“The first two things you need to know,” Rondeau said as he pulled out of the parking lot, “are that I’m crazy rich now, and Marla’s been exiled from Felport.”
Pelham turned around in the passenger seat and looked at Marla, his eyes owlish and wide, and she nodded, then looked away, concentrating on staring out the window.
On the ride back to the hotel, Rondeau gave Pelham the rundown on everything that had happened since he left Felport to go on his world tour. The recitation was enough to make Marla exhausted all over again. Rondeau told the valet about Marla’s run-in with her con artist brother Jason, about Bradley Bowman’s murder at Jason’s hands, about Marla’s ill-conceived (or, if you were feeling charitable, daring) plan to bring Bradley back to life. And, finally, about the horrible consequences of her meddling in such cosmic affairs, including a rip in the fabric of space/time and the subsequent emergence of her villainous counterpart from a parallel universe, the Mason. “She looked just like Marla,” Rondeau said, gesturing animatedly with one hand as he drove with the other. “Well, Marla when she was twenty, maybe, because the Mason didn’t age after that. Only… well, you know Marla’s white-and-purple cloak?”
“I am familiar with the cloak.” Pelham sounded thoughtful, but not especially freaked out. This was probably a lot for the guy to take in — but then again, he’d once literally traveled to Hell with Marla, and lately he’d been battling a repeated infestation by Malaysian ant-monsters, so he was used to rolling with the punches. And the kicks. “Indeed, I think of the cloak often. I find its very existence rather disturbing.”
“Don’t we all,” Marla muttered. When she was twenty, she’d found a magical cloak hanging in a thrift store, and she’d felt compelled to buy it, sensing it was an item of magic. The cloak was more than merely magical, though — it was an artifact, a conscious object of uncertain origin and mysterious motivation. The cloak had granted Marla profound powers, both healing magics and viciously destructive battle prowess… but the latter came at a terrible psychic cost. Every time she used the cloak for violence, its alien intellect tried to subjugate her mind and possess her body for its own destructive ends. Essentially, it was a parasite, and Marla was the host, though it had taken her a long time to realize that. Marla’s will had been strong enough to resist the cloak’s attempts to possess her, but she’d never been comfortable wearing it, not once she was old and wise enough to realize how dangerous it could be. She’d eventually discovered it wasn’t a cloak at all, but a malevolent entity from another universe that chose to look like a cloak, and that in its true form, it was so scary it even frightened gods. When she finally glimpsed the cloak’s true form — something like a many-eyed devil ray with extra tentacles and fishhook fangs — she’d been horrified and vowed to never wear it again. The thing couldn’t be destroyed, though, and she’d dispatched Pelham on his world tour, with the mission to hide the cloak somewhere deep and obscure, someplace no one, even Marla, could ever find it. Except —
“The Mason made Marla look like Miss Congeniality,” Rondeau was saying, so Marla swatted him on the back of the head. He went on, unperturbed. “Imagine a version of Marla who put on the cloak at twenty, didn’t bother to fight the cloak’s influence at all, and just let herself get possessed by the evil alien mind inside it. That version of Marla, over in that hell of a universe next door, pretty much literally conquered the world. And then… we fucked up, trying to save Bradley, and tore a hole in the fabric of space-time. That set the Mason loose over here, and she went on the warpath. Shit got ugly. A lot of people in Felport died before Marla managed to outsmart the Mason. Viscarro, and Ernesto, and Granger… .” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, the Chamberlain’s okay, and all your friends on her estate are fine too, the Mason didn’t go near her place.”
“I am relieved.” The Chamberlain had been Pelham’s… employer, sort of? Or maybe foster mother? Pelham came from a long line of professional servants, pledged (and magically bonded) to serve prominent sorcerers. Marla hadn’t wanted a valet, even a supernaturally savvy one, but the Chamberlain had insisted that, as chief sorcerer, Marla required such help, and she’d “given” Pelham to her. Pelham had turned out to be amazingly competent, and soon became a friend, but Marla wasn’t happy with the notion of servants, especially supernaturally-bound ones. Which was one of the real reasons she’d sent him on his world tour —
“Oh, and check it out,” Rondeau said. “The Mason had a sidekick who was like an evil version of me, called Crapsey, with a creepy wooden jaw and a nasty trick where he could jump into people’s bodies, shove their souls into the void, and walk around in their skins — ”
“Get to the exile part,” Marla snapped. Rondeau was breezily reciting events that had left some pretty brutal wounds on her, psychically if not physically.
“Right.” Rondeau coughed. “The, uh, sorcerers in Felport who survived the Mason’s attacks blamed the whole interdimensional invasion thing on Marla, and… they kicked her out of the chief sorcerer job. Exiled her here. Well, not here specifically, they just forbid her to ever set foot in the city again. I didn’t see the point in staying in Felport with Marla gone, so I sold my nightclub and decided to retire in style. Marla didn’t have anything better to do, so I asked her to come along, and… here we are.”
“Mrs. Mason.” Pelham twisted around in his seat again, and this time, put his hand on her knee. “I am profoundly sorry for your loss. For all your losses.”
“Me, too,” Marla said. “Look, Pelham, the Chamberlain is actually the chief sorcerer of Felport now, and me… I’m nobody. If you want to go to Felport, I’m sure the Chamberlain would be happy to take you in — ”
“I am bonded to you, Mrs. Mason.” Pelham voice was gentle, his eyes placid and sure. “I could not break that bond if I wanted to, and I do not want to. Even if I did care about status, well, you are greater than any mortal nobility — ”
“Shush,” Marla said sharply. Pelham knew a secret about her that no one else in the world besides Marla herself did. It was bad enough he kept calling her “Mrs.” — that would be a giveaway to anyone more attentive than Rondeau.
“Shush what?” Rondeau said.
“He was going to say something about my amazing natural gifts,” Marla said. “And you know I hate being complimented.”
“Whatever,” Rondeau said. “Now that Pelham’s back, he can keep you company at the bookshop. That’ll really open up my afternoons for spa visits.”
“I am pleased to serve in any capacity you wish,” Pelham said. “Shall I stay here, Mrs. Mason, or do you wish me to continue my travels?”
“Did you, ah, dispose of that thing yet?” Marla said. “The thing in the trunk?”
“Do you mean the bedsheet you glamoured to look like your cursed cloak?” Pelham said politely. “No, ma’am. That is still wrapped in bindings and wards in the steamer trunk.”
Marla groaned, and Rondeau whistled. “I was trying to figure out how she was going to break that to you,” Rondeau said. “Sending you off on a mission to get rid of a fake cloak.”
“Pelham, listen, I wasn’t trying to screw with you, I wanted people to think the cloak was gone from the city,” Marla said. “There were powerful people who wanted it, and I was afraid of what would happen if it fell into their hands. But at the same time, the cloak was so powerful, I couldn’t bring myself to really get rid of it. I wanted to keep it in reserve, just in case I needed it, like… a nuclear weapon or a vial of super-flu. And I didn’t let you in on the secret because I wanted you to — ”
“I understand,” Pelham said. “Truly. You wanted me to experience the real world. Before I joined your service, I’d never even left the grounds of the Chamberlain’s estate. Though I was educated, and learned to serve at a formal dining table, repair cars, and cause permanent nerve damage with a well-aimed strike of the fist, I was provincial and unworldly. You wanted to expand my horizons.”
“Yes,” Marla said. “I mean, pretty much. I thought it would do you good, I guess.”
“You are also profoundly uncomfortable with the very idea of having a lady’s personal gentleman in your employ.” Pelham sniffed. “I am confident you will overcome that reticence in time. May I stay with you now, then, or do you prefer me to continue the pantomime of looking for a safe place to hide your cloak?”
“No need for pretense anymore. The cloak is really gone now. Once I met the Mason, and saw what the cloak wanted to do to the world, what it hoped to use me for, what it had used me for in another dimension… I didn’t have any qualms about getting rid of it, permanently, even if it did mean giving up my best weapon.”
“I hope you buried it deeply,” Pelham said. “Such things have a way of rising to the surface.”
“Ha,” Rondeau said. “Remember Bradley Bowman? How trying to bring him back to life caused all this trouble? Well, he didn’t come back to life, exactly, but he ended up ascending beyond the mortal plane and whatnot. Now he’s, like… the guy in charge of maintaining the structural integrity of the multiverse. Immortal, and existing simultaneously in every possible reality and in none of them, which is a nifty trick. We gave him the cloaks, both Marla’s and the Mason’s, and he put them both at the North Pole in a parallel universe where life never even developed on Earth. They are gone.”
Pelham exhaled. “That is a relief. Then… may I stay here?”
Marla reached out and touched his shoulder. “Of course. It’s good to have you back, Pelham. You’ll be a great help.”
“Marla’s a detective now,” Rondeau said. “Solving mysteries. Or, ah, failing to solve mysteries, mostly, but it’s a start.”
“A… detective?” Pelham said, in the tone of voice someone else might say, “A… rat turd?” “Is such an occupation truly suitable for your station?”
“What station is that?” Rondeau said. “Poverty stricken ex-chief-sorcerer? No offense, you know I love Marla to pieces, but she’s not exactly an aristo, Pelly.”
“Mrs. Mason.” Pelham’s voice was stern. “How can you expect Rondeau to give you the respect you deserve if he does not know you are due such respect?”
“Why do you keep calling her ‘Mrs.’?” Rondeau said. “You always used to call her ‘Miss Mason,’ and even that was weird, but — ”
Marla closed her eyes, covered her face with her hands, and groaned. “I hate you both. Take me back to the hotel.”
“You got married,” Rondeau said for the third time, sipping a rum-and-pineapple juice on his balcony. They had a great view of the ocean up here, but Rondeau was staring at her instead.
Marla sank down further in the padded chaise longue, looking up at the underside of the balcony attached to the room above them. “Okay, yes, but see — ”
“To a god,” Rondeau said. “To the god of Death. You’re the bride of Death. You’re a goddess.”
“Only by marriage. And it’s not like it was a love match. Pelham and I were in the underworld, and, well… it was a marriage of convenience. I needed to use the god of Death’s sword, and in order to do that, I had to take certain aspects of his power as my own — had to become a member of the family, a god by association. Don’t think of it as a marriage, it was just… a ritual.”
“So you’re saying you didn’t consummate?” Rondeau waggled his eyebrows.
Marla made a face. “That incarnation of Death was pretty much falling apart when I met him, hanging on way past the end of his natural span. He was a wreck, and he should have made way for the new incarnation of Death years before. He wasn’t exactly alluring. He couldn’t even stand up from his divine throne — he was holding onto his office by pure force of will and butt-in-chairness.”
“You missed out on throne sex?” Rondeau said. “I bet that thing was all encrusted with jewels, too.” He paused. “And I’m not talking about the chair.”
“Mrs. Mason was widowed soon after the wedding.” Pelham appeared with a silver tray and placed a drink — more juice than rum — on the small round table beside Marla. Where had he found that tray? Did he have some kind of emergency valet-kit in his backpack? “When the old god of Death was replaced by his newer incarnation.”
“Oh, I remember him,” Rondeau said. “The Walking Death. Now he was yummy, even if he was kind of a dick. Shame you couldn’t have married him instead of his dad. Or predecessor. Or whatever.”
“A little of both,” Marla said. In reality, she was still married to Death — it turned out the marriage ceremony had wedded her to the office of the god of Death, not to any particular incarnation, and the being known as the Walking Death was now her husband. Which was sort of like marrying a father, getting widowed, and marrying his son, but, hell, mythology was full of weirder sorts of incest. She hadn’t consummated her marriage to the Walking Death, either, though the idea wasn’t entirely unappealing, and he certainly wanted to. Her wifely duties — ha — were supposed to wait until after she died, when she’d take up the mantle of her goddesshood and sit on her own throne deep under the ground. (Well, metaphorically, and metaphysically. You couldn’t actually dig a hole and get to the underworld, but it definitely had a subterranean quality.) She wouldn’t really be the bride of Death until her own death… unless she figured out a way to wriggle out of the obligation first. Not that spending her afterlife as a terrifying goddess sounded so bad, but she was opposed to destiny in principle.
“It is a shame,” Pelham mused. “If your husband still existed, you could simply ask him who murdered this Ronin person. Solving murders would be much simpler with the god of Death at your beck and call.”
Marla stared at him. The idea had never occurred to her. She pretty much hated to ask for assistance with anything, but it wasn’t like she’d be asking the Walking Death to fight her battles for her — she’d just ask him to answer a question. Surely that wouldn’t shift the balance of power in their relationship too much? Though worrying about that was probably asinine. He was a god, tasked with overseeing the end-of-life and afterlife of every living thing in the universe. The “person” called the Walking Death that she interacted with occasionally was just an insignificant splinter of the god’s true vastness, an externalized physical presence created to interact with humans and other lesser beings. He probably had all the power in the relationship anyway, by definition. Still, no reason to give him more. But maybe if she spun it the right way…
She cleared her throat. “Um. Maybe I’m not so widowed after all. See…”
Rondeau insisted on accompanying her back to the bookstore, and Pelham murmured that he’d be happy to join them, if she had no objection, so she just gave in. They were both giving her a lot of crap about how she shouldn’t have lied to them, Rondeau gleefully, Pelham morosely. But, damn it, a woman’s marriage to a chthonic deity was nobody’s business but her own, and she refused to apologize.
In the back room of the bookshop, she opened up her safe, revealing the silver bell inside. It was a perfectly ordinary bell, not magical in the slightest… but Death was always listening for it.
She rang the bell.
The Walking Death never appeared before her in a puff of black smoke, or descended from the heavens like a sinking balloon. True to his name, he always just walked in, though strictly speaking, it wasn’t always clear where he walked in from.
He walked in now, emerging from a black door in the exterior wall (which was, usually, utterly doorless.) The Walking Death stood well over six feet tall, his long brown hair falling just past the shoulders of his impeccably tailored midnight blue suit, no tie. Marla knew next to nothing about menswear, but his dress always struck her as vaguely European and timelessly fashionable. His face was pale, narrow, and aristocratic-looking, his lips curved almost perpetually into the hint of a smirk. The look should have been maddening, and it was, a little, but it was also cute. He had rings on each of his fingers, as usual, eight glittering gemstones in different colors — but, no, now he had an extra ring on the third finger of each hand, just simple silver bands.
“Darling.” He kissed Marla on the cheek and took her hand in his own — cold, no surprise — before turning to look at Pelham and Rondeau. “The servant and the sidekick. How pleasant to see you both.” They stared at him, apparently more overawed by the company of a god than Marla was… or at least more than she allowed herself to appear to be.
Marla pulled her hand away from his. “Sorry to call you here. I was hoping you could help me out with this… murder investigation I’m doing.”
He raised one elegantly arched eyebrow. “Really? I’m to be your informant, am I? I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. I do have access to the material witnesses in any suspicious death. I am not unwilling to assist you, if you choose to indulge in such trivialities. But I was actually planning to come see you anyway. I have something to tell you. It’s wonderful news, actually.”
She frowned. “What’s that?”
“A number of your enemies are conspiring to kill you.” The Walking Death broke into a wide smile, and swept Marla into a tight embrace. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he breathed into her ear. “You’ll be dead soon, my darling!”