Between sleep inertia, trembling courage, white-hot embarrassment – and a touch of mechanical unfamiliarity – I took over an hour and half to put on my new clothes. Probably some kind of record for dressing oneself in the morning.
“You can do this, it’s going to be fine, Raine’s going to love it, everyone’s going to love it. You’re going to be fine.”
I took a shower first.
Alone, to cool my head and warm my body, muttering jumbled affirmations while I gave my legs a once over with the safety razor. Halfway through it began to feel too much like a ritual cleansing, and I fought down a heady mixture of self-consciousness and ambient sexual anticipation. The heat soaked through my skin and bones, waking me up. As I drew closer to the moment I would have to step out of the shower, my nerves grew into an unstoppable heart-flutter. So I turned the heat up and closed my eyes and stood under the stream of almost scalding water.
“Breathe. Breathe, Heather, breathe. It’s fine. It’s fine. Nobody is going to laugh at you. What are you even afraid of?”
Rejection? No. Raine loved me. Zheng would do anything I asked.
The new clothes waited neatly folded on the bathroom counter: bubblegum pink ribbed sweater, nebula-purple triple layered skirt, the beautiful pink-scaled hoodie, and a pair of white tights that Raine had bought for me months ago.
If Sevens was watching – and if she was, I was going to give her such a slap – she must have been pleased as pudding to see me following her suggestion so closely.
But she might not like what I was going to do with it.
Before my shower, while Raine had dozed in bed after her promised half-dose of painkillers and a brief shared breakfast of toast and tea, I’d slipped downstairs in the slow-growing apricot dawn, to fetch my new clothes from the dryer in the little utility room, and to check on Zheng. She was asleep in her usual spot, in her baggy grey jumper and jeans, sprawled out across the broken-backed sofa like a tiger on a log. I couldn’t spot any grisly trophies, and Zheng didn’t smell of blood or meat, so I assumed her hunt had not borne fruit.
To be fair, if she had found and killed the ex-cultist, I fully expected her to leave the severed head on the kitchen table, or bound upstairs to show me like a cat with a dead mouse.
When I crouched down and eased the dryer open, Zheng purred behind me.
“Z-Zheng? S-sorry, I was … getting stuff. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She cracked open one razor-sharp eye and regarded me from beneath a heavy lid. “Your heartbeat alone could wake me from death, shaman, but you reek of fear and heat, both.”
Couldn’t hide anything from Zheng, certainly not my physical state, not with her senses. I’d straightened up, arms full of clothes, and gathered my courage.
“I want you and Raine to play the dice and stories game today,” I said, every word a guitar string tightened too far. “With each other.”
Zheng stared, unmoving and unmoved, a tiger in the baking tropical sun, listening to a chimpanzee hoot and howl.
I blinked rapidly, uncomprehending, heart in my throat. I was so nervous I’d lost command of my memories. “Wha-what? I-I mean, I’m sorry? Pardon?”
“Akarakish is the name of the game, shaman.” Zheng’s mouth curled into a sleepy, toothy smile. “And the yoshou best have stories to wager, or she will have to pledge other secrets.”
“No violence. No hurting her. That is the exact opposite of what I want you two doing,” I said quickly. “If you can’t play it without hurting her, tell me now. Please.”
Zheng’s stare did not relent. Breakfast turned to lead in my belly. A small, animal part of me which still hadn’t internalised Zheng’s indebted devotion wanted very much to squeak apologies and scurry away, just to get out from under her languid predatory attention. But the rest of me, the hybrid combination of abyssal memory and ape instinct, felt her gaze as the warm kinship of a pack-mate. And she would not harm me. So I stood my ground.
“Don’t give me the silent treatment, please,” I managed to say.
“You want us to play nice, shaman.” Her smile turned sharp and unimpressed. “Hnnh.”
“She won’t insult you,” I said, struggling with the complexity. I wasn’t even showered and in my new clothes yet and I was already negotiating the most treacherous broken emotional ground of my life. “If she does, I will be there to tell her off and correct her.”
I rolled my eyes, mostly at myself. “Okay, fair enough, she won’t insult you any more than her standard level of teasing for anybody. A bit of gentle ribbing is part of how she expresses friendship. And she’s been making a real effort lately. And yes, I want you two to get along. I do. I want … I … I think we should … ”
I trailed off, narrowly resisting the urge to bury my burning face in the clothes I was carrying.
Zheng’s eyes snapped wide open, alert and dark in the orange light of the growing dawn. She uncoiled on the broken-backed sofa, staring at me like a big cat surprised to find a rodent had wandered close during sleep. She arched her back, flexing bunched muscles, showing off her Olympian curves, tilting her head up to present an expanse of bare throat – but paused halfway, as if unable to believe what she had scented. Raw physicality pulled me to climb into her lap, snuggle in close, bathe in her heat and scent.
This was, to put it lightly, quite arousing.
But I clamped down. I told myself no, and I meant it. I swallowed, took a long shuddering breath, and Zheng somehow sensed the iron-fisted control over my own sexual drive.
“Do not torment me,” she rumbled. “Mean it, or-”
“This is not about sex.”
Zheng paused, cold scepticism on her face. She leaned forward and opened her mouth and unrolled twelve inches of wet red tongue, then snapped it back between her teeth again.
“You’re in rut, shaman. I can smell you.”
I blushed bright red. “Well … thank you for that. Alright then.”
“And you have made a decision.”
I huffed a huge sigh, powered more by nerves and embarrassment than exasperation. “It’s not my decision to make-”
“I am yours, and I am still here. Ask. Ask and-”
“Not. My. Decision,” I repeated. “It’s your decision. And Raine’s decision. A-and I can’t think about it right now, and it’s not the decision you’re thinking of anyway, and-”
“We are your hands, shaman. And you are in rut. Use me as you-”
“It’s not just about me!” I almost exploded at her. “I’m not trying to mash you two together like Barbie dolls for my amusement! If there’s three of us, then there’s three of us. And we are not starting with sex. We’re not even going third or fourth or fifth with sex, to be quite honest. And if you try to make it about sex, about my gratification, then I will … I will get up and bloody well leave. I will take Lozzie and go sit in the park for the rest of the day and have her teach me how to do cartwheels or handstands or something. We’ll play on the swings. I’ll nap with Tenny.”
Zheng blinked once – then broke into a laugh, a big rolling chuckle that made her hunch forward, raise her eyebrows, and shrug at me.
“I’m serious!” I squeaked.
“You are, shaman. I do not mock you, I laugh at myself. This is why I follow you. Very well.”
She folded herself back onto the sofa again, coiling up like a great serpent hidden in the roots of the house. She rolled her neck and cracked her jaw and wiggled her toes, getting comfortable before she closed her eyes again, and fell still.
“So … you’ll play the game – akarakish – with Raine?” I asked.
“I will. But I will not play nicely with the yoshou.”
I sighed. What had I missed? What had I misunderstood? “Zheng, I can’t have you two hurt each other.”
“I will be myself, shaman. And I swore an oath not to fight her. I will not break that.”
“ … ah. Well. Fair enough. Okay.” I managed a nod, cheeks burning as I came down from my burst of courage. We were actually going to do this. It was happening. “I’m going to go shower and … dress. Yes. So, later, okay? But not too much later today or I’ll lose my nerve. If you understand. I hope you understand.”
“Mmmhmmm,” Zheng purred.
“I’ll just … ” I gestured with arms full of clothes, but Zheng seemed already asleep again.
I’d backed out of the utility room and scampered across the kitchen like a child running to bed after switching off a hallway light, pursued by imaginary monsters in the sudden dark, by the notion that Zheng might lurch from the old sofa and sweep me up in a skin-hot hug and I’d melt in her embrace. But she didn’t, and I’d escaped my own libido with my intentions intact.
Taking the clothes into the bathroom was a masterstroke of self-deception.
I only realised once I was standing there half-wrapped in a towel, covered in goosebumps, wreathed in the collected steam from the shower’s heat, and staring at the little pile of colourful clothes which commanded my attention with all the seductive succulence of a carnivorous jungle plant.
Getting dressed in here gave me time and space. Raine would happily have vacated the bedroom to let me get dressed in privacy – or even more happily watched me – but then it would be an event, she would be waiting for me, the pressure would burst my heart and I’d have seized any opening to retreat, any excuse to back down, to put this off until tomorrow, or the day after, or next weekend, or never.
But like this?
My pajamas were already in the laundry hamper. Dragging them back on would waste the freshly showered feeling. I had left myself only one choice.
I spent too long drying my hair, then hung up my towel with shaking hands, heart juddering in my chest and throat.
“You are allowed to wear these,” I hissed to myself. “Evelyn spent money on them, for you. For pity’s sake, fighting giant spirit monsters didn’t leave you this shaken. Get dressed.”
Easier said than done. Getting dressed had never before proven so complicated. My hands shook through the entire process, and I’m pretty certain I stopped breathing at one point. I’d worn tights before, of course, but always with the intention of looking as smart as possible, donning standard femininity like a suit of anonymous armour. The last time I’d done so was when I’d passed myself off as Kimberly’s girlfriend at the Wiccan coven meeting, and I’d had no time to appreciate how I looked then, no focus to spare on the aesthetics of my own body.
But now I slid the clean nylon up my legs, settled it smooth and snug and tight, and my heart caught in my throat as I turned my attention down at my own legs, wrapped in thick and warm one-hundred-forty denier white.
Not terrible, I suppose. Compact. Slender.
“ … concentrate,” I hissed.
I barely recalled putting on my underwear, let alone tugging the triple-layered skirt around my waist or wriggling into the plush pink ribbed sweater. The whole thing was a blur of shaking hands and catching breath and before I knew it I was staring at myself in the mirror, wide-eyed and flushed and numb.
“Oh,” I breathed. Couldn’t think.
On a detached, technical, mechanical level, the outfit fit together surprisingly well; the white tights and bubblegum pink balanced each other out, soft bookends to the ostentatious dark skirt, flaring out from my hips in exuberant display of dusky purple frilled layers. I had to give Sevens that. Whatever showy aesthetic tastes she’d catalysed in me, she had a good eye for symmetry and proportion.
On the other hand-
“I look so silly,” I whispered, cringing at myself.
Lump in my throat, water in my eyes, chest tight with the need to retreat. Confronting this was too much. My hands twitched toward the skirt to yank it down, but I quickly grabbed the hairbrush from the bathroom counter and began dragging it through my hair, focusing on my face and taking deep, shuddering breaths.
“Have to brush your hair,” I whispered to myself. “Can’t go back out there with messy hair too. It’s gotten longer now, so you have to take care. Take care. Take care of your hair. Haircare take care. Oh dear.”
Eventually, with great effort, I looked myself up and down again.
I turned slightly to the left and right, pivoting on the balls of my feet, and the triple layers of the dark skirt moved like diaphanous membranes floating in ocean waters, brushing my thighs and knees as I moved. A joyous display in the dark. The bubblegum pink ribbed sweater was thick and soft, a supple membrane over my vulnerable tissues, but bright and showy, not covert camouflage. Between the top and the tights I felt almost sleek, as if I was ready to slip through undersea currents with a flick of my feet.
My phantom limbs rose in acknowledgement, at rest, content.
In the abyss I had been a thing of pure survival, of toxins and sharp teeth and raking claws, of corded muscle and speed and stealth. When I had seen Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight through abyssal senses, she had been revealed as beautiful, as a thing of vast display and aesthetic power, and I hadn’t understood.
Now I did, in the tiniest way.
A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I wiped them with the back of my hand, not wanting to stain my new clothes. Euphoric joy was too much.
I stood there a while longer, trying out different expressions in the mirror, different poses, experimenting to see what felt silly and what felt right, making my skirt swish and tilting my chin up, but in the end it all defaulted back to me. This was just me, and I could be this if I wanted. I didn’t need to become somebody else to wear clothes that affirmed what I really was.
I felt almost powerful.
What I still didn’t feel was particularly pretty. It was, in the end, just me, and that was a double-edged sword. I wasn’t wearing makeup and wasn’t about to start; that held no affirming power for me. I finally picked up the pink-scaled hoodie and draped it over my shoulders like a layer of semi-shed snake-skin, framing my chest and belly, and narrowly resisted the urge to drag it on properly and zip it up just to hide the shape of my own body.
I felt more right than I had before, but it was still only little old me, scrawny five foot nothing Heather.
“But maybe scrawny five foot nothing Heather is okay?” I asked myself in the mirror.
My reflection smiled at me, warm and encouraging.
“Exactly,” she said.
“Don’t spoil this now, Sevens,” I blazed at her, surprised at the sudden heat of my anger. “You keep out of this. This is mine. Go away.”
My reflection’s expression snapped back to my own. I spent a few moments frowning at myself, watching for an uncharacteristic twinkle in my eyes or a floating halo of yellow about my head, but Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stayed firmly buggered off.
The nervous heart-shudder flooded back when it came time to leave the bathroom. I lingered by the doorway, taking my time with the final, improvised element of the outfit: a pair of fluffy boot slippers borrowed from Kimberly. Usually I wore thick socks around the house, sometimes more than one pair, and it hadn’t taken me much time standing on the bathroom floor in only tights to realise Raine had not been speaking in metaphor when she said I might get ‘cold feet’. No matter how sleek and smooth and pretty the white tights were, they were very thin compared to a good pair of thermal socks, so I snuggled my feet into the welcoming warm fuzz of the slippers.
“Just don’t give them back to me smelling of Zheng, okay?” Kimberly had asked.
“We’re not going to- … get physical,” I’d said.
“Okay. Okay then.” Kimberly had nodded and smiled and not believed a word of that.
But I was determined not to mess this up.
At the last moment before I screwed up my courage, with my hand on the bathroom door handle, I felt a final pang of guilt. Here I was dressing up, preparing to embark on the first uncharted step of creating an absolute drama nightmare of a three-way relationship that might not even work. And Maisie was still out there in the cold and the dark, imprisoned by the Eye, alone.
But Sevens was right. She was right about anchors.
Not about everything – she could shove off with her insinuations I needed to have a threesome.
Sex would be no anchor alone. Sex to the exclusion of love, well, there was nothing wrong with that. But it wouldn’t make me secure.
When I’d been out there slipping down the edge of the abyss like a foolish diver sucked into a marine trench by an undertow, I had needed an anchor. Somebody to hold my ankles and around my waist so I could lower myself over the edge. Sevens had pulled me up, but she was a half-abyssal thing herself, a creature that understood the logic, the deep, and the math which described it all. When I’d dived willingly into the black waters beneath creation, I’d taken the memory of my friends and their names and their smells and touch and our home together in a pressurised bubble in my core, but even that had served only as guide and curious comfort, not an air-line to the surface.
Diving bell, bathysphere, air-line, anchor. I had to build something, and I only had certain materials to hand. Self, math, those who loved me.
I wasn’t deluding myself. I had zero idea what I was doing, let alone how I could feed any of this into brainmath, but Sevens’ suggestion was better than anything else I had so far. And I did know the first step was to get Raine and Zheng talking.
“Please don’t end in a fight,” I prayed, and opened the bathroom door.
Raine and Lozzie and Tenny were all waiting for me.
Thankfully they weren’t lined up in the hallway like the audience at a catwalk. If they had done that, I might have slammed the door shut and hidden inside and needed coaxing back out with books and chocolate. Instead I took a couple of nervous steps out into the crooked upstairs hallway, with the thin light of a Northern spring creeping in through the window, and found it much the same as always, not transformed into an alienating environment in response to me simply wearing a few different clothes.
“Heathy!” Lozzie said, making me jump, half-leaning out of her own bedroom doorway. She must have been listening and waiting for me.
My eyes went wide and I almost choked up, but Lozzie bounced and bounded down the hallway in a few quick steps, a whirling pastel tornado, her own version of abyssal display, and threw her arms around me for a very quick, very nuzzly hug, and then just as quickly drew back with a playful elfin giggle on her lips.
“You look great! Yeah! You did it! I thought I was going to have to come into the bathroom with you and help and make you comfy and stuff but you did and it looks so good it’s really really you, it’s your style if you want it to be and I like it and ahhhh I kinda wanna borrow the skirt already but it’s yours it’s yours give me like six months!” She giggled again, a rapid-fire stream of overwhelming positivity.
“T-thank you, Lozzie. I … yes, it’s difficult. Thank you.”
Tenny drifted out of the bedroom behind her and wandered closer. Silken black tentacles crept forward to gently investigate the frilled hem of the triple-layered skirt and the texture of my tights. Her face was so serious, blinking with curiosity as she peered into my eyes.
“Heath?” she trilled.
It was very much a question.
“Yes, Tenny, it’s just me. I put a new outfit on. You’ve seen me in different clothes before. Tenny?”
In a moment of mounting awkwardness, Tenny just blinked her massive oil-dark eyes at me, as if she wasn’t sure who I was – but then she broke into a big smile, an extra-level-smile, a Tenny-has-been-copying-Lozzie smile. She read my nervousness and my scent, and bobbed her head from side to side as if I was being the silly one.
And then she patted me on the head with one tentacle.
“Silly Heath,” she said, and made a trilling pbbbbbt sound.
I laughed, nerves releasing in a flutter of embarrassment, all flushed in the face. “Of course, Tenny. S-sorry. I-I’m so self conscious right now, I can’t … I can’t think, I-”
Raine’s voice made me jump and twirl to find her in the corridor behind me, leaning on her crutch, like I was a marine scavenger surprised by the sub-vocalisation of a shark. She must have been waiting in our bedroom, resting her leg, and gotten up at the sound of our voices.
She looked me up and down with the biggest smile on her face, and the smile was all encouragement and warmth, her burning confidence lighting me up brighter than the sun.
“Raine,” I squeaked, vibrating so hard I thought I was going to pass out. “How do I … look?”
She paused, cocked an eyebrow at me, and grinned a grin to stop my heart. “How do you look? Does the sun rise in the morning? Does two plus two equal four? Is the sky blue?”
I blushed hot enough to cook an egg. Lozzie snorted and hid behind both hands. Even Tenny made a fluttery fffffftttt noise.
“Raine,” I tried to scold, but it came out as a pleading whine that made Lozzie attempt to put a whole fist into her own mouth.
“You look like the sort of goddess revealed in an LSD trip to heaven,” Raine carried on. “You are every dream I’ve ever had, and all the others I didn’t know I wanted. You look brilliant! Look at you! You’re pulling it off, I knew you could.”
Raine stepped in close and for a moment I thought she was going to do something incredibly sexual, not only inappropriate because Tenny was right there, but because we’d talked about this earlier, about how this was not going to be about sex, not today, not until after the game at the absolute least, that I couldn’t let it be about sex. But I knew that if she slipped a hand up my thigh beneath that triple-layered skirt or slid her fingers across my stomach underneath the ribbed sweater, all my resolution would crumble and my new clothes would shortly be forming a crumpled pile at the foot of our bed.
But she kissed me on the forehead, winked, and leaned back again. “You look amazing. See? You can wear whatever you want.”
“ … ”
I waited, wide-eyed, vibrating, for the other shoe to drop. For Raine to lean back in and whisper something in my ear that I couldn’t resist.
“Heather? Hey, Heather, breathe, yeah? You look good, for real, I’m not just humouring you. Hundred percent.”
But she didn’t do it. She respected the request.
I blew out a long breath and nodded, shaking and numb but coming back together. “T-thank you, of course I know you’re telling the truth. Thank you, Raine. Thank you. Oh, goodness, I’m so self-conscious, I-I-I’m not sure I can deal with everyone seeing me right now.”
“Then you’re in luck.” Raine shot a finger-gun at me. “Evee’s at campus for a couple of hours.”
My heart juddered in an entirely different direction. “What? Why? Alone?”
“Not alone!” Lozzie chirped.
“Alone?” Raine cocked an eyebrow. “Heather, come on, I’ve taken a bullet in the leg, not a concussive head wound. She’s taken Praem with her. Right now, yeah, Praem makes a much better bodyguard than me. Can hardly strike an imposing figure with this.” She shrugged the shoulder propping herself up on the crutch.
“Why now though? What’s she doing?”
“Going to class?” Raine smirked. “It’s Monday.”
“Oh. Oh, of course. Uh, silly me, yes.” I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, feeling stupid for a moment. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget magic isn’t her entire life.”
Raine pulled a knowing smile. “She barely needs classes anyway. Probably just wants to jabber in Greek for an hour to clear her head. Anyway, she and Praem are out, Kim’s at work, Lozzie’s going to … ?” Raine raised her eyebrows and peered past me, with gentle encouragement in her eyes.
“Play video games!” Lozzie said, arms in the air.
“Vid’ gam’,” Tenny purred.
“I’ve lent them my old Gamecube,” Raine said to me with a wink. “Tenny’s gonna learn about Pikmin and maybe Luigi’s Mansion, if she can handle the spooky.”
“Handle spookeeee,” Tenny trilled, insistent and defiant.
“I have no idea what any of that means,” I said. “But that’s very sweet of you, Raine.”
“Ten-tens, here here,” Lozzie murmured behind me, taking Tenny by the tentacles and doing a little dance with her.
Before I could draw in another shaky breath – or ask what exactly Pikmin were, a kind of Pokemon? – Raine offered me her free hand with a little flourish, a twinkle in her eye, and a rakish tilt to her grin.
“May I have the honour of accompanying you downstairs to join the third point of our triangle, Lady Morell?”
I’d automatically put my hand in hers before processing what she actually said, and almost recoiled with distaste. “Raine! Don’t you call me that, that’s … weird.”
She burst out laughing. “Sure thing, Heather.”
“And yes, let’s go fetch Zheng before I completely lose my nerve, please, yes. Lead on.”
“Last I saw she’d put her feet up in the kitchen, the moment Praem was out the door.”
Raine held my hand high as she led me down the stairs, somehow graceful and smooth even with her crutch thumping on every step as we descended, but I didn’t have the spare mental capacity to tell her off for presenting me like we were entering a ballroom. I was far too conscious of the way my skirt looked, the way it made me move, the way it felt against my legs, and the way the scaled pink hoodie over my shoulders hung off me like a cloak. By the time we were at the kitchen door, my heart was fluttering at full speed again, my stomach a hollow void.
“And here she is!” Raine announced. “Our lady of the hour.”
Zheng was indeed sitting with her feet up in the kitchen, wide awake, quiet and brooding like a tiger contemplating the coming hunt, waiting for us with a razor-edged grin playing across her lips.
“Shaman!” she roared, clacked down the chair she’d been balancing on two legs, and stood up, stretching to her full height.
“H-hi. Zheng. Yes. I-I got changed.”
Zheng had changed as well – she’d swapped out her baggy grey jumper for a second, identical but cleaner baggy grey jumper, which still did very little to conceal her sheer size. I breathed a silent sigh of relief at that. The fresh clothes were a sign she was taking this seriously.
“The shaman transforms,” she purred.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Raine agreed, with great enthusiasm.
“I’d hardly go that far,” I protested in a stage-whisper.
“A bear’s pelt gives strength, a wolf’s head mask bestows stealth, and crow feathers can be sewn into a cloak so even monkeys can fly,” Zheng said. “As long as respect is given to the bear and the wolf and the crow. Do you respect what you are, shaman?”
I stared at her. “Yes,” I breathed. “Though I’m not sure I follow.”
“You do. Even if you do not know.”
“This is an awful lot of fuss over a fancy skirt,” I tutted, self-conscious and blushing. “You could just say I look nice and be done with it.”
“You look nice,” she rumbled.
“So, big girl,” Raine said. “Apparently you and I are going head-to-head today, and neither of us have a choice.”
“You always have a choice,” I muttered. “That’s the entire point of this.”
Raine gave me the most affectionately ironic smile. “Neither of us has a choice when it comes to you, Heather.”
“I go where the shaman goes,” Zheng purred.
I huffed and rolled my eyes, feeling a little like a child throwing a tantrum in my party clothes – but my phantom limbs twitched and weaved through the air, and the shape of my skirt reminded me of what I was.
“Fine,” I said, with a second huff and a sharp look at the other two corners of my presumptive triangle. “Then I command both of you to tell me right now if you don’t want to do this. And tell the truth.”
Raine shrugged. “I’m game. I’ll also win.” She winked at Zheng. “Hope you’re ready for a whuppin’.”
Zheng grinned like a shark on the scent of a wounded seal. “I go where the shaman goes. You have guts, yoshou, and I will feast on them.”
“Metaphorically,” I said, a little too hard.
“Metaphorically,” Zheng allowed.
“A three! Aaaand a one … and another one, ooof.” Raine winced as the dice rolled to a stop in the tray. “My loss, yeah?”
Zheng leaned back in her armchair. “You learn quick, yoshou. And you lose.”
“Ahhhh well, can’t win ‘em all.” Raine grinned and leaned back as well, sprawled on the desk chair a few feet from the foot of the bed.
“You had courage,” Zheng purred. “You held your ground. Anything less would be certain defeat. But chance was not with you. No warrior can control the weather.”
Raine shot a lazy finger-gun at Zheng. “Ah ah ah, you keep making excuses for that first round. You want me to believe it was just beginner’s luck, but I surprised you, big girl. I’ll have you zeroed in soon enough.”
“Perhaps. First, you owe a tale.”
“Haaaaaah, that I do, that I do.”
Raine nodded slowly as she looked over at me. I’d made a sort of pillow throne-nest-perch at the head of the bed, in pride of place. I felt her eyes on me, and fought down a rather enjoyable blush.
“You do!” I said, already enthralled by the last half hour. “It’s your turn, Raine. Please.”
“Yes,” Zheng purred. “You must satisfy me, and our judge of truth.”
“True that, true that,” Raine mused, adjusting her sitting position, drawing one leg up to place a foot against the end of the bed.
“Did you not come prepared, yoshou?” Zheng purred, with a hidden mocking edge to her tone.
Raine gave her a mild eyebrow quirk. “I’ve got loads of stories, s’just all my most interesting ones aren’t really mine to tell, they belong to Evee. All the ones with violence, magic, and plenty of blood. All the ones that meant so much. But hey, I guess Heather knows most of those already. If we’re going to calibrate her truth-telling, I best start with one she doesn’t know. Right?”
“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred.
“Gotta warn you though, big girl, I’m no globe-trotting ancient like you, or baby-killing murderer like Stack. I’ve got some heavy ones in my quiver, some real life in there, but nothing epic, nothing soaring. My stories might bore you a bit.”
“Then tell them well.”
“We won’t be bored, Raine. Really!” I added. “I absolutely will not be, I can promise you that.”
“Alright then.” A mischievous twinkle entered Raine’s eyes. “Let’s start with something light. I’ll tell you about the time I became the devil.”
I could barely contain my excitement.
We were gathered in our bedroom. Well, my bedroom, Raine’s bedroom. Anything more than that was yet to be discussed. Zheng lounged in an old armchair, while Raine sat on the spinny desk chair, legs alternately up on the end of the bed or the desk itself or just oscillating herself back and forth as she thought or spoke or watched Zheng roll the dice. She moved her injured leg slower than she would have in the past, but her range of motion wasn’t too constricted. I was quite comfy, installed at the head of the bed, both audience and observed. I burned with self-consciousness in my nice clothes, especially with the way both Raine and Zheng would switch from focusing on each other to running appreciative glances over me – or was that my imagination, were they just looking at me like normal? – but the promise of good stories kept me from burying myself in embarrassment.
We’d commandeered a tray from the kitchen on which to roll the opposing sets of dice, which now stood on the foot of the bed between Zheng and Raine, close enough for either of them to toy with the dice between rolls.
As we’d been getting seated and situated, but before Zheng had explained the – to me, at least – mind-boggling rules of holding and raising and betting your hand, Raine had dug around in her possessions and presented Zheng with a set of very odd dice with lots of sides. They were very colourful, some were even little rainbows, or variations on rainbows. I’d never seen anything like them before.
“Dice can have more than six sides?” I’d asked, staring in fascination.
“Wait, hold up,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, you’ve never seen a dee-twenty before?”
I shook my head, dumbfounded. Raine had kissed me on the cheek in sheer amused delight.
Zheng had declined the opportunity to integrate the special dice into the game, and for that I was exceptionally glad, no matter how pretty they were. The maths of ‘walls’ and ‘scaling’ and ‘little gods’ was difficult enough for me to follow without adding extra improvisation with entirely new sets of numbers.
Raine’s special rainbow dice were mine to play with now, and I rolled them idly in my lap as I listened. I felt like a deep-sea mollusk, flushed and colourful with protective toxic display, perched on coral close to the surface to warm myself by the light of twin suns, showing off my frills and pigments, toying with pieces of smooth stone.
I felt content and safe and home.
I’d purposefully chosen to bring us all upstairs into the bedroom in order to invite Zheng inside, into this intimate space, and Raine had accepted the gesture without question. But secretly even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d meant by it. Bedrooms had never been nice places for me, not since Maisie was taken away. My childhood bedroom was forever marred by an open wound that only I knew about, a constant reminder of loss, and my short-lived bedroom for the first couple of months at university had turned into a torture chamber of Eye-sent nightmares and sleep deprivation, forever stinking of fear-sweat and vomit.
But the room I shared with Raine at Number 12 Barnslow Drive was different. Nestled in the heart of this strangely solid old house, large with a high ceiling and plenty of space for a double bed, desk, armchairs, television and Raine’s video game consoles, not to mention my endless little piles of books, it felt more like part of a continuous warren up here in the top of the house, comfortable and known, and ours.
Zheng had – incredibly – lost the first round of akarakish to Raine.
In a game of wit and guts and holding one’s nerve, Raine excelled at pushing the limit and pushing her luck. She’d raised and raised and raised until Zheng had finally shown a speck of doubt and rolled one too many dice, and lost.
They’d stared each other down, two massive cats sizing up claw and muscle and territory. But then Zheng had roared with laughter, slapped the arm of the chair so hard I was afraid she might snap the underlying wood, and declared Raine’s victory a fair one. If rash.
So Zheng had gone first.
She’d told us a story about a man she’d known in the armies of the khans, an important warrior who had wanted Zheng dead – not for being unnatural or eating through enough horse meat to supply ten men for weeks, or even for insulting him by urinating on his tent, but simply because she was strong and he thought himself strongest. He had owned a magic sword. It was a short and bloody tale, almost a fable, which ended with her blunting the man’s supposed magic sword on her forearms and beating him to death with the pommel.
She told it with a dark smile and a lizard-like fixation on Raine, and I did not like the thematic undertones. But she looked at me at the end, for approval.
“ … um?”
“Truth, shaman?” she purred. “I am telling truth?”
“Oh, um.” I’d hesitated, fascinated and disgusted at the violence, but mostly worried by the unsubtle message she’d sent. “It seems truthful to me, though it was a bit … fable-like, with the ending and all. Almost too convenient.”
“Hey, I liked it,” Raine said, grinning. Did she miss the message or was she being polite? “Real hack and slash.”
Zheng had stared at me for a moment longer, and I’d held her gaze, and then she’d split into a wide grin, showing all her teeth. “Shaman! I cannot deceive you. The tale is true, but the ending is a lie.”
“Oh.” I blinked.
“Jirghadai did bury his sword in my left arm, but I didn’t beat him to death afterwards. I ran off with the sword!” She barked with laughter. “All over the camp, out onto the steppe, and back again. He rode after me, puffing and shouting, but I am faster than any horse. Every one of his friends and fellows was roaring with laughter at his folly. I dropped the sword at his wife’s feet. She was laughing too.”
And so Zheng had scooped up the dice again, plus two more she had to roll as a handicap for her lie. I had a funny feeling she’d fully expected me to pick up on that one, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her intentions now. But she’d won that next round, and here we were.
“So,” Raine began her story, kicking her feet up on the end of the bed and leaning back on her hands. “My parents were very religious. Real serious God-botherer types.”
“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred, eyes narrowed. I perked up at the prospect of anything from Raine’s childhood, as welcome as gold dust.
“Heather knows a bit of this already, but the context’s for you.” Raine nodded to Zheng. “Not nice cuddly modern CoE types either, or even regular Catholics – er,” she broke off with a raised eyebrow. “’Scuse me, Zheng, I’ve just realised, you’re gonna need a tiny bit of Christian theology for this one to make sense. Do you … ?”
“I spent a century in the deep cellars of a monastery in the Carpathians,” Zheng said. “The monks assumed I was a fallen thing. Tried to make me repent the sin of rebellion. I have heard the Christian book front to back thousands of times.”
Raine winced. “Ouch. My condolences.”
“Anyway, okay. So my parents were very, very religious, and when I was little we went to Church like clockwork, every Sunday. Not a real Church, mind you, not something built out of stone in the middle ages, but this fancy modern building, all white and ridiculous fake beams and glowing displays. You’d hate it, Heather,” she nodded at me.
“Ugh, probably,” I said.
“But hey, to my parents, the most important thing about going to Church was being friendly with the right people, climbing the social ladder, and though I hate to admit it, they were actually quite good at being a pair of greasy little toadies and sucking up to their ‘social betters’.” Raine did little air-quotes. “And by the time I was about nine or ten – I think that’s when it happened – they were actually pretty friendly with the vicar. Preacher. Whatever. They didn’t call him a vicar because he wasn’t CoE, but it’s basically the same thing, with a touch more insane ranting about modern fabrics causing hurricanes.”
“Tch,” I tutted under my breath.
“One Sunday afternoon my parents stayed behind after a service, for some kind of social call with the vicar and his wife. Some tea and cake nonsense. My parents didn’t want their weird daughter hanging around, so they sent me off into the Church grounds to amuse myself.” Raine spread her hands as a grin crept onto her face. “Now, I didn’t give a toss about any of this. What did I care about? Well, the vicar had a daughter.”
“Oh no,” I said out loud.
Raine laughed and turned to me, holding up a finger. “We were ten. Seriously. S’not like that.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” I said, blushing. “I just … it is you.”
“We’ll get there.” Raine winked. “This girl, her name was Gracie. Not Grace, but Gracie. We were actually in the same class at school, but we were so far apart in playground social status we may as well have come from different planets. She was a real little madam, nose-in-the-air type, spoilt rotten by her parents, owned a pony. Meanwhile, I was a bit of a weird child. Kinda quiet.” She gave me a side-eyes look, and I knew that was all Zheng was getting of Raine’s peculiar personal history for the moment. “So, there we are, two ten year old girls, alone in this stupid looking ornamental garden of a crackpot Church, while our parents amuse themselves discussing whatever adults discuss beyond earshot of their kids.”
“Children’s games make good stories,” Zheng purred in the dramatic pause, and to my surprise, she sounded like she meant it.
“Oh, but we didn’t play a game,” Raine said, lighting up with slow-building glee. “We decided to discuss theology. A ten-year-old’s version of theology.”
“Oh dear,” I sighed.
“Oh dear is right. I don’t remember how it started, probably with a totally innocent question, but seeing as to our vast gap in social status, Gracie got it into her head that she needed to assert dominance.”
“Rrrrrr,” Zheng purred – low and animal and appreciative. She understood dominance.
“She was pretty, she was popular, she was the daughter of an important man,” Raine went on. “She was blonde, she was wearing a nice dress, she wanted a place in the pecking order, and she’d absorbed all this jumbled up religious jargon. So little Gracie decided this made her better than me, holier than me, closer to God than me. And I was a weird little child, I was very quiet and very intense. So as we’re wandering through this garden and poking at the ground with sticks, she’s telling me this mish-mash of half-remembered Bible stories, like she’s trying to instruct me, and I think she read my quiet lack of giving-a-shit as defiance, when I was honestly just listening, because she was kinda pretty and even at ten years old I sort of wanted to hold her hand or be her friend or something.” Raine shrugged.
“Awwww, Raine.” I couldn’t help myself.
“Wait, you won’t be going ‘awww’ in a minute.” Raine struggled to control her smile. “So eventually we reach the rear of the garden. It’s pretty secluded, there’s high walls, vines climbing the brickwork, some tall trees, and an ornamental pond, where we pause for a moment. Gracie’s really worked up by now, thinks I don’t know my place. She was puffed up with importance because this is her daddy’s Church, and he’s a holy man, and she thinks I’m not recognising her place, that she’s special and one of God’s chosen or whatever. So she turns to me and declares with complete confidence that she can walk on water.”
I involuntarily put my hands to my mouth, eyes going wide. “Oh no, oh Raine don’t tell me she drowned.”
“No, no, nothing like that! That would be really dark, I said we’re starting off light. Relax.”
Zheng was grinning, chuckling softly in the back of her throat.
“Yeah, I know,” Raine said. “Blasphemous. Anyway, I was smart enough about metaphor and meaning to know that she was barking up completely the wrong tree, and I told her so. Only Jesus walks on water, right? No, says Gracie, ‘my dad says I can walk on water, and my dad knows Jesus better than your dad’. And we were nearly shouting now, how kids do sometimes when they argue, from zero to sixty in an instant. And I was thinking well, she’s pretty, but she’s kinda dumb.”
“Tch,” I tutted softly, but I was gripping a pillow now, squeezing it in my lap, on the edge of my seat.
“So I said ‘prove it’, and I pointed at the pond.” Raine mimed the gesture. “And to her credit, Gracie nearly tried to walk on water.”
“But she didn’t?” I asked in a whisper.
Raine shook her head. “She almost took the first step, but she stopped at the last moment, with her shoe hovering about an inch from the surface of the pond. I remember the way her face changed, it was so subtle. This moment of doubt, the moment she realised she’d talked herself into a corner, and she was going to have to back down or apologise. To me! Little weird Raine, with the stare and the ugly clothes and the slimy parents. She was about to be humiliated, in front of a social inferior.” Raine pulled a faux-tragic expression.
“Deserved the lesson,” Zheng purred, so soft it was almost inaudible.
“Naaaah she didn’t. At least I didn’t think so, not back then. I wanted to save her. So I did.” Raine couldn’t keep the grin off anymore, bursting into full shit-eating life across her face. “Before she could pull her foot back to dry land, I put one hand against her back and – wufff!”
Raine mimed a hearty shove.
“You pushed a child into a pond?!” I exploded.
“I was a child too!” Raine laughed, then flicked suddenly serious. “And it did save her. It was only a foot deep, but it was full of algae and pond scum and probably rat piss, and she went splashing in face-first. Her dress was absolutely ruined and soaking, water in her hair, she was bawling her eyes out. I jumped in after her and pulled her to her feet, because she was so paralysed by the surprise of it. She was crying in my face, sobbing with, well, I guess embarrassment, asking why I’d done that, why I’d ruined everything, why anybody would be so nasty?” Raine shrugged. “Nowadays I know why I did it, because I figured that a ruined dress was a lesser wound that having to apologise to me, but I didn’t figure for breaking her rudimentary faith. But back then, with this girl crying at me, I didn’t have an answer.”
“So I said the first thing that made theological sense. I looked her dead in the eye and said ‘maybe I’m the devil.’”
Raine paused for effect. I was open-mouthed with disbelief. Zheng was purring like a tiger.
“She wasn’t terrified of me,” Raine went on, more casually. “She just cried a lot, clung to me, let me lead her back to the Church. Didn’t tell her parents what had really happened either, she just went along with my lie that we were playing and fell in. I went home, parents told me off for getting the child of an important person dirty, and I forgot about the whole thing.” Raine paused and mock-hesitated, then shrugged. “Gracie didn’t forget though. Three and a half years later, when word was getting around school that I was a massive lesbo, she cornered me in the gym cupboard and asked me if I was the devil. I said ‘uh, maybe?’, and then we made out for twenty minutes.”
I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it. “Raine!”
To my surprise, Zheng barked a laugh too.
“I know! I know! It wasn’t my fault!” Raine raised her hands in surrender. “I think I awakened something in her, but I never found out what. Look, wherever she ended up, I hope she found somebody more suited to play the devil for her. And that’s the story. That’s the end.”
Raine finished, looking at Zheng, waiting for approval or a round of applause or a scoff of derision. But she got none of those. Zheng just glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
“I … I think it’s all true.”
“Even the kiss?” Raine asked, surprised.
“Especially the kiss, that’s very you.” I tutted.
“Point to the yoshou,” Zheng purred with a sharp smile. “No penalty.”
Raine grinned back and scooped up the dice with one hand, holding them in a fist. “Ahhh, but no penalty doesn’t mean I can’t choose to roll more, right? I’m going all-in, all six starting dice.”
Zheng leaned forward, intrigued, predatory intensity awakening on her face. “The odds do not favour that. Better to start small, hold each victory, not pray for strength. You know that, yoshou. What is this?”
Raine shook the dice, clack-a-clacking in her hand, and grinned back at Zheng.