The morning sun painted roses across the white bedlinens 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 goosedown 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 curtsey. "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 curtsey 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 swordwork—"
"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."