The last time Karkat had seen this many humans in one place, most of them were dead.
He was pretty sure a royal banquet ostensibly in his honor wasn't an appropriate place for battlefield flashbacks, but it was impossible not to draw the connection. Heat and noise. A cacaphony of uniforms. Overwhelming smells. Too many humans, not enough trolls. And just like then, too much depended on convincing people who outranked him that it was their own idea to do the sensible thing. All it lacked was the clatter of musket fire and the thud of the heavy guns.
As he delivered well-coached small talk and prepackaged witticisms to yet another pinkish-brown dignitary, he wondered how many times he'd have to hear 'General Vantas' before he could answer to it without that split-second of confusion. At least it didn't show on his face anymore. In the first few days after his hasty promotion, he'd glanced around for a real general whenever someone addressed him.
There was a warning tingle of psionics against his palm, and he realized he'd been reaching for his collar again. He threw Sollux a short scowl, but his companion (bodyguard, jailer, friend, mourner) was pretending to scan the crowd for -- trouble, drinks, whatever. That didn't mean he wasn't watching. Karkat wasn't supposed to tug at his uniform.
Nor was he to swear, scratch, mop sweat, or touch his hair. He wasn't to mess with the ceremonial saber hanging at his hip either -- fucking useless trinket, not even good as a threat, everyone knew he was a curved blade specialist -- except to hold it in position when getting in and out of chairs. They'd made him practice getting in and out of chairs.
Just for something to take his mind off his troubles, he tried focusing on the human he was supposedly socializing with. Tallish, plump, wrinkled male, glasses perched on his nose. Vaguely familiar. White uniform dripping with gold braid and at least three times as many medals as were weighing Karkat's own jacket. Karkat wondered how many of them had anything to do with actual combat.
"-- don't mind me saying so, my boy," the man was rambling jovially. "All for it, myself. Not much for tactics, you fellows -- no offense meant -- but right devils in a fight. I can only imagine what you'd be capable of if properly led by human officers."
The man was clearly trying to give offense. Sollux gave Karkat a warning spark on the back of the neck before he even opened his mouth, but he didn't need it. This whole situation was offensive; why break character for one more turd in an ocean of shit? Anyway, the geezer had a point. "That's hard to arrange, though, isn't it? Hemospectrum, you know," he said, and was vaguely gratified when the human seemed surprised by his mild tone.
"Quite so," the man rallied. "It's a damned nuisance. Don't know why you people are so set on it."
"Don't you?" Karkat smiled sweetly.
The man's eyes sharpened. "No place on the battlefield, that sort of thing. But I suppose that's not news to you. Bit of a propaganda piece, aren't you?"
Karkat flicked at the junkyard pinned to his own chest, with a meaning glance at the human's. "About half of these are real. You know what I mean by real."
The man's eyes crinkled. "Only half a diplomat, then, eh?" He suddenly seized Karkat's hand and gave it a short, hard shake; only hours of protocol drill saved Karkat from jerking away and maybe opening up the poor idiot's wrist with his claws. "I was at Stone Creek when you sprang your famous ambush. I thought I'd be an ogre's breakfast by dawn, and then suddenly they were pulling back. We'd no idea why, at the time. I heard about it later. Didn't know who'd been in command on your side until this engagement nonsense came up. But I'm glad to have the chance to thank you."
Karkat searched his memory for the proper diplomatic response, but found none. Hell with it. He cracked a grin and tried honesty. "We didn't even know you were there."
The old man threw his head back and bellowed laughter.
When the old man had gone to circulate elsewhere, Karkat made a show of looking for a waiter, hoping for a moment to breathe and a drink to hide behind.
Sollux said quietly, "You don't know who that was, do you?"
"Light Dragoons, First Battalion," Karkat shrugged. "That much fruit salad on his chest, he's got to be high up in the --" He waggled a hand, searching for the word. His mind felt like a badly packed knapsack, like if he rummaged too hard vocabulary might start falling out his ears. "Human hemospectrum equivalent."
"Hereditary nobility," Sollux supplied with a dry smile. "Yeah, you just made friends with the King's great-uncle. That's a kind of indirect ancestor," he added before Karkat could ask. "With his support, maybe we could make this work."
The fragile sense of accomplishment Karkat had gotten from that exchange collapsed. "No. We couldn't. You know why."
Sollux didn't answer, but his eyes dimmed slightly, narrowing, almost a wince. Karkat lifted his chin and looked away, firming his mouth to keep from replying in kind. This was no time to be indulging in pale sentiment. The kindest thing he could do now was to keep his distance and hope Sollux wouldn't get dragged down with him.
The swirl of the crowd parted for a moment, revealing his host. King John was a trim, sturdy male of average height, handsome but not exceptionally so, with a toothy smile and gold-rimmed spectacles that made him look a bit like a clerk. His blue uniform glittered with bullshit medals just like every other aristocrat's. Karkat wondered if there was a particular significance to wearing the dress uniform of the heavy infantry on this occasion, since he probably had a whole closet full of the things. A nod to Karkat's footsoldier origins?
Nah. John had a reputation for being a mental featherweight. Probably picked it to match his eyes.
"Yeah," Sollux said, as if Karkat had spoken. "I guess it's time."
Rather than admit he'd been thinking about irrelevancies, Karkat nodded as if his mind had been where it should've been. Because Sollux was right. The reception had gone on long enough that his departure wouldn't be a statement, so there was no reason to wait any longer.
When he reached John's vicinity, he saw that the human monarch was talking with two women. One, essentially a female version of the king, was the Royal Witch, the king's 'cousin' -- which was like a 'sibling' but not as direct somehow, Karkat didn't understand it as well as he supposed he should -- and also Duchess of Westsea, which Karkat understood very well. She was wearing her magician's uniform rather than her admiral's one, but from what Karkat had heard after the war, she had at least as much right to the latter. The other woman was so well shrouded he could see nothing but saffron robes and a knowing smile, and he didn't know nearly enough about the Church of Light to guess her rank.
Fortunately, they both curtseyed and left before Karkat reached them, so he didn't have to try to sort out terms of address for them. John's ever-present bodyguard, in red and white, eyes hidden by his helmet's visor, directed the king's attention with a slight lift of his chin. John turned, saw Karkat, and lit up like he'd never been happier. Karkat might have thought it was genuine if the royal idiot didn't use it on nearly everyone.
"General Vantas!" John cried warmly. "I didn't mean to leave you on your own so long. And with an empty glass as well!"
A waiter instantly appeared and exchanged Karkat's empty champagne flute for a full one, then melted away. He'd seen elite commandos obey orders with less alacrity.
Karkat cleared his throat, willing himself to go through with this. Much as he hated parties, the glare of the ballroom looked like paradise compared to what was coming. But all he could salvage now was his dignity and maybe Sollux's safety. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
But before he could speak, John said suddenly, "Are you bored yet? I'm dying. I'm going to drop dead of boredom right here. Boredom and heatstroke. Let's get out of this mob."
Karkat sagged slightly. "I was just about to ask."
John crooked his elbow, then hesitated, studying his own arm in perplexity. "How does this work when we're both men, anyway? Same height too, so we can't decide by that either."
"How does... what work?"
"Oh. Trolls don't offer an arm, do they?"
"I'm not that drunk, Your Majesty."
John laughed and gave up on the arm thing, whatever it was. "It would've looked silly either way, I guess," he said as he gestured Karkat to join him, and they walked toward a curved stair that rose from the corner of the ballroom. "It's going to be even hotter up in the gallery, I'm afraid, but if I actually leave, the party's over and everyone has to go home. Which is a bit unfair if you ask me. But." He rolled a shoulder in a laconic shrug. "Protocol. You know how it is."
"Oh, I guess not. This is all new to you." He paused at the top of the stair, and for a moment he actually looked intelligent. "No slight intended. I know your promotion was political, but you're still a war hero."
Until Karkat felt his brow smooth, he didn't realize he'd been scowling. He couldn't think of anything safe to say, so he didn't answer, but John nodded as if he had.
The servants must've deduced where they were going, because when they reached the plush little curtained balcony, there were refreshments already waiting. Champagne, of course, you couldn't turn around without getting a faceful of the stuff in this place, but also a crystal pitcher of iced lemon water, sweating even more in the stifling heat than Karkat was. Karkat barely remembered not to sit down before the king did. He reached eagerly for the pitcher.
John's bodyguard was suddenly there with the pitcher in his hand. Karkat froze, sweat going cold on his neck. So that was the legendary speed technique of the human sword masters. He'd assumed the stories were exaggerated.
The guard produced a tiny slip of ivory with runes etched on it and dipped it in the pitcher. Whatever he saw apparently satisfied him, because he poured out two glasses. But he used the magic thingamajig on the filled glasses as well before stepping back.
John grinned wryly at what he saw on Karkat's face. "Nothing specific to your visit. We always test if it's been left unattended. Go on, it's safe." He sipped his own as if to demonstrate.
Angry at himself for letting his nervousness show and be misinterpreted, Karkat wanted to refuse, but God, he was dehydrated. Made it hard to think. He drained his glass twice-and-a-half before he could stop guzzling.
Finally, he set it down, sat up straight, and looked the king in the eye. "We should talk," he said. "Alone."
John chuckled. "Chaperone-dodging before the wedding? Naughty. What will people say?"
Karkat gave him a blank look. "What?"
"I'm joking. Human tradition, basically obsolete, not applicable in this case anyway. Make sure we're not overheard, please." That last was clearly directed toward the guard, though John didn't look at him.
Sollux gave Karkat a grieving look before following the guard out, but Karkat couldn't stand to meet his eyes. When the door closed, the stuffy air seemed strangely quiet, despite the clamor of the ball below the balcony.
"You look... very unhappy," John said.
Karkat jerked his chin up, startled and angered by the king's pitying tone. How dare he --? But maybe he had the right, however much of a sham this whole business really was.
"Say whatever you want, Karkat. No titles. Protocol's for show and no one can hear us now."
"Fuck." Karkat let his breath out shakily. As if this needed to get any harder. Fortunately he'd rehearsed this speech in his mind a dozen times. All he had to do was read it out of his memory.
"I don't know as much about humans as I should," he began. "But I know you value mercy. And I gather all I have to do is ask for it."
John looked puzzled, but he nodded.
"Right. Well, I'm asking. Don't send me back alive. Something quick and quiet, and send back my head. Send --" Between the shock on John's face and the reality of what he was saying, Karkat faltered. He had to swallow hard and think of Sollux to go on. "Send my head back with my guard. He's more likely to survive if he's the one who brings it back. If you send me back alive, they'll say I sabotaged the alliance, charge me with treason -- I'm not afraid of pain, but it'll be public -- and he'll get the same treatment, and he doesn't deserve it."
"Karkat," John said slowly, "in what way is the alliance being sabotaged?"
Karkat gaped in disbelief. Then he surged to his feet, fists clenched. "Don't tell me you're taking all this at face value! Can't you see how ridiculous it is? I can't believe you're even making this much show of considering the Condesce's offer! An alliance marriage? Between biologically incompatible species? And then she sends you a male? Do you truly think she's that ignorant about human sexuality?"
John's eyebrows were high and his mouth was a thin line. Was he offended? Amused? It didn't matter.
Karkat smacked a spread hand on his own chest, on the scarlet wool of his uniform. "She chose me because I'm the red-blooded hero, right? Because we match? Did you buy that? I'm a freak! Red blood is anathema, pointing it out is mockery! And don't think being a friend of the Heiress makes me some kind of gentry, either, we all mingled freely as children but I certainly don't have her ear now. The Empress jumped me out of the ranks and pinned all these stupid fucking medals on me -- like slapping gold paint on a piece of coal -- and everyone knows. Even if I wasn't a mutant, no rustblood will ever be a real general. If I tried to command anyone now they'd just ignore me. I had more real authority when I was a sergeant. Your Majesty -- John -- I am an insult."
"That's okay," John said lightly, and Karkat fell into his chair like he'd been hit with a hammer.