“Sun-Touched” by LaShawn M. Wanak
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The workers depart for their quarters as soon as the dawn bells chime. They leave behind a single glowglobe on the table by the Princess’ cushions, covered with a dark cloth. The Princess isn’t supposed to look at it directly; the Dowager had warned her any light — even the benign glowglobes — is dangerous.
The Princess unfurls from the cushions and pulls off the cloth, uncovering the globe’s periwinkle glow, faint enough to illuminate the table and her own pale hands. The worms inside writhe in silent dance; she lifts the globe to her nose, inhales their musky fragrance through the thin glass.
This must be what the Great Sister smells like.
She measures time in their movements. Waits, waits, and waits just a little longer. When she is certain the Dowager won’t burst in, that the whole hive is silent and still in sleep, the Princess rifles through the cushions until she finds the long bone needle she had hidden there earlier.
The Princess jumps. Spreads her wings. Flutters. Beats her wings harder and rises, a little shaky, but up, up, into the darkness above her. She almost bumps her head against the ceiling; flying is still new to her. Clutching the needle, she propels herself across the room, until the glowglobe becomes a single point of luminescence in the vastness of her quarters.
A shelf looms in front of her. On it, three figurines: a young nymph poised on the brink of flight, wings the pure white of unbroken snow. A older nymph with full belly and breasts, looking down with love at the egg cupped in her hands. A very old nymph, her spread wings fully transparent. With great care the Princess lowers them to the floor. Then she stands on the shelf, rocks until satisfied it bears her weight.
She takes a deep breath. Two breaths. Three.
Then she places the needle’s pointed end on the wall and twists.
The needle is as long as the Princess’ arm, and feels unnaturally light. The Princess has no clue if the needle is really made of bone — she had snatched it while the Dowager was distracted by the garment nymphs showing her the Queen’s new silklace gown — but it’s strong. It doesn’t bend or break as it bears into the wall. She can feel the detritus fall feather-light on her bare feet. She twists and pushes and twists until, abruptly, there is no more resistance.
She pulls the needle out. A slender shaft of sunlight follows, shockingly golden.
The Princess, who has only seen muted colors in her short life — soft blues, dark purples — leans in for a closer look. It is stronger than the pale beams of the Great Sister, who emerges only at night. Particles of dust move within it like bubbles in fermented nectar. The brightness makes her eyes ache, but in a pleasant way.
This, then, is what the Great Brother looks like. How is this supposed to be dangerous? The Princess decides to bring the glowglobe over for comparison and tries to move away.
She can’t turn her head. She can’t look away. Her eyes remain fixated on the light.
The needle clatters to the floor. She jerks her underwings, flails, For a horrific moment, she fights herself. Her hand crosses the shaft, and she stops as she feels the warmth on her skin.
The Dowager never said the Great Brother was warm.
Transfixed, the Princess watches as the sunlight draws her hand up, as if accepting an offering, until it blocks the hole. It feels delicious, like eating lavender honey from a small, silver spoon. No, better than that. She wants to scramble for the needle, stab it through the wall. More holes. More warmth on her skin. More. More.
But she can’t move her hand from the wall. The warmth holds her hand in place, sure as a pin holds tight a shawl.
Her panic returns. Frantic, she tugs at the neck of her sleeping gown until a strip of silk rips off. She stuffs it beneath her hand, into the hole. Another strip, then another, and she is able to move her hand away. She keeps ripping anyway, from her neckline and hem with both hands, stuffing the fabric into the hole, packing it tighter, tighter, until her fingers grow raw from scraping and there’s only a dim circle on the wall, barely discernible from the darkness.
Her sleeping gown is in tatters, but the need to feel the sunlight is gone, and with it, the Princess’ will. She topples.
One of the figurines shatter beneath her on the floor. Which one? She doesn’t know. Ignoring the dull throb of pain in her thigh, she scrambles back to her cushions, throws the cloth back over the glowglobe. Darkness shrugs around her, safe, cocooning.
If she folds her wings around herself, the Princess could pretend she was back in her egg, unhatched, unaware of the world outside her pliant shell. But her cheek rests on the back of her hand, still warm from the Great Brother’s lick across her skin.
Already she knows too much.
The Queen sits upon the Chandelier Throne that hangs suspended from the ceiling of the hive by long, sturdy ropes. Opals and sapphires festoon her milky-white hair, matching the throne’s opulent frame which loops behind her to form a circle — the moon in its fullest phase. Above the throne, the sky hatch has been opened to allow the Great Sister’s rays — the only light any doptera can gaze upon — to wash down, transforming the throne and the Queen into a glowing sheen of brilliance. With the regal drape of her wings closed behind her, truly she is the Great Sister, standing between the heavens and the hive, commanding the reverence of the doptera as ruler, benefactor, shield, and mother.
“Bring him,” the Queen speaks.
Below, the doptera part, allowing the guards to prod a bound papillon forward with their spears. The doptera hoot obscenities; those on the lower balconies throw rotted vegetables. The papillon ignores their taunts as the guards lift him onto the dais in the center of the hall. When his feet touch down, he shrugs from his captors and walks forward.
On the lower branch of the throne, the Princess tightens her grip on its frame. Strange. He doesn’t look like a lust-crazed demon. Lighten his skin, shorten his stature a bit and he could pass for doptera. His bound wings twitch — the Princess wishes they were free so she could see their colors. Then she remembers what happened earlier in her chambers.
All light is dangerous.
When the papillon is in the center of the dais, he manages a slight bow. “Your Highnesses.” His voice is rich and melodic. A few nymphs sigh, then clap hands on their mouths. On the other side of the Chandelier Throne, the Dowager grunts and shifts, making the whole structure sway on its suspension of ropes.
The Queen flicks a pale hand. A guard unfurls a scroll and faces the papillon. “You have been found guilty of trespassing within the borders of Doptera, luring and assaulting a nymph, and abandoning her to die in the daytime. As punishment, you will be stripped of your wings, flogged, then beheaded. If you wish, you may plead for mercy.”
The papillon spits. Even this is graceful: the spittle arching through the air to land on the dais. The Queen tilts her chin.
The guards surge forward. The papillon evades the thrust of one spear, sweeps past its owner, and wrenches himself into another guard, carrying them off the dais. The hall erupts in shouts. The Princess cranes to see into the jumble of bodies writhing on the floor. The papillon jerks upright, his bonds slipped just enough to loosen one forewing.
It is enough.
Golden light floods from him. Shouts turn to panicked cries as every doptera fling their underwings before their faces. One nymph isn’t fast enough — she shrieks as she stumbles out from the crowd, arms flailing, feet scrabbling for purchase on the marble floor. Her eyes and mouth are dark ovals of terror.
Through the translucent barrier of her underwings, the Princess watches the nymph spiral around the papillon, his light dragging her close as if it is an invisible hand. Remembering her own brush with sunlight, the Princess calls to the guards to help, but they are too focused on their own efforts to protect their eyes. The papillon takes advantage of this — he frees an arm and lunges, wrapping his arm around the nymph’s neck.
“Closer and she dies.”
The Queen’s expression is indiscernible behind the shimmering curtain of her underwings. She lifts a finger and the guards back away.
The papillon shuffles to face the doptera. “So. This is what came of the Sundering? All of you cowering underground like dung beetles? Pathetic. You’re no better off here than serving us. Doptera will always be inferior to papilioaaAHHHH!”
One of the guards has edged close enough to swipe his spear through the papillon’s wing. The light winks out as the papillon convulses and falls; the nymph gasps as she drops with him. The guards close in, spears rising and falling in sharp staccatos. The smell of blood, sweet and metallic, fills the air.
“Careful! Careful!” The Queen leans forward, trembling lips parted, breath quick. It disturbs the Princess more than the scene below.
When it is over, the Queen asks, “Is there anything left?”
The guards step back. “Some of the wing is still intact,” one says.
“Clean it up and send it to my quarters.” She has regained her composure, though her eyes still glitter unnaturally bright. “Where is the drone that struck the first blow?”
The guards look at each other, then the one furthest back drops to one knee. “Your Highness.”
“Come to me.”
The drone looks at the others before ascending towards the throne. His wings are mottled bronze and beige, with thin streaks of silver. He stops at a discreet distance, close enough to show he is young, perhaps hatched only a few nights earlier than the Princess.
The Queen takes a delicate step into the air. Her wings spread, the pure albescence of swans except for the eyespots in the bottom corners, reflecting her own dark eyes. When she reaches the drone, she slips her arm through his. “What’s your name?”
“They call me Drake, your Highness.”
“Drake. A fine name.” She raises her voice. “Where is the captain?”
“Here, Your Highness.” A helmed drone steps forward and salutes.
“Give this drone a suite on the third floor. He is to be promoted to Class M and to be as treated as such.”
“Just him?” The other guards shift and murmur. “But the entire unit subdued the papillon — ”
The Queen quirks her lips, as if suppressing laughter. “If you want your whole unit to become my broodmates, train them to think quicker.” She looks up at the Dowager. “Is there anything else?”
The Dowager says nothing, but grips the chandelier’s frame so tight the Princess fears it will snap. With a laugh, the Queen pulls the drone up, slipping through the ropes that anchor the throne to the ceiling. She takes him to one of three balconies set in the highest part of the hive. The drone looks down only once, his face a strange mixture of dismay and resignation.
“Come,” the Dowager abruptly says. “It stinks in here.”
Below, the guards get to work on extracting the papillon’s wing. The hostage nymph lies sprawled beside him. If not for the unnatural angle of her head, she could be gazing up past the Princess, past the Chandelier Throne, past the sky hatch, to the Great Sister shining in the heavens, unreachable and alone.
“Why is it that we are drawn to strong light, but the papillons aren’t?”
The garden at the top of the hive is a silver oasis for tired eyes used to shades of blue, purple, black. It is where the Royal Triad can look up at the Great Sister, resplendent in her vast shawl of stars.
The Princess pushes away the cup of blackthorn honey. “Well?”
The Dowager gives a brusque shake of her wings, already starting to shed, showing patches of transparent membrane.
“The Great Sister had her own light, once.” The story creaks from her like groaning joints. “She shone as brilliant as the Great Brother in that her light was stark white, while his was rich gold. Still she craved his warmth, so while he napped, she went into his quarters and stole his light for her own.
“It was a disaster. What had felt so warm before became blazing hot, while hers became bone-chilling ice. She careened across the heavens, wailing in pain, unable to free herself from the energy warring beneath her skin. The Sky Mother heard her and pulled both lights away.
“‘You are not strong enough,’ she told the Great Sister. ‘You will never be strong enough.'”
“And since that time,” the Queen says, approaching down one of the paths, “the Great Sister never had a light of her own. We doptera willingly gave her our own light, so she wouldn’t remain dark in the sky. Because our light wasn’t as strong as hers, she metes it out in bits, so there are days when she has some, some days, more, and some days, none at all.”
“So you do remember the story,” the Dowager says.
“Yes, you’ve told it to me many times.”
“Then why is it so hard for you to remember your duties?”
“Is this about earlier?” The Queen sits on a bench under a weeping silver pear. Her belly is noticeably rounder, a slight bump against her gown. “I rewarded the drone very well — ”
“And fully ignored the rest! You’ve been Queen a few nights and so far you’ve only taken one drone as your broodmate. You need more if you’re going to produce enough eggs to — ”
The Queen yawns. The Dowager’s tirade drops. The Princess bows her head, letting the moonlight gleam of her hair curtain her face, the same trait she shares with the Queen, the same trait she shares with the Dowager. How can the three of them look so similar, yet be so different?
The Princess jumps. “Yes, Mother?”
The Queen nods her chin out towards the east edge of the garden. “What do you see?”
The Princess blinks, then stands, smoothing out the creases of her gown. “The Great Sister, keeping watch over us. The top of the forest. The outlines of hills. The horizon — ” She drops her gaze. “Mother…”
“Look. We are too far to feel its pull.”
She obeys, expecting to feel a tug on her body. “On the horizon. The lights of the papillon kingdom.” Those tiny citrine lights, so bright — she tears her eyes away, unwilling to test her mother’s claim.
The Queen doesn’t appear to notice. She studies the papillon kingdom as if it poses no threat, as if it was just a harmless statue to be studied. “I wonder. Can we become like the papillons?”
“Blasphemy,” the Dowager hisses.
“Questions. Legitimate questions.”
“That can lead down dangerous paths. Like when your daughter decided to test sunlight.” The Princess whirls to stare at her. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” the Dowager asks. “Be grateful you didn’t get pulled all the way to the sun.”
“And yet the papillons walk under the same sun unharmed,” the Queen says. The Princess has never heard her so furiously calm. “Why can’t we?”
“I don’t know,” the Dowager snaps. “What I know is this: We are the Triad. We must protect the hive at all costs. Our safety is in numbers, which is your duty. Your irresponsibility could break it.”
The Queen rises. The Princess thinks her mother will call her again, but the Queen’s gaze goes past her, past the horizon, past anything visible. Her face is all sharp angles, the dappled moonlight leaching the softness from her.
“Some things must be broken,” she says. “It’s the only way to learn what needs to be fixed.”
It was the Dowager figurine the Princess shattered earlier that night.
The fragments have been swept up, the hole in the wall discretely plugged. A new figurine will be finished by the next new moon.
The Princess doesn’t mind. She has placed the figurine of the Queen on the table by her cushions to study it more closely. She doesn’t like looking at the figurine of herself. Its blank, upturned face reminds the Princess too much of the dead nymph.
“Isn’t there anything we can do, Grandmother? Gather a bunch of drones and force her to mate?”
“Dear child! No one forces a Queen to mate. Think on what you say!”
No one knows what to make of the Queen’s behavior.
She shuts herself in her quarters for hours at a time and doesn’t come out, not even for meals. She and the Dowager argue constantly — the Princess knows this because when she approaches, their silence rings heavy with words shouted mere moments before. The rare times the Queen is happy, she has the drone dragged from wherever he is to her quarters. Her cries of passion fall from above like hail.
When the natal nymphs finally bring the Queen’s eggs to the incubation chamber, six lie on the silver tray. “When the Dowager was Queen,” one tells the Princess, “her eggs came in on ten, maybe twelve trays per night. They were so heavy, several workers had to carry each one.”
The Queen can lay eggs. There’s no doubt about that. She just chooses not to.
“Then we declare her unfit for rule. It can just be you and me. We don’t need her.”
“Don’t be foolish. In the history of the hive, there’s always been a Princess, a Queen and a Dowager. No more. No less.”
One night, the Princess overhears a nymph say to another worker, “The Queen must be sun-touched.”
The rumor spreads through the hive like sickness. It passes between drones guarding the hive walls. It whispers from the cooking nymphs preparing blackberries and honeyed rose petals. It screams from the silent upturned faces of the doptera as they gaze up at the Chandelier Throne. If the Queen knows of the rumors, she doesn’t seem to care.
Sun-touched. Obsessing over something that would bring ruin.
The Princess lies awake on her cushions, staring at the Queen figurine and thinking of papillons cracking the hive open, desecrating nymphs, slaying drones, and leaving all to be yanked up into the Great Brother’s fiery arms.
Safety in numbers.
“What about the nymphs? We can make them lay eggs.”
“Only the Queen has the ability to lay. The nymphs lost that ability long ago.”
“Then what about me?”
The Dowager’s smile is meant to be kind. “Child, you are too young. Your body will not mature for at least nine more cycles of the seasons. You must have patience. We must continue to impress the importance of duty on your mother. In time, she’ll come around.”
In moonshine alabaster, the Queen figurine squats, all curve and bulge. Its expression is calm, a maternal half-smile touching the lips, modest eyes cast down, the reason for its sole existence cupped in its hands. This could be a Queen from several incarnations ago. It could be the very first Queen. It could be the Dowager’s mother.
But it is not the Princess’ own.
The Queen’s eggs trickle to two a night, then one, then none. When the drone is no longer called to the Queen’s quarters, no one is surprised.
The Princess bangs on the Queen’s door. It opens just enough for the Queen to slip onto the balcony, several flat objects stacked in her cupped hand like rigid bits of cloth. “What?”
“Why did you send your only broodmate away? What are you doing that is so important?”
The Queen turns back to the door. “Not now. I have work to do. I’ll tell you later — ”
“Tell me now!” The Princess knocks the objects from her mother’s hand. They swoop paper-soft to the balcony floor. Pieces of papillon wing, the Princess realizes, before the Queen slaps her.
It is quick and sharp, hard enough to echo through the Great Hall. The Princess drops to a crouch, away from her mother’s stony gaze. The papillon wings scattered about her blur to watery pools of autumn color: bright orange, pale yellow, striking gold. She touches one with a trembling finger. It crumbles to powder.
“You sound just like the Dowager,” the Queen says. For a moment, she is the Great Sister, cold and remote. Then she kneels, pulls the Princess’ hand from her smarting cheek, grips it tight in her own. “Can’t you see? There’s more to being Queen than just laying eggs. I’m working on giving you a whole new legacy. Isn’t that enough?”
Her eagerness is so painful, the Princess almost says yes. But then the Queen releases her grip, turns her back, and plucks the wings off the floor with such deftness, such care, they remain intact in her palm. As if she’s forgotten the Princess is still there.
She doesn’t care about me or the hive. Just those bits of dried wing.
She doesn’t deserve to be Queen.
Eyes burning no longer with pain, but wet fury, the Princess flees the balcony. She glides down to one of the guards patrolling the hall. “Where do drones go to play at mating?”
He blinks. “The…the Midnight Merry. It’s where all the doptera go.”
“Take me there!”
He takes her to a large chamber several levels beneath the Great Hall. Glowglobes clustered on the high ceiling cast their murky light on doptera hovering overhead or standing in groups, sucking on red tubers. On a small dais in the center, two nymphs duel piping notes on their flutes, while a drone keeps pace with his drum. Around the dais, doptera writhe, all arms, legs and wing, with a wildness that is a far cry from the sedate peace of the garden at the top of the hive.
The Princess strides in, uncaring of anything but finding newly hatched drones all too willing to play at mating. Then she hears the whispers, rippling through the chamber: “It’s the Princess…the Princess…Princess…”
Conversations cease. Heads crane. The musicians on the dais falter to a stop. The dancers turn, gasp, murmur to each other. From somewhere, a high-pitched giggle that is quickly hushed.
The Princess slows her steps, growing more aware of the doptera looking at her. Looking down at her instead of up in adoration. They press too close, gawking, whispering, pointing. All too easy to reach out, to touch, pull, tug, prod.
She is one of the Triad. She’s not supposed to be on the same level as them.
“T-take me back,” she whispers to the guard.
He uses his spear to clear a path out. She clings to him all the way to the Great Hall, where she flees to her quarters, startling the nymph who is placing a pot of cold-brewed tea on the bed table.
The nymph bobs a curtsey and runs for the door, spreading wings dull as bathwater before she’s off the balcony. The Princess slams the door.
What was she thinking? The Dowager was right: she is too young, too young. The Princess stalks around her quarters, fists clenched, breath forced out in angry huffs. On the table, the sculpture of the Queen ignores her, its maternal smile directed to the egg cupped in its hands. Absolute perfection.
With an undignified grunt, The Princess shoves the table over. Everything on it crashes to the floor: the teapot, the glowglobe, and the figurine, which shatters. A wing skids in one direction, the hands and egg in another. The face skitters in a circle before resting next to the glowglobe, which remains remarkably intact. Tea splatters everywhere.
She should call the cleaning nymphs, but that would mean going back out to all those eyes staring at her. The Princess bends to pick up the broken alabaster, then stops. The tea has stained the statue’s wing brown, masking its whiteness. Even when she shakes it off to dry, the stain remains, a delightful wavy pattern.
The Princess stretches out her own wings. And considers.
The following night, she takes several pots of cold-brewed tea and goes to her tub at the back of her quarters. She strips, and pours the tea over herself. She does this several times until her wings become spider-webbed in sepia. For once, she is grateful her eyespots have not emerged yet.
A brown scarf around her hair covers its whiteness. A gown, stripped of its pearls, becomes a plain tunic. The Princess hunches her shoulders, tries to look small and humble. The reek of tea helps.
She takes a deep breath. Two breaths. Three.
Then it’s out the door and over the railing. She lands without incident and heads down to the lower level. She tucks in her arms, opens her wings just enough to carry her to the Midnight Merry.
Her timidity works. This time, no one looks at her.
The Princess wanders, not entirely sure what she is looking for. Doptera gyrate to the wild music while others caress in the shadows, hands stroking cheeks, tracing lips. Some congregate around large holes that pepper the walls and floors.
“…they say she even slapped the Princess in the Great Hall.” The Princess freezes at the mention of her name. She turns, sees a group of nymphs surrounding a drone. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Princess uses this to make a grab at the throne.”
“Is that why she came down here last night?” one asks. “Little Princess looking for a mate to help quicken her eggs early?”
“If she is, she won’t find any here,” the drone laughs, and the Princess recognizes him. Her mother’s discarded broodmate, Drake. “She’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“Where?” the Princess snaps before she can stop herself. She flushes as the group looks over at her, but continues. “Supposing there was a way to mature the Princess faster. How would she do it?”
Drake stares at her. Is a strand of hair poking out where she can’t see it? Can he smell the aroma of tea rising from her wings?
He nods as if making up his mind. “You’ll have to go deeper up into the Midnight Merry.”
He points to the hole next to him. “Come and see.”
The Princess hesitates with the sort of pause one takes before flying for the first time. It is only the briefest of pauses.
She is so used to being a shadow. She follows the Dowager. She trails behind guards. Even when she’s alone, she feels as if she’s tracing the footsteps of someone older, more experienced, just beyond her view.
This feels different.
In following Drake and the other nymphs, the Princess loses all sense of direction. The passage twists and turns, passing rooms she’s never seen. Then the passage tilts up, and they are out in cool, open air.
They stand on the edge of a small glade, hemmed by trees on all sides. A large tent squats in front of them, barely visible in the darkness. Overhead, the sky glitters in the sheen of the Great Sister, full and naked except for a few snatches of puffy clouds. The smell of wet leaves and moss, more wild than the musk of glowworms, saturate the Princess’ senses, along with trills, knocks, creaks, and chirps of unseen creatures.
She has only seen the forest from above. Never below. And never did she notice this tent.
“What is this? Has it always been here?”
But the others surge forward, and all the Princess can do is follow, wondering, why doesn’t the Dowager or Queen know about this?
Inside the tent, it’s warm. Very, very warm. There is music here too: the trill of pipes, the thump of drums, but it’s too crowded for the Princess to see the musicians. Many doptera press against one another, shoulder to shoulder, wing to wing. She can’t tell if they’re talking, caressing, playing at mating, or all three at once.
A burly doptera with dainty olive wings appears before her. “Welcome!” Before she can protest, he pops something into her mouth.
It’s a mushroom, salty-sweet and hot. She bites down in reflex and juices squirt, scalding her tongue with intense flavor. She gasps, more from surprise than pain. The drone fans her face with his fat hands. “Don’t worry. It won’t hurt. You’re just not used to eating hot foods — ”
The Princess catches a wink of silver towards the back of the tent. She maneuvers around the burly drone and after some creative squeezing and elbowing, finds herself in a hallway sectioned off by soft burgundy drapes. Confused, she wanders about until she hears giggling from a partial gap in the wall. She lifts the drape aside.
Drake is in a small room along with the nymphs. He beckons her over with a cup of sweet nectar. “We can talk more freely here. What’s your name?”
“I — my — ” How to explain that as part of the Triad, she isn’t required to have one? “What did that drone give me?”
“Ah. Doyan. He puts mushrooms over stones heated from the nearby springs to change their flavor. He used to be a guard, but wanted to be a food preparer instead — that didn’t go over well with the Triad. When he learned of this place, he learned so many new ways of making food, he hasn’t been back to the hive since.”
“He…he left the hive?” To hide her shock she gulps the nectar… and nearly chokes. It’s hot, not as hot as the mushroom, but still enough to make her splutter. Drake grabs her cup before she drops it. “But what if the Triad finds out?”
A nymph saunters over, her wings dappled ochre. “They got their heads so far up the Great Sister’s ass, they can’t see what’s beneath their feet. What’s your name, pretty?”
“Steady, Elnora,” Drake says while the Princess reels from her casual blasphemy. “The last thing we want to do is scare her off.”
“Why? A few nights here and she’ll never want to leave. We can do things here the hive never lets us do. We can sleep as long as we like, do whatever we want — ah, here we go!”
The drapes part and all thought, save terror, flees the Princess.
They are not without grace, the eight papillons who enter the room. Male and female, they wear curiosity on their exquisite faces as they gather opposite the doptera. Their wings jut out like hands clapped in prayer, in bold colors of shocking orange, warm yellow, startling blue.
The Princess bolts, or tries to. Elnora’s strong fingers close around her wrist. “Wait. It’s not what you think.”
The nymphs greet the papillons with frank stares of their own before collapsing into giggles. An old papillon nymph, her face wrinkled as a dried apple, enters last. “Well now, are we all here? Good! Good! Now remember — one hour. Any longer and we’ll have to make…special arrangements.”
Doptera and papillon laugh — except for the Princess. She claws at Elnora’s hand, who tightens her grip and says, “It’s not what you think.”
“Then, enjoy yourselves.” The older nymph leaves, and the rest of the papillons open their wings.
The Princess ducks. When the screams don’t come, she peeks through her underwings.
There is no golden light. The papillons stand with their wings open, but in relaxed, even amused, patience as the nymphs whisper among themselves. Finally, the mauve nymph steps forward and points to a male with mosaic orange and black wings.
The papillon smiles and bends his wings forward until they nearly enclose him. There is a burst of light — so brief the Princess is unsure she saw it — and the nymph slides towards him, her arms thrown wide. When they collide, his wings enfold her like a blanket.
Desire overpowers shyness, and the room soon fills with sighs and flashes of light. The Princess lowers her underwings, stunned. “They’re…they’re not attacking,” she says.
“Papillons control their light.” Elnora has released her grip and is now eyeing the papillons with a hungry smile. “They only do it when they’re being threatened — ”
“Or attracting a lover.” A female papillon comes over to lay a hand on Drake’s shoulder. She stands as tall as him, her hair a storm cloud of tight dark curls. Her wings are a vivid emerald, complementing Drake’s beige and bronze. “So who’s this delightful creature? I don’t remember seeing her before.” She stretches out a hand that smells of lilies and musk. “I’m Lahna.”
Everything within the Princess screams: fly, fly! “But…papillons…you are our enemies — ”
“That was true a long time ago,” Drake says, “but papillons are no different from us.”
“We don’t have many records from what we call the Sundering,” Lahna adds. “But the few records we do have show doptera and papillon co-existing for incarnations. They worked, they played, and yes, even mated together. There’s even mention of doptera being able to illuminate their wings — ”
“Sacrilege!” the Princess cries. “You enslaved us!”
“How is it different than we live now?” Elnora growls. “At least if the drones are picked as broodmates, they have a chance for a better life. But not us nymphs. We work from hatching to death, like mindless worms, all for the sake of the hive and the Triad. Sluts.” She spits this with such venom that the Princess steps back. “All they do is grow fat off our work and take all the drones. Why can’t I live my own life?”
She breaks into dry sobs. The Princess suddenly becomes aware that the room has grown silent as doptera and papillon watch with expressions of sympathy. Everyone, except Drake; the Princess suddenly realizes he’s not looking at Elnora, but at her, frowning, as if trying to place her face.
Alarmed, the Princess backs off, claws at the billowing wall until she finds the gap to dive through. She runs through corridors, searching for the tent’s exit. How can they turn their backs on the hive so easily? Do they truly hate it that much?
She stumbles into another room. A papillon drone lies naked on a pile of cushions. A doptera nymph straddles his dark hips as he strokes her pale thighs. At the Princess’ noisy entrance, she turns.
The Princess stares, then trips in her haste to get out.
Eventually, she finds the main room. She pushes through the doptera, ignoring their cries of Hey! and Watch it! and Careful! She doesn’t care, doesn’t care, explodes from the tent and launches into the night, flying up, up, up until the tent becomes a smudge almost indiscernible from the darkness.
She spots the pale mound of the hive in the distance and heads towards it. Stops. Sinks onto the branch of a tree. Clings to it as the only thing that keeps her from spinning off, into the darkness, the heavens, anywhere.
It’s not the papillon she keeps seeing over and over again, or his thrusts, but the doptera nymph turning around, her mouth and eyes wide, her hands fluttering to her round, protruding belly.
The nymph was
“Great Sister,” the Princess says, “help me.”
The moon does not respond.
In the end, she goes to the guards. They do not question her bedraggled appearance or her stained wings. They simply do as they’re told.
Twelve papillons are captured, along with twenty-four doptera who left the hive without permission. The Princess watches from the sky as they are led out, all too aware that her wings do not reflect the shine of the moon as they should. She is determined to be the Great Sister: cold, remote, unforgiving.
Until one of the prisoners looks up at her.
Its face is a pale blob, which distinguishes it as doptera. Is it Drake? Or Elnora? Or the impossibly pregnant nymph? What does it see as it looks up at her? The Great Sister? One of the Triad?
Or the nymph who betrayed them all?
The Princess raises herself higher, but she can still hear the cries from below, faint as birdsong heralding the approaching day.
A guard approaches, asking what to do with the prisoners. She tells him to put them in a holding pen deep within the hive, deep enough no one will know of their presence.
Not even the Queen and Dowager? he asks.
The Princess does not reply.
She dreams of Drake lying on his back on a pile of cushions, wings fanned out on either side of his body. Straddling his waist, she caresses his arms, his chest, his face…but she can’t feel him. Her fingers slide over emptiness.
You didn’t tell the Dowager and the Queen. Why?
“Silence!” She pushes off of him, turns, and there’s another Drake, spread out the same way. She straddles him, arches her back, grinds her hips.
Is it because you’re beginning to ask questions of your own? Questions can lead down dangerous paths…
“What do you know? You’re just a drone!” She jumps onto another Drake. And then another. And another. She pounds his chest, kicks and claws. She may as well be straddling air.
If what Lahna and Elnora said is true, then either the Triad truly don’t know what goes on under their feet, or the Queen and Dowager has been keeping things from you. Why else would the Queen not let you in her quarters? Why else does the Dowager tell you not to ask questions, little eggless nymph?
She screams. Drake screams with her, not out of orgiastic bliss but in pain, horror. She lashes out, her fist striking his cheek with a decisive bang that jerks her awake.
The silence is deafening.
The scant glimmer of the glowglobe, muted by cloth, shows her hands trembling. The Princess presses them against her chest. Her heart pounds, as if desperate to leap out. She puts on her robes and steps out onto her balcony.
The Chandelier Throne sways on its ropes below her, its refractions drawing strange patterns on the floor far below. The sky hatch is shut for the day. Why is it so quiet? What woke her?
Then she realizes there are no guards. Not in front of the Dowager’s shut door, nor the Queen’s, or even her own. There are no guards in the Great Hall.
She vaults over the railing. She goes down, past the Chandelier Throne, through corridors, through the Midnight Merry, down, down, meeting no one, her dread pressing her faster, faster. She hears the clash of spears before the corridor opens to a riot of cries, and a sweet, metallic smell she’s only smelled once before.
Then she sees the bodies.
Guards lie in pools of silver blood. Runnels of it slide down a nymph’s face like shimmering tears. The burly drone who fed her the mushroom slumps in a liquid mirror that reflects his tiny wings crumpled like paper. And over by the wall — Elnora could be asleep, her face smoothed into a peace that belies the gaping holes in her chest.
At the end of the large chamber, more guards fight one another. Drake is among them, swinging a clawed spear. His wounds aren’t as fatal as the others, but his wings are gone: all that is left is a few scraps of membrane dangling like a stripped leaf. The few prisoners remaining from the Midnight Merry tent huddle against the wall, watching the battle.
“Stop,” the Princess whispers. When no one obeys, her voice spirals higher. “I said, stop!”
The fighting falters. Some guards drop to their knees while others continue to trade jabs with Drake and his cohorts. The Princess has to put herself between them to make them stop. Even then, they glare, her presence the thinnest barrier preventing them from attacking each other again. It fuels her outrage.
“I never said to kill them. I only wanted them confined. Why have you disobeyed me?”
An older drone, tall and grizzled, steps forward. “Begging your Highness, but it was the Dowager who gave the order.”
“The Queen said to keep us alive!” Drake says.
“Except that one,” the grizzled drone points, and now the Princess can see the pregnant nymph peeking from behind the prisoners, a glistening smear of blood on her cheek. “She’s an obscenity! The papillons will claim her eggs as their own and make slaves of us all!”
“You would kill a defenseless nymph to cover up the fact it’s not just the Queen who can bear eggs,” Drake shouts.
“You would know that, traitor!” another guard retorts. “Is that why you left the Queen? For your papillon lover?”
As they argue, the pregnant nymph stares mute at the Princess, her arms wrapped around her belly. The Princess has seen this posture once before, but instead of the maternal love of the statue, the nymph wears terror.
Our duty is to protect the hive at all costs, the Dowager had said in the garden.
Some things must be broken, the Queen had replied.
Both are wrong…and both are right.
The Princess makes her choice. “Who answers to me?” she asks.
The guards beside Drake respond immediately, along with several kneeling guards. She points to the pregnant nymph. “Take her and the others to the healing chamber. Make sure they stay safe and alive until I return.”
The grizzled drone says, “But our orders were to slay — ”
Rage buoys her up over them. “You will keep them safe or by the Great Sister, I’ll toss you into the sun myself!”
She notes who obeys and who doesn’t. She’ll deal with that later — there’s so little time. She goes to Drake, who is stretching out the ragged remains of his wings and wincing. “Where are the papillons?”
“The Queen took them. Princess, she took Lahna. You must — ”
But she is already gone, flying up the corridors as fast as she can. It doesn’t feel fast enough.
Her mother’s door stands ajar. An ominous sign. The Princess approaches it warily and peeks in. She has always thought her mother’s quarters would be larger than her own, so she is surprised to see a room smaller than her own. Then she sees the openings leading off to different rooms. Voices spill from the furthest one.
“How dare you subvert my authority?”
“I did what was necessary for the hive!”
“At what cost?”
“Don’t talk to me about cost — ”
Please. Let them not notice me.
She peers into the other rooms. One has a vast sunken bath. Another is filled with cushions. In the third, she finds the papillons, trussed with ropes against the far wall. The only one who is not bound is Lahna, huddled in the corner, weeping. One of the drones struggles to stand. “My father is part of the High Echelon in the Tivoli Court. I demand a parley!”
The Princess ignores him as she rushes to Lahna. “Get up! I don’t know how long — ”
Lahna shies away, exposing her jagged brown back. Like Drake, her wings are gone. Unlike him, her wings have been neatly removed. Only fleshy ridges remain, lightly crusted over with golden blood. They twitch, incessantly. The Princess presses her hands to her mouth.
“Mother.” She breathes it out as a curse.
The Princess spins to face the Queen in the doorway, surveying the papillon huddled against the wall. “Look at them, ” the Queen says. “Makes you wonder how they enslaved us in the first place.”
“This is just as barbaric!”
The Queen smiles, the gleam of curved bone in moonlight. “But how else could I figure out their secret? Behold…”
She extends her arms…and her wings. A patchwork mosaic of startling bright colors spread out behind her: golden orange, ruby red, startling blue. And emerald. Lahna’s emerald.
“I had some difficulty in bonding them to me,” the Queen says, inspecting her wings as if they were a new gown. “But it still has quite the effect, don’t you think?”
The Princess shakes her head, horror running through her veins like ice water. “You truly are sun-touched.”
“It isn’t any different from what you’ve done.” The Queen points an elegant finger, and the Princess becomes aware of her own wings, still stained tea brown. “I would have thought you’d understand.”
“Tacking on their wings doesn’t make you one of them.” the Dowager speaks from the doorway. She could be a statue, she stands so still.
“That was never my intention.” The Queen’s eyes grow fever bright. “But if you need a reason — ”
She bounds past the Dowager. After a troubled glance at the papillons, the Princess rushes after, arriving on the balcony to see the multi-hued swirl of her mother dive off, swooping and gliding and giddy as a new-hatched nymph.
“Now we shall see,” she calls as she spirals towards the Chandelier Throne, “if they actually work!”
Realization comes too late to the Princess: she’s going to open the sky hatch in daylight!
She dives off the balcony, but she’s too slow, too slow, straining through the air as her mother settles among the throne’s opulent branches, stretches her hand towards the small lever set by the Queen’s seat.
A clank, a swish, and sunlight pours from above, blinding, golden, strong. It turns the Chandelier Throne into a blazing brilliance that burns the Princess’ eyes. She throws up her underwings, but this is no feeble papillon light. Her traitorous wings propel her forward, drawing her close. Above her, the Dowager shouts something unintelligible…
…and then light engulfs the Princess, delicious, all-encompassing. She curls in upon herself. So warm. So warm. It floods all her senses; she can taste it on her tongue, feel it rush over her skin, hear it chime like the Queen’s crystal laughter. She sobs, both in joy and terror as she waits to be drawn up out of the hive, into the sky, into the arms of the Great Brother himself.
She waits…and waits…and when nothing happens, she opens one eye, then the other. She hasn’t moved. She’s still in the hive. She looks up.
Above her is a ball so bright she can’t look at it directly. It sits in a pool of depthless blue which spreads out in all directions. The heat from the ball brings to mind the mushroom she ate — hot, yes, but not painful. The Princess unfurls herself, light-headed at the thought that she is in sunlight, but she’s not going to die.
“Just as I thought,” the Queen says as she floats up to her, tilting her head back and laughing as if she’s drinking the rays down. “Our problem isn’t light. We’ve hidden ourselves for so long, we’ve grown too sensitive.”
“And that kept us safe for incarnations,” the Dowager calls from the Queen’s balcony. The brightness renders her a shadowed blotch.
“Lies,” the Queen says. “What else isn’t true? The tale of the Great Sister? Our war with the papillons?”
“Or the pregnant nymph you ordered to be killed,” the Princess says. The Queen turns to her, eyes wide, as seeing her for the first time, then turns back to the Dowager.
“I would have told you,” the Dowager says. Her words drop like stones. “On my deathbed, as you transitioned from Queen to Dowager. As my mother did the same for me, I would have told you all my secrets. And then I would repeat what she said to me: do not question why we do this. The meaning has been lost for incarnations. What’s important is that it is our duty to take care of the hive. Passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, Triad after Triad.”
“Until someone tries to change,” the Queen says. “Easy then to silence the doptera who question or make a fuss. Not so easy when it’s your own offspring.”
The Princess’ eyes must be growing used to the light, for she can see the Dowager better, the rigid posture against the railing, the set hardness of her face. “And because of it, you have broken the hive,” The Dowager says
“Oh, Mother, the hive was already broken,” Replies the Queen. She catches the Princess’ hands. “But no more. It’s time to take our rightful place. We shall capture more papillons and don their wings. Then we’ll storm their kingdom and — ”
The Princess pulls her hands away. “No.”
“No. I won’t do it.”
The Queen blinks, as if the light has grown too much for her. “Why?”
She could tell her about the pregnant nymph. About Drake and Lahna. Instead, she tells the truth. “Because you never cared about doptera. Or the papillons.” She squeezes back her tears. How can light be so illuminating and yet so blinding? There is a moment of silence, then she hears the rustle of wings before something warmer than the sun’s touch brushes her wet cheek.
“I would have given you such a legacy,” her mother whispers.
“Go,” the Princess whispers back. “Go and live your own life.”
Without a backwards glance, the Queen rises from the hive, arms outstretched, the sun shining through her wings like living jewels. It is the Princess who closes the sky hatch to bring darkness back into the hive.3=
The group that gathers beneath the Chandelier Throne is the largest so far. Most are the usual crowd of young nymphs, but there are some new faces: a few guards, a couple of laundry nymphs, a stooped drone. She beckons them up and they rise, the young ones eager, the older ones cautious. It’s the closest they’ve been to the Chandelier Throne, and old habits die hard.
A stillness falls over them all when she pulls the lever to open the sky hatch. The best time to do this, she has learned, is on the cusp between day and night, when the sun isn’t directly overhead. Still, there is a flinching and twitching-up of underwings, even for some who have done this six or seven times.
“Tonight, we’ll do a full hour,” she says. “If it becomes too overwhelming to you, speak to the wingless ones.” She indicates Drake and Lahna below on the dais, standing silent, hand in hand. “They will be on hand to help you adjust. But don’t be afraid. Remember: the more you stay in the light, the less you’ll become affected by it.”
The younger doptera surge through the hatch, laughing and swooping with ease. The older ones hesitate, peering out before slipping through. Their gasps of delight fall from above like gentle rain.
A movement from the Dowager’s balcony catches her eye. She alights on the balcony to see the door creaking open, just enough for the Dowager’s words to slip through. “So. Even you’ve abandoned all that I’ve taught you.”
“You taught me how to love the hive. I treasure that, just as I treasure Mother’s ability to look beyond the hive.”
“I should have broken her egg a long time ago.”
“Some things need to be broken in order to be fixed. The hive will grow stronger for it, Grandmother. I’ll make sure of it.”
“You?” Laughter, dry as winter leaves, spills from the opening. “The Triad is broken. You’ve allowed that…that abomination to lay her eggs, while you’re still eggless yourself. And worst of all, you let those papillons actually live here, in the hive. What makes you think you can be Queen?”
She who is no longer the Princess looks up through the hatch. She has long ago stopped scanning the sky in hope of catching a glimpse of a small, familiar, white-haired figure in borrowed wings, but what she does see startles her enough to go to the hatch for a closer look.
In the west, the sun is a large red ball setting over the hills. In the east, the moon rises, yellow and familiar. She never knew the Great Brother and the Great Sister could appear in the sky at the same time. It hurts her, and it comforts.
“It is the legacy my mother gave me,” the new Queen replies.
She turns to ascend into the light. Her gaze does not waver once.
|LaShawn M. Wanak is a graduate of Viable Paradise XV and has been published in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Ideomancer. Writing stories keeps her sane. Well, that and pie. Find links to her stories at her blog, The Café in the Woods.|