Pawn stared at the ranks of Soldiers under his command and realized that he’d made a mistake.
He’d definitely made one a while back, when he’d brought the idea of Gods into the Hive of the Free Antinium in Liscor. That had been a mistake—or at least, telling the Soldiers had been.
It had helped them. Pawn that thought it would save them, but it had only led to a terrible moment where they slaughtered each other to find a better place. He’d stopped that—
But at a terrible cost. Nearly an entire barracks’ worth of Soldiers had been injured, and hundreds had died. Still, many had been saved, and Pawn had realized what his true mission was that day. To make a Heaven for the Antinium. To make a place, a way that they would not die forgotten and alone.
And he had leveled up after that night, hadn’t he? He was now a Level 6 [Acolyte] with the Skill of [Humble Presence], which was surely a boon to the Hive. And Klbkch had given him command of the remaining Soldiers—
Perhaps that was the mistake. Revalantor Klbkch had made the mistake here, because Pawn was sure of one thing. He couldn’t lead the Soldiers.
He had no idea how.
Pawn stared down at the ranks of silent, immobile giants aligned into perfect ranks in front of him. The Soldiers stood patiently, waiting for his command. Perhaps they would wait there forever, even if he left.
Such thoughts were terrifying to Pawn. He was no leader. Except, in a very real sense, he was. Moreover, those under his command needed him. If nothing else, Pawn had to ensure they didn’t die of their injuries.
Yes, every Soldier standing at attention was technically walking—or rather, standing—wounded. Of course they didn’t show any signs of pain, despite some having cracked carapaces or missing limbs. One Soldier was missing his right eye, but he looked at Pawn as if nothing was wrong.
At least…they were here with him, rather than fighting as they would be normally. Even though the Soldiers here were injured, Pawn knew that they would still have normally been assigned to combat duty if it weren’t for him.
The most wounded Soldier could fight after only a few days of rest. Of course, they’d be missing limbs but that didn’t matter when they hurled themselves into combat. Pawn had requested the foul, stinging ooze to begin regenerating their body parts, but it was a precious commodity and so the Soldiers would be weeks or even months in regrowing their limbs.
And in the meantime, what did Pawn do? He stared at his Soldiers, and they stared back. He couldn’t send them to battle. He couldn’t.
And yet, they were his responsibility. He had to make something of them. That was what Klbkch had told him. This was a test—
And Pawn had no idea how to pass it. He was pretty sure on how to fail, but what could he do with the Soldiers? All he had done was give them false hope—
And get a lot of them killed.
Pawn shook his head and the Soldier seemed to straighten even more. It had been five minutes since he’d entered the mess hall and found the Soldiers waiting for him. He had to give them an order, he knew. They needed direction.
Hesitantly, the Worker cleared his throat.
“You will not be expected to fight today.”
The Soldiers just stared at him. Did they feel relieved? Disappointed? Confused? Pawn didn’t know. Their faces were as incomprehensible to him as all Antinium were to other species. But he knew they did have feelings.
“Um…just go about your daily routine. That is to say—”
Pawn paused. He had to be a leader. So he firmed his tone.
“Attend meal times as normal. However, since you are not assigned to any post, return to your barracks to rest in the meantime. I will…find something for you to do, and try to visit you and tell stories. Alright?”
The Soldiers didn’t respond. But they turned and immediately began filing out of the room, heading towards the barracks. Pawn watched them go, limp with relief.
At least they listened to him. But did they resent him for telling them about God and Heaven? Did they feel regret for their brothers that had died in the mass suicide attempt?
Surely they did. But Pawn couldn’t ask, because the Soldiers couldn’t speak. The Worker anxiously paced back and forth as the other Workers assigned to food serving duty watched him nervously. He was commanding Soldiers. Pawn knew they would fight the monsters that came out of the dungeon and patrol and guard—but was there anything else they did?
He’d never known. And now he had to ask. But who would be able to tell him?
Not other Workers. Klbkch perhaps—but Pawn didn’t feel comfortable asking the Revalantor questions like that. Who else might know?
The Queen? Pawn would have rather slapped Klbkch than ask his Queen anything. No. No, there were only two other beings in the Hive who might know.
Belgrade and Anand. They were [Tacticians]. They’d leveled up in that class and been assigned roles leading Soldiers. They would know.
Pawn found his two former chess companions after only half an hour of searching. It wasn’t as if Belgrade and Anand left signs pointing out their location in the Hive, but Pawn knew where they ate and slept. Happily, he found them doing neither and instead, playing chess in the special break room reserved for Individuals.
The two Workers sat at a chess table, watched by a small crowd of other Workers. They stood out. Perhaps it was the way they held themselves. With confidence and pride. Or maybe it was just that Pawn knew them so well. He sat next to them and they nodded at him, familiar and warm as the Antinium ever got.
“Pawn. It is good to see you here today.”
That came from Belgrade. He nodded precisely as he placed a knight in the attack position, threatening a pawn from Anand.
“Indeed. I was worried you were being punished by Klbkch.”
Anand ignored the attack on his pawns and instead countered Belgrade with an aggressive push from his queen on the left side, threatening a bishop. Belgrade paused. Pawn observed the playing with interest, his mind half on the game.
It was true that he, Belgrade, and Anand all looked the same. But they were all different from each other—vastly different in terms of personality. Belgrade was a stickler for tactics and the openings Erin had taught them. He played defensively, cautiously. Almost too much, but it was necessary against Anand’s aggressive tactics. In speech as well, they tended to reflect their traits. It was remarkable, Pawn reflected, that any Workers could be so…unique.
He nodded to the two as the game continued, both Workers moving their pieces quickly and only pausing for a few seconds even for the hardest decisions. They were clearly playing a lightning game, although there was no timer. Antinium had no need of such devices.
“I thank you for your concern. I am not being punished by Revalantor Klbkch, Anand. But I am in distress.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You may be aware that I have been assigned a command of Soldiers. I am unsure how to properly lead them, and what roles they may fulfill within the Hive. Thus, I have come to you.”
The Antinium also didn’t do much small talk. Belgrade and Anand paused for a moment. Then Belgrade tipped over his king.
“I cannot win this match. Another round?”
The two reset the board, moving pieces with amazing synchronization. Pawn waited patiently. The game began with a classic King’s Gambit Accepted opening before Anand spoke.
“My experience with leading Soldiers occurs mainly in embattled tunnels and areas of the Hive in which conflict occurs. I direct their movements, reinforce them with Skills, and order retreats and designate targets as necessary.”
“That is my experience as well.”
Belgrade nodded. He placed a knight on the board delicately and stopped. Pawn had observed that Belgrade liked using knight pieces to open with.
“I have supervised Soldiers aiding in digging and construction at times. But Workers are more suited to those tasks. Patrolling, fighting, guarding, and scouting are the only roles I have seen them fulfill.”
Pawn felt his antennae droop. But he hadn’t really expected anything else.
“I see. And you have not ever seen them do anything for—for entertainment?”
Both of the other Workers paused and turned to Pawn. He knew they were surprised. If they had eyebrows, they would have been raising them.
“The Antinium have no entertainment.”
“Nor any other form of leisurely activity. This game of chess is as close as we have to it.”
“I know. It is just—I wish to give the Soldiers something more. You are aware of the details surrounding their injuries?”
“It was your fault, correct?”
Pawn nodded at Anand, acknowledging the truth.
“Yes. I regret my stupidity. And yet, I must now lead them. But I am no leader, no [Tactician] as you two are. You have continued to level. May I ask what level you are now?”
Belgrade adjusted a piece on the crude board, meticulously centering it in the square before he moved it.
Anand waited until the piece had moved to swiftly take it with a bishop. Belgrade made no audible response, but Pawn knew he was annoyed at making such a simple mistake.
“I am now a Level 6 [Acolyte].”
“Indeed? Congratulations are in order for such swift advancement.”
Belgrade and Anand turned. Both nodded at Pawn. He nodded back, feeling happy for their praise.
“It is just that I fail to see how my class can help the Soldiers. I barely know what to do with myself.”
“Perhaps Revalantor Klbkch sees something in you that cannot be defined by your class.”
Anand speculated as Belgrade attempted to regain lost ground. Pawn nodded slowly. He looked around at the other Workers.
They just stared at the board. He knew they were listening, but the other Workers—Individuals and Workers groomed to be Individuals—they had no spark. Not like Belgrade, Anand, Garry, and Bird. Those four Workers had what Pawn considered personality. The other Workers in the room were more like statues.
That was the word for it. It disturbed Pawn, although he couldn’t say why. Were the Soldiers like that? In a way, yes. Both they and the Workers kept their feelings, their true selves on the inside, if they even had a self at all. What could Pawn do for them, besides send them to die? What could he—?
“Pawn. Revalantor Klbkch approaches.”
Belgrade looked up and Pawn turned in his seat. The other Workers standing around the board scattered to make lots of room for the slim, unique Antinium as he marched quickly towards Pawn.
Just that one word made Pawn’s insides knot up. He hadn’t even known they could do that, but then, he’d seldom felt…trepidation before. But Klbkch scared him, and every time they met, Pawn couldn’t help but feel like he was doing everything wrong.
A feeling which was reinforced by Klbkch’s next words. The Revalantor stopped in front of him.
“Did you give your Soldiers orders this morning?”
Pawn cringed a bit. Was he not supposed to?
“Yes I did. Was anything—”
“They went back to their barracks and began to rest. They remained in the barracks when another shift came to rest, causing a delay.”
Oh no. Pawn’s insides twisted further, and he saw both Belgrade and Anand pause in playing chess. How could he have forgotten? The Antinium had no personal quarters—rather, they slept and worked and ate at allotted times, in shifts. When one shift slept, another one would work, and then the sleeping shift would switch with another one.
That was the most efficient use of resources and it meant places like the barracks could be used at all times. Pawn had—he’d ordered his Soldiers to take up the space meant for other exhausted Soldiers ending their shift!
The Antinium couldn’t blush, but Pawn lowered his head and antennae. He’d already messed up. And it was such a stupid mistake to make too!
“Forgive me, Revalantor Klbkch. I did not consider that when I gave my orders to the Soldiers. I am terribly—”
“I have taken care of it. Your Soldiers are being stationed in safe locations on protective detail. In the future do not make the same mistake.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat. He turned to go. Pawn looked at his back despairingly and called out.
The Antinium turned. He was graceful, deadly. He walked as if the two swords by his side were meant for him, and he never looked uncertain. How Pawn envied him.
“What is it, Pawn?”
“What should I do with the Soldiers under my command? Am I to lead them into battle?”
“No. You have only a single Skill in the [Tactician] class and you are too valuable to risk in battle. Moreover, the Soldiers are wounded. Your command over them is experimental.”
“Then—what purpose will we serve?”
Klbkch paused. He looked Pawn straight in the eye.
“I do not know. Surprise me. Or pray for an idea. That is your Skill, is it not?”
He turned and left. Belgrade and Anand stopped their game and watched him go. After a while, the other Workers walked back and resumed watching their game. Belgrade paused.
“I am unsure as to what you should do, Pawn. I regret that Erin is not here to aid you.”
“Indeed. I dislike Revalantor Klbkch’s requirements of you, and the Revalantor himself if it comes to that. Checkmate.”
Anand placed his queen and created an excellent checkmate. Belgrade nodded. He looked at the other [Tactician].
“I am extremely upset, Anand. I demand a rematch.”
Pawn left them to it. Well, he had his answer. He was supposed to do something with the Soldiers—only, even Klbkch had no idea what. Wonderful.
That was how, terribly depressed, Pawn found himself walking through Liscor that evening. He was still free to leave the Hive, and so he walked among the Drakes and Gnolls, feeling the cold wind on his carapace.
No one paid any attention to him. Normally, they might, if only to look scared and walk away from him. But today Pawn was more invisible than anything else. Oh, people noticed him, but he was now simply another person in the crowd, rather than a Worker, an Antinium.
It was due to his new Skill. [Humble Presence]. It made him, well, ordinary unless Pawn did something that really stood out or he was by himself. It was perfect for someone like him. Klbkch had already told him it might have useful applications in battle—but Pawn didn’t want to fight.
But he commanded Soldiers. But he had no idea what to do with them.
And he’d already caused trouble. Pawn hung his head, but his feet kept moving. In times like this, he only had one place he wanted to be.
The Wandering Inn. Even if Erin wasn’t there, at least Pawn could rest there in peace for a while. And he was getting hungry. Pawn had begun to hate eating in the Hive, and he had money. So Pawn walked out of the city and up to the inn.
It was the only place where he really felt alive.
She had a guest. Lyonette rubbed her eyes a few times when she saw the figure slowly walking up the hill towards the empty inn. But it was real. Someone was coming.
She nearly cried in relief. It had been…so long.
Two days this time. Two days after Lyonette had worked so hard! She’d made food and learned to cook and even cleaned the inn. But it had been two days since Pawn had left, and no one had come by.
Not Olesm, not Relc to ask about Erin, not even the grumpy adventurer. No one. But now she had a guest! The same guest, in fact, as last time.
The Antinium. Pawn. Lyonette remembered being afraid of him, of hating the Antinium. But right now she could have kissed the Worker on his mandibles. He was coming to spend money! To eat!
The girl rushed around the kitchen, trying to figure out what to make. Food! She couldn’t serve him the rubbery noodles she’d been making herself for breakfast, lunch and dinner, could she?
No, the Antinium couldn’t even handle gluten.
No bread or pasta, then. Lyonette froze. Could she make a soup? But when she checked, she had barely half a bucket of water left! And then the Antinium was at the door and there was no time to fetch more!
Screaming internally, Lyonette opened the door.
The Antinium entered, nodding politely at her.
“Good evening to you, Miss Lyonette. Are you open today?”
“Open? Of course! We’re open every day! Every night! Let me get you a chair. Would you like to sit next to the fire? I can put more wood on—”
Seemingly bemused, the Worker watched Lyonette rush about, stoking the fire, getting him a glass of water. She hovered around him anxiously, trying not to wring her hands.
“Would you like something else to drink? Um—we don’t have anything, though. To eat?”
“Water is quite acceptable, thank you. I would indeed like food tonight. What is on the menu, may I ask?”
Lyonette froze. What was on the menu? She didn’t even have a menu! Her mind went blank, but her mouth took over in this moment of crisis.
“W-would you like eggs and bacon?”
That was all she could think to make! Erin normally had all kinds of soups and meat dishes she could serve—but Lyonette didn’t know how to cook any of them!
Pawn seemed to think for a moment, and then nodded.
“Yes. I will have some, thank you.”
Lyonette smiled at him, dashed into the kitchen, and called herself ten kinds of stupid while she fried up a heaping plate for him. Eggs and bacon? She’d served that to him last time! He’d get bored of the food, surely! When she’d been living in the palace, Lyonette would have fired the [Chef] who made her the same meal twice in one week!
But the Antinium didn’t seem offended. Instead, he paused when Lyonette placed the big plate of eggs and bacon in front of him—nearly all of what she had left.
“This is quite a fine meal. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome!”
Lyonette nearly sagged in relief. She hovered around Pawn as he picked up a fork. He paused, looked at her.
“Would you like to sit?”
She was bothering him! Lyonette sat instantly, trying to smile and not be obtrusive as Pawn ate. The silence was…
After a few minutes Pawn spoke.
“It seems the inn is rather empty. Have you been receiving much custom, Miss Lyonette?”
“Me? No I—”
Lyonette paused. How could she tell the Antinium about crying in the inn, counting the few copper and two silver coins left? Eating the same horrible mush she cooked up every day? How could she?
How could she not?
“It’s been…hard since Erin—Miss Solstice left. No one visits.”
“That is troublesome. I hope my business can help.”
“It will! I just wish there were a lot more people like—like you!”
“Thank you for the compliment.”
More silence. Lyonette looked at Pawn, realizing this was the first time she’d ever been so close to one of the hateful Antinium, the terrors of Rhir. He looked so…normal for some reason.
“How’s it going in the Hive? With the other Antinium, I mean?”
The Worker seemed to pause for a few seconds.
“It is…going well. There are some difficulties, but the Hive is well.”
Lyonette sat with the Worker, refilling his glass, drinking some water herself. They didn’t talk much while he ate his way through the plate of greasy eggs and bacon. When he left, he paid her well. Lyonette stared at the bronze coins and smiled tremulously. Then she cried again.
Pawn left The Wandering Inn in good spirits. The brief respite and dinner made for a world of difference. Suddenly, he felt happy again.
The inn. Sitting there and talking—well, it wasn’t the same, but the Human girl had been decent company and the food had been far better than the mush in the Hive.
A good night. A good evening. That was what it was. Pawn walked back down the hill, staring up at the clear night sky as he did. The air was cold around him, but he enjoyed the biting chill and the crisp crunching sound the snow made under his feet.
The stars. Oh, how the stars shone. Yellow and red some of them, but green and purple others, shining bright, shining faintly, some flickering behind the occasional cloud. And the two moons were beautiful as well.
A sky full of wonders, a landscape full of snow and silence. Warm belly, good conversation. Pawn felt alive again. This was what he’d missed.
How wonderful. How…Pawn stopped in the snow, struck by a sudden realization.
“This is what I must show them.”
Yes. This. This night was like everything Pawn had experienced since meeting Erin, a small capsule of pure happiness. Of course, the inn was different, and it had been Erin, not Lyonette running it. But it had been the experiences of the inn which had made Pawn who he was. Klbkch desired new Individuals, but just teaching them chess wasn’t enough. Chess was only the method. It had been Erin who truly mattered.
And if she was gone, then it fell to Pawn to show the Soldiers the same world she had shown him. Pawn walked back to his Hive, his steps suddenly full of purpose. He needed to take his Soldiers outside. Outside of their Hive where everything was the same.
He would talk to Revalantor Klbkch about the issue that very night. As Pawn walked, he clicked his mandibles together, savoring the flavor of his meal. Eggs and bacon. He’d had it last time, hadn’t he? Well, Pawn didn’t mind, although perhaps next time he would ask Lyonette if she had any good cheese she could add to the meal. He really liked scrambled eggs, but he liked omelettes filled with gooey cheese even more.
He was never coming back. That was what Lyonette told herself again and again as she wallowed in despair in her dark, empty inn. The fire was dying down again.
“Idiot! You stupid idiot!”
Lyonette buried her head in her arms and cried. The Worker—Pawn was gone. He’d left coin, but he hadn’t said he’d return. Of course not! Who’d say that?
But would he come back in two more days? Or never? He hadn’t talked much—
Because she hadn’t been a good host! Lyonette remembered Erin being so friendly to the Antinium, but words had failed her when she’d tried to talk to him.
And he’d left so quickly. Had it been quick? It had felt like that to Lyonette, lonely as she was.
He hadn’t liked the food. That was surely it.
Slowly, as the last flames flickered and died in the dark inn, Lyonette raised her head. She stared at the small, circular discs of metal on the table.
Money. The only money she’d seen all week. Enough for a few more days of food, of life. And she still had flour and salt and…provisions enough for a few more days. But that was all.
Water? The stream still ran, and though the water was bitingly cold, it could be heated. With enough wood. Lyonette glanced anxiously to the dying embers, the only thing warming the cold room.
She had lots of firewood, actually. Erin had used Toren to gather a lot of wood from the boom bark, safely denuded of their bark of course.
But she couldn’t eat wood, and Lyonette was fairly certain that Pawn couldn’t either. And yet—feeding him eggs and bacon was an expensive proposition, even with how much he was willing to pay! Especially if he only came by once every few days.
She needed more customers. Lyonette knew that. But who would want to come here, to this empty inn without Erin Solstice? To…her.
No one. No one but an Antinium. Lyonette clutched at her head.
More guests. Drakes didn’t like Humans and Gnolls would probably try to kill her. But the Antinium—
They couldn’t eat bread. Or pasta. That was the huge flaw in Lyonette’s potential base of customers. How could she feed them with meat and eggs and other such expensive ingredients in the winter? A soup might work, but…any inn in the city could serve a better soup than she could, surely.
In her heart, Lyonette knew she was standing on a cliff. Starvation loomed over her head, dark, chittering. She had to do something. And she knew there was one thing she could do. She’d thought of it every night since Pawn had come the first time.
One desperate idea. That was all she had. She couldn’t make what the Antinium truly loved—and she barely had the coin to buy enough food for herself now! But there was a source of free, delicious ingredients for them, wasn’t there?
Lyon whispered the word and shuddered uncontrollably. But it had been said. Now there was no going back.
Yes, there was one untapped source of food in this cold winter. One foodstuff that the Antinium would pay silver for.
But they were a horror. Lyonette had seen them tear apart Toren when he angered them. She remembered the terrible, buzzing cloud of bees, some larger than her hand, enough to sting an entire village to death in minutes.
But she had no other choice. Lyonette sat in the dark in, her heart pounding. She stared at the door. Every night she’d had the same thought, and every night she’d been too afraid. For two nights now. Ever since Pawn.
But he’d come back. He would come back. And she was out of options.
Lyonette sat in the darkness. She wavered. She found a wheelbarrow and filled it with firewood and kindling. She made a torch and wavered by the door. She rushed to the outhouse to pee, and then throw up. Then she pushed the wheelbarrow out into the cold and dark, four huge jars balanced atop the wood, and Erin’s sharpest knife hung at her belt.
“Watch Captain Zevara, may I have a moment of your time?”
If it had been anyone else, Watch Captain Zevara would have told them it was late and to bother her again the next day. If it had been Relc asking whether he could take the day off, she would have burnt his face-scales off.
But because it was Klbkch, Zevara just sighed and resigned herself to a late night.
“Come in, Klbkch. Is something the matter?”
Senior Guardsman Klbkch entered the room, nodding politely at Zevara. He was always polite, and efficient, something she admired about him even if he was an Ant.
“I regret taking up your time before you go off-duty. However, I am here to make an…unusual request. And I must inform you that I do not come here in my capacity as Senior Guardsman, but rather as Prognugator of my Hive.”
That made Zevara instantly sit up in her straight-backed wooden chair.
“Go on. Is there trouble in the Hive? An…Aberration?”
“Nothing so pressing.”
Gracefully, Klbkch took a seat in front of Zevara. She eyed him, and his new…form. It still unnerved her a bit that after nearly ten years, he could suddenly look so different. True, two arms and a slimmer body wasn’t exactly that different, but it was just…odd. Another reminder of who he really was, and why she had to treat him and any such conversations with care.
“Well, I am always willing to discuss your Hive. Is there something you need?”
“Yes. I would like to request that forty Soldiers be allowed access to the surface and area around Liscor.”
Zevara froze again. She kept none of her emotions on her face, though, and pretended to cough.
“That’s an…unusual request.”
“Indeed. I would not normally ask, but I believe the need is justified and according to our treaty, Soldiers may only leave the Hive in times of war, or—”
“At the request of the Watch Captain.”
Zevara nodded. She sat back in her chair, eyeing Klbkch cautiously.
“I see. And may I ask why you want to take your Soldiers out of the city? You’ve never requested something like this before, not in the six years I’ve served as Captain.”
“Times have changed. I believe it may be useful to my Hive to present my Soldiers with an…expanded view of the area around Liscor.”
That made no sense to Zevara, but few things the Antinium did made sense. She shrugged, trying to keep her tail still. She knew that Klbkch watched Drakes’ tails and could interpret their movements almost as well as a Drake.
“I don’t see any reason why I should refuse your request. Only—wouldn’t taking so many Soldiers out of the Hive be dangerous? Of the six hundred Soldiers permitted to your Hive, wouldn’t forty be quite a large number?”
“I believe we shall be able to compensate for their lack. In truth, our numbers are slightly below six hundred at the moment, but Liscor is a consummate ally, so I see no reason to worry.”
Klbkch’s face didn’t change. Neither did Zevara’s as she nodded at that barefaced lie.
“Well, reassuring as you find us, I’m afraid Liscor’s citizens might get a bit…nervous when they see Soldiers marching about. What would I tell them?”
“Perhaps that the Soldiers are patrolling to deal with any Goblin warbands in the area? I am cognizant that the citizens are restless due to the presence of the dungeon as well as rumors of the Goblin Lord. Seeing them patrolling might reassure the citizens of Liscor.”
That was a good answer, and even a helpful one for Zevara. She nodded reluctantly.
“Well, I see no reason to object—only, I’d hate for them to start a panic if they marched down the street. But then, I’m sure you can be discreet and find…alternate ways out of the city that won’t panic anyone.”
Through the secret tunnels the Antinium have dug. That was what she meant, but both she and Klbkch knew he would never admit anything.
“They will not be seen within Liscor if at all possible. Soldiers can be very discreet.”
Zevara nearly snorted fire out her nose. She searched for another question to ask—or something else to bother Klbkch with, but she really couldn’t think of anything. Forty Soldiers killing monsters would be helpful, and it was hardly likely that they’d start a panic. Ten years ago when the Hive was first established, maybe. But now…
“Well—fine. I, Watch Captain Zevara, grant you permission and request that twenty Soldiers aid in patrolling around the city. Twenty, for now. We’ll scale up the patrols if there’s not a panic.”
Klbkch inclined his head towards her.
“I am very grateful for your time, Watch Captain.”
“Yes, yes. Just make sure they don’t scare any travelers on the main road or run into any Human adventurers. Those idiots would probably pick a fight and that’s the last thing I want to explain to one of the Human cities.”
“I shall instruct them to remain far away from the northern road.”
“Well then, good night, Watch Captain.”
Zevara waited until Klbkch was gone, marching smartly down the stairs. Then she shook her head and reached for a desk drawer she seldom opened. She yanked the handle, cursed, found the small key she carried at all times, and unlocked it. A blank piece of parchment lay on it. Zevara sighed, and began to write down every detail of her encounter with Klbkch. A report. She’d have to make copies, send them to every Walled City—which of course meant a trip down to the Mage’s Guild at this time of night! Zevara groaned. She’d be getting to her bed past midnight, she knew.
As she began to write, Zevara muttered to herself.
“Take the Soldiers out? Why?”
But of course she never got any answers. Like all the reports she’d made on the Antinium’s movements, she only had questions. Questions…
Like whether or not the Antinium were really their enemies. At least, the ones in Liscor. And if they were—
What could be done about them? Only the scratching of her quill on parchment was Zevara’s reply.
Lyonette was not in her bed. In fact, she was as far from it as she’d gone in the last month. She trudged through the snow, fighting to push the wheelbarrow through the snow and ice. She wished she still had Erin’s sled. But it was gone, with her.
Of course, the effort of pushing the wheelbarrow was only one of Lyonette’s concerns. The numbing cold, the intense darkness, and not least, the pants-wetting fear in her heart were high priorities too.
What was she doing? Every two seconds as Lyon pushed the wheelbarrow she looked around fearfully, expecting a monster to leap out at her. But she had no choice. It had to be tonight. She had to steal the honey tonight, or she’d lose all her confidence.
And night was the best time to rob the hive, or so Lyonette felt. Bees slept at night, didn’t they? Or at the very least, they’d be drowsy, and she needed every edge she could get.
It had been a long, uncertain journey across the plains. At first, Lyon hadn’t even known if she was going the right way. Everything looked so strange at night, under the snow. But her treacherous memory somehow managed to guide her exactly in the right direction for once.
To raid a bee’s nest. Even the thought made Lyonette feel weak with terror, but she had no choice. To survive, she had to do it. Steal bees right out of their nest.
Okay, maybe she couldn’t steal live bees, but surely she could get a few of the grubs? Lyonette remembered the one Klbkch had eaten and nearly threw up again.
Honey. That was the real key. Honey was precious, and she could serve it to the Antinium. They liked honey, and with a few bees—
She just had to raid the hive. Full of huge bees that could kill her in an instant. Lyon couldn’t get her mind off of the idea. Just one sting could—if they stung her in the eye would it reach her brain?
But—she had no choice. Lyonette took a painful breath of air. She was a [Princess]. She was a—
She was a girl. A [Barmaid]. Erin had left her inn to Lyon. Intentionally or not. And now it was up to Lyon to live or die. By herself. She no longer had any excuses. Either she died here, or she died in the cold and darkness.
Better here. Better with the flame of courage still in her chest. So Lyonette paused before the dark hole in the rock and took a deep breath. Sweat ran down her legs and back. She felt hot, even though the wind was blowing.
Bees. They were just bees, in the end.
And she—knew how to deal with bees.
It had just been a fancy. When she’d been young, her tutor had told her all kinds of things she’d willfully ignored. Lessons of algebra, governance, taxes, ruling, classes—all of this Lyonette had let pass her by without caring. But occasionally, in desperation her tutor would tell her stories to keep her interested. And Lyonette had remembered tiny bits.
One of those things she remembered was bees. When she’d heard how [Beekeepers] could harvest honey from the stinging creatures, she’d been incredulous. But a bit of smoke and thick clothing could do the trick better than magic could.
Lyonette stared at the firewood she’d hauled all this way. She carefully took the glass jars out and put them to one side of the cave’s entrance. Four jars. This time she’d take as much as she could. If she could.
Fire. The wood was wet from the snow and it was cold, but Lyonette kept striking the flint with steel. Mechanically. She made a small fire at the entrance of the cave, working despite the numbness in her arms.
How many times would she have given up a few months ago? Before this, she’d never—she’d never even made a fire. She would have had a servant make it, or at the very least used magic.
If she could have gone back in time, what would she have done differently? Everything. She’d never have come here, she wouldn’t have stolen—
But if she never came here, she would never have leveled, would she? And she would have been stuck—
The sparks flew from the flint. They landed among the wood kindling and caught. Lyonette held her breath and then desperately tried to shelter the flame.
Fire. Once it grew, Lyonette fed it more wood. More and more, until the fire was hot and bright and large. Then she added the secret ingredient.
Flaxen sacks, grass plucked from beneath the snow—anything green that would smoke. The smell was horrible, but Lyon ignored it and kept adding her fuel.
Smoke, dark and noxious, billowed up from the fire. Lyonette stared at it, eyes stinging, but filled with wild elation. Fear had disappeared. Courage—she fanned the flames and the ones in her heart.
Soon, the cave was choked with dark smoke, and Lyon knew it would become overwhelming in a few more minutes. Perfect. She stared anxiously at the dark interior. She hadn’t seen nor heard any bees, but they were further inside. First she had to build the fire. Then—
Thick clothing. Lyonette had many layers wrapped around her. It might stop one or two stingers, or slow them down. She had gloves, and the knife. It could cut into the hive, hopefully. She’d cut away as much honeycomb as she could and put it in the jars. If she was lucky, she’d even get some of the grubs the Antinium seemed to like so much. Then she’d run.
That was the plan. And it was a good plan, brave. It lasted in Lyonette’s head, shining and full of promise until Lyonette heard the buzzing.
At first, it was just a gentle noise on the verge of hearing. Then it became louder, and Lyonette realized the thrumming was getting closer. She looked up, screamed, and ran as first tens, then hundreds of bees streamed out of the cave towards the fire.
They’d come for the fire. That was all Lyonette could think as she sprinted out of the cave. By the fire’s light she saw countless flickering shapes, and then heard the bees hit the fire.
They were extinguishing it! Embers and burning wood flew everywhere as the bees scattered the smoking campfire Lyonette had worked so hard to build. They knew! They knew about smoke and they were unafraid of fire!
And then they came for her. Lyonette screamed as she ran into the deep snow outside the cave. She threw herself into the snow, digging herself as far down as she could, desperately trying to cover herself. All the while, she could hear the bees’ wings beating. Like a maelstrom, like thunder.
Lyonette dug, wiggling herself down, down, crying. She heard a buzzing thing hit the snow next to her head like a falling stone and cried out. But the bee hadn’t hit her! It had missed! Lyonette held as still as she could, tears running from her eyes. The bees couldn’t see her. But they knew she was there and they began stabbing into the snow.
The girl hid in the snow, sobbing, while the thunder buzzed all around her and she heard thumps as the bees landed in the snow, searching for her. Hot liquid ran from her eyes, and more ran down her pants. All Lyon could think was that she’d be dead in the next second, then the next ten seconds. Then in a minute…
After a while, after a long while when the thunder had ceased and all the sounds were gone, Lyonette finally sat up. She looked around and saw the snow was torn and thrown about, and extinguished remains were all that remained of the fire she’d built. And of the bees?
Nothing at all. They’d gone back into their hive.
Lyonette stared around at the shattered remains of her dreams. She stumbled, felt wetness on her lower body. She looked down. The snow had dampened her clothes, but that didn’t explain the stain around her crotch. She’d wet herself. She hadn’t done that in—at least no one was around to see.
In the end, Lyonette stumbled back to the inn. She left the firewood behind, the wheelbarrow, the glass jars—she didn’t have the heart to bring them back.
It was over. She’d had one chance, but it hadn’t even been a chance at all. These bees didn’t fear fire, and they were too smart to let the smoke fill their cave.
The girl stumbled back into the inn, still crying. She couldn’t do it. She’d thought—but she was not Erin.
And even Erin couldn’t have done that by herself. Lyonette clearly remembered the real key to stealing the bees’ honey. The horrible monster with glowing purple eyes who’d tormented her so. But for all she’d hated him, he’d been instrumental. And he wasn’t here.
The girl sank into a chair, wet, miserable, despairing. She buried her head in her hands, but now she was even out of tears. She was so tired. So tired—and so lonely.
She didn’t have the skeleton. Toren. She didn’t have Erin Solstice’s twisted, insane mind either. Right at this very moment, Lyonette wished both were back and this inn was how it used to be. She would have scrubbed the floors all by herself, hauled as many buckets of water as Erin needed, even watered the flowers and—
Lyon’s eyes widened with sudden memory. How could she had forgotten? She surged to her weary feet, ran to one of the windows.
She’d forgotten entirely. After all this time—Erin normally watered them. But could they be alive? Could she sell—
She cried the word when she saw them. Flowers. Flowers yellow and bright as gold, a faerie’s payment. But wizened, wilted.
The pots of flowers Erin had so lovingly grown were full of—Lyonette stared down at them, her heart breaking. She knew they could be made into a drink, even if she didn’t know how. The adventurer, Halrac, had paid in gold for it. If she had remembered, if she had cared about her duties from the start—
Now they were dead. Or close to it. Some still lived, and Lyonette immediately soaked the dry soil with water, but it would be long, too long before they recovered.
And of course, some were beyond help. Lyonette stared at one dead flower in despair. She picked it out and stared at it.
Another lost hope. Now her heart was well and truly broken. Lyonette stared at the fire in the inn. It was barely even embers now; the last flickers of light hidden at the center of the ash.
Fire had failed her. Angrily, Lyonette stalked over to the fireplace and tossed the dead flower into it. The faerie’s flower smoked and gave off an acrid smoke. Lyonette coughed, angrily waving the fumes away—
And woke up on her back. Lyonette blinked, stared at the dead fire, and then at the remains of the flower. She blinked—stared at the way the darkness had become lighter, at the dead fire, long extinguished, and then at the wilted flowers. Then she sat up.
“Flowers. And bees.”
It was just before dawn when the girl lit the second fire just inside the cave of the Ashfire Bees. This time her body was nearly completely numb and she was shaking from exhaustion. She’d brought another huge glass jar, and a handful of the most dead flowers she could gather. She prayed that was enough.
The kindling refused to light. The wood was so wet from its exposure to the elements—Lyon kept trying. She struck sparks until her fingers cramped, and then the fire lit.
She fed the fire. She added wood, feeding it, growing it frantically. How soon before the bees noticed the flame and heat? How soon before—
She heard the thrumming again, but this time she was ready. Lyonette cast the flowers into the fire and saw smoke go up. But it was only a glimpse because she was running out of the cave, diving into the snow again.
The bees came, a howling sound louder than anything. Lyonette waited for them to scatter the fire, but suddenly the beating noise lessened. She heard small impacts, as if something was falling to the ground and then—
Lyon got up slowly. She stared at the cave, and then dared to approach, holding her breath. The last vestiges of smoke faded and she saw the bees.
There were hundreds of them. They lay on the ground in droves, legs folded, some of them with wings still extended.
Lyonette’s heart beat faster. She grabbed a jar. She grabbed the knife. She danced about with both, and then wondered how long the effects of the faerie flower smoke would last. Then she ran into the cave.
Three jars of honey and honeycomb, cut from the hive. Two jars stuffed with bees, still alive but sleeping. Lyonette sat in the snow, far away from the cave, shaking so hard she couldn’t even stand.
She’d seen the bees waking up as she’d scooped them up into the big glass jars. But she’d done it. She’d cut into the hive, full of grubs and sleeping bees and taken as much as she could. Then she’d filled the jars, pushed them into the wheelbarrow, and fled.
Some of the bees were moving in the glass jars. There was no air inside, but they were still alive, somehow. Lyonette stared at a huge one that wiggled its feelers and moved its legs weakly. Lyonette smiled at it, lip trembling. She held the big jar up, gloating, mocking the bees.
“I did it! You stupid bees! I did—”
One of the bees inside the jar tried to fan its wings and escape. It smacked into the glass. Lyonette screamed, nearly dropped the jar, caught it at the last moment, and then put it carefully back on the wheelbarrow. She shuddered as the jars full of bees vibrated. She made sure the lids were secure, and then slowly made her way back to the inn.
She was exhausted. Lyonette felt as though her muscles would tear. Her bones…seemed to ache. And yet Lyonette held her head high. She smiled, even as she ascended the hill, pushing the wheelbarrow up to the door of the inn, legs ready to give out.
She felt so proud of herself, she could burst. Then Lyonette pushed the door to the inn open, and found a small bundle of white fur wrapped around a table leg. Mrsha blinked as Lyonette let light shine on her face, and then looked up hopefully. Her wagging tail slowed when she saw it was just Lyonette.
The Human girl stared at the young Gnoll. The Gnoll stared back. Lyonette sat down, a jar of honey in her hands.
“What are you doing…? Why are you…?”
Mrsha just blinked at her. Lyonette blinked back. Then, tremulously, she smiled. Mrsha edged closer, wary.
“You’re so thin.”
That was all Lyonette said as she sat on the inn’s floor, stroking Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll nuzzled her. She was indeed thin, and she looked—
Sad. Lyonette couldn’t read Gnoll’s faces, but she saw it in the way the Gnoll curled up next to her. Sad, and lonely.
Just like her.
“Would you like some honey? It’s fresh.”
The Gnoll’s tail wagged. And Lyonette opened the jar. And for the first time in a long, long while, as the sun rose and her weary body ached, Lyonette ate breakfast with someone else.
Selys burst through the door of the inn twenty minutes later. Lyonette looked up as she and Mrsha stared at a wriggling grub half-submerged in a bowl of white, gelatinous stuff. The Drake stared at the Gnoll, stared at Lyonette, and then at the grub.
“What’s happening? Mrsha?”
The Gnoll immediately hopped off the table and fled into the kitchen. Selys ran towards her, and stopped as Lyonette got up.
“Is something wrong? Miss…Selys?”
“Um—no, nothing’s wrong…Lyon.”
The Drake glanced distractedly at Lyon, not looking particularly happy to see the girl so early in the morning. She pointed at the kitchen.
“When did Mrsha get here? I’ve been looking for her all day—ever since I found out she’d run away!”
The Drake nodded distractedly.
“She’s been doing it all week. I normally find her but this time—is she okay?”
“I think so. She’s so thin—”
“She won’t eat! Mrsha, come out of there! Come on! I’ll feed you anything you want, just—”
The Drake went into the kitchen. Lyonette heard scuffling, then Mrsha bounded out and ran up the stairs. Selys went after her. A few seconds later, Lyon heard another shout and Mrsha bounded down the stairs. Selys came down after her, gasping. She had to lean against a table as Mrsha circled the chair Lyonette had been sitting at.
“You can’t stay here! You…give me a second…you’ve got to come back, okay? Be a good girl until Erin and Ryoka come back!”
But Mrsha refused. Lyonette knew the young Gnoll couldn’t speak, but she saw it in every line of her body, and especially in the way the Gnoll clung to one of the tables as Selys tried to drag her outside.
“Come on! Please?”
Mrsha yowled, a noise more bestial than anything else. Selys pulled and pulled…but five minutes later she sat at one of the tables as Lyonette served her eggs and toast drizzled in honey. Mrsha licked her plate—she’d eaten so much Lyon was afraid she’d throw up.
“I just don’t get it. She doesn’t eat anything I give her! Not even steak! Do you know how expensive that is—and where did you get all this honey?”
“I stole it from the bees.”
“The bees? You?”
Lyon just nodded. She hadn’t even had time to change her clothes. She knew she was filthy and wet and from the way Mrsha had sniffed at her, she knew she stank as well. But there was something keeping her upright, and—
“What’s with that?”
Selys turned a bit pale as she pointed at the grub swimming in the liquid. Mrsha sniffed at it and Selys pushed an inquisitive paw away.
“Don’t touch it, Mrsha. It could be…well, it’s gross.”
“It’s a grub. A bee larvae. And that—I think it’s jelly.”
“Royal jelly. It’s this thing in hives that bees make. You can eat it, I think.”
“Really? Well why not take the grub out and—boil it first, maybe?”
“The jelly? Or the grub? I’m trying to keep it alive.”
Selys paused, mid-bite, a piece of toast in her claws.
“Why? Are you—are you going to eat it? Do Humans…?”
“No. I want to feed it to the Antinium.”
“To the—and you stole honey from those killer bees Erin mentioned?”
“Not just honey.”
Proudly, Lyonette pointed to a corner of the room. Selys looked and nearly jumped out of her scales.
The dead bees pressed up against the glass walls of the jars, obscenely squished together. Selys stared at them as she slowly pushed her plate away. Mrsha just sniffed at the jars, tail wagging with curiosity.
“Mrsha, don’t. Those are—come with me.”
But the Gnoll refused to move. And as she ran from Selys and the Drake futilely chased her about, Lyonette had an idea.
“She can stay with me.”
Selys looked up at Lyon, panting. She shook her head, glancing around the empty inn and then at Lyonette.
“Out of the question. Erin trusted Mrsha with me—and she’s far too young. And besides…”
Lyonette knew what Selys was saying. Besides, how could Mrsha be entrusted to her, Lyon’s care? But she just pointed to Mrsha.
“She likes it here, though. She likes honey. And—there are lots of beds. I could take care of her. I could, Selys.”
The Drake stared at the Human and Mrsha chased her tail. But when Selys grabbed for her, Mrsha just ran behind Lyonette. The girl stared down at the Gnoll, and the Gnoll stared back up.
It wasn’t as if Mrsha knew Lyonette that well. They’d—well, Lyonette remembered feeding the Gnoll scraps from her plate and scratching her behind the ears, but that wasn’t what made Mrsha want to stay with her over Selys.
It was the inn. It was that Lyonette was here, waiting. And so was Mrsha. And no matter how much Selys argued and tried to coax the Gnoll to come with her—
“I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got to go but—this isn’t over, Mrsha! If I have to I’ll get Krshia!”
The young Gnoll hid behind a chair as Selys pointed at her. She quivered, but she still refused to budge.
“You don’t want to have her come up here, do you? Do you? Come on Mrsha—”
“I’ll take good care of her while you’re gone. I promise. I can make food—”
“Just don’t let her go outside, okay?”
Selys looked ready to tear the spines on her head off. She stalked over to the door, angry, upset. She yanked the door open and blinked at Pawn. The Antinium’s hand paused, ready to knock. But that wasn’t what made all the blood drain out of Selys’ scales. She stared up at the massive Soldier, huge, imposing, staring down at her. Her mouth opened, she gaped—
And then fell backwards in a faint. No one caught her. Lyonette stared at Pawn. He stared at Selys. Mrsha hid behind the jar of bees.
“Oops. I was going to knock.”
He nodded to Lyonette as she helped him drag Selys inside. The Soldiers walked in behind Pawn, so many of them! They filled the room, standing perfectly still behind their leader.
For a few seconds, in that moment when Selys had yanked open the door, Lyonette had wanted to scream. But that instinct had fled the moment she had seen Pawn. She looked at the Soldiers as they stood in the inn. They looked—
Scary. There was no other word for it. But all Antinium looked like monsters, didn’t they? Until you got to know them.
Pawn sat at a table, clearly wavering over the unconscious Drake. He nodded several times to Lyon, and distractedly stared at Mrsha who was creeping closer to him.
“I do apologize. I didn’t mean to scare anyone. I just—I had hoped you were open for business.”
Open for business. The words made Lyon’s eyes open wide. She stared again at the Soldiers, but this time not as a stranger seeing something unfamiliar, but as a…a [Barmaid] sizing up a potential client.
And there was a lot of client, and a lot of them. How much could they eat? Lyon’s eyes traveled to the jar of bees. Her heart beat faster. So she stood up.
And smiled. She smiled at the Antinium, even at the huge Soldiers. Mrsha stared up at one of the silent behemoths, and he stared back. He was missing a hand on one of his four arms. But he was a customer, a guest. And…oh, how would Erin say it?
Lyonette gestured to her empty chairs. She pointed at the bees and remembered there was a special pan for frying them. She looked at the twenty Soldiers, at Pawn, and at the Gnoll poking the unconscious Drake. She smiled, because she wasn’t alone anymore. And she asked them one simple question.
“Would you like something to eat?”