“A marriage proposal.”
I moved my mouth and pushed air over my vocal cords; sound came out, but the words couldn’t possibly be correct. My voice felt far away, my head was hot and spinning, and my chest tightened with internal pressure as if about to implode around the vacuum of my heart.
But Saldis either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“More of a marriage promise,” she rambled on, waving a hand in little circles of thought, lounging back against the comfortable grey curves of her machine’s pilot seat. Her naked skin was still slathered with a thick layer of gently steaming blood, but somehow she left no stains upon the grey material. “You’ve already accepted it, after all. The proposal stage is over and done with, though, oooooh, there’s a thought.” She smiled wide to show perfect teeth and fluttered her lashes, her eyelids sticking together briefly with crimson mess. “I would have loved to witness the drama of that moment. Imagine! A pretender to the throne of Carcosa, finding herself a suitable match at long last. All the scheming and thought which must have gone into it. Tell me, please, Lady Morell, did she engineer this ‘danger’ she was protecting you from? What a little minx!”
That horrible suggestion bought me round. “No,” I said, frowning at Saldis in her absurd hamster ball. “No, no she did not ‘engineer’ anything. She got burned trying to help and I almost died. She didn’t even want to be there in the first place. There’s nothing romantic about confronting trauma. I will not hear you suggest such a thing of her!”
By the time I finished ordering my thoughts, my tentacles were up and ready, as if itching to peel Saldis out of her machine like ripping a mollusk from its shell.
The muffled quiet of the library caught the snap of my voice in a silent fist, strangling the sound before an echo could form. My anger was reduced to a trickle of wind whispering off between the bookcases and the stacks of abandoned volumes. Saldis made a big show of raising her hands in surrender, but the gesture was undermined by the roll of her eyes and the smirk on her lips.
“I’m not the director or playwright here,” she said. “Don’t vent your fury on me, Lady Morell. Take it up with your fiancee.”
“Fiancee,” I spat.
But in private panic, I searched my memories. Could Sevens have worked backstage, to bring together the necessary elements and force the decisions that had led to Lozzie and I confronting the Eye to save Badger’s soul, but then inserted herself at the final moment, all just as an excuse to give me this silken yellow cloak?
My fingers unconsciously tried to touch the yellow comfort about my shoulders, the enclosing warmth, this portable hug. In Lozzie’s dream-world it had felt as warm as sun-kissed skin. Seven’s skin?
Had it all been a ruse? Had I been on stage the whole time?
No, I decided not. I recalled the way Sevens had acted when she’d given me the cloak — her strange reluctance to take the final step, the way her imitation of me had broken down before reasserting itself in nervous hiccups. She had been just as afraid of the Eye as anybody else. Out there in the dream she had burned and bled for me, for real, not an act. Though for something such as her, where did acting end and action begin? But whichever it was, gifting me the cloak had been an act of desperation, not the final move in Sevens’ perfectly executed plan.
The gift had meant something real to her, not merely to the imitative layers she wrapped around the core of her own abyssal truth.
Of course, that didn’t rule out marriage proposal.
I felt a strong urge to don my squid-mask once more and hide inside the grey-metal bone. My tentacles kept curling and uncurling in a nervous fidget. I even wrapped one around my belly as my stomach began to roil with growing anxiety.
“Ahhhh,” Saldis sighed with all the cloying oiliness of a used-car salesman, or at least the Old Norse equivalent of a used-car salesman. “And now you’re seeing how all the pieces have been arranged since the very beginning.” She sighed again, this time in the dreamy manner of a preteen with a magazine spread of a favourite pop idol. She leaned forward and attempted to place her blood-soaked chin in one gore-smeared hand, balancing an elbow on her knee — but she was much too covered in wet blood to assume the pose properly. Her elbow slipped from her knee and she whacked herself in the face with the back of her own hand, overbalancing and nearly toppling forward out of her sphere-machine.
“Tch!” she tutted and huffed at the fumble.
“Serves you right.” I snorted out a bitter little laugh. “And you’re wrong. Sevens did not set up anything.”
Saldis recovered her bruised dignity by clearing her throat and gesturing down at her own nude glory, dark skin still steaming with fresh blood. “I really must get dressed. This news is the most exciting courtly development in over fifty years and I’ve completely lost any sense of decorum, but can you blame me?”
“You don’t have a sense of decorum. You are being an absolute … stirrer.”
“Excuse me?” Saldis blinked at me with bewilderment.
“A shit-stirrer,” I enunciated with great care, doing my best Evelyn-impression scowl, then hiccuped loudly enough to pierce the silence of the library for a split second. Swearing made me feel like a very bad girl indeed, even though I’d learnt that particular word from Raine.
I even glanced back over my shoulder at the forest-knight, still standing behind me in a pose of relaxed readiness, his axe slung over one shoulder. I felt as if I should apologise for my foul language, but the knight did not appear to care. He just did his self-appointed duty, standing by on guard.
Saldis wiggled her bottom in her seat, lips pursed as if to hold back a laugh. “Guilty as charged, but I am also correct. And being right is worth any amount of stirring. Oooh, what a delightful phrase; shit-stirrer. I believe I shall add it to my list of titles.”
I shook my head, as much at myself as at Saldis, along with this ridiculous notion she was peddling. “Look, I don’t have time for this. Saldis, I’m here because I need your help, because I’m in the middle of a crisis, an emergency. A much more pressing emergency than fictitious marriage proposals from Outsider godling daughters.”
Saldis raised her eyebrows in polite interest, so I went on.
“I’m stuck. Stuck Outside, because something is preventing me from returning home — an intelligence, a purpose. It manifests as hands that grab my ankles when I try to leave, but they’re not literally hands, that’s just … interpretation. I think it might be the remains of a mage I killed once, but I don’t know. And I need to find Lozzie first — do you remember her?” Saldis nodded, though slightly detached, with forced politeness. “And I need to get her out too, because the same force is probably going to hold her back when she tries to return home. But I don’t know what Outside dimension she’s gone to. I need help to … break the hands, defeat them, I don’t know.”
Saldis waited a beat, then dipped her head in po-faced acknowledgement. “You are trapped on this branch, this bough, here, in Carcosa?”
“No, not just here,” I sighed with exhaustion as I rounded on the problem again. “I can move from dimension to dimension, Outside, but not back to Earth. Whenever I try, it’s like hands gripping at my ankles. I can’t beat them because it happens in the space between, the membrane, the gap, I can’t do things there.”
Saldis pulled a real heavy pinch of a frown, squinted her eyes and wrinkled her nose, the complete works, as if I was talking distasteful nonsense. She wet her lips, taking a tiny taste of the blood all over her skin, then slowly raised one hand. I braced for magic, for her unique and bizarre flesh-splitting physical incantation.
“I really must get dressed,” she said — and without further warning, her grey sphere-machine began to fold shut, the exterior blocks sliding over each other and back into place. “A moment, please, Lady Morell,” she said as the machine closed around her like a Venus fly trap.
The grey surface slid shut without a sound. All of a sudden I was alone in the Library of Carcosa once more. Alone with Lozzie’s knight at my back. Alone with my thoughts.
I let out a huge sigh and rubbed the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut to avert an onrushing stress headache. I was very, very hungry, despite the bioreactor purring away in my gut to supply me with raw energy. My legs were tired enough that two of my tentacles had wrapped around them to act as braces against the floorboards, like a pneuma-somatic powered exoskeleton. I might have been more adapted to survive Outside than ever before, but I still needed food and water, rest and warmth, and eventually a shower and some sleep. Human or not, my core was still flesh and my brain was still meat.
Before I could stop myself, my fingers twitched to pull Sevens’ cloak tighter around my shoulders, to instinctively wrap myself in comfort’s warm embrace.
“Oh, tch,” I tutted when I realised, blushing bright red. I wrapped a tentacle around my shoulders instead. “A marriage proposal, really. Ridiculous. Absurd notion.”
Clearly my subconscious did not agree. One hand tried to smooth my hair down, raking it into a semblance of order, while the other straightened my pink hoodie, then wavered when I realised I couldn’t do anything about the nosebleed stains I’d wiped all over my right sleeve.
Face still burning red and with a guilty barb in my chest, I glanced around the little clearing of bookshelves, trying not to look at the impossible tapestry in the middle. But it wasn’t Outside physics making my stomach churn and my palms sweat. I half-expected to see a white mask peeking around a corner to watch me with shy interest, like a timid character from one of Evelyn’s more irritating anime shows. I even checked behind the forest-patterned knight, but there was no embarrassed mass of yellow on the other side of him either.
“Tell me if you see her, okay?” I asked him. His helmet went up and down in a neat, covert nod.
I filled my lungs, placed a hand over my fluttering heart, and — cursing myself for a romantic fool — called out to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
“Sevens? Sevens, I don’t care what you’ve done or not done, or what it means or doesn’t mean. I just need help getting home. I don’t know what’s happening to Raine, or Evee, or anybody else. I’m terrified and barely holding myself together, and you must know that. You care about my drama, my story, don’t you? Well if I can’t get home, it ends here. Outside. Alone.”
I kept my eyes peeled for a whisper of dawn-break gold, a hint of warm honey on the air, or a butterscotch flutter behind a bookcase. But none came.
A moment later, Saldis’ sphere-machine slid open again like an otherworldly egg disgorging a live parrot with rampant plumage of red and gold. The grey blocks slid back to reveal Saldis cleaned of her gruesome layer of steaming blood and clad in a thick-spun red dress, from chin to toes, showing almost no skin except her face and hands.
It wasn’t the same dress she’d worn the first time we’d met her — this was much flashier. A truly massive amount of gold thread was woven into the fabric, in an ostentatious design that showed a rearing snake-dragon against a field of stars, with a vanquished wolf beneath its coils. A golden raven was inlaid on either shoulder, as if whispering up into her ears. She wore a dozen heavy necklaces with gold pendants, some with triple-triangle interlocking designs, some with little inverted hammers, others with trees or boars, and one that had no pendant but instead a runic inscription in what I assumed was Old Norse. Her fingers glittered with rings and her wrists jangled with gold bangles as she leaned back in her seat and tossed one leg over the other.
In her lap lay a trio of massive black rats, half asleep with their little eyes heavily lidded, all curled up against each other and looking very comfortable indeed, as if they’d been napping there for hours. They were the healthiest rats I’d ever seen, glossy-furred and sleek and perfectly groomed, but each one must have weighed almost two pounds, more than enough to make the boldest cat think twice. Somehow I doubted they were earthly rats at all, not really. Saldis lowered a hand to pet one of them along its spine.
I blinked at her in surprise. She must have caught the look on my face.
“Flaunt it if you got it,” she said with a satisfied smile, then frowned. “Oh dear. Oh, that is just crass. But I suppose I do ‘got it’. Don’t think your mantle is so impressive that I can’t match up in my own way.”
I didn’t have to exert effort to scowl that time. “Saldis, this is not a catwalk contest. I can’t even see this.” I tried to pluck at Sevens’ cloak to make my point.
She smiled with infuriating indulgence and scratched one of her pet rats under the chin. It nuzzled her hand. “So you say, Lady Morell. Have no fear, though, I would never upstage either bride at the event itself. I will keep myself strictly within reasonable bounds.” She suddenly lit up. “That is, assuming you are not going to elope? Oh, how exciting!”
I silently counted to ten, casting about for a conversational — and emotional — handhold. “Where did you get those rats from, anyway?”
She shrugged. “Same place I get everything. Meet Hugstari, Vegdrasill, and Mótsognir.” She touched the three rats in turn, smiling with genuine pride and delight. “They do so love courtly drama, it would be terribly cruel of me to let them miss it unfolding. Now, where were we?”
“I need to get home,” I repeated. “Back to Earth, past the hands. You’re a mage. Can you help me, or not?”
“Mm, yes.” She pulled that same pinched frown from before. “You want to go back to Midgard?” She pronounced the word with exaggerated care, as if it was a foreign object in her mouth, with sharp edges and pointy bits. She wet her lips and tried again. “Midgard. Midgard. Hmm. Your rather … interesting language, shall we say, doesn’t appear to have a suitable concept to hand, let alone an actual word. I’m defaulting.” She pulled a mock-embarrassed grimace. “Midgard, then?”
I nodded. I knew enough basic Norse mythology to recognise the term. She meant Earth, whatever word she used for it, the place where humans lived. “Yes. Can you help?”
Her grimace widened, pained around the eyes. “Oh, certainly, but I have current conditions to consider.”
“If it’s a matter of reciprocation, I will do any—”
“No no no.” She flapped a hand, genuinely flustered. “I would not dream of expecting such, Lady Morell.” She must have understood my raised eyebrow of disbelief, because she waved her hand in a little circle of surrender. “I would not dream of expecting it from you as you are right now. You wear the yellow. Betrothed or not, presumptive or consummated, one does not make demands of a member of the Yellow King’s family.”
My cheeks burned with unspoken denial. “ … okay, so why not help me?”
“I would be stepping on toes. You should ask your fiancee for help first.”
I looked away with growing discomfort and cleared my throat, trying to avoid the inevitable. “I’ve tried,” I murmured.
I huffed and forced myself to speak up. “I’ve tried and she’s not answering me. Or she’s not even here. I haven’t seen anything of Sevens since she gifted me the cloak. She hasn’t shown her face, not once.”
Saldis lit up like a child presented with a bucket of luxury ice cream. She emitted a small, strangled squeal of delight, contorting her lips to prevent a grin, but could not resist the urge to clap her hands together beneath her chin. I shot her quite a glare, the best I could muster under the circumstances, powered as much by growing headache and hunger as by embarrassment and exasperation.
“Don’t,” I said.
“But it’s so obvious!” She threw her hands wide. “Oh, oh, she’s shy, she’s a fool in love, her heart cannot take it! She must be here, must be watching right now, too afraid to come out.” Saldis put her fingertips to her mouth, eyes shining with a sheen of dramatic tears as she glanced out of the opening of her sphere-machine, at the bookcases all around, looking for the same evidence of a hidden watcher as I had done. “I did not know, I did not know! I have a front row seat, right here, to the greatest confession scene I am ever likely to witness. How did the beginning of it play out? I am dying to know.”
“It’s not a marriage proposal!” I exploded at her. “No, you must be misinterpreting this. Or you’re messing with me.”
Saldis put her hand over her heart. “By the fire at the centre of creation, I am not teasing you, Lady Morell.”
I threw my hands — and tentacles — up in utter exasperation. Words burst from me, unplanned and uncontrolled, the truth of my feelings. “I just can’t believe it, I can’t. It’s nonsense. I am hardly a catch. Look at me. I’m covered in my own blood and I stink of vomit. I am an absolute nightmare, my life is a mess, I’m half abyssal squid — and that’s when I’m feeling good about myself — and I’m on a collision course with an Outsider God that I still don’t know how to beat. I’m weird and ugly and I don’t fully expect to make it through the next year. I’m going to end up dead if I don’t get everything right. I’m not exactly a lot of fun, either.”
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight clearly disagrees with your self-assessment,” said Saldis.
A sense of deja vu crept over me. I’d been here before, in another secluded spot, running down the list of my faults and failures in front of another suitor who I’d judged worthy of so much more than scrawny little disaster Heather Morell. Blushing, flushed in the face, deeply self-conscious of my messy clothes and unwashed hair, I risked another glance at the corners of the bookcases and the dark nooks between rows; I’d just realised I wasn’t really arguing with Saldis at all.
She was right about one thing — Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight probably was observing. I was talking to her.
“And … and Sevens is so … ” I murmured.
Mad thoughts stampeded through my head. If I accepted, if I said yes — no, that, was absurd. I dialled back: if I acknowledged Sevens’ feelings — if not a bloody marriage proposal — what would that mean? My imagination summoned an image of Sevens-as-me, leaning in close for a kiss. I rejected that with instinctive revulsion, it would be too much like kissing the memory of Maisie. Could she appear as Raine instead? That would be even worse, a horrible falsehood, almost a betrayal. Unless Raine agreed — no, no; I physically shook my head, that was too weird.
Or would she appear as herself? Her true self, the beautiful marine-form of infinite buttermilk ruffles and trailing tendrils of young fire, the canary flesh and scent of fresh lemon.
That thought made my mouth go dry and my heart flutter against my ribs like a caged bird.
“Besides,” I tried to rally by denying it out loud. “I’m taken, twice over. I have enough difficulty just with Raine, let alone Zheng too, and that’s hardly resolved as it is. My love life is complex enough when I’m already living in a polyamorous triangle where the other two angles of said triangle still want to have a no-holds barred fistfight. And I don’t even have sex with Zheng, yet. If ever. My life is complex enough as it is.”
Saldis blinked at me quite hard, struggling to suppress a disbelieving smirk.
“What?” I snapped.
“Goodness, Lady Morell. And you wonder why Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight might possibly be interested in you?”
“Yes, fine! As a protagonist in one of her plays! Not as a … partner.” I struggled with the word, blushing heavily. I tried to cast my mind back to when Sevens had saved me from slipping into the abyss, when I’d been clawing my way back to the submarine shore of bare rock and she’d reached down and lifted me up. She’d told me about the principle of building an anchor for myself, and how she could not intervene a second time because that was not in her nature. It was not what she was.
“That’s not how she works,” I said out loud. “That’s not what she is. She made that very clear to me, once. She doesn’t get involved, it’s counter to her nature, or something.”
Saldis shrugged an eloquent, rolling shrug. “What can change the nature of a woman?”
I rolled my eyes in exasperated surrender, but then my heart went cold with realisation. I had changed Sevens. I’d made her involve herself, to save me, not just that once, but then a second time, in front of the Eye. She’d helped, been burned for her trouble, been wounded and grown tearful, and then gifted me a piece of herself. A piece of her heart?
“And think how rare it must be,” Saldis prattled on while I was busy having an emotional crisis, “for one such as her to encounter anything remotely like a suitable match, one of the same sophistication and ability, let alone the same social station. Adopted or not, Lady Morell, you are a sort of princess too. Or had you forgotten that?”
I cleared my throat. “I am decidedly anti-monarchist, thank you very much.”
“Oh dear. Well, I couldn’t agree more, personally. I’ve done a spot of regicide myself, though rather a long time ago now.” She lowered her voice to a silly stage-whisper. “But don’t let your father-in-law-to-be hear you saying that.” Saldis wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully, then seemed to rethink her words and tapped her chin with one long-nailed finger. “ … or maybe you should, considering his reported exploits. He might approve of a little neck-cutting here and there. Hmmm.”
My glare was faltering, but Saldis humoured me by putting her hands up in teasing mock-surrender.
“This is all academic, anyway,” I said. “If she can’t or won’t help me, I still need to get out of here. I still need to find Lozzie. I don’t have time for this drama. Will you help or—”
Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight made a sound of metal-on-metal by adjusting the axe it held over one shoulder. I instantly whipped around, tentacles whirling.
The knight held one hand outstretched, gauntlet curled to point index finger straight at a bookcase.
Hardback spines in browns and blacks and worryingly pale shades of soft leather, punctuated by crumbling pages of ancient grimoires that had lost their bindings, and those few bound in more esoteric materials — girded with bone or wrapped in steel or plated with ancient wood. A jumble of tomes and texts and not a Sevens in sight, not peering around a corner or over the top of the bookcase, nor hiding in the implausibly narrow gaps between the tops of the books and the underside of each shelf.
Then, as I dragged my gaze away, she coalesced in the periphery of my vision, among the chaos of the books themselves.
The ragged spines and dog-eared corners and buckled covers conspired to form an outline of yellow, like an optical illusion or magic-eye picture rising from the chaos. A suggestion of shape burst into life — a petite female figure wrapped in wind-swept robes, peeking around the edge of a low wall, shy and coquettish, backed by sun-baked dunes. The image existed only in the precise angle at which one looked at the rows of books.
I flinched in surprise, but that hid the optical illusion from my sight, returning the bookcases to just visual noise. Squinting, blinking, I caught only scraps, and saw that she was moving, that she had recoiled with the shock of being spotted, though the shift in image was generated purely by the new position I had adopted. The books themselves had not changed, neither had the light; nothing had moved, yet as my perspective shifted so did this furtive pretender.
Six months ago, such an impossible effect would have sent me into screaming confusion, but now I adapted.
Quickly, using all my powers of pneuma-somatic body-modification, I formed tiny screws of extra muscle behind my eyes and forced them to unfocus, grimacing through the sudden pain.
And there she was. Seven-Shades-of-Desert-Sprite, fleeing across the sands. She leapt to the next bookcase in the row like a painting come to life and jumping from frame to frame.
“Sevens!” I cried, outraged as much as I was surprised. “Don’t run away!”
I lashed out with a tentacle to catch her by an ankle, but of course I only knocked books off a shelf. Inside the magic-eye image, Sevens stumbled over a sudden pit in the sand dug by my fumble. She recovered with a little hop that made my heart skip.
“Where? Where? I don’t see a thing!” Saldis was squawking from behind me, utterly inconsolable that she was missing the action.
Seven’s run reached the end of the row of bookcases, where a chasm of eight or nine feet separated her from another camouflaging canvas of book spines. I thought she might slip around the corner or vanish — but she hit the edge of the books and exploded into real space, the illusion shattering in a whipping flurry of thick yellow silk that seemed to pour from nowhere.
For a fleeting moment, that yellow silk wrapped around a petite female figure, or took the shape of one, as if caught on an invisible human outline in a gale of wind. She was glancing back over her shoulder at me, caught in a frozen moment of flight, facial features nothing but folds of fabric.
Behind me, Saldis gasped in awe.
Then the silk whipped away in the grip of a hurricane, vanishing behind the bookcases, leaving nothing but empty space.
“Sevens!” I snapped, hurrying across the floorboards and skidding to a halt, grabbing a bookcase with my tentacles to spin myself around and after the fleeing yellow fabric.
But the row beyond was empty. Silence and shadows and marching volumes greeted me; a couple of squid-faced librarians shuffled about in the middle distance.
“Oh for crying out loud, Sevens,” I said. I couldn’t help myself, red in the face with both embarrassment and anger. “Now is not the time to play at being a shrinking violet. Come out. Right this instant.”
No butter-soft fingers curled around the corner of a bookcase.
“We can … Sevens, if you come and talk to me, we can talk about what this means. We can talk, right now, and I will … I will give you an answer. If you come out right now. I promise. Last chance.”
No sunburst eye lit up in the shadows.
“For pity’s sake, Sevens. My friends, my … family might be in trouble, back in reality. The hands trapping me here might be part of a plan. If something happens to Raine, or Evee, or anybody else, I won’t ever be able to forgive you for not helping me.”
No lock of flaxen hair floated among the shelves. Sevens was well and truly hiding.
“Oh, oh dear, oh dear me,” Saldis was cooing back in the clearing, rather uselessly. “Mótsognir, you’re up, little one. Off you go now. Be swift.”
Little ratty claws skittered across the floorboards and one of the three massive black rats slipped between my feet to skitter off down the row of bookcases, sniffing and snuffling like a bloodhound. He ran in a circle, pointed his nose in the air, then slipped off around a corner. The sound of tiny claws was soon swallowed up in the thickly cloying silence of the library.
I turned to Saldis, wide-eyed with surprise. She was petting the other two rats.
“How is he supposed to get far in this place?” I asked. “He’s big, but not that big.”
“Dvergar have their own paths through the great trunk,” she purred, pulling a smugly enigmatic smile. “More importantly, Lady Morell, I think it’s safe to assume that your friends and companions back in Midgard are perfectly untouched by whatever mysterious malicious forces you’re worried about.”
I hardly heard her, glancing off down the row of bookcases again, pursing my lips in irritation at Sevens. I huffed and stomped back into the clearing, back to Saldis and the forest-knight.
“What makes you so confident about that?” I demanded, still scowling through my blush.
“If her fiancee’s comrades were in dire danger, surely Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight would overcome her fear and help you ride to their rescue. Why, it’s a perfect tale, a perfect performance. You think she would pass that up?”
“ … I suppose you have a point.” I wrapped a tentacle around my stomach again, trying to still the roiling anxiety in my guts. “Still. Fiancee.” I shook my head.
“You still doubt—”
“Not after that.” I tutted. “An Outsider godling, behaving like a fourteen-year-old with a crush. Really! She won’t even confront me, this is absurd. I don’t need this right now, I need help.”
Saldis fluttered her eyelashes. “A maiden’s heart is such a delicate thing.”
“And yellow is also a synonym for coward.”
I cast my blushing scowl over the bookcases and spines and the shadows between the rows, over the wooden floorboards and the underside of the next floor up, the glowglobes and the dust-thick library air. Sevens was still watching, I was certain of it, and a spiteful, wounded part of me hoped she’d heard me question her courage.
“Oh, oh,” Saldis was in full dramatic flow. “You cast a spear at her heart, Lady Morell! I never knew you were such a cruel woman.”
“Stop it, please,” I sighed.
But Saldis wasn’t entirely wrong; I was being cruel. Even in the height of crisis, I was forced to consider the possibility that Sevens really had gifted me the cloak purely as protection against the Eye — but that it was also a symbol of marriage proposal at the same time. Both things could be true, and she was deeply embarrassed at the unavoidable implication, or at the revealed truth. But none of that excused her reaction right then.
If any other woman in my life, in any other circumstances, had been forced into this conclusion with me, I would have been reduced to a flustered and flattered mess, whatever I thought of her and whether it ended in mutual agreement to never speak of it again, or in something more heartfelt. But Lozzie was in trouble, I was stuck Outside, and I did not know what was happening back home. Ruthlessness prevailed.
I was also forced to confront the opposite possibility; what if Sevens had planned all of this? What if I was dancing on her stage?
If she wouldn’t face me, I couldn’t answer any of those questions. I had to stay focused.
Saldis prattled on.
“—but if she declines the meeting, it can only mean she is waiting for the right moment. No! The perfect moment—”
“Saldis,” I said, pulling my hoodie tighter around my shoulders, raising my chin, and tucking in my tentacles. “Saldis, forget Sevens. Can you help me get home or not? Can you help me defeat the dead hands, with magic?”
Saldis stopped mid-word, rather unimpressed, then sighed and shrugged. She sat back, waved a bored hand, and concentrated on petting the pair of rats left in her lap. “Oh, I suppose so. It’s a bit pedestrian, but I don’t see why not, other than the risk of stepping on the toes of a Pretender’s plan. But I suppose I must be part of the plan too? Perhaps! In any case, go ahead, show me.” She waved vaguely in my direction.
“Yes. Of course. I need first-hand experience of the phenomenon that’s troubling you.” She raised a rat up on one palm to make eye-level contact with him, then made a saccharine kissy-faces at the rodent. “Even I’m not skilled enough to fix a problem blind. Show me, please.”
“It’s … well, it’s not something that happens in real space, it’s … oh,” I sighed. “I suppose you can see the cloak, so maybe you can see that too.”
Saldis caught my eye with a tiny smirk and patted the inside of her sphere-machine. “Do not forget that I am not my five senses, little Englisher. You’ve gained some fancy limbs and more than a touch of royal favour, but I’ve been around a lot longer than you.”
Somehow, her smile, her confidence, was the exact balm I needed in that moment; Saldis would get me home. She was awful and irritating, but she could do this for me. Even if this was Alexander holding me back, Saldis was older and wiser and stronger. She would know how to snap his wrists. I’d owe her — perhaps owe her a good word with Sevens, but all that could be dealt with later, after I was home or had found Lozzie or had burned the dead hands down into ash.
“All right,” I said, taking a deep breath and steeling myself for the pain. “I didn’t want to have to do this again, but all right. Watch closely.”
“Have no fear, Lady Morell. My eyes are peeled.”
I handed my Outsider-squid skull to the forest-knight, wrapped myself with my tentacles to brace for the inevitable return, and closed my eyes.
The equation was second nature by then, a click of my fingers, a flick of the wrist, like taking a hop across a barrier that was becoming progressively thinner with every transition.
Cold hands closed around my ankles.
The membrane spat me back out in a welter of blood and pain and disorientation. This time I had expected that same result and readied myself, tentacles braced and hugging me tight to keep me on my feet. But even with the forest-knight placing one metal hand against the small of my back, I still staggered and sagged, bent double as I spat strings of bile onto the library floorboards.
My stomach felt like a void. I was so hungry.
“Uuuurghhhh … ” I groaned, wiping nosebleed all over my pink sleeve and waiting for my vision to stop throbbing black at the edges. “Sevens, if you’re really in love with me, can’t you at least spare me from more of this?”
My whispered plea received no reply. I grumbled some more and spat on the floor and finally managed to pull myself upright, leaning against the knight.
Saldis was staring at me like she’d seen a ghost. She’d actually gone pale with fright, a condition I’d believed she was incapable of. She was cuddling the rats in her lap as if to shelter them.
“Saldis?” I croaked, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, feeling like some kind of filthy vomit goblin.
“I don’t think I can help you, Lady Morell,” she said, voice oddly hushed.
She shook her head, swallowed with awkward delicacy, and seemed to come round somewhat. “This is no mere draugr at your heels, my Lady. This is vengeance. What in all creation did you do to attract this sort of anger?”
“I murdered a mage and destroyed his life’s work,” I told her — not without a hint of pride, which instantly made me feel sick with guilt.
“Well,” Saldis sighed. “I cannot help you with this.”
“Can’t or won’t?” I grunted, trying to ignore the crushing pressure on my chest again, trying to keep my head clear. If she couldn’t help me, I was truly stuck.
“Can’t!” She lit up with a smile, though intensely awkward even on her laugh-lined face. “Those who keep going after they lose their bodies are nought but spite and regret, an old form of magic indeed, and not to be countered with mere skill. You cannot fight such a thing with anger and revulsion, either, because yours will never match their own. The only way out is, well … ” She cleared her throat and grimaced. “One must lay the dead to rest. Apologise and forgive.”
“Forgive?” I hissed. “Absolutely—”
“And you have to mean it. Saying sorry in a contrite tone is not good enough.”
I shook my head, wracked with painful aftershock. The forest-knight handed me my squid-mask and I almost slipped it on without thinking, but then hugged it tight instead, like a protective talisman. “I think forgiveness rather out of the question. I don’t think I’m capable of that, not in this case.”
“Quite.” Saldis sighed. “The man in question is dead, you are not dealing with him, but forgiveness is not the easy path. If it was, more would take it and none would sing of revenge. Nevertheless, you cannot hate forever, little Englisher. It eats you inside.”
I sighed and felt my shoulders slump. Apologise and forgive? Give me a few months, less of a crisis, and a good therapist or two — for Lozzie as well — and perhaps I would be able to approach the concept of forgiving Alexander Lilburne, maybe, from a distance, after Zheng had defiled his grave and cracked his bones.
“He killed children,” I said, and surprised myself with the choke in my voice. “He hurt his own sister, my friend. I can’t.”
Saldis nodded and gave me a sad smile. “Yes, it is hard to forgive monsters. That is why this is so effective.”
“At least I know it must be him now,” I muttered, then took a deep breath and tried to put him from my mind. “You really can’t help me fight the hands off? Hurt them, make them stop?”
Saldis shook her head.
A lump formed in my throat once again. I was trapped and Lozzie was trapped. I groped for anything, any handhold I could find. There had to be another way back, another way across the membrane. I sagged back on my tentacles, using them like extra legs against the floorboards, badly wanting to sit down, lie down, close my eyes and curl up in a ball and slip off to sleep.
“Saldis, how did you get here? Originally, I mean? You came from Earth — from Midgard, didn’t you?”
Saldis blinked at me with polite surprise. “Why, I climbed down Yggdrasil, of course.”
I frowned at her through sandy eyes. “ … the … world tree of Norse mythology? What does that mean?”
Saldis shrugged and leaned back inside her machine. One of her rats rolled over in her lap. “I climbed down the trunk, across the roots, and then went wherever I wished. Of course, I couldn’t have done it like this,” she gestured at herself, at her flesh and bone body.
“Wait, you mean this literally? You climbed down a giant tree? The ‘world tree’?”
She frowned at me. “Yes? What else would I mean?”
“But you said you’ve never met a god? The gods, in general? How can the tree … ”
Saldis laughed with genuine amusement. “Just because the gods do not exist does not mean Yggdrasil doesn’t. What a silly notion.”
I shook my head. “We have completely different cultural contexts. You mean there is a place, a real, physical place you can climb up some giant roots and return to … Midgard?”
“Of course.” Saldis looked me up and down quickly and cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t attempt it as you are though. No amount of royal favour and no number of extra limbs would help you survive that climb. You’d be eaten before you got a hundred feet up the roots.”
“I have a feeling that you and I would see very different things if we both looked at Yggdrasil.”
Saldis pulled a mildly offended face. “Well, if you say so.”
“It might be my only choice though, I have to try. Even if it’s dangerous.” I curled up around my stomach, aching with hunger and a desire for sleep. “Saldis, do you have anything to eat? Any food?”
I hated to imagine what she might produce as ‘food’, but I was too hungry to care.
But then, Saldis clicked her fingers and lit up with a grin.
“Why not go to the palace?” she asked, bright and cheery, like this was the obvious solution we’d been missing all along. She scratched one of her rats behind the ears with delight.
“The … the what? I’m sorry?”
“The palace, the palace! You’re already here in Carcosa, it’s hardly that much of a trip.” She gestured into the effective infinity of the library. “Certainly quicker than a journey up Yggdrasil. Out the front of the library, past the lake of Hali, and there you have it. You’ll certainly get an odd reception with that mantle about your shoulders, but it’ll be a safe one. The courtiers and servants would never dare risk affront by laying hands on the betrothed of one of the King’s own family, though they will tease and play games.” She drew in a breath between her teeth. “Though the same cannot be said of the family itself. You would be walking a gauntlet of attention from siblings and cousins and aunts, some of them quite spiteful. I could come with you, though I will have to button up if we encounter … questions.” She smiled. “And they will have plenty of food.”
My hands and guts had both gone cold. “Saldis, what are you suggesting?”
“Go ask your future father-in-law for assistance. Go see the King in Yellow.”