The mayor of Holders Keep kept an office in the center of town. As she was a reasonable woman she didn’t allow Dae’s party to come anywhere near her office. Instead she met them in the town’s jail.
“Just so we’re clear, we won’t be staying in here,” Dae said. She and her companions were inside one of the large cells, together because Dae had refused to allow them to be separated, but secured behind a locked and chained gate of bars. Outside the cell the mayor stood, flanked by a team of eight of what Dae guessed were the town’s best fighters.
“Yes, I understand that you warned my strike team of that,” the mayor said. She held a scroll in one hand and was reading over the contents, glancing up to compare them to the people before her in the cell.
She was roughly the same age as Dae’s mother, though the two woman bore no resemblance to each other beyond the years that lined their faces. Lorelaris, the mayor, had the heavy, hard muscled build of a former warrior in Paxmer’s army and the faint scars that spoke of wounds long distant. The years and her role in politics had softened the edges of her physique but Dae was sure that, despite her age, the mayor was still more than capable of hefting sword or spear to take an active role in the defense of her home.
“Hopefully they also explained that we’ve come to this meeting in peace,” Dae said.
“You are spies from Gallagrin sent on a mission from your queen to assault our realm,” Lorelaris said. “Nothing about your presence here is peaceful.”
“Technically we’re operatives, not spies,” Dae said, “But I won’t quibble with you about the distinction between the two. The important point is that we have not come to do violence to you or the people under your protection.”
The mayor frowned and raised an eyebrow as she looked up at Dae.
“My strike team tells me that there’s a Gallagrin army gathering just to the north of our border and you claim not to come bearing violence?”
“A gathering of dragons is marching to this province in a mass that hasn’t been seen in a century,” Dae said. “The violence they bring will be answered, but you and yours don’t need to be caught up in it.”
“The dragons you speak of are our dragons,” Lorelaris said. “We are bound by honor and duty to serve with them.”
Dae saw the guards with the mayor stiffen to attention at her words. Paxmer’s dragons were held in a different light than the pact spirits of Gallagrin. With the populace shielded from their aura of fear, there was only the natural tendency towards awe that remained.
In fairness to the Paxmer psyche though, that awe came from more than just an animalistic need to please creatures so much vaster and more powerful than the mortal citizens of the realm. Paxmer’s protectors possessed a slate of traits which could appear as good or bad depending on which side of the fiery breath one stood, not the least of which being the safety they guaranteed the realm and its citizens.
“Whether you serve them or not, the results’ll be the same,” Dae said. “The battle that’s coming? It’s not going to be a good one for the people on the ground.”
“Then are you suggesting that we should do our duty now, while there’s still time and eliminate you before you can cause any more trouble?” Lorelaris asked.
“No, you don’t want to do that,” Dae said. “It wouldn’t end well for you, and you’re going to need to catch as many breaks as you can if the people here are going to survive the coming year.”
“You are very confident of your power,” Lorelaris said. “And very contemptuous of ours.”
“My apologies,” Dae said. “There’s no contempt meant in my words.”
“Then why would you, an enemy of my nation, speak so,” Lorelaris asked. “What do you hope to gain out of surrendering yourselves like this?”
“She wishes to help us,” Estella said. “Gallagrin is not the one who has enslaved and corrupted our realm.”
“I have not been given your name,” Lorelaris said. “But if you claim kinship with Paxmer than your words are treason.”
“I am Lady Estella sur Korkin,” Estella said. “And my treason goes far deeper than mere words.”
“That is a not a compelling argument towards keeping you alive,” Lorelaris said.
“I am aware of that,” Estella said. “Which is why I have been careful about voicing the words until now.”
“And what makes you think that the current situation is one which is conducive to your turning traitor against Paxmer?” Lorelaris asked.
“I have not turned traitor against Paxmer”, Estella said. “My words and deeds are only treasonous against its crown.”
“The crown and the realm are one and the same,” Lorelaris said. “Are they not?”
“You are the mayor of a border town,” Estella said. “How often has the crown acted in your interests?”
Lorelaris frowned again and Dae saw her guards mirror her expression.
“Loyalty and honor are not bought by what the crown gives to its subjects,” Lorelaris said. “They are the qualities that ennoble us for giving them freely.”
“Yes, that’s the philosophy of the Paxmer crown, and there is truth in it,” Estella said. “But tell me, how many infants starved during the harvest months last fall?”
Lorelaris was silent in response to that.
“My estate is not so far from here that I am unaware of the hardships you’ve faced,” Estella said.
One of the guards glared at Estella, his face molten red with restrained anger.
“We survived the harvest months and the winter which followed,” Lorelaris said.
“There was a shipment which arrived at your gates before the first snows fell,” Estella said. “A merchant caravan which had encountered a party of bandits and overwhelmed them. They were carrying fat sacks of grain and chests of perishable foods. And better still there was a small supply of gold they liberated from the bandits. Enough to ease the burden of your suffering and prevent any more tiny mouths from going hungry to an early grave.”
The color drained from the angry guards face and confusion clouded his eyes.
“The turned their surplus over to you with only the demand for a lifetime contract to supply the city with more at a fair rate,” Estella said.
“How do you know of that?” Lorelaris asked. “The merchants made it a condition of the arrangement that no one would be informed of their deed or trading status otherwise their suppliers would tax them even more, knowing that they could make up the difference on their profits from us.”
“Three years ago, you were in a similar state,” Estella said. “Then the food that was needed arrived before anyone perished from its lack.”
“That was different,” Lorelaris said. “We gambled on a shipment of supplies that were under a Harpy’s curse. No one else would buy them.”
“And did the Harpy’s curse ever strike down anyone who ate the fruit or vegetables or partook of the cured meats?” Estella asked.
“No, we found a traveling priest from Inchesso who had the counter-agent to the curse and dispelled it for us,” Lorelaris said. As she spoke a grim and horrible awareness began to spark in the darkness behind her eyes.
“There have been similar incidents throughout the years, have there not?” Estella asked. “When you’re need was great? Fate would step in with some good turn to blunt the edge of the crown’s avarice and allow you to carry through to the next spring?”
“We are a blessed realm,” Lorelaris said. “Fate provides for us.”
“No,” Estella said. “Fate sleeps with the gods who lie beneath us. Those merchants and the ‘cursed’ supplies before them did not come to you by accident. There have been those who have resisted the corruption of the Pxmer throne for years and tried to keep its people strong enough to survive the times that are upon us now.”
“That’s not possible,” Lorelaris said. “We are the first among the Blessed Realms, we are the land most favored by Fate.”
“If Fate were with us, would the needless slaughter of seven years ago have come to pass?” Estella asked. “Would Fate have sent so many of our bravest, strongest warriors to fight and die at the border to a realm we can never occupy?”
“We didn’t bleed and die in those mountains for nothing,” one of the guards said, old bitterness dripping from his tongue.
“That’s true,” Dae said, keeping her voice free of the answering bitterness that she felt from the war that was half a decade past. “You fought and bled so that the Paxmer crown could raise an agent of theirs up as the Consort-King of Gallagrin. Haldri Paxmer sent your people to die in a great show of ferocity to make sure that her brother Halrek would be seen as an acceptable alternative to war on two fronts during Queen Alari’s rise to power.”
The guards jerked forward at Dae’s words but the mayor held them back.
“That’s not a reflection on your bravery or honor,” Dae said. “Paxmer’s attack on Gallagrin seven years ago left both our realms poorer, for what in the end turned out to be no good reason.”
“No good reason except to offer Haldri Paxmer a chance to control the Gallagrin throne,” Estella said.
“Queen Haldri doesn’t care about your lives,” Nui said. “She doesn’t care about any of us.”
“And for this we should betray our sacred duty?” Lorelaris asked.
“You’re sacred duty is to your people,” Estella said, grasping the bars of the cell.
“When the dragons come, Haldraxan’s only interest will be for the assault Haldri has planned to launch on Gallagrin,” Dae said. “If you don’t prepare for that then there won’t be any convenient merchants or surprisingly curse-free food shipments to help you weather the time until the spring harvests come in.”
“And how would we prepare for the coming of the dragons?” Lorelaris asked. “If the Queen’s dragon is coming here then our choices will be to present them with whatever they ask of us or watch as they tear apart the town until they find it for themselves.”
“Think back to the campaign seven years ago,” Estella said. “When the dragon came in force then, they tore apart everything regardless of what was offered to them.”
“They didn’t get what was in the root cellars,” one of the guards said, grimacing at the memory of the lean times that had followed.
“That’s one path towards bracing for the worst,” Dae said. “You can also move your elderly and your young. Send them deeper into Paxmer to be farther from the fighting, or, if you will accept the offer, send them across the border to Gallagrin before the fighting starts. With Royal authority, I state that they will not be harmed or used as hostages, but rather sheltered and allowed to return to Paxmer when they wish.”
“Why would you make such an offer?” Lorelaris asked.
“My Queen cares for more than the people under her rule,” Dae said. “She feels a kinship with all who have suffered torments sent from the Paxmer crown. For myself though, the offer is made with purely selfish reasons in mind.”
“What selfish reasons could there be for taking in refugees?” Lorelaris asked.
“Fighting dragons is difficult enough,” Dae said. “I have no wish to fight brave people who are protecting their loved ones as well.”
Lorelaris breathed out a long sigh.
“You do know that the easiest choice to safeguard ourselves will be to turn you over to the queen’s agents, do you not?” the mayor asked.
“It would be if you had the power to make that choice,” Dae said. “Instead I offer you this choice; it might look better for you if we left a path of destruction in our wake to make it clear why you failed to hold us. Would you like us to do that, without injuring your towns people of course, or would you rather we leave quietly so that there is little proof that we’ve ever been here?”
The next day, Lorelaris put her guards to work repairing the ruins of the jail cell, while the rest of the town secreted away food stuffs and sent a contingent of those unable to fight north to the safe harbor of a foreign realm.