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."
"Somethig 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/."