None this chapter.
Felicity was not an easy person to contact. Like most mages, I suppose. Hiding in their shells of matter and magic.
We called three times, with nearly six solid minutes of ringing in total. No answering machine, no voice mail. This was a land-line number, a direct route into the lair of a mage much more reclusive and questionable than our dear Evelyn. Raine encouraged me to stay on the line and keep trying. Twil suggested maybe she wasn’t at home right then; Evelyn assured us that was vanishingly unlikely — if, that was, Felicity had indeed arrived home safely after her visit to Sharrowford, months ago now.
The phone rang and rang and rang. My determination soured into sore feet. Praem nudged my chair toward me, so I sat down and tried again, hanging up and redialling.
A minute later I was on the verge of giving up. The ringing of the phone felt like a soporific, insect-like mantra in my ear, a cricket’s drone from the edge of the forest, lulling me half to sleep. Twil was muttering something about how we should get some drinks if we were going to be waiting much longer. Evelyn opened her mouth and sighed, about to admit defeat.
Then, with a soft mechanical click, the call connected.
I held up one hand for silence.
And silence was what I got. Dead air.
I had prepared myself for the ash-and-oil voice of Felicity’s demonic parasite, the laughing nightmare thing that pretended to sound like a little girl, the nails-down-a-blackboard scratching at one’s ears.
Instead, a black silence, like a standing wave just beyond the range of human hearing. The phone line had connected to a lightless void. A winking light in the deep dark of an unexplored cavern, illuminating nothing. I tried to open my mouth to speak a greeting, but instinct screamed at me to be quiet and still, as if I might attract the attention of some vast unmoving watcher out in that frozen darkness. I stared sideways at the phone against my head, fighting the urge to fling it to the floor and crush it with a tentacle.
It was like I’d called the abyss.
Then somebody inhaled, as if stirring from sleep.
“Tannerbaum house,” said a voice I recognised, female and heavy, a blurred half-mumble from one side of her mouth. Wary, distant, exhausted. “Who is this?”
I let out a sigh of relief. I felt like a mouse hiding inside a rotten log, passed over by a snake who had missed my scent. The others were all staring at me from around the table. Evelyn was frowning hard, deeply concerned in her own sort of way. It took me a moment to realise that I’d wrapped my tentacles around myself in a tight ball, a self-hug of pneuma-somatic flesh to make myself small and armoured and toxic to any would-be predator. My friends couldn’t see that, of course, but one didn’t need pneuma-somatic sight to see that I’d turned pale, broken out in cold sweat, and was shaking with a sudden adrenaline high.
Abyssal instinct had not liked that feeling from the other end of the phone.
“Heather?” Evelyn mouthed my name silently. I shook my head and uncoiled my tentacles, struggling for self-control.
I mouthed back to Evelyn. “Just creepy. I’m fine.”
“Hello? … hello?” On the other end of the phone call, the mumbled voice was growing suspicious. The speaker on Evelyn’s mobile phone was high quality enough that we could all hear her words. Evelyn gestured at me: there you go, now talk.
“Felicity,” I said out loud, trying to still my racing heart and put on my good-girl phone voice. “It’s Heather. Hello, good afternoon. I’m sorry for calling so insistently. Heather Morell. Do you remember me?”
A long, silent pause. Normal silence, not the creeping black silence of the unknown void. Felicity was simply speechless for a moment. Evelyn crossed her arms and hunched in her seat, all but scowling at the phone. Raine listened carefully, chin in her hand. Twil seemed a bit lost. Praem stood to attention.
“Heather Morell,” Felicity said eventually. She swallowed audibly and took a deep breath. Her voice came through a bit clearer, less of a mumble. “Evee’s friend. Yes, of course I remember you.”
Felicity’s face drifted up from the fog of memory. She was not exactly a difficult person to recall. Narrow, soft features gave her face the illusion of being unguarded and inattentive. A long messy mop of reddish-brown hair crowned a stiff and willowy frame, awkward and furtive, like a cornered rabbit ready to kick out a predator’s intestines. And the burn scar, how could I forget that? The entire left side of Felicity’s face was consumed by an old burn scar, the skin discoloured and shiny. Her left eye was blind, blank and glassy. The left corner of her lips was mangled, fused together. Despite everything about her, the scars still stirred my sympathy, even in memory.
“That’s good, I’m glad you remember,” I said. “Again, I’m sorry for calling so—”
“Why have you called me?”
Urgent, afraid, a little bit hostile. I blinked in confusion before the pieces fell into place, then I sighed and made sure I was making eye contact with Evelyn as I spoke.
“Evee is fine,” I said. “She’s perfectly safe and doing very well. There’s no emergency. This phone call isn’t about that.”
“Oh.” I heard a sigh go out of Felicity. I could almost see her slump in my mind’s eye, one hand to her forehead with relief. It ended with a throaty sound, like she was suffering a chest infection. The creak of an old chair, a faint rattle of window panes, the distant whistle of wind, lonely and desolate. And right at the edge of my hearing, small bare feet pattering on naked stone, moving away from the phone. “Oh. Th-that— that’s good. That’s good.” Felicity swallowed audibly again, as if trying to clear her throat. “You are telling the truth, aren’t you?”
In front of me, Evelyn didn’t even roll her eyes. She stared as if she could transmit the evil eye across a phone call.
“Of course,” I said. “Evee’s right in front of me. She’s right here. We see each other every single day. She’s fine.”
Felicity was breathing a little too sharply, like a woman on the leading edge of a panic attack. “I-I know I don’t have any right to demand this, but … may I … just one word … I need to know if—”
“I am alive and well,” Evelyn spoke up, loud and clear. Her tone of voice could have turned an angel to stone. “That is all you’ll get.” She made eye contact with me again, eyebrows raised in question. Praem gently placed both hands on her shoulders, as if keeping her from rising, but Evelyn didn’t complain. I winced, feeling guilty again; the whole point of this was that I would be Evelyn’s conduit. I wanted to take this burden from her. She could even leave the room if she wished.
Felicity was silent.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes. Oh, yes, yes I heard.” Felicity’s mumble blurred into near-incomprehensible gratitude. “Thank you. Thank her for me, Heather. I— no, no, don’t say anything. I-I shouldn’t— I don’t deserve—”
“Felicity, please, slow down. I can’t make out your words. I’m sorry.”
Truth be told, I could understand her words perfectly, I just wanted her to stop. Her tone made my skin crawl and left a sour taste in my mouth. I could imagine her cringing from her own guilt. I spoke mechanically, precise, with as much emotional distance as I could muster. Keep this strictly to business. The others evidently agreed. Evelyn had turned away in disgust. Raine puffed out a long breath, full of pity. Twil cringed with second-hand embarrassment.
“Sorry,” Felicity said, slow and steady now. “Sorry. I apologise. Heather, if it’s not about Evelyn, then why have you called me?”
“We do need your help with something.” I tried to stay crisp, measured, business-like. It came surprisingly easy. I reminded myself with every word, who I was doing this for. “Perhaps just you knowledge and advice, or perhaps practical help. It’s a magical problem, a magical question. Something we’re trying to figure out. All of us, Evelyn included.”
Another long silence, followed by a sigh. Felicity’s chair — or perhaps the floorboards beneath her desk — creaked again as she adjusted her weight.
Guarded. Careful. Closed off.
Neither acceptance nor rejection. I contained a sigh of my own and reminded myself we were dealing with a mage here, no matter the personal connection or shared history. She may have come running to Evelyn’s rescue when needed, but without the guilt of her past to keep her caged, Felicity Hackett was just another potential monster, draped in supernatural unknowns.
I hardened my heart and considered my options for a second. We did have a couple of ways into this, a couple of different types of leverage I could apply. I summoned every scrap of abyssal ruthlessness, repeated Maisie’s name in my mind, and opened my mouth to speak.
Raine got there first. “Hey, Fliss,” she said with a smile in her voice, leaning toward the phone. “What’s up? How you doing? Hey, hey, Heather, put it on speaker phone so I can hear her proper.”
An animated but silent argument then erupted between Evelyn and Raine, all gestures and mouthed obscenities, while I sat there vibrating like a squid who’d been about to pounce before my prey had been whisked away on the end of an invisible fishing line.
Evelyn swiped the air — no speaker phone. Raine made it clear this was a plan, a ploy, a clever plot. Evelyn should get up and leave if she wanted, Raine indicated, none of us would judge her. Evelyn did not want to leave, even when Praem offered her a hand up. Evelyn would stay and stew in her disgust.
“Heather? Heather?” Felicity was saying.
“Sorry, I was just trying to find the speaker function,” I lied, lowered the phone from my ear, and switched the speaker mode. “There, now Raine can hear you as well.”
“Is … is Evelyn still in the room?”
Evee looked right at me and shook her head once. Absolutely not.
“No,” I said. “She went upstairs.”
“Heeeeey,” Raine repeated herself. “So, Flissy, how’s things?”
“Raine, hello.” Felicity did not sound particularly enthused by Raine, but not frightened or put off either. “Things are … things.”
“Ha! Yeah, I know what you mean, know how that feels. Things are thingy.” Raine sighed, fake-long-suffering. She grinned as she spoke, all acting, all fronting. “Sounds like something our Lozzie might say. You met Lozzie, right? When you were down here before?”
“The girl with the trans flag poncho, yes. Left somewhat of an impression.”
“Things are thingy,” Raine repeated. “Sounds like something she might say, that’s all. Anyway, Fliss, I missed you when you came down Sharrowford way to help us, on account of getting kidnapped and everything. Heard you had to skedaddle before they got me out. Big mess, I had to kill a guy and everything. Hoooo, you’re glad you didn’t stick around, believe that. But I heard it all from Heather later on, ‘course. Never got a chance to thank you for helping out. Helping Evee. Helping Heather. Heather’s my girl, you know, so, I owe you one.”
Evelyn pulled a face at Raine like Raine had just made a deal with a terrorist. Raine mouthed back, ‘Just go with it.’
But Felicity seemed to be having trouble absorbing Raine’s gratitude. “I … uh … yes. You’re welcome. I’m glad you didn’t … die. Was there a risk of you dying?”
“Eh.” Raine shrugged. “Maybe. Don’t worry about it, hey. Just wanted to thank you.”
“Well, you’re … you’re welcome. Yes.”
I had rarely heard another human being sound so fundamentally uncomfortable. Well, except for myself. Raine’s bluster and confidence was doing an incredible job of pinning Felicity to the wall. She did not want to be thanked. Not by anybody but Evee, perhaps.
Evelyn seemed to pick up on this as well. She was still frowning at Raine, but more with curiosity than anger now. Raine caught my eye and winked. Her plan was working.
Gently, I placed the phone on the table and drew myself upright. Raine had prepared the ground, now it was my turn.
“Felicity,” I said. “Briefly, before I explain our problem, I wanted to ask you, how is Aym? I … can’t help but remember what I saw in the back seat of your car, before you left.”
That was true, at least. What I recalled was a twisted lump of oil-slick darkness, huddled on the back seat of Felicity’s range rover, covered with a blanket, mewling and panting like an injured animal after exposure to the pressure of the Eye’s attention. Beady black eyes, shape-shifting claws, nothing at all like the ‘little girl in a black dress’ Felicity had warned us about. Aym, the demon-thing that followed her around. Whatever she was, she’d gotten hurt trying to help us. I did genuinely owe something in return for that. I wasn’t sure what. Perhaps just a thank you.
Evelyn looked like she wanted to vomit.
“Aym.” Felicity sighed that name with a blend of pain and love so heady that I felt bad for asking. For a terrible moment I thought she was about to say the demon-thing had died after her encounter with the Eye, but then Felicity added, “She survived the experience. Thank you for your concern.”
“May I thank her?”
A moment of blank silence. “Thank her?”
“For going into that house for us. She helped. Or, she tried to. Didn’t she?”
“She— she is none of your concern.” Felicity’s voice hardened. “I will pass on your thanks, if you really want that. But please don’t. She—”
The patter of small feet on bare stone interrupted Felicity’s voice. Such a gentle sound, but somehow it drowned out the words. Like a flash-storm of freezing rain smothering a weak fire.
A rough, raspy, high-pitched breathing joined us on the phone. Excited and rapid, like the bearer had been running around for quite some time. There was something aberrant about that breathing, as if it came from a throat twisted all wrong to be human.
My skin crawled and my spine itched, but I managed to swallow the inevitable hiccup.
“Is that you?” I asked. “Aym?”
The reply I received was not words, but a vibrating, hissing hack-hack-hack. Maybe a laugh, maybe something else, more animal than human. Then, just as it trailed off, a theatrical “Mwah!” A kissy-noise.
Raine winced. Twil bared her teeth in frozen growl, bristling all over. Evelyn shuddered with naked disgust.
Praem leaned down toward the phone on the table.
“Bad girl,” she said, bell-clear and sing-song beautiful.
On the other end of the phone, Aym — or what I assumed was Aym — yelped like a puppy bapped in the nose with a newspaper. The high-pitched breathing sound slithered away, feet trotting off into the black silence beyond the phone call. Felicity let out a shuddering sigh, as if she’d narrowly avoided danger.
Evelyn stared at the phone with unparalleled disgust.
“Please, don’t,” Felicity said. “Don’t attract her attention.”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. I only wanted to thank her.”
“She knows. Trust me, please, she knows. What … what help did you want? What is this about?”
The plan had worked. We’d broken down Felicity’s barriers, though I hadn’t expected the weird assist from Aym; I wondered, for a moment, if her interruption had been intentional, timed for just that moment. But how could she have known? Demons can be even more strange than mages.
I shared a glance with Evelyn. She looked hollow-eyed and wracked with disgust, but she shrugged and gestured. ‘Tell her everything,’ she mouthed.
“We’re trying to find a hidden house,” I said. “Much like your own. Or so I’m told.”
I explained the situation to Felicity, as efficiently as I could, without either leaving too much out or providing too much information about things she didn’t need to know — such as the Brinkwood Church, or their hidden god, or our exact level of involvement. But I had to explain Evelyn’s method to find the house, the steps we’d taken so far, and our looming failure. Evelyn nodded along, silently interrupting me at several points to indicate something I should or shouldn’t say.
Felicity went quiet at first, then began to ask technical questions: did we have a description of the house; had any of us ever visited it; did we think it was located near a specific species of tree; were there any large hills in the specified area? She went on like that for a while, as I checked Evee’s map and her photos. Felicity’s voice grew in confidence, settling into familiar things and away from the sucking quicksand of her own emotions.
But of course, I also had to explain why we were looking for the place.
“Edward Lilburne?” Felicity echoed. I could almost hear her shaking her head. “The name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Hey, Fliss,” Raine interrupted. “You’re not exactly the most gregarious type, right? No reason you’d know about the guy.”
“And he knew Loretta Saye, you’re certain of that?”
I cast a glance at Evelyn, but she seemed unperturbed by the mention of her mother. In fact, she even shrugged.
“We don’t know if that part is true,” I interpreted for her. “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Felicity, is this possible? Could his house be magically hidden in this kind of way?”
“Mmm.” Felicity made an audible thinking sound. Uncomfortable. Uncertain. “It’s not impossible. My own home cannot be found unless you already know the way. It’s … secluded, in special ways. That’s why I use this land-line. I had to lay the final portion of it myself. Mobile phone signal doesn’t come here. Neither does anything else. Well, nothing normal.”
Raine and Evelyn shared a look. Twil pulled a face like she didn’t want to know more.
“Then you know how this would work?” I asked.
“ … no?”
Felicity sighed, almost apologetic. “I wasn’t responsible for the working. I didn’t do it myself. As far as I’m aware, my home, my house, has been this way since long before I … inherited it.”
The way Felicity said the word ‘inherited’ made my spine want to curl up and slink out of my body.
“This isn’t the kind of magic you do in a single day,” she was carrying on like she hadn’t just spoken a rotting slug, “or even in a year or three. It’s serious working. It was performed by one who came before me. I wouldn’t even know where to … ”
Across hundreds of miles, spanned by the narrow bridge of electromagnetic radio waves and buried cables, I could almost feel Felicity curl up in her chair as she trailed off. That black silence pressed in around her, at the edge of my hearing.
“You’re going to fight this mage regardless, aren’t you?” she asked, voice a shaking murmur, pressed to a cold stone floor, somewhere in the dark.
Around the table, safe and sound in the bright surroundings of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, we all shared a mystified look. Even Evelyn didn’t know what to make of the feeling radiating from the phone. Praem tightened a hand into a fist. Up on the wall, Marmite hid himself inside his black membranes, totally obscured. I wasn’t the only one who could feel this. It wasn’t the product of an over-active imagination or the twitchy caution of abyssal instinct.
“Yes,” I said at length. “Yes. We have to get that book from him, there’s no other way to do this. Maybe we fight, or maybe there’s another way, but we do have to locate him first.”
“You’re going to do this anyway,” Felicity murmured. I got the impression she wasn’t really responding to me. “Just like … mm. Should have stayed. Stayed to help. Should have been there. Should never have left when she—”
“Shut up,” Evelyn said.
Felicity stopped, instantly. We could all hear her swallowing hard, sniffing, pulling herself back from some private precipice. Raine looked away, as if trying to spare Felicity the embarrassment, even though she couldn’t see us. Twil winced and put her face in her hand, overwhelmed by second-hand embarrassment. Praem tilted her chin upward.
“Yes,” Evelyn carried on, voice hissing with contempt. “We are going to hunt and possibly kill this mage, regardless of your help or the quality of it.”
“I … I … yes,” Felicity said. “Aym would know. I mean, Aym might know, about the house. This house, I mean, not the one you’re trying to find. She was here when it was done, when the house was hidden. I might be able to … to convince her to … ”
I cleared my throat. “We would be very grateful.”
“I would need to come to Sharrowford. Eventually, I think. If I can feel out the contours by which this place has been hidden, if it’s the same techniques, or similar techniques, Aym may be able to … peel them back.”
“Hey,” Raine said, spreading her hands. “If it gets us Edward, you can peel back the whole countryside. Crack open the hills and burn down the woods.”
Felicity laughed, more of a jerky hiccup, forced and difficult. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
“You’re not coming to this house again,” said Evelyn.
Felicity did not answer.
“Will you call us back?” I asked. “Maybe when you’ve spoken to Aym?”
“It might take a day or two. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Should I … this number, or—?”
I gave Felicity my number and Raine’s number. We didn’t want her calling Evelyn’s phone.
“I’ll try my best,” she said before we ended the call. “I promise that. I promise.”
Evelyn pulled a disgusted face. She met my eyes and drew her thumb across her throat.
When I disconnected the call, it was like shutting off a pitch dark room behind an armoured door. Suddenly the magical workshop seemed brighter. Only then did I realise how tense I had grown; my head was pounding, my chest was tight, my hands were quivering with strange effort. All the hard-edged ruthlessness went out of me in a rush. I hiccuped loudly.
A collective sigh went through the others, all except Praem, who stood there as crisp and straight-backed as always, though she did raise her hands and give me a polite, gentle round of applause. Raine rubbed the back of her own neck, then reached over to rub mine, as a reward for a difficult job well done. Twil slumped in her chair, didn’t seem to know what to say. Evelyn scowled at the phone like it was evidence in a murder case.
As abyssal logic receded, guilt trickled back in.
With one numb and shaky hand, I picked up Evelyn’s phone and re-blocked Felicity’s number, so she wouldn’t have to think about that. Inside my chest, a spike of jagged iron worried at my heart. I was hurting two people here: Evelyn, by re-exposing her to the trauma of her own past, and Felicity, by emotionally manipulating her into working for us.
Justifications formed like a pearl around a speck of grit inside my soul. Evelyn had agreed to this. She’d said go ahead. And I owed nothing to Felicity.
But I owed so much to Evee. I stared down at the phone in my hand. This was my responsibility now, not hers. Anything to lift the burden of strategy from her shoulders. This is how it was meant to be. She could make the plans, but I would be her conduit, her hands.
“Well,” Twil said eventually, blowing out a big sigh. “That was real fuckin’ weird.”
“Uh huh,” said Raine. “Fliss is kind of a weird person.”
Evelyn snorted. “Yes, grass is green, water is wet, bears defecate in the woods.”
“Nah,” Twil went on. She sounded horribly uncomfortable. “I mean like, she seemed kinda fucked up, you know? Does she need help?”
“She’s a mage,” Evelyn drawled. “We’re beyond help.”
“Evee!” I couldn’t help myself, her name flew from my mouth as I looked up from the phone. “Don’t talk about yourself like that.”
But Evelyn didn’t look fatalistic at all. The disgust had dropped away, replaced with a cool, level focus. She nodded to me, once, an admission that she shouldn’t be putting herself down. That was the last thing I’d expected. Then she smiled at me. I didn’t know what to say. Guilt flared, and then receded, dying away without a target.
I awkwardly reached over the table to return her mobile phone. “Are you certain you’re okay with this?”
Praem took Evelyn’s phone for her. Evelyn reached across the table toward me with her maimed hand, palm up. I didn’t know what she wanted, then I almost blushed as I realised. I returned the gesture, though I had to stand up a little to take her hand in mine. Without meaning to, I added a tentacle, wrapping it around her wrist without thinking. She didn’t even flinch.
“We can do this,” she said. “But Felicity is sure as hell not staying in this house. Not even a little bit.”
“Agreed, yes, absolutely.”
“No problem with that,” Raine agreed. Twil shrugged, several step behind.
“Evee, I … thank you,” I added.
Evelyn squeezed my hand, the stumps of her missing fingers cradled in my palm. Her eyes burned with purpose, and I knew her purpose was me.
The impromptu strategy meeting broke up without being officially declared over — though Praem’s insistence that it was time for a cup of tea seemed to do the trick to dispel any lingering tension. Twil wanted to show Evelyn an amusing video on her phone, something to do with too many cats in a single box. Raine followed me out into the kitchen, concerned for my state of mind, so I recharged with a nice long hug, snuggling into her front. Then I told her I was going upstairs, by myself.
Time to talk to Lozzie.
Evelyn’s look had given me courage, a hot glowing ember in my chest. Besides, if I put it off again, I might never get to this conversation. If I told myself ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, well, Badger was getting out of hospital tomorrow. We had things to do. Easy excuses to put it off. No time like the present.
I half expected Marmite to follow at my heels as I made for the front room and the stairs. He was no stranger to following me around the house on occasion, often trailed by a spider-servitor. I’d assumed he might want to get out of the magical workshop after the raised voices and unexplained tension earlier, but when I peeked back around the door frame, he was hanging upside down from the ceiling. His metallic eyes were fixed on Twil’s mobile phone. Maybe he liked cats, too.
In the upstairs hallway, June sunlight burned hot and bright through the window, etching a patch of aching light on the old paint and older plaster of the wall, divided into four by the window lattice. I paused to soak my face and throat in that heat, squinting my eyes shut like a cat. Even my tentacles spread out for a moment, relaxed and soothed. Beyond the window, Sharrowford wavered with distant heat haze rising from the black tarmac of the roads. Summer inside Number 12 Barnslow Drive was strange, the sun beating down on the exterior of the house but never spreading out beyond the cracks and slivers where it could enter. Out in the garden, the grass grew wild, and sometimes I could hear crickets or the whine of horse flies. But we never saw more than the occasional spider indoors.
Cool air washed over me again like fresh bedsheets when I stepped away from the patch of direct sunlight. The bedrooms and Evelyn’s study were dim and shady, like rock pools beneath the tide.
The door to Lozzie’s room was ajar by just a crack. Soft voices came from within. I knocked gently. My reward was one of those delightful fluttery trilling noises from Tenny, from deep in her chest.
“I’m coming in, okay?” I said.
The cosy grotto of Lozzie’s bedroom — and Tenny’s too, technically — was a much more comfortable sight than it had been months earlier. It was no longer the barren and empty space where Lozzie laid her head, bereft of possessions except borrowed clothes and the mobile phone we’d purchased for her. From the bean-bag chairs around the low table, to Raine’s old ‘gamecube’ hooked up to the television, to the piles of books and puzzle toys, Tenny’s presence had changed everything.
There was even a laptop in here now, usually sitting on the desk at the back of the room. A hand-me-down from Raine, specifically for Tenny. Raine had handled parental controls for the internet connection, though we’d had a bit of a debate about that. Evelyn hadn’t liked the idea of restricting information, not for a being who was already stuck indoors almost all the time. Lozzie hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about, but then Raine had taken her to one side and explained something in private, and Lozzie had quite happily gone along with making sure Tenny was always supervised.
“Tenn-Tenns needs to grow up a bit more first, mmhmm, mmmhmm.” Lozzie had nodded along at the time.
“She’s growing up quickly,” Evelyn had said, “regardless of what we do. She’s what, effectively acting like a teenager now? We don’t want to shelter her unduly. Not that we have a choice.” Evelyn had sighed heavily, apparently more pained by this than Lozzie was. “Maybe if we take her down to Sussex, to my family home. Maybe somewhere without too many prying eyes. Oh, I don’t know.”
“She can almost do the illusion cloak thing now!” Lozzie had chirped. “Alllllmost perfect. Then we can go for a walk!”
I pushed the door open to discover pretty much the exact kind of comfy scene I had expected. Lozzie herself was curled up on her bed, amid a big nest of rumpled blankets and sheets, with a book propped on her knees. Her pastel poncho lay draped over the end of the bed, leaving her in just pajama bottoms and t-shirt for once. The only thing out of the ordinary was her phone on the pillow, kept close at hand. She’d started paying a lot more attention to it this last week.
Tenny and Sevens were sitting together at the low table, before the open screen of the laptop. Tenny was sprawled in a beanbag chair with Whistle in her lap. The dog was happily wrapped in a black tentacle and half asleep. He opened one eye in curiosity as I entered, then returned to napping. Sevens was in full goblin mode, squatting on the floor next to Tenny, chewing on the end of a pencil with her needle teeth. I don’t think the pencil stood much chance.
Tenny was multi-tasking to the extreme. One hand clutched a pencil, the other braced against a notebook on the table. A tentacle was busy twisting a Rubik’s cube, solving and scrambling and re-solving it every few seconds. Another two tentacles were casually wrapped around Sevens, as if the blood goblin might try to run off at any moment. Another tentacle was wiping the inside of a very empty, very well-licked jar of peanut butter.
One additional tentacle was reading. Or at least it was pointed downward, at a book lying on the table, past the laptop and the notes. Two other tentacles held the book open. The silken black skin on the ‘reading’ tentacle had peeled back from the tip, as if to reveal an eye, but all I saw was shiny blackness.
Tenny’s normal eyes, big and dark and pelagic, looked up at me as I stepped inside the room. Her fluffy white antennae were twitching like reeds in a breeze.
“Heath! Heath!” she trilled.
We had long ago established that Tenny was perfectly capable of pronouncing my full name correctly, but the nickname had stuck. I didn’t mind it.
“Hello Tenny.” I gave her a wave. Another tentacle snaked out from under her wings, making for me and joining with one of my own in an unspoken touch-greeting. “Are you … having fun?” I peered at Sevens, who greeted me with a low, throaty, raspy noise. “What are you up to?”
“Histy’,” she said, voice an excited flutter.
“History lessons,” said Sevens in a raspy gurgle. She pointed at the screen. “Romans, Vikings, middle ages. Mmmmmm, keeping it kinda low on the bloody parts.”
I blinked, wrong-footed all of a sudden. “Oh, I … sort of expected you to be playing video games, I suppose.”
Tenny giggled, a fluttery sound like a thousand moths inside her chest. “Can’t play all the time, auntie Heath.”
“Um, yes, that’s very true.” I cleared my throat. “Can’t play all the time. That’s very sensible of you, Tenny. That’s good. Um, Sevens, you … ”
I trailed off as Sevens stared back at me, red-on-black eyes daring me to question this course of action. I couldn’t tell if she was exhausted and exasperated by acting as Tenny’s private home-school tutor, or if she was oddly smug about this arrangement.
Instead, I asked, “Wouldn’t there be a better mask for teaching?”
“Mmmmmmmmrrrrrrr,” Sevens rasped. “Tenny likes this one. Too much.”
Tenny confirmed this with a fluttery giggle and by hugging Sevens with her tentacles. Another spare tentacle reached over and ruffled Seven’s long, lank hair, messing it up and sending it flying all over the place. Sevens rasped a complaint, but Tenny was being too affectionate to truly restrain her. I suppressed a giggle and shared an amused look with Lozzie, who was keeping her peace, though with some difficulty. Her lips were twisted against each other to stop from laughing.
I cleared my throat. “You do know you can do this in the kitchen, if you’d like more space? Or in Evee’s study, maybe?”
I nodded at the low table. It did seem a bit cramped, between the laptop, Tenny’s notes, the open book, an unfinished chess game, and the usual assortment of Tenny’s toys and puzzles scattered about. There was even a miniature plush shark sitting on the edge by the laptop, facing the screen as if reading along. Tenny’s favourite. We’d tried to purchase one of the larger plush sharks for her, but everywhere that stocked them had them on back order. Raine had suggested we go on an actual trip to the nearest Ikea, but that would mean a whole day out to Manchester. We didn’t have time for that during exam season, at the very least.
“Tenny likes her things,” Lozzie chirped. “It’s comfy-comfy!”
One of Tenny’s silken black tentacles snaked out and stroked the miniature plush shark. Her wide black eyes stared down at the plush toy, suddenly unreadable. Perhaps it was my imagination, but for just a second, she seemed almost melancholy.
I’d come up here with a clear intent to talk to Lozzie, but I couldn’t help myself, not when faced by sad Tenny.
“Tenny,” I blurted out before I could think about what to say. “Would you like your own bedroom? Your own space? Your own bed?”
“Mmmmmuuuuur?” Tenny fluttered, looking up at me.
“You still sleep in Lozzie’s bed, with her, don’t you?” I asked.
“Mmmhmm,” Tenny confirmed with a nod. She peered at me, head tilting from side to side, fluffy white antenna twitching rapidly.
I glanced at Lozzie, afraid that she was not going to like the sound of this in the slightest. But she was lighting up.
“Tenny is the most cuddly!” Lozzie chirped, scooting forward on the bed, pulling her blanket-nest apart as she moved. “Buuuuut maybe it’s time for Tenny room? You could have a table for chess!”
Tenny blinked at the pair of us, big black eyes beneath a delicate frown. Her tentacles pulled Sevens in tighter, perhaps a subconscious gesture. Sevens didn’t complain, but she did gently bite at Tenny’s shoulder to get her to relent. Whistle woke up too, perhaps sensing the tension. He half-wriggled half-fell out of Tenny’s lap. If Tenny had been human, I swear she would have been chewing on her bottom lip or fiddling with the hem of her clothing. Her wing-cloak flexed, momentarily flushing with a rush of colours like oil on running water. Her camouflage, sparking in a moment of anxiety.
“You don’t have to,” I said gently, crossing the room and crouching down next to where Tenny was sitting, so we were eye-to-eye. She stared back at me, wide-eyed. I held her tentacle tight in my own, wrapping around it like a woven rope. “It was just a suggestion. And we’ll all be right here, still under the same roof. Evee’s bedroom is on the other side, so you won’t be next door to Lozzie, but I’m certain we can clear out one of the spare rooms.”
“One of,” Sevens said with an amused rasp.
“We could get Praem to help,” I carried on. “You could choose things to put on the walls, posters or pictures. You could have a whole pile of plush sharks on the bed, if you wanted. And you don’t have to sleep in there if you don’t want to.” I lowered my voice to a stage whisper, leaning in close to Tenny. “You could always sneak back in here and sleep with Lozzie.” I nodded very seriously, as if this was a secret revelation from the depths of the abyss. I glanced back at Lozzie, who was pretending not to be amused by all this.
I thought that was rather clever, but Tenny didn’t quite agree. She stared at me, then up at Lozzie on the bed again, then back at me.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” she said in her trilling voice.
“Awwww, Tenns!” Lozzie said, then emitted a sound like a concerned seal.
“Tenny, it would only be another room in the house,” I said, struggling not to melt completely. “But you don’t have to. It’s just a thing you can do, if you decide you want to. It’s your decision. Not mine, not Lozzie’s, not anybody else’s, okay?”
Tenny puffed her cheeks out — a Lozzie-gesture, which at least let me know she was back on track — then blew out all the air and said, “Will think about it.”
I nodded, then reached forward to give Tenny a proper hug, with both my human arms and all my tentacles. She returned the hug, suddenly giggly again. It was like hugging a bag of snakes covered in cooking oil and engine grease, slippery and muscular and with patches of fluffy white fuzz in between. Tenny purred and vibrated like a giant cat.
“We all love you, Tenny,” I murmured. “I love you, Lozzie loves you. Nobody is going anywhere. Even auntie Evee loves you, even when she’s grumpy. Even Zheng cares about you.”
“Urrrump?” Tenny made a doubtful noise at that last one.
“It’s true,” I whispered.
We slowly disentangled our hug, though Tenny stayed attached by a couple of tentacles even as I stood up and stepped back. The momentary melancholy had lifted from her features. I shared an amused glance with Lozzie. Somehow, the solidity and simplicity of reassuring Tenny had banished the worst of the guilt and frustration, smothered the razor-sharp core of abyssal ruthlessness, and soothed most of my worries.
But all that buckled and threatened to collapse again, as I watched Lozzie wiggle her legs over the side of her messy bed.
I’d told Tenny a lie, hadn’t I?
I did love her, little Tenns, and so did Lozzie, her mother. But I’d told her very clearly that nobody was going anywhere. And that just wasn’t true.
Like an insensitive fool, I opened my mouth and almost spoke the dreaded words: Lozzie, we need to talk. But I caught myself at the last moment and transitioned into a hiccup. Last time I’d used that phrase, I’d terrified Lozzie out of her wits. There was no need for that now.
“Heath?” Tenny trilled. She’d picked up on the sudden change in tension. Or maybe just the hiccup. Whistle had too, trotting past me with a wide berth, like I was a whirlpool and might suck him in.
“Tenny, Praem is making tea downstairs,” I said, plastering a fake smile across my face. Lozzie caught that, peering up at me from the bed, all curious. “If you go and ask very politely, and say please, she might make you some hot chocolate. I think there’s another jar of peanut butter earmarked for you, as well.”
I was not very skilled at this kind of conversational subterfuge. Sevens came to my rescue though, standing up and encouraging Tenny to follow her. She must have understood my intention. But even if she hadn’t, the promise of peanut butter monopolised all of Tenny’s attention and made her tentacles very excited. She dropped half of what she was doing, scooped up her plush shark, and hopped to her feet, waving the empty jar of peanut butter on the end of one tentacle.
“Gaaaoorrrr,” went Sevens, dragged along in Tenny’s wake like a small girl with a large dog. “Yes yes, peanut butter.”
“Hot choco and peanub bubber!”
Seconds later we heard Tenny fluttering down the stairs, followed by Sevens doing her best not to get swept off her feet. Whistle nosed out of the door after them, but not before he cast a doubtful look back at me.
I sighed heavily. Even dogs could tell. I was an open book.
Lozzie looked up at me from the bed. No imitation human gestures for her, she was very openly biting her lower lip. She knew I’d wanted to get her alone for a second. “Heathy?”
“It’s okay, Lozzie, it’s fine. It’s fine.”
Gently, I pushed the bedroom door almost shut. The sunlight from the corridor dwindled to just a crack, closing us together in the fuzzy shadows inside the house.
“Heathy? What is it?” Lozzie asked.
Her eyes had gone wide as they could, with her permanent sleepy-lidded look. Her hands twisted at the bedsheets in her lap. She seemed so much smaller without her poncho on — she was wearing a pair of pajama bottoms borrowed from me, pink with little strawberries up the legs, and an old t-shirt I think she’d gotten off Evelyn, with a cartoonish pink-haired pony on the front, from one of those cartoons Evelyn liked.
“Lozzie, it’s fine,” I said in a rush, sitting down on the bed next to her. “I just … I never thanked you. For last weekend. With Hringewindla.” I let out a big sigh of relief and nervous tension as Lozzie made a little oh-shape of realisation with her mouth. “You showed up just when I needed you, and I … I didn’t thank you.”
I looked down at my hands in my lap. That was only half the truth.
Lozzie didn’t answer. Instead she slowly wrapped an arm around one of my tentacles, entwining with me without speaking, letting my automatic responses guide one of my pale, rubbery limbs to creep up and around her own arm, until I reached her shoulder. I sighed. She was only playing with me.
But when I looked up, I found her staring back, head tilted so her hair hung loose, down on to her lap. “Aaaaaaaand?” she prompted.
I sighed, self-conscious and shaky. “Oh, you see right through me sometimes.”
Lozzie giggled. “I just see you, Heathy!”
“Yes, well.” I rubbed my face with one hand, trying to gather myself. “I’m just … I’m very grateful that I didn’t have to do everything alone. I feel like I’ve really learned that now. I don’t have to do anything alone, not even talking to something like Hringewindla. If I couldn’t get him out of my head, I would have been stuck, or I would have needed to get … violent.”
Lozzie averted her eyes briefly, but she nodded.
“But I didn’t have to do that,” I said. “Because you were there. The others were there too, and they helped. But mostly it was you. Butting in at the last moment. When I was communicating with him.”
My lower lip shook. I had to bite it, too hard.
“Oooooooooh,” went Lozzie. “Ahhhhhhhhhh. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Hrm.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just … I wish I’d had more … time? I don’t even know.” I shook with each breath. Lozzie reached out and put her other arm around my shoulders. “I’m not ungrateful, but Lozzie, speaking with Hringewindla was the closest I’ve ever gotten to speaking with something like the Eye. And the only thing I could do was make a metaphor out of it. I was talking to my own mind, processing him into something I could understand. And the Eye won’t be helpful, not like Hringewindla was.”
Lozzie nodded against my shoulder. “He’s reaaaaaally sweet. Mmhmm!”
I looked up and met her eyes, half-sleepy and heavy-lidded. For a moment, my heart blazed with hope. “Did you see the old man, in the cabin?”
Lozzie blinked several times and shook her head. “No?”
The lump returned to my throat. I took a deep breath and nodded. “All in my head. Even if I can communicate with the Eye, it’s not going to be so helpful.”
Lozzie squeezed me tighter.
“I’m sorry, Lozzie. But I sort of wish you’d left me there for a few more minutes. Alone with Hringewindla. So I could learn how to … ”
How to hurt him. I left that part unsaid.
I didn’t even know if it was right. I had no idea what I would have to do to the Eye. I still didn’t know. The experience with Hringewindla suggested methods. Painful ones.
“Never alone,” Lozzie said. “Never alone, never by yourself, that’s the point, Heathy! You’re not going to be alone.”
I looked up at her again, so hard she almost flinched at the look in my eyes. I felt like grabbing her and shaking her. “Are you going to be there for the Eye, in Wonderland? Could you do that to the Eye?”
“Because I don’t want you to, Lozzie. I don’t—” I cut myself off and glanced at the open crack of door. I could hear Tenny burbling and trilling happily downstairs. “I don’t want you to leave Tenny behind.”
Lozzie bit her lip.
“You’re her mother,” I continued. “I can’t even ask you to come to Wonderland, to take that risk. I can’t ask you to come with us and maybe … maybe not come back. I can’t ask you to do that.”
Lozzie blinked at me several times. Then she wiped the tears from my cheek with the back of her sleeve, and looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Um,” I said, suddenly blushing.
That was a very unique look from Lozzie. She’d never done it before. It seemed almost alien on her face, lips twisted together and one eyebrow raised. I think she copied it from a mixture of Raine and Evelyn, via pure observation.
It was very effective at getting me to shut up.
“Heathy,” Lozzie said, booping me on the nose with her free hand. “Why do you think I’ve made all the cattys? And the knights too! Everyone wants to help you! I promised I was going to help you, remember? You saved me, so I help you! Don’t you remember? Mmhmm, mmhmm?”
Lozzie bobbed her head insistently, catching my eyes and stopping me from looking away.
I did remember. I remembered all too well, because it was one of the defining events of my life. Lozzie, barefoot and bloodied, filthy and greasy and twitchy with trauma, surrounded by pneuma-somatic creatures, on that morning last year after we’d pulled her out of her brother’s castle. I remembered Lozzie, promising that she’d return to help rescue my sister, that she would find a new kind of help. And she had. The Knights and the Caterpillars. Lozzie’s secret supernatural army, just on the other side of the membrane, waiting Outside.
I shook my head. “Of course I remember. But I can’t exploit them, either. You made life. I can’t send them all to their doom. It would be like genocide.”
“It won’t be doom!” Lozzie all but yelled in my face. I blinked in surprise as she surged with outrage.
“No doom! No doom! No doom-brained bad thoughts!” I’d never seen Lozzie like this before, with such a serious little frown etched on her forehead, eyes pinched with determination. “We’re gonna make the opening. You’re gonna reach in! The cattys are made for this, they’re so good at it! I didn’t even know they’d be so good, but they are! We can’t go wandering around Wonderland — ahaha,” she giggled at the double meaning, “but they can! They’re built for it. And the Knights are determined too, they can deal with all the other stuff, the mess and ruins and looking after us. We’re going to need that, yes? Yes? Yes! Even with Zhengy and Evee and everything, we can’t do it alone. And they want to help! And … ” Lozzie trailed off. For a moment I thought she was going to crumple and look away. Her whole posture wavered, about to go. But then she screwed her eyes shut and carried on. “And maybe they don’t all come back. Okay. Okay okay okay. Maybe some of them don’t. Maybe some don’t. But everyone wants to help. Everyone knows you! Everyone wants to know Maisie. Me too, Heathy. Me too.”
I struggled to find an answer to that. Lozzie’s sudden confidence was like warm butter inside my chest. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I almost curled up into my own lap, wishing I could vanish.
“I know. I know, you’ve told me that, I just … there’s so many other things I’m supposed to do. Things I have to do. I need to talk to Jan about making a back-up body for Maisie. We need to get the book. But I don’t … I don’t know what to do. When we get there. To Wonderland.” My voice trailed off to barely more than a whisper. “I haven’t said this next part to Raine, or Evee, or anybody. I can’t. It’s … really hard to keep going. To keep doing these things, to stay focused on these things. It’s really hard to be preparing for … for after, when I don’t know if we’re even going to survive it.” I took a deep breath and felt the guilt purge itself from me as I finally admitted it. “And it’s all on me. You’re going to help, and thank you. But the last piece of it, it’s all on me. And I’m so scared. And sometimes I just want to climb into bed and forget everything, stop trying, stop thinking.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Lozzie hugged me tight. We stayed like that as I lost track of time, one minute drifting into another. I found myself listening to her heartbeat, wiping my tears on her shoulder.
“I haven’t told anybody that part,” I said eventually.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“But I don’t.”
“That’s what the knights and the cattys are for,” she whispered. “And Evee-weavy’s magic circle. And everything else. You don’t have to know everything right away. Wonderland has secrets, we’ll find them, then you can use them!”
I sniffed loudly. “I hope you’re right.”
“Lozzies are always right,” said Lozzie.
Eventually I managed a small laugh. Lozzie and I stayed wrapped together for a long time, long enough for somebody — Raine, I think — to call up the stairs. Lozzie called back, but nobody came to look for us.
We separated, but stayed holding hands, side by side on the jumble of bedsheets. Lozzie rummaged in her poncho on the end of the bed, produced a hair brush, and set about brushing my hair while humming happily.
“Oh, Lozzie.” I almost started crying again, but I held it back. Something had released inside me, some muscle that had been twisted up for weeks now. The guilt had faded to mere echoes. “You’re too sweet.”
“Sweety-sweets as sweets does.”
I managed to laugh. “What does that even mean?”
“It means, don’t eat me.” She tapped my head with the hairbrush, very lightly.
“I do need to ask Jan about a lot of stuff.” I sighed, staring down at my lap. “That wasn’t me being hyperbolic. And, well, I do need to ask you about her, too.”
“Janny is cuuuuuute,” Lozzie chirped, still brushing my hair, slowly and methodically. She guided my hand up to feel how smooth she’d made it, smooth and silky against my head.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “But are you and her … um … ?”
Lozzie ducked around my side, back into my field of vision, blinking innocently. “Mm-mmm?”
I sighed and gave her an indulgent smile. “Oh, I suppose I should talk to her really. Or both of you, together? We do have a lot to discuss. Maybe Evee and I should call her again, I’m not sure.”
Lozzie tilted her head at me. “Wanna go visit right now?”
“ … now?”
She broke into a mischievous, elfin little smile. “She won’t expect me to bring you along! You can surprise her, catch her off guard!”
Lozzie dropped the hairbrush, patted me on the head, and hopped to her feet. “All done!” She pulled her poncho off the bed and wriggled into it, making a little ‘pwah!’ sound as her head popped free of the collar, hair going everywhere. Then she grabbed her mobile phone from the bed, jabbed at the screen, and held it up to her ear.
“Shh-shh-shhhhh!” She shushed me, then bobbed from one foot to the other as she waited for her call to connect, then suddenly said, “It’s meeeee! Are you wearing all your clothes right now? Or at least half your clothes?” A pause. “Because I’m gonna be there in about ten seconds! Hide all your secrets, now!”
Lozzie ended the call before giving Jan time to respond — at least, I assumed it was Jan. I hadn’t been able to hear the other end of the phone. She was giggling like crazy, biting her lip, swiping hair out of her face, like this was the funniest jape in the world. Then she stuck her hand out to me.
“Ready?” Lozzie asked.
“You … you mean we’re going to Slip?”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. “Quicker than walking! Smoother than cars. Not as cool as trains, because trains are cooler than most things, but still cool.”
I cleared my throat, struggling not to grin. “Lozzie, I’m sorry, I feel like I’m the one being caught off-guard here. I’m … okay, I suppose I am dressed for this.” I glanced down at my hoodie and jeans, though I wasn’t wearing outdoor shoes, only socks. At least I had my phone in my pocket.
“We’re only going to her room. Not Outside!”
“What about everybody else?” I gestured at the door. “They’re going to wonder where we’ve gone.”
Lozzie lit up, nodded very enthusiastically — which sent her hair flying about again — and hopped over to the door. She flung it wide, stuck her head out into the corridor, and called out, “Heathy and me are heading out for a bit! Be right baaaaack!”
A smattering of confused voices replied to her, calling back up the stairs.
Lozzie bounded over to me and stuck her hand out again.
“Lozzie,” I sighed. “We can’t just … go. Can we?”
“We can! We can call when we get there!” Lozzie puffed out her cheeks at my stick-in-the-mud exasperation. “And we can both hippity-hop a hundred percent fine now, Heathy! You can just come straight back if you don’t like it.”
“I suppose that’s true … ” I stood up and straightened my hoodie. At least my hair was brushed. I looked presentable, mostly. “I do need to let … oh.”
Praem appeared in the bedroom doorway, staring at us, hands folded in front of her perfectly starched maid uniform. Milk-white eyes bored into mine.
She didn’t even need to ask.
“We’re going to see Jan,” I said with a sigh. “Let Raine and Evee know, please. Sorry, Praem.”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded and stuck out her other hand toward Praem. “We gotta be quick or she’ll be ready for us! Wanna come too?”
“No, thank you,” said Praem. “Have fun.”
“We will!” Lozzie giggled. She grabbed my hand, and before I could raise any further complaint, reality collapsed like a badly balanced house of cards.
Rough landing, rougher than usual, even for a Lozzie-Slip. Like slamming on the brakes too late. Soul jarred loose, rattling around inside too much flesh. Senses jumbled, overlapping, taking too long to reboot.
I managed to keep my feet, digging my toes into thick green carpet through my socks. Stumbled into a wall, tentacles thumping against plaster, bracing my weight, keeping me upright. Doubled over, panting and heaving, but I didn’t vomit. Carpet was too nice to ruin with vomit.
My trilobe bioreactor pulsed hot for two or three seconds, burning like a fragment of star in my gut. Hotter than it needed to, just to keep me standing and conscious. My skin broke out in cold flash-sweat. A full-body shiver gripped me.
Fighting off an attack. But from what?
“Lozzie?” I croaked.
I reeled upright in panic, blinking hard to clear my eyes. Something had gone badly wrong during the Slip.
Fancy corridor. Thick green carpet with a darker green pattern down the middle. Cream-coloured wallpaper, muted and tasteful. Soft lighting at sensible intervals. Air conditioning humming away. Voices, distant and muffled. The sound of a television playing somewhere behind a wall.
Doors ran down either side of the corridor. Soft cream-yellow. Numbered in brass, with card slots for locks. One-oh-five, one-oh-six, marching down to shiny steel lift doors and the right-hand turning of the stairs.
Hotel corridor. Empty, except me.
“Lozzie?” I said.
Mages have agendas of their own, dark and unthinkable; what does Felicity really want? Who knows. Heather certainly doesn't, but maybe she can keep this particular mage under control long enough to get what they need from her, without inviting too much extra danger. At least things went well with Lozzie! And Tenny is growing up fast. Heather might not know what to do, but she doesn't need to, not yet ...
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Next week, where's Lozzie? Does Heather need to panic, or is this just a mistake? Or is Jan finally revealing her true colours?