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I observe the large Rykz Queen emerging above the water in the middle of the lake, once again distance doesn’t diminish how impressive the sheer size of her body is. I watch as a dark elongated cloud courses through the water in a spiral centered around the Queen. More nourishment for the eggs.

Is she the reason why the water is of such a clear ice blue color? Is that humongous Rykz creating a spiraling current that drags everything that is floating in the water towards her, so she can absorb it? I’ve never seen such pure lake water, though most of the ones I’ve been to back home are closer to being the size of ponds than to the dimensions this large lake.

A gust of wind whiffs across the hilltop, I run my hand inside my messy black hair to start combing them upwards and make enough space between the strands for the wind to pass through between them. There is a surprisingly small amount of knots within my locks of hair, I don’t remember combing them recently. I frown a bit.

The morning sun rises a bit more, the angle it hits the lake is starting to make its surface shine. The added light, direct and reflected on the Rykz Queen helps me distinguish her figure in more detail. I direct my full attention to the gigantic tree, being, plant, Rykz.

I don’t think the Rykz have anything to do with Ants like I was told at first. If there is a relation, it is so distant that it would be akin to comparing humans to horses because we share the same amount of limbs.

The Queen’s thousands of tendrils don’t sway very much, despite the small waves rippling the surface of the lake telling me that some blasts of wind do reach her down there. Does it count as down there if the Queen is standing twelve full meters tall above the surface?

These small black eggs must be numerous enough to weigh them down, or the Queen might be controlling her tendrils directly to stop them from swaying and bumping into each other.

I scrutinize the three limbs forming the large trunk, the ones I believed were three trees merged together when I saw them at first. I cannot see if the Queen’s two legs and tail are actually merged together from here, but I can tell that they are so closely pressed and wrapped around each other that there may not be a difference.

The separation between the legs and tail is even less visible the higher I look, so much that I cannot even find where the trunk ends and where the torso begins.

I gaze back at the tendrils, this time focusing on a single one and trying to count how many eggs are attached on either side of it. After several false starts, I rethink my strategy of counting all the eggs from bottom to top, the tendrils may not be moving very much but that and their large numbers combined make it extremely hard for me to keep my eyes locked on a single one.

I move my attention to one relatively isolated tendril, dividing it into four equal sections in my mind before counting how many eggs there are on the division at the very bottom where no other swaying tendril can distract me.

I count several times, repeating the process with several tendrils and on different sections. The number is always the same, there are twenty eggs on any one-forth tendril. And I’m trying to be conservative because of the distance and unreliability of my method. It might be thirty.

Eighty eggs on each tendril, there are … two or three thousand tendrils. That makes … mathematics … ugh. If my time pointlessly and nervously counting our rows of wheat gave me anything, it is a limited, but not non-existent, confidence in my estimations, but I can’t really take a guess with such large numbers … Why does it always end up with me doing mathematics when I just want to count something?

Eighty times a hundred, that’s eight thousand. Eight thousand by ten is eighty thousand. Eight by two is sixteen. Sixteen thousand. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. I’ll do it again, eighty times a thousand is eighty thousand, there are at least two thousand tendrils, so eighty thousand by two. A hundred and sixty thousand.

I stay silent for a long while, fear gripping my guts, twisting. Fuck. That’s enough Rykz to overrun the Izla three times and still have some left. Even if they’re all workers, it’s enough numbers for that to be irrelevant, and there is no way those are all workers, at least half are warriors and scouts.

They could crush any army the Nobles send against them, anything they can raise. Can they even equip that many Rykz? Oh, of course, they can. The scouts are naturally armed and armored, the Queen will just birth however many warriors they can equip and fill the rest of her army with scouts.

I spot another dark cloud of dust twirling through the lake’s water towards the Rykz Queen. I watch as the group of workers that just dumped the nourishing powder take their leave. Fear in my mind, a yell for them to stop stuck on my tongue. This is worse than I ever imagined. I thought that war was coming to the Izla but this isn’t war, this is … doom growing on a tree. Inescapable slaughter in the making.

They are an obsidian black tide of destruction, evil plaguing our land. I remember the quote from an old tale that I had never linked to the Rykz until now, I never thought … such a description could be one of reality, that it could be an accurate description of something that actually exists.

Unable to keep staring at the eggs, at what they represent for the future, I direct my eyes down at the field of mushroom pits. I observe the workers as they walk across the large field to uproot every tiny plant that they can find with the help of their small hand shovels.

I watch them from in-between my knees, wondering what the worker with the wicker basket is doing while standing there immobile. I keep staring at the worker, in a daze, until he suddenly starts moving on his four small legs, heading towards a spot that a worker is moving away from.

The worker with the wicker basket makes his way to the small pile of plants laying on the ground, left behind by the other worker, he picks the pile up and places it inside the basket before changing direction and going towards another pile of plants that a third worker just left behind to move to a different spot and continue uprooting plants.

That’s pretty much it, if I want to survive or help in any way, I need to do what I can within the circumstances I find myself in. The first thing I need to do is accept the Queen’s offer, at the very least it isn’t dishonorable for me to work for my keep. Besides, my one hand isn’t enough to compensate for the resources they’re spending to keep us clothed, fed, washed, and lodged.

I stand up and start walking down the hill, towards the closest patch of green that I can find within the mushroom pit field. Another thing I need to do is keep talking with Princess Celyz, she has a scheme of some kind and her objective isn’t to steamroll the Izla because they sure as fuck do not need any help to do that.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I kneel down in front of the first green sprout I find. I stop for a long moment, simply enjoying the feeling of the earth against my knees once again, I wiggle a bit on the spot to ease my legs into this position because I’ll keep it all morning.

I raise my arm, reaching as high up as I can with my hand before contracting all the muscles I can, a quick way stretch before work.

I notice the slight smile on my lips, rolling my shoulders … my shoulder comfortably under the morning’s sun, enjoying the heat. I bring my hand down with my fingers around the weed, I use the tips to dig and push aside the soil around the main stem of the sprout.

The field’s soil isn’t packed together very tightly at all, it isn’t loose like it could be after plowing it, but it is much easier to dig into the earth here than it would be in a normal uncultivated field. It is likely due to the fact that the Rykz workers regularly uproot anything that grows across the entire area.

I finally unearth all of the sprout’s small roots, pulling on the stem to uproot the whole plant and throwing it near a small patch of tiny growing plants. I move towards the next target on my knees. “Once more.”

I plunge my fingers into the ground around this even smaller sprout, I’ll only look for the main root on this one since it’s too small to bother looking for other even smaller branching roots.

Once I reach a reasonable three centimeters under the stem, I flex my fingers to push them under the plant through the soil, right under the small plant. I then pull my hand back, ripping a small handful of dirt out of the ground along with the tiny sprout.

I take hold of the plant’s stem between my fingers, shaking it until all of the soil still sticking to it falls back into the small dent in the ground I left, filling it back up. I throw the tiny sprout next to the first one. “Once more.”

I move sideways on my knees, recognizing a small weed as a thistle. I don’t struggle very much to uproot this one as the main stem is sturdy and the roots well attached. I simply rake the earth a couple of centimeters deep all around the plant to loosen the ground enough that it does not hinder and break the roots on their way out when I pull on the thistle. My plan works perfectly and the whole thing comes out of the ground in one piece. I throw the thistle on top of the other two uprooted weeds. “Once more.”

The smile on my face remains as I work through the repetitive task, it is close enough to what I did during most of my life that it allows me to unwind a bit and center myself.

I finish uprooting this first patch of undesirable plants halfway through the morning, a worker with a wicker basket arrives almost immediately to pick up the pile of weeds that I leave behind.

I ignore the worker, kneeling down next to a new spread of growing plants. “Once more.” Now that I am acting a bit more like myself, I berate myself for the stupidity that it was to run away this morning.

All I achieved with that action is delay a conversation I’ll have with her anyway because there is no way I’m giving up on her until she straight up throws me away. I need to have a talk with her and ask about what I said, that’s the next step I need to take. “Once more.” I mutter, throwing a strand of wild wheat in some distance front of me to start a new pile.

Finding time with Princess Celyz can wait, my Leomi comes first. Lady Lance, I correct myself. Should I start calling her my Lady? It sounds much more personal, affective. It might also be a way to camouflage the slip if I mistakenly call her my Leomi. “Once more.” Another strand of wild wheat thrown to the pile.

I take a handful very loose soil inside my hand, bringing it in front of my eyes and enjoying the feeling of letting the grains of earth fall back to the ground. Lost, staring, I suddenly notice that a worker is approaching from my left, at the very edge of my field of vision.

I turn my head to look at him, the worker stops approaching, his flat head directed towards me, mandibles opening and closing in an idle manner like I would do with my fingers if bored.

The worker lifts both of his three-fingered hands and slaps them together before rubbing each of his palms together. A gesture that looks very odd to me because both workers and warriors have palms that aren’t in any way similar to humans, they aren’t aligned with their forearms. The flat of the palm is at a perpendicular angle compared to the forearm, and triangular in shape but with fingers at each point, each positioned a hundred-twenty degree apart from the other two.

So, when the worker rubs his palms together, the gesture is foreign to me, it looks like the creature is folding its arms in front of itself and joining them to move them weirdly.

It takes me an embarrassingly long time to understand that he means to mime the washing of hands, and only because he inclined his head to point at my hand covered in brown dirt.

That worker was extremely patient for the several minutes it took me to catch his meaning, surprisingly so for a creature that is supposed to be about as smart as a head of cattle. That’s if I believe what I was told, I am revising that judgment more and more as I learn about the Rykz.

One I stand up, the worker turns around and starts walking back towards the city, I follow him as he guides me through the streets reaching a lavatory building after just a couple turns, I recognize it because of the many windows.

There are several workers washing their hands by making use of the water inside the two dozen copper basins available on the ground near the walls. The large number of legs clicking against the floor’s stone produces an uncomfortable amount of noise, but it isn’t very hard to ignore.

I follow my guide to one of the free basins and plunge my hand inside the water, taking it out and rubbing my fingers together over the floor to scrub the dirt from the pores of my skin. Once the inside of my hand is relatively clean, I am faced with a problem.

How do you clean the back of your hand, and in-between your fingers, with a single one? Having a stump would kind of be useful right about now. I plunge my hand into the basin’s water again, before taking it out and passing my thumb in-between my other fingers. A clumsy solution that isn’t very practical and cannot reach every crease.

I look down at the simple brown clothes, finding dirt stains on the pants and some on the bottom of the shirt. I shrug and try to figure out a way to rub the back of my hand against my clothes.

I find a spot on my right thigh that I can reach with my arm upside down, but I move too quickly, without enough care. My biceps presses against my right breast, pushing it aside to make room as I did before the injury. The black bruised flesh just under the breast is pulled on as a direct result, provoking a sharp response of blooming pain from the area, my breath shortens and I make several quick gasps to take in some air.

Fuck.” I spit out between my teeth.

I plunge my hand into the water a third time, moving my hand more carefully to clean it this time. I use the cloth of my pants on top of my right thigh again, quickly finishing and clearing all the dirt on my hand. I rinse my entire forearm in the copper basin until I’m satisfied.

When I turn away, I find the worker waiting for me. I follow him again as he guides me towards a building filled with rows of tables, several groups of workers are currently walking in and we file in behind them.

Inside, there are dozens and dozens of workers standing on either side of the tables, they are all eating out of bowls with spoons but with differing degrees of … hunger.

Most of the workers are pressing their bowls against the openings of their mouths with one hand while also clasping their mandibles around either side of the bowl for stability, using their spoon with the other hand to push the food inside their gaping maws.

The others, however, are calmly holding onto their bowls, either at chest level or leaving them on the table. These workers are eating their food with more poise, less … hunger, less impatience. Using their spoons to bring their sustenance up to their mouths and closing their mouths, that lack lips, around the utensil before pulling it out, empty.

The worker that has been guiding me so far uses a finger to tap my shoulder, lifting his other arm to point at a back entrance with a table laid against the wall, right next to it. There are about fifteen bowls with spoons inside on that smaller table. I walk there with my guide, take a bowl and find a free spot between two workers.

The unfamiliar sounds that their odd mouths make as they eat don’t disturb me nearly enough to forget my own hunger. I skipped breakfast and … last night was draining physically as well as mentally.

I plunge my spoon into the gray and black mixture, lifting a spoonful of it directly up to my mouth. It doesn’t taste too bad, it’s a bit stale but I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t tasted my food with a fortune in salt and pepper inside, just a few days ago. They are definitely cultivating Portobello mushrooms in those pits, I wasn’t sure before I tasted them because I only saw them young and just sprouting.

I take another spoonful, filling it as much as possible, eagerly bringing it to my mouth and eating. Portobello mixed together with some kind of liquid, not water. I don’t recognize the unusual taste but it’s probably something that they get out of the Grubs since the Grub pens are the only other source of food that the Princess mentioned.

It has to be giant Grub milk or blood. I don’t know what the color of the blood is because the one we killed didn’t actually bleed when it died. Or I didn’t notice. Eh, same difference. I swallow a few more spoonfuls. I wonder what roasted Grub meat would taste like, they’re too big for the Rykz to bother raising them if they don’t also eat the meat. I’ll have to think of asking Princess Celyz to let me try it.

I finish my bowl, passing the spoon all over the bottom to find every scrap because I don’t have the gall to take another one from the serving table. One of the workers might not get food if I do … I stand up and turn towards my guide, he is still eating in a nearby spot at the same table.

I bow forward towards him a bit, my hand up to my chest to thank the worker. He doesn’t seem to react to the gesture as he keeps eating. I don’t mind since I did it out of impulse without expecting a response.

I turn around and exit the building. I then walk back to the lavatory building by taking the same streets and making the same turns that my guide took on the way over. I use the same method to go all the way back to the mushroom pit field and then find the way back to the building the Princess is stashing us in.

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