When Lyonette woke up on the third day, she didn’t want to get out of bed. For the first time she felt uneasy about working.
It was all wrong. Everything last night was supposed to go well! Erin was supposed to kick out Maran and Safry, or make it so they wouldn’t cause trouble. That was all Lyon wanted. She just wanted the other two to do their jobs without complaining, or refusing to do something.
But instead Erin had told them Lyonette was the one who had an issue with them and just lectured them! Lyonette had felt the other two [Barmaid]’s eyes on her all night. And when they’d left…
Lyonette was relieved to find it was Ishkr and Drassi who had been selected for the morning rotation. She greeted the two with a smile.
“Hello Drassi, Ishkr!”
“Hey Lyonette! Hey cute Mrsha! What’re we doing today?”
“Hrr. Morning Lyonette. Should I fetch water today to start with?”
It was strange, but Lyonette knew what to do. It was easy to assign Drassi to wait the tables since she was naturally inclined to it, and Ishkr actually seemed to prefer the trek to get water and clean the outhouses.
In the case of the outhouses of course, the trick wasn’t so much to empty them, which was a horrible thought to contemplate, but toss down some hay and dirt, hang some scented herbs up, clean the wood if it needed it, and so on. If it got full…well, Lyonette had spoken seriously to Erin about that and the solution Erin had come up with was find some kind of spell to blast the hole deeper or vaporize the mess.
Regardless, it was a joy to work with the two because Lyonette just had to tell Drassi to wait the tables, and give Ishkr a list of things that needed doing and they did them. It left Lyon with time to play with Mrsha, help out Erin in the kitchen, and in general, relax.
But the bowl-clenching and the stiff-muscles came as soon as Lyonette checked the schedule Erin had drawn up and realized she’d be with Safry and Maran for the rest of the day. It was the weekend, so the two Human [Barmaids] would be coming in to help deal with the increased traffic soon enough.
Lyonette prayed nothing bad would happen, but she remembered the look the two had given her. She consoled herself with a bit of righteous anger. It was their fault they’d refused to get water and bought things with Erin’s coin.
Trouble started when Safry came in for her first shift, just before noon. At first things were, well, not ideal, but workable. Erin had left once again, mainly to talk seriously with Ryoka about ‘stuff’ that happened to include the words ‘bicycle’, ‘light bulb’, and ‘antibiotics’, all of which were a mystery to Lyonette.
Despite that however, Safry didn’t antagonize Lyonette. She just ignored the girl. She had a job, and Lyonette had a job. All they had to do was do it and not get in each other’s way.
Still, there was no denying that Lyonette clenched her jaw and a little spasm of intense dislike flared up in her stomach every time she met Safry’s eyes. It was an unpleasant feeling, but Lyon could live with it. For today, at least.
No, the problem came from Mrsha. Lyonette hadn’t realized it, but the young Gnoll was still a very intelligent child, for all she didn’t speak. She could read subtext, and probably smell it as well. She’d had her own brushes with Safry and Maran, mainly getting in their way, and she knew Lyonette didn’t like them.
That was probably why she started her mischief. Mrsha would leap up onto a chair or table right after Safry had finished cleaning it, or pause to get in the woman’s way while she worked. The first few times Lyonette caught her and scolded her, but to no real effect. Mrsha just did it again, until Lyonette threatened to put her upstairs in her room.
“Can’t you control her?”
Safry snapped at Lyonette after the last warning. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed, but Lyonette bit back her retort and apologized for her.
The door to Celum opened and Erin and Ryoka came through. Erin was laughing happily and holding something mossy in her hand. Lyon recoiled from it, but apparently it was a useful…moss?
“It might work. If Octavia’s done her job, it’s got potential. I didn’t know you could boost the growth of fungi with mana potions, but Erin, be careful. We don’t know how other species react to it, and there might be side effects—”
“Got it! I got it! But if I try just a bit on Brunkr—okay, I’ll be careful! Don’t glare! And we’re back on time like you said.”
Ryoka glanced around the inn, looking at first Lyonette, then Safry. She frowned.
“Anyone seen Pisces?”
“I think he’s still sleeping in the basement. Or practicing magic.”
The [Mage] often woke up late, still pouring over the spellbook Ryoka had bought or mumbling about proper craftsmanship and magic. Ryoka nodded. She went down into the basement and came up in a minute dragging Pisces. She shoved him into a seat and had a word with him.
She vanished after that. Pisces left too, grumbling about finding the rest of the Horns of Hammerad, and Erin was long gone into the city to give the mold—it wasn’t a moss—to Brunkr for some reason. That left Lyonette alone, well, not alone, but with Safry.
It went well for five minutes. Then Lyonette noticed Mrsha leaping up onto a table in the corner. She seemed intent on something, although there was nothing there. Someone had probably spilled a drink, but the Gnoll kept sniffing and then backing away.
And she happened to be right in the way of Safry as she was collecting dishes.
“Out of the way, Mrsha.”
Mrsha glanced up at Safry, but didn’t move. She circled the table and Lyonette called out to Safry, exasperated.
“Just leave her. If she stays there, she won’t bother anyone.”
Safry ignored her. She pointed down at the floor, and raised her voice, as if speaking to a dog.
A glance up, and then Mrsha deliberately turned her back on Safry. The [Barmaid] lost her patience. She pushed Mrsha off the table and onto the floor.
The Gnoll landed with a yelp. Lyonette dropped the dust rag she was holding as Drassi and Ishkr looked up. Safry glared down at Mrsha.
The Gnoll cub stared up at her. She wasn’t injured from the small fall, but she was hurt, and surprised. Lyonette lost her temper.
She advanced on Safry, hands balled into a fist. Safry whirled and snapped at her.
“If you’d control her better, I wouldn’t have to teach her proper manners!”
“She’s just a child! She can play wherever she wants. And if you push her again I will make sure you don’t push anything again.”
Lyonette was ready to do violence, and Safry was clearly ready for a fight. She advanced, but Drassi leapt forwards and Ishkr dragged Lyonette back.
“Hrr. Hold still Lyonette. It is not the place to fight, no? Hold!”
He was far stronger than she was, even with [Lesser Strength]. Lyon struggled a bit in his grasp, but then Mrsha was between her and Safry. The other [Barmaid] struggled out of Drassi’s grip, and Ishkr let Lyonette go after a moment.
“Keep her out of the way.”
“Touch her and—”
Lyonette went to Mrsha, still glaring at Safry. She told Mrsha to play upstairs for today, and the Gnoll agreed, sensing the air in the room. But that was it.
Lyonette was going to kill Safry.
She’d grab one of the seed cores Erin kept in the kitchen and shove it down the other woman’s mouth. Or she’d stab her from behind. Or—
These were the thoughts that filled Lyon’s head as she began working and people began coming in for the midday rush. Murder. Violence. They were comforting feelings, even if she couldn’t act on them.
But she would do something. Oh yes. Erin would hear about this at the very least! Lyon wasn’t working another day with Safry! Or Maran! When Erin came back she’d—
Erin did not come back, busy as she was with Brunkr and molds. But Maran came in for her shift soon after, and then trouble really started. Safry told Maran what had happened, and as far as the inn was concerned, there were now two mortal enemies sharing the same roof. Well, three, mortal enemies but two sides.
Safry went back to the table Mrsha had been on, cleaning it and muttering about Gnoll hair everywhere. She was just going over to wring the cloth in the bucket when her feet went out from under her.
She’d tripped. Something had struck her foot, and Safry landed hard on the ground. She looked back, enraged, thinking it was Lyonette—but the girl was across the room, teaching Ishkr where Erin kept her supply of emergency potions.
Suspiciously, Safry looked around. There was only an empty chair next to a table. Angry, having no one but herself to blame and angrier still that that was the case Safry stood up and got back to work. She ended up tripping three more times throughout the day, each time when she passed by that table.
[Acolyte Level 8!]
[Skill – Mass Prayer obtained!]
Pawn woke up with the memory of those words ringing in his mind. He smiled as he sat up in the darkness. In his four hands he still held the thurible, missing an ember and proper incense, but perfectly workable.
He was leveling. He was on the right path. And his Soldiers would not die.
He was also in the wrong place. Pawn had thought he was in his dirt cubicle, but instead he was in a dark room, and there was a blanket covering him! He looked around, and realized he was in a corner of the Wandering Inn’s basement.
He’d fallen asleep here, and slept the night away! Dread filled Pawn and he scrambled up the stairs.
Lyonette greeted him with a strained smile, but Pawn was in too much of a hurry to notice.
“I am sorry to intrude. Is Erin here? I wish to thank her.”
“No, I think she’s out.”
“Ah. In that case I must go. I must report in to my Hive!”
He fled, hurrying down towards Liscor. Even if Klbkch did not order him into combat duty, he still had to attend a debriefing meeting with Klbkch about his Soldiers’ performance.
But he wouldn’t be ordered into combat, right? Erin had said. She’d promised. His Soldiers would be safe. They wouldn’t die.
Part of Pawn’s dream of last night nagged at him. He’d been holding a dead Antinium, one without paint. He banished the memory. That was just a dream. He would be—
The Hive was busy as ever. Pawn navigated the streams of Workers and Soldiers, looking for Klbkch.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Have you seen him? Where is he?”
Workers pointed him onwards, towards one of the areas closest to the dungeon. Apprehensively, Pawn hurried down that way, pausing to let Soldiers rush by, alert for monsters. But he found Klbkch a good ways away from the actual front.
Because Klbkch was wounded.
Pawn halted as he suddenly came to the Revalantor. Klbkch was surrounded by a wall of twenty Soldiers, all injured, some missing limbs. Klbkch was leaning against a wall, bleeding profusely from his side.
Something had torn it open. The Antinium dropped one of his silvery swords and was fumbling with a healing potion. Pawn rushed over as Klbkch got the stopper out.
The other Antinium had noticed Pawn’s arrival. He parted his mandibles weakly as Pawn stared at the green fluid rushing down his side. He had a deep cut down one shoulder as well, a blow that had split his chitin, and more, smaller cuts down his legs.
Klbkch poured the healing potion over himself, carefully sprinkling it without wasting the precious liquid. The wounds closed quickly. Klbkch staggered, and then looked at Pawn. He stoppered the nearly-empty potion bottle with one hand and put it in his belt pouch.
“Pawn. I was wondering as to your location. You spent the night outside of the Hive.”
Pawn was still staring at Klbkch, at where the wounds had been. They’d closed just like that. In an instant. Of course, that was how healing potions worked, but now you couldn’t tell Klbkch had been injured. You’d never be able to tell, come to that. So long as he didn’t die, he could have been fighting a moment ago and you’d never notice…
“Yes, I—I fell asleep in the inn. My deepest apologies. I had not rested since my assignment and—”
“It is fine.”
Klbkch cut him off shortly. The Antinium hauled himself up and snapped at the Soldiers.
“Return to battle.”
They immediately dispersed, running back down the corridor. Pawn could hear a monster screaming in the distance. That left Klbkch and Pawn alone. The Revalantor nodded at Pawn.
“I was visited by Erin Solstice yesterday. She had words for me regarding your deployment.”
Suddenly Pawn’s jubilation was gone. He felt ashamed. But Klbkch shook his head.
“Her concerns had merit. I agreed with her proposal. Your unit displayed extreme efficacy in battle, despite the dangers. Your losses…depleted a valuable resource to the Hive. In light of that, and remarks made by Xrn—”
His mandibles lowered in an Antinium grimace.
“Your unit may resume patrolling above. There is no need to report for combat duty in the Hive in the foreseeable future. We will handle matters below now that Xrn has agreed to lend her abilities when needed.”
Pawn nodded numbly.
Klbkch nodded as well. He straightened and picked up the other sword he’d dropped.
“Continue training your Soldiers, Pawn. Do not worry about Belgrade or Anand. They will recover. In the meantime, I will coordinate my efforts with my Queen and Xrn to maintain the defense of the Hive.”
He turned away. Pawn watched him stride back towards the sound of battle. He wanted to say something, anything. But he couldn’t.
Suddenly, Pawn realized a hole had opened back up under his feet. He’d been thinking for so long about what had happened. He’d led his Soldiers in a battle, something he thought Klbkch wouldn’t do, couldn’t understand.
But of course the Revalantor fought. He had put himself on the line. And the Workers and Soldiers—were still fighting. Why would that stop? It was just Pawn’s unit that had been granted a reprieve, safety. Suddenly, Pawn felt as useless as before. No. Worse.
What was he doing?
What had he done?
Trouble had two names. Maran, and Safry. Trouble also had a Human’s face, and was multiplied about two dozen times.
Suddenly, a huge amount of Humans had come through Octavia’s door into the inn. It had happened around one, and although it had surprised Lyonette, it hadn’t come as a shock to Maran or Safry. Now these Humans laughed and ate and did all the things guests were supposed to do…but they were Human.
And Lyon had the feeling that was just the way Safry and Maran liked it.
“I had a word with some of my friends and regular customers. I told them they should eat here. It’ll balance out the inn.”
“You mean add more Humans.”
Lyonette glared as she confronted Maran over the issue. The [Barmaid] laughed.
“So what? They’re customers. Erin will be happy. Anyways, they’re guests, and probably hungry. You can take their orders. I’m going on lunch and so is Safry.”
Ishkr and Drassi had already gone on their break, but suddenly Maran was finding a seat and Safry was bringing over some of Erin’s magically fresh food, heated up and piping hot. Lyonette protested.
“You can’t do that!”
“We get a break. That’s the Innkeeper’s Guild’s policy and Erin agreed. We’re having lunch now. We’ll be done in thirty minutes. You can handle things until then.”
Suddenly, there were over twenty hungry people all demanding drinks and food at the same time. It was like the bad old days, but worse, because there were two [Barmaids] having a grand time watching Lyonette hurry around.
“I’m going to kill them. I’m going to feed Safry to a Rock Crab and let Maran walk into an Ashfire Bee hive…”
Lyonette was cursing under her breath, struggling to open another keg when someone held it steady for her.
“Don’t bother with monsters. Let’s just push them down the outhouse hole and put the lid down.”
Drassi grinned toothily at Lyonette as the girl stared at her. She offered a mug as Lyonette finally got a dark, amber-colored liquid to come forth and the girl hurriedly filled it.
“Thanks. I know you’re on your break.”
“Don’t mind a thing. I had to help out once I saw those fleshbags lazing about. Not you, them, I mean. I don’t know why Erin hired them.”
Lyonette made a face. She hurried over to the table and spoke as she grabbed the other two mugs Drassi was quickly filling.
“I think they thought they’d be working a lot less over here. And they’re not used to Drakes or Gnolls. I wasn’t—I learned, but it took time.”
“Think they’ll quit?”
“I’m going to talk to Erin. They’d better quit, or I’ll kill them myself after Safry bullying Mrsha.”
Lyonette’s face was a thunderhead. Drassi nodded in complete agreement, and then flicked her tail to the two [Barmaids].
“I might quit. Because if I have to listen to them ask me which Drake is which when one’s an old guy and the other one’s barely hatched—”
“Don’t do that! Erin will sort things out.”
“I hope so.”
“Hrr. She had better. Or I might take up your offer with the outhouse as well.”
Someone else came to join them. Ishkr had some food ready for the Humans. He nodded awkwardly at Lyon, not as comfortable as Drassi at socializing.
“I am not cleaning myself each time I get wet walking through snow. I do not smell. Ihave a good sense of smell, and it is not problematic.”
“You smell wonderful.”
Lyonette smiled at him and got a wide grin in response. She felt better after that moment, and once the Humans were fed and given something to drink, she had a chance to have a short break herself.
The knowledge that Drassi and Ishkr felt like she did was a relief. It meant Lyonette wasn’t prejudiced, that she was right, and that Maran and Safry had better watch themselves around the outhouses from now on. But it didn’t solve the problem.
More guests arrived from Liscor. Erin’s inn was developing a reputation as a hangout for adventurers, and also as the only place you could get good, cheap honey, aside from buying it from a certain Gnoll. Lyonette hadn’t gone on a run to the Ashfire Bee hive in a while, and she worried she might run out.
But there were bigger problems to deal with at the moment. Drakes and Gnolls had come into the inn, some to play chess, others to enjoy an inn not completely full to the rafters, as many inns were in Liscor at the moment. Some wanted to go through to Celum. In any event, the inn was bustling before the sun had yet to fall far in the sky.
By now there was an invisible line across the inn. Maran and Safry circulated the tables where the Humans sat, chatting, laughing with them, while Lyonette, Ishkr and Drassi tried to cover all tables equally. But because the two Human [Barmaids] were focused only on half of the room, the non-Human staff and Lyonette had to focus more on their side. And the guests noticed.
They weren’t idiots. And they had eyes. More than a few Drakes glared and some of the Gnolls sniffed and muttered quietly under their breaths, words only they and the other Gnolls could hear, which made Ishkr bare his teeth.
Erin came back at the best and worst time possible. The best time because things were really heating up and every hand was needed. Safry and Maran’s pull for humanity had resulted in more people coming through via the group effect—if everyone was here, something good had to be happening—and that was on top of a weekend crowd!
It was also bad because Lyonette didn’t have a chance to pull her aside and talk about Safry and Maran. Oh, but it was going to happen soon! At any moment! As soon as she got more water, filled a few drinks, served five plates of piping hot pepper Corusdeer steaks—
“Drassi, you serve drinks, Ishkr, can you see if we have more of the Fireshot kegs in the basement? Safry, I need you to serve the Drakes. Just memorize where they’re sitting and—”
Lyonette was ordering everyone around, backed up by the knowledge that Erin was watching. However, Safry balked when she realized Lyonette hadn’t given herself a task at this busiest point.
“What are you going to do? I’ve got my hands full!”
Lyonette pointed to the stairs where she’d seen a furry white Gnoll head giving her imploring looks.
“I’ve got to feed Mrsha. She’s hungry and she needs a snack.”
“Her? Let her wait! Half of the room has an order.”
That was a good suggestion, a decent one. And because it came from Safry, Lyonette refused to consider it.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“You can’t just—”
“Hey, what’s the problem?”
For the first time, their argument had attracted Erin’s attention. Or it would be more accurate to say, this was the first time she’d been in the inn while a disagreement took place. And it was hard for Erin to miss the two [Barmaids] scowling at each other as the room heaved with work to be done.
Lyon opened her mouth to explain, but Safry beat her to it.
“Erin, Lyonette told me she’s going upstairs to take a break!”
Erin’s mouth opened. Lyon was faster.
“To feed Mrsha!”
“Oh, well then—”
“She can do that later, surely. And she’s been giving us orders all day!”
“I’ve been trying to work with Safry and Maran, but they—”
“We haven’t been the ones letting that Gnoll run around—”
Safry was jabbing a finger at Lyon and Lyonette was trying to speak to Erin and butt Safry out of the conversation. Erin looked helplessly between the two and then raised her voice.
The entire inn went silent. It felt as though someone had clapped a huge hand over Lyon’s mouth, knocking all the words she’d wanted to say back in. Erin looked around.
“Oops. Sorry everyone. I uh, may have used a Skill. [Crowd Control]. You know. Sorry about that.”
And then in the silence she turned back to Lyonette and Safry. And folded her arms. Lyonette gulped, because Erin was looking unusually peeved.
“Okay, what’s this about? Why is Lyonette giving orders so bad? Safry first.”
Was there a flash of triumph in Safry’s eyes? Did her speaking first mean she’d get more of say? Fear ruled hot anger and determination to be proven right in Lyonette’s bowels.
“Lyonette’s a lower level than we are. But she acts as if she’s in charge while you’re gone.”
“We’re higher level! Both Maran and I are twice Lyonette’s level—”
“Okay, I get it. And Lyonette?”
Erin turned to Lyonette, cutting Safry off. Lyonette suddenly felt afraid. She couldn’t just list off all the things Safry and Maran had done, not with everyone watching! But it was now or never. She took a deep breath, and steeled herself.
“Maran and Safry don’t listen to my orders. They prefer serving Humans, and take more breaks than they should. I don’t think I should be in charge—”
Something in Lyonette squeezed tightly on that last word. That wasn’t what she should say. No, that was what part of her wanted to say, but another part, a part of her that was royalty, rebelled.
“—Actually, I do think I should be in charge. I know what’s best, and I think Maran and Safry need to listen to what I say.”
Both Safry and Erin stared at Lyon, surprised by her statement. Lyon was surprised too, and worried, but another part of her knew she had spoken her mind, and spoken the truth as she saw it.
In the silence, all eyes fell on Erin. She seemed used to that, and took only a minute before nodding to herself.
“Okay, I’m resolving this. Safry, Maran, Ishkr, Drassi, and Lyonette, everyone listen up.”
All the staff looked at Erin, worry reflected in some measure across every face. Erin met their eyes and then turned.
“Lyonette? Uh…she’s in charge.”
Relief followed vindication followed vindictive joy in seconds. But Lyonette didn’t have time to smile before Maran burst out across the room.
“But we’re higher level. That’s not right!”
Erin turned towards Maran, and Lyon saw she was frowning.
“Higher level? So what? That might be how you people do things, but not where I come from. Lyonette ran this inn while I was away. She’s got more experience.”
“But she—she hasn’t worked half as long as a [Barmaid] as we have!”
Safry burst out, but Erin was unmoved. She pointed at the floor.
“Yeah, but Lyonette’s been working here longer. She knows what’s important, and I trust her. So…you and Maran listen to her now, okay? Problem solved!”
Erin smiled and clapped her hands together. No one else moved. Safry and Maran exchanged looks, and then Safry sighed.
“Okay. I quit.”
Erin and Lyon stared at her, wide-eyed. Safry threw up her hands.
“I’m not dealing with Lyonette! She’s impossible and I—I deserve better treatment than this! I’ve worked at Agnes’ inn for over eight years, and I know my job better than some arrogant girl who thinks she can push me and Maran around.”
“That’s right. If Safry quits, I quit too!”
Maran spoke up. Lyonette felt the purest element of rage settle into her soul. She felt she could harness that fury into some kind of incredibly destructive spell, it was that fierce. She was the problem? She was pushing them around?
But what was worse than the two [Barmaid]’s stupid dramatic exit and accusations was that it worked on Erin. She looked worried and chased after Safry as the other woman walked towards the door, but not too fast that Erin couldn’t block her way.
“Hold on Safry, let’s talk about this.”
“Either Lyonette stops or—”
“Okay, okay, let’s talk about this. Why don’t you take a break and—”
“Go ahead and leave. It’s for the best.”
Someone spoke up across the room. Heads turned as Ryoka appeared at a table, as if by magic. The watching guests murmured as she stood up and strode over to where everyone else was standing. As far as the inn’s patrons were concerned, the current tableau had turned into a better piece of live theatre than an actual play.
“Ryoka? Where did you come from? I’ve been looking for you all over!”
Ryoka pointed at an empty chair and a table that had somehow remained empty despite the full room.
“I asked Pisces to put his [Invisibility] spell over me. I’ve been hanging around here all day.”
Ryoka rubbed at her backside.
“It was a pain in the ass, and I kept having to deal with assholes trying to sit on me, but I saw what I needed to. Lyonette’s not the problem, Erin. Those two are.”
She jerked a thumb at Safry and Maran. The two [Barmaids] looked suddenly apprehensive.
Ryoka rode right over them. She seemed to be enjoying the moment, in the way only the detective unveiling the mystery at the end of a case, or a judge handing down a sentence could be.
“I watched everything, Erin. Safry and Maran brought in humans so they wouldn’t have to serve Drakes and Gnolls as often, they can’t tell non-Humans apart, neither of them will go get water, and they take breaks when things aren’t busy. Oh, and they’ve been grade-A assholes towards Lyonette all day.”
Lyonette’s jaw dropped. She hadn’t expected this! But it was a relief to hear Ryoka say all of that. More than a relief.
Erin stared at Ryoka. Her eyes slid sideways to Safry and Maran, who were both looking uneasy. Erin thought, and then looked at Ryoka.
“Okay, they’re in the wrong. But—”
“Safry pushed Mrsha.”
It was just a little detail, slipped in. Erin was still formulating her next word when it hit her ears and reached her brain. She stopped.
Safry backed up as Ryoka turned to her. Ryoka was grinning, but it wasn’t really a grin, more like a rictus of bad feeling.
“Right, it was just a little push. And you were angry. Well, I’m just a little angry. So how about that?”
Ryoka cracked her knuckles, and Safry backed up fast. The Runner eyed her and Maran and nodded to the door.
“If you leave now, I won’t get a chance to break something. Go ahead and stay, I dare you. We’re in Liscor, and I bet Zel wouldn’t bat an eye if I broke your nose for bullying Mrsha.”
Erin grabbed Ryoka’s shirt and pulled the girl back. Ryoka nearly fell backwards as Erin dragged her away. Erin got between Ryoka and looked at Safry and Maran.
“No one’s beating up anyone. But I’ve heard enough. Safry, Maran, I don’t like to say it, but I believe Ryoka and Lyonette. So you’re both fired. Get out of my inn.”
The two [Barmaids] looked horrified. Lyonette suspected neither had been serious when quitting before, and now they protested loudly.
“You can’t just fire us!”
“I did. Just now.”
Erin crossed her arms, looking uneasy, but also deeply upset. Safry glared at her, turning her ire over the entire situation into unrighteous fury.
“You can’t take away our jobs!”
“You just quit.”
“What are we supposed to do without jobs? Agnes won’t have us back! You owe us pay if you’re going to fire us. The Guild says—”
“I’m not paying you for today. Lyonette says you were miserable, and you pushed Mrsha so just—just go away! I paid you yesterday, so be happy you got that!”
Erin was clearly unhappy, but she stood her ground as the two protested. Ryoka kept trying to edge around her, and Erin was busy pushing her back. Maybe that was why Safry and Maran took a stand.
“We refuse to leave! This isn’t fair! You promised us paying jobs, and now you’re taking them from us! You told us we’d be working in an inn, not hauling water and avoiding monsters, or dealing with [Necromancers], or Ants—”
None of it was true. Some of it was true. It didn’t matter. Because while Ryoka had lost her temper, Lyonette had blown her lid, and Safry and Maran had been furious, it was when Erin got angry that things got scary.
Mrsha was tangled around Erin, Ryoka was fighting to get towards one of the [Barmaids]. They were shrieking at her, and Lyonette saw the world start to shimmer around Erin.
Something changed. The air became hot, and turmoil leaked into the room, grabbing at the hearts of those within. The floor shook as the inn rumbled, and the oppressive menace seeped upwards, grabbing, clutching—
Erin Solstice was a thing that stood in the dark hallways of fury, watching, waiting, arms folded. Mrsha was a beast of claws and teeth that reached out to engulf and consume.
It was an illusion, but it still frightened Lyonette. And she wasn’t the target. The [Inn’s Aura] Skill sent Safry and Maran running screaming towards the door. They vanished into Octavia’s shop with a crash of broken glass and the [Alchemist] shouting and the air of menace faded.
And then it was over. The room cleared, and Erin turned around, looking embarrassed. She found half of her patronage on the floor, the other half frozen with hands on swords. Her cheeks went red, and then she looked at Lyon.
“Why did all that happen, Lyon? I thought you said things were good.”
Lyon had no reply. Now that the two were gone, shame and regret was the menu of the day. She choked on a reply.
“It wasn’t her fault, Miss Erin.”
Drassi peeked out from under a table and crawled out. She looked at Lyon.
“Lyon was doing her job, but the other two were…well, they thought they could do less. They just didn’t work as hard as she did, and it was obvious they weren’t at home with our kind.”
“Or ours. One Gnoll is fine, but six is too many, no?”
Ishkr came over, hair slowly settling back down all over his body. Mrsha still looked poofed up to twice her size. Erin sighed, looking helplessly at the floor.
“But they were so nice. I worked with Maran and Safry and I never had a problem once!”
“I guess they were a bit like Agnes. Good, but not great. Nice, but not adaptable. Flawed.”
Ryoka shrugged when Erin glared at her. Erin sighed and muttered as she kicked at the ground.
“Why are things so hard? When Toren was here I never had to worry about him working. Now I hire friends and it turns out they were bad all along.”
When Toren was here. Lyon heard a ringing sound. She didn’t realize she was striding up to Erin before she was shouting in her face.
“Toren? He was horrible!”
Erin blinked, caught off-guard by the sudden anger. The crowd ducked back down as the shouting entered overtime.
“Toren was a nightmare! He was the worst!”
“He wasn’t that bad—he was good before he abandoned me and went crazy.”
Lyonette screamed the word in Erin’s face, shouting for the first time in…it was all the pent up emotions, all the things she’d wanted to say spilling out at the wrong time in the wrong place.
“He wasn’t ever good! He was always a monster! He’d push me into Shield Spider nests, make me run for miles without rest, hit me, abandon me in the middle of nowhere for hours…he was your skeleton, but you never controlled him! At all!”
Erin was staring at Lyonette, and slowly the girl realized she was screaming at her employer. She went white, but kept speaking. The words had to be said.
“You never noticed. You never believed me. That was my fault. But you don’t listen to me, or trust me. Even now.”
She looked into Erin’s eyes. The girl stared back shocked, hurt, and guilty. It was everything Lyonette had wanted to say. Everything. Now it was over. Lyonette turned, and ran out of the inn.
Pawn walked through the corridors of his Hive in a daze. He felt confused, despairing, lost.
He’d made a huge mistake. The biggest. No one was better off now that he and his Soldiers weren’t on the front lines. The Antinium were still dying. His people were still dying.
The only difference was that Pawn was safe from it all. Safe, to play with faith and lead his Soldiers around as if nothing was happening.
Pawn stormed into the empty barracks where he slept. He hurled the thurible into his cubicle and hit the Antinium sleeping there. A Worker jerked awake. He was sleeping in Pawn’s spot.
Of course. A second shift. Pawn hurried over.
“I am so sorry. Accept my deepest apologies, please—”
The Worker got up and bent to help Pawn pick up the thurible which was still somehow intact. He bowed to Pawn as Pawn tried to apologize and said one word.
It was a word that crushed Pawn. The Worker was acknowledging his status. He, Pawn, was an Individual, someone of unique value to the Hive. A Worker’s life was dust compared to that. Pawn could have hurled the thurible into the Worker’s face, told him to leave the cubicle so Pawn could sleep, and the Worker would have done just that.
Because he didn’t matter. He might be sent to combat duty right after this, but Pawn was safe. Because he was special. Because Erin had talked to Klbkch. So his Soldiers would be safe. But the other Soldiers without paint would die.
Nothing was better. Pawn stumbled away, clutching the thurible.
He was useless. Worse than useless.
He was a coward.
Ryoka found Lyonette sitting on a patch of cleared grass, about five minutes away from the inn. The Runner noticed that despite Lyonette being hunched over in a ball of misery in the snow, she’d still put two of the dried seed cores in the snow by her side.
She also looked up when she saw Ryoka approach, and then quickly looked away. It was all sensible, even in her grief. That was what Lyonette was, in a way. More sensible, more adult.
But still young.
And now she had no job. Lyonette didn’t raise her head when the crunching stopped and she sensed Ryoka standing next to her. She waited for the Runner to speak, but when Ryoka didn’t, Lyonette spoke up so the silence wouldn’t consume her.
“How did you know?”
“Mrsha and Ishkr showed me the way you’d gone. Gnoll noses are handy.”
Lyonette looked up. Her eyes were blurry and her nose was running horribly, so it was hard to see.
“She’s back at the inn. Moore’s levitating her so she can’t run off.”
Slowly, Ryoka sat down next to Lyonette. She patted herself down for tissues, cursing over leaving her belt pouch in the inn. Lyonette just wiped her face on her sleeve, which was disgusting, but effective.
“I’m gone, aren’t I? Erin’s going to fire me.”
“No she’s not. She’d never do that.”
“If she did, I’d have to kick her ass, or try, and Mrsha would bite her all over. You were right to shout at her back there. Okay, maybe you screamed a bit, but I think you deserved the chance.”
“I didn’t mean all of it. It’s just—”
Lyonette wiped at her eyes. Her tears were hot, but they froze so quickly in the cold. Ryoka silently pulled off her coat. She had a second one on, and Lyonette had run out in the cold. She winced when Lyonette buried her face in the soft fabric rather than put it on.
“Sounds like you really had it rough with Toren. I’m sorry. I didn’t know either, and I was there for part of it.”
“I thought—I thought he’d kill me if I told, sometimes. Other times I didn’t care, but no one listened. Because I always complained. When he was gone…at first I was the happiest I could ever be, until I realized Erin was gone too. And then you left…”
Guilt passed over Ryoka’s face like a shadow.
Lyonette raised her face wretchedly. Her tears were drying up.
“I think I was happiest when Erin was gone. Really. I was. It sounds crazy, but after I started working—when I had to do everything myself, I started being happy. Because I was doing it all! I was actually keeping the inn running, and feeding Mrsha, and getting guests—I did it. All by myself.”
Ryoka sat with Lyon in the snow as the other girl shivered and cried a bit.
“I did it. I got honey, I helped Pawn. I did it all. Then Erin came back and she did so much I couldn’t dream of! She had a magic door, magic food, she knows all these recipes, and she can cook…”
“But she wasn’t the one who got all the Gold-rank adventurers and Zel Shivertail to stay at your inn, right? She didn’t keep Mrsha happy. Neither did I.”
“I know it’s silly, but I just thought she’d trust me after that!”
Lyonette sobbed into her coat. Ryoka paused.
“She should have. But Erin…I don’t think it was about trust. She just did what she thought was best and, well, it backfired for once. Only it looks like you had to deal with it.”
“It’s not her fault!”
“It really is.”
Ryoka sat next to Lyonette as the girl gulped down air.
“I just don’t know why I feel so unhappy sometimes!”
She confessed to Ryoka, shivering as the wind blew.
“I want to do more, make more decisions even though it’s Erin’s inn. But I know it’s hers. I was just managing it. I know that, but I still want…to be an [Innkeeper] too. Or be something else. I know it’s bad.”
“It’s not bad.”
Ryoka’s voice was soft as she poked at some ice-crusted snow. She glanced at Lyonette. The girl was wiping at her face again.
“I don’t know why I feel this way. I should be happy. Mrsha’s here, I have a good life, I get paid, no one’s after me or angry with me…”
“Yeah, well, I think it’s because you’re a terrible [Barmaid].”
Ryoka sensed the other girl looking up. She coughed delicately.
“What I mean by that is that you’re not meant to be serving people drinks. You’re good at your job—too good, in fact. A decent [Barmaid] is someone like Safry, who works hard but not too hard. She’s a lazy, prejudiced, arrogant bitch at times too, but she does her job and that’s it. If she were a great barmaid, she wouldn’t have all those qualities. But you—you’re different.”
She looked over at Lyonette and saw the girl staring at her, red-eyed, shivering. It wasn’t a glamorous face, but the owner of it had the courage to walk into a nest full of bees big enough to put a stinger right through her skull. Looks were deceiving.
“Erin’s perfect as an [Innkeeper] because it seems like she can make her inn do whatever she wants. But you have too many ideas to just serve drinks for her. You’re too capable. You should be an [Innkeeper] yourself, at the very least. But then, you’re not meant for that either, are you? You are a [Princess].”
An indrawn breath. Ryoka nodded.
“Thought so. Let’s keep that a secret between us, huh?”
“It’s not exactly hard to guess, at least, back when you were screaming about how important you were. Look, it doesn’t matter to me, although I’d keep it a secret. But I think it means you can do more than just serve drinks, that’s all. You were managing those other two pretty well when Safry and Maran weren’t getting in the way.”
She nodded back in the direction of the inn. Lyonette didn’t know what to say.
“But I’m a failure. I never reached more than Level 5 in my [Princess] class.”
“Really? Level 5? That’s interesting. Maybe the you back then didn’t have a chance or you were…spoiled rotten and bratty. But now, I think if you put your mind to it, things might change.”
Ryoka grinned. Lyonette stared at her, parts of her chest lighting up from within.
“You think so?”
“It’s worth a shot. Being a [Princess] isn’t just about where you are or what you’re wearing. It’s what you do. And I think the most princess-like thing you did was stand up for Mrsha back then. Which reminds me, you know magic, don’t you?”
“Yes. I was tutored a bit, but I never learned much. Just a few spells like [Light]. Hardly anything.”
“[Light]’s the most basic and useful thing in the world. Don’t knock it. For instance, light can do this.”
Ryoka raised a finger, and in the desolate landscape, light flashed. Lyonette cried out and shielded her eyes. When she could see, Ryoka looked abashed.
“Sorry. But now you’ve seen it, you can copy it. I call it [Flashbang]. Well, that’s only half of it. You also make a sound like this—”
This time Lyonette clapped a hand to her ears, but the bang was still deafening. Ryoka nodded at her as she took trembling hands away from her ears.
“You could probably learn that in a bit.”
“But how—I never knew a spell like that existed!”
“There’s probably some version of it out in the world. Pisces might know it. But I invented that myself. It’s just a bit of protection magic. If you’re gifted enough, you should try learning that and a few more spells. Typhenous or Ceria might teach you. And pick up a sword while you’re at it.”
“You think I should do all that?”
Learn to use a sword. Learn to use magic. More classes. The idea burned in Lyonette like a flame built of tinder, burning hot but quick to be extinguished. But Ryoka nodded as if that were natural.
“A princess should know how to do all kinds of things. I know it’s not good to have too many classes, but…well, it’s just a hunch. If a princess really knows her people, then she should know what they do, at least a bit.”
She smiled at Lyon, and the girl smiled back.
“No one in my family would ever think that way.”
“Yeah? What level are they?”
Lyonette was speechless. Ryoka sighed, and stood up.
“That was probably rude of me. Sorry. But you look like you’re feeling better.”
That was true. Lyonette felt better. She was still unhappy, but that was because all that had just passed, not because of the future. Ryoka smiled at her, awkwardly. She was a bit like Ishkr. If she worked at the inn, Ryoka would probably let her gather Ashfire Bee honey and go shopping by herself.
“I’ve got to go. I’m taking Mrsha to visit Garia’s family tonight and staying over for a day or two. Don’t worry; I think it’ll be fine when you return. Erin’s falling over herself trying to find ways to apologize, and those other two seem to think you’re worth listening to.”
“I’ll go back and apologize—”
Lyon stood up, but Ryoka held up a hand.
“If I were you, I’d keep Erin sweating just a bit longer. She needs to think more about other people sometimes.”
She winked as Lyonette stared up at her and jogged off. Lyonette watched her go, and wondered if Ryoka had been like her once. Or maybe she just understood what Lyon was going through.
It was a [Barmaid] that left the inn, sobbing, guilty. But it was a [Princess] that trudged back. A princess wearing a coat with snot and tears all over it, and a [Princess] whose eyes were red and whose nose still ran, but a [Princess] nevertheless. She couldn’t forget that.
She was a [Princess].
With levels in the [Barmaid] class.
Pawn waited until his shift and slept. He didn’t know what he’d done in the meantime. He just…existed until the point where he could consign himself to oblivion for a little while. Then he woke.
He felt like a zombie, lifeless, shambling along. The exhilaration that had filled him yesterday was gone.
How could he have been so blind? His people died no matter what he did. How could he be so happy over a useless Skill, two level ups?
[Mass Prayer]. What good was that? What good was praying, together or alone? It did nothing. Pawn turned, and punched the dirt wall of his sleeping area.
He would have slept there, letting other Workers file in and out if someone hadn’t approached his hiding place. Pawn looked up when the light filled the dark room.
“Pawn. I have been looking for you.”
Xrn, the Small Queen, bent over Pawn as he clutched the thurible to his chest. He stared up at her, radiant, her eyes shining with magic.
“I cannot do that, Pawn. I am told you have not visited your Soldiers in days. They are waiting for you. They are restless. They need you to lead them.”
“I deserve to lead no one. All I did was get them killed. Protecting me.”
“Fighting. They fought for the Hive.”
“At my command. They did it for me. It was my fault.”
A pause. Xrn bent down next to Pawn, scrutinizing him curiously.
“But they are Soldiers. They are made to fight. What else would they do?”
Pawn whispered the word.
“I don’t want them to die. I want them to live.”
“Some may live if you command them. If not, what do you think will happen? Refuse, and they will be put on the front lines. Forced to fight. Without you.”
The knowledge was bitter, undeniable. Pawn didn’t respond. He heard Xrn sigh.
“What if one of the other Individuals led them? Your friend Belgrade, or Anand.”
“They’re [Tacticians]. They can do it. They know how to lead.”
“Go away. I am sulking.”
“I will not go. I am going to convince you to get up, Pawn. You see, I am no [Leader] either, Pawn. I am a [Thaumaturge], a class derived from [Mage]. I did not choose to lead either.”
Pawn shook his head, denying Xrn to her face.
“That is a false argument. You were created for the role. You are one of the Centenium, a Prognugator. You are a leader. I am not like you. I cannot do what you do. I cannot…lead an army. I cannot lead a single Worker.”
“But you are a [Tactician] as well, are you not? Like Belgrade and Anand. If they lead, why will you not?”
“Because a [Tactician] orders Soldiers to fight and die! I cannot do that. I can only stand and let the Soldiers fight themselves. But I cannot—I am not like Belgrade or Anand. I do not see the link between the chess board and reality! I have no talent for it, do you understand?”
Pawn cried out. He uncurled from his ball and stood up, shaking.
“What kind of a [General] sits and hides behind his Soldiers and does nothing. What kind of leader would do that?”
Xrn stared at him. Pawn was breathing heavily, his mandibles closing and parting.
“I cannot fight. If I did—my Soldiers would die protecting me. I have no talent for it. I cannot lead. I cannot order them to battle. I have no talent for that either. I can only ask them to die for me. I can do nothing else. What can I give them?”
Something in Pawn whispered. Faith. Hope. Identity. He forced the feeling down. It wasn’t enough. It was enough to live for, but not enough to ask them to die for. Xrn shook her head. She did not know either. The part of Pawn that had hoped she would curled up in despair again.
“I have no answer. But you cannot hide from your duty forever.”
“Why? What is my duty? Is it to my Queen? My Hive?”
“Partly. But you have a greater duty still, Pawn of the Free Antinium. The duty all Antinium share.”
“What is that?”
“The duty of the Antinium, Pawn, is to survive. We go to war, we struggle, and we die, all for the same purpose. That some may live. That one may live. All this time, across thousands of miles and an ocean, we have come for one reason. To survive.”
It was the same phrase, the same idea, wrapped up differently. Pawn turned away, bitter.
“At what cost?”
“Anything less than the whole of our species is acceptable.”
“Not to me. Go away.”
He turned back to his cubicle. He felt Xrn’s eyes watching him. Eventually she left. And once again, Pawn went to find Erin.
He didn’t find her. Erin was in the city, screaming at and being screamed at by a Miss Agnes and other people named Safry and Maran, according to the Drake who greeted him at the door. He sat miserably in the inn, not touching his food until Zel found him.
“You look like chewed up Creler bait. Pawn, right?”
He didn’t know why, but the Drake [General] sat with him, waiting for Pawn to speak. Pawn wanted to and feared to at the same time. He looked sideways at Zel.
“I thought you did not like Antinium.”
The Drake coughed a few times.
“True. But Erin and Lyonette happened to mention you led some soldiers into battle for the first time a few days ago. I’ve been there. I thought I might…listen. That’s all.”
Pawn stared at him, at Zel Shivertail a [General], a Drake hero. The words tumbled out too fast for him to stop.
“I let them die. They were defending me and—”
Zel made Pawn stop and repeat the story from the start. The Drake shook his head.
“Sounds like every story I’ve heard. You went in, you fought. And some of your soldiers died. There’s not a commander on the continent that hasn’t felt like you have.”
Pawn sat up a bit. Zel nodded seriously.
“The key is knowing that they fought for a reason. If it was a bad reason, well, that’s a problem. But they fought because they believed in you, Pawn. Honor that, and keep leading them, or what was the point?”
“That’s not the problem. It is that I cannot lead them.”
“I keep telling everyone, I am no leader. I cannot order them in battle. But if I do not—”
Zel was nodding. The Drake seemed to understand Pawn’s dilemma more than most.
“And if you don’t, who will? If you don’t, folks still die. Blood’s on your claws either way.”
“Is there a good answer for this, Zel Shivertail?”
Zel paused, and the Antinium knew the answer already. Then the Drake spoke.
“You know, hearing what you’re going through reminds me of what I used to hear from Sserys all the time.”
“Who is that?”
“Oh, no one special. You wouldn’t remember. Anyways…”
The Drake trailed off and then shook his head briskly. He looked at Pawn.
“He told me to keep looking around, at my officers, at my soldiers. In each battle, in war, in peace, look for someone who can inspire others. Someone with talent, courage, a spark. And then to nurture that spark until that individual can surpass me. Only then would I step aside.”
“If no one else can command, you must.”
It was a very Drake-like thing to think. Pawn understood. Zel nodded, swishing his tail slowly across the floor.
“How about it? Do you see anyone in your command who could lead better than you? Or are you the only one who can do what’s right?”
He looked at Pawn, gingerly resting his claws on the Antinium’s shoulder. Pawn realized what he was supposed to say, that there was no one else. This was his duty. But that would be a lie.
“Every single Soldier under my command knows war better than I, General Shivertail. Any of them could lead. I cannot.”
It wasn’t the right answer. But it was in Pawn’s heart. Zel sighed and turned away.
“I understand. But your Soldiers have no command, Pawn. I’ve fought them long enough to see that. Some might gain a high [Soldier] class, and they’re a terror to fight on the battlefield. But in the end, a [Soldier] is just a soldier. He cannot lead. You can.”
He left Pawn then, because he’d said all he could. Pawn sat there, waiting for nothing, waiting for Erin, when someone spoke his name.
It was Lyonette. She sat with him as a Gnoll covered for her. Pawn stared at Lyonette.
“You look terrible. What’s wrong? Are you…it’s the Soldiers, right?”
She knew. Pawn didn’t have to explain. He felt relieved. But some part of him kept talking, kept explaining anyways.
“Everyone tells me I should lead, should bring my Soldiers back into battle. But I cannot be a leader. I tell everyone this. There is no [General] who is useless. Belgrade, Anand, Klbkch…they can all fight, and tell Soldiers how to do battle. Even Bird could inflict damage if he led a unit. But I…I am not a warrior. How can I lead Soldiers who will fight for me?”
He expected Lyonette to come up with some sage advice like the others. But she just shrugged.
“I don’t know. If you think you can’t lead them, then you can’t. But they still trust you, right?”
Pawn nodded. His painted Soldiers would follow him to the ends of the earth. They would fight any foe for him; sacrifice their lives if they had to. He was not worthy of that.
“In that case, maybe you’re not like a [General], then. Maybe you’re like me.”
Pawn paused. He looked over.
“Like you? I am not Human. I am not female. I am not a [Barmaid].”
“But you are bad at fighting. So am I. And I…am a [Princess].”
He stared. Lyonette smiled as she looked around conspiratorially.
“What you’re facing sounds like what I’d do in war. [Princesses] and [Queens] don’t lead armies. Most of them don’t, anyways. Back home…no one would dream of it. I hear it’s different in Chandrar and Rhir, but Terandrian nobility don’t let women fight.”
“Then what do you do if a battle occurs?”
“Nothing. We just sit behind our warriors. But because we’re there, it matters. You see?”
“Not at all. Please explain.”
Lyonette sat with Pawn at the table and drank from his mug, since he wasn’t thirsty. She slowly began to speak.
“There was a story my mother used to tell me, of a [Queen] who was ambushed while her nation was at war. Her protectors fought while she sat on a chair in the middle of the battlefield, not moving, not trying to run.”
“But if she had run—”
“Her warriors would have to protect her, and they might get hurt trying to shield her. She might do more damage running, get it? But since she stayed still, they could fight knowing she was protected by them. In my mother’s story, the battled raged on and the Queen’s soldiers were falling back, but then she said one word. ‘Fight.’”
“And they did?”
“One word from her inspired her soldiers to drive the enemy back. They didn’t want her to take up arms herself. They knew their Queen couldn’t fight. But because she believed in them and showed not a trace of fear on her face, they fought like heroes to protect her. Because she was worth dying for.”
“But what if she was not? What if she was worthless?”
“It didn’t matter. Because they believed. And whose belief mattered most? Hers? Or theirs?”
Pawn thought of his Soldiers. He stirred. Something in him stirred.
“If they fought, they would die.”
“Some. But it’s their choice, isn’t it? The [Queen]’s soldiers could have run. But they held their ground.”
“And if they all die?”
Lyonette’s face twisted. She looked sad.
“I guess they died fighting for what they believed in. That’s something. I don’t know.”
Belief. Pawn’s head lowered. He looked down at something clutched in his hands. It was called a thurible.
Religion. A class. Leading Soldiers. Thurible. All the pieces came together. Pawn stood up.
“I know what I must do.”
“Something close to it.”
The pieces all fit. Pawn was not worthy of being a leader. But he was good at one thing. One thing. And if…
He started for the door, and stopped to look at Lyonette.
“Thank you. Your advice helped me greatly.”
“Don’t go just yet.”
To his surprise, Lyonette stopped him. She studied him critically.
“Before you go, you need to learn how to act. If you’re going to lead. Even if it’s just walking with your Soldiers.”
“Why? What is wrong?”
“You walk like a peas…like someone afraid of the world. But if you’re leading others, you must do it bravely, gracefully. Like this.”
Lyonette’s head rose. She stared down at Pawn, and suddenly she looked a bit taller, a bit straighter. He stared.
“How are you doing that?”
She smiled and showed him.
“Head straight, chin up. Look ahead, not down. Straighten your spine…or whatever it is you have. Don’t hunch up. Stand like this.”
When Pawn walked towards the door this time, he walked straighter than he had in his life. The world seemed a bit lower down, and a bit brighter for some reason. Lyonette walked with him.
“You’ll be okay? You’ll be safe?”
“I hope so. But I do not know. I only know…yes, I know what I must do.”
“And what’s that?”
Lyonette held the door open for him. Pawn clutched the thurible, a packet of cinnamon, and a few unused coals to his chest. He nodded at Lyonette.
“I will pray.”
They were waiting for him when he returned. They had been there, waiting. He had left them, but they had not left. They had faith he would return.
Would that he had the same. Pawn stood before his Soldiers and raised his voice. He looked among them, each one different, and each one unique. Precious.
“We will go back into battle.”
They did not stir. This was not a surprise to them. They accepted death like life. But Pawn had to explain.
“I do not wish for any of you to die. I would rather die than let that happen.”
They did stir then. The Soldiers looked at Pawn. He bowed his head.
“You are not just Soldiers to me. You are my people. You should not die. But if you do not fight, others of our kind will die. Either way, we die. We as the Antinium die.”
The Soldiers looked at each other. Pawn stared down at them.
“To fight is to die, and that is unbearable. But to do nothing is worse still. If we can fight to protect our people, so that others may live, it is right.”
They did not nod. But each one of them agreed in his own way. Pawn nodded.
“But I cannot command. I am no [General], no [Tactician], and no [Mage]. I cannot do anything for you.”
Silence. Pawn stared at the Soldiers, who looked back. Confused. If he would not lead, who would? The Antinium needed a leader. When Pawn spoke next, it was a whisper.
“You. Step forwards.”
He pointed at one of the Antinium, the one with yellow spatters of paint. The Soldier stepped forwards slowly. He was a Soldier like the others. But he had been one of the first Pawn had led above. He had survived. And a Drake grandmother recognized him. These were all small reasons. But enough.
“I am not worthy of a command. I do not know war. But you do. You have fought longer than I have. You know battle. You know each other. So come. Step forwards.”
The Soldier approached. Pawn walked towards him, and put a hand on the Soldier’s chest. The Soldier stared down at him. Pawn’s voice was trembling.
“As Individual Pawn, given command of this unit of Soldiers, I, with the authority of my Hive, promote you. You are no longer a [Soldier]. You are a [Sergeant].”
The world stopped. The soldier with yellow spatters froze. The other soldiers stared at him. Pawn lowered his hand.
“It is heavy. It is difficult. But you are fit for command. You can lead the others. You will be their leader.”
Yellow Spatters stared down at Pawn. The Soldier was filled with emotions he couldn’t name, feelings that words wouldn’t describe. He turned, and suddenly every Soldier in the room was staring at him.
No. Not every Soldier.
The knowledge drove Yellow Spatters to his knees. But someone was by his side.
“You will not be alone. We will go to the front within the hour. I have requested it.”
We. The word made every Soldier look at Pawn. He was holding something in his hands. The Worker stared around at the other Soldier as he lit a flame.
“I cannot be your leader. I cannot. But I could never abandon you. I will walk with you in battle. I will be by your side. I will do the only thing I can do.”
The flame caught. The ember glowed as Pawn held it in a hand. He dropped it into the thurible, and the incense began to burn. It was not frankincense or myrrh. It was cinnamon sticks, ground finely. It was sweet, and the smoke drifted across the Soldier as Pawn walked past them.
Xrn found Klbkch, tired, overseeing a group of Workers as they struggled to repair a wall. Workers and Soldiers filled the Hive, tirelessly moving from place to place.
“Klbkch. I am told Pawn went to see you.”
“Yes, he did. It was curious.”
Klbkch answered shortly, exhausted and tired as he was from fighting. He noticed Xrn staring at him in concern and straightened a bit.
“What was so odd about it?”
“Many things. Pawn requested to be assigned to combat duty with his entire unit of Soldiers.”
Xrn stared at Klbkch. Electric flashes of yellow alarm shot through the green nebula of surprise filling her eyes.
“All of them?”
“That is what I said.”
Klbkch turned to look at Xrn. Surprise was written across the Small Queen’s face, a rare sight. Her voice trembled a bit as she asked the next question.
“When is he to go into battle?”
The Hive. Workers and Soldiers marched in an unending flow down one of the tunnels. One of many in the Hive. Despite the Antinium’s reputation for silence, the hallways were still filled with sound. The echoes of footfalls, the shifting of bodies—these were all sounds that occupied the air.
There were no voices, though. The sounds of footfalls, of bodies moving and the air rustling was just noise. There was a kind of silence even when Soldiers were rushing down the tunnels. The silence of those without words.
And then the silence was broken. A single sound suddenly pierced the repetitive noises, a distinctive aberration.
The sound echoed down the corridor, causing the lines of Soldiers and Workers to slow. It was a sound none of them had heard, not like this.
It was too loud, and it echoed. It was not the click of a single mandible, but countless ones. It was a strange sound, and all the Workers and Soldiers looked around for the source.
There it was again. Now all heads turned to look down the corridor. The Antinium stopped. They looked. And then they stared.
Someone was walking down the hallway. It was a small shape, like the others. And not.
A Worker walked slowly down the lines of Antinium, the others parting before him. He held something in his hands. A censer, bound by string. A thurible, leaking smoke that smelled like nothing the other Antinium had ever experienced.
The incense drifted as the Antinium slowly shook the thurible. He walked forwards, and smoke drifted past him like mist.
And others followed. Soldiers, the painted few walked, stepping, stopping, following in the Worker’s wake. And then the other Antinium heard it.
Each time they stepped, the Soldier’s mandible clicked together, making that distinctive sound. They made that sound. The Soldier, who had no voice. Yet the sound was an echo, a thunder.
A word for the voiceless.
And then those around the Worker heard something else. A resonance. A feeling in the air. Quiet. It came from the Worker.
He was…humming. The other Antinium had never heard a sound like it. Pawn’s voice was low, deep, and resonant. It should not have filled the huge tunnel, but it did.
Each Soldier’s mandible snapped together at the same time. The sound was louder than any Rock Crab could ever make, a snap that broke the air and echoed for miles in the Hive.
The Antinium parted, and Pawn and the painted Soldiers followed him. Workers and Soldiers alike paused in their duty, going to war, carrying supplies, going to rest. Each one saw something, heard something they had never experienced in that moment.
“I do not understand.”
Tersk clutched at his bare chest. His hands met only chitin, and he stared as Belgrade used his two good arms to support himself against a wall. Tersk’s voice was hoarse, strained.
“I cannot express this word. This feeling. What is it? I see Pawn. But it is not just him. There is something…”
His voice trailed away. Belgrade stared at Pawn as the Worker walked the halls of his Hive. To battle. His head was lowered, and the Worker prayed. Behind him, the Soldiers did the same. Belgrade had a word for it, and he spoke it for Tersk to hear.
They watched as the Antinium passed. They alone saw and understood the rest. Xrn clutched at Klbkch’s arm, so tightly he thought his body might break.
“Oh Klbkch. Do you see him? He is just like we were once.”
“He is not. It is not…not the same.”
It was pride that made Klbkch say that. But he couldn’t take his eyes off of Pawn. The click of the Soldier’s mandibles echoed in his soul. He saw another group in their shadow. Antinium of the past, long gone.
Xrn shook her head, her eyes not leaving Pawn.
“No. It is exactly the same. They have not forgotten Klbkch. These fragments, these children, they have the same spirit. The same courage.”
“They are Antinium.”
He had no name. He was a Soldier. He had no identity. If there was any way to distinguish him now, it would be Soldier with a Damaged Antennae. Both of his had been damaged in a skirmish with cave Goblins.
Now Soldier with a Damaged Antennae fought desperately, punching with his fists at a huge suit of enchanted armor. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae had no fear, but he realized he would die. The suit of armor had lost his axe, buried in two of Soldier with a Damaged Antennae’s friends, but he was too tough.
Too strong. The armor struck Soldier with a Damaged Antennae with a kick that broke something in the Antinium’s chest. The Soldier stumbled, fell. He put one of his hands to his chest as he grabbed the armor with his other three hands and tried to hold him back.
Green blood. A lot of it. This was it. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae tried to muster the strength to fight, but his arms gave in despite themselves. The armor threw him to the ground and raised a foot. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae stared up, waiting for death.
Then there was color.
Someone charged into the suit of armor, throwing it backwards. The fallen Soldier stared, as a Soldier with yellow spatters of color on his carapace tackled the enchanted armor, throwing it backwards. A huge fist rose, and then smashed into the enchanted armor’s chest plate.
Aid had come. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae struggled to rise. The other Soldier could not do it alone. But he was so weak! Soldier with a Damaged Antennae stumbled up.
And then he saw it. A fallen suit of armor, chest plate caved in. The Soldier with yellow spatters of paint rose, uninjured, and turned. He raised an arm and the ground shook. Soldiers painted in every color thundered past him.
Soldier with a Damaged Antennae had no words for it. These Soldiers were like him, but not. They were painted, with colors. That was all, but they seemed larger. Stronger. More alive.
The Soldier with yellow spatters led the charge. They charged towards a Crypt Worm, fearless. And the Soldier with a Damaged Antennae stared after them. There was a word for them, a word that set them apart from him. The Soldier searched for it, and thought of the word as he stared at the yellow spattered Soldier’s back.
He staggered. Blood dripped onto his hand. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae began to fall again. But someone caught him.
A Worker. Soldier with a Damaged Antennae stared at him. The Worker had something that smoked and gave off a pleasant smell in his hand. He caught Soldier with a Damaged Antennae and spoke to him.
“You will not die. Have faith.”
He was small, but he walked among the monsters without fear. The Worker carried Soldier with a Damaged Antennae back, as the painted Soldiers fought around him. He prayed, and told the injured Soldier he would live.
And the Soldier believed. That day he lived. And when he looked up, chest clumsily bandaged, he saw the painted Soldiers marching back. And the Worker was leading them. He might have said otherwise, but they followed him.
Because they had faith.
That night, Pawn sat outside of the Wandering Inn, in the snow. Not much snow; it had been mostly cleared away. But there was no room inside the inn, not for more than a hundred Soldiers.
He scraped the bottom of his bowl. Today had been bee soup, thick with butter and fat. It was good, and Pawn had eaten his first bowl. He looked around and saw most of the other Soldiers had done the same. But none would speak up, or move. They probably thought that was all.
“Erin made plenty of soup. There’s enough for everyone to have as much as they want, okay?”
The Soldiers looked at him. No one moved, not even Yellow Spatters. Pawn smiled a bit. Ah, well, bravery in battle was one thing. He raised his hand.
“I believe we shall all have seconds, Lyonette.”
The young woman smiled and came over with a hot bowl, served fresh from the series of pots Erin had made up. She filled Pawn’s bowl, did the same for all the Soldiers nearby, and then paused in front of a bulkier Antinium.
“A bowl of soup, Prognugator Tersk?”
Tersk held out his bowl and let Lyonette fill it. Some of the soup got on his chest, but that was fine because as he pointed out to Lyon, he was not wearing his armor.
He had not been wearing his armor for a while. That might have been because his chest was still damaged from battle, but Pawn thought there was another reason.
Now Tersk approached Pawn and sat awkwardly with him and the other Soldiers. He stared around the quiet hilltop, and then spoke.
“I suggest using the remains of these Shield Spiders to construct armor for your Soldiers.”
Straight and to the point. Pawn nodded in approval of the idea.
“Do you know how to make such armor, Prognugator Tersk? I do not, although I would gladly like to learn how.”
Tersk nodded and hesitated.
“The Armored Antinium do not have enough metal to outfit all of our Soldiers. Thus, we use materials like monster hides, or bark to outfit our Workers and some of our Soldiers. That is a secret my Queen would not wish me to speak of, lest the other Hives hear of it.”
They sat together. At last, Tersk sighed.
“I believe I will regret leaving this place. But it is necessary. My Hive must know of what the Free Antinium have done.”
“Yes. I also believe imbibing some of Erin’s magical cooking will help with protecting my Soldiers.”
“Indeed. And if I may take the recipe for this…‘bee soup’ with me, I believe my Queen will rejoice.”
“I think so, Prognugator Tersk.”
Pawn sipped at his soup. It was good. He looked across his ranks of Soldiers. Some were injured, but all had wanted to be here. Some were missing. They now rested on the walls of the barracks.
It hurt. It hurt so much. But they had saved lives. They had fought. This was Pawn’s duty. He bowed his head and Tersk looked at him.
“What are you thinking, Pawn?”
“Nothing, Tersk. I am praying.”
After a while, the Prognugator spoke.
“Would you teach me how?”
“It is very simple. All you had to do is have faith. And believe.”
The Worker turned and looked across the hilltop. Soldiers raised their heads, looking at him. They all knew the answer.