I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Chapter One: An Explanation of Circumstances.
Call me Orphaner.
Several sweeps ago, never mind precisely how long, I finally found myself able, in my solitude, to recline and reflect on my last great voyage into the violaceous sea. I shudder to think what may have become of the majority of my ill-gotten crew, but a crew is replaceable if it falls prey to the myriad misfortunes of the sea. There is nothing so priceless as one's own life.
Perhaps it makes me a bad man, and, aye, perhaps an evil one. The question I ask is: does it matter? Whom does it affect if a few lowbloods die? Or a few highbloods? I question the castes openly, now. No punishment could be worse than my exile. I would welcome death if only it would deign to grace me with its presence.
Every once in a while it so happened, when I was a younger and freer man, that I must have remained ashore for longer a time than I usually preferred (cf. the present.) This was, and is, no doubt due to my unfortunate position as an inferior of the Grand Highblood-- despite my superior blood and breeding. I ask you. In any case, it is during these extended involuntary furloughs that I found myself always itching to be at sea once again. I got anxious whenever my feet touched dry ground instead of the warped, salty boards of the deck of a purloined ship. I am a pirate by trade and a sailor by nature.
That night, that fateful night that would serve as the jumping-off point for so many of my misfortunes, I found myself drawn to the harbour like a moth to a flame it supposes to be the moons; perhaps I, similarly, must needs at times confuse the sea with my emotional satisfaction and fly into it only to dust the powder from my wings and die an early and fiery death. It's a query for better men: a pirate should never seek to occupy himself with matters of the impractical, but of the practical only. Presently I don't consider myself as much of a seafarer as I did then, due mostly to the fact that I am leagues away from my home on a god-forsaken island in the literal middle of nowhere. I may well arrive at a conclusion regarding my sentiments at some point in this narrative.
 Surprisingly, I do have them.
I digress, however, from the main tale at hand.
It was in the middle of the second dark season some ten sweeps ago. I had wandered from settlement to settlement on foot or by hoofbeast for many seasons--drifting always, never quartering myself in one place for too long. I found it unsettling to remain among the common folk with my gills hidden from view and the nature of my blood likewise concealed. I hated to be among the common rubbish, among the warm-blooded ingrates that called land their eternal home. It was an annoyance to me to hide among them-- and only an annoyance. Surely I could have allowed my true caste to be known, if I wanted. Perhaps it is by thinking so casually of such a disguise that I came to realize the meaning of my highblooded privilege in a society as rigidly casted as ours. If anyone of a lower status had attempted to masquerade as a highblood, he would find himself faced immediately with a guillotine or a threshecutioner's thirsty scythe. If any one of them had found himself knee-deep in the very urgent need to pass undetected among his betters, he would be presently relieved of that need. I found the double standard-- that I could hide anywhere I pleased, and they could not-- appealing.
 And his head.
I find it bitterly ironic, now that I am at a safe distance from all the political nonsense. On my island of exile, my own personal world, there are no castes. I and the meager remains of my once-proud fleet are here alone. There is simply no room for a societal system because there is no society to begin with.
But again I must draw attention to that night. It was the twelfth month, never mind what day. I had that familiar itch to smell the air laden with salt and throw a man overboard for questioning my authority. These things are never experienced by mere passengers-- the layabouts of the upper classes. Disgraces, the lot of them. A passenger must pay for the privilege to sail, but a sailor-- aye!-- a sailor is encouraged to prove himself to the sea and compensated for it as well. Simply: a sailor is paid for doing what he does best, but any other seafarer must lighten his pockets for the privilege. My purse and my spirits were running decidedly low, so I knew what I must naturally do.
I arrived in the small port town of Ebonpyre alone, with nary a companion and no money to my name. Ebonpyre. A tiny dot on a map, hardly worthy of the cartographer's attention to begin with. Virtually no crime because everyone knew everyone who wasn't a traveler. Not the type of place I usually liked to hide in. The risk of discovery was great because there was a natural distrust of anyone who hadn't been hatched and raised there. But I hadn't the choice: I was on the run, and had been since I first touched dry land in that season.
The rain was pouring from the sky as though someone had upended a pail in the heavens. I laughed as bitterly as the wind. How improper. Perhaps I, myself, was a disgrace to my class. The Marquise, I would soon learn, loved to make a good show of proving that I was.
I ought to take a moment to digress a little and tell you about the Marquise. She is a harpy of a woman and a Hell of a captain and a horrible thief. Everything bad that has ever happened to me is, most likely, directly related to the surreptitious machinations of her decidedly appealing mind. I hate her. I despise her. It is a joy to me whenever injury befalls her. O, the damnable Marquise! I should love to crush her pretty neck and watch her chitinous spindly fingers twitch as, with her long last rush of air, she whispers to me that our hate surely must have been spelled out in the stars thousands upon thousands of light years away. I can think of nothing preferable to this.
But we shall save the tales of my caliginous intentions for a later time. If the prophecies whispered hushedly about her in the Capital are true, I shan't be the one to cull her, to spill her cobalt slop of blood. There is a young one, yet in the Caverns, that they say will be her pity-mate and her murderer.
We shall see.
Chapter Two: Ebonpyre.
From what I knew of this small town, hardly more than a village, no one whose caste tentatively reached past the middling olive colours ever visited for anything other than census purposes. There were people scurrying about despite the inclement weather. No one seemed to lack the proper display of symbol and caste-- except, of course, for me. I was grateful for the rain, which provided an excuse for my hunched-over, shuffling gait, but I knew I must do something quickly, for any of these sailors and traders could have been another highblood in disguise. I could have been recognized, exposed, at any second.
 It was the only way to hide the admittedly shabby government-issue Fleet uniform I'd pinched off some poor bloke who'd accidentally met his demise at the end of my saber. At least I had an overcoat to lessen my suspicious air, however slightly.
I selected my target from the crowd milling along down the cobblestone high street: an ostensibly yellow-blooded merchant of similar stature and build to myself, if a little more willowy. He'd probably never left the shore. Not too old nor too young. Perhaps his lusus was still living; perhaps not. All that mattered was that he looked anonymous enough. He was to be my mark.
I trailed him until he reached an inn which boasted itself to be The Bent Harpoon. He entered not through the main door, as I had expected. but into an alley formed by the adjacent building. I saw my chance, followed him into the alley, and knocked him to the ground.
"Mouth shut and on your feet, lowblood," I muttered quickly, dragging him to his feet and pinning him against the wall. "Smartly, now, and there'll be no trouble."
"Oh, for fuck's sake. The absolute last thing I needed today." His voice was nasally and rough; the hints of a childhood lisp still clung to his hissed esses. He gave a little kick in struggle. "Fucking ridiculous."
"I said mouth shut, bottom-feeder."
The lowblood snarled and spat. I wanted to kill him, this man I had never met, for daring to transgress my authority. The sea water in my veins was running cold, and my four-chambered collapsing and expanding bladder-based vascular organ was pumping at an unnaturally rapid pace. It had been sweeps and sweeps since I'd carried out a successful ambush, and I was giddier than a greenblood.
I think you already know who's to blame for my recent lack of nefarious activity. She's a one-woman whispering campaign. My reputation as a dangerous highblood unafraid to utilize and occasionally abuse his privilege has gone up in smoke. Thanks to her, they all think I'm a magic-addled idiot who couldn't fill a red quadrant to save his life. 
 Half of which is technically regrettably true. And I don't believe in magic.
"What in the name of her Condescension's ungodly lusus do you want, pirate," the lowblood hissed.
"Information." I paused. He growled. "Information and something to wear. I'm hiding from the minesweepers."
"Ambushing people in alleys is a phenomenal way to remain undetected." Though his tone was still sharp, his face had softened a little. Perhaps he knew a bit about evading the so-called minesweepers: aegisents of the Capital sent out to find fugitives. Was there more to this whiplike merchant than he seemed?
"None of your lip, mate."
"Oh, we're mates now. That's swell."
"The only thing that'll be swelling is your fuckin' lip."
A confident smirk settled onto his face. "Hit me, then."
Given his blood, he was probably a psionic confident enough in his meager abilities to stop me doing anything to him. Well, he was wrong. I obliged him his arrogant request. It wouldn't do to have him think I was all talk and no gratuitous violence. It was, after all, I who was holding him against the wall, not the other way around. It was I who was the highblood. Best to teach him a lesson right away rather than have him getting over-friendly far too quickly. There's nothing quite so abhorrent as a lowblood who thinks he's your equal, either in strength or in cunning. Especially if he's a mindbender.
"Willin' to cooperate now?" The lowblood spat again, this time directly at me. It seemed prudent to interpret this as an answer in the negative. "Aye, then." I delivered a swift kick to his shins along with a sharp jab to his side; he flinched and braced himself against the wall.
"Alright," he said.
"Tell me where I can hide around here. Somebody's symbol I can-- borrow. I can't very well use my own."
The lowblood barked a laugh that sounded too forced. I'd hurt him. Good. "Come into the Harpoon," he said, grudgingly. "I know someone."
Slowly he gathered the things he'd dropped when I'd jumped him and led me into the Bent Harpoon. In a normal case, I would have killed him on the spot. Something told me the reesidents of the Bent Harpoon would quickly have noticed his absence, and then I would be worse off than I had been before. A thin sliver of apprehension snaked about my thoughts, but I bade it go. I could dispatch any number of lowbloods that might have been waiting to ambush me inside. I might have been trembling slightly thanks to the adrenaline rush, but that was that.
 Because of the new bruises, naturally. He was lucky I hadn't broken anything.
To my surprise, it was one of the nicer public houses I'd been in; some old barkbeast lusus dozed in front of a fire place that crackled occasionally as its fuel shifted. Someone's cat-lusus chased a pair of mice, with a wet mouth gaping hungrily for each one. The Harpoon was clean, except for the occasional feather or flea or questionable tuft of matted fur, but that was to be expected in a place where so many travelers passed through. All in all, I was pleased. It would have been my first choice if I'd been offered a choice of places to stay in a town of this size. It was badly-lit and smelled of staled sea water, just like my hive had been when I moved out of it. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn I'd walked into the Corbenic's musty old belowdecks...
But I digress,
The bar itself was made of a wood so dark that I couldn't tell what it was; the only thing I could determine with reasonable certainty was that it was positively ancient. I doubted anyone living had manufactured it-- any land-dweller, at least. It had to be a hundred sweeps old, so stained it was with ale spilt in times of joy and lowblood sea-dogs' tears wept in times of mourning. True to her name, an old, bent harpoon hung above the door to what could only be the kitchen. I noted well to ask about its story later. Something in me loved the thrill of whaling. It was a welcome diversion to the eventual monotony of the ocean. One can only sail the twelve forbidden seas so many times, you know.
I hadn't noticed it right away, but as soon as the yellow-blood and I had stepped over the threshold, everyone had gone terribly silent. Perhaps this was why I'd been forced to move locations so often: I was conspicuous and easily distracted, two details which did not often form a pleasant combination.
"Everyone, welcome a new traveler," my guide said, and the pub erupted in cheers. Mugs were raised and incoherent shouts of welcome were voiced. The lowblood leaned close to my ear and whispered harshly, "Go upstairs; wait by the second door on the left. I'll be up presently. Don't fuck this up."
Having caused him what would soon become significant blood loss and probably having bruised the Hell out of him if no blood was indeed lost visibly, I figured I owed him one instance of insubordination. I didn't say anything as I scurried up the stairs. How appropriate: acting like a rat in nothing less than a den of them.
 The lower castes being predisposed to hemophilia, of course. You haven't lived until you've seen a rustblood bleed out from a tiny nick.
The hallway was lit by curious lamps that seemed to be filled not with whale-oil, as was the custom for port towns, but with something more viscous and coloured with a faint blue tint. The lamps produced a vivid yellow-orange flame that hardly dared to flicker. I'd never seen anything like them before, except in the furthest-flung settlements that clung to the polar ice caps and desert oases of the ill-explored East. They were, then, very out of place in a little town like this. Perhaps they'd been given to the Harpoon as a gift by some traveler. Surely they must have bode no ill omen.
The second door on the left was unadorned, unlike the rest of them, which all bore some symbol or another. A signless door. I hesitated in front of it. My trepidation was not unjustified; above the din of the barroom downstairs, I could hear faint shouts from someone within. A woman, perhaps. Her voice was shrill, and-- no. Two women, both with shrill voices, but one was more urgent than the other. My curiosity nestled up next to the tiny part of myself that told me to turn and run, smothering it in its cradle.
I was just preparing myself to lean closer and eavesdrop when the door burst open. "--And see if I ever do a single fucking thing for you again!" The woman with the urgent voice stomped out of the room and down the hallway, paying no attention to me. Her caste was apparent, for not only was her clothing far less ratty than that of the patrons downstairs-- and even of the unfortunate yellow-blood who was serving as my recalcitrant guide-- it was adorned on the right breast with a single, vibrantly blue symbol that appeared to me to be an M whose rightmost prong tapered sharply into the point of an arrow.
I knew that mark. It belonged to none other than Spinneret Mindfang.
I backed against the wall and tried to make myself look smaller. I don't like arguing with women; I never have found it as enjoyable an activity as quarreling with those of masculine or indiscriminate gender-- simply on virtue of the fact that too often it's I who loses the argument with a lady. Whenever Her Imperious Condescension deigns to visit and taunt me on my little islet, though I desire to explain to her just precisely how wrong she is on every count, I hold my tongue. Her presence inspires in me something akin to common sense. If I were to lose my temper around her, she'd see that the damned juggling cult would have my head for one of their blasphemous juries.
 Especially this one.
 Such are the benefits of having an entire galaxy under your thumb.
When the woman in blue, my eternal nemesis, had gone, the door to the room hung open. There was a quiet sob from inside, then the sound of something glass shattering against the wall.
I knew I shouldn't, but temptation got the best of me.
"Miss?" I called, stepping through the door. Over the shards of glass on the floor.
A woman in a vibrant (and probably illegal) red jacket sitting behind a mahogany desk that rather dwarfed her. A dragon-headed cane resting against the desk. Empty bottles, some of them with stubby candles inside, piled atop a bureau half-arsedly crammed in a corner. Nooses nailed to the walls in a macabre attempt at décor.
My skills of deduction told me the neophyte legislacerator had been double-crossed by the treacherous spider-woman. It was a classic tale of betrayal and mistrust. I'd seen it play out a thousand times; mutinies quelled, uprisings crushed like so many unfortunate arachnids under the boot-heel of my tyrannical Marquise.
 Rudimentary, at best. As a highblood and a sea-dweller I was afforded the privilege of being supremely ignorant of the subversive nature of our culture. Frankly, it paid to be at least nominally ignorant of things that would pass right over the head of, say, a middle-blood. We were compensated for turning a blind eye to the counterculture. I can't wait until it costs us again.
How I hated her.
"Who the Hell are you," the legislacerator snarled.
"She didn't mention me?" I picked up one of the bottles on the bureau and set it down again. "Odd, that."
"How do you know the Marquise? I should have your head on a platter for intruding."
"Spinneret is my kismesis."
The legislacerator looked up at me and removed her opaque eyeglasses, designed to block the light of the sun should a courtblock case last through the night. "Yeah, right." She brushed her hair out of her face. She'd been crying; her cheeks were stained teal and her dark lipstick was smeared. Her eyes, I saw, were as red as her illegal jacket.
 Also red.
I wondered if she'd mutilated herself, or if someone else had done it in an attempt at a caliginous appeal. I felt a bright flash of jealousy as I wondered if the Marquise might have done it. "A blind legislacerator wearing red," I said. "You must be none other than Neophyte Xollmise Redglare."
"Commodore Orphaner Dualscar," the legislacerator said, her voice colouring with bitter pleasure as she regained her composure commendably. A grin graced her sharp features. "I knew something smelled like shit. You've quite a reputation, Orphaner. I really ought to have your head." Licking her lips. Smiling. All teeth.
"Why am I here?" I said.
"Mercutio sent you."
"That's his name? I kicked the Hell out of him in a back-alley. Presently he's bleedin' out downstairs."
"Oh, he'll have stemmed the bleeding by now." She chuckled to herself. "And as for you: not awfully kind to lowbloods, are you?"
"And you?" I asked. "Twelve gutterbloods disposed of in the past week."
She grinned so big I thought her face might split. "You noticed," Redglare said. Then: "If Merc sent you then you need to hide from something. Someone, perhaps. Am I wrong?"
"Not as such, but--"
"Who is it? The Grand Highblood? The Demoness?"
"The Demoness is a myth."
"That's what they said about the Sufferer."
Instinctively, I shushed her.  In most places I'd been, there were spies. Eyes and ears and eager minds, just waiting to blow the whistle and get the Imperial dogs baying and snapping at your trail. This was a lowblood town and I was an outsider. Everyone was a spy, as far as I was concerned.
 I wasn't necessarily a believer, myself, but as previously stated, ignorance was bliss. Or at least it kept you out of a courtblock. I made a hasty mental check that all of my pendants were in order and none of them were peeking out of the collar of my ill-fitting clothing.
"I need a ship," I said. "A ship and a symbol to wear until I get to sea."
"I know a traveler who has a list of symbols they don't use anymore."
"It'll cost you, of course," the Neophyte said, rising from the chair like a blue-green goddess rising from the foamy sea. "A pirate like you, I can't go just giving things away." She took up her cane and smiled at the dragon's head impaled upon it like a public display of slain prisoners of war. Everything about the sharp angles of her body spelled danger; she was a siren luring a ship off-course for nothing but the pleasure of watching it be dashed against the rocks by the capricious violet sea.
Then she relaxed. Her angles looked softer, suddenly. She looked up at me and said, "There's a fable around here; they tell it to wigglers-- the older ones looking after the younger ones, I mean. Before their lusus pick them. Or rejects."
 She was barely taller than a newly-molted youngling. I wondered how old she was-- ten, eleven sweeps? And that was being generous. Indeed, her status of neophyte may have been related to her age rather than her level of experience, for she was the best legislacerator the Capital had ever seen.
What was she talking about, I wondered. What could this poor drunk wretch of a neophyte legislacerator be getting at, telling me a children's story in the middle of the night and asking a payment of me for information I hadn't even received yet?
"They say there's a great white whale, some old abandoned lusus. The troll died a hundred sweeps ago and the poor thing-- it went mad. Mad with grief. And it started wanting revenge on its charge's killer-- or at least what it thought was its charge's killer. It smote ships and destroyed boats and no one who ever went looking for it came back.
"But this is only a story!" She interrupted herself, doing a rather bad mockery of my voice in the process. "To stop the young ones wandering too close to the sea."
"Ah, so they say," the Neophyte continued. "But I've seen it. I've been on excursions with Spinneret and flown over the ocean on Pyralspite-- that's my lusus-- and I've seen it. I've smelled the salt-spray coming off its tail and I've tasted the sharp white barnacles clinging to its belly. Don't presume, Orphaner, to tell me this is only a story."
I couldn't stand to be shown up by a lowblood, especially a lowblood wearing red. Nothing quite aroused my disgust as much as this. "Maybe I've seen it too," I bluffed. "When I was younger."
She looked me up and down, then smirked. "You? You aren't a day over thirty sweeps. Hardly out of the caverns yourself. The Capital wouldn't send you anywhere near it. No, you aren't quite so replaceable yet." She shrugged. Her voice took on a sickly sweet tone. "Besides, this is only a myth, as you said. The whale isn't necessarily real."
"Necessarily," I snapped.
"I can get you a crew, Orphaner. A ship. A symbol, a name, a purpose. All you have to do for little old me is find that whale," Redglare said.
"I'll find your damned whale."
In time, I would have no idea the repercussions of what I'd just agreed to. For now, though, it meant the three things that I'd come to expect of my sojourns in these strange seaside towns: relative safety, a bed, and a new diversion until the drones came looking for me again.
Chapter Three: The Green Woman.
I descended the oaken staircase, not bothering to wait upstairs until the yellow-blood came looking for me, wary that the Marquise might still be lurking behind any corner or influencing anyone as her own personal marionette, specifically designed by her dangerous mind to blend in and report back to her with any information she might be able to use-- or, barring its usefulness, that she might be able to sell. I doubted that she'd seen just who was outside the door when she'd stormed down the hallway, so fervent was her rage against the neophyte. It was uncharacteristic of her, though, to allow herself to be seen without knowing precisely who was skulking about. She had enemies, myself included. She must have known, through whatever means, that I was here.
 Not that I was skulking.
I found my yellow-blooded companion at the bar staring into a translucent tankard of something honey-colored. He must have heard me, or otherwise sensed my presence, despite the ambient din of the bar, for he snapped his head up to meet my eye as I tried to slide quietly onto the barstool beside him.
"Mercutio," I said, "is it?" I sat upon the barstool anyway. Let no man say that I am easy to dissuade.
"You've met Xollmise." He paused. "Someone else, too. No--" he barked, somehow sensing that I was about to interrupt and ask how, exactly, he knew the Marquise. "That someone has Ebonpyre in the palm of her hand. Spies all 'round. Don't say anything."
 So my suspicions were justified.
I didn't want to talk abut the legislacerator, nor about her connections to the object of my eternal distaste, nor about what I was doing here. It seemed best, then, to redirect the conversation by whatever tactic necessary. "Why are you helping me?" I asked. A convenient change of subject.
"You don't care," the yellow-blood said. "Highbloods don't, as a rule. They take everything for granted and never, ever bother asking why."
"Oh, don't think for a second that I'm some ivory-tower violet idiot unconcerned with the plight of the lower classes."
"You say that to everyone," Mercutio said flatly. "Don't try to backpedal and say you don't. You reek of pity right now." He took a drink. "And I'm not interested, so don't bother. I'm aquadratic."
I scooted my barstool away ever so slightly. I liked to think I was a little more subtle than to be called out immediately on my scarlet attempts-- but apparently not. Very well. If he was uninterested I would simply have to try harder until he was.
"I'm helping you because you're laughably transparent, by the way," he said.
"What?" If what the neophyte had told me about this man's psionic abilities were true, then perhaps it wasn't any use asking this. If he was a telepath, I was potentially an open book. I turned away ever so slightly.
Mercutio tilted his head at me and looked into my eyes. I was unnerved, but if this was some kind of test of who would flinch away first, I did not intend to come out the loser.
I took the opportunity to study him a little more carefully than I had in the street and the alley. His face was long and squarish with a heavy brow and eyes ringed with the tell-tale bruises characteristic of one who spends far too much time awake. One of his irises was a tealish-blue, and the other a bold red that no doubt would have appealed to the scarlet-decked legislacerator upstairs. Perhaps these odd colors were to be naturally attributed to his unique skill, or perhaps he simply liked the aesthetic and wore contact lenses for cosmetic purposes.
 Absently I wondered if there might be anything between them. A moirallegiance, perhaps. But no, he'd said he was aquadratic. Possibly they were simply in cahoots. I dared to entertain for a moment the thought of something more concupiscent. Let no one claim I don't entertain every possibility, even the impossible ones.
His horns were four in number, unlike the usual pair that most everyone had. They were arranged so that one pair was nearer his forehead and the other, his temples. The smaller, more frontal ones seemed to almost branch from the bases of the larger, as if they hadn't quite managed to split all the way while he was still pupating. All four horns were identical in shape: long, sharp, solid prongs, with no curves or hooks at their points, but with a slight inward bend at their middles.
His clothing was decent and fit well for a merchant of his caste; it might have even been tailored. It were slightly disheveled and damp in places as a result of his fall in the alley. He'd done his best to remove most of the mud, and the effort showed. There was a bright yellow patch on his upper arm, proclaiming his symbol: what appeared to be a classical numeral II.
He blinked. I considered it a win on my part.
"You aren't nearly as treacherous as you think you are, violet-blood," he said, flippantly. "You play at it to keep the Marquise coming after you because you love the thrill of her. You like flirting with the trouble she causes you. But you yourself aren't even as dangerous as a six-sweep wiggler recovering from an ill-advised spoor addiction. Ordinarily you wouldnt hurt anyone unless you had to. You're afraid they'll hurt you back-- oh, you're weak for a highblood, aren't you? Afraid of violence but in love with danger: a combination that makes your motives and aspirations very, very clear."
"You forget that I handed your arse to you in the alley."
"You think I couldn't have stopped you if I wanted to? Besides, I was ambushed."
"You keep touting this psychosis--"
"--This psionics of yours. Let's see it in action."
It probably wasn't the best thought-out thing I'd ever done, but then, as he'd said, I did like getting close enough to the metaphorical fire that I could feel it beginning to lick at the hem of my cape.
He snorted indignantly and pushed his tankard between us. "Watch this," he said.
He proceeded to focus his disconcerting bicolored gaze on the mug. Presently its outline been to flicker with the same red and blue of his odd eyes. It trembled and rocked wildly; the liquid inside came close to spilling. It rose a few inches off the bar and hovered there. Within half a minute it was glowing solidly, alternating red and blue, flickering like a candle but giving off no heat; another ten seconds, and suddenly, with a shattering sound, the whole arrangement imploded. Where the tankard had been was a small heap of glass fragments. It seemed as though it took a moment for the liquid in the air to remember what gravity was; there was a short delay between the breaking of the mug and the sloshing of the drink to the battle-scarred bartop.
"A party trick," I said, dismissively. "I've seen better from limeblood circus freaks."
Mercutio glared at me, his eyes smoking slightly. "I'll show you something more impressive later," he said.
I didn't have half a second to wonder if it was a black taunt because the heavy oaken door swung open and banged against the wall. The wind and rain howled outside like a hungry monster.
A short, stout woman in a tattered shawl and leggings that may have been green once burst through the door with a jubilant shout of greeting. She was carrying a greasy, irregularly-shaped bundle. The cat-lusus I'd seen earlier tackled her the moment she managed to shut the door against the bitter wind outside. "Pounce!" she squealed, giggling, rolling around on the rug with her lusus. The greasy sack lay by the door, forgotten. "Pounce de Smilodon, my old friend!"
I snickered. How classless. "Tell me, Mercutio: do you always let feral beasts into the Harpoon?"
"You'd have to take that up with Jadevein," Mercutio said, snidely. "That damn cat won't live anywhere else."
 An explanation of the experssion, for those unfamiliar with it: legend had it that Jadevein was a grubmaid-turned-rainbow-drinker who'd lived with the Sufferer in the desert when he was still known as the Signless. Not that I was an expert on the mythology. Nowadays, telling someone to 'take it up with Jadevein' meant that you were disinterested yet incredulous at what'd they suggested. It was an irreverent invitation to get bitten by a Drinker, effectively.
"I refer," I said, "to the woman."
Mercutio's fist met the bar with a heavy, angry thump. "Cattaria is a lovely girl!"
"All I meant was that she could use an ablution."
Suddenly, the woman called Cattaria stopped rolling and giggling with her lusus. She settled into a crouch and observed everyone in the room. Her ears flicked forward and her nose twitched. Her eyes scanned the room until they settled on-- me. 
Well, naturally. I was, of course, the most interesting sight in the room. Whether or not this was a bad thing is still a point of contention between me and the other few residents of my isle.
I swallowed the lump of anxiousness that I was unaware had been forming in my throat. The woman stood and strode purposefully towards me. Her large teeth were bared, her harelip contorted in a snarl.
Mercutio laughed softly. "You fucked up."
"Who do you think you are, milord highblood?" The way she said the word was an accusation, not a token of respect. She was shorter in stature than even the young Redglare, but less angular and more generous about the middle. She looked almost threatening. I would have found it easier to take her seriously if two things had been true: that she were taller, and that she were of a higher caste than mere olive.
I realised, though, that I had no idea what to say to placate her, and that my yellow-blooded companion wasn't likely to lend any sort of hand. He seemed more amused than anything.
I felt my gills flare in a manner most characteristic of the state of feeling threatened; although I tried not to appear offended by her petty remark, my body betrayed me. I drew in a deep breath and arranged my words carefully. I stood, straightened my shoulders, and said, "I, girl, am Orphaner Dualscar, scourge of the twelve seas, purveyor of fine treasures, agent of the Empire, and your superior by nature of the violet ichor that colors my veins."
It was a heady declaration, to be sure. Anyone in the Capital or on the flagship would have known that now was the time to step down, that I was deathly serious and prepared to defend my honor at the point of my thirsty sabre. Out of the corner of my good eye I saw Mercutio stifle a snicker. I made a note to later remove-- through whatever means necessary-- his proclivity for snark.
The woman Cattaria blinked in dumb surprise for a moment, then bared her teeth in a sort of half-smile, half-threat. "Tongue like that, it's no wonder they gave you the boot!" she said, her hands on her considerable hips. Her scraggly lusus dragged itself to its feet and rubbed affectionately against her legs. "Welcome to the Harpoon, Orphaner. If you say anything else about me or my house I'll cut your fucking throat." She smiled wider than I had ever thought possible, her harelip curling up under her button nose, then turned on her heel and went to collect the bundle she'd dropped by the door.
I suddenly understood nothing, and I was certain it showed. The only thing with a mouth that gaped wider than mine at that precise moment was probably a certain type of Imperial ship that was designed for the express purpose of gobbling up asteroids in order to extract their mineral resources.
But I again digress.
Mercutio smirked the biggest smirk I'd seen from him yet. I wanted to punch him again, and again, and possibly a third time just to get the point across.
"Lucky she likes you, mate," he said. He turned back to the bar and I followed suit. "Poor girl's been awfully bitter since her matesprit got done in."
"Done in?" I had to admit, I was curious. No one used that kind of language, especially not lowbloods, who were naturally more prone to early death, unless they were talking about an assassination. What sort of large-scale thing could this woman, so small of statue, have done that would have merited a governmentally sponsored bounty hunt?
Mercutio's ears perked up, but he looked apprehensive nonetheless. "Tell you later," he said, almost conspiratorially. I was just preparing to ask why when Cattaria bounded up behind us. I was reluctant to address her; thankfully she saved me the trouble and counted on Mercutio to intercede.
"Merc," she said, holding the greasy bundle like a grubmaid tends a grub. "He's talked to Xollmise, right?"
"Yes. And she's been here as well." He grinned, showing long canine teeth I hadn't noticed before. "Thank god she somehow managed not to see him." The way he said she made me think of all the times I'd spoken of her to my companions before I was discharged from the Imperial Navy. And come to think of it, I was a little uneasy about the fact that the Marquise, damn her, had somehow walked right past me.
The logical conclusion was that there was something the yellow-blood was keeping from me. That was, of course, unacceptable. My long list of reasons for disliking him was growing ever longer. I amended my previous resignation to interest him in the red quadrant and decided instead to attempt a more caliginous approach. If the Marquise would not have me, perhaps I should sample a more lowblooded fare to spite her.
Cattaria smiled broadly. "Anyway, let's get the fish some clothes, maybe a room later, and we'll put him to work tomorrow."
Again she bounded away, leaving me, clueless, with the psionic. I knew from past experience that it did no good to dwell on the motives of those wily members of the feminine gender, so I mercifully put an end to that train of thought that so meekly inquired that perhaps I should wonder about what the intent of this lowblood woman truly was. Frankly, I found it more prudent to wonder about the lowblood man.
Mercutio had since acquired a new mug of the honey-colored drink that matched his blood almost perfectly. He was chatting with the bartender, leaving me to stare, bewildered, into the pub's crowd. Cattaria was nowhere to be found. I decided then and there not to underestimate her any further. She was obviously attuned to the art of urban camouflage, or at least the art of hiding herself from highbloods. For all I knew she was sitting among the thieves playing dice in a corner table, or among the scarred and imposing butchers at the end of the bar. Best not to find out.
The tattered fringes of my common sense urged me to leave this place and never come back. It told me fervently that they would find me-- that no matter where I hid, they would find me. But my stubborn pride allowed me not a moment of rest in my frantic flight from all those who would see me strung up and shot throw with an executioner's fiery arrows. If, then, I was doomed to a life of flight, the prospect of a gilless life on the ground was not half as appealing as that of a life aboard a whaling ship, but if the latter did not present itself to me, and soon, I felt I was quite doomed to the former.
 And to leave it a smoldering cinder, collateral damage be damned.
This particular thought-- of the loss I must have endured regardless of whether it was ashore or at sea-- had occurred to me many times before. Something told me it was the heavy influence of Her Condescension impressing itself upon my will. I would not obey it. I would die before I would obey it. And it was for such reason, alas, that I found myself in Ebonpyre.
When the psionic had concluded his conversation with the bartender, he turned his odd-eyed gaze again to me. It was still just as disconcerting as it had been a few minutes ago. "Tell me, Orphaner," he said, "did you tell Redglare you'd help her?"
It struck me as odd that he would ask such a thing: more likely than not, he already knew. "The whale is real, isn't it?" I asked. I did not intend to be taken for a fool if it wasn't. If, perhaps, I appealed with all honesty and frankness to my psychic companion that he rescue me from the neophyte's rosy stare, perhaps he might find in his heart to assist me.
Mercutio barked a laugh. "Oh, it's real. It's real and it's dangerous. I'm just not so sure it's the kind of danger you're looking for."
Well, if it was his intention to ensnare me in a net woven of the promise of adventure-- and more importantly, of the sea-- then he had me. I was officially intrigued.
 And perhaps even of himself. I wouldn't object.
"Come, then," he said, rising from his seat and resting his slender hand on my shoulder. "We can discuss it further somewhere else."
Chapter Four: A Metamorphosis, Of Sorts.
That grand staircase was becoming a large and frequent feature of my evening. Mercutio refused to tell me just where it was we were going, but only that it was up the stairs and then up yet more stairs. I hadn't noticed a second staircase during my short sojourn in the corridor; perhaps I had simply been distracted by the presence of the despicable Marquise, or perhaps it was hidden behind a false panel in the wall.
The ingenuity of lowbloods when it comes to secrecy will never fail to amuse and impress me. Highbloods are never so covert about the inner workings of their lives; should one so desire to underhandedly ruin them, it is only as simple as convincing their companions, through rumors or the truth, that they have committed some great social sin. Lowbloods, conversely, are often culpable of keeping secret what they had for breakfast on the grounds that it might incriminate them.
"Turn around," my companion said, when we had reached the end of the hall. It was then that I was certain there must have been a secret switch or level for drawing back a panel or opening a chamber in the wall or ceiling. I was clearly not meant to know the location of this lever.
"I don't normally take commands like than from landdwellers, let alone lowbloods, you know," I said, but I heeded his suggestion anyway. I understood completely that he needed more reason to trust me; childish as it was, I had, after all, attacked him for no truly good reason. Anyone would likely be a little suspicious. It was my presumption that he was only tolerating me now due to Cattaria's insistence that I should have a room in the Harpoon.
I stared down the corridor for a moment as something mechanical whirred and clunked behind me.
"Alright," Mercutio said. I turned to see that a ladder or staircase of sorts had descended from the ceiling.
"Impressive," I said, but I had seen better. Some of the things the Empire's engineers had built could make this look like a wiggler's toy. The Marquise's metallic arm, for one, had been constructed on short notice by one of the former favorite mechanexecutioners of the Condesce herself, and its beauty was such that it nearly outstripped its function.
 Former because he'd been exiled after failing to execute someone properly. I had been present at this botched execution and I can tell you he was only sacked because he was sweating too much to handle his bow properly. In his defense, the accused was a decidedly gorgeous brownblood with doe eyes and eyelashes that nearly brushed her cheekbones. He had a bit of a fetish for the lowbloods, the old executioner did.
For having been built by lowbloods, though, with Imperially-regulated supplies, the contraption in the ceiling was indeed impressive.
"Up you go," Mercutio said, gesturing towards the folding staircase. "Wait at the top once you get up there."
I did as he instructed and ascended.
 Because it was sensible, not because I was eager to listen to him.
The uppermost level of the Bent Harpoon boasted a hallway almost identical to the one I'd just come from. I didn't have long to look around; Mercutio was quick to come up the ladder. I did not know if he'd followed me up rather than leading because he was trustful or because he was distrustful. Neither would really have surprised me, but I surmised it was likely due to the latter that I had been shoved up the study ladder at psionics-point. If I were the first to ascend, there was no way I could turn back without causing a commotion, and both of us were eager to remain undetected.
"Impressive, huh?" Mercutio asked, drawing up the hatch in the floor by means of a pulley. "Built it myself. Constantly improving it."
"You're a machinist?" I made no effort to hide my surprise. A scrawny thing like him, a machinist? How did he manage to lift the parts? Surely he wasn't a strong enough psionic to lift more than ten or twenty pounds.
He shrugged, though he was clearly flattered by my surprise at his capability. "My great love is information systems. Libraries, or the massive calculation machines they have in the Fleet. But I can move parts about with my mind. It's no big thing. Three-dimensional exploded diagrams..." He let the rest of the sentence die on his lips with a wistful sigh.
Of course. I was not truly accustomed to psychics of any sort; the notion that physical force need not be applied in order to manouevre objects in physical space was novel to me. Even as the Marquise rigged her dice to favor whatever number she most desired, I had not thought that perhaps she was doing so psychically rather than tampering with the dice beforehand. This did explain quite nicely her proclivity for cleaning out all the hellfire clubs she deemed worthy of her presence. If only I could report her to someone with authority over those with mental talents-- if only! Then her ruin would be certain, and I would be her ruiner.
But the Marquise did not deserve the honorable position of being the focus of my thoughts presently. "What else can you do with your mind?" I wondered aloud. I hadn't meant to say so, in all honesty. That was one thought that I never intended to voice. But the psionic took it with great amusement.
"All sorts of things," he said, smiling darkly. The points of his fangs peeked out over his bottom lip. "Of which I'm certain you, highblood, desire a demonstration." Smirking, he rested his hands on his hips and cocked his head at me. "Am I wrong?"
I couldn't help reeling at the rapid manner in which his interest had so fully shifted from awe and admiration of the computers of the Fleet to what may have been the creeping tendrils of some sort of romantic intent towards me. The stutter I'd toiled long hours to suppress as a youngling reared its head for the first time since I'd met the Marquise. "W-well, I d-daresay--"
Mercutio laughed. "Perhaps," he said, still with his characteristic smirk. "But for now, you ought to get some different clothes. You stick out like a redblood in church. Speaking of, Xollmise is giving a presentation on the Mirthful Messiahs in a bit up the road. We'll be attending."
"We'll be attending?" I asked, incredulous. "Do correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't lowbloods, you know, on rather bad terms with--?"
Mercutio rolled his eyes and opened one of the doors, marked simply with the numeral 6, further down the hall. "Get in here, we'll find something that fits you."
It was clear to me that this lowblood I'd become acquainted with was not exactly the most knowing of his place in the haemospectrum. Whether it was of import or not depended almost entirely upon his reaction to the way I handled his request.
"Why should I? I could have your entire operation here shut down in the blink of one of your miscolored eyes, yellowblood. What reason have I for continuing to allow you to overstep your bounds and command me as you've been doing?"
He laughed. "Because as far as I know, I'm saving your fucking pathetic life. Get in there."
I got in there, too stunned to offer any objection.
I'd never been spoken to like that in my entire life-- at least not by anyone except the Grand Highblood himself, and I wasn't about to offer objection to him lest my head wind up on a pike before the courtblocks.
He was right, though, Mercutio. We stood at opposite ends of mutually assured destruction should one one of us have chosen to do anything about the other being rather disagreeable. I could have absconded from Ebonpyre at the first opportunity and sought audience with the Highblood on the grounds that there were blasphemers about. But he could have sent for the Marquise and all her flock of gamblignats, and then I would have been food for the many lusus and trolls of the sea whose brethren I, in my youth, had disposed of by means of feeding them to the Condesce's great tentacled caretaker, and who surely held a grudge against their Orphaner.
It was not a pleasant situation.
Mercutio seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion as I, and so kept his mouth tightly closed as he showed me into the room. He shut the door behind us.
The room into which I'd been ungracefully ushered was full to the rafters with clothing upon clothing. Costumes of all kinds decorated the chamber; someone who lived at the Harpoon must have been an actor or appreciator of costumes. I could spy the clothes of merchants (which Mercutio was seeming less and less to be as time went on), and the clothing of legislacerstors and ruffiannihilators, and the clothing of burlesque dancers and barmaids and of the everyday man.
"Pick something, quick. Church clothes if you can. We can come back later if you're not over-fond of what you pick, and I can alter it if it doesn't fit. Just try to find a color and stick with it."
"You're a tailor as well?"
He hesitated for a moment, then laughed. "I'm a jack of many trades." The emphasis he put on the word many made something in my spine shiver. I could feel my chest gills gasping for water. I swallowed the lump in my throat and squared my shoulders.
I began to walk down the rows of racks and armoires and crates and chests, peering into each for a time and then moving on to the next. I found myself utterly amazed by the sheer amount of vestment. "I've scarcely seen so much clothing all at once in my life," I loudly declared, thumbing through a rack of robes that had probably once been intended for traveling mages but now only seemed to serve as homes for tiny moth-grubs. "And I've lived in the capital."
"Everything in here's Cattaria's," Mercutio called."She inherited them from her matesprit, I think."
"How interesting." I moved past a box overflowing with mismatched gloves of all kinds. I wondered briefly what caste the woman's mysterious matesprit must have belonged to to have amassed such a quantity of anything, be it clothing or something more trivial. Was he a stately blueblood dipping greedily yet lovingly into the untapped vastness of the verdant classes? Or perhaps one of lower blood lucky enough to have a generous highblooded moirail? Most likely all my thought on the subject would prove to be in vain: Mercutio had deemed the subject of Cattaria's deceased matesprit to be nothing short of taboo, and so taboo it would remain.
By chance, while winding my way through the clothing room, I happened upon an outfit that so stuck my fancy that I was unable to take my eyes off it. It was brilliantly black and seemed to sparkle in the dim light, the way a raven's feathers scintillate in the light of the twin moons in their orbits. It bore no great decoration save for a small patch of glossy green damask brocade at the throat of its high Mandarin collar and a mark that resembled a musician's instruction of fermata upon the left breast and again on a patch on the left shoulder. The trousers of this outfit repeated the damask motif in a darker green than was visible on the shirt's dazzling collar. No shoes were present in close proximity, but my boots were nondescript enough to serve as footwear for almost any outfit.
So stricken was I by this garment that I let out a cry. Mercutio took no great hurry in appearing at my side, likely preferring to think that I had been crushed by one of the great piles of discarded clothing that stood like pillars among the better-preserved articles.
When the psionic finally arrived, he surveyed the garments from top to bottom and said, "Thank god they fit. Now put them on."
I stood silent for a few moments trying to puzzle out what he meant before I realized that he intended that I should put them on then and there.
 I was hardly the most modest of seadwellers but I did like to think I was rather above stripping to my skivvies in front of god and everyone.
"Performance anxiety, eh?" Mercutio asked, grinning.
"I've had quite enough of your bloody cheek, mate," I said, kneeling to unlace my boots so that I might have an easier time of removing my trousers.
"Fuck's sake, how do you all get on doing things so slowly?" Mercutio muttered, rubbing his temples as though plagued with a headache. "You unbutton; I'll do the boots."
I hadn't noticed before the great number of buttons on the shirt of the Imperial uniform, but once it had been pointed out, I could scarcely cease noticing. My fingers stumbled over the tiny buttons of bleached white bone; out of childish nervousness at the proximity of the yellowblood or out of the cold of the room, I didn't care to know. I sat upon a stool that Mercutio had carefully dragged out from under a precariously sitting chest of garter belts; he rifled through the chest and untied my boots with his psionics.
He made short work of the boots, but I was having difficulty with the sheer number of buttons on the damned shirt. I couldn't recall having had this much difficulty putting it on, but then I hadn't been under the same kind of stress as presently. There is something quite different about finding oneself free from the laughsassins and walking headfirst into a bevy of them.
 Almost distressingly so. I wasn't sure to be impressed at his enthusiasm or revolted at the probable fact that he'd unlaced all sorts of boots and corsets in his time. And he must have been half my age, if not less. It was embarrassing.
 Namely, I was rather more arrogant when I thought I was finally free of those gleeful thugs.
"Let me do those," Mercutio said, affecting that same half-concerned voice he'd picked up in the alley when I told him I needed a place to keep my head out of the snipers' crosshairs for a while.
I rolled my eyes but consented. If he wished to have me naked and at his mercy, by god, I would not be the one to stop him.
It was a singularly strange sensation to have my buttons undoing themselves. I'd never experienced anything quite like it, and I was sure the psionic could tell. I was both in awe that Nature could have gifted any class of people with such a gift and annoyed that she had chosen the lower classes.
I was sure I had set a record for the quickest time spent removing a Fleet uniform. Mercutio smirked as the heavy garment slid off my shoulders. I shivered. The room was not as warm as the barroom downstairs; I could hear the wind whistling against the windows and very nearly shaking the rafters.
"Cold?" he asked, holding up for scrutiny the green garment I'd selected. He nodded, deeming it appropriate.
"Yes," I admitted.
"We can fix that," he said, looking up at me through his eyelashes. I would never get used to those eyes.
I swallowed, hard. "You don't mean to suggest--"
"Maybe I do and maybe I don't. Guess you'll have to be patient. Trousers off, and on with these ones."
It was no use inquiring further as to exactly what he had meant; he did not seem the type to give any ground one way or another when it came to matters of the quadrants. I finished dressing, dodging carefully his alternately concerned and derisive remarks about the scarsthat decorated my skin, the gills nestled in my sides, and the Marquise's cerulean symbol branded upon my shoulder. This last he took great pleasure in mocking.
 Neither was I. And I was beginning to suspect he'd been lying about being aquadratic.
 'Gifts' from someone whose identity you should be quite sure of by now.
As I finished buttoning the high collar of my new attire, he with his psionics tied my boots with the ease that comes of practicing one's gift on a daily basis. I grinned bitterly. "If I hadn't seen what you were capable of, Mercutio, I'd have you lick them as well."
"Yes, and then you'd be picking bits of your teeth off the floor." He leaned casually against an armoire of dark wood.
"My point precisely." I smoothed down the front of my shirt. "How do I look?"
 Not that I cared about his opinion.
"You look much better in green than in that horrid gray thing," he said. I felt my face flush as a stammered a graceless thank you.
Mercutio rolled his eyes and began to navigate out of the jungle of racks and crates, dressing tables and piles of scrap cloth, busted-up sewing machines and dry-rotted dressmakers' mannequins. I followed silently; I had overlooked the need to memorize a path out of the cavernous room. A tactician I was not.
When we had reached the small clearing, a vestibule of sorts, near the door to the hallway, Mercutio advised me that we would need to visit the neophyte again before any of us left for her sermon. When I inquired as to the reason for this, he merely smirked.
"Why?" I asked again. I couldn't imagine what might cause a need to visit the legislacerator when we were only going to see her again in a short matter of time.
He rolled his eyes, and with a sigh, reached for my face and dragged his thin, warm fingers along my cheek until they ruffled my gill slits. I found myself shivering again, though not from the cold.
Biting my lip in frustration, I took hold of his hand and removed it from my face. "Use words, yellowblood," I said.
He tucked his hands into his pockets. His manner was not sheepish, but proud. "Never seen a greenblood with gills before."
He was right. I pressed my own fingers to the gills on my neck and wondered how I hadn't noticed them before. The membranous, ragged filaments that protected them were vibrantly violet and certainly stood out against the opalescent black of my new garment, especially compared to the dull, anonymous gray of the uniform I'd shed. How odd, to be a somebody again, even if I had to hide under a green banner rather than my rightful purple one.
"She knows how to get rid of that kind of thing, or at least how to make people not notice. She fudges evidence all the time. So we're popping in before we head down the church."
I made a note not to ask any more stupid questions at the risk of being proven less intelligent than a nobody yellowblood.
We were about to activate and descend the hidden staircase when Mercutio held his arm out to stop me. I was going to advise him again to use words, but he put a finger to his lips to keep me quiet.
He knelt to to floor above the hatch and pressed his ear to it. I felt my posture-- arms crossed over chest, decidedly objecting facial expression-- indicated he should not advise me to do the same, and thankfully that was precisely what it indicated. After a moment, he rose to his feet again. He tapped me on the shoulder which bore the Marquise's tattooed seal, highlighting it with his psionics, and I understood: we could not descend because the woman had returned.
I desired nothing more than to burst in upon her and exact my revenge for the thousand injuries she'd committed upon me, but I knew my companion would not be pleased. The attic was secret for reasons I was not yet privy to, and it would not look good if I were to betray the little trust I'd been shown.
"What shall we do?" I whispered.
"Nothing to do but wait," he replied, sitting on the floor. I sat as well. If it was as he said-- if the damned woman were waiting, spiderlike, just below us-- then waiting would be greatly preferable to walking into her web like a fly drunk on self-confidence.
There were probably a million things I would rather have done than pass the time on the floor of a dubiously reputable establishment with a lowblood of questionable romantic availability, but yet that was exactly what I was doing. I was a prisoner to fate, as far as making some sort of entertainment out of this was concerned.
"Remember how she didn't notice you," Mercutio said, suddenly but quietly, "when you were going up to Redglare's room the first time?"
I remembered, and I told him as much. It had only been perhaps an hour ago. My watch had stopped working weeks ago; I had only a little inkling of how much time had passed. Surely it couldn't be that far into the night.
"I did that," he said, snickering proudly.
Leave it to a lowblood to boast about his skill but do nothing to help himself with it. "Then what the hell are we doing on the floor? Do it again."
"Perhaps you're not aware, but it's kind of a massive mental effort."
"Meaning if I could do it, I would. I'm tired." He rested his head gently against the wall, rubbing his temples.
"Then why bring it up?"
"Lowbloods have to have something to brag about, mate."
I rolled my eyes, but secretly acknowledged that he had good reason to think the way he did. If highbloods were entitled no matter the situation to boast on their superior strength and breeding, then it only made sense that those of less fortune caste should have something to be proud about.
 This was the kind of thinking they culled people for back home. It wasn't even necessary that one act on the thought that perhaps lowbloods were the slightest bit more than garbage given clothes: just thinking it with any seriousness was usually enough to get a sniper on your ass or a threshecutioner after your blood. Thank god I was leagues upon leagues away from Her Imperiousness' police.
"Yes," I said, after a long, quiet moment had passed. "Yes, I suppose you're right."
He looked at me; his eyes seemed still so strange to me that I couldn't help staring at them. "Do you mean that?"
I shrugged. For the first time since I'd gotten off the ship that brought me to Ebonpyre, I felt incredibly weary of dry land. I longed to once again have the salted planks of a whaling ship under my feet, to once again hold fast to the rigging as we fought through a tempest. In that moment, nothing could have given me greater pleasure than to track a great leviathan over vast distances of the writhing violet sea.
Mercutio's expression changed as I felt the yearning for the sea once more. His features seemed to soften in the dim gold lamp light. He tilted his head and blinked his odd eyes slowly at me.
 Honest to god lamps, not the Marquise's foreign will-o-wisps.
"You really miss it, don't you," he whispered, his thin voice colored with wonder.
"Yes," I said. "The sea's always been everything to me."
He smiled. "Lots of highbloods talk like that, lots of seadwellers, but you're the only one I've ever met that really loves it."
"Have you met many highbloods?" I didn't mean to sound incredulous, but the idea that this willowy psychic might have come into contact with, and survived, a number of people who could have snapped him like the stem of a too-fragile wine glass was unbelievable at best.
"No," he admitted, "but of the few I have..."
I understood, and said as much.
The next moments we passed in almost complete silence, having nothing else to say. He seemed more relaxed here, alone with me, than he had at the bar, but perhaps that was to do with the beverage he'd imbibed there. If it had been alcohol, its effects were greatly appreciated. If it had not been alcohol, but some other beverage preferred by the lower classes (for it was like nothing I had seen) then its effects were still beneficial. If it had been neither, then he was a splendid actor.
The rain still beat ceaselessly upon the streaky windows and old slate shingles of the Bent Harpoon. Occasionally a flash of lightning would turn the sliver of the sky that I could see through the tiny window at the end of the hall a blinding and garish white. I thought back to the first storm I had ever been in at sea, aboard a vessel called the Pumpkin Tide. She was a good old ship, made of fine cedarwood and the Capital's sturdiest alloys. But even the finest ships are doomed to meet their ends in a battle or at the fickle fingers of Nature, and the Pumpkin Tide perished in my first storm. Lightning had been her killer. Whaling ships are always more vulnerable than simple merchant ships because of their inflammable cargo. The sails are invariably the same sickly color as ambergris; the lamps that flicker in the captains' quarters are always freshly filled with oil from a freshly killed beast. Whaling ships smell like vomit and musk.
My first storm was chaotic: the bosun had panicked as the first signs of the yellow sky-flung flames began to lick at the greasy sails, the captain had long since abandoned ship and left us all to fend for ourselves, the crew were scurrying about trying to extinguish a fire that threatened to consume us if nothing were done about it. The lack of command ultimately left us all afloat, nursing burns, clinging to empty barrels and bits of charred flotsam.
My second storm was more organized only because I was the captain of that vessel. In short, trust no one to save your ass. There's something to be said for a man who knows how to douse a damn grease fire.
Finally, after something like an hour had passed, my companion pulled me away from my day-dreams about all the ships I'd seen sunk with a sibilant hiss that announced the Marquise had gone.
I rose from the floor; I could feel my joints pulling and cracking. I had been away from the sea for too long. Mercutio muttered "old man", and pulled the lever for the mechanical stair-ladder that led to the hallway of doors below us.
Redglare stood in front of her door as we descended, her arms crossed, dressed in a simple black affair with a low collar. She wore no jewelry, no symbol. The woman's shocking carmine eyes were obscured by opaque white glasses now, not with the red ones she had worn earlier. Her hair was plaited at the back of her neck, wound into a tight bun, and secured with a long, thin ornament that could have been made of nothing other than whalebone. She looked strangely presentable: no hint of her blasphemous red attire remained. Even her lipstick was the teal of her blood; it looked as though she had bitten her lip and forgotten to dab at the injury. Her long, conical horns pointed proudly outwards and upwards from the sides of her head, capped at the ends with small metallic sheaths.
The only thing that seemed out of place on this diminutive, sharp-looking woman was the makeup that had been carefully applied to her face. It was ghost-white, except around her eyes and the hollow of her cheeks, where it was darker black than even her clothing. It gave the effect of a skull that had laid too long in the sun.
"I thought you were going to come down while she eas still here," she breathed, clapping Mercutio on the shoulder. "But you're better than that, thank god." She turned to me. "Your gills stick out a mile away, Orphaner. I could smell them from upstairs."
I didn't know what to say, if indeed it was appropriate to say anything. She laughed boldly; her teeth were a thousand needles arranged into neat rows behind her glossy lips. I understood then what purpose the Marquise had in visiting her: she was brilliantly, dangeroulsy beautiful, and sharper of wit than an assassin's favorite dagger. She would be in no peril at the hands of the congregation of the Mirthful because she was at least equally as murderous as they. I was eager to find out what machinations of the woman's mind led her to assist me, however roundabout, in my quest to escape the inky tendrils of the Capital.
"Come, now, Merc: go up and pick something out of Cat's wardrobe, you look a mess. I'll escort our esteemed guest 'til you pop back down."
Mercutio grinned and ascended the stair-ladder again; it slid firmly back into the ceiling behind him and fit into the wood with hardly a seam. The legislacerator in subjugglator's clothing grasped me by the wrist and led me roughly into her chamber-- the chamber with the signless door.
"Thank god you picked something with a collar on it," she said, pulling the door shut behind us. More candles were burning inside the bottles now; their light flickered eerily on the walls, which I now saw were covered in red chalk drawings. Diagrams of dissections and cartoons of courtblock murals were crammed into cobwebbed corners; grotesque portraits of who could only have been patrons of the Harpoon were strewn everywhere. Perhaps sensing my staring, she took my shoulders and steered me to sit on her massive desk.
"It's a hobby," she said dismissively, digging in a trunk behind her desk. She removed something and looked over her white glasses at me. "Tuck those feathery-smelling things down in your collar-- that should do it. Everyone at the church is probably going to be stoned out of his mind, so hopefully they won't look too hard at you. You're a miracle."
"That's what they call things they can't explain. Miracles. Well, I say the only difference between a miracle and a murder is how long they look at you. Hold still."
She spoke at a faster clip than most ships fleeing a temperamental catch. I didn't bother asking how something could smell feathery, and attributed this slip of the tongue to her peculiar manner of seeing without sight. I moved to tuck in the "feathery-smelling" external portions of my gills, but the woman clicked her tongue harshly.
"I said hold still, you dunderfuck." She pulled my face close to hers and quickly applied with her fingertips something cold. She smeared the cosmetic, somehow avoiding nicking me with her pointed fingernails, and when she was satisfied, she drew back. "Thank god the rest of your scars aren't on your face."
 Then I would have been Orphaner Triscar.
"Pardon my asking, but how do you--?"
"See?" She cackled. "You won't believe it, but I get that comment a hell of a lot. I can smell you coming a mile away, Orphaner. You smell like a massive grape."
"Do you always make such inappropriate comments?"
She spread her toothpick arms wide in a boastful shrug. "I'm entitled."
I wasn't used to anyone lower than the tentative higher echelons of the blueblood nobility acting like that-- like a highblood. Perhaps this tealblooded woman had been brought up around highbloods, or perhaps she was simply rude. It was my intention to find out, though I could certainly not be very obvious about it.
"Fair enough," I sighed. Nearly everything in me wanted to leave this place and sic the Condesce's lapdogs on it out of spite for all the maladjusted lowbloods tripping about, but some small part said to me that it was worth the insubordination to finally be free of the Empire, if only slightly, and even if the Marquise was a mere psionic's headache away from discovering my location.
Redglare smirked and produced a small looking glass with a red frame from a drawer in her desk. I peered into the mirror, and to my surprise, my scars were completely invisible. "One would think you a magician," I said.
"Not a magician. Just used to doing this kind of thing."
"You hide people often?"
"Often enough. Usually myself. But they don't like it when I talk about how we get evidence, so enough of that." She grinned. "Merc's outside. Go get him."
I didn't bother asking how she came to know that the psychic was waiting outside her door, but sure enough, he was there. I found myself not bothering to ask far more than I had ever thought possible.
Mercutio had dressed himself in an outfit not dissimilar to mine. Gone was his ostensibly proprietary symbol; instead, the patch on his shoulder now bore two rhombuses, the left higher than the right, connected by their bottom right and top left corners, respectively, embroidered in vivid gold. His shirt lacked the brocade that mine boasted.
"Good choice," I said.
"Whoever these belonged to must've known each other, I suppose." He poked his head through the legislacerator's doorway. "We'll get there before you," he said. From within came a reply that it was fine, that the Mirthful never really ran on a tight schedule anyway. I sensed this was all for my benefit; surely the pair of them had been to more sermons than I would ever consider going to.
Withdrawing from the neophyte's doorway, he turned to me. "Ready to walk straight into 'em?"
"No," I said, but followed him down the stairs and through the barroom to the street.
Chapter Six: The Fire Sermon.
The street seemed emptier than it had been when I had first arrived at the Bent Harpoon. The sun would be up in a few hours, and lowbloods as a rule never risked being caught in it, even with a margin of five or six hours. As the castes reached up through blue and into indigo, the sunlight became more bearable, but not even the Condescension herself, it was said, could withstand the full sunlight of midday for more than a few seconds.
I recall having seen a sunrise only once in my life, after the events of this particular narrative took place. But that's something only a few people know, and I don't intend to tell about it here.
Xollmise snorted a laugh as another tealblood rushed along the street chasing a wheel of hornbeast's cheese. "Doesn't he know they won't roll if you stack them flat on the cart?" she mused. She threaded her arm through Mercutio's as we all walked through the front door of the Bent Harpoon. I could feel Cattaria's gaze on my back, but I knew not where she'd concealed herself.
"Here's the story. You two are kismeses who can't stop flipping quadrants and I'm your auspistice. If anyone asks-- and they might-- that's what you tell them. Merc, your name is Aurelyan. Orph: Arkathey. Got it?"
"Yes, grubmaid Redglare," Mercutio said, rolling his eyes. "Shall we gaze spades at each other the whole time--" here he smirked at me-- "or are we going for subtle?"
"Subtle," Redflare muttered. "Don't want to incite a riot. Plus you're vacillating, remember."
"I suppose you don't need me to tell you how incredibly dangerous this all is?" I interjected, tired of not hearing my own voice. To be struck mute would be the worst punishment the universe could give.
"We know," they both said, then Redglare punched Mercutio jovially in the shoulder.
"We should ankle," the neophyte continued. "We don't want to be late. It's the fire sermon today."
"Oh, that one's my favorite."
"It's only your favorite because the Demoness is in it."
Mercutio blushed quite deeply. "Hush, you."
I couldn't help thinking as I walked along next to them that perhaps I could be happy among a group such as this. I'd had moirails before, to be sure-- one does not live as long and as uninjured as I without someone to watch over them-- but these two seemed so pale for each other that they were positively colorless. It was as though their caste, their age, their occupations didn't matter to them in the slightest. They'd probably shared a bed in the most chaste of ways. The thought of it made me nearly sick.
 Or lack thereof.
I'd been with scads of trolls in nearly every quadrant but I'd never had what these two seemed to have, and likely I never would.
 Save the caliginous. The Marquise is, was, and quite possibly forever will be my one and only. Until one of us finally gives in to death.
We reached the Mirthful temple in far shorter a time than I had estimated. Perhaps I had been too deep in the ruminations of my own mind to notice that any time had passed at all.
"Best behavior, boys," Xollmise said, and reminded us of our names and quadrants before we went into the temple.
I had seen Mirthful buildings before, and they were always a garish and unsettling sight. This one was no different; it was squat, low to the ground. Like a burrower's hive. But the real impressive part of the temple was always underground, where it was said that only those who wanted to kick their wicked ignorance could venture without being struck dead.
 Through either metaphorical or physical means. They weren't picky.
Xollmise held the door open for us, and we were different people as we stepped through it.
None of the trolls gathered paid us any heed as we entered, thought it would be foolish to assume that none of them had noticed us. They were all seated on the floor, some more comfortably than others, some resting in the laps of lovers or against tall hookahs. Nearest the door was a group comprised of one indigo preaching to a brownblood and a blueblood, who looked simultaneously frightened and piteous. I shuddered. Surely they weren't both red for him? And if they were, what other quadratic oddities could be found under this roof?
"Sister!" someone bellowed, barrelling towards Redglare and bodily picking her up in the most disturbing embrace I'd ever seen. Mercutio took hold of my hand out of real fright. I dared a glance at him, but I could discern nothing from his own eyes; they were covered by white glasses almost identical to the neophyte's. He must have put them on while my mind was on other subjects.
"Brother," Xollmise said. "How nice to see you again." Her voice was devoid of all the bravado she'd showed me back at the pub. She, too, was in real terror at this roomful of people who could cloud her dreams with horror and drive her to insanity with a mere thought.
I had stumbled into a den of fear and my guides themselves were afraid.
"Brother, these are my initiates. These are Aurelyan Rhombius and Arkathey Moonmist." She leaned in closer to the hulking indigo-blood and whispered, "Kismeses."
The subjugglator smiled wide, distorting his face paint. "Hello, brothers. My name is Abrayyim. If you need anything--" his smile grew even wider. "If you need anything, don't you hesitate to motherfuckin' ask." With an eerie laugh he was off again as quickly as he'd appeared.
Mercutio swallowed hard and dug his claws into my hand harder. "I'm beginning to think this was a bad idea," he muttered.
"Relax," Redglare said. "Worrying's suspicious." She flashed her needlelike teeth at me and launched herself into the crowd as though she well and truly belonged among them.
Mercutio squeezed my hand. "We should find a seat. We stick out like sore thumbs here."
We did; except for Abrayyim, who was slowly making the rounds to every group present, and Xollmise, who was trying her best to worm her way into some of the larger groups, we were the only ones still standing. I spotted a bare patch of floor near one of the back corners, and we were upon it. No one took notice, but the brownblood I'd seen by the door earlier did glance in our direction a few times.
We mostly tried our best not to look terrified, and I was quite sure we were doing a very poor job. I knew Mercutio had been here before; why, then, was he so unsettled? Was it my presence that was his undoing, or had his sense of precognition alerted him to some coming disaster?
From the front of the room there came a cough, and then a silence began to settle over the boisterous room.
"Here it comes," someone whispered.
"Siblings!" It was Abrayyim. His voice reverberated throughout the building; I could almost feel the ground shake. "Siblings, lend me your ears. For tonight I bring you a tale."
The volume of his voice fluctuated from boneshakingly loud to the merest whisper that was borne to the back of the room through the repetition of the message by other voices. Xollmise slithered up next to Mercutio. "What'd I miss?" she snickered. He elbowed her in the ribs.
"Once, a great cleansing fire was the only thing that called our planet its home! But did it last, my brothers, my sisters, my siblings?"
"No!" the crowd roared.
"No!" Abrayyim echoed. He began to wind his way through the knots of people on the floor, much as he had been doing before everything had gone very still. "The fire was brought to our planet by the Messiahs, for life cannot exist without fire. If there were no fire then that which is alive would soon choke itself out with the weight of its own existence. Which is not a noble way to die!"
"No! So the Messiahs gave us the fire so that we may be the harbingers of new life, of new being! Of new love," he said, leaning close to a group comprised only of two matesprits. He winked at them. "And of new motherfuckin' hatred." He repeated the gesture to a pair of kismesis who were subtly elbowing and poking each other. They couldn't have been more than eight sweeps old.
Mercutio drew a fraction of an inch closer to me, and he knew I'd notice it. I bit my tongue.
"The fire," Abrayyim continued, "was extinguished."
"The fire was extinguished and the Messiahs were entombed!"
"My siblings! The fire will be again unleashed. But can it be, when the Handmaid of the Messiahs is still deathless?"
"Then what must se do? We must usher in the end, my siblings. We must protect the sanctity of our Messiahs! We must bring the mother! Fuckin'!Fire!"
The crowd erupted in cheers and chants, screaming and shouting in pure religious ecstasy. I didn't realize until it was too late that not joining them would prove to be our fatal mistake.
"Siblings! Siblings, peace." Abrayyim held his hands up and the crowd fell hushed again. What power! To calm a crowd with hardly a word! "Siblings, how may we bring the end when our wordly Empress trusts us only because of our power?"
The crowd looked puzzled; a low murmur bubbled up as people began to wonder what he meant.
"I mean to say, siblings: how may the fire cleanse us when there are traitors in our ranks?"
"Fuck," Mercutio whispered.
Hghbloods looked accusingly at lowbloods. Lowbloods began to explain themselves all at once, falling over themselves to get to Abrayyim so they could plead with him.
"Relax, siblings. There is but one in our midst who does not truly believe."
"The Orphaner Dualscar is among us." There was a moment of stillness, and then the storm broke.
"Fuck. Run!" Mercutio dragged me to my feet and shoved me towards the door at the same time. Xollmise was already on her feet trying to explain me away. Her sword-cane was drawn as she backed into a corner. Mirthfuls were pouring out onto the street after Mercutio and me, throwing things and trying to grab us.
There is nothing more terrifying than thirty angry indigos.
"Run back to the Harpoon and open the iron door under the stairs." Mercutio shouted over the din. People peered out of their windows to see what all the commotion could have been. "Wait at the bottom of the stairs through the door. I'll meet you in two shakes of a woolbeast's tail. Go!" He turned from me and sent a blast of energy towards the crowd. Some of them fell over; others fell over some of those who'd been knocked over by the shockwave. I ran.
There were enough twisting side streets between the Midthful temple and the Bnt Harpoon that I lost most of the indigo crowd before I made it back. My sides ached from running-- was I honestly that out of working condition? My gills were burning as they sucked in air, not water, despite my efforts to only breathe through my nose. I burst through the side door of the Harpoon with most of my shirt buttons undone and my gills flaring. The door slammed hard behind me. No one looked up this time.
I hadn't noticed it when I'd first come in, but there it was: a little iron door on the side of the massive staircase that led to the hallways upstairs. I dislodged the heavy oaken bar that lay across it. To my surprise, it opened quietly, without a single squeak of protest from its hinges.
The stairs seemed to go on forever, but a flickering red-and-blue lantern lit my way. I had to hand one thing to Mercutio: he was almost as vain as I.
I finally made it to the bottom of the staircase. At my estimate I was at least fifty feet underground. There was another door in front of me: it was marked with the same numeral II as Mercutio's shoulder had been before he had changed into the costume that smartly matched my own.
I did not wait long; within five minutes there was a great commotion at the top of the stairs, the sounds of someone tripping down five or six steps, and muffled oaths that would have made a lesser sailor blush. I held up my lantern, regardless of whether it helped or not.
Mercutio leaned heavily against the wall when he reached the bottom, breathing hard. "Not talk now," he managed through gasps. "Inside." He slapped his hand against the door and it swung neatly open. "Go."
Bookshelves at least ten feet tall stretched on for what seemed like miles in front of me. There was a little cave cut into the stone wall; a lamp flickered in it, illuminating a high-backed reading chair that would have been more at home in one of the Capital's libraries than fifty feet underground a pub in a mapdot lowblood town.
I got the strangest feeling that Mercutio hadn't been telling me everything.
There was a little hallway right through the middle of the bookshelf nearest the wall. He gestured to it, and I went through to find a small bed, the kind scholepers keep, an even smaller ablution basin, and another armchair that matched the one in the little reading cave.
Mercutio collapsed onto the bed and stared up at the stone ceiling. I seated myself primly in the chair and waited, politely, for him to tell me precisely what in the actual hell had just happened.
After a few moments he'd managed to compose himself enough that he could sit up staight and arrange his hair so that it wasn't sticking up in wild angles. He was still breathing hard; probably he'd run the whole way from the temple to the Harpoon. He swallowed a few times, then spoke.
"She was there."
"She's in cahoots with the fucking-- with Abrayyim, I should've known it was a bad idea-- god damn it, stupid, stupid! We should've known; we should've--!" He sprung up from the bed and began to pace. "You'e dead meat if you step outside, you know that. And they'll have barkbeasts and spiderlings all in the house-- god, won't Catt be pleased. Fuck. Fuck." He sunk down onto the bed again.
As much as I wanted to blame him for what had happened, I couldn't bring myself to point my finger and say "you did this". He seemed as much a victim as I. Under normal circumstances, I would've been the first to name him as some kind of conspirator or another, but under these circumstances I had roughed him up in a back alley and he'd still risked his life so that I could get away from the subjugglators.
 Where had those Capital chairs come from?
"You can't blame yourself, mate," I offered.
"We walked right into them. I knew this would happen."
"The Marquise is just... That's how she... Fuck it, damned if I know." I sat down next to him on the bed, tentatively. "I suggest we get very drunk and think about this all later."
"You need to stop running away from things that're trying to kill you and leaving other people to clean it up." He laughed bitterly. Let no one say that he was subtle when it came to his distaste of highbloods. "But this time I agree. I have some mead in that bookcase down there."
I felt along the low shelf in the corner of the room until I found the switch to open it. Clever. I wanted one for my ship, when next I won it back from the Marquise. There was a clear glass jug nestled among some papers that looked like maps. It was filled with the same honey-colored stuff he'd been drinking earlier.
"So this is mead, is it?"
"You're used to grog; I can tell." He grinned and gestured for me to hand him the jug. "Should be some cups under there too."
I produced two pewter cups from the bookcase and slid the door shut. He took them and coaxed the mead out of the jug and into both cups at once with his psionics. I tried not to roll my eyes as though unimpressed; had I been afforded the same psychic abilities, I'd probably have done the same.
 And it was kind of impressive.
I took a sip of the mead; it was sweet and had a fruity overtone. Not really the sort of thing a pirate drinks, and very different from watered-down rum. It was different, to be sure, but not bad. I drank deeper this time, enjoying the new flavor.
"Remember earlier when I told you I'd show you something better than a party trick?" he said, taking a drink.
"Offer still stands."
"It'd be helpful if I knew what the offer actually was in the first place."
Mercutio smiled over the rim of his cup. "Why don't you tell me?"
I'm sorry that I don't live up to your expectations. What happened to me being your perfect A+? Your ballerina? Your Mackenzie?
Am I somehow wrong because I don't believe I'm the little girl you raised? What transgression have I committed? Believing that I am right and you are wrong? Believing that I know my body and myself better than you do? God forbid.
Let's start over.
I've always been the kid that doesn't really fit in with anyone. I've always been the "other". I never really had girl friends because girls thought I was weird. So I found a little group of boys, and boys welcomed weirdness. Nobody knew what I was then. I was that kid. I thought girls had pretty hair, sometimes they smelled nice, but most of the time they didn't want to share things with me. I preferred dirt over dolls. But dolls were alright, provided no dirt or cardboard boxes or coloring books were around.
Sure, I was weaned on Disney princesses. Alongside Hot Wheels and bugs and dirt. Are either of these things necessarily inclined towards one gender or another? No, they needn't. But at the time everyone was sure a child who liked pink, liked dolls, even in the slightest, was destined to spend all of its life liking ponies and play kitchens. But I am different. I am a butterfly.
You have no idea what I'm talking about, I can tell.
I'm a boy. I am.
How many times am I going to have to say that? How many rolls of my eyes whenever you say "my granddaughter" will it take for you to catch on that something is amiss in the way you see me? How many times must I sigh and fold my arms across my flat chest when you say "she" and gesture my way? How many octaves must I lower my voice? Must I stop singing? Must I walk this way, talk this way, do this, not that? How many times do I have to break down crying in Red Lobster because we're just not seeing me the same way? Must I skulk away to the men's room and hope you're not looking when I, panicked, slide out? How many pairs of eyes watch me constantly, judging my moves, wondering what I am? How many seventh grade boys are going to speculate loudly about my gender? Is that a dude or a chick?
Why don't you believe me?
Every time I turn introspective after Anxiety threads its tendrils through my shaking stomach, that's what I wonder. Why don't you believe me? Why don't you see my for what I am? My friends accept me without question. My mother knows she does not have a daughter, but a son. So what is it that you're missing? Sometimes I feel on top of the world, and then I want to tell you. I want so badly for you to know who I am, for you to accept that, to ask questions if you need to. I will be infinitely patient with you. I am the last person who will judge you when I myself am seeking refuge from judgment.
Or don't you want a freak for a child?
I know you think it. I'm a mistake. Somehow you messed up when you were raising me and you got a child confused about what gender it is. (It's a boy.) You don't even know if it likes boys of girls. (It likes both, and then some.) But you have never asked these things to it without judgment in your heart. It knows the answer you want is: it's a girl who likes boys but not too much.
Well, I hate to say it, but you are absolutely never going to hear that from me. If I told you that I would be lying. I don't want to have to lie to you. I'm so, so tired of lying, of pretending I'm your granddaughter, of smiling and bearing it when you act so proud of me to people in public. I don't want to pretend. It's sp taxing on my mind, on my heart, on me. You wonder why I come home, I eat, I go to sleep. It's because I don't want to spend time with you. It's because you refuse to listen to me about something I know far more about than you. You don't want to be proved wrong. Everyone likes being right, but if you go into an argument expecting to be right, you will change no one's mind and everyone will be worse off for it.
Please just listen to me. Please. I need that so much more than anything, so much more than a new computer barely a year after I got the old one, than a new battery for a laptop that works just fine as long as it's plugged in, than things and things and things. Giving me things is not going to make me like you any more if I can't trust you to accept me when I tell you that I am right about my own self.
Let me say that again by itself.
Giving me things is not going to make me like you any more if I can't trust you to accept me when I tell you that I am right about my own self.
You haven't even read this far, I can tell. You hate reading. But this is the only way I can tell you anything without crumpling up and embarrassing you in front of everyone at Red Lobster.
God forbid I have emotions.
It's not my fault: I'm a boy, I have panic attacks, I like boys and girls and everything in between. It's not your fault. It's God's fault, if you want to think that way. God made me, didn't he? He made me just the way I am and he gave me to you so that you could learn and grow with me. I'm a learning experience. If you want to call me a mistake, go ahead. God made a mistake with me. I'm the biggest mistake in the universe and it's your bad fortune to be stuck with a mess like me.
God doesn't like liars.
I am a beautiful, strong person. I'm intelligent; I'm so intelligent that I know I go too quickly sometimes and I leave you in the dust. And I don't mean to do that. I want you to learn as much as I learn. I want to teach you a lot of things; I want to be there to answer any question you might have. I am a creative, emotional person. I love. I hate. Sometimes I do both at once. I don't understand people, but yet I infinitely understand every motive behind every action. I like poetry, but not all of it. My favorite color is called fandango. I like dogs, but I prefer cats because they're quieter, even if they smell bad sometimes.
I'm the same person you have known since I was born. What do you think happened, aliens took me away and turned me into someone else? Elvis and Hitler took me to a secret compound in Venezuela and replaced me with a stunt double? There's literally nothing different about me except the words I use for myself. I'm your grandson. And I'm sorry you can't love me because of that, but not so sorry that I'm going to let it keep eating away at me like it's been doing. You can take it or leave it.
hey. hi. how are you. how has your day been.
mine kind of sucked.
it sucked because, hey, whether or not you like it or agree with it or believe it's possible, i'm a guy. i've identified as male since around may of 2010. i'm sure you're saying, wait a minute mack, i had no idea about this. what do you mean, identified as male? aren't you a girl?
no, i'm not a girl. i'm not, but a lot of people think i am. and that is why my day sucked.
every single time someone talks to me, they do so under the assumption that they are speaking to a woman. and, again, whether or not you believe it, people treat men and women differently. if i had a nickel for every time i've been told not to do something because it's a "man's job", or been called "sweetie" or something else like that instead of "dude", or been asked-- straight up asked, to my face-- if i was a boy or a girl (and remember, i identify as a guy!), do you know what i'd have? i'd have a shit ton of nickels.
and that sucks.
every single time i go to school, i go to school and people assume that i am a woman. you're probably kind of lost at this point, so let me take a minute to kind of explain what i'm getting at here.
imagine, if you will, that you are a cat. you know you're a cat, and perhaps a couple of your close friends know you're a cat, but it just so happens that because of a genetic mistake, you look a lot more like a dog than a cat. people treat you like a dog. they bark at you instead of meowing. your owner even feeds you dog food! but you're a cat.and when people assume you're a dog just because of how you look or what they might have heard about you, it makes you kind of sad. sometimes it makes you angry. you go to all the trouble of looking like a cat-- you wear a little bell and groom yourself like a cat and hang out with other cats in the hopes that maybe people will catch on and go "oh yeah, you're a cat! right!" but everyone still believes you're a dog.
that's what i go through every day. that probably sounds way overdramatic, but i'm totally serious. and every time you assume i'm a dog-- every time you say "she" when you talk about me, or call me "mackenzie" instead of "mack", or look at me weird when i talk about things like this-- you crush the safety bubble i've gone to great length to build around myself.
and i don't appreciate that. how would you, cat, like to be called a dog every day of your life, despite the fact that you know you're a cat?
it's not fun.
so i have a request for you. call me by the right name. call me by the right pronouns. do this one little thing for me, even if you don't understand it, even if it feels weird, even if you don't believe me or think i'm crazy or whatever, and make my life suck a little less.
You hold a hastily-stapled coupla pages in one hand and a martini in the other. This should make for a good quick read while you're waiting to hear back from Dick you mean Dirk.
The papers look old. Your mother seems to have written something on the front.
When the time is right, you'll know precisely what to do with this.
I am so proud of you, daughter.
Weird. Then again, Mom always was kind of nutty.
The Dream Self
Dr. R. Lalonde
Certain circumstances of the past have found me in situations in which I was unsure what was real and what I had merely imagined in a sort of cosmic fever dream. Every so often I would awake to the grim realization that I was not sure where I was. Certainly most would attribute this to the wiles of alcoholic intoxication. Those who know me better would attribute it to the throes of academic passion: a late night in a library reading about all and sundry would certainly disorient any normally sensible scholar.
These moments of disorientation first began shortly after the birth of my daughter. They were, and are, usually accompanied by dreams-- nightmares, more accurately. Most frequently these night terrors concern huge, tentacles monsters floating aimlessly in the vacuum of space. It is not this which unnerves me: in my youth, I was a connoisseur of Lovecraft, Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert W. Chambers. The nameless and eldritch horror or a hulking monstrosity is scarce enough to unnerve one who cut her teeth on The Pit and the Pendulum and The King in Yellow.
What, then, could serve to disconcert someone so very confident, perhaps confident to the point of arrogance, in herself? The most perturbing aspect of these occasional lapses in consciousness is their invariability. Through half-remembered echoes of the shoutwhispers of the great tentacled things, occasionally as I drift to sleep, a very clear image of a boy and a girl dressed resplendently in purple, standing in front of a massive green explosion that seems to always happen in slow motion, appears to me. This image never, ever varies, and I have never been able to stay asleep long enough to see what happens to the children: that is what disturbs me. I feel I will never know if they survive this inexplicable supernova, nor what they were doing there in the first place, nor why the boy seems to be holding a robotic stuffed toy rabbit.
Throughout the many months during which this singular and weird phenomenon has occurred, the very same months which served as the antecedent for this treatise, I have put much thought into the idea that perhaps the unconscious self is more conscious than many philosophers and psychologists have ever previously postulated. Who can say where the usually dormant portion of the mind goes when its waking counterpart lies in repose?
The concept of lucid dreaming is certainly a very valid one. Any dreamer can have a lucid dream; all it requires is stillness, a dark room, patience, and knowledge of how to awaken one's mind without awakening the body as well. Lucid dreaming is frequently suggested by sleep therapists as treatment for chronic nightmares and sleep paralysis. It is a common occurrence. Some dreamers experience it every night, often without even trying.
The lucid dream itself is just as ethereal as its more mundane counterpart. Unlike that counterpart, it is more often remembered and, as its name would suggest, more vivid and lifelike.
I have reason to believe that my dream or hallucination of the terrible beasts in space, and of the children standing before the explosion, is not a dream at all, but a memory.
[stuff goes here]
timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgis [TG]
TT: Sorry about that.
TT: Squarewave was dying for a rap-off.
TT: What seems to be the trouble?
TG: mom plaeid the game
TG: when she was littler
TG: or in antother universe
TG: or smth
TG: and yr bor did tooo
TG: n they both remember/ed it
TT: Hold your horses. What makes you so sure?
TG: u sound liek janey
TG: but i found this essya mom wrote before she got famouse
TG: adderrsed 2 me
TG: she said id know when it was important to read it
TG: and the way mom was talkign sounded like she sleeptwalked too
TG: not like litearlly asleep but she walked around on that purplel planet you talked about
TT: Lots of people sleepwalk.
TG: she mentionedn it by name
TG: dessert yum
TT: I don't say this often, but I think need a drink.
TG: u n me both
TA: i can sh0w y0u the w0rld
TA: shining, shimmering, splendid.
CG: WAIT, WHAT.
TA: tell me, kk, n0w when did
TA: y0u last let y0ur heart decide?
CG: WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN.
TA: i can 0pen y0ur eyes
CG: TOO BAD YOURS DON'T EVEN FUCKING WORK ANYMORE, ASSHOLE.
TA: kk please we're having a m0ment.
TA: i can 0pen y0ur eyes
TA: take y0u w0nder by w0nder
TA: 0ver, sideways and under
TA: 0n a c00l psi0nic ride.
TA: a wh0le new w0rld.
TA: a new fantastic p0int 0f view.
CG: AGAIN, EYES.
TA: n0 0ne t0 tell us n0
TA: 0r where t0 g0
TA: 0r say we're dead 0r dreaming.
CG: OH, FOR FUCK'S SAKE.
CG: A WHOLE NEW WORLD
CG: A FUCKING PLACE I NEVER KNEW.
CG: BUT WHEN I'M WAY UP HERE
CG: IT'S CRYSTAL CLEAR
CG: THAT NOW I'M IN A WHOLE NEW WORLD WITH YOU.
TA: n0w i'm in a wh0le new w0rld with y0u.
CG: UNBELIEVABLE SIGHTS.
CG: INDESCRIBABLE LOATHING.
CG: SOARING, TUMBLING, AND FLOATING
CG: THROUGH AN ENDLESS DIAMOND SKY.
CG: OH MY GOD, WHO FUCKING WROTE THIS SHIT. DIAMOND SKY? JESUS CHRIST, IT'S LIKE ONE OF KANAYA'S RAINBOW DRINKER NOVELS HAS ME BY THE FUCKING THROAT AND WON'T LET GO.
CG: A WHOLE NEW WORLD.
TA: d0n't y0u dare cl0se y0ur eyes.
CG: A HUNDRED THOUSAND THINGS TO SEE.
TA: h0ld y0ur breath, it gets better.
CG: I'M LIKE A SHOOTING STAR.
CG: I'VE COME SO FAR.
CG: I CAN'T GO BACK TO WHERE I USED TO BE.
CG: SOLLUX, ARE WE SERIOUSLY DOING THIS.
TA: keep singing assh0le.
TA: a wh0le new w0rld
CG: EVERY TURN A SURPRISE.
TA: with new h0riz0ns t0 pursue.
CG: EVERY MOMENT RED-LETTER. WAIT A MINUTE, ARE YOU MAKING FUN OF ME.
TA: i'll chase them anywhere.
TA: there's time t0 spare.
TA: let me share this wh0le new w0rld with y0u.
TA: a wh0le new w0rld.
CG: A WHOLE NEW WORLD.
TA: that's where we'll be.
CG: THAT'S WHERE WE'LL BE.
CG: IS THERE A FUCKING ECHO IN HERE.
TA: a thrilling chase.
CG: A WONDROUS PLACE
CG: FOR YOU AND ME, AND WHOEVER SURVIVES THIS FUCKING ASTEROID BELT. AND PROBABLY THE HUMANS TOO. CHRIST.