The old mansion didn’t look any more welcoming by the light of day. Different, but no better.
Fortified in my jeans and pink hoodie once more, I wandered in the general direction of the stairs, surprised by the depth of lingering shadows in the kinked and twisted hallways.
Small windows and heavy beams conspired to limit the stark winter sunlight to a few slim handholds, leaving most of the corridors and larger rooms as a haven of shades. The house clung to a fermenting darkness, and I felt the most intensely domestic urge to start dusting, pulling curtains, opening windows. Family circumstances aside, growing up here would be morose for any child. When we got back home to Sharrowford, I swore I would help Evelyn banish any remnant of melancholy from her bedroom. We’d put up posters, go shopping for plush animals, paint the walls if we had to.
Praem followed me.
I’d discovered – not much to my surprise anymore – that she’d waited for me in the corridor, standing with her hands clasped before her in that absurd maid outfit.
Where had she even found it? Was this how Evelyn’s mother had dressed her own terrifying zombies, back in the day? I pictured a dozen creatures like Zheng, stalking this shadowy maze while dressed like domestic servants.
Okay, yes, that would act as a pretty effective deterrent. I knew Raine could be brave to the point of stupidity, but I still marvelled that she’d once snuck into this house, as a teenage runaway. The place hadn’t been empty back then.
Nobody was in the kitchen, but for the first time since we’d arrived it contained real signs of life. Dirty cereal bowls in the chrome sink, a few crumbs by the toaster, and this month’s issue of Anime UK magazine on the table; Evelyn’s area of interest, though that didn’t seem like the sort of magazine she’d read, due to – or despite? I wasn’t sure – the candy-haired cartoon girl on the cover. Neither did the shiny magazine look like it had spent a car journey crammed into a backpack.
Praem was staring at the dirty bowls in the sink.
“Do you want to wash them up?” I asked after a moment. “Are you trying to be a real maid, or is this just an aesthetic experiment?”
Praem turned her head to look at me, then back at the sink, then back at me, then the sink again. I stifled a laugh.
“Praem, why aren’t you with Evelyn right now?”
“She has sent me away,” Praem intoned, her voice clear and almost musical.
“Sent you away?” I echoed. “From where? What does that mean?”
Praem turned to stare at me again, this time in silence. I studied those milk-white eyes, but her expression betrayed nothing.
“You don’t feel like answering that one?” I mused out loud. “Or maybe some questions are too complex for you? You can’t parse the context, or the web of meaning required to … ”
Praem tilted her chin downward, as if to fix me with an unimpressed glare over a pair of imaginary glasses. Her expression didn’t change, but the intent was crystal clear, and I hurried to correct myself.
“Oh, okay. I’m sorry, yes, you’re more intelligent than that, aren’t you? Perhaps you … don’t like to answer certain kinds of stupid question?”
Praem straightened up, back to normal. I sighed and set about making myself some toast to quieten my rumbling stomach – normally I’d feel terribly intrusive making myself at home in somebody else’s house, but the Saye mansion didn’t feel like a real home. Praem returned to staring at the dirty dishes in the sink, so I formulated a fresh question between mouthfuls of toast and jam.
“Praem, where is Evelyn?” I adjusted my phrasing as the demon-doll turned to me. “Or, where did you last see her?”
“In the garden,” Praem said.
I glanced at the small window inset in the top of the kitchen’s back door, at the sliver of visible lawn and the dark trees beyond. The grounds had looked quite extensive when we’d pulled up in the car last night, there was no way I could spot Evelyn or Raine from in here.
“And why did she send you away?”
That earned me another silent stare.
“Okay, um, what did she tell you, exactly?” I tried. “What were her words?”
“Why don’t you fuck off and make yourself useful? Go see if Heather is awake or something. Go on, shoo,” Praem quoted, empty of emotion or emphasis.
“Oh. Indeed. That does sound like Evee.”
I frowned in thought as I chewed my toast, looking up and down Praem’s immaculate maid uniform again. Assuming she hadn’t lied to me – which seemed unlikely – she’d just demolished my top theory for why she was dressed in that ostentatious outfit. I’d suspected, deep down in a dirty unspoken part of my mind, that Evelyn had squeezed her into the uniform; this must be part of what she got up to behind closed doors with her cuddly obedient demon-host, and Praem had wandered off before Evelyn could stop her.
But that couldn’t be right. Evelyn would never send Praem off to ‘make herself useful’ while the demon still looked like an extra from a raunchy B-movie.
In the cold light through the kitchen windows I had to admit that servility didn’t see like Evelyn’s thing.
“Did you dress yourself in that uniform?”
She didn’t answer that one either.
If Praem was a human being I could have guessed a dozen possible motivations for that outfit – a sex thing, a bit of silly fun, a joke, an experiment with personal identity, a penalty for losing a bet. If Raine had turned up dressed like that I’d have understood her intentions precisely. If Lozzie had appeared to me dressed head to toe as a maid, I would know for a fact she was just messing about.
Praem was not human, and wondering about the maid outfit made it easier to keep that in mind. Her increasingly bizarre behaviour didn’t worry me exactly, though I was vaguely aware that perhaps it should.
At least she didn’t have two bodies anymore. I doubted I’d be able to deal with identical twin maids. Far too high-level for my twitchy, starved sexuality.
“Yes?” Praem intoned after a few moments of my half-amused scrutiny.
“I’m sorry for staring. I was thinking about you, that’s all.” An impulse took me; with Praem so much more talkative, perhaps I could begin to understand how she thought. “Praem, do you know what you are?”
“Do you know what you are?”
I blinked at her. The emphasis was unmistakable. I sketched a shrug, wrong footed. “A human being. Homo sapiens. Female. Nineteen years old, almost twenty.”
“That is the most essential classification from which to understand and interpret your actions. You do the things you do and think the thoughts you think because you are a human being. Indistinguishable from all other human beings.”
My mouth opened and closed in shock. I tried to process what she’d actually said, rather than the fact she’d used big words. She really was more intelligent than she let on.
“Are you … are you being sarcastic?” I asked.
“Point taken. I suppose it would be terribly rude if somebody asked me what I am. I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Praem dipped her head very slightly. Apology accepted.
“So, who are you, then?” I asked gently, though I doubted she cared about tone of voice.
Another silent stare for another stupid question. I flustered and tried to rephrase – when she finally answered.
“You should know that,” Praem intoned. “You named me. I am Praem.”
Now it was my turn to sigh and look unimpressed. “That doesn’t really answer who you are. ‘Praem’ is just a designation. I’m Heather, but that doesn’t tell you anything about me, does it? Did you have a name before ‘Praem’? You had a … an existence, before Evelyn summoned you, didn’t you?”
“Do stars have names, before humans give them such?”
It was no better than the first time she’d smiled, when I’d made the mistake of feeding her a strawberry many weeks ago. She could contract and relax the correct muscles – or the tactile illusion of muscles wrapped around a core of inanimate life-sized doll – but that was all, mere mechanical motion. Nothing behind the eyes.
She was trying her best. I forced myself to smile back.
“You don’t have to pull a face,” I said. “Cool and composed suits you better.”
She switched the smile off as quickly as it had appeared.
Her words had reminded me rather uncomfortably of how classical demons were supposed to work, the power of true names. Had I somehow redefined Praem’s nature by naming her?
I sighed at myself. Judeo-Christian demonology was unlikely to apply here – ‘demon’ was just a word we used for an Outsider. Praem was neither fallen angel nor one of Satan’s lieutenants, she was something from outside our own reality, crammed into a physical shell and offered simple rewards. Old literary myth was not a reliable instruction manual for real magic. I needed to ask Evee. I should probably tell her how much Praem was talking, if that wasn’t why she’d shooed the doll-demon away this morning in the first place.
“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.
I resisted the urge to shrug, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Doesn’t Evee have them?”
Praem glided over to the fridge, her neat black shoes clicking against the kitchen’s slate floor. She opened the door and looked pointedly at me. I’d missed the transparent plastic tub of strawberries when I’d rummaged around for jam earlier.
“Oh.” I took the box from the fridge and opened the lid before the obvious struck me. I squinted at Praem. “Can’t you take one for yourself?”
“Feed me a strawberry.”
“Yes, yes, okay. I suppose there wouldn’t be any point to your deal with Evee if you can just scarf them all down whenever you like.” I selected a nice fat juicy strawberry for her, and held it up, the scarlet fruit cool against my fingertips. “Don’t make this weird now, not like last time.”
Praem’s lips parted with a soft click, and I pushed the strawberry into her mouth, careful not to touch my flesh to hers. Not because I believed it would have some nefarious magical effect, but simply because it embarrassed me. It had last time. Whatever Praem was inside, her exterior was a very voluptuous young woman, and my basic instincts still responded to that.
“Or maybe it’s the act of being fed that matters?” I mused as she chewed. “Somehow, I suspect you’re unlikely to answer that one.”
Praem swallowed. “The fridge air is escaping. It is cold.”
“It is, yes.” I started to close the tub of strawberries when an idea struck me. I watched Praem’s face carefully. “If I give you another strawberry, will you tell me why you’re dressed in that uniform?”
“Yes. Feed me a strawberry.”
“Oooh, not immune to bribery, are you? It’s a deal, okay?” I almost giggled as I picked out a second helping for her, feeling very mischievous indeed. “We’re making a deal, one more strawberry, then you explain, best as you can, okay?”
“Feed me a strawberry.”
I popped the second strawberry into her mouth, then watched her chew as I put the box back in the fridge. She let the door swing shut. Praem swallowed, staring at me. Perhaps I imagined the faintest ghost of amusement passing beneath her features.
“Well? Why are you dressed like a maid?”
“You … ” I tutted and sighed. “Praem. You lied to get another strawberry? You’re worse than a cat. I think we need to go see Evee.”
Out in the grounds of the Saye estate the winter sunlight felt harsh and crisp in the cold air. I was very glad for my hoodie, and the larger tshirt I’d borrowed from Raine’s bag.
Rather than slipping out the kitchen’s back door, I’d retraced my steps to a place we found during last night’s search for Evelyn, a set of wide French doors more glass than frame, which looked across the lawns behind the mansion. I’d stepped out onto a long low patio of grey slabs, neat brick stairs leading down to the lawns. A pathway snaked off between islands of droopy flowers and patches of thin grass, sloping toward the placid surface of the dark lake at the back of the estate. Trees crowded the far bank.
All the brickwork badly needed pressure washing, at least to dislodge the moss and lichen growing in the cracks, though I rather liked the effect. An old-fashioned charcoal barbecue stood off on one side of the patio, next to some rain-warped wooden garden furniture.
I made my way gingerly down the steps, but Praem lingered by the doors. The old brickwork path forked off in two different directions, one vanishing into the trees far to my right.
“You won’t be disobeying Evelyn by showing me where she is,” I said.
Praem stared at me, unmoving. I let out a little sigh.
Above her, the towering exterior of the mansion still crawled with spirit life. The local fauna looked far less ominous in the daylight, hardly the coal-black leering gargoyles my mind had supplied under the cover of darkness. Most of the creatures clinging to the roof tiles and chimneys were small and twisted, scaly green, blinking large slow eyes at the weak sun like lizards in torpor.
They mirrored the house itself, uncomfortable and confused to discover itself still standing to witness yet another dawn. Last night the place had seemed to radiate such grim grandeur. By day it looked huddled and wounded, an aged behemoth with a wasting disease.
I cast around the grounds again, trying to figure out where Evelyn might be, and spotted Raine instead.
She’d just emerged around a copse of trees far off to the left, jogging alongside a visible stretch of the estate’s perimeter wall. Of course, I couldn’t actually make out her features at that distance, but I’d never mistake her fluid athletic gait for anybody else. I raised a hand over my head and waved.
The tiny figure in the distance raised a fist in reply, and Raine changed direction, jogging across the thin lawns toward me.
Even in the nipping chill, with my hands tucked into my armpits, I felt a deep warm flush accompany the smile on my face, as Raine jogged up and pulled to a stop.
“Morning, you,” she said between deep breaths, rolling her shoulders and flexing her neck. “I’d give you a hug, but I’m pretty ripe. Get my message?”
“Yes, thank you. And it is a very good morning, indeed.”
Raine was dressed – or perhaps ‘stripped down’ – in a tight white athletic top and a pair of shorts, absolutely drenched in sweat and panting hard, a big grin plastered across her face. She’d dragged her hair into short ponytail to keep the sweat from her eyes. How did she bear the cold like that? I had no idea, but I was very appreciative of the sight, and the way she stretched her arms over her head when she caught me staring.
“Like what you see, miss Morell?” she asked, a cheeky glint in her eyes. “I do breakfast delivery, you know? Does it still count as your breakfast if I eat you?”
I rolled my eyes but couldn’t keep a smirk off my face. “You brought exercise clothes with you? Really?”
“Hey, it’s a great place to run.” Raine didn’t stop moving. As she spoke she began to bounce from side to side on the balls of her feet, shadow boxing with the air. “Better than a treadmill, no cars, ground’s nice and springy, don’t have to worry about pedestrians. May as well get some exercise. Plus, you know, clearing my head.” She shot me a wink.
“Are you going to be alright to drive again later today?”
Raine stopped bobbing about and straightened up. “Absolutely. Hundred percent. We can be out here soon as we’re ready. Shower, lunch, Evee shows you the map, we’re gone.”
I nodded absently. We had serious matters to think about, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the way Raine’s sweat-soaked top clung to her abdomen and sports bra. Perhaps it was mere imagination, but for a moment I could smell her over the countryside scents of earth and leaf mulch and damp brick, that spicy hot feminine sweat.
“Heather? You feeling cold?” Raine grinned and thumbed over her shoulder. “Wanna join me for a lap around the lake? It’ll warm you up. I’ve got some spare joggers upstairs, you don’t have to ruin your jeans.”
“Are you serious? Raine, there’s no way I could keep up with you. Don’t be silly.”
She shrugged. “We’ll go at your pace.”
Weeks ago, Raine had coaxed me into accompanying her on one of her trips to the university gym. Once. I’d lasted less than ten minutes on a standing bike before my stamina had given out, sweating and heaving and red in the face. A complete disaster. I’d expected at least a little teasing, but Raine treated me as if I’d subjected myself to the same hour-long punishing treadmill routine as her, not to mention the weights she’d lifted first. At least I got to watch her working out, and she made it very worth my while when we got home and got in the shower.
I hesitated, genuinely considering her offer. Raine pulled a wide windmill stretch with both arms.
“You work up a sweat, I’ll scrub it off you.” She grinned.
I let out a shaking sigh and closed my eyes for a second, to avoid the temptation of her body. I knew I was blushing rather badly. “That would be lovely, but I really need to talk to Evee. I don’t think we should be getting all worked up with each other right now. But thank you. You … you look great, Raine.”
“You know I do.” She winked at me again. “Evee’s over by … the … ” Her eyes drifted up and past my shoulder.
Praem clicked neatly down the steps from the patio to stand next to me.
“Good morning,” she intoned.
Raine stared at the flawless maid uniform, running her eyes up and down Praem, mouth open in disbelief. She glanced at me and I pulled a yes-I-know-I-see-it-too face.
“Good morning,” Praem repeated.
“And a good morning to you too.” Raine burst out laughing. “Bloody hell. You got something you need to tell me, Heather?”
“It wasn’t me, I didn’t dress her like this. It’s not really my sort of thing.”
“She looks like an escapee from a fetish porno. No offence, I mean, you look great, yeah,” Raine added as Praem did that unimpressed head-tilt in her direction.
“I take it you’re not responsible either, then? She won’t tell me.”
“If I’d done that I’d be parading her around.” Raine let out a low whistle. “Wouldn’t say no though. Hypothetically. If she was human I’d say she needs a reduction to save her back muscles.”
“I know. It’s- they’re- yes. A-anyway, I assumed Evee had dressed her, but the more Praem said the less likely I find that explanation.”
“Said?” Raine raised an eyebrow at me.
I shrugged, unsure how to explain, and eyed Praem sidelong. “We had an actual conversation, much more extensive than the good morning she gave you. She’s talking. Not quite like a person, but almost there. I think it’s this place, perhaps it’s waking her up.”
Raine frowned and a sudden shift flowed through her body language, one I knew very well by now. She peered closer at the demon-doll. Praem stared back, perfectly level, expression empty.
“You’re alright, aren’t you?” Raine murmured. “You’re on our side. Or you better be.”
“Yes,” Praem answered.
Raine straightened up and shrugged, relaxed and loose again.
“She’s what I need to talk with Evee about,” I said. “Among other things, I suppose. You’ve seen her?”
“Yeah. Spat fire at me though, so, you know, duck and cover. Might not be quite as bad with you.” Raine looked off to the far side of the estate’s grounds, along the brick pathway which vanished in the trees. “Actually, I dunno if either of us should talk to her right now.”
“Raine, we can’t leave her alone while we’re here. It’s not fair on her.”
“It’s cool, she’s not alone. Her dad’s with her. He took the day off work, spend some time with his daughter, you know. Lucky he can do that. She was … thinking. It’s sort of the spot for that.”
I peered down the pathway too. Beyond the trees, if I squinted, I could just make out a jumbled grey shadow, like fallen masonry.
“That’s where she is?” I asked. “What’s over there?”
“Trees mostly. Leaves. Dirt. Probably a bird or two.”
“Raine. What’s over there?”
Raine gave me a pained smile “Evee’s mum.”
Despite the dilapidated neglect, I rather warmed to the grounds of the Saye estate. I’d never spent time in the countryside before, not the real countryside, as far as you could get from a proper town anywhere in England. I was a city girl at heart, by habit and history, even if the cities were small and provincial.
Few cars passed on the distant main road, and I had to listen closely to hear them. Birdsong was intermittent but everywhere, and as I made my way through the little wood, the occasional pigeon lurched into the air from the trees above.
Roots had undermined the brickwork pathway, cracked and buckled it from below. The wooden edging had long since rotted away to stubs, overgrown with moss and long grass. These trees had probably once been well-tended, now choked with lichen and creepers, the rich earth between them colonised by a thicket of ferns.
I liked that, for a strange double reason; nature reclaiming imposed order looked good, but more importantly this had all been left to fall into disuse because Evelyn’s mother was dead.
Perhaps she’d enjoyed this garden, perhaps she’d want it to endure. It would not.
The trees parted and fell back. The path continued on, into the Saye family’s private graveyard.
When Raine had told me what lay beyond the trees I hadn’t believed my ears. She’d had to repeat herself, and eventually I’d rolled my eyes and imagined a scene from a gothic horror novel. Exactly what this disaster of a trip needed, the cherry on the cake of stupid spooky house – a private family graveyard full of dead wizards. I’d pictured marble mausoleums, gnarled trees, maybe one of those awful suffering statures with frozen stone tears running down its cheeks, let alone whatever pneuma-somatic guardians the Saye family had left behind. What denomination was a family of hereditary mages likely to follow? Somehow I doubted they were domesticated Church of England types.
The graveyard surprised me. A low masonry wall enclosed less than a dozen headstones, along with empty space for perhaps two dozen more, all the stonework clean and much of it relatively new.
Only two graves at the rear looked truly old, slabs of plain granite, but the inscriptions were still legible. The grass was trimmed and neat. Trees formed a sheltering enclosure on three sides, even without their leaves. The fourth side opened out, the land dropping away in a slow hill with a view of the dark waters of the lake.
There was a mausoleum, but it was tasteful, small, in cream stone with a plain cross on the permanently sealed doors.
Not creepy at all. A peaceful place, very well chosen.
Evelyn was sitting on a stone bench halfway down the graveyard, her walking stick resting across her legs, her back to me. Lewis Saye stood nearby, in the middle of saying something to his daughter. I hesitated at the entrance, suddenly feeling like an intruder on a intimate moment.
Lewis spotted me in the corner of his eye, broke into a big smile and waved one huge hand. “Hullo there! Do come over, don’t be shy.”
Evelyn looked at me over her shoulder. She grunted a good morning as I approached.
“Good morning, Evee, Mister Saye.”
“And a good morning to you too!” Lewis boomed at me, shattering the peace of the graveyard. “I do hope you slept well? The place does tend to creak like a leaky old ship at night, I do know.”
“Tolerably well, thank you.” I forced a smile. Poor man deserved to feel like a good host.
“And you helped yourself to some breakfast, I trust? Can’t have growing girls going without a good breakfast. If you’re still hungry – either of you – I’ve got some bacon in the fridge, I could do omelets for lunch, there’s … there’s … ”
I saw, on both their faces, the exact moment Praem emerged from the trees in my wake.
Lewis Saye did a pretty job of hiding his reaction after the first second of confused shock, and from that moment onward he didn’t even look at the doll-demon again. I realised too late what the sight of her might be doing to him, if Evelyn’s mother had indeed dressed her zombies up as a mockery of domestic help.
Evelyn pulled such a frown. A frown like, well, like Praem had just turned up in a maid outfit.
“She’s following me. I’m sorry,” I muttered, and didn’t know where to look. “I should have made her stay indoors. Sorry.”
Lewis Saye clapped his huge hands together before anybody could reply. “Well, I should really get started on marinading the chicken for dinner, especially if Angeline manages to get away from work early. She’s going to try to make it down to see you again, Evelyn, and I’m sure she’ll be delighted to meet all your friends too. Evelyn was just telling me about you in fact, Heather. All good things though, I assure you, haha!”
The laugh ever so slightly too loud, the grin ever so slightly too forced.
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said, to have something to say.
“Don’t let her stay out here too long, will you?” he asked me with a theatrically serious frown. I caught Evelyn rolling her eyes. “She does tend to mope, my girl. You two come back indoors and I’ll have something hot from the oven quicker than you can get your boots off.” He clapped a hand – gently – to Evelyn’s shoulder, then let go and strode down the pathway back toward the house.
“Dad,” Evelyn snapped.
“Yes? Yes dear?”
She raised a hand. “Keys.”
Lewis hesitated and swallowed. He glanced at me. “Is it really … really necessary?”
Evelyn huffed. “How am I supposed to show Heather the-”
“Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right, you’re completely right.” He blustered over Evelyn’s specifics with a smile. “You’re out-thinking me already. I’m getting old, I swear, you’ll be running rings around me in no time, just li- yes, yes. Quite.” He cleared his throat and extracted a keyring from his pocket, fumbled around to unhook a barely-used spare, before striding back and handing it to Evelyn. He closed her fingers around the key before she could withdraw.
“Now- I- I mean-” he struggled, voice low. I felt like I should turn away, close my ears. “Now Evelyn, you know you mustn’t- mustn’t-”
“Mustn’t what?” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not going to turn into her by spending twenty minutes in her dungeon.”
Lewis Saye straightened up and nodded, big smile strained with effort. He smiled my way as well, nodded again, and then walked off, pointedly stepping around where Praem now stood stock-still behind us.
Evelyn watched him go. I’d rarely felt more awkward in my entire life. Neither of us spoke until he’d disappeared into the trees.
“I’m really sorry I interrupted that, Evee.”
“It’s not as if anything important ever comes out of his mouth.” She caught the poorly disguised shock on my face and sighed sharply, waving me off. “I know, I know I’m harsh with him. It’s hard not to be. He was never there.”
Evelyn looked a little brighter and healthier than she had yesterday, as if the countryside air was doing her good, her face a little less wan, her back slightly straighter. Freshly showered, a clean change of clothes, and I could see she’d even waved a brush in the general direction of her hair. She wore a thick grey fisherman’s jumper, far too large for her, so enclosing and heavy it could have kept out a bullet, let alone the cold. Her hands were half-lost inside the sleeves.
There was a bitter defiance in her face and the way she held herself, moreso than usual.
I suppose I would have felt the same, sat where she was.
“Is this Raine’s sick idea of a joke?” She eyed Praem’s maid uniform up and down.
“No, it wasn’t her, or me either. I assumed you’d put her in it, but then I realised that was quite unlikely, to say the least.”
“I think it suits her. I mean- it-” I swallowed, withering under the force of Evelyn’s unimpressed frown. “It makes her boobs look amazing. She seems to have a good sense for that.”
Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “Where did you find that, hm?”
Praem turned to stare at her, but declined to reply.
“She wouldn’t tell me either,” I said.
Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Answer.”
“In a cupboard,” Praem intoned. Evelyn fixed her with a steely look, but then sighed and gave up with a shrug of her hands.
“Maybe,” I ventured, softly. “Maybe she’s acting more like a person, because we’ve been treating her a little bit like a person?”
“That’s not a good thing. She’s going completely off the rails.”
“Make myself useful,” Praem intoned.
“See?” I said before Evelyn could snap again. “I think she was only following your orders, the best way she could. She came to say good morning to me, too.”
Evelyn frowned at me. “Wait, how do you know what I told her to do?”
“She’s been talking. Almost like a real person. We had an – almost normal – conversation. I thought I should tell you. I asked if she knew who she is, and she replied by saying I should know that, because I named her; she’s Praem. I think she’s made that her identity, Evee. I think she’s trying to be a person.”
Evelyn looked between Praem and I, then squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Great. Wonderful.” She opened them again and shot Praem a look fit to fell an elephant. “I should have you destroyed and sent back where you came from.”
“You won’t,” Praem intoned.
I blinked at the doll-demon in surprise, but Evelyn seemed to expect that reply. She knuckled at her eyes. “Yes, thank you for telling me, Heather, but I can’t do a damn thing about her now. I’ve lost control, called up what I cannot put down. Be thankful I used a mannequin to make her, otherwise we’d have yet another cluster-fuck bearing down on us.”
“Evee, I really do think she’s on our side.”
“She’s not on any side. She,” Evelyn spat sarcasm. “It. It doesn’t have sides.”
I wet my lips and decided to let this one drop for now. Here, in front of her mother’s grave, was perhaps not the best place to convince Evelyn of anything. Maybe I could find some way to help Praem prove herself, but not right now.
“She,” Praem said.
Evelyn frowned at her, then sighed and glanced back to me. “What did you want, anyway?”
“To see you?”
“Can’t imagine why,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Evee, you’re my best friend, and you’re having a rough time – and yes, I know that’s a strong contender for understatement of the decade. Of course I want to see you, I want to help you. I want to get you back to Sharrowford as soon as possible.”
Evelyn looked away, glowering at nothing, but she did nod ever so slightly.
“You’re my … my friend too,” she muttered. “Yes, that’s right.”
“May I join you?” I asked. She nodded and sniffed, so I sat down on the stone bench next to her. It was exquisitely uncomfortable. “Isn’t your bum cold sitting on this?”
“’Course it is. Easier than standing though. I wanted … needed to be down here, to … ” She waved a dismissive hand at the gravestones in front of her, at one in particular. A slab of black marble, scrupulously clean, the inscription picked out in gold leaf.
I had no doubt who was buried beneath.
‘Loretta Julianna Saye’, the inscription read. ‘1965-2014’
‘God Grant She Stay Dead.’
“Goodness me,” I struggled. “Those are quite the words to put on a headstone.”
“I chose that,” said Evelyn.
I sighed, more at the world in general than this specific moment of absurdity. “Anywhere else I’d assume it was just bad taste, but I’m going to guess in this case it might be literal?”
Evelyn looked at me sidelong to see if I was serious. “She’s in a sealed lead coffin. The burial was a compromise, I wanted the body burned.”
“You mean cremated?”
Evelyn shrugged. “My father insisted she have a proper burial. At the time, I was in no state to stop him, and he could easily have had Raine arrested if he’d wanted. I wouldn’t have survived without her, but he didn’t understand a fraction of what was going on. He never fucking did. Put it out of his mind. Pretended we were normal, even when he was surrounded by all her constructs. The first couple of days after her death, she did attempt to migrate.”
“ … migrate. Okay.”
“Mind transfer. Best with a pre-prepared vessel or a close blood relative, before the magician slips away entirely. So she would inherit my body, crippled as I was, but young and alive, while I would be trapped in her corpse.” Evelyn stared at the grave as she spoke, her eyes boring holes in the packed earth. “She failed, because she hadn’t expected to die, so she’d spent years exposing me to exactly the kind of thing which taught me how to resist. And that’s why she’s the one rotting in the fucking ground,” she shouted the last two words at the grave. I flinched, and Evelyn slipped back into silent smoldering hate.
Very, very carefully, I put one hand on Evelyn’s back, as gentle a pressure as I could. A calculated risk, even if only to let her know I was here, within touching distance. She was not in the ground. She was here.
“That’s one of the most monstrous things I’ve ever heard,” I murmured.
She didn’t shrug me off. A minor miracle. Instead she let out a long sigh, and I knew she was trying to let go. The anger drained out of her muscles, the tide receding to reveal a cold bleakness in her voice.
“Mm. So yes, to answer your question, the inscription is literal. The lead coffin isn’t for her benefit. I found things in her notes, in some of the books, about how the flesh of a mage might imbue certain qualities on the very grave worms themselves. A back up plan, another way out. But she’s never coming back. I got her. I won.”
We skated very thin emotional ice here, and I could see two possible paths. On one path I rubbed Evelyn’s back, I spoke soothing pleasantries, I did everything that one was supposed to do with a friend in intractable emotional pain.
On the other path, I went digging.
All I had to do was speak a few words, prompt her in the right direction. She’d do the rest, if she needed it. How much had Evelyn ever spoken about this? It wasn’t as if she could visit a therapist, what on earth would she say?
Would digging make me too much like Raine? Manipulative, underhanded, trying to manoeuvre a friend into emotional vulnerability, even if it was to help her? Even if my intentions were pure?
Despite no idea what I was doing, I’d spent weeks dragging Evelyn into a real friendship, by following my gut; I had no reason to change tactics now.
“You don’t sound too happy about that,” I said.
Evelyn eyed me oddly, almost hesitant. I could feel the tension bunch up in her shoulders. “I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m sorry, I know you … you mean well … I-”
“I’m not stupid, Evee.” I plunged into the risk, my heart rate spiking. “I can put two and two together, from the things you’ve said, from the way Raine spoke about it. You killed your mother, didn’t you?”
Evelyn let out a huge sigh and nodded slowly, staring at the grave. “She was a monster. A real one.”
“She was. From everything I’ve heard, she was.”
“It was self-defence. It was, Heather, it really was. She took my leg. She ruined my spine. She would have used me up and moved onto another, maybe had another child or adopted one. She was a monster, and I put her down.”
Evelyn turned to look at me, biting her bottom lip – I don’t think she was aware of that, I’d never seen that look on her face before. Her eyes were so bleak.
“So why do I still feel guilty?” she murmured.