another showed that while Christabel might have founded the band the two she had considered her sidemen were more truly the heart of the band than she. How long can I keep him from figuring out that he doesn’t need me?

“You coming, or what?” She looked up and saw that Morgan had stopped ten meters ahead, and had turned around to wait for her. He stood with one hand on his hip, still holding a bag of gifts, tapping his left foot. “It’s not that much farther.”

“I’m coming,” said Christabel. Gathering up her own bag, she tried to run to him and catch up. She struck a small patch of black ice and stumbled, one of her feet slipping out from under her. Sure she was about to eat pavement, she drew in a breath to scream.

“I’ve got you,” said Morgan as she stopped short, caught in his embrace. After helping her back to her feet, he took her bag along with his. “You could have walked. I would have waited.”

“You could have let me fall.” The knowledge of how close she had been to a painful and possibly disfiguring injury hit her. “If you had been only human, I’d probably be missing some teeth right now.”

“Probably.”

“Why did you save me after I demanded you hide what you are around me?”

A small shrug. “I don’t know why you’ve come to hate me, but I wasn’t so desperate for you to have a reason that I’d just stand there. And I wasn’t going to let you get hurt just because you’ve hurt me. That’s not who I want to be.”

“I-” Christabel’s mind stuttered as his words hit her. “I don’t hate you. I never did. But I don’t know if I ever really loved you.”

“Do you want us to be over? Do you want me to leave the band?”

“I don’t know.” He was offering her an out, she realized. If she said yes to the first question, then they wouldn’t be together any longer. But he had asked about the band separately, as if to imply that he was willing to stay on with Crowley’s Thoth even if they weren’t lovers. “Are you offering to let me go while still staying with the band?”

Rather than answer immediately, he stared up into the leaden sky as snow began to fall again in fat white flakes that began to melt as they caught in his hair. It made him seem almost innocent, and a moment Christabel imagined she saw the ghost of the boy he had been. “I can be content with that if you can,” said Morgan.

“I don’t know,” said Christabel. “I need time to think about it.”

“All right,” said Morgan, but there was something in his expression that said to her that she’d better think it through with greater care than she had used thus far.

It wasn’t Naomi who opened the door when they arrived. Instead, a tall young woman with green eyes and auburn hair that fell in waves to her shoulders greeted them. She was wearing a Crowley’s Thoth t-shirt over faded jeans and leather boots with bubblegum pink laces. She lowered her amber-tinted glasses to give Christabel a once-over before lingering over Morgan. “One of the tall, dark, and brooding types? My favorite.” She turned back to Christabel. “Mind if I borrow him for an hour?”

Before Christabel could say anything, Naomi’s voice rang out from somewhere inside. “Dammit, Claire. Please let my guests in before you flirt with them.”

“Sorry,” said Claire, not looking even a little chastened as she stepped back to let them in. “You must be Christabel and Morgan. I’ll take your coats since Auntie Nims doesn’t trust me to help in the kitchen.”

“Thanks,” said Christabel as Morgan helped out of her long faux-mink coat. “Please use a wooden hanger.”

Claire complied, smirking all the while.

“I don’t recall Naomi mentioning a niece,” said Morgan as he shrugged off his pea coat and accepted the hanger Claire offered.

“Nor I,” said Christabel.

“Kind of an honorary position,” said Claire. “My real aunt Jackie and Nims are besties, and Jackie says I’m too much to handle on her own.”

For some reason this didn’t surprise Christabel. In her opinion, one she knew better than to voice, the girl needed a diet and some deportment lessons at the Garden of Earthly Delights. “Do you flirt with your aunt’s boyfriend, too?”

Claire blew a raspberry at her. “I flirt with almost everybody. Hell, I’d flirt with you if you didn’t look like you had planet Arrakis crammed up your arse, sandworms and all.”

Christabel glanced at Morgan, who was doing an admirable job of faking a coughing fit. “Did any of that make sense to you?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Come on,” said Claire. “Everybody’s inside.”

Everybody turned out to be Naomi, a petite blonde in slacks and a pale blue cardigan hiding behind a battered copy of The Unix Programming Environment, a grizzled old campaigner who looked to have decades of hard drinking and harder living under his belt, and a fluffy tuxedo cat with pale blue eyes.

The old man nodded to Morgan as if he recognized him, and Morgan returned the courtesy. Oh, shit, thought Christabel as she finally placed the face. That’s Edmund Cohen.

“Oi, Josse,” said Claire. “The whole damn band’s here.”

The other girl carefully closed her book and laid it aside. Standing up, she offered a slim hand to Christabel. “‘Ello. I’m Josefine Malmgren. I’m Claire’s roommate.”

“You’re a computer science student, aren’t you?” Naomi had brought out a steaming teapot and began pouring.

“That’s right.” Josefine shot a sidelong glance Morgan’s way. “Maybe I shouldn’t talk about what inspired me.”

“Thanks,” said Morgan as he accepted a mug from Naomi. After a sip, he turned his attention to the shy blonde. “Was it Project Einherjar?”

“How did you know?”

Suspecting she knew where the conversation would go, Christabel shot Morgan an angry text. «When you’re with me you’re only human, remember?»

“I’ve talked with a few techies at my day job,” said Morgan. “Many of them hoped to get into AI research because they read about the project.”

Glad Morgan had deftly handled the situation, Christabel tried her own tea, and nearly choked on it when a message came from Morgan. «A little credit, please.»

“Dinner will be a couple of hours yet,” said Naomi as she sat down with her own tea. Cocking her head to one side, she watched as the cat climbed into Morgan’s lap, danced about while kneading with its fore-paws, and settled in for a nap. His purring filled the room. “Wait. That’s not my cat. Phantom doesn’t purr that loudly.”

“Sorry about that,” said Edmund. “Desdinova fobbed him off on me. Said he was allergic.”

“So, why did you bring him here?”

“Well,” Edmund said with an exaggerated drawl. “I figured Morgan hasn’t been getting enough pussy lately.”

Both Morgan and Josefine almost choked on their tea. Claire, however, favored Christabel with a saucy smile before kneeling beside Morgan. “Mind if I pet your pretty pussy?”

Looking down at the cat in his lap, Morgan sighed. “I think I belong to the cat rather than the other way around.” He scratched behind its lynx-pointed ears. “What should I call you, little fluff?”

The little fluff blinked blue eyes up at him. “Meow?”

“How about Mordred?” Claire suggested the name as she let the cat sniff her fingers and then rub his face against them. “That’s a pretty metal name for a black cat.”

“Meow.”

“You’re a talker, ain’tcha.”

“Mrrrrp?”

“I suppose Mordred will do,” said Morgan. He looked at Edmund. “He’s fixed and fully grown, right?”

“Nope. Mordred there is still just a kitten. Ain’t gonna be big enough to neuter for another three months, and he’s gonna get bigger.”

“How much bigger will Mordred get,” Naomi wondered as her own cat, a short-haired tuxedo tom with a white patch covering the right side of his face, sauntered in and rubbed against her shins. Mordred, seeing the other cat, immediately leaped from Morgan’s lap to pounce on Phantom. Once he had the other cat in a headlock, Mordred began washing him. Phantom tried to endure the younger cat’s assault graciously, looking up at Naomi for rescue the whole time. “He already looks full-grown.”

“He’s gonna get much bigger,” said Edmund, and looked at Christabel. “You could sic him on the groupies trying to get a piece of Morgan while you’re off with Isaac Magnin.”

“Eddie, I appreciate the support but this isn’t your fight. I’ve already made my feelings plain to Christabel.”

“Wow,” said Claire, staring at Christabel. “I can’t believe there are women who aren’t creeped out by that guy. Didn’t anybody tell you that white-haired bishounen are not to be trusted?”

“This is none of our business,” said Josefine, trying to hide her flush behind her book. “And is it really appropriate to talk about this at a belated Winter Solstice celebration?”

“Not really,” said Naomi. Reaching under the tree, she retrieved a couple of packages. She handed one each to Claire and Josefine. They had looked heavy to Christabel, but Naomi barely showed any strain. “I hope you like yours. Claire told me a little about you.”

A squeal of delighted surprise erupted from Josefine as she tore open the wrapping paper to reveal a box of leather-bound books. Each one bore the name Donald Knuth on the spine. She blinked at Naomi, seeing that Claire had received a set of books on espionage and information security. “This is a complete set of The Art of Computer Programming. How did you find this?”

“Oh, I have my ways,” said Naomi. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Like it? This has to be the best Solstice gift I’ve ever gotten. But now I feel terrible about the gift Claire and I got you.”

“It can’t be worse than mine,” said Morgan. He had retrieved his bag, and passed out a small parcel each to Claire, Josefine, and Edmund. “Sorry you’re all getting the same thing. Naomi told me she might have other guests over, but didn’t give me much in the way of details.”

“Whoa. Bootlegs of the Winter Solstice show at the Royal Albert Hall.” Claire stared at Morgan. “Who did you blow to get these?”

“Dammit, Claire.” Naomi and Josefine said it at the same time, both women equally exasperated. For his part, Morgan merely smiled and held a fingertip to his lips. “A gentleman never tells.”

“Hey, Nims, this guy’s a keeper. He takes it like a man.”

“So glad you approve,” said Naomi. Sitting beside Morgan, she gave him a quick hug and pressed a large package into his hands. “Please don’t be embarrassed by this. I know it’s extravagant.”

Once he had gotten through the wrapping paper and opened the box, Morgan lifted out a black greatcoat. Fingering the material, he stared at Naomi. “This is graphene. With ceramic plates sewn into the lining.”

“I can’t stop you from taking a bullet for somebody who isn’t worth it,” said Naomi, looking squarely at Christabel as she did so, “But I want you to think of me as you wear this and remember that there are people who care about you.”

Half a Loaf

Christabel wanted nothing more than to get out from under the lights the photographers had insisted on setting up for the interview. It was the first media appearance of the new year for Crowley’s Thoth, an opportunity to make a strong start and promote their work. This knowledge did nothing for Christabel’s mood, which had been poor ever since Naomi had conned her into helping her wash the dinner dishes the day after Winter Solstice.

“I could help instead,” said Morgan at the time, but Naomi had shaken her head. “I want a few minutes alone with Christabel. Girl talk.”

Naomi had waited until they had gotten a rhythm of washing, drying, and stacking going before beginning her interrogation. Rather than depend on the water to mask their voices, she opened a text chat. «Why are you and Morgan fighting?»

«We haven’t been.»

«Of course not,» said Naomi. «You decided on the spur of the moment to have Isaac Magnin escort you to the after party, and then stood beneath the mistletoe chandelier in front of a thousand of the beautiful people and snog him while Morgan and I watched.»

«It’s none of your business.»

«Like hell. I told you both when I auditioned that I didn’t care much for romantic entanglements between members of a band, but I didn’t explain why because I figured you were smart enough to figure it out on your own. I’ve seen bands founded by lovers fall apart when the founders fell out of love. So, what happened between you and Morgan? Is he cruel to you?»

«No,» said Christabel. That much she had to admit. «But he just doesn’t do it for me, you know?»

«Have you tried to talk to him about it?»

«No, because he’d try to do better and that’s the problem. He tries too hard. He cares too much. I can’t respect him as a man. Not when he’s a meat puppet determined to become a real boy.»

«If you broke up with him because of that, I’d understand. I’d figure you were doing Morgan a favor. But the way you’re carrying on has got to end.»

«He asked me if I wanted to break up. Then he asked me if I wanted him to leave the band. Like he’d stay with the band even if we weren’t seeing each other.»

«I think he would,» said Naomi. Rather than hand the carving knife to Christabel, she dried it herself and put it away. It was, Christabel would think later on, a rather pointed statement concerning the trust that existed between them. «If he had to kill somebody on the job, he never bothered you about it. I’ve seen him get up on stage and play even though he had just come back from a mission where he’d gotten shot. He’s always been there for the band. He’s a trouper, and both a better man and a better musician than you deserve.»

«And why should I care what you think?»

«It’s simple. He’s the only reason I’m still here. If he leaves, I’ll follow. I don’t think he realizes this, and I’m within a hair of telling him.» Naomi paused a moment, looking Christabel in the eye. «But I might just kiss him senseless first.»

«You wouldn’t dare.» At least, Christabel hoped she wouldn’t. She had been acting on the assumption that Naomi only saw Morgan as a friend at best, and that any romantic or sexual attraction between the two was on his part. Naomi wanting Morgan for herself would change everything.

Naomi shook her head, and dried another knife. «I have not dared, for the band’s sake. I think that even Isaac Magnin deserves better than you, but while you might be a more reprehensible person than he is you’re a better violinist than you give yourself credit for being. It’s not your fault that Morgan and I seem to outshine you, and I don’t blame you for being jealous. I just blame you for not talking with us about it like an adult and a professional.»

«If I let him go, won’t he just try to get into your pants?»

«He’s not that kind of guy. If he was, I wouldn’t want him for myself.»

Christabel almost dropped the dry plate she had kept wiping for want of something better to do, «Wait. You want him as much as he wants you, but you’re not going to do anything about it for the good of the band? Don’t tell me you dedicated enough to go celibate.»

«Of course not. There might not be other people for Morgan, but that’s his business. I can make do with others until he either realizes he doesn’t need you at all or you get tired of standing in our shadows.»

After stacking her plate atop the others, Christabel dropped her towel at Naomi’s feet. «I’m not giving up on my band, and I’m not giving up Morgan either. If I want to fuck other men behind his back, I will. If I want to fuck other men in front of him, I will. If he can’t deal with that, then he can get the hell out of both my life and the band. He doesn’t get half a loaf. He can bloody well take what I give him and like it.»

With that, Christabel had left Naomi’s house. She would have stopped only long enough to get her coat if Edmund Cohen hadn’t gotten in her way.

The old man gave her a slow, contemptuous once-over before leaning in close. He kept his voice low so that the other guests would not hear him. “I’ve got a bullet with your name on it, Annelise Copeland. If you ever break Morgan’s heart again, I’ll tell him everything I know about you so that he understands why I killed you.”

“You’re just an old drunk.”

“Ask Isaac Magnin about me next time you two are in bed together. Ask him if I’ve ever missed.” He then stepped aside, letting her go. His mocking “Joyous Solstice, Chrissy!” echoed after her as she fled Naomi’s house for the tube station that would bring her back to the hotel.

Though Edmund Cohen’s threat had left her shaken, she had not dared call Isaac Magnin at first. Instead, she had reached out to Elisabeth Bathory, who had done nothing to allay her fears. Instead, she had said, “I’ve seen him shoot. He’s a virtuoso marksman, and you are right to fear him.”

She had not seen either Morgan or Naomi again until today. The record label had arranged this interview with Metal Fatigue, a music news broadcast that reached the entire inhabited solar system.

A reporter named Alice Talbot was giving the interview, and Naomi had not been pleased to hear about it. I wonder what sort of history those two have. It had nothing to do with her, though. All that mattered was recovering from what she now considered the mistakes she made on Winter Solstice.

At least Talbot seemed inclined to start with easy questions. “Christabel, last year Crowley’s Thoth released Prometheus Unbound and completed a whirlwind tour of Europe, North America, and Japan before returning to London for Winter Solstice. What do you have planned for the band next?”

“We need a month or two to rest, but after that it’ll be back to the studio to write and record another album. Naturally, another tour will follow. There were so many cities we didn’t get to visit, and we don’t want to neglect any of our fans.”

“Some critics suggest that Crowley’s Thoth is a better when playing other people’s material than they are at writing their own.”

“We don’t write or play for the critics,” said Christabel. “We write and play for ourselves, first and foremost. Anybody who enjoys our music is welcome to it. The rest are welcome to ignore us; we’re happy to return the courtesy.”

“In fairness to the critics,” said Morgan. “Rock operas and concept albums are something of an acquired taste. Much of what we play live to fill out our set lists are time-tested classics in the public domain, and you don’t need any background in Romantic poetry to bang your head to ‘Mr. Roboto’, ‘Cat People’, or even ‘Ashes are Burning’.”

“Who decides what songs you play live?”

“We each have an extensive repertoire, and we rehearse a wide variety of pieces,” said Naomi. “Since we use our implants to connect to a private IRC server via SSH, we can communicate by text in real time while we’re performing and pick songs to suit our audience. For example, in Paris we performed a few Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf numbers, but in Tokyo we selected a few hits by Loudness, Versailles, and X-Japan.”

“Whose idea were the duets?”

“Mine,” said Christabel, which was the regrettable truth. The instrumentals Morgan and Naomi both knew were one thing, but one day during rehearsal Christabel had stepped out, and Naomi had started performing “The Phantom of the Opera” and had cajoled Morgan into singing the Erik to her Christine. To think I encouraged them just because I was surprised that Morgan had turned out to be a decent tenor. “Morgan and Naomi might play like demons, but I’m only human and sometimes I need a break.”

“It seems like you needed a break from Morgan offstage, too,” suggested Alice. “Or was it because Naomi had come between the two of you? It wouldn’t be the first relationship she’s broken up.” She turned her gaze on Naomi, as if challenging her to respond.

“Christabel had not been up to attending the after party, and Morgan had been kind enough to not let me be the band’s sole representative. We were there for business, not pleasure.”

“Naomi’s trying to shoulder some of the blame,” said Christabel as Morgan opened his mouth to speak. When he closed it again she continued. “But I heard from people I trust that Morgan was a complete gentleman with her. It was my choice to overreact and try to hurt him by cheating on him with Isaac Magnin. I’m paying for it now. Morgan and I have stopped seeing each other, but he was gracious enough to remain with Crowley’s Thoth.”

Deadlocked

Once Isaac had returned from his turn in the bathroom, Christabel snuggled close to him and pulled the blankets over them. Resting her head on his shoulder, she idly traced his jawline as he pulled her closer to him to keep her warm. She knew better than to mistake it for love, but it was close enough to suit her. “I don’t know what else to do. The only hold I have on Morgan is through the band. I may have fouled things up.”

“That might not be the case. Morgan won’t pursue Naomi because it will break up the band. But he won’t leave the band as long as she’s there. Whether or not the two of you date is immaterial at this point.”

“The fans don’t care much for it though. Morgan’s been playing the sensitive, understanding bloke who loves me enough to let go. Do you see the shit he’s been saying? ‘We had our time, it ended, and trying to cling to a love that had run its course was my mistake. I don’t blame Christabel.’” She had almost gagged the first time she had read that. It had been a response to a question asked of Morgan by a men’s periodical that had such a low circulation that she had been sure it had not been worth his time.

“He’s either smart enough to figure out how to deal with you on his own, or he’s smart enough to recognize good advice when it’s on offer,” said Isaac. “You tried to justify the scene we made by accusing him of abandoning you for Naomi. He’s made himself out to be the injured party—which of course he is—but he’s been punctilious in refraining from recrimination.”

“So, everybody thinks I’m the bitch.”

“You’re not without your moments, my dear, but that is why I pay you.”

Resisting the impulse to grab a pillow and hit him with it, she pinched one of his nipples instead, enjoying the resulting gasp. “Fine. What am I supposed to do with him?”

“You need not do anything,” said Isaac. “He won’t leave the band because he knows you won’t keep my daughter if he does. He won’t try to pursue Naomi because he knows you’ll shut down the band if he tries. What he doesn’t know is that the only reason Naomi sticks around is for his sake. As long as this remains the case he’s deadlocked.”

“And the shit people are saying about me and the band on the network?”

“You have a couple of options. You could publicly shrug it off as haters hating, or you could put your acting skills to use and make a show of contrition. Apologize to Morgan, make a big public scene, tell him that you haven’t stopped loving him, and beg him to reconcile. Even if his heart isn’t in it, you might be able to place him in a position where his own sense of romance and his own compassion will compel him to return to your side. At the very least, he might do it for the fans. Did he not say that he’d help you maintain the pretense of an artsy romance for the fans as long as you were discreet with your paramours?”

“Yes, he did. But suppose we make a show of our reconciliation and he lets me string him along so the fans think everything’s come up roses again. What’s your endgame here? You want me to torture him, and I’m doing my best. I’m even torturing Naomi, too. When they find out that your my boss and not just my paramour they’ll both hate your guts. That might serve your purposes, but…” Unsure of what to say, she snuggled closer to Isaac and closed her eyes as his scent permeated her.

“Have you come to like them?”

“I regret what I’m doing to them, and that they’ll never know that I actually respect them as musicians and as people. And they should be together. They’re good for each other.”

“What if I told you that the adversity you provide is strengthening their bond?” He turned her onto her side and began to spoon her, burying his face in her hair as he held her. “Because they both value the band over their own romantic fulfillment and neither wants to ruin it for the other, they’ve had to come to know one another as friends and maintain that friendship despite your opposition.”

“Don’t you think they would have managed that without me?”

“No,” said Isaac. “I think that if they had met again without your involvement, Morgan might have sought a romance with Naomi again. Perhaps this time, now that the age gap between then was not so egregious, she might have indulged him until she grew bored with him as she has with her previous lovers.”

“So, Naomi is…” Though Christabel did not want to call her a slut while in bed with her father, no better term came to mind. “I guess she’s a serial monogamist.”

“Something like that,” said Isaac. “Regardless, you have not failed as badly as you think. The situation is not quite ideal, but still both serviceable and salvageable. You need only maintain the status quo, if you decide that you’d rather weather the criticism of those who have not yet realized that their opinions are only meaningful to themselves.”

“What about album, ticket, and merchandise sales? Won’t it look strange if Crowley’s Thoth keeps releasing albums nobody buys and headlines shows nobody attends?”

“It would have looked stranger before Nationfall, when tax collectors would have seen a situation like the one you described and assumed they were seeing an attempt at tax evasion. Nowadays things are simpler. City governments get to levy a one percent sales tax, and businesses big enough to have employees fork over five percent of their annual revenue to the Phoenix Society unless they want union trouble.”

For some reason, Isaac’s explanation of the Phoenix Society’s funding sources left her aghast. “You make the Phoenix Society sound like an organized crime syndicate.”

“In a sense, we are, but what do you call an organized crime syndicate that has no effective opposition within its territory and spends money on propaganda?”

“That sounds like a government to me.”

“Indeed. We govern lesser governments. Not to mention churches and corporations. But we govern them as if we were an organized crime syndicate. We have enforcers. Some of these have made their bones and proven themselves capable assassins. The entire program exists to test einherjar. Those who prove themselves resilient, resourceful, ruthless, and reliable merit consideration as potential bearers for the Starbreaker.”

That name reminded Christabel of the night Isaac had brought her to Hanging Garden and given her his sales pitch. The story she had heard from him, Elisabeth, and Tamara still seemed outlandish years later. “That’s that godslaying sword you expect Morgan to wield for you, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. My daughter doesn’t realize she’s been its keeper, but when the time is right she will give it to Morgan to wield against me.”

“Then he’ll kill you.” Christabel turned over, and leaned over Isaac. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“First, the weapon cannot actually kill me unless it is unbound. If Morgan wields it against me in its bound state, it will merely shatter my avatar, this body you so recently enjoyed. I can create another easily enough. The problem is that breaking my avatar will also break my hold on the Almighty.”

“But that’s God, isn’t it?”

“It pretends to be God, knowing that the average human can barely tell the difference.”

“You’re taking an awful risk,” said Christabel, realizing to her surprise that her concern was heartfelt. He doesn’t love me, she reminded herself. But where would I be without him? Still working at Borgia Pizza and auditioning for shitty roles in shittier productions?

Gently drawing her into his arms, he kissed her forehead. “I’m not taking any risks. I am doing what I set out to do. I’ve had a long life and I’ve done everything I wanted to do, but for two. I’ve done terrible things to make Project Einherjar possible, and I must pay for them. Furthermore, if the Almighty falls but other ensof like me remain, humans and asuras are no better off. I don’t want to die, in fact, I hope Morgan can find a way to break my power without killing me. It will be better for all concerned if he can.”

All ensof were bound to stars or other celestial bodies. Isaac had told Christabel this before, but it had not seemed especially relevant then. It did now. “What star are you bound to, Isaac? What star will the Starbreaker kill to destroy you?”

“I’m bound to Helios, to this planet’s sun.”

“Then if you die, the whole bloody world dies. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that the Starbreaker is too dangerous, and that it was necessary to create a bearer who could truly control the weapon. If Morgan can destroy the Almighty without being consumed by the Starbreaker, if he can bind it anew after striking that deathblow, then he might be able to use that knowledge to break my power without killing me.”

“And where do I figure in this?”

“You, my dear, are my instrument. When the time is right and I am ready to see him discredited as an Adversary, we will fake your murder. In the meantime, you will do everything you can to make him doubt his own humanity, to make him suspect he might be more monster than man.

“You are going to help me hurt Morgan so deeply that neither his hatred nor his pride will settle for my death. Furthermore, his love for Naomi must be enough to make him reluctant to deprive her of a father, however hateful I may be to her. To free humans and asuras without condemning them to a lingering death in frigid darkness, Morgan must find it in himself to accept that death is a mercy I don’t deserve and sentence me to life.”

Down to the Devil

The sheer insanity of Isaac’s endgame, which he had thought suitable for pillow talk, left Christabel speechless. To goad an android to a state of fury that exceeded Homeric rage and transcended Shakespearean wrath was a plan whose methodology betrayed audacity approaching hubris. Nevertheless, there remained in her a sliver of doubt. “Isaac, you’ve showed me magic, but you’re asking me to believe that you hold an entity capable of credibly pretending to be God captive. That might be a bit more than I can take on faith.”

“And so you insist on gnosis? That can be arranged,” said Isaac, as he gently got out from under Christabel and slipped out of bed. In a trice his avatar was clothed again, perfectly coiffed and subtly cologned. “When you are ready, I will take you down to see what drives the engines of innovation here in Asgard.”

It had not occurred to Christabel to question Isaac’s statement until the elevator carried them from 128F down past the ground floor—labeled 0 on this display—and down past B1F. “Have you got nuclear reactors down here?”

“No. That would be only slightly more dangerous than what awaits us below.”

The elevator’s display now said B3F. “How much further?”

“The AsgarTech Building’s roots delve deep. We’ve a long way to go still.”

Waiting in silence, Christabel leaned against the wall and watched the sub-cellar levels tick by. Isaac had seemed to withdraw into himself. His eyes slipped shut, the lashes a rime of silken frost, and there was something in his abstracted expression that suggested to her that he was engaged in some delicate internal preparation and that it was best not to interrupt.

He did not stir until the elevator had reached the very bottom and its display read B127F. Though there was a soft chime to indicate their arrival, the doors would not open of their own accord. “It is dangerous down here,” said Isaac.

Reaching into his jacket, he withdrew a slim rod of platinum-veined sapphire shaped in a manner she might have found suggestive in a different setting and pressed it into her hand. Standing behind her, he guided her thumb to touch a point where the platinum veins seemed to converge. A slim blade of crackling azure flame extended from the rod’s tip, and Christabel lifted her thumb in shock only to see the blade flicker out.

“Hold on to this. The Almighty may attempt to attack us and it would not do for you to be defenseless in the unlikely event that I find myself overwhelmed. If we are attacked, you are to run back to the elevator as swiftly as you can and return to the surface without me. If one of its angels attempts to stop you, use the force-blade this weapon emits on them.”

There was nothing in Isaac’s instructions that pleased Christabel, and his injunction to abandon him at the first sight of trouble that his instructions implied was one she liked not at all. “If I have this, can’t I help you?”

His kiss behind her ear seared her nerves and made her toes curl. “Your concern is touching, but bear in mind that by bringing you down here I’ve endangered you. Though the asur’astra8 I’ve given you is as powerful as the weapons I’ve built into the einherjar, it is still a last-ditch weapon. Attempt no heroics for my sake, please.”

It was not until Christabel acquiesced and promised that she would not stand and fight that Isaac opened the elevator. The doors opened upon a vestibule that intruded upon a cavern whose walls, floor, and ceiling she could not see. The building’s ventilation system extended down into the depths, providing fresh air. Dim amber lights mounted along the steel walkway pushed back the subterranean gloom as she tripped their motion detectors, but they were too weak to reveal the full extent of the space in which she found herself.

“Close your eyes a moment,” said Isaac.

Though she complied, the sudden radiance still pierced her eyelids and forced her to cover her eyes. “Shit. I must have gotten used to the dark already.”

“It’s the nature of this place. Open your eyes slowly and you will see.”

Once she found the nerve to comply, it seemed to Christabel as if she stood inside an immense geode. The entire cavern seemed lined in jagged, deep purple crystals. A lake spread beneath the catwalk, and though it was too deep for her to see the bottom she suspected it would be little different from the ceiling. As her ears adapted to the space and filtered out the constant low hum of the ventilation fans, she could hear the faint, syncopated, and atonal music of water dripping from the ceiling. As each droplet struck the lake, it sent ripples that collided with those radiating from the impacts of other droplets, so that the surface never stilled and neither reflected nor admitted any insight into its depths. Only once did she see any evidence of life in these opaque waters as an eyeless fish broke the surface to take an insect skimming across the gentle chop for its prey.

“Beautiful, is it not?” Isaac had an arm about her waist, steadying her as she leaned on the railing. “Few such ecosystems like this exist on this planet. This cavern is heated by the magma tubes that feed Mount Erebus. One such tube runs beneath the bottom of this lake. Magma occasionally breaks through, and is immediately cooled by the water. The water dissolves the igneous rock, releasing minerals that extremophilic microorganisms feed upon, providing the foundation for a food web.

Something resembling a tendril of kelp broke the surface, and began questing along the posts supporting the walkway’s railing. The side closest to Christabel seemed to be lined with suckers reminiscent of those of an octopus or a squid. “Isaac, what is that?”

“Some organism the Almighty has recreated out of its own memories,” said Isaac. As it reached for Isaac, he condensed a blade of ice out of the air that constantly sublimated in his hand. Ice radiated along the tendril’s veins from where the cold sword bit into it, causing it to shatter beneath its weight. The owner of the resulting stump withdrew, and Isaac released his blade. “It seems I need to adjust the binding patterns again if it can draw enough power to create something that big.”

“Are there monsters down here?”

Isaac shook his head. “The organisms the Almighty recreates are native to its home planet. They are only monstrous because they do not belong here and their evolution cannot be traced to any common ancestor in this planet’s tree of life. The angels it sends are different. Hopefully you will not see for yourself.”

“Maybe I’d be better off not seeing the Almighty, either?” Though she had wanted evidence to support the story Isaac and his teachers had told her, that tendril had been a bit more than she was prepared to incorporate into her understanding of reality.

“You would be, but it’s too late for that,” said Isaac. “You need to see before you’ll accept the necessity of belief. This is better for my purposes, for you, and for the world than blind faith, but it is a harder path to tread. Now, follow close and touch nothing. You are safest with me, but it is not safe down here.”

Though it felt as though she had been following the suspended walkway that led back to the AsgarTech Building’s private elevator all day, Christabel’s implant told her that a mere hour had passed. The catwalk had led them out of the subterranean lake and down a long dead magma tube.

At the end of the tube lay a spherical chamber, which Christabel suspected had not been created by natural processes. Within a massive block of ice to which machines whose functions she did not understand were attached a whirlwind of flame seemed to writhe. It blazed with the radiance of a noonday desert sun, but the ice encasing it would not melt.

The presence within the ice addressed Isaac in polyphony; the names it used overlapping.

“Mastema… Why have you come to taunt Me?” “Prometheus… Why have you come to taunt Me?” “Imaginos… Why have you come to taunt Me?”

“You’ve been straining at your bindings again, I see.”

“Not merely straining, little upstart.” The incandescent storm seemed to shift within its prison. “What of the ape following you? A sacrifice, perhaps?”

“It would be fitting for humanity to know you as Moloch, but she is not for you.”

“Nevertheless, I think I shall have her. I shall rip her gestalt from her brain and make her part of my Host.”

As the Almighty declared its intent, shapes coalesced out of the darkness surrounding its prison where the walkway’s lights could not reach. They resembled masses of wings covered in eyes. The beings’ eyes stared unblinking at Isaac and Christabel, intent with predatory hunger. Each spread multiple sets of wings, revealing that they bore the faces akin to those of humans, lions, bulls, and eagles, but kept one set of wings wrapped tightly about their bodies as if for modesty’s sake.

Christabel backed away, reaching into her purse for the weapon Isaac had given her. Once she had it out, she activated it, holding the force blade between herself and the abominations before her. “Stay away from me.” She meant it as a command, but the words came out on a moan and sounded more like a plea to her own ears.

“I will see to these angels.” Rather than turn to address her, he kept his eyes on those of the beings that appeared around the Almighty as they began to chant. “Leave me, Christabel. You have seen enough.”

As she turned to comply, one of the entities appeared before her and spread its wings. Its four faces sang a polyphonic chorus. “Holy, holy, holy…”

“Holy shit,” said Christabel, breaking character and dropping the accent she had cultivated. “You fuckers are even uglier up close.”

As she thrust the force-blade into its chest, it screamed in four-part harmony and burst afire. The flames did not last long, and they left no ash behind. She threw herself into a sprint, still keeping her weapon handy but with her thumb off the trigger lest she stumble and injure herself with it.

Something had happened to the catwalk lights after she had gotten out of the magma tube and the cavernous subterranean lake stretched before her. Since her breath had run short she slowed to a walk and used the railing to guide her as the world around her faded to eigengrau.

Some of them flew ahead of her and placed themselves in her path, their own preternatural radiance announcing their presence and lighting her way. Each was more grotesque in appearance than the last, every one of them an obscenity flung in the face of her understanding of nature. In the cavern they could attack from every side, but for some reason they attempted frontal assaults. Christabel had found that she need only hold out her weapon, and thumb it on when an angel got close enough. They did not seem to understand that the weapon activated instantly and killed on contact.

The last was different. This one more closely resembled the angels Christabel had seen depicted in old paintings kept in museums; it resembled a human man possessed of impossible beauty; its skin seemed of bronze, its hair of gold, its wings feathered in platinum, and its eyes glittering diamond hard. It bore a flaming sword similar to her own force-blade, and long-buried instinct warned her against stepping within reach of that weapon.

Standing guard before the elevator, it spike in chimes. “You may not return to the world. Not now that you have seen. Be not afraid, child of man; your end shall be swift.”

The soft rustle of wings behind her beneath the endless chant of “holy, holy, holy…” told Christabel she was surrounded. Everything Isaac had tried to teach her about fighting was a blank.

Instead, it was something Morgan had once said that came to mind: When every avenue of escape is denied you, do not freeze because flight seems impossible. Nor should you freeze because you do not know how to fight. Should you ever find yourself in such peril, remember that you need not fight your enemies. You need only kill them.

“Kneel and submit before the Lord thy God,” said the angel with the burning sword. Its approach was slow, with the dignity of a procession, and it held its brand by its side loosely gripped in its right hand. “Peace be upon you.”

For some reason a snatch of a psalm came to Christabel’s mind. Here, beneath the earth was the valley of the shadow of death and she was in its midst. A calm settled over her as she sank to one knee and bowed her head. Despite her awareness that she only had one shot, and that blowing it would be her death, her only thought was I will fear no evil, the fixed idea repeating like a mantra.

The angel stopped, and raised its sword overhead in a two-handed grip as it spread its wings. Once the flaming tip was at its apex, Christabel thrust upward with her force-blade and activated it. Her weapon pierced the angel’s immaculate body as its scream pierced the cavern’s silence. The angels behind her began to keen as she sprang forward and crossed the remaining distance to the elevator at a dead sprint, pounding the call button with the heel of her free hand and putting her back to the door to face the angels that would surely swoop down on her en masse.

Instead, the angels fell frozen in mid-flight. Most struck the lake below and sank, but one struck the catwalk and shattered against the steel, spraying fragments like shrapnel in all directions. Once Christabel had lowered the arm she had used to protect her face, she found Isaac standing before her. He was immaculate, his cravat still perfectly knotted and not a single silken strand of his frost-blond hair out of place, and he held a steaming brand of nitrogen ice in each fist.

For some reason, all Christabel could say was the question that had nagged her since the first time he had condensed a sword of ice out of thin air. “Doesn’t it hurt to hold those?”

Letter from Christabel Crowley to Isaac Magnin, dated 3 June 2107

Isaac:

It’s been a month since you took me down to the basement and everything went pear-shaped. You haven’t taken my calls, and neither have Elisabeth nor Tamara, so I’ve resorted to writing letters and sending them to your office at AsgarTech. I’m assuming that you’re all right, since the sun hasn’t turned bloody and the moon hasn’t become the color of sackcloth and ashes, but it would be nice to know for sure.

Please pardon the subterfuge implied by the letterhead and return address, I thought that a letter from Crowley Couture to the AsgarTech Corporation marked for your attention might be slightly less indiscreet than one from Christabel Crowley. A third party polite enough to refrain from opening other people’s letters might dismiss the former as an unsolicited sales pitch; the latter seemed more likely to rouse interest.

It will be harder for me to serve you if we do not communicate, but I will do my best. If you’d prefer to arrange some kind of dead drop instead of getting letters with your business mail, I will follow any procedure you care to implement.

In the meantime, I have made a big production of reconciling with Morgan. I even let him into my bed, but I always imagine it’s you. I wish it was, even though when I thought I was fucked it was something he told me that saved me.

The nightmares still come. It’s funny that I was fine in the moment, but once I got back home and was alone I broke down. I wish I could talk to somebody about this, but I dare not. A shrink would assume I had been hallucinating or had suffered a psychotic break or something.

I think Morgan might understand, since he may have faced one of these angels himself, but I dare not tell him anything.

Please tell me you’re still there. Please tell me this silence is part of your design.

Still yours,

Christabel Crowley CEO, Crowley Couture

PS: This is a legitimate business. There’s been some interest in the custom outfits I force Morgan and Naomi to wear on stage. I would love to design suits and other menswear for you, incidentally.

PPS: Morgan’s new cat doesn’t seem to like me. He insists on sleeping between us, and growls at me if I try to cuddle with Morgan. But when the nightmares are really bad, he seems to know and he purrs all the louder. It messes with my implant’s network connection, but it’s otherwise soothing. Have you ever heard of a cat’s purring causing EMI?

Letter from Isaac Magnin to Christabel Crowley, dated 5 June 2107

Christabel:

Please accept my sincere apology for the terror you suffered while you were my guest, and for my subsequent absence from your life. It was an unfortunate necessity that I remain apart from you; the maintenance of certain critical systems that discretion forbids mentioning here required my personal attention.

By the time I had finished, I had learned of your reconciliation with Morgan Stormrider. It seemed most prudent to keep my distance, lest some mischance expose the narrative you’ve crafted for public consumption for the sham it is.

Please also accept my congratulations on your venture into commercial fashion. Once you’ve developed a sufficiently strong reputation, it would be my pleasure to meet you for a fitting and a consultation concerning my wardrobe.

You may find yourself receiving interview requests from a journalist named Samuel Terell. He will express interest in both your musical career and your side business as a fashion designer, which will serve to enhance your reputation in both industries. It is my fond hope that you will make time for him; he is an associate of mine and a colleague to Ms. Gellion and Ms. Bathory. You may rest assured of his absolute discretion.

If you need to talk to somebody about the memories that haunt your sleep, the Rev. Dr. Abram Mellech is trustworthy for the same reason you may trust Mr. Terell. Though he is most prominent for pushing prosperity gospel, he is also a licensed psychotherapist and will put aside the God talk in that capacity. When you request an appointment, do not provide your name. Instead, identify yourself as a civilian contractor for the Phoenix Society’s executive council. This will ensure your privacy.

In the meantime, kindly keep this letter as a memento, and henceforth retain printed copies of any letters you send me. My plans for Morgan will eventually involve exposing the true nature of your relationship, something considerably simplified by the existence of evidence whose authenticity he cannot dispute. However, this revelation will still be some years coming; it will take that long to arrange the sequence of events that will shatter his complacency and set him on the path toward the destiny I have chosen for him.

Warm regards,

Isaac Magnin CEO, AsgarTech Corporation

PS: I have enclosed samples of a recreational chemical you may find enjoyable. Before going to bed with Morgan, dissolve the contents of one packet in a glass of warm water. Get him to drink half, and drink the rest yourself. It will allow you to forget that you’re not with me until the drug wears off. Because Morgan is einherjar, he will not get the full effect but it should affect him enough for him to not mind that he’s with you. Just be mindful that while this chemical does not produce physical dependence, excessive use may result in psychological dependence. Try to refrain from using it more than once a week.

PPS: Thank you for mentioning Morgan’s new pet, but I must caution you that he does not have a mere cat. The radio interference that occurs when he’s purring indicates that Morgan has been adopted by a rakshasa. Though I had planned to leave him utterly bereft of all connections, a rakshasa that has chosen an asura (or an einherjar) is beyond my influence. I would suggest trying to befriend him while he’s still a kitten, for he will get bigger. It would seem that Desdinova has chosen to involve himself, but I suspected as much when you told Ms. Bathory that Edmund Cohen had threatened you.

Letter from Christabel Crowley to Isaac Magnin, dated 20 April 2110

Isaac:

Whatever the nature of the personal cataclysm you mean to arrange for Morgan, you might want to move up your timetable. I don’t know how much effort you spend monitoring the news, but whatever you read about fancy new pyrotechnics at Crowley’s Thoth performances is complete and utter bollocks.

We were able to explain away what happened as part of the show, but I dare not be more explicit. All I know is that the lid is ready to come off and I’m not convinced your grip on the situation is as solid as you’d have me believe.

Love, Christabel

PS: I’d like more of the stuff, please. I use it by myself nowadays since Morgan figured out I was trying to dose him and didn’t take it well. I only use half a packet once a week, so it lasts a bit longer, but it’s been a while since you last sent me some.

Letter from Christabel Crowley to Isaac Magnin, dated 31 October 2112

Isaac:

I can’t do this any longer. I’m this close to compromising myself and blowing the mission. Please get me out of here as soon as possible.

I assume you’ve heard that the record label is talking about sending Crowley’s Thoth into space. I’m not just talking about shows at the Lagrange habitats. No, I’m talking about shows on Luna, then on to Mars, Titan Orbital, the prison habitats around Uranus, and beyond Pluto to Nyx. Not to mention the months of ship time in between. I’ll be away from Earth for years, cooped up with Morgan, Naomi, and the other passengers and crew.

There’s no way I can do that. The work I’ll have to do so that years in low gravity won’t leave me unable to return home is bad enough, but I can barely tolerate being around Morgan and Naomi long enough to keep the band going. Recording with them is painful, rehearsal equally so, and actually performing with them? It’s been obvious for years that the fans are there for them and that I barely rate an afterthought, but even the press tend to ignore me now, too. They get most of the coverage. They get most of the questions.

Christ, they even get most of the unsolicited nudes, and while they gripe about it at least they’re getting unsolicited nudes of attractive people. You know what I got? Some guy bending over and spreading himself so wide I thought he was going to turn himself inside out. He couldn’t even be arsed to take off his bloody wedding ring before taking this pic and sending it with a letter saying, and I quote: “I wish you’d do me the way you do Morgan. I can take whatever you’ve got.”

I’m pretty sure that otaku slut Claire Ashecroft put him up to it, whoever he was. It suits her sense of humour entirely too well. Incidentally, is there a way to translate her bullshit into something approximating a reasonable adult’s side of a conversation? I don’t know how Morgan and Naomi put up with her, but every time she opens her mouth it’s fucking Darmok at Tanagra.

Christ. Now I’m talking in memes, too. You see why I need to get out of here? These people are around the bend and likely to take me with them.

Incidentally, I know why angels keep showing up at Crowley’s Thoth shows. It’s your bloody fault. The executive council obviously isn’t content to use Morgan as an assassin, now you’ve got him doing fucking supernatural pest control, too, and it seems the demon in your basement is none too pleased with the notion. Yet another reason for me to get out of here; people are figuring out it isn’t just rock ’n roll, and when journalists pay any attention to me at all it’s to ask what it’s like to be dating a devil killer.

I could keep finding reasons and excuses, but the plain truth is that I know you don’t love me. I’ve always known, despite the kindness and tenderness you’ve shown me, but for some reason I thought that maybe if I served you well enough and gave you my everything…

Forget it. It’s stupid, and I’m stupid for thinking it could even happen. Wizards like you don’t fall for ordinary women like me outside of those ridiculous fucking manga Claire likes to read. Wizards like you fall for witches like Tamara.

And don’t try to tell me I’m imagining things. I see the way you look at Tamara. You go faraway and sometimes you get this absent smile when you’re watching her or just thinking of her. It’s the way Morgan often gets around Naomi.

I know I’m rambling, but it’s late and I’m drunk. You’re lucky I’m as coherent as I am. But I can’t do what you need me to do any longer. I can’t live like this any longer. Today’s my birthday, and I have nobody to share it with. No friends, no boyfriend, no real family. I’m lonely, and it hurts, and I’ve had enough.

Get me out of here, Imaginos, before I break down and tell Morgan and Naomi everything. I don’t like what I’ve become, and I don’t want to be Christabel Crowley any longer.

Wishing I was no longer yours…

Annelise.

Letter from Isaac Magnin to Christabel Crowley, dated 2 November 2112

Annelise:

I have enough in place that I can improvise a fitting exit for you. Can you hold out until Winter Solstice? While I cannot deny that my heart has for millennia belonged to Tamara, I am honored by your regard, have been ever grateful for your efforts on my behalf, and still remember fondly the greed with which you kissed me beneath the mistletoe that night a decade ago. Shall we reprise that performance, my dear?

Ever yours…

Imaginos

Burning Bridges

Christabel had come to love cold, snowy London nights like tonight. Faint shadows cast by dim red lights faded behind the soft white curtain that had fallen over the city, and snow on the night of the Winter Solstice seemed to her a versatile perfection. The night was surely perfect for lovers to seek refuge from the cold together, as Christabel suspected Morgan and Naomi were doing tonight given the manner in which they had upstaged her. It was a perfect night to be as alone as Christabel was at the moment, sitting in the back of a limousine that Isaac Magnin had chartered for the night as its thorium engine idled outside her house in Crouch End. Since nobody was around to see, it was the perfect night to stage one’s own murder.

It was safe for her to relax now. The curtain had fallen on this act in the lives of Morgan, Naomi, and Christabel. Crowley’s Thoth had given its swan song, and Christabel herself had given her final performance. Now she needed only relax, stretch her legs, and enjoy her cognac as Isaac played the role of a one-man stage crew and set the scene for the overture to the next act in lives that would no longer be her concern even as the apparent violent end of her own impacted theirs.

At least Isaac had my body double stuffed in the trunk instead of making me ride with it, Christabel reflected as she sipped her liquor. Having to stare at it as we drove down here from the after party would have been just a bit unsettling.

The performance had begun in earnest the morning before the Winter Solstice, as Christabel rehearsed with the others the day before their show at the Royal Albert Hall. They had finally gotten the headliner slot, and Christabel wanted them to be as perfect as the hair of a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s.

And of course, Morgan had stepped out in between songs only to return a minute later. “Christabel, I’m sorry, but that was Saul. There’s a situation in Shenzhen that the local office can’t handle.”

“Let me take your stick,” said Naomi. As Morgan lifted the strap over his head and surrendered his instrument, she asked, “Was it another angel? Doesn’t the Society have other einherjar who can handle it? What about Tetsuo, since he usually works out of the Tokyo office?”

Morgan shook his head. “It’s not an angel. It’s Tetsuo. I don’t have the details, but apparently he went rogue. He already took out one Adversary.”

“Well, kill him and get back here as fast as you can,” said Christabel. “We really don’t have time for you to rush off and play the hero right now.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Morgan, leaning in for a kiss goodbye that Christabel relished denying him. “They’re sending a car around to get me, and will send me to Shenzhen by suborbital. I should be there in a couple of hours. Hopefully I’ll be back in the morning.”

Once Morgan had left, Naomi had turned on her. “You know damn well Morgan isn’t off playing hero. He’s doing his job. And Tetsuo is not only an old friend of Morgan’s but the closest he’s got to an equal.”

Christabel had been well aware of this; she still got updated dossiers, and she had entertained a fond and secret hope since Isaac had provided Munakata’s dossier as well so she could prepare for today. “With any luck Tetsuo will do Morgan a favor and kill him.”

“That’s your idea of a favor?”

“Oh, please, Nims.” It was important to get the contemptuous tone just right; laying it on too thick might let the other woman dismiss what Christabel meant to say next as sarcasm, and it was imperative that Naomi believe she was speaking from the heart. “Dying young is the best career move somebody as worthless as Morgan could possibly make. Of course, it’s usually an overdose or a plane crash, but finally taking on a fair fight will do nicely. That it might be a friend who does him in is a lovely garnish.”

Naomi’s face had reddened, and she had her fists clenched at her sides. Her mouth was a white line, and Christabel imagined she could hear the other woman grinding her teeth in outrage. It was a long moment before she finally spoke. “You’re lucky we’ve got a show to put on, Christabel. I can’t believe Morgan hasn’t slapped you around yet. It’s years overdue.”

“He doesn’t have the balls to lay so much as a finger on me in anger.”

“Neither do I, but that lack isn’t what stops me.” Bunching Christabel’s cardigan in her fist, Naomi pressed her against the studio wall. “As weary as I am of watching you mistreat that man, he can fight his own battles. I’ve stayed my hand out of respect for him, but this is the end. After tomorrow’s show, I’m out. Attempt to bring a breach-of-contract suit against me and I’ll file a hostile work environment complaint with the Phoenix Society.”

“Why not just quit now?”

Naomi’s tone sweetened until it dripped rancid honey. “Why should I give you the satisfaction of seeing me throw away decades of professionalism? You’re not worth it.”

Releasing her fistful of Christabel’s cardigan, Naomi packed up her keyboard. “I’m going back to my room to practice my parts. I’m sure a musician as skillful as you needs no accompaniment.”

When Christabel finally left the studio, Isaac Magnin was there awaiting her. He leaned against a lamppost, smoking a cigarette. He flicked it skyward as she approached him. Once it had reached its apex, it burned to ash in a flash. A gust carried the ash away to soil some mere mortal’s clothes. “I saw Naomi leave in tears earlier. What did you say to her?”

She shrugged. “Just burning bridges, as your telemetry should have indicated. I thought it would be better if leaving the band was her idea.”

“What will you tell Morgan when he returns?”

“Don’t you mean if? I understand Tetsuo is his equal.”

That got a rare chuckle from Isaac. “Tetsuo wants to believe he’s Morgan’s equal. He will learn otherwise.”

“Fine,” said Christabel. “Why not help me decide what to tell him in bed? It’s been years.”

“Time for another fitting?” said Isaac, smirking as he used Christabel’s euphemism for their illicit assignations.

“No.” Reaching into her pocket, she produced the key card for the hotel room she had gotten to be closer to the Royal Albert on the day of the show. “I want everybody at the hotel to see me taking you to my room. Let’s give people something to talk about, shall we?”

They had given people plenty to talk about, Christabel recalled as she finished her cognac, and Isaac had sent her off to the Royal Albert Hall thoroughly satisfied. She had found Naomi in her dressing room, but Morgan’s was empty. Going back to Naomi’s, she had knocked on the door. “Where’s Morgan?”

The face Naomi showed over her shoulder was one purse-lipped and pinched with worry. “He isn’t back yet. I checked with Saul at the Phoenix Society, and he says the Shenzhen office doesn’t have any information on Morgan’s status.”

“Maybe he’s dead.”

“Maybe you’d like that,” said Naomi. She crossed the room in a few long strides, and wrenched the door from Christabel’s hand. “If he died over there, then I will spend the night singing his requiem.”

“You think he’ll give a shit? He’ll be dead, remember? If there isn’t an afterlife he won’t hear you. And if there is then your voice won’t reach whatever hell awaits him.”

“Loving you as long as Morgan has was a labour worthy of Herakles,” said Naomi. “Now piss off. We’ve got a soundcheck in twenty.”

Soundcheck came and went without Morgan, which suited Christabel just fine. It gave her time to slip into his dressing room, grab all of his clothes, and consign them to a dumpster out back. If he did come back, he would have no choice now but to take the stage in uniform, thus breaking his promise to her that he would keep his life as an Adversary separate from the life he lived as a musician. It would give her the excuse she needed to break up with him and fire him from the band while acting the wronged party.

Meanwhile, Naomi was busy explaining to the band’s management, the venue’s management, the master of ceremonies, and anybody else concerned that Crowley’s Thoth would take the stage no matter what, and that Naomi was sure that Morgan would return from his emergency mission in time. It was an unpleasant duty Christabel was happy to shirk.

Band after band played, and Morgan remained missing. It was not until the last set before Crowley’s Thoth was scheduled to play that Naomi burst into Christabel’s dressing room, her expression suffused with relief. “Morgan’s suborbital just touched down. He’s on his way.”

“Charn just started their set. No way he’s going to get here in time,” Christabel was sure this would be the case; the Tube was running on a reduced schedule on account of the holiday, and getting a cab today would take divine intervention.

“He’ll be here,” said Naomi. “He said he’d run the whole way if that was what it took.”

“A blizzard just came in off the North Sea. He’s going to run all the way here in that?”

Naomi reached down and scratched Mordred behind the ears. In the years since the cat had first adopted Morgan, he had grown to the size of a sheepdog. “If Morgan were still in Shenzhen, this fluff would have found his way to his side already. You know how he just shows up.”

Christabel certainly did. The damn cat—the damn rakshasa, to use Isaac’s name for the beast—invariably showed up whenever Morgan was away from New York more than a few days. She had no idea how a cat this big could bypass hotel security, let alone that of the Royal Albert Hall, but here he was purring and licking his chops like he had just gotten back from the Tower of London after eating a raven or two. Claire had insisted the cat could walk through walls, damn her and her reading. It was most likely her fault, Christabel thought, that Crowley’s Thoth ended up doing concept albums about Frankenstein and that monk who had buggered off to India with three demon bodyguards to retrieve a scroll of scriptures or something.

Before Christabel could say anything else, the cat perked up. He sprang to his feet, turned his back on Christabel, and gave her an eyeful of arsehole as he sprang away with his bushy tail held straight up and quivering.

He soon returned, padding beside Morgan as if he were a faithful hound. Morgan himself looked rather the worse for wear; his armored greatcoat was battered and covered in blood. Morgan himself smelled of blood, sweat, gunpowder, and burnt ozone. His cheeks were hollowed out, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was grimacing with every bite of the emergency ration he was nibbling.

Christabel couldn’t resist a quip as she and Naomi followed him into his dressing room, “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

He looked down at himself. “I’m sorry. Is there time for me to take a quick shower and get changed?”

“No,” said Christabel, “Incidentally, whatever arrangements you made to get your clothes brought here didn’t work out.”

“You look like you clawed your way up out of Hell to get here,” said Naomi. “Are you sure you’re up to performing?”

Morgan shrugged. “We’ve got an audience waiting, don’t we? Don’t worry; I won’t fuck this up.”

“You’re not going on stage looking like that,” said Christabel. “You’re still in uniform, for fuck’s sake.”

Morgan took another bite of his emergency ration, which more closely resembled something he ought to flush instead every time Christabel looked at it, and favored her with an appraising look. “I’m pretty sure that was your doing, judging by the trouser legs I saw sticking out of the dumpster when I came in through the back door.”

Despite Christabel’s protests, Morgan had taken the stage in uniform, though he had laid aside his weapons and the battered greatcoat that Naomi had given him a decade ago. Despite looking like shit warmed over, he had given the performance of his life beside Naomi.

Then there was the after party, thought Christabel, and reached for the cognac. Rather than refill her glass, she drank directly from the bottle and thought herself justified in doing so. She still could not believe that she had been upstaged so thoroughly. This time, when she and Isaac had arrived at the after party at the stroke midnight they had found Morgan and Naomi standing beneath the mistletoe.

Naomi had looked directly at Christabel before slipping her hands into his hair and drawing him into a kiss. When they had finished, Morgan had addressed the crowd. “Naomi told me earlier that she had taken the hardest decision of her life. Now it’s my turn to take hard decisions of my own.”

He looked to Christabel first. “I’m quitting Crowley’s Thoth, and you and I are over.”

“W-what about Naomi?”

Morgan shrugged. “She told me she had had enough of your shit.” To Isaac, he had said, “Find somebody else to do the Phoenix Society’s dirty work. I’ve had enough and I want out.”

“I can’t believe I fucked it up so badly,” said Christabel to nobody in particular. While the driver still sat up front, he had his partition closed and would not have heard anything unless she engaged the intercom.

However, Isaac must have heard her, for the first thing he said as he opened the door and slipped into the seat beside her was, “You did well enough for my purposes. Morgan is adrift now.”

“He’s probably balls deep in Naomi right now.”

“I had to knock on her door to get the key to yours. He’s sleeping on her couch, too much the gentleman to accept a guest bedroom, I suppose.”

“Well, fuck him. Is everything set up?”

The smile with which Isaac favored her was rich with self-satisfaction. “Oh, I’ve no doubt it will be a delightful show.”

He held out his hand, and a sealed manila envelope dropped into it out of nowhere. He handed it to Christabel and said, “I’d invite you to watch it by my side, but I suspect you might be busy resuming your old life. But perhaps I could schedule the occasional fitting?”

Interlude: Worth the Pain

After Morgan and Naomi have heard Annelise’s story, they bid her farewell and return to his home. Though Morgan has forgiven Annelise now that he understands the reasons behind her actions, he has no intention of letting her hurt him again.

Naomi is of a different mind. She cannot forgive Annelise, for she feels that doing so means condoning her father’s actions, and would make her little better than him.

The title comes from “Worth the Pain” by Letters From The Fire, from Worth the Pain.

Morgan 1

It was long past midnight when Annelise had finally finished her tale. The vast majority of the Flaming Telepath’s patrons had gone home, and the tavern had gone nearly silent. Most of the lights were out, and the pianist had long since stopped playing. Instead, she had lowered the piano’s cover and leaned on it as if enraptured by what she was hearing.

Morgan wished her the joy of it; for him it seemed the confession of somebody who had made their life a crime of passion. Annelise had paused only to sip her coffee, which a server had stood by to keep filled. Morgan had been unable to keep from counting the refills; Annelise had taken a dozen mugs of black coffee to get through her history, and he had never seen her look so thoroughly wired.

She motioned to the server. “Where’s the ladies’ room?”

“I’ll show you,” said the server, leaving Morgan alone with Naomi.

She had been resting her head on his shoulder, idly playing with a lock of his hair as they listened to Annelise. She had braided a lock of her hair with his, white against black; until she undid it they would have difficulty separating. Her scarlet eyes were heavy-lidded with the need for sleep, her pupils open wide to catch every scrap of the tavern’s dim light as she gazed up at him. “Do you believe her?”

That was the heart of the matter, and she had cut to it with the unerring skill of the Adversary he was sure Naomi had been in another life. “I think her lies were mainly of omission,” said Morgan after he gave the question due consideration. “I’ve been reviewing her diary and letters. Everything she told us tonight roughly matches the texts I took off her computer.”

“I don’t understand why she’d tell us the truth tonight.”

“Why not? It’s been a year. She’s probably been looking over her shoulder the whole time, expecting all the while to find one of us behind her.”

“Not me,” said Naomi, snuggling tighter against Morgan. “Once we learned she had been working for my father, I was content to assume that she had failed him, that he had murdered her for it, and that avenging her wasn’t our problem.”

Enjoying Naomi’s warmth against him, he slid a hand down to her hip and pulled her closer. “Are you disappointed that I couldn’t let it go so easily?”

She shook her head. “No, but I fear for you. I fear that my father has you dancing to his tune.”

“I’ve been working on the assumption that Annelise is still working for him,” said Morgan. “Remember Christabel’s funeral? I think he had hoped I’d challenge him then and there.”

“But you didn’t let him get to you,” said Naomi. “I don’t know what I might have done in your position.”

Everything Naomi said when the subject of Isaac Magnin came up hinted at a long and complex history, but Morgan had thus far restrained his curiosity as carefully as he had restrained his anger over his own dealings with the man. He had long suspected that if he knew the truth of what Magnin had done to Naomi, he would not be able to contain his wrath for long. It was the little things that got to him, like people screwing with his friends.

Before he could say anything, Annelise returned to their table and slid back into her seat looking somewhat refreshed. “Thanks for not leaving me here to cover the check.”

Naomi could barely manage an exasperated sigh, leaving Morgan to answer. “We all know that’s more your style.”

Annelise stared at the table for a long moment, tracing old moisture rings with a perfectly manicured fingertip. “I had that coming.”

“And more,” said Naomi.

“I thought I could live with what I had done,” said Annelise, “But confessing it all, reliving it all… I never wanted to hurt either of you.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Naomi. “I tried to befriend you for the band’s sake, and for Morgan’s sake. For a while I even thought you were good for him.”

“And for a while I thought he was good for me, but I had my orders.” Annelise looked to Morgan, eyes wide with a reasonable facsimile of wounded innocence.

He had to give the woman her due; she was almost as good an actress as she was a violinist. “If I didn’t know you better I’d think you actually believed your own bullshit,” said Morgan. “But I don’t quite know you well enough to say that you don’t. I know you just well enough to know that I don’t give a shit any longer.”

“I know I hurt you,” said Annelise, “But it was part of the job.”

“I’ve helped condemn people to fates they believed worse than death because it was part of the job. I’ve helped make people unpersons doomed to die in exile because they stiffed somebody out of five minutes of overtime pay. I knew what I was signing up for, and Isaac Magnin didn’t lie to you any more than the Phoenix Society’s recruiters lied to me. I’ve got to live with what I’ve done, just like you, even though I was following orders too. That excuse didn’t fly at Nuremberg and it won’t fly for either of us.”

“I suppose that means you hate me.”

Naomi had undone the braid she had made of her hair and Morgan’s, and was now gently clasping his hand as she texted him with her implant. «Come on. We don’t need to keep talking with this woman. It’s obvious that being Christabel wasn’t much of a stretch for her. She’s still trying to play you.»

He caressed the back of Naomi’s hand with his thumb and buried his face in her hair, breathing deep her scent as he kissed her. «There’s something I want to say first.»

«Don’t give her the satisfaction of knowing she’s hurt you.»

“Naomi tells me I shouldn’t give you the satisfaction of knowing how I really feel,” said Morgan, locking his eyes on Annelise’s, “but you know what? I don’t even know how I feel right now. Hell, I don’t even know whether to damn you for doing your best to kill my faith or bless you for finally having the sense to walk out.

“I know you started working for Isaac Magnin because he was offering a deal no reasonable person would refuse. I want to believe that in the privacy of your own heart you actually gave a shit about Naomi and me, but you’re the only one who will ever know for sure because I can’t trust a word out of your mouth and you’ve only yourself to blame for that.”

Annelise looked away. “Then you still hate me.”

“No,” said Morgan. Reaching behind his neck, he found the clasp of the St. Judas medal he had worn since Saul Rosenbaum had given it to him after he killed a Project Harker survivor too traumatized to surrender without a fight to the death. He disengaged the clasp and lifted the medal out from under his shirt. “Hold out your hand.”

«Don’t do this,» Naomi texted. «She’s not an Adversary. She won’t understand. And she isn’t worth it.»

«It’s mine to give, and this is something I need to do so I can move on.»

«All right.» Turning to Annelise, she echoed Morgan’s command. “Come on, Annelise. Hold out your hand.”

“So you can mark me as a traitor?”

“So I can initiate you into the Iscariotine Order,” said Morgan. “It takes one to know one. I’m giving you this because I think you betrayed yourself, Naomi, and me because you bought Isaac Magnin’s story and honestly believed you were serving a greater good. I need to believe this, so that I can put aside the rage and hatred I’ve been carrying ever since you broke my heart. Wear this as a reminder of the moral weight you carry, until you can find a way to set it aside, for I dub thee unforgiven.”

This last was a ritual formula Saul Rosenbaum had said to Morgan all those years ago, when he stared at the first man he had killed, his sword still embedded in his enemy’s chest when he had intended only to wound and subdue him. The other man had thrown himself on Morgan’s sword, but that did nothing to diminish his responsibility; those who draw the sword draw to kill, and those who kill by the sword have no right to protest when their turn to die by it eventually comes.

“So, I did hurt you,” said Annelise, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. Nevertheless, her hands were steady as she worked the clasp of the St. Judas medal behind her neck and let it settle. She tucked the medal into her blouse, safely out of sight so that only she need know of the burden she carried. “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t make a difference, but I’ve wanted to say it for a long time.”

Shaking his head, Morgan rose from his seat. “I didn’t tell you how I felt because I wanted an apology. I did it because I was tired of hiding my pain for your sake. You aren’t worth it.”

Offering his hand to Naomi, he helped her out of the booth and stole a kiss. Knowing Annelise was watching and wanting to rub her nose in what she had thrown away, he took his time and indulged himself.

Naomi 1

Tonight had not been the Winter Solstice celebration Naomi had hoped to have with Morgan, but the searing kiss he had given her—after finally reclaiming his balls from Annelise Copeland’s purse and telling the manipulative little slag to sod off after they had spent the evening listening to her crap on about how it was so hard for her to play Mata Hari—had gone rather far toward redeeming it. It was too bad that angels had found them in the subway on the way back to the Upper West Side, though.

She rolled over, reaching for him only to recall that he had slipped out of bed and promised to come back with a sandwich. He soon returned, holding glasses and a bottle of wine in one hand while holding a pair of plates in the other. A pair of sandwiches lay atop the upper plate.

“Sorry I took so long,” said Morgan as he served the sandwiches and poured the wine. “I had to put the baguette in the oven first.”

Though it was a simple Parisian sandwich it proved to be exactly what she needed. She savored each bite, saving the wine until she was done. “I needed that.”

“I bet you did,” said Morgan as he stretched out beside her. He turned over, knowing that she preferred to be the big spoon and evidently not minding a bit. He waited until she had settled in behind him before gently grasping her hand. “Though I suppose that wasn’t the first time you’ve fought angels.”

It had not been. Nor had the angel that had attacked her in Grand Central Terminal been her first. However, it was not a matter Naomi could easily discuss. Being einherjar, Morgan was built to fight angels and demons. An asura like Naomi needed particular weapons if they had not learned to manifest psychokinetic talents they could use to fight instead. While Naomi had the weapon, she had not yet found a way to explain it or why she possessed it. “It’s complicated.”

His lips brushed her knuckles. “You might have noticed that I’ve had some experience with complicated.”

That’s what I get for understatement, Naomi thought as she cast about for a better phrase. The only one that came readily to mind was one Claire used when a particular series’ overarching plot proved unnecessarily convoluted and seemed written that way by authors desperate to display their intellectual prowess to compensate for other shortcomings. “All right, then. It’s fucking Byzantine.”

“I think we both had a taste of that tonight, too, thanks to Annelise.”

“Can we not talk about her in bed?”

“Sure,” said Morgan. Slipping out of her embrace, he stood beside the bed and offered his hand. “Why don’t we take this downstairs? I’ll get the fireplace going.”

Rather than take his hand, Naomi pulled the bed-covers tighter around her and hugged his pillow. “Must we?”

“I can’t force you, but there’s a lot about you that I don’t understand. There’s that sword you wielded tonight. Then there’s your relationship with Isaac Magnin.” Morgan paused a moment, looking down at the criss-cross of small dark lines over his heart. “There’s a lot I haven’t told you, either.”

“Like why you forgave Annelise after all she’s done?”

Morgan did not answer. She half-suspected that he would not do so as he put his jeans and t-shirt back on. He then handed her the clothes he had torn off her in their haste to get to bed after their struggle in the subway had roused them. Once she was dressed, she found him sitting by the fire. Seeing that he had put out a plate of cheese, meats, and crackers she prepared a snack for herself.

“Forgiving Annelise was the only move that made sense to me,” said Morgan, finally answering her question. “As long as I held onto my hurt and anger over the the way she treated us, it gave her power over me and gave Isaac Magnin leverage. You said it yourself; he’s trying to play me.”

His reasoning made sense, but that was the problem. She too had tried to be reasonable, to not give Isaac Magnin power over her, and no matter what she did he found a way to turn her actions to his advantage. “What will you do, then? Spend the rest of your life second-guessing yourself, denying your true feelings and ignoring your needs and desires because it might give him a handle on you?”

“Is that what you did?”

He had been watching the fire as he said it. He had delivered the question as if it were an offhand remark. Nevertheless, it pierced as deeply as if he had stared her down and accused her. It had been what she had done. It was what she continued to do. It was one reason she had yet to admit that her reasons for being near him were little different from Annelise’s.

The other was that she feared Morgan’s reaction should he come to suspect that her regard for him was as illusory as the other woman’s. Could he forgive me, too? Naomi wondered. Not likely. Would his pride allow him to even consider it?

The silence between them stretched as the fire crackled and popped. Mordred had flopped onto the floor in front of them to enjoy the warmth, and all she wanted to do was settle down on the rug beside the cat and rub his belly. Instead, she looked to Morgan. “I can’t forgive Annelise for how she’s treated you, and I feel like I have to hate her for you because you can’t seem to bring yourself to do it on your own. I don’t understand how you can bear to let go.”

Morgan’s lips had curled into a slight, tight-lipped smile. “Remember how I said Annelise was probably still working for Magnin when she told us her sob story?”

She nodded.

“Annelise said it herself. Assuming she isn’t bullshitting us, Isaac Magnin wants me to come after him.”

“And so you’ll let him make a Grand Guignol of your life?”

“If that’s what it takes to ensure that he doesn’t see me coming,” said Morgan, “But enough about me. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“I never pressed you for your secrets before because I didn’t think I had the right. I still don’t think I have the right, but thanks to Annelise I learned the hard way that love isn’t enough.”

Despite her proximity to the hearth the room no longer felt warm enough. The firmness in his voice and the set of his jaw were not unfamiliar to her; he had committed to himself to a course he thought necessary despite knowing that he would most likely regret embarking upon it. “I think I understand,” said Naomi. “You love me, but you loved Christabel, too. She betrayed you even though you loved her, and I too could betray you.”

“He’s your father, according to you,” said Morgan.

“I don’t think that’s ever bothered you before,” said Naomi.

“I wasn’t about to take on a vendetta against him before. I don’t want to accuse you of holding divided loyalties, but—”

It only took a heartbeat for her to pull him to his feet and gently silence his objection. “Wait there a moment. There is something I need to give you.”

Running up to the guest bedroom where she had stashed her bags before taking Morgan to bed earlier, she opened her bag and retrieved the faded pink cardigan that Morgan had knitted for her as a Winter Solstice present over a decade ago. It still kept her warm despite its age, but despite her care the once scarlet wool had faded to the same pale coral as her lips when she wasn’t wearing lipstick. Once she had slipped into it, she opened the case in which she kept the Starbreaker. As soon as she had the sheathed weapon in her hands it was back in her head. «You’re wearing that ratty old thing again?»

«First, Morgan made this for me. Second, why would I take fashion advice from a demon sword?»

«Where else are you going to get fashion advice? That fake pop tart?»

Naomi let this pass, glad the weapon refrained from using harsher language. «I’m going to introduce you to Morgan. Do at least try to behave.»

«Hey, at least I didn’t eat him the last time you let me out to play.»

«Fine. No more Elric until you learn to behave.» Oddly enough, refusing to read bedtime stories to the weapon seemed enough to make it behave. It’s like I’m babysitting this thing, she thought, and not for the first time.

«I liked Morgaine better. Not as emo. She looks a bit like you, too. I’d let her polish me.»

«Well, none of her either if you’re going to be lewd.»

«Hey, I wasn’t always a giant prick.»

«I’m sure you had other shortcomings. Now, are you going to behave yourself?»

«If you insist.»

Morgan was still on his feet when she returned. “That’s the weapon you used earlier.”

“It is,” said Naomi. Cradling it in upturned, open hands, she presented it to him. “You never asked me why I wear a Saint Judas medal, but you have a right to know. I wear it because I’ve been one of the Phoenix Society’s Inquisitors ever since you began training to join the Adversary corps. My mission, which came from Isaac Magnin’s enemies on the executive council, was to watch over you as Annelise did for Magnin. If I judged it necessary, I was to assassinate you to keep you from becoming Magnin’s weapon or the Almighty’s.”

Morgan reached out to accept the weapon, and stopped short. “Annelise said this weapon could give Isaac Magnin his true death if unbound. You could have ended him yourself.”

Naomi shook her head. “I never learned how to unleash its full power, and even if I knew how I wouldn’t dare. I fear that sword as I fear nothing else in the world save the loss of your regard. If you take it, you’ll soon understand.”

“If I take it,” said Morgan, his hand still not quite touching the weapon’s scabbard. “Will you tell me everything?”

As he finally grasped the weapon, she clasped her hands over his. “I’ve wanted to tell you everything for years. When my courage permitted it words failed me. When I had the words, valor deserted me. I don’t know if I have either tonight, but I can’t deal with the doubt I see in your eyes any longer.”

“I’ll listen for as long as it takes,” said Morgan as he put aside the sword. “As long as you tell me why you have that thing.”

“I suppose it said something rude,” said Naomi, glancing at the Starbreaker.

“It asked me if I wanted help killing your father.”

“It might offer to help you kill me next,” said Naomi, screwing her courage to the sticking point. “Once I’ve told you everything.”

Part III: Where Is The Edge

This is Naomi Bradleigh’s tale of how she learned that Isaac Magnin is her father, and her subsequent dealings with him.

The title comes from “Where Is The Edge” by Within Temptation, from The Unforgiving.

Like Room Service

Naomi looked up from her third glass of wine for the night, and found Edmund Cohen sitting to her left. When the bartender finally got around to him, he said, “Whiskey on the rocks for me, but not the cheap shit. And no more wine for the lady. She’s had enough for now.”

“Seriously, Cohen? I don’t work for the Phoenix Society any longer.” It had been a couple of years now. A couple of years of joining promising bands hoping to get in on the ground floor, only to see one band after another implode around her. The keyboardist and composer of one band had wanted to date her, but she had refused only to be fired for it and publicly called out as a selfish prima donna. In another band, the lead guitarists were engaged until one thought the other had a thing for her—and never mind that they had both been gay their entire lives. The latest one had been some shit-for-brains A&R manager’s idea of a good gimmick: an all-woman band called The Naomis because every member was called Naomi. When the exec had announced the idea, Naomi was glad for the first time that she was not in the habit of wearing a sword as a civilian because otherwise she might have yielded to the temptation to tear the guy’s pants off, bend him over, and then paddle his arse with the flat of her blade. As it was, one of the other Naomis had fattened his lip and walked out. “It’s been a rough day. Are you really going to begrudge me a few drinks?”

“You didn’t self-medicate like this after the Clarion job,” said Eddie.

“Tell that to Christopher Renfield,” said Naomi, recalling with a bit of guilt how she had used him without any consideration for his own needs or desires when the nightmares had been at their worst. It had been a while since she last dreamed of the white cell, but other dreams took their place. Just last night she had watched as tungsten lances fell screaming from the sky as her last desperate gambit, a distributed denial of service attack, failed to shut down the GUNGNIR platform in time. “I think I wore the poor man out.”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the Dusk Patrol survivors. Renfield’s fine, and he’s had worse than a sore willy.”

“Has he been asking after me?” It would not have been the first time, though she could not understand why. It wasn’t as if they had been lovers. At most they were acquaintances with benefits.

“This is all on me,” said Eddie. “I’ve tried to be discreet about it for your sake, but I’ve been keeping an eye on you ever since Clarion. I know you turned down Desdinova once, but we could still use your help.”

Naomi stared into her wine, not wanting to answer Eddie one way or the other. It had been Desdinova who had ordered Malkuth to keep her in the dark, offering no intelligence and minimal support when she had stumbled upon the murders in Clarion and their true cause. Eddie himself had admitted that it was a shit job, utterly thankless and likely to end with her and her entire family exiled from Earth to get away from assassins.

Not that the man who had called himself Ian Malkin needed assassins. He had proven himself perfectly capable of doing his own wet work without bloodying his hands when he had appeared in her room at the Lonely Mountain in Clarion. He had offered her a nice, juicy carrot: if she renounced her post as an Adversary and kept quiet about what she had seen in Clarion, she’d get a shot at a life as a rock musician. Then he showed her the stick: if she persisted in clinging to her ideals, ideals which had led her to learn some disquieting truths about how the Phoenix Society worked behind the scenes, he would simply teleport her into the Oort Cloud to breathe hard vacuum and freeze in the dark like he had done with the man Naomi had identified as the culprit behind the murders in and around Clarion.

Henrik Petersen—country doctor, former colonel in the North American Commonwealth Army, and clandestine genetic engineer—had also proven responsible for Project Harker, Dusk Patrol, and the bombardment from orbit of the original town of Clarion during Nationfall. He had attempted a second bombardment, but Naomi had stopped him with tools left behind by a local sysadmin who had revived a mirror installation of Fort Clarion’s computer systems. Petersen had had him murdered, but it did not save him; when she last saw him during her brief visit to deep space, she had found him frozen in a final scream that would go forever unheard.

“You’re shivering,” said Eddie as he draped his jacket over her. “Are you all right?”

It smelled of oil, old cannabis, and older sweat but Naomi tried to appreciate the gesture. “Thanks. Some bad memories came up, that’s all.”

“I’m not surprised. Didn’t you take on Dusk Patrol with practically no support?”

Naomi had had Christopher Renfield and a witness to some of the murders, Mike Brubaker, on her side but she understood that a single soldier and a young man not quite old enough for militia duty was hardly the old soldier’s idea of support. Eddie’s idea of support was shaped by his pre-Nationfall military training and involved at least two fire teams with artillery and air support a radio call away. “Dusk Patrol was bad odds, but they weren’t insurmountable, and Dr. Petersen had given me a temporary equalizer.”

“Something happened afterward, didn’t it?”

“Quite a few somethings,” said Naomi. She no longer wanted her wine; the old memories would steal its savor and bring her nightmares tonight. It would not be the first time. After leaving a tip beneath her glass, she shrugged off Eddie’s old bomber jacket and returned it to him. “I suppose you’re a decent enough sort, but I’ve no intention of working for Desdinova no matter how poorly my musical career goes. If it was just a matter of money I could always do sex work instead.”

He caught up with her half a block away from the pub she had left behind. “It wasn’t Desdinova who sent me this time.”

She whirled upon him, reaching for a sword that was not there. “Who is it, then? Ian Malkin? First he claimed to be my father. Then he claimed to be some kind of demon. Then he threatened to murder me. I left my old life as an Adversary behind for a reason.”

“It hasn’t left you,” said Eddie. “You were ready to draw on me the second I reached out to grab you by the shoulder. If you had been wearing a sword you would have done it.”

“So what? I’ve heard about all of your amorous misadventures. I daresay I wouldn’t be the first woman to draw on you.”

“True enough,” said Eddie, “And you’d have rather more cause than the others. Then again, the last woman to pull a sword on me did it because she caught me balls deep in her little brother. Can’t really blame her for that.”

It was more than Naomi needed to know. “Dammit, Cohen.”

“What? It was dark, I was drunk, and his arse was just as smooth.”

“Goddammit, that’s way above my pay grade. I already knew more than I cared to about your sexual life before you opened your mouth, and had no need-to-know for any of it.” Though she immediately regretted it, she could not resist adding. “Please tell me the brother-buggery was a joke, or at least consensual.”

“Actually, I made all that up. But I have the sort of unsavory reputation that makes it easy for you to believe such things of me, don’t I?”

Naomi knew better than to answer that, and she suspected she knew why he had taken this tack. “You’re trying to distract me.”

Cohen shrugged. “You were looking pretty miserable back there. Like you were dwelling on soul-scars and about to spiral into depression. I’ve seen it happen before.”

“You need a hand with this bloke?” An unfamiliar voice spoke behind Naomi.

Turning around, she found herself looking down upon a strung-out youth with a carving knife in his fist. “No, thank you. Not that I believe for a moment that you’re here out of concern for my well-being. This looks more like the prelude to an attempt at robbery.”

“Great. Saves me the trouble of ‘splaining.” The youth made a vaguely threatening gesture with his knife. He did not quite brandish it, but it was close enough for her purposes.

Catching his wrist in mid-flourish, Naomi took the knife from him and tossed it down a storm drain. “Sorry, but I’m not in the mood tonight.”

“Step aside, please,” said Eddie.

Naomi did so, turning halfway. Eddie had a suppressed pistol trained on the youth and his finger on the trigger. “Don’t bother. He’s a waste of ammunition.”

“I only need one bullet. Two if I want to be professional about it.”

Hearing this, Naomi imagined Eddie shooting the would-be robber in the chest, and then putting a second shot through the back of his head. The former military types who made up the Phoenix Society’s old guard called it a ’control shot’ or ’confirming the kill’. “Put it away, Eddie. I’ve already neutralized him.”

The youth did not say anything. He merely put his hands up to show that they were empty. “I’d be happy to just walk away now.”

“You might as well stick around,” said Naomi, “And save the authorities the trouble of hunting you down.”

A silver-haired man wearing a grey trench coat over a charcoal suit stepped forward, spreading his hands. “Please stand down, Adversary Bradleigh. That young man was working for me.”

“And who the hell are you?”

“Call me Desdinova, if you please. I hope you’ll pardon my resorting to my brother’s methods, but I needed to see for myself that you were still an Adversary at heart.”

Before Eddie could stop her, Naomi had closed the distance between her and Desdinova, caught him by the lapels, and driven her knee into his groin. She had hoped to feel his balls compress as he collapsed in her grasp, reduced to a whimpering heap, but she was denied the satisfaction. An unseen force stopped her from following through.

Desdinova favored Naomi with a small, tight smile. “Mind letting me go, Adversary? I might not be the magus my brother Imaginos has become, but I’m not about to let you purée my testes in a fit of righteous indignation.”

She threw him to the pavement with a shove, taking what satisfaction she could in the ability to knock him on his arse. “I already told Cohen that I wasn’t interested in working for you, and these little games you play do bugger-all to persuade me otherwise. So, what do you want?”

“It’s about what you want,” said Desdinova, dusting himself off as he got to his feet. “You want a mission, and for your sins you’re getting one.”

Everybody Gets Everything They Want

Eddie Cohen and Desdinova had escorted Naomi back to the pub where the former had found her, the Armored Saint, in single file with Desdinova behind her at his own insistence. She supposed they made quite the trio, the grizzled biker, the grey dandy, and her in between, towering over them both in a red turtleneck sweater and a calf-length black skirt over opaque black tights with red-laced black leather combat boots.

None of the other patrons seemed to care as Eddie rented a private room and led them to it, which was why Naomi had taken to drinking at the Armored Saint when she needed a few hours at a pub and she was in the vicinity. People minded their own business here.

The private room was cramped, but once the door was closed the low hum of the other patrons’ conversations were inaudible. Naomi suspected that nobody would hear them, either, unless somebody raised their voice. The only relief from all of the polished wood was the painted white ceiling and the wall-mounted screen. “So, gentlemen, is this your idea of room service? And what makes you think I wanted a mission in the first place?”

“You keep going from one band to another, one gig after another,” said Desdinova as a barmaid brought them drinks. He absently thanked her as she placed a White Lady before him. “You’re looking for a place to belong, something resembling a sense of purpose.”

Naomi shrugged. “Who isn’t?”

“You had both as an Adversary.”

“I thought I did,” said Naomi. “But out of all the Adversaries I worked with, I only stayed in touch with Jackie, and she quit just like I did. Not that I didn’t try.”

“Not quite like you did,” said Eddie. “You’ve got to admit she did a better job of returning to civilian life than you.”

Naomi refrained from using the first retort to spring to mind; though she doubted she was Eddie’s type she suspected he might mistake her words for a serious offer just to mock her. “Jackie didn’t go to Clarion.”

“You were rather explicitly told that Clarion wasn’t your problem,” said Desdinova.

“And yet nobody stopped me,” said Naomi. “You both know as well as I do that Clarion was an open wound left to fester for decades. Somebody had to do something, but nobody else would.”

The screen on the wall flickered to life, and displayed a still image of a young man in a recruit’s uniform with unruly shoulder-length black hair and slit-pupiled green eyes. The still became video as a voice off-screen spoke. “Mr. Cooper, we have concerns about your tendency toward recklessness. For example, you rushed into a fire without training or protective equipment to rescue a family on the top floor that professional firefighters had written off as impossible to save. Can you explain why, in your own words?”

“This again?” Cooper’s tone was that of a man tired of explaining himself to people who refused to understand. “I did it because I could. I did it because somebody should have and nobody else would.”

Desdinova stopped the video. “Do you recognize any of the voices in this video?”

“That was Saul Rosenbaum,” said Naomi, not wanting to admit her recognition of the younger man. If she was right, she had been that boy’s first kiss before telling him that he should go live a life, make something of himself, and love somebody closer to his own age. If she was right, it was partially her fault that he was well on his way to becoming an Adversary.

“Your reasons for intervening in Clarion were the same reason Morgan Cooper gave for rushing into a fire experienced professionals were content to contain,” said Eddie as he sipped his whiskey on the rocks. “And frankly, you look like you know the kid.”

“We’ve met,” said Naomi, reluctant to admit more until Eddie and Desdinova got to something that at least resembled a point. “Were you planning to tell me what this is all about before the pub closes and I am forced to finish my drinking at home?”

The men shared a glance. “Morgan Cooper recently faced the Milgram Battery,” said Desdinova. “I trust you remember what that entails.”

Naomi shuddered as she recalled her own trial by nightmare. “You mined his dreams and turned them against him, just like you used mine against me.”

“Indeed,” said Desdinova. “What I’m about to tell you must remain confidential—”

“Morgan still dreams of you,” said Eddie. “Every once in a while.”

“That seems romantic.”

“Romance is as good a euphemism as any,” said Eddie with a sneer. “Though I suspect you know I ain’t talking about love.”

“I figured you for one of those misogynistic types for whom ‘love’ is just another four letter word.”

“I think of it as a plot device, but you’re close enough to the mark.”

Desdinova slowly shook his head. “Can we please get on with this?” Locking his gaze on Naomi, he added. “Ms. Bradleigh, I suspect you know more about why Morgan Cooper holds you in particular regard than you’ve thus far seen fit to divulge. I should caution you that the Society gets Witness Protocol telemetry from all einherjar, but I would rather you admitted—”

“Admitted what,” said Naomi. “That I was his first kiss? I barely brushed his lips with mine because I didn’t want him looking back later on and thinking that I took advantage of him, but I had caught him leaving roses in my dressing room.”

“Roses, huh?” Eddie shook his head. “Well, now we know the kid’s got a type.”

“Please tell me he didn’t latch onto another tall, snow-blonde asura.”

A photograph of a human woman appeared on the screen. She was pale and fashionably dressed, with wavy chestnut hair cut in a bob that barely brushed her shoulders. One of her grey eyes had an orange streak that reminded Naomi of a stray spark from a bonfire on a clear winter day. She carried a violin case in her right hand, but wore no weapon. “This is Christabel Crowley,” said Desdinova.

“At least, that’s what she calls herself,” said Eddie. “Prior to her makeover her name was Annelise Copeland, and she was a theater student working a shit job to make ends meet.”

“Isaac Magnin recruited her and gave her the means to reinvent herself. As Christabel, she’s become a minor sensation in the classical/rock crossover scene. She’s got an album called Shattered Harmonies.”

“That sounds familiar.” Naomi searched her memories, trying to place it. Had one of the musicians she had worked with recently played it, or mentioned it? “I don’t have a copy, though. I suppose I should listen for myself to find out of it’s any good.”

“That would be a good idea, given what we mean to ask of you.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “This is a real choice mission.”

“Quiet,” said Desdinova, before turning back to Naomi. “Isaac Magnin has placed Christabel Crowley in Morgan Cooper’s orbit, most likely as a means of exerting emotional control over him and possibly influencing him toward Magnin’s ends.”

“Doesn’t he have friends who see this woman for the tragedy waiting for happen that she seems to be?” Naomi certainly hoped that Morgan had sensible friends, and that he was sensible enough to listen to them.

Eddie shook his head. “They’re not involved yet. I can’t warn him against her without revealing what I know and explaining how I got my intel. Furthermore, he doesn’t have that many friends his own age; the two he has would advise him to use her for his own pleasure and then leave her behind once he gets bored with her.”

“That seems rather sensible to me,” said Naomi, since it was how she had treated her own partners.

“He’s sensitive, not sensible,” said Eddie. “He met you at precisely the wrong moment. He had just discovered girls, and discovered—thanks to you—that he likes ‘em tall, pale, and gothalicious. Add that voice of yours to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for obsession. You did a credible job of heading that off, giving him a taste and then telling him to fall in love with somebody his own age was smart. The problem is that he’s likely to take your advice.”

“With somebody you think is wrong with him.”

“Oh, she’d be perfect for him. Two young musicians from working-class backgrounds, both desperate to make something of themselves and make better lives?” Desdinova’s smile turned cynical and jagged. “It’s a classic setup, pure Hollywood.”

“That’s the problem,” said Eddie. “Christabel would be perfect for Morgan, but she doesn’t have his well-being in mind. Getting close to him, getting into his head and his heart, is just a job for her. She’s going to break his heart.”

“Most men survive getting their hearts broken,” said Naomi. “I would know, since I’ve broken a few myself. What’s the worst that could happen? Will he play emo Achilles, hiding in his room crying himself to sleep while drinking to excess and cycling through a playlist of vaguely misogynistic power ballads when you need him to do your dirty work?”

As bitchy as the remark was, especially since she recalled Morgan being polite, earnest, and often sweet during the brief interlude in which they both worked at the same Manhattan dive bar, Naomi could not quite bring herself to regret it. She had had an utterly crap day, and all she had wanted was a few quiet drinks before going home, taking a bath, and finally crawling into bed so she could get a few hours of most likely restless sleep before picking herself up and jumping back on the horse the next day.

“That would be a best-case scenario,” said Eddie, all jocularity gone. “The thing is, Morgan Cooper is one of the einherjar. We have no idea how he’d take having his heart broken by some actress playing Mata Hari, and Desdinova here is scared shitless that he’d run amok and kill a metric fuckton of innocent people.”

“You’re the reason anybody knows anything about the einherjar,” said Desdinova. “Your adventures in Clarion had the side effect of burning my brother’s identity at the time. You exposed Ian Malkin as the civilian consultant behind Project Harker. He couldn’t take responsibility for that without also admitting the involvement of the AsgarTech Corporation and exposing the existence of Project Einherjar.”

Naomi sighed, accepting that this was most likely to prove a long, sleepless night. “Fine. What the bloody hell is Project Einherjar. Did AsgarTech find a way to resurrect dead soldiers to serve as Adversaries or something?”

“In this case,” said Desdinova, “Einherjar means ‘army of one’ or ‘one who fights alone’. Project Harker was ostensibly about using asuras to create artificial vampires, but its true aim was to forcibly awaken latent physical and psychokinetic abilities within asuras. Project Einherjar was about creating artificial asuras and making them stronger, faster, and tougher.”

“There was a prototype that fortunately doesn’t matter right now because the team found out the hard way that they couldn’t control a newborn einherjar in a fully-grown body. The production models, the 100 series, were distributed to couples seeking to adopt babies under a strict NDA.”

“How strict?”

“Sleeping with the fishes strict,” said Eddie.

“So the einjerhar were already teenagers when you exposed their existence,” said Desdinova. “This allowed us to identify them, track them, and pay particular attention to those who had either already expressed their capabilities or appeared to be well on their way to doing so.”

“Most of the einherjar turned out to be wastes of space,” said Eddie. “Maybe if life kicked ‘em in the bollocks a few times they’d wake up and make something of themselves, but don’t count on it. Of the minority that turned out to be worth a damn, most are mercs or gangsters. Then again, Morgan and Tetsuo are gangsters, too. They just work for biggest syndicate on the bloody planet.”

A sigh escaped Desdinova, and he sipped his cocktail. “Edmund, have I not asked you to refrain from comparing the Phoenix Society with organized crime? Manufacturing consent without resorting to blatant propaganda is hard enough without you being as free with your cynicism as you are with your libido.”

A wicked notion occurred to Naomi. “Do you two have something personal going? You certainly bicker like an old couple.”

As Desdinova reddened and almost choked on his drink, Eddie took advantage of his incapacity. “I wouldn’t fuck him with Zeus’ dick.”

“Can we please get back to business?”

“Must we? I’d rather just go home. I already told you once I wasn’t interested in working for you.”

“You wouldn’t just be working for Desdinova or even for me,” said Eddie. “Let’s just say that the entire executive council has concerns about Isaac Magnin and his methods. We know he’s trying to guide Morgan Cooper. We want to surround Morgan with people he can trust, people who will inspire him to be a better man than he might otherwise be. I think you can be one of those people.”

“So, you want me to be his friend?”

“There’s more,” said Desdinova. He placed a familiar-looking sword on the table and slid it across to Naomi. “Take this. You may need it.”

Naomi refused to lift so much as a finger toward the weapon. “I sold that demon-ridden thing twice to be rid of it. First Imaginos gave it to me as some kind of gift when I thought he was just my fencing maestro. After I sold it, it came back to me. I had to sell it to somebody on bloody Mars to be rid of it.”

“I was rather put out by the necessity of having to fly all the way out to Barsoom City to retrieve this,” said Desdinova. “It was not the sort of thing I could delegate, given the weapon’s nature. Now, please take the damned thing.”

There was something in Desdinova’s voice that pierced her resistance and compelled her. As soon as her fingertips brushed the hilt, the sword was in her head again. «Hello again. I missed you.»

“Why do I need this?”

Only Eddie had the nerve to look her in the eye. “We need you to get close to Morgan and befriend him. If he proves a danger to himself and others, we need you to use that sword to shut him down.”

“Shut him down? Like he’s a machine?”

“Shut him down with extreme prejudice,” said Desdinova. “I’ve retrieved the Starbreaker for you because it is the one weapon against which he has no defense. As long as you can land a blow, it will prove his bane.”

She wanted to refuse, to thrust the demon sword back across the table and tell both men that this was not her problem, that she had done enough, had suffered enough, and that if this was their idea of a choice mission they could shove it up their arses. A single cold certainty stopped her. “If I refuse, you’ll find somebody else to do it. Somebody who doesn’t see Morgan as a human being and won’t hesitate to murder him out of hand.”

Desdinova nodded, and evidently had the decency to say nothing.

They were going to use him, Naomi realized. They would use him until he had nothing left to give, until he was too broken to be of any further use, and then they would throw him under a maglev. Just like they tried to do to her for no better reason than that she had tried to live up to her ideals and uphold her oath. “I’ll take the mission on one condition. Nobody tries to overrule my judgment. I won’t draw this blade until I’m convinced there’s no other way.”

“You’ll be the Inquisitor in the field,” said Desdinova. “It would be sheer idiocy to try to overrule you.”

Naomi stared at him. “Inquisitor?”

Eddie nodded. “We’ll transfer you to the Accountability Division, effective immediately. It will allow you to operate without the interference you might face if you remained part of Human Rights.”

“Inquisitors are not bound by due process restrictions,” added Desdinova. “If you find yourself without any option but summary execution, you need not fear reprisal.”

“Fine,” said Naomi. “It won’t be for your sake that I do this. I’ll do it because he deserves better than what the Phoenix Society will do to him.”

Gonna Get Close To You

Naomi’s opportunity was longer in coming than she would otherwise have preferred. Though Christabel had not yet made her first direct move on Morgan when Eddie Cohen and Desdinova had approached her, that did not mean that Naomi could approach Morgan in her absence. Doing so would have warned Isaac Magnin of movement on the part of his opposition. It was matter of informational warfare. One had to know what the enemy was doing without revealing one’s knowledge to the enemy.

She perforce contented herself with session work, racking up featuring credits on tracks with any band that wanted a soprano vocalist or a keyboard player for one or two songs. It paid more reliably than trying to latch onto a single band, something she had not managed since her two-year stint with Sleeping Sun.

In the meantime, she had gotten her hands on a copy of Christabel’s Shattered Harmonies album. To her chagrin, the violinist had made a point of thanking her in the liner notes for “bon mots and dollops of insider wisdom dispensed between recordings of B-sides and bonus tracks”. To her further chagrin, the album was better than she had expected. She had figured that Christabel herself would have nothing to do with the album’s production, that it had all been done by session musicians and that when called upon to perform live she would only have had to bow in time to the recorded violin parts, an undertaking rather more complicated than mere lip syncing, but not impossible for a sufficiently dedicated actor.

However, Christabel’s dedication to her acting craft had driven her to do a credible job of learning the violin and picking up enough music theory to participate in the composition and arrangement of the pieces she recorded for her debut album. Though she probably let the other composers and arrangers do most of the work—Naomi had racked up a good many songwriting credits herself merely by suggesting a riff or motif that others then built upon—she had done enough to merit an arranger credit on every piece drawn from the Western canon and composition credits on every original piece.

To her mortification, she had not been paying attention when Christabel finally got her hooks into Morgan. It had been Claire Ashecroft, who had adopted her as an honorary aunt by virtue of her friendship with Claire’s aunt Jacqueline Russo, that had alerted her. She had stood waiting in the back garden as Naomi fenced with shadows to stay in fighting trim, and waited until she had noticed the younger woman and sheathed her blade. “Oi, Nims. Did you know that that Crowley bird’s just dropped another album?”

“I’ve been on holiday this week and not paying attention,” said Naomi. It was the truth; she had made the point of taking a week off just to be alone and read something that had nothing whatsoever to do with music theory or the music industry. In fact, she had filched one of Jackie’s trashy romance novels. “I suppose I’d better go get a copy.”

“You could borrow mine,” said Claire. “The first one was good study music and I figured this would be more of the same, but it’s actually a little too proggy. She’s also got this new sideman who plays both guitar and bass at the same time, and he looks absolutely scrumptious. The liner notes are actually kinda distracting because of the photos.”

Claire had given Naomi a salacious wink as she said this, as if to imply that Naomi understood what sort of distraction she was talking about. “All right. Let’s have a look.”

Claire had the record playing on the stereo in the living room by the time Naomi had finished washing up. She handed over the sleeve as Naomi joined her. Though Christabel Crowley’s name was most prominent on the cover of Shattered Harmonies II, the back cover listed her sidemen. Not that Naomi needed to turn over the sleeve to recognize Morgan Cooper. He was standing back to back with Christabel, both facing the camera with teased hair, makeup, and icy stares.

Opening the gatefold, Naomi saw that whoever had done the photography had taken an equal-opportunity approach to objectifying their subjects. Men, women, and those who knew better—each was subject to a gaze intended to make them as stimulating to the viewer’s libido as possible.

Claire stopped Naomi at a photo of Morgan gazing upward beneath half-lidded eyes. “That one’s my favorite. Tall, dark, brooding, with smoldering green kitty eyes. You know it’s only the white-haired pretty-boys that turn out to be villainous, right? Pale, dark-haired bishounen always turn out to be quiet, noble types. They might not get the princess, but they always thaw the icy witchy types, especially if they’re the villain’s daughter and thus can’t believe they’re capable of true love.”

“I’ve no notion of what you’re on about,” said Naomi. This was a lie; she had at least flipped through enough of Claire’s manga, which the girl bought secondhand and in bulk because the retail prices for individual volumes varied in her estimation between extortion and non-consensual buggery.

“Then you won’t mind explaining why I keep finding volumes of Divine Wings of Tragedy on your nightstand?”

Naomi shook her head. “You keep leaving them there, presumably when it’s your turn to vacuum.”

“Fair enough.” Claire turned her attention back to the photo of Morgan Cooper. “I bet we could get him to vacuum for us. Maybe in a little Parisian maid’s outfit with kitten heels.”

“Does Aunt Jackie know what sort of kinky network sites you visit when you should be sleeping?”

“She should; I keep finding new ones in her browsing history.”

“Dammit, Claire. I did not need to know that.”

“Oh, please. You’re not nearly as prudish as you pretend to be with me.”

“You’re fifteen. What are you going to be like when you’re old enough to act on your fantasies?”

Claire’s smile broadened to Cheshire cat proportions. “Insatiable.” She tapped the photo of Morgan that had inspired her fancies. “So if you want this cutie you’d better get your claws in him before I do.”

“I was his first kiss, so if real life is anything like the manga you read when you should be studying I don’t think you’ve got a chance.”

“Probably not,” said Claire. “But why is he with Christabel Crowley? Not that she isn’t kinda hot herself, but she’s nowhere near your level.”

That last remark raised questions about Claire’s fantasy life that Naomi thought best left unanswered. “Simple truth? He was fifteen at most at the time. I didn’t want to take advantage of somebody that young, so I only gave him a chaste little kiss, and then told him I was too old for him and that he should go live a life and love somebody closer to his own age.”

“He’s twenty now, and you’re twenty-seven. That age gap isn’t as problematic now as it was five years ago. You ought to show him why First Girl Wins is a legitimate trope.”

Don’t tempt me.

Naomi was sure that had been a private thought until Claire eyes lit up. “Well, let’s make it happen.”

“I can’t just go up to them and tell Christabel I’ve got prior claim.”

“No, but you picked the wrong time to go on holiday and ignore the world,” said Claire. “Apparently the new album’s selling enough that Christabel is auditioning for a vocalist. Preferably one who can play the keyboards, too.”

The Melody Maker ad hit Naomi’s implant before Claire had finished, and it backed up her claims. “Vocalist and keyboardist wanted for new neo-Romantic heavy metal project, Crowley’s Thoth. Blind audition. Hmmm…”

Claire had disappeared, only to return a few minutes later toting a headset and an old laptop whose lid was covered in decals featuring rather aggressive-looking cartoon puffer-fish. One of them seemed to be brandishing a revolver in each fin. “Well, what the ‘ell are you waiting for? You gonna call the bloody label and request an audition?”

“I don’t need a laptop and headset for that.”

“This is for me to use once you’ve put yourself into contention,” said Claire, flashing a rather piratical grin. “Once you’ve done, I’m going to spoof the record label’s contact and redirect everybody else’s audition requests to the null device. Because we didn’t pounce on this advert right away, it’s likely that a few have already gotten through and put themselves on the list. This is fine; if Christabel has half a brain and if you’re the only one to show up she’d probably smell a rat.”

“I think you, Jackie, and I ought to have a little talk about your ethics,” said Naomi. It troubled her that Claire thought she needed to cheat, and that she was willing to help Naomi rig the audition by limiting the talent pool.

“Oh, bugger the ethics,” said Claire. “I overheard you and Jackie. You’ve got some kind of important mission from the Phoenix Society, right? You need to get close to Morgan and protect him. Helping you do that is more important than letting a bunch of randos have a shot at joining Crowley’s Thoth, especially if Christabel Crowley is working for that white-haired pretty-boy running AsgarTech.”

“Besides,” Claire added, lowering her voice. “I’ve seen you wearing a St. Judas medal. I might be edging toward black hat territory, but you’re already there.”

Naomi lifted the medal from under her blouse for Claire to see. “I wear this because I might have to kill Morgan.”

“Holy shit.” Claire’s whispered blasphemy sounded almost reverent in its hushed intensity. “He might still love you, and you might have to kill him because he’s einherjar and might run amok? This ought to be a shōjo manga. I am so not missing out on this. Hurry your arse up, Nims; the audition’s tomorrow and they’re only taking applications until midnight.”

Once Naomi made the call, Claire got to work. She worked long into the night, fielding call after call without breaking character, extemporizing as needed to convince every hopeful caller that she actually worked for Dark Eternal Records and that she was adding them to the list for Christabel’s consideration. She directed each mark to a different location several kilometers away from where the audition was actually happening so that they were less likely to meet, compare notes, and figure out that they had been conned.

Once midnight had passed, Claire closed her connections, concealed her electronic trail, and shut down her computer. Slipping off the headset, she stretched and loosed a jaw-breaking yawn. “I don’t think any of them suspected a thing. Damn, I’m good.”

“You realize what you’ve done, right?”

“Yep. Social engineering. If I wasn’t using a computer you could call me a confidence woman.”

Naomi shook her head. “You mean a con artist? That’s not exactly an honest trade.”

Claire shrugged. “Depends on who I’m conning and why, doesn’t it? If it’s for a greater good, doesn’t that justify what I’m doing?”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Naomi. “That’s the whole point of wearing a Saint Judas medal. Necessary evils are still evil. Worse, they might not even be necessary in the first place. But we’ve still got to live with them.”

Another shrug from Claire. “This shit’s getting a bit too recondite for my taste. You needed help, and I was able to help you. That’s all that matters to me.”

Naomi tacitly conceded the point after considering Claire’s age. At her developmental stage, she still lacked the ability to do the moral reasoning necessary to fully grasp the problematic nature of the help she had provided, and expecting her to do it anyway was itself unfair. “Will you do me a favor? Next time you’re thinking of doing something like this, please ask me first. I know you don’t think it’s wrong, but if you run a con like this on the wrong people and it goes sideways, you could find yourself in dire trouble.”

Once Claire had promised she would and scampered off to bed, Naomi stared at Morgan’s photo. The lyrics of a stalker’s anthem that had entered the public domain decades ago sprang unbidden to her lips. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, she thought before putting the record away.

Email between Claire and Naomi concerning network site updates

from: Claire Ashecroft <redacted>
to: Naomi Bradleigh <redacted>
date: 2101-03-13 23:58
subject: Network Site Updates

Nims:

I’ve given some thought to how you can discreetly report to your
handlers now that they’ve disabled your implant’s Witness Protocol
daemon. As we discussed, keeping a plain text journal has always been
an option. The hard part is ensuring that your handlers get an updated
copy every so often.

I think I’ve hit upon a solution, but first I’m going to remind you of
how your network site currently works for context, in case you’ve
forgotten because you had more pressing concerns.

Your site runs on a virtual Unix host, which we both access over SSH.
I’ve already hardened the host so that root has no remote login, and
so that neither of us can login without a public key authorized by the
host. Furthermore, anybody who attempts to access port 22 (SSH) from
an unauthorized IP address gets redirected to port 443 (HTTPS).

My suggestion is that we create accounts for your handlers and lock
them so that all they can do is download a copy of your journal via
sftp. Once that’s done, you can periodically upload your surveillance
journal when updating your site. Just include an encrypted tarball
containing the latest version when updating your public journal, and
put it in home/nbradleigh/web. I’ll update the cron job that builds
your site so that it first copies the tarball to your handlers’ home
directories. I’ll then update your site’s makefile to exclude the
tarball.

Since your site is actually served from var/www/htdocs the general
public won’t be able to read your private journal unless the site is
compromised. I can do the setup as soon as I have your handlers’ IP
addresses and SSH pubkeys.


Claire Ashecroft
<redacted>
“People who think sex is a pain in the arse need more lube.”

from: Naomi Bradleigh <redacted>
to: Claire Ashecroft <redacted>
date: 2101-03-14 08:02
subject: Re: Network Site Updates

Thanks, Claire. You should find attached a tarball containing IP
addresses and SSH public keys for my handlers. Please make the
necessary arrangements to ensure that they can download copies of my
surveillance journal at their convenience.


Naomi Bradleigh
<redacted>
I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
                – Elvis Presley

PS: Are you using a shell script to generate your email signature
again? I hope for your sake that this is the case, and that you are
not sharing hard-won experiential wisdom.

Naomi Bradleigh’s Journal, 31 March 2101 (The Dark Sword Likes Cuddles)

There was a reason I tried twice to get rid of the sword Ian Malkin gave me. I’ve never wielded it. I try not to even grasp its scabbard, let alone lay a hand on its hilt.

The sword speaks to me.

This isn’t a metaphor. Nor is it a joke. It is literal and deadly serious. The sword that Desdinova retrieved and insisted I carry because it is supposedly the only weapon capable of killing Morgan with a single blow is something out of one of those sword and sorcery novels I used to get as birthday presents from my faerie godfather as a little girl.

It figures that my faerie godfather would turn out to be my fencing maestro, who turned out to be the arsehole who founded the original AsgarTech Corporation, Ian Malkin, and helped with Project Harker. And, naturally, he was the keeper of a sentient runeblade that seems to take perverse delight in creeping me out.

I had hoped to be rid of all of that, but he’s back as Isaac Magnin.

The dark sword is back in my hands, too, and back in my head.

I don’t think the connection is mystical or psychic. Instead, I think the damned thing has somehow reverse engineered my implant’s wireless networking protocols and has taken to texting me.

It could only reach me when I was touching it at first. But it seems to have gotten stronger, and can now clamor for attention whenever I’m close.

It insists I stop calling the damned thing “it” or “the sword” or “the damned thing”. It tells me it has a name. Of course, it won’t reveal it; apparently I’m supposed to figure it out on my own.

As if I had nothing better to do.

The upside is that the damn thing doesn’t have to be a sword. It can change its form to suit its wielder. I’ve changed it into a dagger, a spear, a knuckle duster, a staff, and a tonfa. The only limitation is that it won’t take a form that requires ammunition.

I’ve decided to call the sword ’Ahriman’. It’s always whispering to me, trying to tempt me. Again, I’m not joking or being metaphorical here. This sword is sentient, and is evidently desperate to communicate.

As one might expect, Ahriman tends to be rather bloodthirsty. I dare not take it out in public; even sheathed it points to this person or that person and attempts to persuade me that I am within my rights to murder them. Reminding it that the death penalty has been abolished for all crimes save for tyranny and corruption on the part of Phoenix Society personnel avails me nothing; it has somehow decided that the social death of being made an unperson before being permanently exiled from Earth is a crueler penalty and that we’d be bringers of mercy rather than murderers. Never mind that with one exception—and I fervently and regularly pray to any god willing to listen that it will never prove necessary—I am not in the euthanasia business.

When not inciting me to murder or doing its best to creep me out (something at which it succeeds more often than I’d prefer), Ahriman seems almost lonely. It is almost as if it were once a man and still craves company. It tends to become quiet with I let my hand rest on its hilt, as if my touch comforts it. Likewise if I sing in its presence. And though its personality is decidedly that of a mature and commanding man, there are moments when it seems younger and vulnerable, more a lonely boy instead.

For example, Ahriman enjoys being read to before I go to bed, though its tastes are definitely that of a boy. It cares little for introspective, literary novels. No, the sword craves more adventuresome fare. I’ve found myself rereading many of the novels I read as a little girl, tales of wizardry and wild romance.

Thrice a year, on my birthday and on the summer and winter solstices, a package addressed to me would show up. In it I would find public-domain media chosen for me by somebody who knew my temperament and tastes better than my parents. Somebody knew that I craved adventure, that I did not dream of being rescued by a handsome and daring prince.

Instead, I saw myself as a witch and warrior—and if some handsome and daring prince got in over his head and needed me to rescue him, that suited me just fine.

There was one saga I loved best, that of Morgaine. The last of a team of soldier-scientists on a suicide mission to close ancient spacetime gates before they were misused to cause yet another reality dysfunction, she found herself trapped in a gate until a desperate warrior named Vanye freed her, and then sought shelter by her fire. She claimed his service for a year in exchange as was the custom of his people, and they shared many perils together. She saved Vanye many times, but he saved her rather often himself.

Of course, Ahriman likes the Morgaine stories because of her sword Changeling. It’s a demon-sword as well, though not particularly talkative. Hell, Ahriman is mad for any story involving such accursed weapons whether the sword is called Caine, Stormbringer, Gram, or Dragnipur.

Fortunately, the sword’s taste for adventuresome bedtime stories and heavy metal songs about war and ass-kicking give me a bit of leverage. If it gets too obnoxious, I can always threaten deprivation. It seems rather cruel, though.

Memo to self: Claire once mentioned a manga featuring a mercenary warrior in a medieval setting that she had characterized as a “size queen”. He must have been packing a really big sword. Was it called Bleach or Berserk? Ahriman might enjoy it, as long as the fights don’t drag on too long.

Naomi Bradleigh’s Journal, 14 February 2111 (Love Grows)

I’ve never experienced the freefall infatuation that society and centuries of culture had led me to expect of falling in love. The development of my regard was perceptible only in hindsight. Rather than having my defenses shattered with a single kiss the slow accretion of fleeting moments, trivial courtesies, little kindnesses, and tentative, accidental touches gently eroded the studied indifference with which I approached my subject out of necessity, for how could I justify loving a man when duty might demand his death by my hand? It’s hard not to feel cheated; it seems Morgan got to fall in love with me twice as a boy and then a man, but did I ever get to fall in love with him? I think not. In me love grew, but what if I only think he fell twice for me because I could not see how his love for me grew in him? I only know what he tells me, and we’ve dared tell each other so little.

It figures that I might finally realize all of this while in bed with Christopher Renfield. He slept on his side, content to let me be the big spoon and mold myself to him. It had been something I had enjoyed often in the decade or so since we met in Clarion as amiable enemies. He had been a holdout from Nationfall with the rest of his special forces squad, reluctant guardians of Project Harker, a program of military scientific experiments that had made artificial vampires of them. He was still beautiful; a little shorter than me, but with a slim, muscular physique, oceanic eyes, and honey-gold hair that became an unruly mop once he abandoned his crew cut and fatigues for civilian fashion.

We did not meet often, only a few times a year, but whenever our paths crossed he made a point of inviting me to dinner or out for drinks. It was pleasant to talk with a friend who wasn’t part of the Phoenix Society, but still understood what I did when not performing. And if neither of us was involved with somebody else, we ended up in bed together more often than not. It was mostly just friendly, casual bed play—not quite lovemaking, but not devoid of affection either.

We had been good for each other tonight, but while he had eventually drifted off to sleep as I held him, I was not so fortunate.

Though I had been content with our arrangement, I found myself wanting more than a friendship with benefits, and it was not with Christopher that I craved this more intimate arrangement. It was probably best to break the news to him now.

“Chris?” He stirred a little as my lips brushed his ear, and it was impossible to resist taking a little nip of his earlobe before whispering the four words no man wanted to hear, especially at zero dark thirty. “We need to talk.”

He turned over and opened his eyes, slitting them against the light I had turned on. “What is it?”

“We probably shouldn’t do this again.”

“Is it the kid?”

“He’s still letting Christabel abuse him because he thinks keeping the band together will help me, but I don’t need Crowley’s Thoth any more than he does, I’m tired of waiting for him to figure that out, and what we’ve shared can’t be all that fulfilling for you, either.”

Renfield finally sat up, allowing the covers to pool about his waist. He certainly was a gorgeous specimen; one could do far worse for a part-time lover.

“It’s about fuckin’ time, Nims.” Catching my chin, he caressed my jawline with a thumb before leaning in to steal a kiss. “Were you afraid I’d take it poorly?”

“No. It was just that I was tired of bands breaking up because somebody thought they were in love with me. When I found myself wanting Morgan as more than a friend or a band-mate, I fought it. I thought I was being reasonable.”

“Sounds like you got tired of being reasonable.”

More like I had come to my senses and realized that life was too short to waste abstaining from one’s desires for fear of the consequences. “I think I figured out that it’s perfectly reasonable for me to go after what I want from life, instead of worrying that Morgan might not be ready to take a chance.”

“He’s a grown-ass man. If he isn’t ready for you, he can use his words and say so. But I’ve seen you too together, and I don’t think he will. I think he’s been waiting for you.”

“That was hardly necessary.”

Christopher shrugged. “Weren’t you this guy’s first kiss or something?”

It had barely qualified; all I had done was brush my lips against his. Then I had pushed him away told him to go live a life of his own and meet somebody his own age. I explained as much and added, “I’m worried he made more of it than it really was.”

“It sounds like he took your advice,” said Christopher. “He’s lived his own life, and he met somebody his own age. Unfortunately, she’s no good for him.”

“He’s seven years my junior.” I knew it was a lousy excuse, but it was the last one I had. I didn’t want to take advantage of somebody that much younger than me.

“That might have mattered at the time, but he was still mostly a boy then. Now he’s almost thirty, right?”

“You’re saying the gap doesn’t matter now?”

“I’m old enough to be your grandfather,” said Christopher, laying back without bothering to pull up the covers. He seemed happy to be on display. “You didn’t let that stop you ten years ago. You were, what, eighteen?”

“Twenty-one, if you insist on knowing.” I don’t think it was unreasonable of me to throw a pillow at him before I ducked into the shower. However, it was not until I was dressed that it occurred to me that since it was Lovers’ Night Morgan might be with Christabel. Showing up at his door was out of the question when he might be in bed with her, all closed eyes and thoughts of England. Calling was no better, but a text? If he was indeed busy he’d probably have gone dark and would not see my message until later. Likewise if he were asleep. If he did not see it until the morning I could pass it off as a drunk text. «Are you still up?»

«I’m at the hotel bar. Are you all right?»

«I’m fine.»

«Did things not go well with Renfield?»

Oh, damn. How could I have forgotten that he knew I was with Renfield tonight? Looking over at him, I found that he too had gotten dressed. “Tell the kid something came up, I had to leave early, and you’ve been by yourself. You’re freshly showered because you just got back from the gym.”

«Things went fine with Renfield. He’s getting dressed and encouraging me to lie to you. Can we talk in person?»

«Sure, if you don’t mind coming down to rescue me. There’s this woman trying to seduce me, but I don’t think she wants me for herself. She keeps looking at some guy, and they wear matching wedding bands.»

Oh, dear. That was just what Morgan needed tonight: a couple looking to spice up their marriage by involving a third party. Having been in his position myself it was easy to sympathize. «I’ll be there as soon as I can get a lift to my floor.»

Grabbing my coat and sword, I spared Renfield a glance. “Sorry. Morgan’s fending off a wife with a bi husband who’s trying to set up a threesome.”

He followed me out into the hall, slipping into his own coat. “Need a hand?”

Generous of him to offer, considering that I meant to claim another bloke as my own. “I have a plan.”

“I’ll take the next lift, then. That should let me get there in time to enjoy the fireworks.”

Or lend a hand if things went pear-shaped, I suppose. Hopefully I would turn out to be right about not needing his help. “Thanks.”

When I reached the hotel bar I found Morgan at the far end, with a redhead whose gown was only barely adequate to the engineering challenged presented by her surgically enhanced figure. Most of the people seated at tables were interested in each other, or in the willowy brunette singing torch songs slightly out of time with the pianist accompanying her. I felt sorry for the poor bastard and left a tip in his glass before finding the one patron looking to the bar. The reason for his interest was obvious; he was a tattooed millionaire in a bad suit hoping wifey would being back a toyboy for them to share. Either that, or wifey was the one who ran the marriage and wanted hubby to give her a show.

Not that I begrudged them either way, but they could have their fun with somebody else. Looking down at hubby, I pulled out the chair opposite him. “Excuse me. Do you mind if I join you?”

“Sorry, but we weren’t looking for a woman tonight.”

“Fair enough; I wasn’t interested in joining a couple. I had hoped you might call off your wife. My boyfriend asked me to rescue him, and he’s more reluctant than I am to make a scene.”

As I finished this little speech I laid my sword on the table. I wanted hubby to understand just what sort of scene I was willing to make.

He stared at the sword, then stared at me. “I’d love to help, but Janice doesn’t listen to me once she gets an idea into her head. I had told her to leave that guy alone, that he didn’t look like he was looking for company, but she has her heart set on having him join us.”

Well, hubby certainly wasn’t the driving force in that relationship. I would have to deal with Janice myself. Morgan’s big green kitty eyes got even bigger as I approached and tapped her shoulder. I stepped back as she turned to get a look at me with a hand resting on the hilt of my sword. “Excuse me.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“That’s my man you’re pestering, and I must insist upon you leaving him alone.”

«Just kill this asshole.» I knew that voice, and glanced down at my sword. The damned thing had disguised itself as the Nakajima blade I ordinarily wore in public, the little shit. «Cut her down, and then lick her blood off his lips before you kiss him.»

«No, Ahriman. Bad.» First Renfield, and now the dark sword? Why do all the men (or masculine personalities) around me insist on giving me advice on how to seduce Morgan? «I don’t think he’s into that.»

«You’re into it. I can tell by your heartbeat.»

Christ, he was worse than Claire. «Look, I know you mean well, but I’ve got this.»

Before the sword could reply, Janice did. “I don’t see him wearing your ring.”

“He wears my collar.” Ignoring Morgan’s embarrassment—and how did he blush so prettily when he’s the sort of man who thinks nothing of bring a sword to a gunfight—I pressed on. “Discreetly, of course. He is a gentleman, after all.”

She backed out from between us and gave him a contemptuous once-over. “He’s probably too gentle for what I had in mind anyway. You’re welcome to keep him.”

With that, she walked away and Morgan let go of the breath I had not realized he was holding. Before I could check on him, the bartender finally showed up. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. “We know that woman and refuse to serve her, but we can’t just toss her out because her husband is a part-owner. But if she had gone too far I would have called security.”

I leaned over the bar, invading her space. “He asked me to come down here and rescue him. I think that woman had already gone too far, but you didn’t realize it because my friend was reluctant to make a scene.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll tell the rest of the staff and we’ll try to do better so something like this doesn’t happen again.”

“Fair enough,” It would have to be; she’s a bartender, not an Adversary, and stepping in when a patron took their flirtation entirely too far was just a bit above her pay grade. “A glass of the house red for me, please, and a ${FRUITYCOCKTAIL} for him.”

Though the bartender raised an eyebrow at my choice, she made no remark. Sensible of her.

“Thanks,” said Morgan as I settled onto the stool beside him.

“You didn’t mind me ordering something sweet for you, right?”

“No. It’s not like I get the buzz so I might as well drink for taste.” He gave a grim smile, “And if some macho fool wants to pick a fight because he thinks my drink is girly, we can step outside and dance.”

“Where was that spirit when Janice wouldn’t take no for an answer?”

Morgan looked down at the bar. “What she did wasn’t enough to justify violence.”

“If a man treated me like that, he’d have my steel at his throat.”

“That’s your choice to make. But it would look different if I drew my sword on her.”

Damn it, he was right. If somebody mistreated me, I could kick their arse and nobody would convict me in court or damn me in the press. Morgan still had to sit there and take it like a man. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“Thanks,” said Morgan. “Could you keep an eye on my drink? I’d like to duck into the men’s room for a moment.”

“Of course.”

To my dismay, Janice’s husband went in soon afterward. Fortunately, he came out less than a minute later hunched over and clutching his belly. When Morgan returned, all I asked was, “Feel better?”

“Considerably. Bastard tried to start a beef because I apparently thought his wife wasn’t good enough. He couldn’t accept that I had a girlfriend.”

“I’d hardly call Christabel that.”

Morgan shrugged. “She’s what I’ve got, and I’ve got nobody to blame for that but myself. I could have let her go. I could have left the band go, but when where would you be?”

Oh, God, I have had enough of this bullshit. “I’d be with you, in our own band. You think I actually give a shit about Crowley’s Thoth?”

“I thought you were happy.”

“I was making do, just like you.” How I wished I could tell him why I was really there. The reasons that brought me here weren’t the ones that kept me here, but would he understand? “Where is Christabel?”

Another shrug. “With Isaac Magnin. When I got back to our room after the meet & greet I found a note saying she’d be meet us in time for the next show and that I was welcome to amuse myself in any way I pleased.”

Oh, that opened so many possibilities. “Would it please you to amuse yourself with me?”

Our drinks arrived before he could say anything. Rather than taste my wine, I took a sip from Morgan’s drink and marked the rim of the glass with my lipstick before passing it to him. Claire would have called it an ’indirect kiss’, and surely Morgan had spent enough time around my honorary niece to know it. “Think about it for now. We’ll talk more after we’ve had our drinks.”

Naomi Bradleigh’s Journal, 15 February 2111 (His Damnable Integrity)

I had hoped from the way his eyes smoldered as he sipped the drink I had tasted that he might pounce on me once we were alone in the elevator. To my disappointment, he behaved himself, though this might have been for the best since the lift kept stopping to take on more passengers. By the time we had reached his floor, we had to gently shoulder our way out from the back of the lift. It was fortunate Christabel was not with us; we were in Paris and she refused to speak a word of any language but English even when our tours brought us to cities where only hotel staff spoke it as a courtesy to guests whose command of that language exceeded that of the local tongue.

I hope my father found Christabel’s obstinacy in linguistic matters charming, for it annoyed me to have to speak for her and I rather suspected it irked Morgan as well–though in fairness we often spoke for one another if one of us was better with a particular language than the other.

Still, if Morgan had not pressed me against the wall and kissed me breathless in the lift, I had retained some hope he might do it in the hallway, or even press me against the door to his hotel room before opening it and carrying me over the threshold so that he might throw me onto the bed.

Perhaps I had not been sufficiently direct, but I found myself reluctant to force the issue; he had surely had enough of that for one night at the hotel bar. Nonetheless, it seemed somebody had to say something, and I was unlikely to get what I wanted if I kept quiet. “Now that we’re alone, let’s speak plainly.”

“Should I get you a drink, first?”

Clever man, trying to delay me. But I had wasted enough time. “I’ve had my drink for the night. There was a reason I texted you earlier. Shall I tell you what it was?”

Morgan indicated one of the armchairs, and took the other. “I’m listening.”

“I was in bed with Renfield. We have–or had–an informal arrangement. If we were in the same city we’d meet for dinner or a drink. And if neither of us was otherwise engaged, we’d sleep together.”

“That seems reasonable,” said Morgan. “But where do I enter into this?”

“You never stopped being in love with me, did you?”

He had gone crimson all over. This was no mere blush, and it occurred to me that for somebody who so obviously prided themselves on their restraint, to stand accused of still being infatuated with their first youthful crush might be just a little humiliating.

“Was I that obvious?” His question came out in a barely audible whisper. One suspects he did not realize he had even spoken.

“Not at first. After a while I began to notice little things. In fairness, it seems to me that you had gotten over me, and when we got to know each other as part of Crowley’s Thoth you started to fall for me again.”

His color had settled a bit; surely that was a good sign. “You’re right. I had, but I tried to be discreet about it. After all, I’m with Christabel, and you’ve how many bands break up around you because one of the other members decided they just had to have you, or because their partners got jealous of you?”

“Entirely too many, and I did appreciate your restraint as well as your respect for your relationship with Christabel.”

“It’s too bad Christabel herself doesn’t respect it,” said Morgan, letting the bitterness show. “Besides, aren’t you still with Renfield?”

One supposes he had not noticed my use of the past tense when explaining my old arrangement. “That’s over. I ended it tonight.”

“Why would you do that? Was it not a situation that suited you?”

“It did until it didn’t,” Perhaps it might seem strange that he had a better understanding of his feelings than I had of mine since emotion remains the province of women in the minds of too many who should bloody well know better. However, it did not surprise me. As an einherjar determined to pass for human, Morgan seemed to monitor and analyze his emotional state as if his survival depended on it. It might even have done so if too many people remembered that he was not human and took exception.

But what excuse did I have? Inexperience, I suppose, which at my age seems flimsy even to me. “Would you be shocked if I told you that I had never been in love, and that I did not understand how I felt until tonight?”

His eyes were so grave as he studied me. “Are you saying that you were in bed with Renfield after having sex with the man and realized he wasn’t the one you wanted?”

“Exactly. Yes, I’ve told him. He actually encouraged me to lie to you and tell you I was freshly showered because I had just finished at the gym.”

“We’re both adults here, Nims. Of course you were going to have relationships. It’s just that we both have lousy timing.”

That’s certainly the Devil’s own truth. “Look. Maybe I shouldn’t have flirted with you in the bar, and maybe I shouldn’t even be here, but I wanted to tell you that I don’t want you to stay in a shitty relationship for my sake. I don’t need Crowley’s Thoth any more than you do. You know we’re good together on stage. We’ve got chemistry that Christabel can’t touch, and she knows it too. That’s one reason she keeps hurting you. If you quit the band, I’ll follow, because when I claimed you as my own to get that slag Janice away from you I meant it.”

It was the barest brush of his lips against mine, a kiss so chaste it barely qualified as one. It tasted like revenge for the way I had first kissed him so long ago. “I want to be yours, but I can’t let myself be the one to end it. That’s not the kind of man I want to be.”

Damn it. I was afraid he’d say that. It hurt worse than an outright rejection. “I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”

“Neither do I.” Morgan looked at the two queen-sized beds. “Which would you prefer?”

Naomi Bradleigh’s Journal, 1 February 2112 (After the Fight in Boston)

We took down Alexander Liebenthal today. We won, didn’t we? It hardly feels like victory. Sarah’s lost a leg below the knee, and isn’t taking it well. I’ve got a broken rib, and it would have been worse if that experimental armor Nakajima made for Morgan and me had failed. The armor didn’t help Morgan at all, but I suppose that’s asking a bit much considering that he used his body to break Liebenthal’s fall from the top floor of City Hall.

He broke roughly half the bones in his body. Half of them healed crooked for lack of medical attention.

I should be writing this from Morgan’s hospital room. Instead, I’m sitting in the hospital’s cafeteria, drinking tea and waiting. I know he’s going to be all right. Desdinova himself did the surgery, working almost twelve hours to re-break and set the bones that healed crooked after Morgan had broken them the first time around.

But I can’t bear to look at Morgan right now. Every time he puts himself in harm’s way to spare me or one of our friends or a civilian I find myself seething. I want to grab Morgan and shake him until he understands that his life matters as much as anybody else’s, but I know it won’t help. This is how he was made.

I want to go after the bastard who made him. I would love to grab Isaac Magnin and shake him too, and then drop him off the parapet of the AsgarTech Building once I get tired. But is it his fault, either? He designed Morgan, edited his genome, supervised his gestation, selected his parents, and did everything he could to make Morgan’s life a prison of his own design, but the sense of justice I’ve seen in Morgan was beyond Isaac’s power to bestow.

Isaac made hundreds of einherjar. Most, to my knowledge, never came to understand or use their talents. Others realized their abilities set them apart from others and sought to rule. Precious few chose to put their gifts into service to anything resembling a greater good or a higher ideal.

Morgan had always tried to be discreet in the use of his abilities, but when Isaac Magnin himself showed up with a militia brigade armed with the electrolaser weapons Liebenthal had been selling I thought our end had come. There was no shelter, no cover, no way out of the line of fire. I thought Morgan had gone mad, to put himself between me and the guns aimed at us. I had seen him shot with one of those weapons; he had placed himself between a Fireclown and Sarah and taken the shot for her. It would have killed her outright and should have bloody well killed him; as it is he was badly injured and took a couple of days to recover.

There was no way he could have survived a volley of fire from hundreds of such weapons, yet once again he stood against odds he might not survive because he knew nobody else could defy them.

I should have watched. I should have borne witness. But I could not bear to. I closed my eyes so that I wouldn’t see him torn apart in front of me, and the world went white as Isaac gave the order to fire. The storm came, and when the guns ran out of power Morgan was still there. Though barely able to stand, he stood swaying on his feet. The air shimmered around us the way I had seen it shimmer around Morgan when he shielded himself against his enemies instead of simply taking a bullet, and that’s when I realized that he had figured out how to extend the barrier he could project. He was protecting Liebenthal because duty demanded it.

But the barrier was fading, and the guns charging up. I was sure Morgan would not be able to withstand another assault, but I was bereft of ideas. I wanted to grab Morgan and drag him away to cover, Liebenthal be damned, but I didn’t.

Instead all I could do was go to him, and put my arms around him. He had his sword held before him, as if it were a focus for his defiance, and I rested my hands on his. They were so cold beneath my fingers, the knuckles white. His breath came in shallow pants, and I thought I could hear a lyric repeated as a mantra, but he seemed to settle as I buried my face in his hair.

I don’t remember what I whispered in his ear. Did I tell him that I loved him? Did I say that I would be there for him even if our bitter end had found us together? I don’t know. All I remember was that the curtain of light before us had ceased to waver. Rather than threatening to flicker out of existence it seemed to solidify.

The storm surged again, and I rode it with him. He took everything they had to give, and I could feel the power beneath his skin threatening to consume him. His sword had shattered; he was left holding nothing but the hilt, but from the remaining jagged stump a new blade of deep purple flame extended.

“Let go of me now,” he said, his voice gentle even though it came through gritted teeth. “Take Liebenthal. I will deal with these.”

I did not take Liebenthal. I stayed and watched as Morgan disappeared before me. Lightning arced as militiamen dropped their weapons, and though I could not see what Morgan did the result was obvious; armored in ire and wielding the sword of his hatred he was destroying their weapons as an alternative to killing them. It wasn’t until they had all fled that Morgan dropped back into sight. He had turned his fury on Isaac Magnin himself.

Isaac, unarmed, should have been defenseless. Yet he stood firm and when the unforgiving blade came down he caught it between the palms of his hands. It winked out of existence, and before Morgan could react he was suspended, helpless as he struggled against the white hand that grasped him by the throat. Morgan clawed at Isaac, chopped at his wrist, and even tried to gouge out those hateful blue eyes, but it was futile. There was nothing Morgan could do to stop Isaac Magnin the fiend who pretended to be an effete tech magnate, from hurling suspending him in midair like a recalcitrant kitten who insisted on clawing at the couch instead of using the scratching post.

Then Isaac turned to me. He said, “Will you defy me for his sake?” Before I could reply, he hurled Morgan at me with a thrust of his outstretched arm. I should have gone after Isaac then, but Morgan was sprawled insensate at my feet, barely breathing.

Desdinova tells me he’s patched up and recovering. I should be there with him. But I’m afraid to. I’m afraid that if I see him in that bed, sedated under a dosage sufficient to kill a dozen ordinary men, I won’t be able to believe he’s still alive.

He should be dead. I want to refuse this reality, but neither can I accept his survival. I’m afraid for him, yet simultaneously afraid of him too. My father is a demon, the man I’ve come to love is a titan, and am I to side with the latter against the former? Who am I to do such a thing.

It’s been twelve hours since I stopped writhing this entry. I should start a new one, but I can’t be bothered because I’m still I am afraid.

And I have come to hate the man who has frightened me thus.

If Isaac Magnin is the devil, then am I not the devil’s daughter? Does that not count for something? We will see, because I’ve finally forced myself to look at Morgan, and see the consequences of my cowardice.

Here in the intimacy of this eyes-only journal I can admit the truth. I could have saved Morgan. I could have armored him with the truth, or at least as much of it as I understood. I could have warned him against letting himself get caught up in Isaac Magnin’s machinations years ago. I could have showed him the Starbreaker. Armed with that hellsword we might have defied my father together.

When the moment permits I will tell him everything, and then we will decide what to do. Our lives have been a prison of my father’s design for too long. If we cannot break entirely free, let’s at least have a riot in the dungeons.

Interlude: I Just Want You

Having listened to Naomi’s story, Morgan finds himself struck by the courage and resolve with which she carried her burdens all these years, keeping them locked away. He admits to being worried that she might someday tire of him, but says that he can’t have forever with her then he’ll find a way to be content with the time they get together. Meanwhile, Annelise finds that she can’t understand why Morgan would forgive her, and returns to his brownstone the next day to ask him to tell his story.

The title comes from “I Just Want You” by Ozzy Osbourne, from Ozzmosis.

An Email Chain Supporting Naomi’s Story

From: Iris Deschat To: Edmund Cohen CC: Saul Rosenbaum Date: 12099-01-04 10:37-0500 Subject: AC>CR transfer for Morgan Cooper

Eddie:

I know this isn’t your idea. We all know that the Civil Rights division suffers no lack of volunteers; thanks to the free propaganda we get from Hollywood everybody and their cat wants to be an Adversary. Finding suitable recruits for Arms Control is much more difficult, and equally important. I’d like to think that the rest of the executive council has no need for me to belabor the importance of ensuring global demilitarization but their insistence on assigning Morgan Cooper to the Civil Rights division despite his repeatedly stated preference for Arms Control raises doubts.

You understand how rare it is for a recruit to choose Arms Control; the injury and fatality rates for Peacemakers consistently exceed those of Adversaries, and Peacemakers do not receive the hero-worship Adversaries get.

As senior director for the Arms Control division, I must insist on an explanation.

– Iris Deschat Senior Director Phoenix Society Arms Control Division

From: Saul Rosenbaum From: Edmund Cohen To: Zachary Aster Date: 12099-01-04 10:45-0500 Subject: AC>CR transfer for Morgan Cooper

Boss, I’m attaching this email I got from Iris. Sticking Cooper in the Adversaries was your brother’s idea and since you don’t want me to be honest with her I’ll let you figure out what I should tell the lady.

Frankly, I don’t get it myself. If your brother wants to test Morgan’s capabilities as an einherjar, won’t there be plenty of opportunity in Arms Control? Black market ordnance dealers don’t take kindly to Peacemakers cramping their style, and they’re hardly reluctant to express their displeasure.

So, what gives? Sure, the kid would make a good Adversary, too, but the Civil Rights division gets so many starry-eyed idealists that we manage to get a few good Adversaries out of each batch of recruits, but people willing to follow the money and beard arms dealers in their own dens are a bit rarer. We should be taking advantage of the kid’s willingness to take on the shit detail.

– Edmund Cohen Phoenix Society Internal Affairs Division

From: Saul Rosenbaum To: Edmund Cohen CC: Iris Deschat Date: 12099-01-04 10:46-0500 Subject: AC>CR transfer for Morgan Cooper

Look, Cohen, I might have been the one to scout out Cooper and persuade him to join up, but I’ve got plenty of Adversaries an plenty of recruits happy to swell the ranks further. I don’t know what kind of game Isaac Magnin is playing, but Cooper wants to be a Peacemaker and Iris wants him for Arms Control. That’s where he ought to be. It’s not like they can’t use a guy who thinks nothing of walking empty-handed into a gunfight because he knows he’ll walk out without a scratch.

I’m dead serious when I say that the Adversaries don’t need this kid as badly as the Peacemakers do. Pass that up the chain, OK?

– Saul Rosenbaum Senior Director Phoenix Society Civil Rights Division

From: Malkuth To: Edmund Cohen CC: Iris Deschat CC: Saul Rosenbaum Date: 12099-01-04 13:37-0500 Subject: AC>CR transfer for Morgan Cooper

The executive council has determined that the Phoenix Society’s aims are best served with Morgan Cooper serving as an Adversary rather than a Peacemaker. However, the Arms Control division may “borrow” Cooper for cases where his capabilities may prove particularly useful.

Magnin has a specific role in mind for Cooper. His musical aspirations are of particular interest to him, and it is the majority opinion of the executive council that a touring rock musician moonlighting as an Adversary may prove especially useful to our cause. Our talent distribution is uneven due to our current assignment policy. Though Cooper might be based in New York, we can assign him missions in any city he visits while touring as long as there’s sufficient slack in his touring schedule. We anticipate the following benefits:

  1. The threat of an einherjar showing up in arbitrary locations around the world may deter some abuses of power.
  2. The globe-trotting lifestyle of a high-profile rock musician makes Cooper useful in the event of an angel sighting, as he can be deployed where needed by suborbital without having to put much effort into justifying his presence outside NYC.
  3. The stimulation of travel may stave off burnout, allowing us to get more use out of Cooper than we normally get from Adversaries.

The XC’s further opinion is that Cooper should not be burdened with routine investigative duties, but made available to assist in cases where a suspect is likely to resist arrest or has already done so. This should also prevent unnecessary casualties.

Bear in mind the Phoenix Society’s primary mission, but do not reveal to Cooper under any circumstance that he is being tested to determine whether he is capable of taking on the extraterrestrial entity code-named SABAOTH. Knowing that he has been tapped for Operation Deggial will alter his performance and distort our test results.

Please come directly to me with any questions or concerns.

– Malkuth Phoenix Society Central Admin

From: Edmund Cohen To: Iris Deschat, Saul Rosenbaum Date: 12099-01-04 17:30-0500 Subject: The Taming of Enkidu

I know you’re both worried about the prospect of Morgan being involved in Operation Deggial without informed consent. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to directly oppose the XC in this, but I have an idea.

Have either of you read the Epic of Gilgamesh? In the epic, Gilgamesh tamed the wild man Enkidu by sending a priestess to seduce him and teach him civilized ways.

Maybe we can do something similar. Can either of you recommend somebody Cooper’s age to whom we can give the long-term mission of befriending him and helping him be more man than weapon?

– Edmund Cohen Phoenix Society Internal Affairs

From: Iris Deschat To: Edmund Cohen CC: Saul Rosenbaum Date: 12099-01-04 18:12-0500 Subject: Operation Enkidu

If you just want somebody to befriend Cooper, you might want to consider those already close to him. He seems to get on well with Sydney Reeves, and I suspect that if the XC hadn’t insist on having Cooper for the Adversaries he and Reeves would have made an effective partnership.

– Iris Deschat Senior Director Phoenix Society Arms Control Division

From: Saul Rosenbaum To: Edmund Cohen CC: Iris Deschat Date: 12099-01-04 18:12-0500 Subject: Operation Enkidu

It’s too bad Naomi Bradleigh retired after that clusterfuck in Clarion. The influence she had on Mike Brubaker made him an asset.

I doubt Bradleigh would put on an Adversary’s pins again, though. Cohen, do you think you can persuade her to come back as an Inquisitor working directly under you? That way she can tell that martinet Del Rio to ESBAM if she decided to live up to her name and go full Karen.

I’ll keep an eye on Cooper myself, and try to be his rabbi.

– Saul Rosenbaum Senior Director Phoenix Society Civil Rights Division

From: Edmund Cohen To: Iris Deschat, Saul Rosenbaum Date: 12099-01-04 19:29-0500 Subject: Operation Enkidu

Iris, please sound out Reeves if you think she’ll be suitable. I’ll be in London this weekend, so I should be able to talk to Bradleigh in person. Oddly enough, she had met Cooper when he was younger. Seems they worked the same dive and it was kitten love as soon as the kid first heard Nims singing torch songs for tips.

Incidentally, I have orders from the members of the XC who weren’t in on the majority consensus. I’ll be taking a personal interest in Morgan Cooper. Saul’s notion of mentoring the kid is a good idea, but his mentor shouldn’t be the one giving him his orders.

– Edmund Cohen Phoenix Society Internal Affairs

Part IV: Small Dark Lines

This is Morgan Cooper’s tale of how he first met Isaac Magnin, and his subsequent dealings with him.

The title comes from “Small Dark Lines” by Threshold, from Legends of the Shires.

In the Army Now

“Why recruit me?” said Morgan. “It’s not like other recruits got the hard sell. They came here on their own, but I’ve got a director bringing me to see somebody from the executive council? That doesn’t make sense.”

Cohen shrugged. “You brought this on yourself, kid.”

A video began to play on the wallscreen, a scene from a memory. An apartment ablaze, two women huddled together with their children, and a shape that did not belong looming over them. Cohen paused the video. “This ring any bells?”

“Yeah, but what’s that got to do with anything?”

“You asked ‘why me’. The answer is because you were there. It had to happen to somebody, and you didn’t have the sense to get out of the way. It would have been easy. All you had to do was avert your eyes and tell yourself it wasn’t your problem. Nobody would have blamed you; there were actual firefighters and paramedics on the scene. But you couldn’t bear to be a bystander. You had to step up. You rushed into that burning building, killed a demon, and saved four lives. Congratulations, asshole, you’re a hero.”

“I was just trying to do the right thing. Somebody had to try to rescue those people, and nobody else would.”

“The actual professionals, the people who knew what they were doing, crunched the numbers and decided the odds of getting any of them out alive without losing firefighters and paramedics weren’t favorable enough to justify the attempt,” said Cohen. “And they were right. They were only human.”

“So am I.”

“Don’t bullshit me, kid. I know what you really are. You’re a 100-series einherjar. The very last out of six hundred and sixty-six. You could have figured the odds as easily as those firefighters. You knew it was a bad idea to cross that threshold, but you said ‘fuck it’ and did it anyway.”

Somebody had to.”

“That’s what you said then, too. Somebody had should have, but nobody else would. Well, somebody ought to stand up to tyranny and most people won’t. Most people can’t. They don’t have the heart. Adversaries do, and so do you.”

“But Arms Control needs men, too. I could be an asset there as a Peacemaker without having to hurt anybody.”

“You’re right,” said Cohen. “You could, but that’s not you. You were made, not born. You were designed to stand against odds that would break armies. You’re einherjar, an army of one. But there’s something in your psyche that isn’t part of the design, an X factor that the people working on Project Einherjar hoped would arise as you kids grew up. Do you know what it is?”

“Courage?”

Cohen shook his head. “Courageous people are afraid, but face their fear and act despite it. Adversaries need something more, because they’re knights in Satan’s service doing a thankless job that nonetheless needs doing, and you’ve got it. You are defiant. You look at tyranny, corruption, and senseless death and you aren’t content to politely say ‘no’. You say, ‘Hell no!’.” Warming to his theme, Cohen shook his fist in their air. “You’re the kind of guy who, if you were struck by lightning, would flip off the heavens and yell, ‘Is that the best you’ve got? Try again, motherfucker!’”

“You think so?” said Morgan. “That sounds more like foolhardiness to me.”

“Yeah? Let’s talk about that.” The screen changed to show a group of men in suits playing poker. “Remember these assholes?”

“Yeah. They were hitting people in my neighborhood up, saying they needed to pay extra for insurance. Police wouldn’t do anything, because the racketeers were giving them a cut.” Morgan indicated one of the men. “That scumbag ran the local police precinct.”

“You could have reported this to the Phoenix Society.”

“You would have spent months investigating, building a case. There are people in my neighborhood who couldn’t afford to pay these assholes while you did that.”

“They would have gotten restitution.”

“Oh, sure,” said Morgan. “I can’t pay rent this month because I had to pay off gangsters, but I’ll pay you when the Phoenix Society pays restitution. You really think that’s gonna fly? Something had to be done then and there, not once you people were ready to give these pusbags due process.”

“Right, so you walk in and give these assholes a fucking civics lesson.” Lifting the remote, Cohen started the video.

“Hey, kid,” said the man with the fanciest suit. “You here by mistake or something?”

“I think the mistake is on your part,” said Morgan on video. “Nobody elected you. No constitution enumerates your powers or provides any decent restraint. You have no authority to collect taxes or to force my neighbors to pay for ‘insurance’, and if you do not immediately cease and desist I will remand you to the Phoenix Society’s custody.”

“You and what army?”

“There are only ten of you. Every exit is sealed. The only way out is through me, and you can’t all come at me at once. You dare not use your guns lest a ricochet injure or kill you or one of your associates.”

“There’s a hole in your reasoning. Ever hear of frangible ammunition?” The leader reached into his jacket, pulled a semiautomatic, and fired. Morgan’s visual field shimmered for a moment as he shielded himself, and birdshot clattered against the floor. “So, you’re one of those einherjar. Nice shield, kid. Do you really think it’s gonna hold against all of us?”

On cue, the other men pulled their weapons and opened fire. Morgan rode out the firestorm, not letting his shield fade until every slide locked on an empty chamber. Then, as the men made to reload, he sprang into action. Holding his place in time, he leaped onto the table, disarming one man at a time and disassembling their pistols in rapid succession before returning to his original position in the doorway. Once Morgan let go of his place in time, the men stared at their empty hands before staring at him. “Who the hell are you?”

Cohen froze the video again. “You see this shit? This is why we want you. You can face down assholes like these unarmed and come away unscathed. Also, you did everything short of dressing up as a goddamn bat. We can’t tolerate vigilantes, especially if they’re bloody einherjar, but if we can’t stop you then we might as well put you on the fucking payroll.”

“And if I refuse?” Not that Morgan had any intention of refusing. Getting paid to go after people who abused their power and made life suck for everybody else sounded like the best deal he was likely to get. In between cases he could practice his guitar and study music theory.

“If you refuse, we’ll run you through a fuckin’ meat grinder and use you for chum. We can’t have you operating without decent restraint. Your methods are unsound because you’re untrained, you know bugger-all about the law, and you the only evidence you had was jack and shit—and Jack just fucked off to Ibiza for some R&R.”

“Do you enjoy sounding like a stock character in a war movie?”

“Do you enjoy having a boot up your arse?” Cohen leaned forward, staring Morgan down. “‘Cause einherjar or not I’m gonna plant mine so far up yours you’ll be able to lick it clean. You might think you’re a badass, but all you’ve got going for you right now is brute force and ignorance. You’re like that cat who walks through walls because nobody got around to telling the little furball he’s not supposed to be able to do that.”

Covering his mouth, Morgan stifled a yawn. Though it had not been intentional, he understood the message it would send. It made plain the fact that the old soldier’s posturing did little to impress him. There was nothing for it but to lean in. “Are you done trying to convince me that you’ve got the biggest dick?”

“I’ve already convinced your mother, kid.”

“Better you than me.” Cracking a joke about screwing her mother might have upset other young men, but Morgan had already cut his ties and dynamited the bridge behind him. “Somebody ought to, but I’m not about to step up and take on that burden.”

“Good. You’ve got some emotional control. We might be able to make an Adversary out of you yet.”

“Oh?”

“You heard me,” said Cohen. He leaned back in his chair. “You’ll get instructions on where to show up by text message tomorrow, along with what possessions you can bring with you. In the meantime, go get laid or something. You won’t have time for any of that until you’re sworn in.”

“Yes, sir.”

An approving nod from Cohen. “That’s fine for now, but some of your instructors will be North American Commonwealth Marines before Nationfall. They’ll expect every sentence out of your mouth to begin and end with ‘sir’. You’ll come to hate them—everybody does—but that’ll be fine as long as you say ‘Sir. Go fuck yourself, sir.’”

No time like the present to get used to it, though he hoped it was only part of the discipline imposed on recruits and not a ritual formula that would haunt him throughout his service as an Adversary. “Sir. Yes, sir.”

Part V: Screaming for Vengeance

After Annelise, Naomi, and Morgan have told their stories, the three must decide what they’ll do with their newfound knowledge of Isaac Magnin’s nature. Though they’re not ready to show it, deep inside their hearts they’re screaming for vengeance.

The title comes from “Screaming for Vengeance” by Judas Priest, the title track of their 1982 album.

Outtakes

11/1 version of Morgan’s scene in chapter 2

You had no use for me then. I have no use for you now. The lyric from the B-side of a Crowley’s Thoth single occurred to Morgan as Christabel Crowley sat across from him, sipping from a glass of white wine that she was most likely too drunk to appreciate. Had it been a breakup song by Keep Firing, Assholes? Or was Riot! in the Dungeons to blame? Morgan could not recall, and was confident it did not particularly matter. What mattered was that he had come to regret reaching out to his ex-girlfriend and former band-mate earlier this afternoon, and now that she wanted to talk he found himself hard-pressed to be civil with her. His efforts to place a lyric from a cover version were but a delaying tactic. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” said Morgan, mainly to break the silence before it got any more awkward. “Do you still go by Christabel?”

“No. Call me Annelise. It’s the name I put aside before we met, and I took it back again afterward.”

“Thank you,” said Morgan. He had learned a great many things over the course of his investigation into Christabel Crowley’s apparent murder. It had been a meticulously planned bit of theater, every element chosen with care to create the illusion of a perfect crime. He was sure that even if it had been Annelise’s idea she was in capable of its construction on her own. However, he could not see her as a victim. It was hard to see anybody as a victim when Isaac Magnin had them on strings, for Morgan was long familiar with his own set of strings and how it felt to be jerked around by them as Magnin called the tune. “I knew that you had taken up the name Annelise Copeland after—after you left. However, calling you by that name without your permission felt too much like an accusation I might hurl at an enemy.”

“Aren’t we enemies? I all but told you to fuck off and die.”

“I might have had that coming,” said Morgan. He knew too much to hate her, but not quite enough to understand and forgive her. “I never wanted to be your enemy.”

Annelise sipped her wine in silence, almost hiding behind the glass. Once it was empty and could no longer protect her, she set it aside. “I never wanted to see you again. I had seen you a few times, stopping outside the door to my shop as if you wanted to come in, but didn’t dare. I was tempted to report you as a stalker, and I was within a hair of calling the police when I came in.”

“You would have been within your rights.” That much Morgan would readily acknowledge; it had been one of the reasons he had refrained from confronting her until now. “What stopped you?”

Annelise shook her head. Her voice took on a familiar, hectoring edge as she replied. “That’s the sort of question you could answer for yourself. Just duck into the men’s room and look at a mirror.”

“Is it because I’m an Adversary? Or—”

“If I had called the police, and they had ordered you to back off, would you have complied? Or would you have defied them?” As Annelise went on, the Received Pronunciation9 crept back into her voice as if she were slipping back into character and reprising Christabel Crowley. “I think the latter more likely; you’re not human, human morality never applied to you, and you’re perfectly capable of simply doing as you please with nobody to stop you.”

“Then it’s because I’m einherjar.” It was the old argument revived. Once his differences from the common run of men became apparent, Annelise began to blame all of his shortcomings and failures as a partner on his einherjar nature and his efforts—which were doomed to inevitable failure in her mind—to be a creative, loving man rather than a war machine built to serve a cause he neither understood nor wanted any part of.

“I knew what you were from the start,” said Christabel. “Isaac Magnin told me everything. He said I had a right to know what I was getting myself into. I know why he made you and the others. And yet—”

If the server hadn’t arrived, bearing the steak dinner Morgan had ordered earlier, to interrupt Annelise then he might have done so himself. Instead, he held his silence as the server spread his dinner before him. Annelise gazed at the thick medium rare steak, the side dishes of roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables, and the steaming hot rolls with a tub of fresh butter with an expression Morgan mistook for envy. Realizing it was hunger he saw in her eyes, Morgan waved the server back over.

“Is something wrong?”

“I’m sure everything is fine,” said Morgan. “But this lady is a guest. Please take her order and add it to my bill.”

“Of course,” said the server. She turned to Annelise. “Would you like a menu?”

“I saw the specials on the way in. Could I get a bowl of the clam chowder?”

“Coming right up,” said the server, bustling out without bothering to jot down the order. She returned mere minutes later bearing a steaming bowl and more fresh crusty rolls with butter and placed them before Annelise. She then gave Annelise a fresh mug. “I just got word from the boss. We’re not to serve you any more wine. We hadn’t realized you were already drunk earlier. You’re welcome to the coffee, though.”

“Thanks,” said Annelise after she tasted her soup. “God, this is perfect.”

With Annelise digging into her dinner, Morgan decided it was permissible for him to enjoy his own meal. He ate methodically, savoring each morsel, determined to get his money’s worth out of the meal. When he had finished, he waited for Annelise to set aside her spoon before picking up the thread of their interrupted conversation. “You had said that Isaac Magnin told you what he thinks I really am.”

“He said that you had rebelled against your nature, that your rebellion would inevitably fail, and that you would make everybody around you suffer for it.” Breaking one of her rolls, Annelise used a bit of bread to mop up the remnants of her clam chowder. “I kept thinking today would be the day you finally ran amok. I kept needling you, as if I was trying to make his prediction a reality, and I still don’t understand why. But when I was cruel to you and you left as I demanded, without even a word of protest, it occurred to me that I might have been wrong about you.”

Morgan paused, holding his buttery knife against a roll. “You decided you wanted my money after all?”

“I suppose it was foolish of me to refuse your business, but that’s not what I meant and you damn well know it.”

“I know nothing of the kind,” said Morgan. “So use your words and tell me.”

Annelise blinked, as if she had forgotten what it was like to be called on her bullshit. “So, you have changed. You never used to push back like that.”

“It is only a grudging welcome I have given you,” said Morgan. “I did not want you here, but you were plainly inebriated and it was not my place to turn you away and send you back out into the cold because this is not my pub.”

“At least you’re not still in love with me.”

It was the tone of relief in Annelise’s voice that stung Morgan, rather than the words. “I have not been in love with you for at least a decade, but I wanted to rock the world, and if having to fail nightly at rocking your world was what it took then I was willing to swallow my pride.”

Annelise stole a spear of cold asparagus from Morgan’s plate and began to nibble on it. “Does Naomi find this martyr act attractive? Because it’s doing fuck-all for me.”

“This is how we used to fight: circling around the points we wanted to make, sniping at one another. I came to you because I wanted to know that you were still alive and that you were happy.”

She laughed then, eyes wide in disbelief. “You actually care if I’m happy? When did that start?”

“It started when we did. What ended was my willingness to sacrifice my own happiness for yours,” said Morgan. “And I regret that I never had the nerve to break up with you when I realized that we didn’t work. I should have done it years ago.”

“So why didn’t you?” Annelise stole another spear of asparagus and brandished it, sprinkling Morgan’s shirt with cold olive oil. “Don’t tell me it was for my sake.”

Morgan shook his head while thinking, Don’t flatter yourself. You aren’t worth the effort of a lie. Rather than say this, he stuck to the truth. “I thought leaving you meant leaving the band. We had a good sound, we were starting to get some buzz, and breaking up the band would have made life difficult for Naomi, too.”

“It always comes back to her, doesn’t it. How many times have you two gotten together and laughed at me behind my back?”

“Not nearly as often as you and Isaac Magnin got together and laughed behind mine,” Morgan countered, confident that Annelise was projecting guilt about her own infidelity onto him. “Stop wasting my time. Why did you come here?”

Annelise slumped in her seat, as if deflated by Morgan’s refusal to play her game any longer. “I didn’t understand why you cared enough to come and find me. I wanted to know why. I was sure you’d lie to me, but I figured that if I listened between the lies I’d hear the truth.”

This Morgan remembered as being typical of Christabel. Speaking with her was like talking to the police without an attorney present. The more he told her, the more she’d find to hold against him. Nevertheless, Morgan found himself unable to hide the truth from her. He had, after all, brought this on himself by weakening and stepping into the Fifth Avenue boutique he had successfully passed a dozen times before. “I wanted to ask the same question you’re asking. Why? Why couldn’t you have told me you were unhappy?”

11/7 Soft Doctrines

Notes from the shrink (148 words)

She read through notes compiled by various child psychologists to which Morgan Cooper’s parents had brought him out of concern that his willful nature would make it impossible for him to function in society if it were not curbed. Each psychologist had their own diagnosis—pervasive developmental disorder, conduct disorder, and autistic spectrum disorder predominated—but the last one would have had her choking on her cassoulet from laughter if she had not just finished.

This looks like Munchausen’s by proxy. The parents are sure the kid is fucked in the head, but there seems to be nothing actually wrong with him. It seems to be that he’s got an adult’s intellectual maturity and an adolescent’s emotional development, albeit one uncomplicated by puberty, but he’s still physically a child. His problem is that his parents are typical, and he isn’t.

11/15 Too Late for Apologies

Beginning (153 words)

Christabel was still fuming as she and Morgan walked the last couple of blocks from the Crouch End tube station to Naomi Bradleigh’s house. He had not reacted to the scene she had made with Isaac Magnin at the after party for Winter Solstice at the Royal Albert Hall as she expected him to, and when he had come back to find her replete from her lovemaking with Isaac Magnin, all he had done was ask her if she had enjoyed herself.

She half-suspected he was planning to make a scene at Naomi’s house, where they were going to a private and belated Solstice celebration. It’s what she would have done were their positions reversed. Hoping to forestall any such eventuality, she stopped a few doors short. “Not a word about last night when we get to Naomi’s.”

“We already said everything that needed to be said.”

“I know you’re angry with me.”

“The last time I was this angry with somebody, I burned every bridge I had with my family. I thought I had something good going with you and with Crowley’s Thoth, and I don’t want to throw it away, but every word I hear out of you makes it harder.”

“We should have had this fight in the room before we left.”

“I don’t want to fight with you,” said Morgan, his voice taking on an edge that discomforted her. “Look: I’m happy to be your faithful goth bimbo for the fans as long as you keep your affair with Isaac Magnin backstage instead of making a public spectacle of it.”

11/16 Too Late for Apologies (1800 words)

Though Isaac had left her hours ago, Christabel was still replete with the memory of his hands on her. She was awake, enjoying the full English breakfast that Isaac had arranged for room serve to bring her when Morgan had returned at nine the next morning. He said nothing, but retrieved his luggage from the closet and began packing the few things he had taken out when they checked in the night before the Winter Solstice.

She hastily finished her bite of toast liberally coated in butter and marmalade. “Where are you going?”

“I snagged a single for myself last night. I just wanted to get my stuff so I could get ready for Solstice dinner at Naomi’s later. You remember that she invited us over to celebrate since we were too busy with the show, right?”

“Of course,” said Christabel. Putting aside her tray, she slipped out of bed. She was about to reach for his shoulder when she thought better of it. Something was wrong, and after a moment’s reflection she realized what it was. He had spoken with utter indifference, as if he was determined to go to Naomi’s with or without her. “Are you angry with me?”

“Why should I be?”

“I cheated on you.”

“You’re not my property.”

Damn his logic, she thought. “It’s because I thought you had cheated on me with Naomi.”

“Look at me,” said Morgan. His face was an impassive mask as he stood with his arms crossed beneath his chest. “Do I look like somebody who cares about your reasons?”

“So, you are angry with me.”

Morgan closed his suitcase and latched it with deliberate care. “Christabel, the last time I was this angry with somebody, I burned every bridge I had with my family. I thought I had something good going with you and with Crowley’s Thoth, and I don’t want to throw it away, but every word I hear out of you makes it harder.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was too late for sorry when you looked me in the eye and kissed Isaac Magnin.”

At least he’s talking, Christabel thought as she cast about for the words that would ease the knife-edge tension between them. Though she had desperately craved Isaac the night before, yielding to that desire and indulging it as she had now seemed the sort of mistake that might jeopardize her mission. If I fuck this up worse than I already have, I could lose him.

Another possibility occurred to her as she recalled something Isaac had told her. “I need Morgan Cooper to be my enemy,” he had said one night when they were alone. “Having him wield the Starbreaker against the Almighty is necessary but insufficient. I also need him to wield it against me. As long as I remain, neither humans nor asuras will ever be free of the tyranny of demons.”

The hard part was deciding how best to turn Morgan against Isaac Magnin. I could say he forced me, and Morgan would feel duty-bound to believe me so that he can see himself as a decent man, thought Christabel, but he’d probably just insist on going through the proper channels.

Morgan had finished getting his things together, and was about to open the door and leave when Christabel spoke. “I’ve been working for Isaac Magnin the whole time.”

He slowly put down his bags and turned around. “Is this some kind of depraved joke?”

“No,” said Christabel, shaking her head in protest. “Please sit down. Order breakfast, or at least make yourself a cup of tea. I’ll tell you everything.”

Morgan opened the door. “I’m not willing to wait that long.”

“Isaac Magnin isn’t human, either. He’s some kind of immortal who made einherjar like you to serve on the front line in a war against the heavens, but he decided you were too soft and wanted me to help make your dreams come true and poison them. He’s trying to make your life a prison of his own design, and is determined to tighten the screws until you until you do—until you /become/—what he wants.”

The door snicked shut. “Why tell me this?”

That he was still here was a small victory. Likewise the fact that he had not dismissed her explanation out of hand. “I’m still working for him, and serving his cause by telling you the truth.”

“Suppose I walk out on you? Suppose I decide that I no longer need Isaac Magnin’s help getting a foot in the door, and reach for my dreams on my own?”

Shaking her head, Christabel laughed at him and his naïvety. “Do you think it would be so easy? If you’re lucky, he’ll just find somebody else. Perhaps somebody who will succeed where I failed. If not, do you think you’d ever so much as get a slot at an open mic anywhere on Earth?”

“He’s not that influential.”

“He’s influential enough,” said Christabel. “And he knows people, who themselves know people. You know how these things work. Corruption feeds upon corruption, spreading like a contagion.

“Besides, I know why you wear that Saint Judas medal. I know all about the people you kill for the Phoenix Society, the people they threw under a maglev once they’d outlived their utility. You’ll be next; they’ll run you through a meat grinder and use you for chum if that’s what it takes to end you.”

“How do you know this?”

“I have your dossier. I get weekly updates.”

Morgan nodded. “So, you know everything about me that the executive council does.”

She thrust out her chin in defiance. “I might know more. After all, I know how insipid a lover you are. So gentle, so considerate, so concerned with being a ‘good man’ that you’re not a man at all.”

“Is that why you went with Isaac Magnin?”

Christabel shrugged. “No. I did it to hurt you.”

“Bullshit.” Sitting on the edge of the unused bed, Morgan leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and stared into her eyes. “How blind do you think I am? Did you really think I wouldn’t notice that you weren’t into me? Why do you think my sexual interest in you faded?”

“I figured it was because you’d rather be with Naomi.”

“I actually got to know her as one adult with another while we were touring. I’ve earned her respect as a musician. We’re actually friends. Do you really think I’d ruin that for a shot at fulfilling an adolescent fantasy?”

“I think you’re afraid you’d disappoint her like you have me.”

“Your disappointment is your own fault. If there was something you wanted of me, all you had to do was ask.”

“What if I wanted you to use me, to exploit me without any consideration for my feelings or your oh-so-noble ideals? What if I wanted you to hurt me? What if I wanted to be utterly helpless before you as you came to me with everything you really are, to be the machine you are and not the man you pretend to be and overpower me? Could you do that? Would you have had the balls to even try?”

“If you had bothered to tell me what you wanted like an adult we might have reached some kind of accommodation,” said Morgan, “But I suspect that even if I bounced you around the room and used you cruelly enough to make you regret sharing your fantasies it still wouldn’t be enough. Worming your way into my life was the job you did for Isaac Magnin. I was never the man you wanted, but I’ll grant you this much: you made it so fuckin’ easy to con myself into believing otherwise.”

“Is that why you hate me now? Because you realize how foolish a man-child you’ve been?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Morgan. “You aren’t worth hating.”

“Stop trying to act tough. The act doesn’t fool or impress me. I can hear the hurt in your voice. I can see your eyes shimmer as you hold back your tears. I see how hard you’re working to keep from clenching your fists.”

“Maybe I can’t hide my pain, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give you the satisfaction of seeing me lay my heart at your feet. If I wanted to be treated with such cruelty I’d see a dominatrix.”

“A dominatrix?” Christabel could not hold back her laughter, but honesty would have demanded of her that she admit to not having made much of an effort. “Men richer than you’ll ever be would pay good money for me to do them like I’m doing you. Stop being such a little sissy and try to enjoy it.”

“Oh, I’m enjoying it immensely. You fucked up, you know it, and watching you flail about trying to salvage the situation has been such wonderful fun.”

“You know what will happen to you if you walk away, but think about what will happen to Naomi. If you dump me and walk away from Crowley’s Thoth, Isaac Magnin will see to it that she won’t even be able make a living singing torch songs in a dive bar on a penal habitat orbiting Uranus.”

The silence between them stretched until it felt to Christabel like an hour had passed. Morgan gently lifted her chin with his fingertips, forcing her to look up at him. “You’re trying to manipulate me into going after Isaac Magnin. You think I’ll throw everything away, and deprive Naomi of her dreams in the process, just to have my sword at his throat. The next time you two fuck behind my back, tell him that I’m not going to play his game. I’ll keep up appearances as your faithful boyfriend. I’ll continue with Crowley’s Thoth, and Naomi and I will make you a bit player in the band you founded. Do not try to force my hand again.”

“What if I do?”

A long moment passed before Morgan answered, but when it did his voice was antarctic in its frigidity. “I’ll forgive you once, because I should have known better than to fall for you. Do not count on being forgiven a second time.”

Releasing her chin, he took a step back. “I’ll be waiting in the hotel lobby if you want to go to Naomi’s for Solstice dinner. If you’re not there by noon, I’ll tell Naomi that you’re not feeling well and decided to wait it out in your room.”

Reaching into his coat pocket, he threw a couple of small, gift-wrapped packages into her lap. “I found these in the trash by the desk. Next time you decide to be so contemptuous of others’ generosity, at least try to be a little more discreet.”

12/8 Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

A seemingly familiar face tugged at Naomi’s attention from the periphery of her vision. She turned to place it, only to be jostled as stage crew rushed past her. She was sure one of them had said something, but she still had her earplugs in place. It wasn’t far to the one room backstage she had shared with Christabel, Morgan, and the members of the other bands playing tonight at the Flaming Telepath in Brooklyn.

The phrase ’dressing room’ was one she used loosely and only in the privacy of her own mind. It was too cramped to serve four bands, fifteen musicians total. One of the other bands as a trio: a drummer, a guitarist, and a vocalist who played bass. They called themselves Bomber, and were just kids who had started a Motörhead revival band on a lark. They weren’t the only revival act; the four-piece that had just rushed to the stage to take over for Crowley’s Thoth billed themselves as Damage Incorporated.

The headline act, whose members thought their place at the top of the bill gave them license to spread out across half the room, was a five-piece: drummer, bassist, two guitarists, and a vocalist. While the vocalist was a decent tenor whose raw talent would have benefited from voice lessons, the band’s name escaped her; they didn’t mine the public domain, but claimed to do original material that to her ear sounded mostly like by-the-numbers power metal in which the phrase “so far away” seemed to occur in at least half their songs.

The venue’s owner had strung clotheslines and hung blankets to partition the prep room and provide a semblance of privacy; it was mostly men in here and it would not have been practical to change in the ladies’ room or exile all of the guys while Naomi and Christabel got dressed and did their makeup.

The kids who called themselves Bomber sat on the floor in their space, the blankets drawn aside to indicate that they were dressed and feeling sociable. One of them, the bassist on vocals, waved her over as she pulled out her earplugs. “You’re Christabel, right?”

Naomi shook her head and flashed a smile. “Sorry. I’m Naomi.” Extending her hand, she added. “I caught your set; it’s hard to believe you’re just kids on a lark. You’re tight enough that if you kept at it you could go somewhere.”

“Kind of you to say so, but we saw you guys and we’re nowhere near your level,” said one of the other members of Bomber, the drummer.

Bomber’s guitarist spoke up next. “We thought you were Christabel because we knew Christabel and Morgan are dating, and figured you had to be her after we caught your set.”

“Excuse me,” said Morgan, his voice soft. He held an amplifier case by its handle in each hand, carrying them as easily as if they were half-full sacks of groceries.

“Did you want a hand with those?” Naomi asked because even though she had not been with the band long, she had noticed that Christabel never offered to help with either the setup before a show or the tear-down after. Her reluctance to get involved did not preclude her possession of opinions about how the crew should do their jobs; nor did her understanding of etiquette preclude her from voicing said opinions.

“I’ve got these,” said Morgan. “Syd’s got your keyboards, and Eddie’s watching the van. I was going to help him, but he said something about having help from somebody he called Comrade Puffsky.”

Wonderful. Why have me involved at all if Eddie Cohen is going to shadow the kid anyway? Taking a breath, Naomi shook her head to calm herself. For reasons she had not examined she was reluctant to reveal the extent of her acquaintance with the old sharpshooter.

“That’s what Eddie calls that rifle of his. Comrade Puffsky, the Magic Dragunov. He claims he took it off a dead Russian designated marksman during Nationfall. The other guy shot first but his aim was just a bit off.”

“No wonder he keeps going on about the importance of taking one’s time,” said Morgan. He turned to Bomber’s guitarist. “Hey, how did that tuning I helped you with work out?”

“It was just what I needed. Thanks.”

Naomi gently tapped Morgan’s shoulder. “Oi. We have roadies and guitar techs, you know.”

“We’ve got one crew and one tech working with four bands,” said Morgan, “One of the other techs walked out after Christabel pitched a fit over how one of her violins wasn’t tuned properly, and never mind that she wasn’t paying the guy and violins aren’t necessarily within a guitar tech’s purview. Turns out her G string was an eighth-tone sharp.”

The members of Bomber snickered until Naomi glared at them. She figured they could make all of the sophomoric jokes they liked elsewhere. Of course, it figured that as soon as Morgan said something perfectly innocent about G strings, Jacqueline Russo would show up.

Her old friend and former partner breezed in with Christopher Renfield in tow, which was just what Naomi wanted tonight. “So, whose G string was a bit sharp? Because I can tell you from personal experience having a sharp G string digging in is not comfortable.”

“Now I know where Claire gets her casual disregard for boundaries and appropriate conversation topics,” said Naomi, yielding to the inevitable and letting Jackie hug her. “I wasn’t expecting to see you in New York.” She turned to Christopher and accepted an embrace from him. “Nor you. What’s the occasion? And dare I ask why you two are together?”

“Her idea,” said Christopher. There had always been something about Morgan that reminded Naomi of the other man, but until they were in the same room together she had not managed to identify it. It was the way they carried themselves, simultaneously alert and relaxed, as if they were in a safe place that could instantly become a battlefield. “I met her at the bar.”

“I recognized him from the stories you told, Nims, but you never told me he was a hottie,” said Jackie. She slapped Renfield’s shoulder. “If I hadn’t promised Rodney I’d consult him before bringing blokes home, I’d have dragged him back home to London directly.”

“Don’t you think you should consult me first?” said Christopher. “Does your daughter know you’re like this?”

“Claire’s my niece, and I don’t think so.”

“I see you two have hit it off,” said Naomi. “Now, where did Morgan disappear to?”

“Over here,” said Morgan from behind the towering wheeled case that housed the CARL-9000 unit that served as drummer for Crowley’s Thoth. It was as heavy a piece of machinery as it was valuable, and should have had two roadies to wrangle it off the stage.

Joining him, she brushed one of his hands with her fingertips to get his attention. “I’ve got a couple of old friends backstage.”

He shrugged as they got the CARL-9000 moving again. “Fine by me, but Christabel’s gonna have kittens if they don’t have passes to show. I think we still have a couple of crew t-shirts.”

“Right.” Naomi retrieved a couple of extra-larges out of the merch box and thrust one each into Christopher and Jackie’s hands. “Sorry, but you’re both hired for the next couple of hours.”

“Drafted again?” said Christopher. “Dammit.”

“We’d better get paid for this,” said Jackie.

“Trust me,” said Naomi. “Not having Christabel yell at you will make up for not getting union scale.”

“Where the hell is my violin?” Christabel stalked into the backstage room, eyes darting to and fro. “Naomi, you made sure nobody stole my violin, did you not?”

“It’s probably already in the van,” said Naomi, doing her best to keep her tone soothing. “Morgan had just brought CARL out back. Once he’s done you can ask him directly.”

“You know how valuable an instrument that is, right?”

“It’s insured, just like the rest of our gear.”

“Cold bloody comfort if that sleazy old man hot-wires the van and makes off with our equipment. Who the hell is he, anyway? The employment agency didn’t vet him.” Christabel stopped short as she finally caught sight of Jackie and Christopher. “And who are these two? If they’re crew, what are they doing back here?”

“Mandatory coffee break,” said Christopher.

“What he said,” Jackie added. “Union rules are a bitch, ain’t they?”

Christabel glared up at Christopher with her hands on her hips. “Where’s my violin?”

Naomi’s stomach sank as Jackie muttered something that sounded suspiciously like try the dumpster. Christabel must have caught it too, because she turned to the other woman. “Mind repeating that?”

“Sure. I said try the dumpster.”

And off we go, Naomi thought, bracing herself for the toilet-bowl tempest Christabel was all but guaranteed to stir up at what she was now sure had been a calculated slight on Jackie’s part.

Christabel had already drawn in breath to launch a tirade when Morgan returned. “It’s all right, ‘Bel. I loaded your violins first.”

“All of them?”

“All of them. The four-string, the five-string, and even the alto.”

“It’s a viola, not an alto violin. You know this.”

Morgan also knew every viola joke ever made. He had learned most of them from Eddie, who had apparently dated a violist for a few years. Most of them were unflattering at best. Both he and Naomi had learned that one did not mention the viola within earshot of Eddie.

“What do you call a violist who keeps time and stays in tune?” Eddie must have heard, because he was now inside leaning against the wall. “A fuckin’ miracle.”

“Speaking of miracles,” said Christabel, already keyed up and just looking for an excuse to vent the rage she had worked up over the thought of one of her instruments having gone missing. “How are you not dead of cirrhosis?”

Before Morgan or Naomi could speak up, however, Eddie did so himself. He stepped forward and mussed her hair. “I was too sinful for heaven and hell was afraid I’d introduce democracy.” He turned his attention to Morgan as Christabel stalked off in a huff. “We almost ready to lock up the van?”

“Almost. Was all of that really necessary?”

“Not really,” said the old man. “I could have let her rip into you over violins we all know you already packed up and loaded first, because that’s her idea of foreplay.”

Now Jackie was staring at Morgan. “You’re dating that woman? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“Never mind that,” said Christopher. He took a step toward Morgan. “Aren’t you the guy who killed Quincy Westenra? He was part of my squad back in the day.”

Though Naomi had not expected Christopher to hurl the death of a squadmate at Morgan, she could not help but be disappointed that Morgan had not spoken to her about it. That must have been how he got his Saint Judas medal, she thought.

For his part, Morgan stepped forward and extended his hand. “Yes, I’m Morgan Cooper. And you are?”

“Christopher Renfield, formerly of the North American Commonwealth Army. So you admit to killing Westenra?”

“I offered him a chance to surrender. He was determined to go out fighting, so I obliged him. I understand if you have a beef with me, but if you’re here for a fight I must insist that we at least go out back.”

Christopher nodded. “I just wanted to know if you had the guts to own what you did.” He turned to Naomi. “The kid’s all right. Can I meet you later?”

It occurred to Naomi that it might be a good idea to tell him a little about what was going on, so she texted her hotel room number. “Sure.”

“Thanks,” said Christopher, leaning in to steal a kiss. “I missed you.”

Once he left, Naomi glanced at Morgan to see if he had reacted, but he was currently in an animated conversation with Jackie. I’d better make sure he’s not in over his head.

“Look, I think it’s sweet that you want to stick up for your girlfriend, but you could do so much better.”

“It’s not about doing better,” said Morgan. “We’ve got a good band going. Dumping Christabel, even if that was a good idea on a personal level—

“Which it is, given how she ripped into you,” said Jackie.

“—it doesn’t make sense for the band. Besides, Naomi hasn’t had a steady gig in a while.”

Grabbing a beer out of the cooler provided for the bands, Jackie twisted off the cap and drank half at once. “You and Nims could get something steady going. I think she’s more your type anyway.”

“She’s seeing somebody.”

“Oh, Renfield? He’s just a frenemy with benefits she met in Clarion a few years ago.”

“Jackie,” said Naomi. “Why are you trying to break up my band-mates’ relationship?”

“Because it’s abusive?”

“Christabel isn’t abusive. She’s just high-strung and sometimes she takes it out on other people. Better me than the crew; I can take it.”

Jackie shook her head. A text from her came to Naomi’s implant a second later. «He’s already making excuses for the bitch. Aren’t you supposed to be looking out for him? This is why we can’t have nice things.»

1/8 Naomi’s No Good Valentine’s Night

I’ve never experienced the freefall infatuation that society and centuries of culture led me to expect from falling in love. The development of my regard was perceptible only in hindsight. Rather than having my defenses shattered with a single kiss the slow accretion of fleeting moments, trivial courtesies, little kindnesses, and tentative, accidental touches gently eroded the studied indifference with which I approached my subject out of necessity, for how could I justify loving a man when duty might demand his death by my hand? It’s hard not to feel cheated; it seems Morgan got to fall in love with me twice as a boy and then a man, but did I ever get to fall for him? I think not. In me love grew, but what if I only think he fell twice for me because I could not see how his love for me grew in him? I only know what he tells me, and we’ve dared tell each other so little.

What hurts most is that this realization comes to me not while I’m with Morgan, but with Christopher. He’s here in bed with me, being the little spoon for me completely ignorant of what I’ve only just figured out for myself: he’s not the one I want to cling to right now.

In fact, I’m not sure I ever want to see him again. It’s not his fault. He isn’t even a bad person. He’s kind and respectful to me. He looks out for his old squadmates, some of whom are profoundly fucked up because of the lives they had gotten stuck living after Nationfall.

He’s never made any sort of demands upon me, or burdened me with his own feelings. And though he had been decades out of practice when we met (at least with women, but I never asked and he’s never told) we’ve always been good to each other in bed. When I wanted a man and he was in town, he never said no to me.

He did tonight, though. He had stopped right in the middle, pulled out, and yanked off the condom. When he came back from the bathroom he gave me a warm towel and told me point blank that he was just wasting both my time and his. He was right, damn him. I couldn’t get out of my own head. Where was I instead of present with him? Why couldn’t I appreciate his efforts on my behalf?

It’s not like I ever wanted to be in love. That was never how I saw myself. And yet I never saw myself using a man like I’ve been using Christopher. Perhaps I’m not using him as badly as he had been by his birth nation’s military, but the soft, vulnerable sounds he makes when I draw him into my arms after we’ve scratched our itches together suggest that he has unfulfilled emotional needs that he’s thus far refrained from making my problem.

What are we to each other, anyway? To me, Renfield is a reliable booty call. He’s better than a rent boy because I need not pay him to go away in the morning. But what does he get out of our arrangement? I know I’m the first woman he’s had since Nationfall, but surely there are others, and surely at least one of those other women are better for him than I am.

Then again, if I’m no good for Renfield what good would I be to Morgan? I use men and throw them aside once they’ve ceased to amuse me. I try to pick men who are content to use women as I use men, men too sensible to fall in love with somebody like me, but here I am spooning with one man wishing all the while I was with another.

Renfield doesn’t deserve me. Morgan doesn’t, either. But what do I deserve? If I demanded more for myself, if I demanded more of myself, could I the sort of woman Morgan deserves, somebody worthy of the regard he wastes on me?

And where is this mealy-mouthed self-loathing coming from, anyway? Am I sitting here castigating myself because I chose the life I thought I wanted instead of buying into some Hollywood fantasy of meeting a nice boy in school, getting swept off my feet, and ending up married with two kids, a dog, and a cat in the bloody suburbs? That dream’s been dead so long there isn’t a scrap left to pick off the bones.

Hell, Morgan’s probably with that cow Christabel. Maybe I should stop laying here feeling sorry for myself and go rescue myself a little prince.

First, though, I’ve got to get out of this hotel room. Christopher woke as I pulled free, naturally. Looking up at me with those big blue eyes of his he asks, “Going somewhere?”

Nothing for it but the truth, I suppose. “Look, Chris, you can have the room if you’d like. It’s paid for until the morning of the 16th.”

“You don’t have to leave on my account. I’ll go, instead.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m not leaving because of you. I’m leaving because being with you helped me realize something.” Leaning over him, I gave him one last kiss. He deserved that much for helping me. “We had some good times together, but what we have isn’t what I want and I’m not convinced it’s really what you want either, but I appreciate that you’ve always been there for me.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. He just watched me get dressed. As he handed me my boots he finally asked, “Is it the kid?”

“Morgan?”

“Yeah.”

It was funny. Eddie calls Morgan “the kid”, too. It was less jarring because he looks almost as old as he is. Chris looks to be my age despite being at least Eddie’s. “Yes, it’s Morgan. I don’t know if I’ll end up hurting more than Christabel has, but I want him.”

“You weren’t thinking of him earlier, were you?”

If anybody else had asked me such a question, I might have drawn my sword on them. But after the way I had treated Christopher tonight, I couldn’t begrudge him his question or the truth. “Not until you gave up. But I didn’t have my mind on us then, either.”

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you,” he said. “And I’ve seen the way he looks at that skinny brunette he’s supposed to be dating. He’s a better, stronger man than I am. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.”

It didn’t help. “You’re suggesting that I’m not good for him?”

Rather than answer immediately, he lifted the St. Judas medal out of my blouse. “You’re wearing this because of him, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” and damn him for guessing it. Had I been so obvious?

“You used me because your mission demanded it. I didn’t mind, since I was using you because I was lonely and touch-starved. But if you use him the way you’ve used me, put him aside when you’re done, and leave him heartbroken as a result, then you’ll actually deserve to wear this.”

“I wouldn’t.” I couldn’t help but protest. I didn’t want to see myself as somebody who would do that—even if I had done so to Christopher with what seemed at the the time his enthusiastic consent and cooperation.

“You might not mean to do it,” said Christopher. “But you’re not as good a person as you try to be.”

He let me chew on that as he got dressed. Rather than me leaving him, he ended up leaving me. That would take some getting used to. In the meantime, I wanted Morgan. Just hearing his voice would be enough.

In any case, it would not do to show up all uninvited and unexpected. Even a voice call was too much. He might be in bed with Christabel, all eyes closed and thoughts of England. Nor could I simply invite him over here for obvious reasons.

But what harm could a text do? If he was asleep he wouldn’t see it until tomorrow, and I could just pass it off as a drunk-text. «Hey, are you still awake?»

«I’m at the hotel bar.»

«Is Christabel there?»

«No. When I got back to our room I found a note saying she was going to be with Isaac Magnin through the weekend and that I was welcome to amuse myself in any way that pleased me.»

At least he wasn’t suffering through duty sex with Christabel. «Are you by yourself, then?»

I rather doubted it; his appeal to women was a bit broader than mine to men. Pale and snow-blonde with crimson eyes is too close to albinism for many men’s comfort, and weeding out the fetishists was a pain in the arse.

«No. Can you come and rescue me, please? I’ve tried being polite, but she thinks it’s part of the flirtation.»

The temptation to tease him a little as I waited for the elevator proved impossible to resist. «Don’t tell me you’re not flattered.»

«I think she’s more interested in seeing me with her husband.» Mmm, kinky. Good thing Claire’s not seeing this. «He’s not my type.»

Once I got down there I could see what Morgan meant. The woman with him kept sneaking glances at a heavy-set man in a navy three-piece with a close-cropped beard. Approaching his table, I sat across from him and brushed the back of his hand with a fingertip. “Excuse me. Are you with the redhead at the bar?”

The way he jumped suggested he was guilty as charged. “We weren’t looking for a woman to join us.”

“That’s fine,” I said, and meant it. Between consenting adults anything goes. “Your partner is flirting with a friend of mine, and he’s asked me to rescue him. Would you mind collecting her? I’m not quite as reluctant to make a scene as my friend, but I’d rather not embarrass him without cause.”

Hubby threw up his hands. “Look, lady, I’d love to, but once Janice gets an idea in her head there’s no stopping her. I told her I was fine with going to Xanadu House, but—”

It was late and I couldn’t be arsed to listen to the rest of his bullshit. Janice didn’t see me coming, but Morgan did. Those big green kitty eyes of his got even bigger as I tapped her shoulder. “Excuse me, but he’s mine.”

“I don’t see him wearing a ring.”

“He’s wearing my collar. Discreetly, of course. He is after all a gentleman.”

It was cruel of me, but I couldn’t resist making Morgan blush. He does it so prettily for somebody who thinks nothing of bringing a sword to a gunfight.

Once Janice had buggered off, Morgan turned away and tried to hide his embarrassment. The bartender finally showed up as he did so. “Sorry,” she said, “We’ve seen that woman before. She likes to ply young men with alcohol, but she knows some of the owners so we simply can’t throw her out. Instead, we get busy elsewhere.”

“Fine. House red for me, and a brandy for my gentleman.”

“Of course.”

«Brandy? I suppose you think my nerves need settling.»

«I know it won’t help, but I’m not about to point out that you could drink Bacchus under the table.»

At least that got a little smile out of him. «Sorry. I should have handled this myself.»

«I don’t think anything short of violence on your part would have done the job. Do you?»

«I was afraid that would be the case.»

Though I was sure he’d pull away, I reached for his hand and took it. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

He blushed again. “It’s all right. I wouldn’t admit it to Eddie or the other guys, but I like the idea of being your gentleman. Just as long as I’m not one of your gentlemen.”

Now there was a tempting thought: me as some kind of gangland bitch-queen surrounded by loyal and adoring muscle. Really, one guy is enough for me as long as he’s the right guy. “I think I’ve ended things with Renfield.”

“Fine night for it.”

That was certainly true. “Can we go somewhere else? It doesn’t have to be your room. Just somewhere more private.”

“My room’s fine,” he said, and pulled out his wallet before I could. He paid for our drinks, and left a generous tip—something I appreciated. I had been with men who tipped poorly, which often proved to be neither their only shortcoming nor the extent of their stinginess.

Once we had gotten to his room, Morgan poured me another glass of wine from the minibar. Not that I needed it, and I really should have said no, but if I took it slow I figured it would be all right. “Did Renfield hurt you?”

“No, of course not.” Was that why Morgan was so concerned? Of course he might reach that conclusion. Why else would a woman leave the guy she was with and turn to somebody with whom she’s never shared anything more intimate than friendship? Oh, Christ. What was I thinking? “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Christopher didn’t hurt me. If anything, he realized that I wasn’t into it before I did and stopped.”

I was still a bit miffed about that, but that was probably just my pride.

“You seemed to like him well enough.”

Oh, dear. Oh, damn. How was I supposed to explain this? “I had gotten to thinking afterward. I was in bed with him, and it occurred to me that he wasn’t the one I wanted to be my little spoon.”

It might be time to lay off the wine before I say something truly unforgivable. I suppose Morgan thought the same, because he took my glass without a word, and finished it so at least decent wine wouldn’t go to waste. A phrase from a manga Claire had left in the loo came to me out of nowhere: ’indirect kiss’. By drinking from the same glass I had used, Morgan and I had shared an indirect kiss. It was the sort of thing to set the hearts of young teenagers unused to deeper intimacies aflutter, but it still seemed sweet to me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Hell, I shouldn’t have come.”

“I’m glad you did. I just don’t understand why. You’ve always been cordial, but kept it strictly business. Now we’re drinking together and you’re telling me about your personal life.” That blush was back again. “And when you told that woman I was yours. I’m sure there were other ways you could have handled the situation, but you chose to claim me as your own.”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Please, please, please don’t ask me if I had meant it.

“Did you mean it?”

If there is a god who takes a personal interest in my life, and finds amusement in my tribulations, then he’s a rat bastard and I hope his wife gives him herpes. Now I had to either tell Morgan the truth or break his heart, because the way he’s looking at me suggests that he wants me to tell him I meant it. Hell, the way Christabel’s been treating him he might even need it. He’s been putting up with too much for too long to keep the band together, and he’s been doing it because he thinks the band’s breakup would hurt me.

Admittedly, it would have a few years ago, but even then I would have survived. Let’s just say that when my father breaks out the hush money, he lays it on nice and thick. It would have hurt my morale more than my finances. Nowadays, Morgan and I could throw Christabel under a maglev and start our own band. That slag needs us more than we need her.

If only he would figure that out. He’s smart enough for it, but seeing it would mean that he’s wasted years on somebody who never gave a toss about him. Hard to blame him for not wanting to face so harsh a truth.

Best to offer him a sweeter, gentler one. “I meant it.”

If this were a movie, or even a romantic novel, I suppose Morgan would be kissing me senseless right about now. Instead, he stared out the window. Cold rain battered the panes, making bright particolored smears of the lights outside. “Shit.”

Hardly the response I had expected, but I suppose I was still a bit tipsy and hoping for that kiss. After all, at the show he had insisted on covering “Hand on Heart”. When he breaks out that old power ballad it’s always because he’s thinking about me. “Wasn’t that what you had hoped to hear?”

“It was, dammit. But now that I’ve heard it I don’t know what to do.”

“You could kiss me.” What was it they said about audacity?

His was the smile of a man eating his own heart and finding that he liked it because it was bitter. “I think I could have kissed you a long time ago, but who would I be if I had? Who would you be if you let me?”

“We’d still be ourselves.”

“I’d be the guy who cheated on his girlfriend.”

“As if she hasn’t been cheating on you for years.”

“That’s on her. It doesn’t justify me doing the same to her.”

Damn him for being right. If he treated her as shabbily as she treated him, what would stop him from treating me just as shabbily? How would I be able to trust myself to him if he was that kind of man? “I don’t want to care about any of that tonight. I want you to sleep with me.”

“No.”

God, I’d like to slap that nobility right off his face. Or maybe kiss it off instead. How can somebody who serves as the Phoenix Society’s assassin be so scrupulous when he isn’t arranging funerals for scumbags who choose death over exile?

Before I could stop myself, I had my arms around him and my lips at his ear. “I just want you in bed with me. Leave your underwear on. Put your damn sword between us if you must. Just let me fall asleep holding your hand. I think I could, if you just let us have that much together.”

His hands burned through my clothes. One was at the small of my back. A bit lower and he’d have a handful of my arse. I wanted him to have that handful, but it was obvious he wouldn’t indulge either of us. Instead, he pushed me away as gently as he could. “I’ve got a spare t-shirt you can sleep in, if you’d like. It doesn’t look like you brought anything to wear to bed.”

Such a gentleman. It really was a waste, but I was right. His hand in mine was what I needed to get to sleep that night. And I kept the t-shirt. Call it an indirect cuddle.

1/10 Naomi Bradleigh’s Journal, 15 March 2101

I think today’s the first day I haven’t had Witness Protocol telemetry beaming out of my head since the day I joined the Phoenix Society and enlisted in the civil rights defense corps. I can tell when it’s running; it’s not like the daemon running on my implant to record everything I see and hear, compress it so that it’s neatly packed, and beam it to the Phoenix Society over the network doesn’t show up whenever I have my implant provide a POSIX shell and run “doas rcctl ls started” to see which daemons it’s running.

In theory it’s only supposed to run when I’m on the job and acting in my capacity as an Adversary. However, I’m an Inquisitor under orders to surveil a particular subject. As such, I am never not on the job, which means that under normal conditions Witness Protocol could be recording when it shouldn’t be. This could prove awkward for reasons I’m reluctant to belabor even in this journal since it is not for my eyes only.

I’m glad Eddie thought of disabling automatic audiovisual telemetry before I had to bring it up. That too would have been embarrassing. The problem is that in its absence I’m supposed to periodically report directly to him and Desdinova. If they think I’m going to take time out of my day to record video updates for them they’re out of their demon-ridden minds. Anybody trying to eavesdrop could tell I’m sending video just by monitoring my implant’s transmissions and watching for large uploads. Email isn’t really viable, either. I’m supposed to be undercover. Somebody monitoring my transmissions and spotting emails addressed to Phoenix Society personnel could easily expose me. Message contents might be encrypted, but that doesn’t matter. Just use the metadata to identify the sender and recipients, then beat one of them until they decrypt their mail for your perusal. Why use an AI for brute-force cryptanalysis when a length of pipe is both cheaper and incapable of raising ethical objections?

It was Claire who suggested a workable solution. My implant has a terabyte of solid-state storage, more than sufficient for a plain text diary. My implant then periodically uses secure file copy to push a copy of my journal to a virtual host whose secure shell daemon is configured to grant access only to authorized public keys. Mine is one of the authorized keys. Eddie and Desdinova hold the others. At their convenience, they can pull copies of my journal and read it with their implants.

Anybody else who attempts to access this virtual host via secure shell will get redirected to my network site, which is hosted on the same machine. I upload my private journal while updating my public one. Unless they know exactly what to look for, anybody trying to break in is likely to think this is just a network site for a musician run by a sysadmin with a particular distaste for unauthorized penetrations.

God, I’m starting to sound like Claire now. Enough with the bloody tech. If Eddie and Desdinova are already reading this, they can rest assured that they’re most likely to be the only ones doing so at the moment—though my conscience might eventually demand I let Morgan Cooper have a copy, too. It might be the only way to prove to him that I had his best interests at heart.

Yes, it seems paranoid. Nevertheless, here I am engaged in espionage. A measure of caution on my part is justified. I just hope that this ends with Morgan living to hate me instead of dying by my hand. He had seemed like a sweet and earnest young man the last time I met him. Now? I think the earnest sweetness is still there, but he’s learned to armor his heart instead of wearing it on his sleeve. Nonetheless, neither Morgan nor Christabel are nearly as wary of me as they should be, especially given the history of the day we’ve met. The ides of March is a day for gathering with friends and stabbing people in the back, though I should watch mine. I don’t know if Isaac Magnin is aware of my involvement yet, or if he’s warned Christabel against me.

If Eddie had not told me that she was not what she seemed, I might have thought her a slightly posh rebel who had gotten into rock to spite Daddy. She’s got the style down pat and if gate-keeping were one of my hobbies I’d be hard-pressed to prove Christabel a poseur; she plays her chosen role well enough that without prior knowledge I might mistake her for a lifelong fan.

The flaw is that all of the bands she claims to like are universally acclaimed. She doesn’t have a single ’guilty pleasure’ act whose records she hides in the depths of her closet, only plays when she’s sure she’s alone, and makes bloody well sure to wear headphones even then. After all, there’s no telling when somebody might walk in on you. Morgan, on the other hand, has a bunch of bands he would never admit to liking in public. I won’t name any of them, out of respect for his privacy, but I daresay Claire would recognize a few of them. I’ve got a few of my own, of course. I won’t name them either. Let’s just say that if one of those acts got a revival and I was involved I’d probably be the scary one. Or perhaps the posh one.

Why do I know this? Apparently blowing Morgan’s mind and impressing Christabel somewhat at the audition wasn’t quite enough. Instead, they dragged me to a nearby pub and grilled me over dinner. They wanted to know whether my tastes were compatible with theirs. This was fair enough, but Christabel also wanted to know why I left the last dozen or so bands I’ve worked with.

At least that’s what she said at first. Her true aim was to determine whether I was the type to try dating my own band-mates. Not that she had any legitimate way of knowing that I didn’t take fellow Adversaries to bed, I wasn’t about to engage in similar behavior as a musician. In any case, the selection left much to be desired. Christabel was not my type at all, and Morgan? He’s still too young, even without the possibility that I might have to kill him.

No way in hell I was about to admit any of this. Instead, there was nothing for it but to insist that I had no interest in using the band as a matchmaking service, and that I had been kicked out of at least one band because I refused to go to bed with one of the other members. I’m a professional, dammit.

Suggestions from Catherine

2020-01-08 (Naomi Bradleigh and Christopher Renfield)

Naomi ran her fingers through Renfield’s hair as she spooned behind him. They had never pursued a full-on relationship but fallen into a friends with benefits with neither conversation or problem.

“Chris.” She brushed a finger over his earlobe sending eliciting a soft moan from him. “I don’t think we should do this again.”

“Is it the kid?” He replied without rolling over.

“Yes. I know he is still suffering in his relationship with Christable..but I don’t think I can wait any longer and this isn’t fair on you.”

Finally Renfield sat up letting the sheet to fall from his chest to pool around his waist. God he was beautiful.

“It’s about bloody time.” He smiled as he chuffed her under the chin. “Were you worried I would react badly?”

“No. But I don’t know whether Morgan is ready to take a chance.”

“Well I suggest you ask him. One look at the way he watches you, it is clear he is infatuated.”

Author’s Note

I abandoned work on this novel because of plot issues and because my father’s cancer diagnosis and eventual death made it impossible to write.

Footnotes:

1

The name comes from Old Norse, and can be taken to mean “army of one” or “one who fights alone”. The einherjar of Norse myth were warriors slain in battle, chosen by the Valkyries and brought to Valhalla where they train in preparation for Ragnarok.

2

Mitochondria are organelles that generate power for eukaryotic cells, like those of the human body and all other plants and animals. Einherjar are capable of consciously controlling their body’s mitochondria, and do so to generate additional power for use in creating a set of preternatural effects: inhuman speed, an inertial dampening field, and an energy blade.

3

“Blue Monk” is a piece composed and made famous by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

4

A “golden fantasy” is an expectation that all of one’s problems can be solved by interaction with a perfect and infinitely caring relationships figure. This expectation tends to be less of a secret than the person holding it believes. Annelise is using it with the implication that Morgan Cooper will latch onto the woman she’ll become and try to pin all his hopes of developing into a complete human individual on her.

5

Morgan Cooper plays the Chapman Stick, an instrument developed by jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman in the 1970s to facilitate polyphonic two-handed tapping. It’s the same instrument used by Tony Levin (King Crimson, Liquid Tension Experiment).

6

an AI-enabled drum machine. Its name stands for “Computer Assisted Rhythm Logic”; along with the name of its manufacturer it’s a shoutout to Carl Palmer (as in Emerson, Lake & Palmer).

7

It’s the same material that was used to make the Starbreaker. The physical remnant of a black hole, it has an atomic number of 666 and is a stable hypermassive transuranic heavy metal. Were it known to human scientists, they might call it “antichristium”.

8

An asur’astra is an asura weapon, similar to the dev’astras mentioned in Hindu epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, and Rig Veda. Asura weapons that do not bear the name of a particular asura are generic weapons, powerful but limited in scope. The one Isaac has given to Christabel is a limited-scope weapon; its reach is no greater than that of a common sword, but it emits a force-blade as powerful as those generated by einherjar.

9

Received Pronunciation is the English accent typically associated with the upper classes and BBC announcers. Annelise Copeland may have learned it while constructing her Christabel Crowley persona to sound just posh enough to appeal to Morgan Cooper without sounding completely unattainable, since Naomi Bradleigh had cultivated a similar accent.