Mabel offered no further elaboration on what she had said by the river, and Allison doubted she’d have much luck if she hounded her about it. Allison suspected she might have more luck if she continued hanging out with Mabel and Maelstrom in their creepy barn, even though this required warding off thoughts about lions lurking in the shadows.
To be fair, Mabel did make a concerted effort to put Allison at ease in the week that followed. She refrained entirely from blood sports, and mostly animated pictures of aliens and monsters. They were gross-looking, and therefore evil1, and thus it didn’t matter what they did to them. Even Allison couldn’t fault her logic there.
Monsters aside, they also had a lot of fun fiddling with her armoury of fictional gadgets, though they failed to tempt anyone into trying the food-pills. They all agreed that Haunt letting them drop one down his intangible throat didn’t count.
One side-effect of Mabel opening back up to Allison and Arnold—apparently they were a package deal—was that they were inextricably drawn into the sordid business that was the Watercolours. Neither was sure what to make of this development. Although Allison was considering proposing a vote to change their name to “The Watercolours and Their Orchestra.”
Regardless of their current name, the Watercolours were in the midst of a crisis, or at least Mabel seemed to think so. She stomped around the barn, agitated. Delicately painted ravens circled her head, cawing balefully.
“Do you think we’re getting stale?” Mabel asked anyone who was listening, whether that meant the other children in the barn, the ghost of the property’s original owner2, or God.
As it happened, this did not include Allison. She was too busy trying out Maelstrom’s personal brand of shapeshifting for the first time. She’d hesitated for ages, mostly out of an irrational—if anything about her power was more irrational than the rest—fear that she wouldn’t be able to change back if she did.
It was without doubt the most alien sensation she had ever experienced. Unless she consciously willed her body to move, it remained as still as if she were an actual ice sculpture. When she deigned to move, it wasn’t through any exertion of her musculature or nervous system, for in that state she possessed neither. Her physical form was merely another mass of water for her to play with, no different from the humidity in the air, or the liquid in her friends’ bodies.
Disconnected from her body as she was, her senses were also completely unrestrained. She could see herself lying on a loose pile of hay, staring at her own translucent hand, as though she were floating just above herself. It was like was watching a film; one which allowed her to change the angle of the shot on a whim. Without moving her head an inch, she could simultaneously see Arnold in the far corner of the barn, sitting on a rusted out tractor and occasionally making engine noises, and Maelstrom, dangling his legs off the hayloft while he pondered the way forward for the Watercolours.
If Allison were a little older or just more philosophically inclined, it might have occurred to her that Maelstrom and his mother’s powers were the greatest proof for metaphysical dualism ever discovered. As it was, she was more interested in how effortlessly she could crush stones in her grip. Ice was surprisingly strong when you could telekinetically keep it from melting.
“Maybe we need to take a break for a while,” suggested Maelstrom, as gently as possible. “Recharge our batteries a bit?”
Mabel kicked the dirt like it had personally offended her. The crows’ flight patterns became more erratic. “We’ll lose our audience if we go too long without a performance!”
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Arnold from his tractor, “does Lawrence pay you at all for this? And if he does, where’s my and Allison’s cut?”
Mabel sniffed indignantly. “We do it for the craft.”
“The craft of using your magic powers to make spaceships fight over the house?”
She turned her nose up, eyes closed. “When you put it that way… still yes.”
He rolled his eyes and jumped down from the tractor. “Maybe the reason you’re having trouble thinking up new acts is because you’re bored.”
Maelstrom dropped down from the hayloft, his ice-state preventing any injury, apart from some easily remedied shattering. “What do you mean?” he asked once he was back in one piece, as innocently as possible.
Arnold started pacing. “You guys watch movies, right?”
“Course we do. Basilisk loves mucking around with the projector—well—having a kid muck around with it for him,” said Mabel.
“And sometimes the teachers take us to the cinema in town3,” added Maelstrom.
Arnold himself had only been to the cinema three times. Two of those occasions had been with the Kinseys—Allison having successfully pestered her parents to let him tag along4—but once the elder Barnes did manage to scrape together the money and time to take him to Harvey Drive-In themselves. He could still remember that night. The soundtrack of some B-movie rubbish filling their clapped out Ford, his father laughing at how his mother covered his eyes whenever anything she deemed inappropriate appeared on the screen.
“Ange, don’t tell me you think anyone could ever mistake that for actual, proper violence!” his father had had said while Kieron Moore tried in vain to convince the audience he was struggling to keep triffids from battering down his door.
“It’s trying to be, that’s all that matters,” she had replied tersely.
What his father hadn’t noticed was the convenient gap between his wife’s fingers.
Arnold smiled at the memory. It was either that or burst into tears. He pulled sharply back into the present by one of Mabel’s ravens cawing into his ear. “Aauugh!”
“Sorry,” said Mabel, allowing the raven to alight on her shoulder. “You kinda spaced out there for a sec.”
His face went scarlet.
Mabel smiled, with a little more kindness than Arnold had come to expect from her. “Don’t be embarrassed. Happens to most kids ‘round here. Try talking about baked potatoes where Brit can hear ya.”
“Or don’t. Because that would be awful,” said Maelstrom, very seriously.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Arnold, trying to steer the conversation back towards him sounding clever and insightful. Or at least he hoped that was where it was headed. “What I’m saying is, maybe people would be more into your stuff if it, like, had stories. Real stories. Not just people on a boat screaming and kissing each other before they sink.”
“But Lawrence liked that one,” complained Maelstrom.
“He’s your teacher. Might as well be your granddad,” Arnold retorted, not a little wearily. “He likes all your stuff because you did it, not because he likes the stuff.”
Maelstrom’s lip started trembling. Arnold rubbed his neck. “Hey, mate, I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, Lawrence loves you two too much to be…” As he searched for the right word, Arnold realised how much he envied the vast, stolen vocabulary of the ice statue lying on the haypile.
“Objective?” Maelstrom mercifully offered.
“Yeah, that,” said Arnold. A thought struck him. “Also, he might love our powers too much to not be impressed? Like, you know those stories about explorers in Africa showing savages matches and stuff for the first time?”
Mabel glared at him, backed up by the gaze of her pretend flock. Maelstrom didn’t seem all that impressed, either.
“Oh… Sorry, mate, I wasn’t talking about—”
“I was born here,” was all Maelstrom had to say about that.
Inadvisable though it was, Arnold stayed the course. “So, those… natives, were really impressed, right? But if the explorers went home to London or wherever, gotten up on stage and lit some cigarettes expecting people to be impressed, they’d be laughed all the way back to Africa.”
Mabel snorted. “Unless every match does something completely different, and nobody has the same ones, that’s nothing like us.”
Arnold pinched the bridge of his nose, a habit picked up from his mother. “Yeah, but they’ve seen you light a whole factory’s worth of fags. And Lawrence can’t even buy a pack. Or maybe he was born without hands.”
Mabel nudged Maelstrom. “Better pay attention, Maelstrom, master storyteller here.”
“What I’m saying is, you’ve shown everyone you can make sets and people. Now you need to do something with them. Maybe Shakespeare. Everyone will think you’re smart. Might even want to join in.”
Mabel scoffed. “Yeah, right. We’ve been trying to get the others to help for literally years!”
Arnold shook his head. “You just wanted them to use their powers for you. They already do that all day. Sometimes all night, too5. But imagine if you asked them to act. Like in Hollywood. In America.” A glint appeared in Arnold’s eyes at the thought of the Promised Land. “There’ll be a line from here down to the river just to audition.”
Mabel gamely attempted to hide how much the idea of her fellow students competing to be in one of her productions excited her, instead attempting an air of thoughtful ambivalence. “I guess that could work, but which Shakespeare? There’s more than one you know6.”
Arnold frowned. Of course he knew that. He wasn’t an idiot, even if he did assume the “Alas, poor Yorick” monologue and “Now is the winter of our discontent” were from the same play. And that Shakespeare also wrote Faust7. Shrugging, he answered, “Up to you, directress.”
They all jumped a little at the sound of Allison’s voice. She looked at Maelstrom, her eyes fading back to their usual hazel. “Your power is…” she searched for an appropriate description, eventually settling on something she overheard Arnold’s eldest brother say one bank holiday. “A real trip,” she finished, a little uncertain. “Do you know if your mum ever turned icy or anything like that when she was expecting?” she asked.
Maelstrom looked at her quizzically. “Expecting what?”
His ignorance surprised Allison, though it did occur to her that most of the grownups he knew were foreigners. Maybe French women called it something altogether different. “Well, you.”
This didn’t seem to clear things up for Maelstrom. “…Expecting me to what?”
Exasperated, Allison tried another route. “I mean, when she was in the family way.”
“She’s asking if she did the water thing while she was pregnant with you,” cut in Mabel.
“Oh, I don’t know, never asked. And why didn’t you just ask that?”
Allison wasn’t sure herself. Most families in Harvey were farmers of one shade or another, and thus their children were usually fairly familiar with the basic mechanics of birth, and even if that hadn’t been the case, Allison was Allison. Still, in her experience, people tended to dance around the subject unless the mother-to-be was livestock. She found Mabel and Maelstrom’s straightforwardness quite refreshing, actually.
Before she could answer, Mabel spoke again. “Myriad, you know most of the things, what play should we do?”
Allison was still getting used to that name. Mabel unsurprisingly rarely used it in private, but she did find it an effective way of getting her attention. “Well, I of course know all of the Bard’s plays off by heart,” she said, in the most outrageously pantomime pommy accent she could muster. Or, to put it another way, Lawrence’s.
“They put them on every lunchtime at school,” continued Arnold, in the same accent. “When the actors were busy beating houseboys or hunting peasants, we used cows instead.”
That last bit seemed to grab Mabel’s interest. Arnold looked her dead in the eye. “Don’t even consider it, Mabel. You could never afford their salaries,” he said in dead seriousness, before breaking out in giggles. Very contagious giggles.
When they died down, Mabel made a suggestion. “We should sneak out.”
“No,” said Maelstrom, hoping his voice carried a note of finality.
“Come oooooooon. We had fun last time!”
“No, you had fun. I spent the whole afternoon imagining everyone lined up waiting for us in front of the big house. Looking stern.”
“Well that didn’t happen, did it?”
“No,” he conceded. “Instead, I got to think Lawrence was just waiting till we thought we got away with it. Still not sure if we did.”
Allison could relate. “Do you ever worry about Tiresias listening in?” she asked.
Maelstrom appeared to freeze—figuratively for once—at the suggestion, but Mabel didn’t seem phased. “As if. Tiresias doesn’t give a toss what we do. Only time he ever dobbed anyone in to Lawrence was when some of the big kids were drinking grog behind the barn.”
“Whydah think he cared about that?” asked Arnold.
“It was his grog,” explained Maelstrom.
“Ah. Hey, by sneak out, do you mean, like, to town?”
“Yeah?” said Mabel.
Arnold smiled expectantly. “That’s a bit far, isn’t it?”
“We took a unicorn,” she said without fanfare.
Allison squealed with delight. Arnold would have, too, if he hadn’t remembered that unicorns were for girls. What would his father say?8 “Um, why a unicorn?”
The fact Arnold even needed to ask perplexed Mabel. “‘Cause someone might’ve spotted a dragon.”
A mostly undeclared game of tag was cut short by a knock on the barn door. “Am I interrupting anything?” sing songed Mrs Gillespie.
She was, but nobody besides Arnold minded particularly. Such was the way of tag with teleporters. “Thankfully!” called back Allison.
A muffled chortle, and the barn door swung open. “Ah, Myriad, glad I found you. Me and the other teachers would like to speak with you.”
She regarded the old woman warily, remembering the Institute’s possibly all-knowing (if apathetic) watchmen, and asked “Am I in trouble?”
Mrs Gillespie laughed. “Not at all! If anything, it’s the opposite problem.” She glanced around at the other children. “Morning, chooks. Making good use of your Saturday?”
“We’re doing a Shakespeare play!” announced Mabel, beaming with pride. Her ravens had at some point disappeared in favour of some very self-satisfied looking eagles.
Mrs Gillespie clapped. “Wonderful! Which one?”
The eagles’ confidence appeared to deflate somewhat. “Um, Arnold hasn’t picked one yet.”
Arnold blinked. “Why me?”
“I think you’re the ideas man now,” said Maelstrom.
“Thanks,” said Arnold dryly.
Mrs Gillespie put a hand to her mouth, concealing a grin. She decided to let the misnaming slide. They were in private, after all. “That’s something for you four to decide, of course. I remember how much fun my class had putting on Macbeth back in secondary school. I tried out for one of the witches, but I ended up filling in as Hecate when Agnes Fuller came down with the mumps.” She laughed at the recollection. “I was mortified.”
“Isn’t Hecate queen of the witches?” asked Allison.
“I suppose, but they say Shakespeare didn’t even write her bit.” She smiled wryly. “I mustn’t be too ungrateful, though. The witches were all made to wear beards.”
This sent the children into hysterics. When the laughter died down, Mrs Gillespie took Allison by the hand. “We should get going. I’m sure Dr. Lawrence won’t keep this one too long.”
They exited the barn, leaving the other Watercolours to ponder the revelation that their teacher had not in fact sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus.
On the whole, Allison liked the teaching staff of the New Human Institute well enough. Basilisk possessed an enthusiasm that could almost reach infectiousness, she found Żywie’s apparent indifference to actual teaching paradoxically engaging, and sports with Melusine was the one part of the curriculum that truly challenged her—unless she was sampling someone like Britomartis, but that had its own appeal. As for Tiresias… well, you always knew what to expect with him. And he didn’t seem to teach classes anyway. In fact, when she thought about it, Allison couldn’t quite tell what he did all day. The human teachers, besides Mrs Gillespie and Lawrence himself, Allison mostly regarded them as kindly non-entities, both green enough to still be slightly in awe of their students. They still smelt of university. Apparently, Lawrence had once confided to Allison, it was difficult to find more seasoned educators willing to teach dozens of children with demiurgic powers.
“At least the ones who came are here because they want to be here,” Lawrence had told her.
All that being said, Allison still couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated to find the entire faculty waiting for her in Lawrence’s study. Especially when they all turned in their seats to look at her. Even more so when she noticed Tiresias slumped on the couch between Melusine and Żywie, idly flicking through some baking book. She noticed him quite a bit, actually.
Lawrence grinned. “Ah, Mary, I see you tracked down our little polymath.” Allison was still glad she didn’t end up being called that. “I hope she came quietly.”
Mrs Gillespie chuckled, blushing. “Please, Doctor, surnames in front of the children.” She smiled down at Allison. “And she was no trouble.”
“Well then,” said Lawrence, “Have a seat, Myriad.”
Allison did so, after the customary fraction of a second it still took her to answer. She also gamely tried to ignore the familiar crescendo she just heard in her teacher’s songs. “You wanted to see me?” At least she’d stopped reflexively calling Lawrence “sir”.
Lawrence laughed. “My dear, I would never pass up an opportunity to speak with you, but actually, your teachers asked me to arrange this chat.”
Allison looked around at the other grown-ups. They were all sporting expressions of benign concern, with the obvious exception of Tiresias, who looked like he was doing his best to pretend he was alone with his book. The presence of said obvious exception still made her suspect she was about to be called out for something. “Okay… why?”
Mrs Gillespie put her hand over Allison’s. “We were all wondering, sweetie, if you feel you get anything out of our classes?”
If Allison had been exploring the arctic, and came across a waddle of penguins eating a polar bear, she would have been less surprised than she was right now. “What do you mean?”
Therese Fletcher, the practical science teacher, flashed Allison a slightly pained smile. She was the least steady of the baseline teachers, possibly due to everything she knew about her subject being contradicted on a daily basis by watching her students play after class. She claimed this only enlivened her scientific curiosity, but if a few of Allison’s classmates (especially Mabel) were to be believed, this attitude was only maintained thanks to frequent infusions of gin. “Well, with your gift, it seems likely that we might’ve already taught you everything we can just by standing in the same room as you.”
“And if that’s true, it seems unfair to make you repeat the ritual day after day,” added Bryant Cormey. Bryant mostly taught civil studies, and was quite good at it, if prone to long tirades about his desire for a return to direct democracy, perhaps facilitated by species-wide telepathy. As nice as the idea sounded, Allison didn’t think she could abide abide a world where her head was a venue for public debate. It was noisy enough in there already.
“I know this might sound like an interrogation from your end,” said Basilisk from one of his leather upholstered patio chairs—a fresh one, as evidenced by the lack of fumes. Sometimes, the more mathematically inclined students9 attempted to figure out what percentage of the school budget was spent on those. “Maybe you’re worried about offending us. You shouldn’t be. We’re not that thin skinned.” There were general nods of agreement from around the room. Basilisk broke out his Cheshire Cat impersonation again. He’d always taken impeccable care of his teeth, knowing a filling wouldn’t last a week in his mouth. “Still,” he continued, “we’ve all noticed you spacing out a little in our classes, and it’d be very comforting to know it wasn’t our fault.”
Allison blushed. This problem had in fact been pointed out to her a number of times back at Harvey Primary. They usually attempted to correct it via a quick, sharp strike to her knuckles, topped off with a tersely worded note to her parents. Didn’t seem to care I learnt it all fine, she thought bitterly. There was usually less preamble than this, though, which gave her hope. “Um, yeah” she said, hoping Basilisk and the others were as self-secure as he claimed. “Class time is really kinda boring.”
“Never heard a student say that before,” said Tiresias, nose still in his book. He was up to the part about lemon meringues.
Allison pouted at him, before remembering that Tiresias was still technically an authority figure, and quickly looking down at her knees. “I mean, I’m not really learning anything? I’m sorry.”
Lawrence leaned back in his chair, grinning. “Don’t be!” he boomed. “You just reduced my colleagues’ workloads. Now, if you could help me figure out how much I should dock their pay….”
Cries of mock outrage filled the study. Allison found it a little off-putting. This was a serious meeting about serious topics. Serious topics concerning her. “What happens now?” she asked over the clamour.
The teachers got a handle on themselves. “We were thinking,” said Lawrence, “instead of keeping you in regular classes, we’d invite over interesting people to come and meet with you.”
“You could sit down together, maybe over a cuppa, and just for chat for a while,” said Mrs Gillespie. “I’m sure they’ll find you lovely company.”
Flattering as that sentiment was, the idea made Allison uncomfortable. It reminded her of something unpleasant, but whatever it was, she couldn’t quite put it into words. She decided that if she couldn’t even decide why it bothered her, it probably didn’t matter. “Sure,” she said, with a shrug. “Sounds alright.” She’d stuck her hands in her pockets. Her fingers felt sore, all of a sudden.
Lawrence clapped his hands together. Judging by his expression, he heard much more enthusiasm in Allison’s agreement than anyone else did. “Wonderful! I’ve already made a couple tentative appointments. I hope you don’t think that presumptuous of me, dear.”
“No problem,” replied Allison. “Who’s on first?”
Lawrence flicked through his rolodex, obviously quite pleased with himself. “Well, first is an old friend of mine from Oxford. He majored in political science, and is quite good at it.”
That might have excited someone out there, but Allison was eight. She wondered how they might test her on that. Have her run a sovereign nation out of the barn? “And the other one?”
“Research engineer. Did a lot of work for the army back during the war.”
That peaked Allison’s interest a little more, even if the part about the war was unsettling.
“Glad we got that sorted,” said Mrs Gillespie, sounding a little relieved. “Now chook, let’s figure out what we’re going to do with you the rest of the week.”
Allison looked up at her. “What do you mean?”
She looked a little bemused. “Sorry if we got your hopes up, love, but we can’t just leave you to your devices whenever we don’t have an expert to throw at you.”
“Imagine what the other kids would think,” said Melusine, examining her fingernails. “How do you think they’d react to finding out one of their classmates gets to skive off school and—I don’t know—relax in the library all day? You’d be lynched.”
Allison nodded. “I think I understand.” She couldn’t lie, in their place she’d probably be calling for her blood, too. “But I do really like some classes, like sports, English, and history. Maybe I could keep going to those?”
Żywie looked genuinely touched. Most people thought her teaching was a distant second to the most important thing she did at the Institute; herself included.
Sadly, Allison didn’t notice, being distracted by Lawrence wagging his finger, having apparently missed the universal memo regarding that particular gesture. “Ah, ah, ah, can’t just have you picking and choosing your classes. Should probably keep you in sports, though, unless you learn how to mimic muscle tone.”
Mrs Gillespie frowned. “Doctor,” she said, her tone very even, “If Myriad still finds certain lessons fulfilling, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to let her continue with them.”
Lawrence smiled. “I’m sure many of our primary-age students would still find finger-painting fulfilling, but we don’t keep it on the curriculum.”
Mrs Gillespie inhaled, taking a moment to remind herself of the importance of presenting a united front. “Regardless, we still need something for her to do.”
“I was getting to that.” He turned to Basilisk. “How would you like an assistant, old boy?”
Basilisk stammered a bit. “I suppose it would be a help.” He did appreciate the offer, but the idea of having a child wait on him did not sit well with him at all.
Lawrence chuckled. “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. I can’t imagine you being that harsh a taskmaster.”
“Oh, I don’t want to be a bother.”
Melusine arched an eyebrow, “But you are, Basil,” she said, as though she were reminding him what they had for dinner the night before10.
Lawrence winced a little. He had to tolerate the use of nicknames, but preferably where he couldn’t hear it.
Melusine continued unabated, “Think of how much paper and pens you go through in one day! And it it all melts before you get any real use out of it!”
Basilisk looked hurt by the reminder. Allison felt like she was witnessing the latest skirmish in some ongoing quarrel. “The gloves do help, you know.”
“Which might help more if your palms weren’t so sweaty.”
Basilisk winced at that, and Melusine seemed to decide that was a comment too far. “Look,” she said, a more gently, “you usually end up drafting one of the children to scribe for you during class anyway, surely having Myriad on hand will streamline things a bit?”
Basilisk exhaled, “It would,” he admitted, “but it really should be up to Myriad. I’m sure we could find something better to than pick up after me if she’d rather.”
“So what do you think, Myriad?” said Lawrence. “You’d be doing your community a service.”
Everyone was looking at Allison expectantly, aside from Basilisk, who was trying dearly to apologise for putting her on the spot using only his eyebrows. “It doesn’t sound too bad,” she answered eventually.
The teachers seemed to interpret this as a yes, and Allison didn’t do anything to puncture this assumption. The faculty meeting wound down quickly after that. Pleasantries were exchanged, and polite inquiries made into what Allison and her little friends were doing with their Saturday.
“Mabel and Maelstrom are going to do a Shakespeare play, and me and Elsewhere are helping. Haven’t decided which one yet.”
Lawrence corrected her, “Phantasmagoria, dear. Try not to slip.” She still wasn’t sure why he bothered. They both knew who she was talking about. “And I’m delighted to hear it. Personally, I’ve always been partial to The Tempest, but don’t let that leash your creative impulses.”
Allison sometimes wanted to ask Lawrence how he talked to children who weren’t her. “I’ll pass that along, thanks.”
As everyone filed out of the study, Basilisk stopped Allison in the hallway. “I hope you’re not dreading this too much, Myriad. I promise it won’t all be busy work. Mel was right, I could use a spare set of hands, and I really can’t think of a better pair than yours.”
Allison smiled, flattered. “Thanks! Looking forward to it. Maybe maths will be more fun on the other end of it.”
“Bah,” he said, making a shooing gesture. “Go enjoy being a free woman, while you still can.”
And so she did. Specifically, she and Maelstrom had a splash fight. It was the best in recorded history, a distinction it would hold until the one the next day.
Like many young children, Allison had once imagined her teachers to be creatures of pure function, who might as well enter a state of suspended animation the moment the bell rang its last note, and the last child had fled the classroom.
After a week spent as Basilisk’s personal assistant, she was beginning to wish that were true. It wasn’t that Basil—both parties agreed she had earned the right to use the diminutive—was a difficult boss. If anything, Allison’s biggest stumbling block was him taking every opportunity to try and spare her any actual work, instead of letting her spare the school supplies from his touch. Apart from that, he was sunny, polite, deeply devoted to the wellbeing of his students, and quite clearly appreciated everything Allison did for him. It all made her feel very grown up.
The problem was, it seemed like any aspect of life at the Institute not already under someone else’s purview was left for Basilisk to manage. He managed the school’s finances, kept the pantry stocked, organised chore rosters, made travel arrangements when needed, put orders in for whatever the faculty felt like spending their salary on, and acted as a convenient vent for all the homesickness and other difficult emotions always boiling under the surface of any boarding school. He even occasionally went down to the dormitories and read bedtime stories, despite the laborious ordeal involved in turning the pages. The only duty he hadn’t made his own was chaperoning trips off-campus, mostly because he felt the children were exposed to enough bigotry on those excursions already.
In short, there was always something for Allison to do, and it left very little time for, say, helping settle the argument over whether the Watercolours should do Macbeth or The Tempest11. She also found her newfound closeness to authority—even an authority as well-liked as Basilisk—engendered some suspicion in the other children. It was like being Tiresias, without the long established and well founded reputation for negligence.
Technically, she was only obligated to assist Basil during class hours, and she didn’t doubt he’d let her clock off as soon as she asked, but leaving him to go about his his endless, if, she suspected, mostly self appointed tasks alone made her feel guilty. He worked feverishly, as though he thought the entire school would collapse around his ears if he so much as took a breather. Allison wasn’t even sure he was mistaken on that count.
There were some upsides to the arrangement, though. Aside from being good company, Basilisk, as it turned out, was something of a board game enthusiast. And some evenings, when he had completed every job he could conceivably think of at least twice over, and wasn’t in danger of falling asleep standing up, he invited Allison up to his room to play against him.
If there’s one thing that could be said about Basilisk’s room, it provided a distraction free environment. The only furnishings were a bed, a wardrobe filled with enough leather to clothe an entire outlaw bikie club, a small table, and a couple of his special chairs. Otherwise, the only personal touches were a few photographs hanging on the wall and a stack of acid-stained game boxes piled in the corner.
“Knight to B8.”
Allison moved the piece dutifully, taking her own rook. It hadn’t taken long for her and Basilisk to decide chess was their game; games of trivia having turned out to be a mess of frustration and boredom, and poker being impractical for a number of reasons. With a fresh enough pair of gloves, it might not have been strictly necessary for Allison to move both their pieces, but Basilisk cherished his old chess set, and how much he treasured something was inversely proportional to how willing he was to ever lay hands on it. Besides, forcing his opponents to bring about his inevitable victory was just fun.
Allison poked her tongue out in concentration, and proceeded to take Basilisk’s bishop. He estimated she only needed a few more moves to make mate.
He smiled. On the other hand, having an opponent worth a damn was also fun. “Inspired. You sure you didn’t play before coming here?”
She thought about it for a second. “I guess my dad tried to get into chess with me sometimes. I think he thought that was what you did with smart kids.” She smiled sheepishly. “We both weren’t very good.” She was just getting to the point where she could talk about her mum and dad without it hurting, though that in itself tugged at her conscience.
“Well, someone you know must have something going for them. Otherwise it’d be like playing my reflection.”
She appreciated him using the present tense.
While Basilisk considered his next move, enjoying the rare sensation of knowing he was most likely the loser that night, Allison debated whether or not she should ask a question that had been niggling at her for days. On the one hand, it was absolutely none of her business; on the other, it was really, really bugging her. It had occurred to her when she first saw the photos on the wall, there being little else to draw one’s eye in Basil’s room. They were about what you’d expect. A baby picture of Maelstrom, eyes still identifiable—and slightly off putting—even in black in white; Lawrence posing proudly in front of Balliol College, arms around Basil and the long gone AU, both maybe thirteen or fourteen; a shot of Żywie and Basilisk playing chess on the veranda that could’ve been taken any given day in the last dozen years. There was, however, one person Allison was very surprised to find unrepresented.
“Why does Melusine have her own room?” she finally asked.
Basilisk looked up from his dwindling forces. “Hmm? Why shouldn’t she?”
She squirmed in her chair. “Aren’t you married?”
He laughed and held up his right hand. “Do you see a ring?”
She crossed her arms, frowning incredulously. “Why would you wear a wedding ring?”
Basilisk nodded, acknowledging the point. “Ah, but have you seen Mel wearing one?”
Allison was getting exasperated. “I don’t know how it works around here! Maybe she didn’t want it to be… asymmetrical. Two of the teachers at my old school were married, they didn’t wear their rings to work.”
“Didn’t they now?” he said. “Well, in our case, there are no rings, because there was no wedding.”
She blushed, hard. “Oh. So, you’re boyfriend and girlfriend?” That would at least be comprehensible. Scandalous, but comprehensible.
“Nope. Free agents, the both of us.”
If it weren’t for everything else, it likely would have been more shocking to Allison if Melusine and Basilisk were actually married. There were still plenty of people back in Harvey who considered relationships between Anglicans and Catholics unconscionably miscegenous. And she wasn’t so sheltered to mistake the correlation between marriage and the appearance of children for causation. “When’d you stop?”
“Being boyfriend and girlfriend,” she replied. She wasn’t sure if that was the right way of putting it, but she was pretty certain people only had “lovers” in the little novelettes her mum tutted at in Harvey Newsagent.
“Eh, it was never like that for us,” he admitted.
Allison tilted her head. “Then how’d Maelstrom happen?” She flinched, half-expecting her mother to burst into the room and clip her across the ear for being so rude. She curled up in her chair. “Sorry! I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Hey, don’t let yourself worked up about it,” Basil said. He might’ve put a hand on Allison’s shoulder, if that wouldn’t have risked burning a hole in her shirt. “It’s perfectly fine to be curious about these things. Melusine wanted a baby, and I was… present. Simple as that.”
Allison supposed there was an elegance to it, at least compared to the rites and procedures most people followed when seeking babies. Of course, she had no idea why anyone wanted those things to begin with. They managed to offend every one of her regular senses, with their smells and their noises and their terrifying breakability. She was convinced these reasons were behind her parents not giving her any younger siblings, something she was eternally grateful for.
It still didn’t seem normal, though. But neither did teachers with comic-strip names, or sharing a room with boys, or walking pumpkins, and none of those oddities were hurting anyone—with the very occasional but important exception of the pumpkins.
“I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” he said. “Don’t think I’m not aware that isn’t how these things usually work, out there in the great, wide world of WA.”
“I’m fine,” she said, a little faster than she intended. “I mean, it isn’t… my normal? Not my normal at all. But it looks like it works for you, I guess. You might think I’m backwards.”
This sent Basilisk laughing again. “Myriad, trust me, you’re well ahead of where a lot of your classmates were when they were as new as you. Let’s just say not every white child from the country is willing to sit down and let a black fella make them do maths.”
“I’m sorry,” said Allison, disappointed but not surprised. Lawrence talked a great deal about race being a social construct, and how posthumanity transcended such petty baseline distinctions, but Haunt still sometimes found himself the subject of jokes he found difficult to write off as friendly teasing, and the student body rarely missed a chance to have a go at Maelstrom’s funny accent—it being the progeny of four or five other silly accents.
“I hereby accept your apology for inventing Aussie prejudice. If it’s any comfort, you could have done a better job with it.” He made a pinching gesture. “Your English insults just don’t quite pack the same punch as ‘kaffir’.”
This made Allison snort, and then grimace slightly. “I wish I didn’t know that word.”
“Ah, sorry, I forget how it is with you sometimes.” He leaned back in his chair, grinning. Allison swore she could hear it sizzle. “Tell ya what, you clearly have questions—a rare occasion, I’m sure—I… probably have things I should be attending to, but I can’t remember what they are right now, so ask away.”
Allison untensed a little. “What kind of questions?” she asked, mindful of the usual unspoken caveats when grown ups extended that invitation.
“If you’re just fishing for teasing fodder, don’t bother; I’m a teacher, we can tell. Other than that, go wild.”
Allison decided to start with an easy, uncontroversial question. “Is Father Christmas real?”
Basilisk looked taken aback by that. “Of course he is. Is someone spreading rumours he isn’t?”
Okay, so he’s being honest, Allison thought. She’d heard some howlers from grownups trying to explain away unexpected present. “Forgot we bought that one” indeed. “Why doesn’t Maelstrom call you and Mel mum and dad?”
In some ways, that whole business struck her as far more alien than anything to do with Mel and Basil’s relationship—or lack thereof. A white lady having and then co-parenting a son with a black fella, apparently picked purely for convenience? That alone would have sustained Harvey’s gossips and stickybeaks till the end of this universe and the start of the next, and quite possibly attracted police attention. Said son going on to call his parents by their first names, or first aliases as the case may be? Would probably have gone down about as well as Devil worship, and witches at least had a sense of propriety. They didn’t go around calling their patron “Luci”12.
Basilisk chuckled. “You knew he was our son without being told, why advertise it? In all seriousness, Lawrence always thought modern society puts parents on a pedestal, or at least neglects the importance of other adults in a kid’s life. It takes a village and all. And I think he has a point there. I couldn’t ask for a better boy than Maelstrom, and it’d be a crime not to give Żywie, or Laurie, or Mrs G their share of the credit for how he’s turned out.”
That never seemed like much of a pressing issue to Allison, but then again, she grew up in a town with a lot of Italian families.
She sniggered. “How much credit does Tiresias get?”
Basilisk hummed disapprovingly. “I don’t like how you kids are always sniping at Tiresias.”
Allison looked at him blankly. “…Why?”
“When I was your age, I hated when I asked a grownup something, and the only answer I got was another question. So, I hope you can forgive my hypocrisy if I ask why you and the other children pick on Tiresias? What exactly does he do that makes your day worse?”
She thought about it. There were a lot of reasons, really. To the students of the New Human Institute, Tiresias was a peculiarly liminal figure in their lives. He dwelled in an unnameable borderland between student and teacher—unbound by the strictures naturally placed on the children, yet seemingly unburdened with any duties or responsibilities to the school. That last part in rankled Allison in particular, with how hard Basil—and now, by extension, herself—worked. Yes, he did apparently aid in the search for new students, but there was a whole government agency that did most of the work there, nowadays. Lawrence himself didn’t appear to quite hold Tiresias in the same regard he did the other elder new humans, occasionally scolding him with the same tone he usually reserved for students Allison’s age. All this made it difficult for the children to see him as much more than another, unusually large, and intensely uncharismatic student, one whom they could ostracise at leisure without any major disruption to the scholastic ecosystem.
That’s not to say the kids made fun of Tiresias to his face, partly because he was usually with another adult, mostly because they assumed he was probably listening anyway. Insulting him out of his earshot offered the best of both worlds: they knew that he knew they were doing it, but he couldn’t complain without admitting he spied on small children. He was like a bridge troll with all his teeth pulled.
She shuffled her feet against the slightly warped and burnt floor, not looking at Basilisk. “I dunno. He’s a bit of a drip?”
English was still only Basilisk’s third language, but that colloquialism was easy enough to decipher. “So, if I’ve got this right, the reason you like having a go at Tiresias is that he always seems like he’s having a bad day?”
Allison suddenly felt very ugly inside. “I didn’t think of it like that.”
Basilisk smiled kindly at her, and said, “I know you didn’t. Just try not to slag off at Tiresias, unless he gives you a proper reason to.” The smile fractured further into a grin. “That goes for all of us, by the way. I could write up a list of insults for if I ever melt anything of yours if you’d like.”
She laughed. He was good at making that happen.
Basil went back to figuring out how interestingly he could lose the game. “I think he still misses AU, truth be told” he said, not looking up from the chessboard. “Right pair of contrarians, those two.” He only realised what he’d done once it was too late.
Allison started. How had she not thought to ask about Australia’s most notorious supervillain since Ned Kelly, who happened to have once been a close personal friend of the man sitting across from her, before anything as boring as why two grownups didn’t share a bed? She didn’t even know why people did that when they weren’t actively making babies. Seemed liked a very uncomfortable arrangement to her—legs and elbows everywhere. “Tell me about AU!” she begged. “Was he always a git? Is that why he was friends with Tiresias? Can he really turn stuff into gold, or just make it do stuff for him? Why’d he leave? When’d he leave? Has he he ever come back? Do you—”
Basilisk raised a finger and shushed her. “Ease up, I can’t answer all those at once. And we’ve only got twenty minutes before your bedtime.” As awkward as the subject of long absent AU was to all the adults at the NHI, he supposed it was better Myriad got the story from one of them, rather than the strange, contradictory library of rumours, tall tales and flat out lies that the other children13 had built for themselves. He composed himself for the onslaught to come. “Which first?”
Allison found it surprisingly difficult to pick one. “Where’d Lawrence even find him?”
“Melbourne,” answered Basil.
That she hadn’t been expecting. “Melbourne? Huh.”
Basilisk clarified, “His family was Chinese. Came over during the gold rush, which just goes to show you how childish the universe can be.” He smiled, a little sadly. “Lawrence found him before he even left for Europe—his first student, and his strongest.”
Allison regarded him dubious. “Really? Him?”
“Apart from Melusine, of course,” Basil added quickly. He grinned. “Or do you think it might be me?”
She bit her lip. Much as she liked Basilisk, Allison wasn’t even sure sometimes how his thing even qualified as a power.
He noticed her discomfort. “I’m joking, Myriad. Believe me, I know nobody’s writing any comic-strips about me. Hell, if anything proves Lawrence is a good man, it’s that he sees any worth at all in my power. No idea what he sees, exactly, but he sees it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I guess if a child was pinned under rubble, and you held some really good boerewors under my nose, I might be of use.” It was a decidedly tamer version of a joke he’d told a number of times with older company, but it still raised a giggle from Allison.
Once it passed, she remembered her objection. “I would’ve said Żywie’s power was better, honesty.”
Basil nodded emphatically. “Oh, I completely agree with ya. The things Żywie can do are just fantastic. She’ll change the world someday, mark my words. But who do you think the papers are going to put on the front page? The nice lady from the continent who can cure bronchitis with a pat on the shoulder, or the scary Chinaman who can turn a gold mine into a machine gun? Forget that, a whole artillery line?”
It was an interesting question to be sure, and Allison couldn’t deny that the blurry, very hastily taken photos she’d seen of AU in action had left an impression on her. Still….
“But gold is so rare. It’s like having the power to command bilbies.”
“Eh, I wouldn’t say gold is all that rare. Now, controlling platinum, that would be a parlour trick—unless maybe you were from a certain part of Russia.”
Allison tilted her head. “Isn’t being rare the whole point of gold? That’s why people used it for money.”
Basilisk leaned forward and smiled, a little self-indulgently. “And is money all that rare? The bossman doesn’t seem to have trouble finding it. That’s the thing about money, whatever you’re using has to be scarce enough that you can’t just go outside and pick some off the ground whenever you feel like a pint, but not so much that a lot of people can’t have at least a little—or a lot, if you’re Lawrence.”
“But who even uses gold for money anymore?”
“Mad people, mostly,” replied Basil. “But gold’s still everywhere, Myriad. Your parents both wore wedding rings, right? Maybe their engagement rings, too?”
Allison nodded. “My mum mostly wore”—she corrected herself sharply—“wears hers on a necklace, but yeah, they do. But that’s only about forty grams between them.”
Basilisk’s eyes lit up with exaggerated shock. “Wow. I knew you and Arnold lived out in the boonies, but I had no idea your parents were the only married couple in Harvey!”
She giggled again, “Shut up!” She flinched immediately, half expecting her mother to burst into the room and smack her across the ear for speaking to a grownup like that. Not that Basilisk seemed to mind.
“And I’m sure nobody in town owned any other kind gold jewelery, either. Arnold’s mother didn’t wear a cross? I doubt the Church would approve of tin candlesticks.”
“I get it, I get it!”
“That’s the brilliant thing about gold, it’s so innocuous. Some places might pat you down for guns or knives or bombs before they let you inside, but not watches or bracelets. And even if you don’t have any gold on you, pretty much anywhere worth robbing will: A packet of ammo hanging from every wealthy woman’s neck! They even use the stuff in computers these days, or so I’m told.”
It seemed like he was talking good sense, but Allison still wasn’t completely sold on the idea. “But gold is so soft. It’s like bronze but worse.”
“True,” said Basil. “You also never hear about clear-smiths forging swords of ice, or brave warriors ditching their armour for a nice pre-battle bath. Still don’t mean you not gonna run like crazy if you hear a tidal wave’s coming, or that Mel’s testy with you.”
Allison rested her chin in her hands. “So what was he like?”
“Abrasive, totally incapable of swallowing his opinions, always seemed angry at something or other.”
“Sounds like a prat.”
Basilisk looked nostalgic14, “Eh, AU wasn’t so bad to be around. Never abided anyone being treated unfairly when he was around. There was this sense of honesty about him.” He sighed. “At least, that’s what we thought back then…” The look in his eyes was one Allison was fairly familiar with. Both her mother and Mr. Barnes sometimes got it when they spoke of their respective Wars.
“What happened?” she asked, her voice quiet.
Basilisk forced a smile. “Myriad, it’s been nearly nine years, and I’m still not sure what the answer to that is. I think, at least to start with, he just wanted to go. And it’s understandable. When you have so much to offer the world, being cooped up here for years and years wears on ya. Look at Żywie, much as she loves all you kids, I’m sure she sometimes wishes she were off wiping out the measles or something. It’s easier for me, in a lot of ways. A man who sweats acid ain’t going to amount to much more than one who doesn’t. Probably a lot less, if we’re being honest. Least here, I have a job I love, and all the appkin I can catch.”
Allison didn’t know how to respond to that. Most grownups she knew were only capable of being that frank when they were drunk. Basilisk meanwhile didn’t even sound sorry for himself. His very tone defied attempts at pity. The ever present discordant strain in his song briefly rang a little louder, though.
“AU, though, he wanted to go out and make his fortune. Hope he had a plan for after he did, because I can’t imagine that taking more than half an hour—if he was lazy about it. Lawrence… advised against him leaving.”
He grinned crookedly, “You sure you’re not just trying to stay up past your bedtime?”
At that, Allison just crossed her arms and frowned. Hard.
Basilisk’s expression became sombre, “I’m sorry, that was patronizing, but it’s not an easy thing to explain. You’d have been better served asking Lawrence, really. I guess you could say he was worried about AU giving the sort of people who run the DDHA more to work with. All it would have taken was him pulling gold out of the wrong fella’s land, and well, Old A&U never had a reputation for staying out of arguments.
There was nothing he could have done to keep him here if didn’t want to stay, of course, but things still got out of hand. There was an argument. We found Lawrence curled up on the floor of his study, bleeding out the mouth. He had three gold teeth, you see.”
Allison winced in horror.
“Sorry you had to hear that. By the time we found Laurie, AU was already down by the river, whipping up that gold disc he flies around on—you’ve probably seen pictures. The rest of us didn’t follow. Had to keep the children, the few we had back then, from panicking. And honestly, we were scared out of our wits. Tiresias, though, he went to try and talk AU down.”
“Why him?” Allison asked, swallowing a yawn.
“He didn’t want him to go,” he answered simply. “Tiresias had worshiped the ground AU walked on since he was seven. I think it was because they both knew what exploitation felt like. I shouldn’t have to tell you the sort of things a poor, ethnic child who attracted gold growing up during the Depression, and a little mind-reader in Mussolini’s Italy might be made to do. The two of them knew how each other worked, and AU might have been the only person ever born who could reliably make Ti smile without suffering for it.” He laughed. “If AU was running away, he was taking Ti with him!” The brief burst of fond recollection seemed to drain Basil. “I don’t know what Tiresias said to AU that day, but he copped a hand’s worth of broken fingers and two cracked ribs for his trouble.”
Allison sat limp in her chair, sound asleep.
“Maybe I should reconsider my choice of bedtime story,” Basilisk said, addressing the empty air, or possibly Tiresias. He looked at the chessboard, its combatants doomed to enjoy neither the taste of victory, nor the release of defeat; ascension to the throne now forever beyond reach of the lowly pawns that trooped across the monochrome battlefield. “Bugger, now who’s going to pack this up?”
He wasn’t too surprised that Allison had nodded off on him. With her nyctophobia, the opportunity to fall asleep in a brightly lit room under the eye of someone she trusted would’ve been hard to pass up. Still, wouldn’t do to leave her there overnight. The fumes would leave her with a thumping headache come morning. He squeezed her hand. “Myriad, time for bed, dear.”
No response. He made a few more attempts to rouse her a little, to little success. He didn’t want to risk waking Allison up in full, not if she could be spared the nightly ordeal of trying to fall asleep in the dark. Still, it didn’t seem like this need be a concern. Well, someone clearly needed her sleep, Basil thought.
He couldn’t carry her down to her dormitory, not without melting her clothes—and she’d probably have to scrub off the acid before being allowed into bed. He quickly recognised the obvious solution—get someone else to do it. But that was always the answer to his problems, wasn’t it?
He was about to get up and go find someone, when someone rapped smartly on his door. Without waiting for a welcome, Tiresias opened the door, “Thought you might need another pair of hands.”
Basilisk grunted, “That’s always the case, isn’t it?”
Tiresias didn’t smile. Being out of practise, he knew it’d just seem disingenuous. “Cheer up, mate, that’s one less voice for the choir of nighttime moaners.” He walked over to the table and, with surprising gentleness, pulled Allison to her feet by her hand. “Come on, girl, we’ve bugged Basil enough for one night.”
Allison mumbled something about not being tired, as is customary, and raisin bread, which is slightly less so.
As the two of them stepped out into the hallway, Basil said, “Hey, thanks for this, Ti. And I’m sorry if you didn’t want me talking about—”
Tiresias cut him off, “He was a prat.”
“Oh, alright. You’d be the authority.”
Alone, and with nothing better to do, Basilisk decided to head to bed. Turning off the light switch with the leather handled pointer he kept for the purpose, he stripped off in the dark and climbed into his bed. The mattress would need replacing in a night or two. Draping a cheap, disposable blanket over himself, he tried to get to sleep before it dissolved.
1. Given the general tone and quality of the stories these pictures illustrated, this wasn’t a totally unreasonable assumption to make. ↩
2. He’s an unobtrusive sort.↩
3. There were actually three towns within reasonable driving distance of the New Human Institute, but they mostly blurred together for the students, especially Maelstrom.↩
4. And, as her father had grumbled both times, pay his way.↩
5. At most boarding schools, staff tear their hair out over bedwetting. At the New Human Institute, they breathed a sigh of relief if they went a night without any bedburning.↩
6. Mabel was of course referring to Shakespeare’s plays, as the whole sordid business of the Stratford Clone Crèche and their war with the Mallorian Nursery was over a hundred years after her time.↩
7. Or as he knew it, That One with the Devil, or Was It a Wizard?↩
8. “Bloody Nora, a unicorn!”↩
9. Basilisk’s darlings. ↩
10. Which happened to be devilled sausages, made with the survivors of the apple uprising that afternoon.↩
11. Maelstrom was concerned he’d be too busy providing the water effects to play any of the parts if they did the latter, while Mabel was worried they wouldn’t get enough girls to fill the roles of the witches and Lady Macbeth. When the possibility of double-casting was brought up, she insisted it would spoil the immersion.↩
12. At least apart from Reformed Satanist congregations.↩
13. Especially Mabel.↩
14. This was before the word “nostalgia” was completely redefined to mean any kind of recollection, ever.↩