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I inspect the large wooden door incongruously laid on the vertical cliff’s side, its color is very close to that of the rock surrounding it. This gate must be impossible to find by accident unless you happen to walk on top of it somehow.

Princess Celyz is a bit talkative, it seemed to me that she enjoyed sharing her knowledge. I’m curious and it could be helpful if she likes us, or at least enjoys the conversation.

How do your warriors eat, Princess?” I ask. “I’ve seen that your workers have mouths with mandibles, but none other.”

Ah, they have a trunk at the bottom of their heads, here let me show you.” Princess Celyz answers.

One of her thin tendrils unfurls from her chest. It reaches out towards the warrior closest to me, touching its flat head. The creature lifts its head up, that action separates the head’s carapace from the chest armor. Revealing that there is no carapace covering the underside of the creature’s chin. That is most likely why they keep their heads down, pressed against the armor.

A three-centimeter wide and twenty-centimeter long trunk rolls out from the underside of the chin, it is made of the same obsidian black rubbery flesh that I am now used to seeing. I’ve seen that skin tone often enough that I notice the creases in the trunk, a consequence of leaving it constantly rolled up on itself.

Interesting.” I hear the word before realizing that I’m the one who said it.

Princess Celyz pulls her tendril back, wrapping it around herself in its previous position, the Rykz warrior also retreats his trunk and lowers his chin. I smell an odd odor pass in the air around us, her tendril didn’t seem large enough to displace air, perhaps it’s her natural body odor.

Which reminds me, we must smell like we haven’t washed for two days while working the fields. When all fifty of our escort’s warriors have gathered around us, two of them walk up to the double gate, each pushes on a separate panel and opens the gate wide.

Behind it, another tunnel, but this one is lit brightly with dozens of torches fixed on the walls, one every two meters. This tunnel is more of a hallway since I can see the end of it just a hundred meters ahead.

The other side, however, isn’t held by a mere wooden gate, there are two huge stone panels keeping the pathway to their hive secured. I’m not an expert but … I don’t think we’ve invented the battering ram that can take this down yet.

As the group engages down the hallway, Princess Celyz stays near me, walking by my side with her strange swaying motion. She speaks up suddenly, surprising me with her voice directed my way.

I notice you didn’t ask about the method I use to acquire sustenance.” She says calmly. “Are you too shy to ask?” She turns her head to face me, inclining it sideways. The deeply resonating sounds of her voice make it hard for me to discern whether there is some emotion contained within or none.

Is she flatly asking if I’m shy? Is she teasing me? I can’t tell, but I can’t rule out manipulation, she hasn’t mentioned anything similar to the moral guidelines we are taught to follow as human kids. Her reasoning seems to indicate that she takes decides what actions to take based on what she deems desirable as an outcome.

I hope I don’t offend you …” I suspend the sentence, observing her.

She doesn’t change position, keeping her head inclined sideways as she faces me. Her wavering sideways gait doesn’t suffer. Whatever means she uses to “see” ahead of herself, it doesn’t involve facing forward.

Princess Celyz seems to finally understand that I’m waiting for her permission to continue and she breaks out of the questioning position her head is making to give me a permissive nod. Odd how an empty head alone can express so much without anything resembling human traits to communicate with.

I’ve spent most of my life growing plants, wheat, corn, carrots, potatoes, … The toes you have at the end of your feet, you plunged them into the ground earlier. At first, I thought they served to stabilize you because of your thin stature and tall height, but since you’ve walked all the way here without trouble, I don’t think that’s the case anymore.” I start prudently, carefully observing her to notice any sign of offense taken.

Because of my inability to discern her tone of voice, I focus on her tendrils. The movements they made before, when she indicated her refusal to pursue a conversation, didn’t seem deliberate.

You are very observing.” She says in the same calm stating tone of voice that she used to inform us of our possible demise.

Nothing else to do right now, really.” I shrug.

Continue, please. I am curious to hear your reasoning and deductions.”

Well, your … toes, seem very similar to roots in their shape and how you use them by plunging them into the ground. If you aren’t using them to stabilize yourself, and you don’t have a mouth to ingest food, then perhaps those toes are exactly what they seem to be, in form and function. They are roots that you use to absorb what you need out of the ground.”

Amazing! Incomplete, but I have absolutely no doubt you would have figured the last part out after a while.” Princess Celyz’ head nods up and down several times.

Do you also absorb sunlight?” I ask, thinking it the most likely hole in my reasoning.

No, sadly we have lost the ability to do so long ago.” Her head shakes sideways slowly.

I’m sorry.” I offer, it seemed like a sad expression to me, regretful.

Do not be. We have gained in return, it was an exchange we did not decide but none of us would undo it.” Her empty head nods once, a strong affirmation.

I cannot think of anything else.” I admit, sheepishly.

This Princess Celyz has a much too high evaluation of me. It is a new experience for me to try to lower expectations. I am accustomed to people inventing faults in my character, not the opposite.

We arrive at the end of the tunnel. This time eight Rykz warriors take position, four on either side of the gate, claws pushing on stone. The two panels move slowly, scraping against the rocky ground as they slide open.

First, you were not wrong in your first assumption, we use our toes for both tasks, to provide stability when immobile but also to feed. Our tail fulfills the same two purposes, our size is a bit too great for our toes to be the only ones to provide sustenance.” Princess Celyz says, making her tail sway behind her.

I turn my face towards the stone gate as it opens, eyes trained in-between the two panels to catch an advance look at what’s waiting for us inside their hive.

I am dazzled by the sunlight that pierces through the seam when the two stone panels open far enough to separate completely. I expected something similar to an anthill, a network of tunnels and rooms dug underground. Why is there sunlight?

The gate is half-way open when I manage to shake the dazzling glare that caught my pupils off-guard from my eyes. I finally get a good look at what lays beyond.

A large and wide valley is revealed to us, it lays contained between two tall mountainous ridges that are covered in beautiful verdant green trees. Extraordinary trees who grew, no, flourished on mountain walls too sharply inclined for anything to climb them.

There is a large lake in the middle of the valley, at its lowest elevation, circular in shape, two hundred meters wide, and ice blue in color. A huge tree is piercing the surface of the water in the lake’s exact center.

The trunk is huge, its shape suggests that three very large trees merged together to produce this monstrous tree that stands a dozen meters above the lake, who knows how large the portion hidden under the surface is.

There are no branches splitting away from the massive trunk, it is composed of a single straight and uninterrupted piece that goes up, all the way until it suddenly splits in thousands of thick vines.

Those sprouts arc downwards at differing distances to the trunk, idly swaying with small spherical black fruits attached across their entire length instead of leaves. The tree’s shape reminds me of a weeping willow’s, a monstrous one without branches or leaves, and very long tendrils sprouting obsidian black fruits …

From our position looking down at the tree in the lake, it is possible to see the ovoid shape located at the very top, in the crown at the base of all the tendrils, the center where they start to branch out.

I’m certain that the neck and chest are hidden behind the tendrils, merged together on the upper portion of the trunk, creating a perfect base for the tendrils to grow on while both legs and the tail fused to form the base.

The sight of their Queen, carrying so many Rykz eggs on her tendrils that I would likely fail to count them if I tried, frightens me more than I would ever admit to anyone, enough that I am genuinely worried about losing control of my bladder again.

You honor us, Princess Celyz, I did not think you would directly take us to see your Queen.” I say with humor, hiding my true reaction and the shiver of fear currently traveling through my spine.

We are not going to win this war. The Izla cannot even arm as many peasants as there are Rykz eggs on those tendrils. I hear sounds of whispering occurring behind me, the three nobles are likely to have drawn the same conclusions as I have, earlier than I have.

Ah!” Princess Celyz makes a cadence of light silvery sounds resound inside her ovaloid head. Laughter?

No, if I apply a human standard to her expressions, then this isn’t loud enough for a laugh. A chuckle maybe, I think the small sounds she made were filled with delight. I’ll go with a human standard until she reveals that the expressions she uses are deceitful in nature.

I did not intend to, but it would be difficult, for one depending on sight, not to see her first indeed! I did not think of that.” She makes use of the same cadence of silvery sounds, but this time they are graver. Laughter.

I force myself to look away from the Rykz Queen, to take a good look at the lake’s surroundings. There are a large number of buildings along the entirety of the shore, a city built around a Queen.

Come! We’ll talk more as we make way down to the hive.” Princess Celyz says with enthusiasm.

One of her tendrils unfurls and makes a waving motion towards a path twisting and turning as it leads down the hilly landscape towards the lake, passing through an odd field of small roofs, and between two of the city’s large buildings before reaching the shore.

Before I can take a step down the road, to move along side by side with the Princess as I’d done so far through the tunnel. A hand seizes my shoulder before forcefully pulling me backward. It forces me to take a step back while the hand’s owner, Patrick, makes a step forward and takes my place near Princess Celyz.

She makes no comment nor has any discernible physical reaction to the change of conversation partner. Impassible as she walks, swinging slowly side to side with each step. I shrug, we’ll be here a while so I can ask my questions later, I follow them on the wide rocky road, leaving only a few steps between us.

Doesn’t that gorge provide an easy way into the valley?” He asks, raising a hand to point at the spot where the two mountain ridges, surrounding and isolating the valley, meet each other at their lowest point. The crossing of ridges is the lowest point in the walls and it seems to be leaving a hole to get in or out of the valley, a gorge.

We have, of course, made sure that we control every access point into the valley.” Princess Celyz answers somewhat cryptically.

But, is the way clear?” He presses on. I shake my head with incredulity, does he really think she would answer that?!

The ways inside the valley are clear and controlled by us, yes.” Princess Celyz answers, her resounding voice seems amused to me.

Is that specific breach in the walls surrounding the valley clear enough that it can be crossed all the way through to the other side?” Patrick asks, clarifying the question.

Oh, is that what you meant?” Princess Celyz asks, I cannot hear anything other than the calm tone of fact I heard her use many times so far. But her choice of words indicates clearly that if she were human, the voice would be dripping with sarcasm.

Does he think the reason Princess Celyz isn’t giving him the answer he wants is because she doesn’t understand the specifics of the question?

Oh, of course he does. If he believes in his own inherent superiority, then there is no reason he wouldn’t also believe humans superior to other races.

It is a short path from there to assuming the reason you’re not getting an answer is because the one speaking to you is a Rykz and isn’t smart enough to catch the meaning behind a question. Add that to a misconception about her unwillingness to lie and how she has continuously answered a peasant’s questions … Of course this is what he would do.

It is what I meant, can you answer me?” He asks, voice feigning patience.

I have the knowledge necessary to answer you, yes.” Princess Celyz answers with a simple statement.

Will you answer me?!” His control breaks, his emotions skipping impatience and jumping straight into anger. I notice as a Rykz warrior moves his arm, laying hand and claws upon the odd bulbous pommel of his saber.

If you give me the right price, yes, I will.” The Rykz princess continues humoring him with her calm tone.

You will?” He asks. “Price?” He repeats, incredulous. “How much do you want for that answer?” Patrick catches on, pressing eagerly.

It is simple, tell us of a similar way into the city of Meria.” Princess Celyz’ replies, still calm.

How dare you suggest such a thing?! I would never betray my Duke or Izla Meria!” Patrick jumps away from her, stance guarded and cheeks red.

It is an equivalent exchange, a fair price for the answer you seek.” Princess Celyz lowers and turns her head to directly face Patrick, she maintains the position for a while, until it is clear that Patrick’s offended silence means that he does not intend to continue the conversation.

A chilling suspicion crosses my mind as I wonder what kinds of things Nobles are taught. I throw a look over my shoulder. I find Yvonne and lady Lance making difficult faces as they observe the discussion ahead.

Good, I sigh in relief as I turn my attention back forward. There was nothing to be afraid of, only someone like Ass-face would make those kinds of wild leaps in judgment. I reassure myself.

Even someone with preconceptions should be able to read enough into the answers that the Rykz Princess has been giving to understand that they are anything but simple.

A being of her depth has reasons of her own for capturing us, beyond the simple fact that we surrendered. I have no doubt that we would have been executed on the spot if Princess Celyz estimated it beneficial to her hive.

Oh, this is going to be fun. My thought surprises me, when did I start enjoying myself? I look back on the day. Killing that scout was empowering, exciting, primal. It may have been stupid but when I saw that blow land … I think, no. I know I loved the feelings.

The situation, the adrenaline, the clarity of purpose when I decided to defend my life with my own hands. The arousal as I exchanged blows with that scout, fighting for survival.

I wonder how I’ll feel if something like this happens again. That’s if I don’t get struck down immediately after my success, before I can register and enjoy myself. I let a loud laugh escape my lips, surprising everyone around except the Rykz warriors who remain impassible.

Princess Celyz turns her head and neck all the way around her spine, a full hundred and seventy degree turn to look at me. I smile at her, ignoring the flesh twisted around her neck.

It’s nothing, I’m a little insane, don’t worry about it.” I say, explaining nothing before continuing, just to throw a pike at Patrick for fun. “I apologize for Patrick’s lack of manners, he is just a simple Count’s heir in a remote part of the Empire.”

I grin widely as I enjoy the different reactions of the three Nobles. Yvonne giggles loudly, not hiding her amusement in the least. Lady Lance mutters something about someone’s condition being contagious, just loud enough for me and Yvonne.

Patrick, on the other hand, makes a volte-face on his spot, immediately taking a long step towards me, his face scrounged in anger. I smirk at him, lifting one corner of my mouth far above the other to add a spike of mockery to the expression.

He lifts his hands up in front of him, balled up into fists as he watches the ground between us, estimating his avenue of attack. The Rykz warrior that had his clawed hand already on his saber draws it, moving two steps to place himself between Patrick and Princess Celyz, shield at the ready. Another three warriors react just a beat slower, taking positions all around Patrick with claws on their weapons and shields lifted up to their chest level.

Go on Lordling, show us your inherent superiority!” I egg him on while angling my head to the side, allowing me to stare straight at him right over the warrior’s shoulder, the smirk still present on my lips.

I watch, interested, as his face turns red, then white, then red again. He ends up lowering his hands and forcefully opening his fists. Patrick then raises his open palms up, in a placating gesture to show he is not dangerous.

I step past him, letting a small mocking laugh escape my lips, as I take back my position near Princess Celyz.

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