“I am certain it was a simple cultural difference.” Princess Celyz says, choosing the moment to cut in, ending my mocking laughter and putting the conversation back on its previous track. “The apology was unnecessary but very much appreciated, thank you.” She inclines her head towards me.
I keep my silence, thinking hard about what the next step of the conversation should be from here. The most important thing to determine is her objective. I don’t think it is her goal to obtain traditional prisoners because then she wouldn’t bother being so polite.
What were her words? Dishonesty is detrimental during contact with foreign cultures. Is she following rules of diplomacy? Why? Wait, is she?
Princess Celyz didn’t need to add that second part to accept the apology. She could have left the matter alone, it would have been the better choice actually, the diplomatic move is to wave away the entire thing. But no, she didn’t do that, she chose to thank me, to passively take a side in our argument.
If anything, I’ve noticed that her words are very much chosen, maneuvered to say what she means. Just because she isn’t dishonest with her answers does not mean that her replies have no aim of their own.
If her objective is diplomatic, or official, we would be treated differently. She would have waved off the incident without thanking me and avoided a possible offense to Patrick, a Noble with political weight.
I also doubt she would have disarmed us if this was diplomatic since we wouldn’t be able to escape with weapons anyway. Letting us keep our weapons would be more beneficial to her. So, her interest is with each of us personally, not with our social positions. We are very much prisoners, then, just with a different objective behind our imprisonment than usually.
If I’m right, then she doesn’t want us to know she has an interest in us that goes beyond our capture, otherwise, she would have asked for my name as we spoke. I could also be wrong and overthinking this.
I don’t think I’ll lose anything by being polite in our current situation.
“You are welcome, Princess Celyz, however, I still owe you one more apology. I hope to make you agree to accept it this time.” I start, trying to be diplomatic but wincing at my own word choices when I hear them.
Princess Celyz inclines her head sideways, listening. I hear Patrick snort behind me.
“I offer you my personal apology, Princess Celyz, for not introducing myself to you as soon as we met. I am Jessica, formerly peasant, presently … well, nothing. I am honored to have made your acquaintance, Princess.”
“I am also honored to have met you, Jessica, a former provider of your kind.” She makes a nod of her head. “I will reluctantly accept your apology, Jessica, but do note that I do so while protesting. You were … suddenly indisposed and accidentally lost the opportunity, I cannot possibly bear a grudge for such things.”
That was good, we both said a lot of empty words, but I think we both understood each other’s meaning, subtext. I opened myself to dialogue with her while she assured me that the dialogue would begin with a clean slate. I’m convinced she will be honest with me. To a point. I remind myself, the line in the sand is drawn right in front of her hive’s well-being.
Our group nears the city around the lake’s shore, but to enter the city we must pass through the forest of odd small roof things that we saw from above. At ground level, I see that the roofs are there to provide cover for small circular walls, barely half a meter tall. Dozens of Rykz workers are moving around within the field, none close to our group.
“Are those wells?” Lady Lance asks, not far behind me.
“They have access to water, but their function is not that of a well.” Princess Celyz answers.
“So, those are the famous mushroom pits of the Rykz.” Lady Lance says. I throw a glance over my shoulder, finding her staring at one of the pits, a very interested expression on her sharp face.
“We can take a look if you wish.” Princess Celyz proposes.
“I would grateful if you don’t mind the bother.” Lady Lance bows her head slightly towards her, in thanks.
“Come, follow me.” Princess Celyz unfurls four tendrils from around her torso, waving them towards the nearest pit.
The group follows her, most of the warriors remain on the side of the road, only a dozen of them follow us inside the mushroom pit field itself. I notice that there is almost no vegetation on the ground, odd since I know many kinds of weeds that would relish growing here.
“Do your workers uproot anything that tries to grow here? The earth is unusually bare.” I ask.
“Yes they do, growing mushrooms takes a lot of water so we take care to make sure that no other plant enters into a competition for resources with our mushroom cultures.” Princess Celyz answers, making her resonant voice loud enough for all of us to hear. “It is a time-consuming task for our workers, but we feed all the uprooted plants to the grubs so their efforts are not wasted.”
“I am surprised that you were able to grow mushrooms on a mountaintop. Isn’t it too cold?” Lady Lance asks.
“Ah, it would indeed be too cold if this was a mountain.” She nods a couple of times. “But we are standing on an old volcano, it just so happens that this field is located right above a significant source of heat.”
“Happens, huh.” Lady Lance repeats, skeptically.
“Well, it is not a secret that the Rykz can sense heat.” Princess Celyz makes her four unfurled tendrils wave around her.
“We did not know that.” Lady Lance answers.
“Well, I am sure you would have found out eventually since your Empire discovered that fact two hundred and fifty years ago.”
“How did they figure it out?” I ask, curious.
“During a battle with queen Grikyz’ hive, they used several large burning bales of hay to try to disorganize her ranks. It didn’t work, of course, but they observed that the Rykz fighting near the large flamed had difficulty using their sabers, their general drew the correct conclusion that they were half-blinded by the flames.” Princess Celyz recites the information with some enthusiasm. I think it is enthusiasm, it is definitely different from her tone when she calmly states facts.
“Is it alright to tell us this?” Lady Lance asks.
“It was two hundred and fifty years ago, Lady Lance, many hives have fought the Empire several times since. Do you really think that if this was an exploitable weak point, you wouldn’t know about it?” Princess Celyz asks, head inclined questioningly.
“Just because we have not yet found a way to reliably exploit it doesn’t mean it cannot be done.” Yvonne answers in Lady Lance’s place.
“That is a very good point, I agree with you.” Princess Celyz says. “But having our weaknesses found is not something that frightens the Rykz.”
“You cannot fix a weakness if you are not aware of it.” Lady Lance picks up on her reasoning immediately.
“Indeed. In the past ten thousand five hundred and thirty-two years since we have first begun interacting with other races, weaknesses have been found within us seven hundred and thirty-two times.” She recites the numbers enthusiastically, no, the tone isn’t quite the same. If I go by context, it would be pride.
“Your records of history are that old? That precise?” Lady Lance asks in a disbelieving voice.
“They are, but I am afraid the vast majority of our record’s contents are not to be shared with other races.” She shakes her head sideways, but in smaller movements, perhaps a regretful gesture.
I shouldn’t be putting a human context on her words to interpret the emotion she puts behind it. Fuck this is confusing. She did use a human expression, being afraid that she cannot share. The emotion behind that one should be regret.
Once she’s finished speaking, Princess Celyz takes a few swaying steps towards the mushroom pit, sending her four unfurled tendrils towards the base of the two wood supports holding up the small roof above the pit.
Her tendrils make several small motions around their base before she pulls them back soon after, holding two wood stakes. She waves both of her free tendrils towards two of her warriors put down their shields and take hold of the supports holding up the roof with their claws.
I recognize the smell of her odd scent as it spreads around us, I think it is left behind by the tendrils. The warriors start lifting the roof, the Princess creates a soft vibration within her ovaloid head and the two Rykz slow down, becoming more careful as they deposit the roof on the ground right next to the low wall surrounding the pit’s hole.
We approach and look down inside the mushroom pit, there is a long wooden beam placed vertically down the center. Attached all around the beam in a spiral pattern, are hundreds of wooden trays. Each of the trays is filled with loose soil and has dozens of small white round mushrooms sprouting all over the surface.
The mushroom pit seems to be giving off a constant stream of hot moist air that we feel rising as it brushes past our faces in a slow current.
“Why do you put a roof over them if you need as much water as possible?” I ask.
“They need water, but we can’t let rainwater fall down directly inside the trays because if too much water accumulates the mushrooms will be drowned out. The roof redirects the rain to the ground where it infiltrates into the water table, it also serves to keep sunlight out of the pits. The mushrooms need darkness, heat, and water, to grow optimally.” Princess Celyz explains.
“How do you harvest them?” Lady Lance asks.
Princess Celyz uses her four tendrils to point towards a building further down the road, in the middle of the city. I see the top of a tall wood crane extending past its roof, a large pulley is attached at the very end of the crane’s thick arm.
“We use one of several cranes to lift the wood beam with all the trays attached, harvesting each tray as they rise up to level with us.” Princess Celyz says. “We use the cranes to build new buildings or help out at the forges in the meantime.”
She makes her tendrils brush against the two warriors’ shoulders and they carefully lift the small roof back over the mushroom pit, replacing the roof’s wood supports into their emplacements. The Princess puts the two wood stakes back into their emplacements to secure the roof.
The group makes its way back to the road, I turn my attention to the buildings up ahead, noticing that Lady Lance is looking the same way as my eyes coincidentally pass over her.
The structures ahead of us have walls made out of stones, each cut in a rectangular shape and perfectly stacked to make straight walls. The roofs are covered in clay tiles that are laid on a support structure made of long wood beams. The buildings are all large, the smallest of them being about as big as our stables back home.
“I’m amazed at the intricacy of your building techniques.” Lady Lance comments.
“This is but a military outpost, no flourish, all function.” Princess Celyz replies with modest words. “It is nothing compared to the wonders of our home city, the famous Silver Hive. Although, it is probably not famous in the Empire.”
“A military outpost, huh, how many soldiers does it hold?” Patrick asks.
He has to know now that she isn’t going to answer his questions if she doesn’t want to. Why is he still asking so blatantly? Does he not care about … right. He doesn’t care about offending her, they’re at war. We’re at war. He is going to attempt the most obvious tricks to get information because that’s all we can do right now.
“Currently, about two thousand warriors.” Princess Celyz replies. I’m surprised she answered anything helpful at all.
“What about at the most?” Patrick keeps pushing.
“I am quite certain that we could host up to a hundred thousand warriors if we fill the valley.” She inclines her head as she makes her odd chuckle resound softly within her head.
Patrick makes a strangled cough. Probably too surprised to challenge the staggering number. That’s a lot of warriors, is she exaggerating?
“Are you exaggerating?” I ask directly, curious.
“Somewhat, yes, we would need to create many more mushroom fields, and grub pens, to feed so many. That would inevitably use up space that we need to train, and lodge, the warriors.” Princess Celyz answers with honesty. “Not to mention the forges necessary to create weapons and armor to equip them, add to that everything that all the necessary extra workers we would need. I am most definitely exaggerating, but you’ll understand if I don’t give you the numbers.”
“I do, your answer was plenty enough, I don’t need detailed numbers. The functioning of your hive is very interesting, thank you for answering at all.” I make a small nod towards her in thanks.
We arrive at the edge of the first two buildings. The exterior of the stone walls is rough, the stone was hastily cut on this side. I think it was to gain time as the other four sides of the rectangular stone blocks integrate seamlessly with the other neighboring blocks, indicating that those sides are cut smoothly to fit perfectly.
I throw a look inside one of them as we pass by a window, its wood shutter is open to the side of it. I find four dozen pieces of furniture laid across a huge room, their shape is very similar to that of large beds but instead of mattresses, there is a loose rectangular sheet of fabric hanging inside the wood frame.
“I couldn’t help but notice the windows, why do you need them?” Lady Lance asks Princess Celyz.
“For the same reasons as humans, mostly air circulation, with shutters for the cold winds during winter. While we do not see, having a window in the wall allows us to hear what’s happening outside with much more ease.” She turns her head towards a column of smoke rising, above the city’s roofs.
“Ah, yes. The forges. That reminds me, I am certain that you will behave yourselves as our guests, but please understand that I am very serious when I say this: Under no circumstances will you be allowed to approach anywhere near the forges, so do not try because the price of success will simply be death, swift and without argument.” Princess Celyz says, using her calm tone once more, another statement of fact.
Maybe this is a cold threatening tone to her? Ugh. She was right, dishonesty would just add an unnecessary layer of complication to an already headache-inducing contact with a foreign species. It would probably destroy any hopes of future communication between us if we ever catch one another in a straight-out lie.
As we walk down the street, that I just notice now is paved, towards the lake, we see several workers in a group ahead of us, each carrying large receptacles of carved wood. Our large group follows the workers, leaving a few tens of meters between us.
They reach the shore, continuing their walk directly into the water, raising some floating dust in the water behind them. They stop right before the water touches their lower trunk, inclining the receptacles they carried thus far and letting their content fall inside the water.
What comes out is a steady rain of fine dust, some of the grains ivory-white, others light gray, some green, some iron red. It looks like a mixture of various materials.
“What are they doing?” I ask.
“Watch.” Princess Celyz’ answer resounds softly.
The dust that fell out of the receptacles in a rain isn’t sinking, it is slowly being carried along by a current of water, creating a long smoking dark cloud that is trailing inside the ice blue water, spiraling towards the center of the lake, to the Queen.
“Is it food for your Queen?” Lady Lance asks.
“Close. The dust is a mixture of leftovers, bones, grub meat gone bad, iron dust, rotten wood, … almost everything that we can find is ground into fine grains that will remain floating in water long enough to reach our Queen. Birthing Rykz is quite a resource-intensive task, it takes much nourishment to bring the eggs to term.” Princess Celyz’ voice resounds enthusiastically. “This location is a very good one, the bottom of the lake is very rich in organic deposits while many minerals can be found within reach of our Mother Queen’s roots.”
The workers, having emptied their wood recipients, turn around and, without ceremony, walk past us to leave the area. We walk up to the shore and Princess Celyz inclines her head towards each member of our group, one at a time, facing each for a few seconds only. We wait, facing her, remaining just as silent.
“I have informed my Queen of your presence.” Princess Celyz finally speaks after a few minutes. “My Queen accepts your surrender.”
My breath catches in my throat. I was not aware that her Queen needed to accept our surrender too. That could have gone very differently if she didn’t.
I throw a glance around but the fifty warriors surrounding us are as impassible as always, standing on their four short legs without moving, with no unnecessary motion. Did she deliberately omit to tell us? What would be the point?
The only difference I can think of is that the conversation here wouldn’t have been nearly as relaxed. But the Princess is the one who gave out all the information. Wait, she didn’t randomly give out information, she only answered the questions we asked her.
“My Queen offers you a personal welcome, Jessica.” Princess Celyz adds.
She wanted us asking questions, our minds relaxed enough to express curiosity. No, she concealed that information because it would have made us worried, stressed. She was interested enough to omit an obviously important piece of information.
She wanted very much to hear our comments and questions. The point behind the maneuver has to be to create the conditions to test our intelligence as soon as possible.
Her objective during the whole way back was to gauge our reasonings. I doubt the Queen even knows my name, Princess Celyz is most likely being liberal with truth because there is no way for me to determine her honesty on the matter. Besides, I would normally have no reason to look for a lie in such a casual statement.