25: The Morning After
A minute later, Katrina stumbled outside with a clatter of pans and panicked bluster. She had a large rucksack strapped to her back, three different satchels wrapped around her chest, and enough bags and bundles to start a market stall. Her automatous cat clung to her shoulder, its happy face watching them with black button eyes.
“You should be prepared for anything!” she blurted.
And yet, despite her burdens — which she refused to share — she was the one who set the hurried pace as she raced to reach the Theatre before the clock struck six.
“She has the stamina of a dozen men,” bemoaned Byron, struggling to light his pipe as he struggled to keep up with her.
“Says a lot about your own,” replied Emily.
With a huff, he bit down on his pipe and drew a breath of smoke. “Given her lack of presence, I presume you had little luck with Leira,” he said, as they passed Sohrabarak al-Hakim’s tree-shaped tower home. Emily spied some figures moving about inside, but nobody that resembled the charismatic archaeologist.
“She was pretty set in her ways,” Emily replied.
Ahead of them, bags bouncing away, Katrina hummed. “Do you think anyone else will stay behind? I did kinda think about it myself, but then I worried it might affect my application to the Academy, you know?”
“I doubt Seelie is so cold as to mark us down for our holiday choices,” said Byron. “Saying that, I, too, shared your indecision, if only for a moment.”
Until he had declared that, if Emily was going, so would he. She wondered if that was his genuine feeling on the matter, or if it was just another of Prince Freyr’s whispers, another of his subtle suggestions. The thought left her cold.
Kat looked over her shoulder with a red-faced smile. “Just don’t listen to Phoenie, okay? There’s no way this is about war or anything. It’s just a test, like that camping trip we went on last winter.”
“If Seelie thought to train their soldiers for war by sending them to a Malkuthian holiday resort, I would seriously consider defecting to an alternative avenue of education,” replied the poet. “I suspect Seelie simply treats this Avalon as an R&R facility for its weary officers. I wager even Azhara’d al-Hakim requires the soft touch of a lady every now and again.”
Emily grimaced. There was a great deal about Avalon that made her uncomfortable, but nothing more so than the flagrant display of sexuality from its residents. It wasn’t that she had a problem with people being so comfortable with themselves that they could get down to business on a public beach without a care in the world, it was that such an atmosphere of sexual freedom was perfect for what Prince Freyr had asked of her. He wanted her to scry the other initiates, to get into their heads and their souls, to dredge up their deepest and darkest secrets in search of the Erebus, and the easiest way to do that, to lower all their defences without a single protest, was through that simple, everyday act of human intimacy — and no one could resist a maiden. After all, it was no coincidence that Oracles and their offspring just so happened to embody those perfect ideals of womanhood and sexuality that the Cities imprinted upon the world, just as it was no coincidence that Prince Freyr had selected her for this task. If only she had known, back when she begged him to help her escape her cursed bloodline, that he was only helping her so that he could one day use that curse for his own gain.
In the end, no matter what name she took, what identity she went by, she was still just a tool. Just like her mother.
She forced a mocking smirk Byron’s way. “I guess we know what you’ll be doing all week then,” she said. It felt as if she had taken her own knife and plunged it into her chest.
“Please!” said Byron. “I am not Doyle.”
Actually, Ronnie, Azhara’d isn’t really into that sort of thing. Sorry, ladies!