The air in her cabin was thick. I was familiar with its thickness, well acquainted with its source—it had its humble beginnings in the reek of ill-gotten gains, the stench of her less-favored slaves bleeding and rotting alive, far below us. The Marquise masked the foulness of the odor with sweet perfumes and incense, but the thickness remained, all the more suffocating in its sheer palpability. How the woman stood it, I would never know. (Perhaps she enjoyed it—but then, perhaps not. For all the carelessness with which she wrought misery, she never struck me as a woman to delight in senseless woe.)
“Do come in,” she said, and I could but nod, and follow.
My bare feet padded over rough wood, soon meeting plush carpet—crimson, I knew, though I dared not break her gaze. It cushioned my footfalls. The room was dark, its contents barely visible in the sputtering glow of lantern light. (Surely she could see in this light better than I.) In this light, priceless treasures—stolen all—were but dim gleams of gold, silver, blue-jade-red; furniture took the shapes of slavering brutes. She was but a silhouette, a phantasm to eyes that could not bear her full form; yet half-formed like this, she was all the more terrifying. Her eightfold gaze glinted brighter than any jewel. A soft cologne scent wafted from her throat. It hung about us like strands of smoke.
Her hands, arachnid in their thinness, gestured vaguely—wisps in the dark. “You seem perturbed.”
Should I not be? Had I little regard for my life, I might have asked as much. (Were I wise, I might have asked as much.) Instead, I asked, “What do you want of me?” It was as much as my paltry boldness, choked in her grip, permitted, and even this seemed a step too far. And almost, upon reflection, foolish. I ought to have known, by now.
But she surprised me, not for the first time since I’d come into her possession. Her smile held no malice. She looked on me, I might even say, tenderly. “Do you so disdain me? Distrust me?”
“I do not,” I lied.
“Come, then, and have a seat.”
She took my hand in hers. I knew it well. It was cold as her fingers folded gently into mine, a corpse’s hand. Rough calluses caking the bases of her fingers belied the softness to be found in the meat of her palm. I trembled. If it could be said that I could consent, then I, yes, consented to be led. Her hands grazed my shoulders. She pushed me down, back into a tall-backed chair whose plushness did not so much invite as menace. I felt cushions at my back, and in the dark, they seemed as the immense tongues of vast mouths—mouths that did not have to swallow me whole to threaten me, no; the mere threat, their mere existence was enough.
She did not have to take my mind to control me, no.
“My,” she said. She took her seat across from me, elbows like daggers cutting into the table, as she folded her hands beneath her chin. “But you fascinate me.”
I bristled. “Is this your idea of flattery?”
“Need it be flattery?” I imagined her fangs dripped venom. “Am I not permitted to make mere statements of fact?” Certainly, she needn’t ask me if it were permitted. Indignation simmered in me, ultimately to amount to nothing. Her laugh was deep, and it rasped—a rusted instrument far out of tune.
“This isn’t fun.”
She squirms in her seat. Her limbs are lively with a surfeit of potential energy. I chide her with a smirk. “To be painfully honest, I think you could do with a little less… fun in your life.”
“You would think that!” She pouts and crosses her arms like a wiggler. There is some indescribable allure to the hasty azure smear on her lip. “You wouldn’t know fun if it jumped up and bit a chunk out of your nook.”
“That’s… violent.” I have to wince. She does have a knack for calling up such imagery. She needn’t even speak to evoke it; the steel prosthesis where her arm used to be is a blood-chilling utterance all its own.
“Life is violent,” she says. “You love it, or you get over it.”
She kicks her feet up on the table, and I scramble to push them down, to her aggravation and yelping dismay. They leave mud tracks on the tablecloth. I fuddle with and fold over the tablecloth to hide the smears. “Don’t—” For some reason, I struggle to assert myself around her… “—do that.”
“This,” she says, gesturing vaguely with that wicked arm, “could be fun, too, if you’d stop being such a stick-in-the-mud. We could make it like a roleplay, you know?” I had to sigh. “It’d be good for me! Help me better get into character!”
“I think divorcing your existence from that of your Flarp persona would be better for you,” I say, “if only just for once in your life. Really, would it be that unreasonable for the two of us to enjoy a simple, no-frills, quiet cup of tea?”
I opened my eyes. I wasn’t aware I had closed them until now—my mind remained mired in a choking haze. She stared at me, the harsh angle of her eyebrow grazing her hairline. She smirked. I slumped back in my seat.
“Well? Would it be?”
I only dimly realized that she had spoken, just a moment ago.
“I don’t suppose,” I conceded, “that it would be unreasonable.”
“I’m glad we concur,” she said, and touched my hand. Despite its cold, it burned like fire; I wished I knew why she felt so compelled to burn me, sting me—yet the answer ought to have been obvious. She wet her lips with a cold, gray tongue. This, too, I knew well. I shuddered, feeling trace paths of saliva over my body, long evaporated on the surface, yet ingrained deep.
I did not smell the scent of tea through the choking cloud which enveloped us both, not at first. I could now, filling the cabin with its scent as it steeped; a cloying, sickly odor to my addled senses. I might once have found it pleasing, perhaps—when I was far, far younger, still inhabiting the tight confines of the brooding caverns, not knowing what life beyond might be. (Look, indeed, where my life’s path led me—to the tight confines of a ship’s belly.) A bitter taste suddenly filled my mouth, laden with salt as I tilted my head back, closed my eyes. I did not care to reflect on those times, for what was the use?
I could not have been less impressed by the Marquise’s garish taste, for when I opened my eyes I saw she steeped her tea in a pot fashioned to resemble a skull (it was, to her credit, not an actual skull), a broken horn its spout. I supposed this was meant to intimidate. When I reflected upon it a bit, it did intimidate, within a symbolic capacity—the skull might as well have been mine. It might have been any lowblood’s, I imagined. She held the very mind of the oppressed in her hand, used it so frivolously, so callously.
She must have noticed me cringing, mired as I was in my mind’s own chains as in hers. A hazy little smile passed over her face. “You are something odd.”
“No,” I say, “we are not using that.”
“Wow, rude!” There’s eight-ball juice all over the table. She clutches her possession like I’m some dragon that means to snatch it away.
“I told you, the in-character thing is not a thing that is presently going to happen.” I suppress an outright gag. “And that thing… is tacky.”
“Uh, it’s an heirloom?” she asserts, laying the… thing on the table. The horn-spout is chipped, and its colors have taken on a murky, gravy-ish sort of cast over the years, with lumps to match. “God, where in the hell is your respect for legacy?”
“My respect for legacy flew out the window, I’m afraid.” My chin rests on my palm. “That thing chased it away.”
To my great surprise, she draws back and utters a shocked little laugh. “Woah, look who grew a vertebral stack overnight. What in the fuck kind of person snaps at their very palest pal?”
My cheeks flush. It does occur to me that this is not appropriate in the least, and so I draw my hands into my lap, adjusting my dress. “My apologies.”
I do not meet her face, but I do hear her snort. “Wow, Kan, that’s not even close to the correct answer. You are sooo bad at this.”
“Excuse me?” My blush must light up like a lamp.
She just laughs—a little knowingly, I think—but in her laugh I hear the dagger-edge of a sigh.
Maybe it was a trick of the light, but I might have sworn the spout was chipped.
It caught my eye only because I believed the Marquise would have no use for damaged goods (it was, perhaps, an absurd notion coming from myself). But I tilted my head, and it was gone. The darkness diverted my attentions, deceived me. But perhaps it was not a trick of the light, but a trick of hers.
The Marquise herself poured for the both of us; a dark tea, seeming red in the faint lantern glow—I resisted the urge to shut my eyes to the hue. I knew she read the impulse that shot through me, though she did not react. How long must I feign complacency? (I knew the answer: the rest of my life.)
“You’re so quiet,” she said.
My fingers massaged my aching temples
. I swallowed, and my throat resisted the motion. I felt unsafe. I felt very aware that I felt unsafe, and foolish, for I ought, by now, to be well accustomed to the sensation.
“Confess, slave. There’s something wrong,” she said, and I shook my head, though I knew it to be a futile gesture. She did not even have to pry into my psyche to see what was written all over my face. The deeper question remained—why had she any investment in my well-being? I would’ve presumed that the answer was no—but then, why toy with me, when we both knew this? The Marquise was many despicable things, but, I could say with certainty, hardly a sadist. I had known sadistic highbloods. She was not one of them.
“I’ve never done anything to lead you to resent me,” she said, out of nowhere, as though suddenly frozen by my coldness. “I have never scorned you.” I in turn felt scalded, for she did not even know the depth of her own lie.
Why, indeed, should she care?
“Drink,” she urged, and pushed the steaming cup into my hands. How warm it felt in my brittle fingers. They were like birds’ bones, really, so easily crushed by too tight a grasp—yet hers was gentle as the lightest feather. “I think it will do you well. I don’t intend to kill you.”
She, vulgar to a fault, knocks back tea with all the grace of a thirsty hogbeast, to a point where restraining myself from snatching her hands out of the air and forcing her to grasp the cup delicately. The thought of her hands in mine… I know I’m being foolish. She splutters a little. “Fuck, it’s hot.”
“I imagine it is,” I say, and though there might be a hint of dryness to the same words in another’s mouth, there is none in mine. “Considering that it’s tea.”
“It tastes like water,” she complains.
I scowl. “It tastes like tea.”
“Watered-down hoofbeast crap is what it tastes like.” She scowls back.
“I’m sorry you have no appreciation for finery,” I say, “and I mean that honestly.” I catch myself, and clap my hand over my mouth once I realize what exactly I have said. She makes my tongue get away with itself, I think. (I know deflecting blame is irresponsible, but…)
But it makes her laugh—there is more sincerity and genuine goodwill in the sound than ever I have heard from her before. My eyes actually widen for a moment, before she catches me, and her smile turns chiding. “Fuck’s sake. It’s like every time you display even the slightest whiff of standing-up-for-yourselfitude, you flip out.”
“I am not ‘flipping out.’” I am vaguely offended by the assertion. “I was merely—” Perhaps it’s a fleck of dust in my throat that stalls me. Perhaps better judgment. “I apologize.”
“Ugh, Kanaya.” Her elbow skids on the tablecloth, and her fingers shield her eye. “Every time you seem like you’ve got it together you just…”
My eyebrow arches. I sip my drink. “I just what.”
“Well clearly you’re never
going to get it so what’s the use.” I think that she is hardly in any position to criticize, but I do not say this. Her knuckles go a little pale as her fist clenches in her hair. I allow myself to touch her hand, though my mouth feels strangely dry. Her eye glints. What have I done to make her resent me so?
“I care for you,” I say, almost to reassure myself more than her. “I’m your… moirail.” I should not have stumbled on the word.
“Bullshit,” she says, “don’t patronize me. Don’t act like you just now suddenly care about being a good moirail.”
I am stricken. My tongue was scalded by tea only moments ago, and now it’s cold as ice. “Vriska,” I say—it pains me to be so forward, but—I speak in my sternest voice: “I have only ever striven to do what a moirail ought.”
Her lip curls.
“I never took you for an outright liar, Kan.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again, not knowing what else to.
“Don’t be.” Her blue-smeared eye seals tight. I can’t see what lies deep inside, and that frightens me. But she smiles. “I betcha we can fix each other yet.”
Too sickened to drink, I merely sat there, staring into the pitch-black fluid with eyes that were worthless to see anything. My nails squeaked a little on the porcelain. She lifted the drink to my lips—lukewarm, tasteless. But it was through no fault of hers that my mind refused to function. (It was through every fault of hers.) “Ah,” she said, as though something had clicked, and then she did not speak for a very long, long time. Nor did I, but I felt a shroud fall over my mind, thick and gauzy--the drink grew sweet to my tongue, its warmth pleasing to my lips. Her touch warmed my hands, sent a tingle through the very marrow of my bones.
It was, perhaps, inevitable.
“Now,” she said, with a smirk that could slay, “you feel a little better, do you not?”
I nodded. Of my own volition, I would like to think. It was merely the objective truth, however galling. I now breathed thick air as though my lungs were made for water, and the scent of blood underlay a stirring deep within, rooted low in my belly.
“You see,” she said. “I do not scorn you. I value you.”
It had never been
her scorn that buried itself deep in my chest and drew such blood. She had other, far more painful thorns than that. But we both knew this—and even had she nothing but her own blood, it would have been more than enough. I understood this.
“Your boundless generosity,” I said, “has proven this much.” I too could feed a snake its own venom, though in my hands it was impotent. Yet when I dared look her in the face, it was a mistake, I saw that her lips glinted wet, and her eyes, all eight of them, caged me wholly in their trance.
“You are,” she uttered, in a low, warning tone, “very lucky to be here.”
I felt the familiar irons clamping around my heart, growing hotter, hotter. And I did, indeed, feel lucky to be here, in this catacomb rolling on an open sea, chained to the specter of Death herself and yet not granted the privilege of dying. Boundless
gratitude swelled against my body’s tiny confines. The Marquise’s hand grazed my shoulder, and heat passed through my skin.
“I think,” she said, in infinite tenderness, “that we could be very good for one another.”
It was her pity which was the most devastating weapon of all.