The first and most obvious place to check for Evelyn was in her old bedroom.
Praem trailed behind as we made our way down the twisty, cramped hallway, and I found myself hoping that she’d merely gotten confused. Perhaps the house had befuddled her inhuman senses in some obscure fashion. Perhaps we’d find Evelyn sitting right in plain view, death-glaring at us and ready for a nasty argument. Raine would apologise to her, and that was going to be messy, we had some serious issues to work through, but she would be right there. She had not gone missing. The alternative did not bear thinking about.
“Evee? S’just us,” Raine called, knocking before she opened the door, a slab of polished wood with creaky hinges. “Evee? No Evee. Under the bed? No? Worth a shot.”
I followed her in, and put an involuntary hand up to my mouth.
“Her bag’s still here,” Raine was saying. “And, yup, here’s her phone, so I guess we won’t be calling her. Hey, hey, Heather.” Raine must have caught the look on my face. “There’s nothing to worry about. She’s probably gone back to the kitchen, scarfing down comfort food, or stepped out to clear her head. We’ll find her in minutes, okay? Come on.” She offered me her hand.
“Raine, look at this room.”
“This isn’t a childhood home for her. Not even one full of terrible memories. This is an open wound.”
Evelyn’s bedroom – her childhood bedroom – was like a little girl’s princess fantasy. A regular sized sitting room could fit in here quite comfortably. Heavy curtains veiled a pair of deep windows, three spindly chairs ringed a little oaken table, and a huge vanity mirror and double bed dominated the far wall.
The room had been gutted.
I’d seen the effect on a much lesser scale, in my own bedroom at home on the last day before I’d left for university. Treasured possessions missing from their customary places, practical necessities removed, empty gaps instead of living memory.
The bed lacked sheets, a chest of drawers stood open and empty of clothes – except a lonely pair of mismatched socks – and the walls showed dark rectangles where posters had once occluded the light. A low bookcase held only a dictionary and a copy of The Lord of the Rings, rumpled as if tossed down in disgust. I could picture the spots where Evelyn would have stacked soft toys, the way she would have piled the bed with quilts and pillows, the enclosing comfort so evident in her room back in the Sharrowford house. This place felt anonymous, nothing of her in here.
Raine gave me a pained smiled. “Yeah, yeah I know. I helped her strip the place out. Never thought we’d have to come back.”
“It’s horrible. Raine, she can’t stay in here.”
Raine nodded and puffed out a slow sigh. “Maybe she went to get some bedsheets?”
I gave her a capital-L look.
“Yeah.” Raine cleared her throat. “Probs’ not.”
Over the next half hour I came to know the Saye family mansion, as one might know an intricate and broken torture device, designed by a sadistic genius.
A simple inventory of the house might look perfectly sane on paper – x number of bedrooms, y number of bathrooms, one grand dining room and so on – but could never do justice to the way the snaking corridors kinked in on themselves as if built around the rooms.
Old darkness had saturated the beams and corners down the centuries, lurking in the back of brick fireplaces and underneath heavy wooden furniture, never fully retreating each time Raine slapped about for a light switch on the walls. Blind corners and shadowy recesses were always sneaking up on the unwary explorer – that would be me.
Many rooms joined to others via side doors and little cubby closets. Other than an obvious effort to fight back the dust, most of them looked as if they’d been left untidy for years. Cushions discarded haphazardly, furniture pushed back in strange configurations, beds hastily stripped with the sheets still in piles on the floor. One room struck me as particularly ominous; a side-door had been barricaded with a pair of upturned chairs, long ago left to gather dust.
We peered into empty sitting rooms with cracked leather sofas, and wandered the circumference of a great dining table in a hall with tall windows and tarnished silverware on the sideboards. We wormed our way back to the kitchen and peeked out into a re-purposed utility room, with a little walled-off outdoor courtyard for the bins. We found a locked study where Raine peered through the keyhole. We heard Lewis singing in the bath, and assumed Evelyn was not in there listening to her father butchering Bohemian Rhapsody.
We also passed several tired, listless servitors, hibernating things wound down and curled up, their orders long forgotten.
I’d thought I loved old buildings, such venerable beauty from a different age. This mansion was the exception which proved the rule, cold and vast, too much akin to an impersonal concrete box on a larger scale. The house told me that my tiny flickering life could never fill this void.
I couldn’t think of this as Evelyn’s home. That honour belonged to the house in Sharrowford.
“What if we don’t find her?” I asked as we retraced our steps along the ground floor’s main spinal corridor, my voice an unbidden whisper. “The last time Evelyn went missing, she got lost in another dimension.”
Raine shook her head and shot me one of her easy confident smiles. “She’ll be around here somewhere, might be hiding from us though. This old hulk sure is a good place to play hide and seek, full of nooks and crannies. We might be at this for a while yet. You holding up okay, wanna go sit down?”
“What if she’s hurt herself?”
“On purpose? She’d never do that, not our Evee.”
“Raine, she self-harms constantly. It might not be razor blade marks on her wrists, but the way she punishes herself is just as real.”
Raine paused with an oddly thoughtful frown, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah there’s places she could go here that would mess with her head. We should check out the mothballed wing, that’s where her mother used to keep all the hocus pocus, but I asked Lewis and he told me it was all locked up. Here, back this way.”
Creeping around dark corridors together had smothered my earlier arousal, given me time to watch Raine and think uncomfortable thoughts.
Raine had lied to me.
She’d lied to Evelyn and I, manipulated us – yes, ostensibly for our own safety, in her self-appointed role as bodyguard, and I did believe that justification. Or at least I believed that she believed.
I couldn’t help how that had turned me on, made me feel safe, made me feel right. Even thinking about it now I felt a little shiver of attraction. Raine’s elemental nature pressed all my sexual buttons, buried my anger and frustration under a tidal wave of arousal. She hadn’t even meant to do it.
From the first day I’d met her, I’d let Raine get away with so much, because she was hot and she liked me and her unhealthy behaviour made me feel good.
Sooner or later I was going to have to deal with the realities of being desperately head-over-heels in love with a sociopath.
Praem wasn’t reassuring company right now either. She’d lapsed back into her habitual silence, lurking a dozen paces behind Raine and I. Several times she’d made me jump when I’d turned around and she’d been standing there in the shadows, staring at nothing. At least she was easy on the eyes. I could ogle her chest through her jumper all day long and at least she wouldn’t try to manipulate me.
“Heather?” Raine called.
I turned away from the voluptuous doll-demon. I’d gotten distracted, as Raine had pulled ahead a few paces.
“She say something?” Raine asked.
“No, sorry. I was just admiring the view. So to speak.”
Raine quirked an eyebrow in surprise, and I felt a sudden blush colour my cheeks. Oh dear, I had actually said that out loud, hadn’t I?
“W-what?” I tried to meet Raine’s amazement with smoldering indignation – and the feeling came far too easily. “I can’t look at her? I’m sure you must do, on occasion.”
Oh no, oh Heather, what are you doing?
Baiting your girlfriend into an argument, because you’re angry and can’t express yourself properly, because an argument with Raine is a hundred times easier than dealing with how Evelyn has vanished into her ancient crumbling ancestral home full of exhausted spirit life and the wreckage of her family.
Let’s have it out, Raine, right here in the middle of this absurd old house with my best friend missing and a demon watching us. Let’s have a blazing row about sexual attraction and basic respect and I’ll break down at you for lying to me and you’ll try to win me back by screwing my tiny stupid brains out but I’ll shout at you before you get the chance and-
“Course you can look at her. She doesn’t give a damn, and her jugs are out of this world.” Raine grinned, cheeky and confident and a little dirty. The sort of grin that made me melt. It faded when I failed to laugh at her joke. “It’s just, you know, you never say stuff like that. You’re horned up real bad, aren’t you?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Ah.” Raine swallowed and dipped her head. “Right, yeah, you’ve got every right to be mad at me.”
“I’m-” Not mad? I looked down at my feet and crossed my arms, so I could tell the truth. “I am mad. And aroused, and pent up. And worried and hurt. I want you to not lie to me ever again.”
Raine took a step closer, in my peripheral vision. “I can’t make that promise. You know I’d only lie to you to get you out of harm’s way.”
“And I hate that I’m okay with that,” I hissed.
“Do you hate me?”
Not a shred of accusation in her voice. No bitterness, no uncertain tremor. We’d shared each other for months now and she was utterly unafraid of rejection. How did she do it? She took another step closer.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said to her feet. “I’m in love with you. I just wish … ”
“Wish what?” Raine murmured, and touched her fingertips to my folded arms.
I pulled away.
“Don’t. You’ll turn me on again and I’ll forget what I’m trying to say. You want to be my protector? Well then. Oh dammit,” I snapped, as much at myself as at Raine. “Are we really having this talk right now, with Evee missing, in a dark corridor in the spookiest house ever? Raine, if you want to be my protector, then you may need to protect me from aspects of yourself. You need to never lie to me again.”
I forced myself to look up and meet Raine’s eyes – a mistake. Deep, rich brown, always so expressive and intelligent, and right now creased with such confused conflict.
She almost shattered my hastily constructed defences with a mere shake of her head.
“Heather, I never meant-”
“And don’t say it was to keep me safe, because I like it when you say that, it makes me feel good, and I don’t want to feel good about you lying to me. You can’t do that to me, Raine.”
Raine drew herself up with a deep sigh and closed her eyes, as if cleansing herself, and suddenly I was the one wracked by fear of rejection.
Was this what Evelyn had warned me about, so many weeks ago?
My mind raced a hundred miles an hour. Of course Raine was going to lose interest sooner or later. Look at me, small and scrawny and weird, compared to this amazonian beauty, the simplest of my emotions tied up in knots in front of her blazing clarity of purpose. If I wouldn’t serve those purposes, she’d move on, as soon as all my complaints could no longer be drowned out with sex.
I did my best to harden my heart.
I did not do a very good job.
“You’re right,” Raine said, eyes still closed. “You are completely right, Heather. Yeah, I know I’m not very good at seeing these things. Promises don’t mean much if they’re easy to keep, so-” She opened her eyes and juddered to a halt at the sight of me. “Heather? Woah, woah, Heather, it’s okay, you-”
“Finish what you were saying,” I managed to squeak.
“Sure thing, boss,” she almost laughed, amusement covering her concern. God, I loved the way she could laugh anything off, even when it infuriated me. “It’s a difficult promise, but a promise I have to try – I’ll never lie to you again. Even to protect you. Might have to make some forced tactical errors, but you’re right, you’re more important than that. I’m kind of a fucking idiot that you had to explain that to me. Some philosopher I am.”
I nodded. Had to look away from her.
“Heather? You really look like you need a hug right now. Can I?”
“You may,” I whispered.
Raine wrapped her arms around me and I buried my face in her shoulder. Oh, that was better. That was much better. Silly, paranoid Heather; Raine was an impossible sociopath, but sometimes it was easy to forget she had chosen me, even if I didn’t understand her reasons. She rubbed my back in muscle-melting circles. Neither of us spoke for a long moment. I listened to her heartbeat.
“Thought you were about to break up with me,” I eventually croaked.
“What? No fucking way. Oh Heather, I’m still kind of a mystery to you, aren’t I?”
“I suppose you are.” I managed a little shrug.
We let go of each other after another moment of shared comfort, but Raine made a point of holding my hand and ruffling my hair. I sniffed and nodded at her smile, and then she raised her eyes past me.
“Hey Praem,” Raine said. “Sorry for all the drama.”
How embarrassing, to have an audience for such a personal moment. At least Praem wasn’t capable of caring. I glanced over my shoulder at the doll-demon – and found, to my incredible surprise, that Praem’s milky white eyes were creased by a subtle tightness. She stared for a heartbeat, then spoke.
“ … is she pissed off with us?” Raine asked.
“I think she is. I’m sorry, Praem. And also she’s right, we do need to find Evelyn. I can’t believe we stopped to have a miniature relationship crisis in the middle of all this.” I rolled my eyes to gesture at the absurdity of the house all around us.
“Right you are then.” Raine rolled her shoulders. Always a good sign.
“You have a fresh idea?”
“Smart money says she’s either gone out to the car, in protest, or she’s hiding, maybe pressured her dad into unlocking the east wing. We’ll check out the front first, then go find Lewis. He’s probably done with his bath now. We’ll just have to hope we don’t get an eyeful of naked old man.”
“Come on.” Raine grinned at me and turned to set off.
I glanced back at Praem one more time. “Do you have suggestions … for … ”
Praem did not have any suggestions, but perhaps she would have if I’d been able to finish the question.
A fox was sitting behind her.
Right in the middle of the corridor, those cute little black-furred paws pressed neatly into the carpet, golden eyes glinting in the gloom. We made eye contact; I froze in shock.
A tug on my hand, Raine attempting to lead me onward. Suddenly the fox stood up, twitched its ears, and raced away down the corridor on silent paws. It slipped around a corner, a flash of russet in the dark.
“Heather? You getting one more dose of Praem’s rack?”
“No! No, Raine, didn’t you see that?”
Raine shook her head, eyes flicking down the corridor on instant high alert. “A spirit?”
“No. It was a fox, it was normal. It just … Raine, where does that hallway lead, around that corner?”
“That way? Couple of connecting rooms between the two wings. All the stuff on the far side’ll be locked though, Evee wouldn’t- oh.”
“Oh? Oh? Don’t ‘oh’ at me and stop.”
Raine shot me a pained smile. “Oh as in ‘oh shit’. I know exactly where Evee is. Come on.”
I struggled to keep up, even hand in hand. Raine’s stride threatened to break into a run, though we walked less than fifty feet. Hurrying down the side corridor where the fox had vanished, thinner and more claustrophobic than the main spine, we climbed a small set of stairs. Raine paused with a sharp frown at a trio of doors. I gulped down air to get my breath back.
“Where is she? Raine, where are we going?”
“This uh, reading room thing. Place. I should have known, but she hasn’t been back there, ever.” Raine remembered the correct door, grabbed the handle, and led me through.
A short stub of corridor, with only one door at the far end. Raine let go of my hand and raced ahead. She burst through the door all in a rush, raising her voice. “Evee? Evee, it’s us. Evelyn?”
I crept in behind her, my heart in my throat.
Reading room, right; Raine did display an occasional talent for understatement.
We’d emerged through a side-door into a space more akin to a library hall or great viewing chamber, or the study of a master inventor from the age of discovery. The vast room occupied both floors of this part of the mansion. The upper floor formed a wide walkway around three walls, ringed with meticulously organised bookcases, reached by a staircase at one end. The echoing space was poorly lit by wall sconces, half the bulbs burnt out or missing. A pair of free-standing lamps put up a valiant defence against the oppressive gloom. The towering curtains were caked in old dust.
All dark heavy polished wood, several tables and desks stood at different points around the room’s bare floorboards as if for separate projects, stacked with all manner of bric-a-brac in a state of terrible disarray: disassembled electronics, a half finished oil-paint canvas of a landscape scene, an entire deer skeleton laid out bone by bone, a series of anatomical specimen jars filled with cloudy liquid, a set of grotesque clay statues of worms with wings and teeth, and a half-dozen other mysteries too complex to take in at a glance.
One table was on its side, contents strewn across the floor. It had been that way for a long time. Dust covered every surface, including the floor, except for a single pair of dragging footprints and the trail of a walking stick.
A part of one wall was cracked and cratered, the plaster scorched black around the edges, the damage blurred by time and dust.
Evelyn was sitting in a chair, hunched over with her chin in her hands.
She’d been staring at the old scorch mark, but she looked up as Raine and I blundered into the room. Even before she opened her mouth, even with that thunderous frown on her face, relief flooded my chest.
“Evee!” I said.
“Stop shouting, the pair of you,” she snapped. “My ears work perfectly well.”
Raine sighed through a smile, relief plain as she shook her head.
“What?” Evelyn demanded.
“Evee, are you okay?” Raine asked.
Evelyn pulled a face as if Raine had suggested she take up molesting animals. She glanced at me. “What have you been doing to her now? Are you both high on mushrooms? What an utterly idiotic question. Do I seem alright? You tell me.”
“Of course you don’t seem alright,” I said before Raine could put her foot in her mouth. “Praem couldn’t find you, we were so worried. I-I thought maybe you’d- I don’t know. I was worried about you, Evee.”
Evelyn snorted and looked away.
“Wow. Well. This sure is the last place I’d think of to look for you,” Raine said, as she crossed to the nearest of the heavy old desks and cast an odd look around the room, at the scorched crater Evelyn had been sitting and staring at. I realised there was a huge stain on the floorboards nearby, a years old splatter that had stripped the polish and warped the wood. Two more scorch marks, like meteor trails, had chewed into the floor not far away. “What on earth are you doing in here, Evee?”
“Sitting down,” Evelyn drawled. “To enjoy my holiday.”
Raine dipped her head in silent apology. Evelyn frowned at her like she’d gone mad.
“Is this where it happened?” I asked softly. They both looked at me, Raine with a frozen wince and Evelyn with deep shadows in her eyes. “I apologise for asking, but under the circumstances I think it’s better to have it in the open. This is where your mother died, isn’t it?”
Evelyn nodded and made a grumbly throat-clearing noise. She followed my awed glance at the cratered wall. “Not there. That was where she tried to stop me.”
What on earth could one say to that? ‘I see’, or ‘I’m sorry’, or some other useless platitude? None of that would help Evelyn.
“Why hasn’t any of this been cleaned up?” I asked instead.
“Nobody’s set foot in here since.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be sitting alone in the room where your abusive mother died. If you want to sit here, I’ll pull up a chair too.”
Evelyn looked like she wanted to slap me for that one. I didn’t blame her, and I’d take it too. Some wounds never close.
Praem chose that moment to join us, crossing the room to stand next to Evelyn’s chair, prim and proper and very straight-backed indeed. Evelyn eyed her with open suspicion, until Praem turned her head to meet her mistress’ gaze.
“You required help,” Praem intoned.
“Shut up. Not another word. God dammit, I specifically told you not to … ” Evelyn trailed off in barely contained frustration, with a telltale guilty glance at Raine and I.
“Wait a moment,” I said. “Did she lie to us? Praem, did you know where Evelyn was this whole time?”
Raine raised her eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “Clever girl. Very impressive. She found a way around your orders, Evee.”
“She’s getting worse,” Evelyn hissed. “Should never have made her.”
“Evelyn,” I said. “She saw you were in pain and went for help. That’s not evil voodoo zombie territory, not at all. Thank you, Praem. Was that you, with the fox back there?”
Praem turned to stare at me, in silence.
“What fox?” Evelyn asked. “What’s she done now?”
“Back in the corridor?” Raine asked. “Heather saw something, I thought it was a spirit, and then I worked out you’d come here.”
“I-” I struggled to phrase the words. It hadn’t looked anything like a spirit. “Sort of, I don’t know. Praem?”
Evelyn slapped Praem in the leg with her walking stick. “Answer.”
“Not I,” Praem said, icicle cold.
Evelyn shrugged with shoulders and eyebrows, more than a little unimpressed.
“Did you see a fox come through here?” I asked her.
“I’m serious. Evee, don’t look at me like that, stupid things happen to us all the time. Woodland creatures walking through walls is relatively minor compared to half the things I’ve seen since I met you two. Yes, I turned around to ask Praem if she had any ideas about where you might be, and I saw a fox in the corridor. It went around a corner, and technically it led us to you. Is there any reason there would be a magical fox in here?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and spread her hands. She couldn’t have looked more exasperated if I’d enquired as to whether bears defecated in the woods. “This place is lousy with magical echoes and leftovers. It could have been anything. A pneuma-somatic fart.”
“Okay, good. Thank you. I’m sorry for snapping.” I swallowed and felt a little sheepish.
“Could Praem be telling another porky?” Raine asked.
“Truth,” Evelyn snapped her fingers.
“Not I,” the demon-doll repeated.
“It was probably just a spirit.” I was trying to convince myself as much as my friends. “I’m not used to them looking like real animals. That’s never happened before.”
“Hey, maybe Lozzie sent it,” Raine suggested. I demurred with a silent frown; I’d love that, but it seemed unlikely.
“Yes, that would be all we need, wouldn’t it?” Evelyn grumbled, venom in her voice. “More unexplained visitations from your mysterious friend. Let’s complicate matters as much as possible, shall we? Raine can seduce my father’s latest romantic prospect, and I’ll go play with my mother’s unfinished work.”
I let it wash over me. Evelyn was in a kind of pain neither of us could share, and we needed to make this right.
“Evee,” I said with a meaningful glance at my girlfriend. “Raine has something she needs to tell you.”
Raine cleared her throat and straightened up. Evelyn’s frown thundered back onto her face.
“Oh no, don’t tell me you two have decided to get fucking married?”
“What? N-no. Evee, no, it’s nothing to do-” I halted, blushing. “Raine, stop grinning, you’re meant to be apologising to her.”
“Yes, yes, ahem. Evee, Evelyn, I’ve lied to you about something. To you and Heather. She figured it out, and made me realise I owe you an apology, because I’m a shit and I’ve hurt you. I … I think the Sharrowford Cult was about to hit the house, so I lied to get you and Heather out of the city for a week. I’m sorry. It’s my fault you’re here, dealing with this.” She gestured at the echoing hall all around us. “We’ll leave tomorrow, we’ll get out. I’ve been a dickhead.”
Evelyn listened with a raised eyebrow until Raine was done. “Repeat that last part.”
“I’ve been a dickhead?”
“I’m a huge dickhead.”
“Mm, you are.” Evelyn allowed herself a thin smile. “But you’re also not half as clever as you think. It’s not a very good lie if I see through it before you finish telling it.”
“You knew?” I asked, gaping at her.
“Of course I bloody well knew.” Evelyn shot me an incredulous look. “You didn’t? Raine’s awful at lying. One of the few things that makes her tolerable.”
“Ow,” said Raine.
“I thought she bullied you into coming.”
Evelyn scoffed. “Not likely.”
“So I’m the only one who didn’t know. Lovely.”
“I assumed we were all in on it,” Evelyn grumbled, then shot Raine a look. “You must be armpit deep in the doghouse.”
“Evee,” Raine tried to stay on course. “You’re my best friend, and Heather made me realise that maybe I’m jeopardising that, regardless of our history.”
Evelyn gave her a long, silent look. “You get points for fessing up. Barely.” She sighed as if letting go of something, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know, Heather, she never would have apologised in the past. She’d just have lied and moved on. And no, I don’t want to fucking be here, but you didn’t bully me into it. The filth in Sharrowford are broken, I accept that, they won’t touch my territory again. I came because I owe Heather a proper look at the map.” She cracked her eyes open and shot a bitter, sidelong glance at me as she spoke. “What the hell are we doing back here, Raine? I waited years to get out of this Godforsaken hole.”
“Like I said, we can leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s too far away,” I said, and made a snap decision. “Evee, you’re sleeping in the same room as us tonight. Not in your old bedroom. I saw it, and just, no. I won’t let you. I’ll sleep in an armchair, you and Raine can have separate sheets on the bed.”
“Evelyn Saye, you are not spending this night alone.”
Evee blinked at the force in my words. She turned away and nodded. “Fine.”
“I’ll take the chair,” Raine offered. “Come on Heather, you need the bed.”
“And you drove all the way here. You take the bed.”
“I can sleep in the Goddamn chair,” Evelyn grumbled. “But if you two start humping I’ll have Praem turn the garden hose on you.”
Winter sunlight woke me, and I woke alone.
Evelyn’s absence I’d fully expected. A night in an armchair is uncomfortable for anybody, let alone with Evelyn’s catalogue of aliments, but I hadn’t wanted to spark an argument by insisting she take my spot in the bed. I’d had just as much trouble sleeping in the unfamiliar surroundings, with all the creaking sounds of the house’s ancient frame settling in the cold weather, so I’d had plenty of chances to see Evelyn curled up in the chair as I’d tossed and turned in bed.
Doubtless she was up and about, dealing with her aches and pains. Her bag was still by the chair, along with a spare skirt and thin jumper draped over the arm.
“Raine?” I called into the silence, sitting up and drawing my legs to my chest under the unfamiliar covers. Then I tutted at myself. This was a safe place, I didn’t need her for every little thing. I disentangled myself from the sheets and climbed out of bed, winced in the cold and the lance of harsh light through the room’s one small window.
My mobile phone had one new message – from Raine.
It was a picture of me asleep in bed, sent about an hour ago, with a pink heart shape drawn in the corner. I’d rolled over to hug the pillow in lieu of Raine herself. She’d attached a message.
‘Looked like you needed the extra sleep! Gone for a run around the grounds, need to work out the kinks. As I type this, Evee’s downstairs eating breakfast with her dad, big score!!!’
I smiled at the picture and blushed, enjoying the feeling. I looked terrible, drooling on the pillow. This was better, this was how we were supposed to be.
When I turned around to find my clothes I almost jumped out of my skin.
“Don’t sneak up on people like that! Oh my God.” I put a hand to my chest. “ … what on earth are you wearing? No, that’s perverse, this must be a joke. Praem?”
Praem stared back at me from just inside the now open door. She must have opened it and stepped inside in perfect silence as I was reading Raine’s message.
Praem was dressed in an utterly immaculate, perfectly pressed, rigorously starched maid uniform. Not some faux-saucy fetish outfit, but a full-length black skirt and those stupid ruffly shoulder straps which crossed over the middle of her back. She even had a pair of shiny black shoes on her feet, though her long blonde hair was still in the same messy bun from yesterday, exactly like she was a teenage girl in low-effort cosplay. The whole ensemble served to emphasise her already sizable chest, and I did find myself staring for a moment, before I shook my head. I suddenly felt a little exposed, in rumpled sleep-smelling tshirt and pajama bottoms.
“You should not be wearing that,” I said. “It might suit you, but signalled servility is no virtue. Who dressed you?”
“I am not servile,” she intoned, in that ice-cold knife-sharp enunciation of every word. “I am saying good morning.”
I boggled at her. Was that the longest, most complete sentence she’d ever spoken?
“Good morning,” Praem repeated.
“Good- good morning, Praem.” I swallowed. “I do need to get dressed now, so if you could … ”
Without another word, the doll-demon turned on her heel and marched back out. Her head briefly reappeared around the door frame. She stared at me, and closed the door after herself.
“We really do need to get out of this place,” I muttered to myself.