Dae knew that holding a blade to her mother’s throat wasn’t going to produce the stable, calm environment necessary for the delicate negotiations between the Queen’s Guards and the Paxmer Resistance. She also knew that no one in the room, even including Mayleena or the glamor caster were going to be fast enough to stop her from claiming a vengeance that had been due for twenty years.
“Lady Estella sur Korkin, you are charged with betrayal, treason and murder,” Dae said, marveling at how even her voice sounded.
Alari had claimed their plan needed Lady sur Korkin’s support, and that was before anyone in Gallagrin knew that Dae’s mother was also the leader of the Windsmer cell of the Paxmer Resistance. Politically and strategically Lady Estella’s worth was incalculable. Dae knew that the lives she held in balance against that worth, the long lost life of her father, and her own near-forfeit existence didn’t amount to enough to sway the balance into the negative and condemn the Paxmer woman’s life. That didn’t change the fact that a reckoning was owed and that, as the last of the Korli family, it fell to Dae to collect what was due.
The rest of the people in the chamber, for quite understandable reasons, did not share Dae’s particular view on the matter.
To their credit, Jyl and Mayleena both turned and placed their backs to Dae’s. At the same moment, the remaining glamors fell away, revealing that the small and empty cavern they’d been escorted to was neither small nor empty.
What had looked to be natural stone when they arrived was revealed to be a worked chamber with walls that were heavily decorated with enchanted glyphs and sigils.
Beyond the illusory wall stood roughly a dozen armed resistance fighters. Half of them had bows drawn but had been taken by surprise by Dae’s lightning quick advance on their leader. Poor form for guards waiting in ambush, but no one from Paxmer had access to the sort of personal enhancement magics that Dae and the other Pact Knights did.
Part of Dae’s mind wanted to spare a glance at the forces arrayed against them. Whatever sort of battle occurred, it wouldn’t be a pretty affair, and the aftermath would be worse. With proper leadership, the Queen’s Guard could limit the number and severity of the casualties they would need to inflict to escape the Resistance’s hidden chamber. Without it, there might not be anything left of the Windsmer Resistance by the time the next day dawned.
That sort of rational thought was able to gain little ground against the overwhelming thunder that rose from Dae’s long buried memories though.
Before anyone (other than Dae) had the opportunity to do anything foolish though, Estella raised her hand in a gesture of command, bidding her troops to hold where they were.
“So far this has gone better than I imagined it would if this meeting were ever to occur,” Estella said. “Shall I answer your charges, or did you present them so that I would carry the words with me to the grave?”
“This isn’t a trial,” Dae said. “I already know that you’re guilty, but you can answer them if you wish. Fair warning though, if you begin to lie you won’t finish the first word before you head is parted from your shoulders.”
Dae didn’t touch her blade to her mother’s throat. It was too sharp and too hungry for that sort of display. From a hair’s breadth away though, Dae knew that Lady Estella could feel the animosity the weapon carried and since there was no doubt in Dae’s mind that she would follow through on her words she was sure Estella could see the sincerity in her eyes too.
“You lay betrayal, treason and murder before me,” Estella said. There was a softness in her voice that Dae couldn’t place or understand. “In each of those there is truth, and in each of those there is a lie.”
“Where is the lie?” Dae asked. “I know you betrayed Duke Phob Korkin. You conspired against the crown of Gallagrin and, when you fled, he bore your guilt to the gallows. Your hand was hundreds of miles distant but it was the one which left him dangling from the hangman’s noose, gasping for a breath that would never come.”
“That is the truth,” Estella said. “I fled and your father died, and I have carried the weight of that for two decades.”
“You’ve carried nothing,” Dae said. “You weren’t there. You weren’t forced to watch him dance at the end of a rope. You didn’t see how long it took. How much he suffered. You weren’t there!”
Dae didn’t mean to draw blood, not yet, but a thin scarlet line marred Lady Estella’s otherwise beautiful light brown skin. Dae pulled back, struggling to keep control of herself, but Lady Estella didn’t flinch.
“I wasn’t,” Lady Estella said. “Maybe in the end that’s the only truth that matters, but there is more to the story than I believe you know.”
“There’s always more to every story,” Dae said. “But that doesn’t necessarily change anything.”
“Yes, not necessarily,” Estella said. “But you should still hear the full tale.”
“Go on then,” Dae said. She didn’t want to listen but she knew she had to. It was too easy for let herself believe that her mother had some saintly reason for what she did, it was what the eight year old Dae had wished for more than anything. With the benefit of two decades worth of experience, Dae had learned the value of cynicism but whether she believed her mother’s words or not she knew she still needed to hear them.
“I was a traitor to Gallagrin,” Estella said. “As was your father. And not just Gallagrin, but Paxmer as well.”
Dae nodded, not yet believing the claim but acknowledging that she’d heard Estella’s words. There was at least a kernel of truth in what her mother said, Dae had to acknowledge. Estella being a traitor to both kingdoms had the support of the situation they found themselves in since one didn’t just stumble into becoming the leader of a resistance faction against a group of nobles who controlled a horde of dragons.
“Our marriage was an arranged one,” Estella said. “At the time King Sathe was looking to forge alliances with his neighbors and was encouraging his lesser nobles to seek out marriage contracts with the sons and daughters of Paxmer, Senkin and Inchesso. I was an expendable younger daughter, so Phob and I were deemed a suitable match. On my eighteenth birthday I was packed off and sent to the mountains of Gallagrin, never to be heard from again I suspected at the time.”
“What happened?” Dae asked. Her early memories of her mother were spoiled by the later ones, but she remembered some moments of laughter before all the tears.
“What often happens with two young people who are placed close together,” Estella said. “It wasn’t love at first, but the Korli estates were more appealing than I imagined they’d be, and Phob was surprisingly gentle and warm. And, attractive in his own manner, once I grew to appreciate Gallagrin features.”
“So you loved him once?” Dae asked, not seeing how either answer would change things.
“I love him still,” Estella said. “He was, in my eyes, the best of Gallagrin.”
“And yet you left him,” Dae said. It had never made sense to her, the wordless abandoning of family and country. That there’d been no final goodbye, no parting gesture.
“I left Gallagrin,” Estella said. “Which given the state of the country at the time I think I can be forgiven for. And I left you, which may be unforgivable.”
“Why,” Dae asked. “Why did you leave?”
“Your father and I were part of an organization which sought the downfall of both kingdoms,” Estella said. “When the Gods entered their eternal slumber they took more than their power with them. They took their guidance and their voice away. Centuries ago, the kings and queens of the land ruled by virtue of the wisdom the Gods bestowed on them. Their descendants do not wield those insights and so we are left with monsters like the Butcher King or Haldri Paxmer.”
“So you took the fight to Paxmer while he stayed behind in Gallagrin?” Dae asked. Another question burned on her lips but she couldn’t find the will or courage to ask it.
“No! Gods no!” Estella said. “I had no position in Paxmer to work from and we were a team, your father and I. I left because I was discovered. By Sathe’s minions. They found me in a meeting with Duchess Bonli who had already been declared a traitor to the realm. I fled from them and ran to the one place I knew Sathe’s long arm couldn’t reach.”
“Your home in Paxmer,” Dae said. She didn’t want to believe her mother’s words. They were like the echo of a dream and while they touched the eight year old who woke to find herself without a mother one day, they did nothing to sop up the pain that had followed.
“By that time, Sathe’s policy on inter-kingdom relations had changed drastically,” Estella said. “It wasn’t difficult to convince my remaining family that the Butcher King was going to slaughter me.”
“Did you even think to warn my father about what had happened?” Dae asked. “Or did you just settle in here and try to forget him.”
“I couldn’t communicate with him,” Estella said. “His only hope was to denounce me as a traitor and an unfaithful wife. If he’d laid the blame on me, Sathe might have spared him.”
“No, the Butcher was too far gone by then,” Dae said. “He spared no one who might be a threat.”
“So I learned,” Estella said. She was silent for a moment before adding. “They told me of Phob’s death, but no one knew what became of you. I prayed that you swung beside him.”
One of the Paxmer resistance fighters drew in a sharp breath at that, but Dae understood her mother’s words better than anyone else in the room.
“I should thank you for those prayers,” Dae said. “The fate Sathe gave to the children of traitors was far crueler than death.”
Handless, footless and eyeless, Sathe had sentenced the young of families he deemed guilty of treason to life in the mud, begging along the roadways to the capital. He called them the “worms of judgment” and believed they were the sort of incentive that would inspire other families to stay loyal. In that belief he had been proven very wrong.
“I learned that you lived, but only many years later,” Estella said. “When you were presented to the court after your Pact bonding, you wore the name Akorli. I couldn’t understand how you came by it.”
“The Queen, or princess at the time, gave me that name,” Dae said. “Her father had long since forgotten us, there was a mountain of corpses piled on top of Phob Korli by then and the Dukedom had been transferred to another family entirely. You could have returned and no one would have known your were a criminal.”
“After a decade?” Estella said. “After I left you behind? I dreamed of seeing you again every night after I learned you were still alive, but none of those dreams were as kind as this encounter.”
“So you were afraid?” Dae asked. “Afraid to face what you’d done?”
“Yes! I could think of no reason you would wish to see me again, and no manner in which I could improve your life,” Estella said. “Seeing you would have been a balm to my heart, but could have destroyed your life, the same as it destroyed Phob’s.”
“And after the Butcher King was put down?” Dae asked. She couldn’t imagine encountering her mother in the dark days that followed the Reunification of Gallagrin. Dae had been in so much pain then, she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have simply slain anyone who claimed to be her mother before they could get two additional words out of their mouth.
“By then it seemed too late,” Estella said. “I knew that Gallagrin’s intelligence network was aware of my public life, and the villa where I spent most of my time. I reasoned that if you wanted to seek me out, you would be capable of finding me.”
“And why did you think I would seek you out?” Dae asked.
“I hoped for so many things, but in the end I assumed the most likely reason would be for revenge,” Estella said. She was still and silent after that, as though she accepted the inevitability of the judgment against her.
Dae weighed her mother’s words. Lady sur Korkin’s words hung together and painted a compelling picture. Reason suggested they might be believable. Reason also suggested however that with twenty years to plan her story, a woman who had left her husband and daughter to die would probably come up with a story exactly that appealing.
Looking to her heart, Dae found a similar divide. Estella’s performance matched her words perfectly, but even so, the long ago betrayal whispered to Dae, asking her if she could trust someone who was proven to be a master of deception.
WIth neither her mind, nor her heart to follow, Dae turned to her faith. Not her faith in the Sleeping Gods, and not her faith in the woman standing before her. With nowhere else to turn, Dae looked for guidance in the faith Alari had shown her.
“Revenge won’t bring my father back,” Dae said and lowered her blade.
“No, it won’t,” Estella agreed, relief passing through her like a wave. Around the cavern, everyone else relaxed as well. “But there is someone you should meet.”
“Who?” Dae asked.
“She probably means me,” a young girl said, stepping forward from the ranks of the Paxmer resistance fighters. “Sister.”