Red. I’d thought my other sisters getting blue wings and purple wings would be the worst I’d ever have to swallow. But red wings? On 4408? The sister who shrilled like a teakettle when she saw her friends and snorted when she laughed? The sister who’d called me boring, who’d yelled “This is why no one likes you!” when I threw a dead chicken in her face? And now she was going to be queen. She was going to be my queen.
I’d only just walked into the kitchens, a plucked chicken in either hand, ready to start another ruddy shift on another ruddy day, and Priscilla went and dropped the news on me while buttering a soufflé dish, just like that.
“Her pupa went translucent last night.” Priscilla’s mandibles clicked pensively. She coated the dish in caster sugar and tapped it on the counter to shake off the excess. “I thought I’d go to the Chrysalis House to check on her, give her a bit of encouragement. Her pupa was already starting to clear up by the time I got there. The guards, everyone, we watched it for hours. At first we thought her wings might be orange, a dark orange, but...”
“Red.” I slapped my chickens onto the counter and tried not to picture it.
“Red as rosehip.”
I took a deep breath. The aroma of the in-progress fry-up for Queen Charlotte washed over me. Eggs, sausage, rashers of bacon, fried bread, baked beans, black pudding, bubble and squeak, mushrooms, and fried tomatoes—a banquet of olfactory sensations.
But underlying it all was Her Majesty’s mandibular pheromone. Musky and floral. Real and warm. Love eddied at the edges of my consciousness. I breathed again, deeper. Queen Charlotte’s pheromone used to be potent enough to induce bliss. These days it was just enough to make me feel calm but not good. Never good.
“Olive...” Priscilla said as she carefully separated egg whites and yolks into two bowls. “I think you should go see her. Before she hatches.”
I preened chicken feathers from my antennae. “No.”
“She’s your sister.”
Priscilla liked to use words like that, words from before the first Imago came here. She still referred to larvae as “humans” and called her brood of larval kitchen maids her “daughters.” Apparently that made us all “sisters.” Everyone loved Priscilla, so we adopted her terms. But I’d be damned if I let her use her defunct old-world jargon against me.
“She’s scared, Olive.”
“What does she have to worry about? She’s going to be queen.”
Priscilla finished separating the eggs and set to beating the whites. “Metamorphosis is always a touch daunting. Surely you remember your own hatching day.” Her whisk tsk tsk-ed on the old metal bowl.
Heat crawled up my antennae. She hadn’t needed to bring that up. I crammed clumps of herb butter under the chicken skin, trying not to think about the worst day of my life, and failing.
The first words I’d heard, the day I regained consciousness inside my chrysalis, were congratulations. But they weren’t for me. There was talk of a blue attendant, a purple nursemaid, a yellow guard. I was so excited to hear what color my wings were that I was shaking. And then came Priscilla’s voice—so careful, so quiet, I could hear my heart beating over it. And she told me my wings were grey. That I was a drudge. That she’d requested I return to the kitchens instead of doing menial labor with the other grey-winged toilers. I was going back to the brood. With the larvae.
“Purpose is nectar,” she’d said as she handed me my assignment file.
“Purpose is nectar,” I’d echoed, as if in a dream.
Then the nursemaids gave me a slap on the rump and a good look in the mirror. Sure enough, my wings were grey. And beige. Dull as a December moth. And then they’d named me Olive, like a load of right jokers.
Priscilla lifted a white sauce from the stove and gently folded in her meringue peaks. “It’s just as hard for your sister as it was for you.”
“Doubt that.” I shoved a lemon into the chicken.
“Her being queen isn’t any better than you being a kitchen maid. Besides, if you didn’t have grey wings, who else would help me cook?”
I gestured to the larval idiots.
Priscilla sighed. “None of them can stay, as far as we know. And I’ll need someone to take my place when I’m gone. We all have our purpose, and purpose is nectar.”
“Purpose is nectar.” I murmured, joined by a chorus of voices from behind me. I turned to see the kitchen larvae staring, and I jumped. It was times like this, with a dozen pairs of creepy white sclerae all set on me, that I was reminded how odd looking larvae were. No wings sprouting through the backs of their jumpers; no mandibles or antennae. They didn’t even have exoskeletons but skin that tore and bruised as easily as a peach.
The kitchen larvae had to know about 4408 already, gossips that they were. They just wanted to see what their ornery, rubbish-winged sister had to say about it.
“Bugger off,” I said, and went back to salting my stupid chicken.
Priscilla shooed the larvae away and slid her soufflé into the oven. “Get back to work, you silly pests.”
The larvae feigned busyness, rattling plates and thunking pans, though a few kept stealing glances at me. Their voices buzzed, and a bloom of excited pheromones rose with the aroma of breakfast. A new queen. One of Priscilla’s daughters. Everyone was delighted, just delighted.
“Purpose is nectar!” came a cry above the din. A larva waddled toward us with a bucket of jelly. For every meal, whatever Queen Charlotte didn’t eat went to the royal entourage: attendants, nursemaids, drones. After they’d had their fill, it was liquefied, distilled, flavored with a black currant extract, and turned into the cloying gelatinous nectar all of us workers knew and hated.
“Purpose is nectar,” the rest of us repeated, and formed a queue. I grabbed my mug and stepped behind Priscilla.
When the sludge hit the bottom of my cup, I half turned, expecting to hear 4408 say, “What, no roast chicken?” I’d told her one time, just one time, that I had a daydream about burying my face in a fat, greased up, oven-roasted chicken, cramming gobs of meat into my mouth. I wanted to bite it off the bone, to feel the juice dribble down my chin, to crunch and chew and mash, to suck it all up with ice-cold elderflower cordial. 4408 had loved that idea so much she teased me about it every day for the next five years. Every day. “What, no roast chicken?” and I would deadpan, and she would needle me with her pointy little vertebrate elbow and tell me I had no sense of humor. The day before she went into her chrysalis she’d said, “You’ll get it someday, Olive.”
But I wouldn’t. She would, though. She’d get everything.
I sloshed the nectar around in my mug and slurped it up as quickly as I could. The sickly-sweetness made my proboscis ache and my stomach churn. I dumped the chicken onto a roasting pan with some garlic and onions and opened the oven to get it cooking.
“My soufflé!” Priscilla gasped and lunged for the door, but it was too late. The little tower of perfect fluff let out a sigh and sank into the center of the dish.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I forgot it was in there...”
Priscilla retrieved the fallen soufflé. Her antennae drooped clear to her shoulders.
“Can’t you send it up anyway?” I asked. “It’ll still taste good.”
“I’ll make another.” Priscilla scraped her would-be masterpiece into the liquefier and retrieved the kitchen ledger to account for the wasted ingredients while I stood there like a fool, still holding my roasting pan.
“Why are you making a soufflé for breakfast, anyway?”
“It’s for elevenses,” she said. “It’s actually slated to be made by you, later on. I just wanted you to be ahead of things so you could pay your sister a visit.
“I told you, I’m not going.”
“Olive, you don’t have time to be stubborn about this. Once they declare her queen, you’re never going to see her again.”
“Why are you being like this? What did she ever do to you?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Let’s have it, then.”
I slung my disaster of a chicken into the oven and slammed the door shut. “Okay. Fine,” I said. “You know what? It’s not fair.”
“She had better odds than me! If Queen Charlotte’s pheromone was anything like it used to be, we wouldn’t even have another queen, but it’s been at an all-time low for months. Months! Someone was getting red wings. The timing was perfect for 4408.”
Priscilla didn’t immediately reply. Because I was right.
“You think that’s fair?” I said. “That we get to wake up in the dark every morning and kill and pick chickens we’ll never eat? That we get to spend every day for the rest of our lives chopping and kneading and boiling and frying, glazing and deglazing, cooking feasts, while 4408—or whatever her name will be—gets to lounge on silk cushions and eat meat and cake and sandwiches!”
“It is fair,” Priscilla said quietly. “It’s as fair as nature.”
“Nature’s a bitch.”
Distress pheromones emanated from Priscilla, but she kept her composure. “It’s a big change, and she’s vulnerable. A lot could go wrong.”
“Oh don’t. Don’t.”
“I’m not trying to guilt you, Olive. I’m asking you, as your mother, to do something kind for your sister. If you won’t go for her, and you won’t go for yourself, then go for me.” Her wings flickered. They were a gorgeous iridescent blue, as velvety deep as any of the queen’s attendants but crumpled as a dishrag.
Admittedly, Priscilla’s story was worse than mine. When the first Imago arrived here, they discovered an entire planet full of larvae that didn’t know they were supposed to change, that didn’t even know they could. For whatever reason, “humans” lacked the hormone to trigger their metamorphoses. The Imago showed them their full potential, and humans became Imago; or they realized they’d always been Imago, just trapped in stasis, never reaching their individual or collective destinies.
There’d been a few outliers, misled radicals who fought against the change. One night they broke into the Chrysalis House and ripped open a whole row of pupae before anyone could stop them. Priscilla had been in one of those chrysalises. She’d survived it because she’d been so far along, but the moment the air hit her premature wings they’d shriveled like a half-baked soufflé. She’d gone from one of the queen’s royal attendants, destined for easy work and opulence in a glimmering palace, to nobody. Queen of the Rubbish Dump, people called her. Because broken wings, no matter the color, were just as bad as grey wings.
Somehow she pulled enough strings to get this stint in the kitchens, to recruit larvae—who weren’t even supposed to have jobs—to make pre-colony human food for Her Majesty. It didn’t make any sense. But it was her way of getting by. Her idea of purpose. Not Queen of the Rubbish Dump but Queen of the Kitchens.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll go.”
Priscilla’s blue wings twitched happily, wrinkles and all.
I tried to renege on my promise during my next shift, but Priscilla pushed me out of the kitchens. She’d spent the rest of the morning obsessing over the perfect infusion of vanilla oolong with cream and white blueberry, raspberry buns, custard tarts, currant cake, cranberry scones, blood-orange jam, as well as that damned soufflé, and she said she’d worked too hard doing double-duty for me to back out now.
So I headed to the Chrysalis House. The moment I stepped out of the kitchens, the heady tang of pheromones hit me like a blunt axe and made my eyes water. Drones.
A couple hundred showed up every year for the nuptial flight with Queen Charlotte—local males who’d turned twenty, along with a few from other colonies brave enough to take the lead-lined trains across the toxic flats. But apparently the burgeoning mandibular pheromone of a virgin queen was another matter, because the colony was crawling with more drones than I’d seen in my life.
Drones had clear wings, but they made up for it by wearing velvet suits in every color of the rainbow. It seemed blue was especially popular this year, paired with brown leather brogues. The drones used canes they didn’t need, constantly doffed their hats at each other, and enjoyed saying things like “An ascot is always a cravat, but a cravat is not always an ascot.” Then they’d laugh with their mouths closed, “Hmhmhmhm!”
Crowds of them loitered along the colony’s streets, congregated around lamp posts and perched atop the crumbling rectangular ruins of the old world.
I set a steady pace toward the Chrysalis House and kept my head down. Drone pheromones clung to me as if I had walked through a trail of spider webs. Envy sat heavy in my stomach. But why? It wasn’t the sex that made me jealous. I didn’t really feel a need for it. In addition to keeping the colony calm and staving off new queens, Her Majesty’s mandibular pheromone shrank the workers’ ovaries and subdued our reproductive drives. So sex didn’t happen between workers and drones. We were technically capable of it, probably. But it wasn’t worth the bother.
So it wasn’t all of that. It was... how could I describe it? The luxury of romance.
I always imagined the queen, having exhausted her throng of suitors, turning regally in the air and pointing to the last drone flying. The fastest, the handsomest. Then the two of them would find some secluded grotto full of soft moss and moonlight. Feed each other macarons and lick grape juice off each other’s antennae or something.
Now 4408 would have that, too.
When I arrived at the Chrysalis House, there were even more drones converging outside the massive geodesic dome, buzzing around, trying to catch a whiff of 4408. I shouldered through the crush, cringing at the body contact. I could feel the drones’ sweat, the heat blazing through their jackets and shirts. I held my breath and pushed harder until I reached the front entrance. A quick pheromone check got me past the guards, and I practically raced across the threshold.
Entering the Chrysalis House was like falling into a glorious, amber-colored dream. The swelter and noise dropped away, replaced with cool air and stillness. The primitive ninety-degree angles that still haunted the center of town were nowhere to be seen. Here, shapes worked together in harmony. Triangles. Hexagons. Polyhedrons. Cohesion. Even the sound was right. The ambient thrumming of wings, the sussurration of hushed whispers; all resonant, all perfect. Errands to the Chrysalis House were rare, but it felt like a reprieve every time.
I walked along a colonnade of glowing resin. Each hollow pillar contained a single chrysalis, visible through a membranous window. The newest pupae were white as milk, a few with their owner’s previous skin still attached. Just seeing them made me itch. No one ever forgot their molts, when you scratched and scratched until you sloughed skin from your neck to your ankles like stripping off the world’s worst pair of long johns.
Five times you shed your skin, until you were ready to take the whole thing off for good, flesh and fat and all. Instinct took over and... sure it was painful, but there was so much satisfaction, so much release, that it didn’t matter. When I hung upside-down in that chamber and shed the old me—writhed until my face split in two and the fissure arced over my skull and seared down my spine like a ripped seam—it felt glorious. My body wasn’t me anymore. It belonged to someone else, someone long gone. Even the pain was someone else’s, and I was nothing but a bag of proteins.
4408’s pillar was the last in line. Sure enough, her chrysalis had gone completely clear, revealing red wings with striking black veins and blue eyespots. Traces of distress pheromone wafted from her chamber. Jitters, probably. The scent was accompanied by inklings of a queenly mandibular pheromone, familiar in essence but brighter than Charlotte’s. Younger. More potent. The more I breathed in that vapor, the more I loved her. I couldn’t help but love the source of that pheromone. And I hated her too. So much.
I pressed my hands against the warm membrane protecting her, imagining 4408 wrapping a blue-suited drone in her gorgeous red wings and eating food. Meat and cake and sandwiches. Grape juice.
“I wish I were you,” I whispered. It wasn’t what I was supposed to say. It wasn’t making my peace. I should have told her it wasn’t her fault. But it felt like it was; like everything my sisters had gained had been stolen from me, like every kind of worker I could have been was curled inside me and every time one of my sisters left they yanked it out of me. I could have been red. It felt like 4408 had pulled her rosehip wings, her future, from the deepest part of me. And the only reason my wings were grey was because everything else had been taken.
“I hope it’s awful,” I said. “I hope you hate being queen and everyone learns to hate you as much as I do.” And then I was crying, because she was so beautiful. So unmistakably red. And it wouldn’t be awful at all. It would be wonderful. Wonderful, every day for the rest of her life.
Kitchen maids aren’t servers. But by the time lunch came around that day, so many drones had come spilling out of the train station that Priscilla conscripted me to wait on the entourage. When I reminded her I’d never served food before, she said, “We’ve never had a virgin queen before,” and handed me a frilly apron. How Priscilla planned to cater to a thousand drones instead of the usual hundred or so was a mystery in itself, but why she wanted to was completely beyond me.
To my relief, however, she asked a dozen other kitchen maids to entertain the drones, and she sent me to the royal pavilion with the lunch crew. We’d be waiting on the queen’s attendants, which meant there was a miniscule possibility that we’d catch a glimpse of the queen herself.
“Say hello to Alexandra for me,” Priscilla said. “She was always sneaking sips of the cherry sencha. Tell me how she likes it.” Alexandra had been 3001, one of my sisters, before she grew blue wings and became an attendant.
A pair of yellow guards came and led the other kitchen maids and I through the passages of the palace. The Imago had been loath to waste resources when they’d arrived here, so Her Majesty’s pavilion was built atop another structure, and it shared many of the original hallways and all seven hundred and seventy-five rooms and chambers. Of course the aesthetics had to be improved, so the cold limestone and bathstone of old was reinforced and updated with golden resin that glowed with bioluminescence, with life.
The dining hall was right outside Queen Charlotte’s bedchambers. I kept stealing glances of the ornate double doors, the only thing standing between us and our monarch, as the larvae and I arranged a banquet of sandwiches: ham on brioche, cheddar cheese and chutney on tomato bread, breast of chicken with terragon creamed mayonnaise. There were also salads, fruit salads, crisps, and croissants, all of it accompanied by a cherry sencha with rose petals. We couldn’t actually watch the queen eat, of course, so once the table was spread we waited in an adjacent drawing room and tried to keep our stomachs from rumbling.
Priscilla had told me that before the Imago came, everyone ate food all the time. She used to cook for hundreds of people every day, and they traveled from all over the world to taste her cooking. Important people gave her stars it was so good. She had three stars, she said, as many as anyone was allowed to have. I never asked which three were hers.
An hour later, the guards led us back to the dining hall. Queen Charlotte was gone, but her scent lingered like a daydream. It was her attendants’ turn to eat now, and they situated themselves around the massive table. My old sister Alexandra was among them, and I tried to catch her eye. Maybe she hadn’t seen me.
But then the attendants started eating—eating-eating—and my jaw dropped. Like most Imago, I’d used my proboscis to suck up nectar since the day I metamorphosed. But the attendants had learned how to consume food with their proboscises retracted like a larva’s stump-tongue. I could almost imagine the sensation of the food in my mouth. Biting into a strawberry. Mashing a hundred layers of a croissant. Crunching fried potatoes. Licking the salt from my lips. But when I swallowed, it was only saliva.
The entourage took this whole process for granted. They gave no comment, uttered not a word of gratitude. Alexandra, meanwhile, was avoiding my gaze. It figured. She drank two cups of the sencha, though. I’d be sure to tell Priscilla.
Suddenly, the doors to the queen’s chamber flew open, and the entourage gaped with sarnies and teacups halfway to their mouths.
Queen Charlotte stood in the doorway. Her ancient face was ashen and etched with lines, but a massive, bulbous abdomen stretched taut beneath yards of silk robes. Her legs shook, and she had one arm looped beneath her enormous belly while the other clutched the doorframe in a death grip.
“I’m... going... for a walk,” she announced, panting.
“A walk?” echoed the attendants. “Where?”
“Nowhere. Nowhere in particular.”
“Not again,” breathed Alexandra as she and the other attendants dashed up and took Queen Charlotte by the arms. “Your Majesty, I think you need to lie down.”
“No, I mean it this time.” Queen Charlotte tried to shrug them off. “I want to take a walk!”
The attendants turned to the guards. “Are you daft? Help us!”
Two guards joined the attendants, pulling at the queen, prying her white fingers from the doorjamb, but Queen Charlotte wasn’t going without a fight. “Let me go! I’m the queen! I will take a walk!”
“She’s mad!” wailed a nursemaid.
“But in your condition, Your Majesty,” cajoled a guard.
“I swear, if we have to do this one more time...” Alexandra muttered.
Until finally Queen Charlotte was outmanned, dragged back into her bedchamber, and the doors slammed shut.
The remaining guards rounded on us. “None of you saw this,” they said, and we scurried back to the kitchens without even remembering to take the plates.
Afternoon Tea—3:00 p.m.
I had to serve the attendants again, this time in the gardens. They splayed their wings, basking in the sunshine, flaunting blues deep as midnight. And I, feet aching, head aching, back aching, poured them orange pekoe. All the while, the episode in Queen Charlotte’s dining hall reeled in my mind. Was it just because she was dying, or had she always been mad?
Even more drones had arrived, and Priscilla had the staff move all the parlor chairs onto the lawn to dissuade the army of fops from sitting on the old stone walls while they ate. But if the attendants’ methods of consumption were like an elegant dream, the drones’ were an epic-scale catastrophe. I couldn’t look away from it.
The drones had never gained the skill of masticating solids like the attendants had. They managed to get Priscilla’s food into their mouths, but they had no idea what do with it once it was in there. Their mandibles worked the empty air as they tried to force their uncoordinated jaws to chew. Some of them resorted to manually holding their mouths shut to keep their proboscises from involuntarily slipping out—the sweeter the food, the greater the instinct to extend it, so watching them struggle with trifle was a riot. Even when they managed to keep everything in and get it all squishy enough, the biggest problem seemed to be getting it down past their gag reflex. Satisfying though, to watch them try.
Most of them resorted to regurgitating the mess into their pekoe and using their proboscis to suck up the mash. The impeccable balance of Priscilla’s finger sandwiches—cucumber and cream cheese on white bread, watercress and salted butter on wheat, smoked salmon on rye—was annihilated as the drones pulverized them into their own heretical version of nectar. Of course they tried to look distinguished as they did all of this, with their pinkies stuck out from their teacups like bloody yokels.
Alexandra sat at a table with a few nursemaids and a couple of drones. One leaned back on two chair legs like a complete degenerate, sporting a green flat cap and matching vest. The other would have been handsome had his face not been so dour. He wore the ubiquitous blue suit and brown leather brogues, and he sat rigid, one hand stuck to his tea plate, the other on his cup—pinky up, of course.
The nursemaids and drones listened, rapt, as Alexandra recounted what seemed to be a hilarious story. “Wait, wait, it gets better!” Her voice rose and she slapped the table. “‘Where do you want to walk?’ we ask her, and she says, ‘Oh I don’t want to go anywhere, I want to walk and walk and go nowhere. Maybe in circles!’ and we’re breaking our backs trying to hold her, and I have half a mind to let her go, just to see her try to get that honking great belly out the door!”
The drone in the flat cap guffawed, while the rest of the table tittered.
“But she’s gone absolutely balmy again,” Alexandra continued, “She starts asking to read one of those books full of lies—‘just for fun!’—and yammering about those magical pieces of paper you could trade for ‘anything in the world! A pair of shoes! A kingdom! A cow!”
Alexandra’s audience leaned forward as if this were all too entertaining to be true.
“And then she looks at me,” said Alexandra. “And I swear she doesn’t even know who I am, and she says, ‘Oh if only you’d seen it. You would have loved this place before the Imago.”
“And I almost said, ‘If I paint your picture on a million little pieces of paper, then hand them out to all the kitchen maids, will it remind you?”
Everyone at the table broke into peals of laughter. Alexandra shook her head. Then she saw me, and her antennae perked. She flexed her mandibles as if daring me to comment.
“I—I think she was just distressed.” I regretted opening my mouth the moment they all looked at me.
“You eavesdropping, Moth Girl?” called Flat Cap. “Well, don’t be shy. Come over here and give us your side of the story.” He turned to the others. “Pretty sure Alexandra will make up anything for a bit of attention.”
Alexandra bopped him on the arm. “This is Olive. We had the same mentor. She was in the kitchens with 4408.”
“Ah, so you know our queen-to-be.” Flat Cap grinned rakishly.
I clutched my serving tray. “Why are you talking about Her Majesty like that?”
“I’m only telling the truth.” Alexandra picked up her cup and saucer. “Queen Charlotte’s lost the plot.”
“Maybe it’s because she’s spent the last hundred years around people like you.”
Alexandra’s antennae twitched. “Maybe its because her kind spent hundreds of thousands of years without a proper colony, each trapped in their own pathetic, purposeless existence. When she goes into a spell she thinks she’s back there. She’s that old.”
“Mother of Perga, I’m glad we’re getting a fresh one,” said Flat Cap. The nursemaids shot him a look. “Long live the queen,” he quipped and ducked his head. It was one thing for a worker to speak disparagingly of her majesty. It was another thing entirely to hear it from a drone. I dearly hoped his chair would tip over.
“It does seem senseless,” I admitted. “But if the queen wants to walk around in circles, why not let her?”
“Because,” said Alexandra, “we don’t want her to make a fool of herself.”
“No, you’ll just make a fool of her behind her back.”
The nursemaids’ mandibles ticked, but Alexandra laughed as if I’d made the cleverest joke. “Olive here has always been a bit of a dung-roller. Never saw her crack a smile the whole time I knew her. Of course, I was only in the kitchens for five years. Olive’s been there for... how long has it been now?”
“Oh yes. Thirty years.” Alexandra extended a dainty proboscis and sipped her tea. “Olive, these good fellows want to know a bit about 4408. She was after my time, of course, but you might know something.”
“Let’s hear it, Olive,” said Flat Cap, and him using my name was worse than him calling me Moth Girl. “You can take a seat next to me, I don’t bite.”
“Not anyone but the queen,” said one of the nursemaids, and they all fell into giggles.
Flat Cap patted the chair next to him. I didn’t budge. “So?” He shrugged.
“Well,” I said, “she was really bad at killing chickens.”
“What?” Flat cap squinted.
“I mean, catching them was one thing, she was pretty good at that, but when it came to killing them she was a right wimp. We stood in the garden for two hours one morning with her barely holding on to one panic-stricken chicken—it’s flapping like crazy and she’s crying like an idiot and I’m trying to show her how to “twist and pull!” on at least a dozen hens. I could barely hear my own voice over her wailing, and she still couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t figure out who was more het up, her or that damned bird.”
The company stared.
“That’s... not... exactly what we’re looking for,” said Flat Cap.
Of course it wasn’t. That was the point. But I could do better than that. “Her five molts were the nastiest I’ve ever seen,” I began again. “She’d howl all night, tossing and turning, and when she woke in the morning she’d be swamped in sheaves of skin. We told her not to, but she tried to calm the itch with ointments and lotions. It only made it grosser, because then everything was soggy when it came off. And it stank like wet dog.”
Alexandra wasn’t amused, and neither were the drones.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know what you want to hear. 4408 was a pest. We didn’t really get along.”
“Well that was a given.” Alexandra sighed. “You don’t get along with anyone.”
My face heated. Flat Cap chuckled.
“She’ll never choose you, you know,” I said to the drones. “She’ll pick someone handsome and kind.”
Blue Suit squinted at me. “What?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Alexandra.
“The nuptial flight. When the queen and her mate go off to...” I floundered. I’d never spoken about that in front of a drone in my entire life. Or anyone, really. “You know. Just the two of them. She’d never pick either of you.”
The drones shifted in their seats. Alexandra gave a little huff of incredulity. “The two of them? Tell me you’re joking.”
Blue Suit looked like he was going to be sick. The nursemaids covered their mandibles and exchanged glances across the table.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Oh, honey.” Alexandra oozed condescension. “Have you even looked around? There are more than a thousand suitors here. She can’t pick.”
“But she outflies them... and then... when only the fastest and handsomest is left—”
I couldn’t hear my own voice over their laughter. Flat Cap hee-hawed so hard his chair finally did tip backwards, which sent the nursemaids shrieking into a fit.
Alexandra took a deep breath and leaned forward in her seat. “On the day of the nuptial flight, the queen flies out, and the drones follow her. All of them. They’re kicking and biting, trying to get ahead, until a few of them catch up to our dear queen and manage to get a hold.”
“Get a hold?” I stammered. “You mean she hasn’t got a choice?
“A choice?” Alexandra peered at me. “Why do you think she tries to fly away from them?”
For some reason there were still words coming out of my mouth. “You mean one of them just...”
“I didn’t say one.” Alexandra drummed her fingers on the table. “Ten or twenty usually hit their mark before her majesty manages to escape. Their genitals tear off afterward though, rip right out of their abdomen. So there’s that.”
“There is that,” Blue Suit repeated dully.
Alexandra canted her head, as if contemplating exactly how much horror to bestow upon me. “Then the drones go spiraling down to the ground. The impact usually puts them out of their misery. Usually.”
“But then... why do it?” I asked the drones, but Alexandra answered.
“Because every drone that fails to mate gets banished to the toxic flats, where they’ll either starve or live to experience getting turned inside-out by the poisonous vapors. Wouldn’t you rather have something quick?”
I looked from one grim-faced drone to another. “I mean... I...”
“That was rhetorical, honey bee.” Alexandra tapped her fingers on the table. “The fact is, the drones don’t need a penalty. In the end, stubborn or not, they all surrender to instinct. At its full strength, the sexual hormone is as powerful as those that trigger the five molts. Come nuptial day, this brooding fellow won’t remember his own name, let alone any qualms he may have.”
Blue Suit glared. “I might.”
“You won’t,” said Alexandra.
“But why?” I asked. “Why kill all the drones?”
“Because the only thing they do other than mate is eat. We don’t have the resources for that, and we’ll have a fresh batch of mature drones to replace them next year.”
Flat Cap smirked.
“What are you so smug about?” I asked. “You’ll be dead in two weeks.”
“Eat, drink, and be merry,” said Flat Cap.
“For tomorrow we die,” said Blue Suit.
“And you better believe that I’m going to get a piece of that virgin queen before I go.” Flat Cap tipped his cup to me.
“Purpose is nectar,” said Alexandra.
“Purpose is nectar,” they all repeated and held their teacups high. Except for Blue Suit, whose cup was still full.
“But the rest of the year the queen lives in luxury!” I cringed at my own childishness. “She lounges on silk cushions and gets to eat meat and cake and sandwiches.” Is that what I’d really said that morning? It sounded so stupid now—a desperate reach to make sense of things, to make it better. But nothing could make it better. Nothing could make the queen’s annual rape anything but what it was, and nothing could erase it from my mind.
Alexandra maintained her pained civility. “She gets to eat so much because she has to eat so much. It’s her sole responsibility to sustain the population, and with her only popping out a baby every day or so she can barely support a town, let alone a whole city. Nectar would support a higher birth rate, but Charlotte insists she can meet her caloric quota with her absurd human food. But if Her Majesty doesn’t meet her daily quota—which she rarely does—we bring out the tubes, feed her like one of Priscilla’s foie gras geese.”
I staggered. Priscilla. Did Priscilla know about all this? Of course she did. She had to know, in order to do everything she did. This was why she did it. The time she put into each meal, the perfection. It was an act of love, to help the queen eat. “Does everyone know?”
“Most,” said Alexandra. “It’s the kitchen maids Priscilla keeps in the dark.”
“So they don’t realize how pointless their work is.”
“I thought making larvae work at all was pointless,” said one of the nursemaids.
“But it’s not,” I said, “If it helps.”
“All that work?” asked Alexandra. “All those resources? For one person? With logic like that, Priscilla can barely call herself an Imago. But I’m not the one who gets a say in all of that.” The hypocrisy of Alexandra sipping her pekoe while defaming Priscilla’s name sent my glands into high production. “Maybe you should scamper back to Mummy,” she added. “Spare us your distress cloud.”
“You think you worked your way out? You think you earned your station?” I gripped my serving tray tighter to keep it from shaking. “You didn’t. You got lucky. One good rip in your wings and you’d be back in the kitchens.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Alexandra said. “Priscilla would finally have a daughter to stay with her that she actually liked!”
My serving tray went flying and I was halfway across the table before I knew it. Alexandra’s wings shot out instinctively, her powder-blue eyespots both fearsome and fearful. I could do it. I could make her no one. Just one good rip.
We breathed hard, our gazes locked. But, of course, I’d only made it halfway across the table. Inevitably, Charlotte’s mandibular pheromone did its work, slowly bringing us back down, restoring rational thought. The drones and other attendants were frozen in place amid a pool of pekoe and shattered porcelain. I couldn’t rip someone’s wings. I’d go straight to the toxic flats. Looking like this, threatening a fellow Imago, acting like an outlier—any more of it and I’d have one foot out the door.
“You’re not worth it,” I said.
Alexandra scoffed. “I’m worth more than you.”
The air went completely out of me. It was true.
“Get off the table,” said Flat Cap. The nursemaids clacked their mandibles.
I crawled back down, my knees soaked in tea. I stood on the grass for a moment, not knowing what to do with myself. Should I clean up? Apologize? I opted to just leave. A collective sigh rose up as I turned away, but their chatter followed me.
“She just about gave me a heart attack!”
“Did you see the look on her face when she—”
“Weren’t you scared, Alexandra?”
“No,” Alexandra’s voice fell further and further behind. “I knew she didn’t have it in her.”
My antennae burned. I stalked out of the gardens as quickly as I could and disappeared into the kitchens, amid the dishes and the noise and the smell. My head wouldn’t stop ringing and my wings wouldn’t stop shaking. The truth was, she was right. I didn’t have it in me. I was grey, inside and out.
High Tea—6:00 p.m.
Priscilla and I took high tea alone in her kitchen office, sitting at her desk, surrounded by ledgers and recipe books. I told her everything that had happened that day, and she handed me a teacup of watered-down nectar she’d heated on the stove.
“Remember when I used to do this?” she asked. “And we’d pretend it was Earl Grey?”
I took the teacup. “It’s not Earl Grey.” It had never been Earl Grey. I didn’t even know what that would taste like. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would it have made you feel better?”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s the truth.”
Priscilla drank her watered-down nectar.
“It’s not fair,” I said. “4408 didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
Priscilla set her cup down gently. “First it wasn’t fair she would live in luxury. Now it isn’t fair that she’ll suffer? When are you going to learn, none of us deserve anything we get?”
“How can you make all that food every day? Knowing it’s not going to change anything?”
“Because I love her.” Priscilla’s antennae twined. “Every day. I think about making it a little bit better. And it gives me purpose.” Priscilla’s purpose hadn’t just been nectar for the queen, it had been nectar for herself—and it had sustained her, soul and body, through more years and more daughters than even I remembered. I knew it, before. Now I understood.
“Purpose is nectar,” I whispered.
“Purpose is nectar,” Priscilla repeated solemnly.
A waft of the queen’s mandibular pheromone drifted through the office. It hit my brain like a good night’s rest, easing my muscles, soothing my nerves. Across the desk, Priscilla deflated.
“It’s stronger,” I said.
“That’s not Queen Charlotte.”
Priscilla nodded. “She’s close. It should only be a couple hours now.”
“I wonder if they’ve briefed her yet. If she knows.”
“They have,” said Priscilla. “I told you this morning, she’s scared.”
Not just jitters. Not just nervousness. 4408 was terrified. But what could be done?
I looked at Priscilla, this worker with so much love for an unseen queen—and so much faith in food—that she’d dedicated her life to giving that queen a few moments of reprieve in a burst of citrus, a flash of comfort in a perfectly crisp ham. A worker who made herself a mother by claiming every larva who came into her kitchens as a daughter. Now one of her daughters would be the queen, and she’d work harder than ever. Every time the dishes went out she’d wonder if it helped at all. If any of it mattered. But she’d do it anyway. And I wanted to help.
I set my cup down. The same one I’d used when I was young, when I still knew how to pretend diluted nectar was Earl Grey. “Priscilla...” I said tremulously, “Can you teach me how to cook? Like you?”
No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than Priscilla fumbled her way around the desk and wrapped me in her arms, enveloped me in the scent of tea leaves and cinnamon, pork fat and cheese, chutney and jam, golden brown pastries fresh from the oven, pheromones and sweat. The scent of my mother. Because I was her daughter too.
Priscilla kept me in the kitchens during dinner. When the servers headed out to the pavilion—with their procession of rind cheese and cranberry sauce, roast lamb with mint chutney, parsnips and potatoes, beef with horseradish, pork chops with cinnamon apple sauce, and Lapsang Souchong for tea—I wondered, which would Queen Charlotte choose? How much would she eat? No, I didn’t wonder; I obsessed. I stewed and sweated, practically tore my antennae out, imagining what would happen if that quota wasn’t met. Hoping that it was.
Hours later, the wait staff came back with the plates, sent the scraps to the liquefier, and that was the day. No questions answered. The kitchen maids lined up at the towers of dirty dishes, rolled up their sleeves, and began the long night of scrubbing so it could start all over tomorrow.
I was scouring a crusty soufflé dish when Priscilla called me to her kitchen office. With me at her side, she began planning tomorrow’s five meals for the queen, and I felt like a soldier being trained by a brigadier. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. Each meal was a battle waged against an onslaught of currant-flavored nectar.
Queen Charlotte may have had memories of eating food before she became queen, but 4408 had memories of cooking it, of pining for it. We’d make it possible for her to finally taste it. I’d make 4408 a whole roast chicken and hope she stuck her face in it.
Priscilla pulled a massive folio from her bookshelf and dropped it onto the desk.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Menus,” she said. “I write up a new one every day, but they’re good to revisit for ideas. These are last year’s.”
“Menus...” The bookshelves lining Priscilla’s office were bursting with folios just like this one. One sheet of paper for each meal, five meals every day, three hundred and sixty five days in a year, and over a hundred of those years belonged to Queen Charlotte.
There would be a hundred more for 4408.
Every roast and pudding, every lemon soufflé, could only save the queen for one meal. One piece of paper. And save her from what? Getting a tube stuck down her throat? That was the least of her worries.
Priscilla reviewed her notes, dipped her pen in an inkwell, and started scratching on a fresh sheet of paper, rejuvenated now that she finally had someone who understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. But the horrible truth roiled in my gut. I started thinking of 4408, the apprehension on her face when it had been time to go to the Chrysalis House, the way her hand paused on the side of the column before she went in, the way she looked back at Priscilla and me... like she didn’t want to go. Crazy, I’d thought. Anything was better than the kitchens.
I was wrong.
“I can’t do it,” I burst out, interrupting Priscilla’s breakfast planning. “I can’t do it! It’s not enough!”
Priscilla’s antennae wilted. “It’s something.”
“It’s your something,” I said. “And it helps, it does. If only it weren’t her, I could do it. It’s just... it’s 4408. And I can’t imagine... every day... that food laid out in front of her and... she knows if she doesn’t eat it...”
The image of Alexandra forcing a tube down 4408’s throat rushed into my mind, and instead of shoving Queen Charlotte back into her room she was shoving 4408, and Flat Cap was flying faster than thousands of drones, his teeth bared, to get his piece before he died, and its 4408 he’s catching and...
“I can’t!” I yelled, slamming my hands on the table. I shut my eyes against the fall of Priscilla’s face, the stillness of her wings, but I could smell her disappointment.
“Someone has to make the food, Olive. And it won’t be me forever.”
I stared at her. She was just as old as Charlotte, wasn’t she? Born before the Imago, she’d seen the entire human race transition from larvae into... something else. Something I’d always seen as so obviously superior. Was it? There was no way for me to know. But Priscilla had held on to this, this one aspect of humanity for so long... She knew what I’d never know, and she wanted to pass it on.
And I considered, for the first time, that Priscilla’s dogged, ridiculous optimism might actually fade one day, that hope must have been a heavy burden to carry alone. And just as Charlotte’s waning pheromone signaled for nature to create a successor, Priscilla’s weary defiance cried out just as fiercely for someone to metamorphose, to become like her.
Queen of the Kitchens.
“Olive?” One of the kitchen maids popped her head into the office and jutted her antennae toward the line of sinks. “Did you need help getting this meringue off?”
Behind her sat the stack of plates I’d been scrubbing. The dirty soufflé dish. A memory from that morning replayed in my mind—flinging open the oven door, the rush of steam, the fallen soufflé.
“Priscilla,” I said, my mind whirring.
“Yes, Olive?” Priscilla’s wings fluttered. Dishrag wings. Ruined wings. In that moment, I wished, again, that I would be the one to metamorphose. That I would be the one to fulfill this very special role. Alexandra was wrong. I was wrong. I did have it in me. I had red and blue and purple, and I had dishrag wings in me too.
Priscilla followed my gaze to her trembling wings. She took a deep breath, and her eyes locked with mine. And in that moment, we didn’t need pheromones to know what the other was thinking. Priscilla knew what I needed to do. What was more, I knew it.
“I think I should go see 4408,” I said.
The kitchen maid balked. “At this hour?”
I nodded. “Before she hatches.”
My hands, balled into fists, were sweating.
Priscilla ushered the kitchen maid out of the office, then hugged me just as she had at high tea, but this time she didn’t smile. She didn’t cry. She just held me, tight as a cocoon. A plan was taking form in my mind, swelling, solidifying, until the idea of what I was about to do was too big for me to contain. I was shaking.
And then came Priscilla’s voice—so careful, so quiet, I could hear my heart beating over it. “Are you sure about this?”
I buried my face in her apron and breathed her in for the last time. “I have to,” I said. “She’s my sister.”
My body itched all over, apprehension like an unwanted skin. I kept moving, and the night breeze cut across my face, sheared my inhibitions. The old me hung at my back. The stars were out, and my breath clouded as I wondered which ones were Priscilla’s. All of them, I decided. I’d give her all of them.
The Chrysalis House rose up in front of me, sublime and colossal, golden and glowing. I told the guards I wanted to see my sister. I took a deep breath. Calm. Stay calm.
“Five minutes,” they said. It was more than enough.
I went straight to the pillar with the red pupa. “Hey, 4408, you know your wings are red?”
Her royal mandibular pheromone plumed out of her chamber.
I took that as a yes. Back at the entrance, the guards clicked their mandibles, watching. I edged closer. “You know what that means? What it really means?”
A hint of distress pheromone, stronger than it had been earlier. Again, yes.
The guards shifted their halberds. They must have caught a whiff.
My hands reached for the smooth column, the soft membranous window. “Do you want to be queen?” I whispered.
Panic billowed out of the chrysalis. It filled the column, spilled through the membranous window and flooded the ground, deep as November fog. The room reeked with alarm, a miasma powerful enough to alert the entire colony.
No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
It was the scent of screaming.
I saw myself from far away. My body wasn’t me anymore. It belonged to someone else, someone long gone. I was someone braver, someone strong enough to punch her fist straight through the protective membrane, leaving a gaping hole that spewed humid air and raw, unfiltered pheromones.
Guard boots pounded behind me. I tore past the membrane and touched the glassy surface of the chrysalis, all red underneath. Red as rosehip. I found purchase, steeled myself, and pulled with all my might. Wet, fibrous threads stretched. A sound—like a thousand oysters shucked open at once—and the exterior peeled away like a rubbery shell.
The guards rushed over, but they were too late. 4408 spilled out of her chrysalis and into my arms, a tangle of red and black. Her pheromones seared my receptors like ambrosial kerosene, overloading my brain with love, love, love, like a royal decree. Bliss, blinding bliss. I moved my hands as gently as I could, but her wings—sopping wet, the softest thing I’d ever felt—disintegrated beneath my fingers like soaked tissue paper. They would never dry properly. She would never fly. And she would never, ever, be queen.
Except, perhaps, Queen of the Kitchens.
I entered the toxic flats hauling a cart teetering with five feasts. Enough for a queen to eat for a day, a worker to eat for over a week. The higher-ups wanted me to live—for just long enough.
I’d like to say that when the guards took me away, my body still wasn’t me anymore. That it belonged to someone else, someone long gone. I’d like to say the pain wasn’t mine. But it was. And it will be again if I’m still occupying this body when the poison vapors start to turn me inside out.
So I left the food at the gates, abandoned it amid the craters of green chemical dust and goat-head thorns. Five entire meals. Meat and cakes and sandwiches. Meticulously crafted confections decorated with pastel icing and glittering sugar. A whole roast chicken, shimmering with grease. 4408 was right. I did finally get mine. And I left it. Shining in the sun. A banquet for ants and bees and butterflies—what the Imago call proto-colonies. I didn’t take a single bite. I didn’t need to.
Instead, I took a walk. Nowhere in particular. In circles, maybe. After all, I have a purpose now. And purpose is nectar.