The wyrms returned the following evening and, to Dae’s relief, they returned alone.
The second meeting on the ocean’s floor between the Gallagrin Queen’s Guard and the Windsmer Habor Wyrms was similar to their first encounter with the exceptions that no blows were thrown and the chest of gold offered to the three wyrms was larger than its predecessor.
The wyrms once again waited a safe distance away from Dae’s team, clearly reluctant to step into any trap the three Pact Warriors might have devised.
“Tomorrow, same time, here again,” Dae said and lead her team away.
They trudged through the deep waters for a few miles until they were able to make landfall in the isolated cove that served as their temporary camp.
“Did that go well or poorly?” Jyl asked as they emerged from the surf. “I can’t tell.”
“That went very well,” Dae said. “I was pretty sure they were going to come back, but since it was only them and not a dragon rider or a battalion of Paxmer guards I think they got our message.”
“And what were we communicating to them?” May asked.
“Last night we told them that we’re not something they could risk using force on,” Dae said. “We closed that door, but we opened another one with the treasure.”
“The struck us as an odd gambit,” May said.
“It was a bit of a guess, and a bit of an observation,” Dae said. “I guessed they were probably close cousins to dragons, and there’s nothing that defines a dragon more than their greed.”
“And the observation?” Jyl asked.
“There are twelves dragons here guarding the city,” Dae said. “How much respect does that show to the Harbor Wyrms? Nobody likes to be upstaged.”
“So the gold was both a bribe and an offering of respect?” May asked.
“It says ‘you are important enough that I want to deal with your directly’,” Dae said. “If they’d brought their masters then the response would have been ‘our honor isn’t for sale so cheaply’. Instead they came alone which says ‘we are intrigued by your offer and wish to hear more’.”
“So why did we leave them alone?” Jyl asked.
“They’re not ready yet,” Dae said. “They’re still trying to trying to figure out what we’re after.”
“And what are we after?” May asked. “Aside from a method of entry to the city.”
The three had talked about their overall plan during the day they spent in hiding in the hidden cove, but this was the first time Dae was willing to share the details with them.
“A relationship with them,” Dae said. “Even if they’re ill treated, they’ll still have some loyalty that’s been whipped into them for Paxmer. I don’t want to simply enter the city, I want to start cracking open its defenses. Our queen will need to send others into Paxmer too and these Wyrms could become very useful allies if we invest the right time and interest in them now.”
“That seems like a risky play,” May said.
“It is, but Paxmer’s defenses are thicker than dragonhide and we’re only going to achieve our objectives if we can weaken those defenses everywhere they’re fragile or vulnerable.”
“I thought our objective was to regain a lost magic crown?” Jyl asked.
“I’m thinking a bit longer term than that,” Dae said. “Paxmer has been a malady that Gallagrin has suffered for too long. I think in assaulting Queen Alari through the Halrek’s actions, Paxmer made its final mistake.”
“Do you think they know that?” Jyl asked.
“No, I don’t think they do,” Dae said. “Haldri had a chance to make amends. She could have disavowed her brother and condemned his actions. If she didn’t like what he did, she could have stripped him of his name and heritage and issued a formal apology for Paxmer’s role in the affair. Simple things for a queen to do and we could have had decades of peace between the two countries. Instead she’s reaching out trying to grab everything she can.”
“Is that what’s happening with Windsmer?” May asked.
“And with the flotilla that was sunk?” Jyl asked.
“Yes,” Dae said. “Paxmer has a new power to deploy. The adult dragons that can sail. Any time a nation gets something like that they can’t help but use it.”
“They sank a Sunlost ship,” May said. “That ups the ante quite a bit, doesn’t it?”
“They’ve been planning for that,” Dae said. “The raids on ships heading to Sunlost was going to provoke an official response at some point. They want someone to launch an attack against them, so that they can justify taking even more aggressive action.”
“I didn’t think their navy was a match for the Sunlost Fleet though?” Jyl said.
“It’s not,” Dae said. “Or it wasn’t. With the dragons in play it’s hard to say what the balance of power looks like. That’s probably why Paxmer is pushing so hard now.”
“They wish to strike before their foes understand how powerful they’ve become?” May said.
“It’s more than that though, isn’t it?” Jyl asked. “The dragons rule first through fear. If they can strike hard enough to instill fear in the other nations, people will flee or submit rather than fighting back.”
“You do a good job of thinking like a dragon Lady Lafli,” Dae said. “Of course there are those Paxmer has wronged sufficiently that they’ll never flee or submit.”
“Like our queen?” May asked.
“They’re going to try to kill her again aren’t they?” Jyl asked.
“They’ll have to,” Dae said. “And soon.”
“Shouldn’t we be protecting her then?” Jyl asked.
“We are,” Dae said.
The next night, the wyrms returned again. This time they were ready to speak.
“Why have you invaded our shores?” the largest of the three asked. It spoke in a mixture of voices, male and female, all overlapping each other and slightly out of synch. It was an eerie and alien thing to hear, but Dae didn’t let it bother her. She’d taken the Harbor Wyrm’s measure in battle, so she knew where she stood with them.
“We have a quarrel with the tyrants of the land beyond these shores,” Dae said.
“And why have you brought us tribute?” the largest asked.
“Because our quarrel is not with you or anything in the domain you rule,” Dae said.
“You have assaulted us in this domain,” the largest said.
“Against your might, the blows exchanged were the most trifling of disagreements,” Dae said. The wyrm which Jyl had beaten to a pulp bore an expression which disagreed with that assessment. Dae counted on the creature’s pride and ego to keep it from debating the point though.
“You bring more treasure,” the largest said, indicating the new chest that waited at Dae’s feet. “Why?”
“It’s proper to give gifts to a region’s sovereign before proposing an alliance or arrangement,” Dae said. The wyrms couldn’t claim true sovereignty over the harbor. They were obviously beholden to not only the Paxmer crown but to whoever summoned or constructed them. Despite that though, it wasn’t something a treasure hungry, draconic creature was likely to deny, and the broad reality of the situation was that the Harbor Wyrms did rule the area under the waves in the vicinity of Windsmer.
“And what arrangement is it that you seek?” the largest wyrm asked.
“We wish to gain the friendship of your realm,” Dae said.
“They wish to plunder!” the smallest of them said. “They give the gold because they intend to steal it back!”
“It would be well if you did not besmirch our honor,” Dae said is a calm, even voice.
The smallest Harbor Wyrm drifted back behind the cover of it’s larger companions.
“To what end do you seek our friendship then?” the largest asked.
“We seek to pass through your domain in peace,” Dae said. “And we request your aid in entering the landed city beyond your boundaries.”
“You wish to invade?” the largest asked.
“Yes,” Dae said, with no attempt to embellish or excuse their actions.
“We are sworn to defend the waves and repel all the enemies who would invade our realm,” the third wyrm said.
“It’s not your realm that we wish to invade,” Dae said. “Your realm we wish to travel through peacefully, and at your sufferance as the ships which make dock in the harbor do.”
“And your plans beyond that?” the largest wyrm asked.
“Will do no harm to the waves you protect,” Dae said.
“And you would trade the gold you have given and the gold before you for this privilege?” the largest wyrm asked.
“No,” Dae said. “The gold given and the gold you see is offered as befits your station. For the privilege of your aid, there is another chest, larger than this one, whose location we shall reveal once we have been transported within the city.”
“What guarantee do we have that you will reveal the location once we have fulfilled our end of the bargain?” the largest wyrm asked.
“Our presence in the city on the shore must remain a secret,” Dae said. “If we fail to disclose the gold’s whereabouts, or if the gold is not where we say it will be, you can easily raise a hue and cry that we slipped past you in the night.”
“And why would you trust us not to do so?” the third wyrm asked.
“The benefits of our alliance need not end this night,” Dae said. “We must eventually leave Paxmer’s shores, and there are others we know who will be looking to form similar alliances and would be willing to offer similar or greater tribute for the privilege.”
“The city is not easily entered,” the largest wyrm said. “Even if we chose not to bar your path, there are wards which defend the entrances from the sea.”
“Can they be bypassed?” Dae asked.
“No,” the largest wyrm said.
“Not easily,” the smallest wyrm said. “But it can be done.”
“But you will not accept it,” the largest wyrm said.
“What is it?” Dae asked. “How can we get into the city?”
“By riding within someone the barriers will accept,” the third wyrm said.
“They need to eat us?” Jyl asked, a knife blade of panic edging into her voice.
“It would be a test of…commitment,” the smallest wyrm said.
It would also be a test where the three Queen’s Guards could end up dead, digested or worse. Dae looked over at Jyl, who gave an uncertain shrug, and at May who nodded in support of either Dae or the idea itself.
“We’ll do it,” Dae said.
Five minutes later she was reasonably sure the Harbor Wyrms were not going to swallow them, and also reasonably sure that she never wanted to try this form of transportation again.
“That was interesting,” May said ten minutes later when, true to their words, the Harbor Wyrms deposited them inside a stone grotto that lay beneath Windsmer. Neither Dae nor Jyl would have used anything like polite language to describe the experience, but they let May’s words stand, in deference to the wyrms.
“You’ll find the chest we spoke of three of your body lengths west of the sunken mermaid statue that is a half mile north of where we met,” Dae said. “When next we plan to be in your domain, we will send an initial tribute first and will meet where we did this time again.”
“You are surprisingly civilized, Knight,” the largest wyrm said. “Bountiful waters for your invasion.”
“May your horde’s luster ever increase,” Dae said, as the two groups departed from each other and the grotto.
“Do you think we added significantly to their wealth?” Jyl asked.
“I think our gold may be the first they’ve been given for themselves,” Dae said. “And that, more than anything, may be what changes their world.”
“So now it’s time for us to steal some traveling papers right?” Jyl asked.
“Exactly,” Dae said.
“Leave that to me,” the young elf said, and with a hop, skip and a jump, she vanished.