Dae felt Alari’s words like the deepest storm of the winter. An anger that was too old to burn hot flared to new life and spread shards of ice outwards from a hole in Dae’s heart that she’d thought sealed over long ago.
“My mother is dead,” Dae said without a hint of external emotion.
“To you, yes,” Alari said. “But to the world, she is still as she was; a faithful and living daughter of Paxmer.”
“No,” Dae said. “Never faithful. Not that woman. She can never claim to be that.”
In her eyes a fury ignited which dared even the heavens to oppose her on that point.
Alari offered no argument, no words to contradict the pain she saw in Dae’s eyes. The queen’s only expression was a tight frown to hold back the surge of emotion that echoed in her heart. She’d known Dae wouldn’t welcome memories of her mother, but she hadn’t imagined that after close to two decades the wounds would still be so raw.
“We need her.” Alari said after a long silent moment.
“Do we, Your Majesty?” Dae asked, stepping away from her Queen and struggling to keep her voice level.
“I’m not speaking as the Queen of Gallagrin, Adae, though the queen needs your mother too,” Alari said. “You and I need her in this, or I would never ask it of you.”
“Tell me why,” Dae said, turning back to face Alari, her eyes hard and her jaw set in hard lines. “You said you were going to destroy Paxmer? Why would you need her for that?”
Dae had no power to compel answers from her queen. Even in her role as Knight, Dae was not given the right to place demands on the woman she served, but in the empty garden it wasn’t a queen and a knight who stood on opposite sides of the widening void between their hearts. Alari and Dae weren’t equals in station, but they were too long together for either to think of the other as anything but of equal value. So Alari spoke, her word reaching across the space between them in a way that a command never could.
“Haldri Paxmer knows my intentions,” Alari said. “She knows I am going to bring her downfall, but to do that I need more pawns on the board than she’s aware of.”
“And you think my mother will act as pawn for you willingly?” Dae asked, wanting to listen, but not yet able to believe.
“Willingly or unwillingly, I believe that we, you and I together, can convince her to save a vast number of Gallagrin lives,” Alari said. As a queen, she couldn’t beg. She couldn’t clasp Dae’s hands and plead her case based on love or trust or respect. As Alari though, she was able to let her voice soften, not in weakness, but in hope.
Dae heard the question in Alari’s words. The woman, not the queen, asking for Dae’s trust and faith. Looking inside herself though, Dae also felt the yawning, mother-shaped void, in her heart as it cracked with the return of memories she never wanted to recall.
Betrayer, Abandoner, Murderer. So many names that stood as a substitute for “mother” that Dae couldn’t see beyond them for a moment as long forgotten screams of rage echoed in her ears and held her in a rictus of silent, motionless, hate.
“If I see her, I may kill her,” Dae said. It wasn’t a refusal anymore. She looked on the wastelands of her soul, the parts of her which remained scorched by the shame, and guilt, and sorrow, and rage at her mother’s departure and saw the limits of her own endurance.
There were rivers of anger whose depth she couldn’t plumb, and with the power she held, it wouldn’t take much loss of control, no more than a single second’s worth, for Dae to commit an irrevocably violent action upon the last person in the world she thought she could ever forgive.
“I know,” Alari said. “And if that happens, then her blood will be on my hands, not yours. I know what I am asking of you. I know the risk here. The Sleeping Gods damn me, I even know how I would turn that to our advantage.”
“If I can go with my blade unfettered…” Dae started to say and paused to compose herself. “No. This can’t be on you. My actions are my own, as is my duty. If I go, let the journey be on me. If Estella sur Korkin can save Gallagrin lives, then you have every right to command me to go.”
None of her muscles had relaxed but Dae felt a quiet calm settle over her. It was a calm devoid of peace, but it was an acceptance of what had to be nonetheless. She wasn’t the child who’d awoken to an barren house anymore. That girl’s fear no longer ruled Dae’s heart, even if the rage remained.
“I will never command you to a duty like this. I won’t allow Gallagrin to demand it of you. I can’t,” Alari said. “But I will trust you. Whatever happens, whatever you choose to do, know that you have my faith. I have held you to a promise of vengeance already, and since that means Gallagrin is in your debt I can speak as a queen once more. Know that we, Gallagrin, will carry you and support you in vengeance or forgiveness, in unity or discord, giving unto you all the powers of our judgment and voice in the matter which we lay before you. You have never failed us Lady Daelynne Akorli, and so you travel with our utmost blessing.”
“My Queen,” Dae said, bowing her head in acceptance of the formal charge.
“We have arrived at too early an hour?” whispered the wind.
Dae memories dropped away from her. On instinct she spun, placing Alari at her back and searching for the source of the words. Her ceremonial sword was in her hand without any conscious thought to draw it.
“Our apologies,” a woman of smaller and softer proportions than Dae said. She stood a short distance behind them on the path they’d walked and was dressed in the black robes and veil of a woman in mourning. Despite the startling nature of her arrival, the woman’s hands were folded peacefully in front of her, her posture was penitent, and she held no weapons. Nothing about the woman should have seemed threatening, but try though she might, Dae couldn’t put her sword away.
“You are indeed early, Lady Telli,” Alari said, a note of irritation in her voice that Dae knew only someone familiar with the queen would detect. “Did not our chamberlain offer you refreshment?”
“We did not observe your staff, Your Majesty,” Mayleena Telli said. “I fear we are in disaccord this morning.”
“We thought your condition had reached a sustainable state?” Alari asked.
“It has Your Majesty,” Mayleena said. “But there are still times when I am afraid. I apologize again for coming before you when we are like this.”
Dae squinted, trying to catch the thread of the conversation which had flown past her. Something was setting her Pact Spirit’s nerves on edge and almost nothing bothered Kirios. Neither Dae nor her mystical companion could place the source of the ‘wrongness’ they felt from the woman who refused to be the Duchess of Tel though.
Or they couldn’t until Dae noticed that where Alari spoke with the royal “we” demanded of her station, Mayleena’s use of the plural form was entirely different.
“Why are you veiled?” Dae asked, mistrusting of the disguise Mayleena wore.
“It is more comfortable,” Mayleena said.
“For who?” Dae asked.
“Those we encounter,” Mayleena said.
“You may put your weapon away, my Knight,” Alari said. “And Lady Telli, you may dispense with the veil. Lady Akorli must see and understand your condition if the two of you are to work together.”
“That is what frightens me, Your Majesty,” Mayleena said, her voice small as she reached for her veil.
Dae expected to see some hideous monstrosity waiting under the dark lace but as Mayleena lifted the cloth and exposed her face, Dae saw nothing more than a woman a few years younger than Alari. Mayleena’s features were somewhere between the hard, muscled angles that Dae had chiseled her into body through constant training and the gentle and graceful curves Alari was blessed with as the scion of a gods-touched line.
Dae forced herself to relax, willing away the irrational concern that gripped her heart. Then Mayleena opened her eyes.
Even after being named Queen’s Knight, Dae preferred, on most occasions, to transform only into her common regalia. She loved being Alari’s knight, but she had little need for the attention her full armor brought her. On most occasions the might of the Knight’s regalia was a vast degree of overkill as well.
The moment Mayleena opened her eyes though, Dae was transformed into the strongest version of her Knight’s regalia that she could summon and a new terror beat through her heart. Even with power at her disposal to rival the Queen’s, Dae wasn’t sure she was going to be strong enough.
In Mayleena’s eye, Kirios saw the steel and fire of a fully unfettered Berserker.
It was Alari’s touch on Dae’s shoulder that drew the situation back into focus though. In Mayleena’s eyes the might and madness of a unlimited Pact Spirit burned, but her body was shrunk in on itself. Trying to hide from Dae’s unkind eyes. Ashamed at what she was and so, so terribly afraid.
“What…” Dae tried to form words but it took her a second attempt to regain control of her thoughts. “What happened to you?”
Dae’s sword, her true blade, the one that dripped red with the stain of royal blood ever since she beheaded Halrek the Consort-King, vanished back into the magical aether but her armor remained.
“My father did,” Mayleena said and Dae’s heart broke anew.
Stepping forward, Dae let her armor fall away, and transformed back to her physical self.
“Lady Telli, please forgive my rudeness,” Dae said, turning to confirm her suspicions. Alari’s gentle smile told her everything she needed to know. The queen was not one to easily give her trust, but she was not afraid of Mayleena Telli. The young noble’s demeanor was no act to lure Dae into a false sense of security.
“It was our rudeness,” May said. “I’m sorry that we interrupted you.”
“I think Her Majesty and I reached an accord,” Dae said. “So the interruption doesn’t have to be an unwelcome one.”
“Indeed,” Alari said. “If you are up for it, why don’t you walk with us? There is still more of the garden we must inspect, and some little time of privacy that remains before us.”
“I would like that very much Your Majesty,” May said.
“The Queen tells me that you wish to be part of her guard?” Dae asked as the two of them fell into position behind Alari.
“If I can pass your review Lady Akorli,” May said.
“My review?” Dae asked. “I think with the monarch of the realm asking for you to be part of her personal guard, you’re pretty certain of a position.”
“I’m asking for more than the Lady Telli to be part of the Queen’s Guard though,” Alari said. “I believe she will be invaluable on the mission we were discussing.”
Wheels began spinning in Dae’s mind as she turned to look at Alari. Sending the Queen’s Knight to Paxmer was a bold move. Sending whatever Mayleena Telli had become was the sort of act one took when one expected an inconvenient army or two or three to be in the way and you wanted to eliminate them with a minimum of fuss.
“In that case I believe we should retire to the Royal Study and the queen will need to break out some of the wine she reserves for her special guests,” Dae said. “Because we have a lot to talk about.”