16: A Crack in the Mask
And, much to her surprise, that was exactly what happened. As she lay there on the balcony, staring up at the ceiling, her body too numb to move, she heard the Sophist scream, the clatter of armour as she fell, the sound of hurried footsteps on the carpet.
“Shell?” It was Alonie, her red eye aglow in the dimness. “Are you okay? I just—I saw—and then this … this dog, or cat, I don’t know … it—it just…”
Shelley turned her head. Shuck stood there next to her, a shadow in the dark.
“Ye wee daft lass, what did ye go and do that fer?”
Shelley managed a smile. I guess this means we’re even, huh?
“There’re nae debts between us,” he replied. “I’ll always be here fer ye.”
She looked back to Alonie, and they shared a moment’s awkward silence. Then Alonie managed a rare smile—so like Emily’s it was uncanny. “I don’t know what the hell you did back there, but thanks. I, eh…” She bit her lip. “Probably best we not tell anyone about this. Ever.”
Shelley’s voice felt dry in her own throat. “Aye.”
Lies! It had to be. Emily knew the Sophists better than anyone—and yet still she couldn’t look the Director in the eye. “So, you’re just going to let us all go out of the kindness of your own heart, is that it?” She blamed her sharpness on the pain in her shoulder. It grew worse with every throb of the fogs, every note she heard on the distant wind, calling to her.
“It would not be the first time I have let you escape Sophist retribution.”
Emily’s grip locked around the hilt of her knife, and it took every muscle in her body tightening at once to keep her from taking things further. Against her better judgement, she lifted her gaze, met the Director’s face with a vicious, uncompromising sneer. She could hardly see him for the shadows, but she could sense him deflecting her hatred with nary a flinch. If only she had an opening. If only she had a crack.
“Shut it, Byron! I’ve had enough of this—this … people like him using me like I’m some kind of tool to get them what they want. They think they’re all so fucking clever. I’m sick of it!” She didn’t realise until the last word that she had thrust her knife it in the Sophist’s direction, a quivering finger of rage with a razor-sharp edge.
It clattered to the floor as the last of her energy bled away.
“I don’t want any of it anymore. I want to be left alone. I want to—to be a normal person.”
The Director’s low voice rumbled across the rooftop, “I understand your pain, Emily.”
Understand? How the fuck could he ever understand?
Katrina placed a hand on her arm. “Emily,” she said, “please…”
No, she thought, you can’t understand me either. None of you can. Least of all him!
She threw one last, impotent glare the Director’s way, but he had cast his eyes skyward. “You see, Rembrandt?” he said, so soft his words would have been lost to all but a Maiden’s ears. “They are still children. Must we condemn another generation to suffer the Erebus?”
If anything, the fog seemed thicker than ever, an infinite sea of darkness straining against the barrier of light.
“There’s no such thing. You’re lying.”
The words tore Emily out of the shadows; they were Dante’s, mumbled but audible. He stood there with his back to the group, a pillar of white in the dark, hands thrust deep inside his cloak pockets.
“Lying, Mr Orpheus? And how might I be lying?”
Guirlande really does understand…