39: Scylla and Charybdis
It was the sort of evasive answer Emily herself might have used if Phoenix Rogan was trying to unearth contradictions in her fabricated life story. Unlike Phoenix, however, who had to rely on cross-referencing her extensive database of information, Emily had more subtle, more immediate means of peeling back the layers of lies. Reaching out, she took Meeray’s hand in her own, playing it as nervousness, as if she were afraid of what she was hearing and needed his support. As he met her eyes, she bit her lip, looked away, forced a blush. You don’t need Ketos, it said.
Ahead of them, past a forest of pillars supporting the island above, lay the remains of a beach, its sands shimmering blue beneath the underground light. Nearby, standing alone in the transmatter forest like some ancient holy shrine, was one of the sterile white buildings the people of Avalon called a ‘Cleansing Clinic’, its spire piercing the ceiling above like a syringe.
“I never did find out what those things were for,” said Emily.
“You could say they allow people to live their lives without any”—the corners of Meeray’s smile twitched, forming a momentary grin, a flicker of knowing that prickled Emily’s skin with revulsion—”lingering doubts. Paradise requires careful maintenance, after all.”
The remains of its ocean were proof of that. Drained of its contents it was now little more than an empty basin, half a kilometre wide, ringing with the drip-drip of water leaking from its successor above. A series of canals and piping along its surface hinted at the mechanisms that had once provided the illusion of waves lapping against the beach. Across the other side of the basin, a flat, circular wall rose to meet the ceiling, marking the end of paradise, of this giant, underground tomb.
Beyond it laid the outside world. The real world. And, perhaps, Ketos. The truth.
“This can be rather treacherous,” said Meeray, leading the way down the beach and into the basin. He wasn’t lying. The ground was almost as frictionless as Dante’s cloak and, at its base, slick with water. Even when she chose her steps carefully, Emily found herself reaching for Meeray’s support, clinging to him like an inept child on a winter’s day.
It was, she realised, too good an opportunity to waste.
“Jonas!” she cried, letting herself slip in one of the shallow puddles. As she fell, she pulled Meeray with her. It was like a scene from one of those stupid romance movies where the would-be couple found themselves in a suggestive position. Emily laughed as the ice-cold water seeped inside Dante’s cloak. Hovering inches above her chest, Meeray’s sculpted face flushed with embarrassment. Gods, she wanted to smash her boot into it.
With lips clenched and jaw tight, like a man marching towards a Sophist execution, Meeray picked himself up and, finding his footing, offered Emily his hand. Forcing her own blush, she accepted. Brushing sodden, stale-smelling strands of hair from her face, she said, “I’ll need a shower after this. And some new clothes.”
His eyes flicked down to her body for the slightest moment before snapping back to her face. “My facilities will be at your complete disposal,” he said, hiding his fantasies behind that same, damned smile. “It won’t be long now. My private retreat is just ahead.”
“You never told me you were talking me back to your place,” she offered with a wink. “If I’d known this was a date, I would have dressed appropriately.”
A Maiden didn’t need subtlety. Meeray, desperate to preserve his illusion of innocence, turned away. “It’s the only place I can guarantee your safety,” he said.
Emily—was this really Emily?—clutched his hand. If only Freyr could see her now!
She glanced over her shoulder, suddenly paranoid of watching eyes. Freyr would have approved, but everyone else? Everyone who knew her as Emily? Or as the Macha? What would they think? What would they see?
She forced her worries aside; she had a job to do. She had a soul to scry.
At the end of the basin, Meeray located a narrow crack in the cavern wall, not unlike the secret passage he had unveiled on the outskirts of Bolventor. Here, however, there was no elevator, but a series of doors and cramped corridors.
“This is quite the retreat,” said Emily, ducking to avoid a low-hanging archway. One worthy of an Oracle, no less. “I hope we don’t have to pop out for a takeaway!”
“I can assure you my facilities are entirely self-sufficient,” replied Meeray, her casual flirting rebounding off his practised exterior. Even Dante wasn’t this obtuse.
“I bet you tell that to all the girls.”
“You are the first I have brought back here,” he replied. “It’s…” He paused, again letting the slightest of truths flicker across his face. “It would get me into an awful lot of trouble if I did.”
Emily—or was it Macha? Or Aliza? WHO?—squeezed his hand. “Sounds like you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
He deflected her smile with a frown. “Here,” he said, indicating a door ahead of them. It had a dull sheen, a deep-sea teal that reminded Emily of the vaults and shelters beneath Torsten. Meeray placed his hand on the surface and, with a hydraulic hiss and creak of gears, the door opened.
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You know, like that classic scene where the inept teenage boy falls face-first into the chest of his irritable love interest? How we laugh!