Discussion of dysphoria.
“Does literally everybody know?! First Twil, then you! Sevens is probably aware of it too, even if she really has stopped reading our minds, or whatever it is she does. Not to mention Raine trying to lend me out that one time, like I’m a plush toy or something. Who else knows? Praem? Zheng? Has Tenny noticed? Oh, that would be a disaster, she’s too young to understand the complications involved, she’d say it out loud. At least tell me you don’t all sit around discussing it behind our backs? Tell me Evelyn and I aren’t the only ones who haven’t discussed our own bloody relationship.”
Lozzie couldn’t stop giggling.
The more I ranted, the worse she got. She’d started with a delicate little giggle-snort, but my impotent outrage drove her into a flapping frenzy of pastel poncho and laughing fit. One hand clamped over her mouth in a futile gesture at tact, heaving for breath through her nose, eyes watering with laughter. She capered from foot to foot in a little circle next to Jan’s hotel bed, overflowing with vicarious energy.
I could hardly blame her. I was being absurd. Ranting and raving meant I didn’t have to stop and think.
But I couldn’t go forever. Lozzie laughed and giggled and guffawed, so eventually I shut my mouth.
“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie squeaked like a steam train. She hadn’t expected such a bounty.
For a split second I almost went Outside. It’s what Lozzie would have done, cornered inside her own emotional thicket of thorns and barbs. She would have escaped via Outside. Why not? I didn’t have to sit here and have this conversation. I didn’t have to face these things. I could not be forced.
Lozzie would follow me though. There was no escape, not even Outside.
I shut up and sat there in that increasingly uncomfortable hotel room chair, arms crossed, tentacles folded, fuming silently, blushing like a beetroot, and scowling at the sea-green carpet. Maybe the floor would open up and swallow me if I gave it a rude enough look.
Jan cleared her throat with a delicate little ahem-ahem, still sitting on the foot of her incredibly messy bed. She was trying to sound diplomatic and detached, but she couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. Lozzie’s giggle fit was infectious.
“I am so very sorry,” Jan said, trying for formal but sounding like a schoolgirl gossip caught in the act. “Once again, I appear to have misinterpreted the relationship between mage and octopus-girl. I have embarrassed you. My apologies for misspeaking.”
I scowled at her too. “You said that on purpose. I do possess a working memory, thank you.”
“Ah?” Jan’s eyebrows rose. Innocent, or mock-innocent, it was hard to tell. She was too good at this. Lozzie bobbed from side to side, fanning her face with both hands, trying to hold her laughter.
“In Camelot,” I snapped. “When we were waiting for Zheng and July to start their duel. You asked Evee and I if we were dating. You already knew we’re not.”
“Oh, that.” Jan’s expression scrunched up with mingled distaste and embarrassment. “You can’t seriously expect me to remember that? You took me into the wild beyond outside the spheres, and you expect me to remember every last little bit of conversation? Excuse me, squid-britches, I was struggling just to keep from having a dozen different kinds of panic attack. I barely remember half that afternoon. I touched a nerve, and I’m sorry, but this wasn’t intentional. Tch.” She tutted. “It’s not as if I’ve caused some great problem, or outed you, or messed up your plans. Have I? You and Miss Saye, you’re not star-crossed lovers of some kind, are you? Fated to certain doom if you brush hands over the last muffin in the box? Is she allergic to seafood?”
Jan struggled not to smirk at her own terrible joke, biting her lips together to stop from bursting out laughing. Lozzie howled with the giggles again and threw herself at the messy bed covers to contain the laughter, rolling around in the sheets. Pastel poncho flapped and flopped behind Jan.
I stared at Jan, unamused. “No.”
“Well.” Jan shrugged. She squeezed her pink stress ball. “Oops.”
I scowled at Jan, at her pastel-butterfly dressing gown and her exposed doll-joints. I scowled at Lozzie, still rolling on the bed. I scowled at the video game console over on the floor. I scowled at the curtains, the bags, the magic circle on the inside of the door — oh, to escape down the lift shaft, if only — and I scowled at Jan again.
She had known that Evelyn and I were not together, romantically speaking. That I was certain.
Had Lozzie put her up to this? Lozzie knew that Evee and I were stuck at an unspoken impasse. Despite my indignant ranting, I knew it was obvious. Lozzie wasn’t one for casual subterfuge, but she was also unusually close with Jan. If they’d planned this in advance, Jan could simply have been waiting for the right moment to ambush me with that line, or some variation of it.
Jan sighed. “You can hardly blame me for assuming you and the mage are romantically entangled. It seemed obvious enough.”
I sighed too. I was still shaken by the Slip spitting me out alone in the corridor, without Lozzie. I was still worried over Lozzie’s safety and Jan’s reliability. Paranoia can be a useful tool; I’d learnt that much from Evelyn. But paranoia shaped the mind that dared to wield it. Paranoia became a habit, then a way of life. My paranoia had shifted from serious matters to nonsense.
What did it matter if Lozzie had put Jan up to this? What difference did it make to me and Evelyn?
“Evee and I, we’re not romantically entangled,” I said, stiff and careful — and I wondered if that was true. “We are very close, yes. A pair of lesbians can be close friends without being romantic with each other. Obviously.”
Lozzie sat up behind Jan, trailing bits of sheet like a pastel-rainbow orca bursting from the ocean surface. “Yeah!” she chirped. “But you and Evee aren’t! She loves you!”
“I … I … I know.”
“And you love her!”
“ … yes, but as a … a fr—”
“Pfffffffffffffffffffffffft,” went Lozzie. “You keep avoiding it!”
And you didn’t even hear what Evee shouted to me, I thought, down in Hringewindla’s shell, when she thought I was walking into ego-death.
“We’re complicated, all right?” I huffed and hunched in my chair, tentacles drawn in tight like I was battling a tummy ache. I even laid one across my own front so I could hug it for comfort. I wanted to run away. “Lozzie, Jan and I have really serious, important matters to discuss. Matters that don’t involve my romantic problems. Okay?”
“Hmm-hmmm-hmmmmm-hmmmmm?” Lozzie tapped her chin with a finger, all mock-innocent.
Jan shrugged with her hands, looking oh so very reasonable. “We could have a proper girls’ talk first, if you like. After all, I’m not part of your bizarre extended polycule, all crammed into that one house together. I’m outside your system, and sometimes what you need is an outside perspective.”
I glared at her, aware that my face was burning up. She rotated her hands so she was surrendering instead of shrugging, then squeezed the stress ball.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Won’t even charge. Agony aunt Jan. A free session.”
“Heathyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed. “Why not just talk to Evee-weevey?”
I hiccuped, loud enough to make Jan jump, hard enough to hurt my throat and chest. I was shaking, gripping myself with all my tentacles, as if to armour my flesh against the teeth and claws of some unseen predator. I was right on the verge of fight-or-flight, stuck to the inside of my own clothes with sweat, overheated and constricted.
I had to stand up. I got to my feet and sucked down a deep breath, then flapped the hem of my hoodie to get some fresh air against my skin. The air-conditioning made the room taste dry and sterile.
Lozzie leaned close to Jan, to whisper something in her ear. I felt anxiety transmute to irritation, and decided I needed a distraction.
Perhaps it was the way I’d been conversationally ambushed, or perhaps it was the result of coming down from the adrenaline high and paranoid-defensive mental posture, but I was liking this hotel room less and less by the minute. It was clean and airy, simple and modern, without decoration or ostentation, but the longer I spent here the more it reminded me of the kind of anonymous box I’d left behind when I’d moved in with Raine and Evelyn. Human beings were not meant to live alone inside air-conditioned cages, no matter how convenient.
I was well aware that was horribly unfair. Jan wasn’t living alone, she had July. For all I knew she spent most of her time on that laptop, talking with hundreds of online friends. Or maybe she went out clubbing every night. I really knew very little about Jan. One woman’s alienation is another’s paradise.
Trying to clear my thoughts, I walked over to the heavy curtains which covered the hotel room’s large window.
Thin strips of sunlight like white fire showed around the edges, the burning day held at bay behind thick fabric. With my tentacles, I peeled back the edge to look outdoors. What I got was a full face of direct sunlight, enough to make me blink and squint.
Sharrowford, sun-cracked by the strange June. For a moment I wasn’t sure where we were located, other than several stories up. Heat-haze rose from a tangle of black tarmac roads, the kind of meaningless intersection that you might find in any city, hemmed in by glass and brick and metal all around, punctuated by traffic islands as isolated as undiscovered Pacific atolls. Plants wilted and turned brown. A few hardy trees along the pavements sucked sustenance from unseen sewer lines or buried stream-beds — or from piles of corpses, for all I knew. Few pedestrians braved the heat. Even the pneuma-somatic life seemed sluggish, sticking to the shadows of tall buildings or congregating beneath trees — though I did notice more plant-like ones up on the tall rooftops, petals of ice or metal or flesh wide open to drink in the heat. Plenty of cars navigated the tangle of back roads. As I watched, a couple of city buses passed by. A pneuma-somatic dog-thing the size of a horse was riding on the roof of one bus. It looked at me as it went past, then threw its head back in a silent howl.
I raised my eyes and recognised the spires of Sharrowford Cathedral on a distant hill. An ape-like thing was wrapped around one of the spires, fast asleep. It must have been huge.
I spoke without looking back at Jan and Lozzie. “We’re near the station, aren’t we?”
“Mm, a five minute walk,” Jan replied. I heard Lozzie whispering again. Plotting how to get me and Evee to kiss, I guessed. Was this how it felt? I still ached with guilt for banging Evee and Twil together like they were toy dolls, pairing them up for my amusement. I sighed inside and told myself I would need to explain to Lozzie why this was a bad idea.
“Kimberly must be close, then,” I said, just for distraction. “She works at a florist near the station. Not sure exactly where, though.”
“A florist?” Jan laughed softly as Lozzie’s whispering broke off. “The girl I bought weed from, she works at a florist?”
“I gather that’s some kind of stereotype?” I asked, still squinting out of the window, into the sunlight.
My phone buzzed in my hoodie’s front pocket before Jan could answer. I tutted at myself, highly conscious that I still hadn’t called home. I fished out the phone and found a text message from Raine.
Having fun with Lozzie?
I hurried to compose a reply, just to reassure her that I was safe — talking to Jan, Lozzie’s fine, going to discuss some sensitive subjects, please don’t worry about us, and so on.
Don’t worry about us? What about Slipping home? But Lozzie had tested it. We were safe.
“Heathyyyy,” Lozzie said, bouncing on her knees on the bed. “You didn’t answer the question!”
“Hmm?” I blinked up at her as I sent the text message to Raine. Lozzie looked like a melted jellyfish in blue and pink.
“Why don’t you just talk to Evee?” she chirped.
Jan cleared her throat and nodded very intently, catching my eye with a silent, pre-emptive apology. I wasn’t sure about earlier, but this time? Yes, Lozzie had absolutely put her up to whatever was about to happen next, that’s what all the whispering had been about, and she was very sorry to do this to me.
“Yes, quite,” Jan said. “Now, I don’t have the widest range of romantic experience, to put it lightly, but I have discovered that generally these things go better if you communicate. Why not speak with her?”
Under duress or not, that question grated on me. I gave her a bit of a look. “Yes, I’m well aware.”
Lozzie giggled. “Heathy! You even sound like her sometimes! Like Evee!”
I sighed and rubbed my face with one hand. “She’s rubbed off on me. Her way of speaking is very … courageous.”
Jan pulled a grimace and muttered, “I was thinking ‘bitchy’.” Lozzie poked her gently in the shoulder, a very obvious signal. Jan raised her voice. “But the question stands, Heather. Why not speak with her? Are you afraid of rejection? That’s very normal, very rational, everybody faces it, everybody has to deal with those feelings, but there’s no sense in letting those fears dictate your actions.”
I answered without hesitation. “No, I’m afraid of the opposite.”
Jan snorted a very inelegant laugh, then flapped her hands and pulled a grimace. She finally lost her grip on the stress ball, which fell and vanished among the bed covers. “Sorry. I was a bit overcome with your sheer confidence.”
I tucked the curtain back into place, shutting out the sun once more. I turned and leaned against the wall, head against the plaster, tentacles stretching out wide. I closed my eyes in emotional exhaustion.
“My love life is already complicated beyond reason,” I said. “You think going Outside is bad? Try juggling my three — yes, count them — three girlfriends.”
I heard nothing for a moment, saw nothing but the inside of my own eyelids, the play of coloured darkness across the underside of my own flesh.
Then Lozzie said, “Mmhmm! It’s true.”
“Heather, please,” Jan sighed, a bit tighter than before. She was running out of patience, but I wasn’t sure who with. “Enumerate for me? You’ve already proven that your polycule is beyond my comprehension.”
“Raine is my girlfriend. We’re a couple. We fuck.”
“Oooooh,” went Lozzie. “Heathy!”
I opened my eyes and pulled an apologetic smile. Lozzie had both hands on her cheeks in a mock-scandalised look.
Jan seemed puzzled. “Ah?”
“Heathy never swears,” said Lozzie.
“I can swear if I wish to,” I said. “It’s not like I’ll burst into flames. I just don’t, not very much. Sorry, Lozzie, it’s just this is a difficult topic.”
“And I’m not part of your polycule,” said Jan. “Go on, if you’re comfortable.”
More than a hint of teenage girl crept into Jan’s tone when she said that. The mask of the con-woman, non-threatening and safe to speak with, just a young girl without a care. Was that intentional, or was it her way of trying to reassure? She wasn’t that dissimilar to Sevens, in some ways. The mask was a mask, but also real.
“Zheng,” I went on. “She’s … well, I think we have an asexual partnership. She worships me, in a quasi-religious sense, partly because I freed her from slavery, partly because I remind her of somebody from her past. I think I love her too.” I shook my head. “I thought it was going to turn sexual between her and I, but … it just didn’t. And I don’t mind that.” I sighed heavily. “And you saw how things have turned out between her and Raine.”
Jan nodded. “Most interesting, yes.”
“And then there’s Sevens.”
Jan winced. “The … I really hesitate to say the word, but … the vampire?”
I laughed. “You wish she was just a vampire.”
“Never mind. She’s not a vampire. Apparently there’s no such thing, not really. She’s … from elsewhere, let’s put it like that. Sevens proposed marriage to me.”
Jan whistled low. “And you said … ?”
The laugh went away. “It’s complicated.”
Jan winced. “Poor girl.”
“She’s got a lot to make up for. And she’s changing, a lot. I don’t know if we’re meant to be together, but I’m happy to have her by my side, whatever she wants to be.”
Lozzie poked Jan in the shoulder again, in some kind of pre-arranged code. Jan gave her a doubtful look, so Lozzie leaned down and whispered in her ear for a moment, before bouncing back up and grinning at me. Jan shot me another apologetic look.
What was the point of this? I knew these were Lozzie’s words, via Jan. Was this supposed to convince me of something?
“Well,” Jan said, without much conviction. “Why not add Evee to all this?”
I stared at her and Lozzie for a moment. Lozzie shot me a broad, obvious wink — which Jan couldn’t see.
“Evelyn Saye’s sexuality is none of your business,” I told Jan.
“Of course, of course—”
“The short version is I’m not sure she’d be comfortable. The slightly longer version is I’m not even sure she knows what kind of relationship she would want. I think we’re fine where we are now. She and I are very, very close. And maybe that’s how we’re meant to be. And that’s okay. We hug, we touch, we care for each other, we talk a lot, we’re always around each other, every day. We don’t make out or have sex, but I don’t really think we need to.”
I spoke the words, but I only half-believed them myself.
For a moment, in the silence and peace of my mind’s eye, I tried to picture Evee snuggled up to me under her bed covers. That wasn’t too hard, it came naturally; we’d done that before, or at least something close enough. Then I tried to imagine her without any clothes on. If I did the same thing with Raine, I felt that familiar hitch of lust in my chest, the feeling like I was going to buckle at the knees.
But with Evee, that was absent. Naked Evelyn was just naked Evelyn. Not that I’d ever seen.
Lozzie was right though, I did love her. But how?
Why was I finally comfortable facing up to this? Perhaps because I was away from home, in the naturally liminal space of a hotel, held in a brief artificial bubble. Or perhaps because I was away from Evelyn, beyond her contact, for a moment.
Lozzie dipped her head to whisper in Jan’s ear again, but I spoke up first.
“Don’t raise this with her,” I said, a little harder than I intended. Protective instinct growled in my chest. My tentacles twitched, they wanted to wrap Evee up tight, look after her. Lozzie looked up in surprise. “That goes for you too, Lozzie. I’m serious. Evelyn is safe, and … and somewhat happy. Happier than I’ve seen her before. She and I might not be perfect, our situation might not be perfect, but she’s safe and happy. She has purpose. Don’t bring this up with her, please. It could hurt her.”
Because hurting Evelyn is my job, part of my mind whispered. Hurting her by refusing to acknowledge what she feels.
“Oh my goodness,” Jan sighed. “We’re past useless lesbian and into oppositional defiant disorder lesbian.”
“I’m serious,” I snapped.
Lozzie bit her bottom lip and nodded. “Okaaaaaay,” she whined, pouting like a fussy child.
“Look, Lozzie, I do love Evee, but it’s not like that. Not every relationship has to be—”
My phone buzzed in my hand.
Raine had sent me one of those creative text messages she sometimes composed, a picture made out of text symbols. She’d crafted an image of two figures sitting on a magic carpet, flying through the air, complete with little wisps of cloud and passing birds. The girl in front had long hair and a striped poncho, though the text couldn’t manage colours. The girl in the rear had a hoodie and tentacles. My heart felt like it was growing too large for the inside of my chest.
“I … I’m sorry, Lozzie,” I said to the phone screen, unable to make eye contact. “I know you just want us to be happy.” I sniffed, felt tears. “But I can’t … Evee doesn’t … she doesn’t even know what she wants either. And it would be asking her to share, I can’t. I can’t.”
“Do you two want some food?” Jan asked. Her changing of the subject was so obvious that even Twil would have picked up the hint. “I’m starving, I could go for a mid-afternoon snack. Goodness, actually, it’s almost dinner time. This place doesn’t really have room service, but they have a bar.”
“Oooooh!” went Lozzie.
“I hardly think it’s the time for alcohol,” I said, scrubbing my face, sniffing back tears that had not quite started.
“Maybe not for you,” Jan said with a little wink. “But if we’re going to sit down and talk shop, I want some fortification. If we want something more substantial, I could call July, send her out to get us a proper meal from one of the places around here. What do you say, Heather?”
“Um … ”
She scooted off the bed and hopped to her feet, little black socks sinking into the carpet, then crossed to the desk. Her pentacolour dressing gown billowed out behind her like an exotic species of jellyfish. She found her phone in her pink tote bag, neat and pink like so many other things she owned, but it was old — a flip-phone. She flipped it open.
“We’re going to talk magic and bodies, aren’t we? I think we both need some calories in us for that. I’m going to call July.” She cracked a subtle, cheeky smile. “It’s so good having a personal delivery service. What else are demons good for, hm?”
We got Chinese food in the end, after very little debate. Real Chinese food, from a place which was apparently called The Chonky Little Dragon, a name so atrocious that I never would have imagined it was anything except a terrible gimmick. But Jan’s experience proved her right. I never saw the place, because she sent July to fetch the food with a phone call, straight from her dip in the pool, without us. Jan paid.
I called Raine while we waited for July to return, just to reassure her that everything was fine and there was no emergency unfolding.
“Hey, Heather, relax,” Raine laughed down the phone. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely comfortable with this, or if she’d grown more skilled at hiding her worries. “You’ve gone out with Lozzie for the afternoon, that’s all. It’s cool, I get it. Hell, there’s no better safety line than Lozzie, right? Can’t promise Zheng won’t come to join you though, I can’t do anything about that.”
“Oh, please do try to stop her,” I said. “I don’t think I could deal with that right now.”
Raine laughed again. “No promises. Say hi to Jan for me. And Heather.” Her voice dropped, suddenly serious. “Good luck. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Raine probably had a pretty good idea what we were going to discuss.
But not before food.
July took long enough that I had ample time to recover from thinking about kissing Evee, but not so long that things grew awkward in the hotel room. She let herself in, unlocking the door and looming inside like a knife-thrust from a blind angle.
She was carrying a pair of thin plastic bags full of food, and made a stalking bee-line to dump them on the little table as Jan hurried to scoop the fancy laptop out of the way. The bags clinked.
I had to struggle to suppress a flinch, away from July. The demon host was much as I remembered her, tall and built like a runner, with the wide-eyed look of a predatory bird. Her every motion was a knife-slash, so sharp I swear she didn’t displace the air as she moved. July was dressed for the heat outdoors, in a grey tank top which showed off the toned muscles of her arms and shoulders, and a pair of loose dark shorts below, with converse shoes and no socks. Her long black hair was loose, stretching almost to her backside, thick and dark and still damp from the pool. She carried a faint chemical smell of chlorine.
“Juls-Juls-Juls!” Lozzie greeted her, darting forward to look at the food around her side, like July was a piece of wall blocking her way.
Jan rummaged through the bags and started distributing polystyrene boxes, then reached into one of her invisible magic pockets and produced a pair of chopsticks.
July didn’t greet Lozzie or Jan, but she stared at me for several long seconds, until Jan bumped her in the ribs with a box of food. “Yours. Take it. You want a fork, or chopsticks? You too, Heather, you want a fork?”
The demon host must have decided I wasn’t there to pull Jan to pieces like a squid with a shellfish. She nodded at me with muted respect, then accepted her food.
“Uh, please,” I said. “Fork for me too.”
It was a strange time of day to be eating a heavy meal, far past lunchtime but not yet late enough for a proper dinner. I’d opted for rice and vegetables in some kind of plum sauce, and ended up pleasantly surprised. Lozzie had a big plate of sweet and sour chicken, while Jan had a gingery version of something similar. The two of them swapped choice bits the whole time, though Jan seemed a little embarrassed by the process. July had a box full of what looked like charred twists of leftover meat, but she seemed to enjoy it well enough.
Lozzie, July, and I all had tap water, but Jan had two bottles of beer.
“Both for me, don’t worry,” she said, with a wink.
We sat around eating. Lozzie occupied the desk chair, while Jan and I took the two chairs around the little table. July sat straight as a rod at the head of her perfectly made bed, watching everything with wide eyes. Lozzie got up and went over to her several times, offering her random bits of meat, which she accepted mechanically, like a very large and patient bird of prey. I tried not to watch her eat.
As we ate, Jan wanted to ‘nerd out’ over my tentacles, as Raine might put it.
“May I touch?” she asked, hand paused politely in the air over the table.
She’d had me lay one of the gently strobing pale limbs across the plywood between us, so she could peer at the colours. The others I kept tightly tucked in toward my body, feeling a little self-conscious in a room with three other people who needed no magical aids to see what I really was. I didn’t mind Jan’s professional attention, but it did feel a little strange, like I was being examined by a very polite mad scientist.
When I didn’t answer for a moment, Jan cleared her throat and pulled a delicate grimace. She placed her chopsticks down for a moment. “Pardon me, they’re not erogenous or anything, are they? I’m not asking to touch a sex organ here, am I?”
Lozzie giggled, but Jan shot her a tiny frown. She was being genuinely respectful, or trying to.
“No,” I said with a sigh, poking at my own food, all self-conscious now. “Well, I mean, I could probably modify them to be, but no, I’ve never tried that. You can touch if you like. It should be safe at the moment.”
Jan paused again. “Safe?”
“I can put contact toxins in the skin,” I explained across our pair of half-empty fast-food boxes. “Paralytics, neurotoxins, the kinds of things you might find in a puffer-fish or a poison dart frog.” Jan’s eyes widened. I blushed and felt horribly awkward. “It’s something I can do when I’m in trouble, the toxins aren’t always there, they’re re-metabolised into other compounds. I think. It’s perfectly safe at the moment.”
“And how did you learn to do that?” she asked.
I’d misread Jan’s expression. She wasn’t afraid. She was fascinated.
She was watching me with naked fascination, though it was nothing like the hunger for knowledge that used to creep onto Evelyn’s face, back in the early days of my brain-math experiments. It wasn’t religious awe either, which was such a relief that I could have hugged her. It was admiration.
“Instinct, mostly,” I said. “I did some reading up on biology, only a little, just textbooks from the university library. That may have helped, but it’s mostly just innate gut feeling.”
Jan couldn’t help but laugh softly, amazed. She fortified herself with a swig of beer, then finally touched my tentacle. She blinked in surprise as she ran her hand down the length that lay across the table. Her doll-like joints showed faintly at her knuckles and wrist, as almost invisible artificial lines in her own crafted flesh. Neither of us was fully human. Part of me liked that. Part of me liked sharing this with her, specifically.
“It’s smooth,” she said with a soft little laugh. “I didn’t expect that either. Like you’d be akin to a shark, or something, all rough and rasping.”
“I can make it non-smooth. Barbs, spikes, even those little rotating hooks that colossal squids have. Though I don’t know if I got those right, I was mostly working off knowledge from youtube videos and wikipedia.”
Jan stared at my face again. She blinked once, hard, then drained more of her beer.
“Heather, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never seen anything quite like you before. You’re clearly human, there’s just … more of you.”
The unspoken question was a thorn in my throat.
But Jan didn’t inhabit her original body, either. Maybe she would understand.
“It’s very hard to explain exactly what happened to me,” I said. “I went somewhere else. Not Outside, but the … oh, I can’t explain it, even now. Human language can’t do it. I went to the place that all the bubbles of reality are floating in. Somewhere more real than reality. My physical body stayed here. And out there I was different. I was a different kind of being altogether. I was more perfect, faster, elegant. Unburdened. I was more … just more.”
I closed my eyes. Had to swallow hard.
The abyss always lurked at the edge of my consciousness, a constant flavour to my thoughts and memories, a lost perfection and beauty that haunted me every waking hour, every day, forever. Sometimes I would wake in the night from a dream of slipping through ice-cold waters in the endless dark, sharp and quick and clever. Baths were risky, always a temptation to float beneath the surface, submerged in water and memory alike. Sometimes I would cry, afterward.
I was anchored now, by Raine and Zheng and all my other worldly attachments. In an emergency I did not doubt that I could swim to the edge of the abyss, the lip of that metaphorical marine trench where I could perform hyperdimensional mathematics on the substrate of reality itself, rather than my own brain. Such a feat would be doable now, without the risk of sinking.
But the abyss in my blood and marrow called to the space between the spheres. Always, I would want to return.
On the canvas of my own eyelids, I tried to feel that perfection, but I couldn’t.
The others seemed to sense I was having a moment. Jan awkwardly patted my tentacle. A foot snuck up out of nowhere — Lozzie’s — and rubbed against my own.
I opened my eyes, blinking as if thrust into the light, back into the world of solid objects and warm flesh and strong smells. For just a second I felt horrible, rotten inside, a sloshing bag of meat and fluid. I shivered, but I forced myself to take a big mouthful of rice and vegetables, chewing and swallowing. Taste anchored me back in my body, firmly here again.
Jan cleared her throat. “If you need to stop … ”
I shook my head. “When I came back, my own body seemed completely wrong. Disgusting. Like I was never meant to be a bipedal ape at all, and certainly not … here.” I blew out a shuddering breath. “So I started to modify myself. That helped a lot, over time. I still feel it, this lingering wrongness in the back of my head, in the shape of my own body, but only sometimes, and nowhere near as bad as it used to be. The tentacles, they’re not an alien affectation or a solution to a physical problem or a cool experiment, or anything like that. They’re part of my body, they feel right to have. And I risked a lot to make them, too. I bruised myself very badly when I first started making them. I did internal damage to myself, tore muscles, risked internal bleeding. And all of it was worth doing. I would risk it again.”
My voice had grown thick with emotion. Jan nodded, genuinely fascinated.
“Thank you,” she said. “For sharing.”
Lozzie leaned over so she could pat my head. Jan took a thoughtful drag from her beer. I sniffed hard, then laughed without much humour.
“If you think the tentacles are impressive,” I said, “then you should see me when I’m ready for a fight, though I have no idea what to do. I can modify practically my whole body, though it’s very risky to do so in normal reality, I think.”
Jan blinked at me several times. Lozzie nodded enthusiastically and said, “Mmhmm! It’s true! I’ve seen it! Spiky spooky armoured Heather!”
“Well,” Jan said. “Well well well.” She gently squeezed my tentacle, just enough to gauge the weight of muscle. “How did you solve the energy problem?”
“The energy problem? I’m sorry?”
“Mm. Not to mention the processing power to control it all.” Jan smiled, took a bite of her food, and chewed thoughtfully. I could tell she was trying to find solid ground, to make a personal connection to what I’d just told her. Perhaps it was genuine, or perhaps it was the instincts of the con artist in her. She lifted her right hand and showed me the back of her palm. “Back when I first designed this body, I tried to do something analogous. Well, a little bit. I didn’t try for tentacles, but I wanted to do something with more arms. Two hearts. Thicker skin. A beak. I had a plan for larger joints, to give my own muscles more leverage. But as you can see.” She gestured wider with both hands, spreading out her fancy dressing gown too, showing off her petite form beneath lilac t-shirt and pink shorts. “I went for something more compact. Comfy and easy to wear. Something more me, which is really the most important consideration in the end.”
“And cute!” Lozzie chirped.
“And that.” Jan laughed, a little awkward, and blushed faintly before she caught herself again. “The notion that I would have been remotely comfortable in some improved-model human body was just absurd. Youthful idiocy. Too much science fiction as a kid. But, even discounting issues of physical dysphoria, it’s surprisingly difficult to add extra limbs or such, as a human being. You need the neurological set-up.” She gestured at July, who was sitting on the bed, watching us intently as she chewed her toasted meat. “Demons solve it via other methods. Their soul is closer to the surface, if that makes sense?”
“It doesn’t,” I admitted. “But never mind.”
Jan waved in apology. “Whereas you, you must have returned with the right set-up, from … wherever you went.”
“The abyss,” I said. “That’s what I call it.”
Jan winced in slow motion. “Lovely.”
I mirrored her wince. “Truth be told, there’s a strong possibility that the abyss was just a catalyst. I may have been this way from much earlier, though it’s very hard to explain why. My time in the abyss may have simply woken me up to my own nature, so to speak.”
I pulled an awkward smile. I didn’t feel like going into detail about my theory right then — my theory that the Eye had changed me, a decade before I’d plunged into the abyss. Jan didn’t need to know that part, it would scare her even worse, and it only raised further questions.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “I understand that, totally. Still, my question stands. You must be ravenous all the time, unless you’ve got a … power plant … ” She trailed off, staring at me. “Ah. Reactor, yes. You said it earlier.”
I forced an awkward little laugh and patted my lower abdomen. “Bioreactor. I don’t really understand how I made it. It runs on abyssal logic, abyssal physics and biology, but translated into human flesh. You’re right though, I had appetite problems before I made the reactor, to put it lightly.”
Jan blew out a long breath, then tried another smile, then took another hearty bite of rice and meat from her takeaway meal. I could practically see the slow transition from fascination and terror to ‘oh-well-none-of-my-business’. Where Evelyn would have stared and probed with professional awe, compiling a catalogue of supernatural facts, Jan wadded up the information about my miracle body and crammed it into the mental equivalent of an overflowing backpack.
“I think Heathy’s really really really really pretty,” Lozzie said. She tilted her head up and let her sleepy-lidded eyes fall even heavier than usual. “And she glows in the dark!”
Jan swallowed her food and blinked in polite interest. “I’m sure she does. And yes, Heather, your body is magnificently impressive. I hope you don’t take my questions as anything except admiration.”
“Um, thank you, yes, I … I suppose it probably is. Though it doesn’t feel that way.”
“It’s also bloody scary,” Jan’s smile turned stiff and forced, on purpose. “I hope you understand why I’m being so forward about this. About needing to understand your body?”
“Because of my twin sister,” I said.
Jan nodded, slow and serious. “Because of your twin sister.”
I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Jan watched me across the table and the two half-eaten boxes of food. In that moment she seemed both old and young at the same time, delicate in two different directions. She was serious in the way only a serious young girl can be, but overflowing with the experience of age. She watched, and waited, for me to make the first move. Was she being polite, or shrewd? Lozzie and July both declined the opportunity to interrupt. I could feel July’s gaze on me from over on the bed.
This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? I swallowed a hiccup.
“Will you do it?” I asked. “Will you make a body for her?”
Jan’s composure broke down instantly, without even a token attempt to hold out. Her entire self-image just slumped and sloughed off. She puffed out a huge sigh and almost rolled her eyes, sagging a little in her chair. “Payment has been agreed on, so I suppose I’m duty-bound to attempt it, at least. But I really, really do not like the idea.”
“Why?” I asked. “Not that I’m trying to make things better — I mean, I will, if I can. But mostly I need to understand. I need to understand the challenge here. Please. I need to know.”
Jan held my gaze for a moment with a sort of tilted non-smile on her face, then sighed and nodded. She took another big bite of greasy chicken and leaned back, adjusting the folds of her pink-and-blue dressing gown and crossing one delicate leg over the other. The doll-joint of her knee was fully exposed, as if she was intentionally showing it off.
“On one hand there is a technical problem,” she said, slipping into the practised tones of a used car salesman. I refrained from frowning. She was probably trying her best to take this seriously. “Or rather, several intertwined technical problems. On the other hand there is a philosophical problem.”
“Let’s start with the technical problem?”
Jan snorted a tiny laugh — that wasn’t part of the sales pitch. “I should charge a consultation fee.”
“I’ll pay it. I’m serious.”
Jan winced and raised a hand. “No, no, please. Don’t. That was a joke.” She took a moment, then slowly looked me up and down. “Your twin’s body would be based on you, correct? Identical twins? I think I asked you that before, but remind me.”
“We were identical, yes. Are identical.”
“Were?” Jan asked, sharper than I expected. “When?”
“Ten … eleven years ago, almost.” A lump grew in my throat. “That’s when she was kidnapped.”
“So she didn’t go through puberty?”
“Oh.” I blinked. “Um. I … uh, I suppose not. Unless she kept her body, out in—”
“Would she have squid tentacles by now as well?” Jan asked. “Or something else?”
“Um, probably not. It’s not the same situation. Well … it might be, but that’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” Jan prompted. When I looked at her blankly, she sighed and smiled, dropping the sharp edges and the sharp tongue. “Making a body like mine is not simply a matter of buying a life-sized doll from Amazon and then hopping over to it. I’m aware that’s how Evelyn made Praem — which is a fascinating subject, by the way, genuine achievement — but demons and humans don’t work the same. Demons can anchor themselves in almost anything, because they’re coming into this world without any pre-existing structures of the soul. For a human being, the process of crafting a body is also the process of inhabitation.”
I pulled a sceptical pout. “I don’t think it was too different for Praem.”
Jan waved a hand. “The end result is a person, yes, I’m not disputing that. But the route is different. Look, Heather, I can’t just craft a copy of you in the same way I made myself, and then expect your long-lost sister to just happily inhabit it. If she still has a physical body, what if she’s modified it, like you have, adapted her physical body to her internal circumstances? You can’t just rip her out of it and put her in a humanoid doll, that would be torture. I know, I know, I said this before, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.”
“Where she is now, that’s torture,” I said. I stared into Jan’s crystal-blue eyes. She was deadly serious, but so was I. “I’ve spoken to her, down in the abyss. I found a … a crack in the wall. That’s a metaphor, but it’s the only words I have for it. And she’s suffering. She wants out. If she stays there much longer, if I don’t rescue her, and soon, then she’ll cease to exist. There will be nothing left of her.”
Jan frowned harder and harder, uncomfortable with all of this.
“She begged me,” I said. “And I will bring her back here, with or without a body ready for her. So if you don’t help me, then I’ll do it myself.”
Jan held my gaze for a moment, then puffed out a big sigh and nodded. “All right. Fair enough.”
Lozzie set her food down on the desk and bounced out of her seat, so she could skip over and give me a hug. I was shaking, and Lozzie stayed there until I stopped. Then she let go and fluttered away to hug Jan as well. Jan cleared her throat with incredible awkwardness and returned the hug with one arm.
“If you do make a body for her,” I said, “it would be a back up option, or perhaps a kind of foundation for what I’m going to try to do.”
Jan had to poke her head around Lozzie’s poncho. “Explain?”
I bit my lip, wondering how much I should tell her. Too much about the Eye might send poor Jan screaming for the hills. “My sister, Maisie, she’s trapped by a … an entity. We call it the Eye.”
“Wonderful,” Jan muttered.
“Several months ago, I freed somebody else from the Eye.”
Jan’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Oh, well, that’s good. And here I was sort of taking you as a heroic type. No scouting, no prototypes. So you’ve actually done this once before, you’ve made it work?”
“Sort of. The person I saved, she’d only been in the Eye’s grip for a few hours. I brought her back and re-wove her body, but I think I could only do that because she still existed, sort of. I was just following the lines already imprinted on reality. Like a colouring book, but a human being.”
Jan looked more and more concerned as I explained. Lozzie patted her head, slowly floofing up her already messy black hair.
“And she didn’t come back healthy,” I said. “She was a mage, before. She’ll never do magic again. She suffers from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder and a laundry list of physical issues, some of which I’ve been trying to fix. But Maisie’s been gone much, much longer. I don’t think there’s going to be a body to re-create. But if I have a vessel to put her in, maybe that will give me something to work with. If we can make it her. Somehow.”
Jan nodded, lips pursed, brow furrowed. “That might actually work. That might actually solve the technical problem.”
Jan waved a hand. Lozzie leaned over her chair from behind, draped over Jan’s shoulders.
“I got rather off-track earlier,” Jan said. “The process of creation is the process of inhabitation, that’s the important part. That’s why it’s so difficult to create a body for another person.” She hunched in her chair, looking mightily uncomfortable for a moment, and looked over her shoulder at Lozzie, self-conscious but steeling herself for some vital task. Lozzie booped her on the nose with a fingertip, which made Jan blush and clear her throat and look back to me. She finally carried on. “When I made this body for myself, I didn’t craft it and get it all nice and finished, and then leap into it once it was ready — well, actually I did, but I wasn’t supposed to.” She huffed. “The process of creating it was supposed to be the process of transference. There was meant to a long, slow period where I would have slid from my old form and into this new one, achieved via the act of creating this.” She poked herself in the chest. “Creation is inhabitation. You understand?”
“Ah,” I said. “I think I’m beginning to see the problem.”
“Only beginning to, trust me.” Jan pulled a sardonic look. Lozzie rested her head on Jan’s shoulder. “As things happened, my old body, um, died. Unexpectedly.”
“You were murdered,” said July.
Jan winced and rolled her eyes. “And whose fault was that?”
“You were careless. I was a child.”
Jan’s wince turned to a grimace. “Yes, well. I was murdered. Before this body was ready. Do you know what it was like?”
I felt vastly out of my depth. “Being murdered?”
“No, being in an unfinished body.” Jan tapped the table with an impatient fingertip, glanced at Lozzie on her shoulder again, as if for reassurance, then sighed and rolled her neck back. “Alright, you shared your physical secrets with me. It’s only fair turnabout that I do the same for you.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, please, you don’t have to.”
“Jannyyyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed, stroking Jan’s hair again. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to! Even to me!”
But Jan focused entirely on me, trying to look very serious, which was challenging with Lozzie’s fingers buried in her thick, dark, fluffy hair, slowly massaging her scalp, and Lozzie’s sleepy head resting on her shoulder.
Jan spread her own hands, as if presenting herself for my inspection.
“My body is mostly made of CFRP,” she said. “That’s carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers. Hand crafted by yours truly. Very expensive, but it keeps me light and durable and will last a long time. I’ve got some metal parts too, mostly platinum and gold. Inside me, in my core, there’s a bulletproof box, welded shut, which contains a sort of soul-trap, attuned to me personally. That’s how I got in here.” She frowned. “Though that makes it sound a lot more straightforward than it turned out to be.”
I frowned as well. My mind snagged on a detail.
“Ahhhh,” said Jan. “Questions, already?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, excuse me for being rude, but Jan, you’re a very … um, cautious person.”
“I am a self-confessed coward. You can say it. I don’t mind.”
Lozzie giggled. I winced. July said, “Correct.”
“But why?” I asked. “If your soul is contained in a bulletproof box, then … ?”
“I bleed,” Jan answered. “I bleed, I bruise, my bones will break. I breathe, I eat, I sleep, I shit. And if you shoot me in the head, the bullet will pulp my brains, and I will die.”
Lozzie made a pouty noise.
I frowned harder. “ … but you’re made of carbon fibre.”
“No, this body started as carbon fibre. Big difference. I’ve quite settled in by now. You’ve literally worked with spirit-flesh, you’ve got six limbs of it attached to your sides. You don’t understand this principle?”
A light bulb went on inside my head. “Like Praem … ”
The core of Praem’s body was made of wood, while her exterior was formed from a kind of pneuma-somatic flesh, similar to my tentacles and other abyssal additions, except hers was both solid and visible to normal sight, kind of like Twil’s werewolf transformation. But once, months ago now, I’d seen Praem’s wooden core itself, stripped naked of her flesh. Back when the Eye cult had kidnapped Raine, they’d managed to pull Praem out of her body. They had trapped her soul inside a jar. I didn’t have the best memories of that day; I’d been rather preoccupied with saving lives. But I did recall the sight of Praem’s wooden-doll core, covered in anchor-spikes and the web-like structures of a nervous system, her wooden joints augmented with sheaths of strange sinew-like material. The head of the doll — Praem’s skull — was covered in warped wood-grain, the underlying structure of her face. Or her brain.
“Excuse me?” Jan asked.
“Just something I saw once,” I said. “But I think I understand. Being present in a body, even if that body isn’t flesh, modifies it over time, yes?”
Jan nodded. “Exactly. The soul knows its own shape.”
I nodded with growing enthusiasm. I almost laughed. “That’s how it feels!”
“Old-school mind-body duality is nonsense. We’re taught that the mind — or soul — is the self, and the body is merely a vessel. But this is not true. People like you and I are proof of that.” Jan pointed at my tentacles. I felt a rush of warm fuzzy feeling in my chest, and hugged one of my extra limbs to myself. Jan carried on. “The soul remembers its own shape. And it will go to great lengths to reshape the body.” Jan raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air. I wasn’t sure if she was showing off her semi-visible doll-joints, or the sheer fact that she was. “My core is carbon fibre and metal, but I’m wrapped in pneuma-somatic flesh, manifested by sheer force of will and self-image and the engine of my soul. For somebody like me, the soul shapes the body. That’s how this works.”
“So you have a functioning digestive system, circulation, a heart, and so on?”
“Mostly.” Jan sighed. “It’s not a one-for-one for a ‘normal’ human body, but it does all the things I need it to do — the things my mind says it should do. I can’t go to the doctor, obviously. I’d look like a nightmare under an x-ray machine and an MRI would pull me to pieces. And I probably can’t get pregnant, though I’ve never tested that.”
Lozzie lit up, wide-eyed, biting her lips to stop a giggle. Jan cleared her throat.
“Then, Maisie could have a real body.”
I don’t recall the taste of food very well, but I think I want to eat.
Maisie’s words echoed in my memory. I had to blink hard, several times, so as to stop the tears before they had a chance to begin.
I didn’t need to cry anymore. This was what I needed. I was taking a concrete step to prepare for our success, to be ready for the moment we won my sister back from the Eye. It was going to work. Doing this, planning with Jan, this was far more convincing than any amount of reassurance.
“Eventually,” Jan said — hard and sharp, unexpected.
“When I was … cut down,” Jan said, shooting a sideways glance at July, “I had to enter this new body prematurely. The soul works, yes, but my goodness does it work slowly. I spent two weeks on my back before I could move. A month with no senses, blind and deaf and mute. Even touch didn’t work properly. Have you ever been in a sensory deprivation tank? No? Well, after a while you start to go a little bit crazy. I didn’t have a face for six months.”
I put a hand to my mouth, mortified. “Oh. Oh, I’ve been so flippant. I’m so sorry, Jan.”
“Jannyyyy,” Lozzie buzzed, resting her cheek in Jan’s hair. Jan went a little stiff, but smiled all the same.
“Do you see why I’m reluctant to design a body for somebody else?”
“I do, yes. But—”
“But it’s going to be a foundation, a base, a platform for you to wrap in flesh, yes.” Jan nodded. “That’s why I think this might actually work. Depending on what’s become of your sister. She may have changed, out there, changed to survive.”
“Evee always says that nothing human can survive out there, not for long.”
Lozzie stood up straight and wiggled her eyebrows. “Hello!”
“Except Lozzie,” I said with a small laugh.
Jan pulled a comedy grimace and shrugged. “Humans can get used to anything, you know? Given enough time. I wonder if there’s people, I mean human people, living out there somewhere. Not in that dimension where you kept all your giant caterpillars and knights of the round table.”
“Camelot!” Lozzie announced.
July agreed. “Camelot,” she said. “Good name.”
Jan cringed at that. She didn’t approve. “Camelot, yes. Not in that dimension, but elsewhere, further out. There must be human beings out there, if people have been visiting it before you lot.”
I half-shrugged. “I met one human, Outside.”
Jan’s eye’s lit up. “Oh?”
“Well, a mage. I think that still counts. She lives in a giant ball, I’m not sure she can leave it, kind of like a snail. Actually, I’m pretty sure the giant ball prints her body every time she opens the shell to interact with people.”
“Oh,” Jan said, a mask of sudden frozen politeness. “Well then.”
I smiled awkwardly. She probably would have been happier not knowing about Saldis.
“She had magical pet rats, though. But I don’t think they were really rats. Long story. Sorry.”
Jan’s mask of polite rejection got more and more stony with every word I said. “Indeed,” was all she added.
“That’s the technical problem answered, then,” I said, feeling extra awkward. “You mentioned a philosophical problem, too?”
Jan blinked at me several times, lost. Lozzie giggled and kissed the top of Jan’s head, which made the petite mage jump slightly and struggle with a sudden blush.
“You did!” Lozzie chirped.
“I did? I … oh, that.” Jan relaxed in her chair, a visible unclasping of fasteners and slackening of mental springs. She sighed and let her professional exterior drop away. She reached for her beer bottle, shook it, and drained the last few mouthfuls in one deep swig. Big sigh, small belch. Lozzie giggled. Jan spoke. “I’ll be blunt, Heather: I shouldn’t really be associating with you people at all. I’m breaking all my own rules. If it wasn’t for Lozzie, and Tenny — who is just the most miraculous being I’ve ever seen — and maybe Praem, too, then I’d have left you all in the dust, with no forwarding address. Screw the money. I’d probably have left some choice booby-traps in my wake, as well, just to dissuade you from trying to find me.”
I tried to see the humour in all that. “We’re not that scary,” I said.
Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical. “I make it a policy never to associate with anybody who is suffering from an abundance of destiny and-slash-or fate.”
I actually laughed. “I’m not a chosen one. This isn’t destiny. I’m nobody remarkable, or at least I wasn’t, once upon a time. I was kidnapped by a giant alien god! It’s not my fault.”
“Kidnapped. Chosen.” Jan shrugged apologetically, then searched for another mouthful of beer, but came up short.
“I’m not a chosen one, that’s ridiculous.” My voice turned sharp. “You can’t say that to somebody like me.”
I didn’t explain why. Jan didn’t need to know about the long, painful decade of illusory schizophrenia diagnosis.
“Really?” Jan shot me a look like a bitchy schoolgirl about to land a conversational coup de grace. “You’re looking to save a twin sister who might not have a body of her own, and you happen to run into the one mage in England — hell, maybe the one mage in the entire world — who just so happens to possess the right experience and skills to make a body for her?” Jan lifted a hand again and showed off the joints of her fingers. “And you tell me you’re no chosen one. Excuse me if I have trouble believing your own self-assessment.”
“That … that’s just … coincidence. Luck. There’s not many mages, after all.”
“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. “We’re drawn to each other, inevitably. Regardless, it doesn’t matter if this is the work of divine providence or the action of random atoms, you are still a very dangerous person to know, Heather Morell.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but found that I couldn’t. “Um … ”
“You’re planning to raid a god’s dungeon for the life of your twin sister. That is the stuff legends are made of, and I have had enough of that, thank you very much.”
I almost missed it, but Jan glanced sidelong at the guitar case leaning against the wall, the one that contained the magic sword which she and July had declined to explain further. July, on the other hand, looked almost unimpressed by this statement.
“Legends are cool!” Lozzie chirped.
Jan raised her empty beer bottle in a lonely toast. “To witness titanic events is always dangerous, usually painful, and often fatal.” The words had an air of recitation about them.
“That sounded like a quote,” I said. “Who was that from?”
“A very cautious being indeed,” Jan answered. “I should be running for the hills. I should be getting as far away from Sharrowford as possible. I should be on a flight to Tibet, days ago. But I’m here, agreeing to help you.”
Behind Jan, Lozzie stuck her tongue out between her teeth, mischievous and elfin. Over on the bed, July folded her arms, closed her eyes, and nodded. It seemed as if everybody in Jan’s life was glad she wasn’t running away.
“And I can’t thank you enough,” I said. “Thank you, for agreeing to try, to make a body for Maisie. I mean it, Jan, thank you.”
Jan fixed me with a sceptical look. “Yes, well. I’ll have to negotiate an actual price for making the body. Materials, work hours. Like I said, I’m top-of-the-line expensive. Carbon fibre is not cheap. I’ll need tools, and my workshop, my real one, at home. Which means I can’t start until we’ve wrapped up this nonsense with your cult friends in Sharrowford.”
“We’ll get that fixed. I’m sure they’ll listen to me.”
“And I’m not going with you on this heist nonsense, to this big eye, or whatever it is. You couldn’t pay me enough to even watch from a distance.”
“I’m going!” Lozzie said, grabbing Jan’s shoulders and leaning forward, so they could make eye contact. “I’m going to help! With all my catties!”
Jan pulled the most awkward of smiles, but she couldn’t break eye contact with Lozzie, held in place like a rodent before a snake.
“Before we do any of that, we’re going to fight a mage,” I said, coming to Jan’s rescue. “Or at least outsmart him and steal his property.”
“Yes!” Jan turned to me, with both horror and relief. Lozzie bounced back up and giggled again. “Yes you are. I don’t like the sound of that, either.”
“You’ve seen this kind of conflict before, correct?” I pulled a pained and apologetic face. “I don’t suppose you happen to have any advice?”
“I certainly do,” Jan said. “You want my advice for conflict between mages? Don’t. That’s my advice.”
“We don’t have a choice,” I said. “It’s that, or hand Lozzie over to him. So, not a choice at all.”
“We’re going to kill him,” said a small voice — barely a whisper. “Kill him.”
It took both of us a moment to absorb the shock; Lozzie had said that.
For a moment she stood there, still half-attached to Jan, but staring at me with sleepy-lidded eyes, deadly serious, only half-there, as if half her mind lay across the membrane. Dream-Lozzie stood in the room with us, whispering of murder.
July nodded. “A sensible course of action, with any enemy. We should approve.”
Jan stood up without hesitation and grabbed Lozzie in a hug, awkward but insistent. Her pastel dressing gown flowed after her. “Lozzie, I’m sorry we’re talking about this. Sorry, we shouldn’t do this in front of you.”
Lozzie blinked several times, like a sleep walker waking up. She let out a giggle and cuddled Jan in return.
“It’s okay,” she purred, nuzzling Jan’s shoulder. “It’s okaaaaaaay.”
Things rather trailed off after that. Jan and I silently agreed it was best not to discuss Edward around Lozzie; if Jan had any further suggestions for dealing with mages, she could always call us. I hoped she would, we needed all the help we could get. We’d already discussed the most important subjects, the reasons I came to see her in the first place, so I was content to allow us to relax a bit. She and I could figure out details later, over the phone. I promised to relate the relevant bits to Evelyn.
July seemed like she wanted to make some pointed suggestions to Lozzie, about Edward and murder, but Jan headed her off with some sharp looks.
We finished up our food. Jan and Lozzie ended up on the video game console, playing some kind of racing game against each other. Lozzie wasn’t very good, but Jan was teaching her. I settled in to watch for a while, half-interested. On the other side of the heavy curtains, the sun burned late. True evening was still a while off.
I felt better than I had in several weeks. We were going to build a body for Maisie. I could do this.
Eventually, it was time to go home. Lozzie and Jan conducted some half-whispered, semi-embarrassed negotiations about Lozzie possibly staying the night, but Jan eventually convinced her that would have to wait. I pretended not to overhear any of it. July watched openly, staring at the pair of them.
As Lozzie hugged Jan goodbye for now — and skipped over to July to do the same, despite the demon host being stiff and awkward as a board — I sent Raine a quick text message. I let her know we were on our way home. Just in case.
“Janny Janny, come see you again tomorrow, yah-yah?” Lozzie chirped. She bounced over to me and hit me with a hug too, as I was slipping my phone back into my pocket.
Jan laughed softly, then cleared her throat. “Certainly. Any time. You don’t always have to bring Heather, though. Um, no offense, Heather.”
“None taken,” I said. And I meant it.
Lozzie and I stepped back from the table together, to ensure a safe Slipping distance. She linked her arm through mine, warm and wiggly all up my side. I wrapped my tentacles around her in return. She snuggled in close.
“One more piece of advice though, Heather,” Jan said, pulling her dressing gown closed around herself. “Go talk to your Evee. You clearly need to.”
I opened my mouth to argue, then closed it again, then sighed through my nose. “No comment.”
Lozzie giggled. “I’ll pester Heathy reeeeeal hard!”
“Lozzie!” I squeaked.
“Bye-bye for now, Janny!”
Jan waved with one hand. July nodded politely. Lozzie did a funny little hop in place, and reality folded shut.
Like being clipped by a lorry at ninety miles an hour as we came out of the Slip. My feet found carpet but I couldn’t stay standing, not this time. Pneuma-somatic whiplash jarred my soul inside my flesh, slamming me up against the interior of my own body, compressing me into a winded, wheezing animal.
Fell over, crumpled onto my side. Tentacles whipping out to fight off an imaginary foe, knocking over chairs, pulling at sofa cushions, toppling an end-table, then clenching in tight when they found nobody to rip apart. I heaved and squeezed and held in the contents of my stomach with force of will alone. Jan’s words gave me strength; I was the absolute master of my own body.
Bioreactor running hot — even hotter than the first time. Skin coated with cold sweat, shivering with a flash-fever, fighting off infection, invasion, violation.
“Lozzie?” I croaked from the floor. “Again?”
No reply. No Lozzie. Again.
It was the smell that clued me in, before I opened my eyes. The room smelled of dust, old fabric, and unfamiliar cleaning agents.
This was not home.
I opened my eyes and scrubbed away the pain-tears on my sleeve. This was no time for curling up in agony. I pushed with my tentacles, forced myself to my feet, legs shaking.
Lozzie’s Slip had deposited me in a place I’d never seen before.
A cramped sitting room, with a low ceiling, and white plaster walls. Faint cobwebs in the corners. Two sofas, one chair, all upholstered in ghastly floral patterns. A massive television in one corner, old and unplugged from the wall. Wooden mantelpiece covered in horrible little porcelain figures of cherub-faced children. Unused brick fireplace. Glass coffee table.
On the table was a folded sheet of paper, a note. Three words.
To Heather Morell.
Heather can’t avoid the question of Evelyn’s feelings any longer, even if those feelings are quasi-romantic, or platonic but close, or something else??? Or can she? She’s done great at avoiding the subject so far. Meanwhile, Jan’s body sure is unique, seems like there’s more to her than meets the eye; but she might be right, between her and Heather they might just be able to lay the groundwork for a body for Maisie. But what’s this? A letter, for Heather?
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Next week, where the hell is Heather now? Let’s be honest, it’s probably Edward, right? But why a note with her name on it? Does Heather need to tentacle-slap a motherfucker? Probably.