None this chapter.
Evelyn made that word sound like frozen granite struck by lead shot, echoing down the length of the kitchen table.
In the brief silence which followed one could have heard the whisper of a mouse. The air was filled with milky grey morning light, flooding in through the kitchen window, picking out the thin steam rising from the milky brown tea which sat before Harold Yuleson. I could hear the bob of his throat, the distant creaks and tiny pops of the house settling and adjusting around us, and the slow furnace-crackle of my own bioreactor deep in my abdomen.
Raine broke the silence with a click of her tongue. I followed by resuming the process of noisily tearing into a lemon-rind in mid-air with my tentacles. Zheng let out a low, dangerous, feline rumble.
Harold Yuleson cleared his throat softly and took a polite sip of his tea before he continued speaking. The tea shook as he placed it back down on the tabletop.
“Yes,” he repeated with an oily, pained, apologetic smile. The sunlight picked through the tufty grey hair on either side of his head as he nodded. “Cease fire or surrender. Those are the exact terms my client used.” He glanced at all our faces as he spoke, at the very crowded kitchen of Number 12 Barnslow Drive — but his eyes started and finished their circuit with Evee, opposite him at the far end of the table, in all her early-morning grumpy glory. He continued, “The wording is only a means to an end. In a broader sense, he simply wishes to bring recent hostilities to a close, as soon as possible, whatever the—”
Raine snorted, lounging against the wall in her leather jacket, arms folded, looking like some random tough in a 1950s movie. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Old fart really wants this to be over, huh? We really kicked his arse the other day, didn’t we?” Raine waited half a beat, as if she was done talking, just long enough for Yuleson to smile and open his mouth again — then she quickly unfolded her arms and slapped the wall behind her — slam! — and laughed. Yuleson flinched like a hamster before a wolf. “Fucking slapped his shit!”
“Raine,” I tutted. I knew she was filling in for Twil’s aggression, but it was hardly necessary.
Yuleson carried on as smoothly as he could, raising his hands in a delicate little shrug. “I am not privy to the details of the encounter which happened yesterday, but from the attitude of my client—”
“We saw through his bluff,” Evelyn growled, inexorable as a grinding tectonic plate. “We killed his creatures. We captured his scout. And we sent him a bomb.”
Yuleson smiled — I had not known it was possible to express such pain in a smile. “While of course I will not relate any of this to any mundane authorities — please, Miss Saye, you do not have to divulge anything to me. If you do, I am bound by professionalism and, well, by my fees, to relate information back to my client and—”
“We beat him,” Felicity added, tired-eyed and hunched forward in her own chair, slowly sipping from her awful chocolate drink. “Where the hell does a mage get off on having a lawyer, anyway? I never had a lawyer.”
Yuleson nodded politely to Felicity. “There are times in any life when one may require legal services. Even a supernatural life. Especially, I would argue.”
Felicity stared, dead-eyed and dead tired. Yuleson withered like a wrinkly balloon. “You’re not what you appear to be,” she said. “This is a trick. It’s bullshit.”
Yuleson said, “I assure you. I am exactly what I appear to be. I am here on behalf of my client, I am—”
Kimberly spoke over him. “Fliss, Evee, we’ve tested him, haven’t we? We did test him, didn’t we?”
Even mousey little Kim felt safe and secure enough to speak over the lawyer, when surrounded and backed up by the rest of us. Part of me liked that. Part of me wanted to reach over and pat her on the shoulder with a tentacle — but that would make her jump. I settled for tearing lemon rind more loudly.
Felicity patted her on the shoulder instead. “More than one type of trick, Kim.”
“Of course it’s bullshit,” Evelyn grumbled. “Surrender? We won. We’re on the front foot. We are twenty-four to forty-eight hours away from finding where he hides and putting his head on a spike. And no, that’s not a metaphor. I’m going to let Zheng there pull his head off. Maybe I’ll let her pull yours off, too.”
Zheng rumbled like a distant landslide. She was standing not three feet from Yuleson’s left, looming over him, a final safeguard in case we’d missed anything. She watched him with a strange, detached amusement, like a cat with bleeding prey. He wasn’t even a threat, he was nothing.
“You do not let me do anything, wizard,” Zheng said. But she was grinning at that suggestion.
Yuleson smiled through his teeth, addressing Evelyn. “Again, please, extraneous details may make me accessory to—”
“Surrender?” Evelyn spat. “This is an insult. You are an insult. He’s insulting us.”
Yuleson swallowed. He looked like he needed the toilet. “I am a solicitor. I am here because I am paid to be here. I intend no insult and—”
“Why the hell would he expect us to surrender?” Evelyn hissed.
Yuleson froze. He blinked twice, nodded, then laughed softly — the laugh of a man who had just realised he’s forgotten the punchline of his own joke. “Ahhh, um. Oh. Ahem-ahem.” He actually said the ‘ahems’ out loud, then took another deep sip of rapidly cooling tea. He placed the tea back down and nodded politely toward Praem, who was standing a couple of feet from Evelyn’s right arm, in her habitual place. “Very good tea, thank you, Miss Saye. Oh, my, that is a little confusing, isn’t it? We have two Miss Sayes in the room: the elder and the younger. May I ask what brand of tea this is? I assumed I would be served some good old PG Tips pyramid bags. My favourite. But I can taste the quality here. Have you gotten something shipped up from Harrods?”
“PG Tips,” said Praem. “You are welcome.”
“A joke. Surely?”
“Well!” Yuleson declared. “You have worked miracles with it. I am stunned, I—”
“Hey, buddy,” Raine said. “Get on with it. Stop stalling, hey? We’ve got orgies to have and mages to kill. You know how it is, being young.”
Yuleson cleared his throat again and favoured Raine with an even more pained smile than before, as if embarrassed by his own tomfoolery.
“I do apologise,” he said. “As you young ladies can all probably tell, I am more than a little frightened to be sitting here.” His eyes flickered nervously to the semi-skinned lemon I was peeling with my tentacles; to his sight the fruit was hovering in mid-air, with the skin slowly tearing from the flesh. Then he glanced at Zheng, glowering down at him like a pyroclastic flow. “I did not assume I would actually be invited indoors. The gauntlet of … curious examinations has me a little rattled. This is a very fraught situation and a very delicate matter and I appear to have … ” He paused, took a deep breath, and fanned himself with one wrinkled, soft-fingered hand. No rings, I noted. He wore a wristwatch, a traditional one with an analogue dial and a leather strap. “I appear to have gravely misspoken. My client, Edward Lilburne, is not demanding or expecting your surrender. He is offering his own — if that is what it takes.”
Nobody said anything for a second. Then Raine let out a low chuckle. Evelyn sighed and ran one hand over her face. Felicity frowned as if over a game of chess gone wrong. Kimberly looked blank and out of her depth. Zheng rumbled a throaty noise which sounded like, “Coward.” I tutted and finished peeling my lemon, then flung the empty rind down on the plate on the table; part of me wanted to throw it at Yuleson, but that would have been childish, and also gotten fragments of lemon pith all over the floor. Praem would not have approved.
Yuleson still flinched though. He stared at me for a second as I bit into the lemon. I stared back.
I desperately wanted to sit down; I still ached all over with dozens of tiny bruises, my joints felt raw and rough, and my gums hurt. But I stood next to Raine and stared at the lawyer, eating my lemon raw.
“No,” said Lozzie. She shook her head. “No. No. Triple no. Quad no.”
I had a tentacle wrapped around her front, a sort of semi-remote hug. I squeezed and she squeezed back.
Harold Yuleson — Edward Lilburne’s personal solicitor and diplomatic negotiator — must have felt very overdressed compared to the rest of us, crammed into the kitchen for this ridiculous meeting. Except for myself, Praem, and Felicity, everybody else was still in various states of bleary-eyed, pajama-wearing, post-sleep grumpiness. Evelyn had been roused straight from bed, wrapped in a dressing gown and a pair of slippers. Raine looked like an extra from a movie about a lesbian gym, in tank-top and shorts and bristling with well-toned muscle, leather jacket draped over her shoulders for effect. Zheng wasn’t much better — long ragged t-shirt and nothing else; to Yuleson’s credit he hadn’t boggled, commented, or stared at Zheng’s semi-nudity, only at her bared teeth and tendency to loom. Kimberly was thick-eyed and covered in unicorns. Sevens and Aym were nowhere to be found, but I trusted they were observing.
Lozzie was wearing pajamas too, with her poncho over the top. She sat between Evelyn and where I was standing, flanked and protected. We couldn’t have made our statement clearer if we’d tried.
Lozzie had insisted on being present for this conversation. I didn’t blame her, but I knew she was hurting.
Getting Harold Yuleson indoors had been quite the operation; it had involved no less than three magic circles, a carefully deployed spider-servitor, Felicity’s tattooed right arm, and a full-on physical pat-down and search by Raine. She had turned out his pockets, gone through his wallet, and even taken the battery out of his mobile phone. Zheng had sniffed him; Evelyn had peered at him through the modified 3D glasses while he’d been forced to stand in the middle of a magic circle, then another, then another. Raine had held a gun to his head through the whole process. Felicity had grabbed his throat for twenty seconds. Yuleson had endured the process looking like a pig who knew he was inches from the butcher’s blade, occasionally mopping his brow with a handkerchief — though only after the handkerchief had also passed inspection.
“No tricks, no traps, no treachery,” he had said — though his mouth had stayed very shut until the gun was lowered. “I swear on my professional honour, on my good name, and by the little card in my wallet — yes, that’s the one! That’s my partner. I am married, yes. Yes, I am also hoping to manipulate you into not killing me. People do know where I am, where I have gone today; mundane people, ordinary people at my offices, at my little firm, who know nothing of magic and will ask questions if I happen to go missing. I haven’t even brought my briefcase, lest it be assumed I was hiding anything distasteful inside. I am not carrying a bomb into your lovely house, I am doing my job and—”
“He’s clean,” Evelyn had spat. “Shut him up. Put him in the kitchen. Edward should have sent you with a bomb, it would make more fucking sense.”
Raine had been tasked with calling Nicole in the hospital and Twil at home, just in case this was a distraction to tie us up while Edward hit us elsewhere. But nothing was happening, everywhere was quiet.
“Twil wants in,” Raine had reported to Evee.
“Tell her to fucking stay put!” Evee had spat. “Nobody moves, nobody goes down to the fucking corner shop until I say!”
“Yes,” Praem added. “Strawberry?”
“I don’t mean you. Poor example. Yes, sorry. Fine. You had a perfect right to go for a walk — but not now.”
Evelyn had sighed. “Fine. Yes. Thank you.”
During all the fuss and rushing about, I had concerned myself with making sure Tenny understood what was going on. Poor thing was still shaken after yesterday, huddled down in bed with tired eyes, wrapped in her own tentacles, like I might do when feeling awful. But I had explained what was happening; it was important she knew.
“Peace talks,” she trilled at me. “Good?”
“Sort of. Maybe. We’ve already won, I think, but peace talks are good too. You don’t have to be there though, Tenns. You stay up here and go back to sleep. Or play a game with Lozzie? Or pet Marmite for now? He’s sleeping too, I guess.”
“I’m coming down,” Lozzie said, kicking off the covers and diving into her poncho. Then she planted a big kiss on Tenny’s forehead. “Love you, Tenns. Stay-stay! Back soon, okay?”
“Kaaaaay,” Tenny trilled. She’d gone over to Marmite and linked tentacles with his sleepy-spider limbs.
Lozzie hadn’t given me time to argue, not in front of Tenny. And she had just as much right to be there as any of us. More, in fact.
She had sat and listened to Yuleson’s pitch, in silence, as had we all.
“No,” Lozzie repeated, biting her lower lip.
“Yeah, mate,” Raine agreed. “Eddy’s gonna surrender? My arse. You tried this same song and dance with us before. Almost to the letter. Come on.”
Yuleson lit up. “Last time we met, my client was a reluctant bystander to a conflict he had no part in. This time is different. He is in open conflict with your group here. We all acknowledge that reality. A ceasefire or surrender is entirely appropriate.”
“No,” said Lozzie — more forceful, with a little frown creasing her forehead.
Yuleson smiled his oily little smile again, the one that didn’t reach his eyes but did communicate great pain, like a small rodent attempting to bargain with a big lizard. He put his hands together as if praying and looked directly at Lozzie.
“I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting several of the young ladies in this room, but I do believe that I am speaking with Miss Lauren Lilburne. Is that correct? Very pleased to finally meet you, Miss.”
“Lozzie!” chirped Lozzie.
“Oh! Do forgive me. I’ve met several Laurens who go by ‘Loz’ informally, but never a ‘Lozzie’. Delightful.” He made several awkward little clearing motions with his throat, ‘mmmhmm’, ‘mm’, and even an ‘mmm?’ “Now, if I may—”
Evelyn said, low and dark, “You are talking to me. Not her.”
Yuleson reacted as if stung. Both hands went up, index fingers extended, pleading for his moment. Evelyn sighed. I wrapped another tentacle around Lozzie’s shoulders and chewed my lemon flesh with increasing agitation. Zheng growled — which made Yuleson flinch again.
“May I?” Yuleson said, dry mouthed and quivering. “May I continue, please? I would like to remind everybody that I am not my client. I am not Mister Edward Lilburne. I am trying to open and continue negotiations. Aggression towards me is very understandable, but it really serves no purpose. Please, everyone, if we could just talk?”
Raine said, “You took his money, didn’t you? You’re his little creature.”
Yuleson turned a rather odd look on her, politely peeved. “Of course I accepted his money. I’m not made of stone. I can see the way the cookie crumbles.”
“How much?” Felicity asked in her usual mumble. “How much this mage pay you to come do this meeting?”
Yuleson wet his lips and coughed into one hand, his smile turning amused, as if Felicity was a rookie player at a game he knew inside out. “I am very sorry, Miss, but I only divulge my financial transactions to Inland Revenue. And I do divulge all my financial transactions to Inland Revenue. I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. The Tax Man is far more frightening than any, ahem, magician.” He coughed again and said very quickly, “One hundred thousand pounds.”
Raine let out a low whistle. Kimberly gaped. Felicity just tutted. I blinked several times; that was a staggering amount of money. Lozzie looked oddly sad. Evelyn just stared, unimpressed and unmoved.
“My brief,” Yuleson went on, “as I have explained twice now, is to negotiate a ceasefire or surrender.”
Stony looks all round.
“But!” Yuleson added with a raised finger. “While I am here, in the interests of a … durable ceasefire, perhaps it would be best to clear up certain matters of … interest, to my client. Matters which may avoid further conflict if properly and fully resolved.” He smiled and gestured as he spoke, struggling to find the right words. But he didn’t seem to be making it up as he went along. Sweat was beading on his brow again. He dabbed at himself with his handkerchief.
Evelyn started to say, “You’ve been sent to distract and—”
But Lozzie interrupted with a curious little chirp, po-faced and blinking. “Mister lawyer maaaaaan, what were you going to ask me?”
Yuleson put his hands together as if pleading. He smiled, plump and healthy and wrinkly. “Lozzie. May I call you that, or is that only for friends?”
“Lozzie’s Lozzie,” said Lozzie.
“Very well. Lozzie. I need you to tell me the truth. To the best of your recollection, are you over eighteen? Are you an adult?”
“Mmmhmm!” Lozzie nodded.
Yuleson glanced around at our faces, seeking confirmation. “She is,” I said, licking lemon juice off my lips. Zheng rumbled in some kind of disapproval. Raine shrugged and added, “Far as anybody knows.” Kim said, “I don’t think that’s anybody’s business but Lozzie’s.”
Yuleson sighed and smiled with relief. “Good, good, that is good news. Now, Lozzie, do you have a birth certificate, or a driver’s license, or a passport? Even a young person’s rail-card, or any other kind of official identification … no?” Yuleson winced as Lozzie shook her head.
“Off the grid!” Lozzie chirped.
Felicity said, “Smart move. Smart girl.”
Evelyn glared sideways at her, but Felicity must have missed the look, because she didn’t wilt.
“Ah,” said Yuleson, his relief turning to polite fear. “You think I am trying to pull a fast one, or trick you, or hand off identification to my client. I am not, I am—”
Evelyn grumbled, “What the hell does Lozzie’s age have to do with anything? Explain.”
Yuleson looked genuinely pained. He sighed and grimaced, a particularly horrible kind of smile. “My client is … has been for quite some time … he wishes for—”
“He wants Lozzie,” I said, tightening my tentacle around her shoulders. “We know.”
“Yes,” Yuleson sighed, as if this was a shameful admission. “He is obsessed with taking legal custody of his niece.” He put up both hands. “I know, I know, I am his lawyer, I am on retainer, but I have done everything in my power to discourage the man from this course of action. If I could present him with proof — legal, official proof — that Lozzie here is a legal adult, I do believe it would go a long way to diverting this particular obsession. If a passport or birth certificate does happen to ‘turn up’” — he actually did the air-quotes with his fingers — “please contact me. Please.”
A long moment of silence filled the kitchen. I bit into my lemon again, juice messy on one hand. Yuleson winced at the sound.
“Nice try,” said Raine.
Yuleson flapped both hands, making no effort to hide his deep personal discomfort.
“He won’t surrender,” said Lozzie. “S’not what he does! He keeps going and going and going. No.”
Yuleson pulled a helpless smile. “I see you are familiar with him, yes.”
“I agree,” Evelyn grunted. “What is he offering, exactly? Surrender, really? He must think we’re all blithering idiots to believe that for one second.”
Zheng grunted, “Wizards make difficult prey.”
“Quite,” Evelyn said. “Go on then, what is he offering? Unconditional surrender? Give up the book, fuck off away from Sharrowford forever, give up any claim to Lozzie?”
“Yeeeeah,” went Raine, slowly. “How much authority has he actually delegated to you, mate?”
Yuleson wet his lips. “He will hand over the book, yes. I am not personally familiar with the title, but ‘the book’ was a matter of discussion and he is willing to hand it over. He will forfeit any rights over his niece — though privately I believe he will continue to pursue her via extra-legal means.”
“Ha!” Evelyn spat. “Extra-legal means.”
Raine purred, “Talk dirty to me more.”
Lozzie was shaking softly in her chair. I stepped forward and used my free hand to smooth her hair back from her forehead. “I’m here,” I whispered. “We’re all here.”
Yuleson continued. “He does not wish to leave the Sharrowford area or give up his home. He wishes to remain in his house, unmolested, and return to a quiet life.”
“You know,” Raine said, tilting her head up to frown at the ceiling. “I seem to recall that Eddy really likes to send letters. Why are you not a letter?”
Yuleson laughed awkwardly. “A letter cannot negotiate terms.”
Felicity said, “What’s to stop Evelyn accepting the book, but then going after him anyway? That’s what I’d do.”
“He spoke about a magical solution to that problem,” Yuleson said. “But as I am not a mage personally, I am not privy to the details. We would need to initiate contact, get a dialogue going, figure out the methodology. I can always draw up a legally binding contract, of course, but—”
“Bullshit,” Evelyn spat. “He’s stalling. Buying time to get his walls back up.”
Raine nodded slowly. “It’s his only move after getting fucked.”
Felicity was shaking her head. “This is weird.”
“This entire meeting is stalling,” Evelyn spat. She jabbed her maimed hand toward him, missing fingers on full display. “You are a stalling tactic.”
“Oh, yes,” Yuleson said, bright and open. “Probably.”
We all boggled at him. Even Zheng frowned in a way that was more curious than aggressive. Evelyn squinted as if the lawyer had gone mad.
Yuleson spread his hands and glanced around at us with an expression which was extremely polite but managed to imply we were all very stupid. “I did say, I’m not made of stone, I’m not insensible to what’s happening here. My client is not in the room with us, so I think I can speak frankly. I’m a solicitor, not a moron. I’m well aware that I’ve been sent to open negotiations as a stalling tactic. I don’t wish to pretend otherwise. I thought that was obvious. Without saying. I assumed … well, perhaps I have assumed too much.”
Eventually, Raine blew out a long breath. “How many layers of dissembling are you on, mate?”
“Several,” Yuleson answered without missing a beat. “But that is the truth. I’m not lying to you people about anything. You terrify me far too much to do that.”
“Then why did you accept Eddy’s money?”
Yuleson frowned at her again, peeved. “Because you people are probably going to kill him.”
“Huh,” Zheng grunted. “The worm talks sense.”
“Good,” Lozzie whispered.
“Ladies, please,” Yuleson said. “Allow me to place all my cards on the table, face up, so we understand each other. I took the frankly absurd fee for this job because — well, partly because I desperately need the business. But more importantly, because you people are probably going to kill my client. Mister Lilburne is a long-term client of my little firm, he pays me a lot of money and has done so for years. That pays salaries, keeps people in their jobs. You are about to take that away — perhaps justifiably, yes.” He raised a placating hand. “I wouldn’t know. I prefer not to know. I realise, yes, this is all stalling, we all know this is stalling. If you would prefer, then I can sit here and drink your delicious tea for an hour, we could discuss any other subject you like, and then I could leave, job done. You could even rough me up a bit to make it seem authentic.” He laughed awkwardly. “Though I would request no injuries, please. I am not a young man. However, it is my private belief that my client genuinely does want a cessation of hostilities.”
Raine was laughing. “Why risk it, hey? Why risk coming to meet us, if you think we’re all that murderous?”
“Ahhh. Hmmm. Mmm. Professionalism?” Yuleson grimaced again, that particular pained look which reached his eyes. “I don’t genuinely think you fine young people are going to summarily murder me. In the end, I am only a messenger.”
Evelyn spoke, low and serious. “Why do you believe he wants this to end?”
“Honestly? Frank and open answer, and strictly off the record? I’ve never heard him like this before. Ah!” Yuleson raised his hands. “To be clear, I did not have a personal, face-to-face meeting with my client. We had a phone conversation. And he goes through this rather lengthy process of calling a mobile number, and then I have to call back, get a temporary number, call that number, talk to one of his people, and only then do I get to speak with Edward himself.” He laughed, but nobody else did. “He’s very careful. So I can’t give you any phone numbers. And using me to trace him somehow, that won’t work either.” Yuleson flashed that nervous smile again, oily and too-friendly, then glanced directly at me and quickly away again.
“He told you I can do that?” I said, shocked. “He said that?”
Yuleson adjusted the front of his suit jacket. “Yes. He said that if the subject comes up, I should explain that I am useless. Ha ha!” He said the laugh out loud. “Useless as a magical crowbar, as it were. Not as a solicitor. One hopes.” He clapped his soft and clammy hands together, gently, twice. “As I was saying, my client was … terrified. He seemed that way to me. He spoke specifically about an attempt to find his house, last night. He is aware that you sent somebody to go looking, after the altercation—”
“Eddy boy tried to murder us all,” Raine said, cracking a dangerous little grin. She nodded to Zheng. “My large and beautiful friend there just couldn’t hold herself back, wanted to finish the job and find the man. You wanna tell her to stop?”
Yuleson looked up at Zheng. Zheng looked down at Yuleson, then grinned wide, like a shark showing all her teeth.
I sighed, rolled my eyes, and said, “You do know that intimidating the lawyer is vastly unnecessary?”
“T-that is well within your rights, Miss,” Yuleson stammered to Zheng. Sweat broke out on his forehead, but he did maintain eye contact, which was an impressive feat. “I am not telling you to stop anything. I have no power or recourse over you, legal or otherwise. In fact, I’m not even certain who you are. Why, I don’t recall you being present at this meeting. Not at all.”
“Clever worm,” Zheng purred.
Felicity sat up straighter in her chair and placed her empty bottle of chocolate gloop on the table. “What’s it like, being a lawyer in the know?”
Yuleson seemed deeply relieved to be asked a question that required him to transfer his attention away from Zheng. “I simply try not to involve myself in the details. It is much like being a criminal lawyer without being a criminal oneself.”
Raine snorted. “To hear Nicole tell it, you are a criminal.”
Yuleson only smiled at that.
Zheng said, “This worm is no mage.”
“Quite!” Yuleson agreed with gusto.
Felicity pressed on, eyes harder than I’d ever seen before. “Is Edward Lilburne your only client in the know?”
“I would prefer not to divulge that information. That would be a gross breach of client privacy.”
Raine laughed. “Come on, mate. You’ve been in breach of privacy this whole time. You’ve been feeding us Eddy’s shit. You think I don’t smell it?”
Yuleson’s oily smile dripped back. Bushy eyebrows came together in a peevish frown, as if the top and bottom halves of his face were in disagreement. “Miss, I am a consummate and skilled liar. If I was lying to you, you would not be aware of it. Please, do not insinuate or use innuendo. Say plainly what you are thinking. This is an open negotiation.”
Raine pushed off from the wall and sauntered over to the table. She pulled a chair out for herself, slowly, letting it scrape on the kitchen flagstones, eyes locked with Yuleson the entire time. She sat down, also slowly, and somehow managed to loom over the lawyer despite lowering herself to his level.
On one hand, seeing Raine pull out all the stops was unspeakably sexy. If she had approached me like that, like a snake hunting a mouse, I would have melted into a stammering puddle.
On the other hand, I sighed and said: “Raine, for pity’s sake. We don’t actually need to intimidate the lawyer.”
Evelyn grunted, “Yes, we do.”
Raine grinned at Yuleson, and said, “It’s fun to spook him.”
Yuleson swallowed. “Glad to be a punching bag, I suppose. As long as it gets the job done.”
Raine tapped the tabletop with one fingertip. “Two possibilities. Following me so far? Can you keep up with that? Cool? Good. So, maybe you’re turning on Edward, because you think we’re gonna win, or because you can’t live with what he does, or because he’s stiffing you on pay, or kidnapped your dog. I don’t know which. Don’t really care.”
Yuleson nodded, but didn’t make an attempt to reply. He knew when to shut up and listen.
“Or,” Raine went on in a low, dangerous purr. She tapped the table again. “Or he fed you lines, to feed to us, and you’re going to report back which ones we swallowed and which ones we chucked back up. Which is it, Harry-boy? Did he really pay you just to come offer us a bullshit deal?”
Raine in leaned closer, radiating menace, violence in the set of her shoulders.
Yuleson didn’t even blink.
My tentacles rose on instinct, as if to defend Raine; Harold Yuleson, squirming rat-like lawyer, was not intimidated by her bluster. Alarm bells rang in my head. For a second I thought he was going to explode into some Outsider trap or unfold like a puzzle box or spit venom into her face. We must have missed something, some tiny magic circle, undetectable and secret and about to detonate.
But then he opened his mouth, and spoke.
“Frankly,” Yuleson began his reply, smooth and easy. “Yes. I do believe you will win your contest against my client. I am a lawyer, not a mafia thug, and I do not wish to get involved in the physical altercation. I do what I am paid to do. And I would much rather count yourselves as future clients — not as my enemies, professional or otherwise. I understand no magic. I have no interest in knowing how to do magic. I am no threat to you.”
Of course he had been intimidated by Zheng. He’d been intimidated when we had threatened violence for real. But words?
This man dealt with far more threatening people than Raine.
“A rat,” Evelyn grumbled. “Fleeing a sinking ship.”
“Smart man,” said Felicity. “No shame in that.”
“Quite!” Yuleson agreed with a smile.
“Do you know where Edward’s house is?” Raine finished.
“No. I do not. And … ” Yuleson smiled and raised his hands. “I would prefer you not torture me in order to confirm my lack of knowledge. Torture is not worth a hundred thousand pounds.”
An awkward silence fell for a long moment. Raine leaned back, considering Yuleson with a tilt of her head. Felicity and Kimberly shared a look. Lozzie sat there, small and reduced, hugging one of my tentacles to her front. Zheng loomed, restless and quiet. Evelyn stared across the table with an expression like she’d been woken from sleep by the smell of excrement.
Yuleson spoke slowly and carefully: “If we could return to the main subject, then? Yes? A peace offer. Cease-fire, or surrender.”
Evelyn sighed heavily. Her expression darkened — and softened, brows unknitting, lips relaxing. She hunched lower, as if too exhausted to fight. Raine stared at her in subtle, unseen alarm. Praem placed a hand on her shoulder, but Evee shrugged it off. Zheng growled in recognition and disgust.
“Evelyn,” Felicity started to say. “I don’t think—”
“You shut up,” Evelyn grumbled. She never looked away from Yuleson. “Fine. Edward Lilburne can keep his life.”
Lozzie bit her lower lip and gently said, “No. Please.”
Praem agreed. “No,” her voice rang out like a little silver bell.
“Evee?” I said out loud. I could see the answer in her frame, in her exhausted eyes, in the slump of her shoulders. “Evee, we can’t make a deal. You can’t be serious, you—”
“Shhhhh,” Evelyn hissed. “Everybody shut up and let me fucking speak. Edward Lilburne can have his life.”
“Thank you,” Yuleson said, his oily smile spreading across plumped cheeks. “I am glad we can start on a positive note. We can see sense here, we can make—”
“‘Shut up’ includes you,” she said, dead tired and without energy. “Stop talking or I’ll have Praem strangle you with your own intestines.”
Yuleson shut his mouth. Praem looked at him.
Evelyn continued, slow and plodding. “Edward can have his life, but that’s all. I’ll let him live. But I get everything else — the house, the books, everything he has accumulated. The contents of his bank accounts. The clothes on his back. The fillings in his teeth. If he has a wife, I’ll fuck her too. He can live, but he gets nothing. Not after going for Heather. Not when he’ll keep coming for Lozzie. You crawl back to Edward Lilburne and you tell him to present himself at my front door, alone and naked and on his knees, and then I will decide what to do with him. You tell him that is Saye’s final offer.”
Harold Yuleson blew out a long breath and wiggled his eyebrows as if using them to shrug. “I don’t think my client will, uh, find those to be very favourable terms.”
Raine was laughing. “Fucking hell, Evee. Nice.”
“Harsh,” Felicity muttered.
Lozzie actually got out of her seat, pulling my tentacle along with her as she stepped over to Evee. She mimed an air-hug around Evelyn’s shoulders, eyes watering, sniffing softly. To my surprise, Evelyn reached up and patted Lozzie on the back in a sort of one-armed hug, staring at Yuleson the entire time. Felicity watched the exchange between Lozzie and Evee with what I first assumed was jealousy — but then I realised it was admiration.
“Now,” Evelyn continued. “Everything we say to you will get back to Edward, I’m certain. I want to converse with my ‘associates’, in private.”
“Oh!” said Yuleson. “Of course, of course. I can step into the front room, or out of your front door, or—”
“Somebody put him in the spare sitting room. And watch him. That does mean somebody will miss the discussion.” Evelyn’s eyes flickered to Zheng, almost apologetic, but she was the natural choice. Zheng stared back. I was about to open my mouth to back up the request when a double-curve of soft yellow clicked into the kitchen.
“I will accompany the lawyer,” said Seven-Shades-of-Butterscotch-Princess.
She was wearing her Princess Mask, though with some notable alterations: the yellow skirt had tightened against her thighs slightly, and she wore a matching yellow suit jacket over her crisp white blouse. She also had a yellow clipboard in her hands, along with a yellow fountain pen. But there was nothing servile about this version of Sevens. The tilt of her chin, the cool regard of her eyes, the sensible flat shoes; her body language screamed aristocrat, dressed for personal pleasure, not for looks.
A ragged mass of lace lurked behind her, black and mangled by blunt shadows.
Harold Yuleson reacted like a royalist who had walked in on the Queen.
“Yes!” he said, bowing and nodding like a servant himself. “Of course, of course, at once. I will be right out of your hair, right out!” He drained the dregs of his tea, shot to his feet, and gestured out of the kitchen door with a questioning look at Seven-Shades-of-Not-Your-Secretary. She nodded, cool and detached. Harold Yuleson bustled out as if his feet were the wrong size.
Seven-Shades-of-Smooth-Suggestion nodded to the rest of us with a cruel kink in the corner of her lips, then turned and clicked after her captive audience. Aym — sliding out of sight like a hidden patch of black mold — followed her seemingly without moving.
A moment later we heard the sitting room door shut.
Raine burst out laughing. “I love that woman.”
“You do?” I asked.
“Sure. Love you too, Heather.”
“I do not love the creature of masks,” Zheng rumbled. “But she is clever.”
I smiled, then popped the rest of my lemon into my mouth, chewing less noisily than before. Evelyn gave me a sidelong look and said, “You can stop doing that now, Heather.”
“Stop doing—” I swallowed the fruit. “Stop doing what? Sorry?”
“Being weird with the lemon. Good intimidation tactic, but very weird. Very you. Well done, but please stop now.”
I blinked. “I was only eating.”
Evelyn frowned at me, half-impressed but half-confused. Then she sighed and tapped the table for order and attention, rapping the head of her walking stick against the side. “Do we believe a single word out of that man’s mouth?”
Raine blew out a sigh and leaned back, hands behind her head. Felicity tapped one booted foot, chewing her lip. Lozzie hopped back, flapping the sides of her poncho. I licked lemon juice off my fingertips.
“Yes and no,” Raine said eventually, speaking to the ceiling. “Yuleson’s playing both sides. Doesn’t want Edward to kill him, doesn’t want us to kill him. Wants Eddy to keep paying him as long as possible. Wants us to trust him for the future.”
“Setting up the post-war order,” Evelyn grumbled. “Yes, I agree.”
“Mage with a lawyer,” Felicity mumbled. “Hard to believe.”
“Evee-weevey?” said Lozzie. “You meant what you said, yes?”
“No deal! No deal! You meant it, everything you said?”
“No,” Evelyn said.
Lozzie’s eyes widened and she stopped her habitual flapping. I blinked in surprise too. Evelyn sighed. “If Edward Lilburne follows my instructions and turns up at my door with nothing but the shirt on his back, ready to hand over everything he has, I will not let him live. I will give him to Zheng so she can dispose of a mage in a safer way than a lead-lined coffin.”
“Wizard!” Zheng rumbled approval. “Yes!”
Lozzie giggled and covered her mouth with one corner of her poncho, then gave Evee another awkward but polite air-hug. “Auntie Evee best Evee!”
Evelyn huffed and tutted and waved her away.
I spoke up: “Some of what he said was the truth, I think. Maybe.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “But like I said, he’s playing both sides.”
“He knew Zheng went looking for the house,” Evelyn said. She nodded to Zheng. “You came back late. I expected you’d be gone for days. I assume you didn’t find anything?”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “I am large but the land is larger. I go back out, today.”
“Maybe,” Evelyn said.
Zheng narrowed her eyes and flexed her hands. “Wizard?”
“Edward Lilburne is stalling,” Evelyn said. “This is a stalling tactic, so he can scramble to get his walls back up. Which I suspect will take him weeks. Are we all agreed on that?”
“I think so,” I said, but I felt deeply uncertain — and I knew where Evelyn was going with this. I tried to stand up straighter, settle my tentacles, and still the racing of my heart.
“Mm,” Raine grunted in contemplation. “But does he expect us to take the deal?”
“I would,” said Felicity. “But I’d keep working against him.”
“Exactly,” said Evelyn. “He’s stalling, but we need to stall too. We’re in a stalemate until we can locate that house, one way or the other. I hate this, I hate it with a passion,” she spat. “But we have to buy time. A day or two.”
“Ahem,” Kimberly cleared her throat gently, then withered instantly when everybody looked at her, mousy and small in her chair next to Felicity. “Um … I’m sorry … I just … it is nearly eight o’clock and I need to get to work. I didn’t call in sick or anything. I need to … ” She wet her lips and smiled awkwardly.
“Of course,” Evelyn said. “Somebody is going to have to go with her, an escort there and back.”
“I will,” said Felicity, without hesitation. “I can drive her there and pick her up later.”
“O-oh!” Kim flapped her hands. “You really don’t have to! No, I don’t mean—”
“You take the escort,” Evelyn snapped. “Stop complaining. And check in with text messages as often as you can. And somebody call Twil again, and Nicole. Make sure they haven’t been attacked while Yuleson was distracting us. We need to stay on our toes. He will try something. He will.”
“Evee,” Raine said. “We’re stalling, then?”
“We are,” I replied instead.
Everyone looked at me. I took a deep breath and drew myself up. “I’m still injured. My reactor is, um, ‘off-line’. So I can’t use brain-math to locate Edward’s house. Not yet. It needs to heal. So, Evelyn is correct. We have to stall. I’m sorry.”
Evelyn swallowed awkwardly, but she nodded along; I had spared her the embarrassment of putting me on the spot. Raine started to say something about how Zheng might find the house the old-fashioned way, how it wasn’t my fault, how resting and recovering was the right thing to do. I smiled and nodded and tried to look like I was accepting all this. Felicity agreed with a mumble. Praem said, “Regroup,” which was a nice word even if it wasn’t accurate.
Buying time. Until I was healed.
“Maybe the letter bomb will get him,” Evelyn said.
We sent Harold Yuleson off with an itemised list of demands; Evelyn’s extreme version was the top of the list, but we worked together to concoct something less final as well: a second bargaining position stuffed with enough points to keep Edward busy for a day or two. We demanded the book – The Testament of Heliopolis — but also several more books, by name, books he may or may not have even owned. I suspected Evelyn threw in a few titles which did not actually exist; she had that twinkle of devious strategy in her eye as she rattled them off and forced Yuleson to write them down.
We demanded compensation for damage to the Hopton’s house, their fields, the stress inflicted on their animals and themselves, and the damage to the property of one “Mister Hring” — a stroke of creativity by Raine. That amounted to several million pounds.
We requested an official letter, signed by Edward, witnessed by his lawyer, attesting that Lauren Lilburne was over the age of majority and therefore he had no legal right to guardianship over her. Evelyn added some magical mumbo-jumbo to that part, something about how Edward would have to submit to a proper process to ensure he kept his word.
We stipulated a full accounting of all his property, his magical library, his experiments, his knowledge. By that point I was ready to eat another lemon and take a nap, but then Raine started listing damages to us: stress, injuries, Nicole’s broken leg. The list went on and on.
Raine and Felicity followed Yuleson to his car; he’d parked almost twenty minutes walk away.
But once he was gone, that was that. We’d taken our shot, or joined in with this facade of negotiation while both sides stalled and scrambled — Edward to rebuild his walls, us to get me back on my metaphysical feet.
There is a terrible paradox in the combination of recovery and pressure; I needed to rest, to eat, to sleep, to heal — but how could I not hurry myself?
For the rest of that day, the others treated me like a princess, or a dying swan, or a glass statue. While everybody else was watching for opportunistic attacks, I ate lemons and drowned a bowl of rice in soy sauce. I followed my cravings, stuffed my face, and felt my bioreactor throbbing deep down inside my gut, a pulled muscle slowly unfreezing itself — but far too slowly.
Lozzie needed a lot of attention. I didn’t blame her, nobody did. Her uncle’s attention terrified her. For the first time in quite a while, she and I napped together. We curled up in her bed, big spoon and little spoon, while Tenny played video games and solved puzzles on the other side of the room. I awoke, left her there, went downstairs to stuff another lemon down my maw, then went back and napped an hour more.
Raine doted on me, got me to sit and watch her playing one of those long-winded games with the alchemist girls and the over-large chests. Twil turned up sometime in the afternoon and spent a while talking with Evelyn, in private. I didn’t have the strength to take any interest. Zheng departed for the woods again, another attempt to find Edward’s house, but some instinct told me that she wouldn’t have much luck.
Nobody pressured me, nobody asked me when I would be ready; I could see the question in Evelyn’s eyes, but she didn’t give it voice. Raine didn’t allow herself even that minor slip, she was perfect, pretending it didn’t even matter if I never recovered, that we would find the house some other way.
But as the day wore on and the sky cleared and the late summer evening settled over the house, I knew I had to do something.
We had a day or two at most, before Edward would probe us for real. Fake negotiations could only go on so long. Paranoid watching — Evelyn setting up new magic circles at the doors, Raine twitching the curtains — would take a toll. We were in the middle of a war. We couldn’t stall forever. And Evelyn was almost as exhausted as me. She dragged herself around the house, helped by Praem, dark rings around her eyes.
As I lay on my bed, propped up on pillows and drinking extremely strong coffee despite the late hour, watching Raine make her anime lady jump around on the telly screen, I started to think clearly.
I had to get the reactor working. I had to perform the brain-math.
Raine’s bare foot hooked over my leg. I reached forward and rubbed her calf muscle, though my own elbow ached with yesterday’s pain.
“Three more of these slime lads and I should have the new outfit,” Raine said without looking back over her shoulder. “You’re gonna like that one. Comes with a hoodie.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
What if I could use brain-math to repair the reactor? But that was a catch-22 situation. Using brain-math would draw on the reactor. But it hadn’t always been that way. Before the reactor, there was just me. But the reactor was me.
Brain-math needed something to run on — flesh or thought, or just on the air, the way I had performed it back when I’d ripped Sarika free from the Eye’s grip. The reactor gave the equations more flesh to work with, more spirit to draw on, more substrate on which to blossom across reality.
“Do you think the shorts are a good choice?” Raine asked.
“Mm. Mm, yes.”
I couldn’t self-sacrifice, just go all-out and hurt myself to get the task done. I was not allowed to hurt myself, not anymore. That had been made clear to me. That road was closed, wiped off the maps, and dynamited.
But maybe brain-math could repair the reactor, speed up my healing processes, improve my understanding of my own flesh.
Brain-math could do anything, if only I could endure the pain, the alien violation. If only I understood it better. If only I wasn’t groping around in the dark.
“Red shorts, or white shorts? Heather? Earth to space cadet Heather, woooo?”
But I had nobody from whom to learn. In the end, the only entity who understood brain-math was the Eye. And I couldn’t ask the Eye how to fix my reactor faster.
Or could I?
“White shorts,” I murmured, then stirred on the bed and started to get up. “You go unlock that outfit, Raine. Show me in a bit. I’m going to talk to Kimberly for a minute.”
“Oho.” Raine grinned. “Gonna interrupt her thing with Fliss? They’ve been alone since Kim got home from work.”
“Unintentional side-effect,” I said, forcing a smile. I didn’t want to make Raine worry; I was not going to flirt with self-sacrifice. “I had a thought about … magic. I need to ask her to clarify something. That’s all. I just want her perspective.”
Technically, that wasn’t a lie.
Never talk to the police without a lawyer present, and never talk to a lawyer without a mage present. (And never talk to a mage without Zheng present; hey, free meal!) Is Yuleson a bullshit artist? Yes. But does he smell which way the wind is blowing? Probably. Is this all a double-bluff? Maybe??? Evee playing it safe. Meanwhile, Heather is about to play fast and loose with magic, or biology, or something else she probably shouldn’t be sticking herself into while she’s so sore and tired.
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Next week, Heather asks Kimberly a difficult question. About magic? What’s she planning here, a magical uplift for her reactor? Hmm.