The problem with working through minions, Haldri decided, was that you had to refrain from letting your dragon eat them, even when they truly deserved such a fate.
“Gallagrin doesn’t breed idiots,” she said, turning a knife over in one hand.
“I’m pleased you think so,” Duchess Sanli said. She was reading through another stack of papers that had been forwarded to her. Haldri marveled at how well the Duchess could manage her resources remotely. It spoke to a great deal of trust between master and underling.
As with most such displays of trust though, it was horribly misplaced on the part of the weaker parties. Sanli was a generous overlord but she knew the value of sacrifice, most especially the sacrifice of others to attain one’s goal. In the conflagration to come between Paxmer and Gallagrin, Sanli was poised to burn away her ties to falling Gallagrin and embrace her role of advisor within the rising court of Paxmer. She was intelligent and pragmatic enough to see that it was the only sensible course of action. Unlike Baron Gedli who was proving to be a disappointment.
“We can only conclude that the idiot Gedli is trying to goad us into an ill considered offensive,” Haldri said. Her grip on the knife’s hilt left fingerprint impressions in its steel surface.
“You underestimate the force of the impression you made upon him,” Sanli said. “He left here firmly a creature at your command, whatever his official loyalties might be.”
“He all but declared that aloud,” Haldri said. “And yet not a week later and there are reports that he is fortifying the border with five times the troops which he had before coming here.”
“Five times or fifty times, it won’t matter,” Sanli said. “It is not with armies that the usurper queen will be cast down.”
“Alari Gallagrin doesn’t worry me,” Haldri said. “She lives in her father’s shadow and struggles too much to escape it.”
“Then why the concern over the troop build up?” Sanli asked.
“You’ve claimed that Gallagrin is at heart a simple woman,” Haldri said. “She seeks to redress the harm inflicted by the Butcher King directly to the people who suffered the most under his reign.”
“That seems to be the limit of her imagination, yes,” Sanli said. “She has focused her energy on restoring the provinces which were the most damaged by the war against her father, whether or not those areas were allied with her or not.”
“She’s done this despite the resistance from her own court, and despite the fact that it is senseless and will cause her immense harm in the future when her enemies regain the power to strike back at her,” Haldri said.
“She’s young and naive,” Sanli said. “Just as a princess who was sheltered from the world for most of her life would be.”
“That simplicity suggests that her current actions may be simple as well,” Haldri said. “The easiest use of an army on the border is to have them begin marching over it.”
“Invasion?” Sanli asked. “That would be madness. No army has ever invaded Paxmer and returned to tell the tale.”
“Her father was a mad king,” Haldri said. “Perhaps his daughter longs to become the Butcher Queen?”
“From every speech she’s given, that seems to be the last objective on her mind,” Sanli said. “It seems, in fact, to be what she is striving the hardest to avoid.”
“She may say she wants peace, but her actions speak of war,” Haldri said. “Selling my brother to the Inchesso in pieces leaves little question as to her feelings.”
“An invasion would serve no purpose though,” Sanli said. “Even if they could capture a major city, it would still be accessible by your dragons. Any forces they tried to place in the city’s defense would be crushed. All that a venture like that would earn her is the hatred of her people and the delivery of somewhat damaged weapons and armor into your hands.”
“Gallagrin doesn’t breed idiots,” Haldri said. “So she is aware of that as much you are. Which means her scheme is of a different design.”
“It seems you are correct that it is her scheme at least,” Sanli said, fishing out a report from the middle of the pile she was perusing. “This may not be a full reprieve for Gedli, but it looks as though the troops that are building up on his side of the border were ordered there by Faen Kemoral.”
“The commander of the Gallagrin Royal Guard?” Haldri asked.
“The same, and a loyalist to the queen,” Sanli said. “If he gave the order then it originated with her.”
“Tell me, does Alari Gallagrin believe in myths and fairy tales?” Haldri asked.
“She seems to believe that the common people are good and worthy of her concern,” Sanli said. “So, yes, I’d say she’s childish enough to still cherish that sort of story.”
“And would you spend the lives of several thousand soldier following one?” Haldri asked.
“That seems less likely,” Sanli said. “Her victory against her father was delayed by weeks because she refused to spend the lives of her troops to secure an early victory when the opportunities presented themselves.”
“Interesting. That gives us a lens to measure her through,” Haldri said. “If she prefers to play the long and certain game, then any action she takes now is because she believes the reward is overwhelming or the risk of not taking action is unbearable.”
“From a first glance it appears that an invasion of Paxmer would be just the reverse; no reward to be gained, and an overwhelming risk of failure the moment they set foot on Paxmer’s soil. But you have a report that suggests differently I take it?”
“A Sunlost warship, the Fearless, was sunk not far off the coast of Windsmer recently,” Haldri said.
“Weather was not to blame, I presume?” Sanli said.
“The skies were clear, according to the reports,” Haldri said. “The first fascinating thing about the sinking was that the Fearless was in battle against Paxmer ships when it sank, but each of my captains has sworn that they were not the one to bring the Fearless down.”
“Then who did?” Sanli asked. “And what is the second fascinating thing about the sinking?”
“The answers to both of those questions are the same, we believe,” Haldri said. “Our spies in Gallagrin report that your queen dispatched three of her personal guard to attend to a task, and they were seen leaving by a sky carriage bound for the coast.”
“What connects them to the ship sinking?” Sanli asked.
“Three women from Gallagrin boarded the Fearless before it set sail in pursuit of my ships,” Haldri said.
“Why would the Gallagrin queen’s guard sink a Sunlost ship that was in combat with Paxmer vessels?” Sanli asked. “That sounds hopelessly tangled.”
“We don’t believe they had a choice,” Haldri said. “Dragon riders were boarding the Fearless after their mounts paralyzed everyone onboard.”
“The Queen’s Guard shouldn’t have been able to act at all in that case,” Sanli said.
“No they shouldn’t, unless they’ve developed some new magics,” Haldri said. “These are, presumably, the three most powerful Pact Knights in the realm.”
“Powerful enough to shrug off dragon fear?” Sanli asked. “I haven’t heard reports of anyone that strong in court. Even the Queen’s Knight isn’t that powerful.”
“From the extent of the destruction, it seems more like a desperate ploy than a casual ability,” Haldri said. “But it is still worrisome. There is something in Paxmer which Alari Gallagrin wants badly enough to spend her prized guards on and then thousands of soldiers.”
“My contacts in the palace may be able to provide clues as to the sort of mission the Queen’s Guard were engaged in before they drowned,” Sanli said. “This feels like a bold play for her though.”
“Indeed, it’s possible that she’ll stumble into her own undoing with no help from us,” Haldri said. “But to be safe, we wish to make sure our plans are in place to guarantee that stumble.”
“If the transportation guild master can fulfill the promises she’s made, we should be ready to put things in motion within two weeks,” Sanli said.
“We will set the date for the peace negotiations as two weeks from today then,” Haldri said.
“If all goes according to plan, you will be with her in the God’s Hall when she is deposed,” Sanli said. “What will you do with the former queen of Gallagrin once the lingering divine protection of royalty no longer applies to her?”
“It’s a tempting idea to pitch her from the top of the battlements,” Haldri said. “The idea of listening to her scream and knowing that she will see her fate coming and be helpless to prevent it is a delicious one. The only drawback is that it’s such a brief entertainment. A few moments of terror and then oblivion. We can engineer a much more prolonged passing if we bring her back with us, which we expect we shall.”
“How will you convince her to meet with you at all though?” Sanli asked. “As you’ve said, she’s not an idiot. She’ll suspect a trap, even in the God’s Hall.”
“If we are correct, she’s already convinced herself to come,” Haldri said. “She is planning some action against Paxmer and she believes she holds the initiative. She will want us outside of Paxmer so that our forces cannot react as quickly to stop her advance.”
“Can your seneschals handle defending against a Gallagrin assault in your absence?” Sanli asked.
“Haldraxan can,” Haldri said.
“What plans will she have for him then?” Sanli asked.
“Useless ones,” Haldri said. “Haldraxan cannot be planned for, anymore than an earthquake or a maelstrom can be.”
“He has been a cornerstone of Paxmer for generations,” Sanli said. “But if he takes to the battlefield he may still be snared in some unexpected stratagem.”
“With his centuries of experience, there is very little which Gallagrin can throw at my Dragon King that would prove to be unexpected, and nothing at all that would be effective,” Haldri said. “His scales are so thick and his mind so sharp that he has no weak points for a Gallagrin assault to penetrate.”
“If Haldraxan is proof against assault then there seems to be even less reason to worry about an invasion,” Sanli said. “And even more reason to suspect a trap.”
“I am certain that there is a trap being laid here,” Haldri said. “But Gallagrin is unfamiliar with traps and treachery. Her idea of subtlety seems to send a small group in and then follow it with an army so that we will mistake the threat she poses to us. Both of those efforts are clearly a distraction though.”
“I agree,” Sanli said. “If Gallagrin troops march into Paxmer, they either already possess a means of tipping the balance against you, which is impossible with the might of a dragon like Haldraxan to support you, or, more likely I imagine, they believe that one can be found here.”
“That is what I would like you to focus on Duchess,” Haldri said.
“You want me to find out what it is they’re looking for, and how close they believe they are?” Sanli said. “That’s a secret the queen is likely to guard closely.”
“When it was a mission for her trusted Guard, we believe you were correct,” Haldri said. “If she has turned to the Royal army to fulfill her objectives though, more will have been brought in on the secret.”
“She’ll limit the full details to her trusted staff, but, yes, there should be room to work there,” Sanli said. “With the right form of persuasion, I should be able to procure that information for you.”
“Two weeks from now, a new era will begin for Gallagrin,” Haldri said.
“Two weeks from now, a new era will begin for Paxmer,” Sanli said. “And you will go down in history as the one who ended the mad reign of Gallagrin’s first monarchy.”
“What we do will echo far beyond our reign,” Haldri said. “We will be the first monarch to depose the monarch of another country. Once that is proven to be possible, it will be on Inchesso’s shoulders to decide whether they will join us as a vassel state, or be destroyed.”