Chapter 30

The House of the Soulless

Byron d’Arcadie plunged the flame into his pipe, then flicked the smoking match into the fountain. He loosed a cloud of smoke into the air with a sigh. “I did not pack my wares for you to squander,” he said. “I plan to make myself a tidy profit from this place. Those denied the simple pleasures of life will oft pay well for them.”

Dante watched Byron’s discarded match bob along the water’s surface, before disappearing into some kind of filter at the fountain’s edge. Not five minutes into Joel’s little quest and already things looked bleak.

“Awh, c’mon, mate, I ain’t asking for much,” the raven protested, scuffing his boots on the plaza’s ivory tiles. “I’ll hook you up with some brew when we get back.”

Byron laughed, a pompous and condescending chuckle he reserved for moments like this. “You know I have finer tastes than that awful bilge,” he replied. “Make it a bottle of whiskey and I might consider it.”

“For a pack of ciggies? You’ve gotta be shittin’ me.”

“Then I am afraid you shall have to conduct your business elsewhere.” With a dismissive wave, the poet turned on his heels and waltzed across the plaza in the direction of the island’s urban centre.

Joel kicked the fountain and grumbled a “bloody ponce” under his breath. Turning to Dante, he hid his frustration behind a toothy grin. “Guess it weren’t ever gonna be easy,” he said. “Fancy a mish into town then?”

Dante shrugged; it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do.

Although they were headed in the same direction as Byron, Joel followed a different route. As they cut through a neighbouring plaza, identical in every detail to the one outside their apartment, they passed a trio of young woman, slender sheets of silk draped over their bronze bodies. Joel waved a skeletal hand and flashed them a nicotine smile. They replied with hushed whispers and red-faced giggling.

“Can you believe Kao were worried I’d ditch her for some local chick?” he asked as the women passed out of sight. “I’d have more luck trying to pull Astrid Guirlande! You, on the other hand—” He jabbed Dante’s side with his elbow and grinned.

Dante looked away, lips twisting at the thought of repeating the previous night’s escapades. He was supposed to be above such hedonistic cravings. That Avalon seemed so keen to embrace them was proof it was a sham. Just as Chris Shaw had said on the shuttle there, if you gave people technology they were not ready for, they would only end up abusing it.

Ahead of them, an archway welcomed them to the Recreational District, a sprawling nest of interconnected towers and sports arenas. From badminton to basketball, racquetball to rounders, there was a tournament or training program for every level of skill—although, from the feats on display, it was hard to believe anyone here anything but an accomplished master of their chosen sport. Just the sight of them, lean of muscle and quick of reflex, left Dante feeling weak and inadequate. It was like watching Horatio Stark conquer the Ritches Estate training course in record time without once breaking a sweat. All his own effort, all those long mornings training, preparing himself, all of it was for naught.

He scratched the back of his neck. It felt like something had bitten him.

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Those girls were probably laughing at Joel’s tattoos.