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 my 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, touseled 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?"
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 rathole 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?"
"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."