Nyssaias had suggested they study until one o'clock, have lunch, and then watch the DVD - it provided a natural structure to the day. The others had agreed easily.
When they came back into the living room after the meal, Xeffy picked up the DVD case from where she'd left it out, removed the DVD, and slipped it into the player, whilst the others took their seats.
Then she scuttled back to the settee, and pushed 'Play' on the remote.
The world went white-
Some way across Nameless, Mephiahna jolted into life; she'd programmed the fly to alert her to any use of magic, and from the look of things this was /it/-
When their vision cleared, the MythMob found themselves seated in a row of comfy chairs, one to each chair, facing row upon row of empty seats. Behind them was a pale luminescent backdrop, with the logo 'TRUDI!' scrawled across it. To either side, the stage disappeared into darkness.
"What the _Hell?_" Embericles demanded. "Where _are_ we?"
"Got me," Xeffy said. "Looks like the daytime talkshow from Beyond."
"Ooh... close, so close!" The voice had /just/ that level of bubbliness and perkiness that starts to grate on the soul.
A bottle-blonde woman in her mid-forties, who looked as if she'd had a facelift to make her look twenty years younger and seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that it made her look like a forty year old with a bad facelift, ascended the dias, microphone in hand, with the expression of someone taking this all /very/ seriously. "You're the special guests on today's edition of 'Trudi!' - 'Secrets Of A Demon Lord's Harem!'"
Applause erupted from thin air.
Nyssaias looked around, startled, to try and see where the sudden applause had come from.
"Query: is that a soundtrack?" Molly wondered.
"I'm Trudi, and today on the show, we've got a group of girls, all of who are 'friends' with the same boy." The airquotes could be /heard/ dropping around the word.
Ayna jolted. "Hey! I /heard/ those airquotes!"
Embericles smirked slightly. "I have one friend, and she isn't a boy."
"But this is no ordinary boy, oh no. Once, he was the Demon Lord Aballon, ruler of his own realm in the depths Beyond, master of all he surveyed.
"That was, however, before his 'unfortunate' accident."
The smirk beneath her voice was plainly audible, even though her expression retained its seriousness.
"Now, he attends H. G. Wells High School under the name 'Kari'.
"And, like any good Demon Lord, he's assembled a harem around him."
The MythMob stared at her, before bursting into laughter. Even Embericles smiled a chilly smile at the presenter's words.
"Fact: that is a /bad/ fact." Molly said, once they'd managed to calm down. "We are by no definition of the word a 'harem'."
"Of course not, Molly, sweetie," Trudi agreed. "But let's be honest: 'Secrets of a Demon Lord's Best Friends' just doesn't have the same ring now, does it?"
"Who the hell /cares/?" Kwen demanded.
"It's all in the presentation, Kwen, sweetie - can I call you Kwen?" Trudi said.
"If I can call you a pretentious bitch with her head up her ass," Kwen said, equally sweetly.
"'Trudi' will do fine, thank you." Trudi said, unruffled. "It's all in how you present it. People don't want to sit around watching a bunch of talking heads - they want to be /entertained/.
"And that's where /I/ come in. Can't let it get too boring, now, can we? Got to keep up the pace, keep things moving." She paused. "In fact... why don't we get started right now?
"On today's special edition of 'Trudi!', Nyssaias the Light Muse!"
Nyssaias's wings fluttered nervously at the applause.
"Embericles the Dark Muse!"
"Don't call me what I'm not," the redhead growled.
Trudi raised her eyebrows. "That's what I've got down here..."
"Yeah?" Embericles said. "Then it's wrong."
"Then you'll want to take it up with the others," Trudi said. "That's where I got it from, after all."
"Then _they're_ wrong."
"We didn't say anything!" Nyssaias protested.
"You didn't need to." Trudi said. "Part of the magic."
Embericles's scowl etched itself deeper on her face.
"Molly the Grel!"
"Query: where /is/ that coming from?" Molly asked the world at large.
"Kwenella the Skank!"
Kwen tried to hide her face. "Oh my Gawd..."
"And the Allingham girls, Xephanya and Aynaphex! The first Divine Sirens in the Outside Dimensions in over three millennia!"
Xeffy's expression tightened, while Ayna looked increasingly worried.
"All today on 'Secrets Of A Demon Lord's Harem!"
The applause reached all-new levels of intensity.
Molly looked around. "Query: does /anyone/ know where that is coming from?"
"We'll start you off easy," Trudi said as the applause died away. "Nyssaias?"
The girl in question looked up, startled.
"Yes ma'am?" she stammered, polite under almost any circumstance, even such as these.
Embericles glared icy-cold death at Trudi, who ignored her.
Trudi knelt beside the Light Muse's chair. "What secrets have you been keeping?"
"I... I haven't been keeping any." Nyssaias straightened, meeting the hostess's gaze. "I always tell the truth. I have nothing to hide."
Trudi grinned. "Proper little goody-goody, aren't you? But do you always tell the _whole_ truth?"
The question caught Nyssaias flat-footed. "Er... I believe I do..."
"Lightsiders _always_ say that, don't they?" Trudi smirked to the unseen audience. "But I'd bet there are a few things you haven't been too upfront about. How about a certain nice young fellow by the name of Marius?"
Nyssaias flushed red as a brick and seemed to find something terribly interesting about her shoes, while Embericles went very still.
"Oho!" cried Trudi. "Looks like I've hit a shame nerve with that one, Miss Beacon-of-Truth!" The invisible audience hooted and catcalled.
"I didn't do anything shameful!" Nyssaias burst out. "It wasn't like that! He was..."
"He was _what_?" smarmed the hostess.
"He was much older than me. I was just twelve, and Marius was seventeen-"
"With a Lolita complex, I take it?" Trudi smirked, to the audience's delight.
"We didn't _do_ anything!" Nyssaias shot back, with uncharacteristic heat. "He barely even knew I was there."
Trudi nodded sagely. "So, it was lack of opportunity that kept you from--"
"He was a Music Muse," Nyssaias explained over her. She smiled a little in spite of herself; the term 'Music Muse' had always struck her as delightfully silly. "He lived down the block from me in the City of Dreams. "He was very handsome, and he could play any kind of stringed instrument. I used to sit on the curb in front of his house and listen to him practicing." She shook her head, chuckling at her old foibles. "Every now and then, I'd bake him some cookies and leave them at his front door, with a note telling him how cool he was. I never signed them, but he knew who was doing it. Even so, I don't think he ever spoke more than a couple of dozen words to me. He was too focused on his music and, well, I was _twelve_."
"I see," Trudi replied, then turned and stuck the microphone in Embericles's face. "So," she demanded of the bat-winged girl, "what do _you_ think about that torrid little youthful crush?"
"Why the Hell are you asking _me_?" Embericles snapped back.
Trudi just smiled, cat-like. "We'll get to that later," she purred, then went back to Nyssaias. "That was a pretty dull secret, but I suppose you _are_ a little goody-two-shoes, aren't you? Miss Perfection? And, speaking of Miss Perfection, let's talk about your parents."
"What about them?" Nyssaias asked warily.
"Do you love them?"
"Of course I do!"
"Even your stepmother?"
"One hundred percent?" Trudi prodded. "Unreservedly?"
"I've already said as much," said Nyssaias firmly.
"And yet..." Trudi paused for a moment, letting the tension mount. "And yet, you don't call her 'Mother'."
Nyssaias's jaw worked, but nothing came out, being knocked too far off-stride to say anything.
"It just seems odd to me," the hostess went on with malicious curiosity, "that she's been with your father for over ten years, she's the only mother-figure you've ever known, and yet you still call her by either her name or _step_mother. Could it be that there's some resentment there? Some sort of twisted jealousy...?"
The Light Muse was silent for a long moment.
"Well," Trudi said. "We're waiting."
Nyssaias blew out a sigh and sat up, ramrod-straight, and fixed Trudi with a stare that was, for want of a better word, regal. "I _am_ jealous of my stepmother," she said evenly. "It isn't some sick thing like you're trying to make it sound, but I do envy her. I envy her, and one day, I hope to be as good and noble a person as she is."
Xeffy, Ayna, Kwen and Molly gawped. As far as they were concerned, Nyssaias pretty much defined perfection (in fact, there'd been a petition to have her picture in the dictionary next to the word). That there might be someone she thought was even /more/ perfect was almost beyond comprehension.
"Kassiandra is the kind of person I can only pray that I'll grow up to be," Nyssaias went on, "and for that, I envy her. And as for why I don't call her 'mother', it's because she _asked_ me not to, out of respect for my real mother's memory. There's no opprobrium in the word 'stepmother' to me. To me, it means someone who loves you and treats you like their own child, even though they don't have to. It and the name Kassiandra are fine and honorable terms and mean the world to me, and I won't stand for either being besmirched." She crossed her arms and waited, almost daring the hostess to try and make something nasty out of it.
"Whoa, Nyss!" muttered Xeffy, impressed.
"Yeah!" cheered Kwen. "Lay the smackdown on her!"
Trudi's smirk, however, failed to go away. "So then," she purred, "if you love your parents so much, I guess that means you trust them."
Nyssaias just nodded.
"And, if you trust them, I guess that means you tell them everything? Like, about your friend Kari and the trouble he's in?"
Nyssaias's face fell slightly.
"Do they know?"
"...no..." Nyssaias whispered.
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that."
"...No." Nyssaias managed to get out. "No, they don't."
Trudi *peered* at her. "Ah. So, apparently, 'trust' means something _different_ where you come from, then, because that's not what _I'd_ call it. And just /why/ exactly are you doing this for a boy you've only known a couple of months?"
"He's..." Nyssaias pulled herself together with admirable speed. "He's my /friend/.
"He's my friend. I can't run out on him."
"You're sure?" Trudi said, quirking an eyebrow. "Nothing else you'd like to tell the audience about?"
".../No./" Nyssaias said firmly. "He's sweet on /Ayna/. Everyone knows that. And even if there /was/ anything more, I wouldn't want to get between my friends."
"Thank you." Trudi said. "That's all.
"Hmm... let me see..." She scanned the row of chairs, before alighting on Kwen. "Ah, Kwen."
"Yeah?" Kwen said, tensing her grip on the armrest, her snakes shifting uncertainly.
"Let's see... what have we got?" Trudi mused. "Hm. The traditional frustration with Mom, Dad and sister dearest... nothing juicy there... the gender-bending, the triplication, those little, ahem, projects you work on in the garage... not that they're all /that/ dangerous, are they... very disappointing, you know. Gender-bending's usually /ripe/ with secrets..."
She smirked. "In fact, they were /all/ pretty disappointing when it came down to it, weren't they, Kwenella?"
"Go to Hell," Kwen said.
"Nothing - not even your realm's own peculiar brand of invulnerablity - could help."
"Query: invulnerability?" Molly said.
"Mm." Trudi said. "Maybe invulnerability's the wrong word. But what would you call it when someone manages to walk away from accidents, explosions, laser fire, space battles... walks away from things that by all rights should have left them severely injured, if not dead... walks away singed, scorched and burned... and yet, and /yet/, the worst it does is knock them silly.
"That's it. That's all it does. Knocks them silly for a minute, and then they're ready for action again." Trudi *peered* at Kwen. "Almost /cartoonish/, really."
Kwen shrugged, tension visible from the motion. "That's the way it goes."
"Mm," Trudi agreed. "What else would you expect from an RPG called 'Teenagers From Outer Space'?
"But you see, Kwen, the part /I'm/ having trouble with is why on Earth you'd want to give that up to go to H. G. Wells."
"The shopping was good." Kwen said.
"Maybe for /Kwallie/," Trudi said. "But you're rather more technically minded, aren't you? The geek of the family. Not so much interested in the shopping as what you can get - and what you can do with it.
"Now, I'd be the first to agree Nameless is over/flowing/ with technological goodies, but come on - was it really so good that you decided to switch schools? After all, Nameless /is/ only a PLOT Hole away - shopping trips can't be /that/ difficult.
"Your family, maybe? But no, we've established the worst you feel about /them/ is frustration." Trudi pondered. "So perhaps it was /school/..."
She snapped her fingers, and a manila folder appeared in her hand in a puff of smoke.
"Let's see... nothing wrong with attendance, punctuality /or/ behaviour," she said, flipping through the folder's contents. "Can't be /that/, then. Most peculiar. /One/ thing most everyone seems to agree on is that you have a very /practical/ turn of mind. You must have had /some/ reason for doing what you did." Trudi tapped her chin. "Hm. Not your family, not your hobbies, not your school... how about your /friends/?"
Kwen's snakes hissed angrily, her expression below dark and seething.
"Yes..." Trudi mused. "Let's say that you found yourself in a position where you were /unable/ to help a friend - when it got to hurt so much that you had to get away - that you couldn't stand to be there anymore. That might do it. Renouncing the invulnerability - taking on the pain - just so long as it meant you didn't have to go /there/ again.
"Didn't have to feel so powerless.
"Didn't have to remember /her/."
"You. Utter. Shit." Kwen spat out, looking ready to bolt from her chair and tackle the hostess, her snakes readying to strike, but immobilised by some invisible force.
"Such a nice girl, wasn't she?" Trudi continued. "Everyone agreed.
"Well, not /everyone/.
"You were her best friend. You did everything in your power to hold them off, to stop them hurting her... but even you couldn't stop them getting through to her, wearing her down...
"Even with everything you did, every plan you came up with, every invention you created...
"...you couldn't save her soul.
"You watched her leave on that spaceship, tears trickling down your faces - too many tears for one body to hold - and you swore you'd never let it happen again."
"YOU BITCH!!" Kwen screamed, snakes spitting. "YOU ABSOLUTE SHITEATING *BITCH*!! I'M GONNA TAKE THAT MICROPHONE AND MAKE YOU /CHOKE/ ON IT!!"
"Try," Trudi invited.
She snapped her fingers.
Kwen leaped for her-
-and went right through.
"See?" Trudi said, turning back to the others. "I'm not really here. I'm a construct of the magic."
Kwen hauled herself to her feet, tears trickling down her face.
"You /bitch/." she whispered.
Molly stared at the presenter, black eyes burning into her. "Statement: You are in my way. Get out of it."
Embericles's gaze snapped up at those familiar words.
"Fine by me," Trudi said.
She stepped aside, letting Molly go to Kwen's side, helping her back into her chair, the snake-haired girl keeping as far away from Trudi as possible.
Nyssaias stared as she went.
"May I?" she said.
Ayna raised her hand. "And me."
"Be my guest," Trudi said.
Nyssaias nodded, and she and Ayna went to join Molly and Kwen.
Trudi dismissed Kwen's folder with a wave of her hand, and turned to regard the girls.
"Who's next?" she wondered. "Hm. How about... Molly?"
The Grel girl stared back at her from her place by Kwen's side. "Fact: you are a horrible, horrible person, and I hope someone breaks your DVD."
Trudi shrugged. "I never claimed to be nice." She pulled up a card. "Now, what've we got here...?"
"Fact." Molly said. "I am the Mask. Further, supplementary fact: when I am the Mask, all the information I learn is stored in my second brain, where I am unable to directly access it. This causes me a great deal of distress, because I have a library of information stored in my head, and I do not know what it is."
"That's not the only thing you've been keeping quiet about, is it?" Trudi said.
Molly blinked big black eyes, confused.
"For one, your Grel name is Grel 37UJ0FT4.
"For another... oh, this is /priceless/...
"For another, you're bisexual."
"She's /what?/" Xeffy said.
"Attracted to both boys and girls - or suitable equivalents in other species." Trudi supplied.
"I know what it /means/, thanks," Xeffy snapped.
"So come on then, Molly," Trudi said, "why don't you tell us what you think of your friends, hmm? Romantically speaking, of course."
Molly glared at her.
"Opinion," she said. "Xeffy and Ayna are attractive, but too emotionally volatile for my preference."
"Thanks..." Xeffy murmured.
Molly glanced sideways at Embericles, then plunged on.
"I am curious about Embericles, but it is that type of curiosity you have about something particularly dangerous."
Embericles permitted herself a tiny smile.
"Nyssaias is calm, peaceful and intellectual, all of which are qualities I find attractive. However, since both she and you have not identified her as being likely to respond to any approaches, I am happy to be friends."
"Kwen is..." Molly considered. "Kwen is my best friend, and has a practicality of mind and approach to life that I find admirable, even if she can be emotionally volatile on occasion."
This time, it was /Kwen's/ turn to blink. "Say /what?/"
"Again, given that neither she or you have identified her as being responsive, I am content to be friends, although I would like to play with her hair-snakes if she and they were amenable."
Kwen simply /gawped/, her snakes hissing in surprise.
Molly turned back to Trudi. "As regards Kari, it is possible we could be compatible, although I think he would be more my type if he were a girl, but I refer back to what Nyssaias said - it is apparent from observation that he and Ayna are attracted to each other, and that is something I would rather not interfere with, since both of them are my friends, and I respect them both."
"...All right," Trudi said."Next up."
She moved on along to Embericles.
Part One - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five
Copyright 2005 Imran Inayat.