Alari knew that she was walking into a trap. In fact, she knew that she was walking into more than one. As she stepped into the God’s Hall and felt the ancient magics which governed the aerial palace of the slumbering divines, she could feel the skeins of fate shifting and knotting in her wake. Power woven by the will of the creators of the Blessed Realms surrounded and infused her. Within the confines of the God’s Hall she was safer than she was anywhere else in the world. The insurmountable will of the divine insured that. That didn’t mean that she was safe though.
Alari had arrived at the most peaceful hall in all the world with the fires of war burning in her soul and the certain knowledge that her adversary held that goal in common with her. Two queens of the Blessed Realms were entering a sacred realm and neither had any intention of allowing the other to leave with their crown, or ideally their lives, intact.
“The sun will finishing setting in a few minutes,” Alari said to the crew of the sky carriage that had ferried her to the God’s Hall. “You will need to cast off and return for us when you see the signal fire lit.”
Only at certain times of the day were people allowed to approach the God’s Hall and if the sky carriage tried to remain, or if anyone else tried to disembark they would wake a wrath that no earthly creature could withstand.
“We understand your majesty,” General Karlin Limli said. “Though I do wish we could send some form of guard with you.”
“Here, we must tread alone,” Alari said. “As must Haldri Paxmer.”
The queen of Gallagrin shivered. The magics of the God’s Hall meant that each of the queens was safe from the other, but Alari wasn’t sure if even the gods would refuse her the wrath she felt and what she would do if their peace was suspended for even an instant.
“The signal fire of Paxmer is lit already Your Majesty,” Admiral Yonda Kemere said. “She’s waiting for you.”
“Yes, she is,” Alari said. It was rare for any of the rulers of the Blessed Realms to meet directly. Correspondence was common, but it was delivered by ambassadorial couriers. Outside of the God’s Hall monarchs of the realms preferred to avoid the company of their equals. In the eyes of the royalty, only other royals were seen as legitimate threats. In that sense, Alari felt she held the advantage. She knew that despite the powers bestowed upon the monarchs of the Blessed Realms, there were still so many things that could hurt or destroy them.
“If you need us, signal early and we’ll come,” Limli said. Despite their differences, his face was lined with concern. There was trust and respect there, but also concern for the safety of someone he had sworn to protect and concern for the safety of a realm he’d spent his life shepherding to a better state. If Alari’s gambit failed, the best scenario Gallagrin could look forward to would be a far more protracted civil war than the one between Alari and her father. There were countless worse outcomes than that though and Limli looked to be actively repressing those from his thoughts.
“If we need you early, something cataclysmic will have occurred and we doubt all the armies of Gallagrin could save us then,” Alari said and turned to walk into the Hall of Celestial Mediation.
The room was vast, it’s borders extending beyond the physical limitation of the outer hall. Hints of architecture remained from whatever original building had been uplifted into the sky and sanctified by the gods for there work. Here a half-transparent pillar of white marble carved with a thousand prayers to the absent gods. There the hint of a great dome, arching above the room and fading away to reveal the majesty of a sky filled with more stars than even the heavens could hold at one time.
When the gods had constructed their meeting hall, they had gifted their mortals followers with a glimpse of the divine view of the cosmos and it never failed to take Alari’s breath away. Though the creators of the Blessed Realms slumbered in an eternal sleep, in the God’s Hall their presence still lived and breathed.
They had willed peace for all within the hall, but Alari’s long delayed rage refused to be blown out completely. The flames of her anger offered no more light than a single matchstick but that was all she needed to illuminate the path before her.
“Gallagrin, you’ve arrived.” Haldri Paxmer was seated on the throne of her realm. The true throne of Paxmer, where the kings and queens who ruled it came at the conclusion of their coronation ceremony to receive the lingering blessing of their realms creator. The thrones within their castles were only pale imitation of their proper seats as monarchs of the world.
“Paxmer,” Alari said, taking a seat upon her own throne. “Were you waiting long?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Haldri said. “I enjoy the solitude.”
Alari returned Haldri’s smile. They were in agreement as to the room being more enjoyable with the absence of the other.
“Busy social schedule?” Alari asked, thinking of how many generals and dragons Haldri must have spoken with in the last two weeks.
“The spring is coming,” Haldri said. “The long frost is thawing from my lands and leaving me with much to attend to.”
The winter when neither queen could move their forces en masse. Haldri clearly believed that the spring would be a red season rather than a green one. Alari’s plans however were blacker than that.
“Indeed,” Alari said. “And yet you were able to find time for this discussion. That’s wonderful. There is much that lies between us.”
“A queen must always listen to the needs of her realm,” Haldri said.
“And what has Paxmer spoken of to you?” Alari asked.
“I listen and I hear drums upon my borders,” Haldri said.
“And what song do these drum ring out?” Alari asked, amused at how direct Haldri was willing to be in discussing the build up of the Gallagrin Royal Army on Paxmer’s border.
“It is too early to say. They seem muffled, as though the orchestra was not yet in place,” Haldri said, revealing her awareness that the Royal Army was still in a gathering stage.
“If the drums are muffled, then perhaps they hold no song,” Alari said. “Not every gathering is a cause for song and celebration.”
“Or perhaps it’s that the players simply have farther to travel than than their conductor expected?”
Alari allowed a look of concern to flicker across her face. In less than an instant it was gone, but it didn’t escape Haldri’s eyes. The Gallagrin Royal Army was usually spread out across the country. Concentrating it on the Paxmer border did take time, and came with certain complications.
“And where do you suppose these traveling players might be journeying from?” Alari asked. She held no illusions that the movement of her troops were a secret to Haldri, but she was curious how much she could get the Paxmer queen to reveal.
“I suppose very little,” Haldri said. “Though I am curious as to what the cost of this performance will be. Transporting so many players so far is not without difficulty and danger.”
“Danger can be assessed in many degrees,” Alari said. “Perhaps the risks of travel are outweighed by the benefits opening up a new venue would bring.”
The risk of assault Paxmer with a less than sufficient force would, of course, be the annihilation of the army that was sent on the campaign.
“Perhaps,” Haldri said. “But there are only so many performers, and in enriching one area, all of the others are lessened. Especially if one must command one’s own performers out on a journey.”
Paxmer was Gallagrin’s most troublesome border, but Gallagrin’s other neighbors, Inchesso, Senkin and the Green Council were not without their own perils.
Alari watched as Haldri took a sip from the cup of tea that was resting on the arm of her throne. With a wave of her hand she called forth the Mundus Globe and beneath the two queens the floor turned transparent, revealing the blue sphere of their world beneath them.
It was only a projection, a magical image that could be manipulated by any of the royals who were present, but it looked real down to the tiniest leaf and detail. Haldri spun the globe and enlarged it under the western coastal border between Gallagrin and Paxmer was focused on. She left the globe in that position but made no additional comment. Even without words though, Haldri’s message was clear. She knew of the advance of the Gallagrin Royal Guard to the Paxmer border. Alari had ordered her troops to the coastal border area with Paxmer and their arrival had been read exactly as she hoped it would be.
The Paxmer queen knew that the troops that were massed on the border would be capable of a devastating invasion. It was one which would ultimately fail once Paxmer’s dragon forces were in play but in a short time, Gallagrin could inflict significant damage on Paxmer’s land and cities, and much worse (from Paxmer’s perspective) capture a great deal of wealth in the process.
Balanced against that was the fact that in moving Gallagrin’s forces to the south, Alari had left her northern and eastern borders more lightly defended that at any time during her or her father’s reign. If Inchesso, Senkin or the Green Council wished to invade, she had all but extended to them the invitation to do so.
“It seems as though the drums of Gallagrin are not the only band that is assembling to play,” Alari said, sliding the globe to the south to show the Paxmer provinces that were clustered around the border.
“And what does your realm whisper to you?” Haldri asked.
“It is hard to hear whispers over the thunder of the approaching storm,” Alari said, letting the globe drift over the rest of Paxmer following the routes that she knew Paxmer’s dragon armies were traveling as they assembled on the Paxmer side of the contested area.
“You believe a storm is gathering against you?” Haldri asked.
“I do not need to believe when eyes that I trust have reported seeing it,” Alari said, adding a small smile as though questioning whether Haldri had really believed that Gallagrin did not have as many spies in Paxmer as Paxmer had in Gallagrin.
“And that does not worry you?” Haldri asked, a frown wrinkling her lips.
“What is a storm besides gusts of meaningless wind and some tears from the sky,” Alari said. “If you prepare properly, even the worst of storms comes to nothing.”
“Lightning can kill quickly, and the rains can flood the land and kill slow,” Haldri said. “Against some storms there can be no preparation or defense.”
“I’ve often been advised of storms such as that, but I’ve yet to see one that lived up to its claim,” Alari said. “Perhaps they’ve all appeared stronger than they were.”
Dragons were creatures of pride, and Alari knew that the dragon queen was much the same. Small, goading insults weren’t going to make Haldri fly off into a foolish rage, but pecking and poking at the Paxmer queen’s defenses would nibble away tiny bits of her attention.
“It’s a pity you’re experience is so limited,” Haldri said. “It will be heartbreaking when you encounter a proper hurricane.”
“I have no fear of a broken heart,” Alari said.
Her voice escaped her and crackled with shards of ice. The world thought the Queen of Gallagrin bereft from her Consort King’s betrayal, but for Alari that was one of the lesser wounds that she carried.
In her heart, Alari knew that the actions she took were done to benefit her realm and the people who were entrusted to her care, but that wasn’t the fire that drove her onwards.
She had never truly loved Halrek. Not deeply and without reservation. That space in her heart was claimed long before the Prince of Paxmer appeared in her life, and the distance she kept between them was enough, in the months that had passed, to cushion the blow of his betrayal somewhat.
She didn’t fight for revenge on him, she fought for someone who never got to be, and for the life that was denied to her. In honor of the princess who never was, she fought for all of Gallagrin, and for all the people who would never reach their cradle if Paxmer had its will done, but mostly she fought for that one small life that had been lost.