Discussion of torture
I’ve been a very bad girl, my queen.
To any other young woman of my particular orientation, set of predilections, tastes, desires, and curiosities, hearing those specific set of words, spoken in a tone of ice-cold sobriety by one’s questionably dominant fiancée, secluded together in a room full of occult mysteries, beneath the brooding skies of a cloud-drenched day, would probably result in a state of pole-axed paralysis, feral trance, or just plain animalistic heat. I might even have enjoyed it too, if such words had been delivered under any other circumstances, by anybody except the same person who had attempted to goad me into false godhood and-slash-or messianic cult leader status.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, masked with the face of the Yellow Princess, the rightful daughter of the King in Yellow, stared back at me across the otherwise deserted magical workshop.
I was struck speechless for a long moment, half in disbelief, half with distaste.
Between her ramrod-straight posture, her wide unsmiling turquoise eyes, her perfectly straight-cut blonde hair, her crisp white blouse, and ankle-length yellow skirt, the Princess Mask was often too much for me to handle, even when she wasn’t trying to overawe me. She held herself forever poised on the knife edge of aristocratic arrogance. It would take only one errant twist in the direction of her gaze, one haughty tilt of her chin, one dismissive flick of her fingertips, for her to radiate a sunburst of disdain and superiority. But she chose not to, and instead remained positioned in the liminal space of effortless potential. It was somehow more unnerving. And certainly more attractive.
But not right now, not with those specific words.
I tried to laugh it off, but I managed only a single, hollow chuckle. “Sevens, if you’re trying to flirt, then that’s in very poor taste. Maybe if you said that while wearing your vampire mask … ”
I trailed off, finding no handhold on her unreadable and icy regard.
Seven-Shades-of-Seditious-Supplicant tilted her head to the side by a few degrees. “Do you really believe I’m flirting, Your Grace?”
“Tch!” I tutted reflexively, scowling at her. “Sevens, don’t call me that.”
“My apologies. What style would my Ladyship prefer?”
“Style?” I was so flustered and taken aback as she galloped ahead of me, I walked right into the trap. “Ladyship?”
“Of address. It’s only proper, isn’t it? I am foreign royalty still, until we are properly wed, and then I may take all the liberties of personal intimacy. Will you copy the forebears of your homeland? Will you adopt ‘Your Majesty’ and ‘Your Royal Highness’?”
I still had the damp towel in my hands from drying my hair; I almost threw it at her in embarrassed outrage. “Sevens, stop! It’s not funny!”
“Of course not, no. You are not queen of England, that would be immensely confusing. We should create a proper title for you. Regina Externus?” She rolled the words around her mouth like a draught of exotic wine, eyes going up and to the side, followed by a dainty shake of her head. As if I wasn’t standing there going red in the face, watching this nonsense. “No, that sounds like an obscure disease of the lower parts. How about Domina Polypus? That would include all your other, non-queenly roles in one title, for all your realms and responsibilities. Simplicity is a sound advantage in rulership.”
I spat a laugh of offended disbelief; it was that or stare in speechless shock. “You’re being serious, aren’t you? Sometimes I forget you’re technically an aristocrat. What is this? Where is this coming from all of a sudden?”
“Why, from me, Your Grace.”
A hint of mockery in her tone set me off, like frozen acid. I couldn’t tell how much of this was a joke, or at who’s expense. I was already mortified by how close I’d come to giving in, back in the Shamble-swamp, to that unspeakable impulse to present myself as a false god.
“Stop calling me that!” I snapped. I didn’t know what to do with the damp towel in my hands, standing there with my hair all messy and my skin flushed from the shower, so I twisted the towel in my fists, feeling impotent. “I’m not a queen, or a messiah. I am not going to set myself up as the leader of a cult, and certainly not play some kind of god gambit on a pair of terrified people and a race of Outsider swamp creatures!”
Sevens didn’t even blink. As if she’d expected my every word. “I sense my Lady of the Squidly Crown is somewhat vexed.”
I rolled my eyes at that one. Who wouldn’t? “Now you’re just taking the mickey. Thanks for that. And yes, for your information, I am quite angry about what you tried to do. What you tried to encourage me to do, back in that swamp. Is this about that? This is your second attempt? Trying to bully me into doing something I shouldn’t?”
To my great surprise, Sevens raised a single eyebrow in a sceptical arch. “Angry?”
“Yes! Of course I’m angry! I—”
My impending rant was interrupted by the patter of footsteps through the ceiling overhead.
Somebody was up on their feet and moving around upstairs, probably Tenny or Evelyn. The tread was too heavy for Lozzie and too imprecise for Praem. But I was suddenly hyper-aware of being overheard, deeply uncomfortable with the notion of anybody else stumbling across this growing argument, especially Evelyn or Lozzie. Even Zheng would be barely tolerable, though I didn’t know where she was right that moment. Probably either sleeping or out hunting. More importantly, I didn’t understand exactly why I was so uncomfortable. What did I have to hide? But still, I cut off my snapping anger and swallowed hard, eyes glued to the ceiling, tentacles curling tight as if to protect my core from an unseen attack.
Seven-Shades-of-Sarcastic-Vassalage cleared her throat in a perfect little ahem-ahem sound. “Perhaps we should retire to a location where Your Grace can vent her mind without fear of interruption? The new castle, perhaps?”
I rolled my eyes and hissed. “Please stop talking about me in the third person, Sevens. You’ve made your point.”
“I don’t believe I have, actually.”
Her tone was still ice-cold. I felt myself shiver, my tentacles curling tighter, sweat breaking out down my back. And I’d just showered, too. Sevens loved me dearly, she had put her very nature on the line for me, had thrown herself into my defence during the incident with Hringewindla, and had literally gifted me with a piece of her self-hood. But here she was, staring me down, not flirting at all, but expressing a combination of distaste and concern.
I sighed. “Sevens, if you’re trying to make a point, then just make it. There’s no need for this … this game-playing.”
“Do you not wish to express your irritation, my Lady?”
I couldn’t help but give her a very unimpressed look. “Just say what you mean. Please.”
“Then I rest my case,” said Seven-Shades-of-Smug-Little-Brat. “Shall we retire to Camelot for a few moments, so we may speak frankly?”
I slapped the damp towel over my shoulder and raked my fingertips through my wet hair, trying to look casual but probably just coming off as deeply artificial. “No, thank you. I’ve had quite enough of Slipping for a bit. Two days ago I slipped eight times. Nine times? I can’t even count. I still feel slightly abstracted, loose inside my own body, like I’m going to wander off in an astral journey if I’m not careful. So, no, thank you.”
That was a lie. It was true that all those Slips had left me feeling drained and weird, like I’d run a marathon on the phantom limbs of my own soul, muscles sore and strained in places that I didn’t have muscles. But the feeling had faded by the end of yesterday, my bioreactor doing its job in keeping me topped up. I still had limits, undoubtedly, and I was afraid to approach them lest something go horribly wrong, but I was currently more than capable of Slipping with relative ease. I just didn’t want to, though I didn’t know why. Because Sevens was being irritating? Because I was afraid of what she might say, Outside and unfettered? Because I was afraid of what I might say? Like a coward, I shrank from the true confrontation which was brewing here.
Sevens waited a beat, for me to say more, as if she knew I was making it all up.
I turned away and started using a corner of the towel to dry the back of my neck, unable to meet Sevens’ eyes. “Besides,” I said, trying to sound casual; I was fooling nobody, I sounded like a twelve year old attempting to hide a tantrum. “Don’t you have your own method of Slipping? Couldn’t you offer to make it easier on me, for once?”
“When you take a step, it does not force others to walk with you. They must take a step themselves. You forget what I am, kitten.”
I looked round at Sevens, half shocked, half relieved to be called something that wasn’t a royal title. She was deadly serious, or at least unreadable enough that I couldn’t see through the mask. But she’d dropped the nonsense, at last.
“I … I’m sorry, Sevens.” I sighed, mostly at myself. “Do you really want to go talk in Camelot? Right now? I’m willing to try, if it’s that important. Especially if it’s about what you said in the swamp. We do need to talk about that. Do you want to go?”
Seven-Shades-of-Plots-and-Plans tilted her head the other way. “Do you?”
I huffed softly, then stomped over to the door of the workshop and leaned out into the kitchen. I angled my voice toward the front room and the stairs beyond, then called out, “Sevens and I are going to Camelot for a few minutes!”
A reply floated down the stairs a few moments later, in Praem’s bell-like voice.
“Take shoes,” she intoned.
I blushed in embarrassment. Yes, of course, it wouldn’t do to forget shoes a second time in three days, even if I was planning firmly against getting whisked off into another Outside escapade for hours on end, shoeless and stranded and carrying nothing but a damp bath towel. I stomped into the front room, muttering things like, “This is going to be a quick trip, it is,” and, “Sevens, you best not be planning any nonsense, or I am going to be very upset indeed.”
After stamping into my shoes, I spotted Praem at the top of the stairs. She was looking down at me, hands folded before her.
“We won’t be long,” I said, and made it sound like an apology. I took the damp towel off my shoulder and moved to drape it over the bannister. “And I’ll put that away when we’re back, sorry. Let Lozzie know, please?”
“Keep the towel,” said Praem.
“Great practical value,” she said, then turned on her heel and clicked back into the upstairs corridor on some unknown errand.
I huffed and grumbled. Why was everybody being so cryptic today? Was Raine going to come home and make me guess how Badger was doing? If Evee woke up now, would she ask me to solve a riddle? Perhaps Zheng might encourage me to divine her mood from the splayed guts of a half-eaten pigeon.
When I rejoined Sevens in the magical workshop, she had summoned her own shoes directly onto her feet, a pair of sensible black flats. Her umbrella was in her hand too, poised at a jaunty angle, like a young princess prepared for her mid-afternoon stroll in the gardens of her father’s estate. Suddenly I had a terrible, paranoid thought that she was actually about to whisk me off to meet her father again, for some reason I didn’t quite comprehend. But the impression faded as quickly as it had struck me. This was still Sevens. I still trusted her.
She extended her free hand toward me. “Ready, Your Grace?”
“I thought you’d dropped that,” I snapped. I tutted and scowled at her, while scooping my squid-skull mask off the table; I wasn’t going Outside again without the mask, ever.
“Dropped what, Your Grace?”
I didn’t deign to reply. I took Sevens’ hand in mine, then wrapped the tip of a tentacle around her wrist for good measure, glaring at her the whole time.
“I suppose I don’t have to tell you to hold on tight?” I said. “Are you actually coming with me, or going your own way?”
“I walk beside you, my queen.”
I rolled my eyes hard enough to hurt a little, clenched my stomach muscles, and plunged my mind into the black depths of my own soul.
To think that such a thing would ever become simple routine.
Out we went, the princess and I.
Camelot was still as beautiful as the very first time I’d seen it, in that first ever dream I’d shared with Lozzie.
Sometimes I wondered if Lozzie had chosen Camelot on purpose, or if it really was just a coincidence. A non-threatening, safe, quiet place, where things had happened once but were now long past. At the time, she’d just intercepted the message from Maisie, intended for me, but even with that she couldn’t possibly have known my primordial terror of Outside, of these unknown and alien places which had haunted me in dreams, across the membrane between worlds, dragging me back again and again for lost hours in dripping black jungles and windowless metal hallways and vast places that made teenage Heather curl up in a ball and sob herself into unconsciousness. In contrast, Lozzie had picked somewhere lovely. It was the right choice, the first taste I’d ever had of Outside as somewhere not to fear.
Even now, with a castle building site all around us, it was beautiful. The Knights worked without any of the modern blights of such processes — jackhammers, drills, the clank of machinery, the stink of hydrocarbons, all were absent. The loudest noise was the click-clack cutting of bricks from the huge blocks of stone. There was no pollution here, not unless the slow-crawling Caterpillars on the horizon put out some hidden, invisible, odourless waste product. I doubted that, somehow. Lozzie would not have made them that way.
The castle didn’t look very different compared with two days earlier. The keep walls were a little higher — perhaps there was a second internal floor in place now — but the exterior curtain wall was still all but a mere outline. On the far side of the keep I spotted a section where the Knights had started putting those massive stone blocks on top of each other, beginning the real wall. Three Caterpillars were gathered around that spot, perhaps just having delivered the dun, sandy blocks to the seed of a wall, but they were currently just hanging out there, not doing anything. Two of them had long tendrils of strange sticky black tar extending from their ‘faces’, wrapped around the stone blocks as if helping to settle them in place, or perhaps glue them together in lieu of mortar.
Sevens waited politely while I recovered from the aftermath of the Slip, panting and squeezing my eyes shut as I forced myself not to vomit. She even kept her arm out for me, a support for my tentacles to cling to, like a squid attached to a piece of elegant, shapely driftwood. Eventually I straightened up and gazed out across the castle building site. Knights moved about their tasks, setting bricks in place, mixing mortar, cutting blocks. Some were currently carving out a pathway between the castle and one of the future gatehouses, pulling up the turf so others could start laying brickwork directly into the ground.
I’d landed us on that same hillside where we always arrived, the taller hill that would eventually be encircled and protected inside the future line of the curtain walls. In a real medieval castle, it would have been the perfect place to site some kind of watchtower, or perhaps a siege engine.
For now it was still home to the desiccated corpse of the unnamed young man who had died out in the swamp. Two Knights still stood vigil, by his head and his feet, but the Forest Knight was nowhere to be seen. I’d landed us at a respectful distance from the hilltop itself, just beyond human earshot.
All was bathed in the purple light of Camelot’s alien sky. I felt it on my skin, a soothing darkness from the glittering firmament.
“Well, here we are,” I said, sniffing back a nosebleed from the brain-math.
I fumbled with the damp towel, about to ruin it by wiping my bloody nose all over the fabric. Praem was right, towels were very useful things. But then Sevens produced a linen handkerchief seemingly out of nowhere and offered it to me. It was white, not yellow.
“Use this, Your Grace,” she said.
I tutted at her calling me that yet again, but I accepted the handkerchief all the same, and used it to wipe the blood off my face. The nosebleed didn’t last very long, just long enough for me to sniff and splutter a bit before it stopped. I folded the handkerchief and gestured awkwardly.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll … wash this and return it? Is this a real object or … ? You know what, don’t answer that. The less I understand about how Outside works, the better.”
But Sevens held out her hand for the handkerchief. “Please, Your Grace. You wouldn’t deprive your wife-to-be of a holy relic, would you?”
My guts froze. “Holy relic?”
“Stained with Her blood,” said Sevens. I could hear the capital H in ‘Her’. She meant me.
I sighed with enough force to light a fire, then stepped back in mingled disgust and embarrassed irritation. “Sevens, really?” I held the handkerchief awkwardly in one hand for a moment, then stuffed it in the pocket of my pajama bottoms and crossed my arms. “Well, now I’m absolutely not giving it back to you. This isn’t funny any more. Stop it.”
“Do you find something funny about this?”
Turquoise eyes bored back into mine. Ice-cold, unreadable, and not happy with me. A lump grew in my throat, but I had no idea what was going on. More importantly, I was the one who should have been irritated. I was irritated. I was angry and still upset and I didn’t understand why she was trying so hard to derail this conversation.
“What game are you playing now, Sevens? Hm? What’s next? Are you going to turn into three of my friends in sequence and use their voices to convince me to do something I shouldn’t?”
Sevens blinked. “A low blow, kitten.”
I flushed with sudden shame, mortified, mouth hanging open. Then I hiccuped, hard and painful in my throat. “I … I, no, Sevens, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. You didn’t deserve that. That was deeply uncalled for. I apologise.”
I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. I could feel a stress headache threatening at the sides of my skull. “Sevens, whatever you’re doing, it’s hurting me. I don’t understand what this is about, if it’s a joke or something else, calling me a queen, or a messiah, or worse. It’s like you’re slipping back into old habits, trying to make me understand something through demonstration rather than bloody well talking to me!” I hiccuped again. “I’m sorry, pardon my bad language.”
Sevens just stared. For the first time ever, I felt a distinct sense that the Yellow Princess was being forced to think something over before replying.
Then, eventually, she said, “You are not the only one who is angry right now.”
I blinked in surprise. My damp hair suddenly felt very cold. “You’re … angry with me? Sevens?”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight produced another object in her free hand, apparently from nowhere — a Japanese-style folding fan, dyed in the thick, treacly yellow of melting butter on fresh bread. She flicked it open and hid the bottom half of her face, leaving only her eyes visible.
“Yes,” was all she said. Then she left me waiting.
“I … Sevens … I … is this about how we’ve been using you? No, how I’ve been using you?” I felt an awful churn in my stomach. “I’m so sorry. I mean … when you tagged along to Hringewindla, I just treated you like a helper, despite what you’re going through yourself. I know, I know you’re trying to find a new way to define yourself, and I … I thought I was giving you time, and space. And … and when you helped with Natalie, I … thank you, for that, thank you, but I don’t mean to take you for granted. And about our engagement, I’m not going to leave you hanging forever and … and … ”
Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Study did exactly that. She spooled out rope for me to hang myself. I trailed off.
“I am searching for purpose,” she said eventually, mouth muffled behind the fan. “For a new shape in which to fit. Your family — and family they are — is giving me spaces in which to fit myself. You give me purposes alongside you. The process is ongoing. Do not apologise for the greatest gift you have given me.”
“You do not understand why I am angry.”
I shook my head. “No. Because you keep putting it in riddles.”
“And you keep rejecting the role you filled with such relish. Queen, messiah, avatar, goddess.”
I sighed a great sigh and barely resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Is this because I turned you down in the swamp? Is that what you’re mad about? Sevens, you were trying to make me act like an actual god in front of two terrified people, not to even mention a whole bunch of very impressionable Shamblers. I wasn’t about to deceive them in that kind of way, I’m not going to act like a cult leader or a monarch and take advantage of people or—”
The folding fan snapped shut. Sevens was revealed once again. “You were not acting. You were being. And then you lied to yourself.”
“You are continuing to lie to yourself.” Sevens blinked, slowly and almost difficult. “I am not made for this. Understand that much, please. I am still not made for intervention, this very conversation is an act of self-redefinition, but if I do not have this conversation, then I will turn into something I will not like, which will end poorly for both of us.”
“Sevens? It’s … it’s okay, you don’t have to force yourself.”
“You reject the role of leader, of queen, of monarch, of idol, of goddess — yet two days ago you used the prerogative of that role all the same. You took the power and applied it, yet rejected the responsibilities. I didn’t whisper temptation in your ear to make you cruel mistress of the fate of others. I did it to make you see what act you were committing.”
I squinted at Sevens, having trouble keeping up. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t follow. What act?”
My mouth opened on a reflex I had never examined, let alone anticipated. Even as the words fell from my lips, they tasted like rot. “I had to. Sevens, I had to. I had no choice.”
“Did you now?”
“Of course I had to! We had no time, Natalie’s parents had to be made to understand, to be broken, quickly. You know that.”
Something horrible and barbed and sick stirred in my chest.
“There were always other options.”
“Bad ones!” I said. Panic shook my limbs. The thing in my chest sprouted spikes, burrowed into my heart and lungs, but I was feeding it, flash-growing the thing with every word I spoke. “Bad for Natalie. Sevens, you didn’t complain at the time. You didn’t protest! Nobody did! Well, I suppose Evelyn did, a little bit, but everybody saw the necessity. We had to do it. We had to. Are you trying to tell me I was wrong?”
With a flicker like the iris of an antique camera shutter, the Yellow Princess vanished.
Evelyn Saye stood before me. Shoulders wrapped in a shawl over pajamas, leaning on her walking stick, scowling with deep yellow eyes the colour of boiled butter. I flinched in surprise, though I knew it was just Sevens, wearing Evee’s face.
“S-Sevens! Don’t do that, don’t wear my friends, it’s—”
“Torture,” said Seven-Shades-of-Saye, through gritted teeth, a grim expression on her face. Evelyn’s voice, a voice I would know anywhere. “Sometimes necessary, especially in our world, yes. I would do it for you, Heather. I told you as such. I would put Edward Lilburne on an actual fucking rack, and break his bones with my own hands, to make him tell me what he was trying to do to you, so I can find every note he’s ever made on the process, and burn every last scrap.”
“ … Sevens, I know Evee would do that, yes.” My stomach was turning over. The black mass in my chest was trying to crawl up my throat, like a physical thing I’d gestated inside my flesh. “You don’t have to remind me.”
“But I would choose to do it,” said the Yellow Mage. “Make no mistake about that. My hands are never forced.”
But my hands quivered. In an effort to stop shaking, I hugged two of my tentacles to my chest, holding on tight. “Sevens, stop speaking with her voice, stop it! Stop it!”
Sevens obeyed my snapped order without complaint. Seven-Shades-of-Saye vanished with a blink — only to be replaced by Raine.
A cocky grin splitting her lips, her head rolled back, dressed in leather jacket and comfy jeans. She even raked a hand through her gloriously thick chestnut hair, then sighed. The only element out of place was her eyes, yellow-on-yellow instead of soft brown, like I was talking to a mass of beaten gold wearing my lover as a skin.
“Sevens!” I squealed.
“I’m better than I used to be, you know?” Sevens said with Raine’s voice, easy and relaxed, almost laughing. “At saying no to you, at being me, for myself. I got you to thank for that, Heather. No question about it.”
I swallowed and tried to control myself, feeling like I was going to be sick. “Sevens, where is this going?” I demanded. “Is this supposed to be you, speaking with Raine’s voice, or Raine herself? Or your idea of Raine? You can’t know what everybody was thinking!”
Yellow-Eyed Raine grinned wider and rolled a shrug with her toned shoulders. “I don’t even know. But you know what I do know? I’d never argue with you about your own trauma, Heather. I love you too much for that. You put that little girl in front of me, Natalie, and you tell me that she’s you, in your own mind? Fuck it, I’d do anything you ask. You know I’d do anything you ask. Hey, but if I stopped and thought about it? Holy shit. We didn’t need to torture those two. But hey.” The grin flickered back on. “I’m just not gonna think on that.”
All I could do was stare, open mouthed. I felt like a slug was trying to crawl up my throat.
Raine shot a finger-gun and a wink at me. “Love you.”
“ … no,” I murmured, my voice breaking. “No, Raine would have said something, Raine would have spoken up, Raine would have stopped me, if she thought it was wrong.”
“Would she, really?”
I shook my head. “Stop. Stop, please.”
But it wasn’t over yet. Sevens wasn’t finished with me.
Raine flickered out like a snuffed candle. In her place stood Lozzie, with the usual pink and blue and white of her flag-poncho replaced by three different shades of yellow. Perhaps Sevens was trying to soften the blow by making it clear that these were masks, not people.
Seven-Shades-of-Silly-Pixie giggled, exactly like Lozzie.
“Outside isn’t scary!” she chirped, flapping her poncho like an excited squirrel. “I didn’t even see it that way. And they understood in the end, right? You were nice to them in the end, right? So it’s alllllll okay!”
“Lozzie, no … no, Lozzie wouldn’t do something so cruel. She wouldn’t.”
“Aaaaaand I don’t wanna think about it.” Lozzie’s bouncy energy trailed off into an awkward, somber-faced little smile. “People should stop being afraid of it out here. I don’t care what they think.”
“Oh, Lozzie.” I bit my lip and felt the threat of tears fill my eyes. I almost reached out to her, though I knew it was just Sevens.
But then she was gone, a wisp on the wind, blowing away like golden wheat chaff across the hillsides. My hand closed on somebody else.
Zheng, a mountain of muscle towering over me, my hand holding her wrist. Yellow eyes filled what should have been a sharp and predatory gaze. A maw of shark teeth opened wide in a razor-sharp grin of savage joy. A tiger in the jungle deeps, leering at her prey. Seven-Shades-of-Far-Too-Large-And-Far-Too-Close leaned over me, leaned in close, rumbling like a furnace.
“S-Sevens, I know it’s just you, it’s not … ”
The Yellow Demon leaned in so close that I could feel the heat of her skin beating against my face.
“Torture, shaman?” she purred. “If you had asked me to, I would have eaten those monkeys alive for you. In front of their pup.”
I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. “Zheng, no, if I asked that, you— you would have to tell me I was wrong.”
“You are right, shaman. You see further. You see everything. You freed me, you gave me new life. So I believe, in you.”
And then she was gone.
I was left standing there in shock, on a Camelot hillside beneath the purple whorled skies, with Seven-Shades-of-Seven-Faces standing at a polite distance from me, her umbrella tip-down against the ground, held at a jaunty angle.
“No,” I murmured.
“You made a choice to inflict pain, to get your way. Nobody forced you to do that. None really tried to argue with you.”
I shook my head. My throat was closing up, trying to keep the vile thing trapped in my chest. My words came out in a quiver. I hugged myself with three more tentacles, wrapping them around myself. “But I had to.”
Sevens tilted her head, cold and unreadable as ever. She offered me no solace. “Stop lying to yourself.”
“What other choice did I have?!”
“Plenty of choices. There were other ways, Your Grace. Other methods you could have attempted, before torture. You could have exposed Natalie’s parents to Tenny, first. You could have shown them Twil, in full wolfish mantle. You could have taken them to Camelot first, reunited them with their daughter first, rather than putting them through the unknown ordeal. You could have done those things, but you chose not to.”
“It might not have worked. Sevens, you know that, you know it might not have worked. They might have rejected it, not believed, their minds might not have broken properly.”
I shook my head, harder and harder, like a nervous tic I couldn’t control. My breath came out in little pants and hiccups. “What— what are you saying, Sevens? What is this?”
“Natalie is not you. She does not share the curses and blessings of your situation. She will never see spirits. She did not lose a sister or a twin. She will not be haunted by the Eye. You could have left her with a story for her parents. She would still have grown up safe.”
My temper suddenly snapped, hot and red.
“She might not have!” I yelled in Sevens’ face. The rotten, twisted thing inside my chest finally exploded onto the surface, a thing that had festered in a wound for a long, long decade. I let it out, I gave it free reign, I listened to that impulse, wallowing in my own self-pity. My voice rose into a barely-human hiss-scratch of self-disgust and justified rage, echoing out across the quiet plain of Camelot. Down in the building site at the foot of the shallow incline, the Knights paused in their work, tools going still and bricks suspended mid-placement, to gaze up at their queen’s anger. “Insult me, fine. Call me a monster, whatever. I don’t care! But don’t insinuate I should have left that girl behind!”
Seven-Shades-of-Stoic-and-Stolid didn’t even blink. My tantrum did not impress.
“You could have left her with a story for her parents,” she repeated. “What part of that implies leaving her behind?”
“Leaving her to face the gas-lighting and uncertainty, alone! Against the whole world, alone! I won’t do that, Sevens. Fu— fuck that! Nobody gets that, ever again. She’s a child. No. Never again.”
Sevens nodded, as if conceding a point. But I didn’t feel like I was winning; I felt filthy.
“And you judged that was worth the torture of two human beings.”
“You don’t agree? Then you should have said something, shouldn’t you?”
“My agreement doesn’t matter. Maybe I also believe it was the right thing. But you are avoiding the point, Your Grace. You made a choice, and then you denied those people the relief they needed, by refusing to accept your role.”
“I’m not going to pretend to be a god.” I huffed, shaking my head, but I was barely convincing myself. Exposed to the purple light of Camelot, the dripping black rotten thing from inside my chest was cracking and withering.
“Then accept you made a choice. You made a choice to inflict pain. It’s that, or the royal prerogative. The will of the queen, inscribed on flesh and nerve and in the blood of the subject, as would be your right, if you reach out and grasp it.”
“I don’t want that! Stop calling me that!”
“Then accept you made a choice to torture.”
I opened my mouth to protest again, but I realised we’d gone in a circle. Tears filled my eyes. I felt a sob tugging at my throat. I bit my lip, tried to force that down. I was right, I knew I’d done the right thing.
“But … but if it wasn’t necessary, then I … I … ”
Sevens waited politely, offering not the merest shred of comfort. I blinked furiously, trying not to cry. She was right. It had been so hard to see during the heat of the moment, the burning need to avoid another child going through what I did.
“I was … trying to be aware,” I said, struggling over each word. My voice was so much more human again, but I couldn’t meet Sevens’ eyes. I stared at the grass, panting softly, trying to hold onto that justification. “I know, I know I was projecting my own parents onto them, Stephen and Isabella. I knew I had to resist vindictive pleasure, a-and I did! I did!” I looked up at Sevens, embarrassed by my own desperate need for forgiveness and validation, but she just stared back at me. “I didn’t enjoy hurting them. I didn’t make it about me. Or at least I tried not to.”
“Ah,” said Sevens. “I see. So, you didn’t enjoy it. That makes it all better then. Perhaps it even hurt you more than it hurt them?”
“No!” I cried out. “No, no that’s not what I mean! I don’t mean— I— I didn’t mean to—”
The final collapse of my excuses came quick and cold, stealing over me like morning frost over dead grass. The rotten thing from within me froze and died. All my anger and embarrassment turned to slurry in my hands.
“Oh,” I murmured. “I … oh, no. No, I didn’t think about … I made a choice. There were other options, they wouldn’t have been as certain, but … oh no.” I sniffed back the threat of tears, then put my face in one hand and tried not to sit down in a heap. Hugging myself with my tentacles, shaking with each breath, struggling to resist the urge to hide inside my squid-skull mask. “I chose to hurt them. I chose to do that. You’re right, there were other ways. There were.”
Sevens didn’t speak. I screwed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth.
“I’m becoming a monster, aren’t I?” I whined through my teeth. “I am. This isn’t even the first time I’ve tortured a person. Just the first innocent ones. You’re right. I chose this, I chose to do it, I … ”
“My father understands the uses of cruelty,” said the Yellow Princess. “He is intimately familiar with the application and purposes of pain.”
As I cried quiet, bitter tears into my own hand, scrubbing them away with my sleeve, Sevens’ voice held less of its former ice. She spoke as what she was — a storyteller, making a didactic point, but without the barbs of ironic satire.
“In my father’s case,” Sevens continued, beyond the wall of my self-indulgent tears, “he applies pain and cruelty with the right of a king. He never asks himself if it is right or wrong to do so — it is merely his nature, the nature of a king, expressed upon the flesh of his subjects. In the case of a human being, cruelty is the product of domination, exploitation, or hate. But you straddle the line between human and divine. If you were to grasp that side of your nature, I could not argue with your intent. Your methods would be cruel, but they would be in accordance with what you are. But you refused that, so you are hurting yourself with lies.”
I nodded to myself, crying quietly. What was I becoming?
Sevens let out a small sigh, a very controlled sound. “But I am glad you did not choose that. I do not know if I could continue to love an engine of divine intent. Too much like my father. Too much like what I was trying to imitate, born into the application of cruelty as my prerogative. I am glad you chose otherwise, Heather.”
“But I still did it,” I whined. “I still chose.”
Sevens crossed the gap between us with three neat steps, and drew me into a sudden embrace. She hugged me tight and wrapped something warm and soft about my shoulders, tucking it close around my neck and lifting a corner to help dry my eyes. It was her yellow mantle, the engagement gift, the piece of her which was now mine.
I let out a hopeless little laugh-sob and gently pushed her away, though without any real strength in my arm. “No,” I murmured. “No, I don’t deserve to be comforted over this.” I sniffed hard and wiped my eyes, forcing myself upright. “I don’t deserve to be feeling sorry for myself. Not me. I wasn’t the victim, I was the torturer. Even if it was worth it. Was it worth it?”
Sevens shrugged minutely. “I cannot say. That is up to you to decide.”
“Thought so,” I grunted.
To my great surprise, Sevens suddenly smiled. Her smile was a sharp and shrewd thing, unlike any expression I’d ever seen before. The Yellow Princess smiled like a cross between a weasel and a fox, subtle and cunning.
“I do love you, kitten. I’m glad to have you back.”
“We’re not done yet,” I said.
Sevens cocked an eyebrow, no longer smiling. “Ah? You have accepted responsibility for the decision. There is no going back, no undoing the pain. You could apologise to Natalie’s parents, but that would not change the past.”
I shook my head, hard and curt. “No, that’s not what I mean. How do I stop this happening again?”
I went on. “Obviously I have a propensity for this. The potential is in me. I don’t like it, but pretending it’s not there, that would run the risk of something like this happening again. Maybe I wouldn’t do anything differently, maybe with Natalie it really was the right choice, but it was a choice. What do I do?”
“Acknowledge it?” suggested Sevens, tilting her head slightly to one side. She actually sounded uncertain. I’d never heard this mask talk this way before. She obviously hadn’t gotten this far, hadn’t made that final leap. Her script ran out here. “Talk about it. Figure out why you did it. Commit to not doing it again.”
“I know exactly why I did it.” My voice shook with hot shame, but I drew myself up and pulled Sevens’ yellow gift close around my shivering body. I wasn’t cold, in fact I was sweating, but I was still shivering. I drew my tentacles inside it too, but kept my squid-skull mask in both hands now, staring into the black and empty eye sockets. “I did it because I was projecting my own parents onto them. I … I’ve been ignoring that.”
“No longer, though.”
“There was a voice, in my head.” I pulled a face and sighed. “Not a literal voice, I’m not having auditory hallucinations. Maybe it was in my chest, not my head.” I rubbed at my sternum with one of my own tentacles. “A bitter voice, a vindictive version of me. I wanted to hurt them. I wanted to really, really hurt them.”
“I didn’t, though. I didn’t do the things it wanted me to do. But, maybe I was being cruel anyway. Maybe I was hurting my own mum and dad, by proxy.”
“Must I ask why?”
I let out a tiny, sad laugh, and raised my eyes from the unseeing sockets of my real face, to look up at the purple, crystalline whorls which filled the sky, like tattered royal cloaks brushing the atmosphere with strands of transcendent fabric. “Going to university here in Sharrowford, the entire decision to go in the first place, I think it was about getting away from my parents. I could have gotten into the University of Reading, it’s got a perfectly fine literature department. But I … I’ve never told anybody this. I lied to my parents. I told them I applied to Reading, that I was thinking of going to university close to home, so I could stay at home while studying. But I never applied, not really. I lied to them. To get away.”
“You don’t hate them.”
A statement, not a question. I shook my head.
“I don’t, no.” My voice broke, went quiet and soft. “I can’t hate them or blame them, it wasn’t their fault, not really. It was the Eye. My parents didn’t know any of this was real. They didn’t know Maisie was real. They didn’t know or understand what they did to me. When I left home for university in Sharrowford, I didn’t think it was real either, but I had to get away from them. I had to get away from that house. From them, from … from the threat of hospital again.”
I swallowed hard, thick with mucus and tears, but I didn’t start crying.
“Quite,” Sevens said, as if I might stop there.
“Not that they would actually have ever sent me back,” I said. “But the memories were there, wrapped up in that house. And now I know, all of it was real, they forced me to try to forget her, to forget Maisie, pretend she wasn’t real. None of it ever happened, Heather. You’re imagining things again, Heather. Focus on the physical things in front of you, Heather.” I found I was gritting my teeth, doing a terrible imitation of my mother’s voice. I had to force myself to relax, taking several deep breaths. “Maybe I do hate them. It’s not their fault. But I still do. I admit it. And so maybe I wanted to hurt them.”
I took a great shuddering breath and lowered my eyes from the sky, ripping myself out of my memories and back down to Camelot. I felt like I’d just stepped out of a cold shower, shivering and freezing, naked and vulnerable, but scoured clean, wounds opened and sluiced with fresh water, dead flesh cut away, pathogens killed, bleeding freely from an old, old injury, but bleeding clean, fresh, red blood at long last.
“It’s why I never really miss them,” I murmured. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve again. “The rescue operation for Maisie, that’s not why I don’t talk to my parents. I never really miss that house. I don’t call much, I don’t like to talk to them. It’s not their fault, no, but I do hate them a bit.”
Sevens nodded gently, a golden smudge in my peripheral vision, glowing like sunset on seawater.
“I’ve been off balance since the moment I saw Natalie,” I said. “I saw myself in her, and that was that. And I made a choice to torture two people. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong. But you’re correct, Sevens, it was a choice. I made it.” I sighed and looked back down at the squid-skull mask. “I need to be so very careful.”
“This is one of the reasons I love you.”
I looked up at Sevens and her ice-cold face, unreadable expression, and turquoise eyes. “Ah?”
“Your capacity for stepping off the path.”
I gave a sad little laugh. “If you say so. I wouldn’t have realised a thing without you prodding me. How are you so good at this, Sevens?”
Seven-Shades-of-Modest-Triumph shrugged. “I’ve helped a lot of young women. But never one I was in love with myself. This was messy, dirty, quick, and risky. And I was angry with you.”
“Still,” I said. “Thank you for confronting me.”
Sevens tilted her head slightly, neither a shake nor a nod. “May I have my handkerchief back now?”
“Oh, um.” I pulled the blood-soiled handkerchief out of my pocket and pulled a face. “I suppose so. As long as you aren’t going to treat it as an actual holy relic. Even if my blood does have unique properties.”
“It would only be fair turnabout for you collecting pieces of me.”
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten the scrap of yellow you kept, from our first meeting. The scrap of fabric.”
I blushed and grimaced. “Oh, uh, I mean, that was a mistake. It wasn’t meant to be weird. I think.”
Sevens held out one hand. “Then return the favour.”
I rolled my eyes, but at least she wasn’t trying to call me by a royal title anymore. I handed her the scrap of fabric and blood. Sevens made it vanish somehow, into a pocket on her pocket-free skirt. “Thank you, kitten.”
I shook my head, exasperated but relieved. I looked away from Sevens, out across Camelot, across the castle still taking shape. “Is that why you wanted to talk to me out here? To show me physical proof of what I was pretending to be? Or not pretending to be, rather.”
“Guuuuur-ruuuck,” went Sevens the Blood Goblin.
I turned back to her in surprise. The Yellow Princess was gone, replaced with the scrawny, pale, lank-haired figure of the vampire, Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Pretender, dressed in black tank top, matching shorts, and a pair of black trainers on the end of spindly legs. She rolled a bony shrug and gurgled at me. “Guess so?”
“Sevens!” I said with delight. “Are you better? I mean, does this mean you’re not angry now?”
“Mmmmmmmm-yeah?” Sevens closed the gap between us and bumped her head against my side, like a huge cat. She smelled faintly of grass cuttings, for some odd reason. I wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders and she leaned on me, hot and wriggly against my side.
“Well, thank you,” I said.
“Wanna go look at your castle?” she asked, blinking those huge black-and-red eyes down at the building site.
“Not yet. It would be unfair of me to interrupt their first draft, as it were. I should show them some respect, wait until they’re done, not go waltzing about like I own the place. Even if I do own the place, it’s not polite.”
“Good queen Morell,” Sevens croaked, then cackled like a broken engine.
“Don’t start that up again.” I tutted, then gently grabbed the back of her head with another tentacle. Sevens let out a little squeak of surprise. “It really does make me uncomfortable.”
“Sorryyyyy,” went Sevens, with a face that was anything but sorry. “But how can I resist? You have a castle, in a place called Camelot. It’s perrrrrrfect!”
“It’s absurd,” I sighed. “That’s what it is.”
“Heather Pendragon Morell.”
“Tch! Really, you—”
“Don’t like ‘Lavinia’ much, right?”
“ … well, only because people have misused the name. I don’t mind it on its own.”
“Also no! Sevens!” I ruffled her hair with one hand, messing it up and making her squeak and whine, but I quickly relented.
She writhed and grumbled and settled against my side again, black hair all messed up, then eventually looked over her shoulder, back up the hill.
“Guuulurk. What about him?” she asked. “Gonna take a looky-look inside?”
I twisted to look over my own shoulder, following Sevens’ gaze, though I didn’t really need to. I knew exactly who and what she was looking at.
“Inside?” I asked.
“Oh, come on then.”
With Sevens wrapped around a tentacle, and a tentacle wrapped around Sevens, we plodded up to the top of the hill, to have another gander at the mystery corpse who had carried an Outsider coin in his pockets.
The Knights were still standing their vigil, out of respect or tradition or some other meaning that I’d accidentally gifted to them via my own mind. I nodded to them in greeting, or as a gesture of mutual respect, but both of them just stared straight ahead at the horizon. Sevens stared down at the corpse, making soft thinky noises as she turned her head to the left and right. I joined her, but there was nothing new to see.
“Soooooo, gonna look inside him?” she asked eventually.
“You mean with brain-math.”
“ … I don’t want to,” I said. Then I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face. I felt like I needed another shower already. I wiped my face on the still-damp towel instead. “That’s another thing I’ve been ignoring on purpose. I don’t really want to use brain-math to define somebody who’s already dead. I don’t want to look at a corpse through the lens of hyperdimensional mathematics.”
Sevens twisted her head at me. “Why? It’s a corpse. You might find out how he got the coin, riiiiight?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” I had to push past a very specific reluctance, in the back of my mind. “Back when I defined Sarika, to pull her from the Eye, I learned all these weird little details about her, about her past, all the things she’d ever done or thought or felt. Those details didn’t stay clear in my mind, once it was over. Like I saw all of her at once, but then I forgot most of it again. Sort of like a dream.”
“Mmmm,” Sevens croaked.
“But … this dead man, he’s just meat.”
“If I define the corpse, what if it’s no different to a living person?”
“What if it’s just meat? What if I can see a whole personal history, in meat? What if I can see the value, or set of values, or piece of mathematics which defines dead or alive? What if I could bring him back, just by switching a few numbers?”
Sevens bit her lip, and didn’t answer.
I said it for the both of us. “Because that really would be a godlike act. So, I would rather not look. Not yet.”
“Mm-mm,” Sevens grunted. I could hear her chewing on her lip, but she didn’t say anything more.
I took a deep breath and let out a long sigh, then looked up from the corpse. “Besides, there’s got to be other ways to find out why he had that coin. I could look at the coin itself, or I could try—”
With a flutter-puff of poncho-flounce, Lozzie materialised about five feet to our left, standing with arms wide and one foot raised, as if in the middle of a ballet move.
“Lozzie?” My heart climbed into my mouth. “What’s going on? Nothing’s … okay, no, you’re smiling. Sorry, I just … right. Is everything okay?”
“And Sevvy!” Lozzie chirped.
“Mmmmruk?” went Sevens, peering around my side.
“Lozzie, nothing is going on, yes?”
“Raine called!” Lozzie said. She lowered her arms and one leg, then pointed with a poncho-flourish, at the dead man lying on the ground. “Remember I took a picture, on my cell-you-lar phone? Guess who recognised him? Go on, guess guess!”
A sinking feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach.
“Badger,” I said. “Badger recognised the dead man.”
“Rrruurk,” Sevens gurgled. “Badger. Hrrmm.”
Flustered flirting in yellow? No. Unironically very mad. Heather doesn't want to be a little Outsider godling, but she's certainly not just a mortal anymore; maybe there's another way? There's no easy answer to that here, but at least she avoided the path of cruelty, with a little help from a real princess. But what else could possibly stand up to the Eye, in either war or diplomacy, except something big enough to stare back without burning? Hmm.
Rather than a link to my Patreon this week, I want to shout out a story by a long-time fan of Katalepsis! It's been a while since I've done this!
Quill & Still, by the very talented Pastafarian, is a queer slice-of-life crafting litRPG. Very relaxing! Very chill! Lots of alchemy! Go check it out!
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Next week, it's time to check in on Badger! Been a while since we've seen him, brain injuries and all. Might he have some insight to share? Might this coin somehow lead us to Edward?