“...and then she reminds me oh so sweetly that our neighbor in Hunsford has managed to reduce her daughter to a sentient brain in a jar--and that she’s certainly capable of doing the same if needs must.”
Miss Rose Lalonde bit down on her biscuit with a decided snap. Her companion, Miss Kanaya Maryam, shook her head and poured her another cup of tea.
“Perhaps you ought to stop performing Dark Rights in the wine cellar, my dear,” Miss Maryam said, pouring herself a cup as well. “If nothing else, chose a venue where your mother will not be sending the housekeeper to at all hours of the day.”
“Perhaps I should,” Rose acknowledged ruefully. “I don’t suppose there might be sufficient space in the brooding caverns?” Miss Maryam, being a troll woman of the jadeblood caste, had been conscripted like others of her station in life to care for the local mother grub and ensure that further troll generations would indeed come into the world.
“Nonsense,” Miss Maryam said in clipped tones that brooked no argument. “You’d upset the grubs and spoil their characters and dispositions--if you didn’t step on one.”
“I’d rather think I’d be more likely to be bitten than stepped on,” Rose said under her breath.
Miss Maryam was regarding her friend thoughtfully. “Might you have any interest in being a lady’s companion?”
Rose blinked. “Oh?”
“I have a friend,” Miss Maryam said, “who has only recently returned from the war, where she was unfortunately blinded. It has occurred to some of my associates that she might benefit from someone to aid her in adjusting to her new status, until she is ready to re-enter society.”
“I may be interested,” Rose said, diffidently. “It would get me away from Mamma. I assume your friend is another troll, for I have never heard of any human army or navy allowing women in its ranks.”
“Her name is Terezi Pyrope,” said Miss Maryam. “And she is the legislacerator who attempted to arrest Napoleon.”
As Rose was five-and-twenty years of age and hence an adult even by human standards--trolls were considered adult at ten “solar sweeps”--she did not need to get her mother’s permission to leave for Nottinghamshire residence. Out of courtesy, she left her mother a note detailing where she would be going--but in truth, she expected her mother would be quite grateful to have her out of her household. Despite their estate being a very good one--no mere cottage for the Lalondes of Kent!--it had often seemed in the last ten years to not have enough room for the two of them.
Miss Maryam had written her a letter of reference and told her to go to the estate of Mr Zahhak, whose hospitality Miss Pyrope was currently enjoying in the wake of her injury. “And ‘tis lucky for her that she is blind,” Miss Maryam added sotto voce. “Mr Zahhak has rather unfortunate taste in decoration. I don’t recommend you stay there any longer than you must.”
Rose has calculated that her route from Kent to Nottinghamshire would take nearly a day were she to ride her horse, Maplehoof, and had accordingly planned to leave very early in the morning indeed. And so it was that she arrived at Mr Zahhak’s estate as the sun was nearly setting.
The butler, she was surprised and charmed to find out, was a lusus. He took her to a parlor, then left to fetch Miss Pyrope and Mr Zahhak.
Miss Maryam had been unfortunately right about Mr Zahhak’s taste in decoration. Rose, being a well-educated and accomplished young woman, knew that musclebeast nudes were a time honored motif in troll paintings. That did not make them a whit less disturbing.
Luckily for Rose, the lusus butler wasted no time fetching his master and his master’s guest. Mr Zahhak, as it turned out, was a very tall, solidly built blueblood. One of his horns was broken. “I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance, madam,” he said, making a shallow bow. “Though I can tell by your dress and your bearing that you must be high caste as far as humans reckon things. I am Equius Zahhak and this is Miss Terezi Pyrope, my guest. May I ask what sent you to Stabilis Hold?”
“My name is Miss Rose Lalonde, of Silenus Park. Miss Kanaya Maryam sent me,” Rose said, handing Mr Zahhak her letter. “I understand Miss Pyrope is in need of a lady’s companion. Here are my references and qualifications.”
“Hmmm,” said Mr Zahhak, as he opened the sealed letter and began reading. Meanwhile, Rose busied herself by looking at her prospective charge. Miss Pyrope was all angles. Even her horns were excessively pointy. Her eyes were obscured by red glass spectacles, but Rose could tell by the color of her legislacerator’s costume that Miss Pyrope was a teal-blood. She carried a dragonheaded cane--a mark of her office, but likely an aid in her infirmity as well.
She had a grin like a shark.
“Everything seems to be in order,” said Mr Zahhak finally. He looked at his companion. “What do you think, Miss Pyrope? Would you like to return to your hive? I would send one of the kitchen staff to help keep house for you--a carapace, perhaps?”
Miss Pyrope laughed: a wild, gleeful laugh. “Perhaps. Let me test her, first. Come here, Miss Lalonde. Stand in front of me.”
Rose complied readily. She had an idea what Miss Pyrope wished to do. When Miss Pyrope brought her hands up to feel Rose’s face, Rose smiled.
Then Miss Pyrope took Rose’s face into her own hands and licked. “Mmm,” she said, smacking her lips. “Delicious! You’ll do, Miss Lalonde.”
Rose made a squeak of startlement. “Am I to expect that to be an everyday occurrance?”
“No,” Miss Pyrope said blithely. “Not unless you wish it to be. Have I scared you away yet?”
“No,” Rose said firmly, though she hadn’t truly known until she’d said it. “I am made of sterner stuff than that.”
“Wonderful,” said Miss Pyrope. “I’m quite happy to hear it.”
Rose was not entirely sure if it might have been wiser to stay home with her mother and risk becoming a brain in a jar after all.
Miss Pyrope’s hive was in the middle of the forest of Sherwood. In fact, it was in a tree. There was a large white dragon curled up around the tree. “My lusus,” Miss Pyrope explained, rubbing the beast’s nose affectionately. “She’s teaching me how to see by scent and taste.”
“Oh,” said Rose, feeling oddly disappointed. “I suppose you won’t need me for very long, then.”
“Oh no,” said Miss Pyrope. “I’ll want your companionship if nothing else--and besides, even when I’m proficient at using my senses in that fashion, I still won’t be able to read that way. The ink will run and I won’t be able to read it more than once--and my army pension is not quite sufficient to always buying new books every time I read them.”
Rose smiled. “I can see how that might be a problem.”
“Oh yes,” said Miss Pyrope. She laughed again, then added, “I’ve been meaning to ask--do you play an instrument? I know human women are forever learning accomplishments to in order to facilitate their courtship rituals. They’re always playing and singing and drawing and embroidering screens and such things. The last two are no use to me of course, but I enjoy music.”
“I’ve played the violin since I was small,” Rose said. “I’m not much of an drawer, unfortunately. My embroidery is not at all what it should be, either. I do knit, however.”
“I used to fancy myself as a painter when I was younger,” said Miss Pyrope. “You’ll likely see the results of it on the walls. I hope it will not offend your undoubtedly fine sensibilities,” she added, teasingly.
“Do not worry,” Rose promised her. “I have seen Mr Zahhak’s paintings, remember. Nothing on your walls will shock me.”
Miss Pyrope laughed again, throwing her head back with joy. “I’ll hold you to that, Miss Lalonde. Now, can you help me find the rope ladder?”
Miss Pyrope’s reading tastes, as it turned out, tended to fall in two distinct groups. Firstly, impenetrable law texts written in Latin, Greek, English (Old, Middle, and Modern), and the troll tongue. Secondly, novels.
Rose frowned to see them. She was a very serious-minded young woman and had been very well-educated. Neither her governess nor any of her tutors had approved of novels, so neither did she. Her own tastes ran largely toward astronomical studies, with a smattering of esoteric religious works and whatever alchemy texts she could manage to borrow from her mother’s personal library.
Novels were not only scandalous, but they were frivolous. Her mother read novels. Rose did not.
“Come on,” said Miss Pyrope. “Pick something.”
“The Interpreter: or Booke Containing the Signification of Words,” Rose read out loud. “How does that sound?”
“Bluh,” said Miss Pyrope. “I’d rather not be read a dictionary my first night home. What of the novels?”
“What of them?”
“Pick one of them,” said Miss Pyrope. “I’ve read them all before, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.”
“I doubt that,” said Rose.
“Why not?” Miss Pyrope shook her head. “I thought you tasted as if you were a great reader. Am I wrong?”
“I am not that great of a reader,” Rose said hurriedly, feeling annoyed that she had to defend herself. “I enjoy it, as I enjoy many things. And how can you tell such a thing by licking me?”
“Oh,” said Miss Pyrope. “I have my ways. But you do enjoy reading?”
“Yes,” said Rose. “But not novels.”
Miss Pyrope cocked her head to the side. “Why not?”
“Well--” said Rose. “Well-- they’re novels.”
Miss Pyrope laughed again, loud and long. “Well, then, we’ll have to fix that. Miss Lalonde, please read me the titles of the novels on the shelf.”
“The Mysteries of Udolpho. The Italian. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, The Mysterious Warning, Necromancer or the Tale of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. These all sound quite horrid.”
“Oh they are,” said Miss Pyrope, grinning her shark-tooth grin. “The horridest. Please take Udolpho and come sit next to me.”
Sighing in frustration, Rose took the book in question and settled down next to Miss Pyrope on the settee.
“Now read,” Miss Pyrope instructed.
Rose took a deep breath and did as she was bid: “On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert...”
Rose and Miss Pyrope soon settled into an easy rhythm. In the evening, Rose would read to Miss Pyrope from one of her many impenetrable law texts. Then they would descend down the rope ladder, Miss Pyrope to commune with her lusus and Rose to practice her violin in the fresh air. Meanwhile, the carapace servant would be tidying up the hive and cooking their meals.
The branches of the tree hive were strung with lanterns in deference to Rose’s insufficient night vision. A human bed had also been procured for her along the way, unaccustomed as Rose was to sleeping in a troll recoupercoon. Adjusting to the troll sleep-schedule had given her less trouble than she anticipated. Rose had always kept late hours, even in her mother’s house. Now she only had to adjust them later.
As the lightening sky signalled the approach of dawn, they would ascend the rope ladder, at which time the carapace servant would give them their supper. Then, Rose would read Udolpho.
She was surprised to find that it really wasn’t that bad.
In fact, though she did not want to admit it, she was rather enjoying the harrowing tale of Emily St Aubert and her many close scrapes, especially at the hands of her villainous uncle, Montoni, and his terrible, terrible friends.
Perhaps novels weren’t so terrible. In moderation, of course.
She wasn’t going to tell Miss Pyrope, though.
“O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” Rose read out loud, not quite able to conceal the quaver in her voice. Three months had passed since she had come to live with Miss Terezi Pyrope. “And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it—the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.” She took a deep breath. “I suppose you’ll want me to start another tomorrow.”
“If you don’t mind,” Miss Pyrope replied amiably. She sniffed the air. “Miss Lalonde, are those human tears I smell?”
“What--? No!” lied Rose.
Miss Pyrope laughed and took Rose’s face in her hands. “Yes, I thought they must be,” she said, licking Rose’s cheek with evident pleasure.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t do that,” Rose said peevishly.
“I said it wouldn’t be an everyday occurrence,” said Miss Pyrope. “Unless you wanted me to.” She stroked Rose’s cheek. “I pity you, you know. So many silly human repressions. You’d do well to be free of them”
“And who do you propose free me of them?” Rose replied. “Yourself?”
“If you’d let me,” Miss Pyrope said in a very soft voice. “Would you, Rose?”
“But don’t you have certain--duties?” Rose whispered even more softly. “That is, I mean, if you don’t want to be culled.”
“That’s the funny thing about being a war hero,” said Miss Pyrope, “and wounded in battle. The drones are no longer a thing you need to worry about. They take you off the list.”
“Oh,” said Rose. “Miss Pyrope...?”
“Please call me Terezi. I think we know each other well enough by now.”
“Terezi...” But Rose didn’t know what words she wished to say. She couldn’t think of any to properly express herself.
Then she laughed softly. She didn’t need words at all, did she?
Taking Terezi Pyrope’s face in her hand, she carefully licked each cheek, one after the other.