Chapter 1: So long you wandered on the dusky plain
The Polemarch’s armies send their best to man the walls, many of them soldiers for decades and many of them missing limbs. In the dark and quiet nights the people whisper that Captain Lalonde is too young, too inexperienced, too new to the battlefield to shoulder her duties and lead the wallmen. These people Captain Lalonde invites by for a cup of tea and shows them a duty record longer than her arm. Sometimes, if they are especially rude at her door, she will let them see the turquoise circles tattooed on her palms, and then they shiver and bother her no more. In this way has Captain Lalonde simultaneously charmed and terrified Consequence City into adoring her. Captain Lalonde is from the windswept crags of Arceum, a greasy little smudge of a village far beyond the walls of Consequence City, where the rites of adulthood are pit fights and the best are marked with the circles. Strider inked the circles on her palms the night before she left for Consequence City, to trap the strength and fury of youth in her body. Now, years later, the ink has yet to fade and there isn’t a person in the city that doesn’t know what to expect when they come out. “Captain? Ma’am.” Captain Lalonde turns. Two people in the doorway, only one she recognizes. Mekhit was born in the wall barracks and never left. The stranger is one of the strange little grey people that have been appearing in the last few years, built like thumbtacks tangled with caltrops and baling wire. His eyes are startling primary colors and he looks like comes up to Captain Lalonde’s chin. “Is he wearing sneakers in my office, soldier?” Captain Lalonde asks Mekhit, who immediately goes red. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. Momentary lapse of concentration.” “See it doesn’t happen again. You’re dismissed.” Mekhit salutes smartly, turns smartly, and walks out smartly. Captain Lalonde sits at her desk and gestures that the stranger take a seat as well. He sits in the chair in front of the desk, folding up like a glowering pixie. “Well, who are you, then?” “Sollux Captor,” he says. His sibilants are faintly lateralized, probably from a childhood lisp. “Your accent is very convincing,” she says, “but you’re pretty obviously Alternian. Military? Were you sent by Maryam?” Captor doesn’t bother looking affronted, just shrugs. Lalonde briefly worries his shoulders will jam into his chin. “Nominally Spec Ops, but I’ve been on leave for nearly, what’s the human conversion rate, two and something, sixteen months now? Wasn’t sent. Your military broadcasts continent wide for recruits, you know, I came to sign up.” “So why’d you come to me? I don’t often take in noncoms to man the wall.” “I heard you only have the best up here,” Captor points his thumbs back at himself, “and that’s me. Single best slicer in the business.” “We hardly need a slicer here, Mr. Captor.” He leans forward, elbows on his knees. He’d nearly look desperate if he wasn’t smirking. “Captain. I’m not just a slicer. Let’s cut the shit and stop pretending you don’t know who I am.” Lalonde tilts her head, smiling. “Sollux Captor, pissblood, mutant, Gemini caste, slicer. The most powerful psionic since pre-Expansion. We’ve certainly heard of you, even without cracking Alternian packets. I’ve got a file on you as thick as my hand in my desk.” Captor smirks wider. “Rose Lalonde of Arceum, one brother, no children, no spouse, captain of the city wall, rumoured to have steel instead of bones. Only survivor of the October Revels and only known host of a godhead.” Lalonde lifts an eyebrow. “Very few know about the godhead incident.” “I’m one of them.” "Your superiors will have no idea you're here, I assume." "Is it a common human practice to warn your superiors when you're deserting? Besides, this just as easily falls under the jurisdiction of a diplomatic rendezvous. I could be here to negotiate an alliance." Lalonde looks at him like she might at a particularly dense small child. "While we're not at war, cultural differences preclude an alliance. Your reputation precedes you. Soon as you cause trouble among my people I'll gut you myself and drop you outside the walls for the chimaera to hunt, " she says with a pleasant smile. "Welcome to Consequence City, Mr. Captor. I hope you enjoy your time on the wall." Captor's grin could do funny things to a vascular system if he didn't have lamprey teeth. It really just makes him look a bit like a monster that belongs under a child's bed. They stare at each other for a moment before Lalonde realizes Captor is waiting for a cue. She stands and gestures him up with Archon-worthy imperiousness. "Well, come on. You don't have a damn thing, do you?" He stands and shrugs, following her down a long cavernous hallway. "Clothes on my back and a couple of sopor supplements." Lalonde turns into one of the supply closets, flipping through folded shirts. These closets are every few feet. They go through a frightening amount of fabric on the wall and the quartermaster quit in frustration a year ago, so now it's easier to store things where they're quickly accessible. The process rapidly got haphazard and there’s shit everywhere. The wallmen are hoarders. “Dunno what sopor is, hope it isn’t important, though. You’re not likely to get much in the way of troll things down this way.” Lalonde shoves two of the smaller, less scratchy blue shirts into Captor’s arms, stoops to examine the shoes, then straightens and drops a pair of mostly-new boots on top of the shirts. “Pants will be your responsibility. I don’t envy whoever has to tailor your clothing. Keep everything clean, patched, all that, we don’t get shipments from the city, so I suggest you make it a routine to stop by the commissary on your off days.” Lalonde begins to walk down the hallway at a speed that generally has newbies trailing behind. Captor steps to pace without a change in demeanor, although he fumbles a bit to balance the boots. “Roll call is at dawn and dusk, you will start off on evening patrol,” Lalonde checks his face, then turns forward, apparently satisfied. “Trolls are nocturnal, I’ve been told, so I hope that will be sufficient. Mind your own business, keep your head down, do your duty, and above all, do not spread heresy among my men. I know who you are, Mr. Captor, and I know what you did in Black Harbor. I will not watch my soldiers be executed because of things you whispered them in the dark. It would be a pity if you became chimaera bait.Mekhit!” They reach the mess hall, suspended in a hollow halfway down the innermost wall. In the corner is a precarious, winding staircase that leads to a crack in the ceiling and then a ladder to outside. Mekhit snaps to attention at the sound of her name. “Captain?” “Mr. Captor will be joining us on a provisionary basis. Take him to, to,” Lalonde waves her hand in the general direction of away, “the commissary and the barracks. Settle him in. I’ve got paperwork to do. Afternoon to you both.” “Yes, ma’am,” Mekhit says wearily and takes hold of Captor’s forearm. Lalonde does her vanishing thing. Like all of the wallmen Mekhit adores the good Captain, would die for her without pause, but the Captain is a particularly exhausting woman to be around and Mekhit is a favorite to delegate to. “She’s frighteningly competent,” Captor says, staring down at his shirts with the gaze of one who has looked long into the abyss and thought maybe the abyss could use a bit of light so you could figure out what was actually going on down there. “Just frightening, more like,” Mekhit says with a grimace.
There are things that everyone in Consequence City takes for granted. The streets are patrolled from dusk to dawn, the Archon and Polemarch have tea and hear grievances every Friday at three o clock, the armies are always victorious, the rain will fall, the sun will rise, and above all, the Lattice and the walls will keep them safe.
The Polemarch’s armies send their best to man the walls, many of them soldiers for decades and many of them missing limbs. In the dark and quiet nights the people whisper that Captain Lalonde is too young, too inexperienced, too new to the battlefield to shoulder her duties and lead the wallmen. These people Captain Lalonde invites by for a cup of tea and shows them a duty record longer than her arm. Sometimes, if they are especially rude at her door, she will let them see the turquoise circles tattooed on her palms, and then they shiver and bother her no more. In this way has Captain Lalonde simultaneously charmed and terrified Consequence City into adoring her.
Captain Lalonde is from the windswept crags of Arceum, a greasy little smudge of a village far beyond the walls of Consequence City, where the rites of adulthood are pit fights and the best are marked with the circles. Strider inked the circles on her palms the night before she left for Consequence City, to trap the strength and fury of youth in her body. Now, years later, the ink has yet to fade and there isn’t a person in the city that doesn’t know what to expect when they come out.
Captain Lalonde turns. Two people in the doorway, only one she recognizes. Mekhit was born in the wall barracks and never left. The stranger is one of the strange little grey people that have been appearing in the last few years, built like thumbtacks tangled with caltrops and baling wire. His eyes are startling primary colors and he looks like comes up to Captain Lalonde’s chin.
“Is he wearing sneakers in my office, soldier?” Captain Lalonde asks Mekhit, who immediately goes red.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. Momentary lapse of concentration.”
“See it doesn’t happen again. You’re dismissed.”
Mekhit salutes smartly, turns smartly, and walks out smartly. Captain Lalonde sits at her desk and gestures that the stranger take a seat as well. He sits in the chair in front of the desk, folding up like a glowering pixie.
“Well, who are you, then?”
“Sollux Captor,” he says. His sibilants are faintly lateralized, probably from a childhood lisp.
“Your accent is very convincing,” she says, “but you’re pretty obviously Alternian. Military? Were you sent by Maryam?”
Captor doesn’t bother looking affronted, just shrugs. Lalonde briefly worries his shoulders will jam into his chin.
“Nominally Spec Ops, but I’ve been on leave for nearly, what’s the human conversion rate, two and something, sixteen months now? Wasn’t sent. Your military broadcasts continent wide for recruits, you know, I came to sign up.”
“So why’d you come to me? I don’t often take in noncoms to man the wall.”
“I heard you only have the best up here,” Captor points his thumbs back at himself, “and that’s me. Single best slicer in the business.”
“We hardly need a slicer here, Mr. Captor.”
He leans forward, elbows on his knees. He’d nearly look desperate if he wasn’t smirking.
“Captain. I’m not just a slicer. Let’s cut the shit and stop pretending you don’t know who I am.”
Lalonde tilts her head, smiling. “Sollux Captor, pissblood, mutant, Gemini caste, slicer. The most powerful psionic since pre-Expansion. We’ve certainly heard of you, even without cracking Alternian packets. I’ve got a file on you as thick as my hand in my desk.”
Captor smirks wider.
“Rose Lalonde of Arceum, one brother, no children, no spouse, captain of the city wall, rumoured to have steel instead of bones. Only survivor of the October Revels and only known host of a godhead.”
Lalonde lifts an eyebrow. “Very few know about the godhead incident.”
“I’m one of them.”
"Your superiors will have no idea you're here, I assume."
"Is it a common human practice to warn your superiors when you're deserting? Besides, this just as easily falls under the jurisdiction of a diplomatic rendezvous. I could be here to negotiate an alliance."
Lalonde looks at him like she might at a particularly dense small child.
"While we're not at war, cultural differences preclude an alliance. Your reputation precedes you. Soon as you cause trouble among my people I'll gut you myself and drop you outside the walls for the chimaera to hunt, " she says with a pleasant smile. "Welcome to Consequence City, Mr. Captor. I hope you enjoy your time on the wall."
Captor's grin could do funny things to a vascular system if he didn't have lamprey teeth. It really just makes him look a bit like a monster that belongs under a child's bed. They stare at each other for a moment before Lalonde realizes Captor is waiting for a cue. She stands and gestures him up with Archon-worthy imperiousness.
"Well, come on. You don't have a damn thing, do you?"
He stands and shrugs, following her down a long cavernous hallway.
"Clothes on my back and a couple of sopor supplements."
Lalonde turns into one of the supply closets, flipping through folded shirts. These closets are every few feet. They go through a frightening amount of fabric on the wall and the quartermaster quit in frustration a year ago, so now it's easier to store things where they're quickly accessible. The process rapidly got haphazard and there’s shit everywhere. The wallmen are hoarders.
“Dunno what sopor is, hope it isn’t important, though. You’re not likely to get much in the way of troll things down this way.”
Lalonde shoves two of the smaller, less scratchy blue shirts into Captor’s arms, stoops to examine the shoes, then straightens and drops a pair of mostly-new boots on top of the shirts.
“Pants will be your responsibility. I don’t envy whoever has to tailor your clothing. Keep everything clean, patched, all that, we don’t get shipments from the city, so I suggest you make it a routine to stop by the commissary on your off days.”
Lalonde begins to walk down the hallway at a speed that generally has newbies trailing behind. Captor steps to pace without a change in demeanor, although he fumbles a bit to balance the boots.
“Roll call is at dawn and dusk, you will start off on evening patrol,” Lalonde checks his face, then turns forward, apparently satisfied. “Trolls are nocturnal, I’ve been told, so I hope that will be sufficient. Mind your own business, keep your head down, do your duty, and above all, do not spread heresy among my men. I know who you are, Mr. Captor, and I know what you did in Black Harbor. I will not watch my soldiers be executed because of things you whispered them in the dark. It would be a pity if you became chimaera bait.Mekhit!”
They reach the mess hall, suspended in a hollow halfway down the innermost wall. In the corner is a precarious, winding staircase that leads to a crack in the ceiling and then a ladder to outside. Mekhit snaps to attention at the sound of her name.
“Mr. Captor will be joining us on a provisionary basis. Take him to, to,” Lalonde waves her hand in the general direction of away, “the commissary and the barracks. Settle him in. I’ve got paperwork to do. Afternoon to you both.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mekhit says wearily and takes hold of Captor’s forearm. Lalonde does her vanishing thing. Like all of the wallmen Mekhit adores the good Captain, would die for her without pause, but the Captain is a particularly exhausting woman to be around and Mekhit is a favorite to delegate to.
“She’s frighteningly competent,” Captor says, staring down at his shirts with the gaze of one who has looked long into the abyss and thought maybe the abyss could use a bit of light so you could figure out what was actually going on down there.
“Just frightening, more like,” Mekhit says with a grimace.
Chapter 2: where flit the shadows with their endless cry
Archon, Polemarch, Captain, and Builder sit round an underground table, the compass point pulses of the city: Archon, blood-bound to his people; Polemarch and his armies and conqueror's laurels; Captain to the interior, wall and defense; Builder of the infrastructure, seeing spires and arches that will only be blocked by the Lattice. Captain Lalonde holds a glass, rum and honey and coriander. Builder Harley rolls a coin across the table.
"Brother," Lalonde says warmly, as she always does, for as irritating as Strider can be, she loves all her friends dearly and he is her last blood family. "I believe it's your turn to roll."
"I don't ever stop rollin', sister, I can't be stopped. I'm a freight train off the rails,"Strider drawls, tossing the dice down onto the table. "Six an’ two. Drink and talk, beloved leader."
The Archon drinks long from his cup with a good natured laugh. "Did you purposely make me something that tasted like rust and turpentine? Glory, that was disgusting. Okay,okay! When I was fifteen I fell in love with a Spithen girl, you wouldn't have believed the legs on her. Anyway, lesson is, Spithen girls drink deep and spit long, and don't you ever try and outlast one in Tapswill because you'll lose badly."
"You'd lose to a baby at Tapswill, " Harley says derisively. She is more than a little drunk by now. The Archon and Builder share their low tolerance for alcohol. Lalonde may as well be pickled before they call it quits, though there isn't a trace of a tilt or stagger in her step. The Archon is brought to his tower first, the crest of the House of Egbert in gaudy gold on the door. Second is Harley, in the second ring of the nautilus-shaped city interior. Her loft is full of light and sound and bizarre animals in cages. Third is Strider, not a half mile from the wall and up against the Lattice, where the view stretches for miles across the plains. Far off in the distance are the twin rivers that water the city, calm Prospit and tumultuous Derse, crossed in a long switchback curve. Last of all is Lalonde on the wall, alone in her quarters.
Papers are tacked to the outermost wall, rosters and geological surveys and letters and photographs all carefully gridded. A window hung with a thick curtain faces the sunrise. Besides a bed heavy with blankets, the only furniture is a well-worn desk covered in books and sooty candles and a chair stacked with clean laundry beside it. Lalonde sits on her bed, pulls off her boots with a grateful noise, and drops back into the blankets. Her knee hurts almost always these days, even with the heavier medication. Drinking helps, and stretching, and pacing the wall. Doctor Halleran says it is not impossible for her to regain full use even though the injury is old, from the pit fights at Arceum. There is a difference between a long shot and impossibility, after all, and Captain Lalonde knows this better than anyone.
The runaway dolorosa oracle said that she would not survive past thirteen. Here she is, twenty two, after the Revels and the Godhead Incident, after two assassination attempts and seven years in a position that averages four months. Well. Lalonde knows what she's doing with long shots.
The troll slicer, Captor, was a long shot. Lalonde expected to make him disappear within days. It's been a month with no whisper of heresy. Perhaps her wallmen are safe and they've gained a significantly powerful ally. Perhaps he'll go nova and blow up part of the city. Perhaps Lalonde wont have to see if chimaera prefer yellow blood to red.
Dawn comes, brutal and sweet. Lalonde does not rise to perform the morning rituals as she did until she was thirteen. The days where she paid homage to the Lady of Light are long over with. The Sunsoaked Shield took her mother and her knee. She doesn't need Lalonde's attention, too. That doesn't make it feel any less strange to roll over and doze instead of pressing her forehead to the floor and crying the Dozen Laments. Calling for rain, for sugar, rat traps, nets, a caegar to pay for travel, a win in the pits. The Lady of Light is not the fairest of the pantheon.
Lalonde sleeps and dreams. A red chimaera among the dunes, her brother turned inside out with wings that scrape the sky, children tangled on blankets with play flushed faces. Things that were and are and will be again. She wakes at ten, dresses, and heads to the mess without bothering to brush her hair. It'll only stick up.
An Yan and Ronan spar on a table in the middle of the cavern. Delia and the Poprockets have commandeered three tables, pulled into a triangle, and appear to be in the middle of some kind of ritual, hopefully not calling demons again. Walla knits, a stack of knives in front of her. Looks a bit like she's knitting the blades into her scarf. Stone Rot Loomer is, well, looming. There's sixty three people in the mess, all told, with seventeen out on patrol. They're not a large force, or a particularly stable one. Less than ten of that seventy have all their limbs. Less than fifteen are younger than forty. Less than five of them joined after Lalonde became captain.
The wars pause for no one, least of all long enough for the greens to live to veterans. The soldiers the Polemarch sends out are younger, younger, younger with each regiment. It wears on him, to be certain, but they’ve all got a duty. His is to send children to glory and slaughter.
Lalonde finds food, bacon and coffee, sits to eat. Mekhit sits in front of her with a salute, flushed a distressed red.
“Captain. Have you seen the rivers this morning? An Yan says she heard that the city is going to declare for the Lord of Shade, but that’s heresy , isn’t it?” Mekhit wrings her hands, swallowing. She’s a desert girl, culturally, but all her knowledge is second hand. She’s never seen the fire-tosser rites or heard a khoros cry the Laments or buried herself in a dune with half a flask of water or fought in the pits for honor and blood. Lalonde sips her coffee thoughtfully, tilting her head. She’s heard that, too, but it isn’t Mekhit’s place to know the Captain’s thoughts.
“In any case, we’re for the city and not the gods, soldier,” Lalonde says eventually. “Doesn’t matter who the lords declare for. The last six Archons were baptized in light, and His Grace is devout.”
That’s a lie, but that’s also not something Mekhit needs to know. John doesn’t give a fig about the city’s patron deity. He’s too grounded for it. Mekhit looks slightly reassured, although she’s still bright red.
“Ma’am, the rivers, though. An Yan said the lords sent prayers and Derse is calmed. How is that possible, ma’am?”
“Mekhit, keep our mind on your duties,” Lalonde says sharply. Mekhit flinches. “It doesn’t matter a bit if the rivers are swapped or gravity is gone or, glory forbid, the Archon and all his descendants are gone in a column of fire. We’re wallmen. We protect the city.”
Lalonde dismisses Mekhit to patrol. Worrying news, yes, but not the worst. The worst is still to come. Lalonde has seen chimaera patrols closer to the city than they’ve ever dared before. She saw the tightness of Strider’s mouth when he looked out the Lattice and saw the rivers. Trolls walk untouched through a human city. The lords are actively involved in city function. Things are changing. Consequence City has always depended on a deity’s patronage.
What if the gods are deserting them entirely?
Chapter 3: you reach the shore where all the world goes by
Mekhit Nawn is not a coward. A natural liar, a hybrid, a thief when necessary, but never a coward. She has always done what needs to be done: the man in the alley with the knife in his back, her mother drowning in her own body, starving children when she has coins in her pockets. She is not a bad girl.
Captain Lalonde doesn’t often show her feelings to her soldiers. Mekhit understands this; it would be inappropriate. Observation: the Captain is distracted. Observation: Captor is a newcomer. Bound to shake things up. Observation: Captor lurks in the Captain’s quarters whenever he can. Observation: Captor is a fine hand with a weapon. Conclusion: Captor is an assassin sent to murder the Captain in her sleep.
Shit. Mekhit sits on the dirt and stares down into the river. She’s a few miles out from the city at the curve of Prospit closest to the wall. It’s a lucky place, warm and well lit. The dirt is almost sand-colored in predawn. She shifts onto her stomach, one arm reaching down into the golden water, stirring eddies in the slow roil. As the sun rises, Mekhit sweeps her wet hand skyward and sings. Her voice is a high angry caterwaul, as fits the Laments. They tell the tale of the Lady of Light, and the dung beetle that became the sun. What takes it from pained song to prayer is in the background, what the singer considers while calling on the Lady. It’s not the most direct way of asking a boon of a goddess, but the khorosi and temples are all hundreds of miles away in the deserts. Mekhit stops flat when the sun rises fully and stands, brushing the dirt off her uniform.
She’s asked that the Captain remain unharmed; the sun continues to rise; victory for the armies. Normal things. Small things.
She starts the walk back to the city. She has a cycle, but fuel is dear and rather more expensive than she can justify. It takes an hour before she crosses under the gate, waving to An Yan and Ronan. Ronan says he hates An Yan, can’t stand to be in the same room as her, would rather pick a bug bite to bleeding than have a conversation with her. An Yan is annoying sometimes, but she’s a vicious, brilliant hand-to-hand fighter and she’s one of the youngest on the force. Ronan is built like the Wall itself and packs a punch harder than gravitational pull. They spar together because no one else will touch either of them with a ten foot pole.
It’s her off day this month, so she stops at the commissary in the Nautilus, lingering over fruits and a few extremely sharp looking chakrams. She ends up buying six pounds of strawberries (An Yan will eat half that herself, and Stone Wall is not averse to sweets) and just touches the chakram blades longingly. Hers are nearly brand new, still glittery and undented, but something about new weapons is always attractive. The alleyways of the Nautilus are cramped with upper class wandering Grey Watch Market, so Mekhit stows the berries in her pack and takes off up a rickety plywood ramp on all fours. The rooftops are quick if you know the way.
A five minute trip across the rooftops, a jaunt down a laundry line, and a clumsy somersault later, Mekhit’s home. Stone Wall and Captor are in the mess, where Mekhit joins them and dumps a handful of strawberries on the table. Stone Wall sets in on them right away. Captor spikes one on a claw and sniffs it suspiciously.
“The hell is this? You trying to kill me?”
Mekhit rolls her eyes, popping a berry in her mouth.
“Like I’d do it with fruit. I’ve been a soldier my whole life, I think I could manage something a bit more impressive than that.”
“Fruit? Heard of it,” Captor says with a shrug. “We might not have compatible dietary systems.”
Mekhit and Stone Wall stare at him.
“Yes, point taken, I’d be dead by now, I get it,” he says hastily.
“Just eat it, man, it’s a fucking fruit. Speaking of things trying to kill you, are you an assassin?”
Captor rolls his weird eyes and chews on his strawberry like it’s gravel.
“Not at all. Lalonde would rip my chitinous windhole out with her fingernails if I even had a murderous thought in her general vicinity. She loves you bastards.”
Mekhit can’t deny that that’s a likely reaction from the Captain. It’s not like she hasn’t seen the Captain in hand-to-hand. She might even be able to take down An Yan, and An Yan could rip the sky down and chew on it.
“Then why are you stalking her?” Mekhit asks through a mouthful of fruit, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Captor makes a face like a disgruntled toddler.
“She’s interesting,” he says flatly, slouching downwards and spiking a strawberry again. He eats them weirdly, skinning off the outside with his claws before putting it in his mouth. “Everything in this god forsaken city is boring as shit.”
Captor waves a hand at Stone Wall to shush him.
“Don’t purposely misunderstand me. You’ve heard something about Alternia, I’m sure. I’m used to. Survival of the fittest and constant intelligence work. Not this endless fucking drudge, you know, walk the wall, walk the city, sleep, eat.”
Mekhit goes an angry red. "This is what we’re all here working for. We want this, this peacetime stuff. "
"I was hatched for war, Nawn," Captor says. "I'm not supposed to want peace."
Mekhit looks up, startles back, nearly falls out of her seat. Why is there smoke? The cooking fires are long out. She stands, climbing onto the table to see higher. Captor and Stone Wall are on their feet before she beckons them up the ladder behind her. The stone around the opening in the ceiling is hot and the sky is an unholy purple.
“Hell is happening up there?” Stone Wall asks as Mekhit pokes her head out the opening.
“Looks like it,” she says, pulling herself up carefully, giving Captor a hand when he overbalances and almost falls onto Stone Wall. “Look.”
From the lowest ditch to the Lattice, the city is shrouded in smoke and fire. Wallmen dart through the fog, flashes of supersaturated violet uniforms, carrying ropes and weapons. Bangs and shouts are distorted by distance and smoke. There could be a battle at the foot of the wall and they’d never know.
“This isn’t a normal occurence, right?” Captor asks. Mekhit shakes her head, backing up, turning. She has to find the Captain.
Chapter 4: you leave the strife, the slavery, the pain;
is this the part where i pretend to talk to the characters and get all tsundere about reviews
The city burns unopposed. Mekhit flees into the mess to find the captain. Stone Wall pulls Captor into the city behind him, elbow pressed over his nose. They split up before the Nautilus. Sollux barrels down Tea Street, choking on smoke every time he opens his mouth to call someone to him. He assumes people can at least follow his uniform, judging by the four or so tea vendors on his heels.
Tea Street branches into Wheel Circle, which cuts across Martha's Greenry. From Martha's Sollux leads them down the decline beside it, skidding on ass and heels, and then the sharp drop-onto-ladder fall that takes them through the wall and onto the plains. Smoke stills rolls overhead but they can breathe out here. There are other violet uniforms within a mile or two. Sollux crouches to catch his breath, turning to look back at the city. The vendors huddle together and whisper sadly. They're probably siblings, a set of triplets and their brother.
The city is still burning come nightfall. There's no sign of the captain anywhere. Captor, Stone Wall, An Yan, McGuffey, and maybe thirty civilians pull together eventually. No ones seen anyone in the chain of command since morning. Captor follows Stone Wall around, nervous and alarmed. Skaia, at home, has burnt before, but only immediately before something terrible happens. The civilians watch him strangely, almost paranoid and certainly wary. An Yan tells him around the fire hours later that chimaera and reavers have never directly touched Consequence City. Chimaera don't burn. It's an affront to their pantheon to take that much involvement in permanent destruction.
"City's only ever burnt, like, thirty years ago. Troll raiding party," she says quietly. Captor is furious with himself for not remembering that. His Ancestor was directly responsible. The people remember, so they watch and they wait.
Dawn comes an eternity later. An Yan returns to the city through the Overhead Pass, creeping through the ruins. Her uniform isn't exactly camouflage but she makes it to the barracks undisturbed. Six bodies in the courtyard before the stairs into the wall: Shru Coughlin, Norah Wheelwright, Dobstan Caffen, Beetle Bonham, Poppy O'Nine, Jojen Marten. Five were veterans of Six Slinger Wars, well into their seventies. Beetle was a kitchen girl's toddler. More bodies on the first floor slope way. Ten on the landing. Four more on the wall. One in the mess, covered in dusty feathers and staked to the stone.
An Yan counts thirty four dead before she reaches the captain's quarters. The door is nailed shut with what looks like half the Greenry. She kicks it, shrieking to be heard, until there's grinding sounds and Mekhit falls out of the wall itself.
"Actually, what the hell was that," An Yan says flatly, " The city's burnt to the streets and you can go through walls."
"it's really not important right now. Remind me over a couple drinks later. The Captain's inside. I can't pull her through and she's insistent that she won't go out the window."
An Yan's mouth twists into a grimace. "Dunno why I didn't bring the damn psionic."
"I have to, I. Yan, she's not panicking, she's too cool for that. She said 'I want my brother. Where is the Archon? Find me Jade. I won't go out the window.' like twenty minutes ago and she's been staring at me since."
"Does she mean the Builder? Oh, hell. What about Lord Archon? Mekhit, what's going on?" An Yan asks, pressing her hands to her face. For a fraction of a second Mekhit is visibly distressed.
"Bring Captor. Quickly as you can." Mekhit shoves herself back through the wall with a sound like the heat death of the universe. An Yan returns to the plains and explains the situation as briefly as possible. McGuffey cries out like he's been stabbed and folds into himself, going to comfort the civilians. They don't have enough people to look for anyone, never mind set up a decent perimeter. An Yan goes again to the wall without seeing if Captor is behind her.
Her family is split into scattered pieces. Half of them, steady men and women who saw the world crack up, are dead right now, stuck to the dirt with their own blood. The wallmen were never a large group to begin with. Halved, the city's defenses are crippled.
An Yan doesn't hear Captor’s increasingly loud curses at all the bodies. She watches his eyes literally light up, sparks of red and blue hovering on the wood, and sits down gracelessly. Captor grunts; the sparks whip into a frenzy; the barricade flies apart and Mekhit boots the door open against its hinges.
Lalonde looks deflated, Captor notes. He steps past Mekhit, sort of gently steering her towards the floor beside An Yan, and stands beside Lalonde. She looks at him, through him.
"Awaiting your orders, Captain," he says, only mostly joking. A muscle jumps beside her mouth. Her eyes shift, kindle, focus.
"Is this you?" She spits the words like they'll lodge in his torso. "Is this the work of your people? Maryam sent no warning; the chimaera don't burn. Tell me who you are. Take care it’s the truth this time."
Sollux sits in the chair. It puts him level with her head, feet propped on the rungs.
"I deal in lies, Captain,that's true. I didn't lie when I said I was defecting. My Empress would have run me into the dirt. Awful shit happens when psionics lose it." Captor sniffs, head tilted. "The city reeks of chimaera. I'd put money on this being Tavros Nitram. He has a way with animal minds."
Lalonde shakes her head. "The chimaera are sentient. They're animal components and human minds. I need a nap. An Yan. Where is everyone?"
An Yan is tilted almost parallel to the floor, slumped into herself. "McGuffey, Stone Wall, Captor, and myself made it out of the city. Half the corps are dead in the dirt. You and Mekhit are all we've seen, ma'am."
"The city's stopped burning. I assume you found civilians. Have everyone brought in. We need the men. You go, Mekhit. An Yan, are you alright to get yourself to the mess? Get organized there. I'll be along shortly."
Mekhit balances An Yan against herself and they stagger off. Captor tips his head toward Lalonde.
"Permission to speak plainly, ma'am?"
"I suppose I don't see why not."
"You look like you're about to collapse, Captain. Leave the heavy lifting for later. Get some sleep, ma'am."
"Do you intentionally sound mocking when you call me ma'am?"
"Not so far as I know, ma'am," Captor says. Lalonde smiles faintly and reaches out to clasp his shoulder.
"If I said I regretted letting you under my command, I'd be lying, soldier. I wonder how things would be if circumstances were different."
Captor stands, hands in his pockets. "If it wouldn't be massively inappropriate I'd stay to see you rest. I'll get along to the mess, Captain. We all have a job to do."
Between Captor and one of the tea vendors- Glass Hallam, they call him- the mess is pulled into something resembling order. Mekhit, drifting like a hollow eggshell, crashes face first on Stone Wall's back as soon as she stops moving. A dead-eyed An Yan curls up under a table with a few of the civilians. McGuffey sprawls out in the doorway.
Lalonde is livid. Her city's been burnt down around her ears, half her soldiers are dead (good men all around, deserved so much better, what the fuck), her brother and her friends and therefore three quarters of Consequence City's power structure are missing, she has no idea who is responsible, and she's so tired she might just crash face down in a fire place and sleep until everything fixes itself. Rose Lalonde: would rather sleep than deal with her problems.
Instead she makes her unsteady, wobbling way to the mess. She has to blink a few times. It looks like there's the whole city in here. A couple violet uniforms she eventually identifies as Stone Wall and Ronan pause whatever they're doing to salute. An Yan and Mekhit are out cold on the floor. McGuffey is attempting to balance an infant in one arm and an elderly woman in the other. It's not going well. Captor is off in the dark half of the room, doing God knows what, only identifiable because his eyes reflect the light. What is he? Are trolls the love children of cats and beetles?
Lalonde sits in the middle of a circle of civilians being bandaged together by Ronan. Kid isn't much of a medic. He's pretty literally tying arms together. Lalonde doesn't move to stop him, just watches with a vague, distant interest. Where did he learn first aid? Why does he think tying limbs together will help anything? Is he trying to create super soldier hybrids?
There are, thankfully, no bodies in the mess. Lalonde wonders why until Captor backs into the light, dragging Dirah Danae by the armpits, goes into the hallway, and comes back in a few minutes later without a body. Maybe he's eating them. Lalonde's heard trolls need a lot of protein.
Lalonde knows she should probably be taking command, or in her room to maintain the illusion of untouchable authority. She doesn't move. Eventually you have to trust the people around you, unless they’re Ronan, and Lalonde trusts her discipline will hold. The wallmen love her. The wallmen are the best-trained force in the world. They're not going to have a complete breakdown and lose all respect for authority because their commander grieved with them when their city burnt down. That would be stupid.
Lalonde stretches, yawns hugely, and puts her hand out to stop Ronan from bandaging a woman's fingers to her face.
"Ronan," she says, "you should go and see if you can light the cook fires. Maybe get some food going, if you can find anything?"
Ronan stands and goes. He doesn't answer, but nods sharply, like a sad bobble head soldier. His brother and nephew are among the civilian dead.
Slowly, everyone pulls together with bowls of eel stew at the middle tables that generally belong to the Poprockets. They're all dead too. Lalonde has no idea where Ronan got eel. It's revoltingly chewy but she eats it all.
Everyone turns to her after they've eaten. Her stomach knots into itself. The Godhead Incident didn't have half this many expectations.
"Tonight, we all grieve," Lalonde says, loudly as she can without feeling disrespectful, "Tomorrow, we start rebuilding. There may still be survivors. If you can move under your own power and use your hands, see Stone Wall in the morning. I don't care if you 'signed up for this'. If you want the protection of the Wall you will help rebuild. If any of you know the catacombs well, make sure you meet up with Ronan before noon. There may be people down there as well. Time is our most valuable asset right now."
It's not the best speech she's ever made. It's not even the top ten. It's uninspiring, in eloquent, and sounds very little like she does when she's awake. Whatever. People look a little more alive when she's done, a little less numbed. There are still people that can be saved, despite all the dead. This is what everyone needed to be reminded of.
She sleeps in her room, alone, but wakes up five hours later at dawn with Mekhit, Ronan, Captor, and An Yan on her floor staring at her. It's kind of creepy. Lalonde wonders briefly how well Captor is dealing with a diurnal schedule. He certainly looks awake enough.
"Stone Wall and McGuffey are with the civilians," Mekhit says immediately. "Ma'am, are we going looking for the Archon and everyone?"
"Of course, he's the embodiment of, of god, why are you all in my room?"
Lalonde wants her brother. She wants Jade and John. She wants to be in the basement of the Greenry playing Tapswill for secrets. She doesn't want her honestly-kind-of-strange subordinates staring her down before the sun is even up.
"Thought you could use some emotional support. I managed to contain my disgust at discovering that humans in authority do, in fact, retain their feelings gland," Captor says easily, like he's talking about the weather and not implying his commanding officer is an android or something. It's too early for this shit.
"Don’t let him fool you, Captain, first thing he did this morning was ask after you," An Yan says, then tips her head. "Captain, the Polemarch is outside. At least, those are his trumpets, aren't they?"
Lalonde does not vault out of bed. Lalonde very calmly walks into the courtyard in her sleep-wrinkled uniform, trailed by four worried wallmen, to see that An Yan is correct. Those are the Polemarch's trumpeters. That is the Polemarch in the middle of them, with one arm taped to his side and the twelve-pointed gear on his jacket smeared with mud.
"Little brother," Lalonde says. Strider's mouth twitches upwards.
"Captain, my captain. What on earth have your elderly corps done to my city? I was gone less than a day and you already stage a coup?"
"It's good to see you alive, too. I don’t suppose you saw our Lord Archon or Builder on your way back?"
"No, but it was a lovely walk. Trees and bugs, that sort of thing, got me feeling like the universe was infinite or some shit. What do you have for food here? I'm about to shrivel into myself and then burst into my constituent particles."
Strider's face is nearly identical to the face Lalonde made at her stew last night. Desert families don't tend to get much in the way of sea food. Regardless, half an hour later, when Lalonde's sent Striders trumpeters to help Stone Wall an Captor and Mekhit are wandering aimlessly in the store rooms, Strider downs the entire squashy bowl in a minute flat.
"Revolting, honestly, that tasted like congealed hatred spiced with loathing. Ugh, it's in my teeth. I have a regiment a thousand strong less than a day's march from the city, they should be here tonight."
"I have thirty wallmen, a psionic, and a mutant that can apparently go through solid walls," Lalonde says primly.
"Yeah, you win the gold medal in the weirdness pissing contest. Trough walls?"
"Mekhit Nawn. She never felt it necessary to tell me her mother was a troll, and that hybrids tend to manifest psychic abilities...strangely."
"How is that even possible? Do the bits even compare?"
"I assume so, David, but I'm sure I wouldn't know."
"Oh, alright , sure, go for the full name, it's not like I'm putting six thousand of my soldiers at your command in the next week, not like I saved your sorry ass from sand sharks or anything."
What would it be like to have six thousand wallmen in the prime of their lives? Probably great. Strider pokes at the tape on his arm, makes a face, and then does it again harder. His hair is plastered down with sweat and spiked up in the back. He has like half a mustache. It's so good to see him.
"One of my men brought to my attention a troll by the name of Tavros Nitram, said he had the capability to be responsible."
"I've met Nitram. He doesn't have half the guts required and his 'capacity', the psychic communion thing, I've been told it doesn't work on sentient minds. Who was it?"
"Your pet troll? Little gray man with demon horns? A clearly reliable source. Bet it's an ambush. I would actually put money on it being an ambush. Send the armies after the low blood recluse, yeah, then decimate them with the Empress's ships. Sure. Sounds more likely to be Serket than Nitram, more her style, and she has the grudge to back it up."
"Serket's been missing for almost five years," Lalonde points out. "She's never showed up on the culling records."
Strider grunts, ruffling his hair with his good hand.
"What did you do to your arm?"
"Took a long walk off a short bridge," he says. "Wish I was referencing an idiom but I'm completely serious. Wasn't even looking at my feet and then I was ass over head in the dirt and my arm was bent the wrong way."
"Don't let Ronan touch it, no matter what he say. He isn't a medic. He's actually incredibly unskilled. He might break your other arm trying to fix that one. He might poison you by accident."
“I’m truly in awe of the sort of people you employ.”
Chapter 5: but we, but we, the mortals that remain
The situation before Strider arrived like a golden prince out of a bad soap opera rife with deus ex machina: burnt city, frazzled commander, rising death toll. The situation after Strider arrived: burnt city halfway to rebuilt thanks to his frankly ridiculous amount of soldiers, frustrated commander occasionally able to delegate to sibling, stabilized death toll and shrinking missing list. Strider is not a knight in shining armor. Strider is, and has always been, the scaffolding to Lalonde’s silver tower. Some people would probably be worried their younger sibling would outshine them. Lalonde is not; she loves her brother, prefers to keep him nearby where she can use his strange ability to make people adore him, and also her men are all extremely suspicious of Strider. He isn’t about to stage a coup among the wallmen.
The Polemarch’s armies descend on the city from as far away as Skaia over the next few months. The ruins swarm with ash-stained red and violet uniforms, scaffolding and buildings rising up to the Lattice. Tea Street and Southwest Addicombe Court all the way to Germander Loop, down the sharp drop of Aymar Close and back up Paperbark Avenue, South Stair View that runs along the Wall, from East McNenemy Lane to Penford Manor’s Archon Tower, the city rebuilds in shining metals and pale woods. Three hundred years of dust and street rubbish were burnt away. Consequence City has never been more stunning in the dawn than amid her defeat. Rose Lalonde stands on her Wall, looking out at rooftops glowing hot in the sunlight, and counts it a victory.
Lalonde keeps an eye on Captor throughout rebuilding. He never shows himself to be a spy or a saboteur; he throws himself headlong into working with Mekhit and Ronan, hunting down and sending out Lalonde’s spies to search for rumors of those responsible, for the Archon and Builder. Despite the reputation of the Alternian intelligence network and Captor’s own reputation, they find nothing. Lalonde and Strider maintain power easily enough. Those who would have interfered with the council are either dead or silenced by all of the soldiers. Lalonde begins spending mealtimes in the mess, particularly when the dusk patrol tumbles in half-asleep at dawn. She sits in the corner with her brother, the two of them frighteningly similar in appearance, more identical than fraternal twins should be, watching the mess with one pixel smiles. Among the dozy dusk patrol is a small troll with four long spikes of horn staring at his dinner until it glitters red and blue; he never fails to notice, jump, and eat it. This happens every single morning.
Captor has been an incomparable help in the reconstruction. His psionics allow him to lift anything as high as he pleases. He confides to Lalonde one midnight he could move anything short of the Battleship Condescension before the typical post-adolescent power surge, and now he might be able to swing the planet’s orbit the wrong way round, only no one bothered to measure exactly what he can do now because they know what his Ancestor could do, which is exactly the sort of short-minded bullshit he’d expect off a glacierblood, don’t they know their own history, the Descendant only parallels the Ancestor, they’re not the same fucking person. He’s directly responsible for moving three quarters of the rubble that’s been dumped on the plains. It took him less than six minutes. Lalonde timed it.
He’s incapable of holding a conversation without referencing his talents at least twice, despises paying for tailoring, only ties one boot, and ramps his bangs no matter how often he’s told how much of a douche it makes him look like. There’s at least fifteen people that tell him so on a daily basis.
What Sollux Captor wants: his fucking moirail, why is that so hard for humans to grasp, there’s at least fifteen of them going pale for him, it’s kind of ridiculous, and an actual cup of coffee, like the kind with ripperwasp hulls and six cups of sugar. What Sollux Captor has: fifteen humans waxing pale for him, shitty coffee, comfortable boots. What Sollux Captor should probably be worried he’s gone without for nearly two months now: sopor slime. He doesn’t know if it’s the distance from the Black Harbor and Well of Horrors, or if it’s that he only sleeps maybe three hours a day, but the daymares haven’t been as crippling as usual. Humans don’t trade with Alternia, generally speaking, but there’s an underground market for everything, and the city does have a troll population. The supplements aren’t as good as a re’coon, not by half, but he sleeps, sometimes, and he hasn’t gone shithive maggots on the wall yet. That’s always reassuring.
There’s a jumpy energy around these days, a wild gleam in everyone’s eyes, and Captor is beginning to think the entire human race needs a moirail. They’re so receptive to each other’s moods, so quick to escalate among themselves until everybody is nervous and frenetic. He takes to going out by the rivers and slashing a hundred, three hundred, six hundred, feet deep in the dirt. Carves out canyons and miles of maze around the city, partly for defense, partly to mark down his misery for some future generation to note and think Yes, this was a particularly miserable troll that missed his moirail and was pissed for two sweeps that he didn’t even hit five five, and also sometimes he thinks Karkat might be able to feel the dirt moving on the other side of the continent and is going to come running. That’s stupid, of course, because he’s pupa-sized but not pupa-brained, he’s got a brain like the Battleship Condescension but not a third as gaudy, and anyway Karkat is a Fleet officer, he has his own responsibilities. Captor is pretty sure a Fleet officer’s duties don’t include tracking down a wayward moirail five thousand miles away and stopping him from decimating the hemisphere every time he gets upset. That’s probably something that falls under self-control.
Captor sits in the barracks or over Derse or in the mess and thinks What the fuck are you doing, Tholluckth, you’re capable of more than this, unless I’ve been blind this whole time and you’re actually a mother stripebeast whose grubs are dead and adopts another species instead, do you think you’re the only troll to ever desert and sign on with another army, stop sulking and do your fucking job, are you or aren’t you a grown fucking troll, my bile gland ruptures when I contemplate the sheer depths of failure you sink to despite the fact you know you can swing around the fucking planet like a grub’s rubber stringed ball paddle device. Moiraillegiance isn’t one long pep talk, but it can be when you need it.
There are things that make life easier, now that the city is on her feet again. There’s fruit, which is still a major league sugar bright shock to the chemoreceptors. The baffling array of human sports, all of which are simple enough for a stone cold stupid grub to grasp. Hot chocolate packets, pickles, frosting in a can, cocktail weenies, cat food; there’s apparently no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to putting food in containers. Human food has more textures and tastes. It’s not meant to make you angry, and that’s a shock on its own. Humans eat for pleasure.
Captor begins to find his way in what is essentially a peacetime city. The war fronts are all hundreds of miles out, with Consequence City in the middle of the continent and bounded by cliffs and rivers. The wallmen complain about shortages, but Captor is startled to find even these shortages far outstrip what an Alternian market offers in the middle of the shipping season. His off days are roughly comparable to the Magi’s Sixway Caravan Trail in terms of flavors and colors. It takes him a while to find the human comparison-heaven, strange word in the mouth, but a lot of English is strange in the mouth. Flat vowels and chewed-down consonants. He cut his tongue a lot when he was learning.
The wallmen are now on three eight-hour shifts, one-on-two-off, because they have backup now and it’s pretty great. Captor only sleeps three hours at a time, which still leaves thirteen hours to fill. He wanders the city, wishing for seadweller nictitating membranes. Trolls are just common enough that the second glances are not for his horns, most likely for horns and uniform, but he convinces himself that it’s because he looks like a wiggler in a badly-darned post-hebdomad’s religious schoolfeeding uniform. This wouldn’t be the least apt comparison, Captor supposes, being that he never went through the maturation pupation and he is the size of a pupa still. He should be topping seven feet by now, not five feet and two inches in his boots. It's downright embarrassing.
A brick on top of the pile wobbles and bumps down a few inches. A ring of soldiers around the bottom look up at the noise; a moment later Mekhit Nawn bursts out of the top of the pile and slides down the side face first. She's covered in scrapes and welling bruises when she comes to a stop at Strider's feet.
"Uh. Polemarch, sir, hullo," she says, picking her way upright. She's gone a bit red around the nose.
"The search is going well, I imagine, since you lot are standing round twiddling your thumbs and generally being as useful as a branch stuck through a toddler's tricycle wheel," Strider says to the group at large without a trace of a smile. Mekhit's not the only one red now.
"They couldn't have done much with me in there, sir, risked structural integrity as it was."
"You were in the pile? Are you my sister's?" Strider checks the color of her uniform, sighs loudly, and rubs his nose with the side of his hand.
"Course you are, you're the one that went through the wall. Right on, shouldn't expect her to keep me updated with where her people are even when it affects mine, that's presumptuous."
"Um." Mekhit is again the only one red, planting one foot back into the rubble. She's absconding right the hell out of here if he starts raising demons. It was bad enouch with the Poprockets, she doesn't need it from Polemarch Needs-A-Punch-In-The-Dick Strider. Polemarch claps, turns away and towards his soldiers. Mekhit throws herself through the rubble and jogs through the city. She was only supposed to be checking for survivors-more likely bodies by now, it's been two months, and unless it's a troll, well- with rangers for support, not listen to the Polemarch lecture his men. She doesn't need more reasons to make fun of them. She passes the Greenry, goes into the long looping slope of South Stair View and catches her breath leaning on a stone gargoyle.
"You're a hideous motherfucker," she tells it, "really, I hope the doctor slapped your mum and your dad and your lusus. Do gargoyles have lusii?"
This is directed at An Yan, who quirks an eyebrow.
"Can't say as I know what that is."
"Freaks of nature, the big white things you sometimes see up towards the Pinch." Mekhit twists her mouth. "Sometimes little ones, I guess."
"Towards the Pinch, it's prolly a troll thing. I'd say it's not so likely that gargoyles got'm."
Mekhit crosses her arms and rests them on the Wall.
"Trolls use'm to raise their babies," she says , "I had one, sort of, tiny thing that raised my dad and stuck around till I was about ten. Parents were gone by then, you know? Mum said the little ones don't last so long and trolls don't raise their own, so I'm thrice the anomaly."
"Yeah? That's rough."
An Yan isn't the best at sympathy, but Mekhit isn't looking for any. An Yan is twenty nine-she remembers life before the Archon.
"What was Lord Archon's dad like?"
An Yan makes a face.
"Lord Archon-rest-his-soul", all fast like one word," wasn't there more than a year or two. Really it was the Archon's grandmother. She got the Lattice up, sent that heinous bitch Roly into the wastes. Did more than the Archon's had a chance to consider."
"Wonder where he is."
"Dead, I bet, awful as it sounds. Why else can't we even catch a rumor? Our whole network is built on rumors."
Mekhit goes bright red. "I get it!"
An Yan looks down in confusion but Mekhit is already darting down the ladder. She explodes through the Captain's wall, hollering over the horrendous noise it makes. The Captain is cross-legged on the bed, Captor at her feet with a husk top on his lap and Strider in the chair.
Everyone stares at her for a moment.
"I've, uh, got an idea what happened to Lord Archon and the Builder?" she says. Lalonde blinks and looks at her brother; it looks like they have an entire conversation with individual eyelash movements.
"We've just come to a conclusion ourselves, but please, do tell us whatever was so startling you went through the wall to tell me," Lalonde says, looking a little amused. Mekhit straightens.
"What if Serket took him? Serket and Nitram both, with the chimaera."
"Reasonable explanation for how-but do you have a motive?"
"Captain,ma'am, you're one of the Archon's best friends. You must have heard the rumors about his, uh, indiscretions in Spith with her?" Mekhit takes Lalonde's pinched mouth as a yes. She sits on the floor against the door, exhausted from shoving molecules out of her way. Lalonde and Strider have another conversation that looks like faint muscle movements and pupil dilations. Captor's face looks brittle as thin china.
“We hadn’t factored that in. Thank you, Mekhit. I believe you’re supposed to be in the city right now?”
Mekhit nods sharply and backs out through the wall, flinching at the screech. There are always things to be doing.
Chapter 6: in vain stretch hands; for Charon sullenly
fandom secret i wrote this chapter listening to nothing but 'party on fifth ave' on repeat
fandom secret i wanted to kill myself two sentences in
“Captor’s as infatuated with you as a ten year old boy with a shiny new sword, all bright and bushy-eyed and ready to show some stabs,” Strider says, sitting cross-legged on Lalonde’s bed. His cape is balled up in his lap with the twelve-point gear on top. Lalonde looks up from her paperwork.
“That meandered right out of left field. Things on your mind, brother? Things like Captor’s ass?”
“You wound me. You’ve only gotten more blunt and wrong as the years go by, Lalonde. Bet you could bounce a coin off it and get reverb.”
“Oh, absolutely. The man’s got a ten pointer. Is this why I’ve been hearing you referred to as Polemarch Booty Thrasher? Are you groping my staff in the hallways?” Lalonde’s mouth twists in what could be a smirk. “I don’t know why I’m asking. I already know you grope my staff. Mekhit was quite alarmed when you trod on her foot yesterday morning. She said she half-expected you did it on purpose to go for second base.”
“She jumped out of the wall in front of me. She’s lucky I didn’t draw my sword in the hallway. Don’t even start looking for the phallic implications there, it’s irrelevant. No, don’t make the “why, David, let’s discuss how swords and hallways could be an allegory for intercourse, and how is it that you choose phrasing reminiscent of an old play’s ‘would I might never draw sword again’ when referring to someone who is barely old enough to even know what sex is” face at me, you’re going to give me indigestion, see, there it is, there is a fire in my loins and it is because of you.”
“Why, Dave,” Rose says with a perfectly straight face, “how curious it is that you slipped for loins instead of intestines. Are you harbouring an incestuous fascination? Do I need to get out the dolls again?”
“Oh, sweet mercy, do not bring out the dolls again,” Dave says, muffled because he has his face pressed to his cape in horror.
Rose turns to her paperwork again, smiling again.
“She’s not as young as you think, anyway. I know she looks fourteen on the best of days, but she turned twenty almost six months ago. Look, d’you think this says ‘Greenry requires a thousand
caegar, f.v’ or ‘Guide’s ripping a tottened hamgear, t. y.’?”
“Being that it’s a request for city aid, it’s probably the former and you know it. There’s no T.Y. involved with anything you’d need to see. I can delegate as well as anyone, you know, much as you’d like to think I’m about as efficient as a handless toddler smashing his forehead off the pavement and whining about the dirt in his eyes.”
“I think you’re a sight more clever than that. You may even have reached sentience by now. Glory, who wrote these aid forms? I can’t tell if this is asking for prostitutes or a ban on corn chips. Dave, this is me officially giving my resignation. I can no longer deal with these shit-mongering dullards.”
“Duly noted,” Dave says, “As the universe’s mouthpiece I must make sure you register it doesn’t give half a fuck and sends you its compliments via twelve more shit-mongering idiots hammering on your council doors every morning. Come and siddown, would you, before you give me a backache.”
Rose links her fingers together and stretches her arms overhead; pops ripple down from her elbows to the base of her spine. She sighs and stands, tilting her head to the side until her neck pops. She doesn’t so much sit on the bed next to Dave as fold gracefully into herself and sink downwards. He’s a little revolted at how elegantly she can slide her hair behind her ears. She rests her head on his shoulder and he tips his face towards her hair.
“An you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again,” Rose recites after a moment. “That was the quote I referenced. I’m sure you know it but I never fail to delight in dirty wordplay.”
Dave purses his lips.
“Might’ve noticed that. Can we stop using swords and penises interchangeably? It makes our childhood remarkably more horrifying. Sword fights, not dick fights, even if those shitty littles needles aren’t swords, I don’t care how often you say they are. They don’t even have sharpened edges. All you did was stab the sorry bastard. I had to go all ballerina and save you.”
“You had no idea what a ballerina was until three years ago. You were lucky we’re twins, David. I’m sure my innate brutality and your touchy reflexes alone would never have gotten us out.”
“More like you were lucky I was there to take the hits for you. It doesn’t even make any sense, twins being the same person, why the hell were we treated like it? You took one solid hit and you were flat on your back, I remember like it was nine years ago.”
“That’s because it was. I seem to recall you getting pricked in the knee with a thorn not twenty minutes after I was inked and crying for an hour. That, at least, is the rumor I’ve been spreading. I can’t have my men respecting you too much.”
“You insidious bitch,” Dave sighs, rubbing his nose. “I thought that was that Ronan douchebag. “
“I dearly wish I could say Ronan wasn’t a douchebag.”
“You swore never to lie to me.”
“I’ve kept to that promise, at least. I really should go and check in the infirmary. They’ve brought in what Captor thinks is the last group of survivors. It’s getting on to nine weeks now, they’ve only been trolls for seven, eight of that. I’ve begun to accept that trolls are much hardier.”
“Was there a point to that mess?”
“Captor thinks some of them will turn out useful when we start sending out the search patrols. There’s Nepeta Leijon, she’s a hunterrorist or something, they have such barbaric titles; Equius Zahhak, her moirail, which I’ve been told is something like a platonic soul friend, although there is no human equivalent, not even something similar; and one that Captor was curiously glad to see, her name is Aradia Megido. She does something very strange with time that sort of reminds me of the Godhead Incident, you remember, when it looked like it was going to be you?”
“The time thing, yeah, couldn’t forget the causal ribbons. Megido, you said? I heard some things about a Megido but the odds are it’s not this one, unless she happens to be a ragpicker and a fortune teller.”
“That’s as may be. I haven’t had a chance to speak with any of them yet.”
“Well, let’s go then.”
“Yes,” Rose says on a long sigh, sits for another moment, and gets up to pull on her boots. Her laces are knotted stiff with mud.
The infirmary is the lowest point of the inner wall, round the Aymar Close side and under the streets. It’s a bit damper than necessary, but the lanterns don’t go out and it’s warmer than the city proper will be in a few weeks. Winter comes early, and it’s already September; the infirmary is the warmest place on the wall once mid-October hits. The trolls are in a pile of blankets, four nurses hovering uncomfortably around them and staying carefully out of goring range. Lalonde wonders if it has occurred to any of the nurses that even the biggest-that must be Zahhak, male trolls get enormous-doesn’t look steady enough to hurt any of them. The other two are smaller, with the brightly-tinted eyes and mouths Lalonde has come to expect. She continues that observation for a moment; are troll sizes skewed along the spectrum? The green is larger than the red, nearly Dave’s height, but when Lalonde factors in Captor’s height it throws the whole scale off.
Lalonde crouches in front of the trolls.
“How are you getting along down here? Is it dark enough?”
“You are the decentralized combat resources allocator?” Zahhak demands. It’s phrased as a question but his tone makes Lalonde want to spit on his boots.
“Give me the human analogue.”
“The,” Zahhak pauses, looks upward, scowls like the word is sour, “director of non-military internal defences is the closest I am capable of coming.”
“I’m Captain Lalonde. I’m in charge of the city’s defences, yes, so you weren’t far off the mark with that. This is the Polemarch, who does command our military. Who are the three of you? Why are you in my city and not on my censuses?”
“Ah,” Zahhak purses his mouth and turns to his left. The green, more olive than lime, really, chitters at him briefly, makes a disgusted noise, and throws her hands up.
“My moirail is going to be a grub about this beclaws he thinks English is ludicrous,” she says with a scathing look that turns back into a fond smile, “We don’t have the word ‘census’. Is it a pastry?”
She looks disappointed at that.
“I’m Nepeta Leijon,” she says, “This is Aradia and Equius.”
Her r’s have a sharp rattle to them like a purr. Do trolls have tonal quirks?
“I’m here because in my spare time I like to sit on my heels in dirty rock piles,” Aradia says cheerfully. Nepeta laughs.
“Are any of you Maryam’s?” Strider asks abruptly. Lalonde understands his concern. Maryam’s arm is long reaching. Nepeta ‘chhr’s like a cicada to Equius. He shakes his head sharply.
“I am a mechanic,” he says flatly.
“I’m a hunterrorist. Do humans have that? I catch things and I kill them and sometimes I eat them, too, although mostly I turn them in for money.”
“And you? What do you do?”
Aradia rests a hand on one of horn spirals and grins.
“I told you, I sit on my heels in dirty rock piles. I examine osseous matter.”
She considers for a moment.
“Yes. Cultural barriers are quite the thing, aren’t they?”
Strider pulls Lalonde up.
“None of you are military?” he asks.
Lalonde jabs Strider in the lower back before he can wind himself up.
“I’m going to send someone down in the next few days to ask you some questions. In the meantime, I hope you’re comfortable. I know you’re far from home and it’s been a while since you were in the air.”
Lalonde pulls Strider back with her. They stop on the second level platform, standing in the shadows of the hideous tapestries.
“They’ve been underground for nine weeks, Strider, they couldn’t know anything,” Lalonde hisses furiously, rubbing at her knee. It’s aching like a motherfucker.
“You don’t know how long this plan’s been in place. It could have been months in the making.”
“Serket is an independent agent. She ducked a cull order five years ago and Nitram spirited her out of Alternia. The attack wasn’t complicated enough to take five years to plan!”
Strider inhales through his nose and turns around. Lalonde chews angrily on her lip. After a count of twenty Strider turns back around and apologizes for being impatient.
“It’s alright. They’re my friends too.”
Lalonde goes to the mess, where she proceeds to smother her problems with bacon and coffee. Captor sits down carefully across from her, a cup of straight black coffee held with his claws pointed away.
“Is there any particular reason you’ve been chewing the same piece of bacon for ten minutes? That’s an absolute travesty.”
“There’s no way it has any consistency anymore.”
“It tastes like linen,” Lalonde says after swallowing. “Dirty linen.”
Captor makes a face.
“Mekhit told me about the strawberries. You were terrified of them. Don’t look like that when I say I’m eating fabric.”
“I wasn’t sure if they’d been poisoned.”
Lalonde raises an eyebrow.
“You’re surrounded by the most experienced and best trained soldiers humanity has to offer. And you were worried someone had poisoned your fruit instead of being worried you’d be thrown to the chimaera for sedition or being stabbed in your sleep for being a race traitor?”
Lalonde is startled into a quiet laugh.
“That sounds reasonable.”
Chapter 7: drives us afar, we may not come anigh
The moon is a huge bright disk split by the Lattice on the night they find Jade Harley. She isn't, contrary to expectations, anywhere near her brother. She's been very comfortably spending the last three months in a small town on the Alternian border called Echidna. In typical Jade fashion, she was certain she didn't need to be found yet -and then she'd returned to Consequence City on her own with a sack of oranges over one shoulder and a trail of frogs behind her for miles. Lalonde watches from the gate as the Builder shoos fifteen frogs back and steps inside the city with a wide smile on her face.
She’s tanner than summertime, her hair is a knotted snarl, and her sneakers are worn clean through. She has also never been this vigorous. She doesn’t bounce beside Lalonde, but it’s a near thing, and it puts a bit of spring into Lalonde’s step to be near such obvious joy.
They go to the Builder’s Loft, the wide colored glass windows patterning their skin in jewel bright colors like plumage.
“It’s so weird! Robata said she thought that their furthest ancestors might have been hive mind insects, like an ant colony almost, but if ants had highly complex social structures that evolved into a rigid caste system based on blood colour! I mean, they do have highly complex social structures,” Jade says, pouring more tea and draining it in one go, “but I’ve never seen anything on the level of what I saw in Echidna. The lower colors completely submit to higher colors, there’s no sign of rebellion, not even rumors. I guess the purples have some kind of psychic fear amplifier, and the only reason the Empress Ascendant is still alive is because her lusus can kill off every troll if she wanted to. A caste system based on blood and maintained by deep-rooted fear that isn’t even yours! Trolls are weird!”
“I wonder if the Empress Ascendant’s lusus could affect humans,” Rose says, idly, because Jade will continue under her own power for hours like this. She’s a lot like Dave in that she’ll keep going until she runs out of steam and neither of them ever runs out of steam.
“Maybe if the blood color has something to do with psychic vulnerability? I think Robata said something to that effect, but she wasn’t very good at English and my Alternian is shit, but human blood isn’t on the troll spectrum. I don’t think the lusus could have the ability to affect a, a vulnerability she’s never encountered. But maybe? If the higher colors keep the lower colors in order with psychics, then I’d put money on lower castes being more susceptible, and human red would be the lowest possible caste by how they order colors. It sort of explains why diplomacy is so hard with the Troll Cabinet! They think we’re all peasants!”
Rose laughs with Jade, relaxed and warm. Her greatcoat hangs beside the fireplace to dry, and her scarf is still wound around her throat.
“Some of the trolls got so big, too,” Jade muses, a bit more sedately, like this is observation time now and not frantic recitation of conclusions time. “The purple guys with the fins especially. Only one or two came through. I think even John would be jealous of the amount of jewelry they wear. Must have topped out around seven and a half, eight feet.”
“I thought that height might be tied to caste,” Rose says, sipping her tea, “based on the few I’ve met, and it holds true except for Captor. Aradia is rust, isn’t that the lowest? If I’m right she should be smaller than he is but she’s my height and he only comes up to my chin.”
“Yeah, he’s like a little doll sometimes, it’s kind of cute, but only if cute meant emotionally repressed and sulking,” Jade says brightly, “Maybe he didn’t go through his maturation pupation right. Ask him about it.”
“Yes, I’ll just go and ask my deeply private subordinate inappropriate questions about the size of his body and his insect adolescence process, shall I? It wouldn’t be strange at all.”
“You don’t need to be a dick about it. I’m sure that’s what it is, anyway. He’s not just small, you know, he’s slender, he’s got little proportions like a kid. Grub. Pupa. Fucking bug people.”
“Grub to pupa, with pupa roughly analogous of three years old to about thirteen. You aren’t the only one who’s had an interest.”
“Is ‘having an interest’ the euphemism we’re gonna use?”
“There’s no need for a euphemism at all,” Rose says sharply, “Tell me what that is.”
She gets up from the futon, trailing blankets, and picks up a brightly colored box from the table. Jade frowns.
“If you say so. I don’t know. I just got home, remember? It was there when I came in. I didn’t want to open it because it says “don’t open until the first of the year” on top, look.”
Rose does. It does.
“That’s suspicious. Did you tell anyone?”
Jade looks at her.
“Who would I tell, Rose? We’re the ones in charge! You head the police force and you need everyone to be doing something that isn’t investigating the weird harmless box in my apartment.”
“You don’t know that it’s harmless.”
“I’m not dead yet,” Jade says with a shrug. “Counts as harmless.”
When Jade is told about what happened while she was gone, she cries. She didn’t mean to not be here, she says, only in the night just before she was picked up by God and moved , with the peculiar wrenching that only comes from holy teleportation and carries the weight of prophecy. Rose is beginning to wish she was an atheist. The pantheon rarely gets directly involved, and to have been moved instead of taken as a host means there’s something Jade herself needs to do. Something a god can’t conceptualize but knows is important. That’s worrisome as shit.
“So the city just started burning? No one saw anything?”
“We were unable to begin investigating until Dave came with his people. I had thirty five of my people still alive, twenty of them over the age of fifty, and they were worn down. I could have pushed the issue, I suppose, but who knows how many more I could have lost by pushing it too soon?”
“No, I think I get it.”
The Builder doesn’t have a staff so much as she draws plans and gives them to the civil workers’ unions to fit into the city as they will. Jade doesn’t get as connected to the people of the city as Rose does.
“Mekhit, wonderful as she can be, has been nigh on useless while Strider is here, so I’ve been effectively handicapped in terms of free time. No, I’m being melodramatic. She’s frightened of him and now I have to do my own paperwork and it’s awful. No one seems to have much to say about who did it, although between Captor and Mekhit we came up with a theory.”
“And that is?” Jade prompts.
“Do you remember when John went to Spithen and he fell in love with a girl there?”
“Yeah, he mentioned it in Tapswill.”
“That girl was a troll girl by the name of Vriska Serket, a blueblood ducking a culling order. We think she took up with another troll, Tavros Nitram, because they have complementary domination abilities, and they used the chimaera.”
“The chimaera can’t get past the interference shielding on the gates.”
“The shielding went down six hours before the attack, it’s on the malfunction readings. Whoever brought them down used an outside net to access ours.”
“There’s only two nets outside of Consequence City.”
“Alternia and the Rogue.”
“Must be on the Rogue. Alternia wouldn’t risk direct war like that, even from an independent agent. The Condesce hasn’t been empress for five hundred years because she’s an idiot!”
“No, you’re right, I do think Alternia would have gotten involved if Serket tapped their net and used it. “
Jade rests her chin on her hand, using her other hand to tuck the blanket under her elbow. She purses her lips.
“What do you know about Nitram? Why would he be in cahoots with someone like six places up the spectrum?”
“Have you ever heard the term ‘moirails’? There’s no human equivalent, really.”
“I did live with trolls for three months. I picked up a little more than a couple of swear words!”
“I just wanted to be sure. They’re moirails. Moirails don’t split up if they can help it, apparently, so Nitram lit off across the continent for his childhood moirail.”
“Wasn’t he already out there?”
“I’m not too clear on the timeline. I’m a fair percent sure it’s them. Now you’re home we can focus on getting John back. Strider has staggering amounts of men. I’m sending three of mine to keep his in line.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust my brother’s men, it’s just that I don’t trust my brother’s men,” Rose says with a faint smile. Jade snickers.
“He doesn’t pick the best, does he?”
“He does what he can, but let’s face it, the best come to the wall.”
As delightful as it is to finally be able to spend an afternoon with her only female friend, Lalonde is eventually needed back at the Wall. She has paperwork up to the far edge of the universe with all this reconstruction and John not around to sign any of it. It’s not a long walk, even with everyone stopping her to brush a hand over her shoulder or scarf for good luck.
Lalonde’s attention is drawn by shouting from the mess on her way back up the ramps. She follows the noise to find a ring of raucously noisy, stomping watchers howling encouragement at An Yan and someone hidden by Ronan’s bulk. Lalonde ducks under Ronan’s arm, looking over one of the kitchen boys. It’s Captor, getting his ass soundly whupped. His face is one big yellow bruise already. Lalonde whistles when An Yan comes up out of her crouch, driving her head into Captor’s neck and spilling him backwards, hooks her foot around his ankle and yanks, knocking him to the ground. She slams one of her heels down onto his side as a final insult and then pulls him back upright.
“What is going on here?” Lalonde asks in tones that probably dent the Lattice. Captor’s shoulders immediately hunch up to his ears before he clicks back from shame to dauntless arrogance.
“Wasn’t aware sparring was on the shitlist, ma’am,” he says.
“You might want to wait until your pupils are the same size before you start sassing, Captor. An Yan, being that you most likely don’t have three concussions, would you care to explain the beatdown?”
“He wanted to see some moves, ma’am,” An Yan says, clearly fighting back laughter. Lalonde sighs and waves them both back with her. Disciplinary measures will have to be taken, of course. This goes beyond sparring into dangerous.
“Wasn’t a very smart decision of you two,” she says once they’re in her office. She wonders briefly why she bothers calling it an office when she sleeps in there too and there’s only the one chair. Captor snorts.
“The difference between me and smart is light years. I am an entire continent of scientists fueling atom smashers with pure hate beyond smart, Captain. My actions are entirely deliberate and therefore the smartest option. Better to take action than wait for chance.”
“So it was better to goad the finest hand to hand fighter in the world into smashing your ass into the dirt before she got it into her head to do it randomly. That sounds entirely rational, Captor, I stand corrected. An Yan, how did this happen?”
“You know better than anyone he’s a right noisy little shit sometimes, ma’am,” An Yan says with a sigh, no longer amused. “He was mouthing off about peacetime again.”
“For instigating I’m putting you on laundry duty with Ronan for a week.”
An Yan makes a horrific face at the mention of Ronan, but goes without protesting. Lalonde re-angles herself in the chair, reaching down to rub the junction of metal and bone at her knee. It feels like the cold is drilling itself into her marrow like an especially determined tinworm. Captor’s mouth is tilted into a moue.
“You can stop being so petulant,” Lalonde says flatly. “I know full well there was more to it than boredom with peacetime. You have more than enough to do.”
“Being that I’m of a species with a millenia long history of war and expansionism, and being that you’re of a species which considers war a hobby at best, and not the sum of existence, I think it’s quite reasonable that I’m antsy,” Captor says just as flatly, slouching into himself.
“Your nose is bleeding,” Lalonde says and waits while he swipes an impatient fist across his nose, then flinches in pain, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve earned yourself some deep tissue bruising, too. What’s been wrong with you?”
Captor chitters something in Alternian, snarls abruptly, and smacks his palms to his forehead.
“I didn’t think it was possible for me to get any more retarded,” he says, “but at this point I can’t say I’m surprised that the universe has been skull fucking me. I wasn’t expecting to be affected by human pheromones. You’ve all been so restless, the entire lot of you. Trolls don’t get restless, trolls get violent. If I don’t remember to tell An Yan that if I was bigger I’d kick her ass I’m going to kill myself right in the mess hall.”
“I’ve seen Zahhak lose to An Yan before he left, you wouldn’t stand a chance then, either. I’m very curious as to your smallness but that’s beside the point. What is your problem, Captor? Are you going to become a danger to my men now of all times?”
“Well, you don’t need to gut me and drop me outside the wall, at least. I need my moirail. A quarter of a sweep is too long to be without him.”
“Oh, you’ve got one too? Is anyone in your preposterous culture capable of emotional stability?”
“Not really, no. My friends are a bunch of murderous psychopaths. My Empress is three hundred sweeps old and culls anyone with a deficiency. The hemocaste is a terrible joke.” Captor shrugs. “I’ve stung myself with my own loyalty to my homeland.”
“Is there any way for you to see him? No, that was a stupid question, I haven’t slept in thirty six hours. I still think at twice your speed, Captor, rewind that stupid statement before it even comes out your mouth.”
“He’s a Fleet officer and I’m a deserter. I’ll thank you to keep yourself out of my chitinous windhole.”
“Come here, would you? I’m getting facial cramps just looking at you.”
When Captor doesn’t move, Lalonde sighs theatrically, stands, and pitches and yaws her way across the room. She licks her thumb and wipes a smear of yellow off his eyebrow. He’s got funny eyes, especially up close, one a screeching red and the other a hot blue, and short sharply-curled eyelashes. He has a sort of weight around him, like a dent in the world. He also only comes up to Lalonde’s chin.
“You’re the size of a fourteen year old, I’m embarrassed to be touching you.”
“It could be the concussion but I don’t want to slug you for that.”
Lalonde cleans his face for a few minutes in silence. He’s got a long forehead over wide slanted eyes and a snub of a nose over an unlovely slash of mouth. He isn’t pretty whether his mouth is open or shut but he’s not terrible to look at, either. The overall effect is a pissy eel with gemstones for eyes.
“Stop trying to get yourself killed. An Yan would be horrified if she caused you to hemorrhage.”
Captor moves one shoulder in the laziest shrug Lalonde’s ever seen. He gets a little looser, a little calmer with every touch of Lalonde’s hand.
“Can’t say as I can bring myself to care too much.”
He starts to make a quiet rattling noise in the back of his throat, like a purr run through a trash compactor and made into chimes. It’s the weirdest noise in existence, probably.
“Alright, off you get. It’s three in the afternoon, Captor, you must be running on empty by now. Take tonight off, but you’re on dishes for a week and babysitting the kitchen brats for two after that,” Lalonde says, softly so as not to disturb him from his bug rattle. She pats him on the cheek and steps back, feeling curiously embarrassed when his eyelids droop and snap back up. The moue is gone, at least, even if he looks like he tried to fight a pack of wolves with his bare hands. An Yan has no problem with using her nails.
“Right. It’s been a pleasure being told off.”
He leaves, quietly as he ever manages, with his shoulders hitched up and his hands in his pockets.
Sometimes she wonders why she lets herself get away with these things.
Chapter 8: till that last mystic obolus we gain
just a little guy this time
“Do I really have to?” Mekhit asks plaintively. Normally she’d bite her tongue off and choke on it before talking back to the Captain, but she looks awful in blue and this is a special type of horror. She shoves her fingers up into her hair, over where she should have horns.
“Mekhit. That was a direct order,” Captain Lalonde says. Mekhit might be imagining the slight gentling of her voice. She probably is. She also sort of wants to throw up.
“Ah, yes, yes, ma’am, then. Permission to be dismissed?”
“Of course. You leave at dawn.”
Mekhit flushes red, walks away, tells herself she isn’t fleeing, then gives up and barrels through the six walls between the midfloors and the women’s barracks. She’s been there as long as anyone left from the old days, and she’s had her entire life to block off a section for herself. The Captain doesn’t come through here or Mekhit is sure she’d be under some kind of punishment. She hurls herself onto her bed, pulling corporeal just before she drops through the floor.
An Yan pokes her head round the curtain, steps over the bricks and in, jabs her in the lower back until she cries out.
“Got troubles, baby?”
“Not a baby,” Mekhit snaps.
“No, of course not. What is it, love?”
An Yan sits at Mekhit’s feet, pats her calves.
“Like hell you haven’t heard about the expedition,” Mekhit says into her arms, determined to sulk.
“Yes, I have. I’m on it.”
“So’m I. I’ve never been more than a mile from the city, Yankha.”
“What of it? It’s an adventure.”
Mekhit turns enough to make a horrified face at An Yan.
“An adventure? Don’t give me that shit. Captain’ll have our fuckin’ heads if we don’t come back with Lord Archon. I’ll fuckin’ kill myself if we don’t come back with him.”
An Yan pats Mekhit’s feet, leaves without saying anything else. She really has a way of making absolutely no goddamn difference with the things she says. An adventure. Fuck that! Mekhit is a city girl. Mekhit was born in this barrack, three beds over where Delia used to sleep. Her parents are buried in Noonwatch Cemetery. Mekhit Nawn is not an adventurer. She’s supposed to spend her life serving the Wall and maybe go on a date with a shopkeeper sometimes and patrol from dusk to dawn and take up arms against the chimaera. She’s not supposed to wander out into the uncharted northern forests with An Yan, Stone Wall, and three of Polemarch Asslicker’s red shirts in search of the Archon being held captive by his teenage girlfriend and her crippled platonic soulmate.
Mekhit slaps her hands over her face and makes a strangled groaning noise before regaining her composure. As awful as this is going to be, it was a direct order. Lords know the consequences of disobeying an order will be worse than failing. Captain’ll probably have her rent into pieces and the pieces lit on fire and ground into salt and tossed into the river if she tries to desert or something. There’s nowhere to hide, of course. Captain will find her.
She stands, considers going to the mess for dinner before patrol, decides not to on the accounts of one, Captain’s been spending a lot of time there, and two, she’s more than a little sick of bacon and coffee. She fishes around under her bed instead, pulls up a sack of bannocks. She rips one open with her teeth to find it’s full of raisins, shoves it back into the back for one with cheese. She gnaws on it, sticks the sack back under the bed, and starts packing. She packs light; a windbreaker and a clean undershirt, a pair of pants, two pairs of socks, entirely too much underwear, and the sack of bannocks. Stone Wall can carry much more weight, because he’s roughly the size of a mountain, and he’ll have the gear. The red shirts can carry everything else.
They set out at dawn, when Mekhit is still rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She’s accustomed to working through the night, and the hour shouldn’t be a problem, but she didn’t sleep for fear she’d get stuck halfway through the bed with a nightmare. An Yan is revoltingly cheerful. Stone Wall is as emotional as a stone wall. Mekhit studiously ignores Crow, Croc, and Casey. She’s pained by the alliteration.
“What do you want, Captor? You’re interrupting my breakfast,” Lalonde says, surveying her bacon and coffee. Nothing but bacon and coffee for days and days. She’s been having dreams where she turns into a pig and leads an army of pigs. Karmic retribution is weird. Captor plants his bony ass firmly on the bench, tosses off a smarmy little salute.
“You’re not gonna like it.”
“Oh, why don’t you ever bring me, I don’t know, love poems? Why is it always the bad news?”
“I work in information, ma’am, if I brought you the good news I’d deny you the joy of finding it out when it’s irrelevant. The Empress has issued a statement that if the Empress Ascendant, let her live a thousand sweeps, sets foot on land she’s to be brought to Skaia to face trial for treason. On top of that, she’s demanding all Alternian-born trolls return on pain of war. Plot twist: that’s all of them. Plot twist twist:if you’ve been out of the country longer than a sweep and you come back, you’re on trial for treason. ” Captor holds up his hands like hey, what can you do. His eyebrows are almost into his hairline.
“At last survey, you’d be losing a fifth of the city’s population. I can’t say as I’d like to return, being that that’s a death sentence twice over. As much as that sounds like a good time, I think I’d prefer to stay here and palm my bulge in a drafty closet.”
Lalonde pinches her nose.
“Set up a comm with the Empress Ascendant. I wouldn’t send a beetle to that seething hellpit.”
Less than an hour later, even though it’s broad daylight, Lalonde is in the comm hub in the Archon Tower, cross-legged in an armchair in front of a screen three feet high. Lalonde has never been confronted this directly with quite how alien the trolls can be: gills and long-tined fins that sweep off her chin instead of ears. The Empress Ascendant’s pupils are tiny diamonds in the light, her hair a riotous mess. Lalonde is immediately charmed by her snub nose and wide grin. Her gill slits are much less disconcerting when she snaps them shut.
“Captain,” Feferi Peixes says brightly. Lalonde can hear the exclamation points.
“Oh, nevermind with that, it’s glubbin’ obnoxious. Call me Feferi.”
Feferi, fefeɾī with a fish-hook r. Her English accent is absolutely atrocious, although her vocabulary seems tenfold better than Zahhak’s.
“I’d rather not, Miss Peixes, although I will concede your title is obnoxious.”
“Miss Peixes! Haven’t you ever heard it said right?”
[pḥaihčes] is a clusterfuck of sounds Lalonde has never heard in English. She recognizes a few from Captor’s more frustrated noises.
“When would I have?”
“You got Sollux with you, don’t you? Do I have to point out everyfin to you? Glory! What’d you want to talk to me about?”
Lalonde weaves her fingers together, watching Peixes rake her hair back.
“I had heard you were under threat. I wondered if you might need help.”
Peixes blows air out the side of her mouth, ripples her gills. glup!
“Course not. I got my lusus, don’t I? Mom’s from the Well of Horrors.”
“That’s not really what I meant.”
“You’re after an alliance, aren’t you? I don't have any soldiers or ships."
“Princess, my brother commands an army of thirty thousand, if not more,” Lalonde says, an undertone of amusement in her voice. “I have no need of your soldiers. Your Empress has six thousand trolls camped along my borders. I was given these numbers less than an hour ago. What I require from you is somewhat simpler; I need you to get myself and Captor into Skaia and out alive. If you do that, I’ll convince the Council to move on Alternia and create enough chaos that you can take the throne.”
Peixes taps a long finger against her chin, pretending to consider, when Lalonde can clearly see her mouth quirking up in a smile. It’s simple, and it’s tempting. Captor has said a coldblood’s maturity is around twenty, and Peixes must be getting onto nineteen or so. It’s likely she’s frustrated with her-sister? Mother? Empress? Trolls are weird. Peixes failing poker face gives entirely to a grin like sunrise. Lalonde resists the temptation to smile back.
“Don’t be silly! It’ll be shrimply plain sailing to get you into the city. Getting out might be a little harder! Look, I’ll be so polite, I won’t even ask you why. You’re not going to burn down my city, are you?” Peixes asks, her voice suddenly sharp.
“No. It’s been a delight to speak with you, Miss Peixes. I’ll have Captor contact you again soon. I have some details to work out.”
With all of the troop movement out in the continent, it stands to reason that Serket may have panicked and fallen back on allies at home. If she hasn’t, the expedition will find her and Nitram. If she has, Lalonde will be ready. She needs Captor to make her a convincing troll, and she needs to figure out how to tell Strider and Jade.
Chapter 9: but you are happy in the quiet place,
we r doin it
Pretending to be a troll is the absolute
. Captor and Lalonde take to the training yards after Captor is taken off-duty, because holy hells, is there a lot to learn. Simple things: the precise length of the glottal stop in
minding your tongue when you’ve got teeth filed into points, dominance responses. Harder things: losing an accent, fabricating an entirely different childhood in an almost entirely foreign culture, a religion that makes absolutely no sense. Nearly impossible, bizarre things: waking up stinking of the Lady’s interference and choking because your lungs aren’t properly pressurized for gills, breathing underwater.
It’s doubtful a Thursday morning could have been much stranger; Lalonde went to bed on Wednesday in a fully functional human body and woke up on Thursday with the stink of sand in her mouth and one fin pinched under her face. It’s the second most disorienting morning of her life.
“Strider,” she says when she’s made her way to his apartment, gone completely unrecognized and flinching at every wake of air, “do you see what I see?”
He sits up in bed, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Uh. Are you cosplaying?”
“Hold on.” He sits up, rubs his eyes again, reaches out to pinch a fin. Lalonde yowls and jerks back.
“Oh my unholy Aphotic Trine,” he says, reaches out again, “you’re a fucking troll.”
Lalonde starts to pace. She’s restless, has been ever since waking up, a thousand springs coiling in her joints and her claws tapping together.
“Evidently, the Fair Lady of Light has decided on more direct action.”
“That’s so weird,” Strider hisses, swinging his sorry carcass out of bed and patting Lalonde’s face as if checking for a seam. “Like that’s real? You weren’t trying to summon demons last night?”
“I’m not Delia,” Lalonde points out and tugs gently on her bottom leftmost fin tine. It’s ridiculous how sensitive she is to airflow all of a sudden. “I really don’t understand how this happened. I renounced Light almost seven years ago. I’m not a dedicant anymore, She shouldn’t have been able to touch me.”
“Omnipotent implies a fair amount of touching, I would have thought. Is there any particular catalyst for this?”
“I had been planning to sneak into Skaia with the help of the Empress Ascendant.”
Strider lifts an eyebrow that says we’re talking about that later, and while I respect your choices, I am honor-bound to tell you how stupid an idea that is. She lifts one back that says I am now capable of eating your heart. His eyebrow goes back down.
“Can you move them?”
Lalonde screws up her face with the effort, momentarily distracted from poker facing, and her fins do a sad little wobble. A pinch forms between her eyebrows; the wobble turns into a flap and then, obviously startled, she snaps them back against her head. Strider looks sick with resisting laughter.
“You’re all purple, you look like an eggplant rolled in sugar. In the interest of science we should do all sorts of opaque bullshit,” he says, “I’m going to call Harley. Do you want to lie down in the bathtub?”
She accepts the offer with a snort, drawing the bath while he’s on the phone. Even with her head flat against the porcelain and her feet sticking over the side and blocking the door she can hear him clear as day.
“No, I’m completely serious, she’s an actual honest-to-good troll-Will you shut your trap for ten seconds and listen to me, Harley? I need you to come and do your impenetrable sciencey bullshit. Yes, I will have lunch ready, are you kidding me? We’re going to need more than biscuits for this, I’m thinkin’ heavy duty bagels and jam, maybe even pasta, science needs carbs. I’ll see you. Bring your guard for once, will you?”
Strider stomps into the bathroom, Lalonde folding her legs back to let him in, and sits on the floor beside the tub.
“The weirdest part,” he says, “isn’t that you didn’t turn the light on or that you have literal fins growing out of your face. It’s that you still look like me.”
“I think it’s more that you look like me,” Lalonde says, glup ping through her gills. “I’m eldest.”
“Yeah, but now you’re a different species.”
Lalonde props herself up on her elbows enough to lift her head out of the water, consciously flattening her fins to her skull. Strider looks more comfortable when they aren’t easily visible.
“Look, before Jade gets here, I need to ask you something. If I don’t come back,” both of their faces go stormy at that, “don’t let the Wall go to chaos. It’s too important for that. “
He reaches out and grips her hand.
“Of course. They’re all good soldiers.”
“I don’t mean absorb them yourself.”
She drops back into the water, flinging handfuls at his face. Strider splutters, tossing his hands out, when the doorbell goes off. Twelve times.
“Is she jabbing on it? Glory,” he mutters, turning sideways to fit out the door. Lalonde sits up, folding her legs down into the tub so the door swings in.
Jade bustles around the apartment for a few minutes, making loud busy noises and clanging pots together, before she comes into the bathroom with two cups of tea and hands one to Lalonde and sits on the toilet. She surveys Rose frankly in silence, absorbing everything from her dripping black hair to the tensed sweep of her fins to her slightly webbed toes.
"Well," Jade says, "Guess there's nothing else for it! You're a troll. I'll do some blood work if you want but it's pretty obvious."
"Hello, Jade, how are you today? It's always such a pleasure to see you."
"Hi, sorry, would you please stop growling at me! It's kind of alarming!"
Mortified, Rose snaps her mouth shut, narrowly missing her tongue. The growl doesn't stop, instead tapering off until she counts to ten and backwards again.
"How did this happen, Rose?"
"Well," Rose says frankly, "I went to bed last night and then this morning I had to consciously pressurize my lungs, so no, I haven't got a fucking idea how this happened."
"You're being such a jerk, drink your tea," Jade says, setting her jaw like an especially cute bulldog. Rose scowls, shifts the cup into both hands, and slugs it back so she can sulk behind the rim.
“Thank you, although perhaps more sugar next time.”
Jade snorts and curls her fingers tighter around her cup. Out in the apartment proper Strider swears in the way that means he’s cut his finger open on the parsley again.
“Why do you smell like saltwater and coconut?”
Rose is somewhat more interested in asking, “How do you know what saltwater smells like? There’s no coast for six thousand miles.”
“Oh, you know, I get around. Rust? Pepperspray? Lime blossoms? Copper? You’re like an Anodized Brother’s shrine.”
Rose struggles valiantly not to make a face and settles for a pinch between her eyebrows.
“I’m going to Skaia,” she says abruptly.
“Oh?” Jade’s eyebrows creep closer to her hairline with every passing second.
“Yes, oh. I think it’s possible that Serket might have run home with all the troop movement up north, and besides that, I’ve been talking to the Heiress.”
“That’s war, you know. Were you planning on telling me and Dave that you were instigating war?”
“Eventually, perhaps. If everything goes to shit, it would have been too late. If everything works out, there’ll be a new Empress and neither of you would need to know.”
Jade goes a little pink.
“Well, that’s just messed up!”
“I trust you, Jade,” Rose says comfortably, leaning a little more into the water, “I trust my brother. I’m the only one out of all of us that’s any good with languages, I’m the only one besides John with a personal connection to a troll, and you’ve only just got back. It was risk war and ask forgiveness from my friends or sit back and risk war if John doesn’t come back and the lords start trouble. I do hope you’ll forgive me, but I don’t regret it.”
“Of course I forgive you, dumbass! That doesn’t mean I’m not mad at you! But you have a point.”
“I’d send someone else, but, well,” Rose says with a smirk, gesturing at herself. “It appears the Lady of Light objects to that particular course of action. Why I smell like the Anodized Brother is beyond me.”
“Anodized Brother,” Jade says, twisting her mouth and glancing upwards, “Archers, horses, ships, the self, heat, risks, surprises, stop me if I hit on something relevant, beetles, deserts, visitors, strangers, communication-”
“Truly, I’m impressed by the amount of memory you’ve dedicated to a peripheral of the official pantheon. Strangers, visitors, deserts, risks- I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Him, He hasn’t had a registered dedicant in a hundred years.”
“You’re a desert kid. Is the Lady of Light big on teamwork?”
Rose snorts. “Not in particular. The first hymn I ever memorized called her ‘ Patron goddess of lost souls and failed ventures and never in a mood to be changed’ . She’s typically depicted as merciless, bloodthirsty, selfish, and warmongering.”
“So she’s not one of the city gods then.”
“No, not really.”
“Bunch of savages out in the sand, aren’t you?”
“I suppose, by the civilized standards you’re accustomed to,” Rose says, tucking the corner of her mouth. She fought for adulthood in a pit. Jade fought her predecessor in a ritualized duel and was expected to sacrifice him. He was also her grandfather.
“Hey, rude. Okay. So you’re a troll. And you’re going to sneak into Skaia, I assume with the help of the Heiress? Could be worse.”
Lunch is, predictably, bagels and coffee. Lalonde privately thanks the pantheon it isn’t bacon and coffee. She’s rather sick of bacon.
She doesn’t leave until dark, when the weight of all the paperwork and meetings she’s ducking becomes too heavy. With a hood pulled over her fins and her weirdly large eyes half closed, she makes it to the Wall unnoticed. Captor is sitting on the floor beside her door, head tilted to the side and clearly almost asleep. How long has he been awake, to be falling asleep at night?
“Captor,” Lalonde says quietly, because his outflung leg is in the way of the door. “Captor, wake up , would you?”
He slips into wakefulness without jerking, just an increase in breathing speed and eyes sliding open. He tips his head forward, blinks rapidly, and trundles upright.
“Yeah, sorry, ma’am, just, you know, tired. Permission to speak freely?”
“Granted, I suppose.”
“Ma’am, you’re a fucking troll.”
“I can’t even begin to tell you how little I want to have this conversation again. The short version: the goddess that tried to use me as an avatar when I was a child took an interest in our plans and took it upon herself to do,” Lalonde waves a hand at herself, looking disgusted, “this.”
Captor opens his mouth. Lalonde slashes her hand through the air in front of his face.
“Not tonight. Pack and sleep. We’re leaving in six hours.”
It turns out closer to seven; Captor doesn’t wake up until Lalonde makes a startlingly loud beerk! at him and kicks the side of his cot. Captor shoots out of bed sideways, rolls, and pops up with his hands folded as if around the grip of a gun. His pupils are little pinpricks, even in the dark. Lalonde can’t be more than a shadow with long pointed horns, which is likely why he starts sparking when she moves and hurls her upside down into the air over the cot.
“Do you mind putting me down?”
“You’re remarkably calm for your blood color,” he says, sounding frazzled. Lalonde is lowered to the floor, where she sidesteps to him and presses her hand to his forehead.
“You don’t have a fever. Are you alright?’
“Yeah, tired, let it go.”
“You’ve banged my horns quite badly,” Lalonde says, somewhat more accusingly than expected, and probes her left hornbed. It’s still tender from jarring off the side of the mattress.
“You remain forgiven.”
“Oh, shut up, come on.”
They take one of the few jeeps in the city, with enough gas to double the continent, and the only one with functional air conditioning. They make it fifty miles east before Captor passes out at the wheel and Lalonde demands they park under a ruined overpass and sleep until dusk. That’s likely the reason neither of them see fifteen chimaera just around the bend of the road.
Chapter 10: and with the learned lovers of old days,
Lalonde is just beginning to relax into dreams of vivisection when she’s jerked awake by a horrendous screeching noise. Bangs accompany slight divots in the sides of the jeep. She turns, already dropping the Thorns from her sleeves, and sees Captor propped up in a half-crouch onto the backseat, eyes gone glittering and tossing off sparks thick as snowfall. The jeep flashes red and blue in time with his pulse. Lalonde presses a finger to her lips, pressing her fins to her head. Captor nods once, sharply, and tips his head to the passenger side door. Lalonde nods. He jumps the console, folding up on the seat, and jackknifes outwards with the door, landing on a chimaera even as he tears its head off with psionics.
Lalonde snaps the handle up and kicks the door open, stabbing indiscriminately outward. She catches only flashes of the next few minutes: lusus white, navy blue blood, pepper red lightning forking overhead, patches of rotting skin, crunching skull noises from a Thorn to the occipital bone. She moves faster than she ever has, bouncing on the balls of her feet and pivoting, torque and force driving the Thorns forward. The sun has started to hurt her eyes when she and Captor fist bump, surrounded by the remains of twelve chimaera. Her hands ache from driving the Thorns through bone and he looks curiously withered, like he’s burnt parts of himself away.
She licks at the back of her wrist, catching a smear of deep purple blood. It doesn’t taste like human blood. It tastes like haddock and riptides and the black depths of the Well of Horrors. Curious, she digs in with her fangs and licks again. Strange. She looks up to see Captor looking faintly queasy and they set off again without discussing it.
Lalonde is used to the desert at night. Captor is not; he’s only seen the broad sweep of stars and endless sand once before, on his trip west. At dawn, when Lalonde unfailingly jerks the jeep off the ancient tarmac and they haul blankets over the windows to block light that’s been stinging for an hour, Captor looks east: leagues and miles and decades’ worth of wandering of sand. He looks west: dunes and dunes and the far dark spires of the Lattice that pull farther away with every day. By day three, there is nothing in any direction but sand and the ribbon of road.
It’s a week and a half in when they pass the curiously wheel-shaped boulder that marks where you need to turn south for two days to reach Arceum. Lalonde goes ashy-purple-knuckled on the steering wheel, tucks her mouth, and doesn’t turn. Three days past, approaching the Alternian border, Captor starts hunching into his seat, cracking in on himself until Lalonde expects to see a pile of broken bits when she turns. Her fins blister in the heat. She turns southeast just after the border crossing, avoiding the checkpoint by less than a mile, and it’s another seven days of sand turning to grassy plain turning to sand again before they see the cliffs of Cape Ghoul, the swollen white tumescence of what Lalonde instinctively recognizes as a lusus churning far out to sea.
They hide the jeep in one of the hundreds of pockmarked caves down the cliffside and follow the paths and bumps all the way down, to where snub-nosed Feferi Peixes is pacing, hips tipping sharply on an axis in a parody of a human woman’s pelvis swing. The effect is somewhat less than sultry.
After an impatient flurry of greetings and gunfire fast questions (“are you reely a troll now, how’d that happen, sol-lux you will not make me shut up, I’ll glub at the alien all I want!”) Feferi deigns to take them to the aboveground part of her palace-hive, Lalonde corrects herself-not full of trolls in bright clothing.
“What are you wearing?” Feferi says with a hard bright edge, no preamble, in the middle of Captor’s explanation of hot water bath canning. Lalonde’s eyebrows go up. She looks down at the rather grubby greatcoat and pants she’s been swapping with two others for three weeks.
“My perfectly serviceable uniform. I must say, I don’t see why dirty wool demands such a vehement reaction. Are you going to offer me a makeover?”
Feferi’s brief look is nothing but scorn, quickly replaced with one of those lamprey grins Captor gives so often. The Empress Ascendant’s grins are a sight more threatening, and Lalonde feels her fins start to prick up.
“As if I’d dirty mykelp touching you directly! Don’t be ridiculous! I only meant that you don’t exactly look like a seadweller proper. You’re very dirty!”
Lalonde tries very, very hard not to scowl at the seamonster princess. She doesn’t succeed.
“The desert will do that to you, being as it is full of dirt and that I drove across it to help you mastermind a revolution, Princess.”
Suddenly Feferi’s grin brightens, feels like breakers hitting shore.
“We’re going to get along just fine, aren’t we?”
Lalonde deflates, fins tucked comfortably against her head, and offers Feferi a faint quirk to her mouth.
“Yes, I do think we will. I’m quite pleased to have finally met you in person.”
“You smelled just like a real troll and everything,” Feferi says, sounding absolutely delighted, “I had to be sure! Pheromones are very important, and I don’t know if Pissyblood Grumpmouth told you, but if you don’t smell right then you’re liable to be torn apart in the street.”
Her tone of voice makes this sound like a charming diversion you would offer a crying toddler.
They settle into her-well, Feferi calls it something long and hopelessly complicated, and Lalonde has an excellent memory, but it’s been a long three weeks, and it’s really just a big airy sitting room. There are squid shaped cushions scattered around and tall tyrian cuttlefish painted on each wall, with huge goofy grins and wide shiny eyes. Feferi notices Rose looking at them, shrugs when asked.
“Wriggler hives are a little dumb. I haven’t spent much time up here in a long, long time.”
Sad, that; she pictures Feferi, smaller and rounder, sunk into the cushions and dazed with opulence. Rose raps her knuckles off a cuttlefish’s eye speculatively; gold hammered into a half circle, an inch thick unless she’s missed her guess.
Captor drops onto one of the cushions, stacking the ones around him upwards until he stares out from a kingdom of squid cushions.
“I’m the squid king,” he says peaceably, which makes Rose turn suspiciously. Sure enough, his eyes are almost all the way closed.
“How long have you been keeping yourself awake?”
He shrugs, making a tentacle drop over his face.
“A while. Couple days, maybe, who knows, not me.”
Rose lifts her eyebrows, making a conscious decision to drop the subject. There’s a revolution to be planning. Feferi has tea and sugared orange peels brought up, sending the attendant back out almost as soon as he’s walked in. She spears a peel on her claws, bringing it to her mouth and eyeing it like it might be poisoned.
“What’s this?” she asks. Rose sighs, wondering if it’s her lot in life to explain fruit to poorly socialized aliens.
“It’s an orange peel. They’re not generally considered a food, never mind a snack, but things taste markedly different now, so I suppose orange peels might well be the same way.”
Rose chews contemplatively on one of the peels, on the end dipped in chocolate. It’s crunchy, about a thousand times too sweet, and the sugar feels strange on her tongue, but she eats another anyway. No sense in wasting food.
Sollux looks nearly comatose, cloth tentacles tucked around him until he might be in danger of strangulation. Tiny, lazy sparks hop from his horns every few minutes. Rose and Feferi proceed to ignore him completely.
Feferi watches Rose eat the peels suspiciously, then very slowly puts it in her mouth and chews. She spits it out onto the floor not a second later.
“Somewhat, yes. I think I may need to brush my teeth.”
“Brushing teeth,” Feferi says, like it’s the name of some exotic animal with fifteen legs. She puts a bizarre trill onto the br-, so it souns like brrrrrrrrrrushing.
“Humans use a, a very small brush with fine plastic bristles and vigorously scrub their teeth with them.”
Feferi makes a face. No doubt this is a horrid concept.
“Humans are so strange.”
“Yes, we-they are.”
They talk for an hour or so, nothing more than pleasantries and cultural cross-pollination, and certainly nothing about changing the border of their countries into a theater of war. Rose is sure Feferi didn’t wake up tonight expecting to learn twenty two years’ worth of stories about Dave. Rose didn’t wake up tonight expecting to learn nineteen years’ worth of stories about Eridan, whoever he is; apparently he is spoiled and arrogant and vain, but sweet and capable of startling kindnesses. Feferi is wholly unselfconscious, spends minutes at a time talking so fast about Skaia or Gl’golyb that she doesn’t breathe and has to stop to gasp. Rose learns she can control all those stupid seadweller noises, things Captor wouldn’t have known how to do, like seal her gills down to help her lung pressure and the rasping hackle-raising noise to drive away sharks.
Trolls, as strange as they can be and even with their insistence on using their non-sentient young in food products, are no more and no less than people. Rose knew this, of course, but before last summer she was a personal acquaintance with a total of zero trolls. Now she is a troll and is speaking to trolls in their own language and is on first name terms with the troll heiress. It’s startling to look back at herself in the springtime and realize she hadn’t the faintest idea what would come.
At one point the conversation lulls and Feferi and Rose look at each other and know what they should be talking about. It’s been long enough already.
“Come with me, I have a surprise,” Feferi says firmly, cutting Rose off as she opens her mouth. Feferi calls the attendant back in, shoves the plate of orange peels into his arms, and directs him to watch Sollux v-ery clos-ely! in case he freaks out and tears the hive apart or something. The attendant’s face goes positively brown but he sits down on a squid cushion, careful to keep his goal rack of horns tilted away from the pile next to him. He’s chewing carefully on a peel when they leave.
They take to the stairs that wind through the center of the hive, deep down into the parts that are flooded and lit with fluorescents, taking hallways that bend towards the coastline and rise, until they come out onto a cliff just above the water, with a bell curve dug into the bottom to hold the hive’s water from flooding into the tide. Rose looks at Feferi, struggling not to step off the edge. Her hands fidget with her dirty pants. Feferi grins, strips down, and jumps. Rose dithers for a moment, taking her time with her buttons. She never learned to swim; there’s no space in a desert village’s water allotment for pools or ponds.
She sits on the edge, dangling her feet, and drops.
Rose slides into the water sleek as an eel, twists to look up at the moonlight reflecting off the surface. She sinks slowly on the currents, cold and sweet, gills working easy as anything. Water pressure is negligible this close to the surface, but turning face down erases the illusion of shallow water. Her pupils must be blown as wide as her sclera, and much as she’d like to see what it looks like, the water below is a black open cathedral. The deeps call.
Rose pushes how far she can go, angling down and around the cliff, back towards the safe side of Cape Ghoul until she rests on her stomach on the seabed four hundred feet below the surface. Gl’bgolyb is never far away in Black Harbor, ringing the entire bay and most of Cape Ghoul, but near Rose there are only a few of the smaller lappets and the huge white blur of her body miles away. Rose is comforted by the lusus’ presence. She wonders if that’s a troll thing; but then, minus all the water, the seabed isn’t all that different from where she grew up, and Gl’bgolyb is very much a mother’s presence, for all that she’s an emissary from the Well of Horrors. How did she become the Imperial Mother, Rose thinks, sluggish with the taste of salt, was a sacrifice sent into the bathypelagic depths? Why would she return?
Rose lingers, then forces herself to surface. She isn’t startled by a seadweller’s devotion to the ocean until she breaches and slides down to her back, splintering the moonlight into waves and eddies. She doesn’t want to surface, she doesn’t want to breathe air with her mouth. Her lungs are still de-pressurized and breathing hurts. She stops treading, only sinks a few inches, but it stops hurting and she immediately relaxes.
“Neutral buoyancy,” Feferi says, when she’s kicked her way up to where Rose is, pulling her hair up close with a deft flick of her head. Rose wonders why if the Lady of Light were going to go to , the effort of changing her species down to the molecular level, why not go the extra mile and give her the same absurdly long hair as every troll woman she’s seen? Her hair is a quarter inch longer at the outside. Goddesses. Such lazy beings.
“It feels very strange.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Feferi pauses, blinks, “Oh, yeah, I guess it might for you!”
“Very astute of you, Princess.”
“You’re an ass-toot.”
Rose snorts helplessly and they both break into laughter for a solid minute.
“So,” Feferi says later, when they’re drifting back towards shore, “there are some things we need to hash out.”
It’s unpleasant business, engineering revolution, but out this far there’s no one to hear them and it’s as safe as it’s likely to get. It takes very little time, much less than Rose would have expected, but then, they’re both hoping it won’t come to actual war. Serket hasn’t come to the city, but the Alternian intelligence network didn’t come by its reputation for nothing, and Feferi swears on her lusus’s life that she’ll trade help for help. Rose thinks that might be a bit unfair; Feferi gets no help beyond a human and a lowblood, while Rose will get all the power at Feferi’s fingertips, but Feferi brushes it off. The plan is simple: the Empress is, somewhat coincidentally, having a ball. It is expected the Heiress will be in attendance, with the trial order on hold for the occasion, and certainly no one will notice a quiet handmaid in her wake. Halfway through the morning, when the meal is served, Feferi will challenge the Empress to open combat.
She takes this chance with the full understanding that Rose and Sollux will be contributing in ways that absolutely cannot be noticed; if anyone suspects the Heiress won with outside intervention, the throne is forfeit to her and a council will take over until the next tyrian grub Ascends. Rose isn’t sure Sollux understands unobtrusive. She isn’t sure the Lady will respond if she calls. There are too many variables and too many things that hinge on luck, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and John must be found as soon as possible. He’s the city’s conduit to the Lord and Lady. The rivers can only flow backward for so long.
If Mekhit would respond to hails on the comm, things might be different.
Eighteen hundred miles north, Mekhit Nawn sits on a couch in a freezing cold cottage, staring over the dinner table at the Lord Archon himself and struggling with the urge to strangle him. To her left is none other than Vriska Serket, and to her right is a tiny fairy bull lusus.
“Why won’t either of you listen to me?” she asks, pulling Tinkerbull into her lap and running her fingers through his fur. He makes a happy trilling noise.
“Because the things you’re saying are fucking stupid!” Vriska spits. Mekhit is beginning to think Vriska is not particularly fond of her. The Archon reaches out and pats Vriska hand.
“Mekhit has a point, Vriska. Hanging out with you has been fun and all but I do have a country to run.”
“But if you leave then I’ll have to kidnap you again.”
“Vriska you don’t need to kidnap people to make friends,” Mekhit says in one long breath, trying hard not to screech. It’s an admirable effort, although one that doesn’t succeed.
“It’s not called making friends if you want to date them, though,” Lord Archon says pensively, narrowing his eyes in thought. “I think that might just be kidnapping.”
“It’s not called dating if it’s quadrants,” Vriska points out, still looking somewhat enraged but speaking at a normal pace.
“And it isn’t quadrants if it’s with a human, and therefore, you can’t keep him with you. Decency laws! He has to come back with me,” Mekhit says firmly. She hopes Vriska can’t tell she’s making it up as she goes along. Vriska purses her mouth.
“What the hell do decency laws mean in the wilderness?”
“Vriska,” Mekhit says, scratching the back of her head, “do you even know what humans eat? Look at him. He looks like you’ve been feeding him rice and beetles.”
“Actually,” Lord Archon says, strangely cheerful, “that is what I’ve been eating. Never really thought to question it, I thought it was some weird troll thing.”
“Maybe it is some weird troll thing!”
“Vriska, what if you just came back to the city with me?” Archon suggests. Mekhit turns a murderous look on him and is soundly ignored.
“Well...I guess I could do that, if you really wanted me to,” Vriska says with a heavy sigh, “It would keep me from having to kidnap you again. But Tavros!”
Mekhit wants to strangle her eightfold more with every instant longer she holds the a in Tavros.
“He can come, too,” Mekhit says sharply, cutting off the Archon and earning herself a dirty look. “Plenty of space for everyone! Everyone is welcome in Consequence City. Can I please have my comm back now?”
The Captain doesn’t pick up when Mekhit hails her, but she isn’t worried. Captain Lalonde can handle anything the world might throw at her. While Serket is somehow communicating with her moirail across the continent, Crow, Croc, Casey, An Yan, Stone Wall, Lord Archon, and Mekhit pack everyone’s things, and after what seems like an eternity they set off in the cold for Consequence City.
Captor dreams in little more than fragments. He smelled sopor before he fell asleep, which he had hoped would help with his proximity to the Well of Horrors. It doesn’t. His nightmares are brilliant, color and sound; there are the usual horrible things, the honeycomb land and the voices screaming death. And then the remembrance begins, jumping from minute to minute like he’s reliving it and blacking out. This is what happened in Black Harbor: the uprising that locked the Heiress in Cape Ghoul, Makara’s psychotic break, a mercy kill from fifty feet in the air. Karkat screamed like a wriggler at the culling fields. Everything else is blurred or forgotten, but he knows at dawn Black Harbor had choked with bodies thick enough to walk from Cape Ghoul to Anaphylaxis.
More than half died of the hemorrhage typical of a psionic losing control. For this, he was given enough Imperial honors to bludgeon a woolly tuskbeast and put on a sweep’s leave.
Maryam said in front of the cameras that she’d never been so proud of an agent; blistering in the sunlight, he had sat with her in her garden at noon and they’d screamed themselves hoarse and then it was supposed to be forgiven and forgotten. Psionics are unstable. It’s a cradle lesson, something the stupidest grubs know.
He’d deserted not thirty six hours later.
It took him a quarter-sweep to work his way to Consequence City, the dazzle in the wasteland horizon. It was the first time he’d ever seen a human in person, never mind the fifteen or tewenty hybrids scatter around. For the first time in two sweeps not everyone towered over him.
He met Rose Lalonde, and things changed, and kept changing, and still change to the moment he scream himself awake. There’s a crash in the dark, the flare of his psionics like a burst of summer lightning, and muffled swearing nearby. He smells another troll, seadweller, young, fresh out the water. He goes to throw the intruder, but it fizzles out with the pain in his head and pulls into a crackly halo overhead. There are fingers on his forehead, highblood cold and dripping sea water in his mouth.
“Calm down,” someone hisses, voice distorted so it takes him a second to recognize Lalonde, “Please stop trying to kill me, if you would be so kind.”
“As a personal favor,” he says, or tries to, but his words come out as a gaspy whine. He clears his throat and manages to actually use his voice.
“That’s all I ask,” she says. Her hands pull away, make little uncomfortable shifts in the air current, then pat at his cheeks. “Shush. Is your moirail in Skaia?”
“No. No, orbit.”
Her surprise is an audible noise, fins popping out. He was surprised himself to learn Alternia had achieved orbit.
“Oh, well,” she says, “Then I suppose you’ll have to make do with me.”
She pulls him palm to palm, pressing their foreheads together until his little halo crackles into static and fades. No stickiness of sopor; the sun can’t have been up long if she hasn’t been to sleep.
“Why is it so dark?” he asks, and then his inner eyelids shutter open and he can make out a bit of light.
“We’re a mile underground and the nearest lamp is sixty feet down the hall on the opposite side of a closed door.”
“I should have figured that out.”
“Longer u sound,” he says, “More like shoosh.”
It smells like cool air and dirt, with the faint tang of salt of a sea dweller. Karkat smells like hot peppers, and all this coolness is doing exactly nothing to calm Sollux. His pulse starts to jump. After Black Harbor he spent a lot of time in basements.
Rose pulls her hands back after more useless patting, folding them in her lap as she sits back upright.
“You’re too cold,” he says, “Highblood cool. I can’t pretend.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, and means it, “I have no interest in displacing your moirail.”
“He’d kill you,” he says, and means it. “He’d hunt you down and kill you. KK isn’t so good at letting things go until he doesn’t want them anymore.”
“What is he like?”
“Loud, smart enough to not be stupid.”
“What’s the cutoff for stupid?”
She sounds amused. He shrugs, not caring if it’s visible.
“Right about at KK.”
He reaches out until he bumps her elbow and hunts for her hand.
“Oh,” she says, “That’s my breast. If you’d condescend to explain your aimless exploration of my chest?”
“Hand? Five-split skin-dorsaled gripping apparatus?”
His tone indicates he has no idea what a breast is or why he shouldn’t be touching it. Rose lifts his hand off her collarbone and holds it like she would a large hideous bug.
“You appear to have located it admirably well,” she says drily, “Hands do not sprout from the clavicle ridge.”
“Oh, yeah, thanks.”
“You remain welcome.”
He follows her arm until he finds her side and folds himself up close enough to cool his head. He feels punchy with exhaustion and headache.
“Are you purring?” Rose asks.
“Is that a problem?”
“Not at all.”
It is, in fact, precious. Rose is pretty sure he’s asleep again in five minutes. Slowly, carefully, she relaxes, fumbling for the squid she’d hauled down, tucks it under her head and lies down, pulling Captor with her. There’s much and more to do, but this seems as important as anything.
Chapter 11: and with your love, you wander ever-more
i was gonna keep going but then i realized if i did it would all have been more in-depth discussion of troll religion
i also meant to change Rotisserie Chicken's name to an actual good carapace name but i got attached
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Humans broke their own pantheon into little splinters! I don’t want to know what any of you could come up with if pressed.”
Lalonde sighs, pressing the rim of her mug against her lip until it pinches.
"Some things don't have to make sense. In this case it's probably better if it doesn't. I imagine our minds would crumble like tinfoil if we ever tried to conceptualize God.”
“The splinters are bad enough. I can’t imagine trying to combine the mythologies of the Bright Lady and Aphotic Trine.”
“No one even worships the Aphotic Trine anymore, Captor. They split into the Lord of Shade and Songmaker more than six hundred years ago at the inside. Do try and keep up.”
“Our human culture lessons aren’t always the most accurate,” he says, and it’s the closest that particular sentence will come to an admission of subpar education.
The freight cart creaks and jerks forward; Lalonde balances the mug with one hand until the cart settles. She sips her tea, careful not to spill. It’s not long before they’ve crossed Skaia and Lalonde is helped out of the cart by an extremely tall indigo with a thin line of paint around the edge of his face. Captor is left to jump the side and trail behind.
The coliseum has nearly six hundred rows of seats. As a member of the nautical aristocracy, Lalonde is sent to a podium overlooking the immum, although Captor is only brought along after a heated argument with the teal guard. The battle is a disappointment by Alternian standards; neither competitor dies. Plenty of blood is spilled, enough to prevent a riot.
Lalonde only half watches, idly sipping from her mug. One hand dangles over the side of her chair. Captor sits cross-legged on the cement with his chin propped in one hand, eyes shut and one ear turned towards the coliseum floor. The tip of it flickers with each roar of the crowd, and Lalonde wonders at his muscle control, until she remembers how easy it is to move the tines of her fins. She misses having ears. She misses Consequence City and dry air. In Skaia, the humidity is nearly unbearable, even for a seadweller.
Mekhit’s message didn’t change things as she might have hoped. They’re sticking to the reckless, haphazard plan of three days ago. The only difference is now it’s because Feferi is pushing for tighter relations with human territory, and Lalonde can’t risk it coming to war the other way around. Strider and John and Jade would never forgive her, for one.
Thus began Lalonde’s whirlwind tour of highblood society: the literally-named Amaranthine Balls, the insistence on the usage of their young in everything possible, pilgrimage to the Well of Horrors (standing on the edge of a mile wide gap in the earth, down to the core, full of screaming ancient horrors, more elriche than eldritch), the lusus pens and the stink of shit and dirt. She’d never felt more out of place, more alien, than surrounded by freaks of nature and tall highbloods with their tiny libertii clinging to their coats. She’d also never felt more in her own skin than when surrounded by the strange white beats; so many permutations, such variety, so unbelievable that such different bodily systems could work together. Lalonde was particularly drawn to a tiny scorpion with the slender body of an eel and a dozen needle-sized gill slits down its back.
It took a deal of wrangling and rather unsubtle references to her connections, but the Heiress is still widely adored in Skaia. For that, Lalonde wears a cameo at the base of her throat, mother-of-pearl carved into an opalescent scorpion with stinger upraised.
Lalonde wonders about the libertii; the name comes from freed slaves, where the term patron would certainly fit, but why refer to little trolls as the freed? Freed from the drudgery of life without a patron, perhaps.
There’s a slight pressure against the calf flung over the seat, making her pants rustle; Captor, eyes glazed, tossing sparks like a hailstorm. If his mouth were pinched shut she’d call it a headache and leave it at that. It looks like he’s having a nightmare.
Lalonde looks down at the coliseum, sees the indigoes in the immum wearing facepaint, and stands. Definitely time to leave. Captor drifts sideways, mumbling something about sunlight, so she grips his bicep and half directs, half bodily forces him down the stairs. It’s a hell of a trip across the city, Lalonde in brightly colored silks and Captor in a baggy sackman’s uniform. He stumbles and every single time he puts off a tiny dart of color that hits Lalonde like a broken bottle to the forearm.
Left on Murder Street, cross to Keelhaul Boulevard, up the seawall stairs, down the other side, splash across the bay, bang on the door until one of the tiny insectile butlers opens it; Captor trips on the stairs and rolls down them into the bay, chokes noisily on the water, vomits it up on poor Rotisserie Chicken. Rotisserie Chicken makes a distressed noise and directs them into the kitchen.
“Poor bastard,” Lalonde says with a sigh, patting Captor’s back in circles, watching the carapaces fuss among themselves. After much frenzied cicada chirping, Rotisserie Chicken is bundled into a cauldron with about a hundred gallons of water and another carapace bustles off and comes back with the attendant from Cape Ghoul. He has to turn sideways to fit through the door.
“Really,” he’s saying, “I have to leave, HK! I’ve, uh, been dismissed and anyway, it’s my day off.”
HK chitters. The attendant goes brown, looks at Lalonde and Captor, goes more brown.
“Oh no,” he says, “Oh, I wasn’t, uh, supposed to run into you two again.”
“Who the hell are you?” Lalonde asks, since Captor is busy retching up every meal he’s ever eaten and spending the time between heaves with loud barking coughs. The carapace holding the bin is looking a little nauseous himself. The attendant tries to shuffle sideways but his horns catch on the cabinet.
“Uh,” he says again. Lalonde is sensing a pattern. His eyes are like to pop out of his head if he doesn’t close them. “Yeah. Tavros Nitram? Shit. You do, uh, know me..”
“Yes, I certainly do. Your moirail is Vriska Serket,” Lalonde says, tipping her hand forward to press her knuckles against Captor spine. He makes a quiet pleased noise, hunching down to put his head between his knees.
“Right, yeah, only she’s, uh, sort of out of the country, in case you were hoping to, uh, see her or, I guess, otherwise involve yourselves.”
“My name is Rose Lalonde,” she says flatly, watching his face drop. “Your moirail is currently being taken to Consequence City in chains, where she will face the consequences of her actions. The city is rather aptly named. She is accompanied by my Lord Archon and several of my soldiers. He’s my best friend, Nitram, and she would have taken him.”
“Uh, sorry?” he tries. “Vriska really kind of, well, she does what she’s going to do, and she’s louder than me, and, uh, I didn’t have legs at the time, so I’m really very sorry that I couldn’t interfere.”
“She cut them off.”
In answer to this, Nitram hikes up the leg of his pants, revealing glossy interleaving metal. Lalonde is impressed by the detail of the work. There are thread-thin bronze whorls across the entire surface and when he moves they flicker like a new penny. It’s even proportionate.
“Well,” your legs are lovely, and it’s an acceptable reason.” Lalonde allows that it may be difficult to prevent something if you don’t have legs.
“Thank you? I’m sorry for, uh, my moirail’s behavior. Can I, is it okay. Should I come back with you? She said she was going but not that you were too.”
“I suppose you’re as capable as anyone else of controlling her,” Lalonde says with a sigh and leans back over Captor. He’s feverish, but not retching, and his eyes are as bright and strange as ever.
“You said you knew what happened in Black Harbor,” Captor says, looking slightly to the left of Lalonde. Perhaps he isn’t as coherent as all that.
“No, you don’t, you sad stupid bitch, none of you do, I’m the only one that got out, do you understand me?”
Lalonde dismisses Nitram entirely and slaps Captor across the face. His cheeks go an angry color like egg yolk in a cement mixer but his expression of dazed righteous fury is unchanged.
“Are you even awake?”
“Listen to me. Makara did an acrobatic fucking pirouette off the handle and I slaughtered him and three thousand of his clowns and KK screeched himself hoarse and I didn’t care.”
His voice hasn’t risen but he starts to gasp.
“I knew that, Captor.”
“I still don’t care.”
“They locked me up. I tried to die. I didn’t.”
“The Mage came to me in the night and spoke such words as I had never heard and they were-”
“Finest children stepping into the sunlight and opening their what the fuck am I saying?”
Nitram has fled; the carapaces are long gone. A pot clatters to the floor. Lalonde drops to a crouch so she’s on eye level with Nitram and jabs him firmly in the throat with the side of her hand.
“Ouch, what the shit! I stopped talking nonsense, you didn’t need to physically cut if off, Lalonde.”
“Oh, excellent, you’re awake this time.”
“What? Why does my cheek hurt?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. Perhaps you hit something? You have a bit of a bruise, I think.”
Captor gives her a suspicious look, pressing gently on the bruise. Lalonde’s never thought about it much, but his eyes really are sort of incredible.
“Sure, sure, don’t know anything about it. Do you remember the last five minutes? Do you fuck,” Captor says. He sounds like he’s five seconds from having a tantrum. Lalonde turns and puts the kettle on the stove; if they’re going to have a conversation about direct holy intervention they’re damn well having it with hot chocolate and milk. Captor moves from the floor to sitting on the edge of the trestle table, where his legs dangle well off the floor. He doesn’t offer to help with the cocoa, but the powder floats itself into the cups, and he takes the mug gratefully.
“So. The Mage? Which one’s that?”
“I don’t know the words,” he says, pausing, then realizes they’re both speaking Alternian and he doesn’t have to translate, “so, yeah, I do know the words, genius here. He’s sort of like your, your, what is it, help me here, the brother one, we don’t have the word.”
“Yeah, thanks, that was English, big fucking help, but anyway, he was real big around a hundred years ago, mostly faded out, but he’s decently well known up north still.”
“And you’re from north?”
“Yeah, went to Novem Saewel soon’s I left the cavern, fell in with one of the grub communes up there.”
Lalonde elects not to question grub communes.
“I was to the Mage what you were to your Blessed fuckin’ Lady, the whole,” he waves the hand not holding the mug but slops cocoa all over himself anyway, “mortal body thing.”
“My lady made a desert and called it peace. What’s the connection here?”
“Listen to yourself, she made a desert, you’re from a desert, I think that’s about as clear a connection as you’re going to find between yourself and an omnipotent mother goddess. Mage, though, he walks among us, walks the Long Ten and the byways and seawalls, he knows everything we have.”
“And you do as well?”
“Not hardly,” he pauses to flash a lamprey grin, “but I did work in information.”
“Ab ovo femina lux,” Lalonde says, words as familiar as her own name though it’s been years since she said her prayers, “Morituri te salutant aeramen frater. From the beginning the Lady has been there and was there and will be there, she set us to movement with a spool of silver thread and calls us home in the Long Night with a whistle upon her flute. The dead salute you, bronze brother, for you guide them as your own and you quiet their fears and you keep their secrets.”
“Pretty, but what’s it mean?”
“Means maybe the Brother and the Mage have more in common than we think. Death, correct? That is the major duty of the Mage?”
“Well, travel, but yes, might as well be.”
“It is for the Brother as well. I was taught that he guides the dead to the river,” Lalonde says, trying to remember what she can of her childhood lessons. It’s hard to be forced into contact with meta-human forces.
“So are you saying that the human and Alternian pantheons may as well be the same thing because there’s overlap?”
“No, I’m saying there’s overlap and maybe that’s why you came to Consequence City.”
“I came to Consequence City because Maryam couldn’t stand the sight of me after Black Harbor.”
“I have very little doubt that you lack the patience to have waited that out.”
“You doubt wrongly then.”
“Do you believe in free will?”
“Well,” Captor says, spreading his arms wide, “did you choose to swap species mid rest cycle? Did I choose to be a race traitor and end up in the same damn place I wanted to avoid for the rest of my life? Can’t say I did, Lalonde!”
“You deny that you’ve ever made a choice.”
“I deny that those choices weren’t directed by something ahead of me. It’s frankly impossible.”
“Lalonde, we live in a world where the gods our shitty ancestors believed in are not only real and kicking, they take a vested interest in the lives of their, their pets, I don’t know, how do you even begin to compare yourself to something that is everywhere and every time at once? Doom is a very real thing.”
“I was taught that our choices are our own.”
“Can you make a choice if the power to give a choice is only assumed? You don’t know for sure, Lalonde, that’s the point, you don’t know if it’s you or your Lady or some bitch Friday or Clockwork’s god awful intervention.”
Lalonde sighs, working her shoulders in circles.
“That’s the truth of everything, isn’t it? You don’t know anything for sure. How depressing.”
“Do what you can with what you’ve got, I guess.”
Captor sips his cocoa, looking pensive, and scratches the base of one horn.
“Sorry,” he says eventually, clearly reluctant, “Didn’t mean to go castin’ aspersion on your beliefs or lack of or whatever.”
Lalonde sits on the table’s bench, pulling one leg under her. She leans her head on Captor’s knee, careful not to gut him with her horns.
“I want to go home,” she says. “There is, of course, no way to go backwards, and I do so love to be in the thick of things. But right now there is very little I would not trade for my own bed.”
“I wish-nevermind, that was hideously maudlin. Everything will work out. That’s not a platitude if it’s a fact.”
“What, can you see the future?”
“Sometimes, yeah. Psychic shit is a lot more common than anyone lets on.”
“It’s sort of like an interference field. Lot of leftover psychic activity, especially if you’re sensitive to it. Whole city’s hopping.”
Rose feels a bit nauseated by that. Leftover how?
“Did I ever tell you how my mother left Consequence City?”
‘Mother’ is one of the words without a translation, but there’s a rough analogue from human contact.
Rose wonders if he looks as confused as he sounds.
“She had the regrettable tendency to raise portals into the Well of Horrors when she got upset. The Church of Light was understandably displeased with the holes to hell in the streets and she was excommunicated. They called her Roly, bastardized from Roxy Lalonde. You probably heard the name around.”
“So’s that why you almost ended up a god puppet?”
“Yes, essentially. I suppose it was an apt punishment, even though she didn’t raise hell on purpose.”
“Intention is worth, oh, nothing.”
Lalonde gives him a side eye.
“That is my mother you’re talking about.”
“I don’t have the same emotional connection to that word.”
“Right, alien,” she says with a sigh.
“I don’t think I’m still considered an alien if we moved our entire civilization here.”
“Well, tell your civilization it’s flattering but you’re all more trouble than you’re worth.”
Lalonde rolls her shoulder until it cracks and sets her empty mug on the table. She checks the time out the window; she can’t tell an exact hour/minute, but she can tell it’s somewhere around two or three am. The aptly-named Constellatus is only visible between two and three at this time of year. She leaves Captor with his religious musings and takes the stairs down into the bay, neutral buoyancy holding her flat-foot to the steps, and through a bubble-shaped hallway. There are two retina checks, pupils contracting hard against the penlight, a DNA run, then a clearance scan, all automated, before she even stands in Feferi’s foyer. There are floodlights hidden in the aerators, scrubbing all the shadows clean away, and the water tastes of hard salt.
She’s ushered in by a midblood nearly as tall as she is, teal eyes bright over her bizarrely organic-looking respirator. Lalonde assumes the teal is an attendant, and is surprised when the teal sits sullenly back on a cushion and then a swarm of much smaller trolls, high enough to have rudimentary gills and simple rebreathers, heralds the arrival of Feferi with her hair gathered up in both arms like a sacrificial offering.
“I am sick to death of geniuses!” Feferi declares, sounding like nothing so much as a furious toddler, sending the teal on the cushion a sharp sideways glance. The teal shrugs at Lalonde.
“You’re the one asked me for underwater breathing, Heiress, can’t pin the tail on this bleating ass.”
“This is Thiole Ruunam, Mistress of Tech, although maybe not for much longer with that mouth.”
Ruunam doesn’t seem to care for this very much, scowling and resting her head against the wall on her curiously large horns. They’re shaped like scalene triangles, the third side’s points poking up seven inches past her head in an X. Her voice sounds hollow through the respirator.
“Anyway, point is, it should work on a pissblood, it’s just a bit horrible tasting, whatever,” Ruunam says, standing and weaving through the attendants to the door. “It won’t kill it, anyway.”
With that, she’s gone.
“Where do you find these people, Heiress? I simply must get one for myself,” Lalonde says, feeling like she’s been caught in a strong gust of wind, and sitting on the cushion Ruunam left. The surface of it is strange, waterproof fabric and stuffing. It doesn’t have the right amount of give to be a cushion.
“She’s very unpleasant, please don’t even joke.”
“What’s she talking about, though? For a pissblood?”
Lalonde finds it startlingly easy to ignore the attendants, even when three of them wriggle between her and the wall and start working their fingers through her hair. She isn’t sure she’s combed it in a few days.
“I wanted her to make a rebreather for your moray-eel,” Feferi says brightly, though Lalonde is sure the lie hits her somewhere. Feferi is very fond of Vantas and Captor both. The story is, though, that Captor is Lalonde’s moirail, because there were very few other ways to get him into the banquet and Imperial quadrant-bearers are public knowledge. If Lalonde were on the city census records she’d have had her own invitation, and it wasn’t hard to fake one.
“Oh, it’s underwater then?”
Lalonde looks at Feferi.
“Did you just substitute coarse for course?”
“I did! Is it an issue?”
“I would never presume to tell you to do otherwise.”
Feferi grins, wide and cheerful, and Lalonde begins to think that maybe they won’t all die tonight.
i have such abrupt endings
Chapter 12: in the dim woods, and drink forgetfulness
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Are you sure that’s Rose?”
John shifts around in his chair, squinting at the troll on the comm screen. She certainly looks a lot like Rose, even sounds a lot like Rose, if Rose had fins instead of ears and unsettlingly long teeth. She sort of looks like a grumpy vampire with needle-shaped horns. Maybe she’s a troll woman who got plastic surgery. He can never really tell, with aliens, because they might be able to shape shift. John has never had much to do with Alternians directly. He guesses that probably isn’t a very good excuse for not knowing if the aliens in the next country can shapeshift.
“I see you’ve completed your journey, hopefully with all your faculties intact.”
John’s question was directed at Mekhit and Dave, who are now giving him almost identical looks of dismay and are you fucking serious, man. Jade, on the next screen over, makes a noise that is roughly equivalent to the faces.
“I’m fine! Promise. But is everyone actually sure that’s Rose?”
“Yes, John,” is the general consensus. Captor pokes his horns up into the bottom of Rose’s screen and makes like he’s going to butt in until Rose bends over and mutters something. The horns vanish. Rose straightens.
“I assure you, John, it’s me,” she says with a contented smile, “When you were at Flagship your professor said ‘The omniscient have no need for beliefs and no room for delusion’ and then you were worried he was a manifestation of the Lord of Shade sent to torment you into getting an adequate education.”
“I was fifteen,” John says, grinning back. “Okay, it’s Rose. Mystery solved, everyone.”
“Fifteen-year-old John could have saved us all a hell of a lot of fuss if he’d been able to stitch his mouth shut like some kind of grotesque clown,” Dave says, but his shades are up on his hair and he can’t be too upset. Mekhit snorts, a little reluctantly. Captor’s horns pop into the screen again, Rose throwing up an arm to prevent him from shoving his way fully into view.
“That was culturally fucking insensitive,” he shouts, sounding tinny and distant though he can’t be more than a few inches from the speaker. Could be his psionics giving off interference, John thinks.
“Please, tell me more about your preposterous fucking culture when it couldn’t be less relevant.”
Captor retreats, muttering something about wheat fields. Rose sighs heavily, still smiling. John doesn’t think he’s seen her smile this long since everyone was at Flagship, before adulthood ground them into Consequence City’s rivets instead of aluminum alloy. Then he realizes none of them were ever really children at all, not in expectations or behavior, and certainly none of them were particularly malleable.
“Can we please get back on subject,” Mekhit drawls, doesn’t phrase it as a question. She almost sounds like Dave when he’s irritated. “We have things to be doing. Captain, Builder, Lord Archon. Polemarch. Please focus.”
“You really didn’t need to address anyone by title there,” John points out. He tries not to wince when she turns the flattest look he’s ever seen in his direction. She must have been taking lessons from Rose in all that time as her assistant. He’s pretty sure she hisses “you didn’t really need to exist” under her breath.
“The lords are rioting in the streets,” Jade says brightly after a few seconds of uncomfortable staring. “Well, they’re not, because that would just be undignified, but they have people rioting in the streets. They’re really not very happy you’ve been gone, John.”
“I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“They really don’t care. It’s not now. The rivers are the right way round again, though.”
Rose rests her chin on her hand, watching her friends on the screens and smiling. She wonders why she ever questioned the pantheon’s patronage of Consequence City. Captor sits on the floor beside her chair, intently reading a tablet about bremsstrahlung or some other opaque science bullshit and occasionally shoving his head up under her hand when he tries to shift and forgets there’s a chair beside him. Everyone is alive and if not together, at least able to see each other. It seems a very long time since the four of them were able to sit under the Greenry and bargain away secrets.
“You’re leaking psychic energy again,” Captor says without looking up from his tablet. Rose lifts a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose in exasperation.
“I’m sorry if it’s disturbing you. I wish I could do something about it.”
“There are more distracting things about you,” he says, ears pricking up, “I could make a slideshow. I’ve spent my whole life dealing with psychic bullshit, remember?”
“Yes, I remember, although I doubt much of it was supernatural in nature.”
“Don’t think it gets much more supernatural than mutants.”
“I suspect divine intervention that ends with one throwing off psychic interference like a badly tuned radio is a shade more supernatural than mutants.”
Captor’s connection holds for another forty five minutes, pleasantly spent discussing how they might dismantle the entire House of Lords on everyone’s return and whether they should bother with assassination. It’s eventually decided they would do well to marshall the Wall to protect the people who have been hiding in their apartments and let the lords fizzle themselves out before marching on Flagship, where the lords themselves have been holding the academics-at-arms and the professors hostage.
“What I want to know is how a bunch of jumped up fat gasbags managed to not only overwhelm Flagship but hold Flagship. I admire the balls it took to take on the academics-at-arms,” Strider says, “Must be roughly the size of the planet. They’re Alternian clown messiahs level of terrifying. Battleship Condescension levels. Using your non-sentient young as condiments levels.”
“Okay, you can stop, douchebag,” Captor hollers from behind Lalonde’s chair. Strider very carefully snickers quietly enough that Captor can’t hear it over the speaker.
“I guess they got someone to go through the interference shielding,” Harley offers, “Ronan thinks that they had someone on the inside.”
Everyone pauses at the idea, then coughs over their laughter. As if someone could have bribed an academic-at-arms. They’re all intimately familiar with the academics-at-arms. No man is an island, unless he’s a Flagship warrior. Any two, even the half-trained children, could hold off Lalonde’s entire corps without breaking a sweat. Strider, who at Flagship had been a right little ass to everyone around him, and John, who was generally an irrepressible prankster, had been on their absolute best possible behavior around the green shirts. Consequence City is the best-defended city in central desert between the Polemarch’s armies, the Wall, and Flagship.
“Right, plausible,” Mekhit says. “If that meant not even remotely. I didn’t get a fancy Church-funded education or anything-”
“Congratulations on not sounding bitter, Nawn,” Strider says.
“Thank you Polemarch Dickeater,” Mekhit spits, bouncing from amused to irritated and back in a second. Lalonde supposes that spending so much time with John would have erased Mekhit’s illusions about those in power, and Mekhit was never a particular fan of Strider.
“You wound me.”
“Would you both shut up?” John asks, laughing.
“Sir, yes, sir, Lord Archon.”
Mekhit goes sullen-quiet, but there’s a saucy tilt to her mouth.
Lalonde settles back into her chair, resting an elbow on Captor’s head. His hair is thick, springy.
“Is there an issue?”
The goodbyes are tearful, as expected, but they’ll all be together soon. No one mentions what will happen if Feferi doesn’t win.
The conference room Captor and Lalonde are in isn’t far underground, still above sea level. Captor trails behind as he always does when there are trolls around, falls automatically to step. It’s disturbing in a way Lalonde can’t begin to categorize, nuances to this society that she can’t pin down, that such an arrogant man would take the obeisant place without a word of protest.
It’s coming on to four am now and they’re expected by dawn. They stop on a landing, water at ankle depth, to attach Ruunam’s rebreather: the vaguely seaweed shaped tendrils that go down the throat to worm into his pulmonary system, the complex mesh fitted to the mouth, all the little metal bits and weird organic bits that need to be connected. Captor inhales once, chokes.
“Focus, breathe slower.”
Captor chokes again, sending the rebreather into wheezing noises, convulses, and drops backwards off the stairs into the water. Lalonde sighs and splashes down after him, catching him round the chest with her forearm and holding him in place until the rebreather figures itself out. Air bubbles rise quicksilver from the mesh and Captor relaxes.
“It’s almost like she needed to make it as difficult as possible,” Lalonde says as they resume going down the stairs to Feferi’s personal courtyard.
“Sounds like Ruunam,” he says, sounding strained, and then has to be pulled down by the back of his shirt. He touches down on his toes like a ballerina, bounces off, and has to be pulled to the steps again. “She didn’t get a court appointment before I left, but she’s been solidly well-known in midblood circles for her shipwright work. Young, too, I think around eight, maybe nine, not sure. Never met her. She’s got a reputation for being a douche longer than your duty record.”
“Yeah, I guess. No one knew who she was until second summer a sweep or two back. Burst onto the animameccanico, biomechanical, whatever you want to call it, the field of biology and metal, where they combine, she burst onto the stage like fourth after periapsis.”
“That was quite a few words, are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah, fine, stop-you are not my lusus! Stop it!”
Lalonde withdraws her hand from Captor’s forehead, shifting her other hand from the back of his shirt to a belt loop so she can drag him along like a disgruntled balloon. Feferi is in her courtyard; the cathedral-high stone ceiling is covered in tiles, a mosaic of glittering black and flashes of void. Feferi’s courtyard’s ceiling is decorated with the Well of Horrors.
“Charming,” Lalonde says, pointing up at the mosaic. Feferi is on a bench, hair wound into a plover knot that trails down her back. She doesn’t have on any skirts, just her swimsuit, and there are no attendants in the entire courtyard. Feferi lifts an eyebrow, casting the ceiling a brief glance.
“It’s coast we’re directly under it,” Feferi says, tucking the corner of her braid under her arm.
“Oh. Well, that sounds lovely for all of our mental states.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she says with an airy flip of her hand, sending eddies spiraling out, “It doesn’t leak anymore than anyfin else in Skaia does, that’s for damn shore.”
“Reassuring as always, princess.”
“Glub, shrug, whatever, other things to be doing.”
There is the usual whirlwind of activity around Feferi, around any highblood; she’s identical to the face that Alternian beauty has been judged by for five centuries, and the attendants don’t dare do much to her face, but she has more than enough hair to occupy any given number of helpers for any given amount of time. Captor is given a desultory onceover by an extremely uninterested indigo. He’s got faint purplish highlights on the edges of his features and a diamond in his suprasternal notch. Lalonde sits and lets the attendants do what they will, from the violet pigment slicked up her fins to chains around her fins. When they’re finished, Lalonde and Feferi glow and glint in a hundred different ways and Captor is sulking.
There’s a twenty minute wait for the ship. Feferi and Lalonde eat soggy fruit and complain loudly and stifle their laughter. Captor sits hunched over and looks like he might choke from the effort of not scowling at everything around him.
“I really think we’ll just have to stay in order,” Feferi says, closely examining a pomegranate. She cracks it open with her teeth and catches the arils that drift out with her tongue before they can sink. She makes a face at the taste.
“I’d rather thought we’d be doing that anyway, Heiress.”
“Oh, shore, but you’ll be at my hand, anyway, and him behind you. Still in order.”
“Very clever, Heiress.”
“As always,” she says with a quicksilver flash of a grin, just a ripple of her teeth that goes unnoticed by the attendants. The ship arrives at last, and Feferi boards, with Lalonde six steps behind her and Captor on Lalonde’s heels.
“You’re looking a bit nervous, fancy that,” Lalonde murmurs into his ear when he boosts her into the seatsling like a proper drudge. He floats up, knees tucked tight to minimize spinning.
“Not nervous. Wondering why I was ever hatched.”
She reaches to the side to grip his hand, then pats his face. It’s an obvious afterthought and she can’t help going violet. He paps her neck, right over the gill slits, and she visibly relaxes. Her pulse jumps. Captor’s right: if it’s not serendipity, don’t bother. It was his main point of contention with this part of the plan. They’re clearly not a functional moirallegiance.
“This is a terrible idea,” she says.
The attendants are at the far end of the ship, clustered around Feferi like petals around a stigma. They’re virtually inaudible, but they speak quietly to be safe.
“History of bad ideas, Lalonde.”
“For both of us, I suppose.”
“No, I’m always right.”
“Far be it from me to say otherwise.”
“So far it’s back in the city.”
“Close your mouth, man, you’re letting the dumb out.”
“Shut up, that was funny.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Humoring me isn’t half as cute as you think it is,” Captor says, but his heart isn’t in the goading or the flirting. “If I can’t get my hands on molasses soon I might commit homicide. Pudding. Jellies.”
“I’m sure there’ll be something for your sudden insatiable need for high-sugar snacks.”
“For you, like.”
“I’m equally sure I could manage to get some to you. In the interest of keeping you out of jail.”
“That’s a human thing.”
“Ah, of course.”
Captor’s voice is strained and while he’s never spoken slowly, he’s nearly unintelligible. Lalonde wishes fervently that Vantas wasn’t in orbit. She’s entirely unequipped to deal with an emotional breakdown on top of everything else; otherwise, no problem, she could pick his brain apart and sort the tangles and tell him fifteen different ways what is wrong and how he needs to fix it. Her life would be easier in many ways if the pantheon was theoretical and not literal.
“Are you alright?” she asks, somewhat quieter than beforehand. She gets a side eye for her trouble.
“Yeah, course, I’m incredible, remember? Only I think His Holiness the Mage is banging around upstairs.”
“Yes, I mean, it was fucking negligible chances that I would’ve meant something else. Nothing happens one time, Lalonde, it’s statistically likely He would try and make me His body again. Like to see you try and analyze me with Him in there too.”
Lalonde has the sneaking suspicion that most twenty-two-year olds don’t have to worry about possession, demonic or otherwise. On a tangential thought, she asks, “In your file your age is redacted. We couldn’t get access to any of the birthing records for the last twenty years, suspiciously enough. How old are you?”
“You can’t just ask a lady how old she is.”
“Old world gender roles and joking deflection. Very charming, I assure you, but do answer the question.”
“You only sound like that when I’m irritating you, ever notice that? I’m eight and a half. My wriggling day’s in second spring.”
“The conversion rate is two something, correct? You’re only eighteen?”
“If that’s your analogue to late adolescent.”
“That’s still considered a child in many places.”
“I’m a lot of things, but I am not a child,” Captor snaps, thrashing himself round and somehow not drawing the attention of everyone else. “Grub, pupa, wriggler, kid, child, baby, I don’t care about your fucking vernacular, it’s not me.”
“Will you calm down before you cause an incident?”
Captor is incandescently furious, psionics flickering over Lalonde like paresthesia, and then he goes rigid. He twitches, a myoclonic jerk that looks like it might stop, but hovers on the edge of seizure for nearly fifteen seconds before he comes back.
“What the hell?” Lalonde manages, startled past panic into clean curiosity, “Are you epileptic?”
“No, it’s-stupid shitty divine interference, I am so done with this asshole, get out of my head. Rage, that’s an easy one, get it, not hard to make it happen, not hard to slip past it if it’s all that’s there.”
“I think you need to take a deep breath.”
“I think you need to shove your worry up your nasal tunnels, Lalonde, I’ve got this.”
He goes peevishly silent, mouth pressed into a line, all the way to the artificial bay at the very center of Skaia and the palace that spears the sky sunk inside it. A half hour goes by in a whirl, dull with theatrics but appealing to Lalonde’s scholarly side. The banquet opens with a sort of frantic, miserable opulence.
There are string bands and chanting khorosi imitators and brass bell strings anywhere one might please to wander. There are long strips of weighted beads gathered into intricate shapes over the windows in place of curtains. Waist-high libertii with silvery grub eyes pull troubadour tricks and waltz among the crowd. Captor is the only guest below indigo. Lalonde has never seen anything like it. Human cities, even Consequence City, don’t have the resources for anything this lavish. How strange; Alternian markets don’t have half the things human markets do, but human parties have nothing on Alternian parties.
The Empress herself is in attendance, on a pedestal shaped like a gallows. Direct eye contact is a culling offense, but it’s easy enough for Lalonde to manoeuvre herself into a corner where she can look upon the woman herself. Her Imperial Condescension is beautiful, stunningly so, with eyes like a right hook to the nose and a faint smile that says she could find the cracks in any person in this room and pull them apart any time she cared to. It doesn’t matter where the three of them go before the food is served. Lalonde can smell citrus flowers over the tang of salt through the entire palace.
Lalonde can’t, for the life of her, identify any of the food, but it’s universally delicious. Feferi makes delighted noises over a pudding-looking thing with stiff peaks like meringue that she calls guverale. It tastes a lot like half-cooked fish. Lalonde is drinking her tea when the lights begin to waver and dim. She straightens and glances around, but no one is paying any attention to the light instead of their shady business deals and social intrigues. When asked, Feferi says that it’s been a steady level of brightness, although she looks suspicious at the question. Lalonde puts a hand down on the table to lever herself upright, and then everything goes black like a switch is flipped.
To observers, Lalonde sits politely rigid-backed. The backlight to her pupils is strange, but nothing to bother commenting on when her moirail is recognized as the catalyst of the slaughter at Black Harbor. Word spreads like wildfire. Within moments the entire banquet is informed. Two floors above sea level, Fleet Officer Karkat Vantas swears and shoves his way through the crowd. On the seabed, Sollux Captor sits insensate in a chair behind the Imperatrix.
The few attendants that have hidden their psychic gifts and are capable of using them in such a way see both the seadweller and the pissblood wreathed in ghosts and crowned in light. The haloes contract and burst, a super nova that burns the attendants to ash where they stand. The dancing continues.
Lalonde was seven years old when she learned her first hymnal, the one that told how the Lady of Light and Lord of Shade fought for the world with riddles and challenges. The Lady gives the Lord all of her duties, and he holds up until ‘very last and very least she gave the gift of taking’. The moral was that if you take too much, you will crack and fail. Lalonde never saw much sense in that. One has to know their limits, and you can only learn your limit by hitting it. Lalonde has more than hit her limit with supernatural tolerance.
She falls, untethered: her mother is here, and her father, and the khorosi of her childhood.They don’t look very dead, although Roxy is crusted in salt and Dirk has a large hole in his sternum. Behind them is a pillar that is simultaneously a statue, a pillar, and a woman. Rose does not question this. The pillar shatters into pixels that pull themselves into the woman and the woman walks forward.
Nothing only happens once.
“Rose,” the Lady of Light says. Her voice is benediction and jubilation. Rose is not a grown woman here. In the Lady’s own vision, Rose is a desert girl, born for squalor and sand.
“No,” Rose says. “I reject this. I renounce you.”
“Come now, Rose,” the Lady says, curling one hand into Rose’s ragged hair. “How can you renounce what is real? What is a nonbeliever to a god?”
The Lady looks at Rose like She might an especially charming pet. A monkey with a little hat, perhaps.
“You cannot deny your belief, child. If it were not there we would hardly be here, would we? I gave you the desert. I gave you peace. I have only helped you time and again. It grows wearisome.”
“I am not a child.”
“To one as old as the world, you will always be a child.”
“I didn’t let you in when I was thirteen. I won’t now.”
The Lady’s laugh cannot be constrained by sound. Her laughter is the sun in the desert and the stars in orbit, a match waiting to strike. If Her Imperial Condescension is beautiful, the Lady of Light is nothing short of vertigo-causing.
“If I wanted your body I’d have stripped you out of it.”
“You can’t interfere directly,” Rose says, forcing herself to think and not just react, though anything from the world of her birth feels distant and wrong. She could have stayed here, once. She could have spent eternity at the table of the pantheon. “You can’t touch the situation and tried to make me your pawn. What’s stopping you?”
A chair appears without theatrics. The Lady sits. Her pensive look is quite convincing.
“You have been mine since your conception.”
“Tell me,” Rose demands. The ghosts have begun to fade.
“The Well of Horrors is its own,” She says flatly. Her corona shrinks to the outline of her body. “As a child would separate two bits of her lunch if she did not want them to touch.”
“Do not use my childhood to make me sympathetic.”
“It was the bargain, in the beginning, when Shade and Heat came upon the bastard things. That all of us would stay separate. The Well prevents me from seeing what happens there. I could not allow events to come to pass without my intervention.”
“Catalyst of civilization preventing planet-wide disaster is more accurate, I would think.” Her smile is a dangerous thing.
“What could you possibly be preventing by helping us depose the Empress?”
“The Empress has a peculiar connection to the spawn of the Horrors. We feel it. It has...repercussions. This has happened before.”
“Nothing only happens once.”
“Just so,” the Lady says, proud and approving like a mother teaching her children the secrets of a lifetime. “Before, it resulted in the destruction of all life. We are not as strong as we could be. Such a destruction could not be reversed again.”
“I’ve always played best with high stakes.”
“You would not wish to gamble with the patron goddess of failed ventures and gambles, Rose.”
“Was that a joke?”
“I did create humor.”
Rose gives the Lantern of the Void a withering look. The Lady smiles contentedly.
“Watch,” She commands, and without moving, Rose is standing on a battlefield. In the distance is the bend of Cape Ghoul and the writhing mass of Gl’golyb.
“The Imperial Mother is one of the Horrors.”
This does not come as a surprise. The Lady tucks one leg up under her. Rose can’t recall what she was wearing before, but now the Lady is a jade-eyed troll with a quirk to her mouth and a sun on her black shirt. Her horns are bent like the arms of a sundial. She gestures, and they are on the cliffs over Black Harbor. The water is full of bodies, dense enough to walk across all the way to the village on the far shore. The sound is dulled at this distance, but Rose would recognize the fizz-hiss of psionics at any volume.
Captor is a blur fifty feet in the air, standing perfectly straight like he’s on a sidewalk. He doesn’t move. Psionics like lightning send water and blood pluming as high as his head and pockmark the shore with craters. The bolts don’t pause for an instant, hitting bare inches apart. Most of the blood is indigo, but there are no other highblood’s colors. Black Harbor was a lowblood’s rebellion, at least officially.
“Your friend slaughtered nearly five thousand of his people this day,” She says, as casually as talking about the weather. “They are all very happy in the afterlife, of course. The official story was that subjugglator fearmongering led to rioting, and a blessed Imperial agent took care of it. In reality, they were killing the lowbloods without opposition. What is a human against a lion? It was much like that.”
“You’d certainly know.”
“Isn’t it one of the more popular myths that I was suckled by a lion? Untrue. I have always been and always will be. I have never been suckling age.”
This is getting absolutely surreal, Rose thinks, and then realizes that it’s always been surreal. They’re literally above reality. She might be a bit hysterical.
“Your friend was not, of course, aware of what he was doing.”
“The Mage,” the Lady says, flickering briefly to an image of a hunched troll in monk’s robes. “He took offense at such behavior and interfered.”
“For untouchable, remote ideals, you all certainly seem to involve yourselves in mortal affairs a lot.”
“Ah, well, omniscience gets boring now and then. For the record, your Archon’s professor was the Lord of Shade himself.”
“How did the Lord of Shade walk in a Light-dedicated city?”
“Like pouring a smoothie into a cup. He distilled himself into a mortal sort of shape and, well, I allowed him access. Your Archon does not seem to have much respect for what I tell him in dreams. An education is important. He fell behind.”
Rose closes her eyes in an effort not to burst into hysterical laughter.
“Send me back. I have a job to do.”
“When you could stay with me? Learn the secrets of creation?”
“Yes. Send me back.”
“Do say please.”
“Well? I long to hear it.”
“Politeness is a great virtue, child,” She says, but She is laughing again, and then Rose opens her eyes to a ballroom in chaos. Captor is at her side, floating on his back, tossing off sparks that boil off in the water.
“Captor,” she says dazedly, reaching out to shake him awake and jerks her hand back. He feels like a live current. She rolls her sleeves up around her hands and pulls him by the ankle, tossing elbows to get trolls out of her way. She has no destination in mind but upward. Sunshine, heat, and life. She has to pull harder against the drag Captor makes, but they get up to a landing with almost no water. When he stops moving all the water on the landing boils away.
“Captor,” she says again. “Sollux. Wake up.”
She looks up at the sound of footsteps to see a Fleet officer hop the railing and splash down the steps. The officer stops cold, backs up, turns, and pries his respirator off. His lip is split.
“Sollux, you shambling mess, what the fuck.”
“Who the hell are you?” Lalonde demands. The officer looks affronted. His eyes are a bit darker than Megido’s. Low color for a Fleet officer.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m his moirail,” Lalonde says.
“His moirail! Like fuck you are. You’re his moirail and I’m a flatworm.”
“Oh, hell. You’re Karkat Vantas, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, who wants to know?”
Lalonde looks for eavesdroppers, finds no one.
“I’m Rose Lalonde, Consequence City, it is a very long story.”
“Is that where he’s fucking been?”
“I would assume so, given my obvious familiarity, Mr. Vantas. Were you planning on making yourself useful at any point?”
“Would you shut your trap?”
“KK? Is that your voice digging into my audial crannies like a bulldozer?”
“Shut up, asshole,” Vantas says hoarsely, “You’re going to give me a cerebrovascular incident if you keep running off like you have rabies and you need to spread the infection. You are not, in fact, a viral disease! You are, in fact, a grown troll with prehensile multi-fingered extremities and functional external auditory meatus! You could pick up a fuckin’ comm now and again.”
“Shut up, KK.”
Vantas curls forward to rest his forehead on Captor’s chest, which is-very touching, and all, really, but they’re on a tight schedule here.
“Look,” Lalonde says, “It’s absolutely lovely that you’ve been reunited, and you’ve warmed my soul from its former wintry hell, but as it turns out, we’re trying to engineer revolution and I sort of need you to tell me everything you know about what’s going on.”
“Sort of,” Vantas repeats. “Sort of! Real sweet of you to understate your urgency so I don’t feel compelled to answer, stranger! And by that I mean go fuck yourself, Lalonde, I don’t know anything more than you do. Everyone started screaming, fifteen minutes ago at the outside.”
“What’s the time?”
Vantas’ eyebrows pull together, making wrinkles on Captor's shirt.
“Somewhere around six. Maybe half past. Bright enough that I’ve been wishing for a swift death every time I pass a window.”
“So it started around when I passed out. There’s undoubtedly a connection there.”
“Self-importance is not a virtue, Lalonde.”
Lalonde drops into sitting cross-legged, carefully unwrapping her sleeves from her hands. Vantas lifts his head from Captor’s chest and shoves him back down when he tries to sit.
“I’m hardly overrating my importance when your moirail and I passed out at the same time, with presumably the same amount of divine contact, at the same time that the entire banquet lost its collective mind. I’m sure that we will have plenty of time to explain all of this later, but I need you to trust that Captor and I know what we’re doing. Where is the Empress Ascendant?”
“She got up right before I blacked out,” Captor says, nearly at a normal speed. “Like she was going to the trap or some shit.”
“I haven’t seen her at all,” Vantas says, sulking more than a little. He’s like a bruise, Lalonde thinks. She wants to kick him in the shin. “Dunno why you need to know.”
“It’s a long story, as I’ve just told you. We need to find her before she challenges-woah, no, you don’t,” Lalonde says, catching Captor round the waist with an arm and pulling him down. She has no illusions of being able to hold onto him if he starts using his psionics, but his eyes are unfocused and it’s unlikely he can refine his aim well enough to stop her.
All three of them turn at a strident voice rising over the general chaos.
“Well, it certainly sounds a lot like her,” Lalonde says. There are several loud crashing noises, such as a trident jammed into a throne might make.
“I’d say we found our girl,” Captor says. Vantas gets to his feet, reattaching his respirator, and waits for Lalonde to stand, still hoisting Captor by the waist. Lalonde and Vantas make eye contact over Captor’s head, and then Vantas turns around so that Lalonde can hoick Captor up onto Vantas’ back.
“Don’t move,” Vantas warns. Captor scowls, but he hasn’t been struggling.
“You know, Lalonde passed out too.”
“I’m not liable to kill someone if I lose control of my psionic abilities from exhaustion,” Lalonde says, gently as a baseball bat to the skull. “The Lady isn’t trying to batter her way into my brain.”
“Fair enough, but if KK trips and I fall, I’m strangling him.”
They start down the stairs before Captor hits Vantas in the side. Vantas stops, already shouting, but Captor has his arm bent back to haul Lalonde forward. He twists around, and then Lalonde is involved in the most awkward kiss of her entire life. The list includes any of the times with John. It’s not terrible, but Vantas is making noises that might be a prelude to spontaneous combustion and he’s bent back under Captor’s weight and timing-wise, it couldn’t be less appropriate.
“Well, it’s about time isn’t it? Were you waiting for an engraved invitation?” she says, pushing Captor back onto Vantas with her forearm. Captor looks insufferably smug. He relaxes downward, putting all of his weight on Vantas. Vantas howls in frustration.
“Can the two of you please do this another time?”
The ballroom at the very bottom of the stairs is more-or-less reached without further incident. At the far end, Feferi and the Condesce swing identical weapons at each other. Feferi is smaller and lighter, but the Condesce is stronger, more experienced, and faster. There are no onlookers, surprisingly enough, but Lalonde realizes soon enough this is because of the amount of psychic activity in the room. Lalonde has the psychic sensitivity of a brick, but when she’s struggled close enough to throw a rock and hit the Empress, it feels like there’s a house on her sinuses.
Captor’s psionics begin to flicker over the Empress when, predictably, everything freezes.
“You have to be fucking kidding me,” he says. There is nothing so unpleasantly snide as Captor when he’s been stopped halfway through being a hero. Vantas doesn’t blink when Captor picks his way to the floor. Lalonde pinches the bridge of her nose.
“You may as well get it on with it,” she sighs. There’s a noise like the heat death of the universe, and the Lady of Light, her siblings, and what looks like the entire Alternian pantheon step out of a rip in the water.
“Fancy that we would see you here,” the Lady says pleasantly. Shade runs his fingers through the Empress’s hair, making impressed noises at the amount. Heat and Clockwork flank Light, and everyone else falls in behind them except for the Mage. The Mage stands several feet from Light, his crook-and-flail shaped horns angled with his head.
“There is a bargain to be made,” He says.
“Nope,” Captor says. “No, go home, we don’t want any.”
“If you would have our participation in this, we would ask that you pay a price,” He says.
“That’s not even fucking fair!”
“We hardly asked for your help,” Lalonde snaps.
“Regardless, it has been given, and it was accepted. You have a job to do, as do we all.”
Light looks thoughtful for a moment.
“It seems that you do not want the help we have given. For this, I think we will make the bargain an easier one for you.”
“Reasonable,” the Mage says approvingly.
“We will strike the empress down where she stands, though it may burn all of us to dust in the doing, and then you and yours will be all there is. Or you may take your own chances and we will take to the Well,” Light offers, like holy war isn’t a horrifying prospect, like the first option isn’t the obvious one. “You may want to consider that if we are gone, there will be no tides. No afterlife. No reincarnation, travel, or luck. We are not ideas. We are not natural processes. We are everything there is.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Lalonde says.
Chapter 13: of us your friends, a weary crowd that press
I would have waited until December to post this, because of NaNo, but I wouldn't have written any more and you'd all have to wait a month longer for it. We're nearly wrapping it up, folks.
“I assure you of my absolute sincerity,” the Lady says, dimming the backlight of Her pupils until the faint creases of displeasure around her eyes are visible.
“So the end of literally everything in existence, or you back off and we handle the eldritch abomination ourselves? Taking it a bit far when you don’t know for sure if you’ll all burn,” Captor says, pulling himself off of Vantas and stepping down. He’s got a brilliantly flickering aureole of red and blue behind him, somewhat brighter than it is on the mortal plane. The Lady looks impressed, although that may just be constipation.
“Ah, well, last time, it did not go so well,” Shade says, stretching upwards so his shoulder shrug is visible. “Really! I looked upon the Well and I said to my sisters, ‘what is wrong with this picture?’ And they said to me, ‘perhaps it is that your eyes are closed, brother’ and so my eyes were.”
“The point,” Shade says, “to clarify for the various short-sighted, far-wandering mortals on the plane, is that my sister before you can see things you cannot, and who are you to tell the Lantern in the Void what there is to see in the Void?”
“My lord, you’re a dumbass,” Lalonde says flatly.
“I’m afraid I don’t know that word,” Shade says amiably, looking at Light to translate. She gives him a thumbs down. He scowls.
“Didn’t your priests teach you better than that?” He says, sulking, and shrinks back down among His siblings. Light shakes Her head.
“The khorosi have fallen far from the early days, brother. But that is all beside the point. Decide. We will be generous. Five minutes.”
Lalonde and Captor turn at the same moment with identical looks of this is bullshit on their faces.
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” Captor demands.
“I need an adult,” Lalonde says. “I’m not qualified to make these sort of decisions. I’m a glorified administrative assistant with too much rifle training. How does one decide the fate of the entire world? I can’t say it’s something I have much experience with.”
“I don’t think there’s much choice.”
“Captor, are you telling me you don’t think that the two of us could handle anything the world threw at us?”
“Course not. I’m the best there is, remember? Only there has to be a fucking world to throw things at us.”
“Think critically here for a moment.”
“Trying. Seems like all I ever do.”
“Don’t be an idiot. I have an idea.”
“Did you have to beat me to the only conclusion?”
“It took some effort, I assure you.”
“I’m about to pull some trippy shit out of my spinal crevice here.”
“We’re going to need it.”
Lalonde presses her forehead against Captor’s briefly. It’s not a particularly human gesture of affection, nor Alternian, but they are in front of the entire human religious system personified. If she wanted to get really technical, Lalonde thinks, she’s being affectionate with a boy in front of her mother, and that’s no end of embarrassing. She makes a note in the very back of her mind, so far back that it doesn’t care about anything except sunning on a rock and hunting down berries for dinner, that they’re going to talk about exactly what they’re going to do and how much kissing it will involve.
Lalonde straightens and clasps her hands behind her back, heels together and shoulders back. It’s a position that was drilled into her in her thirteen weeks of boot camp, and the shape of it brings the shape of home with it.
“We reject both of your offers and substitute our own,” Lalonde says, pleasantly, like she’s strolling through the Builder’s gardens. Light’s eyebrows go impressively far up.
“You would dare?”
“You do see who you’re talking to, correct? The Butcher of Black Harbor and Captain of the Wall. Do either of us look like the sort of people to not dare to do something?”
“Very well.” Light purses Her mouth. “Give your substitution and we will consider.”
“We offer that you allow us to draw on what resources as you have. This way, there is no direct risk to yourselves, and if we should fail, well, at least we did damage.”
“Hm. How do you propose to do that?”
Lalonde grins. From the back of her silks, under the inconvenient hip wrappings, she draws the Needles, polished to a shine and making the water stir when they connect with her tattoos.
“I do believe that my weapons would be sufficient. Captor is well accustomed to power, I would think.”
Captor cracks his knuckles dramatically, his backlight audibly sizzling. Enough power to swing orbit the wrong way round, he’d said. Lalonde can only hope that wasn’t all piss and wind.
Light’s mouth purses further and she gestures her siblings close round. The Mage appears to be examining his nails. What is objectively two or three minutes, but subjectively an hour at least, Light turns with her chin high and nods once. The pantheon vanishes, Shade waving cheerfully.
Vantas whips round, pupils nearly as big as his irises, with an expression of deep alarm. Feferi spikes her trident into the floor, lifting herself just high enough to avoid a tine through the knee. Lalonde spins the Needles in her palms, feeling a charge like static electricity build, and begins doing what she does best: pull things together. Captor’s psionics start to flicker over the Empress, slowing her down enough that Feferi can nick her, although he can’t hold her in place for more than a second.
Death of a thousand cuts, Lalonde thinks, and spins the left Needle again. The Empress’s trident briefly goes up in flame despite the water. They don’t take her down in one, absolutely can’t, but there comes a point where Feferi kneels on her sister’s chest, trident stuck through her throat but not her trachea, and Vantas is snarling himself into a pulmonary event. There’s actually rather a lot of snarling going on at this point. The Condesce struggles wildly, but she has three sizable adults sitting on her torso and one psionic pinning her skull down as best he can.
“Give! I demand you give!” Feferi spits, and Lalonde spares a moment to wonder why Feferi’s crying ( a fallen idol toppled at your hands, Rose, don’t pretend that’s a foreign feeling) before pressing her tattoos to the Empress’s forehead. One of her eyes bursts; gory, certainly, but not fatal, and not even permanent. There’s always replacements.
“Fuck off!” the Empress spits back. “Not shore what gives you the right, you beach, but-”
With the way things have been going, it really isn’t a surprise when Rose opens her eyes without having closed them. Instead of the banquet hall and the end days of an empire, she’s sitting in the sand. Her knees, when vertigo forces her head into them, are the sun-reddened tan of a desert child, scabbed from falling into the salt pools outside the village. She touches her cheek carefully and runs her fingers up the helix curve of her ear down to the anterior notch.
She looks up, still young enough that she knows how to pinch her eyes against the sun, and shades herself with the flat of her hand. In the distance, the flat space between two dunes where the children play, she sees two children sprinting back and forth. One of them has the quick, darting motions of Dave before the Godhead Incident, and the other could only be Jade, with that peculiarly City-girl knot of hair on top of her head. Rose stands and begins walking.
She can’t hear what they’re saying when she arrives, and they don’t seem to notice her. Rose reaches out, fingers brushing the face of her twin-peaky, pale, eye-of-the-storm blue eyes-and the desert warps and melts.
She is five years old, going on six, with sand-scoured elbows and her mother’s hand on her shoulder. Her mother’s hand is trembling and they are standing on the village wall, meant to protect though it is nothing but dry mud and thatch. Rose’s hands are curled around the railing, body arched forward against her mother’s grip. Rose is watching the five weapons-trained khorosi dance around a kappa chimaera, and Rose’s mother is watching her daughter reach for flight. The kappa falls, the khorosi return, and Rose sags back.
What comes next is not another memory, but sensory information: chimaera meat always tastes greasy and burnt, even when eaten flash-seared and dripping blood in the dead of summer. The feeling of gristle on her molars lingers well into whatever this is.
She’s partway into reliving the Godhead Incident when reality sags and fades into itself, there’s no other way to describe it, and the desert is layered over the banquet hall. Feferi is staring goggle-eyed at a floor tile. Captor is floating in crouch with his mouth open in a truly impressive snarl. Vantas is still tangled in the Empress’s legs, arms locked firmly together, and his eyes are squinched shut.
“No,” Rose says, hearing herself from nebulae and eternity away. “This is not happening. I refuse to relive any more of my wretched childhood, do you hear me?”
The universe shudders.
“I mean it. I could not care less what horrendous doors and windows scenarios you can show me, I came to succeed, and dead or not, I will have that victory,” she says, shoving and prodding at the intruder. The desert is the universe, and the sands are the worlds, and among the sand there is a falsity, a creeping blackness into the light. This, Rose supposes, is the cosmic horror the Empress has aligned herself with. It feels like rot in the soul.
It’s not an it, she thinks, so much as a lord, with the same heavy-light feel of a divine presence, but wrong. The pantheon never feel particularly natural-the Lady is hair raising on a good day-but something is very backwards here. Undoing and ephemeral lodged in the heart of the endless void.
“You don’t belong here,” she tells it. “You never would. What could you want? What possibly is there to draw your notice to us?”
She gains a sense of wanting.
“No, I mean that. I’m not going to argue with a cosmic entity about what it is and is not entitled to. There is nothing here-not on our planet, or our culture, or any of the things we don’t know-to have drawn your attention.”
She pauses, listening. The eldritch monstrosity seems to be a bit offended.
“Unless, perhaps, it’s the vaccuum you want? That lack of knowledge? I would hardly be surprised if you were in some way responsible for the cultural stagnation of the last decade. Yes, of course. Well, I’d be much obliged if you’d shove the fuck off and find something else to do with your eternity.”
“No, I’m not going to trade you anything. I do not bargain.”
“That’s just too bad, isn’t it? Get lost. Go.”
Beastie, she thinks, chimaera. Emptiness. Blackness. And what better to burn away the darkness than the dawn? The idea makes her want to groan, but she’s still noncorporeal or whatever this is. Her tattoos are thrumming, a low steady burn, and through the Needles she still feels the world of her birth; things are not so far as they seem. She can do this. She can pull on Light and survive as she has before.
Nothing only happens once.
She pulls hard on, on-magic, and atoms, and the empty spaces in the world, and she bursts like a supernova.
When Lalonde opens her eyes, it is with the feeling of rusty gears and welded metal. She has to force herself to focus, so that the hazy outlines become halogen lights and the stone below her becomes an exceptionally uncomfortable medical cot. She doesn’t sit up, on a vague feeling of knowing better, but claps a hand over her eyes.
Halogens. Alternians don’t use halogens; they burn too brightly for their eyes, kick out too much heat. Lalonde lifts her hand, squinting suspiciously, and turns her head to the side. Captor is sprawled across an armchair with Vantas jackknifed against his torso. Strider is sitting v-legged, slumped forward with his forehead on his balled up cape. Jade and John are folded up like brackets against the wall. Even Mekhit is in the room. Her torso is in the room, at least. She vanishes below the waist through the door. They’re all completely knocked out.
“Where’s the welcoming committee?” she rasps, and when no one reacts, she wheezes louder, “I find myself thirsty. What a wake up call you all are.”
Strider snaps upright, smacks the back of his head off the wall, and keels over with a muffled groan. Lalonde barks laughter, which wakes Mekhit, who is startled back out the door, and the noise wakes everyone else. The next few moments are a noisy tumult.
“Can you please explain to me what’s gone on while I’m drinking water?”
“Oh, sorry,” Jade says cheerfully, pulling a bottle of water out of absolutely nowhere. Maybe not-when Lalonde rolls a bit further to take the bottle she sees a twenty-four pack flat of water bottles. Human brand, too.
“Alright, get to it.”
It comes out, through much talking over Vantas until he shuts his mouth, that after Lalonde did her flashbang trick, time had resumed. Feferi had indeed stuck her Empress through the jugular and then proceeded to eat her heart before it congealed. Captor and Vantas had slung Lalonde between them and found a way out without being seen, where they called the entire acting government of Consequence City to Skaia, and then they’d all moved back west, and now everyone minus Feferi is holed up in the same inn Jade spent three months in in Echidna.
“So what exactly did you do?” John wants to know, when they’re all eating bread still warm from the oven. Lalonde shrugs, sort of, lifting one shoulder until it hurts too much.
“I suppose I lit a lantern in the void,” she says, and snorts. “That’s unfortunate.”
Everyone trades knowing glances, which immediately makes Lalonde suspicious.
“What? What are you all suddenly so friendly about?”
“Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” Captor suggests, snickering. Lalonde lifts one hand without turning away, slides her fingers over the curve of cartilage, and pauses while she runs her tongue across her teeth.
“I’m human again, aren’t I? And not one of you bastards thought to take a moment to tell me when I wake up?”
“It was going to be a surprise,” Jade says. “But then you decided to sleep for a hundred years.”
“My apologies for the unintended consequences of consorting with nonhuman intelligences,” Lalonde says drily.
“You’ve been doing that this whole time,” Captor points out.
“Forgive me the inaccuracy. With nonmortal intelligences. Is that better?”
They laugh, and talk, and for once, things are just fine.
Chapter 14: about the gate, or labour at the oar
There are things that everyone in Consequence City takes for granted. The streets are patrolled from dusk to dawn, the Archon and Polemarch have tea and hear grievances every Friday at three o’clock, the armies are always victorious, the rain will fall, the sun will rise, and above all, the Lattice and the walls will keep them safe. Even with the city rebuilt bright and shining and the lords tossed on the plains on their asses, these things remain, though not always in the way that would be expected. They are a city on the edge of the desert, after all, and they have never had the luxury of not believing in themselves.
The city is well used to the Archon’s return by the time Lalonde limps through the Aymar Close Gate. There are few things that will ever be as welcome as the sight of the Wall’s training grounds. Stone Wall and Mekhit have been busy, Lalonde sees; red and violet uniforms swarm over what little remains of the rubble, sorting it, and there are a dozen children in the yard hacking at each other with dowels.
“That’s new,” Lalonde says to Mekhit as they pass a little boy who has just been headbutted to the ground. “Children, I mean. If only their presence on the Wall.”
“There’s all these street kids,” Mekhit says vaguely, waving back at the city proper, “and growing up here worked for me.” She trails off, blood red in the face, and adjusts her grip on Lalonde’s arm when she stumbles.
“Let’s call it a trial program,” Lalonde says. “It’s an idea worth considering.”
The off-duty wallmen line up in the mess, save Mekhit, whose grip is now the only thing preventing Lalonde from keeling over on her bad knee. Lalonde knows just how capable soldiers are of keeping their faces empty, and the naked relief on the faces of the men and women in front of her is just as much a comfort as the smell of coffee and bacon.
“Get on with it,” Lalonde says, gone sweaty and cross from the walk up the ramp. Stone Wall steps forward. His uniform is creased smartly for the first time in Lalonde’s stint as Captain of the Wall.
“Welcome home, ma’am.”
“Report. Condensed, for the love of God, before I swoon on all of you and make a terrible bother of myself.”
“Reconstruction is nearly complete, except in Flagship and the back half of the Nautilus. Ronan’s begun a first responder course at Flagship. Not much else, ma’am.”
“Do no one think to tell Ronan what a bad idea that is?”
“No, ma’am. Wanted to see his face after his first field exam.”
“Ah, that’s awful and I hope you know it. Mekhit’s orphan soldier program?”
“Oh, yeah.” Stone Wall gives Mekhit a fond squinty-eyed look. “Knew she meant to tell you about it on the way in, kind of hard to miss them. Being as we were down to thirty-two, ma’am, and that Polemarch Strider hasn’t had much in the way of veterans wanting to keep fighting, we thought it might work out.”
“Not, perhaps, what I would have chosen as my immediate response, but a firm investment in the future,” Lalonde acknowledges. She wonders how red Mekhit is, and sneaks a check-risking a cardiac event. They make their slow, meandering way to Lalonde’s quarters, where, predictably, Captor is dozing on the wall opposite the door.
“Come in, you sorry bastard, before someone trips over you and breaks a limb,” Lalonde says irritably, unlocking the door and stumping in. She waves Mekhit off and Captor wanders in in the desultory way of the about-to-collapse. The door clicks shut neatly before Lalonde has reached the bed, and she collapses as gratefully as she has in her entire life combined.
“Who would have predicted,” she says to the ceiling, “that changing species repeatedly would interfere with prosthetics? Certainly not me.”
“I am so fucking done with talking about our respective religions, okay?”
“Oh, glory, that’s a relief. I don’t particularly think either of us has the required mental fortitude for an intensely philosophical religious discussion.”
“Fortitude’s what your brother named his junk.”
“Please let’s not discuss my brother’s junk or its appellation, I am begging you,” Lalonde groans. “Sit down and stop lurking, would you? You’re making my knee hurt worse.”
Captor sits on the edge of the bed, pausing to toe off his boots, and then pulls his legs up to his chin. Lalonde pulls very gently on his sleeve and, overbalanced, he tips over and curls up against Lalonde’s side like she’s a bulwark and he’s a dozy barnacle.
“I’m gonna touch your boobs,” he says, muffled but audible. Rose inches one shoulder up in a shrug.
“The idea would likely be more troublesome if you know what a boob was.”
“You smell so much nicer when you’re clean,” he mumbles into the region of Rose’s bicep. “Showers are wonderful.”
“Yes, soap is quite the useful invention.”
“I have to go see KK,” Sollux says, wheezing slightly, but he doesn’t move, and his breathing is slowing. “He’s going to piss himself if he sees another human.”
“Vantas is very comfortably being fussed over by Maryam down in the barracks. Go to sleep.”
“If he’s cheating on me I have to eat both of their hearts,” but the words are more a yawn and nearly unintelligible. Sollux rolls himself closer against Rose, nearly worming his way onto her torso. “I don’t have time for that, for fuck’s sake.”
“Go to sleep, you little beast.”
“I’m a person, not a beast.”
“You’re not conscious enough to pull off falsely-cross.”
“Not conscious enough...oh, whatever, let’s not get into me.”
“Into it. It.”
“Go to sleep.”
From the lack of a faintly scathing answer, she assumes he’s fallen asleep. Lowblood warmth isn’t as dramatically different from human warmth as it is highblood cool. Rose would hazard a guess that it’s within ten degrees higher. She can’t help herself from taking a moment to catalogue the differences between his body and her interim troll body (sharper joints but softer curves) and briefly considers prying up his lip to look at his teeth. She sleeps through the afternoon and night and wakes when morning sunlight floods the room.
“Where’s your curtain?” Sollux demands hoarsely, clamping his wadded-up uniform shirt to his eyes, pupils shrunk to tiny pinpricks. “I’m going to hunt down the asshole that invented diurnal cycles.”
Rose makes an indeterminate groaning noise. She’s never had trouble waking up before, but then, she’s never come home from something quite like the last few months. She waggles her ears, then sits up and frowns. She’s never been able to do that, either.
The curtain is on the floor, balled into a nest with a familiar package rolled into the fabric. The paper glints cheerfully in the light.
“Aaaaaurgh,” Rose repeats and drops back onto the blanket. “It won’t end, will it?”
“Why? Is there a beetle god standing in the doorway in its skivvies?”
She knows he’s joking, but checks just in case.
“No, no beetle god. Just a suspicious package.”
Sollux moves his shirt enough to half-open one eye and glare leerily at her.
“Are you talking about my junk?”
Rose gives him a look.
“No. I mean an actual package, as in the sort of gift you might find under a Christmas tree.”
Rose stands up and goes to crouch over the box. It’s the one from Jade’s apartment, the one with the little tag that says ‘do not open until 1 January.’
“Humans put trees in their houses for a saint to put gifts for children under. We then proceed to butcher and eat the saint.”
“Sounds par for the course for your bullshit culture.”
“You thought strawberries were poisonous, do not even start with me on preposterous cultures. What’s the date?”
“Uh. Second winter.”
“Oh.” He pauses, presumably to convert. She turns the box over in her hands. “First of June.”
“June? It’s winter. There is snow on the ground.”
“I don’t think I have the right word.”
“Did you mean January?”
“Fucking pardon me.”
“You remain forgiven,” Rose says absently, tugging on the tag. The wrapping pops open and a tiny mechanical beetle whirs up into the air and spirals around her head.
“What is it? Is it a gun?”
“No, it’s a toy,” she says, curious, and holds up a hand for the beetle to land on. It chitters, poking at her palm with its tiny copper pincers, and spits out a roll of paper that unfolds to be several times larger than the beetle.
“It’s...plans,” Rose says in surprise, waiting for the beetle to fly up to her hair before taking hold of the other side with her free hand. It’s nearly three feet square, and she can’t imagine how it fit in the beetle. Every inch of it is covered in equations and diagrams, written in a cramped hand, and down in the corner is the symbol from Zahhak’s jacket.
Sollux rolls over and adjusts his shirt so he can see the plans and snorts.
“That’s all used for orbital launches. Guess you made an impression.”
“Why the wait?” she wonders, running her fingers over the ink. There’s no blank spaces bigger than a fraction of an inch.
“Megido’s prescient. Guess she knew it’d all be over by now, hell or high water.”
“Very human phrase. You’re prescient as well, aren’t you? I thought you’d said something to that effect.”
“Yeah, but not because I can actually go into the future and see what’s up, like she can.”
Captor keeps talking, but Lalonde is staring at the plans in a daze and understands nothing she hears. Space, she thinks, and finds she can’t wrap her mind around the idea. Of all things, this is what stretches credibility. Next thing she knows she’s jamming on her boots and spilling out of the room with Captor and the beetle hot on her heels. Jade isn't in the mess, or in the yard with the orphans, or in the storage closet designated as Strider’s office. She’s up on the Wall, leaning against the bars of the Lattice and chatting animatedly with Mekhit.
“No, an atom is a really small bit of highly charged mass, like really tiny, it’s not a candy,” Jade says, sounding frustrated, but she’s laughing. “I can’t explain nuclear physics to you in fifteen minutes. Oh. Rose? Are you sleepwalking or something?”
Jade stares at Lalonde for a moment, cataloguing the uncombed hair and wrinkled paper.
“Alright madwoman,” she says at last, grinning, “you’ve found the box.”
“Did you know what was in it?” Lalonde demands breathlessly.
“Nah,” Jade says, stretching her leg out until it bumps a rise in the stone. “But Equius told me you couldn’t open it till today. Happy New Years’!”
“Can you use these? Do you know how?”
“Sure! I’m brilliant, remember?”
Lalonde inhales, then chokes and gasps inward. It really has been ages since she’s run this much. She knows what Jade’s referring to; the tabloids are very fond of Jade, and on top of being the most photogenic of them all, the tabloids agree she is the smartest of them all.
“This has the potential to be incredible,” Lalonde says, smoothing out a wrinkle. “This is-this is still a decade and a half away for us. I’m going to send Zahhak a fruit basket.”
“He wouldn’t know what to do with fruit,” Captor interjects, but he is completely ignored.
Mekhit reaches up to push her hand through the Lattice, gazing off over the city at the thick black iron spiderweb, meant to keep out the winged chimaera.
“How did I get caught up in all this?” she asks no one in particular, bewildered, watching the Captain and the Builder build themselves into a gleeful frenzy over the idea of achieving orbit. They don’t notice her leave, though Captor gives her a sharp squinting look that she completely ignores. She outranks him, anyway.
There’s the children to check on, first, now that she’s been given permission on a provisional basis. She can’t be allowing them to run wild, after all. Chui and Cassel are bickering in the yard. Farrah appears to be beating a dummy into submission with the butt of a wooden rifle. Mekhit hopes she hasn’t hurt herself with the headbutting. Mela, Gaspard, and Kaiven are making nuisances of themselves in the mess, as per usual. Rhys is trailing aimlessly after one of the kitchen girls, begging noisily for a bannock. Holly, Teal, Fachalig, Cais, and Anaheed are missing for nearly ten minutes, but turn up hiding in the winches of the Aymar Close Gate.
“Why are you hiding in the winches?” Mekhit wants to know. Teal snorts like this is something that should be immediately obvious.
“Boss,” Fachalig says in her best lecturer voice, “we need to keep the peasants out.”
“Oh? And just what do you think a peasant is?” Mekhit decides she really isn’t cut out for childcare. She doesn’t have the imagination for this shit.
“Serket,” Fachalig says venomously.
This, Mekhit can understand. Serket has not improved in the least with constant exposure.
“She has a dispensation from Lord Archon,” Mekhit points out. “So unless you’d like to take it up with him?”
“Glory, no!” Teal shrieks. It’s absolutely bloodcurdling. Teal is one of the other dozen or so hybrids in the city, and while Mekhit knows there is going to be a certain amount of variation, she doesn’t understand how an eight year old girl can ever reach that kind of pitch. Teal is particularly terrified of Lord Archon, for some reason or another. Mekhit doesn’t have the heart to tell her the Archon is kind of an idiot.
She herds the children back to the Wall, like some kind of benevolent mother figure, and then abandons them all to Stone Wall so she feels like less of some kind of benevolent mother figure. She doesn’t like children, really, she just saw one too many drawn little faces and couldn’t contain her tender feelings.
“I’m a fucking idiot,” she says conversationally to Strider at noon meal in the mess hall. He’s not wearing his idiotic cape for once. He looks a little poleaxed.
“That’s not news.”
“No, if you’d said that it wouldn’t be news,” she says, dropping down into the seat on the other side of the table. “I need a favor.”
“What? I’m not committing any crimes for you. My tiny fragile body would not stand up to prison for very long.”
“You’re almost six feet tall,” Mekhit says, perplexed, before she realizes he’s joking and then wants to hit herself in the nose. “Don’t be an asshole. I need you to get me into Flagship.”
The shades come down. Red irises come up.
Mekhit wonders if anyone has ever sounded quite so suspicious before.
“I can’t count past fifty,” she says, unashamed. “I learned to write when I was seventeen.”
“From copying your sister’s porn novels into notebooks until I learned the letters.”
“Oh, come the fuck on-”
“I’m serious. Shut up and listen for two more goddamn seconds, Strider. I didn’t know what a dick actually was until six months ago because apparently everyone thought my ignorance was charming. I’m stupider than the average six year old, Strider, and as fucking awful as you are, I know you can get me into Flagship. I want an education.”
“You’re, what, twenty? How have you never learned any of this shit? It’s, like, intrinsic knowledge.”
“Who’s going to teach the slum kid to count?” Mekhit points out, irritated. “My father left for Typheus when I was six and came back dead. My mother is long dead. I’m not even human and I live in a city of humans. There is no one who would have taken care of me.”
“And why not ask my sister?”
“It’s embarrassing,” she says simply.
“Wait, you’re not human?”
“My pupils are as big as your entire iris!” Mekhit screeches, then claps her hands over her mouth when a few people turn to stare. It’s true. Her pupils are enormous. “Why do you think I’m always squinting? For fuck’s sake, Strider.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Strider says with a shrug, taking a long pull on his juicebox. Mekhit becomes exponentially more irritated-those juice boxes are for the orphans. She snatches it out of his hand on her way out and figures she might as well finish it. Oughtn’t waste good apple juice.
She has her everyday duties, although they’re somewhat diminished these days. The Captain hasn’t been in the city long enough for her to have a lot of paperwork to delegate, but there’s always hemming that needs to be done on the Captain’s uniforms, there are requisition orders to sign, coffee to drink, naps to take in one of the linen closets, a quartermaster to hire, and lessons to harass the Builder into giving. Failing any of that, she’s been welcome to tag along to Ronan’s first responder course for two weeks now, after it turned out one of the instructors had helped the wallmen right after the burning. Mekhit doesn’t think she’ll ever make much of a medic, but she’s always had an excellent memory and she’s sure she’ll need to recognize a cardiac event at some point in her life.
The quartermaster candidates are in of the showy sitting room under the mess, the one that every so often gets the carpets steam cleaned and is ignored until the next important guests arrive. There are four of them, three human, and one a troll fresh enough off the train that she still rattles down in her throat when she talks.
The humans have easy names: Hugh Kohnke, Malinda Premo, Mabel Buck. The troll’s name is written in Alternian lettering, and given that Mekhit is only three years into her English writing, there’s no chance she’ll be able to get that on her own.
Hugh Kohnke is friendly, but he’s wanted in Typheus for murder, which he admits easily enough. Malinda Premo is six months pregnant with four children at home; Mekhit has no problem with children or women, having been both at various time in her life, but working on the Wall tends to take a certain recklessness not often found in mothers. Mabel Buck knows an uncomfortable amount about meth labs, and actually offers to set one up to help with funding.
Mekhit sits at the little desk with her forehead resting in her hands and laughs until she cries.
She checks her reflection in the datapad-no makeup smears to fix, since there’s no point in making your eyes look larger if they unsettle everyone around you with their natural size, and clever application can only do so much to cover nonstandard bone structure.
She goes back into the showy sitting room, to see the troll candidate sitting cross-legged on the floor with her sunglasses tipped up onto her hair. Her eyes are wide and angled, like all Alternians, but instead of yellow and her blood color, her eyes are a brilliant red.
“This is embarrassing but-how do you pronounce this?”
The candidate chitters.
“I know I look like I-I’m monolingual, alright, can you speak English? That’s kind of going to be important here.”
“Apologies! It’s only fair to speak to you in your own language. I saw your eyes and concluded more than one national heritage.”
“Yeah,” Mekhit sighs, “that’s a common reaction to the, uh, red eyes and everything.”
“No, thank god.”
“Only I’ve seen some like you that did. Cute little nubs, mostly.”
“Yeah, not even a keratin patch. How’s your name pronounced?”
“I don’t know how to use your letters,” the candidate says pleasantly. “My education was somewhat lacking when it comes to your delightful country.”
“Oh, that’s just-well, that’s great.”
The candidate shrugs cheerfully and makes a series of buzzing noises, which Mekhit does her best to slow down and repeat clearly.
“There’s not a long e sound at the end, coffeecake.”
“Your file says you’re trained in law.”
“I need a job to be able to stay in the city.”
“Why are you in the city?”
“Not a lot of trolls want to be in Skaia right now.”
“Alright, yeah, I don’t blame anyone for that.”
Terezi Pyrope becomes the new quartermaster by default, bumping the number of troll wallmen to a glorious and unprecedented two. Lalonde approves, after meeting her and being questioned as to the exact purple shade of her irises and settling on a HEX code they are both familiar with.
Lalonde has been busy, but extremely distracted the entire day. She can’t grasp the concept of space. She’s taken science classes at Flagship that would melt the brain of someone less intelligent, but as was pointed out earlier, orbit is at the very least a decade away. Human technology hasn’t moved nearly as fast as it is capable of, these last twenty years or so, after Lalonde’s mother tore a hole to hell in the middle of Flagship’s labs and destroyed two hundred years’ worth of research. That was not an enjoyable experience to live down with professors that witnessed it firsthand.
Jade took the plans back to her staff, some of the most dedicated and clever people in the entire continent, and so Lalonde has mostly been reliving the morning. Zahhak has incredibly lovely handwriting. She wonders briefly where he and his friends are these days, and if the greatcoats they were given are keeping them warm in the snow.
It’s still New Years’ Day, no matter that it’s the day after the Captain’s return, which means that at dusk there is the remembrance rites and a nicer dinner than usual. Ronan isn’t cooking, having been replaced by an actual cooking staff, so dinner is bacon and fried tomatoes and peach upside down cake.
At the remembrance rites they list the names of those who died in the year past, a tradition unique to the Wall and her elderly soldiers. From Beetle Bonham to the joking addition of the Empress, not one person is skipped, and their ghosts are given coffee and rice to pacify them. There is a bonfire at the end of the night. Lalonde’s had more than a few drinks, but she’s upright on a hastily recalibrated prosthetic and a brand new cane, and Captor isn’t such a long walk away. He’s sitting near the fire, the warmest place in the training yard, and his scarf is wrapped around his ears.
“We could have an uncomfortable emotional discussion,” he says without preamble as she makes her ambling way to the ground, “Or we could just kiss all the time and never ever talk about it.”
“Is it common for adolescents among your people to be stubborn assholes all the time?”
“We’re pretty much all just dicks, yeah.”
“I could talk this into the ground. Don’t say anything to the contrary or I will just to prove a point.”
“I’m not saying you couldn’t, Lalonde, I heard about what you were like as a teenager. What’s psychoanalysis?”
“Wordy bullshit. It’s against human policy for dating within the ranks, you know.”
“Yeah, unless you’re from a different chain of command. I looked up the regs.”
He’s laughing silently, from the flashes of teeth in the light. He needs a good dentist, she thinks.
“I wouldn’t want to make you choose.”
“Lalonde, I didn’t choose to join the military because it’s what I want to do with my life. Your intelligence department is a crying fucking shame and I am disappointed that you ever thought it might be approaching adequate.”
“I don’t have the authority to make you head of intelligence.”
“Oh, don’t give me that shit, you’re a quarter of the city government.”
“I’ll talk to my brother and Jade and John. You’re quite right about our intelligence department, of course. We’ll have to look into it.”
“Good thing, or I might have to start selling fruit in a market stall or some fucking thing.”
“I can’t see the future, of course, but I think it’s prudent to tell you that I don’t want children. Not for a long time.”
“Thank god, we’d be terrible parents. Do you want to get dinner this weekend? Is that how humans do it?”
“Close enough. I’d enjoy that.”
And the sun sets over Consequence City.