Whatever I had become over the previous seven months, however deep I delved into occult secrets, whoever I befriended beyond the boundaries of imagination, I was still a human being. I had mixed my flesh with the invisible glory I’d brought back from the abyss; I’d grafted tentacles to my flanks and re-purposed neurons to run them; I’d grown a reactor in my belly, an organ which could ruin the career of any biologist; I’d spoken with creatures not unlike gods, stared down things worse than the devil, and apparently made impossible creatures fall in love with me.
Some people might call me a monster, what with all these tentacles waving about and a hiss in my throat and my skin flushed with tetrodotoxin, but they’d be using the word incorrectly. All these additions were still me, still Heather, still part of the human being at my core — not a corruption or an invasion. I carried a brain inside my skull. I got hungry and tired and cried sometimes. I had to sit down to use the toilet. I was fleshy and soft and scrawny, I bruised easily, and I got terribly sore whenever I sat hunched up in a chair for too long without stretching.
None of that was anything to be ashamed of, despite the moments of terrible dissociation when I looked down at myself and saw rotting meat wrapped around a glugging chemical factory. I felt sunlight on my skin, I filled my lungs with air, I ate chocolate and strawberries — those not earmarked for Praem, anyway. I snuggled up in bed alongside Raine and laughed with my friends and melted under the stream of a hot shower; all of those things were worth experiencing. Worth holding onto. Worth existing for. Praem and Zheng agreed, it was better than the abyss. If I didn’t believe that, then why try to rescue Maisie at all? Why try to give all of this back to her? Whatever I looked like and wherever I’d been, I was still human.
And the royal palace of the King in Yellow was not designed for human minds.
When Sevens and I stepped over the threshold, hand in hand beneath the stone arch and past the massive wooden doors, my senses came under assault.
“Are we going directly to the King?” I asked from behind the false safety of my squid-skull mask. I stared out through the eye-holes at the twisted stone corridor, hoping it was just an optical illusion. Perhaps it would resolve as we drew closer. Then again, perhaps Raine would appear with a chocolate ice cream for me. Both were equally likely.
“You need food.” Sevens answered, soft and calm as she guided me the first few steps into her father’s palace. Her voice drowned out the sounds of the distant party — the muffled music and the hubbub of a crowd. “Water too. Perhaps a short rest.”
At the mention of water, I swallowed on reflex. I hadn’t hydrated in hours and my throat felt dry as a desert. We’d had a long walk and several frightening confrontations, and I hadn’t stopped in all that time. Sevens was right — if it wasn’t for the bioreactor pumping away in my belly, I’d have already collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. Even entertaining that thought made my eyelids droop and my feet drag like lead weights.
But the King in Yellow was close. Once I reached him, either he would help me or he wouldn’t. And if he did, home beckoned.
“No,” I croaked. “Straight to your father. Rest when I’m home.”
“Rest when I’m home,” I repeated.
“If you do not schedule time for rest, your body will schedule it for you,” said Sevens.
“I don’t need rest,” I lied. My free hand crept into my hoodie’s front pocket, bumping the golden pendent Saldis had given to me. I pressed my fingers against my belly through my hoodie and t-shirt, against the inner warmth of the bioreactor. I concentrated on drawing out another control rod, edging toward the red zone of overload, but not quite there yet. “Don’t need … rest … ”
I made it six steps before the assault on my senses grew too heavy to ignore.
The stone corridor ahead of us was all wrong, twisting and kinking like a novelty hallway in a haunted house. The floor ended up on the ceiling and the ceiling became the floor; the walls jinked one way and then the other, but somehow did not occlude the view further on, a spacial paradox; the width of the corridor shrank down to a single hand-span, impossible to squeeze through, before expanding out into unclear lines, the walls themselves wavering like melting wax. For a split second I started to sigh an unimpressed laugh and shake my head — was this really the best the King in Yellow had to offer? Funhouse mirrors? But this was no comedy illusion.
Trying to follow any straight line made my eyes itch, then burn, then ignited a deep ache behind my eyeballs, a throbbing pain in my optic nerve.
Blinking away stinging tears behind the eye-holes of my squid-skull mask, I tried to focus on the transition points of the hallway — the place where stonework gave way to elegant plaster inlaid with golden-yellow scroll-work, the beginning of the rich red carpets and intricate rugs, the first of the side-doors made of heavy polished oak. But that went no better. Stone was replaced by plaster, yes, that was undeniable, but the transition between materials eluded my sight. The point where one ended and the other began seemed to slide away from my attention like a cluster of exposed cockroaches, accompanied by a giggling on the edge of my hearing. It was the same with the doors: in my peripheral vision I could see one door, sensibly shut, singular — but when I looked at it there were suddenly a dozen doors lining the corridor, some of them massive, some tiny, some ten feet off the floor. Coals glowed in braziers and glow globes shone from the walls, but some of them were upside down, clinging to the ceiling, or cast negative-light which struggled against the illumination of their fellows, multiplying or vanishing when I looked their way.
My eyes throbbed like bruises and I started to feel sick before I realised. The issue was not with the architecture, it was with the capacity of my senses. I could not process the reality of this place. Funhouse mirrors and haunted-house hallways were the best metaphors my mind could summon.
And those metaphors were too fragile to protect me.
“Everything is going to be all right,” whispered Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. She must have picked up on my tension through my clammy palm, but I doubted she saw as I did.
Another couple of steps and my inner ear went haywire at the twist of the corridor beneath my feet; my head span and my balance routed, tentacles whirling in panic to catch myself on empty air. Not a single angle was correct, not even those of my own body; this space was not designed for anything even remotely like me. When I gasped, the corridor captured the sound of my own voice and hurled it along the trajectory of a dozen different echoes, returning to my ears as jagged whispers reflected from surfaces complex beyond my comprehension. My head whirled with alien pressure, the unreachable canals of my ears itched like fire, and my stomach clenched up to purge the toxin of illusion.
Sevens caught me, hand in mine.
Her other arm looped around my waist, tight and strong. All my tentacles wrapped around her, clinging to her like driftwood in a storm. I whimpered in pain and disorientation.
“I’ve got you, kitten,” she whispered, cool and dry.
But the palace architecture had infected my hearing.
Sevens’ voice reached my ears as a jumbled mess of overlapping sound, three or four sets of the same words mangled and shredded and recombined. Even stranger was a doubling effect — below the calm, collected tones of Seven-Shades-of-Sober-Soothing, other voices writhed: a twitchy, breathy rush of hyperactive nervous energy; the crack and cackle of an ancient crone mocking my discomfort; a dozen others less easily identifiable; and a noise that was not a voice at all but an abyssal howling, not real sound but something else, something other, processed through human sensory apparatus.
The Heather of seven months prior would have recoiled in screaming horror; the be-tentacled Heather of then, wearing a helmet made from an Outsider squid and seriously contemplating romance with a dangerous shade of yellow, sighed through her teeth with mounting frustration.
“Dangerous architecture, really?” I said.
“Take a moment, find your feet. I am here,” Sevens said with that awful screech that lay behind her words. “Literally, look at your feet. I will guide you.”
“Don’t know if that’ll help,” I croaked. “Also you sound awful.”
“ … excuse me?”
I was already staring down at my feet, my scuffed dirty trainers next to Sevens’ neatly polished black shoes, but the angles on those were all wrong as well. Enclosure by the walls of the palace did not exempt anything from the corruption of my senses. My trainers were jagged one second, then elongated in another, then gone in a blink and back in the next, along with my feet.
The vision of my own ankles twisting and jinking made my stomach do a back flip. I retched, but held on, perhaps because my stomach was empty.
Afraid of what I might see if I looked at Sevens, instead I sagged against her and craned back over my shoulder, at Saldis and the forest-knight. Both of them had entered the palace a few steps behind us.
Saldis was peering out of the opening of her sphere, gawking around at the corridor like a country bumpkin in the big city. Her rats scurried about her shoulders, over-stimulated and unafraid. I’d half expected to see her buttoned up tight inside her sphere, but it was easy to forget how little of the human remained in Saldis. The knight had never been human, but he had been Earthly. He was no more meant to be out here than me. But Lozzie’s modifications had gifted him the metaphysical tools to survive. Imperishable armour or Outsider biology, he stood tall, axe over his shoulder, unperturbed.
“Just me then,” I squeezed out, stomach turning over and ready to hurl. Why was I the only one experiencing this effect?
As soon as I dared ask the question in the privacy of my own mind, the truth presented itself, a dark leviathan wallowing in the black swamp at the bottom of my soul. The Eye’s lessons readied the answer for me, began to supply the hyperdimensional mathematics behind this architecture, burning white-hot inside my skull.
I slammed my eyes shut with a gasp, sealing myself into the dark.
Sevens was saying, “I will get you to my father, but first you need—”
“I am five hundred percent too hungry and too tired and too small for this,” I groaned. “I want out of here, Sevens. The King, your father, first. Now.”
“It’s incredible,” Saldis breathed in genuine awe, voice quivering at me from fifty different directions as it bounced and reflected and reconverged. “And this is just the foyer! I feel like I’m standing at the gates of Miklagard all over again.”
“Shut. Up,” I hissed, eyes still clamped tight. “Please shut up. Every sound is wrong.”
“Lady Morell? You—”
“Shh!” Sevens hushed her. The sound was like a blowtorch in my ears. I heard a flump, presumably Saldis flopping back into her seat with theatrical obedience, but no more words.
I hoped for merciful silence, but the walls of the palace whispered with the sounds of the distant party — tinkling laughter and hearty guffaws, a skipping record player hastily reset, snatches of classical music and jazz played atop each other, all muffled behind miles of wall, all distorted into jagged nightmares.
And the screams, even more distant. Screams and gurgles and strangled cries.
I shivered and tried to draw Sevens’ cloak tighter around my shoulders, but it wasn’t big enough.
Sevens squeezed my hand. She had to do it three times before I finally caught on and squeezed back. She pulled me gently, with my tentacles still clinging to her for support, and led on.
For the next twenty minutes, Seven-Shades-of-Seeing became my eyes. Without the sensory assault of the architecture and our own mangled voices, I regained most of my sense of balance, but my inner ear sometimes glimpsed snatches of truth. Sometimes I could feel we were walking at an impossible angle, mounting a slope where the wall should be, or that the ceiling should be touching my head, or that we’d turned in a spiral despite walking in a straight line. We passed into vast open spaces where our footsteps echoed among stars, down corridors my stomach told me were suspended over bottomless pits, and over walkways which I knew in my gut were exposed to the open air, upside down over the misty landscape below. I felt rugs beneath my shoes of such luxuriant texture they must have cost a king’s ransom, but I was spared exposure to any other decoration.
Thrice on our short journey, we encountered the dangling tendrils of the party, like the snares of a jellyfish waiting for unwary prey.
The first time, I heard a door open ahead of us, a loud click followed by a sudden swelling of the distant laughter and music. Sevens hissed, “Stop.” I obeyed, frozen in sudden terror.
Thankfully the sound was quickly sealed away again, the door closing once more with a gentle tock of wood-on-wood. Sevens waited several heartbeats. I felt like a rodent crouched beneath a log, uncertain if the predators had moved on, but then Sevens squeezed my hand twice and her confidence flowed into me. Even with my eyes closed I could feel her chin held high, her shoulders set back, her eyes intense and wide.
The second time was much worse.
We were in some kind of junction, perhaps a crossroads, caught right in the middle when it happened — I have no idea how I knew that, perhaps gut instinct, perhaps the echoes of our footsteps, or perhaps I didn’t need eyes to see in that place. From our left, far away down a corridor, a cacophony began on the edge of my hearing. Voices all a-jumble like a hundred people talking over each other in excitement, the slap and squeak of hurrying feet and stumbles and little hops, laughter too, high and rich and low and manic with pain. And screaming. Lots of screaming. Pain-screaming and fear-screaming and the screaming of lost minds.
It was like an approaching wave, at first a gentle trickle on the edge of perception, easily mistaken for one’s imagination, then building to an onrushing torrent in the very moment of listening, faster than one could react.
I had the horrible sense of crossing a ford at the exact moment of a tidal swell. I almost opened my eyes and looked, but I am endlessly thankful that I did not.
Sevens didn’t bother to say stop. She grabbed me in a hug and clung on tight.
“Don’t move a muscle,” she whispered in my ear.
The tidal wave of people — and I suppose they were people, by my definition, though not human — hit us a split second later in a torrent of voices, a few perhaps speaking human languages, but none of them English and most of them painful. A mass of stampeding feet stomped and clattered and rattled past us, many of them audibly not feet at all, but hooves or suckers or other things I couldn’t identify by sound. Several shadows passed over us, blocking what little light filtered through my closed eyelids. Other shapes slithered and bumped and rolled across the floor inches from my feet. The screaming came from several distinct points amid the wall of sound, held aloft or muffled behind bars or stretched out by unthinkable mechanisms.
Scent got inside my squid-skull helmet — cigar smoke and sickly perfume and unnameable spices; sweat and blood and excrement. A whiff of roast pork teased my nose. That was too much for my empty stomach, roiling so hard I felt sick, a trickle of drool running down my chin. But I was no idiot. I knew what that smell really was.
When the crowd passed and the screaming departed and we were left alone again, I did not ask Sevens if I could have some bacon.
She let go of me very slowly. I was shivering and shaking all over, feeling drained despite the power of the bioreactor still thrumming away in my belly; the sheer density of sensory processing issues as the crowd had passed by had left me exhausted on a deeper level than the mere physical. I felt like I was turning grey. I clung to Sevens with all my tentacles, desperate to curl up in a ball and go to sleep, dreading the effort of taking another step.
“Can’t … ” I croaked.
She squeezed my hand. You can, it said.
“Oh, oh goodness me, goodness me,” Saldis breathed in awe, her voice like a broken radio broadcast. “Now that is a party I truly wish to join in with. Well, assuming I wouldn’t end up on the menu.”
“Shhh,” Sevens hissed.
The third and final brush with the party was barely contact at all. A minute or two after the encounter in the crossroads, when I was walking with a dragging step, breathing too hard, and covered in a sheet of sweat beneath my squid-skull mask, a fourth set of footsteps joined us.
Behind mine and Sevens’ and the almost imperceptible scuff of the forest-knight’s march, beneath the occasional clicking of Saldis’ sphere-machine whenever we passed over stone or wood — footsteps, tapping. Tap-tap-tap. At first the footsteps followed far behind us, easily lost amid the distant sounds of the party, but they quickly caught up. Smart dress shoes rapping along wooden floors, each step precise and measured. My heart juddered in sudden fear as I realised what I was hearing.
“Sevens!” I hissed.
“Keep walking,” she whispered back. “We are safe.”
I winced at the mangled sound of her voice, but I did as I was told.
The footsteps caught up with Sevens and me, then matched our pace and walked with us. I expected Saldis to say some inane greeting out loud, but when she didn’t speak my shoulder blades began to itch, cold sweat on my back. What exactly was walking alongside us? I felt no imposing presence, no displacement of air, no furnace-hot blast of attention, murderous intent, or predatory instinct. One of my tentacles began to inch outward, driven by the need to locate and identify a potential threat, but I reeled it back in with a force of will.
Seconds lengthened to minutes and nothing happened. Exhaustion dragged me back down into the false relaxation of hazy consciousness and micro-sleeps. The human body might go on forever when supplied with limitless energy, but the human mind needs rest, recuperation, and reorganisation. Defragmenting, Raine had once called it, like a computer. It didn’t matter how much raw energy my bioreactor dumped into my bloodstream, I was truly fatigued. A headache cocktail of sleep deprivation and stress lulled me into a stumbling walk, breathing too hard, hanging off Sevens’ arm to keep myself upright, half-asleep behind my own eyes.
I jerked awake when the owner of the footsteps increased their pace and pulled ahead of us. I almost opened my eyes on reflex, but by a miracle of luck, I kept them shut. I was about to breathe a silent sigh of relief, when a single irregular note disrupted the departing metronome of our unseen escort, a footstep out of place as they turned.
A noise split the air, a sound like a rusty saw dragged back and forth through frozen meat.
“Good speaking to you, sister,” it said.
I barely resisted screaming at the assault from that awful sound. My tentacles whipped away from Sevens to wrap around my torso in a protective ball; I felt the sudden emptiness as my body tried and failed to dump more adrenaline into my system. Like a knee collapsing under one’s weight.
The footsteps trotted off but the damage was done: the creeping corruption of the palace reached my sense of touch.
Perhaps it was the fault of that unspeakable voice, or perhaps it was the end result of keeping my eyes shut, heightening the focus of my other senses, my awareness of sound and scent and the sensations on my skin. More likely it was a speedball of exhaustion and hunger that left me vulnerable. Too long propped up by abyssal approximation of human biology.
Suddenly, Sevens’ hand in mine was both right here, fingers laced together, and miles away across a void of cold vacuum. My weight against her side was both a close snuggle between two vaguely human-sized creatures, but at the same time it felt like the grinding of a pair of tectonic plates. My shoes were open mouths wrapped around my feet and my own skin was too constricting, a strait jacket suddenly crushing my lungs with my own flesh. My hair follicles ached and my eyeballs were too large and my fingernails needed to come out, had to come out, had to go, right now, right now.
I think I choked on thin air. I think I opened my eyes. I think a strong pair of arms scooped me up around the back and behind the knees and hoisted me in a princess-carry as I whimpered and spluttered. I don’t recall precisely, because that’s when my consciousness flickered and went out.
The last thing I heard was Sevens, sighing. “I did ask him not to speak.”
That was my first coherent thought when my mind ebbed back. I was no stranger to this process, this drip-feed of pain and awareness, sensation leaking in until the pilot-sapience was awake enough to piece it together.
Cheek cradled by luxurious softness, hands wedged beneath the pillow in an instinctive hug, shoulders and waist and hips and legs cocooned by soft layers. Silken and gentle and cool. Silk pillowcase; the height of luxury.
I don’t think I’d ever touched silk before, but somehow I still knew.
Consciousness breached the waves of oblivion, registered these impressions, then began to sink again, like an orca who had tasted air and decided the deep ocean was better. My limbic system whispered sleep, recover, nothing to worry about. I snuggled closer into the pillow and the embrace of my own tentacles, thick ropes of muscle wrapped around my torso and belly to keep me warm and snug. Distant worries and blurred impressions demanded executive function, but the executive was asleep at her fancy desk, drooling on her suit.
Silky smooth, soft and warm, cool and dry.
Where am I again? my mind asked before I went under.
Then cold and wet and wriggling and stinking of rot, grinding bone-grit into my face.
Sleep ripped apart with a gasp. I choked down a shriek, pushed myself up, heart racing like a hare, and scrambled back, away from—
A silk pillowcase.
Panting, covered in a sheen of cold flash-sweat, I sat blinking and confused for a long moment as my mind caught up, as I took in my surroundings, as my heart rate eased back down.
I was on a bed — a very fancy bed, quite possibly the fanciest bed I’d ever seen, let alone been deposited upon and allowed to burrow into like a drowsy rodent. It was large enough to sleep six or seven people — or perhaps four of Zheng — with about half a dozen crisp white sheets beneath a thick butter-yellow duvet. A small hill worth of pillows was piled against the reddish oak headboard, all of them different colours, though the one I’d been snuggled up with was a very deep, soothing, sunset yellow.
“ … Sevens?” I croaked at the pillow through cracked lips, then felt very silly when it didn’t answer.
Only a small corner of the bedsheets were peeled back, right where I’d been asleep, just enough space for me to snuggle my face into the pillow. A little patch of my drool had dried on the yellow pillowcase. The rest of the bed was immaculately smooth and plush, untouched but for the divot left by my body weight. I felt like I’d violated the bed, as if I’d wandered onto a set that was never meant to be truly used, a show-piece or an artwork now forever damaged by my bodily needs.
Four wooden posters stood at the corners of the bed, with dark, heavy drapes gathered back by little ropes. Beyond those drapes was a room equally absurd, like something meant for a fairy-tale princess, all soft white walls with fancy wainscoting and little flourishes of yellow-gold leaf, the kind of interior decorating that didn’t exist outside of stately homes or people with more money than taste. Imitation candle-shaped light bulbs draped soft illumination over every surface. Overlapping rugs covered a floor as large as a sitting room, though there was little other furniture — I instantly spotted my squid-skull mask and my blood-stained pink hoodie neatly placed in the middle of a small white-and-gold table, along with three matching chairs far too fancy to ever sit on. Beyond that was only a single door leading out, the same white-and-gold design with a little golden door handle. A trio of huge wardrobes flanked a makeup table, and an absolutely gigantic full-length mirror stood next to that, easily eleven or twelve feet tall.
I caught sight of myself in that mirror, so very tiny.
“I look terrible.” I coughed, raising a sleep-clumsy hand to poke at my face.
Somebody had cleaned the worst of the blood, removed my hoodie, and taken away my shoes. No prizes for guessing who, I told myself, far too groggy to feel embarrassed. Sevens had seen worse; for all I knew, she watched me on the toilet.
I was wrapped up warm and snug in Sevens’ yellow cloak, which seemed to have grown about three sizes and gained a hood large enough to lose myself inside, more like robes. My tentacles were wound about my body in a tight self-hug beneath the cloak, my very own portable sleeping bag, but I regretted that as soon as I started to unwind them — they ached like arms after sleeping at the wrong angle, knees kept bent for too long, muscles sore and stiff. I arced them outward slowly, wincing and hissing as I worked the life back into my extra limbs.
My mouth was bone dry and my eyes were gummy and thick. My fingers were stiff and my head was full of cotton wool. I could still taste blood and I ached all over, but I’d slept for several hours. I’d come back from the brink.
But I stared at that yellow silk pillowcase. Where had that sensation of wet rot come from? A nightmare? It had felt too real for that. But this place was solid now, solid enough to run my hand over the duvet.
“Sevens?” I raised my croaking voice, casting about the room, shuffling on my knees. “Seven- ahh!”
I jumped, hand to my racing heart, at the sight of Lozzie’s forest-pattern knight standing at attention on the other side of the bed. Shining chrome and star-metal axe, tall and silent. He was a welcome sight.
“Oh, I wish you’d said something before I saw you,” I wheezed, my heart dialling back down again as I took several deep breaths. My head swam with the adrenaline spike. The knight didn’t respond. “How long have I been asleep?”
The forest-knight raised his metallic gauntlet. Four fingers.
“Four hours?” I gaped. “Oh, blast and fiddlesticks and … that … that is hours, yes? Not four days. Please not four days.”
The knight lowered his hand.
Couldn’t be four days.
“Well, okay, well … thank you for standing guard,” I managed, then coughed several times in a futile effort to clear my throat. I felt like I’d swallowed a bottle of glue. “Sevens can’t be here herself? I suppose that’s something she has in common with Raine, at least, not being there when I wake up from a fugue state. She could at least … ”
I trailed off as my eyes found the bedside table next to the knight’s knee.
An angel had left food for me.
A cut-crystal pitcher full of water stood next to an empty glass and a plate of sandwiches wrapped in clingfilm. My stomach rumbled so hard it hurt, nauseated with hunger. My hands shook as I pulled the plate onto my lap and ripped off the clingfilm — clingfilm? Outside? My mind filed that away for later, too focused on the ravenous need to eat. Shaking and panting, my salivary glands tingled and ached at the scent of ham and cheese, butter and mustard, tomato and pickles and fresh-baked bread.
My tentacles were ready to shove the entire first sandwich down my throat; I actually had to swallow my own drool as I picked it up; but then I paused, mouth open, desperate.
Holding back took more will I’d expected. The soft machine of my body demanded fuel. Now. It didn’t care about the bioreactor. Now. Now!
I looked at the knight. “ … Sevens?” I had to slurp back drool. “Sevens left these for me? Not somebody else? I know you’re not big on talking but I have to know, she said nobody but her but I’m—”
The knight dipped the chin of his helmet. Good enough.
I inhaled one sandwich and got three bites into the next before I regained enough self control to pour myself some water. I drank so fast I spilled some down my t-shirt, panting and swallowing and almost getting food stuck in my throat. These sandwiches were fit for royalty, wasted on me scarfing them down like a starved pig. I licked crumbs off my fingers and picked every fallen scrap of cheese and meat off the plate. I drained the pitcher and ate until it was all gone. My jaw hurt and my stomach felt fuller than it had in years.
After the food, I sat there for a good few minutes, dazed and sleepy. I upended the pitcher and swallowed the last few drops of water, then placed it and the plate back on the bedside table. For some reason I felt it would be a crime to leave them on the bed.
Stretching my legs and wiggling my toes proved that everything still worked. The rugs on the floor were even softer and thicker than they looked. Sevens’ yellow robe was so long it dragged behind me as I trudged over to the makeup table and the mirror, which showed me just how much of a mess I was, eye bags and all. The wardrobes were full of clothes. The floor was horizontal. The walls were sensibly upright. When I padded over to the table, I picked up my squid-skull mask, but didn’t put it on. That was solid too, actually here, not a trick. The gold pendant from Saldis was still inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I tapped it on the table. It didn’t vanish.
I walked back to the bedside table and scooped up the clingfilm. It crinkled, just like clingfilm should.
“This can’t be real,” I murmured, then glanced at the knight. “Well, no,” I explained, mostly for myself. “Of course it’s real, but it’s also … I don’t get it. This is clingfilm. We’re Outside.” I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m too tired for this. Where is Sevens, anyway? Don’t tell me I have to go find her?”
The knight turned his head to look toward the only door out of the bedroom.
“Great,” I sighed. “All right, but if I open that door and there’s a bottomless pit on the other side, or a brick wall, or … I don’t know, Melancholy’s mouth wide open for me to walk into, like I’m a mouse in a cartoon, then I will be very upset. I might cry.”
Carrying my squid-skull mask in one tentacle and tugging Sevens’ robes snug around my shoulders, I padded across the rugs and over toward the door, pausing to retrieve my hoodie from the table. The garment was badly stained with blood, but it had been a present from Raine; I’d rather eat my own toenails than abandon it Outside.
I crept up to the door and was about to touch the golden-yellow handle. But then I heard voices from the next room.
One first, laughing and jovial. I recognised it instantly — Saldis. The walls of the Yellow King’s palace were too well-made to make out what she was saying, but her tone rang true, amused and fascinated, in full flow.
The second voice took a moment to answer, but then slammed along like the chatter of a typewriter, a nervous run-on sentence that ended clipped and juddering.
Female, young, scratchy and blunt, grumpy as sin and twice as jumpy.
I didn’t recognise it. Whoever it was, at least it wasn’t like any of Sevens’ relatives from earlier. Consumed by curiosity but too groggy and full of food to realise what I was hearing, I pressed the door handle down as slowly as I could and inched the door open, peering through the widening gap.
“—and there’s only so much give, so much slack before they break, especially with a trio, with poly. It’s so much more complex to balance, so you have to give them as much slack as possible—”
The room beyond was sister to the bedroom, a parlour decorated in the same style, all in white with gold highlights. Light fell from a pair of massive floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall, illuminating a trio of low sofas around a wooden coffee table, on which sat a full tea set in beautiful butter-yellow. Some half-eaten cake lay on matching plates. A reading desk and an armchair, complete with a lamp, stood off to one side of the room, next to a row of neatly organised bookcases filled with the cheap cardboard of early twentieth-century consumer hardbacks, some little soapstone Buddha statues, and a glass case which contained a massive preserved butterfly. My shoes lay next to a door on the other side of the room, laces neatly untied.
“—reel it out, shove it into their hands, force it down their fucking throats for all I care—”
Saldis’ grey sphere-machine — complete with Saldis sitting comfortably in her pilot seat — was next to one of the sofas, as out of place as a giant snail at a tea party. She was facing the door as I peered inside, her eyes widening, eyebrows shooting up as we looked at each other.
“—the important thing is that they don’t break. I mean fuck, who cares about me? If they stay strong, I’m strong, and—”
Her trio of massive black rats were on the coffee table, among the cups and saucers, nibbling at cake on three little plates.
“—strength leads to strength. That’s how it works with three or four or fifteen partners; screw it up and you screw everything up. But keep it strong and you’re invincible. You’re immortal.”
The speaker was facing away from me, squatting barefoot on one of the rugs. She looked exactly as young as she sounded, perhaps my age or even a little younger. She was so bony and scrawny she must have been malnourished, so pale her skin was almost translucent, so thin I could see the tracery of blue veins beneath the surface. She wore only a black tank-top and a pair of matching black shorts on her pale legs. Her hair was the brown of an unwashed dog, hanging limp past her grubby neck.
A set of dolls and action figures — all thankfully human — were strewn across the rug in front of her, in various stages of child-friendly undress. All of them were female, but there was a great variety between them, the hand-downs and knock-offs of a dozen different families. No Barbies though, nothing so recognisable.
As she spoke, she held a doll in each hand and mashed them together as if trying to make them kiss, so she didn’t notice when Saldis spotted me.
When she finished talking, I realised what I was seeing.
“ … Sevens?” I croaked.
Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Scrawny jerked around like I’d hit her with a cattle prod, feet going out from under her, hands dropping the dolls.
Beetroot blush blossomed across mushroom-pale skin. Wide eyes bulged, twice human size; red irises, black sclerae. A mouth full of tiny sharp needle-teeth hinged open in wordless embarrassment.
She scrambled to her feet, rubbery and twitchy like a ferret — but by the time she got there, Seven-Shades-of-Secret-Shame had vanished, replaced once again with the quiet confidence and cold exterior of her princess-mask. Dirty rumpled tank-top was replaced by crisp white blouse, lank hair by ruler-straight blonde fringe, inhuman features by enigmatic turquoise eyes and perfect skin. She clasped her hands behind her back and fixed me with a piercing gaze.
“Heather,” said Seven-Shades-of-Surprisingly-Unsubtle, calm and collected. “I did not hear you wake.”
“ … obviously,” I croaked. “Sevens, what was—”
“An old mask. That is all. It is good to see you awake. How did you sleep? How do you feel? Did you find the food?”
“I— yes, thank you, Sevens. I … slept, I guess. Still feel pretty terrible though. I’d love a bath, but … not Outside.” I spoke slowly, well aware she was trying to distract me with questions. “That … that other mask, that was … you?”
“Old and unimportant. Did you like the sandwiches? I made them myself. I hope I predicted your tastes; I expect I did. I know them all, of course.”
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight does herself a disservice!” Saldis barked a laugh from inside her sphere. She raised a teacup in casual salute, accompanied by a very smug grin. “Old and unimportant, indeed! We were having the most fascinating conversation. A real strategy meet—”
Sevens turned with icy slowness and fixed Saldis with the silence of a descending guillotine blade. Saldis covered her mistake with an ostentatious display of sipping her tea and rolling her eyes.
“Sevens,” I croaked, “if that was some kind of real you—”
“There is no real me. Only masks.”
“You wear masks like moods!” I huffed, too groggy to be polite. “That means every one of them is the real you. Right? So don’t be embarrassed.” I tugged on a corner of the thick yellow robes which held me like an embrace. “You were happy to show it to Saldis. You gave me a piece of yourself and you want me to accept you? Then show me all of you. Don’t hide important bits of yourself.”
Sevens’ expression was unreadable behind those wide, intense eyes. She tilted her head, neither a nod nor a shake. Behind her, Saldis looked like she was going to asphyxiate if she got any more smug.
I huffed out a sigh and closed my exhausted eyes. This was not the time for this battle.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” I said. “I passed out, I was overwhelmed. Too tired. What’s going on? Where is this?”
“These are my chambers,” said Sevens. “You have slept in my bed. Though, perhaps not in the way we would both prefer, kitten.”
She was trying to make me flustered, but her tried-and-tested tactic did not work. All I could see in my mind’s eye was that bony little blood-goblin she’d been moments ago, with the weird black eyes and the tiny sharp teeth, so mortified and ashamed to be caught playing with dolls, to be caught existing at all. I wanted to take the hand of that mask and tell her not to be embarrassed, not by any part of herself. I would not mock her for playing with dolls. I would not deny that she was real.
But maybe I had Sevens all wrong. Maybe that’s not what she needed from me.
“This is still inside the palace?” I asked, glancing around the room. My vision was all fine here, no funhouse mirror distortions. When I looked out the window I felt a wave of vertigo — the view showed a tangle of jumbled towers and battlements, upside down and right way up and sideways and backwards, all wreathed in sky-mist. Impossible to estimate how far up. But no distortion, no sickness, no screaming wrongness in my head. “Why is this all so … human?”
“Human?” Saldis asked, laughing. She gestured around the room with her teacup. “A poor joke, lady Morell. Especially from you.”
“This looks pretty human to me.” I waved the piece of clingfilm I was still holding. “This is clingfilm. But we’re Outside. Forgive me for assuming, but I don’t think Tesco delivers out here.”
To my surprise, Sevens and Saldis shared a glance. Saldis shrugged. Sevens gave nothing away as she turned back to me.
“This room is merely a comfortable space for myself and those I invite,” she said, “and I have very much invited you. What you perceive here, that is your responsibility. Your perceptions are adjusting. This means that speed is of the essence. We must get you home.”
I stared at Sevens, then down at the clingfilm in my hand. “ … so, not clingfilm?”
I swallowed and felt vaguely sick. “What were the sandwiches, then?”
I frowned at Sevens. “But—”
“Lady Morell,” Saldis spoke up, “I have been beyond Midgard for much, much longer than you have. Allow me to offer you some advice: when you encounter a paradox out here, accept it. Questioning these things leads to madness.”
“So, I ate sandwiches,” I said. “All right. Sevens, getting home, yes. Is the King still waiting for me?”
“I have spoken with my father on your behalf,” she said.
My heart leapt. “Oh. Oh, great, did he—”
“And I have secured for you an audience chamber which will present as little challenge to your senses as possible.”
“ … you couldn’t talk to him for me? Get him to help us?”
Sevens shook her head, expression gravely serious, eyes boring right through me. “He wishes to meet you himself. He is in a suspiciously good mood.”
“You don’t sound very happy about that,” I said. The King wanted to meet me, personally. Those sandwiches suddenly lay like lead in my belly. What did ‘good mood’ mean for a being that had worn Hastur as a mask?
“No,” Sevens said. “I am not happy about it.”
“You think he’s planning something?” I asked. “Is that what he’s like?”
“I think,” Saldis announced, voice quivering with barely concealed excitement, “that he’s going to put on a show for us. I simply cannot wait. Chance of a lifetime!”
“He is like everything,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
“Great. Great, okay,” I said, trying to remain calm. I snuggled down inside Sevens’ yellow robes. “Well, it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll just have to hope he likes me, I suppose.”
“I will protect you,” Sevens said. “Even against my own father.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” I forced a laugh I didn’t feel. “I don’t have a great track record meeting with important people in castles.”
Sevens didn’t acknowledge my weak joke. She reached into the pocket of her long yellow skirt and drew out a piece of yellow fabric. For a moment I thought she’d detached a fragment of herself, similar to the cloak, but then she held it out to me and I saw it was quite mundane.
“A blindfold?” I asked.
“Not for play, sadly,” she said, cool and dry, and almost got me with that one. “The walk to the audience chamber is not long from here, but this time I will shield you properly. I will remove the blindfold when we arrive. Are you ready?”
“No. But the sooner we get this over with, the better.”
“Good. Hold still.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight raised the blindfold to my face and gently wrapped the soft yellow cloth around my eyes, plunging me into darkness. Her hands moved over the back of my head to tie it in place. For a moment there was nothing. I was in a void. Then her hand found mine.
She led on.
The walk to the audience chamber was mercifully short, only two or three minutes from leaving Sevens’ parlour. Her blindfold did the job; I couldn’t see anything, not even a crack of light. Somehow the blindfold protected my hearing as well, but I wasn’t deafened, I could still hear Sevens’ footsteps, the gentle metallic ring of the forest-knight’s boots, and the slow ticking of Saldis’ sphere, but those sounds were normal, undistorted, not an assault on my senses.
The din of the distant party had fallen silent. Perhaps I’d slept through the end of the festivities.
When we passed into the audience chamber, I felt it in my gut and in my bones. I did not need eyes to see that we had stepped into a void; I did not need Sevens to stop to know we had reached our destination; I did not need to hear the subtle click of a door behind us to know there was no going back.
Sevens’ hand tightened on mine. I realised with a sudden sinking feeling that her palm had gone clammy.
“Oh,” Saldis breathed, not even a whisper, in wonder. “Oh my.”
“Sevens?” I murmured. “Sevens, what’s wrong?”
A gentle hand reached up and undid the blindfold, fumbling slightly with shaking fingertips. The yellow darkness fell away as Sevens returned my sight. White flooded in, making me blink and squint. Then I saw what was wrong.
The audience chamber was a large round room — merely large, not some giant Outsider-scale space, perhaps big enough to count as a ballroom — all in white and completely featureless. There weren’t even any lamps or light bulbs or fireplaces; the illumination seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, leaving scant few shadows.
In the centre of the room was a little brown table on a single leg, with a wide base at the bottom, the sort of cheap table you might find in any coffee shop back on Earth. A steaming cup of coffee waited at one edge. Two chairs sat either side of the table.
A man was sitting in the chair opposite, facing us. At least, I assumed it was a man. He was bandaged from head to toe, every inch of him concealed behind rough yellow fabric. Like a mummified Egyptian Pharaoh.
Rail-thin, unmoving. Bandaged hands propped on the table.
He was, however, not the most worrying thing about the room. We had an audience.
A crowd was arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, three or four people deep. Humans — or at least currently imitating humans. All of them were dressed as if they’d stepped straight out of a 1920s period-piece, all elegant flapper dresses and black-tie dinner suits, cigars and cigarette holders, flutes of champagne and glasses of red wine. Some were dressed like stereotypical gangsters, others like precocious children. All ages were represented. Men, women, and those in between too, overt non-binary people, butch women, feminine men.
None of them made a sound, but all of them were amused, grinning or winking at us. Many raised silent toasts with their drinks. Some licked their lips in anticipation or mimed silent clapping. More than a few were practically vibrating with excitement.
My tentacles inched out from beneath the thick folds of my yellow robe. Abyssal instinct screamed fight! My bioreactor thrummed in my abdomen.
“Sevens,” I asked, my voice tight and high. I nodded at the bandaged man in the centre of the room. “Is that your father?”
“Yes,” was all she said. She was staring at him, intense with blank fury.
“Oh, oh dear, oh my poppets,” Saldis was saying, panting softly. “Are we to be … the subject of a play?”
“Father,” Sevens raised her voice. She took a step forward, hand still in mine. “Father, I do not understand. Why are you unmasked?”
Our unwelcome audience exploded into roaring cheers, sudden enough to make me flinch and hiss.
“No mask? No mask!” they shouted and jeered and laughed, sharing sudden toasts and elbowing each other in the ribs, falling over themselves with glee. The words turned into a chant. “No mask! No mask! No mask!”
Sevens stared from face to face, wide-eyed.
The bandaged man at the coffee table raised the fingers of one hand.
The chant died instantly. But we were not to be spared. A section of the crowd to our left surged outward from the ring of onlookers, like a piece of amoeba undergoing binary fission. They pulled forward until they were clear of the audience, then adopted different poses, expressions of rapt listening, eyes full of admiration and flattery — all turned toward Saldis.
Inside her sphere, Saldis suddenly lit up with delight. Her machine moved toward the detached display and she leaned out of the front, a hand extended in greeting, her rats on her shoulders.
“Saldis Solveig Nyland!” she introduced herself brightly. One of the little crowd, a fat older man, shook her hand with friendly glee on his ruddy red face. “Delighted, yes, delighted. I see you’ve heard of me.” Another hand was pointed at her, a young woman in a silken dress. “And who is this delightful creature? And oh, I think we’ve met before. Here, why don’t we—”
The crowd around Saldis all started talking at once, drowning her in a sea of chatter. She laughed along, talking utter nonsense. Her rats flowed off her shoulders and into waiting hands, to be petted and cooed over, passed from admirer to admirer. Saldis started to tell some long, winding story about a sea journey.
“Father!” Sevens raised her voice, furious, losing control. “Father, you cannot be serious. Stop this, right now.”
The bandaged man waved his fingers again.
A second blob of people detached themselves from the crowd. I expected a slight variation on what we’d just witnessed, that they would adjust their roles to the needs of the moment, wear new expressions and wield new temptations.
They exploded into a mass of yellow tentacles, rushing at us. I screamed and hissed.
The forest-knight stepped past Sevens and me, levelled his axe, and waded in.
Weapon whirling and flashing against the walls of the white chamber, moving with grace despite the incredible weight of the armour and the unwieldy way he held it together inside, the forest-knight chopped and sliced through yellow tentacles. They bounced off his armour and feinted through his guard, but never did any real damage, never hit hard enough to leave a dent. But no matter how many he cut down, more always rose in their place. The still-human crowd craned to watch, grinning and shaking their fists with silent pugilistic suggestions, making wagers between themselves.
“Sevens,” I said, voice quivering. “What is going on?”
“Enough, Father,” she called out. “You have made your point. Heather and I shall speak with you alone, but not until you dismiss—”
A third group of 1920s imitations stepped forward from the ring of the crowd. Targeting me, I assumed. I was the Outsider here, I was the human interloper, I was the problem.
But then I realised the third and final group were all women.
They all suddenly froze in place, in various over-dramatic poses — some glaring at each other, some gazing upon another with unrequited desire, others turned away in the act of crying. One had a knife ready to plunge into another woman’s back. Yet another still was pushing down a smaller woman with an expression of glee on both their faces, but watched by a third who looked aghast.
Sevens’ hand slipped out of mine.
Before I could grab for her or say her name, she was no longer the Princess in Yellow, Seven-Shades-of-Supreme-Confidence, elegant and cold. In one step toward the group of frozen dolls, she transformed into the unwashed, jittery, black-eyed girl I’d glimpsed in her chambers.
She skittered over toward the group of women and began to chatter to herself, pointing at them and adjusting their poses, swapping them from partner to partner, recombining and reordering, rewriting the playtime romances. The women — her siblings? Her family? — obeyed like living dolls, moving at her orders.
“No no, you here, her there. You won’t go at all,” she snatched out between those needle-teeth. “You’re useless but useless people need love too so wait a moment and I’ll get to you. Shit. Fuck, this one won’t do, you need a third. A third!”
“ … Sevens?” I said. “Sevens!”
She didn’t even glance back at me.
The crowd of imitation humans was completely absorbed in the three separate shows. None of them had attention left for me, or for the bandaged man in the middle of the room.
He raised his head and looked at me from behind his yellow bandages.
“Just me then,” I whispered to myself.
My heart was racing and my mouth was dry, my body was ready for fight-or-flight, my tentacles kept trying to drift wide. I itched to jam the squid-skull mask over my head, or turn and run, or hiss at the top of my lungs.
But this audience was for me. All others had been given amusing distractions. I steeled myself, and approached the King in Yellow.
He didn’t acknowledge me when I stopped a few paces away from the battered old coffee table, just staring from behind his yellow bandages. I couldn’t make out anything beneath the fabric, no scrap of skin or glow of strange light, just the contours of a vaguely male face, deep in medical dressing.
I bowed my head and pinched the corners of my yellow robe, doing the best curtsy I could under the circumstances.
“Your majesty,” I said.
My eyes lingered on the steaming cup of coffee and the empty chair. Deja vu crept over me; I knew these objects, I knew this place. But I never went to coffee shops. Raine took me to pubs or cafes, greasy spoon places, and the occasional curry house, but I always drank coffee at home. Where did I know this from?
I risked raising my head and looked at the King again. He said nothing, so I forced words past my dry lips. “Your majesty, thank you for this audience. I believe you already know why I’m here and what I have come to request, but I will gladly do you the respect of repeating myself if you so wish.”
The King in Yellow said nothing.
“I have been stranded Outside,” I went on, “by … well, by a force I don’t fully understand. Your daughter, Seven—”
The King in Yellow reached up behind his own head with his bandaged hands and began to unveil his face. My breath stuck in my throat, my body tried to prepare for anything, but how does one prepare to be face to face with something not unlike the Eye?
Inch by inch, strip by strip of yellow fabric, the King in Yellow showed me something far worse.
A human face. Shiny, young, male, white. Chin perfectly shaved, angular but not blunt, a little puppy fat still in his cheeks. Tousled blond hair, thick and expertly styled, not cheap. An all-knowing smile on his thin lips, self-satisfied and sickly-warm. Eyes full of amusement at the expense of anything he cared to look at. Assured in his own power.
The King in Yellow finished revealing his mask. Strips of yellow bandage hung loose. He leaned back in his chair and smiled at me, enjoying the moment.
“You’re not him,” I managed, shaking with something akin to rage.
The Yellow King tutted and laughed, a single puff of unimpressed air. “Oh, Lavinia—”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped.
He raised both bandaged hands in a mock-placating gesture. “You would do well to learn a lesson which most of my children never seem to understand.” He gestured out at the audience, his yellow children.
Then he waited, watching me with a smug, oily smile that made me sick.
“You’re even doing his irritating pauses,” I hissed, swallowing disgust. “What lesson?”
“We are what we pretend to be,” said the King in Yellow. He smiled wider, showing perfect pearly-white teeth. “Right now, in a very real way, I am Alexander Lilburne.”