In the end, we compromised; or perhaps Raine just sweet-talked us. Sevens bathed while I napped, and Raine promised not to corner her until I was awake.
Neither Raine nor I waited in the bathroom, though. We had no desire to invade Sevens’ privacy. That scrawny, pale body was only a mask over the abyssal truth of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, but to treat her as anything other than a full person would be a slippery slope indeed. So we drained the lukewarm bathwater, collected my yellow robe from the counter, and left Sevens to her own business. I led Tenny out by a tentacle, though Raine lingered a moment to ask if Sevens wanted us to leave Whistle behind.
“Not good with dogs,” she said in her raspy voice. She made hesitant eye-contact with little Whistle. He snuffed. “They don’t like me.”
So Raine scooped Whistle up in her arms. But she turned back at the door. “My deepest apologies if this is a stupid question, oh princessy one—”
Sevens clacked her teeth with irritation. “Just ask.”
“It’s okay, Sevens,” I spoke around the door frame. “Raine means well.”
“Guurrrghhh … ”
“If you’re all masks and costumes and onion layers,” Raine said, “can’t you just step into a cupboard and step out clean? Superman style? If you don’t want a bath, why not skip the experience? For serious, I’m not taking the piss. Not trying to mock you or anything.”
Sevens gazed back at Raine with eyes like chips of molten-cored obsidian, face tilted down to throw her eye sockets into shadow. Her lips parted and she blew a bubble with her own saliva. Then she huffed like a grumpy teenager.
“Would be cheating,” she said. “I’m here now.”
“Gotcha, say no more. Want me to run a fresh bath for you or—”
“I know how taps work,” Sevens snapped. She punctuated her complaint with a cut-off gerrrrk noise in the back of her throat, then turned and slapped at the taps. Water splashed into the tub. I was left with a lingering view of Sevens’ slender back through her dark tank-top, the individual vertebrae of her spine standing out as she hunched over the bath. As we retreated and Raine closed the bathroom door behind us, Sevens glanced back and met my exhausted gaze with black-on-red, for just a second, petulant and grumpy — but also pleading.
Raine waited at a polite distance from the bathroom door, until she was certain the splashing sounds indicated Sevens was properly in the tub, then she finally turned away to put me to bed.
Tenny was gently asked to go entertain herself or find Lozzie — “Because auntie Heather needs to sleep.” Whistle curled up like a giant French pastry at the foot of our bed. Raine got me out of my damp towel and into some clean pajamas, then used Evelyn’s blow dryer on my hair. It didn’t take much to coax me under the bed sheets, especially when Raine draped the yellow robes over the top of the covers. But when she sat down and brushed my hair away from my forehead, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
“Of course you will,” Raine said. “It’s what your body needs. Just relax. You were nodding off in the bath easy enough.”
“I’m too buzzed,” I said with a fatalistic sigh. I reached out of the covers with my tentacle and curled it around a corner of Sevens’ yellow robes, feeling the strange metaphysical warmth flow into the pale flesh of my extra limb. “Despite how tired I am. There’s too much to think about, too much to do. There’s Sevens, and I need to know why Zheng isn’t home yet, and we need to speak to Badger but we can’t all visit him in the hospital, and … Nicole? With the papers? … and Evee’s … mmm … ”
Good Lady Hypnos claimed me without my knowledge, enfolding me in dreamless oblivion.
My plan of just a nap, just an hour or two did not survive contact with that first sip of sleep; Raine was correct, my body knew what it needed, and that was apparently eleven hours of lying very still. My powers of unstoppable napping consumed the rest of the morning, smothered the whole afternoon, and bit off a good chunk of the evening. Hazy periods of drifting consciousness came and went, submersed in cocooned comfort. I dimly recalled waking up to the rasping sound of Sevens’ voice and Raine’s whispered reply, “You woke her, shhhhh.”
I must have sat up, because I felt like I’d been dragged from the rubble of a collapsed star. I recalled grumbling “More sleep,” and flopping back down in bed. I recalled Raine’s gentle hands tucking me back in.
I remembered stumbling to the toilet sometime later, my eyes closed against the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the windows. I recalled a firm grip helping me there and back. Raine’s face filled my memory, her hands holding a glass of water.
“So you don’t wake up with cotton-mouth,” she’d said. I must have complained terribly, because a tiny whip-crack of command tinted her next words. “Come on Heather. Drink, then I’ll let you sleep more.”
“Sleep more,” I remembered saying, but nothing after that.
Sunset heralded true awareness.
An early summer sunset paying a premature visit to the last days of spring, turning the horizon the colour of old blood, drenching the underside of the clouds with a deep orange which dripped onto the city of Sharrowford beneath. Even the warm, womb-like darkness of my bedroom was not immune to the deluge. The mouth of the sunset furnace glowed through the curtain, teasing my eyes open. Half-awake, I gazed up at the sliver of orange sky visible in the gap between fabric and window frame.
I lay immobile for what felt like a very long time, though it was likely only a minute or two. I struggled to keep my eyes open, drawn to that sky, surrounded by the barely-visible shapes of familiar furniture and discarded clothes in the gloom all around.
My subconscious registered somebody else’s breathing nearby. Not in the armchair, not by the desk, not out in the dark. Raine, right where she should be, next to me in bed.
Instinctively I burrowed back down into the bed sheets and rolled onto my side to snuggle against her. Hands reaching, tentacle questing, nose nuzzling for her neck.
A scent like iron, like blood on skin.
Unfamiliar body odour was not fully masked by soap — thin and hot, like strong black coffee. One of my hands bumped a bony shoulder.
I was suddenly very awake and very aware that I shared a bed with neither Raine or Zheng, nor anything else I recognised.
I was half-upright and pulling the covers after me, heart clenching like a fist, a hiss caught in my throat. But then the petite form in bed next to me, draped in thick shadows, brought last night rushing back.
“Oh,” I breathed at my own stupid panic. “Sevens.”
Tension drained away, though it left a slight adrenaline tremor in my hands and a heavy pulse in my tired skull. I leaned to the side so the hazy sunset glow would afford me a better view of Seven-Shades-of-Fast-Asleep.
Sevens was asleep on her back beneath the sheets, all sprawled out. One leg stuck out of the covers, one arm was thrown over her head, her hips and belly were twisted sideways, and her neck was kinked at a very uncomfortable looking angle. She once again demonstrated that the vampire mask had joints made of rubber and ball bearings. Her dark hair was no longer greasy and unkempt, but had emerged from the enforced bath time as a silken blanket, now spread out across the pillow and partially twisted beneath her strangely fragile body. She wore a loose white t-shirt several sizes too large for her, probably borrowed from Raine.
Her mouth hung open in sleep, a dark cave full of glittering needles.
I’d expected her to sleep curled up in a ball, perhaps even wrapped entirely in a duvet like some kind of burrowing animal who felt safest in tight spaces. Another assumption of mine which proved wrong. Her face with its small and delicate features, her sharp cheekbones and pinched nose, looked utterly relaxed. In sleep, she inhaled through her nose and snored ever so gently as she exhaled through her mouth.
The dying sunlight picked out the tracery of blue veins beneath her mushroom-pale skin. Was this safe for a vampire? She’d stuck her hand in direct sunlight earlier and hadn’t burst into flame. She didn’t start to smoke and hiss as I watched her sleep, so I put the notion from my mind.
Then I noticed the position of her other hand, close to me. Her fingers were long and grasping, and wrapped tight in the fabric of the yellow robes she’d gifted to me.
“Oh … ” I breathed, my smile turning painful. The robes seemed to catch and store the sunset which fell upon the fabric, turning the colour of molten honey.
I looked from the robe to Sevens. She was about my size, though scrawnier and smaller, but not by much. When awake, her eyes were like saucers, all black and red, absolutely not human. But if we were both plunged into darkness — and if she refrained from making noises like a cave lizard — then at a casual glance we might appear quite similar.
“ … am I treating you as a surrogate too?” I whispered, then shook my head. “No. No, I’m … attracted to you. That’s not a Maisie thing. That’s a you thing.”
Sevens snorted in her sleep and I feared I’d woken her with something deeply embarrassing to both of us, but then she stirred and settled back into the soft breathing of deeper slumber.
I sighed and finished sitting up, careful not to drag the sheets off her.
Nobody else was in the room, neither Raine nor Whistle. A seed of worry tried to germinate in the back of my mind, but I reminded myself that it was evening, I’d been sleeping all day. I could hardly expect Raine to be there right away. No emergency seemed apparent — the house was quiet but not silent. A gentle murmur of voices floated up from the ground floor, barely audible through the solid construction of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. I could hear somebody moving around a few rooms away, perhaps in Evelyn’s study, and the muffled sounds of a television talking to itself through the walls.
When I turned to the bedside table for the time — 09:15, my clock announced — I found a note.
Folded so it stood up like a pyramid, the note was placed with one corner tucked beneath my mobile phone, so I couldn’t possibly miss it or knock it to the floor.
A spike of worry needled at my heart. My tentacle snatched up the note and conveyed it to my quivering hands. I almost hissed in frustration at the delay of unfolding the thing.
“Why is this practically origami? What’s so important that—”
Pencil writing blossomed as I wrestled the note open.
If you wake up and need me, I’m downstairs! But keep sleeping if you need to. We saved you some dinner too, if you’re hungry.
“Oh,” I breathed. “Raine, don’t scare me like that … ”
There was more.
Remember you haven’t asked permission yet, so no shagging the vampire! But you can cuddle and kiss if you want, you get that for free.
Love you, xxx Raine~
I folded the note into quarters and briefly considered eating it to destroy the evidence — surely I could exert pneuma-somatic biology to fully digest paper without the risk of stomach problems? But then I shoved it away under the detritus on my bedside table. Deep orange sunset glow hid my blush.
“You can’t be serious, Raine,” I whispered into the gloom. “I never said I wanted to … want to … ” I pulled my knees up beneath the covers and buried my face in them. “I do want to kiss her,” I said in a shuddering breath. “I do. Oh, Heather, stop.”
I didn’t love Sevens, not yet. It would be unfair to toy with her emotions by expressing physical affection when I still didn’t know where this was going. But we’d already come so close. My single tentacle was already drifting through the air toward one of her wrists, driven by a strange and unfamiliar desire to hold her there, hold her wrist down. I stopped the unconscious reaction and turned my head to gaze upon Sevens again, just as an experiment.
She was looking back up at me.
I froze — but Sevens’ eyes were open only a crack, two slits of deeper black with sparks of red at their cores, like gemstones from the heart of a volcano. She didn’t seem to have heard, held on the razor’s edge between sleep and consciousness.
But of course she’d heard, hadn’t she? She wasn’t actually this in front of me, was she? Her awareness extended beyond that, into the abyssal.
Why take a bath? Because to skip it would be cheating.
I swallowed on a suddenly dry throat and raised my voice to just above a whisper. It came out hoarse and dry. “Sevens?”
“ … mmmmmm,” she grumbled, a tired and raspy noise.
Then, to the sound of my heart playing a trumpet blare, she stuck one awkward gangly arm out toward me.
I bit my lip, heart juddering, mouth gone totally dry. Raine had said it was okay and now Sevens was asking for it too. The instinctive ape in me wanted to cuddle up and go back to sleep with this packmate-friend-partner, but I retained enough higher functions to hold off for a few moments longer.
“Sevens, I … I can’t promise you anything, I don’t—”
“Guurrrrr,” she rasped, going pouty and petulant in the sunset glow. “Shut up and give me a hug. Please?” She finished by clicking her teeth together, clack-clack.
That cannonball went right through my curtain wall, hit my powder magazine, and blew me to pieces.
Before I could stop myself, I was giving Sevens exactly what she’d asked for. My tentacle snaked out and grabbed one of her wrists, pinning it to the pillow and drawing a confused “Maaah?” of sleepy complaint from her. A second tentacle sprouted from my flank beneath the blankets to join the first, powered by the most gentle flicker of my bioreactor. I ran that up behind her, along the stringy muscles of her slender back, to press her in close and cradle her against my front. I was snuggling back down in bed, hands gently touching her shoulders through her t-shirt. Keep it chaste for now, Heather, come on, I willed myself — but then I leaned in close and planted a soft kiss on her cheek.
She tasted of soap with a hint of iron.
“Heatherrrrr,” she half-complained, half-exalted me, snuggling into my hug in return. I gasped in something akin to awe.
My goodness, she was so slight and bony, there was so little of her. It was like cradling a bird whose bones were at risk of shattering if you pressed too tight. I was gentle, so very gentle, but I wanted to squeeze her and make her squeak — though I also struggled with a strange desire to march her downstairs and make her a lot of food. I was blushing from the unexpected kiss, asking myself why I’d done that, wondering what the hell I was doing as I held Sevens close. She nuzzled in deeper, pressing against my shoulder, giving herself to me. I took a shuddering breath, reminded myself that Raine had given me permission for this, and began to lean in to kiss her cheek again. Just her cheek, I told myself.
And that’s when I felt her jaw hinge wide.
Dozens of very sharp teeth pressed their needle-prick pressure against my exposed throat.
Oh right, I thought to myself, oddly calm. Vampire.
Seven-Shades-of-Exsanguination did not bite down right away. She clung to me, strong fingers gripping the back of my pajama top, her legs entangled with mine, holding us locked together in the moment before the bloody joining of mouth to artery. I felt the hot tickle of her breath against my skin and the faint tremor in her limbs.
I should have sprouted all six of my tentacles and peeled her off me like a leech. I should have speed-grown armour plating over my throat to turn away her fangs. I should have said down, bad girl!
But I’d already established who was in charge here; this changed nothing.
I sighed with deep release I hadn’t known I’d needed. Almost without thought, one of my hands ran up Sevens’ back, slow and gentle, then cupped the back of her head where skull met spine, pressing her against me. The tentacle I’d been using to hug her crept upward too, wrapping around her neck, like holding the muzzle of a feeding calf. I tilted my head back to expose more throat, eyes fluttering shut as a tiny part of my mind screamed why are you enjoying this?!
“Go ahead,” I murmured. “If you need it.”
And I meant it. God help me, I meant it for real. I would have let her bite down.
Well, it’s not as if I couldn’t have patched the hole with pneuma-somatic tissue. I wonder if Sevens would have classed that as ‘cheating’?
Sevens froze for a long moment — even her excited, nervous vibration stopped, going cold in my arms. Then I felt the pinpricks of her needle-teeth leave my throat. She let out a weird little “Guuurrrgh,” noise and scooted back from me, pulling as far away as she could without actually leaving the hug. Her eyes avoided mine, staring down at the covers. The dim sunset glow almost hid her awkward blush.
“ … I was j-joking,” she rasped through those sharp little clenched teeth, then managed to meet my eyes with a blushing frown. “Why’d you have to make it weird?”
I laughed, couldn’t help myself. “You were quite welcome to go ahead, if you needed to. I wouldn’t have minded.” I put a hand to my throat where her teeth had touched, but it came away clean. She hadn’t even broken the skin.
“Mmmmm-rrrrrr … ” she rasped with obvious embarrassment, scooting further back in the bed.
She didn’t reject the hug entirely. One of her hands lingered for the touch of my own, but I sensed she did need the physical space, so I let her go. She sat up, coiled in the blankets like a ferret in a burrow. I followed suit so we were eye to eye. Two small animals sitting opposite each other in the dying sun, both of us mere physical fronts for unspeakable and unknowable invisible truths. Sevens sniffed and rubbed at her nose, watching me with a cautious look. The t-shirt was so large on her it looked silly, like a tent. I let my two tentacles coil about myself for comfort, rubbing my bruised sides — all that hard work last night had left a mark, even if I was mostly used to it by now. Flinging myself across the kitchen to save the Knight with a Slip had strained more than a few muscles.
“Do you need blood?” I asked. “Are you really a vampire? I mean, in this mask, right now?”
Sevens slowly blinked one eye closed, then the other, then opened both. “It’s what this mask believed. She drank blood. Sometimes.”
“Who was she?”
Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-Shy averted her eyes and fidgeted in her coiled blanket nest, hunching her shoulders and ducking her head, a prelude to hiding away. She hissed through bared teeth.
I reached out with a tentacle and took firm but gentle hold of her chin and cheek, arresting her retreat. I was only half-aware of what I was doing, still groggy and running mostly on instinct, but this made my heart pound against the inside of my ribs.
“Gu-uhh!” Sevens gurgled. Her eyes shot up, blinking rapidly.
“ … sorry,” I said, throat gone tight. “I just … why her? Why this mask? I know there’s no real you, no real mask. I accept that, totally. But I would love to know more about you. Why this mask? Why is this one comfortable for you?”
Sevens made a grumble in her throat and leaned into my tentacle for a second, then gently moved away. Dominance reinforced. She looked down at her own slender, bony arms and flexed her wiry fingers before she spoke.
“She was the first one I ever guided to happiness with another woman,” Sevens said slowly, voice a gentle creak of raspy vocal chords.
Her words held a strange melancholy I couldn’t quite place. Memory, I supposed.
“Oh,” I sighed. “Oh, Sevens.”
She shrugged. “So she’s kind of like the last time I redefined myself? We’re all just stories in the end, right? So here’s one that made me.” She made a claw of her fingers in front of her face, mock-menacing at me, but the toothy grin she pulled was one hundred percent fake. She couldn’t even convince herself.
“Sevens, are you all right?”
She let the hand fall to the sheets again. “I’m … I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I did this.”
She nodded, chewing her bottom lip and looking out at the sunset. “And it’s scary. Self-critique hurts. You realise all the things you’ve been getting wrong.”
“You’ve been doing pretty well so far, I think.”
Her eyes wandered back to me, slow and sad and not really convinced. “This mask,” she said. “Do you want to hear the story?”
“Yes!” I almost yelped. “Yes, please, Sevens, I want to know about you. Please.”
“Mmmmm,” she grumbled. “Well, her name was Julija. Don’t call me that though, I’m not her.” Sevens frowned. I nodded seriously and she carried on. “She was born to a very, very rich family. The sort of family who lived in a castle. But she was also very, very sick. Born wrong. Something eating her inside, maybe, something in her heart or her brain. They didn’t have the kind of medical technology you have these days, so they couldn’t fix her, no matter the herbs they stuffed in her mouth or the leeches they put on her skin. But her family were rich and they lived in a part of the world where money could buy anything. So they bought a way out for their daughter, before her body finished running down.”
“They made her into a vampire?”
Sevens shrugged, bony shoulders lopsided beneath her nest of blankets. “They didn’t know what they were buying. They didn’t know the full price. They hired a mysterious gentleman of great renown, who came with a big glass vial of stolen blood from something of which he would not speak. He encased their daughter in magic circles and a coffin of lead. Then he killed her, then brought her back, then killed her again with a stake through the heart, then left the corpse in a bath filled with the blood of a freshly slaughtered bull. When he left, her parents waited the two full days as they were instructed. They didn’t disturb the corpse. They did love their daughter, but they couldn’t deal with what she was when she woke up.”
As Sevens spoke and warmed to her tale, she visibly relaxed, no longer avoiding my eyes but locking to them with an almost hypnotic intensity. Her voice became a barbed lure, dragging one’s thoughts onward through the past.
“She was like an animal. Hated sunlight, water, loud noises, rough clothes against her skin, wrong tastes. All sorts of things. Attacked the servants, the walls, the floor. Went around naked, barking and growling. But her parents loved her, so they did everything they could, tried to make her comfortable, made a secluded haven for her to rave and scream as much as she needed. But as the years went by, her parents aged. She didn’t. She got these weird eyes. She grew strong but not older. And she grew these.” Sevens flashed her needle-pointed teeth and clacked them together.
“Poor thing,” I murmured.
“Mmm. It was a hundred years later when I turned up.”
I blinked. “A century?”
“Mmhmm. The parents were long dead. Julija was a family myth, a thing living in the castle cellars and inside the walls. She ate rats and mice, mostly, drained them and left the corpses lying around. Sometimes they’d be found, add to the myth. But it wasn’t enough, you know?” Sevens placed an index fingertip against the side of her skull and twisted it back and forth.
“Not enough blood?”
“Not enough to make her brain work again.”
“Oh. Oh, I see!”
Sevens sighed, a wet rasp. “I was there for the father, actually. The current head of the household, I mean, not Julija’s father, he’d been a good man. I was … not quite following in my own father’s footsteps, but I did … things.” Sevens dipped her head, suddenly awkward again.
“Grand Guignol?” I echoed the words Melancholy had spoken back on the road to the King’s palace in Carcosa. “A bit of the old ultraviolence?”
Sevens’ red-chipped eyes darted back to me. The corners of her mouth spiked up with an evil little smile, a kind I had never seen before on her face, this mask or any other. Her voice emerged with a quivering tremor of nervous excitement.
“Family tragedy was in the making. They were all going to die, him last. A play for hubris and pride. There was going to be this big ending where his son was going to eat his father’s own … ” Sevens trailed off, baring her teeth in a weird little hiss, curling her head left and right and avoiding my eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said, not quite sure if it was okay at all. I had to remind myself briefly what Sevens really was.
“I don’t do that anymore,” she rasped low, head hanging. “I’m not my father.”
I coiled a tentacle around one of her small hands. “I know. I accept that.”
“I do worse now though,” she said in a tiny hiss. “Don’t I?”
Suddenly she shook her head, like a dog shaking off water. She sat up again, gazing at me. “I was there for mister patriarch, but then I discovered Julija. And she’d discovered the family’s daughter.”
“Ah indeed,” Sevens rasped — and smiled again. A real smile this time, a little hitching flicker that showed her teeth and made her eyes bright with joy. “And that changed everything. The daughter, her name was Hana. She was nineteen that year, and they were going to marry her off to her own cousin. Twenty years older than her! At first I wanted to work that into the play, but then … then … Julija kept sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep. Hana knew it was happening, but she wasn’t afraid, she was fascinated. In rapture of the dark. And I saw it happen, and I saw that they could be more. More! And I wanted … wanted … ”
Sevens swallowed on a thickening throat. She sniffed hard and wiped her eyes on the back of one hand. Even for an Outsider, the power of memory was a sight to behold.
“It’s okay, take your time,” I murmured, cradling her hand in the end of my tentacle. I wanted to lean over and hug her, but I didn’t dare risk interruption.
“I wanted to write them a happy ending,” Sevens said. “Or at least a glorious one, if they couldn’t have happy. Out with a bloody bang. Not just a side-note in somebody else’s story. Not just the daughter in a play. A protagonist.”
I nodded, feeling her passion. “Absolutely.”
“So I changed the play. I rewrote the script as I went. I … nudged them in the right direction.”
Sevens said that as if it was a terrible thing to do, a mistake, a violation. She gritted her teeth and looked off into the gathering dark as the sunset deepened.
“ … the right direction?” I prompted, afraid of where this was going. Her first failure? But she’d said she’d guided the vampire to happiness.
But happiness for how long? At what cost?
And what definition of happiness?
“I … I shouldn’t be … ” she murmured under her breath, then swallowed hard and visibly pulled herself together. “I nudged them together until Hana offered Julija her wrist one night. It was … I’d never … I’d never cried before. I’d never been interested in that side of human emotions. But I watched Julija drink human blood for the first time, and her mind came back, and they were so in love. And I wanted to make more of that.”
I nodded along. “That’s very admirable.”
“Three months later I had them out of the castle, out from under the family, free. Free forever.”
Sevens smiled at this, but shaking and uncertain. I sighed with relief. “That’s a good thing, you did a good thing! Sevens, you helped people.”
“Then I put on another play, once they were free. A totally different genre. I had redefined everything I was, everything I could do, where all my limits were, but I had one last bloody pantomime left in me.” She broke into a grin — a predator’s grin, the beautiful rapture of razor-sharp edges and blood-stained claws. Her voice shook with murderous joy as she raced on. “I stayed there for another two months, picking off the rest of the family one by one, for all they’d done to their daughter. I wore this mask and I ate them alive. The betrothed, the cousin, he I left for last. So none of them would ever go after the girls I’d helped.”
“Well, Sevens, I can’t say for sure I would have done any differently, I think. I probably wouldn’t have eaten them though.”
“Guuurrh-urk. Well, yes. But that was a previous me. The last dregs. And now I’m changing again because I was still wrong but I don’t know where it leads.”
I leaned forward on the bed and drew Seven-Shades-of-Unstable-Self into another hug. Gently, slowly, I wound my arms around her back and a tentacle around her waist. She clung to me in return, burying her face in my shoulder. This time she did bite — but gently, chewing on my collarbone without breaking skin or fabric.
“Let’s make sure it leads somewhere together,” I said.
“Mmmmm,” Sevens grumbled. We disentangled again and sat back on the bed. Her free hand found a corner of the yellow robes, which were spread out over the top of the covers. “What if I’m not worthy of it?”
I tilted my head. “Why wouldn’t you be worthy?”
She shrugged, but I sensed a lie in the gesture. “Marriage?”
“Um … I don’t know about that,” I said, trying to stay honest. “You heard what Raine said, too.”
“Mmmm,” she rasped, but this time it was faintly amused, coupled with a grumpy twist of her lips. “She has first dibs on you. Figures.”
I laughed softly. “That’s Raine for you.”
Sevens hissed through her teeth. “I didn’t mean to propose in the first place. Do I have to go over it all again? It’s okay if we don’t, I won’t be hurt, I just want … you know.”
The laugh bubbled past my lips. “You’re so … deliciously grumpy in this mask, Sevens.”
“Guuuurgh,” she croaked, averting her eyes.
“So what happened to Hana and Julija in the end?” I asked.
“Hana became a vampire too,” said Sevens. “Touch and go, almost died, but she made it. As far as I know, they might still be out there. Maybe. I lost track.”
“Hmmmm. You should talk to Zheng about vampires sometime.”
Sevens’ eyes went wide, glistening black orbs in the dusken glow. “Zheng? Oh no.”
“She’s not going to threaten you,” I said. “Or, she better not.”
“She might not like any of this … ”
“She loves me, but it’s not like that, she won’t be possessive. I think. That’s just something we need to all sit down and discuss like adults. Isn’t it?”
“Mmmmmm. Suppose. You haven’t fucked though.”
I blinked in mute shock, a wordless sound croaking from my throat. “I … um … well, no? Sevens, we don’t need to. I don’t think we ever needed to. Maybe I’ll kiss her on the cheek sometimes, or get in her lap, but … I don’t need her to fuck me.” I echoed Sevens’ exact choice of word with delicate and precise pronunciation, but still had to clear my throat afterward, feeling like I wasn’t supposed to say that. “That’s what I do with Raine. You must know that. I don’t need it. And she doesn’t seem to need it either?”
“And what if that changes? Hmm? What then? Does your polyamory explode in your face?”
“ … no. We just … talk about it. Like adults.”
“Pfffffft,” Sevens snorted. “Passion is better than rationality.” Then she seemed to deflate, curling in on herself, finally completing the retreat I’d halted earlier. She ducked her head under the covers and assumed the aspect of a fully-wrapped blanket-blob. Only her eyes remained visible, peering out through a slit in the covers. “Or so I thought,” she gurgled, muffled and indistinct. “Wrong about everything. Wrong wrong wrong.”
“Sevens?” I almost laughed, but the tone of her voice held real self-recrimination. She spoke from the bottom of a deep, dark pit. I reached toward her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nnnnnnnnn.” She shrank from my questing touch. “Sorry. This mask wants to hide from difficult things. I can … change? If you want?”
“No, no, it’s okay. What I want shouldn’t determine your self.” I sighed and sat back, frowning as I tried to figure out what I was dealing with here. “Sevens, why do you love me?”
She answered without hesitation. “Because you’re breaking all the rules.”
“You’re facing down an alien god-thing to get back somebody you love. And you’ll probably die trying. But you’re gonna do it anyway.”
“Die?” My chest tightened. Hadn’t Sevens told me that I had all the tools to achieve victory against the Eye? She’d been cryptic and obtuse, certainly, but not fatalistic, not like this. I hadn’t fully believed her advice that somehow lesbian romance was the key to victory — or believed she knew what she was talking about — but she’d seemed so certain, unwavering, concrete in her judgement. From that to this left me shocked. “I— I mean, I know my chances aren’t great, but—”
Sevens exploded from her blanket-ball in a flurry of whirling limbs and gnashing teeth, casting off the sheets and bouncing up to her feet on the bed. She stepped back and fell off the side of the mattress, crashing to the floor in a heap of limbs, then scrambled upright back into the sunset glow like a true vampire bursting from a coffin of shadows.
And then Seven-Shades-of-Shaky-Bloodsucker was gone. In her place stood the Princess Mask.
Chin high, eyes calm and cold and bright in the orange dusk, hands clasped behind her back. Her straight-cut blonde hair was a dishevelled mess from sleep, sticking up in the rear and tangled at one side, but her dignity somehow transformed this into a badge of honour.
Except, she was still wearing Raine’s oversized white t-shirt. And nothing else.
My eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my skull. I put a hand to my gaping mouth. The Princess Mask had looked so smart and sharp in her yellow skirt and crisp blouse with her subtle curves standing out, but this was on another level entirely. The t-shirt hung down, a size too large, terminating around the flare of her hips. Somehow being reduced to only a t-shirt made her seem sharper, more disciplined, hard and unyielding.
Her next words were a bucket of ice cubes poured over my head.
“I do not wish to discuss or consider the prospect of your death,” she said, soft and precise. “I love you, and I will work to avoid this outcome, but I am emotionally exhausted and flagellating myself for my litany of mistakes.”
“S-Sevens you didn’t have to—” I stammered, but she rode right on over me.
“So, right now, Heather,” her voice grew husky, “stop.”
She took two precise steps toward the bed, then mounted the mattress on all fours, crawling toward me, t-shirt hanging down, eyes locked with me. I felt myself backing away, stammering, trying to squeeze out a word or two.
“Sevens— I— hic.”
She reached me, expressionless ice-cold face filling my vision. “I do not wish to expound upon your many qualities, your death-defying willpower, your leadership and your fortitude, your overflowing love for those you consider yours — I only wish to share in it.”
“Sevens, you’re— you’re very close, you—”
The Yellow Princess transfixed me with a look, then leaned in to plant two quick kisses on me — on my cheek and my brow. Like how Raine so often did. Brief and warm.
I was frozen to the spot.
“Stop,” she purred. “I am exhausted, though I do not show it as you do.”
“O-of course, but—”
She finally leaned back from me, kneeling on the bed sheets. “We can discuss death — little or otherwise — some other time.”
I scowled at her through my incandescent blush, struggling to catch my breath. “Don’t you start going all Raine on me, Sevens! She uses … she used sex to distract from emotional issues all the time. Don’t do that. I don’t want to go through the same thing all over again.”
“I’m not distracting from the issue,” said the Daughter of the Yellow Court. “I am being honest. I am emotionally exhausted and processing the faults of my most recent self-redefinition. Allow me space, even if I am wearing the face of a teeny-tiny babby goblin who makes noises like a drainpipe.”
Sevens managed to say those words with a completely straight face.
“All right,” I replied, clearing my throat. “I understand, I think. Or if I don’t, then at least I can give you what you need. I hope.”
The Yellow Princess nodded once with cold yet attentive grace, a bow of her head and a closing of her eyes — and then she was replaced with Seven-Shades-of-Shivering-Goblin once again.
“Brrrrrrr,” she rasped, blinking those black-red eyes. “Can we go get some food? I’m hungry.”
“Me too.” I smiled for her, took her clammy little hand in mine, and we climbed off the bed together.
For a moment we just stood in the cool darkness of my bedroom, side-lit by the dying sun, looking into each other’s eyes as we held hands. I don’t love her, I reminded myself.
But I think I could do, if I wanted to.
I looked Sevens up and down with a sigh, trying to clear my mind. “Maybe you should wear more than just a t-shirt. Aren’t you cold?”
She shook her head. “Got pants on.”
“You have? Raine’s too, I suppose.” I blinked, then held up a hand. “Wait, no. No need to show me.”
Sevens pulled a toothy grin, hissing a little huh-huh laugh through her teeth.
“What about the robes?” I looked back to where the thick yellow robes lay on the bed, still spread out across the covers. I reached over and dragged them toward us, lifting the fabric to my nose on a whim, to take a deep sniff. Sunlight and gold, honey and butter — all faint suggestions in the vault of memory.
“It’s done its job,” Sevens rasped. “Just a symbol now.”
“Symbols are important. Isn’t this a part of you? Do you need me to wear it? I will. It did protect me. You protected me.”
“Mmmmmmmmm … needs to be more convenient. I can do that. But let me think.”
“Do you need me to wear it now, though?” I repeated.
Sevens pouted and shook her head. “No. Need you to keep it safe.” To my surprise, she reached out and pressed three fingertips to my chest, just over my heart. “Get it?”
I nodded, speechless at the gesture. Then I dragged the robes off the bed and draped the garment over Sevens’ own shoulders.
The yellow waves engulfed her like a waterfall, massive on her tiny frame. She let out a little gurgle-squeak of surprise and for a second I thought she was going to wriggle right back out of the robes, but then she grabbed the sides and drew them closed, huddling down inside the enclosing warmth. She peered at me with scepticism in the quirk of her eyebrows.
“But this is yours,” she said. “I gave it to you.”
“What’s mine is safe with you,” I said. “I can’t peel off part of myself, so the symbol will have to do.”
Sevens made a little gurgle and looked down, points of colour blossoming in her cheeks. She wormed a hand out of the robes and stuck it out toward me, awkward and blunt, fingers grasping. I slipped mine into hers and squeezed gently.
“Let’s go find some food,” I said.
We slipped out into the welcoming darkness of the upstairs hallway, hand-in-hand. The house was deep in the clutches of dusk. Heavy shadows filled the open spaces of corridor and door frame, and turned the head of the stairs into a phantom of shades. Sunset poured in through the window and painted a smear of slanted orange against one wall. A line of faint artificial light showed beneath the door to Evelyn’s study, and I could hear television or perhaps video game noises from Lozzie’s room, but the unmistakable murmur of voices in the kitchen drew me toward the stairs — as did the liquid grumble of my empty stomach.
Sevens walked on her tiptoes, stalking like a predator on high-alert, muffled only slightly by the gentle dragging of the yellow robes across the floorboards. I almost giggled at the sight — she was so small inside the robes, totally swamped, a tiny thing wrapped in layers of safety. Like me in this house.
On a whim I paused at the window to look out at the sunset again.
It was more beautiful than anything Outside. At least, I hoped it was. The deep orange light turned the underside of the sky into a banked fire, framed by the backdrop of the distant horizon like a wall of slow-burning flame. Long shadows stretched from every house, wall, fence, and lamppost, etching canyons of darkness across the visible sliver of road and pavement and gardens.
Pneuma-somatic life cavorted in the sunset. Two houses down, a sort of praying mantis stood on the roof, studded with shiny patches like metal plates, sunning itself in the orange glow. In the next garden across, a trio of giant mushrooms swayed gently to a song none could hear. As I watched they stood up on dozens of tiny legs and relocated to stay out of the lengthening shadows. In the street, a thing like a cross between an anteater and crocodile was rolling on its back, huge jaws opening and closing on empty air. Strange birds made of crystal and smoke clustered around it, pecking at its hide to remove unseen parasites. At the end of the road stood a twelve-foot figure like a polar bear half-melted and steaming with toxic green gasses.
I sighed with delight, then blinked in surprise. I never would have imagined feeling safe and normal at the sight of my hallucinations. But they were Earthly as much as I was, not Outsiders. They were meant to be here.
I tore myself away from the world and led Sevens downstairs. She took the steps one by one with little hopping footsteps, with the robes dragging behind her.
The lights were off in the front room, but the kitchen glowed against the oncoming night. As we approached, I recognised the sound of Raine’s voice, low and firm.
“—this part you’ve got down just fine,” she was saying. “Look, you’ve done it with your eyes closed. Let’s move on.”
My heart climbed up my throat. Her tone was unmistakable: desperate reassurance.
“Raine?!” I spoke her name out loud, almost in a sudden panic as Sevens and I pattered around the corner.
Two faces looked up from the kitchen table. Raine, suddenly brightening into a grin at the sight of me — and, to my surprise, sitting close by her side, was Twil.
Our friendly neighbourhood werewolf was not doing well. Her unmatched, almost porcelain beauty was marred by a deep frown on her delicate features. She had the faintest bags under her eyes, face lined with the signs of short-term chronic stress. Her long curly dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which I’d never seen her do before, and she’d shed her habitual blue-and-lime coat, reduced down to a black long sleeved t-shirt with ragged holes in the ends of the sleeves, one of which she was in the process of worrying wider with her front teeth. She sat hunched in the chair, one leg wiggling back and forth with nervous energy.
“Hey, Heather, you’re up!” Raine said. “Sevens,” she added with a nod.
“Oh, uh, hey,” Twil said, spitting out the end of her own sleeve and trying on a forced smile.
“Oh goodness,” I blurted out, eyes wide. “What’s- what’s happened? I don’t … oh.”
A pair of textbooks lay open on the table, showing complicated biological diagrams surrounded by dizzying notes and information boxes. The books were flanked by well-organised sheaves of notes, complete with colour-coded tabs inserted for easy browsing. A large format notebook sat in front of Twil and a chewed pencil bounced between two of her fingers with nervous impatience.
“Oh,” I repeated. “Exams. Right.”
“Revision crisis,” Raine said with a wink and a cluck of her tongue.
“It’s not a bloody crisis, okay?” Twil said with a sidelong glance at Raine. “I just need somebody to bounce off. Hey Heather.” She did a little upward-tilting nod for me. “Sorry for like, monopolising your girlfriend. S’just she’s good at this, you know?”
“No, no,” I said, shaking my head, heart rate still dialling down. “It’s fine. Best of luck, really. You deserve it. When’s the, um—”
“Final exam’s two days from now,” Twil said too quickly, then swallowed and tired to smile again. “Thanks.”
Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “Twil’s gonna be juuuuust fine. She’s freaking out over nothing, she doesn’t even need me, she knows this stuff inside out and backwards. I’m just doing moral support, really. You sleep well, Heather? Hungry?”
“Um … fine. I’m fine. Twil?”
Twil was staring past me with all the intensity of a pointer dog, at the shivering, yellow-clad blob who was peering over my shoulder with eyes the colour of a bonfire in the dark. Sevens let out a low “Gurgh,” at the attention. Her hand had gone extra clammy in mine.
“Uh, yeah.” Twil cleared her throat and managed to look at me instead. “Heard you had kind of an adventure.”
“That is putting it lightly,” I sighed.
“Is that … ?” Twil asked Raine as she thumbed at me and Sevens. Raine nodded.
“She is Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I said a little too hard. “And yes, I had an adventure and brought back a girl who is actually an Outsider godling. Which sounds absurd, I know.” I sighed. “But then my life is just one long litany of absurd happenings, I’ve sort of gotten used to it.”
Twil cleared her throat awkwardly. “Soz. Didn’t mean like anything by that.”
“Sevens, Twil. Twil, Sevens,” I said. “But you’ve already met, technically.”
“Yeah, cool,” Twil said, and did not sound cool at all.
Sevens just gurgled.
“Heather, how you holding up?” Raine asked, rising from her seat and rolling her shoulders to work out the kinks. She nodded at the fridge. “You want some food? We made vegetable curry, saved some for you.”
“We?” Twil asked.
“Okay, Praem made vegetable curry.”
“I helped!” Twil said, voice rising by two octaves.
“You chopped some carrots.”
“That classifies as helping. Fuck you.”
Raine laughed and spread her hands in mock defeat.
“I would, uh, love some food actually,” I said, but then nodded at the table. “Am I going to be interrupting? I don’t want to distract.”
Twil grinned and leaned back in her chair, finally relaxing by an inch. “S’not a problem. S’your house, after all.”
“Yeah, come on,” Raine said, going for the fridge. “Sit down and have some food. You too, Sevens.”
“But hey,” Twil went on, as if she’d just remembered something. “Evee did say that Heather and Sevensy here should go talk to … her … about … um?”
Twil trailed off as Raine slowly turned back to her. A look of resigned disappointment peeked through Raine’s smile.
“Raine?” I perked up.
“Was I like, not supposed to say that?” Twil asked, eyes flicking from Raine to me. “Oh shit.”
“It’s fine,” Raine sighed. “Just thought you might have more sense.”
“Well sorry.” Twil huffed, rounding her shoulders. “Should probably spell it out for me in future.”
“Raine, what is this?” I asked. “Were you trying to keep something from me?”
Raine shook her head. “Just until you’d eaten. Would’a been nice to sit with you, that’s all. Here, I’ll get you some curry and warm it up. But yeah, Evee wanted to talk to you as soon as you’re out of bed and mentally coherent.”
“Rrrrrrrrrrr,” went Sevens over my shoulder.
Raine shot her a wink. “About our little yellow friend here.”
We found Evelyn exactly where Raine said she would be — upstairs in the study, ensconced in her ancient wooden desk chair before a pile of books, scribbling away at something on the desk.
“Come in, I won’t bite,” she called through the door when I knocked.
I had to perform a complex balancing act in the dark, with a lukewarm bowl of curry in one hand and the door handle in the other; Sevens was attached to my pajamas by both hands like a limpet, as she had been the entire time Raine had been heating up the food, and then all the way back up the stairs too, forcing us to shuffle along lest we trip over each other’s feet.
“It’s only Evee,” I’d whispered.
“Gurrrr. She wants me gone.”
“I doubt it. Sevens, relax, please, I can’t get up the stairs like this.”
But Sevens wouldn’t let go, as if afraid of being pulled away from me.
It was only when I huffed with frustration that I realised my pair of tentacles was already nudging the study door for me, opening it on the soft, warm glow of Evelyn’s desk lamp. The study yawned wide, a nook of light nestled deeper in the enclosing darkness of the house, welcoming me with the scent of old books.
Evelyn looked up as we entered, turning in her wooden desk chair, eyes greeting me with soft recognition.
“Heather. Evening. You slept?” she asked.
“Uh, yes, not badly either, thank you. More to the point, Evee, did you sleep?”
Evelyn looked both better and worse than when I’d seen her that morning. She’d changed her clothes and was now wearing a comfy looking purple sweater and a long floral-pattern skirt, quite bright and frivolous by her standards. Her hair was pinned up in a loose bun, the sort of thing she did while working on a difficult problem. Her eyes were still tired but not as dark as earlier, and her expression held far less stress in the lines of her face.
She had an oddly contemplative look about her in the moment she considered my question, akin to the inquisitive, cold curiosity that she had so obviously inherited from her mother, but softened by self-conscious reflection.
What really surprised me was her prosthetic leg. She’d removed it.
The short tower of matte black carbon fibre stood by the corner of the desk, easily within her reach, the knee locked in place. The outline of her stump was clearly visible beneath her skirt.
A couple of large spiral-bound notebooks sat on the desk behind her, along with an old book open down the middle. Not a magical tome, just regular print on paper old enough to start turning brown.
Her bone wand lay across her lap, the densely scrimshawed symbols enough to make my eyes water if I looked too closely.
The smell of old books filled the air, a familiar and enticing comfort, but I didn’t get to spend much time up here in the study, at least not with other people. I came in here often enough to browse Evelyn’s collection of regular, normal, ordinary books, stacked to the ceiling in their cases which lined the walls, but there was only one decent chair and step-stool. It wasn’t really set up for relaxation. The room faced the wrong direction to catch the sunset this late, so the gloaming of Sharrowford was visible through the small window only as a blank darkness.
“Evee?” I prompted when that contemplative look didn’t leave her face.
She drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “Yes. Thank you. Yes, I slept, some. I think Praem would have tied me to the bed if I hadn’t at least tried.”
“Mmm-huh,” Sevens laughed at my shoulder, snorting with nerves.
“Are you … all right?” I asked. “You look … um … thoughtful.”
“I’m not even working, really,” Evelyn went on with a sigh, waving at the notebooks on the desk. “Just reading for university. Classics does require some work, occasionally, even for somebody fully fluent. Have to do a spot of history here and there. Though all I’ve learnt in two years is that the entire Roman senate should have been shot. Huh.” She gave a humourless laugh, then frowned at us. “Do you want to sit down? Don’t stand there with that food.”
“Evee,” I sighed too. “What is this about?”
Her frown deepened. “What is what about?”
“Oh for— Raine and Twil told you to come up here?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, it wasn’t something I needed right away. What did Twil even say? For fuck’s sake, they could have let you sit down and eat!” She spat the words out, quite outraged on my behalf. “It’s hardly important. It’s not as if we could do anything about it anyway.”
And at that, she looked very pointedly at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
“Well,” I said, spooning a mouthful of vegetable curry toward my mouth with slow resign. “I’m here now. We’re here now.”
Evelyn huffed and drew her hand over her face. “All right. All right, I’ll get this over with, I suppose. I’ve been thinking. All afternoon. About you.” She nodded at Sevens.
“Mmmmmm. Me,” Sevens rasped.
Evelyn tilted her head up and turned her chair so she was facing us straight-on. She put both hands on her bone-wand.
“Evee-” I started, heart climbing into my mouth as I swallowed in a hurry. Lukewarm vegetable mush squeezed down my throat. Both of my tentacles instinctively moved to shield Sevens.
“S’okay,” Sevens grunted.
“I have a question,” Evelyn said, strangely formal. “Make that two questions. More, depending.”
“Get on with it,” Sevens rasped.
“How much are you going to direct us?” Evelyn asked, without hint of bitterness or guile. “How much of a hand do you have over anything we do or experience? And what’s to stop you deciding that our ‘story’ would be better served by a successful attack on my house? Or by removing one of us like a side character with a tragic death? What’s to stop you fucking with me?” Evelyn paused, then added in a rush, as if embarrassed: “With us, I mean.”
Sevens seemed to shrink, gaze falling to the floor, shoulders hunching inside the yellow robes. I grabbed her hand with one of my tentacles but she wriggled free.
“Evee,” I protested. “She’s not like that. I told you, she left the stage, or … joined us on it?” I glanced at Sevens, but she looked wretched all of a sudden, grimacing in sorrow down at her own feet.
“It’s an honest question,” Evelyn said. “If she says no, that she won’t do any of that, then fine.”
“Fine?” I boggled at Evelyn. “That’s not … like you?”
Evelyn shrugged. “As I said, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway.” Evelyn picked up the bone wand and pointed it at Sevens. “She is an outside context problem — ha!” She barked at her little joke. “An outside context problem — pun very much intended — for my skills, what magic I know. If she wants to ruin us for the sake of drama, I doubt there’s much I could do.” Evelyn frowned. “Though you could probably intervene, Heather. Or maybe Lozzie could. Or Twil’s dubious ‘god’, or—”
“I caaaaaan’t,” Sevens rasped through clenched teeth. She enunciated the end of the word so hard it warped into a spat tuh.
We both paused at that. At the frustration in her voice.
“Can’t, or won’t?” Evelyn asked.
“Sevens?” I tried to duck my head to peer at her face. “Are you okay?”
“I didn’t want to talk about this!” she whined. “I can’t direct anything!” Her voice cracked and broke as she spoke, as she curled up inside the yellow robes. “I was wrong. Completely wrong. Don’t you get it?” She glanced at me for a second, black-red eyes brimming with tears, then flicked her head away to scrub her face on the yellow robes.
Without warning, she suddenly collapsed. For a heartbeat I thought she’d transitioned into another mask, something unexpected — but with a thump-a-thump of bony backside and knees against wood, she sat down in a heap on the floor, robes billowing out around her. She drew her knees up and stuck her face into them.
“Sevens?!” I crouched down next to her, totally off-balance. “Are you crying?”
“I shouldn’t be prodding people to do things,” she sobbed into her knees. “That’s not love.”
Even the Outsider godling daughter of the Yellow Court can have a skeleton or two in her closet. Though it looks like a good bit of tentacle discipline is serving Heather well in bringing her around. Just needs to be careful she doesn’t get too carried away.
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Next week, well, somebody is very upset. But once that’s over, doesn’t Evelyn have other matters on her mind too? Wasn’t she supposed to be planning how to get her hands on a certain tome?