She'd known about the process of concupiscence since the first time the drones made their way down to the main chamber. The assistants to the mother grub, her lusus among them, had formed fuzzy regimented ranks, their horned heads tilted down in either submission or warning. The drones had come down in one silent swarm and left just as efficiently, leaving all that proof of love and hate in the collecting chamber's twelve-sided cells.
Encountering concuspience proved to be a different matter than reading about it on her cavern-locked husktop. She'd been in the tunnels, resting underneath one of the round, pill-like drones that fanned air through the chambers. It was a moment snatched in-between emptying out the cullbaskets, and even the ventilation drone seemed to not notice her, caught up in its own private beetle thoughts. Its wings whirred constantly, tickling eddies over her hair. It was her entire concept of wind, and she was a million miles away, relishing the prickle of moving air against her damp neck and querying how it could be the stuff of tornados, thunderstorms, sandstorms.
Over the buzz she'd heard a voice down the corridor, laughing.
She had thought that black romance would be the most confronting of the two to encounter, but she was used to violence, had spent perigrees wading ankle-deep in the viscous spawning soup to scoop out injured wrigglers and pop their spinestems with one quick twist.
The two other mothers didn't do anything as simple to understand as bite or scratch. There was murmurs, sighs, low wounded sounds. The noise of their intimacy was so similar to the noise of violence, but for some reason worse. Porrim had listened for a while, frozen in place, then fled. She'd holed herself up in her hivechamber against the warm fur of her lusus and picked at her unease until she could start to see the shape of it. She'd fallen asleep tucked between her lusus's legs, dreaming the dream of golden spires and an open black sky.
The next night one of the other mothers noticed her expression. Distress, like weather, was a novelty in the caverns. She'd sat down with Porrim on a clean-enough cullbox and plied her with dried palmfruit slices, wrinkled like ears, until she spilled.
It didn't take long. Porrim had wanted it out of her, like pulling a splinter or cleaning a wound. "Those two don't even like each other, not really. It's just because they're both down here." She pressed her bare feet to the wood of the cullbox, tapping her toes. "It's like putting beetles together in a matchbox."
Each of the other mothers only vaguely remembered the problems of the young. The youngest of the ranks had been sporting grey hairs and dulling horns when Porrim's lusus had bought her in with the night's harvest; by then they carried out their work in well-worn orbits, their routines entrenched by years. Porrim's distress was unknowable and amusing, like watching a dog barking at shadows. "Even overground everyone is limited to the people they know," the other mother said. "The people in their hivestem, the people in their occupation... There may be millions of people on the planet, but how many will someone meet during their life? You know the people that you know. We just know fewer."
"But everyone else can choose which people they know," Porrim pushed. She'd read about this on the waxy wrinkled datagrubs they kept in the caverns, leashing them to her husktop and scrolling through the pictures they contained. There were rolling little scuttlebuggies, long stretching sublines, aeroshuttles. Members of society can come and go as they please, the datagrub told her, as long as they do not threaten the safety of society.
What little remained of the other mother's interest ran out with her palmfruit. She pocketed the scraps and shrugged a shoulder, her shifting illumination making the shadows on the walls twist. "Well, everyone else isn't down here. You make do or you don't. You'll change your mind, maybe, when you come to that age."
With a dawning horror, Porrim considered the five other trolls in the Mother's service. Her whole world was just those five. That was that, unless the Mother created a new little jadeblood to tend the caverns. Then Porrim would be the old troll with dull horns, stooped perfectly to fit the cavern entrance-ways, filling the new jadeblood with horror.
Porrim returned to her block at the end of her rounds with a certain calmness. She took everything important from her tiny space and slotted them into her sylladex, and then took everything unimportant and placed them in a tidy pile on her desk. There was more of the latter than the former, and not a lot of either. She went down to the cavern where the Mother's assistants roosted and picked her lusus out of the churring, furry wall of bodies for one last moment.
The checkpoint at the top of the tunnels was used to keeping trolls from breaking in, not out. The guards shouted, but she was small, and a lifetime wading through the wrigglers had made her light on her feet. She dove through the undergrowth, greenery whipping at her legs and sharp unbreathed air burning her lungs.
She slept underneath the arching jade bower of a fern, tucked down into the foreign crunch of leaf litter and letting the fronds like mothlegs brush her face. She woke to small colourful creatures flitting about her like tiny moths. Wingbeasts, she remembered. She'd read about those. Up above. Up where she was.
"Good morning," she said, and decided that it was.
Porrim's phone bleeped sadly, a sound that warned her not only of an incoming message but that its warranty probably contained a nasty little clause about water damage. She paused in the middle of tadpole wrangling to wipe one muddy hand on her shirt (ruined) and fish her husktop (now blooping) out of a pocket (inexplicably full of mud?).
Her incoming message said "OH MY GOD LOOK AT THESE PERFECT BABIES".
When Porrim turned to look Meulin was knee-deep in the shallows of Rays and Frogs, neat black trousers rolled up to her knees, furiously texting with one hand and cradling round pastel tadpoles in the other. Their nubby flailing tails had soaked her shirt with the sort of muck that one tended to find in frog ponds, and Porrim would have winced had she not been covered in worse.
Porrim toed a tadpole that had been swimming around and around one of her ankles; at the touch it sped off for safety under a lily-pad. She turned to face Meulin properly. "You don't need to do that. I can hear you."
Meulin pressed more buttons with her free hand, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. Porrim's phone went blonk. The next messages were just gifs: an astonished-looking meowbeast with its lower jaw open, a dramatic zoom of a skitterbeast turning to stare at the camera, and a gif of a woman crying and fistpumping.
"I see," lied Porrim. Meulin beamed.
Meenah had known Kurloz through some sort of high-spectrum social circles, and through the tide of second-hand gossip (or, considering its source, gosship) Porrim had expected Meulin to be something out of the Troll Jungle Book, a wild creature culled and tied down into hand-me-down indigo clothes. Instead Meulin turned out to be sleek and shiny and well-kept, five foot nothing of pampered housecat. She was radiant with the sort of energy that Porrim could only marvel at, even if it tended to manifest in offputting ways.
Porrim nibbled at her grubroll, damp riverbank grass prickling at her bare calves. Her trainers were piled next to her, full of water and beyond salvage; she'd have to alchemitise new ones. She shaded her phone's screen from the frosty light of her world and read the string of number, symbols, and letters that Meulin sent her. She'd been more than capable with arithmetic, but the complicated equation on her screen was far beyond her.
Porrim had seen the inside of Meulin's hive and was aware of the vast glittery array of her shipping math competition trophies, but something that complicated looked like it was probably beyond her as well. A terrible suspicion arose in her mind. "This is a face, isn't it? What's it doing?"
Meulin covered her mouth, faux-bashful. "It wants to talk about things, but it's shy!"
Porrim tried not to stare at her. "You can do that with your actual face."
"I know," Meulin said, licking butter from her fingertips. "This one is cuter though!"
"Well, what things does this face want talk about?"
Meulin leaned in close, staring at Porrim like she was a particularly interesting mouse-hole. Her tail twitched behind her. "Why did you abscond from the orphanage? Why didn't you stay to get culled?"
Porrim tucked her feet in. "Ah. That's a little personal, isn't it?"
"And there's no-one better to get purrsonal with! I need to know backstories, Pawrim." She put a hand over her bloodpusher, a gesture that would have had more gravitas had it not been the hand that was holding her grubroll. "I need to know," she said gravely, as butter dripped on her skirt.
"It's a long story."
Porrim chewed thoughtfully. "I traveled through an enchanted apparel box and became queen of a strange land, and returned changed in ways I cannot fully describe."
"A wizard came to my hiveblock and announced that I must go on an incredible journey across the land to destroy some terrible jewelery. After completing my quest I set out for the hemononymous isles across the sea."
"I awoke from a night of imbibing to discover that I could not find my scuttlebuggy. Hijinks ensued."
"Ms Marnyan, you are cold-hearted and cruel!"
It was warm, and she was content, even despite the frog gunk under her toeclaws. "Why do you want to know? Are you looking for someone to take under your paw?"
Meulin laughed. "Don't be silly! I was culled, I'm not a culler. I couldn't pawsibly."
"I bet you could. I bet you could take me in. Dress me up. Feed me sweet things." Porrim batted her eyes, and Meulin went olive to the tips of her ears.
"You're teasing," Meulin protested, suddenly shy.
Porrim had been. In the face of Meulin's blush, she took a moment to try to reassess things. All her secretive daytime graffitti had come true with the game. There were no drones any more. Free concupiscence. Love without buckets. If no sword was hanging over your neck, why not be sincere?
Meulin tasted like grubroll when Porrim kissed her. It was a terrible first impression to have, so she did it again. Meulin made a sound low in her throat; when Porrim ran a hand along the side of Meulin's neck it bloomed into rough purring under her palm. As impressions, first or otherwise, went, it was much better.
"I have only one thing to say," Meulin said when they broke apart, and reached for her phone.
A barkbeast started wriggling on Porrim's screen, fat little paws flailing wildly. She'd heard about an ancient Beforan sect that had scryed for meaning in clouds, peering at every little curl and whiff for meaning. Porrim suddenly knew how they felt. "I don't get this one," she admitted. "It looks distressed."
"It's happy!" Meulin said, voice stuck to eleven. "It can't, Purrim, it just can't."
"It can't what?"
Meulin paused. "Anything?" she said, after a moment. "Anything! It can't anything."
"I see," Porrim said. Then, because the tadpoles were impossibly, exhaustingly different from the frog she knows they should be making, and because she had more grubrolls in her sylladex and they all needed eating, and because Meulin was looking at her mouth again, she asked "How is it different from that meowbeast you showed me before? On a scale of FEELS to i can't."
When the attack came, it was without warning, and it utterly ruined their enjoyment of a gif of a slowcreature hugging a meowbeast. Meulin pulled her hand from where it was twined with Porrim's and rolled as soon as the snakelike shadow of the Dersite assassin stretched over her. Porrim swung her chainsaw free, the drop from her sylladex lending it momentum. Her elbows wrenched to stop its arc; she could keep swinging straight through to the assassin, but Meulin was between her and it, and the Suffrage was not a discriminating weapon.
"Move back," she said, but Meulin was facing away from her.
When the assassin stabbed at Meulin, she pivoted. She grabbed the spear behind the tip and pulled; the assassin lurched forward, not letting go. Meulin threw herself bodily forward, and her tug-o-war partner came right off of its feet. As Porrim watched, uselessly, Meulin rolled, recovered, then flipped backwards to land on the Dersite's chest. There was a schwing! as her claws come out.
"You canned," Porrim said once the assassin's feet had definitely stopped twitching. Meulin raised an eyebrow at her. "The opposite of 'I can't', I mean," she explained. "Nothing to do with preserving fruit. Hmm. I'll stop."
"You tried," said Meulin sympathetically, then glared over Porrim's shoulder. "Omg, where did you all come from?!"
There was more Dersites behind Porrim when she turned, a nasty pack with even nastier knives. Porrim revved her chainsaw, and it rumbled in her hands in an incredibly satisfying way.
"You can do it!" Meulin cheered. "Cut up ALL the bad guys!"
Carapaces were tougher than imps and daywalkers, but few things were as tough as a 120cc chainsaw. By the time she finished all of the tadpoles were hiding under the broad lily leaves, colourful snouts nervously poking out.
"I have a lot of feels," Meulin said, biting her lip. "Let me tell you all about them."
CC: how the merry flippin shell did you spend a whole perigree there and not even breed a single dam frog
AC: v(´・◡・｀;)v > FIGHTING ASSASSINS...?
GA: So+ many assassins.
There were disadvantages to being in your dreamself. Time got vaguely hazy, previous senses of urgency got slightly fuzzy. You sometimes had the feeling of rolling over in bed even when standing up, which played havoc with one's sense of balance. If you weren't careful you would sometimes snore. You felt perfectly rested and refreshed, which seemed like an advantage up until you woke up back into your real body and felt every single imperfection all at once.
As far as Porrim was concerned, however, the Prospit wardrobe more than made up for it.
Down in the caverns they'd all worn serviceable rough black, stainproof against any colour of the spectrum. Overground in the orphanage there had been more black, still practical but more nicely made, provided to her by the hivecluster. When she had left and headed out into the desert she had taken white to keep off the worst of the sun, and eventually learnt to make vibrant dyes from fat-leafed succulents.
The first time she had woken up dressed in gold-threaded skirts and brocaded bodices straight out of picturebook wrigglertales, she thought she was dreaming. It was the sort of false truth she would later find out that the game liked. Her pleasure at the detail of her dream wardrobe had lasted up until the White Queen, sat by her bedside, had coughed politely, and Porrim had made her first impression by toppling off of her bed.
Latula, on the other hand, had been less impressed by dream couture. Not two minutes into their mission to steal the Queen's ring, Porrim was startled by the heart-breaking noise of incredibly beautiful fabric tearing.
She glanced back from peering over the tower battlements. "What are you doing?"
Latula looked up from tearing apart her skirt, skinny grey shins now visible underneath the smooth silk of her skirt. "Improving shit, babe!" She pulled the tear open further, the ripping noise unbearably loud and even more annoying.
"We have things to do."
"And as if I'm gonna get them done in this!" She finished her tear with a r4dic4l flourish, and the bottom foot of her dress came clean off. The alteration seemingly complete, she ripped the torn-off fabric into two long halves and knotted them around her knees.
"Woo! Okay, now we can get down to businezz. That's two Zs, there. Breaking out the big gunzzz tonight! Three there. No holds barred."
Porrim gave her a look. "And you needed to murder your skirt because...?"
Latula threw the horns with one hand and pulled her skateboard from her dream sylladex with the other. "Because dream scrapes are kinda grody? Last time I was picking gold flakes out of my scabs for like a week. 'Tuna called me glittergash the whole time. I am so totally not interested in doing that again."
The board was bright, subterfuge-destroying red. On one side a dragon made of rubies clutched a skull in its claws; on the other side Latula had opted for a more subtle approach and had painted LATULA in big blaring capitals. Porrim risked a fatal case of r4d1c4l poisoning to grab it by a wheel. "You are not taking that thing."
"Uh, yeah, P-Mar, I'm totes taking this thing. I'm putting the 'speed' in 'speed and secrecy', y'know?"
Latula pulled at her board. Porrim tightened her grip. "At the cost of the 'secrecy' part."
"Pffft," said Latula, and then, as if this was not sufficient, "pfffffft. The Baleen Drama Queen's plans are hella lame. There was like a negative percent chance this plan was going to work."
It was true that Meenah's tactics had not turned out to be the best. Porrim didn't mind. Apart from the gigantic text files that bore titles like How Many -Isms In Victory? (A Simplified Guide) that turned up in their inboxes regularly, Meenah's plans were the only ones on the table. Trying to snatch the Queen's ring was a goal, even if Porrim wasn't sure if Meenah had further actions in mind for it or if she simply couldn't bear someone else having something that shiny. Porrim rubbed at her face with her free hand. "So you volunteered because--"
"Of the sick golden grinds, duh. Nowadays if I try to get some ramp time in, do a couple of sick flips off the chain, it's all 'no Latula, you can't ollie off of the moon' 'Latula, stop traumatising the natives, no they don't want to see if you can jump over six of them in a row', 'Latula, we kind of have better things to do than to wreck some tight 360s off of the battlements'. Ugh!" She put her hand to her head and made an L. "This is just another dumbass half-baked plan going straight to zilchville, population: us."
Porrim crossed her arms. "If you act like that it will."
This did not help the situation. Latula sneered in the toothy way that only a Pyrope could. It was like getting attitude from a bear trap. "God, why do you have to be like that?"
"Like what, exactly?"
"Like that! 'Bluh bluh bluh, you're all just wrigglers to me. Bow down before your new Mother Grub and let her tell you how you're all being dumbasses.'"
Despite the cheapness of the jab, Porrim could feel her face flushing jade. It was childish, but she couldn't help herself. "I'll tell you as soon as you tell me why you have to be like that?"
"Uh, you mean, totally radical?"
"Uh, I mean, totally farcical?"
"Sarcasm soooo suits you. You should totally do it some more." Latula tugged down her shades, rolled her eyes spectacularly, then pushed them back into place.
Porrim sighed. "Well, I have to agree with you on one point. I don't think this mission will be a success."
"See it in your clouds?" Latula sneered.
"No," Porrim said, "I see it in that stair behind you."
Latula raised an eyebrow. "What?"
Porrim shoved, and ran.
The bright shining light of Prospit had been hard for the other trolls to cope with at first, but Porrim had spent years staring for meaning in wispy clouds as they drifted across the face of the Beforan sun. Refracted sunlight on golden bricks was a piece of frosted confectionery in comparison. She raced along the narrow bridge between towers, Prospit glinting beneath her. Carapacians lurched with a clatter out of her way as she ran; behind her she could hear them muttering about her bad manners, then shouting as they were pushed aside again. Over their indignant squawks came a surprisingly foul torrent of curses.
"Mituna is a bad influence on you," Porrim shouted.
"My foot is gonna be a bad influence on your butt!" Latula howled.
There was a rattle. Porrim glanced over her shoulder, then ran faster. "Why do you have more than one board?!"
"Because everyone should have more than one board on them at all times," Latula shouted, "like a sensible person!"
"Then why are you chasing me for this one?!"
"Because you're being such a bitch!" said Latula, and crashed into her.
They hit the ground hard, skidding on the improbably shiny bricks. Carapaces dithered in their radius, torn between scattering in fear and running to their princesses' aid.
"Bullseye," crowed Latula, which was so obnoxious that Porrim was forced to knee her in the thorax. In retaliation Latula bit her, and somewhere in the subsequent struggle Porrim sunk her teeth into something that was probably an elbow and Latula tried to shove a pair of shades up her nose.
The others underground had been far too old to resort to anything as blatant as fighting, but Porrim had got into scrapes at the orphanage. She'd won them, too. Polite society had taught her assailants that fighting involved bluffing and big swinging punches; Porrim, sadly deprived of a proper education, had instead learnt an unpretty economy of movement and the locations of all the important nerves.
Those had been straightforward scraps over playthings or confections or just over the constantly-shifting pecking order of children. This was worse, because it was so much better.
The two of them paused and regarded their anxious audience. In the silence, a pawn gave Latula a cautious poke with the end of a flagstaff.
Even laid out flat on the bridge, Porrim could see the turrets of the palace in the distance. They could dust themselves off, apologise to the carapaces, and still be at the palace in time to take advantage of the planned distraction.
There was always an 'on the other hand' in these situations. In this particular case, the other hand was Latula's hand, which was still up Porrim's shirt.
Porrim carefully slid down the bottom hem of Latula's shirt, noting the piercing for later reference. She cleared her throat. "The esteemed Ms Radglare."
"The truly tubular Mother Maryam."
"I think, perhaps, that we should retreat to my room, and stop offending the good folk of this fine city."
"Hmm," Latula said, pursing her lips in thought. "I think, perhaps, that that is a bodacious idea, and one that is also truly radical."
"All in favour?"
"It appears that the Hell Yeahs have it."
It was a short walk back to the tower, but Latula still somehow managed to high-five three carapaces on the way there. Porrim pinched her, hard.
It was only when an attempt to break the first ranks of the Black King's forces went awry that they noticed they were down a number.
Rufioh and Horuss admitted to not having seen Damara since The Incident, which was understandable. Everyone else that Porrim interrogated admitted that they hadn't seen her in even longer, except for Meenah, who shoved her hands in her pockets and did a poor job of disguising her exasperation.
"Cod, she can't even flip out propellorly. Properly," she added, twisting her mouth to the side. She was sitting in the green kelp grass of her land with her back against the glass of the fishbowl. Occasionally swarms of fish swam around behind her head, pock-pocking at her through the glass. "I'm still working on that one."
Porrim couldn't help herself. "And what would be the proper way to flip out?"
"You know, like in all the filmreels. Fix her hair and show a bit of skin, get some shit done."
Damara had fixed her hair and shown some skin, but it had nothing to do with filmreels. Filmreel heroines did not generally leave a trail of gore that big. They got the love of their lives and ended with a chaste kiss and a fade-to-black; they did not usually snap spines and drop motherfuckers. Something had gone sour in Damara, like a worm in an apple.
"No-one ever does anyfin right around here." Meenah shut her husktop and popped her knuckles, stretching widely. The opercula of her neck opened and shut like clam shells, baring little glimpses of fuschia. "Anyweir, I'm done with her. Lost cause."
The heir apparent in flip-flops and torn jeans. Meenah's lack of fucks given had been amusing at the start of the game, but that had been a long time ago. "Do you think," Porrim asked, "that your habit of seeing everyone as pawns to push around started when you were royalty? Or was it when you were in space, looking down at us all?"
"You got a funny way of showing conchcern, Marineam. I didn't see you causin' a fish when I gave her greef. Not a once." She looked serious for all of a second before she broke off and shook her head, grinning. Behind her, little neon fish darted around like a halo. "Fuss. Still workin' on that one too."
It was easier than expected to track Damara in the Land of Quartz and Melody. The red of her outfit stood out against the deep marine blue quartz-- or, more accurately, outfits. Somewhere along the line she'd taken to sitting around in packs of herself, half a dozen Damaras sitting with their heads bowed together like cartoon delinquents, passing around joints purloined from who-knows-where.
They were sat on a glass-sharp outcropping, knees touching. They watched passively as Porrim climbed the razor spars that counted for stairs in Damara's land, with all the vaguely interested blankness of crows. One of them gave her a lazy East Beforan two-fingered wave, though Porrim had suspicions about which way around her hand was supposed to go.
Damara prime had her elbows on her knees and head bowed down. Porrim's first thought was that she was crying, but then Damara raised her head to look up at her and Porrim caught sight of the rusty smudge running from nose to chin.
"Who gave you that?" Porrim asked.
Damara pressed a thumb to her nose to stop the flow, and deliberately spat blood. Another Damara dragged the toe of her shoe through it and drew a crude skull. "God."
Damara had been unimpressed by the carapaces, uninterested in her Denizen. The other players had seen what happened to Horuss and Rufioh, and it had made an impression. Cronus, the last bastion of inappropriately optimism (at least, where it was concerned with his pick-up tactics) was now thoroughly leery of her. Even underground, Porrim hadn't been that alone. "You've been by yourself for too long," she said. "Why don't you come with me? I have some things I could really use your help with."
The other Damaras jeered at her, the ones from earlier in the timeline sulky and sullen and the ones from later on unpleasantly bright.
"No, no. Wrong." Damara slipped to East Beforan to spit a long rattling sentence, and the others laughed nastily. When she switched back to West Beforan it was in wide-eyed faux-innocence. "Poor Damara," she blinked sadly, shaking her head. "Pooooor Damara. So kind, Porrim. Always help." She puckered up cartoonishly. "Kiss it better."
Porrim made a disgusted noise. Damara laughed.
"No kiss?" she said. "Oh no, I will stay frog forever."
"Being a frog would be an improvement to whatever you are right now," Porrim said, and left. Behind her the other Damaras made the amused hissing noises that meant ooh, burn in every language. The Damara from the current timeline said nothing, but Porrim didn't turn to see her expression.
All of the frogs were dead. Porrim had been meaning to get around to completing the breeding, but it had been difficult to find the time. She'd been distracted. There were things to do. Spats to put out, before Meenah could get wind of them and throw gas on the fire.
Now they were dead, laid out on the grass in specific lines.
Rufioh laughed nervously when she drew out the symbol they'd formed, and refused to look her in the eye. "I don't really want to translate this one, doll! Enough said, you know..."
CC: id leave the dam craysea beach abalone if i was you
GA: That so+unds o+mino+us.
GA: I'll accept that it must be serio+us, if o+nly because yo+u abstained fro+m patting yo+urself o+n the back abo+ut tho+se puns.
CC: well if you inseast
CC: aww yesss five times waterpun combo i am KRILLING it tonight
GA: There we go+, o+rder has been resto+red.
GA: Anyway, she can't be that bad. Yo+u went to+ see her after The Rufio+h Incident and yo+u're still here.
CC: so i know what i'm talking aboat
"I don't believe that's yours."
Damara gave her a blank look, but the sharp teeth of the Render Studies tended to be persuasive. She slowly put the consort down. It skittered away on its little turtle legs, making little panicked turtle noises.
"Just lunch," Damara said. "Not hungry, Porrim?"
"There's no way that particular consort would have been responsible for a sidequest, would it? They've been a lot harder to find recently."
Damara gave her a dimpled smile. "So clever."
"I don't need to be clever to see anything that you do."
That got a flicker of irritation, but it passed quickly. The current Damara's tended to favour amused disdain, half-way between the hope of the earliest Damaras and the ten-gauge hatred of the latest ones. Porrim hadn't seen any of the early ones for a very long time. "Wrong. Can be clever. You want to finish game." She pulled something hand-rolled from her sylladex and took a drag. "I know how," she said, and blew smoke straight in Porrim's face.
"Uh-huh. Forgive me if I don't seem convinced."
"Wrong. Get secret from them."
"Damara," Porrim said, "I don't think you could be trusted to get creepy from a clown."
Damara only bared her weird flat teeth in what Porrim could only hope was a smile. "Better than rest have. This work."
"And what do you want for sharing it with me?"
She raised a finger at Porrim, and for once it was an index finger. "One kiss. You only."
Porrim frowned. "I'm going to talk this over with the others."
"Sure," said Damara. Rufioh had taught her that one; for a perigree at the start of the game everything had been sure, Meenah, sure, sure, sure, I will, sure.
She should probably talk about it with Meenah and Aranea, Porrim knew. Between the two of them they knew the most about Damara and about the game. They were both awful gossips, though. She hesitated.
"No hands," Damara said sweetly, and leant forward, hands clasped behind her back. Porrim sighed and gave up.
Damara tasted of whatever horrible thing she'd been smoking. She kept her eyes open the whole time, staring half-lidded at Porrim.
When Porrim decided that enough was enough and pulled away, Damara looked down at herself in exaggerated stage motions.
"Oh no," she said, and laughed. "Still frog."
The Land of Maps and Treasure was dark when Porrim got to the center-- not the dark of rain or storms but just dark, off like a blown bulb. She hadn't known that that could happen. The gate above them lead to LOWAA, and Angels were perched like birds on its geometric filigree, hunched shoulder to shoulder and staring down with their eyeless faces. She hadn't known that could happen either.
"Don't go to her," Cronus said, blocking the entrance to Echidna's cavern. The white light of magic poured off of him as thick as oil, wavering in the air around him. The wand in his hand flared like phosphorus. "Don't go to her," he repeated. "It's dangerous."
"Put that down," Aranea said, always one heartbeat away from acting the schoolmarm. Her dice clicked together in her fist like knucklebones. "We'll talk about your theories later! We're in the middle of working on something very important."
"We'll be fine. We're both more than capable fighters," Porrim soothed. "Now, let us through."
"Don't trust that lowblood witch! If you talk to her, we're all gonna die," Cronus ran a hand down his face, and then raised his wand. "Sorry, babes."
His Robe and Wizard Hat fraymotif suddenly didn't seem so ridiculous. The stars lining his robe were no longer cheap five-sided doodles. There were galaxies in there, spinning. There was a noise like lightning; not its showy cousin thunder, but the air-tearing noise of lightning cages. Everything went white freezing-hot like the first second of a burn, and then she was spinning too.
Porrim lurched to her knees and staggered up, dizzy and detached. It felt like she was trailing behind herself, like a balloon tethered to something. She was bleeding, though she couldn't feel a wound. Everything was icy. It didn't matter. Cronus was a bright white blur, impossible to miss. The Master Tool revved in her hands.
She swung, then fell. Above her she felt the sensation of luck being drawn and loosed, like strings being plucked-- dice were being thrown. When she opened her eyes the Angels had disappeared, violet handprints smudged on the empty gate.
Aranea pulled her up, hands on her shoulders. The only thought that Porrim could muster was that it must be bad, because Aranea didn't seem to care that her ridiculous glasses had slid off of her face.
She was cold as the bottom of the ocean, stiff as raw metal. When she raised a hand she expected it to shatter like she'd been dipped in liquid nitrogen. She gripped the collar of Aranea's Librabarian outfit with unfamiliar knuckles, white skin splashed in jade. In what circumstances would you not know the back of your hand? This contorted claw she moved wasn't hers. Everything was wrong.
Aranea was talking but her voice was an indecipherable thundercloud boom, everything slurring together. Underneath it was the thump of heartbeats.
Porrim wanted to tell her to shut up for once and let her die in peace and quiet, but she was so hungry. She was hollow from the ribs down.
Aranea smiled, her little spider teeth bright and sharp against her lipstick. She tugged down her collar with hands that didn't shake, and tilted her head away.
Porrim reached up.
The turning of rainbow drinkers was a staple in the cheap books, always with lots of bodices in conditions far beyond repair. The books always described their characters as succumbing to basest desires, like desire was a foreign body that was always there under lock, just waiting for death to turn the key so it could take over.
Much, much later, when there was not much else to do but wait for the next iteration of the universe to build itself up and meet them, Porrim went through every one of the shitty novels in her inventory. She red-lined the lot of them. Her deepest desire at the moment of her death had been to punch everyone for being idiots and to go have a lie-down. What she did with Aranea took skill and enthusiasm, and there was not a single thing basic about it. Credit where credit was due.
She woke up under a Maps and Treasure palm tree, the low-watt in-game sun shining stripes on her through the vegetation. Further investigation discovered Aranea, knelt over her stomach and frowning. Her lipstick seemed startlingly bright and Porrim wondered for a moment where she'd gotten it, then realised that it was just because Aranea was pale as cement dust. There were bite marks blooming blue all over her neck, and not all of them were near her jugular.
Aranea's sole concession to modesty was a bra with altogether too much web-patterned lace, but seeing as Porrim was nearing nothing but sunshine and palm-shaped shadows, she decided to withhold comment.
"I apologise for the intrusion, but your sylladex was open, and I, well. You weren't waking up, and it looked like it needed to be done." Aranea wrinkled her nose and held up a needle and thread. "It was kind of off-putting."
Porrim raised herself up on her elbows and surveyed her stomach. There was two messy lines of stitches from each hipbone to the opposite side of her ribcage, skin dented in in places where the muscle had burned and where Aranea had pulled the skin tight. She looked like an artisansassin's first clay pot, bumpy with thumbprints.
"X marks the spot?" Aranea said, sheepish.
"Thank you," Porrim said politely. Aranea smiled.
"Do you think you could eat something?" she asked.
The two of them considered her stomach.
"I think," Porrim said carefully, "that my days of eating grubloaf may be over."
"That is certainly not a problem." Aranea ran her hands up over her neck and held her hair out of the way. "I've always wanted to make someone breakfast the next morning."
Though she never admitted it, Porrim had seen Meenah long before the game. There had been daily eventsheets in the orphanage, at first to teach them all about important events and current happenings and then to keep them busy with crude arts and crafts. Under the mistress's guidance, Porrim and a dozen other lusiless children had made origami snakebirds out of sheets containing both Peixes and strung them from the rafters for luck.
The eventsheets had ran a picture of Meenah the morning of the abdication. It was blurry from movement and overlit, but her face was clear, looking out a viewport as her hotwired shuttle left the space elevator's bay. She'd cut her hair short, and it puffed out around her face in tufts. The reporters had claimed that she'd cut it off and braided it into a rope to climb down from her tower, but Porrim doubted it; she'd seen enough seadweller strength during the game to know that Meenah could have jumped clear from her room without so much as rolling an ankle. Besides, Meenah was incapable of doing anything as repetitive and practical as braid-- Aranea did her hair once a week, weaving two neat little ropes with spider dexerity and telling stories to the back of Meenah's head.
There hadn't been much of a controversy when she left. The people had said it was cruel to keep a little heiress so near the Empress. Everyone knew how tyrians were. They said the Empress should have kept Meenah down in the depths with their shared monster lusus, or else popped her into cryogen until she herself passed. That was Her Imperial Compassion, though, heaping kindness on all living things whether they wanted it or not. Meenah had been dredged out from the ocean like some weird deep-sea creature and dumped into an imperial life, struggling all the way.
The eventsheets had run a picture of that, too, for contrast: Meenah, hair down to her jeweled slippers, swathed in robes and held tightly in place by a sash that trailed like fins. She was lovely except for the faintest hint of surliness in her expression. Porrim had snuck that particular origami from the class and kept it in her holdbox until long after all the other ones had faded to white in the sun.
Meenah's stubbornness and tendency to cut and run had once been strangely inspiring. It had become less appealing when she had became more familiar with it, the way that most things tended to. Still, she'd kept that photo for a long time.
"Huh. Smaller than I'd thought." Meenah rolled the bomb between her hands, looking it over idly. She was stretched out in the shadow of her planet's fishbowl, resting in the weird warping sunbeams that shone through the glass. The fish inside were long gone; something had changed in the water over the sweeps, and she'd never been able to get them back.
"My sincerest apologies" Porrim said, looking down at her. "I'll just pop out and get a bigger one."
"Shell yes. Get a better coloured one while you're at it, this black and white business ain't reely doin' it for me. Somefin with spikes on, too."
"Should I get your face printed on it, maybe?"
"Shit yes, now you're talkin'."
"You usually complain about that." She paused. "Do you think we're missing something?"
Meenah flicked the bomb into a spin, balancing it on one finger like the universe's most terrifying ball. "Just between you and me, Porrim Mantarayam, I think our team was always a few barnacles short of a boat."
Porrim raised an eyebrow. "Present company excluded, I hope?"
"Nice. Thank you very much."
"You're whelkom. Aight, go time." Meenah clambered to her feet and fastidiously brushed grass from her jeans. It struck Porrim as the most ridiculous attempt at formality. Meenah Peixes's arbitrary dress standards: wear torn jeans to a mass murder-suicide, but make sure they're at least vaguely tidy. Porrim flicked some stray pieces from her shoulders.
"Fussiest undead monster what I ever did sea." Meenah tucked the bomb under one arm. "Any last requests?"
"Ask a cliche question, get a cliche answer. Kiss for luck?"
Meenah raised an eyebrow at her, then shrugged. "Okay. Let's sea if I can raymember how this goes." She cleared her throat. "Your Empress thanks you fore your sweeps of seavice, even if you spent most of it stickin' your blowhole where it didn't belong, and also for helpin' to make a bigass bomb to turn us all into ghosts." Meenah kissed her on the forehead with an obnoxious smack. "The end."
Porrim smiled. "Got a few more minutes to make a little more luck?"
Meenah snorted, fins flaring, and started to wander off to the gate. "I'm gonna blow everyone up so flippin' hard."
Kanaya was the ghost of teenage years past, all chin and nose and awkward am-I-doing-this-right glances. Her posture was ramrod-straight, though, and Porrim could almost see the wonderful arcs that a chainsaw must be capable of in her hands. She sat between Porrim's knees, the back of her neck flickering on and off like a loose connection. It hadn't taken Porrim long to master her illumination, and she suspected Kanaya would learn to control it even faster.
Porrim took a stray lock of hair and pinned it neatly in place around a horn. Kanaya didn't have a lot of hair, but Porrim had spent an awfully long time as a teenager: all hair could be pinned and styled, if one had enough pins and enough style.
"I'm... uncertain. About what's to come. If I've made the right decisions."
Porrim took a pin from her mouth. "They've been eventful decisions, if nothing else. It sounds like you've had a lot of good times in with the bad."
Kanaya's head tilted to the side, as if she was questioning it. "I. Yes, I suppose I did. It sounds like your session was just as eventful, though. Did you enjoy it?"
Having emotions in death-- game over death, as opposed to in-game death-- was a sort of once-removed knowledge about oneself. It was like looking at childhood mementos, in a way. One could see a thing and remember that they were happy or sad at the time, without feeling it directly.
"I did," Porrim said, and as much as she could, meant it.