Alari, Queen of Gallagrin and Supreme Protector of the Divine Throne of Highcrest, wandered through her southern gardens trailing her fingers along the barbed vines which would burst into a riot of color and rich scents within a few weeks.
“I thought you were going to burn these things to the ground?” Dae, her Knight and dearest love, said.
“I tried,” Alari said, drawing her hand back slowly, before the hungry thorns could claim a drop of royal blood from her fingers. “The screams were a little much though.”
“Screams?” Dae asked. Her hand strayed to the ceremonial sword she wore at her waist. Alari’s Knight wasn’t a superstitious sort, but no one could discount that Castle Highcrest was haunted, especially in the wake of the Butcher King’s residence. Dae didn’t fear ghosts, but she was ever so slightly over protective of her liege.
“It turns out that the legends are true,” Alari said, walking to a thick cord of interwoven dark and pale green strands. On the vine’s tiny branches the first hints of brilliant buds, from an almost white pastel orange at the top of the vine to dark and vibrant dots of red on the branches at the vine’s base, were beginning to peek forth from their winter slumber. “This garden was watered in the blood of thousands during my father’s reign. The plants drank up the reddened soil and should have withered but instead they changed. They’re quiet now, still asleep, but in the spring and summer and fall they sing.”
“Your south garden is full of blood drinking plants?” Dae asked. “That sing?”
“Yes,” Alari said. “Hundreds of different songs. I thought they would all be dirges and laments, but it turns out those are few and far between.”
“And they scream too?” Dae asked.
“Only if you burn them,” Alari said. “Or uproot them. And it’s not just one of them. Pull up a single rose and all of the rest scream.”
“So they’re lovely and disturbing,” Dae said. “I see why you kept them.”
“The amusing thing is that they never sang for my father,” Alari said.
“I seem to recall them moaning a lot,” Dae said. “We scared ourselves silly the first time we snuck in here.”
“To be fair, I was scared silly,” Alari said. “You had a look on your face that said you were ready to chop them to kindling. It looked almost exactly like the one you’re wearing now.”
“I’m not wearing an expression now,” Dae said. “This is how I normally look.”
“Yes, like you’re ready to chop something or someone to kindling,” Alari said.
“Not ready,” Dae said. “Just willing to, if need be.”
Alari laughed lightly and swept away from her knight to inspect another of the plants; a low and long shrub with the early signs of white and blue blossoms. It had been sculpted to look a series of stylized ocean waves but the rampant overgrowth after the chaos of the previous autumn left the waves looking more naturalistic and powerful than the designer might have intended. Alari had no intention of allowing anyone to change the shrubs appearance back to the original design though.
“You are a dangerous person to have around, my Adae,” Alari said.
“Yes,” Dae said. “I just hope your enemies are aware of that.”
“You are dangerous because my enemies are aware of that,” Alari said. “They’ll come for you next, before they come for me.”
Dae flexed her hands and cracked her knuckles.
“That sounds delightful to me,” she said.
Alari sighed and looked away, caressing the shrub and letting its tiny spurs dig into the palm of her hand.
“That’s the one order I can’t give you, isn’t it?” Alari asked.
“What?” Dae asked, walking up to her queen and touching Alari lightly on the shoulder.
“I can’t order you to protect yourself before me,” Alari said. “Or from me.”
“My queen,” Dae said. “As your knight, I can never put you anywhere except first before all others, most definitely including myself.”
“But…” Alari began before Dae cut her off.
“And even if I wasn’t your knight,” Dae said. “I can’t risk losing you. It’s greedy, and it’s selfish, and I don’t care. In protecting you, I’m protecting myself too. You saw the state I fell into when we were apart, and that was when I could cling to the hope that you were doing fine without me. There is so much farther down I could go if you were lost for real.”
“Don’t,” Alari said. “Let me at least command you there. You don’t get to be the only one who’s selfish and greedy. I have to think of the whole kingdom in every other choice I make, give me at least this; if I fall, if I’m lost, do not follow me down. I don’t care if this isn’t fair to ask of you, but if I die, you have to live. And live well.”
“You are truly cruel, you know that don’t you?” Dae asked. “Dying for you is such a simple proposition. Living is complicated, and if I’m going to do that, I insist that I not have to do it alone.”
“I have plans to die when the reaper has lost count of the winters I’ve seen,” Alari said. “I envision being asleep in a comfy bed in a far away cabin, while the successor of my successor’s successor rules the kingdom with peace and prosperity for all.”
“I can allow that,” Dae said. “Provided I am in the cabin to fight the reaper when they arrive.”
Alari rolled her eyes and laughed.
“Well enough, my knight,” she said. “I shall hold you to that promise at least then. As we come upon dire hours where hope seems lost, you will remember the goodly cottage we shall build in our age and infirmity, and remember that you are bound to this life until our bones can rest together there.”
“You are a wise queen, my lady,” Dae said. “That is a promise I can bind myself to freely and without reservation.”
“Good,” Alari said, quiet and serious for a moment. “Though, would you say the same if I asked you as myself, rather than commanded it as your queen?”
“Alari,” Dae said, “You have always been more than my princess, and more than my queen. I am bound to you by more than duty, and more than rank, and more than any promise you could ever ask of me. You are Gallagrin’s Queen, and are owned in part by all it’s people, but while my mind knows that, in my greedy heart, we are still young and the cares of the kingdom are far away and your are mine and I am yours.”
“I’m not worthy of you, my Adae,” Alari said. “You give me so much of yourself and I can only give you the parts of me which Gallagrin has not already stolen away.”
“Gallagrin has taken nothing from you that matters,” Dae said. “I know there are parts of your life that I can never share, burdens which I can never help you carry, commitments that must come first before me. Those don’t matter though. They’ve never mattered. They’re a part of what it means to be in your life, and I accepted that a long time ago. You are worth that price.”
“And now who is the cruel one?” Alari asked, wiping a tear from her eye.
“You,” Dae said. “Definitely you. Because I know you’re going to ask me to do something terrible next.”
“It’s not terrible,” Alari said. “Or at least not physically painful. But before I get to that, tell me of the new candidate you’ve found?”
“I cannot express how much ‘not physically painful’ is failing to reassure me,” Dae said. “So, yes, let’s talk about Lady Lafli.”
“This is Jyl, not Jain, correct?” Alari asked.
“You know your noble families better than I remember,” Dae said.
“A necessary evil of ruling them,” Alari said. “Minor families have the same basic needs as major ones and can be a stronger base if they’re united.”
“You always did like having more chess pieces on the board didn’t you?” Dae asked.
“It’s the easiest way to win,” Alari said.
“Unless your opponent notices that you have seven rooks in play,” Dae said.
“I only used that gambit once,” Alari said. “It turns out pawns are much harder for your opponent to keep track of.”
“Jyl is definitely not a pawn,” Dae said. “She earned her Pact Spirit the hard way.”
“Stole it from another family?” Alari asked.
“No,” Dae said. “She quested for it. Found one of the old ruins, ventured in deeper than anyone else had gone before and woke the spirit that was sleeping there.”
“With a young spirit her powers must be significantly limited,” Alari said.
“They should be, but that’s not what I’ve observed so far,” Dae said. “It’s possible that either the spirit has had previous bearers before it dropped into slumber, or that she’s a prodigy with working magic. Or, and this is my guess, both are the case.”
“You were looking for more than just skill and power though I believe,” Alari said, resuming her walk through the garden.
“Yes, and that’s why I want her as part of your guard,” Dae said. “Her thoughts are slippery and sneaky. She’s not concerned about winning so much as achieving her objectives.”
“That seems a rather fine distinction to draw,” Alari said.
“It’s the difference between trying to score a point and making sure if you wind up on the ground that you’re foe goes down too,” Dae said. Alari’s pace was a relaxing one, designed to draw out their time alone together as long it could reasonably be stretched. In theory, since they were in a secure location, Dae should have walked several paces behind her queen, but Alari had disallowed that sort of nonsense since the first day they met. Instead, the two women walked side by side, each dutifully not staring at the other.
“You wish my personal guard to prioritize defeating my foes by any means necessary rather than performing their duties to the technical limit of what is required of them?” Alari asked.
“That’s the general idea,” Dae said, and then winced. “And I am going to regret saying that before this conversation is over aren’t I?”
“I could lie if that would calm your nerves?” Alari said.
“Please do,” Dae said.
“Alas, to you, I will never lie, my Knight,” Alari said.
“You are fortunate that I love you so dearly, my Queen,” Dae said. “So much that I would never imagine mixing Inchesso Mudbloom into the royal hair tonics.”
“I thought it was your duty to protect my body from all forms of harm?” Alari asked.
“Indeed it is, dear liege,” Dae said. “But who can say that you wouldn’t appear most fetching with blue and green streaks in the royal mane?”
“I believe I know who shall be testing the royal tonics before I next use them,” Alari said.
“As you command, Your Majesty,” Dae said, bowing low with a delighted grin on her face.
“You are a wicked knight,” Alari said.
“Yes,” Dae said. “Every bit as wicked as you need me to be.”
“Then perhaps you’ll enjoy what I have to ask you,” Alari said. “I need someone to infiltrate Paxmer. And it needs to be someone of unparalleled skill whom I can trust with more than my life.”
“I hate the idea of being parted from you,” Dae said. “It worked out rather poorly the last time we tried it seven years ago, but if it means eliminating a threat to you before it can cross into Gallagrin in the first place, you need only name the target.”
“It’s not that simple,” Alari said.
“It never is, is it?” she said.
“I’m going to destroy Paxmer,” Alari said, without breaking her stride or placing any more emphasis on the words than if she’d announced what she was going to have for breakfast.
“That’s understandable,” Dae said. “Am I to start slaying them from a particular point in the country or shall I begin with the largest obstacles and work down from there?”
“Your blade has shed all of the Paxmer blood I need it to,” Alari said. “And for this mission, you will need more than Kirios for support.”
“Kirios and I can do quite a lot together,” Dae said.
“Yes, including save my kingdom and my position in it,” Alari said. “But this venture will require more than one of the Queen’s Guard.”
“Jyl is untrained,” Dae said. “She’ll learn fast, but I don’t think she’ll be able to handle more than a tenth of Paxmer or so on her own.”
“It is fortunate then that I have another candidate for you to review for the Queen’s Guard,” Alari said.
“Who?” Dae asked. “I thought I saw all of the candidates for the Royal Guard this year?”
“You did,” Alari said. “The person I speak of is Mayleena Telli.”
Dae stopped short, and shook her head to make sure she’d heard Alari correctly.
“The Duchess of Tel?” she asked. “Duke Telli’s daughter?”
“She still refuses her title,” Alari said. “But she has sworn her allegiance to me directly.”
“What took her so long?” Dae asked. “I thought we were going to have to root her out of Elinspire with a team of wild horses.”
“I doubt very much the horses would have come away from the encounter in a serviceable state,” Alari said.
“Why will I need her help?” Dae asked.
“Because you will need at least two ladies in waiting,” Alari said. “Any less than that and it will seem suspicious when you call upon your mother in Paxmer.”