Ice Queen

Christine Morgan (

Author's Note: The characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney
and are used here without their creators' knowledge or consent. Mature
readers only, please, due to adult content and language.

Author's Note Additional: I'd gotten quite a few requests for more about
Cordelia St. John, Owen's cool and aloof lady. When I started this story, I
never expected it to get quite so intense. Family has a power over us that
renders us helpless. Or, as I remember from one of the few episodes of
"Mad About You" that I watched, the reason our family can always push
our buttons is because they installed them.

Owen Burnett, voice over: "Previously, on Gargoyles ..." From "Sterling Silver" --         _Was_ it Owen? He was wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a patterned vest. No tie, no glasses. His fair hair was tousled, as if it had just been raked with his fingers instead of severely combed back. He sprang from the car, took three large steps toward the building.         "Cordelia!" he called.         The door at the top of the stairs was flung open and Miss St. John emerged into the early morning sun, her lavender and light blue gown floating around her. She clasped one hand to her bosom, extended the other, and cried, "Owen!" From "Romances: Fairy Favours" --         "Don't you think it's time you told me?" Cordelia said softly, her linen gown flowing from her milky shoulders, her hair floating and almost luminous.         No anger in her voice, no jealousy.         And no guilt in his heart, after one initial flash. He lived two lives, and up until now she had only been a part of one.         "It is past time I told you," he said, reaching out. "Give me your hands, if we be friends ..." From "Breeding Season" --         "It seems some other congratulations are in order," Xanatos said as Owen came in. "Isn't that right, Owen?"         All eyes, human and gargoyle, turned toward the blond man.         "I don't know to what you might be referring, Mr. Xanatos."         "The Grandmaster happened to mention something interesting last night at our meeting," Xanatos said, clearly enjoying himself. "About his niece."
        "Once upon a time," Owen Burnett began.         Cordelia St. John glanced up from the file balanced on one knee. The computer glitches had finally been ironed out, and it looked like the Sterling Academy would have a freshman class this fall after all.         Tucked into the natural cradle made by her left arm and her body, Sebastian yawned and blinked drowsily.         The chair opposite hers, identical in cool beige with a hint of palest blue, was empty. A paperback was open, tented and facedown, on the table beside it. Weird Tales from Shakespeare, an anthology that Owen seemed to find quite hilarious.         He was seated cross-legged on the floor, his back braced against the blue and cream sofa. On the cushion above him, Cashmere dozed, disinterested in the length of yarn that two-and-a-half-year-old Patricia was dangling in front of the fluffy white cat.         "I said," Owen repeated, sweeping the little girl into his lap and poking her pert nose, "once upon a time. Are you listening, or not?"         "I'm wissenen." Patricia obediently relinquished the ribbon and looked solemnly up at her father. Her platinum cornsilk hair, damp from her evening bath, fell in neat comb-lines to the shoulders of her nightgown.         Owen drew in a breath to speak, then paused and raised an eyebrow at her in mock sternness. "Are you _sure_ you're ready?"         She nodded. Cordelia permitted herself a slight smile and returned most of her attention to her work.         "Very well. Once upon a time, there was a handsome prince who lived in a castle in a faraway kingdom. More than anything else in the world, this prince wanted a real princess to marry. He searched the land for miles around, and met many ladies, but none of them were right. None of them were real princesses. So the prince returned to his castle and was very sad.         "Now, it happened," Owen went on, "that one night there was a terrible storm. The wind howled, the lightning flashed, and the rain poured down. In the middle of the storm, someone knocked on the castle door, and when the guard opened it, there stood a maiden who said she was a princess.         "The prince saw her and thought she was the most beautiful princess he had ever seen. But the prince's mother, the old queen, was very suspicious. What, she wondered, was a princess doing out in a storm, all by herself? The old queen began to think that perhaps this maiden wasn't a princess at all, and she knew how to find out.         "The queen went to the bedroom where the maiden would be staying, and placed something on the bed. Then she had twenty feather mattresses and twenty quilts piled on top. That was where the maiden would sleep, and in the morning, the queen would know if she was telling the truth or not.         "So the maiden went to bed on the twenty feather mattresses and the twenty quilts, and there she stayed all night. But in the morning, when she came out, she looked awful! And when the old queen asked her how she slept, the maiden said, 'Oh, terribly, there was something in the bed and I tossed and turned all night!'         "'Aha!' said the old queen. 'You are no princess!'"         At this departure from the proper story, Cordelia glanced up again. Patricia was rapt, gaze fixed on her father's face.         "The prince demanded to know why the old queen would say such a thing. 'But Mother,' he said, 'I thought you put a pea beneath the mattresses! And only a real princess would have skin so fine as to feel a single pea through twenty feather mattresses and twenty quilts!'         "'That was no pea, my son, but _this_!' said the queen, and held out a small iron ball. 'She is no princess, but a fairy, come to steal you away to the lands beneath the hills!'"         "'Foolish woman!' the princess cried. 'I am no simple fairy, but Titania herself, Queen of all the Fair Folk!' She shimmered and changed, appearing in her true form, and the people gasped at the sight. 'I would have made your son a prince of all the world, not just this kingdom! With me, he would have been forever young! But your suspicion has undone my plan, and now you must pay!' With that, Titania wove a spell over the castle and everyone within it, turning them to flowers. 'And so shall you stay,' she declared, 'until a real princess truly does come!'"         He fell silent, and Patricia's winter-pond eyes widened with worry as she realized that was the end. "Did the pwincess come?"         "That," Owen said, gathering her up as he rose from the carpet, "will be for tomorrow night's bedtime. But the moral of this story is that the Fair Folk can be as petty as they are beautiful, as cruel as they are powerful, and they should never be underestimated."         Cordelia stood also, trying not to jostle the baby, and took him to the nursery while Owen carried Patricia to her room. She tucked Sebastian into the crib and he grimaced and kicked a few times before settling back into sleep.         She ran a thoughtful finger over the railing, thinking about the thin pieces of iron hidden between the mattress and the frame. Wondering if her cherub son, who never fussed except for when he was put into his crib, might have inherited something from his father besides his blond hair and blue eyes.         The crib had never bothered Patricia, though ... but then, she couldn't say that her daughter was exactly normal. Some families raised their children speaking French or Spanish as well as English; Cordelia was willing to bet that Patricia would be the only one in preschool who was also learning Latin.         "She's asking for you," Owen said, having appeared behind her in that unobtrusive way of his.         But, in that aristocratic way of _hers_, she did not jump or betray her surprise by so much as a twitch. "It's still bothering him."         He didn't have to ask what she meant. He frowned. "It shouldn't."         "Yet it does. Are you _certain_ ..."         "It bothers me, but should not bother the children. And it only bothers me in extreme circumstances. Should I be cut, for instance, or shot."         Cordelia closed her eyes briefly. "I'd rather not dwell on that."         "Don't dwell on this, either. Sebastian is fine. He's not Alexander. Avalon's blood does not flow in his veins."         "How can you be _sure_?"         A hint of a grin touched his mouth. "The only way would be if I had become my other self ... and I think you would have noticed."         "I don't think that's very funny," she informed him coolly, reminding him by inflection alone that he'd kept that secret from her for many years, that he might be keeping it still if she hadn't all but walked in on him.         He accepted the unspoken rebuke silently, moving to straighten the blanket as Sebastian squirmed again.         Cordelia went to the next room, where Patricia was struggling to stay awake. The child's small face was illuminated in the glow of a night light shaped like a merry moon-face. The covers were pulled up to her neck. Her "dream dragon," a stuffed toy that had been deputized into being Patricia's guardian against bad dreams, was on the pillow beside her.         "Good night, Patricia." Cordelia leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Sleep well."         "'Night, Mommy. We see Uncle tomorrow? You said, you pwomise."         "Yes, that's right. We will go see him tomorrow. Now sleep, Patricia, sleep."         Her lashes drifted shut to rest on her rosebud cheeks. Cordelia watched her for a while, inwardly marveling that her life had come to this. Home and family, if not necessarily marriage.         She'd never missed, never wanted such things before. She had her work and the Society, though the line between the two often blurred. She could never have turned the Sterling Academy into the place it was today without the benevolence of the Society, and could never have risen so far in the Society if not for her position at the Academy.         Just over three years ago, everything had changed. She still remembered it vividly, though she was no longer as amazed and perplexed as once she'd been. Once she'd learned the truth about little Miss Ferguson's extra credit courses in sorcery, it hadn't taken much to figure out that, on purpose or not, the meek thing was responsible for what had happened between herself and Owen.         Cordelia shook her head and sighed softly, then left Patricia's room and closed the door all but a few inches.         Owen was waiting for her in the living room. It had become their custom, on nights that he stayed, to share a drink or two and a light snack. He had yet to fail to anticipate her mood, yet to fail to have just the right thing. Tonight it was white wine and a small plate with slices of cheese and apple arranged overlapping each other. Just what she wanted, although if someone had asked her five minutes ago, she wouldn't have thought of it.         All part of the package, she mused. He lived by the motto that service was its own reward, had better than twenty years of practice honing his skills.         They sat on the couch, close but not quite touching. This, too, was custom. Neither of them were touchy-feely people, her by nature, him by design. Only on rare occasions did the distance between them vanish. Even when making love, there was never a furious passion, always a sort of formality.         Except for the first time, her mind whispered, and she recalled the scent of the forest, the feeling of pine needles prickling her bare skin. And those times last year, when Sebastian was conceived, remember how it was then? How he came to you, all but on fire with need? In the middle of the week, even once in the middle of the day? In your very office, with the parents of a prospective student due to arrive any moment? You barely had time to close the drapes, remember, Cordelia?         Owen, just lifting his glass, paused and looked at her. "A penny," he said dryly, "for your thoughts."         "Only a penny?" she replied archly. Not blushing, never blushing, not the woman who Octavia Diamant once called "the whitest person I have _ever_ met." Not blushing, but there was a tingle in her blood that she couldn't fully attribute to the wine.         With the careful precision that could have been his trademark, Owen picked up a piece of apple, placed a slice of cheese atop it, and brought it to her lips.         She bit, and the contrasts in taste and texture -- softness with her upper teeth, crispness with the lower, creamy mellow cheese and sweet brisk fruit -- were strangely and powerfully erotic. Or maybe it was the sensation of being fed from his hand. Either way, the last of the annoyance she'd felt with him earlier vanished like a mirage.         He dimmed the lights and they sat together in the diffuse glow of the campus pathlights that came through the sheers behind the drawn-back curtains. The carpet seemed to disappear, the furniture to float, as if they were drifting in some dream-space between realities. Classical music, gentle melodies as Mozart gave way to Bach.         "Have you ever considered marriage?" Owen asked, abruptly yet as blandly as if they'd been discussing the stock market.         The wine in her glass sloshed the tiniest bit but her voice remained perfectly even. "No, never."         He raised one eyebrow and said nothing, waiting for her to go on.         She didn't. She knew that ploy all too well. His continuing silence was supposed to make her nervous, make her rush on to explain. When would he learn that she had perfected that maneuver herself years ago?         Bach finished and Haydn began by the time Owen yielded. "I find that a bit unusual, given your stance on unwed mothers among your pupils."         "The Sterling Academy policies for faculty and administration are quite different from those pertaining to the student body," she replied. And in the darkness of her mind, she saw two terrified little girls clinging to each other as furious, hectoring shouts boomed and bellowed off the walls.         "Do as I say, not as I do?"         "A common practice in business, as I believe your own employer could well attest."         A ghost of a smile, a brief twinkle in his eyes. "Yes, Mr. Xanatos does tend to hold himself to a different standard of rules than he demands of his employees."         She could have put him on the spot, asked why this sudden concern with her marital status, but she knew the direction such a turn in conversation would lead and it was down an avenue she had no interest in exploring.         Instead, she finished her wine and settled her head against his shoulder. His arm went around her as if of its own accord. Like cats, the two of them, she thought. Reserved and dignified, stiff and uncompromising, even when completely relaxed.         But inside, where no one could see, where no one could reach, Cordelia was in turmoil. Old and unwelcome memories battered at the doors she had locked so long ago.         Even as Owen turned her face toward his so that he could kiss her, even as his hands parted her silk blouse without seeming to falter a moment at the mother-of-pearl buttons, even as she brushed her fingers through the fine pale-gold down nearly invisible on the sunless skin of his chest and gave herself over to his embrace, she could hear the wails of those little girls and knew it wasn't imagination, but memory.                 *               *         "I can do it," Patricia insisted, stretching on tiptoe. Her hand still waved six inches below the decorative panel on the wall of Cordelia's office.         Cordelia shifted Sebastian's sling to her other hip, juggling a briefcase and a stack of files that wouldn't fit into it. She used her free hand to scoop up her daughter and lift her enough so that Patricia could slide aside the panel and press the button concealed therein.         The wall moved smoothly backward and to the side, opening to reveal a narrow passage and an even narrower stairwell. It looked like the sort of place that might be dusty and cobwebbed, but it was as scrupulously clean as the rest of the building.         Patricia preceded her fearlessly but carefully, descending in that both-footed way that children had. A shiver went through Cordelia as she thought of two other girls, long-ago girls. Taking the steps of the great house in the same fashion. Giggling breathlessly, holding hands, hushing each other because they didn't want Mother to hear.         But she'd heard, hadn't she? Oh, yes.         "Mommy?"         She blinked, saw that Patricia had reached the bottom and was peering back up at her curiously.         "You coming down, Mommy?"         "Yes," Cordelia said, doing just that. They were now below the building, behind the cellar, and an arch-roofed hall sloped down ahead of them. Sloped to pass beneath the duckpond that rippled so serenely in the emerald plush of the Academy's lawn. Beneath the picturesque rambling stone wall that bordered the grounds -- the wall whose equally picturesque ivy was interwoven with green electrical cables.         Even underground, in the shielded passageway, she felt a glimmer of the avoidance compulsion that permeated the stones and kept inquisitive students from exploring on the wrong side of the wall. Patricia paused, little lips pursing pensively, and Cordelia urged her gently onward.         Now they passed beneath the painstakingly tended yard on the other side of the wall, where much effort had been made to cultivate an appearance of benign neglect. The same was true of the house. From the outside, its windows appeared boarded over, with shutters half-falling off in places to reveal blind broken panes. The pattern baldness of the decaying shingles. The cracked and peeling paint.         From the outside.         But it had been Cordelia's experience that nothing was ever as it seemed, and this belief, which was true of herself, her students, and certainly true of the father of her children, was also true of the house.         "Look, Mommy!" Patricia chirped, dashing ahead to the door. A charming door, a child's door, a through-the-looking glass door no more than three feet high. With a large old-fashioned lock, just made for peeping through. Which Patricia proceeded to do, though what she saw -- a dusty and unused furnace, web-choked wine racks, and darkness -- was not what lay on the other side.         Cordelia produced a key, a silver ornate clunky oversized key that went perfectly with the lock. She turned it, and a square of stone above the waist-high door flickered, then glowed muted white.         "Palmprint analysis," a woman's voice intoned quietly.         She pressed her palm against the white square. Bars of light ran slowly up and down, considering, comparing. Taking note of temperature and galvanic skin response, just in case someone might think of trying this with a severed hand.         "Access permitted," the woman said.         Cordelia shook her head, wondering, as always, how they'd convinced that particular actress to lend her voice to their cause. Or perhaps they'd just synthesized it. Too many current technology hotshots had been raised on that show, and loved showing off their expertise and having fun with in-jokes to each other. But then ... the actress' husband had not been unknown around here, so she supposed it was entirely possible the voice was the genuine article.         A section of wall revolved, carrying the image of the tiny door with it. A slice of an opening gave onto a hallway paneled in rich mahogany and peopled with portraits of someone's dead ancestors, whose eyes seemed to follow one's every move.         Cordelia knew that was no illusion. The portraits were another security measure, their eyes concealing cameras, their tight disapproving mouths bearing pinprick holes that could emit a variety of gases into the sealed hall. Sedatives or poisons, depending on the need.         Patricia scampered ahead, heedless that her image was being captured, transmitted, evaluated, recognized. She skipped to the elevator and stared delightedly at its brass fixtures.         1717 on the numbered keypad. Retina scan. The hum-clank of machinery. Then the elevator opened, permitting them inside.         Moments later, the doors accordioned open on the wide corridor that bisected the mansion. Lamps of frosted glass and antiqued metal shed a warm, comforting glow on priceless furniture and the artifacts displayed in museum-quality cases. The less harmful, less valuable artifacts, Cordelia knew. The real treasures were kept locked away.         It was exceedingly quiet, even for an early Sunday morning.         Too quiet. The fine hairs on the back of Cordelia's neck prickled.         Patricia felt it too, and hung back, staying at her mother's side. Their footsteps clicked and clacked on cool marble.         Past the library, the music room, the brandy-and-cigars study. Past the small chamber where the Fifth Circle held their intimate, private meetings. Not a sign of anyone, not even one of the discreet servants such as Stevens, the butler and all-around manservant who had been with the Society since time immemorial.         "Uncle here?" Patricia whispered.         Cordelia rapped lightly on the door to his office.         Nobody replied. Not even the single curt and distracted, "Come!" that he used when he was busy but willing to put up with being disturbed.         She frowned, rapped harder.         Nothing.         Then a clatter of china on china, followed by a brittle crash.         "Uncle?" Cordelia called, trying the door.         It opened easily enough -- once one got this far, security was unnecessary.         The office was empty except for the lionfish cruising sedately in its round aquarium. But he _had_ been here, she knew he had, a dogeared massive red-covered paperback (Robert Anton Wilson's "Illuminatus!" trilogy, which never failed to amuse him) was resting on the desk beside a breakfast tray. Scrambled eggs, croissant, orange juice, and of course tea.         But the teacup ... where was the teacup? She saw the saucer, the small silver pot of water ...         There was the cup, shattered on the floor in a puddle of Earl Grey that was soaking into the Persian rug. And beside the cup ...         Beside the cup, one outflung and upturned hand.                 *               *         The highway was unrolling before him, and Owen Burnett drove swiftly and well, only half of his mind on the task at hand.         The rest was remembering the conversation of the night before, a conversation sweetly interrupted, but when love was done they had found their way back to talk. Surprisingly, she had initiated it.         Or, he thought, perhaps it wasn't so surprising. He knew that everyone, be they human, gargoyle, or Child of Oberon, had at least one subject on which they were completely fixed and irrational. It was like a bright red button on their internal control panels, marked "Do Not Press." In some, that button was small and tucked off in a corner, and such beings might go through life without ever discovering it. In others, it was the size of a dinner plate and hair-trigger reactive.         Last night, he'd stumbled across Cordelia's. And, curious to know more about this mysterious and cold woman who had become such a vital part of his life, he'd gone on pushing that button. Unable _not_ to.         "I won't tolerate it from my students," she'd said as they rested on the living-room carpet with the air conditioner cooling their warmed skin. "There is no excuse for teen pregnancy except carelessness."         "Why no campus policy of abstinence?" he'd asked.         She favored him with a look usually reserved for the hopelessly foolish. "Police the sexual conduct of twelve hundred students? The dorms are separate, by vote of the Student Council, need I add, but there are more than enough places for trysts. Besides, I don't care what they _do_. As long as they're responsible! There is no reason they shouldn't be -- the Health Center provides free care, the campus store carries contraceptives."         "That must go over well with the parents," Owen observed.         "And each student is required to take a Sex Ed class as a freshman, then again as a junior," she went on as if she hadn't heard, or was choosing to ignore, his remark. "There are also the rumors about how viciously and venomously I react in such instances."         "Most of your students are over eighteen," he pointed out.         "Still teenagers," she said flatly. "In fact, I consider anyone under twenty-one a teenager when it comes to that. Until they've graduated and made something of themselves, made sure that they can support themselves and a family, made sure that they are _mature_ enough, then in my eyes they still count as children, and have no business _having_ children. It's irresponsible and life-ruining."         "Not always," he said, more to keep her talking that out of any real conviction on his part. What, after all, did he know of teen pregnancy?         "Always. The mother's life is ruined because she's burdened with a baby. The father is either absent or trapped and resentful. And the baby's life is ruined as well, having parents who are unprepared, who have just seen all their dreams and hopes for the future snatched away by an eight-pound bundle of crying and spit-up."         Owen looked silently up at the ceiling, stunned. He'd heard venom from Cordelia before, but it was mostly curare, relatively painless and paralytic until the heart stops and the victim dies. This was spider- venom, hot and evil.         One thing for certain -- he was _not_ going to bring up the subject of her and the children spending some time at the castle. He'd broached the subject before over the past three years, and had been thinking it was about time to give it another go, but this decided it. Never mind that it was the summer term now, fewer students, less demands on Cordelia. No, she and Fox already had a relationship based on workable dislike, but all it would take was one catty comment from Cordelia about TJ, the illegitimate son of Fox's teen years, to turn the Aerie Building into ground zero.         She rolled up onto one elbow, platinum hair flowing over her white shoulders and bare breasts, moonlight edging her in silver. Sylphlike, ethereal.         In the depths of Owen Burnett where Puck mostly dozed and plotted all the fun he'd have once Oberon lifted his decree, that fey spirit stirred and saw her with new eyes. Sylphlike, yes, an airy sprite, all misty-cool embrace and laughter like the echo of the wind.         Despite the intensity of her mood, or perhaps because of it, he suddenly wanted her again. Wanted her so much that the thin sheet betrayed evidence of it until he drew the blanket higher. But he knew that if he reached for her now, she would rip him to shreds. She was having her say, by the powers, and she meant to have it _all_.         "You like fairy tales, don't you, my dear Mr. Burnett?" she said. "Here's a fairy tale for you, one that I daresay you won't find in any of those storybooks."         Fairy tale, my foot, he thought but didn't say. Sensing, no, _knowing_ that he was finally about to hear something from the clouded and secret past of Cordelia St. John. Her family was a mystery to him, an utter blank, except for the knowledge that the Grandmaster of the Illuminati (local chapter, anyhow) was her uncle, and another uncle had died attempting the same ritual that had let Matt Bluestone bring Eurydice back from the Underworld.         Things she'd said had hinted at relatives in France, an interest in the wine country of California. And wasn't the bottle he'd opened just last night been from the St. John Vinyards? As were many of the bottles in her wine pantry.         "Once upon a time," she said, "there was a beautiful princess who lived in a very fine house. Not quite a castle, but a fine house all the same. She had anything and everything a girl could want -- fancy clothes, a pony of her own, parents and brothers who adored her. Why, they thought the sun rose and set on that girl! But for all their adoration, the girl was spoiled and spiteful. She wanted _more_, you see. She envied her brothers, who traveled and went to college.         "Most of all, she wanted to be a dancer. A ballerina. Her mother urged the girl to study more ladylike pursuits, all with an eye toward someday finding Prince Charming. But the girl would not be denied. She wanted to be a ballerina, and finally her father agreed to send her to the finest school in the state. 'Let her try it,' he said to his wife, 'and once she realizes how much work it is, how hard it is, she will change her mind.'         "So the girl, who was then fifteen, went to the city to study ballet. And she did find it to be hard work, but she didn't change her mind. Partly out of a true love of the dance, and partly to deny her parents the satisfaction of being right.         "Then she met someone, an older man. A pianist and music teacher. The girl was convinced that they were meant to be together. Why should her parents object? Even if the man was nearly thirty, and poor ... what did that matter, when they were in love? He held bright promises before her dazzled eyes, telling her how wonderful their life would be.         "But one day, he was gone. Gone without a word. She found out that all of his promises to her had been lies, that he left two other girls with similarly dashed hopes. He had abandoned her as if she meant nothing to him.         "And she was pregnant.         "She had no choice but to return home. She wanted to keep it all a secret, but her family found out, and they would not let her hide her shame. No, she had made her bed, and done her immoral business in bed, and she would have to lie in it. They would rather the whole family suffer the shame than permit her to slink off to 'visit relatives,' which was what they called it in those days when a girl would be whisked away to somewhere in the country to bear her child away from prying eyes and wagging tongues.         "The labor was long and difficult, and afterwards, the girl was not able to dance. She had no limp, no impairment walking, but even the simplest of ballet exercises at the barre were stilted, clumsy, and left her in great pain. Her life as she saw it was ruined, over. And there she was, only sixteen. Sixteen, with no husband, no future, and twins to take care of.         "She stayed with her family, but she found that everything had changed. Where she had once been the shining light that they all doted on, now all the attention went to her daughters. She heard of her friends attending fabulous parties, going on trips to Paris and London and other places she'd always yearned to visit. All of that was lost to her now. Her friends wouldn't speak to her, as if unwed motherhood was contagious.         "Her life was ruined. She came to blame it all on her daughters. When no one was around to see, she would shout at the children and punish them for the slightest infraction real or imagined. Her children feared her, and as they grew older, they hated her too.         "The girl and her parents argued constantly about the best way to raise the twins. One day, the girl declared that she'd had enough, and she packed up her daughters and moved out. She was twenty-one then, a legal adult, and no court was going to take children away from their very own mother.         "You might wonder why she took them with her, if she blamed them for everything that had gone wrong in her life. She did it mostly to spite her family. To punish them for loving the twins more than they loved her. And partly, she did it so that she would always have someone around on which to blame subsequent failures and disappointments.         "Those twins spent the next few years growing up in a tiny house with a tinier yard, cared for mostly by the retired couple next door, while their mother worked a variety of jobs and dated a variety of men. Soon their mother discovered alcohol, and then drugs. Never enough money for new school clothes, but always beer in the house for the latest live-in, unemployed boyfriend.         "The girl, though by now she was a grown woman, kept shouting at her daughters. She couldn't stop, couldn't help it, it was like a disease. But soon they were old enough to fight back. One of them was a hellcat, smoking at age ten, shoplifting at twelve, the school slut by fourteen. The other was outwardly well-behaved, getting good grades, demure, polite ... but she hated her mother most of all, and showed it with freezing contempt.         "When the twins were fifteen, their mother brought home her latest boyfriend. He was several years younger than she -- as she grew older, she was desperate to recapture the youth she felt had been stolen from her, and responded with pitiful eagerness to any overtures from younger men. This one was handsome, had a good job, and seemed much more decent than his predecessors.         "For the first time in a long time, the woman started feeling good about herself again. Started hoping for the future. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe the right man could help her turn her life around. It was probably too late to win over her daughters' affection, she saw that, but she wasn't too old to have more children.         "Her daughters saw what was happening, and couldn't stand the thought of their mother having any happiness. She didn't deserve it, they told each other. They waited, sure that he would go away as all the other ones had. But the hellcat of the two got tired of waiting, and decided to see if she could steal him away from her mother.         "She was younger, prettier, and she knew how to seduce a man. They carried on in secret for a while, until one day the woman came home early. Her car had broken down on the way to work, and she walked in on them. Then the hellcat dropped the final bomb -- she was pregnant. Pregnant by her mother's boyfriend.         "There followed, as I'm sure you can imagine, a good deal of shouting. Then the shouting turned to blows. Then the blows turned to a more deadly struggle. The man was trying to break it up, but he was the one that ended up feeling the knife. A butcher knife from the kitchen dish drainer. It killed him.         "The court declared it an accident. The woman and her daughter should still have faced a trial, probable jail time, but the woman's family heard about what happened and got involved. As they were very powerful and influential, they were able to make the whole matter disappear with a minimum of fuss. The woman and the twins went back to the very fine house that wasn't quite a castle. But they didn't live happily ever after, oh, no. Not all of them. The hellcat ran away, and the mother overdosed.         "The remaining twin stayed safely in the very fine house with her uncles looking after her, and she did live happily ever after ... except for whenever she'd get a letter from her sister, begging for money. But eventually she ignored those letters, and after a while, they stopped coming. The end."         Now, slowing as a sharp turn approached, Owen remembered how Cordelia had related the story, flatly, distantly, yet boiling underneath with twenty years of stored-up anger and bitterness. Now he understood, and was amazed that he had never realized before how much she kept hidden.         He was no great judge of human nature -- they were still a mystery to him and probably always would be; Birdie called it with kind malice his "Commander Data Complex." Still, he had lived among them for a respectable length of time, and had enough of a grasp of psychology to know that burying such strong feelings was an unhealthy practice.         Now he was beginning to worry about Patricia and Sebastian, and the cycle of abuse. Cordelia's determination _not_ to be like her mother kept her from shouting or striking, but there were other forms of abuse just as bad. Hadn't he already seen some of that in the way she treated her students? Coldly, contemptuously, with cutting words that could inflict as much or more hurt than a slap or a fist.         But then, he'd known that much about her beforehand. And he believed that she was aware of it in herself, that she would never unleash that part of herself on the children. On him, yes, he'd been on the receiving end a time or two (or three, or a dozen, or a hundred, going all the way back to their first meeting a dozen years ago), but not the children.         He would see to that, and he knew that her uncle would see to that as well. If necessary --         Someone honked, and he barely heard it, thanks to the thought that had just popped up unbidden in his head.         He knew why she wouldn't marry him.         Her words echoed in his ears as if she'd just spoken from the seat beside him: no court was going to take children away from their very own mother.         No, of course not. And, while he was their _biological_ father, he wasn't their _legal_ father, not in the sense of being married to their mother. Even in the grand and glorious year 2000, that gave him a shakier case if he ever tried to win custody of Patricia and Sebastian away from her.         Chilled, Owen finally deigned to notice the irate honker behind him, and pulled onto the shoulder to let the other vehicle pass.         Had Cordelia thought of it in those terms? Or was it unconscious on her part, the instinctive reaction of a woman who had spent her entire life building walls? She shared her bed and her body with him, but perhaps, in her mind, marriage meant a closeness that she was not ready to give. Maybe that was all it was.         Hopefully, that was all it was.         The sudden ring of his cellular phone, mild though it was, sounded loud as an air raid siren in the quiet confines of the car.         Owen jumped, adrenaline perking briskly through his system, and plucked the phone out of his jacket. He didn't realize just how unsettled he was until he fumbled the phone and dropped it under his seat, where it lay cheeping indignantly like a baby bird tumbled from the nest.         "Burnett," he said.         He had heard many things in Cordelia's voice last night that he had never expected to hear. Now he heard another one -- fear. Controlled, just as everything she did was controlled. But fear all the same, the kind that would have been, in another person, accompanied by frightened tears.         "Can you come back, Owen?" she asked. "Will you take the children, please?"         He was glad the car was stopped on the shoulder, because that request, coming on the heels of the thoughts he'd just been having, would surely have sent him into a ditch. The children, something had happened to the children ... telling her story last night had opened the floodgates and she had snapped.         Heartsick, he forced himself to stay calm. "Certainly. What's wrong?"         Her faltering answer stunned him anew. "It's the Grandmaster. I think he's ...oh, God, Owen, I think he's ... dying."                 *               *         A stroke.         They said it was a stroke.         Cordelia had known from the moment she rounded the desk and saw her uncle sprawled on the floor. His complexion was grey, one side of his face was waxy and slack, and he looked half again his usual apparent age.         But he'd been alive, aware, and when she had bent over him with a strangled cry of alarm and concern, his eyes had rolled up to meet hers. His lips had moved, trying to speak.         Trying to warn.         Stevens had arrived promptly following Cordelia's tug on the old- fashioned bell-pull, proving wrong her impression that the place was empty. Soon people were swarming about. She knew all of them, but trusted none of them. Not now, not after the few words her uncle had managed to gasp out before he sank back into unconsciousness.         Sebastian was oblivious, but Patricia was in tears despite Cordelia's best efforts to shield her from the worst of it. Most children were scared of doctors, and Cordelia knew that this was not going to help.         She wished she could believe that Patricia would forget the morning's events. The child was not even three, after all. But Cordelia's own memories stretched back that far, and she knew that the bad times carved deeper trenches in the mind than good times did.         Owen came in, and she had never been more glad to see him. Unruffled and unflappable as always, he sized up the situation before moving to her side.         "How is he?" he murmured in an undertone.         "Not well," she replied, equally quietly. For Patricia's benefit, she re-asserted how the doctors were doing their best, but she let Owen see the deeper concern in her eyes.         He was too perceptive, always had been, and she could tell by the way one blond brow arched that he picked up on more than she wanted to convey. She swiftly averted her gaze.         "I'll need to contact Mr. Xanatos," he said.         "Yes, all of the Fifth Circle must be notified, and perhaps Detective Bluestone as well." She pried Patricia's little arms loose from around her neck, transferred her to Owen, all while letting the child hide her face so she didn't have to see them inserting an IV.         "Do you want the detective here for Societal reasons, personal, or professional?" Owen inquired, scooping up Sebastian as well.         "All of the above, but discreetly."         "Of course."         "I can't leave him, you see, he's like a father to me." The words rushed out before she could stop them. "Oh, at times when I was growing up, I hated all of them for letting _her_ take us away, for not fighting to keep us. For letting us live the way we did. But what could they do? It was _her_, all _her_ doing! Then, after ... after the ... incident, they took us in. Took me in; my sister all but spit in their faces. Not me. That was where I belonged. They gave me the life I always wanted. He always took care of me, you see, Owen, and now that he needs me, I can't leave him."         He couldn't touch her hand, her shoulder, her cheek; his arms were too full of their children. But the look he gave her was as warm and comforting as a touch might have been.         She felt her composure settle over her like a familiar garment. In that instant, she understood that he truly cared for her, spell or no spell. She smiled at him, kissed Patricia and Sebastian farewell.         "Be careful," she said in fluid French. "I don't think anyone would see them as a threat, but ..."         His brow went up again and he answered in the same language. "I trust you'll explain that later?"         "This was no stroke, Owen. This was an assassination attempt."                 *               *         New York's finest hospital. The view from the Critical Care Wing was excellent, and Owen wondered how many of the patients were in any condition to enjoy it? At the very least, he supposed, it gave the visitors something to look at as the long hours and tense minutes clicked by, waiting, waiting to see whether their loved ones would live or die.         The door to Room 1723 -- naturally; he wouldn't have expected to find the Illuminati Grandmaster in a room by any other number -- was halfway open. Owen tapped on it, pushed it wider.         Cordelia sat stiffly, knees pressed primly together, hands folded in her lap. She wasn't admiring the view, wasn't reading, wasn't doing a crossword or knitting an afghan or doing any of the countless things people did to pass the time.         Just sitting. Staring at the figure on the bed. As if sheer concentration would mend the damaged brain and blood vessels within that stately bald skull.         The Grandmaster wasn't on a respirator, Owen saw. A good sign. His chest rose and fell on its own. His commanding aura, his piercing hawklike eyes, his tangible charisma ... absent now. He looked smaller, older, diminished.         "I brought you some coffee," Owen said, placing the cup on the table beside Cordelia.         "Thank you."         "Has there been any change?"         "The doctors are optimistic." She wasn't. He could tell by the tone of her voice. In her mind, she was already planning the funeral. "Where are the children?"         "At the castle. Safe."         "Are they?" She nodded toward the bed. "_He_ was in his office. Safe."         "Mr. Xanatos will be here tomorrow." Owen didn't say more, didn't need to. Cordelia wasn't the only person in the world who viewed the Grandmaster as a surrogate father.         "Good."         He sat next to her, pushed her coffee closer. "You'll need this, if you're going to stay up all night."         She took it and drank.         "Is there anyone else I can call?" he asked.         "Bluestone."         "Already taken care of. He's looking into it."         "He thinks it's coincidence."         "Detective Bluestone does not believe in coincidence. Three Grandmasters, three strokes, each fifteen years apart almost to the day?" Owen shook his head. "He's sure there is more to it than that. He has a saying, with which Mr. Xanatos is inclined to agree: Once is a fluke, twice is coincidence, three times is an enemy action.' I think he borrowed it from Ian Fleming."         "He's right. About the enemy action, that is; I wouldn't know about Ian Fleming."         He took her hand. "What is it, Cordelia? Some sort of curse?"         "Curse?" She laughed a little. "Like the 'Year Zero' curse that's supposedly on the Presidents, every President elected in a year ending with zero will die or be shot? They debunked that one a long time ago, Owen. No, nothing so melodramatic as a curse. Just murder."         "Who?" he urged. "And how?"         "I don't know who or how," she said. "But I know I'm right."         He almost asked if it was some rival group, but couldn't bring himself to do it. Strange enough to learn that there really _was_ a world- wide secret society controlling everything. The thought of there being _two_, at odds with each other, all of their earth-shaking decisions and conflicts taking place beyond anyone's line of sight -- that was a prospect that would make any sane man shudder.         Or was it from within? He knew that political scheming and maneuverings went on inside the Society, but he couldn't believe it would be anything this severe. Above all, the Illuminati were joined toward their common goal, their common cause. Fighting amongst themselves would delay or hamper that goal. Still, there could always be traitors, bad apples ...         Bad apples.         He knew _something_ had happened a few years back, though he wasn't privy to all the details. Something involving Demona, Mr. Xanatos, Detective Bluestone, and an apple. The Apple of Eris. Good old Eris, the prototype Maleficent who had been offended at not being invited to a party, and caused plenty of trouble for the Greek branch of Oberon's happy family.         Hadn't there been something else about all that business? Yes, he rather thought there was. An Illuminatus, a high-ranking one, had been in league with Demona. Provided her with detailed instructions how to breach the security of the chamber where the artifacts were held.         He was lost in his thoughts, Cordelia was lost in hers, so they both started when a man came into the room.         Cordelia got up in a hurry. "Uncle Stewart! You came!"         "Did you think I wouldn't, Cordelia? That is my brother lying there, and although we've had our differences, we're still family."         Owen studied the new arrival. This must be the oldest brother. There was a definite fraternal resemblance -- Stewart had the same prominent nose, the same piercing eyes. But Stewart was more tan, more rugged-looking, giving the impression of a man who spent much of his life outdoors even now as he was approaching retirement age.         Cordelia filled him in on what had happened, then introduced Owen. There was the usual barely-perceptible pause as she debated what to call him. Husband was out, obviously. Lover wasn't the best term to use in front of one's uncle, and Cordelia was not the sort to use a smarmy politically-correct term such as Significant Other.         "... my ... children's father, Owen Burnett," she concluded.         Owen couldn't help wincing a bit. That didn't have the best ring to it either. He shook hands, prepared to be mindful of arthritis or other pangs of advanced years, and winced again when Stewart turned out to have a solid working-man's grip to rival that of Petros Xanatos.         "I've missed you, Cordelia," Stewart said, brushing a chaste kiss on her cheek. "It's been a long time."         "I'm sorry it had to be under these circumstances," Cordelia said.         "Yes, so am I. Don't worry too much. He's strong. He always was. You get that from him, and from your grandfather." He covered his mouth to hide a yawn. "I would love to stay and talk, but I came straight from the airport ..."         "I'd be happy to reserve you a hotel room," Owen said, drawing his cellular phone with the alacrity of a gunslinger.         Evaluating, hawklike eyes on him. He'd never undergone that particular experience before, the sizing-up-the-boyfriend examination. He found he didn't much care for it, but what was there to do but endure?         "Yes, thank you. Anyplace will do. I'm not a fancy man by nature." Stewart turned to Cordelia. "Have you reached Cassandra?"         Cordelia's face went absolutely wooden. "I haven't tried."         "She is family, too. She should be here. We all should, in case ..."         "Even if I knew where to find her --" Cordelia began icily.         "I've got her number here someplace." Stewart pulled a very old address book from his pocket and thumbed through it.         "How did you ... oh, of course!" Cordelia snapped her fingers. "When I stopped sending her money, she went begging to you."         "She needed help --"         "I know what she needed."         He paused, smacking the book lightly into his palm. "I see you still haven't thawed much, Cordy. Pity. I would have thought you might, being a mother and all."         Cordy? Owen glanced at Cordelia, who withered him with a single warning glare. He took the hint. If he ever slipped and called her Cordy ... well, some things did not bear dwelling on.         "Oh, because I have children of my own, I'm supposed to have something in common with Cassandra? Never mind that _I_ have a good job and a fine home?"         "This is hardly the time or place to be arguing about it." Stewart had steel in his voice. "Except for the cousins in France, we're all the family he has left. You, me, and Cassandra. He needs his family with him now. If we can't put our differences aside for long enough to see this through to the end --"         "Until he dies, you mean." Steel against steel, rapiers clashing. "He's not going to die, uncle. I won't allow it."         "If he goes, he goes. If not, we'll all be thankful. But either way, you do not have the right to cut Cassandra out because of your feelings toward her."         "She cut herself out."         "That's for her to decide," he said. "She's getting a call, whether it comes from you or from me. She should be here."         "Go on and call her, then." Cordelia crossed her arms and raised her head defiantly. "Tell her that. See if she'll do what she's told. She never has before, but I suppose there's a first time for everything."         "I'm not going to order her, Cordelia. I'm going to invite her."         "Go right ahead. Hear for yourself what she has to say. You may think you know her, uncle, because of a few sob-story letters she wrote you. But _I_ know Cassandra. _I_ lived with her for all those years, years when the family would have nothing to do with us. She wouldn't come to our mother's funeral; I don't know why you think she would come now."                 *               *         Sometimes a wound was over a vein. Once opened, the flow kept up, thick and dark.         That was the analogy that came to Owen's mind later that night. Other ones followed -- sinking an artesian well, striking oil, lava issuing from a crack in the earth's crust. The helpless blind rising of fluid.         The only way he'd been able to convince Cordelia to leave the hospital was to recruit Detective Bluestone and Mr. Xanatos to take shifts sitting at the Grandmaster's bedside. Even then, she'd gone reluctantly, as if she wasn't fully sure she could trust them.         Now they were back at the Academy in her private quarters, so quiet with the children spending the night in the castle. Sebastian was in the nursery with Amber Maza; no child on earth would be safer than those two, with Goliath standing ready to turn any threat into red mist and bone powder. Patricia was rooming with Alexander, and Owen himself would know the instant anything put Alex in danger.         He wouldn't have been surprised if Cordelia spent the night in a restless silence, wound up with nervous energy. He was even prepared to slip something into her teacup if necessary. She needed her rest.         It hadn't been necessary. Recognizing the need herself, she took a long foamy bath while he cooked dinner. After they'd eaten, she unwound the towel from her hair and let him brush it until it dried, and that simple yet sensually charged act helped both of them relax.         She started talking about it again. Not wanting to. He could see the not-wanting-too in her eyes even as she spoke, but she couldn't stop. That was when he started thinking about blood and oil and artesian well- water.         "I hated my mother," she admitted. "I loved her too, that was the worst part. It would have been so much easier just to hate her! Loving her, wanting to please her ... that was how I killed her."         He started a bit at that, but his hands never faltered. Brushing, brushing, her hair shining like diamonds and satin. "You told me she'd died of a drug overdose."         "I drove her to it."         "You?"         Cordelia glanced back over her shoulder at the skepticism in his voice. "We ruined her life. Her dreams. Sometimes, when she wasn't angry -- and that was the hell of it, Owen, that she wasn't always angry! Those times, she would go on about how we would achieve her dreams for her. We would study ballet. We would become famous ballerinas. It was the only thing that seemed to please her. And because part of me wanted to love her, and wanted her to love me ..."         She rose, her creamy silk robe fluttering as she went to the bookshelf and returned with a large book. An annual, a yearbook. She flipped through until she came to the page she sought, then showed it to him.         Across the top of the page were the words 'Silverwine High Performing Arts,' over several black and white photos of drama class productions and the school band. The central picture, larger than any of the others, had a caption that read 'The Nutcracker: Cordelia St.John as Clara.'         Owen looked at the photo for a long time. Cordelia at fifteen or sixteen, eerily beautiful, graceful and elegant, almost seeming to float above the stage.         "I thought she would be happy," she said. "I thought she would be proud of me. Instead, my success only reminded her of her failure. The night of the second performance, while I was dancing, she stayed home and committed suicide. She had a newspaper clipping, a review from the local paper, in her hand. No note. She didn't need a note. That clipping was enough."         "I'm sure that wasn't the only reason," Owen said, closing the book. "Your sister ..."         "Yes, my sister," she echoed bitterly. "Cassandra."         "You must have been very close once."         "Once," she agreed. "When we were little. When we only had each other. But something happened to us. We grew in different directions. There was ice inside of me, and fire in Cassandra. No one could tell her what to do. Not our mother, not me, not our uncles. When we went back to the house in the vineyards, I thought it was an answer to my prayers. She thought it was hell on earth."         "So she ran away," Owen said, and Janine Renard came to mind. She, too, had a wealthy family and all of the advantages, but rebelled against her father's strictness.         "Ran away with the carnival," Cordelia said. Seeing his expression, she laughed. "I know how it sounds, but it is true. This isn't the equivalent of believing my dog was sent to live in a farm in the country."         Had he ever wished he knew more about Cordelia's family? What had he been thinking?         "A carnival." He shook his head, amazed. "Fifteen years old and pregnant, and she ran away with the carnival?"         Cordelia sighed. "Insane, I know."         Something in her tone caught his ear, and he turned questioningly toward her. Then the light dawned. "You envied her, didn't you?"         "Don't be absurd!" she retorted coldly. "Envy Cassandra? What on earth gives you that idea?"         Now, instead of Janine, he thought of Aiden and Birdie. Not twins, not even sisters, but didn't demure little Aiden envy Birdie even as she decried her friend's wild, carefree ways? There was something appealing, darkly attractive, about rebellion and insolence. Didn't he know that himself, in his other life? The trickster Puck, that knavish sprite who defied even Oberon? Oh, yes. He knew. He knew.                          *               *         "Dominic Dracon's youngest boy Gino died of a stroke too," Matt Bluestone said.         "Gino the Eye?" Cordelia asked. She frowned. "But he was ..."         "He was in line to be Grandmaster fifteen years ago. Gino wasn't even forty, in good shape. No medical reason for it. Just one of those things. Act of God. But get this! Gino's mother, Antonia, swore Gino had been murdered! Then, and this is where it really gets good --"         "She had a stroke too," Cordelia finished. "And after that, everyone attributed her ravings to brain damage. She's in a nursing home now."         "Yeah." Matt was a bit deflated, but it didn't pause him for long. "That was just before Dominic disappeared. Went into hiding. That whole big to-do with him and Mace Malone."         Her frown deepened. "What are you saying, Bluestone? That someone killed Gino to get at Dominic? Why Gino? He was the black sheep ... well, with _that_ family, the _white_ sheep. All of the rest were criminals, right up to and including Tony Dracon, and Vito, the one you watched die."         He flinched, and his eyes narrowed.         "Either way," Cordelia went on, waving dismissively, "it has nothing to do with --"         "I'm _saying_," he declared loudly, "that if you're right in thinking someone has been killing off Grandmasters, maybe someone killed Gino too. To keep him from _becoming_ Grandmaster. Someone else who wanted the spot."         "That's not the way the Society operates, and you know it." Her voice chilled about twenty degrees.         "Pardon me, but I don't know _squat_ about how the Society operates. Sometimes it looks to me like it's made up of a bunch of avaricious old men who can't get enough power. All this steer-the-world- toward-a-better-tomorrow stuff is fine and well for the meetings, fine and well for an overall goal, and maybe we can trust the intentions and goals of a group. But look at each individual part of that group ..."         "Yes, all right, I see your point," she said. "Although I can't bring myself to believe that anyone _within_ the Society would murder a fellow Illuminatus."         "Maybe you're too trusting," Bluestone muttered.         She elected to let that one pass. "So, the previous Grandmaster died of a stroke. Gino the Eye, his most likely successor, _also_ died of a stroke. Who do you --" she broke off, looking at the detective as if he was a particularly loathsome species of insect that had just crawled from beneath a rotted log.         "Who had the most to gain? Who _did_ become Grandmaster?" He said it anyway, despite how she was looking at him. "Your uncle."         "Oh, of course. My uncle. How do you explain, then, the _first_ instance? Thirty years ago? Back then, he was only an Initiate. And even if you can claim it was ambition, setting the stage for the future, how do you explain the fact that he is currently in the Critical Care Unit?" Sarcasm like icicles. "Let me see. He was planning to use the poison or drug or whatever causes these strokes on the Warden, but he dropped it into his own tea by mistake!"         The mention of the Warden visibly rocked Bluestone. As far as he, or even the members of the Fifth Circle knew, there was no one above the Grandmaster. A slip of the tongue on her part, but it was too late now.         She could see him weighing his urge to ask with his sure knowledge that she wouldn't tell. The titanic inner struggle went on for several seconds, and then he exhaled heavily and she knew he was going to let the matter go. For now. But she also knew she hadn't heard the last of it.         "Okay, so maybe it's someone else," he said. "An outsider. That brings up the question of why. Why wait fifteen years between attempts? Why do it at all? And how? A poison, like you said? Something undetectable? How would it be delivered? Or are we talking something really freaky like a psychic assassin?"         "And who," she said.         "What if we forget about the past cases and focus on now?" He drummed his fingers on the table. "Who would have most to gain by getting your uncle out of the picture? Who's next in line?"         "It could be any of the Fifth Circle."         "Not Xanatos," he said, almost as if it pained him to do so. "Never thought he'd be first dropped from the list of suspects. But, crazy as it is, he loves the old guy."         "I know."         "That leaves Malone, Blakemoor, and Diamant. And Malone was in the running fifteen years ago, wasn't he? Malone had a beef with the Dracons, too, didn't he? But somehow your uncle wound up Grandmaster instead. If that's the case, why did he wait so long before making a move? Longevity treatments or not, he's not getting any younger. To avoid suspicion, maybe? Too many strokes would have meant too many questions. So maybe he chose to shut up the Dracon woman instead, and bide his time."         "That could be ..." she said, thinking of shifty-eyed Malone.         "But then, there's Diamant," Bluestone continued. "He was the one who let Demona get her paws on the Apple. That is not exactly what I would call the act of a sane man. If we hadn't gotten that thing away from her, we'd probably be looking at something cheerful like nuclear winter right about now. Either he thought he could trust her or control her. Not smart. Not smart at all. That whole incident also showed that he went behind the Society's back, so to speak."         "A rather serious breach of confidentiality," she agreed. "But how? If someone is causing these strokes, _how_? Even if someone came up with a poison that was undetectable by normal means, the Society's scientists should be able to pick up something."         "That puts us back at the psychic assassin," Bluestone said in disgust. "If that's the case, why the hell is he targeting just Grandmasters? Why not presidents, kings, that idiot in the Middle East? And why in fifteen-year intervals?"         She shook her head. This was all getting to be too much. Bad enough that her uncle was dying ... would be dead already if not for another secret of which Bluestone knew nothing ...         "And why did your uncle and the Dracon woman survive when all the others died?" he asked.         Cordelia shook her head again, this time in mild admiration. Bluestone was occasionally vulgar and often annoying, but she had to admit his mind was quick and sharp as a fencer's blade.         "You know something," he said.         "I suspect something," she corrected. "Something that doesn't entirely make sense."         "Yeah, tell me another one," he remarked dryly. "None of this crap makes sense, to be perfectly honest."         "It makes less sense when Antonia Dracon is factored in."         "So what is it, already?"         "I'm sorry, detective, you're not cleared for that."         He slapped the table, startling her. "Don't give me that fnord shit! _You_ called _me_, remember? You wanted my help. Sure, I would have looked into it on my own; I happen to like the old guy too. But I am getting damn sick of this secrecy runaround."         "Let's just say it was a case of keeping up with the --"         "No!" He slapped the table again. "No cutesy hints. Either you tell me, or you don't. But quit yanking my chain, St. John, or I'm out of here."         Staredown. And Cordelia found herself wondering how it had come to this. She hadn't intended to get into an argument with Bluestone. He was trying to help, he was right, she had called him and asked him. But her nerves were frayed, and the prospect of being face to face with her sister again after better than twenty years -- Uncle Stewart had made good on his threat and contacted Cassandra, and she _was_ coming -- stretched those poor frayed nerves nearly to the breaking point.         She dropped her gaze first. "I'm sorry, Matt."         The sincere apology and the use of his first name, unorchestrated on her part (and he would have known if it had been a deliberate ploy), broke the tense mood with an almost audible snap.         "Yeah," he said, clearing his throat. "Yeah, well, I was out of line. Sorry."         "If it is Malone or Diamant, or anyone else in the Society, you know what that means," she said.         He scowled. "That they're going to get away with it. Can't bring the law into it, even if it did turn out to be poison instead of something kooky like magic or psychic powers. It'll be handled internally. Not even a tap on the wrist. Maybe a warning. After all, it's only murder!" He spat the last word, chafed to the core by the conflict of his uphold-the-law ideal and the outside-the-law status of the Society.         "Normally, that would be the case." She folded her hands, looked at him evenly. "Not this time."         "What are you getting at? Are _you_ this Warden or something?"         She laughed. "Hardly!"         "Right, sure, and if you were, you wouldn't admit it."         She wore two rings, one on the third finger of each hand, angular bands of silver. Now she removed one, slid it on the same finger as the other. The angles combined to form a pyramid.         "True. But I'm not. I am, though, authorized by my uncle to act in his stead until such time as another Grandmaster is chosen, or he himself is able to re-assume his duties."         Bluestone blinked. "Whoa."         "Therefore, I'm currently in charge. And while I do mean to handle this matter internally, I do _not_ mean to let a killer off with a warning. We are going to get to the bottom of this, Matt. We're going to find out the who and the how -- I think we've already ascertained the why."         "When we do find out, what then?"         She held up her ring, watched the play of light. "An eye for an eye."         "Wait a minute, hey, wait just one minute!" he protested. "I can't be a party to that!"         "Well, what would you suggest?"         "How about putting the cart back behind the horse, huh? How about letting me find the guy first, figure out what's up before you go issuing some sort of All-Seeing death warrant?"         "I have to think this all the way to the end."         "It might not even be one of those guys. Might be an outsider, have you thought of that?"         "If it is an outsider, it is an outsider who knows about us, and is powerful enough to strike against us. Have _you_ thought of _that_?"         "Yeah, I have, and I don't like it one little bit."         "Such a person would have to be dealt with."         He blew breath through his teeth. "But ..."         "I wouldn't ask you to put yourself in that position --"         "No, just stand there and let it happen! I'm sure we have members whose entire job is these sort of choice assignments. But if I know about it, and I don't do anything to prevent it ..."         "Matt."         He stopped, looked at her.         "I know this goes against the grain. You're an honest cop, an honest man. You expected to blow the whistle on the Society, not find yourself a part of it. But here you are."         "As if I had any choice," he said. "If I hadn't agreed, I imagine I would have had a fatal accident pretty damn quick."         "Exactly. And in accepting, in joining --"         "You don't need to give me the speech," he cut in. "In the immortal words of Super Chicken, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. But it's one thing to keep the secret; it's something else when we're talking about killing people."         "If it is one of us, there's no other option. The preservation of the Society must come first. That means we can't let the law take its course. We can't un-enroll a member, especially not if it is one of the Fifth Circle."         "Guys like that, don't you think they'd have a little insurance tucked away? A few choice documents to be opened in the event of their mysterious deaths?"         Cordelia shrugged. "That, we can cover up. Every major law firm, paper or magazine in the country has some ties to us, whether they know it or not. And even if it did come out, well ..."         "Everybody would dismiss it as the ravings of a nutcase," he finished, not without some bitterness brought on by experience. "Damn. You've got me in a bind here! First I was pissed because I thought whoever did it would get away with it, and now I'm pissed because they're _not_, because we've got to bump them."         "If it makes it any easier," she said, "think of it as a matter of self-defense. If we don't get to the bottom of this before whoever it is finds out we're onto him, we're next. Definitely me, probably you. Possibly even anyone else they think we might have told. Owen, Mr. Xanatos, your partner."         She waited quietly while he mentally turned that prospect over. He probably wouldn't shed many tears at her funeral, never mind that of Xanatos. But his partner? From there, it wasn't much of a stretch to worry about his wife and son. Even if they were left alone, they would be left alone.         "Okay, you've convinced me," Bluestone sighed. "This really sucks, but you've convinced me."                 *               *         The lobby of the New Yorker hotel was festooned and overdone with crystal. Three huge chandeliers marched the length of the room.         Owen had been standing formally, waiting and alert, but too many guests mistook him for one of the staff. So he'd taken a seat in one of the chairs near the front desk, watching the revolving doors and the street beyond.         Two maids passed behind him, an old campaigner teaching a novice the ropes. Or at least, that was how it was supposed to look. The older woman was going on about a convention a couple of years back and the wild costumes some of those people had worn., then went on to regale the wide-eyed girl with a list of all the startling things she'd found in some of their rooms later.         A cab pulled up out front, the doorman moving to open it. A platinum-haired woman stepped out into the dusty sunlight, her expression at once apprehensive and thankful to be alive.         As she came in, Owen got to his feet. "Miss St. John?"         She came toward him, and he had a moment's concern that he was wrong. Up close, the differences far outweighed the similarities.         Where Cordelia was slender, this woman was gaunt. Her eyes blazed a bright and hectic blue. Her hair was long, kinked and frizzed as if she'd slept on a hundred tiny damp braids and then tried to brush order into it. She wore a garment that he believed was called a "granny dress" in earth-tone shades, soft leather sandals that weren't moccasins but came close, and a string of agate beads with an imitation-gold pendant in the shape of a crescent moon and star.         He thought she looked like the singer Stevie Nicks might look, if Stevie went on a crash diet and popped a few amphetamines.         A patchwork velvet purse the size of a small suitcase was slung over one shoulder, and a slightly ratty duffel bag hung from her other hand. Owen moved to take the bag without an outward qualm.         "Who are you?" Cassandra St. John asked, and her voice wasn't Stevie Nicks but Janis Joplin, a whiskey-and-cigarette voice.         "Owen Burnett. Your sister asked me to meet you here. She and your uncle are over at the hospital, and I'll drive you there once you're settled."         "Fine." She relinquished her bag and followed him to the elevator.         Standing beside her, he snuck surreptitious but incredulous glances at her beringed fingers -- six rings in all, mostly junk by the look -- her skeletal wrists, a faded scar along the bony shelf of her jaw ... trying to reconcile this woman with the image he'd carried in his head ever since Cordelia told him of her twin sister. Then Owen became aware of an odd sensation. The strange prickling tingle he got whenever he was in the presence of magic.         He tried to sneak another look, but this time she looked back at him and those manic eyes sparkling at him, like gasflames in the sockets of a flesh-stripped skull, made him pretend he was fascinated by the steady marching of lighted numbers as they approached the twelfth floor.         "Your uncle is staying right next door, in room 1211," he said, producing a key card and opening the door to 1209.         She nodded curtly and took the duffel bag from him, tossing it onto the bed. "All right. Let's go."         "If you'd like to change, I'll wait in the --"         "Is there a dress code at the hospital?" she snapped.         "... No ..." he said slowly.         "Then let's go." She smiled, and he almost recoiled. It wasn't that her teeth were sharp, snaggled, falling out or even yellowed; it was just that they were so prominent in that thin, drawn face. "My sister, the Good Bitch of the North, will criticize whatever I wear, Mr. Burnett, so I don't see the need to go to any extra trouble."         "I ... uh ..." Owen floundered, then collected himself. "I'll bring the car around."                 *               *         "Hello, Cordelia."         She turned, and there was Cassandra, looking like nobody'd told her the sixties had ended.         Memories tumbled past like a dropped deck of cards. Her throat tightened, her chest ached, as she saw her sister as a little girl, the two of them playing together, whispering to each other and giggling from their matching beds.         In that instant, she could have embraced Cassandra, wept on her shoulder.         But that instant passed before she could move, and the memories now were of a teenage girl in tight jeans, tube tops, too much eyeshadow. A hellcat who got into such screaming matches with their mother that the neighbors threatened to call the police. Who had flushed her future down the toilet and then come crying to Cordelia.         "I'm surprised," she said evenly. "I didn't think you would come. I didn't think he meant that much to you."         Uncle Stewart seemed about to say something, but Owen unobtrusively drew him back. Owen, at least, knew that whatever was going to be said had to be said now. And then, only then, could they get down to other business.         Cassandra grinned a ghastly, witchlike grin. "I came for you, sister. I came because you needed me."         "Oh, did I?" Cordelia's eyebrows went up in perfect semi-circles.         "You want to know who did this to him. I can help you."         "I don't know what you're talking about."         "Don't you _start_ with me!" Cassandra hissed in sudden fury. "I came all the way to this stinking maggoty city, at the height of summer, my busiest season, to help you. So don't you fucking start with me!" She paused, then threw the last word like a dart. "Cordy!"         She felt her eyes widen just a slight, dangerous touch. Her mouth set into a grim, aristocratic line. Out of the corner of her sight, she saw Owen step back with a wary expression -- he had seen that look before and knew what it meant.         "I never wanted you here, Cassandra." Not Cassie, she wouldn't stoop to using their childhood pet names for each other as weapons even if her sister did it first. "You're not needed. You're not welcome. And if it's such an imposition for you, why, you can just turn right around and go back to whatever fleabitten carnival you're running with these days. I'll pay for the plane ticket."         "You think you're so goddam smart!" Cassandra snarled. "Still the perfect one. You didn't have a stepmother or stepsister, just me and Mom, but I've got news for you, Cinderella! You're no princess! Always going around as if you pee perfume -- you haven't changed. I don't need you to buy me a ticket, either!" She tore open her purse, dug angrily through it. "Which reminds me. Here!"         Cordelia looked at the wad of bills as if it had been a dead fish. "What's that for?"         "I'm paying back every penny you ever loaned me, with twenty years' interest. Take it!"         "I don't want your money, Cassandra."         "No, I bet you don't. Because as long as I owe it to you, you can go on thinking you're better than me. I'm worth five and a half million these days, how about you? Caleb and I make more in one season with that fleabitten carnival than you'll see in ten years wiping the noses of rich brats at your snobby school!" She flung the money, falling leaves of green.         "You don't have to pretend," Cordelia said. "Take your money --"         "I'm not pretending! I want you off my back, Cordelia! I don't want your loans, your pity, hanging over me like an axe!"         "Caleb," Cordelia said, changing tactics deftly as she so often did in faculty meetings. "Yes, what about Caleb, and however many other children you've had? Is soothing your pride worth taking away what that money can do for them?"         "You just never stop, do you? However many children. Why not just say it? Why not just shout to the world that your sister is a slut who opens her legs for any man who can afford a sixpack of beer, and if he can't, what the hell? That's what you think, isn't it? You think of me and you see some shitty tract house with a yardful of battered kids, all of them born nine months and fifteen minutes apart."         Cordelia lifted one shoulder in an eloquent half-shrug that expressed agreement much better than words ever could.         "My children," Cassandra went on, her voice lower but fiercer, "and there are four of them, not the dozen you'd see me with, don't want or need your money any more than I do."         "Why _are_ you here?" she asked as if she was bored with the entire matter. "Since, as you claim, it isn't _my_ money ..."         "Oh. Oh, that's good, Cordy. That's really good. So now I've come to hover like a vulture over the old man's deathbed. Will you get off it?!?"         She screamed the last loud enough to bring a nurse running on white-soled shoes. Owen moved to intercept, leaving Uncle Stewart staring at his nieces as if he was witnessing a gruesome disaster.         "Didn't you hear me? Big Country Midway Attractions is the fourth biggest carnival in America. I own three grab-joints, the equestrian show, and two kiddie rides. I'm also Madame Cassandra. Card readings, palm readings, fifteen bucks a pop for five minutes' work. Caleb is only twenty-three, and he owns the Amazing Oddities exhibit free and clear. We don't need your money, or his, or anybody's. Got it?"         "Fortune telling and a freak show," Cordelia sniffed. "I have to give you credit, Cassandra; I would have thought you ran away to become a kootch dancer."         Vivid red burst into Cassandra's sunken cheeks, but she managed to say, with strange dignity, "I gave that up after Corrinne was born."         Awkward silence fell with a heavy thump.         "It's good to see you, Cassie," Stewart eventually said.         "I don't think you mean it, uncle, but thank you anyway." Cassandra went around Cordelia, went _pointedly_ around her, to the bedside where their other uncle lay unconscious.         The shouting hadn't wakened him. The doctors still insisted it was a stroke, but Cordelia knew better. There was a war going on inside. A war between forces that she couldn't reasonably expect to explain to anybody, least of all to men of science.         She believed Bluestone's suggestion of a psychic assassin was close, not quite right, but closer than the idea of poison. And the power that had struck down the Grandmaster was at odds with another power.         But how to explain to the doctors that their patient, who presumably was just waiting to die, was immortal?         Cassandra turned away from the bed. She looked calmer now, which Cordelia knew to be a reliable indicator of her mood. Cassandra's anger was searing, but fast-burning. She had never been in the habit of hiding her feelings. What you saw was what you got.         Cordelia had always considered that a weakness. If someone knew your mental and emotional state, they knew how to hurt you. Someone ... like, for instance, your mother.         "He's going to be all right," Cassandra said. Not a question, a statement.         "The doctors --" Stewart began.         "It doesn't matter what the doctors say. He's going to be all right. I know what happened to him, and I can find out who did it."         "Are we back to that again?" Cordelia crossed her arms. "I wasn't aware they taught medicine in carny school."         "They don't." Cassandra dug into her purse again, and Cordelia was suddenly sure her sister was going to pull a gun and mow them all down. Instead, she came up with a lump of padded, quilted cloth.         Owen twitched visibly, and began paying even closer attention.         Cassandra unwrapped the lump and held up ...         "Oh, God," Cordelia moaned in amused disdain.         ... a crystal ball.         "I know what you're thinking," Madame Cassandra said defensively. "But it works!"         "Stop," Cordelia said. "No. This is a difficult enough time for us without parlor tricks and stupid jokes. Isn't it enough that he's sick? Do you have to mock him, too?"         "I'm not! Would you just, for once in your life, _listen_ to me? This is the real thing! Before I found it, sure, my readings were about as real as a Magic Eight Ball. All part of conning the marks. But eleven years ago I went to London, bought this in a little shop, and ever since ..."         Cordelia was all set to unleash an icy flood of ridicule. Cassandra saw it coming and hunched over her crystal ball protectively, as if she feared her bitch-queen sister might throw it out the window, or brain her with it.         The thing that stopped her from doing one or all of those things was the look on Owen's face. He looked like a man who dearly wanted to slap his brow and cry, "A-ha!" but knew this wasn't the time or place.         "What are you telling me?" she asked, trying to keep from sounding scornful. "That you have an actual, magical, crystal ball?"         "I know what you think of things like that," Cassandra said. "Even when we were kids, you never believed in magic."         Cordelia closed her eyes, and thought, oh, Cassie, if you only knew! The Hall of Antiquities Arcanum, love spells cast by fledgling sorceresses, elfin sprites from enchanted isles ...         "But _I_ believe," Cassandra went on. "This taught me to believe. I knew what happened even before I got the call. It's given me ... visions."                 *               *         "Visions," Matt Bluestone said.         "Her exact word," Cordelia replied.         They looked at each other for a long time.         "Weird," the detective finally ventured.         Owen cleared his throat. "Shall I arrange a meeting-place?"         Cordelia whirled on him. "What? If you think for one minute that I am going to listen to my sister prattle on about tall dark strangers and ocean voyages, you've got another thing coming!"         "It's a con," Bluestone added. "She's a carnival fortune teller, for crying out loud!"         "Seances ..." Cordelia scoffed.         "Table-rapping ..." Bluestone said.         "Bullshit," Cordelia concluded soundly, and both Owen and Matt jumped at that word coming out of her mouth.         "Perhaps," Owen said, fixing Cordelia with a steady gaze. "Or perhaps not."         "Come on!" Bluestone rolled his eyes. "Look, I've worked with a few so-called psychics. Every now and then someone gets it into his head to bring one in when we get stymied on a tough case. The Screwdriver Killer, for instance. This babe's going around 'sensing' the murder sites, Elisa pokes me in the ribs and makes some crack about the midget woman from Poltergeist -- 'Come into the light, there is peace and serenity in the liiiiight,' and that was it. Richardson had to take over the case because neither of us could keep a straight face."         "Did she find the killer?" Owen asked.         "Nope."         "That case aside, I would have thought you'd learned by now, Detective Bluestone, that there --"         "Are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before."         "And your own experiences have had no effect on you?" Owen inquired. "The apple? The lyre?"         "Well ..." he wavered.         "You're not suggesting we take her seriously!" Cordelia's tone wouldn't have been much different if he'd advanced the idea that the three of them play a nice game of strip poker. "Bluestone is right. It's a con. Am I really supposed to let Cassandra think I believed her line of nonsense about magical crystal balls? She would laugh herself sick, Owen."         "Yet ... it _is_ a magical crystal ball."         "Oh, man," Bluestone groaned. "Eenie-meenie-chili-beanie, the spirits are about to _speak_!"         "It seems to me that it is worth trying," Owen said to Cordelia, ignoring Bluestone's bad Bullwinkle impression. "If you're right, she laughs and we learn nothing. But if you're wrong ... isn't the risk of her laughter worth the chance of finding out who's behind your uncle's illness?"         She had to think about it, and that more than anything else told Owen just how much pain and bad blood lay between the sisters. Pride, sweet and poisonous pride. Cordelia had spent the past twenty years of her life convincing herself that she needed no one. And that it should come to this! Not only needing someone, but needing her sister!         Outwardly composed, except for the telltale frost-white knobs of her knuckles as she folded her hands tightly together, Cordelia said, "All right. Arrange a meeting."                 *               *         "You're wondering if Caleb knows," Cassandra said. "If he knows that his father died in a knife-fight between his mother and grandmother. Like a pair of children fighting over a doll, then tearing it in half."         "That's not why I'm here, Cassandra."         "No, of course not." Her smile was knowing, amused. "You're humoring me, isn't that it? Not here because you think I can really tell you anything. Humoring me."         "Against my better judgement, I've been talked into hearing what you have to say. So you may as well get on with it."         Cassandra glowered, the strange dim light turning her face into a hag's mask above the blind bulge of the crystal ball. There was a flaw in it, Cordelia saw, an imperfection deep in the center that resembled a bird with a broken wing.         "I'm trying to prove to you that it's real. That I _do_ have visions, that I _can_ see things."         "And I suppose, like your namesake from mythology, your curse is that nobody believes your prophecies? No, Cassandra, I'm sorry, but you make a poor oracle. You accused me of never believing in magic; well, you were no mystic either!"         "But you do now," Cassandra said, staring at her intently. "You do, and I am."         "Don't be silly."         "Do you think I don't know? About Uncle's position, about the Society, about the artifacts? About you and your man and the love spell and the magic wand held in trust for your daughter?"         Cordelia fought down her first impulse, which was to shoot to her feet in shock and irritation. She stayed calm, stayed cool. "I see Stewart's been telling stories."         "He didn't tell me," Cassandra said with a withering look worthy of Cordelia herself. "I don't even think he knows about _your_ part of it. I _saw_ it, Cordelia. I saw it in my crystal ball."         "If you had any idea how insane this sounded --"         "Stop!" Cassandra snapped. "We can't lie to each other, remember?" She raised her right hand with the pinkie crooked into a bow. "Sisters' vow."         "Oh, please!"         "All right, forget the pinkie vow. But you can't lie to me, Cordy. I know you too well. After all these years, I still know you too well. You can fool the rest of the world, but not me. You know I'm telling the truth, and if you'd just accept it and quit being a bitch about everything, we could make some progress!"         "Why are you doing this? Why do you care if our uncle lives or dies? You never wanted anything to do with us. You ran away. You despised us."         "Only you would actually say 'despised,'" Cassandra marvelled. "You're wrong, anyway. I hated, yes. I hated Mother. So did you, so I don't know why you hold that against me."         "Then why didn't you come back after her death?" Cordelia demanded. "With her gone --"         "You think I ran away because of her? It wasn't just that! It was our grandparents, too! We hadn't been back in that house for a week when they pulled me into Grandfather's study. They'd learned their lesson, you see, my darling sister. They'd learned their lesson with Mother. No more wild girls running loose! No more bastards in the family tree! They were going to make me get rid of my baby."         "Why didn't you?" Cordelia asked with sharp accusation. "You only got pregnant to spite Mother! With her gone, what was the point?"         "You sound just like them! Give up the baby, abort it or put it up for adoption, and be a good little girl. Go to a good school, be a debutante, don't do anything to embarrass the family!"         "What's so wrong with that?"         "Because you were so much better at it than me! I couldn't be like you anymore, Cordelia! I'd spent too long doing things my own way. As the twig is bent, so the tree is shaped. I knew I couldn't be what they expected of me, that I'd always come off second to you! If I wanted to live my own life, I had to do it somewhere outside Silverwine!"         "I understand," Cordelia said softly, amazed. "I finally understand. For me, going back to Silverwine was getting my life back. For you, it was taking yours away."         In the long silence that followed, neither of them quite dared move. And then, at the same time, their hands crept toward each other's and almost touched, just as the hands of those two little girls they'd once been had often held hands, for comfort, for company.         Then the moment passed, the mood broke, and they both retrieved their not-quite-touching hands and looked away self-consciously.         Cassandra leaned forward, and rested her fingers on the crystal curve of the ball. Cordelia found herself holding her breath, and released it in a shaky laugh at her own foolishness. Was she actually pinning her hopes on her crazy sister's medium gig?         "I see a stone," Cassandra said. "A dark stone, a man holding a dark stone. He has old hands. Wrinkled. Old hands. And a ring. A gold ring with a pyramid on it."         Cordelia rubbed her temples. "We'd gotten that far on our own, if you don't mind. _Which_ man? Can you see his face?"         She said nothing, staring into the ball, staring with wide eyes that seemed to have darkened a shade or two. And then, at last, the word slipping out on a faint breath.         "Yes ..."                 *               *         "Burnett here."         "Hey, it's Bluestone. Listen up, I'm calling from the River Ridge Convalescent Home, and I think I'm onto something!"         "You've spoken with the Dracon woman?"         "Get this -- it's Draconi, far as this old bat is concerned. Dominic changed it but never told her! How do you like that? So our good buddy Tony Dracon, he just about broke his grandma's heart insisting on going with the Americanized version!"         "Does this have any bearing on the matter at hand?"         "I had to listen to her for hours, okay, bear with me! River Ridge is a nice place, by the way. Looks like crime pays more than I thought."         "Mrs. Dracon -- Draconi's stay there was arranged by Winger Associates, a division of Nightstone Unlimited."         "I figured as much."         "What did you find out?"         "Well, I could probably sit down and sketch you out a genealogy chart of the entire Draconi family, complete with all the disappointments and scandals they've dumped on her over the years. But about Gino in particular, she swore up and down and by all the saints I've ever heard of, and some I haven't, that Gino was a good boy."         "We knew that."         "So I asked her who would want to kill her good boy. She may not remember what she had for breakfast, but she can tell you _everything_ that happened before the early 1980's. Gino, being such a good boy, was in the habit of calling his mama at least four times a week -- which reminds me, I really ought to give my mom a ..."         "_Did_ Gino have any enemies in the Society?" Owen asked impatiently.         Bluestone sighed gustily into the phone. "Yeah. Two. Any guesses?"         "Diamant and Malone."         "Give the man a kewpie doll."         "So we're no further along."         "Maybe a little. I asked her about her stroke, the first one. She told me it was brought on by fear. No, not fear. _Terror_, she said. Pure terror. No reason at all. Then she started to get agitated, and the nurses came and gave her a trank and shooed me out. But the last thing I heard before they shut the door on me was her shouting something, the same word, over and over. Deimos."         "Deimos," Owen repeated thoughtfully.         Bluestone mistakenly interpreted it as camouflaged ignorance. "You're not an astronomy buff, are you, Burnett? Deimos is --"         "One of Mars' two moons, along with Phobos," Owen interjected. "Their names generally taken to mean --"         "Phobos and Deimos, fear and terror," Bluestone said. "Terror, get it?"         "Which means?"         "The Deimos Stone!" he said as if Owen should have known what he was getting at all along. "Thirty years ago, an asteroid collided with that moon. There was a hell of a meteor shower. Some pretty big chunks hit us. One of them ended up in the Society's museum, not the Hall of Antiquities Arcanum, but where they keep the scientific stuff like Da Vinci's works that are too hot for public consumption. The Hall of Doodads Scientificum, for want of a better name."         "That would have been at the same time of the first Grandmaster's stroke," Owen said.         "And every fifteen years, we pass near Deimos and through the remnants of that collision. What if there's something about the stone? What if it hits people with such a dose of terror that it blows their brains like old tires?"         "Why just the Grandmaster, then?"         "Maybe the first time was an accident," Bluestone said excitedly, really warming to his theory now. "Maybe no one knew, or someone suspected. Figured it out. So that every fifteen years --"         "When the signs in the heavens were right?" he put in dryly.         "Yeah, whatever, every fifteen years, for the few days while everything's in the right position, someone could be using it like a weapon."         "Who has access to this stone?"         "Well ..."         "The Fifth Circle," Owen finished.                 *               *         "Where is the Grandmaster?" Philip Blakemoor said, his cheeks ruddy with indignation over his bristly black beard. "And what gives you the right to call a meeting, Xanatos? You're still the newest member of the Circle, need I remind you?"         "You don't need to remind me," Xanatos said. "As for why I called this meeting, I was asked to, by Miss St. John."         "This is highly irregular." Mace Malone eyed Cordelia briefly, then flicked his gaze suspiciously toward Matt Bluestone.         "Yes, what is the meaning of all of this?" Tybalt Diamant said peevishly.         Xanatos stood, hands clasped behind his back. "Gentlemen, I'm afraid I have some bad news. The Grandmaster suffered a stroke two days ago."         "My God!" Blakemoor blurted. "A stroke! Just like ..."         "And you waited this long to tell us?" Diamant demanded. "Is this some plot of yours, Xanatos? We should have been notified immediately upon his death!"         "How is he?" Malone asked.         Bluestone looked at Cordelia, gave her the briefest of nods.         "Why did you assume he was dead, Mr. Diamant?" Cordelia asked.         "Because he didn't expect his attempt at murder to fail," Bluestone explained.         The lizardlike countenance of the old man went ashen. "You ... you're accusing me?"         "Wait! What?" Blakemoor bellowed.         "Tybalt Diamant," Cordelia said, and in all her years her voice had never been icier. "Your fingerprints have been found on the weapon."         Bluestone shook his head. "You guys. You guys amaze me. You think you're untouchable, but you leave prints like everyone else unless you're careful. Even the thief you and Demona hired to steal the Apple of Eris wore gloves."         "Fingerprints?" Diamant was on his feet now, trembling with high fury. "You took my _fingerprints_?! You _know_ the Society's policy regarding privacy --"         "And you know the Society's policy regarding betrayal," Cordelia countered.         "You have no proof! Even if you _did_ find my prints on that miserable hunk of space trash --"         "That sounds like a confession to me," Xanatos observed. Blakemoor and Malone nodded grimly, their hard, flat, uncompromising gazes fixed solidly on Diamant.         "It proves nothing! It will never stand up in court! None of it will!"         "But we're not in court." Bluestone stepped back. "And you're not under arrest."         "Then ... what ... I ..." he blustered. "You can't execute me!"         "We would be within our rights to do so," Cordelia said. "But we will not."         "What? You're going to let this traitorous bastard go?" Blakemoor socked one meaty fist into his palm. "I'll do it myself if no one else wants to get their hands dirty! I may be getting on in years, but I can still mop the floor with his betraying ass!"         "How old _are_ you, Philip, if you don't mind my asking?" Cordelia said, her tone as mild as if they were having tea in the garden. "Coming up on fifty, if I remember correctly. Mr. Diamant here is nearly twice your age. I certainly couldn't allow a physical confrontation between the two of you."         "I hope you're not asking _me_ to do it," Malone grumped. "I'll shoot him, if that's what you want, but fisticuffs and arthritis don't go well together."         "Hmm, perhaps you're due for another longevity treatment?" Cordelia looked at Diamant, and all of her polite afternoon-tea manner slipped away. "As are you, Mr. Diamant. Have you ever missed an injection?"         He backed away from her, slitted lizard eyes widening until they looked almost normal. "You wouldn't! You deny me my treatment, and the moment I leave here I'm going straight to the New York Times! I'll blow this whole thing wide open! You'll go down in flames, each and every one of you!" His bony finger jittered from one to the next.         "That would imply that you'll be leaving here under your own power," Bluestone said.         "I'm afraid that is no longer an option," Cordelia said. "You'll remain here until your last series of the longevity serum has worn off. Restored to your true age, you'll be a fine candidate for the River Ridge Convalescent Home."                 *               *         "Cordelia."         A harsh whisper, barely more than a croak, but it was enough to bring her out of a light doze. On the other side of the small table, barely visible through a bouquet sent by the Warden, Cassandra slept with her head pillowed on thin, folded arms.         "Cordelia."         Louder, a bit stronger, and she slid from her chair to kneel at the bedside. "Uncle! How do you feel?"         "I've been better," the Grandmaster said with a weak smile -- both corners of his mouth lifting, _both_, no more of that horrible slackness.         "You had me worried, you know! Even though I knew about the Grail, you had me worried!"         "Did you find out who ...?"         "It's been taken care of, Grandmaster. But there's an opening in the Fifth Circle now. Xanatos and I tried to persuade Bluestone; he turned us down."         "Perhaps you should take it, and then we could offer him your job."         She thought about it. "No, I think I'll stay where I am, thank you."         "Is that your sister?"         "Yes, see what you've done? You brought the family together again, and if I didn't know you better, I'd be tempted to think you did it on purpose."         "You can't mean you and Cassandra have reconciled?" It wasn't often that the Grandmaster could be surprised, but that managed.         "We've taken a step in that direction, at least," Cordelia said. "It may not last, but it's a start. Right or wrong, we can't escape family, or our past."                 *               * The End.

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