The transatlantic platforms at Grand Central Terminal were mostly empty as Naomi stepped off the evening express maglev from London. The journey had only taken two hours, and because of the change in time zones the local time in New York was earlier than it had been when she left. Other passengers looked askance at her as she strode past them. While many of them struggled with baggage, all Naomi had brought with her were two swords and a wheeled overnight bag.
One sword was her usual blade, which she wore on her hip for self-defense. The other rested inside a custom heavy-duty case that she wore slung across her back. Not only was the case lead-lined, but it contained batteries at either end to power a Faraday cage built within the lead shielding. The sword it contained had been an uncomfortable guest in her home ever since the man she had known at the time as her fencing maestro had given it to her as a gift. It was not until she had learned his true identity and tried to sell the thing at auction to be free of it that she had come to understand the weapon's true nature.
It had not appreciated Naomi's efforts to be rid of it. Nor did it care overmuch for the case she had gone to considerable trouble and expense to have made for it. Nor was it above expressing its displeasure, something a sword should not be capable of doing. «We're in the wrong city, little asura. There are no ensof worthy of my attention here. Let's away to Asgard for a bit of patricide, for the night is still young.»
«Then let's at least take advantage of the target-rich environment in which we find ourselves.»
«No, Ahriman. Bad.» The sword had somehow figured out how to broadcast on standard wireless networking frequencies. Worse, it had learned the fundamental protocols necessary to communicate with Naomi's implant. But she would be damned if she'd address the sword by the name her father had given it when its murmurings and whispers grew too insistent to be ignored. Instead, since it seemed to find urging her toward atrocity amusing, she had saddled it with a suitable nickname.
Finding an out-of-the way place to stop, Naomi checked the batteries on the Starbreaker's case. They were not merely drained, but dead, despite being fully charged when she had left London. "Shit."
«I told you I'd find away for us to be together again. Shall I be your angel of music?»
«Right. Now you're just being creepy. You're hundreds of millennia old, and /this/ is how you amuse yourself?»
«Don't be such a priss. There are a couple of hundred people here. At least one of them secretly entertains authoritarian sympathies. I can't tell you which one, but if we kill them all it won't matter.»
Resisting the urge to bury her face in her hands, Naomi slung the Starbreaker's case over her back and resumed her walk toward the main concourse. «This is why I never took you on tour with me. You know that, right?»
«Will you at least explain why we're here?»
«No.» Having conversations with one's sword was weird enough, but Naomi drew the line at explaining herself. Never mind that the explanation was straightforward. It was time to take Morgan into her confidence and tell him everything. The problem was that merely telling him everything was insufficient. /I can just see it now,/ Naomi thought as she wove through the crowd. /Joyous Solstice, darling. I've been keeping some secrets, and I think it's time I was honest with you. You see, there's a dark lord, he wears white, and he already rules the world. I'm his daughter. And my pet runesword wants you dead. He's jealous, you see. Oh, right. I never told you about Ahriman, did I?/
A few minutes later, Naomi stood an empty main concourse. She glanced about, looking for the people who should have been there. Even if all of the arriving passengers and left, even if nobody meant to leave the city via maglev, there should still have been staff.
«Everybody has fled. Take me out of the case. Peril approaches.»
Static electricity seemed to fill the air, making the fine hairs on the backs of Naomi's hands stiffen. Her hackles tried to rise as well, though her hair was not only too long but bound into a quick bun. The air began to stink of ozone, as if a thunderstorm approached. Dropping her overnight bag to the floor, Naomi snapped open the Starbreaker's case and pulled the weapon free. The case joined her overnight bag on the floor as she gripped the hilt in both hands.
A presence filled the concourse. Out of the corner of her eye Naomi caught a glimpse of wings hiding eyes. As she turned to face it, the wings unfurled. There were too many wings, each feathered in steel, and they hid a body of eyes. They were pus-yellow, with rectangular pupils like those of a goat, and they all stared at Naomi. From within the mass of eyes came a voice. "Be not afraid, little asura, for thine end is come. The Lord has called thee home."
Refusing to spare a moment's thought for the impossibility of what she saw before her, for its very existence defied all reason, Naomi drove the Starbreaker's point through the largest of the eyes staring at her. Though it tried to close its wings upon her, it was too late. It winked out of existence, the electricity in the air fading to nothing and taking with it the reek of ozone. "And a Joyous bloody Solstice to you too," said Naomi.
The Starbreaker was quiescent as Naomi returned it to its case, its purring resembling that of a kitten with a belly full of fresh cream. Unable to fully process what had just happened, all Naomi could manage was gratitude that the weapon she carried seemed content for now, and that it had warned her of danger in time for her to face it with weapon in hand. She gently caressed the hilt. «Thank you.»
«No worries. Wanna know what that angel tasted like?»
«Not particularly.» Naomi suspected it would tell her anyway. The weapon had developed a perverse sense of humor over the years.
«Was that necessary?»
«It could be worse. At least I don't eat your toyboys, too.»
«Is this what I get for reading Elric to you? Bloody ingrate.» Snapping the case shut, Naomi slung it across her back and set her overnight bag back on its wheels. «You know, I was this close to thinking you weren't a complete prat.»
This seemed to silence the sword, for it said nothing more as Naomi left the concourse. Fat wet snowflakes swirled around her and caught in her hair as she gained the street, and on a girlish whim Naomi stuck out her tongue to catch one. She was about to turn north toward 96th Street when she remembered what Morgan had told her about his plans for the evening.
Reaching out to the network with her implant, Naomi contacted the daemon who owned the brownstone in which Morgan lived. «Hi, Astarte. Got a minute?»
«Hi, Nims. Joyous Solstice!»
«Joyous Solstice to you, too. I'm back in Manhattan. Did Morgan tell you where he and Edmund could be spending the night?»
«Oh, they're down in Greenwich Village at a place called Bacchus-on-Bleecker.»
Naomi was about to question Morgan's wisdom in taking a recovering alcoholic to a tavern for Winter Solstice, but it occurred to her that few other establishments would be open tonight. «I guess they're drinking coffee, shooting pool, and swapping tales.»
«Probably. Oh, and Christabel is waiting outside. She wants to see Morgan, too.»
/Oh dear, oh damn./ She had prevailed upon him to put off confronting her thus far, but with the Winter Solstice having become a traditional time for reconciliation as well as celebration, it made sense that Morgan would have gone to meet Christabel on his own. «What did you tell her?»
«I've only told her off thus far,» said Astarte. «But she seems different. She just admitted to her prejudice against artificial humanity. She wanted to apologize to him.»
/Only to him?/ Naomi suppressed the petulant thought. While Christabel had been insufferable to Naomi toward the end, it had been Morgan who had suffered most at her hands. It was easy for Naomi to shrug off the other woman's abuse; she had only stuck around for Morgan's sake. If he had found within himself the courage to tell Christabel to sod off, they could have left her behind and started their own band. /And maybe Morgan and I could have gotten together sooner./
The thought would have stopped Naomi in her tracks had she still been walking. It was not a thought she had had about any of her other lovers, but for some reason she found herself begrudging the time Morgan had been with somebody else.
An idea occurred to Naomi as she watched taxicabs pick up other travelers. «Astarte, go ahead and tell Christabel where to find Morgan. There were things I wanted to discuss with Morgan, too, and maybe the two of us can gang up on Christabel and get some answers out of her.»
«OK. But I'm going to play with Christabel a little longer, first. I've wanted to give this spoiled little princess a piece of my mind for years.»
«Go right ahead. Just leave enough for me and Morgan.» Disconnecting, Naomi approached the curb and raised an imperious hand, all but daring empty cabs to pass her by.
A few did, but these were cabs whose drivers had finished their shifts and turned off their lights; Naomi could hardly blame them for wanting to go home and enjoy what they could of the Winter Solstice. The cab that finally stopped for her was piloted by a driver who was tapping the fingers of one hand against the wheel to match the drumbeat blasting out of the stereo. Naomi blinked as the song registered, and recognized her own voice belting out lyrics to a parody of an old hair metal anthem that she had recorded with Morgan as a psychological weapon against one of Alexander Liebenthal's backers in Boston: /I prayed for you, and you preyed on me. Rev'rend, you give God a bad name./
"Damn it," said Naomi to nobody in particular, suddenly embarrassed that of all of the recordings she had made, this was the one to which the first on-duty cabbie to see her was merrily banging his head and singing along.
The stereo cut out as the cabbie stepped out, stretched, and leaned against the roof. "Where to, ma'am?"
"Greenwich Village, please. I have a friend waiting for me at Bacchus-on-Bleecker."