Orphic Phantasia

31: Irrefutable Evidence

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“It has been an interesting few days, has it not, Mr Orpheus?” said a voice to Dante’s left. He turned to find Sohrabarak al-Hakim slouched at a table, a vibrant flowered shirt in place of his usual Seelie uniform. He lifted a glass, half full with a rich, cardinal liquid, in greeting. “How are you finding things?”

“I—” Dante paused. He knew his next words would decide his fate. “It’s—it’s all a lie. The sky, the sea, even these towers. It’s like … it’s like something out of a simulation. None of it has—” he took a deep breath, “none of it has a soul. When you have everything, nothing has value.”

He never thought he would quote Chris Shaw on anything, least of all to a Seelie Officer, but the Malkuthian’s words explained things better than he ever could.

“The wise words of those who abandoned the Cities when they realised that a short life filled with hardship was better than empty eternity,” said Mr al-Hakim, sloshing his drink around its glass. “Unfortunately, for each person who sees through the lies, there are a dozen more willing to sacrifice anything and everything for a shot at that blissful immortality.”

Below them, Byron stood from the table, picked up his hat, and made for the bathroom. Almost as soon as he vanished, a man in a smart suit of amaranth purple slipped through the crowd and took his seat. As the stranger leaned over the table to engage Emily in conversation, his hand slipped beneath a frilled cravat.

“If I were you,” said Mr al-Hakim, “I would make sure you are recording this.”

Dante ordered his visor to record his cloak’s information feed just in time to catch Emily fling the contents of her glass in the stranger’s face and storm out of the cafe. The man called after her, “Aliza! Aliza, please, wait!”

When she refused to listen, he reached into his shirt.

“Well,” said Mr al-Hakim, “what did you think of him?”

“Of who?” asked Dante.

“Precisely.” Mr al-Hakim smiled. “Perhaps you should check your recording.”

Dante was surprised to find his visor recording everything he—or, rather, his cloak—saw. As he played it back, his memories stirred. Not a minute had passed but, somehow, he had forgotten all about the stranger harassing Emily. It was as if he was spying on events from an alternative timeline.

And yet the stranger was still there, in the cafe below, one hand playing with something underneath his shirt as Byron weaved through the chairs and tables towards him.

“If you are wondering, this is not Avalon’s doing,” said Mr al-Hakim. “Potent as its technology may be, it does not have the power to erase memories. Now, if you would excuse me…” He rose from his seat and tapped his butterfly brooch, almost camouflaged against his shirt pocket, “I have duties to attend to. I wish you luck with your continued investigations, Mr Orpheus. Remember, the fewer assumptions, the better. More often than not, the truth is the simplest answer.”

As he left, Dante returned his attention to the cafe below, where the man in the amaranth purple suit was making a hurried exit. Byron, clasping his cellular close to his mouth, followed at a discreet distance.

The simplest answer: that man was after Emily.

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You’ll find out what Byron is doing, in his own overwrought words, soon enough…