Far from it, but Dante wasn’t about to betray Emily’s secret, least of all to some synthetic beast. With the audience mumbling to themselves about this seeming twist in the tale, he started to creep around the edge of the arena, searching for a bunker to lie low in, a rock to hide behind. Lance, thinking it some secret plot, gave a thumbs up and began to mirror his movements.
Byron, meanwhile, continued to laugh, undaunted by the mass of tentacles wrapped around him. “It would seem this Jonas Mireille fellow has fooled you all,” he said.
“You bet he bloody has!” agreed the beast, slinking back towards the lake and loosening his grip enough so Byron could escape. “Not that I didn’t warn them, of course. Mister Mireille’s a slippery customer, I told ‘em. Has a way with the ladies, I said. Figured he’d make a break for it the moment he got his grubby mitts on a fit bird. Bastard’s probably banging ‘er right now, making up for all those bints he coun’t ever touch.”
Dante hunkered down behind a jutting grey rock and took a deep breath to try and calm his nerves. Emily wasn’t like that, he told himself. Jonas Mireille could have been the most attractive man in all the world, with magic more powerful than any faerie, but she would have still turned her head to his advances. Emily wasn’t that easy. She wasn’t like Kaori and Ceres. She was a kind, pure-hearted young woman. Anything else was just an act. The way she treated Jonas? Just an act. She was using him to get to Katrina, nothing more. Using him…
He clenched his eyes shut, tried to block out the cascade of thoughts, of contradictions and counter-arguments. Emily wasn’t like that. Emily…
He saw her standing there, her pale, naked shoulder burning with the black flames of the Erebus, with the Brand that cursed his mother. Emily. Aliza. Macha. Emily. Macha. Aliza…
What if she had? What if … what if she…
All he could see was a tangled thread of bodies, reaching out towards one another, thrusting, gyrating forms locked in a perpetual moment of surrender, gasping, groaning. Joy.
Cold sweat poured down his face, his breaths came ragged, distressed. It was just his imagination, he told himself. His fear. She wasn’t like that. Opheli—Emily wasn’t like that!
All around him, the beast’s laughter filled the arena, a gwa-ha-ha to mock the ignorant child who so wanted to believe himself a man.
A child, fleeing the ocean, face flecked with dirt and blood, clutching the fragment of a lost age to his chest. A boy, watching as his sisters stepped through the palace gates, worthy of the world above. A young man, cast down into the earth, battered and broken and gasping for breath, clawing at the slag in search of riches. The images flashed by, one after another, a deluge of memories welling up from the moments between quickening heartbeats. Walls cracked, barriers crumbled, masks shattered.
A boy, cowering in shadows as a gang of thugs slipped his father a handful of maku for the pleasure of violating his wife. A young man, thoughts as raw and bloody as his knuckles, beating the dirt as if it were his father’s face. A child, clinging to his mother, the only light in his world. The maiden saw it all, an endless cycle, a wheel that never stopped. All he ever wanted, she could provide. All she ever needed, he would surrender. The price no longer mattered to her. She would pay, and she would be free.