Following her meeting Teo, Alari planned to conduct a strategic series of interviews with the castle staff. It wasn’t a queenly sort of business to engage in, but someone had to turn up information on the conspiracy that moved against her, and by doing the investigation herself, Alari know that she could trust both the results and the reaction to what was learned.
In theory she should have had minions to assign to the task, but in this instance it was those very minions who were impossible to rely on. As much as she wanted to push the burden of ferreting out the guilty onto someone else, whoever was moving against her had to have turned some number of her closest assistants against her. It was the only move that had even the faintest glimmer of success on the conspiracies part and it had to be someone she’d never expect would strike at her.
That also limited who Alari could trust to act on her behalf. Halrek, her King-Consort held few connections to Gallagrin, but as an outsider his reaction to learning someone was planning to assassinate his Queen was likely to be quite lethal. Alari didn’t object to killing the conspirators, but she knew they needed to keep at least a few of them alive to make sure the whole conspiracy was rooted out properly. That left the burden squarely on her shoulders and while discovering who had been turned against her was a task Alari longed to get started on, it was also one that she dreaded undertaking. She’d picked her staff carefully, and treated them well. A betrayal by one of them wasn’t just a blow against the kingdom, it was a blow against Alari’s ability to trust her own judgment, which was potentially more fatal than any other wound the conspirators might cause.
Unfortunately for Alari, she never got to carry out the grim duty she had in mind.
For all the precautions she’d taken, she was still one step behind the conspiracy.
The reality of that struck her as she organized the duty rosters for her staff after Teo departed the storeroom Alari had conscripted as her private interview chamber. One moment she was reviewing a sheet of times and locations where the palace staff was assigned and the next she was slumped over the desk. She managed to raise her head and bring her vision into focus just in time to see her chamberlain enter the room.
“Your Majesty?” the chamberlain asked, confused to find his monarch in such an unusual location and in such apparent disarray.
“We require your assistance Lord Chamberlain,” Alari said. “Fetch the royal chirurgeon.”
She wanted to say more, to explain that some foul magic had overwhelmed her, but darkness pulled her under before she could force the words out.
In a grey and soundless haze, her thoughts scattered in a thousand directions. There was one that she held onto though. She was Gallagrin. Pact bonded to the great spirit the Sleeping Gods had forged to watch over the realm and provide stability for the Mindful Races they built from flesh and sinew and breath and inspiration.
Gallagrin couldn’t be poisoned. Gallagrin couldn’t be slain. No assassin, and no army, could overcome Gallagrin. Even the Sleeping Gods couldn’t undo what they had made. Whatever was happening to her was wrong. It couldn’t happen to the Queen of Gallagrin.
But that didn’t change that it was happening.
Alari fought against the force that was pulling her consciousness down but it was like battling a tempest in her own blood. No matter how she struggled, the whirlpool of her dreams would not release her, and before she knew it, she’d been pulled under the waves of her subconscious.
Lost in her own mind, Alari dreamed about dreaming.
She was thirteen again and with her only real friend.
“So what are you going to do when you’re the ruler of the kingdom?” Dae asked her as they sat together on one of Alari’s many canopied beds, studying the history of Gallagrin.
In the dream, Alari couldn’t read the scrolls that were strewn about the bed but somehow the words she’d spoken and the promises Dae made echoed with crystal clarity in her ears even after the passage of more than a decade.
“I’m going to get everyone to love me,” the youthful, idiotic Alari had said. Hearing her own words sent a stab of embarrassment and pain spiking through Alari’s adult heart.
Her dream then had been to lead people about of the miasma of fear that her father spread over the country. She believed that all she needed to do was to offer the downtrodden and terror-striken people of Gallagrin her hand in friendship and love and she would be able to lift them all up to a brighter future.
When the time had come to ascend her throne though, her hands had been covered in blood and she’d learned that her people were far more broken than she’d ever known as a child.
“Everyone already loves you!” the youthful Dae had insisted.
It was true that everyone who came to court gave her the highest of compliments. There was a real shine of appreciation in their eyes and they paid attention to every word she said. She’d known even by age thirteen though that those compliments were as much for King Sathe’s benefit as they were for hers and that people attended to her because no one dared offend the princess given the retribution her father would exact.
“Everyone fears me,” Alari said. “The less time they have to spend with me, the more comfortable they are.”
“Well I love you,” Dae said. “And I’ll never leave you. Unless you tell me to go.”
“I can’t tell you to go,” Alari said. “Who would be my most trusted Knight?”
“You’ve got your pick of Knights,” Dae said, glancing away from her princess.
“I don’t want any of them though,” Alari said. “I want you!”
“Then you’ve got me,” Dae said. “I’ll protect you from anybody who wants to hurt you. If anyone tries to mess with you, I’ll chop their heads off! If anyone tries to take your kingdom, I’ll rally the troops for you! No matter what it takes, I’ll be there!”
“What if you have to fight a Pact Warrior for me?” Alari asked.
“Then I’ll get a Pact Spirit!” Dae said. “The biggest Pact spirit I can, and we’ll both protect you!”
Dae had gotten a Pact Spirit. It had taken years of work. It had meant that Alari had to be separated from the person who meant the most to her in the whole world, but it had been worth it.
When Dae returned bearing her Pact Spirit, both of the young women knew it was something special. Alari was unspeakable proud of Dae. No one knew that they’d substituted the Pact stones for Dae’s spirit bonding. Dae was Alari’s secret weapon, and Alari wasn’t willing to share her with anyone.
At the same time though, secret weapons are all the more powerful if their secrets are kept hidden.
Alari dreamed of seeing Dae off for her first command. As a Pact Knight, Dae was expected to serve the kingdom in a great capacity than a simple handmaiden to a princess whose life had never been in even the hint of danger since her father’s reign turned bloody and cruel.
“If you call, for any reason, I’ll come,” Dae said, holding Alari’s hands in her own.
“You’ll have responsibilities,” Alari said.
“I have one responsibility above all others, one that I swore myself to before all others,” Dae said.
“Go with my blessing, and my love,” Alari said and kissed Dae on the forehead. “I don’t know where our paths will take us, but you will ever be my most trusted Knight and my most beloved companion.”
“I am yours to command,” Dae said. “Always.”
“Then I give you this one command,” Alari said. “Return to me. Whatever perils you face, whatever trials you must pass through, you are not allowed to die without me, and you are not allowed to be taken beyond when I may follow. Come back to me my Adae.”
“Whatever it takes,” Dae said.
Alari had never called for her though.
The dream moved on to the civil war which Alari provoked and the height of the fighting between the forces loyal to her cause and those who clung to her father’s dying reign.
Alari wanted so many times during the fight for Gallagrin to call Dae to her side. There were so many battles that would have ended in decisive wins, if Alari had called for her Knight and the forces which Dae commanded.
But then Paxmer would have invaded.
Alari knew that would be a problem with inciting a civil war. Gallagrin’s neighbors were universally hungry to consume its resources. The rich mountains of metals and gems which were the foundation of Gallagrin’s wealth and prosperity lay temptingly close to its borders.
The Kingdom of Senkin to the north and the Green Council lands to the northeast had enough internal problems that Alari knew they couldn’t muster the forces to mount a serious invasion attempt. Before she even began her revolt, she’d secured those borders through careful diplomacy and the promise of future trade relations.
Inchesso was old and stagnant enough that they lacked the capacity to invade even if they could find a common will to attempt it.
Paxmer however was another matter. Vigorous and primed for expansion, Alari had heard rumors for a long time of Paxmer plans to become the first of the Blessed Realms to conquer one of the other realms.
Relations between the two neighboring states had never been especially cordial and during the time of King Sathe’s rule there had been insults and indignities hurled across both sides of the border. Sathe had been the first to truly overstep the bounds of international decorum though when he had the chief ambassador from Paxmer drawn and quartered and then sent back to Paxmer in a series of separate boxes.
The beginning of hostilities in Gallagrin had sent a clear and unambiguous signal to Paxmer that their northern neighbor was entering the weakest state it had been in for decades and so the armies of Paxmer had formed up and marched on the border.
Alari had barely enough resources to contest for the future of the country against her father’s troops. Fighting her father and Paxmer would have been impossible and so she’d made the only call she could make. She’d left Dae in place, on the border, against the full might of the Paxmer army.
Her dream shifted to imagination and she saw the border keep of Star’s Watch burning under the heat of dragon fire.
At the end of the civil war, Alari’s hands had been bathed in the blood of her father. They’d fought at the top of the tallest spire in Gallagrin, wrestled for control of the spirit of Gallagrin itself and when Alari had won, she’d torn her father’s head from his shoulders with her bare hands.
It was that image, the princess-become-Queen, striding to the parapets, her hands covered to the elbows in bright crimson blood as she held aloft the bodiless head of the former King which had marked the end of the civil war. It had also earned her the sobriquet of “The Bloody Handed Queen” but it wasn’t her father’s blood which she sought to wash away with every good deed she did and every kindness she could show.
In Alari’s dream, every drop of blood that ran down from her elbows to her fingertips came from one of the border people that she sacrificed to make her dream of ruling the kingdom better than her father come true.
In her dream, the spectre of Paxmer rose above the nation that she’d built. If Halrek hadn’t appeared late in the war and pledged his aid, Gallagrin would have entered the bloodiest war in its history as Paxmer devoured it while Alari tried to rebuild her forces in time to stem the tide of invaders.
In the end, Alari felt like she won her throne due to the gallantry of her Knight and the vision of her husband. Her own achievements somehow paled before the price that others had paid for her, and though she knew on an intellectual level that wasn’t entirely accurate, she couldn’t help but feel like it was an appropriate way to remember the events given all she’d attained in the process.
She was Queen in more than name. Gallagrin’s strength was her strength, but when she reached for that strength she found it was fading from her quickly.
The shock of that feeling allowed Alari to open her eyes once more.
She was back in her bed. Back in the royal chambers. Halrek was with her. He was the only one with her.
“You’re awake?” he said sounding neither surprised nor pleased. “There’s unusual strength in your blood.”
He walked to one of the tables and picked up a bottle she knew wasn’t one of hers.
“I’m sure you must feel terrible,” Halrek said. “No worries though, the chirurgeon has instructed that you be allowed to rest for the evening, so no one will be checking on you. No one except for the assassins who’ll be visiting shortly that is.”