Alari looked at the world beneath her, a pale orb cloaked in the darkness of night. She stood so far above it, peering down from the God’s Hall, that only the fires burning in the largest cities of the Blessed Realms were visible.
The ‘Peace Conference’ with Haldri had become a waiting game, each queen cut off from her pawns, each waiting to see the next move play out. Communication with the outside world wasn’t impossible. There were various divine spells in place which would allow the monarchs to speak with their remote staff, to issue orders or gather information needed for discussions to progress. Neither Alari nor Haldri made use of these spells though. Each knew that those who served them were capable of fulfilling their assigned roles.
For Haldri, that meant relying on Haldraxan and the forces he commanded. Alari couldn’t imagine Haldri had any difficulty trusting an ageless dragon of nearly supreme power with exercising plans to reap more power for Paxmer. History provided ample evidence that betting on Paxmer’s Dragon King was a winning play.
Alari, conversely, was relying on little more than the strength of a woman who, in the eyes of the world, had already failed to stand up to a dragon younger and smaller than the Dragon King. In Haldri’s eyes, Alari saw a calculation of the odds that the Paxmer queen found to be entirely in the Dragon King’s favor.
By all rights Alari should have been doubting her plan and the capabilities of those she asked to enact it. There should have been a chink in her faith, a crack of doubt that Haldri could exploit and relish.
Instead, Alari’s heart was quiet.
Her fate was in Dae’s hands, and there was no where else in the entire world that Alari would wish it to be.
The world might question Dae. Dae might even question herself, but Alari didn’t. She knew the sorts of reserves that Dae had, she’d seen the kind of strength that Duke Korli’s daughter possessed and she knew how strong the bond between her Knight and herself was.
Being Queen of Gallagrin meant many sacrifices, and far from the least of them were the sacrifices Alari made in being apart from Dae, but if her position kept her from speaking the fullness of her heart, Alari knew she could prove by deeds that by which words was denied to her.
“The gods should never have entered their slumber,” Haldri said. “In their absence we are left with little more than the clay we see below us.”
They were the first words either queen had spoken in close to an hour and they took Alari by surprise. The rage and hungry eagerness to tear each other down had dimmed and cooled to embers with the long waiting. The depths of the night sapped at their will as well and lowered their defenses, something Alari knew that both of them had counted on to make the other easier to outmaneuver.
Watching and waiting for the next pieces to fall though left a lot of time for reflection and observation.
“If you think so little of realms and their people, it is odd that you covet them as much as you do,” Alari said. She’s never understood how Haldri’s mind worked. Certainly it wasn’t the norm for a monarch to place the needs of their common subjectives on the same level as those of the noble families who aided in the governance and defense of the realm. If anything Alari was an aberration in that regards, but there were few, if any, rulers who drifted as far to the other extreme as Haldri did.
That notion, of the tyranny shown to the Paxmer people, had shaped Alari’s vision of Haldri since she was a child. Sitting across from her peer though, Alari began to chip away at the image of the Paxmer Queen as an icon of injustice. Haldri’s crimes were certainly real enough, but she wasn’t the nearly divine force of malice that Alari had built her up to be either.
“We are creatures of fathomless potential,” Haldri said. “The gods crafted us so, and even in their absence there is a wealth of treasure in each mind and heart that struggles upon our world.”
Alari frowned. There was a tone in Haldri’s voice that seemed out of place. It wasn’t sympathy, or any other gentle emotion. If anything it edged closer to disappointment and disdain.
“How strange that Paxmer grinds its treasures into the soil or roasts them in dragon fire then,” Alari said. She was puzzled by the more philosophical bent Haldri had adopted, but a part of her honestly craved some insight into the woman who had ravaged her life and her happiness so deeply. Forgiveness was not something that was on the table, but some measure of understanding might be possible.
“The treasures I speak of can only be forged under pressure,” Haldri said. “Left to their own devices, the peoples of the realms sink into lethargy, their potential squandered on frivolities which benefit no one.”
“And so you seek to save the world from the bane of people pursuing their own forms of happiness?” Alari asked. Haldri’s words were alien to Alari’s experience. Gallagrin had struggled so long in recent years to reach a barely tolerable level of sustainability, that the idea of needing to further pressure the realms’ people was preposterous.
In the same time period though, Paxmer had enjoyed long years of relative prosperity, largely because it hadn’t lost precious resources to a protected civil war and because with Gallagrin weakened it had been able to turn its attention to expanding its power across the seas to challenge Sunlost for the wealth of the outer world.
“I will see this world remade,” Haldri said. “Either in my lifetime or under the reign of my heirs.”
“Why?” Alari asked. “You see the lands that lay below us. Every one of the realms has more than enough problems to address within its borders. There has never been peace between Gallagrin and Paxmer, even when friendship would have lifted both realms higher than they could have been alone.”
“I would claim the last six years when my brother sat on your throne were peaceful, but you would disagree I imagine. The truth is that we were never meant to be friends,” Haldri said. “No one in our position can have friends. We stand alone, atop the pinnacles of the world.”
“That’s a pretty lie to justify the grossest of actions,” Alari said. “You are no more alone than I am though. Or doesn’t a Dragon King rule at your side?”
“I give no sleight to my Haldraxan when I say I stand atop the world alone,” Haldri said. “He is the world. In him lies the strength of the Earth, raw and undiminished by the passing of the gods, just as within us lies the strength of the world beyond. It is our dreams which light the road that leads to the future.”
“Then we need to have care of what dreams we cling to,” Alari said. “There are nightmares enough in this world as it is.”
“The only nightmares that matter are the ones which would frighten us from a greater destiny,” Haldri said. “You in Gallagrin cling to your spirits as armor and shield against the world, hiding away behind their protection, just as you hide away within your mountains from the world. If you walked with dragons as we do in Paxmer you would learn that hiding will never save you. Only by conquering your fear and daring to master the impossible can you rise above this world. That is the gift I will bring the realms and the lands of the outer world.”
“And when you find that the peoples of the world do not want your gift? That they don’t need it?” Alari asked. “Or that different people have different desires for the world? That there are those who do not wish to rise above it? That some can accept it as it is and see the beauty that already exists around and within them?”
“Have you ever seen someone melted in dragon fire?” Haldri asked. “There is no beauty within people. There is only horror and pain, concealed by a thin layer pleasant fictions.”
“Are you really that blind?” she asked. “Do you truly believe that because there is pain and suffering there can be no beauty and grace as well?”
“The one gives lie to the other,” Haldri said. “It is only the weak who cling to the illusion that this world is just and good so that they can shield themselves from the terror of its truths.”
“And what of those who make no claims that the world is just or good or terrible or a place of suffering, but rather view it for what it is?” Alari asked. “Look at the orb below us and tell me what you see.”
The sun rose from the east and its light spread across border between the two realms. The mountains were touched briefly with the gentle gold of a new day before swiftly settling into a patchwork of green pine forests and white snowcaps.
Time was passing far faster than it should have, another part of magics of the God’s Hall, which sat as much outside the flow of the world as it did within it.
“The dust and excrement of countless generations,” Haldri said, frowning at the tableau below them. “But in that soil lies the seed of the world’s rebirth.”
“A seed that must be watered with the blood of those you deem weak and unworthy?” Alari asked. With a wave of her hand she drew the vision of the world into closer focus. The vast view they’d taken rushed in to peer at one particular site on the Paxmer side of the border. From all points south of that there were dragons winging rapidly north, almost to their destination, but hunting in wide circles as they flew.
Alari knew who they were looking for, and what would happen if they found their quarry. She took heart from the patterns of the dragon’s flights though. They hadn’t found Dae yet, and they weren’t going to. Not in time to stop her.
“It is their own actions which condemn those who fall before me,” Haldri said.
Alari laughed again.
“I hated you,” she said. “Paxmer has robbed Gallagrin of so much and you have robbed me of more than you can imagine. When I came here, I knew I would destroy you, and there is nothing that will change that. Now though? Now that I find that this is the root of your madness? This shortness of vision? These blinders that you cling to? Now that I hear the desperate emptiness that drives you? My hate seems foolish now. How can I hate anything so small as you?”
Haldri rose from her throne, the muscles of her face livid with renewed rage.
“I thought you a disappointment,” Haldri said. “For so long, I imagined you to be a skillful player of the game between us. I conjured the image of someone as powerful as I, someone whom I could truly test my mettle against. But that’s not who you are. The noose is around your neck already, My armies draw in on your forces and soon you will fall and it will have been so sadly easy. For a brief moment, I regretted the steps I’ve taken. Your dominion will be mine. Nothing can stop that. But I thought that if I’d known how weak you are, how foolish, I could have made your passing easier. Now though? Now I’m going to enjoy watching everything you have stripped away from you.”
“So we are agreed then,” Alari said. “Enemies, by design and by choice.”
“Yes, remember that as my hand closes in around your heart,” Haldri said.
Alari smirked and then felt a familiar stabbing weakness pass through her.
Haldri’s true gambit was at last sprung.
The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin was divided. Alari’s throne was contested and her claim to her crown was slipping from her grasp.