An hour after the dawn, the High Stream, the road of air on which the stolen sky carriage rode, turned to the south. The sky carriage, however, did not.
“It always feels weird to leave a High Steam,” Dae said as she urged the Wind Steeds to follow a north easterly route instead. So long as she held the reigns for the flying vehicle, the highway of wind that it rode upon stood out in her vision like a long green path that undulated with the rushing wind. The High Stream didn’t offer any particular safety to travelers in the air, it was certainly possible to be attacked by flying creatures or other people on similar vehicles, but being off of the translucent emerald path always left Dae feeling like she was going to plunge to the ground below any moment.
“We’re going to need to land reasonably soon anyways,” Nui said. “We’ve been flying for hours, the steeds have to be getting close to the limit of their endurance.”
“We’ll be grounded for good once we set down,” Dae said. The metaphysics of sky carriages wasn’t an area Dae had studied deeply but she was familiar with the basic tenants of their use. Each Wind Steed held only so much magic within itself. By running on a High Stream, they’d been able to conserve their power and greatly extend the distance they traveled, but even with that boost, the steeds’ range was still limited and, they would soon tire and seek relief from their burden.
Wise sky carriage drives allowed their steeds to land before their magic was depleted. The steeds would then return to the aerial realms to recover their strength before returning to their earthly stables the following day.
The problem Dae and her companions faced was that, the stables the Wind Steeds would return to were back in Windsmer and, without the magical horses, the sky carriage was nothing more than a roomy and lightly built conveyance with no inherent means of locomotion.
“Let me switch with our mother,” Nui said. “She’ll know where we should go.”
“Can you cloak us from inside the carriage?” Dae asked.
“It’s easier if I’m outside, but I can manage if something comes up at us,” Nui said and opened the hatch behind the driver’s bench to descend into the compartment below.
After a few minutes of shuffling and repositioning, Estella sur Korkin sat atop the carriage with Dae while Nui settled inside and joined the others in pilfering the food stocks the mayor kept freshly stocked in the back of the transport.
“We need to head for Direbreak Ridge,” Dae said. “But it doesn’t look like the Wind Steeds will carry us that far.”
“Not without a High Stream to run on,” Estella said. “Unfortunately Direbreak was mined dry long ago, so there’s no easy path there by air.”
“We’ll need a place to set down then,” Dae said. “Somewhere that we can secure transportation.”
“And supplies,” Estella said. “We brought what was available, but you’ve advanced our timetable considerably.”
“We didn’t know that you had a timetable,” Dae said.
“Would it have mattered if you did?” Estella asked. “The deadline you’re racing against is a fluid one as well isn’t it? Any delay could cost you the prize and above all other things, you can’t let the queen of Paxmer or her forces retrieve the Spirit Crown.”
“No, we can’t,” Dae said.
“For what it’s worth then, we can’t either,” Estella said.
“Does it matter to you if Haldri crushes Gallagrin?” Dae asked.
Estella was silent for a long moment, her gaze tracing the features of Dae’s face.
“Gallagrin was my home once,” Estella said. “I won’t lie to you, I’ve hated it more since I fled from it than I did even when we were plotting the downfall of the king, but in my darkest days I never would wish for Haldri Paxmer to gain the sort of power you’ve described.”
“But not because of what she’d do to Gallagrin with it,” Dae said.
“I have no wish to see the people of Gallagrin harmed,” Estella said. “Those I swore a vendetta against passed from this world years ago.”
“And you can let your anger against them go as well?” Dae asked.
“No,” Estella said a laugh catching in her throat. “If I let myself think too long on the torments of yesterday, I can feel the same old hurts and the same old rage still waiting there. Maybe a few degrees colder but part of me still wants to exhume some of the people who died along with the Butcher King, and reanimate them just so I could have the pleasure of killing them myself.”
“Interesting,” Dae said.
“What?” Estella asked.
“Apparently I get my forgiving nature from you,” Dae said and smiled without taking her eyes off the sky ahead of them.
“It’s a poor inheritance if so,” Estella said.
“Nui suggested that we could start over as two people who’ve only just met,” Dae said.
“You are certainly a lifetime beyond the daughter I once knew,” Estella said.
“It still feels like it was yesterday though,” Dae said.
“I spent the last twenty years believing that, dead or alive, you hated me,” Estella said. “I can bear that thought longer still if hating me will ease your heart at all.”
“I don’t think I know you enough to hate you,” Dae said. “It’s as though we’re the most intimate of strangers. You’re not the mother I’ve carried with me for years, and I don’t think you’re even the mother I imagined you to be before you left.”
“As children we never see our parents as the people they are,” Estella said.
“It seems like a rare thing to manage with anyone,” Dae said.
“It takes time,” Estella said. “For the moment, perhaps we can at least be the Gallagrin Queen’s Knight and the leader of the Paxmer Resistance?”
Dae exhaled a breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding.
“We can at least be that,” she said.
“Then as the voice of the Resistance, allow me to suggest that we make for Dungil Peak,” Estella said. “There is an alchemical monastery there where we can find aid and support.”
“Can we make it there before the Wind Steeds falter?” Dae asked.
“Hand me the reigns,” Estella said. “I know a few tricks that will buy us an extra mile or two.”
Dae passed her mother the reigns of the sky carriage and felt her enhanced vision fade.
“I’ve read reports about you,” Dae said. “Though we didn’t know that you were the ones behind them. My queen spent a lot of effort over the winter collecting information about the Paxmer Resistance.”
“Hopefully she wasn’t able to find out too much,” Estella said.
“We learned of your existence,” Dae said, “Though nothing about your membership. You seem to guard those secrets well.”
“Those who don’t, tend to meet rather grisly fates,” Estella said. “The Resistance has had more contact with Gallagrin that you may realize though.”
“We had our suspicions,” Dae said. “A few of our operatives escaped from situations where they were certain they’d misstepped too badly to avoid a catastrophe.”
“They were asking the sort of questions that we like to encourage,” Estella said.
“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to set up better lines of communication,” Dae said.
“We couldn’t allow that,” Estella said. “The Resistance holds the future of Paxmer. Or a future at least. We have to play a delicate game of balancing between safeguarding that future and not allowing the current regime’s forces to grow so powerful that there’s no hope of our future coming to pass.”
“Should you be taking this risk then?” Dae asked. “Even if we’re not caught, our mission could easily expose your connections.”
“Your arrival and the actions of the armies that are stirring north of our border are one of our apocalypse scenarios,” Estella said. “However this turns out, the three of us with you are unlikely to have anything to hide once it’s all over.”
“I’m surprised you weren’t the one holding a blade at my throat then,” Dae said.
“We don’t necessarily disagree with an apocalypse in the right context,” Estella said.
“I’ve had nights like that,” Dae said.
“Change on the scale that we seek to promote will never come easily,” Estella said. “I don’t want to see my country burn, but I can’t deny the likelihood that it will happen at some point.”
“And if you can’t prevent it, you at least want to be able to profit from it?” Dae asked.
“Not for myself, or for anyone else in the Resistance,” Estella said. “If scouring flames are going to reduce our lands to char, we simply want to be ready to hide as many as we can from the devastation and then plant the seeds to grow a new and better Paxmer from the ashes.”
“I don’t know if there’ll ever to friendship between Gallagrin and Paxmer during the reign of my queen,” Dae said. “She has a beautiful and forgiving heart, but the wounds she’s sustained run too deep.”
“Given the tumult of recent years, it would perhaps not be unwise for Gallagrin and Paxmer to hold each other at a distance until the hurts that each side has endured fade from memories into stories,” Estella said.
“That would be an ideal situation,” Dae said. “It’s a shame we don’t live in a world where it’s ever likely to come about.”
Estella shook the reins as she laughed. Closing in the distance, Dae saw a single tall spire rising high above the low mountain peaks that surrounded it.
“We’re almost to the monastery,” Estella said.
“And we have a problem,” Dae said. “Look there, dragons are circling in the clouds above the peak. Three of them. We should get Nui to cloak us.”
“The carriage can’t make it much farther,” Estella said.
“Then we’ll need to proceed on foot,” Dae said.
“There’s another alternative,” Estella said.
“What is it?” Dae asked.
“It will require your trust,” Estella said. “And it won’t be pleasant.”
“You’re going to turn us over to the dragons, aren’t you?” Dae asked, guessing her mother’s intentions.
“They’ll track us down and roast us all if we land,” Estella said.
“And if we head on to the monastery, they’ll only roast Jyl, Mayleena and me,” Dae said.
Estella inhaled and turned to Dae.
“I will understand if this is a step too far,” Estella said. “And I will understand if you don’t believe a single word I am about to say, but I swear to you that I will stand between you and any harm the dragons would inflict on you. Before they touch you with a single claw, they will need to rend my body limb from limb.”
Without any further words, she handed the reins of the sky carriage back to Dae and turned her attention forward.
Part of Dae wanted to believe her mother while the rest screamed at her that being lured into facing three dragons was almost the perfect forum for an inescapable betrayal.
The two sides of her pulled and tore at Dae’s psyche, sending her back into the paralysis of doubt that she thought she’d cleared once they left the Resistance’s secret hideaway.
With nowhere else to turn, Dae found herself wondering what Alari would do. The answer came to her almost immediately, as though Alari’s words were waiting there in her heart like a gift that had only to be noticed to be received.
Surprisingly, the words Dae found waiting for her weren’t in the form of a kindly message. Alari hadn’t asked Dae to forgive her mother. She’d asked Dae to face the Lady Estella, and she’d shown Dae how much she believed in her Knight.
Through Alari’s eyes, Dae saw that her choice wasn’t between trusting her mother or not. It was between rising to the challenge before her or falling prey to her insecurities and fears.
There were dragons, the unknown awaited them at the alchemical monastery and they’d be confronting both with nothing more than their wits, skills and magics.
Phrased like that, Dae’s choice was all too easy to make.
“This is going to suck for us,” she said. “I know that. It’s inevitable. Just promise me you’re going to make it suck worse for them.”