Of the many meeting rooms and presentations halls and audience chambers in the grand castle of Highcrest, Dae had never foreseen herself sitting in the Memory Room. With the everburning pyre of divine fire that sat in the center of the room, it was easy to believe the legends that claimed no lies could be uttered by those seated at the spirit-etched central table that ringed the heavenly bonfire.
The Memory Room was, again according to legend, where the Gallagrin’s Spirit Intercessor was entombed. When the Sleeping Gods fell into their great (and presumably eternal) slumber, the auxiliary spirits which they maintained largely fell into the godsleep with them. The Spirit Intercessor had once been the one who communicated with Gallagrin’s ruler on whatever divine matters the crown was meant to pursue.
In the centuries since the Intercessor went down to slumber in the earth, the room where they were spoken too had become one of the highest level planning rooms in the castle. The myth that no lies could be told in the Intercessor’s presence was less believed to be a magical geas and more a warning that was best heeded by anyone who didn’t wish to invoke the Intercessor’s wrath.
“Thank you for joining us today,” Alari said, addressing the four men and women she’d assembled for what Dae thought of as a pre-War Council.
“We are a surprisingly small group, Your Majesty,” General Karlin Limli said. “With the immanence of spring, I thought you might be inclined to summon the full council to discuss the possibility of an early campaign?”
Dae steepled her hand in front of her mouth to cover a smile. Karlin was as delightfully direct as Alari had warned Dae he would be. That directness was clearly attributable to his position.He was the senior commander of the Southern Royal Armies, the same Southern Royal Armies which had endured the worst of the fighting with Paxmer six years previously and on earlier occasions during the Butcher King’s reign. Karlin hadn’t been the commander of the crown’s southern forces until after Alari took the throne, but he’d still been shaped by the pressure of holding Gallagrin’s most vulnerable border despite the lack of overt attacks on it during his tenure.
“Just the reverse General,” Alari said. “We do not wish to wage either an early campaign or a late one this year.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Karlin said, “but I don’t believe Paxmer is going to allow you a choice in that matter.”
“Paxmer can’t do anything to us,” Admiral Yonda Kemere said. “Not on land at least.”
As the senior commander for the Gallagrin navy, Yonda’s dismissal of land-based threats was as common as it was understandable.
“That’s not what our spies are telling us,” Karlin said. “Paxmer’s been building up stockpiles of weapons and armor for years.”
“You didn’t need spies to tell you that,” Yonda said. “Just ask anyone in one of my ships. We’re the ones those weapons are getting used on!”
“Bah, you just run away on the wind,” Karlin said. “That’s not an option when you’ve got an army in front of you and your house behind you.”
“Paxmer is a threat,” Alari said. “We acknowledge that and grant both of you your concerns. It is still our desire that no formal levy of royal or noble troops be made this coming season.”
“If you acknowledge the threat, you must act on it Your Majesty,” Karlin said. “If we leave Paxmer the option of taking the initiative we’ll lose every keep, fort, and border town that we have along our entire southern expanse.”
“That sounds bad, but I’m sorry to say that the Navy’s needs are more dire than that,” Yonda said. “You’ve seen the reports haven’t you Your Majesty? We’re not facing wood and steel on the waves any longer.”
“What do you mean?” Karlin asked. “Has Paxmer put new ships into the sea?”
“No,” Alari said. “They’re simply crewing their existing ships with new weapons.”
“We face dragons on the borders Your Majesty,” Karlin said. “Whatever they’re throwing at the navy, it can’t be as bad as that.”
“It can be exactly as bad as that,” Sir Faen Kemoral, the commander of the Royal Guard, said. The Royal Guard were, essentially, one of the Royal Armies but their command structure reported directly to the crown rather than to a General and while the Royal Guard’s charter called for them to secure the capital and provide for the defense of the royal city, history had stretched the definition of the areas they were allowed to work in to include acting as special supplementary troops in any area where danger might arise that could threaten the crown.
“What’s as bad as a dragon?” Karlin asked.
“Another dragon,” Yonda said. “That’s what they’ve been sending against us!”
“I can confirm that,” Faen said. “I’ve lost a full squad and a half trying to safeguard shipments sent from the Sunlost Isles.”
“Those squads were on only two of the seven ships which have been sunk in the last three months,” Yonda said. “We can’t run away on the wind when we’ve got dragons in front of us and slow moving cargo ships sailing in our wake.”
“How are they getting dragons out onto the water?” Karlin asked. “That’s impossible. Paxmer dragons can only live in Paxmer.”
“We have tasked some of our scholars to answer that question,” Alari said. “Their belief is that so long as the ships remain under Paxmer control, the vessel counts as ‘Paxmer territory’ and thus the dragons can abide there.”
“That’s an enormous risk though,” Karlin said. “And dragons aren’t risk taking creatures.”
“The ones that live to an old age aren’t,” Yonda said. “These are young ones though.”
“That’s a poor turn of fortune then.” Karlin said. “But I am still unclear on why we’ve been assembled here?”
“Gallagrin faces many problems,” Alari said. “The threat of invasion is real, although the form it will take is likely not the one we are familiar with. The challenge to our claim on the sea is real, and the solution to it is one which does not present itself readily. You are not hear to discuss Gallagrin’s problems though. You are here to discuss the solutions to Gallagrin’s problems.”
“The solution I recommend is an early assault into Paxmer territory,” Karlin said. “If we strike deep and hard, we can force their hand and make them play out the campaign seasons of the year in response to us. If we make them focus on mitigating the damage we’re doing, we can keep them from having the time or resources to do damage to us in return.”
“That is a tried and tested strategy,” Alari said. “But it falls short for our needs on this occasion. Firstly because it requires too great a commitment of forces, forces which we do not have and cannot raise without doing material harm to the Duchys of the south.”
“The crown has imposed troop levies on the populace since the first time it was worn,” Karlin said.
“Troops levied for defensive battles enjoy the benefits which Gallagrin provides us,” Alari said. “We are not an easy country to assault. Soldiers fed into the plains of Paxmer will not be sheltered by our mountains, or protected by the creatures with which we hold unspoken truces. But there is another reason an assault on Paxmer will fail.”
“The troops would be green,” Karlin said. “I know the limitation of our forces but I ask that you have faith in our people. It may cost them, but they can see a campaign such as this through to the end.”
“It will be a bitter end for all if we allow them to go,” Alari said. “Even should they return home in victory, there would be no food awaiting them.”
“No food?” Karlin asked. “But the restoration of the farmlands has been the crown’s primary concern since your rule began. How can the farmers still be lagging at their work?”
“They are not,” Alari said. “Our fields are restored and produced full crops last year.”
“They must have,” Yonda said. “We shipped more goods in the fall than we have in years.”
“And therein lies the problem,” Alari said. “In his bid for the throne, Halrek needed a war chest. Those funds came from authorizing the sale of not only our storable crops last year but also the future sale of the crops this year promises to produce.”
“That’s insane,” Karlin said. “Why should we be bound by the actions of that lunatic?”
“Because he accepted payment for the crops from Senkin, Sunlost, Inchesso and Authzang. Payment which we have as yet failed to locate,” Alari said.
“Can we deliver the crops and not starve if the farmers remain on their land?” Faen asked.
“Our advisors believe so,” Alari said. “Halrek was borrowing from the future, not seeking to destroy it.”
“And if we renege on the contract?” Karlin asked.
“In the worst case, we’ll be facing invasion from more than just Paxmer,” Alari said. “A more likely course however would be that Paxmer’s campaign against us would gain the support of the countries with whom we broke faith.”
“So either we face an invasion with too few troops or we face several invasions with troops who will starve at the end of the fighting?” Karlin asked. “That does not paint a picture which offers many solutions, Your Majesty.”
“It sounds like my request for larger squads of marines is not one you’re willing to entertain either?” Yonda asked.
“In the face of dragon fire, more troops do not strike us as a workable answer,” Alari said. “Neither is abandoning our place on the waves though. There is too much we cannot produce within our borders and too few fair markets across our neighbor’s borders.”
“It sounds as though you want it all, Your Majesty,” Faen said. “A secure country, prosperous citizens and good relations with those we border.”
“You are correct Sir Kemoral,” Alari said.
“But not with Paxmer. certainly?” Karlin asked.
“With Paxmer, we will be on the best of terms,” Alari said. “But it will not be the Paxmer which stands today.”
“I do not take your meaning, You Majesty?” Karlin said.
“Then allow us to be clear,” Alari said. “Paxmer invaded our country. They violated the sanctity of our realm, our person, and our holy trust. We do not forgive them for this.”
Dae wasn’t certain, but she thought the eternal flame burning at the center of the room flared steadily brighter as Alari spoke.
“Paxmer thinks they want a war with us,” Alari said. “They think they can weaken us with their stratagems and then march their troops in to claim dominion over our realm. They are patient and cunning and, given time, they would be correct.”
Dae flicked her gaze from Alari to the eternal flame and saw that she was correct. It was glowing ever brighter the more the Queen of Gallagrin spoke.
“That is why we will not give them time,” Alari said.
The light from the eternal flame was mirrored in by the white elements of the royal regalia to the point where Alari was surrounded by a nimbus of faint light.
“We will wage no early or late campaign against Paxmer this season,” Alari said. “What we will do to Paxmer will be no sort of campaign at all. We are going to destroy our enemy utterly. Paxmer called us to war six years ago and set the terms as a battle of subterfuge and betrayal.”
In the eternal flame, Dae saw the shape of a figure starting to form, as though the fire were a messenger recording a royal proclamation.
“We accept those terms,” Alari said. “If Paxmer wishes to see how far the Red Handed Queen will go to secure her realm then we will be glad to educate them as we educated our father on that matter.”