WHAT IN GOG’S GRUB-FISTING NAME DO YOU MEAN “I’M ON THE MIND SCOURGE WITH THE WITCH-BITCH.”
I LET YOU LEAVE WITH HER AND NOT EVEN THREE WEEKS LATER YOU’RE ON THE MOST NOTORIOUS FUCKING GAMBLIGNANT SHIP ON THE SEA? WHAT THE FUCK. AND WHAT HOOFBEAST SHIT ARE YOU SAYING ABOUT MEETING THE WITCH-BITCH’S FRIEND AND BEING SAFE BECAUSE OF HIM?
YOU’RE ON VRISKA FUCKING SERKET’S SHIP, YOU DUMBASS. THERE IS NO BEING SAFE, AND THERE’S SURE AS FUCK NO BEING SAFE IN THE CAPITOL CITY. I SWEAR TO GOG I AM GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS FOR BEING SO INCREDIBLY IDIOTIC THE NEXT TIME I SEE YOU.
BE CAREFUL, IDIOT.
ALSO, I’M DOING FINE, THANKS FOR ASKING.
“You knew he’d be angry.”
“I admit I’m not surprised by the level of vitriol.”
“Then why are you sitting around rereading it and moping?”
“I could just as easily ask why you do nothing but lie there in that suspended rest sack.”
Rose did not lift her head; did not tilt up the hat covering her face; and did not open her eyes. “Because I despise this boat and all other boats in existence, and remaining in the hammock helps cut down on my seasickness. My issue is entirely physical, while yours dwells in the realm of pouty broads and their mopey horseshit. Why are you so bothered by his reply?”
Kanaya was silent. Theirs was a small private cabin on the Mind Scourge: they had only a single chair atop which she sat, a small table to act as a desk, and a recuperacoon tucked in one corner. John had replicated his own hammock the first day for Rose’s sake, and hammered in nails to set up its hanging along the wall most opposite the recuperacoon. For the three days and nights they had been aboard, she had left its cocoon fewer than ten times. One leg dangled partway free of the canvas; her pale bare foot was almost hidden in the shadow cast by the lantern sitting on the desk.
She looked up to see that Rose had turned her head slightly, one eye open. “What?”
“Why are you upset?”
A small sigh left her as she looked at the book on the desk and the untidy scrawl on the open page. She passed her thumb slowly over Karkat’s signature. “I feel guilty, I suppose.”
She drummed her fingers once on the page before gesturing at the words. “I’ve admonished him for sweeps about leading a dangerous and reckless lifestyle, and he always dismissed my statements by arguing that it was inevitable given his circumstances. Now we’re sitting at opposite ends from where we once were, and I’m left dismissing his arguments about this being a dangerous course for me.”
A pause. “I guess that makes sense.” She turned her head back to the safe darkness of her hat, grimacing at the way the room tilted and the ship groaned. “The only thing left for you two is to stop trying to tell each other off. You both can’t stop living like this. Not now.”
Kanaya closed her mouth. After a moment, she said, “May I ask you something?”
“Yes, but my responding to it is conditional on my willingness to answer while my stomach is churning.”
“Did your mother ever try to dissuade you from practicing alchemy?”
The silence lasted through two more creaking shifts of the ship. “My conditions haven’t been met.”
She frowned. “It’s a very simple question to answer. All you have to say is yes or no.”
“Fine. Yes, she did try to dissuade me.”
A pause. “Why?”
The frown on her face was deep enough to see past the brim of her hat. “I just said my conditions haven’t been met. I’m not willing to discuss this.”
“Because I’ve been seasick repeatedly and I have no desire to risk more vomiting with as much talking as such an answer would necessitate.”
“And yet you’re responding with a great deal of wordiness.”
“We’re not going to discuss this.”
“Give me a real answer as to why.”
“Because I’m not going to discuss it, end of story.”
“Rose, if you would just—”
She sat back. Rose had curled in on herself, arms crossed tight over her stomach and chin tucked to her chest. The frown had become a scowl, and it made the muscles of her neck tighten to see it. She took to her feet and went to the door. “I’m going to the main deck.”
She turned her head away. “Fine.”
For a moment, she stood with her hand on the doorknob. When she left, it was without looking back. Though she stumbled slightly with the swaying of the ship, she made her way to the steep ladder that led upward. It was dark with the night outside, and a sharp, brisk wind hissed through her hair the moment her head emerged from below deck. She climbed up and out, walking gingerly along until she stood with her hands on the railing at the ship’s edge.
The Mind Scourge cut through the sea, the water breaking and rolling away with sputters and hisses. Above, the moons were reduced to crescents that gave up little blended light. She still saw the broken shards that flickered and vanished in the waves, and stared at them in their births and deaths for a long time. A sudden bang on the boards of the deck made her jump; the sight of Vriska straightening from her landing after leaping off the flying bridge high above made her wince. Her legs wanted to carry her back down the ladder when Vriska approached with a smirk. She managed to keep her place and turned back to look at the sea.
“Well,” Vriska murmured in her ear. “I’m surprised a little land dweller that’s never seen the sea before in her life is doing so well on my ship.” She snickered. “Not barfing everywhere like your human pet, anyway.”
She whipped her head about, taking a step back when she realized how close Vriska stood at her side. “My—my what? Rose is no such thing.”
A measured laugh: eight puffs of amused air released from her mouth. “Please. How could she not be? She’s human.”
“By that logic, you must consider John your pet, not your matesprit.”
She grinned and leaned against the railing, hip against the wood and weight braced on one elbow. “John’s no ordinary human. He’s stronger than a lot of trolls—he even stands his ground better than some. Very forceful, very direct. Never afraid to fight. I wouldn’t make a pet my first mate, and I got sick of playing redrom games with weaklings sweeps ago.”
“You’ve only ever known John. Why would you sat he’s not an ordinary human if he’s the only one you know?”
“Because he told me all about normal humans when I asked if there was anyone else like him. Even though he acts modest, he’s above the rest. And he’s better than her by far.”
Kanaya frowned. At first, it was a response so natural she did not notice it. When her thoughts solidified, she turned her lips down further by choice. “Rose isn’t John. It doesn’t make sense to compare them.”
“Ooooooooh, defending your pet now? Do you fight all her battles for her?”
“She is no one’s pet, much less mine. From what I’ve seen of both of them, neither is superior to the other.”
“John’s never been seasick.”
She sighed. “I don’t know if I’ve heard a more petty rejoinder.” She looked away, ignoring the way Vriska’s face hardened. “You’re not going to convince me of his superiority. If anything, I believe she’s a better alchemist based on what I’ve witnessed.”
Vriska looked at her with one brow raised. Her mouth seemed to be deciding whether to sneer or smirk. Eventually, she settled on the latter. “Well. I don’t know how good she is at alchemy, but John really is soooooooo much better in a lot of ways. Brave, strong, funny in a silly dumb boy way, very attentive to his beauuuuuuuutiful matesprit. But you know what he’s not that great at?”
Kanaya did not respond. For her silence, Vriska took hold of her chin with one hand and caught her round the waist with her other arm. Her eyes widened at the way Vriska leaned close. Their noses nearly touched.
Her voice was a soft murmur when she said, “He’s not very good at hating. Did you see how bright she is when she hates? I didn’t think a human would be that pretty, but when she has fire in her eyes?” She chuckled, tapping Kanaya’s chin with her thumb. “I thought she was going to blow my brains out with that fancy gun of hers.”
“I have seen her hating, yes. And I do not think that it would be the safest thing to be on the receiving end of such viciousness.”
A scoff. “You’re pathetic. Who wouldn’t want such a sharp woman as their kismesis? If you could make her focus on you, you’d probably have a kismesissitude for the ages.”
“I would not want Rose as my kismesis.”
Her eyes closed partway. Her smile remained firmly in place, and she chuckled again. “Coward.”
“It’s not cowardice. Regardless of my belief that hers is a dangerous kind of hatred, I have no reason to hate her. I refuse to hate her.”
“Ohhhhhhhh?” She tightened her hold on Kanaya, pulling her flush against her. “That’s interesting. If you’re not going to hate her...and she’s not your little pet...what is she?”
Vriska’s hand was cool, nearly cold with the blue blood in her veins. The wind made her hair swirl around them. Kanaya was terribly aware of the curves pressed against her, hidden beneath the long coat. She swallowed hard and said, “My traveling companion.”
“Oh, come oooooooon, little fussyfangs. I saw the way you jumped in front of her during our fight. Are you pale for her?”
“I have a moirail, and I have no interest in being unfaithful.”
“Why are you traveling with her, then? Why is a human important to you?”
“I’m traveling with her to be assured of the killing of the monster that slaughtered my lusus. Why is this important to you?”
Her blue-painted lips parted with her smirk, showing her fangs. She shrugged with a small sigh. “I just want to get to know John’s friends. Since you’re the one not throwing up, I’m asking you. Not to mention the fact that you’re one who doesn’t want to put a bullet between my eyes, so you’re more likely to talk. Is that so wrong, wanting to get to know you two?”
She looked up at the other woman for a long while. With the smirk in place, it was impossible to not think of their first meeting and the wild grin painted with blue blood. There had been no patron to her hostelry with such a level of confidence, much less such audacity. Her heart beat once; she realized that, however impossible it was to divide the image of Vriska from her loud sass and massive smirks, it was far more impossible to divide the image of the angry woman below deck from her quiet intensity and rare smiles. She put her hand on Vriska’s chest and pushed her away.
“No,” she said, “it’s not wrong. I’ve answered your questions. If you’d like to ask others, you’re free to do so. But I’m not going to play a double reacharound game to answer the same questions over and over.”
She rolled her eyes, and Kanaya saw the seven tiny pupils and blue irises in her left. “All right. If you’re going to be so defensive about your little pet, I’ll leave it alone for now.”
For a moment, she nearly spat back a decrying response. It was when she noticed a touch in her mind trying to push the words from her mouth that she ground her reply to nothingness between her teeth. There was disappointment on Vriska’s face, lips pouted slightly. She murmured, “I would appreciate that.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Vriska tossed back her hair, lifted her hands, and shrugged. “Have it your way.” She turned away, waving one hand over her shoulder as she started off. “Make sure not to fall in, fussyfangs. I don’t like dealing with overboard passengers.” She did not return to the quarterdeck, instead unlocking the door to the captain’s quarters and disappearing inside.
Mouth dry, shoulders tense, Kanaya stared at the closed door and dark windows for a long while. When the door opened suddenly a minute later, she started. It was not Vriska who emerged, but a sleepy-looking and bed-headed John. He adjusted his glasses, peering around the deck until he spotted her. He grinned broadly and strode toward her after closing the door behind him.
“Hey there, Miss Kanaya!” he said. “Vriska told me to come talk to you!”
She frowned. “About what?”
He blinked at her expression. With a small sigh, he scratched at the stubble on his chin. “She said you were being kinda stuffy, if you want to know the truth.” He chuckled. “But usually when she says that she’s done something. Did something happen between you two? I’m not her auspistice or anything, but I’m pretty good at patching things up.” He drummed a fist in the air. “Hammer and all that.”
“Why are you here?” Kanaya sighed.
“Uh...‘cause my captain told me to work my silly dumb boy charm on you?”
“No, why are you on this ship? Why are you—” She stopped, waving a hand to dismiss the words. “How did you come to be first mate of the Mind Scourge? I’ve heard nothing but horror stories about it and its captain, and you don’t seem the gamblignant type.”
He sighed out a hum and began to roll up his disheveled sleeves. “Well...to be honest? I did want to be a pirate when I was little.”
He grinned, putting his hands on the back of his head and stretching. “A pirate. That’s the human equal of a gamblignant. All swords and swashbuckling and adventure. All my favorite books were about pirates and cowboys and dramatic heroes.”
“Gamblignants aren’t exactly heroes.”
“They can be. Back when we first met, Vriska didn’t do anything worse than wreck ships and plunder their loot. A lot of the stories are just from people off those ships, and they always make things sound worse because they’re mad.”
“What of the stories I’ve heard tell about your participation in the slave trade?”
John sighed, putting on an affronted face and adding a pout for good measure. “Miss Kanaya, I made sure you didn’t get snatched by a slaver! Do you think I’d let my captain deal in slaves?”
“How do you explain the stories, then?”
“Vriska tells them wrong.”
Kanaya stared at him.
“She wants to make sure no one thinks she’s going soft. She never really cared about slaves to begin with, unless she was messing with her kismesis about it. But even then it was her taking his slaves away and setting them free to make him mad. Now that I’m here, though?” He grinned. “We take down slave ships whenever we come across them.”
A pause. “If you’re not doing it to steal their slaves, why would you do that?”
For a moment, it looked as though there was angry disbelief in his eyes. The moment passed; he sighed heavily. “Right, I forgot. Trolls.”
She bristled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He held up his hands. “Not anything bad, Miss Kanaya, don’t be mad. All I mean is that I’m the one who doesn’t have the normal thinking here. Slavery is regular on Alternia, but it’s not on Earth.” He paused. “Well, I think it isn’t. But I think it shouldn’t be, and that’s why I convinced Vriska to take down slave ships and let the slaves go free.”
“You intend to end the slave trade. Out of what seems to be the same sense of needing to do right that Rose has.”
A pause. “I’d sure be happy if it ended. If I can do something to help folks in trouble, I will.”
She stared at him a moment longer. “I feel I should introduce you to my moirail. He’s gone on screaming rants about how highbloods are unjustly oppressing lowbloods through slavery.”
“I’d love to meet him! He sounds like a great guy!”
“Karkat is a great many things.” She sighed. “But...I am astonished that you convinced a blue blood to allow you your crusade.”
He laughed. “Being her matesprit helps me convince her a lot!”
“May I ask you something?”
“Why I’m matesprits with her, right?”
She opened her mouth to reply with an emphatic negative, but the eyebrow he raised and the small smirk on his face made her flush jade and close her mouth.
“It’s okay,” John said. “She’s gotten that about me way more than once.”
“I’ve heard her reasoning as to why she’s taken you for a matesprit. She was quite flattering.”
He grinned boyishly, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Well, I don’t know what she could have said, but I’m glad it was nice.”
“Then...why did you take her as your matesprit?”
For a moment, he was quiet. He lifted one hand and ticked off his fingers as he spoke. “She’s adventurous, she’s brave, she actually really cares about stuff even though she acts like she doesn’t, she’s kinda funny in that sarcastic way Rose has, she’s sweet to me, and she’s really pretty.”
Kanaya looked away. She murmured, “I am quite aware of that last part.”
John blinked. He patted his fist in his palm. “I forgot! Trolls do that!”
“Like people the same sex as them! It’s pretty rare back on Earth. We don’t have quadrants like trolls, either.”
She looked at him once more; her head drew back. “You...aren’t ever attracted to people of the same gender?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure some folks were. I just didn’t really hear anything about them.”
“Why wouldn’t you be attracted?”
“Humans can only have kids if it’s a guy and a girl. That’s how most of us get raised, so that’s what we think is normal.” He shrugged. “I don’t really care, so you shouldn’t really worry about it.”
“Oh.” She turned slowly away. She took a deep breath, and spoke quietly with its exhale. “Thank you. That’s informative.”
He tilted his head to one side. He shuffled one foot forward after a moment. “Miss Kanaya? Did you want to—”
She cut him off. “I just realized you’ve reminded me of something I wanted to ask. The reason I’m up here in the first place is because Rose and I had a disagreement of sorts. It was regarding her mother and alchemy. Are you able to tell me anything about why she would be so reluctant to discuss the topic?”
“Oh.” He looked into the dark sky. He frowned; he rubbed at his chin. He grumbled and moved to lean on the railing with his elbows. “I don’t really know.”
“You don’t know.”
“Honest to God, Miss Kanaya. I never really understood what was going on with Missus Lalonde and Rose. They didn’t seem to get along at all. I felt bad for Rosie, but she wouldn’t say anything to me or Jade. I don’t even know if she talked to Dave about anything aside from alchemy and what we did.”
She hesitated, but moved to stand at his side and put her hands on the railing. “What did you do?”
He went silent. A groove was found in the wood; he dug the nail of his thumb into it. “Rose wouldn’t want us to say it like this, but I think it’s sort of fitting. We sinned, Miss Kanaya.”
“In creating Jack Noir? That was an accident that resulted from your...failed...alchemy.”
He laughed weakly, and his smile was just as weak. “Got it in one.”
With a sigh, he folded his hands together and began to twiddle his thumbs. “Um...Miss Kanaya?”
“I don’t...I don’t think I can really talk about this. Any of it, kinda. It makes me think about my dad, and it still hurts way too much to do that. And if you’re trying to figure out what Rose’s problems are, I’m not the person to ask.”
She looked at the water. “I know. I only hoped that you could give me some insight, as she steadfastly refuses to answer anything I ask of her.”
From the corner of his eyes, he looked at her. “Can I ask you something now?”
“Why are you so interested in Rosie?”
A sigh. “Because I would like to know the person I’m traveling with. Why?”
A pause. “I guess...I’m surprised that you’re not going along with Rose just to take off Noir’s head.”
“Why is that strange?”
“All the trolls I ever met before Vriska didn’t want much to do with me, and I think she only really noticed me because we helped each other in a fight and my alchemy caught her eye. But it’s not just a troll thing—a lot of humans never really take the time to get to know people. So...” A long pause. “I think I’m trying to say I’m happy you’re traveling with her.”
“Happy? Why happy?”
He chuckled. “Come on, Miss Kanaya. You should know better than most folks why she should be traveling with someone. I’m pretty sure she gets lonely, even if she never says it. And the way she acted when I got her on my shoulders and brought her out of the saloon?” His chuckle became a full-fledged laugh. “She cares about what you think! That’s pretty new for her!”
“Yep!” He patted her on the shoulder. “She made a friend, and it’s you! That’s really great!” He lifted his hand, blinking and staring into the sky suddenly. When he looked back, it was with a grin. “Hey, I remembered why I wanted to talk to you!”
“You said Vriska told you to.”
“No, no—I wanted to talk to you. It’s about Rosie being so seasick. Here, follow me.” Tugging gently at her wrist, he brought her below deck, bustling her into the ship’s galley. With the earliness of the night, there was no one within to bark at John when he banged around the cabinets and fumbled with jars. Eventually, he gave a laugh. “Ha! Knew we had some left!”
“Ginger!” He extracted himself from the cabinets, holding a small dark jar in one hand. He held it out to her, giving it a small shake to let sound the contents. “I made some little ginger tablets when I agreed to be first mate, but I didn’t ever need them. I forgot we had them, but they should help Rose feel better and stop throwing up so much!”
She took the jar carefully, clutching it protectively when the ship swayed and threatened to take her from her feet. With a poise belied by his frame, John kept his balance and held her steady. He snickered, patting her on the shoulder once more. “You go ahead and give those to Rosie. Maybe I’ll finally get her to play her violin when she feels better. I’m pretty sure you’d like it.”
They parted ways at the ladder to the main deck: John waved as he clambered gracefully up, and Kanaya returned the wave as she went back to the cabin. She opened the door slowly, but there was no helping the creak from the worn hinges. The lantern was still alight; Rose had not moved an inch. It almost seemed she was sleeping; her quiet groan at a tilting of the ship betrayed her.
“I’ve returned,” Kanaya said.
“I hadn’t noticed,” Rose grumbled.
She frowned. Sighing she strode to stand at the hammock’s side. She lifted the hat from Rose’s face in tiny increments. When she was looked at, she spoke. “I met with—John on deck. He offered me a remedy for your seasickness. Would you like to try it?”
Skepticism filled her eyes. “What is it, exactly?”
“He called it ginger. I’m unsure of what it is, but he was quite adamant that it would work.”
A pause. She sighed and lifted a hand. “Could you get me the canteen? Please?”
“Of course.” She did as she was asked, returning swiftly and opening the jar. She tipped a tablet into her free hand and offered up both that and the canteen in short order. They were taken and consumed, and Rose gave up the canteen with a grimace.
“God, I hope that works.”
“John hopes very much for your recovery.” She took her place atop the chair, crossing her legs at the ankles. “He wants you to play your violin.”
“He always does.”
A long silence. Kanaya studied her hands. A brief, painful desire filled her: her fingers itched to feel a sewing needle in their grasp. She took a deep breath, pressed her fingertips together, and looked up. She quietly asked, “May I ask you something?”
“Kanaya, no. I already told you that I’m not willing to discuss the topic you brought up before.”
“It’s not about that.” She closed her eyes; she took another breath. “I’m curious...about your mother.”
The silence reappeared.
“I don’t mean to pry about your efforts in alchemy.” She gestured at the ceiling. “John was distraught at the mention of it, and I realized it’s rude to demand information about something that’s clearly painful. It’s...unfair.” She paused. “I don’t want to be unfair or rude to you, Rose. But I am very curious about you—your life. And your mother seems to play a very large part in your past.”
She blinked and gave a small laugh. “I’m still not completely sure what a ‘mother’ is, to tell you the truth. So. In order to be fair to you, I would very much like to...understand you. If that’s all right.”
She was completely still.
“But I understand if you don’t want to discuss it. I’ll do my best to avoid being rude from now on.”
The faint light would not have been enough for human eyes in that moment, but Kanaya could easily spot the twitch in Rose’s jaw. It relaxed, as did her shoulders. She murmured, “Okay. What do you want to know?”
She looked at her hands. “What is a ‘mother’? What is she supposed to do? To...mean?”
A tiny scoff came with the turning of Rose’s head. “I didn’t think you would be so existential, Miss Maryam.”
“Given that trolls have no equivalent relationship, I don’t know if I’d call it existential on my behalf.”
“Touché.” She looked at Kanaya a moment longer before returning to her properly supine position. She brought her hat to rest on her stomach, blinking slowly and barely opening her eyes. “A mother—any parent, really—is there to raise their children. Our fathers sire us, our mothers birth us, and their duty is to teach us how to live and survive as adults in our own right.”
She drummed her fingers on the hat’s brim. “For my mother, raising me was a fairly solitary task. I’ve never known my father. Even though they tried their hardest, I never considered Misters Egbert or Harley to be a father figure. While I studied alchemy under Mister Harley, I originally became interested in it because of Mother.” She paused, blinking once. “It would be best to say I was covetous of it.”
A moment passed; she lifted one hand to open her fingers and reach up. “I wanted so badly to possess that same ability. I wanted to be as sure of everything as she seemed to be. All children grow up thinking their parents know everything in the world...until they reach a certain age. She started teaching me alchemy when I was around eight, and I started questioning her at thirteen.”
“What caused you to start?”
“I wanted to know if God was real. She couldn’t answer me.” She closed her hand, turning it slowly so her thumb was angled toward her face. “And if my mother couldn’t tell me if God was real, then how could she know everything? It was strange...and frightening to think that there were things she didn’t know. I was so sure that she would always be able to answer me about anything. That’s when I started looking for answers on my own in alchemy.”
“You sought proof of the existence of God?”
“Why not? Mister Harley proved there’s a universal constant of perpetual energy. If he could do that, surely I could prove the existence of one god.” She frowned; she brought her hand to her chest and opened it once more to look at her palm. “And that’s when my mother began to act differently.”
She could not place the expression on Rose’s face, and leaned forward in her chair to see it better. “How so?”
A pause. “Jade and John received praise daily, and in large amounts. There was never any doubt that their guardians were utterly proud of their accomplishments, no matter how big or small. My mother was never one to dole out compliments, but she started to...belittle my efforts, I think, is the best way to put it. No matter what I did, no matter what I produced or manipulated or theorized, she would only ever smile and pat me on the head. And she would always tell me that surely there was something else for a budding young woman to do aside from alchemy.”
Her eyes found the floor to help focus her thinking. She looked back up. “Alchemy was the only thing you were interested in?”
“Why wouldn’t it be? It was the only thing that made sense to me, growing up. I wanted knowledge, and alchemy gave it to me when nothing and no one else could provide it. Mother eventually tried to fully turn me away from alchemy. She said she knew I was talented, that I’d surpassed her long ago, and that I could and should stop while I was ahead. Then...everything happened. Then she died because of Noir. Because I didn’t listen to her, I suppose.”
Silence. “Do you feel guilty?”
“I am sorry that she died. I miss her. I remain frustrated that she never seemed to respect my efforts once I questioned her.” She closed her eyes. “I do wonder, sometimes, if that makes me a bad daughter. But then I wonder if she was a bad mother for making me feel this way.”
She rubbed at one of her knees. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I don’t know what a ‘daughter’ is meant to do. And I’m hardly qualified to judge if a mother has done right or wrong by their children.” She swallowed and breathed. “The only thing I can think of to say is that I’m sorry.”
Her eyes opened; she turned to look at Kanaya. “Why would you say that?”
“I must admit that it makes me conflicted to see you so lacking in cheer like this. It’s charming that you’re seeking to do right—I’ve told you that. But this makes you...sad. And I’m sorry that it does.”
Rose scoffed. “Are you trying to say you’re sorry for asking? Because you don’t have to be. I answered freely.”
Her tiny smirk faded into an equally small frown. “Kanaya, don’t feel badly about this. You asked in the interest of avoiding being rude in the future, and I wouldn’t have told you this if I felt too uncomfortable about it.” A silence. “Don’t feel bad. Please.”
Very quietly, she sighed. She looked down. “As long as it doesn’t bother you.”
Because she looked away, she did not see the fracture in Rose’s eyes. She did not see the way her jaw worked, and she did not see how her tongue wetted her lips when she finally turned away.
“It doesn’t,” Rose murmured, and returned the hat to her face.
It began with an enormous bang, horrific shredding of wood and metal, and a wild rattle of the ship.
Kanaya started awake, paddling her hands in the sopor slime in growing panic. She sat up and clambered free of the recuperacoon with Rose’s name spilling from her mouth. The door to their cabin was hanging open, and the deckhands thundered by with orders barked down the line. Properly conscious, she was briefly aware of a wicked whistle before another bang ripped through the ship. Though the walls did not break around her, she could not help but crouch down and put her hands tight over her ears.
The panic did not subside in the slightest, but took on a cold edge that cut through to her mind. She hurried to the bag, reaching inside to pull free three things. The first was a clean shirt; the slimed undershirt was shucked and the green blouse pulled on. The second, after some hesitation, was the pair of jeans Rose had insisted upon alchemizing for her. Slipping into them felt even stranger than waking to cannon fire and shouting, but she put up with it. The third was her chainsaw, and she hurried after the deckhands.
It was ordered chaos on deck. Vriska stood atop the flying bridge in nothing but a billowing white shirt and blue trousers, issuing orders in a voice that roared down the enemy cannons. They were caught up in a great fog and clouds of smoke; Kanaya was only able to divine the presence of another ship by the hellish red-orange flashes of the cannons firing. Lean trolls scurried up the ratlines, jamming torches in sconces along the masts and lighting them. The firelight reflected from the fluttering sails, bathing the ship and the mist at once in brightness.
“You know what to do!” Vriska shouted.
Kanaya turned. Rose and John stood at opposite ends of the main deck, right and left respectively, weapons drawn. John, dressed in his waistcoat and pants, was atop the railing, holding tight to a ratline with one hand and spinning his oversized hammer in the other. Rose, in jeans and untucked shirt, did the same with one Thorn, but her face was pale and her eyes wide.
“Ready!” John barked. A cacophonous response came to him. Trolls stood by their chosen cannons, all primed and ready for the spark. John held up his hammer. “Steady! Steady!”
An echo came through the mist.
The cry of “Now!” came in unison from Vriska and John, and the deckhands moved. They lit the cannons, and a broad-shouldered troll heaved a cannonball in the air before John. He grunted, swung his hammer, and shot the ball forward. Before it was lost in the mist, green lightning swelled around the iron. When it vanished, only the flashes of light told of how it suddenly shattered. Metal shrieked upon itself, and the cannon fire from the Mind Scourge surged forth. In the distance, there was wood shattering and voices howling in pain.
An enemy shot smashed into the railing at the farthest end of the quarterdeck, sending shrapnel flying. Vriska leaned on her own railing and screamed, “I told you to shoot down what gets through, alchemist! Do your fucking job!”
Rose’s head whipped about to face her, but she wobbled where she stood when the ship was rocked by a wave. Kanaya darted forward, pushing past deckhands to put a hand on Rose’s hip and steady her. She met Rose’s eyes when she spun halfway about. There was a strange blankness in her gaze, her lips slightly parted. Kanaya swallowed hard and nodded at her.
“Reload, men!” John shouted. “Reload!” He looked at his fellow deckhand, gesturing with his hammer. “Gimme another! While they’re still working on theirs, come on!” He was obeyed immediately, and shouted loudly when he struck the shot. The lightning split the iron once again, but replicated the shot perfectly. Eight cannonballs sped into the mist then, and they brought forth even greater noise from the enemy yet unseen.
Vriska’s voice: “Fire!”
Rose grit her teeth and swung herself forward on her bare heels. She cast lightning to the shots that erupted from the cannons, and they were given siblings as John’s shot before. They were matched, eight for eight for eight, and there was a great clanging and screeching as enemy fire was interrupted and deflected. Another wave of her arm sent lightning to the rare shots that burst free of the mist, and they disintegrated into brilliant violet sparks.
“That’s the way, Rosie!” John cried, a grin on his face. He lifted his arm to gesture in triumph, in support. A crack rang out; he gave a shout as blood spurted from his shoulder. He let go of rope and hammer alike, gripping his shoulder and the hole from which blood flowed as he fell backward.
“John!” Vriska was off the bridge in an instant, and at the man’s side even faster. She heaved him away from the railing, pulling him back to his feet and pushing him against the nearest wall. He grimaced, glasses askew and fogged with the heat of his blood. A curse was spat out when he summoned the hammer and tapped the wound. A green flash faded to reveal healed flesh, and he stepped forward to stand at Vriska’s side.
Rose, transfixed in something that looked like shock on her face, yelped when Kanaya grabbed her by the belt loops and pulled her off the railing. Not a moment later, a grappling hook shot into the air and crashed down on the deck. It was pulled taut and found purchase on the railing. Kanaya wrenched the starter cord and brought down the roaring saw on the rope. It snapped instantly, and there was a wild cry preceding a loud splash. All along the railing, more grappling hooks whipped up and over. Though many of the deckhands hurried forward with their own knives, there was no stopping every troll climbing the ropes.
“Hold them back!” Vriska shouted. She drew a sword from her belt, lifting it high to flash its hooked end in the light. “Help the alchemists bring down the ship! Make sure they’re protected!” She spun on her heels, slashing deep into the chest of a troll that charged headlong at John. The man screamed, clutching at the wound and the dark green blood that poured down his front.
Kanaya pushed Rose back in time to ram her chainsaw into the shoulder of a woman that had crept onto the railing. She swore loudly and pitched backward, yellow blood spraying into the air as she went. More cursing spoke of at least one troll that had tried to catch her and lost their hold on the rope for their troubles. A young man hurried up with cannonballs in his arms, grinning broadly at Rose. She did not hesitate in nodding, and pulled herself back up onto the railing. When a crack rang out from below, she whipped the Thorn down and sent lightning at the bullet aimed for her head. A stab conjured more lightning; a shattering sound responded.
The troll grunted and heaved a shot into the air. She replicated it tenfold, and another wave of her needle sent them flying forth with webs of lightning winding around them. The sound of a chainsaw severing legs from hips did not faze her in the slightest; she shouted for another shot. When it was away, burst into a cloud of shrapnel, she slashed her needle through the air to destroy the return fire. John aided her, knocking shot after shot into the dark as Vriska cut down anyone that dared approach.
There was nothing but noise, noise, noise on deck. That’s why it was more than understandable that no one noticed the faint crunches of more hooks digging into the railing on the opposite side of the deck. That’s why it was more than understandable that no one reacted until another gunshot cracked off and Vriska let out a scream. The deckhands turned as one; John whipped about. With a hole in her side and blue staining her shirt, Vriska stumbled and fell against the wall. She coughed and spat out blood. The troll she had been dueling barked out a laugh and charged forward.
John launched from the railing with a bellow, tackling the man and slamming his hammer down. The sword lifted in defense was shattered; the hand that tried to deflect the hammer was crushed and obliterated. He left the troll writhing on the deck and went to Vriska. All at once, the deckhands turned away from their enemies, abandoned their cannons, and fell upon the trolls that advanced from the other side. The man that had been throwing up shots for Rose nearly joined them, but Rose dropped from the railing to grab the back of his shirt and hold him where he was.
It was because she heard strange noise slipping from Rose’s mouth that Kanaya looked over her shoulder. There was anger twisting Rose’s face: it pulled her brows down and made her neck tense. She barked at the troll, jabbing her needle first at the cannonballs on the deck and then into the mist. He stared a moment, but grinned and nodded. In the moment before they resumed their assault, Kanaya thought there was a dark color invading the skin around Rose’s eyes.
Another troll leaped at her, all bared fangs and swinging cutlass. She caught the sword and pushed the woman back. The shove was turned into a skip backward, and the woman pulled a dagger from her belt to fling it at Kanaya. Still so unused to battle, still so panicked, and with a tiny part of her brain knowing that if she dodged, the dagger had a clear path to Rose, she stood her ground. A grunt left her when the blade pierced her right shoulder, but she bit down hard on the sound. She hurried forward; her effort was rewarded with a look of shock on the woman’s face and a falter of her arms. Those arms were taken off at the elbows, and the woman’s throat was lost to the first deckhand she stumbled into.
There were fewer and fewer blasts of cannon fire. There was no more breaking of wood on the Mind Scourge, purely protected by the Thorns of Oglogoth and their wielder. Rose continued to fire shots into the mist. Continued, that is, until the troll assisting her ran out of cannonballs to provide. She turned to stare at him, but he had been caught up in a duel of his own when he tried to snatch up more shots to give her. He pressed his enemy back, and Kanaya did the same. They joined the greater part of the fray, standing at the swarm’s edge and forcing the enemy to gather toward the center of the deck.
When her latest foe dropped screaming and bleeding onto the deck, Kanaya took the pause to take a step back and pull the knife from her shoulder. Grimacing, panting with the pain, she dropped the knife to the deck. The sight of jade green blood made her eyes widen briefly. That hesitation made a troll, almost as enormous as John and carrying a two handed sword, stomp toward her. She stared, pain and swelling fright driving the knowledge of her still functioning arms and chainsaw straight out of her head.
Lightning blasted the troll’s face. He screamed and dropped the sword to clap his meaty hands over his destroyed eyes. In another burst of lightning, his hands were left without flesh. Another strike: his shoulder splattered teal blood on the nearest troll he stumbled past. Another: he wheezed at the chunk taken out of his stomach. He shuffled backward, head whipping from side to side because he could not imagine where the strikes would come from.
Rose walked slowly past Kanaya, arm straight out and wand at the ready. Her gaze was so completely focused on the troll in retreat that Kanaya could only see the white of her eye. Shadows were heavy on her eyes. She stared; she could not help but take a tiny step backward. The shadows did not follow the flickering of the torches above. They moved in their own time; they writhed.
She drew one of her guns from its holster with her free hand and took aim. The troll had reached the other side of the deck, and stood with his back to the railing. She fired. The crack was followed in a heartbeat by the appearance of a hole in the man’s forehead. He crumpled; he folded backward; and he fell over the railing and into the sea. The fight continued. It had no reason whatsoever to take notice and stop. Kanaya hesitated, but reversed her step backward and made to move forward.
A hand clapped down over her mouth; she was wrestled backward.
Rose began to turn.
A knife plunged into her side and slipped between her ribs; her head snapped back because her throat was denied the ability to scream.
Rose finished her turn.
Choking, eyes burning, Kanaya looked at Rose in desperation as she was dragged back even further. She thought she couldn’t see the violet of her eyes, the white was so bright with how wide her eyes grew. The moment passed when they hit the railing. The shadows regained normalcy and Rose’s jaw dropped.
The blast of cannon fire was lost in the grand shattering of wood beneath them. Great splinters whirled up around them, and Kanaya felt at least one stab into her thigh. They pitched backward and began their fall. The troll that had captured her fell away with cursing and flailing; he left the knife in her side. All she could think to do was try to reach out, reach out for something, someone. The light of the torches diminished when she fell into the shadows of the ship, and her eyes snapped shut when her back slammed onto the water.
Sinking in silence. The water was excruciatingly cold. It soaked her clothes instantly; it felt as though the chill oozed into her from the wound in her side. As she sank, she opened her eyes. She had been born a land dweller. Arriving in the port city had been the first time she had ever seen the sea. What a way to die for a desert-born land dweller: drowning in the sea as her body spread jade into the water.
Her head was above water. There was an arm wrapped around her, holding tight beneath her breasts. Splashing, wild splashing that splattered water against her hair and horns.
“No no no no no don’t you fucking drown on me Kanaya.”
She heard fingernails, short blunt fingernails, scrabbling on wood. She heard more cursing between the hiss of waves washing into her ears. A wave washed over her head entirely; she began to sink again despite the arm around her. She tried to kick, to move her arms. The stabs kept her paralyzed with pain, and water rushed down her throat when she attempted to breathe in.
She was heaved back up from beneath the waves, pulled up so her back rested against something soft and her head was tucked beneath a chin.
“Breathe breathe breathe Kanaya please breathe!”
She could not. The sight of the ship wavered in her eyes.
“Grab my hand!”
The water surged around her, trying to suck her back down as she was hauled through the air. She was laid on her back on rocking wood. The sky was growing darker. Her mind knew it was impossible, but it was happening.
“She’s gonna drown, alchemist!”
A hand pushed her soaking hair away from her forehead.
“Use your alchemy, you fucking idiot!”
She started to go deaf; she did not hear the reply.
Dimly, she felt her head being tilted back. Her nose was pinched shut; her mouth was opened. An unsteady flow of air moved through her mouth and down her throat. She did not know if her chest rose. An eternity passed before more air was given to her mouth. Her hands trembled.
Something pushed hard against her stomach, pressing up toward her chest in five quick motions. Her chest shuddered. More air was given unto her, coming twice more before the pressure returned to her abdomen. On the fourth hard push, she seized. She rolled to one side and coughed the water from her lungs. Her hips bumped against something for only a moment. Her shoulder was gripped too tightly; she whimpered amidst her coughing and the grip loosened.
“Hang on I’m sorry just hang on for a little longer.”
The wood shard was pulled from her leg and she gave a small cry. When the knife was pulled out of her side, her voice broke in the scream she let loose. The noise tapered off into weak crying, but she was not allowed to curl into a ball.
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry just one more second I promise Kanaya I’ll fix it please just hang on one more second.”
Her eyes shot open at the sudden surges of blistering pain in her leg and her side and her shoulder. There was barely energy left in her to cry out, but she managed a strangled, lingering sob. She coughed again. When the coughing ended, shaking hands came to her face. Slowly, she turned her eyes in time with the turning of her head.
“Kanaya?” There was terror and panic and the tiniest point of hope in Rose’s eyes. Her white-blonde hair dripped water and her clothes were soaked. She swallowed and pushed Kanaya’s hair from her face. “Kanaya, tell me you’re okay.”
Her eyes started to drift closed. “Rose...”
“No no no wait wait don’t do that please don’t pass out on me!”
She smiled as she did.
She woke up in pain. She choked and coughed with it, and again on the taste of dried seawater in her mouth.
She opened her eyes. She was in the cabin again. The lantern sat alight on the desk as it always seemed to be, but there was no one occupying the chair. She was not in the recuperacoon, instead lying upon a collection of sleeping mats and beneath two or three copies of the covers. Her clothes were dry, as was her hair. She looked to the side from which she had heard the voice, and found Rose.
She, by comparison, was damp and bedraggled. She shoved herself away from the wall she sat against, moving to kneel at Kanaya’s side. For a moment, she reached out as if to touch her face. She brought her hand back to her lap. “Are you all right?”
“Aside from the pain, I believe so.”
She looked away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to use alchemy on you, but I thought you would—I had no choice.”
“I’m not angry at you.” She smiled and brought a hand out from beneath the covers. Gently, she set her hand atop Rose’s. “Thank you.”
“For—what, no, don’t thank me.”
“Why wouldn’t I thank you? You saved my life.”
“You—you saved mine first—all the time I was using alchemy you were right there behind me.”
She managed to chuckle. “Was it just repaying the favor?”
Something very small broke in her eyes. She pulled away her hand, moved away herself, and sat just out of reach staring at Kanaya’s face. “No. It was not.”
Silence. A deep, long silence. She sat up slowly, waving away the protest she could see building in Rose’s face. Putting a hand on her once wounded side, she moved to lean against the wall behind her. “What’s wrong?”
“You once called me an abominable liar. I am tempted to use your words against you. Please tell me what’s wrong.”
The silence that came appeared visibly. It took hold of her throat and made her look away.
She took a deep, wavering breath. “I’m sorry.”
“If I hadn’t—if I hadn’t done so many things, none of this would have ever happened to you. If I hadn’t started listening tonight. If I hadn’t started learning alchemy in the past. If I hadn’t become so damnably arrogant and proud years ago. If I just hadn’t fucking done it. But I did all of it, and now here we are with you having nearly drowned because of me.” Her face went smooth, and it made it painful to hear the laugh that came out of her mouth. “What a colossal fucking joke. I still haven’t even told you what the hell I’m babbling about.”
“Then please do.”
A pause. She put her hands in her hair, still damp from the water, and rubbed at her head. She returned her hands to her lap. “You said you asked John about why I’m so reluctant to talk about my mother trying to turn me away from alchemy. What did he tell you?”
“All he would say is that you sinned.”
Her lips curled up, but the expression was far removed from a smile. “That makes sense, in some ways. Especially if we focus it properly and say I sinned.”
“Why only you?”
“Because I’m the one that convinced everyone to try to perform resurrection. I did that because I wanted to do what my mother couldn’t: disprove God.”
“How would a resurrection accomplish that?”
“If you could bring someone back from the dead, then they would have the answer of what waits for us after death. They would be able to tell us where a soul goes, and if there’s any sort of god waiting to bless or condemn.” She stared at one hand. “I wanted that knowledge so badly for years. Not for any noble reason like Dave wanting to negate the murders his brother committed for the camorra, or a loving reason like John and Jade wanting to see their mother one more time. I had no reason to perform this alchemy beyond my own hubris—beyond wanting to surpass my mother—and I held the theory and its possibilities in front of my friends to get their help in researching and perfecting the formulae.”
She took a breath, pressing her thumb and forefinger together. “My mother tried to convince me to stop when she learned that I was trying to perform resurrection. She told me it was a sin, and an impossible thing on top of that. She said I would be putting my friends in danger. I didn’t believe her at all. I just continued making my plans and got angry at her for implying I couldn’t handle a feat I found so simple.
“And then we were finally prepared to perform our little blasphemy. We were going to do what I promised John and Jade—bring their mother back. Our guardians, tipped off by my mother, broke in on our soiree. They didn’t try to interrupt us physically, but they screamed at the top of their lungs to try to talk us out of it. I didn’t even look at them. I just kept watching the transmutation circle because I knew it would work.”
“It didn’t,” Kanaya murmured.
“On the contrary. My original reason for doing this was because I wanted to disprove God—the God that was so widely preached—and I succeeded.” A bitter smile. “I just proved the existence of other gods in doing so.”
“What other gods?”
“The Elder Gods, rulers of the deep and the beyond and devourers of dead souls. That’s what they told me, anyway.”
“They...told you this? When?”
“When my alchemy did exactly what they wanted it to, which was to open a gateway between the world of mortals and the realm of the Gods.” She paused, rubbing her fingertips together. “They said they’re always very interested in mortals who dabble in matters beyond their control and understanding. They say it’s because we make the best speakers. They’re always on the lookout for speakers. They want mortals to know that their religions and philosophies amount to nothing more than tiny attempts at comforting themselves in the face of oblivion, and so they seek out speakers to spread the knowledge of their existence.”
“And so—they made you and your friends their speakers?”
“Not my friends.”
Silence. She found she had stopped breathing.
“The end result of alchemy that tries to retrieve a dead soul is the opening of a path between the alchemist and the Elder Gods. They tried very hard to make me their speaker.”
“Did they not succeed?”
“No. Thanks to the efforts of my mother, who I am told stepped in when I started screaming in tongues and somehow broke the connection. This, of course, displeased the Gods. That is how we came to be on Alternia: it was our punishment for defiance. That is how Jack Noir was created: the fallout of our arrival was so tainted with the energies of the Elder Gods it spawned a monster. That is why you have suffered tremendous loss and pain: because I was consumed with arrogance and pride.” She let out a tiny puff of air that could have been a laugh, were it not for the twisted expression on her face. “It’s why you’re even being denied rest. I know the nature of my nightmares. They sing to me as often as they can. I know that I scream, and I know that you’ve been trying to calm me down.”
She shook her head slowly. “So that is why I’m sorry, Kanaya. I didn’t explain to you why it is such a horribly foolish idea to accompany me anywhere, much less try to help me in any fashion. And I did it for the worst possible reason.”
“What else but more selfishness? I wanted to believe that, perhaps, you—you in all your headstrongness and remarkable sympathy—would not despise me if you didn’t know how contaminated I am.” She looked at the floor; she took a deep, wavering breath. “So. I am sorry. I am sorry, Kanaya Maryam, for everything I have done, from drawing my first transmutation circle to my opening a door into hell. But most of all, even though I know there is no adequate way to apologize for it, I am sorry that I’ve hurt you. I only hope you believe me when I tell you I’m being completely sincere about it.”
She pried open her mouth once more, unsure if she meant to spit out more apologies. Very suddenly, she was pulled along the floor. She was settled not against the wall as she briefly thought, but against Kanaya’s side. One of Kanaya’s arms wrapped around her shoulders; the hand of the other caught one of hers. She sat in stupid silence, staring at her knees.
“I want you to answer something,” Kanaya said.
She swallowed. “All right.”
“Have you ever caused me physical harm?”
A pause. “What?”
“Have you ever caused me physical harm, yes or no.”
“Performing alchemy on you was painful—I heard you scream—”
“That was a side effect of healing what was likely a fatal wound. It was not you causing me real harm. And the wounds I received in the fight were not ones caused by you. I suffered them from enemies from whom I wanted to protect you. That was my choice, and I do not consider it to be the wrong choice to have made.”
Silence. Rose grit her teeth behind closed lips.
“I accept your apology, but only to assure you that I do not blame you for what’s transpired. I am not angry. I am sad for you.” She tightened her grip. “I want you to understand that.” She brought her hand from Rose’s shoulder, but only to put her fingers in her hair and tilt her head close. “And I would like very much for you to be happy.”
“Because I believe you are person deserving of happiness. And before you try, I’m going to inform you that whatever arguments you concoct in an attempt to discourage my thinking will be ineffective.” Hesitation filled her. She looked down and caught sight of the unreadable expression on Rose’s face and the wideness of her eyes. She took a small breath and pressed her lips gently to her hair. “It’s all right.”
Silence. Rose squeezed her hand and held it close to her chest as she curled in on herself.
“It’s all right,” Kanaya murmured, lips still to her hair. “It’s all right.”