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 afterparty 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 pentegram 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 science[fn:8]. 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 afterparty. If we hurry we can get there before midnight."
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 bandmates."
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 beind 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 abstension 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."
[fn:8]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, an atomic mass of 1337, and is a stable hypermassive transuranic heavy metal. Were it known to human scientists, they might call it "antichristium".