Every evening she wakes you up too early, singing the songs of the fishering girls. The crab cages rattle as she hauls them off the boat, horrible fuckin counterpoint to her horrible fuckin singing:
I went to pick the kelp in bloom and saw a highblood passing by;
come and shelter, sir, said I,
hiding in the kelping bloom
seek and catch me, bye-and-bye --
You’d prefer your rest. The caught crabs make plip-plop noises as she tosses them to the party-coloured clouds of cuttlefishes, hungry for their breakfast, and she calls them each by name.
Nightbreak. Sunset will be rippling in red and gold on the horizon, glowing through the thin curtains on this miserable little rock on this miserable shipwreck hive, and your moirail will be out there coaxing your daily bread to take another leggy mouthful. Fef couldn’t carry a tune in a filial pail, and her voice drifts over the water like one more oilslick. You love her so much you want to die of it.
Market night. You roll over in the sopor and try to sleep.
“Wake up, wake up! Arise! Arise!”
The slime’s too thin to really want to lie around in it. Sopor’s expensive. You both cut it with agar and fill your recuperacoons, and you’re both always badly wanting more, especially on account of you pouring half yours into hers to get her a good day’s rest. It’s the dreams; Fef sleeps uneasy. None of this prevents you from saluting her with a middle finger as she paddles sopor slime over your hair. “Up!” she says. “Food is ready, night has broken, and I’m glubbing bored waiting for you to be awake.”
“What a fintastic fuckin reason to wake me.”
“You don’t need any more beauty sleep,” she says, “on account of you being already beau-ti-ful,” and it’s such a tired old saw that it has dust on but you laugh anyway. It is a sour sort of laugh. Seven sweeps, sixteen scars, a seadweller with ribs all sticky-out: you are not beau-ti-ful, but there she is walking her fingers up your shoulder and it’s such a sweet lie. “Besides, you are driving me so demented! If I got to go to the city I’d be gone already. You would not see me for foam.”
Drip-drying’s necessary, hauling yourself out of bed. Every dribble of sopor is precious. It does mean she’s treated to the sight of you buck naked and shivering, but this Feferi regards with no more interest than investigating the back of your knee with a thumb. Nobody but her is ever going to see you willingly nude, nobody nobody nobody.
“Wouldn’t see you for a big splat of snailblood purple and fins, like,” you say. “They would kill you, Fef Peixes. They would peel your hands so you could watch them pick their teeth with your fingerbones, use the rest of you for boots. Get me?”
“Sometimes I think dying would be less boring,” she says pensively, and she throws you a bit of towel. “Don’t give me that look! You and I, we die together. I go and you go. Like this: pchooo! I just wish you’d stop doing it alone.”
“Clam it with the morbid crap. I bet you didn’t sleep, neither.”
“I bet you I did.”
“Coddamnit, you know how you get when you don’t fuckin sleep.” You reach out, tug on a twist of one of her curls. It’s thick with salt-rime and the sharp reek of pollutants. “How long were you under, Fef?”
She laughs, utterly carefree. “Days and days,” she sing-songs. “Lonely nights before me and the guttergulls behind; I’ll see you when I’m sleeping and I’ll leave your bones behind!”
“Rinse, you loon,” you tell her, “‘fore you grow barnacles up in your brainstem,” and when she makes a face you snap the towel at her so she skitters back.
“I’ll keep it on forever,” she says. “A big salt coat made of the sea, I’ll grow a shell like a crab!”
“You’d go madder as a crab, Fef, and you know it. Get yourself decent.”
“If I was mad you’d never leave me,” she says, and for one awful frozen moment you almost think she means it. Then she breaks out into silvery laughter once more and skips away to your rainbarrels.
At times she talks such dreadful fuckin rot. It’s how you know she’s worrying. The sleep’s a problem, too, her staying up working in the roaring depths where the sun can’t get her and trying to outrun her own thoughts and pickling herself on pollutant and anoxia. Generally she’s as sensible as she is spoiled, and she’s pretty spoiled and pretty sensible, but whenever you’re apart she starts to churn and doesn’t know her excretion shunt from her elbow. Just another reason you can never ever let her go to shore.
“Come and eat,” she says, coming back dripping wet and a little clearer-eyed, smelling like rain and wet wood. “I’m sorry, Eridan.”
When your pants are on Feferi watches you drink your evening soup, chin in her hands, tiny little fuschia cuts at her knuckles, and she cracks a handful of fresh mussels open for you. “I’ve done up the accounts to hand in,” she says. “I didn’t have to cook the books so much this time. Not a big shipment, so not a big excise! Glub glub. You’ll have to sign it, though.”
“Please. You know how to write your name.”
She shrugs, and even her indifference turns up the corners of her mouth. “I’ll write for landdwellers the day they want to read what I have to say. So never!”
Fef taps your mouth like she’s sealing a deal, and you can do nothing but kiss her thumb and ache inside.
On the breakfast table she has laid out all your knives: two flick-knives, the clam-shucking dagger they so magnanimously deign to allow at your hip, the shank you made out of an old spoon you’ve been carrying since you were three sweeps old. Sometimes you think she knows what you’ve done with them. Sometimes you think she really doesn’t. Outside the great grey waves groan in a way you’re suddenly loath to leave. “So how about I bring you home somebody’s thumbs?”
“Gross! Don’t. If you’re going to kill someone, bring me their heart!”
“Do you even know how completely fuckin disgustin a heart looks?”
“Less disgusting than thumbs! And no way have you ever glubbing seen someone’s heart.”
“Have! I live a hell of a life,” you brag, and you reach over and steal the faded red handkerchief she’s got tying her black curls. You loop it around your wrist instead, a kind of thieved tattered favour. Feferi snatches at it as you circle round the table. “They got a word for me on the streets. Quake in their recuperacoons when they hear I’m comin -- I have seen bunches and bunches of landdweller hearts, you poor ignorant fish girl, you just got no idea of it -- ”
“Lame,” she pronounces, laughter loud and lovely, and after brief chase you hold the hairband high over her head where she can’t steal it back. Instead she wraps her arms around your middle and presses her face right into your shoulderblades, elbows squeezing painfully next to your gillflaps as she gets in close. At your stomach she splays her thumbs and forefingers to a diamond, pressing the old familiar sign right into your belly. “Pale for you,” she says.
“Pale for you,” you say back. It’s an old call-and-reply. The thought of leaving her makes your digestion sac tie up in knots. One day you’ll come back and she won’t be here, you’ll come back with the money and she’ll be a pile of gills and gibs showing where someone used her up --
“Pale as foam.”
-- or she’ll be gone to the deeps for good, one more ragged monster to keep the landdwellers on their toes. Better that you’re used, little by numb little, than her all at once. This is why you keep her hidden, Alternia’s only fuschia-blood, your moirail.
“Don’t fuckin fret, Fef. I’m Eridan Ampora; I’ll be fine.”
“You never really come back fine,” she murmurs.
This is unfortunately true.
By the time the cuttlefish are packed away in their little tanks for transport, you’re due to go. Feferi has optimistically laid your clothes out on the table. Her idea of going-out things are the nondescript rags worn only by the real sad type of sea-leper, a cacophony of beiges. It’s all complete with a bandanna meant to hide your earfins just in case someone gets offended from having to see them. You wouldn’t whitewash the walls wearing these. They look like depression.
Your pride picks what it always does: ransacks the drawers and gets your nice pair of striped trousers, patched as invisibly as you could sew. Your button-up shirt with real buttons: slubby old silk tie over that, hot with anger and vanity now, slipping together the ties at your cuffs. The tie’s purple. The shirt might once have been blue. The jacket, now, the jacket’s grey and you’ve spent whole perigees carefully sponging the blood stains off it, that jacket’s swag as fuck with a big sharp collar and one pocket over the breast. You knot the tie to Fef’s complaints.
“That’s not inconspicuous!”
She wrings her hands in excited despair. “You’re so glubbing vain!”
It’s true. Each spare Imperial sestertii you ever hustled you’ve spent on snacks, scarves, socks and thread, and sometimes the ones you couldn’t spare. It is the one thing she understands but can’t accept. You’ve told her over and over: it’s worse surprising someone with the fact you’re one of the fisherfolk, and if you’re gonna expose your fins to the bright midnight light then you sure as shell will give a show. So you’re sea offal. You like the shamelessness of pointing a big glittery finger at yourself: daring the world to come at you.
You wish you weren’t a little fucking surprised when the world, time and time again, comes at you.
“Give us the comb, Fef,” is all you say, and you fuss over your hair, twisting that mutant purple streak in your hair into a zig-zag fuck you to the world and scooping out a fingerful of cheap pomade trying to get your coif to look just so. Hard when the mirror’s a salt-streaked, wax-stained piece of rubbish. Good thing you’re pretty. Pretty ugly, says the mirror. “And my rings, they’re in the top drawer.”
With bad grace, your moirail scatters them down in an untidy jangle on the dresser. Mostly rings aren’t your thing, not really, only they double as knuckledusters when you’re desperate. Foremost is the only piece of jewelry that’s worth anything to speak of. Coincidentally, it’s the one piece of jewelry you’re not wearing for pity nor money. “Not the topaz.”
“If you wore your kismesis ring maybe people would leave you alone. Alone! Did you ever think about that!”
“If I wore my kismesis ring I’d want to puke blood outta my protein chute.”
Most people wear their caliginous ring on the outside fingers of the left hand, the flushed on the right. The conciliatory rings go to the insides on either. Ever since you were little you’ve worn a chipped-out diamond of pink abalone for Feferi Peixes and you’d slit your gills before taking it off, spit in contempt and love if it got the littlest bit of question, but your flawless yellow spade stone feels like a noose. A lisping, skinny-assed warmblood noose.
One who probably takes a real nasty pleasure in how incongruous that yellow stone is on a seadweller’s finger. The day you carried that one home you and Fef turned it over and over and over all in wonder, both a little in awe you couldn’t swallow down. Six sweeps old with a real kismesis. That had been -- something.
You hate him so much. You should hock it again today; it’s been almost a perigee and there’s a line between long enough for the insult to really sting and long enough that it looks like you’re maybe getting a little reluctant.
“You’ll be puking blood out your protein chute if they mistake you for a feral.”
“Nobody mistakes me for a feral,” you remind her,but you slip the ring in your pocket nonetheless. “Leastways not twice.”
“Just don’t waste all your money on buttons, you anemone,” she says, pensive and intent, “because we need nails, though I don’t know where you’d get them. And you need to see what the market price is at the moment for sopor. If it’s below fifteen Imperials, see if you can’t cart some home. Glub! That’s all, I think! Oh, and measuring tape: I don’t know how much it costs, but if it’s too dear, don’t.”
This list follows you right to the deck of your hive and down to the cargo tug, which is a fancy name for a dinghy with an engine you bothered and begged parts for over the course of a whole frigging sweep. The things you did for that engine, the engine should be embarrassed about. You’re still getting schoolfed as she unties ropes, pressing a cheek briefly to the grubby cuttlefish tanks and not pausing for breath: “ -- and don’t buy scissors but try to see how they work, ‘cause I can’t see how we wouldn’t be able to make some ourselves, as we are two lit-tle glubbing carp-en-ter drones. And don’t steal!”
You come over to the bylines and you smother Fef’s sprinting hands in yours, her claws digging a little into your palms, eyes wild and drunk. Overexcited. The moment you’ll go she’ll be pacing, pacing, pacing through the big rotten wreck of your shiphive, picking burrs from her clothing and wood from the walls and then at herself, and the look in her eye is a tiny appeal. Let me go, it says. Let me go! I’ll rip the gulping throat out any landdweller who looks at you. So she would, just not before she blew up a building.
“You’d carping steal in a heartbeat. Stop frothing.” Your moirail takes a shuddery breath. “Go and pour all the sopor from my recuperacoon into yours and have a sleep, all right? And you take the Crosshairs and put it next to the cocoon, and you don’t let that leave you ‘till I’m safe back home. Be best fuckin palechums with it.”
She says, “Don’t let anyone touch you.”
“I never let anyone touch me,” you say, and you step over the railing and into the tug and start working the winch downwards. Feferi pillows her cheek on her arms and watches as you settle yourself and the boat down on the iron-grey sea, and you toss her a crisp mock salute on account of there you are with your chill jacket and your boat and they should swear you in as a glubbin admiral or something. You’re Eridan Ampora: ruin of the seas, sharp-cut scoundrel, total fuckin handsome badass, and also a shellacious prissy beach of a coward who never wants to do this again.
Too superstitious to say goodbye, you call: “Sisters will bring me back home.”
“The Green Sister of the dreaming deeps’ll bring you home!” she calls back. “The Green Sister likes me!”
You know without looking she stays at that railing long after you’re out of sight, away with a grunting engine to the great greasy bay of the Capitol.
Back home, Eridan Ampora means a lot of things: moirail, handyman, beggarman, lusus, but out here in the City you shed that skin and become something else altogether. Seadweller, that’s the main one, because even when you’re pulling into the harbour getting stamped by the customs carapace that’s the thing they always see: bluebloods lounging on the docks catcalling some, which you got to ignore right up until your cargo’s seen to, on account of it not being worth your hide till then.
So it’s seadweller, seller, and the one that gets your stamp done quicker is agent, the Imperial intelligence seal on your mouldy identification papers. The tiny customs dinghy bobs up next to your tug, and after a look at that they don’t even go over your boat for contraband. “Ah,” says the carapace wonderingly, “a Captorman,” and you nearly lose your breakfast there and then.
“Not so friggin loud, please!”
“Uh, yes. Yes, of course.”
Oh God, he’s been in power six months and ‘Captormen’ already. Probably chortles himself to sleep each morning on that one.
Being Agent’s an important one to hide, because after seadweller you’re a crim, and those two don’t sit easy together. What the hell else could you be? What else could the frills on your fuckin face make you? You wear your clam knife at your hip because that’s all you get, being fisherfolk, but you wear it and gladly. You give the customs guard a brigandine sneer. “Dock three,” says the carapace, who works with bluebloods all damn day and obviously gives hardly a fuck, and off you go to tie up your boat.
Feferi sells most of her cuttlefish stock to the Fleet. They make good pets for ship life: they live in tanks, they eat frozen food, and they come in lots of colours. It goes to show how many of your people end up making it to Ascension Day, though, because you can’t imagine any seadweller worth their salt wanting to keep a fuckin cuttlefish around, but you try not to think about that too hard.
Then it’s off to haggle with the exporter, or at least the exporter’s agents -- hoity-toity greenbloods in sharp black coats who think they’re hot shit because they answer to the Minister of Customs, an adult who’s more shipside than planetside, and they’re called the Incorruptibles because they don’t take bribes. This is a load of unpleasant squidshit because they answer to the warmblood families, that’s all, nice and easy and they never call all the party invitations a bribe, and what you haggle for the goods is way less than they’re worth.
“You’ll be processed and paid by tomorrow, no earlier, and you’re haul number #413-2B,” says the agent. She tells you the final price. At your snort of distaste, she says what they always say: “There’s less call for pets shipside this season.”
“Whatever, you’ll offload every one and they’ll be bought in credits, and you’ll be paid a lot of money.”
This agent seems a little surprised, and she taps her clipboard thoughtfully. Under the big warehouse lights her uniform shines a slick black. “It’s a very complicated process called supply and demand,” she says and you realise she drawled out comp-li-ca-ted so you can understand it, and she’s not even being sarcastic. She is being genuinely helpful to this poor seadweller trying to sell his shit not understanding why he’s too amphibious to earn a full pay rate. “It’s difficult, and it’s a competitive market for luxury goods. I know it’s a hard concept.”
You have been selling your goods here for sweeps upon fuckin sweeps, and you know about supply and demand. You also know about getting bilked senseless, and you know oceans about being patronized. You would rather be patronized than all of the alternatives because you know far more about serious wounds, but it sticks in your craw nonetheless.
“I’ll be comin back tomorrow with the haul price,” you promise, hoping that this threat carries any weight. Of course it doesn’t. You’ll come back tomorrow with all the details you can scrounge about what the last cargo went for, and you will probably get the same price or a different agent and a lower one and told to get the fuck outta there before they make it lower, saltblood, and if you got angry they’d call for help because you’re being aggressive and maybe even feral and at that point not even Captor could --
She is staring flatly at your snarl. “Thank you,” you say through clenched fangs, and the greenblood looks sort of mollified-- God why can’t you just shoot her-- and out you go.
You count your budget all the way back to the street, trying to fit the puzzle of what you need into the frame of what you'll get, thoroughly distracted by how the numbers don't add. You're mentally wrestling mathematics up against the wall by the time you notice you're being followed, which is frankly a welcome distraction from the money question.
Of course you're being followed; your kismesis has you followed every time, has done for a sweep. This time it’s even one of his nerdlings, which has got to be pretty much the glittery paper crown on top of the shit parade that your night is apparently fucking determined to become. The day Eridan Ampora can be properly kept tabs on by some fumbling warmblood thumbs-up-his-nook pet programicomber is the day that he will be lying in an alley flat-out deceased, and you’d sort of thought he might have noticed this by now. For a guy that likes to think he’s so fucking smart, sometimes it feels like you spend the greater parts of your miserable life re-educating him.
Admittedly, you would have done a bit of loitering just to make sure you were being followed in the first place. Would be downright insulting if you hadn’t gotten any kind of tail.
The dock-side gutter-blood hoodrings are a warren of twisting streets, foul-named and foul to walk and even fouler to smell, built in a haphazard tangle of hivecells and shopnooks and torn-up sewage channels. No one’s got any real chance of knowing their way around but the assholes who build the place, and life expectancy isn’t anything to brag about round here neither so it’s not like anyone’s got a real set of cordinations. But there are rules a thumb you can follow, and if you walk fast and look scary you’re bound to get somewhere, somewhen.
You head up one Fuckstreet and take a sharp left at a twisty-looking Murderville Boulevard-- Her Royal Luminesce didn’t name this grid-- and then it’s two fuckobvious hops back and forth over a stream of raw sewage just to give your tail a little shot of delight to encounter. Three more similarly-themed streets later you fetch up in a dead end, but there’s enough thrown-out garbage washed up against that end that you can scramble up the corpses of couches and torn-up recuperacoons and ancient thermal hulls to the nearest sagging roof. A good kick sends the whole pile scattering with a crash and a pungent series of squelches back down the the alley floor, and you sulk off along the broken-backed ridgeline.
The nearest hole in the roof drops you into a dim, reeking little hivesquat. Someone stirs in a pile of tattery paper and an unseen lusus starts up a scary, rattling buzz: you head downstairs fast, nearly falling over a startled pair of bluebloods getting their pail on right on the goddamn steps. They shout, and you shout back on the principle of fuck that shit, and bolt the rest of the way before they can get untangled enough to try anything.
The night air is comparatively fresh once you bolt out of the door, and the buildings are starting to get a little less raggedy. You take a deep and appreciative breath, and cruise down Assfuck Avenue on the basis that it’s big and actually a little bit lit up. You stick out a tad here, but lights mean shops and shops mean a chance to pawn this sorry excuse for a concupiscent anchor in your pocket.
There: ‘PON SHOP’ in big crooked glow-in-the-dark letters. Fucking Capitol trolls like to light up damn near everything that’ll hold still, a big glaring school of neon betas all trying to be the most special. Hurts your head, but what can you do? You tack over across foot traffic and push your way inside.
It is repulsively bright inside: every lamp and string of fairy lights that have fallen into this douchebag’s giggling clutches has been plugged in. You practically trip over the long white streak of a serpentine lusus fumbling your way toward the counter, then lean your elbows on it like you got the deeds to the place as you give whoever the fuck is behind the counter your most ferocious grin.
“How’d you like a deal today, buddy?”
“Ain’t your buddy,” they growl. A girl, big and mean looking, but fuck it, damn near everyone round here’s big and mean looking. She leans forward, and you can hear the rasp of scales as her snakemom shifts across the floor behind you.
“So what you got for me, saltlick?”
You pull the ring out of your pocket with a theatrical little fuck-you flourish, walk it across your knuckles so’s it shines. The lusus hisses, and the girl’s eyes narrow.
“Colored glass?” she snorts. “You’re tryin’a pull my frond? Give you a wooden dupondus and a knuckle sandwich for that kind of shit.”
You drop it on the counter, pick up the nearest lamp-- some heavy blue monstrosity of two hoofbeasts fucking -- and bash the glittery little circlet as hard as you can. The wooden counter gouges in with a dull crunch; a ceramic phallus flies off the base of the lamp; and when you pull the lamp back the ring is still sitting there, pristine and a mite accusative.
“Titanium and topaz,” you say. “You want it?”
She wants it. “You stole this,” she says.
She considers. You do your best not to twitch your fins doorward and give any actual sign of how hard you’re listening for any sign of your tail.
“You’re Captor’s boy, ain’t you?” she asks. She picks up the ring, squints at it. “I heard ‘bout this ring.”
You very carefully do not rip off her head and beat her to death with it. “Then you know it’s fuckin good. Gimme an aureus and I’ll get off your bulge.”
“Oh, scalp me, why don’t you? Twenty.”
“Maybe I will. Three.”
“It’s worth three aureii just for the glubbin’ stone, you utter fuckwit.”
“And if you cared you’d be at a jeweller’s. Give you five denarii.”
“I’ll take nine if you promise to give the little palace starlin that’s gonna pick this up a run for every scrap a bullion he got.”
“I’ll give you ten if you let me touch your fins.”
“But the guy -- ”
“I don’t like pissbloods any more’n you, saltlick, you know I’m game.” She pulls out a handful of coins from her sleeve. “Going once? Twice?”
The lusus behind you rattles its tail, and you do your best not to shudder.
“Fuck you. Sure, give it here.”
She drops them in your hand: the silver’s warm against your own base temperature, and her fingers rasp, curious, across the flesh of your palm. Like a street magician revealing a trick, you run your hands behind the three-starred dorsal that decorates every unlucky fuck with salt blood. You grit your teeth and lean in, and she tugs, almost gently, at the middle lobe of your left fins.
“Never saw a seadweller this close up,” she says softly, and runs her fingers over the achingly sensitive violet-flushed tips.
“We’re like unicorns,” you grit out through your fangs, “only a long fuckin sight handsomer. You fill a pail yet, sweetglobes?”
“Don’t try your luck.” She flicks the lowest tip, a lighting-bright stab of pain you’re altogether used to, and pushes you away while you’re still wincing.
You attempt something like a charming smile. “So, there a back door in this gaudy deathtrap you’re callin a shop?”
“Course there fucking ain’t, finface.”
“Yeah, course, and where wouldn’t it be?”
“Not behind that death-sitar over there.”
You flip her the friendliest finger you can manage and slouch off, fins still tingling. The door that isn’t there is pretty well hidden behind battered old ominous looking lowblood musical instruments, and it’s not half tricky to squeeze your way through without getting yourself diced. As you ease the door back closed, you hear the sound of someone stumbling over a lamp, and your new friend remarking, with sadistic cheer: “I hope you can fucking pay for that, Greenie.”
By the time you get out of the backstreets you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and about the ten denarii burning a hole in your pocket, which will cover the cost of the flopring you’ll stay in for the day. It’ll cover a few barrels of sopor, which you’re bringing home for Fef whether it’s at a good price or not, and it’ll cover about half the little things she wants and doesn’t expect you to bring back home. And the ugly yellow flush on Captor’s face later you’ll get for free, all free, and at that point you’re laughing and drunk on being Eridan fuckin’ Ampora: seadweller, seller, agent, roustabout and magnificent bastard, that’s you, and Gods help the tail you left back in the slums.
Because he’ll be hard-pressed to follow the route that lead you out here, the cavalcade of Fuckstreets and Bulge Lane terminating in the slightly more salubrious Wharf Road -- the streets here are cleaner and the toxin-tang from the harbour is mixed with the scent of fishmeal, not the various pleasant smells you get from blueblood tenements. Stuff from the fisheries’ll get brought here, then shipped out to the refineries and processed. Some of it gets sold in the city, you guess, though you’ve seen the fish in the harbour and you wouldn’t put them in your chum bucket.
The cityhives are big, graceful blocks from here on in, with streetnames like Star Crescent and Twin Moons Place. The multitiered estates are all painted in warm colours which age into reddish creams, hung with leafy green trellises. Further in and those trellises will turn into fragrant, fussy-leafed hedges not worth the trimming and real grand warmblood homes, lacquer doors and a bunch of assholes hoping to impress Fleet bureaucrats come Ascension, but like hell you’d venture that far with fins on your face.
It’s nice out: a warm night with a lady’s veil of clouds overhead. Tealbloods chatter on the street and trolls weave in and around, going about their business and trying to look important, when basically you’re all the same grubclutch and playing at shops. A troll and his tortoise lusus come plodding down hawking market food, misting chiller bins strapped to its big white shell, filled with fruitpops and sorbet in unlikely colours. Atop these are perched big baskets of melons and vegetables and lots of stuff you don’t know the names of. A grubby fountain tinkles musically in the distance, filled with equally grubby lilypads in homage to the Goddess of Froth and Frogs, or whatever they call her here; clusters of lights winking white and pink and yellow are swagged up over the streetlamps. People give you a second glance, make sure their hand’s on their wallet pocket, and forget about you otherwise.
When you pass by the tinkling fountain, you feel so carefree you gob a little heretical spit into the water. Froth and Frogs! Only landdwellers. It sticks in your craw and you’ve got no good feeling for God.
As you amble down Wharf Road feeling basically good about the world, you buy a fruitpop and a baby orange from the hawker. The orange is slippery and kind of squashy -- you put it in your pocket for later, though it totally fuckin ruins your silhouette -- but the fruitpop’s perfect. You crunch off a bite and let it dissolve on your tongue all sweet and syrup and cold, tasting like no fruit you or Fef have ever eaten, and it’s in this stupid fug that you get jumped.
The first blow’s just a shove that makes you stumble forward, which lets another guy in a filthy coat shoulder-check you off to the side. In this manner you’re folded into an alleyway like the little dipshit rube you are, blinking over your fruitpop at three big bluebloods in boots. They herd you into the wall and beyond them you can see the pale blur of some lusii setting up a perimeter.
“Does he look like the description?” says one.
“Well, piss my pants, he looks like a seadweller and that was the whole description, nookfuck.”
One’s a girl with curly horns and no hair and the other two are boys with too much hair comparatively and you yank out your clam knife, but all three of them pull out shanks as big as shortswords. “Don’t even,” breathes one of the boys. “Oh, sweet Gods, don’t you even, I will fucking cut you. I will fillet you like the fish you are.”
“Firstly, I am so fuckin impressed you know the word fillet, that is a big one and I bet you can’t spell it,” you say. “Secondly, what the shit buckets do you want?”
The girl takes you by your carefully done hair and she bashes the back of your head against the wall, scraping your horns on the brick, and in response you bite her hand bloody. Your teeth sink into the soft fold between thumb and forefinger, and she screams until one of the others pulls her off and shoves a hand over her mouth. You see soft-focus stars.
“Are you the squealer?” one demands.
“Am I the flippin fancy what.”
“Are. You. The. Squealer,” says the girl, but one of the others is going, “yeah, naw, c’mon, if he’s the squealer he’s not gonna up and say he’s the squealer -- “
One of them seems more urgent, more on the ball. “Where were you last week, fishman, fifth cycle?”
“Pailin your matesprit.”
This earns you another blustery backhand but you don’t move, you don’t move a sweet inch because this isn’t the first beating you’ve ever had in an alleyway but this is the most confusing. They’ve got no gang patch; they’re not the Shitbloods, the Fuckbuckets or the Sunshine Crew. For one thing, they’d know you for who you are. These kids don’t know you, all they see is the fins, and you really could’ve used your Captorman tail right about now.
“Take him in anyway,” suggests the girl, who’s nursing a bloody blue hand and an ugly expression. “If it turns out he’s not the one, who gives a nook?”
“Fuck’s sake, this is the first talky fishtroll we found all these nights, rest’re monsters -- ”
You are a seadweller, jackass and thug of all trades, but your aerating oxygen sac sinks because deep to the core of you you’re also an infomerchant and secrets are your job -- “Maybe I can help you out.”
The second boy lifts your chin with the point of his knife and you go with it, you calculate all the while how much reach your arm’s got and how much splatter you’d get on your jacket. “Maybe you can shut your seedflap. God, you things are pretty.”
“Pretty weird,” says the girl, and they snigger.
“You lookin for a seadweller? I know every seadweller haunt in the Capitol, bulgemunch, good luck findin your troll because they’re sure as shit not me.”
“Look, what if he ain’t shit,” says the third suddenly, and tugs on the first boy’s sleeve. Doubt is starting to flicker in his eyes. “You know they’re not looking for a feral, aren’t they now, and I’m not going into the Septics even for three aureii, that place is a killhole, what if we just -- “
The girl steps very hard on this boy’s foot and the first boy’s face has gone all hard and inflexible. “You start doing the talking,” he says. “Or I start cutting the talk out of you. Are. You. The. Palace. Squealer.”
A cold stab of fear runs down your spine at the word palace. Maybe they do know who you are and you’re fucked. “Get your aurals checked,” you say. “I already said no, hunkrump, so you are borin the everlivin blood out of me at this point. I said no.”
“I’ll believe it once you’re bleeding a little,” says the girl, and she raises her blade. “They probably don’t need you that alive.”
“I hear they have gills all everywhere,” says the second.
“I hear seatrolls don’t got regular junk like trolls should have, down there,” says the first boy, pleasantly, “they have this, like, a tentacle with fins on -- what’s in your pants, saltlick? Fancy a show?”
You take your forgotten fruitpop and you slam it into his forehead, a drippy wet slush. He gives a yell and the girl and the other boy slam you back into the wall, pin you so hard you hear something crack, and in their eyes is a terrible mad hunger.
“None a you are my types, bilgebloods,” you slur. “Deal with it.”
“Fucking hark at it, it called us bilgebloods,” says the girl, and suddenly that knife goes back to your fins and gently scrapes along the underside and you want to die, more than just a little you want to die. It’s like a red-hot brand held to every nerve, just the lightest touch of that blade to you and the soft sensitive frill underneath and then the second’s pushing your shirt up over the scum-purple gashes between your ribs, palming over your nook like he’s seriously checking for tentacle. Every gill you got is flushed and flaring, a panic reaction that’s going to get you killed one of these days, as you gulp dizzily for air that you can’t keep long enough to process, choking on nothing with your throat untouched. The others watch so hard their oculars should fall out.
“How many people can say they pailed with seameat?” he breathes.
“How many people would want to?” the girl says sourly, but she’s not stopping him.
And his hand on you is every single other hand that has ever been laid on you so that’s when your knife cuts a wide, silky arc over his belly, as easy as anything could ever be, and your brain’s one long litany of God oh help me God because you don’t know how many more times you can go through with this before there’s nothing left of you.
His guts spill out like a hatching day gift. You slice again and blue sprays over your trousers, all over the others too, and he’s trying to hold himself in and just getting handsfuls of slippery ropes for his trouble. He keels over, his eyes gone stupid with shock.
The Violet Sister must have heard you way down in her abyss, though, because even before he stops thrashing the guy’s blood is edging with the little oily curls of smoke that means She’s taken this death as a dedication. Or whatever process it is that happens when someone dies unduly and starts their meandering slide downwards to undeath, although you’ve never believed in the Sisters as much as you do that moment. It smells like nothing so much as burning trash, sharp and sour in a way that feels dirty across the skin. The others can see it too, smell it, and before they can hold you down and carve you up they’re trying to stop the corpse before its undeath first, saw its head off before they’ve got a revenant on their hands. But it’s already thrashing again, come back fast, so fast, and there’s this terrible rising growl that hurts like needles through the auricle sponges and you just take the opportunity to fucking scarper while everyone’s screaming.
You walk briskly past the panicking lusii and out the alleyway, never run, because it’s never good to be a running seadweller anywhere in the Capitol.You just stride down the street putting your knife back in your belt and clenching your fists real tight, whistling because you’ve got blue blood on your clothes so you better suddenly look really casual. There is a hard tremble in your heart all the way back to the slums. You’re in a perfect fucking daze through the backlanes and straight to your fleapit flophive, THE JOLLY WHELK, and when you’re there you don’t even haggle for the room.
The room’s got a recuperacoon with some dodgy-looking sopor, and a desk with a wobbly stool. You leave and spend quite some time in the communal ablution trap, sponging the blood off your trousers at a sink that’s probably seen quite a few trolls sponging blood off their clothes, and you block out all the world that isn’t water and some wadded-up towel. At least nothing got on your jacket, though you note with a little tremor of bitterness that the gutterbloods were so interested as to what was in your pants that they didn’t care about your orange. Unlike you, it’s not even bruised.
You lick your fingers and pat the back of your cut-up fin till they come back clear and squint at the rising welts you’ve earned, viciously purple against your too-pale clammy face: black eye, a perigee’s worth of growth scraped off your horns, a vicious bite across the side of your mouth you don’t even remember getting bestowed. You look like the world’s biggest hate stud, and you rest your head against the mirror so you can stop looking at your own thousand-yard stare.
You need to be anywhere but here right now and you spare yourself a sparse handful of seconds to carefully catalogue Fef in your mind’s eye: her cool hands, her quick smile, the delicious loose curls all over her head that smell like salt and sweet, and once you remember every little thing and how she’s waiting for you to come home to her you quit the shakes. You’re Eridan fuckin Ampora, murderer and moirail, and you’ve got shit to do.
Apparently you quit the shakes about two minutes too early, though, because when you get back you have a nice little surprise waiting for you. You’d left your door locked. A note and a tiny tissue-wrapped parcel lie there on your desk: you’d prefer if someone had clucked like a chicken and shit on it.
get to the palace a2ap liike your job entaiil2, you egregiiou2 2hiitwa2te. ii am FAR TWO BUSY to deal wiith your crap at thii2 precii2e moment.
from gue22 who.
po2t2criipt for iidiiot2:
do not make me 2end for you.
ii am goiing two 2hove that riing 2o far up your wa2te chute you will have two fii2h out your fuckiing biile 2ack next tiime you want two try two get coy wiith me.
In the tissue paper is a small bicolour lapel pin, red and blue. Filigreed in gold is a miniature, perfectly-wrought bumblebee: symbol of one Sollux Captor, spymaster to her Luminescence and all-around shit stick.
You have a headache the size of your whole body.