Annabelle doesn’t need to eat. Neither does Elias for that matter, but he’s never allowed that to stop him.
“What is the point in living so long,” he tells her when she asks, “if you can’t enjoy a good meal?” It’s a lovely philosophy, and Annabelle raises her glass to it. Still, she sticks to a starter. Wouldn’t do to overtax her atrophied digestive system.
“So, you went with Ms James as the new Archivist, then,” she says, when they’re done with their meal and finishing off the wine.
Elias looks up a shade too quickly. “She’s very well suited for the position. She’s doing great work.”
“Oh, I know,” Annabelle replies, sipping her red and letting it coat her tongue with rich tannins. “Still, I thought we’d provided you with an excellent candidate. A candidate who’s now mysteriously vanished.” Annabelle never once falters in her smile, her movements as smooth and graceful as they always are when she plays human. No threat visible, but then, there doesn’t need to be, really.
For a moment, Elias is quiet. Calculating, she’s sure. She could probably see, if she tried, the myriad silvered strings that thread through the brain of the Head of the Magnus Institute, just as they do through the brains of everyone around her – herself included, of course. Annabelle has never been able to tell if they’re a manifestation of the Mother’s workings in the world, or a representation of natural, unguided choice. Which is probably the point.
She doesn’t look. It’s nice to be surprised, sometimes.
Then Elias smiles. “How would you like to see something extraordinary?” he asks, eyes glittering. “Recompense, for the slight.”
Annabelle doesn’t pause to pretend to think about it. She could playact decision-making, but one of the reasons she enjoys Elias’ company is that there’s no need to do so. They understand each other pretty well.
“I’d love to,” she replies, and Elias’ smile widens. He drains his glass in a single, slow sip, and waves for the check.
Annabelle loops her arm through Elias’ as they step onto the tube platform. He gives her a little smile, which she returns blithely, and leads them off down the platform and up the steps, out of the station and towards Elias’ fine Kensington townhouse. Annabelle knows the way, of course, and Elias knows she knows. But sometimes its nice to lie politely to each other.
She also knows Jonathan Sims is in that house, somewhere. If what she’s heard about his circumstances before his disappearance is at all accurate, she’s fascinated to see how he’s doing.
Once inside, Elias takes her coat and hat, and leads her through the beautifully-decorated house. They walk down quite a few flights of stairs, eventually reaching a large door at the bottom, which Elias unlocks. He flicks a switch that sends golden light spilling out through the door, and waves her through with a polite curve of his arm. Raising an eyebrow, Annabelle steps inside, and blinks.
It looks like this is where Jonah Magnus keeps his library. The room is huge, two stories easily, and most of the wall space is taken up by bookcases of fine warm wood. Volumes of every size, thickness and colour line the walls, a dragon’s horde of knowledge. The girl she used to be, who loved books more than she’d ever loved a person and had decided to study English Lit when she was seven, trembles in delight at the riches.
But it’s what is against the walls with no bookcases that really catches her eye. A wall of glass, rising almost to the ceiling, and inside it a clear expanse of water. Like the rest of the room, the tank is beautifully appointed, fine ironwork curling over its edges and aquatic plants and rocks thick at the bottom, forming an unearthly underwater landscape.
The tank is beautiful, but the man swimming up from the bottom of it is even lovelier.
“Oh Elias,” Annabelle breathes. Her surprise isn’t even feigned; Elias doesn’t allow spiders in his house, and her little loves hadn’t been able to keep tabs on this particular curiosity since Elias brought him into his domain. And oh, but he has changed.
Jonathan Sims’ neck is accentuated by two neat lines of gills, soft fronds peaking from the slits. His eyes are a shimmering black, skin dappled with little stars of vivid green that Anabelle is certain are glowing. His colouring has shifted a little, undertones of opalescent green and blue gleaming when it catches the light. The inhuman colours are more and more obvious as they run down his body, towards a muscular, sinuous tail. It’s looks a little like the tail of an oarfish, long and impossibly graceful as it curves through the water. He is stunning, utterly unique, and the expression of his lovely face is blank with anxiety.
When Annabelle steps closer, further into the light of the room, Jonathan actually recoils. In a movement almost faster than she can track, his tail lashes through the water and he spins away, dropping into a cluster of rocks at the corner of the tank and out of sight.
Annabelle turns to Elias, brow raised. “What did I say?”
Elias sighs deeply. “I’m sorry. Perhaps he noticed your head?” He gestures to Annabelle’s uncovered head, and Annabelle’s hand reaches up to brush over the soft matt of web there.
“Hmm,” she murmurs, “you’d think such a beautiful monster would be more at ease around his peers.”
Elias gives her a charming smile. “He’s young, still. A wild little thing. It’s taken plenty of work for him to be even this agreeable.”
“Domestication,” Annabelle says, humming. “It’s true that not everything is suited to it, but you’d be surprised how many beasts will adapt, sooner or later.” She smiles at Elias. “Still, I’d like to see a little more of him. He really is a gorgeous creature.”
“Oh, he is,” Elias agrees. He leads Annabelle up a iron spiral staircase set at the side of the wall, an elegant bit of architecture that opens onto a wide ledge, furnished with an armchair, a side table with a few books resting on it, and a chest freezer tucked in a corner.
There’s a pair of what looks very much like chainmail-reinforced gloves in a shelf, but Elias ignores them as he walks to the chest freezer, rolling up his sleeves. Annabelle loops an arm around the pole at the edge of the platform, swinging a little way out to see deeper into the clear water.
She thinks she spots a peak of bright eyes from the cluster of rocks below her, but it vanishes as soon as she notices. She smiles down at it anyway, a little enamoured. What an adorable monster, honestly.
Elias steps up to join her, and when she notices the plate in his hands, she can’t help but smile. It looks like sashimi; neat, colourful little slices of fish, piled up thick but still laid out neatly. Elias’ relentless classiness is fun as hell sometimes.
Smiling back at her, Elias nudges a cushion onto the floor and sinks to sit cross-legged on it. He trails a hand in the water, then calls softly, “Jon, come here, please. Time to eat.”
For a moment, there’s only stillness, and Annabelle wonders if Jon heard the dinner bell at all. Then, slowly, the strange and graceful shape slips out of the shadows, and Annabelle grins in delight.
Jon rises through the water quickly, but lingers just under the surface. His eyes flick from the plate of food, to meet Annabelle’s fascinated gaze, to Elias’ placid, patient face. It’s the last that he stares at, before finally breaking the surface with a flick of his tail.
Annabelle gasps to see his head breach the water. She can’t help it – she’s always been fascinated with mythology, and growing up so close to the ocean, she’d consumed every book about mermaids she could get her hands on. She had even imagined that she might be one, secretly – why else would she feel so disconnected from her family, the people around her. Why else would she be forever aching for something more?
All the wonderful horrors she’s seen in her new life, and this is still enough to fill her with childish joy.
“Lovely, isn’t he,” Elias says, extending a hand towards Jon. For a moment, Jon stays away, before his eyes flick down and he glides through the water, butting the top of his head against Elias’ hand. From this close, Annabelle can see the nictitating membrane that sweeps across his eyes, the pearly blue sheen to his skin. The jut of bone beneath it.
“He looks hungry,” she murmurs.
Elias hums in agreement, combing his fingers through Jon’s dark, silky-looking hair. “I’m sure you know that food is an excellent vector of control. He gets enough to live on, and more if he’s good.” A gentle chuck under Jon’s chin gets him to meet Elias’ gaze, and the other avatar’s eyes are proud and found, swimming with possession. “He’s being good for me now.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Annabelle replies. She wants to touch him, this gorgeous, mythical thing, hidden away in a secret library, in the cellar of the man who wants to end the world. She wants to stroke over that fine hair, run a finger across the fragile gill-slits, so much like open cuts.
Jon catches her eyes on him, and his lips twitch back, revealing at least one row of wickedly sharp teeth. They flash white in the soft glow of the room, and Annabelle gasps in wonder. He’s magnificent.
With the lightest tug on his hair, Elias guides Jon’s head back round to face him. He takes a single slice of what looks like salmon, sushi-grade and cut into an elegant rectangle, and holds it by the end. Stretching his hand over the water, he offers it to Jon.
Annabelle holds her breath in anticipation, images of those bladed teeth closing around Elias’ wrist. Instead, Jon leans in, hands still clenching and unclenching under the water, and neatly bites the fish from Elias’ hand. He brings it into his mouth with a little flick of his head, chews, and swallows. His face flickers with something that would be heart-wrenching if Annabelle still had a heart that wasn’t a nest of spiders, and she can see the bright flowers of need and helplessness blooming behind his eyes.
“Is this what the glove is for?” she asks, enraptured by the awful beauty of the scene before her.
Elias nods, selecting a slice of what looks like eel. “Yes, that was how we began. But he knows not to bite now, don’t you?” His voice drops to a croon as he addresses Jon, and Jon looks at him through his water-beaded lashes, before nodding reluctantly. In obvious reward, Elias offers him the eel.
Watching Jon be fed is hypnotic, lovely. Annabelle crouches on her haunches to get a better view; her muscles long ago replaced with fibres far sleeker and stronger, she’s free to appreciate to her heart’s content. Each time Jon dips out of the water far enough to take the slice of fish, each delicate swallow and dip of his eyes as he allows himself to be treated like a pet, sends a delightful little shiver through her. Elias’ face is a picture, relaxed and powerful as he offers his unprotected fingers to the predator he’s caged, utterly without fear. He might as well have a collar on the man – though, of course, that would obstruct his breathing.
Not that it would be a bad look on Jon, and she wonders if Elias has tried that particular vector of control before. Clumsy, of course, but you can’t put a nail through someone’s hand with a scalpel. Sometimes, a hammer really is the best tool for the job.
Jon must have looked lovely, gasping for air, for water. Reaching out to Elias, begging with his last breaths for mercy. Promising to obey, if only Elias let him live.
Her hand twitches against her leg, fingers drumming over her thigh, and she flicks a glance at it, before heeding its request. “Elias?” She asks, and the man glances up at her. “Can I feed him?”
A smile twitches over Elias’ lips. “Certainly,” he says, heedless of how Jon shakes his head, a little noise of terror slipping from those soft lips.
Or not heedless, because when he glances back at Jon, Elias’ eyes are cold as ice. “You won’t disappoint me, will you?” he asks, voice laden with sweet threat. “I know you wouldn’t shame me in front of our guest.”
For a moment, Annabelle wonders if Jon will fight him. She almost hopes he does; watching Elias at work would be a real treat to cap off this perfect evening. But then Jon dips his head, slipping closer to her as if moving towards his execution.
“Don’t be silly,” Annabelle tells him, taking the slice of tuna that Elias offers her. “I’m not going to hurt you, you gorgeous thing.” She holds it out to Jon, waiting still as a statue.
When Jon leans in and carefully takes the fish between his teeth, the sweet rush of power makes the webs that weave through Annabelle Cane hum and dance.
She feeds the merman in reverent silence – would be trembling with the joy of it, if she were still a mammal. It’s everything she dreamed it would be and more, and when the plate is finally empty she lets her hand slide into Jon’s hair, petting it as Elias had. He’s less skittish around her now, or more resigned, and takes the attention with a bowed head. His hair is improbably soft, and Annabelle’s lips would hurt with her smile, if they did that anymore.
“Having fun?” Elias asks, and Annabelle turns her grin to him.
“Thank you,” she says giddily. “He’s a treasure.” Jon trembles under her hand, but he doesn’t move away.
“He is indeed,” Elias replies. “We’ll have to arrange another viewing, some time.”
It’s a hell of a risk, letting Annabelle into his inner sanctum repeatedly. But, she supposes, the Institute is his sanctum – this is just his home. Besides, there’s no harm in the Web and the Eye cooperating more closely, not with such a paradigm shift on the horizon.
Besides, devoted to her God and her work as she is, Annabelle’s still got some personality in the glittering sculpture of web that has replaced her brain. And tonight, she got to feed a merman.
“I’d love that,” she says, and watches a single tear slide from Jon’s eye, falling to melt into the water of his prison.