2: Of Sophists and Seelie
Seven minutes later than planned, Rembrandt Payne made his appearance with a cheery hello and childish wave. It was hard to believe that the man on screen was in charge of Seelie’s local operations, let alone a veteran of the Apostle Wars. He looked to be in his mid-twenties at most, with a full head of foppish caramel hair and a face unblemished by scars or wrinkles. His eyes, a bright blue tinted with shards of green, betrayed none of the horrors they must have witnessed. The only sign of his experiences was the brooch on his lapel: a golden butterfly, its sapphire wings trimmed with a shimmering rainbow.
“Apologies for the delay, everyone,” he said. “It’s been a long week and you’ve pushed yourselves hard, but now it’s time for a real test.”
The screen changed to a map of the local area. The bulk of Torsten was located on and around the shores of the Old West River, about a mile west of the Theatre, which sat on the edge of Torhout Forest. North of the town lay a patchwork of green fields and grassy hills, some belonging to the Sophists with their lordly manors, others to Malkuthian immigrants with their isolated technohavens. To the far west and south, green turned to grey as the land fell into ruin, with the remnants of industry over in the west and the misshapen Scar to the south, where the Fourth Wall marked the end of one Malkuthian exodus and the beginnings of another.
Four markings appeared on the map. Seelie liked the number four.
“Today,” said Mr Payne, “you will only have to challenge four trials. In Torsten you will find Commander Thorbjorn, who wishes you to make an inquiry; over in Torhout Forest, Commander Azhara’d al-Hakim waits for you to seek a lost shrine; in the catacombs beneath your feet, Commander Sohrabarak al-Hakim wants you to unearth a battle-scarred ruin; and here, in the Theatre itself, Commander Shimomura means for you to experience an event that changed this town forever.”
There was a moment’s silence. No mention of the industrial ruins. Veritas had made a mistake.
Or, Emily found herself thinking, as much as she wished she wouldn’t, the Theatre had changed its plans, because the Theatre answered to Seelie and Seelie answered to the Sidhe Court.
And the Sidhe Court had an interest in Torsten.
The Sidhe Court had an interest in her.
“Four trials,” said Rembrandt Payne, “each one part of a larger puzzle. Your assignment is simple: six years ago, Torhout Forest burned, and I want you to find out why.”
Emily felt the blood drain from her face. She flicked her eyes towards Dante, saw in him the same pain, the same chill of recollection; six years ago, Dante Orpheus lost his mother to the fires, just as Emily lost hers to the shadows. She reached out, placed a reassuring hand on his arm, smiled. She wished she could do more.
Speaking from his office atop the Theatre, Mr Payne seemed to understand, as if he was really there, watching them as they watched him, reading them with his early morning eyes. For the first time, Emily saw the lines of experience, the weariness of perpetual conflict, the sadness of a man who had witnessed too much death. “No doubt you will have heard rumours about that night,” he continued, “accounts of how the Donara conspired to corrupt the town and died by their own hands, rather than admit the truth. But you must always remember that truth is fluid, and every individual sees things in a slightly different way. Your trials today will challenge your assumptions, and challenge what you perceive to be ‘the Truth’.”
She knew Director Guirlande and the Sophists would not stand for this, just as she knew that the appearance of Princess Phantasia Caelestis was no coincidence. Something was happening, something tied to the events six years ago. The events that changed her life, and Dante’s life. The events that would one day drive her to make a deal without a care for the price.
Maybe now they would ask for her payment. At least, she reassured herself, there was one ray of light in all of this: she would be able to prove to Dante that faeries were real.
Very, very real.
Chapter 2 End
How did Rembrandt Payne get that golden butterfly, with its sapphire wings trimmed by a shimmering rainbow? It’s a long story. As is the story of the night the forest burned. You will find out all the answers in time, some sooner, some later, some of them stated as fact, some of them alluded to through multiple, unreliable perspectives.
I know the truth, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be making it easy for you 😀