Orphic Phantasia

1: The Girl from the Sky

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They manoeuvred around various obstacles — climbing walls, balance beams, an array of old tires procured from the Smith family — and over to a nearby picnic bench, where Emily scooped a cereal bar from her lunch-box. She handed it to Dante.

“Because you probably haven’t eaten in a while, have you?”

“A couple of hours.”

She tapped the cellular on the back of her hand. “It’s half seven.” There was that eyebrow again.

“Four hours.” He hid his shame behind sweat-soaked hair and sweet-scented caffeine.

Emily sat down, brushed a bunch of sky-blue hair over her shoulder, then patted the bench next to her. Dante perched himself on the edge, keeping enough distance between himself and his housemate to keep his nerves in check, and unwrapped the cereal bar.

Contrary to popular belief — the ribbing insistence of Joel Gibson, more than anyone — Dante did not have a crush on Emily Fomalhaut. His feelings towards her were altogether more complicated than some adolescent fantasy. Emily, as evidenced by her healthy skin tone and brightly coloured hair, was a Malkuthian. He knew others, but Emily exemplified everything he pictured from reading the Tablet, every promise the City’s emissary showed him that night six years ago.

She carried herself with a refined elegance, her movements subtle as a professional dancer’s, her voice tempered and words chosen as if she were reciting poetry she’d prepared in advance. It was almost as inhuman as her looks; the blue hair was natural, as were her eyes — pale, but not white, like the immaterial avatar’s — and her toned skin a shade richer than natural. She had the figure of a Malkuthian, too, that lithe strength and those sculptured curves that no ordinary human, no matter how hard they tried, could ever hope to attain — though, unlike others, Dante had the decency not to gaze. The only thing that didn’t fit his expectations was the way she shunned the City’s fashions. Instead of dresses that could transform on a whim in a cloud of rainbow dust, she wore simple shirts and skirt-wrapped slacks, tucked into dirty leather boots, as if, by wearing such common clothes, she could somehow blend into the world around her.

“Horatio’s still top of the board,” she said, studying her cellular. “Thirty-seven seconds borders on inhuman, though.”

Like Emily, Horatio Stark had his roots in the City, although Dante suspected him several generations removed from Paradise, thanks to his sandpaper blond hair and dull tan. However, while his ancestors’ dalliance with the unwashed peons might have given Horatio a more conservative appearance in line with the common folk, it had done little to stymie his physical prowess.

“I’ll get there eventually,” said Dante. He tried not to think about his best time. He didn’t need to be an Olympic athlete to enter Malkuth — that would come later — just good enough to earn their approval.

Emily reached across and placed a reassuring, if somewhat condescending, hand on his arm. Her touch sent a shiver up Dante’s spine. “You shouldn’t try to,” she said. “Horatio is…” Her gaze lifted towards the handful of clouds drifting through the midsummer sky. “He’s from another world.”

“Your world,” Dante mumbled, failing to realise his bitterness until it was too late.

“Yeah,” she said. “My world.”

Emily Fomalhaut never spoke of her life in Malkuth. Dante had learned it was a sore subject when she first moved into their apartment two years ago. All he knew was that her parents had abandoned her in Torsten’s undertown when she was still a child, and that she moved to the surface to escape the subterranea’s motley collection of amoral sociopaths. Afraid he might have stirred up some bad memories, he took a sip from his coffee and let the burning liquid soothe his nerves.

Instead, her face split with a laugh and a smile. “Well, the Third Terrace isn’t exactly among the clouds!”

Dante ran some quick calculations through his head. “That’s about four kilometres off the ground,” he said, “which is pretty much clouds from where I’m standing.”

Emily waved her hand in a flail of dismissal she had picked up from Katrina Ritches. “Whatever. We have more important things to talk about than clouds.”

He swallowed a mouthful of cereal. “Exams?” It was the last day of Seelie’s biannual recruitment tests, though Dante suspected none of them would earn the Theatre’s sponsorship quite yet. That they still ranked someone like Horatio a Second Class initiate, like Dante, was proof of how strict Chief Payne and his people were with their assessments.

“True, but not what I was thinking about.”

Finishing off his cereal bar and stuffing the wrapper in his pocket, Dante shrugged his defeat. “What then?”

He thought of strange girls with white eyes, but it couldn’t be…

Yeah, sure, you totally don’t have a thing for her, Dante…