Rembrandt Payne studied the figures on his desk. Amber Thorbjorn,  aka Verdandi the Third; Yuki Shimomura, the Serene Raven; “Seven Blades” Azhara’d al-Hakim and his brother, the Lightning Shaper Sohrabarak al-Hakim… Even his newest, youngest member of staff, Tes Anderson—the “Scourge of Lemegeton”—could not escape Seelie’s commodification. They were heroes, all of them, and Seelie valued its heroes. It needed them to inspire others and to drive recruitment—and to boost its struggling profits. Altruism and philanthropy did not come cheap. There was, after all, no such thing as a moneyless society.

Not that it didn’t stop people believing in such a thing. It was inevitable, with all the miracles of technology, that they would, the same way people believed in immortality and agelessness, or the will of some supreme creator-god. And, so long as there were people willing to believe, there would be people willing to abuse those beliefs.

People like Pleiades.

Had the heroes arranged on his desk been at Payne’s side six years ago, perhaps Pleiades would have learned to leave Torsten alone—and perhaps he wouldn’t have lost some dear friends.

His gaze lingered on the cabinet in the corner of his office, where he made his memorial to those men and women who had taken their leave of the Cycle. Some of them, like the adventurous Bahadur Ritches and boisterous Ruby Thorbjorn, had departed during that bitter, unexpected battle that brought a final end to the War, when Rembrandt himself was just another officer of the Torsten Troupe. Others, like Ophelia Orpheus and Amstrad Archimedes, had fallen under his command. Their deaths hung over him like the black clouds beyond the Seventh Wall. And today, those clouds had whipped up a storm.

He sipped his tea; tea calmed the soul, and his soul needed calming like never before. Things were moving too fast, casting long-secret plans into light and forcing hasty improvisations and desperate attempts to avoid another incident like the one that scarred the forest. That, he figured, was itself a part of the plan. The Sidhe were like that. He knew that much from working alongside them—and now he was caught between two of them, each one determined to outmanoeuvre the other.

Payne could handle it, as could his staff, but he was worried about the initiates. They knew little of the grandiose schemes that shaped the world. They would be the victims in this, just as Ophelia and Amstrad and the Donara had been victims six years ago.

“It is not an easy position to be in.”

Payne had learned, in his long experience with Seelie, to recognise when another had graced him with their presence, even when they had no physical form to knock on doors or shuffle along carpets, so the sudden appearance of Prince Dionysus Serpentarius, of the Court of Queen Thetis Mysticeti, did not surprise him.

Indeed, he had expected it.

“Somehow,” he replied, “I suspect it won’t be getting any easier.” He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. He would have offered the Prince tea but, unlike his Queen, Dionysus kept a certain cool distance between himself and the customs of the material realm. Given his precarious position among his people, it was probably for the best.

“It will not,” he said. The Áes Uisce did not clutter their speech with poetic wanderings like the Áes Gáeth, though they at least had more tact than the Áes Cré, who delivered their judgements with little care for how they might sound. “We must do everything we can to gather information before your initiates leave for Avalon. Once they are there, I doubt even privacy such as this will deter her eyes.”

Payne had also learned, in his long experience with Seelie, to recognise when his consciousness had shifted from the physical to the aethereal, and from the aethereal into a moment, sealed between the seconds.

“We must bring forward their final examination,” said the Prince.

With those words it became a moment, sealed between the seconds, which lasted an eternity.

Episode One End

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I used to have a comment here about how interludes helped give me a break between chapters, to reduce the burden of putting out a chapter every week…

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