Here came a story about a bee. She woke with the dawn. Bees do that. Even Ashfire Bees. Especially in the spring. After all, they lived and died by the changing green, the bounty of nature. In the mornings, bees would be flitting from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollen, the lifeblood of a Hive.
Female bees, that was. Drones, the male half of the hives, were lazy creatures who neither gathered nor produced honey. They ate honey, but their main purpose was to mate with the queen. They had neither stingers nor, in any real sense, agency. They existed to mate, or if need be, try and defend the hive or regulate the temperature. But they weren’t more than that. When they mated, they died.
This Ashfire Bee was female. Which was important. She was a worker bee, or at least, not a queen. Also very important. Queens were unique to a bee hive. The entity by which the entire hive revolved around. This bee was not a queen, for all that she had eaten enough royal jelly. Even though the potential was there, she was virginal; she had not mated with a drone. And she had no hive. What would you call a bee like that?
The bee had no words. And she had no thoughts deep enough to speculate. So she was a worker. But she was female, and that was enough. For didn’t all workers have in them a shred of what could be queen?
The bee did not think such large thoughts as she woke up, though. In fact, she thought very little. She was, after all, a bee. And what did bees think of, really?
Very little. A bee wasn’t like a Human, or a Drake, or even a more intelligent creature like a monkey or dolphin. Bees were simple insects who lived by instinct. So this bee, who woke up in a little basket of wood that was lined with cotton, crawled out and flexed her wings. Then she took off, because she had sensed movement.
After all, if a bee loved anything, surely it loved to fly. That was one of the reasons for which it was made. Up, the bee flew, chasing after the thing that was racing about.
Another fact. Bees had a different sense of color than many bipedal races. Unlike Humans, they saw no red. They could see orange and yellow to some degree, but their senses shifted into different spectrums as well. They could see ultraviolet, a color only abstractly known to most Humans as a concept. In this world, only a few hundred Humans would even know the idea. And Selphids and Antinium of course. But they had a different word for it.
The creature that raced about was white. White, and just a bit ultraviolet. Her fur shone in Apista’s vision. And so the bee flew after her, zigging and zagging to match the energetic creature. Not in malice; Apista’s long, reddish-orange stinger on her backside wasn’t extended. In fact, if anything, she thought of this racing creature as…what?
Bees had no idea of friend. No concept of family. They knew of hives, and so that was this bee’s closest approximation. This thing was of her hive. But even bees could see the obvious. The white fluffy thing wasn’t a bee. It was closer to a bear cub, if a small one. But it was nevertheless friend, a valuable part of the hive that must be protected, even with Apista’s life.
How the bee knew this, she did not know. She didn’t think of it. It simply was, and that was enough. She caught the racing white thing at last and clung to its…head? The fur gave the bee’s legs ample purchase, and it had learned that the white thing didn’t mind her holding on. She and the white thing raced about the room for another minute, and then pounced on a shape lying on a bed in the center of the room. Apista saw the movement, and took off before the white thing landed. She heard an oof, and felt—not in her mind, but close enough—a mix of emotions.
Surprise. Mild pain. Panic—and then—exasperation? Half of the emotions weren’t things the female bee could process, but she got surprise and panic. Her stinger extended and she flew to the attack. But what? Not the white thing. The being who was so upset sat up, and the bee heard a voice.
“Mrsha! I told you not to wake me up that way!”
A Human, a young woman sat up. She grabbed for the white thing, who was wriggling like a larvae emerging from its cocoon. She caught it, and the worker bee, still poised to attack something, suddenly felt a rush of emotion.
Love. The bee had no concept of this either. For a bee did not love. But it understood happiness, contentment, and satisfaction. And the outpouring of all these things was so great that it immediately relaxed.
Bees had little concept of past and future. They understood the changing of seasons, but that was a biological instinct as much as thought. There had been something possibly dangerous, and then not. The bee was content. She landed on the white thing as the Human stroked its head. the bee heard an exclamation—odd in the way bees heard, but familiar—and then the voice.
“Apista! You’re awake too? Why didn’t you stop Mrsha?”
And the bee said nothing because it had nothing to say. Nor did it realize that was its name.
Bees had no names. And besides, this bee couldn’t understand language to begin with. But it had grasped that the particular rhythm of a particular voice meant something. Aapiissstaaaa. And when that voice said it, it usually meant warning. Or food. Or an invitation to rest and have something touch it. So the bee crawled up the white thing’s head, and the touching thing happened now.
Pat, pat. A large hand stroked the top of Apista’s body. The bee let it happen. It couldn’t properly feel the touches. Bees had very few nerves compared to a Human. But it felt the contentment coming from the person touching it, and so Apista was similarly content. Even if she didn’t understand why.
Lyonette du Marquin patted Apista’s body very carefully, and then felt a soft head butt. She looked down and saw Mrsha was demanding the same. She laughed and obliged, running her fingers down Mrsha’s soft fur, scratching her back.
Almost like a dog or cat. But the difference was that Mrsha did the same. She combed Lyonette’s hair gently with a paw. And the look in her eyes was far too intelligent for any animal. She was mute, but not stupid. A child, but growing by the day. And all too soon, she patted Lyonette’s arm and pointed a furry claw at the door.
“Oh? Done so soon?”
Lyonette teased Mrsha. The Gnoll child looked up at her, rolled her eyes, patted her stomach twice, pointed at the door, and then leapt from the bed Lyonette was sitting in. She landed on the floor with all four paws, again like a cat, then straightened and caught Apista as the bee flew after her. She lifted the bee, flew her over her head, and them patted her stomach and Apista’s.
“Oh? Food for you and Apista, is it? How selfless.”
The Human smirked. But she was proud all the same, and Apista felt it. Even if proud to Apista only translated into—the hive is big, there is much honey, we shall not starve. But pride Lyonette felt, because Mrsha was talking.
Sort of. Mrsha was mute. She’d been born that way, and for that reason she’d been abandoned as a child by her true parents. She had been raised by the Stone Spears tribe who had treated her as…well, a handicapped child, but one of their own nonetheless. But it meant that while they’d taught Mrsha what every Gnoll child living in a tribe must learn—how to help with chores, what to do not to interfere with the adults, and so on—they had never thought to do more.
But Lyonette had. And so had Erin. The [Innkeeper] had no grasp of sign language from her world—but she knew it existed, and she’d played chess with more than a few people who had spoken to her through sign language, interpreters, and the game itself. And Lyonette was simply intelligent, and had understood that language wasn’t a sole thing—even if this world had only one true language that everyone spoke.
So Mrsha had begun coming up with her own way of speaking. Encouraged by the two, she’d developed some simple signs over the last few days, since Erin had told them about her true origins and shared some of the knowledge of Earth with them. She could say she was hungry—two pats on the stomach, one was pain if she held it there—or that she needed to go to the bathroom. A quick twirl with arms spread, to indicate running around and needing a place to go.
Some of the ways Mrsha had chosen to communicate had Erin and Lyonette in stitches because they were original. Others were heartfelt.
Sadness to Mrsha wasn’t miming tears running down the face, or an expression. It was two tiny paws clasped together, and then drifting apart. Sadness. A thing broken, gone forever. Destruction. Desolation.
But today Mrsha was happy. She didn’t need a sign for that. Her wagging tail said it all. Mrsha had combined Human sign language with Gnollish tells. Her ears and face and tail could do as much talking as her paws, and both Erin and Lyonette had long ago learned up to pick up on the signs. It also meant older Gnolls could understand Mrsha quite easily once they learned a few of her words.
Mrsha patted her leg urgently. Hurry up! Lyonette groaned and put her legs out of bed.
“Alright, alright. I’m getting up. Don’t you dare open that door until I have my clothes on, understand?”
Mrsha sighed through her nose, but she waited as Lyonette put on some clothes. Mrsha was technically naked, but she had fur on, and Gnolls really didn’t wear much in the way of clothing even when they were adult. A Gnoll could walk around with barely more than a breast band and loincloth and males just the cloth and not attract much attention—at least, from most. Drakes and Humans on the other hand were more prudish.
True, City Gnolls were pickier about their garb and Lyonette had met a few Gnolls who went around fully dressed. But Mrsha hated shirts, hated pants more, and had hid both cute hats that Erin had bought for her in the stove. So Lyonette dressed herself and no one else. In the meantime, Mrsha tossed up Apista and raced around the room after her.
The bee named Apista had no concept of plans, or the complicated futures that Mrsha and Lyonette envisioned. But she had learned this new schedule, and she knew what was coming next. So like Mrsha she was prepared to eat. And she could sense that intention from her…other hive member. Or was it her queen? No. Her…master?
No. It wasn’t a thought Apista would ever have of Lyonette. She didn’t know the girl’s name, or what she was—to Apista, Lyonette was a fairly blobby thing, sometimes wearing odd colors, but always with the same pheromones. And Apista would recognize her everywhere. For Lyonette was her. Apista’s other self.
It was through Lyonette that Apista understood more of the world. Because she could sense Lyonette’s thoughts. They were abstract, often confusing. But always there. When Lyonette was angry, Apista felt it. When she was confused or tired, Apista knew. She and Lyonette were connected, and so the bee thought of Lyonette as another bee. Just uglier, unable to fly, and who did many odd things.
But she was the more important bee of the two. She had raised Apista from a larvae, fed her, and cared for her. So Lyonette was the most important thing in the wooden hive. Second-most was the white thing, for which both she and Apista cared for greatly. The other two things Apista thought of as being part of the ‘hive’ were the green thing that was sort of friendly, and the scary thing.
They met the green thing two steps out of the door when Lyonette finally opened it. Mrsha scampered out, and then paused. So did Lyonette. She stopped and stared at Numbtongue, who’d walked out of his room roughly the same time as them. He stared at them.
“Um. Hello, Numbtongue.”
Lyonette only hesitated for a moment. Mrsha stared up gravely at Numbtongue, and then raised a paw in her silent greeting. The Hobgoblin blinked at them and there was a moment of…
What? To Apista, it was a moment of wariness, like if a bear was approaching the hive and it might have to be driven off. She fanned her wings and took off of Mrsha’s head. To ward the green thing off. It wasn’t exactly part of the hive, although she sensed Lyonette’s goodwill towards it. The green thing stared at her as Apista flew, stinger extended threateningly—
Apista flew. Lyonette uttered a word with her name in it, but the feeling of caution emanating from her only grew more, and Apista just interpreted that as more warning against the green thing. So she flew at it—
And the green thing grabbed Apista.
Numbtongue stared at the struggling bee in his hands. He thought he’d grabbed it in the right spot. Gently, around the abdomen to hold the stinger back. But Lyonette exclaimed.
“No, Numbtongue! Let her, go, she’s going to—”
The Hobgoblin had underestimated Apista’s flexibility and strength. The bee wriggled. It was caught! It reacted as bees do. She coiled up, one angry ball of insect. And then she did what came naturally.
“I am so sorry. Apista does that whenever she’s around new people. She doesn’t mean any harm by it—she just warns them off. She does it to everyone, but you grabbed her. No one’s done that before.”
Lyonette apologized to Numbtongue profusely as they sat at the table, applying a bit of healing potion to his hand. Only a few drops, but it was necessary. Apista’s stinger had gone right into Numbtongue’s hand before he’d let go, and her stinger was big. Apista herself was bigger than two hands put together now, and her stinger was dangerous.
Even more dangerous than a normal Ashfire Bee’s stinger because Apista was the size of a queen. And worse still because of Lyonette’s Skill. [Crimson Stinger]. The [Princess] hadn’t had a good chance to see what the change had wrought in Apista’s stinger aside from making it larger and more red, but now she saw as she tended to Numbtongue’s hand.
The wound in his hand was inflamed, and it was already puffing up. Lyonette pouring the potion into the wound, watching the swelling go down—a bit.
“There must be a lot of venom in that stinger. I’m so sorry—”
“It’s fine. Doesn’t hurt that much. Good morning.”
Numbtongue shrugged. He flexed his hand, barely wincing as the skin closed up. It was the first thing he’d said all day. Lyonette stared at him, and then couldn’t help but smile. The Goblin [Bard] looked at her, and then at Apista.
The bee was confused. It had stung after being grabbed. As far as it was concerned, everything was great. The green thing had let it go and retreated. But Lyonette was angry. At Apista. The bee sensed it and didn’t know why. It flared its wings, wondering if the situation called for more stings. The green thing was keeping well away from it while the white thing bounced up and down at the table. Apista was about to fly about to look for more enemies when it heard another voice.
“I told you that bee’s a menace! A menace I say!”
Erin Solstice walked over, planted a huge plate of eggs and bacon in front of Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Lyonette, and mock-glared at Apista. She had tankards in her other hand as well. Milk for Mrsha, water for Lyonette, and milk for Numbtongue.
“That’s a lot of eggs, Erin.”
Lyonette eyed the eggs with mild alarm. Mrsha reached for the heaping plate and Lyonette grabbed her paw.
“Ah! Did you wash your hands, miss? And where’s your plate? And fork?”
Mrsha’s face fell. She slunk off the table and found the washing bucket of water and the little soap ball. Apista flew with her. She thought about drinking from the bucket, but experience had taught her that was not good water. She was flying with Mrsha because she was wary of the fourth creature in the wood hive she lived in.
The scary one. If Lyonette was a fellow bee, and the white thing a precious creature, like a baby larva, and the green one…a green one, then the scary one was a threat. Like a wasp, or a bear, but somehow, still part of the hive. Lyonette liked her, and so Apista didn’t consider the scary one a threat—but she was still scary.
Erin Solstice stared at Apista warily as the bee flew about Mrsha. Apista was giving her much the same look.
Bees did not see like people. In fact, their eyes weren’t much hot stuff anyways. They could make out bright colors to find food, but it wasn’t for clear, stunning, high-resolution analysis. So Erin didn’t look that much different from Lyonette in Apista’s mind. But bees were also animals, and in that sense, Apista saw more than Lyonette.
To Apista, Erin was bigger than her form. At times she was just the size of her body. But at others she filled the room, the wood hive that was Apista’s home. She became the hive, and in those moments she was a terrible giant. A thing the bee had no words for and which scared Apista.
So, the scary one. Right now Erin wasn’t scary, but the bee had decided long ago not to get too near her. She flew past Erin and investigated the bright eggs and meat. Not her choice of food and indeed, Lyonette instantly shooed her away.
“No, Apista! I’ll get your food in a moment. Erin, I’m going into Liscor today. We need more sugar for her water, and I’ve got some other errands to run.”
“Sounds good! I’m going into Pallass.”
The word made everyone look up. Erin’s face was set. Lyonette scratched her head.
“That’s right. Just to see what it’s like. You know, get a feel for the place? Ilvriss is still banned from there and no one else is using the door—those jerks still don’t feel like visiting Liscor. So I’m going through.”
“Okay then. Mrsha will come with me, I suppose. Or visit Krshia?”
Mrsha, sitting at the table and bouncing up and down, waiting for her plate and fork, nodded eagerly. Lyonette smiled.
“And then that only leaves—”
They stared at Numbtongue. He was staring at the eggs and bacon as hungrily as Mrsha. He looked up belatedly and then shrugged—caught himself—and opened his mouth.
“I will go into the mountains. To mine.”
“With the mana stone?”
Erin was anxious. Numbtongue nodded.
“With stone. You’ll check the door?”
He looked at Lyonette. She nodded as well.
“If I’m not here, Ishkr or Drassi will check it every ten minutes. And they’ll have it set to your mana stone by default.”
She nodded to the rotating mana stones that had been installed on the door. There were five now. One for Celum, Liscor, the mana stone that Numbtongue held, a bright purple gem, an orange gem for a door that Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers used, and Pallass. Erin nodded, smiling.
“We’re adding more mana stones! Hawk just put that stone up in Pallass—I’m still not sure how useful it is since we barely do anything, but I guess it’s convenient for security and stuff. Plus, Ilvriss paid for it so that’s cool by me. But we’ve got two more connections.”
“That door that Griffon Hunt’s helping bring north to Invrisil. And Numbtongue’s personal door.”
Lyonette looked at Numbtongue. He reached into his pouch and showed them the purple gem.
“Have it here. Good way to go from mountains to here.”
“You’re sure you want to go alone? I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Erin looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin shrugged.
“Not too dangerous. Just climbing and looking for good spots mostly. Boring. And if I find anything—”
He pointed to the gem. Erin huffed and hesitated.
“Just remember you need a door to get it to work.”
“I will bring one. And mine all day.”
“You sure you just need a pickaxe? What about a shovel? Don’t miners work in teams or something?”
“Probably. But that’s not how Goblins mine. Not how he mined.”
The others fell silent. Apista flew into the kitchen and inspected some bacon grease before resuming her patrol, checking on if anything had changed in her ‘hive’, the inn, while she’d slept. As the sole proper bee, she had to make sure nothing had penetrated the hive and was lurking there. Like…hive beetles. Or spiders. She hated spiders.
“Okay then. I guess that’s our plan for today! Lyonette, the inn’s all yours. Now, let’s get some plates and dig in before the adventurers come by! There’ll probably be at least a few groups. Griffon Hunt’s started eating here every morning, plus the other teams come by to relax…”
Erin clapped her hands. Lyonette helped her get plates, smiling.
“They come here for the good food. You should be happy.”
“Yeah, but all they do is eat, argue, and take turns escorting the door.”
“Well, they are relaxing after the dungeon.”
“Adventurers relaxing means one of them starts causing trouble at some point. Remember when they tried playing baseball again? Right outside the inn? They cracked two windows.”
“Well, they paid for them. And today Ishkr will be here, not Drassi. I can trust him. I’ll be back soon enough, Erin. I’d let someone else get the supplies, but I have other business…”
“Ooh. While you’re at it, can you get me some more eggs? They’re cheap, but I, uh, used them for breakfast. And I want to make some more egg-based dishes when I get back from Pallass. Egg drop soup. I don’t quite know how to make it, but I assume you have egg, and soup, and there’s dropping involved…”
Lyonette sighed, but Apista felt the hint of amusement from her. The bee flew down as Lyonette filled a bowl with water and sugar. Erin eyed the bee greedily drinking up the syrup before Lyonette had even carried it back into the common room.
“You sure Apista’s fine with just that? I thought she needed more.”
“Well, I haven’t let her out of the inn for fear she’ll get attacked by birds, but there are the flowers.”
Lyonette waved towards the little yellow flowers blooming in the planters near the windows. Erin stared at them.
“Oh. Right. I forgot! We should make some more faerie flower drinks, Lyonette.”
The [Princess] shuddered.
“They’re not exactly social drinks, Erin.”
“No…but they are good for some people. Sometimes. And Halrac and Ilvriss ask me if I have more now and then. Say, could you get more honey as well?”
“From the Ashfire Bee hive? I haven’t gone back there in a while. I could…try.”
The last time she’d harvested honey from them had been in the winter, but she’d stopped with the spring rains and the uptick in monsters. Now the Floodplains were muddy, but some of the muck was turning into proper soil again. And there were plants blooming, the last of the undead had finally been taken care of…it was beginning to be a proper spring. Erin hesitated.
“I mean, I know it’s dangerous, but your smoke trick’s worked before, right? And honey is a money earner.”
“True. I’ll try it. After I see Krshia. Oh—and I’ll visit the Players of Celum and see why they haven’t dropped by yet.”
“Would you? It’s totally slipped my mind. Well, not slipped my mind, but every time I go through to Celum, Octavia’s bugged me about new potion ideas and helping her burn down this other guy’s shop…”
The two chatted as Apista drank the precious water and sugar up. She knew it was exactly what she needed to survive. But Erin was right. Water and sugar were one thing, but a bee lived on honey. And Apista was predisposed to another thing too.
Nectar. As she was not a queen who lived to lay brood, she was instinctively motivated towards the little flowers. So as the other adventures came down the stairs, and Numbtongue and Mrsha fought for a rasher of bacon and Erin and Lyonette circled the inn, the Ashfire Bee flew up and towards the little planters near the windows. There she landed and inspected the flowers.
They were small, and yellow. Vibrant, like little coins of gold sprouting from the soil. Ironic, since that was how Erin had first received them. Fake gold coins, a faerie’s trick payment. But she’d taken the flowers and planted them, and they’d bloomed into flowers that were very useful, and very magical.
One sip of the nectar could make you see things. Mix it with alcohol and you’d see the past. Or a past that might have been or…just dream. Lyonette had found you could burn the flowers too. Dried and burned, they created an incense that put the Ashfire Bee hive to sleep and allowed her to collect honey. The flowers probably had other uses too, but they were as yet still growing and multiplying, and Erin wanted a veritable garden first.
A certain little Gnoll and Apista were responsible for the much larger body of flowers in the planters along the windowsill. Encouraged by their efforts, the flowers had multiplied from three boxes of scattered blooms in the soil to six full boxes, and a seventh one on the way once Lyonette or Erin transplanted the delicate flowers. To Apista, it was a bounty of nectar.
And yet, still the bee hesitated. Bees had short memories in some regards, but in others? They could navigate back to a patch of flowers pollinated years ago. Because while individual bees died, a hive remembered. And Apista, short though her life had been, knew these flowers.
She knew what would happen next. But it wasn’t a strictly negative experience, one that would warn her away, like getting grabbed by the green thing or accidentally getting smacked by Mrsha while the Gnoll was asleep. It was something else. And because Apista had no concept of it, because she was programmed to seek the nectar in the little flowers and because part of her wanted to, she drew closer. Her proboscis lowered and she delicately inserted it into the bud of the first flower.
Bee fact. Regular Earth bees could forage as many as six miles outside of their hive. Ashfire Bees, the colossi of the bee families in this world, could forage for as many as twenty miles outside their hives, and further still if need be. They had to, as smaller flowers were far too tiny to provide them with enough nectar.
In that sense, the six beds of faerie flowers were just a warm-up for the Ashfire Bee. In another?
Apista drank. And the world slowed ddddddoooooooowwwwwnnnnnnnnnnn…………
Bees didn’t think like people. But they did think. And Apista was thinking about thinking, which was a novel experience for any bee. The idea of thought was to her like this strange thing. You could think? About thinking? That was…like…
Thought. Apista raised her head. Yellow flowers looked at her. But from a different angle they looked like blooming gold. Or gold that bloomed through a flower. Maybe they were gold and the flowers were the illusion. Maybe this window was—
Apista ran into the window. Okay, maybe it wasn’t an illusion. The Ashfire Bee crawled up the window. Wow. This hard stuff was really hard. And see-through. She could see right through it, but it was there. Outside the sky glowed with dawn light. Apista wondered if it had anything to say. She fanned her wings.
She could see—
—the shape of—
And it was green. With pink polka dots.
Apista tripped. And when bees tripped, they tripped hard.
“Huh. You know, I never realized it, but what does Apista do all day when you’re working, Lyonette?”
Erin was about to leave for her trip to Pallass when she spotted the Ashfire Bee. It was crawling all over the window where the faerie flowers were blooming. Erin assumed it was good for the little things, for all Apista could have squashed them. But they really had been growing nicely.
Lyonette looked up from learning a new word Mrsha had invented. A tap on the nose and quick circle meant ‘tracking’. An important word for Gnolls. She was wondering if there was a way to write all this down for other people. A book, maybe?
She looked up and blinked at Apista. Lyonette frowned, then shrugged, unconcerned.
“All day? Mostly that. She always gets like this after eating. Quiet. Some days she just sits on the flower beds for hours. I guess I should let her out more, but I feel like she’s pretty happy like this.”
She got up and walked over to Apista, picking the bee off the window. Apista didn’t resist. Erin eyed Apista as Mrsha tried to teach her the new word.
“…Is she trying to fly upside down?”
“I think so?”
To Lyonette, Apista’s mind was a distant thing. She could sense if the bee was hungry, in pain, or so on thanks to their [Lesser Bond] skill, but that was about it. Right now she was getting…something approaching static from Apista’s mind. It happened surprisingly often. Lyonette assumed Apista just wasn’t thinking that much.
“Well, that’s bees for you. Must be nice. That’s a nice word, Mrsha! Tracking. Got it! I’ll remember. And you can ‘track’ me down if I’m late. I’m off to Pallass! See ya!”
Erin waved at the others and walked through the magic door. Numbtongue was already gone for the day. That just left Lyonette, the adventurers who’d come downstairs and into the inn, and the hired help. Mrsha padded over to Ishkr and tugged on his leg. She was determined to teach everyone her new word.
“Mrsha, don’t—well, okay. But don’t bother Ishkr if he’s busy, got it?”
Lyonette sighed as the Gnoll [Waiter] obligingly bent down to learn Mrsha’s word. Some of the other adventurers looked up; they were playing dice and waiting to change places with the Halfseekers, who were lugging the door north.
“—Not even at Celum yet. Why don’t we hire a carriage and speed the process?”
Halrac was grunting to Dawil. The Dwarf shrugged as he rolled some dice in a cup.
“You in a hurry, lad?”
“I’m older than you are.”
“And I’m a Dwarf. I get to call Humans ‘lad’ and ‘lass’. Besides, the slow pace means we can take jobs around the door if we want.”
“True. Esthelm has hunting missions. It’s just—”
“Too good for Bronze-rank requests?”
The Dwarf grinned, teasingly. The [Scout] almost smiled.
“I was going to say that killing too many animals would hurt their [Hunters]. Roll the dice, will you?”
“I will, as soon as we put up some money on this. How’s five coppers sound? Hey, pointy ears! You want to get on this? And no cheating like last time, or…”
All seemed well. Lyonette looked at Ishkr. He was managing a pair of Gnoll workers today.
“You can handle watching Mrsha for a few hours?”
“Yes, Lyonette. Honored Krshia is busy at work, and I think she will be fine here. One of us can let her run about outside now the undead are gone. Although I think she is content here.”
Ishkr was referring to Mrsha wandering over to Typhenous and Revi. They were talking magic, and the Gnoll was content to listen to them—or sit on Moore’s lap when he was relaxing. Lyonette nodded.
“I’ll be back, then. To Celum first. Remember, every ten minutes, and keep—”
“—the door attuned to Numbtongue’s stone. I understand.”
Ishkr patiently nodded. Lyonette smiled sheepishly.
She put Apista back on the windowsill. The Ashfire Bee lay there, content with the world, or so Lyonette vaguely felt. The [Princess] shook her head. She stepped over to the magic door, envying Apista’s simple way of being. She on the other hand wasn’t always so happy. Even though Erin had given Lyonette run of the inn, the job wasn’t always easy. Especially when Lyonette thought about money coming and leaving the inn.
True, they were a thousand gold coins richer from the Redfang Goblin’s gift. But the third floor and Bird’s tower were still gone. Adventurers made up their small day-to-day earnings and the new staff required pay too. Lyonette had big plans, so she needed big business. Which meant the Players of Celum had to come back and start putting on huge shows.
“They’ve been gone for a long time. I thought they’d be chomping at the bit to come back, but they didn’t. Not while Erin was crying, and not even afterwards.”
Lyonette frowned to herself, worried. That probably meant they were putting on performances in Celum. Which was…not ideal. But she had hopes she could convince them to come back to The Wandering Inn. Jasi and Wesle owed Erin a lot.
The instant Lyonette pushed the door open and stepped into Octavia’s shop, the [Alchemist] sprang from behind her counter.
“Lyonette! Just who I was looking for!”
“Not now, Octavia. I’m just coming through.”
“Right, right. But while you’re here, why not stock up on some potions? Stay and chat? Have a stamina potion, on me. This one’s extra sweet! Why don’t you sit, talk about Erin—has she mentioned me at all? I’ve just got this thing going on that—”
“Octavia, please. I don’t have time to talk.”
The [Princess] tried to fend off the dark-skinned Stitch-girl. She gritted her teeth, wishing she could shove Octavia out of the way. But that wasn’t right, was it?
“Come on, Lyonette? We’re pals, aren’t we?”
“I don’t think so?”
“What? You’re breaking my heart, Lyonette! We’ve been the best friends! You and me, both working with Erin. Buddies, ever since you and Mrsha stayed here during the Face-Eater Moth attack. And friends help friends, right? If you could just…”
Lyonette felt a hand dragging at her. She shook Octavia off, making for the door. She tried to tell herself it was just Octavia being Octavia. No need to get upset.
Be polite. Smile, don’t think of Octavia as a peasant. And don’t kick her even if she shoves another potion bottle in your face.
“If you could just—”
At last, Lyonette slammed the door to Octavia’s shop. She shook her head. Octavia. That [Alchemist] had a way of getting on people’s nerves. She was always, always trying to get Lyonette or Erin or even Mrsha to do something.
“Not once have I walked through there without Octavia trying to get me to sit and listen to her idea for twenty minutes. Or spend a dozen gold pieces to ‘fund’ her.”
Lyonette grumbled to herself. She stomped away from the shop, and only then noticed that part of the boarded-up exterior of Stitchworks was slightly charred. Lyonette stopped, frowning at the exterior.
Ever since one of Erin’s plans had ended up with the front of Octavia’s shop getting knocked in, it had been boarded up. It didn’t exactly make the shop look appealing, but the [Alchemist] hadn’t bothered to fix it. Only, it looked like someone had nearly set fire to the wooden exterior.
From the outside. Lyonette wondered if Octavia had dropped some matches or something. She frowned, hesitated, and then shook her head.
“Probably nothing. And if I go back in, I’ll have to listen to that…that…peasant talk some more.”
The invective sipped out of Lyonette’s mouth before she could stop it. She caught herself, frowning, and then turned and hurried away from the shop, suddenly ashamed. Lyonette walked past a gossiping couple of women, hurried down a street past a man with a cart full of radishes, and towards the base of the Players of Celum. All the while she was thinking to herself, barely noticing the people around her.
Peasants. Wasn’t that what Lyonette used to call them? It felt like a foreign word now. A stupid one to apply to everyone who crossed her path. True, it was somewhat accurate because they weren’t royalty, but—no.
“That was old Lyonette. Old me. I’m not like that. Judgmental. Stupid.”
Lyonette muttered to herself. The man with the wheelbarrow gave her an odd look. Lyonette gave him a strained grin and he decided to cross the street to the other side. The [Princess] shook her head.
It had just been a slip of the tongue. But it was a good reminder. She couldn’t be old Lyonette. Not bossy, not stuck-up. She had to be nice, and friendly, a good [Barmaid], a helpful friend…
Perfect. Meek, unassuming, content to be a [Barmaid]. And that was something Lyonette didn’t enjoy either. She’d loved running Erin’s inn without Erin. Being a host, being in charge.
Being a [Princess]. Pawn had shown her that. She didn’t want to be just in the background, but the old her had been a nightmare. So where was the compromise?
Lyonette shook her head. She felt more and more like the old her, sometimes. It was her [Princess] class reminding her. That was why she’d volunteered to run Erin’s inn while the [Innkeeper] went on a semi-vacation. She’d wanted the job, wanted the power. She had so many ideas…
At last, Lyonette came to the large storehouse that had been converted into the base for the Players of Celum. It was, of course, locked, and usually had a pair of hired [Guards] lounging about the front to prevent fans of the Players from breaking in and watching the [Actors] at work.
They weren’t here today. Which was curious. And slightly worrying. Lyonette hesitated, and then knocked hard on the door. She waited impatiently for a few seconds, knocked louder, and waited some more.
“Maybe they’re out?”
Lyonette wondered if she should do the Erin thing and push her way into the storehouse. But was that too bold? Too rude? Too much like old Lyonette? Because she wanted to. She knocked a third time, and then put her hand on the door’s handle. She was about to yank the door open when someone pushed from inside.
The young woman sprang back. She saw an unfamiliar face appear in the doorway. A young man, with a painted face. An [Actor]. He wasn’t one Lyonette recognized by name, but she’d seen his face in some of the plays. She blinked at him and he blinked at her. Then his eyes widened.
The [Actor] nodded. He pushed the door open and beckoned Lyonette in.
“Come in, come in! I didn’t expect to see you today! Apologies—we were practicing and we barely heard—is Miss Erin alright? Is the inn open at last?”
Lyonette stepped into the storehouse and looked around. The Players of Celum had bought the place with the first of their earnings and turned it into a miniature theatre and dressing room. There were wigs, costumes, fake weapons, a stage to practice on and seat for the ‘veteran’ [Actors] to critique the newbies, a place for Esme and the [Writers] to come up with new material or alter Erin’s plays, and so on. It was a bustling place, or it had been the other two times Lyonette had visited it.
But today the storehouse was almost empty. A dozen people were in the building, three on the stage, the rest watching. There was one person fiddling with the costumes. Lyonette stared around. The Players of Celum was a troupe of over sixty members now! They were the hottest thing since flaming Corusdeer! Where was Wesle? Jasi? Grev, and Esme? Kilkran?
“Temile, where is everyone? Are they performing?”
“Ah. Well, you see—I wish we’d been able to tell you. But what with the siege of Liscor and us not knowing when Miss Erin’d be back, and then the door going dead and—”
Temile was hesitating. His painted face, already supposed to look sad, looked even more apprehensive as Lyonette turned to him.
“What? Did they start performing at other inns? That’s fine, but Erin’s inn is back open. And we could really use the business…what?”
“You see, Miss Lyonette—and don’t be angry, it’s not my choice! Wesle and the others were talking it over, but we gave Miss Erin our word we wouldn’t put on plays anywhere but her inn. But everyone needs paying for food and families and so on, and we were just sitting there. And then came along an offer—”
The [Actor] nodded miserably.
“A good one. From Lellisdam.”
Lyonette had never heard the name before. Temile elaborated.
“It’s a big city. Nearly eighty miles north of here. Far from Celum, but it’s one of the bigger cities on the road north.”
“Eighty miles? And they left? Without telling us?”
Lyonette was horrified. Temile winced.
“Well…you were out of touch! There was talk of war with the Drakes, and the [Mayor] of Lellisdam had heard rumors of our acts! He sent us gold as an advance, promised to pay for the entire troupe to come down the road with an escort…there was a huge argument about it. Lots of debates.”
“But in the end, they chose to go?”
Lyonette felt weak at the knees. Temile sighed.
“It weren’t easy, but yes. Jasi wanted to tell Erin, but the offer wasn’t going to sit. So…I’ve got a letter from her to Miss Erin explaining. The Players left for the north. Me and two of the old crew, Damius and Rima, stayed with some of the new recruits. We’ve been sitting here, learning the old plays and living off the funds from the main group. The plan was that if you took a long time to get here we’d train up a new group while Wesle, Jasi, and the others earned money up north. There’s tons of interest in our plays, and no one in the north’s even heard of us yet. There’s a fortune to be made. So…”
“I get it.”
Lyonette spoke flatly. So, the Players had gone. She shouldn’t be surprised. Not really. But she was anyways. And she’d been counting on them to start pulling their old crowds in. Now…Lyonette looked about at the handful of [Actors] and the recruits. One of them was on stage. Lyonette could see him waving his hand about like a boneless chicken. Temile followed her gaze and winced.
“They’re new. But they want to learn, and we’re working on them. Not everyone’s got Kilkran’s voice, or Jasi’s instinct.”
“Can they put on a play? I was hoping we could have you back. But…”
Lyonette stared at the [Actors]. Temile nodded hurriedly.
“Of course! We’re overjoyed to have the inn open. And we’ll put on a performance tonight! Dead gods, this is the time to recruit those Drakes and Gnolls, isn’t it? We might not be able to do as well as Wesle and Jasi, but with time and practice—we’ll draw in some crowds, at least, I’m sure. Why, with a few weeks to get our new group up to speed…”
He faltered a bit as Lyonette looked at him. But all the [Princess] did was nod, and put a fake smile on her face.
“I’m sure Erin will be delighted. And yes, by all means come tonight. There were Drakes and Gnolls interested in joining. I’m sure they’ll be…a real help.”
“We could use more hands. Er, claws, paws, and whatever. So ah, tonight? I’ve got to tell the others if we’re actually going to—I mean, prep them. We’ll do a simple play, I think.”
The man edged away from Lyonette. She nodded and saw him hurry over to the Players, shouting and pointing back at her. One of the young women on stage seemed to be taken with a bout of stage fright already. The actor with the floppy hand had the opposite reaction and began emoting with twice the waving of his arm. Lyonette debated staying, but decided she couldn’t. If she did, she might end up saying something she’d regret.
She went back the way she’d come, fuming a bit inside, and trying not to be angry. Part of her wanted to take the [Actor] to task. Would it have been that hard to send someone with a message? Really? Instead, the Players had just left for greener pastures. But she bit her tongue—it was entirely understandable of them.
Understandable, but it didn’t make Lyonette less angry. But she was slightly proud of herself for not blowing up at Temile. It would have done no good. She’d be polite, nice, and if they fouled up on stage and drove away her guests—
Lyonette slammed the door on Octavia before the [Alchemist] had a chance to pester her. She saw the adventurers were still at their tables, and Mrsha was watching Dawil arm-wrestle Typhenous. And lose.
“Damn it! What kind of spell is that?”
The Dwarf roared in frustration as the elderly [Mage] cackled. Lyonette sighed, but then saw Ishkr poke his head out of the kitchen.
“We’ve got the Players of Celum tonight? Should I get ready for a lot of customers?”
“Yes, and no. We’ll probably get some crowd, more from Liscor, at least until they realize what’s changed.”
Lyonette sighed. Ishkr raised his eyebrows, but she didn’t elaborate.
“Send one of the Gnolls—Rishka? Into the city and spread the word that the Players will be performing tonight. But maybe only people interested in joining should come. I’m going there too. I’ll be back.”
Ishkr nodded. Lyonette walked towards the magic door. She slipped through it, not noticing or caring that Dawil, in his huff, had gotten off to pee away his frustrations. He slammed the door open and it slowly began to close. No one cared; they were all busy watching Typhenous begin to arm-wrestle Falene, both [Mages] actively casting spells on themselves and each other.
The door bounced back slowly towards the shut position. And that was fine, because Dawil would close it on the way back in. Or someone else would. Mrsha was too responsible to go outside without a Gnoll watching her now, and the zombies had mostly been eradicated. This was an inn full of adventurers, so what was the worry?
None at all. Unless of course, a completely faerie flower drugged Ashfire Bee decided that it was going outside. Then you might have a problem.
Apista the bee spoke to herself for the first time. It was not the way a bee thought, but she had eaten from flowers and so it felt fine.
She said, or whispered, or spoke however a bee does, “Oh, I am a bee, and a bee I must be. But what is a bee, if a bee is not free?”
There was no one to listen, or even to hear. And her other half, the bee that walked and thought, wasn’t here. She had been, but now she was distant, as it sometimes happened. “Damn magic,” thought Apista, though she had no notion of magic or how to swear.
In other days, Apista might have lain and thought deep thoughts about flowers and basked in the sun. But oh! Look there! She saw an open door, a crack. And a great plot was begun.
Stealthily, as stealthily as a bee could be. Apista crept towards the door. It was a fabulous plan, as smart as an Ashfire Bee could hatch. But it was foiled by the creature of scales who came through the door, as loud as thunder, as loud as a boar.
“Ishkr! I’m here to work! Hey—”
Apista took wing, racing for the door. The thing of scales exclaimed, “Oh no! Apista! Shut the door!”
She lunged, but the door was ajar and the Dwarf coming through already sloshed at the bar. Apista flew at his face and he jumped in surprise. The scaly thing, whose name might be Drassi, shouted, “Stop her! Get her, Dawil!”
And the Dwarf leapt for her, ready to foil her plans. But clever, she, the bee. She dodged and wove around the grasping hands, landed in the beard and crawled up the screaming face. Then she leapt again and flew out the door. Apista laughed at the one chasing her of scales and fright. She shouted at them in words they could not hear, “At last, I fly free!”
And then she was airborne! Apista flew through the skies. Free for once of her hive of wood. Free at last, as free as a bee. As free as could be. Until a terrible thought occurred to her. She was free, but could she be? (She was clearly still high or drunk or tripping, as you clearly can see.)
She had no hive, nor purpose. Apista flew through the skies, aimless and helpless, suddenly gripped by philosophical woes. She looked at the sky, and wept, only bees do not weep. And there was no one to hear her. She was still hallucinating that she could speak.
“What reason have I?” cried the bee. “What am I to do? By what reason am I free?”
And the sky spoke. “You are alone.”
And the bee knew it to be true. So it flew across the land, looking for her other half. For she completed she, but even together they were a bee twice alone. For what is a bee without a queen? Two bees then, flew together. Neither one worker, neither one queen. But both in between.
So the bee found her other self and flew down to her. Asking, “What shall we do? What do you see? What pulls you, and how do you see me? What shall I do? By what reason am I free?”
Thus was began Apista’s great quest in the open. And in an inn made of wood, a Drake stood in the door. Drassi stared at the open sky, mouth agape. Dawil swore as he felt at his beard that Apista had crawled up, and Drassi saw Apista’s form grow smaller and smaller in the sky. She gulped and looked back at Ishkr, who’d arrived too late.
“Oh, Ancestors. Lyonette is going to kill me.”
Lyonette’s journey to Liscor was uneventful, at least to begin with. She made her way down Market Street, saw a familiar Gnoll at her stall, and made her way towards her. She got halfway there when an angry voice shouted at her.
“There, you see? The [Thief]! I’ve been telling everyone, that inn is just a den of criminals! Look at her, without the decency to stay out of the city! She was exiled! And look! She’s swanning right about, defying the law. Just like that!”
Lyonette jumped. She looked around and saw the shouter was a familiar Drake. Lism was shouting from his stall, his scales red and purple as he shouted at the people around him.
“Not only did that damn Human bring a Goblin into our homes, but a [Thief]! They caused riots in the city and one of their flesh-loving friends nearly drowned me in the confusion! Are we to let this pass? I ask you! You, Shopkeeper Malvilla, didn’t that [Thief] steal from you? And you, Skemil? And even honored Krshia over there was a victim! But it appears that Gnolls forgive and forget too easily! Not so with Drakes, I say!”
An accusatory claw was pointed at Lyonette. She flushed as all eyes turned towards her. The two [Shopkeepers] mentioned gave Lyonette dark looks. Lism, still spitting outrage, pointed at Lyonette.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself? Nothing? Just like a Human! First your kind attack our city with Goblins, and now—”
“Shut up, Lism! No one wants to hear it. I came here to buy fruits, not hear you spray.”
A passing Drake shouted, annoyed. Lism turned his wrath on the Drake.
“Oh yes? And where were you when the Humans were throwing rocks at our gates? Waiting to welcome your Human friends with open arms?”
The Drake glared and opened his mouth. Not coming up with a response, he went with a simpler option and turned his claw into a fist.
“Shut it. Or I’ll shut that mouth for you.”
“Oho? You and what Humans? Got an army of fleshbags with you?”
Lyonette slunk away from the argument towards Krshia’s stall. The two Drakes were shouting at each other. Lyonette’s ears were crimson as Krshia waved her closer. The Gnoll bared her teeth, her eyes flashing as she looked at Lism.
“Pay no notice, Lyonette. He’s been angry since someone tried to drown him in the baths. And angrier still since half the city thinks it’s a pity whoever did it didn’t finish the job.”
The [Princess] felt her cheeks redden. She looked at Lism. He was getting jeered on as the Drake on the ground challenged him to leave his stall and take a few swings, but there were a number of people still glaring daggers at her. Her and Krshia. Mostly Drakes, but a few Gnolls too.
“Has he been like this all the time?”
Krshia grimaced and dug at her ear. Lyonette realized she’d packed some wax in there as makeshift earplugs.
“All of yesterday, the day before, and today. The Watch warned him twice to keep it down, but he’s argued they’re showing favoritism since they didn’t investigate who tried to drown him. So they’re letting him waste his breath. I wish I could say that I had the same hopes, but that’s the price of healing and stamina potions, no?”
She grimaced. Lyonette nodded. She glanced back at Lism.
“He’s right. But wrong. I was let back into the city, but I didn’t ask for it. Zel intervened on my behalf. And it wasn’t us who led the Goblins here. Erin fought the Goblin Lord’s army.”
Krshia nodded. The Gnoll knew everything Lyonette was saying, but the [Princess] had to say it again. Just to hear it and not what Lism was shouting.
“It is a fact most Gnolls know, Lyonette. And we have settled our debts. Ignore Lism—he speaks because he cannot act. And those who listen reveal themselves. Myself, I just wish I had better earplugs.”
She offered Lyonette a toothy grin. The young woman half-smiled. She wished she could shout all those things back at Lism. But she had no ground to stand on. She had burned down Krshia’s shop and stolen from half the shops on this street. Every time she came here she did feel their gazes on her. But she hoped she could rectify that today.
“I’m not staying long. But can you add some sugar to my delivery list for tomorrow?”
“Hrr. Of course. How much?”
“Um. Make it a big sack. I know it’s pricey—”
Krshia waved that away.
“Not so much now that the siege is lifted and spring begun, yes? One of the [Merchants] already made it from Celum. His goods were pricey, but the prices will already go down. Sugar is expensive since it comes from Baleros, but there are no wars there to drive up the price either.”
“Lucky for us, hrm?”
Krshia blinked, and then laughed at Lyonette’s imitation of her way of speaking.
“Go along with you now! Unless you want to hear Lism bellowing more?”
Lyonette did not. She walked away from the market, but not before Lism got a few parting shots in.
“Hah! Look at that! Running like the cowardly Human she is! Not a tail to tuck between her legs! Hey—don’t you climb onto my stall! You attack me and I’ll call the Watch! I have a right to free speech! Not that a Human-loving pervert would understand anything off—”
For a second Lyonette thought about going back. For a second. But no. Running up to Lism and calling him a peasant with eggs for brains would not be helpful. As much as she wanted to do just that. Lyonette walked down the street, passing by Drakes and Gnolls and knowing they could see her red cheeks and ears. And then, like that, a bee fell out of the skies and landed on Lyonette’s head.
The Ashfire Bee buzzed, her wings flapping rapidly as the Drakes and Gnolls took one look at the oversized insect and sprang away. Lyonette grabbed at Apista as the bee wobbled erratically around her in flight. The Ashfire Bee’s thoughts were disjointed, but Lyonette caught confusion, desperation, and—melancholy from her. She’d never sensed these emotions from Apista. Or seen her act like this!
“What is going on with you? And how did you get out of the inn? Did Mrsha let you out? Is something wrong?”
Lyonette scolded the bee. But Apista didn’t seem worried, or in battle-mode as she might if something was wrong, like the inn being attacked. She landed on Lyonette’s open palms at last and fanned her wings. The [Princess] brought her up to eye-level, hesitated as she noticed the crowd staring at her, and made a rapid decision.
“Just hold on to me and don’t make a fuss, understand? I’m bringing you right back to the inn. After I—drat. You know what? Just stay here.”
Lyonette placed the bee on her shoulder and started walking. And despite the bee’s odd emotions, it did obey. Lyonette could do that, at least. She hurried down the street. Apista helped her make better time than usual; half the pedestrians took one look at Lyonette and decided to walk around her.
“I wonder if owning other pets is like this. Father used to have a dog, but it’s not the same as [Beast Tamers] raising an animal, is it?”
The young woman groused as Apista rubbed her face on her shoulder. She still felt the bee’s wooziness, quite intensely in fact. Lyonette hadn’t noticed it, but now she realized it was the same feeling she got from Apista every morning.
“It’s the faerie flowers, isn’t it? Of all the—no wonder you lie about all day! I’m going to have to stop you from eating those! Why didn’t I notice it until now?”
Predictably, Apista didn’t respond. But Lyonette sensed the bee sobering, or waking up, or…doing whatever bees did to flush out their system as she walked down the street. She guessed that Apista would usually go back to the faerie flowers for seconds or even thirds.
Idiot. Lyonette sighed as she pushed the door open to the Watch Barracks and strode in. She marched up to the front desk. A Gnoll was on duty. He looked bored—right up until he noticed the bee on Lyonette’s shoulder. Then he stared at that as if it was the most interesting thing he’d seen all day.
“Uh. Excuse me, Miss?”
Lyonette pointed at Apista.
“Pet. I’m a [Beast Tamer]. May I ask if the Watch Captain is in today?”
“Um. She is. Are you looking to see her about…?”
The Gnoll waved at the bee. Lyonette shook her head.
“I’d like to request an appointment. I can do that, right?”
The Gnoll tore his gaze away from the bee. He looked at Lyonette, blinked, and then nodded.
“You can…I’ll send up a request. But ah, she’s usually busy. If this is a minor matter, I or another [Guardsman] on duty could help you out, Miss…?”
“Lyonette. And no, I’d like to speak to the Watch Captain.”
The Gnoll frowned dubiously, but with a sigh, and another look at Apista, he got up and walked up the stairs to the second floor of the barracks. He came back a few moments later and shook his head.
“She’s busy. If she has time, she’ll hear your request. Please take a seat.”
Lyonette’s spirits fell, but she did find a seat. The barracks were full of activity—people coming in, Drakes or Gnolls being charged or paying fines, other [Guards] doing paperwork or chatting—it only occurred to Lyonette after a moment that the Gnollish [Guardsman] at the desk had omitted an important detail.
He looked up and sighed.
“How long did Watch Captain Zevara say I’d have to wait?”
The Gnoll frowned. He was scribbling on something on the desk, with the air people had of something quite important. Since Lyonette could see the nude sketch he was doing of a Gnoll (not much different from a regular sketch, honestly), she wasn’t impressed. The [Guardsman] covered the paper with one paw and spoke briskly.
“She didn’t say, Miss Human. Watch Captains are very busy individuals. If you have a concern, I can redirect it to a Senior Guardsperson. However, for Watch Captain Zevara…”
“Please have a seat. I will let you know if Watch Captain Zevara wishes to see you. If you’d like, I can schedule you for a formal appointment.”
“And when would that be?”
“Watch Captain Zevara would have to make the determination. But perhaps later this week? Next week?”
Lyonette stared at the Gnoll. He stared back, the picture of helpful unhelpfulness.
“And will she have time for me today if I wait?”
“Maybe? It depends on—”
“Watch Captain Zevara. I see. Thank you.”
Lyonette went back to her seat. The Gnoll sighed in relief, muttered something about crazy Humans, and went back to his artwork. Lyonette sat very still as Apista crawled up the side of her face. A passing Drake, clearly hung over, walked past Lyonette, burping, and did a double-take. He pointed at her, laughed, and Lyonette remembered what she’d told herself.
Don’t be rude. Don’t be old Lyonette.
And then Apista started licking the sweat off the side of Lyonette’s face. Another Gnoll, younger, female, clearly new to her job, walked up. She hesitated.
“Miss Human? Do you know there’s a bee on your face?”
Lyonette looked up at the helpful Gnoll. Then she snapped.
Apista’s faerie flower induced trip was slowly fading from her system. The bee had stopped believing she could make weird sounds with her mouth like Lyonette did, and stopped believing the sky was giving her sage advice. She was still muddled however, but she’d found Lyonette and she could sense the young woman’s emotions quite clearly as she clung to her face.
Exasperation, impatience, worry, guilt, more worry, and then…anger. It came from Lyonette, thorns amid flowers. Apista froze as the [Princess]’s turbulent emotions, came to a boiling point in the guard house. The anger was red hot and blossomed like flames. Instinctively Apista fanned her wings, but a hand caught her before she could fly and present her stinger to everything and everyone in the room as a warning sign.
The command was mental and verbal. Apista felt it telling her to not fly about and cause a scene and stick to Lyonette. It was a powerful order, as if Lyonette were Apista’s queen of the hive. But the Ashfire Bee’s instincts were awakened by Lyonette’s anger and Apista wanted to sting something.
And yet…maybe it was the faerie flower nectar, or being so close to Lyonette. But Apista understood in a flash that this wasn’t a time for her stinger. Or rather, not her stinger. Because someone had kicked Lyonette’s hive, and the young woman was about to unveil her sting. So the Ashfire bee clung to Lynette’s shoulder as the [Princess] got up, marched over to the Gnoll at the desk, and asked where the toilet was.
“Watch Captain Zevara?”
The Drake woman was writing at her desk, sorting through reports when the door opened. There was no knock, and no one announced themselves, as was customary of any [Guard]. Zevara looked up, already scowling, and opened her mouth to roar at whomever it was. She stopped as she saw it wasn’t one of her people, but a Human who opened the door and stepped into the room.
“What in the name of scaled rats—who let you in here?”
Zevara rose behind her desk. She recognized Lyonette of course. And she’d decided not to see the girl as soon as her desk-guardsman had told her the Human wanted an appointment. So seeing Lyonette in person made the Watch Captain even unhappier.
“How did you get in here? This is a restricted area!”
No one was supposed to just walk into a Watch Captain’s office. Lyonette shrugged, looking around. She had huge bee on her shoulder, waving its antennae at Zevara. But if the Drake let that slow her down, she’d never have survived Erin.
“I walked upstairs when the person at the desk wasn’t looking. When people on the second floor stopped me, I told them Erin sent me.”
Zevara nearly spat fire in disgust. She was going to smack at least a dozen heads down there. One [Innkeeper] could not do as she pleased! True, if there was anything that would qualify as an emergency, Erin Solstice could probably qualify. But this was ridiculous!
“If someone’s dead, or we’re under attack, or there’s a disaster about to happen—”
“There’s not. This is personal business.”
“Then get out.”
Lyonette stayed put.
“I was told you were busy. So am I. I won’t take up much of your time.”
Zevara felt heat rising in her chest. She fought down the instinct to flame, but some smoke still escaped as she glared at Lyonette.
“You think you can just walk in here and demand to talk to me?”
“Yes I do.”
That threw Zevara for a second. She stared at Lyonette. For a moment she debated shouting for someone to kick the girl out. But she had a feeling that might lead to Erin Solstice marching through her door in an hour. Rather than take that risk, she sat down, steepled her claws together, and glared at Lyonette, wishing she had [Evil Eye] as a Skill.
“I’ll have a seat, thank you.”
Lyonette walked forwards and calmly sat in the chair across from Zevara. Again, the Watch Captain blinked. She didn’t have a Skill that allowed her to use aura powers like a Wall Lord, but even without one, she’d mastered her hostile presence skill, as most busy people did. But Lyonette ignored the atmosphere as if it didn’t exist. In fact, she seemed…
Cool. Composed. Her chin was slightly raised, but not so high as to be condescending in any way. Just raised, and her shoulders and back were straight without slouching. She looked Zevara in the eye, and her voice was level despite the fumes coming from Zevara’s mouth. If Zevara had met a junior [Guardswoman] with that level of poise, she would have immediately promoted them on the spot.
Coming from Lyonette, the effect was almost intimidating. Zevara instinctively found herself sitting straighter and composing her thoughts, as if she were talking to another officer or someone she needed to impress, like Ilvriss. She caught herself doing it and stopped. With a growl, Zevara glared at Lyonette.
“What is it?”
“I’m here about my criminal record.”
Zevara hadn’t expected that either. She looked at Lyonette, frowning.
“What record? You mean, your exile and thefts? Taken care of. Or didn’t you notice that you’re strolling about my city without anyone arresting you?”
Maybe she’d heard Lism shouting in the Market Street. That damn [Shopkeeper] was agitating hard, but Zevara couldn’t really arrest him after she’d let the people trying to drown him in the bath off. Lyonette nodded coolly.
“I know that. And I also know that General Zel Shivertail interceded on my behalf. You can’t have been happy about that, war hero or not.”
“I was not. But I made an exception for him, and you got your sentence cleared. Good for you. You had connections. What’s your point?”
Zevara glared, reminded of the moment when Zel Shivertail, the Tidebreaker himself, had stridden into her office. No one had stopped him either. Now that was something you remembered all your life. And then Zevara felt the pang as she remembered his funeral. Lyonette shook her head.
“My point is that I broke a law. I was exiled. A crime fitting for the punishment.”
“And you’d like an apology, would you?”
If she did, Zevara would punch the girl. Or…maybe not. That was an Ashfire Bee, wasn’t it? Erin kept one of those as a pet? Zevara eyed the thing. Was it napping? Lyonette leaned forwards and the Drake looked back at her.
“I’m not asking for anything. In fact, I agree with the sentence. If anything, I think me being allowed into the city was the real problem.”
Thrown and thrown again. Zevara’s jaw opened a bit before she snapped it back shut. She stared at Lyonette. Why was the Human saying this?
“Really. You don’t mind the punishment, despite you nearly dying in the snow?”
It had been a cold day when they thrust the girl out of the gates. And they’d known it was close to a death sentence. But she’d have been dead at the paws of the Gnolls if she’d stayed, jail cell or not. Of that Zevara was sure. And Lyonette’s gaze didn’t waver.
“There must be law. And that was Drake law, wasn’t it? I survived. And I got a second chance, fairly or not, thanks to Zel Shivertail. I don’t think I’ll get a third.”
There must be law. The words came at Zevara, full of…authority. She actually believed that. Impressed, despite herself, Zevara leaned back in her chair.
“Really? What makes you say that?”
Lyonette blinked once, as if surprised.
“The letter of the law, of course. The punishment for offence in Drake cities differs from Human cities in Izril. And from Terandria. Jail time is customary, but offenders of lesser misdemeanors may pay off their debts and clear their names, if not their records, as though nothing had happened. The fines are steep, but Drakes take a more mercantile approach to punishment.”
She raised one finger as Zevara gaped. Now she sounded like some kind of [Lecturer]. Or…[Historian].
“On the other hand, severe offences are much less lenient. Depending on the severity, the least of the punishments employed will be exile. Sometimes exile with a hand or tail removed depending on the city. Thereafter a criminal is marked; if they commit an offence of similar severity in another city, they are put to death.”
Practically the definition of Drake law, at least in general. Zevara had never heard anyone quote it at her, at least, no one who wasn’t a Drake. She stared at Lyonette.
“And you know that how?”
The young woman, no [Barmaid], shrugged nonchalantly.
“I studied Drake law at one time. I never thought it would be useful. I’m well aware that the second time I break the law, I could be put to death.”
Studied where? But Zevara bit her lips on the question because she didn’t think she’d get an answer. She studied Lyonette, and realized the girl was moving towards a point. So, intrigued, she bit the bait.
“That is the law as described by most city-states. However, the implementation is hardly so strict. If you returned to stealing, I doubt I’d request the death penalty for that. In another city, perhaps. But your exile was also due to the Gnoll’s outrage at the time.”
“I understand that too. I’m not disputing it. But as I said, I was let back into the city without paying any fine. I’d like to redress that error.”
It took Zevara a second to work this out. Then her eyes narrowed.
“You want to pay the damages you caused?”
Lyonette met her eyes. The Watch Captain drummed her claws on the table.
“And just what would you like in return? No, wait—I think I get it now. You want your things back, don’t you?”
She could have just come out and said it. But from the way Lyonette smiled, slightly, with a polite twist to her lips that gave nothing away, Zevara felt like Lyonette had maneuvered her into making the connection. Quite adroitly too.
If she’d just come out and said she wanted to buy her old things, what would Zevara have done? Thrown her out. But if you looked at it like repaying your debts to the city…
“You took the artifacts I had on my possession at the time. That’s standard procedure as part of recouping costs. But I’m fairly certain none of them have worked for you, have they?”
Zevara frowned. She could barely remember the minutiae of her job, but she was organized, so she yanked open a drawer and paged through the Watch’s reports of miscellaneous objects in their possession. She found the piece of parchment, yanked it out, and studied it.
“Those artifacts? Between all the incidents plaguing Liscor, they weren’t exactly on the top of our list, but I recall…ah yes. They were almost all drained of mana, and the others seemed to be locked, due to keyword or some other nature of the enchantment. We were keeping them to have a Wistram [Mage] look at them when they checked the enchantments on our walls.”
“So you still have them. I’d like to pay my fine, and reclaim my items.”
Zevara looked at Lyonette. As she recalled, the girl had owned artifacts that not only gave her the [Invisibility] spell, but had allowed her to throw webs and even [Fireballs] among other things. Those were powerful artifacts.
“Why should I entertain that idea? You barged into my office, you’re a former [Thief], and those artifacts are quite valuable.”
“If you can use them. If not, they’re useless. You’d pay a [Mage] more money than it’s worth to uncover their secrets, believe me. And as I said, there must be law. My exile being commuted aside, if I pay my fine, I should be entitled to the confiscated goods, shouldn’t I?”
Damn. That did make sense. If you agreed with exiling Lyonette, it was fair to let her buy back her things. Zevara scowled. She’d let Lyonette nod to her exile being fair, so she was supposed to nod to this.
“Are you a [Diplomat] of some kind? A [Diplomat]’s child?”
That would explain a lot. A wealthy nobleman’s daughter, run from home. Lyonette blushed slightly.
“No, but I’m pleased you think so. About my possessions—”
“I’m thinking. Hold onto your tail.”
Zevara glared and thought, but only for a moment. She sighed and pulled up some scrap paper. Why was she doing this? Oh yes, to make a headache go away. That was why she did most things these days.
“You’ve made your point. Rudely, barging into my office without permission, I might add. No wonder Erin Solstice hired you. Now, your fines. According to the damage reports—and this is bearing in mind that I’m charging you three times the damage you’ve done—”
“The Drake custom. An eye for two eyes and a tail, right?”
Zevara almost dropped the quill she was holding. She glanced up at Lyonette. Was this the same [Thief] who’d shouted childish insults at her a few months ago? She nodded.
“Correct. Bearing that in mind, and from what the affected [Shopkeepers] have claimed…I’m going to ignore Lism’s claim here…and the notable absence of a substantive claim for Krshia’s shop, despite what the Gnollish reaction was at the time…forty seven gold coins.”
Lyonette sucked in her breath. Zevara eyed her.
“No. Well, it is a high number. I suppose I’m just relieved it’s not more.”
“You burned some stalls. But those were trade goods, not exactly enchanted artifacts. Even so, you racked up a steep fine. Congratulations. Between your spells from those artifacts and raiding the shops, you managed to beat the previous offender’s record quite handily.”
“Who was the previous offender?”
“The [Necromancer]. Pisces.”
The young woman sighed. Then she fished some coins out of her belt pouch. Zevara saw the sparkle of gold. Lyonette placed them on the table, eight coins.
“Here you are. That’s how much I can pay right now. I have a salary with Erin, but I can’t afford to pay the entire fine now.”
“Not going to ask the [Innkeeper] to foot the bill?”
That was sarcasm, but to Zevara’s surprise, Lyonette shook her head.
“Her money needs to go to rebuilding the inn and…other things.”
Zevara suppressed the urge to whistle. For a moment her tail coiled in a knot of jealousy. Erin Solstice could afford to pay nearly fifty gold coins like that? She covered the instinctive emotion with a cough and looked at Lyonette.
“I’ll keep your artifacts impounded until the last coin is paid from your debt. But I will keep them. If you have a payment on your fine, place it at the desk and make them issue you a receipt.”
“Thank you. You’re very generous, Watch Captain.”
Lyonette smiled at Zevara. The Drake eyed her.
“I am, aren’t I? I don’t know how you talked me into that.”
Talking of law and reminding her of the death sentence. That was clever. Zevara felt a twinge of admiration, and covered that too with a dark glare.
“The next time you barge into my office, I’ll toss you out the window. Understand?”
“Perfectly. Thank you. I won’t waste your time anymore.”
Lyonette stood, nodded, and walked out of the room. Zevara saw the Ashfire Bee wave its antennae at her. She was gone so quickly Zevara was left staring at her back. The Drake blinked, stared at the eight gold coins, and swept them to the side. Drat. Now she’d have to divide and return the coin among the victims. And file a report.
Still, the encounter hadn’t left a sour taste in Zevara’s mouth, aside from the smoke. Lyonette. Zevara had never recalled the girl having as much presence, or being so…reasonable. Probably because Erin was the one Zevara was used to talking with. This had been almost pleasant. Now, why couldn’t Erin be as easy to deal with? Zevara sighed, returned to her work, then got up and strode downstairs to yell at the Gnoll manning the desk. A good shouting always made her feel better.
Victory! Lyonette wanted to punch the air as she left the watch barracks. The Gnoll at the front desk had seen her coming down the stairs and was getting to his feet, but he never got a chance to speak. Zevara had come down the stairs like a storm and Lyonette had practically skipped out as she gave the Gnoll a tongue-lashing.
On her shoulder, Apista nestled next to Lyonette. Aside from the prickling of her legs, she was pleasant company. Her wings thrummed quietly and Lyonette felt the bee mirroring her satisfaction.
That was the way to do it. Not by yelling, or throwing a tantrum like a child. Be an adult, but be confident, be brave. Copy the examples Lyonette had seen at court, from foreign dignitaries, [Kings] and [Queens], not just her parents.
Back straight, chin up, glide, don’t walk. Act as if you have every right to be on the street and no one else does. No wait—ignore that last bit. Everyone has a right to the street, but you own the street. Something like that. Yes.
The next stop Lyonette made was a quick one. She asked for directions twice, both times from people with pets. The first time a Drake with a cat on a leash which neither was happy about, the second from a Gnoll who owned a dog. They directed her to a shop filled with noise. Lyonette opened the door and heard a minor commotion in the back.
There was a bell on the counter, and cages around the room. Only half of them were in use; a number of cats were lazing in the sunlight in the store front, and there was a dog sniffing something on the ground. Birds in cages who went still the moment Apista came in. The Ashfire Bee fanned her wings and Lyonette soothed her.
She rang the bell. The shop went insane for a few seconds, and then a Gnoll poked his head out of the back.
“One second, please! Thank you! Everyone else—quiet!”
The shop went silent, as the dogs and birds and one lizard all went still. One of the cats looked up and meowed defiantly, but the rest were quiet until the Gnoll came out. He had blood on his paws, and there was whimpering coming from the back. A dog? The Gnoll wiped his paws on his fur and looked at Lyonette. His eyes focused first in the bee on her shoulder, and then on her face. His eyes widened with recognition.
“Sorry. I was dealing with a dog who had toothache problems. I had to pull—but I see there is no Mrsha. Is this a business call, or social? Miss Lyonette?”
He remembered her. Lyonette smiled.
“Business, Mister Elirr. I wanted to ask for advice. Do you have the time?”
“Of course. I take it has to do with that bee? I recall it from the inn. Quite a fierce one too. I ah, have a seat. I have a seat somewhere around here…”
The older Gnoll looked about. Lyonette shook her head.
“I won’t impose long. Unless—I am imposing?”
Her conversation with Zevara and Lism’s shouting had reminded her of the injustice she’d done the Gnolls. But Elirr waved that away with a brisk paw.
“You are known to the Gnolls of Liscor. But the debt was paid. Moreover, you are Mrsha’s caretaker and she is owed a debt. Come in. I can give you—shoo!”
He scared a cat off a stool and offered it to Lyonette. Then he found a tea cup, some tea, and before she knew it, they were sitting and chatting at the counter. The Gnoll grinned at her.
“Pardon the animals, yes? They’re part of the job, but sometimes it seems they’re training me.”
Lyonette smiled politely. Part of her was still humming from her encounter with Zevara. So she acted more like that Lyonette and less like the polite, helpful, personality-less [Barmaid].
“You’re a [Beast Trainer], aren’t you? [Beast Tamers] and [Beast Masters] raise only a few animals at most.”
“Ah, you understand our class.”
“I’ve known some of both. [Falconers], [Kennel Masters], and so on.”
“Specialists. I deal in pets, myself. More variety and challenge that way. But between you and me, I’ve tamed Shield Spiders for a dare and handled Griffin babies, but cats are the worst.”
He raised his voice. A few of the cats lounging at the window looked up as if they understood. Elirr glared at them.
“Yes, you! I don’t care if you’re all intelligent. You’re pests! If you eat another bird by unlocking the cages, I will eat you, understand?”
One of the cats lifted its tail and displayed its rear end. Lyonette laughed with delight as Elirr hurled a pellet of dried dog food at it.
“They can understand you? I had no idea?”
The Gnoll shrugged, but he was smiling, and his tail wagged.
“It depends on the species. You know [Beast Tamers] and such classes improve an animal? Dogs can grow beyond their natural size, or run faster, become tougher—it applies to all animals. All can learn some intelligence, if you have the right Skills. But some animals are naturally smarter.”
“And cats are smarter than dogs?”
“Would you doubt it? Or perhaps cats are more suited to some things. I can train a dog to fetch wounded [Soldiers] from battle, or even apply healing potions—so long as the bottles are properly scented for them to pick out. But I can never tell how intelligent the cats get. I think they can understand words, at least some of them. But maybe they just understand tone? They’re clever enough to insult, at least.”
Lyonette looked down at a pure white cat that was twining about her legs. It leapt up onto her lap, clearly demanding a scratch. Apista fanned her wings and the cat hissed at the bee.
“Enough of that.”
Elirr snagged the cat with one paw, deftly hoisting it up by the neck. The cat yowled, protesting the indignity, but Elirr was soon scratching it behind the ears and it was purring loudly. Lyonette let Apista crawl down her arm and stroked the bee very carefully with a fingertip. Elirr eyed the bee.
“I have never seen a [Beast Tamer] with an insect before. I’ve met some who had such creatures, but they live such short lives that it hardly happens.”
Lyonette felt a pang as she thought about how long Apista might live. She hoped Ashfire Bees lived longer than regular ones, however long that was.
“Really? Like what?”
“Oh—a Lizardwoman who kept ants. A colony as snacks as much as entertainment. A Dullahan who raised beetles. Not roaches, you understand. Beetles with big shells and huge horns.”
“Oh! I’ve seen pictures of them. Terandria doesn’t have many.”
“Yes. Hrr. Apparently some Dullahans like them as pets. But as I say, they aren’t my expertise. Still, I assume you’ve come because this one is acting up?”
Elirr offered a finger to Apista. Lyonette was afraid the Ashfire Bee would show her stinger, but there was something about the Gnoll that appealed to the bee, because she walked up Elirr’s arm, fanning her wings. The Gnoll smiled.
“Ah, Ashfire Bees. I know something of them. Deadly and immune to smoke or fire which most would use to harvest honey. A terror for adventurers to fight—as many monsters are. But their honey is sweetest yet. I wondered how Krshia came by any honey from their hive. It made a lovely snack and the cats enjoyed it with their milk. I understand more, now.”
“I got Apista from that hive. I have a trick—but I’ve raised her and not done much with her, until now. Today she found me in the city. She must have slipped out the door. I don’t know how I should raise her. Any tips?”
Elirr puzzled that over for a second.
“Hm. You mean, how you should level or how to make her obey?”
Lyonette didn’t want to mention she had consolidated her [Beast Tamer] class into [Worldly Princess]. She hesitated.
“Both. I mean, she obeys just fine most of the time. But what should I do with her?”
The Gnoll frowned.
“Do? Nothing. If she is a pet, she is a pet. Feed her. Love her. That is all. But if she is not, then you have a problem. I see it sometimes with those who buy animals I have bred to war and keep them as pets. Animals have a nature to which they are inclined. It may be Apista seeks to realize that nature—or that she is simply uncontrollable.”
“Some animals are beyond [Beast Tamers] or even [Beast Masters] unless you are high enough level. Some…beyond even the highest-leveled, I suspect. I do not know. A [Beast Tamer] over Level 40 is exceptionally rare. I can think of a Named Adventurer who is so high, but no higher. So functionally, yes, there are animals that cannot be tamed. I could barely tame a Griffin, and only to the most basic of social functions, for instance. And insects may be too foreign for some training. Like Crelers, for instance.”
“Someone’s tried to train a Creler?”
Lyonette was appalled. Elirr nodded.
“Fools do anything, and there was a point. Imagine one of those in war? But it was futile, as I’m sure you can imagine. The first of the [Beast Tamers] who tried it enjoyed some success. Hrr. But it was short lived. He was found two months later in his home, dead. The Creler had devoured half of him and laid eggs in the rest. More tea?”
Lyonette hesitated, then saw the twinkle in Elirr’s eye. So she gave him a polite smile.
The Gnoll guffawed and filled her cup.
“Ah, but you are different than I thought you’d be! As befits one who raised Mrsha. Again and again I must change my thinking. But where was I? Crelers. Even the [Beast Master] who took the case found the Crelers were simply too instinctual, too…predatory to handle. The most he could do was direct them like a weapon, and as they grew older, their destructive instincts only increased. They are all hunger with little else to guide them. And the adults? The Gnoll who tried it told me she sensed a dark intelligence from it. Too intelligent. She suspected it was gaining too much from her Skills and had it destroyed at once. Terrible things.”
“So, a [Beast Master] can truly make an animal intelligent.”
Elirr raised a finger.
“To a point. But only beasts, I think. A truly intelligent creature, say, a Unicorn, if one existed, might not qualify as a beast but person. And some animals grow truly smart, but I have never met one I thought I could carry a conversation with. They were only able to grasp a bit of nuance, learn to perform small tasks. If they had more potential, they would not be animals, yes?”
“True. So is Apista a pet, or something I can’t control?”
Elirr studied the Ashfire Bee.
“She has not stung me, which is a positive. Have you any Skills with her?”
“Uh…[Crimson Stinger] and [Lesser Bond].”
“Ah. Then I would not worry. The [Beast Master] who took the Creler could not bond with it. A bond denotes trust between master and animal. If you have it, she will obey most things, even if she does not understand. What she becomes depends on you.”
That reassured Lyonette. She smiled and thanked Elirr, and traded for his cat while he stroked Apista’s back and checked her over. She left a few minutes later as Elirr bade her farewell. He declined to accept payment, but left her a bit of advice.
“If you wish to tame this bee, I might suggest giving it a purpose, even if that purpose is only to be loved. I raise the dogs to be either companions or war hounds. Either suits, depending on the nature of the dog, and they can be shaped by lessons and Skills. But they must have purpose, or to what reason do we tame them?”
That was true. Lyonette looked at Apista. She felt guilty, remembering how she left the bee to its devices or to play with Mrsha so often. If she should carry Apista around or have her on a leash or some kind—both ideas were fairly ridiculous—or she needed to let the bee…be a bee. And how did you do that? Lyonette didn’t know, but she resolved to find out.
Before she left the city, Lyonette made one last stop, and this one was happy chance. She’d been intending to wait for Pawn to come by, although she feared he was still in mourning, but she saw a gathering of Drakes and a few Gnolls at an intersection and stopped to see what was happening. Then she spotted a familiar burly Drake and an Antinium, distinct because he had only two arms and slimmer frame, as well as twin silvery swords, at the center of the gathering.
“Excuse me. Pardon me. I have business with that Antinium.”
Lyonette tried to force her way towards Klbkch, but she was rebuffed. A [Princess]’s haughtiness got her pretty far with Zevara, but there are some who generate their own natural egos that could resist even a [King]’s presence. She ran up against one such individual now in the form of an older Drake with slightly faded orange scales.
“We all have business with that Antinium, young Human. So wait your turn!”
She shook a claw in Lyonette’s face. The [Princess] backed up a step and Apista fanned her wings. Lyonette soothed the bee and looked at the Drake.
“My apologies, Miss…?”
The Drake harrumphed.
“Elissa Slipscal, Miss. Not Slipscale—that’s a fault many Humans make! Now, if you don’t mind? I’m protesting to Senior Guardsman Klbkch about the rent.”
She turned back to Klbkch, who was writing and listening to the other Drakes and Gnolls. Relc hesitated, then waved at Lyonette when he saw her. She waved back, then directed her attention to the discussion. Predictably, Elissa Slipscal’s was the loudest voice.
“The rent’s gone up another four coppers this week! Four coppers! On top of last month’s rise? It’s nearly doubled what it was when I first moved here! Honest Drakes can’t afford to keep the rent rising, but did that [Landlord] listen?”
“I would assume the answer is no, Miss Slipscal.”
Klbkch’s voice was polite and matter-of-fact. Relc rolled his eyes, but Elissa looked pleased at Klbkch’s response. It gave her more time to talk.
“And you are correct! He wouldn’t hear of a reasonable argument! And we’re not the only block with issues, you may believe it! Rent’s going up across the city! What will the Watch do about it?”
Klbkch folded the bit of parchment and addressed the crowd. Lyonette watched, partially admiring Klbkch’s poise. From one trained leader, at least, leader in theory to another, she could see that Klbkch had a presence similar to Zevara’s. It calmed the crowd and made them hang on his words, for all he was an Antinium.
“I believe this issue is one of predictable cause. Liscor is a city of finite size due to the static walls. It may be possible for the buildings to expand upwards or down, but that would require action on the part of the property owners. Until then, given the influx of adventurers and other visitors, space is at a premium.”
“A premium that comes at our expense! How will you fix this, Senior Guardsman?”
Elissa raised her voice. Klbkch nodded slowly.
“I can only relay your concerns to Watch Captain Zevara, but I will forward the issue to [Strategist] Olesm as a matter of city-wide concern. The issue of housing may be taken up by the Council, but the Watch will address any exorbitant rent issues.”
Amazingly, that seemed to satisfy the crowd. It wouldn’t have flown in a Terandrian city no matter who said it, but things were different here. One of the Gnolls, dressed with a skullcap, and minimal clothing besides, bared his teeth.
“Will you arrest the [Landlord], Senior Guardsman? I would enjoy watching that, yes?”
“I was instructed that doing so was technically out of our jurisdiction last time we did it. But I will defer to Senior Guardsman Relc’s judgment on the case.”
Relc, who’d been scratching his tail, looked up. The crowd glanced at him, at Klbkch, and murmured approval. So did Lyonette. Relc grinned.
“Don’t worry. We’ll talk sense to any greedy [Landlords]. Or I’ll trip, right Klb old buddy, huh?”
He elbowed Klbkch. The Antinium looked at his partner.
“Please stop elbowing me. I am aware of subtext.”
The crowd began to disperse, but to Lyonette’s chagrin, more Drakes and Gnolls wanted to talk to Klbkch. He was popular! This time Lyonette moved through the queue. Without Elissa to stop her, she made it to Klbkch. The Antinium turned to Lyonette.
“Ah. Miss Lyonette. How may I help you?”
“Hello Klbkch. I was hoping I could talk to you about the inn—”
“Oh! How’s Erin doing?”
Relc bared his teeth in a grin. Lyonette smiled.
“Good. She’s…good. You saw her, didn’t you?”
“Saw? Oh yeah. I’m glad she’s still doing well. I would have visited, but Klb’s been busy, and I—”
Killed Garen Redfang. People were still talking about that. Lyonette looked up at Relc. He was apparently famous for his past as the Gecko of Liscor, a soldier who’d fought in any number of battles in Liscor’s army. But all she could think of was Relc drinking, swearing, and causing trouble. As a retired war hero probably would act.
“I’m sure she’d…like to see you.”
Relc’s face fell. Lyonette hurried to reassure him.
“Give her time.”
“Hey, I can’t blame her. I’ll keep it chill. Maybe pop by with Klb someday. Until then I can drink in the city—until the kid catches me.”
Relc winced. Klbkch ignored his partner as he turned to Lyonette.
“Relc’s familial problems aside—”
“—what was it you wished to discuss, Miss Lyonette? The restoration of the inn? I have bookmarked a time for Belgrade to lead some Workers in reconstructing the third floor and Bird’s tower later this week.”
“You have? I’m very grateful, Klbkch, but I was actually hoping to modify the inn. I know the Antinium are busy—”
But not with what. Pawn, the one day he’d come to the inn to speak with Erin and sit quietly while Lyonette held his hand, had just said that every Worker and Soldier was involved in some kind of project. Klbkch’s face revealed nothing of what that might be, so Lyonette hurried on.
“—but I’d really love even a small team of Workers to get started. I have designs?”
She hopefully dug around in her belt pouch and showed Klbkch some of her sketches. Relc peered over Klbkch’s shoulder.
“Ooh. That looks good! I think. Why’s it look all funny?”
“Because they are a [Builder]’s blueprints. Not a sketch. I believe I should also call you a fool. Fool.”
Klbkch studied the blueprints Lyonette had worked up. He looked up and nodded slowly.
“I am impressed, Miss Lyonette. These blueprints are slightly inaccurate, but I understand what you intend by them. Were you trained as a [Builder] of some kind?”
The look he gave Lyonette said plainly that he knew she was not. She smiled sweetly at him. Klbkch was far harder to deal with than Zevara. Lyonette knew how to deal with an officer like Zevara. But Klbkch? Unreadable, different culture. No guessing at his true emotions.
“I read a few blueprints in the past. What do you think? Can it be done?”
Klbkch studied the diagram.
“Hmm. Extensive landscaping. And stone? I am offering Erin a discount on Antinium services, but even the cost of purchasing the raw materials will be somewhat expensive, Miss Lyonette. Does the inn have the funds?”
“I…think it does? But I was also hoping that I could pay you and negotiate repayment depending on the costs.”
Lyonette was banking on Klbkch’s relationship with Erin. The Antinium hesitated, and then his mandibles opened. He made a soft clicking sound almost like a sigh.
“I believe that would be acceptable. Still, you are correct that the Hive is busy. The Painted Antinium will resume patrols, but deployment of Workers outside the city will require either Pawn, Belgrade, or Anand to supervise. I will direct Pawn to meet with you tomorrow if he is…recovered. Will that be suitable?”
“Very much so. Thank you, Klbkch.”
He nodded to her.
“No thanks are needed. I am merely performing my duty as a [Guardsman]…and as a Revalantor of the Hive, apparently.”
Lyonette smiled and stepped back. She heard Klbkch call out to the crowd.
“Next? I am on duty for two more hours. If anyone has concerns you may address them to me or Senior Guardsman Relc—”
Everyone flooded around Klbkch, ignoring Relc. The Drake fished out a pouch of buttery popcorn and chortled to himself, content to eat the greasy fast food that had partially invaded Liscor. Klbkch was left alone as anxious people came to ask him questions.
Lyonette smiled as she saw him bending to address a little Gnoll who’d lost something. She heard another quiet sigh as she departed.
The bug thing was gone. Only when Lyonette was far away did Apista stop trying to dig herself deeper into the Lyonette’s pockets. She was sure, sure, that the bug-thing had noticed her.
It had been a fun ride with Lyonette up till now. Of course, Apista hadn’t understood much of what Lyonette had done, but she’d appreciated the emotions filtering through to her. From anger and then ice-cold calculation and confidence at the barracks, to triumph and pleasant feelings with the big furry thing in the shop.
Apista had liked the furry thing. And she didn’t know why. And then more of…well, it wasn’t a positive emotion or a negative one. Lyonette sometimes just become focused, like Apista would when she was concentrating on a difficult task like navigating over a bunch of drunk people in the hive-inn. No bad emotions, in short, which Apista liked.
Of course, Apista had never gotten the answer to the question she’d asked in her drug-induced haze, but the bee could barely remember what had happened then. The nectar of the faerie flowers was potent but wore off leaving vague memories at best. Honestly, Apista didn’t know what kept her coming back—
Aside from the fact that the flowers were very magical. The effects aside, Apista felt something in her telling her that the flowers had what she needed, just like how a part of her told her when she needed sugar or water.
The same part of her had reacted to the bug thing. The big, brown-black bug. Apista didn’t like it. She didn’t like them, whenever they entered the inn, in numbers or just alone. She was afraid of them. In the same way a mouse feared a cat, or cows feared Wyverns. One was developed to eat the other, and Apista’s stinger would do little against Klbkch’s carapace.
Lyonette left the city with Apista clinging to her head, watching for the bug in case it followed her. It did not, but the bee was wary. She could sense Lyonette’s thoughts going concentrated again, and heard the young woman murmuring to herself as she headed back to her inn.
Only, she didn’t take the magical door. She poked her head into the inn for a second to reprimand the scaly thing, who was ‘very sorry, I tried to catch her, Lyonette’, and then collect a little basket she’d prepared this morning. And a sledge? Then Lyonette walked back out the door and exited Liscor’s gates, pulling the sledge behind her. She went up the mostly muddy hilltops, muttering to herself.
“A busy day. But if I can start saving gold coins—a thousand gold will pay for a lot of the renovations, but I can’t use it for my fine. Can I? Well, if I earn a few hundred gold coins—and how am I supposed to do that? More plays, I suppose. And Erin had some ideas on how to improve the inn…”
It was all noise to the bee. Apista fanned her wings, enjoying being out. She was never out. She was always in the inn. And while that had food and the white thing and was usually safe from bug things, the outdoors called to her. She would have taken wing and flown about, looking for flowers blooming in the mud, until she sensed something from Lyonette that made her hesitate.
Fear. Not just surprise, or anxiety, but a jolt of true fear. That made Apista’s stinger come out. She cast about on Lyonette’s head, but there was nothing that was dangerous around her. Not even Rock Crabs. And yet, Lyonette was afraid as she marched across the muddy terrain. She had her stinger with her, a steel sword sheathed in leather. And that basket.
Apista had no nose. But she had antennae, and that was better than any nose you could ask for. She could detect a very familiar scent coming from the basket. But something else was growing in the air, wafting towards Apista. It confused the bee, because it smelled like herself.
And then Apista spotted the cave where Lyonette was heading towards and she sensed them there. And they sensed her.
It had been a long time since Lyonette gathered Ashfire Bee honey. A long time. No, only a month and a bit, right? The rains and floodwaters had stopped her, but it had barely been a month, hadn’t it? Why, just forty days ago she’d been in this cave, okay, maybe fifty days. Sixty? Sixty days, maybe, and she’d been at the mouth of this cave, ready to harvest honey and jelly and Ashfire Bees like it was nothing.
Only, it wasn’t nothing. Lyonette knew that. She could pretend it was easy, that she’d gotten used to it—and she had in a way—but the tension never left. As Lyonette prepared the small fire and the faerie flowers she’d gathered, she felt her hands shaking.
She made them stop, but the fluttering in her stomach wasn’t so easy to control. She was going to raid an Ashfire Bee nest for honey. And that wasn’t something you said lightly.
Ashfire Bees. Apista was clinging to Lyonette’s head, the size of two hands joined together. A little bit bigger, actually. The average Ashfire Bee was ‘only’ as big as a hand, or a hand and a half if you had smaller hands like Lyonette. That made them the biggest, nastiest, and deadliest bee, wasp, or hornet that Lyonette had ever encountered.
Their stingers wouldn’t just hurt, they could put out an eye forever. And the venom they pumped could kill you quite, quite dead. There were thousands in a hive. Lyonette had seen them. Each time she gassed the hive she’d cut into it and pull out a wall of honey, larvae, and see the bees, sleeping, fallen on the floor…
The hive filled the back of the cave the Ashfire Bees laired in. It was deadly to trespass there, regardless if you were an animal, monster, or adventurer. Lyonette imagined that even bears wouldn’t be able to steal Ashfire Bee honey. Okay, maybe a magical version of a bear like a Mossbear. But even so.
There was a…thrumming to the cave as Lyonette built the fire of dry wood and kindling. That made her heart skip several beats. The hive was awake. Last time she’d done this, hadn’t it been quiet? They’d been hibernating.
“But they’re probably not active yet, right? And if they are, so what? The smoke gets them even on the wing. It’s fine. Just light the fire and fan the smoke, Lyonette. Fine.”
The [Princess] whispered to herself. She remembered her first failed attempted with just fire and not the soporific faerie flowers. Bees, hurtling themselves into the snow like the ‘bullets’ that Erin had described in her stories. The buzzing—them killing a Rock Crab. Imagine how fast she’d die if they—
Lyonette realized she’d stopped building the fire. She shook herself. She could always back out. No, she’d told Erin she’d do this and she would. She could! More importantly, Ashfire Bee honey was worth a lot of money! She could sell this, claim some of it as her own money, and get her artifacts back. Imagine what she could do with them? Zevara had no idea what they could really do. Lyonette had wasted half their charges just getting to Liscor. If she had even the Cloak of Balshadow—
Control your fear. Be brave. Be a new Lyonette. You started it here when you raided the hive the first time. You can do it.
Lyonette’s breathing slowed. She took a few breaths, raised her chin, and put the faerie flowers on the fire. She felt at her head. Apista was…buzzing. Her wings beat rapidly as Lyonette lifted her down. She felt excited. But Lyonette mentally ordered her still. She didn’t want to risk scooping Apista up. She should have left her behind, honestly, but the Ashfire Bee’s presence reassured Lyonette. As if she knew what she was doing with Apista around.
“Okay. I can do this. Apista, you stay put, understand? Firewood, flowers…stay right there. I’m going in. And I’m going to come out with jars and jars of honey and bees. Pawn will be happy about that.”
Yes, think of Pawn. Lyonette put the two huge glass jars on the ground next to her. They were slightly muddy from the sledge. How would she drag this in the grass? No—if the hive became active, it would be dangerous even to get near. This might be the last time until the winter came again.
Lyonette wished that didn’t make her feel so relieved. But she took the emotion anyways to give her confidence. Slowly, carefully, she lit one of Octavia’s matches and tossed it on the kindling. It lit the dry wood and shavings at once.
Fire blossomed. Quickly, Lyonette stepped back and grabbed the long-handled fan she used. She began wafting the flames and smoke as the fire started devouring the wood—and the faerie flowers Lyonette had placed on the firewood.
You could use dry flowers, but Lyonette had found that fresh flowers actually worked better in some ways. It took longer for whatever was in them to burn, so the fire had more time to build. By the time they released their effects, Lyonette was fanning hard, blowing the smoke into the cave.
And holding her breath. Apista hovered well back from the cave as well. Lyonette knew how strong the faerie flowers were if you were close to them and she had placed the fire inside the cave to avoid the wind blowing the smoke in her face. Now, that had been an unpleasant moment, waking up in the snow half-frozen to death.
But this time the wind was stopped by the cave, and Lyonette was fanning hard. The smoke entered the cave and she heard the thrumming turn to a sudden roar. The bees had detected the smoke.
Normally, smoke calmed a hive. Bees would go into flight mode and begin devouring the honey, half-blinded by the smoke and confused, preparing to flee their hive if the fire enveloped the fragile fortress they’d built. But not so for Ashfire Bees. They were practically immune to fire; Lyonette had once caught Apista fanning her wings in the fireplace. And when they detected flames near their hive they went out and smothered them.
They were coming. This was the pants-wetting moment of the ordeal. The moment when the buzzing filled the cave and Lyonette sensed movement coming at her. She fanned desperately and saw the first bee shoot around the bend in the cave. It was an Ashfire Bee, not as big as Apista and stinger black instead of crimson, but huge, a giant among bees, poised for the attack—
It dropped and hit the floor with a small bump of sound. Lyonette breathed out slowly as the buzzing abruptly went out. There were more pattering of noise as the worker bees flying to investigate dropped, already asleep. Still, Lyonette kept fanning until the fire was mostly ashes. Only then did she grab her jars, punch the air in relief, and step into the cave.
“Bees first. Two big jars of bees, and two jars of honey.”
Lyonette muttered to herself as she grabbed a pair of tongs and began picking up unconscious bees. She’d enter the hive after that, slice her way in and grab as much honey as possible. And some larvae, why not? Klbkch had asked for some, and Pawn apparently considered it a delicacy.
Or was that too cruel to Apista? No, wait, wasn’t all of this cruel to Apista? Lyonette would feed her some royal jelly to make up for it tonight. Or—could she raise another bee? A sister for Apista? Or a brother? Wait, what gender was Apista anyways? Lyonette assumed she was female, but was there a definitive way of checking? Maybe Erin would—
The relieved thoughts flooding Lyonette’s head suddenly came to a stop. She turned her head slowly. Because she’d heard the sound.
A distant…buzzing. Not from inside the cave, but from behind her. Lyonette froze. And suddenly, she realized the error in her thoughts.
Normally it would work. Her faerie flower smoke plan, that was. In the winter, the bees would be in the hive, staying put and disinclined to move. They might smell the smoke and be roused to action, but by the time they came out, the soporific magical effect would put them out. But that was assuming they were all in the hive. Only, this was spring and the bees weren’t all in the hive, were they?
She’d thought that since none were around the entrance, the hive hadn’t begun looking yet. And the Floodplains were so muddy and there weren’t any blooms—but these were Ashfire Bees. Twenty miles was the area they could patrol around their hive. And if need be? They could go farther.
And like bees, they could tell when their home was in danger. Maybe it was a warning pheromone, or maybe their queen’s telepathic link. Either way, the bees were returning. All of them.
Lyonette dropped the tongs. She dropped the glass jar. She ran for the exit. She was halfway out when the first Ashfire Bee dropped out of the sky, buzzing, stinger raised.
Lyonette flung herself down into the mud, rolling down the incline leading up to the cave. But the bee wasn’t aimed at her. It was attacking the fire! The dying embers and ashes of the faerie flower scattered as the bee struck it, knocking fiery sparks into the air. More followed. Lyonette, eyes wide, heart thumping, scrambled to her feet and ran. The bees ignored her, at least for the first moment.
They were attacking the remains of the fire, dispersing the smoke as they swarmed around it, fanning their wings. Lyonette snatched up her basket and ran. But she knew she’d never make it.
She screamed, but her beloved pet was lost among the other bees. Nearly a hundred had come back and were circling the fire. They flew into the hive, probably to investigate that it was unharmed. Then they came out with a vengeance. And they went straight for Lyonette.
She was running. Head down, arms pumping, each stride hitting the muddy earth, taking her down the huge hill. A perfect run. Even the mud wasn’t slowing her down and Lyonette didn’t slip as it spattered around her. But it was no good. Even a [Flawless Attempt] couldn’t save her.
A fact of bees. A laden bee, or rather, a honeybee from Erin’s world average about twelve miles per hour when laden with honey and pollen after a trip foraging. A bee unladen could go twenty miles per hour. Hornets, wasps, could reach twenty five miles per hour to hunt their slower prey. The maximum speed of a Human sprinting, again, based on Humans from Erin’s world, was twenty eight miles per hour. The fastest person in that world could hit twenty eight miles per hour, for ten seconds. Perhaps longer. But twenty eight miles per hour was it.
And Ashfire Bees could do thirty.
They caught her as she was ascending the hill. Lyonette turned. She flung the Tripvine bag, but it exploded harmlessly in the air. Vines, tangling and green, burst everywhere, trying to coil around their target. But the Ashfire Bees just flew around it. They shot at Lyonette. She screamed.
That was it. Nothing else. Just—no. It could not end like this. Not today. Not when everything was so…normal. She raised her hands, turning, trying to find a place to dive. A pool of mud, maybe. Some scrap of cover that might shield her from the stings.
But there was nothing. No snow. No cover. Lyonette turned as the first bee aimed at her face. She saw its stinger, black, pointed straight at her left cheek—
And then she saw another bee, larger, angrier, and oh, so gloriously familiar hurtle out of the sky and smack the first bee with its abdomen. The Ashfire Bee worker tumbled out of the air, confused by the attack. The other bees flew around Lyonette, a terrifying whirlwind, but the bee defending Lyonette had all their attention. Hers too.
Apista, crimson stinger extended, buzzed as she flew around Lyonette, crashing into bees headed too close to the young woman. She was emitting a sound with her wings Lyonette could hear even amid the droning of others. It sounded louder, and the bee herself looked larger and more intimidating than any of the others. They backed away as Apista flew at them.
The bee’s mind was open to Lyonette. She was angry. Angry, afraid—for Lyonette?—but mostly angry. She saw the other bees as attacking Lyonette, her hive, and she was warding them off. Her stinger jabbed at another bee and it flew back, clearly intimidated by this foreign bee.
Lyonette looked around. The Ashfire workers were hesitating. This wasn’t going according to plan. They had one modus operandi, which was: find intruder, sting intruder. But this other bee was…different. It called to a different instinct in them, and so they hesitated. Neither Lyonette nor Apista realized why they weren’t attacking until they heard another buzz, coming from the cave entrance. Only, if the buzzing had been a primordial thrumming in the ears before with the hundred or so workers, this sounded like thunder.
“Oh, Calanfer eternal. My kingdom witness.”
Black and yellow streamed out of the cave. A torrent. A hurricane of bodies. It spiraled up into the sky, like a tendril, an arm made of thousands of bodies. And it spiraled down towards her, a hive’s worth of bees. Drones, workers, and leading them a shape larger than the rest.
A very large, very angry bee. The queen of the Ashfire Bees shot out of the hive, followed by her throng. They buzzed around her as she stopped in the air, looking down at Lyonette and Apista. No, that wasn’t right. Lyonette was practically a speck. The Ashfire Queen had only one target.
Yes, the bee was no queen. She had no hive. But she had been raised on royal jelly. She was of queens, even if she wasn’t one in truth. And though bees were social, though they were all part of a hive, nothing about that rationale extended to queens. When two queens met, after birth or in the wild, only one could be tolerated.
The queen gave no warning. She issued no challenge—or maybe it was Apista who was the challenger. Either way, she dove, and her hive flew in the air as she lanced towards Apista, stinger extended.
Lyonette saw her beloved pet rise, stinger extended likewise. She darted at the queen and for a moment they were tangled, stinging, missing each other, stingers glancing off abdomens as they tried to inject one another with poison. Then the queen twisted, and Apista went flying.
She was smaller than the queen Ashfire bee. She was of queen’s stock, but Lyonette was no worker who knew instinctively what to give Apista and when. The smaller bee was smacked by the queen’s wings, and narrowly avoided a stinger to the face. Her stinger was as large, but she had never fought before. The open air was new to Apista, and the queen had weight, experience, and her hive on their side.
The other bees were bombing Apista, ramming into her as the queen tried to make the fatal sting. They didn’t sting her directly, but they rammed Apista as the smaller bee tried to fly away, gain distance on the queen. Battered, buffered, Apista was lost in the maelstrom. Lyonette couldn’t see her, but she could feel Apista’s panic, and fear.
The [Princess] stared up at the swarm. She could have run. She could have fled as Apista fought for her life. But she forgot to. In that moment, as the queen dove at Apista, out of sight, Lyonette felt something building in her. Rising. She was a poor [Princess]. A weak one. She had no home. She had run from home. But here was her pet. Her friend.
Her subject. Lyonette felt the emotion rise in her, fury and rage and possessiveness. And she pointed and screamed.
The word blew the bees apart above her. Did they go flying, pushed by something, or did they push themselves? Lyonette only knew that they flew apart, leaving two bees in the sky directly above her head. Apista and the queen. The queen reacted to Lyonette’s voice, tumbling and then righting herself in the air. She pointed her stinger down at Lyonette and the young woman suddenly felt the air around her change. The bees darted forwards. Apista, high above, sensed the danger and dove—but there was one of her and hundreds, thousands of the enemy. Lyonette sensed Apista’s fear change to a burning fury. And then—
Apista burst into flames. One second she was diving, a bee of gold and black, and the next she was on fire. The bees around Lyonette scattered, as much from shock as anything else. Apista dove past Lyonette, her wings trailing flames. She was…shooting it out of her body somehow! Like a jet’s stream—something Lyonette had no concept of until Erin had drawn her a picture—some small holes in Apista’s body were jetting flames. The bee blasted past Lyonette, and the girl felt the heat of her passing.
Lyonette had only seen her do that once before. To fight off a bird. But now Apista was wreathed in fire. Lyonette gasped as she flew rings around her, burning trails in her vision. She blinked in the afterimages, turning, perhaps to run now Apista had scared the bees off. Then she saw another bloom of light.
Above her, the queen bee burst into flame. Lyonette’s head snapped up as the queen blazed fire and descended towards Apista, a burning meteor aimed for Apista. That would have been enough to reignite the fear in Lyonette’s heart. Enough. But then she saw the bees forming behind the queen. Like a huge mass, a swarm like she’d seen smaller bees form, but larger, with the queen at its heart. They shot after Apista, who was flying, burning, across the Floodplains. And then, without warning, with a sudden burst of heat and light that scorched Lyonette even where she stood, they all burst into flame.
The walls of Liscor were always patrolled by at least forty members of the watch, ten for each cardinal direction of the wall, and at least one pair of Senior Guardsmen. That was the minimum requirement for any Drake city at any time. Currently there were two hundred [Guardsmen] on the walls of Liscor at any time, although Zevara had still left the oversight of the walls in the care of Senior Guardsman Jeiss and Senior Guardsman Beilmark, the Gnoll-Drake pair known throughout the city.
It wasn’t a bad job, now that Liscor’s siege and the dungeon threat was over. In fact, it beat walking the streets some days. You got to stand around, and even make idle chatter. With so many [Guards] about, you could relax because you had dozens of eyes in every direction.
That was what Jeiss, the Drake, enjoyed. What he didn’t enjoy were stupid rookies who’d just been promoted coming up to him and asking questions.
“Senior Guardsman Jeiss?”
The Drake opened one eye irritably. He saw a younger Drake gulp. Light pink scales—oh dear, he must have been humiliated growing up. Jeiss would have recognized that coloration, so he guessed the Drake was one of the new recruits. Zevara wanted at least two hundred more [Guardsmen] in the city by the fall, and she was pushing the Council to give her a budget for double that. After what he’d seen, Jeiss didn’t blame her.
It didn’t mean he had to like the rookies, though. They were always asking stupid questions. Like, ‘How should we stand’? ‘What if we see some Shield Spiders, do we call someone?’ ‘How come that big Drake gets to slack off?’ Stuff like that. Jeiss wished they’d just leave him alone. When he was a junior [Guardsman], he’d known to keep his mouth shut.
He snapped at the young Drake. The junior [Guardsman] gulped. He had a spear and watch-issued leathers, but he wore them like a bad dress.
“It’s just—I saw something and I was wondering if I should report—”
“Is it monsters?”
“I uh, don’t think so. It’s this bright—”
“Is it a spell? Is it aimed at the city?”
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know if it’s a spell? Why don’t you ask your other [Guardsmen] what they think?”
“Well, they don’t know either. So they said I should ask you, because—”
Jeiss was about to argue more when a paw reached out and poked him in the side. Hard. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who was reading an installment of Olesm’s latest chess magazine—he’d just come out with a new edition after a long hiatus—looked up and scowled at him.
“Just go and see, Jeiss.”
“Aw, come on.”
Jeiss was trying to relax. Senior Guardsmen got to sit and he’d been on his claws all day. But Beilmark just poked him again. It was a Gnoll thing, and Jeiss had gotten used to it—mostly.
“I had to go the last three times!”
“He’s a Drake. We agreed you handle Drakes, I handle Gnolls.”
“That was before I remembered how many Drakes serve compared to Gnolls.”
Jeiss grumbled. He got to his feet and glared at the young, pinkish Drake.
“Lead on. And I swear, if this is another spell coming from that damned inn, or someone on the road—”
His tongue froze in his mouth as he spotted the ball of flame blasting across the Floodplains. It was huge, larger than any fireball. The junior [Guard] gulped when he saw it.
“Uh—I didn’t see that. I only saw two flames—”
“Beilmark! Get over here! Guardsmen, ready up!”
Jeiss turned and roared, scaring the junior guardsman. Beilmark’s magazine went flying as she leapt to her feet. Across the wall, other [Guards] looked up. Some of them grabbed their weapons and turned their attention towards Jeiss. The smarter, older ones, directed the rookies to look ahead. You never knew what was coming from behind.
“What is it?”
The Drake just pointed the fireball out to his partner. Beilmark swore, a growling Gnoll epitaph.
“Is that…a [Fireball] spell? It’s way too large to be one. Some kind of spell?”
“It can’t be! Look how long it’s lasting! And it’s…turning? Ever see a [Fireball] do that?”
It was true. The ball of flame looked like it was following something. Jeiss’ eyes narrowed. It was hard to see from all the light, but it looked like a tiny speck of fire was detached from the fireball. Every time it turned or changed direction, the fireball changed to follow it.
“What in the name of the Walled Cities is that?”
And then the little flame darted up towards the walls. Jeiss’ eyes widened. He turned and shouted.
“Incoming! Brace, brace!”
The [Guards] on the walls raised their shields and hunkered beneath the battlements. The pink Drake was frozen until Beilmark dragged him down. Jeiss hunkered behind the stone, but his head was half-risen. He saw the fireball flying at him, then turning upwards to follow that speck of fire. And then it shot past the walls in a blast of heat. And Jeiss saw what was inside the fireball.
Thousands of them. They were swarming, following one bee as it shot across the city. The angry bees’ wings were like thunder, but the terrifying thing were the flames each one was emitting. Jeiss stared as the buzzed past a rooftop. Thank the Ancestors that they weren’t dropping sparks. Then he saw them blast towards him again and ducked. The fireball zoomed back over the wall and down across the floodplains. And that little bee was still flying.
For a moment after they’d gone, Jeiss could only stare. Then he got to his feet and shouted.
“Aw, hells. Ashfire Bees! Everyone off the walls! Remember your drills! Full body armor only! Get an adventuring team!”
Beilmark was already shouting the same. The [Guards] evacuated the walls. Their armor and training was little good against bees. Someone was hitting the bell, warning the city. It wasn’t an attack warning, but it was a ‘get indoors’ warning. Jeiss waited, heart pounding, hoping Zevara or Olesm or Ilvriss would get here soon. But his eyes kept turning back to the little bee flying ahead of the others. And he thought of a Human girl with a bee on her shoulder he’d seen in the barracks that morning.
“Beilmark. You don’t think—”
Her teeth were bared.
“—that this is an Erin Solstice event? Yes! I do! Why can we not have one day when something doesn’t threaten Liscor?”
“I was going to say, do you think the weirdness is spreading? And second—is this a threat? Or is this the coolest race you’ve ever seen in your life?”
Beilmark and the junior [Guardsman] looked at him in silence. Beilmark stared at the fireball, at the little bee, and then reached into her belt pouch.
“Five silver says the little bee escapes.”
“No way. Five silver says they get her and we get buzzed.”
“Um. Two silver on the Human doing something to stop the bees?”
Both Senior Guardsmen looked at the pinkish junior [Guard]. He wavered at their stare as Jeiss and Beilmark exchanged glances. Then Jeiss slapped him on the back.
“Welcome to the Watch, kid. You’re going to go far here.”
And below them, Apista flew.
Up. Down, left, right. Corkscrew through the air. Catch the wind, and dive. So close to the earth she could feel the mud hardening as her flames cooked the ground. Up again. Over a hill, past a Rock Crab which hid under its shell. Up, up, spiraling—and then down.
Behind her flew the swarm. Thunderous. Apista could feel the other queen’s rage. Intruder! She screamed it in the ways bees understood things. Intruder! Another queen was not fit to live.
But Apista was no queen. Not that it mattered. Her hive was threatened. Lyonette was in danger. So she flew, burning. And the bees flew after her.
Up, around—the wind buffeted Apista and she slowed. In that second the swarm nearly caught her. They dove at her, but she fell downwards. She didn’t know the sky like they did. The changing wind, the way the air interacted with other things, flowing, it was all new to Apista. She was at a disadvantage there.
But in other ways she was ahead. Because bees loved to fly. Surely, they did. And Apista was flying. For the first time her wings were open. And the flames issuing from her body gave her more speed. She flew, feeling alive. Fierce. And with each passing second she found she was flying faster, faster. The flames poured from her body, bright and hot. And behind her, the other bees were faltering.
The queen was tiring. Lyonette stared up with open mouth. But it was true. The queen of the Ashfire Bees was running low on flames. You could see the fire around her fading, and the workers had already run out of steam. Their flames went out one by one as they exhausted whatever fuel supply they had. Mana. The bees had to have mana! And they’d just run dry.
But Apista and the queen still had juice. And it seemed that Apista had far more mana than the foreign queen did. For her flame was burning fiercely. Even more than she had at the start, or so it seemed to Lyonette.
Hotter and brighter than any other bee. Apista left a trail of fire in the sky. Lyonette could feel the magic she was burning up, but the bee had deep reservoirs.
“How? How could she…”
But Lyonette knew the answer before she’d even begun. She remembered Apista lazing in her flower bed box, sipping the nectar of flowers, a gift of faeries.
Magical flowers. Days, months of drinking faerie flower nectar and living in Erin’s inn. It all added up. And as Apista soared, Lyonette felt her joy. Sheer, pure joy. She flew up, and the swarm turned too slowly. Apista lost them on the next turn. Now she was flying alone, a streak of fire in the sky.
They saw her. The adventurers on the walls, the betting [Guards], Drassi from the inn. The Drake opened the door to let Mrsha play, took one look at the bees flying about, and dragged Mrsha inside and closed the door. But Lyonette stood in the mud, staring up at Apista and laughing.
Alone. Nothing could catch her. Apista flew up, and then circled back. The swarm was hovering in the air, tired, uncertain. Apista aimed straight at their center, an arrow made of fire.
She charged the queen, and the workers and drones scattered before her. The queen backed up, but she was tired, and afraid of Apista’s vitality. Lyonette watched, her heart squeezing.
Was Apista about to take the hive? She felt like that was what the bee was doing. That was how bees worked, wasn’t it? There had to be a queen. And when one queen died, another would rise.
The bee flew at the queen. Stingers extended, they clashed twice. Lyonette felt Apista driving for the kill. Felt, and felt something in her protest.
Above her, the little bee broke off the assault. Suddenly, she wasn’t stabbing at the tired queen, but flying in a circle. The queen, bewildered, hesitated, and then began to circle as well. Lyonette stared up, confused.
All the bees were doing it now. Apista, still flaming, circled the others. The workers and drones shielded their queen. They darted at Apista, but she flew at them. And then—what was it?
Only a thing of insects. Only Klbkch could understand it. Standing on the walls, the Senior Guardsmen opened his mandibles.
“Ah. Of course.”
Everyone stared at him. The Antinium looked at them. Senior Guardsman Jeiss, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, Zevara, Relc.
“What? Is it not obvious?”
“No. What happened?”
The bees were dispersing. Flying back towards their cave. Zevara watched them anxiously, nervous of a threat immune to her fiery breath. Klbkch spoke calmly.
“I believe she just claimed her territory.”
Jeiss poked a claw at the little bee. Apista was descending, flying back towards Lyonette. Klbkch nodded.
“I am not an expert on Ashfire Bees. But I believe that was a queen’s battle turned into a hive’s dispute. And it appears she won.”
The people on the walls stared down at Lyonette. At Apista, flames gone out. Jeiss let out a long sigh. There was something incredible out there. A thousand Ashfire Bees. And one little bee had chased them away. He almost smiled. Then he felt a jab at his side.
“Damn it, Beilmark!”
She flew down from the sky. The young woman reached up to her, laughing, shaking with relief. She sensed Apista’s emotions. Exhausted, hungry, but triumphant. Lyonette raised Apista up in shaking hands and kissed the little bee repeatedly.
“You are the bravest, most wonderful—”
Apista fanned her wings, still warm, but cooling. She seemed to be venting heat—or else it didn’t cook her from the inside. Actually, maybe the flames were her way of cooling? Lyonette didn’t care. She cuddled the bee, hugged her, and then went home.
Of course, there were people to talk to. There always were. And Mrsha had to come up with a new name for ‘bee’ in honor of Apista. But the upshot of it all was that there was a large contract on the Ashfire Bee nest that none of the adventurers really want to fulfill. In the end, Pisces volunteered to use a Bone Horror, and Ceria and Falene were willing to try an ice spell.
The destruction of a semi-innocent bee nest aside, Lyonette had only one other eventful moment in the day. And that was realizing she’d forgotten to get Erin’s eggs! But she had a brilliant moment. So, as noon fell and Krshia was closing up her stall, Lism was shouting about how another Human had nearly killed everyone by bees, as said bee flew down from the sky.
Everyone in the market ducked. But the bee was alone, and Krshia, spotting the tiny slip of parchment, reached up and with a very careful paw, let Apista drop the scrap into her palm. She unrolled the slip of parchment and read it.
Dear Krshia, please send three dozen eggs with the next shipment. Chicken, please. Apista will deliver messages from now on if convenient. Of course, I’ll come to chat. Mrsha says hello.
And Apista was as happy as a bee could be.
A few last things. That night, Erin and Numbtongue came back from their outings. Erin was waving her arms and exclaiming over the people she’d met in Pallass.
“You’ll never believe what a day I had! Okay, first, I went through into Pallass and guess what? I met this couple that—”
Meanwhile, Numbtongue had wandered deep into the mountains and brought back some souvenirs. He uncorked a bottle that made Typhenous’ eyes pop, and Lyonette listened to both with a wide smile. Apista dozed in the fireplace, listening to the logs crackle beneath her. She paid no attention to what was said. After all, she was a bee.
That night, as everyone went to bed, Apista woke up when Lyonette was asleep with Mrsha in her arms. She crawled out of her cotton basket, fanned her wings, and noticed it was dark. Well, that was usually a call to sleep, but something made Apista fly out of Lyonette’s opened window. The [Princess] had left it open because she was sure Apista could protect herself and that the bee wouldn’t fly away now.
And that was true. But she hadn’t realized that Apista might fly just to fly regardless. And while a bee was blind at night, a bee that could make fire was not.
Apista’s glow lit up the sky. An owl, swooping past it, decided that it didn’t like hot food and flew away. Apista flew higher, past some Razorbeaks who eyed the tasty insect wreathed in flames and opined for deserts served cold. Higher and higher, until the inn was small below her.
Below her lay Liscor. And the inn. The inn was a small thing compared to the city, but Apista knew it as her hive. As home. And in her head, she felt Lyonette’s thoughts about the inn, complex, foreign, but just a part of Apista as her body. For, after all, she and Lyonette were connected. Apista was more than just a bee. More than a pet. She had part of Lyonette in her. The girl had shaped her, as all good owners do their pets. As all pets their masters. It wasn’t necessarily intentional. Sometimes you could shape or be shaped just by loving.
This wasn’t actually a story about a bee. Because bees had no stories. It was really a story about a [Princess]. A young woman who was no [Queen]. But no ordinary worker, no normal girl either.
It was a strange thing to be a princess. Frightening. Because you had no home. Not one that was truly your own. But you couldn’t hide either. You had to live with that, searching for a way to be complete.
And that was what Lyonette was doing. Apista saw it. Below her, the inn changed. It transformed, turning into something Lyonette was dreaming up. She might not have intended it. Or perhaps she had—Klbkch had seen it. But not the whole truth. Only Apista, flying high above saw it rising from the earth.
After all, it was the nature of [Princesses] and of bees. Even when they were alone, their instincts drove them to build a home. To grow into queens and [Queens]. And so that was what Lyonette was doing. Doing what all [Princesses] did, in their heads, in their hearts. In reality.
They built castles.
Apista looked down and saw it. A fortress of stone, sitting on a hill three times as large. Not a castle in the strictest medieval sense. This one lacked the height of a citadel, and it was inviting, as much an inn as fortress. But it was nothing like the inn. It was larger, grander, the ramparts of dirt leading up to it able to be defended in case of attack. A castle made of an inn. A tower for Bird to sit in. A garden blooming with yellow flowers. A place to bathe, a room filled with books—
An inn made of dreams. And Apista flew down towards it, staring at the dream. And she knew Lyonette was building it. Her hive. Slowly, out of gold and stone and people. It was not the hive Apista would have chosen. But it was a hive nonetheless.
And Apista could not wait to call it home. So the bee flew back in the window and slept. And the bee and the [Princess] were happy. After all, it was their story. And if it wasn’t, they’d take it. For surely, surely.
One day they would be [Queens].
[Worldly Princess Level 17!]
[Skill – Apista: Enhanced Intelligence obtained!]
[Skill – Apista: Agile Flier obtained!]
[Skill – Imperial Aura obtained!]