Crafting the gateway to ‘Camelot’ — as Evelyn also started calling it, after surrendering to Raine’s incessant use of the term — did not take one or two days. It took ten.
Evelyn’s original estimate was wildly optimistic, which was rare for her. But adjusting the gateway mandala turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected. We couldn’t just rip down the parts which referred to Carcosa and replace them with new symbols, to politely inform the membrane between worlds that we would like to visit this place named after Arthurian Legend. Reality cared nothing for our definitions, Quiet Plain or Camelot or Round Table or “This fucking bastard shit hole that I can’t fucking well find,” as Evelyn described it after four days of trying.
“It’s not a shit hole,” Lozzie protested with a pout. “It’s pretty. Real pretty! You’ve been there too, Eveey-weevey, you saw the skies!”
Evelyn sighed at that, dragging a hand over her face as they’d sat at the table in the magical workshop. The table was littered with sheets of paper covered in fragments of new gateway mandala, dozens upon dozens of fresh attempts at adjusting the output destination.
That pile of paper grew all week long, like a snow bank in a storm. Evelyn huddled in the centre as if she was extruding an igloo about herself. Lozzie flitted in and out whenever Evelyn hit a snag, rotating or transposing or correcting some piece of magic that looked wrong to her quasi-Outsider instincts.
“Hey, Evee,” Raine said on day four, when Evelyn had thumped into the kitchen looking ready to bite the head off a live chicken. “We knew it was never gonna be as simple as punching in a bunch of hieroglyphs and watching a big wibbly-wobbly ring open a wormhole for us, right? Take a break, go soak in the bath. Watch some cartoons with Heather or something. Take tomorrow off. Or take a nap?”
“A nap,” Evelyn echoed. She made the word ‘nap’ sound like an insult. “If it ever becomes that easy to open a gate, I will open one to the far side of the moon and have Praem throw you through.”
“A … a nap would be … be good for you,” I ventured as well, from the other side of the kitchen, swallowing a hiccup. “Please, Evee. I could even, um … I could … ”
I could nap with you, I hadn’t the courage to say.
Evelyn stared at me, blank and exhausted, only reacting when Praem pressed a mug of hot chocolate into her hands.
“Drink,” Praem said.
“Oh, I don’t want this,” Evelyn grumbled, gesturing as if to hand the mug back to Praem. “I didn’t ask for this.”
“I didn’t ask—”
“You will drink,” Praem repeated herself for a third time.
Evelyn drank her hot chocolate like a good girl. And she took that nap, thank the gods.
Raine was more right than she knew. The nature of Outside was nothing so simple as parallel dimensions, lined up side by side or stacked atop each other, so one could neatly step through from one dimension to the next. It was hardly the proverbial turtles all the way down. The sea of dark infinity that lay beyond our earthly sphere was so difficult to capture in human terms that even the simplest possible mapping — the map hidden away in the dank cellars of the Saye Estate down in Sussex — was a hazard to human senses and sanity all by itself. We were not simply entering a new address into a cosmic GPS tracker, we were charting a course through a maze not meant for human minds; I may have been able to achieve the former with raw hyperdimensional mathematics, but the gateway was plain old magic, the stable and safe kind.
“Safe magic is an oxymoron,” Evelyn spat at her own explanation. “But it’s safer than the alternative.”
As two days dragged into three and five dragged into six, Evelyn blamed herself. She didn’t work herself into a frenzy or fall into dark rages, but she got quiet and intense and deeply tired. That prompted me to begin sharing Praem’s duties of making sure she actually got to bed each night, even tucking her in and turning out her light. I hadn’t seen her like this since last year, since the early days of her shadow war against the Sharrowford Cult, back when she’d locked herself in her magical workshop to direct Praem’s hunting trips.
She was pushing herself too hard. But this was no matter of life and death, no malicious intruder in her city, no siege upon our house. It was a play date for zombies.
I wasn’t an idiot, I knew why she was driving herself. Because of me. By day four I wished I’d never suggested we take the duel Outside.
At least she didn’t lock herself away this time, physically or metaphorically. The door to the workshop stood open all day, every day. I doubt I would have been able to take the guilt otherwise; I would have swallowed my jealousy, my pride, my whole self. I would have staged an intervention. I would have had Zheng and July fight in a public swimming pool for all I cared, wearing swimsuits and rubber armbands. Nothing was worth that kind of damage to Evelyn.
But she never fell quite that far. No matter how monosyllabic and grumpy she could be at times, she was making progress.
Though she hadn’t stopped frowning at me with that dark and unspeakable jealousy.
“Half the reason this is taking so long is the anchoring,” she told me on day seven.
I’d stepped into the workshop with a plate of peeled and sliced apple for her — peeled and sliced myself, not by Praem, in some wordless act of physical penance. I possessed none of Praem’s accuracy and speed with peeler or knife, these were not pretty apple slices, and I had almost cut myself once or twice. But Praem had not stepped in, oddly enough. Evelyn grunted a thank you, then launched into an explanation.
“Anchoring?” I asked, half polite, half genuinely interested, all happy she was talking.
“Mm, technical term,” Evelyn said. She took up the fork and crunched through a piece of apple, watching me with those big blue eyes, dispassionate and thoughtful.
It was the first of June, still a few weeks out from true summer. Half the bulbs were dead in the drawing room’s light fixture and weak sunlight filtered through the heavy curtains over the bay windows; Evelyn had rarely looked so close to my first impression of her, almost nine months ago then, back in the Medieval Metaphysics room. The hazy illumination caught stray dust motes around her golden-blonde hair and the thick, enclosing warmth of her cream-coloured ribbed jumper. Despite the improving weather, she still wore a long skirt over her comfortable pajama bottoms. Cuddly, warm, tucked away with her books. Sometimes, if only for a moment here and there, she seemed like a fairytale witch one might find in a hidden woodland cottage.
Except, I knew the truth; I knew the prosthetic leg lurked beneath her skirt, I was familiar with the sharp tongue and sharper mind beneath the plush exterior, and I knew that she was crafting real magic. But Evelyn Saye was part of my family, warts and all. I preferred that to any cottage fantasy.
So why couldn’t I talk to her about that?
“Technical term?” I said instead.
“Is there an echo in here?” she grunted, then smiled with thin, sardonic amusement as I tutted and rolled my eyes. “Yes, a technical term, though I just made it up a couple of days ago.” She crunched through another slice of apple and gestured at the gateway mandala. It lay spread out across the back wall of the former drawing room. A few stray shafts of late sunlight played over the bare plaster and the pieces of stiff cardboard that she and Lozzie had been propping up there all week, the components of the new formula. I could only glance at it for a few moments — the thing still turned my stomach, like I was looking at a dozen dismembered animals in the process of being sewn back together into some new and impossible configuration. “It’s basically solved, we could probably open the gateway to Camelot—”
I couldn’t quite suppress a sigh. Evelyn frowned at me. “Sorry,” I said. “I just think that name is a bit silly.”
“It is silly,” Evelyn snapped. There was that jealous pinch in her eyebrows again, that dark frown shot sidelong at me for a fleeting second. “Everything about this is silly. No, scratch that, it’s all downright fucking stupid, the whole lot of it. Zheng, you, Jan and July, Raine, that blasted fox. All of it.”
“Sorry,” I repeated, in a whisper so quiet she couldn’t possibly have heard.
“Like I said, the new gateway is basically solved already, but this one is going to be anchored.” She frowned at the doorway of bare plaster scored into the wall. “Almost all of us are going to be over there watching these two zombies slap each other stupid. Even if that takes only thirty seconds, I want this end secure.”
“Isn’t the house already secure?”
Evelyn sighed, but her voice took on a tiny touch of pride. “Paranoia has its upsides, Heather. This version of the gateway formula is going to be semi-permanent, for safety. For example, if some lunatic was to break in here while we’re all watching Camelot’s greatest pay-per-view match, it would be extremely bad if said lunatic was to get past my spider-servitors and rub off even a small portion of the mandala. Very bad. And the spiders are not exactly reliable.”
I glanced up into the far corner of the workshop, where one spider-servitor clung upside down on the ceiling, resting or thinking or just vegetating. It was hard to tell what they thought about all day. The head of crystalline eyes showed no reaction, just watching the room as always. I pulled an apologetic expression anyway, hoping it understood. I’d always felt quite fond of the senile creatures, ever since one of them had scurried after me to squat over my unconscious form, back when the cult had tried their kidnapping trick with our first gateway.
“That’s a bit harsh,” I sighed.
“Eh,” Evelyn grunted, waving one hand in dismissal. “They’re not reliable. They’re helpful, but they’re not reliable.”
“Besides, Lozzie and I could always bring us back home.”
Evelyn rounded on me again in her chair, wielding a piece of apple on the end of her fork. I flinched slightly in the face of her genuine anger. “And what if you were both incapacitated? Or absent? Or worse? Hm? Because that’s what happened before. You were gone. Both of you. I want something that works without your input, in case we ever have to come and bloody well fetch you.”
“That’s a … that’s a good point, Evee. Fair enough. And thank you, I know you’re only looking out for me.”
Evelyn turned away with a wordless grumble. I reached out to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder. To my delight and surprise she absent-mindedly held my fingertips in return, though she must have barely felt my touch through her thick jumper. Then, she seemed to lean her head as if she was about to touch her face to my hand, but caught herself, apparently just as subconsciously, because she let go of my hand and went on talking as if nothing had happened. Three of my tentacles inched out toward her, but withdrew without contact, because I was only indulging my own guilt. My heart felt like a rotting worm inside my chest.
“So this version stays open. No matter what happens to the physical spell written all over the goddamn walls.” She sighed. “Or at least that’s the theory. I still have to test it.”
“I assume it’s not fully permanent?” I asked.
Evelyn snorted, though her sarcasm was at least amused rather than bitter and sharp. “Oh yes, that would be a great idea, just fill this room with physical doorways to elsewhere. The crossroads of the universe, right here in Sharrowford. I’ll put up a signpost, we’ll turn it into somebody’s hub level.”
“Hub what? Pardon?”
“So, how do we close it again?”
“We don’t. I do. Kimberly should be able to do it as well, I’m going to share the details with her, in case I’m … ” She trailed off and waved a hand with an uncomfortable murmur. “It requires a specific counter-rotational gesture and the correct incantation sequence. Or, it will do, in theory, if the damn thing works like it’s meant to. I’m still not certain it will, this entire thing might be a wash. You might have to put a leash on Zheng after all.” Evelyn let true scorn leech into those last few words.
I cringed inside, feeling doubly awful. Guilt over Zheng and guilt over Evelyn. She hated this.
“I’m sure it will work,” I said. “Evee, you’re really good at this, when you let yourself be.”
She sighed heavily. “Heather, I know you’re not trying to lie on purpose, but you’re too sweet for your own good.”
I blinked, mortified, as Evelyn turned heavily lidded eyes up toward me. “I’m … sorry?”
“I am terrible at magic,” she said. “But even if I wasn’t, this would still be highly experimental, far beyond the boundaries of what any of my contemporaries or peers have attempted to do.” She gestured at the blank doorway and the unfinished mandala again. “I’m taking principles I barely comprehend and tying them together with duct tape and hope. You don’t understand, Raine doesn’t understand, Lozzie certainly doesn’t understand, at least not in the way I need. Praem, I don’t even want her to understand. Kimberly might, but she doesn’t deserve any more of this shit. She’s half out and I bloody well intend to allow her to stay that way. Your weird little yellow friend, maybe, but she’s not telling.”
“What about Jan?” I asked.
Evelyn’s expression darkened like a flash storm moving across her face. “Perhaps,” she hissed through clenched teeth.
“Oh, Evee, I didn’t mean to say we should show her any of it. Of course not. Of course.”
“This shouldn’t even exist,” Evelyn said, watching me carefully, intent and alert for the first time in several days. The jealousy had gone away, replaced with my strategist once again. “This gateway. What we’ve done. You do understand that, yes?”
“But you did it anyway,” I said. “It’s an achievement.”
Evelyn hissed and waved both hands. “I didn’t do this, Heather. I copied the work the cult did, however they tunnelled through to their wounded Outsider thing. Their doorways couldn’t have taken them truly Outside, just over to their pocket dimension. And then Lozzie had to finish the formula for us, you remember?”
“How could I forget,” I murmured.
“Without her, I’m not sure we could have done it at all. You understand that? You understand that none of what we’re doing here should even exist? Jan, the way she was reacting last week — she was right. We’ve built a physical doorway to Outside. I’m not entirely certain that anybody else is currently capable of this.” She snorted. “With the exception of one mister Edward Lilburne. We are playing with fire.”
“To rescue my sister.”
Evelyn’s expression did not change, no shock of realisation, no backing down, no sudden retreat. She just nodded. “Yes, exactly.”
It was all worth it, she agreed. Even if we got burned.
“You really think this has never been done before?” I asked. “There’s nothing in any of your dusty tomes or creepy books?”
Evelyn frowned at me, a touch less serious. She pulled a face. “They’re not ‘creepy’. That’s like calling fresh lava ‘a bit spicy’. And, well, maybe. Here and there. There’s plenty of accounts of journeys Outside, but scant little on technique. Everybody’s always so evasive about specifics. Nobody wants to share.”
“Mages, quite,” I sighed.
“You’re doing the same thing, though,” I said. Evelyn frowned at me. “I mean, perhaps with good justification,” I hurried to add.
“Edward Lilburne has already stolen this technique,” she said. “Though I’m pretty certain he can only go to the Library of Carcosa. He can only use what that bloody joker memorised when he saw our gateway. He hasn’t got Lozzie to do the corrections for him to make it all actually work. We wouldn’t even be able to place this gateway on an upright surface out there, in Camelot, without Lozzie directing her creations around to give us one.” She sighed. “But Edward does keep exceeding my estimations. Which is why this gate will be anchored. Just in case.”
“Just in case,” I echoed. All my fault.
“I can’t emphasize this enough, Heather, I would not be able to do this without Lozzie. You’re sure she’s on board with all this? She doesn’t seem to be reacting like there’s going to be … well, violence.”
I swallowed, another hooked barb slicing through my heart. “I think she’s kind of excited about everyone going to visit her knights. And I did explain it’s all going to be conducted in the spirit of good sportsmanship … ” I trailed off, struggling to convince even myself.
Evelyn snorted. “Right. Good sportsmanship. Not to the death.”
“I think that makes it okay for her, if it’s Zheng. And … and I think she wants Tenny to try flying again, out there, where it’s safe.”
Evelyn didn’t respond to that, growing quiet and intense as she stared at me.
“Tenny. A child. Right. I do hope that place is safe, Heather. I really do.”
“Evee, are you on board with all this?”
Evelyn stared at me for another few heartbeats. I felt like looking away, shrinking back, retreating into the kitchen, but I held my ground, I gave her the respect I owed. The jealousy crept back into the creases of her frown, dark and brooding.
“You all need to get this out of your collective systems,” she said eventually. “You and Zheng, mostly. Get it over with.”
I broke. “Evee, I’m really sorry,” I blurted out.
But she was already turning away, back to the apple slices. She waved a hand and snorted a laugh. “You have nothing to apologise for, Heather. Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it.”
I was surprised that Jan didn’t simply flee Sharrowford and block Evelyn’s phone number; that’s what I would have done in her situation. She had every reason to place herself as far away from us as possible. Except for July. The demon host’s need kept them both in the city, kept them waiting for Evelyn to finish the gate, kept Jan answering the daily phone calls.
“What’s she even doing this whole week?” Raine asked. “She’s a con artist, so she’s gotta keep moving forward, finding new marks, generating new work. Right?”
“She’s not a shark,” Evelyn huffed.
“Does she look like a shark?” Lozzie asked. “I hope she looks like a shark! Girl shark!”
“Shark! Shark!” Tenny joined in, briefly deafening us with very excited trilling. She’d recently discovered my youtube playlist of marine animal videos.
“Jan is small and sweet and cute,” Praem informed Lozzie. “Not a shark.”
“No shark?” Tenny sounded sad. I reached over to stroke her head, ruffling her tuft of white fur. She went pbbbbbt into my hand.
Lozzie puffed her cheeks out. “Sharks are cute.”
“My mistake,” Praem intoned. “Sharks are cute.”
“If you must know,” Evelyn drawled, “I get the impression she is mostly shopping for clothes and eating copious amounts of fast food. I don’t think she’s hurting for money.”
“She needs to eat?” I asked.
Evelyn shrugged. “Needs, wants, who cares.”
“I care,” Praem told us.
Jan wasn’t the only one making best use of the lull between unexpected crises. Twil’s exam season may have come slightly earlier, but at Sharrowford University it was ‘assessment period’, a brutally sanitised way of saying it was time to turn in essays and sit end-of-term exams, for the next three weeks. The whiplash between the two halves of my life felt unreal sometimes — supernatural impossibilities on one hand, the intellectual familiarity of literature on the other.
But amid the chaos of abyssal biology, murderous magicians, and my fumbling attempts to love those who loved me, I’d managed to attend enough lectures and participate in enough seminars so that I was not left with a pile of disconnected notions from which to conjure three last-minute essays. In fact, I’d been taking diligent notes all term, in between horrors and trips Outside and emotional snake pits. I had most of the scaffolding in place for the three coursework essays I had to submit — one on a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels, which unfortunately turned my stomach with unintended comparisons to real life, but the other two were safer, long-form meditations on interpretive strategies for Jane Eyre and a very personally interesting exploration of travelling upriver in Heart of Darkness. I kept thinking about those essays at night, lying in bed, trying to distract myself from the other half of my life — and from Zheng’s absence.
Raine and Evelyn were both second year students, which meant they suffered rather a bit more pressure. Evelyn’s work was always done far in advance, one of the benefits of being a fluent speaker in the matters she was supposedly ‘studying’. Raine, however, had none of the all-coursework mercies of the literature department to spare her, nor Evelyn’s hidden reserve of diligent hard work behind the scenes. For Raine, it was a season of all-nighter scrambles to write up philosophy papers, and get her mind around a trio of exams. Though she never showed the slightest bit of concern.
Being normal felt so fake; how could I care about my future career when we had so little time left in which to reach Maisie? How could I concentrate on correct footnote formatting when the Eye waited just beyond a membrane thinner than my soul, holding my lost twin?
But life turned, and so did my pen. Or at least, my fingers pressed keys on the laptop keyboard.
And it kept my mind away from what I wanted to say to Twil.
I’d tried calling her once, that very same evening on which I’d expressed the notion out loud. That turned out to be a mistake — both the call and sharing the half-formed notion with Raine. As soon as Twil had answered her mobile phone, I’d realised that I needed to say these things to her face, things about her and Evelyn, and about myself. Courage may have come easier at the distance between Sharrowford and Brinkwood, but this subject required respect and care. I had to be gentle. I had to see her face. I had to offer her a hug. So I’d ended the call with a bad excuse about wanting to check that she was home safe.
All week my head swirled with possibilities, with horrible images of how Twil might react — anger, bitterness, spite, even hatred. I couldn’t bear to consider the other end of the range, that she might be hurt, might cry. But I had to do it. To her face.
Which meant waiting for Evelyn to call her back to the house, to help us with Jan and July during the visit to Camelot. There was no way I could call her over to the house myself, not without driving Raine’s curiosity past its already wild peak, not without everyone wondering what I was doing, talking to our friendly werewolf in private.
Raine had accepted my lame explanation that this was something about Evelyn and Twil, about their relationship — which was technically true. I hated the idea of lying to Raine, of concealing things from her; but I had to keep these cards close to my heart, because they weren’t just about me. If I let her in on the truth, she wouldn’t be able to keep it to herself. She would catalyse the whole situation, set hearts in motion, and I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for even a fraction of this, not with Zheng too, not with the burning jealousy.
We had to get to the other side of this duel, and whatever lay in wait for me and Zheng. Then, maybe, I could start to deal with it.
Zheng herself stayed out of my way, mostly out of my sight, and barely spoke to me. She vanished from the house to hunt each evening. Every night I wondered if this was the night she wouldn’t come back.
“Meat, shaman,” she purred to me one night, when we’d found each other in the darkness of the kitchen, illuminated only by the distant street lamp glow.
Her natural environment, the freedom of the night. I’d ached to ask her to take me out with her, to ride on her back again like when we’d pursued Badger together. I wanted to feel the wind on our faces together, our hearts beating side-by-side. But I couldn’t say the words, because I wanted to claim her.
“Meat?” I’d echoed.
“I hunt for meat. Sheep, squirrel, other secrets in the woods. Not for my opponent. Not until the hour you appointed, shaman.”
“That … that’s good to know,” I’d managed, then focused on drinking from my glass of water, for far too long, drawing out the seconds. By the time I’d finished, she was out the back door, gone again.
I missed her like a missing arm.
I couldn’t talk to anybody about this, not my lovers, not Lozzie, not even Sevens. She of all people may have been able to untangle it, but something about her felt embryonic now, the way she cuddled up to me in bed and purred into my chest, the way she spent more and more time with Lozzie and Tenny, the way she reacted with big blinking eyes the one time I tried to share it with her, when we were alone in bed one morning, while Raine was downstairs making breakfast.
She got the part about Zheng, of course. She knew that all too well. She hugged me around the middle and purred into my chest over that. She understood. But when it came to the subject of Twil, she shied away, hands peeling off my sides and boney body sinking into the sheets like a manta ray hiding beneath shallow sand.
“I can’t help,” Seven-Shades-of-Squeamish-Subordinate had rasped.
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
She raised a hand and wobbled it back and forth, showing all her sharp little needle-teeth in a pained grimace. “Bit of both? Can’t intervene. Can’t move you around on the stage. You’re in deeeeeeeep. You gotta dig up.”
“Oh, Sevens.” I reached out and wormed a tentacle around her shoulders beneath the sheets. “I’m not asking you to direct. I’m asking you to help as you are now. As you. Or just … just listen? Just listen.”
Sevens had let out an uncomfortable guuurr-rrruk. But she’d reached over and cuddled my middle again. “Here for you. If you need it. Want a wing-woman with the werewolf?”
I’d actually laughed at that, stroking Sevens’ lank hair back from her forehead. “Maybe. You are so lovely, Sevens. I won’t force you, but maybe … when I do it, stay near? Okay?”
“Will lurk,” she gurgled. “In ceiling.”
“Um, maybe not that. Praem will be quite put out if you get into the wall cavity. It would make a terrible mess.”
Sevens had laughed at that, a lovely rasping noise that made me want to pick her up and nuzzle her. Nobody else could treat this with the respect it needed, nobody but the reforming meddler herself.
As the days ground on, my tension grew, like a great worm coiled in my gut, feeding on my bio-reactor. I began to keep multiple tentacles manifested all day long, sometimes even through the night. More than once I woke up with them wrapped around my torso in a constricting ball, after dreams of crushing and choking.
Everyone must have thought I was consumed by jealousy. They were right, but that was only half of it. Evelyn sunk deeper into her work. Zheng avoided us all, hunting and eating. Lozzie tiptoed around, giving me stealthy hugs when she thought nobody else was looking. And Raine had sex with me twice a day, helping me burn off the tension.
That didn’t quite work, because it wasn’t about my jealousy anymore.
It was about the sense of an impending change in the air. Several of them, all bearing down like thunderclouds.
Private Eye Nicole Webb, super-spy according to Raine — detective for hire according to everybody else — checked in with Evelyn twice every day, still chewing through a mountain of stolen paperwork between other jobs, hunting for any clues about the location of a most cautious and private client.
On day nine, when the gateway really was ready and all we had left was the test, Evelyn called Raine and me into the kitchen, and put Nicole on speaker phone.
“Repeat what you just said, please, detective,” Evelyn requested of the phone on the table. “I don’t want to repeat it myself, I might get it wrong. From the top, please.”
Nicole cleared her throat on the other end of the phone. “Alright then, for the peanut gallery out there,” her smooth, relaxed tones purred in between the shuffling of papers. “There’s basically two ways of concealing information when you have to keep these kinds of records. Either you keep everything squeaky-clean, you keep all the grisly details off the books completely, never write down any phone numbers of people you aren’t supposed to know, that sort of thing. Or, you make everything so dense and complex that it’s impossible to unravel. Make it too difficult to piece together the kind of clear picture you need to build a case against a crooked lawyer, and that’s actually quite easy to do. Follow me so far?”
“Absence versus concealed, sure,” Raine said. “Go on, Nicky.”
“That’s detective Webb to you, Haynes,” Nicole shot back, then continued without missing a beat. “So, the lawyer, Yuleson, he deals with a lot of dodgy people, right? Not just your Edward guy. People who have actually been committing major crimes. I mean, there’s some shit in here I would have loved to get my hands on while I was police. Not that any of it is actionable, mind you.”
“Especially ‘cos it’s stolen, little miss criminal,” Raine said.
“Raine, shut the fuck up,” Evelyn growled. “Not now. Listen.”
Raine blinked in surprise. Evelyn was not joking around.
“Yes, shush,” I added gently. Raine grinned and goosed my flank, which made me wriggle.
“Thanks, Heather,” Nicole said with a laugh. At least she was enjoying this a little. “Look, my point is, Yuleson’s done legal counsel and defence for people linked with major drug dealing operations. And when you’re dealing with that, you want to keep everything — and I do mean everything — cleaner than a brothel toilet seat before a royal visit, you get me?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”
“Money from clean sources, nothing shady that’s gonna bring external attention, that kind of thing. Yuleson’s records are technically clean. Very clean. He uses the first strategy. But … ” Nicole paused. I could hear her wetting her lips, hear the creep of discomfort in her voice.
“Detective,” Evelyn prompted. “Continue, please. The same way you told me.”
“So I’m looking for this house, right?” Nicole’s voice came back strong. “For a stray invoice that lists an address, a copy of a purchase order, something legal to do with the house, property, taxes. Anything at all. And yeah, there’s lots of stuff in here, fake names or fall guys on half of it, any one of these could be connected with Edward Lilburne. I keep following them up, looking up people, confirming who they are, checking if addresses are real, but … uh … fuck me, miss Saye, do I need to—”
“Say it again,” Evelyn repeated. She shared a glance with us. I could see the tension around her eyes.
“It’s nothing supernatural,” Nicole said, laughing it off. “It’s just … well. I feel like I’m being led around in a circle.”
Raine raised her eyebrows. Evelyn nodded. I bit my lip.
“Led around?” Raine prompted. “By a pile of documents?”
“Ahhhhh, that’s why it sounds so silly,” Nicole sighed. “Look, it’s a sense you get. Not a real sixth sense or anything, I’m not talking about any of your supernatural guff, I’m talking about detective work. You do this for long enough, police or private or whatever, and when you’re working one of those cases where some element has been concealed, hidden for real, on purpose, then sometimes you get this sense like you’re going around in a circle, right? Covering the same ground over and over, looking for that crack, that break in the armour, that way in. But it’s nothing literal, you get me? It’s not like you can point to something, it’s just a feeling.”
“But you said ‘led’,” Raine repeated.
“Yeah … yeah.” Nicole puffed out a big sigh. I could hear her scratching her head. “‘Cos this shouldn’t be happening. This isn’t like a murder investigation or something, it’s just trying to find an address. A hint of an address, even. A forwarded tax document. Anything. But it feels like I’m chasing a person. A person who’s covering their tracks.”
Nicole stopped. Silence fell over the kitchen. I hugged myself with hands and tentacles alike, feeling like a cold hand was creeping up my spine. Somebody flicked the kitchen lights on, banishing the gloom — Praem, listening in alongside us. She met my eyes and stared, blank white, as unreadable as the phone on the table.
“I think she should stop,” I said out loud.
“I’ve already instructed her to do so,” Evelyn said.
“I mean it’s probably nothing,” Nicole’s voice floated up from the lonely phone on the table, suddenly seeming very far away, on the other side of a wall. I wish we’d had this meeting face-to-face. “But I realised it this afternoon, so here I am. Checking in, getting the all stop.”
“I’m not exaggerating, by the way,” Evelyn said, leaning toward the phone. “You will be paid for today, but nothing else past this point, you understand? You are to stop this investigation.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole laughed. “I’m not gonna work for free or anything.”
“You box up and seal everything you took from those offices,” Evelyn went on. “You don’t touch it, you don’t look at it, you stop thinking about it. Completely.”
“It’s cool, hey. I’ve got another job to be on this afternoon, just bread-and-butter stuff. I won’t touch your job again until you give me the go-ahead.” She sighed, a big puff down the phone. “You really think this is some supernatural effect? Something messing with my head? It doesn’t feel like that, it feels normal. There’s no ghosts floating through my flat, I’m not losing time or blacking out. It all makes sense, you know?”
“It can’t be ruled out,” Evelyn said, tight and frowning.
“Yes, quite,” I added. “Nicky, just stop, don’t touch it again. We’ll … we will … ”
I trailed off, wetting my lips. We would what? The gateway to Camelot was almost ready; tomorrow was the day, Evelyn was all prepared for the test. But none of that mattered at all compared to finding Edward Lilburne, taking that book from him, and completing the Invisus Oculus, our way to go unseen even in sight of the Eye. Nothing mattered next to rescuing Maisie. Part of me wanted to call everything off, give Zheng an ultimatum, forget any notion of talking to Twil.
But who would be left to rescue my sister, if I abandoned everything I believed in? If I left my friends behind? Certainly not me.
“We’ll be over there at your apartment the day after tomorrow,” Evelyn spoke up, making me jump. “Do not touch any of it in the meantime, detective. Understand? Don’t touch a thing. We’re dealing with something at current. Then we’ll come take a look at the effect for ourselves.”
“Oh, believe me, I ain’t gonna touch it until you’re paying me again,” Nicole said with a laugh.
“Nicky,” I spoke up one last time. “Nicky, if anything strange happens, call us, okay? Any hour of the day or night. Call us.”
“You bet, little ghost-busters. Have no fear, I’m about to spend the next forty-eight hours tailing a client’s cheating wife. All very boring, all very routine. No spooky bullshit for me. Fingers crossed, swear on me mum, so on and all that.”
After Evelyn ended the call, I couldn’t help but chew on my lower lip.
“What if we can’t find the house at all?” I asked. “What if we can’t catch Edward? What if we can’t get hold of the book?”
Raine pulled me into a gentle hug. “Hey, Heather, if that happens, then we’ll find some other way.”
“We will,” Evelyn grunted. She shot me a frown from down in her chair. “After we get this nonsense over with.”
‘This nonsense’ — the final preparation for Zheng and July’s duel — began the following morning, the tenth and hopefully last day of the process. Evelyn’s magical workshop was all set up for the outing to Camelot, ready to go ahead once her test proved successful. Everything was in place, from Raine’s emergency kit of makeshift riot shield and protective helmet, through Zheng’s lurking presence in the utility room and kitchen, to Lozzie’s repeated assurances that it would be perfectly safe over there.
“And the … ‘caterpillar’?” Evelyn asked yet again, as Lozzie scarfed down a bowl of sugary cereal at sunrise. “You’re sure it’s staying in place? We’re not going to open this gate and find ourselves a hundred miles away from your knights? And it needs to stay there the whole day, it can’t go shuffling off after we call Jan over.”
“I’ll go check again!” Lozzie chirped, hopped up from the table with her spoon still in hand, and vanished into thin air.
She came back twenty minutes later, of course, all smiles and nods.
Everyone was present and correct, waiting for Evelyn’s total satisfaction with the gateway mandala, twiddling our thumbs and eating junk food and fretting over jealousy. Lozzie and Praem were thick as thieves for some mysterious reason; more than once I saw Lozzie go up on tiptoes and whisper into Praem’s ear, to be answered by Praem nodding along. Tenny flitted about, mostly petting Whistle, pretending she didn’t feel our tension. As it was a Saturday, Kimberly was home too, but she stayed firmly shut away in her bedroom, watching My Little Pony and doing something that Raine called ‘hot boxing.’
“Good taste,” Evelyn grunted. “As long as she’s on hand, in case the worst happens.”
Zheng mostly just lurked, arms folded over her chest, stripped down to t-shirt and jeans, standing like a statue with infinite patience. I should have spoken to her, should have addressed what I felt. But I still had no right to stop the duel. I was going to let this go ahead and deal with whatever I felt, no matter how badly it burnt my throat going down.
And Twil was here too, called over as muscle, just in case; she played around with Tenny and Whistle, laughed at Lozzie flapping her sleeves, and made dubious grumbles about going Outside.
“S’not that I mind helping,” she said. “Not like I’m busy, hey, summer holiday. Just … it got kinda fucky last time we were out there.”
“This is much safer, no fucky-wucky,” Lozzie told her. “Even Eveey-weevey came out there before!”
“Ehhh, if Evee thinks it’s safe … ” Twil shrugged.
I bided my time, trying to screw up my courage and pick my moment. But all I managed to do was give myself awful gut pain and a blinding headache, fuelled by anxiety. I wanted to don Sevens’ yellow robe and hide my face inside my squid-skull mask, but I knew I couldn’t. Not only would that serve as a red flag a mile high, on fire and screaming, it would place a barrier between myself and Twil. I had to say this as me, little Heather, not through the suit of abyssal armour I was constructing about myself.
Eventually I cornered Twil away from the others, after Lozzie had skipped off to fetch something, Evelyn was bustling around in the magical workshop, and Raine was brewing another cup of tea. Tenny might have overheard. So might have Zheng. But they kept quiet.
I’d rehearsed the opener in my head: “Twil, do you have a moment for a word in private? It won’t take long, but I’d prefer to say it alone. Perhaps upstairs in Evee’s study?”
What I actually did was grab Twil and squeak like a dolphin having a fit.
Against all odds I must have made myself understood, because a few moments later I was leading her up the stairs, feeling like my head was full of wasps. I had to use half my tentacles to hug myself, the other half to hold onto the walls and the banister to keep from collapsing in a nervous heap. By the time I reached the study and ushered Twil inside, I was ready to scream. Sevens must have been lurking somewhere nearby, I did trust her to keep her promise, but I was such a ball of compacted anxiety that I didn’t even think to look.
The study door muffled the sound of voices from below — Lozzie’s giggle and Evelyn’s grumble, Raine’s questions and the clipped tones of Praem trying to keep everyone fed and watered. I shut Twil and myself away together in the cloistered gloom, among the bookcases and the dusty tomes.
When I turned to her, Twil looked like a deer in headlights, frozen and wide-eyed beneath the single high window on the back wall.
She looked like how I felt.
“Twil … ” I managed. Then I hiccuped so hard it hurt, forced to put a hand over my racing heart. “I’m sorry to call you up here like this.”
“Uh, wha— what— I mean, um, big H— no,” Twil stammered worse than I ever could. “Heather— uh, what’s this … what’s happened, what’s going on? What’s the— what— I mean—”
Twil was beautiful, even when I’d accidentally inflicted my own jitters on her. Long curly black hair framed her porcelain-perfect face, falling on the shoulders of her soft white hoodie. She’d kicked her shoes off at the front door earlier, leaving her in a pair of surprisingly cutesy pink socks beneath her jeans. Between the plush of the hoodie, her paradoxically non-threatening expression, and the way she was framed by the towering bookcases of Evelyn’s study, I had the most bizarre urge to seek comfort in a hug, which was wildly unfair because I was about to hurt her.
“Nothing is going on, Twil,” I forced myself to say. I swallowed another hiccup. “I’m sorry for spooking you. Everything downstairs is exactly as it seems. This is about a personal matter.”
Twil’s wide amber eyes went even wider, bug-eyed with alarm. “H-Heather? Oh, oh shit, no, I’m … I can’t … I—”
Her genuine fear cut right through my anxiety. “Twil?”
“Look, Heather, big H.” She forced a terribly awkward, toothy smile as she raised her hands, as if to ward me off. “I respect you, alright? I think you’re cool, I think you’re good for like everyone you know, and I’m on board with you and Saye and Raine and everyone else. But I’m … not … into you like that?”
Her smile turned into a skull’s grimace. Twil looked like she wanted to either bolt for the window or hide under the desk. Wisps of spirit matter began to float around her in a half-glimpsed halo. She was so uncomfortable she was summoning her wolf-form in sheer panic.
I burst out laughing.
All the knotted-up, twisted, condensed tension of the last ten days came undone, like a black hole entering some new and impossible process of reverse gravitational expulsion, unloading more than a week’s worth of stress at once, pouring it out into the void. I laughed and laughed and kept laughing until I felt tears running down my cheeks. I clutched my belly and waved my tentacles in the air and sat down suddenly on the floor, rocking and moaning as the laughter finally drained away. It was a wonder nobody came upstairs to check on what was making a noise like a dying squid.
Twil watched me in confused fear. “Heather? You … alright?”
I wiped my cheeks and raised my face, looking up at Twil from my new spot on the floor. But her expression of slack-jawed horror was so funny that I snorted and lost control again, going into a second laughing fit that went on and on until my diaphragm hurt and my cheeks ached. I had to wave her down, make her wait until I was truly and finally done.
“Twil,” I said eventually. “I did not call you up here to deliver a secret confession of illicit love.”
“ … oh. Oh. Um. Okay.” Twil started to blush. “Er … sorry? Sorry.”
“I can’t believe this, this is so silly.” I sighed, feeling like I’d finally come up for air after a week underwater.
Twil spread her arms. “You do have a tendency to like, collect people! What was I meant to think!? And like, we never talk in private! I thought something real bad was up, and then you said it wasn’t so I thought it was about, you know! Shit!”
I leaned back with my hands against the floorboards, too spent to stand even with the aid of my tentacles. “Twil, you are a very beautiful woman. I mean that, I’ve thought it since the first time we met, when I slapped you in the face — for which I am still very sorry, by the way. But you can rest easy. I’m not into you in that way. We have zero chemistry. You are a good friend. Plus, my love life is already enough of a headache without adding an additional werewolf.” I looked around at the floorboards. “Goodness, Evee needs to put down some rugs in here, this floor is quite uncomfortable.”
Twil puffed out a very long sigh, making an almost horse-like noise with her lips. “Same. Uh, same to you, I mean. You’re real pretty, like. Promise. Just not, you know.” She cleared her throat. “Not like that. Not for me.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to flatter me.”
“I’m not! I’m just not down for any horizontal shuffling, you know?”
“‘Shuffling’?” I wrinkled my nose. “Twil.”
She blushed harder and scratched the back of her neck. “You know what I mean. The old one-two punch. Throat-boxing. Carpet cleaning.”
“Stop, please, please.”
“Alright, alright! Just burning off some tension here, yeah? You can hardly blame me, after that.” Twil pulled another grimace, still looking deeply uncomfortable, just in a different way to before. “So er, what is this about, then? What’s up? Like I said, we almost never talk alone, you and me. You need like, somebody to talk to?” Her expression darkened into a particularly difficult frown. “Wait a sec, Raine’s treating you right, isn’t she?”
“Oh of course she is,” I tutted as I picked myself up, dusting my backside off and taking a deep breath. The flutter in my stomach returned, but nowhere near as bad as before. Twil’s density had quite dispelled the worst of my nerves. I folded my hands in front of myself, trying to adopt a little Praem-like poise. “It’s not about me. Well, it is. But mostly not. Not at first. Sort of.”
Twil boggled at me. “Uh, okay?”
“I’ll start from the top. Twil, I want to apologise to you.”
“ … to me?” She blinked in confusion.
“Yes, to you. I’m sorry for the way I pushed you and Evelyn together. I’m not arrogant enough to believe I was solely responsible, but I share some fault, for encouraging both of you into a relationship that I’m pretty sure she wasn’t ready for. I don’t know about you, though. From how little time you two have spent together over the last month or so, I’m guessing it hasn’t gone well. I’m sorry.”
Once I was speaking, the words flowed. Twil might be hurt, might start crying, might need help and support, and I had to be that for her right now, because I’d done this to them. I had to deliver my speech, that was my purpose right then.
To my surprise and no little measure of relief, Twil did another big floppy sigh, followed by a shrug and a rueful smile.
“Ha,” she said. “Er, yeah. Thanks, I guess.”
“I take it I’m correct, then? About the state of the relationship?”
“Relationship, huh? Yeah, I don’t think we have one anymore.” Twil pulled another awkward smile; I couldn’t tell if she was putting on a brave face for my sake or not.
“You can talk about it if you need to,” I said. “She hasn’t mentioned much either, and I don’t know what’s happened. And you don’t have to talk about it either, if you don’t want to. But I would like to take responsibility. And I do care about you, Twil, I want to help make this right for you, and … yes.”
Twil spread her arms in a big shrug. “Hey, easy come, easy go. We tried it, but it didn’t really work out.”
I shook my head, at a loss, almost stunned. This was the last thing I’d expected. I’d been prepared for tears. “You mean you’re okay with this?”
“Well, nah, ‘course not. But hey, I’m just glad it didn’t, like, drive us apart? Wow, what a fucking thing to be saying. A year ago I thought Evee was a right bitch. Not only that, I thought she was a mad wizard type for real. Though, I guess she kind of is.” Twil looked diagonally upward, visibly thinking for a moment.
“I’m … I just … I’m surprised you’re so casual about it.”
Twil shrugged again. “Not everyone treats hooking up like you do. I’m cool with it.”
“But she’s been practically ignoring you for weeks, using the excuse of your exams to keep you at arm’s length. She never told you all sorts of things — I know that, for a fact. I’ve been thinking about it all week, how she didn’t tell you about … her mother. And other stuff.”
Twil laughed softly and waved a hand at me. “Ahhhhh, that’s just how things are. And like, it’s nice, you know? She really did want me to do well in the exams, I don’t think it was just an excuse. She does care, just, like … not like that.”
Twil did another big sigh then cast around the room, suddenly restless. She reminded me very much of a hound in that moment, as she bounced over to the desk chair and plonked herself down there. She gave it a spin, one way, then the other, then stopped it with her toes as I went over to join her.
“See, like,” Twil started, groping toward the idea even as she put it into words, “I always got the impression that Evee was forcing herself a bit, with me. You know what I mean?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure? I don’t need you to share intimate details, of course I’m not asking that.”
Twil shrugged. “She likes me, I get that, that’s real and all. But it’s not enough to do … you know?” Twil pulled a smirk. “Like she’s confusing friendship with romance. Or like she’s got a crush but thinks it all has to fall out a certain way. We did some stuff together, but I kinda backed off after a while. Got the sense she wasn’t really liking it, not really.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. “Yes. I think that’s part of what I’m apologising for.”
“Too much time around all us fucking dykes. Like uh, what do they call it? Compulsory whatever. Like she thought she had to. Not that I forced her or anything!” Twil hastened to add. “She always took initiative. She just didn’t really seem to enjoy, like, making out and stuff. A bit, yeah, but not like … you know.”
I sighed. “I think I know. And that’s why I wanted to apologise.”
“It’s cool,” Twil said, cracking a grin. “It wasn’t your fault. Takes two to tango. Or … three? Haha, yeah, in your case.”
“Or four or five,” I muttered.
“Haha!” Twil laughed, her tension finally melting away. She hiked one leg up over an arm of the chair. “For you, yeah. Serious, no hard feelings, big H. It didn’t drive shit between me and Evee as friends. Which is weird as fuck, you know? Like, you can’t usually sleep with somebody and then break up without even really talking about it and then still stay friends! But we kinda are. I respect her, you know?”
“Even after she kept important things from you?”
Twil shrugged. “It’s her life. Her business. I mean like, I care, you know? I wanna help. But I ain’t got a right to it or some shit. I knew her dead mum was bad news, but I didn’t know it was that bad.” Twil’s amusement drained away. “Poor fuckin’ Evee.”
“She’s very … fragile, in some ways,” I said.
“Fuck that,” Twil countered. “She’s strong! Just in different ways, like. Don’t tell her I said that though, ha!”
“And you’re really okay, just … carrying on afterward, like this?”
“Sure. Why not?” Twil sighed and gave me a bit of a look. “Big H, you’re smart and good with people, but sometimes you don’t get it.”
My turn to boggle at her. “I’m sorry, Twil?”
“I like you lot. I like this house. I like being one of you.” She smiled, and this time there was no hangdog self-deprecation or wolfish fear. I could practically see her wagging tail. “I get to hang out with a bunch of cool older girls, you’re all gay as shit, and I don’t have to hide what I am.”
“ … a lesbian?”
Twil laughed. “No, a fucking werewolf!”
“Oh, right. Of course. Tch.” I huffed. “Yes, yes, the werewolf thing.”
“Plus, hey, seriously,” Twil went on. “You’re a refuge from my family.” Something caught in her face as soon as those words were out of her mouth. I’d accidentally peeled away all her defences. Her amusement zeroed to nothing. She swallowed, suddenly pale and awkward. “Don’t, uh … if you ever meet my mum again, don’t tell her I said that. Please. For real.”
I stepped closer and took Twil’s hand, surprising myself. “I won’t. I promise. Are you okay at home? Have things been bad?”
She shook her head. “Nah. I mean, no more than usual. They’re still my family, even if they’re … touched.” She tapped her head. “I’m the only one that doesn’t talk to god,” she snorted. “You lot gave me a new perspective, you know? Made me see what was going on. I mean, they’re fine. They really are. They seriously don’t do like, sacrifices in the woods or whatever. But ever since that thing with my mum … I dunno. I can’t look at them the same way.” Twil trailed off to nothing, not really looking at me. “I miss my granddad.”
“He’s the one who made you into a werewolf, is that right?”
“Yeah,” Twil muttered. “He was different.”
I squeezed Twil’s hand again. “Twil, you really do always have a place here. If you get into Sharrowford university, do you want to come stay with us?”
Twil grinned, suddenly cheeky. “Ehhhh, maybe. Maybe I’ll take a room on campus.”
“It’s free if you stay here. No rent.”
She laughed. “Okay then! You drive a hard bargain, big H.”
“I’m sure I do.” I pulled myself up straight, playing the part for a moment. I gave her hand a final squeeze and then let go. “When is A-level results day? When will you know?”
“Not till August.” She pulled a face. “The waiting is killing me already. Think I might try to get a summer job or something, kill time, save some cash. But uh, kinda hard to do manual labour and not give away that I can throw breeze blocks around one-handed.”
“Ah, yes. That would be a concern.”
We trailed off into silence for a moment. Anxiety built inside me again like steam pressure.
“Well,” Twil said. “I’m cool with all this. You should say sorry to Evee too, I mean if you haven’t already. Are you alright, though? I mean, all this shit with Zheng is whack, and I don’t just mean this bonkers trip Outside. I can tell you’re kinda eaten up by it, you—”
“There’s something else.”
“Yeah?” Twil looked totally innocent, blinking up at me.
“I can’t talk to anybody else about this. I wasn’t sure I could even talk to you about it, not until I knew how you felt about Evelyn and yourself.” I took a step back, to a distance that felt more formal, trying to keep the words flowing. My hands were shaking. “But I need somebody to listen, somebody other than Sevens, because she was part of it. When I was in Carcosa, something happened. She showed me something. I’ve been trying to ignore it, pretend I didn’t see it. Pretend maybe it wasn’t real.”
“Some Outsider shit?” Twil murmured.
“Sort of. No, not really. That’s part of the problem. It was all jumbled up with other stuff, with Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, with how she felt. She was using other people’s faces to explain how she feels about me. First Raine, then Zheng, then … then Evee.”
My throat almost closed up. Twil just shook her head, not quite following. “Okay?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, Twil,” I huffed, flushed in the face and losing control. “Don’t make me say it. Don’t make me say … I … I think that Evee … ”
“You think Evee has feelings for you?” Twil asked, first frowning in confusion, then with a growing smile of amused disbelief.
“I know it sounds absurd!” I blurted out. “It’s not—”
“Do bears shit in the woods?” Twil asked, still amused, yet now deeply unimpressed at the same time. “Is the sky blue? Is the pope a Catholic?”
I stared at her, stunned and numb. “I … I’m sorry?”
“Evee has feelings for you? No shit, Sherlock.” Twil knocked her knuckles against her own skull. “Duh! And here I thought I was bad.”
It turns out Heather is the biggest disaster lesbian of them all; but she knew this all along, right? At least she’s done the right thing now by apologising to Twil, though perhaps she’s missing the silver lining here, perhaps she’s assuming everything is simple couples-or-breakup, romantic bliss or nothing at all. She hasn’t done so well herself, wrapped up in all this jealousy and fear. It’s gonna explode sooner or later. She can’t be the center of everybody else’s life …
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Next week, Twil might have some useful advice to share. But she better hurry, because that gateway is about to come online, and then, finally, it’s fight night. (Or fight afternoon, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic!) Time to invite Jan and July over to the house!