Queen Alari Gallagrin woke, as she did most days, in solitude. The Royal Bedchamber was located in the highest spire of castle, its doors and windows braced to prevent even the slightest sound from escaping the sanctuary the room provided. The quiet was a gift from the chambers previous occupant, the departed and unmourned King Sathe. Alari had removed every other trace of the Butcher King from the room when she assumed the throne, but had found the shutters as valuable for keeping sound out as her father had found them for keeping sounds in.
For the four thousandth time, the Queen’s hand drifted to other side of the airy mattress and found only the chill of empty sheets where once there had been comfort and warmth in even the darkest of nights. She couldn’t return to those days, no matter how many times her dreams lured her to them, too much had changed over the years of her reign. There had been too many prices to pay, and too many losses she had failed to account for.
Beside her bed, the cradle stood as it had for over a year. Unused, unneeded. A remembrance that Alari wanted no reminder of. Her staff, the ones who had known her from when she was a girl, the ones she trusted, had asked, in their gentle, respectful fashion, if they could remove the simple piece of furniture until it was needed again?
She hadn’t let them. It brought a fresh wave of pain to see the cradle there each morning, but she could bear the pain, at least more so than she could bear the bone deep certainty that she would never have need of it again. She was too damaged, in too many ways, for that dream to ever become real.
Melancholy ate away at her, like the sea crashing in waves on the beach of her mind. The beach pushed back each small surge of tide but not without piece of it eroding away one pebble at a time. As storm tossed as she felt though, Alari nonetheless pushed herself out her bed and began her morning routine.
For the other royals in the Blessed Realms, or any noble in her kingdom, the day would start much the same; upon waking they would call for their servants to begin preparing both attire and the morning’s repast. Alari’s appetite was a fickle thing though and until she was ready to greet the world she had no need for her royal regalia.
So she wrote.
The Queen’s Diary was ensorcelled with a killing curse, but, even still, she encrypted the thoughts that she recorded within its pages in code. Most of her missives were simple letters to her future self. Observations she wanted to record for later consideration, lists of problems to be addressed rather than forgotten and, occasionally, dreams that stood out with particular clarity.
As she took quill and ink to the next page of her diary, Alari’s thoughts shifted away from her melancholy and to the melange of dream and memory that she’d walked in before opening her eyes.
She was ten once more and the castle was the giant endless labyrinth that she’d seen it as then. Outside the walls of the castle, the world was dark and horrible, but inside the castle there was room for adventure and exploration.
“We should raid the armory!” the child Alari had said. The excitement that accompanied those words echoing down across almost two decades.
“What for?” her handmaid asked, hoisting a wooden dowel onto her shoulders. As makeshift swords went, the dowel had been adequate in real life, but in Alari’s dream memory it shrunk to the width of her handmaid’s pinky finger.
“If I am to be the Queen, my knight must be properly outfitted!” child Alari said. The adult Alari, who was watching the dream play out as little more than an observer still felt her childish awe at the idea of being Queen someday.
In child Alari’s mind, her reign would begin on her twentieth birthday, once she’d had the time to learn everything that a Queen needed to know. She would be so smart by then that everyone would listen to her and do what she said because she’d be able to convince them with just the right words.
Alari’s journal writing stopped there. Even guarded by a killing curse and written in code, it was difficult to record that she’d ever been as naive as her dream had shown she was.
As a gift to her future self though, she returned her quill to the page. She’d already paid the price for her naivety many times over, hiding it from herself wasn’t going to make it any easier to avoid mistakes like that in the future.
“If I’m your knight, shouldn’t I be keeping you out of danger?” her handmaid asked Alari.
“Won’t you have an easier time doing that if you have a proper weapon and armor?” child Alari said. Her handmaid thought about that and brightened at the idea.
“You’re going to be the best Queen ever,” she said.
Child Alari clung to those words so tightly that they survived in her memory long past the time when the Queen’s experience proved them untrue.
Down wildly distorted dream corridors which never existed in the real palace, the two girls raced. Memory and dream splashed against each other and Alari saw visions from years later. The castle under siege. An older version of herself racing up the spire instead of down, ascending to her throne and the fatal destiny that stood between her and it. She almost lost herself in that memory, its gravity warping the dream with the same force that it warped her soul. Ahead though, almost lost in the distance, she saw her handmaid beckoning from the doorway to the castle’s treasure trove.
The memory of her days of childish foolishness offered little hope of earning wisdom, where recalling her most desperate struggle might bring Alari the insights she needed to ensure that it was never repeated. Regardless, she chose to follow her handmaid. She re-fought her battles constantly in her mind, if for one moment she could see her long lost friend again, even knowing it was only in a dream, the choice was easy for the Queen to make.
The treasure room appeared much as it had in reality. No gems or gold or finely crafted objects. Those were secreted elsewhere and neither Alari nor her handmaid had any interest in them. For the two girls, the true treasures were the ones that offered tangible power; steel plated mail, enchanted swords that thrummed with the power contained within them, and far out of their reach, behind wards they couldn’t hope to dismantle, the sigil stones needed to work a Pact binding ritual.
“This one looks about the right size for me,” the handmaid said, hoisting a sword as long as she was tall up to inspect it.
“Can you even swing that?” Alari asked.
“Of course I can,” her handmaid said, making the attempt and managing to not quite topple over in the process.
“Now, you’re really are my knight!” Alari said, delighted at the show of prowess and strength.
“I will protect you from all dangers, my lady! If anyone tries to hurt you, I’ll chop their head clean off!” her handmaid said, bowing to the child-would-be-Queen. The memory of that pledge stung Alari. She had a whole kingdom to defend her, regular troops by the legion, and full Pact Knights, and the mantle of the Royal Regalia she had wrested along with the crown, but she didn’t feel even a thimble full as safe with all of that as she had when she believed her handmaid’s vow.
“Then I name you here and now, my first and truest Knight,” child Alari said.
“Aren’t you supposed to wait till I’ve done some deed of valor to do that?” the handmaid asked.
“If you’re willing to be my Knight, then that’s the bravest thing I can think of anyone doing,” Alari said.
The dream shifted, consumed by the memory of her father that had tinged her words with fear even then. King Sathe had never posed a direct danger to his daughter, but even as a child she could see the madness that held him in its grip, and she knew his rule couldn’t last forever.
In her diary, there were already hundreds of pages that carried Alari’s thoughts about her father so she stopped at adding more. She’d woken from the dream at that point anyways so some part of her mind was willing to let those ghosts rest for the day.
Fully awake, if not fully pleased to be so, she finally signaled for her servants to enter and begin preparing her for the day.
An hour later she joined her husband, Consort-King Halrek, for the first of the day’s many sessions with their supporting noble lords.
“You look well this morning,” Halrek said, glancing up from a budgetary map of the Duchy of Tel.
“It’s kind of you to say so,” Alari said. “Has there been any word from the northern provinces?”
“Not yet,” Halrek said. “The rebuilding there should be proceeding according to schedule, but with the gala…”
The Royal Unification Celebration had been Alari’s idea originally and she still acted as one of its chief sponsors. The civil war that placed her on the throne had left huge rifts in the society of Gallagrin. One day of celebration a year couldn’t undo the damage that had been done, not alone at any rate, but as part of an overall campaign of reintegration she could see some positive changes coming out of it.
As with many of her youthful ideas though, Alari had been surprised at the reception her plans for healing the country’s wounds had garnered. She thought her enemies in the civil war, her father’s supporters, would be the ones to spurn her offers of peace and reconciliation. Many of them had leapt at the chance to return to the good graces of the monarchs in power though. By contrast, the people who had sided with her in the war were the ones who were the most disdainful and opposed to the process, citing the heavy rebuilding costs that still remained and the need for the royalty to remember those who supported them, Alari found that her closest allies were in many cases her strongest opposition as well.
“We should dispatch envoys to the north,” Alari said. “If their couriers are being mislaid, we might need to increase the Inward Patrols.”
“Our borders are still a concern,” Halrek said. “North, East and West, we are beset by neighbors who don’t look at us with a friendly eye.”
“At least there is Paxmer that we may rely on,” Alari said. Her husband having once been a prince of Paxmer, relations between the two countries were at the most peaceful that they had ever been, this despite the damage Paxmer wrought on Gallagrin during the latter’s civil war.
“Yes, we could draw down our forces on the southern border to reinforce the north, but that’s a long march and places the troops out of use for quite some time,” Halrek said.
“We can discuss that with the southern lords today then,” Alari said, already able to picture the bickering that was likely to ensue at the suggestion that royal troops would be redeployed from the locations where they were currently spending their hard earned gold.
“Your Majesty, a special courier has arrived from Nath for you,” one of the royal pages said to Alari.
“From Nath?” she blinked in surprise. She had seen Duke Telli at the gala a few nights previously and he hadn’t mentioned anything of significant importance that was due to occur within his domain. “Escort the courier into my receiving room.”
Alari left Halrek to attend to the beginning of the meeting. Nothing of merit would be discussed for the first half hour anyways so she felt in no rush to rejoin it. A special courier for her though was unusual enough to capture her interest.
When she arrived at the receiving room, the Queen found her guest already waiting before the throne.
“Your Majesty, may I present Sergeant Sol Korshin of the Dawn March,” the Queen’s seneschal said.
“Please rise Sergeant Korshin and state your business,” Alari said.
“I’ve been sent to convey a vampire into your care and keeping,” Sol said.
“I am not in the habit of collecting sentient beings,” Alari said, a chill running through her at even the hint that she might continue a family tradition. “Who sent you.”
“Officer Daelynne Kor of the Dawn March Nath Barracks,” Sol said.
The name was strange in Alari’s ears but within a breath she placed who Sol represented.
“Did she send a message with the vampire?” Alari asked, grateful that she was already sitting down.
“Yes, she said if you hadn’t yet heard of a reason to be concerned about Nath, then you should question the vampire immediately,” Sol said. “She also wanted me to say that she’s ready to chop off a few heads if you ask her to, but I think that’s just her ruthless streak showing through.”
Alari forced herself to breath, and to suppress the smile that wanted to brighten her face. The vampire bore horrible news, she had no doubt about that, but the short message that accompanied him let her know that she wasn’t facing it alone.