Orphic Phantasia

2: Of Sophists and Seelie

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It was only a street away, its south tower just visible beyond a wall of elms, when the Sophists’ trail came to its end at an ivory carriage and two grey mares. Beside them, a man in the weathered robes of Sophist slavery scooped shit into a bucket. Emily was about to hurry by when the slave looked up and caught her eye from beneath a ragged curtain of unwashed hair. With a gasp, he dropped the bucket and cried out in panic.

“No! Not another one! Not again!” He lifted his arms to cover his face. “Please, stay away from me! Stay out of my head!”

Emily looked around, hoping he’d addressed somebody—anybody—else, but Katrina and Dante were the only ones there, the former with a furrowed look of contemplation, the latter glowering from beneath his mop of unkempt hair.

“Please!” The man fell to his knees, indifferent to the shit that waited for him. “I won’t go! I won’t go into the light!”

Emily was about to flee the scene when a low voice cut through the air and rooted her to the spot. Jaw clenched, she turned to face him.

“Ms”—a pause—“Fomalhaut, wasn’t it? I would appreciate it if you would avoid harassing my staff.”

A tall man with hair of liquid gold, flanked by men in white armour and crimson cloaks, emerged from a passage in some nearby hedgerows—the way to Ms Thorbjorn’s home—and studied the three students with cold, blue eyes. Director Rosencrantz Guirlande of the Sophist Aristocracy wore a permanent frown, highlighted by the deep creases of his tanned face. While his ‘peacekeepers’ dressed themselves up like warriors from ages past, he favoured a crisp white suit and tie, the only sign of his Sophist allegiance the silver cross pinned to his breast, its pointed design reminiscent of the ornamental swords that hung from his bodyguards’ belts.

Without even thinking, Emily spat back a reply, “Staff? So you’re paying them now?” She regretted it the moment the words left her lips, but hatred had overwhelmed any hopes she had of putting on a show. It always did.

The Director did not flinch. “With rehabilitation, of course.” He gestured for his guards to deal with the shit-stained slave. They dragged him up and thrust the bucket back into his hands. “Well, since the Fates have drawn the four of us together,” he continued, “might I ask if any of you have crossed paths with a strange young girl today? If you have, you will know who I mean.”

Of course the Sophists would be investigating; they would take any opportunity they could to come down on Seelie. Emily replied through grit teeth, “If I had, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”

Kat also admitted her ignorance, though with far more politesse than the Sophists deserved.

And then the Director rolled his eyes towards Dante, still trying to hide behind his thick, black hair. Were it anyone else interrogating him, Emily would have urged him to pull up his hood and escape beneath the illusions of his cloak, but she knew how keen the Director’s eyes were, how they could pierce even the City’s illusions—because, unlike Dante, the Director always kept three eyes open.

“Ah, innocuous as ever, Mr Orpheus,” he said with that unnerving familiarity he liked to address the Theatre’s initiatives with. “Might I be so bold as to ask the same question of you?”

Dante tried to turn away, but escaping the Director was a futile endeavour. “Early this morning,” he finally admitted, “about four-thirty.” Then, somehow finding the courage to look the Director straight in the eyes, he added, “She’s just an avatar. A Malkuthian trick.”

The same excuse he gave Emily. She wanted to distract the Director from shattering Dante’s delusions—even though she wanted them shattered more than anyone—but his thoughts were too fast, even for her.

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You could say that the Aristocracy’s slaves are branded insane.