28: An Illusion of Paradise
While Joel left in search of his girlfriend, Dante slouched upstairs to find his room. It waited for him at the end of a short hallway, his name etched on the stainless white door in black ink. Dante touched it and it slid aside to reveal a room as plain and as empty as the lounge had been. Its sole window, curving from one corner of the room to the other, looked back towards the giant shard of a tower at Avalon’s centre, a monolith of Malkuthian design that dominated the shapes and spires clustered around its base like flowers between the roots of a tree. Even pressing his face up against the window, Dante could hardly see the summit. It must have been at least half a kilometre in height, if not more—but a flower itself, compared to Malkuth.
Dante paced to the opposite side of the room and stared at the empty wall. Why here? Of all the places, why did Seelie bring them here, to a place whose promise of Paradise pushed the boundaries of belief? For six years, Dante had been content to imagine the world the Saptamatrikas promised his mother, to accept everything Arided—the Tablet—had told him as true, so why did Seelie have to ruin things? Why did they have to show him this fabrication at the moment of his greatest weakness?
Or was this holiday itself another test? A way for the Saptamatrikas to judge his worth? What if they had arranged this whole scenario to challenge his resolve? To prove to him their words were true and all other words lies, stories that mothers told their children to encourage good behaviour?
Mothers like Ophelia Orpheus. Or, perhaps, like Merope Maheshvari, Mother of Malkuth. Dante didn’t know what to believe—who to believe—only what he wanted to believe: that his mother had found Paradise and that she had escaped her curse, that she was no longer tethered naked to the Dark, a shadow in a world of nothing.
A three-note chime drew him out of his contemplation. At first, he wondered what it might be—it couldn’t be his cellular, since it had lost its signal the moment they entered Avalon—then, when it rang a second time, he realised it was a doorbell.
“Eh, yo.” Joel, eyes fixed on the carpet, raised a hand in greeting. “You, eh, you busy?”
Dante stepped aside and let him enter.
“It’s not much to look at, is it?” said the raven, still avoiding eye contact. “Kao tried to redecorate, but the bloody computer don’t let her use anything but the defaults, and they’re all proper shite. We figure Shawty must’ve hacked it or something.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, with its stainless white sheets over a stainless white mattress. “It’s not like that ship,” he said. “She were proper friendly, let us do what we want, you know?”
He didn’t, but he nodded in agreement anyway.
“Say, eh, about last night…” Joel forced a grin. “Yeah, that was kinda a disaster, weren’t it?”
Dante shrugged. It was more than a disaster, but getting angry with Joel wouldn’t change anything. In the end, he’d only been trying to help.
“I’m, eh, I’m sorry I left you with the Duke, man. That were way outta character for him, getting you all pissed like that. I’ll be having proper words when I get back, trust me.”
The truth was, Dante could hardly remember anything besides those few fleeting moments of cringe-inducing embarrassment. “These things happen,” he said.
“Yeah. Yeah, they do. Proper shit, though. Still, no point worrying about it now, ey? We’ve got way bigger problems!”
Outside, Kaori, hidden beneath her parasol, swept across the plaza, layers of black lace trailing behind her, while Katrina dragged her belongings from one apartment to another and a bare-chested Doyle strode off in the direction of the beach.
Joel appeared at Dante’s side, all nicotine grins and beady eyes. “For a start, I’m all outta ciggies!”
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“Proper words”, I’m sure.