The whole affair started with a clatter from the sewing block; something had been knocked over. Someone had knocked something over in my hive. My heart pounded in my chest. When you have a virgin mothergrub for a mom, you learn to think in terms of layers of security. An intruder was inside my hive; inside nearly all the layers. This was very bad. I put mom in the safeblock, grabbed my lipstick, and went to deal with the intruder.
The door to the sewing block was still latched shut. I could hear someone digging through my supplies, but whoever it was didn't seem to have ventured any further into my hive. I must have left the window unlatched, but I couldn't imagine why any troll would be clever enough to cross the sunlit wastes and also foolish enough to not have secured the entire hive right away. Most likely one of the shamblers had learned to climb and decided my hive would be a good place to spend the night. That was a frightening prospect, but far better than my first fear; last sweep a couple of adults had made it past the orbital blockade and landed near my hive.
There was a another clatter and a crash, and the sound of very expensive things breaking; the shambler must have knocked over my sewing machine. Caution be damned, I couldn't let this continue. I quietly lifted the latch, then revved my chainsaw and kicked the door open.
It wasn't a shambler. The figure crouched next to the remains of my top-of-the-line sewing machine was nowhere near desiccated enough to be one of the undead monsters. She — for the figure smelled like a female troll, even under all that dirt and vegetation matted into her hair — was about my age and very much alive. A roughly cut fur blindfold lay on the floor beside her; she must have crossed the desert like that. So a feral, then, but an intelligent one. This complicated things.
I hesitated too long. She sprang upon me. The chainsaw fell from my grasp; I heard it slide into a corner, the engine dying as it went. The feral girl's momentum knocked me over and she landed on top of me. This close I could see the tint of her blood; a green close to my own. As she flexed her wrist, a delicate, deadly blade slid from her gloves (still relatively new; she must have scavenged them somewhere), curving along her finger like a claw. I waited, blood hammering in my ears. She tapped my sniffnode once, then retracted the claw, apparently satisfied her point had been made. I breathed out.
She rolled to the side so I could get up, then prowled around me in a weird half-crouched lope, sniffing me from every angle. Then she grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the mess she'd made of my sewing supplies. She'd apparently been strength testing all the thread, eventually pulling the bobbin from my sewing machine before rejecting that as well. I wanted to scold her. I would have, if I'd thought she'd understand me.
She picked up a needle and held it against my arm, then mimed passing it through the skin over and over again, as if she were sewing up a wound. I wondered where a feral troll had managed to learn about surgery. "Mom... hurrrt," she said, the pronunciation rough in her throat. Apparently she'd had some small level of schoolfeeding before going rogue. I sighed. If I hadn't left the window open, this poor troll would have found someone else to bother and it wouldn't be my responsibility. Well, there was nothing for it. Another troll on your territory was either an intruder or a guest and I obviously didn't have it in me to treat her like an intruder. The poor girl was lucky she'd chosen my hive to break into.
"Stay right here. I have something that will work." I didn't know if she was able to understand my words, but I hoped the combination of hand motions and tone of voice would succeed where language failed. Something must have gotten through, because she sat down next to mess she'd made and began to awkwardly gather it into one spot. I quickly absconded to the sanitation block and dug the medkit out of the cabinet. On the way back I put a few bowls of nutrient solution in the safeblock for mom and left a note for Vriska to come find me if I didn't check back in. I didn't plan on staying away for too long, but sometimes accidents happen.
The feral girl was still in the sewing block. Her attempt at cleaning up was almost passable, considering she had no idea what went where or how to fix the things she'd broken. I showed her the medkit contents. "This is surgical silk. We can use this to help your mom," I told her. I still had no idea how much she was understanding, but she took a small length of the suture, tested it, and seemed satisfied. I packed the kit back up and surreptitiously retrieved my chainsaw (just in case), found a good traveling cloak for myself, then picked out another one for the feral girl so she would stop trying to take mine. I locked the window so this wouldn't happen again and led her outside. She waited patiently while I locked the hive down.
By this time the sun had set completely and the pink moon was hanging low on the horizon. The girl – and she must have had a name if she had a lusus, but how to get her to understand the question? – prowled around my hive as if to get her bearings, then set off towards the east. I decided I would follow her for now, but if we got too far away, I'd leave her with the medkit and go home during the day. Obligation goes only so far.
I would have liked to try communicating with her, but under the circumstances that proved too difficult. She kept running ahead, then stopping on a dune to sniff the breeze or listen for sounds. In spite of having crossed the desert while blindfolded, she seemed to know where she was going. We passed the main oasis and continued east-northeast, towards the forest. If the forest had a name I'd never learned it, but I'd heard Vriska had a friend who lived near there. We reached the edge of the forest shortly before midnight. As we entered, the feral girl's posture changed. She'd crossed the desert with long strides that spoke of an endurance-building life on the go, but under the trees, she crouched the same way she had back at my hive. She brushed her hair back from her ears and padded softly from tree to tree. I tried to emulate her, but I fear I stepped on more than my fair share of dry branches.
Within a matter of minutes, however, she'd led me to a hollow between the roots of an old-growth tree. She made a purring noise and, with a painful whimper, a lusus crawled out of the hollow. The lusus was a great cat and if she'd been cleaned up she would be gorgeous. As it was, her fur was stained with her blood seeping from a gash down her flank. The feral girl sat down and pulled her into her lap, taking care to keep from disturbing the wound. "Mom hurrrt," she said again, the only two words I'd heard from her.
"That is putting it mildly," I replied, crouching by the lusus's head so she could get my scent. Lusi were supposed to be smarter than normal beasts, but I still didn't want to take any chances. The lusus seemed to be okay with me. I opened the medkit and sorted through the supplies until I found what I needed. First, I would have to trim the fur and sterilize the wound. Then I could stitch it up. "This might hurt a bit, but it will make it better," I said, simplifying my words in the hopes she could understand.
The lusus did yelp when I applied the sterilizing solution, but the feral — except she obviously wasn't, really — girl put her hand on her mom's snout to still her. It was over quickly and the lusus bore it more bravely than Vriska ever had. With the fur trimmed away and the wound cleaned, it didn't look that bad. It was obviously enough to make it painful to move, but it would heal quickly. I took up needle and silk suture and sewed the wound shut. "All better," I said as I packed up the medkit. "But you should be careful until it fully heals, okay?" I said this half to the lusus and half to the girl, not knowing if either would understand.
The lusus stood, shook herself, and padded experimentally around the clearing. Then she came back and licked my cheek, which I suppose is the sort of thing one must expect with cats. The girl stood too and pulled at my hand again. "Mom," she said slowly, touching her lusus. Then she held her hand to her throat. "Ne..." She seemed to be struggling to remember something, so I waited. "Ne. Pe. Ta," she said after a moment, grinning. "Nepeta." She really had a brilliant grin. Then she tapped my arm and waited expectantly.
"Kanaya," I told her, emphasizing each syllable. "I'm Kanaya. It's very good to meet you, Nepeta." The lusus rumbled and rubbed against my leg. "And it's good to meet you too, Nepeta's mom." Nepeta nodded in satisfaction, so I guess that was that.
Nepeta and her mom saw me to the edge of the forest, but didn't seem interested in following me back to my hive. Just as well, I suppose. Someone raised alone like she was couldn't possibly understand the implications of being a long-term guest. I looked back as I headed into the desert. Nepeta was still there watching me, but then she turned and disappeared into the forest. She was nice enough for an unsocialized troll, but I didn't think I'd see her again. Mom was a little upset when I got back to the hive and let her out, so I put on a recording of cavern sounds and let her fuss over me until morning.
Over the next half a sweep I occasionally wondered what had become of that strange girl and her lusus. Intellectually, I knew it was only a matter of time before she ended up on the wrong end of someone's weapon, but I couldn't help wishing she'd been able to make something of herself. Once she'd pried the story out of me, Vriska started coming over a little more often than usual, ostensibly to make sure my hive hadn't been invaded again. I'd heard she was on the outs with her gaming friends, though, so that was probably part of it.
At the start of the fourth dim season, Vriska coaxed me into coming along with her to a party. "You haaaaaaaave to help me make a good impression," she insisted. "There's going to be a couple of good flarping cartels there!" I could have pried into what happened to her last one, but instead I just forced her to let me dress her. I had a deep blue silk dress I'd been saving for a special occasion, with eight darts under the bust to pull it in and an inverted V waistline. She picked at the hem in feigned distaste. "I can't fight in this, Kanaya!"
"It's a party, Vriska," I replied. "If you end up fighting, you partied incorrectly." She rolled her eyes at this but acquiesced. Suitably attired, we caught a quick ride to the party in the hivering of some one or other of Vriska's many blueblooded acquaintances. It was a bit after midnight and from the sound of things the party was already in full swing. "Vriska Serket and escort," the hostess's lusus announced; apparently she had a talking ape for a mom, which must come in handy for events like these. I wondered why I wasn't announced as her moirail, but Vriska whispered in my ear that in these circles, if you didn't already know someone's quadrant connections, you certainly weren't going to be given the information for free. I left my wrap with the terrified brownblood they had chained up in the cloakblock and, with my lipstick safe in a concealed pocket, we started to mingle.
There were refreshments. I wondered if poison was too gauche for these trolls or if they had some way to prove them safe, but nearly everyone seemed to be eating or drinking something, so I got myself and Vriska some drinks and listened politely as she made small talk. This person was organizing a nautical flarp on a large lake (safely away from seatrolls), that person had statistical analyses from the whole season, and so on. All in all, not terribly interesting unless you were already a player. I excused myself and wandered around the party, studying the various outfits on display.
The back of the hive opened onto a large fenced off area with a pit dug in it. There was a lot of shouting and the sounds of violence. As I approached, it became obvious this was the bloodsport for the party. "There's that greenblood feral I picked up," one blueblood said to his friend, nudging him with his elbow. "It's survived longer than I thought it would."
I ducked under his arm and peered into the pit. It took me a moment to realize that that was Nepeta. She was badly scraped up and whoever caught her had relieved her of her claw weapon. On the whole, though, she looked more tired than anything else. From the conversation it sounded like she'd been fighting for the past hour and a half.
Vriska caught up with me as the bets were being settled for the next match. "Kind of scrappy," she mused. "I'll put ten on her!" Vriska went to shove money at the bookie. Meanwhile, the next round's ferals were hauled in, cage doors securely locked. With the betting closed, the ferals' owners unlocked the doors and prodded them into the pit.
Nepeta leaped on the largest one, a jadeblood boy my size who had apparently escaped culling only to be captured for bloodsport. With a quick motion she tore out his throat and flung him aside, but by then one of her opponents had already taken care of the fourth feral and was ready for her. The little redblood boy had only the shakiest grasp of his telekinesis, but it was enough to knock Nepeta off her feet. As she struggled to rise, he blasted her again. I realized I couldn't just watch this. I had to do something.
I drew my chainsaw from the hidden pocket, revved it, and jumped into the pit, landing behind him. I nearly fell off balance, but I caught myself in time and sawed into the redblood's side. From above, I could hear someone saying, "Hey, Serket, isn't that your moirail? Looks like she just broke up with you." Rough laughter followed this remark, as did the sound of a swift punch.
I picked Nepeta up — she was heavier than she looked — and slung her over my shoulder. I looked up for a way out of the pit. The bluebloods had closed in where I was standing, so there was no room to climb up that way. Then I saw Vriska. Her face was flushed with embarrasment or rage; I couldn't tell. But when she saw me make eye contact, she sighed loudly and brought her hand to her forehead, a telltale sign she was about to use her powers. "Everybody move," she yelled, and they did. I threw Nepeta up to land at Vriska's feet, then started climbing the wall. It was tougher than I expected. For the first few feet I could get clawholds, but then it was solid rock. They must have hardened the pit to keep ferals from escaping, I realized.
Vriska must have seen my difficulty, because her stance changed, and I could see her giving directions with her other arm. I looked down. Below me, the redblood was jerkily standing up and focusing on me. His eyes had the dazed look of Vriska's control. I felt his telekinesis take hold and lift me up. I quickly scrambled the last distance, then stood and faced Vriska. "You complete idiot," she said.
I blushed. "I can explain," I said.
"Save it for when we're safely away," she replied. I nodded and helped Nepeta stagger away while Vriska loosened her control so the bluebloods could do anything they wanted except follow us. "You know, if you wanted to try a different quadrant, you could just tell me," she muttered. "That waaaaaaaas pretty badass, though." Typical of her, but just this moment I couldn't complain. With Nepeta leaning on my shoulder and Vriska following a short distance behind, we made the long walk back to my hive. Later, Vriska and I would have to talk about trying a flushed relationship, but for the moment, my priority was to get Nepeta cleaned up.
At my door, Vriska stopped. "That girl must be pretty important to you, huh?" She looked me in the eye.
"It's a long story," I said.
"I'm going to make you tell me sometime," she warned, then leaned in and kissed me.
Everyone has her own idea about what a serendipitous flushed kiss should be like. This didn't quite meet mine, but it was nice. I returned as well as I could, then opened the door and brought Nepeta inside to clean her up. There was so much we'd have to do, like find her mom, finish her schoolfeeding, and of course get her some clothes that weren't scavenged and torn. But for now, this was enough.