As I enjoy stuffing my face with the amber-red grub meat, I don’t forget to keep an eye on my surroundings, especially Princess Celyz. I even manage to stop myself between two bites to observe her when she unfurls two tendrils, move to the end of the table and grabs a bowl for herself.
She throws a piece of meat and three mushrooms inside before rolling her two tendrils around the bowl and spoon. She then begins to crush and mix what she just put in with the sauce inside. I take a few more bites of meat as I keep my eyes on her for the couple of minutes that it takes her to reduce her food to a pulp.
The Rykz Princess then bends her reversed knees slightly, just enough for her tendril to place the bowl on the ground for her to lift her foot and dip two of her long thin cone-like toes in over the edge.
The other three exchange some platitudes about the food with the Princess, which I successfully block out by focusing on her fascinating way to absorb food, the level of the mush she made is already visibly lowering.
Is it a voluntary process like us or do her roots absorb things on their own? If they don’t have a choice in the matter, it could be possible to poison their Queen by simply throwing poison into the Lake.
Pointless, we don’t even know what would be toxic to them and have few means to acquire some if we did. After another awkward variation on food is good, I break and prepare to throw the conversation a bone.
I have the feeling that the Princess speaks more freely and divulges more information when we’re alone but I might not survive the cringe of another platitude.
“I don’t mean to say that your workers and soldiers aren’t worthy, Princess, but how can they have their own reserve of flow? I thought only intelligent species who can speak and think had direct access. Is it because your Queens and Princesses qualify and so the other members of your species do too?” I ask, remembering the construct used by the scout to burn my arm. Not a pleasant memory but I’m not going to let myself forget that it happened.
“In a way, yes but no. They do not qualify for their own reserves of flow but are still considered of our species so our Queens and Princesses are able to bestow their own flow energy to them, giving them access to a regenerating reserve of their own.” She pauses. “However, you are mistaken, they do have the ability to speak and think even if it is to a lesser degree than us.”
“You … bestow your energy …” I stop as a startling realization hits me. “The same way we do for our Nobility?!”
“The same way, by making an oath. But we give them lesser amounts, we don’t give our soldiers as much as a hundredth of our personal regeneration, nor do we pronounce any oath of allegiance, of course.”
“What? But …” I break my gaze away from the Princess to look around the table.
My Lady’s eyes avoid mine. Yvonne is making a painful grimace. Patrick is looking down at me with arrogance written on his face.
“Why am I surprised?” I mutter. “Moving on. Your scouts are much smarter than the cattle a certain Lordling compared them to if they are able to utilize such complex constructs as the ones I witnessed.”
“I have observed that their inability to speak makes humans consistently underestimate them, even those of you who fought our warriors directly. Speech seems to be a very important cornerstone of human culture if the inability to produce it provokes such disdain.” Princess Celyz nods slightly several times as she speaks, a movement that seems to be for herself rather than others.
“I wouldn’t know, I don’t have your perspective on my own culture.” I reply easily.
“Perhaps, with time you will be able to confirm whether my impression is correct or not.” The hell does that answer mean?
“I am curious about your workers, why do they have a mouth with mandibles instead of a trunk like your soldiers?” I ask.
“Ah, before I answer, I need to tell you that all of the food you have been and will be given has been prepared with tools.”
“Ominous.” I comment with a shrug.
“I saw you look at how my Queen and I absorb food with our roots, you’ve seen the trunks of our scouts and warriors. Our workers have long since had the responsibility to prepare food for the rest of the hive but long ago before we had tools to prepare meals, they used their mouths to chew and crush our meals, regurgitating a pulp that we could all consume.”
“I’m glad you took the time to tell me this was prepared by tools.” I repress a shiver, but it isn’t going to stop me from eating. I take another slab of amber-red grub meat.
“Princess, are you not afraid of war? Your workers and soldiers will die in droves, both sides will suffer loses.” I directly ask her.
Waiting for her to answer, I grab a mushroom and dip it in the tomato, green pepper, and parsley sauce to eat along the meat. Silence weights over the table when I stop talking and the Princess takes time to answer as the other three have stopped eating or participating.
I bite the part of the mushroom covered in sauce and make a mischievous hmm sound as I savor it, pretending not to notice the several wrenches I threw in the middle of the bland and polite conversation they tried to maintain.
“It is sometimes a regrettable necessity.” Princess Celyz’ resounding voice takes a deep tone, sounding sad to my ears.
“How can you know it is necessary if you haven’t tried diplomacy?” I press her.
“You cannot negotiate from a position of weakness. Simply asking for talks would have revealed our intentions and knowledge about their actions against us. It is only logical to strike first and keep striking until your kingdom of Caeviel asks for parley.” She inclines her ovaloid head sideways, an invitation to debate her point.
“I can see the reasoning, but you can try to use diplomacy now that you’re securely implanted in the middle of the Izla. You don’t need to actually seize it to hold it hostage.” I reply.
“Ah. But the Izla is the first strike.” She tells me calmly. “It doesn’t have enough importance to push your kingdom to the negotiation table, you know this.”
“I do.” I admit, berating myself for my naivety. A war over the Izla seemed to be such a momentous event to me that I never considered it to be just a first step for the Silver Hive. “Do you think Caeviel’s court would consider giving you what you want once you have the Izla and threaten their coast?” I ask directly.
“It is impossible to judge for certain, too many different factors can influence that decision.” Princess Celyz says with a shake of the head. “But in my opinion, no they will not negotiate. The Empire will almost certainly send phalanxes in reinforcement because that is its acclaimed purpose, to protect humans from other races invading and your kingdom will certainly overestimate its chances because of that fact.”
“While I think you are the one underestimating us, I do agree that Caeviel will choose to fight.” Lady Lance agrees.
“Indeed, the royal family is ruled by a King, not a coward.” Patrick adds arrogantly. “King Caer won’t bend the knee without a fight.”
“What about the Izla?” I ask. “You’re retaliating, but the plan isn’t simply to attack Caeviel, is it?” I keep pressing without abandoning hope. As unlikely as it is, I might find an angle that they’ve all overlooked and maybe prevent this war. I keep my eyes fixed on the Princess to scrutinize her reaction to my words. “You’ve hinted several times that you want something, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to use your army as a threat to pressure the kingdom into giving you what you want? If you do this before you attack, they will be more likely to listen and make a deal than if they are already in the middle of a war with you. I can only see the beginning of hostilities as a hindrance to your chances to obtain what you came here for.”
I’m not being entirely honest with my argumentation. I know that if the Silver Hive gains the upper hand by taking the Izla and immediately follows with a strong push on the continent with their whole army, then they would be implanted enough in the area that it could take decades for Caeviel to root them out.
The Empire has fought year-long wars against Cold blood hordes on the plains, it seems obvious to me that dislodging a Rykz hive would be an even more arduous task, especially if they have the entire Izla under control and producing food for their army.
Princess Celyz makes an odd inspiring sound as she gathers air inside her ovaloid head thought the twelve openings in it. “One of our old queens left behind a saying, the context of it goes like this: We raise grub, cultivate mushrooms, and grow berries, it is the mark of our evolving civilization that we no longer need to depend on luck to feed ourselves. That we no longer need to hunt or gather but instead control the very growth of our food. It is undesirable to devolve from raising grubs to hunting them, from cultivating mushrooms to searching for them in caves, from growing berries to gathering them. Those things are not desirable for our civilization but if food is scarce, we will all do it without complaining. Our civilization can once again change from our evolved state of peace back to a devolved state of war. It is not desirable for us, but when provoked beyond reason, when we starve, then we must voluntarily devolve the state of our civilization for its own continued survival.” The Princess pauses, a heavy silence floats over the table. “You are correct in saying that we came to take something back, but mistaken in thinking that retaliating against the Caeviel is not one of our objectives.”
I lower my head to think as I resume eating. So much for that idea. What’s the next angle? A scoff breaks me out of my thoughts and I look across the table, finding Ass-face making a sneer. My hand freezes half-way up to my mouth.
Patrick sneering at me wouldn’t be an issue, I even expect it at this point despite my Lady’s orders. But that idiot is …
“Such skill with words you have, but you cannot obfuscate the truth. You are a warmongering race that only seeks to devour fertile lands, your entire species is a plague that seeks to consume the Empire. But we are stronger, we are smarter.” Patrick pauses to take a breath, but what I notice is Princess Celyz’ total immobility, not even a single tendril moves. “Your dimwitted drones will never defeat Caeviel’s Nobility. Our cavalry will flatten you, the phalanxes will imprison you inside walls of spears. If a single peasant can match wits with you, a Princess.” He scoffs. “Then there truly is nothing to fear of the Rykz, all you have is numbers.”
“Lord Patrick!” My Lady exclaims, but so late. Perhaps she was as surprised as I was and once he started … It was just too late to stop him.
Fuck. FuckFuckFuck. Fuck. She’s still immobile, maybe she’ll ignore him? Don’t grasp at straws. She expressed affection for her warrior’s behavior when they spread out further than necessary to protect her. That’s the very reason I made a point about losses on both sides, hoping that it would move her.
If she can feel affection, she can feel antipathy. If the actions of her warriors can touch her, then insulting them can similarly affect her. I see Princess Celyz’ chest grow in volume, I blink in disbelief before I understand that all of her tendrils are slowly unwrapping themselves from around her torso, creating a momentary illusion.
I need to act before she does. I need to act before she does.
I let go of the food in my hands and place my hand on the table to help as I climb on top of it. Every head around the table turns to look at me, even the Princess’. That’s good, watch me do whatever it is I’m going to do.
I cross the table to Patrick in just two running steps, launching myself at him in a feet-first jump. He raises his arms in front of his face and blocks one of my approaching feet while the other passes right under his shoulder but the knee of the same leg impacts the side of his chest.
My momentum carries us both to the ground, he impacts it heavily on his back, the fall sends him in a daze. I land on his chest, forcefully cutting his breath. The fuck do I do now?
I have just enough time to land a strike before he recovers. I don’t hesitate and throw a hard jab at his throat to make sure he stops speaking and doesn’t somehow worsen the situation. I don’t hold back because there isn’t room to add much impetus to the blow.
Patrick starts coughing, flailing his arms around weakly as he tries to regain his breath. That was the right call to make, taking away his ability to talk. I get back on my feet, stepping away from him and turning towards my Lady for her opinion on my actions. She nods at me and a sigh of relief escapes me while a warm feeling fills my heart at her approval.
“Yvonne, take Patrick away while we apologize to the Princess.” My Lady orders as she turns towards said Princess. “You have my most humble apologies, Princess Celyz, I did not know of his misguided opinions before this meal.”
That’s a bold-faced lie if I ever heard one but … well, I probably would have said the same thing in her place.
“I accept the apology.” Princess Celyz’ resounding voice isn’t controlled, each of her words is projected out with a vibration that shakes my ears. The tone is hard, foreign, almost unrecognizable compared to how she previously spoke. “This time.” She adds in a somehow even lower and dryer voice. I may not have recognized her as the speaker if she hadn’t been right in front of me.
“Thank you, Princess Celyz.” I quickly exclaim towards her back because she is already turning around and walking out of the room with an abruptly swaying gait.
Lady Lance and I stand next to each other, immobile, without speaking, for a long while. We ignore Yvonne and Patrick while she drags him, still coughing, out of the building.
“Why didn’t she kill him?” My Lady asks in a very low volume after a while, likely when she thinks the Princess left the area entirely.
“Because that would break the illusion, no matter how much we understood why she did.” I answer.
“Illusion?” My Lady asks me.
“That we aren’t prisoners, that we can talk to each other as equals and build trust. That fucking idiot threw an insult she couldn’t ignore, it put her in the position of having to punish him and breaking the illusion of goodwill between us in doing so. If that happens …”
“We all die.” Lady Lance finishes my sentence with a hard voice. “I’ll talk to him, later.”
“It won’t work.” I warn her. “If he is … conceited enough to insult her at a dinner she convened for us, it means that he doesn’t even recognize her as a being that should be respected. He would never have behaved this way if humans captured us.”
“He has to see that she almost killed him, I saw a glow of flow move inside her tendrils, they’re so thin that it was visible under the skin.”
“He might recognize that he lacked prudence, or that he made a mistake, but that won’t do shit to restrain the next impulse he’ll have because he feels inferior or imagined an insult.”
“I’ll talk to him.” My Lady repeats in a flat voice that signifies her desire to end the discussion on that subject.
“Yes, my Lady.” I whisper, just loud enough to reach her ears.
I see her shift sideways away from me in the corner of my eye. I turn my head to find out what she’s doing but I find her turning away from me and walking towards the door. I hurry along, when I exit the building behind her, I notice that night fell over the valley during the meal.
“My Lady?” I call at her back.
“We’re taking that walk around the lake.” She informs me without even looking back at me.
“Yes, my Lady.” I immediately acknowledge her instructions.
She takes a right and I follow her, a step behind. As we make our way, my Lady guiding me, a few loud exclamations reach us from a different street not very far away.
“I’ll beat that tramp senseless for this!” Patrick yells, no doubt towards Yvonne.
“Leomi will tear your limbs off one by one if you touch her.” Yvonne replies in a voice loud enough to hear but not a yell.
“How can you not see that the whore defended her master’s honor?”
I miss a step, hearing his accusation. I fail to restart my walk when I think back to all my actions and realize that there is no proof that I didn’t betray them if you look at it from their perspective. I lower my eyes to the ground, panicking.
What if the reason they’re not telling me about the silver pommel is that they think the same thing as Patrick does? I’ve misread my Lady before, I … What if she’s stringing me along? Again?
“Jessica?” My Lady asks, stopped a few steps ahead of me. “Oh. Silly, don’t make that face, of course, I don’t believe a word of his ravings.” She closes the distance between us and takes hold of my chin with her hand, forcing me to raise my head. How can she read me so easily?
“I’m … Sorry, my Lady.” I manage to utter before she captures my eyes with her own and I lose the capacity to form full sentences.
“For what? You’re not responsible for his imagination.” Lady Lance shakes her head sadly. “Come along, my friend.” She turns around and adds. “I’m certain that I’ll find a way to show you how much I trust you.”
I start following her again, still remaining a step behind since we began walking like that and if she wanted to walk side by side, she would slow down. We reach the lake’s shore and my Lady takes a seat on a large rock lying on the rocky beach. She waves at me over her shoulder to tell me to get closer.
“What do you think when you look at this scenery?” My Lady asks me, obviously referring to the huge Queen in the middle of the lake.
“That the eggs are growing too fast, they’re already almost as big as apples.” I answer after throwing a quick glance before resting my eyes back on my Lady.
“I agree. However, there may be fewer eggs than we originally thought, I just noticed that the upper part of the tendrils are bare where they gather to connect to the trunk.”
“What count does it make? Sixty to a hundred eggs per tendril?” I quickly calculate.
“Twenty less eggs per tendril is still too many eggs. I agree with you, my friend.” My Lady agrees with an opinion that I kept to myself.