Orphic Phantasia

18: Reflection

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After slathering her body in fresh dye, Emily scrubbed it into her skin, polishing herself to the bronze sheen expected of a Third Terrace Arcologian. Then, flesh still tingling, she combed globules of blue slime through her hair. It would’ve been easier if she kept it short, like Shelley or Hermia, but there was a toughness to a Maiden’s hair that was as hard to hide as it was to cut—a reminder from the City, coded into their genetics, of the Ideal they were to represent.

Finally, standing naked before the bathroom mirror, she brushed away the last traces of pale skin, fine-tuning her masquerade as a painter might perfect a prized portrait. But even then, even when bronze of skin and blue of hair, the Ideal stared back at her, as unsubtle as it was supple, its every measurement within a millimetre of supposed perfection. Perfection Emily never asked for. Perfection she did nothing to maintain and everything to hide.

Emily turned her back on the painting. Too many beautiful people went ignored because of that ‘ideal’. Really beautiful people. People like Shelley, with her vivid blue eyes and smattering of freckles, who some claimed looked ‘like a boy’—a similar gibe others would whisper behind Leira’s back, despite her golden hair and elfin features. Even Kaori, who inherited the Akaishian looks of her celebrity parents, faced scorn because she lacked the distinct, impossible proportions that the Cities deemed so worthwhile.

Once she’d tied up and pinned back her hair, she fastened her mother’s pendant around her neck and pulled on an oversized t-shirt emblazoned with one of Kaori’s designs—Kaori, who sketched her own tattoos and hemmed her own dresses. What could Emily do that compared? What could she create? Kaori had her fashion, Leira her music, Shelley her writing, but Emily? Even childbirth, the most basic and blessed act of human creation, was beyond her, as it was most Maidens, because the Cities preferred to keep their ‘ideal’ a rare commodity. Perfection, they dictated, didn’t bleed.

She grabbed fresh bottles of dye and slung them towards her bag. Futile an illusion as it was, a Maiden who walked outside her temple without so much as a mask was doomed to drag all the world’s attention towards her.

No, Emily wasn’t born to create—she was born to seduce and to scry and to control.

And, if the Sidhe had their way, she would turn those abilities—those ‘blessings’—on her peers. If the Sidhe had their way, she would lose the mask of Emily Fomalhaut and bare all to the people she had spent the past eighteen months befriending. If the Sidhe had their way, she would seduce, scry, and ultimately condemn the people she cared about most to a life of obsession, a life in thrall of an unobtainable ideal, a life spent plotting to reclaim that one, perfect moment with that one, perfect woman.

That was why she needed an alternative. Her alternative. One that wouldn’t harm her friends, that wouldn’t leave them as scarred as Torsten itself.

As scarred as her.

“You asked for an alternative, and we have shown you one.” His voice. Freyr’s voice. Emily could hear the sounds of the forest, feel the gentle breeze on her half-naked skin, even as she stood sealed away in her room. She reached for her bedsheets and pulled them around her, cocooning herself.

“Sending everyone into the Scar wasn’t what I had in mind,” she said, scanning her room for signs of the roguish Sidhe. “And this Avalon thing?”

“Ah, yes. Avalon.” She caught a glint of emerald in the bathroom mirror, but the moment she tried to focus on it, it vanished. “I can assure you that your upcoming sojourn is not our doing, although I can also assure you we will take full advantage of the opportunities it presents. I would suggest you do the same.”

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Time for some exposition!