a very great mischief – 13.4

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“It was at Mohi, after the battle,” Zheng purred low and soft, her voice cupping each word with nostalgic affection.

“Another war story?” Raine asked, not unappreciative.

“The battle had been bloody, Mongol and Magyar alike lay dead in their thousands, and victory was narrow. Batu was incompetent, the warriors had nearly broken, they could not deal with the Magyar crossbows, and it was only Subutai’s bravery that rallied them and shattered the Magyar camp in the end. But this is not the story of that battle. I care nothing for great battles. Things such as us do not make a difference on that scale, amid hundreds of thousands of monkeys butchering each other. It was after. After the blood, after the Magyar had fled and the warriors plundered, it was then, in the time for crows and starving dogs.” Zheng lowered her voice to a whisper. “It was there I first met the vampire.”

Over on the bed, I stifled a gasp behind a raised hand. Zheng’s eyes slid to me, a faint dark smile playing across her lips, enjoying my unguarded reaction. I blushed. She’d crafted that moment to seize my heart.

“Last I checked, Evee’s pretty sure vampires don’t exist,” Raine said.

“Does your mage know every corner of the world, yoshou?” Zheng asked. “Does she disprove the Gods themselves with lack of knowledge?”

“I want to hear about the vampire,” I said out loud. “Please.”

“Hey, sorry, my bad,” Raine said, and I blinked in surprise at the speed and ease of her apology. “It’s your tale. Go ahead. What’s a real vampire like?”

Glorious.” Zheng grinned with fierce love at the memory. “She lingered with the carrion things, but she was no scavenger. She had moved in neither army’s shadow. She had fought for the Magyar, mounted, wearing metal, carrying a lance, but she was not one of them. She was from deeper in the Christian lands, spoke some forest tribe gutter-tongue. Austrian. German. Mm.”

“Graf Orlok’s great grandma?” Raine murmured with a smirk.

“Raine, shhhh,” I hissed. Raine pulled an apologetic cringe and waved me down.

“She found me in the aftermath,” Zheng continued. “After sundown, amid the crows and corpses and the fires still burning. My leash was so long and thin by then that Batu’s pet wizards had left me where I lay, to tend myself while they drank and looted like the rest. I was sat on a broken beam, pulling crossbow bolts from my flesh, and she appeared before me like a black dog in the dusk.” Zheng’s voice dropped lower and lower as she spoke, her eyes heavy-lidded with memory and strange pleasure. “No mistaking her for some Magyar knight turned around and lost in the rout. She stood on a pile of corpses, sure-footed as a mountain goat, dressed in black and red metal, a strange rose growing in grave dirt. She wanted me to see when she removed her helmet.”

“Beautiful, or bacon-face?” Raine asked. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.

“The former, yoshou. By monkey standards she was a beauty. Shorter than you, but all you monkeys were shorter then. Blonde and pale and clear, youthful and athletic, bright eyed and wide mouthed. But the eyes were red as fresh blood, and when she descended the corpse pile to find a wounded Magyar soldier still clinging to his life, the incisors in her mouth slid out to the length of your thumb, before she bit into his throat.”

“Gnarly,” Raine murmured.

I just swallowed on a dry mouth, wanting to believe.

“But it was not beauty which made her glorious,” Zheng rumbled. “She must have seen me during the battle, surprised and delighted to find something like herself. And I felt the same. She was being polite, waiting for me to finish working the bolt-heads out of my flesh as she drank her bloody meal. When she was done, she cast the corpse down and we watched each other for a long time. She smiled the whole while.”

“Oh my goodness,” I breathed.

“She asked me a question. I did not speak the tongue, but she spoke with such glee, I did not need to know the words to understand her meaning.”

“ … which was?” Raine asked.

You too?” Zheng said, then roared a laugh. “I grunted yes! And then she came at me, bare handed, and she loved every second of it. We fought eight times over that following year, until the khan left, fled back over the Carpathians because he couldn’t crack the castles. The invasion roiled around us, and maybe she told herself that she fought for Christendom and her monkey friends, but I had eyes only for her, and she would drain and butcher her companions just to face me on even ground once more.”

“My kinda woman,” Raine said.

“She would have eaten you in a single bite, yoshou,” Zheng said, hard and sudden. “You are skilled, but you are only a monkey.”

Raine had been gently oscillating back and forth on her desk chair, one hand playing with the almost empty mug of tea and the remains of the Cornish pastry on her plate. At Zheng’s tone she went still, stopped moving, and my heart climbed into my mouth. Raine cocked an eyebrow and leaned forward, musculature shifting in subtle ways that I was all too familiar with.

“You wanna bet on that, big girl?” she murmured.

“Raine,” I said in a gentle warning tone. “Please don’t.”

“Hey, I’m just making a point,” Raine said to me with the corner of her mouth.

“I never bested the vampire either,” Zheng growled. “This is no bragging contest, yoshou.”

“Oh!” Raine lit up and instantly relaxed, spreading her hands in a proxy apology. “That’s different then. Wrong end of the stick. My bad, yeah?”

I breathed a silent sigh of relief, fighting down the sudden pulse of adrenaline. Didn’t want to sweat in my nice new clothes. At least not so soon.

“She was older than me,” Zheng continued, staring Raine down. “Much older. She moved like lightning and struck like a falling eagle, even unarmed. And I never won. Not once. That first meeting amid the corpses, we fought bare handed. We pummelled each other to dust, exploring the limits of the other’s strength, and I was found wanting, but I had never fought such a foe, never before felt such joy in a fight against something I could not beat. My face was broken, my fingers snapped, my muscles screaming, my legs buckled, and I … ”

Zheng trailed off, watching Raine with a curious look, like a cat uncertain of an alien intruder in its territory.

Raine sensed the change, and just raised her eyebrows.

I knew what Zheng couldn’t say.

Of course I didn’t know the exact words, but I could imagine, because I was privy to the context that Raine lacked. The natural old-age death of her little bird, her little Ciremedie, had driven Zheng to such a depth of grief that she’d fled from her embryonic humanity, into the wild, and eventually into the arms of the Mongol Empire, where violence had washed away her pain. She hadn’t told that story, not to Raine.

What had she said to the vampire, on the verge of defeat?

Finish it, kill me, end this?

“It’s okay, Zheng,” I said out loud. “I understand. You don’t have to.”

Zheng swung her gaze to me, slow as ice, and let out a tiny grunt of acknowledgement before she carried on.

“The vampire walked away, into the night,” she purred. “I raged at her. It is the lowest act to leave the hunt to bleed out into the snow. Even a child knows to slit the throat of a dying deer, it is the most basic respect due to any prey. I spat at her for a coward and a dung-worm.” Zheng took a slow, deep breath and blew it out like smoke, her lips curling into a smile. “But then we met again in shattered Esztergom, beneath the shadow of the citadel walls. And I felt a flutter of pleasure in my chest. I had misunderstood her.”

“You enjoyed the fight against an equal.” Raine nodded along.

Zheng grinned wide, showing her maw of shark’s teeth. “She favoured an axe. Not some woodsman’s tool, but a long-handled terror, with a spike on the reverse for cracking armour and bone. She swung it like it was made of straw.” Zheng chuckled to herself. “One fight, our third time together, she broke both my legs in a dozen places with that axe. We were in a Church. Some weeks after Esztergom in some rotting village wedged into a Carpathian valley. I’d killed the rest of her soldiers but I couldn’t take her. She left me panting on my back on the stone floor, pinned my hands with iron spikes to stop me fighting back, then sat on my chest.”

“Wheeeey,” went Raine.

“Goodness me,” I breathed. But thankfully Zheng was amused rather than offended.

“No,” Zheng laughed at the pair of us. “It was not for that. She spoke to me, for three hours. In German. I understood not a word, but she had a voice like honey, and the manner of a young Goddess. No restraint. No inhibitions. Nothing to hold her back.”

“She didn’t want to kill you at all, did she?” Raine asked.

Zheng purred an affirmative. “She wanted the fight, but without the kill. No climax, not against me. She killed countless others, idiot horse warriors who did not comprehend what they faced.” Zheng shrugged. “At first I did not understand, but after the Church, I grew fond of her. And if I had won? I would not have killed her either. Perhaps.”

“How sweet of you,” Raine said with an ironic smile.

“There was one time I almost had her,” Zheng said. “The Magyar lands themselves turned on the horsemen eventually. The winter was cold and wet, the earth waterlogged, and I fought the vampire in a fen. It was raining, thick clouds overhead, but it was daylight, and that sapped her strength. So I … ” Zheng tilted her head, as if embarrassed.

“You held back?” I asked, wide-eyed at this unseen side of her, at this unfamiliar expression, almost sheepish.

“Mm. Perhaps.” Zheng shrugged. “I had beaten her black and blue, her magic blood stained the swamp itself, and she staggered away while I lay in the mud and waited for my own wounds to heal. I could have taken her then, taken her any way I wanted, but I waited to see what she would do. Knowing her was more important than winning, mm. She drained the other knights of her strange party, killed them like a leech, and was regenerated as if new. We fought for four more hours in the sucking, stinking fen, and eventually lay side by side, panting and wheezing, bloody and filthy from head to toe, until the larger forces caught up to our skirmish and we went our separate ways.”

“Oh come on, this is practically a romance,” Raine said, almost laughing.

“Do not mock it, yoshou,” Zheng replied, easy and mild.

“What happened to her?” I asked.

Zheng considered me slowly. “The final time we fought was in some unnamed defile deep in the Carpathians. In the forest. The army was fleeing the weather, giving up, and the Magyars were picking at our tail. Flea bites at best, they were spent. But I spit on horse warriors and monkeys shelled in metal, I went to the rearguard to find her.” Zheng smiled with sadly remembered pleasure. “In the end it was just us. She buried herself in the earth, moved like a great worm, burst forth like a spider. I climbed the trees, fell upon her from above. We went all night without pause. By the end we were both exhausted, and there was no approaching army to interrupt us this time. I sat on a log, bleeding, bones broken, blind in one eye. She sprawled on the bare earth, her armour all cracked, covered in blood from both of us. She’d bitten me a couple of times in the fight, won a few mouthfuls of blood, but I was glad to make the donation.”

Raine let out a low whistle.

“She said words. I did not know them, but I knew the meaning. ‘The war is over.’” Zheng sighed, and spoke slower and slower, savouring the memory. “And I watched as she stood up, and she shed the broken pieces of her armour, and she held out a hand in invitation, and said ‘do you want to come with me?’”

“Oh, Zheng,” I murmured.

“And so I told her ‘Yes, but I am bound. And I do not wish to think.’ The vampire nodded, though she could not have understood a word, because I spoke in my first tongue, not Mongolian. She was worthy of true speech.”

Raine silently cocked a curious eyebrow. Zheng’s tale had touched on matters she was not familiar with, but she held her tongue for now.

“I stood up, and walked away, slowly. Followed the trail of the army over the mountains.” Zheng shrugged. “I never saw the vampire again.”

“Did you ever learn her name?” I asked, hopeful.

Zheng shook her head.

“I judge it all true, if I must,” I said, wiping delicately at my eyes with the end of one pink sleeve, gripped by second-hand melancholy from eight hundred years ago. I tried to remind myself this story had also contained an awful lot of dead bystanders amid a bloody and pointless war.

“You said she wore expensive armour, right?” Raine asked, sitting up straight and downing the dregs of her tea in one knock-back swig.

“Expensive?” Zheng rolled a shrug. “Perhaps.”

“You remember a coat of arms anywhere on it?” Raine went on. “A device, a symbol, a crest? That sort of thing?”

Zheng blinked twice, slowly, and I could almost feel the sifting of heavy gravel inside her mind, the sheer weight of centuries of memory. Raine waited in polite silence. I bit my lower lip.

“A pair of ravens,” Zheng said eventually. “Maybe crows? Black birds. Flanking a great stone castle. Mountain in the background. On the chest plate.”

“Could you draw it from memory?” Raine asked.

“Raine?” I said. “Where is this going?”

“Mmmmm, perhaps,” Zheng rumbled.

“We could look it up,” Raine said, grinning at me – and then, to my surprise, sharing the bright, confident grin with Zheng too, using it on her in the way she used it on me. “All sort of websites and archives of heraldry these days. Can’t be too hard to find with a bit of legwork. Could be the crest of some kinda old knightly order, and if we’re really lucky it might be a family crest. No promises, but hey, you want me to try? I’m guessing you ain’t exactly had a lot of chances to visit any libraries or get online for the last few centuries, yeah?”

Zheng just stared back at her, unreadable and heavy-lidded.

“Or just, hey,” Raine went on when she didn’t get a reply. “Offer’s always open.”

“While I’m entirely supportive of reconnecting Zheng with old … friends?” I said, delicately clearing my throat. “I’m not sure we want to make contact with an ancient German vampire right now. We have enough on our plate.”

Raine laughed and spread her hands. “Hey, just saying Zheng might be able to get some closure. If she regrets, you know, not taking up the offer from little miss Carmilla back then.”

“No regrets, yoshou,” Zheng purred, and slid her eyes sideways, to where I sat on the bed, surrounded by pillows with my feet tangled in a loose blanket. “If I had gone with the vampire, maybe I would never have met my little bird again.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “Little bird, huh?” she echoed with infinite curiosity. “Heard you call Heather that a couple of times before. Nice pet name. Got a story behind it?”

A spike of panic went through my heart, but I couldn’t even open my mouth to stammer. Wasn’t this what I’d wanted? If Raine and Zheng were going to communicate – which was the first building block of any relationship, let alone polyamory – then sooner or later they were going to learn each other’s history.

And Raine was going to learn that Zheng believed I was the reincarnation of her dead sister-slash-maker-slash-lover. Her Ciremedie. Her shaman. Her little bird.

Raine caught the blushing panic on my face and raised a concerned eyebrow.

“It’s … I’m sorry,” I pulled myself together. “It’s not my place to say. It’s Zheng’s.”

“It is your story, too, little bird,” Zheng purred, and a shiver went up my spine. “If you wish it.”

“I’d love to be let in on this,” Raine said.

Slowly, like prying wary prey from a hidey-hole, Zheng plucked her dice from the tray one by one, and made them dance between her knuckles. She watched Raine with dark intensity, and Raine watched her right back, uncrossing her legs and sprawling in the chair, one hand raised in a silent waiting shrug.

“There is a story, yoshou,” Zheng purred eventually. “You must win it from me. If you can take two in a row.”

“Awwww, come on!” Raine flung her arms wide, complaining but grinning with the sheer joy of competition. “We’re neck and neck!”

“Two in a row. Prove you are more than a monkey.”

Raine clicked her tongue and grabbed her dice, and Zheng rolled first.

Time had flown by these last two hours, sequestered together in the welcome warmth and familiarity of our bedroom, settled into the routine of challenge and dice and deep memory. I felt like a sponge, absorbing every morsel of history that both Zheng and Raine revealed. Part of me wanted it to never end, to stay up here for weeks, doing nothing but swapping stories and feeling attractive.

That way I wouldn’t have to face the inevitable romantic confrontation, the slowly tightening fist in my belly.

Akarakish – lost to time, itself a relic dredged from the past – turned out to be the perfect game for Raine and Zheng. After Raine’s initial surprise victory and Zheng’s counter-attack, they’d taken wins off each other, going back and forth, neither able to hold the upper hand for more than one round. Raine was always quick to develop a new strategy, a new angle of daring risk; Zheng was always too fast and adaptive for the same trick to work twice, cutting off Raine’s ploy before she could gain a lead, but equally never able to fully predict Raine’s next move. Neither had managed to best the other twice in a row. Not yet.

I could barely follow beyond the opening moves of each round. Gambling mechanics, dice games, numbers, this was absolutely not my forte. I could have improvised some brainmath, plugged the values and the potential outcomes into hyperdimensional mathematical perception, watched Raine and Zheng through a quarter-second of abyssal senses, and known exactly how each round would go.

But that would spoil the fun, and probably ruin my lovely new clothes too.

Instead I got all the rewards with none of the pain. I got to discover more about two people I loved.

Zheng told stories about the Mongols, stories about fighting and conquests in which she had been a tiny cog, but an exuberant cog full of manic life and lust for combat, free of the concerns of the khans themselves. Bloody and violent, but distant in time. She told a few darker stories too, from later in her life, from the long centuries of slavery, passed from wizard to wizard by trickery or bargain or cosmic mistake. In those stories she was never an active participant, but a dark silent watcher on the periphery, while mages murdered each other in the world’s underbelly, or got themselves killed calling up things they could not control, or walked off into nothingness in the voids beyond reality.

“Hold up,” Raine said after Zheng had told a story particularity difficult to believe. “I don’t care if Heather judges this true or not, I just wanna know what happened to the younger mage, after she put the demon in the bear?”

Zheng shrugged. “Mauled by bear. I have seen this three times.”

“What, mages putting demons in bears?” Raine laughed. “This is a thing that happened more than once?”

“Mm. Don’t put demons in bears.”

Raine’s range of stories was tighter, unable to stride across centuries of memory, but to me they were no less fascinating. She made shoplifting a chocolate bar at seven years old sound as exciting as any bare-knuckle boxing match. She told us the story of her and Evelyn first arriving at this house in Sharrowford, two years ago, with no idea what to expect and somebody else’s lifetime of junk to sort through, a story that I took particular personal interest in, even if it was a bit uneventful.

She told us of teenage mishaps before she’d run away from home, of her first fumbling kiss with a queen-bee type and the fallout that followed, and the time she’d been cornered in the school changing rooms by three other girls – who all turned out to be into her in various different ways. Or the time she’d fought a dog set on her and some schoolmates by a scorned ex-boyfriend of one of the other girls. Zheng barked a laugh at the climax of that one, and I stared in goggle-eyed disbelief.

“That’s not how to scare off a dangerous dog, Raine,” I said. “Not at all.”

She turned to me with a grin and snapped her teeth together twice. Clack-clack. “Girl bites dog! Should’a been in the newspaper.”

“What did it taste like?” Zheng rumbled, deeply amused.

“Mostly just fur and dog smell, it was only his neck,” Raine grimaced. “Didn’t get a chance for a second bite. The dog was so shocked he jumped up yelping, ran for it. Too fast for the lad to catch. He was hopping mad about it though, and I think he would’a laid into us with his fists, but I snapped my teeth at him and said something like ‘I’ll bite your nose clean off too, mate’, and he scarpered after his dog. He never bothered Jen again, far as I know.”

“Dog-biter!” Zheng roared a laugh.

Only once did Raine slip into a sombre tone, for the only story so far she’d told about being homeless.

About crows.

I don’t think she noticed when her tone changed, the way her words thickened, the way she lowered her eyes as she spoke. I very nearly broke my self-imposed rule of not rising and joining either of them during the story-telling, maintaining my temporary illusion of detached distance. Raine had told me so very little about what it was really like to be homeless.

It was a short story, in which nothing much really happened. She’d been walking parallel to some train tracks, somewhere south of London, heading away from one horrible Surrey commuter belt town in search of another.

“And it was funny,” she explained, voice far away, struggling to anchor herself with a hitch of ironic smile. “After I started dropping raisins, the birds just kept following me. I’d eat a handful, then toss a couple over my shoulder,” she mimed the gesture, “and they’d flap down from the trees and peck up the fruit and join the flock.”

“It is always good to share with the carrion eaters,” Zheng purred with genuine approval.

Raine shrugged. “Didn’t begrudge sharing. Stole the bag of raisins anyway, and I sort of liked the company. Felt more like an animal myself anyway. It was a real quiet stretch of countryside, no trains running that day, and the birds didn’t break the silence either, which was odd in retrospect but I didn’t think about it at the time. They just ate and followed, and gathered. Maybe crows call their friends over when there’s a free meal going.”

“They do,” Zheng said.

“So,” Raine looked up, surfacing from her own memories and struggling to resume the storyteller mask. “Eventually I hit a village along the line, round this little bend before a level crossing. I come round the bend, sharp like, and waiting not thirty feet away at the crossing is a fucking policeman.”

Raine’s voice hitched in a way I’d never heard before, as if she had to catch herself. She blinked once, then took a sharp breath.

“Raine?” I murmured, loathe to interrupt the story but incapable of not responding to my lover showing that kind of distress.

“Police are terrifying when you’re homeless,” she said, plain and unsmiling. “Especially underage and homeless. Takes me back to the feeling, that’s all. Gut instinct. And this guy, he was out of his squad car, hands on his hips, facing the exact way I’d been coming, like he was waiting for me. I dunno, maybe somebody called in the weird ragged teenage girl walking down the tracks. I looked like I needed asking what I was up to. Yeah, sure, I probably could have brained him or outran him, but I didn’t want to. I was fucking tired. I’d been running since London at that point, and I was just done. I wanted to stop.”

“Running from what?” Zheng purred. “That was not the beginning of your story.”

“Yeah that’s a different one,” Raine said without missing a beat. “Anyway, this copper takes one look at me, then looks up, and his jaw drops. Turns white as a sheet and bolts for his car.”

“The birds?” I asked, amazed.

“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “I’d collected a couple hundred crows by then. In the trees, following me, flapping all around. I was so tired, so out of it, so … dissociated, I didn’t really pay them any attention. I knew they were there, but I didn’t really think about it. But this copper bolts and I look up and I’m like, ‘oh right, I look like the start of a horror B-movie, and this guy doesn’t wanna be the cop who dies in the opening scene.’” Raine started laughing. “So I take my chance and run, while he’s shitting himself or calling for backup to shoot birds or whatever.”

“The carrion eaters know their own. They respect kindness,” Zheng purred.

“I dunno about that,” Raine said. “But they earned mine. I tossed the bag in the end, threw the whole lot of raisins in the air to thank them, and so the copper couldn’t use the cloud of birds to follow me once he got his bottle back. Felt kinda good. Pity there’s not more crows round this part of Sharrowford. I sorta like ‘em, ever since.”

“True,” I said immediately. Raine and Zheng both looked at me in surprise, but I held my head high as I blushed. “That story was true. I believe every word of it.”

Raine smiled. “I won’t lie to you, Heather. Promise.”

“Prior oath,” Zheng purred. “Unfair advantage.”

But she was smiling too, showing her dragon’s teeth.

We’d broken for lunch and tea and a stretch, and returned with plates of sandwiches and pastries and steaming mugs. I’d even managed to get Zheng to try a Cornish pastry, and she’d enjoyed the experience, though it probably helped that the pastry was full of beef. Evelyn and Praem had returned to the house, clattering about downstairs, but perhaps Lozzie had intercepted them and told them what was happening, because neither of them interrupted. I’d perched on the bed with my plate and listened to Zheng tell a story, about a doomed romance, between two of the monks in the monastery where she’d spent a hundred years in the basement.

I struggled constantly with a desire to get up and initiate physical contact, with Raine or Zheng or both. Time bred comfort in my new clothes, and the storytelling engendered intimacy, and those combined into a slow need for casual skinship. Part of me wanted to lean against Raine, another part of me wanted to clamber into Zheng’s lap, but I couldn’t do either in front of the other.

Besides, they had their chairs, and I had the bed. The bed was my realm right now, stretched out with my blanket, but never covered more than a fraction, showing off what I was. Wearing these new clothes indoors almost seemed like a waste, especially after I’d skipped downstairs to the kitchen and back again, skirt twirling, hoodie hanging from my shoulders like a mantle. But there was no way I could go out in public like this. Not yet.

I contented myself with the attention of those closest to me.

Stay where you are, I had to remind myself more than once. The bed is inviolate. Raine can put her feet up on it, and Zheng can lean an elbow on the sheets. But this is yours, and for the moment, you are separate.

This was not about me. This was about them.

Raine did not win twice in a row after Zheng issued her challenge. To my surprise, and Zheng’s, she lost once, then told a comically detached story about a rather awful attempt to take Evelyn fishing when they were seventeen – which I made a mental note to ask Evelyn about, because it sounded exaggerated – and then she lost a second time.

“What is wrong, yoshou?” Zheng asked, slow and curious, like a tiger faced with prey lying down to be disembowelled without a fight. “You could have rolled again, not clung to what you had.”

Raine cracked a strange grin. “Maybe I’m sandbagging.”


“Maybe I want to tell you more about being homeless.”

And she did.

A loss was still a loss, even if invited. As Raine began to tell her tale, her strategy suddenly leapt out at me, and I struggled to stay still, stay quiet, vibrating with excitement that she was offering this vulnerability to Zheng, showing her belly.

Or was it a strategy at all? Was abyssal ruthlessness misinterpreting an attempt at genuine connection?

“Before I went south, down into Surrey and Sussex, I spent a while in London,” Raine said. “Shit place to be homeless, London, ‘specially if you don’t wanna go into a shelter. I was underage, social services would’a been on me the moment I sniffed the inside of a shelter, and I didn’t want that. I was too fucked up to go into a shelter anyway, I was … feral. Sort of.” She spoke without a smile. “The Met are bastards among bastards, even for police. Spent a week or two dodging them, begging, stealing, trying to survive. I was down and out.”

I reached out an impotent hand toward Raine, toward teenage Raine in the past, a presence I couldn’t comfort. She caught the gesture and shot me a smile, and must have seen the look on my face.

“Hey, Heather, it’s okay, I’m here now, yeah?”

“It breaks my heart to think of you sleeping on the streets,” I said, my voice cracking. I blinked water out of my eyes. “Sorry, sorry for interrupting.”

“S’alright. ‘Preciate the thought,” she said, and blew me a kiss. “Anyway, I got lucky. For about a month, I found somewhere that I could almost call home.” A genuine smile flickered across her lips. “It was a squat. A real one, run by an anarchist commune. Not like the student digs I used to have in Sharrowford. One of those old terraced London townhouses, tied up in legal stuff by some land developer who wanted to do something with it, I dunno what. All those rooms, all that housing, sitting there empty. So they’d taken it over.”

“Anarchists?” I asked. I didn’t really know what that meant.

“No masters,” Zheng purred.

“Yeah.” Raine cracked a grin. “Zheng knows what’s up. S’where I picked up a lot of my politics. About a dozen of them lived in the place. They took care of it, fixed it up, shared everything, food, resources, bills, work. A real community. I couldn’t really contribute much. I mean, what was I? A fourteen year old girl, off her head, no skills except violence.”

“It does seem … dangerous,” I admitted.

“Yeah. Living in a squat was asking for trouble. All kinda monsters hang around those sorts of projects if they’re not chased off. But these people, they were the real deal, they lived their ideology, and I was safe there. They didn’t have a leader, exactly, but they mostly deferred to this one lady. I don’t remember her name. I wasn’t … ” Raine swallowed. “Good with names, then. Older lady, maybe in her forties. Very kind face. She talked to me a lot, taught me a bit of cooking. Her boyfriend lent me books, though I found reading hard at the time. Still got one of them.”

Raine nodded toward the corner of her desk, at her battered, dog-eared, yellow-tagged copy of The Conquest of Bread.

She’d tried to get me to read it a couple of times, and I’d discovered I wasn’t one for theory. But now I wanted to.

“They fed brain and body,” Zheng purred.

“That they did, yeah.” Raine nodded. “I was there for about three or four weeks. Almost started to get better, you know? Felt a touch human again. These people, they weren’t my people. They didn’t need me, but … well, it was nice. And then one night the Met turned up to break the doors down and arrest everybody and change the locks.”

“Oh!” I couldn’t help myself, frowning with second-hand outrage. “What absolute- I- well!”

Raine laughed softly. “Yeah. Fuckers. Just doing their job, wrecking anything built outside the system. I was there that night. They didn’t get violent. Well, not much.” Raine shrugged. “But it flipped a switch in my head. I was standing there in the kitchen doorway, watching two officers arresting the lady who’d been nice to me. This other officer, a young woman, she was approaching me with that condescending look. Knew she was going to ask how old I was, where my parents where, all that bullshit. I just turned around, went back to the room I’d been using, grabbed all my stuff, my backpack, tugged my hood up, and sprinted back into the kitchen with a piece of rebar in one hand.”

“Yes!” Zheng growled. I flinched in surprise. She was leaning forward in her chair, eyes boring holes into Raine.

“Dunno what I hoped to do,” Raine said. “But I tied up the cops for a few minutes of shouting, gave a few of the others time to grab stuff and get out the back. Knew I shouldn’t hurt anybody, ‘cos even if I got away, the bastards would pin it on the others. So I just ran around a lot and kicked a few shins, then jumped out a window.”

Raine pulled a smile of such nostalgic sadness, an echo of her confidence filtered through old insecurity, fear, and homelessness.

“Back into London streets,” she said. “The end.”

“Oh, Raine,” I murmured. “I’m not even going to judge that one, of course you’re telling the truth.”

Raine shrugged with exaggerated self-consciousness. “Glad you think so. Well, that’s me done.” She scooped up her dice again. “What you say, big girl? Ready to lose twice in a row?”

But Zheng was staring at Raine, wide-eyed with predatory focus, alert and switched on. If she’d turned that kind of gaze on me, I would have curled up in a ball in a corner in an effort to escape, but Raine merely paused with a raised eyebrow.

“No more dice,” Zheng rumbled.

My mouth went dry. Adrenaline throbbed through my veins. A corner of my mind started screaming. What had gone wrong? I glanced back and forth between Zheng and Raine, at the pair of frozen expressions gauging and judging the other.

“Um,” I managed.

“Hold up,” Raine murmured to me, without taking her eyes off Zheng. “No more dice, hey?”

“You will not win my past from me,” Zheng purred. “You will not take it as loot.”

Oh no, no no no no, I thought. I almost launched myself off the bed to put myself between the two of them. I could feel the fight coming. Abyssal instinct recognised this.

Abyssal instinct does not understand people.

“I give it freely,” Zheng said, and I couldn’t believe my ears. “As a gift.”

Raine tilted her head in a gracious nod. “Cool. I accept?”

“I was made by accident,” Zheng purred. “In grief and love.”

To my wide-eyed heart-fluttering surprise, Zheng told Raine the story of her ‘birth’, of her early life in northern Siberia, of her people, and her little bird. The same story she’d told me in the woods beyond Sharrowford, where she’d confessed what I meant to her and what she thought I was, where I’d convinced her to come home with us. The version she told in these comfortable surroundings was far less fragmented, without the tears or the tenderness. I’d never told Raine anything Zheng had revealed to me that day. That was Zheng’s history to share or keep private, and I felt light-headed as she told the story.

Raine listened politely and asked pointed questions, and to my equally fascinated ears she managed to draw out details I’d never heard from Zheng. The shape of her beloved’s face, the scent of the northern forests, the practises of the Mongols’ tame wizards.

Zheng reached the end, and told the part that made my heart skip a beat.

“Alright,” Raine said, respectful and serious. “So Heather’s the reincarnation of your shaman. Cool.”

I winced, blushing terribly. “Raine, how can you just believe it like that?”

“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s Zheng’s deal, yeah?”

Zheng shrugged, expansive and unreadable. “Perhaps. Perhaps you monkeys are reborn again, like the Buddhists say. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’ve grown sentimental. It matters not. My shaman is here, and here is where I stay, until she dies again.”

“But that’s not for a loooong time.” Raine cracked a grin and pointed at me. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“Agreed,” Zheng purred.

“Raine,” I protested. “Aren’t you … you know? I mean, this isn’t … rational.” I huffed. “Oh, who am I kidding, nothing in my life is rational anymore. Maybe I am a reincarnated shaman from northern Siberia, fine.”

Raine laughed. “Hey, as long as Zheng isn’t making prior claim.”

“I claim nothing but a place at the shaman’s side,” Zheng purred.

“I got no problem with that,” Raine said, easy and calm, but with something unspoken beneath her words. “Here, you showed me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

“R-Raine!” I hissed.

But I’d misunderstood. Gutter-mind Heather, I shushed myself.

“I wasn’t an accident,” Raine was saying. “But my parents sure didn’t plan for whatever the hell I was.”

Raine returned the respect and trust, and told Zheng the basics of her upbringing, her long dissociative state, her selective mutism, and why she ran away from home. Far more condensed and coherent than the tearful tale she’d told me in the room at Sharrowford General Hospital, unblurred by painkillers or adrenaline or fear of rejection. She told it almost laughing, and capped the story off with a proper ending – a truncated version of when she met Evee, the journey through the Saye estate to find her new reason for being a person.

“Mm. You love the wizard too,” Zheng purred.

“I do. Yeah. I love Evee like a sister, won’t lie. I killed a couple of things like you, just to get to her, and that was before I even knew her name.”

“Raine,” I scolded, very gently.

Raine spread her hands. “Not as old or experienced as Zheng though, fair point.”

“Then they were not things like me,” Zheng purred.

Raine laughed. To my surprise, Zheng laughed too, low and slow and dark, and I breathed a tight sigh of relief. Raine noticed my tension and shot a wink at me. I managed to nod back, one hand to my chest, rubbing my sternum through my ribbed sweater.

Yoshou, mmmmmm,” Zheng made a deep rumbly thinking sound, eyes narrowing to sleepy slits. “This does not do you justice.”

“Come again?”

Tsoryn gants chono,” Zheng said. “You are no monkey. You are the hunter that dies without the pack. Born alone. You should have starved to death on the steppe. But you did not. You found your wizard, and you found the shaman.”

I was afraid Raine might laugh again, but she nodded along, taking this seriously. I dared not make a sound lest I disrupt the strange alchemy that crackled in the air between them.

“You wanna join the pack?” she asked.

Zheng stared, heavy-lidded and dark, and blinked once.

“Cool,” Raine said, as easy as agreeing on what to eat for lunch.

Zheng purred once, and grew quiet.

“ … that’s it?” I blurted out, wide-eyed, then blushed when they both looked at me, suddenly self-conscious under the scrutiny now that Raine and Zheng had joined forces in some indefinable, ineffable fashion. “U-uh, um, sorry, I didn’t mean to … ”

“That’s just the peace treaty, Heather,” Raine laughed, and kicked her feet up onto the bed. “Zheng old girl, I think you and I need to have a real talk. About the reason we’re up here in the first place.”

“Mmmmmmm,” Zheng purred.

“And what better time for it?” Raine went on, turning theatrical with a wave of her hand. She kissed the tips of two fingers, and then used them to shoot a double-barrelled finger-gun at me. “She’s right here.”

My heart juddered so hard I thought it was going to stop. My insides turned to a wall of butterflies. My face went red.

“Um … ”

“The shaman is always here,” Zheng purred.

“Yes, philosophically speaking Heather would be with me even if I was in a lightless pit, she’s proved that,” Raine said. “But I mean she’s here, right now, in the room, and she asked for this, so she can’t very well run off without undermining her own aims.”

Raine had me dead to rights.

In the few seconds she’d been speaking, my limbs had acquired a mind of their own. On shaking feet and numb hands I’d clambered off the bed and slipped back into the fluffy slippers, my mind whirling with half-baked excuses to leave the room and – and what?

Raine’s gaze pinned me to the floor. Zheng’s eyes fixed me to the wall. I swallowed hard, and tried to locate my lungs.

“I won’t run,” I squeaked.

Raine smiled, bright and confident. Zheng showed all her teeth.

“Then let’s talk about you,” Raine said.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Between sleep inertia, trembling courage, white-hot embarrassment – and a touch of mechanical unfamiliarity – I took over an hour and half to put on my new clothes. Probably some kind of record for dressing oneself in the morning.

“You can do this, it’s going to be fine, Raine’s going to love it, everyone’s going to love it. You’re going to be fine.”

I took a shower first.

Alone, to cool my head and warm my body, muttering jumbled affirmations while I gave my legs a once over with the safety razor. Halfway through it began to feel too much like a ritual cleansing, and I fought down a heady mixture of self-consciousness and ambient sexual anticipation. The heat soaked through my skin and bones, waking me up. As I drew closer to the moment I would have to step out of the shower, my nerves grew into an unstoppable heart-flutter. So I turned the heat up and closed my eyes and stood under the stream of almost scalding water.

“Breathe. Breathe, Heather, breathe. It’s fine. It’s fine. Nobody is going to laugh at you. What are you even afraid of?”

Rejection? No. Raine loved me. Zheng would do anything I asked.

The new clothes waited neatly folded on the bathroom counter: bubblegum pink ribbed sweater, nebula-purple triple layered skirt, the beautiful pink-scaled hoodie, and a pair of white tights that Raine had bought for me months ago.

If Sevens was watching – and if she was, I was going to give her such a slap – she must have been pleased as pudding to see me following her suggestion so closely.

But she might not like what I was going to do with it.

Before my shower, while Raine had dozed in bed after her promised half-dose of painkillers and a brief shared breakfast of toast and tea, I’d slipped downstairs in the slow-growing apricot dawn, to fetch my new clothes from the dryer in the little utility room, and to check on Zheng. She was asleep in her usual spot, in her baggy grey jumper and jeans, sprawled out across the broken-backed sofa like a tiger on a log. I couldn’t spot any grisly trophies, and Zheng didn’t smell of blood or meat, so I assumed her hunt had not borne fruit.

To be fair, if she had found and killed the ex-cultist, I fully expected her to leave the severed head on the kitchen table, or bound upstairs to show me like a cat with a dead mouse.

When I crouched down and eased the dryer open, Zheng purred behind me.


“Z-Zheng? S-sorry, I was … getting stuff. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She cracked open one razor-sharp eye and regarded me from beneath a heavy lid. “Your heartbeat alone could wake me from death, shaman, but you reek of fear and heat, both.”

Couldn’t hide anything from Zheng, certainly not my physical state, not with her senses. I’d straightened up, arms full of clothes, and gathered my courage.

“I want you and Raine to play the dice and stories game today,” I said, every word a guitar string tightened too far. “With each other.”

Zheng stared, unmoving and unmoved, a tiger in the baking tropical sun, listening to a chimpanzee hoot and howl.


I blinked rapidly, uncomprehending, heart in my throat. I was so nervous I’d lost command of my memories. “Wha-what? I-I mean, I’m sorry? Pardon?”

Akarakish is the name of the game, shaman.” Zheng’s mouth curled into a sleepy, toothy smile. “And the yoshou best have stories to wager, or she will have to pledge other secrets.”

“No violence. No hurting her. That is the exact opposite of what I want you two doing,” I said quickly. “If you can’t play it without hurting her, tell me now. Please.”

Zheng’s stare did not relent. Breakfast turned to lead in my belly. A small, animal part of me which still hadn’t internalised Zheng’s indebted devotion wanted very much to squeak apologies and scurry away, just to get out from under her languid predatory attention. But the rest of me, the hybrid combination of abyssal memory and ape instinct, felt her gaze as the warm kinship of a pack-mate. And she would not harm me. So I stood my ground.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment, please,” I managed to say.

“You want us to play nice, shaman.” Her smile turned sharp and unimpressed. “Hnnh.”

“She won’t insult you,” I said, struggling with the complexity. I wasn’t even showered and in my new clothes yet and I was already negotiating the most treacherous broken emotional ground of my life. “If she does, I will be there to tell her off and correct her.”


I rolled my eyes, mostly at myself. “Okay, fair enough, she won’t insult you any more than her standard level of teasing for anybody. A bit of gentle ribbing is part of how she expresses friendship. And she’s been making a real effort lately. And yes, I want you two to get along. I do. I want … I … I think we should … ”

I trailed off, narrowly resisting the urge to bury my burning face in the clothes I was carrying.

Zheng’s eyes snapped wide open, alert and dark in the orange light of the growing dawn. She uncoiled on the broken-backed sofa, staring at me like a big cat surprised to find a rodent had wandered close during sleep. She arched her back, flexing bunched muscles, showing off her Olympian curves, tilting her head up to present an expanse of bare throat – but paused halfway, as if unable to believe what she had scented. Raw physicality pulled me to climb into her lap, snuggle in close, bathe in her heat and scent.

This was, to put it lightly, quite arousing.

But I clamped down. I told myself no, and I meant it. I swallowed, took a long shuddering breath, and Zheng somehow sensed the iron-fisted control over my own sexual drive.

“Do not torment me,” she rumbled. “Mean it, or-”

“This is not about sex.”

Zheng paused, cold scepticism on her face. She leaned forward and opened her mouth and unrolled twelve inches of wet red tongue, then snapped it back between her teeth again.

“You’re in rut, shaman. I can smell you.”

I blushed bright red. “Well … thank you for that. Alright then.”

“And you have made a decision.”

I huffed a huge sigh, powered more by nerves and embarrassment than exasperation. “It’s not my decision to make-”

“I am yours, and I am still here. Ask. Ask and-”

“Not. My. Decision,” I repeated. “It’s your decision. And Raine’s decision. A-and I can’t think about it right now, and it’s not the decision you’re thinking of anyway, and-”

“We are your hands, shaman. And you are in rut. Use me as you-”

“It’s not just about me!” I almost exploded at her. “I’m not trying to mash you two together like Barbie dolls for my amusement! If there’s three of us, then there’s three of us. And we are not starting with sex. We’re not even going third or fourth or fifth with sex, to be quite honest. And if you try to make it about sex, about my gratification, then I will … I will get up and bloody well leave. I will take Lozzie and go sit in the park for the rest of the day and have her teach me how to do cartwheels or handstands or something. We’ll play on the swings. I’ll nap with Tenny.”

Zheng blinked once – then broke into a laugh, a big rolling chuckle that made her hunch forward, raise her eyebrows, and shrug at me.

“I’m serious!” I squeaked.

“You are, shaman. I do not mock you, I laugh at myself. This is why I follow you. Very well.”

She folded herself back onto the sofa again, coiling up like a great serpent hidden in the roots of the house. She rolled her neck and cracked her jaw and wiggled her toes, getting comfortable before she closed her eyes again, and fell still.

“So … you’ll play the game – akarakish – with Raine?” I asked.

“I will. But I will not play nicely with the yoshou.”

I sighed. What had I missed? What had I misunderstood? “Zheng, I can’t have you two hurt each other.”

“I will be myself, shaman. And I swore an oath not to fight her. I will not break that.”

“ … ah. Well. Fair enough. Okay.” I managed a nod, cheeks burning as I came down from my burst of courage. We were actually going to do this. It was happening. “I’m going to go shower and … dress. Yes. So, later, okay? But not too much later today or I’ll lose my nerve. If you understand. I hope you understand.”

“Mmmhmmm,” Zheng purred.

“I’ll just … ” I gestured with arms full of clothes, but Zheng seemed already asleep again.

I’d backed out of the utility room and scampered across the kitchen like a child running to bed after switching off a hallway light, pursued by imaginary monsters in the sudden dark, by the notion that Zheng might lurch from the old sofa and sweep me up in a skin-hot hug and I’d melt in her embrace. But she didn’t, and I’d escaped my own libido with my intentions intact.

Taking the clothes into the bathroom was a masterstroke of self-deception.

I only realised once I was standing there half-wrapped in a towel, covered in goosebumps, wreathed in the collected steam from the shower’s heat, and staring at the little pile of colourful clothes which commanded my attention with all the seductive succulence of a carnivorous jungle plant.

Getting dressed in here gave me time and space. Raine would happily have vacated the bedroom to let me get dressed in privacy – or even more happily watched me – but then it would be an event, she would be waiting for me, the pressure would burst my heart and I’d have seized any opening to retreat, any excuse to back down, to put this off until tomorrow, or the day after, or next weekend, or never.

But like this?

My pajamas were already in the laundry hamper. Dragging them back on would waste the freshly showered feeling. I had left myself only one choice.

I spent too long drying my hair, then hung up my towel with shaking hands, heart juddering in my chest and throat.

“You are allowed to wear these,” I hissed to myself. “Evelyn spent money on them, for you. For pity’s sake, fighting giant spirit monsters didn’t leave you this shaken. Get dressed.”

Easier said than done. Getting dressed had never before proven so complicated. My hands shook through the entire process, and I’m pretty certain I stopped breathing at one point. I’d worn tights before, of course, but always with the intention of looking as smart as possible, donning standard femininity like a suit of anonymous armour. The last time I’d done so was when I’d passed myself off as Kimberly’s girlfriend at the Wiccan coven meeting, and I’d had no time to appreciate how I looked then, no focus to spare on the aesthetics of my own body.

But now I slid the clean nylon up my legs, settled it smooth and snug and tight, and my heart caught in my throat as I turned my attention down at my own legs, wrapped in thick and warm one-hundred-forty denier white.

Not terrible, I suppose. Compact. Slender.

“ … concentrate,” I hissed.

I barely recalled putting on my underwear, let alone tugging the triple-layered skirt around my waist or wriggling into the plush pink ribbed sweater. The whole thing was a blur of shaking hands and catching breath and before I knew it I was staring at myself in the mirror, wide-eyed and flushed and numb.

“Oh,” I breathed. Couldn’t think.

On a detached, technical, mechanical level, the outfit fit together surprisingly well; the white tights and bubblegum pink balanced each other out, soft bookends to the ostentatious dark skirt, flaring out from my hips in exuberant display of dusky purple frilled layers. I had to give Sevens that. Whatever showy aesthetic tastes she’d catalysed in me, she had a good eye for symmetry and proportion.

On the other hand-

“I look so silly,” I whispered, cringing at myself.

Lump in my throat, water in my eyes, chest tight with the need to retreat. Confronting this was too much. My hands twitched toward the skirt to yank it down, but I quickly grabbed the hairbrush from the bathroom counter and began dragging it through my hair, focusing on my face and taking deep, shuddering breaths.

“Have to brush your hair,” I whispered to myself. “Can’t go back out there with messy hair too. It’s gotten longer now, so you have to take care. Take care. Take care of your hair. Haircare take care. Oh dear.”

Eventually, with great effort, I looked myself up and down again.

I turned slightly to the left and right, pivoting on the balls of my feet, and the triple layers of the dark skirt moved like diaphanous membranes floating in ocean waters, brushing my thighs and knees as I moved. A joyous display in the dark. The bubblegum pink ribbed sweater was thick and soft, a supple membrane over my vulnerable tissues, but bright and showy, not covert camouflage. Between the top and the tights I felt almost sleek, as if I was ready to slip through undersea currents with a flick of my feet.

My phantom limbs rose in acknowledgement, at rest, content.

In the abyss I had been a thing of pure survival, of toxins and sharp teeth and raking claws, of corded muscle and speed and stealth. When I had seen Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight through abyssal senses, she had been revealed as beautiful, as a thing of vast display and aesthetic power, and I hadn’t understood.

Now I did, in the tiniest way.

A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I wiped them with the back of my hand, not wanting to stain my new clothes. Euphoric joy was too much.

I stood there a while longer, trying out different expressions in the mirror, different poses, experimenting to see what felt silly and what felt right, making my skirt swish and tilting my chin up, but in the end it all defaulted back to me. This was just me, and I could be this if I wanted. I didn’t need to become somebody else to wear clothes that affirmed what I really was.

I felt almost powerful.

What I still didn’t feel was particularly pretty. It was, in the end, just me, and that was a double-edged sword. I wasn’t wearing makeup and wasn’t about to start; that held no affirming power for me. I finally picked up the pink-scaled hoodie and draped it over my shoulders like a layer of semi-shed snake-skin, framing my chest and belly, and narrowly resisted the urge to drag it on properly and zip it up just to hide the shape of my own body.

I felt more right than I had before, but it was still only little old me, scrawny five foot nothing Heather.

“But maybe scrawny five foot nothing Heather is okay?” I asked myself in the mirror.

My reflection smiled at me, warm and encouraging.

“Exactly,” she said.

“Don’t spoil this now, Sevens,” I blazed at her, surprised at the sudden heat of my anger. “You keep out of this. This is mine. Go away.”

My reflection’s expression snapped back to my own. I spent a few moments frowning at myself, watching for an uncharacteristic twinkle in my eyes or a floating halo of yellow about my head, but Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stayed firmly buggered off.

The nervous heart-shudder flooded back when it came time to leave the bathroom. I lingered by the doorway, taking my time with the final, improvised element of the outfit: a pair of fluffy boot slippers borrowed from Kimberly. Usually I wore thick socks around the house, sometimes more than one pair, and it hadn’t taken me much time standing on the bathroom floor in only tights to realise Raine had not been speaking in metaphor when she said I might get ‘cold feet’. No matter how sleek and smooth and pretty the white tights were, they were very thin compared to a good pair of thermal socks, so I snuggled my feet into the welcoming warm fuzz of the slippers.

“Just don’t give them back to me smelling of Zheng, okay?” Kimberly had asked.

“We’re not going to- … get physical,” I’d said.

“Okay. Okay then.” Kimberly had nodded and smiled and not believed a word of that.

But I was determined not to mess this up.

At the last moment before I screwed up my courage, with my hand on the bathroom door handle, I felt a final pang of guilt. Here I was dressing up, preparing to embark on the first uncharted step of creating an absolute drama nightmare of a three-way relationship that might not even work. And Maisie was still out there in the cold and the dark, imprisoned by the Eye, alone.

But Sevens was right. She was right about anchors.

Not about everything – she could shove off with her insinuations I needed to have a threesome.

Sex would be no anchor alone. Sex to the exclusion of love, well, there was nothing wrong with that. But it wouldn’t make me secure.

When I’d been out there slipping down the edge of the abyss like a foolish diver sucked into a marine trench by an undertow, I had needed an anchor. Somebody to hold my ankles and around my waist so I could lower myself over the edge. Sevens had pulled me up, but she was a half-abyssal thing herself, a creature that understood the logic, the deep, and the math which described it all. When I’d dived willingly into the black waters beneath creation, I’d taken the memory of my friends and their names and their smells and touch and our home together in a pressurised bubble in my core, but even that had served only as guide and curious comfort, not an air-line to the surface.

Diving bell, bathysphere, air-line, anchor. I had to build something, and I only had certain materials to hand. Self, math, those who loved me.

I wasn’t deluding myself. I had zero idea what I was doing, let alone how I could feed any of this into brainmath, but Sevens’ suggestion was better than anything else I had so far. And I did know the first step was to get Raine and Zheng talking.

“Please don’t end in a fight,” I prayed, and opened the bathroom door.

Raine and Lozzie and Tenny were all waiting for me.

Thankfully they weren’t lined up in the hallway like the audience at a catwalk. If they had done that, I might have slammed the door shut and hidden inside and needed coaxing back out with books and chocolate. Instead I took a couple of nervous steps out into the crooked upstairs hallway, with the thin light of a Northern spring creeping in through the window, and found it much the same as always, not transformed into an alienating environment in response to me simply wearing a few different clothes.

“Heathy!” Lozzie said, making me jump, half-leaning out of her own bedroom doorway. She must have been listening and waiting for me.

“O-oh, Loz-”

My eyes went wide and I almost choked up, but Lozzie bounced and bounded down the hallway in a few quick steps, a whirling pastel tornado, her own version of abyssal display, and threw her arms around me for a very quick, very nuzzly hug, and then just as quickly drew back with a playful elfin giggle on her lips.

“You look great! Yeah! You did it! I thought I was going to have to come into the bathroom with you and help and make you comfy and stuff but you did and it looks so good it’s really really you, it’s your style if you want it to be and I like it and ahhhh I kinda wanna borrow the skirt already but it’s yours it’s yours give me like six months!” She giggled again, a rapid-fire stream of overwhelming positivity.

“T-thank you, Lozzie. I … yes, it’s difficult. Thank you.”

Tenny drifted out of the bedroom behind her and wandered closer. Silken black tentacles crept forward to gently investigate the frilled hem of the triple-layered skirt and the texture of my tights. Her face was so serious, blinking with curiosity as she peered into my eyes.

“Heath?” she trilled.

It was very much a question.

“Yes, Tenny, it’s just me. I put a new outfit on. You’ve seen me in different clothes before. Tenny?”

In a moment of mounting awkwardness, Tenny just blinked her massive oil-dark eyes at me, as if she wasn’t sure who I was – but then she broke into a big smile, an extra-level-smile, a Tenny-has-been-copying-Lozzie smile. She read my nervousness and my scent, and bobbed her head from side to side as if I was being the silly one.

And then she patted me on the head with one tentacle.

“Silly Heath,” she said, and made a trilling pbbbbbt sound.

I laughed, nerves releasing in a flutter of embarrassment, all flushed in the face. “Of course, Tenny. S-sorry. I-I’m so self conscious right now, I can’t … I can’t think, I-”


Raine’s voice made me jump and twirl to find her in the corridor behind me, leaning on her crutch, like I was a marine scavenger surprised by the sub-vocalisation of a shark. She must have been waiting in our bedroom, resting her leg, and gotten up at the sound of our voices.

She looked me up and down with the biggest smile on her face, and the smile was all encouragement and warmth, her burning confidence lighting me up brighter than the sun.

“Raine,” I squeaked, vibrating so hard I thought I was going to pass out. “How do I … look?”

She paused, cocked an eyebrow at me, and grinned a grin to stop my heart. “How do you look? Does the sun rise in the morning? Does two plus two equal four? Is the sky blue?”

I blushed hot enough to cook an egg. Lozzie snorted and hid behind both hands. Even Tenny made a fluttery fffffftttt noise.

Raine,” I tried to scold, but it came out as a pleading whine that made Lozzie attempt to put a whole fist into her own mouth.

“You look like the sort of goddess revealed in an LSD trip to heaven,” Raine carried on. “You are every dream I’ve ever had, and all the others I didn’t know I wanted. You look brilliant! Look at you! You’re pulling it off, I knew you could.”

Raine stepped in close and for a moment I thought she was going to do something incredibly sexual, not only inappropriate because Tenny was right there, but because we’d talked about this earlier, about how this was not going to be about sex, not today, not until after the game at the absolute least, that I couldn’t let it be about sex. But I knew that if she slipped a hand up my thigh beneath that triple-layered skirt or slid her fingers across my stomach underneath the ribbed sweater, all my resolution would crumble and my new clothes would shortly be forming a crumpled pile at the foot of our bed.

But she kissed me on the forehead, winked, and leaned back again. “You look amazing. See? You can wear whatever you want.”

“ … ”

I waited, wide-eyed, vibrating, for the other shoe to drop. For Raine to lean back in and whisper something in my ear that I couldn’t resist.

“Heather? Hey, Heather, breathe, yeah? You look good, for real, I’m not just humouring you. Hundred percent.”

But she didn’t do it. She respected the request.

I blew out a long breath and nodded, shaking and numb but coming back together. “T-thank you, of course I know you’re telling the truth. Thank you, Raine. Thank you. Oh, goodness, I’m so self-conscious, I-I-I’m not sure I can deal with everyone seeing me right now.”

“Then you’re in luck.” Raine shot a finger-gun at me. “Evee’s at campus for a couple of hours.”

My heart juddered in an entirely different direction. “What? Why? Alone?”

“Not alone!” Lozzie chirped.

“Alone?” Raine cocked an eyebrow. “Heather, come on, I’ve taken a bullet in the leg, not a concussive head wound. She’s taken Praem with her. Right now, yeah, Praem makes a much better bodyguard than me. Can hardly strike an imposing figure with this.” She shrugged the shoulder propping herself up on the crutch.

“Why now though? What’s she doing?”

“Going to class?” Raine smirked. “It’s Monday.”

“Oh. Oh, of course. Uh, silly me, yes.” I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, feeling stupid for a moment. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget magic isn’t her entire life.”

Raine pulled a knowing smile. “She barely needs classes anyway. Probably just wants to jabber in Greek for an hour to clear her head. Anyway, she and Praem are out, Kim’s at work, Lozzie’s going to … ?” Raine raised her eyebrows and peered past me, with gentle encouragement in her eyes.

“Play video games!” Lozzie said, arms in the air.

“Vid’ gam’,” Tenny purred.

“I’ve lent them my old Gamecube,” Raine said to me with a wink. “Tenny’s gonna learn about Pikmin and maybe Luigi’s Mansion, if she can handle the spooky.”

“Handle spookeeee,” Tenny trilled, insistent and defiant.

“I have no idea what any of that means,” I said. “But that’s very sweet of you, Raine.”

“Ten-tens, here here,” Lozzie murmured behind me, taking Tenny by the tentacles and doing a little dance with her.

Before I could draw in another shaky breath – or ask what exactly Pikmin were, a kind of Pokemon? – Raine offered me her free hand with a little flourish, a twinkle in her eye, and a rakish tilt to her grin.

“May I have the honour of accompanying you downstairs to join the third point of our triangle, Lady Morell?”

I’d automatically put my hand in hers before processing what she actually said, and almost recoiled with distaste. “Raine! Don’t you call me that, that’s … weird.”

She burst out laughing. “Sure thing, Heather.”

“And yes, let’s go fetch Zheng before I completely lose my nerve, please, yes. Lead on.”

“Last I saw she’d put her feet up in the kitchen, the moment Praem was out the door.”

Raine held my hand high as she led me down the stairs, somehow graceful and smooth even with her crutch thumping on every step as we descended, but I didn’t have the spare mental capacity to tell her off for presenting me like we were entering a ballroom. I was far too conscious of the way my skirt looked, the way it made me move, the way it felt against my legs, and the way the scaled pink hoodie over my shoulders hung off me like a cloak. By the time we were at the kitchen door, my heart was fluttering at full speed again, my stomach a hollow void.

“And here she is!” Raine announced. “Our lady of the hour.”

Zheng was indeed sitting with her feet up in the kitchen, wide awake, quiet and brooding like a tiger contemplating the coming hunt, waiting for us with a razor-edged grin playing across her lips.

“Shaman!” she roared, clacked down the chair she’d been balancing on two legs, and stood up, stretching to her full height.

“H-hi. Zheng. Yes. I-I got changed.”

Zheng had changed as well – she’d swapped out her baggy grey jumper for a second, identical but cleaner baggy grey jumper, which still did very little to conceal her sheer size. I breathed a silent sigh of relief at that. The fresh clothes were a sign she was taking this seriously.

“The shaman transforms,” she purred.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Raine agreed, with great enthusiasm.

“I’d hardly go that far,” I protested in a stage-whisper.

“A bear’s pelt gives strength, a wolf’s head mask bestows stealth, and crow feathers can be sewn into a cloak so even monkeys can fly,” Zheng said. “As long as respect is given to the bear and the wolf and the crow. Do you respect what you are, shaman?”

I stared at her. “Yes,” I breathed. “Though I’m not sure I follow.”

“You do. Even if you do not know.”

“This is an awful lot of fuss over a fancy skirt,” I tutted, self-conscious and blushing. “You could just say I look nice and be done with it.”

“You look nice,” she rumbled.

“T-thank you.”

“So, big girl,” Raine said. “Apparently you and I are going head-to-head today, and neither of us have a choice.”

“You always have a choice,” I muttered. “That’s the entire point of this.”

Raine gave me the most affectionately ironic smile. “Neither of us has a choice when it comes to you, Heather.”

“I go where the shaman goes,” Zheng purred.

I huffed and rolled my eyes, feeling a little like a child throwing a tantrum in my party clothes – but my phantom limbs twitched and weaved through the air, and the shape of my skirt reminded me of what I was.

“Fine,” I said, with a second huff and a sharp look at the other two corners of my presumptive triangle. “Then I command both of you to tell me right now if you don’t want to do this. And tell the truth.”

Raine shrugged. “I’m game. I’ll also win.” She winked at Zheng. “Hope you’re ready for a whuppin’.”

Zheng grinned like a shark on the scent of a wounded seal. “I go where the shaman goes. You have guts, yoshou, and I will feast on them.”

“Metaphorically,” I said, a little too hard.

“Metaphorically,” Zheng allowed.


“A three! Aaaand a one … and another one, ooof.” Raine winced as the dice rolled to a stop in the tray. “My loss, yeah?”

Zheng leaned back in her armchair. “You learn quick, yoshou. And you lose.”

“Ahhhh well, can’t win ‘em all.” Raine grinned and leaned back as well, sprawled on the desk chair a few feet from the foot of the bed.

“You had courage,” Zheng purred. “You held your ground. Anything less would be certain defeat. But chance was not with you. No warrior can control the weather.”

Raine shot a lazy finger-gun at Zheng. “Ah ah ah, you keep making excuses for that first round. You want me to believe it was just beginner’s luck, but I surprised you, big girl. I’ll have you zeroed in soon enough.”

“Perhaps. First, you owe a tale.”

“Haaaaaah, that I do, that I do.”

Raine nodded slowly as she looked over at me. I’d made a sort of pillow throne-nest-perch at the head of the bed, in pride of place. I felt her eyes on me, and fought down a rather enjoyable blush.

“You do!” I said, already enthralled by the last half hour. “It’s your turn, Raine. Please.”

“Yes,” Zheng purred. “You must satisfy me, and our judge of truth.”

“True that, true that,” Raine mused, adjusting her sitting position, drawing one leg up to place a foot against the end of the bed.

“Did you not come prepared, yoshou?” Zheng purred, with a hidden mocking edge to her tone.

Raine gave her a mild eyebrow quirk. “I’ve got loads of stories, s’just all my most interesting ones aren’t really mine to tell, they belong to Evee. All the ones with violence, magic, and plenty of blood. All the ones that meant so much. But hey, I guess Heather knows most of those already. If we’re going to calibrate her truth-telling, I best start with one she doesn’t know. Right?”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred.

“Gotta warn you though, big girl, I’m no globe-trotting ancient like you, or baby-killing murderer like Stack. I’ve got some heavy ones in my quiver, some real life in there, but nothing epic, nothing soaring. My stories might bore you a bit.”

“Then tell them well.”

“We won’t be bored, Raine. Really!” I added. “I absolutely will not be, I can promise you that.”

“Alright then.” A mischievous twinkle entered Raine’s eyes. “Let’s start with something light. I’ll tell you about the time I became the devil.”

I could barely contain my excitement.

We were gathered in our bedroom. Well, my bedroom, Raine’s bedroom. Anything more than that was yet to be discussed. Zheng lounged in an old armchair, while Raine sat on the spinny desk chair, legs alternately up on the end of the bed or the desk itself or just oscillating herself back and forth as she thought or spoke or watched Zheng roll the dice. She moved her injured leg slower than she would have in the past, but her range of motion wasn’t too constricted. I was quite comfy, installed at the head of the bed, both audience and observed. I burned with self-consciousness in my nice clothes, especially with the way both Raine and Zheng would switch from focusing on each other to running appreciative glances over me – or was that my imagination, were they just looking at me like normal? – but the promise of good stories kept me from burying myself in embarrassment.

We’d commandeered a tray from the kitchen on which to roll the opposing sets of dice, which now stood on the foot of the bed between Zheng and Raine, close enough for either of them to toy with the dice between rolls.

As we’d been getting seated and situated, but before Zheng had explained the – to me, at least – mind-boggling rules of holding and raising and betting your hand, Raine had dug around in her possessions and presented Zheng with a set of very odd dice with lots of sides. They were very colourful, some were even little rainbows, or variations on rainbows. I’d never seen anything like them before.

“Dice can have more than six sides?” I’d asked, staring in fascination.

“Wait, hold up,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, you’ve never seen a dee-twenty before?”

I shook my head, dumbfounded. Raine had kissed me on the cheek in sheer amused delight.

Zheng had declined the opportunity to integrate the special dice into the game, and for that I was exceptionally glad, no matter how pretty they were. The maths of ‘walls’ and ‘scaling’ and ‘little gods’ was difficult enough for me to follow without adding extra improvisation with entirely new sets of numbers.

Raine’s special rainbow dice were mine to play with now, and I rolled them idly in my lap as I listened. I felt like a deep-sea mollusk, flushed and colourful with protective toxic display, perched on coral close to the surface to warm myself by the light of twin suns, showing off my frills and pigments, toying with pieces of smooth stone.

I felt content and safe and home.

And fascinated.

I’d purposefully chosen to bring us all upstairs into the bedroom in order to invite Zheng inside, into this intimate space, and Raine had accepted the gesture without question. But secretly even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d meant by it. Bedrooms had never been nice places for me, not since Maisie was taken away. My childhood bedroom was forever marred by an open wound that only I knew about, a constant reminder of loss, and my short-lived bedroom for the first couple of months at university had turned into a torture chamber of Eye-sent nightmares and sleep deprivation, forever stinking of fear-sweat and vomit.

But the room I shared with Raine at Number 12 Barnslow Drive was different. Nestled in the heart of this strangely solid old house, large with a high ceiling and plenty of space for a double bed, desk, armchairs, television and Raine’s video game consoles, not to mention my endless little piles of books, it felt more like part of a continuous warren up here in the top of the house, comfortable and known, and ours.

Zheng had – incredibly – lost the first round of akarakish to Raine.

In a game of wit and guts and holding one’s nerve, Raine excelled at pushing the limit and pushing her luck. She’d raised and raised and raised until Zheng had finally shown a speck of doubt and rolled one too many dice, and lost.

They’d stared each other down, two massive cats sizing up claw and muscle and territory. But then Zheng had roared with laughter, slapped the arm of the chair so hard I was afraid she might snap the underlying wood, and declared Raine’s victory a fair one. If rash.

So Zheng had gone first.

She’d told us a story about a man she’d known in the armies of the khans, an important warrior who had wanted Zheng dead – not for being unnatural or eating through enough horse meat to supply ten men for weeks, or even for insulting him by urinating on his tent, but simply because she was strong and he thought himself strongest. He had owned a magic sword. It was a short and bloody tale, almost a fable, which ended with her blunting the man’s supposed magic sword on her forearms and beating him to death with the pommel.

She told it with a dark smile and a lizard-like fixation on Raine, and I did not like the thematic undertones. But she looked at me at the end, for approval.

“ … um?”

“Truth, shaman?” she purred. “I am telling truth?”

“Oh, um.” I’d hesitated, fascinated and disgusted at the violence, but mostly worried by the unsubtle message she’d sent. “It seems truthful to me, though it was a bit … fable-like, with the ending and all. Almost too convenient.”

“Hey, I liked it,” Raine said, grinning. Did she miss the message or was she being polite? “Real hack and slash.”

Zheng had stared at me for a moment longer, and I’d held her gaze, and then she’d split into a wide grin, showing all her teeth. “Shaman! I cannot deceive you. The tale is true, but the ending is a lie.”

“Oh.” I blinked.

“Jirghadai did bury his sword in my left arm, but I didn’t beat him to death afterwards. I ran off with the sword!” She barked with laughter. “All over the camp, out onto the steppe, and back again. He rode after me, puffing and shouting, but I am faster than any horse. Every one of his friends and fellows was roaring with laughter at his folly. I dropped the sword at his wife’s feet. She was laughing too.”

And so Zheng had scooped up the dice again, plus two more she had to roll as a handicap for her lie. I had a funny feeling she’d fully expected me to pick up on that one, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her intentions now. But she’d won that next round, and here we were.

“So,” Raine began her story, kicking her feet up on the end of the bed and leaning back on her hands. “My parents were very religious. Real serious God-botherer types.”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred, eyes narrowed. I perked up at the prospect of anything from Raine’s childhood, as welcome as gold dust.

“Heather knows a bit of this already, but the context’s for you.” Raine nodded to Zheng. “Not nice cuddly modern CoE types either, or even regular Catholics – er,” she broke off with a raised eyebrow. “’Scuse me, Zheng, I’ve just realised, you’re gonna need a tiny bit of Christian theology for this one to make sense. Do you … ?”

“I spent a century in the deep cellars of a monastery in the Carpathians,” Zheng said. “The monks assumed I was a fallen thing. Tried to make me repent the sin of rebellion. I have heard the Christian book front to back thousands of times.”

Raine winced. “Ouch. My condolences.”


“Anyway, okay. So my parents were very, very religious, and when I was little we went to Church like clockwork, every Sunday. Not a real Church, mind you, not something built out of stone in the middle ages, but this fancy modern building, all white and ridiculous fake beams and glowing displays. You’d hate it, Heather,” she nodded at me.

“Ugh, probably,” I said.

“But hey, to my parents, the most important thing about going to Church was being friendly with the right people, climbing the social ladder, and though I hate to admit it, they were actually quite good at being a pair of greasy little toadies and sucking up to their ‘social betters’.” Raine did little air-quotes. “And by the time I was about nine or ten – I think that’s when it happened – they were actually pretty friendly with the vicar. Preacher. Whatever. They didn’t call him a vicar because he wasn’t CoE, but it’s basically the same thing, with a touch more insane ranting about modern fabrics causing hurricanes.”

“Tch,” I tutted under my breath.

“One Sunday afternoon my parents stayed behind after a service, for some kind of social call with the vicar and his wife. Some tea and cake nonsense. My parents didn’t want their weird daughter hanging around, so they sent me off into the Church grounds to amuse myself.” Raine spread her hands as a grin crept onto her face. “Now, I didn’t give a toss about any of this. What did I care about? Well, the vicar had a daughter.”

“Oh no,” I said out loud.

Raine laughed and turned to me, holding up a finger. “We were ten. Seriously. S’not like that.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” I said, blushing. “I just … it is you.”

“We’ll get there.” Raine winked. “This girl, her name was Gracie. Not Grace, but Gracie. We were actually in the same class at school, but we were so far apart in playground social status we may as well have come from different planets. She was a real little madam, nose-in-the-air type, spoilt rotten by her parents, owned a pony. Meanwhile, I was a bit of a weird child. Kinda quiet.” She gave me a side-eyes look, and I knew that was all Zheng was getting of Raine’s peculiar personal history for the moment. “So, there we are, two ten year old girls, alone in this stupid looking ornamental garden of a crackpot Church, while our parents amuse themselves discussing whatever adults discuss beyond earshot of their kids.”

“Children’s games make good stories,” Zheng purred in the dramatic pause, and to my surprise, she sounded like she meant it.

“Oh, but we didn’t play a game,” Raine said, lighting up with slow-building glee. “We decided to discuss theology. A ten-year-old’s version of theology.”

“Oh dear,” I sighed.

“Oh dear is right. I don’t remember how it started, probably with a totally innocent question, but seeing as to our vast gap in social status, Gracie got it into her head that she needed to assert dominance.”

Rrrrrr,” Zheng purred – low and animal and appreciative. She understood dominance.

“She was pretty, she was popular, she was the daughter of an important man,” Raine went on. “She was blonde, she was wearing a nice dress, she wanted a place in the pecking order, and she’d absorbed all this jumbled up religious jargon. So little Gracie decided this made her better than me, holier than me, closer to God than me. And I was a weird little child, I was very quiet and very intense. So as we’re wandering through this garden and poking at the ground with sticks, she’s telling me this mish-mash of half-remembered Bible stories, like she’s trying to instruct me, and I think she read my quiet lack of giving-a-shit as defiance, when I was honestly just listening, because she was kinda pretty and even at ten years old I sort of wanted to hold her hand or be her friend or something.” Raine shrugged.

“Awwww, Raine.” I couldn’t help myself.

“Wait, you won’t be going ‘awww’ in a minute.” Raine struggled to control her smile. “So eventually we reach the rear of the garden. It’s pretty secluded, there’s high walls, vines climbing the brickwork, some tall trees, and an ornamental pond, where we pause for a moment. Gracie’s really worked up by now, thinks I don’t know my place. She was puffed up with importance because this is her daddy’s Church, and he’s a holy man, and she thinks I’m not recognising her place, that she’s special and one of God’s chosen or whatever. So she turns to me and declares with complete confidence that she can walk on water.”

I involuntarily put my hands to my mouth, eyes going wide. “Oh no, oh Raine don’t tell me she drowned.”

“No, no, nothing like that! That would be really dark, I said we’re starting off light. Relax.”

Zheng was grinning, chuckling softly in the back of her throat.

“Yeah, I know,” Raine said. “Blasphemous. Anyway, I was smart enough about metaphor and meaning to know that she was barking up completely the wrong tree, and I told her so. Only Jesus walks on water, right? No, says Gracie, ‘my dad says I can walk on water, and my dad knows Jesus better than your dad’. And we were nearly shouting now, how kids do sometimes when they argue, from zero to sixty in an instant. And I was thinking well, she’s pretty, but she’s kinda dumb.”

“Tch,” I tutted softly, but I was gripping a pillow now, squeezing it in my lap, on the edge of my seat.

“So I said ‘prove it’, and I pointed at the pond.” Raine mimed the gesture. “And to her credit, Gracie nearly tried to walk on water.”

“But she didn’t?” I asked in a whisper.

Raine shook her head. “She almost took the first step, but she stopped at the last moment, with her shoe hovering about an inch from the surface of the pond. I remember the way her face changed, it was so subtle. This moment of doubt, the moment she realised she’d talked herself into a corner, and she was going to have to back down or apologise. To me! Little weird Raine, with the stare and the ugly clothes and the slimy parents. She was about to be humiliated, in front of a social inferior.” Raine pulled a faux-tragic expression.

“Deserved the lesson,” Zheng purred, so soft it was almost inaudible.

“Naaaah she didn’t. At least I didn’t think so, not back then. I wanted to save her. So I did.” Raine couldn’t keep the grin off anymore, bursting into full shit-eating life across her face. “Before she could pull her foot back to dry land, I put one hand against her back and – wufff!”

Raine mimed a hearty shove.

“You pushed a child into a pond?!” I exploded.

“I was a child too!” Raine laughed, then flicked suddenly serious. “And it did save her. It was only a foot deep, but it was full of algae and pond scum and probably rat piss, and she went splashing in face-first. Her dress was absolutely ruined and soaking, water in her hair, she was bawling her eyes out. I jumped in after her and pulled her to her feet, because she was so paralysed by the surprise of it. She was crying in my face, sobbing with, well, I guess embarrassment, asking why I’d done that, why I’d ruined everything, why anybody would be so nasty?” Raine shrugged. “Nowadays I know why I did it, because I figured that a ruined dress was a lesser wound that having to apologise to me, but I didn’t figure for breaking her rudimentary faith. But back then, with this girl crying at me, I didn’t have an answer.”

“Oh, Raine.”

“So I said the first thing that made theological sense. I looked her dead in the eye and said ‘maybe I’m the devil.’”

Raine paused for effect. I was open-mouthed with disbelief. Zheng was purring like a tiger.

“She wasn’t terrified of me,” Raine went on, more casually. “She just cried a lot, clung to me, let me lead her back to the Church. Didn’t tell her parents what had really happened either, she just went along with my lie that we were playing and fell in. I went home, parents told me off for getting the child of an important person dirty, and I forgot about the whole thing.” Raine paused and mock-hesitated, then shrugged. “Gracie didn’t forget though. Three and a half years later, when word was getting around school that I was a massive lesbo, she cornered me in the gym cupboard and asked me if I was the devil. I said ‘uh, maybe?’, and then we made out for twenty minutes.”

I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it. “Raine!”

To my surprise, Zheng barked a laugh too.

“I know! I know! It wasn’t my fault!” Raine raised her hands in surrender. “I think I awakened something in her, but I never found out what. Look, wherever she ended up, I hope she found somebody more suited to play the devil for her. And that’s the story. That’s the end.”

Raine finished, looking at Zheng, waiting for approval or a round of applause or a scoff of derision. But she got none of those. Zheng just glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.


“I … I think it’s all true.”

“Even the kiss?” Raine asked, surprised.

“Especially the kiss, that’s very you.” I tutted.

“Point to the yoshou,” Zheng purred with a sharp smile. “No penalty.”

Raine grinned back and scooped up the dice with one hand, holding them in a fist. “Ahhh, but no penalty doesn’t mean I can’t choose to roll more, right? I’m going all-in, all six starting dice.”

Zheng leaned forward, intrigued, predatory intensity awakening on her face. “The odds do not favour that. Better to start small, hold each victory, not pray for strength. You know that, yoshou. What is this?”

Raine shook the dice, clack-a-clacking in her hand, and grinned back at Zheng.


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“I can’t believe I bought all these,” I said, again.

“Six,” Praem intoned softly, like the striking of a cloth-muffled bell.

“Technically speaking, you didn’t buy anything,” Evelyn said from beside me, punctuating her words with a clack of walking stick on concrete as we descended the pedestrian ramp in the multi-story car park. “I did, and I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”

“I do what I waaaaant,” Lozzie sang under her breath.

“But I still can’t believe it,” I repeated. “I’ve never even really picked out my own clothes before. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to. I can’t believe these are mine.”

“Seven, eight,” Praem continued.

“I really can’t.”


Raine was at the front of our little group, a few paces further ahead down the ramp. She pivoted on her crutch and walked backwards for two steps, pulling out a quick-draw finger-gun and flicking her thumb down to shoot me through the heart.

“Believe it, cutie!” she said.

“R-Raine … ”

Self-conscious, embarrassed – and enjoying it on a level I did not care to analyse right now – I choked out a giggle, or at least an awful little sound that passed for a giggle to my ears. I clutched the bag from Hartellies tighter against my chest, as if an unseen hand might take it from me, or the cold wind passing through the open sides of the multi-story car park might pluck it from my arms.

Raine shot me a wink, then stumbled ever so slightly as she pivoted forwards again. She hid the fumble well, suppressed the wince as she put too much sudden weight through her still-healing left thigh. She turned the weakness into a rolling swagger-step. But that didn’t stop my heart from leaping into my throat and my feet from scurrying to catch up with her.

“Raine? Raine, please be careful, I saw that. Please.”

I loosened my grip on my bag of goodies and put one hand awkwardly on her side, in case she needed support, in case the unthinkable happened.

She flashed a rakish grin down at me. “S’all your fault, Heather.”

“ … wa-wha-”

“I’ve gone all weak at the knees from the thought of your new getup.” She nodded down at the bag with a twinkle in her eye.

I tutted and blushed. If she’d used that husky, private, teasing tone with me in any other context, I would have melted like candle wax under a blowtorch. Inside, I squirmed with barely suppressed pleasure, but this was not appropriate, not when she was deploying the compliment as a shield.

“Raine,” I struggled to phrase a coherent sentence. “I do not appreciate-”

“The deflection, yeah, sorry.” She cleared her throat, not meeting my eyes but looking ahead to where the ramp opened out onto the car park floors. “I don’t like to stumble, that’s all. Thanks for being here.”

“Uh … of- of course, you’re welcome, yes. Always.”

I hadn’t expected an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, certainly not so quickly. Raine really had changed.

“Still serious about the outfit though,” she added in a faux-casual tone. “Should need a license to be that spicy. You’re gonna burn my tongue and present a choking hazard, if you know what I mean.”

I blushed harder this time, denied the bulwark of irritation. I stared down at my shoes for a couple of paces. “I still can’t believe I did it.”

“Ten,” Praem sang.

“Praem?” I glanced back over my shoulder at Praem, who was carrying the majority of the other bags. “I’m sorry, Praem? What are you counting?”

Praem locked eyes with me, and declined to answer.

Evelyn snorted a single laugh. “She’s keeping track of the number of times you’ve expressed disbelief at your own acquisitions.”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“O-oh … I’m sorry, Praem, I didn’t mean to make this day about me-”

“Us,” Praem interrupted.

She didn’t need to expand that point. I nodded and looked down, chastised by kindness.

Of course, Praem couldn’t possibly know how hard I was distracting myself right now. I would tie myself in knots over my new clothes to avoid thinking about what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had revealed to me.

“Day’s not over yet,” Raine said with rousing approval. “Gotta get you home and get you in that full outfit, hey?”

“Don’t be disgusting, Raine,” Evelyn drawled. “All these new clothes are going in the laundry first. You don’t wear new things without first … well … ” Evelyn trailed off, her eyes lingering on the pink cat-ears beanie which Lozzie was already wearing.

“It’s okay,” Lozzie stage-whispered. “I’m special.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Fair enough. Lozzie gets special dispensation, but you don’t get to make Heather wear anything without washing it first.”

“Dunno if I can wait that long,” Raine said, and flashed me a wink.

I clutched the bag to my chest again, burning and self-conscious, and trying not to think about polyamory.


The bag from Hartellies – or rather, my bag from Hartellies, in addition to the two Praem was carrying, along with the rest of our haul – contained some of the most lovely clothes I’d ever owned, not counting the incredible scale-patterned Superdry hoodie which Evelyn had forcefully bought for me earlier in the day.

Back in the clothing store, after Sevens had vanished from the mirror, I’d disappointed everybody by emerging still dressed exactly as I had entered.

“Aww, Heather?” Raine’s face had fallen with sweet concern, misinterpreting my stricken state. “It’s okay, it’s cool. You don’t fancy it anymore? We can try another thing if you like. Or just, hey, sit down and advise Praem, yeah?”

“No, I-” I choked on my words, on the sight of Raine’s face, on polyamory.

“She’s fiiiiine,” Lozzie stage whispered. “She’s changing her mind flipways!”

“Flipways, yes,” I gathered myself. Oh, Lozzie, you were more accurate than you knew. Or maybe you did know. But this was neither the time nor the place.

Sevens had one good point amid the madness; if I was going to do this, I may as well feel good about myself while breaking everything.

So I’d screwed up my courage, marched right across the fitting area with Lozzie bouncing at my shoulder like a pixie companion, and spoken to the attendant at the little desk.

And yes, as it turned out, they did have some less popular colours of ribbed sweater in the stock room. Old leftovers, stray returns, abandoned styles.

“Only this one I’m afraid, no other sizes,” the attendant had told me, and I’d had to remind myself forcefully that this pretty young woman was not Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight right now. “It’s in small. Is that-”

“Perfect,” I’d breathed, on the verge of hyperventilating with sheer nerves and brittle courage. “Thank you so much. Yes, I’ll take it. Right away. I-I mean, I’ll try it on. Thank you again.”

One polo-neck ribbed sweater. Tight like a hug. Bubblegum pink.

Raine’s face had lit up like a carnival.

The other components of Sevens’ sartorial suggestion were far less easy to source. Hartellies didn’t carry anything like the triple-layered skirt of frill and fluff and lace, it simply wasn’t that kind of place. Praem finished up her wardrobe randomisation session and carried an armful of clothes to the register, so Evelyn could pay, and I added my single sweater at her prompting.

“Are you certain you don’t want to get a new skirt too?” she’d asked me. “Because I will spend that money on you eventually, one way or the other.”

“No bullying,” Praem intoned. The young man behind the cash register had stared at that, at Praem’s musical tone, but his eyes had quickly slid off her.

“Can we save it for now?” I asked.

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I’d like to look for something else,” I said. “Something specific. Probably on the internet. ” I shot a nervous glance at Raine, but she and Lozzie were checking out belts while we paid for the clothes.

“I’m going to assume I don’t want to know,” Evelyn said. “Fair enough.”

Evelyn had paid. The figure made my eyes water. Praem received two large, smart, stylish bags stuffed with self-definition.

“How much have you spent today, in total, Evee?” I asked.

“Never you mind.”

“Retail therapy,” Praem added.

By the time we plunged back into the labyrinth of Swanbrook Mall, my burst dam of heart-juddering white-headed courage had run out into a confused jittery trickle. Felt like my head was going to melt. I’d actually bought the thing. Not the jumper which Raine had suggested, not the little personal experiment in style, but element one of three of Sevens’ absurdly girly version of me.

Well, element one of four. But I was not going to dye my hair. No thank you.

Unlike homo abyssus, I could achieve this in reality without putting my internal organs at risk. And it was a wonderful distraction.

I wasn’t completely unaware of what I was doing. The events of the previous six months had proved to me that I did possess a certain kind of courage, the split-second decision making of life or death, and I had come through with that time and again. But this was different, this heady cocktail of self-indulgence and embarrassment and pleasure as fragile as dried petals. This courage was slow, grinding inside my gut like a bellyful of stones, and ultimately born of deflection.

I drew the courage to buy girly clothes from a steadfast refusal to face what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had told me.

We scouted out a couple more shops in Swanbrook Mall – Topshop and Next – but Praem seemed satisfied with her selections from Hartellies, I couldn’t find anything that even approximated the beautiful skirt Sevens’ had been wearing, and we were all beginning to slow down. It was high time to drive home and have a big late lunch. I resigned myself to internet shopping, with all the accompanying self-consciousness of Raine inevitably peering over my shoulder.

But then, as we decided to head back to the escalators, towards the suspended walkway which led to the multi-story car park, a vision in yellow led me astray.

We were passing by one of the offshoot corridors, the sorts of wrong turns which terminated in public toilets or service doorways with ‘Staff Only’ signs, little artificial alleyways lined with stores which had resigned themselves to missing out on most of the mall’s foot traffic, places that sold CBD oil or computer parts, with grimace-inducing names like Ye Olde Crystale Shoppe or Tekniks.

And in the corner of my eye, a figure all in yellow – a voluptuous figure of pure feminine physicality, wrapped in flowing yellow satin and trailing scarves fluttering in unfelt wind – stepped into a store, and vanished.


I’d stopped to stare down the artificial alleyway, along white plastic walls. Had I seen that, or hallucinated it? A spirit – a sort of slug thing made of raw organs – was inching along the ceiling, but it hadn’t cast that bait, it didn’t care. I leaned forward and tried to see what manner of shop Sevens was trying to make me notice. The name hung over the doorway in absurd faux-calligraphy letters.

“‘Scorching Subject’?” I murmured. “What now, Sevens?”

“Heather, woo?” Raine waved a hand in my peripheral vision. “Ground control to space cadet Morell? You okay?”

“Ah, um. Sorry,” I said, flustering a smile. The others had drawn to a curious halt a few paces onward, but Raine had come back for me. “I-I got distracted by something.”

Raine followed my previous line of sight and lit up in recognition. “Oh hey, I remember that brand. They’re still around? Wow.”

“Can we take a quick look?” I asked, before I lost my nerve.

Raine raised an eyebrow, faintly amused. “Sure.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Hey, Loz, you might like this one too. C’mon.”

We ventured down the little corridor, past a shop that sold refurbished record players and a hole in the wall that I gathered used to contain a perfume store, until we stood in front of Scorching Subject, and I realised what it was.


“Yeah. Goth jazz.” Raine cracked a huge grin. “Scene kiddies. Teenyboppers. Place must be on its last legs, this stuff went out of style before I hit puberty.”

She wasn’t wrong. Scorching Subject looked like a sun baked corpse picked over by vultures and left for the flies. A sign in the window informed us that ‘Everything Must Go!!! Closing Down Sale, all items %75 off!!!’ but the sign itself looked at least six months old. Inside, a high ceiling lined with tacky spotlights picked out clothing racks and spinny turnstile displays, mostly empty now, populated by only the most repulsively silly belt buckles and a few garments a witch might wear to a secret woodland ritual. A single staff member sat bored and distracted at the register, no older than any of us, staring at his phone. At least he looked the part, with his dyed black hair slicked down over one eye and those huge intimidating hoop piercings in both earlobes.

A wisp of yellow, the glint of sunlight on chalk, slipped around the corner of some clothing shelves.

I sighed.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Raine said, misreading my huff. “Kinda sad. I like this stuff, it’s got a place. Should have a place. Goth girls are cute.”

“Yes,” Praem agreed.

“Ugh,” went Evelyn, wrinkling her nose.

“Wheee!” went Lozzie, going straight past us and into the store, bee-lining for a display full of absurd hats.

“Oh, really?” Evelyn tutted.

“We should go in,” I said.

“You serious?” Raine asked me, genuinely surprised. “You want something here? Right on, Heather, go for it.”

“For Night Praem,” I lied. “Isn’t that right, Praem?”

“Night Praem,” Praem replied.

“Night Praem?” Evelyn enunciated so hard I thought she was going to do herself an injury. “What is this, her goth alter ego? Praem, you haven’t told me anything about this.”

But it was too late for Day Praem. I was already wandering into the store, pulling Raine in after me, following Sevens’ breadcrumbs.

To my complete and total lack of surprise, I did not find a tall and shapely woman in yellow behind the depleted shelving, but instead a rather sad looking series of rolling hanger racks full of gauzy tops, spooky tshirts, and belts as wide as my arm.

“What am I supposed to see?” I murmured under my breath.

“We looking for anything in particular?” Raine asked, flicking through some of the tshirts. “Oh hey, you know who’d love these? Kimberly. Here, this one’s got a dragon on it. And this one has a dragon and a wizard, score.”

“Sort of just browsing … ”

I trailed off, relaxed with a long, slow breath, and let my peripheral vision guide me to a small yellow tag poking out between two long black skirts. Tentatively, half expecting Seven-Shades-of-Shop-Attendant to appear from a blind corner, I approached the skirts and parted them, in search of buried treasure.

And there it was. Knee-length, made from three separate layers of frill and fluff and lace, in dark purple like boiling midnight skies, accented with void-black. How this rare find had survived the carrion eaters, I had no idea.

Tacky. Girly. Flouncy and silly and actually beautiful, everything I was not.

I sighed again as I pulled it off the rack. “Really, Sevens? I thought you were making the outfit up.”

The layers were like the flesh-skirts of a jellyfish, frilled and ruffled and faintly toxic to the eye. The me of six months ago would have hated the thing; but to the me right then it was an object of desire, even though it embarrassed me to admit so. A faint echo of abyssal aesthetics, the same as with the scale-pattern hoodie Evelyn had so generously bought for me, the same in the colourful display of bubblegum pink sweater.

For a heady moment I couldn’t tell what I was doing. Was I distracting myself from thoughts of polyamory by forcing a confrontation with a totally different set of hang ups? Or was I preparing for the plunge?

Secretly, I felt like polyamory was for people with a few relationships under their belt. Extroverts. Party girls. Pretty people.

But anything would be possible, with even a false echo of abyssal aesthetics.

Then I would be beautiful too.

“Heeeeeeey, look at thaaaat,” said Raine, catching up with me and breaking into a grin. “Where’d you find that? You brainmath your way into a sixth sense for diamonds in the rough?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

She caught the wistful conflict in my eyes, saw something was off. “You don’t like it?”

“No, it’s not my style,” I said. “It’s terrible, too girly. It’s more Lozzie than me. I will die on the spot the moment you see me in it. I’m going to buy it anyway.”

“Yeeeeah, rock on.” Raine lit up, all for me. “That’s more like it!”

“Thank you, yes. I shall endeavour to ‘rock’ to my best.”

My abyssal-prosthetic skirt was not the only thing we purchased in the goth clothing shop. Raine and I emerged from the skeletal racking and found that Lozzie had gotten stuck into the suitably gothic selection of novelty hats. Somehow she had convinced or bullied or simply overpowered Evelyn into trying one on.

“Not a word,” Evelyn deadpanned at us, from beneath the floppy brim of a midnight black witch’s hat.

Raine decided to buy the tshirt she’d found for Kimberly, an extra-long dress-style affair in black, with a graphic on the front of three unicorns galloping across a moonlit moor. And to Evelyn’s curious, sharp interest, Praem had picked up a small box of makeup.

“You want to try on black eyeliner?” she asked Praem, and did a stellar job of controlling her own distaste.

Praem only stared back, so the makeup joined our haul as well.

Between the bubblegum pink sweater hidden in overflow stock and the triple-layered skirt tucked away in a forgotten corner of a store that should have gone out of business, I was beginning to suspect that Sevens wanted me to acquire the entire outfit here, today, right now. But this was my limit. I doubted there was anywhere in Sharrowford one could purchase trainers with LEDs in the soles.

“Light up shoes, absolutely not,” I whispered under my breath as we went up the escalator.

“Heather, sorry?” Raine prompted, and squeezed my hand.

“Oh, um, nothing.”

The last minute detour had put us far past time for lunch, and we’d already agreed to avoid the shopping centre’s food court, up on the top floor. The first and only time I’d been up there was to meet Alexander Lilburne in an out of business coffee shop, and none of us wished to ruin a perfectly nice day with memories of attempted kidnapping. So we made our way back along the route toward the multi-story car park, up to the rear of the shopping centre’s top floor, where fake marble and bright lights gave way to concrete walkway and grubby glass windows suspended three stories up over the roads below.

The enclosed bridge connected Swanbrook Mall directly to a series of shallow sloping pedestrian walkways, which climbed the height of the multi-story car park, separated by automatic doors to keep the heat in. The multi-story itself was open to the fresh spring air, each floor ringed by chest-high concrete bulwark but not much else.

My blush and Raine’s teasing banter died away as we stepped through, among the thin trickle of other lunchtime shoppers.

“Don’t know about you lot,” Evelyn drawled, “but the first thing I’m going to do when we get home is make lunch.”

“I am making lunch,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.

“You will make lunch, you mean,” Evelyn said. “Tense is important, I don’t mean to-” She cut herself off, and frowned at Praem as we descended the wide concrete ramp. “Wait, no, you didn’t just-”

“I will make lunch,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn huffed. Lozzie giggled. I suppressed a smile. Outwitted by her daughter again.


The car park floors themselves were dingy and grubby affairs compared to the false majesty of the shopping centre, all roughly textured concrete in dirty grey, held up by thick support pillars amid a maze of pedestrian pathways, half-filled parking spaces, smelly puddles, and discarded wrappers. The open sides let in some natural light, but the centre of each floor was dim with orange street lighting from little insets in the ceiling. Lozzie made a game of hopping and skipping ahead, over the walkway markers and crossings. I subconsciously pressed myself closer to Raine, as we crossed the tangled space toward her car parked on the far side.

We were less than twenty feet from the car when Lozzie stopped.

She froze mid-step and her head flicked around like a rodent sighting a snake. She quickly scurried back to me and grabbed my arm, pressing herself so close she almost tripped me. A small animal, looking for solidarity.

“Lozzie? It’s okay, I know it’s a bit grim in here but-”

“Heather,” she hissed – tight and afraid.

She was staring off to our left, at nothing. Ragged rows of parked cars. A few spirits lingered here and there: a dark shadow beneath a van with cartoonish red eyes, a stilt-legged insect walking upside down on the ceiling, a weird amalgamation of deer and bird covered in fractally splitting antler shapes as it flomped down a row of vehicles.

“Yo, what is it?” Raine said, alert, switched on, all here all of a sudden at Lozzie’s fearful tone.

“What’s this?” Evelyn prompted, following our collective line of sight.

“I-I don’t know,” I said. “Lozzie, there’s nothing-”

“I know that man,” Lozzie hissed. “He was one of my brother’s friends.”

Oh. A person.

I’d expected a servitor or an assassin or a magic cloud of sleeping gas – or Seven-Shades dressed as a traffic warden, here to give us a comedy ticket – not a regular human being.

The man Lozzie had recognised wasn’t the slightest bit interested in us.

A few rows over, just beyond earshot, he was talking on his mobile phone. With one hand on the top of his car and one foot planted on the rim of the open driver’s side door, he had the distinct air of calling home to make sure he’d not forgotten anything on his shopping trip. Maybe in his early thirties at the oldest, he looked trim and fit, with artfully tousled hair and a few days of stubble, dressed in jeans and a Manchester United football shirt. Utterly unremarkable.

“Right, I see him,” Raine dropped her voice, going very still. “Lozzie, friend or ‘friend’, is he one of-”

“One of my brother’s men.” Lozzie nodded rapidly.

A wave of undeniable instinct crashed through my nervous system. Phantom limbs shot out wide into a hunting pattern, tugging on support muscles by sheer psychosomatic suggestion. I felt my pupils dilate, my extremities tingle, my veins flood with adrenaline. My breath fluttered as muscles vibrated with the need to move, move fast, move now. My heart climbed into my throat and my vision narrowed to a tunnel and my thoughts went white-hot with predatory focus, and I very nearly pulled clear of both Raine and Lozzie to tear this man limb from limb.

The urge was overwhelming and terrifying and made perfect sense – and would have been a very bad idea to follow.

If I’d given in and did as my body demanded, thrown myself at this unsuspecting ex-cultist like a berserker, I was unlikely to actually hurt him much. I was still just me, five foot nothing, with very little muscle. My options for removing threats were brainmath, or tentacles via brainmath, and those required a clear head, equations, and careful thinking.

But instinct screamed.

Parasite carrier. Disease bearer. Agent of the enemy.

Kill it, screamed the cold survivalist logic of the abyss.

I hiccuped.

“Woah, Heather?” Raine hissed, squeezing my hand. My palms had gone clammy, my back coated in cold sweat, and I was shuddering all over. Lozzie squeezed against my other side, somehow aware she needed to anchor me.

“If he was one of Alexander’s men,” Evelyn murmured, putting voice to the logic inside my body, “that means he’s either Edward’s man now – or he’s an Eye cultist who escaped before their defiant ritual.”

A hiss climbed up my throat. I wished with every fibre of my being that Zheng was here.

“And,” Evelyn carried on, “that man does not look like an outsider-ridden tortured shell from here.”

Ape brain took a moment to catch up with abyssal logic.

“Oh,” I breathed. “Of course. Right. Right.”

I could barely think. The predatory instinct was similar to the hunting urge I’d felt when I’d stood alone with Zheng in the night, the pull to run and leap and bare my claws in the dark, but magnified a thousand times, directed at a visible target. Even backing down now, I was shaking and panting.

“Heather, hey, you okay?” Raine tried to catch my eye. “Heather?”

“She will be!” Lozzie whispered.

“ … w-we should get to the car,” I managed to hiss. “He doesn’t even know we’re here.”

Evelyn frowned at me. “You heard what I said, this cannot be a coincidence.”

“You think Eddy-boy is stupid enough to tell his low-level thugs where to find him?” Raine asked. “What say we commit a mugging?”

“No,” Evelyn snapped.

“Maybe it is a coincidence!” I squeaked. “Not everything has to do with us! Maybe he was just shopping?”

“And maybe it’s a trap,” Evelyn grumbled. “Praem, do not even think about it. Nobody approach this man.”

“We could find out,” Raine said, low and soft and lethal, and slipped her free hand inside her leather jacket.

But the ex-cultist chose that moment to end his phone call. I saw a little smile and an ironic shake of his head as he said goodbye to whoever was on the other end. Without looking up at us, he got into his car and shut the door. The engine purred to life a few seconds later, far too quickly for Raine to catch up with him and knock on the window, even without the handicap of her crutch.

His car backed slowly and sensibly out of the parking space, then turned to leave.

“See?” I hissed, then hiccuped so loudly it echoed off the concrete. Cold sweat broke over me and the hunting instinct finally began to ebb away, leaving me hollow and exhausted. “It was just a coincidence, just a … ”

The car’s route brought it alongside us, creeping along the narrow passageways of concrete and speed bumps and stop signs. My phantom limbs still itched to grab the wheels, stop the car, pull the man out by the scruff of his neck and strangle him on the spot.

And as the car passed us, the man turned to look; slowly, directly, filled with blind purpose.

At me.

Ragged dark bags ringed the haunted emptiness in his eyes. Gaunt cheeks, skin sallow with exhaustion, lips cracked and dry. His hands on the wheel showed nails bitten to the quick, cuticles gnawed raw and bleeding and scabbed. The veneer of normality was a thin and cracking shell on his placid expression. From a distance he had looked almost normal, but up close, even through the glass of the driver’s side window, this was quite clearly a human being out on the lost reaches of sanity.

And he had seen me.

Abyssal instinct coiled up like gooseflesh in freezing air. My phantom limbs wrapped around me in a protective barrier. I had the sudden urge to run away.

Eye contact lasted only half a second, and then the car was past us.

“Heather? Heather, what was that? What’s wrong?” Raine was asking, even as she fumbled her phone out, snapping a picture of the number plate.

“Heathy?” Lozzie was squeezing me, her own fear forgotten as I struggled to keep my knees.

“Oh dear,” Evelyn deadpanned. “I was wrong, wasn’t I?”

I nodded, numb all over.

“What?” Raine asked, looking back from her phone screen and squeezing my shoulder. “Look, I half wanna tail him in the car, but I’m not leaving you here like this, Heather, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“That was an Eye cultist,” I whispered. “One who escaped, before the rest defied it. And he knows who I am.”


We spent the rest of the day descending into curtain-twitching paranoia.

The drive home was bad enough. Our good cheer was gone. Raine drove again, so at least she had to focus on the road, but her tension was plain to see every time her eyes flickered upward to check the rear view mirror, expecting a car on our tail at any moment. Evelyn went quiet and intense, frowning into the middle distance as her mind chewed on possibilities and potentials and preventative measures. Praem sat still and straight-backed, her special day rather spoiled, but she didn’t complain.

Lozzie sat next to me in the back of the car, stroking my hair like I was a spooked hound – which was exactly how I felt.

Our fashion show plans fell apart once we got home, before we even got in the front door, sacrificed on the altar of security. Raine spent a full ten minutes standing in the garden gateway, propped up on her crutch, watching the end of the road. Half of me grew incandescent with worry, with the way she was suppressing pain behind protective intensity, while the other half of me wanted to scurry into her shadow and clutch the back of her jacket.

“He’s not going to fucking drive up and shoot us,” Evelyn hissed at her. “Get indoors, you idiot.”

“He might. Wait.”

Waiting drew Zheng’s curiosity, and eventually she ventured out under the thin spring skies. We told her what we’d seen.

Laoyeh gropes blind in the dark,” she purred, “but its reach is long and wide.”

“It was a coincidence,” I repeated. Wide eyed. Twitchy. I did not believe my own words.

Zheng put a hand on my head, and I desperately wanted her to pick me up.

“There is no such thing as coincidence for Gods, shaman. But none shall touch you.”

“Well said,” Raine added, staring at the end of the road.

Lunch plans collapsed too. With the front door closed and locked and bolted, we fell apart in our separate frantic directions. Evelyn went to check the Spider-servitors, then clacked about from room to room, doing what she could to reinforce the ancient wards embedded in the walls and foundations of the house. Eventually she ended up in the kitchen, quiet with contemplation, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table and staring into the depths of an untouched cup of tea.

Lozzie went upstairs to find Tenny.

Raine gave me a hug, told me it was going to be okay, and then she could not stay still. She made endless circuits of the windows, staring out into the street, across the back garden, checking the latches and locks, popping painkillers without water.

I loved her for that, but she needed to sit with me.

Abyssal instinct told me to find the deepest, darkest, most secluded part of the house, and curl up in a protective ball until I was certain the vast predators out in the cold water had moved on. The instinct was out of place, of course, no different to the ape imperative to climb trees to escape danger. Instead I spent half an hour haunting Raine’s shadow, embarrassed whenever she noticed me and waved me over for a hug, because it was never enough. Abyssal limbs tried to cling to her, but it was not enough. Nothing was enough.

Edward Lilburne was a frightening adversary, but at least he was only a person. Our last brush with the Eye had nearly killed us all.

Zheng left the house, coat collar up, eyes narrowed to razor-sharp slits.

“I go to hunt, shaman. Laoyeh’s slaves are clumsy.”

As she’d slipped out the back door, I’d tried to speak up, to say “please don’t go, please stay with me.”

But the words had stuck in my throat. Raine had been within earshot. Pathetic Heather, this was the perfect moment to take the plunge, an excuse to ask for both of them to comfort me. Sevens was undoubtedly rolling her eyes in exasperation.

Maybe that’s why I couldn’t. I didn’t want it to be an excuse. It had to be real, and raw, and without reservation.

Team effort rescued us eventually. Praem had retained more than enough emotional stability to stand in the kitchen and make a stack of sandwiches, and the first thing to break through my shell of nervous tension was a bite of peanut butter, forced upon me by Praem’s insistent stare. Lozzie and Tenny appeared too, and Tenny innately recognised my tension and wound her tentacles around my shoulders and forearms. She stood half-guard with me, until Lozzie’s gentle encouragement pulled us all back into the kitchen, our orbits reuniting at last. The lovely new clothes sat forgotten in their bags by the door, until Praem began the laborious process of running the washing machine multiple times.

“They’re still around, then,” I said, sitting at the table, halfway through a single chocolate cookie, the only thing I felt like forcing down.

“We always knew some might have survived,” Evelyn answered, staring into her tea. “In theory.”

“Maybe he was the only one.”

“Sure hope so,” Raine said, leaning against the kitchen counter so she could glance out of the window. She caught the hollow look in my eyes, and shot a wink and a grin my way.

“I wouldn’t wager on that,” Evelyn mused out loud. “A splinter faction. Anybody who rejected the rebellion against the Eye, left the house before they did their ritual. From everything we saw, Sarika and the others, anyone who’s survived this long with the Eye in their head must possess considerable psychological resilience.”

“Which means it might just be this guy alone,” Raine said. “Right.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Keep up, Raine.”

“He has to have a support network,” I said, filling in Evelyn’s gap. “You don’t survive something like that alone. I should know. He has others, people who understand.”

“Exactly,” Evelyn grumbled. “Did you call Sarika?”

“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “She didn’t recognise the description of the guy. Said she’s not been contacted or anything, but hey, can we trust her?”

“On this, yes,” I said. “She’d scream so loud we’d know from here.”

My phantom limbs tried to curl up tighter. I wanted to vanish in a dark hole.

“Heath, Heath,” Tenny trilled softly against my side.

“I wish Zheng would come home,” I said, and felt Raine’s eyes on me.

Tenny didn’t leave me alone the entire rest of the day. She made herself my security blanket, until she and Lozzie passed me off to Raine at almost eleven o’clock at night, after two hours snuggled up with the pair of them in the warm safe dark in the core of the house. But I couldn’t sleep. Even after Raine had finally relented and ceased her one-woman watch and turned to comforting me, rubbing my back in bed, being the big spoon in the dark, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t let myself. Every slide toward the edge was arrested, my mind scrambling back up toward tattered consciousness.

Abyssal senses stayed stretched, listening for scratches at the utmost rim, for probing at our defenses. Or that’s what I told myself.

Really I was listening for Zheng, waiting for her to come home.

She would not slink back until the small hours of the morning. Maybe she would return with the severed head of the Eye’s slave, or maybe she wouldn’t, but I found it hard to care. I didn’t want that. I wanted her.

Abyssal instinct demanded her be close to me, and that was all that mattered. And I could not sleep until she was by my side, safe, and mine.

Same as Raine.


Bodily need clouds the meaning of time, especially deep in the night and deep in the bed covers, curled up tight and warm alongside another soft ape, so intimate and close that one forgets where one’s own body ends and the other begins. So it was with Raine and I, that strange night of half-sleep and semi-listening, snatches of nightmare blurring into reality, and reality distorting into dreamlike nonsense.

Her hand was down the front of my pajama bottoms when I woke up, but bizarrely there was nothing sexual about it when I realised the hand wasn’t my own. Her hand was my hand. The phantom tentacle wrapped around her waist and backside was not mine, but hers. Our legs were tangled, her ankle between mine, and for a moment I couldn’t tell which feet were which. Our breathing had synchronised in our sleep, and I tasted her on my lips without needing to kiss a dry mouth.

But there was third body, a presence on the edge of my consciousness, like a weight pressing on me through several layers of clothing. Impossible to ignore, but not yet part of me.

“Zheng’s home,” I murmured into the dark.

“Mmmmm?” Raine made a sleepy noise behind me, and I did a tiny, tiny flinch. Hadn’t realised she’d awoken along with me. Synchronicity, unspoken and instinctive. I took heart.

“Can feel it,” I added, slurring. “Her.”


We both slipped back down the steps of lighter slumber. Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and rush downstairs, but I held that feeling in both hands like a glass ball, and tried to examine it for flaws. A dream I dare not grasp too hard lest it shatter and fill my flesh with razor shards.

“Wanna go to her?” Raine murmured.

“Not alone.”


“ … what time is it?” I asked.

“Mmmm … ” Raine rolled half over to check her phone on the bedside table. Her motion pulled open a small gap in the sheets, a chasm between us into which rushed a knife of cold air. Suddenly I could not abide that gap. That distance should not exist, should not be. “Nearly six,” Raine slurred, heavy with sleep. “Not bad, s’pretty good sleep for- hey, Heather?”

I squirmed around beneath the sheets until I was facing her, and closed the gap, burrowed in against her front, buried my face in her chest, pulled the sheets tight so no chill air could separate us. I allowed my phantom limbs to embrace her too, though she couldn’t feel them. I felt like a very small animal, seeking warmth.

“Mmmm, hey cuddle bug,” she said, voice reaching me from above the covers as she wrapped her arms around me. “What’s up?”

“How’s your leg?” I asked.

“Aching. Sore. Better though.”

“Will you take more painkillers this morning?”

“You don’t sound too happy about that?”

“I’m not. Your body is mine too, you know that?” I murmured, and only sleepiness gave me the courage. “You’re mine and I’m yours and we’re each other and you have to look after yourself for me.”

“You want me to stop taking the painkillers?” she asked.

“Not necessarily. That’s not the point.”

“I’ll dial them back,” she said, dead serious and awake all of a sudden. “Half dose this morning.” A little laugh escaped her lips. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been hooked on painkillers, I know my way around the rodeo, but I’ll prove it to you.”

I wiggled my head up, breached the heat of the covers and gasped in the open air, and met Raine’s face, inches away in the dark. She smelled of sleep sweat, mine and hers both. Shadowed in the gloom, I caught her smile.

“You’ve been hooked on painkillers?” I asked.

“Yeah. Back after I first met Evee, for a bit. Nothing major, just co-codamol for a few months.”

“For a few months? Raine, you never told me that.”

She shrugged beneath the sheets. “I needed it, at the time. I was homeless for a while, had some physical issues, you know?”

“Of course, of course, I’m not judging you, I never would … just … wow.” I went quiet, shaking my head in surprise. Raine kissed my forehead and stroked my hair away from my face.

“Half dose,” she repeated. “I’ll taper down.”

I screwed up my courage, before my mind woke all the way up, before a decade of being a good girl supplanted the blended purity of abyssal instinct and ape need.

“Raine,” I said. “Did you get around to playing the dice game with Zheng?”

“From last weekend? Nah, not yet. She kinda keeps her distance from me. My fault for being a rude bitch, but it’s cool, I respect her for-”

“Have you ever had a threesome?”

Despite the dark, I saw her blink, once.

I thought my heart was going to dance right out of my chest.

Then Raine laughed. “Uhhhhh, believe it or not, actually no, I haven’t. Bit of a playgirl in the past, yeah, I deserve my rep, but I’m sort of a one-target-at-a-time type. There was this incident in the first term here at university, where I almost did, but I have trouble splitting my attention.”

“Can’t imagine you turning it down,” I said, trying as hard as I could to keep my nerves out of my voice. But I couldn’t conceal the sudden adrenaline burst, the shaking in my core.

“Hey, Heather.” Raine squeezed me. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why you’re asking this.”

“It’s not what you’re assuming-”

“If you want to-”


“With Zheng-”

“Raine, stop-”

“If you want a threesome, if it’s for you, if it’s what you really want, then I’m down, I’m game,” she told me.

“No!” I snapped.

I pushed myself away from her and half sat up in bed, thrusting myself out into the chill morning air in the dark, my phantom limbs trailing after me as I felt my eyes blaze, my heart lurch then steady with something I had not realised until now. More certain than I’d ever been before, I stared down at Raine as she pushed herself up after me, half naked and glorious and not getting it at all.

“Heather? Hey, if I’m getting this wrong, tell me, I’m listening. If you want a-”

“No,” I said. “No, Raine. We’re not going to have a threesome with Zheng.”

“It’s cool, I’m cool with-”

“Stop. We’re not going to have sex with Zheng. We’re going to play the dice and stories game with her.”

Raine blinked, surprised again. “Okay?”

“This has to be about more than sex. It has to be about what you want too. And Zheng. It has to be.” I huffed, shaking inside, but I’d said it. “Besides, I want to try on my new clothes, and I can hardly do that with both of you trying to get up my skirt.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.1

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Praem drew back the privacy curtain, drew her spine up into perfect poise – with the same almost imperceptible hand-flourish she’d used the last half dozen times – and drew a tiny round of applause from Lozzie.

“Here I am,” she intoned, and took two steps forward out of the cubicle, into the seating area where we were all waiting for her between outfits.

“Very blue!” said Lozzie.

“Very … very cuddly,” I managed, trying not to stare too much. “Yes, Praem, you look very cuddly.”

I fought down a blush when Praem’s milk-white eyes located me and stared back.

“Mmmmmm.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Much more her style than the hoodie, or the loose blouse, but blue with blue does seem a touch like a rendering error in a video game. Can’t we compromise, the same skirt but in white or black?”

“Purple,” Praem intoned.

“Purple is good too!” Lozzie said. “Oooh the back is also also good.” She capered in a little circle around Praem, her pastel poncho fluttering.

“Hold up.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at Praem. “I’ve actually got a question, if you don’t mind, of course? Bit personal and all that.”

Praem turned her head to direct a silent stare at the request. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up; my Raine senses were tingling. I detected a twinkle in her eye, hiding behind her oh-so-serious expression.

“That a yes or a no?” Raine prompted.

“Yes,” Praem echoed.

“Cool, okay. How do those things not give you terrible back pain?”

Her faux-serious expression crumbled a moment later, no match for Praem’s poker face.

“Raine!” I spluttered, and swatted her on the shoulder. Blushing, self-conscious – and trying to look anywhere but at what she was referring to – I shot a glance back at the wide entranceway to the clothing shop’s fitting area and changing rooms, where it opened back out into the brighter lights and softly muted colours of the display floor. The attendant lady at the service desk didn’t appear to have overheard us, more interested in her glossy magazine.

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. Lozzie snorted.

“Come on, she’s probably heard worse!” Raine stage-whispered, nodding toward the attendant. “I bet people shag in these cubicles sometimes.”

“That doesn’t make it okay!” I hissed back.

I glanced at Praem’s impassive observation – then spared an involuntary flicker of my eyes down at the source of Raine’s comment – and had to avert my gaze again.

However crude her phrasing, I had to begrudgingly admit that Raine had a good point. My eyes had betrayed me.

Praem looked gorgeous. This morning, Evelyn had finally attempted to fix Praem’s hair, still singed here and there and curled up at the ends from our crisis in Carcosa. With a pair of kitchen scissors and me hovering nervously within arm’s reach and neither of us with any idea what we were doing, we’d been fully prepared to absolutely butcher Praem’s beautiful cold-blonde hair.

But then Kimberly had appeared, by chance, and luck, and bless her for that, because it was Saturday and she wasn’t at work. She’d seen us from the kitchen doorway, poor Praem sat very still and uncomplaining in a chair, Evelyn frowning in concentration like she was defusing a bomb, the scissors poised to sever an entire springy lock.

Kimberly had all but stumbled into the kitchen, with a “No no no! You need to wet her hair first, what are you doing!?”

“Would you like to take over?” Evelyn had asked her, straightening up with barely concealed relief, then clearing her throat when Kimberly flinched. “And no, that is not sarcasm. I am fully aware I am about to fuck this up.”

“Please do,” I’d added.

Kimberly had gone in with spray bottle and comb and scissors, and done a much better job than we ever could.

“It’s not that difficult,” she’d told us, snipping off stray singed hairs here and there, fingers and comb working in smooth strokes to isolate split ends. “I’ve never done it professionally, that’s a whole school thing you have to do, but I’ve done it for friends and stuff. I can neaten up a mess. And this isn’t too bad, not really. She’s got a lot of hair and it’s very thick, easy to work with.”

Praem was so impassive and still, it was like working on a doll.

When she was all finished, Kimberly glowed with a satisfied smile, a rare, delicate thing like an exotic flower, a little jerky and nervous, but undeniably happy. She’d jokingly brushed off Praem’s shoulders and said, “Anything else I can do for you, madam? Colour, shampoo, blow-dry?”

“No, thank you,” Praem had said – and Kimberly had jumped about a foot in the air.

Renewed, Praem had pinned her freshly neatened hair up in a loose bun at the back of her head, a big trailing mess of blonde loops and loose strands. She seemed to prefer that, and would accept no efforts to tidy it up.

“If that’s what you want,” Evelyn had sighed.

Most of Praem’s bruises and cuts and scrapes were healed up now too, leaving only a few fading gazes and thin scabs on her knuckles. None of us said a word, of course, that her hair and skin and flesh were all pneuma-somatic, a solid projection created by the abyssal soul inside a doll made of wood. If being human meant healing like a human, so be it.

Which is also why nobody pointed out her hair gained three to four inches of length after being cut.

As I said, gorgeous.

Her current outfit – the latest of about half a dozen different combinations she’d been trying on in the shop’s fitting area for our varied opinions – consisted of a long skirt the colour of a clear sky seen from underwater, with a very high waist that hugged her abdomen. The waistband was a tall expanse of overlapping and interwoven ribbon material over the base fabric. I knew nothing about fashion, I wore shapeless layers more for protection and enclosure than appearance, but even I could tell that particular item was both fancy and probably quite expensive. But the skirt wasn’t the problem.

The problem was the thick, ribbed, polo-neck sweater. A beautiful deep blue, tucked into the skirt, and fitting Praem perfectly.

How could a cuffs-to-collar top put such emphasis on Praem’s already substantial chest?

“Do not make her self conscious,” Evelyn growled at Raine. “I will whack you so hard with my walking stick, they’ll arrest me for grievous bodily harm.”

“Boobage is fine!” Lozzie agreed, puffing out her cheeks.

“Of course it’s fine, of course!” Raine held up both hands in surrender. “Suits her, of course, perfect, elegant, beautiful. I’m just, you know, mechanically curious how Praem doesn’t get back pa-”

“Because I am much stronger than you,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.

Raine burst out laughing. Evelyn rolled her eyes again. Lozzie said “big strong” under her breath.

“Well, that’s me told,” Raine said. “Fair point, rock on.”

“I like them,” Praem said, and made me blush beetroot red.

“Could we maybe stop talking about boobs?” I asked.

“Quite,” Evelyn grunted.

It was lucky we were in here mostly alone.

We’d been in the changing rooms now for a good twenty five minutes while Praem tried on outfits, a mix and match of various promising prospects. She and Lozzie had piled up exciting clothes from the racks and display shelves out on the shop floor and then checked in with the attendant. Two separate piles had grown either side of Evelyn on the little seating bench – one for items to purchase and one for rejects, next to the few bags of things we’d acquired from other shops.

Slowly but surely we were building a mental picture of Praem’s personal style, beyond variations on maid uniforms: plush, smooth, cuddly, and mostly unornamented.

The store was called Hartellies, buried deep in Swanbrook Mall, Sharrowford’s only shopping centre, an ugly labyrinth of fake marble floor tiles, gaudy kiosk stands, shiny chrome store fronts and too much glass everywhere. The mall sprawled out across two consolidated blocks next to Sharrowford’s main high street, with metastasised extensions connecting to a massive M&S department store – in which Evelyn had purchased for Praem precisely ten pairs of socks and six pairs of tights – and the concrete shell of a multi-story car park.

Hartellies struck just the right balance between trendy and traditional – for Praem, at least. I doubted Raine or Lozzie would have found anything to suit them here. The little fitting area was a major bonus, structured to allow exactly what we were doing right now, ringed with curtained cubicles on two sides and larger cubicles with doors in the back, all with full-length mirrors.

It was so far the most successful shop we’d been to. The others on this windy and mild Saturday morning had yielded little to pique Praem’s interest.

We’d taken Raine’s car. It was barely a fifteen minute drive, and cost a whopping five pounds to park in the multi-story, a sum which made me so outraged I’d spluttered in disbelief as Evelyn had fished about in her purse for the coins, but under the circumstances it didn’t seem wise to take the bus. Not with walking sticks and crutches and my lingering exhaustion from failed brainmath yesterday. The psychological balm of a mobile safe place was worth the petrol. Plus, Lozzie and I were quite small, so cramming ourselves into the back seat either side of Praem wasn’t that much of a squeeze.

Raine even drove. After a week of recovery she swore up and down that she was well enough to drive, that her left thigh was stiff but functional. She hadn’t dialled back on the painkillers, which worried me, but she wasn’t lying.

I found it rather intoxicating in the end, watching her drive, watching her be in control, performing with skill.

I was considerably less intoxicated when she needed to sit in the driver’s seat for a full ten minutes after we arrived, waiting for the ache to subside.

“It’s cool, you can go on without me,” she tried to shoo us out of the car. “I’ll catch up, I’m fine. I’ll be fine, five minutes. Fine.”

“You are a terrible liar, stop trying,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Raine!” I tutted. “I’m not impatient, you dolt, I’m worried about you. I’m not going anywhere until you can stand up properly. And if you can’t stand at all, then Praem is going get behind the wheel and take us right home again.”

“Awww, no, come on-”

“No buts.”

“No but,” Praem echoed me.

So Raine had rested, rubbing her left knee, and we’d not needed to go home.

We’d made a real day out of it so far, a kind of fun I was not used to. ‘Shopping’ as a teenager had meant timidly trailing my mother around Reading town centre, dragged up and down Broad Street in her infrequent efforts to acclimatise me to places other than home or hospital. I’d certainly never gone clothes shopping with friends, and the strange inherent intimacy surprised me. I’d never even really picked my own clothes before, just worn whatever my mother bought for me.

First we went somewhere fancy, a little boutique shoe store called Kline, where I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of place and like everyone was looking at us. Then Evelyn spent almost two hundred pounds on a pair of boots for Praem and the glances changed.

Then we tried Primark – a mistake. The place was wall-to-wall with young teenagers, lit up like a football pitch, and the women’s clothing selection was what Evelyn derisively described as “disposable rubbish.”

“But this!” Lozzie had held up a sort of weird floaty cross between a dress and a hoodie.

“It’ll fall apart inside a month,” Evelyn grumbled back, her shoulders hunched, grumpy around so many people. “Besides, Praem isn’t interested. Are you?”

“Pajamas,” Praem had said, staring halfway across the store. We’d left ten minutes later with a set of tartan pajamas and lots of tutting from Evee.

“The trick, Heather,” Evelyn explained to me later, after we’d left the mall to head down the high street and into a Superdry store which Lozzie had known about somehow, “is that sometimes spending more money upfront costs less in the long run.”

Raine was holding up a black-and red jacket to Lozzie’s front, to their shared interest, but I didn’t like the Superdry store. Bright lights but dark surfaces, like my mental image of a nightclub, trendy and hip and covered in clean marketing full of perfect smiling people, nothing like the real lives that came in here for self-presentation.

Though I did like the contents.

“Evee,” I sighed. “I can’t justify seventy pounds for a hoodie, no matter how pretty it is.”

And it was pretty. Dark pink, the colour of shadow-soaked tropical petals, with palm-sized diamond patterning in lighter pink across the shoulders and upper arms, like lizard scales, with the hood and zipper and pockets rimmed in white. Thick fabric, double-stitched seams, the thing was like armour. I loved it the moment I saw it.

Evelyn shrugged and glanced at Praem, who was staring at a selection of beanie hats but otherwise uninterested.

“Say you buy a five pound tshirt from Primark,” Evelyn continued, “and the seams start to go within six months. Or you spend twenty pounds on a tshirt from somewhere like this, and you’ll be wearing it for twenty years. I assume I don’t need to do the maths for you?”

“ … well, that’s obvious, but-”

“How old do you think this is, Heather?” Evelyn tilted her chin up.

Evelyn had come out dressed as normal, wrapping herself in too many layers for her frame. She wore pajama bottoms tucked into her socks beneath a long skirt, and a tshirt beneath a heavy cream jumper, coat over the top, though at least the pockets were flat today, all her magical detritus left at home. Today we were as normal as we could get.

She was of course talking about the cream coloured jumper, the one she wore often. Thick enough to smother an elephant, the collar and cuffs and one armpit repaired with slightly different coloured thread, the thing was obviously a little old.

“I’m not exactly good at fashion. Ten years?” I guessed.

“Twenty five. At least.”

I blinked. “ … are you serious?”

“Mmhmm. This jumper is older than me,” she said, a little pleased with herself. “My mother’s, actually, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of quality. Things last, if you look after them, and you get what you pay for, in the long run.”

I glanced back at the hoodie with the beautiful scale patterns. An echo of reptilian life. Could clothing make up for a mental gap in my self-perception?

“But still. Seventy pounds,” I said.

“I’ll buy it for you, if you want.”

“Evee! Absolutely not. I couldn’t let you do that. Oh, no, please don’t, I-”

“I’m doing it.” She reached over to the rack of hoodies.


Evelyn turned an unimpressed, dead-eye stare on me. “Heather, we’ll leave the theory to Raine, but the least I can do with my incredible level of class privilege is look after my friends. Now shut up and let me buy you a present.”

“Well … I … I suppose, but- but Raine already bought me a hoodie. This one.” I poked a pink cuff out from the end of my coat sleeve. “It’ll be a bit odd if you’ve both done it.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Is hoodie purchasing some sort of lesbian mating ritual that I’m unaware of? Are you duty bound to climb into my bed if I get you this?”

I blushed and went quite still. “I-I- I m-mean, you’re- t-taken-”

Evelyn’s expression transformed into a perplexed frown. “That was a joke, Heather. I’m not flirting with you.” She sighed, and added under her breath, “What does ‘taken’ mean anyway? Tch.”

I let out a huge embarrassed sigh, colour blooming in my cheeks. “You kind of were!” I hissed, and cast a glance at Raine, but she was just beyond earshot, watching Lozzie getting excited over an oversized hoodie with a sort of oil-film rainbow tie-dye effect. “I have enough trouble threading the needle between Raine and Zheng lately without you flirting with me too.”

“I thought that needle was throughly discarded by now,” she grumbled, taking down the hoodie and checking the size label. “Small, I assume?”

“Uh, yes, small. Obviously. And yes, I think. I … I couldn’t use the needle to knit anything anyway. I don’t know how to knit … this … weave.”

“We are torturing this poor metaphor to death.” Evelyn checked the hoodie over for loose threads as she spoke, almost deadpan. “Are you bumping uglies with Zheng and I haven’t noticed? I assumed she’d make a lot of noise, or make you make a lot of noise. One way or the other.”

“Evee! And no, we’re not!”

“Mm, just thought to check.”

“You’re being as bad as Raine, and no, I can’t-”

“Hat,” Praem intoned from the blind spot over my shoulder.

“Oooooooh.” Lozzie rejoined us too, eyes going wide at the beanie Praem had pulled down over her hair. Velvet white, high quality, and rising at the top corners into a pair of cat ears.

“Oh, really?” Evelyn huffed and tutted. “That’s so-”

“I want one too!” went Lozzie. Evelyn stifled a word inside a cough, which I’m pretty sure was ‘tacky’.

“Meow,” said Praem.

We left there with two hats, one in white for Praem, and one in pink for Lozzie.

The rest of our route took us all the way down the high street, toward the big pedestrianised ‘town square’, lined with fast food places and bakeries and real estate agents and jewellers, all sterilised and clean, air-dropped in from an external vision of a trendy Northern city. Even the local pneuma-somatic life shunned the big open area with its clean white frontages and twee cafe seating. The spirits preferred to scurry across the rooftops in the corners of my vision.

The real Sharrowford lurked at the threshold like a ancestral affliction, branching off into the warren of brick-paved lanes beyond the square, where the tall buildings cast deep shadows on unique shops and strange businesses.

One of which was a women’s underwear store catering to larger sizes. Evelyn assured me this was “unique enough, believe me.”

“Hey, no judging here,” Raine said, deadly serious through her smile. “Support’s important, you know?”

“Oh, right, of course,” I’d said, stifling a blush.

Evelyn took Praem to buy underwear, but Raine and Lozzie and I waited across on the other side the lane, window-shopping in a bizarre little store which sold nothing but hand-carved wooden statues of animals.

Inside, I happened across something remarkable, which had nothing to do with us.

Lozzie took a liking to a carved ferret, about ten times life size, and squealed with muffled joy. She would probably have stolen the thing if she could fit it under her poncho. Raine found a palm-size tiger, and purchased it.

I found a spirit.

Attached to the ceiling with a mass of brown sticky webbing, hanging upside down and shaped like a splash of frozen muddy water caught in mid-air, the thing possessed two dozen multi-joined limbs, spindly and precise, each one terminating in a pneuma-somatic approximation of a carving tool, chisels and knives and little scrapers. Its head was shaped like a CCTV camera, and it hung behind the store’s owner – a middle-aged woman busy with the latest of her creations, breaking away only to take Raine’s payment. She gave us warm smiles and answered Raine’s polite, impressed questions with striking enthusiasm.

A three-foot carving of a crocodile lay on a table behind the cash register, emerging from a block of featureless wood, taking form in slow motion.

And as she returned to her work, the spirit mirrored every motion of her wood-knife and chisel, with each limb copied four times in a whirling blur.

Had this random stray spirit imprinted on this woman? Was it trying to mimic her, trying to create art?

Or was her skill and passion a gift from this unseen guardian angel?

I’ll never know. The world is full of strange things, unique things, phenomena which defy classification, which one passes by a hundred times a day and does not know about. My struggles with the Eye and our rivalry with Edward Lilburne did not define even a percentage of a fraction of what went on all over Sharrowford every day.

Praem and Evelyn returned carrying a glossy little shopping bag from the underwear store, which even Raine knew better than to joke about.

But Lozzie had no such qualms. “Can I see later?” she chirped to Praem, in total innocence.

“Lozzie,” I tutted gently. “It’s private-”

“Not like that!” Lozzie went wide-eyed at me – or at least as wide as her permanently sleepy ocular muscles could manage – and giggled in scandalised mirth.

“You may,” Praem intoned.

We made our way back toward Swanbrook Mall, planning to try more stores. Despite a few successes we still hadn’t found anywhere for the real staples of sartorial choice. We passed by the alleyway that I knew led to Mount Emei Secondhand Books, and I yearned to spend the next three hours exploring the shelves.

“I’ll take you out here in a few weeks time,” Raine murmured to me as I cast a longing glance back over my shoulder. “A bookshop day, just for you.”

“Oh, I wasn’t- wait, how did you know I was thinking that?”

Raine winked, and slipped her free hand into mine. “If I didn’t track your book lust, I wouldn’t be a very good girlfriend to you, would I?”

Book lust?” I grimaced through a giggle. “Please don’t call it that.”

I endured the same reaction to the all-too-spotless chain bookstore back inside the shopping centre, but I was a good friend to Praem and did not derail our entire trip to spend half an hour gazing upon hardback copies of books I’d already read a dozen times.

Raine did not let go of my hand. She’d spent most of the shopping trip up until that point with her head on a covert swivel, always in the rear of our little group despite her crutch, always eyes-up and watching the periphery. She did it quietly, without making a fuss, but I knew she was watching to see if we were being followed. Once we got back inside the shopping centre though, she finally began to relax, and I was the self-conscious one, my hand in hers in public.

Nobody cared. Not about the pair of lesbians holding hands, or about Evelyn Saye the magician, or about Lauren Lilburne out in public.

We didn’t look that different to any other group of students out on a Saturday. Walking sticks and crutches, Praem’s impassive intensity and Lozzie’s pastel poncho, my lingering bestial twitches and Raine’s bodyguard aura, all of it combined to mark us out as ‘very student’, as Raine put it, but we wouldn’t draw a second glance in the centre of Sharrowford, a city that very much wanted to be what it thought we represented.

We’d scouted out a few more likely shops, but kept coming up empty handed – too bland, too expensive, “too bloody middle class,” as Raine phrased it – until we found Hartellies and Praem had waded in without reservation.

I would have hated this sort of trip by myself. Alienating and meaningless. The last time I was in the shopping centre, I’d been stumbling along next to Amy Stack, on the way to a meeting with Alexander Lilburne. We did avoid the food court, if only to stay away from bad memories, and I was faintly sad that neither Zheng nor Tenny could join us. Too big, too scary, too different to be out in public.

But I was with friends, and that bottled up the failure and the guilt.

I felt unworthy of such a reprieve.

“You want one of those too?” Evelyn murmured, pulling me off the path which led to dark thoughts.

I blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”

Praem had returned behind the thick privacy curtain of the changing cubicle, handed Lozzie the blue skirt and ribbed sweater, and was busy trying on another outfit, while we waited on the little low backless couch seats. I’d been idly drawing my hand across the thick fabric of the ribbed sweater. Lozzie was chattering something to Raine, and Evelyn had leaned in beside me.

“The jumper. Polo-neck seems perhaps your kind of thing?” She frowned over the words, as if not quite certain.

“Oh. Uh.” I tried a smile, chasing away the ghost of guilt. “Maybe. It certainly looks comfy, but I doubt I could pull off the look like Praem. I don’t have as much, if you know what I mean.”

Evelyn frowned. “You’re the one who asked us to stop talking about breasts, Heather.”

I felt my cheeks colour slightly, but I retained my composure. “That’s not what I meant. I mean I’m not-”

“You could pull off any look you want,” Raine added from my other side.

“Listen to your lover, Heather,” Evelyn said. “She wants you in that skirt.”

“Stop- stop double teaming me,” I protested.

That one made Lozzie giggle.

“If you want one similar,” Evelyn deadpanned, as if none of this mattered, oddly detached, “I’ve still got a hundred and fifty pounds earmarked for you.”

“What?” My eyes went wide. “Oh, Evee, no, not after you already bought the hoodie for me, I can’t-”

“Yes you can,” she almost snapped.

“I- I mean- the blue is too much for me-”

“Weren’t they in white, too?” Raine asked. “Cream, or black, or lilac? Anything you like.”

“I want a rainbow one,” Lozzie added. “With a hood.”

“Different store for that, I’m afraid,” Evelyn sighed, then much to my surprise she poked me in the side. “Go pick one out. Go on.”

I glanced at Raine, either for help or permission, I wasn’t sure which, but she just winked at me and nodded over Evelyn’s shoulder, toward the clothing racks beyond the fitting area. “I can see them from right here. Go on, go grab one and come try it on.”

“Oh, fine!” I huffed and stood up. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

“You’ll look great!” Raine called after me as I all but scurried out of the fitting area and back under the lights of the shop floor. I cast a backward glance at the young woman at the attendant’s counter, feeling like I was doing something wrong, but she didn’t look up from her magazine.

Raine hadn’t exaggerated, the display shelving with the ribbed sweaters wasn’t far from the fitting area, and I could see my friends unobstructed. Raine raised a thumbs up and gave me a broad wink, and I responded with a performative little huff before turning to focus on the clothes. These ribbed sweaters did feel very comfortable. Like a hug, warm and tight and thick. I doubted they’d look any good on scrawny little me. I didn’t have Praem’s plush layers to fill one out. But I picked one up anyway, in white. Not my usual sort of look, but maybe it would work, maybe it would be okay.

I didn’t deserve this.

The feeling was sudden and crushing.

I didn’t deserve such good friends. I certainly didn’t deserve presents or treats or fancy new clothes. I’d failed.

Yesterday, I’d failed to find Edward Lilburne. I’d filled a bucket with sick and blood, over-topped it with pain, gotten precisely nowhere, and had to be rescued. I hadn’t told anybody how close I’d come to the edge of the abyss, consumed by an awful sense of defeat. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight knew, but she hadn’t appeared to offer help or advice. She’d ignored my pleas in the bathroom mirror last night.

I shouldn’t be here, having fun. I should be banging my head against the problem of the Eye until either I cracked it or cracked my skull.

We’d called Nicole’s personal number and left a message, to let her know we were interested in employing her very particular skill set. That was, for the moment, all we could do. The best course of action, Evelyn had assured me. Safe. Detached. Without personal involvement.

But surely I shouldn’t be here, pretending to be normal.

“Why did you save me?” I whispered under my breath, to the only person who knew what had happened out there on the edge of cold infinity.

“Can I help you find anything?”

The bright and cheery voice made me jump – half in surprise, half in embarrassment. I turned with an expression like a startled squirrel, and found the young lady attendant from the desk standing a few feet behind me, all polite and proper, with a perfectly plastic customer service smile on her heart-shaped face, framed by a helmet of brown hair.

“Oh, no, thank you,” I rushed to reply. “I was just going to try … this … on.”

I trailed off, deeply unimpressed.

There were two of her.

The attendant was still sat at her little desk next to the fitting area, nose in her tacky magazine, dressed in white blouse and denim jacket and hoop earrings – and the exact same person was also standing in front of me, but wearing a smart one-piece dress, totally appropriate for a shop attendant in a slightly upmarket clothing store.

A yellow dress, with matching yellow shoes, and little yellow sunflower earrings.

There was a tiny percentage chance that this particular clothing shop just so happened to employ a pair of identical twins, and one of them had by chance decided to dress all in yellow, on the exact same day that we ended up here, and then by the pure perverse mechanism of cosmic determinism, walked up to offer me help. This slim possibility sustained my veneer of normality for about a quarter of a second, until I realised the one in yellow had approached me from the exact angle to make the doubled twin impossible to miss.

Perfect theatrical blocking. A professional at work.

Sevens,” I hissed. “What are you doing?!”

I flicked a glance at my friends, but Praem was stepping out of the changing stall at that exact moment, and Raine had looked away. I had no doubt Sevens had timed that to perfection as well.

The pretty young Service Worker in Yellow batted her eyelashes at me. “I’m sorry, miss? I was only offering assistance, if there’s anything I can help you find? I’m very sorry if I’ve given offence somehow.”

“Oh my goodness, don’t do that.” I grimaced at her. “That is positively creepy.”

Her plastic smile slipped, tainted by simulated nerves. The Banana-Coloured Shop Assistant had particularly mobile eyebrows, involuntarily raised in surprise. “C-creepy?” she stammered, glancing over her shoulder for help.

“You haven’t done something … something unnatural to that poor woman, have you?” I whispered, gesturing with my eyes at the lady she was copying, the one sat at the desk. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to the students in that lecture hall, even if you did reverse the effects. Don’t you dare, Sevens, not here.”

The Precariat in Sunburst looked back at me, throat bobbing, hands clasped just a little too tight, sweat breaking out on her brow, the very picture of a put upon service worker subjected to a unjustified berating by an unreasonable customer. For a horrified moment I came up short, my heart juddering to a stop as one of my worst fears threatened to unfold into reality.

What if this wasn’t Sevens?

What if I was ranting nonsense at some uninvolved woman? Heather Morell, being openly insane and unstable in public. Everything I’d always been trained to avoid at all costs. All the blood drained from my face as the woman in the yellow dress struggled for the right words.

Then, in the split-second between two flustered blinks, the irises between her thick dark lashes flashed from deep brown to the yellow of an electric storm.

“Sevens!” I hissed at her, almost spitting with outrage. “Don’t make me feel like I’m abusing a service worker, that is disgusting!”

Sevens-as-Part-Timer cleared her throat and resumed her plastic smile. “I’m very sorry you feel that way, miss.”


I flinched. I would have jumped, but Raine’s voice was far too deeply ingrained as a source of safety and comfort and protection. She was at my shoulder, and I’d been so absorbed in telling off Sevens that I hadn’t heard Raine approach, even with her crutch. She leaned on it now, peering at me with curious concern as she put her free hand gently on my forearm. Far behind her, back in the fitting area, Evelyn was casting an idle glance our way as well.

“You okay?” Raine asked.

I spun back to Sevens – and found nobody there.

“Heather?” Raine dropped her voice. “Hey, saw you talking to yourself, is this invisible monster stuff?”

I screwed my eyes up and let out a deep sigh. “No, no, just … an irritant. It’s gone now.”

Raine went tense, eyes roving beyond me, over the racks of clothes and neatly folded jumpers and hanging skirts.

“Not another servitor?” she whispered.

I almost laughed. “No, no. Nothing so clear as that. It was Sevens. Being infuriating.”

Raine relaxed instantly, and raised an eyebrow at me. “What’d she say?”

“Um, nothing. She asked me if I wanted help finding clothes, bizarrely enough.”

“Ahhh, being a weirdo. Gotcha.” Raine’s mouth tilted into a knowing smile. “Hey, you ever need help scaring off some invisible stalker, you lemme know.”

“I will do.” I managed a little smile, and felt fake all over.

Raine nodded down at the ribbed sweater I was still holding. “Going for one in white, hey?”

“Oh, yes. Well, I don’t know, really.”

“I do know. And I know you’d look great in that.” Raine shot me a grin, the sort of heart-stopping rakish smile she’d used on me when we’d first met. It still worked. “I don’t tell you that often enough,” she lowered her voice. “You could wear anything you’d want and you’d look incredible.”

“D-don’t be absurd. Raine. I’m flat as a board, this won’t do anything for me.”

“Nonsense. Hey, no, don’t look away,” she put the tiniest whip-crack into her murmur, and I had to obey. “I mean it, Heather. You wanna try a different look, do it, I’m on board. Hundred percent. I know you like lots of layers when you’re out and about, but if you wanna experiment at home, go for it.”

“ … I … ” I swallowed and bit my lower lip, my brain caught up on too many different things to put up any resistance. “I suppose I would like to wear skirts more often … maybe.”

“Yeeeeah, that’s more like it. Tell me what you want. Skirts, huh? I got you all those coloured tights way back. Come on, hey, you in a ribbed sweater, a ruffly skirt and a pair of purple tights? Practically royalty.”

I laughed, despite myself. “Raine, that sounds so silly. I don’t know if I can pull off ‘girly’.”

“Forget can,” Raine. “Focus on want.”

I sighed and shrugged.

“Go try that on, at least?” she said.

“Oh, alright. Alright, I surrender. I’ll try it on. As long as nobody laughs at me. You must promise.”


Three minutes later I was behind the closed door of a changing cubicle, peeling myself out of my coat, alone with my reflection in the full-length mirror.

I stared at myself for a long, long minute, in my shapeless hoodie and jeans. Abyssal dysphoria blurred my self-image.

“I’m just going to look silly in this,” I muttered under my breath, and pulled my hoodie up over my head.

“You’ll look wonderful if you let yourself believe,” my own voice answered.

I scrambled to get my hoodie off, freeing my vision in a tumble of hair, heart rate spiking – and discovered the me in the mirror had taken the liberty of a full-on top-to-bottom wardrobe transformation.

Ribbed sweater sleek and neat and form-fitting – in bubblegum pink, not white – highlighting curves in a way I didn’t dare acknowledge I possessed, matched with a knee-length skirt made of at least three different layers of frilly, fluffy, lacy material, flouncing out from my slender hips in dark purple accented with black. My own slim legs emerged beneath, wrapped in white tights and terminating in a pair of pink trainers.

Seven-Shades-of-Heather pulled a nervous, flinching smile I recognised all too well, and did a little hip-jutting hands-out pose to show off the outfit. She slid one foot back and tapped the heel, and the sides of the pink trainer lit up briefly with LEDs buried beneath semi-transparent rubber.

I just stared, open mouthed.

“ … w-well?” she said after a moment. “Don’t just stare, say something, please.”

“I do not look like that,” I managed. “I could never look like that. Those clothes are too lovely for me, I’d ruin them with vomit and blood. You’ve made me look pretty and I am not-”

“Heather, how many times?” The Me-In-The-Mirror slipped into that know-it-all diction which made me cringe, sighing and dropping the cutesy pose. “I can only play your role, I can add nothing which you are not already fully prepared for. And you are fully prepared for light-up shoes, believe me, you are so ready for these.” She tapped her heels again, and both shoes lit up in a flashing pattern of pink lights.

“You’ve got highlights,” I said, outrage racing to catch up with the shock. “I would never get highlights, don’t be so silly.”

“Don’t be so silly yourself,” Seven-Shades told me with my own voice, in my own faintly offended tone. One of her – my – hands went to her fringe in the mirror, to the little blonde highlights in ‘my’ hair. “Raine would eat you alive. Not that she doesn’t regularly do that already.” Sevens-as-me flushed slightly and cleared her throat. Goodness, I was a horrible little oversexed goblin.

I sighed. “This is not the time for that, Sevens.”

“It is exactly the time for that. For me!”

“I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for your games. Plays, sorry. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to even be here on this shopping trip. I certainly don’t have the time to be dressing up like a novelty cake. I should be at home, focusing, trying again.”

“And almost tumbling head first into the abyssal waters beyond reality?” she asked with a disapproving press of her lips. Infuriating habit, and all mine.

“ … thank you,” I said, but with a little huff. “For yesterday. For saving me.”

“You are welcome,” she said, with genuine grace and a little smile. At least I was polite.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to interfere though, beyond putting on your plays?”

“Natures are different in the deep abyss,” Sevens told me. “You know that. You’re not the same when you’re unexpressed in reality. Do you think the same differences don’t apply to me? You think a play means anything in the dark? I don’t wish to go there either.”

“Oh. Um. Okay, fair enough.” I frowned. She had a point; Sevens was a thing of frills and light and the crumbly taste of fresh bread, she’d get eaten fast down there. “I suppose you wouldn’t last a minute in the abyss.”

“Oh, I would last. I would just be very different.”

She split my face in a grin which looked nothing like me – to reveal a double-row of razor-sharp shark-teeth in my mirrored mouth.

“Goodness,” I breathed, flushing in the face with abyssal envy. “That’s more like it, yes.”

Sevens closed her abyssal maw again, and her teeth returned to normal.

“Besides, all I did was anchor you.” She huffed, exactly like me getting exasperated. “Because you still refuse to use the secrets of creation.”

I huffed too. “That is the exact same thing you said before. Along with all your ‘I am only a question’ nonsense.” I waved a hand at her in the mirror, at her making me look pretty and well-dressed. “What sort of question is this supposed to ask?”

Sevens-As-Heather gave me the most infuriating look, a sickening cocktail of condescension and timidity. My own superiority, on ugly display in a nice skirt.

“You cannot address failure through sheer bullheadedness,” she told me, with a tone like a schoolmistress, totally at odds with that playful outfit. Did I ever sound like that? “I anchored you once, but I won’t be able to do it again. Now that I’ve done it, now that you’re aware, doing it again would cost me dearly. If you must sip from the cold depths, you must be anchored first.”

“Anchored? How?” I asked. “I can’t push brainmath further without more … I don’t know! More power, more knowledge, more-”

“Must I put on a play to communicate something so fundamental?” Seven-Shades gestured at herself, at me in the mirror. “Not that you have to dress like this at all, actually. Both of them would gladly devote themselves to you even if you were dressed in rubbish bags from an open sewer.”

“Both of them … ”

I trailed off, throat closing up, heart rate climbing. I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Your sister told you what to do,” she said.

“Maisie told me to gather my friends! She didn’t tell me to have a lesbian threesome!”

“There we go.” Sevens sighed. “I know you haven’t accepted it, I know you need educating, and I will be producing quite the show for-”

“You mean polyamory,” I spat. “Yes, I looked the word up, like Evelyn suggested. Were you watching that too? You’re saying what exactly? That I’m supposed to emotionally anchor myself by … with … well, with Raine … and … Zheng too? How is that supposed to work?”

Sevens pulled that smile, my own knowing smile, tight and twitchy, and I wanted to swear quite loudly at her.

“You’ll figure it out,” she said.

“It’s not … it’s not normal,” I replied, vaguely aware that meant nothing.

“Nothing about you is normal, Heather.”

I sat down with a thump on the cubicle’s tiny built-in wooden bench. “This is absurd. I can’t do that to either of them. I can’t exploit them just to-”

“Choosing family is not exploitation,” Sevens told me with a little frown.

“ … don’t make me confront this. Please. Not now.” I shook my head. “I didn’t even know polyamory was a thing until recently. Until six months ago, I’d never had a relationship. I barely know what I’m doing with Raine, I am not the person for this.”

“But do you want it?”


“I don’t deserve it! I never expected to be attracted to somebody like Raine. Let alone Zheng. I always thought my type was more … well, like how Evee looks, I suppose. Soft and cuddly. Somebody I can build a pillow fort with.” I felt myself on the verge of cracking, a pressure inside my chest.

“Yes dear, sapphic love comes in many forms, yours is not invalid.”

“Besides, Raine … ”

“Is not jealous unless you tell her to be. Haha!” Sevens-As-Me lit up – and also lit up her shoes again in a little double heel stomp.

I stared at the me in the mirror. At me, dressed up and confident and shining inside. I noticed that Sevens had a sort of semi-transparent aura, a flickering and wavering halo of phantom tentacles, my tentacles made beautiful even in echo.

“I don’t want my life to sound like the title of a vaguely offensive pornographic film,” I huffed. “‘Petite lesbian gets gang-banged by two bulldykes.’”

“Heather!” said the Other Heather, aghast and blushing.

I blushed too. That was unfair and rude of me.

“Getting into a polyamorous relationship isn’t going to solve anything,” I whispered. “It’ll just create more problems. Big, complicated, emotional problems that I am not prepared to deal with.”

“Ahh, but they will be wonderfully fun problems.”

I gave her a death glare.

The Heather in the mirror cleared her throat, looking suitably chastised. “And I will help you, I will help you make it work,” Sevens said.

“How could I possibly focus on that when a man I don’t even know has stolen the means of rescuing my sister?”

“Sapphic love is the means of rescuing your sister, and nobody can take that from you. Think about it, Heather. You refuse to see what is right in front of your eyes.”


“Do you want it?” she said, losing patience. Me, irritated. “Do you want both of them?”

Knock knock came a gentle knock on the door.

I jumped. “Yes?”

“Heathy, okay?” Lozzie’s voice called through the wood. “Need help?”

I glanced back at the mirror. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was gone. It was just me again, staring back in rumpled reflection.

“Yes, Lozzie,” I murmured. “Yes, oh, I do need help with this. I absolutely do.”

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