“And so we pray. Not for a god, not because we are chosen or beloved. We are alone.”
The mass of heads bowed before Pawn. He stood at the small earthen dais at the back of the room. It was nothing more than packed earth. Pawn held a censer in his hands. It was not burning, although a faint cinnamon smell still emanated from it. He had no intention of lighting it; it was just for comfort as he spoke.
“We are alone.”
The words echoed through the chamber over the listening Soldiers and Workers. Painful words. True words. Pawn knew them to be true. He raised his voice.
“However. I believe in heaven. I believe in salvation and the worth of our souls. I believe in you. So if you would, join me and have faith that there is a place for our kind. And if there is none, we shall build it ourselves. Let us pray.”
Pawn lowered his head and put two of his hands together, clasping them as he sensed the other Antinium doing the same. He prayed then, prayed without words. He imagined what heaven might be. He hoped it was real and that his words were not meaningless. For a while he stood thus, and felt better. That was all. He raised his head and spoke softly.
A susurration ran through the crowd of Antinium as they raised their heads. The faintest of sounds; they did not sigh or speak. The sounds of their hands unclasping, of them standing or adjusting their posture was faint. But there was a change. Pawn nodded.
“Please come forwards and receive your wafers.”
He reached for a basket of round little pieces of flatbread and the Soldiers and Workers fell into line seamlessly. They cupped their hands as Pawn offered them the tiny pieces of bread. It was small enough that the digestion of the Antinium wouldn’t be unduly disturbed by the food. And it was tasty. Pawn offered the wafers to each Antinium in turn until he only had a few wafers in the basket and there were no more Antinium in line.
“Thank you for attending the sermon. You may return to your business.”
The Workers and Soldiers silently savoring the small bits of bread didn’t so much as nod. They instantly broke up. Pawn sighed as he scooped the wafers in the bottom of the basket up.
“Here. For the wounded.”
He offered the wafers to a huge Soldier who approached him. Yellow Splatters took the wafers and nodded. Pawn had to give them away; if he left them alone the Antinium would let them rot rather than eat them without permission. The [Sergeant] stepped towards some of the Painted Soldiers who had been wounded. They looked up and received the wafers silently, regardless if they had prayed or not.
Wafers. They were Pawn’s latest innovation. He’d ordered them ahead of time and petitioned Klbkch to add them to his budget. They weren’t an expense at all, but neither were they strictly necessary. The Revalantor had been confused as to why Pawn needed them and Pawn couldn’t explain properly.
It was a small thing. A nice thing. That was all. It wasn’t an incentive to join his weekly sermon and prayer—which in itself lasted about twenty minutes—but it was nice. Pawn had eventually convinced Klbkch that it was important. He could feed all the Antinium with it; give them a treat between their horrible meals. Even the ones who didn’t pray.
Ah, yes. Pawn raised his head and looked around. Not all the Antinium were eating. Some Workers and Soldiers stood apart from the others, waiting patiently for the others to finish savoring their snack. They had not joined the mass and had declined to receive a wafer, even though Pawn made it clear the wafers were there for everyone regardless of whether they prayed or not.
Not all prayed. What was curious to Pawn, what lifted his spirits was that not all the Antinium who became Individual prayed. He stood in the Soldiers’ barracks that had been converted into the formal meeting place for his unit of Painted Soldiers and now Workers and saw hundreds of Soldiers, and dozens of Workers. Of that number, roughly two thirds had attended his sermon. The rest had not. And, Pawn suspected, never would. They did not believe. And that was fine.
Belgrade would not pray. Anand would, but Pawn wondered if the Worker truly believed. Garry had not ever had time to join one of the masses and as for Bird…no. The Worker had told Pawn that it was more fun to sit in his tower. Even if it was raining. You never knew if a water bird was going to fall out of the sky. That was fine too. Pawn would believe for all of them.
He was two things in this place. An [Acolyte], a believer in something greater than any one Antinium. And a leader of the Painted Soldiers and Workers here. It was the Workers that Pawn turned his mind to now. He stared at the awkward Workers milling about in small clumps of their own, not talking, but rather standing around. Enjoying not working, perhaps.
In the weeks since he had gained his [Benediction of Hope] Skill, Pawn’s congregation had grown. As had the size of his unit of Individual Antinium. It was no longer just the Painted Soldiers but Individual Workers as well. His experiments with the chess boards had created a population of Individual Workers who were not Aberration…but weren’t as distinct as Pawn, Belgrade, or the others.
They could pass the Hive’s tests which other Antinium would fail at. If they were asked what their names were, they would quietly reply they had none. They would not break if confronted with questions about their purpose or identity. They had a spark. But Pawn thought that without Erin, without the time and…affection she had given him, they could not be more.
Workers and Soldiers. Pawn had no idea what to do with so many of them. Klbkch had simple orders: turn them into a fighting force. The Painted Soldiers were already more capable than regular ones and the Workers could use bows and perhaps even swords and shields. Daggers, maces, clubs—he had talked to Pawn about purchasing arms to test this theory. But Pawn knew in his heart that he needed something more. The Workers needed more than chess. The Soldiers needed more than the occasional walk in the sun or bowl of real food.
So what could he bring down into the Hive? What wonders could he carry down from above? How could he show them who they were? Pawn didn’t know, but he knew who did. He turned to the two Soldiers who stood by him. One had returned from attending to the wounded. He was the largest Soldier, distinct because he had an inch or two of height and body mass over the rest. His body was decorated with yellow splatters of paint.
The other Soldier was of equal height with the rest, but his mandibles were painted purple, as was part of his face to give him a strange, purple smile. True to his name, Purple Smile was relaxed, calm, where Yellow Splatters stood to straight attention. Yellow Splatters had been part of the praying Antinium. Purple Smile had not. Pawn addressed both of them.
“I am going to consult with Erin now. Purple Smile, please oversee the chess games. Yellow Splatters, I leave you in charge of training and responding to any emergencies that arise.”
The [Sergeants] both nodded. They turned—Purple smile waved one of his hands at Pawn—and marched towards their designated spot. Yellow Splatters supervised a group of Workers clumsily sparring with wooden swords and Soldiers sparring carefully with one another. Purple Smile wandered over to a group of Soldiers clustered around a chess board on the ground.
The Soldiers could now play with an oversized chess board that Pawn had commissioned for them. It was about six times larger than usual, so the Soldiers could move the pieces about with their clumsy hands. There was only one so far, with two more currently commissioned. Pawn was glad to see that the Soldiers were attentively watching the board as a Worker slowly pushed a piece forwards, trapping the Soldiers’ king.
He saw the Worker pause and the Soldiers stare at the king. The Worker shrank, but the Soldier he had been playing against calmly toppled the king piece. Purple Smile clapped his hands and instantly another Soldier took his place. Pawn shook his head as the Worker hesitantly began to reset his side of the board.
That was the only word for it. Awkward. The Workers had no idea how to behave around the Soldiers. They barely knew how to behave with time off with each other. The Soldiers scared them. It wasn’t as if they ever mixed. And the Soldiers themselves seemed to treat the Workers as fragile things to be ignored or carefully avoided. Pawn wanted to bridge the gap between them. They were all Antinium, after all. But he had no idea how.
So he did what he always did. He went to see Erin. It was a flawless plan, except for all the flaws in it. But Pawn did it. He liked seeing Erin. He liked visiting the inn. He had friends there. He hadn’t gone to the inn recently because he had duties in the Hive. And duty mattered. What drove Pawn out of his Hive and onto the rainy streets was duty, not personal pleasure. Okay, and because he liked seeing Erin. And his friends.
The rain hit Pawn the instant he stepped out of the Hive. He jerked in alarm before remembering that this was what happened above. Pawn looked up at the grey skies. Strange. You could forget it was raining in the Hive. The water that poured down never so much as pooled in the entrance of the Hive; it was carefully diverted by many, many tunnels and runoff vents designed solely to keep the Hive safe. Above, Pawn felt exposed by the water. He scurried down the street, hunching as the wind picked up and more water splashed him in the face.
He didn’t like water. It wasn’t as bad as Belgrade, but every Antinium living in Liscor’s Hive who lived through a rainy season knew of the dangers it presented. A tunnel could burst or collapse and water flood a passageway, drowning any Antinium caught there. The Hive was designed to prevent water from filling it if a single tunnel broke, but that was small comfort to the Workers and Soldiers who would slowly drown, helpless, unable to swim.
Not that Pawn dwelt on such thoughts particularly long. It was just hard to forget when the city was surrounded by water. Pawn wondered when the rains would stop. It would be long, far too long before he was able to patrol with his Soldiers above-ground again. True, the waters would drain, but they would leave far too much mud behind for far too long. He needed a distraction, no, an occupation for his people in the meantime. Erin had to have a good idea.
No one stopped Pawn as he hurried down the street. The Drakes and Gnolls were equally consumed with avoiding getting wet and so Pawn made it to the western gate where Erin’s magical door was without incident. He reached for the door handle, opened it, and saw nothing but a blank wall behind.
“Oh. The door is not active yet.”
Pawn was slightly crestfallen. He waited in the rain, awkwardly hunching his shoulders and wondering when it would open. This was a new problem for the inn and Pawn had understood it could be a big problem, especially if no one opened the door for hours.
Happily, he only had to wait for nine minutes before the door opened. Relieved, Pawn stepped aside as someone walked through. Then he froze as a familiar black-brown Antinium walked though.
Pawn’s good mood took a slight downturn as he spotted the once-Prognugator of Liscor’s Hive. He stared at Ksmvr who paused in the rainy street. The two Antinium regarded each other. They had a history.
“I wish you a good morning, Pawn.”
“Thank you, Ksmvr. I appreciate you opening the door.”
“I was intending to train with Yvlon at the Adventurer’s Guild.”
“Good. For you.”
Silence. The two Antinium stared at each other. Ksmvr eventually jerked his head towards the gates.
“The issue of the magical door not opening will be solved soon.”
“They are building a bridge from Liscor to the inn. Over the water.”
Ksmvr nodded. Pawn’s mandibles opened wide in horror. Over the water? He imagined walking on the bridge, while water was all around him, below him—
“I will never use that bridge.”
“Understandable. I, however, will cross it. To prove I am unafraid of water.”
Ksmvr’s voice shook a bit but he stood straighter, as if to prove himself. Pawn eyed him.
“Do you want to die?”
“No. But I must prove myself to my group.”
“But surely your teammates understand that you are unable to swim.”
The former Prognugator paused.
“That is irrelevant. I must conquer my fears. Any fears.”
Pawn shook his head. This was one of the reasons why he didn’t like Ksmvr. The other Antinium was just—Pawn edged around Ksmvr.
“I wish you luck. Truly. But I will go into the inn now. Is Erin there? I wanted to talk to her.”
The other Antinium nodded vaguely.
“She is. Although she is occupied. Captain Ceria told me to leave her and Lyonette alone.”
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know. The [Barmaid], Miss Lyonette, is crying. She has not stopped.”
“Lyonette’s crying? Why?”
Suddenly Pawn was in front of Ksmvr. Up until this moment he hadn’t been interested in talking with him—he’d been hoping Ksmvr would step out of the way so Pawn could get inside the inn. But now he was keenly, horribly interested in what the other Antinium was saying. Unfortunately, Ksmvr was the wrong person to talk to.
“I have no idea why she is crying. She is not a member of my team. Therefore I only recorded this information as a pertinent piece of gossip.”
“Pertinent to what?”
“I do not know. Would you like me to ask why Lyonette is crying? Would that assist me in social gossip, do you think?”
“I must talk with her. Excuse me.”
Pawn shoved past Ksmvr. The other Antinium called out after Pawn.
“I resent your abrupt departure from the conversation!”
The door slammed shut. Pawn stared around The Wandering Inn, dripping, and looked around. He saw the Halfseekers eating, the Redfang Goblins sitting in a corner, Drassi and a Drake he did not recognize waiting tables—and no Lyonette. Where was she? Normally she’d be here, already hurrying towards him with his favorite drink—warm milk and honey.
Why was Lyonette sad? Pawn saw Drassi point at him and come over. He stared around, hoping Lyonette would appear from behind a table. Maybe she was in the kitchen? Why was she crying? He’d seen her just the other day! But she’d been busy waiting tables and Pawn hadn’t wanted to distract her.
“Hey Pawn! Can I get you a seat? Are there more Soldiers coming in behind you? Do you want something to eat? To drink? Wow, you’re wet! We need a rug or something here. I should talk to Erin about that. Hey Pawn? Pawn?”
Drassi’s approach to meeting new people was to smother them with words. Pawn glanced at her distractedly.
“Oh. Thank you Drassi, but I am not hungry or thirsty. I came here to see Erin. Or Lyonette. Where is she?”
The female Drake’s face fell slightly.
“Lyonette? Um…she’s in her room. Taking a day off. She wasn’t feeling well. I dunno what was wrong, but Erin says she’s upset and so she won’t be down. But Erin’s in the kitchen. You want me to grab her?”
“Alright. Sure you don’t want a drink?”
“I am sure. Please get Erin for me.”
Pawn sat anxiously at a table, willing Drassi to walk faster as she entered the kitchen. Moments later Erin stepped out, wiping her hands which were covered with flour.
“Pawn! Oh no, I’m so sorry!”
His heart beat faster as Erin looked distraught. She sat down as he half-rose and he sat with her.
“I completely forgot about your problem. We had plays all of yesterday and this morning there was this thing with Lyonette—look, I’m really sorry but I can brainstorm with you now if you’d like.”
Pawn stared at Erin as she gave him a guilty look. The problems with the Workers and Soldiers. He’d forgotten all about that. It was why he was here of course. Pawn shook his head.
“That is unimportant at the moment. I was told by Ksmvr that Lyonette was upset. And Drassi. Is she well? Has something happened?”
“Lyonette? She’s…upstairs. She’s not doing so good. I don’t know why exactly, but I think something happened last night. Or it could be stress. She wouldn’t tell me.”
Erin frowned in worry. Pawn leaned forwards.
“She would not tell you? Why?”
“She didn’t tell me that either. Look, she might just be having a bad day, Pawn. Why? Did you need her?”
“No. I am concerned. May I see her?”
Erin chewed her lip, frowning. She glanced at Pawn.
“Well…I think she’d be happier to be by herself. But you two are friends. We can ask.”
Pawn stood up at once. Erin got to her feet with a sigh. She pointed up the stairs and Pawn led the way. All the while he wondered what was wrong. Why was Lyonette crying? Erin didn’t know. Why didn’t she know? She knew almost everything. Pawn had to ask. Lyonette was his friend. She was more than just a [Barmaid] that fed him and the other Antinium.
She was a [Princess]. Lyonette had told him. It was her secret, one she’d shared with Pawn. Pawn had kept that knowledge tucked in his chest. He didn’t know if she’d told Erin or anyone else. But he valued the trust all the same. He had gotten to know her when Erin was gone from the inn. If there was anything he could do—
Erin came to the first door in the hallway and rapped softly on the door. Pawn listened. He couldn’t hear much from inside, but at Erin’s knock he heard a quiet shuffling. It wasn’t Lyonette who opened the door, but Mrsha. The Gnoll cub stood clumsily on two legs as she pulled the door open.
“Hey Mrsha. Hey Lyonette. Sorry to bug you.”
The [Innkeeper] called cautiously into the room as Pawn tried to look over her shoulder. He couldn’t see past her. Erin stepped into the room as Mrsha stared up at Pawn. He stared back and waved one of his hands at her. The Gnoll didn’t wave back.
“No, don’t get up Lyonette. I didn’t want to bug you but Pawn’s here and he’s worried. You don’t have to—it’s okay? Okay, Pawn? Come on in.”
Hesitantly, Pawn stepped into the room as Mrsha dropped onto all fours and padded back inside. She crept up next to a young woman sitting with a blanket around her shoulders. Lyonette’s eyes were red and she was holding a wet handkerchief. She looked up at Pawn and tried to smile.
“Good morning, Lyonette. I am terribly sorry to bother you. I was worried when I heard you were upset.”
“Thank you, Pawn.”
Erin stood up. She looked at Pawn and Lyonette, wavering.
“I have to get back to work. Lyonette, are you okay?”
The younger girl gave Erin a watery smile.
“I’m fine, Erin. Don’t worry about me, please. I know you have a lot to do.”
“Okay. Pawn? If you want to talk I’ll be in the kitchen later.”
Pawn nodded distractedly as Erin left. He kept staring at Lyonette. She was still crying. Tears ran from the sides of her eyes and she kept dabbing at them. Mrsha curled up next to her. Pawn had no idea what to say. At last, he tried to speak.
“I am sorry to bother you, Lyonette. I could come back later if you do not wish to talk.”
“It’s fine, Pawn. I didn’t want to make you worry. I’m just—having a bad day, that’s all.”
What a wholly unsatisfactory response. Pawn searched for good words and found none. He almost regretted coming upstairs, to be honest. What could he say? He shouldn’t have bothered her. And yet—it was Lyonette. His friend. Was she his friend? He thought she must be.
She had been there when he first started to lead the Soldiers. She had taught him how to act, how to stand tall. She had fed them. And now she was crying and he had no idea why. He hadn’t known. That made Pawn’s chest hurt.
“May I ask why you are upset?”
Lyonette sniffed. She looked away.
“Oh. I see.”
Crestfallen, the Worker looked down at his feet. He was still wet. He should go. But he didn’t move. After a moment Lyonette looked up at him and sniffed again.
“It’s not that I don’t want to say. It’s just—it shouldn’t matter but it does. I lost it, Pawn.”
Tears trickled down Lyonette’s cheeks. Pawn stared at her. She couldn’t mean her [Barmaid] class. If she was crying, then—
“You lost your [Princess] class?”
Lyonette nodded. Pawn was stunned.
The young woman shook her head.
“I must have stopped being a princess. At last. I should have known it would happen. I work at an inn as a [Barmaid]. I’m far from my kingdom. I—I should have known. And it shouldn’t matter.”
She sniffed and Mrsha reached up to pat her leg. Lyonette gently stroked Mrsha’s head. Pawn felt like an outsider. He should not be here. And he had no idea what to say. She had lost her class.
“You should have it back. I will pray for your class to return.”
Lyonette blinked. She stared at Pawn and then laughed. It was a weak sound and there was nothing funny in the way she laughed.
“What? No. Don’t do that. It’s fine, Pawn.”
“But your class—”
Pawn didn’t know what to say. Lyonette was a [Princess]. She was…royalty. As close to his Queen as anything in this world. He knew that was not the same, but it was how he understood her class. It made Lyonette important. How could she not be sad? But Lyonette didn’t seem to see it that way. She cast around.
“You should sit. There’s a chair over there.”
“I will take it. Thank you.”
Awkwardly, Pawn pulled the chair over and sat. He was still higher up than Lyonette and he found himself looking down at her. She sat up and he waited.
“It’s not a big deal, Pawn. I shouldn’t be crying. I shouldn’t. I lost my class because I wasn’t doing [Princess]-like things. That’s all. But I don’t need the class. I was only—only Level 6 anyways.”
“But it was your class.”
“I know. But I haven’t been feeling like a princess in a while. I think I knew it. That’s why I lost my class. And it’s not like I need it.”
Pawn didn’t know what to say. He trailed off, staring at Lyonette. Tears flowed down her face and her nose was wet. She wiped it, looking embarrassed and Pawn looked away.
“Surely it was important, though. You are a [Princess]. Were. Was that class not important to you?”
“It was. But I lost it, Pawn.”
Lyonette whispered. She shook her head. Pawn realized he was repeating himself. After a while, he spoke.
“What was it like?”
“Living as a princess.”
Lyonette looked up at him. Pawn saw Mrsha raise her head. She smiled sadly.
“What was it like? Being a [Princess] was—well, it was nice at times. I loved the balls and dancing and exciting things that came to court. And travelling wherever I wanted in the kingdom. Having money to buy whatever clothing I wanted. But I wasn’t happy. I never leveled. And when I came here, I gave all that up. So I traded being a [Princess] for actually leveling. That’s why—”
She broke off and sniffed, then blew her nose wetly into the handkerchief. Pawn waited. He was confused.
“Balls? Dancing? Why can you not do any of that here?”
“There aren’t any. No one knows I’m a [Princess].”
“But Mrsha has a ball.”
Pawn pointed at it. Lyonette stared and then laughed abruptly.
“Pawn, that’s not the same! A ball is a formal occasion. It’s where we dress up in fancy clothing and dance in a big open space. It’s not like anything Liscor has. It’s another world. A different world. I left it behind.”
“Which is why you lost your class.”
“Yes. Do you understand?”
He thought he did. It was just that he didn’t understand why Lyonette didn’t want her class back. Pawn mulled it over before he decided he had to ask.
“Why don’t you want it back?”
“Why? Because it’s gone. Because it doesn’t matter.”
“But it was your class. Surely you had Skills—”
“Two. Two, Pawn. And they weren’t that useful. They were—useless. Like my class. It’s gone and I’ll be better. I just need to cry. I don’t know why I’m crying. I should be okay. I just need a day. Then I’ll be better.”
Was that it? Pawn fumbled, searching for something else to say. There had to be something he could say that would make Lyonette feel better. Or—or help her.
“You’re sure you don’t want your class back? I could pray. I could.”
Lyonette laughed weakly.
“I’m sure! Pawn, I appreciate it but all I want is to be alone for a while. I’m glad you came by, I really am. But I just need to be alone.”
“I understand. I will excuse myself. Please forgive me for interrupting you.”
Pawn stood up at once. He felt embarrassed and bad. Lyonette looked up, worried.
“No, I’m not angry! Thank you for coming. It’s just—”
She waved a helpless hand. Pawn nodded.
“I will pray you feel better.”
Lyonette smiled at him. Pawn raised his mandibles and turned towards the door. He walked out, feeling helpless. Upset. Lyonette had lost her class. But she didn’t want it back. That seemed wrong.
Downstairs Erin asked if Lyonette was okay. When Pawn told her she wanted to be alone Erin nodded and offered to talk with Pawn about his problems. He declined. He wandered back to the Hive, feeling out of sorts. When he got back he tried to pray. But he couldn’t. Lyonette’s tears kept falling in his mind. She had lost her class. That was terrible. What could he do about it? Pray?
It didn’t feel like enough. And that was strange too. Pawn paced, anxiously. He felt helpless and upset and worried. What could he do? After a while he stopped and clasped his hands in prayer.
Pawn had gone. Pawn had come back. He had promised to come back with ideas. He had returned with nothing. And now he was pacing. This indicated something was wrong, but neither Yellow Splatters nor Purple Smile knew what the problem was.
Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters were both [Sergeants]. It was a new concept to both Antinium and Yellow Splatters was keenly aware of the cost of failure. He had failed once and his Soldiers had suffered for it. He was anxious not to make another mistake, which was why he listened to everything Pawn said.
Only today, Pawn was saying nothing. Not to him at any rate. He had left the Hive and come back earlier than he had said. Now, rather than tell Yellow Splatters and the others about all the new ideas he had promised he was pacing back and forth. Muttering to himself.
“Surely the class is important. It must be! She was crying. She was upset. But is she better off without it? Surely not. But she says she does not want help.”
Yellow Splatters stared at Pawn as he paced back and forth. Other Antinium were staring too. Pawn’s behavior was not normal and the Workers and Soldiers were all paying attention. Pawn usually went to each of them and talked to them. But today he hadn’t. He hadn’t even noticed the biggest thing ever.
The Soldiers and Workers were still standing around the chessboard. They hadn’t moved since the last game. Ever since Pawn had brought the bigger chessboard the Soldiers had played games against the Workers constantly. They had lost every game. The current tally was four hundred and eighteen wins by the Workers…and now, just now, one win by one of the Soldiers.
That was huge. Yellow Splatters had been waiting for Pawn to come back and see and congratulate the Soldier—a new Painted Soldier named Rabbitears—on the victory. A Soldier had won a game. Won a game of chess!
The losses didn’t matter. But the one win? It changed everything. It meant—it meant Soldiers could be—the possibilities were endless! But Pawn didn’t pay attention to this earth-shattering fact. On any other day he would have been asking questions, perhaps ordering a celebration. Today the [Sergeants] watched as he paced back and forth and muttered.
“What can I do? Can I do anything? No, I should let her grieve. Grieving is a natural thing. Erin told me she will be looked after. But she was crying.”
It occurred to Purple Smile that Pawn would not notice the chess game. He signaled and the Soldiers slowly reset the board. The Soldiers did not feel many emotions. Grief, sadness, happiness…nothing much affected them. But now they felt something like disappointment. Nevertheless, they reset the board and Rabbitears began to play another game with a Worker. Pawn paid no attention.
Yellow Splatters looked sideways at Purple Smile. He pointed with one big hand. Purple Smile shrugged. He had no idea what was happening either. The [Sergeants] watched as Pawn kept pacing. They watched him stop and put his hands together. Was he praying? Why? The Soldiers didn’t know what was wrong, but they didn’t take their eyes off Pawn. They were observing. Listening. Learning.
And Pawn made up his mind. He had to go back tomorrow. To check on Lyonette.
The next day, Pawn waited at dawn in front of the door to The Wandering Inn. As soon as the sun rose high enough for it to be actually daytime and not night still he opened the door. To his relief, the door was connected to Liscor. Pawn stepped in and immediately saw Lyonette.
She was setting food out for the Redfang Goblins. Lyonette turned, surprised to see Pawn so early. He stepped into the inn, conscious of the rain on his carapace.
“I am sorry to come so early. Am I interrupting?”
“No, come in. And please close the door. I keep telling Erin we need a doormat—let me get you a towel.”
Lyonette hurried into the kitchen as the five Hobs sitting at their table gave Pawn the fisheye. He ignored them. As soon as Lyonette returned with a fresh towel, Pawn thanked her. He sat at a table near the fire and spoke.
“Are you well, Lyonette? Are you feeling better? I was worried that you might still be in distress.”
“You were? Well, I’m better. I feel fine now. I’m embarrassed about yesterday.”
Pawn stared at Lyonette hard. She gave him a cheery smile.
“I am! I think yesterday was just shock.”
Pawn was confused. Lyonette seemed so much better today. It was completely at odds with how she’d seemed yesterday. She hovered around his table, waving at one of the Goblins who was raising a hesitant mug.
“Sorry, Ishkr’s not in yet. We’re training new staff, but I’m the only person for breakfast. Do you mind?”
“Not at all.”
The Antinium watched Lyonette take the mug that one of the Hobgoblins offered her. She refilled it and when she returned he scrutinized her again.
“So you don’t mind losing your class? Truly?”
“Not at all. I’m glad, actually.”
Briskly, Lyonette mopped down the table.
“But you are royalty still, aren’t you?”
The [Barmaid] shrugged.
“You mean my name? Lyonette du Marquin? Forget about it. It’s just Lyonette now. I’m a [Barmaid]. Not a [Princess]. And that’s alright. That’s perfect, really.”
At last Lyonette looked up with a frown.
He met her gaze. She looked annoyed now. Pawn hadn’t intended that. He looked away meekly.
“Okay then. I was simply worried.”
“And I appreciate it. Thank you, again, Pawn. But I really should get back to work. Can I get you anything? Or did you want to talk to Erin again?”
Of course. He had his duties. Pawn shifted in his chair. He should really talk to Erin. But he couldn’t help but feel like his conversation with Lyonette had gone all wrong. She said she was okay. But was she really? He couldn’t imagine it. She was a [Princess]. She had been. She’d taken pride in it. And now it was gone. That couldn’t be okay.
And yet, if she said so, what could he do? Pawn watched Lyonette turn away. He opened his mandibles before he could stop himself.
“Wait. Can we not talk further?”
She turned back, surprised.
Pawn hesitated. That had slipped out.
“I do not mean to take you from your duties. But it has been a long time since we have chatted together. Too long.”
“It has been a while. We used to talk back when Erin was gone and I was in my inn. Starving.”
A rueful smile stole over Lyonette’s face. She tossed the dust rag onto another table.
“I have missed it. You’re always busy. And I have a moment.”
“Then you do not mind talking with me?”
Hopefully, Pawn looked up at her. Lyonette smiled.
“Whatever gave you that idea? My problems are one thing, but I always have time to talk with you. Is something happening in the Hive? I heard you talking about more Workers joining your group. Is there a problem?”
She took a seat across from Pawn. He sat up a bit straighter.
“Not a problem, but we lack entertainment. You see, I was going to speak with Erin about the issue of—of boredom. Revalantor Klbkch has given us scheduled downtime, but we lack activities to perform in the rain. I was hoping Erin could help. Unless you have some ideas?”
“Well, why not teach them something? Or read them books?”
Pawn nodded. He relaxed a bit as Lyonette sat across from him, smiling. This felt better. She looked like normal.
“I could do that. But I was hoping for activities they could perform when I am not around?”
“Ah, I see the problem. And your people need activities? Well, have you tried giving them normal activities? Like needlework? Or pottery?”
“Needlework? Pottery? As in making trade crafts? The Antinium are not proficient in such areas.”
“No! For their own enjoyment! What about games? Surely you have something. Like—tag. Even I played that game growing up.”
“Let me write this down.”
Pawn looked around, patting his side. He had forgotten his belt pouch! Lyonette smiled.
“Erin probably has some parchment and a quill. Hold on, let me find it.”
She got up and went into the kitchen. Pawn waited until she came back. Then he gratefully accepted the quill and ink and began scribbling down notes. He was glad she was well. Only—was she? Lyonette smiled and offered him silly suggestions and good ones, laughing as she asked him whether the Antinium might enjoy learning to embroider. But he couldn’t help but think it was partly an illusion. Pawn sat and talked with Lyonette until Ishkr came in with two of his Gnoll friends and the inn began to fill with guests. Then Lyonette had to go.
“Good luck with your Antinium, Pawn. Let me know how it turns out, alright?”
“I will. Thank you, Lyonette.”
Pawn bade her farewell at the door. He hesitated, opening his mandibles. But Lyonette was already busy giving Ishkr orders. He turned away, still feeling like something was wrong. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.
The next day, Pawn surprised Erin by opening the door right as she was passing by. She jumped.
“Hello Erin. I am sorry to come so early. But I was hoping to speak with Lyonette. Is she here?”
Erin blinked at Pawn. It was very early. She rubbed her eyes.
“Lyonette? Yeah, she should be down shortly. Um. Is something the matter, Pawn?”
The Worker paused guiltily.
“The matter? No. I was just…wondering if we could speak more about her proposals.”
“She gave me some advice as to how I could entertain my Workers and Soldiers yesterday.”
“She did? Good for her! I was going to suggest playing baseball inside the Hive or something stupid like that. Uh, so what did she say?”
“She suggested expanding the barracks to create a communal living space. And introducing a variety of crafts into the Hive. I have done so and wished to appraise her of the progress.”
Erin nodded, smiling and covering a yawn.
“Hey, that’s great Pawn. I’m sure Lyon would love to hear about it. Why don’t you sit and wait for her?”
Pawn nodded obediently. He sat and soon enough Lyonette came downstairs. She was surprised to see him.
“Pawn! You’re back. Again?”
Pawn nodded. He waved at Mrsha who blinked at him and waved back. He nodded to Lyonette.
“I am. I took your advice yesterday.”
“I wanted to tell you about my results. And perhaps talk more if we had the chance?”
Lyonette glanced at Erin who shrugged.
“Of course I have time. I just need to feed Mrsha. Have you had breakfast yet?”
“No. I would gladly pay for a meal.”
“Hold on, then.”
Lyonette left and came back with some hot eggs which Pawn gladly ate. She ate with Mrsha, awkwardly telling the Gnoll not to gobble her food while she half-watched Pawn. When Mrsha was done Lyonette came to sit with Pawn.
“Okay, tell me about it.”
Pawn nodded and sat up eagerly. He had just finished telling Lyonette about how the Workers were attempting to learn how to crochet when he heard footsteps. He turned around and saw the Horns of Hammerad stumbling downstairs. Lyonette immediately got up.
“It’s already that time? Sorry Pawn, but I have work to do.”
“I understand. I am sorry to have taken your time.”
“No, it’s no problem. I enjoy hearing about the Hive. Really. It’s just…”
Lyonette gestured towards the adventurers. Pisces was yawning and only Ksmvr looked anywhere near awake. They all made a beeline for the nearest table, sitting and staring expectantly at the table in front of them as if willing food to appear. Pawn nodded.
“Please go about your work. I will leave.”
“You could stay. Once I finish I could talk more.”
The young woman’s smile made Pawn glad. He shook his head.
“No, I simply wanted to talk for a while. I have my own duties as well.”
He stood up and looked at Lyonette. He took a short breath and spoke as Lyonette was turning.
“And you are well?”
She froze. Pawn stared at her back.
“You felt better yesterday. Are you feeling as well today?”
Lyonette half-turned and smiled at Pawn.
“Good. Good. In that case I will…”
Pawn backed away. Lyonette nodded.
“Come again, any time!”
She took his plate. Pawn watched her head into the kitchen. She was good. That was excellent. He turned and walked towards the door. He had duties in his Hive now. The fact that Lyonette was well was all he’d come to confirm. He left as Lyonette hurried out of the kitchen with plates and Ceria and Pisces squabbled over who’d get the larger portion. He went back to his Hive and performed his duties distractedly.
The next day he went back. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Yellow Splatters thought that there was a problem. It was Pawn. He didn’t like to think it, but three days had gone by and it was growing clearer to him that something was amiss.
Pawn. The Worker was present in the barracks every day of course. He ate with the Painted Soldiers and Individual Workers, gave orders, and left each morning for an hour or two before returning. That was all right. What wasn’t all right was what he was doing.
He came back each day with new things. Objects. Leather balls made to be tossed around or chewed on, custom chess sets, knitting needles, yarn…every day he would arrive with more strange paraphernalia, bought with the budget allocated to him by Klbkch. And that was fine too. Normally. Yellow Splatters understood that new things could be wonderful. Like books. He loved books with bright pictures. But this?
“Have a group of Workers try knitting, Yellow Splatters. It is a useful occupation they may enjoy.”
“I have purchased a set of balls for playful fun. You can toss them and catch them. Like so. If anyone is interested, please, let them try.”
“Here is some clay. I think you can make pottery with it. If any Soldier creates something I will inquire about firing it in a kiln.”
The last time Pawn had come into the Hive, he’d brought a mass of wet clay in a wheelbarrow. Now Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters stared at it. The [Sergeant] poked a hand into the wet clay. It squished.
Pottery? It was a word Yellow Splatters had no notion of. He stared at Pawn as the Worker hurried over to his sleeping spot. Yellow Splatters had many questions. What exactly was he supposed to do. What was a kiln? How did one fire clay? With a crossbow?
He looked at Purple Smile. The other Soldier was not smiling today. Nor had he been for the last few days. He sensed it too. Something was wrong.
It wasn’t the new objects. It wasn’t Pawn buying things. All of that was good, in theory. It was that when Pawn went out and came back with new things for the Antinium to try, when he brought wonderful ideas into the Hive or encouraged the Soldiers and Workers to try this, it was always him telling. Not showing.
He…had not paid attention to the Antinium in the barracks for the last few days. That was what was wrong. Before, Pawn had had few items to share. He had saved up copper coins and petitioned Klbkch repeatedly for even a few books, a can of paint. But always, he had shown the Soldiers exactly what to do, experimented with them. Cared and praised them for their accomplishments and failures. But he was distracted now. He did not care.
And that hurt deeply. Yellow Splatters turned his attention to the chess board that the Soldiers and Workers had played at. It was unused. The Soldiers and Workers stood about or sat, not playing again. The board was where it had been left—checkmated. Rabbitears had won a fourth game. And stopped. Because Pawn had not noticed.
He had not noticed. In any other moment, in any other time, Pawn would have instantly shown this to Klbkch. He would have congratulated Rabbitears, spoken to the others. Told Yellow Splatters…something about what it meant. But he had not noticed and the Soldiers and Workers had noticed that. So now they did nothing. They waited, listlessly, not bothering to touch the interesting things Pawn had brought. They stared at him.
And he did not notice. He sat in his special cubicle, sitting as if he was sleeping. But his four hands were clasped together. Pawn was praying. He had prayed day and night when he was not out. Prayed for hours on end, late into the night, before dawn. And that too was good in theory. Yellow Splatters had seen Pawn praying over the wounded. He had heard Pawn lead them in prayer. It was a wondrous thing. Only now…the [Sergeant] stared at Pawn. The Worker was deep in prayer. It was a good thing. But Yellow Splatters was sure, absolutely sure, that Pawn was not praying for them.
He wondered who Pawn was thinking of. And when Pawn would finally remember his people. Yellow Splatters waited, his chest hurting. Now he was certain. It wasn’t just a problem. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Over the next week, it became customary to see Pawn in the inn before breakfast or in the early morning. He would always come in early unless the door to Liscor was closed. He would greet Erin every morning with a different line.
“Hello, is Lyonette there? I was hoping to get her input on possible embroidery designs.”
“I was passing by the inn and could not help but stop for lunch. Is Lyonette free to talk?”
“I wanted to consult with Ksmvr. Is Lyonette around?”
“It is rainy. I wanted to share that fact with Lyonette.”
The excuses seemed to amuse Erin. She started grinning every time she saw Pawn for reasons unknown to him. Each day he waited for Lyonette, sometimes while eating breakfast or a snack, other times sitting meditatively in silence or whispering a quick prayer. Each time Lyonette greeted him, asked how his Hive was doing and caught up on the latest Antinium gossip, such as it was.
In turn she offered him news about the inn. The Players of Celum were gaining more attention and had nearly finished their run of Othello and The Triumph of Liscor. They were about to switch plays now they had a new audience of Drakes and Gnolls coming in each night. Training the new staff was going well. The adventurers were busy preparing for the dungeon or arguing with each other and fighting over food. And so on. Pawn listened dutifully, nodding along and enjoying the conversation. And each time she finished or had to go back to work he asked her the same question.
“Is everything well?”
The answer was always yes. With a smile or a nod. Pawn accepted that. He came back day after day until the day when Lyonette’s patience finally ran out.
“Good morning, Lyonette.”
“Oh. Hello, Pawn.”
For once Lyonette didn’t smile when she greeted Pawn. In fact, she hadn’t come over when she’d spotted him sitting by himself at lunch time. She’d kept serving tables though the Worker was sure she’d seen him. But it was a good ten minutes before she walked over.
It was almost as if she’d been avoiding him. But after he had sat and waited patiently, refusing to let Drassi get him a drink or food, Lyonette had walked over. Now she stood, looking somewhat tired as Pawn sat. He waited for her to take a seat. She did not.
“Would you like to sit and talk with me?”
“Not today, Pawn.”
Lyonette glanced tiredly around. So did Pawn. The inn was not busy at this time of day, which pleased him. He would have more time to chat.
“Do you want to tell me about the inn? Or would you like to chat about the Hive first? There are a few interesting developments that may intrigue you.”
He had been buying new objects left and right to put in the Hive. Knitting needles, yarn, little balls to play catching games, and so on. Pawn hadn’t seen the Antinium playing with some of the objects, but he was sure they would begin using them soon. After all, the Soldiers used to not read any of the picture books and now the books were the most sought-after object in the barracks. But to his surprise, Lyonette shook her head.
“Not today, Pawn. I’m a bit—busy. Look, why don’t I get you a drink and we can talk later? Next week, maybe?”
That was strange. Pawn hesitated.
“Of course, if you are busy I will come back another time. Tomorrow, perhaps?”
Lyonette looked distracted. And a bit upset. She kept glancing over her shoulder and looking at Pawn. He nodded.
“I will not take up any of your time. But before you go—”
Lyonette was already turning away. Pawn called after her.
“And you are feeling well?”
She stopped, mid-step. Pawn saw Lyonette’s shoulder’s tense, and then she whirled.
“Why are you asking me that?”
Her voice was loud. Too loud. Pawn saw a few of the Drakes and Gnolls eating lunch look up and heard conversations cease across the inn. Erin poked her head out of the kitchen. Pawn hesitated.
“No reason. I am just interested in your wellbeing.”
Lyonette stared at him. Pawn shuffled his legs and looked away.
“Then why do I get the feeling that you’re still thinking about my missing class?”
Pawn’s heart skipped a beat. He tried to keep his voice smooth.
“I never mentioned it. I never said a word about it.”
“Yes. And you’re not saying it so loudly that I can hear it! You keep asking if I’m well. You keep coming here, day after day, telling me about the smallest things. I wouldn’t care. I’d enjoy it, but you ask me the same question each time. Why?”
Lyonette advanced on Pawn, angry. He tried to scoot back in his chair but the [Barmaid] stood right in front of him. Now everyone was looking at him. Pawn debated lying. He could say—
Lie? To Lyonette? He caught himself as he was about to utter an untruth. Pawn looked up at Lyonette and unwillingly, he answered her honestly.
“…I have been praying every day that your class will return.”
The shock that ran over Lyonette’s face was like a living thing. It drained the blood from her face, made her eyes go wide, and then, quick as a flash, ignited anger once more. Lyonette stared down at Pawn. Her voice trembled.
The Worker shrank. But he replied defiantly.
“I believe you need it back. Your class.”
“You think I need it?”
Pawn saw Lyonette’s mouth open angrily. He rushed forwards before she could speak.
“I think you need it. I think you should have it back. I think you shouldn’t be content not to have it. So I have prayed for it.”
“I told you I was better off without it! What about what I want?”
Incensed, Lyonette put her hands on the table. Pawn leaned back and then stopped. He spoke, his mandibles quivering slightly.
“I think you are wrong.”
For a moment Lyonette gaped at him. Then she glared.
“Stop it. Just stop it! Don’t pray and don’t tell me what I need!”
She stood up and turned away. Pawn scrambled out of his chair.
“Lyonette, please. I am trying to help—”
“Maybe I don’t want your help!”
She whirled and snapped at Pawn. He felt like he’d been struck. Lyonette glared.
“Why does it matter to you? Why do you care? It’s my class! It’s my life! Why does this matter to you?”
“I just want to—”
She spoke over him, her voice growing louder and louder.
“You want? What about what I want? I liked talking to you, I really did! You and I are friends! But this isn’t right! This isn’t fair to me! Don’t pray for me! Don’t try to change me! Don’t try to give me back what I don’t need!”
She stared at Pawn, and to his horror he saw her eyes were shimmering. Lyonette rubbed at them, and her voice caught.
“Please, just leave me alone! Let me move on! Let me—”
She moved as if to walk away and noticed her audience. She had been shouting near the end. Everyone was staring. Erin looked flabbergasted. Lyonette turned red. Her eyes welled up with tears and she turned.
She didn’t finish her sentence. Lyonette ran up the stairs. Pawn watched her go. He felt like something had ripped out his chest, spilling his insides across the floor. Slowly, dizzily, he looked around. Pawn stared at the others, stared at Erin, and then slowly walked towards the door. He opened it and turned his head as rain poured through.
“I am sorry. Please tell her I am sorry.”
Then he stumbled out into the rain.
He had never felt so worthless. He had never felt so small. Pawn sat in the barracks and wished to disappear. He was a failure. He was useless. He sat and he sat and he knew everything was wrong. He wished he was dreaming. He knew he was not. That was worse than a nightmare. If things were a nightmare he could wake up. But he couldn’t. And everything kept getting worse.
Silence. It was horrible. It weighed down the barracks. No one moved. The Soldiers and Workers stood around Pawn as he sat on the floor, curled up into a ball. He didn’t move. He didn’t eat. He didn’t respond when Yellow Splatters approached him, or when Purple Smile poked him. He didn’t move when Anand called his name.
“Pawn. Pawn. What is wrong?”
The Worker didn’t respond. Anand stood over him, anxious.
“Yellow Splatters came to get me. I did not understand why. What is the matter? Are you hurt? Pawn?”
Pawn wished Anand would go away. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to live. He sat still, ignoring Anand’s words until the Worker left. He was the worst. He had made Lyonette cry again.
He had been sure. So sure! He had known that if he prayed hard enough, Lyonette’s class would come back. Then she would be happier. So he had prayed every day. He had gone to see her. But all he had done was anger her. She did not want his help. She did not want to talk to him.
She hated him. Pawn remained still, feeling the hard ground beneath him. He did not respond as Yellow Splatters tried to tug his arms apart. The Soldier was strong but Pawn held on with all his might and there was nothing that the [Sergeant] could do short of breaking Pawn’s arms. Pawn stayed where he was. Until someone kicked him in the side.
Klbkch’s kick knocked Pawn sideways. The Antinium landed on his left side, but he did not uncurl. Klbkch made a harsh clicking sound and kicked him again.
“I said, get up.”
Pawn did not respond. The kick had cracked the carapace on his side but he did not move. Klbkch grabbed him and dragged him up. Pawn didn’t move. He was a ball of misery.
“You have abandoned your duties. Anand tells me you have not moved for over half a day now. Why are the Soldiers and Workers here unattended to?”
No reply. Klbkch uttered another sound that Pawn had never heard an Antinium make. The Soldiers and Workers around him shrank. Then Pawn heard a rasping sound. Klbkch had drawn his swords.
“I see useless goods, bought with the Hive’s money. I see Workers and Soldiers, listless and lifeless. I see you, unmoving. Respond.”
Pawn did not reply. He waited as he sensed Klbkch move around him. The Revalantor placed the sharp tip of his sword on the back of Pawn’s neck. The Worker did nothing. Klbkch raised his sword and paused. Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile were staring at him. Their hands were not clenched, but the other Soldiers and Workers were…watching. Klbkch waited. In the silence Pawn felt the cold sting and did nothing.
After a lifetime, a second, Klbkch withdrew the point of his sword. He turned away.
“You are a disgrace.”
He turned and stalked out of the barracks. Pawn did not move. If he felt anything, it was bad that Klbkch had not ended it all then and there. He stayed where he was as time passed on. Despairing. Hating.
There was no point to any of it. He had made a terrible mistake. He would never uncurl. He would sit here and starve, like he had once seen another Worker do. He was not Pawn anymore. He did not want to be Pawn. He just wanted to disappear.
And perhaps he would have. Pawn sat and sat until something changed in the Hive. He felt it. At first, it was distant movement. The stepping of many feet. He did not care. But then he heard a voice. Not the staccato click-speech of the Antinium, but a softer voice. A kind voice. It spoke at a distance, and then Pawn heard words.
He heard a distant reply, crisp and precise, and then another one, quieter, more subdued. Klbkch and Anand. The voice grew louder.
“Wow. Really? And he’s just…okay, let me see.”
The footsteps approached. Pawn heard more shuffling. Soldiers and Workers standing and sitting around him drew back. He heard the voice clearly now. A kind voice. A loving voice.
“Oh no. I think I see the problem.”
He knew her. He wanted her to go away. But he didn’t move. Pawn shook as the voice, the person approached. He feared her. More than he hated himself. He feared what she might do. What she might say. The young woman knelt next to Pawn as he curled up into a ball. She looked around and sighed.
“What a mess. Okay Klbkch, Anand. Give me some room. I’ll try and sort this out, okay? I should have asked Lyonette what was really wrong earlier. As for Pawn…give me a few minutes.”
He heard an answering voice and then the footsteps retreated. Pawn stayed where he was. He felt the softest of touches on his shoulder and quaked.
Here she was. The one who would lay out his sins. The one who could move his heart. His creator in some ways. His savior in others. Terrifying, wonderful, magical, and peaceful. Pawn wished she would leave. He feared what she would do. And part of him, a tiny part of him hoped she could make it all better. Because if there was anyone who could, it was her.