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Celyz applies a nourishing construct to my body to support the healing construct and then begins mending my symbiont’s tendrils which are still slightly bleeding.

It takes her much longer to do that than it took her to stop my bleeding, likely because she has to close the long wounds using a construct rather than relying on a healing construct, all the while being unable to detect what she’s doing.

I hear steps in the tunnel leading to this room, my right hand finds my weapon almost immediately. Celyz tries to stop me but I pull away from her tendrils to rise and settle into a hasty stance, feeling the sting of my belly’s wounds.

That’s the food, Jessica. It’s okay.” She tells me in a concerned tone.

“Right.” I reply, remaining at the ready.

I detect a worker entering my range. I lower my weapon and try to sit back down but a sharp pain informs me that my injuries reopened, it wouldn’t be a good idea to press on them.

Celyz reaches out and adjusts her healing construct, making it work on closing the wounds again. I give her an apologetic smile to which she responds by shaking her head in a disapproving manner.

The worker is carrying a platter with a half-dozen bowls of mushrooms. I extend my left hand out and take it off its three-fingered hands. I lay my liangi down and settle it against my right shoulder to start eating with my bare hand.

You need to rest.” Celyz tells me.

Later.” I reply.

I go through the food like I haven’t eaten in days, which it feels like, and give the platter back to the worker. A few minutes later, I hear more steps approaching the room and almost turn the platter over by reflexively grabbing my weapon with my right hand.

I detect two pairs of Princesses making their way up, telling me why my symbiont didn’t react. Cetyz, Fenyz, and a couple of others I don’t recognize. I settle my weapon back, worried about my reaction.

Something’s wrong. It’s not aggression, but a dissonance? Celyz lets go of me and steps back. I notice a few of her tendrils shifting uncomfortably as she wraps them around her torso.

I don’t get to ask as I detect Leomi, Roisia, and Edusa following the Princesses, my attention immediately taken by her. I take a step towards the door, noticing too late that I avoided one of Celyz’ tendrils which was reaching out to my shoulder.

The two unknown Princesses walk inside the room and nod to acknowledge me. I nod back. Cetyz and Fenyz are walking close to each other, I can somewhat tell that they’re in the middle of a private conversation.

I stop myself from rushing at Leomi. I’m not sure if it was to hug or smack her but I’m still angry at her and either would let that emotion settle. The Princesses take one of the odd seats each, Cetyz and Fenyz choosing to be apart.

Roisia and Leomi walk up to me, both wearing the same uniform. Edusa slows down to remain a step back. I watch her, feeling queasy as my fury rises and mixes with my love for her. I actually start trembling, caught between the emotions.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Vil.” Leomi speaks up, taking me off-guard. “I offer my respects.”

She bows low, Roisia imitating her. I blink, unable to react. I try to find any sign of deception, of dishonesty. Detecting nothing, I go so far as to rip my attention away from her to inspect Celyz, knowing that my friend would react if she smelled a lie.

I’m almost disappointed to find that she isn’t showing signs of discomfort, which she undoubtedly would even if she decided not to speak up. She, isn’t lying. I shift my weight on my feet, disconcerted at how she could act in such a way towards Elizabeth Vil, yet respect me all the same.

Edusa coughs, making me realize that both Roisia and Leomi are still bowing. I chuckle but don’t tell them to rise. I extend my left hand out and tap Roisia’s shoulder, telling her to rise. I do the same for Leomi, a moment later.

Did Cenwalh…” I start.

King Cenwalh.” Edusa interrupts. I twitch and glare at her. “I apologize.” She continues, bowing as low as Roisia and Leomi have. “I do not like the man, far from it, he disgusts me. But he is King and as such is very dangerous so we shouldn’t get into the habit of forgetting his title, lest we slip up in others’ presence.” She explains.

Did the King send an envoy?” I ask, trying not to sound too aggressive as the Duchess is rather polite and hasn’t demanded that I bow.

To me, yes.” Edusa sighs. “I am to bring the Izla back into the fold against the Rykz or not bother coming back. It is obviously an empty threat as he hasn’t openly announced the order, I could help you a bit because of how they spun what happened in Meiridin.” She pauses, her expression hardening. “If necessary, I’ll use my sister’s death to deflect accusations.”

What did they say?” I ask, curious and rather concerned.

Edusa throws a nervous glance at Leomi who directed a cold glare my way at the words but soon controls herself. Celyz steps in before Edusa can answer, making Roisia and Leomi reach out to their waists, where they find no weapons.

Let us begin the meeting if you are to expose the events that occurred after Elizabeth left Meiridin, we would also like to hear of it.” She formally declares.

Edusa, Roisia, and Leomi give me a look, oddly awaiting my decision. I frown behind my mask, feeling very uncomfortable about this position of leadership they’re throwing me into.

Lets.” I nod, moving to one of the odd chairs to settle my upper back against it.

Edusa takes a spot to my left while Leomi and Roisia stand behind my chair without taking one of their own. Cetyz and Fenyz turn their heads away from each other to focus on the rest of the room.

I am Hikyz.” One of the unknown Princesses tells us.

Leomi pinches her lips as she throws her a mean look. That’s the one who set the warriors to guard me, did Leomi try to get to me but was stopped? I smile a little at how the Rykz still found a way to restrict her despite not holding her prisoner. I shake my head, deciding to focus on the meeting. Even if the war is over, there are still problems to solve.

I am Qanyz.” The other one says.

We will be speaking for the Hive.” Hikyz declares.

Aren’t you in charge?” I ask Celyz.

Only of a portion of the Hive’s activities.” She shakes her ovaloid head. “Less since you brought Cetyz back.”

Alright…” I mutter with a bad feeling.

May I?” Edusa asks.

Go ahead.” Qanyz replies.

Director Suxen has been declared dead, reportedly indirectly killed by Elizabeth Vil during her assault on the institute.” Edusa starts. “The Director has been blamed for the war and breaking several Imperial laws.” The Duchess makes a frown. “Which is true but also a cover-up on King Cenwalh’s part. It’s been said that Exemplar Vikiana was sent to arrest her and bring Princess Cetyz back to the army, which resulted in the chaos that followed.”

Leomi closes her fists and closes her eyes, obviously restraining herself. I can almost feel the rage coming off of her. I prepare to block if she decides to strike, berating myself for having failed to realize that she would be affected by my encounter with her mother. Yet, when she opens her eyelids, her light gray irises are locked straight onto Cetyz who maintains the glare with a defiant posture.

The Temple is silent which confirms the lie considering they’re not corroborating, all I could find out is that the Exemplar is alive.” Edusa continues. “I believe Order has been ordered to wait and see how things develop. Elizabeth Vil has not been declared an enemy of the Empire yet despite repeated calls from Caeviel’s Nobility and some among the bourgeoisie but that did not stop Cenwalh from placing a two thousand gold bounty on her head.” Edusa reports.

King Cenwalh is saying he was going to use the Princess to end the war now?” I ask, baffled at the man’s gall.

It’s a good move.” Edusa comments calmly. “Few will believe it, but Nobility will push this story hard anyways to avoid seeming weak. The population is very divided about you, Elizabeth, but those who support you are quite loud and vehement in their opposition to the Crown. Most of Caeviel’s professional armed forces fears and despises you but don’t speak too loudly as they still hope that you will end the war.”

Is the Kingdom ready to make peace?” I ask. “Not that it matters, the Rykz will…”

It does.” Celyz interrupts me, shaking her head just slightly. I frown but listen to her silent advice. “Is King Cenwalh willing to sign a treaty banning experiments?”

I do not know.” Edusa shakes her head. “This situation is unlike any political one I’ve ever head about.” She throws a look at Leomi over her shoulder. “My Liege?”

The fact is that no one in the Kingdom wants to fight this war.” Leomi says, controlling her voice. “There isn’t anything to gain for peasantry as someone has widely spread the information that the Izla’s farmers are well fed and less taxed than they were under Nobility. Peasants would of course rather the Rykz leave, but the fact that you were relatively unknown in Caeviel works in our favor since they do not feel like the war threatens their survival. Nobility, on the other hand, has abandoned thoughts of easy glory to be obtained with more and more blame coming their way for the Princess’ abduction.” She pauses. “If I could venture an opinion, Councilwoman?”

No.” I deny her, feeling thrilled about it. “Peasantry has become too educated for Nobility to fool them, we could potentially force the King to sign the treaty by calling on them. Not to mention that the Emperor has what he needs, there isn’t much reason for Cenwalh to refuse.”

My comment about him makes Leomi raise her eyebrows but she doesn’t seem overly surprised. She always was one step ahead of me in some matters. I wonder if I should feel offended or flattered that she hasn’t uncovered my identity.

Actually, Councilwoman, there is.” Edusa intervenes. “King Cenwalh wants chaos because he feels like his days are numbered otherwise. His gamble with the institute has backfired in the worst way and he is already feeling the consequences of that. He has spent much of his time and resources consolidating his base yet it remains fragile. He needs an enemy and the Rykz are right there, in front of his army.”

Weren’t you saying he would agree to a peace?” I ask, frowning.

Only if he can claim credit for it, or some kind of victory, the treaty wouldn’t do that.” Edusa corrects. “The war buys him time to fan the flames and unite Nobility against us.”

As expected, she is for the continuation of the war, I don’t care what Margaret said, she only called for the Rykz to retreat because her people were on the front-lines.

This is giving me a headache.” I groan. “Can you do it?” I ask, directing the question at Leomi as a test.

Can I speak freely, Councilwoman?” She politely questions in return.

Hmph. Fine.” I say despite the grin that her deference brought on my lips.

I’ve already expressed my point of view to you but I will expand on it. The Rykz’ occupation of Port-Odo has been quite violent but most losses occurred during the breaching of the gates, the soldiers quickly realized that surrendering would save their lives, which means that the city is under firm control without much resistance. Settling an accord with King Cenwalh means that the city’s Ruler will be able to return and oppose the Izla, isolating us further while giving Caeviel control of the shipyard.”

Countess Grace is not likely to side with the King.” I deny. “You should be able to reach an understanding with her as long as you don’t take my side. She is very different from those of her family I’ve met. She has a firm view about justice and how impartial it should be, one you could no doubt learn from.” I finish on a small spike at my Lady.

I shall speak to her when the opportunity arises.” Lance agrees, appearing to be taken aback. “If Port-Odo is not an obstacle, then all I have left to say in favor of extending the war is that we need the time to prepare while the Rykz could use this to force King Cenwalh to sign a treaty and also pressure the Empire from here while they attack the east.” I open my mouth to speak but Leomi hurriedly continues. “It would, undoubtedly, be impossible for us to fight with the Rykz, but if they leave the Izla, we gather an army to land troops in Meiridin and take the city. That being said, we will be accused of siding with the Rykz, which could make our revolt collapse if we cannot successfully convince the population that we are merely taking advantage to topple the… Monarchy. The lie would be plain to see, but perhaps enough of a straw to grasp in hopes of a better future.”

I don’t… understand. Are you arguing for or against it?” I ask.

For.” Leomi affirms. “I believe it is the best chance we have of winning a civil war before it truly begins. The casualties would be minimal… at first.”

Continue.” I demand.

If we take Nobility down in Caeviel, the other Kingdoms might unite to attack us.” Leomi tells me. “There is also the option of staying out of the war and striking as soon as the Rykz sign a peace but I doubt they would agree to this. The problem of Mirus remains, with Sykus causing so many problems for them they are likely to decide to help Cenwalh if it looks like he’s losing.”

I can almost feel the exchanges between Qanyz, and Hikyz. Fenyz seems to be there to provide support for Cetyz, the two of them staying out of the other three’s silent conversation. Celyz is merely watching, exuding very few pheromones.

Well, this was an entertaining hypothetical.” I lightly chuckle, preparing to shut Leomi down. I took an oath to end this war, I trust Lance can find a way to prevail without attracting the entire Empire’s wrath and if she can’t, I’m still unwilling to extend this war, risking Rykz and human lives. But no, I won’t allow any more pointless deaths.

I am beyond surprised to hear Leomi’s barely suppressed sigh of relief. What, was she testing Elizabeth Vil? No, she wouldn’t play with lives, I know as much. She was serious but didn’t want to go through with it, she remains attached to her ideal of changing Nobility into a force for good.

We tentatively agree to this proposal.” Hikyz speaks up. “Recent developments have made the safety of our path of retreat come into question, we will remain if requested.”

W, what?” I stutter.

Your Emperor has paid off the Bloody Claws, a Lisilese Horde. Our Hive’s retreat may be compromised as a result because Emperor Rasaec likely has demanded that they attack or hinder us, or that they raid the Rykz borders south of Trident Hill, both would make it difficult for us to safely make it home.” Hikyz explains.

Their words are accompanied by a heavy, complex cloud of pheromones. My symbiont struggles to communicate the meaning of it, how pressured it feels as it takes in their impalpable words. I should tell it to settle down, but I’m starting to feel a pressure in my skull at this… this betrayal. I grow dizzy.

I, cannot support this plan any longer, my liege.” Edusa speaks up in a difficult tone, apparently unaware of Leomi’s relief when I refused. I cling to the sound of her voice, trying to tear myself from the Princesses attempt to talk to me through my symbiont. “There is a reason the phalanxes are so indispensable no Kingdom dares do anything to disturb their role at the borders, the amount of damage the Rykz have caused might seem small but it remains incomparable to what I know of human wars. The population might be divided but both sides will grow more and more entrenched against each other if the war continues.”

That good!” Cetyz exclaims. “Elzbth, need help Hive! We sis…”

Cetyz!” Fenyz cuts her off before Celyz can.

I turn my attention to Celyz, who remains entirely immobile, her attention entirely on me. Me and the Little one both reach out to her, trying to find guidance, reassurance.

She exudes no pheromones, says no words. I feel three more clouds of pheromones, one coming from Hikyz, one from Cetyz, and another from Fenyz which seems to completely blur what Cetyz is trying to express.

I feel a small electrical shock at the base of my skull as my symbiont and I cling to each other, fighting back against what we perceive to be an artificial attempt to convince us that there is danger despite there being none within reach of our senses.

With Celyz remaining still as a tree while her sisters’ discourse paralyzes me, I desperately turn towards Leomi who is apparently just realizing that something is wrong.

She opens her mouth and speaks but her words are drowned as Fenyz, Cetyz, Hikyz, and Qanyz’ pheromones battle it out around me. I bring my weapon back, my symbiont and I grow more and more convinced that there is an enemy in range.

It’s the only reason for this kind of urgent… pressure, there must be danger here, now! There is no other reason to exude such pressing concerns if things are not immediate. Leomi reaches out to me with an intensely worried expression. My eyes narrow.

Her. She’s the danger. I love her. Exactly. My symbiont and I suddenly bristle. Awakening to other sources of danger. All these creatures we thought we could trust, threatening our independence. I prepare to strike out at my Lady. We need to take her out first, she is the most dangerous to us.

Stop.” Celyz suddenly roars, waving her tendrils and dissipating the swirling emotions. “You’ve made your case in the worse manner possible and made a disservice to the Hive.” She adds coldly.

Celyz moves between me and the rest of the Princesses, turning her back on me and extending her tendrils out to form a barrier. I almost attack but the impulse fades as the pheromones clear out of our system. Leomi’s hands take hold of my shoulders.

Are you okay?” She asks, voice intensely concerned.

Do you need me to call for medical attention?” Edusa asks as well with a worried expression.

Roisia is hiding a construct behind her back, her gaze fixed on the Rykz. I shiver, shaking my head as I find myself unable to reply. It was supposed to be over, these were beings I was supposed to be able to trust.

Fr, esh, air.” I stutter.

Leomi nods and guides me out of the room, Roisia closing the march. I notice Celyz’ tendrils drooping down as I leave but she doesn’t say a thing. I can’t bring myself to feel bad after what just happened. She could have warned me.

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