Rembrandt Payne tried to muster a reassuring smile as he slipped into the chair at the head of the steel grey briefing table, but he could feel his lips rebel. The truth always came to light, one way or another.

“I’m glad you could all make it at such an early hour,” he said.

His staff sat in silent expectation of his orders. If any of them were frustrated with his early morning summons, they did not show it. They were professionals, artists of the highest calibre, summoned to serve a desperate cause even Seelie could not know—and they were his most trusted friends. Each one had answered his call, and each one had taken upon their shoulders a myriad of responsibilities, from running departments and divisions to commanding troupes and troops alike and training those who might one day take their place. It was a lot to ask of them, but they did it without question and without complaint. Even the Sophist Aristocracy’s constant attempts to stymie their efforts and drive them from the town did little to dent their enthusiasm. Rembrandt Payne was proud of them all.

And now, more than ever, he needed their help.

His eyes moved around the table, from Commander to Captain to Lieutenant and back. Had he the choice, he would have assigned them all to this mission, but there was too much at stake. One wrong move and his enemies would bring down everything they had worked to accomplish. Fourteen and a half years of struggle and sacrifice now hung on this moment. It was the Torhout Incident all over again.

But, this time, he was ready for it. This time he would not fail.

He steepled his hands in front of him. “I’ll cut straight to the point,” he said. “As you all know, in a short while, our Second Class students will board a vessel bound for the Fortunate Isles resort of Avalon. Some of you will accompany them.”

They knew the details. They had all been here, twenty-four hours ago, when the news first came in, and they had helped Payne restructure the final day of exams in a desperate attempt to prepare the initiates for the trials to come. None of them would stand to see Seelie or the Sidhe or anybody use their young charges as pawns in some worlds-spanning scheme. They had lost enough friends.

“Commander Thorbjorn will lead the operation,” he said, with a slight nod to Amber, sitting to his right. “If I were to leave Torsten myself, it would no doubt raise some serious questions amongst our superiors, and the less they have to work with the better.”

“Working under Seelie’s radar?” said Lia Ixchel. “I like it.”

“Which is why you’ll be staying here with me,” Payne replied, managing a half smile at the Lieutenant’s groan of disapproval. “The less suspicion we rouse the better.”

Choosing the right officers for the job had been a challenge. Not only was it a delicate situation, but Payne’s troupe was small, barely two-dozen officers total, all of whom played a vital role in the Theatre’s operations. To lose even one of them would put a strain on the others. To lose five would push his troupe to its limits.

But it had to be done. They couldn’t surrender the initiates to the whims of higher powers, or everything they worked for would be for naught. Thankfully, Rembrandt Payne had gathered some of the brightest, most talented artists in all the world—even if Seelie themselves were reluctant to acknowledge them.

“Natalia,” he nodded at the Donaran prodigy, whom Seelie had reluctantly commissioned to his troupe after the massacre of her people, “I’m putting you in charge of overseeing our young initiates.”

She gave a brief nod of acceptance. With a natural radius of twenty miles and the ability to split her consciousness between multiple avatars, Captain Natalia Espinosa, codename ‘Donara’s Orphan’, was one of the greatest projectionists Payne had ever known. She could be sitting in a meeting or teaching a class meditation while simultaneously tracking synthetics across the wilderness, spying on Aristocracy plots and scouting out the catacombs. She was five sets of eyes in one body, and Payne needed all the eyes he could get—especially when it came to the current Second Class.

Maidens and Malkuthians, vagrants and royalty, synthetics and Sidhe—was it any wonder they had drawn so much attention their way? As Prince Dionysus had said to him, two years ago, “When so many coincidences present themselves at once, it is likely no coincidence.”

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This interlude is long enough to span two pages!