Dae watched the Windsmer town guards leave and through a vast effort of will managed to avoid fainting into her drink. The stuff was terrible but spilling it would still have been a crime against nature.
“What did you just do?” Mayleena asked. She hadn’t reached forward to offer Dae any support but she was looking at Dae with the sort of cocked twist to her head that spoke of puzzlement and curiosity among most of the Mindful Races and many of the Blessed Realms animal species as well.
“Took a page from your book,” Dae said, fighting off a wave of vertigo that threatened to send her plummeting to the floor.
“We have never done whatever it was you just did,” Mayleena said, pulling back and tipping her head in the other direction.
“Let’s say you inspired me then,” Dae said. She pushed herself up to a position that disguised how close she was to collapsing and forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly. The patrons of the bar had more important matters to consider than one hooded woman who wasn’t an obvious threat, and so as far as Dae could see none of them were paying any attention to her or Mayleena. The city guard and the dragon that was nearby held the entirety of their interest.
“We do not know if we wish to inspire that kind of behavior,” Mayleena said. “It seemed unpleasant for you and for your prey.”
“You’re not wrong about that,” Dae said. “But it was effective, and tonight that’s what counts.”
“We suspect we’re glad you did not warn or consult us before frightening the guards like that,” Mayleena said. “You were close to truly losing control weren’t you?”
“That’s sort of my natural state,” Dae said. “Hasn’t happened yet though.”
A momentary vision of what the tavern would look like if a berserker was let loose inside it sent a chill rippling through Dae. She’d risked the gambit of emulating Mayleena’s disquieting aura knowing that it was dangerous but in hindsight she found herself questioning her own sanity. She knew Kirios well, they were a fantastic team, but even so he could overwhelm her if she ignored the limits of their pact bond. It wouldn’t be an act of malice on the spirit’s part either, no more than a river flooding was malicious if a dam on it was broken.
“How did you know the guards would respond as they did?” Mayleena asked. “Wasn’t it more likely that they would call their dragon for support?”
“If they hauled you outside, they were definitely going to call their dragon,” Dae said. “If they were smart they’d call all of the dragons in fact. So that risk was worth it, I think. In hindsight, I was gambling on their authority response being fear derived though.”
“Because they work with dragons?” Mayleena asked.
“Yeah,” Dae said. “They’re not subject to dragon fear, but fear is an inherent tool for dragons, and even if they can’t magically compel it in the guards, their sheer size and power means they can use the more natural forms of it to keep the people they work with in check. The guards are powerful too, you can see how nobody here actually opposed them, so some part of me figured out that the only thing they have to be afraid of are their bosses. Reverse that on them and their brains will accept anything they’re afraid of as their boss, so they complied.”
“And how long is that compliance likely to last?” Mayleena asked.
“Somewhere between ‘not very’ and ‘they’re already heading back here’, I’d guess,” Dae said. Across the room, she caught sight of Jyl standing and chatting with an unfamiliar dwarf. Jyl looked as though she wanted to follow the dwarf into the kitchen so Dae tapped Mayleena on the shoulder and the two of them pushed their way through the crowds to join their companion.
The dwarf lead them through the crowd that was alternately milling about trying to finish their last drinks or pushing to exit the tavern. Their path lead them in the opposite direction the crowd was moving, until they eventually reached the swinging door to the tavern’s kitchen area.
The tavern’s cooking space was smaller than Dae would have guessed it to be. Nothing more than a narrow hallways with a pair of large stoves built into the walls. There was a sink beyond the stoves which was piled high with the day’s unwashed dishes where a lone dishwasher struggled to make a dent on the tremendous tide. The cooks though were oddly absent.
In fact the whole kitchen was subtly wrong. The dishwasher had his hands in the water but he was spending too much time on a single dish as the dwarf lead them down the narrow area.
“This is a nice trap, how many people are behind the walls?” Dae asked.
“Fewer than I’d like,” the dwarf said. “But more than I should be risking, so let’s keep moving.”
“We are walking into a trap?” Mayleena asked.
“Yes, but apparently it’s not meant for us,” Dae said.
She didn’t voice her belief that there were multiple layers of trap in play and that the one the dwarf had in mind for them was simply more subtle and less violent than the one waiting in the “kitchen” for any interlopers who tried to follow them.
“I’ve got some presents for you,” Jyl said.
Dae studied the travel papers the young elf handed to her.
“What does Ducal Protection give us?” Dae asked, seeing the addendum and signet at the bottom of the small writ.
“I’m not sure,” Jyl said. “I only had a small stack of them to use for reference, and it looked like the pricy ones had that.”
“It means you’ve been fleeced by the Duke’s tax collectors already and bribed them well enough that the Duke wants to see you bring your business here more often,” Zana, the dwarf, said. “It’s not worth much, but it’d probably be enough to convince a dragon to ransom you rather than eat you if you got caught doing something stupid.”
At the far end of the kitchen, Zana opened a closet door, and rapped three times on the back wall. A moment later the slid away to reveal a ladder leading down into misty darkness.
“It’s a good thing we’d never do anything stupid then,” Dae said and followed Zana and Jyl down into the mists.
She’d expected to descend no more than a single level. They were close to the harbor so digging a basement that was too deep was likely to produce severe flooding problems. That didn’t seem to be a problem for the taverns architects though. They were a good three stories down before they reached their destination and the cavern they arrived in was as dry as it was empty.
“So let’s get the obvious things out in the open, shall we?” Zana said. “You’re spies. From Gallagrin.”
“And you’re working against the Paxmer Queen,” Dae said.
“Mostly correct,” Zana said. “It would be more accurate to say that we’re working against the existing Paxmer royalty, with the queen as our more direct opponent.”
“Fair enough,” Dae said. “Then in the interest of honest disclosure, it would be more accurate to say that we’re special operatives from Gallagrin, more than spies.”
“And what makes a special operative different from a spy?” Zana asked.
“You send a spy into a country to collect information,” Dae said. “Operatives have other mission objectives.”
“Other objectives like assassination?” Zana asked.
“If the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t be inclined to pass it by,” Dae said. “But this is more of a retrieval mission.”
“We’ve had contact with a few other…operatives, from Gallagrin,” Zana said. “Can you prove your words?”
“I can,” Dae said. “After you prove that you are a part of the Paxmer resistance.”
Zana slid her sleeve back and called a bright silver tattoo of a haloed dragon to appear on her forearm.
“We didn’t think you were still in Windsmer,” Dae said. “It looks like we should have sent a few more spies here in preparation for this mission.”
“We survive largely by being difficult to track down,” Zana said. “Now if you’ll be so kind?”
Dae nodded and transformed into her Pact Regalia. From her collar, she took the royal seal of office that she was able to incorporate into her armor following her promotion to Queen’s Knight.
“This isn’t the mark of a common operative,” Zana said.
“No. It’s not,” Dae said.
“I studied the heraldry of the realms when I was a little sprog,” Zana said. “Had a fascination with secret languages. Probably what led me to where I am today. Is this symbol what I think it is?”
“It carries a unique distinction,” Dae said.
“I thought we were in luck when I caught sight of the elf,” Zana said. “Is it true that your sword still drips royal blood?”
Dae pulled the sword that was conjured with her armor partially out of its sheath. The blade was coated in a thick, red liquid covering.
“One of the costs of slaying royalty, even treacherous, unworthy ones,” Dae said.
“Hard to move about unnoticed with that,” Zana said.
“If I draw this sword, I’m well past caring whether anyone will notice me,” Dae said.
“What happens if you kill another royal with it?” Zana asked.
“I don’t know,” Dae said. “There’s not much precedent for someone slaying multiple sitting kings or queens.”
“Royal blood burns with divine will,” Mayleena said. “Wet the sword with too much of it, and your blade will blaze with an unbearable light.”
“How do you know that?” Zana asked.
“Observation, I suspect,” Dae said, releasing her transformation. “As I said though, our mission is concerned less with slaughter and more with the retrieval of a particular item.”
“It would have to be an artifact of some significance to bring the Queen’s Knight of Gallagrin across the border into Paxmer?” Zana said.
“If Haldri Paxmer could lay her hands on an item like the one our queen spoke to us of, it would do more than change the balance of power between our nations, she could sweep through the Blessed Realms like an avalanche,” Dae said. “So, yes, our queen sent us to make sure that wasn’t allowed to happen.”
“That sounds well above what my people are equipped to deal with,” Zana said.
“Can you get us out of the city at least?” Jyl said. “Those dragons might be willing to ransom us if we’re caught, but I’d rather not be caught in the first place.”
“We would rather slay the dragons,” Mayleena said. “Though that would not be likely to end well for us.”
“Dragon fighting isn’t something for people outside this country to do,” Zana said. “The dragons are our curse and our responsibility.”
“If you can get us outside the city, we’ll be happy to let you handle the dragon here however you’d like,” Dae said. “We need to make for a contact who’s deeper inland.”
“Smuggling people out of the city is more difficult these days,” Zana said. “And before we do that, I think you need to speak to my commander. She needs to know of this, and I’m sure she’ll have information you can use.”
“Is she hiding down here?” Dae asked.
“Not hiding,” a woman said as she stepped through the solid wall at the far end the cavern. “Observing.”
“You know, I thought there was a glamor here, but I couldn’t find the seem,” Dae said.
“You are the Queen’s Knight?” the woman asked. “What is your given name?”
Dae looked at the woman and caught the ripple of a further glamor.
Glamors were Sunlost magic, and while it wasn’t in the least surprising to find Sunlost casters working to undermine Paxmer’s royalty, it was surprising to find so talented a glamor caster by happenstance.
“You were born to mixed parentage, weren’t you?” Dae asked.
“I am Paxmer born,” the woman said.
“No one from Paxmer could ever cast glamors that well, and no one from Sunlost could cast the glamor you’re wearing in a foreign land,” Dae said.
“You know much of Sunlost’s magic,” the woman said. The glamour covering her faded under Dae’s scrutiny until only a simple white mask obscured the woman’s true features.
“I had an eclectic education,” Dae said.
“Did you grow up in the castle at Highcrest?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Dae said. “From when I was eight. From the day my father was executed as a traitor.”
“You are Duke Phob Korli’s child?” the woman’s voice caught a strange hitch in the middle of her question.
“I am Daelynne Akorli, daughter of Duke Phob Korli.” Her father’s name felt strange on Dae’s tongue after so many years. “How do you know me?”
The glamor cracked and faded away, revealing a woman in her late forties. Though the years hadn’t been gentle, Dae recognized Estella sur Korkin’s face the moment she saw it.
“Mother,” she said, her bloody blade materializing in her hand.