48: The Oracle and the Oligarch
She held out a slender arm and opened her hand in offering. A lesser man would have succumbed to her promises, even knowing them nothing more than an illusion of a dream, but years of vagrancy had hardened Byron to the allures of harlots. This woman, he knew, was dangerous, untrustworthy, fuelled by some artificially infused sense of grandiose entitlement. He met her eyes with all the strength he could muster and, jaw clenched, chin high and back straight, refuted her offer with a simple shake of the head.
“Were it so easy to win a woman’s heart, I would have done so long ago,” he said.
The slightest of frowns. “How unfortunate,” she said. “But if you will not accept me in this life, there is always the next.”
There was a blur of movement, a rattle of chains, cold and unbreakable, as the mandala around him sprung to life, its neon lines reaching out to clasp at his wrists, his ankles—
And then the world lurched like the end of a bad dream, and it was all over.
Byron gasped, lungs screaming to fill their sudden void. The Oracle, cradling his body in one arm, brushed strands of sodden hair from his face. The magic shard around her neck pulsated with an unseen power.
“You are fortunate,” she said, helping him to his feet. “Were it not for this crystal, you would be dead and your soul at my mother’s mercy.”
Byron plucked his hat from the pool’s surface and gave it a quick shake. “You have my thanks,” he said. “And, indeed, my apologies for any repercussions your actions might have. If there is anything I can do to help…”
The Oracle smiled, a pretty gleam of light that brought back memories of Emily from happier days. “Do not worry about me,” she said. “My mother knows only that the hand of Ketos reached out to sever our link, not that I was the one to command it. As for repayment, however, there is something I would ask of you—something I thought I would never ask of anybody.”
Byron checked his stash of smoking herbs, but his unconscious dalliance with the temple pool had soaked them through. With a wince of disappointment, he stuffed the pouch back into his waistcoat pocket. “Whatever you ask,” he said, “although I am afraid my soul is off-limits.”
“Please, save my daughters.”
Byron felt a shock colder than the waters in which he stood. With those words, quivering with the soft, desperate plea of a slave beholden to a malicious master, chained to a pedestal of worship, a plinth of obligation, the transhuman majesty that was Jadwiga Järvi, Akashvani of Avalon, cracked, exposing the raw, trembling figure beneath, no longer a seer of hidden truths or a conduit to capricious overseers, but a mother, weary and alone, and very much afraid.
I didn’t notice until revising the third draft that Byron uses variations of “a lesser man…” narration multiple times during his scenes. It does, however, suit his character. The subconscious is weird like that.