Standing outside, on the streets of Windsmer, Dae closed her eyes for a moment and struggled to put away the one thought that she couldn’t get out of her mind.
I don’t want to be here. She couldn’t voice that impulse no matter how terribly she wanted to. She had to be strong and sure. A leader that Maelynne Telli and Jyl Lafli could follow. They needed her to be brave despite the insanity of creeping through a city where a dozen adult dragons stood guard.
“We feel their shadows,” May said. “Even from this distance, their malice lies over us like a cloak.”
A single dragon would be hard pressed to cover a city the size of Windsmer in dragon fear, but twelve of them together were another matter.
“This is the passive miasma they spread,” Dae said. “They must have been on watch for a while now for it to have spread so far.”
“How do the townspeople stand it?” Mayleena asked. Her voice was calm, even disinterested, but Dae saw a shiver run through her teammate.
“It doesn’t affect them,” Dae said. “It’s part of the compact that forms the dragons. They can’t harm anyone who’s a citizen of Paxmer. Not directly anyways.”
“And indirectly?” May asked. She was still wearing her veil, so Dae had to imagine the strained expression under it. That wasn’t hard to picture given the subject matter.
The duo had emerged from the underground grotto to find themselves in a guard tower located on one side of Windsmer’s harbor. It was inhabited but so long as they weren’t discovered Dae and Mayleena were free to use their Pact Knight abilities to evade being spotted. They had a few close calls but, with the city under the protection of the dragons, the human and dwarven guards in residence weren’t paying particularly careful attention, especially for an attack via a route that was guarded by giant sea monsters.
“Indirectly, the dragons serve as a deterrent to internal strife by just being present,” Dae said. “All it takes is for someone with sufficient authority to revoke a person or groups citizenship and the dragons are free to roast or eat them alive. Paxmer’s throne has defended its position with that tactic more than once.”
“Windsmer is a trade city, is it not?” May asked.
“It is,” Dae said. “And normally strongly allied with the Paxmer crown. Which makes the dragons a strange sight.”
“Paxmer fears an attack from Sunlost?” May asked.
“Maybe,” Dae said. She turned them down a side street that wasn’t as brightly lit as the main thoroughfares.
“Can Sunlost glamour hold against dragonfire?” May asked.
“It didn’t on the Fearless,” Dae said. “Which is the problem.”
Dae motioned to May for silence and waited, unmoving for a pair of minutes. No one followed them down the alley, and from what Dae knew, Paxmer didn’t have any native magics that enhanced their ability to hide. It seemed like a safe bet that they weren’t being followed, so Dae resumed their trek away from the guard house.
“If Sunlost glamours cannot hold against dragonfires would that not be a good thing from Paxmer’s perspective?” May asked.
“Yes, it would,” Dae said. “Which opens the question of why they think they need twelve dragons to defend a single town when one dragon would probably be enough?”
“Perhaps they are not meant to defend the town?” May asked.
“Perhaps not,” Dae said. “Let’s find someplace to get a drink. I want to hear what the locales are complaining about.”
The dockside tavern they settled on was a lively establishment on the harbor side of a small park where musicians and performers were raising a boisterous ruckus.
“Got your papers?” the bartender asked as Dae slid onto a seat at the bar.
“Just got in, supposed to pick them up tomorrow,” she said.
“Supposed to stay in your ship until you get your papers,” the bartender said.
“There’s an excise tax if we don’t right?” Dae asked. International taxes were complex and, largely arbitrary, but direct personal bribes under a plausible cover had the ability to cut through all that.
“Yeah, there is,” the bartender said and dropped two glasses down in front of Dae and Mayleena. Dae fished out some of the Sunlost coins she was carrying and dropped a few in the bartender’s hand to cover the drinks. He motioned for more, and Dae doubled the number of coins, to cover the “excise tax”. She considered adding a few more as a “tip” but refrained. A sailor looking to get a jump on their drinking would certainly pay a bribe when required but they wouldn’t throw money away.
“What do you think we will find here?” May asked, raising her veil to sip from the drink the bartender offered.
Dae looked around the tavern and sipped her own drink before answering. The liquor burned as it went down, and Dae grimaced. She’d made a career out of imbibing terrible booze but Paxmer drinks were still beyond her ability to enjoy. Mixing hot pepper oil into a beverage meant to numb the senses was an insanity she swore she would never understand.
“I don’t know,” Dae said. “I guess I just want to hear what people aren’t talking about. What are the common folk here afraid of?”
“Will our companion be able to find us?” Mayleena asked.
“She should be able to. So long as we don’t need to go into hiding,” Dae said. “There’s only a few places we can go at this hour and an even smaller number of those that will serve foreigners without papers.”
“And what if she is delayed?” Mayleena asked.
“She’s resourceful,” Dae said. “If she can’t get away I’m sure it’ll be obvious where we need to go to meet her.”
Dae had faith in Jyl, but Mayleena’s words still dug in and hit some sensitive nerves. There were plenty of things that could go wrong with stealing papers for the three of them. If Jyl ran into any trouble, she was on her own in dealing with it.
The irksome part was that Jyl’s actions were the right move tactically speaking. By venturing off on her own, Jyl ensured that there was the lowest chance of someone noticing the burglary and, if she was caught no suspicion would fall on Dae or Mayleena.
It also meant that Dae was powerless to help which was a situation she hated being placed in.
“Should we be here?” Mayleena asked, putting down her drink after a second sip.
“No,” Dae said. “We should be out there, ready to back our friend up when she needs us.”
“Apologies,” Mayleena said. “I meant should I be here?”
Dae blinked and looked at her companion for a long moment.
Of them all, Mayleena had seemed like the one who’d handled the dragon fear, and the entirety of the trip, the best so far. She’d sat out the fight with the Harbor Wyrms but she’d been rational enough to understand her own limitations and sensible enough to make allowances for them. That was a pair of traits that Dae wished she possessed in greater abundance.
Watching Mayleena carefully though, Dae’s image of her shifted. Mayleena wasn’t an abomination of magic. Dae had put that notion behind her before they left Gallagrin. In its place, the image of Mayleena as an immensely powerful warrior had emerged. The veil that Mayleena wore stood as armor in Dae’s mind, not to protect Mayleena but to protect the world from the terrible power that she wielded. That image was flawed as well though.
Mayleena was a tremendously powerful individual as a result of her miscast pact bond, but she was also a woman who was younger than Dae and who’d grown up in a house ruled by the former Duke of Tel. Because of her pact bond, she affected an air of composure and calm, but in the metallic eyes that lay behind Mayleena’s veil there were storms raging.
Dae wanted to reach out and comfort Mayleena with soothing words, but she knew those would fall flat. May’s doubts were real and well founded, and they deserved to be treated as such.
“It’s dangerous,” Dae said. “This realm isn’t friendly to any of us and you’re more at risk than either Jyl or I are.”
“Should we go?” Mayleena asked. “It’s not too late to catch one of the departing ships.”
Dae watched her take another sip of the throat scorching liquid.
“Are you asking my opinion or my permission?” Dae said.
“Either, or, maybe, both?” Mayleena said. “Should I even need to ask this question? We should know what we want. Shouldn’t we? Like you do?”
Dae stifled a laugh before she spewed her drink across the bar.
She considered her response as she regained her composure and measured how open she could be with her speech. With the musicians in full swing it was possible to pick up on a few of the conversations around them but only because the drunken sailors in attendance didn’t seem to understand that they could speak any softer than screaming at the top of their lungs. For close conversation like Mayleena and Dae were having the odds of anyone eavesdropping on them were just short of impossible. One of the Sleeping Gods could manage it but Dae was reasonably certain none of them were in attendance.
“It’s a fine question to ask,” Dae said, recovering her composure. “I’m not the right one to ask though.”
“Your commands are ours to follow,” Mayleena said.
“My command, the one I was given, was to accomplish the mission and bring all of us home safely,” Dae said. “I would be a poor executor of that command if I insisted that you push yourself unrecoverably far past your limits.”
“You couldn’t know that though,” Mayleena said. “We don’t know what our limits are yet.”
“That’s why it has to be your decision to carry on or not,” Dae said. “I know this isn’t easy. I know the encounter we had at sea wasn’t one we weren’t ready for. This entire mission is probably one we’re not ready for.”
“Then should we all go?” Mayleena asked.
“Honestly?” Dae said. “Part of me wants nothing more. I don’t want to face those dragons. I don’t want to meet the person we’ve been sent to meet. I don’t want to be here.”
Dae breathed out a long sigh.
“I don’t want to be here, but it’s where I have to be,” she said.
“We met when I was young,” Mayleena said. “Or, we saw you at least.”
“When was this?” Dae asked.
“During the Butcher King’s reign,” Mayleena said. “You were a wise and powerful courtier of thirteen we guess?”
“I was far from either wise or powerful at thirteen,” Dae said.
“That’s not what we saw,” Mayleena said. “We saw you moving through the court as though none of it frightened you. The most powerful lords and ladies of the land had convened for an official function, and you walked through their ranks as though not a single one of them mattered.”
“Sleeping gods, I must have looked insufferable,” Dae said. “I was probably tagging along after Alari. I doubt I even noticed anyone else was in the room.”
“You loved her then?” Mayleena asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It took me a long time to understand what my princess meant to me. Somedays it’s still a work in progress. I suspect the answer is yes, but whether I had any clue of that at the time I can’t say.”
“You let none of that show,” Mayleena said. “From afar all I could see was a girl I wanted to be just like.”
“I’m not sure that showing the world a false face is a skill I should feel particularly proud of,” Dae said.
“Perhaps it was not as false as you believe,” Mayleena said. “You have become the woman you were pretending to be then have you not?”
Dae smiled and sighed.
“Let’s say that some days, most days to be strictly accurate, I’m a work in progress too,” Dae said.
“And yet you carry on,” Mayleena said.
“I have to,” Dae said. “Alari is right. I have to face the dragons. I have to face my mother. Whether it’s to kill them or come to terms with them, I don’t know, but until I do one or the other a part of me is going to be stuck gnawing away at those memories. I need to know that I can be better than that.”
“Thank you,” Mayleena said. “We think you’ve given us the answer I needed. We too need to face this. We’re not ready, but we will never be ready. If my life is a testament to anything it is that things happen which we can never imagine or predict and that one must move on in their wake.”
“Here’s to pressing onwards then,” Dae said offering her glass up as a toast. “The road won’t be easy and we’re sure to have regrets, but they’ll never be able to say we let good sense hold us back.”