mischief and craft; plainly seen – 21.6
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Content Warnings:


Detailed discussion of age gaps in relationships.


Jan did not enjoy being dragged backwards through the membrane between worlds.

The first thing Jan did when she and I arrived back in her hotel room — well, the first thing after she stumbled out of my grip, clattered into the thankfully soft crash-mat of her messy bed, burped, made a gagging sound, and glanced at July and Sevens with weary resignation — was raise one finger, and say: “‘Scuse me a sec’, Heather. Be right back.”

She staggered over to the little bathroom and disappeared through the open door, still wearing her flak jacket and her ridiculously oversized white coat.

Then she vomited, noisily, into the toilet — more retching than actual fluid, to my ears.

She went once, then paused, heaved for breath, then went a second time; I could tell her stomach was pushing on empty, because she made that awful gut-punched wheezing sound of a bad dry-heave, abdominal muscles squeezing hard when there was nothing left inside to eject. I winced in sympathy. I knew that feeling all too well.

“Ohhhhh fuck,” Jan moaned softly, to nobody in particular. “Fuck me. Ugh.”

July called out without looking up from her video game: “Welcome back.”

Jan replied by spitting her bile into the toilet.

I turned away, pretending not to hear and resolving not to comment; we knew very well what it felt like to chuck up our guts after a Slip, even if it no longer happened that way for us, but we doubted Jan wanted me to call advice through the bathroom door when she was presumably on her knees and gripping the toilet bowl. We left her to her dignity.

Besides, we were dealing with a touch of our own reality-shock; the brain-math was echoing down through our flesh as usual, brushing us all with a ghost of the nausea we used to feel. But more importantly I had stubbornly refused to fully fold away my beautiful Outsider flesh-modifications before the Slip back to reality. I’d crammed the most egregiously inhuman pneuma-somatic elements back into my flesh — no webbing, no tail-nub, no glowing multicoloured eyes, no triple-process lungs, extra spring in my heels or edges to my teeth — but I’d held onto the chromatophores laced through my skin.

I liked being light-up. Glow in the dark. Kaleidoscopic.

But reality did not approve.

“Ahhhhhhh,” I winced through my teeth at the strange, dissociated pain, squeezing my eyes shut; my tentacles worked to brace us against the floor so our knees didn’t buckle. “Ahh! Oh, that’s … that’s … weird. Ahhh. Ow.”

Maintaining even a shadow of Homo Abyssus written upon my flesh while in reality was a biological challenge I couldn’t quite overcome — but also a temptation I couldn’t resist. My skin tingled uncomfortably, like I’d been rubbed raw with steel wool and salt; my head throbbed like my blood pressure was critically low; my insides felt empty and hollow, like a balloon had been inflated inside my guts.

“Heatherrrrr-uuuurrrkk,” went Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Suspect. “Stop. Chill out. Lights off. Lights off!”

“Okay, okay!” I hissed, my eyes still squeezed shut.

With a flicker of brain-math to fuel the instinctive pneuma-somatic flesh-modification, I allowed my chromatophore cells to fade to nothing, reabsorbed back into my underlying biology. My skin went pale-pink, back to Heather-normal, just another pasty white girl from Reading.

“Told you not to do that,” Sevens rasped. “Heatherrr.”

“I know,” I moaned. “I’m sorry, I just … I wanted to keep it going, it felt so good.”

“You will, some day. Just not right now. Don’t pass out on us. Hrrrrk.”


I sniffed to clear my running nose and wiped my watery eyes on my hoodie sleeve; at least this time I hadn’t needed to dial the other six pieces of myself back into invisibility. My tentacles rose either side of my core. We were all still here. Just a little less colourful.

Jan was running the bathroom tap, swirling water around in her mouth, and spitting it back into the sink. She kept huffing.

The hotel room was exactly as we’d left it — covered in a sea of discarded clothes, with random atolls of books and equipment poking through the tides. July was still wearing pastel pajamas and sitting exactly where she had when I’d popped over to Camelot, cross-legged on the foot of her immaculately starched bed, video game controller in her hands, television bleeping and booping away; her little anime soldiers were apparently beating each other up with sticks. Her long loose black hair was still a bit of a shock, like seeing an owl with wings outstretched.

The only difference was Sevens; she had switched from the Yellow Princess Mask to the Totally-Not-A-Vampire Blood Goblin, though without the quasi-military flavouring her father had bestowed on her earlier. Long lank black hair hung down either side of her pale little face — perhaps she wanted to match with July. Her lips were parted, showing a hint of her maw full of needle-teeth; her black-and-red eyes were like twin pools of molten rock set in obsidian; her scrawny, spider-like frame was wrapped in a black tank-top and black shorts. But she was clean, and comfortable, and perched on the end of Jan’s bed.

I hurried over to her and lowered my voice to a whisper: “Sevens. Sevens, your sister is following me.”

Sevens looked up, blinking in surprise — first one eye, then the other. “Heart?”

I glanced at July, but she didn’t look up from her game; we had no doubt that demon-quality hearing could pick up every word I was saying, regardless of how quietly I whispered or how sneaky I tried to be. The secrecy was more to spare Jan from further stress — or at least from unrelated stress; we were probably about to stress her quite a lot, on purpose, and I didn’t want her spreading that stress too thin. We had a prior claim on stressy Jan.

“In Camelot,” I whispered to Sevens. “I saw her, just once. She’s following us again.”

Sevens tilted her red-black eyes to one side, then snorted softly and nudged me in the ribs. “You’re not her type. And spoken for like six times over.”

I huffed. “Yes, I know I’m not Heart’s type, and I’m not interested anyway, she’s not my type either. But that’s not what I’m worried about! I don’t want her taking an interest in Lozzie, or anybody else. There’s some good news about Lozzie — about money, a lot of money, I don’t know if that would attract Heart’s interest?”

Sevens shook her head. “Naaaah.”

I lowered my voice even further. “We’re so close to going to Wonderland, to confronting the Eye, to everything we’ve been working for. I can’t have Heart take an interest in Lozzie, or Raine, or … I don’t know. I just can’t. We can’t have her turn into a whole thing we have to deal with, not now. Sevens, please, could you … ”

Guuurk,” went the No-Longer-So-Greasy Gremlin. “I’ll have a word with her. Sure. She’ll listen to her big sister.”

“Thank you, Sevens. Thank you.” I slipped a tentacle around her waist. “Do you think she could be following Lozzie, right now?”

Sevens grinned, showing all her needle teeth. “Naaah. Loz would scare the piss out of her.”

“Oh. Um. Okay?”

July spoke without looking up from her game: “Who is Heart?”

Jan chose that exact moment to stomp back out of the bathroom, carrying a very full glass of water, looking like she was recovering from a nasty hangover. She was still wearing her absurd layers of protection, wrapped up like a fur seal for the Arctic winter. She puffed out a huge, grumbly sigh as she paused on the little wooden entrance area to slip her pink trainers off, and accidentally spilled a slop of water on the floor.

“Bugger me backwards with biscuits brown,” she grumbled without preamble.

July replied instantly. “We can eat better than that.”

“E-excuse me?” I said.

“You know,” Jan went on, ignoring the question, “you and Lozzie do that completely differently — the dimension-hopping teleporting thing, I mean.” She stepped out of her shoes, scrunched her toes against the carpet, poured more water down her throat, then burped delicately. “Wonderfully useful, by the way. Imagine not having to pay for train tickets. Or setting a room full of equipment where you could just insta-teleport anything you needed. Sort of like what I can do with the pockets, but bigger. I do have size limits, you know. Have you ever thought of that before?”

She squinted the question at me as she chugged more water.

“Uh, no,” I said, trying to be very polite. “That is certainly an idea though.”

Jan put her glass down on the desk; it vanished amid the discarded bras, dirty t-shirts, and a pair of plaid skirts. “Right. Anyway, yeah, you and Lozzie do that totally differently. I’d almost got used to her way — but you? Ugh. Vomit-a-rama.” She smacked her lips, pulling a disgusted grimace, then dug around on the desk and found her glass again. She drained the rest of the water, swishing it around her mouth first. “Technically I can’t damage the teeth in this body, can’t get tooth decay. Stomach acid doesn’t matter. Cool hack. But.” She jabbed a finger toward me. “Lozzie told me you used to have terrible trouble with being sick every time you did that. Now I can see why. Wash your mouth out. It’ll save your teeth.”

“I know, Jan. I know,” I sighed. “I know very well. And I don’t vomit anymore when I Slip.”

Jan puffed out a big sigh. She gave me a sad puppy look with those huge sapphire eyes, twinkling softly in the artificial light. “Right. Lucky.”

“Sorry,” I said.

Jan slipped out of her massive white coat, losing about two thirds of her mass in one go, just letting the huge puffy garment puddle on the floor at her feet; the way the coat crumpled and bunched told my eyes that it must have weighed a ton. I wondered if it really was armour-plated, or filled with some kind of gel for catching bullets, or laced with magic circles and hidden spells.

With the coat off, Jan was back to her slender, petite, girlish self, the very picture of a young woman just over the cusp of adulthood. She was wearing her starch-and-smart good-girl look, a sixth-former-on-work-experience outfit: a pleated grey skirt over black tights, topped by a modest black sweater with a crisp white shirt beneath. Her bob of black hair was artfully tousled in a few places, fringe teased upward in a show of messy care.

The flak jacket spoiled the disguise, of course; that thing looked almost as heavy as the coat. Plain dark green, all webbing and pouches and inserts for ballistic plates. It stretched from Jan’s groin to her throat, every bit of it armoured.

Jan messed with the straps. The whole thing slid off and clattered to the floor. She stepped out of the remains with a shudder.

July spoke, again without looking up from her game: “Didn’t need to wear that.”

Jan stomped over to the hotel room’s tiny kitchen area. She opened the equally tiny fridge; I could see it was packed with bottles.

She said: “You never know when some stupid bastard is going to shoot at you.”

“Nobody is going to shoot at you,” said July. “This is England.”

Jan turned from the fridge, holding a big bottle of orange juice, and boggling at July. “Jule, we got shot at, in England, last week! I’ve been shot at in England! I’ve been shot in England. Fuck-ing hell.” She slammed her glass down on the little counter and poured a full measure of orange juice, drained it in one swig, then poured another. She reached back into the fridge and produced a small bottle of Tesco Value vodka.

“And Beyond?” said July. “Do they have guns out there?”

Jan slopped a slug of vodka into her orange juice. “Worse than guns. Arthurian cosplayers. Didn’t realise Lozzie’s Knights were quite so literal about it. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Could have done with a warning.”

July looked up at that one, almost surprised.

Jan returned the orange juice and vodka to the fridge, and raised her glass to the demon-host — and to us — in a silent, ironic toast. “To ballistic nylon, ceramic plates, and dodgy arms dealers offloading old suits of six-bee-three.”

She knocked back a long swallow of orange juice and vodka, then smiled at us — at me, myself, and I.

“So, you and Lozzie teleport differently,” she repeated again, more conversationally this time. “I was thinking about it while I was being sick. And I can’t put it into words very easily, because I get the sense that trying to put these things into words is a one-way ticket to vomit-town again. But when I was growing up — growing up the first time, I mean — we had this water park near where I lived. Big pool, lots of slides, that sort of thing. And there was this trio of really tall water slides, like pipes, fully enclosed.” She took another sip of vodka, ambled over to the desk, cleared off the chair with her free hand, and sat down. “And they were colour coded by how ‘extreme’ the experience would be: blue for easy, red for a bit of slip and slide and so on, and then black for you might feel a bit queasy. Lozzie is like riding down the black tube. You — Heather — you are like jumping straight from the platform into the water. Fuck the tubes. Do it raw.”

July murmured: “That’s what Lozzie said.”

Jan almost inhaled her next sip of orange juice and vodka. She spluttered. “Jule!” She gestured at me. “We’re talking to essentially Lozzie’s … best … friend?” Jan squinted at me.

“Sister,” I said. “Lozzie and I are practically sisters. Sort of. Best friend is also fine. We’re close.”

“Exactly!” Jan cleared her throat. “And no, Lozzie did not actually say that to me. We’re not— she’s not— we—”

“Jan,” I said gently. “It’s fine. Really. One of the first conversations Lozzie and I ever had was about how much sex Raine and I were having at the time.”

Jan blushed, surprisingly hard. She swigged her juice again and sat up straighter. “I wouldn’t joke about things like that, not about Lozzie.”

I raised my eyebrows. Sevens was surprised too; she gurgled a soft, inquisitive noise. July let out a tiny sigh.

We said, carefully: “Um, not that it’s what we came here to talk about — and I fully realise that you’re tying to distract me a little, Jan—”

Jan winced openly and raised her glass in a silent toast.

“—but are you saying that you and Lozzie haven’t … that you’re not … doing … ”

Jan sighed heavily, a groan in her throat. She put her glass down on the table, amid the detritus of her temporary home and bolt hole. All the amusement and light-hearted deflection went out of her expression. Only her deep blue eyes seemed alive, tossed by the deep storms of her mind.

“Heather,” she said, quite sober. “I am … several times Lozzie’s age. So, no. We’re not fucking.”

July huffed through her nose. Jan gave her a nasty frown, but July was staring at her video game.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly feeling very awkward. We drew our tentacles inward, feeling vulnerable at full extension. Sevens caught one limb and hugged it to her chest. “Uh. Sorry, Jan. I apologise.”

Jan waved down the apology. “Don’t be. You’ve nothing to be sorry for.” She smiled again, slipping the mask of a good host and a good girl back over her face; that mask slipped only slightly when she made eye contact with Sevens. “And … you, yes, hello,” Jan said.

“Hiiiiiii,” Sevens rasped.

“You’re the, uh, the one who is both … well, whatever you are now, none of my business, no offense — but also a blonde ice queen. Aren’t you?”

“This is Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” we said. “You’ve met before. More than once. You can call her Sevens.”

“Heather’s fiancée,” said Seven-Shades-of-Showing-Off. She snuggled my tentacle against her chest.

“O-oh,” Jan said, suddenly caught between two conflicting sets of social cues. Her face went through a fascinating series of contortions as she tried to select the correct expression. “Are congratulations in order?”

We sighed. “Yes, thank you. But it’s been like this for a while.”

Jan shook her head at me. “Your love-life is a nightmare, Heather. I don’t know how you do it. Most people in polycules struggle with time management, and that’s just in a trio or something.”

I smiled awkwardly. “I suppose I’m reasonably good at that?”

“Mm.” Jan’s smile looked brittle, at risk of breaking off her face. “So … ‘Sevens’, how many more … ‘outfits’, do you have? I haven’t … uh … run into you before, have I? Wearing some other face?” She raised a hand quickly. “Please, please do not tell me what you are. Spare me.”

“Not I,” Sevens croaked. “No worries.”

Jan nodded, apparently quite relieved. She picked up her glass again and gestured at both Sevens and me. “Do you want a drink, by the way? I’m not above sharing.”

I shook my head. “No thank you, Jan. I’ve got an empty stomach. And I don’t really hold alcohol very well. I’ve only drunk once before. I mean, drunk seriously.”

Jan laughed softly. “Of course. And what about you?” She gestured at Sevens. “Do you drink anything other than blood?”

“Yes,” Sevens rasped. “But nah, thanks.”

“Guess I’m the only one drinking, then,” said Jan. She sipped her vodka, put it back down, and then set about removing her black sweater. She pulled the garment off over her head and discarded it on the floor, then rolled up the crisp white sleeves of her shirt, untucked the hem from her pleated black skirt, and leaned back in her chair.

To our collective surprise, she made absolutely no effort to conceal the doll-like joints at her elbows and wrists; they weren’t always visible, not unless one was looking directly at them and knew what to look for. But there they were, smooth and solid, part of her flesh one moment, gone the next, covered over by soft, human skin.

Top-Right wanted to touch, to investigate, to feel how Jan achieved it; the rest of us reeled in that impulse. It was inappropriate, at least right then.

Jan gestured at her bed, at the spare chairs, and at the little kitchen area.

“Anyway, make yourselves at home, please,” she said. “Sit down, don’t stand on ceremony. If we’re going to talk about awkward shit then you may as well be comfortable.” She pointed at the odd new appliance on the counter-top, the one with the little glass window in the front. “Do you want to try the air fryer? It’s so good. Lozzie turned me onto it, actually. Throw some chicken strips in there for a few minutes and — mwah!” She kissed her fingertips.

I started to ease myself down onto the bed, next to Sevens, but then I thought better of it. This wasn’t, in the end, a social call. We needed a certain level of formality.

We walked over to the little table instead, beneath the heavily curtained window with its rim of almost-faded evening glow. Jan reached forward to clear her junk off a second chair for me, then gestured with exaggerated politeness. I sat down and smiled at her, but I could see the tension so carefully concealed behind those storm-tossed eyes.

Sevens trailed along behind me, holding onto a tentacle; July didn’t even bother to glance at us.

“Actually, yes,” I said softly. “I’ve been out all day and now you mention food I’m quite hungry. Shall we eat?”

Jan laughed and sighed, a little too casual, a little too relaxed, the sociable con-woman mask contorting her features into a parody of ease. “Dinner together, huh? You did that the last time you came here, too. I’ve also been out most of the day, so, sure, why not? Do you want—”

“Do you have anything with lemon in it?” I asked.

Jan blinked. “Uh. Not that I know of? I was going to say would you like a takeaway. I’m not up for going and fetching it — and I assume you aren’t either, July?”

“I’m busy,” said July. She was making the figures on the telly screen run across little squares of terrain and hit each other with sticks.

Jan shrugged. “So we can order a delivery. Unless … ?” Jan tilted her head. “Unless you fancy using that teleportation power as a labour-saving device?”

I sighed, but I smiled. “Teleporting into the middle of the street — even a quiet street — is far too dangerous.”

“Ah, right, yes. Might upset somebody?”


Jan produced a slender pink mobile phone from a pocket in her skirt. She pulled up the online order form for a restaurant who’s colour scheme was several clashing, blinding shades of bright yellow and green. Her fingers flew over the keypad, picking out dishes.

She said, “July and I have been exploring the menu of this one Jamaican place over on West Ormond Street. ‘The Veiny Rooster’. Terrible name. Run by this old woman who speaks nothing but French — not sure if she’s really Jamaican, but the food is incredible. What do you fancy?”

“Sorry, pardon,” I said. “The what? The Veiny Rooster?”

Jan looked up and gave me a flat stare.

Sevens gurgled: “Gurrlk. Heather sometimes misses things.”

Jan laughed once and shook her head. “You can say that again. Heather, the name is a dirty joke. Think about it for a moment.”

We blinked three times, then we got it — starting with Bottom Left, then running up all the rest of us until we curled inward, and I pulled a sceptical face. “No! Surely not? How can they name a public business after a … a dick joke?”

Jan said, “For somebody covered in tentacles and fighting mages on a regular basis, you are hilariously innocent sometimes. Do you know that?”

I pouted, rather put off. Sevens giggled and gently bit my tentacle, teasing the flesh without breaking the skin.

Jan put in the order: Caribbean Lemon Chicken for me, Oxtail and Beans for her, Run Dun for July — which was apparently some kind of fish thing — and a side of Fried Plantain for Sevens, after checking that Sevens did actually consume solid food rather than a diet of pure blood. Jan added four bottles of Red Stripe beer to the order, even when I politely declined any alcohol, for a second time. All for her, apparently. She also ordered a small loaf of Jamaican banana bread and something called ‘bammy’, for Lozzie, for when she inevitably joined us later.

While she was doing that, we made a conscious effort to relax. I was still carrying my squid-skull mask, so I put it down on Jan’s bed, next to the manuscript that Heart had produced for us. Sevens perched on July’s bed, within reach of my tentacles, so she could hug us but give us space at the same time.

“There,” Jan said, sweeping the table clear with one arm. She carefully relocated her laptop, then placed her phone down in full view on the cleared tabletop, so we could all see the order tracker. “Twenty seven minutes ‘til delivery. Guess they’re sort of busy. Trust me, the place is worth it.”

Jan smiled, perfectly oily and presentable, her used-car saleswoman look glued to her skull. I smiled back as best I could.

Was this all a stalling tactic? Sevens was purring softly into my tentacle; surely she would have said something if she thought Jan was trying to put us off.

To my surprise, Jan broke first.

“Sooooo,” she said, staring at me across the no-man’s-land of the table. “How civilized is this gonna be? Are we going to eat first, then talk business? Or is this more of a shakedown?”

I sighed heavily and rubbed my eyes. “Jan, it’s not a shakedown. You’re our friend and ally, whatever you are otherwise. You decided to protect Lozzie, not sell us out to Edward. And you stood with us when we went after him. I know you have your own business going on, a home to go back to and all that, but … you’re one of us if you want to be.”

Jan huffed a humourless laugh. “Oh, yes, wonderful. The experienced elder on the edge of the protagonist group, ready to die heroically to prove a point and move the story forward? I don’t fancy being Obi-Wan, not to you, or to Lozzie. Sorry. Not interested in dying.”

My smile turned painful. “Jan, that’s not … not going to happen. And who’s Obi-Wan?”

Jan boggled at me, blue-fire eyes gone wide. Then she looked at Sevens. Sevens nodded and Jan burst out laughing.

“Are you serious?” Jan laughed at me. “Obi-Wan? Star Wars? I gather you didn’t have a normal upbringing, but holy shit.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “I didn’t watch a lot of movies while growing up, no. Star Wars, okay. The ‘I have the high ground’ guy? Him? Praem showed me that picture.”

Jan leaned back, her sudden dark melancholy lifted by my cluelessness. “Yeah. Yeah, him, let’s go with that, sure.” Jan held up a hand in grudging apology. “Look, Heather, I just … you lot are into some heavy, heavy stuff. It frightens me. I’m already trying to dodge more than I like to talk about. You know? It’s a lot to think about. And I have to be careful what I run into.”

In a subconscious motion she could not control, even with her expert mastery of the con-woman’s art, Jan’s stormy eyes flickered sideways — to the guitar case propped up against the wall, the case that did not contain a guitar, but held her unexplained sword.

“Why don’t we just be normal?” I asked.

Jan looked back at me. “Eh?”

“As in, okay, I’m seven squid girls crammed into a body that I can adjust at will, and you’re a doll and a mage avoiding some terrible fate. But right now we’re just a pair of girls in a hotel room, about to have some food together. And you’re dating one of my best friends. Can’t we just … talk about normal stuff? It can’t be all crisis all the time, can it?”

Jan gave me a pitying, sceptical look. “This lifestyle makes it hard to think about much else.”

I sighed, but with a smile. “How was your date with Lozzie?”

July said, “Not a date.”

Jan laughed, genuine happiness peeking through from her depths. “The actual date part was great, thank you — and yes, Jule, it was a date. We went shopping together. Tried on a bunch of clothes. Lozzie can make almost any outfit look good, you know?”

“I never see her in anything but the poncho, these days,” I said.

“Sundress, pleated skirts, tank tops, the lot. She’s got so much energy. She bought me a pack of rainbow coloured tights and a tie-dye sweater.” Jan snorted. “Not my usual style, way too conspicuous; I don’t like people to notice me. But … for her, maybe. We’ll see. But, uh, the date itself got rather overshadowed by all … all that stuff. With the lawyer. And the money.”

“The money,” I echoed, taking a deep breath and nodding. “Gosh, yes. I haven’t quite taken that all in yet.”

“Hey, good for her,” Jan said. “She deserves some real help in life.” She cleared her throat awkwardly and looked at the curtain, as if trying to look out of the window. “I ,uh, I need to be kept away from all that, by the way.”

“ … the money?”

“The decisions about the money, the legal stuff about Lozzie, all of it.” She clamped her lips shut, staring at the curtain, then glanced back at me — testing to see if I understood.

“Because … you might … exploit it?”

“No!” Jan tutted. “No, exactly. I won’t. I don’t want to. But I can’t be seen to be anywhere near those decisions. Heather, you get what I’m trying to tell you, right?”

I shook my head, mystified. “Are you cursed to lose money or something?”

July snorted a single laugh.

Jan slapped her own thigh for emphasis. “Heather. I am a professional con-woman. I would never try to con Lozzie out of her inheritance. But if something was to go wrong, and I was anywhere near it, with any kind of power or control or influence?” She shook her head, suddenly sad. “The suspicion would hurt Lozzie. Potentially very badly. So, you have your meetings with the lawyer. Have Lozzie sort all this out. But … when she tries to pull me along to help, I need to not be involved. For her sake.”

We bit our lower lip and frowned hard, thinking harder. We’d never dealt with any of the issues surrounding that kind of money before, the kind of impact it could have on people’s lives, the way it could change those lives. Jan clearly had.

She went on: “And you need to be really careful with who you tell. I’ve tried to impress that upon Lozzie, myself, but … you just need to be careful. Yes, she can help her friends, you lot, whatever, but you need to be very cautious about who actually knows the figures involved, where the resources are coming from. Those kinds of sums can warp perception.”

I nodded, composing my face for sombre seriousness. “Evelyn has some experience with that problem. I think.”

Jan raised her eyebrows. “Ahhhh yes. Evelyn Saye, rich girl. I forgot she’s kind of bourgeois. Yes, tell her — then she can help Lozzie.”

I blinked in surprise. “You trust Evee, just like that?”

Jan shrugged. “She’s an incredibly powerful mage who has every reason to become a monster. But she hasn’t. So, yes. However terrifying I think she is, I trust Evelyn Saye a hell of a lot further than I could throw her. Or than July could throw her. That makes more sense.”

“Thank you, Jan. Thank you for the advice.”

Jan sighed and waved the gratitude away, as if she wanted to stop thinking about this subject. “That castle, though. Bloody hell. That place.”

“Oh, I know, right?” I said, laughing along with her.

Jan finally lit up again. “I mean, yes, I saw it from the outside — uh, no pun intended — when we all went to deal with Edward. But bloody hell. What is even going on there? They’ve got stained glass windows of you. An actual bloody round table. I mean, yes, I asked Lozzie what was going on, and I got answers. Sort of. But blow me down. I almost panicked when I saw all that.”

To my surprise, Jan glanced at her sword-case again. Quickly this time, then away, as if realising her error a moment too late.

“Jan … ?”

“A-anyway,” she recovered quickly. “I was thinking—”

But before Jan could complete her save and continue sprinting down the field, July paused her video game, set her controller in her lap, reached over from the bed to the guitar case, undid the clasps in one smooth motion, and eased the lid open. She held it there for Jan’s inspection.

The sword lay there, exposed.

Jan sighed heavily and ran a hand over her face. But then she stared at the sword, the plain steel blade and unadorned hilt lying on a bed of old clothes, bits of tarpaulin, and plastic bags.

“Still there,” said July.

“Yes, fine,” Jan huffed. “Still there. Not that I doubted it. Thank you, Jule. Put it away, please.”

July closed and sealed the lid, then went back to her video game, as if none of that had just happened.

Jan raised her eyes from the guitar case and looked at me, as if waiting for us to say something. We looked back at her and smiled, feeling exceptionally awkward, as if we’d just caught a glimpse of her underwear drawer — though considering the clothes strewn around her hotel room, she wasn’t exactly shy about her knickers.

I opened my mouth to change the subject.

“Don’t,” said Jan. “Please don’t ask about the fucking sword.”

“ … well, I wasn’t going to. But now I’m curious — why can’t I ask?”

Jan knuckled her eyes. “Because if I tell you, that puts you in additional danger, which in turn puts Lozzie in additional danger.”

I tried to laugh, but it came out as a weird little puff. “We’re used to danger, Jan.” Then I blinked. “Oh, gosh, did I really just say that? I sound like a super-spy in a silly movie. I sound like Raine. Gosh.” I put one tentacle-tip over my mouth.

Jan suddenly looked very exhausted, half-slumped in her chair. “Not this kind of danger.”

“Worse than the Eye?”

Jan met my gaze, flat and level. Her eyes were the colour of lightning on seawater. “By certain measurements, sure. Look, Heather, this is the sort of thing where if you know the concepts, or if you say them out loud, you risk summoning attention. It’s why I don’t touch the sword. It’s why that … that dream-place we went, with Lozzie, it’s why something followed me there. The less you know, the better.” She shook her head. “But I won’t go into detail. I’m sorry.”

Sevens raised her face from nuzzling my tentacles, and gurgled deep down in her throat: “The general has a checkered past.”

Jan winced as if hit with an electric shock. “Don’t call me that.”

“Sorry, General.”

Jan showed her teeth in a frustrated hiss. “Are you certain you’ve not met me before, Sevens?”

Sevens nodded. “Sorry. I know lots of things. Just by looking at a person, sometimes. If they’re relevant to my skills. My old genres. Urrrrk.

Jan flinched slightly at Sevens’ weird little rasp. Then she pointed a finger at the blood goblin, caution overcoming her fear. “Then you know better than to talk about any of it out loud.”

“Actually I don’t, sorry-eeeurk,” went Sevens. “No context.”

Jan sighed. “Just don’t call me General. That’s good enough. The rest is need-to-know. And you don’t need.”

I squinted in growing confusion and curiosity. “Were you really a General, at some point?”

Jan laughed. “You mean was I in the army? God, no. Can you imagine me, in the army? Taking orders, or barking orders myself? All that spick-and-span bullshit. Absolutely not. No.”

Jan leaned back with a big sigh and a shake of her head. I puffed out a sigh too, feeling a bit out of my depth.

“You’re a very mysterious woman, Jan,” I said.

Jan stood up and stretched her back, making vertebrae pop; I privately wondered if her doll-body actually had individual vertebrae, in simulation of a human spine. She was still making no effort to conceal the doll-joint seams at her wrists and elbows, nor the faint line around the base of her skull, where her head was attached to her body. I wondered if Maisie’s new body would be like that, once she was rescued, returned, and complete. That was one thing we needed to talk about. I opened my mouth to ask what I thought was going to be the easiest of the three questions I had for Jan — but then Jan stepped away from the table and fell face-down onto her own messy nest of a bed.

For a split-second I thought she’d passed out; I almost shot out of my chair to scoop her up. But July didn’t even blink.

Then Jan said, face pressed into her blankets: “I’m not mysterious, Heather. I’m just … old.” She turned her head and looked at me. For one moment she looked exactly like a teenage girl, feeling forlorn, slumped on her bed in a low moment. She didn’t look old at all. “I’m an old monster, trying to avoid progressing any further down a very nasty quest chain. That’s all.”

I blinked. “Quest-chain? Pardon?”

Sevens snorted a wet laugh.

Jan laughed too, but she wasn’t amused. “You really are slow on the uptake sometimes. Look, Heather, you’ve seen a little bit of what I am. In that bloody dream. I’m not mysterious, I’m just something old and semi-forgotten, and I should probably remain forgotten.” She rolled onto her back on the bed, then sat up, legs sticking out straight, leaning backward on her own arms. “I worry that I’m not actually a very safe person for Lozzie to know. Let alone … oh, blast it, the relationship is already doomed.”

“Jan,” I said. “Don’t say that. You really care about Lozzie, don’t you?”

She looked down at her lap, at her pleated black skirt, suddenly very sad. “I feel like I’m playing at really being what I look like. As if I’ve even convinced myself it’s what I really am.”

“Jan!” I almost snapped.

She shook her head. “Besides, Lozzie and I have known each other for a couple of months. That’s still in the whirlwind romance stage. If you can even call it a romance.” She snorted, full of self-derision.


She finally looked up at me again. “Wh- oh … H-Heather?”

We were flaring our tentacles outward, making ourselves big, wide, strobing the pneuma-somatic flesh with deep rainbow waves. And frowning at Jan.

“Heather?” she repeated.

“Would you say the same thing about me?” I asked. “Would you call me ‘playing at being what I look like’?”

Jan stared for a heartbeat longer, then laughed softly. “Heather, I don’t mean I’m faking being a woman because I’m trans. I mean I look much, much younger than I really am.”

“O-oh,” we said. “Oh.” We lowered our tentacles.

She swallowed, a ghost of real pain crossing her face. “When I’m with Lozzie, sometimes I feel like a dirty old woman. You wouldn’t get it. You’re, what, twenty?”

“Uh, yes. Twenty years old.”

Jan shifted her sitting position on the bed, going cross-legged and hunched-up. “The perils of a real gap in age.”

“Uh … yes.” I had no idea what to say. This was vastly beyond my wheelhouse.

Or was it? I was in a relationship with Sevens, right here, and she was older than me by some factor I couldn’t even comprehend. And how old was Zheng? Almost a thousand years. Suddenly, with a burst of confidence, I felt I might be able to help.

Jan was already saying: “You’re right, in a way. I do care about Lozzie, very much. She’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. She’s … everything I always admired, aspired to myself. And she’s a genius; I don’t know if anybody else really understands that, but she’s achieved feats that I spent decades trying to figure out. Tenny — Tenny is a miracle. A miracle child. Any mage who achieved that would have pulled her apart just to understand, but Lozzie, oh no. Lozzie’s raising her. I mean, that’s beautiful. And I don’t want to hurt her. And I didn’t make a move on her, either. I didn’t … I didn’t even say anything. She just showed this interest in me … this … and I can’t … I can’t—”

“Jan,” we said, slowly and carefully. “There’s no power imbalance, between you and Lozzie.”

Jan snorted a laugh. “Heather.”

“No, I’m serious. I don’t know a lot about this sort of thing. My upbringing and my parents didn’t really prepare me for relationship issues, but … the problem with gaps in age is exploitation, isn’t it? Power differentials, social or economic or … or other things, I guess. And you don’t have any of that over Lozzie. Frankly, I suspect she’s considerably more ‘powerful’ than you.”

Jan gave me an unimpressed, level stare. “How would you feel about me dating Lozzie if I looked my actual age? Hm? What then? I think you would find it disgusting, Heather. I think you would find me disgusting.”

I frowned. “Lozzie is an adult. Both literally and legally. And she’s a darn-sight more mature than she pretends to be. You’re both consenting adults, don’t equate that with something it’s not.”

Jan stared at me. I knew what she was waiting for.

I huffed. “All right, Jan. All right. How old are you?”

Jan smiled, thin and sarcastic. “Don’t you know never to ask a woman her age?”

I tutted and slapped the table with a tentacle. “That is a stupid cliché and you know it. You wanted me to ask!”

Jan’s smile turned self-conscious. She looked down into her lap, then up at me again.

She said: “I was born in 1965.”

“ … oh, um.” I blinked several times.

Jan snorted. “Not what you were expecting, was it?”

“Um.” I struggled to gather myself. We did some quick mathematics — of the normal kind — inside our combined heads. I was never very good at maths, growing up, but having six other processing centres inside our combined body did make for some rapid calculations. “So you’re … fifty four years old?”

Jan smiled, sardonic and sad. “Fifty three, actually. My birthday is on December 12th.”

“Oh. Well. That’s not … that … ”

“If I’d said ‘one hundred and fifty three’ you would have thought it was cool, wouldn’t you?” Jan smiled a sarcastic smile. “A hundred and thirty. Even just one hundred. Then the number would be meaningless, I would be beyond normal human constraints. This face,” she said, waggling her hands and fluttering her eyelashes, “can’t possibly be one hundred and fifty years old. Why, she’s more like an elf, so it’s absolutely okay if she’s fucking an eighteen year old.”

“Jan, that’s not—”

“But it’s not okay,” she said, all the fake amusement gone. “I’m just fifty three. A dirty old woman. It’s one thing to use my body and my looks to go unnoticed and overlooked by society, it’s quite another to use it for … this.”

“Oh, Jan. That’s not what I meant.”

Jan waved me off. She stared at the bed-covers for a long moment. I struggled to find the right thing to say — maybe there wasn’t a right thing to say in this situation. Maybe she was correct? Maybe this was more about her self-perception than any social norms or the concerns of safety and exploitation in an intimate relationship.

But this all seemed so silly.

“Jan,” I said, eventually. “The idea that you could exploit, or browbeat, or manipulate Lozzie into anything is just ridiculous. You don’t have more power than her, in any way.”

Jan said without looking up: “I have more life experience. Sometimes that’s all which matters.”

“Sevens is much older than me,” we said, gesturing at Seven-Shades-of-Secret-Centuries. “Much older.”

Jan looked up from her bed-covers and gave Sevens and me an unimpressed look. “Oh yeah? By how much? A thousand years? Nine thousand years?”

Sevens gurgled. “Time works different for us.”

“Yes.” Jan tutted. “Exactly. Sure, you’re nine thousand years old, but you’re a vampire, or an elf, or an alien, or some other bullshit. So you’re effectively like twenty five or something? I’m right, aren’t I?”

Sevens gurgled softly. I winced slowly; wrong tactic, wrong angle. Oops.

Jan went on. “But me? I was born a human being. I’m still a human being, technically, even if I’m in a new body. So inside, I am a fifty three year old woman.” She snorted. “Except with no aches and pains, none of the problems of growing older. That’s a major plus, at least.”

We cleared our throat gently. “And how long have you been in that body?”

“Twenty five years. So then,” she said with a very fake and oily smile, “I would be a twenty five year old fucking an eighteen year old. Slightly better. But not good, Heather. Not good.”

I tried to smile, but I couldn’t. Jan was set on this, harder than I’d expected.

“Lozzie knows all this,” we said. “You’re not deceiving her.”

“Yeah,” Jan snorted. “And an eighteen year old girl dating a twenty five year old still knows the same thing. Fuck’s sake, Heather. Besides, all this is secondary to the real point. Knowing me is a risk, getting close to me is a bigger risk. I put Lozzie at risk just by being here.”

I frowned and sat up straighter in my chair. “Jan, you’ll hurt her much worse if you just disappear from her life. She likes you, a lot.”

“Lozzie likes a lot of people. She doesn’t need me.”

“You don’t know that! Jan, don’t just disappear.”

Jan swallowed, suddenly guilty. She looked away, eyes gone dark like storm-tainted skies. Bullseye. I’d finally scored a hit there — but I wasn’t sure I’d wanted to. What the hell was I trying to do, anyway? Convince her to keep going with a relationship that made her feel like she was doing something wrong? In a way this wasn’t our business, we just didn’t like Jan bad-mouthing herself when she’d done nothing to deserve it.

But then she said: “Too late for that. Sorry.”

We blinked. “Pardon?”

July paused her video game and looked around as well, surprise showing in her wide, owlish eyes. “Jan,” she said.

Jan cleared her throat and looked down into her lap.

“Jan,” repeated July.

“Um,” we said. The tension in the room made us want to retreat into a dark hole.

Sevens gurgled: “Told her a truth, huh?”

“Jan,” said July, a third time.

Jan closed her eyes and sighed. “Yes. Okay. Yes, I told Lozzie where I really live.”

July stared and stared and stared, like a bird of prey confronted by a competing predator. “But you didn’t give her an exact address to—”

“I took her there,” said Jan.

July looked about ready to unsheathe her claws and open Jan’s belly. Jan opened her eyes and stared at a spot on the wall.

“Well,” she said, “Lozzie took me there, really. We teleported. I showed her around the house, around the garden. I just wanted somebody to … come visit. It was nice. So now she knows where I live, and I can’t take that back. I’m really sorry, Heather.”

“Uh,” we said. “D-don’t be. I mean, Lozzie likes you, as I keep saying—”

“And I told her my real name.” Jan was shaking slightly.

“Jan,” said July — in a tone like an ice-rimed razor-blade.

Jan turned on her demon-host sister. “Nothing happened! Okay? And I didn’t speak it out loud, I wrote it down. Then we burned the paper and threw the ashes in the sea. It’s fine!”

July just stared. Jan stared back. I had the sudden burning desire to not be in this room with them.

July opened her mouth — but Jan got there first.

“I made her promise never to say it out loud. Jule, it’s fine! Fucking hell.” Jan sniffed. “I just wanted to tell somebody. I wanted her to know me. Alright? Can I have that, this once? She’s never going to speak it. She’s never even going to think it. And nothing’s happened! All day, nothing has happened to me. I did it right. I did it safely. Stop glaring at me like that.”

July relented; she didn’t actually look away, her glare did not lose intensity in any way I could detect, but Jan took a deep breath, sighed, and nodded.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

July said: “Vigilance.”

“Yes, yes,” Jan hissed. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her white shirt. “I know. Nothing’s happened. We’re safe. And why are you so bothered, Jule? You’re always mocking me for being so cautious of real danger — like getting shot. Why are you so worried?”

“Can’t protect you.”

Jan shook her head. “Love you, Jule. But it’s fine. We’re safe.” Jan turned back to me. Her eyes were a little red, but she put a lot of effort into recomposing herself. She took a deep breath and sat up straighter, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “I’m sorry you had to hear all that, Heather, Sevens. My life is sometimes very complicated. But I promise, I haven’t put Lozzie in any danger. I just wanted her to know me. That’s all.”

I smiled back as best I could, vastly out of our depth — and we could dive pretty deep, at times. Jan was contradicting herself so fast it made the world spin: was Lozzie safe because they had been careful, or in danger from just knowing Jan? Our combined minds were whirring ahead of our mouth.

“It’s all right, Jan,” we said. “We did come here to talk about the cultists, and Mister Joking, and Maisie’s body—”

“Yes!” Jan said quickly, perking up. “Yes, we will. And I’ve got notes and a design document to show you, and—”

“But,” I said, firmly but softly, then paused to wet my lips before I dived onward. “Jan … are you—”

The mysterious sword locked in a guitar case; Jan’s personal surprise and discomfort at the Arthurian themes of Lozzie’s Knights; the hidden secret real name; the danger of otherworldly attention; the suit of armour she’d turned up wearing inside the dream. All of it came together in one of the stupidest questions I’d ever allowed to pass my lips. But I had to ask — because in a few weeks, I might be dead, on the black ash of Wonderland, and then I’d never get an answer.

Jan’s eyes went wide. “Don’t say—”

“Are you like, the reincarnation of King Arthur, or something? Is that Excalibur in the guitar case?” I cleared my throat. “Sorry, I figured it was okay to say ‘King Arthur’, since you said ‘Arthurian’ earlier on. And that would be a strange word to never say, it’s a common enough name. Um.”

Jan was staring at me — with her panic gone, unimpressed and tired.

“No,” she said, in a tone of being absolutely done with my shit. “I’m not King Arthur, Heather.”

“Sorry, um, it just seemed—”

“Come on. That’s completely ridiculous.” She huffed and stood up, then ran her hands through her black bob of hair and spread her arms in a big shrug. “I’m not King Arthur. I’m not a reincarnation of King Arthur — partly because he never existed. If he did, he certainly wasn’t a King. He would have been some post-Roman Brittonic nobleman. Probably stank of horse dung and spoke Latin. So, no. I’m not King Arthur, I’m not.”

“Okay, I—”

“I’m not a reincarnation, or a descendant, or an off-shoot of a family tree. I’m not King Arthur summoned from the depths of history by a mage. We’re not living in a fucking visual novel.”

I blinked. “What? Sorry, pardon? What’s a visual—”

“Bottom line,” Jan said. “No. I’m not any of those things.”

A lie lurked inside her words, a worm deep in the flesh of an apple; but she was trying to convince herself as much as me. I just didn’t know which part of it was a lie, or why.

Perhaps something in the colour of my tentacles or a slip of micro-expression on my face gave away that I knew, because Jan paused in her tirade, blinked, and waited as if for me to call her out.

But I said nothing; if this really was dangerous, I didn’t want to provoke whatever forces Jan wished to avoid. I could respect that, at least.

But she said nothing either.

The silence stretched on, more and more awkward with every second. July did not help. Sevens gurgled softly, apparently having a wonderful time as our peanut gallery. I tightened my grip on her waist.

Eventually, I said: “You’re not King Arthur. In any way, shape, or form. Got it. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

Jan swallowed. She tilted her head to one side. “Well—”

A flowing figure in brilliant white and shining silver stepped out of the bathroom, smart heels clicking on the hotel room’s wooden entrance area, glowing with pearlescent aura; all heads turned in shock, eyes gone wide at this impossible intruder.

It was Heart.

Following us after all.

She was wearing the military uniform the King in Yellow had designed for her, sharp and smart and soft and slithering all at the same time, a stunning display of statuesque femininity striding the first few steps into the room.

She was enraptured — by Jan.

Her yellow-gold eyes were glued to the doll-mage, gone wide and staring with disbelief; her lips were parted in breathless awe; her cheeks were bright red with uncontrollable blush. She was panting. The fingers of one gloved hand trembled at her lips, as if she couldn’t believe what she was looking at.

July shot to her feet, a steel cable in motion — going for the guitar case; Jan turned, staring at the Yellow Princess in shock and horror. Sevens shot forward too, trying to say: “It’s my sister! It’s my sister!” I yelped too, “Heart!”

But somehow, over the din of voices and the whirl of motion, we all heard Heart’s aching words.

“Where have you been all my life, you absolute snack?”


Jan has an interesting dilemma, doesn't she? She's a lot more responsible than she would like to be. I'm sure she'd enjoy nothing better right now than to wash her hands of this lot entirely, except for perhaps Lozzie. But she can't help but want to help. King (Queen) Arthur or not, carrying a cursed sword or not, at least she's taking this seriously. But, uh oh! So is Heart! And Heather really should have expected this. Whoopsie.

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Next week, it is time to fend off an unwanted admirer, eat some Jamaican food, and finally wrangle some intel out of Miss Jan 'Artoria' Martense.