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rose, rose, rose red

Chapter Text

Rose, rose, Rose red

Will I ever see thee wed?

/

I will marry at thy will, sire

At thy will.


 

 

Princess Rose Lalonde stood in her barren room. The chill that had settled in after the fire was doused caressed her face, but it was far from comforting. Her hands were hidden in the folds of her voluminous purple skirts and her nails bit into the soft skin of her palms. She welcomed the distraction from her own morose thoughts.

These rooms, rooms that served as her sanctuary for as long as she could remember, would never be hers again. The walls that once held beautiful tapestries telling dark stories were blank, her bookshelves empty, the stones of the floor exposed. It was an anonymous room now, leaving no hints of the girl who used to live there.

The door creaked open behind her and her brother slipped inside, jaw clenched and eyes turned downwards. Wordlessly he threw himself in her arms, face buried in her shoulder as he clung to her desperately. Rose squeezed him just as tightly, the embrace of her twin as familiar as her rooms were not.

“I'm going to get you back, Rose,” Dave muttered. “He can't fuckin' send you away like this, it's not- it's fucked up!”

Rose raised an eyebrow at her brother's appalling language but said nothing. Truth be told she didn't trust her voice enough to speak without her words wavering and sending the tears she had been so tightly holding back flowing.

“You're fourteen, you sh-shouldn't have to get sent away and married off to some Prospitian asshole guy like cattle for breeding, it isn't fucking fair. This is bullshit and I'm rebelling.”

The hitch in his voice is what finally broke the dam and Rose felt the red-hot tears begin slipping down her face.

“I agree,” Rose said, keeping as much strength in her voice as possible. “It's not fair but it isn't as if we have any choice in the matter.”

“I hate this. I hate him,” Dave said vehemently.

Rose didn't disagree. They held tight to each other like it would be the last time. For all she knew, it was.

They pulled away as the door swung open, identical bereft expressions barely hidden on their faces underneath the tear-tracks. The servant, a troll with burgundy accents on their Dersian purple clothes, led them both down the hall and into the throne room.

So early in the morning it was empty aside from the king himself, impassive and cold on his silver throne. The gleaming spires of his crown reached toward the painted ceiling. The black marble walls leeched any warmth from the room, sending a shiver up Rose's spine. The queen, undoubtedly sleeping off her wine, was an unspoken void in the room, not even present to see her daughter be sold off for political gain. Rose could feel the anger radiating off of her brother as they stood at the foot of the throne's dais.

“Where's mother?” Rose asked before the intimidating silence could stretch on for too long. She knew perfectly well that bringing up her absence would be a sore spot, but the king's face stayed carefully composed.

“She sends her love and wishes you safety on your trip,” he said coolly, not even looking at Rose.

Rose could feel Dave shift beside her, feel the words that he so desperately wanted to say but managed to hold back burning in his throat. Imperceptibly, she inched closer to him.

“When's Rose leaving?” Dave blurted.

Their father's eyes didn't shift to Dave as he spoke. Rose wondered if he had ever looked at either of them at all. “As soon as her things are packed away in her carriage.”

Rose's chest felt tight, her velvet dress too heavy and close to her skin. The room was too cold and too hollow and she felt as if she were going to scream if she had to stand vulnerable at the feet of her uncaring father for another moment. She offered a tight-lipped smile and the shallowest of curtsies before turning and leaving the throne room.

Once out in the hallway she balled her skirts in her fists and broke into a run, dodging surprised servants and lesser nobles in her mad dash. She spared a glance behind her when someone cried out to find that Dave was on her heels. Fear and confusion were written across his face but she paid him no mind.

She skidded to a stop in front of the library doors, slipping inside and letting the darkness and silence surround her. The door thudded to a close a few moments later, followed only the sound of her ragged breathing and Dave's light footsteps across the rug-covered floors. He hugged her from behind, pressing his cheek into her shoulder.

She realized just how much she would miss how clingy her brother was and a new wave of tears, followed by sobs, burst out. She held tight to his arms around her neck, velvet sleeves wrinkling under her grip.

“I just had to get out, Dave, he doesn't care, neither of them care that I don't want to do this, they don't care-” she cried. Dave shushed her, pressing her close.

“We could run away,” Dave offered, petting Rose as she sobbed. “I'm pretty sure we could pack our stuff and wear rags and leave through a servant exit and nobody would even notice. We would make the most pitiful orphan kids in the whole goddamn kingdom and we could throw ourselves on any given doorstep and get taken in. Look at us, the most adorable urchins in Derse, we'd be set.”

Through her sobs, Rose managed a hollow laugh. “We would get lost in town immediately and a guard would find us,” she said.

“I'm not stupid, I'll bring a map.”

Against her will, her tears dried up. Her sobs subsided after a few minutes and she gently extracted herself from Dave's grip. Dave's face was tight as Rose gave him the barest of smiles.

“We can't run away, can we?” His voice was dejected, his red eyes searching her face for any implication that she was ready to go. Dave was willing to throw away everything for his sister and Rose knew she couldn't let that happen. She knew her brother was too selfless, and she too shrewd, to make it on their own. They didn't stand a chance, facing being returned to the king or worse before a week had passed. Her mad dash through the castle halls suddenly felt very childish. She had to play along with the political game until an opportunity presented itself to free herself and her brother.

Another second a deliberation passed before she shook her head. With a quick squeeze of his hands, Rose let go and took a step back. Her back was stiff and her face composed. The only sign that she had just been bawling her eyes out were the tear tracks that glistened on her splotchy cheeks.

“I need to face this,” she said tonelessly. Her jaw was tight and her lips pressed together in an unwavering line. Dave looked unconvinced.

“You don'- you shouldn't have to do this,” he said.

“We are both well aware that that doesn't matter. I have to.”

She brushed passed him and opened the library doors. Two guards waited outside, unsurprised to see the young princess. She didn't look back, neatly folding her emotions away as she left her brother alone.

Her father hadn't moved from his place on the throne, his eyes cold as Rose was brought to him. Rose stared back just as icily. He seemed unconcerned with the absence of Dave.

“Your things are prepared,” he said. Rose didn't blink.

“Okay, father. Let me say my goodbyes-”

“You're leaving now,” the king cut her off. Rose went pale.

“I haven't said goodbye yet. Not even to mother,” she said.

The king waved her off. “You've said enough. This betrothal will cement peace in our kingdoms, no more stalling.” He offered the barest of smiles, one that sent Rose's blood boiling more than it reassured her. “Goodbye Rose.”

She allowed herself to be led to the purple and silver carriage, peasants and nobles alike waving and vying for Rose's attention as she followed her guards down the walkway and up the steps. The posh, velveteen interior was warm to ward against the perpetually chill Derse air. Rose didn't note the comfort as it lurched into movement and led her away from the only person she had ever cared about, her brother who was more home than the gray marble castle ever was.

 

Rose drifted in and out of alertness. The two week trip to Prospit was a blur of gradually flattening scenery. Numbness and sorrow took turns dragging at her heart.

During one particularly sharp pang of grief, she imagined leaping from the carriage, hiding in the woods and taking her chances with the strange wild trolls and waiting until she could go back and rescue her brother from their father's cruelty. A firstborn son who was coming of-age was a valuable pawn and Rose didn't know what would become of him while alone under the king's thumb.

Numbness overtook her again and the thoughts of her brother faded into the distinctly Prosptian countryside.

Prospit's landscape was very different from Derse, flat and clear where Derse was mountainous and misty. The scent of brine and sea seemed to permeate the city and settle on Rose's tongue. She steeled herself against the sensory cacophony as the carriage procession snaked its way into the capital city. Brightly colored banners decorated the streets, almost as colorful as the outfits worn by the cheering Prospitians as they waved at Rose's carriage.

Rose sat back and closed her eyes.

 

The opulence of Prospit's castle was true to the name of the country in which it was located. White marble walls with golden windows illuminated vast painted murals. Thick orange rugs led the way into the ornate throne room. Rose's deep orchid dress made her feel like a spider in a meticulously tended garden, to be squashed as soon as someone noticed the intruder. Around her, people stared with wide eyes and parted lips as she passed. She kept her eyes forward and back stiff and tried not to let the whispers that followed her fray her already fragile nerves.

In a way, she missed the numbness of her trip. Now everything felt too present, the heat and scent and sounds all too vivid.

She took a deep breath to clear her mind as she was led into Prospit's golden throne room.

The high glass ceiling let in rays of sunlight that bounced around the room. Prisms sent rainbows scattering across the gathered guards and nobles, bright against the dark hair and dark, perpetually sun-kissed Prospitian skin. There was a single golden throne, backed by a sunburst mural of gems and colored tile on the wall, in which sat Prospit's king himself.

Rose wasn't sure what she had expected of the king, but what she saw certainly didn't convey kinglyness to her. Prospit's king was a middle-aged man, soft lines around his lips showing how often he spent with a smile on his face. His crown was rather plain, gold with brilliant blue and green gems inlaid at regular intervals. He stood as Rose entered and she was taken aback by both the action and his height. He walked with a jovial air and stopped in front of Rose.

He bowed, and Rose felt her eyes might have popped out of her head had she not carefully composed her expression. A second passed before she curtsied low, her skirts billowing around her as her knees nearly touched the floor.

“Greetings, princess Lalonde,” the king said, his voice low and gravely and seemed to be on the edge of bursting into laughter. “It is an honor to have you here in our court, and an honor to unite our kingdoms by marriage.”

Rose bit back a pained sigh as the reminder of why she was in Prospit swept over her again.

“The honor is mine,” she said with a deliberately flat tone.

“I think you will find my son to be a-” the king started before being interrupted by a yell.

Suddenly Rose felt a weight on her back. She froze in terror, falling to the ground in a painful heap.

A tongue began lapping at her hair and she turned her head to see a huge white dog bearing down on her, slobber dripping from its maw as it panted playfully.

“Ooooh no, I'm so sorry!” a young voice said. The weight was gone from her back a moment later, the dog going to stand at the side of its suddenly present master. Rose was helped to her feet by her guards and found herself eye-to-eye with a very apologetic looking girl.

“Sorry about that, Bec gets excited around new people and dogs don't know royalty from rabbits!” she said, her green eyes wide beneath circular spectacles.

“Jade,” the king said in a warning tone, “I thought I told you to keep Bec in your rooms until Rose was settled in.”

“You did,” the girl Rose assumed was Prospit's princess Jade said. “But he had to go for a walk.”

“In the throne room?”

Jade hesitated for a second. “Yes.”

The king raised an eyebrow.

Rose watched the exchange curiously. Jade seemed nothing like a princess with her wild, unbound hair and apparent lack of control over her pets and the volume of her voice. She wore trousers underneath a long tunic, the pale yellow making her dark skin glow. Her father made no issue of her appearance, and Rose suspected that it was normal for Jade.

She wondered if the heir would be just as ill-mannered and wild.

With a pout, Jade took her dog by the collar and led him away with a final curious look at Rose.

“I assume you would like to get cleaned up now,” The king said kindly. “You've had a long trip and an exciting greeting, let my page show you to your rooms. Formal introductions will be made tomorrow.”

With a final curtsy, Rose followed a wide-horned troll, decked out in eye-searing Prospitian yellow that Rose felt she would never grow accustomed to, to her living quarters.

Rose dismissed the page and opened the door herself, stepping in and turning her back to the room as she pulled the door shut behind her. She wasn't sure what would greet her when she turned. With a deep breath she turned and faced her room.

She noted with surprise that there was no yellow décor. Her own decorations from home adorned the walls, vivid against the white marble. She walked in slowly, tracing her fingers over the richly embroidered tapestries as she looked around. There were three rooms in her chambers: the sitting room with a fireplace surrounded by plush seats and fine tables, a small bathroom, and her bedroom. The bed was curtained off in violet velvet curtains and she parted them to sit.

It wasn't home, but it was clear the Prospitians had made an effort to make Rose feel welcome. She admired how quickly her things were brought up to her room and the fact that they had set everything up for her. It didn't make up for her unwillingness to be in Prospit in the first place, but at least she knew her pseudo-imprisonment would be comfortable.

She laid back and closed her eyes.

 

The thud of her door opening wrenched her from her unintentional nap. She sat up quickly, heart thudding against her ribs as she stared wide-eyed into the now-dark and unfamiliar room. In the doorway, a slight figure stood. Rose squinted until Jade was clear, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. Rose took a deep breath, pressing a palm to her chest as if to calm her racing heart from the outside.

“It's customary to knock,” Rose said, her tiredness making her words sharper than she intended. Jade gave her an apologetic look as she sat next to Rose on the bed. Rose found her annoyance fading as she took in Jade's demeanor.

“I have a question,” Jade said. “I wanted to wait until nobody would bother us to ask.”

“Yes?” Rose said, taking in Jade's expression: a strange mixture of earnestness and caution. Her shoulders were tight and her hands fidgety as she seemed to collect her thoughts.

“You're here to marry my brother, right?” Jade asked.

Rose nodded. “It was an arrangement between our fathers, to unite Prospit and Derse,” she recited. The excuses were burnt into her memory.

“Do you want to marry him?”

Rose had to bite back a bitter laugh. She took a deep breath and shook her head.

“I'm sure he's a great person but I just... I don't feel that way towards, well, boys. I never have; as long as I can remember when the other noble girls were gossiping about the boys I could never relate,” Rose admitted. Despite only recently meeting Jade, she trusted her enough to tell her. She needed an ally in Prospit anyway.

To Rose's surprise, Jade let out a relieved sigh.

“Oh thank goodness!”

Rose looked at Jade with eyebrows raised. Any tenseness was gone from her posture as she grinned at Rose.

“My brother isn't interested in romance at all, with anyone! He was so scared that you would love him and he wouldn't be able to recuperate. Uh, don't tell him I told you that, he's secretive.”

Rose nodded and Jade went on.

“I think he'll be happy about this honestly, he's been upset ever since the marriage was announced. I know the marriage is kind of... required. But I think that if you found someone else, John wouldn't fault you for that.” Jade smiled, taking Rose's hand and giving it a light squeeze. “And for the record, I'm very glad to have you as a sister!”

Rose blinked quickly, choking back sudden tears as she nodded. Jade stood and gave Rose a quick hug, surrounding Rose in the scent of earth and sunlight.

“I'll leave you to get some sleep, tomorrow you get to meet John, and I really do think you and him will be friends!” Jade said. “Sleep well Rose!”

“Goodnight Jade,” Rose said as the door shut.

As Rose began undressing and preparing for bed, she turned the new information over in her mind. She was thrilled that she would never have to pretend to love a man, never pretend to be happy in her marriage for the rest of her life. She was free to find a mistress someday if she so chose.

She was sold off as a political pawn, but her situation wasn't as hopeless as she had at first assumed. The analytical part of her realized that perhaps rationalizing her arranged marriage wasn't the healthiest thing to be doing. As soon as she laid back down, her mind stilled and she quickly drifted off to sleep.

 

Prospitian sunlight seemed a thousand times more intense to Rose's sleep-bleary eyes. She allowed herself to be roused from bed by a few maids and took her breakfast quickly. She barely tasted the sweet citrus fruits and light pastries set out in front of her, and didn't finish before she pushed it all away. Nightmares and the responsibilities of the day had spoiled her appetite for even the best of Prospit's royal kitchens.

The maids quickly fitted her into her usual Dersian fashions. Rose noticed the differences in the fabrics; the colors were obviously different but where Derse favored layers of heavy velvets with intricate designs, Prospitian couture was more flowing, silken sashes with bold patterns and golden taffeta layers. In Derse, women wore wide skirts and large puffed sleeves. Prospitian dresses were sleeker and hung more naturally.

In short, Rose stuck out.

One of the maids seemed to take note Rose's critical expression at her own dress and gave her a sympathetic smile.

“I'm sure you must be burning up in these dresses, I'll see to it that you're outfitted a with more climate appropriate wardrobe.”

Rose nodded her thanks as all but one of the maids left her room. With a deep and steadying breath she began following the last maid into the throne room. She hesitated for a moment outside of the gold-inlaid wooden doors before they were opened for her, her presence announced. Resisting the urge to close her eyes or turn and leave, she stepped in.

Rows of pews bordered the thick golden carpet that led to the front of the room, full of colorfully dressed nobles that watched with the air of those never willing to miss a spectacle. Two smaller thrones were set next to the king's throne, making the king's throne almost seem gaudy compared to their elegant and simplistic design. Jade sat in one with her back straight and hair and dress tidy, looking for the first time in Rose's eyes like an actual princess. Her discomfort was palpable.

In the other small throne sat a boy. He looked a lot like Jade. His hair was much shorter but just as wild as Jade's had been the day before. Similarly, his eyes seemed to be enlarged by his glasses, though his were a striking shade of deep blue where Jade's were bright green. The two even shared a slight overbite, his teeth resting against his lower lip.

He was watching Rose with an air of nervousness, shifting in his throne as Rose made her way down the aisle. She curtsied low.

“Princess Rose Lalonde,” the king began, “It is an honor upon all of Prospit to have you here. Please rise.”

She rose gracefully, back straight and head held high. She had been practicing the intricacies of court decorum from the time she could walk. Prospit may have been different, but there were things universal across kingdoms. She knew how to hold herself, where to keep her eyes, the carefully neutral expression to show at all times while being judged on all sides.

The smile and subtle thumbs-up from Jade was something that would earn her a few frowns, but Rose returned the smile anyway.

The king smiled, looking at Rose as if speaking to her personally despite his voice booming over the collected nobles. “For years, Prospit and Derse have been nothing but neighboring kingdoms. Communication had been sparse despite our common allies in the Alternian kingdom. The marriage between yourself and my son, Prince John, will cement a united future across all three kingdoms!”

The crowd cheered, a much more more jovial sound than anything that would have been heard in a Dersian court. Rose glanced at John, who seemed eager to escape the loud throne room. Rose felt the same way.

After a while, Rose was allowed to sit in the front pews, the curious stares of the gathered gentry boring into her head as the king spoke on about the two kingdoms and their newly opened avenues for trade. She listened intently and deliberately kept her eyes trained on him. When he stopped talking and dismissed the court, Rose was up as quickly as politeness allowed.

John was gone any quicker than he had any right to be. Jade met Rose's eyes and hurried towards her.

“He's avoiding me,” Rose said bluntly.

“No he isn't! He's just...” Jade trailed off before sighing. “He isn't doing it maliciously.”

Rose raised an eyebrow. “Avoiding someone for no reason seems rather rude to me.”

“Try not to be too hard on him, okay?” Jade said. She linked her arm through Rose's and began pulling her through the throne room.

“Now, I'm supposed to show you around! There's lots of rooms and most of them are dull, but I'll make sure we get to the important ones,” she said. Rose let herself be lead away.

 

The grounds of the royal castle were impeccable; the lawn was green and lush, the trees bright and nearly glittering as the leaves rustled in the breeze, flowers bloomed along well-tended paths. In spring, Prospit was alive and its castle was the hub of its life. Jade had shed her finery as soon as she was able, and led Rose out into the garden. Any pretense of a castle tour was dropped as soon as Jade was through the doors.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Jade asked quietly, her arm linked with Rose's as the two strolled deeper into the gardens. Her green eyes were wide and had a mischievous shine behind her circular spectacles.

Rose tilted her head. It had been quiet up until Jade's sudden question and her curiosity was high. “Of course.”

Jade looked around the empty path the two were on. “Well, according to troll rules, the younger ones aren't supposed to play with me unless they're of noble blood,” she started.

“It's the same way in Derse,” Rose said. Jade rolled her eyes.

“It's so silly! Troll rules are so stuffy. So... a few years ago, I made friends with some of the kid trolls!” She grinned widely.

Rose couldn't hide her expression of surprise. On Derse, a troll could be sent back to the Alternian kingdom, or worse, for stepping out of caste. “Isn't that dangerous?”

Jade shook her head. “Oh, no! We're all very careful. Besides, nothing bad will happen if we do get caught. At the worst, I might get scolded.” She shrugged and continued on the path as Rose mulled over the vast differences between the kingdoms. “Anyway, I tell you this because I thought you might like to meet some of my friends!”

With a final quick glance around, Jade grabbed Rose's hand and began running towards a copse of trees near the high stone wall surrounding the castle.

They reach the trees, out of breath, to be greeted by several excited shouts. Three young trolls in common clothes peeked out from between the branches. They were young enough to retain the anonymous grayness in their pupils, but the colored hems of their clothes betrayed their status. The lowbloods watched her with unveiled curiosity, and she stared back.

Without regard for her clothes, Jade sat down in the dirt amongst the trolls, grinning. All sets of eyes watched Rose eagerly as Jade settled in.

Well, when in Prospit…

With a soft puff of velvet and silk, Rose folded her legs underneath her. For a moment she was completely hidden from view by billowing purple cloth, but not shielded from the chorus of giggles from the surrounding kids. She flattened her skirts into submission and looked around haughtily.

The questions came suddenly, from all sides.

“Is it really always night time in Derse?”

“I heard everyone in Derse is a witch! Is that true?”

“Can you cast a spell? Talk to animals? Fly?”

Rose blinked back her confusion, lips twisting into a small smile. “Indeed, Dersites are inherently in tune with the magic of the world. Many hone their talents through years of study.” Her smile faltered. “However, it isn't a royal course of study and I am no more a sorceress than anyone.”

The trolls, and Jade, all looked disappointed. Rose refused to let her own disappointment show. Instead she tilted her head and studied the trolls.

“I admit, I am at a disadvantage here. You know my name but I know nothing of you.”

One troll, round-faced and ever moving, with olive green trim on her clothes spoke first.

“I'm Nepeta!” she announced with a wide grin on her strangely split lips. “I'm a guard apprentice!” she said, puffing out her chest proudly.

“Me too,” blurted another troll with wide horns. His face flushed brown and he began stammering, “I mean, I'm not Nepeta too, I'm Tavros, but uh, I'm also going to be a guard one day.” He ducked his head and another troll with large curved horns and masses of wavy hair placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I'm Aradia,” she said with a wide grin. “Future maid.”

Rose would never have been allowed to converse with trolls of such low status in Derse. The rebellious act, as tame as it apparently was in Prospit, buzzed in her mind.

“A pleasure to meet you all,” she said with a nod.

The novelty of having another princess in their midst wore off quickly, and they soon went to gossiping with Jade about people Rose didn't know. Her mind wandered as she shifted on her knees, the ground warm underneath her and the grass soft. The sun was out in full force and the breeze was aromatic with the scent of earth and growth.

It was nothing like Derse and its cold, mountainous climate. No bitter bite of snow scented the air, no glassy winds made her face raw. Every difference was blatant and alien and wrong to her.

Homesickness bubbled up inside of her and she crushed it as quickly as she could.

A change in tone amongst the others caught her attention. They spoke in a near whisper and, as subtly as possible, Rose leaned in to catch what they're saying.

“...dressmaker! A jadeblood furom Alternia. Two of them if what Sollux said is right,” Nepeta was saying inconspicuously. “They're purrobably going to be here within the next week!”

“Of course Sollux would say there's two of them,” Aradia scoffed.

“He wouldn't joke about this!” Nepeta insisted. “They're the best the crown can get, borrowed from Her Imperious Condescension herself!”

“No way!” Tavros cried, as the others shushed him. Rose continued to feign disinterest and the conversation picked up again.

“There's no way that, y'know, the Empress herself would lend her best dressmaker to Prospit, for a wedding Alternia isn't even involved in,” Tavros continued in a wavering whisper.

Rose stopped listening, lips pressed together. She can't escape the wedding talk no matter where she is. She struggled to her feet and the others fell silent, watching with the barely concealed guilt of those who were talking about someone and had been caught.

“If you'll excuse me,” she said, barely bobbing her knees in a curtsy before turning and heading back to the castle, stiff and single minded.

When she lost sight of the trees and trusted that she was out of view, she wilted, slouched against an outer wall of the castle in a corner between a wall and tower. She wrapped her arms around herself and took a deep breath, filling her lungs as much as her restrictive clothing would allow. Everything was too close, happening too fast and too suddenly and she had the distinct feeling of drowning.

Nobody could see her like this, gasping and shaking. She had to pull herself together before someone came looking-

She had no time to pull herself together before a shuffle to her side caught her attention. She glimpsed yellow cloth disappearing behind the curved stone wall and cried out before she could stop herself.

“Jade, wait,” she said, forcing as much steel into her voice as possible. The figure that reluctantly came back into view was not Jade.

John stood awkwardly, lanky arms crossed and shoulders hunched. He shuffled his feet and looked longingly away, as if he were prepared to make a run for it at any moment. “Hello,” he muttered.

“John,” Rose said simply, unsureness unhidden in her tone. “I'm sorry, your royal hi-”

“Ugh, no! Just John,” he said, his face scrunching up in disgust.

“Understood,” Rose said.

The two stood in silence, studying the other with wary apprehension. John breaks the silence first.

“Jade says you don't... you don't wanna be married for real,” he said carefully. An unintentional laugh made its way through her lips and John looked confused.

“No, I do not. At least, not to you. Do not look so injured, I am sure you're a very pleasant person just as everyone in Prospit seems to be, but I have no interest in men,” Rose said. “I suppose if we are to be married, you should know that.”

John looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “That's okay. We could still be friends though if you want.”

Rose smiled faintly. “Indeed.”

John offered a hand, and Rose shook it. They would never be husband and wife, but friends. It was really what they both needed.

 

In her chambers that evening, Rose found herself staring into her fireplace, legs pulled to her chest and chin resting on her knees. The flames seemed unnecessary with Prospit's balmy temperature, but at least they gave her something to look at. The pale polished marble gleamed and refracted the orange light and stayed chilly under her bare feet. Aside from the gentle popping of the burning log, it was silent.

And Rose hated silence. Dave was never quiet, a constant and comforting source of background noise, ever present and steady. Winds would beat against the dark stones outside the castle. Ghostly whispers, every present and always ignored, lingered just out of earshot.

Another difference, another strike against Prospit.

She was broken from her brooding by a shout just behind her. She lurched forward onto her knees with a shout, face inches away from the flames before she scurried to her feet and turned.

Two pairs of bespectacled eyes stared back with identically mischievous grins. Rose glared back.

“What in the names of all the elder gods are you doing? How did you get in here, I locked the door!” She couldn't disguise the tremor in her voice, her heart still pounding with adrenalin.

“We have a secret to show you!” Jade chirped. John bounced on the balls of his feet. They were both dressed inconspicuously in simple tunics and pants, soft-soled shoes on their feet. Jade's hair was pulled into a messy braid, dust smudged across the bridge of her nose nearly obscuring her dark freckles. John was in a similar state, his hair more wild than she had ever seen it and glasses askew. Rose scrutinized them both carefully.

“Allow me to get into something more fit for adventuring then,” she said to the siblings' delight. She went into her room and took a deep breath. Her heart was just beginning to return to its normal rhythm. She had no clue what sort of shenanigans they were about to pull her in to, and a small thrill of excitement propelled her forward with a bounce. Her riding clothes were the closest she got to something fitting for venturing into the unknown, and she dressed quickly. Loose gray breeches, long black tights, and a long violet tunic, all hastily put on with no care for appearance. Simplistic as it was, she was still more opulently dressed than the Prospitians.

They made no comment of it when she emerged, merely watching with excitement as Rose walked towards the door. She hesitated when they did not join her.

“Well?” she said, eyebrow raised. Jade and John shared a look, silent communication that was growing infuriatingly common between the two.

“We aren't using the door,” Jade said wryly, and walked towards one of the tapestries on the wall. She disappeared behind it with no telltale girl-sized lump in the fabric. John grinned.

“This castle probably isn't as spooky as the Derse castle but it does have its secrets!” he said, and bounded after his sister. Rose smiled as she followed them.

The opening in the stone was narrow enough that she had to walk through sideways, breath held and back pressed to the cold marble. She could see Jade and John ahead, waiting for her in a wider hallway just past the narrow aperture. She felt a bit silly, scuffling through the narrow hidden passage, he own footsteps and breaths close in her ears, and was relieved when she joined the two. They held candles that cast dark, fluttering shadows over their excited faces and began walking forward without a word.

The mystery of it excited Rose, enough so that she forgot to feel homesick. None of them spoke as they traversed the hidden hallway. Rough stone walls with wooden support lattices surrounded her, ancient sconces in the wall the only breaks in the monotony. Rose had no bearings in the unfamiliar castle. Down a short flight of steps, past an intersection of hallways, a blind turn, another staircase- she realized belatedly that she had no idea how to return to her room.

When John and Jade came to an abrupt halt, Rose nearly tripped over her own feet to avoid colliding with them. Jade set her candle down and slid into another narrow gap in the wall. John followed suit with Rose on his heels.

The room she found herself in was tiny and surprisingly crowded. Sconces on the rough stone walls lent a warm glow to everything, aiding the faint moonlight that shone in through the high windows. Judging by the height and roughness of the walls, Rose assumed the room was just below ground, forgotten when the castle was built along with the series of tunnels.

It was sparsely furnished, every chair clearly thrown away at some point and stolen away to this secret place. The tables were scratched and the rug was well worn. It was homely and warm and Rose found herself comfortable, even with all sets of eyes on her. The young trolls she had met earlier were there, along with a new addition. The new troll glared at the wall, clearly unimpressed by the new princess. Aradia sat next to him, chattering away even as everyone else quieted in Rose's presence.

Nepeta spoke up first, nose wrinkled as she studied Rose.

“Are mew sure it isn't too soon? She's only been here fur a few day-”

“I trust her,” Jade said firmly, linking arms with Rose. Nepeta studied her a moment longer before breaking out into a wide smile.

“Okay! Then we have to do-” she lowered her voice with a mischievous expression, “the initiation.”

“Initiation?” Rose repeated, eyebrow raised.

“Initiation!” Jade said back. “What fun is a secret club without one?”

The new troll groaned. “Are we really doing this?” he said, words slurred by a lisp. “We aren't wigglers anymore for fucks sake.”

Aradia elbowed him in the side. “It's fun and you know it, Sollux.”

“Yeah!” Jade said. As she spoke, she put out the fires, leaving the room lit only by moonlight. “Besides, we all did it, it wouldn't be fair for Rose not to.”

“We did it when we were five, but fine,” Sollux grumbles, just to be ignored as Jade pulls a dented metal chalice and a needle from a box tucked into the corner of the room. Curiosity overshadowed nervousness and she took a seat in the group. Jade set the chalice in the middle of the rug and began speaking in a grandiose tone.

“Rose Lalonde, Princess of Derse and future Queen of Prospit, you find yourself here before us in hopes of-” Jade giggled, dropping her serious facade for a moment. “Don't look so somber, Rose!” she said with a wink before going serious again.

“You find yourself here before us in hopes of joining our ranks as a Citizen of Skaia-”

“What is Skaia?” Rose interrupted, only to be met with a chorus of shushes. Jade went on without missing a beat.

“In joining us, you must agree to doing your part to create a unified world where all, regardless of kingdom or caste, may flourish,” she said.

She pricked the tip of her pointer finger and let her blood drip into the chalice, bright against the tarnished silver. John did the same, then Aradia, Sollux (reluctantly), Nepeta, Tavros, and then the needle was passed to her. Within the cup, the multicolored blood mixed into a morbidly pretty palette of muted earthy hues. The air was electric with something inexplicable and Rose wondered for a moment if there wasn't more magic in Prospit than she expected. She could everyone's eyes on her as she took a deep breath, pricked her finger, and let her blood join the rest.

Instantly, there was a reaction, a bright flash within the cup that made Rose instinctively shield her eyes. She blinked away the spots in her vision, looking around the group as they all stared at the blood, as normal and muted as before.

“What was that?” Rose asked. Jade looked up, stunned.

“I don't know!” she said, then she smiled. “But it was neat!”

“Neat, ominous, same thing I guess,” Sollux said.

“I knew Dersites were magic,” Aradia said with a nod. “This is proof, she has magic blood.”

“You don't know that,” Nepeta said, and with that the whole room broke out into shouts.

Jade sat next to Rose and gave her a reassuring smile. Her demeanor was unreadable.

“I assume that wasn't a normal part of the initiation,” Rose said dryly.

Shaking her head, Jade said, “It was not. But no matter what, you're still part of Skaia. Welcome to the group!” She threw an arm around Rose's shoulders and pulled her close.

The shouting died down eventually, with the general consensus being that Rose's Dersian blood completed some sort of ritual bond between the three kingdoms. Nobody had any idea if that was true, none were versed in magic, but it seemed like a sound explanation, fittingly dramatic.

Not to mention it was getting late and the excitement tired everyone out. Aradia and Sollux were first to leave, followed by Tavros (whose horns gave him the most trouble when he left through the narrow stone gap), then Nepeta. The humans were last.

The moonlight was dimming, the first rays of dawn not yet rising over the horizon. The room was dark and quiet, much eerier without the trolls and their chatter. John was half asleep on a tattered armchair with Jade sitting on the floor next to him, tracing patterns into the faded cloth.

“I wish we could stay here,” Jade said quietly enough that Rose wasn't sure she had spoken at all, or if she was speaking to her. But her sidelong glance compelled Rose to answer.

“As do I,” she admitted. “Things don't seem as complicated here.”

“Exactly,” Jade said, turning back to her tracing. “Here, we're planning for something good. We can pretend we're making a difference.”

Something about her demeanor was different, and Rose couldn't tell if it was the quiet or the late hour that brought it forward, but her usual chipper tone was duller. Still she smiled, but it was sadder, less the smile of a child and more like the smile of a world-weary adult.

“Who's to say we won't make a difference,” Rose said, unused to playing the part of the optimist. Jade didn't respond for a moment, then shrugged.

“Maybe you're right. We're young and someday we'll be in positions of power...”

Rose couldn't tell if she was agreeing, or trying to convince herself.

 

Rose woke up with dread in her throat. In a few short hours she would be fitted for her dress. Her wedding dress.

The thought was enough to force her back under the sheets, blocking the Prospitian sunshine that only served to mock her.

The past week had been delightful. Every night she was lead to the secret room and greeted like a friend long held dear. It was a welcome escape, lighthearted and fun. A sharp contrast to her days filled with the stuffy snobbery of Prospit's nobility. They were nowhere near as cold and formal as the Dersites, but their eyes were always filled with something snakelike, concealed under layers of cordiality. It was obvious they were always wondering what they can glean from someone above them.

It was exhausting and Rose spent her days in a haze of fake smiles and hollow words. The inanity of it all only brought her homesickness to the front of her mind, making the day even longer.

This day was bound to be so much worse.

The sound of her door creaking open drew her from bed. The handmaidens brought her breakfast, but allowed her to stay in her sleeping clothes. The dressmaker and her apprentice would be brought in within an hour of their arrival. Rose nodded somberly and stared into her juice, her stomach too tight to even sip.

The maids took her untouched breakfast and left her with sympathetic smiles. As soon as the door clicked shut the tapestry rustled. Jade peaked out, green eyes wide and hair in half-braided disarray. She was dressed simply in a loose silk dress with a patterned sash. Clearly there was an attempt made at a regal appearance, but she had given up at some point.

“Hello, Rose!” she greeted cheerily.

“Good morning, Jade,” Rose said with a nod.

Jade took a seat and sighed. “I know you aren't excited about our visitors, but I saw them come in. The dressmaker and her protege are both jadebloods, not near noble but not quite common. I think they're extra special because they basically belong to Alternia's queen though. They have an entourage with a few other trolls, highblood guards.” Jade shivered, her smile turning to a grimace.

“Two are indigobloods, and one... he's a purpleblood. And there's something strange about him and I really hope he stays far away from us while he's here.”

Rose tucked the information away for later. “Thank you for telling me. I'd rather know that be surprised, I suppose.”

Jade grinned. “No problem! The younger jadeblood looked really nice, and so did her- uh, trolls don't have moms, but she looked like her mom! Both jadebloods looked very nice though, I think I'll do some detective work and see if she would fit in Skaia,” Jade said with a wink.

Rose smiled tightly, finding it very hard to believe she could ever share the same room as whoever was putting her in a wedding dress she didn't want for longer than absolutely necessary. Jade's eternal optimism was grating on Rose, and guilt for that only made her feel worse. Jade seem to note Rose's unhappiness and stood, taking Rose's hands.

“Nothing is going to change once you and John are married!” she said. “We'll all still be best friends, you aren't even expected to share a room with him until you're both of age!”

Being reminded of her future didn't help. Rose squeezed Jade's hands lightly and pulled away.

“It will change though,” she sighed. “I will know we are husband and wife, as will he, and everyone around us. Try as I might, I can't help but feel some resentment towards him, even knowing he is a victim of circumstances as much as I am.”

Jade frowned. “That isn't fair... You can't hold this against him forever. I promise nothing will really be different, Skaia will-”

“Skaia is a child's dream,” Rose said dully. It came out without thought, and the hurt look that crossed Jade's face was worse than a smack. Guilt bubbled up, cold and viscous in Rose's chest.

Jade stood and left without a word.

Rose sat on one of the plush chairs and pulled her knees to her chest. She refused to cry, it was her own fault for upsetting Jade, but she allowed herself to mope.

 

A hard tap on her door pulled her from her own dour thoughts. With a deep breath she stood, head high and posture stiff as she opened the door.

The troll in front of her was imposing and beautiful in equal measure. A black robe trimmed in emerald green hung from her shoulders, giving her a severe silhouette. Deep orange horns added to her impressive height and nearly scrapped the top of Rose's door frame. Her face was lightly lined, deep gray and green tinged, but still seemed ageless and pristine. Bright yellow and jade eyes sized her up. Under that analytical gaze, it took Rose all of her willpower not to squirm.

With a flutter of cloth, the troll bowed. Rose returned the gesture, knees nearly touching the ground as she curtsied.

“You must be the dressmaker from Alternia,” Rose said, stepping aside. The adult troll was followed by a younger troll, roughly Rose's age. Her horns were the same shape as her elder, if somewhat smaller. Her face was softer, eyes wider as they met Rose's for a split second. Her dark lips were slightly parted, showing sharp teeth. She looked away quickly, locking away her obvious curiosity, but Rose's eyes lingered for a moment longer until she closed the door behind them.

The room seemed much smaller with the dressmaker in the middle. In her arms she held a large basket which she sat on one of the plush chairs.

“Please, call me Dolorosa,” she said, her voice low and husky. “If you wouldn't mind, your royal highness-” she pulled a short stool from her basket- “step up here.”

Rose swallowed a sigh. They were there for a reason, a reason that Rose dreaded. Still, acting as willingly as possible, she stepped up. Immediately, Dolorosa began speaking to her apprentice in Alternian. Indecipherable clicks and chirps went over Rose's head and the younger troll, in a flurry of action, pulled a million things from the basket. Rose closed her eyes and let the soft sounds of movement distract her from the feeling of measuring tape and silk.

Twenty minutes passed. The movement stopped. Rose slowly opened her eyes to find Dolorosa studying her face.

“Most princesses don't react to a fitting as if it were a meeting with the gallows,” she said.

“Clearly you haven't met Jade yet, I'm sure she would find herself just as thrilled with the concept as I am,” Rose retorted without a thought. Dolorosa raised an eyebrow and her assistant laughed quietly.

A moment passed before Dolorosa bowed her head. “Forgive me. Perhaps it's a human thing.”

She went back to her work and left Rose wondering if she should be offended or not. Instead of keeping her eyes closed, she began watching Dolorosa's deft hands as she took measurements of every part of Rose. Wrists, waist, neck, shoulders, every measurable part of her all measured and double checked, written in indecipherable Alternian by the young assistant.

The assistant looked up to meet Rose's stare, and she did not look away. Her dark lashes framed those stormy gray eyes, not yet filled by the emerald gray that colored the jade trim of her dark dress. Quizzically she tilted her head, and Rose offered a small smile.

Her cheeks darkened and she ducked her head. Rose tore her eyes away and tried to go back to feeling nothing. The pounding of her heart

Before long, they were done. Dolorosa began gathering her fabric swatches and measuring tapes, handing them to her assistant to be put in the huge basket. Rose watched, a question dancing on the tip of her tongue. Just as they prepared to take their leave, Rose spoke.

“Will you be staying in Prospit much longer?”

Though she had intended for Dolorosa to answer, her eyes were on her apprentice. Both turned to her with barely concealed confusion.

“Ah, well, yes! It will take Kanaya and I several days to make your dress, and we will be staying until after your wedding in case we are needed,” Dolorosa said. Something in her gaze was knowing and Rose felt her self flush, embarrassed at her own eagerness.

Rose nodded and smiled, lifting her head and trying to exude regality to save face. “Thank you. I will let you get to it then.”

With that they left, and Rose was left alone with something new to turn over in her mind, sweet as birdsong and as new as dawn.

Kanaya. Her name was Kanaya.

 

Night fell in earnest and Rose studiously ignored the hidden passage as she prepared for bed. She hadn't seen a sign of Jade since their argument- or rather, since Rose had been so rude to her that she had stormed away- and she didn't expect to see her for a while. She didn't seen the type to hold a grudge for long, but Rose was sure she wouldn't forget quickly.

She sighed, settling into bed early for the first time in what felt like ages.

Unexpectedly, sleep found her quickly, making her abrupt awakening all the more jarring. An insistent poking on her cheek sent her bolting upright, her face nearly slamming into the head of the intruder.

Jade looked nearly as surprised as Rose felt, blinking down at her with wide green eyes.

“Whoops.”

Rose didn't know what to say, a million thoughts rushing to mind, a thousand apologies interspersed.

“I didn't expect to see you tonight,” Rose said; it wasn't an accusation or an apology, simply a statement. Jade shrugged, not looking at Rose. Her demeanor was different, more closed off and cold. Ithurt worse than the thought of being ignored.

“I know you think Skaia is stupid, but I thought tonight was important,” Jade said, turning to the tapestry. “You're free to join us if you-”

“I don't think it's stupid,” Rose interrupted, stumbling out of bed. “Jade I- what I said before was not a lie. We will have the power to change things one day. It is a dream, but an obtainable one. My pessimism cannot change the fact that the world you envision- unity and equality and peace- is one I would give anything to see.”

Tears welled up in Jade's eyes as her face broke out into a toothy smile. Though she did not cry, she pulled Rose into a tight hug, which was returned with just as much enthusiasm. Warmth spread through Rose and parted the clouds that hung heavy in her mind throughout the day.

“Oh!” Jade exclaimed, pulling away and leaving Rose feeling slightly bereft but just as warm. “We gotta go! I don't wanna be late for this, hurry!”

With that, she bounced to the passage and lingered just long enough for Rose to put on her shoes and hurry to her side.

The hidden passages were as unnavigable to Rose as ever; despite her attempts at memorizing the path, she could never remember with enough certainty not to get herself hopelessly lost. Jade blew through with ease and Rose was content just to follow. It was normal and familiar and Jade's excitement was palpable.

Candlelight just barely illuminated the passage in front of them and Jade took the last few steps running.

“We're here!” she sang happily. Rose slid in just behind her and nearly stopped dead in her tracks, still half within the opening.

Kanaya sat on the floor beside the couch that Jade and John had claimed as theirs, her knees tucked underneath her and hands folded neatly in her lap. She was staring at Rose until bright green began spreading across her face. Rose tore her eyes away quickly. Jade took her seat next to John and Rose sat on the floor beside Aradia.

The chatter was familiar and comfortable, even with Kanaya siting quietly in the circle, watching the conversations. Rose wanted desperately to say something to her, but before she could steel herself, Jade cleared her throat.

“Though our guest isn't staying in Prospit for long, I think it's important we welcome her. Maybe she'll start her own Skaian nation in Alternia!” Jade said brightly, unboxing the gleaming chalice. Those familiar with the ritual sobered slightly as Jade cleared her throat.

“Lady Kanaya Maryam, Seamstress Apprentice to The Dolorosa, You find yourself here before us in hopes of joining our ranks as a Citizen of Skaia. In joining us, you must agree to doing your part to create a unified world where all, regardless of kingdom or caste, may flourish.”

The script was the same, spoken with total gravity and sincerity. Kanaya looked up to Jade with wide, serious eyes. Her full lips were pressed together in a thin line, whether out of nervousness or focused determination, Rose couldn't tell.

As focused on Kanaya's lips as she was, she didn't even notice when Aradia passed the chalice to Rose, deep red blood beading on her index finger. Rose did her part (with no bright flash, the entire group seemed disappointed to find) and passed it on.

The initiation went on as normal, and as Jade received the chalice herself she grinned.

“Kanaya, welcome to Skaia!”

Applause and cheers swelled and Kanaya's face broke into the widest smile Rose had seen on her yet. Her teeth were sharp, almost fang-like, and her eyes narrowed to thick-lashed half moons. The color returned to her cheeks in full force. She covered her face quickly, but the picture still lingered in Rose's mind.

What she wouldn't have given to see that smile again.

As normal conversation resumed, Rose took her chance. With a pounding heart and unsteady hands, she sat in front of Kanaya and nodded.

“Hello again, Your-”

“No formalities here, Kanaya. We're all Skaian,” Rose said, tilting her head. Kanaya nodded and took a deep breath.

“Rose. Hello again. This is quite the group amassed here; royalty mingling with the common is inconceivable where I come from,” she said, surprise clear underneath her composed tone.

“It was once foreign to me as well, Derse has its own rigid structure I had to forget. Perhaps it is a practice you could bring home with you when you return. I feel the blood in that chalice would be far more varied in comparison,” Rose offered. Kanaya blinked.

“Doubtful. Where Derse is rigid, Alternia is... Immovable. Our divides are bound in blood and span the history of our species. Though the idea of it is... wonderful. If only,” she sighed.

A silence fell that felt just a touch too strained, and Rose cleared her throat.

“This was almost underwhelming compared to the last one. When I added my blood to the mix, it lit up brighter than a hundred suns,” Rose said. “That is not to say it wasn't just as moving to have you join us, just much less... flashy.”

Kanaya's eyes widened. “Magic?”

“Perhaps,” Rose said with a shrug. “We assumed so, but it's not as if we could ask anyone knowledgeable in the subject.”

“True, though the possibilities are intriguing. Have you studied any magic?”

“I wish,” Rose mumbled. “It isn't befitting of a princess, why learn a common skill when she could have anything done for her? It's nonsense.”

“A travesty,” Kanaya agreed. “In Alternia it is the inverse, the highbloods learn magic while lowbloods tend to rely on whatever powers they inherently possess with no training.”

“Fascinating,” Rose said, entranced. “Are there powers exclusive to each caste, or can anyone learn?”

Kanaya laughed. “You assume I am some sort of expert, but I'm afraid I know the least about magic of anyone from Alternia. Jadebloods aren't as magical as the rest, though we have advantages exclusive to us.”

She did not elaborate, and Rose did not get the chance to as her to do so. Jade placed a hand on Rose's shoulder and pulled her back to the present. The other trolls had left at some point, leaving John and Jade very tired and ready to depart. Rose stood and offered a hand to Kanaya.

The gesture was thoughtless and instintual, and only Kanaya's shocked expression, quickly hidden, reminded Rose of who she was. Of who Kanaya was. Still, Kanaya took her hand (her skin is like velvet, warm, the bones underneath thin and shifting a touch too much to be human but still solid, something electric passes through her skin unless she's imagining it, and she's so warm!) and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.

“I'll take Kanaya back to her room,” Jade offered. With a wave and a lingering glance, Kanaya followed Jade out the narrow passage.

John looked exhausted. He rubbed her eyes, pushing his glasses up into his messy hair, and smiled.

“You won't get us lost, will you? In this state I fear we may wander between the walls for weeks,” Rose said, only half teasing as John led them back to Rose's room.

“Ha! Not likely, I could make a map of these halls blindfolded in my sleep,” he said. “Jade and I have been playing in here since we could walk, it really is like second nature to us.”

“It must have been nice to be allowed to roam,” Rose said wistfully. John gave her a sideways look and Rose realized she must be much more tired than she thought; her thoughts turned to words without her permission. John slowed down a bit, walking beside Rose.

“What was it like, growing up in Derse?” he asked.

“I believe it's a bit late for a life story,” Rose pointed out. John looked at her with wide pleading eyes, an expression so pitiful (and familiar, what is it about brothers and their puppy dog eyes) and she sighed, defeated.

“It was... cold. But not nearly as bad as it could have been. My twin brother-” She tried not to flinch as a stab of homesickness pierced her heart. “My twin and I would support each other. Our parents did not care about us beyond what we could do for them politically. We only had the other, inseparable for years.”

Swallowing the tremor in her voice, she took a deep breath.

“You miss him.”

It was not a question and Rose didn't need to respond. Her chest ached with loss, a twisting hollow she could not ignore then as she had for the month she had spent in Prospit.

“I do.”

 

Meetings happened every night as usual, but try as she might to socialize with everyone, Rose often found herself in Kanaya's company. As the politeness forced by unfamiliarity fell away after several days, Rose was delighted to find Kanaya sharp witted and clever. Jade often left her with a knowing look and the night was no different. Its familiarity was a salve on her frayed and battered nerves, an escape from the now very visible preparations for her wedding.

It wouldn't be long before she was a wife, eventually a queen. She was days away from the inevitable and still she did her best to not think about it. Even as her dress was fitted for the final time, even as gardens worth of flowers arrived and breathed their perfume into the golden halls, even as nobles arrived from countries within the kingdom far and wide, she pretended it was a distant event, something to worry about later.

Rose had not been alone with John since he led her back through the labyrinthine passages to her room. Guilt turned his eyes from her, and resentment, though unearned, kept her away.

Kanaya smiled sadly as Rose sat next to her. For an irrational second, Rose felt the urge to rest her head on Kanaya's shoulder, to relax and close her eyes and let the moment go on forever, close and warm and uncomplicated.

Instead, Kanaya began speaking.

“The occasion for your dress is rather unfortunate, but at risk of bragging I do feel it turned out quite well,” she said.

Rose groaned, pulling her trouser-clad knees to her chest. “Let's not talk about that, Kanaya. Please?”

“I only mention it because it seems rather clear to me that Alternian dressmakers are the most superior seamstresses in any kingdom. It would only be natural for any noble to want to have one of us around as a permanent court fixture.”

She spoke slowly, each word deliberate and dripping with something pointed. Realization hit Rose and something sparked in her chest, a slow build of light as something unfolded in front of her.

With Kanaya as her royal seamstress, she would be nearby. She would have a place in Prospit's castle, high ranking and close.

“But what queen would have you? So young and inexperienced, though your work is clearly that of someone with... passion. For what she does,” Rose said, playing along.

Kanaya hmmed. “Well, I wouldn't have the luxury of being picky if I were so fresh from training. It would have to be a rather young queen I would say.”

“And how long would you stay with one so untested?”

Their faces had drawn closer without either of them noticing, Kanaya's breath hot on her face and those firey eyes, golden and surrounded by thick black lashes, were inches away.

“As long as she would have me.”

There was a moment where nothing seemed to exist outside of the bubble made by their own proximity. Rose's heart was pounding, painfully and deliciously real and present in her chest. Her hands found Kanaya's and there was that electricity again, now undeniable. Everything was so clear, every detail of Kanaya's face was in sharp relief-

“Rose!”

Jade's voice pulled her from her trance. She and the others were staring,wide eyed, at Rose and Kanaya's linked hands.

Jade looked up at Rose's face first. “Rose, your hands were glowing.

She pulled her hands away and looked at them. Same soft burnt umber skin, same freckles, same bitten-down nails that were haphazardly shaped into something presentable. That electricity was gone, same as the warmth from Kanaya. The moment was gone, but the memory of it lingered, pale in comparison.

Aradia spoke again first. “I think if you two got married, you would be a force to be reckoned with,” she said sagely.

“They cat, she's already betrothed!” Nepeta said, though it was made clear by her tone she found the arrangement tragic.

After that, the room descended into chaos. Shouted theories crossed, mingled with other half-formed ideas and turned into unsubstantiated claims that were shot down and replaced with new nonsense.

Rose watched John leave first without a word. Then Sollux, storming through the passage and loudly yelling about a migraine. Aradia was on his heels with one last argument, and soon Kanaya, Rose, and Jade were left.

She sat cross-legged on the couch, her feet bare and hair unbound. It had taken Rose too long to realize that this was the real Jade, not the regal figure she presented to the court. In her simplicity and trueness, she became the princess she was by blood.

Rose and Kanaya continued to sit on the floor, their hands only a hairsbreadth apart.

“Is it... love?” Jade asked finally, shyly. “Some kind of soulmate magic?”

Rose felt her face grow warm and she pulled her hands into her lap. Love. It was a word she rarely heard, and unfamiliar emotion that existed only between the pages of novels and in the abstract.

“How are we to know what love is,” Kanaya said quietly. “Very rarely are we taught what it is. We are told we will know what it is when we find it, but discouraged from searching.”

“We don't have the luxury of love,” Rose added. Jade frowned.

“But... this is not hopeless,” Rose continued. “Whatever it is... We can find out. When Kanaya finishes her apprenticeship, she will become the Royal Seamstress of Prospit, if she should choose to accept the position.” She glanced at Kanaya, who was watching her with an expression so soft, Rose had to look away again. “And then... Who knows.”

With a bounce, Jade launched herself from the couch and fell to the floor between the two, squealing with delighted congratulations.

Rose found herself smiling wide enough to hurt her cheeks. A future. A future where she might discover love, where she could perhaps make what she once called a child's dream a reality. It was obtainable. It was real.

 

The sun arose as it usually did. The morning brought the fresh scent of earth and the distant scent of ocean through Rose's open window. Sleep had not found her that night.

Tomorrow, she would be wed. Married. Tied to Prospit and its royal linage forever. Tied to John; ever the dutiful wife in the public eye, her true relationship hidden in shadows and lost to history.

She did not move from bed, even when maids brought her breakfast. She said nothing as they tried to coax her out of bed, to get dressed, to eat something. Lethargy dulled her senses and she hardly heard them.

She was alone with only the light shifting across the walls to keep her company. Until the tapestry shifted and Jade stepped in. She was somber as she sat on the edge of Rose's bed and said nothing.

Something about her presence, as quiet and unobtrusive as she was being, was touching to Rose. With Jade nearby she finally slept, fitfully and plagued by nightmares, but resting all the same.

There was no way for her to know it would be the last time she would be comfortable enough to sleep deeply for months.

 

A gentle hand on her shoulder pulled her into awareness. The light in her room was dim, the sun just setting on the other side of the castle and offering nothing but orange reflected light. She sat up and accepted a glass of water from Jade, draining it quickly and returning the empty glass with a thankful smile.

“I have a surprise for you!” Jade said with muted excitement. “No hurry or anything, but whenever you're ready I'll take you to the meeting room.”

Dulled curiosity drove Rose to get ready, to put on her comfortable riding trousers under a long tunic and slippers, and gesture for Jade to show the way. Her usual exuberance was returning in full force and infecting Rose. The fog around the edges of her surroundings seemed to lift and by the time she was surrounded by her friends, she was fully in her own mind. The haze of the day worried her, but the concern was forced out of mind by the energy of the room.

The furniture was pushed fully against the walls, expanding the room a few feet. There were many more candles than usual, their wax pooling on the surfaces of the scratched and scuffed tabletops and illuminating the room brighter than Rose had ever seen it before. Aradia had her back turned to the entrance, busy with something Rose couldn't see, and only glanced at her with a knowing smile before turning back to whatever she was doing. A basket of pastries was on a nearby chair beside a proud looking Nepeta. She was telling Tavros about pinching the snacks from the kitchens all day without getting caught and Tavros looked a little intimidated. John and Sollux stood off to the side; Sollux glared at nothing in particular and John looked preoccupied. Kanaya waved at Jade and Rose with a small smile. The energy was high and Rose felt invigorated.

“I thought we could have a little party!” said Jade in Rose's ear. Rose blinked at her and felt an involuntary smile tug at the corners of her lips.

Suddenly music began playing, a bell-like tune that Rose couldn't identify. Aradia stood and stepped aside to reveal a large, crystalline music box. With a bright smile, Jade pulled Rose into the room and began twirling her. Rose found herself laughing, her hands on Jade's shoulders as everyone paired up and began dancing.

When the music began slowing after a minute and the breathless laughter subsided, Jade leaned in close.

“I think there's someone else waiting for your time,” she giggled. Turning around, she saw Kanaya, chatting with Nepeta before Nepeta walked away.

Rose saw her chance. With a deep breath she approached Kanaya and as the music started again in full force, she offered a hand.

There was that electricity again, only amplified when they got closer. Her warmth was nearly overwhelming, amplified by her gaze as she looked down at Rose. Rose felt her heart racing against her ribs and hoped Kanaya couldn't feel it too. Kanaya's hand was on Rose's waist, fingers intertwined, eyes locked. They swayed with the music, not quite on beat but too preoccupied to notice.

Rose had long ago accepted a bleak future, one she would need to claw freedom and happiness from, one in which she would need to rely on herself, a lonely future. But with her hands warmed by the troll in front of her, shy and flustered and beautiful, she realized fighting wouldn't be as hard as she imagined.

Her voice was soft and sweet as she said, “Rose, I know there are... obstacles. Our stations, our ties... But for you, I gladly tackle them.”

“As would I,” Rose whispered. “Kanaya, I-”

She never finished the thought. A deep thud shook the walls, sending cracks down the rough stone. The music box slowed as they all paused fearfully.

“What's going on?” Nepeta said in a wavering voice.

Rose glanced at Jade, eyes wide as she stood frozen. Fear choked them all, uncertainty and confusion visible in their expressions.

“We need to go,” she said, voice low and young-sounding. She did not move. Through the high window, orange light flickered. Distantly, there was screaming.

“An attack,” Sollux said, grasping his head. “A surprise attack, the screaming, it's killing me,” he groaned, and Tavros began hyperventilating.

“We need to go,” Jade said again, more strength in her voice. Aradia moved first, grabbing her music box. It broke the stillness and everyone rushed for the passage. Another thud shook the room and panic took hold. The narrow passage was crowded as Jade did her best to lead everyone out, a candle held high.

“Where do we go?” Aradia asked, clutching her music box to her chest. Jade didn't answer, only leading everyone down a path Rose was unfamiliar with. Distantly she was aware that she hadn't let go of Kanaya's hand.

Jade turned a corner and stopped in her tracks. The passage in front of them was blocked by rubble, the dust still settling.

“Jade,” John said, face drawn with poorly hidden terror. “There's the exit between the servant’s quarters.”

Jade nodded and she started down another path, back straight and face composed. Rose wondered with the only rational part of her mind if the wrong princess was chosen to become queen. The rest followed silently, flinching as the walls shook with each barrage.

As they hurried down the path, a figure stepped in their path. There were shouts as Jade stopped suddenly and the candle fell to the ground. Darkness did not overcome them as the figure hurried closer, and Rose realized it was Dolorosa, glowing and fearful.

“Rosa!” Kanaya cried, pushing past the group and throwing herself into her guardian's arms. Dolorosa held her close, her relief palpable. “What's happening?”

“An attack from Alternia,” she said, voice steely. Gasps and shocked looks pass through the group, but Dolorosa did not let them rudiment on it.

“We need to go,” she said urgently. “We need to get as far away from the castle in as little time as possible.”

“What about Dad?” John cried, standing by Jade with an identical expression of fear.

“There's no time!” said Dolorosa as she scooped Kanaya up into her arms, much to her dismay. “If we don't leave now, we will burn.”

She turned, her dress the only sound for a moment until the rest followed suit, feet shuffling and scuffing across the stone floor with rising urgency. The air chilled as they continued on until suddenly, almost without warning, they were outside. The exit they left from was disguised among the stones outside the castle. They were in the back, the gardens where the cooks got their fresh ingredients trampled and ruined. Smoke and screams filled the air, and in the distance Rose could see figures running, figures attacking, figures falling.

Jade took the lead again. She ran past Dolorosa, towards the far wall and the cluster of trees. Unquestioningly they all did the same, and Jade revealed a small hole in the wall, hidden by greenery and full of webs and moss.

“John and I used to go down to the town,” Jade explained quickly.

“Thank goodness,” Dolorosa said, and ushered everyone through and out into the night.

Running through the darkness, Rose realized her hands were shaking. Rocks and sticks dug into her slippers and her breath came out ragged. She risked a glance behind her to see the entire Prospitian castle in flames, its white marble marred with cracked holes and fire reaching through its windows. With heart-wrenching certainty it hit her that nobody would survive that, nobody was meant to survive.

This was a declaration of war.

 

When Tavros collapsed to his knees, limbs shaking and face streaming with tears, Dolorosa finally gestured for them to stop. The ocean was nearby, its gentle rushing not dissimilar from the ragged breath of the children. A line of trees separated them from a cliff-side, beyond which stars twinkled in the moonless sky. Nobody spoke, nobody looked behind them, nobody made eye contact.

“We will get somewhere safe,” Dolorosa finally said. “We can get word on the situation in a safehouse on the outskirts of Alternia-”

“No!” Jade interrupted. “We have to get back! Dad, a-and our home, we can't just...” She trailed off helplessly.

“I need to know what's happened with Derse,” Rose added. The thought of the castle burning with Dave inside, alone and hurt, flashed through her mind.

Dolorosa did not look at Jade. Her face was turned towards the ocean and wordlessly she began walking. Angrily, Jade followed.

“Don't ignore me, ma'am! Please, I-”

Jade stopped, just beside Dolorosa. Her head was shaking in disbelief, and Rose drew closer.

The ocean was black with ships. Their black sails had unfamiliar signs in shades of blue and purple. The trolls seemed to understand instinctively, but Rose turned to Dolorosa questioningly.

“Imperial army. This attack was ordered by Her Imperial Condescension.” She turned and dropped to her knees, putting her hands on the shoulders of the twin royal children of Prospit. “We cannot return to Prospit. You need to be protected.” Her eyes flicked to Rose. “All of you.”

“What about our guardians?” Nepeta asked, nervously bouncing on her feet. Dolorosa dropped her head.

“The Condesce does not take prisoners. I'm sorry, I will do everything in my power to find those I can but I don't believe we will be able to do anything soon. For now... we stay hidden, and we get to safety.”

With that, she stood. Jade and John's linked hands were pale and shaking, their eyes watery as they looked at each other. Rose looked away, wrapping her arms around herself. There was a soft hand on her arm and Rose met Kanaya's eyes.

Still, she had never felt so lonely.

 

Their first lesson was in blending in. Their clothes were already simple enough, if somewhat flimsy, their demeanor subdued enough. Dolorosa replaced her jade-trimmed dress with a nondescript outfit trimmed in yellow. Kanaya's clothes were made totally gray to match the rest of the young trolls. When staying in tiny, cheap inns, Jade and John hid their glasses. For all intents and purposes, they were a group of faceless refugees from a tiny town outside of the castle, led by a lowblooded guardian.

After three days, they stopped asking questions.

A week, Rose's slippers fell apart.

Ten days, and there were no more tears shed.

Two weeks and resignation turned their shoulders in. Their legs were tired, faces hollow and lacking the brightness of their age. Dolorosa did what she could for the children, but Prospit was falling apart quickly. No carts stopped for them, nobody offered a hand to help. They walked, they grew weary, they remembered what was lost. The towns they passed through were quiet and somber as news of the deaths of the Prospitian monarchy spread. The sunlight and the colors of the architecture seemed to mock the atmosphere. As weeks passed, colors dulled and the presence of the Alternian army was more prominent.

Rose had never been to Alternia. As they grew closer, the land began getting hillier, with deep canyons of layered black rocks. It was an unfriendly landscape, and Rose yearned for home.

For once, she wasn't sure whether she missed Derse, or the lost castle of Prospit, a home she never got the chance to know.

In a tiny settlement on the edge of a deep canyon, Dolorosa walked with purpose. The three humans were an oddity, but the noonday sun kept the Alternian residents indoors. She walked quicker than she had in weeks towards a nondescript hive separated from the others.

A young adult troll opened the door, a hood pulled low over his face until recognition sparked and the threw it back.

“Rosa,” he breathed, looking up at her with wide red eyes. There were small nubs of horns hidden in shaggy black hair, a hint of facial hair on his chin. He was the strangest troll Rose had ever seen. Dolorosa regarded him with such warmth that Rose felt her initial distrust fade quickly.

“It is a delight to see you well, as much as I wish we were meeting under different circumstances. Please, if we may...”

“Of course,” he said as he stepped aside.

His home was dark, books, pens, and papers stacked on every available surface. He lead them all to the kitchen and began gathering ingredients into a large pot. Dolorosa began helping before he shooed her away. They talked in low voices, downed out by the sounds of cooking and the subdued chatter of the children.

“Do you know him?” Rose asked Kanaya. It was obvious the two adult trolls were familiar with each other, a comfort born of years of cohabitation.

“I don't,” Kanaya admitted. “I've only been under the care of Dolorosa for a sweep and a half.”

Rose nodded, watching the two. Troll familial bonds were far different from humans, but how they interacted was absolutely how a mother would treat a child. It ached and Rose turned away, only to meet John's eyes. He and Jade were deliberately avoiding looking at the adults.

Over their journey, the two had been inseparable and quiet, only talking to each other. Rose understood and left them to themselves, spending her time with Kanaya.

She was broken from her thoughts by a bowl of stew placed in front of her. It was the first fresh, hot meal she had been served in weeks and she was not alone in digging in. As they ate, Dolorosa began speaking.

“Children, this is Signless.”

The trolls seemed to pause, hardly noticed by the humans.

“I know it is a shock, but I assure you we are safe. For many sweeps he has been living under the safety of his presumed death, and this location is merely a temporary one. We will rest and then we will move somewhere more secluded, surrounded by allies.”

She paused. Rose took the chance to speak up.

“Will information be able to reach us? Could I send a letter to Derse?” she asked urgently. Signless glanced at Dolorosa and began speaking. His voice was low and engaging, with the pleasant cadence of someone well acquainted with public speaking.

“Information will be slow, admittedly. And I know you have your brother in Derse and I understand you want to let him know you're okay but until we are certain Derse isn't in danger we can't let news of your survival leave this very privileged group of people.”

Rose had stopped listening as the realization washed over her, the obvious fact she had ignored during the long trek across the kingdom.

Dave assumed she was dead. Dave was in danger and he thought she was dead. She couldn't begin to imagine being in his situation; even skirting around the idea of Dave dying hurt more than losing everything twice had.

That was Dave's reality.

She finished eating slowly, as Signless continued talking and the rest asked questions. If it weren't for the gnawing hunger she had been carrying she would have pushed the bowl aside.

“As it is, our base of operations is about a two day's ride away. Thankfully we have a carriage large enough and subtle enough for us to get there quickly and safely. When we get there you will be assigned rooms and we will get settled fully until Prospit is secure enough to return you and Derse is deemed safe.”

“How long will that be?” Tavros asked.

The adults shared a look. It was enough of an answer on its own, but Dolorosa said, “we will do everything in our power to make the time as short as possible.”

It did not sit well with Rose, and glancing around at the others she could see she was not alone in the thought.

As soon as the last spoon was set down, Signless stood.

“You all must be exhausted. I have enough beds for everyone to share. It's a temporary setup, tomorrow we will move out. I've been here too long anyway.”

Tired feet shuffled behind Signless and took to the beds appreciatively. The room was clearly meant to be shared but not stayed in for long, with empty shelves above the wide beds and wooden chests by the foot boards. John and Jade to one bed, Sollux and Tavros in another, and Nepeta and Aradia in the last. Rose ended up next to Kanaya, their backs pressed together and warmth shared.

Despite her weariness, sleep eluded her. Dave, Prospit, Derse, the Imperial ships in Prospitian waters, the recently orphaned John and Jade, Signless and his vaguely mentioned base of operations- it all crowded her mind in an endless, screaming loop.

The tears started without her knowledge, her breath hitching and face aching. Even while they traveled she did not cry, nor when escaping Prospit, nor the night before the wedding. It was unfamiliar and uncomfortable and only made her feel more miserable.

Kanaya shifted behind her and then there was an arm around her waist, holding her close. Her hand found Rose's and began tracing patterns on the back. She said nothing and Rose did not stop sobbing, but the comfort was more than she could have ever hoped for.

As she drifted to sleep, Kanaya's arm still over her and her breath on the back of Rose's neck, she realized just how much things were changing again. Her future was even more tumultuous than before, her comfortable life gone and safety no longer assured.

But Kanaya was still by her side. For now, that was enough.

 

Chapter Text

They say it fades

If you let it


 

Derse was cold and quiet, as it always was. Mountains dusted with snow and dotted with forests of deep emerald evergreen trees reached towards the perpetually overcast skies. In the towns at the feet of these forests the towns slept with fires low and shops closed.

Safely surrounded by high stone walls and dozens of soldiers willing to die for the crown, the prince slept. It was not a restful sleep, not when the nightmares came without mercy or respite. He dreaded the nighttime, dreaded sleeping, dreaded waking in a cold sweat with nobody to turn to.

The news was delivered at dawn, on the tongue of a ragged and injured troll on horseback. In shocked whispers it traveled through the castle until it roused the king and queen form their beds.

In the prince's clutter-filled room, pale early morning sunlight cast narrow rays across the floor and his tangled sheets. The deep red rugs didn't muffle the footsteps that awoke Dave from his fitful slumber. A page placed a hand on Dave's shoulder with a somber and fearful expression. Any mumbled question Dave asked was left ignored as he was guided out of bed.

Still in his pajamas he was lead through the cold and quiet halls of the castle. A normal morning in the Derse was bustling with maids serving breakfast and nobles beginning their duties. It was clearly not a normal day; tension and fear were a physical force on his shoulders as he was led down the empty halls. The silence pounded against Dave's eardrums. Not soon enough they turned into a wing he was so rarely in. It was impersonal and barren, not even a simple framed landscape to break the endless expanse of stone. It was even quieter than the main halls somehow, more hollow.

Silence was different with Rose. It was the kind of thought he usually dismissed, for his own sake. He couldn't risk getting overwhelmed, showing weakness was not allowed in the future king. Still, he missed the easy, comfortable silence between them, silence full of thought and conversations that could be picked up verbally at any time.

The door to his parent's chamber was already ajar and, once he had braced himself fully, he pushed the heavy wooden door open just enough to slip inside.

The fire was out, gray light just barely illuminating the sitting room through the narrow windows. Both his father and mother, the king and queen, sat stiffly in high-backed wooden chairs. Their faces were carefully blank, but there were dark spots high on the queen's cheeks, her eyes red and puffy. Her hands shook, whether from repressed emotion or the beginnings of withdraw he couldn't tell. Dave's stomach dropped as he faced his parents, eyes darting between the two as his heart pounded painfully against his ribcage. For an eternity, nobody spoke. Neither of them even looked at him.

“Prospit has fallen,” the king said eventually, his deep voice neutral and steady. He seemed undisturbed with the news he delivered, as if only passing on a weather report.

Dave could no longer feel the thudding in his chest, nor feel the chill of the room or see the foggy light fall across the utilitarian furniture. Still, his father's words broke though the hellish nothingness, steady and clear as a church bell.

“Rough intelligence tells that it was a naval attack from Alternia. No word as to why the attack happened or who survived.”

“Rose-” Dave began just a touch too loudly, too close to hysterical, just to be spoken over.

“Our defenses have been doubled, our borders closed to outside trade for the foreseeable future. I have put out the draft notices to local towns and appointed several sergeants to train new recruits.”

The king paused, looking at Dave for the first time. He looked at Dave not as a person, but an object to be appraised. His face did not change but it was clear in the cooling of his amber eyes that he did not like what he saw.

“What about Rose? She had to get out, she's not from Prospit, she's fine right?” he pleaded. The king merely ignored him, lips turned into the vaguest of annoyed sneers as he went on.

“I have put you under my most senior sergeant, effective immediately. You will not be put into a battalion until necessary, but you will begin your training with the new recruits tomorrow.”

“What? No-”

The queen interrupted with a sob, a choked hiccup that the king did not acknowledge. Dave was still reeling, too preoccupied to notice. She jumped from her chair and pushed past Dave, disappearing into her bedroom and leaving nothing but the echo of the slammed door.

“You are dismissed,” the king said after a minute. “A page will wake you up tomorrow to begin. Be prepared quickly.”

Automatically, Dave left the room, stepping back into that lonesome hallway. His bare feet carried him back to his wing of the castle, but carried him beyond his room and towards one that had been left undisturbed for weeks.

Rose's room was cold and empty and just as hollow as their parents' room, just as hollow as Dave's chest as he struggled to pull in a breath of the stale air. He didn't feel the bruising thud as he fell to his knees in the barren room, didn't hear his own rambling, aimless whispers as they began without thought.

There was no way she could be- she had to be okay she had to have survived Rose wouldn't leave just to die, she couldn't die, not without saying goodbye not without me she wouldn't she can't please-

Dave didn't realize he was screaming his pleas until a pain gripped his throat and he stopped with a rasping sob, gripping his chest and feeling the wetness from his tears on his shirt. His cries did not echo back to him, absorbed and lost to the empty stone walls surrounding him.

The next day he found speaking painful but it hardly mattered. He wordlessly got out of bed, wordlessly put on simple, comfortable clothes, and was wordlessly led through the halls to one of the side exits.

The page explained as gently as possible that the land formerly used for the market had been converted into training grounds, that much of the frivolous land had been claimed for the same purpose. Things were happening so quickly, Derse was changing instantaneously and efficiently into a kingdom on the defense.

War was on the horizon and Derse would not be caught unaware.

The sergeant looked Dave over as he approached, a disproving narrowing of his beady eyes let Dave know exactly how this was going to play out.

He stood and faced the large man down, his face carefully composed into something he hoped was neutral. The strike across his face that left his cheek stinging and the taste of iron in his mouth was a testament to his failure.

Leaning in close the sergeant hissed, “insolence will not be tolerated, your grace. The king has ordered me to treat you the same as the rest, and I won't hesitate to put you in line. You won't be a prince in here, Dave. You're nobody here.”

He stood to his full height and pointed. “Training begins in five. Start your laps.”

Dave did not speak that day. Nor the next. Nor the next. He listened, he hurt, and he shut that door inside of him so he can't remember what it was like to feel.

 

Three weeks into his training he was summoned to the king's side. There had been no more attacks. Prospit had been fully taken by Alternia and Derse was on edge, but there had been no overt attempts at conflict. Yet. Fear and anxiety permeated the air, carried in on the breeze from the south.

His days had been spent training, his nights spent in a deep sleep he was never quite rejuvenated by. Like a ghost through the halls he headed towards the king's private library.

The king was dressed in his military finest, as he had been for weeks now. He seemed to be waiting for an attack, ever vigilant. He was turned to the window, back to Dave as he entered.

“Sir,” Dave said, his voice a low croak. It was the first time he had spoken in weeks and his throat protested the act. The king did not turn to him.

“There have been confirmed reports that none of the royalty escaped Prospit's castle before it was razed to the ground,” he said. “No human survivors were found, lowblooded troll servants were enslaved by Alternians.”

Dave did not react. Part of him felt as if he should but that part was locked away to tightly that he ignored it easily. He ignored the gut-punch feeling of the hope he didn't know he had been carrying being snuffed out. The king turned to him, looked down his nose with shrewd eyes and thin lips.

With a jolt of something akin to disgust, he realized the king was pleased with him.

“Your training goes well, I assume. Once you're older you'll make a fine general.”

I don't want your praise or your fucking army, Dave longed to say, but his lips stayed pressed into a thin line. The king sat at his desk and Dave was no longer his focus. It was insultingly easy for him to shut Dave from his mind, though the resentment was mutual.

“Dismissed,” was all he said, and Dave wasted no time in leaving.

It was late in the castle, sconces bright with dancing flames that only made the gaunt and worried faces of those he passed even more haunting. Derse had never been particularly loud and raucous but now the hush seemed sacred, that if the occasional chatter or laugh that had broken out amongst the nobles even a month ago were to echo it would break a promise nobody quite recalled making. Dave hated it in a distant sort of way, as he felt most things as of late.

His room was absolute chaos. Clothes hung on the backs of chairs, open books and torn papers covered in aimless scribbles littered the floor. Long ago he had convinced the maids to leave his things alone, that only he could sort them into their rightful places. Rose had mentioned with amused disgust that their rightful places were wherever on the floor they landed. Her room was hardly better and they both knew it.

It was the only place left where he felt comfortable. He removed his shirt, leaving on his chest binder, and laid in bed. Only dim candlelight illuminated the walls around him and he stared without seeing at the shifting shadows.

Half asleep, his mind wandered to places he never let his waking thoughts go. To happier childhood times, simpler moments.

Rose did not share her bad nights as often as Dave did. She was secretive, she hid her negative emotions under a thin veneer of disinterest and wit. Only Dave saw through the false front she presented so flawlessly, and he took those chances to sneak down the hallway into her room once the day was done. By then it was clear she was cracking, fraying at the seems, and Dave refused to let her be alone; her feeble protests made it clear she didn't actually want to be alone in the first place.

Her room was much like his, purple where his was red and perhaps even more book-filled, but their resemblance clearly bled into their organization habits. Together they would pull her heavy feather quilt from her bed and wrap themselves in it, laying on the plush rug in front of the fireplace to talk for hours on end.

There were so few nights like that that Dave could remember. One of the first was when they came to the conclusion they must have switched genders at birth. As they grew older they understood more fully that there really wasn't a switch and more of an improbable coincidence, but it was still a joke between them, one of thousands of jokes built over the years that only they would find funny. Another night, they argued the existence of ghosts, debated the rumors that Derse's castle was haunted by the spirits of dead kings and forgotten servants. It was one of the few times they had truly fought, Rose for the idea and Dave against.

It hit him that he would give anything to go back to that night, to hear Rose out instead of undermining her arguments. More importantly, he would have given anything for her to be right. The thought that she could be around him somewhere, with him while he ran through his daily drills, while he endured the abuse and neglect from all sides, would have been comforting.

Instead he continued to feel so painfully alone.

He had just enough presence of mind to remove his binder and wrap himself in his sheets before falling into a deep and stifling sleep.

~

Ships bobbed on black water, stirred by a western wind that carried an acrid scent over the sea. Stars watched from a moonless sky, obscuring those lucky enough to run. Those not so lucky felt nothing but confused terror as highblooded trolls with swords drawn rushed the halls and distant catapults sent flaming boulders through stone.

As the last screams were cut short and the walls stopped quaking, a carriage pulled up to the collapsing palace. Bloodstained finery and bloodstained stone illuminated by fires left to destroy all in their paths were carefully navigated through. The precise clicking of high heels was clearly heard above the crackling of the wooden furniture burning.

At least the screaming had finally stopped.

Towering above the carnage, Her Imperial Condescension surveyed Prospit castle. Distantly, she heard the steps of her soldiers as they scoured the once-gleaming halls for survivors. An indigoblood approached, bowed deeply, and lead her into the throne room.

Lined up against one wall sat a dozen or so lowbloods, bloody and tied together, their eyes wide as The Condesce entered. They were unimportant to her, though they would certainly be helpful later on. The whimpered pitifully, their fear palpable and delicious in the smoky air.

The real reason for her presence in the throne room was toward the front. Underneath the gleaming mosaic and at the foot of the throne laid a man. In death his expression was troubled, his light blue shirt stained with rapidly drying blood. She looked down at him for a long moment before turning away.

“Burn him with the rest. He ain't nothin' special now. Where are his spawn?” she said to the indigo. The hesitation was long enough for her to build up her ire.

“We haven't found them yet,” they said with a suppressed wince. “Several scouts are searching the grounds and destroyed wings of the castle now.”

The Condesce leaned down with a frown on her fuchsia-painted lips. “You betta find them, or it's your body on the burn pile next,” she said sweetly as she patted their face.

With that, she stepped up on the dais, studying the golden thrones, and took her seat on the middle throne, legs thrown over one of the arm rests and hair flowing over the back.

“I think a beach can get comfortable here,” she cackled, her sharp teeth glinting in the fire of the burning castle. The slaves, once willing servants, flinched. The king they had sworn fealty to was dead at the feet of the empress they had forsaken, and that slight would not be forgiven.

Across Prospit, the stars watched over the citizens who slept soundly for the last time in many years. The night cast its darkest shadows along the path of those fleeing for their lives, watched over those who would need its protection the most.

~

There were times when John was an insufferable chatterbox. Whatever caught his fancy would be his sole topic of conversation for ages until he had worn himself out, which usually occurred several weeks after it had worn Jade out. Then on to the next thing, and the next, ad infinitum.

Jade remembered how annoyed she would feel. It was normal, to be annoyed by the antics of a sibling. Surely she pestered him just as often with her own fixations.

She would give anything for him to chatter endlessly at her again. To have that sense of normalcy as they trekked across the entire kingdom, through hopeless towns under Alternian rule and down roads crowded with others hoping to get somewhere better.

It wasn't long before the news of the king's death reached them. The dirty inn in which they found themselves was silent as the crier road through town with a hollow voice and hard words. Dolorosa had gathered John and Jade in her arms and swept them into their shared rented room before Jade could begin wailing. She could never recall a time she had cried so hard and felt so completely empty. She screamed, tore at her hair and balled her fists but nothing could pull her from the fact that her father, the only parent she had ever known, was dead. Their mother had died soon after their birth, as long as she could remember it was only Dad, the king, a comforting and warm constant in her life.

John's tears were silent but constantly flowing, eyes squeezed shut and hands pressed to his ears as if he could block out the truth of the situation. Dolorosa held them both and rocked them, soothed them as well as she could, even as pale jade tears rolled down her own cheeks.

Jade cried for hours, until her head throbbed and her stomach ached and her throat went dry. Then she stopped, and refused to let herself cry again. She clung to her brother as his tears dried up as well. As much as they both longed just to sleep through the next day, Dolorosa had them walking on again, toward their vaguely defined goal.

Through it all, John hardly spoke. No matter how much she longed for the distraction from her own mourning thoughts, he said nothing until they were alone, curled up side by side and muttering laments between them that only the other could understand. Surrounded by the others but truly alone. Orphaned. Dethroned.

Despite what they all had lost, Jade did her best to keep spirits high. She smiled when she could manage it. She held hands when they shook, listen to voices as they wavered. Through it all, she stayed strong.

Through it all, she ached.

~

Despite the diurnal lifestyle of its neighbors, Alternia awoke at night. As the sun set, Signless grimly barred the windows, locked and double locked the doors, and sat next to Dolorosa stiffly with his sickles at the ready. The tiny town around his hive was not the most busy or well-off, but years of running had hardwired a need for safety in his mind. The blades were unfamiliar and clearly unwelcome in his hands, a weapon he had refused to take up until circumstances proved them necessary. She watched him without a word, face drawn in concerned affection as he shielded himself from the world.

“For the most part this area is inhabited by lowbloods,” he explained quietly, “but one in my position can never be too careful.”

“I know,” Dolorosa said, taking his hand. “I'm sorry I've left you in this predicament, and that I've come back just to paint a target on your front door.”

Signless shook his head and offered a smile meant to be reassuring. “You did the right thing. This is my plight, after all. Help the helpless, speak for the voiceless, and so on.”

“A plight that had nearly killed you,” she sighed.

“And that put you under the thumb of The Condesce herself, that sold those we held dear into servitude,” he said bitterly, then winced as old wounds burned with phantom pains. “But not a plight to let die.”

The two were quiet for a moment that hung heavy with painful memories. Sweeps of hard fighting and running were proved useless in a night when highblood troops surrounded their camp, slaughtering rebels and taking Signless, Dolorosa, and several others into custody. Only a distraction in the crowd saved Signless from bleeding out on the execution block, whisked away by the final few sympathizers who disappeared as soon as he was able to take care of himself. The red hot chains still burned in the scars of his wrists, arrows forever thudding into the scars in his chest.

There was a time, an incredibly hollow several months, when Dolorosa was left to assume Signless had died. Only a coded letter delivered among the silks meant for a new dress for the Empress told her of Signless's survival.

“You are right, and perhaps these new arrivals could prove helpful in maintaining our numbers,” Dolorosa said, breaking the silence and dispelling the dour thoughts they shared. “They are young, but with training I believe they could become powerful. Not to mention they have nowhere else to go; the trolls are without guardians now, and the humans... well.” She paused and let out a pained sigh. “I feel it is fair to assume the heir and princess are similarly left without parentage. The Dersian princess is left in a unique situation. It is unsafe for her to return home, and in fact may be impossible with Derse's closed borders, but one day she will be able to return to her kingdom. The others may not have a kingdom to return to. For now all we can do is keep them safe and hidden, but I believe there is no harm in training them while we can.”

Signless stood and began pacing, nervous energy overtaking is fearful stillness. “Yes,” he said, voice far away as he let himself get lost in thought. “We aren't going to let The Condesce take the continent. We cannot let her exert her tyranny over two kingdoms. This is what we have been fighting against for sweeps, and while this her conquest of Prospit is a painful step backwards, Her Imperious Condescension has not only given us royalty with an inevitable drive towards justice, but also a kingdom of scared and angry citizens.”

Dolorosa's breath caught as she realized the full extent of what Signless was saying. “You propose we recruit within Prospit as well? Rally its citizens and turn them on The Condesce and her soldiers?”

Signless's ruby red eyes flashed with a fire that had seemed so dim for sweeps, a fire that had driven hundreds to fight to the death, to cry for freedom and respect, to reach for what had been systematically taken from them for eons. A fire she had missed so dearly and that scared and invigorated her all at once. It was the flame of revolution, and in Signless it shone brighter than gold.

“That is exactly what I am proposing.”

Dolorosa's eyes were wide, blood-pusher thudding in her chest. Fear and exhilaration were equal forces within her. For sweeps she had assumed the rebellion had been well and truly ended, but this was a second chance, an opportunity to build themselves up again and finally dethrone the cruel empress.

“I have several contacts in Three Kingdoms City, we can pass through the outskirts as we head north into the mountains, toward one of the old safehives,” Signless said with urgency. “Nothing will happen quickly, but that is the best place to start.”

“I agree,” Dolorosa said with a nod. His passion was contagious and Dolorosa found her own mind racing.

The night was spent deep in thought, plans and ideas proposed and nixed as quickly as they were considered. They now had the experience of failure and the means to assure it would never happen again.

All the while, the children slept. They had quickly, by necessity, forgotten the comfort of a bed beneath them and had settled quickly. Despite the constant chatter from the adults they slept the heavy and still sleep of the weary and bone-tired. They did not dream, did not stir even as the sun began cresting the horizon.

 

 

Chapter Text

If in my darkest hour

She rose that fell a flower


 

            Rose Lalonde, stripped of her finery and title and future, sat slumped among several others in the same position. She looked far from regal; her curly hair was held back from her face with a worn ribbon, her nails, though always bitten and ragged, were suffering from the lack of upkeep, and her skin was splotchy and unevenly darkened from sun exposure. Nobody else in their ragtag group had faired any better. Signless had provided them all with some new clothes- utilitarian workpants and old tunics in muted and anonymous grays. Despite the drabness, it was a comfort to be wearing something that didn’t have the stench of old smoke and weeks’ worth of dirt and sweat clinging to it.

It had been a struggle to rouse them from their deep sleep and into their new clothes but much easier to lure them to the table for breakfast. Chatter was livelier than Rose was used to from them, but it was a welcome change. Even John and Jade, though subdued, joined in.

After eating they were left to wait, sitting around the well-worn living room. Rose had quickly claimed the couch but found herself surrounded before she could stretch out. On one side of her sat Kanaya, keeping a polite distance in stark contrast to their proximity the night before. It was an unwelcome distance, but Rose did not want to be the one to close it.

On the other side was Jade, with John in front of her on the floor, his back against her legs and head hanging forward as he snored lightly. Jade looked better rested than she had in weeks, those dark circles under her eyes lightened just enough for Rose to notice the change. It wasn’t much, but she looked a little less weary and a little more like the fourteen-year-old she was.

            As if feeling Rose’s scrutiny, she gave her a sideways glance. Rose offered a weak smile and Jade responded by taking her hand and squeezing it comfortingly.

            All the while, Signless and Dolorosa hurried about the hive with their arms full of odds-and-ends. Books, papers, food, clothes, medicines, anything they thought necessary for their excursion. They offered rushed reassurances and calming smiles as they hid their clearly rising panic.

            “So uh, he’s just… He’s The Signless,” Tavros said eventually from his vantage point on the floor. “He’s that Signless?”

            “No shit, just look at him,” muttered Sollux. “He looks just like he came back from the dead at some point.”

            “Are there several?” Rose asked. She presented the question with just a hint of condescension, but curiosity was certainly a factor.

            The trolls looked around at each other concernedly, hesitation stilling their words.

            “Well, no…” Kanaya began. “A troll not receiving a sign was unheard of until he came to light.”

            “And I assure you, it was a very deliberate action,” said Dolorosa, startling everyone. Her hands were empty as she joined the sitting group. Her expression was one of pained nostalgia. “A troll without a sign is anonymous, nonexistent. It was safest to keep him hidden.”

            “Why the secrecy?” Jade asked, eyebrows furrowed.

            “Otherwise I would have been culled.”

            Rose wondered if the aptitude for dropping dramatic one-liners upon arrival was an inherited trait as Signless appeared in the doorway, then moved to stand behind Dolorosa.

            “Humans have a very rudimentary concept of the hemospectrum, but you know its importance. Deviation from the rigid guidelines is grounds for execution. There is nothing more deviant than not being on the spectrum at all,” he said.

            “That’s not fair!” John said, sitting up with a frown. It was the most animated Rose had seen him in a while. Despite the strain on their friendship the betrothal caused, she was happy to see even a shadow of the boy he had been before.

            “That is the injustice I’ve been fighting since I could speak,” Signless said. “I was younger than all of you when I began speaking out against the caste system.”

            Dolorosa laughed. “And he was not at all subtle about it either,” she said fondly. “We had to move around so much because he would speak to crowds of highbloods and nearly get himself culled on the spot.”

            “I was never that blatant,” Signless muttered, face going red.

            “But you did get clawght!” Nepeta blurted, then covered her mouth sheepishly.

            “I did,” Signless said, all joviality gone from his and Dolorosa’s demeanor. “I knew the risks, we all did. It was still a nasty fucking s- ah, my apologies- a nasty surprise when the Condesce’s forces found us.”

            “But now is not the time to dwell on it,” Dolorosa said, breaking the melancholy atmosphere as she stood. She offered a smile that didn’t dispel the sadness in her eyes. “If you are all ready to leave, we could use some help packing things into the cart.”

            Rose stood as the others shuffled to their feet. She was not alone in her relief that they would no longer be traveling on foot. The humble cart was constructed of worn wood, covered by sturdy canvas to hide what it carried, and was led by old-looking black horses. To their weary eyes, it looked luxurious. The covered bed of the cart was full of necessities and finding a comfortable place to sit was a challenge for the eight teens. Rose ended up on the floor in front of Jade with Kanaya pressed into one side of her and a stack of crates on the other. It was not ideal, but better than walking.

            That’s what she told herself, anyway.

            “Where are we going exactly?” Aradia asked once everyone had gotten settled. Sollux was behind her, sitting on the side of the cart in a position Rose knew would get very uncomfortable very fast.

            Signless was finishing tying boxes down, worry lining the skin between his eyebrows as he surveyed the precarious position of the crates and the kids.

            “We are heading north, towards the mountains. There’s a safehive there, somewhere we can keep the prince and princesses safe from assassins and the like,” he said, and Rose’s heart leapt in her chest. The mountains in Alternia were an extension of Derse’s mountain range, from northern Alternia she could get to Derse’s capitol in weeks if the weather permitted.

            “But first, we are taking a detour to Three Kingdom’s City.”

            Jade let out a wordless exclamation of excitement and Rose’s eyes widened. The trolls looked equal parts excited and worried, but Signless went on before anyone could speak up.

            “We will not be staying long, and I highly doubt we will be heading into the heart of the city, please contain your exuberance. I have a highblood contact there who owes me a favor.”

            Dolorosa appeared beside him with a dark expression, putting yet another box in the cart. “He owes you more than a favor.”

            There was clearly a story there and Rose would have loved to learn more, but before she could find a tactful way to pry Signless tightened a final knot and checked the sturdiness of the rope.

            “I think we’re ready,” he said as he raised the back plank and secured it in place. “If anything falls… Don’t let anyone get hit,” he said with an apologetic wince.

With that he disappeared, and the cart rocked as Signless and Dolorosa climbed into the steering seats. As they jerked into motion, there was a tense moment where the crates shifted just a bit, creaking and straining against the ropes before settling safely. There was a unanimous breath of relief.

            And then an annoyed grunt.

            “Tavros, your horn is knocking into my head,” John said shortly. The two were seated shoulder-to-shoulder on a lower row of boxes, John’s lanky legs nearly pulled up to his chest. Tavros looked sheepish and tilted his head so that his wide horn instead scraped the ceiling.

            “Sorry about that,” he said. “Also, uh, your elbow is kinda right in my hip, could you maybe…?”

            “No it isn’t,” John said, eyes narrowed.

            “Don’t be mean John, give him some space,” Jade said. Rose could feel the argument brewing and was immensely grateful for Jade’s interjection.

            “My elbow is nowhere near him!” John said stubbornly, crossing his arms.

            “I mean, now it’s not…”

            “It never was!”

            Rose closed her eyes. This was going to be a long trip.

           

            Rose had hoped to fall asleep along the way, but the constant motion and the ominous sound of the crates shifting kept her from falling too deeply asleep, even as the sun set and the others began nodding off. Aside from the occasional shuffle, and one hollow thud followed by a muttered curse from Sollux, everyone was quiet. At some point Jade’s head rolled forward and she had begun snoring against Rose’s back. Rose wanted to be annoyed, but if she was honest with herself she was just jealous of Jade’s ability to sleep in the worst conditions.

Kanaya was still awake, but just barely. Her hands were folded in her lap and her fingers were in constant motion, an idle fidget Rose had found herself entranced by.

            Part of her wondered what would happen if she put her hand on top of Kanaya’s, to feel the skin she knew from experience was warm and soft.

            She would have, if it weren’t for the fact that Rose had no idea where she and Kanaya stood. Before the attack their future together had seemed secured, feelings blooming and growing rapidly between them, but since that night they had been too lost in their own sadness to speak. The weeks they spent on the road seemed like a foggy dream, one dark and full of pain but growing more and more distant as things happened and time progressed.

            In that time they hardly spoke. The previous night was the closest they had been on their own. She was in outlandish circumstances for contemplating her own romantic feelings, in a cart driven by a troll outlaw and surrounded by precarious crates, but still she wondered.

            A sudden weight on her shoulder cut her musing short. Kanaya’s hands had stilled, and her head lulled onto Rose’s as she began snoring lightly. Rose’s heart fluttered, her thoughts derailed completely as she looked at Kanaya’s sleeping face.

            At another time or in another life, Rose could have written hundreds of poems about a face so lovely. Her skin was light, smooth gray, dotted with deep green freckles that were only visible from her very close position. Her hair tickled Rose’s nose and was subtly iridescent. Thick dark lashes rested above her high cheekbones. Her horns, while uncomfortably close to scratching her face and neck, were shining gold and orange.

            Oh, there was no more doubt in her mind that Rose would do absolutely anything to keep Kanaya in her life. She was so deeply in love with this road-weary and dirt smeared troll next to her that it scared her. The thought was like standing on top of a mountain: exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.

            A quiet cough startled her from her thoughts. She was no longer the only one awake. John’s deep blue eyes met hers. His expression was soft, a far change from the distant sadness he had been carrying.

            “You love her,” he said slowly. It wasn’t a question, but Rose still nodded. She didn’t trust her voice not to wake the others or waver embarrassingly. She did, she loved Kanaya.

            John only nodded, turning away and looking at nothing in particular.

            “I really hate what led to us meeting, and how we ended up here. But I’m glad we’re friends,” he said haltingly, painfully raw and open. Rose smiled. It was clear what he wanted to say: I’m glad we weren’t forced into a marriage that would have destroyed our friendship. We’ve lost a lot, but at the very least we haven’t lost that.

            “As am I,” Rose said.

 

            With the adults switching off driving duties every few hours and letting everyone stretch their legs at the same time, the trip to Three Kingdoms City was nearly non-stop and only took three days. Rose was thankful; though she had only visited a few times in her life the trip had always been quite a production. A veritable parade of carriages, weeks of planning and slow travel through the mountains and villages among crowds of civilians.

            The difference in circumstances was jarring. There was no fanfare as they approached the outer border. The city itself seemed subdued, in stark contrast to the joviality Rose had come to expect. On the high walls that protected the outer ring of the city, flags fluttered in the low breeze. Deep purple and shining silver for Derse and royal fuchsia with glittering gold for Alternia. There were blatant gaps where the bright yellow Prospitian flags once flew.

            Rose spared a backwards glance into the cart. While the trolls looked into the city with wide eyes and carefully contained excitement, John and Jade were sharing a somber look.

            They passed into the city without incident. The low buildings were darkened, the wide roads nearly empty aside from a few people who kept their eyes trained downwards. It was decidedly eerie; a city with such a large population shouldn’t feel like a ghost town. When Rose visited with her family, they had never lingered in the outer ring of the city. It was notoriously seedy, populated by outcasts and exiles from all three kingdoms. There were no clear divides between Prospitians, Alternians, and Dersites when it came to housing; the architecture was a strange mix of all three that varied wildly between neighbors. Sturdy stone-built homes stood between oddly-angled and many-windowed hives and flat colorful sandy-walled houses.

            It was in front of one distinctly Alternian dwelling they stopped. Dark blue windows peered into the streets from behind its low fence. It loomed over the other buildings nearby, its rounded towers jutting into the cloudy skies. It almost looked like a small castle among hovels.

            The adults spoke urgently in low voices, and without the sound of wheels and hooves over dirt Rose could make them out.

            “-can’t be sure he will still honor this debt,” Dolorosa was saying. Her tone was almost pleading, and Signless responded placatingly.

            “He will. Highbloods care about their honor, even the exiled ones.”

            With that, the cart rocked and a moment later the back of the canvas parted. Signless looked exhausted; there were dark circles underneath his eyes, and his shaggy hair was pushed back from his face and tied with an old string. His dark robes were so dust covered that they were a similar shade of ashen gray as his skin. He seemed to be debating with himself.

            “I don’t think it would be a good idea to bring you all in here,” he said. “This will not be a friendly meeting I fear.”

            “We’ve been sitting here fur hours,” Nepeta whined, pouting.

            Rose wondered to herself if Nepeta was much cleverer than she let on with her childish way of speaking; though her tone was bratty it was clear it was enough to make Signless consider.

            His consideration was cut short by a loud thud followed by a deep, booming voice.

            “YOU!”

            Fear was evident on his face as he raised his hands. The canvas cover fell back but was quickly opened by eight pairs of curious hands.

            In the doorway of the ominous hive stood a massive beast of a troll, rippling muscles displayed in a sleeveless top. A long ponytail hung down his back and his eyes were obscured by a pair of wraparound goggles. His teeth were bared, and his rumbling growl was audible from a distance. Arrow-shaped horns nearly scraped the high doorway.

            At the front of the cart, Dolorosa hissed.

            “You have some nerve showing your face here, mutant scum,” the highblood spat.

            “Please Executor, not in front of the- “

            “Don’t call me that,” he said, voice low and dangerous. He stood up straighter, looked less likely to attack now that the eight young humans and trolls, and the very angry Dolorosa, were watching.

            “Darkleer,” Signless tried carefully, “there is a matter I require your unique assistance with.”

            “It’s the least you could do,” Dolorosa added, a prominent hiss in her words.

            Darkleer looked back and forth between them. Without a word he turned back into his hive, leaving the door open. Signless and Dolorosa wasted no time in following, and with no word against it, the rest followed suit.

            The inside of the hive was dreary and dark despite the high windows. Mechanical parts of unidentifiable function covered every available surface and most of the floor. Despite its apparent size from the outside it was rather cramped. Darkleer had immediately taken a seat at one of his many work desks, shoulders hunched as he focused on adjusting gears and ignoring the sudden crowd in his home. Signless only gave Rose and the others an exasperated glance before he began speaking.

            “Darkleer, surely you have heard of what happened in Prospit,” he began. “Hundreds died. Human royalty and highbloods among them. You must have some lingering kinship with your own caste-“

            “You are one to talk about caste loyalty, Signless,” Darkleer said coldly without looking up from his work. “I assure you, I feel nothing.”

            “Be that as it may, perhaps you have some sort of drive towards revenge towards the matriarch that exiled you.” Signless was bordering on begging, but Darkleer was clearly not moved.

            “I have no drive. I harbor no anger, nor a need for vengeance. I only want to be left alone. I want no part in whatever you have the mind to do.”

            Signless looked distraught. Rose pursed her lips and straightened her back. She had dealt with the sullen noble type before, surely the troll equivalent was handled no differently.

            “Sir Darkleer, if I may,” Rose spoke up, to unanimous surprise. It was enough to get Darkleer himself to look up as well.

            “Who are you?” he asked, clearly unimpressed.

            With a quick curtsy Rose said, “I am Rose Lalonde of Derse, future queen of Prospit, as empty a title as that is now. I am assumed dead at the hands of Her Imperious Condescension, along with everyone else here. If you do not hear Signless out, I fear the assumptions may come true.”

            Despite her well enunciated speech, Darkleer did not seemed swayed. Signless sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

            “She is as she says, but I am begging you not to make this public knowledge,” he said. Before he could send Rose and the rest back to the cart, Rose spoke up again.

            “I’m offering a bargaining chip. Despite my marriage into Prospitian lineage, I still hold power in Derse. I will admit, I don’t know what acclaim you once held in Alternia, but help us as you can, Sir Darkleer, and I can guarantee you safety and acclaim in Derse when this war ends.”

            Dolorosa and Signless looked at her with tight expressions, worry evident in their eyes. For the first time, Darkleer seemed to be listening.

            “You have always had a hand in this, Horuss,” Signless said eventually, and Darkleer’s jaw twitched at the name. “From the moment you drew your first arrow to kill me, you were involved. Do this for those that got you out of the Empress’s claws. Do this for Disciple.”

            It was silent aside from a faint gasp behind Rose, but she was too engrossed in the silent war clearly happening within Darkleer to turn.

            “Where is she?” Darkleer asked finally, his voice much quieter than it had been before, a distant earthquake as opposed to an avalanche overhead.

            “Purrospit’s catsle,” Nepeta said quietly. “I don’t think she made it.”

            That got Rose to turn. Nepeta’s eyes were downcast, Jade’s hand on her shoulder. Jade and John weren’t the only ones to lose their guardian, Rose realized. Though she hadn’t seen many adult trolls around in Prospit there were a few. Certainly enough that the five trolls had all had someone looking out for them in Prospit.

            “Fine,” Darkleer said, pulling Rose back into the moment. “For her, and for my title, I will assist how I can.”

            Signless visibly relaxed. “Thank you, truly thank you from the bottom of my blood-pusher.”

            “After this, we are even,” Darkleer said as he stood. “What do you need of me?”

            “We simply need to get the word out to the right people, and to keep it from the wrong ones,” Signless said. “We’re going to help take Prospit back and overthrow The Condesce in the process.”

            Shock was an understatement. Rose’s jaw dropped but she hardly noticed. Overthrow the Alternian Empress? She had been ruling unopposed as long as Derse and Prospit had existed.

            “Foolish, if you’ll excuse my language,” Darkleer said incredulously. “Suicidal and impossible. You’ve nearly died for this cause once, Vantas. This is so much larger and sure to send you to the grave sweeps sooner.”

            “It may seem so, but I truly believe we can do it this time.”

            After a pause, Darkleer began gathering supplies; thin pipes and tiny gears were piled on his table haphazardly. It was clear the conversation was over and with a final thank-you from Signless and a grunt from Darkleer, they left the hive.

            As soon as they converged at the cart, Signless was assaulted with questions.

            “How did he know Disciple?” Nepeta said, loud and demanding.

            “How will Darkleer help?” Jade asked before Signless could answer Nepeta’s question.

            Signless opened his mouth to answer, but Rose followed Jade with another question, one that had been burning in her mind for days, “why does Darkleer owe you a debt?”

            Signless looked vaguely overwhelmed by the barrage of questions, but Rose’s curiosity yearned to be sated. There were more questions half-formed on their lips, but Dolorosa stood behind Signless and put a hand up.

            “Let’s discuss this once we are out of Three Kingdoms City,” Dolorosa said calmly. “Once we are safe, your questions will be answered.”

            With reluctant grumbles, they climbed into the back of the cart and settled into their uncomfortable spots. Nepeta was bouncing with impatience, a dangerous activity while sitting atop a stack of crates loosened by days of travel.

            “Nepeta, Disciple was your guardian, correct?” Rose asked. Though Signless wouldn’t be answering her questions any time soon, she could still get information from other sources to fill out this rapidly expanding puzzle.

            “Yeah! She had been training me since I had just come out of grubhood,” she said. There was pride and sadness in her tone.

            “How was she involved with Signless?” Rose went on as gently as she could.

            “I don’t know! She nefur really talked about her past… though she did tell me stories about Signless’s rebellion.” She shrugged. “Guess she had a more purrsonal hand in it than I thought.”

            “So it seems,” Rose mused.

            “We had always been told that Signless was killed and his rebellion soundly crushed,” Kanaya said. “Even Dolorosa, who clearly was involved from the beginning, did not let on that she had ever even met him.”

            “The secrecy makes sense,” Jade pointed out. “If it were common knowledge that some rebels were alive, that would give everyone else someone to rally behind.”

            “True,” Rose said. At some point she had ended up chewing on her thumbnail and didn’t even notice, a habit she could never break. “But why did the Empress not just kill all the rebels? Why leave any alive at all?” She turned to Kanaya with eyebrows raised. “Why keep someone who was obviously so close to heart of the rebellion as her own personal seamstress?”

            “What better place than under her thumb,” Kanaya countered.

            “This discussion is only raising more questions than answers,” Sollux huffed. “Not to mention it’s giving me a fucking headache trying to keep up with what we do and don’t know on top of the bumping of the damn cart so can we all just shut up until we stop?”

            “Perhaps it’s best to withhold speculation until we can ask the adults directly,” Rose conceded. Silence fell among them, albeit a silence heavy with questions.

            “How long are we going to be involved in this?” Jade whispered after a few minutes. It was difficult for Rose to hear her despite her proximity and was surely impossible for the others to hear over the cart and horses.

            “I don’t know,” Rose admitted under her breath. She had a home and family to go back to, a kingdom she could one day rule. As it stood, Jade and John had neither of those things. If came down to a choice, Rose could leave Signless’s rebellion and return to the safety and certainty of Derse.

            Even so, she hoped she was never forced to choose.

            Nobody noticed as the cart left the city, as caught up in their own thoughts as they all were.

 

            Evidently, the adults were less keen on answering questions than Dolorosa had implied. They waited until everyone else was asleep to switch positions and waited longer than they had ever risked before switching again.

            But they couldn’t stall forever. When the steady shallow bumping of the cart turned to tumultuous rocking that indicated they were stopping in the grass, Nepeta wasted no time in leaping from the cart. Rose wasn’t even sure they were at a complete halt yet, but that didn’t stop her from following. She at least had the restraint not to immediately fire her barrage of inquires at Signless, but Nepeta had no such qualms.

            “How do you know Disciple? Was she a rebel? Why did Darkleer know her?” She was hopping back and forth at the side of the cart. The adults were still seated at the top, looking completely exhausted.

            “They can’t answer if you don’t give them a chance to hear the question in the first place,” Rose pointed out.

            “I don’t blame her for her eagerness,” Signless sighed. “We’ve put this off long enough.” With that he climbed down and helped Dolorosa with a steadying hand. He cast a weary glance around; with the cart between them and the road, he deemed it safe enough to lower his hood and begin speaking.

            He was not an imposing troll, with is short horns and open features, but he still commanded everyone’s attention as he wove the story of his doomed rebellion.

 

            Years ago, but not many, a grub was born. They called him Signless, a title not unearned. He was without a sign, without a caste, unfit for society with blood the bright red of a human’s. But his skin was gray, his horns pitiful but present, marking him as an Alternian.

            His first crime was being born. His second, treason.

            Though no troll would call her such, Dolorosa was his mother. She stole him away from the place all grubs are born, a place so shrouded in secrecy that she still refused to speak about it. There is loyalty there, only overshadowed by the love she felt for him. Her son.

            From the moment she saw him, she knew he would change Alternia.

            His upbringing was lonesome. Whereas most trolls grow up among groups of their own kind, litters watched over by jadebloods until they could begin their teaching at the hands of those of their castes, Signless had only Dolorosa.

            Until Disciple.

            She was alone, covered in dirt and grime and blood and grinning an irresistible smile up at Dolorosa. She spoke too loudly, relied on the movement of others lips to understand what they said. She had been turned away from the other olivebloods; a huntress who could not hear her prey was one that would starve anyway.

            She was Dolorosa’s second charge. She and Signless were quickly inseparable, mischievous and too clever for their own good. It would have been endearing if not for the fact that their very existence was grounds for execution.

            Dolorosa taught them as well as she could. Fairness and kindness in all things, softness and reason while speaking and bravery and resolve while fighting. She didn’t know what kind of future these two would shape, but it would be one far different from the tyranny they currently faced.

            As Signless aged and something akin to a following sprouted up around him, Dolorosa lived in fear. Fear of him talking to the wrong troll, fear of highbloods in their midst, fear of losing him and those she had nurtured.

            Her fears were not unfounded. It only took one troll to bring the entire rebellion down, caught after hearing Signless speak in the basement of a seedy inn as far from the Empress’s castle as they could have been. Signless never bore them any ill will. Cobaltbloods had mental tricks up their sleeves, second only to the pure power at the command of the purplebloods.

            A week later, they were in cells. There were screams, cries, begs from the adjacent cells, each voice familiar to Signless. Each one someone he had grown close to, had protected, had encouraged.

            Each one died.

            For two weeks he sat. He listened. He waited for the screams of Dolorosa, of his Disciple. He waited for his execution.

            At last the day arrived. He stood of his own volition, allowed the irons around his wrist.

            The cells he was paraded past were empty, aside for two.

            Dolorosa strained against the bars, reaching for Signless. For the first time he faltered, feared his own death if only out of fear of leaving her alone. From the next cell, Disciple cried out. Rough hands pushed him forward, and two terrified pairs of eyes were all he glimpsed before he was facing the execution block.

            With his hands chained over his head, Signless faced the Executor. It was a show for the highbloods; they watched from the balconies, dressed in their finery. It was not going to be a merciful death.

            His arrows pierced him where they would not kill immediately. He did not cry out, he didn’t dare give anyone the satisfaction. The world faded around him slowly as his heretical blood spilled.

            And then chaos. There was a psionic blast in the balconies, and another much subtler one from the hallway Signless had been led from. Then Disciple was there, teeth and claws bared, but she only had eyes for Signless. The executer turned his bow towards her, but hesitated. It was enough for her to break Signless’s shackles and drag him through the pandemonium and out into the waiting arms of the few rebels that remained.

            It took weeks, but he recovered. As soon as he was able to be left alone, the remaining rebels fled for their lives. Even Disciple disappeared the moment he was broken free. He understood.

            In the face of his failure, The Executor very nearly became the executed. It was only at the warning of one brave rebel sent by Signless that saved him from that fate; he left Alternia and never returned. A simple letter written in fuchsia on his door let him know that his escape was a rare act of mercy, a mercy that would not save him should he step foot on Alternian soil.

            It took ages to get word to Dolorosa that Signless had survived. Soon after his escape she had been placed into servitude for The Empress herself, a position that would have been enviable under any other circumstances. The tyrannical ruler she had once had dreams of overthrowing now owned her.

Signless’s survival carried her though her servitude, as did the eventual arrival of a young apprentice. Under threat of death, both her own and young Kanaya’s, Dolorosa was forbidden to speak about the rebellion.

Nobody spoke of the rebellion. Its members fled to the neighboring kingdoms or kept to themselves. It was as if it had never happened.

 

Silence. The adults had told the story back and forth, weaving it together effortlessly despite the fact that telling it was clearly painful for the both of them. When Rose was able to wrench her eyes away from the adults, she turned to Kanaya. There were greenish tears in the corners of her eyes, fingertips pressed to her lips. Everyone seemed to be in similar states of shock.

“Why didn’t we hear about this before?” John whispered eventually, breaking the silence that had spanned minutes.

“We never heard anything about this in Derse either,” Rose managed to say, voice fragile.

“Alternian affairs are kept as quiet as possible,” Dolorosa said. “If the other kingdoms were to find out about a strive for equality, they would have helped. The Empress and her highbloods couldn’t have that”

Rose was not so sure Derse would intervene at all, but Prospit surely would have. Derse had always been far more reserved than either of the other kingdoms, so Rose had thought.

“Now, we still have quite a bit of travel ahead of us,” Signless said, turning to climb back into the drivers’ seat. “I’m confident we will reach our destination within the next three days if we hurry.”

There were few things Rose wanted to do less than get back into the cramped back of the cart, which was beginning to smell just like it had been carrying eight teens for four solid days, but with as little impudence as she could manage, she returned to her spot. With so much information to process, the silence stretched well into the day. There was too much to say.

 

Despite being an extension of Derse’s mountain range, Alternia’s mountains were unfamiliar to Rose. Where Dersian mountains were gentle, covered in misty greenery and capped with snow, Alternia’s were bleak and hard with sheer cliff edges and veins of black stone. The trees that clung to the stone were gnarled and dark with age, with branches and roots that seemed to form impenetrable nets.

Rose was closer to home than she had been in months, but homesickness reared its ugly head in the face of the unfamiliar landscape.

Signless led the cart right up to one clump of trees that hung on to a narrow ledge, the roots forming a curtain of sorts. Nearby a waterfall roared and the cliffs formed protective walls that hid the clearing from view. If a traveler were unaware of its existence, stumbling upon the area by accident would require taking dangerous and arduous paths up the cliffs, paths that Signless breezed through easily despite the old horses and older cart.

He stopped, and Rose couldn’t help but be grateful that the rickety cart wouldn’t be trekking any further up the mountains. With more energy than had been shown in days, Rose followed the rest out of the cart. Nepeta was already poking at the tree curtains, peering through the roots to whatever lied beyond. Signless and Dolorosa both looked apprehensively nostalgic, the clearing obviously familiar to them, bringing back memories that they wished to forget.

Rose found herself drawn to the waterfall. The cool water crashed into the dark rocks, sending mist into the air that caught the sunlight like prisms and felt fantastic on her skin. She was by no means a master of geography, but if she was right about where they were relative to Derse’s castle, this river started very close by, one of the nearest offshoots of the river that flowed north to south through both Derse and Prospit. When she and Dave managed to sneak away from the castle and whatever minder had the displeasure of watching them they always ended up near the river, splashing in the cool waters and watching the fish speed by.

The sudden appearance of a figure in her peripheral vision startled her from her thoughts. She greeted Kanaya with a nod and shy smile.

“You seemed pensive,” she said with a tilt of her head.

“There’s something about a waterfall that makes one introspective,” Rose said with a shrug. “Though perhaps that’s just me, I spent my happier times by the riverside and it makes me nostalgic.”

“You’ll have to tell me more one day,” Kanaya said. “I’m certain you have many memories to share. I have never been to Derse, I would love to know more about it.”

“I would be happy to share my experiences, though admittedly they won’t be the average Derse life stories,” Rose said with a laugh that was just a touch too sad. Something shifted in Kanaya’s expression and she took a step closer, her hand reaching for Rose’s arm.

“How are you holding up, Rose? I can’t imagine being so close to your home but unable to get word to them is upsetting, to say the least.”

“It isn’t easy,” Rose admitted. “Though I-“

“Rose, Kanaya! If we don’t all work together to get these supplies inside we’ll be out here all night,” Signless said, not quite scolding but firm enough to get them both moving.

John, despite being rather scrawny, was carrying the most boxes. It was one more that Tavros was carrying, and Rose could see the competitiveness in his eyes. The way his face darkened and the sweat beaded up on his forehead made it clear he was moments away from dropping everything. Kanaya hurried over just as the first crate shifted and threw John off balance and took the weight effortlessly. Her arms hardly strained under the stack of boxes and she carried them through the root curtain almost elegantly.

Rose didn’t know why her face was suddenly very warm. There was no time to dwell on it however, as a second later there was a crate in her own arms and she was urged forward by a very annoyed Sollux.

The smooth walls of the cave created a high and narrow hallway with occasional small outcroppings of stone like nonsense stairs that lead to nowhere. Dolorosa had gone further in first, lighting torches and watching for danger.

Then without warning, Rose was in a city. The mountain was almost entirely hollow and held an elaborate grid of buildings and bridges within. Distant openings high in the stone walls let dim sunlight into the interior, aided by the torches lit by Dolorosa. Stone and wood structures made a neat grid of streets, more structures resting on stone ledges climbed the flat walls and were connected by suspended bridges and staircases and led into caves. Despite its age it all seemed well intact and sturdy.

Even more shocking were the unfamiliar faces that surrounded Signless. They seemed almost reverent, several with tears in their eyes as they surrounded the comparatively small troll. He listened intently as they spoke. Without taking her eyes from the unfamiliar trolls, Rose dropped her crate by the rest. The rest of the young trolls were gathered nearby, chattering quietly.

“Does anyone know them?” she asked.

“That one, he trained me,” Tavros said, seemingly surprised as he pointed at a troll with wide horns and, to Rose’s confusion, even wider bronze wings. They were bug-like and slightly incandescent even in the low light. They fluttered every so often.

“He didn’t have wings when I knew him,” Tavros said with a shrug.

“He trained you in Prospit?” Rose asked, studying him and the rest of the collected trolls for a familiar face. Tavros winced.

“No, he was the one who sent me to Prospit in the first place actually. I don’t- he says I don’t have the, um, temperament to be a guard in Alternia,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think he’s wrong or anything really! But, you know…”

Rose did not know but nodded anyway.

Signless seemed to become aware of the scrutiny of the young trolls and royals and gestured for them to approach. He looked more at ease, more confident than Rose had seen him before. Rose hurried over with the rest.

“Children, I would like you to meet the last vestiges of our first rebellion, and the first recruits of our second rebellion,” he said with a grin. The troll Tavros pointed out as his former mentor clapped him on the shoulder. Rose stifled a laugh; it was a wonder Signless didn’t fall over.

“This is The Summoner. Former roughiannihilator and current heavy hitter,” Signless said with a raised eyebrow.

“You have wings!” Tavros blurted. His face went ruddy-brown but he went on to say, “and you’re a rebel. Uh, hello again.”

Summoner squinted before realization hit him and his face broke out into a grin. His wings flapped hard enough to stir a breeze. “Tavros! Glad you see you’re okay.”

Tavros grinned. Signless cleared his throat and went on to introduce the rest. There were no more reunions until Dolorosa returned to the group and the rebels greeted her with the same respect they showed Signless.

Rose fell to the back of the group to stand next to Kanaya.

“I’ll admit, being introduced to people like this is highly preferable to being presented to court nobles like a prized cow,” she muttered. Kanaya laughed, a sweet sound Rose didn’t hear nearly often enough.

“It’s strange to see that Dolorosa knows so many people,” Kanaya admitted. “She never spoke of her past for good reason, but I just assumed she was solitary by choice. It hurts to think that she had been separated from so many.”

Dolorosa looked truly vibrant. She was quite literally glowing a bright white, but her face was flushed with happiness as she spoke with the other adult trolls. It was similar to how she looked around Signless but multiplied by the number of trolls around her.

“She seems so happy now. In fact, she’s radiant,” Rose said pointedly, a touch sarcastic. Kanaya elbowed her softly and smiled.

“She’s a rainbow drinker, she can’t always control the brightness,” Kanaya explained. Rose had so many questions, but Dolorosa herself approached the children with her face still soft with happiness.

“You must all be tired,” she said. “I’ll lead you to your rooms.”

There was no hesitation in following her. The lure of sleeping in a bed again was too strong to resist. She led them though the neat streets of the hidden city, up one of the staircases and into another cave. Rooms had been carved into the stone, small and sparsely furnished but comfortable. Ambient light reached into the hall and illuminated the rough-hewn doors that offered privacy. At the end of the hall, a stone staircase led into a bathing room.

“Being some of the first ones here means you get first choice of rooms,” Dolorosa said. “This is not the only housing area, and in fact many prefer to stay in lodging closer to the ground, but for you I think it is a good place.”

Her face darkened a bit, as did her skin. She sunk to the ground, eye level with them all. She focused on Jade, John, and Rose and spoke in a low voice.

“We want to keep you away from the majority of the rebellion for a while, keep you all under a low profile so to speak” she said. “And we cannot let them know of your true identities. For all intents and purposes, you are merely servants’ children who managed to escape with us. Understood?”

“Why?” Jade asked. “If these rebels are against the Empress anyway, it’s not like anyone will turn us over to her.”

“We can never be too careful,” Dolorosa said. “It is not permanent, I promise.”

John and Jade shared a frown.

“And what about me? There is no reason for me to be in hiding, my kingdom has not fallen. Am I at least safe enough to get a message to Derse?” Rose asked.

Dolorosa hesitated. “Soon. All will be explained as soon as possible.”

Rose narrowed her eyes as Dolorosa stood to her full height again. She did not meet Rose’s eyes.

“You are free to choose your rooms, and I ask that you all turn in for the evening. Tomorrow you will all be given a tour, there is much to see. Goodnight.”

Rose watched her go, confusion and fear and distrust turning her stomach. A hand on her shoulder distracted her from her building questions.

“It would be an honor to be your room neighbor,” Kanaya said. “Perhaps that doesn’t mean much, but…” She trailed off, her face going green in embarrassment.

“The honor would be mine,” Rose said. A relieved smile graced Kanaya’s face as Rose took her hand.

Rose’s room was the closest to the entrance on the right of the hall, Jade across from her and Kanaya beside her. John ended up beside Jade, naturally. Sollux and Tavros took rooms on the same side, while Nepeta and Aradia were opposite. There were several more rooms toward the end of the hallway, but there was an unspoken agreement to take the rooms closest to each other.

John and Jade hugged in the space between their rooms before going inside. It was the first time they had been separated since they left Prospit, Rose realized. She could hardly blame them. With each passing day she missed Dave more.

There were muttered goodnights and a wave to Kanaya before Rose closed her door.

A single candle lit the room. The walls were the same dark, smooth stone that the rest of the cave was made of. The bed was low and small but looked exquisitely comfortable. A dresser stood next to it, and a desk was against the opposite wall. The furniture was worn and obviously used, and Rose wondered who had lived here before her. Knowing the fate of the former tenant was probably not happy, she forced the thought away. The drawers were unsurprisingly empty; the only one who managed to keep any belongings was Aradia and her music box. It was strange to think that she owned nothing but the clothes on her back, but she could think of very few material objects that she missed.

Once her inspection of her room was complete, Rose realized that for the first time in a long time she was alone. It was quiet with only her breathing in the room, an unfamiliar experience. She sat on the bed, ropes creaking under her weight.

While it was nice to be out of the back of the cart and in a room she could call her own for the foreseeable future, the solitude was strangely unwelcome.

Despite the disconcerting stillness of the room, Rose still found herself growing exhausted. Her arms ached from carrying crates from the cart, her back ached from sitting in said cart for a week, and her heart ached as she had grown used to.

Undressing quickly and vowing to ask for a change of clothes as soon as possible, Rose got into bed, extinguishing the candle. Seconds later, she was asleep.

 

There is a simple comfort in waking up without prompting, a comfort Rose had long ago forgotten. She blinked into the darkness, her own internal clock telling her, somewhat unreliably, that it was midmorning. Her mind was clearer that it had been in ages, her body still aching but helped by her rest. There was a sliver of light underneath the door that helped illuminate her path.

As she dressed, there was a light knock on her door. She opened it and Kanaya greeted her with an armful of clean clothes.

“My apologies, I would have brought these before you dressed if I had known you were awake,” she said.

“No apologies needed, I’m thrilled to have something clean to change into,” she said with a smile.

“As we all are,” Kanaya said. She was dressed colorfully in a pale green skirt and pink shirt. It suited her far better than the drab tunic and leggings they had all worn for so long. The clothes she handed Rose were similarly vibrant and clearly chosen with her in mind: a deep purple dress with a pale gray shawl embroidered in blue. She accepted them appreciatively and Kanaya left her to change.

While a part of her would miss the freedom of pants, she was most comfortable in the dress. It was not the finest material, but it was freshly cleaned and smelled strongly of soap. She felt more luxurious than she had in ages.

She opened her door to find Kanaya chatting with Jade. Jade was wearing a long yellow tunic cinched with a green belt and blue pants, an outfit that seemed distinctively Jade. John was nearby, standing next to Sollux who somehow managed to look tired despite a full night’s rest. Rose, it seemed, was the last one awake.

“Now that Her Royal Highness is awake can we please go and eat?” Sollux whined, confirming Rose’s suspicion.

“Perhaps I should freshen up my makeup first,” Rose said thoughtfully, dragging out each word. There was a chorus of groans as the group began walking past her.

As a group they headed toward the ground floor, catching sight of Dolorosa from above and calling down to grab her attention. She looked up and gave them an exasperated expression as she rushed to meet them at the bottom of the stairs.

“I thought I mentioned keeping a low profile,” she said, her arms crossed and expression reproachful. “I would have collected you all shortly, there was no need to shout for all to hear.”

“You did also mention a tour,” Jade said.

“One that will hopefully end near a kitchen,” John added with a wide grin. A grin even Dolorosa was not immune to. She relaxed somewhat, expression turning forgiving.

“That I did,” she conceded. “Come along then, this shouldn’t take too long.”

Eager to learn more about their new home, they followed closely behind. Rose was shocked by the size of it all; while she was not particularly short for her age, the buildings were clearly meant to accommodate adult trolls and their horns.

“Most of these are homes, but several act as meeting rooms,” Dolorosa explained. “There are larger meeting rooms in offshoot caverns for speeches and the like.”

Rose peered into an open doorway. As Dolorosa said, it contained several chairs and enough standing room for a sizable group of people. It reminded her of the room in which she and Dave were taught alongside other high nobles their age. Dolorosa kept going and Rose scrambled to keep up.

“Down this hall is the training room,” she said with a gesture. “It is one of the few caverns without stone overhead despite being deepest in the mountain.” Subdued sunlight brightened the hall, one of the few without torches. The ground was mossy and the walls were rough, reaching stories upwards toward the clouded sky.

As Dolorosa introduced more areas, Rose found her mind wandering. It must have taken years to create such an elaborate system of caves, stairs, and bridges. Time and many hands. The rebellion must have been expansive before Signless was captured. It was a sobering thought that was dispelled by Dolorosa with one half-heard word.

“-library, though right now its contents are damaged and undergoing restoration. The collection includes several books penned by members of the first rebellion.”

Rose strained to see past her. The library was a circular room lined with rough shelves covered in old books. She could smell the dust and age from a distance, a comforting and familiar scent shared by all libraries. The thought of reading those rare books occupied Rose’s mind through the rest of the tour. The briefly visited a trading post, an indoor garden tended with the help of mirrors reflecting sunlight, and specialized training rooms for magic battle (a concept Rose was instantly thrilled by) and hand-to-hand combat.

To everyone’s relief, the tour ended in what looked almost like an inn. Tables and chairs crowded most of the room, and behind a counter was a comfortably sized kitchen. They descended upon the kitchen like a pack of wild animals before being shooed by several rustbloods. Taking to a large round table, pulling chairs from surrounding tables to surround the same one, the chattering began.

Jade stared with, “I can’t believe there’s a garden! And the way it’s maintained is so smart, I wonder if I could help!”

“That was most exciting, and the library! I would love to explore its contents,” Kanaya said.

“Learning to fight is exciting too! Did you see the training dummies in there? I wanna break one!” Nepeta exclaimed, fists raised.

“I bet Summoner will teach us,” Tavros added with a grin, his usual nervousness replaced with genuine excitement.

“Not just fist fighting, magic fighting too,” Aradia said. “I wonder who will teach that?”

“Good luck finding a troll around here magic enough to teach,” Sollux said derisively, earning a friendly whack on the shoulder.

John looked confused. “Can’t trolls do magic?”

“They can, but it’s a little more difficult. Lowbloods are rather restricted in what they can learn and only highbloods have the money to truly become skilled, but it seems more innate in humans,” Kanaya explained. “Some castes, midbloods for the most part, are the least inclined towards magic. Even so I would still love to learn.”

“As would I,” Rose said quietly, lost under the flow of words surrounding her. The possibilities were titillating; perhaps there were magical means of communicating with Dave, or perhaps even visit Derse. Barring that, perhaps she could learn to hold her own, to protect herself on the off chance an attack was mounted against them. Learning magic was equal parts sobering and exciting.

She was pulled from her thoughts by the feeling of eyes studying her face. Glancing up quickly, she saw Kanaya turn away. Kanaya licked her lips, the ever-present movement of her hands far more nervous than it had been. It was obvious she wanted to say something, but something was holding her back.

The excited conversation was interrupted by a stack of bowls and a pot placed in the middle of the table. Hungry hands reached for the food, a hearty vegetable soup that, while plain, was filling. They talked, they ate, and Rose felt an unexpected sense of tentative normalcy. Despite knowing the situation was temporary, though indefinite, Rose realized she wouldn’t mind being a part of this. The rebellion, this group of so many different backgrounds and kingdoms was something she truly felt a part of.

It wasn’t home, but it was bearable.

When Dolorosa arrived, stopping a food fight instigated by John before it could truly start with just a glance, bowls were pushed away and curious glances greeted her.

“If you are all finished, Signless and I need to have a meeting with you all.”

There was a sudden spike in nervous energy as they followed her from the room and back into the streets. Whispers passed between them, questions none of them could answer. Dolorosa led them into one of the small meeting rooms where Signless was already waiting, pacing the front of the room with an unreadable expression.

Anxiety clawed its way into Rose’s chest, and with a quick glance at the others she could tell she was not alone. Jade bit her lip, John shifted his weight as his eyes darted around the room, Nepeta seemed to vibrate with energy, Kanaya’s hands toyed with the fabric of her sleeves. It was telling how quickly she had learned to pick up on everyone else’s emotional giveaways.

Then she noticed her thumbnail in her mouth and quickly clasped her hands in her lap.

Signless cleared his throat as he stopped pacing, Dolorosa standing behind him with her hands behind her back, expression grim.

“As of four days ago, Alternia is officially at war with Derse.”

The air left the room. Rose’s chest was tight, hands balled into fists that left her knuckles white. She could feel worried eyes on her but paid them no mind as she listened to Signless.

“They have made no headway into the country itself; Derse had taken quick action in fortifying its borders after Prospit fell. Alternia is pushing into Derse from the south. It seems their plan to take Prospit first was a tactical one, as the Alternian troops now have no need to pass through the mountains.” Signless cleared his throat, let out a heavy breath that seemed to deflate him.

“This will make it nearly impossible for soldiers, supplies and refugees alike to get in or out of Derse,” he said.

“And equally impossible to send a messenger in,” Rose said, her voice steady to her ears even as she felt her hands shake.

Signless didn’t meet her eyes. “Indeed.”

Her hopes of reaching Dave, even with a letter, were dissipating before her eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Rose demanded, drawing all eyes to her. “We deserve to know just how badly things are between the kingdoms, Derse is my home, dammit! What else are you keeping from us, and don’t you dare lie to us any more than you already have.”

“It was for your safety,” Dolorosa said placatingly. “I promise you, from here on out we will tell you everything we can.”

“But before it was perfectly acceptable to lead me to believe that I could reach Derse sooner? To let us all believe that there was a chance to fall back there if all else failed?”

Dolorosa and Signless shared a nervous look. She stood and left the room before they could offer apologies or reassurances that she didn’t want.

Despair and anger drove her forward through the unfamiliar streets and passageways until she found herself in the training yard, the early afternoon sunlight far overhead streaming down to the moss and grass covered ground. The cavern was blessedly empty. She sat down heavily on an old wooden bench underneath an outcropping of rock.

She wrapped her arms round herself, taking deep breaths in a meager attempt to calm the rising panic. Tears stung her eyes but refused to fall. Crying wouldn’t have helped anyway. At once, the entire mountain seemed to close in around her, every pound of stone pressing against her like a tomb. She wanted to be out, she wanted to be in Derse with her brother and for the war to have never started, to never have been sent away in the first place. Hopelessness was a taste on her tongue, choking and bitter. It was hard to believe she was once a princess, poised and pampered. Her fingers dug into the rough cloth of her hand-me-down clothes, underneath which she could feel her roughened skin and the bones that were much closer to the surface than they had ever been.

A movement caught her eye. Kanaya stood by the mouth of the cavern, glancing around the expansive room, clearly looking for her. Rose pulled in a deep breath, then another. Let her lungs expand and exhaled slowly. Then she stood and waved. Kanaya hurried over, concern written on her face.

“I suppose it would be silly to ask if you’re okay,” she said as she sat.

“Yes, but the thought is appreciated,” Rose said. Her voice sounded dull, even to her own ears. She tried a smile, forced and fleeting.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Kanaya said. “Trolls don’t have families like humans do, but Dolorosa is close. I can’t imagine being separated from her by something as insurmountable as war.” Giving Rose a sideways glance, she bit her lip. “Perhaps that isn’t what you need to hear right now. Um…”

“It’s okay, Kanaya. You don’t have to say anything,” Rose said. “Sometimes, there isn’t anything that can be said; something that is becoming more and more apparent in our abysmal situation.”

“I suppose… just know that I’m here to listen. And perhaps there’s nothing helpful to be said but if that empty space needs to be filled with idle chatter I am always available.” She smiled, taking Rose’s hand and squeezing it lightly. There was something in her eyes Rose couldn’t place, something that squeezed her heart and dulled the unpleasantness that had been darkening her thoughts. With Kanaya, she felt that things truly would be okay.

All at once, heat spread up Rose’s arm and a warm glow emanated from between their palms. There was a feeling of warmth, featherlike and soft in Rose’s chest. Judging by the dazed expression on Kanaya’s face that Rose was sure was mirrored on her own, she was feeling something similar.

“Magic,” Rose murmured. “Maybe it’s brought on by strong emotion.”

Kanaya met her eyes. The heat that crept up Rose’s neck was distinctly unmagical, but the magnetism that drew their faces together had to had to be. Tentatively, Rose pressed her lips to Kanaya’s. Her breath was held as she backed up a bit, nervousness growing even as the glow that began at their hands brightened.

Kanaya was quick to close the space again, the hand that wasn’t linked with Rose’s cupping her cheek gently, holding Rose close. Rose’s heart was thudding in her chest and she was sure Kanaya could feel it too. Her lips were so soft, her hand so warm, her closeness intoxicating and all-encompassing-

The sound of footsteps scuffling backwards sent them both jumping backwards to opposite sides of the bench, the fading glow leaving stars in their eyes and spots of color high on their cheeks. From the entrance leading into the yard, retreating giggles that sounded distantly Nepeta-like retreated.

They were quiet and still for a moment before Rose laughed quietly.

“Privacy is a lost concept, I fear,” Kanaya said breathlessly.

“If it weren’t for the fact I am constantly surrounded by a hoard of people my own age, I would sorely miss the antics of my brother more,” she said dryly. “Even though it was just him, I rarely got a moment to myself.”

Kanaya laughed softly, shaky and high. Rose’s chatter was clearly brought forth by her nervousness, and she pressed her lips together quickly to stop the flow of words. Her heart was still fluttering in her chest, and her hand ached to close around Kanaya’s again, to pull her close and let that bubble of warmth and magic surround them and protect them from the troubles of the world around them. Instead, they both were shyly quiet on their half of the bench. She glanced at Kanaya as subtly as she could and found her nervously picking at the cloth of her skirt.

“Kanaya, I… I never feel quite grounded when I’m near you,” Rose started slowly. She kept her eyes trained downward, following the wood grain of the bench with her eyes. Kanaya was so still, her hands clasped in her lap.

“I mean that in a good way, I assure you. Nowadays, being grounded is to be surrounded by sadness and bad news. With you, I can forget for a moment. I can think of other matters aside from the constant running and worrying. Perhaps it is selfish of me, so distinctly childish of me not to carry the weight of the kingdom I will one day be responsible for on my shoulders. But if being around you makes me selfish I can’t bring myself to care.”

She looked up finally to find Kanaya looking at her with an expression so soft it made Rose’s chest ache.

“Rose, you have been so strong. Separated from family and home and running through two kingdoms that are not yours. You have carried so much, you don’t need to endure it all the time. Princess or not, you are only one person.”

“You’ve given me the strength,” Rose whispered, and took Kanaya’s hands again. “You have given me so much more, more than I could ever have expected from anyone. When this is over, wherever this war may lead us, stay with me. This is not a demand or even a plea from a princess. This is me, just Rose, asking for you to stay by my side. If you would like.”

Her heartbeat was choking her, breath held as she looked into Kanaya’s eyes, memorizing every streak of green that threaded through the gray. It couldn’t have been longer that a second before Kanaya answered, but to Rose it felt like an eternity.

“Of course. With you, I would go anywhere.”

 

There was no surprise when Rose and Kanaya returned hand-in-hand. In fact, the glances that passed from Nepeta to Aradia to Jade were smug and knowing. Rose elected to ignore them. She spared a moment to be thankful that neither of them were glowing at the moment.

The others were milling around in the hallway that held their rooms, cards spread on the floor between Sollux and Tavros, while the others leaned against the walls or sat sprawled on the floor and talked idly. Jade gestured the two over and Kanaya and Rose obliged. Jade looked bright as she took in how flustered and happy the two were.

“Dolorosa said she would make the other rooms on this hall into leisure and living rooms for us,” she said. Rose was thankful for the neutral topic of conversation. Though it was clear that Jade had a million questions formulating in her mind

“More than likely so we don’t need to sit around in the hallway or go looking elsewhere for a place to entertain ourselves,” Rose said. “Though I hope she doesn’t mean to limit our movements though the… city? The base, mountain, what term are we referring to this place as?”

“I’ve been calling it the base,” Jade said with a shrug.

“It’s fitting,” Kanaya said. “And easier than safehive, which is what I’ve been calling it.”

“And I don’t think she’s limiting where we can go exactly, I think she just wants to keep us out of the middle of things,” Jade pointed out.

“Delegated to the outskirts so as not to ask questions and place ourselves in the way,” Rose said bitterly.

“We haven’t been told directly to stay put,” Jade said with an expression that was quickly turning mischievous.

The sound of fast, bug-like wingbeats drew their attention to the opening of the hall that looked out over the main cluster of buildings. Summoner hovered in the air easily, a heavy-looking box in his arms that didn’t seem to impede his flight. He looked far too solidly built to fly. Despite that, he entered their hall and set the box down.

“I’m gonna start delivering furniture and stuff up here, Rosa’s orders,” he explained before darting away again, much faster that Rose would have thought possible.

Nepeta was already opening the box he had left to reveal old rugs and tapestries. They were clearly Alternian in origin; the backgrounds were black, but the threads that made up the images were deep and rich and woven with an expert eye. Green figures chased animals through thick and gnarled forests, violet shapes stood on the bows of massive ships. They told stories that Rose had no context for. The trolls grabbed for the ones that portrayed their blood castes and hurried off to decorate their rooms, clamoring all the while as they went back and forth.

The rugs Summoner brought up were much simpler, rectangles of soft black wool with lighter stripes woven through. Rose claimed one for herself, purple zig-zagging through the black, and took it to her room. Already her room seemed more personal, a space to live in rather than a space to sleep in.

A commotion drew her back into the hallway, where several benches were waiting to be moved. John and Tavros were working together to move the bedroom furniture into the furthest room while Nepeta brought the living room furniture into the empty rooms. Jade carried rods and rings from which to hang the tapestries to whoever asked.

Together, they were making themselves at home.

“We’re going to be here for quite some time,” Rose said. Kanaya’s fingers threading through hers was all the agreement she needed.

“Let’s help, otherwise these rooms will be unlivable,” Kanaya said, and the two joined the fray.

 

Dolorosa did not make her presence known, but Rose still caught a glimpse of her. She stepped off the bench that was boosting her towards the rod that held up brightly colored banners and made eye contact. She nodded and gestured towards John and Jade, then turned away.

Her curiosity beat out her anger and she pulled the twins away to follow Dolorosa.

She and Signless waited somberly in the same meeting room Rose had fled from, Signless looking especially cowed.

“We both owe you an apology,” Signless said the moment she stepped inside. “While we were afraid that telling you all the full truth as soon as we found out would harm morale, that is no excuse not to keep you all updated on the circumstances. These are your kingdoms and you need to know everything,” he said. Rose merely nodded, while Jade spoke up.

“I understand. I think… for the two of us especially, it would have only piled more pain on top of what we’re already dealing with,” she said quietly. “John and I accept your apology, on the grounds that you are honest with us all from here on out.”

Rose admired Jade’s diplomacy but remained tight-lipped. She held Signless’s gaze coolly, and after a few seconds of silence he went on.

“I promise you that you all will know things just as soon as we do,” Signless swore. “In fact, when the need arises, I ask that you all act as ambassadors to your countries, so to speak. Speak on behalf of Derse and Prospit within the rebellion and I will take your judgement into account. It is a lot to ask of you, but I feel your input is valuable; not to mention you all are kept in the loop.”

“I accept,” Rose said without hesitation.

“As do we,” John said, nodding.

“Thank you,” Signless said as he bowed his head. “You are, of course, welcome to step down from this position at any time. Humans age differently from trolls, but even so I wouldn’t even ask a violetblood your age to step into such a position.”

Dolorosa cleared her throat. “Rose, I would like to personally apologize. I know you were hoping to get into Derse or send something in. I should have at least told you that it wasn’t possible sooner.”

Rose nodded. “I understand.” It was as close to acceptance as she could get.

“Thank you all,” Signless said with a wan smile. In the short time they had been in the base he seemed to age years. Rose wondered how many ghosts he saw in the nearly-empty city.

“You are free to return to your rooms,” Dolorosa said, and the three humans hurried out.

“They must trust us a lot.” John said somberly. “Even back in Prospit we weren’t allowed to sit in on meetings or anything.”

“That never stopped us from listening though,” Jade said flippantly. “I think we’ll do okay.”

“It can’t be any harder than the court circus in Derse. I was never directly involved in the politics of it all, but I still learned what I could from the chaos,” Rose said. She was thrilled and nervous to represent Derse; hidden as they were, she would speak for the entire kingdom, make decisions for everyone if it came down to it. It was daunting.

As they hurried up the stairs, there was a familiar song that echoed down the stone hallway. The others were gathered together in the sitting room, Aradia’s music box playing the chipper tune none of them had heard since Prospit. Candles illuminated the room brighter than any of the others in the hall, displaying the walls covered in colored flags and tapestries.

Nepeta twirled Aradia and they both giggled, and Tavros led Kanaya in a clumsy waltz. Even Sollux seemed less annoyed than usual as he stared into the candlelight. Jade bounced forward and joined Aradia and Nepeta. With a deep breath Rose tapped Tavros on the shoulder and took his place, leading Kanaya effortlessly.

Or less clumsily than Tavros, at least.

“This is wonderful,” Kanaya says, pressing her forehead to Rose’s.

“Well, in comparison to Tavros’s bumbling I’m sure any amount of dancing knowledge will seem impressive,” Rose teased.

“Oh absolutely,” Kanaya laughed. “But even more wonderful than your middling waltzing is just… being here. Against all odds we are alive and safe here.”

“I know what you mean. Perhaps it’s fate,” Rose mused. “Though it was a cruel path that lead us here.” She glanced at John, who sat chatting with Sollux, and Jade, who danced with Aradia and Nepeta. They were healing, but the delicate process was sped along by circumstance which concerned Rose.

Kanaya sighed. “True.”

Rose looked up at her and smiled. “But we aren’t going to worry now. Dance with me, my dear.”

 

Days passed strangely within the mountain. Sunlight was strongest at midday but left the rest of the daylight hours dark. For trolls and their eyes so accustomed to darkness there was no issue, but Rose often found herself missing the diffused light of Derse, or the warm consistent presence of the sun in Prospit. On top of that, Alternia was naturally less sunny compared to the other kingdoms. It made keeping track of the passage of time difficult, but as weeks passed and life grew familiar, it hardly mattered.

While Rose missed the sun, John and Jade lamented its absence. They scaled the precarious walls, to Dolorosa’s chagrin, to look outside during the day. Whenever possible, Jade helped in the garden. Sunlight streamed in with the help of mirrors and magic far longer than it did in the rest of the mountain. Rose was not surprised to find her there another day, the knees of her pants dirt-stained and long hair braided to keep it out of her flushed face. She didn’t look up as Rose approached, even as she cleared her throat.

“Jade?” Rose asked tentatively. “It’s almost dinner time.”

No answer. She kept her head down, pulling weeds and rocks from the rich soil around gourd vines. Pursing her lips, Rose knelt next to her and began pulling weeds. Her hands were not nearly as practiced as Jade’s, but she still managed to wrench a few up by their roots and add them to the pile.

Jade took a shuddering breath, drawing Rose’s attention. Her lips were trembling and her hands had stilled, pressed flat against the soil.

“Back home, I’d always have my dog with me when I was in the garden,” she said. “I pretended he was a magic guardian who would rescue me from pirates or assassins while I walked. Sometimes John would sneak up on us but Bec would know and tackle him and lick his face until he surrendered. Dad knighted him and everything.”

Her teeth dug into her lower lip as tears began to fall. Rose watched her helplessly. She knew there was nothing she could say to make her pain easier to bear. She knew John was nowhere nearby, she was alone with Jade and terrified to say the wrong thing.

So she said nothing. Instead, she clumsily crawled forward and wrapped her arms around Jade as the sobs started. Jade buried her face into Rose’s shoulder, dampening her dress with tears. It was the first time Rose had seen Jade cry since they heard the news of the king.

Minutes passed, and eventually Jade calmed down. Her breath hitched and evened out, she squeezed Rose before backing away. She rubbed her face with her dirt-covered hands and offered a watery smile.

“I can’t cry in front of John,” she said softly. “I need to be strong for him, I want things to seem as normal as possible. We’re twins but I am the older one, I have to protect him.”

“Things are far from normal,” Rose said. “But I understand. I’m the oldest twin as well. If Dave and I were in your place I would behave much the same… but Dave wouldn’t let me. Perhaps John is trying to protect you as well.”

Jade frowned. “I… maybe.” She sighed and brushed the dirt off her hands. “I may talk to him, I think that would be good for both of us.”

“Definitely a good idea,” Rose said with a nod, standing and offering a hand to Jade. “However, I suggest you wait until after dinner. Frankly, all the gardening made me hungry.”

Jade have her an incredulous look, glancing at the pile of weeds compared to Rose’s meager contribution. Rose smiled and linked arms with Jade, leading her into the rapidly darkening hall and to the kitchen.

The smell of food and the warm flickering of the lanterns hastened their approach. The others were already there, chatting and waiting. Rose took her place on the bench beside Kanaya, Jade sitting across the wooden table next to her brother. Aside from the fading redness in her eyes and on her cheeks, there was no sign that she had been crying minutes ago. John did seem to notice, shooting her a concerned look. Jade didn’t explain, only talking about the garden and its health.

“I’m certain Nepeta would have raided the kitchen herself if you two were a minute later,” Kanaya said with a barely concealed smirk.

“John would have helped,” Rose muttered just loud enough for Kanaya to hear. She laughed, bumping her shoulder against Rose’s. That small, casual touch was enough to get Rose’s heart leaping.

As the food was served and everyone began eating, the chatter quieted. Even the other rebels, young adult trolls that had been trickling in for the past few days, hushed. Rose turned to see the reason and met Signless’s eyes. He stood by their table and smiled.

“When you’re all finished, I have an exciting bit of news,” he said. Surprised glances flew between them all, even as Signless left. As soon as he was gone, the gossip began.

“Maybe the war is over,” Nepeta said.

“Doubtful, but maybe Derse is winning and it will be soon?” said Aradia.

“Maybe the Empress is dead,” Sollux added hopefully. The trolls cried out in excitement at the thought of it.

“I think there would be more general celebration if that were the case,” Rose butted in. The conversation quickly turned into a shouting match, one that Rose partially tuned out as she ate and mused. She didn’t have much time to wait. The moment everyone was finished eating they ran toward the meeting room Signless had all but claimed as his own.

“With the population steadily growing and more trolls joining us every day, I feel it is necessary that you all know how to protect yourselves in the event that something emergent happens,” he said as they sat attentively. “I know a few of you were training as guards and already know the basics of self-defense but I think it would be prudent to sharpen those skills.”

“I would like to stress that none of you will be seeing any sort of fighting if we can help it,” Dolorosa interjected. “But there’s no harm in learning skills that may help in case of a crisis.”

“Of course,” Signless said with a nod. “Everything we teach you will be purely defensive.”

“Who will be teaching us?” Rose asked.

“Summoner will be teaching the physical aspects while Dolorosa will be teaching magic.”

Instantaneous chatter. Rose leaned towards Kanaya and whispered, “I didn’t know Dolorosa knew magic.”

“She doesn’t as far as I know,” Kanaya said, confused. “Jadebloods are rarely able to perform magic at all. Maybe it will all be theory?”

“Perhaps,” Rose said, as Signless raised a hand to quiet the room.

“Teaching will begin tomorrow afternoon and you are free to decide where you would like to begin. You’re free to switch between disciplines or learn neither, though I would highly recommend you take the opportunity,” he said. “For now, you’re free to go back to your evening.”

There was excited conversation all the way back to their hall. It was quickly established that Nepeta, Tavros, and John would spend most of their time learning from Summoner; Rose, Kanaya, and Aradia were eager to learn magic. Sollux didn’t seem eager to join either (though Aradia was convinced he would be learning magic), and Jade was excited to learn both and planned to alternate studies.

The possibilities were endless in Rose’s mind. Though she needed to learn the basics of magic before all else, she knew she would be a fast learner and quickly master anything Dolorosa could teach her. The library would surely have information she could teach herself when it came to it.

And once she had defensive magic figured out, offensive magic would follow behind. Then magic that went beyond fighting- perhaps there would be something that could help her get in contact with Dave.

Or something that could help her visit home.

“You are plotting something,” Kanaya said with a touch of admonishment in her tone, though her expression was one of curiosity. Rose smiled mischievously.

“I am indeed. I’m planning to become the most powerful magic user the three kingdoms have ever seen.”

 

“You need to focus,” Dolorosa repeated for what felt like the hundredth time in the past fifteen minutes. A weak flame danced on her fingertip, small and contained.

“Is that it? I’ve been contemplating my own bulge up until now, maybe I should take your advice now that you’ve said it so many times,” Sollux whined. He was ignored by all except Dolorosa, who gave him a scalding look that was ten times as scorching as the tiny flame she held.

Rose stood with the others in a semicircle around her in the magic training room with their hands outstretched and faces pinched. Nobody had managed to summon even half the feeble spark that Dolorosa controlled, a frustrating fact knowing that Dolorosa was by no means powerful at magic. She had warned from the beginning that the first spell was the hardest.

Pushing her thoughts aside, Rose took a deep breath. Focused her mind on her fingertips. Imagined a flame, dancing just above her skin, hot and bright.

She held the image in her head and clenched her teeth. Nothing.

With a huff, she chanced a glance around. Everyone seemed to be in the same state of annoyance she was, except Kanaya. Her expression was resigned, her attempts merely for show. She had made it clear that she has no hopes of doing any magic despite her eagerness to learn technique. She was biting her lip, the hand by her side tapping away at her leg. Rose felt that shy warmness in her gut, as she always did when she looked at Kanaya.

Focus be damned, she let her mind wander. What were they to each other now? Beyond friends for certain, but with no royal rules of propriety there would be no betrothal, no courting dance for the pleasure of the public. They were simply together, matched by their own choice and perhaps fate. It was exciting.

Kanaya glanced up and Rose quickly looked away, trying to pretend that she had been focused the whole time.

Then, a spark. It was bright white and hot, almost burning her hand as it whirled above her fingers. At the same time across the room, Kanaya jumped.

“Yes! Good, you’re focusing,” Dolorosa said. “Try it again.”

With a fortifying glance at Kanaya where their eyes locked for a moment, Rose tried again. She didn’t bother with imagining a flame; instead she focused on herself: her emotions, her position relative to Kanaya. It was clear that emotions played some part in magic, and few things stirred as much emotion in Rose than Kanaya.

Another flame, this time cheery orange and controlled above her hand. She grinned, extinguishing the flame and bringing it back at will. It was as if something in her revealed itself, having been locked away. She understood now what she could become capable of.

She also understood why royalty had never been encouraged to learn magic, the power was amazing. If her father had access to this-

She stopped the thought cold as the flame in her hand turned black. It was almost uncomfortable to look at, like a writhing shadow that let off darkness instead of light and heat. She balled her fist around the shadow fire quickly to extinguish it, burning her hand in the process. With a furtive glance around, Rose realized with relief that nobody had noticed.

Tapping into negative emotions was dangerous.

 

After the first lesson, Rose easily grasped the limited concepts Dolorosa was able to teach. It was no fault of her own and it was clear she wanted to teach so much more, but as time passed they all began to grow beyond her. They also began finding individual strengths; Jade was adept at matter manipulation, whereas Aradia focused her efforts on learning how to speak to the dead. Rose didn’t expect it from such a cheery girl but was suitably impressed.

Rose herself learned as much as possible without focusing on one discipline, frustrated that nothing seemed to draw her in like it had for Jade and Aradia, but happy to learn nonetheless. Kanaya had switched between learning magic and learning fighting with Summoner, finding her strength to be more physical than supernatural.

A month passed, then two. They had been in the mountain base for over a quarter of a year. Rose learned all she could, Jade had somehow managed to get John to learn magic alongside her, and Aradia was exchanging notes with the spirits of the rebels who once resided in the base. Dolorosa had unleashed them on the library with warnings that a damaged book meant two weeks on cleaning duty with no library access in the meantime.

Naturally, Rose sat next to Kanaya, whose nose was deep in a book on herbalism. While magic wasn’t easy for her in practice, she found that using plants in combination with whatever magic she could produce had a much more powerful effect.

With little more than a twitch, Rose lit the candle on the table in front of them. Kanaya glanced up with a raised eyebrow.

“You’re showing off,” she stated.

“Hardly, if I wanted to show off I would light every candle in the room at once,” she said matter-of-factly.

“You would burn the library down.”

“Is that a challenge?” Rose purred.

“No!” Kanaya said with false anger. At this point there was no way she was really reading, but still she kept her eyes glued to the page. Possibly to hide her growing smile.

“For the best,” Rose sighed, resigned. She leaned her head on Kanaya’s shoulder and read from the page she was so focused on. “Healing potions?”

Kanaya nodded. “With what we have at our disposal, making them should be easy. It is simply a matter of stretching each plant as far as it will go without sacrificing potency.”

Rose hmmed. Herbalism didn’t catch her attention, though hearing Kanaya talk about it certainly made the subject more interesting.

“Have you talked to Jade?” Rose offered helpfully. “Perhaps she could increase plant output somehow, with or without magic.”

“Of course!” Kanaya said excitedly. “Wonderful idea, my dear,” she said, planting a kiss on Rose’s head as she stood and hurried over to Jade. Rose felt her face grow warm and knew she had a goofy smile on her face. Nobody was paying her any mind though, so she didn’t work too hard to conceal it. The candle on the table seemed to dance and flicker in time with her fluttering heartbeat.

She watched the flame and rubbed her palm. Since her first spell and the first time her magic went dark, she bore a strange grayish scar across her palm that she had taken to rubbing, as if trying to erase the ashen mark from her skin. Nobody seemed to notice it and she hoped perhaps it was something only she could see, an invisible reminder of the dangers of magic.

As lost in thought as she was, she didn’t notice the shouting until everyone else had frozen. The sound of fighting followed, and that was all the group needed to spur them into action.

By the entrance, there was chaos. A swarm of trolls, some unfamiliar and others clearly rebels, clashed. Swords and bared teeth glinted in the firelight, bright blasts of magic Rose had never seen left afterimages in her eyes. The unfamiliar trolls were dressed in the colors of the Empress.

The air seemed to get pulled from her lungs, the entire mountain an airless void that only sound could travel through. Snarls, swords meeting, shouts, screams, yelps of pain, wordless exclamations-

“Rose!” Kanaya’s voice cut through the cacophony and suddenly she was grounded in the moment. A rapier narrowly avoided finding its place between her ribs, and Rose lashed out with a wave of fire in retaliation. There was no rational thought after that, Rose simply darted in.

She caught familiar faces in the thrall, smaller and easily ignored by the fighters. She caught a glimpse of Kanaya, running through and setting fire to the clothes of the Imperial soldiers. Summoner fought from above, lancing and dodging with ease while Tavros traveled underneath him, taking advantage of the soldier’s distraction to finish them off. Dolorosa was a bright streak of light, hardly stopping but leaving dead bodies in her wake.

Energy crackled around Rose and with her teeth set and bared, she let instinct take over. She laid her burning hands on the metal armor of the soldiers, dancing out of the way before they could strike back and leaving melted holes in the plate metal that others could exploit. She felt a sickening exhilaration that kept the fear that pressed on the edges of her mind at bay.

Memories of the attack on Prospit came on unbidden, of running and hiding and the all-encompassing fear. There would be no more running, no more fear. If anything, they were to be feared now.

She caught a glimpse of Jade, green energy crackling underneath her skin as she seemed to disappear and reappear at random, making motions with her hands that dropped soldiers suddenly. Sollux was sparking and blasting bolts of red and blue lighting. John was fighting with a huge warhammer. Aradia was off to the side, eyes rolled back into her head and mouth moving. A fog seemed to emanate from underneath her feet and whispers surrounded her. Suddenly there were ghosts in the fray, distracting soldiers.

They were a force to be reckoned with now. There would be no more fear.

Almost all at once, the fight was over. It had hardly gotten passed the entrance. Bodies littered the floor and with a sickening jolt Rose realized they weren’t all soldiers. All the adrenaline pulsing through her body seemed to leave at once, leaving her shaking and weak. The world seemed grayscale around her, and she hardly noticed as she was pulled to her room, given a cursory check for injuries, and left alone.

She did not sleep, but her mind was blank. The fight chased itself around her mind on an endless loop, less exciting in hindsight. Every barely-dodged blow, every face caught in a moment of anger as blood drained onto the floor around her, every sickening sound of weapon against flesh flashed through her mind. She stayed in that dreamy-but-awake state for what felt like days but was no longer than a few hours before her door opened.

Kanaya looked exhausted, though Rose knew she looked much the same. There was a bandage across her cheek and a splatter of blood- not her own- on her shirt. Rose didn’t dare to look down at her own clothes, to see the blood and singe marks the cloth must bear.

Neither of them said anything as Rose made room on the tiny cot for the both of them. The comfort of another body, of each other, was enough to lull them both into a fitful, nightmare-addled sleep.

Rose woke up alone and confused. She didn’t know what time it was, nor how long she had slept. She dressed quickly, swearing to burn the outfit she had worn in battle as soon as possible, and ventured out into the hall. Judging by the pale sunlight that streamed in from the high holes in the main chamber, it was very early morning.

The only one awake and in the common room was Jade. She seemed exhausted, a bandage wrapped around her bicep and another around her hand. Blankly, she stared at Aradia’s music box. There was no acknowledgement as Rose sat down next to her.

“We lost eighteen of us,” Jade said softly. “Twenty-seven more are badly hurt, Tavros being one. And Aradia, she…” Jade trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished but the meaning clear. “I liked Aradia. She was the first of the trolls I befriended back in Prospit,” Jade said.

Rose fund herself staring at the music box as well. It was the one thing any of them managed to bring along from Prospit, its bell-like tune one they had all but memorized. Its crystalline sides seemed dull and colorless.

“She fought well,” Rose offered, but it felt like a weak, useless platitude even to her own ears.

“So? She’s still dead.”

Rose had nothing to respond with.

 

Trolls did not hold funerals, but even so a sort of makeshift memorial grew around Aradia’s music box. Small red candles, crystals and stones found or coaxed from the walls, stunted flowers picked from the garden and the training yard. Sollux took her death hardest, keeping to his room. For weeks, the mood was somber and bleak, even as Tavros, now bound to a wheelchair after his injuries, rejoined the group.

Rose threw herself into magic, ignoring nearly everything else. Kanaya kept her company when she could, stretching her attention between Rose and gardening and consoling others when she could. Rose knew distantly that Kanaya would quickly wear herself thin if she wasn’t careful but couldn’t find the energy to voice her worries.

All that mattered to Rose was that she became strong enough to make sure nobody else would die.

During one study session where Rose poured over a book she had read many times before to find anything new that could help, Kanaya called her name tightly.

“Rose,” Kanaya repeated, louder and more forcefully. “You need to see this.”

Her tone was somewhere between frightened and elated, and Rose followed her quickly. There was some fervent activity in the common room, the most chatter Rose had heard in weeks.

The reason why was obvious the moment she stepped in the room. There was an odd quality to the air, almost dusty, that Rose immediately found familiar. It was cold and dim, and Rose realized it was almost like Derse.

Aradia stood in the middle of the room, just translucent enough to be unsettling but clear and whole nonetheless. Her eyes were a disquieting glowing white, her cheeks not as plump as they were in life and her once buoyant waves of hair hung limp, but it was clearly her. She offered a wan smile.

“Hi, Rose.”

“Aradia,” she whispered, at a complete loss for words.

“Now, I can’t stay long but I will be back,” she said. Her voice was like wind through a winter forest. “I can offer only hints of what’s to come. Very soon you will have visitors. In a tower, there is an heiress. Twins are stronger together.”

She winked and faded away. The room was left silent in her absence, until someone began laughing. It was an almost maniacal laugh, but one that was a relief to hear nonetheless.

“She’s being cryptic on purpose,” Sollux said dryly from the doorway, smirking. “I bet she’s still around, enjoying your confusion.”

There were deep bags under his eyes, and his usually thin face was bordering on skeletal, but he was out of his room and smiling.

“You were- are- her best friend,” Jade said. “Do you have any idea what she meant?”

“Besides the obvious?” Sollux fired. “There’s someone coming- visitors.”

“That could be cause for concern,” Rose mused. “Though I highly doubt she would leave us in the dark about an attack.”

“Yeah,” John said with a nod. “We should still be careful though.”

“Naturally,” said Rose. When the various sounds of agreement died down, she moved on. “In the tower, there is an heiress...” She looked at Sollux, who merely shrugged.

“Some royalty we don’t know about? Probably not from Prospit due to the lack of standing towers, but maybe Derse?”

“Technically, I was the Dersian heiress before my betrothal. And Jade would be the Prospitian heiress… but neither of us are in a tower.”

“The mountain itself?” Kanaya offered.

“Or there’s someone in Alternia,” Nepeta said quietly. The thought was unsettling; an Alternian heiress could follow in the footsteps of the Empress.

“I will research it,” Kanaya offered. It was as close as they would get to any sort of answer.

Twins are stronger together is obviously something about Jade and I, or Rose and her brother,” John said. “Us being stronger together doesn’t seem like much of a hint.”

Rose frowned. Maybe it was directed at her- perhaps she needed to get to Dave sooner rather than later.

“Just a reminder then?” Jade shrugged. “We need to stick together, all of us of course but especially…” She looked at rose and grimaced sympathetically. “Maybe she means you’ll be seeing Dave soon?”

“Yes, perhaps he’ll show up with the mystery heiress,” she said, a touch harsher than she intended, though Jade seemed to shrug it off. Even so, Roes was careful to control her tone.

As they often did, the conversation went on well into the evening without getting anywhere solid; theories were presented and brought down, especially on Aradia’s second proclamation. Even so, there was an unspoken, if somewhat risky agreement: nobody outside of their group would hear of Aradia’s visit. It seemed too personal to share, a secret only for them to puzzle over.

Night had fallen in earnest by the time they all went to their rooms. As she left, Rose noted their animated expressions and nervous excitement as they all went to bed. She wondered if it wasn’t an intentional movie by Aradia- a post-mortem acceleration into healing and moving on via cryptic glances into the future.

Rose stopped before entering her room. Behind her a door softly closed, and before she could think through what she was doing, she was knocking on Kanaya’s door. Her expression was worried as she answered before it smoothed into a smile.

“Is everything okay?” she asked, stepping aside to let Rose in.

Kanaya’s room, though laid out just like Rose’s, seemed as if it came from another building entirely. Rainbows of cloth hung from the walls and billowed from the ceiling above her bed. Stacks of books from the library were piled on the desk underneath quills and potted plants. It was a cheery place. She would have loved to spend more time in there.

Before her mind could pull the double meaning from those words, Rose spoke.

“I came to ask you the same thing,” she said with a smile. Kanaya seemed surprised for a moment. She sat heavily on her bed and patted he space next to her invitingly. Rose sat and Kanaya leaned her head carefully on Rose’s shoulder.

“I’m very tired,” she said. It was clear she had more to say and Rose let her think for a moment. “I didn’t think… After we survived Prospit, I assumed we would all keep surviving,” she said. I am aware this is war we are in the midst of, but I thought we were safe. And if Aradia can die, we all can. I worry about everyone, Rose, and it’s draining beyond belief, but the alternative is worse.”

“The alternative?”

“Seeing them die. Maybe if I’m there enough and I stay close by, this won’t happen again.”

Her eyes were downcast, lips pressed into a thin line as she squeezed her hands together so tightly that her knuckles began to turn ashen. Rose took her hands in her own, stroking the velvety skin until she began to relax.

“Kanaya, they aren’t your responsibility,” Rose said gently. “What happened to Aradia was not your fault.”

“On some level I am aware. But I… it was completely senseless! She shouldn’t have died.” Her voice bean to crack and by the time she was finished there were hot tears flowing down her face. Rose pulled her close and rubbed circles into her back. She couldn’t help but be reminded that Kanaya had done the same thing for her months ago.

“You can’t carry this guilt and responsibility on your shoulders, Kanaya,” Rose whispered. “Not alone.”

“I don’t want to burden you while you’re already- “

“None of that,” Rose interjected sternly. “You could never burden me, not for a moment.”

Kanaya swallowed, rubbing her face. “Okay,” she said quietly.

“I promise you, there isn’t a thing you could say to me to me that would push me past my stress limit,” Rose said with finality. “I love you.”

Oh. She realized the words were between them when Kanaya’s lips parted with surprise and the flush already present on her face darkened. There was an impossibly long second before she responded.

“I love you, too.”

 

The morning greeted them with an alarm. A single drone from a horn in the main chamber echoed down the hall, starting Kanaya into grasping on to Rose painfully tight for a moment before they were both out of bed.

Just as soon as they were rushing down the stairs to greet whatever peril awaited, it stopped. An echo remained and faded quickly. There were shouts, but they sounded distinctly jovial.

“New arrivals?” Nepeta guessed sleepily, pushing past Rose to bound ahead of the group.

Then she shouted and took off like an arrow. Now more curious than ever, Rose followed at a run, rounding the corner.

She was greeted by another group of trolls, but these ones were strangely familiar. Nepeta was all but crawling on one who shared her cat-like horns and round face. There was one who had the same strange eyes as Sollux. Others were passingly recognizable from her time in Prospit.

They came from Prospit.

“Disciple!” came a cry from nearby, in a voice that Rose recognized as Signless but a voice that was so unlike his usual calm tone that she was sure she was mistaken.

Then he was sweeping her up, Nepeta temporarily dislodged from her guardian’s side, and they were kissing. Rose was not mistaken, but she was embarrassed. She looked away and met Jade’s eyes.

There was sadness there despite the excitement round them, the last hope even she didn’t know she was carrying being extinguished as Rose realized what Jade must have immediately. The small group of escapees from Prospit were all trolls, not a single human among them.

Rose took her hand and squeezed it lightly. She responded in kind and offered a smile.

“If some managed to escape, that must mean the Alternian troops are worn thin,” she noted. Rose nodded, bitterly pleased at the thought of a breach happening right under the Empress’s nose.

If that were the case, the war may be over sooner than anyone could have hoped. The bittersweet reunions went on around her, but Rose’s mind was occupied by thoughts of action. They couldn’t hide in the base forever, eventually the Empress will be vulnerable and desperate.

And when that moment came, Rose would be there.

 

Chapter Text

I'm not calling you a ghost

Just stop haunting me


 

            Sunlight caught the mists and diffused the sunlight. The black stone castle was nothing but a vague shape, close but indistinct. Birds chirped and the nighttime scavengers scurried for their homes, but otherwise the morning was silent. Peaceful, even. It was almost as if there hadn’t been a war raging for over two years. Dave couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so relaxed.

            “Incredible. You really have managed to evade every personal question you have been presented with in the past two years.” She said it with a disappointed shake of her head and arms crossed, but her posture was relaxed, her expression playful. She was leaning against a low stone fence that separated two halves of the garden. When Dave tried to pinpoint where exactly in the garden they were, he couldn’t.

            Dave was dreaming. Rose’s expression turned sad as the thought crossed his mind. His jaw tightened and he crossed his arms too, mirroring Rose.

            “How do you even know th- no, you’ve always been a know it all, never mind. Pretty unfair that you’re going to psychoanalyze me from beyond the grave now though. And without even a hello, Dave, how have you been?”

            “I’m certain you would have dodged that question as well,” she pointed out, though he ignored that correct assumption.

            “I thought I’d be free from this shit now that you’ve been dead for two and a half years but my own subconscious is fucking with me. Can’t even catch a break in my dreams.” Once he started talking it was hard for him to stop, even after so long of forcing himself to be curt and guarded. Dream-Rose or not, she was the only person he ever opened up to.

            And fuck did it hurt to see her. She looked different than Dave expected; her curls were shorn close to her scalp, and her face, while still retaining some of its childlike roundness, was much more sharply defined. She was tall and thin, very similar to his build. And far from the regal and intricate dresses he remembered her preferring, she was dressed in a fitted purple tunic over black leggings and shiny black boots. She looked almost dangerous, like one of the assassins their father had hired in the recent years to aid in the war.

            But most shocking of all, they were eye-to-eye when she stood up straight; his crimson meeting her violet.

            Then it hit him: she seemed to be his age, not the fourteen-year-old she died as. As if she had aged in the afterlife. She looked like Dave viewed in a broken mirror, different and warped but still recognizable.

            “A dream,” she sighed. “No matter what this is to you, you’re not going to remember so I won’t bother to correct you,” she said sadly. “I miss you though. When this blasted war is over I’ll explain-”

            “How do you know I won’t remember?” he said, an edge to his voice. “You’re Rose. Dream or not, I won’t forget seeing you. Maybe the king and queen are fine with erasing you entirely but I’m not. I refuse.”

            Rose looked hurt, like he had thrown something at her and she was too shocked to dodge. She gathered herself quickly though and smiled sadly.

            “You always forget, Dave.”

            With that, he woke up with a start. His heart was pounding, muscles tight as he frantically looked around his barely-lit room. The sun had just begun rising over the mountains and offered little illumination through the thin windows.

            He thought he was drenched with sweat, but when he ran his hands over his face he found that he was crying. He grunted and wiped the tears away with his heavy blanket and stood up. There was something on the edge of his conscious, something he desperately tried to cling to, even as it became less and less substantial and he didn’t know why he needed to remember so badly.

            Nightmares were a bitch.

            He dressed quickly, took his breakfast in his room, and hurried to the stables. It was just beginning to get busy, but there was a stable hand nearby ready to help him. He dismissed him as he always did and readied the horse himself.

            He favored a chestnut mare with spots of white on her muzzle that looked vaguely phallic. He affectionately and privately named her Lady Dickface and she always looked at him in a way that suggested she called him roughly the same thing. They understood each other perfectly. She patiently allowed Dave to saddle her and in return Dave fed her a sugar cube smuggled from his breakfast. It was a frivolous act he knew the king wouldn’t approve of, which only made him feel more righteous in doing it.

            Training was a daily activity for Dave, and one he was none too keen on hurrying to. He took his time down the worn dirt path, through the reaching pines glittering with frozen dew. The winter chill that never quite lifted from Derse bit at his exposed hands and face, and he spared a thankful thought that it wasn’t snowing. Snow from past storms still capped the stones and treetops that he passed at a steady trot.

            A little while later, Dave slowed to a stop, his ears straining. He could hear the training yard from a much further distance than usual, the clangs of swords and shouted commands twice as loud as he was used to. He suppressed a shudder and eased the horse onward. As he turned a bend, the noise was explained.

            There were twice as many soldiers as there were yesterday. More unusually, there were now Alternian soldiers in Dersian purple. The hired soldiers had arrived, paid by the crown to bolster their flagging numbers. It wasn’t hard to find Alternians willing to fight against their own Empress.

            As lost in thought as Dave was, he didn’t notice the soldier in front of him until he grunted, knocked to the ground by Lady Dickface.

            “Watch where you’re going, dick-for-brains!” the soldier screeched, scrambling to his feet and fixing Dave with a scorching stare.

            “How did you miss an entire fucking horse behind you?” Dave retorted with a barely raised eyebrow.

            The soldier, a short Alternian with rounded horns and wild hair, seemed to turn entirely red as he bared his teeth and balled his fists.

            “Listen here, you good for nothing, brain-dead fuck: it’s common courtesy to look where you’re leading your horse so shit like this doesn’t happen,” he said, and though there was an obvious effort to restrain his tone, his volume was enough to draw eyes their way.

            “What do you want from me? A written apology stamped with the royal crest?” said Dave, his own volume at what he would consider reasonable speaking level despite the sarcasm dripping from each word.

            “Yeah!” the soldier spat, either willingly ignoring the sarcasm or dumber than Dave could have anticipated. Dave chose to assume the former and had to fight off a smile.

            Dave fixed an impassive gaze on the troll and nodded. “Watch for a letter from Prince Dave Strider then,” he said, and resisting the urge to watch his expression turn to shock, he urged the horse forward.

            He made a mental note to write the worst apology letter known to the three kingdoms the moment he returned to his room.

 

            Karkat Vantas was no stranger to making terrible first impressions. Even so, it was safe to say that calling the prince of the kingdom that so generously hired him dick-for-brains the moment he laid eyes on him was the rotten icing on the shitty cake.

            As he went through the motions of training, resisting the urge to shout back at the general who had no qualms about getting deep in a person’s personal bubble and getting used to the sword he was told he must wield, all he could think about was the goddamn prince. His bored expression, his golden curls, his fine features and smooth freckled skin and-

            Karkat slammed his sword into the wooden training dummy in front of him, sending splinters everywhere.

            “This is a stance drill, idiot!” the general shouted directly into Karkat’s ear. He whacked his elbow until Karkat was in the exact same stance as those around him while Karkat resisted the urge to hit him with the flat side of the sword in retaliation. It was an extremely basic drill, one Karkat knew he didn’t need to learn. Living his life as a lowblood meant he was well accustomed to fighting, though his choice of weapon was far less traditional than a sword.

            Even after the war started and Alternia became nothing but a soldier factory for the Empress, Karkat fought. The tiny village where he lived alone was once nothing more than a place where the local highblood blew off steam with casual cullings. When that highblood became a general and commanded the lowbloods fight under him, Karkat refused.

            His refusal sparked something in the village, something that the highblood feared more than the Empress herself- a rebellion. It was small-scale, simply a barricade around a few hives and the willingness of a few trolls to die on their own terms. It was enough to fend off the highblood and his few loyal soldiers.

            After that, they were mostly left alone, their numbers too small to worry about so early in the war. There were easier lowbloods to push around after all. One by one the others left as time passed, some with whispers of a larger rebellion to the north, until Karkat and a few others remained. One proposed that they join a passing mercenary unit that was selling their loyalty to Derse, and Karkat agreed.

            But Derse sucked. They still battled in the organized, honorable, human way; swords and soldiers on horseback made up the bulk of the soldiers, the very few magic users allowed to use their powers were regulated to healing and defense.

            Karkat knew the moment they were up against a purpleblood, or even a cerulean with enough training, they were fucked.

            “Focus!” The shout brought Karkat back to the present, shaking off his own self-pity as the recollection of how he got in this shitty situation fell away.

            Grueling hours passed, Karkat grew more cantankerous with every shouted word. The moment he was able, he threw the sword to the ground and stormed away.

            The barracks were pungent and crowded, the noise of dozens of trolls living in confined quarters an ever-present auditory assault. His bed was the lowest bunk of three, the whole precarious structure pushed against the wall. An old cloth bag was tied to the supports of the bunk above, holding his meager possessions.

            He threw himself in bed without thought, only to freeze when he heard something crumple beneath him. Sitting up so suddenly that he hit his head, he looked down to see a wrinkled letter, a now-cracked dark purple wax seal holding it closed. Bright red ink on fine parchment met him after he tore it open. He read it with his teeth unconsciously bared.

                        dear troll with pitiful horns,

            my most apologetic apologies for your lack of environmental awareness. i hope your ass isnt bruised from your graceless fall to the ground. i personally will cherish every second of our pleasant conversation, and i hope youll grace me with a face to face meeting tomorrow in which i can apologize again as i enjoy this display of humbleness im putting on so very much and also i wanna learn your name

                        apologetically yours, prince dick-for-brains

            Karkat was appalled. The handwriting was childish and blocky in a way that seemed entirely deliberate. The grammar was atrocious, the lack of proper capitalization and punctuation was so far from princely that Karkat had to stop himself from immediately marching to the imposing castle himself and making the prince rewrite the whole thing a hundred times until it was perfect.

            He reread the last sentence again, confusion cutting through his anger. The prince wanted to talk to Karkat again, assuming the letter was meant to be taken seriously and not entirely an attempt to fuck with his head.

            After a minute of deliberation, he found an old journal, tore one of the precious pages from the worn binding, and began writing a response.

                        DEAREST DICK-FOR-BRAINS.

            APOLOGY NOT ACCEPTED UNLESS YOU MANAGE TO PULL YOUR HEAD FROM YOUR ASS, SILVER SPOON AND ALL, AND ACTUALLY APOLOGIZE FOR NEARLY KILLING ME. SEE YOU TOMORROW AT THE BEND IN THE ROAD JUST AHEAD OF WHERE YOU NEARLY RAN ME THE FUCK OVER.

            MY ASS IS FINE, NO THANKS TO YOU.

                        SINCERELY, MY HORNS ARE ADEQUATE YOU FUCKING TOOL.

            Perfect.

 

            An urgent knock at his door froze Dave for a moment. Brushing away the irrational thoughts that came to his mind to convince him it was bad news, he answered. A harried page passed him a tattered note.

            “From the troll,” they said with a bow before hurrying away. He suppressed his grin as he unfolded the cheap paper to revel the capital letters scrawled in dark ink like the scribblings of a madman.

            He was nearly laughing as he reached the end. He knew his letter had been a gamble, a gamble he didn’t know why he took. Maybe he really did feel sorry for bumping him, and the troll’s dramatic rebuttals were entertaining. Maybe it was his colorful way of saying things, made all the more obvious by how he wrote. Or maybe it was that fire he seemed to carry, quick to draw him in and burn him.

            Most likely, he told himself, he was simply bored, and the troll provided a distraction from his life.

            His dreams were filled with red eyes and dark hair, and he couldn’t explain away his excitement to begin his day. He dressed quickly and ate an apple as he hurried to the stables. Despite his rush, he was as careful as always as he saddled Lady Dickface. She seemed to sense his urgency anyway and traveled at a clip towards the bend in the road.

            As he got closer, worry began to grip his mind. Something about the idea of arriving and waiting only for the troll never to show was painful for reasons he refused to think about. On the other hand, seeing the troll again sent a rush of excitement through him; again, there was no way he was going to consider the implications of that. He focused on his breathing, on his stance, on the passing trees and soldiers treading the same path. Anything to take his mind off the emotions he had spent years repressing coming back for no reason.

            Dave was holding his breath as he approached the bend, resisting the two conflicting urges to keep his eyes closed or scan the forest for the troll.

            He had no reason to scan anyway- he sat on a boulder close to the worn path, chin in hand as he looked at the ground. As if he knew Dave’s presence, he looked up the moment Dave saw him. Emotions crossed his face openly- shock, happiness, annoyance, anger, and then a forced indifference. Dave recognized the artificiality because of its familiarity; he knew he had the same expression on his own face.

            He dismounted a few feet away, both standing and sizing each other up. Dave knew etiquette dictated that Karkat should bow. Dave was thankful he didn’t and was also thankful that he took the initiative to break the silence.

            “Your highness,” he spat. “I’m waiting for your apology.”

            “Tell me your name first,” Dave said.

            “No. Apologize first.”

            “Nope.”

            They stared. Both were equally stubborn, Dave was finding. Neither of them would break before they had to be on the field. He decided to take the high road.

            “I’m sorry,” he said at the exact same time as the troll said, “Karkat.”

            “Karkat,” Dave repeated, taking advantage of his surprise to test the name. “Karkat, I’m sorry Lady Dickface hit you. It was my bad, mostly.” He said it with all the sincerity he could muster and Karkat seemed to melt just a bit before he nodded.

            “Apology accepted,” he said, before smirking. “Mostly.”

            “I’ll take that,” Dave said with a nod. They were both more at ease and began walking, Dave pulling the horse along.

            “Wait, your hoofbeast is named Lady Dickface?” Karkat said after a moment.

            “Yeah, look at her. That’s clearly a dick on her muzzle.”

            He glared at Lady Dickface, who ignored his attention as horses do. Silence fell between them again, but neither seemed eager to pick up their pace and end the awkward lull.

            “So, you’re from Alternia,” Dave said finally. “You sound Alternian anyway. Trolls who were born and raised here don’t have that clicky undertone.”

            Karkat rolled his eyes. “Yeah, obviously I’m Alternian. I came to Derse about a month ago with a group of mercs.”

            “You don’t strike me as the mercenary type,” Dave said.

            “If this war can make a soldier of a prince, it can make a mercenary of a rebel leader,” he said.

            “A rebel leader?” Dave asked with a raised eyebrow. “Okay, that one I can see, strangely enough. You look like the kind of guy people sorta gather around, like you could belt out an inspirational and swear-leaden speech without even thinking about it. You’re fiery, but not in an intimidating way because no offense but you look like an angry little raincloud.”

            Karkat looked at him strangely, and Dave realized he had just let his mouth run without thought, a habit he thought he had broken. He pressed his lips together and shrugged, looking away.

            “Most of that was actually kind of nice to say,” Karkat said as if unused to the idea.

            “Don’t get used to it,” Dave said. By then they had reached the training field and its shouting and clanging. Dave hadn’t even heard it until they were in it, as caught up in the conversation as he was. With hurried goodbyes they went their separate ways. Dave noted that Karkat was joining the beginners, where even before the training began in earnest he was head and shoulders above the rest.

            As Dave joined his squad, an elite group of soldiers, among which there were several nobles who, like him, would likely never see a real battlefield, he began formulating a plan.

            When Karkat was waiting for him at the bend again the next day, Dave had to work twice as hard to suppress a grin.

 

            Being dead wasn’t so bad, really. It was cold, and the whispers of the weaker dead were much louder in comparison to when she was alive, but Aradia was okay with that.

            The worst part was watching her friends miss her. Even after she worked up the energy to show herself and reveal what she had gleaned from the other ghosts, they all still mourned. Sollux took her death the worst, and she berated him for it. But after a few months and a few more visits, they all seemed to have moved past her death and accepted her phantasmal and fleeting presence.

            After her months of reassurance that she truly was okay paid off, she took it upon herself to gather even more information. She haunted battlefields, she spoke to the confused souls of trolls and humans alike to learn all they knew before she led them toward that final threshold she refused to cross.

            As months turned to years and that emptiness began to fill with purpose, Aradia became a shepherd of sorts. She offered comfort to the dying and dead, she passed information to the rebellion, and she watched the prisoner in the tower whenever she could.

            She was clearly royal, with her wide fins and pink-frilled gills on the sides of her throat, but there was something about her that made it clear to Aradia that she was nothing like the Empress. She had the same inky curls and arching horns, but her eyes were filled with kindness and her smile held no cruelty. She resided in a high tower of the Alternian mansion, one with high, barred windows and no doors leading outside.

            Aradia wished more than anything that she could have talked to her. Maybe when the war ended, but she couldn’t risk getting herself exorcised.

            A year passed, and she earned a title for herself, passed on to the living via final breaths, and to the dead by lingering spirits: The Handmaid. It was an old title, rarely bestowed. She took the name with pride, and sometimes, in Alternia, she caught glimpses of an adult troll with horns much like her own watching on with pride. She felt proud of herself as well, for helping those who needed it and passing on vital information that would hopefully one day stop the war.

            Dying could have been so much worse.

 

            “Vantas,” the general said, an air of disgusted rage surrounding him as he faced Karkat. “You’ve been moved at the request of His Royal Highness, effective immediately.” He spat the words with venom, as if Karkat personally told his superiors that the general was a good for nothing sack of shit and he refused to work with him a moment longer.

            Which, Karkat thought, he absolutely would have if he were given a chance.

            Karkat was led by a page to another group, several soldiers already telling stories of the battles raging at the borders. Among them were several trolls, but still he was stared at as he joined their ranks. Whatever resentment the others might have felt towards him seemed to dissipate as he breezed through the drills.

            Karkat’s new superior was a younger man made older by his two years of fighting at the front lines. He outlived two generals and countless friends, and still somehow retained the drive to move forward. Already, Karkat respected him more than the lowlife general he left behind. He had a gruff, blunt way of speaking that Karkat much preferred.

            This change in position was thanks to Dave, he knew. For the past few weeks they walked together, meeting up at the bend at first, but later Karkat found himself walking further towards the castle just to have more time to talk.

            The prince, at first, was quiet and closed off. Only after nearly a month did he crack a fleeting smile. He offered only glimpses into his life. Karkat learned that Dave was put into training by his father, but not sent into battle out of fear of Derse becoming heirless. He learned that the king was a cold and calculating man who Dave never once called his father. The queen was not much better, her alcoholism a well-known secret.

            For the most part they were things Karkat could have found out on his own from gossip but hearing them from Dave himself made them feel like whispered secrets. Their walks down the trampled path with the morning sun cutting through the mists felt far more intimate than they had any right to be.

            In turn, Karkat talked about his own past: the village’s rebellion, his faded memories of an absent guardian he couldn’t quite picture in his mind, and his experience in Derse so far.

            What he did not talk about was his blood. Dave seemed to assume, somewhat correctly, that Karkat was a lowblood. The subject never came up and Karkat wasn’t about to offer that information, even to the prince himself.

            Training, while leaving him less murderously angry by the end, was no less physically grueling. Karkat dragged his exhausted body back to his bunk and laid down with a groan. The only thing that stopped him from passing out the second his head hit the pillow was the feeling of paper under his cheek. A now-wrinkled letter with a royal stamp, written quickly but legibly in red ink.

                        dear stubby dumbass

            meet me at the bend as soon as you read this or even sooner somehow. actually if you can read this before i even send it that would be ideal

                        yours, prince prick

            Karkat’s tired muscles protested as he changed from his wrinkled uniform into an old black shirt and black pants. But his exhaustion had fallen away- never had they met outside of their morning strolls, and the excitement and fear and worry clashed in his mind.

            He stole away under the cover of the moonless sky, his heart pounding.

 

            Dave paced. The urge to return to the castle and explain away his letter to Karkat in the morning seemed stronger by the moment, but he forced himself to walk back and forth, from one set point to the next and back again, with growing urgency.

            Finally, from a distance, Dave heard fast footfalls and gasping breaths. Karkat barreled around the bend and into sight, his cheeks puffed and dark with exertion. Dave couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow as he took in Karkat’s appearance.

            He stopped a few feet away, panting. His eyes were wide, his face was flushed, and his breath ragged. In the darkness he was rendered in shades of gray, but Dave knew trolls had excellent night vision and could probably see Dave as clearly as he did in the sunlight.

            He could probably see the puffy red bags under his eyes, the way his hands shook even as he balled them so tightly into fists that his knuckles seemed to creak, how weak and miserable he looked and-

            “Is everything okay?” Karkat managed.

            “You didn’t have to run all the way here,” Dave deflected. In truth, things were not okay, and Karkat seemed like the only person he could talk to, no matter how hard the words worked to stay lodged in his throat.

            “I was worried,” Karkat said simply, shrugging and getting his breathing under control. Dave felt something in the face of Karkat’s honesty, something that emboldened him.

            “Tomorrow is my birthday,” Dave blurted. Karkat looked confused, and Dave went on. “I don’t really celebrate my birthday and I don’t want to, it’s a fucking miserable affair all around for about a billion reasons and if I have to spend it either in the castle or on the training grounds I will lose my fucking mind. They’ll lock me up in the highest tower and I’ll be forced to throw myself out the window.”

            Karkat furrowed his brow. “Okay,” he started. “What do you want to do?”

            “Anything else. I want to spend the day on my own terms.”

            Karkat nodded, tapping his clawed fingers on his leg as he began thinking. Dave was buzzing with some emotion he couldn’t place, the taste of stolen freedom on his tongue intoxicating. Plotting with Karkat during a clandestine meeting was the last thing anyone would want him to do but was exactly what he wanted to do.

            “I have an idea, one that’s probably beyond stupid, but a plan nonetheless” Karkat said. “How much trouble will you be in if you don’t show up to training tomorrow?”

            “So fucking much,” said Dave, “but I couldn’t care less.”

            “Good. Come back to the barracks with me.”

            Dave blinked. “Okay… sounds shady, I’m in. But why?”

            “We’re starting your birthday with at least an hour of sleep,” Karkat said with finality. “We can’t do shit if we’re both delirious with exhaustion, and it’s easier for you to get into the barracks without notice than it is for me to get into the castle without having my ass soundly beaten and my fingers cut off for trespassing.”

            “First things first, you wouldn’t get your fingers cut off. A few weeks in the jailhouse maybe, but you’ll come out basically as intact as you were before. But aside from that, you’re right and I kinda hate that,” Dave sighed, and the two began walking.

            The trees around them were transformed by the nighttime. Their pleasant morning walks seemed crowded and flat in comparison thanks to the deep shadows and twinkling stars that greeted them from holes in the clouds. There were a million different sounds, animals scurrying and trees whispering in the breeze. Knowing Derse, there were far more mysterious things whispering in the forest as well, and Dave found himself walking just a bit closer to Karkat.

            “I’m guessing a happy birthday wouldn’t be welcome,” Karkat said, his voice shattering the mysterious and strangely reverent silence between them.

            “You hit the nail on the head like a master carpenter,” Dave said flatly.

            “Figured as much. How old are you now?”

            “Seventeen,” Dave said, and his tone was far sadder than intended. Karkat picked up on that and gave him a sidelong glance.

            “You don’t seem seventeen. We’re the same age, I thought you were older.”

            Dave was too drained to hide his wan smile. “I thought you were older too. It’s not like there’s much room for anyone other than adults now, y’know? We had to grow up, the world isn’t safe for anyone less than a soldier.”

            The words burned his tongue, and it took him only a moment to realize why; it sounded exactly like something his father would have wanted him to say.

            “Fuck that,” Karkat said, dragging out the words exasperatedly. “What utter bullshit.”

            “It’s war, Karkat.”

            “Yeah, I’m not a blind dumbass, I fucking know that,” he said. “But goddamn, we’re not just soldiers! We’re seventeen! We should have spent the past few years getting into trouble, falling in love with the first dumbass with a nice face, or sneaking out to get shitfaced and embarrassing our entire kingdoms or whatever! Instead we’ve fought and lost and trained and grew older than our years all because some fishy royal bitch decided it was time to own a continent! Fuck!” His hands were flailing and he clearly worked himself up into a righteous rage, eyes flashing in the starlight.

            A laugh escaped Dave before he could bite it back, and the sound startled Karkat so badly he stumbled.

            “What?” Karkat said, a blush growing across his cheeks. “I’m right, and you fucking know it.”

            “Maybe from your standpoint you’re right, but that’s not what’s so funny,” Dave said, swallowing laughs between his words. “I’m just imagining you giving some important-ass speech on a pedestal, fists raised and all the rebels around you cheering, and you finish with fuck.

            Karkat very clearly wanted to be angry, but a smile fought its way onto his face until he was laughing too, pushing Dave’s shoulder playfully.

            “Okay, whatever. Still, this shit wasn’t fair. I know it was even less fair for you. Let’s just be stupid today,” he said. “No responsibilities, no training. Just fucking around somewhere and doing whatever teenagers do.”

            “No drinking,” Dave said quickly. “Whatever stupid teen stuff we missed out on except that.”

            Karkat nodded, no questions asked. They were quiet again, lost in thought or both tired, he couldn’t tell.

            Being a teenager was never an option for Dave, he realized. From the beginning he was a pawn, a tool in the hands of his uncaring parents. Rose had it far worse, being married off at fourteen to a kingdom that fell mere months later. Adult responsibility had been heaped upon both of their shoulders before either were strong enough to bear it.

            Dave wondered if Rose didn’t have it easier than he did now though, by virtue of being dead.

            It was a line of thought Dave didn’t want to go down, not while walking with Karkat. Thankfully, Dave found himself standing in front of a squat wooden building with high, narrow windows roughly cut into the wood that peered at him like empty eyes. Karkat ducked inside and looked around at the sleeping figures crowded into the room, then gestured for Dave to follow.

            “We’ll have to share my bunk,” he hissed, voice much quieter than Dave had ever heard it. Despite being so close, Dave couldn’t even see him in the absolute darkness. He felt as if he should argue, insist on sleeping on the floor or finding an empty bunk, but the effort wasn’t worth it.

            Nor did he really want to find somewhere else to sleep. And anyway, he rationalized to himself as he was led down the narrow gaps between the beds, it was only for an hour at most.

            Dave was glad to find that Karkat’s bunk was against the wall, giving him some privacy on one side. He gestured for Dave to get in first and with only a moment of hesitation, he did so.

            “Oh Karkat, this is so sudden,” he pretended to swoon. There was a disgusted noise that made Dave smile until he remembered Karkat could see him even in the inky darkness and smoothed his expression.

            “You should do that more often,” Karkat said, his tone oddly soft.

            “Make vaguely lewd jokes?”

            “Oh fuck no, do that less. I meant smile.”

            Dave had no idea how to respond, not that it mattered with the sudden flip of his stomach and blankness in his mind. Karkat said nothing else, only rolling up his thin blanket to create a barrier between them and giving Dave his pillow.

            His mind was still weirdly fuzzy as he drifted off to sleep.

 

            “Happy birthday to us,” said the too-old Rose, the seventeen-year-old who would never be. They were in the castle’s library, the lights from the sconces barely reaching the shelves between which they hid. Her back was turned, fingers grazing over the leather spines of the ancient books lined on the shelves. Dave stood at the front of the shelves and noted with discomfort that he couldn’t see how far they stretched into the darkness.

            Even in the low lighting, he saw every detail of her: her pale coils of hair, ragged nails, and the orchid dress she wore that was embroidered intricately and well cared for despite the common materials. When he looked at the shelves around him, the books were oddly vague, the titles shifting and hard to look at.

            But there was Rose- he recognized her changed appearance, and then remembered every other time they had met in his dreams. Quick conversations in faintly-defined spaces, every meeting catching him off guard as he took in her obviously older appearances.

            “Does a birthday count if you’re dead?” Dave said, and Rose turned with an unreadable expression.

            “You don’t truly believe I’m dead, do you?”

            Dave’s breath caught. “It’s not a matter of whether or not I believe it, Rose. Some dumbass telling me the world isn’t round doesn’t mean that’s true.”

            She shook her head and walked towards him with long, urgent strides. She grasped his shoulders and stared into his eyes. They were so much more vivid than the paintings, covered and hidden soon after her death, could ever capture. They also seemed to be glowing slightly, as if illuminated by a light within Rose. It was admittedly unsettling considering the intensity they were directing at Dave.

            “You have to remember this time, Dave. You need to remember these meetings when you wake up. Something is happening soon, you need to-”

            And then she was gone. The feeling of her fingers digging into his shoulders faded, and the illusory library faded as well, leaving him in a velveteen void that led him into a truly dreamless sleep.

 

            Karkat nearly punched blindly at the shifting figure beside him before he remembered who it was. Dave muttered something, a name was repeated a few times, and Karkat cracked his eyes open reluctantly. The room was still dim enough to reduce everything outside of a few feet radius to shadows, but Dave was clear to him. He was frowning in his sleep, but even so his face was placid; it wasn’t the fake coolness he wore like a mask, but a calm that made him really look his age.

            For a moment, he almost felt bad for waking him. Then Dave’s knee dug into Karkat’s side, and any softness was replaced with annoyance; he nudged Dave awake with an elbow in the ribcage. He woke up with a start, eyes wide and unseeing in the darkness.

            “We gotta go soon if we want to sneak out without getting caught,” Karkat whispered. He reached over Dave to his hanging bag, pulling out what few coins he had. Something fell and hit Dave in the face, scaring a yelp out of him.

            “The fuck,” he hissed, grasping blindly around his head for the fallen object. Karkat picked it up and put it in his hands, if only to still his wild movements.

            “It’s just a necklace, calm the fuck down.”

            Dave squinted into the darkness, feeling the shape out with his fingers. “What kind of necklace?”

            “My sign,” Karkat explained as he counted out his money. “In Alternia we’re required to display it at all times- lets everyone know your place if you’re not wearing your blood color.”

            “That’s messed up,” Dave said, and Karkat snorted as he took the necklace back.

            “Yeah, no shit. If you haven’t noticed, everything about Alternia is messed up. Our Empress started this miserable goddamn war.”

            “Yeah,” Dave said quietly.

            Karkat climbed out of the bunk and rummaged around in the crate underneath that held his larger personal items. Most of his clothes would likely be too small for Dave to wear, but one old shirt, given to him as a hand-me-down years ago, would probably suffice. He noted gladly that Dave had worn a rather plain outfit, but the fine cut and cloth would stick out in town.

            “Put this on,” Karkat said, tossing the shirt at him. He grabbed it after it landed on his face, glaring in Karkat’s direction.

            “It smells like horse,” he said.

            “Perfect for a horse’s ass like you,” he shot back, turning his back to Dave and changing his worn outfit for another equally worn outfit. There was a bunch of shuffling, a thud and a muttered curse as something hit the wall, and then Dave’s old shirt landed on the floor beside Karkat.

            “I pity the maids that clean your room,” Karkat huffed, shoving the shirt into his box and covering it with his own clothes to hide it.

            “Joke’s on you, nobody cleans my room,” he said smugly, stepping out of bed to put on his shoes. Karkat was grateful again that they were plain and sturdy.

            Karkat bit back a retort, only saying, “give me your hand.”

            There was a second of hesitation before Dave offered his hand in the general direction of where he heard Karkat’s voice. Karkat found himself hesitating as well, but quickly grabbed the offered hand and began pulling Dave through the dark room.

            Both were still tired and disoriented but managed to get out without a hitch. The skies were just beginning to lighten beyond the trees, and Karkat knew they didn’t have much time to get some distance between them and the training yard. They were both oddly giddy as they stole across the dewy fields toward the road into the nearby town.

            When they finally lost sight of the barracks, Dave spoke.

            “You do know you didn’t have to hold my had the whole time we were running, right?”

            With mortification, Karkat realized their hands were still clasped. He sputtered for a moment before glaring at Dave.

            “You could have let go at any time,” Karkat pointed out.

            “So could you.”

            Karkat told himself it was stubbornness that kept him holding on to Dave’s hand as they walked. Nothing more than their equally matched hardheadedness. Of course.

            “Alright, what’s your plan?” Dave asked after a while. He had begun swinging their linked hands back and forth but Karkat refused to be the one to let go.

            “We go into town, buy as much food as a basket can carry, and then we’re having a picnic by the river.”

            Dave let out a surprised bark of a laugh. “A picnic? I didn’t see that coming.”

            “I didn’t fucking know what else to do! I know I said stuff about doing stupid teen bullshit but I-”

            “No no no, I’m all for it. It actually sounds like a great time,” Dave interrupted, offering a tentative grin. Karkat felt a flutter in his stomach that he couldn’t explain away, and for a mad second he considered pulling Dave close and kissing him before the smile faded.

            But he didn’t, and Dave took the chance to slip his hand out of Karkat’s, leaving him cold and bereft.

            The sun had rose in earnest by the time they got to the town marketplace. It was a crowded and noisy place, already packed with merchants and buyers looking for the freshest produce and best products. Thankfully, Dave and Karkat were ignored in the rush. Karkat ignored the biggest stalls, making his way toward the fringes where humble crates covered by ragged cloths made up the tables.

            As Karkat shopped, he stole glances at Dave. He seemed oddly entranced by his surroundings, though he very clearly tried to hide his interest. It occurred to Karkat that Dave might not have visited the market, despite its proximity to the castle. As world-weary as he seemed, he hadn’t seen very much outside of the castle walls.

            With a shake of his head, he turned his mind back to the task at hand.

 

            Dave was keenly aware of the silence around them, so very different from the bustle and noise of the market. He wasn’t sure what to expect of the market; at first, he expected a somber parade of drab stalls where destitute citizens sold their meager wears. Instead it seemed to be normal, as if the ever-looming threat of invasion didn’t cover those streets. He wanted things to be different, he realized, as if he expected the war to be at the forefronts of everyone’s mind as it was with his.

            The forest didn’t care about the battles that raged so nearby either. They cared even less about the two boys tromping through the underbrush with the silence of a herd of panicked horses. Dave had passing familiarity with the layout of the forest nearest to the castle, but the area they found themselves in was completely unnavigable to him. Karkat seemed to have an idea of where he was going, walking with feigned confidence toward a destination Dave couldn’t even guess at.

            Eventually, both tired by stepping over roots and climbing fallen trees, they found themselves in a clearing. A stream cut through it, most likely an offshoot from the river near the castle. A pile of boulders made a natural dam that made a small pond near the middle of the grassy meadow.

            “Holy shit,” Dave breathed. “How’d you find this place?”

            “Some of the others came out here to fuck around,” he said. “It’s not the most popular spot to meet but it’s secluded.”

            “Have you been here often?” Dave asked with a raised eyebrow.

            Karkat’s face turned red. “No! I’ve heard others talk about it and I assumed it would be empty in the daytime, and I was right. Fuck off.”

            Dave raised his hands and laughed. “Okay, I was joking, no need to get defensive.” Karkat continued to pout as he made his way toward the boulders, finding a place to sit on the mossy, sun-warmed rocks and haphazardly throwing a blanket over the flattest one.

            “Seriously, Karks, I’m sorry,” Dave said as he sat next to him, sincerity softening his words. “I don’t really think you’re spending your days gettin’ close with every prince who hits you with a horse.”

            “It’s okay,” Karkat said, but something about him still seem bristled. He began spreading out their feast- several apples, some candies, bread, cheese, dried meat, a canteen of water. All of it was rather standard fare but when laid out by the stream it seemed perfect.

            “You’re the only person I’ve taken out here,” Karkat said after a moment. “Even if I had the time, I wouldn’t have taken anyone else.”

            There was something in his tone that Dave couldn’t untangle; he was saying one thing while meaning another but neither clicked for Dave until Karkat turned to Dave again. There was painful vulnerability in his eyes, and Dave realized he was the person Karkat wanted to be with.

            And there was nowhere else Dave wanted to be.

            They were staring openly at each other, a mutual shift toward something unknown happening simultaneously. Gravity pulled them closer, Dave put a steadying hand on Karkat’s shoulder-

            And then there was heat and a flash of light under his palm, and they both jerked away as if they were burnt

            “What the fuck was that,” Dave said, looking at his hand and at Karkat’s unburnt shoulder.

            “I don’t know,” Karkat said, far more distressed than Dave. “Was that you?”

            “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.”

            “It couldn’t possibly be me, I can’t fucking do magic!”

            “You think it was magic?” Dave said, gaping. “What the fuck kind of magic could that have possibly been?”

            “How the hell should I know!”

            Dave took a deep breath, searching for that inner coolness he had cultivated over the years, but he was so shaken up by that odd pulling moment and the flash of light afterward that he couldn’t relax. “Getting mad won’t fix anything, and before you get your knickers in a twist I’m talking to myself too. We can’t jump to the conclusion of magic, that’s batshit crazy. It could have been…”

            “A trick of the sunlight?” Karkat finished sarcastically, gesturing to the overcast sky.

            “Yes,” Dave said firmly. “Exactly.”

            Karkat looked at him incredulously, then shook his head. “What the fuck ever. Let’s just go back to…”

            Neither of them knew what they were going to do. The food sat between them, all but forgotten. That moment was over, but that shift had still happened. Dave felt something for Karkat, something beyond the easy, teasing friendship they had cultivated.

            Part of him was thrilled. Deep down he wanted something like this to happen, for him and Karkat to become close, to know him thoroughly and as an equal. From the moment they met, as unpleasant as that had been, Dave had been captivated by Karkat.

            “Yeah,” Dave said, and with his eyes shut he leaned forward until his lips were pressed against Karkat’s.

            He pulled away a moment later, that warmth again burning his lips in a not unpleasant way, as if he had stolen a bit of that internal spark Karkat carried within him.

            Karkat looked stunned. Dave suddenly felt incredibly embarrassed. What if he misunderstood? What if Karkat wasn’t interested in him, or in men at all for that matter? What if-

            Karkat grasped the front of Dave’s shirt and pulled him back, their lips meeting again and equally desperate for contact. There was that light again, the heat like a fire that produced no smoke or pain.

            The sweetest minutes of Dave’s life passed, their hands caressing and tangling in hair and pulling the other close. Dave never wanted to leave that spot; sitting next to Karkat with the stream burbling nearby.

            “The food is going to go to waste if we don’t stop,” Karkat said, sounding like he really didn’t want to stop at all. But Dave felt lightheaded; he could use some time to breathe and gather his thoughts. He tore a piece of bread and offered it to Karkat before taking a piece for himself.

            “Thanks for all this, by the way,” Dave said. “There’s nobody else I’d want to spend today with.”

            For once, his birthday felt like his own. The past birthdays had been miserable, as if everyone were dancing around the ghost of the twin who would never have a birthday again. While Dave still felt the hollow space like a missing limb, being with Karkat made it bearable.

            “Don’t mention it,” Karkat said, his face reddening.

            They were quiet for a little while longer, eating and relaxing, before Karkat spoke up again.

            “I have a question, and feel free to tell me to fuck off if it’s weird or too personal or whatever, but last night, before I woke you up, you were saying a name,” Karkat said nervously. Dave felt a weird tugging in his mind, something just out of reach.

            “Rose,” he whispered without even thinking, and Karkat nodded.

            Then Dave remembered. Her visit in his dreams in the hazy library, her sentence that was cut off and her touch that left nothing but the phantom remains of her fingertips gripping his shoulders.

            “Fucking hell,” he said, heart suddenly jumping into overdrive. “Shit.”

            “Whoa, what?” Karkat said, clearly taken aback by Dave’s sudden panic. “Who is Rose?”

            Dave hardly heard him as he began pacing. Rose was out there, Rose was communicating with him, and Rose told him something was happening. By her tone it was obvious it wasn’t something pleasant, but what?

            What was Rose trying to tell him?

 

            Finding Rose in the middle of meditation could be unsettling, to say the least. She was sitting perfectly still, only the gentle rise and fall of her chest assuring Kanaya that she hadn’t fallen deeper into that void than she could escape. Her hands were crossed in her lap, and her face was smooth and blank. Pale eyelashes rested on her freckled brown cheeks. She looked like a statue completely at peace; the only things keeping her from being displayed were her shorn hair, worn and practical clothes, and ragged nails.

            “Are you going to stare at me like a gawker at a street magician’s sleight of hand or are you going to speak,” Rose said evenly. The surprise nearly knocked Kanaya to the ground, but with her bloodpusher pounding she spoke.

            “Will I be forgiven if I say I was merely appreciating the view?”

            Rose opened one lavender eye and smirked. “Perhaps.”

            “You look like a masterwork painting of the goddess of magic,” Kanaya said as she sat next to Rose on the hard ground. Far above, the stars glittered and danced, framed by the mountain of stone that separated the training yard from the world outside.

            Rose laughed. “You’re laying it on a bit thick, but I’ll allow it,” she said, kissing Kanaya’s cheek. Her lips were warm and featherlight on Kanaya’s skin.

            “So…” Kanaya started, “happy birthday.”

            A sigh. Rose leaned her head on Kanaya’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “May it be the last one I celebrate alone,” she said. Kanaya had heard it before, she knew how hard the separation was for Rose, only growing worse with each passing day.

            “Were you able to pass along your messages?” Kanaya asked. She felt terrible for interrupting Rose’s meditation. It was draining for her to contact Dave in his dreams, and rarely fruitful. Still, she tried as often as her energy would allow.

            “Yes,” she said, a smile toying at the edges of her lips. “I think I got my point across, even though our time together was short.”

            “I’m sorry, dear,” Kanaya said, pressing her lips into Rose’s buzzed hair.

            “Not your fault,” she assured. “Though I do believe this will be the last time I speak to him like this.”

            Kanaya frowned, looking at Rose with concern. “What’s wrong?”

            Rose opened her eyes and sat up straight. The sureness Kanaya saw was frightening and enticing in equal measure and Kanaya’s lips met Rose’s halfway in the warm space between them, soft and sweet and aching with a finality that kept Kanaya close far longer than she anticipated.

            Rose pulled away first, breathless as she whispered in Kanaya’s ear.

            “The war is coming to an end soon, my love. It’s time we prepare.”

 

            Dave’s pacing and aimless rambling was exhausting Karkat’s already taxed mind. In the past few hours since Karkat woke up next to Dave, he swore he felt every emotion it was possible to feel and then some. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise and each moment that passed only served to annoy Karkat further.

            Eventually Karkat stood, ignored by Dave until he blocked his path and put his hands on Dave’s shoulders.

            “Will you answer a fucking question?” Karkat said, voice low and annoyed.

            “Rose has been alive this entire goddamn fucking time and I don’t even know where the hell she is,” he said, eyes wide. He was shaking underneath Karkat’s hands, whether from anger or fear or excitement he couldn’t tell. The only emotion on his face was shown in his wide eyes.

            “I don’t know who the fuck that is!” Karkat said, letting Dave go to ball his fists at his side.

            “Rose was- is- my sister. My twin sister.”

            There were very few things Dave could have said that would have surprised Karkat more. In his months in Derse, not to mention his life in Alternia, he had never heard of a princess.

            Then again, he hardly knew of the royal family of Derse until he was there. Education was not something lowbloods spent their times pursuing, let alone an education on foreign nobility.

            His shock was ignored by Dave, who kept speaking.

            “When Alternia attacked Prospit, she was there, and we all thought she died. The king and queen all but banned people from talking about her. We didn’t even have a funeral. Her room was locked and paintings of her were covered. They just pretended they never had a daughter. It was fucking killing me, I knew they never cared but it was so easy for them to erase her.”

            He began pacing again, breathing heavily. Karkat stood uselessly and watched him. The second-hand sadness he felt was acute, but he knew it could only be a shadow of what Dave felt, and what he had been feeling for years.

            “I’m sorry-” Karkat said, but Dave turned to him with a somewhat manic grin.

            “She’s alive though! She was trying to tell me something. I know it sounds ridiculous as hell, but she talked to me in my dreams. She said something was happening soon. I have to know. I need to find her.”

            “I believe you. You’re crazy, but you’re not a liar,” Karkat said. “But you don’t even know where she is.”

            Dave seemed to deflate, making Karkat feel worse. He took a deep breath and grabbed Dave’s hand mid-stride, pulling him to the rocks to sit down.

            “Listen, she’s obviously okay. She made it this long. If you run off to fuck knows where to find her, you’re only putting yourself in danger,” he said as calmly as he could. Dave sighed and ran a hand over his face.

            “Yeah. Okay, yeah. You’re right. Fuck.”

            Karkat, at a loss for what to do next, held Dave’s hand. Eventually, Dave made some wisecrack that got Karkat to groan and shove him away, but it brought things closer to normal. They talked about things that didn’t matter, they sat closer as the sun sank behind the trees, they kissed.

            All the while, Karkat struggled to suppress his worry that Dave’s twin’s message was more than a simple attempt at communication. It was a warning.

Chapter Text

Take my petals

And cover me in the night


 

Rose stared upward at the passing clouds visible through the hole so high above, imagining that the winds that passed over the mountain from the east carried the scents of home. She was waiting for something, though she wasn’t entirely sure what. Around her the training yard was a flurry of activity, rebels sparring with fists, staffs, and wooden swords. The fights were almost playful; teasing shouts and taunts bounced around the sheer stone walls. The winter chill reached deep within the mountain and formed mist with the heated breaths of the fighters.

A glint of metal streaked overhead, barely visible against the gray backdrop of the sky, and then began descending through the mountain. An arrow planted itself between Rose’s feet, segmented oddly and logically too heavy to have flown far. She could feel the traces of magic on its smooth exterior and hear the gears within winding to a stop.

A message from Darkleer rarely contained good news.

Kanaya met Rose by the entrance of the training yard, bundled up in scarves and shawls to keep out the cold. Winters were hard for her and many of the trolls. She eyed the metal arrow with disdain.

“There must be a more efficient means of communication,” she grumbled. Rose was sure it wasn’t the mode of delivery that Kanaya disliked, but Darkleer himself.

“Such as?” asked Rose, slipping her free hand into Kanaya’s and looking up at her with a smirk. Kanaya had grown much taller in the relatively short time span, nearly reaching the height of an adult troll. Rose herself had gained some height, but even so she just barely reached Kanaya’s shoulder.

“Birds,” Kanaya said after a moment. “Trained nightbirds perhaps.”

“That isn’t a terrible idea,” Rose conceded, “but I feel that Darkleer would sooner shave off his own horns and lay prostrate at Signless’s feet before changing how he does anything.”

Kanaya snorted. “Too true.”

They wound through the crowded streets, passing faces that were both determined and overwhelmed at once. The population had quintupled since the rebellion’s revival, with lowbloods arriving daily and a surprising number of midbloods joining on occasion. There were even several ceruleans among their ranks; mostly pirates, too low to be allowed to sail in the Alternian navy and with the rebellious spirit besides that drove them to seek out another army to whom they could offer their services.

Aside from Rose herself, Jade, and John, there were no humans.

The building in which Signless and the rebel council made most of their decisions was surrounded. A respectful distance was kept, but the usual mass of trolls, both veterans and new faces, pressed as close as they dared. The crowd parted easily before Rose and Kanaya. Nobody knew of her true identity, but her status as one of the few humans and the only Dersite gave her special treatment.

Very few outside of Signless’s circle trusted her. She was an unknown, an anomaly. Wary gazes followed her that she resolutely ignored.

The bubble of respect allowed Signless some privacy if he closed his door, but he was not the kind of man to shut his door to the public. Rose hypothesized that may have been why it seemed as if he had aged ten years since she first laid eyes on him. But there were times when he seemed younger; when he gave a speech he hardly seemed to be the same man, and when he was talking to Disciple his rigidity seemed to soften a bit.

At first, Rose wasn’t sure what to make of the wild oliveblooded mate of Signless. She seemed to hold boundless energy and was one of the strongest fighters the rebellion had, but at times she seemed to be as distant as the moon and as fickle as a storm, and only Signless could bring her back down to earth. Once Rose learned that Disciple had written several of the books in the library, she learned sign language in order to talk to her. Disciple understood war well, having survived one on a much smaller scale during the first rebellion. Rose respected her intelligence.

Even though Disciple was nearby writing in one of her many journals, Signless seemed preoccupied and worried as he studied the map of the continent. The map was crisscrossed with threads that tracked the Empress’s movement and dotted with pins that denoted the locations of smaller safehives in Alternia. Rose noted with concern that there were fewer pins than there had been mere days before.

Signless closed his eyes when Rose laid the arrow on the table, sighing and rubbing his face. His deep gray skin was lined and, uniquely for a troll, beginning to show stubble along his jawline.

“Thank you, Rose,” he said. He used sign language as he spoke for the benefit of Disciple, and Rose did the same, ignoring Disciple’s wry smile. She knew Disciple found her signs comical; she apparently signed with more flourish than necessary.

“Don’t thank me until you know what message waits within,” she said cynically. Signless sighed again.

“Shall I get Jade and John?” Kanaya offered, her hands moving precisely and clearly, just how she spoke.

“Please do,” Signless said with a nod, and Kanaya hurried off.

Rose traced the fuchsia thread with her eyes. The Empress often traveled between her castle and an Alternian stronghold in Prospit located just south of the Derse-Prospit border. It was far too close to Derse for comfort, but her battalions hadn’t managed to breach the blockades at the border. After so long under a sustained assault, it was a wonder Derse was still holding up.

She looked again at the arrow and felt a twist in her gut.

Kanaya arrived quickly with Jade and John in tow. Where Rose only gained height, they had both gained height and muscle. Far from the lanky prince that left Prospit, John was broad shouldered and rivaled Kanaya in height, falling just a few hairs short. Jade had thick, toned limbs and a grace that hid momentous strength, only made more formidable by her considerable arcane powers. The years of loss and war had not completely dampened their bright natures and they greeted the room with smiles and waves despite the bleak atmosphere.

“I suppose there’s no use in putting this off any longer,” Signless said grimly. Disciple nodded and reached for the arrow. Rose didn’t notice she was worrying her thumbnail between her teeth until Kanaya pulled her hand away and held it.

From within the hollow middle section, Disciple removed a small scroll. It would be coded, and Disciple was the quickest decoder they had. There was little chance the message would be intercepted, but Signless insisted.

But as she glanced at the note, her face paled. She passed it to Signless with distress, searching his face.

“What? What does it say?” John asked.

Disciple swallowed. “It says, be ready, I am coming soon.” Her movements were small and short, as if she dreaded the message she relayed.

“And it isn’t coded,” Signless added. “This cannot bode well.”

“Is Darkleer coming here?” Jade asked incredulously.

“Better him than another highblood, I guess,” Disciple signed nervously.

“It’s not as if anyone could send their own arrow message,” Kanaya said. “The mechanics and magic are secrets of Darkleer. He would never share them.”

The note had made its way into Rose’s hands. The vivid indigo ink was scrawled across the parchment in looping letters. It had clearly been written in a hurry.

“Perhaps he was already on his way as he sent this?” Rose said. “There’s no need for secrecy if he’s on the move.”

“But why? What would be the point?” Signless mused.

“He has something he needs to tell you in person,” Jade said uncertainly. “Maybe he thought you would not believe him if he didn’t tell you face-to-face.”

“Or,” Kanaya said, “perhaps he was forced to go on the run. There are few places safer than here; we are well hidden and well supplied. Only the most zealous of the Empress’s army dares to search these mountains, and their deaths are attributed to the treacherous terrain.”

“What would be so harrowing that Darkleer would be forced to leave Three Kingdoms?” John asked. “The city is neutral.”

“Those running it are, that doesn’t mean all of its citizens are too,” Disciple pointed out.

“Someone found out Darkleer was sending us information, and now he’s on his way to hide out,” Rose said. “Ironic, considering his reluctance to help us in the first place.”

If that is the case, and it very well might not be, we will welcome him,” Signless said in a soft tone that still managed to ring with authority. “If it weren’t for him, we would have been much worse off.”

Disciple growled, a low rumble in the back of her throat. It was clear she disliked Darkleer, and she was not alone. Rose had found him ill-mannered and dour. Signless bore scars that gave him the most reason to despise the former executioner, but he also seemed the most willing to forgive and accept his presence.

Rose wondered if this was the change she had been feeling in the air. Her attunement to magic gave her the uncanny ability to feel the winds of change. Days before she had felt a massive shift, one that could only mean the end of the war. Whether it would end well or with total conquest was unclear. Darkleer’s arrival would spur something into motion, she knew. All she could do was hope that all would be well.

 

The unnatural chill that swept over Rose could only be attributed to one thing, one of the few things she would consider a welcome distraction. She looked up from the book in front of her to meet the eerie, blank eyes of Aradia. She still looked exactly the same as she did the day she died, the only change being in her demeanor. She had found meaning in her death; the sad wraith that first made her presence known was replaced with a more energetic spirit.

“Aradia,” Rose said in greeting. Aradia did her best to mime sitting on the bench across from Rose, who respectfully ignored the fact that she hovered a few inches from the wood and that her arm rested inside the table.

“Hello Rose. How’s life?” she said wryly.

She waved flippantly. “More of the same. Certainly not as interesting as your afterlife.”

Aradia grinned, but quickly turned more serious. The temperature actually dropped a few degrees as her smile faded.

“It isn’t interesting right now though, and that’s a concern,” she said. “There haven’t been as many deaths lately. That means something’s building up.”

“I’ve felt something recently. Do you think the Empress may be retreating? Could this be how the war ends?” Rose said, rearing in her eagerness. Aradia looked grim.

“I wish I could say that were the case. Rose, I think Derse is flagging and the Empress knows it.” She placed a spectral hand over Rose’s in a comforting gesture that left her skin clammy.

“Derse is running low on soldiers, and Alternia is not. They’re putting their last squads on the front lines now. I… I saw your brother, Rose. The prince is in the fight now.”

The cold that had settled on her skin seemed to stab through her, right into her stomach, turning from ice to lashing tentacles of fear. It was impossible, it was beyond inconceivable that the king would put Dave in danger like that-

Unless that was the only remaining option. It wasn’t impossible to make more heirs to the throne if it came down to it. This was just another example of the king using his children as pawns in the political game. Only this time the danger was guaranteed.

“I’m sorry, Rose,” Aradia said. She was becoming less corporeal, her features less distinct by the second. “I will return when I can with more information.”

“If you find him- his spirit- do not take him,” Rose said urgently, but Aradia had already faded away.

The idea of Dave being put in such peril punched the air from her lungs. Knowing that the king had all but disposed of him filled her with blind rage; the candleflames around her swelled to dangerous sizes but did not chase away the chill that choked her. She would burn the library to the ground, but she hardly cared, she wanted to burn her way through the mountains and across Derse until she was in the castle where she could rain her all-encompassing anger upon the king-

“Rose. Rose!” A faraway voice pulled her from her spiraling emotions. Cool soft hands cupped her burning face, a pair of worried eyes pierced the black cloud of emotion over her vision.

Kanaya looked terrified. She knelt next to Rose and held her as she returned, little by little, to her senses. She realized at some point that she had begun crying, the tears leaving hot streaks down her face.

“Kanaya,” she said, and it came out like a choked sob. She threw herself forward and burrowed into Kanaya’s arms, still shaking with rage and fear and sorrow. Kanaya, still obviously confused and worried, merely stroked her hair and made soft noises of comfort until Rose could breathe normally again.

She had no concept of how long she had been in her emotional state. Her joints creaked as she moved, and as she and Kanaya stood her legs felt weak and rubbery.

“What a disgrace, I shall never recover from the embarrassment,” she said weakly. Her attempt at humor fell flat as Kanaya searched her face for more signs of a breakdown. “I’m better now, okay? Just very tired. Let’s head to our rooms.”

“Okay,” Kanaya said unsurely. She offered her arm to Rose, who accepted it gratefully and pretended not to lean on her far more heavily than she normally would.

Rose felt completely drained, physically and emotionally. Even the pressing feeling of fate seemed dulled and distant. It was far later than she expected; the streets were empty and dark aside from the dull lanterns within the guard posts far above. They looked like oddly uniform stars within the dark confines of the mountain.

“You are going to have to talk about all of that,” Kanaya said as they ascended the stairs to their hall.

“I do not,” Rose said morosely.

“But you will,” Kanaya said. Rose only glared because she knew Kanaya was right. 

She opened her door and allowed Kanaya to go in first. Kanaya lit the lantern as Rose undressed to her underthings. It was normal for them to share the room, and she felt no shyness, no need to hide.

Until something caught Rose’s eye. There was a gray patch of skin on her inner arm. She froze for just a moment, studying her skin, remembering the gray mark that marred her palm for months after the first time emotion took control of her magic. It faded eventually, but she never let anyone see it. She would have to be very careful for a while, she thought dejectedly.

Hoping Kanaya hadn’t noticed her distress, Rose crawled beneath her blanket. Being as drained as she was, she must have dozed for a moment because it seemed that Kanaya was next to her in an instant, her arms wrapped around Rose in a protective and comforting embrace.

“Aradia visited,” Rose started. “She… fuck,” Rose said, squeezing her eyes shut. Telling Kanaya made it feel too final. An irrational part of her hoped that if she told nobody of the situation it would resolve itself; Dave would be safe, Derse would continue to stand strong, and Rose could pretend that someday she would be the one to swoop in and end the war without a fight.

“You don’t need to tell me now,” Kanaya said softly. “Rest, we can talk tomorrow.”

Rose almost argued, muttering a few intelligible words of dissent, but a wave of exhaustion stole her thoughts and ushered her into unconsciousness.

 

When Rose woke up the next morning, the pressing sense of something happening was back and stronger than ever. She was still exhausted, her head throbbing and joints stiff, but she sat up and stretched all the same.

Kanaya was still asleep next to her; her hair was mussed, and her mouth hung open as she snored lightly, but she was lovely enough that Rose couldn’t resist pressing her lips to Kanaya’s cheek.

Rose couldn’t remember when she and Kanaya had begun sharing rooms. Perhaps with late-night talks that ended with gradual lapses into sleep, or maybe a nightmare that couldn’t be weathered alone. She thought about all the times they simply needed the physical comfort of the other and wondered how they had ever imagined that they would live in separate rooms.

The once-bare room was now distinctly hers, though there were signs of Kanaya everywhere she looked. One of Kanaya’s long red skirts was draped on the back of her chair, a pair of shoes too small and too fancy for Rose to ever want to wear peeked out from under her bed. A purple tapestry of a moonlit forest, a handmade gift for one winter holiday, took up the wall beside her bed. She knew she had several shirts folded in Kanaya’s dresser and a book lying open on her bed.

They both knew the others door was open whenever they needed it, despite the fact they never discussed it. That was comforting beyond words.

Kanaya shifted in her sleep, her eyes fluttering open. For just a second, she looked unconcerned. Once she met Rose’s eyes, her expression clouded with worry. Rose bit back a sigh. It wouldn’t be the first time Kanaya started her day fretting over Rose, and just like every other time before she felt terrible about it.

“Good morning, love,” Rose said, placing a hand on Kanaya’s round cheek. She was still warm with sleep; Rose imagined the gentle warmth that radiated from Kanaya surrounded her and froze the world outside, allowing them to take their time to wake up and talk and enjoy each other’s company.

The incessant pressure of fate and the future reminded her of her duties.

With another quick kiss, Rose climbed over Kanaya and began dressing. There was still a part of her that felt she needed to wear the fine dresses she adopted when she and her brother began their concurrent transitions, but the further removed she was from the constraints of royal life the more she resented the restrictive and immobilizing layers of fabrics.

She never did get over wearing dark, Dersian purple though. Most trolls, aside from Kanaya, seemed to lean towards the darker end of the spectrum when it came to clothes, so she never stuck out in that regard. She wore thick black woolen tights, a flowing purple shirt that she left untucked and cinched with a belt, and sturdy black boots. At her waist hung a scabbard which held twin wands carved from black stone and inlaid with silver.

She turned to see Kanaya watching her, her face darkening when she realized she was caught staring but still meeting Rose’s eyes unabashedly. For a moment Rose was terrified that she had seen that gray mark, but her expression was one of affection.

“You look lovely,” she said softly.

“As do you, and you just woke up,” Rose said. “Frankly, that’s unfair.”

“I’ll try to wake up less radiantly then.”

Rose laughed and pulled Kanaya to her feet, holding her close. “Impossible, you’re always radiant. Simply stunning.”

“Glowing even?” Kanaya said with a raised eyebrow.

“Dazzling. Blinding. Resplendent.” Rose accented each compliment with a kiss that made Kanaya giggle.

“And you are mysterious, exquisite, magnificent…” Kanaya trailed off, that worry crossing her face again.

“Disconcerting?” Rose offered.

“Never. I just… We need to talk about yesterday,” she said gently.

“I know,” Rose sighed. She sat heavily as Kanaya began dressing. She always wore bold colors and flowing fabrics, so similar to typical Prospitian fashions but uniquely Alternian as well. Rose noted some Derse inspiration in some of her outfits as well, and somehow she made the mismatch of influences work perfectly.

As Kanaya dressed, Rose worried. She knew what information she needed to relay, not just to Kanaya but to Signless and the rest of the inner circle as well, but she struggled for words. Every concept felt like a barb in her mind, impossible to detangle and remove and growing more painful by the minute.

When Kanaya sat next to Rose and took her hands, she was no closer to figuring out what to say than she was before.

“Did you see something in the future?” Kanaya urged.

Rose shook her head. “Nothing so solid.”

“Is it bad?”

“To put it mildly, yes,” Rose said, and took a deep breath. “Aradia visited me. She believes that Derse is beginning to bend under the stress of Alternia’s attacks. The king has put the reserve units in the field.” Her voice wavered and Kanaya squeezed her hand, her eyes wide as the realization dawned on her, even before Rose could go on.

“Dave is on the front lines now. Dave and many other nobles, no doubt. Derse is desperate. There is no way in hell the king would ever concede defeat, so at this point Alternia will merely exhaust our soldiers until they can storm the border and take Derse.”

“That cannot- will not- happen,” Kanaya said fiercely. “We will not let that happen.”

“What can we do? We are a ragtag group of lowblooded trolls and human nobles with stolen supplies and too much idealism for our own good,” Rose pointed out.

“We have passion. So many here have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the Empress losing this war,” Kanaya said. “Every troll has been ready to enter the fray from the moment Signless turned to us and told us there was a better way of living.”

“Will they march on the words delivered by a dead girl on the lips of an outcast?” Rose retorted.

“They would march if Signless so much as nodded in the right direction.”

Rose closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Kanaya made things so much clearer: a march to Derse, offering their service to the crown and turning the tide of the war in Derse’s favor, defeating the Empress and restoring Prospit.

But Rose could feel things would not be so simple.

“We definitely should go to Signless,” Rose said. It was a step in the right direction, she knew. Hopefully the right direction was one that would lead toward a swift victory.

 

“Will there ever be a day that good news is delivered to my table?”

Signless was bedraggled, his hair wild with sleep and eyes deeply shadowed. Disciple was nowhere to be seen, but Dolorosa laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. She had not aged a day since they set foot in the base; she had only grown more elegant and terrifying in Rose’s eyes as she learned stories of the rainbow drinkers.

“I will personally deliver the news of the Empress’s death to you the moment I deal the killing blow, is that good enough?” Rose said, her sarcasm ringing with promise.

“I’ll hold you to that, though I would much rather do the deed,” Signless said. The darkness in his tone scared Rose more than his bloodthirsty words and she quickly moved on.

“In light of Aradia’s news and Darkleer’s imminent arrival, I feel that we need to start laying out a plan of attack,” Rose said.

Signless looked at her levelly. Despite her young age, her words carried weight. For years she made herself an important part of the rebellion’s inner underground political workings, offering favors and promises when she could and threatening retaliation when necessary. Though few in the rebellion knew of her status, several highbloods on the outside knew they had a token of gratitude waiting in the hands of a vague Dersian noble, ready to be given once the war was at its end. She did not make the proposition lightly and could already feel the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders. It was not unlike the constant urging of fate.

“Bring in Disciple, Summoner, and the Prospitians,” Signless said. “We will vote.”

Dolorosa hurried from the room, leaving Rose and Kanaya alone with Signless. He looked even smaller and more drained standing alone behind the wide table. A clawed hand ran through his hair and he inhaled deeply through his nose.

“Things are truly coming to a head now,” he whispered, quietly enough that Rose wasn’t sure exactly what he said.

Before long, the small room was packed with bodies. Dolorosa gathered everyone needed, and on their heels followed the usual tagalongs. Tavros at least had the decency to look apologetically at Signless as he followed Summoner. Dolorosa stood beside Disciple, prepared to act as her interpreter as the room was too crowded to provide her with a clear line of sight.

Everyone watched Signless somberly. Signless made eye contact with everyone, greeted them with a nod, then stood to his full height. Even among the teenaged trolls, he was the shortest Alternian and yet he still captured their attentions entirely.

“Thank you all for coming so quickly. You all know I like to keep everyone involved in decisions that will affect our futures, as is fair. I feel we have our most important decision to make here today, and I will leave it to Rose to present.”

Rose swallowed her fears and stood up straight, hoping to exude half of the surety Signless did. She was meant to have all eyes on her, raised to command attention and speak convincingly, but this had so much more gravity than any speech she could have ever given as princess.

“I have received word from Aradia that Derse is beginning to grow weary under the Empress’s attacks,” she said gravely. “They can stand, at best, three more months of sustained assault before the border is breached; after that, the castle will most likely be razed to the ground with the nobility inside and the entire continent will be hers to rule.”

Perhaps she was meant to bear the weight of so many stares, but every pair of terrified eyes on her felt like a separate candle held to her skin. Still, she met each gaze with fire of her own.

“This day was bound to come eventually, and I believe we are fortunate that we were given so much time to prepare. We need to strike now, before the Empress coordinates her soldiers into a final push that would spell the end of Derse and the concept of freedom forever.”

“The proposed course of action is this,” Signless said as Rose’s words settled over everyone, “we will plan a route through the mountains as soon as possible, and once Darkleer arrives with his news, unless it is something that disrupts these plans, we will set out towards Derse’s southern border. Our rebels will bolster Derse at its weakest points until the opportunity to strike the Empress rises.”

“I formally cast my vote in favor of this plan,” Rose said. A million reasons why her plan would be shot down crossed her mind, but she kept her expression as calm and as sure as possible. She felt Kanaya’s hand squeeze hers reassuringly.

“I am in favor as well,” Jade said, eyes flashing with determination. “Time is of the essence now, I don’t think we can wait anymore.”

“I am in favor,” said John seriously, before cracking a half-smile. “It will be great to get out of this mountain to actually finish this.”

Dolorosa spoke up. “I am also in favor.”

Summoner. Disciple. Kanaya, Nepeta, Sollux, and Tavros as well, even though they weren’t technically part of the council. All were in unanimous agreement.

Signless met Rose’s eyes and nodded as the room quieted.

“It is decided then,” he said. “We will begin planning our route.”

Rose reached for the pressing hand of fate for reassurance that she was doing the right thing and received a gentle nudge. Impossible to interpret, but a sign that, for better or worse, she was irrevocably on the path forward.

 

The map, which had started off looking rather convoluted, now looked absolutely inscrutable. A hundred new pinpricks lined the northern mountain ranges and dozens of short red threads coming from their mountain showed all the possible paths they could take. All led to roughly the same place: a spot to the north of a wide fork in the river, close to the Derse border and between that and the Empress’s stronghold.

The Empress’s last known location was in her stronghold. There was no way they would survive attacking her directly but if the rebels put themselves between her army and Derse they stood a better chance, should she make a move.

Hours had passed since the vote; everyone but Rose, John, Jade, and Signless had rushed off to begin the process of making the rebellion mobile. Disciple and Nepeta were preparing weaponry and leading soldiers through formations and attacks. Summoner was watching for Darkleer from the top of the mountain, as his wings made him the fastest messenger. Tavros handled the animals, Sollux used his powerful psionic magic to lift the heaviest things onto carts ready to roll at a moment’s notice. Kanaya and Dolorosa had set off to distribute armor and clothing to keep everyone safe and warm enough during the trek through the winter mountain range.

Rose felt things were happening too quickly for her to keep up with. The rebels were finally moving, the future of Derse and the entire continent dependent on them. They were a little over six hundred strong, almost nothing in comparison with the still expansive Alternian army. They had surprise on their side, not to mention their highly skilled fighters and well-trained magic users, but she still worried that it wouldn’t be enough.

A warm hand covered her own and Rose looked up to meet Jade’s eyes.

“You’re worrying,” Jade said.

“And you aren’t?” Rose retorted. “We’re dancing by the cliff’s edge now, if we make one false step it’s all over. That’s not to say I am convinced we will fail, but I harbor a healthy amount of wariness.”

“We are definitely not going to fail,” Jade said with a decisive nod.

“I wish I possessed such conviction,” Rose muttered.

“Jade’s word is basically a guarantee,” John said. “She’s magic, what she says always happens.”

“How could I forget,” Rose said dryly. “Jade is the only one in this room with any hint of precognition, we should throw all this planning to the wind and walk when Jade says go.”

“I feel it’s time for a break,” Signless interjected before Rose’s quips could lead to a real argument. Rose pressed her lips together, knowing that she was only lashing out in fear. Time to clear her head would be beneficial, and she would apologize to Jade the moment the urge to start screaming had passed.

Jade patted Rose’s hand once to show she wasn’t truly angry anyway as she stood. Rose’s knees popped as she stretched, a testament to how long she had been sitting and discussing their route.

Stepping out of the room was like walking into another city entirely. The air was alight with frantic energy driven by resolve. Rose could see armor laid out on beds in the bunkrooms she passed, ready to be donned at a moment’s notice. Weapons as varied as the trolls that carried them were sharpened and strengthened and bright, attached to belts, slung over shoulders, and worn with pride. Far above, she could see the fast twitching of Summoner’s wings as he watched the horizon for Darkleer’s arrival.

The rebels were ready for battle.

Suddenly there was a hand around her wrist and she was pulled into a tiny, windowless shed. Wide spaces devoid of dust showed where crates of supplies had once stood, now loaded up and ready to go. She struggled for a moment before the light that seeped in between cracks in the wood revealed Kanaya.

“I feared you would be in there until Darkleer arrived and I wouldn’t have time to talk to you before we set out,” Kanaya whispered urgently. She held Rose close as if afraid Rose would be dragged off at any second.

“I wouldn’t have taken a step toward Derse without speaking to you first,” Rose said as she held Kanaya’s face between her hands and sprinkled her face with a flurry of kisses.

Calmer, Kanaya loosened her vice-like hug. “It’s finally happening,” she said in disbelief. “I knew it would, but I still feel overwhelmed by how quickly everything is happening.”

“As do I, and I knew better than most that it was coming,” Rose said.

“Promise me you won’t get in the midst of the fighting,” Kanaya nearly pleaded. “Stay on the fringes, fight from a distance. Keep yourself safe.”

“I can’t,” Rose whispered. “I will fight where I’m needed, if it takes putting me in front of the Empress herself to keep Derse… to keep Dave safe, I will.”

“I knew you would say that,” Kanaya said, her voice hitching. “You brave, stupid, selfless, irrational girl.”

“I am downright foolish.”

“Positively ridiculous.”

“Kanaya, when this is over, marry me.”

Kanaya pulled away, her next word dying on her lips as Rose’s proposition processed in her mind. Rose’s heart seemed to stop and then start again at a million beats a second as a silent moment passed and Kanaya’s expression turned from shock to elation.

Then her lips turned upwards wryly. “I will give you my answer the moment the fighting stops.”

Rose narrowed her eyes. “Is this a ploy to keep me safe?”

“It is,” Kanaya said with a kiss. “If you die you will never know.”

“What if the suspense kills me?” Rose teased. She felt almost giddy suddenly. Kanaya hadn’t said yes yet, but Rose knew she would. When they were safe, when Derse was secure and Prospit was fixed, they would be together, royal titles be damned. Losing the crown of a country she would die to defend to keep Kanaya by her side was more than worth it.

“So be it. At least it wasn’t a sword that fell you, but a word,” Kanaya laughed, then looked pained. “But please, please be safe.”

Rose kissed Kanaya again, her lips hot and desperate as if she aimed to memorize the feeling of their proximity. As if it were their last chance to be close until the nebulous and uncertain after.

It would be, she knew, but Rose didn’t want to acknowledge that. She was content to whisper reassurances she only half believed and promises she couldn’t possibly keep, if only to keep the girl she loved from worrying more than she already was.

The distant buzz of wings and shouting drew them from their hiding spot. Instinctively she knew it was Darkleer in the distance, carrying his grim news. The pocket of warmth and reverence they created together was broken the moment the door opened, and Rose found herself swept away from Kanaya by the throng.

The one entryway to the base was crowded with bodies, all desperate for a glance at the newest mystery guest. Rose knew he still had to be leagues away, but still she melted into the masses. She was shorter than almost every troll, making it easier for her to slip among them unnoticed until she was at the front. Signless stood alone, surrounded by a much wider bubble of respect than usual, bolstered by apprehension and fear of who may be joining them. Whispers and rumors spread quickly.

I hear it’s a highblood. There would never be such alarm over a cobalt. A violetblood? No, a midblood that’s fled from the ranks of the Empress herself, surely. No. Purple. Teal. Indigo. Who is it?

Rose let it all wash over her. It brought to mind the whispers heard in Derse’s castle, when the hallways were nearly empty and the moon was high. She wondered if ghosts gossiped as much as the living.

Only Signless had the power to stop every conversation in its tracks, and with a single look around he did just that. The silence surrounded her more closely than the chatter, a physical force of anticipation pressing against her from all sides.

“We cannot know what fate awaits us beyond the safety of the mountains,” Signless started, his low voice carrying through the caves, echoing and bouncing and amplified by the entry behind him.

“What we do know is that this is what we have been training for. Studying magic, practicing the blade. We have been torn from our homes, very nearly conscripted into an army poised to steal the freedom of humans just as surely as our freedom was stripped from us the moment we hatched.”

He was one troll in front of hundreds, and somehow he made every single word feel intimate and personal, even to Rose, a human who had no such experience under the Empress’s thumb.

“We cannot let her take more prisoners. We cannot let her army breach the border to Derse, to steal more land and people and freedom. We will not die at the hands of the Empress. We will tear her down and drive her into the sea and we will take our places as equals in Alternia. Prospit will rise, Derse will flourish, and we will be free.”

His volume rose with each statement, filled with iron certainty and tempered by reddest blood. There were cheers and shouts, weapons clanging rhythmically against the stone ground, flashes of light and heat and cold and electricity washed over Rose’s skin.

What fate had in store, she couldn’t say with certainty. She knew she tended to be pessimistic when faced with hopeful conviction. But in the face of such fervor and surrounded by the energy of hundreds of rebels aching to fight for their futures, Rose began to feel as if all would truly be well. She could almost see it: a new castle in Prospit, Three Kingdoms City united under glowing banners, open trade between countries, a continent healing and prospering.

“A moving speech, Sufferer,” came a gravelly voice from behind Signless that killed the cheering quicker than a rockslide.

Signless turned with a start and Rose reached for her wands. She knew that voice, but the tone was unreadable.

Darkleer emerged from the darkness on horseback, dressed simply for a noble but with an expression firmly on the side of haughty. He dismounted with a single movement and faced Signless. The distance between the two wasn’t far enough for Rose’s liking, and her grip on her wands tightened. She was not alone, there was a rippling in the crowd, a silent promise of protection against the highblood in their midst.

Then Darkleer nodded slowly and deeply. Not quite a bow, but a definite sign of respect and deference. Signless took the first step towards him, and the room seemed to hold its breath.

He offered a hand.

Darkleer, after a moment of hesitation, shook it firmly.

That seemed enough to break the tension. Words flew amongst the rebels freely again, I-told-you-sos and annoyed grumbles among them, along with confusion and concern.

Rose felt a familiar presence by her side, felt a familiar hand take her own and give a gentle squeeze, and looked up to see Kanaya, watching Darkleer with distrust.

“I do not like him, nor do I trust him enough to want him here any longer than necessary,” she whispered.

“Him being here won’t be an issue much longer,” Rose pointed out. “Soon nobody will be here.”

Kanaya sighed. “You’re right, but you don’t have to say it.”

“I don’t,” Rose agreed. “But it puts things in perspective, does it not?”

Signless was speaking again, reassuring everyone that Darkleer was here to help, that he had been helping from the beginning, and that they would begin their march as soon as possible. Trolls began to wander away, seeking a few last precious hours of sleep or training. As much as Rose longed to peel off from the crowd, she knew she would be needed to receive Darkleer’s news.

Still, she took a moment to walk with Kanaya. The distant sounds of fighting echoed through the streets, now void of trolls. They did not speak, but their linked hands were pale at the knuckles as they clung to each other.

The stairs to their hall looked so welcoming to Rose. A part of her knew she may never climb those stairs again. The thoughts of finality kept hitting her, waves of sadness and nostalgia for the times she took for granted washing over her again and again with every place she took for granted.

“We will be heading out at sunrise, if my predictions are correct,” Rose said quietly. She was in Kanaya’s arms, face pressed against her chest. The troll equivalent of a heart fluttered in Kanaya’s chest, solid and fast.

“I’m not sure whether or not I want your prediction to be correct in this case,” Kanaya muttered. God, how Rose loved her voice. Even at her most serious or sarcastic or steely, her voice was musical.

“Me neither. But I cannot tarry anymore. I… I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and turned away before emotion could get the better of her.

 

Darkleer took up most of the room, even more than the map table. It wasn’t just his height and bulk, though that certainly widened the space around him, but it seemed to Rose that nobody was willing to get too close to him. Disciple and Dolorosa had positioned themselves between Darkleer and Signless, which Rose could have brushed off as an accident if it weren’t for the fact that Disciple was growling, and Dolorosa kept her fangs bared and her rainbow-drinker glow blinding. John and Jade avoided him warily.

Rose felt ice in her veins and iron in her bones as she entered the room and gave Darkleer a cold gaze as she took her spot. She would be cold and clear for this meeting.

She refused to think about how she didn’t look back at Kanaya as she walked away, even though she didn’t hear her footsteps on the wooden stairs. She didn’t think about how her skin was frozen where Kanaya’s hands were no longer touching, or how badly she longed to run from the room, up the stairs, and into Kanaya’s arms.

She did not think about Kanaya.

“Darkleer, this is our council of sorts. Prince John Egbert-Crocker-Harley and Princess Jade Harley-English-Egbert of Prospit, and Princess Rose Lalonde of Derse. With my circle, all kingdoms are represented.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Rose couldn’t help but note John and Jade’s names. Her Prospitian history was rusty, but she realized quickly that they had taken the last names of their father and grandparents at some point. They had lost their home but kept their history, and Rose admired them for it.

“A ruling council with both humans and lowbloods,” Darkleer said, and Rose thought she detected scorn in his tone.

“A council with full representation,” Signless said. “Now that we are all present, you are free to deliver your message.”

“My message,” Darkleer repeated, “regardless of what you believe, will not be enough to change what is already set in motion.”

His words chilled Rose more so than her attempts at remaining coolheaded.

“The Empress is heading towards Derse, and she will tear a hole through the border and storm the castle herself. That she waited this long is an anomaly. Your best chance at survival is to stay here and stay quiet.”

Rose may have gasped, but she couldn’t be sure. She felt the room tilt, even as her body turned to lead.

“Like hell we will,” Signless said fiercely, and that shocked Rose enough to refocus her.

“For years we hid, for years we bid our time and ignored the suffering of both Alternia and Prospit while the Empress ravaged the countries for her own gain. We waited for long enough and now we’re fucking ready.” Signless stood, and for a moment Rose was almost afraid of him.

“We meet the Empress at the border and we stop this once and for all.”

 

Rose could see the stars far above, the mountain framing the predawn sky in shining black stone. They seemed so much brighter without the torches glowing in the mountain city. The city itself seemed lifeless without its inhabitants. In the mad rush to get into armor and get the carts out, doors were left open and tasks left unfinished. A book lied open on a chair, a letter sat half-written.

She was being foolish by waiting, but every step she took towards the entrance felt like a step towards the crushing vice of the future. Its grip was around her heart, but the ghosts of the past caressed her arms, whispered unknowable words in her ears, left mist in the doorways that dissipated the moment she looked.

Nothing could have readied her to leave another home.

Hurrying her footsteps, she made her way towards the last of the torches at the front of the caverns, held aloft by armored rebels. She was armored as well, her silver breastplate gleaming and bearing the symbol of the rebellion. Her plate was special in that the sign of the Sufferer was filled in with lavender paint, a nod to her home.

While she was dressed in black, underneath the silver of their armor the trolls bore their blood colors. A mass of rust red and earthen brown and gold spotted with olive-green and emerald. Teal and cobalt punctuated the crowd as well. Several distinct units made up the rebellion’s forces, all of which stood together in loose formations. At the front were melee fighters, followed by archers, followed by ranged magic users. At the far back were healers, and Rose craned her neck to find that pair of mismatched horns she knew so well, to no avail.

Rose took her place amongst the magic wielders. Wands like her own were strapped to belts, but none quite as ornate, and none with a twin by its side.

She was much too far back to see Signless, but she heard his command as clearly as if he had been standing right next to her:

“Move out.”

A simultaneous footstep, no hesitation, the rebellion marched forward. Rose wondered if she would ever see the mountain base again, and realized if she were lucky, she would never have to.

Unframed by the mountain, the sky was endless. Clouds kissed the horizons, stars shone all around her, and even though she was surrounded by people she felt tiny and alone. The waterfall she remembered from her arrival rushed by as it always had and always will, unaware of the inhabitants it had provided for.

The only thing that made her next steps bearable was the thought that she was bringing herself closer to Derse.

 

The border was a continuous two-day walk away under the best of circumstances. They couldn’t afford any delays; the Empress was already ahead of them, though if Darkleer was to be believed she was taking her time. She had no reason to hurry.

In two days, Rose would face the Empress. Even if she had to push past rebels and raze a path through the Alternian army singlehandedly, she would.

The silence around her was a determined one broken only by heavy footfalls and metallic armor clinking. Even after hours of walking, Rose felt just as firm as she had when she set out.

She wondered where Dave was. She hoped he was nowhere near where the Empress was poised to strike, of course, but a selfish part of her hoped to see him on the battlefield, to fight by his side and protect Derse and avenge Prospit as one.

A more insidious part of her wondered if she was too late, that he had already fought and fallen and somehow she didn’t even know-

She cut the thought short and marched on.

At daybreak, Tavros rode past on horseback, his saddle specially modified to support and carry him comfortably without the use of his legs. They would be stopping for an hour or so, a wheel had broken. Rose supposed she should have been grateful for the break, but she felt nothing but the urge to keep going.

Seeing Kanaya pushing her way from the back of the convoy was a much-welcomed reprieve from the depths of her own thoughts. Kanaya broke into a run as their eyes met and pulled her close without a word, nuzzling her face into Rose’s hair.

“How are you faring?” Rose asked.

“I just wish to get there sooner rather than later and get this battle over with,” she muttered.

“As do I,” Rose said. “Though maybe we should be savoring these last days of peace and wholeness before…”

Kanaya sighed. “Before the very real prospect of dying is staring us in the face.”

“Hey,” Rose chided, looking up at Kanaya. “Neither of us are dying. You still have an answer to give me.”

“I suppose I do,” she replied with a wan smile.

The hour passed much quicker than Rose anticipated, and then she was back in line, one foot in front of the other, facing Derse and whatever fate had in store.

 

There was another break at midday, one Rose and Kanaya spent on a rolled-out blanket, trying to sleep through the sunlight with the sounds of others so close by. It was not a restful sleep, and Rose woke up feeling drained. As Kanaya walked away she felt even worse.

They walked into the night, and Rose thought back to the last time she walked across a country at age fourteen- or was she fifteen by then? It felt like a fever dream that spanned years or hours depending on her clarity of mind. Back then, she had been running away from danger. She took some comforting irony in walking towards the same danger she escaped from.

At daybreak, another rest. Another short rendezvous with Kanaya, ended all too soon. The landscape was changing from black cliffs and deadland to copses of evergreens and snowy hills. They couldn’t be far now, and a new kind of tension filled the air

In a particularly dense grouping of trees that stretched on for several miles, the convoy stopped for a final rest. It was near midnight.

At dawn, they would reach the border. Summoner returned from his intelligence mission and word spread that there was an imperial encampment to the south, far enough away to beat to the border should they leave before the sun rose.

Rose entertained the idea of sneaking away and stealing into that royal camp, finding the gaudiest tent, and burning it to the ground with the Empress still inside. Or moving through the camp like a shadow with a dagger, ending anyone who dared to get in her way. Or blasting it all away with an explosion of magic.

She did none of those things. Instead she lied by Kanaya’s side and pleaded to whoever was listening that it wouldn’t be the last time.

 

The sunrise was beautiful. Rays of sunlight lined the treetops and dappled the ground below. Animals chattered in the underbrush and birds dove from the boughs to catch the bugs unlucky enough to have been spotted.

In the base, it was impossible to see the sunrise. She had missed it.

The rebels lined up and Rose grit her teeth. This was the most difficult part for her, knowing that Signless and several others were hurrying towards the Derse encampment with peace flags raised, stating their intentions and giving Derse a chance to prepare for what may be the last battle of the war.

Rose could not join them. She knew it was for the best; if they saw the princess with Alternians, no peace flag would stop the rain of arrows against her perceived attackers. If somehow they made it beyond that point, they would surely take her and hold her in the castle for her own safety. She hadn’t come this far and trained her heart out only to be held from the battle like a fragile creature.

Still, she longed to run towards Derse, towards Dave.

A terse half-hour passed before Signless returned. He sent word down the line that Derse was readying its defenses, calling all nearby soldiers to their spot in preparation.

Rose hoped it would be enough.

When the order to march sounded, Rose felt afraid for the first time. Afraid for the others she had come to know, afraid for herself, afraid of losing and what that defeat would mean for Derse and the rest of the Alternians who had fought tooth and nail against their Empress. She could offer them amnesty in Derse, but what good would that do if the country would fall soon after?

Rose was terrified, but from that fear bloomed determination. Even if fate dictated that she should lose, she would do everything in her power to defy it.

Beyond the forest lied a great clearing, almost entirely flat aside from a few rolling hills and rocky outcroppings. In the distance, Rose could almost make out a town of tents flying the purple banners of Derse. On the other side, there was a caravan of carts, gaudy even from a distance. Soldiers moved within each camp, soldiers in full armor with weapons at their sides.

This is it, Rose thought to herself. This is really it.

Their procession made a straight line across the battlefield, four deep with magicians and ranged users at regular intervals while melee fighters held back. Weapons and wands pointed to the south where the Empress waited. Judging by the lack of ambush or prepared traps, the presence of six hundred more soldiers against them was a surprise.

Surprise or not, the fighting did not take long to start. There was a horn, and then a swarm of Alternians from the camp.

There are far too many, Rose thought, as an exchange of arrows began. Several were aflame, others were crackling dangerously with magic. There was a building roar of bloodlust, and then Rose stopped thinking.

Her wands grew hot in her hands as she cast bolt after bolt of fire at the charging Alternians. Her knuckles were white and sweat beaded on her forehead as arrows rained down around her, but she did not flinch. Only the sound of a metallic thud and the feeling like a stone hitting her chest broke her concentration, and she looked down to see a spent arrow at her feet, its head broken off.

She had been hit with an arrow. Any higher and it would have gotten her in the head.

She forced herself back into the fight, but now every sound seemed to bore into her ears. More metallic thunks, an occasional grunt or scream, muttered swears and whispered prayers, the sound of bodies falling with deafening finality.

Thud. Pop. “No!” Clang.

It was worse than Rose could have anticipated. Worse than running through Prospit’s castle as it collapsed, worse than being smuggled across Alternia.

The Alternian soldiers were drawing near; Rose could see them snarling and hear them shouting. She cast another fireball and watched it burn away a troll’s skin. Behind her, the close-range rebel fighters surged forward. She saw John, the prince of many jokes and pranks swing a massive hammer at trolls who wanted nothing more than to tear him to pieces. She lost sight of him quickly.

Something lurched towards her at her right and she very nearly avoided having her arm broken by a mace wielded by an indigoblood. They were so close that she could see the hatred and anger in their dark blue eyes, but still blasted them a distance away with a pulse of magic.

The battle was right in front of her, and finally her instincts took over entirely. Bright spots burned in her vision as the wave of assailants washed past her. She ducked and spun past weapons brandished by trolls that towered over her and eagerly aimed to break her head open.

Dodge. Blast. Run. Stop. Fire. Turn. Duck.

There were so many Alternian soldiers, easily triple their six hundred or so rebels. Even fewer now, Rose was certain. She spared a glance behind her, towards the Derse camp. They seemed to be waiting for some signal, but Rose couldn’t be sure why.

It occurred to her that they might have been waiting for every rebel to fall before mounting a counterassault.

Her distraction was long enough for one of the Empress’s soldiers to knock her off her feet and level a spear at her throat. The spear was already wet with muted hues and the troll, finned and grinning madly, seemed to be enjoying the battle. She kicked out at their knee, and in that moment of distraction sent deadly currents of electricity through them. She was back on her feet before they fell, heart racing and blood burning through her veins and rushing in her ears.

Another horn, and another wave of soldiers from the Empress’s camp. That seemed to be the signal Derse was waiting for, and the battlefield was soon flooded with soldiers. Fighting alongside humans felt strangely odd for Rose, as used to trolls as she was. The Dersian soldiers almost seemed slow in their attacks, broadcasting their moves before they even took a step, but their defenses were much better than either the rebels or the Alternians, Rose conceded.

Crash- a sword against an iron shield. Bang- a blast of magic pounding a set of full plate armor. Clang. Thud. Pop.

Dave.

The name registered in her mind before her eyes could focus on him. He seemed almost impossibly fast, the double-edged sword in his hands swinging with deadly accuracy. The emotions that bubbled up inside Rose- fear, elation, worry, anger- were overwhelmingly intense. She was running toward him before she could even make the decision to do so.

Their eyes met. Dave didn’t drop his guard, but an instinctive smile crossed his face. They met and clasped hands. It was all they had time for before they were flanked again. Rose blasted, Dave slashed, and like well-tuned clockwork they fought back to back.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Dave managed after a moment, breathless with exertion.

“I shouldn’t be surprised you’re managing to run your mouth in the midst of a war-ending battle and yet I am,” Rose shot back.

“What you said was more than what I said, so there.”

Rose knew she was grinning like a fool and consoled herself with the fact that it was probably disconcerting to the enemy.

“Don’t die, got it? I have a million questions,” Dave said before lunging at a purpleblooded soldier who was focused elsewhere.

The flow of battle took Rose elsewhere as well, and with renewed vigor. Dave was alive, though fighting as well. She knew he would be able to handle himself, but still she worried.

Rose looked across the entire battlefield. Only a quick glance, but Rose noted with satisfaction that there were far more Alternians down than rebels and Derse soldiers.

And then another horn sounded. A third wave of Alternians. Rose grit her teeth and entered the fray again.

Burn. Dodge. Fall. Bang.

In a moment of silence, Rose heard a noise like the shattering of the earth, and then the battlefield was fractured by fire. A solid wall of flames, hot even from a distance, split the field down the middle. It started at a point near the Alternian camp, and in the shocked stillness, Rose could make out a figure.

The troll was tall, taller than most of the trees in the forests. The horns only added to the impossible height. What looked like a mass of black tentacles twisted behind her. A gold dual-sided trident gleamed in the sunlight.

The Empress arrived on the battlefield, and the malice and power she exuded was nearly enough to freeze Rose on the spot.

Almost. A flash of green caught the corner of her eye and she saw Kanaya in profile, her eyes wide and chest heaving as she stared at the Empress. Even as the fighting commenced, Kanaya seemed stuck.

“Kanaya!” Rose screamed. She scorched her way through the soldiers in her way, even as Kanaya came back to her senses and met Rose’s eyes. Rose tore her eyes away for only a moment, to find the Empress far closer than she had been only moments ago. Not only was she powerful, she was faster than anyone could keep up with.

The moment she was in battle, it would be over. Even from her spot, she felled soldiers with a mere balling of her fists and sent her trident flying at anyone suicidally brave enough to attack her head-on.

She grasped Kanaya’s arm, pulled her down, and kissed her. She poured everything she had into that kiss, her love, her hope, her fear and longing and sadness.

And then she turned away, toward the Empress.

She would bring her down. For Kanaya. For Dave. For John and Jade, for Prospit, for Signless and Dolorosa and the rebellion.

For her future.

There was a moment when Rose met the eyes of the Empress. She saw nothing but vile darkness in the fuchsia, and Rose projected her loathing and anger back into her stare. With a single motion, the Empress launched her trident, and Rose deflected it with a burst of energy. It was knocked backwards, and Rose took those steps forward, gaining ground.

Around her, the battle raged. It seemed almost inconsequential in that moment, during her personal fight with the most powerful being on the continent. The Empress, eyes still locked on Rose’s, still managed to hold off the rebels with ease.

Then the Empress’s eyes shifted, a spark of something Rose couldn’t decipher shining. Just a moment too late, Rose sent a shield of energy behind her blindly, toward Kanaya.

Just a moment-

She turned.

-Too late.

The middle point of the spear was embedded in Kanaya’s abdomen, its back half vibrating from the spent energy shield that was created around it. Kanaya’s mouth was open in a perfect O of surprise, blinking down at the weapon.

She looked up at Rose and fell as the trident was yanked from her body.

Rose felt herself fall as well, as if everything holding her up was gone. She crawled her way to Kanaya, the ground underneath her hands wet with blood and dew.

Kanaya’s eyes were closed. She could have been asleep if it weren’t for the blood splattered across her armor and the frantic, desperate rise and fall of her chest.

“Please,” Rose begged, “please Kanaya, you’re going to be okay- you’re okay.”

Her eyes stayed closed and her breathing slowed to a stop with a wet sucking noise.

The world froze around her. Her heart stopped, her breathing slowed, and her mind blanked. All there was in her universe was Kanaya, dead.

The color seemed to drain from her vision. The world was cast into dark grayscale, each sound dulled to hollow winds in her ears.

She didn’t make the decision to stand, but suddenly she was on her feet. There were coronas of darkness around her hands when she looked down. Her skin was an ashen, sickly gray. Her wands were heavy and cold in her hands, and as she leveled them in front of her, she felt a power untapped and undrainable, aching and pulsing like a bruise on her soul.

She blasted forward, and a black jet of flame reduced the soldiers in front of her to ash and killed the ground beneath them. She was distantly aware that her body wasn’t moving, simply gliding across the field and leaving scorched, blackened earth in her wake.

She didn’t care. She couldn’t care.

The Empress met her eyes again, and for the first time Rose saw something else besides evil there- there was fear.

Only half the field separated them. The Empress sent jets of fire her way, but Rose felt nothing. Her armor singed, surely, but her skin was numb.

A quarter of the field. She lashed out with her trident, clearly unused to having an enemy so close. There was wild terror in her eyes, like a cornered predator.

There was barely an arm’s length between them. The Empress stabbed at her chest with her shark-like teeth bared, but Rose grabbed the trident before it could spear her and shoved back.

The point found its way into her heart, and the Empress screamed a final death wail, expelling a massive amount of energy that sent Rose flying and leveling the battlefield.

As Rose hit the ground, she managed to feel something.

Victorious.

 

There was silence. A long stretch of silence, during which Rose wondered if this was what was all that was beyond death.

Spending an eternity in her own head was fitting punishment for her, she decided.

The silence stretched on, unbroken by her internal monologue. She wondered if this wasn’t exactly what fate had predestined. Perhaps as some punishment for being difficult, or for the sins of her ancestors, or some bullshit she was beyond caring about. The war was won, but at such an astronomical cost that Rose couldn’t imagine the world having improved. Kanaya was gone.

Kanaya was gone.

Silence again. She could feel nothing, not an idea of her own body or where she was. A part of her had hoped Aradia would come to shepherd her soul towards something else. A place where she could apologize, perhaps.

She owed Kanaya a million apologies. She owed Dave too, and her friends. But a dead princess doesn’t get to apologize.

Silence. It was impossible to tell the passage of time. It could have been decades for all she knew. She hoped the kingdoms were doing well. With Dave as the heir to Derse and John and Jade the joint rulers of Prospit, Rose could see how the world would flourish.

She wished she could have seen it.

The silence was broken by voices. Some familiar, some not. One, impossible. The darkness around her was a river with an unfightable current but she struggled anyway. Fate was a bitch and she was not about to bow to its whims.

“…nearly across the entire battlefield, it’s a wonder she wasn’t more injured.” That voice belonged to Dolorosa. She was close to the surface, close enough to distinguish individual voices.

“I’ve never seen scars like this,” someone unfamiliar but distinctly human noted.

“Magic surely, you saw her- is she saying something?”

“Impossible.”

“Do not tell Rose Lalonde what’s impossible,” said a voice that seemed to drag Rose up from the depths of that black river and thrust her into herself. Her whole body hurt, even the tiny movements of her mouth sending waves of pain through her, but still she spoke.

“Kanaya…”

She couldn’t open her eyes, but a pair of cool, soft hands on her face were enough of an identification anyway.

“Oh Rose… Rose, I’m here. We’re okay. I’m okay. I’m so sorry, Rose.” Kanaya was crying, Rose could tell.

“No, I’m…” She trailed off. Talking hurt so much but Kanaya’s hands on her face were like balm on burns. She would stay conscious if it meant she could feel Kanaya, alive and well.

“Rest now, my love. And know that my answer is yes. It has always been yes.”

 

Over two years were spent in the base, and in that time Rose had read a lot. She learned magic, studied Alternian history, and read the sordid novels hidden away on a top shelf. Most of them were garbage, but she did find a few informative.

One novel, a novel Kanaya stole away one day with a stumbling excuse, focused on the romance between a troll and a rainbow drinker. Rainbow drinkers glowed, drank blood, and gained power from sunlight. The only way to make a rainbow drinker, the book explained, was to kill a jadeblood.

Rose was not surprised to find Kanaya at her bedside. She was not surprised at the glow that momentarily blinded her.

What she was, was elated.

“Kan,” Rose said weakly, and Kanaya wasted no time in showering her with kisses and apologies and explanations.

“I love you so much,” Rose said after the barrage of affection. Kanaya laughed, even as tears tracked down her cheeks.

“I love you too. I’m… I’m sorry, and I’m glad you’re awake.”

“What could you possibly be sorry for?” Rose scoffed. “It’s my fault you…”

Kanaya glared. “Do not go down that road, Rose. I am alive, I am better than ever actually. The Empress, may she rot, only succeeded in making me hotter than I was before.”

Rose laughed, which hurt, and sat up, which also hurt.

“Becoming a rainbow drinker is very sexy of you,” Rose teased, and Kanaya started laughing as well, a loud bark of surprise and joy that was cut off by a disgusted groan.

“Holy shit, that has to be the worst goddamn thing I’ve heard today, and I had to listen to our father give a bullshit speech on the responsibility of the rebellion and on the necessity of Derse’s closed-border policy.”

Dave walked in, his annoyed tone not matching the soft, happy look on his face.

“Hey,” he said as he took a seat on the end of Rose’s bed. Rose’s actual bed, in her former room. It was undecorated but familiar, and the bedspread was her favorite shade of purple.

“Hi,” Rose said. “Glad to see you didn’t bite it.”

“And miss your dramatic magic showdown with Queen Fishtits? Fuck no.”

Rose blinked. “So that really did happen.”

Dave nodded solemnly. “We have the dead, gray earth to prove it. And you have the bruises and scrapes and scars. Oh, and the Empress corpse. You killed her with her own trident, how badass is that?”

“I barely remember it,” Rose admitted. “Once I saw Kanaya, I lost control of myself.”

Kanaya held Rose’s hand, which did not hurt in the least. “I’m sorry…”

“One of us is going to have to stop apologizing,” Rose said, squeezing Kanaya’s hand.

“I have so much to tell you,” Dave said after a moment, and Rose knew she was in for the information dump of her life.

“It’s been hell pretty much the entire time you were gone since we all thought you were dead, and then when you come back you almost really do die, what the fuck Rose? The king and queen were minutes away from actually giving you a funeral this time I swear. Last time you died it was no big deal, they just pretended you didn’t exist which was royally- haha- fucked up. But uh, there were a few good things. I met someone I really like, his name’s Karkat. The queen stopped drinking, and she’s… not a great mother, but she’s at least acting like a human being. King’s still a dickwad though…”

Dave talked, Rose listened, and outside the castle, a country rejoiced.

Beyond the castle walls, towns celebrated with massive parties that would last weeks. Trolls and humans alike reveled in the downfall of the Empress. While the war ended officially with the death of the Empress, the news took a day to reach the whole continent. The few trolls still loyal to her fled to her island castle but were turned away by rebellion-sympathetic highbloods who refused to relinquish the castle. There were rumors that they were hiding in Three Kingdoms City, but they did not want to be found.

The rebellion was halved in the battle, but Rose was glad to learn that nobody from Signless’s circle died, nor did any of her friends. Trolls did not hold funerals, but Rose insisted on giving every fallen rebel proper resting places, to which Signless agreed. Aradia was pleased, and though Rose knew she would probably never see her again, Rose was happy as well.

The remaining rebels stayed in Derse for a while, protected under the crown. When Rose was well enough, she acted as a liaison between Signless and the human nobles. The king treated her as if she had never left, as if she hadn’t had a hand at all in how the war played out. Rose, in turn, acted as if she were above the king, which she knew frustrated him to no end.

Rose and Dave were just as in synch as they were the day she left for Prospit. They spent most of their time with their respective partners, but still managed to make time to talk to each other as they used to. Sometimes Dave and Karkat would join Rose and Kanaya on walks or at dinner and the four would talk well into the night. Years of separation faded away and the twins were closer than ever.

Even though there were some new differences between them.

Rose studied herself in the mirror. It was late, the fireplace the only light in the room. The war had been over for two weeks, but she could still hear distant sounds of laughter and music from somewhere else in the castle. She studied her face critically, poking the scar-like gray patches that covered parts of her face.

They covered her from the top of her head down. Where hair grew within the spots, it grew silvery white. There were large patches over half of her face, over her shoulders and arms and down her spine, in the middle of her stomach, on the sides of her thighs… They were far from ugly, she found. They were quite striking.

She swore there was a mark on her palm that was just a bit darker than the rest, where emotion had controlled her magic the first time and left a scar. It had originally faded after a while, but Rose had a feeling these new scars wouldn’t. She didn’t mind.

“Have you become vain suddenly?” Kanaya chided from her position underneath the blankets. She was glowing slightly, a contented sort of shine.

“I’m back to being a princess, doesn’t that mean I’m supposed to be vain?” Rose said, turning the mirror away and crawling into bed. Kanaya laid a hand on Rose’s cheek and smiled.

“You’re beautiful,” she said.

“Says she who is truly, literally, as radiant as the moon,” Rose rebuked.

“To she who is as lovely as a garden dappled by moonlight.”

“Admit that was ridiculous and I’ve won this round so we can go to sleep,” Rose said, snuggling close to Kanaya.

“Never, but I will concede to a tie.”

“Fine,” Rose sighed. “Only because I’m exhausted.”

Kanaya hummed in agreement. Contented, Rose closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around Kanaya. Tomorrow there would be meetings and messages, treaties to sign and prisoners to deal with, injured to tend… but Rose was able to ignore all of it for a few hours, held close by her love.

This, she thought, is what I fought for.

Chapter Text

rose, rose, Rose red

will I ever see thee wed?

/

only if you discover me


 

One week after the death of the Empress, Aradia came to the conclusion that she only had one job left to do among the living. She wasn’t afraid to move on or saddened by the thought she wouldn’t be seeing her friends until they too died. In all honesty, she was excited to see what lied beyond the end.

            The Alternian castle was energized by the death of its oppressive monarch, the highbloods within sympathetic to lowbloods or to the humans. The Empress for all her power, was not well regarded among all highbloods.

            There was one in particular who Aradia knew hated the tyrant with her entire being.

            Incorporeal as she was, Aradia still found it difficult to navigate the castle. It was built with opulence in mind, not convenience. It took her a few tries to get through its maze of gilded halls to find the route that lead to a narrow, spiraling staircase. At its top was a hatch in the ceiling that Aradia knew was covered by a rug and table, hidden from the heiress’s sight.

            To sate her own curiosity, she went up to see the heiress one last time. She wasn’t asleep, but not celebratory as Aradia expected. Nobody had bothered to tell her that the Empress was dead. That, or there was nobody else around who even knew the heiress existed. Sadness clenched her still heart, and Aradia hoped with everything she had that the heiress would have a future of love and friendship. Part of her wished she could have been her friend, but that wasn’t what fate designed.

            After that she waited. She watched the living move with purpose, without knowing how closely the specter of death followed their footsteps. They made plans, broke promises, mended relationships, and Aradia watched it all with distant interest.

            Eventually, she was spotted, so to speak. A blind tealblood seemed to stare straight at her, and without hesitation Aradia darted away.

            The hallways became progressively less gaudy as Aradia lead the teal on a chase. She paused at the ends of hallways, left a trail of dust to follow, and made sure to never quite lose her follower.

            When she reached that staircase, she finally stopped and let the other troll catch up.

            “Where are we?” the teal asked, suspicion and curiosity in her harsh voice.

            Aradia’s energy was nearly expended, and she knew her answer had to be short and frustratingly vague.

            “A better future,” Aradia said, her voice an ethereal whisper.

            Knowing her work was done, she faded away with a smile.

 

            One month after the death of the tyrant, Signless held a meeting. It was a semi-open meeting of sorts, graciously held in the war room of Derse castle. Signless was surrounded by his council, the few rebels who had stayed in Derse instead of returning home or back to the base, and a few unfamiliar curious human nobles.

            And of course, Jade, John, and Rose. John and Jade seemed ready to return to Prospit, but the future was still uncertain; there were many plans to be made and their input was needed. Rose was still weak, though she tried her best not to show it. The skin on the edges of her gray vitiligo-like patches seemed reddish. On her heels, as expected, was Kanaya. But behind her followed two faces Signless hadn’t expected to see. One being the prince of Derse, a spitting image of Rose, and another being so familiar that Signless couldn’t help but stare.

            Years ago, Signless had found a grub just outside a cavern, likely abandoned in the elements to die. His eyes and body were the same shade of heretic red as his, his horns just as dull and small, and his shouts just as powerful.

            Under normal circumstances, he would have been expected to take the grub in, to raise and train him until he was self-sufficient. Signless did not have the luxury of normal circumstances. He spent as long as he could teaching the grub necessary lessons in survival- hiding his veins with long sleeves and high necklines, the necessity of lying about blood, how to hide an injury before it could bleed bright red- before he was forced to move on.

            The sight of that young troll, eyes wide as he watched from the arms of a lowblood who promised to protect him as Signless left him behind was one Signless saw in his dreams more often than not.

            Seeing Karkat again, and in such an unexpected place, froze Signless on the spot. Karkat didn’t notice him at first, as deep in conversation with the prince as he was. Signless, for once, was at a total loss. Should he greet Karkat like a long lost protégé? Would Karkat even recognize Signless?

            Their eyes met, and surprise stopped Karkat in his tracks. The shock that crossed his face was surely mirrored on Signless’s. Karkat’s expression was an open book and Signless watched shock, excitement, anger, and confusion cross his face before he settled on wariness.

            Signless understood. He was careful never to let Karkat know his goals or activities- even his title was kept from Karkat.

            Dave said something to Karkat that Signless couldn’t hear, and the two began speaking in hushed voices that wouldn’t carry over the din of the room.

            Still shaken, Signless started the meeting and then offered very little input. Plans were made to allow any lowblood to hold a title and their own land in any country, and though Signless was thrilled he could hardy dedicate his thoughts to the tasks at hand.

            The meeting seemed to last for hours, but Signless knew it was rather short, all things considered. He remained at his spot as the room cleared, until there were only two others present. Dave held towards the back of the room while Karkat walked towards Signless with determined strides and a fiery expression.

            Karkat was very nearly an adult, Signless noted, and he felt a bittersweet sort of pride.

            “You’re Signless,” Karkat said without preamble. “All this time I thought my first guardian was just some lowblooded nobody who couldn’t afford to keep such an absolute fuckup around so you pawned me off to do who-the-hell knows what, and you were Signless.”

            “I did what I had to in order to protect you,” Signless said. “Your anger is justified, but what choice did I have?”

            “Train me! You could have been a goddamn guardian and let me help you!” he yelled.

            “You were too young, I-”

            “Bullshit,” Karkat spat, “you didn’t even give me a chance. Do you know what I went through? Years of half-assed guardians too afraid to tell me so much as their names before shuffling me off to some other braindead coward. Until I had enough and decided- fuck it! I’m settling here. And then I did, alone, for fucking years until the Empress got it in her head that lowbloods make great cannonfodder and I was forced to take a stand against some irrelevant highblood. I took a stand by myself. Sure, others followed suit, but I was alone.”

            Karkat was breathing heavily. Pale red tears gathered at the edges of his eyes but refused to fall. Even with the sadness and shame welling up inside of Signless, he felt immeasurable pride.

            “And I had to be alone once you left me behind,” Karkat went on, no longer shouting. “I feared for my life daily. I hid, I spent so many paranoid nights on the move. I didn’t have anyone. You of all people should have known that pain. So fuck you. Fuck you for leaving me and fuck you for making me live through that emptiness.”

            He was silent for a moment, and Signless fully expected him to turn and leave, never to speak to him again. It was what he deserved, he felt.

            “Karkat…” Signless started, and then took a deep breath. “You’re right. And your hatred towards me is well deserved. I was afraid. As simple as that, I was a coward. I didn’t want you in the thick of the rebellion, but at the cost of leaving you without family or future. There’s no use in me trying to justify that; all I can do is apologize. I’m so sorry.”

            Karkat looked conflicted. His hands were still balled at his sides, but he seemed less likely to spring into another barrage.

            “I don’t hate you,” he said eventually. “Now that I know what you went though, I can’t hate you. I won’t forgive you any time soon, that’s for fucking certain, but I do want to know you. I want to learn from you, and I want the reassurance that I’m not the only red-blooded freak, I guess.”

            “I would be honored to teach you,” Signless said. “Though I doubt there’s much I could tell you that you don’t already know.”

            “Probably. But I guess the point is you owe me, so let me stick around you. All the important shit is taken care of, but I still want a place in the rebellion. There’s always the chance of some highblood feeling nostalgic for the old days,” Karkat said.

            “Of course,” Signless said. He knew it wasn’t enough to absolve him of his mistakes, but the nod that Karkat gave him felt like an offering of peace that Signless was happy to return.

            It would take months, maybe years, before Karkat forgave him, but Signless swore to himself that no matter how difficult or dangerous it became, he would never leave Karkat again.

 

            Four months after Rose recovered fully, she sat in the throne that once belonged to her father. The king himself, after his unpopular actions during the war, strategically removed himself from the castle to hide away somewhere even Rose didn’t know.

            Good riddance.

            Even so, she still dealt with unpleasant nobles. Still owed several of them favors. She wasn’t officially queen yet, but the general relief of seeing her alive kept most from questioning her authority.

            The troll in front of her, kneeling at the base of the cold thrown, was one who only seemed less reluctant to respect her. Darkleer was impossible to read, as he always was. She almost (but not quite) wished the king was back, if only so she wouldn’t have to be the one to smile and placate him.

            “Please rise,” she said, all sweetness. Sugar was the best way to mask a poison.

            He did so, towering over nearly everyone else in the room.

            “Sir Darkleer, I bestow upon you a parcel of land, upon which is located one castle. It is to the northwest and located near a small town. I hope it is to your liking,” Rose said.

            The castle in question was one which even the king avoided. To climb the mountain it was located on was treacherous, and most rooms were impossible to warm. However, it was large and scenic. Not to mention it was a gift, a favor returned, and to make a scene about it would be unsightly. Not that Darkleer knew what he received.

            “I also bestow upon you the title of Duke while in Derse. May the title bring renown.”

            Again, it meant little but seemed like a lot. Rose had spent weeks wondering how to honor her promises without giving the executioner for the tyrant more than he deserved.

            He bowed again, and Rose smiled.

 

            Six months after the end of the war, Jade stood in an empty room. It never truly felt like her own and she didn’t feel particularly attached to it, but still she hesitated in the doorway.

            It wasn’t the room she would miss, she knew. And the time she spent staring forlornly into an empty room was time she could spend with her friends before she had to leave.

            With a decisive turn, she made her way down the hall. Summers in Derse still left the halls chilly, and she could feel the coolness of the stone underneath her feet through her shoes. She was dressed in royal finery, provided by Derse but in the typical Prospit style, which she appreciated as much as she felt restricted by it. If she had wanted to run down the hall she couldn’t have.

            And she did want to, she admitted to herself. As much as the past years forced her to grow up, she still held on to a carefree part of her that she was not shy in indulging.

            She happened to glance out the window and took a moment to appreciate how the sunlight filtered through the mist. Derse was lovely, and the people were as well, as cool and reserved as they were. She would miss it.

            The library she walked into was perhaps a bit noisier than politeness dictated, but at least she knew that she was in the right place. Crowded around one table was Rose, Kanaya, Dave, Karkat, Nepeta, Tavros, and Sollux. Even the ever dour Sollux spared her a smile as she joined them. In front of theme was a raided plate of cookies, cooling cups of tea, and roughly five notebooks worth of papers with several different handwritings creating an illegible mess.

            “I call this meeting of Skaia to order,” she said with gravitas, and smiled as all eyes turned to her with mock seriousness.

            “As you all know, John and I will be leaving for home soon,” she said. She met her brother’s eyes when she said home without meaning to. “And I know some of you will stay here and others will leave for the other kingdoms. But that doesn’t mean Skaia has to stop.”

            Rose gave her a knowing smile. The others looked hesitantly excited as she explained her plans. The idea that she and Rose and their respective royal siblings had discussed over the past few weeks.

            “So where would this town, this commonwealth or whatever, even be?” Sollux said, with his patented brand of cynicism. Jade, of course, was prepared, and nodded at Dave.

            Dave was less prepared, but after a moment of scrambling, he produced a map. The layout of the city wasn’t changed much, but there were large additions to be made.

            In other words, it was still very obviously Three Kingdoms City, but better. The inner circle of castles and mansions was gone, replaced by sprawling structures meant to house many people comfortably for as long as necessary. There was a row of schools, a few marketplaces set up.

            “Anyone will be able to thrive here,” Jade said earnestly. “Free housing and schooling for anyone, Alternian or Dersian or Prospitian alike!”

            “The Heiress has offered to fund the schools,” Karkat added. There was a tense beat as there always was when the new figurehead of the Alternian kingdom was mentioned. The existence of Feferi Peixes had been announced several weeks after the war was declared over. She had spoken to Signless first, then several sympathetic highbloods. She accepted the punishments bestowed upon her kingdom humbly and swore her life to righting the wrongs caused by her predecessor.

            Even so, the very idea of a fuchsiablood was enough to cause concern. Jade saw no reason to worry though. Though her correspondence with the new Empress had been minimal, she could tell she meant no harm and sincerely wanted to help.

            “So what’s it clawed?” Nepeta asked.

            Jade grinned. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re calling it Skaia.”

 

            A year and a half after peace was restored, Rose was helped into her wedding dress. It was not the same dress she had been fitted into all those years ago for her planned wedding to John. That one was lost, and she almost felt sadness for the wasted effort.

            Her new one, however, greatly outshone the old. It glimmered in the candlelight, silver threads weaving intricate patterns across every inch of the white cloth. It wasn’t inspired by any particular popular fashion; it was distinctly Kanaya’s unique design.

            As the bodice was cinched closed, Rose closed her eyes. She was getting married to the woman she loved, walked down the aisle by her twin while her soon-to-be wife waited under an arch of flowers and ribbon.

            She was elated. She was also extremely nervous.

            She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Her patchwork skin and curly hair were familiar sights in the mirror, but the dress was something entirely foreign. It was breathtaking, indescribably beautiful, and Rose felt her throat tighten with emotion.

            “Your highness, Queen Jade is here to see you,” said a page, and she nodded. Jade walked in, dressed in her finery with her long hair braded and threaded with gold ribbons. Her wrists and ankles jingled with gleaming gold jewelry. She seemed just as awestruck as Rose did as she took in the dress.

            “So pretty,” she managed after a minute, with a wide smile and tears in her eyes. Rose returned the watery smile and stepped off the stool she had been confined to for the past two hours to give Jade a hug. She smelled like sunshine and ocean and those tears she forced back almost threatened to fall. Her best friend, as busy as she was, was there for her wedding. It was more than she could have ever hoped for such an occasion.

            “How are you feeling?” Jade asked.

            “Emotional,” she answered honestly.

            Jade giggled. “Of course, silly. This is such a big day full of big feelings! Have you cried? Are you going to cry?”

            “No and no,” Rose said firmly, but a smile tugged on the edges of her lips.

            Jade stayed for a while and the two caught up- though they exchanged letters weekly, they both had much to say. As the hour drew near and Jade stood to leave, she took Rose’s hands one last time.

            “You look amazing, and I don’t want to give much away but Kanaya does too-” she winked and Rose laughed even as her heart fluttered- “and you’re both going to be so happy together. It’s fate, I think. Soulmates.”

            Rose squeezed Jade’s hands. “I think so too.”

            And as she walked down the aisle, her eyes locked on Kanaya’s, she didn’t even realize the tears were falling down her smiling cheeks until Kanaya brushed one away, a gentle caress of her thumb over Rose’s cheekbone.

            Their kiss that sealed their union glowed brighter than the sun, and Rose basked in its warmth.

 

            Three years after Rose returned home, after hundreds of thousands of trolls were freed from oppression, and a kingdom was avenged, a carriage drove through well-lit streets. Renaming a city was a much grander affair than Rose could have expected, though after years of somber rebuilding, she supposed a bit of frivolity couldn’t hurt. After all, it was the first official meeting in the capital of the continent, the first time all three countries were meeting publicly for more than boring treaties and agreements.

            And perhaps Rose welcomed the celebratory atmosphere, as much as she hated to admit it.

            The carriage that carried her towards the capital was pleasantly crowded and comfortable. Kanaya sat by her side, watching the city pass with an awed expression.

            What hat was once known as Three Kingdoms City changed from a disjointed and crowded city to a united and prosperous one. The outer ring, once seedy and worn, was bright and colorful, each home safe and road paved. The inner ring which housed secondary homes for the elites was now a public center of trade and education.

            It was evening, and the windows they passed glowed warmly. Rose could hardly believe the change herself, even though she had offered her own time and effort to bring about the dramatic change.

            “Are you sure this is going to go over well?”

            Rose glanced at Karkat, who was doing his best to slick down his untidy mass of hair and straighten his knightly finery. Even after three years she was still struck by how much he resembled Signless; even if trolls didn’t have familial ties like humans, it was clear he was a close descendant. It was obvious in their appearances and in the way they both spoke, though Karkat was far more colorful in his speech than the comparatively reserved Signless.

            “Actually, I change my mind sine the last five times you asked. They’re definitely gonna run you out of the ballroom with torches and swords raised and that’ll spark a second war that Rose will personally see to ending by sinking the whole continent into the sea,” Dave said with a carefully blank expression.

            “This dress would not survive a swim,” Kanaya said. Her dress was a gorgeous deep green ballgown that seemed to shimmer in the low light, possibly helped by Kanaya’s own luminescence. She made it herself, along with Rose’s dress, and they complimented each other perfectly. Both were impeccable and would surely influence fashions across the kingdoms for years to come. Never let it be said that Kanaya held no power.

            “It would be a shame to ruin it,” Rose sighed, “but if I must…”

            “There are other ways you could ruin my dress, you know,” Kanaya purred.

            “Fucking hell, why would you say that,” Dave groaned, covering his face while Karkat sputtered and refused to look at anyone.

            “Say what?” Kanaya said innocently. “I simply meant that she could spill something, or hold a candle too close, or something equally accidental.”

            It was obvious Kanaya was quietly reveling in catching Dave and Karkat off guard, and while Rose would normally join the fun, she decided to spare them just once.

            “Listen, if everyone can accept that the princess of Derse married an Alternian seamstress with no riots, I am certain they will accept the news of your courting without incident. After all, it’s been obvious to anyone with eyes for years now.”

            “Fuck off, we’ve been discrete,” Karkat muttered, but Rose could tell he was reassured.

            Rose still felt that thrill though her as she always did when she mentioned her marriage. She looked at Kanaya- her wife!- and smiled. Their ceremony had been small, only a handful of close friends were invited. They held it in the gardens beneath an ancient flower-covered stone arch. The picture of Kanaya underneath that fragrant arch was ingrained in Rose’s mind and carried with it a rush of happiness only matched by the feeling of waking up next to her every day.

            Her wife, the queen consort, her advisor, her best friend, her soulmate.

            “You’re staring,” Kanaya teased. Rose realized with a rush of embarrassment that she was indeed openly gazing at Kanaya like a lovestruck fool.

            Which, incidentally, she was.

            “How could I not?” Rose recovered smoothly. It was Kanaya’s turn to be flustered.

            “Ugh,” Dave grunted.

            As they passed through the gates to the central castle, Rose felt that same awe she did when she first saw it in its completion. It was the second castle built after the war ended, the first being Prospit’s castle. It was a small for a castle, but didn’t serve as a permanent residence anyway, only holding official meetings and parties and housing those who needed a temporary place to stay for as long as they needed, regardless of wealth or status.

            Its ballroom was lavish on the most mundane of days, and Rose could hardly imagine how it must look when holding the monarchs of three kingdoms within.

            The carriage rolled to a smooth stop and Rose made sure to be the first out just to help Kanaya down the step. Kanaya rolled her eyes but accepted her offered hand. They followed a page though the double doors and down a hallway filled with people in their finest clothes from all walks of life.

            They waited in line to be announced. Kanaya held Rose’s hand and she could almost feel the nervous excitement radiating from her.

            They entered with gracious smiles to wild applause. There were hundreds of people in attendance, highbloods and lowbloods and nobles and average citizens alike. Lanterns of colored glass hung from the high ceiling and covered everyone in a kaleidoscope of colors.

            Rode descended the stairs with Kanaya on her arm and was immediately surrounded. She made pleasantries, curtsied and shook hands with anyone who offered and lost several hours in meaningless conversation.

            Until one particular troll stopped in front of Rose and curtsied deeply. Empress Feferi was dressed rather plainly in a black dress trimmed in royal pink, but her inky coils of hair were braided and adorned with seashells and gems. A simple circlet of gold and coral rested on her head. She smiled with her razor-sharp teeth, but Rose did not fear.

            She curtsied back, just as deep, and smiled.

            “A pleasure to see you again, Empress,” Rose said.

            “And you as well!” Feferi said brightly.

            If anyone had any right to dislike Rose, it was Feferi. Though Rose and her mother had a strained relationship, she couldn’t imagine forgiving the one who cut her down. Feferi, however, was not Rose, and she seemed almost thankful in her presence.

            “How’s your royal guard?” Rose asked with a knowing smirk that only deepened when Feferi blushed.

            “Nepeta is just fin!” she said with a giggle. Just like Dave and Karkat, the relationship between Feferi and Nepeta was something of an open secret.

            They talked about the party, the state of Skaia, and the kingdoms themselves for a few more minutes before a hand took Rose’s and she was whisked away by Kanaya.

            “She’s lovely, isn’t she?” Kanaya said as they walked around the outskirts of the party.

            “Unsettlingly so, almost,” Rose said. “After the previous empress, meeting a fuchsia who’s so unabashedly nice is jarring.”

            “Indeed.”

            Kanaya led Rose outside, down a winding path to a park nearly empty at the late hour. It was cool outside, but not uncomfortably so. Just the right temperature for Rose to press herself against Kanaya as they walked. The moonless night sky glimmered with stars.

            “It feels as if things are finally settling,” Rose said. “It only took a few years, but things are almost normal now.”

            “Better than normal,” Kanaya said with a squeeze of Rose’s hand. “Better than I or anyone else could have ever imagined, thanks to you.”

            Rose scoffed. “Please, spare me the tired hero-talk. If there’s one thing I’ll be glad to miss it’s the endless praise.”

            Kanaya pursed her lips. “I sincerely cannot tell if you’re being serious.”

            “Does it matter?”

            “I suppose not.”

            They walked for a while longer, until they came across a stone bench. Kanaya sat and pulled Rose close.

            “I love you,” Kanaya whispered. “I just wanted to remind you.”

            “I’ll never tire of hearing you say that.”

            “I love you, Queen Rose Lalonde-Maryam.

            Rose laughed. “Even better. And I love you, Queen Kanaya Lalonde-Maryam, my heart, my soulmate, my dear.”

            The stars shone above the party, above the lovers and their stolen moment alone, and Rose could have sworn they were rejoicing.