To Miss Jade,
I am writing on behalf of your compatriot, Rose. My name is Kanaya Maryam. Rose has recently engaged in serious combat with what I am told is your alchemic creation, Jack Noir, and was wounded. She appears to have fallen ill. As I have never before been in close quarters with an alien creature, I am unsure if her pyrexia is severe. However, when she is not sleeping, she is not particularly lucid. She asks for her mother, who I understand is deceased.
Though I have experience in tending to injured and unwell trolls, I am unaware of how to best assist her. She is unable to instruct me, and given how she spoke highly of you before succumbing to this malady I thought you could help. Especially in light of her brother, who I have had the dubious pleasure of meeting.
Your advice would be greatly appreciated.
I apologize for not addressing both you and Rose with your respective surnames, but I was unsure of how to spell them and felt that leaving them unwritten would counterbalance the impropriety of misspelling them.
It had taken a great deal of coaxing for Rose to set the paper on fire with one of the Thorns. Even in the brief moments the fire had lit the tent, she did not rise out of her delirium. Her eyes grew wide, and the grimace on her face spoke of a fear Kanaya could not know. The page swiftly turned to curling ash that floated away with the heat, though, and her panic died before it was properly born.
She had tried to roll out of Kanaya’s grasp then, to collapse back to her sleeping bundle in a sweaty heap. Kanaya held her where she was, fetching the canteen that seemed to have an endless supply of clean water and holding it to Rose’s mouth. She hadn’t the strength to push her away, and drank the water with a minimum of protesting groans. When she was finally laid on the bundle and her sweat dabbed away with her scarf, she let out a long sigh. She looked at Kanaya with uncertainty, but soon rolled away from her and fell back into sleep.
The night had fallen once more by the time Kanaya had grown worried enough to dare reaching into the bag sans explanations and guidance. Her fingertips tingled as they groped through oppressive emptiness, and she niggled at her lower lip with her fangs. Eventually she had turned to Rose, briefly conscious, with her hand still in the bag to request help. As she formed the question “how do I find your book” in her mind, however, her hand closed around it. She withdrew the book, exactly as it had looked before. The pencil was retrieved from Rose’s coat; the message was written and sent. She had found the canteen in the same manner, and continued to make the woman drink every time she sporadically woke.
She sat at Rose’s side with the book in her lap. Every few minutes, she opened the cover to find only blank pages. In the meantime, she listened as the woman beside her muttered whimpering noise. The only words she heard clearly were repeated over and over: “Mother,” “Noir,” and “I’m sorry.” The last two always made her want to put her hand on Rose’s head. She tempered the desire with dabbing away the sweat.
It became rote, and with that rote came impatience. She felt as though she was checking every other second, and she did her best to push down on the impatience with little distractions. She put the back of her curled fingers to Rose’s neck to feel her fluttering heartbeat; she kept her forehead dry as best she could; and she picked up on the hitches in her breathing to know when to make her drink before falling back into the dark. What she did most in those long stretches of unconsciousness was study the book. It was no different from any other she had seen in her life, however, and her impatience only grew.
Rose trembled. She finally gave in, set the scarf aside, and put her hand on Rose’s head. The hair under her palm was almost soaked through with sweat, but she did not pull away. It was only dampness she felt; the strands were fine and soft beside it. The heat of the fever was brilliant on her fingertips, and she sighed. With her free hand, she opened the book and held it open in her lap to stare at the first page.
Diurnal though she was, able to accept the harsh light of the day, she was still a troll. Even had the moons been dark, she would have barely struggled to see her handwriting before, and so the shreds of moonlight that came through the forest’s canopy were more than enough to let her see the blank page in perfect clarity. She saw the yellow of her fingernails as clearly as she could in the daylight, the color standing out as much from the white paper as did her gray skin. As she traced over the page with her fingertips, another sigh nearly left her. The letters that began to fade in reverse, appearing to emerge from deep within the paper, made her pull her hand back and swallow her sigh.
Hi there, Kanaya! This is Jade!
Wow, I really didn’t think Rose would ever trust a troll, much less travel with one. But I guess that idea’s all wet, huh? You sound like a copacetic lady, so I’m glad you’re there.
I’m going to level with you. Even though Rose is pretty smart, she’s still kind of dumb. She always works too hard and uses alchemy too much. Well, I think she fights too much, but her and Dave don’t ever listen to me and John when we tell them to slow down. Dave calls us wet blankets all the time.
What’s wrong with her is that she probably got hurt more than you think and used alchemy too much again. It’s not anything serious, but she needs to rest a lot and you girls probably shouldn’t move too much. Her fever (I think that’s what it is, I don’t know what a “pyrexia” is but Rose probably does) won’t last too long. It’s just something that happens to us if we’re really hurt and use alchemy to heal up. As for her asking for her mom...well, I know she misses her more than she’s ever going to say. She had a lot of bad dreams before we all split up even though she’d never tell anyone. I guess we should be sleeping in your recuperacoon things too!
Don’t worry! Us alchemists bounce back pretty quick, so she should be okay soon!
Tell Rose I said hi, and that I hope we all get to meet soon! I miss her and Dave, and I know John does too.
It’s okay that you didn’t write our names, but here’s how you do just so you know: Jade Harley, John Egbert, Dave Strider, and Rose Lalonde.
Kanaya let out her breath in a low, deep rush. She read through the letter twice more: first quickly, then slowly examining at the loopy handwriting and the overwhelming cheer in the words. A smile came to her face, and she closed the book slowly. When she looked back to Rose, she stroked gently at her hair. The motion was soon met by Rose’s eyes opening. She stared at the canvas overhead, eyes dancing here and there without focusing. She swallowed once and her eyes lifted to look toward the hand on her head. Following the arm attached to that hand made her gaze come to Kanaya, and she blinked slowly.
There was a long period of silence, but it carried clarity into Rose’s eyes. She took a deep breath, brows drawing together. “Ka...naya?”
“Yes. You are safe.”
A blink brought back bleariness, but she blinked again to force the lucidity to surface. “Safe?”
“Yes. I’m going to make sure you get well. You don’t have to worry.”
Silence. Her eyelids drooped.
She smiled. “Would you like me to read you a story?”
“I often read stories to my lusus. It made her happy. I think it could help you sleep more soundly.”
“I...” Very slightly, she turned her head to push against Kanaya’s hand. She closed her eyes. “All right.”
“All right.” She set the book aside and reached into the bag. With a thought of one of her favorites, she plucked the novel from the bag and opened it. In a quiet voice, enunciating clearly, she began to read. For her part, Rose kept her eyes open and listened. When she could not keep her eyes open, she let them close and pushed her head against Kanaya’s hand a little more. She fell asleep within ten minutes. Kanaya kept reading, kept smiling, with a quiet hope in her heart that it would help keep the whimpering at bay.
Dave Strider woke up tied to a chair.
He was used to it, all told. He’d had more than enough run-ins with the boys in blue and various rivals back home. The small aspects—his coat and guns missing, his tie undone and hanging limp around his neck—were steadying, though he was never one to need much steadying. His sunglasses had been left on his face, and they were jostled by the very gentle slaps delivered to his cheeks, one after the other. He sat quietly for a while; the slaps never grew harder.
“Listen, Bruno,” he said. “Either you start gettin’ into the harder stuff or you bust out the giggle juice and we hit the town all proper. It ain’t like this is my first song and dance with bulls.”
“Oh ho, the mutant speaks!”
He managed to not roll his eyes at the wild cackle that filled the air and sat up properly. A troll stood before him: short and sharp angled from head to foot. A black suit draped on those angles, its high collar rising around her neck and a teal-dyed Libra sign resting on her breast. Her hands rested on a white cane, palms folded over the dragon head carving at the top. Her horns were nearly horizontal, and so suited the pointed glasses on her face. The lenses were brilliant red, and he raised a brow slowly when her black lips peeled back to show her fangs.
“Snazzy saw you got in your mouth, dollface,” he said.
She cackled again, letting her head roll back and her short hair shift on her shoulders. When she lifted her head, she leaned down and set her chin on her hands atop the cane. She bounced her eyebrows. “You shameless flatterer.”
“Dollface, you had no idea who you were droppin’ onto from atop your fuckin’ sky monster. Can’t blame you for wantin’ to get all over the only suave, hard-boiled bastard on this freak planet of yours, but the First Bank of Dave Strider is closed. Segregated, y’see. No fuckin’ troll patrons.”
“Fascinating!” she barked. “I wasn’t aware that mutations had gotten this bad!”
“You wanna run that by me again?”
“Your mutations,” she said. She leaned in close and took a long, deep sniff. “Now, I knew you had your delicious candy red blood the minute I punched you in the snout in the desert.”
That explained the ache in his face. A moment of thinking reminded him of the way she had rabbit-punched his head to make him blackout.
“But I’ve been taking you in for a long while now, Strider.” She took another sniff. “Tell me, did you stay out in the sun to bleach your skin like that, or is peaches over cherries just how your mutation developed?” She reached out suddenly to ruffle his hair. “And what good is any mutation if you don’t get to have any horns?”
“Dollface, you ever consider that maybe you’re the mutant and me and my crew are the fuckin’ normal ones?”
“Objection!” she snapped, pinching his scalp hard enough to draw blood. “You have previously stated that Alternia is my planet. This implies that you are either foreign to it, or that you do not consider it your residence due to your significant mutations.”
He looked at her, blinking once when he felt the blood slide down beside his ear. “Jig’s up then. You’ve done a regular soup job on my tiny human brain safe, and now you get to make off with the bounty of your alien caper. You want a fuckin’ medal?”
She laughed. “So the mutants have taken to calling themselves a new name? I’ll have to see if Karkles gets angry when I call him a human.”
“Another mutant with the same tasty blood as you. He was a regular patron at the hostelry.”
“That fuckin’ rag-a-muffin from the speako in the desert? Look, you whack job Jane, don’t go callin’ him a human. It’s insultin’ to me and my crew.”
She grabbed hold of his hair and shook his head. “Then you confess you were at the hostelry when the incident occurred.”
“The one involving a mysterious demon that slaughtered trolls and lusii as it pleased.” She pulled him closer. “And one of the so-called freak brigandrifts that I’ve heard stories about. Was that ‘one’ you, Strider?”
“I plead the fuckin’ fifth.”
She grinned. “Is this some sort of mutant wriggler’s way out of talking? It’s cute. Sort of.” She shook him harder. “Confess that you were there.”
“Plead the fifth, dollface.”
“You will show the court your respect and refer to the legislacerator by her proper name.”
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, you’re talkin’ like you’re not even here? You’re worse than the bulls at home.”
“My name is Terezi Pyrope, Strider. Use it, and respect the court.”
“We ain’t in any fuckin’ court I recognize.”
“You don’t recognize the Cruelest Bar?”
“Baby, I didn’t recognize the motherfuckin’ juries on Earth. Even if I don’t got any of my capo pull here to make sure your bar gets bought off,” he said, lifting a brow, “it ain’t like I’m gonna fuckin’ roll over for you and spill my guts about anythin’.”
A pause. Terezi laughed, shaking his head once more before letting go. Sauntering, sweeping her cane back and forth before her as she went, she crossed the floor to the nearby desk he had not noticed. She hopped up to sit on its surface and crossed her legs at the ankles. Idly swinging her legs, her grin remained.
“And yet,” she said, “you have a guilty enough conscience to admit there’s guts to be spilled here.” She pulled her cane up and laid it in her lap. “Confess nicely, and I’ll see if I can hold off on your date with the gallows.”
Snickering, she drummed her fingers on the dragon head atop her thigh. “Do you want me to go get Lemonsnout? He’s very good at helping me interrogate my prisoners. I let him eat the ones who don’t cooperate.”
“That the name of your sky monster? ‘Cause it’s a pansy-ass name.”
She sighed, shaking her head, and frowned. “You’re starting to bore me.” Another sigh came with a shrug of her shoulder. “Well, I can always go hunt down the other brigandrifts for information. Since you’re the only hard-boiled person on Alternia, I’m sure they’ll talk quickly. Maybe even before I have to mention how hungry Lemonsnout can get.”
Dave Strider had been known for a great many things during his time as a caporegime in New York. He was suave; he had a fantastic poker face; he was an alchemist brilliant enough to outshine his underboss brother. But while the last one did matter at that moment, what mattered most was that he was the fastest man the streets had seen since the arrival of the elder Strider brother. It was that speed that allowed him to snap his fingers and pull his sword out of nothingness; it was that speed that allowed him to transmute the rope holding him and the chair beneath him into sawdust within a heartbeat; and it was that speed that allowed him to sprint across the room with a perfect swing at the troll’s neck planned in the next heartbeat.
Terezi’s grin had returned before he had fully started his sprint. When he arrived, it was to the jamming of the barrel of his own gun to his forehead. It was why he stopped short of alchemizing her cane when she blocked his sword. She held him where he stood, and she cackled loudly.
“You haven’t had any experience with legislacerators?” she asked. “Funny. You’re doing what everyone else does when I get under their skin.”
“My skin is made up of diamonds, I give so few fucks about what you’re sayin’.”
“Then why go for my throat when I mention the other brigandrifts? I have to assume they’re your ‘crew.’ Are they responsible for the incident?”
“Still pleadin’ the fifth, Pyrope.”
“Ooh, now I’ve got you saying my name.” She giggled, the high and scratchy noise caught in her nose. “Your strange fifth pleading is only telling me that you are responsible for the incident, and that you don’t want anyone to know it.”
“We didn’t fuckin’ bring Noir anywhere. He showed up, we tried to ventilate his shitty mutt head, and he dusted on us. End of story.”
She caressed the gun’s hammer and tilted her head to one side. “I think that’s just the start of your story. You haven’t told me what’s going on with that magic sword of yours. I have a feeling that it has something to do with this Noir character.” She leaned close, and he could see the blank stretches of her eyes through the lenses of her glasses. “And I should tell you that my feelings are pretty good when it comes to these things.”
“Well, mister coolkid?”
“The fuck did you just call me?”
“Coolkid. You’re trying so hard to keep cool under my expert interrogation...just like a little wriggler who wants to be tough. Everyone tells me what I want to know, Dave Strider.” She smiled even wider. “But your story smells of the most delicious intrigue I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Tell me it. I’m a good listener.” A cackle. “You have to be when you’re seeking absolute justice.”
A long pause. “What kinda wooden nickel is that? How’s justice gonna be absolute?”
She felt the push of his sword grow weaker. She leaned closer and let her voice drop. “Through me enforcing it.”
“Just you? Bunk, Pyrope.”
“Just me? Why, Strider. Are you saying you want to join the ranks of the legislacerators and bring down the judgment of the Cruelest Bar on the heads of the wicked?”
“Fuck your goddamn Cruelest Bar. I’m lookin’ for the real McCoy. Real justice.”
“And that is?”
“Killing Jack Noir, like we shoulda done when he first crawled outta that fuckin’ alchemic sludge we left behind. That’s the only justice that matters here.”
Terezi regarded him with a tilted head and a sniffing nose. She lifted her thumb from the hammer of the gun and took it from his head entirely. She chuckled. “Do you know what honesty smells like, coolkid?”
“What are you, a fuckin’ bloodhound?”
“It smells white. Blistering white, like the sun at high noon. It stings when you smell it, it’s such a perfect smell. And it’s never something you can fake.” She set the gun aside and leaned in further than she had before. “You’re an honest little mutant, under all that sour-milk anger.” She pushed his sword away and set her cane down between them. “So. Tell the great legislacerator your story, mutant coolkid.”
“Dave Strider, dollface. Dave Strider the human.”
She cackled in his face. “You’re getting interesting again! I love it!”
Dave didn’t know whether to frown or smirk. He settled on retying his tie, walking back to the chair as he did. When he arrived, he took the back of the chair in hand and spun it about. He sat in it backward, crossing his arms atop the back and looking at her. “Where d’you want me to start?”
“Tell me about this crew of yours.”
I am writing to confirm your safety. I know it must be more treacherous for you to travel without your lusus, and now that I have a method of contacting you, I’m anxious to hear if you’re all right. The main reason I ask, though, is because the night we parted ways, I heard a dragon flying over the forest we’re traveling through. We were undiscovered, but I know that Pyrope has something of a black infatuation for you and tends to try to hunt you down, and so I was concerned for you.
As I said, Rose and I are well. No, I should be honest. Rose is doing better, as she was somewhat ill before. I’ve been making sure that she avoids using too much alchemy or has us ride too long. She is as stubborn as you are in some respects, and I mean this as a compliment on your behalf. It is somehow reassuring to be traveling with someone who has the same sort of impatient drive as my moirail. At the very least, I do know how to handle her obstinance thanks to you.
I hope all is well for you.
Rose was sitting at the edge of the river they had made camp near, bare feet in the water. Her coat was on the ground; she had rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. Though it would still be some time before the sun properly rose, she had her hat on her head as she sat bent over her knees and watched Maplehoof drink. She barely reacted at the sound of Kanaya’s footsteps, only turning to look over her shoulder. When she was joined on the ground, she took off her hat.
She looked at the book and piece of paper in Kanaya’s hands. “You wrote a letter?”
“To Karkat, yes. Would you be so kind?”
She took the proffered paper and closed her eyes, drawing a needle. Only when she had set the paper on fire did she open them again, and she dismissed the Thorn with an idle wave of her fingers. With a small sigh, she rubbed at her face.
“Why did you do that?” Kanaya asked.
“I’m still very tired, despite all the sleeping you make me do.”
“No, why did you close your eyes?”
“It’s impolite to read someone else’s private letters. I never could quite make Dave understand that, no matter how many times we dueled after I discovered him reading something private of mine.”
A pause. “Is this sort of relationship common on your planet?”
“Sibling rivalries, yes. To the extent we take it? Not particularly. If you want to see a ‘normal’ relationship between siblings, you should meet John and Jade.”
“Explain what a sibling is, first.”
“One of the people most closely related to you by blood, very strictly speaking. You may also have adoptive brothers and sisters, or half siblings like Dave and myself.”
“So humans function in social groups based on specific blood colors?”
“No, no, no,” Rose muttered. “We don’t have a hemospectrum; we’ve all got the same red blood. ‘Blood’ is just the common way to state family lines and genetics. My mother—the woman who gave birth to me—also gave birth to Dave and his elder brother. They simply had a different father than me.”
“Your mother gave...birth to you? Is this a colloquialism for your form of hatching?”
“No, it’s just the phrase. We gestate in our mother’s womb, and are...” She trailed off, rubbing the back of her head. “Human reproduction is a rather...awkward topic.”
“All right,” Kanaya said. “If Dave is your brother, what does that make John and Jade in relation to you?”
A pause. “At this point? Something like family.”
“And if you were not at this point?”
“They were our friends, back on Earth. Just friends.” She gestured at nothing, flicking her fingers toward the river. “I spent more time with them than with Dave. He mostly lived in New York City, while we lived more to the north in the state. We—John, Jade, and myself—played when we were young. Since my mother basically raised me as a disciple of Mister Harley, they were the closest friends I had back then. Certainly the only ones who never mocked or feared my alchemy.”
“No wonder you speak highly of them,” Kanaya said. She smoothed out a crease in her skirt, folding her hands on her knees when she was satisfied. “Karkat mostly just stormed into my hive whenever he pleased when we were young.” A small laugh escaped her. “The first time he came, I woke up because our lusii were fighting. I got out of my recuperacoon to investigate what was happening, and I didn’t even walk halfway across my respiteblock before I heard Karkat jump in.”
“He invaded your house to get in your recuperacoon.”
“He also demanded food.”
Rose snickered. “I can see that.”
Kanaya chuckled behind her hand. “Of course, he was so pitiable that I let him stay. Then he kept coming back like a purrbeast you’ve been kind to.” She sighed quietly and smiled. “It was very natural that we became moirails.”
A pause. “I’m surprised it took you so long to write him a letter, then. You certainly do seem to be quite pale for him.”
Another chuckle. “I could say the same for you and your...impromptu family.”
Rose slowly rubbed at her eyes. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she let out a sigh. “May I ask you a question?”
She took her hand from her face and held it up as she turned to face Kanaya properly. “Why is it that you’re so interested in my affairs?”
“Have I been prying?”
“No,” she said in a sigh. “I’m not used to people asking me questions like this. My friends are used to me, and no one ever much thought of us as anything more than alchemists. I don’t see why a woman—why a troll would be interested in what I have to say or have done in my life after we got off on such bad feet.”
“I told you before,” Kanaya said, “that I don’t begrudge you for what’s happened. I do honestly find you intriguing. I wasn’t aware that was a point of contention for humans.”
She frowned, waving her hand in the air to dismiss the words as she looked away. “It’s not. It’s just very peculiar for anyone to want to hear about someone responsible for so many bad things.”
A moment passed. Kanaya watched as Rose let her arm drop to its former place on her knee. A glance up, and she noticed that strands of her white-blonde hair had fallen to drape over her cheek. She reached out and tucked the strands behind Rose’s small, round ear. When Rose jerked and spun about, she brought her hand back without haste and smiled. “It’s rather charming to see someone feeling so strongly that they need to rectify something they consider wrong. It’s very rare among trolls. We usually focus on taking vengeance on those we feel have wronged us.”
“You...find me charming?”
She let out an amused breath. “I do.”
Rose froze. She blinked three times, eyes darting to different places with each closing. She looked away quickly, only flicking her eyes back to spot the book between them to snatch it up cleanly. Swallowing, she said, “Let’s see if you’ve gotten a reply.” A moment of hesitation passed before she held the book out without meeting Kanaya’s gaze.
Looking back and forth between Rose’s turned face and the book, she took it and opened the cover. The first glimpse showed her that words had indeed appeared, but focusing properly made her raise a brow. The handwriting was blocky but perfectly legible. She did not recognize it, and looked to Rose once again. “I believe this is from one of your friends.”
Her head swung about. “What? From who?”
She glanced at the page. “It says it’s from John.”
She held out her hand quickly, but took care not to wrench it from her grasp. Her eyes dashed across the page, fingers sliding down the paper as she read. When she had finished, she blinked and lifted her head as well as her brows.
“What is it?”
“I—well, I haven’t heard from John in some time. The last time he wrote us it was to say he had stopped in the largest city near the sea. Now he’s saying he’s back on land, and he’s heard all the new rumors about our band of brigandrifts.” She sighed. “As well as that he’s heard something about Noir. He’d like to talk about it in person, if any of us are nearby.” Another small sigh. “And, as always, he sounds incredibly excited.”
Kanaya looked over Rose’s head into the sky, drawing her brows together as she thought. “A city near the sea? I think...do you have a map in your bag?”
“I believe I know which city he’s talking about, though I’d like to consult a map to confirm it. We shouldn’t be too far from it, actually.” She blinked, shaking her head slightly, and looked back to Rose. “Did you say he wrote that he was back on land?”
“That’s quite strange. The only people that would be on the sea are gamblignants and seagrifts—trolls.” Another blink. “How in the world can he have been with trolls this long without causing even more rumors?”
“John can be remarkably persuasive on top of being ridiculously friendly. If there’s one of us who can associate with trolls without causing a stir, it’s him.”
“What do you propose we do?”
“What else would we do? We have to go to the city and see what he knows.” Rose smiled slightly. “It’ll be nice to see someone that isn’t Dave. John doesn’t bother me nearly as much as my dear brother.”
Kanaya’s smile returned. “Then I look forward to getting there.”