None this chapter.
We harboured no lasting illusions that I was still a ‘human being’ — homo sapiens, that inventive and communicative subspecies of West African savannah ape, with their centralised chordate nervous systems and two-up two-down body plans — at least not in the strictest sense of the term.
Physically we had deviated so far from standard humanity that in poor light I could be mistaken for an oceanic mollusc, grown giant under the pressures of the sea floor; there was no point denying that my biology was stuffed with enzymes and compounds which were only usually found in the human body when something had gone terribly wrong — tetrodotoxins, chromatophores, a ladder-lace of additional neural tissue. Not to mention the reactor organ humming away to itself down in my guts. Most human beings did not come with an on-board radiation hazard. Psychologically there were seven of me, six of us pressed into those additional layers of brain matter, mirrored reflections and complex refractions and focused refinements on a core original — though the experience of personal plurality is not that uncommon among human beings; but the urge to hiss at threats, the desire to launch myself along corridors or up stairwells on my tentacles, the need to retreat into dark cracks in the metaphorical rocks of society and space, those were considerably less common. There was much of me which had come from elsewhere.
And to find comfort and security Outside? That was not a human potential.
But I was still a person — and I was still a thing born on Earth, no matter how much of the abyss I had lovingly invited into my flesh, no matter how much I changed and grew, no matter what strange coils and twists my thoughts explored. I was still Heather Morell, I’d still been born in Reading, in England, and I was still twenty years old, even if I was also an ethereal squid from the underside of reality being self-copied inside a network of artificial neurons. I was, to use a terribly imprecise and loaded term, still mortal.
And the private chambers of the King in Yellow were no place for mortal minds.
I popped through the membrane and out into Carcosa — into the King’s Royal Palace — in exactly the same manner as I had done the previous seven times, while trying to triangulate a book in the library; I followed the scent and signal of Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight, via the butter-gauze robes pressed into my own flesh, my little piece of her forever wrapped around my heart. I expected my feet to touch ground and my lungs to draw air — fully prepared for the ground to be made of screaming triangles or the concept of ennui, and the air to taste like the colour green, or melancholy, or key lime pie, or something equally ridiculous. The Palace had been a difficult place to endure on my one previous visit, the angles and directions confounding to the human mind, the senses muddled and tricked and jumbled up by this Outsider pomp and power. But I didn’t have a fully human mind anymore. And I was wearing my squid-skull mask. We were complete, I was me, and we had nothing to fear.
Sevens’ warning had not prepared me; I hadn’t been listening. Stupid, foolish Heathers.
I burst through the membrane and almost drowned, crushed by water pressure.
Waters dark, green as ancient oil, stretched in every direction, a thousand miles up and a thousand miles down; thick with rancid sunlight from a toxic star, illumination trapped in the underwater thermocline, divided and divided and divided again until an infinite gloom stretched out forever, miles beneath the waves; tropical-hot, saturated with flesh-eating bacteria, swarming with parasitic diseases for manners of being I could not even imagine.
This was not what we saw or felt; none of this was literal; it was merely the best my abyssal senses could do with the information before us.
I had swam the abyss, right down to the bare rock and black sand at the base of reality, in joy and release; I loved the abyss, the deep dark water, how it had felt, how it made me feel about myself; we still longed to return, even after all we’d been through, though we tried not to think about that too often.
And all those abyssal senses were screaming together: this sea is not for us!
We were not alone: far ahead of me, hanging in the water, three shapes bobbed and darted through the gloom-soaked void. All were yellow. One was unmistakable — Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight like a butterscotch puff of infinite ruffles and frills and layers, a jellyfish analogue more delicate and beautiful than human words could do justice. Of the other two yellow-child shapes, one was metallic and angular, a hard knot of spikes turned back in on itself, a sculpture of pain and threat no less beautiful than Sevens herself, with scraps of red flesh still clinging to the outermost barbs; my instincts recognised that one, though I could not put a name to the shape. The third yellow presence was like a single living fin covered in teeth, moving through the water with all the grace of a dagger through ruined flesh, swift and silent and smooth, swaying and shivering from side to side.
Behind the yellow children a leviathan lurked.
A wall of flesh like boiling sulphur, stretching down into the lightless deeps and up into the sky beyond the waters, and out to either side so far that I knew it encircled the world. The skin swirled and danced in waves and eddies, like staring into the surface of a gas giant — but the patterns promised meaning, if only one would stare a second longer, a moment more, just a touch now, don’t look away! If only one would resist the screaming urge to avert one’s eyes, one would learn so very much.
If only one would ignore the million-million tentacles rising from the leviathan’s hide, each limb tipped with a human face locked in an eternal pose of dramatic display — sorrow, horror, loss, rage, despair, arrogance fallen, pride offended, hubris rewarded. And all of them gazing upon you and screaming: next! Next! Next!
My body had half a second to absorb this; instinct reacted by pumping out a bubble of protective air, padding our flesh with ablative fat, hissing and growling and scrambling backward in the water. We speed-grew a siphon-jet from scratch, to escape as far as possible from this leviathan of suffering which had dredged itself from the abyss, no less giant than the Eye. My mind reached for the familiar equation to take us back—
And then it all vanished.
The sea, the yellow children, and the leering billion-headed leviathan — all gone. All just a trick of the senses, feeding me interpretation. My feet were on level ground, my lungs drew in clean air, and my clothes were bone dry.
I gasped, shuddering. “Uh … ”
I was standing in a well-appointed, delightfully antiquated, and beautiful study, surrounded by bookcases, dark oaken furniture, and several leather sofas with matching armchairs. A great fireplace was crackling away to itself along one wall, while the other wall was studded with small metal-latticed windows; they looked out over the top of a vast, dark forest, shrouded with mist. A grandfather clock was keeping time with soft ticks and tocks. The air smelled of paper and ink, whiskey and hair oil, cigars and coffee.
Three people were seated on two of the sofas and one armchair right in front of me, in a loose circle. I instantly recognised Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, wearing the mask of the Yellow Princess, her spine very straight and her countenance most strict and severe. She was sitting alone in a massive black leather armchair, furthest from me. But I had no time to greet her, judge her mood, or cast my eyes over the other two Yellow Children — for that was what they must have been, we had already deduced — because a grinning giant of a man straightened up from a table just past the sofas and boomed at the top of his voice.
I flinched, hard, which involved a lot of tentacles going all over the place, some very loud hissing, and flashing my skin like an illegal rave.
The man ignored that. He slapped a hand over his own heart so hard that it should have broken some ribs. “Allow me to welcome you to my private chambers! And I do apologise for the momentary confusion upon your arrival. It is easy to allow oneself to forget the needs of other creeds and nations — even when the others are royalty, like oneself! Ha ha!”
The King in Yellow actually pronounced the ‘ha ha’, which didn’t help.
He was wearing a very different mask to the one I had seen him display previously, after he had shed the face of Alexander Lilburne, when I had been the subject of his little play. No longer the kindly prince, with the soft Middle Eastern accent, the thick dark eyelashes, and the easy smile. This role was far more bombastic.
The King in Yellow looked like the unrealistic ideal of a 19th century martial monarch: in his late sixties or early seventies, tall and powerful, muscular from a life of riding about on horseback, with chest out-puffed and arms braced by his sides, so it looked like he was carrying a pair of invisible watermelons; iron-haired and silver-bearded, with a weathered face, manic blue eyes, and whiter-than-white teeth; the whole lot was wrapped in a military uniform which looked like it belonged far in the rear of a Napoleonic battlefield, with shiny black riding boots, unspeakably tight white trousers, and a white-blue-yellow jacket festooned with enough medals to turn away a cannonball.
I couldn’t place the accent in his voice — vaguely Northern European, perhaps Danish, or Norwegian, but with some strange twist to it.
He had straightened up from what I belatedly realised was a tactical map of some imaginary battlefield, strewn with little models that represented soldiers and cavalry and artillery, facing each other in a pair of ragged lines across mountains and valleys. Some of the pieces lay on their sides; others were broken apart; some appeared to be bleeding — or was that just paint?
The King was grinning at me. One of his teeth caught the light with an audible shing!
Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight sighed, tight and cold. “Father. Please.”
Another voice — sharp as a garrotte wire — said: “I concur with Seven-Shades. You are embarrassing yourself, Father.”
A third voice, laughing like the tinkle of glass on velvet, disagreed. “I think it’s fun! Look at all this! I look fantastic! I look like a cake made for sex!”
I was so shocked I forgot to be polite; I had no idea what to say, we didn’t even return the King’s greeting. This was possibly the last thing I had expected.
I looked the King in Yellow up and down — the Jaundiced General in all his finery — and said: “You look ridiculous.” Then, quickly, as our minds caught up: “I— I mean— um— I—”
The Flaxen Field Marshal burst into hearty guffaws of laughter, throwing his head back and slapping his thigh.
The sharp voice from over on the sofas snapped: “You will address him as ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Your Majesty’.”
The Yellow King disagreed, loudly, like a foghorn: “Nonsense! Nonsense! The Sevenfold Watcher is already royalty, regardless of how you may judge her betrothal, Steel. Besides, she has the right of it! I do look ridiculous!”
The Banana Brigadier took two steps forward to join the loose circle of seats, his boots clicking on the dark oaken floorboards. He put his fists on his hips.
Suddenly his uniform was subtly different; the colours and cut were identical, the fit and form unchanged, but the materials were fake. Cloth had turned to crinkling paper, boots to peeling plastic, medals to twisted bits of drink can. His beard went from a majestic specimen of facial grooming to a prop held on with glue. When he grinned, his false teeth fell out of his mouth; he deftly caught them in one hand and jammed them back onto his gums.
Steel — I certainly recalled the name from my previous visit — said: “That is worse, Father. Try again.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sighs-and-Signs added, “I am in agreement with my dear sister. Can we not be serious for one moment?”
The third voice, filled with girlish petulance, said: “Daddy, no! You were so good as the general! Dashing and absurd! Ready to die charging the guns!”
The Jaundiced General raised his eyebrows — also now glued on, one of them peeling off — and regarded his three daughters. But then his eyes turned past them, to me. He strode forward several more steps, making the floorboards shake, and then stuck out one huge meaty hand for me to shake.
“Uh … ”
Sevens spoke up: “You may shake his hand, Heather. He is in an amused mood.”
We took the King’s hand; he pumped my arm up and down in greeting — and then stuck out his other hand, for a tentacle. We took that too, by which time he was detached from the first handshake and seeking a third. He didn’t stop until he’d shaken all seven of us, going: “Greeting, Princess! And Princess! And Princess!” the entire time.
“T-thank you,” we managed. “Thank you for … having us.”
Finally he stepped back again and struck another pose, his uniform still a cheap fake. “What say you, Princesses of the Eye? Should we revel in the performance of martial glory, or only its faded shadow?”
“Uh, um,” was all we managed. But then I cleared my throat, wound most of my tentacles back in, and managed my first deep breath since I’d arrived. “I think I preferred it when you didn’t look so silly. I mean, before. Please. But maybe not so loud?”
The Yellow King flashed another toothy grin; and just like that he was back to his previous self, uniform genuine once more, chest puffed up like he was on parade. But when he spoke he was about twenty decibels quieter.
“You are, after all, our guest, Princesses.”
That third voice squealed with approval, from down on the sofa: “A veritable silver fox, Father! Sevens, I like your human here, she has great taste. Can I borrow her?”
“You may not,” said Sevens.
“Tch! Spoilsport. Does she have a brother? I need a man to go with this outfit. Several men. Going over the top! Hurrah!”
Steel snapped: “This is disrespectful.”
Sevens said, “To what?”
The King gestured at the seated figures, and spoke to me. “Princess Morell, I do believe you have already met Steel, though under less intimate and salubrious conditions. And allow me to introduce another one of my darling daughters — Heart. Heart, this is the Sevenfold Princess of the Eye, Sevens’ wife-to-be.” His face lit up suddenly. “Why, I didn’t think it until now, but they match at last! Haha!”
I finally tore my eyes off the King and managed to take in the trio of women on the sofas.
Steel was sitting to my left — I recalled her from our previous confrontation with the King in Yellow. She had taken on a truly terrifying form back then, some nightmare Outsider breeding-thing that had set off all my abyssal alarm bells. Thankfully right then she gave no sign of trying to look like anything except a human being, albeit an extremely grumpy one. An older lady, perhaps in her fifties, with close-cropped grey hair and a look of starched discipline in her cold, grey eyes; she was wearing lumpy, shapeless military fatigues, in grey and brown camouflage patterns, with great big stompy boots on her feet and some kind of bulletproof vest over her shoulders. A rifle lay in her lap — some science fiction nonsense with too many handles and a LCD readout on the side. She sat hunched, as if exhausted from battle, a sour expression on her face.
She gave me a disinterested look, and said: “And-Steel-Will-Rust.”
“Uh … I’m sorry?”
“My full name,” she grunted. “Don’t bother.”
‘Heart’, meanwhile, was far more interested in herself. She was on my right, on the opposite sofa. She stood up and struck a pose, hands flaring outward from her hips, chin raised, biting her lower lip.
She wasn’t wrong — she did look a bit like a cake.
Heart was tall and graceful, with long limbs, an hourglass figure, and a face full of sharp angles, butter-yellow eyes full of girlish glee, far too much delight on a mouth just a little bit too wide, a little bit too toothy, a little bit too manic. Her hair was a perfect sheet of silvery-white, better than any human dye-job could have achieved. She was dressed in a white military uniform which certainly didn’t conform to any standards on earth, nor serve any practical purpose: a white jacket with golden trim, lace and ruffles cupping and framing her chest, sleeves hugging and highlighting the shape of her forearms, cut-outs of lace showing off her flanks, and a golden belt tight around her waist; a long matching white skirt hugged her hips, then flared outward with pleats and layers, some in golden-yellow, shimmying and shifting with every motion; long black leather riding boots showed beneath; golden leather gloves completed the look. She even had a hat, with a fancy brim.
“Daddy, I look fantastic,” she said. “Thank you!”
Steel said: “You look like a leftover chunk of white phosphorus.”
Heart laughed, full of scorn. “Steel, sister, you’re just jealous because I’m the most fuckable thing in the palace. I am infinitely fuckable right now.” She turned as if only just remembering me, and struck another pose — one hand up in the air, the other on a hip. “Our-Lady-of-The-Jaundiced-Heart. My pleasure to meet you, Sevens’ little toy. Gosh! I do like your colours there, very bright, very flash.”
“Um, hello, yes.”
Heart squinted at me quickly, turning those wide, bright golden eyes into narrow slits of harsh judgement. She looked me up and down. “Mmmmmmm — no, not my type.” She looked away, losing interest. “Not there. Not interested. I assume she doesn’t do the business, anyway?” she asked Sevens. “I don’t see a pregnancy bump on you yet, sister, so either she doesn’t, or she’s shooting blanks.”
Seven-Shades-of-Scorn-and-Strife turned a look upon her buoyant sister like a handful of hidden razorblades.
Sevens had not looked happy when I had arrived; she looked even less happy now. Ice-cold eyes stared out from beneath her ruler-straight fringe of blonde hair. Straight-backed and starched, she was sat in a large leather armchair, the sort of overstuffed giant which threatened to absorb her if she dared to sit back too far. Her Yellow Princess mask had not gone untouched by the King’s latest aesthetic fad: her crisp and uncreased white blouse had gained a high, military-style collar, and her long yellow skirt was pleated with fresh layers, as if it contained secret armour-plating. Her lilac umbrella lay against the arm of the chair — the handle had been transformed into a pistol-grip, like something out of an old spy movie.
With Steel to my left and Heart on my right, Sevens was separated from me by the space between her sisters; I felt, for the first time in my life, an uncanny sense that this social situation absolutely called for me to go to her side, to sit next to her, perhaps even to hold her hand, to show that we were a pair, a couple, and wanted to be alongside each other.
But we clamped down on that urge — I told myself it was because this was not a traditional family. I was not visiting my fiancee’s family home. We were Outside, among beings not too far from gods, and speaking with a thin mask over a million-headed leviathan of hubristic suffering.
A small lie; we were terrified of stepping between Steel and Heart, like exposing one’s flanks to a pair of predators.
Sevens spoke before I could react, anyway. “Heart,” she said. “Sister. Shut up.”
Heart huffed like a moody teenager and flung herself back down onto the sofa, lace and skirt trailing down after her like party streamers, booted feet briefly kicking up into the air.
“Oh, Sevens!” she said “You’re such a bore in that getup! I prefer the little vampire, she’s fun, you can have a giggle with her. Or why not put on the Slasher? You could chase me, we could run around the room, and then you could throw me in a hole! Or Miss Gunner! Oh, yes!” Heart smiled again, sitting up, enthused by this idea. “The Gunner would be perfect for this. Wouldn’t she, Father? Make Sevens change her mask, daddy!”
The King — the Jaundiced General — cleared his massive throat and dipped his head. “Oh, it is not within the powers of this old soldier to command his own daughters. Sevens may do as she wishes, Heart, as may you.”
“Oh, tosh and nonsense!” Heart tutted — then turned a tingling, dangerous, electric smile on me. She fluttered eyelashes which could have felled a saint. “Morell, won’t you ask Sevens to put on a more fun face for us?”
Sevens spoke with all the warmth of a corpse: “There is nothing fun about this conversation.”
Heart leaned toward me, her hair spilling across the black leather, her chest compressing against the arm of the sofa, that soft white uniform contorting itself like fur over silk wrapped around soft jelly. She batted her eyelashes again, bit her lower lip, and purred: “Mmm, don’t you agree, isn’t she being such a stick in the mud?” She extended one golden-gloved hand and reached for the nearest of my tentacles. “Come closer, I promise I don’t bite. Not women, any—”
Sevens snapped: “You want the Gunner? Fine.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight shot to her feet, shoes clacking on the dark oaken floorboards.
Without so much as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-transition, the Yellow Princess was gone, the mask shed and replaced with another.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight donned a mask she had not yet shown to me — and I didn’t flatter myself by pretending that she’d even shown me even a tiny fraction of the stories she had told and the roles she had played upon the stage of the human mind. This mask — the ‘Gunner’ — was young, perhaps younger than me, a slight and slim teenage girl with filthy blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail and tied up with a piece of string; dirty skin, unwashed for days or weeks, and a face full of freckles marked by months of grinding fear, dark rings around the eyes, a slow death in the sallow complexion; she wore a dark green military uniform clearly never designed for her size, baggy and loose and stained.
Heart completely forgot me, squealed with delight, and clapped her hands together.
And that was all she had time for; Seven-Shades-of-Scared-Teenager grabbed a chunky black handgun off the arm of the sofa — her umbrella, transmuted — and shot Heart through the chest.
The sound was deafening in the tiny space of the study. We yelped and flinched and back-pedalled in shock, part of my mind screaming that this was rapidly turning into a huge mess, out of control, the exact situation we did not want. Tentacles came up, our skin flashed warning colours, and we prepared to back up Sevens against the consequences of her actions.
Heart looked down at her chest, a big messy hole right over her left breast, blood spreading outward in a slow wave, soaking through the white of her fancy uniform. Her mouth hung open, scandalised. She gestured at herself. “You’ve ruined it! My sex-cake look!”
Steel snorted in approval. “Serves you right.”
Seven-Shades-of-Swift-on-the-Trigger looked exactly like a teenage girl who had just shot a family member in a fit of rage: shaking with rapidly draining anger, face going pale, panting and wide-eyed, lips quivering. For a second I thought the emotion was real, so I prepared to leap the space to be by her side, to sweep her up, to hiss at the others, to—
But then the Gunner vanished, as quick as she had arrived.
Standing in her place was Seven-Shades-of-Blood-Goblin.
She was dressed in her usual black shorts and tank-top, but with the suitable addition of a pair of oversize military boots on her feet — brand-new, lacking laces — and a big camo-print jacket draped over her shoulders. Red-black eyes bored into Heart with sneering victory. She crossed her arms, stuck out her tongue, and went “Pbbbbbbt!”
The King in Yellow sighed and tugged on his neat grey beard. “Oh, my wayward daughters.”
Heart said: “She’s ruined my smoking hot uniform! Sevens, you’re such a little bitch! Father, father, please, put it back! I was planning to go out and do some fishing in this, and I won’t have any luck at all with a bloody great hole in my tit. Attract all the real freaks, that would.” She leaned forward and gestured at her back — there was a matching exit wound, and a nasty hole in the leather. “And she’s buggered the stuffing, too!”
Steel held up a hand for Sevens, flat, palm out. Sevens slapped it. A high-five.
The King in Yellow tugged on his beard again, wiggled his bushy grey eyebrows, and softly said: “Stage-hands to the fore, we suppose.”
Heart’s uniform returned to its unblemished white, the blood gone, her wound vanished. The hole in the sofa vanished as well.
“Thank you, daddy!” Heart preened, then turned to Sevens and pulled a sneering bad-girl smile, eyes all narrow, lips pursed.
Sevens snorted and stomped with one massive, loose boot. “Hands off my girl or we’ll go worse than pistol rounds, guuurrrrk.”
The King in Yellow boomed: “Girls, girls, please! Your father despairs when you fight each other — instead of turning your attentions to the eternal enemy!”
Steel gave the General a look of bored contempt: “And who takes that role this episode?”
The King paused, arms outstretched, like an actor simulating the mistake of forgetting his lines.
I’d had enough of this.
“Excuse me,” we said, loud and clear. We stepped forward, made a conscious, concerted effort to lower our tentacles, then reached up and pulled off our squid-skull mask and took a deep breath. “This is all very … lively, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the invitation, but I am only mortal, and I’m finding it a challenge to keep up with your … antics. Please, slow down?”
“Oooooh,” Heart purred under her breath. “She’s a stunner with that mask on. Well done, Sevens.”
Sevens rasped: “I’ll bite you.”
The King in Yellow beamed at me, showing off his very white teeth once again. “My apologies, Princesses,” he said, filling with pride and pomp once more. “We simply cannot resist putting on a show, especially when one gets a few of us all in one place at the same time. Do you like what you see? It is essential to our natures, determined by our types, brought forth by our—”
“Yes,” we said, gently but firmly.
The King laughed again, then said: “I see you cannot be enraptured by long speeches. A worthy trait in a monarch, a princess, or an angel. But worry not, Princesses of the Eye, we plan no play for this day. Merely a spot of improv. Ha ha!”
Sevens rolled her eyes and made a growly, grumbly noise down in her throat. Steel sighed and looked preternaturally bored. Heart looked highly amused.
“That’s good to know, thank you,” we said, very carefully. We had to keep in mind that discoursing with these beings was akin to negotiating hospitality in a fairy-mound; I had no idea what kind of wrong step or unwary word would set off worse than a fake execution. And we had not forgotten the sight when we had arrived, the glimpse of the King’s true nature through our abyssal senses. “But — Yellow King, is that what I should call you? Why the invitation? Why am I here? Is there something you wanted to speak with me about?”
“Oh, yes!” bellowed the Jaundiced General. “We were discussing your batman!”
“ … I’m sorry, pardon? My what?”
“Your orderly!” clarified the King. “Your aide, your helpful little fellow, the one with the smart ideas and the quick thinking.”
Sevens gurgled in her throat and said: “Means Badger.”
“Oh,” I said, catching up at last. “Okay, yes. Of course you were. Badger, yes.”
Heart purred, sprawling back on the sofa, crossing and uncrossing her legs. “Oh, I am just dying to meet this gentleman. Nathan, was it? God! I so do love doomed heroes, they get me all hot and bothered.” She looked at me and said: “Daddy won’t go into the details I like, and Sevens won’t tell me a thing about him. Is he very stupid and strong? Or smart and tortured? Doomed to a terrible death? Or is he going to end himself in shame, eventually? I’d love a look-in before he goes, please, please. I promise I’ll be gentle with him!”
We all stared at Heart — me, myself, and I, all seven of us. All my tentacles turned to point at her. Our coruscating skin dialled down to a threat-strobe of dark reds and toxic purples. We did not smile.
“If you touch my cultist,” I said. “I will pull your head off and eat your insides.”
Heart cooed and rolled her eyes — but she sat back from me slightly. “Oh, come on! I’m not going to break him! Genuine doomed heroes are so rare these days.”
“He’s not doomed,” I snapped. “Badger is safe and sound.”
Heart paused, then pouted. “Not even a little bit of doom?”
She pouted harder. “I’m sure we could see about that.”
I reached out with a tentacle and grabbed her arm. She flinched, but I held on. “Nathan’s going to live to his eighties and die in his sleep.”
Heart slowly and gently pinched my tentacle with her opposite thumb and forefinger, and unwound me from her arm, maintaining eye contact all the way. Then she placed my tentacle on the arm of the sofa. “Now I see why Sevens has the hots for you. You’re made for each other. Bores! And Sevens used to be so much fun, I thought you might have been a proper throwback to her wild days.”
The Yellow King chuckled affectionately. “You must forgive my darling daughter’s inexperience. She is younger, far younger than Steel and Sevens here, and still has the taste for simple tragedy, spiced with a heavy dose of the baser instincts.”
Heart pouted even harder, seemingly deflated now. “It’s not base,” she muttered. “It’s fun.”
“Can you all please stop for a moment?” I said loudly. “You all keep sliding into this … this … melodrama, and I can’t keep up.”
The King said, “Only what you see, little watcher.”
Steel said: “They do, don’t they?”
I glanced down at her. “Okay, well, you don’t — but I don’t fully understand why you’re here. I think I follow why Heart was part of the conversation about Badger — horribly enough — but you?”
Steel looked at me as if we were all sitting in a muddy trench, and hadn’t moved in three days. “Because I don’t do melodrama.”
“Oh. Well. Fair enough?”
I turned back to the King in Yellow, who was apparently waiting for me to deliver my line; it was a very uncanny feeling, as if I was on stage. I actually glanced over my shoulder at the rest of the study, half-expecting to find rows of audience seating marching away behind us. But there was nobody there, just more bookcases and dark wood and the windows over the fog-shrouded forest.
The King in Yellow said: “Do you enjoy the décor, Princesses?”
“Um, please stop calling me princess — or the plural, though I appreciate the gesture, thank you. Just Heather is fine, or Morell, if you have to. And yes — it’s actually very comfortable in here, thank you.”
The King beamed at me, puffed out his chest, and wandered over to his map-table once again. A contemplative look settled over his features as he trailed his fingers over pale illustrations of mountain valleys and wide plains, little villages and sprawling urban centres. His hand avoided some of the carved wooden pieces laid out on the maps — soldiers and horses and the like — and then scooped up one particular piece and carried it with him as he stepped past the table.
Past the table was a massive wooden desk, exactly the sort of thing one would expect of a 19th century general, all polished and smart and clean and mostly empty. But on one end of the desk was a massive globe, mounted inside one of those metal frames which allowed one to spin it at will.
The King touched the globe and turned it thoughtfully, gazing down at sepia continents and washed-out borders.
I only realised after a second that the globe did not show any version of earth I’d ever seen.
“Do you know what this space is for, Lady Morell?” he asked.
Sevens hissed like a broken gasket. “Father. She doesn’t want all this.”
But the King carried on: “The contemplation of past victories. Basking in glories gone. Dwelling on grand plans which have now fallen into memory. Drawing lines on a map and replaying their ebb and flow, or their sundering and erasure.” He stabbed a finger toward the globe and stopped it spinning. “And that is what we were doing regarding your Badger fellow. A most resourceful gentleman. In another age, or another place, he would have been most valuable. I could have put him to great work, tearing down all the grand battle plans of this or that iron-fisted tyrant; he could have worked wonders in the partisans who—”
“He is mine,” I said, interrupting the impending monologue.
The King looked my way as if surprised. I thought he might scowl, or laugh, but instead he chuckled softly — and tossed the wooden board-piece at me. One of my tentacles snatched it out of the air and brought it up to my face.
It was a tiny scale model of Badger, carved from dark wood, caught in the moment of triumph over Edward, on the edge of a massive seizure.
“That he is,” said the King. “Are you proud of him, Lady Morell?”
The light in the study went still, as if the rolling fog down in the forest outdoors was holding its breath. The grandfather clock stopped ticking. The fire ceased to crackle. Sevens was baring her little needle-teeth in sudden frozen panic. Steel looked exhausted, ground down by war. Heart’s face lit with excitement, as if I was about to hand her a toy.
We choose our words with great care.
“What we feel about him is irrelevant,” we said to the King. “He’s got almost no pride at all.”
The fog resumed, the light shifted. The clock went tick and the fire popped and burbled. The King smiled and Heart sighed with disappointment.
“Ahhhhhh,” went the King. “Not a hero, then? Never to stand centre-stage and strut while he monologues?”
“Heroes don’t need pride,” I said. “Heroism is a product of actions, not emotions.”
Heart pulled a disgusted face at me. “Boring, gosh.”
The King chuckled softly, warm and gentlemanly. “Any heroic play must be a reflection of life — after all, every play is a reflection, and a reflection can only be revealed by turning one’s eyes inward, upon one’s own life. Or do you disagree, Sevenfold Princess?”
Something snagged in the back of my mind — what was he suggesting here? This didn’t sound like it was about Nathan anymore.
Suddenly, Seven-Shades-of-Snapping-Chompers was by my side, one slender arm stuck out of her oversized camo-print jacket and entwined with me. “Urrrrk,” she went. “That’s what I was trying to tell him! He shouldn’t have interfered so much!” She leaned forward, hanging off my arm; we wrapped another tentacle around her waist, to help support her. She got all tangled up in my yellow robes — her yellow robes. “I’m trying to do this on my own, dad!”
“Oh, never mind that.” The Yellow King waved her down. “The young man in question was not even remotely relevant to your nature, my dear daughter.”
“My nature is whatever I decide it is!” Sevens gurgled.
The King guffawed. Steel sighed heavily and looked even more tired. Heart perked up, suddenly very interested again.
We cleared my throat. “Sevens, may I speak to your father for a moment, speaking as … the angel of the Eye?”
Sevens blinked huge red-black eyeballs at me. “Uhhhhh … okay?”
The King smiled back at me, beaming with all the affection of a monarch for his grand designs. I said: “Between you and me — between you as the King in Yellow and me as the adopted daughter and angel of the Eye — thank you. Thank you for helping—”
Sevens gurgled down by my armpit: “Heatherrrrr.”
“—but don’t go any further. Nathan is my cultist. That’s the end of the matter. Unless you want a border war.”
The King pulled a wide, toothy, and worrying smile. “Oh, there is no need to thank me. I did it entirely for my own satisfaction.”
“But I want to make clear—”
“One should never thank a monarch for following a monarch’s nature,” said the King in Yellow. “Unless one is a staunch monarchist.”
The King’s smile turned thin and knowing, as if this truism should mean something to me. I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this, but we felt our hackles rise, our tentacles draw inward, our instinct stir with recognition. Somehow, without realising it, we had strayed into the King’s true domain, playing a dangerous game over dangerous territory. He was trying to teach us a lesson.
We spoke slowly and carefully, trying to drag this conversation back to safer ground: “But between you as Sevens’ father, and me as Sevens’ fiancee — that’s between you and her, and I’m standing by her side. Literally.” We reached down with a spare tentacle and ruffled Sevens’ hair, gently. She made a gurgly purring sound.
Heart murmured under her breath: “Awww! They’re in love! Get her pregnant already!”
The King dipped his head to me in acknowledgement of my argument, but then rose again and veered back into lethality. “We cannot control our natures, Princesses. But we can control our actions. Do you agree?”
I glanced down at Sevens for help, but she didn’t seem alarmed by this. And I didn’t feel like I was in the middle of a play. If we had an audience, it was just Steel and Heart; Steel really didn’t care about any of this, and Heart had a one-track mind.
“I do agree we can control our actions,” we said. “But—”
“And actions affect our natures, do they not?” The King leaned against his desk, hands folded in his not-quite lap, so very civilized.
We couldn’t help it, we smiled. “I was about to say, I disagree that our natures cannot be controlled or changed. Our natures are mutable as well. You told me that, in fact. We are what we pretend to be.”
The King smiled in reply; I’d unpicked his riddle, though it was a gentle one.
But then he said, “And to observe — that, too, is a kind of action.”
We went cold inside with sudden realisation. The King smiled, warm and soft and gentle. The trio of Yellow Daughters all held their breath, even Sevens, as if they knew their Father had revealed his hand.
I frowned at him. “Yes? Yes, I’m looking for advice and inspiration on what to do about the Eye. That was supposed to be advice, wasn’t it?”
The King merely nodded.
“But what does it mean?” I huffed. “To observe is to act upon the observed — yes, I know that much, I figured that out a long time ago. That isn’t new. What are you trying to tell me?”
The King opened one hand. “The play’s the thing—”
“—wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” I finished the line. “Yes, don’t quote Hamlet at me again, please. That’s the same line you used on me last time we met. I know the whole thing by heart. What are you trying to say? That I should put on a play for the Eye? Reveal its guilty conscience?”
“What is observed,” said the King, “changes the nature of the observer.”
“Guuurrrlk,” went Sevens, down at my side, nestled against my flank. She looked a little embarrassed, cringing and wincing, like a teenage girl who was witnessing her father dancing his heart out. “He’s trying really hard, Heather, but this isn’t a play. It’s just improv. Probably ‘cos you see behind the curtain too easy.” She bumped her head against my ribs. “He’s tryin’ say be like us. Put on a show. Make it see.” She winced. “Urrrk, no pun.”
I huffed a sigh and looked back at the King. He was still smiling. I said: “See? That’s all it does. Thank you for the … oh.”
We looked around the room again, at the tactical map with the little toy soldiers, at the military uniforms on the King’s daughters, at the King’s own absurd mask, all pomp and flair. We lifted the little wooden statue of Badger — and found it had changed, to a weird little cephalopod, wrapped in a tiny bullet-proof vest.
“I’m not going to war with the Eye,” we said. “That would make no sense. Did you really think you had to convince me of that?”
“Perhaps,” said the Yellow King.
Heart gave a huge huff and stood up in a great shower of skirt and lace, suddenly dominating the space with her height and her curves. “Well! This is all fantastically boring now! I’m off to find some men so I can command them to dig a trench and then fuck me in it. Steel — care to come with?”
Steel said, “You’re joking, sister.”
The King cleared his throat, “Actually, Heart, I do believe our guest has a use for you.”
My eyebrows shot up. “I … do?”
“No!” rasped Sevens. “Go away!”
Heart put her golden gloves on her hips and turned to blink big round eyes at her father the King, then at myself and Sevens. She shrugged, pulling a mystified face.
The King said, “I believe you have a question, Sevenfold Princess.”
“Uh,” I said, suddenly feeling deeply graceless after all that high-stakes conversational sparring. “Um … a question? Uh … where’s Mel? I liked Mel? Sevens’ other sister, Melancholy, the Sphinx.”
Steel looked up with sudden interest. “Mel’s out far, beyond range. Looking for prey.”
Heart rolled her eyes. “Melancholy is even worse than Sevens. I can’t stand more than a minute in the same room as her. Living in the past is such a waste.”
We tried again: “How is Saldis doing? Is she still hanging out in the palace?”
Three pairs of eyes blinked at me — the King, Heart, and Steel.
We cleared our throat: “The lady who lives inside the big grey ball? Like a sort of human snail?”
“Oh, her!” the King bellowed, suddenly back to normal. “Oh, no, no, she left several weeks ago — some kind of scandal involving a jilted lover, a donkey, and a series of fancy-dress disguises. Nail’s work, I believe. Far too much laughter and ribaldry for my tastes!”
Heart looked deeply interested all of a sudden. “Excuse me? I only got back last week! Father, who was this person?” She looked back at me and Sevens. “A friend of yours, sister?”
“Sort of,” we said. “Where is she now?”
“Yes!” Heart agreed. “Where is she now?”
The King spread his hands in apology. “Somewhere within the realm, but not in the palace. Trundling along, I’m sure, but little concern of ours. But Princesses, that was not the question you are dying to ask. My darling daughter, Our-Lady-of-The-Jaundiced-Heart, has more talents than she prefers to reveal.”
Heart looked bewildered. Steel smiled, sharp and grim.
“There’s a book,” I said slowly. “A book in your library — the library of Carcosa. I was looking for it, that’s why I’m here. But it’s a non-human book. I’m going to need to translate it.”
The King gestured at Heart; Heart did a big theatrical sigh, coiling her neck back like a dying swan, swishing her silver-white hair over one shoulder. “Oh, Father, no! It’s such a waste of this delightful new look! What, I’m supposed to traipse around with these two bores rather than going off to—”
The King interrupted her with a sudden stern tone below his words: “Perhaps the Sevenfold Princess knows more about heroism than you suspect, Heart.”
Heart rolled her eyes. “Nope!”
Sevens rasped like a lizard. “Don’t want her with us.”
“I do need to translate that book … ” I said.
The King chuckled. “It will take you all no more than fifteen minutes diversion. And besides!” he bellowed once more. “Heart, you can ask Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight all about Aym.”
Sevens’ face fell, then drained of all colour. I stared in shock — how did he know? Why even ask — he was the King in Yellow.
Heart turned back to us, fluttering innocent eyelashes and stepping closer. “Dear sister, are you hiding a second squeeze from us? Why, I do think I will endure the dusty air in the library after all. Only for fifteen minutes, though; I’ve got doomed heroes to enjoy. And I’m certain whoever Aym is, she isn’t one of those!”
The King is in fine spirits on this day! Why, a veritable giant of a gentleman, gracious and grand in his ... I'm running out of g-words. And those Princesses! Heart is a handful to write, I'll say that much. Seems like Heather got what she came for, and more - a translator for the book she was after. If Heart doesn't flounce off into the library, anyway. It doesn't seem like Heather really knows anybody who fits Heart's type, right? Unless another protagonist-in-waiting was to catch her eye ... nah, can't be. Back to the books! At least Sevens seems happier now.
A very talented reader (by the name of Cera!) was inspired to draw some fanart of the trio of Yellow Princesses in this chapter! So here are Heart, Sevens, and Steel, in all their military getup.
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Next week, it's back to the library, back to the book search, with a certain grumpy princess in tow; let's hope Heather can keep everyone on-task and get back to what she was supposed to be doing: searching for insight.