one for sorrow
Sorrow is too small a word for it - for the tragedy that devours his family in one terrible night, leaving only Percival, the last sad remnant of what had once been a family. Tragedy, they call it, in hushed whispers: so sad, what happened to those poor people. Sorrow is an insult, a thing too small to stand in the face of murder and destruction and the end of the world.
But sorrow is a beast with teeth of iron, and they rip at his mind and his soul until there is little left of humanity or even sanity. It screams in his head, echoes of all that he has lost - family, home, safety, future - until all that is left is Percy, last sad remnant of what had once been a person. Sometimes, he is not even certain that much remains.
two for mirth
It strikes him, as he is dragged away from his target by armed guards, that this is probably exactly how his family would have expected his attempt at revenge to go. There had always been a fond, gentle mockery of his tendency to mess things up because he was so deeply buried in his studies or his work. He had been known to walk into walls or fall into ingenious practical jokes set by his younger siblings. Mother would have shaken her head, hiding a smile, and Father would have taken him aside for a quick speech on the need to keep a clear focus on the things that were in front of him. They wouldn’t have been surprised by his latest failure.
It is simply typical of him, he muses, strangely absent from himself as he is unceremoniously hauled toward a building that can only be a prison. And that is a startling reassurance, and one that he had not even looked for - that something of who he was Before has survived.
He laughs at that - a bitter, broken thing, creaking with disuse. He has not laughed in months - years - decades? - not since the end of his world. There is nothing amusing in any of it. There might be nothing amusing left in all of Exandria. But Percy laughs, and thinks it is possible that he might still exist.
three for a death
He has seen so much death that sometimes he is not sure he will ever get the smell of it out of his nostrils. He has been up close and personal with death several times since the first time it came calling, and he imagines he is now immune to it. The deaths of sailors at sea had never broken through the fog that surrounded him - not the almost-friend who fell overboard in a storm, nor the cook, dying slowly of infection from a bad burn. Even the sudden, sharp loss of a tiny cabin boy who ought never to have been aloft passed over him like mist before the bow of a ship, and he breathed through it and felt nothing. Death had come too close, and bore him no terrors, now.
Or so he thinks.
But there is a cat in the dank prison into which he is thrown, and somehow, Percy becomes almost fond of the battered old thing. It creeps through the bars of his cell to attend to the vermin, and sometimes he wakes from fitful slumber to find it curled up against him, the one spot of warmth against the chill of stone and iron chains. He hardly remembers warmth or softness. The rumble of the cat’s purr does something inside his chest, and Percy finds himself saving bits from his horrid rations to try and tempt the cat back, to ensure one more moment of warmth and connection.
And when he wakes one bitter morning to find the old cat curled up in his lap, cold and still, Percy realizes that Death is not through with him. He pets the tiny, stiff corpse with absent fingers, and lets the tears spill down his cheeks. He wouldn’t mind if death came for him now, but for the revenge he had promised himself on his family’s murderers. He is not afraid of it.
He still weeps.
four for a birth
Percy had been almost present at the births of all of his younger siblings. He had waited a few rooms away, keeping pace with his father’s anxious pacing, and had gone away and made pompous notes in his pompous diary about the event after the fact. The only birth he did not remember was his own - which was as it should be, of course. No-one ought to remember their own birth.
He prayed, in the end, in that prison cell - for something, anything, to give him guidance, to show him a way forward. Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III had never held with deities, or faith in anything other than what he could see and touch. The shattered fragment that remains of him is no longer certain of anything, and addresses a prayer to parties unknown.
His new life rushes in on him before he is prepared for it, all violence and blood and noise and chaos. He seems to find himself yanked from the familiar surroundings of his cell with hardly more than a word (though that seems unlikely, when he thinks back on it later. His new companions never do anything without talking it over to the point of absurdity.) A huge, terrifying someone claps him hard on the back, knocking him to his knees as his legs tremble from hunger and disuse, and someone else pulls him back up and urges him forward, wrapping a warm cloak around his shoulders.
“Don’t worry,” one of the newcomers says soothingly. “It’s all much worse than it seems. You’ll be regretting meeting us in no time.”
And Percy is dragged forward into a new life, a new family, in the strangest sort of rebirth that he could imagine. He hates to imagine which of the deities might be responsible.
five for silver
“Yes, you’ve explained about the weapon,” one of the dark-haired twins tells him patiently, some time after they’ve escaped his prison. He doesn’t know how long it’s been. He’s better now, truly he is, but he still loses time, or finds himself in places without knowing how he got there. It’s not his biggest problem. “We get it. It’s very important, and we shouldn’t touch. But you’re not answering the question.”
The other one pops up, and Percy spends some time wondering if this is, perhaps, his mind playing tricks on him. That happens sometimes, too. Are there really two of them? “Yes, darling,” this one says, more wariness than warmth in the tone. “We’re not asking anything difficult - just your name.”
They have no idea how difficult that is. His name was something, once - almost something of importance. Now, it is the only thing of value he has left. He is likely the only person remaining in the world who even knows it. He’d gone by something on the ship - not his real name, he knows - but he cannot remember what it had been. It hadn’t mattered.
His hand slips to the weapon at his side, finger tracing over the names engraved in five of the six barrels. Names have power, he knows; he doesn’t trust any of these people.
A tiny figure is by his side when he blinks his way back from thought, and the face of the little gnome is serious. She doesn’t try to touch him. He appreciates that.
“You don’t need to give us anything,” she murmurs, the words almost lost in the chatter of the group. “Not if it matters to you. But we kind of need something to call you.”
“I could name ‘im,” the goliath puts in cheerfully. “I’m really good at names.” The gnome gives Percy a wide-eyed look that tells him he doesn’t want to take the goliath up on this offer.
Percy stands up, not without effort, and wanders across the campsite. They all give him space, watching him warily; they do not know what they have brought into their midst. He makes his way slowly to the nearby stream, lowering himself to his knees at it’s edge. He feels like an old man these days, battered by a weary life. As he leans over the water, still and clear here in a tiny pool that has collected by one bank, he doesn’t know the face that looks back at him.
His hair is a singular shock of silver, standing up at odd angles, looking nothing like the boy who had stared at him from his mirror back at Whitestone so many years before. He hadn’t seen his reflection much since; had gotten good at shaving without benefit of a mirror aboard ship, like the other sailors. The pale, silvery ghost who looked up at him from the water looked right, though. This was what the last survivor of Whitestone ought to look like.
But he didn’t look like Percival.
“Just-” he muttered, shaking his head when he realized several of the group were standing around staring at him again. He’d probably lost time again, off in his own head while his hands shook and his body stayed frozen. “Just call me Percy.”
six for gold
Vex is a light, golden and glorious. She is the first one he trusts - as much as he trusts anyone, now. She is brutally honest from the start, and he thinks that he loves her for that; he wonders if he even remembers what that word once meant.
“So,” she says, coming up beside him as he stares into the flames of their little campfire late that first night. He’s said that he would take the midnight watch, but he doesn’t blame her for sitting up with him. He wouldn’t trust any of them to watch his back, either; he will lie awake all night, and likely for some time to come. “Percy.”
“Yes? Hello?” he tries awkwardly after a moment passes, and nothing more is said.
“This is a bit awkward,” she says, stretching out the words in an unnatural sing-song. “And nobody else wants to bring it up, because they’re all cowards, so I sort of have to.”
“You want me to leave,” he says flatly. That makes sense, after all. He nods, already thinking of what he needs to bring when he leaves in the morning.
“No! No, no, no,” she says quickly, flapping her hands at him. “Well, Vax does, but only because he’s a suspicious bastard. I’m just...not sure that we’re the best fit for you, perhaps?” Her voice trails away, gone high and vague, and Percy frowns at her.
“How do you mean?”
She sighs, dragging her hands down her face. “Well, it’s just…” She stops, and starts again. “You seem a bit … sickly. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong! But we’re a band of mercenaries who aren’t always good at actually getting paid, you understand. And as soon as we do get a bit of gold, I barely get my hands on it before everyone’s rushing off to spend it!” Vex is so comically over-annoyed by this that Percy wishes he remembered how to smile like a person. “Anyway,” she says, breathing long and deep. “I’m only saying that we’re all going to feel really bad if you up and die on us because we couldn’t afford to look after you, so maybe you want us to take you to a village and set you up somewhere that you can rest peacefully?”
He watches her for a long moment, trying to figure out her angle, the threat she poses, the danger lurking in the shadows - and then he gives up. He is tired, and she is so honest right now that it almost hurts. He reaches into the bag at his side and pulls out his leather money bag, tossing it to her without breaking eye contact. She catches it on reflex, gasping as she glances inside it.
“I didn’t mean you needed to pay us!” Vex shoves it back at him, some strange mixture of offended and already grieving the loss. “We may be mercenaries, but we’re a bit above beating up dying prisoners for their gold, thank you!”
“I’m not dying,” he protests mildly. He gathers up the bag and holds it out to her, pleased that his hands aren’t shaking now. “I have gold. I don’t need it, I don’t want it, and I don’t know how to look after it. That was-” he breaks off. That was Vesper’s job, from the moment she turned twelve and had insisted on Father letting her take over from the bookkeeper who had been skimming money from the family accounts. “I want you to have it,” he says again after a moment. “I’ll tell you when I need some of it for my work, and you can do what you like with the rest.”
She watches him for a long time, but he knows she will take the offer, if only from the way her fingers keep twitching toward the bag. “Fine,” she says in the end, taking the bag from him gently, now. “But if I get to decide what to do with it, the first thing we’re doing is buying you some clothes that aren’t rags. Also, food. Lots of it.” She frowns at his skinny wrists, and the bag disappears somewhere about her person.
Percy stares back at the fire, and thinks he can remember how to smile if he gives it a bit of thought. He is lighter without the weight of the gold.
seven for a secret never to be told
Honest people didn’t keep secrets, Mother had told him time and again. The de Rolos had an obligation to be honest with their people, or they stood to do nothing but damage to those who relied on them. Percival had been a bit of a secretive child, though, and kept his more dangerous tinkering experiments to himself, though not without a rush of guilt when Mother looked at him knowingly.
But someone had been keeping a secret, he has decided over time. Something about Whitestone, some secret he had never been privy to, had been the downfall of his entire house. He isn’t certain whether he wishes he had known the secret or not. If he’d known, he would have blurted it out under Ripley’s cunning hands; but, then, if he’d known anything of value, there would at least have been a purpose to torturing him. As it is, he bears the scars of someone else’s secrets. He doesn't even bother pretending he hasn't got secrets of his own, now.
Trust grows slowly between Percy and the other members of their little band, but somehow he blinks, and it has been nearly half a year, and he has seven other people whom he trusts with his life, and who trust him with theirs. He is never going to take that responsibility lightly.
He makes himself a mental list of all of the secrets that might pose a threat to them, ranking and ordering them, and tries to work out whether he can divest himself of any of them. The difficulty is, though, that for all their prowess at magic and fighting, Percy is sometimes shocked to realize just how foolhearty and juvenile their group can be. They call themselves Vox Machina now, but the SHITS had been more honest.
How can he let them know about the Briarwoods, when Grog and Scanlan are as likely to be using their heads as battering rams to see whose cracks first as they are to be thinking? How can he share the dangerous truth of his own full identity, while he watches Keyleth and Pike get so drunk they can’t stand up, howling all their secrets to the sky in great laughing gusts of careless joy?
How can he tell anyone the secret that truly scares him - the dark monster that haunts his dreams - when Vax and Vex change moods on a dime, weaving through unpredictable extremes of emotion faster than he can keep up?
Percy burns his mental list, consigning it all to his own memory, and vows to keep his secrets.
(Two weeks later, they will encounter a haughty government employee who seeks to stand between them and the information they need, and Percy will burst out with his whole name, every aristocratic syllable of it tinged with scornful disdain that accomplishes his goals. He won’t even remember that he meant to keep it from them forever. After all, they’ll never get it right.)
eight for a wish
Cassandra had used to wish on stars. Percy remembers this sometimes, on night watches when the stars are very bright, though the skies lack the crisp, cold clarity of Whitestone nights. She had used to bully him into standing witness for her wishes, insisting on the proper form of the thing. He cannot remember any of those little-girl wishes now - just the solemn intensity of her, staring up with the determination to make the universe itself bend to her will.
Percy does not make wishes. He has learned, so well, that he is not a person who should be allowed to want things. His choices throw that up to him at every turn, his failures showing in stark relief what happens when Percy de Rolo wants things beyond his reach. He cannot protect his family, cannot kill Anna Ripley, cannot seek vengeance on those who destroyed his life. These are not things he can want - not without dark and terrible consequences.
But he cannot help but make one wish, a small, pitiful thing in the unending gloom of the Underdark, when it seems they will never find their way out again. He thinks of Cassandra, under the clear skies, and closes his eyes, and wishes to see the stars again.
Surely that is a small enough thing for him to wish.
nine for a kiss
It isn’t until both of the twins have kissed him that Percy actually pays any attention.
Vax’s jubilant embrace in the Underdark had been nothing more than wild delight at the prospect of escape, and had been mostly lost in the chaos of that flight.
When Vex kisses him, too, his brain sits up and pays attention.
Thinking is hard, sometimes. Keeping track of time, especially in the foggy bits before he met Vox Machina, is often beyond Percy. He is very certain, though, that it has been years since he made any sort of direct physical contact with another being. Certainly, people had attacked and beaten him, or dragged him around; there had been fleeting touches of healing magic or brushes in the middle of combat. He’d been hit by just about every sort of weapon imaginable.
But Vax and Vex have both kissed him, and Percy has to sit down and think about that. And Keyleth has leaned over his shoulders, and Grog has slapped him on the back until he fell over, and, and, and…
He has to put his face in his hands and breathe deeply for a while. Somehow, while he wasn’t looking, Percy has become a part of this strange, broken little family - welcomed, integrated, loved. Somehow, his defences fell so low that he hadn’t even noticed he was past the boundaries of propriety and familiarity.
Vax cuffs him fondly on the head as he passes, ruffling Percy’s hair. “Don’t think too hard, there,” he says with a smirk that Percy can just hear. “I don’t want to be responsible for cleaning up when that brain of yours explodes.”
And Percy reaches a hand up to touch where Vax had pressed his hand, awed almost past the point of thought.
He is one of them. He is someone whom they like, and trust, and rely on. They laugh and cry and eat and sleep and fight together - as though Percy is a real person, as though he is something more than human wreckage, than mere flotsam from the wreck of his life. He has anchors, now. Connections.
ten for a bird you must not miss
And there he is, standing in front of Silas Briarwood, gun burning in his shaking hands. He doesn’t dare blink, or breathe, or think too hard. There is Silas, teeth gleaming in the moonlight, and his hateful wife not ten paces away. They haven’t aged a day, even as Percy has gone white-haired and taken scar upon scar, wiping away the image of the boy they had once met.
There is Silas in his gunsights, turning to look at him with a look of sheer contempt. Had he looked at Father that way, before murdering him? Had Lady Briarwood worn such a cool expression as his little siblings fell, victims of secrets they had never known? The fuzzy darkness tugs at the back of Percy’s head, temptingly. He could fall into it, escaping this confrontation he was in no way ready for. Something was growling in the back of his mind, a feeling darker and more powerful than he was ready to handle.
But there was a shape at Silas’ feet - a dark pile of rags, hardly moving, and Vax had called them for help, and it wasn’t hard to put facts together. And if Vax was down, and the rest of them were converging on this courtyard together, Percy knew with cold certainty that his chances of losing another family tonight were too high to bear. They were not unarmed children now: but there was Vax, down and still, and Silas looming over him like oncoming death, and Percy swallowed and breathed deep to scream out his hatred to the sky
And he took a breath and steadied his aim
And pushed aside all thoughts of Death, coming to visit him again, and breathed again, until he only had room for one thought:
You must not miss.
And Percy took his shot.