1: The Girl from the Sky
Dante choked as a gulp of coffee caught in his throat. He waved away Emily’s concern. “I just—” He coughed. “I just didn’t think—” Finally finding his breath — and his words — he said, “That’s a little far-fetched, isn’t it?” He furrowed his brow, studied the dancing reflections on the surface of his coffee: the warping of the sky, the twisting of a face, vague, indecipherable tricks of the light, of the mind’s eye. “I mean, fairies aren’t real.”
He could hardly believe he had to make such a statement in adult conversation — and with a daughter of Malkuth, no less! Then Emily traced a spiral cross over her chest and mouthed a prayer of forgiveness, and, just as he had when he first met the avatar atop the apartment roof, he had to wonder whether he was dreaming.
She caught him staring at her, mouth agape. “You know you shouldn’t use that word,” she said, which a genuine frown of concern. “The last thing you want is some kind of curse, believe me.”
It took a moment to find his voice and the words came out with an edge he hadn’t anticipated; “I’ll let you know if I turn into a frog.”
He swallowed the rest of his coffee, then stood up, brushed dark tendrils of hair out of his eyes, and watched Horatio complete his final lap of the course. Without a pause, the Malkuthian broke into his morning run.
Dante shook his head. “I’m going to study,” he said.
He hoped that might be the end of it, but he knew, deep down, that Emily Fomalhaut was not the sort to give up so easily. She caught up to him before he’d taken his third stride and matched his pace.
“Just so you know, I’m not the type of girl who goes around kissing frogs.”
Dante couldn’t tell if that stern look of hers was serious or not. “That girl wasn’t a fairy,” he said, noting Emily’s use of the warding gesture a second time.
The path from the training course led through a small thicket of young trees and out onto the Ritches Estate. The Ritches manor stood at its centre, plucked from the stories of the Old World where wealthy aristocrats lived in oversized abodes surrounded by servants. Unlike the Sophists, however, who tried to relive those bygone days, the Ritches family had built their home to serve others; Dante spied a cluster of orphans chasing one another around a rich green lawn, throwing off their excess energy before a long day of schooling. This was the only slither of childhood the world allowed them.
“You know,” said Emily, “it would break their hearts if you told them that the Four Queens didn’t exist. There’s this one girl, Aquarius, whose dream is to meet Queen Thetis. Her dream, Dante.”
“She’ll grow out of it,” he said. He had.
Their path steered away from the manor and towards the apartments that dotted the Estate’s perimeter. When those orphans came of age and found a path for themselves — be it in work, the local militia, or training with Seelie — Mrs Ritches would herd them into one of the garden-topped buildings, whose curved architecture stood in stark contrast to the manor’s nostalgia for bricks and right angles. Dante spied his second-floor balcony, its long window reflecting the morning sky.
Thankfully, as they approached their apartment, Emily turned her attention to more immediate concerns. As they reached the front door, she was fretting about what impossible task Master al-Hakim’s might set them for their last day of exams.
“He might send us off into the Fourth Circle with nothing but a compass and a bottle of water!” she exclaimed.
Dante stepped up to the door and raised his hand. Recognising his intent, it slid aside. Sufficiently advanced technology.
The ground floor of their apartment was split into four quadrants. Hermia and Horatio had turned one into a small gymnasium, Katrina claimed the second for a presentation theatre, while Emily and Lira dedicated the third to their growing collection of archaic books. The final quadrant — a collection of game machines — owed its existence to Byron d’Arcadie and Denny Odette. Dante still couldn’t understand what they saw in the flashing pictures and make-believe heroics.
Denny herself passed them as they headed up to the first floor, her footsteps as quiet as her voice. Hermia Adelheid, on the other hand, greeted them with bright-faced enthusiasm and thrust some foul-smelling cocktail of health supplements into their hands, before jogging downstairs for her morning exercises. Dante took a sip of the drink, gagged, and left it sitting on the kitchen counter. He was about to escape upstairs when Emily stopped him. He knew from the way she chewed her lip that this was going to be awkward.
There are a lot of orphans when the average human struggles to reach 40.