The Pale King was a busy bug.
Hallownest as a society functioned much like a machine with many intricate parts, each cog turning just as it should individually while still dependent on each other, but keeping them all running properly was not an effortless endeavor. No matter what the denizens of his city might think.
Maybe it was his own fault. He had rather enjoyed playing the part of the detached ruler, taking pride in projecting an image of ease with which he operated, some might have called it superiority, keeping to it in dignity even when the first signs of sickness started to plague his people. Panic posed a danger as much as any actual disease could and he refused to let it spread, determining what needed to be done with level-headed purpose.
Rarely did he stray outside of the palace and if that had granted him the image of a god among his people then so be it. It was something he would neither deny nor discourage. But the truth of the matter remained that there were indeed things that took exertion and ruling Hallownest was one of them. Between tending to the many facets of the kingdom there was precious little time for anything besides duty and if the citizens of Hallownest at large would never realize that, he didn't mind. He had only hoped that those few creatures with the honor to belong to his inner circle and witness his efforts would know better.
Apparently that had been too much to hope for.
"Do tell why you presume to bother me with such inane questions?" he asked, his back turned upon the one stubbornly blocking his doorway. Maybe if he ignored her long enough, Herrah would realize he was preoccupied and did not have the time for frivolous affairs today – or any day for that matter.
"Oh, my dear Wyrm," she drawled back, the words spoken with such fake affection he was more than certain she was just trying to vex him. "However did you come to the misunderstanding that this was a mere question? I was making a demand."
"I do recall you're quite good at those," he murmured, unsure if she had heard but finding he cared little either way. To be curt, it was her own ultimatum that had gotten them into this situation to begin with, so it was only fair she would bear the burden. He turned around and added louder: "You know your time with her is dwindling. Why would you want to squander the feeble amount you have left?"
Herrah waited a moment, the reminder of the concomitant of their deal probably unpleasant for her. She made a sound, low and prolonged. "As hard as it will be for you to imagine, I am a queen in my own right. Sometimes that means I have pressing responsibilities to uphold for my people."
"Why do you not just command one of them to look after the child, then?"
"Because..." And he could tell she took great pleasure in her next words, "the child is yours as well. Last I recall you were there when she was created." As if to emphasize this she pushed the thing towards him. It was small, with a cloak that got close to brushing the ground and which had the typical burgundy coloring that the Pale King had come to associate with Herrah's retainers.
The child looked at him, its expression somehow curious despite the likeness to his own children, who had deceivingly unreadable features by design. It titled its head sideways, falling back to remain closer at its mother's side. Seemingly it was as pleased about this new acquaintance as The Pale King himself was.
"What do you want me to do with it?"
"Her name is Hornet," Herrah answered, "and honestly it doesn't matter much as long as you keep her save and alive for the foreseeable future." She turned to leave, the child hesitating for a moment, as if to follow, but eventually being persuaded by practiced obedience to stay where she was.
She stood in the room silently, gaze fixed upon the Pale King as he resumed his work. He ignored her for the time being, bending over the ancient-looking tomes once more. There was a lot of lore on higher beings, most of it unfamiliar even to himself – as ironic as that was – and he had spent too much time already consulting them on anything that might pertain to the infection threatening his people, clearly divine in origin.
After a few moments, his thoughts were disturbed again, this time by the child, who had crept closer to the desk during his distraction. She leaned forward slightly, maybe trying to read the crumbly papers but there was a fundamental lack of understanding on her face. The Pale King closed the book, brushing away the small cloud of dust it blew up.
"Very well," he said, gesturing towards the door. "You are old enough to entertain yourself, I presume?"
"I'm nearly grown," she answered, catching him off guard. His own children did not speak – also by design – but it made sense for this one to not have such restrictions.
They walked along the winding passageways of the White Palace, barely acknowledging the few bugs they met on their way. Hornet stopped occasionally at the large windows, the view certainly very different from how Deepnest looked. The Pale King did not know if Herrah didn't take their child outside often or if she just had a latent curiosity for the world. Regardless, he supposed it would aid her in her future as queen and indulged it for now.
Eventually, they came upon the room he was meaning to, opening the heavy door with some difficulty. The vessel stood at attention on their arrival, dark cloak wrapped around themselves securely, though just slightly shorter than Hornet's own. When the king entered, they bowed curtly. It proceeded to stay perfectly motionless and wait for further instructions, though their head inclined slightly towards the stranger now in their room.
"Hornet, this is your-" The Pale King considered his own words. Treading into unfamiliar territory was not his forte. "Your sibling, supposedly." That didn't sound too far off from the truth. "I do believe you two will be able to keep each other company in here."
Hornet looked up at him. "Where are you going?"
Suppressing an annoyed huff – not very becoming of a king, now was it? – he turned towards the door. "Back to more important matters, such as running a kingdom."
He was barely a few feet further or Hornet's hand seizing his cloak stopped him, though he pulled it out of her grasp quickly. "I don't want to stay in here," she said. How she had so quickly transformed from the silent child Herrah dropped at his chambers into this demanding little thing was beyond him.
"Well, what do you want then?"
Though the question was not meant to be answered seriously, Hornet seemed to consider it for a few moments, gaze flitting around the room. He had to admit it looked a bit modest, with far simpler decoration than the rest of the castle and not much in that way of furniture. The crib his queen had placed in the center of the room long replaced by a simple cot with no sheets. The vessel did not sleep – by design, once again.
The theory of its conception had left no need for toys and besides the training it underwent, both intellectual and in combat, supervised by the Pale King himself and his most favorable and skilled courtiers, it did not leave its room. There was no need to. All it was meant to know was the reason for its birth – the purpose it was created with and the duty it had to fulfill – and the skills necessary to accomplish that goal. It would not care for these formalities either way.
But Hornet was different, with a strong will of her own most likely inherited from that infernal mother of hers, and would not be placated by mere afterthoughts. She apparently had mused on his question long enough, for her small hands balled into tight fists and she spoke with conviction. "I want to see the rest of Hallownest. I want you to show me."
Though her face remained impassive, the displeasure she felt at his answer was more than clear. "Why not?"
"Because the city is vast and much too fickle for us to go traipsing around it like fools," he answered. "My time to too precious to waste away on frivolous-"
The vessel had chosen this moment to politely step forward, giving another bow. But in their hands was clasped the purple-covered book The Pale King remembered giving them less than a fortnight ago. Their reading speed was incredulous – something he himself took pride in as one of its teachers – and they had most likely finished it already. Usually, they would wait to be called upon instead of taking initiative like this however.
"Very well, if it can't be helped," he relented. "The library and the sentinel will have to do, so we can abstain from doing the full tour."
He could tell Hornet was not completely satisfied, but such was the life of royalty. It would do the child some good to learn she could not always get what she wants. Her mother too...
How long could Herrah truly stay gone for after all?
The library of The White Palace was truly a marvel in architecture. Even when considering all of Hallownest, its ceiling-height windows and metal-gilded chandeliers alone were impressive enough in their own right to make regular homes pale in comparison.
There was a bustle of activity when they arrived. Scholarly bugs of various occupations eager to consult the vast collection of knowledge stored within these bookcases and artifacts. But as The Pale King made his way to the particular section he had intended to, one filled with texts on the history of his kingdom, many left the room with polite bows and muttered greetings, unable to meet his gaze. It wasn't proper conduct to stay in the room when the king entered.
Only Monomon remained, ever oblivious to the presence of anything or anybody when she was occupied with research. Her student, a young bug the Pale King had seen only in passing before, lingered at her side, carrying books to and fro at the teacher's request.
"Go pick out what you will," the Pale King told the vessel, who had already put the book they had brought back where it belonged. Their memory also was stronger than average. They trotted off to the back of the row of shelves, occasionally stopping to inspect the covers. Hornet hesitated for a second before following them. He could hear her talking to them softly, too quiet to make out what she was saying. They nodded at her in answer.
The Pale King sighed and inspected the pages Monomon was studying, marred in her own scribbled handwriting, and completely illegible for himself. She had ruined an increasing number of the books in his possession in this manner. "One only hopes you do progress like this," he said.
Monomon looked up at him, maybe just noticing his arrival but unsurprised either way. She beckoned her pupil forward, taking the remaining book in his arms to lay it open in front of her and then sending him away again in search of something new. "Progress takes time."
"Time that is in short supply."
"We will compensate." The cloth around her form billowed slightly as she moved. "You brought the little one, I see. They are advancing as hoped?"
The Pale King waited, considering the idle meaning of the word hope in such a context. "More or less."
"They are everything we need it to be, surely. Anything beyond that is not of consideration."
Monomon nodded, using one appendage to adjust her mask. "But you might think yourself cruel still?"
All his retainers were carefully selected, their talent undeniable and their merits to Hallownest's progression even less so. Monomon was more knowledgable than most any bug in the known realm. Sometimes a bit too much so – and the Pale King is reminded yet again of her ability to surmise that which is not meant to be obvious.
"Everything we do, we do for this kingdom," he said, "not out of cruelty."
"These are not mutually exclusive, Your Majesty."
He waved his hand, a clear sign this particular thread of conversation was over with. There were many trials still ahead of them, bridges they would need to cross once they got there. But for the time being there were more pressing matters on his mind.
She seemed to take notice, as she closed the book in front of her – took the new one delivered by her pupil, who stepped back and waited patiently for further instructions on what to fetch next – and inclined her head. "And the other one too, I saw. Herrah's offspring?"
This wasn't a subject he wanted to discuss any more than the last one, but at least it left him with righteous indignation about his current circumstances. "She sprung it on me. How does one even take care of a child?"
It was a rhetorical question, he was not seeking Monomon's knowledge, especially since childrearing was probably not among her many areas of expertise. Still, she looked up once more, then behind him. "I do believe that not leaving them to fall to their deaths might be a good start."
The Pale King turned around just in time to foresee the disaster waiting to happen. Hornet had climbed one of the ladders used to obtain books held on the higher shelves, balancing on one leg precariously while her small hands reached for her intended prize instead of holding on to anything solid. The vessel stood bellow, pointing to the particular book they had requested. Monomon's pupil was standing next to them, task forgotten and instead observing the spectacle with confusion.
A moment later Hornet was on top of them. It seemed at least the other two had broken her fall with their bodies, now squeezed underneath a flurry of cloak and flailing limbs. She had righted herself in an instant and with impressive agility, brushing herself off and looking away embarrassed. "Are you alright?" he heard the pupil ask as he made his way over.
"I'm fine." Hornet turned towards the vessel, holding out the book she had somehow managed to grab on her way down. "This is the one you needed, right?"
The vessel clasped it to their chest, standing a little straighter. They didn't express their gratefulness outwardly but seemed happy with the acquisition of new reading material. The book was almost too big for them to carry, with a dark green cover and golden lettering. The Pale King didn't think he had ever seen it before, but then again there were probably many objects in his collection he hadn't.
He sighed. "Are you done with your antics?"
"They're not antics," Hornet objected. "I'm being responsible. Mother says responsibility is an important virtue for a queen."
"I'm sure she does," the Pale King said, ushering the two out of the library. They greeted Monomon in passing, back to being completely absorbed in her work. Her pupil waved at them and the vessel waved back.
From this height the palace grounds appeared even more massive than they already were, the walls barely more than faint lines on the ground one could just as easily miss. Beyond them stretched mostly darkness, but the Pale King knew where the gaping pit of the abyss was located, as well as the passageways that would lead you to the City of Tears and the Stag station above them – the direction Herrah had surely taken.
Hornet had pressed herself against the glass, unafraid of heights as she had proven to be in the library. The few bugs moving around far below were nearly indistinguishable, but she seemed enthralled with the sight nonetheless. The view was unique to the palace after all, and not something you'd encounter anywhere else in Hallownest, let alone Deepnest.
The vessel stood motionless. The Pale King could not recall how often he had taken them here, sometimes for lessons and sometimes merely for a change of scenery. He was not one to be emotional – or ascribe meaning where it shouldn't be – but perhaps part of him considered it only fair they got to see the world they were destined to sacrifice their being for, or at least the bit that remained them.
Even now large parts of Hallownest were rendered abandoned by the infection, with many bugs already giving in to its thralls. Dying out quicker than any of them had anticipated.
"It's beautiful," Hornet said, softly, like the unknowing child she was. Some stray droplets of water slid down the window, residue from the city above.
"It is only a small part of many," he answered, "but together they form one whole that is worth protecting."
Hornet looked at him, tilted her head up all dignified and it reminded him of her mother in more ways than one. "That's what a ruler does, right? Protect others, whatever it takes?"
At that moment the Pale King wondered what Herrah told her daughter. He wondered what she had left unsaid.
"Whatever it takes," he agreed, looking at the vessel, mute and waiting, the book still held tightly against the front of their cloak, watching the dying world below.
They stood there for a while longer, before he finally pulled the curious Hornet from the window again. "There is still more of the palace to see," he told her, noticing the vessel perk up at his words. She could also hardly suppress the surprise in her next words.
"I thought you did not have time."
"A king can make time," he said, leading the way back to the staircase in swift strides. "Didn't your mother tell you this also? Perhaps not since she seems to be running late herself. But as it were, I'll take it on myself to make sure you don't get in trouble until then."
Hornet sputtered, quick to defend the honor of both her mother and herself as they made their way down, the vessel following obediently in their wake.