The Queen of Gallagrin sat with her hands folded in her lap. Her bearing betrayed no hint of support or disdain for the arguments which the Southern Miner’s Coalition advanced against the 3rd Fleet of the Gallagrin Navy. The issue under discussion was a complex one involving pre-established rights to buy worked ore, commitments on production levels and reciprocal review of accounts.
Alari wasn’t precisely bored by these discussion, nor was she overwhelmed by them. Under normal circumstances, the intricacies of how her people conducted their business with one another, the maneuvers and stratagems they used to come out ahead while remaining within the framework of the law, was fascinating and endlessly interesting to her.
Or almost endlessly. As it turned out, the prospect of an impending attempt on her life was enough to leave Alari’s thoughts in a jangle. Long years of practice hiding her emotions from view gave her the skill needed to sit in judgement even when she was distracted though, as well as the wisdom to know when not to make a decision.
“Your request is heard,” she said an hour later after both parties presented their final points. “We will appoint an auditor to review the facts you have provided and will render our decision when their work is concluded.”
It wasn’t the answer either the Miners or the 3rd Fleet wanted to hear. Both would have benefited from a quick resolution to the disagreements they put forth. An auditor would drag the case on for months, reviewing the figures and interviewing witnesses. In the end they weren’t likely to turn up anything more than the Queen could in ten minutes of questions the representatives, but anything they did discover would be well documented and make for a more thoroughly effective resolution that anything either party was likely to agree to on their own.
“Are you feeling well?” Halrek asked her after they departed from the audience hall. As the Consort-King, he had sat in on the meeting as well, though his presence wasn’t strictly required.
“Not entirely,” Alari said after scanning their small study to be sure no one else was lingering around the doors.
“What ails you?” Halrek asked, moving to get her a cup of water to drink.
“Presently, nothing,” Alari said. “But I don’t expect that to remain true for very long.”
“Chasing phantoms again?” Halrek asked. “You know the physician has said you should retain a more cheerful frame of mind.”
“I am positive,” Alari said. “I’m merely positive that someone is going to attempt to kill me.”
Halrek sighed, and let his shoulders droop.
“And what brings on this certainty,” he asked, his voice weary and put out.
“They have killed one of my pages,” Alari said.
“And thus you are imperiled as well?” Halrek asked. “I don’t see the connection I am afraid.”
“It is the opening shot in a larger gambit,” Alari said.
“Or it’s an unfortunate tragedy,” Halrek said. “People do get killed for little to no reason sometimes.”
“My dear, sweet, King,” Alari said. “Have you lived here so long and still not managed to grasp the currents of Gallagrin’s high society? An attack on our holdings or people is an attack on us.”
“Then am I not as much a target as you?” Halrek asked. “Perhaps some conservative family still mistrusts the Paxmer Prince who shares the throne with you?”
“We know such families exist, but I do not believe this to be their work,” Alari said. “You are well liked by many of the stronger families. A move against you would face opposition from the very families most able to accomplish it, and, more importantly, it would leave the attackers open to my wrath and retribution.”
“And you think you are not just as supported as I?” Halrek asked. “That’s your fear speaking my Queen, not your reason.”
“It is not fear to acknowledge the truth,” Alari said. “You, they are free to love, for you came and turned the tide of the battle against my father by bringing Paxmer’s declaration of peace and support for our side. There is no blood on your hands, and no madness that they look for lurking in your blood.”
“And do you look for that madness as well?” Halrek asked.
“No,” Alari said. “For I know that my father wasn’t mad.”
“That’s a strange and disturbing claim for you to make,” Halrek said. “Wasn’t the whole campaign against his rule to cut short the madness of his reign?”
“Yes, his reign was a mad one, but it didn’t arise out of insanity, at least not the fractured, raving kind of lunacy of which he is most often accused.” Alari said. “He was not gibberingly insane, he was simply overwhelmed and incapable of admitting his own errors.”
“That might be close enough to mad that no line can be drawn between them,” Halrek said.
“If he was truly mad, he would not have been as tenacious a foe to our rebellion,” Alari said. “His mind never lost sight of what was real, he simply chose to interpret everything he saw under the worst possible light, and with no acceptance that he might be wrong.”
“Whereas you are looking at the murder of your page in a clear and open fashion you claim?” Halrek asked.
“I believe so, yes,” Alari said. “Consider the situation; either the murder was part of a greater plan, or it wasn’t. If it was then the plan must be unraveled and dealt with summarily. If it was not though, then there is still someone responsible, and they must feel the full weight of my judgment, lest others with reason to oppose me be encouraged to try similar avenues of attack.”
“You have conjured enemies for every eventuality,” Halrek said.
“You think me not so different from my father?” Alari asked.
“I am trying to perceive the difference,” Halrek said, “But it seems very slight.”
“It seems slight because it is,” Alari said. “But there is a crucial gap between us. Where I see the shadow of a plot against me, I conjure shadows of my enemies that I might study them and discern if anyone real can fill their likeness. My father conjured not shadows but names. When he sensed danger, he would assign its cause to whomever he disliked the most at that moment. He reasoned that they must dislike him as much and were the most likely candidates to do him harm.”
“That certainly speeds up the process,” Halrek said. “Though I expect that it catches the guilty only rarely.”
“I thought so as well, but I’ve since learned otherwise,” Alari said. “From letters and personal conversations after we took the throne, I’ve learned that many my father put to death were in fact in secret rebellion against him.”
“So you’re saying his methods were right?” Halrek asked.
“No, exactly the opposite in fact,” Alari said. “His methods worked only because he killed so many innocents at first that overtime he turned everyone against him.”
“But there were many Lords of the kingdom who fought under his banner?” Halrek said.
“True, but they fought for a variety of reasons,” Alari said. “Some sought to be on the winning side and saw our forces as unequal to the task of ousting a sitting king. Others wanted to slay my father but only on their own terms. And some merely wished to cling to duty and tradition above all else.”
“And what will your approach win you?” Halrek asked. “Seeing the shadows of enemies everywhere can not be good for your health.”
His words carried an unspoken barb to them. The topic of her health was one which came up frequently between them. Though he never spoke of it directly, Alari felt that he must blame her for the loss of their child. It was some weakness in her that had failed the small life that had grown within her. Halrek had fulfilled his duties in regards to the royal heir, but she had not, and if her fears were correct, never would.
“Perhaps not,” Alari said, as much to her own thoughts as to Halrek’s words, “But in this particular case, I suspect the shadows I see have more substance and weight than they ought.”
“But are they not still shadows?” Halrek asked. “Or have you found some proof to rest your fears on?”
“No proof as yet,” Alari said. “But I know that it is being sought.”
“By whom?” Halrek asked.
“By the Dawn March in Nath,” Alari said. A voice within her longed to give credit where it was due, but another remembered the dead, empty words of her last parting with her Adae. If Alari’s King had cause to hold her accountable for one life, her childhood friend had cause to bear witness against her for thousands more.
“Can their findings be trusted?” Halrek asked. Though he wasn’t native to Gallagrin, he still knew where the veins of corruption ran deepest.
“Yes,” Alari said, her words hotter by a degree than she’d intended. “To the extent that they can furnish proof,” she amended, cooling her passion so that it looked like irritation at being questioned at all. It wasn’t a kind stratagem, and she had no reason to hide the truth from her husband, but neither did she wish to reveal that specific vulnerability in her heart. To him or to anyone.
“But they have not provided any yet,” Halrek said.
“Not directly,” Alari said. “But it is telling that the minor witness they sent to me was attacked by an ambush lead by a Pact Warrior as they rode in a carriage bearing the clear heraldry of the Dawn March.”
“That is noteworthy,” Halrek said. “Were they able to capture the reported Pact Warrior?”
“I am awaiting a report on that presently,” Alari said.
“If they were able to take the assailant alive, he might be able to flesh out your shadows and place a name and face to them,” Halrek said. “Unless of course this was some dispute against the Dawn March which your witness was unlucky enough to fall into the middle of by accident.”
“I think I would find an accident even more suspect than a planned attack,” Alari said.
“That speaks to a need to see enemies where none exist,” Halrek said.
“You mistake me,” Alari said. “When I say I see shadows, I look for them so that I will not see enemies where there are none. I look to the shadows to see what information I can gather. I will not be my father. I will name no one my enemy until they have proven themselves to be such.”
“If you would wait so long, then why look for these enemies at all?” Halrek asked.
“I wish to be merciful,” Alari said. “But mercy without vigilance leads to becoming a victim just as surely as vigilance without mercy leads to becoming a tyrant.”
“You set yourself a heavy task, my Queen,” Halrek said.
“It is good that I need not shoulder its burden alone then, my King,” Alari said.
“Indeed,” Halrek said. “Though I suspect you spend more of yourself on vigilance than you know. You leave little room for me to look out for you with the attention to detail you show. Or perhaps you feel the need to be vigilant of me as well?”
“Of course not,” Alari said, ashamed at the thought. “You stood by Gallagrin in her darkest hour. If not for your sacrifice, my father would still rule this land and I would hang from a gibbet tree atop the highest tower here.”
“Our marriage was no great sacrifice,” Halrek said. “And Gallagrin has been kind to me.”
“Let us hope that continues,” Alari said.
“And let us hope that these shadows which you see shall prove to be nothing more than phantoms which vanish with the dawn,” Halrek said.
“I would wish instead for the dawn to come that I might see more clearly who it is that stands against me, and who still supports my cause,” Alari said.
Before their conversation could continue there was a knock on the door.
“Allow me,” Halrek said and went to open the door.
“My apologies Your Highness,” the courier who entered said. “News has arrived from Nath, the Ambassador from Inchesso has been found slain!”