In the depths of the Hive, Pawn heard her approach. Her footsteps were soft and she walked slowly. He didn’t move.
Pawn was curled up into a ball as if he were sleeping. Only, he wasn’t. He was just like this now. The curl wasn’t just physical, it was in his heart.
He’d hurt Lyonette. Made her angry at him. She probably never wanted to see him again. He’d made her cry. Again.
He’d just been trying to help. What had he done wrong? He just wanted to give her back her class. She was a [Princess]. Had been a [Princess]. Why didn’t she want her class back? Why, why, why—
And now Erin was here. Pawn listened as she walked towards him. Close now. He shivered but didn’t move. He didn’t want her here. She might be able to move him.
He wanted her here. Pawn felt his thoughts jumbling in his head. He told himself not to move. Not moving was easy. No matter what she did he wouldn’t move. He stubbornly thought that as Erin paused.
What was she doing? He could feel her eyes on him. He could even hear her breathing quietly, the only sound in the deserted barracks. Pawn tensed as she walked—
Around him? Erin didn’t immediately approach. She walked around Pawn in a slow circle. Inspecting him. He didn’t raise his head. He was curled up. He wouldn’t move. Pawn anticipated Erin speaking so much that when she finally did say something, it was a shock.
That voice. Pawn shivered but refused to uncurl. That voice haunted him. It was unforgettable. He remembered her. She had asked him that fateful question. She had given him purpose, given him identity. No, not given—she had helped him find it.
What about just you? What’s your name?
A kind face, staring into his. A soft hand, placing chess pieces. Tears flowing as she placed chess pieces. A song. From such memories had she defined Pawn’s world. He could picture her perfectly in his head, bending over him. Erin spoke softly.
He wouldn’t move. Pawn stayed put. If he did that long enough, Erin would go away. Even she would go. And then he would be alone until he died. That was okay. He felt Erin shuffle closer. Her voice was very soft.
“Hey. Hey Pawn.”
Still, the Worker didn’t move. Erin was right by his earhole now. He felt her breath on his carapace. Pawn held himself still with all of his strength. Don’t move. No matter what she said. No matter if she touched him. Don’t move an inch. He heard Erin softly draw in breath. And then—
Pawn jerked. He couldn’t help it. Erin’s voice blasted through his body like a physical thing. The entire barracks rang with sound. Pawn half-uncurled and looked up.
Erin stared back at him. There she was, Human, smiling slightly, her hair tied back today. It was longer than it had been when she first met him. But everything else was the same. Pawn met her eyes for one heart-stopping second. Then he tried to curl back up.
“Oh no you don’t.”
Erin instantly grabbed him. But for all her strength, Pawn was an Antinium, a Worker. He could curl up and hug himself so tightly even a Soldier couldn’t pull him apart without breaking his body first. Erin grunted as he curled up, her hands slipping futilely on his body. Pawn curled up into a ball again and Erin had to step back. He couldn’t tell what she was doing, but he heard her muttering to herself. Then Erin seemed to come up with an idea?
“Oh yeah, what about this?”
She pushed Pawn over. Curled up as he was, he just fell onto his side. Then Erin pushed him again. Pawn felt himself rolling across the ground! His back shell made it easy for him to turn over again and again. Erin rolled him like a ball.
“Feel like getting up? Huh?”
Pawn didn’t respond, though he felt dizzy. After a few seconds Erin gave up.
“How about this?”
She sat on him. Pawn didn’t do anything. Erin tried to tickle him. Pawn had no nerves on most parts of his body. Exasperated, Erin eventually tried poking Pawn in the side but he refused to move. She couldn’t make him. He felt a certain satisfaction in that.
Six minutes after entering the barracks, Erin gave up. She sat down in front of Pawn and sighed.
“Alright, that’s enough playing around. Pawn, it’s time to get up.”
The Worker didn’t move. But he did feel…hurt. Annoyed, perhaps. Playing around? He wasn’t playing. He wasn’t having fun. What was Erin going to do? She couldn’t make him move. She squatted by him and spoke directly to Pawn.
“Pawn, you have to move.”
He refused to. Erin breathed out slowly.
“How long are you planning on curling up like this? Until you get hungry? You haven’t eaten in a day! Until you die? Are you planning on dying and making everyone sad?”
That was exactly what he was planning. Only, hearing it from Erin made Pawn realize that she would be sad if he died. And that—hurt. It made him feel guilty. He wavered. Erin went on.
“Anand is worried about you. So is Bird. He wanted to give you an egg. Belgrade is worried, and I’m sure Garry would be if I ever saw him. Klbkch is being sort of a jerk, but he’s worried too. And all of your Soldiers and Workers are very worried. Are you going to ignore all of them?”
No. Yes. Pawn tried to think. He didn’t want to uncurl. But he didn’t want to make them all sad. If they’d just leave him alone for a few days. A week! Then he might be able to uncurl. But if they were sad—Pawn wavered.
He wanted to uncurl, but he was afraid to. He’d made so many mistakes. It was so easy just to hide here. Erin studied pawn for a second and then she sighed again.
“Pawn, I love you like the son I don’t plan on having, but you can’t just sit here. People need you. All the Soldiers and Workers in your unit have stopped eating.”
She didn’t see Pawn move. The Worker stayed folded up, all four arms wrapped around himself. But then the Worker spoke.
His voice was muffled, quiet. Sad. But it was a voice. Erin nodded.
“All of them. It’s a hunger strike. They refuse to eat, refuse to take orders—it’s so bad that Klbkch immediately came to me. He’s sure and I’m sure that so long as you don’t move, your people will starve themselves to death. Understand?”
Pawn did. And that cut deepest of all. The Painted Soldiers were starving themselves? Yellow Splatters was? Purple Smile? Now he knew he had to move, had to uncurl. But he couldn’t. He was afraid. He spoke to Erin in a small voice.
Erin paused. She sat cross-legged in front of him. Thoughtfully, she sat with her hands resting on the packed earth floor.
“Honestly? No. You could sit here forever. It’s your choice, Pawn. But some of your people haven’t eaten in a long time. Every second you stay like that, they won’t eat. They won’t move. I know you’re too kind to let that happen.”
She was right. She was always right. Pawn tried to hold himself still. But something inside him responded to Erin’s words. Slowly, one bit at a time, Pawn raised his head. His arms unfolded. He looked up and saw Erin smiling at him.
“There’s that handsome face. Mandibles. Whatever. Good job, Pawn.”
She reached out and slowly patted him on the shoulder. Pawn stared at her. He whispered.
“I am lost, Erin. I don’t know what to do.”
“I know. It must have been bad if you curled up like that. I should have gone after you instead of letting you leave. Want to talk about it?”
Silently, the Worker nodded. He hugged his knees as he sat with Erin. She waited for him to speak. It was so…reassuring to look at her. After a while, Pawn felt like the words were ready to come out.
“I hurt Lyonette.”
“…Is she alright now?”
“I gave her the day off. She went to Celum for a while with Mrsha. Today she was good. Upset, but she wanted to do her job. And I think she’s not angry at you. Much. But she is still upset about what you said.”
“That is good. Good. Not what I said. But good that she is better. I didn’t mean to—it was not my intention. Does she know that?”
Pawn looked down. He felt very small. Erin watched him for a while.
“I didn’t ask. I’m sure she understands you wanted to help. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You tried to help her and she didn’t want it.”
Pawn nodded mechanically. He looked up at Erin, hesitated.
“Do you know what we were talking about?”
“I heard the shouted bits. And I got the rest from context.”
Erin smiled slightly. She looked pensive for a moment and then glanced at Pawn.
“I know she’s a [Princess]. That’s what it was all about, right? Did something happen to her class?”
“Yes. She lost it. I was trying to help her get it back. I didn’t think it was right that she lost it. But when I tried to pray—I—”
Pawn broke off, shaking his head.
“She lost it? Really? She didn’t tell me that!”
Both of Erin’s brows shot up. Pawn looked at her, surprised.
“You did not know? She didn’t tell you?”
The young woman shook her head.
“She told me she lost something. Not what. And I know she was a princess, but I don’t know if she ever told me herself. Ryoka definitely told me…um, I forget.”
Frowning, Erin tilted her head. After a while she gave up and shrugged.
“It doesn’t matter, I guess. Lyonette didn’t need to tell me anything. She told you, though. And you were worried, weren’t you? You tried to help her get it back.”
“Yes. And now she hates me. Because I did not respect her wishes.”
The Worker grabbed his knees and rocked back and forth. Erin watched him, concerned. She stopped Pawn with one hand and patted his knee gently.
“Hmm. I don’t know if she hates you. I think you went too far.”
Pawn looked at her, feeling a shred of hope.
“I know you don’t understand being social, Pawn. Lyonette understands that too. I think she feels bad about shouting at you. But—how can I explain this? You did do something bad. Just a tiny bit.”
She paused, biting her lip softly and trying to find the best words. Pawn waited. He ached. At last, Erin went on.
“We want to be talked to. We want to be cared about. But sometimes we also need to be alone. Some days we don’t want to talk to our friends. And that’s especially true of when we need to be alone.”
“But she was sad. I tried to help.”
Again, Erin nodded.
“And that was great. Really. Sometimes when you’re sad, you need to hug someone. But sometimes, some people just want to be alone. And that’s fine too. I think Lyonette liked you coming the first time. But after that? After you kept trying to check up on her? And change her? Pray for her to make her get her class back? That was too much.”
“But her class—”
“She lost it. It’s gone, Pawn. If she wanted to get it back, I think she would have asked. But she didn’t ask, did she?”
Pawn didn’t answer. Erin scooted a bit closer. Her hand was warm on his knee.
“Sometimes you can’t solve other people’s problems even if you want to. Sometimes people have to go through their struggles alone.”
A sad look stole over Erin’s face for a moment. Pawn looked up at her and opened his mandibles hesitantly.
“Why? Because you can’t solve everything for other people.”
“Because you can’t, Pawn. It just isn’t possible. It’s their problem, not yours.”
Part of Pawn rebelled at what Erin said. He looked at her angrily.
“But that is not right! If someone is hurting, surely they must be helped. Is not leaving them alone worse? It is not right!”
“It’s not good, I agree. But you can’t make someone happy. And trying to force your help on someone makes it worse, Pawn.”
This was not what he had wanted to hear. Pawn opened and closed his mandibles, softly clicking, trying to say something in response. But he couldn’t. Erin was right. He had gone too far. And he had made Lyonette angry. It was just that he still wanted to help. Erin stared at him, waiting. At last, Pawn asked another question.
“What is a ‘ball’?”
Erin blinked. Pawn hunched his shoulders sulkily.
“I want to know. Lyonette told me about it. A ball is for dancing? [Princesses] do it?”
“Um—well, not just them, but yeah. Balls are for dancing. People dress up and dance in a big open room. It’s a fancy thing.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“Nope. Why, did Lyonette miss dancing?”
“A bit. She said she is not a [Princess] here. She has nothing of her old life. But she was a [Princess]. I thought I could give it back. I thought—”
Erin cut Pawn off gently.
“You can’t make her. You can talk to her. I think she’d be happy to talk to you. But not if you’re trying to get her to do something. If you go back tomorrow and say sorry, I think she’ll forgive you. But you can’t keep…its not good to dwell on her problems. She’ll be fine. Okay, Pawn?”
Pawn looked at the ground. He opened and closed his mandibles softly. Erin waited.
He said it in a small voice. Not because he agreed. Just to make Erin stop asking. He knew she was trying to help. He knew she was probably right.
He’d tried to help Lyonette. Too much. That was what she was telling him. But part of Pawn, a small part, rebelled against what Erin was saying. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t just losing her class. He thought there had to be something more. He’d wanted to—
Pawn didn’t know. He didn’t feel better. He’d hoped that was what Erin could do. Make him feel better. Make everything alright. But she hadn’t. She’d only made him feel—guilty. Awake again. Conscious of his duties, of the people who were hurting.
His Soldiers. His Workers. His…people. Pawn felt a terrible weight settle on his shoulders.
“I have made everyone upset. I do not know if I can be forgiven.”
Erin’s smile lit up part of Pawn’s heart.
“Of course you can be, silly. Everyone’s upset, but they’re worried. Even mean old Klbkch.”
Pawn nodded a few times. He looked up, hesitantly.
“Will you come with me?”
Erin watched Pawn slowly stand up. She smiled and hugged him. He let her. She smelled like a bit of rain, fried food, her inn—and humanity. As she let him go she smiled again.
How wonderful. How beautiful. Pawn followed her as she led him out of the barracks. He felt quiet inside. The grief was still there, but subdued for a moment. The guilt and pain—he could live with. She had helped.
But she was wrong. Pawn felt that too. Erin was wonderful, kind. She made him feel better. But for the first time, Pawn thought she didn’t quite understand what he was feeling. There had to be something else.
Pawn sat in the barracks. He was not curled up anymore. Neither was he alone. The Painted Soldiers stood around him, or sat. The Workers did likewise, hidden behind their giant kin. They were silent, but it was not the silence of before.
Klbkch was gone. Erin had helped there greatly. She’d taken him away before he could discipline Pawn. As for Anand, he had gone back to let Belgrade and Garry know everything was well. That left Pawn with his Soldiers and Workers.
Slowly, Pawn raised a piece of dried meat to his mandibles. He tore off a piece and chewed. The Painted Soldiers and Workers watched. They slowly ate as well.
Food. It was so good and yet it didn’t fill Pawn up with delight as it used to. It was just good. His body wanted it more than Pawn’s mind. But he ate steadily, knowing the others were doing likewise. They savored their meals—it was a rare treat. A break to their day-long fast. A breakfast. Was what why it was called that?
Pawn looked around. Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile sat with him. Pawn looked at them. The two [Sergeants] watched him as they chewed. There was no judgment in them. Just expectancy. After a while, Pawn looked down at his hands.
The Antinium stirred. Pawn looked around.
“I am so very sorry. I did not mean to worry anyone. I did not mean to leave you alone. But I—I was distracted. I should not have been.”
They waited, watching him. Pawn looked from face to face. Yes, he had abandoned them. His gaze strayed to the pile of things he’d bought, useless and untouched. Of course they’d been hurt. What were objects? Meaningless. Pawn lowered his head.
“I should not have. But I was busy. I was trying to—it was because of Lyonette. Not because of her, but because I wanted to help her. Because she is my friend. And I wanted to make her feel better. Because I have no other friends.”
The Soldiers and Workers stared at him. Pawn turned the piece of dried meat over in his hands. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew he owed the others an explanation. So he began to talk. It hurt for the first few seconds. And then it felt like the words were leaking out of him, exiting the wound inside of his chest.
“I have learned much of this world. Much, and yet there is still more. Always more. I know of buying and selling, of combat, of laws and food and many things. But I had no friends. Not until Lyonette.”
Pawn looked around.
“Erin is not my friend. She cannot be. She is not Anand’s friend, or mine, or Belgrade’s or Bird’s or Garry’s. Or any of the others who died. She helped make us Individual. But she is not our friend. She is to we Workers what the sun is to grass. She made us who we are. She is more than a Human, more than an [Innkeeper]. More than…how can I put it?”
The Worker looked around blankly, seeing the uncomprehending looks in the eyes of the others. How could he explain what Erin was in a way they would understand? Pawn stared up at the dark ceiling overhead and then had it.
“She is the sky.”
The Painted Soldiers shifted. They looked up and then down at Pawn. Yellow Splatters nodded. The sky. Pawn nodded as well. They could understand that.
“So she is not a friend. She must be more. And I have no friends within the Hive. Workers, Individuals such as Anand and Belgrade, Soldiers…we cannot be called friends. We find friends. But we have ever been family.”
Another pause. Pawn’s word echoed in the barracks. Family. It was a foreign word, but perhaps the closest thing to what they were. Pawn went on after a while.
“So I had no friends. None. Erin’s friends were not mine. They were kind, but I did not know them. I only knew her. And you. If there was any…friend I had in this world, it would be her. Surely.”
Lyonette. Pawn looked up.
“She was there when Erin was gone. She had food. She helped me learn to lead the Soldiers. She talked to me when I was alone. She is my friend. The only one I have.”
Pawn told the others about how they had met. He told them about Lyonette, ushering him in to the abandoned inn, giving him honey, food for the other Soldiers. The Antinium listened, hungrily devouring the story while they ate. And Pawn felt better too.
It felt good to speak. It felt good to be honest and open about his problems. But Pawn also felt terrible. Here he was talking about his problems when he’d neglected his duties. When he’d abandoned the others who followed him! Klbkch was right. He was a disgrace.
“I should not have abandoned you. But I wanted to help her. She was a [Princess]. She lost something important, I think. She was crying. I wanted to help. But Erin told me I cannot help.”
Bitterly, Pawn looked down at his hands. He couldn’t help her. Erin had told him that. She had been clear. But he wanted to help. The Painted Soldiers looked at each other, and then at their [Sergeants]. Yellow Splatters looked at Purple Smile. The other Soldier scratched his head with one hand. And then he shrugged.
What could they say? What could they do? Pawn knew his struggle was as alien to the Antinium as laughter. Or tears. And he knew now, he realized that his understanding of Lyonette had been flawed too.
He knew nothing of her past. Nothing about her, except that she was kind now and had once been a thief. He didn’t know what she had been before she came to Liscor. What had she been [Princess] of? Didn’t princesses have kingdoms? Where was her home? Why had she left?
“What can I do? How can I apologize? But I know nothing of her. I still want to help, but should I just do nothing?”
Pawn didn’t know. He wanted to still do something. But he had no idea. The other Antinium looked at each other. They did not speak. But they shared opinion, thought, desire, putting their minds to the problem like a single entity. And it was Purple Smile who had an idea.
He tapped Pawn on the shoulder. Pawn looked up. The Soldier gestured with all four hands. He pointed up, and then two of his four arms rose. He made little spades out of his hands and put them behind his head. Then, with his other two hands he placed them flat on an invisible surface in the air. He opened his mandibles and raised them in a smile.
Pawn stared at him. He stared at the hands behind the Soldier’s head. The flat hands on…what? A counter? He stared at the hands behind the head again. They almost looked like ears. Wait. Pawn opened his mandibles in surprise.
“Her? You think I should talk to her?”
Purple Smile nodded. Pawn stared at him. Then he got up. Purple Smile pointed and Pawn nodded. The Soldier led the way out of the barracks and Pawn followed him. The other Antinium milled about. They did not follow; they didn’t have permission to leave the Hive. And it was raining. But they waited. They didn’t play games. They sat or stood and looked towards the entrance of the barracks.
It was the same as before, only not. This time they were waiting and it felt better than when Pawn had not been paying attention. Because now they were paying attention to him. There was an expectancy in the air. Anticipation. The Antinium had never felt it. For once, they were waiting to see what happened next.
She was at work in the rain when the two Antinium approached. Well, not in the rain. The stall’s slanted roof gave protection, but the blowing winds occasionally showered her with droplets. It was not fun, standing out in the open street. But business was business and it wasn’t like she had a shop.
Sometimes Krshia regretted that. How hard would it have been to buy a shop? She could have saved up and bought a nice little place to do business. But then she would be behind a closed door. She wouldn’t be out in the street where she could call to passersby, gossip, establish a network of clients that was based as much in trust of her good name as it was friendship.
That was how Krshia had earned money these last ten years. By being out in the open, dealing and selling in goods with people. It wasn’t just inventory or quality. Shopkeepers like Lism would never understand that.
Still, it was miserable being out in the rain. Krshia hunched her shoulders. She couldn’t put anything out on display, either. The few people who hurried down the street would either stop at her stall or didn’t have time to chat. They just bought what they needed and ran back indoors. Krshia hated the rain. But she still felt like she might hate having a shop more. Gnolls were outdoor people.
It was a slow day. Despite herself, Krshia kept glancing at the sky, wondering if it was time to pack up. Maybe she could rent a space for the next few weeks until it was clear? Or why not erect a covering over the entire street? Yes, why not? You could build a roof from house to house, a temporary one. Then all the shoppers would be more inclined to stay and talk. You could have the outdoor vendors sell all their food here, make a sanctuary from the rain!
“Doable, yes? But who would do it? I? It would be a hassle, and coin. Why not have the city do it? Only, they would not, no. This is what the Merchant’s Guild should do, yes? Only, they are not as interested in street vendors’ woes. Despite the fact that we are many. This is a Drake city and Drakes rule. But Gnolls have our own groups. Why not? I could petition myself, yes? And if I did it right—”
Her musing was cut off as she spotted a pair of shapes headed towards her through the rain. Krshia didn’t need a Skill to know she had customers. She straightened up and put a smile on her face. A smile which instantly turned into a puzzled frown as she sniffed and noticed exactly what was coming towards her.
“Antinium? In the rain? I thought Klbkch was the only one who left his Hive. Who—ah, Pawn.”
She saw the smaller Worker walk into view. Rain was pouring off of Pawn’s body. It was soaking the Soldier who stood next to him. Krshia eyed the purple paint and nodded.
“Purple Smile and Pawn, yes? Greetings! It is rare to see you above. Have you a need?”
“Hello Miss Krshia.”
Pawn waved at the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] and was rewarded with a toothy grin. He glanced at Purple Smile. The Soldier waved as well.
“I did not know that you knew Purple Smile, Miss Krshia.”
“Hmm. He used to pass by my shop with his patrol. And buy small things for his Soldiers and Workers. Food. I grew to remember him. And you I have not seen for a long time. Are you well, Pawn? Do you need more paint? Food? Supplies, perhaps?”
Krshia grew hopeful as she motioned the two Antinium closer so they could stand under the eaves of her shop. The Antinium were infrequent customers, but by the tribes they were good ones! They bought in bulk and didn’t haggle over prices. And they did all the picking up and delivering themselves. She was disappointed when Pawn shook his head.
“No, I—I do not have business for you, Miss Krshia. Revalantor Klbkch has removed my budget temporarily.”
“That is terrible news! What is the cause of your misfortune?”
Pawn looked down at the street as water ran across the flagstones.
“I neglected my duties. I have made many people upset. Revalantor Klbkch, Miss Erin, my fellow Antinium, and…Lyonette.”
Krshia frowned. Trouble among the Antinium? What could Pawn have done? She shifted, eying Pawn. She had not ever truly talked to any of the new Antinium, but she knew Pawn and he seemed earnest. Simple in a good way.
“That is bad news, yes? But I do not see why you come to my shop. What is my role to play here?”
Pawn shrugged. He glanced at Purple Smile, who had folded all four arms and was looking around, not paying much attention to the conversation.
“Purple Smile thinks you might be able to help. Miss Erin has already talked to me, but you are trusted.”
Krshia blinked in surprise. Her ears twitched in embarrassment. And pleasure. She had no idea she was trusted among the Antinium. Pawn looked at Purple Smile and the Soldier made a few cursory gestures. He made a walking gesture with two hands, put two hands alongside his head as if he were staring, and opened his mandibles and closed them a few times. It was incomprehensible to Krshia, and Gnolls were good at reading body language. But Pawn clearly understood something because he turned back to her and bobbed his head slightly.
“Purple Smile says that when the Antinium go above, you do not look away or say…things. And when we buy food, yours is always good and not rotten. You are fair and, he thinks, wise. Sometimes you chat with him and he thinks you give good advice.”
There was no way to see Krshia blush, especially in the rain with the fur covering her face, but her tail did wag a bit. The Soldier had noticed all that? She remembered calling out to him and chatting while she helped him purchase food for his patrol, but the fact that he had remembered her was interesting! Strange, too. The Antinium were changing. Krshia cleared her throat and nodded at Purple Smile.
“I am grateful for this, yes? I do not consider myself wise, but if you have a problem, I would hear it. Come, step closer—it is raining too much to hear. Tell me what ails you, Pawn. And—yes, have a snack. I have a bit of cheese if you would like to eat it.”
Of course, the Antinium accepted. Krshia ushered them further into her stall as she found a hunk of cheese leftover from lunch. It was small divided up three ways, but it was tasty and offering food was ritual. Krshia offered Pawn her stool and the Antinium sat awkwardly while she and Purple Smile stood. The story that came out of his mandibles was hard to follow at first, but as Krshia listened and the rain thundered down over her roof, she saw everything clearly.
“…And so Miss Erin told me to leave Lyonette alone. And apologize. I am very sorry. And very guilty.”
Pawn finished his story, looking down at his hands. He had not finished his cheese. Krshia saw him pick at it distractedly. She shook her head, amazed by his story.
“And so that is where the matter rests, yes?”
“Yes. I came to you afterwards. I have not met Lyonette since. There is much I should do in the Hive, but—I do not know what to say. I cannot focus on my work when I have hurt her. I am guilty. I wish I could help. I want to help still. But that is wrong. Do you know what I should do?”
Pawn looked up at the Gnoll woman. Krshia shook her head. She felt something bubbling up inside of her. Oh, what a story! That Antinium could be like this? She felt younger, and remembered her tribe. The Silverfang Tribe—ah, if only her sister, the chieftain, could hear this! It was too much. Krshia had to do it. She threw back her head and began to laugh.
The two Antinium in her stall jerked with surprise as Krshia chortled and then roared with laughter. She nearly doubled over as Pawn stood in front of her stall. He looked hurt, insofar as she could read Antinium expressions. Krshia tried to control herself, but it was nearly a minute before she could stop laughing.
“Apologies. I am sorry, Pawn. Truly. But your story was amusing to me, yes? Ah, it is good.”
“Is it? I do not think laughter is an appropriate reaction, Miss Krshia.”
Pawn stood up, his antennae vibrating with hurt. He wanted to go, but Krshia waved him back.
“No, no! I am sorry, yes? But Pawn, your problem is amusing. I cannot help but laugh. And I do have good advice to give you, I think. Better advice than Erin’s.”
“That is surely not possible.”
Reluctantly, Pawn turned back to face Krshia. He looked indignant, more indignant at Krshia calling Erin’s advice bad, in fact. He stared challengingly at Krshia as the Gnoll wiped water off her wet fur. She resisted the urge to shake herself; it was a faux pas even among other Gnolls.
“I do not mean to insult Miss Solstice, Pawn. She gave you good advice, yes? The best she could give. But I think she was wrong. Erin is smart, but she is young. Why not let me give you advice as I see it?”
Pawn tilted his head questioningly.
“What do you mean? Is there something you think I should do that could be different?”
“Oh, everything. Everything!”
Krshia chortled again. She wondered why Erin had not seen it? No—perhaps it was a thing of youth. She leaned forwards and smiled at Pawn. So small! She looked at Purple Smile and saw his mandibles rise slightly. She grinned back and leaned forwards to whisper to Pawn.
“There is a better way to resolve this. The best way, I think! It may go wrong, but such things happen. And if you listen to me…you say Lyonette spoke of balls, yes? Because she is a [Princess]?”
“I never said—that is a secret!”
“Hmm. Yes. One I know. Do not look shocked! Gnolls hear much. And that is part of my plan. Why don’t you do this?”
The Gnoll spoke and Pawn listened. After a few seconds he began to object.
“That is exactly what Miss Erin said not to do!”
“But it is what I am saying to do. And who is more right? I think I am. But listen and then decide. The first thing you should do after that is…”
The rain fell and Krshia grinned. She was suddenly in a better mood. Today had been exceedingly dull. And wet. And miserable. But this made everything worth it.
Lyonette was miserable. She mopped a table, cleaning the surface and watching her dull reflection stare back. She didn’t need to keep polishing, really. The new [Barmaids] and [Waiters] were doing great work and it was a slow day anyways. The Players of Celum weren’t in yet and it was raining still, so only a few Gnolls and Drakes had braved the weather to come in. There were more Humans in the inn right now, honestly. And they were being well-tended to by Drassi. So Lyonette had little to do but clean. Still, she felt awful and she needed to talk.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at him. Not at Pawn. He didn’t know what he was doing. I should have just told him to stop!”
She glanced up and reached for a bucket. She dipped the dust rag into it and squeezed. The soapy water wet the cloth and she industriously polished the table again. Erin insisted on using soap with everything. It was important, she said. Lyonette stared at the wet table as she drew the cloth around in wide circles.
“It’s just that it’s my life. I snapped when I heard he was trying to change me. He didn’t ask—he was doing what he thought was right, but I’ve made my peace with it! You know?”
There was no response. Lyonette frowned.
“I liked him coming over, I really did. But he showed up every morning! When I was feeding Mrsha breakfast! And he was just so insistent! If he would have just come later we could have talked. We’re friends, after all! I think. Anyways, why am I feeling guilty? He should apologize. Even if he is sitting and doing nothing. Do you think Erin really helped him? She says he’s okay now, but is he really?”
No one answered. Irritated, Lyonette glanced up.
“Are you even listening?”
Sitting across the table, the young man with brown, disheveled hair looked up briefly. Pisces delicately flipped onto the next page of the spellbook. Lyonette glared at him.
“I said, are you listening? Pisces? Hello?”
The [Necromancer] sighed. He looked up from the charred spellbook recovered from the Ruins of Albez and gave Lyonette a bright, completely fake smile.
“Indubitably. How could I not be? Please go on with your riveting dilemma.”
Lyonette debated flicking her wet rag at him. Pisces was not the person she would have chosen to talk to, but he was the only one who was here. She began rubbing at a piece of crusted something on the table.
“Well? What do you think?”
“About what, pray?”
Pisces ducked as Lyonette flicked her rag at him. The water splashed the cover of his spellbook. He looked up reprovingly.
“I am a paying guest.”
“So? I have a problem and you’re not listening!”
Lyonette snapped. Pisces rolled his eyes and closed his book.
“I have been listening. I simply fail to see what your issue is. You had an altercation with Pawn. And now you feel guilty for wounding his feelings, despite the fact that it was he who was causing you inconvenience. Have I appropriately distilled the essence of your agony?”
The [Barmaid] opened her mouth. She hesitated.
“Well—yes. But it’s not that simple.”
Pisces carefully cleaned one fingernail, flicking the dirt onto the table and ignoring Lyonette’s glares as he spoke.
“Pawn came to you every day, facilitating often meaningless conversation which you enjoyed despite the inconvenience of it at times. His fault was in attempting to help you against your will.”
“And you wish to repair your relationship with him now.”
“That’s exactly right.”
Lyonette felt relieved. She leaned over the table.
“So what do you think I should do? Go visit him? Wait for him to talk to me? What should I say?”
The [Mage] raised his eyebrows and swept a lock of hair out of his face. Pisces sniffed and smiled superiorly.
“I believe that you are rather missing the point.”
Pisces gave Lyonette an enigmatic smile.
“Consider the events as an impartial observer. I regard your squabble with Pawn as indicative not of his social failings, but another, larger issue at stake. One which you should be aware of.”
The [Necromancer] rolled his eyes to the ceiling innocently.
“I would hardly like to say. I do wonder if Erin noticed, though. I doubt it.”
Pisces only gave Lyonette a smug smile. She resisted the urge to throw the bucket at him. This was why people didn’t like Pisces. She was about to demand answers on pain of pain when she saw the door to Liscor open.
“Welcome! How can I—”
She broke off the instant she saw the Antinium in the doorway. Her first instinct was to think it was Pawn. But it wasn’t. The Antinium was too large. It was a Soldier, one with a purple smile painted across his face.
Lyonette hurried towards him. Her next thought was that he was leading a patrol and coming here for food, but he was alone. She had never seen a Soldier by himself! She stared at Purple Smile as he looked quizzically at a little towel rack that Erin had installed by the door. He wiped his feet on the rug and waved at Lyonette.
“Hello! Can I help you?”
Purple Smile nodded. He raised all four arms and pointed. At Lyonette. She blinked.
The Soldier nodded. Two of his arms shifted and pointed through the open doorway, into the streets of Liscor. Lyonette stared at him.
“Go into Liscor? Why? What do you need?”
Purple Smile didn’t respond. Of course, he couldn’t. He just pointed at Lyonette’s chest and then gestured with his other hand, beckoning. The third and fourth hands mimed walking.
It really was amazing how he could convey what he wanted with just his hands. Pisces stared in interest as Lyonette looked around.
“I could come but I have work—Erin’s in Liscor, though—what’s this about? Is it something to do with Pawn?”
Purple Smile raised all four hands and shrugged. Lyonette stared at him. She wavered, and then ran over to Drassi.
“Hey Drassi, I need to go out. The Antinium want me. Let Erin know when she gets back?”
“She won’t be back from her outing with Selys for a while. Do you want me to get someone to tell her?”
Drassi looked concerned as she peeked over Lyonette’s shoulder at Purple Smile. Lyonette shook her head.
“No, just let her know. And look after Mrsha?”
The Gnoll was in her room, reading a picture book that Erin had bought for her. It was expensive because of all the illustrated drawings, but the Gnoll had been delighted and engrossed by it. Drassi nodded.
“I can do that. Are you sure, though?”
“I think this has something to do with Pawn. I’m going.”
Lyonette hurried to grab a cloak. She nodded to Purple Smile.
“Are you taking me to Pawn?”
Again, the Soldier shrugged. He held open the door as Lyonette followed him out, and then stepped into the rainy street. Their departure went largely unnoticed in the quiet inn, but Pisces, sitting at his table, had seen everything. He smiled and flicked something under the table. A small, undead Shield Spider scuttled across the inn, unnoticed. It shot out of the door before Purple Smile could close it.
Outside, Lyonette followed Purple Smile through the rain. Neither one noticed their little follower. The tiny Shield Spider scurried after Lyonette, moving fast to avoid the water that threatened to sweep it into a sewer drain.
Sitting in the inn, Pisces sat back and closed his eyes. He could sense the Shield Spider moving, just as he could sense his rat-hunter Bone Horrors scouring Liscor’s sewers. He took direct control of the Shield Spider, letting it scurry in the shadows as it followed Lyonette and Purple Smile. They were headed straight for the entrance to Liscor’s Hive. Pisces smiled wider as he heard Lyonette asking Purple Smile anxiously about Pawn. He murmured to himself as he tapped his lips with one finger.
“Well now, this should be interesting.”
Lyonette strode through dark, claustrophobic dirt hallways. She walked through crowds of Antinium who paused to stare at her. She felt like an intruder. Because she was. No Human had ever been in an Antinium Hive—well entered and survived, that was. This was foreign ground. Alien. But she followed Purple Smile as he led her down into the darkness because she was worried.
About Pawn. Something must have happened if Purple Smile had come for her. Lyonette couldn’t imagine what. Was Pawn hurt? Had Erin not helped him? Or—
Lyonette turned another bend in the dimly lit corridors. There was virtually no light in the Hive. No torches, lanterns or any fire. The only illumination came from some kind of strange glowing mold that the Antinium seemed to cultivate along the walls. It gave off a soft orange radiance, but the darkness was everywhere. Lyonette shivered. She tried not to give into her nerves as Purple Smile led her down a corridor. Then she saw light. She stepped into a brighter hallway, and then saw an opening. She turned and saw the chamber.
It had been a barracks. It probably still was, as the rows of alcoves against the far wall were clearly meant for Soldiers to sleep in. But instead of the cramped, tight chambers where Antinium slept next to each other, someone had hollowed out this room.
And decorated it. On the far wall, in between the sleeping spots meant for Soldiers were painted symbols.
A cup of brown and silver. A paw print in white. A picture of a bee on a plate, clumsily drawn. A smiley face.
Clumsy pieces of art. But all the more precious because they stood out on the plain earthen walls. Lyonette recognized them. They were the same symbols that adorned the Painted Soldiers. But each one was—she covered her mouth.
“I haven’t seen them. Any of them.”
Purple Smile gazed at the painted symbols. Each one was different. Unique. And Lyonette knew, knew that she hadn’t seen any of the Soldiers to whom they belonged. She understood then. That the wall was more than art. It was a memorial to the fallen.
For a second that drew her attention. Then Lyonette stepped further into the barracks and had a shock. She’d thought that it was empty. But the light that burned from two lanterns had only concealed the room’s visitors in the shadows. They stood in rows along the far walls, silent, dark silhouettes.
Antinium. Workers and Soldiers alike, standing to attention. They stared at Lyonette as she stepped into the room. The breath caught in her chest. She was afraid. But she forced the fear down. Hadn’t she seen them eating? Hadn’t she known them? The silence was unnerving, but these were people. She knew that. So she took another step into the room.
And then she saw him. He was standing in between the two lanterns that he had hung from poles planted on the floor. He stood awkwardly in the center of the room. Pawn. Lyonette stared at him. The Worker was looking at her as Purple Smile took a position next to the doorway, next to Yellow Splatters.
“Pawn? What is all this?”
“Thank you for coming here, Lyonette.”
The Worker bowed awkwardly to her. He was standing very straight and the other Antinium were focused as much on him as on her. Lyonette felt her heart pounding, but she didn’t know why. Pawn opened and closed his mandibles a few times.
“I regret calling you here without letting you know why. This is highly unusual. I did not ask Revalantor Klbkch for permission, but I think it had to be done. I hope you will not be angry. I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh. I’m…sorry too. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
Lyonette felt awkward. And terrible. And confused. Was that why Pawn had called her here? Surely not. The Worker was fidgeting. And as Lyonette moved closer, she saw there was something behind him.
“What is that, Pawn?”
He ducked his head and Lyonette caught a flash of something bright. Yellow? The Worker cleared his throat a few times.
“I wanted this to be a surprise. It is an apology and—I hope you will like it.”
He stepped to one side. Lyonette’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth.
Pawn had moved to reveal a…stand. A piece of wood, shaped to hold something. A dress stand. Meant to hold a dress. And it held one, a long gown of yellow. It was not elegant. It was not rich, or made of silk. But it was a dress. And it was beautiful in its own way. A dress for someone to wear. And Lyoentte understood.
A ball is a formal occasion. It’s where we dress up in fancy clothing and dance in a big open space. Lyonette remembered telling Pawn that. She looked around and saw the newly excavated barracks, the waiting Antinium, the dress. She stared at Pawn as he waited, practically shaking with nerves. And she tried. She truly did. But the hurt in her chest rose and came out.
“How could you? How could you?”
Pawn broke off as Lyonette strode towards him. The [Barmaid]’s hands balled into fists as she glared at Pawn. He was a Worker and thus shorter, but she was short too and so they were on a level. She stared at him.
“I told you last time that I didn’t want your help! I told you and you do this?”
She threw an arm out, indicating the dress, the waiting chamber. This was his idea? He hadn’t listened to her at all!
“I—wait. This isn’t—”
Pawn’s stammered, but Lyonette was too angry to care. Incensed, she shouted in Pawn’s face.
“Why won’t you just let me forget? Why can’t you let me be? Why can’t you just listen to me? Why do you have to do this? How could you? How could—”
She felt tears springing to her eyes again. Lyonette turned away. She felt betrayed! Let down. She saw Pawn look down at his feet. The other Antinium were silent as Lyonette covered her face, trying not to cry.
Pawn whispered the words. Lyonette didn’t turn back towards him. She spoke, her voice thick with sadness.
“Just let me be. Just drop it. Why can’t you do that? I asked you. I told you—”
The Worker bowed his head behind her.
“I know. I know. I understand it is your wish. I understand that it is not right for me to do this. Erin told me.”
“It’s just that I can’t.”
Pawn interrupted Lyonette. She turned back to him. The Worker stood, awkward, defiant, speaking softly as the other Antinium looked on.
The Worker stared at the [Barmaid].
“Because you looked so unhappy that day. It can’t be better to lose your class. You were a [Princess]. It mattered to you. You still aren’t over it.”
“But I am. I am, Pawn. It’s fine this way. Fine.”
Lyonette whispered through bloodless lips. She didn’t know if she believed the words coming out of her mouth. And Pawn—he looked her in the eye and shook his head.
“No. I do not think you are. I do not think it is better. Because doing all of this is easier than seeing you cry. Because it matters to me.”
“But it’s my life. You can’t just interfere with it!”
Pawn tilted his head. Lyonette opened her mouth and he rushed on.
“Erin told me it was not right for me to interfere with other people all the time. I understood that. I know it is wrong. Socially. But I had to try. I had to do it for you.”
The Worker was silent.
“Because if it were Erin, it would not matter as much, I think.”
“That is what I feel. If Erin was grieving, I would give her space. As I would for others. If it were Relc who was crying I would be concerned. But I would let him be himself. If it were Mrsha who wept I would help and give her space when needed. If it were anyone else…I could do that. But not you. You are my friend. I cannot leave you alone. Not when you are hurting. Not when you are wrong. I am sorry.”
Lyonette was speechless for a moment. She tried to summon the words, to protest what Pawn was saying.
“Pawn, I know you think you know what’s right. But what if you don’t? I’m happy as a [Barmaid]. I still have that. I don’t need my [Princess] class anymore. I’m just a [Barmaid] now.”
This time the word was authoritative. Pawn looked up. He stared at Lyonette, and there was something fierce in his gaze. Defiant.
“I am an [Acolyte], Lyonette. I pray. I have faith. I believe. I believe in things that may not exist, may never exist. I believe in heaven for the Antinium. I believe in redemption, in the salvation of souls. I believe there is a place after death for my people, that we might make it ourselves. I believe in gods. I believe in gods. But when you tell me you are a simple [Barmaid], I cannot believe in that.”
His voice rang in the chamber. Lyonette was speechless. She tried to form an argument, but Pawn’s voice was too loud. He spoke to her and her alone.
“You are a [Princess]. You showed me how to lead. You wept for your class when you left it. You have not been happy since you lost your class. I see it. I am your friend and I see your grief. You must have it back. It may not be my place to interfere, but it would be just as wrong for me not to. And if you tell me again not to interfere, to go, I will. But I have to tell you directly. Lyonette, I think you are wrong. And I want to help you. Please. Let me.”
Pawn held out his hands. Lyonette stared at them. She looked up at him and didn’t know what to say.
“You really believe I need my class back?”
Pawn took a shuddering breath, and then another. He looked around, helplessly.
“I am sorry. Again. I did this wrong. I should not have said all that so…suddenly. I should have done it after.”
Pawn nodded. He scuffed a toe on the floor.
“After the dancing. You see, this ball is to restore your class. Well, not just for that. It is really for something else. Miss Krshia told me it would be most suitable.”
Lyonette started in surprise.
How had the Gnoll thought that any of this was a good idea? Pawn nodded energetically.
“She told me to come here and tell you how I felt. I did that. Only—she said you might be angry, but I should tell you how I felt even if you shouted. She said you would understand.”
“Understand? Understand wh—”
Lyonette stared around at the ball. She stared at the newly-excavated barracks, the dress, at Pawn, helplessly insisting on helping her, and then thought about Krshia. Her eyes widened.
And suddenly it all made sense. Lyonette blinked. She looked around and stumbled slightly. Her entire world shifted. And suddenly she looked at Pawn and saw something else.
Pawn. A Worker. He had come to the inn every day after learning she was sad. He had tried to cheer her up, tried in his way to make her happy. And when she had shouted at him he had curled up, refused to talk to anyone. And now, even after knowing she didn’t want help, he had tried to cheer her up. Yes, the ball was for her class. But it was also something Lyonette had said she liked. And that meant…
The Worker was babbling on nervously as Lyonette stared at him, stunned.
“Miss Krshia says that Erin got it wrong. I do not think Erin was wrong, but Miss Krshia told me to do this. She told me to tell you how I feel. About you as my friend.”
“So I did. I am sorry if it makes you angry, but I had to say it.”
“It is strange, though.”
“Oh? How so?”
The Worker hesitated and scratched at his head.
“She asked me if I liked you, Miss Krshia, I mean. I said yes. She kept asking how much. And I told her. I like Erin. I owe her my identity and my life and more than I can give. But for some reason I like you more.”
Lyonette opened her mouth and her head went white. Pawn went on, oblivious.
“Erin is very kind. So are you. But I miss talking with you. I miss the days when you and I talked and you gave me advice. When I looked at you crying, I hurt. I still hurt when you are angry because of me. But when I don’t see you I feel bad. When I think of you I am confused. But all of that feels good, too. Is it not strange?”
He looked at Lyonette. She shut her mouth, opened it again, and had to turn away.
“Oh no. No, no…is that what all of this was? Really?”
Lyonette looked at Pawn. Despairingly. About to laugh. She covered her face. Her cheeks felt hot. How had she not seen it? She spoke, her voice muffled by her hands.
“You like me.”
“That is what I said.”
“No, Pawn. You like me. Not as a friend. You like me as…in a different way.”
“Which way is that?”
Lyonette burst out. Pawn opened his mandibles wide. Around the room, the watching Antinium froze in shock.
Lyonette was blushing. She looked at Pawn and turned beet red. Of course that was what it was! It wasn’t just concern. He liked her more than Erin? More than Erin? Lyonette didn’t know what to say. Pawn didn’t either. He looked around, confused.
“No one told me. How do you know?”
“I just do! It’s obvious! Krshia must have known. She must have—why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t—”
I believe that you are rather missing the point.
Pisces’ words echoed in Lyonette’s head. She froze. He had noticed. But what he had noticed was different from Krshia. She thought back to what she’d done. Yell at Pawn. Feel guilty for hurting him. When he’d gone to talk to Erin before, she’d been hurt. She’d missed—
Pawn was vibrating with nerves. But Lyonette was stock-still. She looked at him. She looked at the dress. She wanted to laugh and cry, and felt more afraid than when she’d faced down the swarm of Ashfire Bees. She looked at Pawn and they stood there in silence for a long time. At last, at long last, Lyonette croaked.
“You made this ball for me.”
“Yes. So you could dance and be happy. I bought this dress, too. Miss Krshia helped me pick it out.”
Lyonette looked at the dress. She looked at Pawn. And she giggled as she realized something.
“Wait, dance? By myself?”
The young woman shook her head.
“You know, a ball isn’t really meant for one person to dance alone, Pawn.”
The Antinium was devastated. He looked around wildly.
“I can fix this! I will get Miss Erin! Or Miss Krshia! Just wait—”
He wanted to run off but Lyonette grabbed his hand. It was so sudden that both [Barmaid] and Worker froze. Then Lyonette spoke.
“Erin isn’t who I want to dance with, Pawn. Neither is Krshia. A ball needs two. So does a waltz. Why don’t I dance with you?”
Pawn turned to Lyonette. He stared at her hand. She held out her other one.
“Take my hand, Pawn.”
He hesitated. Lyonette held it out. Pawn took it. She felt his strange, cool, smooth fingers take hers. The shock of contact made her jump and Pawn’s antennae waved wildly.
“Is this—is this how it works? I have seen Erin dancing.”
“She does it a bit differently. A ball is formal. You have to hold your partner. Here, let me show you.”
Lyonette held her hands up with Pawn. She didn’t know what she was doing. She felt flushed, dizzy. Pisces couldn’t be—Krshia was just—she looked at Pawn. He stared back. Lyonette’s head went empty and she let years of training take over.
“Like this. Raise your arms. Stand closer—and step. When I step forwards, you step back. When you step forwards—yes. Keep your feet together. Like this. See? One, and two, and one, and two—”
“Oh. How fascinating. Is this dancing in a ball?”
“A bit. But you don’t just step back and forth. You turn—yes, like this! And there’s more moves. And there would be music.”
“Music? Oh no. I can get some—”
“No. We can dance without it. If you want to.”
“I think I do.”
Pawn held Lyoentte’s hand as she showed him the moves of the dance. He remembered them all well. She had to adjust for his different body, his less graceful steps. But as they stepped together, Lyonette stopped feeling silly and remembered. Yes, this was what it felt like? She turned and suddenly the barracks opened up in front of her. It was truly large. She spun with Pawn and though there was no music, suddenly she felt caught up.
“What a strange activity. How pleasing. I am glad you did not grow angry. And I am sorry again for upsetting you.”
The Worker babbled as he waltzed with Lyonette. She wanted to laugh again and suppressed the urge. They danced past the dress stand, ignoring the yellow dress. It wasn’t needed.
“I want to say sorry too, Pawn. I didn’t notice how you felt.”
“No. I did not either. Are you sure I like you? Romantically? I thought that was a thing only Drakes, Humans, and Gnolls did.”
“I’m pretty sure. The signs are all there.”
Pawn thought about this as they spun. Lyonette showed him how to spin with her. She felt too close to him. She hadn’t been this close to anyone but Mrsha. But she didn’t pull away.
“Should I do something about it? I understand that romantic interests lead to death and fighting.”
“Who told you that?”
“Revalantor Klbkch. He says that a third of the disputes he must settle are based in romantic conflict. Will I start attacking you? I could not bear to do that.”
“No, Pawn. That’s not—do you understand what I’ve been telling you?”
“You like me. You like me romantically. Pawn, that means you might love me.”
The Worker slowed as Lyonette walked across the floor with him. He copied her flawlessly, absently. It was as if the dance came to him as naturally as breathing. Of course, it was just following orders. It was effortless for him and Lyonette found herself moving into more advanced positions absently.
“I do not understand love. Is it like liking?”
“Yes. Sort of.”
“And I love you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it inconvenient for you? I would hate for that to be so.”
“No. It’s not. It’s…flattering, really. Mostly. Sometimes it can be awful if someone likes you and you don’t like them back. But not always. And I—I think I like you too, Pawn. Maybe.”
The Worker just stared at Lyonette. She turned beet red.
“That makes me happy. Am I supposed to have another reaction?”
“No! Yes! Aren’t you embarrassed?”
Abruptly, Lyonette stopped the waltz. Pawn stopped too. He let go of her hands and took a step back.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know. This is all so surprising. I only know that I like dancing with you.”
“No, don’t be—”
Lyonette was embarrassed again. She looked at Pawn.
“Pawn, this is a mess. I thought you were obsessed with my class. With helping me.”
“But you like me, don’t you see?”
“That is why I want to help you.”
“But does it mean you want my [Princess] class back?”
“Of course! It defines you. It is who you are.”
“But can’t I be someone without it? That’s what I want.”
Lyonette spread her hands out helplessly. Pawn waited, trying to comprehend and she spoke.
“For so long I’ve been defined only by my class! Only by being a princess! Now I have a job. I’m leveling in other classes! I think part of me, a large part, wanted to lose my class. So I could be someone else.”
“But why do you have to be? Why can you not be a [Princess] and everything else?”
“I—it’s because it’s so huge. And I don’t want it. All the things I could never live up to, all the duties I’m abandoning by being here—it’s too much. Do you understand?”
“No. Is the dance over?”
Pawn looked at Lyonette. She threw up her hands.
“I don’t know!”
In the silence Pawn shuffled his feet.
“I enjoyed dancing with you.”
“So did I. We could try again.”
Lyonette reached for Pawn’s hands, but both Antinium and Human turned as they realized they had company. A Soldier stood next to the two. Lyonette stared up at Yellow Splatters. He wasn’t the only one. Every Soldier and Worker in the barracks had abandoned their posts along the walls. They were nearly lined up in front of Lyonette and Pawn.
“Pawn? What do they want?”
Pawn sounded disappointed. He looked at Yellow Splatters and turned to Lyonette apologetically.
“I am sorry, Lyonette. They want to dance too.”
“No. With me.”
Lyonette gaped. But the Antinium were looking at Pawn. He hesitated and glanced at Lyonette.
Someone brushed past him. Pawn and Lyonette saw Purple Smile interpose himself in between Yellow Splatters and the two. He raised two hands and blocked the [Sergeant]. He held up his other two hands and gave Pawn a thumbs up. The Worker nodded gratefully as the other Antinium were shepherded by Purple Smile into their own pairs.
“It seems Purple Smile will take over teaching.”
“Teaching? But they didn’t do anything but watch. How can—”
Lyonette nearly choked on her tongue. As one, the Workers and Soldiers began waltzing in pairs. At first it was only simple moves. Step forwards, step back. Turn. But then they began moving and performing more complex moves. Lyonette watched in amazement as the Antinium performed a minuet, flawless peel off, and then a promenade down the floor. The bulky Soldiers and Workers moved down the floor, passing by Lyonette and Pawn.
“It is a wonderful thing. This form of dancing. It is relaxing. Elegant. Both Workers and Soldiers can do it together. I think it is what we were looking for.”
Pawn looked back at Lyonette. She stared at him.
“The Antinium cannot go outside now. Many of us do not know what to do. We have no purpose outside our function. But this? This is not what we were designed for. This is something special that we can do with each other. It is beautiful and we can make it.”
Lyonette remembered balls with gold and magic. She remembered rooms packed with the famous, the powerful. She had seen wonderful dancing, seen the Lord of the Dance himself take to the floor. But this was magical in its own way. The dancing Antinium lit something in her. She looked at Pawn.
He was a Worker. The same as so many others. But different. Oh, so different. Lyonette felt it. Did she like him? Did he really like her? She didn’t know, but something in her prompted to hold out her hands.
“I would be delighted.”
The two took hands. They stepped out into the pairs of the Antinium. Alone in a room filled with bodies. Together. Lyonette whirled with Pawn holding her. In that moment as she danced with him they spoke, honestly, close together.
“I’m not a good [Princess], Pawn. I never was.”
“That does not matter to me. I just wanted you to be happy.”
“And I can’t be without my class?”
“I think you could be. But I think you do not have to lose something to be happy.”
“Nothing stays the same, Pawn. Things change.”
“But nothing ever disappears. The past matters.”
“That’s true. But what would I be?”
She felt Pawn’s other two hands pick her up. Lyonette felt her feet leave the ground as he gently lifted her. She felt breathless. The Antinium were made for such a maneuver. Pawn stared at her.
“You would be a [Princess] in an inn.”
“That’s not enough. I need something else. A [Princess] must have subjects. She must have a kingdom. I have neither.”
“What about me?”
“What about you?”
“I could be your subject. I think I would be a good one. I follow orders.”
Lyonette grabbed his hands and looked seriously into his eyes.
“You have subjects. You can’t abandon them.”
“I know. But I cannot leave you alone either. Is that love?”
“I think so.”
Lyonette closed her eyes. She stepped with Pawn, showing him more forms as they moved on. In silence, they danced. Until Pawn spoke.
“Is that why you gave up your class? Because you left them?”
“Your subjects. Your kingdom.”
Lyonette froze. She opened her mouth to protest that they weren’t hers and stopped. Wasn’t she a [Princess]? Weren’t they hers? Even a sixth princess had duties. She hesitated.
“I…I never thought of them.”
Distracted, Lyonette looked away. She bit her lip.
“I might not be able to get my class back, Pawn.”
“I think you will. If you want to.”
“Why are you so certain?”
“Because I know you. Because I believe in you. Because you are wonderful.”
Lyonette’s head turned back. Pawn stared at her. She looked into his eyes. The dark, multi-faceted eyes of an Antinium. Eyes without pupils. But not without soul. And when Lyonette looked into them, she saw something that frightened her. Because in Pawn’s gaze there was nothing else in the entire world but her. For a moment she was the center of the universe.
“You really do like me, don’t you?”
“I am afraid I do. Is it bad after all?”
“No. I think it’s nice.”
The two fell silent after that. Lyonette watched the room spin around her. There was no music. She wore only a [Barmaid]’s outfit. Her partner was an Antinium, naked save for a loincloth. But in this moment, it felt like she was dancing back in a ballroom back home. She whirled and Pawn held her hand as she spun. Lyonette felt tears springing to her eyes.
“I’ll try. Okay?”
“It was my pleasure.”
She didn’t know how long she danced. Long enough for her feet to tire. Long enough to hurt. But only after they were done. Lyonette curtsied and Pawn imitated her until she told him he should bow. Then Lyonette straightened and looked around.
The Antinium had stopped with them. They looked at Lyonette and Pawn. Some of them still held hands. Lyonette realized she was still holding Pawn’s. She let go and then wished for a second that she hadn’t.
The ball was over. Pawn looked around and noticed Purple Smile standing back. He’d danced less than the others, content to watch. The Soldier was crunching on something. He must have found a bug roaming around, a rare treat.
“Do you feel better now, Lyonette?”
She turned to him and smiled.
“I think I do. But I have to go now, Pawn. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay. I enjoyed the dancing.”
Lyonette waited, but Pawn didn’t seem to have anything else to say. She nodded at last and turned away. He watched her go. Lyonette looked at Purple Smile and the Soldier beckoned. Silently, he led her back out of the Hive. Lyonette walked, trying to make sense of her emotions.
She walked out of the Hive. It was already dark. The rain poured down, drenching Lyonette. She didn’t pay it any mind. She walked into the inn.
“Lyonette? Are you okay? Is Pawn okay?”
Erin hovered around Lyonette. The [Barmaid] looked at her.
“Pawn? He’s fine. I think. I—I’m going to sleep early.”
“Okay. Are you sure you’re—”
Lyonette walked up the stairs. She sensed someone following her and saw Mrsha padding along. The Gnoll sniffed her and Apista buzzed around Lyonette. The young woman managed a smile.
“I’m fine. Thank you, Mrsha, Apista. I just had a talk with Pawn. A dance, actually.”
She went into her room. Lyonette sat and saw the rain coming down through the windowpane. She blinked a few times.
“Was that all?”
She patted her breast, felt her face. She didn’t feel so different. She’d danced with Pawn for hours! She’d looked into his eyes. But she had a bad feeling. Well, not a bad one.
It was just that she wasn’t swept away. She wasn’t head-over-heels in love. And that was bad because Lyonette felt she should be. But she didn’t feel the rush of emotions she’d felt with her obsessions in youth. She didn’t feel…besmitten.
And that hurt. Because Lyonette felt she should be. Pawn was so honest, so earnest! So…new. And he was Antinium. She couldn’t answer his feelings honestly.
That was what Lyonette told herself. She kept telling herself that, as Mrsha tried to get her to play and Apista crawled over her head. She wasn’t in love. And that presented a whole new set of problems. For that matter, what about her class? Pawn had reminded her that she had duties. He had told her he believed in her.
But—Lyonette’s mind drifted back to the dance. She closed her eyes and felt herself whirling in the cool, stale air far underground. She didn’t love Pawn. But she remembered him looking at her.
A dress in yellow, a room full of dancing Antinium. Lyonette told herself it wasn’t love. But she couldn’t forget it either. It was something else. And as she sat in her room and Mrsha curled up next to her, Lyonette wondered.
“Will it happen?”
She put her head back on her pillow, willing herself to sleep. It couldn’t happen. It shouldn’t. But part of her hoped. Why had she lost her class to begin with? Because she had no subjects? No kingdom? Hadn’t she just left it behind?
A [Princess] in an inn. Surely there was something else. Surely there was something more. Lyonette’s head felt foggy. She was falling asleep. She tried to imagine it. But all she could see was a Worker’s face as they danced together in the lantern light. It wasn’t love. But if it wasn’t that, what could it be?
[Class Conditions: Princess met.]
[Class – Princess restored.]
[Skill – Detect Poison restored.]
[Skill – Royal Tax restored.]
[Princess → Worldly Princess Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Barmaid removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Beast Tamer removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Tactician removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Carer removed.]
[Worldly Princess Level 11!]
[Skill – Basic Crafting obtained!]
[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Sword obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Negotiator obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Leadership obtained!]
[Skill – Flawless Attempt obtained!]
In the darkness a young woman sat up. She looked around and touched her face.
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
Then she lay back down. Lyonette felt like she should shout. Or celebrate. But she just felt a bit empty. It was almost like all of what she’d gone through didn’t matter. She frowned up at the ceiling.
It wasn’t what she expected at all.
The next day, Lyonette avoided Erin’s questions about what had happened. She fed Mrsha and Apista breakfast, dutifully helped serve the guests, and felt nothing different at all. It was disappointing. Her new Skill, [Flawless Attempt] was in her mind, but Lyonette didn’t feel like using it. She just…waited. She didn’t know for what. Until when, a few hours past morning, the door opened and Pawn poked his head through.
“Am I too early?”
Lyonette turned and blinked at him. And then she did feel something. Lyonette’s face turned bright crimson. Pawn stared at her.
“Come over here.”
She hurried him over to a table before Erin could poke her head out of the kitchen. Lyonette sat at a table with Pawn. He peered at her anxiously.
“Are you okay, Lyonette? I mean—”
He caught himself.
“I should not ask that. Correct?”
“No, I’m well. Better than well, actually. I…got my class back.”
Pawn half-rose out of his seat. Lyonette grabbed him.
He did. Lyonette breathed in and out until she could control herself. Then she looked at Pawn.
“I guess it worked. The ball, I mean.”
“I am relieved. I had hoped that was so, but I was not sure. Are you…happy now?”
“Happy? I don’t know. I think I’m more surprised than anything else. Classes shouldn’t disappear and come back like that. I don’t know why it happened.”
“I don’t know either. But I am glad for you. Truly.”
Pawn fidgeted in his seat. Lyonette looked at him.
“What is it?”
“I was…thinking about yesterday. A lot, actually. I realize now that Miss Krshia may be right. And you too, of course. I may indeed be in love with you.”
“Yes. I realize this may be inconvenient for you. So I will try not to be. In love, that is. I will remove myself and go back to my duties now you are well.”
Pawn awkwardly nodded his head. Lyonette stared at him.
Why didn’t he get it? Lyonette hesitated, and then reached across the table and grabbed Pawn’s arm.
“Pawn, you don’t give up when you’re in love. Not like that.”
“But it may be inconvenient for you.”
“But I like you, Pawn. As a friend. And if you love me, how could you just give up and not see me?”
The Worker tilted his head.
“Is that not love? Giving up for someone else?”
Lyonette was speechless. She let go of Pawn and sat back. Eventually, she spoke.
“Maybe. But love is more than that. Much more, Pawn.”
“Will you tell me what it is?”
“Love is…coming back every day. To see me. Even if I’m not crying. Even if I have my class back.”
“I see. What else is it?”
“It’s…a lot of things. And I don’t know if I love you! I like you.”
“I see. And I do not know if I love you. The Antinium have never loved, I think. How might we be able to tell the difference between like and love?”
Lyonette stared at Pawn. He looked so matter-of-fact. She laughed, abruptly, and then held out her hand.
“Maybe like this. Take my hand, Pawn.”
“Are we dancing again?”
The Worker took Lyonette’s hand uncertainly. She held it, and then stood up. As Pawn watched she edged around the table to sit by his side. He shifted, looking at her and his hand.
“How strange. What an odd sensation. Is something supposed to happen?”
“Maybe. But holding hands is sort of the point.”
Lyonette gently squeezed Pawn’s hand in hers. His hand was smooth. Foreign. Cool. But there was something familiar about it. She closed her eyes and remembered dancing. And next to her, Pawn shivered.
“When do you let go?”
“When you want to, I suppose. Do you want to?”
The Human girl looked at Pawn and then looked away. He looked away as well. Both felt awkward. Embarrassed. They sat there like that, looking away. Lyonette felt her cheeks turning red. She couldn’t see Pawn’s face change and was disappointed—until she saw how violently his antennae were twitching. She felt so awkward and yet she didn’t let go of his hand. She didn’t want to.
Pawn stared at Lyonette and looked around. The inn was the same. Lyonette was the same. He was the same. But he couldn’t help but feel different. He looked at their hands, at Lyonette.
“Is love like this all the time, Lyonette?”
She looked at him, her face flushed. Pawn searched for the words. Then he spoke.
She paused. And then she smiled.
“Maybe. It might not be love, you know. I’m still not sure myself. But it could be. Would you like to find out?”
They looked at each other and then away. And they didn’t stop holding hands. Lyonette sat in The Wandering Inn. A [Princess] in an inn. And she smiled. The class had nothing to do with her smile. She and Pawn sat there.