Mabel Henderson sat craned in the gentle shadow of her concealing copse of yarri and honeysuckle, drawing paper, crayons, and colour pencils spread out before her. She was scribbling away intensely, occasionally glancing up from her scratchings to study the grey breasted robin hopping around and spreading its wings photogenically in the dust. Its feathers had a painted sheen to them, and from certain angles appeared almost flat.
Mabel liked art. She liked looking at it, and she liked putting it to work for her. So when someone (she wanted to say Brit, or maybe Haunt was the culprit1) had told her how funny it was that she of of all people couldn’t even draw a realistic stick-figure2, she had taken it to heart. Why should she—Phantasmagoria herself—need rely on the imagination of others just to work her power?
And so, she had set herself to the task of learning how to draw, freeing herself from the yoke of artists and illustrators. Then, Mabel reasoned, she would be just shy of God Herself, and—more importantly—would open up a whole new world of staging opportunities for the Watercolours.
However, like a man who sits down and tries to teach himself himself Greek after growing up on The Odyssey, Mabel soon discovered that learning anything often ran counter to actually enjoying it. She couldn’t figure out how the people who did the covers of her pulps gave cityscapes of paint on flat paper such depth, or why her attempts to give her creations cheekbones always ended up looking like facial tumours, or why her birds ended up with far too much anatomy. She’d never realized how clumsy her fingers were.
Still, her father wouldn’t have given up, so neither would she.
Mabel had made some noise to Lawrence about hiring an art tutor, but the headmaster had shot down the idea.
“But why?” Mabel had whined. “You bring in all these teachers for Allie—”
Lawrence had given her a look.
“I mean, you get all these teachers for Myriad.”
A chuckle. “Phantasmagoria, Myriad only needs a single session with an expert to learn everything they have to teach her. I doubt you could manage that feat.” He had put a hand on her shoulder then. For a moment, she felt like her dad was talking to her. “If they kept coming back, my dear, they might notice something they wouldn’t understand.”
With that disappointment under her belt, she then asked Basilisk for help, not that she had expected much technical insight from him. Pen and pencil hardly lasted long enough in his hands for anything like art. Still, the man had a way of making even admissions of ignorance seem insightful; plus, he could order her books.
Aside from that favour, her teacher did have one bit of practical advice:
“Draw from life, girl. That’s what everything I’ve ever read about art tells people to do to get good at it.”
It seemed like a good idea to Mabel… at first. The problem she found was that life is often defined by movement. Other children, wallabies, and freshwater penguins alike wouldn’t stay still long enough for her to capture them into wax and oil. Stratogale wouldn’t even make her birds pose for her. It occurred to her that she could have started with trees, buildings, rocks or even the river, but that sounded boring.
It had all seemed hopeless, but then, an idea occurred to Mabel. She might not have the patience for drawing from life, but surely anyone who managed to get work as a professional artist did. It only followed that any of their work projected onto reality should count as life.
She started with animals, partly because she had the vague idea that you had to start with naked people, and she couldn’t find any pictures of those she wanted to make real.
Mabel stood up from her work, studying her drawing. She thought it was an improvement over her previous efforts with the robin, but in her mind, there was only one true test of quality.
She focused on the pulses beneath her skin. They were always there: skeins of nameless pressure wrapped around her veins. Invisible spheres—that’s what it felt like, at least—slipped out from under her fingernails. She pushed them down into the drawing, like she was working air bubbles out of an IV line, letting them burst when they sank into the paper.
Mabel had never quite figured out how to describe the feeling of bringing an image to life. It was breathing into it and pulling it through all at once, like giving a drowning man mouth-to-mouth while hoisting them onto the boat. It always made Mabel feel warm. She liked to think it had something to do with her father. Better that than fire.
Her robin appeared beside its inspiration, sending it twittering frantically into the branches.
The bird was deformed, its creator’s attempt at perspective having cursed it with one wing much shorter than the other, and two supernumerary talons on its left foot. It turned its head in profile to look at its creator, a plea for oblivion in both black eyes.
Mabel tore up her drawing, blinking back tears of frustration, angry grawlixes flashing above her head. That was the other reason she hadn’t started with human subjects. At least animals didn’t yell at her when she got them wrong.
Even then, it was a small comfort. There was a unique frustration to Mabel’s workaround. A real bird was careless in its perfection; a fine drawing was proof that someone, somewhere was much better at art than her.
“Whatcha doing, Phantasma?”
Mabel turned to find Myriad standing behind her, clothes over her shoulder, the blue in her eyes and water-darkened hair tell-tale signs of an adventure with David. She looked away sharply. It wasn’t the first time Mabel had seen the other girl in such a state, but context is everything. “Allie, your clothes?”
“Oh, sorry.” There was a low hiss, followed immediately by a thunderclap. When Mabel looked back, the other girl was dry and dressed, her hair damp and frizzy. She repeated her question. “So, what were you doing?’
Some powers make people so lazy. “Nothing much, just drawing practise.”
Myriad smiled. “So you can make whatever you want? Neat…” She looked around at nothing in particular, before blurting out “…Did David walk through here?” She knew he had, of course, but it was what you asked.
David had indeed passed Mabel, tears frozen to his cheeks even as steam rose off his skin. That wasn’t a new sight for his friend. What had been new was how he hadn’t answered her when she asked what was wrong. David had never hesitated to share his many hurts with the girl before.
At least, not till lately.
Mabel nodded. “Yeah. Didn’t say anything, though.”
“Okay.” She sat down beside Mabel’s pile of rejected drawings; the ones that had only offended her enough to be crumpled, instead of shredded. She smoothed one of the paper carcasses flat again. “This one’s pretty good,” she lied kindly.
Mabel sat down beside her, trying to make it look like she believed the compliment. “Thanks. Were you and David in the river?”
Myriad’s face brightened. “Yep! We had a pirate battle! Then we turned the boats into the monsters!” She giggled. “I melted his turtle. Underwater.”
Lately, it had dawned on Mabel that there were really two kinds of supers in the world. There were the ones like herself, or Arn, or even Billy: simple doers of extra-things. Special, maybe, but in the same way Elvis Presley or Anne Bancroft were special.
Then there were supers like the Barthes, and maybe the Flying Man. The ones who lived differently from everyone else. The ones who got to do things lesser supers like her never would. The ones who didn’t need to be scared of the things she was.
“Maelstrom ever take you under the water?”
Mabel shook her head. “He tried once, in a bubble. I almost drowned.”
“It’s alright.” Until now, it had been.
“You’ve known about the married days a while, right?”
“Since I asked Żywie why the big girls were getting so fat.”
At least you weren’t too wrapped up in yourself to notice, a low, bitter voice in the back of Mabel’s head whispered.
Myriad frowned. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Mabel suddenly felt very hot. “I-I thought about it. It’s just—I like you guys. I didn’t want you to get freaked out. Does Billy even know where babies come from?”
Myriad shook her head.
Mabel let out a half-laugh. “You’re the one explaining that to him, not me.”
“…It feels weird, don’t you think?” Myriad asked. “Just… knowing that’s… gonna happen, someday.”
“I guess so,” Mabel replied. “But is it that different from out there? Only weirdos don’t have kids when they grow up.”
“Lawrence doesn’t have any kids.”
“Not that we know about.”
Myriad giggled. “He has us.”
Mabel didn’t seem to see the humour. “He didn’t have to make us.”
“…Do you think it hurts?”
Mabel remembered the blood pooled between her mother’s legs. “…Your power has weird gaps, Allie.”
“Not that. The part that comes before.”
Mabel gave her a disgusted look. “Eww. I don’t wanna think about that!”
Myriad sighed. “Well, me neither. But it’s still there, isn’t it? It’s still gon-”
“I’m learning to draw!” Mabel overrode her loudly, almost angrily. “That’s what I’m doing today. I’m learning to draw so I can make my powers better and so that I don’t have to think about the gross, stupid grown up stuff we’re gonna have to do when we’re big! No! It’s not good. No, it’s not fair! It stinks! But it’s gonna happen, so stop making people miserable by bringing it up, stupid!”
Myriad opened her mouth, then closed it again. There wasn’t anything to say to that. It wasn’t as if she could say Mabel was thinking about it wrong, but there was something about the timbre of her song in that moment, something very sad.
“Is there other stuff that’s… just too sad for you to think about?”
Mabel didn’t answer that. Not with words, at least. Myriad didn’t even see the slap coming. All she knew was that a few moments later her cheeks were smarting, and Mabel was stomping off back to the Institute.
Haunt lazily flicked shillings through the east wall of the barn, peering through the solid timber as they landed in the hay. He had picked up the habit in the hope of either refining his power, or maybe just pinging one of the Watercolours in the side of the head. He’d stopped doing it while they were inside after a long lesson from Żywie on the physiological effects of a coin lodged in the brain, but it was still a good way to a warm, floating boredom.
“You really should give these a try,” Growltiger said from the patch of clover he was lying in, a thin hardback covering his face.
“Read what?” asked Haunt, as if he didn’t already know.
Billy missed the sarcasm. “The Famous Five!” He jumped to his feet, pausing only to gently place his book on the ground like it was his own newborn child. “They’re great! They go on adventures and solve mysteries, and-”
“And eat scones,” Haunt interjected, deadpan. “And frolic, and play around for ever and ever in a world where even the poor people are happy and the baddies never do more than tie them up.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Billy asked, sounding a little defensive.
“Tiger,” Haunt sighed. “Remember how we were attacked by a supervillain? Think he would’ve just tied us up?”
Growltiger thought on this for a moment, before: “… Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, I think he’d only have tied us up. Didn’t you think it was kinda weird how none of us got really hurt? We were fighting a supervillain.”
“Look,” Haunt groaned. “My point is, they’re silly. They’re kid books, and that’s fine, because you’re a kid. But they aren’t like real life.”
There was silence between them for a long while after that.
“… And what’s wrong with that?” Billy asked, his voice shaky. “What’s wrong with wanting to read about a world where everything’s nice and safe and okay?”
“…. Fine. Name one book, and I’ll read it, even though it’s gonna be crap.” Haunt finally deigned to look around at the other boy, waiting for him to give his single, stupid book recommendation.
Growltiger grinned, picking up his book off the grass. “That one! Five Go Off in a Caravan!” He handed it to Haunt. “It has circuses!”
Haunt looked down at the book’s bright, delicately etched cover, before making, a show of flicking to a random page. “You have to admit these books are corny, Growly. All that food! No wonder they’re always going on bloody adventures, otherwise they’d crush their bikes under them.”
Billy looked dejected. “Mabel likes them.”
Haunt groaned. “Why does it matter so much that I like this stuff? You read what you like—I don’t care.”
“… Can I ask you something?” Billy was staring at the ground, his lower lip trembling slightly.
Haunt sighed, bracing himself. “Fine.”
“How—” Billy swallowed. “When the other kids say things about you being…”
“A boong?” Haunt offered.
“Y-yeah,” the boy opened his mouth to elaborate, then closed it again. He did this twice.
“What?” Haunt asked with suppressed irritation.
“… Why does being different hurt?” The boy mumbled, breathing in a short, sharp breath through his nose that Haunt recognized all too well as a sniffle. “I thought the others would stop once I got my name, but they keep doing it! Even the ones who let me play with them call me stuff all the time.”
Haunt rolled his eyes, reaching down between his feet to toy with a stray root. “It just does, Bill. Always has, always will.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
Haunt sat him down. “Look, when someone acts like a dickhead at you, you don’t let them think it bothers you.”
“I don’t!” Billy cried. “I laugh at all their jokes, and that just makes them make more!”
“No,” set Haunt. “You don’t laugh with them. That’s more obvious than crying. You have to make them think it doesn’t bother you at all. Then you throw something back at them.”
“Like a rock?”
“No, not like—jokes, Tiger! Mean as you can make them. You remember when Abalone saw you coming out of the toilets?”
“Yeah?” Billy answered, wondering where the older boy was going with this. “He said I was supposed to use the litter-box.”
“Little shit,” Haunt said, with no particular venom. There was something Billy found thrilling about the other boy’s swearing. “Right, next time he says something stupid like that, you say something about him pissing the bed.”
“Because he does.”
“No, I mean, why do I need to be nasty back?”
“Because they’ll never leave you alone if they think you’re soft.”
Billy thought about this. “But they still make jokes about you. And Basil sometimes, too. And Mealy—”
“Mealy is his own thing, Bill. And I didn’t say they would stop, because they won’t. Not forever. Sometimes, maybe, after a long time, they might forget you’re different long enough to let you be their friend.”
Growltiger collapsed back onto the grass, eyes cast down between his knees. “Is that really the best we get?”
“Fraid so, mate.”
“What are we talking about?” Myriad said, her wireframe form floating up from the earth like a spirit from Hades.
Haunt startled, jumping backwards. “Jesus—is that what it’s like on the other side of that?”
Billy giggled. “Yup.”
The pair watched as the girl’s features were sketched in. She tried to smile. “Guess so. Um, you two seen Maelstrom or Phantasma?”
Haunt frowned thoughtfully, finding his composure again. “Well, it’s been a couple years, so I figure I’ve seen those two a few times, yeah.”
Billy laughed as Myriad rolled her eyes. “I saw Mealy pacing around the garden,” he chimed in. “He was muttering a lot, and a bunch of the pumpkins exploded.” Earnestly, he added “Someone should remind him about pants.”
“I haven’t seen Phantasma since breakfast,” said Haunt. “I did see a dragon skulking around the bush ‘bout an hour ago—a very ugly dragon.”
“She’s learning how to draw,” explained Myriad. “Don’t be mean.”
Haunt hummed, whether in agreement or not Myriad couldn’t tell.
She tapped her foot a few times. “Ah, Haunt.”
“You’re eleven, right?”
Haunt shrugged. “Last time I checked. Żywie says I don’t get any older while I’m a ghost, so maybe knock a month or two off. Why?”
Myriad whistled slightly. “So, it can’t be long before your first married day?”
The boy’s lip twitched. “That’s still years away, Miri.” He was actually making eye contact with her.
“Not that many,” she replied. “Two or three, maybe.”
Haunt reminded himself that two or three years ago, Myriad was in kindergarten. “Why are you asking about married days anyway?”
“It’s just… it’s weird to think about, you know?” Her words started to run together. “And Mabel said it wasn’t fair and that it stinks and stuff and—”
Haunt threw a hand up, silently cursing God for making little kids. “I get it, I get it. What exactly do you want me to tell ya, Miri?”
Myriad lowered her head. “That it’s worth it? That it’s not that weird? And if it is, what do we do about it?”
Haunt patted the ground beside him. “Come sit down, Miri.”
“…I can stand.”
Haunt grinned. It never suited him. “Aww, come on, you need to be comfortable for this.”
“She—Miri should stand if she wants to.”
“Aww, don’t be silly, Bill. This is a historic moment. We’re gonna teach Myriad a lesson.”
Myriad was starting to see why Haunt had wanted to be part of The Tempest. With some trepidation, she sat down beside the boys.
Haunt leaned forward, his hands folded. “Hey, Miri, mind telling us what year Captain Cook landed at my great–great-whatever granddad’s back garden?”
“Nice, round number, innit? Can ya tell Billy here where the famous Tom Long lived before he came to the Institute?”
Haunt’s bluster popped like a balloon. “Well, I guess we know what your power thinks isn’t worth knowing, huh.”
“Oh. Sorry… Tom?”
“It’s alright, Myriad,” Tom said. He sounded like he meant it. “Wandering, by the way. Wandering Mission. And no, that ain’t a containment centre. Not for demis, at least.”
A few disparate facts came together in Myriad’s head. “That’s one of the places they send half-caste kids, isn’t it?”
Haunt nodded. “Yep. To be honest, the freak-finders aren’t a new thing. They just started going after white kids sometimes.”
“What does that have to do with married days?”
Tom tried not to let himself get angry at the girl. Edward Taylor knew what he was like when he got mad. “What I’m saying, Miri, is that I got taken off my parents and put in some awful kid-jail, just like you did.”
“Why’d they do that?” Billy asked. “Couldn’t they look after you?”
At least that distracted Tom from Myriad. He sighed. “Nah, Billy, they could. Dad was a”—it was only then that Haunt realized he couldn’t name his father’s profession—“boilerman.” That seemed like a plausible enough guess. It would explain the old fella’s overalls. “Never that much money around the house, but me and my brothers and sisters never starved or anything.”
“So why’d they take you?”
“Oh, lots of reasons. Not the nicest place, Wandering. The Christian Brothers weren’t very big on things likes maths, but they’d flog ya good if you didn’t act white enough. I mean, I was lucky, sort of. Dad was pretty Anglo, really, but some kids I knew there could barely English! And if you were a girl…” He shook his head. “No, not very nice. Do you two want to know what the secret of the world is? Grown ups, especially poms like Lawrence—”
“Lawrence is Australian,” Myriad pointed out.
“Yeah, but he wishes he was a pom.” Although, maybe an Aussie trying to be a Brit is better than a bunch of Brits coming over and saying they’re the real Aussies. “Point is, they always want something from you, or want to change you, or who knows what else. And you know what? As far as grown ups-in-charge go, Lawrence isn’t that bad. Yeah, he’s a weirdo who wants us to give him babies, but his tucker’s good, the company’s alright, and at least he likes us. More than I can say for the Christian Brothers. I mean, no one takes us away to do stuff to at night and sometimes we go months without anyone getting thrashed.” He stretched out in the grass, eyes closed like he was one moment of quiet away from a long, summer nap. “Way I see it, that ain’t a bad deal for a bit of lying back and thinking of Kuranda.”
Myriad looked at him. Even with his eyes shut, Haunt could tell his summation of the situation hadn’t satisfied her. That was the nice thing about X-ray vision. “That’s how you get through life, childlers,” he said. “You hitch yourself to the least awful bossman you can find, and hope he doesn’t bother you too much till you die.”
“That really what you think?” asked Myriad. “About the married days and all?”
“I don’t think about them that much,” Haunt lied. “Why don’t you go bug one of the big girls about it? They’re the ones dealing with this crap.”
“Fine, I will.”
As the girl huffed off towards the farmhouse, Haunt’s mind wandered down an old but ill-loved path. It was overgrown with thorns that bit at his ankles, but steep enough that the only way he could avoid tumbling head over heel was to keep walking.
Lawrence often said that, one day, every child alive would be posthuman. His predictions about such a world were close to open fantasy:
“Imagine it, children,” he had begged them one pitiless winter night, when the whole Institute (much smaller then) had taken their supper clustered around the parlour fire. “Everyone with a purpose, something they are uniquely born to. Generations of doctors like our Żywie, mending flesh with a touch; children like little Maelstrom pulling forests out from under the Sahara.”
Żywie and Maelstrom both shrank into the corner of their shared couch—Żywie perhaps because of her barrenness, and Maelstrom because that was just his way.
“Um, Laurie,” Britomart, not even six then, had interrupted. “What happens if one of the doctor kids want to be a firefighter?”
It was a good question, Haunt had thought, but there was another that dug at him. Lawrence never talked about the world between the one they lived in and the one he dreamed of. The one where supers ruled, but their predecessors were not yet a memory.
Tom could imagine it. The few, dwindling naturals—if that word still even made sense—herded onto the poorest country, the lands the supermen could find no better use for. For their own good, of course. Far kinder than forcing them to navigate a world that had no use for them. Maybe, in their kindness, the supermen would leave them labour they couldn’t bother themselves with. And when a lucky child among them manifested powers, they would of course be taken to be raised with their own kind. They would forget their parents soon enough; better a moment of grief than a life wasted among a dying race.
The consistency of history was almost a comfort to Thomas Long—he didn’t know what he’d do if things actually improved.
“Who do you think I’ll have a married day with?”
“…Dunno, mate.” Awful choice of words. “Maybe Brit?”
He didn’t know who was served worse by that lie.
Ex-Nihilo lay on a bed of spider-silk, woven between the branches of the tallest trees she could find, a glass staircase spiraling around one of its trunks. It had taken her a while to figure out how to coax her protoplasm into adopting its substance, but like most everything else, it was still just a few chemicals in a line. She had fretted about huntsmen or even redbacks and funnel-webs smelling out the hammock and claiming it as a squat, but so far none had come. Maybe they knew a knock-off when they saw it.
Hanging the thing up was more of a chore, but Gwydion had provided Ex-Nihilo one of his weird platforms. That boy had been doing everything in his power to please her and her sisters, ever since his first married day, and every kindness made them hate him a little more.
Still, it was a rare escape from the frantic joy of younger children, and slight relief from the first blows of summer. Ex-Nihilo had never much enjoyed the warm months, and the child inside her seemed to agree. It was like it was sweating inside her. She was a great, bloated whale, struggling through a syrupy, kettle-hot sea.
The voice came from below her: high pitched, but slightly husky, too. Ex-Nihilo always thought it sounded like it was recovering from a coughing jag. “Myriad?”
The little girl’s voice was laced with wonder. “Is that you up there?”
“Who else would it be?”
Myriad almost felt the teenage scowl wafting down from above her. “Ha. Ha.”
“Was only joking. Do ya mind if I come up and take a look?”
Ah, so this was it, Lana thought. The small ones had found her refuge already. Soon enough the hordes would be using it as a trampoline, or worse. Probably break their necks doing it, and then who would they blame? But if she told Myriad to buzz off, then no doubt she’d go and whine to Basil, or Laurie, and then she’d get told off for not behaving in the proper sisterly spirit.
“We all have a role to play in shaping the children, Ex-Nihilo,” Lawrence would say.
And some of us got double-cast. “Sure, I guess.”
She heard a thump, and the leaves above her rattled. A moment later, she saw Myriad scuttling up one of the anchor trees, her back against the bark, facing forward. She grinned, clearly proud of herself.
Lana couldn’t help but be impressed, but she also couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the sight. The child looked… insectile. Then again, surely insects would rather be able to see their legs when they climbed? “…There were stairs, you know.”
“More fun this way.” She launched herself from the tree trunk, landing beside Ex-Nihilo and sending the hammock swaying in the air for a few shuddering seconds.
The older girl gripped the silk tight. She found herself thinking back to the dead mother from The Secret Garden. At least with Żywie around, the kid wouldn’t be a hunchback3. Thankfully, as her perhaps too cursory research had suggested it would, the cloth held true. “Jesus, Miri.”
Myriad stretched out, looking up through the leafy canopy to the blue, unblemished sky above. She thought it was like what a crowded marina would look like from underwater, each leaf drifting around like the shadows of boats at anchor. “How long until your baby comes?”
Ex-Nihilo shrugged. “Couple of months.”
Myriad stared at the older girl’s belly. All that, from a couple of cells. An entire life—from beginning to end—from just that lump of flesh. “What’s it feel like?”
Ex-Nihilo looked at the little girl. If she had known in advance what Myriad was going to ask, she probably would have called her a mongrel and thrown her off the hammock, without a care whether or not she found a song or whatever that might cushion the impact. But as it was, all she saw was her own past: a gap on the canvas where the old image hadn’t quite been painted over yet. Herself, back when she and her sisters’ biggest concern was whether they’d go swimming that day; herself, back when Linus might as well have been a strangely shaped girl. Herself, back when she had wondered what Melusine’s baby would look like. Before the joy of curiosity had been ruined by the answer.
“They say it changes everything, sex,” Lana said. “As soon as they tell us what it even is, it’s all about how special it is, and how having it too early or too late or with the wrong bloke will ruin everything. But it didn’t change me.” She figured if there was any child she could be frank with, it was Myriad. “I mean, it was weird and sticky, and I’ve had a better time with my own fingers, but I didn’t feel anymore grown up or dirty or anything, least once I had a shower. And Linus was good about it.”
Better than Gwydion, at least. That awful, nervous mix of fear and shame and excitement. And he was so small.
“So it’s not so bad?”
Lana didn’t answer immediately. “What does change you? Being a mother. I don’t know if we’re ‘mums’, but we are mothers. You spend nearly a year with this kid growing inside you. There’s this heat. You feel it all the time, even when you’re asleep, really. Żywie told me once that having a baby changed the way your DNA worked a little, and I believe her. And even once it’s out, the kid’s still part you. Just this little piece of yourself that you’ll never get back, that’ll be walking around doing things even after you’re dead. And you hope it will be, because you love it. Babies are like drugs, Myriad. Every chemical in your body forces you to love them. It was weeks before I could even look at Spitfire without getting my blouse wet with milk.”
Myriad squirmed a little. “That doesn’t sound—”
“And you can hate them, too, right along with the love.”
“Because they’re how they keep us where they want us.”
“I don’t know. Men? God? Just Lawrence? I don’t know. But I can’t leave Spitfire, and nobody out there’s going to want to take in some little slut with weird powers and a baby that starts fires when he sneezes, so I guess I’m stuck here until him and the kid inside me are all grown up!”
Myriad had no response to that, except to take hold of Lana Firrens’ hand. It was shaking.
The two children stayed up there for quite some time.
Alberto crouched under the obstacle course’s metal slide, sand and the rubber of his thongs rubbing his feet raw, his daughter clinging happily to his side. He would have put an arm under her, but she seemed content levitating. The baby looked up at her father with large, sloe-blown eyes, crying “Gah!” before burying her face in his shirt.
The psychic smiled. He had to admit, even when she wasn’t blasting all nine of his senses, there was something about Ophelia’s presence that pleased him. Maybe it was just the brainwashing chemicals that prevented cavemen from clubbing the shrieking little shits that ate all their food to death, but he was glad she… glad she was, he supposed.
Shame this wasn’t a pleasure walk.
Allison had let go of Eliza’s song, the lights of her thoughts popping back into Alberto’s view the moment she had done so, dancing on the edge of his vision like afterimages. This was good. Now he had an idea of where she was and what she was thinking, and it didn’t seem like he was on her thoughts much.
On the other hand, now the girl had gone and turned herself into what he was sure Eliza’s old masters would have called the ubermensch, and he still had no hold on the girl’s mind. If she took on the witch’s powers again, who knew when he’d get another chance to sink his hooks in? And what might she find out in the meantime?
Still, he had plans. Two, to be exact. Plan one was to try and touch Allison before she decided to tweak her immune system to eat colds better or something. If he didn’t get to her in time for that, plan two was to have Ophelia clap, hope it made her let go of the song, and hope he himself recovered his wits before she did.
God, he hoped she was content with her biology.
Near as he could tell, she had spent the last hour and a bit playing and commiserating with Ex-Nihilo, blowing bubbles in the air that dried into gold and silver. It was all very sweet, he was sure.
He watched as the two girls stepped out from the treeline, like witches returning from a sabbat. The younger child hugged the older, trying her best to avoid the baby-bump, before they went off their separate ways.
Good, that should make things easier.
Once he was certain Myriad was out of sight of Ex-Nihilo, Alberto started walking towards the girl, his daughter floating in tow. There was no way she didn’t know they were there, but he hoped she would just assume he was sleeping off some of the Lamb’s Blood he kept for especially dreary afternoons. “Brainiac!” he called out, in his own non-branded form of cheerfulness.
The girl turned to look at the man. “Tiresias?” She spotted the flying baby. “Ophelia?”
The toddler laughed with her father. “How’d you guess? So, I hear you’ve been going around asking questions about the married days.”
Myriad kicked up some dirt, muttering “Yeah. I just want it to make sense. To sound okay.”
Tiresias looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Who’ve you asked so far?”
“Um,” Myriad wasn’t sure how seriously Tiresias took the names, so she erred on the side of Lawrence, “Phantasmagoria, Ex-Nihilo, and Haunt. Growltiger was there, too, but I wasn’t really asking him.”
“That’s a good cross-section, I suppose. Would you like a father’s perspective on the whole business?”
Myriad nodded. “That would be good.”
“My advice? Stop stirring up shit, Allison.”
Tiresias threw his arms up like he was holding up the sky. “Girl, did you think all this was free? That Mad Laurie pulled all you children out of the shitholes they had you in because he was just so bloody nice? That he feeds and clothes you and tolerates your endless fuckin’ dramas out of the kindness of his heart?”
“Ye-yes,” Myriad stuttered. “He said so.”
A long, hoarse cackle, dangerously close to turning into a hiccup, cross-harmonized with an uncomprehending, joyous giggle. “Remember what Haunt told you, Allison? About grownups always wanting something from you?”
“How did you—”
“Don’t be slow, I know everything that goes on here. And he was being too kind. Nobody does anything if they aren’t going to get anything out of it.”
“That’s not true!” Myriad protested. “People donate to charities and stuff.”
Tiresias smiled, coldly. “Charity is tax-deductible, dear. And all the worst millionaires and robber-barons give money to the poor, or build them schools and hospitals. Makes them feel better at night about being most of the reason they have so little to begin with. More importantly, it helps other people forget that, too. ”
Myriad still looked dubious. “What does Lawrence get out of us?”
He laughed again. “Why, that’s an easy one!” He grabbed Ophelia, spinning the child much to her delight. “Babies, love!” He let go of his daughter, letting her bob in the air like it was water, before gesturing to the empty air next to him. “Stratogale! Physical wonder!” He pointed at himself. “Tiresias! Mental marvel!” The psychic wagged Ophelia’s cheek fondly. “He’s like a little kid, isn’t he? Bashing blocks together to see what happens!”
His audience grimaced.
Tiresias frowned. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You think I wanted to screw Sadie? She’s a kid! And there’s a perfectly good woman around…”
“…Wait, you and Melusine…”
He shrugged. “We were young. And bored. Still are, sometimes. But me and Stratogale? No joy in it. Just biology and friction.” Alberto saw an opportunity. “I don’t see why there even needs to be sex. You’d think Eliza could just turn whatever cells inside you she liked into seed”—a smile—“a whole school of Madonnas.”
“Me? I reckon Lawrence prefers it physical. I’m sure he thinks it promotes communal bonds or something, but the old man would’ve been brought up on that Greek myth crap, Zeus laying with Leda and all that4. The man half-thinks we’re gods, why not have us act like it?”
“But-but is it right?”
The man sighed. “Look, married days are crap, if you let yourself think about them that way, but they’re what needs to happen for that old pervert to get his wonder-babies. And that’s why he keeps you here. Why he keeps all of us. That’s why you’re allowed to play with your little puddle of a friend, and go to class, and not be scared, lonely and bored every minute of every day. Yeah, it’s disgusting, and Tim Valour would burn this place to the ground and salt the earth if he ever found out what was going on here. We’re all studs and broodmares, but that’s a small price to pay for what we’re getting. The old man’s a creep, but he’s given you a shred of your life back.” Before Myriad could react (which was saying something, after her personal renovations) Tiresias was whispering in her ear. “So stop being so fucking precocious and asking questions that piss everyone off.”
Alberto straightened, beckoning Ophelia to him. “You’re eight years old, Allie. Just enjoy being hairless and only bleeding when someone pricks you as long as you can.”
As he walked away, the telepath felt the summer heat on the little girl’s face, and the grass beneath her bare feet, while her apprehension and disgust washed over him like floodwaters over parched, cracked ground.
Just for fun, he flexed her fingers. It was a small thing, nothing she wouldn’t have done herself, but it still filled him with relief.
He was safe.
He had to say, it felt good being Allison, at least physically. Maybe, someday, he’d finagle a way of getting her to give him a tune up, too.
He felt other things, too. Like the rage and betrayal that bubbled and flowed from David into Eliza’s twisted plants, till they burst from it. Maybe he had that boy wrong.
And as for the Eliza’s little secret, now, at last, he had leverage.
1. It was Haunt.↩
2. Haunt was of course joking, but there is actually a species native to the Magellanic Clouds, largely made of tubes of neon, that to human eyes resemble stick-figures—Mabel’s didn’t look like them, either.↩
3. He wasn’t a hunchback in the book, either, but nevermind that.↩
4. A common historical misconception.↩