A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the far northern colony of Toltara, catching the listless Workers by surprise and sending them scurrying for shelter.  The first gusts of the incoming storm blew up dust devils in the plaza below, but Queen Arsenya’s stiff, inflexible state gown did not yield to them.   She craned her neck for a glimpse of the road leading south.

“Ellhué’s not coming,” said the Queen, tapping her lacquered talons nervously on the marble railing of the balcony.

“Five Orcish Nymphs will die in the arena tomorrow, my Queen”, replied Bellimont, her Lord Consort. “I doubt Ellhué wants to be one of them.”   He regretted what he said as soon as the words left his mouth.  The Queen’s eyes narrowed and she bared her canines, never a good sign.  Another bolt of lightning forked through the leaden sky, followed almost immediately by the boom of thunder.  The wind rose again with the promise of rain.

“Hsst!  Silence!” she commanded him, her eyes flashing to match the pyrotechnics in the sky.   “You’re the only Drone who cares a vole’s hindquarters about the rule change.  The others are excited about it, the brutes.”  The Queen straightened her back, rising to her full height.  Orcs instinctively obeyed size and height, and Arsenya of Antarissa was the tallest Queen in the Commonwealth.  “For a Drone, you’ve shown far too much concern about Ellhué’s upbringing.  Everyone comments on it.”

What the Queen said was the unvarnished truth.  His solicitude for Antarissa’s oldest Nymph was an open scandal in the Commonwealth.  Orcish Drones were supposed to drink, hunt, shoot, quarrel with other Drones, and, of course, fertilize the Queen when she required.  It was not a hard job, and most Drones were content to do just that.  Lord Bellimont departed from expectations.  Not only did he take an active role in the administration of Antarissa, but he was also scoured the Commonwealth for tutors for the Nymphs of the household.

Lord Bellimont’s heart jumped as he heard the scrape of wooden wheels against the cobbled pavement.  Two coaches turned a corner into the main plaza of Toltara.  The first one creaked into place before the palace entrance, the coachworker jumping down to care for the horses.  The second, laden with greatchests and other accoutrements of travel, clattered along until it halted in front of an unloading dock.

The Queen sent a brace of Workers to attend to the newcomers, but Lord Bellimont outran them.  As soon as the door to the passenger compartment opened from the inside, he helped a young Orcish Nymph step down.  She was lithe and athletic, and tall for a Nymph.  Bald as befitted a potential Queen, she was dressed for travel rather than for court.  Her skin was darker than the olive complexion common to Orcs from the broad central plains, and her tusks were dainty. At twenty-eight, she had yet to seek a throne in the arena.

“Bell!” the Nymph shouted, and gave him a greeting peck on the cheek.  “Good old faithful Bellimont!” She handed him her handbag and turned her attention to the Queen.  “By the Lady, Mother, you look like a statue in that state gown”   Behind her a younger orc-girl stepped out of the compartment.  Apart from her cinnamon complexion, the two could have been hatched from the same egg.  They had the same almond-colored eyes, and the same generous mouth.  Queen Arsenya’s eyes widened.

“Ellhué!  You brought little Tuana with you?” the Queen asked.

“She wouldn’t stay behind!  With this new Temple decree requiring Nymphs to fight to the death, she begged to accompany me, Mother,” Ellhué replied, drawing the younger Nymph into the embrace.

“I couldn’t stand it if something happened to Ellhué, and I wasn’t here,” said Tuana, gazing up at the Queen.

“Thank the Lady Tuana came along, Mother,” said Ellhué, looping her arm through her mother’s. Although the Queen towered head, shoulders and ribs over the Nymph, the state dress impeded her movement, and the two walked together comfortably.  “Now that the Temple bids us kill each other in the arena, like so many fighting she-bears, it would have been a melancholy ride without Tuana’s merry company.”

The rain, which had been threatening all afternoon, finally broke over their heads in torrents.  Lord Bellimont bellowed at the Workers to escort the Queen and the two Nymphs towards the door where a warm rectangle of light glowed against the violent weather.

Silhouetted in the doorway was a gravid young Orc Queen, her stiff state robe seriously stretched by her swollen egg-sack.

“Manira!” shouted Ellhué.  “What are you doing here in your condition?”   It was the first time either Ellhué or Tuana had seen the former Antarissan Nymph since she had won the throne of the icy, far southern port colony of Ferrol nine months ago.

“Relax, Ellhué,” the newly minted Queen reassured her.  “I’ll be back in Ferrol weeks before this brood arrives. Phew! This northern weather suffocates me.  How does anyone stand it?”  The gravid young Queen turned to Arsenya, who still overtopped her by half a head. “Mother, will there be a chance to discuss Commonwealth action against the White Queen?  I know I can count on Antarissa, but…”

Before Queen Arsenya could finish, the two Nymphs grabbed the younger Queen by either arm and dragged her down the hall, giggling with delight.  Lord Bellimont couldn’t help noticing that Ellhué’s laughter, although genuine, was more guarded.  He punched his palm with his fist.  What was he to do?

A decree had come from the Temple that future arena contests would revert to the ancient rules, barbaric rules that all decent Orcs believed were behind them.  Formerly, Ellhué’s candidacy for the throne of Toltara would have been a welcome interruption in court life.  If she won, it would have been another feather in the cap of Antarissa.  The defeated Nymphs would become generals, guildmistresses, or priestesses, and life would go on.

But to fight to the death? To risk her life?  A life that had been so carefully tended?

“Lady’s teats, Mané, being a Queen really suits you”, declared Tuana, who couldn’t keep her hands away from Queen Manira’s protruding egg-sac and swollen breasts.  This mild blasphemy earned the young Nymph a slap on the back of the head from her mother.

“Being a Queen is wonderful!” replied Manira. “First of all, you’re taller than everybody else, so they obey you instantly.  Then there’s the egging.  O Lady, how can I describe egging?”  She lay her palms flat over her swollen abdomen and smiled knowingly.  “It’s like being filled with sunshine, or lightning”, she corrected herself as another peal illuminated the heavens outside the palace.  “All this life inside me.”

“I wish I was going into the arena tomorrow instead of Ellhué”, Tuana declared.  “I can’t wait to be a Queen!”  She put her head against Manira’s bump, embracing the gravid Queen around the waist. “Lady’s teats!  I’m so full of unripe eggs I could burst open like a melon.  All I can think about is egging and being seeded.”

“The rules have changed, Tua,” Ellhué reminded her solemnly.  “The contest is a lot more serious now, and you’re only fifteen.”

“I’m glad the Temple changed the rules,” Tuana said, a little too loudly.  “I’d kill all those other Nymphs.  Mother had to when she Queened, didn’t you, Mother?  That’s why she’s so tall and strong, and lays so many eggs at one time.”

“The circumstances were different then, dear,” Arsenya explained.  “Manira didn’t have to kill anyone when she became Queen of Ferrol, and look how tall she is.”

Yes, thought Bellimont darkly.  They hated us and wanted us dead.  They wanted to get rid of the Abomination in their midst, but you prevailed and saved both of us.  Attendants brought out the Nymphs’ formal gowns, softer and more flowing versions of the blue and white Antarissan state gown, tailored for their immature figures.  The Nymphs dragged the new Queen of Ferrol into their chambers to help them change.

“So, the last of Donaugh’s challengers has finally arrived, has she?” said a voice behind the Antarissan party.

Queen-Dowager Synisse of Toltara extended a powdered hand for Arsenya and Bellimont to kiss.   “No other consorts except for poor old Bellimont here?  Ah, Arsenya, always the traditionalist.” An older Drone, stout and going to bald, huffed up to her side, accompanied by a solidly built Nymph already Queen-tall. “I’m sure you remember Anhwan and the Nymph Gonaugh”, she added.  “Gonaugh will be competing for my crown tomorrow.”

Lord Bellimont acknowledged their hostess with a slight nod, but did not kiss the proffered hand.  All the decadence of the Orcish Commonwealth was on display in this one squat figure.  How early she had come to her Dowagerhood at forty-six.  The Queen of Antarissa was only three years younger than Synisse, but the contrast between them was remarkable.  Arsenya still had the tight, firm silhouette of a much younger Queen.  Her eggings were copious, and his heart still jumped when she included him with the younger and lustier Drones.

He hated to admit it, but there was wisdom in the Temple’s reinstatement of the old ways.  It was hard wisdom, cruel wisdom, but the truth of it slumbered deep in Orcish hearts.  Arsenya was living proof.  Mighty Queens arose out of the shed blood of their foes, not out of the cake-and-berry parties Orcish arena rituals had become.

If only there were some way he could shield Ellhué from that.

“Is he one of your original consorts, Synisse?” asked Arsenya.  Consorts were released from service to a Queen as she went into Dowagerhood.  For some reason, this one stayed behind.

Queen-Dowager Synesse allowed the veiled insult to pass.  The thunder continued to boom outside the palace, shaking the glazings. Synisse of Toltara was never a conscientious Queen.  She drank to excess, she overate, she never exercised, and she disported herself with Drones half her age.  When her Dowagerhood came upon her prematurely, Synisse thickened, wrinkled, and shrank overnight. Her layings had been paltry for a decade, and Toltara, despite its outward splendor, was seriously underpopulated. As they walked, Synisse extolled Gonaugh’s martial virtues.  “She’s been training for over a year.  The Temple’s decree took us all by surprise, Arsenya, but I believe Gonaugh is ready.”  Arsenya looked down at Gonaugh, who could not meet her eye.

As they entered the banquet hall, the schism between Antarissa and the rest of the colonies became more apparent.  There were more than three dozen Queens present, but their state gowns were shabby and ill-maintained.  Only Antarissa’s glistened with new gems.  Synisse had a Worker conduct Arsenya and Bellimont to their table. The other Queens, and the Drones and Workers following their example, stepped back as they walked by.  There were polite greetings, but no real welcome.

“The White Queen will eat their colonies like so many mince-tortes”, Arsenya whispered.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if half of this Orcish rabble was already in her pocket.”  The White Queen had already devastated six southern colonies, and rumor put her advance battalions within a week of Ferrol.  “They’re jealous”, she concluded.  “There isn’t a one of them that lays more than fifty score a year.  As if mere distance will keep the White Queen at bay forever.”

It’s not jealousy, Bellimont ruminated.  It’s a death wish.   Queens collected antiquities, rare birds, beasts, Drones.  They sought their own pleasures and took no thought for the Workers, whose hives slowly emptied.  Outside of Antarissa, a full nursery was unheard of.  There weren’t enough Workers to till the fields, care for the meat-stock, or repair the buildings, let alone bring new lands under cultivation.  As soon as you crossed the Antarissan border, all of that changed.  Industry abounded.  Overall-ed young Workers dunged the fields.  Builders fitted stones into roads and bridges. Soldiers drilled in the camps.

The cornets blew, announcing the arrival of the Nymphs to the banquet.  A door opened, but not a single Nymph emerged.  The chatter of the banquet guests turned nervous, when suddenly Gonaugh, wearing the gold-and-green of Toltara, torn in several places, flew out the door running pell-mell towards the dais where the Queens were seated.  On her heels came Tuana, just as tall but not so stocky, clothed in the Antarissan blue-and-white.  Halfway to the royal platform she threw herself at the Toltaran and tackled her around the legs.  The door disgorged a score or more Nymphs who surrounded the struggling pair, screaming and shrieking.  Ellhué, also clad in the Antarissan colors, followed at a distance, accompanied by a young Drone.

Tuana was riding the Toltaran, pummeling her fiercely with her fists.  Two other Nymphs threw themselves at Tuana, and were paid swift punches to the face.  A third Nymph, who was stanching a flow of blood from her nose, tried kicking Tuana.  The Antarissan grabbed her assailant’s leg in mid-kick, give it a twist, and flung her on her back.  Ellhué and the Drone managed to pull Tuana off the hapless Toltaran and through the circle of screaming nymphs to safety.  Tuana was sputtering curses and insults.

“You daughters of syphilitic mole-rats!  By the Lady’s cunt, Ellhué will cut you all to ribbons tomorrow!”  It took all of Ellhué’s strength to keep Tuana from throwing herself back on the other Nymphs, who were being assisted back to their quarters by other guards and attendants.

Lord Bellimont waded into the tangle of Nymphs and guards.  He put his hand on Ellhué’s shoulder and turned her towards him.  “What caused this, Ellhué?” he asked.

“She was defending my honor, Lord Bellimont”, replied Ellhué.  “Mine, and Mother’s.  Gonaugh, that’s the Toltaran, claimed Mother lay with you before her Queening, and that I was an Abomination.”  Ellhué was clenching and unclenching her fists.

“Then the Nymph Gonaugh accused the Nymph Ellhué of wanting to do the same thing with me”, said the young Drone apologetically, “and that we would make another abomination.  That’s when the Nymph Tuana jumped on Nymph Gonaugh.  I assure you, Lord Consort Bellimont, I had no such intention.”

“That’s true, Mother”, added Ellhué.  “We were just talking.  Rostum’s going to apprentice himself to Iolanth the master builder next year.”

It was an hour and a half before the Nymphs, properly chastised, filed chastely out the same door and took their places at the raised table set for them.  It was an hour and a half in which Lord Bellimont was able to formulate a plan, and in the other hour and a half before they were dismissed he was able to solidify it.

Around midnight, a feverishly vivid dream disturbed Lord Bellimont’s sleep.  He saw Queen Arsenya standing alone on the pinnacle of a mountain.  The wind blew from the South.  Other Queens stood around the Antarissan Queen, but on low hills.  Ferrol arose in the far South, with Manira perched on the summit.  In the North, Toltara rose, but Lord Bellimont could not see the Queen standing on the summit.  Her face was hidden, turned to the North.   Toltara reached Antarissa’s level and surpassed it.

Other peaks arose, and each of them carried an Antarissan Nymph.  Bellimont saw Arsenya, surrounded by Antarissan Nymphs become great Queens, and her glory was very great.  Then water flowed into the plain from the South.  It covered the hills and their light was extinguished. The waters continued to rise, threatening the mountains where the Antarissan Queens were standing.

The Queens from the hills swam furiously to reach the peaks where the Antarissan Queens are still above water, but it was of no avail.  The Queens sank beneath the waves and vanished.

Lord Bellimont saw with a particular clarity that the waters kept rising until one by one the mountains went dark as the waves swept over them.  The waves threatened Queen Arsenya’s mountain. Only Toltara and her Queen were still clear of the rising waters.   When the tide overwhelmed Queen Arsenya’s peak, she cried out and threw heself into the still rising water.  The Toltaran Queen turned and shouted, throwing herself into the water as well.

Eventually, the water covered Toltara’s mountain as well.  Out of the South came a single ship.  It sailed closer.  Ellhué, clearly Ellhué, was its only passenger.  The ship passed into the North, and vanished.  There was only the Ocean.

Lord Bellimont awoke with a start.  His bedrobe was drenched with sweat and he was trembling.  After stripping off his damp nightclothes, he lit a candle.  As he pulled on his breeches and fastened the stays on his camiset, his mind cleared, and he realized what he needed to do.  A knock came at the door.

“Who’s there?” he answered.  The Nymph Ellhué stepped inside, fully dressed in travel leathers, breeches and boots.  She carried a cloak in her right hand and a satchel in her left.  “Ellhué!” he shouted in surprise.

“Lord Bellimont,” she whispered.   “I’m sorry to make you bear this burden. I can’t face Mother with this, and I can’t fight in the arena tomorrow.  I’m not a coward, but I can’t fight knowing that even if I win, I’ll bring shame on Mother.”  She lowered her head and sobbed.  “And you”, she added.

The Lord Consort fastened the last button and tied his cravat.  He walked to her and put his arm around her shoulder.  “Ellhué, dearest, I just woke up from a most terrible dream.  I’m, well,  also convinced you must leave.  In fact, if you hadn’t come in just now, I was going to come to you.”

Ellhué’s expressive almond-colored eyes got even wider.  She lay her cloak and satchel on the couch next to her, and was stared intently at Lord Bellimont.

“Twenty-nine years ago I was traded to the old Queen,” Lord Bellimont told her.  “Argha had little use for a tuskless boy, so I had nothing to do.  The only Nymph in the household was your mother, and she was barely fourteen years old.  We became friends.  She was lonely, and I was barely a Drone, awaiting my first call.”

“I tremble to think about it now, but I became besotted with your mother. She was a flat-chested, narrow-hipped Nymph, but she rode like a centaur, handled a bow like one of the great archers of legend, and sang like a bard. I worshipped her.  Inevitably, my first call was not with the old Queen, but with your mother,”

“The rumors are true then,” Ellhué said, blushing.  “I am an Abomination.”

“Wait,” he pleaded. “The old Queen Argha died of a sudden fever and your mother posted for the old Queen’s throne despite her age.”  Lord Bellimont lowered his head.  “Your mother did not believe she would prevail against the older, stronger Nymphs in the lists.  To my shame, I tried to get her to run away with me.  Instead, she allowed me one last tryst.”

“Against all expectations, your mother vanquished her competitors.  She had to kill all seven of them.  Not one dared yield to an Abomination,” the Lord Consort continued. “So, your mother Queened hard, very hard.  She grew from a Nymph much smaller than you to her present height right in the arena with my seed still roiling in her egg-sac.  Four days later, she produced the finest, roundest, Nymph egg anyone had ever seen.  We hid it until the rest of her first brood arrived, then we allowed everyone to believe it was the product of her Queening Night.”

“That egg was you, Ellhué, fertilized by my seed, unmixed.  There has never been any doubt in my mind or that of the Queen that you are my daughter, Ellhué. Mine alone.”

Ellhué blanched to hear the word used by a Drone.  It sounded like a blasphemy.

Lord Bellimont rose to his feet and embraced the sniffling Nymph.  “I will hear nothing of Abominations, dearest Ellhué.  It’s true that Drones are put to death for doing what I and your mother did, but your mother’s size and fertility silenced our critics. Despite fierce opposition, I was made Lord Consort at seventeen.  You are no Abomination.  You are the best of us, Ellhué; kind, fierce, and as true as a sunrise, but outside Antarissa, yes, you are an Abomination, and not fit to be a true Queen.  That is why I’ve decided to ask Tuana to take your place in the arena tomorrow.”

As if summoned, the younger Nymph stepped into the Lord Consort’s room.  “Ellhué’s already asked me to replace her in the arena, and I’m as happy as a bee in sugar water that you approve.”

“What did you hear?” Bellimont asked the younger Nymph.

“Everything,” responded Tuana with the hint of a smirk.

“Leave,” he said to Ellhué, grasping her hands in his huge mitts. “Go north, not south.  There is a colony of hermits on the very northernmost cape, just outside the jungle.  You will be safe there.”  Lord Bellimont handed her a small purse containing some coins.

Ellhué walked into the Lord Consort’s embrace and he kissed her on the forehead.  “Go,” he said. “Remember those who love you, for love is stronger than fear.”

Then Ellhué turned to Tuana, and wept on her shoulder.  “Goodbye, father, sister”, she sobbed.  She opened the door, and vanished into the darkened hallway.

“The Queen is going to kill us,” remarked Tuana to Lord Bellimont after the sound of Ellhué’s footsteps died in the hallway.  “Well, you anyway.  I’ll be a Queen by tomorrow afternoon.”

The next morning, Bellimont and the Queen decided to watch the contest from ground level among the more prominent Workers rather than from the box set apart for royal guests.  There was no excitement in watching glimmering minatures at such a distance, so they stood at the edge of the field where only a low wall separated them the arena proper.  

A cornet blew to begin the contest, and the frightened Nymphs circled the arena, each keeping an eye on the other.  The Nymph in the Antarissan colors kept her back to the arena wall, sword and shield in either hand. “Smart girl,” whispered Bellimont under his breath.  “Make them come to you.”

The Antarissan feigned a stumble, to see she could draw an unwary adversary in her direction.  Gonaugh was swinging an axe in great arcs against the shield of a smaller Nymph visibly wilting under the blows.

The ploy was successful.  A compact, quick little Nymph, obviously from one of the northern colonies came towards her with a spear.  The Antarissan waited until she thrust, then bounded aside and slashed the girl in the chest with her sword, cutting her breastplate and scoring a large scratch from nipple to navel.  Her blood gushed through the leather onto the already wet sand, clotting it.

Letting the Northerner think she was pushing her back, the Antarissan Nymph retreated until she felt the wall at her back.  When her opponent began probing blindly with the spear, she danced out of the way and rained sword blows down on the girl’s arms, shoulders, and face. At last, the poor girl thrust too deeply into a place where the Antarissan no longer was, and  loked up to find her only inches from her face.  The Antarissan thrust her sword through her competitor’s lip just under the bridghe of the nose.  The northerner’s head exploded like a bloody balloon, and the Antarissan grew visibly before the crowd’s astonished eyes.

“It’s the blood”, whispered Arsenya to the Lord Consort.  “It does something to you.  I felt so much life rushing into me when those other Nymphs spilled their blood on me.  It was like I’d never be tired again.  Ellhué drew first blood.  That’s good.  Now she’ll be bigger and harder to beat.”

The Toltaran Nymph also dispatched another Nymph, and was charging around the arena bellowing challenges to all and sundry.  Her biceps were the size of two roasted peafowl and rudimentary breasts were forming on her chest.  The other two Nymphs gave her a wide berth.

The Nymph in the blue and white parried a blow from a challenger who hoped to catch her from behind.  The Antarissan smashed the boss of the shield into her adversary’s face, driving her into the arena wall.  The challenger stumbled and  the Antarissan buried her sword in her throat, releasing a geyser of blood from her carotid.

The crowd howled with delight.  The Antarissan had now unsnapped her leather breastplate and greaves, having outgrown them.

“That’s very good”, Arsenya explained.  “All that blood will feed Ellhué like a Twentyfeast dinner.  She’ll get huge.  Oh, but here comes Synisse’s brat.”

The Antarissan had her back turned on the massive Gonaugh, who saw an opportunity to deal  her most dangerous rival a single crippling  blow.  The Antarissan ducked just in time, as the Toltaran’s axe whistled over the top of her head.  She managed to prick the inside of Gonaugh’s thigh, but then pivotted to meet the last Nymph who had come up on her left.

   This challenger was crouched into a defensive stance, guarding her core with the shield and denying entry with the sword.  The Antarissan, unaccustomed to her increased stature,  attempted to slash at her opponent’s legs, while also keeping Gonaugh at bay, and was rewarded by a glancing cut across the scalp.  

Arsenya stood to her feet.  The Nymph she thought was Ellhué dispatched the dexterous Nymph with a daring series of feints that ended with Antarissan steel severing her thigh.  The crowd went mad.  “Ellhué!  Ellhué!  Ellhué!” went up the shout from ten thousand throats.  The Antarissan grew visibly much larger and stronger, feeding on the energy released by the dextrous Nymph’s blood.

Now the contest had narrowed to just Antarissa and Toltara.  Gonaugh had only one victory under her belt, and was now deeply overmatched by the Queen-sized Antarissan, who had dispatched the other three Nymphs.

Howling with rage, the Toltaran flew into the Antarissan Princess with great windmilling swings of her axe, disregarding  the Antarissan’s short sword as a bull might disregard a fly.  The Antarissan scored her adversary’s arms and chest, but was unable to land a killing blow.

“Gonaugh’s strategy is to land a killing blow with that axe, and depend on victory to heal her”, Arsenya whispered to Lord Bellimont.  “It’s the only chance she has.  Where did Ellhué learn to fight like that?  She’s fighting like a devil!  Look at the size of her!”

Gonaugh’s axe bit deeply into the Antarissan’s sword arm,  not quite severing it.  The crowd gasped.  Bellimont could see Gonaugh haul back for a swing to the Antarissan’s head that would have ended the contest, but the blue clad Nymph slammed her shield powerfully into Gonaugh’s midsection just below the rib cage.

Gonaugh’s arms fell nervelessly to her side and she vomited profusely all over the Antarissan.  The Antarissan Nymph followed up with more blows to the liver, growing larger and more menacing with each connection, until poor Gonaugh folded under her, visibly shrinking.  Finally, the Antarissan lifted her shrunken adversary overhead, the wound on her sword arm completely healed. She broke the Toltaran’s back over one mighty knee, and snapped her neck with her ham-sized hands.

The stretcher carriers came running out to carry Gonaugh’s broken body from the arena, and  the Antarissan ripped off her armor and stood erect.  Covered in blood, and Gonaugh’s vomit, she was visibly Queening.  Her waist narrowed and her hips flared.  Her entire body lengthened and thickened, and her breasts rounded and filled.

“Ellhué!  Ellhué!  Ellhué!” the crowd cheered.  The victor found her sword and lifted it skyward, her head thrown back in a shout of triumph unheard over the tumult of the crowd. Her now formidable tusks and canines glistened in the mid-morning sunlight.

The stadium exploded with noise and movement.  Even the Workers abandoned their seats and pressed forward onto the field to hail their new Queen.  The excited crowd paid no heed to rank or position. The weight of their collective bodies carried even the towering Queen and the massive Lord Consort along as the current of a rain-swollen river carries a log.

Being shorter by a head and a neck than the Queen, Bellimont found himself privy to a half a hundred wagers being settled somewhere in the vicinity of his midsection.  Coins were knocked into the dust and quickly recovered as the streaming Toltarans jostled for position near the small aperture that led to the arena.

Suddenly Bellimont smelled something he hadn’t smelled in nearly thirty years, the maddening musk of a bloodied, victorious Queen filling with eggs for the first time.  Other Drones were already abandoning their positions and throwing themselves into the arena, even the ridiculous Anhwan.

Arsenya lay her hand gently on his shoulder. “Don’t pretend that was Ellhué, not Tuana,” she said.  Her tone was one she would use on a male grub caught stealing apples.  I have one question, though.”

“Y-yes, my Queen”, replied Bellimont.  He was trembling again, although this time not with fear.

“We’ve known all her life that Ellhué is your daughter, and yours alone.  Why would you not want her to become a Queen, as I did?”

“I only ever wanted her here, with us, my Queen”, he replied,  tears stinging his eyes  “Now, I’ll never have that.”

 

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