All Hail the King
The wedding, Junya had
to admit, was magnificent. After half an hour to adjust his gown and
redo his make-up in the closest bathroom, they were off once again
into the city. Zuberi reappeared in more highly polished armour,
intricately decorated with engraving – complete with matching
helmet and sword – and while he looked very regal indeed, he didn't
seem overly happy about it.
The carriage that awaited them was more what Junya would have expected of royalty: pretty and flimsy, highly decorated inside and out with bright paint and silver and bronze details, but clearly not sturdy enough to go through the woods as the other (ugly) one had. Zuberi, perhaps noticing that he was still limping, helped Junya into the carriage, shifting about the satin seats himself as if he were uncomfortable in the flimsy structure.
Citizens lined the city streets, freshly bathed and dressed up in their best clothes, cheering and throwing grain at the carriage as it passed, pulled along by horses dressed even more fancifully than the people. Brightly coloured signs and long lines of bunting were strewn between the odd buildings, the sound of blaring, joyous horns and drums coming from every corner of every street. As much as he had been looking forward to the young Lady's wedding, he doubted that the town would have held a party this joyous or extravagant. Maybe because he was a king?
After all this excitement, Junya thought, Zuberi was sure to be disappointed later. 'Disappointed' was an understatement, of course: Junya knew he was going to die tonight if he couldn't find a way to escape. What weighed on his mind was how violent it was going to be, which all hinged on how 'disappointed' the Gorilla King was that he had been tricked into marrying a man. Would he be beaten to death? Stabbed? Beheaded? Would the young Lady be away and safe by then?
“Try not to look so dour, will you?” the king suggested “This is supposed to be a wedding, not a funeral.”
Junya had never seen a temple the likes of which the ceremony took place at – so grand was it that it was made of stone instead of wood, several stories high with great stained glass windows and metal decorations fixed to the shining stone instead of paintings or murals. All the gorillas of high society were able to cram into it, polished armour gleaming spectacularly as the sun went down: even the women were wearing armour (at least Junya assumed there were women in the crowd, he couldn't really tell the difference between them). The doors of the temple stood open so that even the soldiers and commoners could watch the proceedings.
Of course, this whole fiasco was about raising the morale of his people – it was only natural they should be allowed to watch it. Junya felt hollow as he parroted the vows back to the priest, like this was some horrid waking dream. He felt himself move, heard himself speak, but he wasn't here, not really. How many hours until his death? Would there be a feast first? He would at least like to die with a full stomach, and he had never gotten drunk before.
He had never done a lot of things.
He didn't want to die.
He pushed the thought away, forcing on a smile, afraid he might burst into tears and give the whole thing away.
The young Lady was safe. She was safe. She had to be.
Back at the castle, the servants had laid out a feast the likes of which Junya had never imagined in his wildest dreams: fruits and grains piled high on the long tables; vegetable dishes steamed and sizzled invitingly; fish and meat nearly as big as he was tantalized his nose, making his mouth water; sweets and cakes so fancy that even the Lord couldn't have afforded them as far as the eye could see; all laid out on great gold serving dishes with flowers and berries for decoration. Wines, ales and spirits flowed like water, loosening tongues and guaranteeing that everyone had a merry old time.
How grotesque. Junya grew more despondent as the night wore on, feeling the sand in the hourglass of his life seeping down. He ate all the fine foods until he felt like he would explode, tasted things he never even knew existed and brought shivers to his simple peasant bones. He tried wines and ales and didn't think much of them, finding the spirits much more to his liking, especially when mixed with the juices of the sweet summer berries. If he was going to die tonight, he may as well be full and absolutely plastered.
He spoke to some of the guests as the night wore on and drinking alone got boring, and was complimented many times for his startling blue eyes and for being beautiful – so much so that he longed to scrape the make-up off his face and hack short his perfectly arranged hair, just so he could start to feel like a man again. Zuberi was a regular social butterfly, he supposed, as he couldn't actually make him out in the crowd, and as far as Junya could tell he didn't come to check on him at all. Junya snickered, somewhat inebriated, at the thought that he wasn't a very good husband.
He found, as he chatted with random people, that the difference between the gorilla men and women was their size – with the women being smaller – but that was pretty much it, as they all wore armour and all carried weapons, even at such an opulent event. There seemed to be some kind of rhyme and reason to their armour choices, as he noticed repeating patterns and what seemed to be coats of arms emblazoned on them. Some of them were pretty intricate, but Junya supposed metalwork was their speciality, afterall.
Whenever there was a party back home, during the spring wedding season or after harvest in the autumn, the priest would always put Junya in charge of the children (all the better to keep him out of trouble, young men being the way they are), and while he had complained at the time, he found the lack of children here to be most disconcerting. Why did the gorillas have no children? Is that why morale was low? It made Junya kind of depressed too: no-one running around, hiding under tables and stealing sweets – it hardly felt like a wedding at all.
It was late in the night (or very early in the morning, either way it was still dark outside, the great halls and gardens lit by free-standing metal torches), when one of the Gorilla Kings servants tapped Junya on the shoulder.
“My Queen, it's time to retire for the night.” she informed him.
“Why's that?” he asked hazily, not nearly having had enough liquor for his liking just yet.
“Well,” the servant fidgeted uncomfortably “It is your wedding night. It's bad enough that these men made you get married after travelling all day without a bath: surely you want to be at your best for what lies ahead?”
A sobering question.
He could have drowned, if he put his mind to it. Junya couldn't swim, and the great brass bath was deep enough, but he just couldn't bring himself to go under. Instead, he sat with his nose just above the milky water, taking in all the steam and perfume, the warmth making him sleepy. Indoor plumbing – hot water right to your bath – he could cross that off the list of things we would never experience.
The servant from before offered to help him dress, but of course he declined. Having come this far, there was no point in dropping the charade now. Getting out of the bath meant that he would have to get dressed and go to the kings bed chamber, which meant his death in at least as few minutes as it took the king to undress him again, but he couldn't stay in the cooling water. Wouldn't want to catch a cold.
He breathed calmly to stop himself crying. He didn't want to die. Despite his bravado in front of the young Lady, he desperately wanted to live. The halls, marble, alabaster and bronze, were full of armed soldiers and revellers, every door locked or guarded, so there was no way to sneak out. Being on the fourth floor, he couldn't sneak out of the window either, even if his leg had been good. Fighting his way out was even more out of the question.
He started trembling once again as he put on the white gown the servant had left – it was pure cotton and light as clouds, ending just above his inelegant knees. Please, he thought, don't let me die wearing such an absurd thing. He brushed his hair, remembering half way through that he was supposed to be a Lady and redoing it, trying to make it look suitably refined. There was no make-up in this bathroom, but what was the point now? No point now. Not now.
He couldn't loiter in the bathroom anymore – and God knows he tried – so with great reluctance left, walking down the dark, empty hallway to the kings chamber, spine hollow with the knowledge that every echoing step brought him closer to his death.
Fuck being a hero – he wanted someone to save him. He didn't care who.
He opened the door. Zuberi stood at the grand windows on the other side of the room, looking out at the view past his balcony: he had removed his armour and under-shirt, revealing his back to be almost completely free of hair. Junya vaguely recalled there being a word for it, but the thought quickly left him. Gorillas looked fat with their clothes on, but with them off, Junya could see that the good King was nearly all muscle, and it only made the fox feel childishly frail in comparison.
As the door clicked closed behind Junya, it caught the kings attention, causing him to look around. Junya felt like he would physically be sick, he couldn't stop trembling. He was staring his death in the face now.
“I can see you shaking from here.” Zuberi admitted “Have you never seen a man without his shirt before?”
Junya couldn't answer: he was afraid of what would come out of his mouth. He used the closed door to steady himself. Seeing that he wasn't moving, Zuberi took the initiative, walking calmly across the room and around the bed towards him. Junya couldn't back away, feeling his whole back against the wood. He couldn't run.
Moving slowly, Zuberi tilted Junya's head up, just as he had done back at the Lords house. He examined his face carefully.
“You're still pretty without make-up.” he assured “Even if you aren't the young Lady Fox.”
Junya's heart stopped. His mouth went dry. All thought left his mind.
“You know?” he choked, so quiet that even he wasn't sure he heard it.
The king huffed, putting his hands on his hips.
“I knew that Lord would do anything to stop me taking his daughter.” he admitted “I thought he might try and pass off one of his maids as her. He should have taught you a thing or two about how ladies act and talk, not just how they look: you're obviously a commoner of some kind.”
Well... of course it was obvious that he was a commoner – his hands were calloused and he wasn't at all refined – but the king had called him a 'maid', so he hadn't figured everything out, and if anything it was going to make it worse. Could he talk his way out? Beg for mercy? He opened his mouth, but no words came to save him. Zuberi just sighed.
“I don't particularly mind.” he admitted “I wanted a beauty, and I got one. I'll have to impose sanctions on that Lord for tricking me, though, teach him a lesson. 'Ladies' are fragile anyway: that all the intelligence hasn't been educated out of you may work in our favour.”
The Gorilla King knelt down so his face was level with Junya's, big brown eyes taking in his not-at-all hidden terror.
“I know you're scared.” he said quietly “I won't hurt you.”
Zuberi smiled in a way that was supposed to be calming, running a massive hand down Junya's face.
“You have my word.” he swore “I'll die before I let harm come to you.”
This was it. He was going to die. His heart beat so fast in his chest, it was ready to explode, and no calming words were going to stop it.
A siren started to wail. It screamed through the corridors, echoing harshly on the stone walls. So loud and unnatural was the sound that Junya fell to his knees, clutching his splitting ears. The second he hit the floor he was hauled up, and in one swift movement carried across the room and thrown through a door.
“Wait here!” the king ordered, slamming the door and locking it before Junya could protest.
What the?! Where was this? It was small, but had a window – a side chamber? A reading room? There was no other way out. That awful noise! Junya tried covering his ears, but that awful screeching didn't stop! What was going on?!
Leaving his poor ears, Junya tried to open the door, but even without the lock it was a great heavy thing that wouldn't budge with what strength he had. He pounded on it, demanding to be let out, but couldn't even hear himself shouting over the siren.
The only thing worse than the siren was its sudden stop. What followed it was a wretched stillness and an awful high pitched ringing deep in his head. Hang on... there was another noise, faint and deep, somehow familiar and just out of earshot. He knew the noise, but also didn't, like a song sung out of tune. He closed his eyes and listened, pressing his ear against the door.
“Buzz?” he thought aloud “Bzzzzzzzzz...”
An insect. The noise was an insect, but more ominous: it wasn't the annoying sound of a fly buzzing around the room while you're trying to sleep, but the deep, threatening vibration of a swarm. Why would there be a swarm here? There were no fields, no crops, nothing for it to eat.
He heard something else, felt it through the solid floor and walls: the gorillas were running, shouting. Over a swarm? They'd just move on when they found that there was nothing for them to eat, it was nothing to raise arms over. Was it not insects?
The door in the next room was thrown open, slamming shut again almost immediately, the suddenness of it making Junya jump back.
“Lock it, lock it!” a woman screamed.
“I'm trying!” another yelled back.
“He's coming!” a third declared.
“He won't come here!” the second told her “He won't come to the kings chamber!”
A heavy impact, shaking the entire wall, proved them wrong. What could cause a solid foot of rock to shake like that? Junya backed away from the door, almost hitting the bookcase in the cramped chamber. The women on the other side were silent.
“The balcony.” one of them said “Get onto the balcony!”
“But there's no way off!”
“Do you want him to find us in here?! It's our only choice!”
The wall was slammed into again, and again. Junya heard the balcony doors being desperately struggled with, finally opened and slammed closed. He wanted to follow them – he didn't want to be here, right next to whatever was trying to break in. He ran to the window, reaching it just as an almighty crash shook the whole floor, the wall in the other room coming down. Seconds later it crashed through the great glass windows, and the women on the balcony screamed.
Junya threw the window open, hoisting himself up to look outside. What was that?! A demon?! A monster?! It looked like a giant bug, as big as a bear and twice as ugly, rump buzzing as it reared its wings. The women cowered from it, right on the edge of the balcony. Hang about... were they pregnant?!
All three women were noticeably large, not able to wear armour over their swollen stomachs. They were pregnant! They were pregnant and they were under attack! Junya looked all around – the door had caved in, blocked by rubble, the books and decorations thrown asunder. Hearing the women screaming, he swore loudly.
“I'm gonna die anyway!” he declared, voice breaking as he grabbed the first sharp thing he saw.
He scrambled out of the window, leg already pinching and screaming in protest, landing on the edge of the balcony. He leapt at the monster, burying the head of the small axe in its rump. It let out an unholy cry, the sound shattering what was left of the great windows as it rounded on him.
It was an insect! He recognised the bulbous, wide-set eyes and many overlapping mandibles of the cicada, but this creature was a thousand, no, a million times bigger! Junya was frozen in terror as it looked at him, decided he wasn't worth its time and turned back to the women. Suddenly feeling his heart beating like a festival drum, Junya snapped back to his senses. He grabbed the axe handle and tore it free, soliciting another scream from it.
“I'm not done with you!” he yelled at it “Look at me!”
Junya didn't wait – he leapt at it again, slamming the axe into the joint of one of its legs. That got its attention alright, as it slammed into him as it spun around, throwing him into the wall. He struggled up, bearing his axe as those mandibles started to quiver.
“Get out of here!” he ordered the women “Go!”
“We can't leave you!”
“You have to! Think of your children!”
“Oh yes.” a smooth, amused voice agreed “Do think of your children.”
The insect stopped buzzing. The women froze, silent as a painting. Everything went still. A figure had appeared on the balcony, just stood on the railing.
He was tall, lean, dressed in fine white silk. His skin was almost translucent, with long hair of silver and eyes of gold. He looked more like a ghost than a man, surveying the scene in the manner of a preying mantis. His smile was captivating, mocking, deadly on its edges. His robes fluttered in the night air.
“Dear brother, you're injured!” he noted, surveying the near-severed leg of the insect “What on earth happened?”
He jumped off the balcony’s railing, floating down like a petal on the breeze. He walked with the same elegance, rubbing the insects back reassuringly.
“Poor boy, that will take forever to heal.”
The cicada let out a piteous noise, letting itself be petted. Junya knew for a fact that the only thing worse than monsters were people who could control them. He held his axe up as the stranger turned those gold eyes to him, that smile frozen on his face.
“A little fox?” he wondered, then laughed at his own personal joke “My apologies – a rather big fox! What is such a pretty fox doing in a place such as this?”
The cicada leapt back as one of the women took a swing at it, setting herself squarely between it and Junya. She grimaced, baring her teeth at it as the stranger smiled, bemused.
“Not running away?” he teased “How unusual.”
“I'll die before I let you hurt the queen!” she declared “And my baby will have a hero's funeral, even before its birth!”
“I can assure you, they'll be nothing left of your baby to bury.” the stranger told her “They're far too delicious at the stage you're in. But please, hold out hope for a hero's funeral of your own. Especially if that stick is all you have to defend yourself.”
Every word out of his mouth was mocking, every syllable taunting, and it set Junya's teeth right on edge. The other women tried to run, but the beast leapt to the door, blocking their path with a scratching hiss. The woman before him clutched her 'stick', which Junya recognised as the handle of a broom, as her only protection. The stranger reached out his hand, still smiling.
“Don't be sad.” he urged “It's all for the greater good.”
To hell with that. Junya went for him, slipping around the gorilla and slicing with all the force he could muster. He caught the bastards wrist, taking his smirking hand clear off. Before he could take a second blow, the stranger leapt into the air. He landed behind Junya, grabbing a fistful of his hair.
“Stupid fox.” he taunted “What did you hope to accomplish with that? I pick my teeth with bigger bits of metal than that.”
“Damn you!” Junya retorted, struggling in his grip “I took your hand off!”
“A temporary inconvenience.” the stranger replied drolly “It's already stopped bleeding.”
“Temporary?! What kind of monster are you?!”
“Oh, I'm sorry.” he replied, laughing “We haven't been properly introduced, have we?”
He let go of Junya's hair, but was quick enough to grab him by the throat before he could get out of arms reach, hoisting him around to face him and up onto his tiptoes. He was devilishly strong for being so lean.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” he said, silver hair shining in the moonlight “I am the Insect King.”
Insect King? But...
“There is no Insect King!” Junya challenged “That's just a story to scare children!”
This seemed only to amuse him, as he laughed through his nose.
“Foxes are such funny creatures.” he thought “I assure you, I'm quite real. It's been so long since I've eaten fox, but you live so far away, and it's almost impossible to tell when you're pregnant until it's too late: it's just not worth the trip.”
Pregnant? It dawned on him – there were no children here, not because the gorillas didn't want any, not because of any disease, but because of him.
“And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?” he asked “The incubator called you a queen.”
“My name is Junya.” he told him “And I ain't no queen!”
Junya swung with all his might, burying his axe in the bastards neck. The king yelped in surprise and pain, letting him go as he tried to stop the bleeding. Junya went for the cicada again, leaping at it to hack off another leg, but it flew up, out of his reach, landing on the wall high above, leaving the doorway clear.
“GO!” Junya roared.
The two women didn't need any further encouragement, running as fast as they stubby gorilla legs and swollen bellies would allow them. The third, still brandishing her broom handle, hesitated.
“I can't-” she said.
“You didn't!” Junya interrupted “Get out of here!”
She fled, letting out a howl is despair as she ran through the ruined chamber. Junya brandished his axe, backing into the room as that monster bug leapt back off the wall, landing before him and hissing, raising its wings menacingly. The king hissed as well, finally standing straight and removing his hand from his neck, revealing that the wound had disappeared.
“Another stupid move.” he criticised “All you've done is guarantee that I'm going to kill you.”
“I doesn't matter that I live.” Junya barked “Only that you fail!”
He tried to stand ready, knowing attack was imminent, but his leg had never been in this kind of pain before – it felt ready to snap, and he couldn't stand right on it. The Insect King examined his hand, wiping the excess blood on his fine white robes. He watched Junya, who watched him right back. His back tensed as the king once again smiled.
“You're very brave.” he noted “You aren't an incubator – if you had stayed in that room, I may never have known you were there: you would almost certainly have lived. Instead, you came out here. Why is that?”
“Because the worst thing you can do is nothing!” Junya cried “How could I live knowing I allowed unborn children to die? To be eaten?! I'll die today, and I'll do it with a clear conscience!”
The Insect King laughed through his nose again, smiling that mocking smirk.
“No you won't.” he said.
Quick as a flash, he appeared in front of Junya, robes fluttering from the movement. He slapped the axe away, grabbing him roughly, and kissed him full on the mouth. Junya's head started swimming – something was going on, something was entering him, something unreal! His vision blurred. All pain and thought left him as he blacked out.