any mortal thing – 14.16

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My family didn’t keep any pets when Maisie and I were little; after Wonderland — or, from our parents’ perspective, after my schizophrenia manifested at nine years old — they had enough on their hands dealing with me, without adding further complications to our household. My father had owned a dog in the years before we were born, a noble-looking German Shepherd by the name of Alfred, though I only knew him from a handful of low-resolution photographs. He’d died at a rather advanced age when Maisie and I were only six months old, which invited a nameless melancholy whenever I thought about it too much. During my teenage years, three different child psychologists had suggested animal-assisted therapy, or that my parents should consider getting a small dog. That experiment lasted less than a week and ended in a massive relapse; thirteen year-old me got her hopes up at the fantasy of a big friendly dog who would bark at her hallucinations and scare off the monsters nobody else could see. Which didn’t happen. Dogs couldn’t see spirits either.

So, I wasn’t good with animals. I was not used to them.

But I had once been fascinated by a cat.

When Maisie and I were perhaps six or seven years old, our neighbourhood in Reading had played brief host to a bold stray. A marmalade-and-white tabby cat had taken up residence in the streets. She was sleek and muscular and graceful. Our parents called her Ginger, which Maisie and I mangled into Gins, in the private language that young twins sometimes develop.

Gins the orange cat developed a habit of begging for scraps outside peoples’ doors by rolling on her back and looking cute. She sunned herself on garden walls and promenaded up and down the pavements without a care, but she was also the terror of all the local domesticated cats. At night she would poach pet food from unattended bowls by sneaking in through unlocked cat flaps. More than once somebody else on our street woke up to the sound of their own pet hissing and yowling in a secret nocturnal confrontation. To a pair of small children this was the height of excitement and scandal.

She didn’t visit our back garden much, probably because we lacked any pet food to give her. On the rare occasions she did appear, Maisie and I were beside ourselves with delight. Gins was a very proud cat, all strutting and preening, somehow both fluffy and elegant at the same time, dignified and commanding, queen of her adopted domain. Our parents forbid us from trying to stroke her, which caused a little disappointment at first, but we accepted it as the natural order of things — no feline that noble would be interested in the attentions of a pair of over-curious six year old girls.

But once, she’d stolen into our back garden in pursuit of a big fat black rat. She’d caught it right in front of Maisie and I as we’d pressed ourselves against the glass of the back door in horrified awe. She’d cornered it on our little patio, toyed with the poor thing, then snapped its neck and taken her sweet time with her meal. She’d eaten it head first, crunching the delicate bones, smearing blood and gore all over her oh-so-fluffy orange face and paws.

I always remembered the shared realisation that Maisie and I had whispered to each other as we’d watched sweet little Gins dismember and devour her prey, as she’d watched us back with those shining feline eyes: if we’d been as small as that rat, she would have gladly eaten us.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realised poor Ginger had probably been slowly starving, covered in fleas, and riddled with parasites. Strays rarely have a good life.

Her beauty and dignity had been an illusion.

But as the yellow sphinx padded up the rose-brick road on silent paws, making for Sevens and Saldis and the knight and myself, that memory of predatory beauty came flooding back.

The sphinx must have weighed thousands of pounds, but it trod like a dancer with muscles that flowed like butter, slinking and strutting with the grace of a poem as it strode through the pale mist which covered the ground. Its mane was a halo of dark gold, its velvety fur the colour of fresh wheat, the swishing tail a lightning bolt ready to strike; its great wings were folded down against its back, the rival of any roc. The skin of its human face was a rich, dusky brown, with plush lips in a natural pout, wide soft cheeks, and a pair of slender, arched eyebrows in stark black.

Yellow eyes showed a hint of bronze slit-pupil on the background of dying sunlight sclerae. The sphinx’s gaze passed briefly over Sevens and the sealed ball of Saldis’ machine, then settled on me. Those pupils widened, as if fixed on prey about to scurry away.

“Stand your ground,” Sevens murmured. Her hand, cool and dry, found mine again. She laced her fingers between mine.

I hiccuped, loud and painful. “In front of that!?”

“She will not attack us.” Sevens tilted her head, watching the sphinx approach. “Not if she knows what’s good for her.”

“Oh, great,” I hissed. “I think I preferred the giant screaming gemstone.”

I did my best to stare down the sphinx as she finished her approach — more difficult than I’d expected, considering I’d stared down the biggest stare of all, but I suppose that had been in Lozzie’s dream, whereas my physical body was literally here, Outside, trying to lock eyes with a seventy-foot lion. A trickle of adrenaline turned into a steady pump of animalistic fear. The control rods in my bioreactor instinctively inched out of their channels, trying to supply me with raw energy to compensate for the gnawing hunger in my belly. I itched to slip the squid-skull helmet over my face, but it would make no difference against something this size; if the sphinx was indeed going to pose us a riddle, the last thing I wanted to do was risk muffling my voice. My fingers clutched at Sevens’ yellow cloak about my shoulders.

My six tentacles crept outward to make myself look big, flushing their surface layers with toxins to make myself poisonous to eat. A hiss rose in my throat as the giant sphinx finally drew to a stop in front of us. She settled on her haunches and regarded us with heavy-lidded eyes, from seventy feet up.

I tried to remind myself that this was also a form of illusion; the sphinx was a mask, the same as Sevens. But that thought died under a torrent of fight-or-flight. All I could do was stand transfixed. If I moved, I would break.

“Sister,” Sevens spoke first, cold and polite. “What are you doing?”

The sphinx blinked with feline lethargy, then lowered her head and shoulders into a crouch so we did not have to crane our necks quite so high to meet her gaze. Her face alone was gigantic enough, and too close despite still being a good thirty feet away.

Claws the size of battleship-engine propeller blades slid out from between her paw-pads.

Threat! Threat! abyssal instinct and savannah ape screamed in unison — and I broke into a hiss. Long and loud and shaking, my tentacles rearing like stingers. It was that or curl up inside Sevens’ cloak and choke on my own hiccups.

The sphinx turned lazy eyes toward me. I hissed again, so hard it burned my throat, until my lungs were empty and my head was spinning.

Her gaze lingered for a moment, but then she looked away. If it wasn’t for Sevens’ hand in mine, the relief would have buckled my knees.

“You are eating from the refuse heap, sister,” the Sphinx said to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in a voice like silk drawn over razor blades. That sound made me shiver and swallow, my throat all twisted inside from the hissing. The sphinx’s voice was far too high for something so large, and far too human, far too knowing and mocking and teasing. She indicated me with a tiny sideways tilt of her gigantic head, dark mane ruffling in the air as she moved. “Then again, I already am eating from the refuse heap all the time.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight raised her chin. The adjustment was tiny but it conferred upon her an instant air of icy arrogance, a full-on aristocratic transformation.

“You may insult me at your leisure,” said Sevens. “But—”

“—too true I may,” the sphinx interrupted.

Sevens spoke right over her, “But you will show better manners toward my betrothed.”

The sphinx inched her head forward, shuffling her paws toward us; the motion made me flinch. The giant human lips curled with amusement, showing a mouth of giant, blunt teeth, human teeth. The effect made me feel vaguely sick.

“Or what?” she asked.

“Or I shall take a spray bottle to you.” Sevens raised the handle of her umbrella and extended one finger around an imaginary trigger. “Ssppt ssppt.”

The sphinx’s smile widened, acid and steaming. Sevens planted the tip of her umbrella back on the ground, chin high, eyes cold as a winter storm. I prepared to let go of her hand and leap away, my heart racing with terror, half my tentacles wrapped around me in a protective cushion. There was no way we were going to get lucky twice, was there? She’d driven off the flying trapezoid, but that had just screamed and bellowed with impotent anger, easily dismissed between Outside beings of this order. The sphinx wanted to play, as cats played with their prey.

But rather than pounce on us or sideswipe me into paste with a flick of her claws, Sevens’ sister settled her gigantic maned head onto her outstretched front paws in an unmistakable pose of feline relaxation. Her huge tail stood straight up behind her, the tip curling with playful amusement.

“I always enjoy your jokes, Seven-Shades,” the sphinx purred.

“It is not a joke. I will chastise you,” said Sevens, then turned to me. She indicated the sphinx with a tilt of her umbrella. “This is Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands. Her name is a mouthful, so you may shorten it any way you wish, even to something insulting. Preferably to something insulting. Moggy, mouser, fleabag, as you wish.”

The sphinx blinked with all the speed of an advancing glacier as our eyes met again. My heart slammed in my chest and I fought off both a hiccup and a hiss as I gave her a polite nod, my lips sealed against saying anything silly. But both of them waited. Sevens did not give me any help when I glanced at her. Neither did the forest-knight when I risked a tiny look over my shoulder. He was standing very still, axe poised like a pike, as if to ward off a cavalry charge. Brave, but even he couldn’t stop the sphinx if she decided to crush us.

Her tail swished, once.

“Um, Melancholy … Mel?” I croaked, my throat still raw.

‘Mel’, all several thousand pounds of her, rumbled a purr in grudging approval, a purr that made the ground shake. I’d passed whatever test the yellow sisters had set, but I just flinched again as she flexed her claws a second time. I couldn’t stop myself from scowling at her.

“Why are you being so large, sister?” Sevens asked her. “Cease this pointless intimidation. You know it does not make any difference to me. Only to Heather here.”

As Sevens spoke, Mel reached out with her opposite paw toward Saldis’ closed sphere. She nudged it like a cat with an unfamiliar new toy, then planted her gigantic paw on top of the ball and tried to drag it toward herself, totally undeterred by the spiky exterior formed by the grey blocks. When the ball refused to move, Mel bared her human-like teeth in a silent grimace. Only at the sound of my name did she turn her attention back to us.

“She is named after a bush?” Mel asked. “And I like being large. I should ask you to justify your current smallness. I’ve seen you much larger before and I think it suited you better.”

“This mask is human,” Sevens said. “They do tend toward smaller sizes.”

“Then swap to a larger one. These instincts are difficult to suppress, they keep prodding me to pin you and bite your legs off.”

Sevens sighed softly. “Don’t make me come up there, Melancholy. You do not want me to do that. I am wearing a human mask because I am with a human. I will not leave her out of a conversation. To do so would be exceedingly rude.”

Mel nodded toward me — and gestured at me with one gigantic yellow paw as well, though her claws remained sheathed. I flinched so hard that I stumbled back. My hand almost slipped out of Sevens’ grip, but she clamped her fingers around mine tight as iron, hard enough to grind flesh against bone. My stumble and her strength almost dislocated my wrist and shoulder before I caught myself, but my hiss of surprise and pain was lost in the razor-sharp song of Mel’s voice.

“This is not a human,” Mel was saying as I recovered my composure. “I should know, I’ve spent more time among them than you have. I was being worshipped in adoring terror when you were just a half-formed notion lost in rat-infested brothels in the cradle of Rome.”

As soon as my hand was secure in Sevens’ once more, her grip went back to normal, but she didn’t acknowledge what she’d done. She didn’t even look at me.

I was not to let go of her hand in front of this creature, sister or no.

“Melancholy,” said Sevens, cool and calm, “you are not actually the Sphinx of Thebes. Shut up and shrink yourself.”

Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands let out a snuff noise, the feline equivalent of an exasperated huff. She reared back up to her full height, sitting on her haunches and looking down at us with a most sour-lipped expression, her thick, dark mane framed from behind by the drifting sky-mists and the dimly visible upside-down castle piled in the sky.

Then, in less than the blink of an eye, she was suddenly a sixth of her size. The sphinx went from a seventy-foot colossus — which my brain said should not even be moving — to a mere ten-foot giant blocking our way down the rose-brick road.

“Thank you, dear sister,” said Sevens. “Now I will ask you again: what are you doing here? Are you escort, or obstacle?”

Mel yawned, slow and lazy, raising a front paw to her mouth in a very un-cat like gesture. “Goodness me, you can be such a bore. I think I preferred you during your Grand Guignol phase. Don’t you remember how much fun that was? Recall that party of jesters we had skinned, what a great show!” She stood up and padded silently over to Saldis’s closed sphere, now only about four feet taller than the grey machine, like a cat with a beach ball. She sniffed the top of the sphere and batted at it with one paw, but it still refused to budge. “Why can’t you put your favourite human though some good old blood and guts, some proper ultra-violence?”

“She does enough of that to herself,” said Seven-Shades-of-Quietly-Boastful.

Mel’s attention flicked back to us for a second, a cat distracted by a dancing string. “Does she now?”

“Look at her, sister,” said Sevens. “I am not responsible for any of that claret.”

Mel ran her bronze-on-yellow eyes up and down my body, taking in the blood all over my sleeves and down the front of my hoodie and crusted around my nostrils. Her wide, dusky-chocolate face was so expressive, eyes scrunched in curiosity, nose twitching with interest, lips pouted in consideration. I stared back, feeling disgusting but defiant, straightening my spine as best I could to show off my trophies, though they were all my own blood. Look all you want, I thought. I survive this and more, regularly.

“Mmmm, hmmmmmmm-mmmmm, a bloody mess, yes!” Mel grinned. “Has she been feasting upon her enemies? I approve!”

I sighed under my breath. “Something like that.”

“That only means she would be even better suited to your former style, sister,” Mel purred. “Why not make a grand return? We can dress the stage with her glistening entrails, paint the boards with her pretty brains. What say you, sister? How about a collaboration?”

“Try me,” I hissed. Mel glanced at me, unconcerned but curious.

“One does not do violence upon the object of one’s heart,” said Sevens, measured and calm.

“Oh, tosh and nonsense!” Mel huffed. “I did plenty of that to plenty of strapping young things, though mine were admittedly more carnal. They usually ended up in my belly.” She returned her attention to Saldis’ closed sphere, suddenly raising a paw and batting quickly several times against the unyielding grey surface. “And what is this? Why won’t it move?! This is intolerable!”

“Our methods of expressing love are very different,” said Seven-Shades-of-Unerringly-Polite. “If you presume to critique mine, then I shall return the favour.”

Melancholy paused in her futile attack on Saldis’ sphere, shooting a suspicious look at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. “Love? Stage-infatuation is not love. As soon as the play is over, she becomes immortalised in the moments of the performance, but not beyond that. You are wasting her potential. You wish to repeat a story forever, sterile and incomplete. Let us use her properly. You want the milk, not the cow, and have mistaken the latter for the former.”

“Cow?!” I blurted out, outrage overcoming intimidation. “Excuse me!”

“What if the performance itself continues forever?” Sevens asked.

Melancholy snorted. “These creatures are short-lived, they do not last, not even uplifted like this scrap of muscle and bone.” She nodded at me again. “But pain? Pain lingers forever. I should know. You want to critique my love, with your head full of rainbows? I am a vision of how you will end up.”

Sevens shrugged delicately, slender shoulders rising along with her crisp white blouse. “You never understood love. I do.”

Melancholy rolled her razor-sharp, yellow eyes and then returned her attention to Saldis’ sphere, peering around the sides for a hidden opening. She reared up on her hind legs and tackled the machine with her whole body, all ten muscular feet of herself, trying to roll it along. The machine did not oblige, but stayed firmly fixed to the ground. She took a moment to bite at it, then grunted in frustration.

“Besides, I do not think she loves you, sister,” she purred.

“I know,” Sevens answered, without a second’s hesitation.

“Not yet,” I spoke up, tired of being a bystander. Melancholy spared me a glance as she let the sphere go and fell back to her feet, the interest of a cat toward prey making a mistake during a clumsy escape. “I’m thinking about it. But I can hardly think it over properly when I’m in the middle of an emergency. Which you are adding to. Are you barring our way?”

Melancholy stared me down for several heartbeats, but I refused to squirm or shrink. She gave up on the sphere and padded back to Sevens and me, tail swishing slowly, bronze pupils dilating, making no effort to hide her predatory body language as she crept closer. The forest-knight’s axe inched past my shoulder in a futile effort to ward her off. My tentacles drifted back and forth, ready to strike or curl into a protective ball. Inside, I was shuddering and swallowing down a hiccup, but I did my best not to show my fear. I was a predator too — or at least I could be, at my most abyssal and ruthless. I tried to channel that into my stare, into my body language. Melancholy stopped six or seven feet away and tossed her head.

“The strange hybrid’s heart belongs to another,” she said.

“Several others, yes,” Sevens sighed. “And that is acceptable. Encouraged, even. Sister, this is getting tiresome. May we pass?”

“That is not what I mean. Her heart belongs to another. Completely.”

“May. We. Pass?”

“You may not.”

Sevens had no quick retort to the refusal, which made my heart pound against my ribs with sudden worry. I shot a sidelong look at her, but her face gave nothing away. Instead I cleared my throat and asked, “Is that why you’ve chosen a sphinx as your mask? To bar my way?”

“It is not for your sake, hybrid. I wore this for so long it began to feel more real than my own face,” she purred, slinking closer on silent paws. “I am the Sphinx of Thebes, for she is no more, her bones worn away to dust and joined with the sands. There is only me left to keep the memory alive.”

Tail swishing, eyes flashing, she peeled back her lips and ran her tongue along her exposed teeth. I think it was meant to be a threat, but it was somehow mis-calibrated.

“I thought you’d have sharper teeth,” I said, but wasn’t sure why I wanted to irritate her.

“And I thought you’d have a sharper mind,” she shot back.

“Let us pass,” said Sevens. “Or you and I will come to blows.”

“Not without a riddle,” purred the sphinx. “One to open your rainbow-clouded eyes, sister.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” I hissed. “Really? Really, this is what we’re doing? I’m so hungry I could eat you, so get it over with.”

“You are the one who chose to be here, Melancholy,” said Sevens, her calm voice dripping with understated reproach. “This is not your usual haunt. You can’t declare this is a toll road based on your whims alone. This road is the property of the king.”

“Who do you think sent me?” Mel growled. “Our geometry obsessed brother was the one here of his own accord.” She tossed her head to indicate the glowing trapezoid which had vanished up into the jumble of the castle. Her lips curled into a dark smile. “Though I would not say I am here under duress. I am rather enjoying this.”

“Then you are to be my object lesson?” Sevens asked, airy and unconcerned. “Consider the object presented, the lesson acknowledged. You have performed your function. Now stand aside.”

Melancholy’s smile did not diminish. “Still, I must ask the riddle. It is the nature of the mask.”

“I am afraid that Heather is a student of literature,” said Sevens. “She knows all your riddles.”

“Do I?” I snapped, losing control at last. Then I hiccuped, loud and awkward. “Do I really? And you!” I blazed at the sphinx. “What are you going to do if I answer incorrectly? I’ve escaped the jaws of much larger creatures than you. I can melt your digestive system if you even try.”

“Then so be it. I will melt.”

“We do not have time for this silliness,” Sevens said, with a tone that would have sent me into stuttering apologies if she’d turned it my way. “Heather is exhausted and hungry and has already secured an audience with father. Stand aside, sister.”

“No exceptions,” Mel growled. “And you cannot help her. No hints, or I will change the riddle to a harder one.”

“Try me,” I huffed.

Sevens turned to me, an ice-cold severity in her eyes. “Do not answer. Whatever she asks, it is not your responsibility.”

I flinched — but also scowled. Sevens’ mask was so severe, so impossible to resist. Under any other circumstances I would have been a very good girl and done exactly as I was told, yes please, thank you ma’am. But I was beyond exhausted and beginning to get quite angry.

“Are you ready, hybrid?” Mel purred, padding another few steps forward, closing the gap to arm’s reach. My heart tried to escape through the front of my ribs. Try as I might to restrain them, my tentacles whirled back up into a defensive posture, a ring of muscled threat ready to whip and punch and lash. Mel eyed them carefully and stopped her advance. “Greater warriors than you have fallen beneath my claws.”

I snorted out a laugh, almost hysterical, at my wit’s end. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not a warrior. I’m a university student.”

“ … students today are truly impressive,” Mel purred, raising an eyebrow at my tentacles. “Ready or not, here I come.”

“Do not answer,” Sevens repeated, cold and hard. It took an effort of will not to meet her eyes.

“She must,” Mel purred.

“A wrong answer will bind you. Do not.”

“Nothing can bind me that I do not choose,” I murmured. “Ask your riddle, sphinx. If I get it wrong, I will be the one eating you.”

My words came out calm only because I was beyond tired, beyond caring, but also a little curious.

Melancholy settled back on her leonine haunches, watching me with deceptively sleepy eyes. In that moment of stillness she looked like a statue carved from yellow standstone. When she spoke, it was with lyrical rhythm, soft and slow, an assassin’s dagger of oiled silver drawn from a scabbard of human leather. Each syllable lingered in the milky, pale air.

“Begun together, but forever parted. The same in form, but not inside. Mistaken for one alone, sometimes for mischief, but never for another. What am I?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“ … why would you ask me that?”

Melancholy just stared, heavy-lidded and inscrutable.

“Do not answer,” said Sevens. “You do not have—”

“I know the answer,” I snapped, unsure if I should feel humiliated or furious.

“You have heard this one before?” Melancholy purred, making no effort to feign surprise.

I sighed. “Of course not, I suspect you made it up on the spot. But it’s obvious. Why ask me that?”

“What is your answer?”

I glanced at Sevens; she was watching me. Her intense, unreadable expression showed a tiny flaw, a faint tightness around her wide and staring eyes. This riddle was written for me, but we both knew it was aimed at her.

“What if I refuse to answer?” I asked.

“Mmmm,” Mel rumbled. “Then you may not proceed.”

“What if I say I’m willing to fight you instead of answering?”

Mel tilted her head, the exact gesture of a cat considering a particularly stupid dog. “Then perhaps you do love Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, but in the wrong way. And for that I will eat you, bones and brain and all, correct answer or not.”

Guilt stirred in my chest. Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands was correct. Love without respect was not love at all.

But I didn’t want to hurt Sevens. And I didn’t know what that desire implied.

“Your answer?” Mel prompted.

“Twins,” I surrendered. “The answer to your riddle is twins.”

Sevens tightened her grip on my hand. Melancholy did not react, staring down at me from ten feet up with all the languid illusion of a predator at rest. But I didn’t raise my tentacles, I didn’t tense up, I didn’t even hiccup.

“Correct,” Melancholy purred.

“Of course it’s correct!” I snapped. “Of course I would know that answer. As if I’m not consumed by it every day. In everything I do for the last ten years there has been a gaping hole, an absence, a missing presence by my side. And maybe that makes me not an ordinary twin at all, maybe I’m unhealthy and obsessed with her, but I don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter how happy I can feel in the moment or how many friends I make or how many people sleep in my bed with me. She is not here. Of course I know what you’re talking about, and it is a cruel trick to use that fact in this way. You are a horrid thing.”

“See, sister?” Melancholy asked. “She loves another.”

True guilt spread through my chest and belly like a web of rot. I’d forgotten how the Yellow King’s progeny made everything into a performance, made every emotional point with endless theatrics, and knew everything they required about the subjects of their plays. Melancholy had made a good point: I was using Sevens. Not just right now to help me deal with this emergency, to help me reach her father and get home, but ultimately to help me rescue Maisie.

The same way I was using everyone else in my life.

It was true. I loved another, and I would do anything to get her back. Even exploit the love of an Outsider godling daughter.

I turned my eyes away, staring down at the rose-pink bricks and the pale grass beyond the road. Dry words stuck in my throat. I wanted to hide inside my squid-skull mask again. My tentacles bunched around my torso in a protective ball and I moved to slip my hand out of Sevens’ grip. I didn’t deserve what she was offering, I didn’t deserve any of this, I was using her, lying to her, manipulating her. But she tightened her grip again.

“ … no,” I murmured. “Sevens, no, I—”

“I am enlightened, sister,” Sevens said, cool and calm, her words cutting through my guilt like a red-hot scalpel, cauterising healthy flesh to burn out infection.

“Mm?” Melancholy purred.

“I have been enlightened as to why you remain in that form after so many years. If you donned a mask which required clothing, you would struggle to dress yourself in the morning, for you are so very stupid.”

“Sevens!” I squeaked. “She isn’t wrong, she—”

“All relationships contain a transactional element,” Sevens continued smoothly. “The existence of the transaction itself is not a negative, or a corruption of pure intent, or a flaw in a perfect diamond. It is a prerequisite. Only the content of the transaction can be negative. Observe.” She turned to me. “Heather, may I kiss you?”

“What?” My mouth fell open. I glanced at her lips, soft and pink and stern. “Now? Here?”

“Here and now.”

I started to blush. “Um … Sevens, I—I—”

“It is not necessary, but we both desire it.” She turned back to Melancholy. “I wish to claim her lips and feel them against mine. She wishes the same toward me. We make a transaction of pleasure, and further enjoy the pleasure inflicted upon each other.”

Inflicted?” I whined.

“This principle is fractally nested and can be applied at any level. But it is not equal, it can never be equal. I would enjoy the kiss more than her,” Sevens explained to Melancholy. “Love is not rainbows and fairy-tale endings, sister. It is messy and hard work, constant and unrelenting. The rescue of her sister will bring her joy, which will bring me joy. And she will benefit more than I, and that I accept. That is love, sister.”

Melancholy’s human face twisted with slow disgust, tail swishing, claws flexing. She even began to show her teeth in a silent snarl.

Sevens drove home the knife, “Only a romantic fool convinces themselves’ otherwise. A dreamer who ends up pining for something which they imagined as pure, but was only pure because it was stillborn, never tested, never admitted. It was not real.”

“It was real!” Melancholy bellowed. I flinched. Sevens did not.

“Then why do you wear her face?” Sevens asked. “When you could wear the one with which you loved her?”

Melancholy huffed through her nose and rose from her haunches, sliding her massive claws out from between the furry toes of her paws. For a second I was terrified we had provoked a fight, but she tossed her head and slid the claws away again, then padded over toward Saldis’ sphere machine. “The riddle is answered, your way is clear. When you see father, tell him he is a whore’s pox-ridden slit.”

Sevens and I shared a glance. I let out a shuddering breath as the tension left me. She shrugged minutely.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“Anything for you,” Sevens murmured, for my ears alone.

“But this one may not proceed,” Melancholy growled, sniffing the blocks of the grey sphere machine, a dark frown on her face. “Hiding in a shell, pretending to be a ball of stone. My nose is not so easily led astray. I was not sent for you, but you have irritated me. You must answer a riddle too, whatever manner of soft meat lies within.” She sat back on her haunches, adopting a haughty and unimpressed expression. “Open up, coward.”

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Saldis did not open up — but I gasped in shock when her sphere-machine began to roll forward, the grey blocks click-click-clicking against the surface of the rose-brick road, heading straight for the sphinx as if to brush her aside.

Tenebrous Melancholy of the Umbral Sands let out a lion’s roar.

She launched herself at the grey sphere, battering it with hammer-blows from her paws, raking at it with claws as long as knives. The sphere stopped, but nothing could penetrate the imperishable material; Saldis’ shell was far too well-made to be breached by a cat, no matter how big. The sphinx landed a dozen more blows, then rocked back on her paws to catch her breath; the sphere moved forward again but Mel threw herself at it with renewed frenzy, stopping it in its tracks.

“I may not be able to rend you limb from limb,” Melancholy growled, “but you may not pass without a correct answer, snail-thing!”

Sevens bent down to my ear, her ruler-straight blonde hair brushing my cheek, and whispered, “Let’s carry on. Leave them to their fun.”

“But, Saldis … ”

Saldis tried to inch forward again. Mel threw herself at the sphere, slashing and slamming. She couldn’t actually stop it from moving, but Saldis seemed unwilling to run her down or ram into her. Like this, it would take days for Saldis to inch to the open invitation of the palace doors, still a half-mile’s walk further down the rose-brick road.

“Better she doesn’t come with us,” Sevens whispered. “After all, don’t you want to visit my room? Just the two of us.”

I went wide-eyed at Seven-Shades-of-Seriously-Seductive, my cheeks flushing bright red, my palm suddenly clammy in her hand. Her wide, staring, intense eyes were unreadable as she looked down at me, just that tiny bit taller than myself.

“W-why—”

“You can sit down and rest before your audience with my father. Have something to eat. Nap. I’ll keep you company, kitten.”

I very nearly left Saldis behind. Can you blame me? I wouldn’t have blamed me. I’d have given myself a pat on the back.

Suddenly, a little black dot came scurrying over the pale grass beyond the rose-brick road; it seemed to have come from nowhere, burst from some hole hidden by an invisible fold in the flat landscape. Before anybody could react, it shot across the ground and onto the surface of the road, right beneath Melancholy’s whirling paws.

“Kyaaa!” the sphinx let out a shriek, a cartoon scream completely unsuited for her predatory elegance and power.

Yellow eyes gone wide, she backpedaled away from the grey sphere, paws flailing in the air with the ungainly comedy of a cat with all grace discarded. She fell onto her side and scrambled back to her feet, wings flapping uselessly, hissing and spitting at—

A rat.

A sleek, fat, black rat, up on his hind legs in the middle of the road, staring down a sphinx hundreds of times his own size.

“Coward!” Melancholy bellowed again. “You—”

The rat scurried at her a second time, looping around her feet and past her rump, unafraid of the weight of her paws as she danced on the spot as if suddenly standing on hot coals. She yowled and screamed and backed away again, fleeing from the rat in cringing disgust. But he followed, forcing her back with nothing except paradoxical fear.

“Oh my goodness, oh!” I blurted out, struggling not to laugh as I raised a hand to cover my mouth. It was horrifying — Melancholy could have crushed the poor rat to paste if she’d tried, but seeing such a massive, dignified feline act like a spooked kitten was too much.

Saldis’ grey sphere machine suddenly blossomed open down the front. She came out laughing too, leaning through the opening with one foot up on the lip of the machine, her other two rats perched on her shoulders.

“That’s right, Mótsognir!” she cheered through her laughter. “Give her the ol’ one-two knockout!”

For a split second, Melancholy’s yellow eyes blazed past her tiny opponent to fix Saldis with a look of impotent rage. Her whole body tensed, wings cracking the air, ready to pounce with her powerful back legs — but then Mótsognir the rat leapt at her face and she yowled, scrambling back on skidding paws.

A strong hand caught the rat mid-leap.

No more sphinx. No more ten-foot monster born from Earthly myth. In her place stood a woman, undoubtedly human, with dark skin and darker hair in long messy curls, dressed in sandals and sun-bleached, loose-fitting robes over mismatched pieces of bronze armour, which left her muscled arms exposed. She wore a sword on a belt around her waist, in a scuffed, unadorned scabbard. Past middle-age, her face was lined by care and weather, but her eyes were sharp and intelligent — and very yellow. She scowled at Mótsognir as she held the rat at arm’s length.

Mótsognir twisted and turned, but Melancholy’s new mask had him firmly by the scuff of his neck.

“I wouldn’t suggest irritating him,” Saldis called out, gently mocking as she struggled not to smile too hard. “He can be most vicious when roused.”

Lips pursed, with a scowl of such thunder it could have given Evelyn a run for her money, Melancholy marched up to Saldis and held out the rat.

“Your property, I believe,” she said, in an accent I’d never heard before, an accent that probably didn’t exist anymore, of lilting vowels and sharp consonants.

“Why thank you, lady of the sands,” Saldis said, grinning wide. She accepted Mótsognir back and cradled him against her chest. The rat looked particularly pleased with himself. Melancholy did not; she put her hands on her hips as Saldis said, “And with this demonstration, I take it there’s no need for further riddles?”

“I always hated the damn things,” Melancholy answered, tight and hard, with an expression like she wanted to punch Saldis square in the face.

“I-” I blurted out. “I’m sorry for laughing! I couldn’t help it!”

Melancholy waved me away with an irritated flick of one calloused hand, not even bothering to meet my eyes. “I laughed at her enough in life.”

“It is good to see you being honest again, sister,” Sevens spoke up.

“Tch!” Melancholy snorted. Apparently this new mask was not one for banter. She turned away, showing us a cold shoulder as she stalked past Saldis’ machine and the forest-knight, his weapon now slung over his shoulder again. She headed up the rose-brick road, away from the palace, leaving us behind. She threw words back over her shoulder, “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Seven-Shades, but I’m afraid you’re staring into an empty grave.”

“Where will I find father?” Sevens called after her, soft yet sharp.

“At the centre of the party,” she shot over her shoulder without turning back, sandals slapping on the rose-brick road. “Where else?”

We watched her leave, rolling her shoulders to pull her robes tighter, until she dwindled to a figure trudging across the pale landscape, half-lost in the milky mist.

“What a delightful woman,” Saldis sighed with genuine admiration. “I would like to meet her again, though not when she’s barring my way.”

“Is she going to the library?” I asked Sevens.

Sevens shrugged delicately. “Unlikely.” She looked at me, a lingering and meaningful look with those intense eyes. “Shall we?”

“Quite!” Saldis said, settling back into her seat.

“Not you,” Sevens said to her. “Be quiet.”

Nothing now stood between us and the palace gatehouse except half a mile of rose-brick road across the pale plain. A pair of huge wooden doors waited, wide open, large enough to admit the sphinx herself with double the room to spare. I nodded, gathering myself as best I could and matching Sevens’ step as we walked on.

The palace loomed over us as we drew closer, but I tried not to look up. The way it was piled up on itself in endless layers drew the eye inward in a dizzying spiral, as if looking down into a pit without a bottom. The forest-knight marched behind us without a care. Saldis trundled along at our rear, chattering nonsense about the sphinx and other half-animals, but I wasn’t listening, I was trying to focus on what I was going to say to the Yellow King — if indeed he decided to adopt a form that would listen to me at all. My guts churned and my head swam with growing nerves.

Without the fearful distractions of giant lions or screaming geometry, I stared ahead, past the palace doors. A massive corridor was visible beyond, but it seemed to shrink tight after only a little way, perhaps a hundred meters — then it stretched and kinked and turned at angles which made my eyes itch, even at this distance.

As we drew close, I caught snatches of laughter and little snippets of piano music on the air, barely on the edge of hearing.

“Sevens? Why can I hear … a … party?” I asked.

“There’s always a party,” Sevens said, with an unmistakable hint of disapproval in her already cold tone. “Some best not attended.”

“I adore a good party!” Saldis announced. She even sniffed the air, though I could smell nothing beyond the grass and the mist. “Good ale and roast meat, my favourite. As long as there’s plenty to go around.”

As we approached the threshold of the palace doors, the corridor inside twisted as if seen through a fun-house mirror. With shaking hands I jammed my squid-skull mask on over my head, taking refuge behind the eye-holes.

And then, beneath the snatches of music and laughter, a distant, stone-muffled scream drifted through the air.

“Yes,” Sevens added on the last step as the palace loomed over us, “we would do well to avoid this party.”

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12 thoughts on “any mortal thing – 14.16

  1. I wonder if the King in Yellow makes Seven-Shades leave the door to her room open when she’s got guests. I know my mom did…

  2. My brain interpreted this as being about being Extremely Online, likely because I was binge-listening to a podcast about being Extremely Online at the time. But it’s not the WORST half-baked idea I’ve had!

    • Honestly, all interpretations are interesting and valid. I find it fascinating how a reader’s own individual experiences shape what they take away from a piece of fiction!

  3. Mel is projecting her own past onto a situation she doesn’t understand. This is shown by her labeling of Heather as “Hybrid” when she’s less a hybrid, and more an abyssal clumsily trying to pilot flesh and spirit parts while clinging to her human ego.
    Human Heather may live ~80 years. But abyssal and eventually outsider heather has no lifespan limit. Of course how much will still be the heather Sevens loves now, that’s up to HY.
    Interesting to know that Sevens had a phase before her current Romantic obsession, even if it was… Unsettling.

    I’m thinking the form Mel switched into was ancient Egyptian, it’s visual description gave my Assassin’s creed Origins vibes.

    • She’s certainly projecting something, that much appears to be true! Maybe she’s got the wrong end of the stick, but she did appear to strike a nerve.

      Our little yellow director once had a bit of a splatter horror phase, it seems!

      “Assassin’s creed Origins vibes.” I will take that a a compliment, thank you!

  4. I actually don’t fully understand Mel’s riddle – the last line. “Mistaken for one alone, sometimes for mischief, but never for another”

    Heather has been “mistaken for one alone’ ever since Maisie vanished from everyone else’ s memory.

    Also, ironic that the ginger stray was a braver cat than the giant Sphinx!

    • The final line is intended as a double meaning, though I wrote it myself so it might not be very good! You hit on one of the meanings, regarding Heather being “mistaken for one alone”, but it’s more of a general statement about how it’s possible to mistake a pair of twins for a single person if you see them separately but not together. “Sometimes for mischief” is the tendency of some young twins to use that in the pursuit of, well, mischief! And never for another, because you can’t mistake them for a third person. That’s all!

      I wonder about that sphinx. Perhaps it was afraid of more than a mere rat?

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