He tried to speak calmly: “What do you say I have done to make me unwelcome at celebrations, sir?”
“What has he done? Hah!” The white-haired man leaned back as if to avoid an unpleasant smell. “Your joke is not appreciated, sir. As you may have guessed, I am a Antiamaranthine Purist, and I do not carry a computer in my ear telling me every nuance of your manor-born protocols, or which fork to use, or when to hold my tongue. Maybe I speak out of turn to say that the real Phaethon would be ashamed to show his face at a festival like this! Ashamed! This is a celebration of those who love this civilization, or who, like me, are urged to try to improve it by constructive criticism. But you!”
“Ashamed? … I have done nothing!”
“No, no more! Do not speak again! Perhaps I should get a brain filter like you machine-pets, so I could merely blot out stains like you from my sight and memory. That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? Me, shrouded in a little silvery tissue of my own. But irony is perhaps more fit to an age of iron than to an age of gold.”
“Sir, I really must insist you tell me what—”
“What?!! Still here, you interloper! If you want to look like Phaethon, maybe I should treat you like him, and have you thrown out of my grove on your ear!”
“Tell me the truth!” Phaethon stepped toward the man.
“Fortunately, this grove, and even the surrounding dreamspace, are my own, not part of the party grounds proper, and so I can throw you out, can’t I?”
He cackled, and waved his walking stick.
The man, and the grove, disappeared. Phaethon found himself standing on green hilltop in the sunlight, overlooking the palaces and gardens of the celebration shining in the distance. An overture of music came faintly from the distant towers.
This was a scene from the first day of the celebration, one of the entrance scenarios. The old man had deleted his grove scene from Phaethon’s sensorium, throwing him back into his default setting. An unthinkable rudeness! But, perhaps, allowed under the relaxed protocols and standards of the festival time.
A moment of cold anger ran through Phaethon. He was surprised at the vehemence of his own emotion. He was not normally an angry man—was he?
Perhaps it would be wise to let the matter drop. There were entertainments and delights enough to engage his attention at the Celebrations without pursuing this.
But … unlike everything he had seen, this was real. Phaethon’s curiosity was piqued, and perhaps his pride was stung. He would discover the answers.
He raised his fingers to his eyes and made the restart gesture. He was back in the scene, at night, in the silvery grove, but alone. The man was either gone or he was hiding behind Phaethon’s sense-filter.