SHE WAITED nearly an hour below the statue of herself before anything came to meet her. The statue stood in a fountain with a deep basin and it reassured her to stir her hand through the water, although it was not very clean. It was such a poor choice of place for her to linger that she had successfully insisted on it. Her hands were ruddy enough to pass for rust and the sculptor, a flatterer, had exaggerated the arch of her horns. She had been correct in her prediction that the search for her would not begin for another night.
Curiosity would have brought her eyes up; the light kept them down. Whenever she had looked up to the diode maps her pupils had narrowed to two aching lines thin as ink strokes. It always took a while to adjust to the surface but she had not accounted for how the million lights of a city muddled in the cloud cover and sank back to the streets. Without lifting her head: the slates of the square littered with cherry pits, data tabs, scavenger beetles, glitters of wire. Her own knees, the wet rim of the fountain, the golden embroidery of slime molds. Her feet had hung shy of the ground but having discovered abruptly that the beetles jumped she had brought her legs up and tucked the ragged skirt in. In assembling a costume of poverty she had slightly overshot the mark.
Either the lusus or its sender was cautious, because it didn’t come near her. It went clicking round the square nosing at cartons and puddles and, when she glanced at it, pensively ate a beetle. She counted to twenty and followed it into the alley, and when they reached the next street they were walking plausibly together: the small sloping figure and the little chimera, waist-high at the shoulder, with its long scaly tail and its gaunt hound’s body, and the ram’s horns subduing the heavy head.
The tallest building in the city was sixteen tiers, glittering out on Southern Point, and they walked steadily away from it until they were near the northern border and nothing but the factories stood more than ten or eleven meters. The strung lights were sparser, and sparked and flickered. The lusus led her past doors, laser-locked gates, street grates from which rose smoke and murmuring and laughter, industrial wall-vents, exhalations of heat or fumes through which she held her breath. At last it bounded up the outer stairs of a three-tier hivestump and, precise on its hind legs, began to put in the code for the lock with the tip of its tongue.
It was still licking the touchsquare when she caught up to it, which was a damned long code for a lowblood’s lusus to remember. On television this would be the moment where the sleek detectiviscerators dropped from the roof as the suspicion showed, slowly and in loving close-up, on the foolish warm-grey face. She glanced at the the peeling sealant of the eaves and bit her own knuckle in rebuke. For the last half-hour she had been repressing the laughter of disbelief, not easily stopped once begun. The code ended, drolly, 789632145, and the door slid back with a protracted creak.
A single long pale-walled room like a corridor, with low cabinets and shelves along the walls and a single window at the far end with a drawn polymer shade. A boxy old recuperacoon, the heat dial going no colder than OLIVE. It was so empty that at first she thought it had been set apart for her specifically. She slipped off her thin-soled shoes and padded around, grateful for the dimness. Minimal signs of habitation, like a stage set. A cracked teacup, a folded sweater. She sat down with her back against the recuperacoon, facing the door and out of sight of the window, and put her arms around her knees and waited.
Nearly two hours later the lusus scrabbled suddenly up from sleep and gave a sharp bark, startling her to her feet as well, and hearing the faint chiming of the code begin she switched on the single light and stepped back from the door.
The curling horns matched the chimera’s: after that she could look almost idly. A woman, narrow-shouldered, slight, no taller than herself. Dark clothes, a neat dark skirt, black stockings. The mouth painted rust with a kind of defiant vulgarity, the long eyes traced too. The mist had turned to drizzle and there were tiny drops strung all through the curling hair, clustered thickly round the crown of the head, like a galaxy. The contact nearly bowed, checked herself smoothly, and inclined her head: but someone trained to evaluate deference would have caught, had caught, the stiffening at the knees. Her face when it came up was cool and curious and calm. “Heiress,” she said. The door closed behind her.
To be greeted like an equal by the lowest caste was what Feferi Peixes had dreamt of half her life, and yet the first flicker in her pan was What insolence. “Hi!” she said, smiling. “How do you know TA?”
“Captor,” said the contact. “No point playing it close now. I’m his moirail.”
“He,” said Feferi: as she'd thought. “And you are?”
“Megido,” said the contact, not taking off her coat. “Aradia Megido. He was careful.”
“Aradia,” said Feferi. Second names were for Fleet members, tradesmen, and criminals; first names were for servants, prepupescents, and friends. She couldn’t tell if she had been understood. “Yes, he was. Do I know you? Were you one of the ones I spoke with?”
“No,” said Megido. “I’m the one we keep clean. What happened, by the way? He didn’t say.”
“I was being – more closely watched than was convenient. Better to act sooner than later. I’m sorry I can’t say more just now. But I had to get out.”
She could see her relaxing, though only as far as a lesser tension. Apologies usually helped. There were intricate, fractal scars at the hollow of her throat, keloid branches dividing and finely dividing again, radiating from a center somewhere below the collar. Feferi had seen scars like that before, on Domestic Control veterans: psionics burns. But lowbloods rarely fought each other. TA would be able to explain, she thought.
“So!” she said. “I’m always at a disadvantage; everyone knows me already. But I don’t know a thing about you.”
“Well,” said Megido, “to begin with, I came straight from work, I haven’t eaten all night, and now that I can tell Captor you weren’t a killing-lure I’d like to buy dinner. Which reminds me. Do you have a crossbarred credit draw, or a secondary Hatchright, or a Möbius proxy or anything like that?”
“No,” said Feferi. “I never went in by anything but the Palace network. Best I could do was stop it tracking me, and that took me a sweep. Captor was teaching me, but there wasn't much time.”
Megido was re-appraising her and not bothering to hide it. “We’ll get you set up, then,” she said, just at the edge of critical. And then, surprising Feferi, she laughed: a bright confident laugh, a flicker of clean fire. She was plain; her wrists were thin, her fangs were chipped; but the laugh lent her something, for an instant. “Ring and Terrors, am I buying dinner for the Heiress to the Empire? Will you make me a senator? What would you like?”
Seadwellers did not need to eat every night, and she particularly could go a long time, but Feferi, amused, curious, consciously casting a line of camaraderie, said “Whatever you’re having.”
Megido and her lusus returned in five minutes from the stall on the corner with two leathery pods filled with noodles in boiling broth, two paper cones of fried crickets, and two bottles of soda pop. In between long sips of broth, Feferi learned the following: that she was from West Verseit, that she was, or might be, the conduit in to the Battleship Condescension that Captor had mentioned, and that she programmed building droids for a living. The last surprised her most, and Megido caught her at it.
“Manufacturing, you thought?” She shook the last cricket and some greasy salt into her mouth. “Surprising, isn’t it, how lowbloods turn out when someone pirates them indigo-class schoolfeeds. Statistically, of course, it’s a good guess.”
There was something in her tone Feferi did not like. “It’s contract work, isn’t it?”
“Yes. You had good timing, in a way. I’ll be done in two nights. Is it the other coast you’ll want to be on then? Assuming I can find someone who’s been on that ship.”
“Yes. Better if I’m near the Palace when we do it.”
Megido, nodding once to that, reached out with conscious irrelevance and clinked the remaining bottle on the table with a claw. “You don’t want this?”
“Thank you for it, anyway,” said Feferi. “No. Not sweet things. Most seadwellers don’t. It’s why we sleep in piles. The heavier-than-water sopor you can taste if you only put your hand in.”
That same tone: dry, half-malicious, half-mischievous. “Always heard it was to keep you mean.”
On the balcony of the second tier someone had hung a bell made of a broken bottle, with a long tail to catch the wind, and the wet breeze turned it and turned it again: tsing-tsing, tsing, tsing-tsing. The sun was rising, but with the rain it was safe enough outdoors. Below the cracked window on the top tier, in a paltry pile of a cushion or two, a few technical manuals, and an incompletely dried coat, the Pearl of Alternia lay with a dull stomach-ache and an acute sense of loneliness. She allowed herself fifteen minutes for self-pity, listening to the bell and the rattle of the old recuperacoon filter, and then, with determination, forced herself to sleep.
The clouds had cleared off and the sun was setting, the tawny light dizzying but not damaging, when the banging at the door began. Feferi sat up with a gasp, a painful hiccup of a backwards glub, and felt for the little mother-of-pearl knife that was all she had. “No, it’s all right,” said Megido, nearly invisible in the glare of the windowshade. “That’s not inspecterrorists, they don’t knock.” Her voice was rough and tired but unafraid. There was a sloshing of sopor as she got herself out of the recuperacoon, coinciding with the crackle of static as the doorcomm activated. Even the filtered light was unbearable; Feferi couldn’t imagine how she’d slept through it.
“Megido! Megiiiidooooo. What the fuck is your code again,” said the metallic voice of the doorcomm. The banging, which had decreased to mere punctuation, intensified again.
Megido was thudding across the floor, muttering “Sufferer’s nook.” The noise of the door sliding back, a little shriekier than before. Feferi tried to shade her eyes, and opened them: in the shimmering, warm, impossible light a tall figure, long-clawed, wild-haired. A flash of gold, a dark sheen of blue. She kept her claws on the knife and squinted.
“Megido, you insufferable fucking showoff, there’s no point to a thirty-two-digit code, they’ll just burn out the door – also you were wrong, he wasn’t even there, he’s gone upst—Company!” Genuine startlement.
“If you would ever check your palmhusk,” said Megido wearily, kicking the figure in the shin with a wet smack as she went to close the door.
“Oh but that would be cheating. You’re blinding our guest.” A woman’s voice, moving. The secondary shade slithered down and the room went black.
“Hey,” said Megido, to whom this was impenetrable.
“You!” said Feferi, having opened her eyes. “I know you! You came to one of the dances on the Palace. You drank a lot of wine.”
“It was the only thing that wasn’t salted,” said Vriska Serket, who couldn’t see in full dark either, but sounded unperturbed. “Yeah, hi. Did Ampora ever get your skirt up, it was all he talked about.”
“O jewels of noble courtesy!” said Megido, tripped over something, and found the light-dial on the wall. Feferi, watching her, felt a pang: she should have thought of that. Lowbloods needed so much of everything, heat, food, light. But she turned it up only faintly, with an inexperienced caution that was almost touching. “Clearly you don’t need an introduction.”
“We met, like, once,” said Vriska, “but it’s not like I’d forget.”
“You were supposed to be dead,” said Feferi.
“Technically the listing for my death is unconfirmed; if met, confirm. Glad to hear the Empire still thinks so, though. The night D.C. starts hiring below teal’s the night they round up half the fucking planet.”
Megido, observing Feferi’s face, said “She hasn’t killed below her hemotype in nearly two sweeps. This suffices, among the forgetful, to make her a lowblood champion... You might be more careful; we’re not all morons.” This to Vriska, now sitting in the apartment's single chair with her feet on the table. Megido leaned in and flicked her claws against one horn. “One of these nights I’ll file these down in your sleep.”
Vriska caught her sopor-slick wrist, then her elbow, then without effort pulled her into her lap and bit and nuzzled at her throat. She sprang up, two pinpricks of fang-marks in a glistening patch just above the last line of scars, and said, her cheeks rather flushed, “Vriska. That saves the trouble of explaining our relations. I was going to say, Heiress,” with conscious emphasis, not deferential, “that I regret to inform you she's one of ours, or at least one of mine. I don't say to trust her, but if it's fit for me to know it's fit for her."
Feferi had never met a highblood, either, who would let something like that be said outside playacting sopor-talk: but Vriska, tipping the chair back on two of its three legs, appeared not to have noticed. "Were you chased out under fire?" As though this would have been a treat. "What happened to your goggles?"
"They had a KPR chip in them," said Feferi. "Which I wasn't supposed to know about. I left them on my desk, with my huskslate. In retrospect I should've taken them with me and dropped them in a trench, but you can't think of everything. No, I just went down to check the hatchery drop for Gl'bgolyb and didn't come back."
“Would an ordinary seadweller pair do?” said Vriska, leaning back further.
"Nearly," said Feferi, then, as seadweller goggles were tricky pieces of work, the lenses changing with pressure, with light, temperature, salt, "Yes. I mean, mine were the only pair like that. But anything would help."
“D’you know anything about Herieu engines,” said Vriska idly. “Because I think I’ve got a pair, in a stash of mine out in the archipelago. But how would I get to them, see.”
"One of these nights I’ll file through the chairlegs,” said Megido, restraining the back of the chair with a clawtip: a wholly symbolic gesture, as she was about twice outweighed. “Do my ears deceive me, or do I hear you, not five minutes in, attempting to haggle with the newfound Heiress of the Alternian Empire to come out and have a look at your Rings-cursed rattrap of a boat?”
In for a caegar, in for a stagraton. “Well,” said Feferi before Vriska could answer, “what’s the matter with it?”
Herieu engines ran on a mix of seawater and bromine and were a little less than half alive by weight. There were no manuals or standards guides; like thoroughbred sailfish or black-lipped oyster beds, they tended to be passed as bribes or quadrant-tokens among seadwellers, the only class to which they were allowed by law. No two were alike, though all were prone to the same diseases and to the same maddening, idiopathic sudden stalls. They were not as reliable as solar paddle-engines or as classically extravagant as a psionic lashed to the mast. But if you could coax them into a steady thrum they would carry you through all currents and weathers with what seemed like independent tact, although they were not sentient, and at their best, with a grace that could bring tears to your eyes, they would find a rhythm and nearly fly.
Vriska’s little tartane, black-painted, deceptively decrepit and almost a caricature of a smuggling vessel, was anchored a few kilometers down the coast in an impressively narrow cove. Feferi, very curious, said only “You’ve got the maintenance solution too diluted, besides it being stagnant. Look at the color.”
“Red, yes,” said Vriska, her hair braided, badly, bending to look. “It’s supposed to be red.”
“That’s a cold red. Nearer blue.” She held up a ten-milliliter glass. “It ought to be like this, warmer, almost orange.” Her own hair had nearly finished dripping. She had made them take a detour so that she could retrieve her 2x3dent, hidden underwater outside the city limits. Parted from it for less than thirty-six hours, she nonetheless felt restored by its weight in her hand.
“Those are the same,” said Vriska. She snapped a little clarilight on above the tank, scowling, and dipped out a sample to compare. “I assume you’re not yanking my frond.”
“You can’t see it?” said Feferi. Side by side and brightly lit, the tubes were like wine and honey; but she couldn’t have confused them, on a moonless night, if she’d tried.
“No!” said Vriska, irritated, and then, lightly, in almost a courtier’s tone, “Hemotype proves, here and there, a little more than ornamental. I assume this is like how Megido swears this is a black jacket. You’d better fix it, since I sure as fuck can’t.”
Feferi came up to the deck a few moments later to find her throwing and catching the capped samples alternately, not exactly juggling, and muttering “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She tossed the correct one, underhand, high over the rail and then, precise, springtrap-fast and vicious, flung the other at it as it fell. There was a small, delicate, tinkling explosion, and thin shards of glass and two solutions mingled on the waves and were gone. She turned. Her hair had slipped out of the braid. “Yes, what.”
“Where in the islands are we headed?” said Feferi. “There may be patrols looking for me, but if so, I know the – ”
“Oh,” said Vriska, with a brief laugh. “God, right. Hang on.” She vanished down the ladder again and then, unseen, called “Catch!” Feferi, not in her heart of hearts surprised, caught a pair of what looked like new goggles aimed with probably accidental accuracy at her head.
“These are offworld,” said Feferi, now in fact surprised. “From Masjat?” The angular colorless style was distinctive, or had been several sweeps ago.
“Yep,” said Vriska, still below. She was obviously not going to explain. “You can find your own way back, I bet.”
“Actually, no,” said Feferi, “and even if I could, I’m not trying that route by myself.” They had left Silaxas by the basement of a factory, and half a kilometer of frankly terrifying tunnels: machinery that came abruptly in and out of active cycles, chemical-suffused heat, handspan walkways over ominous open tanks. “I’d rather... I can’t even think of what I’d rather. Anything. Please do come, or I’ll end up dissolved at the bottom of a vat.”
She was appealing to the comic rather than the pathetic instincts, and it worked. Vriska snorted, vaulted up, and shut the hatch behind her. “Never let it be said I killed anyone by accident.”
Twenty minutes later, on a worn track under the cover of the long-leaved blue trees, Vriska asked her why she’d left the Palace: “Other than the obvious. But you’ve got nearly a sweep.”
“Oh, just as you’ve said. I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to go on getting older. I’d been talking with – Captor; he’d been assigned to monitor the Palace network, and I tried – a bit obviously – to get around a security clearance, and he was kind enough not to report it, and he thought he might know someone who could get in another way. That’s all. What about you? I mean, since we were five.”
“First rule of prosecution!” said Vriska, with an intonation not her own. “Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Don’t try to tell me your dear moirail missed the opportunity to tell you all about the misfortunes of an ex.”
“He isn’t my moirail anymore, actually,” said Feferi.
“A-ha,” said Vriska, with a sharp-fanged smile. “Matesprit at last?”
“No,” said Feferi.
“Well,” said Vriska, looking at her a little differently, “it’s a short story, like Lusiya and Egarto. I went into the Fleet. I did all right until I served under a moron. That was out by Masjat. D’you remember the Three-Boundary skirmish?”
“I think so.”
“You’ll remember that we won,” said Vriska. “That was because I stabbed our idiot captain through the throat and took over the ship. Most of the crew was amenable. They killed the ones that weren’t. All by themselves! I didn’t even have to ask. We had a good run after that. But in fine poetic tradition the Tribunal sent an old partner after me, and my crew and I ended up in one of the hulks to be brought back before H.H.T.” She looked up through the branches, her glasses opaque and glittering with reflections, and the shifting spots of green moonlight moving over her skin like an octopus’s iridocytes. “She always said we’d kill each other someday. In the end the hulk missed its reentry, after some fun and games onboard, and crashed on Denesalo. Category Four. They couldn’t really tell who’d been on it, after that.”
She had worked a ring off her finger and was tossing and catching it, like the samples.
“Everyone was, though,” she said, casually. “Everyone but me.” And then, skipping ahead a step in her heavy boots, she caught the ring in her mouth and shut it.
Feferi was effectively silenced, as she saw she was meant to be, and intended to press no further. But a few paces later Vriska spat the ring into her palm and said, as though they had been having this separate conversation the whole time, “Megido wasn’t expecting you, is the thing. Something must have happened. Did you find a perfectly frayed wire in the Vangarm?” Her voice was cheerful now, as though refreshed, like a cocktail. “Did someone put a lionfish in your pile? Did you find your ceiling fixed to collapse? Did they try to poison you?”
“Yes,” said Feferi, a little abruptly. “Someone tried to poison me.” Vriska, not breaking stride, glanced over at her with bright professional interest, a gesture plain as the crook of a claw. She did not meet it.
“Well,” said Vriska after a moment, “I guess it didn’t take.”
“No,” Feferi said.
In the observatory cars of the Nine-Spoke Line you could buy several varieties of ammunition, pickled meats, strong tea, old-fashioned pornographic data tabs, and single, chilled, wild-gathered flowers. The corridors and the private rooms had the same distilled-water taste as Fleet ships, dark and cold enough at the default setting to show a lowblood’s breath. Here, as elsewhere, you could tell a troll of aristocratic pretensions: they banged into things. Between cities nothing could be seen from each tinted window but the sky.
Twenty-seven meters below the maglev track, the cargo rail ran at one-eighth the speed and one-hundredth the price. Finished circuitboards, ship parts, dried fish towards the shuttle stations, raw metals, tissue samples, foreign drugs radiating out. A closed stall with an industrial-filtered recuperacoon and a drum of water went for little enough to earn the nickname The I’m-Broke Line. Passage in empty cars was free, and fought over. No records were kept of those passengers.
Feferi had crossed the mainland in the imperial car of the Nine-Spoke, sweeps ago, in a deliciously refrigerated saltwater tank. She and her moirail had drifted hand in hand and watched some incomprehensible art-house movie, which they could never find again. A peaceful night, as though they were not moving at all. From one coast to the other it had been less than six hours.
It took, this time, three nights. Aradia booked four tiny stalls, for the water, and they put an old olive laser-lock on the passage door of an empty car to claim it. It had carried some kind of completed electronics and was still filled with the sterile, dustless padding made not to scratch screens, serviceable enough for making into piles.
With nothing more than the thin shadow of the maglev to shield it, the sun heated the car almost past what Feferi could stand, and her first day was sleepless: but she fell asleep at evening, when the wind through the barred windows was cool, and woke in the middle of the night to find herself alone. The train was rattling through a marsh, red reeds dipping and crossing above the water, and the wind caught and swept flurries of reed-fluff up towards the stars. She pulled the outer door open and, holding to the bar surrounding the opening with either hand, stood in the rushing doorway and felt for the first time in nearly a season the brimming, almost tearful optimism that had been the primary emotion of most of her life. Worlds to see, worlds to set in order. How savagely it is possible to love all things, when one is young, exquisite, healthy, and never yet bereaved.
They went up through the mountains, slowly. After a few hours they had stopped minding the cracking and shrieking and jolts whenever the angle changed. Vriska, taking a break from playing games on her husktop, stood in the door beside her and remarked that she’d come out of the caverns around here. Half a night through the forests after that: the gleam of dragon scales, commoner’s abalone, here and there among the purple trees. The blinding desert, a long day where she lay heatstruck in a corner while Aradia, profoundly embarrassed, poured jars of water over her and Vriska jeered through the windows at the shadow-droppers whose crumbling claws and teeth slid and slobbered off the metal of the train.
Then, surprisingly quickly, they were nearing the cities again, passing through hills and plains of worked land. The slow turning of the thousand-armed harvesters, their solar panels flashing here and there in the moonlight, not a living soul for kilometers. Aradia told her about the bands of mutants and secessionists, the Wirecutters, who kept communal hives hidden in patches of forest and used nothing that transmitted a signal so as not to draw drones: to Aradia’s pleasure she had thought they were a myth. A long lake, the tracks just above the water. She sat cross-legged in the doorway and speared a trout, which she ate in a few efficient bites as Aradia, incredulously laughing, and Vriska, tongue stuck out in disgust, looked on.
Then two bridged passes of a slow river and a delta, then brackish marshes again, and then, just in sight of the red-violet light at the top of the Palace tower, swinging round mockingly – a warning not to sailors, but from – they had come into Certresak. The cargo rail knew its clientele; the cars slowed to about six kph for a coincidental few minutes just outside the borders, and up and down the line the bars at the doors rang and clattered back. By the time the train had finished “recalibrating” it was nearly seven thousand kilos lighter, nine of which had been removed in a gold-alloy double-ended trident, licked clean and carried without effort through the wet fields in the dark.
TWO HATCHINGS back, or thirty-nine sweeps ago, the southern edge of Certresak had extended nearly six kilometers from the heart of the city out along the coast. Aradia had worked with a couple of the trolls that had done the development, an olive-blood, an elderly yellow. Six-tiered hives, a stop on the harvesters’ track, a branch of the ground local train; price range teal-and-up. The sheen of novelty on the place was tarnishing when, in a minor earthquake and a major storm, several sandbars shifted, and the coast began to change. Most of a seawall and several hives had fallen into the water early on; others, waterfront properties, had seen the tideline retreat further and further from their bases, never to grow the promised aristocratic spattering of barnacles, and dunes begin to mount and slope and insinuate around their walls. When an overhanging dune slumped over the ground local track for the second time, only a few hardy indigoes and purples had considered paying the fee to restore it.
The oldest, hardiest and most obstinate was a retired soldier by the name of Arvily Ticaur, who'd accumulated in a long career a full shuttle of junk from the colonies which he had only just got down out of orbit when a fifty-sweep-old enmity caught up with him and he was found one evening on his porch with two extracted ribs laid in a cross over his heart: traditional, for when you kill someone's matesprit. After the detectiviscerators had verified that his killer outranked him and closed the case, the line to South Certresak had gone unrepaired, and within two more sweeps the region was abandoned.
Nearly forty sweeps later, Ticaur’s two storehives and attached four-tier hive, still unfinished, had held up best of all the remnants. Its solar plates hadn’t blown off, its water, though seasoned with flakes of corroded pipe, nonetheless ran, and its windows, tinted ceriglass, had dented but not broken under bullets and stones. Every once in a while somebody tried to set fire to it: a reliable disappointment.
Most of the inventory and most of the furnishings had been stolen and sold, but there were still the inexplicable possessions of transient owners: a crate of largely ruined parts for plasma rifles, a Ticaur box of plum-blue ceramic cups, a very expensive recuperacoon – the dial went no warmer than TEAL – probably looted from a nearby hive. After Aradia had disabled the traps on the doors they had spent half a night exploring the place.
Vriska left without saying where she was going two evenings later, and Aradia, with the forthrightness of someone who has consciously ruled out being embarrassed, asked Feferi to keep an eye on her while she was looking for ghosts.
“When you spend enough time with the dead they draw at you. It’s why I don’t do medium work any more. You start ending up at the edges of roofs before you know how you got there. Or stairs. Vriska pulled me out of an ablution trap once. I had no idea where I was, I thought I was out in the Rings. I don’t think, up here” – they were in the unfinished top tier, with a wide, archaic plank floor, a nearly-complete roof, and nothing else but spare beams and polylignin tiles – “that there’s much I can get into, but if you’d look up every so often it would be helpful. My lusus can only drag me back from so much.”
Feferi was happy enough to sit on the stairs and read. In Certresak Aradia had gotten her a new huskpad, and Captor, still up on the hubstation, had attached it to a Hatchright number and logon taken from a cobalt killed in action the sweep before. The range of the planetary network she could view through this was four or five times what her own had been. She had known she was being raised as a figurehead, a sacrifice, since she was three: there had been twenty-six duels before her, to one result. But to realize for the first time the extent of her ignorance sent a shock through her. How much of her own empire she had been left out of, and how casually, how clearly her understanding had not been thought necessary.
Aradia, who hadn’t called ghosts to her in more than a sweep, was finding it hard going. Every ghost had one topic and were not usually able to talk about much else. She could see, if they let her, through them, like a viewport; the places they'd known best, the places they died. The brighter, newer ones could be spoken to, and would answer sensibly; the older ones were faded and disintegrating, repetitive, no longer intelligible. The oldest were like those momentary vortices of leaves and dust that form in corners, spiralling into existence and falling back out.
Spend enough time with the dead and they draw at you. She had been dead once, for fifty-six seconds, and was in no hurry to try it again. But after a few days the incidental, usual scratches and nicks on her hands and shins had stopped healing, or slowed to stopping. There was a set of bruises from Vriska that would not go away, and Vriska, uneasy, refused to contribute further injury, which made neither of them happy. At dawn, when she washed off her makeup, her lips were as pale as the backs of her hands. Her wrists were cord and bone.
In the end she did not find, by herself, a ghost still whole enough to talk to that had died on the Condescension; one was passed to her along a whole chain of spirits, all relatively new, aimless, and attracted to the idea of being able to change something, anything, in the world they couldn't bring themselves to leave. The ghost had been dead for longer than she'd been alive, long enough to lose all color. Aradia thought, from the bones of the face – the grey ash or dust shaped over them variously added to or worn away, like the dunes, moment to moment – that she had been a highblood. When aligned perfectly, as with a radio signal in low country, Aradia could hear the details, monotonous, like all tragedy after the fact: she hadn't informed on her friend, though she'd known what he had sold; she hadn't, she hadn't, she hadn't. When Aradia asked her name, ready to type it if her hand were guided, the ghost faltered over one letter and another, and never pressed her hand down.
It was easy enough to go into Fleet records, though a long sifting once you were there. Illegal Transfer of Defense Information, Accessories To. She had been an indigo, fifteen sweeps when she died. “You were Sijant Maduic,” Aradia said. She did not like to tell her; it gave a ghost renewed interest in the world, when they'd forgotten, and she was of the opinion that it was better for them to leave it. But what had been Maduic lifted her head, silent, pleased, still glimmering and blurring at the edges, and Aradia could see the shape of her horns, where there had been none before.
Aradia, Feferi and Sollux had had several just-shy-of-feasible ideas for what they would do, with access to the Condescension's programming from the inside; there were all kinds of ways you could sabotage a ship, but most of them required that you be able to pick things up. A ghost of Maduic's vintage had just enough presence in the world to deceive a touchscreen into responding, not reliably. Then Vriska had turned up well past dawn one night, having made what Aradia guessed was an arms-smuggling run; her boat had changed sides of the continent, at any rate. She had been drunk and correct, an unbearable combination. “No, look,” she had said, having opened Aradia's husktop without asking and, tapping at the screen imprecisely with a sharp clawtip, left a scratch. She had brought up the cross-section diagram of layers, from space to inside air, of a combat-standard Fleet hull. “Compress the interlocking shield and open the maintenance port for the insulation, like it's in drydock, see? I mean, there's the safety override, while they're up, and I don't know how we get around that. And I'm not sure the compression would hold that long. But if you can drain the insulation you'll probably crack the hull, and anyway then they're fucked if they want to re-enter.”
“Oh, hell, that is perfect,” Aradia had said, irritated, understanding at once. “How did you see that, how did I not see it? How did Sollux not see it? We think we may have an override, at that. Where did you pick this up?”
“I just thought of it, on the way here,” said Vriska, and staggered upstairs and slept for a day and a night.
“It isn’t revolution I ask of you,” said Feferi, in the abandoned rail station of South Certresak. Aradia, standing behind her, kept her gaze on the audience: all the influential lowbloods she knew this side of the continent who could keep a secret for more than a night at a time, though they hadn’t left it up to luck. Sollux had encrypted a passenger virus into the message she’d sent. Once you had opened it, it checked everyone your Hatchright number made contact with against the database of known D.C. and G.C. numbers, and generated him a copy of anything sent to those.
“There have been four hundred and seventy-six rebellions based on hemospectrum conflict in the history of our Empire,” said Feferi. She was standing at the lower end of the cracked floor; the station was tilting, as the dunes downhill from it had gone, and the hillside had begun to go too. Aradia had begun to realize how calculated, and how clever, her use of every space was. “Here is why I ask that you do what you can to prevent another: in every single one, the casualties have been overwhelmingly warm-blooded. It isn’t a revolution that will help you. It’s a coup.”
Aradia had been shielding her in a kind of telekinetic shell for half an hour: it was tedious and tiring, but if someone leapt up and fired a plasma rifle, it would ricochet. “You’ll also bang into it if you make any sweeping gestures,” she’d muttered to Feferi, who had laughed. But the gathering was less restive than she had expected; here and there in the speech there had been an almost religious hush.
What a danger beauty is, what harm it does. All she has to do is stand there, though Aradia, not incorrectly, and they will come round to her. The luminous pearl-grey skin, the level shoulders, all the lovely luxury of flesh. You couldn’t see a single bone in her back, even when she bent. The voice as clear as liquor. Aradia looked up at the audience again and found them rapt. What beauty does: she might have been saying anything. You understood, looking at her, that there could not be more than one of her. Go back twenty million sweeps on Alternia, when they crawled on stones, and you will still find obedience to a queen.
When Aradia had grown practiced enough to move the length of the ship in Maduic’s shape, and had found a periodically unguarded console, she told Sollux, and he filed for what leave in the sweep remained to him. Every console on the Condescension, when you woke it up, had a new complex coded sequence that no one else they knew was quick enough to solve before it set off the interference alert; unless they received the key every evening, as the crew did. He did not like the necessity of allowing Vriska access to his mind, but he had liked being left out of the business even less. His division had just finished a redesign of the hubstation's emergency power system and were feeling celebratory, and they gave him ten nights.
Feferi was making annotations on the Fleet regulations about property, Vriska was out, and Aradia was asleep upstairs when her palmhusk chimed. She opened one eye and looked at it reluctantly – Vriska had sent her a lot of messages recently, ranging from the bitterly maudlin to the obscene – but it was not Vriska. She put her head in at the door where Feferi was, said “That’s Sollux,” and, bright with the momentary beauty of pleasure, flew down the rest of the stairs. Feferi set down her huskslate and, surprised at herself, extinguished a kindling of jealousy.
When she came down into the box-strewn front hall they were standing with their arms around each other, and it took a moment for her to get a good look. He was still in uniform, as most lowbloods, protectively, remained when they were onworld; if you were Fleet, this elevated it to a misdemeanor if a highblood were to kill you. Technicians and programmers had a restrained uniform, only the two bars of blood-color going down the chest of the jacket, and discreet black-on-black embroidered tridents at the wrists. He had the two little golden bees at the collar, for a senior engineer.
He had put his hands on Aradia’s shoulders now, to look at her properly. Audio communications were permitted between Fleet and civilian quadrant-partners, but not video; Feferi, sitting silently beside Aradia once or twice, had heard his voice before. Light, a little thin, an occasional faint whistle in the sibilants. He looked, except for the odd doubled horns, almost exactly as she had imagined.
He was inspecting her face, obviously diagnostically. “Aradia, you look – ”
“Tired,” said Aradia, forestalling. “That’s all. It’s very flattering that you haven’t noticed, but I believe there’s someone behind me.”
He glanced over her shoulder, and his eyes widened. What was he expecting? she thought, a little amused. But she was used to that. And then, as she hadn’t expected, he touched the base of one of his sets of horns and then the other, and knelt. It was not formally correct. You touched your shoulders, to the Heiress, and bowed. The gesture with the horns had been, as far back as Alternian history went, what was made to the Empress: “No greater fealty.” But you couldn't be in the Fleet, and not know that.
“Heiress,” he said, with the respect that Aradia had been so careful not to show, perigees ago.
She looked at his bent head; Sollux Captor, who hadn’t questioned it when she had opened a message window in the middle of the day, claws shaking and clattering on the touchscreen, and said only: I need to get out. I need somewhere to go. He had taken the educated gamble that she was only her own improbable, isolated, naïve self and not a counter-espionage impersonator, and sent her to his own moirail. The trust that had required was more than any seadweller had ever shown in her.
She stepped forward and touched his shoulder, then put out her hand. He looked startled; but he put his own, narrow and long-boned and very warm, tentatively on her palm. She drew him to his feet.
“You can call me Feferi, you know,” she said, “the both of you.”
Night two of ten. Against the back wall of the south storehive, behind a long, tall and perilous stack of metal cartons and crates, Feferi was sitting bent over her huskslate reading Article XXVII of the Planetary and Colonial Laws. Aradia hadn’t been able to find her a waterproof computer, and she liked isolation and low light for thinking; this spot was the closest she could come to a kelp bed, and she had with some deviousness kept it to herself.
The door opened, and she glanced through the coincidental-looking path of gaps in the crates to see who it was: usually Vriska, who accumulated compulsive mixed hoards of valuables and trash wherever she went, retrieving some object and going out again. But this was Aradia and Captor, close together, stumbling a little over the doorsill. Neither looked happy; there was something about them that kept her, uneasily, from calling out to them, as would be common courtesy. They did not turn on the lights.
She sat down on a bank of empty crates as he locked the door from the inside: then, incredulous, Feferi saw him grip her upper arm in one hand and pull up her skirt with the other, Aradia looking away with the taut stillness of someone bracing for a familiar pain. Captor, who had been kind. Nothing, nothing left whole or good in this wretched world. She was an instant away from leaping at them, knocking over the crates, bringing the roof down to bury them all: but, tensed to spring in the shadow, she saw the glitter of a syringe in a cold-case and a Fleet-standard medical kit, and saw how he had folded the skirt back carefully, so that nothing was exposed. Baffled, furious, her heart battering, she froze in her crouch.
He had taken his hand from her arm and was going over her scrawny thigh with a disinfecting sponge; then, taking the case, he held it out to her. She shook her head.
“You do it,” she said, still not looking at him. “It’s a damned awkward angle for me, I learned that last time. Just get it done with.”
Feferi, nearly shaking, stared at the chilled syringe as he positioned it, made the first check for blood, and then, steadily, pushed the plunger down. Something pale-blue in the barrel, with a yellowish cast. Aradia, her head turned away, the tendons in her throat and hands standing out starkly, gave what was almost a sob, and then, immediately, impatiently, “I’m sorry, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
Captor, now rubbing another disinfecting sponge over the injection site, said nothing: but Feferi could see his face, as Aradia could not. He poured on a blot of quick-setting bandage polymer and recapped the bottle, and by the time he drew her skirt back down and stood up his expression was nearly neutral again. He stroked her hair back behind one ear, then the other, and said, lightly enough, “Over with for another season, at least.”
She had levered herself up with her claws on his shoulders, favoring one leg, and was looking around the storehive. “It does something, I can tell you that. Must’ve been one mean grubfucker they boiled that batch out of, though. Can you find us something to sit down on? There ought to be cushions in the white bin.”
That was part of Feferi’s wall of crates, and she did her best to flatten to the floor: she couldn’t change in hue, like her cuttlefish, but she could, when she tried, darken by several shades. She was not noticed. She stayed flat and half-listened to them set up a pile, her mind still drifting at the rim of a maelstrom.
Blueblood serum: the rare highblood criminal brought to trial was exsanguinated, stripped for organs, and sent in their component parts to the research ship of the Jeysci Institute, which promptly returned a single dose of a viscous liquid that slowed age-related damage in Helmsmen to imperceptible levels, if given at regular intervals. It was the most highly controlled substance in the Empire, unutterably expensive even legally. What he must have done to get that syringe, and more than once, she could not imagine.
They were talking, more quietly now, and, feeling more than enough of a voyeur already, she consciously shut them out. She moved a little to make her position less uncomfortable, and then, slowly, meticulously silently, unhooked her goggles and dried her eyes.
Some moments later, catching her name, she looked up from Article XXXI with a flash of shame. But they were not talking to her.
They had heaped up everything in the bin, enough for three respectable piles. Aradia was lying on her back, towards the top of the pile, and Captor was curled up at a slant, his glasses put aside, his head on his arms crossed on her chest. They looked thin, and homely, and despite the underlying worry in both their faces, warmly contented. Feferi, elbows aching on the polycrete floor, couldn't tell whether she was consumed with pity or envy, or for which. She looked away.
“She’s sharp, though,” Captor was saying. “She learned Yletar patterns quicker than most of my junior engineers.”
Aradia laughed, only a touch unkindly. “Rings, yes. You should see her with a crowd. I only mean, even to me, she talks as though – she doesn’t doubt.”
“Maybe she doesn’t,” he said. “Maybe she can’t. I wouldn’t want her place.”
“How lucky for you,” said Aradia, amused. They were silent a moment; then Captor, as though remembering something, turned onto his back and said “Claws.”
“Sollux, we just... There’s at least a sweep before we even know it’s working. Do you know how many hours that is? It is a lot. Can you let one hour go by?”
“Humor me. Claws,” said Captor quietly.
“OK, Emperor Bony-Arse,” said Aradia, “behold,” and lifted her hands, which had been lying on his shoulders, and held them out, palms-up, above him. They were near enough for Feferi, as though obediently, to inspect them: blunt fingers, dry, shallowly cracked skin, one claw split and fraying and enclosed in several layers of cheap tea-colored protective lacquer. Steady as the hands of a statue, Feferi saw, and understanding, like the red arrow in the myth, struck her with precision in the chest.
The tremor, the slurred voice. The color leaching from the horns. The obscuring rings of white that grow from the rims of the iris, spiking inwards like cracks in drying wood. You die in action if you can, up and down the spectrum. But twelve sweeps, twelve to fourteen. One of the most famous poems in Alternian was the Aljoša Cycle, a long elegy from an indigo to his rustblood matesprit, on how the brevity of his life gave meaning to the poet’s own. Three hundred sweeps later Aljoša’s beauty, variously compared to a transuranic element, to a burning reed, to a virtual particle, remained a standard schoolfeed text. His own thoughts on the matter had not been recorded.
Aradia, turning over the hourglass of her patience, punched him gently in the mouth. He caught the fist and kissed it.
“Hypothetically, not counting this one,” he said, “eighteen thousand, nine hundred and seventy-nine.”
“Eighteen thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three, counting the jump at sweep's end,” she said. Feferi, in her shadow, had lost the thread again.
“You always do round up,” said Captor, his eyes closed.
Blueblood serum: what would have been made of Vriska. As though you could inherit an empire, and not its every misery.
Night four of ten. Feferi had been sitting between two abandoned buildings for several hours, cross-legged, in pleasantly cold sand. Before she left the Palace, she’d thought of herself as spending her life waiting: to go on the Imperial Progress at seven, a full sweep offworld to see the thirteen nearest colony planets, waiting – after about four seasons of that – to come back home, to turn eleven, formally come of age and be sent out to the duel. If she had had a less determined or more realistic temperament, she would have thought of it as a life spent waiting for execution. But she’d had no experience with waiting defined as remaining expectantly in one spot: to her own disapproval she was finding she verged on enjoying it, as a kind of reprieve. If you are waiting for someone, you are no longer the most important person on the planet.
The most important person on the planet by that definition, who would not have refused the title, was walking back from Certresak, singing. She had had a nice night and a bottle and a half of coal-tar whiskey, and over the course of four kilometers had run through every song she knew and started over. She had just finished The Sea-Goat and the Drone and begun: “Oh, the hatchthief is a pretty beast, she warbles as she flies—” when someone who knew she was left-handed disarmed her and dragged her into a sandy alley.
“She brings us good tidings,” said Feferi, amiably, but with a warning note. “She tells us no lies. Hello. Where were you?”
Vriska, not at the top of her form, said “I had an errand.”
“What, you had to drain a bottle before the ship in it sank?” said Feferi, more than capable of diplomacy, more than tired of it. “That was two nights we won’t get back. Drink on your own time, please.”
“All my time’s my own,” said Vriska, wrenching her wrist out of Feferi’s hold. “Try that again and I’ll cut your gills out.”
“Not while you’re needed here, it’s not,” said Feferi. And then, as Vriska turned and the wind caught at a long rip in her vest, glued and clotted at its base with blackened blood, “Wait. Wait! Are you all right? What happened?”
“Oh, don’t fret,” said Vriska, less than steady on her feet, eyes very bright. “That was nights ago, and he was indigo, and I didn’t leave anything at the scene.”
“What was – ” said Feferi, and stopped. Then, quietly, half sympathetic, half sharp: “Are you trying to get picked up by D.C.? What is it you’re trying to prove? I don’t believe it’s only conscupiscent frustration, I’ll give you that much. Is it just clumsy sabotage? Did you not get enough attention from your lusus? Were you dropped on your glubbing horns? Or is this about that girl of yours that you didn’t actually kill?”
Vriska, empty-handed, coatless in a cold wind, had paused in the road. “First rule of prosecution,” she said. She looked, under the obvious glaze or blur of alcohol, alert and volatile, and for once as though she didn’t believe herself to have the upper hand. “But I never did stand trial and don’t intend to start now. Goodnight. See you next evening.”
It was an unprecedented concession, but Feferi, unwisely, went on. “Your file’s open to anyone with better than fourth-tier clearance, and anyway I asked Sollux. Not only what happened on the Pracht, I mean. All the campaigns. It seems a waste.”
“If you’re going to tell me to ‘consider the sacrifice she made for me’, you can choke on your own fucking flap,” said Vriska. “Goodnight.”
“No,” said Feferi, whom nothing made angrier than being balked in the attempt to improve. “If you’d like to grub around in the gutter and get yourself killed, far be it from me to stop you. Wait until you’ve served my purpose, that’s all.”
Already regretting it, she saw Vriska look away too late; but then, jaunty and practiced, she shrugged, laughed, and turned back to the road to Certresak, to spend the coming day in whatever broken-windowed ruin or filthy rent-block she could find.
When you are taught to fight with a 2x3dent, you are traditionally also taught to fight with a net. If Vriska had been sober, she might have avoided the net. Feferi jerked the rope up and to the side, and Vriska went down hard. She twisted in it without forethought, and the strands bit through her clothes and below, where little blue crosses sprang up. Then, feigning defeat rather than acknowledging it, she relaxed and sprawled onto her back and turned her head to expose her throat in the old go-ahead-and-cull-me, I-die-with-honor pose, the pulse insultingly slow. A dangerous gesture before a seadweller, melodramatic, extravagantly self-pitying, and Feferi’s last strand of patience snapped.
She rolled Vriska over a few times until she ran out of net and then, ignoring a fairly repetitive stream of invective, picked her up still struggling and strolled off the road down to the water. She tore the net in its carbon-fiber layers down the center with a single, blithely showoffy stroke, hauled Vriska out by the back of her shirt and tossed her in.
“Have you lost your fucking mind!” howled Vriska, surfacing, and Feferi hopped in on top of her.
They were only in the shallows, waist-high for Vriska, and against an assassin, even with all the night’s handicaps, she might have prevailed. Against someone trying to do her good there was no hope. Feferi had plucked her glasses from her face, said reassuringly “I’ll hold on to these,” and as far as Vriska could tell, swallowed them: no amount of thrashing and groping on her part could find anything that felt like glasses again. First her vest, still with a good knife in one pocket, had been stripped from her and consigned to the sea, and then, without impropriety, everything under it. Feferi, constantly and nimbly changing her holds, checked her wrists, her shoulders, and her ribs before turning her to attend to her back. She located the wound by an area of increased heat and poorly coagulated slime, and with a handful of good clean wet sand set to scouring it out. Vriska screamed like a saw touching down, more in rage than pain, and Feferi matter-of-factly pushed her head underwater.
When carried out again she was about fifty-two percent drowned, which was a little over budget, and unsettlingly limp. Through the short, dripping walk back to the Ticaur property she didn’t kick once. Feferi propped her up, sitting, against a storehive wall and sluiced her down with fresh water from one of the square barrels. “Get up!” she said. “And take off the rest of your clothes.”
Vriska opened one eye, bloodshot glass-green, raised a fist, and uncrooked a finger with the tortuous stiffness of a drawbridge. “Swell,” said Feferi, catching her by the wrist and hauling her to her feet, relieved. She yanked on buttons and zippers and laces until there was a gritty lump of clothes and shoes at their feet and Vriska was leaning bare against the wall. She turned to put the bundle aside, put out a tripping foot automatically as Vriska tried to lurch away, and caught her as she fell. She gave her a last rinse and put a cup of water in her claws, and she drank, shuddering without energy in the wind. Another cup, more slowly. When Feferi took hold of her shoulder this time, she didn’t struggle.
Fourteen hours later, waiting again but wasting no time, Feferi was lying on her elbows on a stack of crates in the northern storehive, editing the Palace map on her huskpad. She had spoken to Aradia. She had read a few more classified documents. She had been out to sea again. It was a new night and she was feeling generally satisfied: as she would have said, buoyant. In the new and incongruously gleaming recuperacoon a few meters away, Vriska had finally begun to stir.
Feferi sat up and watched her wake. She had tucked her glasses back behind her ears, once she was asleep. With the color washed from her eyes and lips Vriska looked nearly a stranger, which should not have been news. She wrested her slick elbows up to the rim and, trying to speak, began an accumulating cough; eventually she spat something vile and seaweed-flecked to the floor and looked up.
“What do you want,” she said.
“I caught you in a net, washed you and put you to sleep, and you’re asking my intentions?”
“Well I let you, didn’t I,” grated Vriska after a pause, and Feferi bit her lip on a laugh, pleased. This was arrant humgrubbery. It was also, from Vriska Serket, courtship requited. “But don’t look so magnanimous. That isn’t all you want.”
“It never is with moirallegiance, is it?” said Feferi. “I want you for planetary admiral.”
“Did y—” said Vriska, unintelligibly hoarsely, and coughed. “Did you forget the part where I am supposed to be shot on sight.”
“You forget who I am,” said Feferi.
They looked at other for a long moment, under the artificial purple-golden light from the clustered hanging bulbs, below the high slanted ceiling and the empty rafters and the dust of thirty-nine sweeps. The filter of the recuperacoon whirred faintly, and outside the drawn shades the wind flung handfuls of rain at the windows. A loose gutter or a solar panel banged irregularly, sounding a long way off. Feferi had missed weather, in space. Nothing nicer than being below surface in a storm. Vriska, no less wary than she’d been when met on the road, was visibly calculating; Feferi looked back at her, and let calmness, symmetry, the purely instinctual and genetic loyalty she drew do the work.
“Who you might be,” said Vriska. “Here’s something I don’t forget: the distance between the potential you have, and how you turn out. D’you know, when they bet on you, they have to write your odds in star notation.”
“Look,” said Feferi, “do you think it’ll go better for you if I’m dead? I want you to go on doing more or less what you’ve been doing anyway, only with full Fleet support, and under permanent amnesty. Is that really so terrible a price to pay for someone else picking your targets? Don’t try to tell me Aradia doesn’t do that already.”
“A political match, then,” said Vriska.
“Yes,” said Feferi, “and no.” She drew a sopor-soaked lock of hair back from Vriska’s face with one sharp and careful claw. “No.”
“I accept!” said Vriska, with ostentatious, ironic formality. “Bone and star.”
“Pearl and shell,” said Feferi, and kissed the hot cheek. Vriska tightened her mouth and, uneasily, held still. Feferi drew back and looked at her again. There were dark, almost theatrical hollows under her eyes, and although Feferi had turned the dial down to COBALT after the first warming hour there was a deep blue flush over her nose and cheekbones, her lips already cracked: one of those sharp-featured, heavy-jawed faces that, for all its animal strength, perhaps because of it, showed every strain.
“I have something for you,” said Feferi, and picked up a ceramic cup, in which was a seadweller cure-all. Several seaweeds, various organs of various fishes, a particular cold-seep tubeworm, all mixed to a fine slurry. An intricate preparation, full of helpful compounds, encouraging to the immune system, a proven accelerator of cellular regeneration. There was a little fermenting froth of bubbles round the edges. It had taken her hours. Vriska stared.
“Drink this,” said Feferi, holding it out, “it’s melusinal.”
“What the fuck,” said Vriska, nonplussed.
“It’s good for you,” said Feferi patiently. “Down the hatch.”
“And out by the bilge pump?” said Vriska, clearly considering knocking it out of her claws, and then, a gambler to the last, took it in a shaky hand, threw her head back and swallowed. She dropped the cup, which broke, and pressed her wrist to her mouth and shivered violently for a spasm or two. “Mothergrubbing fuck,” she said when she could, grimacing. “If that doesn’t kill me, nothing will. Go away.”
Feferi gave a last encouraging stroke to her bare, scarred shoulder, and withdrew.
“And find me some fucking clothes,” called Vriska drowsily, as the connecting door closed.
“Send her to me,” said Vriska.
Seventh night of ten. They had gotten as far as the drydock menu and had to quit when a crew member walked in. They weren’t sure if the lit and active screen had been seen, or if they’d damaged the console; it had gone black, but none of them, they found afterwards, had consciously done anything to shut it down. Three people with mixed, interlinked psychic powers, all startled at once: it was a marvel, said Feferi, that they hadn’t come out of it in the wrong bodies, or worse. “What could be worse?” Vriska had said, looking down her crooked nose at Sollux, and then realized what had been. Sometimes, quite often, she honestly forgot.
“I’ve never sent a spirit anywhere,” said Aradia. She had been sitting with her head down on her arms at the marble table in Ticaur’s old office, and her eyes had been closed, but when Vriska had paused in the doorway she’d looked up. “I’ve asked them. That’s all I do.”
“Whatever! Ask her. Send her a text.”
Aradia hadn’t raised her head. “Nearly three sweeps and you’ve never once brought this up. Was that resolve or cowardice? Most ghosts are gone within the sweep, you know. Assuming she became a ghost at all.”
“Sit up,” Vriska said with contempt; it was easier than listening. “You look dead yourself.”
“Why should that bother you?” said Aradia, with the softness of a rare cruelty. And then, abruptly sitting up, “No, that was low, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She got to her feet and, standing before Vriska, hooked a claw through one of the thin golden chains on her jacket. She pulled down, and Vriska sulkily bent. Aradia leaned in to kiss her, a warm breath on her lip; then there was a fine arc of pain at her throat and Aradia had stepped back, never touching her mouth.
She felt at her neck and found a line scored across it, halfway up. Her hand came away wet. Aradia, now sitting on the table, opened her hand and showed one of Vriska’s own alumina-jewel pins, which had been worn below the jacket.
“You scheming little witch,” said Vriska, thrilled.
“I know what you miss,” said Aradia dryly. “Some of it misses you back. She’s still around, though I don’t think for long. It’s better luck than you deserve.”
“Send her to me!” said Vriska.
Aradia was looking at her with an expression she couldn’t read. “All this time. And she didn’t haunt you either.”
“I thought – once. But that was last sweep. How d’you know she’s around?”
“I know. Go out and walk. I’ll see if I can find her.”
Vriska loped downshore a few kilometers, stopping only once, to look at some footprints. This was an isolated area; the nearest officially inhabited land, besides Certresak, was an old Laughsassin’s hunting lodge some sixty klicks down the coast. Past the dunes and plains a forest, blue leaves, red needles, scattered white berries, came down to the sand. She suspected the prints were Feferi’s, as, after meandering about a while, they went straight into the sea. Then she saw the three evenly spaced holes in the wet sand, and smiled.
Another kilometer. She tried calling the ghost’s name, but, feeling ridiculous, dropped her voice. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’re not a lost lusus. Peixes, if you’re out there spying on me,” she yelled at the sea, feeling a sharp want of someone to shout at, “I’m breaking up with you!”
“There are no witnesses,” said someone behind her.
Combat reflexes, quicker than thought, spun her around with her knife in her claws and her arm up and braced before she knew what she was looking at.
She had been terrified of the first ghosts she’d ever seen, the silt ghosts, dust ghosts, with their faces blurred back to collections of holes. She had been afraid, for a long time, of meeting one of those. But this was like a photograph through a filter: neat, uniformed, correct in all particulars. The gloved hands with their sharp little knuckles, folded over the dragon's head at the top of the cane. The ruler-straight horns. Vriska had not remembered her so small, meager as a lowblood. Her shades were tucked in at the breast of her jacket, like a pocket square, and her eyes were white as sun-bleached bone.
“Hello,” said the ghost.
“Hi,” said Vriska.
“Better late than never,” said the ghost. “I had almost gone.”
“Why did you stay?” said Vriska, hoarse but steady.
“First rule,” said the ghost, as so many times before.
There was one question Vriska Serket would never stop asking; there was one question Vriska Serket would have asked God, never doubting, never tiring of the answer. “For me?”
“Oh, no,” said the ghost crisply, “for some other ex-girlfriend I crashed a prison transport with five hundred and twenty-three people on, betrayed all my ideals and died for.”
“I didn’t ask you to,” said Vriska.
“Ask me if I give a fuck!” said the ghost. “The answer is approximately three-fifths of a fuck on any given subject, sadly reduced from the boundless ocean of fucks I used to give! Being dead is, for some reason, enervating. You’re welcome.”
“I didn’t want you to,” said Vriska.
“That is the sour cherry on your sundae of lies! I did exactly what you wanted me to. There is one thing you love above all others,” said the ghost, “and that is getting away with it.”
“I didn’t want you to die,” said Vriska.
“No,” said the ghost, unblinking, “you wanted me to join you.”
“You were cleared of all charges, you know, in the end,” said Vriska, as the only offering she could make. “They thought I got to you.”
“And you didn’t even tell them you hadn’t had to,” said the ghost. “Unusual restraint! Didn’t you wonder? But here is the worst thing, sweetlips: it wasn’t even for you. I didn’t even betray my ideals, which, like unto my present fuck crisis, had run dry. What else could I have done? Youngest-ever lieutenant commander of a ship half full of criminals, half full of subjugglators, and within five perigees I did not even know any more which I wanted dead most.”
“You could have joined me. You could.”
“No,” said the ghost. “I stand by my answer, in retrospect, of ‘all of the above’. I only missed one, in a sentimental lapse. It remains a pity.”
“Can’t you come back, couldn’t you take over a body, I could get you a new one for every night in the sweep,” said Vriska on a descending note, hoarse again.
“Not even the weirdest bribe I have declined,” said the ghost. “But no. Here is what being dead means: everything is outside your jurisdiction. It is very frustrating! It is also permanent. Wipe your snout. I came to say goodbye. That was all.”
“Bye,” said Vriska, hopeless, furious, “okay, go, get out, then – ”
Salt air, damp sand, wet wind, worn twigs like birds’ bones, dry scraps of seaweed, feathers, filaments, infinitesimal shells, all trembling and chasing in little drifts for miles down the smooth and empty shore.
Now that she was alone she took off her glasses and, staring up, blinked pre-emptively; one tear, like the drop to test the skillet, fell onto her cheek, and something prodded her sharply in the back.
“Wow, rude,” said the ghost. “Did I say it yet?”
It had caught the arm she had raised this time, or the arm had locked up on its own. She held very still, extinguished, out of all ideas, and the ghost, whose feet didn’t touch the sand, went up on tiptoe nonetheless and put its mouth to hers. It was like a kiss through silk, intercepted, shifting and without satisfaction. But it was some time before they both drew back, with one motion, as from a mirror.
“Goodbye,” said the ghost, with a touch of warmth in its voice for the first time.
“Goodbye,” said Vriska, hollow and calm. The wind, passing through the figure before her without interference, pressed faintly at her face and clothes. She looked at the still-familiar face and waited for it to disappear. The ghost stepped back.
“Four-fifths for you, blueberry,” said what had been Terezi Pyrope, a little sadly, and spun her cane once in a flickering wheel before catching it and driving it through Vriska’s left eye.
At first she thought the pain had woken her, but there was something tugging at her wrist. She covered her eye reflexively with her free hand, and freed the other. For a long moment she had no memory of the last hour, the last sweep. Then the gleam of the golden 2x3dent, casually stuck in the sand a meter away, brought it back to her, and she turned her head and squinted.
Feferi bent over her, peering back. A few icy drops of water fell from her hair; she had been in the depths, where no other seadweller could go. They were the coldest place on the planet, and she craved the chill with a feeling like thirst. She was not wearing a stitch.
“As cute as you look knocked flat on your wrasse,” said Feferi, “the tide is coming in.”
She was plump and chilled and shining: the sea rolled off her in glittering drops and her skin looked as though it would squeak cleanly under the pad of a thumb. She looked newly made, as though nothing but water had ever touched her. She was smiling like she’d never heard of any harm in the world. Pick me up and carry me again, thought Vriska. Pick me up and drown me. She lurched to her feet, her hand still over her eye, and said “Ugh, you again. Give me my glasses.”
“What happened to your eye?” said Feferi. “Let me look.”
“I got stabbed in the eye by a haint!” said Vriska. “None of your goddamn business.”
“It is my best business, blowhard moirail,” said Feferi, and laid her cold hand on Vriska’s cheek, almost too blatant a gesture for a new-made quadrant. Vriska leaned into it with thoughtless pleasure, both eyes closed, and let her hand be pulled away. Feferi rested her claws gently above and below the injured eye until the chill had been drawn out of them, and then she held Vriska by the shoulder and said: “Go on.”
Vriska, finding that it did not increase the pain to open the eye, went on. She covered it with one hand, then switched and covered only the good one, then dropped her hands to her sides.
“What does it look like?” she said.
“Not good,” said Feferi.
“I know,” said Vriska. “I’m blind in that eye. What does it look like.”
“Like broken yolks,” said Feferi.
“Well, fuck,” said Vriska crossly.
Night nine of ten. They stood in Ticaur’s business office, with the door and windows closed. Aradia slipped into Maduic's projection like a drop of mercury, and Sollux gave his hand to her and then, gingerly as ever, to Vriska, who rolled her eyes and gripped it with an audible crack.
The opening code took a little longer to break than usual; probably the lit screen had been seen after all. There had begun to be interest on the borrowed time. Aradia, not needing instruction after that, traced the long command sequences on empty air, tapping for confirmation every so often on a screen in another galaxy. The three of them started, and Feferi guessed an alarm had sounded. There was only one way to override a security alarm, in the newest and best Fleet ships. “Now,” murmured Aradia, very far away.
Feferi spread her hand on the marble table, and narrow-eyed, tensed, grimly smiling, cut out the web between the first and second fingers in two strokes of the little mother-of-pearl knife. Aradia put out her palm, and when Feferi laid the almost weightless thing on it she closed her clean fingers quick over the bloodied hand before letting go. Her pupils, ghost-occupied, were as wide as though she was at the bottom of the sea.
There was no way of deceiving the authorizing sequencer, which even checked for the presence of dividing cells before it approved: but they were not going to deceive it. They were going to show it a piece of the Empress of Alternia, of the cloned line stretching back three and a half thousand sweeps.
All four of them now focusing on the little scrap of web, flickering and guttering on Aradia’s palm. The mirrored hand of a dead woman, ninety-six thousand light-years away. Sollux’s fingers interleaved with Aradia’s other hand, his narrow face set. Vriska, strange reflections on her glasses, a faint vicious smile on her lips, her claws drawing blood at Aradia’s shoulder. There was a draw, a heavy pull like motion in the room, as though the building had broken from the ground and was rising into space, or falling to the center of the planet. Feferi, least useful person in the room for the third or fourth time in her life, put her uninjured hand half on top of Vriska’s, half on Aradia’s back, and thought, not in words: what I can give, I give. What little, in the end. She closed her eyes and gave.
A flicker, a last flash. Aradia’s hand was empty. Sollux tightened his hold. The sequencer scanning, speeding down the list, faster than thought. A feeling like a ship, a planet slowing, a line going slack. On the other side of the galaxy a hundred screens lit in warning and went dark. Some crewmembers up out of their chairs, some still in, trying to make sense of the message. A suspended, eroded body in the dark, closing its sightless eyes. And the long magnificence, the train of shining hair, the gilded fangs and claws, the mouth that had tasted every shade of blood that seventy-six planets could breed, raising all its intelligence and its reflexes, too late.
Sijant Maduic turned from the display as someone who’d had the sense to trace the authorization wrenched open the door to an empty room, and knelt to an audience she couldn’t see, raising her head to direct her gaze across stars and time at her conception of Aradia, or God, or her lost friend. As the first center of brittleness bloomed out across the hull and the cracks opened and tore, as the little fires in circuits and flesh were snuffed by the void, until the floor she stood on disintegrated, she looked up to a fixed point and sent it a serene, bitter, triumphant smile.
Then, in the confusion and the fragmenting dark, a sudden glimmer of pearl-white light began, grew, coruscated and was gone: and, their transmission cut, four people on Alternia caught their breath as though waking from a dream of falling, and by reflex let go. Feferi, as the only one without a share in the superimposed vision, was the least impaired by after-images or the fading of that flash of light, and the first to see Aradia sway to the side and begin to fall. She only had to put out her arms to catch her, and step back and draw her gently down. But she was the last to see, from behind, the blood running from Aradia’s lips and from her nose, and through the lashes of her closed eyes.
She looked up from where she knelt in the long grass and saw only the open field. There was someone behind her. She got to her feet and turned, then turned in a circle. There was not anyone behind her. A storm moving in from the north, finely, as though drawn through a sieve. A gust of wind: not rain but smoke. When the plains burn there is no light thrown off, only the thin seam of fire dividing the dying and the dead.
“This is a dream,” she said, aloud and clearly, as though to make someone else understand. “This is where I died.”
When the plains burn they come back green. The scorched spot where she’d fallen had burned a second time within two nights. She had made him walk out there with her, half a season later. The tall grasses bending under their own weight, the sedges, the patches of clover and vetch fizzing with bees like pools of champagne in the warm dusk.
“How are we supposed to find the place?” he'd finally said, gnat-bitten, nettle-stung, sniffling rawly with pollen. She hadn’t expected him to walk half so long without complaint. “It all grew back the same. We could go round in circles forever.”
“That’s what I wanted you to see,” she had said, the scars still livid at her throat.
In front of her now a sinkhole opened, filled to the brim with seawater, quieting wavelets, subsiding crests of foam. Like most trolls she had no idea how to swim; but, she thought, as this was a dream, what the hell, and jumped.
She fell through dark air. When she slowed, a marble in honey, she couldn’t make out much. No ceiling, no floor. To her right a wavering of light, as through water. To her left and straight ahead an enormous structure with curving walls. Behind her, distant in the gloom, more immense shapes. She turned back and saw two figures descending, trailing phosphorescent green fire. They paused, suspended, before her: someone in a neon-green dress, who held in her arms, immobile, awake, eyes glittering with fury, the former Empress of the Alternian Empire. What Aradia had thought was a vast building behind them expanded and contracted a row of pillars, a shiver of bubbles rising, and she realized where she must be.
The woman smiled, and drew back from the Condesce until she held only one hand, as though they were about to begin a dance; then she jerked the hand up savagely and the hand, the arm and the body all snapped like a flag, thinning to the width of paper, shrinking and crumpling. A flash of hostile eye, even to the last. She folded this rag until it was a size she could hold in her palm, and put it in her mouth and swallowed it. Then she bowed to Aradia: a touch mockingly, but not of her.
“I’ve been waiting for that soul a long time,” she said. “Thank you, hatchlet.”
“This is the Furthest Ring, isn’t it?” said Aradia. “And what comes after?” Every ghost she’d known had said the same: there’s the Terrors, and there’s the light. Past that we don’t know.
They were drifting closer together, and Aradia was frankly staring: even the people who put up altars to her thought the Handmaid was a lime-blood, the last of her kind. But her lips and eyes were made up in rust, and the iris of her eye was dark as wine. Aradia thought she knew the mouth, the slanting eyebrows, the high arch of the nose. Even the grand, hallucinatory horns, if she lived for a thousand sweeps.
“You’re like me,” she said, not daring more.
“You are like me.” They were very near now.
“Am I dead for keeps this time?” said Aradia, thinking: if I merit folding up, get it over with.
“Oh, never for keeps, my dear,” said the Handmaid, “if you don’t want to go.”
And, taking the small, spare, worn face in her ageless hands, she drew their two painted mouths together, and breathed a long soft breath into her, ache and dissolution, fire crossing a field. The moment under the sky where the wind rises all around you, and you can’t speak for fury that you won’t have it for ever. Her heart leapt and settled and grew warm, a candle in a cup. The old terror of deep water. The unspeakable, necessary waste that is nearly everything in a life, isolated sparks in the sea of ash. She couldn’t see the Handmaid now, or the Denizens of the Ring, or anything at all. She tried to hold out her hand to look at, for data, for something to receive. Don’t stop talking, world, even now. She saw for an instant like a backlit leaf the thin dark bones almost blotted out by light, and then those too had gone.
What little, in the end.
“SHE'S ALIVE,” said Feferi at once, who could feel the body in her arms breathing.
“Of course she is,” said Sollux, who had knelt down beside them before he could see, and clutched for and found Aradia’s wrist. “This happens to – pilots – or to anyone who tries to – move too much at once.” More or less by accident, he’d landed on her pulse. “Usually all right if – they don’t bleed out.”
“Are you all right?” said Feferi, who had seen the look on his face before, in the early moments of executions, about the time the applause began.
“Yes,” he said, since her heartbeat was steady. He tried to reset his breathing as they were taught in the Fleet, which as usual he didn’t expect to work, and which as usual did. Vriska had crouched down too, and reached for Aradia’s other hand. He was not interested in looking at her face and he did not want her, he had never wanted her, to touch anything he loved. As usual it didn’t matter. “I need water and a cloth, and something to put over her. Vriska, your jacket.”
Feferi, shifting Aradia to him, got up and went out. It wouldn’t occur to him for some time that he had in effect given orders to the Empress of Alternia, and been obeyed. Vriska had taken off the jacket without protest, and drawn it up over her. Feferi came in with a bowl of water and what he distantly recognized as one of Aradia’s older shirts. She went out again. He looked up at Vriska: what are you waiting for.
“She’s mine too,” said Vriska.
“Let me put this charitably: I think you’re bad luck. I don’t want you here. That’s a moirail’s right. I’m done talking to you.”
“She chose me for her kismesis, you know. I didn’t ask her.”
“Guess what, I knew that before you did! And I don’t give a fuck. Go.”
Vriska, finally glancing from Aradia’s face to his, jerked her chin up in the universal shorthand for someone offplanet and said “Still jealous it wasn’t you she died for?”
He could have stopped himself and didn’t, but when she hit the wall it was only with force enough to bruise. One of the unusual qualities that had seen him so quickly promoted was that he never broke equipment out of spite.
“You wouldn’t even have deserved to die for her,” he said quietly. “And you know it. Get out.”
The red-and-blue blaze went out and she dropped a few centimeters to land on her feet. He had the irrelevant, petty satisfaction of seeing her wince, though not of seeing her stumble. Feferi’s voice, in the hall, said a little uncertainly “Vriska?” and the balance tipped. As soon as he saw that she was leaving he turned away and by the time the door closed he had forgotten her.
Blood dries fast, as every psionic knows. He washed her eyes first; blood hardened over the eyes will pull out lashes and crumble into grit onto the cornea. Then the delicate parts of the nose, then over the chin and down the narrow throat. A long drip had ended in a tiny delta at the edge of the scars. Keep moving. Minimal blood from the ears, a good sign.
He put the bowl of pink water aside and, sitting back against the wall, pulled her up to rest her head in his lap. With his palms at her temples his claws just touched below her chin. Keep moving. He reached with a faint psionic thread for the light-dial and nudged the wire to break the circuit. Then, his eyes closed in the dark, he sent his tracing in.
If it was an electrical system, he could map it, however it was made. She was alight and teeming with infinitesimal transfers, flickers, switches. You had to reproduce a fair amount of the local star catalogue from scratch, on the yellowblood Fleet exam. He hadn’t found it hard. If it was an electrical system, he could keep it running, once he saw where the current needed to go. This, unfortunately, is what love does: if he could be a program to keep Aradia Megido living, he would not aspire to much more.
She had, waking, the feeling she was meant to sit bolt upright, but managed only a jerk. “Hey,” said Sollux, catching her. The lights came on, half-strength, to let her know that she could see. She fell back, a little watery blood trickling from her nose.
“I saw her,” she said.
“The Devil’s girl. The Green Lady. I didn’t know she was real.”
“Did you know that was going to happen?” His grip on her shoulders had tightened.
“That I’d see her?” she said, not entirely up out of the dream. “No, of – ”
“Did you know you were going to keel over like a spare-cell helmsman. Or did you just not care?”
“You’ve been out like that a hundred times.” Nothing revitalizes like irritation. “I’m fine. Don’t fuss. If I was going to die, you would have heard me.”
“I’m not a fucking radio, as you well know! You know I never heard Terezi – most of the time I can’t even make it out, half the time I think I’m imagining it, and sometimes I’ve heard people and they’re fine – and every perigee you’re more careless, you and Vriska” – he was almost spitting – “and you talk about death like it’s some kind of category error, and you didn’t answer the question.”
“Do you want me to say that would have stopped me?”
“Aradia,” he said. He had tipped his head back; she could hear it in his voice. His fingers at the base of her throat pressed and pressed at the old scars, half their lives ago. “Aradia, don’t.”
“You’re going on as though you’ve forgotten what we’ve done. You saw it break apart too, didn’t you?”
“Does it disappoint you that I wouldn’t have cared?”
“There are so many things worse than dying,” she said gently. It did, a little, but she forgave. “And the worst is living to no use. They can string us up tomorrow, but we’re spared that now.”
“I’ll agree with that in theory if you’ll agree not to put it into practice,” he said, after some time. “If you think this is conciliating, by the way, you are doing a fuck-awful job.”
She reached up to his unseen face and by genuine accident hit him in the nose with her palm. Then she patted his cheek, hard, as though checking a cushion for dust.
“Shushh,” she said. “There, there, you blubbering goddamn pansy.”
“Oh my God, fuck you,” he said, exhausted, fond, appalled. His cheek had been dry, but she had heard the catch in his voice. “Sit up, you utter nook fluke.” She sat up too quickly and, turning, fell against him. They leaned on each other for a long moment, his chin on her shoulder, her hands stroking his back. She was too tired to do it better than clumsily, but she did not let herself stop: there were times, and this of all of them, that she knew not to be too still in his arms. He drew a long breath, and let it out sharply. Then, businesslike, he got up and by both hands pulled her to her feet.
“What now?” he said. “We didn’t really plan for afterwards, did we.”
“Go tell them I’m all right. Eat something.” She took out her palmhusk, pressed a button and pocketed it again. “Oh, it’s nearly dawn. I suppose all the good stalls in Certresak would be closed by the time we got there.”
“You’re not walking eight kilometers tonight, either way.”
They walked through the dark third tier, with its mostly bare rooms. One of the doorways was brightly lit, as a signal, since neither inhabitant needed it. They were sitting at a low table, with Vriska’s open husktop. Feferi, hearing their footsteps, jumped up, caught Aradia’s hands and, perhaps impulsively, kissed them: “Aradia! I’m glad you’re alive.”
“Thank you,” said Aradia, amused and, for all her cynicism, touched; even if this too was political.
“Yeah, yeah, old news,” said Vriska, who hadn’t looked up. “Let me tell you the new! ‘The inexplicable accident that has snuffed the light of our Empire’ is now pretty well known throughout the Fleet. The Priem is coming back here, though it’s a night or so away. And Eridan Ampora, as of about ten minutes ago, has announced that the Heiress has been taken hostage by lowbloods and declared himself planetary regent.”
She delivered this last as though onstage, but Aradia and Sollux were looking at Feferi.
“I assume that wasn’t part of your plan,” said Aradia. All she knew about Ampora was that he’d black-dated Vriska, which put him in extremely mixed company.
“No,” said Feferi. “I did leave a note. ‘If anything happens, say I’m down with Gl’bgolyb and can’t be reached.’ I don’t know if that was a good guess or only an excuse for martial law. Sollux, can you get me in through my old Hatchright? Just to check my messages.”
“Yeah. Do you care if it shows they’ve been accessed, though?”
“As long as our location can’t be tracked, I don’t.”
“Yeah, no, it can’t, not through the proxy. I could do it… either way, but… ” His voice, as always, fell away as he was typing. Vriska’s screen was going through some alarming blackouts and swarms of opening windows. “…This one… is quicker. 9900477003, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Feferi. He’d already entered it, two screens back.
“And done,” said Sollux, with a triumphant little rattle of his claws on the table. He moved aside, and Feferi sat down.
Hundreds of sign-this planetary governance notices and reports from the colonies; close to a hundred automatic reminders for appointments long missed; a few messages of genuine concern, a few of thinly veiled what-the-hell-d'you-think-you're-doing. The hastily somber announcement of the destruction of the Condescension, with a footnote: WE ARE INVESTIGATING TO THE FULLEST CAPABILITY. And, mixed throughout, nearly a hundred from Eridan Ampora; then, with a loud chime, one more.
“Sorry!” said Feferi, frozen, to Sollux, having elbowed him in the ribs. “Startled me, that’s all.”
“Startled me too,” he said wryly, taking her elbow and wrist with some delicacy and guiding her arm back to her side.
look i didnt want to do this but its been pretty plain for the last feww seasons theres somefin wwrong
ivve alwways been able to tell wwhen the things youre glubbin and the things you truly wwant aint the same
i think some lowwbloods been talkin to you and cause youre too good you let em and noww youre all mixed up
and as long as youre wwith em you wwont see it right its a thing that happens in wwar
and its alwways gonna be wwar them and us you need to knoww that if youre gonna rule us
if you wwere wworried about the duel you knoww i tried to talk to you about my ideas
you dont knoww howw wwrong you wwere if you thought id let anyfin happen to you
fef i miss you wwe all miss you like the moons wwent out
i know youre smarter and stronger than wwhatevver these dirtscrapers been putting you through and if youll only tell us wwhere you are ill have you out in two shakes of a semicossyphuses fin
night and day im ready just let me take you home
“You should've executed him when you had the chance,” said Vriska, sounding, as usual, disgusted.
“Oh, come on,” said Sollux, sounding, as usual, disgusted. “It’s not as though she could’ve just had him dragged out and run through any time she felt like it – ”
“Oh yes she could,” said Vriska, with an edge.
“That’s enough,” said Feferi, all the color gone from her face. “He – makes mistakes. I’ve known him out of the egg, he doesn’t think things through before he does them, and he’s sorry after. If I can just talk to him. If I can – ”
“You have done everything for him that you can,” said Vriska, in a sudden, sweet-edged, crystalline highblood accent. Aradia had heard this only a handful of times in two sweeps, and only when Vriska was doing impersonations over commlink. Beside her, Sollux’s eyebrows had gone up. “Perhaps you might let me have a try.”
“What – ?”
“I mean he’s disobeyed direct orders from the Empress, and that’s an executable offense.”
“Vriska, I don’t think – ”
“I see,” said Vriska in her own rough voice, unusually measured, and still with an undertone Aradia was not familiar with, “you don’t want me to hurt him.”
“No! Vriska, it’s not him I’m worried about. It’s not like it was when you were six, he’s made captain and he’s earned it, you don’t kn—”
“I can take him!” Vriska was nearly shouting now, and her cheeks were blue. “I can take him, you watch! I’ve been a Fleet captain too, and a better one than him. You name me one reason he should be left alive!”
Aradia and Sollux glanced at each other: the usual animosity of current for ex-moirail was one thing, but this was jealousy on the operatic level. Feferi, looking at Vriska in something like fear, though not for herself, had parted her lips but not spoken.
“How many times have we been over this? He’s been trying to get you to get Gl’bgolyb to raise her voice for seven sweeps, Peixes! He’s worse than hemocidal, he’s an imbecile, because if he thought about that for five minutes he’d see it’s the lowbloods that keep the fucking planet running for him! He’s decent in combat, I’ll give him that, but I’ve read my Alsant too, I’m a veteran too, and let me tell you, there are better. Tell me one fucking way he’ll make your Empire what you want it. One thing!”
She was pacing back and forth, looking at no one; Feferi was not moving, but her eyes never left Vriska’s face.
“There’s still good in him,” said Feferi, almost in a whisper, or a trance. “He was sweet, when we were young – ”
Vriska slammed the heel of her hand against the doorframe, wildly: not so much for emphasis, thought Aradia, as for an outlet. And then, closing her eyes for an instant, she glanced back up to Feferi, and there was a kindness in her voice that Aradia had never heard before and hoped never to hear again.
“One reason,” she said, “that isn’t a sunk cost.”
Feferi’s gaze had exceeded its tensile strength: it was almost audible when it broke. But after a long minute, when she raised her head and looked again at Vriska, her mouth was closed, and closed hard.
It was Aradia, who had no patience with the dramatic, who stepped forward then, and putting her thin hand to Feferi’s shoulder said briskly “Nothing worse than moirail arguments in public. Look, Vriska, if he comes round like a new-hatched woolbeast when she speaks to the Palace, let him alone and we’ll ship him off to the Ninth Cluster. If he resists, it’s treason. How’s that, Heiress, will that do?”
And Feferi, the spell broken, said “That sounds reasonable.”
Some time later, after an unsatisfying supper of apples, grubsticks and the speckled water out of the tap, and after a long, largely wordless session in a pile, Aradia went up to the third tier to retrieve her sweater, and passing by a different doorway – Ticaur’s office again, one of the few with furniture – was surprised to see it occupied, though dark. She and Sollux had heard one of the ground-tier doors wrenched open once, and then scrolled shut more gently. They hadn’t heard anyone come back in. But Feferi was sitting at the marble table with the silvery light from the husktop on her goggles like ghost’s eyes; and Vriska, fidgety, jittery Vriska, restless even in her sleep, was standing unmoving behind her with her hands closed protectively on the freckled shoulders, and her lips pressed to the faultless arch of one long horn.
Four hours into the day Aradia gave up the pretense of sleep and crept onto the stairs, her lusus padding after her. She went up to the third tier and with cold water rinsed her face and claws, which had not had any sopor slime on them; it had been a thin pretense. She thought she would go up to the top tier and slide the windows back and let the warm sea breeze rinse through, and listen for birds in the eaves as a substitute or antidote. Never til now had she been without at least a murmur from the dead.
A few stairs from the top she saw Feferi, sitting in the center of the wide dusty floor, and tapped her claws along the wall in warning.
“Senator,” said Feferi cheerfully, not apparently surprised. “Sit down.”
She sat. Feferi had opened the windows, with the half-shades down. They were coming to the dark season; all the light these days was slanted, hot honey. If you kept your eyes down and hurried through it you could get across a street without injury. An old sheet of plastic above them billowed, snapped flat and tentatively rose again. Her professional mind filled in crossbeams, insulation, wiring. A class-C7 droid would have been better for installing the windows but from the screws they’d used a B7-KR. She pressed her knuckles to her eyes and sprawled out on her back.
“You couldn’t sleep?” said Feferi.
That was the extent of her currently available politesse. The hour or two of unconsciousness had not helped. Even with her eyes closed now, in the drifting warmth, the abandoned-rural peacefulness, the pleasant smell of sun-heated wood and ceriglass, there was something holding her suspended above the surface. She thought that she should go rifle through Vriska's things and see if she could find some bottle of annihilating booze, but she did not want to get up. There was a brushing, rustling noise to her left, almost lost among the lazy rustle and snap from the windows and the incomplete roof, and then Feferi had lain down next to her and put her arm across her, to take her hand.
Press down anywhere on a lowblood and you found bone, vein, node, knot, stringy bands of fibers, lumps, lymph. The thin pulse jumping, a watch running fast. They couldn’t keep anything back; any touch found out everything. Feferi’s arm was taut and mysterious with muscle enclosed in seadweller fat, an insulative springiness, smooth-skinned and cool. Aradia wanted to squeeze this arm, and to stroke it, and lay her hot face against it: and with the perversity that beauty draws out in the bitter, some part of her wanted to rake and rip it open with her claws. She was aware of being watched, and opened her eyes and glanced to the side.
“I would like to kiss you, may I kiss you,” said Feferi, her hair falling over her face and a smudge of dust on her cheek.
“As a token of your appreciation? But we've done that already. Or as a demonstration of your ideals? One per lowblood?” She was so tired that she felt unaccountable, as though in a dream; she ought to apologize.
“As a demonstration of on the mouth,” said Feferi with a saving tartness, and Aradia sat up, put her arms around her knees and laughed. What the hell. She clicked her tongue, and her lusus went out to guard the stairs.
A faint taste of salt. The thin, long, pin-sharp fangs, as even as a fence. She ran the tip of her tongue along their tops, prickling, pricking, catching, and something like a shiver, unmoving, rang through her. Four million sweeps, give or take, since the species diverged. Four million sweeps of instinct saying no, and about six seconds of one bulge saying yes.
They moved closer. Feferi’s tongue had taken on the warmth of her own mouth. She inclined her head and took Feferi’s silky-slick lip between her own blunt fangs, let it nearly slip and bit again, set her fangs gently and sucked. A swell, a falling away, half-natural, half-diplomatic, in case nothing more was wanted.
Feferi, shifting her thighs, leaned in before their faces had drawn apart. A cool hand moving through Aradia’s hair, fingers parting around her horn, anchoring. She searched out, eyes closed, Feferi’s hand, and brought it up. She moved her tongue over the two thin soft webs, then the raw line running between the fingers, not yet scabbed; she stayed there long enough to bring the blood up again, standing out in drops, licked away, rising again, licked, rising. Then the base of the throat, for some time, and when she had finished she set her mouth against the wet flawless skin and breathed, warm and close. Feferi arched up against this, murmuring, and twisted to reach down and press and stroke through Aradia’s skirt.
After a while Feferi had begun unbuttoning her dress, and Aradia, half in her lap, their legs splayed and tangled in skirts, had began to rock against her, slowly, slowly. Under Feferi’s skirt there was something tensed and separate, moving freely, lashing sharply once, nothing like the fixed, covered protrusion of a bulge. What exactly seadwellers had instead was the subject of endless discussion in places like Silaxas, and Aradia, like most of them, had never known for certain; not all of the permutations in pornography could be true. The pleasurable dread of the mystery, the continual hinting nearness, was almost too good to ruin by finding out.
There was a lull. Aradia’s dress was open to the waist. Feferi had taken off her shirt, though she had left on the polysilk gill-cover below, a wide sash. Aradia sat back, light-headed with exhaustion and lust, two shortages that tell quickly, and began to unhook the last clasp at the back: but when she looked up, Feferi had moved away, sitting with her knees together, and crossed her arms over her chest. She was looking, carefully, at the floor.
“Shall we go on?” said Aradia, trying despite herself to sound gentle.
“I’m not sure,” said Feferi. Her round cheeks were flushed, her eyes glittering. She had taken her goggles off, and the light must have been nearly blinding her. There was a trace of rust lipstick on her chin, and another high on her jaw: and she was sitting very still, suddenly. “I’m not sure.” She did not sound happy, but she sounded sure.
“Which one of us did you remember we were?” said Aradia, after a long bitter moment, only partly unsurprised. “I see the world hasn’t changed yet.”
“No. It’s not – don’t think I don’t – Both of us, but not how you think. I shouldn’t have – it’s not possible to... No, it hasn’t changed, or not enough. Because you can’t say no, can you? Not to me. Not truly.”
Aradia stared. Feferi did not let herself look away. In the dim golden light both of them, largely without sentiment and without success, examined the iris of the other’s eyes and tried to differentiate the color from what they remembered as their own.
“Do you know who believes that?” said Aradia, and then, incredulously, “No, shut it. Do you know who are the only ones to really believe it? Blue on up. Not Vriska. But all the rest of you lot. You are so sure we’re not our own. Let me tell you the great lowblood secret: we know better. So when I say yes, don’t try to take that from me too. It’s little enough, but it’s mine.”
“And you say it,” said Feferi, clearly unable to stop herself.
“Do I have to sing it on the hour, like a hatchthief clock? Yes, yes, yes,” said Aradia, her claws folded on her lap, in which an anticipatory pulse still beat. “Let’s shut up, it was nicer before. Yes, yes, yes. Fish or cut bait, Empress. Yes.”
She reached up and cupped the coolly blazing face in her hands, and kissed where the crown would rest: reproach, reprieve. Then a brush of the hesitant lips, then another, as both mouths moved. God, highblood pride; suggest they hadn’t hung the moons and they’d weep into their tea. But an openness, not ignorance, not innocence, in Feferi’s face had almost shamed her. The little arch of blood. Eventually you must forgive someone their advantages, and their virtues. She saw no reason to apologize, but “Yes,” she said quietly against Feferi’s cheek, in another tone, “if you still want it.”
“I do,” said Feferi, equally quietly, and smiling. Faintly, and with known and unknown reservations, and across a distance that could not be closed, but with pleasure, for all that. And it might be closed, thought Aradia, some time later, studying the sleeping face not with love, but with complex interest. Or shortened, anyway, or met. You would have to reorder the world: but once you’d done that.
In the evening, before the light had gone out of the sky, Feferi wrote a brief missive to the list of lowbloods that had been at the meeting. Come to these coordinates by this hour, if you want to go with us; it’s nothing against you if you don’t. None of them had betrayed her, as far as Sollux could tell.
There was nothing to pack up. She sat at the top of the stairs and brushed her glossy hair until it crackled, and raked her fangs gently over her lips to suffuse their blackness with fuschia blood, subtle below the plump soft surface. She knew, she had never not known, what beauty did. When handed the spear, drive it home. She went down the stairs and found Aradia arguing with Vriska and Sollux, who were putting up a remarkably united front; they didn't want her to come with them.
“It might be totally boring,” Vriska was saying, with transparent nonchalance.
“Yes, that was my point. I would like to see this through, that’s all,” said Aradia. Feferi hadn’t seen her since she fell asleep, and before that, in the bright room, only indistinctly. But that last day had shown on her; her face was drawn and almost burnished, thin-skinned, over the bones, and she was leaning less than casually on the doorway. Feferi looked down at her with a private guilt, and started a little when Sollux glanced up.
“You couldn't throw an egg hard enough to break it right now. Empress. Would you tell her – ” and broke off, as Vriska sidled past him. “Nothing worse than moirail arguments in public, is there?” she muttered in Aradia’s ear, and snapped her fingers: and caught her, deftly, as she slumped.
“I thought you couldn’t—?” said Sollux, staring.
“Usually I can’t!” said Vriska. “That was a guess.” She lifted Aradia’s chin with her knuckle and, maneuvering her other arm around, flicked her hard between the eyes. “But she really is worthless right now, poor moron. She’ll miss everything.”
She picked her up with highblood simplicity and went up the stairs. Aradia, standing, had not looked small or short even to the last; in Vriska’s arms she was like a coat tossed over her shoulder, with coincidental bones and horns.
Sollux followed to the second-tier respiteblock, in which he’d woken not long ago, and watched Vriska carry her. She glanced up and, seeing him, made as though to throw Aradia the rest of the short way to the floor. He caught her in a faint net of psionics and eased her down.
“Play with your doll,” said Vriska, and swept past him. She had looked away first. He put a fourth, a fifth cushion below Aradia’s head, to prevent the ache of long pressure on a horn. Her lusus stood fretting below the window, lashing her scaly tail. “It’s all right,” he said, which she ignored. He found a can of water in the next block and put it within reach, then, aware that he ought to be going, sat down and interlaced his hand in hers. Vriska, catching her, had looked down without a thread of hatred, and glanced up with defiance. He set her paper-dry, veined hand at her side and stood up. “It’s all right,” he said again without conviction, and walked out.
There were eighty-one lowbloods and outlaws gathered by the little pier when their party arrived. There had been ninety at the meeting. “We can’t take them all,” murmured Feferi, surprised by the crowd. “Obviously!” said Vriska, and went to sort them. Impervious to covert looks of admiration and hatred alike, weighing neither in her judgments, she approved fifty-seven and redistributed the better weapons of the rest. “You’ll get them back, kitten,” she said, sardonically solicitous to an olive-blood’s reluctance, “or you won’t.” Feferi, watching, thought: she’d lead well if she could keep her temper, which she can’t. Not yet. And then: I will see her smile without malice, should it take me fifty sweeps. And then, with the conscious clearing of all emotion which had kept her alive up to now, she rinsed the pang of affection from her mind and went to check the engine.
Thirteen kilometers from harbor to Palace. Even with the boat very low in the water – “Stay below,” Vriska had said to the hold full of passengers, “unless you’d like to tip us and drown” – it was less than half an hour’s ride.
Feferi was leaning on the rail, looking at the nearing tower and palace. Her face was distant and set, as it had been the night before, and in its youth were the lines of something imperial and severe: only in anxiety she had been doing that horrible seadweller thing where they drank handfuls of straight seawater and then all the salt dripped out their snouts.
“You are so gross!” said Vriska by way of hello, having secured the tiller and walked over. “Stop that.”
Feferi snuffled obediently and drew her dimpled wrist under her nose. “Hi,” she said.
Vriska wanted to punch her, pinch her, jump up and down. Love: itchier than shellpox. She tugged at the tip of a translucent ear. “What are you thinking?”
“That it’s been a while since I ate any sea urchins,” said Feferi, who never lied, “and about what I’ll do if no one at the Palace acknowledges me.”
“You’ll let me at ’em,” said Vriska, bit the ear gently, and strode with vigor back to the tiller.
There was a single guard on the Palace’s landing deck and pier, in full Fleet uniform, not a seadweller. When the hatching had been within the last few sweeps the Palace deck had been one of the standard make-or-break postings for cadets, both honor and punishment, but this was late in the hatchrun and they all had been pretty well sorted into committed, dead, criminals and civilians. This was a tealblood, tall but unsure. He recognized Feferi with obvious dismay: now he was going to be the messenger.
“I am not a prisoner,” she called. The guard scuttled through a side-door.
In less than five minutes what looked like every seadweller on the planet had come out through the main doors, all of them armed. Most were in black-and-violet Fleet uniforms, though not Ampora, who had thrown the doors open: he was aware, thought Vriska scornfully, of how outranked he was, how tenuous the claim. If Feferi had never turned up, he wouldn’t have lasted. But most seadwellers didn’t live in or near the Heiress’s Palace, or wear uniforms onworld; he had gathered them all together in the span of a day and a night, and kept them ready. They had honored him, so far.
He came, almost running, up to the platform around the base of the light-tower, so that he was on a level with the people onboard; Vriska, now that they were relatively still, had let about half the lowbloods up.
“Heiress! Release her,” he called across the water. No one on the ship was touching her. “Release her, and we’ll be quick.”
“I’ve come on my own behalf and of my own will,” she said. “And I am Empress now.”
The night was calm, and the waves were casting the ship nearer and nearer to the deck. Below, every finned face was upturned to her, the familiar and the barely-known, the curious and the reserved.
“Whatever she says, she’s been told to say – they – have they tortured you? Look at her claws,” and there was an anguish in it that could not have been feigned. “Oh, Fef, just jump, you’re so close.”
“I am not a prisoner,” said Feferi, in her clear, carrying voice. And, holding up her hand with the severed web: “A seadweller did this.”
“You know me,” she said, into the the wave-lapping hush, and slowly, steadily, she looked into every face on the deck but one. “Most of you have known me from hatching. All of you have seen me carry out the executions of traitors to the Empire, rust and blue alike.”
She raised the double-ended trident to them, reminder and salute.
“You didn’t see me falter then, and you don’t now. Every troll on this ship is a loyal subject. They came with me because I asked them to and I went to them of my own will. I’ve come to claim the crown that’s mine, and they are with me because they’re part of my Empire, as much as you are.”
“This is a trap,” said Ampora, beginning to sound resigned. “Keep your weapons out.”
“Yes,” she said. She still had not looked at him. “Your trap. No one needs to die here. Those of you who accept me as genuine and my word as law, leave the deck and guard the water doors. Those of you who remain I will understand to be committing insurrection.”
A beat, and then one of the oldest seadwellers, a decorated admiral and minor royalty in her own right, knelt and touched the base of one horn and then the other, and dove without a splash from the deck. Then two young ones, from the most recent hatching, female and male, and then, something giving way, many more. Ampora, grave and angry, was not looking at what he had left. Fewer than thirty, thought Vriska, fewer than half.
There was a moment’s stillness; the red-violet light above them swung round twice.
“After this moment,” said Feferi, and it sounded, then, like law, “it is treason.”
They drifted a meter or so nearer; the hull knocked against the rail, and Vriska, standing on the prow, now overlapping the deck, tensed and shivered in ecstatic anticipation. Since the Palace had come into view she had had one thing in mind: every other throat she cut would be incidental. She had been grinning unconsciously, every fang showing, for a quarter of an hour. The concentration, the exultation of killing a chosen target had been her passion since she was four sweeps old, the sweet breathless building to a release richer than sex. “Ampora!” shrieked Vriska, a hunting hawk, and leapt to the wet patterned tile of the Palace deck and straight into the ranks of the seadwellers who remained.
He glanced up with surprise: he hadn’t looked at anyone but his Empress long enough to recognize them. Surprise, but not, at first, fear. A seadweller with a long spear met her first, and tore her jacket at one side with a thrust to the belly, criminally slow. A bolt of light flashed past her, with the silence that meant it was serious; she brought her sword across in one long stroke that cut open both eyes and the bridge of the nose of the spear-wielder, and sprang up to kick his chest. She seized the spear, broke off the pertinent thirty centimeters and flung it without looking in the direction from which the light had been fired: let someone else finish these off. She could hear the lowbloods jumping with only fractionally less enthusiasm than her own down onto the deck, and a battle beginning.
She leapt from the spearman’s sinking shoulders over and past a few more blades and, landing at the edge of their thin ranks, kicked someone in the knee and cut someone else’s finned ear off, turning on one foot to avoid the downstroke of a sword like her own. She was nearly to Ampora now; he had not moved from the platform, though his gaze hadn’t left her. Anyone might have shot him then, if they’d thought of it.
She was on the stairs when he reached into his immaculate cercus coat and took out a long white spike, glittering with bright tiny readout-lights, and instinct and long training dropped her flat. There was a roar, and a blaze of white fire, and behind her most of a stone railing and not enough of an unlucky brown-blood had turned to ash. Her horns, well below the blast, were nonetheless achingly singed. She rolled and jumped up, easy on her feet, and caught the scent of her own burnt hair. The screaming behind her had reached a peak and shut off, as though from a valve.
She had begun to laugh now with excitement, just controlled enough not to interfere with her breathing, not controlled enough to stop. She tried a cross-stroke, an experiment. He turned his spike so that her blade slid down it and tried, quick as a snake striking, to seize her wrist. She leapt back, and leapt again as the wall of the light-tower above them received a small crater and the distracting shards rained down: someone had fired from the deck below, either at her or with wildly inaccurate aim. This was an inconvenient theater. She dodged back, and saw with satisfaction that he followed. There was a doorway behind her, the darkness of an entryway. She had read about this weapon, when it was in early Fleet development: you got about twenty shots out of it before recharging, and the last was barely a breath. He hadn’t expected an equal to come calling. She made a feint at him, as though uneasily, and was rewarded with a faint, humorless smile, the first touch on the line. Then she skipped forward and scored a wide slash on his free hand, and saw for the first time an anger beginning.
It was almost the last thing she saw: she flung herself to the side as a tall tapestry of glittering scales went up in a shimmer of heat that ate through the wall and stung her exposed skin. He was damnably fast, but the reserves of his weapon were not infinite, no matter what his own. She wished she remembered the Palace map better. This was his territory, his web, in which she meant to play out her favorite technique; retreat, retreat, isolate them, pretend defeat and strike. They still hadn’t spoken: she was saving for an opportune moment the claim she’d been pailing their Empress, with a few empirical details about her naked body. He turned aside another slash, with perfect form and still calmly, a few violet drops clinging to his clawtips, and she drew him another few steps back. Then, aware of a branching in the gloom behind her, she picked left at random and bolted deeper into the Heiress’s Palace, and equally confident, light on his feet, Eridan Ampora followed.
The night was clear and the stars above the open ocean were bright and cold. The landing deck of the Palace, deserted, glittered with seawater and blood. A few bodies near the edge had already gone, pulled over by limbs closed in needle-like teeth or swept off by heavy fins; seabirds of all sizes hopped and squabbled nearer the center, talons closing for balance in cheap fabrics and fine.
Most of the seadwellers had successfully been beaten back up into the higher levels, when the battle had become a rout, but a few had fled down to take their chances. Sollux, hatched of a temperament that liked to make sure, had been working his way through the tier just above water for the better part of an hour. He had followed a long trail of violet blood, the smeared track of a webbed hand, to its end, and ended the owner. She had been already near death, not conscious, but clutching her gun to the last. He had used one of his stars, not by hand. Seadwellers bled out slow, in oily globs and gobbets. She hadn’t stirred at all.
He turned a corner, in the gloom, and found a hallway with a clear trail of combat. Pupils dilated to their fullest, throwing-stars held up in a protective halo of psionics, he followed it into a cavernous reception hall, ornate, unlit, and comprehensively destroyed. He stumbled over something which rolled a little, which turned out to be a leg, newly emancipated. It had left a purple track: no one he knew. He picked his way round a broken table, shards of mother-of-pearl in constellations on the floor, and kicked up against an arm. This bled blue, which would have meant the same, but though the sleeve had burned there was a faint, crimped, sizzled tracery of gold thread at the elbow, familiar, resented, nearly effaced. “Vriska,” he called. Silence. He stepped over her arm and went on. A blackened chair, a broken bottle, the smell of wine and electrical fire, the faint fishiness of the whole palace and the acid sharpness of seadweller blood.
He clambered over a screen and had put his foot, his whole weight, on Ampora’s chest, before he saw him. His face, untouched, had an expression of abstracted concern. Theater beauty, advertising beauty. Even in a black-and-white reproduction, even with the fins cropped out, you would know what he was. The straight brows, the full lips. Not a ring missing, not a bracelet, a facet, an intricacy of metal lost from the strong wrists. What death spares a body is stranger than what it does not. He had been cut nearly in half at the waist, the other leg still sprawling, all but torn off. The stomach and below were an indiscriminate ruin. The room was very still.
“Vriska,” said Sollux.
“Yeah,” said something nearby.
He did consider it, for an instant. But then he opened the commlink, sight unseen. “12H,” he said. “12H, first tier above water. Empress’s moirail. Get someone who can help down here now. Override all. Now.”
“Understood. 12H,” said the link.
“I’m touched!” said Vriska. Her voice had cracked on the second word; he could hear her gasping and gulping, very near.
She was in a corner below an open window, propped up a little by the broken back of a brocaded chair. She had crossed her boots, casually, up on a fallen lamp, and by the time he crouched down by her she was breathing slowly again, with visible effort. Her barbed sword lay beside her hand, all its faint, lovely, inlaid lines still glowing, actinium-blue. The arm seemed more charred than cut. At least it was bleeding only sluggishly and nowhere else looked badly burned. He was relieved: he would be no use here.
“It would be better for the Empire if you died,” he said, a little late, “but I am not a matriot. Are you hurt anywhere else.”
“Give this to Feferi,” said Vriska, and put something wet and slippery into his palm. He closed his fingers on it reflexively, as it began to slither out again, and a sharp edge nearly cut him; he set his hand down on the floor and opened it again to look. For a second he still didn’t understand. Then Vriska laughed, and the shock went through him. She had cut out the bulge sheath, the bone, the heavy, dusky-dark tentacle, the complex cartilage, all the shining membranes of the nook. She had done it with precision, so as to remove everything of a piece. It must have been difficult, with her wrong hand; it must have taken some while.
Blood, bone, viscera, the jellies of eyes and brains he could step through without flinching, but from this kind of sickness he would have bolted: only she had closed her claws over his with the dead flesh between them and said without arrogance, without irony, without anything but a quiet triumphant tenderness: “Tell her he has paid.”
“Oh,” said Sollux, the last digit keyed in to the lock, and sat back on his filthy heels. “Oh, God.” And suddenly, wretchedly, perhaps coincidentally light-headed, he put his cheek down gently on her armored chest, the fabric above the plating slashed and speckled with little burns and sodden with violet blood, and with blue.
He had just time to observe a heartbeat, rapid and erratic, before there was a distant explosion above them and the block shook. He sat up automatically, and sent blue-and-red sparks along and into the walls and ceiling to scan for damage, which at least for a few blocks in all directions continued chronic rather than acute. How useful danger was; you minded hardly anything. The vertigo had ceased to be a novelty and was now only a complication, tedious, as though safe. Like drunkenness, after the first staggering moment it was as though it had always been.
“You have places to be!” said Vriska, the mockery, faintly, back in her voice. “Hop to.”
“Any other messages?” he said.
“No.” Her hand had relaxed.
“One from me,” he said, and bent and kissed her; a dry, formal kiss, fang pressing fang softly, all the time in the world. “If you see her, say hello.”
In the hall he met one of their two medics and directed him in. He was on the first step of an outside staircase, in the fresh, chill salt air, before he realized what he still had, gripped and dangling, coming apart now of its own weight, in his hand. He dropped the mess into the sea and went down to rinse his hands in the icy water. He ran up the steps lightly and his face was very calm: already he was sending out his traceries, his map, and each point was a dilution of the irrelevant self by infusions of clean intelligence, data for the analyzing. By the top of the stairs he had located every psionic, every transmitting device, every battery and generator within a square kilometer, and he had no personal thoughts at all.
It was dark, even with her eye open, and blurred. The thought struggled through, as her awareness grew, wavered, narrowed and grew again, that she’d been drugged; Fleet post-surgicals, the dubious luxury of which she hadn’t had in sweeps. She turned her face dizzily against the slope of the recuperacoon to confirm that her glasses were missing. There was a chemical taste on her tongue, bitter, inescapable. The sopor was tinted a medicinal blue, slick and oily, and if she moved the vapor of it nearly choked her. She set her fangs and went on moving, in larger increments. The arm was gone to the shoulder now and sealed over with the taut, congealed, waterproof bandaging seadwellers used. She made the mistake of touching it only once. She got her remaining elbow over the edge of the porthole – the recuperacoon was a front-loader, a design she had always found claustrophobic – and made out in the dim windowless blur a table, a door, a lit screen, and a figure with a mass of hair, or a dark cloak, against the glow.
“Feferi,” she said experimentally.
“No such luck,” said Aradia, as Vriska had thought, not turning. “Not rid of you yet, I see.”
“Sitting up gnawing your claws for me?” said Vriska.
Aradia typed several sentences in a transparent display of not giving a fuck, got up, and sat down on the floor before the recuperacoon to unlace her boots. “As a matter of fact, I only woke up an hour ago,” she said, “and I’ve had nothing better to do. But now that you mention it, how about we both go back to sleep.”
“How about you tell me that we won!” said Vriska. “How about you tell me what happened,” and there was a note in this that made Aradia glance up, relenting.
“She’s all right. She’s fine. Of course we won, idiot, or do you think you’d be here? You’re on land. It’s mid-day. Stop thrashing around, or I have been reliably informed you’re going to puke. Sit still.”
She yanked her dress up over her head, spiralled it over a horn, and, tossing it over her shoulder, stuck a bony leg into the sopor. “Ring and Terrors, that’s cold. Move over.”
Vriska waited until Aradia was mostly inside before kicking her; her head went under, and when she came up she was gagging satisfyingly. She knuckled antibiotic sopor out of her eyes, seized Vriska by the shoulders, and stuck her bitter blue-tinted tongue in her mouth in retaliation. They broke off in mutual disgust, three arms sticking out of the porthole, their two bruised and hollowed faces hanging over the rim, spitting and hacking; Vriska heaved a few times but brought nothing up. Then, slumped over the rim, still breathing raggedly, they caught each other’s eye, and began, a little hysterically, to laugh.
“What is in this? God, this is the worst date I’ve ever been on,” managed Aradia after a while. “Don’t get it in your eyes, it stings like hell. Your eye! I forgot. Can I cut off a tit, while you’re at it?” and made a sharp-clawed grab.
“Still have the better set,” said Vriska, half-coughing, half-laughing. “What the fuck is this, I knock off the Prince Regent and all they award me is this scrawny rustlet. There’s probably a ten-caegar prize. How long d’you think you’re going to taste like that? Spit some more and kiss me.”
“Probably forever,” said Aradia. “You should’ve thought of that beforehand. Shut your flap and go to sleep.”
Some moments later, Vriska, who had been to all appearances asleep, stirred and said “Captor.” And Aradia, whom the chill would keep from sleeping for some time yet, said, surprised, “He’s all right. He’ll be low for a few days, and something cut his leg. But he’s fine.” She had the good sense not to be sentimentally touched, though she was tired enough to be in danger of it.
“Mm,” said Vriska, who had meant something else, and struggled out from under Aradia’s arm. She braced her back against the curving wall of the recuperacoon, and put her arm out until her palm was pressed over Aradia’s heart, at the epicenter of the radiating scars. Her hand, long-fingered and broad, nearly spanned the rib-rippled chest. Aradia looked back at her, patient, not especially interested, and Vriska said, as though at an end of artifice:
“Well, is it enough?”
Aradia, who had told herself sweeps ago never to expect the question, parted her lips and thought of Sollux, who would never again touch her without the weight of the endless, drowning, hopeless apology on his claws. Sollux, who had lost most of his interest in the world when Terezi left it, and Karkat, who had lost all.
Terezi, who Sollux had been so certain would come to oppose the laws she held as holy, given time. Terezi, who hadn’t had time. The first person who’d ever kissed her, the most self-contained ghost she’d ever known. Terezi, who had made her own decisions, and who had given them Sijant Maduic.
Tavros, out in the hills with the Wirecutters, shucking onions with his miniscule lusus asleep on one rim of his wheelchair, telling stories, brewing plum wine. The second person who’d ever kissed her, the single happy person she knew.
All the good that could not happen now. All the good that could only happen now. And, looking out steadily from the single half-closed eye, all the savage cleverness, the force of will, the arrogance largely deserved. She had saved Aradia’s life more times than she’d taken it. She had struck in her the first light of cold anger, the kind that burns out all gentleness, the kind that keeps a steady hand. She had damaged everyone Aradia had ever cared for. She had made her the better part of what she was.
“No,” she said, the nearest to pity she had ever been. “I will never forgive you.” She reached out and took Vriska's face in her hand, and moved her thumb over the cracked lips until she got the edge of her claw in a healing seam, and tore. A coiling drop, a cabochon of blue blood. Vriska's eye had closed. The peace, the use there is in a little star of pain, like the piercing point of light gathered through a lens. The warmth that rises in the welt of the whip. “I will never be through with you,” said Aradia, with the softness of threat, “for as long as you live.”
She had been tenuously asleep for a moment before Feferi came in; she had thought that the message she'd sent her, as promised, wouldn't have been received until evening. She opened her eyes when she heard the footsteps, and saw Feferi glance at her, and motion for her not to move or speak. She had a little hard-won islet of warmth in the cold sopor, and a dormant shiver at the base of her spine; she was not about to move. But she looked up in time to see the Empress of Alternia touch Vriska's shoulder, and then feel her touch her own: and see her touch the base of one horn, above the circlet, then the other, and bow her head.