“Madeline!” Nathaniel cried.
I slammed the foyer door behind me and unlocked the door to my apartment. Beezle and Samiel hadn’t followed me in. I wondered what they were doing.
I wondered what Lucifer had planned now.
I hung up my coat, took off my boots and realized I’d left the groceries out in the snow. A second later Samiel and Beezle came in. Samiel carried the grocery bags into the kitchen, patting me on the shoulder as he went by.
I looked at Beezle. “What’s Lucifer up to?”
Beezle shrugged. “It is not for me to comprehend the ways of the Morningstar.”
“He had to know that I wouldn’t accept Nathaniel,” I said. “Why send him here?”
“Lucifer has to be thinking of the child,” Beezle said. “He wants the baby protected.”
I looked at Beezle incredulously. “And you think that Lucifer thought Nathaniel was the best choice to protect a child he will no doubt despise because of its parentage?”
Beezle shook his head slowly as the smells of something cooking came from the kitchen. Samiel was getting pretty good at turning a small amount of ingredients into something delicious.
“No. I think that Lucifer presented an unappealing option that he knows you’ll refuse out of hand so that he can then send you the person that he really wants here.”
I nodded. It made sense. It was exactly the way Lucifer operated.
“And his leniency toward Nathaniel is no doubt dependent on Nathaniel’s ability to get me to cooperate,” I said.
“Which is why Nathaniel is still on the porch,” Beezle said. “He said he’ll sleep there if he has to.”
I thought about calling the cops to remove him, but Nathaniel would just return over and over again until he got what he wanted. I didn’t believe that he cared about me one whit. I knew for sure that he cared about keeping all his body parts in their proper places, and that meant that he would go to any lengths to please Lucifer.
Fine. He could stay on the porch if he wanted. I hoped he froze to death.
“Maybe you should think about accepting Nathaniel,” Beezle said thoughtfully.
I stared at him. “That’s the second insane thing you’ve told me to do tonight. First I’m to make a pact with Lucifer; now I’m supposed to accept Nathaniel?”
“Think about it,” Beezle said urgently. “You’d have leverage with Nathaniel. You could use him to find out what Lucifer is up to. Plus, you’d definitely throw the Morningstar a loop if you accept a bodyguard he was certain you’d reject.”
“Nathaniel is a killer,” I said heatedly.
“So are you.”
“I didn’t kill innocents. And I don’t try to justify anything I did saying I was under orders from someone else.”
“Nathaniel can’t help that,” Beezle said, shaking his head. “It’s something you never understood about Gabriel either. You’ve never submitted to anyone’s authority in your life—not your mother, not me, not your Agency supervisors, not your teachers at school. You were born contrary.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. I’m an independent thinker.”
“Or, depending on one’s perspective, you’re a stubborn mule, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’ve never understood why angels don’t contradict their master, why they follow orders that would seem unreasonable to you. It’s because they’ve had respect for the hierarchy drilled into them from birth. They’ve been taught to be unquestioning, to do what they’re told even if it’s something a human would consider morally wrong.”
“So they’ve been brainwashed?” I said skeptically.
Beezle sighed. “No. Think of them as soldiers in an army. A soldier might doubt the validity of a commander’s order, but that soldier would still do as his commander said. Because that’s the way he’s made. That’s the way he’s been taught to behave, because an army is not made up of one person. Its strength comes from the sum of its parts.”
“So all the angels are taught to do as they’re told because it’s so important for each court to preserve its base of power.”
“Yes,” Beezle replied. “It’s also why rebellion is never initiated from the bottom. Most of the lower hierarchy could never conceive of going against Lucifer. But Azazel and Focalor are both Grigori. They have their own courts. They are used to answering only to Lucifer, and in recent years it seems he has given them more leeway.”
“But why?” I asked. “You told me once that Lucifer would do anything to maintain his base of power. And Gabriel once said that he thought Lucifer had enough power to have dominion over all things.”
“I’m pretty sure he does,” Beezle replied.
“Then why loosen his grip?” I wondered.
“To see what would happen,” Beezle said. “To see who is truly loyal to him.”
I scowled. I really disliked the idea that Lucifer would allow a rebellion to fester just so he could watch the game play out. I was also disturbed by the idea that Nathaniel might not be entirely at fault for his part in the memory-selling enterprise. He wasn’t completely blameless, not by a long shot, but it seemed it would have been difficult for Nathaniel to refuse Azazel.
He had tried to kill me in Azazel’s court. But he had also helped us save Wade’s cubs.
I shook my head. I didn’t know what to do about Nathaniel right now. It seemed too complicated to sort out what was right and what was wrong, and that worried me. Those shades of gray were Lucifer’s provenance.
Samiel came into the dining room carrying a tray full of food. He set three bowls on the table.
“Yum, chili!” Beezle said, diving toward his portion.
“Use a spoon,” I said before he went headfirst into the bowl. “You’re not a pig at the trough.”
Beezle muttered crossly to himself, but he perched on the edge of the bowl with a spoon held in his fist. He scooped chili into his beak with the rapidity and care of a toddler just beginning to use utensils. Food dribbled from his mouth to his stomach.
Don’t look at him, Samiel signed. You’ll lose your appetite.
I try not to look at him generally, I replied.
Samiel went back into the kitchen and returned with a plate of corn bread and three glasses of milk. He indicated I should sit down across from him, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
“This looks great,” I said.
I wondered where he had found all the ingredients in my very bare kitchen. I was pretty certain I hadn’t bought all of this stuff with Beezle, so I asked Samiel.
I had most of the stuff downstairs, he signed, pausing between bites.
His bowl was almost empty already, and I’d had only a small taste. Samiel eats like a teenage boy who’s not sure where his next meal is going to come from.
“But where did you get the money for the groceries?” I wondered aloud.
Lucifer gave it to me.
I raised my eyebrow at that.
He knows that I don’t work, and he was worried about you because he knows you depend on the rent from the apartment.
“Yeah, I’ll just bet he was worried,” I muttered into my chili so that Samiel couldn’t read my lips.
Everywhere I looked Lucifer was there, entangling me in his spider’s web. I knew Samiel was loyal to me, but I also knew that Lucifer was very good at making simple things look confusing.
If Samiel continued to accept an allowance from Lucifer, then one day in the future the Morningstar might come to Samiel asking for a favor. And Samiel might think that one little favor was small repayment to the angel who had given him so much. Then Lucifer would ask for one more thing, and another, and another, until Samiel was well and truly trapped.
“Aren’t you eating?” Beezle asked, breaking my reverie.
I glanced over at him and wished I hadn’t. He was covered in chili from horn to claw and was presently stuffing corn bread in his beak. The bread crumbs sprayed everywhere as he chewed. I covered my eyes.
“I don’t know why, but I seem to have lost my appetite,” I said loudly.
“More for me,” Beezle said gleefully.
Samiel pried my hands from my face so I could look at him.
You have to eat, he signed.
Do you know about the baby, too?
He nodded, looking rueful. Beezle told me.
Listen, Samiel, I signed. Do you want to work?
He looked uncertain. Yes, but Lucifer said I wouldn’t be able to get a regular job, because I can’t hide my wings like you can.
“It’s nice that he’s thought of everything,” I mumbled to myself, then looked at Samiel and spoke. “You could work at the Agency. There are a lot of supernatural creatures working for us that aren’t Agents.”
But I thought you didn’t get paid?
“I don’t. Agents don’t because collecting souls is a ‘sacred duty,’” I said, making air quotes with my fingers. “But the support staff and the management collect regular paychecks. Don’t ask me where the Agency gets its funding from, though. That’s apparently need-to-know only.”
Do you really think I could work there? Samiel looked doubtful.
“Sure. I’ll talk to J.B. about it.” As I said this, it occurred to me that I hadn’t picked up any souls for a couple of days, and I wondered if I had been neglecting my sacred duty while wandering around in a depressed fog.
“Before you start panicking,” Beezle said, reading my thoughts, “you should know that J.B. called a few days ago and said he was reassigning all of your pickups for the next week.”
“Do you think you could actually deliver my messages in a timely manner?” I said. “Or, better yet, don’t pick up the phone at all and let the answering machine fulfill the purpose for which it was created.”
“What?” Beezle said. “You’re getting the message now.”
“That’s not the point,” I began, and trailed off. The snake tattoo on my right palm tingled. I stood up. I’d learned not to ignore Lucifer’s mark.
What’s wrong? Samiel signed.
“Danger approaching. Stay in the house,” I said to Beezle.