In a realm bound in peace by the will of the gods, battles were an anathema. That was, Alari decided, mildly inconvenient. She was engaged in a life or death struggle after all, and she had zero interest in allowing her opponent to survive it, the will of the absent gods be damned.
With the divine peace in effect though, the battle Alari fought against Haldri Paxmer was not going to be won by any delicious use of physical force. Crushing the Dragon Queen was something Alari would have to enjoy on a metaphorical level rather than a literal one.
Presuming of course that Haldri’s strategems didn’t prove to be the superior ones. That thought helped cool the blood that raged through Alari’s veins hotter than any Paxmer dragon’s breath could burn.
She’d spent years uncomfortably perturbed by the policies of her southern peer. Thanks to Halrek’s presence in her life though though, Alari had adopted the belief that Gallagrin deserved the full attention of its queen and any questionable practices the queen of Paxmer was engaged in were ones which Gallagrin had to accept as outside its realm of influence.
When the Sleeping Gods had walked the Earth and crafted the peoples and places of the Blessed Realms from the formless clay of the newborn world one of the first things they’d done was to divide the lands into dominions which each of gods took as they own. There wasn’t always peace between the gods, and in the fields where they fought an unholy devastation still remained millennia after divine blood was shed on the debased soil. From those early conflicts, accords had been forged between the surviving gods and the realms they controlled.
Peace was the highest goal for the immortal creators since only through violence on a cosmic scale would they ever perish. From the early accords, the God’s Hall had been raised, and terrible and binding oaths sworn to ensure no realm or god could ever assault another.
Those were oaths which many supposed were eternal, but which Alari knew had ended when the gods passed into their eternal slumber.
The Blessed Realms were meant to be blessed with wisdom, but it was an external wisdom. One enforced on the Mindful Races as though they were children who could never develop a true understanding of how to govern themselves.
In pursuing her revenge against Paxmer, Alari had questioned herself many times. She knew the high path was the road of forgiveness and reconciliation and that the gods would have enforced it on her if she still had access to their counsel. In that sense, the rage she felt was the rage of a child who’d been wronged.
But that didn’t mean that her anger was unfounded, or unjustified, or wrong to pursue.
The gods looked at their realms and cared only that their sandboxes were not disturbed too greatly by the toys they had put into play. Peace between the Mindful Races wasn’t a higher calling, it was simply convenient.
The problem with peace, or at least the peace Alari saw laid before her, was that it was an illusion. There was no peace for the people of Paxmer in their suffering under Haldri Paxmer’s tyranny. There was no peace for the people of Gallagrin who endured the endless feints and forays Paxmer sent to test the strength of the borders.
Alari had suffered directly from Paxmer’s hunger to expand and consume, but that alone didn’t give her the right to sacrifice her people or the people of Paxmer on the field of battle. Her pain was simply the fuel she burned to push onwards and confront a problem that was even larger than her power as a queen of the Blessed Realms could encompass.
Haldri Paxmer had brought the two countries to the precipice of war through her schemes, both the direct ones and the indirect machinations acted out by pawns like her brother Halrek. The Paxmer queen had played a long and dangerous game of baiting Gallagrin into an unrestrained military conflict both and so Alari’s actions were required to address that. Haldri had see the war she craved begin to form if Alari was going to get her to make the kind of fatal misstep that separate the royal head from the royal shoulders.
“It is an interesting view, to see the world from this far above, is it not?” Haldri asked, gazing down at the projection of the Blessed Realms that had replaced the floor below them.
“It seems a very divine choice,” Alari said. “To look at the broad curve of the world and ignore the small details which truly matter.”
“Getting lost in the small details is what our lessers are for,” Haldri said. “As sovereigns, our task is to attend to the global picture that escapes those below us.”
“The global picture shows none of the people below us,” Alari said. “We see none of the differences that make each realm unique beyond their simple geography.”
“Perhaps that’s a sign, a reminder from the divines that there shouldn’t be divisions between the realms,” Haldri said. “Perhaps the unity we see below us calls for but a single monarch to govern it.”
“Yours will never be that voice,” Alari said. “Your own people barely tolerate your rule, the other realms will never welcome you.”
“You sit so confident in the belief that you are beloved in your realm,” Haldri said. “I wonder what that must feel like?”
“It feels like a burden to be lived up to,” Alari said.
“And do you live up to it?” Haldri asked. “Are you truly as beloved as you wish to believe? They call you the Bloody Handed Queen do they not?”
“I call myself that,” Alari said. “Though some days I worry that my hands are not quite bloody enough.”
Within her breast, the Spirit of Gallagrin stirred. If there was anyone whom the pact spirit most wished to visit violence upon, it was the sovereign of Paxmer. Alari’s injuries were fresh, but the spirit remembered centuries worth of insults and blood that Paxmer owed to its northern neighbor.
“And I thought we came here to speak of peace,” Haldri said.
“There will be peace between our realms once this is concluded,” Alari said.
“A bold statement,” Haldri said. “And with what army would you enforce that peace?”
“What makes you think I need an army?” Alari asked.
“I think you need an army because I know the armies you believed loyal to you are not answering your calls to muster,” Haldri said.
Alari was silent, but glared at Haldri as though sheer disdain might be enough to stop the Dragon Queen’s heart.
“My mother spoke to me of the art of war when I was young,” Haldri said. “For a monarch to commit to a battle, they must know that they have already won it. Fighting against an enemy you do not understand means you will find the power of your attacks blunted. Fighting alongside allies you cannot control means you fill find your defenses unraveling when you are at your weakest.”
“The former queen of Paxmer was fond of prattling on I gather?” Alari asked. “Tell me, did she ever fight a real battle during her reign? Or did she just have your pets eat anyone who offended her?”
“Were we in Paxmer, I would see your body shattered to jelly by fear for speaking against my mother,” Haldri said.
“As I thought,” Alari said. “Though perhaps I’ll be in Paxmer before too much more time has passed and you will have a chance to see how that works out.”
“I imagine it will work out quite well,” Haldri said. “But don’t suppose that you will ever be allowed to enter Paxmer while breath remains in you.”
“Or in you,” Alari said.
“You are no longer young enough to be so foolish as to think you can unseat me,” Haldri said.
“I admit your position is a formidable one,” Alari said. “Your forces are powerful, even without the addition of your draconic troops.”
“Gallagrin has never witnessed what the assembled might of Paxmer is capable of,” Haldri said. “Even without the aid of our dragons, we can withstand any assault you would throw against us. And I believe we both know how very weak of an assault you are capable of mustering under the present circumstances.”
Alari let her irritation slip out along with her words.
“You have no idea what I am capable of mustering,” Alari said.
“I know you must speak of peasants and rabble,” Haldri said. “Or are my reports on the disposition of the Gallagrin Ducal armies in error?”
Alari was silent for a moment, visibly swallowing her anger.
“And you think I will leave my Dukes and Duchesses with the choice of whether to serve me or not?” Alari asked.
“If you could compel them to service they would be pressed up against my borders already,” Haldri said.
Alari laughed, a bitter, hate filled bark.
“You truly don’t know? Do you?” she asked.
“About the artifact that you seek?” Haldri asked. “Oh I am well aware of that fool’s errand but no simple trinket will buy you victory over your own people and the forces I can bring against you.”
“It is no simple artifact or trinket that will be delivered into my hands,” Alari said. “Have you never heard of the Relics of Myth? The tools forged by the gods when they were young and at the height of their powers. Before they were bound by treaty and accord.”
“Those have long since passed from the world,” Haldri said. “They are no more than stories for children.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Alari said. “Or has your little pet never revealed to you the powers of the Gem of Command that sits upon his brow?”
It was Haldri’s turn to stew in silence for a long moment.
“I’d like you to imagine something,” Alari asked her. “You know how thoroughly Haldraxan can dominate the other lizards which infest your realm. Picture a crown meant for the head of Gallagrin’s monarch which grants the same sort of influence over anyone who partakes of Gallagrin’s magics.”
“So that will let you convince the pact bound to fight for you,” Haldri said, her voice steady even as the color drained from her face. “All that means is that more Gallagrin blood will enrich Paxmer soil.”
“You don’t seem to grasp the puissance of this tool,” Alari said. “Of what value is the much vaunted fear your dragons can spread against a body that is driven by a will which is not its own.”
“Not even with all of your Pact Knights could you defeat the dragons of Paxmer,” Haldri said.
“Do you believe that such would be required?” Alari asked. “Or have you not thought to question just how deeply your fellow nobles fear and loathe you? Surely there’s been a night or two when you’d lain awake and speculated on what would happen if Haldraxan were to fall in battle?”
“Haldraxan has ruled for as long as Paxmer has stood,” Haldri said. “I have no fears on his account.”
“Haldraxan has never fought the sort of foes a tool of the gods can unleash upon him,” Alari said. “And so that you don’t misunderstand, I will need no army, because there will be no battle. Only a wave of unrestrained, unstoppable berserkers focused on one mission; destroying the one thing that lets you hold onto the reins of power. Once Haldraxan’s gone, all of my forces can step back, and allow the natural politics of Paxmer to secure my revenge. I don’t imagine it will be quick or painless but do you think they’ll send me a piece of you as a momento?”
Haldri was silent again for a long moment, but when she looked up and spoke there was a cold smile on her face.
“Bravo,” she said. “That is a fine scheme. Worthy of a noble of Paxmer. Sadly, I have been outwitting the nobles of Paxmer since I was a child.”
“It’s too late for you to outwit me,” Alari said. “You are trapped here until the dawn.”
“If I were as slow as you believe, I would have been devoured before I learned to walk,” Haldri said. “I have known of the forces you sent against me for weeks now. Only three of them, and one of them oh so dear to your heart. They may seek this Spirit Crown but all they will accomplish is to lead my elite forces to its location. Never before has someone presented me with as fine a gift as you have, dominion over an entire realm in one neat package.”
“You forget that my armies are still massed and ready to carve a path to my prize,” Alari said.
“And you forget that Haldraxan need not protect me while I am here,” Haldri said. “He lies in wait for your armies, and with him is gathered a force of more of our dragons than have ever been assembled before. Your armies will fail, your kingdom will fall, and when you are no longer queen you will be given to me so that Paxmer can reclaim the debt of blood owed by Gallagrin.”