Marla sat cleaning her fingernails with a throwing knife, tipped back in her chair in the corner of the conference room facing the door, smacking chewing gum. Playing thug. She was having the time of her life.
Rasmussen came into the room trailed by his own apprentice, a weaselly-faced red-haired man who seemed more a collection of tics and tremors than a person. "Mann," Rasmussen said, nodding to Artie before sitting down on the other side of the table. His apprentice looked at Marla, snorted laughter, and leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. Marla was serene. She could throw her knife into his eye if she wanted to, and that knowledge bred serenity. Well, she'd hit the eye three times out of five, anyway. Lao Tsung said she still needed more practice.
"Finding your apprentices at junior high schools now?" Rasmussen said.
"Better than scraping them off the bottom of my shoe," Artie replied. "How you doing, you Limey fuck?"
"The world continues to unveil itself for me, Arthur."
"My first name is Artemis, you asshole."
"Ah, yes, I should have remembered, you were named after a goddess fitting, for a cockless anomaly like yourself." He sighed. "I relish these little conversations less and less as time goes on, dear Diana. Let's do our business and be done, shall we?"
Artie snapped his fingers, and Marla leaned forward to hand him the book, never taking her eyes off the weaselly apprentice, in case he tried to take advantage of a moment's distraction. He didn't pay her any attention, and she resumed her post.
"Interesting reading," Artie said, tapping the book's worn cover.
"Mmm," Rasmussen said. "Here's a check for the amount we agreed on." He slid a slip of paper across the table.
"You're taking a personal check?" Marla blurted, and Artie turned to give her the most vicious look she'd ever seen from him. "I just mean "
"Shut up," Artie said, and turned back to Rasmussen, who was chuckling to himself. "Here." He shoved the book hard, and it skidded toward Rasmussen's waiting fingers. The English sorcerer handed the book over his shoulder to his apprentice, who tucked it out of sight.
"I assume you made a copy?" Rasmussen said.
"Sure," Artie said.
"Shame it won't do you any good. The information I want is written in heat-sensitive invisible ink. Don't suppose you had the sense to hold the end papers over a candle flame?"
"You're lying," Artie said. "You're fucking with me."
"No, I daresay I'm done fucking with you, Artie. I never want to see or speak to you again."
Artie snorted. "Sure, sell me your half of the artifact, and I'll be happy to "
"No." Rasmussen shook his head. "I'm done trying to strike that sort of bargain, too. My interest in you has utterly departed. I don't care about your little stone cock anymore. You should keep it. After all, you don't want to be entirely dickless, do you?" He rose, nodded to Marla gravely, and departed, followed by his jittery apprentice.
Artie turned on her. "Did I tell you to talk?"
Marla shrank back. Artie occasionally gave her shit, but she'd seldom seen him actually pissed. "No, but come on, a personal check? From your sworn enemy? I mean "
"To a guy like that, Marla, money is nothing. Money is easy. He can always get more. There's no reason he'd stop the check, or write it on a non-existent account, because he doesn't care. By speaking out like you did, you made it seem like I'm the kind of schmuck who does care about money, like I'm less successful than him, like..." He shook his head. "Fuck. That went badly. I can't believe he was telling the truth about invisible ink. I figured there was maybe a cipher, a code, I've got guys working on breaking it, but if that's true... And what did he mean about not caring about my half of the artifact? It's got to be a head-fake, he's going to pretend he doesn't want it anymore, then offer to... No. I don't get it. But he's up to something." Artie chewed his lower lip, deep in thought.
After a moment, Marla cleared her throat. "I'm really sorry, Artie."
He waved her away. "It's okay, kid. I shoulda told you to keep mum. I'm just preoccupied."
"Maybe Jenny and Daniel and Ernesto will come up with some info after they raid his house."
"Let's hope so. Because right now I feel like I'm playing chess when all along I thought I was playing checkers."
"Nothing," Daniel said again, shaking his head and pointing to the glossy photographs on the table. "Big map of some Pacific islands on the wall. A whiteboard with all these symbols we don't know what they are but the numbers are latiitudes and longitudes and depths, all mostly just spots in the middle of the ocean."
"But nothing about me?" Artie leaned over the dining room table. "Not a mention of my name, nothing about Felport, nothing about my half of the artifact?"
Ernesto and Jenny exchanged glances. Ernesto cleared his throat. "We went through his trash. Found a big thick file with your name on it. But the contents had been shredded."
"Did you bring the pieces back?" Artie said. "Find out what he's trying to hide?"
"The shreds were ruined, Artie," Jenny said. "They were in the garbage. There was... garbage juice soaking them. Leaky Chinese food containers, rotting fruit, stuff like that."
"And what do you mean 'trying to hide'?" Ernesto said. "Hide from who? He threw it away. There was no attempt at hiding it. It's not like he shredded those files special all his thrown-out papers were shredded, even the junk mail, I think he just has his apprentices do it as a matter of course."
"Rasmussen did say he was over the whole vendetta thing," Marla said. "I mean... maybe he was telling the truth. The stuff on the walls, the book, is does seem like he's got a different obsession now."
Artie leaned back and scowled at her. "Marla. I have half an artifact that can grant him immortality. You think he's just gonna... get over that? No way. He must have known you were coming or something, he faked up that stuff in the trash "
"Yeah, that's the most logical explanation." Ernesto shook his head, a look of profound disgust on his face.
"You, my office, now." Artie pointed at Ernesto, then stomped off out of the room.
Ernesto sighed heavily. "See you guys later. Dad has to yell at me now."
They sat for a moment, hearing Artie's voice raised, and Ernesto's raised in return, until Daniel said, "How about we get the fuck out of here? I just spent three days eating English food. I could use a real cheeseburger."
"God, that blood sausage," Jenny said. "I thought you were going to puke when they put it on the table."
"What about you what did you think a shepherd's pie was? Did you think it was made of actual shepherds?"
Marla felt a flash of jealousy Jenny and Daniel had spent time together, they'd bonded, they had private jokes, and she felt suddenly, intensely, left out. So she went to Daniel, insinuated herself into his lap, and said, "I thought you didn't even need to eat?"
Daniel put his arms around her waist, but entirely too absent-mindedly for Marla's taste. "Well, sure, I can sustain myself by drawing on the life-energy around me, but I still like to eat. Food is yum."
"And here I thought I was lucky enough to find a man who could live on love alone," Marla said. And wiggled, just a little, in his lap.
"Ah," Daniel said, looking away from Jenny, at last. "I guess maybe not love alone."
"Love and sex alone?" Marla said.
"Guys. I'm sitting right here," Jenny said.
"Right," Daniel said. "I guess we should go someplace... more private then."
"You two are ridiculous," Jenny said. "It would be cute if I wasn't choking on my own puke. I'll see you both for dinner?"
"If we're done by then," Marla said.
"I am a shallow jealous bitch," Marla said, hours later, in Jenny's room. Marla'd had fun with Daniel, certainly, but afterward she'd thought of Jenny, jetlagged and probably lonely, and marveled at her own capacity for pettiness. So here she was.
Jenny was on her bed, painting her toenails fire-engine red. "Daniel's all yours, Marla. Really. He couldn't stop talking about you on the trip, saying he wished you could've seen this or if only you could have heard that." She pulled her foot up close to her lips Marla was just as flexible, but Jenny managed to look graceful doing it and blew on the wet toenails. "It would be dumb for us to let a boy get between us, especially when he pretty much thinks of me as a sister." She looked up. "But a sister is close, Marla. Do you really want Daniel to stop hanging out with me?"
"No," Marla said. "I just missed him. And I guess... I can get territorial. Probably because of how I was raised."
"Probably. Come here. Let me paint your nails."
Marla looked down at her steel-toed boots and thought of her sweaty feet inside. She hadn't painted her toenails since junior high. "Seriously?"
"Get over here before I decide I should braid your hair, too."
Artie brooded. He spent long hours in his office, yelling on the phone, and poring over the non-erotic books in his library (they were kept in a secret room, which actually had a bookshelf for a door, like something from a story). He paced, and mumbled, and whenever Ernesto came over they yelled at each other behind closed doors. Dinners were a rather strained affair, and the apprentices were all glad that half the time Artie never even came to the table.
He didn't send them out on missions, either, which gave them all rare and blessed free time. Marla and Jenny and Daniel just tried to stay clear of Artie's wrath, and spent as much time as possible out in the city, enjoying the last of the warm weather. They all spent a lot of time studying, too, with Lao Tsung who had a nasty cough lately, though the cold didn't seem to slow him down at all and pursuing their own magical studies, practicing in the real world or Artie's London, honing their skills through overlearning. Marla spent most nights in Daniel's bed. Apart from their boss's crankiness, it was a golden time.
About a month after the meeting with Rasmussen, Artie called them together. "I've been a shitty teacher. I'm sorry about that. I've been trying to figure out what the Limey bastard's got planned, and that's important, but I shouldn't neglect you three. So I'm gonna make it up to you. There's a council meeting tonight. I'm taking you all with me."
"Whoa," Daniel said. "I thought Ernesto usually went with you?"
Artie closed his eyes, briefly. "Maybe don't say his name today, okay? We're having... a difference of opinion. I'm not too happy with him. Meeting's at sunset. You three dress nice. Don't make me look bad. See you then." He went back to his office and shut the door.
"Awesome," Daniel said. "We finally get to meet Sauvage, Cochran, Sorenson, the Chamberlain, the Bay Witch..."
"So this is, like, a meeting of all the sorcerers?" Marla said. She had only the vaguest understanding of the city's magical organization, except that Artie was pretty well up in the hierarchy, but not at the top.
"Yeah." Jenny nodded. "They don't meet often, maybe once a year I guess, unless there's some big emergency. It's like... a meeting of the Five Families from The Godfather or something. I've never been to one, but Ernesto's told us about them."
"Should be interesting," Marla said.
Except it wasn't that interesting, at first. The meeting was in a sparsely, but elegantly, furnished penthouse apartment belonging to one of the sorcerers, a bald black man named Hamil. Their group was among the first to arrive, and Artie went straight to eating canapes and talking to a group that included Hamil, a slim Asian man, an old white guy with a nose big as a cowcatcher, and a gorgeous blonde woman with wet hair. The apprentices drifted toward a knot of other younger people by the windows.
A serious-faced, dark-haired young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, turned and looked them up and down. "Ah," he said. "You must be Mann's brood."
" I guess so," Marla said, and he nodded with exaggerated dignity.
"I am Gregor, Mr. Cochran's protιgι. I am studying the ways of divination."
"Huh. I'm Marla. I mostly break stuff. This is Jenny she mostly burns stuff."
"We've met before," Jenny said, voice unusually frosty, and turned away to talk to another apprentice.
"Uh," Marla said. "And this is Daniel."
"Ah, the Breatharian," Gregor said, with the ghost of a smile.
"What's a Breatharian?"
"Crazy idiots who die of starvation," Daniel said. "Or else liars. Mostly con artists who claim they can teach people Inedia the ability to live on spiritual energy alone, with no need for food or drink, just air. They say they can live on light."
"But you can live on light," Gregor said. "Correct?"
"I can live on prana, anyway," he said. "But Breatharians can't, and they steal money from gullible who think they can. Don't call me one of them. It's like calling you, I don't know, a storefront fortune teller."
"Mmm. You're overly sensitive. How interesting. I can tell you belong to Artie."
"We don't belong to anybody " Marla began, but Gregor turned and walked away as if she hadn't spoken at all.
"That guy sucks," Marla said, and Daniel didn't disagree.
More sorcerers arrived, including a beautiful black woman in a shimmering evening gown, a leggy blonde dressed all in white with a smile so icy you could practically scrape frost off it, and some more middle-aged white men. Jenny and Daniel pointed out the ones they knew. The black woman was called the Chamberlain, and had something to do with ghosts;the blonde was Susan Wellstone, master of long-form ritual magic (Marla made a note to try to talk to her she was interested in that kind of stuff); and the damp blonde was the Bay Witch, by all accounts a strange personality.
Marla and Daniel mingled with the other apprentices, careful not to show one another any particular affection, and to keep appearances businesslike. Jenny mostly talked to a scarred bald guy named Partridge, apparently sharing tips on pyromancy. The big room gradually filled up, with the city's leading sorcerers taking chairs while their retinues lined the edges of the room. Finally, after they'd been there nearly an hour, the front door banged open and a man walked in alone.
He was big, and fat, but unlike Artie's softness, his was a hard sort of fat, fat over muscle, and he moved with the self-assurance of a professional athlete. He wore a nice gray suit and a big ruby pinky ring, and though his hair was thinning and going gray, his eyes were sharp and searching. This had to be Sauvage, Marla thought. Felport's chief sorcerer. Artie talked about him like he'd hung the moon. No, like he could beat the shit out of the moon. Like he could eat the moon and crap out the tides afterward.
Sauvage slapped backs and shook hands and whispered into ears, making a personal connection with everybody except the guy with the cowcatcher nose, Gregor's boss, Cochran. He eyed Sauvage warily, and got ignored in return. After the gladhanding, Sauvage took the biggest chair in the room, laced his hands over his belly, and said, "So that's everybody, right? Wait, where the fuck is Viscarro?"
A quivering apprentice wearing a white shirt and a pocket protector stepped forward, clutching a little notebook. "My master sends his regrets, and asked me to take notes "
"Why am I not shocked?" Sauvage, voice booming. "Fuck it, Viscarro doesn't get a vote, then. The rest of you what are we going to do about this plague of fucking angels?"
Marla glanced at Jenny and Daniel, who both shrugged. They hadn't heard anything about angels either, apparently.
"We should continue to consult the oracles and auguries " Cochran said, and Sauvage waved him away.
"I knew what you'd say wait and see, wait and see. Eventually you gotta do something, Cochran. These things, these Thrones, they're starting to piss me off. Showing up at places that are supposed to be private, making threats about judgment and consequences. What the fuck are they?"
"Maybe they're angels," the Bay Witch said. "Why shouldn't things be what they say they are?" She then lowered her head and lapped at the punchbowl like a dog drinking from a water dish, which diminished the force of her argument somewhat, Marla thought.
"I don't believe in angels," the Asian guy whose name was Sorenson, unlikely as that seemed said. "Maybe they think they're angels, but messengers from god? Which god? I don't buy it."
"That Limey sorcerer, Rasmussen," Artie said. "Maybe he's behind it, trying to fuck with our heads "
"Gods, Artie," Sauvage said, clutching his head. "Again with the Englishman! I know you guys are in a pissing contest, but just because your life revolves around him doesn't mean the rest of us give a shit, okay? I know Rasmussen, and he knows me, and this isn't his kind of thing." He looked around the room. "Has anybody caught one of these Thrones? Let's get one. Interrogate it. Cut it up and see how it works if we've gotta. Find out what "
There was a crackle and a smell like a burned-out power transformer, and a man appeared in the center of the room. He looked like a wino with his untucked flannel shirt, stubbly face, and stained pants, but pale light leaked from the corners of his eyes, and his hair drifted about as if charged with static electricity. He looked around, and as his head turned, eyes appeared briefly in his cheeks, his throat, and his forehead, opening for a moment, then closing and vanishing. "Sorcerers," he said, and his voice was high-pitched, almost songlike, almost pretty. "We are Thrones. We watch. We note your crimes. We compile the lists. There will come a judgment. Consider your actions. Consider the consequences. The consequences of eternity. Consider "
"Get him!" Sauvage shouted, and Marla who'd been waiting for the order, on some level launched herself past the staring sorcerers, first in a crowd of surging apprentices. In the edges of her vision Marla saw Jenny rising in her aura of flame, and Daniel reaching out with his hands, a quizzical look on his face, but the main focus of her attention was on the creature who called himself a Throne. She got to him first and delivered a roundhouse kick, the steel-toed boots whipping into his guts
and she spun around uselessly. She might as well have kicked a sheet hanging on a clothesline, and indeed, only a mound of stinking clothes remained where he'd been. "He disappeared," she said.
"I noticed. Good try, though." Sauvage stood up. "She one of yours, Artie?"
"Yeah," he said, pride unmistakable in his voice.
"Good," Sauvage said, never looking at Marla. He prodded the Throne's discarded clothing with his toe. "Somebody want to get these analyzed? Maybe that guy, what's his name, Langford? The freelancer? Get him to look at this stuff."
"The Throne," Daniel said, and everyone turned to look at him, most of the sorcerers obviously irritated at his interruption. Daniel blushed at the attention, but kept going. "I can sense life, you know, life-force, and... there wasn't life there. Whatever the Throne was, it's not alive, not like anything else I've ever seen."
"It wasn't a ghost," the Chamberlain said.
"Or an illusion of any kind," Sorenson added.
"Nothing from out of nature at all," said a hulking, confused-looking guy with dirt on his face. Granger, his name was, some kind of nature magician.
"Huh," Sauvage said. "Maybe it is an angel then." He looked around. "So your homework assignment is: how the fuck do we kill some angels?"
"That thing was freaky," Daniel said, lying in bed with Marla that night.
She rested her head on his chest. "The Throne? Yeah. Weirdest thing I've ever seen. And I've "
"Seen Artie with his pants off, yes, I know, ha ha. But seriously... you really think those things are watching us? All the time?"
"Who knows?" Marla said. "But if they are, how about we give them a show?"
They passed the night pleasantly, and slept, until Artie pounded on the bedroom door just before dawn. "Come on," he shouted. "Down to the basement, now, now, now!"
They got out of bed, struggling into clothes, and Daniel said, "Is something wrong? Are we under attack?"
"No!" Artie yelled. "That fucker Ernesto's abandoning us, so we've got to break the geas. He's leaving the family. He's dead to me, and if he dies, I don't want to be on the hook for avenging him. Come on. I want this bullshit over with by breakfast. I'll be damned if I'll let that ingrateful piece of shit spoil my whole day." He stormed away.
"Shit," Daniel said. "I knew they were fighting, but... leaving the family?"
"Yeah," Marla said, quietly. Thinking of her own original family. Thinking: Why did I ever think this one would be any better at lasting forever?
They went downstairs, to help Artie and Ernesto break all their promises to one another.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 9.