37: Chasing Emily
Like everything else within his jurisdiction, the Sultan’s casino was an exaggeration of decadence to put the seedy hovels of Torsten to shame. Rows of gambling machines stretched out like trees in a forest, their faces flashing with a random assortment of shapes as their catatonic victims ploughed chip after chip into their hungry mouths. Other machines offered patrons a chance to test their skills in virtual labyrinths, shooting games and spaceship simulations not unlike the sort Byron and Denny kept in their apartment back home. There were more rudimentary card games too, tables masked behind twisting clouds of smoke, their players silent, severe, faces like stone and chip piles like mountains.
Yet, despite all this, it was the arena at the centre of the room that commanded the most attention. As expected, it had four pillars reaching from the tower’s roots to its distant summit, but, unlike the dirty, blood-soaked battlegrounds Emily had spied on the various screens around Bolventor, this one had a floor of polished stone and streaks of rich red carpet that met at a table large enough to hold a small banquet. Aside from that, however, the arena was empty, but according to nearby screens a big match was imminent. Giovanni Veres, it said, would soon face ‘The Ravaging Ketos’.
“And this is where we’ll find Katrina?” asked Emily, scanning the waiting crowd hoping to spot her housemate’s familiar ruffle of chestnut hair, or the turquoise cat perched on her shoulder.
“Well, I would expect so,” said Chris, “given that ’The Ravaging Ketos’ is Andromeda.” With a nervous twitch of his brow, he added, “I guess Veritas hit the big time.”
Byron skulked back down the queue of rats, clinging to his hat as if Lysander Goodfellow were waiting to leap out of his jeering audience to snatch it away. “Not such a pretty boy after all, ey?” bellowed a voice from the crowd. “Ya should’ve worn a dress!” chanted another. There were other chants, too, but Dante could hardly hear them for the sound of Lance giggling.
Even Dante himself struggled to hold back a smile. Contrary to his anxious visions of Byron striding into the Sultan’s palace and rescuing Emily without a hitch, the poet—unlike Doyle and Yasinta—had failed to pass inspection. As something arched through the air and struck his cheek, Torsten’s greatest minstrel turned to hurl silent abuse at his audience, then shook his head and stomped towards his fellow initiates with a deep and ugly scowl on his face. For once in his life, Byron d’Arcadie’s wit had failed him.
“How dare they treat me like—like a child, fresh from his mother’s teat!” he said upon his return, his gesticulating wilder than ever. “To think of all I have achieved thus far, all I have risked and all I have sacrificed, just to starve Emily of the doom that hangs above her head, and they dare call me a child?”
“What happened, duder?” asked Lance.
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I only noticed the humour of Andromeda taking the name ‘Ketos’ in hindsight. Sometimes these things write themselves…