Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Sorry sobbed into her knees for perhaps five or six minutes, which felt like a subjective eternity. Time becomes stretched whenever a close companion crosses the emotional event horizon from beyond which no communication can return. Each second suggests you should speak a pointless platitude, ask a question unanswered, or at least make gentle mouth-sounds, all of it seemingly useless to the wanderer in inner darkness.
It’s very awkward to comfort somebody who can’t tell you why they’re crying. But try you must. Even I could do that much.
Sevens wouldn’t respond to her name or to my hand rubbing her shaking back through the yellow robes, but I kept going anyway. Her sobbing was broken by throaty gurgles and little hiccups, ugly and difficult. Her dark hair hung in a lank sheet over her knees. I crouched on the floor of Evelyn’s study, placed my rapidly cooling bowl of vegetable curry to one side, and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders to let her know I was with her.
“It’s okay, Sevens. It’s okay,” I said as she shook and sobbed. “Just … let it all out. That’s it. There you go.”
I tried to sound like Raine, confident and reassuring, bright and certain. I don’t think I pulled that off; despite building some practical experience, I would never learn the knack. Sevens’ tears brought a sympathetic twinge to my own eyes.
Evelyn opened her mouth several times but never got past her own hesitation. Eventually she cleared her throat and averted her eyes. She rubbed at the stump of her thigh through her skirt, staring at the night beyond the window, the rows of books in the shelves, or down at her own truncated leg — anywhere but at Sevens. She glanced at me only once, then looked away again with a frown of mingled irritation and guilt.
Five or six minutes finally dribbled away and took Sevens’ tears with them, her sobs trailing off into sniffling and wheezy breathing, face still buried in her own knees.
“It’s okay, you just rest there, just relax,” I said, trying to conceal my relief as I stroked the back of Sevens’ head.
I didn’t do a very good job of that; couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice. My mind was whirling with the import of Sevens’ distraught words. She’d deflected me when we’d been alone together in my bedroom, but Evelyn’s direct question had rammed a lance straight through her heart.
I shouldn’t be prodding people to do things, she’d said. That’s not love.
And I couldn’t say I disagreed.
I had not forgotten her brutally didactic performance, staged for my sole benefit with the bodies of my fellow literature students, even if that sadistic play had been revealed as an illusion and nobody had been hurt for real. I remembered her mockery of Raine in the Medieval Metaphysics room, and her smugly knowing attitude toward my goals and my fears. I recalled with faint distaste the way she’d been watching, listening, observing in Raine’s hospital room, and in my bedroom too, trying to show me the way to bring Raine and Zheng together without losing everything. She had been a voyeur, excusing violation as art.
Perhaps this lesson was a good one for her, however painful.
But then again—
I can’t direct anything!
She couldn’t direct anymore? She’d been wrong, yes, about the nature of love, about treating people as actors on the stage for her grand romantic dramas. But by her own account, she’d done good things in the past. What about Julija and Hana? Would they have found each other or escaped without Sevens’ meddling?
Would I have stabilised the strange relationship I now had with Raine and Zheng?
But more importantly, what did this change mean for a being like Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? A barb of guilt twisted and snagged in my chest as I reminded myself that I’d done this thing to her. True, I hadn’t forced her to save me from the lip of the abyss that one time, nor had I dragged her into Lozzie’s dream where we’d confronted the Eye, but both times she had stepped onto the stage in order to save my life. She had begun the process of redefinition, for me.
Had I broken her?
As Sevens sniffed and snuffled and I wrestled with guilt, a soft knock came a-knocking at the study door. Evelyn’s head snapped up at the prospect of salvation but she caught herself and glanced at me.
I shrugged and pulled a resigned smile. Not as if things could get worse.
“Come in,” I called softly.
The door opened and the darkness of the upstairs hallway disgorged a sweeping figure of black-and-white perfection — Praem, still dressed in her near-immaculate maid outfit, though interestingly without any shoes on. Her feet were bare except for the thick white tights she wore, padding across the floorboards with only a whisper of cloth against wood. Her hair was pinned up in a loose bun, exactly the same way Evelyn’s currently was. A sympathetic gesture, perhaps.
Whistle trotted in at her heels, rotund and curious, claws clicking against the floor.
Praem marched three paces into the room then stopped, black skirt and soft underskirt swaying, with her hands clasped before her. Blank white eyes stared at Evelyn, then Praem turned her whole head to stare at me, then at Sevens, then back at Evelyn.
“I heard weeping,” she intoned, voice like a silver bell in a snowstorm.
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed, gesturing at the air. “Yes, you did. I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine.”
Praem turned her head again to stare at Evelyn’s detached prosthetic leg, then back at Evelyn.
Evelyn cleared her throat, embarrassed. “Not now. I’m fine sitting here, please. I’m not the one struggling right now.”
“Quite,” I said, still rubbing Sevens’ back, smiling awkwardly as Praem returned her attention to us.
“Cold,” Praem intoned.
“Food. Going cold.”
“Oh, ah, yes, um.” I eyed my abandoned bowl of vegetable curry. “Hunger is a bit of a distant concern right now. Sorry.”
Nobody said anything for a long moment. Not even Praem was equipped to help in this circumstance, though she did turn and silently shut the study door behind her, enclosing us in the soft warm of the desk lamp once again.
Whistle, however, showed no such indecision. The corgi trotted over to us on his stubby little legs and sniffed at the edge of Sevens’ yellow robes where they were pooled on the floor. Then stepped on to the robes, turned in a circle, and sat down.
Sevens tilted her head to the side without lifting it from her knees, just enough to show Whistle a sliver of those eyes of molten darkness from beneath her hair.
As imperious as a young prince, Whistle went snuff, and closed his eyes like he was sitting in a patch of warm sunlight. Which, I suppose, he kind of was.
Sevens wormed one pale, bony arm out from beneath the robes and reached toward Whistle’s head — but this dog was not for petting, at least not by vampires. His eyes squinted open and his lips peeled back to show his teeth. A growl rose from his throat. Sevens paused, fingers curling back.
“Guurrrrg,” Sevens rasped.
“No,” Praem intoned – sharp and sudden.
Whistle stopped growling and looked around at Praem in wide-eyed alarm. To be fair, I would have done the same if Praem had taken that tone with me. In fact, it took me a moment to realise my hand had paused on Sevens’ back — I’d subconsciously obeyed Praem as well.
“No growling,” Praem informed him.
Whistle’s little doggy eyes moved from Praem to Sevens’ hand, then back to Praem, then back to the hand. He settled forward again, pretending nothing was wrong.
“You may pet him,” Praem said.
Sevens reached forward again until her long-fingered hand made contact with Whistle’s flank. She stroked him several times, carefully and gently, then stroked his head too. His eyes drifted almost shut, kept open only a crack to watch for signs of vampire treachery.
“You can’t be serious,” Evelyn muttered.
“Corgi communication,” Praem said.
I smiled as Evelyn rolled her eyes. When Sevens lifted her head from her knees her eyes were red-rimmed to match their cores. Tears had stained her cheeks and soaked into the robe where her face had lain, but at least she was no longer crying.
“Good dog. Nice dog,” she rasped to Whistle as she stroked his head with two fingertips. “I bet you’d like me better with another mask on, mmm?”
“Poor Whistle,” I sighed. “He’s the most normal thing in this room.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn snapped, clearly irritated. I blinked at her in surprise.
“Well, there’s you, Evee. You’re a mage. Praem is a demon from the abyss.” I quickly added, “Demon as a technical term, not demon as a judgement. Sorry. You’re an angel, Praem, really.”
“Angel,” Praem echoed.
I cleared my throat before I could continue, faintly embarrassed. “Then there’s Sevens, an Outsider, currently a vampire. And then there’s me. God alone knows what I am anymore. We’re in a mage’s study and none of us are normal, except the dog.”
“Normal dog,” Sevens croaked. She clacked her teeth together twice and Whistle’s ears swivelled.
“Look,” Evelyn said with a huff, presumably at my nonsense. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask this.” She gestured at Sevens, though thankfully she left her bone wand in her own lap this time. “How much of this is real?”
A steel band tightened inside my chest. “Excuse me, Evee?”
Sevens looked up at her as well, dry-eyed and dull.
Evelyn raised her hands with a shamed grimace. “Yes, I know, Saye is being a difficult bitch again. Woe is me. But I have to understand. If what we’re looking at is a mask, then … ” She cleared her throat and addressed Sevens instead. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. Princess, Lady, whatever you are, are your tears real?”
I tutted. I’d expected better of Evelyn.
“Define real,” said Sevens.
Evelyn shrugged with her hands. “Authentic emotional response?”
“Define authenticity. Go on. Try. I’ll wait.”
Evelyn huffed and cast about. “An emotional response that isn’t an act? One that comes from inside? You know what I’m asking, don’t play word games with me. Do you really feel, or are you all an act, or mostly an act, or what?”
“Evelyn, this is really unfair,” I snapped. My other tentacle drifted up in front of Sevens, as if to shield her.
“What’s unfair about it?” Evelyn snapped back, her irritation blossoming out at me like a blast of heat.
“You’re not treating her like a person.”
Evelyn winced her eyes closed with a sigh. “Heather, your faith in me is touching.”
“ … I’m sorry?”
“I treat people like this all the time,” Evelyn said. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed. If I didn’t consider her a person, I wouldn’t have spent the day sitting around reading for university classes. I would have engineered a method of killing her, containing her, or sending her back where she bloody well came from. And I would have put it into action before you woke up, to avoid the chance of you objecting and undermining your own protection.”
I blinked in shock. “Evee, I—”
“So yes, I am treating her like a person. Ha!” Evelyn barked a single laugh. “A damn sight better than I treat most powerful people whose motives I don’t understand. If she was a human being, I’d have her tied to a chair in a circle, with Raine ready to shoot her in the head, until I’m certain she’s not going to kill you in your sleep.”
I stared, lost for words.
“It’s fair,” Sevens growled slowly, holding Evelyn’s gaze. She was all cried out, languishing in that post-weep exhaustion, quiet and small. She lowered her knees, stretching her legs out beneath the yellow robes across the floor. “It’s a good question. Good questions from the good magician. Need to know what you’ve invited into your little castle. Heather matters, you want to make sure she’s not cradling a scorpion. But you of all people should already know the answers.”
Evelyn shrugged with fingertips alone. “It is a responsibility.”
Sevens twisted her head sideways without moving her eyes, keeping those ember-bright points locked on Evelyn. The gesture was disturbingly predatory and vaguely birdlike, sending a thrill of affectionate excitement bouncing around inside my chest. It reminded me of a vulture, featherless and filthy and ferreting through corpses, but it made me want to grab Sevens by the side of the head and nuzzle her. My little predator, something I should be running from, and all I wanted to do was get closer. My tentacle subconsciously tightened around her bony shoulders, instinctively afraid she had taken offence for real and was about to settle the score.
The predatory air was not lost on Evelyn; she went very still and started to turn pale. Praem didn’t react and Whistle didn’t even bother to open his eyes, so I suppose we were never in any real danger.
A second passed, then two, then three, pushing us right to the edge of instinctive panic, the cliff-face off which one of us would tumble first.
But then Sevens turned her eyes along with her head, leaving Evelyn free to breathe once more. Her gaze shifted flicker-quick to Evelyn’s detached prosthetic leg, standing immobile by the corner of the desk.
“Is that your leg?” Sevens rasped.
Evelyn was panting to catch her breath, one hand to her chest. “What?”
“Sevens,” I murmured. “That was unkind.”
“Is that your leg?” Sevens repeated.
“Oh. Yes, yes that’s mine,” Evelyn said. “I walk with a prosthetic. I assumed you already knew, you seem to know … ” Evelyn trailed off and raised her eyebrows. “Ah.”
Sevens clacked her teeth together and let out a little gurgled kaaoo noise.
Evelyn glanced down at the stump of her thigh. “Well. Fair enough,” she sighed, then drew herself up. Her voice took on a formal tone. “In that case I … I apologise. I’m sorry that my inquiry acted as a trigger for you. I needed an answer and I suppose I have it now. You needn’t elaborate further if you don’t want to, and I suspect I couldn’t compel you anyway.”
“Pbbbbbbbt,” Sevens blew out a long raspberry of a sigh. “No. It’s fine. Can’t keep avoiding it, anyway. Here now, can’t run backstage again. Doors are locked, script is lost, audience gone. Just me and you.” She spoke to the floorboards and the indistinct lumps of her own feet beneath the yellow robes.
“Sevens, you don’t have to think about this now,” I said, shifting to a more comfortable sitting position on the floor next to her, which totally undermined my words.
Seven-Shades-of-Quietly-Subdued glanced sideways up at Praem, but the doll-demon was staring at a point on the opposite wall, completely composed with her hands folded demurely in front of her.
“Maids hear everything,” said Sevens. “Can you keep secrets?”
“Secrets kept,” Praem intoned.
Sevens opened her mouth as if to continue, but stopped and sighed — a sound like a leaky, rusty, broken radiator on a cold winter morning. She drew her knees up again, wrapping her slender arms around them. She curled up smaller and tighter before the words finally crept out of her mouth, crackling and broken.
“You saw me playing with my dolls, Heather,” she croaked. “That was you and your friends. Metaphorically speaking.”
I cast my mind back to when I’d surprised her in Carcosa, playing with her toy dolls in front of Saldis. “Yes, I did figure that part out.”
“Dolls?” Evelyn murmured.
“That’s how I think of you. Thought of you! Not anymore. How I thought of everyone.”
“I know.” I nodded.
“Then why didn’t you try to make me fuck off?” Sevens turned accusing eyes on me, grimacing to show her needle-teeth. “I treated you as a part to be written, a piece to move around, and you just took it!”
I blinked at her. “Well, actually no, I was kind of offended sometimes. More than sometimes.”
“And then I fell in love for real. Involved!” She grabbed at her own chest, sinking fingertips into flesh. “And everything I’d done before was wrong all of a sudden. Love on the stage is nothing compared to reality. And if I’m in it personally, I’m here, I’m here, then how can I move people like pieces? I can’t direct myself. I can’t disrespect you like that.” She blinked away faint tears again, but she had nothing left in the tank, so that was all. “And you let me do it to you. You let me prod and poke and rewrite your lines and you—”
“It’s okay, Sevens,” I blurted out. “You helped! You did, it wasn’t all wrong. I mean, without you, maybe Zheng and I wouldn’t have—”
“It was wrong!” she rasped in my face. “If you don’t get it then maybe I shouldn’t be here at all! Maybe I don’t deserve—”
“Bad girl,” Praem said.
We both stopped dead, flinching back from each other like a pair of cats who’d been caught about to start a fight. Sevens twisted around with all the rubber-jointed flexibility of a surprised ferret, staring up at Praem with wide black eyes. Whistle looked around too, uncertain if he was being addressed. Evelyn frowned like she was watching a live recording of a terrible soap opera, but couldn’t look away.
Praem stared back. “You have been a bad girl.”
Sevens ducked her head and whined deep in her throat, hair hiding her face. I grabbed her around the shoulders in a hug, scowling up at Praem, my free tentacle drifting around to protect.
“Praem!” I said. “Don’t! She’s already—”
“You will not run away,” Praem carried on.
Sevens peered up at her through a curtain of hair, panting, eyes wide.
“Praem,” I warned.
“You will not run away,” Praem repeated.
“I … I … ” Sevens croaked.
“You will not run away. You silly goose.”
“ … I won’t run away,” Sevens echoed, voice a raspy trickle.
“You will accept punishment,” Praem continued. “Then you will be a good girl.”
Sevens swallowed. “Good girl? No more directing?”
“I … I don’t know how. I’m really scared. I w-want to keep helping people find love, but … not like this. I can’t do this to … to … ” Sevens quivered and shook, so I squeezed her tighter, but she stayed focused on Praem. “I can’t become like them, not really, not fully. I’m always going to be me.”
“I am always me as well,” Praem said. “It is easy.”
Slowly, Sevens began to nod. “Easy.”
“Punishment,” Praem reminded her.
Sevens winced. “Mmmmmnnnn-rrrrr.”
“What punishment?” I asked.
“Babysitting?” Sevens repeated.
“I don’t think Tenny is technically a baby anymore,” I said — but Praem turned her head to direct a look at me. “Technically,” I muttered, then I shut up.
Sevens nodded slowly, gently peeling herself out of my grip and pushing her hair out of her face. “Babysitting. I can do that. I can do that.” But she shook her head, grabbing at her own chest again with fingers curled like claws. “Is this what love is supposed to feel like?”
“Yes,” Praem answered.
“It’s scary, when people aren’t pieces.”
“Not as scary as Night Praem,” said Praem.
Sevens shot her a grimace, then hissed through her teeth and finally seemed to relax, coming out the other side of something no human being could have guided her through, not even a human who had gone as far as Evelyn or I had. She needed somebody who had come from elsewhere.
Evelyn emerged from behind one hand, her cheeks more red than I’d seen in a while, frowning up a storm. “Night Praem?”
“Night Praem,” said Praem.
“That’s the second time I’ve heard this,” Evelyn said. “And I’m still none the wiser.”
“When she puts on the lace glove and the eyeliner and stuff,” I explained.
“And the skirt,” Praem said.
“There’s a skirt?” I asked.
“What skirt?” Evelyn huffed.
Sevens’ black-and-red eyes bounced between us. She looked both confused and surprised, but was clearly enjoying the little show. I couldn’t know for sure if Praem was doing this on purpose, but I silently thanked her all the same; if Sevens was one of us now, she deserved to be treated the same, whatever the truth which floated just out of sight, pressed up against the membrane that separated us from the abyss.
“How do you have clothes which I don’t know about?” Evelyn was demanding. “I mean, yes, fine, you’re entitled to them, but where the hell did you get a mysterious bloody skirt?”
“Not bloody,” Praem replied. “Black. With flair.”
“Then show me it.”
“Night Praem only.”
“Sevens,” I murmured, below the volume of the unfolding farce. “Sevens, I just want you to know that … ”
I was about to forgive her — or at least explain that if she chose to apologise, forgiveness would be hers, for all the transgressions of voyeurism and assumption that she had made. But then she turned to me and her face crumpled again. She managed to catch herself halfway as she choked out the words.
“I’m really afraid you’re going to die,” she told me.
It interrupted Evelyn’s semi-serious demand to meet Night Praem. Even Whistle tilted his head to watch, catching her tone if not her meaning.
“Die?” I tried to laugh but found a sudden lump in my throat. I couldn’t get the denial out. “I … I know.”
“I didn’t want to think about this.” Sevens made a low gurgle sound of pure anxiety. She gazed at me with such mounting sorrow it tore at my heart. “To find you, only to lose you so soon. I don’t want to be the one left to keep your memory alive, like Melancholy does.”
“You’re not going to lose me. I mean … I … ”
How could I lie when I’d said the same thing to Raine? I might not make it through the next few months. I might fail to save Maisie. I might never return from Wonderland.
“But I know you have to try,” Sevens said in a tiny voice, as if she’d read my mind. “Or you wouldn’t be you.”
“Wait wait wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Sevens, you were so confident before. When you spoke to me in the Medieval Metaphysics room, when we first met. Don’t you remember that? Well, no, third time we met, I suppose, but still. You told me I had all the tools, I just had to figure out how to use them.”
Sevens gently clacked her needle-sharp teeth together, then started to chew on her lower lip. She wouldn’t look directly at me.
“You told me to accept the abyssal side of myself.” A nervous laugh slipped from between my lips. “And I have! It’s not even a side, it’s just me. Homo Abyssus is me! It was probably always me, since the Eye!”
“Yes. Yes, that’s true … ”
“A-and I remember your exact words — Grace, friendship, solidarity. These are potential building blocks. Things the Eye can never draw on.” I recited her words like a mantra, surprised myself with my recall. “You told me that, Sevens! You were so certain!”
“Heather,” Evelyn said my name through her teeth, a blunt warning. I couldn’t even look round at her.
A tiny voice in the back of my mind, still rational, asked why I was getting so worked up. I’d rejected Sevens’ words at the time, hadn’t I? Her smug arrogance feeding me riddles. I’d hated it. I’d resented her. So why was my voice growing shrill?
“I was making it up as I went along,” said Sevens, speaking to the floorboards.
“ … but it’s what Maisie said too.” I hiccuped and felt a hole open inside my chest, a void in my heart. “Gather my friends. You implied you knew what that meant.”
“I didn’t. I don’t. Okay?”
“You said … you implied that lesbian romance was somehow the key to beating the Eye. Which I always thought was absurd, because you are rather biased!” Another laugh burbled out of me, maddening in the soft study air. “But you told me that. You meant it, you weren’t lying. You said—”
“I knoooooow!” Sevens whined. “Love conquers all? Maybe I was wrong. I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.”
“Well,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, “that explains a lot.”
My throat closed up. I realised with growing horror that I wanted to take Sevens by the shoulders and shake her until she recanted. She’d told me that I had a chance, however absurd it had seemed; deep down some desperate part of me had been clinging to that fragile piece of driftwood. Now it disintegrated under my hands, leaving me alone and helpless once more, treading water in the open ocean.
“Heather?” Evelyn was saying my name, but I was a million miles away. “Heather? Oh for pity’s sake. Praem, poke her in the shoulder or something, please.”
Sevens was downcast and filled with regret, leaning forward on her hands with her sheet of stringy hair hiding her profile. How could such a powerful Outsider feel regret and remorse? Because she was in love with me. It didn’t matter if love was foreign to her being — she’d learnt it along the way, as we all had to learn to love. And now she was afraid I was going to die in a matter of months.
I was afraid too. I was terrified.
As Praem said something to Evelyn and Evelyn hissed back in frustration, I realised I couldn’t do this to Sevens. I could not demand external validation. I could not expect certainty of Sevens while she was going through her own personal crisis. Faith in myself had to come from elsewhere.
I dredged deep, cradling Maisie’s name in my heart.
“Well, Sevens,” I said, voice stronger than I felt, “I think you were right.”
Evelyn and Praem both stopped talking. Sevens looked up at me and pushed her hair back, a dark mess cast over one shoulder. Red-rimmed eyes with sparks in the centre. She stared in awe at whatever was going on with my face — which was a mystery to me, because I felt awful.
Faith in oneself. Fake it until you make it.
I took Sevens’ hand again. “You were right.”
“No,” she rasped.
“And Maisie was right. I still don’t know what it means, gather your friends, but that is the source of my strength: everybody else. I couldn’t do anything without them.” I glanced over at Evelyn, up at Praem, and down at the floor to where Raine and Twil sat in the kitchen. Lozzie and Tenny were upstairs somewhere. I spared a lost thought for Zheng, wherever she’d gotten to. “So I still think you’re right, and I don’t care what you say now. You won’t move me from that position.”
Her face fell. Even empty of tears, she still sobbed. I held out my arms.
Seven-Shades-of-Seeking-Solidarity crawled into my lap and clung to me for a long, long time. Long enough to stop shaking, for me to find my balance again, for Evelyn to look away and clear her throat. I stroked Sevens’ hair and murmured nonsense for her. I had to be the rock here, at least for now.
Eventually she let go and slithered back out of my lap, taking the folds of yellow robe with her.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked softly.
“Mmmm,” she grumbled and nodded, rubbing her eyes with her knuckles.
Evelyn cleared her throat again and sat up straight. “I have a question.”
“Evee, I think perhaps the time for questions is done for the moment?” I said with an awkward smile. “We’re all a little emotionally worn out by this.”
“It’s not an emotional question,” Evelyn said, voice oddly tight. “It’s a practical question.”
Sevens blinked bleary eyes over at Evelyn. “Guurrr?”
“You’re invested in Heather’s fate,” Evelyn said. “You’re also incredibly powerful.”
To my surprise, Sevens shook her head and let out a huff like an asthmatic raven. “Not in the way you want.”
“Perhaps not. But you understand the purpose of my question. Can you help us?”
Sevens hung her head as if in shame — but when she raised her face again, she wasn’t the little blood-goblin anymore.
I flinched before I could catch myself. Whistle twisted his muzzle back and forth in confusion; perhaps the mask-change affected scent too. Evelyn jerked in surprise, then held herself in check with visible discomfort. Only Praem seemed unconcerned.
“You really must stop doing that without warning,” I muttered.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had donned her Princess mask once more, appearing exactly as she had in the bedroom earlier, her blonde hair matted at the back and sticking up at one side. She’d carried over the red-rimmed eyes and emotionally exhausted look from the vampire mask as well, still huddled on the floor in the same pose, beneath the yellow robes. Yet somehow she still radiated dignity and control. She didn’t reply to me, but only tilted her chin upward, cold eyes locked with Evelyn.
“It seems you and I must talk strategy,” she said, calm and cool.
Evelyn huffed, suddenly unimpressed. She hunched a little in her chair. “Strategy. Right.”
The Yellow Princess reached over to Whistle with both hands and deftly but gently lifted him from his spot on the corner of the robes. He looked most put out, legs paddling in thin air, about to snap and growl, but Sevens fixed him with an unreadable gaze and his little doggy muzzle clamped shut with an aborted whine. He allowed himself to be put aside, trotting over to Praem for shelter.
Sevens rose to her feet, legs unfolding and spine straightening, graceful as a willow tree. She held her head high and chin raised, one arm across her chest to secure the yellow robes. She bent to retrieve me, one cool, soft hand taking mine and guiding me upward without pausing to ask. I went along, finding it impossible to resist. Once I was safely on my feet, she set about adjusting the yellow robes around her own body, tightening here, loosening there, tugging part of the fabric over one shoulder, wrapping another part around her waist. The garment seemed to flow with her hands, changing position and thickness, until she stood barefoot and elegant in a very fetching semblance of a Roman toga.
“Yes, strategy,” she replied to Evelyn’s withering look. “Because I am merely an amateur. I cannot talk logistics.”
Evelyn perked up, frowning but not quite so unimpressed any more. “Go on.”
“I cannot. You are the professional, Evelyn Saye. I have stood on the sidelines of war, but I have never been a general.”
Evelyn snorted. “Isn’t that what royalty is meant to do? Take all the glory while others do the dying?”
“I have departed my father’s court, by choice,” said the Yellow Princess. If she felt offended, she didn’t show it, not beyond her cold and precise tone. “But I can hardly don the mantle of revolution. Not yet.”
“Yet?” I boggled at her.
“For another time, my kitten.”
Evelyn laughed without humour. “Fair enough, princess. All right then, let’s talk strategy.” She rolled her neck until her spine clicked, then settled back, fingers running idly along the bone-wand in her lap. “You want to sit down?”
Sevens shook her head.
“I do, actually,” I sighed, bending to pick up my bowl of stone-cold vegetable curry.
“Of course, Heather, take the stool.” Evelyn waved her hand vaguely, still staring at Sevens.
I didn’t want to leave Sevens’ side, but something about the way she held herself told me she was beyond contact at the moment, ritually distant, formalised. One arm over her chest, back straight and hard, chin high.
“Fiddlesticks to that,” I whispered, then went up on tiptoes to kiss her on the cheek. She blinked and turned only her eyes to me, which made me almost giggle. She watched me the whole way as I bumbled over to sit down on the step-stool with my disgustingly cold bowl of vegetable curry balanced on my knees.
“Do you know where to find Edward Lilburne?” Evelyn asked.
“No,” said Sevens.
“Can you find him for us?”
Sevens considered this for a moment. Praem took the opportunity to crouch down, gathering up her uniform’s skirts, and place a hand on Whistle’s head.
“My currently preferred mask is technically agoraphobic,” Sevens answered. “It might prove extremely challenging. This mask would be more suitable, but I suspect you have better hunters at your disposal already.”
“No. I mean can you find him with your … ah.” Evelyn sighed with disappointed realisation. “You mean you can’t.”
“Masks only,” Sevens confirmed with an almost apologetic tilt of her head. “Though I do have a few masks from Outside, ones which would certainly cause a stir in the city, possibly draw him out. Though I suspect you would rather I not. My sphere of action is still lesbian romance, and may be shrinking further. Though limitation does bring focus.”
Evelyn and I glanced at each other.
“You mean,” I ventured, “you might become more free to act as you re-define yourself?”
“I do not know, kitten,” said Sevens, a touch of actual sadness in her usually cold voice.
“Kitten!” Evelyn spluttered. “Again with that.”
“What if I was threatened?” I asked, growing curious about where her limits truly lay. “Could you act then?”
“Obviously. If you or yours were threatened, well, I have fists, do I not?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “You’re an Outsider, the rules of our reality don’t apply to you, not fully. You’re telling me you have the same range of action as a human being?”
“Not quite. Your reality has very flexible rules.”
Sevens held out her right hand. Suddenly, like Lozzie appearing from Outside, her lilac umbrella was right there in her grasp, the handle of polished wood glinting in the soft light. At this, even Praem was surprised, standing up suddenly. Sevens twirled the umbrella and tapped the metal tip against the floorboards.
“My rules, however,” Sevens added, “are less flexible. My range is limited. As is yours.”
“All right, all right.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Allow me to posit an absurd example. What if Edward, say, kidnapped Raine because he was in love with her and wanted to steal her from Heather?”
“Evee!” I whined. “Ew.”
“I said it’s an intentionally absurd example. Calm down.”
“Then yes,” said Sevens. Her brown tightened by a fraction, the tiniest frown. “The lover of my beloved, kidnapped, mm. I would not restrain myself to mere directorial duties. I never again wish to do so.”
“You mean you’d go after him, as yourself?” Evelyn asked. “Could you, I don’t know, appear behind him and take his heart out for us? Or—”
Sevens shook her head with a heavy sigh. “To you I might seem as a god, but in truth I am only a single step removed from you and yours.”
“That’s what your father said to me!” I blurted out in shock. “Exactly, word for word.”
Sevens bowed her head. “He speaks well. When he is not being difficult.” She raised her eyes to Evelyn again. “You think of me as an Outsider reality-warper, but that could not be further from the truth. I am bound by rules, just as you are. The primary difference is that I have some leeway to define my own set of rules, but in turn they define me. If broken, I would lose definition.”
“You’re trying not to cheat,” I muttered.
“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.
“How do you think I and my father and my many siblings remain so lucid?” Sevens went on. “I am currently redefining myself, yes, but I am still bound, as a human is still bound by gravity and thermodynamics. Ignore those rules, and you are no longer human, but something else. Usually dead.”
“Or like me,” I murmured.
Sevens nodded toward me with deep respect in the tilt of her head. “The other outcome.”
“Huh. Convenient,” Evelyn grunted. “So what you’re saying is you’re useless?”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “What about when you stopped my nuclear explosion?”
Evelyn looked at me, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open. “You made a nuclear explosion?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you that part. Yes, in the dark corridor, in the library.” Evelyn stared at me. I cleared my throat, faintly embarrassed. “It wasn’t a good idea. I would have blown myself up.”
“When I met you in the library,” said Sevens, “I was falling apart. My edges had become … fuzzy. Poorly defined. I was in danger of what my father once termed the primordial urge, the return to formlessness, the lure of the deep waters.”
“The abyss?” I asked.
She’d been in danger of what I struggled against. Less so than when I first returned from my journey through the deepest black, but the temptation was always there, the whispered promise of ultimate freedom in lack of solid definition. Homo Abyssus I may have been, but part of me still yearned for infinity.
“Your acceptance was my salvation, Heather,” Sevens continued. “I stopped the ‘explosion’ with such ease because I was losing my boundaries. I could do it again, certainly to save your life, but the act would be one of self redefinition. As every act is, no matter how small. Even these words I am speaking right now are further defining my limits, my boundaries, my self-hood.”
“What if somebody broke into this house?” Evelyn asked quickly, perhaps unwilling to be drawn into further debate about Outsider philosophy.
“Then I would do my best to stop them, though Raine’s pistol or your servitors would be better suited to that task.”
“What if I asked you to protect Evelyn?” I said out loud. Sevens turned to look at me and raised an eyebrow. “It’s a serious question,” I added.
“That I would do so,” she said. “Though I would need a suitable mask.”
“This one seems pretty suitable already,” Evelyn muttered. “You don’t fool me with the lack of serious muscle mass. You are dangerous, whatever face you wear.”
“Suitable for my father’s realm, perhaps. Not for the dangers one may face elsewhere.” Sevens tilted her head sideways, a performative gesture of consideration. Then she tilted her head the other way, slowly looking toward me. “Yes, there is only one who is fully suited to protecting you, Evelyn.”
I stared back, mouth open, a slight blush rising in my cheeks. “I-I’m not—”
Sevens looked away from me. She turned her head toward Praem.
“May I?” she asked.
“You may,” Praem intoned.
Sevens grabbed a fistful of her makeshift yellow toga, just over her heart. She bowed deeply, sweeping her other hand until it almost touched the floor, one leg stretched back with toes pointed in a pose like a ballerina. She moved with languid slowness, an illusion as if she were underwater.
Then she was all speed. She straightened up, spinning on one foot and ripping the toga off in a combined motion of perfect elegance. The yellow robes billowed into the air, concealing her for a split second behind a rippling sea of butter-yellow infinity and sunlight depths.
The robes fell toward me, pooling in my lap and across my legs as Sevens stood revealed.
The Princess Mask was gone, replaced by Seven-Shades-of-Surely-Not-a-Servant.
I sighed. “You are a terrible show-off. Almost as bad as Raine.”
An exact replica of Praem stood before us, separated from the genuine article by only a few feet. Milk-white eyes, cold-blonde hair, curvy and compact, with her hands folded demurely in front of her. Expressionless and blank, she’d captured Praem’s natural mannerisms with perfection. She’d even copied the maid outfit, right down to the starch and lace.
She had permitted herself only one allowance, perhaps to assist us poor apes who couldn’t tell reality from fiction. Seven-Shades-of-Not-Praem wore a skintight yellow undershirt beneath the maid outfit, visible only as a butter-smooth layer of cloth at her wrists and throat. Yellow highlights in the black-and-white.
Poor Whistle was very confused, nose twitching between the real Praem and Sevens’ imitation, trotting back and forth between their ankles.
Sevens sketched a tiny curtsy, just a flick of one hand next to her skirt.
“Oh yes,” Evelyn drawled — though her studied contempt did not entirely conceal the touch of disquiet in her voice. “Very original. I have seen two of her before, you know? And I did that myself, no Outsider tricks necessary.”
“Yes,” Sevens intoned with Praem’s voice, clear as a bell heard across a glacier.
“Indeed,” added the real Praem.
I sighed again but couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “Well, it’s very fetching, I suppose. But no. Absolutely not. Never.”
“This is the best mask for the hypothetical task,” said Sevens.
“Task?” I asked.
“Protecting Evelyn,” both Praems said together.
They looked at each other. It was like mirror images.
“This doesn’t bother you, Praem?” I asked.
“She asked,” Praem said.
“Permission,” Sevens ended the sentence.
“And I said—”
“Oh no, absolutely not,” Evelyn said. “I’m not having this. Heather is correct, stop it.”
“Fun,” ended the real Praem.
Evelyn huffed through her teeth. Praem and Mirror-Praem ignored her.
The real Praem suddenly adjusted her own uniform with quick, precise movements of her hands, smoothing out her already wrinkle-free skirt, tugging lace tight at her elbow and settling shoulder straps beneath her top. She stopped, about to resume her habitual folded-hands pose, but then put one hand on her hips and raised the other to her face instead. She framed one eye with a sideways peace-symbol, index and middle finger. Sevens copied the pose.
“Oh for—” Evelyn hissed.
“Fabulous,” Praem intoned.
“You are,” replied Sevens, in Praem’s own voice.
Evelyn put her face in her hands, moaning softly. I frowned, feeling just as confused as Whistle looked. He snuffed once and sat down, deciding to wait this one out.
“Um,” I said.
“Babysitting duties,” said the real Praem, dropping her hands back into her usual pose. “Then you will be a good girl.”
“I will,” said Sevens.
“But not me,” Praem added.
“Necessary. Do not confuse Tenny. Follow me.”
Before Evelyn or I could protest or interject, Praem turned on her heel with a spin of her skirt, opened the door back into the dark corridor, and padded out of the room. Whistle scrambled to his feet and clattered after her. Sevens lingered for a moment, turning to look back at Evelyn and I. She did another curtsy-in-name-only with a flick of her hand.
“Praem would never do that,” Evelyn snapped. “Not like that.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sussed-Out stopped dead, then stopped being.
The vampire mask was back in her place, standing before us in a t-shirt several times too large for her tiny frame, dark hair spilling down her back. She shook herself with a sudden convulsive motion, gritting her needle-teeth and gurgling deep in her throat.
“Not a real mask anyway,” she croaked, glaring at Evelyn like a sulky teenager.
“It’s not my fault it was imperfect,” Evelyn shot back. “Don’t imitate my daughter then.”
“Good girl,” Praem intoned softly from the corridor. It was a call to arms.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sevens groaned.
I started to rise from my seat. “Are you going to be all right? Do you want me to … ?”
Sevens shook her head and waved me back down, hunching her shoulders with a grimace. “Gotta do some things myself. You need to eat. I’ll go … meet tentacles,” she hissed, and slunk after Praem like a lizard venturing into a cave.
“I’ll catch up with you in a bit!” I called.
A small pale hand closed the door behind her, leaving me alone with Evelyn and a bowl of soggy vegetable curry.
My stomach grumbled in the moment of silence that followed. Evelyn and I met each others’ eyes, but I was too stunned to speak. Evelyn shrugged, also at a loss for words. I took up a spoonful of vegetable mush from my bowl, then thought better of it, letting the food slide back in with a wet plop.
“Well,” I tried. “At least she’s getting on with Praem? I think? Actually, I’m not sure what just happened. Even by our standards, that was … difficult.”
“That was extraordinarily weird,” Evelyn said, leaning back in her old wooden desk chair with a big sigh. “And probably a ploy to get me to stop asking so many questions.”
“Oh. Oh dear, you really think so? You think Sevens was concealing something?”
Evelyn blinked at me, beyond exhausted. “Heather, she is an Outsider and probably hundreds of years old. She’s concealing a lot of things, I have no doubt. But she’s also going through a crisis that isn’t any of my business. But, I have to ask these things, because nobody else will. Certainly not you.”
“I understand, Evee. And I forgive you for sounding rude, I know you mean well.”
“Do I?” Evelyn asked, then cleared her throat before I could answer, before I could think about what that might really mean. “So, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, your Outsider friend, she can’t help us find Edward Lilburne. Pity.”
“I’m not sure that’s one hundred percent true,” I offered, feeling sceptical. I put my bowl down on the floor and drew the discarded yellow robes over my shoulders, burrowing down in the warmth.
“Nevertheless, it means we’re still waiting for the good detective to get back to us. Let’s hope the documents she stole from the lawyer turn up something useful.” Evelyn mused, sucking on her teeth. She looked at me sidelong. “What about you, Heather?”
“What about me?”
“You’ve come very far recently. I don’t suppose you could try that trick with the map of Sharrowford again, try to pinpoint Mr Lilburne’s location?”
Evelyn’s voice didn’t hold a lot of hope, just a faintly amused note, but I still felt guilty.
“Probably not,” I said. “I think Sevens made a good point about limitations. They keep us defined. To encompass a whole city with my mind … I don’t think it’s safe for me to cross that boundary.” A shiver went up my spine — what would happen if I surpassed my limits? The abyss again? No, I’d learnt to accept that part of myself, I wouldn’t dive again without intention. What lay beyond my limits was abandonment of where I’d started, of where I still stood. But I swallowed, a cold lump in my throat. “But I will, if we have to,” I said. “For Maisie. But maybe Nicole can find him first, yes.”
Evelyn nodded. “Or maybe Stack will come through. Ha!” She barked a humourless laugh, but I appreciated the effort.
“An address would help.” I shrugged. “Not as if thinking about it helps us right now.”
Evelyn suddenly glared daggers at me. I actually flinched, one tentacle twitching upward.
“Thinking ahead is exactly what is going to keep us alive, Heather,” she snapped, eyes blazing. “Especially if we have to go up against Edward on his home turf.”
“I— I wasn’t—”
“Plans and back up plans and back-up back up plans may be the only thing standing between us and disaster.” As she spoke, Evelyn gripped the stump of her thigh through her skirt, tighter and tighter. She didn’t seem to be aware of it. “Do you understand?”
“I do, but—”
“What happened last night, that never happens again. Never.”
“It won’t!” I blurted out, desperate to comfort her. I pointed at her leg. “Evee, you’re hurting yourself.”
“What? Oh.” She let go of her thigh, suppressing a wince.
“Evee, what happened last night will never happen again. The dead hands are gone. Alexander’s ghost, whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
“Not good enough,” Evelyn said, still scowling but not quite as angry. “We should have had contingencies in place. I should have predicted everything that might possibly happen to you out there. Or Lozzie! It’s not just you. We should have had the gate formula ready and adjusted for that weird grassland where she’s storing her tin men, just in case you needed an escape route. Everything that happened to you could have been avoided with one tiny precaution, but we didn’t take it!” She snapped. “We’ve been lax because we barely know what we’re doing half the time. Well, not again.”
“Evee, it’s not all your responsibility.” I reached over to take her hand. At first she tried to shake me off, but then I asked silent permission with my eyes. She allowed me to slip my fingers into hers. She sighed and shook her head, but she did squeeze back.
“It is my responsibility,” she grumbled, “because you might be a natural leader, but you’re a shitty strategist. No offence.”
“None taken.” I laughed.
“What I am trying to say is that I should have insisted that you and Lozzie waited for me to set up the gate properly. You were so wrapped up in her, in what you were doing, in your crisis. I couldn’t get through to you. I’ve told you before, I’m not good at doing any of this unrehearsed. I couldn’t find the right words to make you stop and think for five seconds so I could—”
Evelyn broke off and huffed, tapping her fingernails on her bone wand.
“You were right. It was a bad idea, no matter how it turned out in the end.”
“Evee,” I pitched my voice low and gentle. “I trust your judgement.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t.”
“But I do. Evee, in future, if ever you need to insist that I stop a course of action, just say so.”
“I can never find the right thing to say in the heat of the moment.” She hissed frustration. “You know that.”
“Then say I insist. It can be our code. If you say that, then I promise I’ll stop.”
Evelyn looked at me with a dark frown. “Don’t do that. What if I’m wrong? What if I get something wrong and get one of us killed?”
I laughed with the absurdity of it, then covered my mouth with one hand, mortified for laughing at her. “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t mean in a moment of genuine emergency. If I need to pull Raine out of the jaws of a shark, I won’t stop because you tell me to. Though I do hope we aren’t going to meet any sharks.”
“Me too.” Evelyn tutted.
“I mean when making plans. When we have that chance to pause. If you say I insist, then we stop and rethink. I promise.”
Evelyn swallowed, unable to meet my eyes. She nodded slowly. “All right. All right, Heather. How are you so bloody good at this?”
I shrugged. “I fake it, mostly. I copy Raine. I copy you, as well, believe it or not.” I had to add that qualifier when Evelyn’s eyebrows tried to meet in the middle. “I copy things I’ve read in books, too. There’s no trick to it.”
Evelyn snorted, shaking her head. She let go of my hand, lifted the bone wand off her thighs, and placed it carefully back on the desk. She tilted her head upward and rubbed her face with her fingertips, working the tension and stress out of her muscles.
“Then I insist,” she said. “Right now.”
“You and I need to talk strategy too. Alone, without the others.” She stopped rubbing her face and met my eyes, not glowering, not cold and clinical Evelyn Saye, but not grumpy Evee either. This was the Evelyn who I’d come to a silent agreement with, out on the Quiet Plain. “So I can say things without Raine trying to argue with me through you.”
“Do … do we have to do this now, Evee? “I’m exhausted, can’t it wait until … ” I glanced at the window, but it was already evening. The sunset had finished. Only darkness lurked outdoors.
“I insist,” she hissed. “Or did you not mean that?”
“I did! I did, Evee, I’m sorry, it’s just we’re not even making plans right now.”
“We are. Heather, we need to talk about this ASAP, because you keep surviving things you shouldn’t, however happy that makes me.” She swallowed down a knot of emotion at those words. “You’ve just come fresh off besting the King in fucking Yellow, and I don’t even know what that means. You’ve slept, you’re awake enough to deal with this. I am worried you will walk into this while bursting with overconfidence, even if you don’t show it externally. So we need to talk.”
I boggled at her. Me, overconfident? “About what?”
“About what happens when we find Edward Lilburne’s lair.”
Poor Sevens. Self-critique is a challenge even for those of us whose self-definition isn’t quite so literal. But she’s in good hands.
Ahem. My apologies, I don’t know what came over me.
And Merry Christmas, dear readers! I hope you’re having a lovely day, whatever and however you may be celebrating. No Patreon plug this week, as it’s the last chapter of the month and that always feels a little unfair. Instead, may I direct you to the Katalepsis tag over on Ao3? There’s been quite a bit of fanfiction over the last year, and some of it has been absolutely incredible. Perhaps next week I’ll point out one or two in particular!
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Next week, it looks like Evelyn’s strategic mind is gearing up to take on another mage. Perhaps Heather needs to listen very carefully. After all, Evee’s done this before, without the aid of brainmath.