When the aliens came, it was nothing like the bombastic drama of Hollywood's imaginings. They simply arrived, en masse, their bristling red ships hanging in the air above major metropolitan areas, and announced their assumption of control. The attempts to shoot them down resulted in catastrophic losses for the human military, and no substantial damage to the Alternian forces. It could hardly be called a war; that implied a certain degree of give-and-take in the devastation, when this conflict was one-sided in the extreme. It took less than two weeks for all major Earth powers to officially surrender. (There is still conflict on a smaller scale, and perhaps always will be, but the nations of Earth claim to have ceased all hostilities.)
For all their technological prowess, the aliens cling to a distinctly old-fashioned social system. Rose has studied what records of their culture are available to colonized species; trolls appear to be stuck in some parallel to Europe in the Age of Discovery, which euphemism for conquest has never sounded more bitter. As natives of a "discovered" planet, humans are now subject to trollish attempts to civilize and mold their culture into something the conquerors deem worthy of the term.
Being forcibly civilized is not a thrilling experience.
Rose fares better than many of her compatriots. The Alternian colonists have decided that she is human nobility, and as such they allot her a generous share of the resources provided to the conquered. (She sends as much as she can to Jade and Dave, who have not been so lucky.) They also expect her to attend social functions to represent her people, and demonstrate how well they can integrate into the conquerors' society.
Which is how she comes to the home—castle—of the provincial governor, one Baron Zahhak, in a carriage drawn by an enameled mechanical unicorn. Little girl Rose might have been charmed by the apparent magic of it all, but young woman Rose recognizes that every step is strategic. Her evening gown is black accented with blue—a lighter, greener shade of blue than the baron wears, so as not to suggest that she fancies herself his equal. Her preferred lilacs and lavenders are completely off-limits for public functions; among trolls they are reserved only for the highest of nobility. (She wears a scent with lilac notes instead, a tiny act of rebellion too symbolically buried for most trolls to notice.)
The baron's moirail—a trollish word that appears to mean alternately "best friend," "nanny," "aggravation," and "therapist"—greets Rose at the entrance to the ballroom, a giddy flounce of olive taffeta and cat puns. (The use and cultural importance of puns in troll conversation is a topic on which Rose would write lengthy papers, were it at all permissible for the colonized to make studies of their overlords.) Rose makes pleasant conversation as Miss Leijon waltzes her around the room; their shared affection for cats is a safe enough topic and keeps the atmosphere amicable.
And then Rose meets the baron himself. He is a huge brute of a troll, a foot taller than she is and rippling with muscle; one of his horns is snapped off near the base and his knuckles are battered, ragged with blue-tinged scars. Rose curtsies. "Baron," she says, "it is an honor."
"Miss Lalonde," he says, bowing to her stiffly. "May I have this dance?"
She lays her hand in his palm. "It would be my pleasure," she says.
Zahhak meets her eyes then, and she sees him falter briefly; his cheeks turn blue and he breaks out in a sweat. "Excuse me," he says, fumbling for a handkerchief to mop his brow.
Her eyes, Rose realizes. She can dress as modestly as she likes, but her eyes mark her by troll standards as royalty, and Zahhak finds that unnerving. She files that observation away for the future. "There is nothing to excuse," she says graciously. "Shall we dance?" He looks relieved at the suggestion, and that, too, Rose files away.
Baron Zahhak dances with her, grave and mechanically perfect, and Rose unravels his secrets. She watches the careful restraint of his every gesture, collates that with the strict formality of his speech, maps both of those patterns to the clear reverence he has for hierarchy and the physical reactions he can't suppress. She asks for the second dance, then commands the third. His palm is damp under her fingers and his breathing has grown audible. He stammers when he remarks on how forward she is.
Her own people will call her a traitor for pursuing this; they will see only the ways she betters her own situation, and not the ways that a stronger position would help her help other humans in turn. But this is an opportunity not to be missed.
If she is honest with herself, which she tries to be, then perhaps there is some personal fascination involved in her decision as well. She watches the baron retrieve drinks for them both and feels the questions burning in her mind: where his needs have come from, how he has reached his current position of power with such a vulnerability, how he has managed the impulses that she's sure she can already discern seething just beneath his mannerly facade.
"Thank you," Rose says when Zahhak hands her a silver flute of champagne. She keeps her posture ramrod straight, her chin lifted.
Zahhak mops his brow and gives her an abbreviated bow again. "My pleasure, my lady," he says.
Rose smiles at him in a way she learned from her mother, a smile that says I am doing you a kindness by being pleased with your behavior. His hands tremble. "I have heard, Baron, that you are the mastermind responsible for the robotic marvels like the one that brought me here this evening," she says. She pauses long enough for him to nod, but not long enough for him to take control of the conversation. "I am weary of dancing. Show me your laboratory."
"I should not—" Zahhak begins, but then cannot continue, averting his eyes from the challenge in her stare. Rose takes his arm, wrapping her fingers around his wrist as best she can. She squeezes. "Oh," he says, hoarse with disbelief and longing. "Follow me."