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“Wait out here, Clifton. Let me talk to her first. And you —” Sam glowered at her half-brother, “you better hope she doesn’t make me stay here, because you aren’t gonna like me if I have to stay here.”
“What makes you think I like you anyway?” Andre retorted, but Clifton saw worry and a hint of doubt in his eyes as he left them at the entrance to the Innermost Chamber.
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Dinner among the recruits was a noisy, energetic affair. Sharing stories about their training — their failures and their triumphs — brought laughs and complaints, taunts and praise. Their natures began to sort them into a team of leaders and followers.
As word of Sam’s prowess spread beyond the stinging Fliers to the other training groups, she became the most sought-out trainee in the Meadow.
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Inside the hive, Sam slipped into a small chamber out of sight around a corner. The first creature to exit a short while later was a darkly exotic female, the like of whom Clifton had never seen.
“Come with me,” she said as she walked past him.
Feeling his heartbeat in his wingtips, Clifton stammered, “Uh, sorry. I… uh, I’m… waiting for someone.”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“Nothing,” he assured her. “It’s just that… well, I was expecting a… a guy.”
Sam crossed her top arms and stuck her lower fists on her hips. “You males are all alike. Andre didn’t tell you he’s my little brother, did he? Well, half-brother really; Mother used to travel. Come on.”
Sam interrogated Clifton as she hurried him through a maze of empty honeycomb.
“So what’s this war about?”
Clifton felt a need to match his speech to the speed of his legs. “This crazy tyrant wasp in The Arids calls himself General Hai and claims he’s the rightful King of Fen. He wants to take back the Hive and take over Bog and the Freelands, too.”
“Is he what?”
“The rightful King of Fen?”
“No!” Clifton exclaimed. “The Hive has been in my family for generations. There was a wasp uprising against Queen Lilian’s mother a long time ago, and that became the Great War. Another attack happened recently, but it was personal.”
Sam turned left into an unoccupied reserve storage room and shot Clifton a pointed look. “All wars are personal against somebody, aren’t they? What about the rest of the Kingdom?”
Clifton stood tall. “We support the Queen. We’re free to live the way we want to — within the law — but nobody thinks the laws are unreasonable. We’re happy.”
“Except for the wasps, apparently,” Sam commented.
“No,” he corrected her, “including the wasps who are citizens. Only the Great War’s exiles were unhappy. In fact, my aunt is engaged to a wasp.”
“We have good lives in Fen,” Clifton told her. “I can’t imagine not having friends from other tribes.”
“We don’t need friends from other tribes,” Sam countered.
That belief must be so old nobody questions it, Clifton thought. “See, that’s what’s changing. If the General comes to the Freelands, it’s going to be a lot easier for him to take over if he only has to fight one tribe at a time. First he’ll conquer the wasps, then he’ll move on to the bees or the voles or somebody else. His army is greater than any of your tribes alone. If you guys don’t help each other, the Freelands won’t be free for long.”
Sam’s brow furrowed. After a longish pause, she issued an order.
“Take me to this Alliance of yours. I’m signing up.”
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“What are you thinking?” Arturo asked Clifton.
“It should be easy — I’ll ask to stay with the Hiverarchy while I’m here. I can talk to the workers about the Alliance, and maybe start a… buzz.” They both grinned. “Kýrios may be the Most Revered, but he’s not a dictator, he’s an advisor to their Queen. He’ll listen to the majority even if he doesn’t agree, and he’ll share what he hears with her.”