Your little grub, much to your despair, is an avid anthropologist once he has access to books. Pollux and Panthe - Psiionic and Disciple now that they’ve taken their titles, but it’s hard thinking of them that way - don’t much care for the tomes he reads. They’ve both firmly decided that by and large, society is the way it is because it hasn’t made friends with Karcin.
Karcin digs for reasons, though. And it breaks your heart.
“Did you know that the Condescension implemented a new breeding program forty sweeps ago?” he asks, shoving a book in your face. “Since then the cullcounts of trolls below ten sweeps has kept rising.”
You take the book but don’t read it. “Yes, Karcin. The breeding program was an effort to balance the haemospectrum towards highbloods. It worked.”
He holds up a hand in the wait, there’s more gesture and rifles through a second book with another. “See, you’d expect the cullcount to shift to highbloods then, right, just because there’s more of them? But lowbloods keep dying! More than they should!”
“Karcin.” You take his hands. “The world is unfair, I know.”
“But it shouldn’t be,” he says, as if it is perfectly obvious. Your heart breaks for him. “I mean, look at us. There has to be more to these cullcounts than just highblood violence, it doesn’t make sense, there’s a pattern, Rosa.”
You were always hoping that your grub would somehow live to old age and die peacefully, but you know it isn’t going to happen. He cares too much.
Psiionic doesn’t take well to hiding in short-stay hives. Most nights, while Karcin reads and Disciple watches and you worry, he leaves. Sometimes he comes back with bruises and cuts. Once he came back with a cracked horn that took a perigee to heal. Once, he didn’t come back at all, and watching Karcin’s anxiety until the next night was torture.
Still, they are adults, even if Karcin hasn’t taken a title. Their business is their own.
It’s not as if they’re your children, you tell yourself sometimes, but you know that is a lie. You have a quiet talk with Pollux, and now he’s always back by daybreak.
“You’re almotht ten,” Psiionic says to Karcin one night. “You gonna take a title thoon?”
Karcin shrugs and highlights a passage in a book about the traditions of the Cruellest Bar. Lately he’s been focusing on the history of people he’s known in his visions - although some of them aren’t even hatched yet, apparently. “Can’t think of anything,” he says, too absorbed by his book to pay attention to the way both you and Disciple perked up as soon as titles were mentioned. Except he must feel all the eyes on him, because he puts his book down and sighs. “Out with it, then.”
“It’th jutht...” Psiionic trails off, shrugging uneasily.
“Adults without titles are culled,” Disciple says, and hugs herself.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m not a law-abiding citizen, isn’t it?” Karcin says, slightly vexed. “If I’m culled, it’s not going to be because I didn’t add a couple letters to my name.”
His words hang in the air. You all know that he’s dronebait, which is why you move so often, and why you have the blood of the Empire’s agents on your hands - not that your grubs know that. They will be safe for as long as you can make them.
“It’th not that!” Psiionic throws himself into a seat, which would have tipped over were he not a psionic. “Gog, KC, onthe you’re thith old nameth are meant to be a quadrant thing. It feelth weird calling you KC, like I’m dithrethpecting you or thomething.”
There is a long silence before Karcin says, “oh,” and even though he’s quiet it feels like a shout.
“Yeah,” Psiionic says.
“But...” Karcin trails off, like he started the sentence without realising where it was going. You watch quietly from your corner and sew, not drawing any of their attention. Meddling won’t do any of them any good. “I thought we were a quadrant?” he finishes.
Disciple pats Psiionic, not unsympathetically. “Fur someone who knows the future, you’re pawful about the present,” she says. “Kar loves us all. Kar loves everyone.”
You decide to take your leave then. You don’t think any of them even notice.
Karcin finds you later. Something about living with you for almost ten sweeps has made you predictable to him, not that you mind. He sits in your windowseat with you, the sun just barely over the horizon, and wraps himself up in your shawl like he always did when he was a pupa. You watch the sun rise together, your chin resting on the top of his head.
“I don’t know what to call myself,” he says. Miserably, he adds, “I’m such a fuckup.”
“Karcin,” you say firmly.
“Fuckup McNubs,” he says. “That can be my new name.”
“You need eight letters for a title,” you point out, and hug his shoulders. At some point your tiny red grub got to be adult-sized, and there’s no grey left in his eyes, and he’s old enough for a title. He’s made it this far, surely he can make it further.
“It was easy for the others,” he says, and you have to agree. Psiionic is, well, a psiionic, and Disciple couldn’t be more devoted to Karcin if she tried. They both took their titles as soon as they turned nine.
“You’re anomalous in many ways,” you tell him. “And as you pointed out, a title isn’t such a necessity for you. Don’t judge yourself by others, grub.”
“I want to let others know,” he says, in one of his trademark non-sequiturs. “About the other Alternia,” he adds when he sees how puzzled you are. “About us.”
You pull him in beside you and stroke his hair like you did when he was four and couldn’t sleep for fear of meteors. “I thought you might.”
He sniffles and wraps himself tighter in your shawl. Fifteen minutes later, you realise he’s gone to sleep on you. You watch the clouds drift by and hope more than anything that your kind, naive grub will spread his peace.
Sometimes, in whispers, you hear him called the Signless. It gives you chills.
“What does your title mean?” he asks, one morning after both Disciple and Psiionic have gone to sleep.
You drop the cross-stitch you’re working on. You pick up the needle carefully before one of you steps on it and put the project aside. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugs. “Most titles are pretty obvious,” he says, and it is true. Most trolls style themselves after conspicuous attributes, and there is a reason that the Troll Scrabble Dictionary is mostly bought by eight and nine sweep olds. You, on the other hand...
“It’s a long story,” you say.
Unfortunately, Karcin lives for long stories. “I’ll make tea,” he says, and pulls out a chair for you at the table.
Sometimes you make yourself sick with your hypocrisy. And you never wanted Karcin to know, but now that he’s asked, you can’t refuse him.
“My lusus was a mothergrub,” you say, and he nods. You’re a jadeblood, your life was taking care of a mothergrub, and you were responsible for the next generation of trolls. Of course. “On my ninth wriggling day, I was titled Daughter and given responsibility for her.” You take a sip of your tea. “Then I found you, Karcin.”
He has forgotten his tea and is leaning in across the table. You don’t talk much of your life before him, because what is there to talk about? “So you’re not Dolorosa?” he asks.
You shake your head. “The Daughters have a language all their own. We know the secrets of the Alternian race. They let us go, if we have to go, but not easily. Dolorosa is what all of us strays are named.” You smile weakly. “I make it sound like there are more. I am the only Dolorosa.”
“What does it mean?” he asks.
“Grief,” you say. “And suffering.”
His face falls, like you knew it would. “Rosa...”
“Shoosh,” you say, without any real feeling. “I wouldn’t trade you for the world, Karcin.” And that, you know, is why Dolorosa is your title.
You have screamed yourself hoarse and cried yourself dry and now all you can see or hear is a roaring white that engulfs everything and takes you out of yourself. There is ash clinging to your dress, and every time you think Karcin your entire body rebels and wracks out another sob.
The Condesce is speaking.
Disciple is to be exiled, not that they will ever catch her. Even in her grief, she is too quick and clever for them.
Psiionic is to have his freedom taken away. Someone knocked him unconscious once he tore apart half the Condesce’s honor guard, and now he is snatched out of your lap and borne away to be retrofitted to Helmsman, a title that will never fit him.
You are Dolorosa, a runaway Daughter, an untrustworthy caretaker, a jadeblood working against the empire. You are to be sold into slavery and you cannot fathom why you should care. Your eyes are fixed on Karcin’s manacles and you cannot even see them.
Time passes, somehow.
Then Condesce says Signless and you are brought back to yourself. At some point one of her guard fetched the manacles, and she turns them over in her hands. “The Signless shall have a sign,” she announces, and part of you starts screaming. “He shell be titled the Sufferer, and everyone will know the punishment for revolting against the Empire.”
You shut down completely, unaware when you are caged and taken. All your hopes for Karcin, all your efforts, and yet still you come back to grief and suffering. You wouldn’t trade him for the world, you had said, but the world didn’t care.