Chapter 1: the abandoned homesteads of exiles
EDIT 4/6/18: Now with beautiful fanart by Hexa (@synodicatalyst on tumblr)!
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
—Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
amphibiansTorment [AT] began trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
AT: aVAST LIEUTENANT,
AT: pROGRESS REPORT ON MISSION: JUDGMENT DAY,
AT: wHICH IS TO SAY, iMMEDIATELY, oR AS SOON AS POSSIBLE,
AT: aND BY SOON, i MEAN CLOSE TO, oR APPROXIMATELY, nOW
AG: c4lm your r4ck g3n3r4l
AG: w3 4r3 on tr4ck to fulf1ll m1ss1on: judgm3nt d4y 3x4ctly on sch3dul3
AG: th3 t4sk forc3 1s 1n pos1t1on 4nd r34dy to str1k3!
AT: wHAT, iS THAT,
AG: wh4t 1s wh4t
AT: tHE LAUGHING BIT,
AT: iT SEEMS TO SUGGEST THAT WE ARE, sOMEHOW CONSPIRING TO AN ENDGOAL OF SOME VILLAINY,
AT: aN ASSESSMENT, wHICH I WOULD REGARD, aS INACCURATE,
AG: wh4t no
AG: th1s 1s 4 tot4lly norm4l th1ng
AG: p3opl3 do 1t 4ll th3 t1m3
AG: 3sp3c14lly p3opl3 4bout to do tot4lly sup3r r1ght3ous 4nd just 4tt4ck m1ss1ons on suck3rs 4nd chumps!
AT: hAHA, yES, tO THAT,
AT: pARTICULARLY THE BIT ABOUT SUCKERS, aND CHUMPS
AG: you know 1t >8)
AT: wHERE ARE YOUR FORCES, eXACTLY
AG: k4n4y4 s4ys w3 4r3 4bout 4 l34gu3 south of th3 t4rg3t
AG: 4nd w1th st34dy w1ndsp33d w3 should b3 4bl3 to l4unch 4n 4tt4ck w1th1n 4n hour 4t most
AT: eVERYTHING IS EXACTLY AS IT SHOULD BE,
AT: iNCLUDING THE PART WHERE I AM ABOUT TO LOOK REALLY INCREDIBLY AWESOME,
AT: aND MAKE HER REALLY ANGRY AND PISSED OFF AT ME, aND THEN HAVE REALLY ANGRY AND PISSED OUT SLOPPY MAKEOUTS
AG: t4vros th3r3 1s no sum of mon3y 1 would not p4y you to n3v3r h34r you t4lk 4bout sloppy m4k3outs 3v3r 4g41n
AG: p4rt1cul4rly not w1th th3 t4rg3t who sh4ll not b3 n4m3d!
AT: tO THAT EXTENT,
AT: tHERE IS NO SUM OF MONEY THAT YOU COULD OFFER ME, tHAT I WOULD NOT PROBABLY HAVE MUCH MORE THAN,
AT: aND ALSO, tHE LAST TIME I CHECKED, tHERE ARE NO LAWS, aGAINST TALKING ABOUT SLOPPY MAKEOUTS, sO MAYBE, qUIT HARSHING MY JAM,
AG: just b3c4us3 1ts not 1ll3g4l do3snt m34n 1ts not wrong 4nd gross!
AG: for 3x4mpl3: your outf1t
AG: h4h4h4h4 just k1dd1ng
AT: bECAUSE ITS NOT AS THOUGH YOUR OUTFITS ARE ALWAYS GREAT, eITHER,
AG: my outf1ts 4r3 f4nt4st1c
AG: h4v3 you 3v3n s33n m3 1n my l3g1sl4c3r4tor un1form
AG: 1 look t1ght 4s sh1t
AT: uH HUH
AT: } :L
AG: you t4k3 th4t sk3pt1c4l 3mot1con 4nd shov3 1t up your w4st3 chut3!
AT: a LITTLE AGGRESSIVE THERE, aRENT YOU, vRISKA
AG: f1rst of 4ll 1 h4v3 n3v3r b33n too 4ggr3ss1v3 1n my l1f3
AG: 1 4m 4lw4ys 3x4ctly th3 r1ght 4mount of 4ggr3ss1v3 for 3v3ry occ4s1on
AG: 4nd s3cond of 4ll 1 thought w3 4gr33d to us3 th3 cod3n4m3s 3v3n 1n pr1v4t3 ch4ts
AT: tHATS RIGHT, sORRY,
AT: a LITTLE AGGRESSIVE THERE, aRENT YOU, rEDGLARE,
AG: not 4t 4ll 4nd fuck you for 4sk1ng
AT: i THINK, i AM FEELING A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE, wITH THE INCREASINGLY HOSTILE TONE YOU ARE TAKING, tOWARDS ME, sOMEONE WHO IS DOING YOU KIND OF A VERY BIG FAVOR, aND ONE THAT HE DIDNT REALLY NEED TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE
AG: oh my god t4vros
AG: l34rn to r3cogn1z3 rol3pl4y wh3n you s33 1t
AT: tHAT WAS ROLEPLAY
AG: uh duh!
AG: do you r34lly th1nk 1 4m th3 k1nd of p3rson who would s4y th4t to you?
AG: wow t4vros
AG: 1 4m k1nd of hurt!
AT: yOU HAVE SAID THINGS THAT ARE MILDLY ABRASIVE BEFORE, aND I USUALLY BRUSH IT OFF, bUT I THINK THE POINT STANDS THAT
AT: yOU DO SAY THEM,
AG: 4ft3r 4ll th1s t1m3
AG: 1 gu3ss you should b3 hon3st w1th m3
AG: 1 dont w4nt you to f33l l1k3 1 dont c4r3 4bout you or your f33l1ngs
AG: 1 suppos3 1m just f33l1ng r34lly b3tr4y3d th4t you th1nk so l1ttl3 of m3!
AT: i MEAN, i THINK A LOT OF YOU, oBVIOUSLY,
AT: aND WHEN I SAID THAT THING ABOUT YOU BEING MEAN, uH,
AT: tHAT WAS ALSO, oBVIOUSLY, rOLEPLAY
AG: wow! t4vros you 4r3 so cl3v3r
AG: 1 would n3v3r h4v3 r34l1z3d som3th1ng l1k3 th4t on my own
AG: th4nk you for h3lp1ng m3 to und3rst4nd <8)
AT: nO PROBLEM,
AT: i AM, sOMETIMES SO CLEVER, i EVEN CONFUSE MYSELF,
AT: sO THERE IS SO NEED TO EVEN BE WORRIED ABOUT IT,
AG: you 4r3 so r1ght
AG: 1ts 1ncr3d1bl3!
AG: so should w3 cont1nu3 st34dy w1th th3 curr3nt cours3
AG: 1f 4ll go3s 4ccord1ng to pl4n w3 w1ll b3 b3g1nn1ng th3 f1rst prong of th3 4tt4ck w3ll w1th1n sch3dul3d p4r4m3t3rs
AT: yES ABSOLUTELY,
AT: fULL STEAM AHEAD
AT: oR WHATEVER IT IS YOUR VERY TINY SHIPS RUN ON,
AT: oVER HERE WE HAVE ALREADY BEGUN THE ASSAULT ON THE FLANK OF HER FLEET,
AT: sO SUFFICE IT TO SAY WE ARE READY WHENEVER YOU ARE,
AT: tO BEGIN THE KICKING OF ASSES,
AT: eN MASSE,
AG: w3ll don3 g3n3r4l!
AG: 1 w1ll s33 you on th3 oth3r s1d3 of th3 b4ttl3
AG: v1ctory or d34th!!!!
AT: i DO NOT KNOW, iF I WOULD GO THAT FAR,
advocatasGambit [AG] ceased trolling amphibiansTorment [AT]
The air tastes like salt.
You lean over the railing and get a mouthful of sea spray for your trouble, coating your face with a stinging mist. The pink moon approaches its fullest phase, sitting at the apex of the sky overhead, while the green one remains a sliver on the horizon. The twelfth night after the second dim season’s equinox burns hot and lovely. It is as good a night as ever was for being at sea.
The Dragon’s Eye moves swiftly. It is for this quality you chose her, above all others, from Tavros’ considerable array. She’s small, but she moves like an arrow loosed from bowstring, and what she lacks in firepower she makes up for in maneuverability. A crew of ten can man her comfortably, five in a pinch. You don’t really know anything about seacraft, but you can say authoritatively that she’s a pretty vessel, with a single mast dressed in pristine white sails, and a burnished russet hull the color of a rustblood’s open wound.
Granted, Tavros’ sigil flies from the mast, but such things can be abided. He’ll be taking her back after this joint venture of yours, so you enjoy the luxury while you can.
Kanaya says, “You look like a barkbeast.”
You nearly jump out of your exoskeleton. She’s getting sneaker by the minute; one of these days, she’s going to learn to just materialize out of thin air. You wouldn’t put telepathy past her, either.
Leaning on the rail, you try to recoup some of your lost swagger. “I’m enjoying the atmosphere,” you say. “I’m getting refreshed and shit.”
“That may be. But you look like a wet barkbeast doing it.” She hops up to sit on the rail beside you. Kan doesn’t do FLARP, at least, not regularly, so the outfit she picked for the occasion is nothing special, by her own standards — a green sundress and purple ribbon for a belt, her sigil worn on a white pin at her breast. The neckline takes a dive for the thorax, but there’s layers of chitin underneath, which all FLARP players got to wear. Lipstick green as pond algae, the rest of her face done up in like colors.
“It’s not really in the spirit of the game to just wear casual clothes,” you’d said to her, when she showed you.
“A very good thing I am not playing for the spirit of the game,” she had sniffed, and that was that.
You like to think you’ve made up for her lack of enthusiasm with your own outfit, which is a full-scale recreation of Neophyte Redglare’s legislacerative uniform, down to the unique red trimming and the quarter-inch of heel that puts you at about her height. Records indicate she was on the shorter side, and even at six sweeps, you probably could have looked her in the ocular. Now, isn’t that a doozy of a thought.
“Tavros says it’ll start soon,” you tell her.
“‘It’ being the skirmish, you mean.”
“Yeah. He’s got her cornered, we’ll be sailing into the heat of battle.”
“A comforting statement.”
“We’ll be fine,” you assure her. “FLARP is — well. You should be fine.”
“The game has ‘fatal’ in the title.”
“Yeah, but only for scrubs, y’know? And you’re not a scrub.”
“Be still my beating pusher.”
You blow a raspberry at her and prepare to engage with some cunning repartee, but you’re distracted by the lookout, who calls your name and points northward.
A black dot crowns on the edge of the sea. It grows rapidly, edges appearing and details carving themselves into the silhouette: sail, mast, prow, stern. At half a mile, you can make out the shape painted into the flag: a slender M, with an arrow studding the right leg.
“That’s it,” you breathe. “That’s Exile.”
Terezi’s flagship is legend. Breathtakingly fast, with three rows of cannons and a crew of forty-five, what’s most remarkable about it is its beauty — black wood and tall, slim masts, with its name printed in gold lettering on the stern. Its sails swell and buffet like the wings of some massive featherbeast.
Behind it, Tavros’ ship, the Seabull, crests over the horizon, moving at top speed. Fire kicks up the water around the Exile, lighting up geysers of seawater as cannons strike the sea. He’s in hot pursuit. Just like you planned, he’s steering her right into your clutches.
You trot down the stairs to the quarterdeck, snapping at the helmstroll. “Full speed,” you order. “Force her to turn back. When we get close enough, fire port cannons — lock her between us and Seabull, make her face the cannons!”
Dragon’s Eye puts on a burst of speed, and gets within firing range of Exile. On your mark, the port cannons send a volley her way.
Your first shots hit home, and the ship swerves. You shriek in victory. Its curve puts it on course to move on a line parallel to yours, which will give you an opportunity to board, or give them a heavy application of firearms. Even if she shifts trajectories, she won’t be able to get out of your range before you have a chance to introduce her to your starboard cannons.
The Exile straightens out and keeps moving. It keeps moving right at you.
You grow cold.
“What’s she doing?”
“It appears,” Kanaya says, “that she is playing cluckbeast.”
“She’s going to wreck both of us!”
“I do not think she particularly cares.”
The ships approach each other at full speed. Estimated collision in twenty seconds. Now, ten. You grit your teeth and wait for her to steer aside; you are not losing, you will not let her scare you off course, and you will not lose your advantage in a juvenile game of cluckbeast.
Exile gets closer. Closer. Closer.
Some survival instinct claws its way to the top of your consciousness and seizes control. “Bank,” you order, and the ship cuts a sharp curve around the Exile, narrowly missing head-on collision. As you pass, you get a look at the stern, where a windswept troll in a blue coat mans the helm. You realize with a start that it’s Terezi.
“Hold on,” you call. “Bring her around. Bring her around, make another loop!”
The Dragon’s Eye turns again, and you cry, “Fire starboard!”
A littering of cannon fire brushes the Exile’s hull, and it’s a shame to see such a beauty weather it, but necessary. Exile slows to accommodate the injury, and you take the opportunity to gain ground on her, pulling parallel.
Seabull draws closer. You only need to hold her off for a little longer.
Exile spins and shoots a volley of her own. You hit the deck as cannonballs whiz overhead, splintering one of the rails and breaking a window. Something stings your arm, and a warmth seeps through your clothing; belatedly, you realize it’s a bullet wound. You curse under your breath and scramble to your feet, yelling, “Hold steady,” although you’re pretty sure your helmstroll abandoned post to avoid taking a cannonball to the mouth.
Tavros pulls up close enough that he’s practically on top of her. Seabull flanks Exile on the other side, and the cannon fire draws to a halt.
You can see him standing on the railing, his pantaloons waving in the wind like violet standards, and even across two ships you can read the goofy grin on his face. He grabs part of Exile’s rigging when it drifts past and uses it to sail onboard, landing with only a little stumble. His crew does the same, boarding with high-pitched, shrieking war cries. The hot liquor of victory warms your chest. You are close! So close!
“Bring her over here,” you shout. This was part of the deal. All of this is fruitless if he just absconds with her.
Crew mates perched on the mast of Dragon’s Eye lasso Exile’s rigging, lacing the ships together with a vast network of rope. The two ships slow to a halt, drifting together aimlessly on the open sea.
A scrimmage takes place on the other deck, and you strain to get a look at what’s going on. You should have made Tavros take you as part of the boarding party. This is intolerable.
Shots ring out, and someone yells. Then Tavros strides over the gangplank, hair ruffled but face jubilant. He’s followed by Terezi Pyrope.
Tavros has put three guards and a pair of prongcuffs on her, which you think is kind of overkill, but whatever, you’ve come too far to object to caution now. They hold her by the elbows, and one walks behind, but she doesn’t struggle, or do anything to suggest noncompliance. She walks with her head held high.
Up close, she’s less glamorous than her profile picture would suggest. Her hair hangs around her shoulders, soaked limp, and she wears an overcoat of blue brocade over a black blouse and pants. Black gloves that hide any scrap of skin below the cuff. Asymmetrical horns — one hooked and one forked, still relatively small, not unlike the rest of her. You have a couple inches on her, easy. She has the cheekbones of a starveling and the eyes of a caged animal.
“Tavros,” she says, well shy of friendly. “You exquisitely hateful buffoon. Has puberty brought you some semblance of competency at last? Please pardon me for a moment; I have a number of shoes to be eating.”
“Hello, Terezi,” he chirrups. “You look terrible!”
As blackflirting goes, it is not terribly sophisticated.
“Did you plan this?”
“No,” you interrupt, stepping forward, because you don’t put it past Tavros to take the credit for your work. “That would be me.”
She gives you a glance that cuts through muscle, cleaves right down to your bones. You feel like she’s taken a scalpel to your thinkpan and is carving out pieces of it, holding them up for inspection, all while you stand there and watch her do it.
“Interesting,” is all she says.
She turns back to Tavros. “Who’s this?”
“This is Vriska. She’s my lieutenant.”
“I thought your right hand was the purpleblood. What’s his face.”
“Sollux is still very much a valued member of my crew! He just happened to not be all that excited, about this particular venture.”
“Also,” she says, “not that it matters: if you’re the leader of a group of water-based forces, you would be considered an admiral, not a general.”
“A very bold claim to make, coming from someone like you, who is not, strictly speaking, either.”
“That’s because I don’t need fifty ships to take down a single opponent,” she says smoothly, and you snort. Tavros’ plaintive stare expresses to you how grave a betrayal this is.
“Well that is good, because, really, you would not know what to do with them if you had them!”
“I would and I do. We’ve worked together on campaigns before, you nigh-comatose waste of trollflesh.”
“I remember! I was there, stupid.”
“You’re calling me stupid.”
“I think, that was the gist of what I said, yes.”
“Tavros,” she says, “you’re so dumb that the idea of you remembering to breathe requires a suspension of disbelief.”
“Yeah,” he says, and “well,” and “at least I don’t dress like a, a cheap Erroul Flynne impersonator,” which is, again, not the best repartee you’ve ever heard.
“Captain,” you interrupt. “I’ve been waiting to meet you.” And fucking damn it, you’d planned what you were going to say to her when you caught her for weeks, perigees, really, but face to face with the genuine article all you can think of is some trite fantroll garbage that makes you sound like a fluttering novice-leaguer. To be fair, you’d counted on getting to talk to her without Tavros’ inept attempts at blackflirting interfering with the process, so it’s not entirely your fault that the circumstances were poor.
“If that was all you wanted,” she says, gesturing around her, “I think a line on Trollian would have sufficed.”
Kanaya says, “Well what do you know. If only there was someone who could have told you that, before you spent weeks poring over naval charts and keeping everyone awake at ungodly hours of the afternoon. Someone in your pale quadrant, perhaps.”
“Kanaya,” you hiss. Your moirail is a backstabbing backstabber who stabs backs.
“Well, that’s flattering.”
“And concerning, but yes.”
“Kanaya, was it?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Tavros says, loudly, “not CONSORTING WITH THE PRISONER, right in front of me, like, right there, I would be, inordinately grateful —”
“Spell ‘consorting,’” Terezi tells him flatly.
“Returning to the subject at hand,” you say, “we are willing to negotiate the terms of your surrender, on the condition that you turn over your ship to us, and all of your crew, and winnings, and et cetera.”
She laughs. “Oh,” she says. “No. No thank you.”
“You don’t seem to understand,” Tavros says. “You are the one, in captivity, here.”
“I understand that perfectly. Just as you should understand that I am not turning over my ships.”
“What part of this, are you having trouble with? We? Vriska and I? Have you cornered.”
“Thanks,” Kanaya deadpans.
“Mm,” Terezi says. “It does appear to be that way.”
“So you either, uh, have to surrender, or, we take it all by force.”
“First of all,” she says, “I don’t have to do jack shit. Second of all: see first of all. Third of all: you are relying on the assumption that you can take it by force, which, frankly, I’d like to see.”
“I do not know, why you are being, so stubborn about this —”
“Hey, you,” she says to you. You snap to attention. “Vriska. It was a good campaign. Well planned. Congratulations; I admire your work.”
“Thanks,” you say, bemused. She nods, and straightens up.
“As pleasant as this has been,” she announces, “I have other things scheduled for tonight. And ‘get taken captive by my incompetent kismesis’ has not, unfortunately, made the list!”
Tavros opens his mouth to object. She takes a step backward, bumping into the chest of her rear guard, and headbutts him squarely in the nose.
Blood sprays everywhere, a mass of vomit-colored viscera, and the guard instinctively drops her to cradle his shattered sniffer. Another one lunges for her, but she sinks her fangs into his wrist when he tries, eliciting a howl, and twists around so that the third guard lands his punch on the second one’s face instead of her. Slipping through the knot of limbs and incompetency, she hops up on the railing and runs along it. Groaning, the Exile starts to move.
Several crew members draw their weapons, but Tavros yells, “Don’t shoot,” and they hold their fire. You’re torn between gratitude and fury; on the one hand, you don’t want her dead, either, but on the other, their kismesis is making everything a lot harder than it needs to be.
“She is getting away,” Kanaya says.
“No shit, Troll Sherlock!” You shove aside the crew in your way and take off after her. Having almost reached the quarterdeck, she runs across the gangplank as it begins to slide off the rail of the Exile and makes a last jump to safety on her own ship.
Tavros watches, dumbfounded, as she rolls to her feet, hands still cuffed, and flashes him a vindictive grin. Her ship builds up speed, quickly dislodging the boarding planks balanced over the gap between vessels and dropping them to the ocean below. The ropes connecting the Exile to the Dragon’s Eye strain, pull taut, and then snap with cracks like gunfire overhead, trailing in Exile’s wake as she gets away. Even with your crew mobilizing at top speed to start pursuit, she’ll still have a few minutes’ head start, which is all she needs, with a ship like hers, to outdo you thoroughly.
It occurs to you that the situation is unsalvageable. You’ve failed. She’s going to escape.
Your legs carry you up the stairs of the quarterdeck, sprinting apart from the group, ignoring the shouts that come from behind you. You leap up, putting one foot on your rail, and use it as leverage to shove yourself off.
For a moment, you’re airborne. The jump carries you halfway across the gap, soaring high over the ocean; time slows, and then you find yourself descending, arms wheeling, tumbling through the air just like the downed featherbeast you are not.
Your hands grab and snag at the ropes dangling off the forecastle. You miss once, twice, and then you wrap your fingers around the edge of the longest piece, and it snaps taut as it bears your weight. Rope burn sears your palm and your hand ignites, as if you’d plunged it into a nest of coals. You swing around, borne by the force of your weight, and slam into the side of the ship so forcefully you think you feel something crack in your thorax.
The Exile speeds away from the Dragon’s Eye. You catch a glimpse of Kanaya leaning off the quarterdeck, stricken, but then the ship takes a curve, and she slides out of view.
Wind buffets you back and forth, knocking you into the hull of the ship. You contemplate your options. Number One: you stay like this indefinitely, holding on to the end of the rope, until the Exile makes port somewhere and you can conceivably swim ashore, which will happen God knows when. You don’t know how far it is to their next planned stop, or if they even plan to stop in the next few nights; for all you know, they could be heading to the other side of the Boric Sea, and you could be hanging here all the way.
The other option is to climb up and face them, and hope they don’t kill you for being there. Not a pleasant idea. But there is a distinct possibility that otherwise, you’ll hang out here until you fall off from exhaustion, and then drown from the same. At least you can negotiate with Pyrope; the same can’t be said of the sea.
Taking a deep breath, you start to climb.
It’s slow. Your arm strength is mediocre on the best of days, and today is far from your best day. Still, inch by inch, you haul yourself up the rope. Your muscles ache with the effort and your palms hurt like bitches, but there isn’t an alternative, so minute by minute, you persevere.
After almost an hour, you approach the top. You don’t think you’ve ever been this fucking tired, especially from just the one activity. The last couple inches feel harder than the rest of the climb combined. But at last, you get an arm around the railing, and with one last burst of effort, haul yourself over the edge and tumble onto the quarterdeck.
You just lay there for a minute, breathing hard. The rope slithers back over the railing and falls to the water with a muffled splash. You gulp lungfuls of air, wallowing in your exhaustion.
A gun clicks.
You look up. Seven trolls form a circle around you, three with arms trained on your face. Terezi stands in the center, her hands in her pockets, watching you with an expression that is one part irritation and two parts amusement.
“I was wondering how long it would take,” she says. She checks her watch. “Mark: seventeen twenty-three.”
“Fuck yeah,” says the troll next to her, a bulky tealblood with piercings running up and down his horns and one strip of black hair running down the center of his head. “Pay up, Captain.”
“How much is that? Five?”
She pulls a denarius from her pocket and flips it in his direction. He catches it in the air and tucks it in his pocket.
“There’s your bonus,” she says, a little teasing.
“This makes my bonus look like caegar pieces and lint.”
“Don’t play martyr. It doesn’t suit you.”
She steps forward and holds out her hand to you, unexpectedly cordial. You eye it warily. There doesn’t seem to be any trick to it, though, so you accept the offer and haul yourself to your feet.
Her gloves are velvet-soft leather, with rough pads on the fingertips and heel of the palm for traction.
“Welcome aboard the Exile,” she says.
The ship is grand. The double masts occupy a considerable portion of the deck, leaving relatively thin alleys through which crew members scurry; the floor is polished oak, stained dark from wet and wear, almost black from age. Two sets of iron stairs, curved elegantly, trail down from the quarterdeck. The sails, long sheaths of greying fabric with the Scorpio sigil embroidered in cerulean, waver gently in the breeze. The ship rocks on the water with the ease of a bassinet.
Terezi says, “Your specibus, if you please.”
You hesitate long enough for her expression to cloud. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s have a little respect between adversaries. I want your weapon, not your dignity.”
Soldiers on the left flank. Soldiers on the right. She could order it taken by force, easily, if you played stubborn, and you’d have gained nothing but a square, old-fashioned beatdown.
You decaptchalogue your coin and hold it out. Mohawk steps forward to collect, but she intercedes, taking it herself and inspecting it curiously.
“You use bladekind,” she says. “This isn’t.”
“I use coinkind. That’s it. You can search me, if you want.”
She turns it over in her fingers, then slides it into her pocket. “And your palmhusk,” she requests.
You hand that over, too. She gives it a once-over, checks the model, and then tosses it into the ocean. You make a noise of protest.
“Thank you for your cooperation. It is greatly appreciated. Mallek, escort Ms. Serket to the guestblock.”
The kid’s face pinches in confusion. “Cap’n, we don’t have a—”
She gives him a look that makes no bones about her disappointment.
“Oh,” he says. “Yeah. That guestblock.”
He grabs you by the elbow, hauls you down the stairs. You stumble after him, attempting to squirm out of his grip, intent on preserving at least your autonomy. You resent being dragged. You could’ve walked yourself, just fine.
Terezi turns to discuss something with one of her crew, and you wrestle yourself away from Mallek just long enough to grab her attention. “Hey,” you call. “Hey, listen — I have information! Information to trade — if you let me go, we can —”
She glances at you, but continues speaking. Then Mallek shoves you down the last few steps to the cabins, and you tumble into the dark.
Your name is VRISKA SERKET.
You are a master of EXTREME ROLE PLAYING. You can’t get enough of it, or really any game of high stakes and chance. You have persisted with the habit even in spite of the dangers it poses to your health and that of those around you, or perhaps — probably — because of it.
Your lusus is an egg. This poses a variety of questions up front, most of them along the lines of “how does that work” and “is that a thing? that can’t be a thing,” but it most assuredly is. She shared words with you via telepathic communion, in your early years, but of late, she hasn’t done much talking. The last real conversation you had was the one about Neophyte Redglare. She explained the concept of ancestors, and then took a swan dive into a long stretch of radio silence. But for all her inability to communicate, she’s a good lusus. She’s a kind lusus. And she was kind to you.
You began FLARP as a way to distract yourself from your lusus’ periodic quiet stretches, and then, later, as an application of your more strategic talents. It also offers an arena to begin practice for your employment with THE CRUELEST BAR, a job you seek to emulate your noble and WAY COOL ancestor. Your victories supply you with treasure, experience points, and JUSTICE.
You take an interest in justice, holding particular fascination for ORCHESTRATING THE DEMISE OF THE WICKED. You have taken up study of BRUTAL ALTERNIAN LAW, and surround yourself with legal books. Until Conscription, however, your outlets for expressing this passion are limited to the FLARP arena.
On that subject, the pursuit of one CAPTAIN TEREZI PYROPE — FLARP multiplayer league champion, four half-sweeps running, and FLARP solo league champion twice previous — was the most recent demonstration of your talent. She is renowned throughout the naval FLARP arenas for her particular skill in stratagems, craftiness in battle, and vindictive talent for bending the rules to her advantage, which is why you selected her as your target in this latest outing.
This may have been a mistake, in retrospect. Taking on the number one player in the league with only a sweep of experience yourself does not, with the benefit of hindsight, seem a very good idea. But you can say this for yourself: you dream big. And Pyrope being one of your FLARP idols contributed in no small part to your fantasies of her capture.
Which is how you ended up in this situation.
The guestblock, as it turns out, is a fun, playful name for the brig. It’s a damp square of wood and iron that barely gives you enough room to stretch your legs out all the way, and the ceiling drips. The porthole window isn’t above water, so the only view you have is water, more water, the occasional fish, and yet more water still.
You spend a total of four hours in it. At the bottom of the fifth, the tealblood first mate — Mallek, Terezi called him — comes tromping down the stairs and shoves a key into the lock, freeing you with a dour lack of enthusiasm.
“Hey, Four-Eyes,” he says, which does not exactly draw blood, as insults go, but you let it slide. “Captain wants to see you.”
The captain’s cabin is luxurious. Its walls are warm wood, with a set of bay windows at the far end, and her desk is comfortably large; it bears an ornate sapphire lamp, a small model of the Exile, and several stacks of documents. The window is open, and fragrant air wafts into the cabin. You take a furtive sniff; it’s still salt, which means you haven’t left open sea.
Terezi sits at her desk, scribbling away at a ledger with a blue pen. Without her overcoat, she looks even smaller, the narrow breadth of her shoulders made apparent. The cuffs on her wrists are studded gold. A ring of the same material punctures the cartilage of her upper ear. She’s bedecked like an old-timey gamblignant queen, blinged out and imperious.
You hang around in the doorway, waiting for her to take notice. When she displays no such inclination, you take a stroll around the cabin, examining some of the decorations. A map table sits in the corner, layered with navigational charts. They’re covered in chalk notes, lines drawn and crossed out and redrawn, certain ports circled, others marked with red Xs.
The walls are covered in framed newsfeed articles and leaderboard records, dating back as far as the beginning of her career. You recognize a number of them from your trollhunt wall back home, but some others you’ve never heard of — tiny victories, from her early days of conquest. In between these are a collection of photographs: Terezi as a plump wriggler, Terezi during her first acne-speckled molt; Terezi standing amidst a group of strangers, all doing a kitschy ‘bite the medal’ pose; Terezi holding the trophy for the FLARP Solo Player World Cup, alone; Terezi, smiling, next to a gap-toothed, bushy-haired stranger and a seadweller kid with a kind of dopey grin.
“Holy shit,” you mumble, because that’s Tavros, Tavros at what can’t be more than five sweeps old, and they’re all sandwiched in a frame together like the best of friends. The girl between them has one arm slung over both their shoulders and positively glows at the camera, which astounds you. Terezi’s smile is an odd thing. It’s genuine, bright, toothy. You barely recognize it as kin to the cold little thing she offered earlier. It makes her look happy.
“Are you looking at the one with Tavros?”
You startle. She hasn’t lifted her oculars from her task, but her pen has slowed down a bit.
“Yeah,” you say. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snoop —”
You wait for a caveat or reprimand, but it never comes. She keeps scratching away at the page, and you gradually return to your perusal of her history.
The third party is a stranger, sporting an asymmetrical rack remarkably like Terezi’s: one pointed, one hooked. The photo’s aged to the point of sepia-stained achromatism, so you can’t get a bead on her blood color, but from the hue of her jacket, you’re willing to bet it’s some shade of green.
“That’s Nepeta,” Terezi says. “You wouldn’t recognize her.”
“She stopped playing half a sweep ago.”
“But she did play.”
“Not often. She preferred the dramatic aspect to the combative one.” She makes a final note and blows on the ink to cool it. “We still talk, sometimes.”
You try not to appear curious. You’re bad at it.
“She’s my auspistice,” Terezi adds, and you startle.
“Tavros never said you two had an auspistice.”
“That would make sense, seeing as he resents it.” She caps her pen and leans back in her chair, resting her weight on one elbow. “He and Nepeta have some differences of opinion as to what constitutes proper conduct for a kismesis.”
You want to press, but don’t think it would be appreciated.
She nods at your arm. “Do you need to get that looked at?”
You glance at it. It occurs to you that the strip of shirt you used to bind the bullet graze may or may not be an effective remedy to your wound.
“Tell Mallek when you go back down below. He’ll see to it that you’re treated.”
She sets down her pen and picks up your coin. “This,” she says, “is a very curious weapon. I’ve been trying to get it to activate for the past three hours, with no success. Is it print-locked?”
“No.” You restrain some amusement. “Have you tried tossing it?”
“What do you mean.”
“Tossing it. Flipping it. Like you’re playing cranium or posterior.” You mime the motion. “Try that.”
She balances it on her thumbclaw and flicks. It leaps high in the air, tumbling end over end, and then clatters to the deck. A flash subsumes the block, and when it clears, she holds a long-barreled gun, carved in dark aquamarine.
Intrigued, she fiddles with some of the catches. “This isn’t a sword.”
“No. You’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of either.”
“And if you happen to need one over the other?”
“Have good luck,” you suggest, and she laughs quietly.
Twisting the barrel back into place, she turns, aims it out the open window, and fires. The bullet flies through the narrow square between sill and glass, striking the water in a cloud of spray a ways out.
“It’s real,” she says, a bit surprised.
“Guns do tend to make more effective weapons that way.”
“I wasn’t sure.” She settles it into her lap. “It’s remarkable. And how do you turn it back to the coin?”
“If it leaves your hand, it reverts. Prevents other people from stealing in in battle.”
She sets it on her desk and lifts her hand. White light flares from it, momentarily blinding the both of you, and then it clears, leaving your coin, scratched and plain as ever.
“Incredible,” she says, and she sounds like she means it. “That’s — an incredible example of transmutation, actually. How did you come by it?”
“It was my ancestor’s.”
“Ancestor,” she repeats.
“Yeah. Neophyte Redglare, you heard of her?”
“If I remember my schoolfeeding. If you’re right, this is an invaluable item.” She lifts the coin between her thumb and forefinger. “I don’t recognize the design.”
“It’s an Imperial drachma. That face is the previous Empress.”
“There is no previous Empress,” she says. It’s a schoolfeed adage: your Empress is the only Empress, and the only Empress that ever was. But historically, it’s not true. There were rulers before her. Not much evidence of it, but Neophyte Redglare served under one.
“Well, it’s either that or some fuschiablood was going around minting her own money. Look, you can see the Peixes sigil behind the profile — and it’s years before the Empress was crowned.”
“That makes the coin older than Redglare,” Terezi points out. You falter.
“I — I guess, yeah.”
“The Neophyte was born a hundred and fifty sweeps after the death of the Nameless Heretic, who lead a resistance movement built around opposition to the Condesce. In order for her to have owned the coin, she would have had to inherit it from a different maker, probably someone predating the Nameless Heretic by hundreds of sweeps at least.”
“If that’s true,” you say, “she doesn’t say anything about it in her journals.”
“You have Redglare’s journals?”
“Some of them,” you amend.
Terezi considers this, and you. “For someone wearing a legislacerator’s uniform,” she says, “you own an awful lot of contraband.”
“It’s not contraband. It’s hatchright.” Hastily, you correct, “Redglare’s journals are a matter of public record, anyway, they aren’t —”
“Public record restricted to high-level bureaucretin clearance. How do you have them?”
“Technically, nothing about them is heretical or anticasteist. So they don’t violate the Sedition Act of 8828 —”
“Do you think a legislacerator would spare you based on that reasoning?”
It cuts you down. “No,” you falter, after a while.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.” She shrugs. “A little contraband now and then never hurt anybody.”
“That’s patently untrue.”
“Ha! But not for trolls like you and me,” she laughs, and you look up sharply.
“Trolls like you and me?”
“Winners,” she elaborates. “Strategists. Survivors.”
“Oh.” You mull over the suggestion of you two being alike. You’d be lying if you said it didn’t warm you, just a little bit, even as it unnerved you.
“I recognized you from the leaderboards.”
“Once Tavros identified you. I don’t follow the solo charts anymore, but I was under the impression that you didn’t play team FLARP.”
“I usually don’t.” The reality — which is that you shifted styles specifically to chase her — sounds like something ripped out of a caliginous porno, so you go with the less incriminating, “I wanted a challenge.”
“I hope I presented an adequate one.”
It dabbles just on the shallow end of pitch flirting, and you feel awkward as all hell. “Yes,” you settle on. “I mean, I didn’t actually succeed, so.”
“You came close. That’s worth something.”
“I suppose so.” She tilts her head. “Was it because of my ranking?”
“Wh— not really, no. I mean, that’s how I knew about you. But it was more your reputation than anything else.”
“I wasn’t aware I had a reputation in the solo leagues.”
“You have a reputation everywhere,” you say, before you can stop yourself. Immediately thereafter you fight the temptation to fling yourself out the window.
“Would it be gauche to ask you to say more?” She seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself. You realize that Terezi is a little bit malicious, but also a little bit funny.
“They’re scared shitless,” you say. “They say you can control minds.”
She grins. “Do they.”
“Yes.” At her amusement, you’re ashamed to have almost believed it. “I mean, all kind of stories crop up around big name FLARP players. They said I could smell fear, for a while, in the novice leagues.”
“No,” you say. “Obviously. That’s not a thing anybody can do.”
“I’d be careful making that kind of statement. The universe has a way of fucking over anyone confident enough to make claims about what’s possible and what’s not.”
“Well, if I ever meet anyone with a nose for feelings, I’ll let you know that you were right.”
She chuckles under her breath. You wait in silence for a moment. The ship rocks beneath you, and the sea foam lashes at the window. You catch sight of a coastline through the glass, a fine line of white sand, and realize that you must be approaching the destination.
Terezi crosses her legs. You take the opportunity to perch on the arm of one of the chairs opposite her desk, trying and failing not to be awkward.
She asks, “Do you know how to play Questions?”
You school your face.
“How do you play that?”
The corner of her lips twitch.
“Have you played before?”
“Does a larkbeast sing?”
“Rhetoric.” She snaps her fingers at you. “One-love.”
“Damnit. Your serve?”
“Does the winner serve?”
“Do you have the rulebook?”
“Is there a rulebook?”
“Who would know?”
“Why should I?”
“Because —” She cuts herself off and frowns.
You crow. “Hesitation! One-all.”
She uncrosses her legs and sits up. “Do you think you can beat me?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you the same question?”
“Aren’t interrogatives cheating?”
“Are you aware that’s rhetoric?”
“That was not.”
“Statement. Two-one,” you crow.
Her mouth falls opens in outrage. “That’s cheating,” she accuses, stabbing a finger at you.
“Statement again. Three-one and game.”
She chokes a laugh that’s two parts amazement and one part frustration. “You don’t play fair.”
“Where in the rules does it say I have to?”
A retort — or perhaps another question — is on the tip of her tongue, when a knock comes on the door. She breathes a curt sigh of irritation, and calls, “Come in.”
Mallek inches the door open and sticks his head through the crevice. “Approaching the Ivory Hold, Captain,” he announces. “Neophyte.”
Terezi stands. “Drop anchor,” she announces. “Ready the landing boats.”
“About twenty minutes to boats drop, sir.”
“Lovely. Dismissed.” He ducks out.
She stands and slides her overcoat off the back of her chair. “You should head back to the brig,” she tells you. “We’ll be heading out.”
You bristle. “The brig,” you say. “Really? What am I going to do? What safety threat, exactly, am I?”
“I’m not going to insult either of our intelligences by pretending that’s a legitimate question,” she says, and swings her coat over her shoulder. “You go back to the brig until we’re done. Then we’ll figure out what to do with you.”
“What, exactly, is your game?” You fling your hands wide. “Are you going to keep me prisoner forever? You won the FLARP match. You don’t lose anything from letting me go.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“And how long is it going to take for you to decide?”
“I’ll let you know once I’ve decided,” she says, and she’s definitely being irritating on purpose. “In general, it’s bad form to let your enemy walk away.”
“What if we make a deal?”
“Ah, brilliant. I let you go, and you pinky swear that you’ll help me out at some later date. You’ve solved the problem.”
You fold your arms. “At least let me off the boat,” you complain. “Your brig? It sucks. It’s shitty.”
“I forgot to tell the contractor that prisoner comfort was on the must-have list.”
“Do you think you can’t handle me if I try to escape?”
“Your appeal to my pride is as transparent as it is unsuccessful.”
“Well, I’ve already tried your common sense, so I’m running out of options!”
“Do you really want to come?” She cocks her head. “I don’t know why you would. If everything goes well, it’ll be nothing interesting.”
“I want to get off this fucking boat and do something besides count the bars on your brig,” you say. “Tell me I can’t be useful, and I’ll sit on my ass without complaint until you come back.”
She surveys you, resting the tip of her pen between her teeth. You feel like you did when she first saw you, stripped down to your bare bones. There is something amicable in her expression, though, when she says:
“Fine. Stay close.”
The Exile drops anchor at least half a mile out from a dark pink beach. Jungle erupts from the land just a few meters away from the ocean, and is layered thick, like no troll’s ever bothered trying to settle it. Beyond the beach, it stretches out for miles, a chaotic mass of vivid green and technicolor flowers, so bright it almost hurts your eyes to look at. The sand coats the whole coastline, bordered by cliffs on either side which shield the cove from winds coming up off the sea. The only sign of habitation is the hive that sits on the beach: a square sandstone fortress, tall as three drones stacked on top of each other, with ridged parapets and proper towers marking all four corner posts. It looks like it was copy-pasted from a wriggler’s fantasy book. Which, you guess, it well might have been.
“What a hive,” you snigger.
Terezi, a bit stiffly, says, “I can see the appeal.”
“Is this what highbloods do with the drones? What do you need that many blocks for?”
“If you have unlimited access to the constructor drones, it seems a waste to —”
“Yes,” Mallek interrupts. “Yes, that’s what they do with them. A shame, isn’t it.”
You, Terezi, and Mallek occupy one rowboat, manned by a handful of crew, while a second rowboat holds the remainder of the landing party. Mallek plays coxswain, calling out “Row!” with increasing rapidity. His pace escalates from brisk to brutal with alarming speed.
Your boat pulls ahead of the second, their rowers setting a brutal pace. “Ha!” Mallek cries, flipping the featherbeast at the other rowboat. “Get good, you fucking scrubs!”
“Mallek,” Terezi says patiently.
“Be that as it may.”
The beach draws closer. The boat strikes a current and some water laps over the edge, soaking through your shoes. You try to shuffle closer to the center of the bench without jostling Terezi, who sits on the other side. To distract yourself, you ask, “So I assume someone actually lives there.”
“You’d be right.” She reaches under the bench and draws out a duffle bag, which she slings over one shoulder. “That belongs to Tagora Gorjek,” she says. “He’s the liege lord of this territory, and owns a lot of the nearby waters. He’s a tactical friend to have, seeing as he owns the channel connecting the Boric to the Damaran Sea, which means he makes a killing off tolls.”
“He’s also richer than God,” Mallek chimes in.
“So are we paying respects?”
“No,” she laughs. “No, I owe him a good deal of money.”
“Oh.” The boat runs adrift on the sand with a jerk. She jumps from the side and lands knee-deep in the water with a small splash, starting off in the castle’s direction. You scramble after her. “Are you here to pay it off?”
“No, not nearly. I’m here to negotiate the terms of the loan.”
Mallek says, “We’re not paying that scrublord a single caegar, and that’s a promise.”
“But if you owe him a debt —”
“Does the prisoner get an opinion? I don’t think prisoner gets an opinion.”
“To the point,” Terezi intervenes, “the loan he provided us was granted in exchange for thirty percent of all proceeds won in FLARP matches thereafter, the sum total of which has by now far eclipsed the original amount of the loan. In the simplest sense, we have paid back his investment richly.”
“Thirty percent is robbery,” you exclaim. “I know highbloods who charge less than that for sponsorships—”
“Thirty percent for a loan that is offered indiscriminately,” Terezi clarifies, “and without collateral.”
Your thinkpan runs this over, trying to get a handle on the terms of such an agreement. “That’s an unfeasible business practice,” you say. “There’s no way you could make money doing that. You’d be shilling out aureii to every wriggler with a FLARP account.”
She shrugs. “If a troll defaults on a loan, it’s a culling sentence,” she says. “I believe that tracking down stray debtors may be part of the appeal, for him.”
“So there is collateral,” you say. She gives you an indecipherable look.
“I suppose that’s right,” she agrees. “Anyway, we’ve been late on the last few interest payments. He’s been more aggressive with his debt collectors. With this meeting, we aim to settle the score. Preferably using a diplomatic approach.”
You note the sheath strapped to her hip. “You’re armed,” you point out.
“Have you ever done business with a highblood, Vriska?”
You shake your head. You bartered with Tavros to get his help with your campaign; other than that, you stay out of most highbloods’ way.
“A word to the wise,” she says. “I’ve met very few who believed in peaceful negotiations. It’s in your best interests not to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“That seems contrary to the idea of diplomacy.”
“Yes, it is,” she agrees readily, and picks up her pace. The duffle bag clinks quietly.
“What’s in the bag?”
“A gift,” she says. “To grease the wheels, so to speak.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Mallek and the crew split apart from you and Terezi, and head into the jungle. “Hey,” you point out, “where are they going?”
“They’re using a different entrance to the building. They have a private meeting with one of Tagora’s quadrants, for separate purposes.”
“I reiterate,” she says, “You’ll see soon enough.”
Tegora Gorjek is a narrow slip of a person with all the appeal of a rotting fish, and that’s more or less your whole of your opinion on him.
From the look of him, he can’t be less than seven or eight sweeps old, which means Conscription can’t be far off for him. He’s a scrappy blueblood with horns that stand out and curve away from his head like a pair of handlebars, eyebrows for a troll and a half, and a greasy lock of hair obscures his face. The rest of his hair hangs around his neck in some bizarre cousin to the mullet. He wears a waistcoat and pinstriped pants, which are not the un-douchiest of clothes on the best of days, but rise to new heights of dickishness when worn by someone who clearly thinks shampoo is optional.
“Terezi Pyrope,” he shrieks, when she strolls through the door. More than a dozen guards linger in the corners of his office, shooting her furtively suspicious looks, and one shuts the door behind you when you walk in. “Of all people! Color me shocked.”
“Your lookout would have told you I was coming,” she points out, settling smoothly in one of the chairs before his desk.
“My lookouts? They’re useless! Don’t tell me anything. This is a shock. What do you have there?”
She pulls a bottle of wine from the duffle. He grabs it immediately, squinting at the label. “Oh, goodness. This is lovely stuff. Is this 9001? You’re too nice.”
“It was your wriggling day yesterday, as I remember,” she says. “I’m sorry to have missed it.”
Cautiously, you sit down beside her. Tagora pulls a bottle-opener from his desk drawer and pops open the vintage, dumping out his coffee mug on the floor beside him and refilling it. He doesn’t offer either of you a glass, which doesn’t surprise you.
“I have the worst hangover,” he complains. “I had people over yesterday to celebrate. Sweet time. Terrible comedown. You know what they say about hair of the barkbeast.” He toasts her and drinks. Almost half the glass vanishes down his gullet in one go, and he refills it.
“So,” he says, settling into his chair. “I suppose you’re here about the debt.”
“Yes,” she says. “I want you to cancel it.”
He barks a laugh. “Good one,” he says.
“I don’t recall having told a joke,” she says.
“Oh. You’re serious. Well, let me be equally direct: no.”
“I had hoped you would reconsider. We have ample incentives to offer you that would make it worth your while.”
“Incentives? Don’t make me laugh.”
“I have not endeavored to.”
He blows a breath through his lips. His beady eyes scrutinize her over the top of the wineglass.
“You owe me quite a lot of aureii,” he says.
She shrugs. “Our definitions of ‘a lot’ may be different,” she says. “As I recall, the debt was five.”
“You find me a troll who’d say that’s not a lot of money, Pyrope.”
“In comparison with the amount I’ve paid you, over the sweeps? Most would.”
Sweeps? You try to figure out how old she was when she took out the loan; she’s six now, so you struggle to imagine her age when she came to him in the first place.
“And yet, for some reason, you’ve failed to pay me back.”
“We don’t pay you in aureii,” she says. “You know that. You’re aware of how our deal works. We give you small increments every perigee —”
“I don’t want small increments. I’m sick and tired of small increments. You can’t just default on a payment because you think you’ve paid it off.”
“The reason we have not paid our last few installments,” she reasons, “is because we feel that we have more than paid back the due of the loan, and have interpreted the terms of the contract to mean —”
“Because you’re running an illegal outfit,” you interrupt. If looks could kill, the one Tagora sends you would disintegrate you on the spot. Terezi’s makes him look downright friendly.
Nevertheless, because you are known for your perseverance and not known for your common sense, you press forward. “Imperial loans are offered on basis of caste. Any rival creditors running practices deemed competitive to Imperial business are illegal as of the Fiscal Credit Act of 8998. And offering loans indiscriminately is a flagrantly competitive policy. If the C-IRS knew what kind of cabal you were running, you’d have a pair of legislacerators on your doorstep tomorrow.”
He stares at you. “Who the fuck is this?”
Terezi pauses before answering this. “My associate,” she says. “Who is . . . absolutely correct.”
You shouldn’t be proud. You really shouldn’t be proud. Of course, you are anyway.
“You’re not seriously threatening to go to the legislacerators,” he snickers. “Your record might as well be one big inkstain. If you take me down, you can bet your ass they’re coming after you as soon as I can get a legislacerator’s ear.”
“I’m not threatening anything,” she says simply. “We’re merely explaining why the terms of your agreement have become unconscionable to us, and for the sake of our own security, we’d prefer to stay on the right side of the law, this once.”
She steeples her fingers. “How about this,” she suggests. “We will give you a sizable incentive to cancel the loan.”
“We’re prepared to offer you a settlement of ten aureii and several valuable artifacts, in addition to a treaty of support from several allies, to nullify the contract. As you can see, this is an offer far more generous than that outlined in the original exit clause, and we urge —”
“No,” he says. “No, no. I’m sorry. There’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t want your money.”
“Let’s not be hasty. I have quite a lot of it.”
“I have more.” He drums his fingers on the desk and refuses to offer any elaboration. She waits until it becomes apparent that he’s teasing at the question.
“I presume there is something you do want, then.”
“Yes.” He traces his finger around the rim of the wineglass delicately, refusing to look her in the eye. It comes off as irritatingly coy. “You.”
“I’m flattered. But I already have a kismesis, and frankly, I just don’t feel the same way.”
Annoyance flits across his face. “Dead,” he elaborates, and she mulls this over.
“Oh,” she says. “That’s inconvenient.”
“Not really.” He makes a hand signal at the guards, and they draw their weapons. You fall into a defensive stance by instinct, but without your coin, it feels silly.
Terezi doesn’t bother drawing her sword. Nor does she look behind her, even, to see what Tagora’s trolls are doing. “Are you going to do it now?” she asks. “I didn’t expect it to be so soon. Where’s the ceremony?”
“It’s right here, pupa. This is all the ceremony I need.”
“My death can’t possibly be as satisfying as ten aureii. Although it’s terribly kind of you to suppose it.”
“Killing you is more impressive than having ten aureii. And I can always get more aureii somewhere else.”
“I mean, that’s true,” she concedes. One of the guards draws his gun on her head and nestles the barrel at the base of her cranium. At that, she does peer behind her. You stand up in alarm, and she gestures at you curtly to sit down.
“Unless your guard is really incapable of hitting his target at anything less than point-blank range,” she says, “I politely ask that he back up a little. That’s a .357 Magnus; if he pulls the trigger right now, the momentum is going to carry the bullet through my skull and paint your desk blue. And those do look like important documents.”
Tagora sneers at her. But he also nods at the guard, who shuffles back a few steps. You ease up, just a fraction.
“If you’re resolved to kill me,” she says, “could I have a moment to set my affairs in order? My crew won’t know what happened, you see. If you don’t want them to storm your office and make an awful lot of trouble, it’s in your best interests to let me ward them off.”
His eyes narrow, but he rolls his shoulders with aggressive distaste and slumps back in his chair. “Fine,” he says. “Make it quick.”
Terezi pulls her palmhusk from her pocket and taps out a few commands on it.
“Sorry for the interruption,” she adds. A dial tone rings, and the troll on the end picks up immediately.
“Adalov.” Mallek’s voice swells from the thing’s tiny speaker.
“Mallek,” she says calmly.
“How are you? Is everything well where you are?”
“In perfect condition.”
“That’s good to hear. That’s very good to hear. Mallek, if I die, I would like you to slit Azdaja Knelax’s throat.”
“Yessir,” he says, without hesitation.
Tagora falters. He recovers with a snort, and then laughs, but it’s got a hard edge to it. “Weak,” he says. “Even I can see through that one. I’ve pulled stunts just like it. You think I can’t smell hoofbeast shit when you’re spraying it?”
“You think I’m bluffing?”
“I know you’re bluffing. Pyrope, you can hang up, it’s just pathetic at this point.”
“Mallek,” she says.
“Could you put Mr. Knelax on the palmhusk, please.”
A shuffling from the other end of the line, evidencing that the husk is changing hands. Then, a high-pitched crackle of a voice, as rough as dead channel static and twice as irritating: “Tagora? Tagora, is that you? Tagora, listen, please, I —”
The color drains out of Tagora’s face like paint in the rain.
“—they’re here, they have me — I don’t know how — the guards can’t help, one of them has me by the neck — Tagora, please —”
“You can take the palmhusk back now, Mallek,” Terezi says.
Another transfer, and Mallek reappears. “Yessir,” he reports.
“How are things over there?”
“A bit of a situation, but nothing impossible. We’re outnumbered, but we have Knelax, so it’s not like they can do anything to us.”
“Well done and well assessed.” She pulls the husk away from her mouth. “I wonder if Mr. Gorjek has anything he would like to say to his kismesis. It’s a shame we’ll never now.”
“You fucking bitch,” he snarls.
“That’s poor sportsmanship, Tagora. Also a rather bold accusation, for someone who was about to kill me in cold blood. Anyway, this is your decision. If you let us go and settle all debts, you and Azdaja can go right back to blissful hateship, easy as pastry.” She taps the edge of her palmhusk idly. “Or we can go the other way. Ultimately, I know which way I’d prefer — it’s the one where I keep my thinkpan inside my skull — but the ball is in your court.”
“You’re not going anywhere, you piss-poor gamblignant sack of shit.”
“Well, I don’t think I need to explain what happens, in that case.” She puts the palmhusk to her ear. “Mallek, things are moving a bit slowly up here. Please remove one finger from Mr. Knelax’s left hand.”
“For every thirty seconds that I remain captive, remove another.”
“Yessir.” Another clatter, like the husk is being put down, and the distinct sound of a blade being drawn from its sheath.
“Wait,” Tagora blurts. Movement on the end of the line stills. Terezi lifts an eyebrow, but does not belay the order.
“Let him go first,” he says. “Then I’ll set you free.”
She shakes her head. “That was not the deal offered.”
“I’m not taking the deal offered.”
“Mallek,” she drawls, and echoed by the customary yessir. “I changed my mind. If Tagora has not freed us within ten minutes, kill Azdaja. Don’t bother with the fingers.”
“You owe me enough money to finance a fucking Imperial squadron, Pyrope, you’re walking out of here over my dead fucking body—”
“I’d be happy to do that, too, but there’s an easier way for both of us. Belay that order; make it five minutes, Mallek.”
“I am not letting you go,” Tagora shrieks, and Terezi shrugs.
“All right. It’s not my kismesis with a knife at his throat.”
“I’ll have you killed!”
“I was under the impression that you were going to do that anyway.”
“I’ll have you buried! I’ll have everyone you ever cared about hunted down like scurrybeasts and hung, I’ll have your lusus decapitated —”
Something flashes across Terezi’s face. It’s gone before you can analyze it, but you know it was there — something besides calm disaffection, something ugly. Something horrid and real. It unnerves you.
“Mallek,” she says. “Kill him in one minute.”
“Terezi,” you say, “Azdaja is a highblood. He’s purple. You can’t just —”
“So arrest me,” she says, meeting your eyes. Her tone carries perfect confidence that you won’t.
You grind your teeth, but hold your vocalization sponge. Tagora stares at the palmhusk, face writ with fury.
A second passes. You want to grab him by the dumb handlebar horn and bash his face into the desk just to knock some sentence into him, scream: If there ever was a time to play cluckbeast, now is not it!
“You won’t do it,” he decides.
Instead of answering, she lifts the husk to her mouth and says, “At your leisure, Officer.”
Mallek barely falters before snapping off a “Yes, Cap’n.”
A wet snickt comes from the other end of the line. Some gurgling, which is quickly muffled, and then a thud.
Tagora’s mouth works aimlessly. “Azdaja,” he says, a bit weak.
“A shame,” Terezi agrees.
Mallek’s voice comes back, reedy and somewhat stressed. “Okay, Captain,” he says. “Guy’s dead. Guards are advancing. Uh, could use an assist.” A scuffle occurs. You hear the scrape of steel on steel, and he repeats, “Captain? Captain? I repeat: could use some assistance! Could use backup, just about — just about now —”
She hangs up. A piece of ice settles in your stomach.
“If you ever thought you were leaving this hive,” he says, “you were dead fucking wrong.”
“There must be some way to negotiate this.”
“I’m going to kill every single member of your crew,” he swears, “slowly. And that snide fuck responsible for Azdaja’s death is coming in dead last, so he can watch.”
“Doubtful,” she says. “On all counts. Are you at all interested in diplomacy? We still have a chance to keep fatalities at a minimum.”
He signals his guards. They advance, and you shuffle closer to Terezi to avoid being trampled.
“For your own sake,” she adds.
“Any chance of that went down the load gaper when you killed my kismesis,” he sneers. “You’re going to rot in jail, Pyrope. Your crew is going to die, and you’re going to wish you had let me kill you when you had the chance.”
“Would you be willing to reconsider?”
He laughs. Then he spits in her face.
The gob lands right on her cheek. She lifts her hand and, delicately, mildly, wipes it off with one gloved finger. She sighs.
“It takes a lot of effort to do this,” she says.
His brow tightens. Before he can speak, one of his guards draws his gun and shoots two others at point blank range.
A cacophony of shouts almost deafens you, nigh instantaneously. You duck and crouch behind one of the guest chairs, but you needn’t have — the rogue troll has no interest in you, instead focusing on picking off his former peers. He fires a third shot at a bulky ivyblood near the door, but someone else grabs his wrist and wrenches it off course, sending the shot wide and into the doorframe. It splinters. The gunfire sends your eardrums ringing, and you clap your hands over your auriculars, although it does little.
Another guard, this one half the shooter’s size, lunges for him with a knife specibus in hand. The rogue twists and evades a fatal stab to the arteries, but gets grazed in the shoulder, opening a well of bronze blood. In response, the rogue pistol-whips the knife wielder, spins the gun, and fires three shots with the barrel pressed up against her chest. They pass clean through her back and strike two trolls behind her, in the temple and forearm, respectively. Two of the three impacted drop; one staggers to the side, clutching his arm with an earsplitting caterwaul.
By now, all other guards have drawn their specibi. They form a blockade near the door, flank to flank, protecting each other’s vulnerable spots. Most have guns, if not all. You notice a couple of machetes, a longsword, and a pair of throwing stars, but the majority wear firearms. The rogue faces them down and hesitates, gun angled at the floor.
You don’t know who has the bright idea of trying pacification as a battle tactic, but they’re rewarded with a bullet to the neck. The formation breaks as their body drops, trying to avoid getting caught under their bulk, and the rogue leaps out of the way as a throwing star buries itself in the place where they just stood.
Terezi stands like a pillar amongst the chaos, still as stone. She does not move one finger. She does not toss one glance behind her. The girl is marble and steel, all quietude, no life to her except the glitter in her eyes. Her hands remain at her sides, and the battle unfolds around her as if she were a part of the damn scenery.
A bead of sweat coagulates on her temple. This is the only sign she is anything but serene.
You yell, “I could use my coin right about now,” because you’d feel a damn sight more comfortable if you had a weapon in your hand, but she shakes her head without looking at you.
The troll with the throwing stars sends a second one winging across the block, and this time, the rogue is a fraction too slow to dodge it completely. The jagged edge lays open a cut on his cheek, and brown weeps from it. This time, instead of the shooter, it’s the troll behind Throwing Stars that kills them, burying her knife in the back of their head.
Maybe half the original guard remains. The girl with the knife hurls it at the largest of the squadron, catching him in the abdomen. It sinks deep into his chitin, but doesn’t bring blood — instead, it distracts him while she dives for his wrist and wrenches him into an armlock, forcing him to drop his gun. She grabs it before it catches the floor and shoots him from behind. The whole maneuver takes less than three seconds.
Then she leaps over him and sends three shots at the remaining guard, dropping one and wounding two. A fourth charges her with their blade and scores a hit on her thigh before she whirls around and pounds them on the top of the brainstem with the butt of her gun, an impact that crunches. They topple.
Four left. The original defector tries to fire, but the cartridge clicks: empty. He drops the gun and tackles one of the trolls with pistolkind, who tries to shoot him in the foot, but it shatters one of the windows instead.
The second rogue fires, and their limp hand yields up their gun. Three.
Those three cluster together in the corner. One of them breaks the line to try and escape through the doorway, dropping their weapon in the process. Bang! Two.
Of the two, one is demonstrably smarter than the other; she hangs behind while her counterpart makes a desperate rush at the traitors, weapon aloft, only to get culled with extreme prejudice. She is also remarkably brave: she lifts her gun, even in the face of abject death, and takes it squarely between the eyes, like one of Her Condescension’s very best.
It takes half a minute, at most.
All of their peers having been dispatched, the two bronze guards step back, expressions as placid as still water. Then, without hesitation, they pivot and shoot each other in the head.
Both fall to the ground in synchrony. Terezi clears her throat and takes a step towards Tagora’s desk.
It was her, you realize. All of it. The stories about mind control, horror stories, about psychic development at castes where psychics should be nonexistent. It was true.
This staggering revelation seems to occur to Tagora at the same time it does you. His mouth drops agape. His eyes are wide as billiard balls, and pupils as small as pinheads.
“Mercy,” is the first thing out of his mouth.
“A bit of a bold request,” Terezi remarks, “considering.”
“Mercy,” he repeats. “Everything is yours. Everything — I’ll give you the hive, the ships, the trolls, even the money, if you care about things like that — what do you want? Just say it, just say it and it’s yours —”
“I know it is.”
“You don’t need to kill me,” he insists. “What good am I to you dead? No good! If you let me live, I’ll be the best ally you’ve ever had — I’m the best player this side of the Boric.”
“That would be incorrect,” she says.
He opens his mouth to say something, and his breath staggers to a halt in his windpipe. You startle at the guttural noise it makes, him trying to expunge a word that sits and refuses to go.
“A — A —” His hand flies to his throat. Tightens around the bulging tracheal vein there.
Terezi watches this with distant amusement. “Go on,” she urges. “Spit it out.”
His claws score lines of blue in his skin. You take a half-step forward, and she holds out her hand, which freezes you in place as effectively as if she had gripped your mind to do it.
“What?” She rests her knuckles on the desk and leans forward. “Speak up, my lord.”
Blood weeping from between his fingers, he continues scrabbling at his throat. His eyes search hers for something, chokes punctuated with breathless gasps. A series of convulsions wrack his body. Then he spasms violently, and falls facedown on his desk.
She clucks her tongue. “Never did manage whatever he was going to say,” she laments. “Oh, well. Statistically speaking, it wasn’t going to be anything of consequence, anyway.”
“I thought you couldn’t control highbloods,” you blurt. How else could she just stand there and will him to die, like some kind of psionic four castes out of her depth, like some kind of goddamn witch—
Tagora knocked over his wineglass when he fell. She sets it to rights. “Did you look at the wine?”
“No. I was a little occupied, at the time —”
“If you had, you might have noticed that the wax seal was depressed in the middle. The consequence of being broken, and then melted again to hide the puncture.”
“I don’t understand.” You’re beginning to, though.
“Neurotoxin,” she says. “Clear, tasteless, odorless. Induces symptoms including lack of fine motor control, difficulty in elocution, and headaches; all of which, incidentally, are also symptoms of a hangover.”
You feel cold.
“This particular variant depresses the nervous system to the point of dysfunction, at which point any enemy engaged in combat becomes easy to dispatch. Alternatively, given enough time, the toxin will spread to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, after which death follows shortly.”
“Hangover,” you say. “What does —”
“His wriggling day was yesterday. Tagora always drinks himself into a coma on his wriggling day. And he always gets the ancestor of all hangovers the day afterwards, which he usually spends a good few hours complaining to me about on Trollian.”
She strides around behind the desk, peels his body off it, and drops the cooling corpse like a sack of tubers. Then she starts rifling through his papers.
“What are you doing?”
“Will,” she says. “Lieges this high always have a last testament, somewhere. Usually leaving all of it to their moirail, or whatever quadrant happen to have filled; it complicates the process.”
“Transfer of wealth. According to the bylaws of FLARP, it’s killer take all, but Imperial regulation has an inconsistent track record concerning the respect owed to players’ wills. Generally, the verdict is that playing FLARP does implicitly waive a few of your posthumous rights, but I don’t believe in taking chances.”
“Mallek,” you stutter. “Is he —”
“Dead? Yes.” She pulls a sheaf of paper from one drawer and brandishes it. Upon inspection, she nods with satisfaction, and folds it into quarters. “Do you have a light?”
“A light.” She mimics flicking open a lighter. “Can be the kind you use for nicotine sticks, I’m not picky.”
“I — I don’t smoke.”
“Fair enough. Thanks anyway.” She lays the will carefully on Tagora’s desk, settling it amongst the rest of his paperwork, and then roots around in her pocket.
“What are you going to —”
She draws out a matchbook, removes one, and strikes it against a rough patch on her glove. It ignites, and she drops it on the desk.
The will catches first, quickly followed by the mass of dry kindling it rests on. To your horror, the desk goes up, too, fire sprouting from the legs. The smell of smoke stings your nose. The furniture crackles like a bonfire in the small, ill-ventilated block.
“Don’t like to use these,” she informs you, sliding the matchbook back into her pocket. “I prefer to keep a handful on me, in case of emergency. Sending flares, emergency warmth, the like. Still, this qualifies as a necessary use of resources, I think.”
She steps over the body to emerge from behind the flames. It throws her shadow into sharp relief on the floor before her, and backlights her in scarlet.
You catch her eye, and it narrows. “What,” she asks.
“I — nothing.”
“Clearly not. You’re about to jump out of your skin.”
She takes a step towards you. You start backing towards the door.
Her hands lift skyward, palms out, a display of no harm meant. “Vriska,” she begins, patiently. “Don’t do anything s—”
“I have to go,” you say. “I have to go — I gotta go now —”
“Let’s calm down, shall we? Let’s sit down, and talk about things civilly, let’s not —”
You shove the door open and break into a sprint. She calls something after you, but your bloodpusher is pounding like a subjugglator war drum, and you couldn’t hear an airhorn if it was wedged halfway down your aural canal.
There are a handful of guards on the stairs who try to block your path, but you body-check one and deck another, sending them tumbling backwards. You leap over them and keep running. Your legs carry you through the main hallway, across the foyer, and out the front doors, pelting away from the docks and inland, towards town.
A spray of fire kicks up the sand at your feet, and you swerve into a cluster of trees that sprouts from the back of the beach. Shouts follow you, threats and warnings. A bullet splits the trunk of the tree you duck behind. You keep going.
Going until you’re at least a mile from the beach, and having taken enough random turns that nobody could follow you unless they were on your tail the whole time. You slump against the nearest tree and lean over on your knees. Gulp air, even though it hurts your lungs. Being in a tropical glade, the humidity is high enough to drown you with your own breath. The pink moon beats down over head. You’ve soaked through your clothes; your sweat-stained shirt clings to your back, and your leggings feel like a second skin. You chose your armor for agility and freedom of movement, meaning it’s lighter than most, but even then, it wasn’t made to be worn during a sprint through the jungle. When you get back to your hive, you resolve, you’re doing nothing but endurance training for a whole week.
That said, the likelihood of getting back to your hive at all is contingent upon a number of floating variables. One of which is finding someone to contact your teammates. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere, God knows how many miles from your hometown or anyone who would know how to get there, and stuck without your palmhusk
Fortune, however, decides to throw your ass a bone — or maybe it beats your ass with it instead — because a nearby bush starts to rustle, and the tip of a horn pokes out. You freeze up and your hand goes to your holster, automatic, except fuck, you left your coin back at Tagora’s hideout, and you don’t like your chances in hand-to-hand.
Opting for the diplomatic approach, you say, “Look, I’m not here to start trouble. I don’t want to be on your territory any more than you want me here, so if you just let me pass through, I’ll get the hell out of here.”
The troll’s face rises from behind the shrubbery, and you take a moment to marvel. It’s a mustardblood, hard verging on green, with a pair of horns that twist up in parallel perfect curlicues and a mass of hair that almost dwarfs them. Shabby clothes, but then, that’s what you get if you hang around in bushes all day, you guess. A distant glaze coats their eyes, which still bear the crusts of sleep around them, and glow dark orange. They reek of lemon soda. You struggle to believe they’re anywhere approaching sober.
“No problem, my distressed fucker,” says the yellowblood, easy as a lazy river. “Ain’t my territory to defend, anyhow, and I ain’t looking for no ugly business. Ugly business yours truly does not seek.”
“Okay,” you say. “Uh. Thanks.”
“No injury to heal, teal sister, no injury which Gamzee need forgive. You’re lookin’ two steps removed from slaughtercrazy, though, little bitchsis. Enough to make a brother fret for his glutes, you coming near him looking like that.”
“I’m not,” you begin, and then consider that you probably are, and revise: “I won’t hurt you.”
“Delighted to know of it. Gives me no end of comfort, knowing that, although I will have to take that unproven word of yours for it. We don’t get highbloods around here.”
“Wh— I’m not a highblood.”
“All due respect, stranger, that bright-ass hue of yours is freshwater blue. If highblood you ain’t, then call me a seadweller, and call these ganderbulbs of mine a pair of liars.”
You consider that they probably don’t get a lot of non-lowbloods around here. Out in the forest, there can’t be much foot traffic, and with Tegora living only a mile away, their only experience with the higher castes would be the ceruleans. Of course it would befit them to suggest they were highbloods.
That means he probably won’t maul you, however, for fear of being charged with highblood murder, and it also means that you have a good bit of leverage. You decide that it would not be to your advantage, at this point, to dissuade him of his conceptions about who sits where on the hemospectrum.
“Right you are,” you say. An idea occurs to you. “Mr. — what did you say your name was?”
“Gamzee Makara,” he says, and bows low. His four horns scrape the ground, so tall are they. “At the disposal of the Lady Legislacerator.”
You look down, and you’re still wearing the FLARP uniform. You’re still dolled up to look like one of the Condesce’s Finest, no wonder he’s so deferential.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Makara,” you say, and you are not even kidding, not even a little bit. “How would you like to do me a favor?”
“I hate you,” Kanaya informs you. However, she does this while carefully redressing the bandage on your arm, fingers light as a seasoned doctorturer’s, so the effect of her declaration is somewhat diminished.
“No, you don’t.”
“I do. I bear nothing but the most platonic of loathings for you. Were it up to me, I would hang you by your own digestion strings. I would use your breathing sacs for balloons. I would make your skull into a percussion instrument, and thereafter would endeavor to play the most percussive pieces of instrumentation known to trollkind. This is how deep my distaste goes. Spades of the darkest pitch would never know in a sweep half the hatred I feel for you. My only regret is that for you I have no caliginous impulse, because otherwise, I would make for you the finest kismesis this world has ever seen.”
“Tell me how you really feel.”
“Maybe sometime I will try jumping off a ship and sailing off into the distance with my mortal enemy. How about that? How would that make you feel? Maybe it is my turn to have some rambunctious, moirail-harrowing fun. That is what diamonds do, correct? Try to make each other feel as distraught as possible, all the time, always? That has been my sole experience in the area. But who knows. Maybe other couples shake it up, sometimes.”
She tightens the bandage with an unnecessarily sharp tug, and you wince. “Is this the part where I apologize, and say I’ll never, ever do it again? Because I’m ready to do that. It’s a really good apology, too, I’m proud of it.”
“I am disappointed in myself, more than anything else,” she says, and you conclude that she’s not ready for it yet, no, but she seems to be winding down. “I never thought that I would end up in one of those moirallegiances. The movies warned me about it, but I never listened. I thought: who would be so stupid as to pity someone so transparently danger-friendly? Have they no sense of self-esteem? Do they not respect themselves enough to choose a sensible, risk-averse partner? And yet: here I am. What would my lusus say?”
“Am I the movie star in this metaphor?”
She fastens the bandage and sighs, scooting back. You’re both sprawled on the couch in your entertainment block, a medkit balanced open on Kanaya’s lap and your injured arm stretched between you two. Outside, daylight streams through the cotton-candy leaves of your tree, laying violet patterns on the blue bark. The soft brown leather of your sofa is the sweetest balm to your aching bones, after the long hoverlift ride back.
Surreptitiously, you reach around and loosen the bandage, just enough to allow circulation to your left hand. In the silence, she starts chewing on her cheek, which is what tells you that this may not be a routine conversation.
“Hey,” you say. “Uh. I am sorry.” The chewing does not stop. “For the record.”
“The troublesome thing about all this,” she says, pensive, “is that I believe you. And I know you are. And I know, just as certainly, that that will not stop you from doing it again.”
You shrug helplessly. “We had spent so much time on the campaign,” you say.
“I am not interested in your justifications. I know what they are.” She twists away from you, crossing her legs. “Perhaps one might consider that the time invested in your campaign, however great, is a measly wager upon which to stake your life.”
“Yeah, understood, but listen —”
“Are you telling me you could not have waited? Waited another week, another perigee, another sweep? Was this the only opportunity you would ever find to capture this girl?”
“It was the best one we’d had in perigees. And you try getting Tavros to take a second swing at anything, he hates losing.”
“A trait of which there seems to be no lack,” she snaps, and you acknowledge that you’re lobbing stones from a glass hive. “You did not even achieve your goal, anyway. You turned up fifty leagues east of where you left us, stranded in the middle of a jungle, making use of an intoxicated vagrant’s husktop to send your SOS. But please, explain to me how important it was that you chase after her.”
You don’t have an answer for that, so you don’t give one. She continues to pace. After a few more minutes, she wears herself out, and sits back down on the couch.
“At least,” she says, “you came back at all.”
This is the sign that she’s forgiven you. “Always will,” you say, and she flushes.
“Yes,” she says. “Well. If you think you can pacify me with some pale catchphrases, think again.”
“Are you suggesting that you are amenable to being pacified?”
She sniffs. “I am suggesting that you divert my attention from how odiously annoying you can be.”
“I do not know why you are cooing at me, and I am not interested.” She folds her arms. “What happened while you were on her ship, anyway? Did you do anything interesting?”
You tip your head back, and a recount of your conversation with the Captain is on the tip of your tongue, but for some reason, it stumbles there, stalls, and “Naw,” comes out instead. “Just hung out in the brig for most of the time, until she took us ashore, to that hamlet I trolled you from. She was going around to settle a debt she had with the local liegelord or whatever, ended up killing the guy.”
“And you escaped?”
“Yeah. Just took off, first opportunity.” A lie. You don’t know why you bother telling it, but you do. “They hardly gave chase. I think I was a smaller fish than they usually go for.”
“Yes, well. Thank God for your lack of a reputation.”
“Excuse you. My reputation is tight as all hell. Have you seen the leaderboards? I have allll the levels. All of them.”
“And a great deal of good it did you,” she replies, and then wriggles closer to you on the relaxation platform. You open up your left side and she crawls into the curve between arm and torso, fitting there as neatly as plug in socket. Both of you relax, although you’re more relieved she’s not still mad at you than anything else.
“Do you wanna pile?”
“Mm. I am tired. It is very late, Vriska.”
You cast a look out the window, and light bathes everything. Damn. It must be near noon; you hadn’t realized you came back so late.
“Shit. Sorry you got stranded over here.”
“You seem to be under the impression I mind,” she says, and yawns. Her fangs flash, razor-sharp and adorable. “Do you still have that spare recuperacoon in the guestblock?”
“Nah, tossed it a few perigees ago. Thing was all sorts of fucked up in the cooling system. Doesn’t matter, though, you can use mine.”
She arches an eyebrow. “Goodness, Ms. Serket,” she teases. “How very presumptuous. Do you think nothing of my honor?”
“Go to the cupe,” you say, swatting her, and she pulls away with a laugh. “Refresh the slime, if you’re that concerned about propriety.”
“Please.” She stands up, smooths out her skirt. You spare a moment of pride for the bright olive color that decorates her cheeks. “Are you sure you do not want to sleep? You have had a long few nights.”
“No thanks. I have some messages to send. Gotta plan the next campaign.” You gesture to your husktop, which sits on the bitter bean fluid table. “And order a new palmhusk, I guess. Mine is floating somewhere in the middle of the Boric Sea.”
She makes a sympathetic noise in her throat. “Do not stay up,” she warns, and drops a kiss on your forehead. Then she pads off in the direction of your respiteblock.
You wait until she’s out of sight before picking up your husktop. Trollian waits for you, the same as you left it. There are a few inquiries from your FLARP co-conspirators, a line or two of only mildly insincere concern from Tavros, which you appreciate. A notice from the FLARP administrators informing you of a new tournament in your area, which you save for later. You don’t reply to anyone just yet. You’re still working on how you’re going to spin this to make yourself look badass instead of stupid.
There’s one new message request, too, from a new user called gallowsCorsair. From the blinking light beside their name on the activity column, they’re also currently online, which puzzles you, given it’s the dead of day. Their handle doesn’t ring a bell, and you know the handles of pretty much anybody with cause to talk with you. Still, you grant the request, and a chat window pops up.
gallowsCorsair [GC] began trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
GC: 8EFORE YOU ASK, I GOT YOUR HANDLE FROM TAVROS. IF YOU WISH TO CASTIGATE ANY OF YOUR FRIENDS FOR 8EING LAX WITH YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION, LET IT 8E HIM.
GC: I REGRET THAT WE PARTED ON LESS THAN FAVORA8LE TERMS.
AG: 1s th1s t3r3z1
AG: 1 dont th1nk w3 r34lly h4v3 4nyth1ng to s4y to 34ch oth3r
AG: you h3ld m3 c4pt1v3 for 4 wh1l3 4nd th3n 1 bl3w th3 froz3n fru1t fl4vor3d syrup st4nd
AG: not sur3 th4t th3r3s 4ny w4y to m4k3 th4t som3how l3ss
GC: WE HAVE MORE OR LESS REACHED CARRYING CAPACITY FOR WEIRDNESS, I THINK.
GC: AND I'M NOT HERE TO APOLOGIZE. OR TO ASK FOR AN APOLOGY.
GC: AS YOU SAID: I HELD YOU CAPTIVE. YOU ESCAPED. A PERFECTLY REASONA8LE EXCHANGE, INKEEPING WITH THE RULES OF FLARP.
GC: I ASSUME YOUR SESSION HAS ENDED? MINE HAS.
AG: 1 t4pp3d out 4ft3r 1 l3ft
AG: d1dnt r34lly h4v3 th3 3n3rgy for much mor3
GC: IT WAS A LONG CAMPAIGN, TO 8E CERTAIN.
AG: und3rst4t3m3nt of th3 sw33p
AG: w3 w3r3 tr4ck1ng you for w33ks you know
GC: I SUPPOSE I'M FLATTERED.
AG: th3 4mount of work w3 put 1nto 1t w4s r34lly fuck1ng bonk3rs 1n r3trosp3ct
AG: l1k3 w3 h4d doz3ns of cont1ng3ncy pl4ns s3t up for th3s3 d1ff3r3nt s1tu4t1ons wh3r3 you turn3d up d1ff3r3nt pl4c3s or tr13d 4 d1ff3r3nt sh1p form4t1on
AG: 4nd non3 of 1t m4tt3r3d
GC: TO 8E FAIR, THE FACT YOU NEVER HAD TO USE ONE OF YOUR CONTINGENCY PLANS REFLECTS 8ETTER ON YOUR STRATEGIC WORK THAN THE ALTERNATIVE.
AG: 1 suppos3
AG: k1nd of 4 bumm3r though
GC: IF IT MAKES YOU FEEL 8ETTER, I HAVE IT ON GOOD AUTHORITY THAT TAVROS EXECUTED THE TROLL RESPONSI8LE. NOT THAT IT WAS THE WRIGGLER'S FAULT, 8UT YOU TRY EXPLAINING THAT TO THE SEA8ULL HIMSELF.
AG: 1 dont th1nk th4t m4k3s m3 f33l b3tt3r 4ctu4lly
GC: I MAINTAIN THAT THE SOLUTION TO YOUR DISSATISFACTION IS TO 8LAME EVERYTHING ON TAVROS. IT INVARIA8LY WORKS FOR ME.
AG: 4ll r1ght
GC: WHY DID YOU RUN?
GC: WHEN I KILLED TAGORA.
GC: SURELY YOU COULDN'T HAVE FELT 8AD FOR HIM.
GC: I MEAN, I UNDERSTAND WHY YOU LEFT, IN A GENERAL SENSE. YOU WERE 8EING HELD CAPTIVE 8Y A PIRATE. I WOULD HAVE QUESTIONED YOUR INTELLIGENCE HAD YOU *NOT* TAKEN THE OPPORTUNITY.
GC: 8UT YOUR TIMING SEEMED TO SUGGEST THAT YOU HAD SOME SPECIFIC QUALM WITH HIS DEATH IN PARTICULAR.
AG: th4ts not
AG: t3r3z1 1 l3ft b3c4us3 1 w4s k1nd of fr34k3d out
AG: for on3 4bout th3 m1nd control th1ng
AG: wh1ch 1m st1ll proc3ss1ng
AG: but 1ts not so much th4t 4s
AG: but you l3t your f1rst m4t3 d13
AG: you h34rd h1m 4sk1ng for h3lp 4nd you just
AG: you kn3w th4t th3 gu4rds would k1ll h1m w1thout l3v3r4g3
1 dont know why 1m g3tt1ng up 1n 4rms ov3r 1t
AG: 1 know 1ts not th3 most c4llous th1ng 4nyon3s 3v3r don3 1n fl4rp
AG: but 1t st1ll k1nd of
AG: 1 dont know
AG: 1 fr34k3d
GC: I SUPPOSE THAT'S FAIR.
GC: 8UT I HOPE I CAN CLARIFY THINGS SUFFICIENTLY TO PRESERVE WHATEVER SCRAP OF ESTEEM YOU HAVE LEFT FOR ME.
GC: MALLEK WASN'T SUPPOSED TO DIE.
GC: IF HE ENDED UP KILLING AZDAJA, HE WAS SUPPOSED TO ESCAPE WITH ALL DUE HASTE. I STATIONED POLYPA NEAR8Y FOR THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF ENSURING ALL WENT AS IT SHOULD.
GC: TO THE POINT, IN THE 8EST OF ALL POSSI8LE WORLDS, AZDAJA WOULDN'T HAVE DIED EITHER.
GC: PLAN A WAS TO KEEP TAGORA TALKING UNTIL THE NEUROTOXIN KICKED IN, AND THEN TAKE OVER WITHOUT 8LOODSHED. HIS CHOICE TO ACCELERATE MATTERS WAS THE SOURCE OF 8LOODSHED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
GC: I WISH MALLEK WAS ALIVE. HE WAS A GOOD TEAMMATE, AND I APPRECIATED HIM. EFFECTIVE ALLIES ARE HARD TO COME 8Y, AND HAD THERE 8EEN AN OPTION TO SAVE HIM WITHOUT COMPROMISING THE MISSION ENTIRE, I WOULD HAVE TAKEN IT WITHOUT QUESTION.
AG: but you could h4v3 just
AG: stopp3d th3 m1ss1on!
GC: VRISKA, AT THAT POINT, AZDAJA WAS ALREADY DEAD.
GC: TAGORA'S TROLLS WERE ADVANCING ON 8OTH OF *US*, AND 8Y THE TIME I REACHED HIM, HE WOULD HAVE 8EEN DEAD ALREADY. WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU HAVE HAD ME DO?
GC: I HAD AN INTEREST IN LOSING AS FEW MEM8ERS OF MY CREW AS POSSI8LE. ALL CONSIDERED, I ACHIEVED THAT GOAL.
AG: th4t m4k3s s3ns3
GC: I KNOW. TRUST ME, I UNDERSTAND.
GC: EVERYTHING YOU'RE SAYING, I THOUGHT OF MYSELF, IN THE MOMENTS 8EFORE MALLEK DIED.
GC: 8UT I THINK THAT, KNOWING WHAT I KNOW, YOU'LL COME TO THE CONCLUSION I DID.
GC: YOU HAVE A TACTICAL INTELLIGENCE. ONE NOT UNLIKE MINE.
GC: IF YOU'LL PARDON THE SELF-AGGRANDIZEMENT.
AG: 1 th1nk 1m b3g1nn1ng to 4gr33 w1th you
AG: 1t h4snt m4d3 m3 4ny l3ss uncomfort4bl3
GC: 8UT IF IT MAKES ANY DIFFERENCE TO YOU, I'VE LEFT HIS MOIRAIL A CONSIDERA8LE SUM OF MONEY.
GC: SHE'LL 8E PROVIDED FOR.
AG: not sur3 th4t 1t do3s m4k3 4 d1ff3r3nc3
AG: but th4t w4s n1c3 of you
GC: THE LEAST I COULD DO, REALLY.
AG: your3 r1ght
AG: 1m not sur3 wh4t 3ls3 you could h4v3 don3
AG: 4nd 1nsof4r 4s th4ts tru3
AG: 1ts not r34lly f41r for m3 to hold you 4ccount4bl3
GC: I'M GLAD WE COULD REACH THIS UNDERSTANDING.
AG: 1m not sur3 1f your3 look1ng for m3 to forg1v3 you or
GC: I'M NOT.
GC: NOT IN THE LEAST 8ECAUSE, AS I DISCUSSED, I DON'T THINK IT'S SOMETHING FOR WHICH I NEED TO 8E FORGIVEN. AND ALSO 8ECAUSE IF I NEEDED TO 8E FORGIVEN, IT WOULD NOT 8E 8Y YOU.
AG: not to b3 4 b1tch but
AG: non3 of th1s 3xpl41ns why your3 troll1ng m3 1n th3 f1rst pl4c3
GC: I NOTICED THAT AS OF THE DISSOLUTION OF YOUR AND TAVROS' ALLIANCE, YOUR NAME IS ON THE LEADER8OARDS AS A SOLO PLAYER.
GC: IS THIS CORRECT?
AG: 1 m34n
AG: 1 usu4lly pl4y solo pvp
GC: THAT'S WHAT I WANTED TO TALK TO YOU A8OUT.
GC: ARE YOU INTERESTED IN CHANGING THAT?
GC: I DON'T 8ELIEVE I WAS UNCLEAR.
AG: 4r3 you
GC: AT THIS POINT, I'M JUST ASKING A QUESTION.
AG: 1 uh
AG: 1 gu3ss 1t would d3p3nd on th3 p4rtn3r
AG: 1f w3 work3d w3ll tog3th3r
AG: 1f th3y w3r3 worth ch4ng1ng my styl3 for
GC: YOUR CAUTION IS MERITED.
GC: YOU KNOW WHAT MY FACILITIES ARE.
GC: YOU KNOW WHAT RESOURCES I HAVE AT MY DISPOSAL. AND SINCE I KNOW FOR A FACT YOU'VE TRACKED MY NAME ON THE LEADER8OARDS, YOU ALSO KNOW MY TRACK RECORD.
GC: ARE YOU INTERESTED?
A footfall echoes from the hallway. You snap the husktop closed and try to look as innocent as possible. Your bloodpusher pounds with adrenaline.
Kanaya emerges, rubbing her eyes. A translucent film of sopor still clings to her skin, and she’s stripped down to her slime-proof undersuit. Her hair has been slicked back and her horns wear the moisturizing growth caps she uses, a sticky green wrap. The sight of her dressed down like this in your own hive is sickeningly pale, and socks you right in the stomach, where it curdles the guilt you feel at deceiving her.
“Kanaya,” you say, louder than you meant. “You’re up.”
“Mm. I wanted a glass of water.”
“Isn’t there a faucet in the ablutionblock?”
Probably disoriented by the brusqueness of your tone, she blinks, and says, “Perhaps, but a distinct lack of glasses.” Her gaze lands on your husktop. “What are you doing?”
You debate telling her. You honestly do — and you will assure yourself of this, later on — but for the moment, all this means is that when you say, “Nothing,” it is a decision made entirely of your own free will, after several moments of careful deliberation. No excuse to be made of thoughtlessness, or instinctive deceit.
“Well. Try to get some sleep, eventually.” She lets it go, an admirable move on her part, and ventures into your nutrientblock. Shortly thereafter, she emerges with the aforementioned glass, and walks past you in returning to the respiteblock.
All this is to say: you have multiple valid opportunities to tell her what you are doing. No excuse of poor timing, either, for you.
When you reopen the husktop, your fingers tremble with anticipation.
AG: y3s 1 4m
GC: THE TERMS OF OUR AGREEMENT, THEN, SHOULD 8E MADE CLEAR.
GC: WE WILL 8E CONSIDERED PARTNERS, NOT ALLIES. THAT MEANS WE PLAY IN THE TEAM 8RACKET, NOT IN THE SOLO 8RACKET. OURS IS NOT MERELY A CLOSELY KNIT ALLEGIANCE. THE DISTINCTION IS KEY 8ECAUSE IN THE SOLO 8RACKET, ONLY SINGLE TROLLS CAN CLAIM PRIZES, WHEREAS IN TEAM COMPETITIONS, LOOT MAY 8E SPLIT AMONGST UP TO SIX DIFFERENT PLAYERS.
GC: YOU WILL HAVE UNLIMITED ACCESS TO MY STOCKADES, SHIPS, AND ARSENALS, GRANTED THAT YOU RESPECT A FEW SPACIAL 8OUNDARIES SET AROUND MY PERSONAL AREAS. IN EXCHANGE, I WILL HAVE THE SAME PRIVILEGE WITH RESOURCES YOU HAVE, AND ANY NEW GAINS OR PURCHASES MADE TOGETHER WILL 8E SPLIT EQUALLY, OR EQUITA8LY, IF ONE OF US HAS A DISPROPORTIONATE NEED.
GC: I WILL ALSO LET YOU HAVE FIRST PICK OF ALL LOOT IF YOU LET ME PERFORM CLEANUP DUTIES AFTER SKIRMISHES.
AG: th4t sounds - r34lly g3n3rous!
AG: why do you w4nt cl34nup duty though?
AG: th4ts 4 hug3 chor3
GC: YOU CAN CHOOSE OUR TEAM NAME IF YOU FORGET THAT QUESTION.
AG: f1n3 wh4t3v3r
AG: th1s 1s 4ll v3ry g3n3rous of you but
AG: not gonn4 l13 1 4m f33l1ng k1nd of bl1nds1d3d!
AG: wh4t prompt3d you to
GC: ASK YOU?
GC: SIMPLE. YOU'RE GOOD AT FLARP. YOU RAN A GOOD CAMPAIGN; YOU ALMOST GOT ME, AFTER ALL.
GC: MALLEK WAS A GOOD FIRST MATE. HE WAS TALENTED, CRAFTY, AND HAD A LUST FOR SUCCESS THAT MADE HIM AN INVALUA8LE ASSET. I SINCERELY ENJOYED WORKING WITH HIM. 8UT HE'S DEAD, AND I NEED A NEW FIRST MATE.
GC: YOU'RE 8ETTER THAN MALLEK WAS.
AG: 1 k1nd of c4nt b3l13v3 th1s 1s h4pp3n1ng
AG: y34h th1s c4n d3f1n1t3ly work
GC: HOW A8OUT WE GO FOR AN INAUGURAL OUTING AT THE 8RAWL TOURNAMENT, TWO WEEKS FROM NOW.
GC: THAT WILL GIVE US A CHANCE TO TEST OUR COMPATI8ILITY IN A RELATIVELY STRAIGHTFORWARD ENVIRONMENT.
AG: th4ts so soon
GC: DO YOU HAVE AN O8JECTION?
AG: 1m h4ppy to g3t go1ng wh3n3v3r r34lly
AG: wh3r3 1s 1t
GC: JUST MEET ME AT THE THRASHTHRUST DOCKS.
GC: DUSK, ON FIENDDAY.
GC: I'LL 8E THERE WITH MY CREW.
GC: YOU IN?
AG: y3s 4bsolut3ly
Chapter 2: the refugees going nowhere
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
—Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
A rowboat waits for you on the edge of the dock when you arrive. The Exile waits out in the deep water, outlined against the evening-red sky like a silhouette from a picture book. Its beauty knocks you breathless. Soaring masts, a high quarterdeck settled like a throne at the back of the ship, the needle-thin prow that stabs out from the fore like the outstretched tip of a rapier. You fell in love with that ship watching videos of FLARP matches on your husktop at ungodly hours of the afternoon. You never dared to imagine sailing it. Even as you traveled from your hive to the dock, some part of you had imagined, predicted, that she wouldn’t show up.
But she’s here, too: standing at the stern of the boat, overseeing a trio of crew mates as they ready the dinghy. Against the dimming sky, her profile is backlit in detail: the long slant of her nose, the curve of her brow, even the fan of an eyelash. Her hair blows back, and you notice a pair of piercings in her right ear.
She stands the same way, no matter where she is, no matter what she’s doing — shoulders out, spine steel-straight, like she’s in a standoff with the universe and she intends to win. When she hears you coming, she turns and watches. Her gaze continues to feel like an appraisal.
“Hey,” you call.
It’s odd, seeing her again, given that the last time you were in the same vicinity, she murdered seventeen people and contributed to the death of an eighteenth. It’s hard to divorce your conception of her from the image of her leaning over Tagora’s desk, of her setting it on fire and watching it burn without remorse.
She says, “Hello, Vriska,” and gives you a polite smile, and the cognitive dissonance knocks you for a loop. It’s perfectly civil. Nothing to suggest that you bore witness to murder in cold blood at her hand, nothing to suggest you consorted with her kismesis to capture her. Nothing to suggest that you are anything but genial acquaintances here for a business transaction.
“This is Nikhee Moolah,” she says, indicating the troll at her left. “She’ll be serving as first mate for the duration of the tournament today.”
“Vriska Serket,” you say, and shake her hand. Nikhee is a short, muscular troll, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun and a prosthetic leg. You are sickeningly envious of her biceps.
“Nice to meet you,” she says. Businesslike, she turns away and continues untying the dinghy.
Terezi extends her hand to help you into the boat. You take it, and she guides you down onto the bench beside her. It all makes you feel a bit like a highblood lady. Her behavior is littered with small mannerisms like that, as if she learned how to act from reading Regency novels.
“I apologize we could not greet you in something more suited to the occasion. Unfortunately, Exile fares poorly in the shallows.”
“No. Understandable.” You carefully balance yourself, resting one arm on the side of the tiny vessel, and flash Nikhee a thumbs-up. She casts off, and the two other crew members begin rowing, guiding the dinghy out to sea.
It’s an unstable voyage. The coast near your hive is prone to storms, and when it’s not storming, the ocean still writhes with unpleasant currents and unexpected undertows. For most, that wouldn’t be a problem; midbloods tend to keep a comfortable distance from the sea, and your hivestem was not settled with beach trips in mind. But it makes for bumpy sailing, making your way out to where the Exile dropped anchor.
The dinghy sways violently as it hits a patch of particularly rough water. You stumble upon the horrifying realization that you have nothing to say, and a long stretch ahead of you to say it in.
Terezi, bless her brilliant thinkpan, speaks before the silence can curdle into something unpleasant. “We never did get to finish that match of Questions,” she points out.
“Do you want to change that?”
“What, you mean now?”
You arch your eyebrow with a deliberate innocence. “When else?”
“What time is it?”
“Was that supposed to trick me?”
“Do you believe I’d result to such juvenile measures?”
“Was that meant as a dig at my win yesterday?”
“Does it really count as a win, if you cheated?”
“As a gamblignant, do you feel comfortable claiming that kind of moral high ground?”
“Is it the same thing to bend the rules as to break them?”
“Do you know what the word ‘pedant’ means?”
“As an aspiring legislacerator, do you really need me to clarify that point?”
You laugh, and yield. “Hesitation,” she says quickly. “One-love.”
The serve falls to you. You rub your hands together. “Are you feeling confident?”
“Generally, or specifically?”
“Are the answers different?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Can’t I just be curious?”
“That’s — oh, come on, that’s not rhetoric.”
“Rhetorical question,” she says, “noun: a question asked in order to create a dramatic effect or to make a point rather than to get an answer.”
“Which mine wasn’t. There were two distinct and equally viable answers to that inquiry. Also, it’s debatable whether rhetoric is even a reason to lose, since the conversation hinges on neither of us actually answering each other. If the point of a non-rhetorical question is to get an answer, the game of Questions is constitutively rhetorical.”
“Good God, you sound like a bureaucretin,” she groans. “I’ll give you the point if you promise to stop citing technicalities.”
“One-all it is,” you say cheerfully.
“Although I would point out — briefly, and not to stoke the argument — that we do want each other to answer. Ours are not questions asked for the sake of dramatic effect. Thus: non-rhetorical.”
“Is that your serve?”
“Are you being irritating on purpose?”
“Is it working?”
“Does the Empress have pink blood?”
“Oh, come on,” you object. “That’s obvious rhetoric.”
Her grin is shit-eating. “I believe we agreed that rhetoric isn’t a reason to lose,” she says.
“What? No! That’s not fair,” you exclaim. “You can’t just go back on —”
“Two-one. Are trying to play the fairness card? With me, Neophyte?”
“All right, moratorium called. Quit the questions, we’re discussing the technical issue at hand here. Just because I noted that rhetoric isn’t in-keeping with the spirit of the game doesn’t mean it isn’t still one of the rules —”
“Moratorium uncalled. Who gave you the authority to do that?”
“Moral fiber, that’s what —”
“That’s not fair, either! Redo the point.”
“I didn’t get to redo the point when you won,” Terezi points out.
“When I won, I followed the rules.”
“I would dispute that.”
“Yeah, and you have, we agreed that it was legitimate —”
“There was no such agreement made. I cannot believe you are trying to gaslight me about something that happened five minutes ago.”
“Are you out of your — redo the point. I want a redo!”
“Fine. You serve, I won the last point.”
You grip the edge of the boat, inordinately tense, and demand, “What’s your name?”
“Do you go by anything else?”
“Does your moirail call you something else?”
“Why do you assume I have a moirail?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Why are you deflecting?”
Nikhee peeps on her whistle and the boat draws up on the Exile. “Captain,” she begins.
Terezi holds up a finger, silencing her. “What are you driving at?”
“Is it a crime to be curious?”
“Repetition,” she exclaims, and stands up. “Three-one; game.”
You can’t help smiling. “Good game,” you say, as some ropes come tumbling over the side of the Exile, to pull the dinghy up. The little boat lifts out of the water, and Terezi seems to take a short moment to reacquaint herself with her surroundings. You notice that she has a way of dedicating focus to single tasks at a time, to the exclusion of all else. It’s an endearing quirk.
“Yes. Pedantic as it was.” The dinghy pulls up to the edge of the deck, and she climbs onboard. As with your boarding at the docks, she turns back and offers you her hand for balance as you clamber after her.
“You know, it’s three games to a match.”
“I would,” she says, “but I fear we are on the verge of the match beginning, and there is an issue of timing.”
She starts climbing the stairs to the quarterdeck. You follow her, a little unsure of what to do with yourself, as the crew bustles to haul anchor and start moving. You know that you’re here to play FLARP, but your only experience with the partner leagues was your shared campaign with Tavros, and that was for the sole purpose of catching Terezi. A brawl tournament represents a wholly different beast.
“You told me I could pick our name,” you call, to give yourself something to think about instead of your own idleness.
“I did, didn’t I? I registered us as Pyrope-Serket, for this tournament; I didn’t know what you’d chosen, so I went with the basic. We can change it afterwards.”
“No, that’s fine. I just. I’ve chosen.”
“Well, by all means, enlighten me. A caveat: I strongly object to puns.”
“Scourge Sisters,” you say. It was more nerve-wracking than you thought it would be to pick out. You debated the Sisters bit for hours.
She probably doesn’t even care. You do. Not for any good reason. But you do.
“Yeah.” You settle into the corner of the deck as she takes the helm from a crew mate. “How do you like it?”
She tips her head back. You can’t see her face from where you’re standing, and you regret having settled where you did. You wish you could read her. You wish she were readable at all.
“Scourge,” she says, finally. “See also: affliction, bane, curse, plague. It’s an evocative word.”
“Yes, I know. I also own a dictionary. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a good name,” she says. “It suits us.”
“That’s what I thought,” you say, drawling all casual, like you didn’t give a damn whether she liked it one way or another. If she doesn’t buy this nonchalance, she has the decency to say nothing about it.
The coastline falls away behind you and the ship approaches a small island chain. They’re little more than patches of white sand dotted with palm trees, but then, any larger and it would obscure your view of the other competitors. The purpose of centering the match around the islands is to provide an arena.
A handful of other ships dot the surrounding waters. You seem to be one of the last teams to arrive.
Exile slides into place in between two competitors and settles into a circular orbit around the island chain, just like the others.
There are two ways to win at brawl FLARP.
The first is to get the other players to concede. This is the purpose of stationing the tournament around the island chain: if a ship drops anchor, it qualifies as a technical surrender and drop from the tournament, allowing people to withdraw from matches without pushing their resources to dangerous levels. Usually, after dropping anchor, the crew will file out onto the islands to watch the remainder of the match in relative peace, although sometimes they’ll leave before it ends.
The second is by far the more fun option of the two, not to mention the way that most people join these kinds of tournaments for: that is, to blow the other ships out of the water.
You scope out the competition. At least twenty other teams have entered this tournament, which is large, for the local circuit. None that you recognize by name.
“It’s a big turnout,” you remark to Terezi.
“It should be. The prize is a hundred aureii.”
You choke. “A hundred?”
“Did I misspeak?”
“I could buy a new hive with that much money.”
“Depending on the kind of hive, yes.”
The ships continue to circle each other. You grow antsy. This is your least favorite part of a fight. The anticipation is far worse than anything taking place during the actual battle ever could be.
“What do you need money for, anyway,” you ask. “You’re a blueblood.”
“You are aware, of course, that bluebloods are not supplied with infinite wealth on account of their caste. We are not quite that high up on the spectrum.”
“Yeah, but, like. You’ve got enough that you don’t need to be doing this for the money.”
“I thought that you, of all people, would understand the variety of reasons one might have for playing FLARP.” She keeps her eyes ahead of her.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that you don’t enter the highball tournaments. You don’t enter tournaments with any particular pattern at all.” That she knows enough about your record to cite this piece of information off the top of her head makes you feel warm in your cheeks, but you refuse to be distracted.
“There are criminals in every circuit.”
“I’m not casting aspersions on your choices. I’m merely pointing out that you have your own reasons.”
“And you have yours. I just wondered what they are.”
“It’ll be starting, soon,” she says, instead of answering. “You should prepare yourself.”
You fold your arms and try not to appear sulky. She has a right to her privacy. But you are a naturally curious person, and people like Terezi are catnip to the naturally curious.
The ships circle each other. The tension stretches thin, fragile as a spider’s thread.
A piercing shriek splits the air, and Terezi hauls the wheel to the right. Exile peels away from the arena, heading out to open sea, while the other ships advance on each other and begin peppering each other with fire. Several sink right off the bat, while others, perhaps realizing that they are outclassed, retreat to the shallows and trudge ashore to wait out the duration of the match while sustaining minimal damages.
Once you’re a quarter-mile out from the island chain, she sets the ship into an ovular orbit around the arena and lets it float. Out here, the waves are taller, more difficult to weather, but Exile takes them wth ease. Her positioning also puts you windward of the battle proper, with a gale at your back.
Ships break each other open and are swallowed by the sea. Terezi circles at a distance, scanning the fray. Her face is set in absolute focus. You doubt she even sees you, anymore.
“What are we waiting for?”
“By the time half the ships are eliminated,” she says, “most of the remainder are down to a quarter of their resources. The ideal strategy in brawls is to knock out as many as you can up front, in one go. The first third of the fight is deadlier than the other two put together.” She turns the wheel slightly to adjust course. “So we wait out the first third.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“It depends,” she says. “Sometimes an hour. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. Today, however, I think everyone is just as eager to accelerate the process as we are.” She flexes her hand on the wheel. “This is the most difficult part — judging when to intervene.”
“And they won’t come after us.”
“They’re preoccupied with those at the center. They won’t bother with someone on the edge; they’ll think we fled.”
“When do we jump in?”
“Eager,” she says. “I like that.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“Still. Patience — not to sound like a geriatric lusus — has been known, on occasion, to yield results.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
She laughs. “To your point: on an equal number of occasions, in my experience, there has been something to be said for haste.”She hums and squints at the battle, giving it another evaluation. “About now should do it, I think,” she says, and wheels the ship back towards the battle.
The first ships you pass on your way in are locked in a tight interplay of cannons. They more or less stand still on the water to maintain this, which was a poor decision on their behalf. On your way in from the outer rings of the arena, Terezi swings around and calls for a round of fire.
Failing to anticipate Exile’s approach, your cannons explode the side of one ship, sending it down swiftly. Without hesitating, she pulls the ship around so your side is aimed at the stern of the second vessel, and calls for another round. The back of the second ship shatters before three layers of cannon fire, and it starts taking on water. Not bothering to stay and watch her achievement, Terezi wrenches the wheel again, and you continue towards the center of the fray.
“Bank starboard,” Terezi demands, and the crew hastens to adjust the sails to her demands. Exile turns just a wave surges toward the coast. It heaves her forward, doubling the speed she could achieve on her own, and carrying her far out of range of the nearest ships.
Through the trees on the island, you can see a pair of ships crumbling into the waves. The boards of their deck tear apart and their hulls disintegrate under the damage of hundreds of cannons. It occurs to you that Terezi picked a very dangerous first outing.
A flaming arrow springs from the ship on your tail, and Terezi calls, “Mark!”
A crew mate perched on the prow draws their bow and takes aim. As the arrow soars toward the vulnerable, kindling-dry sail, they shoot it out of the sky.
You crow in delight. “Hell yeah,” you say. “Hell yeah. Give that troll a promotion! Give them two promotions! Fuck yeah!”
“For what I pay that troll,” Terezi says, “she damn well better be able to shoot an arrow out of the sky.”
The wind whistles in your ear. You grab a handful of the rigging and climb up a few yards to get a better view of the battlefield, dangling off with one arm as the Exile takes another turn and slides into a second circle around the arena. There are five ships left, not including yours, two of which are locked in combat, one of which is just emerging from a skirmish itself. One is evading fire on the other side of the islands. The last has begun to pursue Exile.
It steers around a sandbar and bears its starboard side. They’ve already taken a few hits — their hull is scarred and pitted with evidence. It would only take a few more to debilitate them. Right now, though, they’ve got their port cannons aimed at Exile’s stern, and Exile doesn’t have time to turn around to return fire.
No getting at it with the cannons, then. But their anchor is on the port side, and a past row has already shaken its fastenings loose.
You cry, “Anybody use riflekind?”
A bulky ivyblood looks up and cries a reply in the affirmative. You beckon her quickly, and she drops her post at one of the deck cannons to stand beneath the rigging you cling to.
“That anchor,” you say, pointing at the ship following you. “Can you hit it?”
She eyes up the situation critically, pauses while she evaluates the shot. Then she nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Give me a clean shot, and I can.”
“Fine. Aim for the fastening on the anchor, I’ll get you the shot.” You swing around and wave, getting Terezi’s attention. “Hey,” you shout. “Keep moving in a straight line!”
“If we break orbit, it’ll make us a steady target!”
“We have more imminent problems on our six, Captain!”
She tosses a look over her shoulder and grunts in aggravation.
“You have a plan?”
“Fine.” With a heave, she straightens out the wheel, and Exile peels out from the islands in a line.
The crew mate you picked out draws her specibus, a long-barreled hunting gun with a special scope. A sniper rifle. You spare a moment of gratitude for the good luck.
She takes a knee and slots the barrel on the rail, putting her eye to the scope, flexing her fingers on the trigger. The ship behind you finishes loading its cannons.
The sniper fires. Hundreds of yards across the water, the fastening cracks, and the anchor plummets into the sea.
In the shallows, it doesn’t take long before the anchor scrapes the bottom. The chain pulls taut, and shreds the exterior of the ship, which is moving too fast to be dropping anchor. The sudden weight tugs its stern sharply, forcing it to list to one side, and it spins off course, groaning. Tipping dangerously, the boat rocks, bobs, and then capsizes.
“Fuck yeah! Another promotion, this troll right here!” You lean down to offer the sniper a brief high-five. Giving you an odd look, she slaps you five nevertheless.
You leap down from the rigging and stride to the other side of the deck to scope out the remaining competition. The two ships that had been locked in combat both have disintegrated to the point of no return, with crew mates fleeing to the safety of the nearby islands. That makes you and the single remaining vessel tournament finalists. You’ve never made it this far in a brawl tournament before.
Your opponent is a ship called Harrower. Distantly, you recall that it belongs to a team called the Stingbeasts; you saw them on the leaderboards a quarter-sweep ago for winning some minor league tournament or other in North Merenn. Not that it matters. Terezi outranks them by dozens of levels, and they’re already weary from the brawl.
What they do have on you, however, is size. Exile’s chief advantage is her maneuverability. She’s capable of weaving in and out of a fight, swift as her captain, but she will beat no one in a contest of mass. As such, she cannot work up the momentum that Harrower can, nor can she afford to engage with full-on collisions.
Which is what Harrower seems intent on doing.
Another ship advances on the Harrower and distracts her, giving you time to wheel in a circle and regroup. Terezi slumps, panting, but doesn’t take a long moment before egging the crew back into action. “Just evade them,” she demands. “They’re tearing each other to pieces. All we need to do is survive.”
A quick exchange of fire culminates in the third ship’s cannonball-riddled hull plunging below the waves. The battle didn’t last long enough to give you much time. You grimace and cling to the rail as Exile whips into a sharp turn around the island, her momentum shoving a wave of crystal-sharp sea foam up against the side of the ship. It bites at your face, bitter cold and pungent salt.
Terezi wrestles with the wheel to keep the ship in the curve. Harrower continues to approach behind you, and you rifle through battle strategies, tactics, solutions, methods of escape.
The Stingbeasts gain ground. Exile should be able to outrun Harrower, but that’s only in a straight race; if they’re on the inside of the curve, they’ll be able to outpace you, which puts you at their starboard, where they’ll have been preparing to fire — unless —
“Terezi,” you say, “slow down.”
“Are you fucking kidding me —”
“Slow down and steer left. It’ll make them pull up on our right to avoid crashing into our stern. They expended their port cannons when the other ship attacked them, and they’ve been reloading starboard because they expect to catch us on our port side — force them starboard and you’ll get a window where they’re loading to fire.”
“You want me to let an enemy flank me —”
“You trust me? You do it!”
She swears with a creativity that would make the Condesce blush, and says, “If we lose for this, I will kill you.” You don’t think she’s kidding. It’s a good thing you don’t intend to lose.
The Exile cuts her speed and banks left. The Harrower narrowly avoids skidding into Exile’s hindquarters, and then slides up on her right. Terezi grips the wheel with pale knuckles. One second passes, then two. The Harrower does not fire.
She cries, “Starboard, fire!”
Cannons shred the side of Harrower. They catch the hull, the deck, the forecastle, breaking glass and wood and crumbling the infrastructure of the ship. You let out a whooping cry of victory as the ship breaks, piece by piece, under the sustained volley of gunfire.
As the two ships slide out of parallel, Harrower breaks cleanly along the mainmast. It topples over and splinters the deck in half. From there, it starts to sink. Its crew flees over the sides, tumbling into the sea like lemmings from a cliff.
“We won!” You pump your fist, and shove Terezi’s side with excitement. She sways with the impact but does not reprimand you, which is probably a result of her being pleased enough not to care.
“Yes.” She claps you on the back. “Congratulations, Neophyte.”
“What’s the prize? A hundred aureii?”
“Yes. I believe our agreement was fifty-fifty, although please feel free to correct me.”
“Man,” you say, vibrating, “I’m not even thinking about that! I mean, that’s generous of you, thanks, but I’m a little more preoccupied with — holy shit. I never won a brawl tournament.”
She pauses. “Not likely to be the last,” she says, which you figure is praise. You grin.
“Captain,” Nikhee barks. “Problem.”
You lean over the edge. The survivors of the Harrower swarm the Exile, scrambling up the rigging on the sides, and your insides turn cold.
Stingbeasts crawl over the sides of the Exile in droves, yelling reedy adolescent war cries, flinging themselves at the crew with the desperation of last resort-fighters who have nothing to lose but their dignity. Terezi’s teammates reply in equal measure, drawing their specibi and engaging with a verve characteristic of the kind of people Terezi would choose to man her ship.
“Shit,” you cry. You jump up on the deckrail and slide down to the main deck in one swift motion. “Nikhee, can you do anything about —”
“No.” She’s already drawn her specibus, a broad sledgehammer that has to weigh as much as you do. “They are already here.”
“Can we do anything to knock them off the side?”
“What do you want, pots of boiling oil?” Terezi leans over the railing, still stationed above you.
“If you’re offering,” you retort, and her mouth twists.
“Just pick them off. They’re not top-tier players, it shouldn’t be hard.”
“I don’t even see why they’re bothering! Their ship is downed! We already won! Why would they risk their lives putting up a fight?”
“They’re desperate and stupid. It’s astounding how dangerous that combination can be. They just lost the game, they’re pissed, they want revenge. People are simple.” She walks away from the railing. “Take care of it,” she says, and you bristle at the nonplussed order. You don’t take orders from anybody. And if you did, the last person you’d take them from would be a pirate with a superiority complex.
“Why don’t you come down here and help, if it’s no big deal, then?”
Her face reappears, lined with irritation. “Because I’m busy steering the damn ship,” she says, “and although I’d love to help, I thought you were more than capable of dispatching a handful of amateurs.”
“‘Handful’ seems like an overly cautious estimate,” you say, as droves pile over the edges of the Exile, meeting your crew with raucous shouts and clashes of steel. The fight swells and pushes you back up against the forecastle, and you find it prudent to draw your coin from your pocket, although you refrain from flipping it at the risk of drawing attention to yourself.
“Which synonym would you prefer?”
“Maybe ‘whole fucking bunch’?”
A hatchet comes winging over from the battle. You duck, and it buries itself in the wall behind your head, sinking hilt-deep.
“Fine,” Terezi snaps. “I thought you were more than capable of dispatching a whole fucking bunch of amateurs.”
“The relationship between quantity of enemies and difficulty in beating them is directly proportional!”
“Unless your abstratus is wordkind, Serket, complaining is unlikely to expedite matters!”
“Some of us can multitask!” With that, you toss your coin, and when it comes down, the hilt of a gun falls into your palm. Not the melee weapon you could’ve gotten. But whatever, you don’t need luck, anyway.
You snipe off three Stingbeasts before they notice you. Nikhee charges into the fray with a shriek, swinging her sledgehammer around and putting it through some poor bronzeblood’s face, which makes the kind of noise you could have lived a very happy life without ever hearing.
Both of the weapons on your coin are designed for dueling. This is because Redglare, and to that extent, most legislacerators, are not melee fighters. Theirs is a skill set developed for precision warfare, for methodical strategy and refined execution. The rapier and the shotgun are, to that extent, ill-suited for melee fare. All the same, you make the best with what you’ve got, so when some kid comes at you with a club twice the length of your arm and four times as thick, you pepper him with a handful of bullets while running as fast as your ass can possibly move to avoid getting splattered all over the deck.
The battle rages. Although there are a lot more Stingbeasts than crew on the Exile, Terezi chose her employees for a reason; they’re more talented fighters than the enemies are, and the casualties on your side are proportionately lower. Nikhee has revealed herself to be a deadly ass bitch of the highest caliber; her armor is stained thickly in multicolor, and hardly a scratch has been laid on her since the beginning of the match.
Someone with a polearm hip-checks you into the mainmast, so you reply by putting a bullet somewhere around where his bulge should be. Someone hacks at your arm with a blade, but before you can aim your gun properly, Nikhee’s sledgehammer comes down on their cranium like a lead brick on wet cardboard. You wince despite yourself.
She pauses for a split second to send you a respectful nod.
“Thanks,” you say.
“Don’t mention it.”
Then she’s gone, charging at some other deeply unfortunate individual.
Time shifts, while fighting. Several hours might pass, or maybe it hasn’t been a minute. You get tunnel vision, refined in scope to your gun and the weapon of whoever’s challenged you this time. Bodies pile up. Their forces abate, regroup, launch another attack. This is battle: endurance, nothing more. A game of chance and survival. A state of mind.
You blow some goldblood’s pan out when they come at you with a guandao, and then you turn around, instinctively moving back to the quarterdeck, checking to see if Terezi’s been overwhelmed yet. Crew swarmed up the stairs while you were busy with your own fights, and without anyone else up there, it’ll be one on what, five, ten —
But when you get a good look, you realize you needn’t have worried.
Terezi is dancing.
Eight of the Stingbeasts have ascended the quarterdeck, where she guards the wheel. Four wear bladekind, whereas two wield maces, another two clubs. Most are bigger than her, but then, it doesn’t take much bulk to outsize Terezi. Not that it matters. They could be the size of the Highblood, and it wouldn’t make a difference. She uses her sword like an extension of her arm, darting in and out of the fray like a hummingbeast, her slim needle of a rapier blurring like the blades of a helicopter. She scores a cut along one’s arm and whips around to stab the second swordsman in the ankle, bringing them to their knees. Then she leaps away to dodge the stroke of another one’s club. Two try and back her against the rail, but she kicks off it and vaults over their shoulders, cutting open one’s jugular on the way over. She elbows one of the club-wielders in the neck, puts her sword through his shoulder joint, ducks an ax as it careens over her head. By the time someone angles their weapon to hit her, she’s already somewhere else.
Four trolls fall by her hand. Then five. Six. A survivor tries to run, but she wedges her boot under his ankle and pulls, sending him over the railing and into the water below. The second spins his mace over his head and swings for her. She twirls and her blade flicks out, quick, an apparently pointless movement, until blood sprays from the mace-wielder’s throat and he topples over, dead as stone. It completes the set. Eight bodies, sprawled on the deck, with more climbing the stairs to join them.
She tips her head back and laughs in exaltation. The wind catches her hair and snarls it, snapping her coat behind her, and her laughter swells, sheerly ecstatic, like a juggalo refrain. Her face is twisted with wild joy. It strikes up a warmth in your bloodpusher, makes you feel queasy in a pleasant sort of way.
You’re so caught up in watching her that when a rustblood bull-rushes you, you don’t notice him coming until it’s too late.
You train your gun on his knee, but there’s not enough time to aim. He swipes low and grabs your wrist, tightening until your fingers spasm and you drop your weapon. Your gun clatters to the deck and reverts to the coin. The rustblood sweeps your feet out from under you and you hit the ground with a grunt.
Crawling forward, you try to grab your coin, but he kicks your hand away. Rolling to avoid taking a similar treatment to the head, you scramble to your feet and sidestep another backhanded slash with the scythe. He aims another series of strikes at your limbs, and you swerve out of the way. The next few swings, you sway and duck out of reach. He doesn’t land a cut, and you lose territory fast. It’s entirely defensive. To that extent, it’s unsustainable. You can’t keep going like this forever, not when he has a hand full of blade and you have a hand full of nothing.
That’s when Terezi, in what is possibly the most needlessly dramatic thing you’ve ever seen, leaps over the railing of the quarterdeck. She soars down to the main deck and skewers someone through the eye on the descent. When she wrenches her sword out, the blade is red as a legislacerator’s sash.
The distraction gives you time to snatch up your coin from where it fell, although the rustblood notices shortly thereafter. He stabs at you again, and you skid backward. Your back hits the rail. You don’t have time to flip the coin. He’ll be on you before you catch it.
So you curl it into your fist and dodge the swing of his scythe when it comes around, even though that means leaping right into his left shoulder. His arm comes around and hooks around your neck to prevent you from slipping under his elbow, hoisting you up and cutting off circulation. Your feet scrabble against the deck.
Terezi, near the mainmast, dispatches her latest prey with a cut to the abdomen, and backs off, momentarily free.
“Terezi,” you call. Her head whips around.
You fling your coin high.
It rockets up and then plummets with equal speed. She ducks into a somersault and catches it on her way back up, nabbing it out of the air with the hand unoccupied by her weapon. Lightning flickers over the deck, and when it clears, she holds a sword in each hand.
The rustblood tightens his grip on your neck. She leaps for him, one sword arcing around for his head, the other darting up to block his scythe as it swings around. The arm around your throat relaxes, and you drop to your knees; she clears your head in a single jump and knocks his blade out of the way with hers, plunging your rapier through his temple.
He hits the ground like a sack of tubers. She lands lightly on her feet and twirls your sword around in her left hand, offering you the hilt. You take it gingerly, rubbing your windpipe. You’re sure a bruise will have sprouted there tomorrow.
“Good move,” she says briskly. “I wouldn’t have thought of it.”
“Thanks.” You stagger to your feet and get your bearings. It feels better to have a weapon in your hand than you ever thought it would.
The battle’s wearing down. Only a handful of the enemy team remain, and they’re quickly being backed into corners by your own forces. The need for you and Terezi to reenter the fray is minimal. All the same, you don’t put away your sword just yet.
Their captain, a lasciviously dressed goldblood with a bad wound on his right thigh, is surrounded by a quintet of Terezi’s crew. The sigil on his back summons a memory from a few perigees ago, and you cross the deck.
When you approach him, he peers down at you. Nikhee confiscated his strife specibus, leaving him unarmed; it is this which gives you the confidence to get close enough to study his features at length.
“You’re Captain Xoloto,” you realize.
He nods, eyeing your sword. You snap your fingers to regain his attention. “Xoloto,” you say. “I remember where I know that name from. You won the South Merennian Cup last half-sweep.”
“Yeah,” he grunts.
“Refresh my memory. The South Merennian Cup concluded in a landlocked battle between your team and the Restless Ruffiannihilators, did it not?”
He nods brusquely.
“And you took the life of the last Restless Ruffiannihilator after the match had been called, did you not?”
“Mr. Xoloto, are you and were you at the time aware that to kill a troll after a FLARP match has ended is against the rules of the sport, and thus is considered murder under Imperial law?”
He rolls his eyes. You kick him in the kneecap.
“My question, sir!”
“Yeah,” he says, pissed.
You look over your shoulder at Terezi. “You mind if I take this one?”
She pauses in wiping a smear of green off her cuffs, and gestures permissively.
“Thanks.” You swipe the troll’s ankles out from under him, and he drops.
“I will take that as a confession. Mr. Xoloto! I —” You pause, and tap him on the cheek with the flat of your blade. “What’s your first name?”
“Why the fuck would I —”
You kick him again, this time in the thorax. He keels over.
“Marvus Xoloto! I find you guilty of crimes against Her Imperious Condescension and the Alternian Empire, including but not limited to murder. By the power not yet vested in me by the Cruelest Bar, I sentence you to death.”
He doesn’t have time to answer before you slit his throat. The body topples over to one side, decidedly less dramatic than it looks in the movies, drooling blood. There is no fountain of gore. You try not to be disappointed. You wipe your sword on his coat before reverting it to the coin.
Terezi walks over to stand beside you. “Impressive,” she remarks coolly, and captchalogues the body, leaving only a stain of gold on the deck.
A few of Xoloto’s former crew cower at the edge of the deck. Having watched their leader get righteously culled seemed to take the spirit out of them. Nikhee struts over. There are flecks of blood on her suit, despite which she manages a very distinguished air.
“Twenty-three survivors in sum,” she reports. To your gratification, she addresses you and Terezi in equal measure. “Seventeen injured, six with only superficial wounds. One survived the wreck but attempted an assault on a crew member, upon which they were dispatched.”
“Dispatched,” Terezi repeats.
“Forgive my ambiguity. They were killed with extreme prejudice.”
Her smile appears, mildly disquieting. “Well done. Let’s strive for precision, in the future.”
“Yessir. Do you have instructions for the remainder?”
“Whoa,” you interrupt, bloodpusher kicking into high gear, “hey, no. What? What are you doing?”
Terezi blinks, confused. “To kill,” she recites. “Verb: to cause the death of; typically referring to a troll, animal, or other living thing —”
“That’s twenty-three people! You can’t kill them all.”
“They were trying to kill us not five minutes ago.”
“Yeah, but that was in the middle of a battle. Right now, they’re harmless. They were trying to win, and we won, and now it’s up to us how to deal with them.”
“I understand that it falls to us to deal with them. That is why I am telling Nikhee to —”
“No! Why?” You shake your head vehemently. “They haven’t done anything that our own crew didn’t. They’re innocents.”
“They attacked after their ship was down. That’s a violation of the rules. You have an interesting definition of ‘innocent’ —”
“They were following orders. It was that or mutiny! And not all of them killed people. We — I don’t kill innocents.” You amend your statement at her disgruntlement.
“What do you think happened to half of those people when we sank their ship, Vriska?”
“Self-defense is different,” you say staunchly.
“It’s a brawl tournament that we entered of our own volition. I think we have forfeited the right to call it self-defense.”
“I don’t see it that way! And neither does the law.” You fold your arms. “New rule! No killing innocents.”
She cocks her eyebrow, an open taunt. “‘New rule’?”
“It is if you want me for your partner.”
Her mouth sets in exasperation. “You’re being unreasonable.”
“You’re being sadistic.”
“We can’t pause in the middle of a battle to interrogate each of our opponents about their moral standing.”
“Of course! In the heat of battle, I won’t object. But when we have the choice?” You shake your head. “When it would qualify as premeditated? Justice first. Justice must necessarily come first.”
“And I presume it’s justice by your standard.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll have a say, too.”
“There must be rules,” you insist. “Killing indiscriminately is not justice! Might has never made right.”
“And you’re staking our partnership on this.”
“And that doesn’t strike you as a particularly obstinate or unreasonable stance.”
She exhales, pinches the bridge of her nose under her glasses. “You know what,” she says. “Fine! Fine. No killing innocents, when avoidable. If you like. Whatever! You get to deal with the prisoners, then.”
“Gladly!” You rub your hands together. “It would be my genuine delight.”
She snorts at you. “Then go ahead,” she says. “Have a go at it. I’m sure they’ll be properly discouraged from attempting another assault on our ship when you talk them through it.”
“Such a lack of imagination, Captain. Death is far from the worst thing that can be done to someone. In fact, nine out of the ten most effective legislacerative interrogation techniques can only be performed while alive.” You beam, broad and toothy. “Number Six is my favorite. I can put on a demonstration, if you’d like.”
Terezi, whose face could not look less credulous if she took acting lessons, spreads her hands. “Sure,” she says. “Be my guest. Model the virtues of leniency, Neophyte, I long to learn.”
“Leniency has nothing to do with it.”
Nikhee signals to one of the crew to bring some of the prisoners over. It’s a trio of goldbloods, two of them dressed up in identical armor, a third bigger than the two of them put together. Her horns curl down to her hips aside her enormous mane of hair, which brushes the deck.
“Evening,” you greet them. “A lovely one, isn’t it?”
The twins stay muff. That’s fine. The big one grunts, more of an acknowledgement that you spoke than an answer in and of itself. Terezi crosses her arms and shifts her weight to one leg, smug.
You put your hands in your pockets and say nothing. A minute crawls by. Then two.
They start shifting on their feet, rattling their prongcuffs. Unease manifests in the way they itch at their own hands and struggle to stay still. Nikhee prods one of them every time they get antsy. Their tension boils and bubbles over into anxious fidgeting. The most arduous part of any trial is the wait.
Still, you say nothing. After five minutes of this — a respectable amount of time, to be fair; you’ve had prisoners who broke in three — the big one says, “If you’re going to kill us, just fucking do it already,” and you shake your head. But you don’t say anything.
Another five minutes trickle by. Terezi visibly gets impatient, her boot tapping a staccato on the deck. But you don’t break your rhythm, not even for her.
One of the twins leaps to their feet and makes a run for the side of the ship. You catch him by the collar and haul him around, tossing him against the railing, and he almost tumbles over the edge; Chahut stifles a cry. You catch him by the front of his shirt, and he dangles there, whimpering.
“Bad move,” you announce. “Very bad move! You should have stayed put.” You point at the big one. “What’s your name?”
“Chahut,” she says. Her eyes dart between you and the twin you’ve got by the collar.
“Chahut! Lovely name. Had a friend named Chahut, once. That’s a lie. It’s not a very common name. Glad to meet you. And you should be glad to meet me, too!” You shift your grip on the twin’s shirt, and he squeaks. “You see, I’m so much more generous than my partner is. I’m not even going to kill you! Just listen to how generous I am.”
Chahut chafes. “You’re lying,” she says. She doesn’t trust you. That’s good. She shouldn’t.
“That’s a bit presumptuous. I never lie outright.” You lean forward. “Who is this guy on the precipice, Chahut? I never did manage to get his name.”
“That’s Barnum,” she says, quiet. “He’s not a risk to you.”
“Well, I know that. Not really what I’m concerned about here. What I’m concerned about is my grip. I’m kind of clumsy, you see.”
“Yeah!” You tighten your grip, just for emphasis. “Do you want to know what I want, Chahut?”
She doesn’t express anything one way or another. You tell her anyway.
“I want everything you have,” you say. “Ships. Crew. Loot. Levels. Everything that Marvus had, at least! You can keep your own winnings. But, see, since I’m doing you and your crew the very generous favor of sparing you from the bloodthirsty impulses of my friend here, I think the least you could do is pay me back.”
Terezi shifts at the ‘bloodthirsty’ bit, but doesn’t object. You contemplate the thought that you may be showing off, a bit, and push it to the back of your thinkpan where it can’t interfere with your work.
“You already won the tournament,” Chahut objects.
“Yeah. Well spotted. And you broke the rules! Coming up here, after everything was said and done. Not very good sportsmanship. I’d like some compensation.” You glance at Barnum. “You know, a fall from this height probably wouldn’t kill him. What would kill him is the Exile cruising over his head at a speed of ten knots.”
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
“I’m a very clumsy person. It’s unfortunate, but I am. Always have been.” You peer over the side. “Oh, jeez, we’re moving faster than I thought. Twelve knots, maybe.”
“Fine!” She beckons. “Give him back. You can have Marvus’ stuff.”
You don’t pull him over just yet. “I want the material goods delivered to that Thrashthrust docks,” you say. “Or via captchalogue code, if transport is unsustainable. The money can be wired. The account will be under ‘Scourge Sisters,’ when you look.”
“Whatever you want. Just don’t d—”
“I won’t,” you complain, and swing Barnum over onto the safe side of the rail. When you let go of him, his legs collapse, and he falls to the deck, breathing hard. “I keep my bargains. You keep yours, or I’ll find some new way to dangle Barney here over the edge of a tall object.”
Chahut swallows, and nods. You tell Nikhee, “Let the rest of them go. They’re no harm to anybody.”
Nikhee obviously doesn’t like it, but she does what you say. Chahut and the twins are herded back with the rest of the group, and all are taken below deck to wait until Exile next makes port.
You turn to Terezi and spread your arms. “Number Six,” you say.
Her expression is bemusedly fond. She pauses, and then nods. “Number Six,” she repeats. “I like it.”
“Thank you.” You twirl your hand and drop into an elaborate bow. “I have been known, on occasion, to have good ideas! Almost all the time, in fact. All of my ideas. Actually.”
“Or, at least, this time.”
“This time,” you agree.
“Congratulations, Neophyte,” she says. “Very few have ever managed to do that.”
“To surprise me.”
She says it in a way that one might bestow an honor, and although you play it off with a shrug, an ember of pride settles in your sternum.
Terezi extends her hand, and you shake it. The material of her glove abrades your palm.
“Would you have done it?”
“Let him go.”
“No.” You shake your head easily. “I wouldn’t. If she’d really pressed, I would have pulled him back to safety. But she didn’t know that, and nobody’s going to call the bluff when their friend’s on the line.”
She scans your face. It’s impossible to know what conclusion she comes to.
“It’s an intriguing method,” she says, at length, which is probably a compliment. You take it as such, anyway. Then she smiles, briefly, a tight sort of grimace, but it’s sincere. Respectful. It’s not friendly — you’re beginning to learn she never is — but if she ever were, you think this is what it would look like.
“I suppose I just do not understand it,” says Kanaya.
Her chainsaw roars, and she carves asunder one of the undead shambling across her lawnring, a clean slice from hip to hip. It falls to the ground in two hunks of withered flesh, twitching.
A green half moon rests directly above, and the pink waxes in the eastern sky. You wade through the corpses of zombies that pepper the short grasses of Kanaya’s lawnring, gun drawn. You’ve taken to plucking off the pests at a distance, while she prefers to get up close and before mowing them down.
Since she lives in the desert, the heat plasters your shirt to your back with sweat. In the distance, a row of dark burgundy mountains carves a jagged silhouette along the horizon line. Kanaya’s gossamer tent-hive is the only settlement as far as you can see. Acres of ash-colored sand sprawl out in a brutal flatland. Save the trees clustered near the base of her hive, nothing grows.
“Well,” you say, felling one particularly spunky undead asshole who tried to leap on your back, “it’s not for everybody.”
“I know that. I wonder, though, whether I might have learned to like it, given time.” She kicks one in the stomach and decapitates them cleanly. The movement is effortless. You find yourself watching, your mouth kind of dry, and shake yourself off, kill a couple more zombies to feel grounded. “I mean, you clearly enjoy it.”
“Yeah, but I like the rush. Some people just think it’s uncomfortable.”
“The fear of dying? Yes, some people do.” She hefts her weapon and cuts three of them down simultaneously. “And there is some enjoyment to be had in the tactical element, I will grant you.”
“Right?” You’re almost through the whole yard. You pick your way towards the outskirts of the grass ring, putting bullets in any corpses that look twitchy. “It’s fun! Like Monopoly. But deadly. Which Monopoly usually is, anyway, I guess. But you get what I mean.”
“The second part is what gives me trouble.” She pauses, letting her blade drop. “Do you find it fun to risk your life? You come back injured often enough that you must spend the vast majority of your time in deep discomfort.”
“Well, first of all, yeah. It’s a trip. I like fighting, it’s a kind of ch— fuck, watch out.” One behind her springs from the ground and lunges for her neck. You shoot it before it can reach her, and knock it back down.
“Ah. Thank you.”
“No problem. My point was that I like the challenge. It forces you to adapt, survive, plan. Y’know.” You pause. “And I’m kind of good at it.”
“You have mentioned that,” she says, and kills her chainsaw. “I am good at putting in stitches. That does not, however, mean I enjoy it.”
It’s probably meant as a guilt trip, which is the spirit you take it in. “Sure,” you concede, easily enough. “But it’s also the only way you’re allowed to kill without legal ramifications.”
“And your ravenous thirst for blood must needs be assuaged.”
“Oh my God, you know what I mean. A legislacerator’s function is justice! By which I mean: there are some shitty people out there, and some of them happen to play FLARP. They deserve to get what’s coming to them. Which is me. I’m what’s coming to them.”
“Did you workshop that line with Tavros?”
“Hey, fuck you, it’s a good line.”
She twists the cap at the end of her chainsaw’s hilt, and it shrinks back into a lipstick tube. “That should be sufficient,” she says. “I appreciate the help.”
“Sure. Anytime.” You flip your gun in the air, and it shrinks back into a coin on the descent. You catch it and slip it in your pocket, following her inside. “Fuckin’ pain in the ass, though.”
“That is an accurate assessment of the chore, yes.” She leaves the door open behind her. Kanaya’s hive is beautiful, if a bit strange; its unique architecture is built around the ever-present threat of the sun, in a climate with no natural cover. Heavy slates jut out over the ceiling to provide small pools of shade, and her windows, while many, are guarded by thick blinds. Her foyer has a broad circular skylight, and lime moonlight pours into the room. In the daytime, a heavy curtain can be drawn over the glass.
You close the door behind you, while she slips into the nutritionblock. Her lusus runs up and rubs its head against your hip, purring at a volume that could break glass. Sheer white fur gets all over your pants. His wide, grey eyes plead for attention. Pounce is as tall as a miniature hoofbeast, and could probably take you down if he tried. Luckily, he has the temperament of tepid water, and has never injured anything larger than a featherbeast in his life.
You scratch him between the ears, and his eyelids droop in delight. “Hey, Pounce,” you say affectionately. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Do not let him trick you into petting him,” Kanaya calls from the nutritionblock, curt. “He clawed the curtains to shreds earlier.”
“Whoops,” you say, removing your hand. He mewls piteously, looking at you like you just killed a pupa in front of his eyes. “Too late.”
He yowls at her. You can’t understand it — your own caretaker never taught you lususspeak, electing instead to communicate via vague, telepathic sentiments — but you can still grasp the plaintive note in his objection.
“No! You were bad.”
Another woeful moan.
“You are spoiled, is what you are,” Kanaya replies primly. She emerges with a tray of distilled lemon extract and sets it on the table, alongside a pitcher of ice. “Next time, perhaps you will think twice about launching an assault on my interior decor.”
Pounce snuffles miserably and twines around her legs. His ears droop. She glares at him for this patently manipulative tactic, and then sighs, yields, and leans down to stroke his neck. He tips his head back and a purr erupts instantly.
“He’s a handful,” you remark. You shrug off your jacket and hang it on the coatrack by the door, where it dangles next to her trench coat.
“He is. But he is usually quite good.” She pours you a glass. “And easier to manage, as time goes on.”
“He always seems good when I come by.” He makes a delighted noise at this praise.
“Yes. Let it not be said that he was not tactical in his mischief.” She gives his head a last scratch and then gestures to the pitcher. “Please, help yourself. I am going to change out of these clothes. If you would like to borrow anything to do the same, feel free.”
“Nah. That’s okay.”
She toes off her shoes and heads for the respiteblock, Pounce trotting along at her heels. To distract yourself while she’s gone, you toss yourself into a chair and check your palmhusk.
A couple of messages from Tavros, asking for advice on one of his campaigns; you delete those without looking at them. Then a handful from Gamzee, who from time to time will pop up in your inbox rambling about absolutely nothing in particular. You usually answer those, even if only for amusement’s sake. He’s a fantastic conversationalist, so long as you don’t care about coherency in the least.
An update on your FLARP rankings, too, which you have rigged up to send you Trollian notifications every time there’s an adjustment. You open that one.
The Handmaid’s Angels dropped a slot yesterday because of a skirmish with a coalition of lower-ranked teams, put together as vengeance for some slight or other perigees ago. The Cobalt Cannibals should have been up next for the first place slot after that, but they’d taken a huge L in last weekend’s Mendicant Cup. The scores for that one were just plugged in yesterday.
The amended rankings, updated this evening, read:
MULTIPLAYER RANKINGS | KILL COUNT
1. SCOURGE SISTERS | 6,729
2. HANDMAID’S ANGELS | 4,552
3. SHADOWMONGERS | 4,376
4. COBALT CANNIBALS | 3,994
5. MOTHERFUCKING MAGNETS (& CO.) | 3,778
You contemplate popping off a message to Terezi to congratulate her, but decide not to bother her. Even after three perigees, you’re not certain what it is she does in her down time, or if it’s something you ought to feel comfortable interrupting. You know where you stand on the FLARP field; there is little room for emotional ambiguity when you have to trust someone with your life. But interactions outside it are another beast altogether.
Kanaya’s palmhusk, left on the nutritionblock table, rattles. You haul yourself out of your seat and meander over to check it for her.
CC: s0 i was like well they can take it and ram it d0wn their bleating c0mplaint tunnels
CC: because its n0t like they have a leg t0 stand 0n!!
CC: and its kind 0f silly that he cares ab0ut their 0pini0n this much anyway
CC: but i d0nt think i g0t thr0ugh t0 him 8(
CC: h0w's y0ur m0irail?
CC: is that little
CC: thing we talked ab0ut
CC: still...a thing?
“I am back,” Kanaya calls, emerging from the respiteblock. You drop her husk like it burned your hand and toss it across the table for good measure. She comes into the nutritionblock in a fresh skirt and a strapless white shirt, smelling of grass and whatever odd unidentifiable scent she uses in her shampoo.
You turn on the faucet and run your hands under the water. “Cool,” you say. You play it casual. You are absolutely calm. You are the chillest. It is you.
“My lusus has been getting restless lately,” you volunteer. “Been stirring in her sleep. Gave me a bad rash of daymares, last week.”
“Mm. Anything disturbing?”
“Nah, not really. She’s just been worrying me.”
“Have you communed with her about it?”
“I can’t really start that kind of thing. She’s gotta prompt the exchange, and I’ve never been able to figure out how she does it.” You shrug. “It’s nothing big.”
“Well, let me know if the problem persists. I remember reading about nonverbal troll-lusus communication, once. There are probably ways of working around the issue.”
You stifle the derisive snort that rises at the idea. Communion in the first place is supposed to be something out of science fiction. That you can do it at all would pose a pan-boggling question for the scienstiffic community at large.
Her palmhusk vibrates again. She doesn’t notice.
“Kan,” you say, “you’d tell me if you had a problem, right?”
She stops, purses her lips. “Of course,” she says.
“With me, I mean. You’d say.”
“I always say.”
“Well, that’s what I’m asking. Because you haven’t. Before.”
“Because you have never given me reason to.”
“That can’t be true.”
“I have objected to your behavior in the past, Vriska.” She laughs shortly. “If you feel I have not done so enough, I will endeavor to —”
“I know. I know! But, like, that’s different. That’s not us.” You gesture between the pair of you. “If you had a problem with our moirallegiance, I mean. You’d say so. Right?”
“That is necessarily what a healthy moirallegiance entails,” she says. You’ve set her on edge.
“What brought this on?” She tilts her head. But she doesn’t answer.
“Do you have a problem?”
Yes, you do. It’s all of five foot one and it owns a pirate ship, and it’s seriously interfering with your ability to be straight with your moirail.
“No,” you say, scratching your ear. “Just thinking.”
“Dangerous business,” she remarks. “Perhaps you could desist, for a while, and have some lunch instead.”
You make some vaguely noncommittal noise that she takes as assent. A smile returns to her face. “Grubloaf?”
She reaches into the hunger trunk and pulls out a casserole dish topped with tinfoil. “I made this a few nights ago,” she says, “but it should still be satisfactory. If you would like anything to drink, the cellar is unlocked.”
It’s not fair to her. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to Terezi, although frankly you doubt she’d give a good goddamn, to keep it all a secret.
You screw your eyes shut.
“Hey, I gotta tell you something.”
She pauses in taking out the grubloaf, and then sets it down, carefully, on the counter, before answering. “All right,” she says guardedly. “Go ahead.”
You suck in a breath and turn around to face her. This was a bad idea. Looking her in the eye, your resolve takes a long dive off a short plank, and the value of maintaining the status quo seems to quadruple in size.
“I’ve been playing in the partner leagues recently,” you spit out. To be fair, it’s still the truth. You count it as an unqualified victory.
“Oh,” she breathes, and then laughs. “You are aware that there are less dramatic ways to offer a casual life update.”
“Well. I guess, yeah.”
Relief elicits another few chuckles out of her, and she begins peeling the tinfoil off the container. “You guess,” she says. “Start another few sentences like that, please, I enjoy having pusher attacks.”
“So sue me, I have a stylistic flair,” you say. To your ears, it lilts with unease. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“I presume you found a partner,” she says. She starts dividing up the meat, dishing out a generous portion for you.
“Yeah. Uh, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” You take your plate and put it in the nutrientwarmer. “She’s — ah.” You bite your lip and force out, “It’s Terezi Pyrope.”
You don’t look behind you. Instead, you wait for her to speak first, watching the plate of grubloaf spin lazily under the nutrientwarmer’s warm glow.
“Oh,” is what she manages.
“Oh? What does that mean, ‘oh’?”
“It means ‘oh,’” she says, “congratulations, and ‘oh,’ are you being serious?”
“Yeah. I can show you — the registration thing, if you want, we’re official and everything.” You drum your fingers on the counter. “Not that it’s — we’re still relatively new.”
Perigees new. Which, at this point, does not qualify as new, it is at least well-practiced. It is beyond the point where your moirail should know about it.
“Relatively,” you say instead. “We’ve done a couple of tournaments. Tested it out.”
This is your most effective brand of lies: a number of applied technical truths. Most people connect the dots by themselves. Those that don’t only take a little convincing, a thin veneer of falsehood, to give you the benefit of the doubt.
In this instance, Kanaya is one of the many, not the few. “Well,” she says. “I will confess I am surprised. I had understood your relationship as an antagonistic one.”
“It was. It used to be. But I went after her because I wanted a challenge, and when she invited me, I figured — I figured we might as well try, because we might make a good team. And we did. We do.”
“Have you become friends?”
The nutrientwarmer beeps. She still busies herself with food preparations, apparently unbothered by your revelation.
“No. Not friends.”
You open the nutrientwarmer and take out your plate. The grubloaf sizzles and bubbles. You might have overcooked it. “We have another tournament scheduled for this weekend, matter of fact. You can, uh. Come and watch, if you want.”
You convince yourself that this is a good idea. Inviting Kanaya into this portion of your life is a step in the direction of all-around transparency, and she and Terezi got along fine the first time they met, anyway. There shouldn’t be any problem.
At the same time, when she says, “I do not believe that would be particularly enjoyable for anyone involved,” you sag with a relief you immediately feel guilty for.
“You sure?” you press, only because you know she is. “It could be fun. I know that we’re pretty excited for it, ourselves.”
“Be that as it may, I think I would — how do I put this — slow you down.”
“Aw, Kan,” you say, poking her side. “You never slow me down.”
“Then I am not doing my job properly. You would do well to decelerate, once in a while.”
You stick a piece of grubloaf in your mouth and grin around it, goofy and wide, a smile that she’s never been able to resist so long as you’ve known her. True to form, she turns dark green at the cheeks, and blusters at you to chew with your mouth closed, and things are normal again.
It’s not a crime to not tell her the whole truth. To tell her the whole truth would be to open the floor for questions, to invite doubt, and mistrust, and misunderstandings into your moirallegiance. It’s your job, as moirail, to guard your moirallegiance against those things.
So you don’t tell her.
She edges closer to you, scooting her plate nearer yours on the counter in a coy gesture. “After lunch,” she says, “there is a pile in my respiteblock that has been begging to be tested out.”
“Oh, has it.”
“Absolutely. And frankly, I am not of the mind to deny it its whims.”
“Well, that sounds —” Your palmhusk vibrates, which is unusual, since you’d set almost all chats to silent. You say, “One second,” and pull it out for a quick glance.
GC: SORRY TO 8OTHER YOU, 8UT ARE YOU FREE AT THE MOMENT?
GC: I JUST DISCOVERED A NEST OF GAM8LIGNANTS HIDING AROUND THE NORTH END OF DUALSCAR'S COVE. YOU RECALL THE SHADOWMONGERS, I HOPE.
GC: IF ONLY SOME OFFICER OF THE LAW COULD COME 8Y TO HELP A POOR CITIZEN DISPATCH THESE HARDENED CRIMINALS.
“Oh, shit,” you say, and back away from her. You shield the screen from her view with one hand, and start tapping out a reply.
The Shadowmongers are one of the biggest teams in the business. Notorious cheaters, usually for low-ball shit like wading into the novice leagues and cleaning out whole droves of young FLARPers, take no prisoners, all dirty kills. You and Terezi have been trying to track them down for weeks.
“Is it an emergency?” She poses the question seriously.
“Uh — uh, yeah. Fuck. Yeah, it is,” you say, and it doesn’t even register as a lie. “Can I — I gotta go — I’m really sorry, Kanaya, I am, I’ll make it up to you, I swear —”
“Go,” she says, firm. “Take care of things. Troll me when you are finished.”
“I will,” you swear, and kiss her on the cheek. You’re already trolling Terezi on your way out of the room.
AG: 1f only th3r3 w3r3 som3 such off1c3r of th3 l4w 4v41l4bl3
AG: 1ll b3 th3r3 4s soon 4s 1 c4n
AG: w41t up for m3!!
GC: OF COURSE.
Perigees pass, and you and Terezi get really, really good at what you do.
You had appreciated her skill from a distance; you appreciate it more up close. The pair of you work together like a well-engineered machine. Perfect tandem. Almost telepathic understanding. You love the chase, and she loves the victory. You love the trial and the sentence, and she loves the sea and the fight. Terezi calls it opportunity. You call it fate.
Your missions are manifold and diverse. You sail up and down the Boric, cleaning hive with the FLARP circuits there, before she gets bored of the scenery and proposes a move to the Damaran Sea instead. You agree readily enough; you don’t really mind where you enact justice, as long as you get to enact it. And you learned a while back that things move more smoothly if you let her plan out the broader strokes of your team strategy.
The Damaran leagues are harder, but ultimately more rewarding. The prizes are larger. So are the body counts. You lose track of how many trolls you cull in the name of Her Imperious Condescension and the Alternian Empire, how many criminals bite the dust at the end of your sword. Terezi initially treats these legislacerative charades as a kind of joke, a wriggler’s game, but after you’ve been working together for a while, she gets into it. Sometimes, she even roleplays His Honorable Tyranny, offering a solemn subject for you to address during your mock trials. She gets into it. When she puts her mind to it, she can do a decent dragon impression, too.
What you find yourself liking most about Terezi isn’t the fact that she’s a consummate badass, or that she could outthink an Imperial legion without dedicating a full quarter of her brainpower to it. You like the fact that sometimes, in quiet moments, she’s downright playful. She cracks jokes. She can be raunchy. When Terezi is happy, she’s wonderful. She’s not happy often. But when she is, it’s almost worth the other side of her.
Once, you got a real smile. Only once, granted, but once was enough. It was the expression from the picture with her and Nepeta and Tavros — a happy smile, not a victorious smile, not a sly one. It lit up her face. It was a little goofy. It almost stopped your bloodpusher when you saw it.
You stared for long enough that it disappeared, and she frowned at you. “What?”
“Nothing,” you said, shaking yourself out of it.
You approach your one-sweep anniversary with some anticipation and a heaping armful of anxiety to go along with it. It becomes your longest-running friendship to date, excluding Kanaya, although you don’t count Kanaya, her being your moirail and all. Terezi isn’t one for ceremony. She didn’t even tell you her wriggling day until it had passed two weeks previous. You aren’t, either, but you feel that managing to make it through a sweep together without breaking up or attempting murder should be celebrated, at least.
Your latest campaign is a relatively short one, an in-and-out attack on a group of pirates known for pillaging the Rust Coast.
It culminates in the Exile drifting through the wreckage of the Handmaid’s Angels’ fleet. Survivors paddle out of the driftwood clusters and cling to the edge of ship, waiting to be brought onboard as prisoners, while others strike out for the nearby beach. You let Terezi’s crew do most of the heavy lifting.
You and Terezi stand at the stern of the ship. She’s got a hand on the wheel, but she doesn’t bother steering it. In the peaceful waters near shore, not much direction is needed. The pair of you watch as victims are hauled over the edge and locked in prongcuffs, lead off to the detention cells at the bottom of the ship.
“My hive is near here,” she remarks, out of the blue. Points to a cluster of cliffs at the edge of the Rust Coast, some of them spotted with dark, enormous blueblood hives at the peak. Constructor drones like to line up all the castes in hivestems, ensure order. “Just over that way.”
“Oh.” You’re not sure what to do with this information, except say, “Helluva view.”
“It does have one, yes.” She’s oddly somber for a run-of-the-mill conversation. “It’s a castle.”
“Shit, really? Mine’s just a treehouse.”
“In retrospect, I would have preferred that,” she says, and there’s a weird tightness to her tone. “A castle is incredibly inconvenient to maintain, and largely pointless, if you live alone.”
“So why did you build it?”
“I was a wriggler and the castle was the most interesting blueprint offered to me. Not that the wealth of rooms and space hasn’t proved useful, in its own way.” She whistles a signal to Nikhee, who adjusts the ship’s course.
“What do you use them for? I can’t imagine you spend much time there.”
“I mean.” You wave at the deck below you. “You FLARP enough that it’s gotta take up most of your time, being out here.”
“In a sense, you’re correct.”
“In a sense?”
“I spend a considerable amount of time at home,” she says. Her eyes are distant.
She doesn’t answer immediately. When she does, it’s clipped: “My lusus needs tending to.”
“Oh,” you laugh. “Yeah. Sorry. Forgot about the whole lusus thing.”
“What do you mean, lusus thing?”
Her alarm startles you. “I mean, like,” you say, rubbing your neck. “Uh. Having a lusus. Mine is . . . she’s an egg, so. About as low-maintenance as you can get.”
“Ah.” She relaxes. “Mine is rather on the other end of the scale, as lusii go.”
It’s always a dangerous game, figuring out how far to press, how far to dig, with Terezi. You decide to take a chance, and prod her on it. “How do you mean?”
“She has certain dietary restrictions that make her problematic.”
You cock your head. “You mean, like, she can’t eat meat, or whatever?”
She purses her lips. Delicately: “Not all meat.”
“Oh. That’s a pain in the ass.”
“To sum it up, yes.” She whistles again, and Nikhee slows the Exile to drifting speed. “And she is difficult to manage. However, because of her size, I am largely incapable of reprimanding her.”
“Shit. That sucks.”
“To put it lightly.” She shrugs. “It is merely a time-consuming task, ensuring that she does not kill herself through some errant maneuver, and in so doing knock out a wall of her chamber. I have attempted sedation, but it invariably backfires.”
“Gamzee has something for that, I think,” you muse out loud. His lusus responds well to mind honey; you wonder if that might work, for Terezi’s.
She squints. “Who the fuck is Gamzee?”
“Oh. He’s this guy I met, uh. He lives near what used to be Tagora’s place.”
You chuckle. “He’s a riot, you should troll him if you want a laugh. It’s also hilarious — he’s got this incredible psionic ability, like, he could clear a hivestem, but he just uses it to avoid picking up laundry and shit. I’ve never seen anyone who could be so pants-shittingly terrifying also be so utterly non-threatening.”
She says, “Psionic ability?”
“Yeah. This one time he told me he could lift his lusus off the floor using it, and I was like, aight, what’s your lusus, a fairy bull? And he’s like, no, it’s a biclops. A fucking biclops. Those things weigh as much as four hoofbeasts.”
“That’s useful.” She tips her head back, and you can see the calculations running behind her eyes. Neutrally, she offers, “Do you want to invite him to play with us?”
“What? Uh.” You shuffle your feet, trying to explain — even to yourself — your deep revilement at the idea. A third would make your team unwieldy; you operate best as a dual unit. It would change something vital to the way you operate. “No? No. I say this with the greatest possible kindness, but Gamzee’s harmless. Couldn’t cull a troll if his life depended on it. And he’s been high off his ass ever since I’ve known him, so I wouldn’t count on him in battle.”
“Ah. All right, then. More’s the pity.”
The Exile edges around a sandbar and draws closer to the Rust Coast’s southern border. Terezi’s fingers tap on the rail in a rhythm you don’t recognize. It’s fast, three-four meter. A waltz, you think.
“My hive is beautiful,” she says. “I’m not there often. I forget how nice it is, every time I come back.”
Not sure of what else you can contribute but agreement, you say, “That sounds nice.”
“It is. You should see it.”
“I’m sure I’d love it.”
“Do you want to?”
“See my hive,” she elaborates.
You blink, gather yourself into your closest approximate to nonchalance, and say, “What, now?”
“Yes. We’re close, as I told you. We could make port there before we take you home.”
You really should take a moment to think about the offer and its implications. You don’t. “Yeah,” you hear yourself say. “Yeah, sure.”
“Good.” She clasps her hands. “It’ll save me a trip there after dropping you off; I have some chores to take care of, and I’d prefer to get them done with minimal strain on behalf of the crew.” She gets Nikhee’s attention. “Make port at the next stop,” she orders. “I’m making a detour back home.”
Nikhee nods, and spurs the crew into action. The ship veers away from open sea, heading inland, towards the blueblood hivestem.
A thought occurs to you.
“Am I going to meet your lusus?”
It almost makes you feel bashful to vocalize. It’s a relationship milestone. A gesture of intimacy, even, and if it were anyone else, you’d take it that way. But Terezi doesn’t really do that kind of thing, and you fear misreading the situation too much to take it on faith.
She nods. “Probably.”
“Oh.” You do not get excited. You do not! You are a consummate professional, and you are completely unconcerned about the situation at hand. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t worn something nicer, if —”
“She’ll think I’m some sort of degenerate,” you laugh, “coming in with blood all over me.”
Terezi has a variety of smiles. You’ve catalogued them, over the past sweep, with careful attention to detail and meticulous trial and error. You know a pleased smile from an amused smile from a vindictive one, and you can tell from the line of her mouth whether she’s about to say something pleasant.
This smile is new. It’s startlingly bitter, almost not really a smile at all.
“I can promise you,” she says, “that won’t be what she’s thinking.”
She has a penchant for the enigmatic, Terezi. You don’t think much of this remark, at the time.
The Exile docks at a small private pier on a rock beach, perhaps five, ten miles south of the Rust Coast. You know it’s private because the Scorpio sigil is painted on the wood, and only one length of rope awaits the dinghy when it pulls ashore. It gives you pause. You knew Terezi was rich; you didn’t know she was ‘private dock’ rich.
And immediately thereafter, you have to reevaluate your conceptions of her wealth again, since Terezi’s hive is enormous. It sits on the top of a broad, grassy hill, framed by trees, a gothic cluster of towers and severe arches that looks about as inviting as the inside of a cholerbear’s mouth. It dwarfs your hive. It makes your hive look like a three-by-four shack. Terezi’s hive could house the entire Tyrian Court and have elbow room to spare. It could hold a Mirthful Mass. Terezi’s hive casts a shadow the size of a small town on the land beneath it, and it is in this shadow that you ascend the steps to her front door.
Ivy overtakes everything. She leads you through dilapidated carved archways and up crumbling staircases, carpeted with moss; elaborate cobblestone pathways dive between long sprawls of grassy lawns that have been overtaken by wildlife and ungroomed greenery. It looks like a stone forest, shielded by a labyrinth, with a fortress rising at its heart.
She comes up on a pair of rotting wood doors and grips the rusted handle. Throwing her shoulder against it, she manages to wedge it open, and, beckoning you, disappears inside.
The interior of her hive is dark as a bilunar solstice. Moonlight weeps through cracks in an enormous vaulted ceiling, sending lines of light over the floor in odd checker patterns. A staircase winds its way around the circular entry chamber, terminating in some distant hallway above. A hallway stretches out from the opposite side of the room, and she heads towards it.
It takes you a while to figure out what’s so unnerving about it, but it strikes you upon hearing the echoes of your footsteps ring like bells. It’s silent. It looks like it should be crawling with noise, with the natural chorus of wildlife you’ve come to expect from the forest, having lived in it for so long, but there’s nothing. No featherbeasts sing. No rodents chitter. The whole place is as quiet as the vacuum of space, save the whistle of wind through the eaves, and the rustle of leaves underfoot.
A twig snaps under Terezi’s shoe, and you flinch. She speaks over her shoulder.
“Are you coming?”
Her voice practically deafens in contrast with the quiet. It echoes for a long time off the stone walls, contorting into something unrecognizable. Are you coming? Are you coming? Are you coming?
“Yeah,” you say, and your words get the same treatment. She waits for you while you catch up with her. The two of you start off down a thin corridor.
This one has windows, which lets you see out into the grounds. The estate seems to encompass the nearest dozen acres, and from your altitude — you hadn’t realized the place was so high — you can only see one other hive, located at least a few miles’ walk from here. Forest sprouts up from around the castle’s roots. Out the other windows, however, the cliffs fall away beneath you at a breakneck slope. At the bottom, jagged rocks litter the coastline, against which the ocean flings itself with violent force. You don’t get vertigo, but you have difficulty looking down without growing dizzy.
“Where are the animals?” you ask to distract yourself.
She turns the corner and starts descending down a flight of stairs.
“They left,” she says quietly. She does not elaborate.
You get used to the quiet, after a while, but it takes effort not to notice. It’s impossible to ignore your own footsteps, the pulse of your own bloodpusher. The unexpected effect of her hive’s silence is to make you-hyperaware of oneself. This is, again, something you can’t imagine it’s comfortable to live with.
“When I was a wriggler,” Terezi says, and you jump at the sound of her voice — “I found a collection of Mindfang’s records in a meteor some distance from my house.”
“Some journals. Along some artifacts. A weapon.” She taps the sheath of her sword. “I wasn’t sure why they found their way into my hands, at first. A stroke of coincidence, one would think. But coincidence doesn’t exist, not really.”
She doesn’t like being interrupted. You let her draw out the pause for as long as she sees fit.
“She’s my ancestor,” she says. “Marquise Spinneret Mindfang. The greatest pirate who ever was.” The title drips with irony. Her laugh has edges. “Well, to say nothing else of me, I have auspicious expectations.”
“I — congratulations?”
“It’s not something for which I should be congratulated. I didn’t do anything. Only idiots take pride in having crawled out of the right slurry bucket.” She turns. You walk through another great room, the centerpiece of which is a three-tiered diamond chandelier. None of the blocks have much decoration, besides that which the drones would have left behind on the initial build. What furniture is there is all at stylistic odds, lacking a unifying taste, as if pilfered from a variety of other, better designed blocks.
“I’m proud of my ancestor,” you say, hurt.
“You can be proud of them without taking credit for their accomplishments. I wouldn’t congratulate you for being Neophyte Redglare’s kin. You didn’t do anything that Neophyte Redglare did. Why would you deserve accolades for that?”
“Sure, but —”
“It’s not a discussion I’m interested in having,” she says, which curtails it fairly effectively.
“I worked my ass off to be worthy of the mantle,” she continues. “I don’t claim to have managed it, but I think I made a good first impression. FLARP is a piss-poor substitute for the reality of battle, but it offers a network for accumulating resources. I used it as such.”
“Resources for what?”
“Survival,” she says. “Victory. Prosperity.”
“You FLARP to survive?” The laughter bubbles out of you, heedless. Her shoulders hunch. “You sound like a tryhard.”
“I understand that it sounds ridiculous.”
You quiet yourself. “You’re being serious,” you say.
“I don’t understand.”
She leads you down a narrow hallway. You become aware that you are traveling very deep into the hive.
“Weapons,” she says, “are the greatest thing that trolls, as a species, ever invented. Do you want to know why?”
“I mean — sure. Tell me why.”
“Power.” She picks up speed. “To have a weapon at all is to have more power than anyone who doesn’t.”
“A lot of trolls have weapons.”
“Not all power is created equal.”
“That’s not — weapons aren’t — there are other things. More powerful things.”
“Do you have a counterexample?”
“Of course I — there are plenty of counterexamples.”
“Uh.” You wrack your brain, and for whatever reason, the first thing that leaps to mind is a line out of a novella: “Pity,” you offer.
She makes a sound that’s like a laugh but isn’t one. “Thank you, Howlmark Channel,” she says. “Somewhere, Troll Nicholas Sparks is smiling. Care to present your reasoning?”
“I mean — it’s power, too,” you say. “A different kind, right? If you pity someone, they have power. Over you. That’s why — that’s why serendipity is so important.”
“I forget you believe in that shit,” she says. “Tell me: have you ever met anyone in your life you really felt like you couldn’t kill, if you had to?”
She says this like a gotcha. You stop walking. She hears your footsteps vanish, and turns to frown at you.
“Yes,” you say, incredulous. “Yes. Of course I have.”
Her expression flickers through several different phases before settling on pensive. “Who?”
You splutter. “I — well, my moirail, just for starters.”
Her mouth thins. “If you had to,” she repeats. “Point blank. Life on the line, culling fork to your head.”
“Yes! Even if the Empress was at my god damn door, I wouldn’t — Kanaya? Kanaya? No!”
“Your life or hers. You’d die for her?”
You picture Kanaya. The short twist of black hair. The long, careful surgeon’s fingers. The broad, fang-studded smile. You imagine, then, a troll with a ragged mop of hair and hollows under the cheeks and a—
She purses her lips. “Well,” she says, after a pause. “If you have any hope of making legislacerator, you should get working on that.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t —”
“Let’s concede that this boils down to a fundamental difference in worldview and not bother arguing something that isn’t going to change for either of us as a consequence.”
It’s actually one of the few arguments with her that you think worth having. But you swallow your unhappiness and let it be.
At the end of the hallway there sits a thick wooden door, studded with a brass knocker. She comes to a halt in front of it.
“You might want to brace yourself,” she says quietly.
“Why? What’s in there?”
“Nothing that will do you any harm,” she says. “You should know that, first and foremost.”
“You’re not exactly reassuring me, here.”
You shift from one foot to the other in unease. “Should I be worried?”
She exhales through her teeth and says, “I don’t know.”
Without clarifying, she pushes open the door, and enters the room. You follow her.
Immediately upon entering, you understand what she meant, because you come damn close to dropping all pretense of politeness and high-tailing it out of the house. A giant spider occupies two-thirds of the room, about the size of your treehouse in volume, milk white and corpulent. Long, spindly legs fold in close to its body. Each one is ribbed with ugly, misshapen joints. A pair of pincers as long as you are and as sharp as your sword flank its mouth, and higher on its face rests a double-row of bulging, spherical eyes. They’re closed, now; its body lifts and sinks with the rhythms of sleep. It’s a good thing, too. If it had been awake, you honestly don’t know that you could have made yourself stay.
It makes something in you revolt. It makes something in you want to run like the Empress were on your heels. You’ve been afraid, but this thing triggers something in you that is bone-deep.
It sits at the base of a huge, high-ceilinged vault, with windows in the sides that let the moonlight in. A winding spiral staircase leads from the door down to the ground level, a distance of at least a few stories, but the spider’s bulk reaches up to the door’s level at least.
Distracted by the beast, you let the door slide through your fingers, and it swings shut with a noise that reverberates through the chamber. In response, spider stirs, each of its eight eyes sliding open in succession. Its irises are cherry. Its sclera are pitch.
It clicks its pincers together several times in quick succession, accompanied by a high-pitched squeal of a noise. You wish you could understand it; at the same time, you really don’t.
“Yes,” Terezi says. It’s flat. She’s not what you’d call emotive at the warmest of times, but tonight she sounds more like a text reader than she does a troll.
“Only one, tonight.”
Its screech shudders the windows. It grates at the auriculars. It hurts. You almost trip over your own legs at the sound of it; Terezi walks on, undisturbed.
“You heard me,” she says.
It issues another screech, this one less alarming, but no less loud. You brace yourself and follow her down the steps, grateful, at least, that it seems not to have noticed you.
“You’re being fed early. A little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.”
It snarls and resettles itself, lowing its enormous maw to ground level. She reaches the bottom of the stairs and crosses the floor to stand before it. Next to the enormous beast, Terezi hardly appears bigger than an insect. She looks like a tin soldier, a stick-puppet made from clay and string.
“What did you expect? You can have them fresh or you can have a lot of them. I cannot do both.”
She decaptchalogues an 8-ball, which she then smashes at its feet. A corpse appears in the ball’s stead: a messy, horrifically gored bronzeblood, almost twice Terezi’s size, features entirely obscured by blood. It seeps out onto the floor. The stains underneath it have never been washed away. You realize what the crusts around the thing’s mouth are from.
Terezi rolls the body closer to her lusus with the tip of her boot and steps back.
Throughout the encounter, she carefully avoids touching the animal at all costs.
The spider makes another grating noise and sinks its mandibles into the bronzeblood. It eats savagely, a predator tearing into its prey, only you’ve never seen something whose natural prey was trolls before. It makes your intestines convulse and stabs at some deep part of your hindbrain. Run, it cries. Enemy.
Through fear alone, you remain rooted to the spot. After a few seconds, one of its glossy marbled eyes twists around and settled on you. It makes an inquiring noise, and your hand closes around your coin in your pocket. You feel cold.
“No,” Terezi says. It is absolute and clear.
Another irascible screech.
“I don’t actually care.”
That makes it angry. It lifts itself up, slightly, and gives you for the first time an idea of how large it could be, standing at its full height. Each leg is half as tall as your tree. How it got into this cavern, you have no idea; there’s no way it could get out, save destroying the exits.
“Stop it,” Terezi snarls. You startle at her sudden vehemence. “You’re being dramatic. Did you know you don’t actually need to be fed nightly? Zoologists recommend limiting feedings to once a week. Maybe if I’d taken their advice, you wouldn’t be so fucking big you can hardly move your own ugly ass.”
It hisses, and punctuates the expression with a sharp, suggestive clack of its pincers.
“Like you’d have the balls.”
Another guttural retort.
“You know what? I fucking wish you would! Why don’t you, then, why don’t you do me a solid and —”
It snorts, dismissive, and turns back to its food.
“Yeah,” Terezi says. “Because you’d be dead in a week. That’s why.”
It chuffs, an obvious dismissal. It tears off the dead troll’s head and crunches it like a hard candy between its teeth. Blood splatters on Terezi’s boots.
“Savor that shit,” Terezi says, bitingly. “It’s the only thing you’re getting for a while.”
She storms out of the cavern, her steps long and fast, and you have to run to catch up with her. She exits through a door at the side of the block and you just manage catch it before it closes, squeezing through and out into the courtyard beyond.
It’s a broad space, walled in stone arches and centered around a deep circular fountain. Vast lawnrings spill out from beyond the archways, and to the east, there is a perfect view of the sea. Like the rest of the castle, its walls are draped in ivy, lending it an atmosphere of seclusion.
Terezi keeps going until she’s put enough space between herself and her lusus’ chamber that she’s moved out of earshot. She stands perfectly still, hands pinned to her sides. You see her shoulders rise and fall in even rhythm.
Then she decaptchalogues another 8-ball, hefts it, and flings it at the wall. It explodes in a smattering of black glass.
You wait for an item to spring from the shards. Nothing does.
She decaptchalogues a second, throws it on the ground. It breaks with an identical sound. Lays in identical shards. Another, this one split open on the edge of the fountain, littering the current with ink-stained 8-ball water. Another, cracked under the heel of her boot. She wrecks at least a dozen of them on the cobblestone, one by one by one, until the ground is carpeted with jagged glass and a slowly spreading pool of dark water.
Her shoulders heave. Her breath rasps thick against her throat. She closes her eyes and swallows, her throat bobbing. Her hair is wild. You have never seen her undone.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“No,” you say, and you approach her side, ignoring the wreckage at her feet. “You don’t — no, it’s okay.”
“That was humiliating.” She does not look at you. You hate that. You want to see her eyes, and you kind of want to touch her, but you don’t do that. For a lot of reasons.
“I didn’t —”
“I’m sorry you had to see that.” She straightens her jacket, which twisted askew in her fit, and combs her hair over one shoulder.
“I’m not,” you say. “I’m not sorry. How long have you —”
“Been feeding her?” She barks a laugh. “Since I was three, or thereabouts. As you can see, it does not, in fact, get easier with time, no matter what they tell you on the schoolfeeds.”
“Three,” you repeat.
She trudges over to the fountain and sits on the edge. “Yeah,” she says, and it sounds tired. “Four sweeps come Dim Season.”
“That’s —” Unimaginable. Horrific. You imagine coming home to the creature in the cavern every day, and your thinkpan shies away from grasping the very idea. Night after night. Hour after hour. To rise every evening and kill a troll, for no reason other than its necessity. To descend those stairs every morning and offer up the corpse, to watch that thing tear it asunder with utter disregard for the person it once was. To go through your life having been made a murderer at three.
You wonder what that kind of thing would do to a troll. It occurs to you, then, that you don’t have to wonder.
Terezi picks up a sliver of glass and holds it to the light. She says, “I’ll clean this up later.” Her tone could chill wildfire.
“Don’t worry about it.” You settle on the fountain edge next to her, and after fighting yourself for a moment, you put your hand on her shoulder.
She turns stiff as steel, a ridge of muscle tightening under your palm. You pull away instinctively, babbling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t —”
“It’s fine.” She forces herself to say it, you can tell. “You can.”
“Are you sure? If you don’t want me to touch you, that’s fine, I get it, I won’t —”
“No.” She studies the swordsman’s callus on her thumb. You inch your hand back to where it was and set it there lightly.
This time, she doesn’t flinch, but something rigid remains in her face. You decide to let that one be, play it as it lies.
“I think you’re brave,” you say. The corner of her mouth twists acidly.
“What gives you that impression?”
“I couldn’t do this.” You gesture to the castle, to the spider’s chamber, to the sea. “Go out there every night. Handle that. I’d — fuck, I don’t know what I’d do. What I’d be. It wouldn’t be pretty, I’d tell you that.”
“And you think I am,” she laughs.
She rolls her eyes. “Pretty.” It drawls off her tongue, a mockery of the very notion.
“Yeah,” you blurt.
She eyes you out of her periphery, taken aback.
“Not — not like —”
“Of course. I understand. My choice of words was poor.”
“I mean — you are — not like — but. I mean —”
“I think. You —”
“Pretty,” she repeats.
“Well, yeah.” You shuffle your legs. “In a, a facial . . . aesthetic, kind of way. You are. That’s, uh, that’s just a fact, not me . . . not an opinion. It’s not — a bad thing to be. Or.” You feel stupid and young, and with her dark-ringed eyes fixed on you, she seems sweeps older than she is. “It’s a harmless thing to be.”
Whatever she’s looking for, this isn’t it. She turns away and frowns faintly at the ground. “That’s not what I meant,” she says.
“I know you didn’t mean it. But I did. In both senses, I guess.” You kick your feet idly against the foot of the fountain. “You know? Like. You’re . . . you’re pretty cool, I think.”
“Cool. What does that mean?”
You would think she were making fun of you if she weren’t so sincere. “I like you,” you say. “I. I think you’re all right, myself.”
She shakes her head and lets out a small, demeaning laugh. “‘All right,’” she says. “‘Cool.’ ‘Pretty.’ Adjectives that you choose when you don’t have anything substantive to say about the troll in question.”
“Hey, dipshit,” you say, bristling, “I think you’re a good person.”
She startles, still frowning. After a second, she looks at you.
The tip of her nose is half an inch from yours. Her eyes are close enough that you can see the slim lines of paler blue that streak her iris, the tiny shadows cast by her eyelashes on her cheek. You kiss her.
It’s not the smart thing to do. It’s not the reasonable thing to do. It probably isn’t the most helpful thing to do, either. But when the impulse struck you, for whatever reason, you let it carry you through the act. For a wonderful half-millisecond, you let yourself forget that your choices have consequences.
She doesn’t kiss back. But she also doesn’t stop you, and after a moment, she tilts her head slightly to give you better access to her mouth. You kiss her sloppy, the way that wrigglers do, but make up for it in earnestness.
You pull back to breathe. Her eyes have closed, the youthful kind of gesture that you wouldn’t have expected of her. They flutter open when you move away.
“Well,” she says. She wets her lips, another surprisingly tender movement. “Interesting.”
She stands up. Your hand falls from her shoulder.
“I think,” she says uncertainly, “I need to go.”
“Maybe,” she begins. In stilted, halting pieces: “I think perhaps we should take a brief break. From FLARP. I would like — a vacation.”
“A break. Please.” She adds the last like an afterthought.
“A vacation,” you agree, hollow. “Sure. That sounds nice.”
“I will — troll you. When I want to meet again.”
“Yeah. You know where to reach me.” You stand up and wipe your palms on your pants. “You will reach me, though.”
“When the time comes, yes.” She tucks a curl of hair behind her ear, and a part of your bloodpusher that should not be acting up anywhere not in the vicinity of Kanaya Maryam kicks into high gear.
She takes a step backwards, and then says, “Well — see you around, then.” It’s stiff. She turns on her heel, and marches from the courtyard, and that, too, is stiff.
Watching her go would be too much for you, so you don’t. Instead, you make your own way back to the docks. Over the sprawling lawnrings, under the overgrown stonework of her hive. It’s a long trek down, under the shade of her castle, and it gives you time to mull things over. Gives you time to think about the things you should have said.
Chapter 3: the executioners singing joyfully
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
You've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
—Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
The beginning of the end is slow. It happens in increments.
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: so 1 w4s th1nk1ng 4bout 4 pl4n for our n3xt c4mp41gn
AG: wh1ch 4ccord1ng to th3 old sch3dul3 would st4rt th1s gru3ld4y
AG: 4nd 1 know w3 w3r3 go1ng to t4k3 4 br34k from th1ngs for 4 wh1l3 1 know 1 do
AG: but w3 4lr34dy m1ss3d two of our pl4nn3d s3ss1ons 4nd 1m r34dy to g3t b4ck on th3 hoofb34st
AG: so to sp34k
AG: 4nyw4y 1 look3d ov3r th3 t1m1ng of th3 m1ss1on br13f1ng you s3nt m3 34rl13r 4nd 1 th1nk w3 m1ght b3 4tt4ck1ng th31r forc3s 1n th3 wrong pl4c3s
AG: from study1ng p4st t4p3s th3y s33m to b3 pr3p4r3d for 4 front4l 4ss4ult
AG: p3rh4ps 4 wr4p4round g4mb1t from th3 s1d3 would work b3tt3r? not 4 d3m4nd just som3th1ng to cons1d3r
GC: OH. HI, VRISKA.
GC: I APPRECIATE YOUR ADVICE, AND AGREE THAT THE 8RIEFING IS A LITTLE OVERHASTY WITH THE CANNONS. HOWEVER, I DON'T THINK THAT I'LL 8E JOINING YOU NEXT WEEK.
GC: I AM SOMEWHAT OUT OF PRACTICE. I WOULD NOT WANT TO DIVE INTO THINGS.
AG: your3 4 b3tt3r pl4y3r out of pr4ct1c3 th4n most p3opl3 4t th31r p34k
AG: 4nd you know th4t
AG: but 1f th4t 1s wh4t you w4nt 1 w1ll not pr3ss you
AG: t4k3 your t1m3
AG: th4t w1ll m4k3 1t 4ll th3 b3tt3r wh3n w3 g3t b4ck 1nto th1ngs
GC: YES, I SUPPOSE IT WILL.
GC: I DO NOT WANT TO DISSUADE YOU FROM PLAYING, THOUGH. IF YOU WANT TO CONTINUE, YOU MAY USE THE EXILE IN MY A8SENCE.
AG: 1 4ppr3c14t3 th3 g3stur3! 1 r34lly do
AG: but 1 dont th1nk 1d f33l comfort4bl3 s41l1ng h3r w1thout you
AG: sh3s *your* sh1p yknow
AG: 1t would b3 w31rd w1thout you th3r3
GC: IF YOU WISH.
GC: THE OFFER STANDS.
AG: y34h w3ll
AG: th4nks 4nyw4ys
AG: t4lk to you soon >:?
advocatasGambit [AG] ceased trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: how h4v3 you b33n l4t3ly
AG: 1v3 b33n good mys3lf
AG: 1tch1ng for th3 thr1ll of th3 ch4s3
AG: so you know
GC: HELLO, VRISKA.
GC: AS MUCH AS I WOULD LIKE TO TALK TO YOU NOW IS NOT EXACTLY AN OPPORTUNE MOMENT.
GC: I AM SOMEWHAT OCCUPIED.
AG: sur3 sur3 sur3
AG: l4t3r sounds good
AG: good luck w1th wh4t3v3r your3 do1ng! lmk 1f you n33d h3lp
AG: 4s 4lw4ys
GC: I WILL ENDEAVOR TO.
gallowsCorsair [GC] ceased trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: d1d 1t work out
AG: th4t th1ng you w3r3 do1ng
AG: wh3n 1 troll3d you th3 oth3r n1ght
GC: YES, IT DID.
AG: good good
AG: so d1d you th1nk 4bout my qu3st1on
GC: I'M SORRY, COULD YOU REFRESH MY MEMORY?
GC: IT'S 8EEN A 8USY FEW NIGHTS.
AG: 4bout fl4rp
AG: r3: mys3lf
AG: 4nd r3: you
GC: THAT MATTER.
GC: UNFORTUNATELY, THIS PAST WEEK, I HAVE COME DOWN WITH A CASE OF HORN POX.
GC: ALTHOUGH I UNDERSTAND THAT ANY TROLL INSUFFICIENTLY STRONG TO WEATHER THIS DISEASE IS A DISGRACE TO THE SPECIES AND DESERVES THE END THAT THE SICKNESS DELIVERS THEM, SOME HUMANITARIAN INSTINCT IN ME RE8ELS AGAINST THE IDEA OF SPREADING IT WANTONLY AMONGST FLARP PLAYERS.
GC: I ALSO HAPPEN TO FEEL LIKE SHIT.
AG: oh h4h4h4h4
AG: w3ll th4ts ok4y
AG: g3t b3tt3r though
GC: THANK YOU.
AG: h3y um
AG: do you h4v3 4 mo1r41l
GC: . . . WHY?
AG: no no not l1k3 th4t 1ts just th4t th3 l4st t1m3 w3 t4lk3d you dodg3d th3 qu3st1on h4h4
AG: 1 m34n g1v3n th3 cont3xt 1t w4s tot4lly l3g1t for you to do th4t but st1ll
AG: 1f you h4v3 4 mo1r41l 1 could cont4ct th3m or g1v3 th3m 4 l1ft ov3r to your h1v3 s1nc3 your3 k1nd of 1n th3 m1ddl3 of nowh3r3
AG: or 1f you dont th3n
AG: w3ll 1v3 h4d horn pox 1n th3 p4st 4nd l3t m3 t3ll you 1t 1s 4 b1tch!
AG: 4nd wh3n 1t h4pp3n3d to m3 k4n4y4 c4m3 ov3r 4nd m4d3 soup 4nd w3 s4t on th3 couch w4tch1ng dumb t3l3v1s1on unt1l 1 f3lt b3tt3r
AG: 4nd 1t w4snt much but 1t m4d3 m3 f33l b3tt3r
AG: 4nd yours 1s 4 r34lly b1g h1v3 to b3 4lon3 1n wh3n your3 s1ck
AG: 1 m34n l1k3 your r3sp1t3block h4s to b3 h4lf 4 m1l3 from th3 k1tch3n h4h4h4h4
AG: so you m1ght w4nt som3on3 to do th3 soup f3rry1ng for you
AG: 1 could 4sk som3on3 3ls3 to do
GC: I APPRECIATE THAT.
GC: 8UT IT'S COOL.
AG: you sur3
AG: 4ll r1ght w3ll
AG: troll m3 wh3n your3 b3tt3r
advocatasGambit [AG] ceased trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: you know 1 r34l1z3d just now
AG: th4t 1 dont know much 4bout wh4t you do outs1d3 of fl4rp
AG: wh1ch 1s w31rd s1nc3 w3 w3r3 fr13nds for such 4 long t1m3 4nd 1t n3v3r s33m3d to com3 up
AG: 1 m34n w3 4r3 fr13nds but l1k3 wh3n w3 t4lk3d pr3tty much 3v3ry d4y 3v3n th3n
AG: 1t n3v3r c4m3 up
AG: 4lthough 1m pr3tty sur3 1 told you 4bout my 1nt3r3sts wh3n w3 hung out r3gul4rly
AG: or 1t h4d 4 w4y of com1ng up
AG: so you prob4bly know 4 d3c3nt 4mount 4bout m3
AG: but 1 c4nnot s4y th4t th3 conv3rs3 1s tru3
AG: not th4t 1 4m 4bout to st4rt 1nt3rrog4t1ng you
AG: but 1 r34l1z3d th4t your wr1ggl1ng d4y 1s com1ng up 4g41n
AG: your s3cond wr1ggl1ng d4y s1nc3 1 h4v3 known you! not th4t you l3t m3 know th3 f1rst t1m3 >:p
AG: 4nd 1 w4s th1nk1ng 4bout wh4t to g3t you
AG: com3 ooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnn
AG: oh w41t sh1t
AG: th4ts b3tt3r h4h4h4
GC: I DON'T REALLY CELE8RATE MY WRIGGLING DAY.
AG: y3s you d1d 3xpr3ss th4t th4t w4s your d3c1s1on
AG: how3v3r b3c4us3 1 d1s4gr33 w1th 1t 1 h4v3 d3c1d3d to 4ct 4s though you d3c1d3d d1ff3r3ntly
AG: 4lso 1 4m bor3d
AG: r34lly r34lly bor3d
AG: 1t do3snt r34lly h1t hom3 how much fl4rp 1s 4 p4rt of your l1f3 unt1l you stop 1t huh
AG: 1 m34n k4n4y4s do1ng 4s much 4s sh3 c4n but sh3 c4nt 4nd shouldnt k33p m3 comp4ny tw3nty four s3v
AG: 4nd th3r3s only so much grubtub3 you c4n w4tch 1n on3 n1ght
AG: 1 4ctu4lly w4tch3d th1s p3r1g33s schoolf33ds t3r3z1
AG: l1k3 postm4rk to postm4rk
AG: do you h4v3 4ny 1d34 how 1ncr3d1bl3 th4t 1s
AG: 1 h4v3nt w4tch3d 4 schoolf33d s1nc3 1 w4s s1x 4nd 4ctu4lly b3l13v3d th3 3mpr3ss would com3 cull m3 1f 1 d1dnt consum3 th3 1mp3r14lly m4nd4t3d cont3nt
AG: wh4t 4 scrub 1 w4s!
AG: wh4t 1m s4y1ng 1s l1k3
AG: 4lthough 1 r3sp3ct your sp4c3 4nd stuff
AG: 1ts b33n l1k3 4 p3r1g33
AG: 4nd 1 w4nn4 go b4ck to fl4rp1ng
AG: 1t w4s fun
AG: 4nd 1 m1ss 1t
AG: 4nd w3 dont h4v3 to do 4nyth1ng w1ld or str3nuous
AG: w3 c4n just do 4 b4s1c m1ss1on 4long th3 co4st
AG: m4yb3 p1ck off som3 noobs pl4y1ng m34n 1n th3 nov1c3 l34gu3s
AG: or plund3r 4 h1ghblood v4ult or two
AG: wh4dd4y4 s4y
GC: I HADN'T REALIZED THAT YOU HAD STOPPED FLARPING ENTIRELY IN MY A8SENCE. I'M VERY SORRY TO HAVE KEPT YOU OUT OF THE RING FOR SO LONG; I UNDERSTAND HOW ONE'S RECORD CAN ATROPHY IN SUCH A COMPETITIVE CIRCUIT.
GC: CONSIDER THIS MY PERSONAL INVITATION TO CONTINUE IN MY STEAD. I DO NOT AND HAVE NEVER WISHED TO HINDER YOU FROM DOING WHAT YOU LOVE. IT ISN'T RIGHT.
AG: 1 m34n th4t w4snt r34lly wh4t 1 w4s l1k3
AG: w3r3 p4rtn3rs
AG: p4rtn3rs pl4y w1th p4rtn3rs
GC: THAT'S TRUE. 8UT WHEN ONE PARTNER IS UNAVAILA8LE, THERE IS NOTHING IN THE LEAGUES PREVENTING THE OTHER FROM ENTERING SOLO TOURNAMENTS.
AG: y34h 1 gu3ss
AG: but pl4y1ng w1th you 1s b3tt3r
AG: th4ts why w3 w3r3 such 4 good t34m
GC: YOU ARE RIGHT IN THAT WE WERE AN EFFECTIVE UNIT. HOWEVER, CIRCUMSTANCES 8EING WHAT THEY ARE, I DO NOT THINK ANYONE WOULD 8LAME YOU FOR STRIKING OUT ON YOUR OWN.
AG: 1 dont g3t 1t
AG: 4r3 you l1k3
AG: qu1tt1ng fl4rp p3rm4n3ntly?
AG: or 4r3 you go1ng on 4 s3r1ous h14tus
AG: b3c4us3 1v3 h34rd of p3opl3 4t th3 top do1ng th4t for l1k3
AG: 4 s34son or two
AG: 4nd 1f th4ts th3 c4s3 4ll you n33d to do 1s just
AG: t3ll m3
AG: you know
AG: 1nst34d of m4k1ng m3 th1nk 1ts 4 br13f v4c4t1on wh3n 1ts k1nd of obv1ously not
GC: YOU SEEM UPSET. ARE YOU?
AG: 1 just w4nt to know wh4ts go1ng on
AG: th4ts 4ll 1t 1s
AG: sorry 1f 1m 4ct1ng p1ssy 4bout 1t but
AG: 1 dont r34lly know wh4t h4pp3n3d so
GC: IT'S COMPLICATED.
AG: y34h 1 f1gur3d
AG: 1ts just th4t 1 m1ss th4t c1rcu1t you know
AG: th3 cr3w
AG: p4rtn3r fl4rp 3nd3d up b31ng 4 lot mor3 fun th4n solo pl4y3r 3v3r w4s for m3 4nd 1 s3r1ously 3njoy3d 1t
AG: 1 w4nt to go b4ck
AG: 4nd 1 hop3 1m not wrong 1n s4y1ng 1m not th3 only on3
GC: OH. I UNDERSTAND.
GC: YOU WANT TO PLAY IN THE PARTNER LEAGUES.
GC: WELL, AS I SAID 8EFORE. I DON'T WANT TO HINDER YOU FROM SUCCEEDING TO YOUR FULLEST IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM.
GC: THERE ARE INSTRUCTIONS FOR DUAL REGISTRATION ON THE FLARP WE8SITE. THEY'RE 8URIED PRETTY DEEP, SINCE NOT MANY PEOPLE DO IT - THE WORKLOAD IS IMMENSE, IF 8OTH TEAMS ARE ACTIVE - 8UT THEY EXIST. AS LONG AS 8OTH TEAMS A PLAYER CONSTITUTES PART OF DON'T PLAY IN THE SAME MATCH, THE MOVE IS PERFECTLY LEGAL.
GC: YOU AND YOUR PARTNER SHOULD 8E A8LE TO REGISTER USING YOUR ACCOUNT WITHOUT ANY PRO8LEMS. IF THERE IS, I KNOW A GUY IN TECH THAT CAN HELP SORT THINGS OUT. HE'S A 8IT OF A PILL TO TALK TO, 8UT IF YOU NEED ME TO, I'LL PERSEVERE.
AG: m3 4nd my p4rtn3r?
GC: YOUR NEW PARTNER.
GC: THE ONE YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH.
AG: your3 my p4rtn3r
AG: who 3ls3 do you th1nk 1 w4nt on my s1d3
GC: YOU WERE TALKING A8OUT US?
AG: who 3ls3
GC: I THOUGHT YOU HAD IMPLIED YOU HAD SOMEONE ELSE WHO WANTED TO PLAY WITH YOU, AND THAT OUR PARTNERSHIP WAS PREVENTING THAT FROM 8ECOMING A REALITY.
AG: 1 w4s t4lk1ng 4bout th3 cr3w
AG: 4nd or you
GC: THE CREW?
GC: THE CREW HAS ALREADY TAKEN OTHER JO8S.
GC: THEY'VE 8EEN PLAYING EVER SINCE OUR LAST JOINT MISSION.
AG: 1 thought th3r3 w4s 4 cl4us3 4g41nst th4t 1n th31r contr4ct
GC: THERE IS.
GC: I VOIDED THEIR CONTRACTS.
AG: wh4t h4pp3n3d???? why??????
GC: THEY WEREN'T GETTING THE HOURS OF PLAYTIME THEY WANTED, AND I DECIDED THAT MY USE FOR THEIR SERVICES HAD DWINDLED.
GC: IT'S NOT A 8IG DEAL. JUST A CHANGING OF THE GUARD, I SUPPOSE.
AG: th4t w4s 4 good cr3w!
GC: YES, INDISPUTA8LY.
AG: so you just
AG: l3t th3m go?
GC: LET THEM GO IMPLIES A COLDER SENDOFF THAN IS ACCURATE. TRUST ME, THEIR SEVERANCE PACKAGES WERE VERY GENEROUS.
AG: 1 dont g1v3 4 sh1t 4bout
AG: wh4ts up w1th you?
AG: you h4v3nt r34ch3d out 1n
AG: wh4ts up w1th you r1ght now
GC: I DON'T UNDERSTAND.
AG: h4v3 you qu1t
AG: b3c4us3 you c4n just s4y you qu1t
GC: NO. I'M NOT QUITTING.
GC: WHAT GAVE YOU THAT IMPRESSION?
AG: you h4v3nt pl4y3d 1n 4 p3r1g33!
GC: WHAT GAVE YOU THAT IMPRESSION?
AG: youv3 b33n pl4y1ng w1thout m3?
GC: IN THE SOLO LEAGUES, YES.
AG: 1 p4trol th3 l34d3rbo4rds for th3 loc4l solo c1rcu1ts
AG: your n4m3 h4snt turn3d up
GC: I KNOW.
GC: I PLAY IN THE DAMARAN SEA.
AG: th3 d4m4r4n s34 1s l1t3r4lly l34gu3s north of your h1v3
AG: why would you go th4t f4r to pl4y
GC: IT'S A GOOD CIRCUIT.
AG: so 1s th3 on3 n34r your
AG: d1d you do 1t just to 4vo1d m3 s331ng
AG: w3r3 you try1ng to 4vo1d m3
GC: NO. THAT'S SILLY, VRISKA.
AG: w3ll 1 just dont und3rst4nd why 3ls3 youd
AG: youv3 b33n pl4y1ng w1thout m3
GC: IS THIS GOING TO 8E AN ISSUE?
AG: 1 dont know
AG: 1 gu3ss 1 n33d to l1k3
AG: proc3ss th1s
AG: 1 gu3ss
GC: ALL RIGHT.
GC: SHALL I GIVE YOU SOME PRIVACY?
AG: 1 m34n
AG: for th3 mom3nt 1 th1nk th4t m1ght b3 good
GC: AS YOU WISH.
gallowsCorsair [GC] ceased trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: h3y so um
AG: 1v3 h4d som3 t1m3 to th1nk 4bout 1t 4nd
AG: 1v3 d3c1d3d 1m ok4y w1th you pl4y1ng w1thout m3!
AG: 1 m34n
AG: you d1d s4y you thought w3 should t4k3 4 br34k from fl4rp
AG: thos3 w3r3 your words
AG: so 1ts not your f4ult th4t 1 1nt3rpr3t3d 1t to m34n
AG: w3 both should t4k3 4 br34k from fl4rp
AG: 1nst34d of "w3 should t4k3 4 br34k from pl4y1ng fl4rp tog3th3r"
AG: so 1 th1nk 4ll th1s c4n b3 ch4lk3d up to 4 m1sund3rst4nd1ng
AG: but 1n th3 m34nt1m3 1 b3l13v3 th3r3 4r3 som3 qu3st1ons wh1ch 1 should 4sk you
AG: just to m4k3 sur3 th3r3 4r3 no furth3r m1sund3rst4nd1ngs
GC: I HAVE NOTHING 8UT RESPECT FOR YOU, 8OTH AS A FLARPER AND A PERSON.
GC: 8UT I NEED YOU TO UNDERSTAND THAT - AS FAR AS FLARP GOES?
GC: LET'S LET SLEEPING 8ARK8EASTS LIE.
AG: you m34n l1k3
GC: I DON'T 8ELIEVE I WAS UNCLEAR.
GC: I REGRET IF THIS HAS CAUSED ANY KIND OF UNCERTAINTY OR DIFFICULTY FOR YOU.
AG: you know wh4t
AG: 1d l1k3 you to b3 str41ght w1th m3
AG: just l1k3
AG: fuck1ng b3 str41ght w1th m3 for onc3
AG: you know
AG: c4n you do th4t
AG: no doubl3 t4lk
AG: no soft3n1ng th3 h1t
AG: just fuck1ng t3ll m3 wh4ts up ok4y
GC: FINE. IF YOU WANT ME TO 8E STRAIGHTFORWARD, STRAIGHTFORWARD IS WHAT YOU'LL GET.
AG: would you l1k3 1t 1f 1
AG: would you pr3f3r 1t 1f 1 just l3ft you 4lon3
AG: from now on
AG: 1s th4t wh4t
AG: 1s th4t th3 3nd go4l h3r3
AG: b3c4us3 1
AG: 1f th4ts wh4t you w4nt 1 c4n
AG: 1 dont w4nt to 4nnoy you 1ll go 1f you w4nt
AG: 1f th4ts wh4t you w4nt
GC: THAT WOULD PRO8A8LY 8E FOR THE 8EST, YES.
AG: th4nks for t3ll1ng m3 1 gu3ss
GC: NO HARD FEELINGS, RIGHT?
AG: psssht y34h of cours3
AG: who do you t4k3 m3 for
AG: 1m 4 consumm4t3 prof3ss1on4l 1
AG: 1 n33d to go
GC: ALL RIGHT.
gallowsCorsair [GC] ceased trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
It isn’t the first time you’ve lost a friend. It feels different anyway. It hurts differently, takes longer to put yourself together from. Kanaya doesn’t find out for perigees after the fact, which probably makes you a bad moirail. There is some small consolation in the fact that FLARP no longer takes so much of your time away from her, but it fails to make you feel better.
You miss her. You do. You miss her voice and her laugh and everything else that the movies could tell you you would miss, but also the less apparent stuff: you miss the way she fought, all class, no quarter, and the way her lips curled when she had an idea. You miss hearing her snip at you for saying something obvious or corny. You miss sniping back. You miss having her there, even when neither of you were saying anything, even when it was just the both of you sitting in a silent room, being near.
Kanaya says, “I’m sorry,” and she means it, she does. But she only understands as much of it as you let her, and you don’t let her understand much. It’s your own fault. You hate trying to explain what the Scourge Sisters were. It diminishes it, somehow.
Terezi remains on the leaderboards. She’s taken to team FLARP in other leagues. She doesn’t seem to have a partner, nowadays, just a crew. That shouldn’t make you feel better, but it does. She keeps winning tournaments, and in your own league, you do, too. You don’t do it as often — the only reason the pair of you did it as often as you did, in retrospect, was her lusus’ feeding schedule, which you no longer have to keep — but you keep a respectable place on the leaderboards and you only get better with age. Some of the old crew of the Exile reach out to you. You dabble in the team leagues, you help them out as much as you can. They’re good players. They ascend the rankings quickly, and then they leave, onto greener pastures and rockier seas.
You don’t see the Exile again for a long time.
Your seventh sweep draws to a close with your second molt. Your skin thickens and darkens to a nice charcoal color, and a new layer of red banding appears around your horns. Traces of teal emerge around your irises. You get growing pains in your back muscles, which Kanaya assures you are normal but you privately think must be especially bad for you. Residual avian gene, your ass.
On your eighth wriggling day, you wake up to a devious and indefensible hope taking up residence in your thinkpan. It infuriates you. You have no business expecting Terezi to reach out to you in any way; you don’t know what you’d say, if she did. You don’t know if you’d want her to. Any kind of expectation of reconnection — just because you happened to crawl out of the birthing caverns a handful of sweeps ago tonight — is a wrigglerish fantasy that belongs in dumb movies and romance novels, and you want it kept far, far away from your reality.
Genuine or not, you get your wish. Kanaya comes over with a two-layer cake and you invite everyone you think could come and would like to, which is two people, only one of whom can swing it, but that’s fine, you don’t like big parties anyway. The drones drop off a box full of eighth-sweep schoolfeeding material and give you the customary wriggling day death threat, which is personally tailored for you based on the data made available through Imperial records, and is very touching. Kanaya gives you the Fifth Edition FLARP Compendium, shiny and new in its dust jacket, and you yell a little bit and hug her and then run off to read it for two hours. It’s nice.
But nothing really happens.
Which is why on the morning of your wriggling day you find yourself preparing for sleep with a distinct sensation of disappointment, which annoys you to no end, as by all feasible metrics, tonight was an excellent night. So there was nothing exciting about it! No dermis off your vertebra. There is no reason for you to be feeling the way that you do, none at all. You haven’t even checked the FLARP rankings. That is how satisfied and unbothered you are.
You’ve already stripped down to your undersuit and are in the process of brushing your fangs when the palmhusk buzzes. Normally, you let messages this late in the night wait until tomorrow evening, but a glance at the screen shows it’s Gamzee, who rarely retains any thread of conversation for more than a few minutes, so the chances of him remembering what he wanted in the evening are next to null. You sigh and click the notification.
terminallyCopacetic [TC] began trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
TC: HeY vRiSkA
TC: MoSt ExCeLlEnT mUtHeRfUcKiNg BiTcH2I2 ThAt EvEr WaS oR wIlL bE
TC: CaN a FuCkEr A2K yOu FoR 2OmE hElP aT tHe MoMeNt
TC: HeS iN oNe LeAvInG oF a SiTuAtIoN aNd He DoE2Nt HaVe A fUlL fUcKiNg AwArEnE2S oF eXaCtLy WhAt ThE fUcK tO dO
TC: AlL tOlD hE2 In SoMe DiRe MoThErFuCkInG dAnGeR oF fReAkInG tHe FuCk OuT
AG: would th3 moth3rfuck3r 1n qu3st1on h4pp3n to b3 you g4mz33?
TC: Aw SiS yOu GuE2SeD iT
AG: hmm y3s
AG: my pow3rs of p3rc3pt1on 4r3 known to b3 sup3rl4t1v3
AG: th3 n3ophyt3 1s r3nown3d for h3r 1nv3st1g4t1v3 t4l3nts! >:)
AG: *rubs ch1n 4nd surv3ys s1tu4t1on*
TC: Uh NoT tHaT tHe RoLe PlAyInG tHiNg I2Nt FuCkIn SwEeT aS hElL
TC: BuT nOw I2Nt ReAlLy A gOoD mOtHeRfUcKiNg TiMe
AG: hold on 1s th1s r34l
TC: FuCk MaN
TC: HeLl If I kNoW
TC: WhAtS rEaL eVeN
AG: now 1s not th3 t1m3 for your stup1d 3x1st3nt14l1sm
AG: 4r3 you 1n 4 r34l 3m3rg3ncy?
TC: ThAtS wHaT i WaS hOpInG yOu CoUlD tElL mE
AG: how 4m 1 suppos3d to t3ll you wh3th3r or not you 4r3 1n 4n 3m3rg3ncy
AG: 1f 1 do not know wh4t 1s go1ng on!
TC: YoU aLwAyS mAkE tHeSe GoOd MoThErFuCkInG pOiNtS
AG: 4ll r1ght w3ll
AG: how 4bout th1s
AG: r4t3 your 3m3rg3ncy on 4 sc4l3 of 1 to 5
AG: 1 b31ng "1 4cc1d3nt4lly put s1lk 1n th3 w4sh1ng m4ch1n3 but 1 th1nk 1ts drycl34n only"
AG: 4nd 5 b31ng "1 4m ly1ng 1n th3 wr3ck4g3 of 4 burn1ng h1v3 b3s1d3 th3 bon3s of 4 b3lov3d fr13nd 4nd 1 h4v3 no m3mory of th3 p4st hour"
TC: WeLl SoUnD2 LiKe YoU dO gOt ThE kNoW oN tHe SiTuAtIoN tHeRe SiS
TC: DoNt KnOw WhY yOu NeEd Me To PuT tHe ExPlIcAtE oN yOu
AG: goodn3ss gr4c1ous
AG: you 4r3 4s cl34r 4s 4 br1ck w4ll
AG: just r4t3 your s1tu4t1on g4mz33!!
TC: FiVe SqUaReLy
AG: oh sh1t
AG: wh4ts th3 s1tu4t1on
TC: I tOlD yOu LaDy FrE2HwAtEr
TC: ItS a FiVe
AG: y3s th4t 1s wh4t th3 r4t1ng 1s!! now 3xpl41n wh4t h4pp3n3d!!
TC: No MaN
TC: I kNoW
TC: ThAtS tHe SiTuAtIoN
TC: ThAtS wHeRe Im At
TC: A fUcKeR iS kInD oF fReAkInG oUt ToO
TC: DoE2Nt ReAlLy KnOw WhO tO mE2SaGe
TC: So HeS cAlLiNg Up An OfFiCeR oF tHe LaW tO cOmE aNd GeT hEr SoLvE oN wItH tHiS mOtHeRfUcKiNg MyStErY
AG: 1 4m only go1ng to 4sk th1s qu3st1on onc3
AG: so 1 n33d you for onc3 1n your l1f3 to g1v3 m3 4 str41ght 4nsw3r
AG: d1d som3th1ng h4pp3n to your h1v3
AG: 4nd 1s som3on3 d34d
TC: WhIcH oNe I2 ThE qUeStIoN yOuRe OnLy A2KiNg OnCe
TC: AnD wHiCh OnE iS tHe OnE wHeRe I gIvE a StRaIgHt AnSwEr
AG: g4mz33 1f you do not t3ll m3 wh4t 1s go1ng on r1ght now 1 w1ll pull your stup1d horns out l1k3 corkscr3ws!!
AG: ok4y th4t w4s ov3rz34lous 3v3n for m3
TC: YoU uP aNd ThInK
AG: but s3r1ously
AG: t3ll m3 wh4ts go1ng on
TC: WeLl ItS nOt My HiVe
TC: DoNt ReAlLy KnOw WhErE tHe FuCk I aM eXcEpT iM oUt At SeA
TC: NoT rEaLlY lOvInG tHaT
TC: AiNt NeVeR fElT cOmFoRtAbLe OuT hErE
TC: SpEcIaLlY nOt WhEn Im StRaNdEd On SoMe I2LaNd In ThE mIdDlE oF nOwHeRe
TC: BuT iM aL2O nOt LoViNg ThE dEaD cHiCk NeXt To Me
TC: LoOkInG aLl KiNdS oF fUcKiNg WrEtChEd
TC: AnD i AiNt GoT nO bOaT
TC: WhIcH iS aL2O pReTtY fUcKiNg WrEtChEd
TC: BuT tHeN i ThOuGhT
TC: ThI2 MaIn BiTcH2I2 Of MiNe HaS hErSeLf A mOtHeRfUcKiNg ShIp!!
TC: So ShE cOuLd CoMe GeT mE
TC: AnD pO2SiBlY aL2O tElL mE wHaT tHe MoThEr FuCk I2 GoInG oN
TC: AlThOuGh EvEn JuSt DoInG tHe FiR2T bIt WoUlD bE mIgHtY fUcKiNg ApPrEcIaTeD
AG: th1s 1s cl34rly mor3 s3r1ous th4n 1 4nt1c1p4t3d
AG: hold on 4nd s3nd m3 your loc4t1on coord1n4t3s
AG: 1 4m com1ng to g3t you!
AG: s1t t1ght
TC: NoT lIkE i ReAlLy GoT aNoThEr MoThErFuCkInG oPtIoN
TC: BuT wHaTeVeR yOu SaY lAdY lEgI2LaCeRaToR
advocatasGambit [AG] ceased trolling terminallyCopacetic [TC]
You leap out of your chair and throw on your legislacerator’s uniform — it happens to be the closest thing, and it’s the only thing you own that’s armored — and stop on your way out the door.
Gamzee said he was at sea. Sea, access to which is mediated by one’s possession of a ship. A boat. A naval vehicle of any kind, the likes of which you do not own.
You rifle through your mental compendium of vehicle-equipped friends. Kanaya has a hoverlift, but those only work on land and shallow water. Tavros has a ship, but he lives way out in the depths, and it’s debatable whether he would send something out to help you run a pickup mission. Terezi, obviously, but —
You look back down at your palmhusk. There’s a green light beside her handle.
Maybe, if you asked nicely —
At this point, it’s debatable whether she would come if you were the one stranded. For a pickup mission for an unrelated party, you’d do better to ask the Empress for a ride.
The husk pings as Gamzee sends you his location, a list of coordinates that puts him squarely in the middle of the Damaran Sea. It’s deepwater, too, the seadweller trenches that landdwellers hardly ever go unless by invitation. And invitations are issued with extreme rarity.
You run through your list of friends again. It occurs to you in doing so, with a small twinge, that you don’t have very many of them.
A rattle comes from behind you. You don’t pay it any attention. The branches of your tree rustle all the time, shifting and swaying with the weather.
But then it happens again. This time, it’s accompanied by a distinct crack.
Your lusus’ egg is about the size of a small table, and perches on one end of a large scale in your respiteblock. It’s balanced on the other side by a skull. Although this was an admittedly tacky decorative decision, it looks cool as fuck, so you never bothered to change it. At this point, your lusus’ corporeal form means little to you, since there’s nothing to be done with it; the only time you ever communicated with her was in sleep, so the idea of her actually existing inside the shell was one that occurred to you rarely.
In all the time you’ve known her, the egg never did anything interesting. It never shook, trembled, made any noises, or did anything else to suggest it held a living creature. There were times, as a wriggler, when you would spend nights wishing and praying it would. But it did not.
Which is why, as you watch the crack in your lusus’ egg spread, your anxiety happily leaps from Moderate Discomfort to DEFCON 1 in the time it takes for a piece of cartilage to fall from her shell.
“Fuck. Fuck! No! No, bad, bad —” You cross the room and pick up the piece, trying to hold it up to the shell, as if that’s going to make it any better, as if that’s the way eggs work. “You — what are you doing? Is this bad? This feels bad, fuck, fuck fuck fuck, are you dying, is this —”
Another, larger piece falls off, and you stifle a shriek.
“Not right now! God fucking — you’re going to be okay, all right, whatever this is, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s —”
The entire top of the egg severs from the main body in a decisive crack, and then slopes off to one side. You stumble backward, holding your breath.
Your lusus raises her head from over the edge of her shell. She shakes off the embryonic fluid clinging to her head, flutters the ridged spines along her back, and opens her eyes. They glisten scarlet.
She chirrs, a bizarre sound that lands somewhere between a predatory featherbeast’s cry and a reptile’s hiss. Lifting herself out of the remains of her egg, she spreads a pair of vast, sheer white wings, which when extended span the length of the room.
Her body is about as long as two recuperacoons put together, with a lengthy snout and crested spines fanning from the back of her head in the shape of sharp waves on the sea. Her wings are wide, leathery kites, still wet from her egg, and her feet are tipped with glittering silver claws; her skin is guarded by double layers of white scales. Smoke wafts from her nostrils. Her teeth droop over her bottom lip. They are large enough to tear a troll in half.
She snorts. Her tail whisks around and knocks over a bookshelf, wagging delightedly. You love her.
“Oh my God,” you say. “Oh my God. You actually —”
A whirr. You think it probably means Yes.
“Goddamn. Goddamn goddamn. You can —” You take a second look at her wings, and then give her size another eval. “Hold on.”
You rummage through your sylladex, sending objects flying everywhere. She dodges a treatise on legal reasoning and gives you a baleful look.
Finally, at the very bottom, you find the item you want and decaptchalogue it. The saddle falls into your hands, rough, abraded leather and fraying straps, but functional despite its age.
“Hey,” you say. “So I know you’re, like, all of half a hot minute old? And everything? I do. But consider this: something fishy’s going on with one of my friends, and I kind of need to get there fast. And, uh, I don’t have a ship. At the moment.” You take a careful step closer. She doesn’t react aversely, so you approach further still. “Ballpark estimate,” you say, “how okay would you be with, like. Carrying someone?”
She shakes out her wings and gives them an experimental flap. The current it generates flings you backwards into the far wall, and sweeps over a table. You drop a couple of colorful words.
Pyral whines apologetically.
“S’okay,” you grunt, staggering to your feet. “Don’t even worry about it. Don’t even. It’s fine. Just — do what’s natural, pal, it’s all good. Test em out.”
She takes a step off the scale, stretching out her feet and arcing her back in a stretch. Carefully, she moves off the platform, and sits on her haunches, surveying herself. The breadth of her shoulders isn’t sizable, but it’s wide enough for a troll to settle there comfortably. It’s just a question of whether or not she can support you.
To be fair, you don’t even know if she can fly. Young featherbeasts, you know, take a couple weeks to get the hang of it, and ‘getting the hang of it,’ for them, mainly involves leaping off high places and then falling. Given that you’re going to be sitting on your back, you’re not keen on using the experimental method here.
But she nudges the saddle with her nose and dips one wing, giving you access to her back, and you suppose that there are worse ways to get incredibly fucked up. ‘Died trying to ride a dragon across the Damaran Sea’ is about the most badass legacy anyone ever had.
“All right,” you say, and fasten the saddle around her midriff. “If this doesn’t work —”
She chuffs at you. Another new discovery: your lusus is a proponent of positive thinking. Who knew!
“Well, sure. But to be clear: if this is, like, too much for you, if you think I weigh too much, just put the kaput on this whole operation.”
“Sure, you may think that. But even trolls don’t come out the egg ready to kick ass and take names, right, so it’s not your fault if —”
Another irritated noise.
“Fine! Far be it for me to doubt you, Miss Five Minutes Old, you obvious bastion of strength.”
It strikes you out of nowhere: you’re talking to your lusus. Such a normal thing to think, but it catches you somewhere in the throat, in the part of your thinkpan that’s still three sweeps old: you’re talking to your lusus.
You let out an ecstatic, absolutely embarrassing little giggle, and hook the final strap on her harness. Moving slowly, so as not to startle her, you swing a leg over her back and ease yourself into the seat.
As soon as your ass meets the leather, she lets out an excited shriek and careens forward, shooting through the door and taking out at least a good portion of the doorframe. You cling to the front handle of her harness for dear life, clenching your teeth, as she bounds through the entertainment block, through the front door, out onto your front porch, and out —
She falls, and you let out a scream. The wind tearing the sound from your lungs. The ground shoots up at you with breakneck speed, bearing closer, as vertigo clenches your stomach and threatens to loose you from the saddle. The world spins. You clench your eyes closed and hug Pyral’s neck, bracing yourself for the moment of impact.
Her wings snap wide, and an updraft carries you through the canopy. You let out another scream, this one jubilant, and then a few whoops for good measure, laughing with hysterical joy. Adrenaline and relief course through you like opiates. Pyral banks and does a quick spin in midair, kind of teasing, and you cling to her tighter.
“Fuck yes! Fuck yes! You magnificent fucking lizard, fuck yes!”
She climbs higher. The trees cluster and shrink beneath you, and you can see the whole forest, spread out under you like a purple carpet. You can see the ocean, lapping at the beach a few miles to the east. You can see the mountains in the distance, the city at the edge of the treeline, and the island chain dotting the reef a ways from shore. You can see everything.
You feel free.
“Okay,” you say, partially for the sake of communicating, partially just to ground yourself. “Okay, so I gotta go out — out to sea, I have the coordinates, uh, here. We gotta figure out how navigation works. Do you wanna just — like, how about this. What if I just, like, lean the way I wanna go, and then you —” Experimentally, you lean forward.
She flattens her wings and shoots toward the sea, picking up airspeed like a bullet in freefall. You yelp in surprise, and rear back; she flicks up her wings, and the air resistance catches you in midair.
“Fuck,” you say, and then, “okay,” and then, “we can work with this, this can work,” and you slide back into a neutral position. She drifts along at a moderate pace, heading in the direction of the beach.
“Cool,” you breathe. “All right. I’m riding a fucking dragon. This is chill. This is whatever. This is just my life, now.”
She snorts in amusement. You swat her side absentmindedly.
“We’re gonna have,” you say, “so much fucking fun.” Grinning — probably a little bit goofy, but whatever, like anybody is going to make fun of you right now — you lean forward.
She lets out a cry, and soars toward the sea.
You find Gamzee stranded on a craggy outcropping of rock and hard-packed stand, hunched over and leaning on his knees. The kid’s grown since you saw him last. He’s tall as shit, and although he never had a lot of meat on his bones to begin with, he’s evolved from ‘could use some nutrient bars’ to ‘reanimated exoskeleton.’ His general shabbiness, however, remains unchanged. It doesn’t help that he’s soaking wet and scuffed up, with crusted mustard streaks running down from lacerations in his cheeks and through tears in his shirt.
Pyral dips down and alights on the tallest rock, her wings stirring up a current that snares and tosses his hair. It’s a rough landing, but it’s her first, so you don’t hold the way it knocks you around against her. Sliding out of the harness, you drop to the ground. Your legs are uneven and shaky beneath you. You play it off by leaning on Pyral’s shoulder while you wait for the numbness to subside.
Gamzee stands motionless on the beach, slack-jawed, staring. His eyes bulge.
“Mother fuck,” he says.
You preen. “To answer your questions,” you say, “yes, this is the most awesome thing you’ve ever seen. Yes, she’s real. And no, you will never in your life achieve the level of absolutely goddamn bitching that I have, in this moment.”
“Lady Legislacerator,” he says, respectfully, “you do me a motherfucking courtesy by assuming I got the goddamn coherence to put a question together, at present. Man. That your fucking lusus?”
“Version 2.0,” you chirp, and stand up by yourself. Pyral narrows her eyes at him, but she sits up on her haunches and remains stationary while you climb down to where he is. “Recently upgraded. With wings!”
“I am glad you recognize the weight of the situation.” You rub your hands together. “However! I did not come here to celebrate how incredible my lusus is. You said there was a dead person?”
“Well?” You plant your hands on your hips. “We don’t have all night!”
“Yeah?” He scratches his head.
“So show me the corpse!” You clap your hands on each syllable for emphasis. “The body! The evidence! The gory bits! A legislacerator needs substance to do her work, Mr. Makara.”
“Fuck. Right. You got it.” He starts ambling around to the other side of the island. You follow, taking careful note of your surroundings. No other footprints on the sand, besides yours and his. However, it’s possible that the tide came in and washed them away. In the middle of seadweller territory, the event itself might have taken place underwater, and Gamzee and the victim might have been washed ashore. Maybe an aerial assault? Unlikely. For only one casualty, it would be a weird choice. And of course, none of this explains why Gamzee is here in the first place.
“You say you don’t remember how you got here?”
“Naw. Just up and sprung into consciousness out here. Last I remember’s settlin’ into the cupe, all ready to conk out for a while. Next thing you even know, I wake up and I’m playin’ possum with a dead seagirl on this motherfucking rock, yo.”
“Gills,” he says, tapping his neck in the place where they would be. “Got em up and down her throatstem. And she got that look, y’know, too, that one what the fish got, with eyes, and the nose, and the webbing.” He splays his fingers and rubs the crevice in between them, to illustrate. “Fuckin’ skeeves a brother out, that webbing. Ain’t belong on a troll’s digits, no way, no how.”
The sea lashes against the rock. The skies rumble, so dark that even with the rapid approach of morning, you cannot see a hint of sun.
“Fuck,” you say, with feeling. “A highblood’s bad news. You can get prosecuted for that, Gamzee.”
“For what, though?”
“Murder! Highblood murder is a culling offense!” You roll your eyes. “You don’t have to be a legislacerator to know that.”
“But I didn’t up and murder her. Leastways, I don’t think I did.”
“Yes, okay, but even if you know that, there are few other conclusions for the authorities to draw! It becomes complicated without evidence; however, once I see the body, I will be able to evaluate your case properly.” He rounds the a corner, with you close behind. “If you can prove that she died of natural causes, or that you couldn’t have done it, they’ll let you go. Probably. Maybe. Okay, well, it’s been known to happen! On occasion! Sometimes, His Honorable Tyranny just isn’t feeling all that —”
When you turn the corner, you see the body laid out in the sand. You stop in your tracks.
“Hungry,” you finish, quietly.
A girl lies on the beach. Her hair fans out behind her head in an enormous halo of dark curls. A pale blue skirt spreads over her legs, covering her ankles, and her arms are bared by a sleeveless shirt. Gold decorates her neck, her wrists, her ankles, and binds her forehead in a thick circlet. Wide eyes stare up at the sky, unseeing. Fuchsia blood trickles from her gills, and leaks from a long gash in her forehead.
Someone — Gamzee, it must have been — has repositioned the body, putting her on her back with her arms at her sides. She lies on a kind of altar fashioned from seaweed and pebbles. A handful of tiny white flowers have been woven into her hair.
Fear strikes you motionless.
“Tell me you didn’t do this,” you say.
“I told you, I dunno if I did. Don’t think I did.”
“Gamzee. This is — Gamzee.” You drop to your knees at the girl’s side, press your fingers to her temple. There is no pulse. Your digits come back tyrian pink.
“This is the Heiress,” you say softly. “Do you understand that? Gamzee? Do you have any idea how fucking deep of a leaving pile we are — this is the Heiress.”
“Fuck,” he says, and at least he seems to be taking this appropriately seriously. “I knew she was high. Didn’t know she was Peixes high.”
You carefully remove the circlet from her head, trying not to disturb her hair. Engraved in the center, sure enough, is the Pisces sigil, a pair of swooping curves that mimic the arcs of the dead girl’s horns.
“I thought,” Gamzee says, clearly on the verge of panic himself, “I thought that the Empress didn’t like her kin. Always up and killing them, ain’t she? Figure she wouldn’t mind, uh, someone goin’ on and doing the dirty work —”
“Are you fucking deluded? Are you fucking insane? You’re mustard! It doesn’t matter if you offed the Empire’s Most Wanted, if they’re green or higher you’re royally fucked! And it literally does not get higher than this!”
“I don’t —”
“Did you get into the mind honey? Is this some heretofore undiscovered effect of sopor intake? Did you just flip your god damn lid? How did you —”
“I don’t FUCKING KNOW!”
Pyral stirs. Your coin is in your hand before you can so much as flinch. You hold it out, warding him off, a warning and a threat. He deflates almost immediately, blinking the rage out of his eyes, and you watch him work through a mess of confusion and fear.
“Sorry,” he says. “Don’t fuckin’ — don’t fuckin’ know what happened, there, friend. Been a fuckin’ long ass night, ain’t had much rest. Ain’t had no sopor, neither.” He rolls his shoulders, a movement that emphasizes to you how broad they are. How big he is, generally. How much effort it would necessitate to take him down.
“Get crabby when I ain’t had sopor,” he explains. “Get — all sorts of outta shape, sister, you understand it, yeah? Get bent up. Get wild. Get mad.”
You hesitantly lower your coin. “Okay,” you say. “Understood and appreciated. Message received, loud and clear! I will endeavor to be less . . . pushy.”
“Much fuckin’ obliged, bitchsis.” He bows in gratitude, and you slip your coin into your pocket.
“Did anything strange happen to you during the night?” You pace, leaving deep tracks in the sand. “For example, did you touch any ancient, probably cursed artifacts? Did you, by chance, actually happen to partake of the mind honey?”
“Shit no, sis. I don’t touch the hard shit. Tastes like ass, anyway.” He shakes his head vehemently. “Normal ass night, mostly. Did some shit, talked to some motherfuckers, fed the lusus. Went to the cupe.”
“Nothing extraordinary? Nothing at all.”
“Nope. Not — oh.” He blinks, and his expression clears. “Had a stranger hop into my Trollian, early in the evenin’. So early I ‘most forgot it. Wanted to know all kinds of nonsense facts about me, shit was mad weird.”
“A stranger?” Excitement rises. “That is extremely relevant! Who was it?”
“Fuck. Palmhusk’s in the hive, got left behind when the body went wanderin’. Figure it was a highblood, from the shade of em.”
“Blue, wasn’t it.”
“Well, that narrows things down. There can’t be more than a few million bluebloods on the planet.” You sigh tightly and decaptchalogue a pointer stick, which you use to move back the Heiress’ hair, revealing long bruises across her neck. “Any identifying details? Typing quirk?”
“My thinkpan ain’t got a great backlog, Lady Legis—”
“Just — the question, Gamzee. If you can’t remember, that’s fine. But — please.”
“All right. Um.” He rubs his chin. “Came off real shouty. Caps. Got short with me when I couldn’t catch their drift.”
“Describes virtually every pissed-off troll who ever put claw to keyboard; more detail, please.”
“Eights,” he says, brightening. “Had a real thing for the number eight. Never used the letter ‘b,’ real subtle kind of thing.”
A wave of spray crests over the island, and your clothes cling to your skin. It does not matter. You hardly feel the cold. Your bloodpusher has started thrumming like a hopbeast’s.
“Eights,” you repeat. “Eights. You’re sure.”
“Can check the husk, once I get back —”
“No, it’s — and anything else? Did they make fish puns, or something? Odd capitalization? Anything else.” You press harder than you should, meaner than you should, and he backs away. “Gamzee, anything.”
“Naw. Not that I remember.”
You rake your hand through your hair. “Okay.” You shake your head, clear it, shove your thought process to the side. It’s not easy, given that your thoughts are centered around a body you’re currently standing over, but you do it anyway. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” you say. “Before the drones find us, and we’re both implicated in the murder. Come on.” You snap a picture of the body with your palmhusk and then start climbing the rocks to Pyral’s mount, feet slipping and sliding for grasp on the slick stone.
“Would not object,” says Gamzee, with palpable relief. “Would not object to bein’ elsewhere, won’t lie to you, sis. A landdweller doesn’t belong near water this deep, doesn’t belong in a place with sea on all sides of him.”
“Agreed. However, unfortunately, we will not be able to alleviate this landdweller’s discomfort just yet.” You clamber into Pyral’s saddle and reach a hand back. After a moment of patent reluctance, Gamzee gets on behind you, moving gently, as if your lusus will turn around and claw him limb from limb for touching her.
Actually, you don’t know that she won’t. Maybe he’s right to play nice.
“If we ain’t going landwards, though —”
“Tavros’ hive is around here,” you say. “Pyral can’t make the trip back to my hive before sunrise, so we’ll have to hole up with him. Also, most seadwellers in this region know each other. If the Heiress’ hive was near this island, he’d have noticed something weird happening.” You grip one of Pyral’s spinal ridges and say, “You might want to hold on to something. Caveat: not me. This is not a Troll Nicholas Sparks movie, and I will not be your Troll Mandy Moore.”
“Aw, fuck, girl, there ain’t no scene about holding on to shit in that movie —”
“Curious! I do not remember asking you to confer on the subject.” You lift your nose. “Fasten yourself to the dragon, Makara, or it will be an exceptionally short ride.”
He settles them on your shoulders, which violates the one commandment you set, but whatever, it’s not like he really has anywhere else. Better that than him falling off, you suppose.
Before you take off, he taps you on the arm and points back at the Heiress’ body on the beach. “Hold on,” he says. “We just gonna leave —”
“Pyral is young,” you say. She squawks in complaint, but you ignore her, and persist. “I had concerns about her bearing my weight alone. Two trolls is pushing her limits to the extreme. We cannot afford so much — pardon the pun — dead weight.”
“Shit, though. Seems a shame.”
You give her a last consideration.
You had always fancied meeting a fuschiablood. In person, they look a lot more like normal trolls than you imagined.
“Yes,” you say. “It is.”
Then you pat Pyral’s flank, and she leaps into the air.
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling amphibiansTorment [AT]
AG: h3llo g3n3r4l
AG: 1 know th1s 1s 4 lot to 4sk
AG: but do you h4pp3n to h4v3 4ny sh1ps to sp4r3
AT: i AM KIND OF PREOCCUPIED AT THE MOMENT
AT: lITERALLY AT ANY OTHER TIME I WOULD BE GAME FOR A FLARP CAMPAIGN BUT RIGHT NOW IS
AT: eSPECIALLY INOPPORTUNE
AG: how do you m34n
AT: i MEAN THAT I AM CURRENTLY, aS OF RIGHT NOW, tODAY, nOT IN POSSESSION, oF FUNCTIONING LEGS
AT: oR, tHAT IS TO SAY, lEGS OF ANY KIND,
AT: wHICH MAKES THAT KIND OF MY TOP PRIORITY
AG: oh my god
AG: you know wh4t th1s m1ght 4s w3ll h4pp3n ton1ght
AG: how d1d you los3 your l3gs
AT: lOSE IS A VERY ACTIVE WORD
AT: i WOULD LIKE TO FIRST VOUCH THAT I WAS NOT AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT IN THE PROCESS,
AT: wELL ITS A LONG STORY, rEALLY,
AT: mE AND ARADIA WERE ON A PATROL AROUND THE DAMARAN SEA
AT: aND WE GOT PRETTY CLOSE TO AN ISLAND BASE
AT: i FORGET WHICH ONE IT WAS
AT: aND WE, uH,
AT: hAD TO GET UP CLOSE WITH THIS ONE PIRATE SHIP
AT: tHAT WAS RAIDING THE COVE
AT: i DONT THINK IT WAS A FLARP SHIP THOUGH
AT: sEEING AS IT WASN'T WEARING THE COLORS OF ANY SHIP I KNEW, aND FLARP IS IN THE OFF SEASON, sO,
AT: iT WAS PROBABLY JUST AN ASSHOLE, oR AT LEAST, tHAT WAS WHAT WE THOUGHT,,
AT: sO WE WENT IN AND TOOK EVERYBODY CAPTIVE, aND GOT ALL OF THEIR TREASURE, lIKE BADASSES, aND SHIT,
AT: aND WE FOUND OUT, iT WAS TEREZI,
AT: wHICH KIND OF THREW ME BECAUSE I THOUGHT YOU GUYS WERE PARTNERS AND I DIDN'T SEE YOU AROUND,
AT: bUT THAT'S, nONE OF MY BUSINESS, nOR HERE NOR THERE, rEALLY, aND OVERALL IRRELEVANT TO THE STORY, iN GENERAL, oR MAYBE, iN ITS RELEVANCE, cOULD BE CONSIDERED A SUBPLOT, tO THE GREATER OVERARCHING PLOT, oF HOW I LOST MY LEGS,
GC: focus t4vros
AT: sO ARADIA CAN COMMUNE WITH THE DEAD, rIGHT,
AT: sO SHE USES THAT ABILITY TO HER ADVANTAGE IN A FIGHT, aND SHE SAW, tHAT TEREZI HAD KILLED, lIKE, a LOT OF PEOPLE, lIKE, wOW, iS MY KISMESIS GOOD AT WASTING SUCKERS OR WHAT,
GC: hold on hold on
GC: you c4nt just 1ntroduc3 som3th1ng l1k3 n3crom4ncy 4nd th3n just mov3 on w1thout 3xpl41n1ng 1t!
GC: 1s th4t 4 th1ng p3opl3 c4n do?
AT: nOT REALLY, iNSOFAR AS I KNOW,
AT: iT'S MORE LIKE A THING ARADIA IN PARTICULAR CAN DO,
AT: bECAUSE SHE'S THE HEIRESS AND BECAUSE SHE'S A BADASS,
GC: sh3's th3 h31r3ss
GC: s3t off a b3ll 1'll 3xpl41n l4t3r k33p go1ng
GC: your3 st1ll tog3th3r w1th t3r3z1??
AT: i MEAN
AT: tECHNICALLY, wE NEVER BROKE UP, aS IN, wE DIDN'T HAVE A CONVERSATION, aBOUT IT,
AT: sO FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, i MEAN, iF SHE WANTED TO DUMP ME, iT SEEMS LIKE SHE WOULD HAVE SAID SO, yOU KNOW SHE'S NOT THE KIND OF PERSON TO BEAT AROUND THE BUSH, oR BE SHY,
GC: wh3n w4s th3 l4st t1m3 you t4lk3d b3for3 th1s p4rt1cul4r 1nc1d3nt
AT: oH, iT'S BEEN A FEW PERIGEES
GC: t4vros just t4k3 1t from m3 ok
GC: sh3s not your k1sm3s1s 4nymor3
AT: wELL WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW, aBOUT IT,
AT: yOU DON'T HAVE A KISMESIS, sO,
GC: 3xcus3 m3!
GC: 1 could h4v3 4 p3rf3ctly h4t3ful k1sm3s1s tuck3d 4w4y som3wh3r3 th4t you just dont know 4bout! >:[
AT: dO YOU,
AT: sOUNDS ABOUT RIGHT
GC: shut up t4vros your k1sm3s1s d1dnt 3v3n r3sp3ct you 3nough to dump you 1n p3rson
AT: wOW, oK,
AT: mAYBE LET'S NOT, pICK ON THE GUY, wHO RECENTLY GOT PARALYZED, aND THEN AMPUTATED,
GC: 1f you th1nk 1 w1ll stop mock1ng you b3c4us3 you h4v3 no l3gs th3n you 4r3 s4dly m1st4k3n!
GC: but 1 w1ll 1n th1s 1nst4nc3 b3c4us3 1 w4nt to h34r th3 r3st of th3 story
AT: sO ARADIA DOES SOME NECROMANCY SHIT AND SUMMONS THE GHOSTS OF TEREZIS VICTIMS,
AT: aND IT TURNS OUT, lIKE, i KNEW SHE HAD A LOT, bUT NOT A LOT A LOT
AT: lIKE THERE WERE THOUSANDS OF GHOSTS THERE BY THAT POINT
AT: aND TEREZI
AT: sHE REALLY, uH, sTARTED TO FREAK OUT,
AT: lIKE YOU WOULDN'T THINK SHE WAS THE KIND OF PERSON TO HAVE MELTDOWNS, bUT THIS THING, sHE WAS DOING, iT DEFINITELY QUALIFIED,
AT: aND ANYWAY SO ARADIA FINALLY LET OFF AFTER TEREZI AGREED TO SURRENDER EVERYTHING SHE HAD, aND SHE DID IT, wHICH WAS THE FUNNY THING, sHE DID IT AND SHE LET US GO AND SHE RAN AWAY PEACEFULLY,
AT: wHICH ISN'T LIKE TEREZI, aND I KNEW THAT, bUT I WAS TOO HAPPY ABOUT HAVING TOTALLY OWNED MY KISMESIS TO CARE,
AT: oR EX-KISMESIS, i GUESS, iF YOU WANT TO BE PETTY AND TECHNICAL ABOUT IT,
AT: bUT A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER I'M HANGING OUT WITH SOME OF MY FRIENDS BY THE EXECUTIONER CLIFFS, yOU KNOW THE ONES,
AT: tHAT OVERLOOK THE RED BAY,
GC: y3s 1m f4m1l14r w1th th3 g3ogr4phy of th3 4r34
GC: wh4t w3r3 you do1ng up th3r3
AT: cLIFF DIVING,
AT: iT'S A LOT OF FUN,
AT: iF YOU DON'T, tHAT IS, lAND IN AN AREA YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO
GC: you s41d th4t som3on3 3ls3 p4r4lyz3d you
GC: 4nd th4t you h4d /no/ l3gs
GC: not th4t your l3gs just d1dnt work
AT: i AM GETTING TO THAT,
AT: sO I'M STANDING UP THERE WATCHING SOMEONE ELSE GO FIRST,
AT: wHEN FROM BEHIND ME I HEAR SOMEONE RUNNING UP AND THEN MY FRIEND JUST, sHOVES ME OVER THE SIDE, bEFORE I CAN MOVE OUT OF THE WAY,
AT: aND I FALL INTO THE ROCKY PART OF THE AREA, nOT THE ONE WITH THE WATER,
AT: aND I LAND ON MY LEGS,
GC: 4nd 1t p4r4lyz3d you?
AT: aFTER WHICH I PASSED OUT,
AT: aND WHEN I WOKE UP, i WAS BACK HOME, aND MY LEGS WERE GONE,
GC: so som3on3 p4r4lyz3d you
GC: 4nd th3n just cut off your l3gs for good m34sur3
AT: tHE AMPUTATION BIT WAS ACTUALLY SOMEONE TRYING TO HELP ME,
AT: i HAVE A FRIEND, wHO SPECIALIZES IN BIOENGINEERING, aND HE IS CURRENTLY MAKING ME A NEW PAIR OF LEGS,
AT: wELL, nOT A FRIEND, rEALLY,
AT: bUT MAYBE A FRIEND OF A FRIEND,
AT: aNYWAY THEY WON'T BE READY FOR A FEW PERIGEES AT LEAST,
AT: bUT HE NEEDED MY OLD LEGS TO MODEL THEM AFTER,
GC: so h3 just
GC: took th3m
GC: h3 took your l3gs
AT: wELL WHEN YOU SAY IT THAT WAY, iT SOUNDS CREEPY,
AT: bUT WHEN HE EXPLAINED IT IT ALL SOUNDED VERY REASONABLE,
AT: iT DIDN'T CAUSE ME ANY PAIN,
AT: i MEAN, iT'S NOT LIKE I WAS USING THEM,
GC: 1 m34n th4ts corr3ct
GC: utt3rly d1sturb1ng to th1nk 4bout conc3ptu4lly
GC: but corr3ct
AT: yEAH, wELL, hE'S A WEIRD GUY,
AT: bUT REGARDLESS,
AT: aRADIA SAYS THE INCIDENTS ARE CONNECTED,
AT: tEREZI, aND MY LEGS, tHE WHOLE THING,
AT: bUT I DON'T SEE HOW
GC: w3r3 4ny of th3 fr13nds you w3nt cl1ff d1v1ng w1th lowbloods
AT: wHAT POINT ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE
GC: no po1nt
GC: th1s 1snt 4bout th3 h3mosp3ctrum or 4nyth1ng th1s 1s 4 v3ry f4ctu4l qu3st1on
AT: oNE OF THEM WAS A MUSTARDBLOOD
GC: th3r3 1t 1s
GC: t4vros 1m go1ng to t3ll you som3th1ng 4nd 1 n33d you not to fr34k out b3c4us3 1m pr3tty sur3 your3 not 4w4r3 4nd 1 dont know how your3 go1ng to r34ct onc3 you know
GC: but you n33d to
GC: so 1m go1ng to t3ll you
GC: on th3 cond1t1on th4t you k33p t4lk1ng to m3 4nd you dont go rush1ng off to do 4nyth1ng stup1d
AT: i'M NOT SURE, eXACTLY, hOW YOU THINK NOT HAVING LEGS WORKS,
AT: bUT TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THAT RUSHING ANYWHERE, iS NOT REALLY IN THE CARDS FOR THIS GUY,
GC: po1nt t4k3n
GC: 4r4d14 1s d34d
GC: t4vros sh3s d34d 4nd
GC: 4nd 1 th1nk t3r3z1 k1ll3d h3r
AT: hOW DO YOU KNOW
AT: wHY DO YOU
GC: t3r3z1 h4s m1nd control pow3rs
GC: th3y only work on lowbloods wh1ch 1s why sh3s n3v3r us3d th3m on you
GC: but sh3 do3s us3 th3m
AT: sHE NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT THAT
AT: sHE NEVER SAID SHE HAD ANYTHING LIKE
GC: w3ll no
GC: sh3 wouldnt would sh3
GC: not 1f 1t g4v3 h3r 4 str4t3g1c 4dv4nt4g3 for you not to know
GC: wh1ch 1t d1d
AT: bUT BLUEBLOODS DONT HAVE POWERS
GC: blu3bloods dont
GC: but t3r3z1 do3s
AT: tHAT'S, iT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE,
AT: aND NOW ARADIA IS,
GC: 1 h4v3 4 fr13nd
GC: 1 h4v3 4 good 4cqu41nt4nc3
GC: h1s n4m3 1s g4mz33
GC: 4nd h3s on3 of th3 strong3st psych1cs on th1s pl4n3t
GC: h3 4lso h4pp3n3d to b3 4 y3llowblood
GC: 4nd 1 m4d3 th3 m1st4k3 of g1v1ng h3r both of thos3 p13c3s of 1nform4t1on
AT: sO SHE,
AT: sHE USED HIM,
GC: to k1ll 4r4d14
GC: 1 th1nk so
AT: aND YOU
AT: yOU'RE SURE
GC: not 4bsolut3ly
GC: but 1 dont know wh4t 3ls3 could h4v3 h4pp3n3d
GC: noth1ng 3ls3 m4k3s s3ns3
GC: noth1ng 3ls3 3xpl41ns 1t
AT: sO YOU'RE GOING AFTER HER, rIGHT
AT: yOU'RE GOING AFTER HER, tO BRING HER TO JUSTICE,
AT: oR KILL HER,
AT: wHICH ARE PRETTY MUCH THE SAME THING,
GC: 1 m34n
GC: 1 h4dnt thought 4bout 1t 4s such but
AT: tHAT'S YOUR WHOLE THING, rIGHT,
AT: sHE KILLED MY BEST FRIEND,
AT: aND SHE PUT ME IN A WHEELCHAIR,
AT: i THINK THAT SOME VENGEANCE, iS PRETTY WELL FUCKING DESERVED,
AT: aND YOU ASKED ME FOR A SHIP
GC: y3s 1 d1d d1dnt 1
AT: wELL, sERKET, i'LL DO YOU ONE BETTER,
AT: iF YOU WANT TO BRING HER DOWN, i'LL GIVE YOU A WHOLE GOD DAMN NAVY
GC: th4ts r34lly g3n3rous of you 4r3 you sur3
AT: iT'S TIME TO FINISH WHAT WE STARTED SWEEPS AGO,
AT: dON'T YOU AGREE,
GC: y3s som3th1ng l1k3 th4t
advocatasGambit [AG] began trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
AG: 1 dont c4r3 wh3r3 you 4r3 or wh4t your3 do1ng
AG: wh3n w3 pl4y3d tog3th3r w3 pl4y3d by 4 s3t of rul3s
AG: our own rul3s
AG: 1mport4nt on3s
AG: on3s th4t 1 c4r3d 4bout
AG: not just 4s 4 pl4y3r but 4s 4 p3rson
AG: 4s 4 troll
AG: thos3 rul3s 3x1st3d to k33p us from go1ng too f4r
AG: th3y w3r3 m4d3 to s4v3 us from b3com1ng th3 k1nd of p3opl3 w3 fought 4g41nst
AG: to 3nsur3 just1c3
AG: to 3nsur3 ord3r
AG: th3y w3r3 l1n3s 1n th3 s4nd
AG: 4nd 1 know you d1dnt c4r3 4bout th3m
AG: or 4t l34st not 4s much 4s m3
AG: but 1 kn3w you would r3sp3ct th3m 3v3n 1f you thought th3y w3r3 4ll nons3ns3
AG: b3c4us3 1 kn3w you r3sp3ct3d m3
AG: 1 thought you r3sp3ct3d m3
AG: you brok3 on3 of thos3 rul3s y3st3rd4y
AG: w3 dont k1ll 1nnoc3nts
AG: 1 dont know why you d1d 1t
AG: or 1f you f33l gu1lt
AG: or 1f you just d1d 1t w1thout th1nk1ng
AG: 1 suppos3 th4ts b3c4us3 1 dont r34lly know th3 k1nd of p3rson you 4r3
AG: 1 thought 1 d1d
AG: but 1 do not
AG: 4nd 4t 4ny r4t3 1t n3v3r r34lly m4tt3r3d
AG: you m4d3 your cho1c3. th1s 1s m1ne
AG: t4k3 h33d
AG: you w1ll not g3t 4noth3r w4rn1ng
advocatasGambit [AG] ceased trolling gallowsCorsair [GC]
It takes four weeks.
You track her down off the coast of Ramses’ Cove. It takes every resource you ever had, every ally you ever made, every favor you ever built up. A network of informants across every port within a thousand leagues reports to you via Trollian on the daily. You spend hours each night poring over the messages, scanning them for evidence of her appearance. From this information, you manage to triangulate her location with a five-mile margin of area, and then track her behavioral patterns. It’s the hardest thing you ever do. But you don’t mind the effort. It distracts you from the question of what you’ll have to do, once you find her.
On the evening of her capture, you board one of Tavros’ ships — the Toreador, an upgrade to Seabull and a beast of a ship — a double-masted status symbol of a craft with ostentatious decor and bright, belligerent purple sails. You set sail at sunset. Seven other ships accompany you: the reserve forces of Tavros’ fleet.
You set up a blockade around the cove and wait for her.
“You’re sure the ship can take her,” you say. Tavros sits next to you at the helm, an elaborate wheelchair permitting him more or less freedom of movement. His sigil is engraved in the center of the wheel.
The pair of you face the empty sea, awaiting her.
“Armored hull.” He pats the wheel. “Cannonballs bounce off this thing like peanuts. She can throw her whole artillery at us, we won’t take a scratch.”
“And the crew —”
“Green and higher,” he says. “No lowbloods. Telepathy-proof, all of them.”
“Good. And —”
“Double-barrel cannons, alchemized with assault rifles, and, uh, total reload time of two point five seconds. I thought you, uh, already knew —”
“I know,” you say, and tug on one of your horns absently. It’s a wriggler’s habit. You do it anyway. “I know. I do.”
He pauses, and shuffles his feet awkwardly. “Do you want me to go get —”
“No.” You shake your head. “Don’t disturb her.”
Kanaya rests in one of the cabins below. She told you to alert her when the battle began, but she elected to remain indoors for the duration of the planning. You’re glad she’s not here. You don’t want her to see you this out of sorts.
“Well,” he says, “she might want to come up soon.”
“Because that’s Exile,” he says, and points at the ship drifting into the bay.
The call goes up. The blockade starts pressing forward, and your bloodpusher thuds.
She’s much the same as you remember her, save a scratch or two, a new battle scar, a new stitch in the sail. You catalogue the differences in a quick, painful process.
“Your move,” Tavros says, trying very hard not to sound like he’s nervous.
“Don’t fire just yet,” you say.
A figure at the other ship’s helm emerges. One split horn, tips reaching skyward, and the other a sharp hook. After you regard each other for a moment, Exile picks up speed as she swings into the port.
“She’s getting close, Serket.”
“I can see that, Nitram.”
Exile converges on the Toreador’s side.
“She’s coming —”
“I said hold,” you insist.
Exile sails straight between the front two ships of Tavros’ blockade, and doesn’t weather so much as a scratch. Tavros shifts. You remain silent. The tension twists and stretches like the static in the air before a storm.
The moment she breaks the first line, you call, “Fire on her starboard,” and one of the ships discharge the cannons along their port side.
She swings sideways to avoid the fire. It brings her up alongside Tavros’ ship, making the turn narrowly enough that you’re within arm’s reach of her vessel. The idea occurs to you instantaneously.
You should wait for Kanaya. You don’t.
With a heave, you vault over the side of the Toreador and onto the Exile.
You clear the railing of the quarterdeck and land on your feet, only wavering a little bit. The Toreador slows to a crawl beside you, attempting to keep pace with Terezi’s ship. The captain herself stands on the opposite side of the deck, perched at the prow, her back to you. Her blade is already drawn. You draw your coin from your pocket and brace yourself.
“Terezi,” you call. She turns, and you toss your coin.
It lands in the center of your palm and blossoms into a sword. You spare a moment to appreciate your luck. With a gun, the risk of unintentionally killing your target is higher.
“Vriska,” she says.
Her outfit’s changed. It’s closer to Mindfang’s style — she hasn’t gone so far as to trade out pants for the iconic gown, but a lace train hangs from the back of her jacket, styled in the same spiderweb pattern. Her overcoat is black velvet, lusterless, the kind that swallows light. Blue hems the edges and rises up to her neck, which is guarded by a high collar, and runs around the edge of her low cuffs. The soles of her boots are heretic red.
You descend the stairs. The crew parts to let you pass.
Fighting her seems impossible. Failing, equally so.
“Tavros Nitram,” she says, amused. “Of all people to replace me with.”
“I never replaced you.”
You come to a halt a few feet away from her.
“Intriguing, then, that you arrived on his ship.”
“You killed his best friend. He had a vested interest in being present for your arrest.”
You’re the one who attacks first. A glancing cut to her sword arm, which she deflects easily, as you knew she would. She watches you for a split second, calculating as ever. You can see her weigh the effort it would take to engage you against the time it would take to dispatch you. You watch her arrive at the conclusion you knew she would, and your sword is already in place to catch hers when it comes whistling around for your right ear.
She’s hard to predict. Not impossible.
“I didn’t expect your note,” she says. “I appreciated the warning, though. It was dignified. Almost chivalrous.”
“I almost didn’t come,” you say. “I hated that I had to do this. I still hate that I have to.”
“Tragic.” She performs a quick coupé and your blade is swung off its proper line, forcing you to move back.
“I know you are. That’s what’s tragic.”
You snarl at her. “You’re not listening to me!”
“Because you’re not saying anything new.” She tosses a lazy stab at your foot. “You came because you wanted to. If you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have come. That’s how motivation functions, generally.”
“Just because I came doesn’t mean I wanted to do it, Terezi.”
“Now who’s not listening?”
“I told you why I’m here.”
“Because you have a fetish for beating dead hoofbeasts?”
“Because I do what justice demands.”
“You do what you think a legislacerator would,” she says. “You never bothered to ask whether one followed the other.”
Another cross of blades, this one sharper and harder on your wrist. “Did you enjoy it,” she says, “tracking me down a second time? The first attempt was amusing. This is a little tiresome.”
“This isn’t a campaign.” You block another halfhearted stab of hers and reply with an earnest one, which startles her. “This is real.”
“Oh. Pardon me. Let me go change my coat.”
“This isn’t funny. This isn’t a game anymore.”
“Anymore?” Her face tightens. “Vriska, I’m very glad that you had the chance to believe that FLARP was always this entertaining little exercise that people played for fun. It sounds like a lovely idea. But for some of us, it was never a game in the first place.”
You bite your cheek and parry her next lunge, which has more force behind it than its predecessors.
“I know that, now.”
“Do you? Because you still showed up dressed like a legislacerator, even when we both know you’re not.”
“And you’re dressed like Mindfang,” you say, sharp, and you don’t think about the words that next cross your lips, you just know that you want to make her feel the same way you do. Ache the same way you do. “Even though you’ll never be her, either.”
She breaks her rhythm and sways back, a look of shocked anger flashing across her face. You have crossed one of the invisible lines, broken one of your partnership’s unspoken rules. Good. Maybe she’ll understand, now.
“At least I don’t kid myself about it,” she says, belatedly. She follows it by launching an attack on your right side.
You say, “Terezi —”
“Chose a fine time to waltz back into my life, didn’t you?” She spins and ducks your sword. “Total radio silence, then you troll me at half past God knows when to tell me you’re out for blood vengeance for someone I doubt you ever met —”
“You don’t talk to me for perigees, next I hear of you, you’ve killed the Heiress and almost killed Tavros, too —”
“I answered every one of your messages,” she says evenly. But her hand wavers in deflecting your next strike.
“And asked me to leave you alone! You sent me off like a defective drone —”
Her mouth twitches. “I’m sure that just tore you to pieces.”
You are rendered incoherent, at this. The tip of your sword drops.
She falters at the lull in combat, but follows it up with a flurry of strikes to your neck that it only takes a twitch of the wrist to deflect. “Oh, come on,” she snorts.
“I waited for you for months —”
“Did I not apologize for that? Did I not apologize for everything?”
“Yes! You were perfectly fucking courteous, except when it came to apologizing for the things that mattered—”
“Don’t pretend,” she snarls, “that you gave one flying fuck what happened to—”
“You were my best friend, you fucking asshole —”
A shutter slides over her face, clean and composed, and she smiles thinly. “How forward,” she coos. “What would Kanaya think?”
“No? Trouble in paradise? Is the old ball and chain getting irritated with your perennial preoccupation with pirates?”
“Stop being cruel.”
“Stop lying, then.”
“I’m not lying to you. What, right now, could I possibly have to lie about?”
Parry, disengage, reengage. You’ve never been good at dancing, but you’re good at this.
“You’re trying to kill me. I mean, I presume that it’s in your interests for me not to have all the facts.”
“If I were trying to kill you —”
“Don’t finish that with ‘I’d be dead,’ so help me God, I don’t think I can fight while laughing that hard.”
“I was going to say that I wouldn’t be here.”
“Oh?” She knocks an admittedly lazy slash for her left flank away with insulting ease. “You would have let the highblood do your busywork, in that case?”
“Acting like this is a FLARP campaign,” you say. “It isn’t.”
A strike on her right leg catches her harder than she’d expected, and she grunts with irritation. The replying backhand to your temple almost takes off a hank of your hair, requiring you to backtrack several paces. “I suppose what you mean to say,” she says, “is that it isn’t a game for you, anymore. Is that it?”
You don’t respond, instead electing to jab at her ribs.
She smacks the attempt away with the flat of her blade. “Good,” she says crisply. “For some of us, it never was.”
“If you’re talking about —”
“What else could I be talking about?” The question is put mildly.
“There was another way. I would have helped you, if you had let me.”
“Oh, I’m certain. You would have swooped in and solved all my problems, if I had only let you in, isn’t that it? That’s the idea? Sorry, I forget what my line is, now. I haven’t watched the Howlmark Channel in a while.”
“It wouldn’t have made everything better, but I could have done something! Something to — to help — I used to think you were the smartest person in the world, you know that? The smartest and the best.”
She pauses. Whatever your words do to her, it’s enough to make her stop. “I don’t — know — what you want from me,” she says, in stilted fragments.
“I want you to come quietly,” you say, and your chest decompresses for the first time in weeks. “I want you to come with me, and we can figure out what to do next. You and me. That’s all.” You’ve never said it, not to Kanaya, not to Tavros, not to yourself. It’s not much — but then, it’s everything.
“That’s not what I meant.”
She jumps up onto one of the cannons for leverage and swings her sword down on you. You whisk yours up to meet it and shove her off with your free hand, bringing her back down to the deck.
“Then what did you mean?”
She makes a frustrated noise and feints to your right. “From me,” she says. “I never knew what you wanted. You don’t behave like a normal troll, did anyone ever tell you that? Your motivations never make any fucking sense.”
“You know what my motivations are,” you laugh, part amusement, all outrage. “I never made a point of hiding them!”
“Justice? Not even the Magistragedy is motivated by justice. As if you wanted justice, as if you cared about it. A motivation is something you want, not something you believe in. And if you ever wanted anything except to watch people like me swing by their necks —”
“People like y— people like criminals! I never wanted to watch you swing, you fucking — I would have died before I —”
“Stop lying to me. You won’t even have the decency to lie believably, not to my face —”
“You knew what I wanted,” you say. It’s a dangerous play. You’d rather let her clean you like a dead oinkbeast than explain this to her, but she’s lowered her sword, made wretched by aggravation and confusion.
“You keep saying that, but you never actually tell me!”
She lunges. Your blades lock, cycle through an envelopment. Disengage. You step back, breathing heavily, and she does the same.
“Put your sword down,” you say. “Come back to the Toreador. Come back with me.”
“And — let me guess — everything will go back to the way it was.”
“Maybe!” It’s desperate. You’re desperate. Everything seems desperate, now.
She smiles. It’s patronizing.
“Vriska Serket, you know better than that.”
You whip your blade around, aiming for her shoulder. She deflects with pathetic ease.
“Listen to me,” she says, as a lusus might to a wriggler. “I mean this. Think of it as — as a token of esteem. If you stop now, I’ll let you go.”
“Yes. I never had a complaint with you.” Her eyes are clear. Earnest, even, and you never thought you’d see her wearing that expression in your life; it kills something inside you that it’s the one day that it doesn’t make an ounce of difference.
“Walk away,” she promises, “and I will let you go.”
“Tried that, once,” you say. It’s too bright for how you feel. “Look where we ended up.”
Her expression darkens. You almost don’t see her blade coming until it’s inches from your neck.
You parry and weave out of its path. Toreador continues to drift past. Tavros has slowed down, but he can only do so much for you. You have a limited time to get her off Exile, and you need to move fast.
She executes a complex, bobbing attack on your left side, and you back out of the way, which is the opposite direction you need to be moving. In return, you thrust a brutal, inelegant attack at her abdomen, which forces her to stumble back. This you follow up with a pair of feints and a sweeping attack on her feet. The purpose of these moves is not to wound. The purpose is to drive her back, pushing her down towards the prow alongside the Toreador.
The pair of you dance across the deck, step and counter-step, measure and countermeasure. Fighting her is among the most intense exercises in concentration you’ve ever experienced. She stabs, and you block. You swing, and she evades. Neither drawing blood. Neither fighting to kill. This is a conversation in the only language both of you understand, the only language you could ever get her to listen to you in.
Finally, she lunges low and slams you against the railing with her shoulder, wedging you in and locking you there with her blade laid against yours. This close, her face is only inches away. You can feel her breath on your face. The last time you were this close—
That memory used to make you feel warm inside, even when you were missing her. Now it just hurts.
“Why are you so worked up over this?” There is a belligerence to her demand, a failure of comprehension. “Why are you acting like this is a personal slight? I never did anything to you — I didn’t — I never hurt you, I don’t know why you’re acting like you care about—”
“Of course I do!”
“About Aradia?” It’s genuinely bemused. “You never said a thing about her, she certainly didn’t seem to know—”
“Oh, don’t bullshit me, Neophyte, it doesn’t —”
“I always did! You utter fucking asshole, I always fucking did!” You are embarrassingly emotional. This is not the right time to be on the verge of tears, but some things cannot be helped.
“No — you —”
“You think I wanted to kill you? You think it was easy? You think I’m fucked up over Aradia? I’m fucked up because of you! I’m here because of you! Because —” You can’t finish your sentence. You bite it back, and try another.
“You left me,” you say. “You don’t get to tell me what I do or don’t care about.”
She falls silent. The pressure on your blade slackens, and she shifts away.
You take the window, knowing it’s likely to be the only one you have, and break her hold.
You stumble backward, feet scuffling on the deck to regain a stable standing, making a beeline for the side of the ship. For a moment, you think she’s going to let you go. Then her sword whistles through the place you were just a second ago, and you chide yourself for being childish.
Toreador has already slipped out of tandem with Exile, far beyond the point where you could jump to it, but that’s no matter. As you jump up on the railing, you whistle for your backup plan.
Pyral erupts out of the sea beside Exile in a surge of water, eliciting general screams from the crew and disharmony all around. Beating her wings in a stir of spray and air current, she climbs to the level of the deck. You catch ahold of one of her spinal ridges and pull yourself into the saddle mid-flight, a maneuver that’s clumsy but also indisputably cool. As she starts to climb, you settle into your seat and get a grip on the harness, gripping your sword in one hand and a spine in your right. Casting a glance back at the Exile, you catch the crew’s expressions: an array of amazement, fascination, pants-shitting terror. Their captain stands where you left her. Her jaw is ever so slightly agape.
You remain, to your quiet, guilty satisfaction, one of the few people who can catch Terezi Pyrope by surprise.
Toreador turns to make another run at Exile. Tavros’ ships make a clumsy ring around her, but as Terezi’s crew snap back to attention, you see the same thing Terezi probably does: a gap in the formation, between the flagship and one of the cutters, where the latter vessel was just a bit too slow. Exile picks up speed. She can generate the velocity necessary to slide through before Tavros’ cannons catch her, if nothing blocks the path.
“Fuck,” you say, and Pyral makes a noise that probably means the same thing. She turns a semicircle in the air and hovers, wings moving like a hummingbeast’s, as you survey the situation.
A thought occurs to you. It isn’t a great idea, necessarily, so much as the product of reading too many fantasy novels in your spare time and having a hyperactive imagination. But it’s an idea. Which is one more idea than you had previously.
“Listen,” you say. “I don’t really know how well-researched — as a typical example of your species — Falkor happened to be, but —”
Your lusus chuffs, a cryptic sound. She turns another circle and drifts squarely into the Exile’s path. Terezi’s head turns.
Pyral opens her mouth and bathes the sea before the Exile in a pillar fire.
You yell, more out of surprise than anything else, because wow, that is a lot of fire happening very close to your hands, but also because fuck yes, that is a lot of fire happening very close to your hands. The heat rockets up to the point of discomfort for you, but you hardly even notice.
Terezi barks something fast at her crew and sprints along the deck to the helm. Exile’s sails wilt and she wheels to one side, the momentum she had been accumulating rocking her violently to one side as she skids to a halt and starts in the other direction.
Pyral snaps her jaw shut, ending the torrent. Smoke pours from her nose in unusual quantities, but she doesn’t seem concerned. As the Exile wheels around, she plants herself in front of it again, and sends forth another column of flame.
In the meantime, Tavros’ ships have had time to order their formation, and now ring Terezi’s ship in a tight circle. Any gap between them is narrow enough that to attempt escape through it would be to weather fire from both sides.
Toreador turns and points her cannons at Exile. With nowhere to run, she remains stationary as a barrage of fire strikes her starboard side. Then another. A ship opposite Toreador in the formation turns and then does the same to her port side. Her hull splinters. Then it cracks.
Combined with the damages from before, it’s too much for the old girl. Rocking violently, she shudders, and begins to sink.
“Hold on,” you say, tightening your grip on Pyral. Obediently, she swallows her fire and maintains altitude.
Terezi turns in a slow circle, assessing the situation. Her crew has devolved to shouting, pleading for orders, or else yelling in despair.
Then she looks up at you and nods. Both of her hands lift, palms out.
You wheel in the sky, pat Pyral’s shoulder, and murmur, “Good girl.” Then you angle towards Tavros’ ship and begin descent.
She lands on the quarterdeck of the Toreador and lowers her wing, letting you slide off. You land on your feet and run down the stairs, approaching Tavros where he stands at the prow.
“She’s sinking,” you say, “but not fast enough that the whole thing will go under before dawn. With water rising, the crew will be forced onto the deck when the sun rises. Hold position.”
The call goes up around his blockade. Tavros’ ships stop moving, forming a complete ring around Terezi’s solitary vessel. They fall into a perfect formation and stay there, still, waiting.
“Nice,” he crows. “Now we advance, right —”
An idea roots in your thinkpan like a snarl of jagged wire.
“Eventually,” you say, and an ache starts behind your throat.
“When she’s a corpse? The sun will kill them all, if they don’t find shade, or maul them beyond the point of recognizability at best — we won’t have a chance to kill them —”
“You don’t know her like I do,” you say.
He stops, frozen short either by your tone or your audacity; either is possible.
“She won’t stop,” you say. “The only way to take her alive — or to kill her — is by locking her in. Give her only one option. Make it an unfair fight.”
“But the sun will, it’ll, it’ll kill her.”
“No,” you say, with growing certainty. “Only if she doesn’t surrender. And she will. Forcing her to wait in the sun — it’s needless suffering, needless slaughter. She doesn’t believe in it. She knows she’s beaten one way or another; this way, she goes down bloodlessly.”
“Or,” he hedges, “and, uh, hear me out — she doesn’t? And it kills the crew? And maybe her, too? Like she killed Aradia? Because she doesn’t, uh, have a moral compass?”
“Yes, she does,” you insist, and only belatedly realize it was loud enough to make some nearby sailors flinch. “You don't know her like I do! I told you!”
“You’re right. I don’t. But you didn’t know, A-Aradia, like I did,” he counters, prodding you where it hurts.
“Her crew is with her, they’re — she won’t let them die painfully for nothing!”
“But if she does —”
“If she does, she dies,” you snap. “What about the concept of ‘ultimatum’ are you not grasping? She’s not stupid —”
“No, but she’s, she’s, she’s angry,” he bites back. “She’s vengeful, and she’s vicious, and she just lost. I don’t see what about that profile precludes, uh, very unstrategic decisions —”
“She’s not —”
“Oh, please, tell me exactly what about that description was, inaccurate —”
“Everything she does has a purpose. She always has a plan, she’s callous but not cruel —”
“Seems like a semantic difference, to me, personally, but whatever —”
“Trolls hang and walk based on semantics,” you snap. “Trolls live and die on semantics. That’s what law is —”
“You realize, of course, that the legislacerator thing is a costume, which is to say, you haven’t actually passed the Bar — I don’t know that you get to make that claim, actually —”
“Oh, like you’re a real General, Nitram? Pantaloons don’t make you a ranking officer.”
“Last time I checked, I was actually in charge of my ships, as opposed to you—”
You bite your tongue and turn your coin over in your palm. “Tavros,” you hiss. “You fucking buffoon, Tavros, when are you going to learn that I’m better at this than you?”
He flinches. “That’s, that’s insubordination,” he says bleakly. “You, uh, could be punished, for that —”
“Please,” you seethe. “Try it. See if you ever get another shot at Terezi in your life.”
You back away from each other and take a moment to yourselves. You compose yourself and say, “I know her. You have to just — none of this is going to work if you don’t trust me when I say that I know her.” You spread your hands. “I mean, I got us this far, didn’t I?”
He looks you up and down. A suspicious examination. Then he averts his eyes, and you know a resignation when you see it.
“I wanted to get to do it,” he says sulkishly. “If she’s gonna die, I wanted to be, the instrument of, like, justice — you know?”
You restrain a sigh of relief. “And you will be,” you soothe him. “If she dies, you’ll be the one that does it.”
She won’t be dying. Not while you’re alive, at least. But that wasn’t the question he asked.
He smiles hesitantly. “Good,” he says. “Then — as long as you promise that — I guess we can use your idea.”
You extend your hand, and he shakes it.
“But when the sun’s set,” he prompts. “And if she hasn’t, already, that is —”
“We bring her onboard,” you agree, comfortable in the unlikelihood of that possibility. “She doesn’t surrender, we bring her onboard.”
“You’re, uh, sure,” he says.
“Nitram, I want her here as bad as you do. I promise.” You smile, and cast one last look at the horizon.
You and Tavros have to go inside once the sun rises, to avoid being burned yourselves. Pyral heads back to your hive to wait out the daylight. Your cabin has no windows, which means you are not there to see it when the Exile’s forecastle go under, but you can tell when it happens. Forced out of the covered areas by the rising tide, the sailors emerge onto the deck around noon. That’s when the screaming starts.
You instruct the lookout to take a cabin with a window and to tell you when the white flag flies. You don’t bother going to sleep; you don’t expect it to take that long.
An hour passes. Uncomfortably, you notice the slits of light filtering through the slats in the deck that roof your room, growing more intense by the minutes. It’s a cloudless day.
After checking on the lookout three times to ensure he isn’t slacking off, at Kanaya’s urging, you take a nap. You tell her to wake you up in ten minutes, which was, in retrospect, your own mistake. Another hour passes, and neither her nor the lookout disturb you.
The recuperacoon in your bunk has some of the strongest quality sopor you’ve ever had, and it still isn’t enough to put you under. The noise keeps you awake. Even if they were dead silent, you don’t think you could sleep. Thinking about what’s happening keeps you awake, keeps you on edge. In the few, fitful naps you get, the sound persists in your dreams.
What’s even worse is when the screaming stops, the unerring knowledge of why it has, of what you’ve done. If sleep was difficult before, it is impossible, now.
In a last-resort exercise in desperation, you reach out with your mind, willing her to exercise some of that infamous telepathy. Surrender, you try to say. Even in your own head, your voice is shrill and uncontrolled. Surrender, you obstinate fool, you’re going to die out there — you’re going to die and it’s going to be my —
After watching you toss and turn for a while, Kanaya brings in some sleep meds from the ship’s mediculler. She gives them to you with some ginger tea and strokes your horns until you sleep. In one of the universe’s rare strokes of mercy, you do not dream.
Around dusk, Tavros knocks on your door. You tell him to come in. You’re sitting by the desk in your room, fully dressed. You’ve been up since mid-afternoon.
“You can come up,” he says. “Sun’s down.”
“Thanks.” You say it as gracefully as you can. He seems undisturbed. If he lost sleep because of the noise, he doesn’t show it. You follow him up onto the deck.
It’s a clear, beautiful night. The stars are visible. A collection of clouds hovers to the east, but they’re wispy, harmless things. The ocean is steady and gentle. Pyral has returned, and sits coiled by the helm. It would be a fine night for sailing, if that was all you were here to do. It’s hard for you to describe in words how much you wish it was.
“We’re sending out the lifeboat,” he tells you. He stabs his thumb in its direction. “I’m running point; y-you wanna come?”
You hesitate, glancing between him and the little craft. He adds, “The whole thing was, kind of, your brainwriggler, you’ve earned first dibs,” and that seals it.
“No, thanks,” you say. “I appreciate it.”
He shrugs. “Cool,” he says. “Be back soon.” With that, he heads over to the boarding party and knocks on the side, at which point they lift him in his chair into the boat.
You walk around to the prow to watch them go. Kanaya comes to stand beside you, her brow knit with concern, but you can’t bring yourself to say anything to her.
Tavros’ skiff starts off toward the Exile. It cuts a steady path through the waves. You alternate between watching it intently and trying to keep your eyes away.
“You don’t have to watch,” Kanaya says, and perhaps she understands more than you thought she did, after all.
“Yeah, I do.”
The dinghy pauses as it pulls up beside the wreck. A small interlude, where the boat shakes, and there are faint, distinct shouts. You tense. Then it starts puttering back towards the Toreador, holding only one more figure than before. Nobody else is saved. Or, more likely, nobody else survived.
With a last groan, Terezi’s ship collapses, twin halves slipping underwater. The mast sinks last. Its uppermost flag flutters, as if borne by desperate hope, up until the last moment. And just like that, the Exile is gone.
You feel a wound open up in your chest, like a shard of glass has just been pushed between cavities of your bloodpusher.
Only five minutes pass before the dinghy pulls up along the Toreador’s port side, and the crew bustles to pull it up. You wait at the prow, breath shallow. Kanaya rests her hand on your shoulder, a lifeguard, an anchor.
Tavros is hauled up first. A cut has been scored along his cheek, vibrant purple. His clothes are ruffled, and you can tell he’s been through a minor skirmish. But the look on his face is exultant. He wheels over to sit beside you, clapping you on the back with what you think is meant to be pride.
They haul her over the edge of the deck, and you stuff your fist in your mouth to stifle a noise.
A dark, gnarled burn spreads across her face and neck. Her flesh is a patchwork quilt of peeling skin and wet rivets where the skin broke, damp with blood. To look at it is to hurt. Some of it has begun to crust and blister; already you can tell that if it heals at all, it won’t heal well. But this is not the worst.
The worst is her eyes: vivid, glossy red sacs set in the hollows of her sockets. Devoid of iris. Devoid of pupil. Devoid of anything but scar. Tears weep from the corners, likely involuntary. She blinks, and stares at nothing, unseeing.
Tavros says, “So that’s what it does, to a person,” with an almost clinical intrigue, and you want to hurt him.
“I am glad,” she says, and you’re almost stunned that her voice has remained the same, after everything else, “to have assuaged your curiosity.”
“Funny,” he says. Then, to one of his crew: “Cuff her.”
A sailor approaches behind her and clamps a pair of prongcuffs on her, pinning her arms behind her back. She hisses and twists her hands, trying to get at the latch on her wrist. When she realizes she can’t reach it, she swears under her breath.
“Search her,” he orders, and her coat is torn open, cut off her by force. She puts up some resistance, but not much. They plumb her pants pockets, and she stands still while they retrieve some razor blades, lock picks, a wallet, a palmhusk. All are tossed to the side.
“Decaptchalogue, everything you have,” Tavros says. “Or Galekh here puts a, a bullet in your pan.”
She purses her lips. “What, exactly,” she says slowly, “do you think I’m going to do with anything in my sylladex while my hands are bound?”
“News flash! This is not a democratic assembly, and your opinion w-will not be considered, in this legislative decision. Strife deck. Empty. Now.”
“What am I going to do, duel you my sword between with my teeth —”
“I don’t think you get what ‘bullet in your pan’ means. It means shoot. Game over. TKO. GG.”
“Please refrain from describing my death like a bout of Mortal Kombat,” she says drily, and decaptchalogues her weapons.
They land in an enormous pile of 8-balls on the deck, most shattering upon impact. You goggle, just for a little bit, since she can’t see you. She’s got almost the full scope of what could be considered bladekind: daggers of all lengths, sharpnesses, and shapes, machetes, throwing knives, and at least several spare swords, all piled on top of each other in a heap of steel.
“And the coat,” Tavros says, with no small degree of satisfaction.
Her eyes widen. “Wait,” she says, quickly. “Don’t —”
They plunge their hands into her coat pockets. Nothing emerges except for a glossy black box, about the size of a closed fist.
“Don’t touch that,” she says. Her voice is shrill with uncharacteristic urgency, and it draws your alarm. “Leave it where it —”
“What, pray tell, the fuck, is this?”
“Please give it back,” she says weakly, her voice soft. Her shoulders hunch. She looks miserable.
Tavros snickers. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll, I’ll unlock your prongcuffs, too, while I’m at it. Maybe give you a hand on your way out.” He tosses the box on the pile of weapons, where it slides off and clatters to the ground.
“Much obliged,” she says, and you want to grip her by the collar and shake her for not realizing her own situation, for continuing to aggravate him. Would it kill her not to have the last word —
“Out of curiosity,” he says, “real curiosity — what does it feel like, the sun? I always wondered.”
She smiles, polite and hateful. “It is the most painful thing one can imagine.”
“Oh,” he says. “Then you should hardly feel this at all.”
He nods at his guards.
The troll to her left lets go of her arm, however briefly, and socks her in the stomach.
She hunches over, eyes screwed shut with pain. You grab Tavros' shoulder, an objection on the tip of your tongue, and he brushes you off briskly.
Tavros’ sailor follows this up with a cuff around the ears, and then a bruising punch to the neck. The one on her right uppercuts her, and she lurches into the other’s hands. She cants, clearly about to fall. They shove her upright before she can hit the deck.
A mumble escapes her lips. Tavros holds up a hand, and they pause.
She works her jaw, like she’s about to say something. You brace yourself. Then she spits, and a blue-stained tooth drops to the deck in a gob of blood.
“That’s disgusting,” Tavros says, cringing.
“My apologies,” she says, remarkably smooth, for someone who just lost a molar. “I will endeavor not to get punched in the mouth, next time.”
“What does it even take to shut you up?”
“Much more than you have,” she says, and the corner of her mouth curls.
His lip curls. One of sailors moves to deal her another injury. She tightens her jaw and lowers her chin, awaiting it. It’s too much for you.
“Let her be,” you say, and her head snaps up at the sound of your voice.
There is nothing in her face. Nothing at all. You have seen her angry and you have seen her frustrated, you have seen her vicious, you have seen her uncontrolled. You have seen her impassive, too. But you have never seen her like this. Numb. Void. Empty of energy. It almost breaks you, bearing witness to it.
Tavros says, “You remember Vriska, huh.”
She says, voice thin: “Remotely.”
“You don’t sound too surprised. Thought she was your, uh, your friend.”
You grind your teeth. He doesn’t know anything about you and her, and he doesn’t mean any offense to you. You know this.
“It would take a good deal to surprise me.”
“I think this probably qualifies as a good deal.”
“Tavros,” she says, “please understand — you are not an intelligent troll to begin with. So that statement in and of itself is pathetic in a number of ways which it would take me sweeps to explain. But what you have done does not require intelligence. For you to have surprised me, you would need to have been clever. Torture is not clever. Torture, as a matter of fact, is excruciatingly simple.”
“Well — like anyone’s ever surprised you, anyway.” He undergoes a split second of genuine anger, which he covers with a laugh. “I bet when the Handmaid shows up to c-call collect, you just sit there and c-complain about the time.”
“Stunning as it may be, there are people in the world who have managed to outthink me. That you are not among them does not mean they do not exist.”
“I’d say g-go fuck yourself, but from the way you’re, you’re riding your own bulge, I see you’ve got that covered.”
“One of them is on this ship,” she says.
Her voice is flint. Her voice is blade. Her voice is open wound and messy suture. Her voice is a firestorm burning, burning, burning, and you understand what it is to watch a tsunami roll over the beach while standing on the sand.
Blood drips onto the deck. It’s the only sound, besides the wash of waves against the hull. The glass in your bloodpusher twists.
“Terezi,” you say. You don’t think you could have held back if you tried.
She does not respond.
“Vriska,” Kanaya says, unbearably tender. You ignore her.
“Terezi? Why did you do it?”
She remains motionless.
One of them boxes her ears in an attempt to get her to respond. In response, she lists violently to one side, but they catch her before she hits the ground. Her head droops forward and her body hangs from their arms like a doll. She shifts, and groans. It’s the only sound of pain you’ve ever heard her make. It doesn’t hurt you so much as it terrifies you.
The sailors wrestle her upright, and she tugs against their holds. The effort is fruitless. One of them wrenches her head back by the horn, forcing her to bear her throat. It’s a gesture of submission. A little bit of bile rises in your throat, to see her this way. You know she’d rather die than do it willingly.
“Vriska,” she says.
You flinch. You know Kanaya notices.
“If you came here to kill me,” she says, “now would be the opportune moment.”
It strikes you as cleanly as a knife could ever hope to. To steady yourself, you plant your sword on the deck. “I came here to give you justice,” you say, and you’re proud of yourself for how steady it is. “To kill you or let you live, as I see fit.”
“I see,” she says, calm. “Then make your fucking mind up.”
You recoil, and you know it’s meant to sting, know she’s trying to get a rise out of you, but you are, as ever, laid bare by her.
She spits, “You think a legislacerator would shit around this long before tying the god damn noose?”
“A legislacerator,” you say, “would take all time necessary to ensure —”
“If you were going to let me live,” she says, “you should have fucking thought of that before I went blind. Do you think that I’m going to survive for one week like this, or are you, after all, colossally fucking stupid? It would be a disappointment, but not a surprise.”
“That’s enough,” Tavros says. This, of all things, breaks her composure.
“You can’t tell me to do shit, Nitram,” she snarls. “You can’t tell me to do shit. You’ve already beat me. There is nothing you can threaten me with. Sink my ship! Wait — shit — too late! Blind me, no, done that one already. Beat me up, sure, haven’t heard that one before. You have taken every ounce of leverage you could have had and wasted it on revenge. Revenge! The shittiest of all motivations. Revenge, which means nothing, seeing as I never threatened you in the first place, so there was absolutely no benefit to your welfare gained by coming after me. Revenge, which gets you jack shit, except maybe a feeling of fucking satisfaction. That’ll keep your slime warm at night. That’ll put nutrition on the table. That’ll bring back Aradia Megido, won’t it, Tavros? Won’t this bring her back? Won’t it?”
“Pyrope, so help me —”
“This is what I was talking about! What the fuck do you think you’re threatening me with? Double-blindness? Another ass-kicking? Are you going to murder my crew again?”
“You’re one to talk about murder —”
“Yeah. You know what, yeah, let’s talk about murder. Why I’m here in the god damn fucking first pla— oh! Oh, I killed your best friend? Your very best friend? Tough shit. A troll died. What a fucking tragedy. Not like that happens often!”
“What are you going to do,” she says. A grin twists her bloody mouth. “What’s left? I’m on the edge of my seat. What are you going to do? Come on. You’ve let your goons do the dirty work, don’t want to get blood on your robes, God forbid you get this lowblood sludge come anywhere near you; bet it killed you, knowing that Aradia got offed by some pissblood who won the genetic lottery —”
“Someone shut her the fuck up!”
“Aradia screamed,” Terezi says, and she sounds hungry. “When she died, she screamed like an animal.”
Tavros moves forward with vicious speed, and the crew mates let her go. He punches her squarely in the eye, and she tumbles backward. Lands on her right side. She twists and tries to break her fall with her hands; her wrist meets the deck before the rest of her, the cuff cracking but not severing upon impact. Her cheek hits the wood and a solid thump accompanies her weight. It wrenches a gasp out of her. You step forward instinctively to stop Tavros from killing her on the spot — unthinking, terrified, moved nothing but the raw instinct to keep her alive — but both of your intentions are interrupted by her chuckling, a breathy, humorless rasp.
“Fucking finally,” she says.
Something starts beeping. Rhythmic, steady, like the chirp of a heart monitor, and equally high-pitched.
The crew stirs, looking around underfoot for the source. At first, you think it’s someone’s palmhusk ringing. As it continues, your anxiety escalates, but you’re distracted by Terezi shuffling around on the deck. She rolls over onto her stomach, hands flat against the wood. Rolls her shoulders up in an approximation of a pushup.
She grunts, and props herself on her elbows. Then her knees.
Tavros backs up, probably out of reflex, as she hefts herself up onto her haunches. Her movements are slow, laden with demonstrable effort. Her skin is slick with blood and sweat. Her body is clearly betraying her. But she rises.
She shoves herself off the deck, swaying dangerously, and for a moment it looks as though she’s going to fall. But it passes. She hunches over, panting, and then she straightens. Her eyes glitter like unhewn garnets.
“A piece of advice,” she says. “If you’re going to try and kill someone, do it as soon as you have the chance. It’s a good policy, in general. Even when dealing with those who pose no threat, it is a more efficient method, and the successful strive for efficiency in all things. But this strategy is especially important when it comes to me.”
The beeping continues, plaintive. Terezi lifts her cuffed hands and speaks into a black band on her wrist.
“Initiate remote detonation,” she says. “Voice confirmation: Terezi Pyrope.”
“Wait,” Kanaya cries. Tavros lunges for Terezi.
She backflips, kicking him in the head and sending him to the deck. Landing on her feet, she sprints away from the group as the beeping accelerates.
Pandemonium breaks out. People scramble over each other to get away from the source of the noise, all pretense of civility lost. Steps thunder on the wood, screams erupt, and Kanaya seizes your arm to keep track of you in the crowd. Your head spins as you try to pinpoint the weapon.
At the bottom of her pile of weapons, the small black box they confiscated from her earlier is vibrating. It’s also begun glowing red.
“It’s the box,” you say, “the box, the box —”
A crew mate tries to grab Terezi, and she skewers him with one of her horns, shoving orange cartilage right through his nasal cavity. He leaps back, howling, and she slides past him without breaking stride. She’s making her way towards the railing, you realize, and she’s moving fast enough that if you don’t give chase now, you won’t —
The box starts beeping faster. If you grab it soon enough, you can probably vault it in the other direction — the water would insulate the detonation. But she’d be gone by then.
Terezi takes a running leap off the side of the ship, and without thinking, you break away from Kanaya, run up to the edge, and jump after her.
The water hurtles up at you, dark and churning. She cleaves it in a neat swan-dive. You follow with an ugly splash. It knocks the breath from your oxygen sacs and pain erupts from your left side, but far more concerning is the way the water numbs you almost instantly, a complete chrysalis of aching cold. A current snares you and twists. It sucks you away from the ship, shoves you deeper underwater. A trail of bubbles streams from your nose as you lose air fast. Through the murk, you think you can see Terezi, swimming away from the ship with swift, efficient strokes; but then the draft changes, and you’re flipped over, and she vanishes.
End over end you tumble, and sometimes you think you can see the surface, but others it seems everywhere is equally dark. Head spinning, it seems you’ve been there for only half a second and an eternity both. Distantly, you hear screaming, and other splashes. Dark shapes cut the water, swimming with frantic, ineffective thrashes in their last ditch attempts at escape.
An undertow grabs you and wrenches you back towards the ship, just as it flares with a brilliant, furious light. Your eyes screw shut of your own accord, and it pierces your lids, so intense it gives you a pan-ache from proximity.
Everything takes on an unnatural quiet.
An explosion rocks the world, and fire flares under the ocean. You’re flung backward, along with all the disparate pieces of Tavros’ ship, hurtling away from the detonation site. The ocean right under the explosion boils, bubbles erupting as the heat evaporates the water on the spot. The Toreador combusts with an earsplitting shriek.
You don’t have the time to feel grief, or worry, or fear. The impact wave rolls out from the ship in a surge with breakneck speed, carrying with it all manner of detritus, metal fasteners, planks of wood. It catches you within seconds, bearing you upwards on a surge of raw energy; a piece of something heavy and blunt beats you over the head, and everything goes dark.
You do not expect to wake up. When you do, you certainly do not expect to be without pain, but without pain you are.
You’re sprawled on the sofa in your entertainment block. Feeble light trickles through the window, symptomatic of dusk, or perhaps dawn. It takes you a moment to recognize your surroundings, and another moment for your thinkpan to process them. You come back to consciousness as though reactivating an old muscle memory, groggy, and only weakly cognizant of anything at all.
Kanaya leans over you, one hand braced on your forehead. The other works a needle through your eyebrow, dexterous and careful, weaving a length of thread through the skin. The needle is stained teal. You hiss and look away.
Your field of vision is narrow. You frown, and blink, trying to clear it. Only one eyelid closes. The other is stiff. It does not respond. The whole side of your face, come to think of it, is numb.
“My eye,” you say. Panic threads your voice. “I can’t — why can’t I feel —”
“Chiefly,” Kanaya says, “because you do not have one.”
Your hand flies up to probe the space. At least, it attempts to. You order it to. You even feel it move, a pulse of neurons charging down your left side. But nothing makes contact with your face.
“My arm —”
“Is switched off at the moment, because I anticipated some post-coma flailing, and decided I would rather you not do it with what is functionally a metal club.”
You twist your head, ignoring her noise of discontent, to look down at your left side. A scream wells in your throat.
Your arm is gone. From the shoulder-joint downwards, your limb is metal, plated over with blue-grey armoring in ribbed bands. One panel sits on the bitter bean fluid table, leaving an open cavity in your wrist, through which you can see a nest of wires and blinking lights. From instinct, you try to flex your hand, and nothing happens. The feeling is there — a familiar tingle, neurons reporting to your brain that the job had been done — but no corresponding movement.
“I,” you say, shaky, and you swallow to calm yourself down. Take deep breaths. Long breaths. They shiver on the way in and out. You give yourself a minute, then two.
“I would like my arm to be switched on,” you say, sounding very small.
Kanaya nods and puts down her needle. She reaches into the tangle of circuitry at your wrist — her fingers plunge into your wrist, and the sight shakes you, you don’t know why — and twists something.
Sensation erupts down your arm, a wild current of electrochemical impulses that your thinkpan instinctively rejects. You let out a little cry.
Gradually, you accumulate to the sensation. At the very least, it behaves as an arm ought to, albeit with a sense of difference that you can’t quite explain. Tentative, you try to close your fist, and five slender metal fingers curl into the plated palm.
“Whoa,” you say.
“Courtesy of Tavros,” she says. “Who is friends with some very talented engineers, and expresses his sincere regrets, by the way. He is willing to commission a cybernetic eye for you, as well, although since the sophistication needed to install that kind of thing falls outside his field of specialty, he will have to outsource it.”
“Figure you’d need a mediculler for that,” you say. Your voice sounds distant, as if you’re on autopilot. “To reconnect the optic nerve, and . . . stuff. That’s nice of him.”
“A bioengineer, actually. And he also recommends you wait for the rest of your face to heal, so the surgiculler does not have to work around existing wounds. I gave him your thanks already, but a gift basket would probably not be out of place.”
“The rest of — Kanaya, what —”
“You have severe scarring over the left side of your face, and probably will for the rest of your life,” she says, and she doesn’t pull her punches. She gives it to you straight and brisk. “Reconstructive surgery had to be performed on your nose and left shoulder. Your arm was still attached when you were pulled from the water, but it had been broken in enough places and held enough shrapnel to make the project of reconstruction unfeasible. Amputation and prosthetic replacement was the only way you were ever going to have a functioning limb again.”
You lean back and let this settle in your mind, turning it over slowly. It doesn’t register, at first. Your thinkpan refuses the idea. You close your eye and dig into the palm of your right hand with your claws, eliciting a pinch of pain. It’s a dream. It’s too bizarre not to be a dream. There is no world in which this is your reality; you’re going to wake up and have two eyes again, two arms.
The attempt fails. When you open your eye, Kanaya is still there, and the prosthetic is still affixed to your shoulder joint, and you still cannot feel half of your face.
You shift and wet your lips. “I’m not in pain, though,” you object. “I should be in —”
“Yes, well. Opiates are magical things.”
You try to turn your head, and her fingers on your chin shove you back into place so she can get at your eyebrow. “Kanaya,” you say. “Are you —”
“Your lusus managed to abscond with Tavros and I before the explosion,” she says. “Apart from bruising, we will both be fine.”
You blink your remaining eye, hard, and look around. Pyral hangs on a treebranch just outside your window, a spiral of smoke coiling from her nose. Her tail dangles underneath her and reaches a third of the way down the trunk; soon, she’ll have to start sleeping on the ground, to avoid breaking the branch. For now, though, she naps. You’re glad. You feel safer with her nearby.
Kanaya threads the last stitch over your eyebrow and snaps the medkit closed forcefully. Her fingers flex on the lid, fists closing and unclosing as she works her energy out through her fingers. You wait in silence for her to continue. At length, she exhales deeply, and hangs her head.
“I am glad you survived,” she says. “I thought you wouldn’t, for a while.”
“Likewise. I mean — I’m glad you made it out. And that Tavros did, too.”
“When your lusus pulled you out of the sea, you looked dead.” She shakes her head, as if ridding herself of a thought. “I thought — I was certain that you were. Tavros was the one who thought to check for a pulse.”
“We presume Terezi survived,” she says bitterly. “There was no body found. To answer the question I am sure is occupying you.”
“Hold on —”
“She knew you very well, Vriska.”
You shift, trying to sit up. A wave of sensation twinges down your spine, something that you think would probably be pain if you weren’t sedated so thoroughly.
“Of course she did. We were FLARP partners, you knew that, I told you that —”
“She knew you better than I do.”
She chokes it. As if she were trying to stomach a foul comestible, or cauterize a wound.
“I don’t think that’s true,” you say. After a moment. Too long a moment.
“No? Was she bluffing? Because tonight Terezi told me that you would choose heroism over pity, every time you had to. And I thought she was lying to me. I was, again, certain.”
That gets a rise out of you. “Aradia died, and you wanted me to sit back and —”
She explodes. “I wanted you to care! About something besides FLARP and legislacerators and wriggler’s playthings, more the fool me —”
“— sit there and let her go, knowing full well we wouldn’t catch her again, knowing full well that she’d hold a grudge—”
“And she still got away! By some unthinkable act of misfortune, your recklessness failed to secure her!” She flings up her hands. “I find myself struck by deja vu! And — shockingly — the conversation I am remembering was also about Terezi Pyrope!”
“And I was right that time, too!”
She goes from incensed to cold in half a second. “You would rather fancy yourself a mythical carrier of justice than acknowledge that you made a bad call,” she says. “How typical.”
“I made the only call I could! I dare you to make that decision —”
“In a heartbeat,” she cries. Ragged. “In a heartbeat, Vriska, and you know full well what my choice would be.”
You scrub your hand over your mouth and turn away. She paces, crossing to the window. Seconds crawl by.
“We were partners for perigees,” you say. “I can’t just bury that.”
“A lot longer than that, from her estimate.”
“You’d take a gamblignant’s word over mine,” you snap. “Good to know sweeps of moirallegiance has really built up a well of fucking trust —”
“Between the two of you, only one has ever lied to me.”
It cuts deep. Kanaya always knew how to clean an animal.
“Sweeps,” she said. “A sweep, she said you played together. Your estimation of the dates would have put it at half a sweep. You never told me —”
“You never looked! It was on our team profile the whole time, I never hid it or —”
“Does the fact that I never found out you were lying make it less a lie? I was not aware that was how that worked.”
“If you let me explain — it was a delicate situation —”
“I imagine so! Lying to one’s moirail often is. Usually it involves something more promiscuous, though. Or am I underestimating your nerve?”
“Don’t — it was never like that, it wasn’t —”
“You just lied for her because she was an astoundingly good FLARP partner.”
“She was my friend!”
“A friend. A murderer, and one responsible for crippling another friend of yours — how can you possibly care about her this much?” Kanaya shoves at you. One shoulder yields and twinges under her hands; the other does not. Her anger shifts, congeals into desperate misery. “What has she done for you?” she demands. “What has she given you? Have I done something that made you prefer her to me? You never told me, if I have!”
“No. No, on all counts, it’s not —”
“I was on the ship, too. I was there. My life was at risk, too. Did that not matter to you?”
“Of course it did, don’t be abs—”
“Obviously not enough to stay!”
She turns her back on you and combs her fingers through her hair. Her fingers massage the bases of her horns, mussing her bob.
“And still,” she says, “when I look at you — I want to help you. I want to be close to you. Your pain is mine, you understand? Ever since I knew what pity was, I thought it was what I felt for you.”
“I know. I know, I do, I’ve always cared for y—”
“Do you? Do you understand? Because if you did, would you ever have —” She stops mid-sentence, looking stricken, as if something has occurred to her.
She shakes her head wryly. “Never mind,” she says. “I think you do understand. I think you understand perfectly.” She smiles, and it is brittle. “I would have jumped off that ship for you, too.”
You push yourself off the couch, or try to; your body gives out before you can, and she steps out of your reach.
“Kanaya,” you say.
“I care for you,” she says, quietly. “I always have. I may never stop.”
It’s an apology, after your own fashion.
“Pale for you,” she murmurs.
You could say anything, now. Me, too, or I know, or I’ll do better. You could try to persuade her to stay. You know that you could do it. She would forgive you, if you asked; she would forgive you anything, even now, you think. But the look she sends you is a plea, and it settles like lead in your chest, and you don’t so much as say a word. Kanaya picks up her jacket and turns to you, expectant. It’s the last chance you’ll ever get. She will not offer you another, not after everything else.
So you force yourself not to meet her eyes.
Her heels click sharply on the floor as she leaves, and she slams the door behind her.
It is perhaps the only selfless thing you ever do for her — letting her go.
The message comes later, when you’re trying to take off your uniform without full use of your left hand. It takes you a while to enter the passcode of your palmhusk; without muscle memory, most tasks require more thought than you’re used to.
It’s only one line long. Three words, printed in dark blue.
gallowsCorsair [GC] began trolling advocatasGambit [AG]
GC: ARE YOU ALIVE
You put your husk down and don’t respond for a while. You finish undressing. You make yourself breakfast, which is a quarter of a protein ration and some grubsauce. You brush your fangs. You brush your hair, which you never do, but you do it, this time. You do all the things Kanaya would have told you to do, if she’d been here, and all the things you never did anyway. Then you sit on your reclining platform and patrol FLARP forums, scrolling through recent leaderboard updates and discussion panels. None of it seems to matter. You feel like crying, but you can’t find the energy. Your mouth tastes like ash.
After sitting in silence for forty minutes, it becomes unbearable. You pick up your husk and tap out a reply.
advocatasGambit [AG] blocked gallowsCorsair [GC]
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn,
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world,
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
—Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
If the beginning of the end was slow, the aftermath passes like sand through a sieve.
Time races forward despite your best intentions, rather leaving you by the wayside. A quarter-sweep passes without word from Terezi or Kanaya, and then a half-sweep arrives with word from neither. Your body scabs up and scars over and heals, a little crooked in half a dozen places, a little achey in half a dozen more. You never find a bionic replacement for your eye that would satisfy you, but you learn to use your arm as well as you did when it was flesh. Contrary to literary convention, you do not ever forget that it is metal.
Some days — like the one when it malfunctions, spasming while you’re holding a mug of coffee and shattering it on the floor; or the one when it’s too slow in coming up to parry a blow, and you catch a gouge across the cheek that’ll scar like a bitch when it heals — you have to fight back a wave of bitter resentment directed at Kanaya for bothering to save you at all. Some days, the fight is all there is. Sometimes you lose. More often, the longer time goes on, you win. You learn to willfully ignore the things you can’t do anymore, and instead thank God it wasn’t your sword arm.
On the bright side, you can now throw a punch straight through someone’s ribcage. There really are, you learn, silver linings in everything.
With a wealth of newfound time and an equally bounteous aversion to FLARP, you get bored, and quickly. You occupy yourself by memorizing the Alternian penal code. Then the Constitution. Tavros comes over once or twice to play chess and spar, but since he feels guilty about hitting you square on after the incident, you always end up beating him easily in sparring matches, and he’s garbage at chess. Gamzee offers a more entertaining distraction, if nothing else. He has an aptitude for distracting you with the most batshit queries you’ve ever heard, questions to which there are no answers, statements that take hours to puzzle out before you can begin to think about coming up with an answer. He’s also better than most others about ignoring your prosthetic. You suspect this is because his observational skills are so grievously impaired that he doesn’t actually realize you’ve lost an arm, but let it not be said you were one to look a gift horse in the mouth! You will take what boons you are granted.
Between the two of them, you have enough comradeship to occupy maybe half the time you spent between FLARP and your moirallegiance, before. A not insignificant portion of your day is also dedicated to not trolling Terezi.
You don’t troll her when her wriggling day comes and you don’t know where she is, because it’s only perigees after the incident and there’s nothing that you could say to her that would hurt less than silence. That night, you sit and try not to think about her dragging food home to her lusus without the guise of FLARP to distract herself, alone, most likely, and miserable, most likely.
You don’t troll Terezi when Kanaya’s wriggling day comes and you send her a box of the finest fabrics you can purchase online, dark olive silks that shine with gold embroidery, rich, dark leathers that shine red in the light, white faux lusus furs soft enough to sleep on. You can’t figure out for yourself whether it’s an apology or a reconciliation, but you hope she takes it as the former, since the latter makes you seem desperate and weird. She sends you a thank-you note of three words over Trollian, and you’re surprised that she hasn’t blocked you by now, much less that she bothered reaching out. You should have expected it, though. Kanaya always was too courteous to neglect manners for the sake of her own wellbeing.
You don’t troll Terezi when your own ninth wriggling day comes and Tavros has the bright fucking idea of commissioning you a new FLARP outfit, a legislacerator’s uniform tailored to your exact proportions with protective chitin sewn into the vulnerable spots, a gift that probably costs more than your yearly stipend and causes you to spend an hour locked in your ablutionblock, hyperventilating, while Pyral makes soothing, concerned noises through the door, panic wiping your mind clean. Pyral later carries it far, far into the forest and burns it, and you send Tavros a carefully worded message of thanks that nevertheless declines his offer to come out of retirement.
You don’t troll Terezi when Pyral gets a case of scale rot and you spend weeks bent at her side, scanning online forums for treatment options that never seem to work, while she stares listlessly at the ceiling and turns darker and darker grey with each passing night. You don’t troll her, either, when Pyral recovers and you spend a whole night sleeping under her wing instead of in the sopor, curled up like wrigglers do in their first half-sweep with their lusii.
And you don’t troll Terezi when the news breaks on the Imperial channel: RARE GIANT SPIDER LUSUS FOUND DEAD IN ABANDONED HIVE OFF THE RUST COAST; TROLL CARETAKER AT LARGE, SUSPECTED OF LUSUSCIDE.
Even though you want to. Even though you go to your husktop multiple times over the course of the night, biting your claws to the quick in deliberation. Even though you are certain that if ever there was a time to troll her, this would be it, and that tonight, of all nights, she might not turn you away.
Conscription approaches with the inevitability and grim aura of a death knoll. Like every obedient citizen of your age, you take the aptitude test sent to you by the Bureau of Employment on the fifth of the Light Season after your ninth wriggling day, and take the additional subject test offered to those interested in legislacerative work. You ace both, and shortly thereafter get a notice in your inbox commanding you to report to the pickup site for legislacerative cadets on Conscription Day. Your lifelong dream comes to you without pomp and fanfare. It brings with it a vague sense of accomplishment, but whenever you try to imagine your future with the Bar, you remember that you can’t look at the neophyte’s uniform without having a panic attack, and it puts a substantial dampener on your aspirations of judicial glory.
You don’t ask outright, but instead hear from a mutual acquaintance, that Kanaya has been accepted into the Alternian Academy for Art and Fashion to be a ragripper. You’re happy for her. It’s what she wanted, and you know she’ll be good at it. Tavros is bound straight for the ranking military, with an accelerated course of study in the Military Academy, to the surprise of no one. Gamzee flunked every aptitude test offered, but, as you could have expected, his psionic levels put him at Helmsman class.
You want to help him. You know you can’t. When he trolls you excitedly about the “good news,” you respond in kind, and don’t tell him what lies ahead.
For some trolls, Conscription is a source of joy, the fulfillment of expectations or the promise of greater things to come. For some trolls — smarter trolls — it is not.
Two weeks before you’re due to leave the planet, you wake up while the sun is still low in the sky.
With the remnants of some vague dream about starships already fading from memory, you haul yourself out of the slime. The palmhusk on your cupeside table chimes with a push notification from some newsfeed or other, but you don’t bother to check it; you haul yourself over the side of the cupe and pad into the ablutionblock to rinse the slime.
Pyral grew too big to fit in your hive perigees ago, so she sleeps on top of your hive during the daytime. You consider waking her up in order to talk to her, or maybe go for an early evening flight, but you ultimately decide to let her sleep. Instead, you wander through the blocks of your hive aimlessly, seeking something to occupy yourself until the night arrives in earnest. It’s sparser than normal. You finished packing for your journey offworld just yesterday, with those belongings you intend to keep with you tucked in a suitcase by the door, and those you don’t in a row of boxes on the back of your hive. The next person to live here will get them as part of the domicile, and wow, isn’t that a weird thing to think about — someone else living here, sleeping in your cupe, without having ever met you at all.
When you pass the front door, a flash of white through the tinted window catches the corner of your eye. Curious, you step up and near your face to the glass, but in the minute or two you wait there, nothing makes itself known.
Curiosity wars with your better judgment. The predictable happens, and you shrug on your jacket and amble outside.
The air washes away the sticky heat of what slime that still clings to you, shaking away the last dregs of sleep.
The trees around your hive sway with a gentle breeze, whispering to each other.
The crescent pink moon tints the world dimly in Imperial tyrian, staining the night with a macabre filter.
The ghost of Aradia Megido floats on your front porch.
A thick coat of hair drifts around her shoulders like a veil, flickering in time with the tattered edge of her skirt. She is rendered in grey and white, translucent, and when a whorl of wind stirs the leaves at her feet, they pass through her without seeming to affect her at all. Unlike when you saw her last, her skin is whole and unblemished, without bruise nor wound to mar it. Her Heiress’ circlet rests atop a cushion of curls. It weeps blood down her head.
“Oh,” she says, and turns to greet you. Her eyes gleam sheer white. Her expression is serene. “Good evening, Vriska. It’s nice to meet you.”
Numb, you drop to your knees. It seems proper conduct for meeting the Heiress, even when she’s dead.
“You’re Terezi’s partner,” she says. “Right? The one she played with before we had our encounter. You know, I never did get to see you, while I was alive. That seems wrong, somehow. Ultimately, our fates were deeply involved.”
“How are you here?” You shake your head. Pinch yourself. Pinch yourself again, with your metal arm, so it’ll hurt more. The world seems real as ever. “You’re dead. I saw your corpse.”
“Yes,” she says. “Quite dead, and here all the same. It took some doing, I’ll tell you that.”
“Harder question,” she notes. “Let’s call it unfinished business.”
Her voice is a smooth alto, and surprisingly clear, for someone with such a physical form. You keep your distance. Your bloodpusher thunders.
“Business with . . . me?”
“Business adjacent to you,” she corrects. “With Terezi Pyrope, mostly. But that always seems to involve you, doesn’t it? And yet, in the end, you knew so little about everything that transpired, even though you were the one who finished it.”
You swallow. “I tried to avenge you,” you tell her, and it strikes you how bizarre this is: how hard it is for you to wrap your thinkpan around the idea of justifying your choices to the ghost of the person you did them for.
“I know. I appreciate it.” She smiles. The expression does not shed warmth. It does not have a drop of joy in it, but that’s not her fault, in all likelihood. Hard to imagine anything she could do that could make her seem happy, in her state. “That’s why I’m here, really. You deserve to know things that you didn’t get to know, and you’re not gonna have the chance to figure them out for much longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Conscription,” she says, and it grounds you in reality, tethers you from where you’d been drifting in memories of pirates and swordplay and a world where good and evil were still things it was possible to know. “You and she won’t be on the same planet much longer. If anything’s to be sorted out, it’ll be soon.”
“Sorted out,” you repeat. “And what does — what does ‘sorted out’ mean, exactly?”
“Whatever you want it to mean. I’m not here to tell you what to do, I’m just here to tell you what happened. The dead are, in my experience, infuriatingly rooted in the past,” she explains. “I can answer questions you have about what happened, in the hopes that you’ll use what I give you to inform your decisions about the future. But the future itself is . . . vague, to me. It doesn’t exist. I don’t have a future, so it’s very hard for me to conceptualize. Just like the afterlife probably is, for you.”
You wrap your jacket tighter around yourself and say nothing.
“So,” she says. “Do you have any questions?” The corners of her eyes fold with something resembling merriment.
You do, but you don’t know how to say it. You don’t know how to make it bearable to say or how to make the answer bearable to hear. It’s been almost a sweep since you talked to anyone about her, and you are out of practice cutting yourself open like this.
“Why did she kill you?”
She bites her lip. “I made a bad call,” she says. “I thought she was killing innocents. And she was, but — I don’t know if she deserved what I did to her, in retrospect.”
She waves her hands, and you’re standing on the deck of a ship.
It’s a work of art, the ship, with three masts of rosy wood stretching up to scrape the clouds and fine silk sails of glimmering fuchsia waving and snapping in the pleasant breeze. Black railing fences in the pale brown deck, forming elaborate curls of iron that twist into the Pisces insignia, and a quarterdeck almost the size of your hive sprouts from the far end. A crew of at least four dozen mans the vehicle, clambering up and down the rigging, swarming to and fro and giving the impression of perpetual movement.
When you look up, you recognize the pattern of stars lacing the night sky at once. You’re sailing through the Damaran Sea.
To your left floats Aradia, the ocean wind ruffling her hair and loose clothing, her form all the harder to see in the direct light of a full green moon.
To the right of you stands — Aradia, but flesh and blood, skin the rich grey of adolescence and vivid with life. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail that lashes like a black whip behind her, and she wears the same outfit as her ethereal counterpart, but less dilapidated, and covered in fine filigree and armored with a vest of gold brocade. Her smile is fierce and glad and sharp-toothed, and you are struck by the warmth of it, which seems to exist in spite of the three-pronged point of her finned ears and the rhythmically pulsing slits along her neck.
Terezi kneels on the deck near the base of the second mast, her head bent. Tavros stands to her left, his rifle drawn, and it’s the former fact that takes you longer to process. You waste a moment staring at her, drinking in the shape of her, until she lifts her head and stares straight at you.
You skitter backwards before you can check the impulse, hand flying to your pocket to fumble for a coin that isn’t there. It takes a second to realize that she hasn’t moved at all, and to the point, she doesn’t seem to understand that you’re there. Her gaze is fixed in the middle distance, her eyes as whole as they ever were. Various cuts and nicks decorate her outfit, with patches of dark blue staining her coat, but no further injury has been done her.
Ghostly Aradia drifts up to your side. “How,” you say, while your tongue is still fuzzy and you aren’t yet sure what you want to say. “Where —”
“This is somewhere off the Rust Coast,” she tells you. “We’re both eight.”
Living Aradia bends down and tilts her chin, trying to look Terezi in the eye. Terezi bows her head and refuses.
“Look at me go. I’m trying to get her to talk, right now, although it won’t work. She killed half my crew during the fight, did you know that? I was very mad about it, when I was alive.” Aradia rattles off this fact with all the dismay of someone finding their coffee has cooled during their trip to the loadgaper.
You step closer. Tavros nudges Terezi’s arm with the tip of his boot, and she shrugs him off violently, a sharp roll of the shoulder that betrays her current tension.
“She killed one of my friends,” Aradia adds. “I won’t bother telling you about them; you wouldn’t know them. It was during FLARP, granted. But even then, it’s not as though doing as part of a roleplaying game makes it any less horrible.”
“She killed a lot of people,” you say, defensive despite yourself, despite knowing that Aradia doesn’t mean to suggest anything. “We did.”
“Interestingly,” she says, “FLARP doesn’t necessitate killing. It just allows it.”
“Winners always kill.”
“Is that what you were told,” she says, “or did you reason that out for yourself?”
The living Aradia pats Terezi’s cheek, to Terezi’s obvious disgust. Then she backs up and stretches her hands wide. A cold steals across the deck of the ship, a wind starkly at odds with the plentiful moonlight and balmy weather.
“Tavros didn’t tell me everything,” you tell your Aradia, the dead Aradia. “He just told me enough to know it was her fault.”
“Pity,” she says. “The whole story is — well, it doesn’t change things; but then again, maybe it does.”
The living Aradia steps apart from the rest of the crew, giving herself enough space to maneuver freely. She closes her eyes and lifts her hands, opening her palms to the sky like a Mirthful Messiah beginning a sermon. Tavros backs away, which gives Terezi the first sign that something is wrong; she eyes Aradia in consternation, but not fear.
A ripple of white tears open the air like a fissure in the fabric of reality. It swells and billows out like smoke from the end of a pipe, twisting and rippling. Gradually, the silhouette of a troll emerges from the immaterial substance, limbs, torso, horns sprouting from the mass of white smoke. You don’t recognize them. But you do recognize the expression on Terezi’s face, which flattens immediately into the tense rigidity of dread.
The smoke keeps growing. Another troll swirls into being from the mist, distinct from the first, but still unknown to you. Then, a third. The speed of their arrival increases, and you note a bead of sweat trickling down the living Aradia’s temple. More and more people swarm forth out of the hole in reality, and beside you, the ghost Aradia shifts uncomfortably.
At first, the specters just mill around, lost and purposeless. Gradually, however, they start to congeal in a wall around Terezi, their ranks growing thicker and thicker the longer Aradia sustains the summoning. Terezi shies away from them, her glare deepening.
“Knock it off,” she says. Her voice sounds just as you remember it. You haven’t heard it in so long.
But Aradia doesn’t reply. The ghosts keep coming, and you notice that a lot of them are injured, maimed in horrible or ghastly painful ways. Blood spills from mortal wounds and stains their fingers, their necks, their faces, an unshakeable reminder of their lack of life, and the temperature on the deck takes an even sharper dive as their expressions grow hostile, their whispers more vicious. They swarm. They howl.
You start recognizing them. Trolls you killed, or trolls you helped kill, or watched being killed, when you were playing FLARP with her, slide out of the gap in reality and advance on your partner.
“Stop it, Megido. You hear me? Uncle,” Terezi says, anxiety creeping through her bravado. “I don’t know what fuckery this is, but I give.”
The ghost of a troll with slim ringlets and right-angle horns swims out of the medley and reaches out stubby-clawed fingers for Terezi’s face, sending Terezi tumbling backwards, her face ash pale and terrified.
“Stop it,” she begs. Begging, and even when you had her blind and bleeding at your feet, she never begged for you, never. But she flings herself away from the howling gyre of Aradia’s summoned phantoms and puts herself entirely at the Heiress’ mercy, begging like you heard a thousand thousand of your victims do: “Please, please, please stop it, I’ll do anything, I’m sorry, please —”
Tavros has lost any joy he once got out of her suffering. To see her this way affects him to some degree in the same way it does you, because he’s turned grave and miserable, and tries to gesture for Aradia to hold off. She doesn’t.
As if on cue, your Aradia says, “I should have stopped,” and her regret appears to be sincere. “I shouldn’t have kept going. But I wanted her to get it, you know? How many people she’d hurt, killed. I wanted her to understand.” After a pause, she says, “I never considered that maybe she already knew.”
The ghosts press closer, forming a swirling vortex around Terezi, whispering words you can’t hear but can imagine well enough. Terezi curls in on herself, her shoulders forming a would-be shield against horrors, a wriggler’s defense mechanism. She sobs, and it breaks you.
Tavros backs away and turns his head, unable to stomach it. You would kill him for lesser acts of cowardice than this.
At last, the living Heiress lowers her hands, and the swarm of ghosts dissipates form by form into nothing. This does nothing to calm Terezi, who slowly falls forward onto her hands and knees, head hanging limp from her shoulders. Her forms a curtain that hides her face. Her shoulders have not stopped shaking. The sight abrades. The sight raises bile in you. Terezi, who should never be kneeling, who could have been hatched with a spine incapable of bowing and you would have believed it, should not look like this, curled up and replete with her own misery.
Neither the living Aradia nor Tavros says anything, and Terezi certainly does not. You cannot think, for the life of you, what to say.
The pair of highbloods turn away, then, and retreat back to their own business, consorting with one another, murmuring under their breath and gesturing to various crew members to command them. They do not spend another moment of their attention on the motionless form of your former partner on their deck. It is as if, having finished what they came here to do, she ceased to exist the moment they accomplished their objective.
They look somber enough, but that doesn’t make you any less eager to plunge your sword through Aradia’s highblood back. Just or not, righteous or not. It wouldn’t matter to you, not now. It wouldn’t even cross your mind.
You turn to Aradia, hating her a little, hating yourself a lot more.
She holds up a finger. The world blurs again.
You stand on a tiny island in the middle of a roiling sea, the sky above completely black and sealed over with clouds. Ghost Aradia is nowhere to be found, but the living Aradia remains, standing on the beach a ways ahead of you. Wind shrieks and buffets you so hard you nearly tumble over the precipice of rock on which you stand, sending you into the churning waves below, and rain lashes at your face and neck with a phantom sting that never actually seems to wet your skin. The sound of the storm seething overhead dwarfs everything else, a deafening concerto of thunder, waves, and gale, all in chaotic unison.
A wire frame of a troll floats a hundred feet midair, completely surrounded by a field of snapping blue and red lightning, the sizzling currents of which illuminate the sky around him in blinding color. His hair twists and writhes desperately in the gale generated by his self-contained storm, locks of tangled black whipping against the snarling curls of his horns. Yellow blood drips from his nose and levitates in midair, thin globules caught in his own telekinetic force. His eyes glow the same blue and red of his aura. It strips him of the normally boyish look he carries, rendering him as some alien creature of terrifying, unnatural power.
Aradia screams, but the sound is lost to the wind. Gamzee smiles, and the expression is not his own.
You call her name, starting forward, but you are glued in place, and no matter how much you thrash, you cannot move from your vantage point. You are helpless to watch as Aradia is lifted into the air by snaking tendrils of electricity, thrashing against the hold but incapable of doing anything to break free.
Then, blessedly, the vision cuts out. Your front porch swims into being, quiet and dark and safe. Aradia stands there, watching you carefully. Pyral rests above you, tail dangling within reach, if you need her.
You are drenched in cold sweat and shaking. Legs trembling, you keel over and sit down hard on your front step, feet dangling into open air beneath the ledge of your treehouse. Bending over to lean on your knees, you gasp deep breaths of forest air. It tastes of nothing but dirt and leaves. No salt, no trace of the open sea.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Aradia remarks mildly. She leans against the wall and surveys the canopy around you, giving you some privacy to collect yourself and clear the tears out of your eyes. You are stunned by her composure, but then, you suppose she’s had a sweep to come to terms with what happened. “The blue caste has never been known to have psychic gifts. But I gather you could tell me something about that, since you were the one who held her accountable for my death.”
“She.” You clear your throat, rubbing your arms in a fruitless attempt to warm yourself. “She can control people. Maybe telepathy, too, I never — only over lowbloods, though. It’s how she paralyzed Tavros. Part of how she got to be so good at FLARP, using them.”
“Hmm,” Aradia hums. “Interesting.”
“Yeah, well.” You wipe your palms on your pants.
The pair of you sit in silence. You have nothing you can think of to say to her, and you’re certain that there’s nothing she could say to you that could make any of this better.
You are surrounded by the tangled remnants of the bad choices you made. They could form a rope plenty strong enough to hang yourself.
“She was your friend,” Aradia says. A question.
“I — sure, yeah. We were friends.”
“. . . And something else?”
“Look,” you say hotly, “I don’t know where you think you get off, but that’s my own—”
“I meant no offense. You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.”
“There’s nothing to tell. We were — I knew her for a sweep, maybe two, if you count the time when we weren’t talking, and it’s not like we ever called it anything, and I don’t know why you’re interested.” Your eyes sting. “And she’s gone now. So.”
Aradia hums a noise of dissent. “Gone,” she says, “is a funny word.”
You grind your teeth and say nothing. You let her ruminate.
“Usually people take it to mean lost, forever. Irretrievably so. Or dead. Me, for example. Terezi, I think, would not be considered ‘gone,’ or if she was, not to you, of all people.” Aradia tucks a curl of hair behind her ear. “Take it from someone who is, quite literally, dead to the world: very few people are ever truly gone, unless you let them be.”
“Sorry,” you interrupt, “but was there a point to any of this?”
“Go find her,” she suggests.
You laugh wetly. “You don’t think I’ve tried?”
“Man, you must think my self-control is god damn incredible. No. I’ve been trying to track her since I last saw her. I’ve spent the better part of a sweep looking. She can’t be found. FLARP was the only way I ever kept a bead on her in the first place, and that was when she was younger, dumber, and had even less reason to hide.”
“But you would go to her, if you knew.”
“I don’t know.” You thread your hands through your hair and tug on your horns. “Maybe. Maybe not. What’s all this about ‘going to her,’ anyway? With all we’ve done, do you really think we have anything left to say to each other?”
She watches you in silence. You release your horns.
“Fine,” you say, short. “I know. But it doesn’t change the fact —”
“That you’re scared,” she interrupts. “Yes. I thought you might be.”
“That I don’t know where she is,” you say, louder than her, and fighting an embarrassed warmth that suffuses your face, “much less how to find her. Assuming that I want to, and assuming that she wouldn’t go for my jugular on sight.”
Aradia giggles. “On sight,” she says. “That’s a good one.”
You flip her the bird, which is probably seditious, but whatever, she’s dead, she can’t prosecute.
“Sorry,” she concedes. “In poor taste. But I can solve that last problem for you, if you like.”
“You know where Terezi is?”
“No,” she admits. “It’s been a while since I checked up on her. I’ve had to save up my energy to have this conversation with you. But I know someone who can tell you her whereabouts.”
“You’ve heard of her, actually. Terezi’s ex-auspistice. Nepeta Leijon. She lives on the Boric Coast.”
You wrack your brains and recall a small, blurry photograph of a girl with buck teeth and absolutely enormous hair, sandwiched between Terezi and Tavros in an embrace that had no right to look as amiable as it did. Terezi never spoke much of her, but then, it wasn’t as though Terezi spoke much of anything personal.
“And she knows where Terezi is.”
“Well,” she says, lacing her fingers together. “She ought to. Terezi visited her just this week.”
You brush off the pang of slighted jealousy that stabs you. “She visited?”
“Not along the lines of reconciliation so much as a goodbye, I think.”
“I see.” You resist the urge to rub your eyes again. “You want me do what, exactly?”
Her brow furrows. “I don’t know,” she says. “I needed someone to know. I can’t . . . move on, leaving things like this.”
“So? Why tell me?”
She chooses her words for a while.
“To make amends,” she says simply.
“For hurting her, or for not killing her when you had the chance?”
She watches the tail of a sleeping Pyral trace a lazy arc across the dusk sky. “That’s your choice, I think,” she says. “The dead have an odd relationship to the living. I think it would be wrong for me to tell you what to do.”
“But I want you to,” you exclaim. “I don’t want to — to —”
She gives you a look as knowing as it is sad. “I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I didn’t mean for it to turn out like this. I only wanted to make things right.”
“So did I.”
You hadn’t meant to sound so bitter.
She shrugs and sits down, although, since she’s floating, it doesn’t change her height at all. “Well, then,” she says quietly. “Here we are. One of us still has a chance at fixing it.”
You drum your claws on your knee. Pyral murmurs something in her sleep and turns over. The pink moon climbs higher in the eastern sky, and the pattern of stars brightens as the last traces of sun are swallowed.
“I understand that I have caused you considerable grief,” Aradia apologizes.
“Mm.” She examines her hands. “I wanted — you’re not the only person with regrets, Vriska.”
“You’re dead,” you say. “You didn’t have to worry about it. You can move on.”
She shakes her head. “I’m eight sweeps old,” she says softly. “Forever. I’m always going to be eight sweeps old, and for the rest of forever, I’m stuck with that. You get to grow up. You get to be nine sweeps old, and then ten, twenty, a hundred. I don’t. I’ll watch my friends grow up and never get to be with them, all because I couldn’t forgive someone for something.”
“You didn’t owe her your forgiveness.”
“Of course I didn’t,” she chuckles. “And I certainly don’t know whether she deserved it. She was an awful little girl, and she may grow up to be an awful woman. But there are a lot of awful little girls on this planet, and if I’d had a little bit of restraint, we both could be alive, if not happy.” Hesitating, she adds, “It wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. But I don’t know that that matters, anyhow.”
She sighs. “Or does it? The dead, I’ve found, aren’t terribly good at deciding at what matters and what doesn’t. I leave that to the living.”
Her left eye winks, so quick you might have just imagined it. She leans in to your ear and whispers, “Thank you, Vriska,” before she dissolves on the wind like a curl of smoke.
Nepeta’s hive is a cave, located an ocean away from yours, and far more artful than a cave has any right to be. A gently sloping pyramid of stone rises from the grassy field around it, and the walls are carved smooth, inset with whirling patterns of dark grey marbling the stone. By boat, the journey from your hive to hers would take days, but Pyral covers the distance in little under an hour. When you get there, the sun still hasn’t reached its zenith overhead.
Pyral lets you down a short walk from the front door and takes off again, going to hunt. You step up on what appears to be a porch and knock.
The door slides open a sliver, and out peers a hulking, unwieldy beast of a troll swathed in an impossibly large sweater. Greasy hair dangles to his chin, curtaining his face, and a pair of opaque sunglasses hide his eyes. You can count on your hands the number of bare inches of skin on him.
You’ve never heard a troll with such a deep voice sound so very young, so flat and wavering. The boy has a tenor like a Pacific trench and no idea how to use it.
“Vriska Serket,” you say, sticking out your hand. “Future legislacerator at law, and current guest to your abode.”
“I know who you are,” he says, and then, backtracking fast: “I mean, I have heard your name, both proximally, and socially. Which is to say, I am familiar with your reputation, but also, I have a personal relation whose knowledge of a personal relation of yours informs me as to your personage. Which is not to say —”
“Cool,” you interrupt. “Who are you?”
“Sorry. Very sorry, your Cruelty. A thousand apologies for my impropriety. I am Equius Zahhak. I have the exquisite pleasure of being Nepeta’s hivemate and moirail.”
“Charmed,” you lie, and don’t bother to correct him about the misusage of ‘your Cruelty’; it’s very flattering. “Can I come in?”
“Oh,” he says. “Yes. Please.” He stands aside, and you enter their fashionably humble abode. The living space is covered in rugs of all colors, and the walls are bedecked with scrawled depictions of various trolls, all styled in chalk. Nonetheless, the place looks a little threadbare. Given that you know for a fact Nepeta is high enough to buy herself and her palemate some nice real estate, and the pair of Imperial-regulation suitcases sitting in the corner, you bet they’re already prepared for Conscription. You bet Equius got exempted by being a stay-at-home quadrantmate, the lucky sod.
“Sorry to turn up on short notice,” you say.
“It is not a bother.” He shuffles into the kitchen. “Can I offer you anything? We have dispensed with most of the rations, but there remain a few pitchers of grubjuice. And bitter bean fluid, if Nepeta has remembered to purchase filters. To that extent, I would advise against getting your hopes up.”
“I’m good.” You remember, with a pang, that your Conscription pickup site is on the other side of the Damaran Sea. That will be an issue you deal with after the more imminent one.
“I presume you have come to see her,” Equius says, emerging from the kitchen with a two mugs of steamed leaf juice, despite your objections. “Nepeta, I mean. My moirail.”
“You’d be right.”
“Do you have business with her? Or is it a personal call? She should be home presently. I will inform her that she has a guest.”
“Personal call, although I’m intrigued as to what her business is.”
“Ms. Leijon runs a quadrant advisory business,” he says. “She offers couple and triad therapy to struggling moirallegiances, matespritships, kismesissitudes, and auspisticeships; she specializes in pale-red vacillation and gives private lessons to middle leafs in ashen relationships.”
“How very practical. Is she going to psychorrorology training for Conscription?”
Equius pauses in bringing his tea to his mouth, staring at his cup. You’re not sure what you said wrong until he says, with all possible delicacy, “Nepeta is a jadeblood, Ms. Serket.”
It hits you only belatedly. “Oh,” you say, feeling very stupid very suddenly. “Of course. Sorry.” You don’t want to say ‘I forgot,’ because you have the feeling that wouldn’t improve your case at all, but the alternative makes it sound like you were deliberately being mean, which is hardly an improvement. Flailing, you say, “I hear the brooding caverns are delightful this time of sweep.”
“Yes,” he says, which is a filthy lie, since the brooding caverns are ‘delightful’ approximately never, but he’s kind enough to let it be. “We expect our time there to be highly productive.”
He’s refused to take off his sunglasses, despite being in a dimly lit room.
“Hmm?” He starts.
You gesture to your eyes demonstratively. “Glasses,” you say, by way of explanation. “You don’t strike me as the kind of troll who rocks shades indoors for style reasons.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, I am very photosensitive. Light is . . . exquisitely painful. It hurts my eyes.”
It’s one of the worst lies you’ve heard in your life. It’s of astonishingly bad quality, actually, and it takes a lot to astonish you.
“Doesn’t make much sense to have a window, then,” you remark, jabbing your thumb at it.
He doesn’t wear much color. All of his clothes are either grey or black, which you’d normally just take for a lackluster dresser, but in conjunction with his eyes being trapped behind a pair of shades, a node of suspicion lodges in the back of your thinkpan.
“What’s your hemocaste, Mr. Zahhak?”
He startles. “That,” he stutters, “is a terribly, terribly impolite question. Your Cruelty. With all possible due respect.”
“Yes,” you say. “Tell me anyway.”
“Rust,” he says. Yelps. “I am of the burgundy caste. Hemotype number A10000.”
“Took you a while, there,” you remark. “You forget or something?”
“I was — startled. By the uncouthness of your remark — I apologize. Sorry. I did not mean to offend you, if I did indeed offend you, by implying you were uncouth, although, in fairness, you were; it did not occur —”
“Chrissakes,” you sigh, “I’m not here to hang you. What’s your mutation? Oversized courtesy gland or something?”
“My courtesy gland is of perfectly appropriate size,” he says, scandalized, “not that it is — any of your business, information concerning the size of — glands of any kind —”
“I’m making conversation. It’s not an inquisition.”
“Remarkably, it does, actually, seem that way —”
“Only because you’re skittish as a hoofbeast at a firework festival, Zahhak, and that’s not on me. If you’ve got a better topic of conversation, be my guest.”
“I would prefer to wait in silence,” he says meekly, and you sigh.
As if by dent of some merciful deity, the door chooses that moment to swing open, and Nepeta Leijon strides into the hive.
She wears a jade hunting jacket, lined with white fur, which she hooks on the coatrack next to Equius’ overcoat. A set of fingerless gloves mask her knuckles, and a blue beanie perches on the back of her head. She’s got more hair than you expected — it snarls around her shoulders — and her horns have grown large as traffic cones, with the red stripes of her first molt rising prematurely from the root. Of course, Terezi’s photograph would have been from more than a sweep ago, so it makes sense that she would look different.
“Oh,” she says, seeming not nearly as surprised to see you as one might expect. “A visitor. You didn’t tell me we were expecting company, Eq.”
“We are not,” Equius says tightly.
“Ooh. A surprise.” She steps closer, inspecting you. A moment of clarity illuminates her eyes. “Ah,” she says. “Vriska Serket! I wondered if you were ever going to come say hello.” She flops herself on the couch next to Equius, who promptly takes the excuse to shoot to his feet and make a beeline for the next room. She watches him go with fond exasperation. “Poor guy,” she remarks, once he’s out of sight. “What did you do to him?”
“I had polite conversation, thank you, and I’d advise your moirail to look less uncomfortable around legislacerators, if he wants to keep that mutation of his a secret.”
She glances at you, and part of her ease fades. “Mutation,” she repeats. A bright smile plasters itself across her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Is that what you came here to discuss?”
“No, I just — look, I’m looking out for you, here. Just saying. He’s got the worst tell I’ve ever seen, and I’ve played poker with Tavros Nitram.”
“Tavros has a better pokerface than you might expect,” she remarks blandly, pouring herself a cup of tea, and you’re reminded that she knows Tavros intimately — probably even better than you. “Not as good as me! And neither of us ever as good as Terezi, she cleaned us out like a janitor unleashing his passions on a dirty closet. But that’s my own fault for playing against someone telepathic — do you have enough tea? Yes? Good. Equius makes a shit brew, but he’ll get offended if he sees us make another, so I’d be really obliged if you kept a stiff upper lip about it, for the sake of my moirallegiance.”
Her words hit you like a barrage of fire, relentless and flabbergasting. “Uh,” you say, in response.
For the first time, you understand how someone so physically nonthreatening could be capable of ruling Terezi Pyrope.
“So,” she says, folding her hands in her lap primly. “Why are you here, Vriska?”
You cup your tea in your palms and work your jaw, wordless. You had your answer to that question scripted, but somewhere between leaving your hive and being presented with the troll asking it, you lost the trail.
She bursts out laughing. “Just joking,” she says. “I know you’re here to talk about Terezi, silly. What else would you come all this way for?” She thumbs her nose knowingly. “I have a Trollian account, you know.”
“Yes,” you stutter, half breathless with relief. “But I thought I should ask you. About this kind of thing. In — in person.”
“Good move,” she agrees. She snags what was Equius’ cup of tea and takes a swig. Immediately, she pulls a face at the taste. “A formal occasion for a formal subject.”
“Yeah.” You bounce your knee. “So. Do you . . .”
She arches an eyebrow, utterly unhelpful.
“Have you seen her lately?”
“Sure. It was my wriggling day a week ago; she came over for that, although probably because I kept bugging her about it.” She taps her chin in contemplation. “She told me she didn’t want a Conscription present, but I told her I was going to get her one anyway, so she might as well clam up and deal with it, since it was non-negotiable. I got her a pair of glasses. For her eyes, you know; people kept getting freaked when they saw them. And they were a dead giveaway, when she tried to stay out of the public eye, you know.”
“Her eyes being — red, you mean.”
“Her eyes being all kinds of ugly, I mean,” Nepeta says easily. “You did a number on them, Serket.”
“I’m sorry,” you blurt. “If I’d thought — I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I don’t know that, in retrospect, I’d —”
“Save it,” she says, lifting a hand. “Not that I don’t think your relationship drama is interesting, Vriska, because it is; but I charge by the hour for counseling.”
“Oh,” you say, feeling thoroughly chastised and a bit foolish at your problems being tossed so easily into the category of ‘drama.’ “All right, then.”
She sips the tea again, apparently having gotten over her disgust at its quality. You lift your own to your lips, but do not drink.
“That’s something I still don’t get,” you say, after a moment.
“She’s blind,” you say. “But she obviously manages to — she manages.”
“She uses a sixth sense,” Nepeta says. “Something to do with her lusus, I think. It gives her an awareness of the world around her, like . . . echolocation, sort of. But without the sound. Sensing the vibrations of movement, wind currents, that kind of thing.” She shrugs. “I don’t pretend to get it. But she explained it to me, once. I’m not a scienstiff, I don’t know.”
“But she does manage.”
“Of course. She’s Terezi Pyrope, you think she’d let something like having no eyes slow her down?”
“Silly of me,” you concede. “Listen, Nepeta —”
“Vriska,” she mimics you, dropping her tone an octave at least, and you’re pretty certain you don’t sound like that, but you let it slide.
“I need to find her.”
Her smile fades. “To find her,” she repeats. “To do what?”
And how do you answer that? The ghost of the Heiress appeared to me in a vision I’m still not sure is entirely real and told me to get off my ass before I got sent off planet?
No. You say nothing, and hope somehow the sentiment behind it comes across.
“I won’t help you kill her,” she says, quietly, and a part of you wilts. “Maybe that’s selfish of me. Is that selfish of me? —But she was my auspistee, and my friend, before she was my ashmate. And I won’t help you kill her, whatever that says about me.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“Can you promise me you won’t kill her, then?”
“I.” You can’t. Not when you don’t know that Terezi’s going to receive you in peace, anyway, and not when you still haven’t figured out why you’re looking for her in the first place at all.
She gives you the opportunity to finish your sentence, finishing the last of her tea. When you have nothing more to give her, she sighs and sets it down on the table. It clinks against the wood with a cold sort of finality.
“I don’t think we have anything else to say to each other, then, Vriska.”
“Right,” you say, roughly. “Well. Thanks anyway.”
She nods, regarding her own claws. You plant your hands on your knees, ready to push yourself to your feet.
“If,” she says.
You pause, waiting.
She shakes her head, frowns, shakes it again, and still refuses to meet your eyes. “If,” she repeats, agonizingly slow. “I was going to help you. I would tell you that Terezi bought a new ship in the next town over. Meaning that she probably hasn’t hired a crew for it yet. So she’ll be nearby.”
Hope flowers in your chest.
“And I definitely wouldn’t tell you,” she says, “that she’s docking at Port Blue. Nope! Wouldn’t do it, you can’t make me. Put me on a rack, gun to my moirail’s head, you couldn’t get it out of me. Do your worst, legislacerator, I’m a closed book.”
“Thank you. I mean it, Nepeta, thank you, really —”
She swats your gratitude away like a gnat. “Pish,” she says. “Pittances! What are you thanking me for? Now, if you really wanted my help, you’d ask me what the name of her ship was. I wouldn’t tell you, of course, since I’m not helping you. I wouldn’t tell you that it’s called the Queen of Spades, given that I’m really a very obstinate person.”
“Fantastic,” you breathe, and, springing to your feet, head for the door. Equius looks up from his reading, eyes darting between you. The corner of Nepeta’s mouth curls in a grin, but you’re hardly paying attention to it; your mind is already miles away and running.
“And if, Vriska,” she calls. You stop in the doorway, your hand on the very knob. “If! I were going to help you, which I’m not, I would tell you this.” She still hasn’t turned her head to look at you, but her back is straight and her head is held high, and she regards the wall opposite her with utmost dignity. “Be kind.”
“Okay,” you find yourself saying, as though that’s any kind of promise you can make. But it’s the least you can give her.
The Queen of Spades is not a ship to rival Exile, in any sense. It lacks what its predecessor had in both size and presentation — a small cutter with a single mast and a deck of scuffed birchwood, a greying brown hull, and red letters announcing the name in nondescript font along the port side. A rickety boarding ramp attaches her to the port, which is nearly empty, populated only by a few fishing vessels and the occasional tugboat. It only took a denarius slipped into a valet’s pocket for you to get in. You do not get the feeling that this is a terribly luxurious port.
Climbing to the Queen’s deck, you note that nobody appears to be manning it, either. Granted, it wouldn’t take many to set the ship sailing, but Terezi alone probably couldn’t swing it. You doubt, absently, whether she’s hired a crew for it yet. That sets you thinking about your old crew, when you sailed the Exile, about Nikhee and Mallek. You wonder what their Conscription assignments are. You wonder if they made it to Conscription.
They must have. The kind of people Terezi surrounded herself with were all survivors, of one type or another.
You contemplate drawing a weapon, but decide against it, compromising instead by taking out your coin but leaving it as such.
A fog steals across the bay, and late as it is in the night, the green moon still hangs high. You take a moment and lean against the railing, watching the current carry a lime-colored sea up against the tall white cliffs that edge the peninsula. Pyral lifts her head from her nest down the beach and lets loose a chirruping cry of greeting, which you meet with a raised hand.
It strikes you at once that this ocean — this planet — has been your home, and you are about to leave it, probably forever. A lonesomeness unrelated to your current mission overtakes you, and you turn away from the rail.
A single black door permits entry to the berth, unmarked and untitled. It’s most likely her cabin, as there’s not room below for much more. The valet said that he hadn’t seen anyone leave the dock in hours. She’s probably inside.
You roll your coin through your fingers, sending it tumbling across your knuckles. Then you bite your tongue, catch it in your palm, and push open the door.
Terezi sits behind a plain steel desk at the back of a small office, streaked brown walls left bare, a patchy beige rug thrown over the center to give it some semblance of homeyness. A square, cheap lamp casts sallow light on the paperwork before her, and it’s hard to say whether the window behind her is opaque by design or by failure of proper cleaning. One chair sits opposite her. A glass of wine rests beside the lamp. The place evokes the interrogation block more than it does her former cabin.
The damage on her face has faded, giving the skin around her eyes a more weathered and wrinkled look than any adolescent’s ought to, but at a distance, it could be mistaken for nothing more than a bad case of acne scarring. All the skin that had been burned grew back a discordant, paler shade of gray than the dermis around it, but you suppose that will be gone soon enough, once she hits her adult molt, which she hasn’t. The ribbing on her horns hasn’t changed. Nor has her height, which puts her squarely under eye level with you.
Her hair has grown long around her shoulders, curling up at the ends. Gone is the satin black overcoat, although one less ostentatious and more serviceable drapes over the back of her chair. A piercing studs her earlobe. The gloves remain, the same pair as ever, stark black against the cuffs of her simple white button-down. She’s no gamblignant queen, now.
What takes you aback, though, is the pair of glasses perched judiciously on her nose, frames shaped like dragon scales, lenses the color of her eyes.
Your throat threatens to close under the weight of all you want to say.
“We never finished that game of Questions.”
Terezi’s pen scratches to a halt on the parchment, and then she puts it down. If hearing your voice again does anything to her, she does a remarkable job of keeping it to herself.
“It’s been a while,” she says, after an interminable pause.
The greeting is so laughably understated that you struggle to contain a giggle. “Yeah,” you say, and the normalcy of this, this conversation, this simple exchange, in spite of everything that has happened, threatens to suffocate you in your own relief. The undercurrent of your history never quite leaves, and you can never really forget it, but for now, the sound of her voice — unchanged for the most part, only a little deeper, only a little throatier — lets you pretend that you’re six sweeps old and starstruck, and not nine sweeps old and sick with love.
“How have you been?”
“I. Fuck, I’ve been okay, I guess.”
She clicks her pen and starts writing again. “Statement,” she says idly. “Point me. You’re rusty.”
You laugh in confused delight and step closer, letting the door click closed behind you. “Have you been in practice?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She signs something and sets it to the side.
“Did you have someone to practice with?”
“What are you implying?”
“Who says I’m implying anything?”
“What kind of troll do you think I am?”
“Do you want me to answer that question?”
The words have bite. It’s too sharp to be teasing. Even for Terezi, who has never teased with anything resembling gentility, it comes out jagged, and you startle at the naked animosity it carries.
“Hesitation,” she says, pouncing on it. “Two love. You are out of practice.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Do you still play FLARP?”
“Don’t you know the answer to that already?”
“Am I wrong?”
“What do you think?”
“Did you stop playing for any reason in particular?”
“No,” she says, startling you. One-two. Her pen never breaks stride. “What’s up with the dragon?”
“Did I ever tell you my lusus was an egg?”
“Was it a pleasant surprise?”
She snorts, and you take the point. “Any other surprises I should know about?”
“Would you believe me if I told you?”
“Who would I be if I did?”
“Wouldn’t you have believed me, once?”
“You ever make a mistake, Vriska?”
You flinch. “Is — is that really fair?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Which — which parts of it do you think were mistakes?”
“Parts of what?”
Finally, you grit out, “Why the bomb?”
She doesn’t reply. Carefully, she lets go the pen, setting it parallel to the page she’s been writing on, and spends a long second adjusting it. The uneasy camaraderie snaps under the force of your question like the surface tension of a pool.
“You couldn’t have known you’d survive.” You search her face for explanation, reason, expression, and find none. “You didn’t, did you?”
“The blind are not known for their longevity. I wanted you dead more than I wanted to survive.”
If you were any less numb, it would send you clean. “That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? You have no idea how I felt. You don’t — you can’t know — how badly I wanted you dead. You as a person lack the capacity to understand it.”
“Then explain it to me.” You choke on a guffaw. “Use simple words, so I can understand.”
“Act like I’m treating you unfairly. I’m not. You’re not a child and I know that, but I can’t and don’t ask you to understand this.”
“Betrayal,” she corrects. Finally, she lets herself be vicious, and it is a horrible thing to witness. “I hated you, for betraying me.”
“You did, and you’ll own up to it, now, or you’ll lose my respect along with my trust,” Terezi tells you, factually. “I can live with you deciding to side against me. But don’t try to back out of what you did.”
“Fine,” you say. Brittle. “I betrayed you. Is that what you’d like me to say?”
“What I want doesn’t matter. This is about being honest with ourselves.”
“Oh, is that a thing we’re doing, now?”
“You tortured me for ten hours,” she says, which puts an end to your tongue-in-cheek remarks like a blade to the throat might. “With the intent to kill me at the end of it, by all appearances. This ‘we’ business you’re throwing about now is going to give me whiplash.”
“You killed the Heiress,” you rasp. “What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
Terezi’s fingers still on the desk. She tilts her head to the left, and you get the distinct impression she is watching you.
“One might consider,” she says ruthlessly, “not torturing me for ten hours. As a token of your esteem, perhaps.”
“What part of ‘you killed the Heiress’ —”
“The part where you turned your back on me for doing something insubstantially different from what we did every day,” she exclaims.
You say, “She was a child—”
“Do you know old I was when I killed my first troll?”
“Three,” she spits anyway. “That was the age my lusus started rejecting the Imperial gruel. In the beginning, it was about one a week. It’s a steep learning curve. I expect it’s steeper for highbloods.”
The wind hurls itself against the thin window. It fills what otherwise would have been an unbearable beat of silence.
“You had no right,” you say. “She was trying to teach you a lesson. She meant you no harm.”
“Megido was unthinkably stupid,” she snarls. “I did her a mercy. If she’d made a try for Empress, she would’ve been gutted like a trout.”
“Did I not enunciate?”
“Stupid — she was a good person, Terezi.”
“She was a highblood,” she says offhandedly. “She was going to grow up to be a cruel, violent person, and if that wasn’t what she was already, she have would either changed fast or have been culled anyway.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That a fuchsiablood wasn’t going to be a pinnacle of gentler virtues. You’re right. I didn’t know that for absolutely certain, but I took an educated guess. Real gamble, wasn’t it?”
“Aradia was kind!”
This is, perhaps, not the best tactic, because her eyes flare and her mouth tightens in the way that signals an impending storm.
“You never met her,” she says offhandedly, and this is too much.
“Like that matters! She was a child, she was a good person, and you can sit there and say that she’s —”
“Stupid, yes, because she was a child, and she was a good person, and she was incredibly dumb.”
“You’ve got some fucking nerve—”
“Pointing out that she had the unparalleled resources of the Imperial Fleet at her disposal, and she still couldn’t manage to kill one blueblood? Because she was more interested in being poetic than being effective? I don’t think that takes a lot of nerve to point out.”
“And you punished her for it, you punished her for it a thousandfold —”
“Aradia almost killed me,” she says, with false breeziness. “In FLARP, that’s what we call a first strike. I’m not sure why I’m catching the blame for refusing to take it lying down.”
“It was hardly a first strike!”
“If you’re going to try to kill someone, you had damn well better succeed, or it’s your own fault if you end up dead in retaliation.”
“You were murdering people! It wasn’t unmeditated—”
“Did you ever think about why?” It’s biting. “Did you ever take a moment to ask yourself what you would have done, if you had the options I did? I mean, I know it’s convenient to assume that only bad people do bad things, but you never shirked an intellectual challenge before. Did you really just presume it was cold-blooded trollslaughter?”
“Murder,” you say, and the heat in her recedes, leaving behind a distant, cool expression of disinterest. Nevertheless, you forge onward: “With intent, it’s murder.”
“Forgive me,” she says. “It’s been a while since I looked at the statutes.”
Your breathing evens out. You flex the fingers of your metal arm, time the one millisecond-gap between neural impulse and action, and resent the engineering for being just shy of perfect.
“What’s your Conscription assignment?”
You repeat yourself, forcing yourself to be neutral.
“I — ha.” She barks a laugh. “Fleet.”
“General fleet?” You squint.
“I suppose I don’t have to ask what yours was; you’ll make a fine legislacerator, I’m sure. Yes, general fleet. What else did you have me pegged for?”
“Special ops,” you say. “Intel, or — diplomenacey, strategy, something like — you’re infantry?”
“I requested it,” she says. “I have no interest in kissing chute for half my career in order to acquire a sufficiently shiny badge to pin on my jacket. There’s no place for real ambition in the military hierarchy, only bowing to higher and higher authorities.”
“Infantry is suicide,” you insist, pressing forward. “For first-sweep outs, it’s suicide.”
She gives you an odd look. “Neophyte,” she says, the edge of her lip curling, “I don’t actually intend to go.”
You start. “You’re defecting?”
“Call it choosing a more creative career path.”
“What are you going to do, then? Do you have somewhere to go?”
She closes her eyes, and you notice for the first time how deeply the rings underneath them are set and painted in dark grays, purples, polluted blues. It’s been a perigee since she killed her mother, and you wonder if she’s had a full day of sleep since.
“Vriska,” she says. You startle at the sound of your name from her lips. It was uncommon, even in the days when everything was good between you, to hear your given name from her. A tender, wounded undercurrent steals into her words, and her anger abates, if only out of tiredness. “What did you want from me?”
She’s asked you the question before. You give her a different answer than you did then.
It’s not the answer she wants. She closes up again, a carapace of a sneer flowering over her face. “Like hell.”
“It’s the truth. I thought the world of you. I wanted you to be my friend.” The half-truth is a cowardice, you know it is, but you don’t have the confidence to stand up to that curled lip and confess yourself while carrying the brunt of her anger. You don’t even know if you’d have the courage to do it if she was tender about it.
“You wanted a pity project,” she snaps. “Someone who would care for you and make you feel needed, because Maryam didn’t really scratch that itch, did she?”
“Leave Kanaya the fuck out of this.”
“Why? You never did,” she says, easy as breathing. “Oh, you wanted to, but you didn’t. She was always involved. Always there, really, or the shadow of her was. The moirail you had to sneak home to, after stealing out for your secret FLARPing trysts. The nagging busybody who wouldn’t let you hang out on weekends because you had to go clear her hive of zombies, but let’s not forget that she also happened to be the best soul that ever walked this thrice-blessed planet, the very platonic ideal of a moirail. I knew everything about Kanaya Maryam,” she says, bitterly, “but I’ll bet she didn’t know the first thing about me, and I can only assume it was because I didn’t get the same treatment when you were on the pile as she did when you were at sea.”
“That’s not fair,” you protest, but weakly. The memory of Kanaya still hurts.
“It’s the truth, you’re damn right it’s not. Did you ever think about how that felt? Watching you turn chlorine-blue every time her name so much as came up? The person you couldn’t kill, the person you’d die for, and I only ever met her once. Forgive me for thinking I wasn’t all that important to you, Vriska, but darling, at the end of the night, you came home to one person and one person alone.”
“Fuck off,” you say, desperate and ready to punch something, ready to feel any kind of pain except the intolerable reminder of what you’ve done both the people you ever cared about. “I chose you over Kanaya, when it mattered, didn’t I? And I lost her for it, you uncharitable shithead.”
“When it mattered,” she repeats. “When — after you’d blinded me, do you mean? Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I chose you every time it mattered! When it came down to it, I was spending weekends out on campaigns with you, not with her. Near the end of it, I didn’t know the first thing about her problems, about what kept her up in the morning — forget about moirails, we were barely fucking friends. But I didn’t think about that, not when you could send me a single line on Trollian and have me come running over half a continent—”
She shoves back her chair and rises.
“So it wasn’t enough for you, having someone who loved you, was it? You wanted someone that needed you, and were disappointed when I didn’t.”
“Go fuck yourself,” you seethe. “Take your word games and go fuck yourself with them, Captain. I didn’t want a single goddamn thing from you except whatever you were willing to give me, and I would have taken anything you were willing to give me.”
Her lip curls. “Please. As if you weren’t flirting pale with me, anyway, whenever you happened not to be flirting pitch. I forgot you had a moirail, half of the time, given how you conducted yourself.”
Measure for measure, both of you engage the well-practiced art of strike and counterstrike: She wants to hurt you, and so she does. You want to hurt her, and so you do.
“You encouraged me,” you accuse her. “You know you did. You flirted back.”
“I didn’t have a moirail.”
“No. You just wanted one, so you did things that — that were never platonic, don’t pretend otherwise.”
“Like not letting you be brutally slaughtered in order to ensure the success of our campaign? Like naming you my business partner? Pale gestures for the history books.”
“Like introducing me to your lusus,” you counter, “and telling me when you killed your first troll.”
Foul play, bringing up the spider, but neither of you have much regard for the rules of combat anymore.
She stares and stares, and it occurs to you that it was a bad move, all the same.
“To make one thing perfectly clear,” she says, with disjointed, stiff civility, and this is how you know when you have gone too far; Terezi’s fury runs cold like yours runs scorching, and where you are at your most awful when you fail to watch yourself, she is at her most awful when she locks herself away: “I never wanted you pale. I apologize if I suggested it, but that was not my intention.”
It pierces you clean in the back. You are a little breathless, but you keep enough of your wits about you to hiss, “You’re a liar.”
“I’m really not.”
“You wanted — there were parts of it that were pale.”
“I never wanted you for a moirail,” she corrects you. “Nor anything else.”
“Bullshit. We loved each other,” you say, enraged and crying a little from it.
She goes rigid as calcified meteorite.
“We fucked it up, sure. Fucked it up something awful. But we loved each other.”
A muscle in her cheek twitches. Calmly, she says, “Did we, now.”
“Fuck you. We did and you know it.”
“Do lovers often blind each other, Counselor?” She removes her glasses and folds them, settling them neatly on the desk. Her eyes meet yours, scarlet and featureless. “Do lovers often cripple each other? I am not so practiced in these things as you.”
“I said we fucked it up, didn’t we?”
“Oh, stop it,” she says, dripping with condescension. “You didn’t give a good goddamn about ‘us’ in the end. You have a hero complex as big as that ghastly lusus of yours, and when caring about me stopped being convenient fodder to feed it —”
“—you dropped me to the wayside to ally yourself with Tavros Nitram, of all people. Of course, that makes sense; always more convenient when you get to play the good guy, isn’t it, and if Tavros has a single useful quality about his incredibly goddamn incompetent person, it’s fucking up and pretending he’s noble for it —”
“I didn’t choose him over you — you think it was him that mattered to me? Nitram? Are you serious?”
“You gave up on me,” she says, stiff. “As you well should’ve. But you did. It wasn’t my fault that you —”
“You gave up first! You as well as told me to fuck off, knowing I’d do anything you asked. That wasn’t on me.”
“You knew the kind of person I was when you met me.”
“Like hell I did, but that’s beside the point. I know what kind of person you are now, and it doesn’t make a shit bit of difference. It was still shitty of you.”
“Well, then we’re both assholes,” she barks, slamming her hands on the table, “as if that makes it any better.”
“It doesn’t. That’s my point.”
She tosses her head in insouciant disdain and spins around, pacing.
Finally, she says, “Why are you here, Vriska?”
She’s tired. Quiet. No hidden intent dresses the words. She wants an answer, and she’s exhausted enough to ask you outright for it.
Honestly, you say, “I came here to kill you.”
It draws a flinch from her. “You’re doing a shit job of it,” she says.
“I don’t want to. But I don’t have a choice.”
“You,” she laughs, “don’t have a choice.”
“Vriska, I’ll eat my fucking ship if there’s been a day in your life when you haven’t had a choice,” she spits, “and it’s insulting to both of us for you to pretend that there has.”
You’re so used to that tone of voice hurting you that you brace yourself without meaning to, waiting for a wound that doesn’t come. The acidity just slides off you, as transparent as the rest of her facade, and you read through the layers of bitterness into the exhaustion beneath it. She’s angry, but not at you. She’s trying to be angry at you, but the source of her fury isn’t in the room; she might not even know what it is.
“At any rate,” she says, “I don’t think you’ll do it.”
“I can,” you say. Your voice breaks. “I will.”
“No, you won’t. Vriska, I know you better than any living thing in this universe, and you don’t have a bone in your body that’ll let you harm a bone in mine, unless you could justify it as a mercy first. Weird, how a bit of perspective changes things.” She drags down her left eyelid, emphasizing the scarring around her cornea.
“You think so?” You turn your coin over in your hand.
“I know so.”
She scrutinizes you for a moment. It’s the hesitation that guts you, the moment of uncertainty that steals over her as you give her reason to doubt how well she knows you.
Something about you must finally register with her, because her levity leaves her at once. “Well, then,” she says, smiling with breathtaking fury. “I certainly invite you to try.”
She lunges, blade cutting through the air on a perfect path for your left arm.
You knock it away with your hand. The ugly clang of metal against metal resounds through the cabin.
She grimaces, and then comes at you again, a fast swing to the other side; this time, you catch it, and close your fist over the steel. You twist, and her wrist curls with the arc of her hilt, until finally she gasps, and lets it go. Wrenching it away from her, you toss it over your shoulder. Your fingers leave a dent in the metal. It clatters to the ground.
You toss your coin, and it soars for the ceiling. Before it starts descent, she snags it out of the air, sweeps her leg around, and catches you in the ankle. You fall hard, land on your hands; you scramble around and find the tip of your own sword angled at your throat.
She breathes fast. You do, too.
Slowly, you put your hands up.
“Renounce it,” she says.
It is a testament to how deeply, thoroughly fucked you are that you consider it. But you shake your head all the same.
“Renounce it. I’ll believe you, if you take it back. Say that you’ll walk off my ship without objection if I let you go, and I will.”
“Why?” Pleading, like a wriggler does, when confronted with some incomprehensible injustice. “I’ll kill you, if you don’t.”
“Then do it,” you say, and as you watch the point of her blade waver infinitesimally at your throat, something slots into place. You tip your chin up and press skin to steel. Her breath hitches.
“Go on,” you say. “Fair is fair.” Unkindly, you add, “I’d appreciate it if you made it quick, although by all means, you’re not obligated to. I’d worry for your coat, though, if you’re looking for a bloody ordeal.”
“You could make me. Your sword’s about half an inch north of my windpipe, that’s a short trip down.”
“This isn’t a sparring match. This isn’t a game.”
“No, it’s not.”
“You’re gambling with your life.”
“Yeah,” you say.
You should take the deal, take the olive branch, for what it is, but you can’t. It’s not that you refuse to back away from your mission. It’s not even that you think you will kill her, or that you know you can. It’s that you need to know what she’ll do when she thinks you might.
Her eyes narrow. The blade nestles snugly at the hollow of your throat. You let it. Her knee on your sternum provides a constant, imposing pressure, keeping you flush against the floor, but you relax and allow the imposition without resistance.
She barks a sudden, surprised laugh.
“I don’t want to kill you,” she whispers. “Do you understand? I can’t.”
Then her oculars get wide, and she seems to realize, as you do, that it’s surrender and confession in equal measure.
You don’t say anything. You do not salt the wound.
The sword hits the ground with the discordant clang of metal on wood, before shrinking back into the coin. She scrubs a hand over her mouth, face crumpled in anger and self-disgust. It takes another second for her to remove her knee from your stomach, a third still to sit back on her haunches and let you sit up. She extends a hand to help you to your feet, which you accept, placing your flesh hand in hers.
She pulls you up, and you go easily. The pair of you stand like that for a moment.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” you say.
“Fuck off,” she says, all bitterness, no fire. “You won. You don’t need to be an ass about it.”
“I’m not gloating.” You let go her hand and she shoves it in her pocket. “I am sorry. It should have been sooner.” Admitting something to yourself, you say, “I should have helped you do it.”
“It doesn’t matter. None of it matters, now.”
“Yes, it does,” you say. Gentle. Firm. She doesn’t look at you.
“I have to go,” she says abruptly. “I need — some air.” And she turns on her heel and runs from the room, shoving through the door with a panicked brutality that leaves it swinging in her wake.
You watch her go and let her, all miserable complacency. How any of it ended up like this, you don’t know. There was a point, surely, somewhere along the line, when you had a chance to make a different choice, when everything could have turned out all right. Maybe it was when you sank Exile. Maybe it was when you let her go. Maybe it was all the way back when she stuck out her hand and welcomed you onboard her ship after you abandoned your own crew and moirail to follow her, or maybe it was that split moment when you left Kanaya behind to give chase; wherever it was, it’s lost to you now. Now you are only a girl who loves Terezi Pyrope, and you think you likely always will be. There is no carving it out of you, now.
What you feel for her is in your flesh and blood. It is an illness, deadly as plague, deadly as an open ribcage. It gnaws and gnaws and gnaws.
You give her half an hour to herself, and then come find her. Terezi stands with her back to you on the prow of the ship, her arms behind her back, watching the prenatal glistening of dawn begin in the north.
The echo of your heels on the deck is deafening. She doesn’t turn.
“You haven’t changed your mind,” she says.
“No,” you say. It comes out soft.
She lifts her chin and braces herself. You surprise her by walking up beside her and resting one hand — your metal hand — on the rail.
“Beautiful morning,” you remark.
She slides you a sidelong look of disappointment. “I would have preferred it in the back,” she says. “Although they say the thinkpan is faster, the spine is cleaner. Less painful, if you get the bullet right between the vertebrae.”
“I’m not going to shoot you.”
Her lips purse, though she keeps her eyes focused resolutely on the ocean. “Poetic as it may be, I will not be loaning you my sword,” she says lightly.
“Don’t be dramatic.”
“Well, I don’t see a blade.” It’s the closest she comes to emotional. There’s a slight stagger on blade that botches the air of indifference. “And we both know you’re shit with anything that isn’t coinkind.”
You look at her. There are new hollows to her face that have appeared in the years since you met. She is something wholly unlike the kid you met, sweeps ago. You wonder what she would have become.
Perhaps she reads something into your scrutiny, because she says, sharp, “If you’re going to —”
“Neurotoxin,” you say, and she looks at you, really looks at you. Maybe for the first time in your life.
You hand her a thin, empty glass vial. She takes it and turns it over in her hand.
“Clear, tasteless, odorless. Induces symptoms including lack of fine motor control, difficulty in elocution, and headaches; all of which, incidentally, are also symptoms of a hangover.”
She smiles wryly.
“This particular variant depresses the nervous system to the point of dysfunction, at which point any enemy engaged in combat becomes easy to dispatch. Alternatively, given enough time, the toxin will spread to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, after which death follows shortly.”
Her fingers close around the capsule. She gives a short nod.
“My will is in my desk,” she says. “You’ll find it in the left-hand drawer. The money’s yours, of course. The rules of FLARP are clear.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“Take it anyway. Buy yourself a new arm, or something.”
“I can’t take it,” you say, a little wretched, and dumbfounded at how she doesn’t understand.
“No? Do something with it, then. Bury it or burn it or give it all away, I don’t care, just don’t let it — go to waste.”
You examine her. She is distressed by your refusal. It does not make sense to her, and it scares her, the prospect of something or someone she does not understand.
You wait for long enough to make it seem like you’ve come around. “Fine,” you lie.
“Good,” she says. “How long do I have left?”
“Terezi Pyrope, you know better than that.”
Her mouth twists in a wry smirk, only a little regretful. “In retrospect,” she says, “there is something to be said for futile hopes.”
Then she leans forward and touches her lips to yours, just once, soft. You surge forward, press your tongue against hers, tracing around the back of her teeth. It shocks her into letting you clean her mouth of the poison, or whatever’s left of it.
But after a moment, she rests her fingers on your jaw, pulls you back. Shakes her head at you, a small movement, and doesn’t touch you until you swallow and nod. Then she tries again. This time, you let her do what she likes, but her lips stay closed. They move carefully against yours. There’s an almost naïve quality to it. She holds you by the back of the neck, which is all about power, which is to say, all about love.
You kiss her back.
Terezi’s lips are chapped and rough. Her hair flies around and whips you in the face. Your flesh hand grows cold from where it remains at your side. It is as perfect as any thing you have ever known.
You reach for her hand with your metal one. It twists away, but you chase it. She breaks off the kiss in irritation, a reprimand clear on her tongue, and you slip the full vial of neurotoxin into her fingers while she’s distracted.
She looks down at it with confusion dawning on her face, brighter and more lovely than the light of sunrise on the near horizon.
You are neither of you kind, or selfless, or brave enough to live without each other. It is what saved both of you, in the end.
“I said to you, once,” you say, “that I thought you were a good person.”
She has been struck dumb. You trip through your next words with feeling but not much grace.
“It was selfish. I wanted you to be a good person because I loved you. And if you weren’t, I didn’t know how to explain — the other part. But I would’ve loved you whether or not you were good, and I’ve never been the kind of person selfless enough to kill things, if she loved them.”
“No,” she murmurs, an affirmation, not an objection. She’s still staring at the vial like you’ve handed her a benediction.
“So you can tell me to fuck off, if you want,” you say. “And I’ll go. And I won’t come after you again. But — being a selfish person — I don’t want to, and I’ll stay, if you don’t tell me to go. For as long as you’ll allow.”
You don’t expect her to tell you she loves you; you don’t need her to. But you do need an answer, for your own, selfish, personal reasons, so you fold her hands over the vial and say, “You get to choose.”
“Oh,” she says, choked. “Oh.”
Then she grabs your lapels and, awkwardly tries to hug you, and she is incredibly, shockingly bad at it, but you don’t mind. When she wraps her skinny arms around your neck in an embrace that has more in common with a wrestling hold than an expression of love, you slide your arms around her waist and return the gesture. She presses her face into your neck and if it is wet, well, the sea spray has dampened the both of you.
You press a kiss to her temple. The air is bitter and cold, and you have a numbness in the hand that isn’t metal, and you are both of you bruised and battered and cut to pieces from what you have done to each other. But she holds you, and it is enough.
WHEW. Thank you folks so much for sticking with this fic, even given the hiatuses -- writer's block kept this chapter locked up for a lot longer than I expected, but it's here now, and that's what matters, I hope. I'm very glad to give these girls a warm sendoff. I started this thinking it was going to wind up around 20k words in total, and . . . well, that didn't turn out. But I am happy with how it went, and look back on it fondly. I really didn't anticipate how warm the reception to this fic would be, and I'm forever grateful to each and every person who commented on this fic, even if I didn't have the time to respond! The last three chapters wouldn't exist without you.
A huge thanks again to all readers and granters of kudos. See you around!