References to kidnapping
References to cannibalism
Compared with our arrival in the private chambers of the King in Yellow, our return to the Library of Carcosa was markedly less traumatic and much less ceremonious — but also less solitary, for both good and ill.
We popped through the membrane with a puff of displaced air and appeared between towering bookcases of hexagonal shelves, sunk deep in bookish gloom and drifting dust and the echoing vastness of the library; my trainers scuffed on wooden floorboards as I caught myself with my tentacles, gripping the edge of a bookcase, stomach clenching and head reeling, all of us working together to brace ourselves against the ever-lurking disorientation of a Slip.
Sevens’ oversized and unlaced boots clacked down right next to me with a double-stagger stomp-stomp; she almost overbalanced. The voice of her Blood Goblin mask went Wuurrrrk! as I tightened my grip to stop her falling flat on her face.
“Same—” I croaked, gathering my breath, fighting a brief wave of nausea. “Same spot. Right where I left off. Woo hoo.”
Detour ended. A success, albeit minor.
After the King in Yellow had bidden us farewell — and good health, and do visit again soon, and do inform our gracious personage about the date of the wedding, and do always feel free to drop in, and do give my regards to young Master Hobbes — I’d simply retraced my steps, mathematically speaking, to locate the spot in the library where I’d heard Sevens’ voice in my head.
We were deep in the library stacks once more, surrounded by those bizarre hexagonal bookshelves; they looked more like ossified insect hives for a species of Outsider machine-wasp, not a place for storing tomes. The so-called ‘books’ they contained were each the size of a football, made of metal, weighed a ton, opened like a flower of steel petals, and certainly had not been crafted by human hands.
Or so I assumed; humans did lots of strange things. I should know, I’m one of them, technically.
The glow-globes in that part of the library were in good repair, but dim and shadowy, as if they needed a bit more juice in their wires; heavy shadows lay thick in nooks and crannies between the bookcases, like rock pools at low tide. Some of those hollows were occupied by half-glimpsed writhing shapes, others were deeper than they should have been, and a few were very still and gave the impression of attention returned — something staring back. My tentacles were already rising to provide better illumination, a slow rainbow strobe pushing back the gloom. Sevens found her feet and huddled deeper inside her big camo-print jacket, shoulders squared, lips pouting, eyes all grumpy frown.
“Yes,” I said, glancing up and down the row of books. “This is where I left off. Oh, um, Heart’s not here? Didn’t she follow—”
Heart stepped out from behind the end of the nearest bookcase, with a little toss of her head and a flick of her hips.
She was glowing, like rainy sunlight on fresh snow.
Our-Lady-of-the-Jaundiced-Heart, younger sister to Sevens, daughter of the King in Yellow, a yellow princess in her own right, and — as I was rapidly coming to understand — a terrible flirt and a brat of the highest and most difficult order, shot us the look of a petulant teenager being asked why she didn’t want to wear a party hat.
She said: “I prefer not to pop into existence like a clown summoned by the sound of a horn. It’s so pedestrian. Yes, there’s shock, there’s surprise — but where’s the style? You never used to do that, dear sister! Isn’t it more exciting if you appear on the stage like any other person, but from a position you couldn’t possibly have occupied?” Her sharp-angled face lit up with girlish glee once again, buttery eyes fluttering thick lashes. “I swear I’ve sent at least three men to change their trousers purely because I entered from somewhere I couldn’t have been!”
Heart giggled at her own filthy anecdote, petulance banished.
She still looked like a cake made for unmentionable activities — her words, not mine — with her soft hourglass body poured into that layered, flashy, gleaming white military uniform, blazer and long skirt and hat and all. But away from the direct influence of her father the King, the more overtly militaristic flairs had fallen away — the shoulder bars, the sharp lapels, the peak on the cap. Heart’s own tastes had taken their place, floaty, gauzy, whimsy: an upward curl at the hem of her skirt, long trailing sleeves like a Japanese kimono, and thick braids in the great mass of her silver-white hair.
Sevens gurgled at her: “Not my entrance, duuuh. Heather brought me.”
Heart’s smile went pained and awkward, with polite pity. She looked at me. “Well. You’re still learning.”
“She’s not like us!” Sevens rasped. “Don’t be stupid! She’s not a rookie.”
I huffed and felt myself trying to stand up straight, puff my chest out a bit, show off my tentacles. “Yes, I’m a bit more focused on practical applications, not theatrical flair, thank you. It’s just not my thing.”
“Oooh!” Heart’s smile turned truthful again. She moved one of those loose sleeves over her mouth, biting her lower lip and wiggling her eyebrows. “Oh, there we go. She’s got some real spice to her — she must have, to talk to daddy like that. Are we sparring, human? A play-fight? Will you wrestle me to the floor and have your way with me? Does one of your juicy tentacles there have a palpal bulb ready for—”
Seven-Shades-of-Needle-Teeth-and-Molten-Eyes went: “Guuurruk! Back off!”
“Yes,” I added quickly. “I’m very flattered, Heart, but you’re not my type. And I couldn’t handle any more girlfriends than I already have.”
Heart sighed and laughed and rolled her eyes. She produced a folding fan from within one of her baggy sleeves then started to slowly waft it at her own face. “Oh, I’m not really interested, sister. I’m just winding you up. She’s so not my type, either. There’s not an inch of heroic doom about her. Not a second of dark brooding. Not even a juicy masculine pout.” She sighed like a maiden confined to a tower. “I’m right, aren’t I, Lady Morell? You’re not really the type to compose a poem to a woman you’ve never even had a single conversation with, before you go off and die charging a line of muskets. Are you?”
“Uh, no,” I said. “I prefer to … uh … not do that.”
Heart pulled a face that said ‘told-you-so’ and then sighed again. “And now I’m in the bloody library. Hoo-rah for me.”
I cleared my throat and lowered my tentacles; their strobing was competing with Heart’s white glow. “I apologise for getting you mixed up in this, Heart. Your father’s offer was very gracious, but you’re not really his to command. Thank you for agreeing to translate the book.”
Heart just snorted and cast her eyes down the row of strange metal bookcases.
Sevens grumbled as well. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her oversize camo-print jacket and made her big boots go stomp on the floorboards. “Hate when dad gets like that. All stuffed from a good meal. Ugh.”
“Good meal?” I said.
Sevens stared at the floor, looking embarrassed. “Edward’s whole thing.”
“Ah. Oh,” I said. “Um. Right. Oh, that is sort of weird. Is he often like this? I mean, he is going to be my … father-in-law. Actually, no, I can’t think about this right now.”
Heart giggled. “Oh, I didn’t mind it too much. Father did give me a wonderful present, after all! That uniform — unf,” she grunted. “Yes, oh, as soon as we’re done here I’m putting it back on and commanding some men to go over the top.”
“Of … of a trench?” I asked. “Over the top of a trench?”
Heart gave me a sultry look, biting her lower lip and fluttering eyelashes like the whisper of secret gods. “Fill in the blanks, human,” she purred.
Sevens gurgled again. “You’re as bad as dad.”
Heart did a big huff, mood changing instantly. “What do you expect? I’m in the library! It’s boring.” She closed her fan with a clack and pointed past me and Sevens; there was a squid-faced librarian shuffling about at the end of the row of shelves, presumably waiting to see if I was going to ask him for directions again. “What am I supposed to do, take an interest in the catalogue?” Heart snorted, then glanced at the weird sphere-books again, pulling a delicate frown. “What even are these, anyway?”
Sevens showed her teeth in a grin, all sharp needles and sudden smugness. “Don’t pretend you don’t know, sister.”
Heart shot her a quick and venomous look, then an even quicker flicker at me, then back to the books again. She reached out with her free hand and pulled one off a shelf, effortlessly balancing the heavy, irregular sphere on her slender fingertips, pale wrist supporting much more than a human would.
The metal book flowered open, metallic petals falling back to reveal their secrets. Heart pulled a disgusted face — but she peered inside.
“Oh! Oh, it’s this lot,” Heart said after a moment. “The ones from the place with the sun that burns backwards. Oh damn and bugger, I do abhor stuff written by quint-lobers, it’s always so circuitous. They go around and around, they never put events in narrative order, and they love their endless asides about cognitive simultaneity.” She gestured with her fan, a sideways slash of derision. “They do this awful thing where they tell you what’s going to happen in a summary first, then they recount by sensory theme, not linear time. It’s such a vegetable way of thinking. They should all be grilled and eaten.”
Sevens nudged me in the side and nuzzled into one of my tentacles; she was grinning, amused and sneaky.
Heart ranted on, talking to the book: “Do you know — and this must be on my mind because of Father’s whole thing earlier — they don’t even write about their wars in a linear fashion? They start with the most important battles, the big fulcrums, and then trace everything backward? It’s ridiculous. You’re not supposed to break up a heroic narrative with five chapters of industrial production figures.”
Heart finally looked up from the book and caught us both staring. She snapped the book shut — which was like a steel bear-trap catching the air — replaced it on the shelf, and fanned her face.
Sevens went snerk. I cleared my throat gently.
“Heart,” we tried. “Are you … a secret bookworm?”
Sevens answered before Heart could defend herself. “She’s spent more time in here than anybody else. Read half the library.”
Heart stamped one perfectly formed leg and opened her mouth to snap, but I got there first.
“Sevens!” I tutted. “Why is that a thing to be embarrassed about? I’d read half this library if I could.”
Seven-Shades-of-Cheeky-Goblin made a grumbling noise and buried her face deeper in my tentacles. I glanced at Heart and nodded, as politely as I could manage. This was half fellow-feeling with another bookworm, but also half self-preservation; we were relying on Heart to translate the book truthfully and accurately. And to be honest, I had no idea what it truly meant for one of the Yellow Children to be a bookworm — why did she like it? Probably not the same reasons as us.
Heart rolled her eyes. “Fine!”
“We’ll get this over with as quickly as we can,” I said. “Again, thank you for helping. Uh, I think the book was down here, but I need to ask the librarians again. I’ll just—”
“Oh,” Heart purred. “Oh, no, no no no.” She planted her booted feet with a clean little clack on the floorboard, then grinned wide, a little too manic in the face, golden flashes in her eyes like flecks of burning sunlight. “We’re not going anywhere until my dear sister here tells me exactly who ‘Aym’ is.”
Sevens peered out from among my tentacles like a cat buried in a hedgerow. “None of your business!”
“But Father made it sound most interesting!” Heart licked her lips — more like a predatory cat than a lustful seductress. “A she, yes, I can see that in your eyes — well, with you that’s obvious, haha! Younger than you? Yes. Less … formed. A … not a human? Not a human! Gosh! What have you been up to? That’s not like you. Is she very, very doomed? I can’t imagine why else father would—”
“Aym,” I said, loud and clear, “is a weird little sprite-thing attached to a former drug addict and alcoholic — a mage, who’s done terrible things in life, but who wants to atone. Aym dabbles in emotional pain and goading. Sevens and Aym got on quite well. That’s all.”
Heart pulled a face like I’d just presented her with a gleaming silver platter and removed the lid to reveal a live slug.
“ … what?” she spluttered. “Sister, sister, what? What are you— what? What?”
Sevens gurgled, still hiding between my tentacles. But then she popped her head out, lank black hair hanging down around her red-eyed face. “Aym is small. But like dad, maybe. One day. Don’t mess with her growth, Heart. Don’t.”
Heart boggled at both of us, then spread her hands in a dismissive shrug. “Alright. I am supremely uninterested in your weird little friend.”
“More than friend,” Sevens rasped.
“Yes, and I’m equally uninterested in you having some sordid three-way arrangement with a sapient impulse you found in a gutter. Wow, thanks dad. What … why … look, never mind.” Heart huffed, disappointed.
Sevens gurgled: “Dad has no idea what we really like.”
“True that, sister,” Heart said. “True that.”
I stayed very quiet, because I suspected the exact opposite; the King knew the tastes of his daughters all too well, what they were becoming, or trying to become, or what they might learn from others. Why highlight Aym as interesting to Heart? Aym was neither doomed, nor particularly heroic — or was she? From what little I understood, Aym kept Felicity alive, kept her from relapsing into darker places, and kept her putting one foot in front of another. Was that a kind of heroism? Perhaps. Not Heart’s kind. But maybe she could learn.
Or perhaps the King was enjoying a red herring. Perhaps there were people in my orbit whom he would rather his impressionable and flighty young daughter not meet too soon.
I smiled, polite and slightly distant from these familial issues, and said: “Shall we get this over with, then? I think the book was—”
Heart raised one hand in the air; her loose sleeve fell away from her forearm with all the subconscious sensual artistry she could muster. She clicked her fingers with a sharp, hard snap.
“The book, please!” she announced — to nobody in particular. Her fingers gestured at me. “The one she was looking for? Chop chop, now. And no directing — I expect full service. I know you can do better than that.”
For a second we bristled all over; I assumed Heart was being incredibly rude to me and Sevens, resuming hostilities over our lack of readiness, like an aristocrat who expected everything to be instant, for the little people to rush around at her beck and call. After all, Heart was a haughty and powerful princess, why wouldn’t she act like that?
But then a squid-faced librarian hurried past me, tentacled head raised and scanning like a tracking device, large feet thump-thumping against the floorboards.
He bustled right past Heart and down the row of books.
“Oh,” we said. “He’s leading us to the book? I didn’t know they could do that.”
“Neither did I,” rasped Seven-Shades-of-Subtle-Shock.
Heart flashed us a big silly wink and wiggled her hips as she turned to follow the librarian. “Book smarts have to be good for something.”
The commandeered librarian led us deeper and deeper into the stacks, down the row of books and then out into a wider corridor; the ends of hundreds of bookcases stretched off into gloom. Heart swished and swayed as she followed the librarian, clicking her smart heels on the floorboards, occasionally kicking up the hem of her long white skirt so it fluttered down again, presumably for want of anything more interesting to do. Sevens clung onto my tentacles. I just hurried to keep up, watching the pools of worrying shadow and letting out soft hisses at anything which moved too close.
I dared not think about what we were doing, or what I was about to discover. My heart was already going too fast, my tentacles tense and eager and jittery with nerves.
Eventually the librarian led us into another row of bookcases, beneath the soft sea-green glow of the overhead globes; the cases were filled with the same football-sized metal tomes as the rest of this part of the library. He stopped abruptly, turned, and extended one grey-fleshed, long finger to point at a book.
We all drew to a halt. Heart stopped with a click of her heels and turned her chin upward. Sevens hopped free of my tentacles and wandered forward to peer at the book.
I just stared, unsure what to make of the result: the book was like every other in the hexagonal shelves: a weird metal fist of thin petals, twisted together like a sleeping flower. Human? Certainly not. But that could mean anything.
Our throat felt tight. Our skin dialled down its chromatic cycling to a dull soft haze. Our tentacles hugged us tight. We all hugged each other.
We hadn’t really been thinking about this book, or the implications of its existence.
Heart threw us a look over her shoulder. “This is the one you were looking for? The catalogue does make mistakes from time to time. It’s not perfect. Unlike me!”
“Um, I don’t know,” I said. My voice came out as a quiver. “I mean, I won’t know until I read it.”
Heart frowned at me like I was a moron. Sevens glanced at me too, those black-and-red eyes burning like molten pools in her pale face.
“Urrruk,” Sevens gurgled — which made Heart jump slightly. “Heatherrrrr, you didn’t tell me what you were looking for, out here? What’s in the book?”
My throat wouldn’t work. “I asked the library catalogue if there was anything about … well, things like me. Anything about a ‘little watcher’.”
Sevens went quite still.
Heart snorted. “This is a book about you? Who would write a book about you?” She laughed openly, covering her mouth with the end of her sleeve. “No offense, human — or pretend-human, or whatever, but you’re not that interesting. I can believe that Sevens would write a book about you — she’s such a hopeless romantic—”
“Speak for yourself, sister,” Sevens gurgled.
Heart just spoke right over her, pretending not to hear. “But some five-lobed vegetable fellow who doesn’t even have a proper concept of romance because he reproduces via spores? Absolutely not, no. I guarantee you that ninety-nine percent of these books are dry as dirt.” She glanced at the book again. “Besides, this one is old. Older than you by far.” She clicked her fingers in front of the squid-faced librarian. “You’ve got it wrong, silly!” she said to him. “This can’t be the book she—”
“Oh, oh thank God, oh, okay,” I blurted out, heaving for a breath. “Wait, wait, no, that means it’s not about me. Okay. Okay, good. That’s good. Heart, wait. It might be a book about somebody who was like me, once. That’s what I’m looking for. Is there a title? Could you translate the title?”
Heart stared at me like I was speaking in tongues.
Sevens slipped back toward us and wrapped her bony arms around a tentacle. “Heather … ”
“This is good,” I repeated. “I … I was worried it might be … I don’t know. An account about my parents selling me to the Eye. I don’t know. But it can’t be. It’s about something like me, once.”
Heart smiled, fake and forced, showing off the falsity. “Like … you?” She sighed. “I’ve been very polite, but I really must ask — what are you, anyway?” She raised a hand before I could answer. “Ah-ah-ah! I don’t want you getting the wrong idea, I’m not asking you to unveil your entire self-definition in front of me — unless you like a bit of flashing,” she giggled. “It just seems like a relevant question, if some five-lobed vegetable that’s never met a human has written a book about you.”
“About something like me,” I corrected her gently.
Heart rolled her eyes. “Same difference. You’re clearly human, I’m not disputing that. But you’re also a bit … different. I can’t really put my finger on it.” She frowned delicately and bit her bottom lip; if she’d been my type, that lip-bite would have been like an adrenaline shot to the gut.
Instead, I glanced down at Sevens. “Is she being serious?”
Sevens tugged gently on my tentacle, like a cat with its own tail. “Mmhmm. If Heart is being sarcastic, you’ll know it.”
Heart sighed heavily. “Of course I’m being serious! Look, there’s seven of you — which is a hilarious coincidence, yes, but it’s hardly worth note. You’re about the right size for a human. But you’re sort of … ” Heart looked me up and down. She gestured with her fan, as if I was a horse with some pieces in the wrong places. “Oddly shaped.”
Sevens snorted. “She’s being serious.”
“Um,” I said. “Is it the tentacles?”
“No! Tch,” Heart tutted. “I’ve seen that plenty of times before.”
“On … on humans?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Heart waved that away. I shared another glance with Sevens; she just shrugged. “You’ve just got an odd shape is all. Not in a like ‘oh your boobs are so flat and you’ve got no hips’, but more … fundamental. It’s quite interesting, actually!” She shot me a saucy wink.
Sevens went guuurk! and hugged my tentacle tighter.
“Ah,” I said. “Um. That’s rather a long story, if I’m seeing what I think you’re seeing. I was adopted by a giant eyeball. Some of it rubbed off on me. Sorry, that’s an absurd thing to say, but—”
“Oh, no, well that explains it, then!” Heart laughed. “Takes all sorts, I suppose!”
I nodded along, mystified but happy this made sense.
Sevens rasped: “She’s the daughter of the Eye. You know that, sister. Don’t be dense on purpose.”
Heart flicked her hand-fan open and wafted her face. “I do not care, sister dear. Sometimes it is much more fun to stop paying attention when Father talks geopolitics. My head is empty and I am happier that way. You should try it sometime!”
Sevens made a nasty rasping noise. “Keep kidding yourself.”
Heart smiled, wide and manic. “I will!”
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me. Princesses — both of you — can we stay on topic, please? Heart, does the book have a title?”
Heart let her shoulders slump, exactly like a petulant teenager asked to concentrate on her Father’s orders. She turned those glowing golden-yellow orbs to the metal-fist of the book on the shelf.
“It does,” she said, devoid of all enthusiasm. “Oh, they do so love their long-winded titles. Do you really want this, Lady Morell?”
“I do.” We nodded, mouth going dry.
Heart dismissed the squid-faced librarian with a flick of her wrist; he ambled off into the depths of the library. Then Heart stared at the book and spoke, quite slowly and precisely, with little clicks of her lips on percussives and plosives:
“A full and true account of the disappearance and return of the twin sisters—”
She cut off and frowned, then said, “Well, there’s a pair of names here, but for all the elegance of this throat, I’m going to need more esoteric equipment to pronounce them, so let’s just call them Jane Doe and Mary Doe, that captures the intent well enough.” She cleared her throat and started again. “A full and true account of the disappearance and return of the twin sisters—”
She cut off again, frowning harder this time.
I was practically vibrating with muscle tension.
“Sisterrrr,” Sevens rasped. “Get on!”
Heart whirled on Sevens, eyes blazing like molten gold, white dress and loose sleeves all a-flutter with sudden anger. She slapped her own thigh with her free hand. “Do you want accuracy — or do you want speed, sister?! You cannot have both! Unless you would like to translate it for yourself?” She huffed through her nostrils and fanned her face — genuinely flushed this time. “This is why I never talk about the library! None of the rest of you understand it! All I get is this—”
“Heart,” I said, gently but firmly, my voice quivering with urgency. “I would like accuracy, please. To the absolute best of your abilities. I’m relying on that. Please.”
Heart stared at me and fanned herself faster, eyes smouldering. Sevens made soft, apologetic gurgles.
Eventually, Heart turned back to stare at the closed petals of the book. “As I was saying,” she continued. “‘Twin sisters’ is not actually accurate here. The term denotes two buds, nominally female, which were conjoined during the gestation process, so they came out as genetic copies among a much larger spawning. ‘Twin sisters’ is the closest I can get.”
“Twin sisters is great, thank you,” we said. “It makes perfect sense.”
Heart glanced at me. “Does that have a relevant meaning to you?”
“More than I can explain right now. Please, go on. Please.”
Heart finished her translation:
“A full and true account of the disappearance and return of the twin sisters Jane Doe and Mary Doe, their subsequent alienation and alienism, their mathematical skills and strange habits, and their eventual transition into the weft between worlds.” She snorted. “Quite a bold claim, seeing as the book isn’t even that long.” She turned back to me. “Well? Does that sound like what you’re looking for?”
Our throat and tongue wouldn’t work. Our tentacles felt numb, vulnerable, and slow; we longed to draw them inward and wrap ourselves up in a ball. We felt a few slow tears gather in our eyes and run down our cheeks.
“ … Sevens, sister dear, your human is leaking.”
Sevens snuggled into my side, face in my flank. “Heather.”
“This … this has happened to somebody before,” I managed to squeeze out. I sniffed loudly and scrubbed my face on my sleeve. “Uh. We weren’t the only ones. Me and Maisie. I could have done with knowing that a long time ago. Uh … ”
Heart waved her fan and snorted; she averted her eyes, as if looking at me was embarrassing to her. “Well, ‘somebody’. Trust me, sister-in-law to-be, these vegetable brains were about as far from you humans as it’s possible to be while still being limited. I doubt you’ll find any commonality at all between—”
“Will you translate the rest of the book for me?” I asked, nearly breathless. “Please, Heart?”
Heart kept her face turned away as she glanced back at me, sidelong, then away again, then back. She was horribly, deeply embarrassed by this show of emotion. Not one for genuine trauma and real tears, it seemed. All showy heroics and dramatic deaths, but not what came after.
We wet our lips. “Do you understand why I’m doing this? What all this is about? Has Sevens explained—”
“Ye-es!” Heart whined. She let out a huge huff. “Oh, I’ve had it up to my eyeballs, from Sevens and Father both! Off to rescue your sister, into the mouth of hell itself, for the greatest staring contest of all time! Tch. But it’s so … so … ”
I blinked in surprise. “I’m not a doomed hero?”
“Exactly! And I’m not talking about the army at your back — Father kept calling it a ‘posse’ — I mean all this … careful thinking. Heroes aren’t supposed to think carefully. They’re supposed to charge their foes! You’re supposed to be wildly optimistic, full of élan, and self-belief, and will to power! And then you’re supposed to die, gloriously! Before you can ruin everything! Tch!”
Sevens emerged from my side again and shot a big needle-toothed grin at Heart. “She’s not that type.”
“I noticed!” Heart pulled a grimace.
“Yes,” we said. “We’re going to win. And nobody’s going to die.”
Heart gave me a very odd look — a sidelong up-and-down flick of her golden yellow eyes, cautious and wary, like I was a real monster who’d stumbled into a fancy dress party, and she was a guest in a rubber suit trying to play off my presence with a casual laugh.
“I mean it,” I said. “Really. Nobody is going to—”
“Fine!” she snapped. “I’ll translate your book. Anonymously! You tell anyone else I did this for you, sister, and you and I will be at war. Think of it as a very early wedding present.” She pointed her fan at Sevens. “And don’t you dare laugh.”
“Promise,” Sevens rasped. “Not.”
Before I could ask what we were most certainly not going to laugh at, Heart vanished — replaced in the blink of an eye by a new mask.
A web of silver-white gossamer stretched from bookcase to bookcase, filling the passageway, anchored by thick blobs of silvery liquid; a cross-hatch, more grid than spider-web, each thread a thin coil of moonlight stolen from the sky, shivering and shuddering beneath the library glow-globes, dripping with argent acid.
In the middle of the web lay a knotted ball of chalk-white and pearlescent silver, uncoiling and unfurling a dozen hard-jointed limbs; plated with chitin like an Arctic crustacean, furred in fluffy layers like a shaggy tundra herd-beast, and rippling with pale fingers like something that lived under the sink in a children’s horror story. A ball of eyes rose from the core, set in sockets buried deep behind anti-glare lashes and thickly armoured lenses. Part crab, part ice-bound fox, part forgotten cousin to earthly arachnids, with perfect radial symmetry. Heart’s new mask was truly alien and breathtakingly beautiful.
It — Heart — reached out with half a dozen limbs and lifted the ball-shaped metal book off the shelf; she pulled the prize into the centre of her web and let the petals of the book flower open beneath her touch. Her other six limbs produced sheets of parchment and flourished quills, drawn from somewhere inside herself.
The mask did not appear to have any mouth-parts. Sevens didn’t say anything, so I followed her lead, waiting politely.
Heart worked quickly, the ball of eyes flicking over the alien crop-circle writing on the metallic petal-pages of the strange book. Her spidery, many-fingered hands scratched and whirled recognisable words — in English! — on the many pages of parchment. Her web shivered in the darkness.
Our-Lady-of-the-Jaundiced-Heart, in her guise as the Spider-Crab-Scholar, piled the finished papers up at one end of her web as she worked. She hadn’t been exaggerating; the book was not very long, just thirty pages of English text. My throat went dry and my hands went clammy as she worked on the final page, added it to the pile, and vanished again.
Heart — once more in her flashy white uniform with her long silver-white hair and her golden yellow eyes — stood before us, human and shapely and blushing dark red. She shoved the sheaf of parchment toward me with one hand.
“Well?” she squeaked. “Take it, then!”
“That was incredible,” we said. “Thank—”
Heart jammed the papers against my chest. “Just. Take it! Shut up! Take the translation. Shut!”
I bobbed our head and accepted the pages with both hands and two tentacles. Just thirty pages, was this it? An account of another pair of twins, somewhere out there, a very long time ago, taken by the Eye. Our hands were shaking a little. Our eyes were already running along the opening lines of the text, we couldn’t help it. Heart’s handwriting was broad and neat, each letter printed with exacting precision in black ink.
“In the year of the third solar conjunction between the constellation of the Arc and the constellation of the Meat-beast, a clutch of twenty-three seedlings was germinated to the househood of the Oak Tree (*translator’s note: not literal oak tree, closest cultural analogue*), and within this clutch of eight was a pair of carpel-bearers who budded conjoined and then parted, so that their trunks and limbs and organs were of the same appearance, identical in every fashion, within and without. Their names were Xiyuol’tok-al and Zalui’yel-tul (*translator’s note: this is the best I can do, these names do not work with a human tongue, don’t even try.*) and they lived happy lives in the crèche of the househood of the Oak Tree until the age of six solar revolutions, when they were taken beyond the sphere of our dominion by the unknown machinations of a force unknown to the comprehension of our most knowledgeable natural philosophers.”
Our eyes got all wet again. A lump grew in our throat. Heart was already stepping back, but we reached out toward her with a tentacle; how could we possibly thank her for this?
“Sis-ter,” Heart said in a funny high-pitched sing-song voice. “Your human is leaking again.”
“I-I’m just … I … we weren’t the only ones, I—”
A firm hand slipped across the back of my skull, cradling me gently. I blinked and looked up, into the eyes of Sevens-Shades-of-Soft-Solace, once again dressed in the crisp precision of her Princess Mask. Starched white blouse, long yellow skirt, and hair cut sharp enough to sting.
“Breathe, kittens,” she purred down at me. “Take a deep breath.”
I nodded and sniffed and took deep breaths, as instructed. Heart stepped back. Sevens glanced at her, eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch.
“Well, sister!” Heart said, fanning her own face again, to reduce her still-burning blush. “If that’s all you need me for, I’ll be off. To put on that uniform Father made, and … and … have some fun. I suppose.” She glanced at me again, golden eyes gone still. “If you have any questions about the translation — not any complaints, I don’t want to hear those — then feel free to ask. Just … not when I’m with anybody. Alright?”
I nodded and smiled. “Thank you so much, Heart. You were very beautiful in your, um, spider-crab look.”
Heart guffawed, suddenly very much like her father. “As if! Who wants to fuck that? Ugh, not me. And certainly not the types I’m interested in.”
Seven-Shades-of-Suspicious-Suggestion said: “You would be surprised, sister.”
Heart threw up her hands, loose sleeves flopping downward. “I don’t want to know! Shut up! Shut up! Now, seriously, I’m leaving! Nice to meet you, human Morell, yes, see you at the wedding, etcetera etcetera. Good bye!”
We expected Heart to pop out of existence, like Sevens sometimes did, but the Royal Brat just turned and marched away behind the nearest bookshelf. The clicking of her boots terminated the second she was out of sight.
Unsettled quiet grew heavy in the library gloom. Distant echoes of strange voices called out, far away. Claws skittered over wooden boards. Librarians shuffled in the dark. And I sniffed, very loudly, and scrubbed the tears from my eyes once again.
“Kittens,” said the Yellow Princess. “Dry your eyes. Use this.” She produced a clean white handkerchief from somewhere and pressed it into my free hand. We concentrated on breathing deeply and dabbing at our eyes for a moment. Sevens waited, then said: “Is it time to return home with your prize?”
“No!” I blurted out.
Sevens raised one eyebrow at me.
“No, not yet, I mean,” we said. “I want to read this, right now!” I gestured with the sheaf of parchment, then glanced around. “Oh, but I absolutely must sit. I must. We need a desk, a proper one, with at least two chairs. What’s a library without somewhere to sit down and read?”
“Take that up with Heart,” said Sevens.
“She had a hand in the current design of the library.” Sevens tilted her head. “I think.”
“Oh. Well. Um. We still need somewhere to sit. We … come with me?” I stuck out a hand to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight — a formality only, since I already had a tentacle draped around her waist. “Please, Sevens. I-I would really like some company—”
“Always, kittens,” said Sevens. She took my hand with all the exaggerated grace and poise of a true aristocratic young lady, placing her fingertips into my palm — but somehow it was she who took control when she gripped my hand. “But, pray tell, where are we going?”
“Somewhere to sit,” I said. “Somewhere quiet. Somewhere Outside.”
And with a flicker of thought, Out we went.
We sat together — Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight and us seven Heathers, with our curious coincidental symmetry — on a hillside of warm rock surrounded by a wide plain of purple grass; the blades were as tall as a person, swaying gently beneath a sky the colour of neon-blood bruises. In the distance, far away across the open steppe, a giant bulb of stone-flesh rose toward that sky, flaring with flame-bright yellows and deep-burning oranges and hot-dark reds.
It was a bit like a bonfire on a comfortable autumn night — but Outside, and beyond human comprehension.
I’d been here once before, on an involuntary Slip at thirteen years old; there was nothing here — no creatures hiding in the grass, no giants striding across the horizon — so back then I’d just laid down and gone to sleep. Peaceful, empty, weird.
Good place for reading.
By that light I read the thirty pages of Heart’s translation of A full and true account of the disappearance and return of the twin sisters Jane Doe and Mary Doe, their subsequent alienation and alienism, their mathematical skills and strange habits, and their eventual transition into the weft between worlds.
I read the book through once without stopping. Then I read it again. Then I went back and re-read certain sections several times, no longer tearful with sympathy that bridged dimensions, species, and orders of soul-being. As far as I could understand, the subjects of the book were vegetable invertebrates — but they were closer to me than I’d dared hope.
Sevens sat on the rock next to me, her legs stretched out, shoes removed, bare feet on the warm substrate of this world. She gazed out across the sea of purple grass, like a young woman at the beach, rather than an impossible princess in an impossible place. I kept one tentacle around her waist, but let the others drift, all of us thinking together.
Eventually, after what must have been longer than an hour, we put the pages down and looked up at the flame-god in the distance. I sighed, shaking a little.
Sevens said: “Kittens?”
“Was it useful?”
“I … don’t know,” I said. “Do you want to read it as well, or for me to read it to you, or … ”
Seven-Shades-of-Sneaky-Study said, “I have already read it.”
We finally looked at her; Sevens’ perfect blonde hair was backlit by the neon bruises of this dimension. All we needed to complete the picture was a gentle breeze to ruffle her clothes, but she was immune to that. To my surprise, she reached up and tucked her hair behind one ear.
“Over your shoulder,” she explained. “So to speak.”
“Oh, then you’ve seen it all?”
“Mmhmm. But was it useful?”
We sighed again, brushing the manuscript pages with our fingertips and the edge of a tentacle.
In truth, much of the account was too alien to be comprehensible; Heart had done her best not to litter the entire thing with translator’s notes, but I got the feeling that true understanding would require entire books of companion essays and cultural studies.
The author — or perhaps the author’s species or culture — was obsessed with interpreting events via the stars, always making reference to constellations of an alien world, drawing comparisons to their mythical or metaphorical impact, which was completely lost on us; much of the poetic interpretation of the events went completely over my head. A second obsession was meat; entire passages were devoted to how shocking and bizarre it was that the twin sisters in question ceased to consume a vast variety of meats, all described in great detail, but impossible to make any sense of. About all I could say with confidence was that this meant a lot to the unnamed author; apparently the twins should have withered and died with their shunning of ‘meat-beasts’ and ‘prey-forms’, and ‘protein shakes’; (translator’s note, from Heart: ‘not actual protein shakes, but I can’t render this without a paragraph of chemistry, so suck it up.’)
The third issue was senses. Heart had made a compromise by using a range “see, see2, see3, see4, see5” and then replicated this pattern for all the other senses — hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The technique made for very repetitious sentences whenever the concept came up.
But the basics were all recognisable.
Twin sisters — Xiyuol’tok-al and Zalui’yel-tul, or to give them their human versions, Jane Doe and Mary Doe — had vanished from their crèche for two weeks with no explanation. I gathered from the way the text treated the subject that emotionally-motivated kidnapping or child murder did not exist in this species — though the ‘crèche-watchers’ were ‘inspected’ for signs of ‘saplingovorism’, which was not found.
And then the twins had returned, in the night, appearing in a sealed room — changed and traumatised.
Outwardly they had still appeared as members of the ‘thinking order of uprights’, as the translation put it. The twins themselves told a tale of supernatural abduction and flight across an ashy plane, watched by a thing in the sky that burned them inside and out with new thoughts. They had escaped together, because the great watcher in the sky had decided they were its children, that they were supposed to be there, and it had turned its attention away for but a moment.
When it had looked away, they had drawn upon their biological heritage — some kind of ability to move through vacuum, with vestigial wings, but the text wasn’t clear about that, in the way a human text would not have to explain walking — and they had escaped through the ‘negative-sky’ (translator’s note: ‘I cannot explain this, you don’t have enough brain-lobes, human’), together.
Together! They had escaped together, where Maisie and I had not.
Over the years that followed, the twin sisters had diverged from the expected development of their kind. They had vanished and reappeared in strange places, as if ‘unbound in the ways’. They had shown great aptitude for mathematics — apparently deeply valued in this culture — but of the wrong kind, a sort of mathematics that terrified their elders and scandalised their society. They stopped eating properly, preferring to prey on ‘unproper’ foods. They became, in Heart’s difficult translation, ‘witches’ — those who could perform works of ‘mathematical application’ without recourse to the proper technologies.
Magic without tools. Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. Brain-math.
They began to change physically, ‘regressing to our seaward history, or expanding too early in our current phase for the taxing task of star-crossing’.
And then they’d vanished. The text ended without fanfare. Heart had left a note: ‘That’s how these radiates end their narratives! No sense of climax!’
Sevens waited patiently for me to answer. I wiped my eyes again.
“It helps,” we said eventually. “I don’t think it’s useful, exactly. It doesn’t tell me anything new, except that the Eye has done this before. To others. But, for the first time ever I know we weren’t the only ones, me and Maisie. Hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years ago, this happened to somebody else. Twin sisters.” I sniffed loudly. “Why did they escape together, when me and Maisie didn’t?”
Sevens didn’t offer an answer. She didn’t know any more than we did.
“I wonder if they’re still out there, somewhere,” I murmured. “Another pair of twins. Alien and bizarre. Outsiders, or maybe they went to the abyss and never came back. But if only I could ask … ”
Sevens let me think for a good minute or two. But I didn’t take up the manuscript again.
“May I ask you a question, kittens?”
“Of course. And, Sevens, you don’t have to call me ‘kittens’, you don’t have to pluralise. I’m just Heather. You can just call me — us — Heather.”
Sevens nodded, slow and gentle, almost closing her eyes as she did. “What were you doing in the library, out here, all by yourself?”
“Well,” we said. “Looking for the book, of course.”
Sevens sighed very softly. “When I left the house, you were very tired. I expected better of Raine and Evelyn than to let you go wandering around by yourself, when you need so badly to rest.”
I laughed softly; I needed the laugh. “Oh, don’t blame them. I talked them into letting me go out. And I needed to stretch my muscles. Move around a bit. Go for a walk.”
My turn to sigh. “Ideas, inspiration, insight.” I gestured at the dimension where we sat. “I went wandering around different places Outside. Sevens, we’re about to go to Wonderland, in a couple of weeks. And I still have no idea what to do about the Eye. I need insight. I needed to go to the library and ask … ask! Anything at all.” I tapped the manuscript with a tentacle. “This is something, at least. Maybe if I sleep on it, it’ll give me an idea. Maybe.”
Sevens tilted her head at me. She said nothing. She saw everything.
“And … ” My throat tightened. “I’m avoiding awkward conversations.”
“There’s … there’s at least three different sources I could ask about the Eye. Directly. I’m sort of putting off talking to them. Um, do you remember the cultists? Badger’s friends? Jan’s going to put us in contact with them, and the Eye is still inside their heads, like it was with Badger. So, that’s source number one. I don’t know if they can help, I think it might be really difficult, and weird. But they might have something to say.”
“And source number two?” Sevens prompted, cold and unmoving. She saw right through us.
“Source two is Mister Joking.” We forced an awkward laugh. “He was studying the Eye, when we first ran into him. He had a sketch of it. And Jan knows him.”
Sevens’ eyebrows shot upward. “Does she, now?”
I nodded. “I think so. We had a … moment, back when we ran into him on the way to Edward’s house. She clearly recognised him. I need to talk to her about that, too. See if she can put us in contact with him. He’s no longer working for Edward, so perhaps I can … I don’t know. Ask him if he knows anything, at least.”
“Getting very cloak and dagger, kitten. Source three?”
I held up my left forearm and told a lie.
“I could scrub off the Fractal and … have a lesson, with the Eye. A nightmare. Like I used to. I could find a way to … ask. Source three could be myself.”
Sevens stared. She did not blink. “Could be.”
“I mean … could … ”
“Mm!” We squeaked, discovered.
“You would rather suggest an Eye-nightmare than admit you need to speak to your parents.”
We deflated, like a squid dumped out of a fishing net onto the floor of a cold, wet boat. “I’m not … trying to avoid— well, okay, yes I am trying to avoid talking to them about this. But you can’t blame me. Sevens, I’m terrified of what they might say. Either they’ll think I’m insane all over again, or … or … ”
“Or they might know something about the Eye.”
I nodded, tongue too thick to speak.
“Kitten, they know nothing.”
We laughed, weak and forced. “Then there’s no point in talking to them, is there?”
“You know what I mean, kitten,” Sevens purred. She reached over and put a hand on my knee. “They do not know anything consciously. They are not mages. They did not sell you and your twin to anything. They did not betray you, not in that way. But they might remember something. A tiny thing. A nothing. A thing which meant little at the time. They might. And I cannot do it for you.”
I stared down at the rock, then up at the sky, and forced down a deep breath.
Sevens said: “I’m sorry you ended up having to deal with my father.”
“Pardon?” I blinked at her. “Oh, no! It’s fine! He was … well … he was fine. And he tried to help. Which I appreciate. Even if it was all a bit weird.”
Sevens nodded gently. “Then I wish to—”
“Wait wait wait,” I said. “Before we go back to the subject.” I cleared my throat and blushed. “All that stuff Heart was saying about getting you … pregnant — was that literal? Or … ”
Sevens gave me a look of utterly exhausted exasperation: “Kitten. We do not need that complication right now. Put it from your mind.”
“Right! Right. Um, sorry, I—”
“Next year, or the year after.”
“Put it from your mind.”
Sevens and I stared at each other. I blinked rapidly.
Sevens said: “I wish to repay the favour you did for me. Let’s visit your parents, together. I will put on a special mask. I will be your shield, your excuse, your protective layer.”
“Oh! Oh, Sevens, no, I don’t want to trick them or anything.”
“They tricked you.”
We pulled a grimace at that. “That’s … not strictly true. I mean, they were doing … their … best.” A lump in my throat. We swallowed to force it down, but it wouldn’t go. “Sevens, I can’t think about this right now. I’m not dealing with my parents now, not tonight. And I need to give them warning, and not just teleport into the middle of the sitting room, and … ”
We trailed off; a tiny speck of white was crossing the horizon, a mote of gleaming silver bobbing above the vast stone-bonfire in the distance. We squinted, trying to make it out.
“Is that … Heart?” I said.
Sevens sighed heavily, stood up, and dusted off her skirt. “I believe she has taken an interest, yes. But we have places to be, kitten.”
“We do?” I glanced up at Sevens.
She extended a hand down toward me. “If we are not speaking to your parents about the events prior to your sister’s disappearance, then we must attend to other tasks. Let us speak to little Jan; and if she is taciturn regarding Mister … Joking, then I will be present to make your case.”
I laughed again, shaking my head. “Sevens, you’ll terrify her!”
“That is the point.”
“And it’s late! It’s, what, it must be past seven or eight back home? I need to check in.”
“Then check in from Jan’s hotel room.” Sevens smiled — a cool ice-rime on the face of the Princess Mask. “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Is that not what they say? It is one of your weaknesses, my love. You require a small push. Let us go speak with the mysterious sword-bearer. She can point us away from herself, towards those who may tell you more.”
Heart has more sides than first expected; Heather and Maisie were not the only pair taken by the Eye, in all the annals of all Outside; vegetable beings can do brain-math too; and Sevens is really very pretty by the neon-blaze light of some Outside nebula. And now, it's time to upset Jan.
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Next week, we're off to annoy and potentially terrify Jan. And squeeze some vital info out of her, too.