Orphic Phantasia

21: Spiral

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“There!” said Shelley, pointing to another balcony across the arena. “With the guy in the hat. He’s turned his cloak black, but it’s definitely Dante.”

It was; Emily zoomed in with her visor and picked out the mess of black hair, the Dante scowl as he studied a glass of—was that wine? The man sat opposite was one of the local bigwigs, an ageing ex-soldier who ran a brothel called the ‘Nekomata’ and dealt in weapons on the side. The Daughters had run into him a few times during their various escapades—even run him an ‘errand’ or two, when the pay was good—but Emily had never much liked him. It was the way he’d always looked at her with a knowing leer, taken every opportunity to ogle her body, to touch it. She had always regretted not having an excuse to put him out of his misery, not least tonight, as she watched him work his magic on her oblivious housemate.

“What the feck is Dante doing with that old bastard?” asked Leira.

Emily was confident the pimp wasn’t offering him sage counsel and started for the stairs, Leira and Shelley a step behind her. For every man and woman who tried to accost her, another half dozen stepped aside in awe. If it wasn’t for her disguise, she could have commanded the attention of the entire club.

But Emily had no intentions of dropping her mask. Not here, not now, not so long as there was still a chance, a hope she might emerge from all this with her reputation—Emily Fomalhaut’s reputation—unscathed. For the time being, she was a nobody.

But being a nobody had its disadvantages. As they reached the stairs to the V.I.P balcony, a bouncer held out his arm and shook his head.

Emily didn’t have time for pleasantries. With a disarming smile, she caught the man’s gaze and brushed her fingers against his skin. It was a promise she had no intention of fulfilling, but anyone who could resist it would command too high a wage for such trivial duty. As his stone-faced facade broke into a dopey grin and his innermost fantasies oozed from the cracks, Emily slipped into his thoughts with a whisper, a suggestion to step aside in exchange for things she would never surrender.

By the time she reached the top of the stairs, the pimp had disappeared, leaving Dante slouched in his chair, an empty bottle limp between his fingers. Sat opposite him, a necklace of bones hanging over his muscular chest, was a man in maroon robes, the lines of unholy priesthood etched across his face.

Before Leira could raise a hand to stop her, Emily flung herself towards him, knocking down a waiter with a tray of drinks and throwing aside every table and stool that dared to stand in her way. If she drew a crowd, all the better: she could set an example.

The cultist smiled as she levelled her knife at his throat.

“Emily, isn’t it?” he said, his voice a deep rumble over the hedonistic ruckus. “Your friend here has been telling me all about you.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

He raised his hands in feeble protest. “Now, now, I only wanted to talk. We rarely see such pretty eyes in these parts.”

“Do I have to repeat myself?” She shaped her intention into the knife’s edge, just in case he had some hidden defence or subtle magic of his own.

“A Maiden must only ask once,” he said, lifting his hands in mock surrender. The blade followed him as he stood up and backed away from the table. Emily—no, the Macha—wanted to plunge it into his throat, to slice through his windpipe and fill his lungs with blood, but it would cost her an easy escape, and her friends a lot more.

Instead, she slipped the knife into its sheath and dropped to Dante’s side. There was no expression on his face, no recognition of his housemates at his side, just a distant look in his eyes, as if he were in some other world. Emily prised the empty bottle from his fingers and handed it to Leira.

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Well, that escalated quickly.