I hear their conversation faintly, but I can’t make it out. I feel the pain and conflict emanating from Kenlyi. Damn it, Eli…
Why do I still love him even if he’s a monster?
Kenlyi is my concern now though. I… want to hold him, protect him from Elikel and Gouhr.
Surely, he won’t tell them what’s happened, right?
If he does… Elikel is going to lose his mind. Gouhr, too. My goodness, what have I done?
You stood up for what’s right, as you said you would from the beginning. Janil, you openly referred to us as your kind, your people, whether or not you realized it. You are Groyin. You are a beautiful voice in the chorus. That is what matters now. Now, calm your mind and we can overcome anything… even betrayal.
The whole of the hive mind reassures me. It’s… still so beautiful.
Focus on me, let me help clear your mind. The queen tells me and I feel a rush of warmth. I lay back on the bed, my eyes closed, and I can see the queen. Her beautiful carapace, that iridescent glimmer is unforgettable. My mind drifts and I focus on Kehl now.
Kehl, I’m scared.
Don’t be. There’s nothing they can do through a radio, and you trust Kenlyi. As long as he stays true, there won’t be any problems.
And if he doesn’t? The hive didn’t seem convinced he wouldn’t betray us.
Then we stay prepared. I will come to you. And… the queen and I have something planned for you soon. I can feel a sense of pride. She’s… blocked the thought from those not aware, and made sure that those who know will keep it quiet. It may take a little while, but we know you’ll appreciate it.
Oh, come on, Kehl. Now you’ve got me curious.
I begin trying to probe the hive mind for details, but as Kehl said, the queen has ways of keeping some things private when needed.
I… thought there were to be no secrets, Kehl?
This is different. Janil, we know your kind… has an appreciation for the element of surprise. So, we were trying to use that to further your enjoyment of the gift.
Oh. I feel my face redden from embarrassment. Well… thank you.
I will be there shortly, my friend.
My mind races playfully, wondering what kind of gift they could possibly offer. Still, the fact that they’ve even thought about it is… wonderful.
I jump as the door opens. It’s Kenlyi, and it’s clear he’s been crying. “Ken, what is it?”
“I… can’t tell my yarl no, Janil. I just can’t.” He clenches his fists, but see him fighting tears still.
I start to sense Kehltanril’s presence getting closer. Be calm. I… can probably get through to him.
I’ll not let harm come to you. Kehl tells me firmly.
“Kenlyi, you don’t have to do anything they tell you. You don’t owe them anything.” I sit up in the bed as he takes a few steps toward me.
“I… had to tell them what you’ve done. I couldn’t keep that a secret. Janil, they’ve branded you a traitor.” He looks back out the door as he hears Kehl approaching.
“Janil is holding to his duties, his duty to his original dominus.” Kehl says. It’s… odd knowing he has such a perfect understanding of Camfurdian culture now.
“That isn’t up for debate. My yarl has ordered me to challenge you as a matter of honor, Janil.” He says softly, looking down.
“And you’re actually going to do it? Ken, you owe them nothing! They abandoned any semblance of honor when they slaughtered over a thousand eggs! Kenlyi, they were precious babies. Some were going to be intelligent, high functioning men. There was even one queen among them, Ken. They lost their right to claim honor when Elikel ordered the slaughter.”
I stand, growling. I can still see that baby’s expression before I pulled the trigger. It knew. You are not to blame. You stand with all of us. You are Groyin and we know you would never do such a thing.
“I’m sorry, Janil. I… must declare this challenge, my yarl demands it.” He sighs and finally makes eye contact with me.
“Then what are your terms? Are you actually wanting to fight me to the death?”
“Submission or death. Die honorably or live in shame. And when I defeat you, my yarl wants me to have an escape pod, and the Groyin’s honor that I will be protected and returned to them.” His gaze falls to the floor again.
“If you want off the ship that bad, we’ll more than happily drop you off as a sign of good faith.” Kehl comments. “This entire concept of a fight is… so backwards.”
“If you want a fight, I’ll indulge you. You don’t owe them anything, Ken. This is Gouhr’s way of manipulating you. If you win, you eliminate a problem for them. If you fail, you were too weak for them anyway. The result doesn’t matter to them!” I shake my head and sigh.
“Tonight, Janil.” He says calmly.
“Leathers or armor? Weapons?”
Most Camfurdian armor can double as improvised weaponry. Some are designed with spikes or ridges to be used as weapons. I know for fact that some of his armor is ridges and spiked.
“So be it, Kenlyi. I… thought you were going to always stand by me.”
“I… don’t know that I know you, Groyin. I knew Janil, the son of Arahni, Elikel’s second. I don’t know you, Janil of the Groyin.” He shakes his head as if he’s trying to convince himself. After a moment, he storms back to his room.
Kehl finally steps inside and looks at me, concerned for my well-being. Is he serious?
You know he is. I step closer to him. Softly, gently, I reach up and touch his face, my hand tracing the thick ridge of cartilage between the maw and eyes, probably the closest thing a Groyin has to cheeks.
His eyes widen. “Janil?”
Physical affection is important to my kind, among close friends, lovers, family, and so on. Of course, it varies, but…
Now that you aren’t as scared or intimidated by us physically, you wanted to try it. Kehl smiles at me and nods. It… feels nice.
I nod. It’s softer than it looks. It’s really only our carapace that’s so hard, isn’t it?
He laughs. “Our” carapace? Poor Janil. He reaches up and touches my cheek much as I did his. Your mind is having a hard time separating things already.
I chuckle softly. I… suppose so. Then again, I’m used to wearing heavy armor, so…
Kenlyi is serious about this fight, isn’t he? There’s no talking him down, is there? Kehl’s hand lowers and runs down my arm now.
No, he’s… set on it. He wants to give us both time to rest so that we’re at our best for the fight. I… dread putting that armor back on. It just… isn’t me anymore. I look at the neatly stacked armor.
Curiously, I can feel the queen’s presence around us both. After a moment, Kehl nods. The queen is going to allow this fight, only to appease the Camfurdian honor. She believes by allowing it, we are showing a sign of good faith to them, that we do respect their ways. She says she will not allow either of you to be killed, and that is the only way that she would interfere. And… she promises that workers will have your gift prepared before it is time. Kehl grins at mentioning this mysterious gift.
I didn’t plan on killing him even if I had the chance, and I… don’t think he’d kill me. What do we do with him if I do beat him? I sigh and approach the armor, analyzing it piece by piece.
If he wants off the ship, we’ll still arrange it, but I think he is only doing this out of a sense of duty. It’s clear his heart isn’t in it.
I shake my head as I put the armor back down and then back to Kehl. “No, his will to fight isn’t there. This is to satisfy the demands of his yarl, the demands of his submission. He is still Camfurdian.” Anxiously, I touch my face, then down my neck, then chest, and lastly an arm.
Just breathe, Janil. It’s your mind that has changed, not your body. He reaches out and touches my other arm.
I know. It’s just… cognitive dissonance. I have how many billions of minds telling me something is different, and my Camfurdian instincts have me longing for armor. It’s a terrible combination. I laugh softly and he moves even closer to me.
“Get some rest, Janil. We’ll sort the rest when you beat him, okay?” He says to me in the Groyin tongue.
Nervously, I lean forward and kiss the same bony ridge I had touched earlier. After the quick peck and the corresponding confused look from Kehl, I nod and quickly lay back down.
“What… was that for?” Kehl looks at me, confused.
My mind is open, Kehl. Read me and you’ll understand better than I can explain. I smile up at my friend.
It’s… going to be a long and difficult road, but I’ve the strength of billions behind me.