mischief and craft; plainly seen – 21.5
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Announcement

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

None this chapter.

[collapse]

Jan wasn’t home.

July answered the door, looked us up and down — more down than up, because she was much taller than both Sevens and I — and then informed us her mage was not currently present. But then she let us inside anyway.

‘Home’ was a rather generous term to describe the hotel room in which Jan and July had been living for approximately the last six weeks; the Sharrowford Metropolitan Hotel was not some swanky upmarket fashion statement with all the bells and whistles, with gleaming lifts and polished wood and plush carpets, an attendant to open the door and another attendant to carry your bags and another one to compliment your evening wear. Oh no, it was a decidedly more functional establishment, with a very plain entrance and an iron-clad legal boilerplate about no police access to its own CCTV cameras. Not five-stars, but five minutes walk from the train station. I’d only visited here once before, to speak with Jan; she had informed me that one of the benefits of a long stay here was that the staff were so easy to bribe, because they were quite poorly paid. The corridors were neat and clean but nothing special, the rooms plain and under-dressed, though they came with air conditioning and heavy curtains. Not the sort of place a super-spy would hide from her foes, but the kind of location to which a real spy might retreat when wounded, to avoid accidentally-on-purpose discovery by any femme fatales, hardened assassins, or mysterious strangers bearing esoteric requests.

Like us, I suppose. Unfortunately for Jan, we knew where she lived.

The petite doll-mage and her terrifying owlish demon-host had, however, managed to make themselves even more at home than the first time I’d visited.

July’s bed — the slender twin further from the door — was still tightly made with military precision, as if it had never been unwrapped, while Jan’s was a riot of pillows and cushions and blankets, more like a nest than a place for a human being to sleep — which I approved of, deeply. The bin in the tiny kitchenette was once more overflowing with fast-food wrappers, but of a different strata now, different colours and shapes than the ones before, like the shelled remains of unfortunate molluscs from a different sub-biome of the local ocean. A brand-new appliance stood next to the built-in microwave and toaster which came with the room — some kind of tiny oven with a little window in the front; two of my tentacles bobbed forward at the scent of fried food, making us all salivate a little and reminding us we hadn’t eaten in hours.

Jan’s various bags and rucksacks had finished the process of disgorging their contents across the desk and the little table, leaving everything covered in layers of clothes, with stray books like islands amid the pyroclastic flow, streamers of phone chargers running off the side of the desk, and notebooks lurking like raisins in a biscuit. Jan’s laptop formed a spot of relative calm, but it was currently switched off, lid closed.

There were now three separate video game consoles hooked up to the room’s television set. One of them was very, very, very small; I didn’t know they made consoles that small. The television was currently on, showing a grid full of colourful cartoon faces; July had paused her game to answer the door for us.

Jan’s guitar case — or July’s guitar case, because she was always carrying it everywhere, though the sword inside belonged to Jan in some mystical sense I didn’t understand — lay propped up by the window, in exactly the same place as last time.

The air conditioning was humming away, bright and clean and cold. Lovely. I could have stood under the outlet vent and purred. The curtains were closed; evening glow peeked around the edges.

July locked the door behind us, then stepped back to give Sevens and I some space.

I was never quite sure if July was aware of her own intimidating physicality; she was tall and sinewy and muscular, built like a long-distance runner crossed with a bird of prey. She held herself with perfect stillness, unpractised and natural, staring with storm-grey eyes just a touch too wide and a touch too sharp, always looking a bit like an owl who’d just heard a mouse rustle beneath some leaves. She always seemed right on the verge of terrible swift violence, delivered without passion or care, like she might break both your legs with a single swipe of her heel, then turn away and ignore you.

My usual impression of her was somewhat undermined on that evening, because she’d let down her long black hair — making her resemble one of those spooky ghost ladies in the Japanese horror films Raine had shown me once — and she was wearing ridiculous baggy pastel-blue pajamas.

I stared at her, tentacles not sure if they should go up in defence or down so we could all giggle.

“Jan’s out,” she repeated. “You can wait, if you want.”

“You really wouldn’t mind?” we asked with an awkward smile. “I mean, she’s a mage, and we’re both unknowns.” I gestured at Sevens and myself. “Aren’t you supposed to be a bit more cautious? Maybe we should come back tomorrow, or—”

Seven-Shades-of-Unsubtle-Support cleared her throat softly. “Not tomorrow, my love. No procrastinating.”

July stared at Sevens like she was a lizard on a tree-trunk, and July was trying to decide if she was toxic or not.

Sevens said: “We are here to discuss matters with the General. Matters already agreed upon, and matters for which she is not yet prepared, but with which we wish to surprise her. We are not here to harm. But we may spook her. Quite badly.”

July said, “You are both known. It’s fine. I want to get back to my game.”

“Both of us?” I echoed, boggling with surprise. “Even Sevens?”

July let out a tiny sigh. “Yes.”

“Do … um … July, I know for a fact that Jan doesn’t know what Sevens is. Do you know what Sevens is?”

July stared at Sevens again. Sevens stared back, chin tilted upward, lilac parasol braced like a walking stick.

“No,” said July. “Jan has to deal with it eventually. I’m going back to playing.”

July turned away as if completely dismissing us from her mind and stalked across the room on silent feet; always a little unnerving for somebody so large and quick to move with such silence. She folded herself into a cross-legged position on the foot of her perfectly starched bed, picked up her controller, and unpaused her game. Jaunty music resumed.

We shared a look with Sevens, an awkward smile. But the Yellow Princess dipped her head in genuine respect and appreciation.

“Sevens?”

“I do like a practical woman,” said Sevens.

“Oh, ah, right,” we replied. “Um. Well then. Waiting, right. If we’re waiting, I do need to text or call Raine, just to let her know I’m actually back in reality and all that. Gosh, that is absurdly mundane, considering what we’ve both been up to for the last six hours.”

“Mundanity is the stuff of life, kitten,” Sevens mused out loud.

Certain types of mundanity felt bad; as a precaution, before Sevens and I had left Outside and ridden my Slip back into reality, she had coaxed me through twenty minutes of carefully folding away all of our Outsider modifications. Gone was the chromatophore-laced skin, the glowing eyes, the nictitating membranes, the webbing between my fingers, the subtle gill-slits between my ribs, the muscle reinforcements and exotic enzymes and the weird thing I’d unconsciously done with my teeth. I’d even lost the tail, for now; my rear end felt flat and vulnerable. At least my bio-reactor was still chugging along; I don’t think it was possible to fold that away, back inside mortal flesh.

Better than popping through the membrane and passing out on the floor of the hotel corridor in a puddle of my own vomit, but it still felt bad.

Worse than any of that, I’d had to flick six sevenths of our combined selves back to pneuma-somatic invisibility. I had shunted all six tentacles one notch downward on the scale of the real, from truly embodied pneuma-somatic flesh to invisible spirit-matter.

A necessary precaution. Materialising in the middle of a hotel corridor was an acceptable risk, and also relatively easy to explain to any unfortunate bystander: oh, we were just in your blind spot; you didn’t notice us because you were distracted; you weren’t paying attention, look, you nearly blundered into us; and anyway, aren’t we so very unobtrusive and small? Just carry on, mind your own business, forget about us in thirty seconds time.

But two eyeballs of full-frontal squid girl fresh from Outside might risk sending even the most credulous and inebriated of hotel guests screaming for the ghost-busters, or an exorcist, or news of the weird — or worse, the police.

Concealment did not diminish my sense of multiplicitous self-hood. We were still us even when we were hiding — Bottom Left wanted to burrow into the sheets of Jan’s bed, Top Right was rising in a curl-shape to peek at July’s video game, while Bottom Right was coiled around Seven’s wrist and waist, and Middle Left was paging through Heart’s manuscript again. But it made us feel like we were pretending, like we’d jammed our body back into clothes we had outgrown.

So, as I stood in the entranceway and pulled out my phone to text Raine, the first thing we did, almost subconsciously, was use that little flicker of brain-math to shunt that special value up one single notch. Our tentacles re-blossomed back into true physical flesh. We shuddered and gasped a little. Sevens raised an eyebrow at us.

“Sorry,” we said, panting to get our breath back. “We have to.”

“Of course, kitten. Just make certain to don your mask when you step into the street.”

I smiled and nodded and sent Raine a quick text message, to let her know that I was not stuck in an Outsider dimension having my entrails devoured by a flying polyp, and that I was in fact visiting Jan, with Sevens, and everything was fine.

The time on my phone surprised me; it was almost quarter past nine. Perhaps we really should leave this conversation with Jan for tomorrow, there was simply so much to discuss that we would risk being overrun by the small hours of the morning: the remains of the cult, Jan’s information on Mister Joking, and her other preparation for helping us with Wonderland — Maisie’s replacement body.

Seven-Shades-of-Scrupulously-Smooth took a couple of steps forward while I was sending the message, her boots clicking. But then she stopped at the edge of the little wooden floorboard area, meant for taking one’s shoes off before the hotel room carpet. At first I thought she was just being polite and waiting for me to join her. But then I sent the text message and looked up to find Sevens staring back at me with a single raised eyebrow.

My stomach did a little drop. “Ah? Sevens? What’s wrong?”

“No emergency, I suspect,” she said, soft and calm. “But that is my question to you. What is wrong with this picture?”

July looked up from her video game, head flicking upward and eyes coming around like a nocturnal predator disturbed from her bloody kill. I flinched, tentacles wobbling everywhere in a misplaced instinct to make myself look big.

July echoed, rather more urgently: “What is wrong?”

Sevens spoke to the demon-host in the tone of an amused but unimpressed schoolmarm, “You are not a very good secretary, July. But then again you are not engaged as one, so I can hardly fault you.”

July blinked. “What.”

I cleared my throat. “Yes, Sevens, what are you … oh.”

Jan wasn’t the only thing missing from the hotel room; I’d noticed the other discrepancies, but hadn’t put them all together until Sevens had asked me to do so, as if I’d had all the information at hand, in my brains, from all the different things my tentacles knew, all the things we knew, all together — but my conscious mind hadn’t presented it as relevant.

Sevens murmured, for me alone: “You really must train that skill, my love.”

Jan’s massive white coat was nowhere to be seen, not draped over a chair or puddled on the floor. On my previous visit I had also noticed a heavy-duty military-style flak jacket, all straps and pockets and bulletproof plates. Her cute pink trainers weren’t present by the door, but that was hardly of any concern compared to the other items.

“Uh,” we said, gathering our thoughts. “July. July, sorry. Jan’s not here, correct?”

“Yes,” said July.

“And did she happen to go somewhere … dangerous?”

July blinked. “Not any more.”

I sighed and spread all my limbs. “But she took all her ridiculous body armour? July, sorry, let me rephrase my question: please tell me where exactly Jan has gone.”

“Camelot,” said July. “With Lozzie.” She tilted her head to one side, suddenly even more bird-like than usual. “Assumed you knew.”

I huffed a great big sigh. Sevens smiled the smile of gentle vindication.

I said: “We don’t track where Lozzie goes, or with whom. Not anymore. It was a bad habit.” I put my face in one hand. “Oh, I was worried there for a moment. Why aren’t you with her, July? I thought you were sort of like her bodyguard, even if only informally.”

“She’s in the beyond. Lozzie can protect her better than I.”

Sevens propped her umbrella against the wall and set about removing her boots; she had that wonderful elegance to the motion that I could never manage, even with all my tentacles to help — lifting each foot up behind her in turn and slipping the shoes off with one hand. She stepped onto the carpet with soft yellow socks. “Ahhhh,” she sighed. “Are they on a date?”

July shook her head. “Paperwork.”

“Paperwork?” I squinted. “For what?”

“Houses.”

I frowned at July. “Have you always been so awkwardly taciturn? July, is something wrong?”

To my incredible surprise, July actually rolled her eyes; for one brief moment she was entirely the awkward and grumpy teenager that Jan implied she really was.

She pointed at the television screen. “Busy. You can wait, but I want to play.”

I stared for a moment, then laughed, blushing and covering my lips with one hand. I waved July down with a wordless apology. Sevens ignored all of this and padded over to peer at the game on the screen.

We had not come upon a demon-host bodyguard without her mage, mysteriously missing on some madcap misadventure. No, we had interrupted a teenager playing her video games, asking after her boring elder sister, and now we were keeping her from the next boss fight.

July was focused on the screen again, ignoring us and pressing buttons on her controller.

Sevens stood quite close to her and pointed delicately at one of the many weird little anime-style portraits, and said: “No, not him, his attack value is terrible. Pair the archer with the duchess, that way she gets magically charged arrows, and the duchess gets a huge morale boost. Trust me.”

July stared up at Sevens, wide-eyed as always. “But they’re both females.”

Sevens raised an eyebrow. “Yes? That’s the point. And this is a fantasy video game; female-female pairs can have babies. They don’t even bother to explain it. And why should they? A wizard did it.”

“Fair.” July made some kind of selection on the little squares. A heart appeared around two portraits.

“Told you so,” said Sevens. “I always know.” Then she sighed. “At least in video games.”

“Um,” I said, feeling a little left out, still in my shoes over on the entranceway floorboards. “I don’t want to interrupt again, but … Sevens, if Jan and Lozzie are on a date, then maybe we should … ”

Sevens glanced at me. “July said it’s not a date, kitten. No excuses, now.”

“But what it if is?” I grimaced. “I don’t want to interrupt that.”

Sevens tilted her head at me. We sighed and puffed and drew my tentacles in.

“Kitten.”

“It would be really embarrassing to drop in on Lozzie and Jan if they’re on a date. I’m not procrastinating, I swear. I’m trying to be polite and proper. This can wait until the morning.”

July spoke without looking up from her game: “It’s paperwork.”

“There you have it,” said Sevens. “Best go fetch the General. At least go to the castle in Camelot and see if she is present.”

“ … aren’t you coming?” I blinked at her in surprise.

“Bring her back here, my love. Without Lozzie. For this conversation, I am a weapon of intimidation and menace. I am more effective deployed from a position of surprise. And I am useless in front of little Lozzie. She is an antidote to all things intimidating and menacing. I best not be present.”

July looked up again, very still and silent.

Sevens added: “The intimidation and menace is for a good cause. And the General will not be harmed.”

“She won’t,” said July.

Sevens looked at July’s video game again. “Besides, this is rather diverting. July, the pianist and the mathematician, yes. They make a most pleasing pair.”

“The pianist doesn’t like other women,” July said.

Sevens clicked her fingers. The screen glitched sideways, a flicker-jump of motion, then returned to normal. A heart had appeared where there had been no heart before.

July stared up at Sevens; one did not have to be an abyssal squid-girl with dubious senses of body-language reading to see the latent hostility in July’s posture.

The Yellow Princess sighed, almost sadly. “I cannot do that to real people, no. It is a video game. Fiction can be rewritten. If you don’t want it, I’ll make her straight again.”

“Please,” said July.

Sevens un-clicked her fingers — a motion that probably would have made any not-in-the-know humans feel quite sick. The screen flickered the other way and the heart symbol was gone again.

“Thank you,” said July.

The Yellow Princess looked back at me. “I’m going to have less fun waiting than I thought. Hurry back, kitten. Keep your mind on the target. Obtain for us the tiny remade General.”

“The … I’m sorry, you mean Jan?”

“Yes.”

I chewed my lower lip. “And if she is on a date with Lozzie?”

Sevens shrugged, delicate shoulders rolling beneath her crisp white blouse. “Improvise.”

We pulled a deeply uncomfortable face, about to put up a token argument — but then our phone vibrated.

Raine had replied to my simple text message with a picture, a photograph, apparently taken moments ago, of Evelyn sitting at the kitchen table with Praem standing over her. Praem was as expressionless and perfectly straight-backed as always, but her milk-white eyes held a secret glint of beaming pride. Evelyn, by contrast, was blushing beetroot red, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes glaring death at the camera.

Some brave soul had placed a stereotypical black witch hat on Evee’s head, with a wide brim and a floppy tip. I recognised it from our shopping trip, months ago.

Raine had captioned the photograph: ‘a present from Lozzie!’

We giggled out loud and covered our mouth with a hand again. Sevens cocked an eyebrow at us.

“Oh,” we sighed. “I think Jan and Lozzie did go on a date. I think they went shopping. What if they’re … you know … all … um, ‘post date’?”

“Kitten,” Sevens purred.

I steeled myself against the inevitable. “Yes?”

“If Lozzie and the General are fu—”

“Sevens!” I squeaked.

Sevens allowed herself a thin smile. “Knock first.”

==

Camelot was a wonderfully consistent dimension, second only to Number 12 Barnslow Drive itself as a source of peace and solace — perhaps paradoxically, considering the number of alien influences we had introduced to the quiet, rolling, yellow-grass hills: the Knights, the Caterpillars, the growing project of their castle, several tons of earthly dirt, more than a few corpses, and the now-reclaimed House-shell-abyssal-submarine which had once belonged to Edward Lilburne. All of those things were very literally from Outside, as far as Camelot was concerned. I trusted Lozzie’s assessment that this entire dimension was truly dead and empty, a place where things had happened once, but had all since run down and gone to dust; we were not colonising it in the face of the true inhabitants. But we had made quite a mess.

We — me, myself, and I, minus Sevens — arrived in the usual spot for unannounced visits to Camelot, on the low hill which would one day be enclosed by the bailey walls of Camelot Castle. I suspected the Knights made sure not to build anything up on that hilltop, lest one day I or Lozzie found ourselves teleported onto the tip of a castle spire or the back of a Caterpillar.

We arrived with a stagger and a lurch, and made an awful half-belch of nausea; Slipping was no longer the bio-spiritual strain it used to be, not with all seven of us pulling together to distribute the effort, but we’d spent all day Slipping back and forth and it was beginning to take a toll. We could no more Slip endlessly at will than we could walk around a city for six hours on end without getting incredibly sore leg muscles. We had limits, they were just a little higher than before. Taking Jan back to her hotel room would be the very last Slip of the day. Sevens and I would be taking the bus home.

I took a moment to steady our trainers on the grass, stretch out our tentacles, and flash our deliciously re-chromatophored-skin through a series of standing waves of blue and white and green. I’d left the manuscript with Sevens but I still had my squid-skull helmet in one tentacle.

So, reluctantly, I glanced about in hope of spotting Lozzie nearby, standing on a hillside, perhaps hand-in-hand with Jan, and absolutely not doing anything else.

“Please don’t be … kissing,” I whispered. “Please don’t be kissing, please don’t be kissing. Or anything else. Oh dear.”

The blush was terrible; I hid it with a wall of white-blue skin-shifting.

I hadn’t been back to Camelot since we’d vanquished Edward Lilburne.

Camelot Castle’s bailey wall was beginning to take shape, far away on the opposite side of the gigantic inner courtyard it would one day enclose. Titanic blocks of sandstone-coloured rock had been placed on top of the foundations, interleaved for stability, with a thick layer of pinkish mortar between them; I knew from watching the Knights’ building site that the mortar was somehow made from a mixture of crushed rock and the Knights’ own excreted bodily fluids. Two Caterpillars and several Knights were working a massive crane-like structure, preparing to place another block on the growing wall. It would be truly massive when it was complete, fifty or sixty feet high. I did hope the Knights were going to install proper safety features.

Several of us longed to go join that effort. Not that we could help, but we wanted to go stand up on that wall, see what it felt like, revel in the Knight’s creation.

But, eyes on the target, as Sevens had said.

Away to my right — what I thought of as West, the direction in which the ancient and abandoned city lay as a faint scab on the horizon, from which the Caterpillars brought a steady stream of fresh building materials — was Edward Lilburne’s House.

The front door and the section of wall we’d so brutally removed had been replaced with Caterpillar-grown carapace-material, gleaming bone-white like a cast on a broken leg. There was even a little door, with a handle. I knew from what Lozzie had said that some of the rear sections of the House had been carefully de-constructed and put back together as well, to allow clean-up of some of the more difficult rooms.

The strange mushroom-stalk of brick and glass and wood, towering a hundred feet into the air, had begun to collapse — shrinking back into itself, wrinkled and limp, being absorbed down into the House. Fruiting was done, we supposed; here was the beginning of adaptation to being Outside.

We also longed to go talk to the House again, ask how it was, make sure it had all the repairs it needed. There was much to do inside it as well, once Evelyn had any real spare time.

But, eyes on the target.

Camelot Castle keep itself was coming along beautifully. Pale sandstone walls climbed into the air, studded with arrow-slits on the first floor, then wider windows on the second; a third floor showed the beginning of little towers and walkways and possibly even battlements. Many parts of the castle were formed from off-cut pieces of specially grown Caterpillar carapace, specifically any parts that required shapes too difficult to make from stone, anything that would have used wood in a castle built on earth. A wide area of courtyard around the base of the castle was laced with sandstone walkways, pretty little paths snaking between the low hills, a couple of open squares, and some bare ground cut clear of grass, as if ready for planting flowerbeds or trees. One of the flowerbeds already contained a curious row of low shrubs.

We narrowed our eyes and raised our tentacles, to get a better look from far away. “Are those … strawberry bushes?” Two of my tentacles nodded and coiled in agreement. They were. “Praem,” we whispered. “She must have been talking to Lozzie about this. Gosh. Maybe I should suggest a lemon orchard.”

We very much wanted to go look at the strawberry bushes.

But Lozzie was not down there.

Lozzie was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. Not within the castle grounds, not on a nearby hillside, not down next to the castle itself alongside all the stone-cutting and mortar-mixing and carapace growing that the Knights and a trio of Caterpillars were still up to.

“Well,” we said out loud. “We tried. We gave it our best try. She’s not here.”

Or she’s in the castle. With Jan.

I sighed. Sevens would know if I went back empty handed after not really trying. I knew full well that the entire point of this exercise, of making me do this by myself, was to get my mind out of this state of procrastination-as-excuse, procrastination-because-fear. Maisie deserved better. Every day was precious. If I could put off talking to Jan until tomorrow, then everything else got shunted one day back as well — including the inevitable conversation with my parents, about the Eye, about whatever shards and splinters may still linger within their memories. And that potentially shunted Maisie’s rescue back a day as well. There wasn’t time for me to be afraid without taking action.

So I took a deep breath of Camelot’s warm, cinnamon-scented wind, raised my eyes and tentacles to the purple-whorled sky, and called out at the top of my lungs.

“Lozzie! Lozzie, it’s us! It’s me! Lozzie … ” I trailed off and lowered the volume. “Really hope you’re not in private with Jan.”

I waited several heartbeats, praying for no response.

Then, far away and muffled behind several layers of ancient stone: “Heathy! Heathy! Over here! Heathy!”

A tiny pale hand and slender arm emerged from one of the arrow-slits on the first floor, draped in pastel poncho, waving at me.

“Oh thank the gods,” I breathed to myself. “She’s dressed. Okay. Good sign.” I cupped my mouth and raised my voice again. “I see you! Coming!”

Lozzie withdrew her hand back into the arrow-slit window, like a tiny mollusc withdrawing back into her gigantic, impenetrable shell. We gathered ourselves, took a deep breath, and ambled down the hill, heading for one of the massive Caterpillar-carapace front doors which led into the castle.

Down the hillside we went, until my trainers met a sand-stone pathway, then up the path and into the towering shadow of the castle itself, with all those windows looking down at us. The Knights’ building site was nearby, but too far for a detour — some of them paused and ‘looked’ at me with their eyeless helms; I waved back.

Castles, like houses, have personalities evident in their material structures. Some are brooding and dark, military memories from a more violent world; others are fanciful and playful, display pieces of great intricacy and artwork; a few are strange and specific, quirks of local construction and needs, like evolutionary mutants of incredible beauty, but never to be reproduced.

Camelot Castle, up close, was both open and inscrutable; the sandstone was warm and welcoming, the carapace additions smooth and almost soft to the eyes. But the overall structure was subtly wrong for a human-made castle: it said both ‘I am a bulwark, here to keep out harm’ and ‘I am an experiment in form and size’, but it said those things in shapes I’d never seen in castles on earth. The walls were not actually built to withstand cannonballs or assaults, but to protect against something I wasn’t quite certain of.

The massive Caterpillar-carapace front door was fifteen feet tall and probably several feet thick. But there was a Knight-scale door set in one end, with a long handle. It opened on silent, smooth hinges, swinging outward at the slightest touch of one tentacle.

I had refrained from actually stepping inside Camelot Castle keep until now; entering without invitation would be akin to demanding to read an unfinished manuscript, it felt disrespectful. But now both the ground floor and second floor were complete, Lozzie was in there already, and she had invited me inside.

We stepped over the threshold, into cool, soft, sandy gloom.

Behind the massive white front door was a vast and echoing entrance hallway of sandstone-coloured blocks — a wide corridor with a vaulted ceiling held up by intricate beams, both of those made from more carapace material. Light came from glowing globes set into the wall at regular intervals — I recognised the principle as adapted from the Library of Carcosa. But where the Carcosan lights were green as a sunlit sea, these were yellow-brown, soft and dusky, like a desert evening.

The air was deliciously chill and gentle. We stretched out our tentacles, soaking it in.

Arches led off in several directions, into the warren of the castle.

“Lozzie?” we called out.

Lozzie’s voice floated back from somewhere deeper inside: “We’re in the big hall! With the tables! This way!”

All this boded very well for the prospect of Lozzie not being in a sensitive situation with Jan — at least not by the time I arrived. For the first time in a while I relaxed, lowered my tentacles, and stopped worrying quite so much.

The ‘big hall’ turned out to be left, right, then left again, after winding my way through the echoing, empty rooms of Camelot Castle. There was no actual furniture yet apart from things built into the castle itself, such as fireplaces, mantelpieces, and stairs; perhaps the Knights were planning on furnishing it later. But even nude and empty, she was a beautiful structure: the ceilings were gently domed, supported with beams; every interior wall was smooth and smart, the naked stone allowed to show itself off in material truth; the rooms I passed through were well-proportioned, balanced, not crammed in for the sake of simply multiplying spaces.

The ‘big hall’, however, was furnished.

We stepped through a low archway and into a vast dining hall, the rival of anything from Arthurian legend.

The hall boasted its own massive exterior doors, which probably opened out onto the rear of the castle; they were currently wide open, admitting the warm cinnamon-scented wind. The walls were ringed by dozens of those sandy glow-globes, making the space bright and clear. The room was split into two levels by a single step of difference: the lower level had a long rectangular table and a lot of human-scale chairs, while the higher level contained a literal round table, absolutely gigantic, made of carapace material. The lip of that table would be level with my chin. I assumed it was meant to accommodate every single Knight, because it was ringed by one hundred and forty eight equally gigantic chairs, also made from carapace.

Two of the chairs were pulled back from the table, their seat-backs streaked with black.

That stopped my breath.

Two dead Knights in their service of their Queen — in my service. One in Wonderland, given his life to shelter Lozzie and I from the Eye, and one in the Library of Carcosa, burned out to nothing by the black-lightning creature unleashed by Edward’s unwise meddling.

A tiny memorial. They deserved more.

The hall was two stories tall, with two dozen massive stained-glass windows beaming the purple light of Camelot down upon the wide floor. The stained-glass was apparently an investment in the future, because twenty of the two dozen windows were simply grids of carapace material filled with transparent blocks, awaiting the day they would be reshaped into scenes worth memorialising. Four of the windows had been gifted with meaning: one showed what I realised was Lozzie, battered and bloodstained and barefoot, but beaming with pride and happiness, standing upon the rolling hillsides of Camelot, surrounded by a vast crowd of strange spirit forms who were all looking up at her in hope and promise.

That was the moment of the Knights’ genesis, reshaped from earthly pneuma-somatic life into their current forms.

The second window showed me — ratty brown hair and scrawny build and pink hoodie and all — on my knees and weeping, six tentacles glowing rainbow bright, one tentacle rammed deep into a Knight lying on his back. The Forest Knight, when I’d returned him to Camelot and saved him from the Outsider equivalent of death by decompression.

The third window showed a scene that meant absolutely nothing to me, and took a second for me to puzzle out: three Caterpillars were depicted underground, beneath the sharp peak of a mountain. One of the Caterpillars was injured in some fashion, with pieces of carapace bent and damaged, strange shiny-black flesh showing beneath, while the uninjured pair were leading it back toward the surface. A second sub-panel above this showed all three Caterpillars basking in Camelot’s purple light, the injured one cradling a strange black lump in the sticky black tendrils which extended from its face-area.

An accident while exploring? A mine cave-in? Some ancient underground city? Whatever it was, it clearly meant a great deal to them culturally, but I had zero knowledge of it.

The fourth window showed a moment of grand pride: a ring of Caterpillars dooting and booping the Edward-ball to death. They had rendered the Edward-ball as a particularly gruesome foe, with a demonic face, but they hardly needed to work any artistic licence to make the gigantic Caterpillars look any more intimidating and heroic. A series of teeny tiny blobs watching in the background were probably supposed to be me and my friends.

I couldn’t deal with even a fraction of what I was seeing there.

Which was lucky, because I had more pressing concerns: three people were gathered around the lower table, the human-scale one.

Lozzie bounced out of her chair and skipped over to me, poncho all aflutter and going everywhere; she threw her arms around me in a wriggly hug, laughing and nuzzling my cheek, getting her wispy blonde hair all in my face.

Jan was already on her feet and looking like a rather overwhelmed penguin — she was wearing her massive puffy white coat, her petite form engulfed by the protection, but the front was open, showing the flak jacket beneath, and her good-girl skirt-and-sweater look beneath that. She gave me a half-mortified, half-apologetic grimace.

The third figure was seated, stiff, and still — and very, very focused on not making any sudden movements.

Harold Yuleson — Edward’s former lawyer, very much In-The-Know, an oily and portly little man who knew his job inside-out and had come to us with promises of betraying his employer before the end — did not look like he wanted to be present.

The table before him was covered with neatly organised papers next to his open briefcase. His tight little eyes and ratty little face were beaded with sweat. His tufty hair looked a little limp. His well-tailored, dark suit, complete with waistcoat, looked amusingly out of place among the chairs and stones of Camelot Castle.

Twelve Knights were arrayed behind his chair in a semi-circle; behind them, a Caterpillar had driven into the room, through the open doors, and was currently humming away to itself like the idling engines of a small battleship.

“Um,” I said.

“Heathy!” Lozzie cheered and pulled back from the hug so she could look me in the face. She was beaming, bright and bursting with energy. “Heathy, you came to join in!”

We blinked several times, pole-axed by too many things at once. Top Right and Top Left tentacles did a sort of conjoined self-handshake, the equivalent of putting one’s face in one’s palm - I think we’d picked that one up from Tenny.

“Join … in … ” we managed. “Um … ”

Jan cleared her throat gently. She tucked a lock of her neat black hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry, Heather. I really had no hand in this. I thought this was going to be conducted in his offices, not here. Sorry. Um.”

“It’s fiiiiiine!” Lozzie chirped. “It’s not like he’s not in-the-know, you know! I know! We all know!”

Harold Yuleson turned his head to look at me, achingly slow, like his tendons were made of rusty wire, like they might burst inside his neck if he moved too quickly. He met my eyes; his own were wide and shell-shocked. He looked slowly at each of my tentacles, one by one, all six of them. Then he looked at the way our skin changed colour, cycling through chromatic potential.

Then he swallowed, nodded to himself, and spoke in a bright and polite tone as if nothing was wrong: “Good evening, Miss Morell. I assume it is still evening? How nice to see you. I do hope you are well.”

Then he returned to staring at his papers.

“Uhhh,” we said. “Um. Sorry … Lozzie … sorry, not that I don’t want to hug you,” I said as I gently removed myself from her embrace, but not before Middle Left wrapped herself affectionately around Lozzie’s forearm beneath her poncho. “But, um, I’m a little, uh … overwhelmed.”

Lozzie bobbed on the balls of her feet and cocked her head at me. “Ah? Heathy? By what?”

I gestured at basically everything.

Lozzie blinked several times. Jan said: “I know, right?”

Yuleson muttered, much to my surprise, “Oh, it’s quite alright, quite alright.” He even smiled, though his eyes were glued to his papers on the table. “I’ve conducted business in far more intimidating circumstances. Oh, yes. Did you know I had a man point a gun at me once? Terrible thing. Wasn’t loaded, of course. Still, very unsettling at the time. Very unsettling. Mmhmm. Mm.”

There were simply far too many questions to ask — about the stained-glass windows, or the mourning-streaked chairs, not to even mention the question of all the bodies from the fight outside Edward’s house, or the dozen other issues which intersected with Camelot. But we put all of those from our mind; stay on target, Sevens had said. We stayed on target.

“Uh,” we said, struggling to gather ourselves. “Just a … a practical question, Lozzie. Why is your uncle’s former lawyer here?”

Lozzie giggled and chirped: “My lawyer now! Evee-weeve’s too, if she wants!”

Jan gave me a thousand-yard stare. I smiled awkwardly at her, but then spoke to Lozzie again. “Yes, okay, but … why have you brought him to Camelot?”

Jan said, “This was meant to happen in his offices.” She glanced at Yuleson again. “I’m sorry. Really.”

Lozzie opened her mouth — but Yuleson spoke before she did.

“Allow me to answer for my client,” he said, turning slowly again. “That is my job, after all, is it not? Ah, not that yourself and Miss Lilburne require the services of a lawyer to conduct any business between yourselves, but simply because I am the expert here … here … here, yes, wherever here is … um … ” He trailed off, frowning to himself, then glued his eyes to his papers again. He was very careful not to look back at the Knights behind him.

“Lozzie,” I said, allowing a gentle warning tone to creep into my voice. “He’s a normal human being. I know he’s a … well, a bit untrustworthy, to put it lightly. But you can’t just … just … oh, I suppose I’ve done this myself before, but—”

Jan cleared her throat. “A small shock was necessary. I agreed with that much. But really, this has gone on long enough. Lozzie, please, it’s time to send him back.”

“Oh, nonsense,” said Yuleson, without looking up. His tone was oddly bright. “I’m quite alright, as long as I concentrate on the details here. And yes, well, let’s all be honest with each other — I was unwilling to do the legwork for all this. This will require me to commit several crimes — forgery of documents, lying under oath. Oh goodness, goodness me.”

Lozzie looked almost defiant as she smiled at me, a little bit smug. “I’m not going to hurt him, Heathy! He just needed to know.”

I sighed. “Know what? Lozzie, what are you doing here?”

Yuleson spoke up: “We were discussing matters of estate inheritance.”

“Oh. Ohhhh,” I said. “Oh, right. Because of the House.”

Yuleson cleared his throat. “I believe the property you speak of is quite beyond legal concerns. No. I speak of the estate, the legal estate. Edward Lilburne’s possessions, money, and so forth.”

“Ah,” I said. “Right. Because Edward—”

“Is not,” Yuleson interrupted, “technically speaking, dead. As I have been informed.”

I blinked several times. Jan rubbed the bridge of her nose. Lozzie flashed her teeth, very smug.

Yuleson carried on without raising his eyes from the documents before him; his voice gathered strength as he spoke, as his profession stiffened his spine: “Miss Lilburne’s case is irritatingly difficult and presents me with unique challenges. Her uncle — my former client — refused to leave a will. There is simply no will, not even a simple one. I could of course forge a will — though that rather complicates the already considerable legal risks of what I am being asked to do. Furthermore, he is not legally dead; we cannot produce a corpse, nor establish that it is time to dispose of his estate. That in itself is not too difficult to solve — missing person, hasn’t been seen in years, without any other relatives to dispute, shouldn’t be too nasty. However.” He raised a finger. “Miss Lilburne does not legally exist.”

“Off the grid!” Lozzie cheered. She threw her arms into the air, poncho fluttering. “Ghosting the system!”

Jan snorted. “Admirable, yeah. I approve. Except for this.”

“Quite right,” said Yuleson. “There is no birth certificate, no school records, no national insurance number, no NHS number. Absolutely nothing to establish that Lozzie Lilburne is a real person and that she is the legal heir to her uncle’s estate. This — this is a problem. It very well may be the most difficult task ever placed before me. Almost beyond my powers to solve.”

“Oh,” we said. I hadn’t expected any of this; I was quite blind-sided and even more overwhelmed than before. “Uh. So … what’s going to happen to Edward’s … what’s the value of his—”

“Eight million pounds,” said Yuleson.

My tentacles stopped moving. My eyes went wide. My skin flushed bright pink. Lozzie hissed: “Oooh, Heathy, pretty!”

“Well,” Yuleson said, as if this was nothing. He tapped a piece of paper. “Eight million, two hundred and eighteen thousand, one hundred and three pounds, and seventeen pennies, at last estimate. A lot of it is tied up in an investment portfolio, which will have to be unwound if Miss Lilburne desires the liquid capital. Which I do not suggest, though I would have to consult a proper accountant. Some of that is part of an insurance underwriter — marine shipping mostly, nothing unethical, I— I think — and if you leave it there it will appreciate in value.” He pulled another sheet toward himself and indicated another number. “A significant portion, however, is held as cash in a lock box in Handelsbanken in Manchester. Very silly, leaving all that there to depreciate in value. Now, I’m not supposed to know about that one, and I do not and cannot legally have possession of a key—”

Lozzie flipped up her poncho and produced a keyring, jingling in the air. She winked at me. “Guess what I found?”

Yuleson squeezed his eyes shut and raised his hands either side of his own head. “Please! Please, Miss Lilburne, please, do not walk in there and use that key. If that money goes missing, if it is claimed, if you present yourself before the work is in place, then all this will become impossible.”

Lozzie giggled and rolled her eyes, then slid the keys away again. Yuleson sighed as if a gun had been removed from his face.

I was reeling inside; I couldn’t even begin to construct the context for what I was hearing. Eight million pounds? The number was so large it was almost meaningless. We felt like we needed to sit down. Or dunk myself in the ocean.

“ … Lozz … eight— eight million?”

Lozzie nodded.

“Eight … million. Uh. Lozzie. Oh my gosh. You can’t— you can’t let that go! You can’t!” I grabbed her hands with a pair of tentacles. “You could- you could do anything you wanted! You could actually go to university! You could send Tenny to university!” I laughed, totally overwhelmed. “I mean— if she figures out the whole disguise thing. Oh my gosh. You could do anything with that. Anything.”

Lozzie bit her lower lip. “I’d pay everyone back. For looking after me. Do something for Grinny — she’s been abandoned now. And give Tenny a future.”

“Lozzie. Lozzie, you don’t owe us a thing.”

“But I love you.”

Lozzie gave me a hug, quick and hard.

I laughed. I didn’t know what to say. Jan smiled awkwardly at me over Lozzie’s shoulder, then shrugged; I supposed that she’d been through all this shock once already. But then the impact of Yuleson’s words flowed over me; I suddenly felt deeply protective, and I totally understood why Lozzie had dragged the lawyer out here.

“Wait, wait,” I said, pulling back. “Yuleson.”

“Yes?” said the lawyer.

“So, this money, getting this in Lozzie’s name legally isn’t possible? You can’t do it? It’s in limbo? It’s beyond you?”

Yuleson smiled to himself, still staring at his papers. “I said almost.”

“Pardon?”

“Almost beyond my powers. So, yes, Miss Morell. I can achieve this. I can make this work. We — that is, myself and Miss Lilburne — are going to commit a truly staggering amount of forgery.”

Lozzie beamed at me. “We’re gonna make me up! From scratch!”

Yuleson cleared his throat. “This task is made somewhat easier by Miss Lilburne’s unique skill set — I understand that she can place a forged document in a location, which in certain cases can retroactively make such documents legitimate, and proving their falsehood almost impossible. We are going to put her birth certificate into hospital records. Physically.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes again. “Oh, if this is ever discovered, they will make documentaries about it.”

Lozzie said, “And it’s gonna be ‘Lozzie’ on the certificate! Not Lauren. Ha!”

“Right on,” said Jan.

Lozzie threw herself at me in another out-of-control leap-hug. She squeezed me tight and I squeezed her back, laughing and overwhelmed, but relieved that finally she was getting some compensation for what her brother and her uncle had done to her.

Eight million pounds was more than I could imagine. Perhaps not more than Evelyn could imagine. But this was Lozzie.

And I wasn’t exaggerating about a future for Tenny.

Because there was a very real chance none of us would be coming back from Wonderland. Whatever I said to myself, that thought still lurked deep down in my heart.

We pushed that away for now; this was not the time for dark thoughts.

“Lozzie,” we said, pushing her gently back as well. “Lozzie, you need to actually look after this lawyer, if he’s going to do this, not be blasting his mind with overexposure to Outside; I doubt we could find another so capable and also In The Know.”

Yuleson murmured: “Thank you kindly.”

Lozzie did a big puff-cheeked pout, like I was spoiling her fun, but then she nodded. “Okaaaaay. We can go back now.”

We nodded. “One second.” I let go of Lozzie and crossed to the big white table where Yuleson was sitting, with the Knights and a Caterpillar looming behind him. We planted our feet and spread our tentacles.

He smiled down at his papers. “Miss Morell. I am glad you won, by the way.”

“Mmhmm, really? I suspect you don’t care either way. But — Yuleson. Harold. Look up at me, please.”

His smile grew extra oily and slick. “That is a very challenging demand at present. I must decline.”

“Alright then,” I sighed. He was only human, after all. This was probably taking a terrible toll on him. “Listen to me very carefully. Evelyn Saye and I, we will be along to your offices in the morning, to talk to you about this, with Lozzie present. I want to make sure we keep you honest.”

Yuleson let out a weird little fluttery laugh. He gestured over his shoulder — at the Knights and the Caterpillar. “Oh, these fine fellows and lasses here have more than ensured that. But, you are more than welcome to a meeting; I would relish the chance to mend bridges with Miss Saye — and we must discuss my fee; I’m not going to commit a buffet of crimes for free, but I will offer my standard rates. I’m not going to exploit the situation. I’ll make you my eleven o’clock, how does that sound?”

“Perfect,” we said, bluffing, because intimidating criminal lawyers into doing our bidding was not exactly how I envisioned myself, even now. I was still a good girl — or seven good girls — wasn’t I? “Now, Lozzie—”

A flicker of silver-white passed behind one of the stained-glass windows — a mote of pearl-shadow upon the sandstone blocks of Camelot.

I looked up and around, as casually as I could manage, which wasn’t very casual, because I was bad at being covert and sneaky and careful. We all stared at the stained glass. Nothing stared back. Nothing but Camelot’s purple whorls in the sky beyond.

Heart?

Had she followed us to Camelot? We hadn’t really been thinking about her; we’d assumed if she was still following us at all that she’d stay with her sister, with Sevens, not sneak along in my shadow. That didn’t seem like her style.

If it was Heart, then I didn’t want her taking an interest in anybody here. I needed to get back to Sevens, quickly, and tell her to get her younger sister under control.

“Heathy?” Lozzie chirped. When I looked back down, she was peering at me in curious innocence. Jan was frowning; she must have realised something was wrong.

“Uh, Lozzie,” I said, trying to conceal that I was watching for signs of a Yellow Princess trailing my footsteps. “Take Yuleson back to his offices, okay? He’s had enough of this. And I’m not joking, we need to look after him, if he’s going to work legal magic for you.”

“Oh yes,” Yuleson sighed. “Yes, please. Please do. I left the place with all the lights on, too. Janet will be horrified when she gets there in the morning.”

I nodded to the dozen Knights and the Caterpillar. “Thank you, everyone. Thank you. I think we’re done with the intimidation now, though.”

Several of the Knights raised their weapons in salute. The Caterpillar made the teeniest, tiniest beep — a noise which still echoed inside the hall like a clap, and made Yuleson flinch so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. Jan flinched too, closing her eyes in carefully contained exasperation.

Lozzie was already reaching for Jan’s hand, so I interrupted quickly. “Lozzie. Lozzie I need to talk to Jan.”

Lozzie blinked at me, wide-eyed and curious. Jan went very still — she must have heard the tone in our voice.

“Weeeeeell, she’s right here!” Lozzie gestured at Jan with both hands. “Ta-da! Janny!”

I giggled, partly for show, but partly because Lozzie. “In private, if possible. Back in her hotel room. About sensitive things. Will you take Yuleson back to his offices and then go give Tenny a hug from me? Please.”

Lozzie narrowed her eyes, a pouty pantomime of suspicion. “Heathy … wassit all about? You’re being very sneaky! And you’re not very good at it!”

“Yes,” Jan added, delicate and still. “What is this all about, Heather?”

I sighed and told a half truth: “I need to ask you about Maisie’s body, Jan, the one you’re going to make, and about the cultists. Kind of a dark subject. A bit of a … a bad joke we both share. Isn’t it?”

I’m going to ask you about Mister Joking. Do you want Lozzie to know, or not?

Depending on Jan’s answer, I’d be telling Lozzie anyway; but I trusted Jan at least that much, to tell us the truth, especially if it was any danger to Lozzie.

Jan’s eyebrows rose. “Ah,” she said. “Ah. I see. Quite. Yes.”

“Janny?” Lozzie put her arms around Jan’s side.

“Heather is quite right,” Jan said. “This is going to be a dark subject. You don’t have to come with, Lozzie. Give us an hour, maybe two? I’ll text you.”

Lozzie did a big huffy flounce and puffed out a huge sigh, fluttering back from Jan. She put her hands on her hips and looked at me, then at Jan, then at me again, then at Jan. I felt a terrible twinge of guilt. She saw right through both of us, saw we weren’t telling her the whole truth.

Jan and I broke at the same moment.

“I—”

“—don’t—”

“-not going to—”

“—hold anything back—”

“—tell you a lie—”

“—Lozzie.”

Jan and I both slammed to a halt and stared at each other. She was mortified, I was blushing. Lozzie burst into a fit of giggles.

Jan recovered first: “I’m not going to lie to her, Heather.”

“And I shouldn’t be holding things back,” I hurried to add. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Lozzie.”

Lozzie flapped a corner of her poncho. “It’s fiiiiine! You’re so bad at it, Heathy! You too, Janny!” Lozzie hopped over to me and gave me a hug, then over to Jan to plant a very aggressive kiss on Jan’s cheek. Then she bobbed back again and waited a beat.

Jan said, “Heather wants to ask me about a mage we ran into, the Joking guy. I know him. Or, knew him, rather. A while back. Need to clear my name again, it seems.” She pulled an awkward smile, pained, but relieved.

“Actually,” I said. “Jan, I trust you about that.”

She looked at me in surprise. “You do? Why on earth would you?”

“Yes, I do,” we said. “I’m not going to interrogate you about Mister Joking. I need a way to contact him and talk to him — because I think he was studying the Eye.”

Jan’s face fell. She went horribly pale. “Oh, fuck me.”

Lozzie purred, “You wiiiish, Janny.” Then she winked, big and fake and silly.

This did not help Jan, who just shook her head and looked at me like I was a premonition of her own death.

I held out a hand. “Jan. Your hotel room, please. We won’t take too much of your time. All I need is contact details.”

Jan stared at my hand like it was a hangman’s noose. Lozzie gave her another hug, half-wriggling inside her massive puffy white jacket and nuzzling Jan’s neck. Then she bounced free and stepped over to Yuleson.

“I’ll take mister lawyer-boyer home!” Lozzie said. “And see you in a couple of hours, Janny? I had fun today. Lots of fun! Together!”

Jan stared at Lozzie, unsettled but resigned, then at my hand, then at my face.

She said: “I just keep digging deeper, don’t I? Alright then.” She stepped close and took my hand. “Let’s go have a chat about things I never want to think about again.”

Announcement

Yet another reminder that while she may be the protagonist of Katalepsis (Book One), Heather is far from being the center of the universe. While she's off visiting Outsiders and getting books translated by tsundere spider-crabs, Lozzie is busy securing that bag. And hey, good for her. Maybe she can get Tenny into a programming degree or something. Or pay for repairs to the roof of Evee's house. At least Yuleson is under control. Though Jan is probably more than a little bit overwhelmed. And how about that stained glass? That must be going to Heather's head, even if she won't admit it.

Fuck me that's a lot of money though.

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Next week, it's time for actually talking to Jan - probably about more than she was bargaining for. Let's just hope Heather keeps her teeth nice and blunt.

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