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 snowmelt 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 eyeblink 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 overdrive[fn:2] 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"[fn: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-pupilled 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."
"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."
[fn: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.
[fn:3] "Blue Monk" is a piece composed and made famous by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.