Jyl watched as the broad plains of Paxmer fell behind them and felt an unexpected weariness sink into her bones.
“Don’t fall into a ditch now,” Merrin said. The transport guildmaster rarely drove wagons herself anymore, but for the cause of bringing home some of Gallagrin’s most celebrated troops, she was willing to pitch in for old time’s sake.
“I think I’m going sleep for a month when we get back,” Jyl said.
“I guess fighting dragons takes a lot out of you eh?” Merrin asked, glancing over at Jyl as the giant horse-goat hybrids that pulled the wagon navigated steadily up the mountainous path.
“The funny part is that I didn’t even fight them,” Jyl said, closing her eyes. “I just robbed them of their shiny loot. Or robbed him I guess. It was only one dragon.”
“Which one?” Merrin asked, turning her attention to Jyl completely. The grhoats could manage to pick a path on their own just fine. The driver was there to make sure they didn’t pick one that the wagon couldn’t follow.
“Haldraxan,” Jyl said. “The big one.”
“The Dragon King?” Merrin asked, her eyes shooting up her forehead. “I was in the same castle as him once and even that was too close for comfort. How did you steal from a beast like that? I thought her had some crippling fear aura.”
“He did, and it was worse than crippling,” Jyl said. “I can’t even describe what being in the range of his magic was like.”
“And you robbed someone like that how exactly?” Merrin asked.
“We started by tricking him to land on contested ground,” Jyl said.
“And that got rid of his aura?” Merrin asked.
“Not so you would notice,” Jyl said. “It was weaker, but still pretty much completely crippling.”
“Magic charm of fearlessness?” Merrin guessed.
“Sleeping Gods, I wish I had something like that,” Jyl said. “No, no magic courage for us. I was stuck helpless until the Lady Dae went out to face him.”
“The Queen’s Knight? I didn’t see the Commander at the marshalling grounds?” Merrin asked. “Tell me she didn’t get eaten by a dragon?”
“You don’t sound too worried about that,” Jyl said and asked. “And what’s with calling her The Commander?”
“I served with her,” Merrin said. “Back before I went into a more sensible business that didn’t involve letting people try to stab me. And, yeah, if a dragon ate the Commander, she’d just give it heartburn before tearing herself out of its gullet.”
“I could believe that,” Jyl said. “But no, she didn’t get eaten. She went out and faced down Haldraxan. Just stood there daring him to do his worst.”
“That sounds like her alright,” Merrin said.
“She didn’t exactly break his fear aura,”Jyl said. “It was more that she forced him to focus it down. Onto her. Alone.”
“That definitely sounds like her,” Merrin said.
“That left the Dragon King just a little distracted, so I was able to climb up his back and snatch his magic gem,” Jyl said. “After that we had all the dragons under our control and the fighting was over.”
“That sounds like it was much less simple than you’re making it out to be,” Merrin said.
“Simple isn’t the word I’d use to describe it,” Jyl said, shivering as the memories washed over her, “But I had a lot easier than Lady Dae.”
“So if she wasn’t eaten by a dragon, where did she wind up?” Merrin asked.
“She’s back in Highcrest,” Jyl said. “Flew there on Haldraxan after she rescued the queen.”
“Yay, I’m going to get paid after all then,” Merrin said.
“Paid?” Jyl asked.
“For services rendered to the crown,” Merrin said.
“What did you do?”
“Conspired with Queen Haldri to frame our queen for the murder of a royal family,” Merrin said.
“I’m going to need to hear that again,” Jyl said, narrowing her eyes, “With the part where you’re getting paid for that because Queen Alari lived.”
“Oh it’s simple,” Merrin said. “Haldri contacted my guild because she wanted high quality arms and armor for her troops. She was planning a big build up for a summer campaign and Paxmer metal working is bog bilge compared to what Gallagrin smith’s turn out.”
“And she needed you for what exactly?” Jyl asked, feeling lost and confused.
“We were supposed to smuggle some serious quantity of goods across the border so that the Gallagrin armed forces wouldn’t be aware of Paxmer’s martial buildup,” Merrin said. “Then Queen Alari put her plans into effect and that sped up the timetable that Haldri had to work under.”
“So she asked you to murder a royal family?” Jyl asked.
“No, the Gedli family is still alive,” Merrin said. “We just procured some fake dead bodies to look like they’d been burned alive in a ritual circle.”
“Is that what Duchess Sanli presented as evidence to the court when she made her bid for power?” Jyl asked.
“I believe so,” Merrin said. “When I was visiting Haldri to confirm our business arrangement, Sanli was there too. Haldri had been pretty eager to get me to come and I don’t think she would normally have risked the overlap of foreign minions like that unless she was pressured and putting her plans together as quickly as she could.”
“So, wait, were you arranging a weapon shipment for Haldri or providing fake dead bodies?” Jyl asked.
“Both,” Merrin said. “We delivered a few of the early shipments and she saw that we could get things done to her satisfaction so she decided to use us for the dead bodies part of the deal too. Not a huge risk I imagine since if we didn’t deliver then her agents could have just killed us, or killed the Gedli’s for real.”
“Yeah, why keep the Gedli’s alive at all?” Jyl asked.
“Leverage over Sanli,” Merrin said. “If Sanli won the throne on a lie, she’s always be vulnerable to having that lie exposed. So the Gedli’s were taken across the Paxmer border and probably stuffed in some secure little hole somewhere until they were needed.”
“So I still don’t see the part where you get paid by Queen Alari for all this?” Jyl asked.
“You didn’t think you were the only operatives she had at work in Paxmer did you?” Merrin asked.
“You were working for her the whole time you were selling weapons to Haldri?” Jyl asked.
“Sure, why not?” Merrin asked. “Queen Alari paid better.”
“And if Haldri had upped her offer?” Jyl asked.
“Alari gave us a no bid limit on this contract,” Merrin said. “However much Haldri offered, Alari pledged to offer that plus one gold coin.”
“That’s remarkably mercenary,” Jyl said.
“I call it reasonable,” Merrin said. “I do not make any claims to honor or station. Not anymore. Not after Star’s Watch. Money is much simpler to deal with.”
“Thinking like that would have kept me from ever joining the Queen’s Guard,” she said. “And from ever even coming close to being eaten by a flight of dragons.”
“Maybe it’s not such a crazy path to walk is it?” Merrin said. “Just follow the gold and let honor and duty sort themselves out.”
“It’s tempting sometimes, but I don’t think it’s for me,” Jyl said.
“For what it’s worth, I miss your line of work sometimes,” Merrin said. “But then I see how much it takes out of the people who do it.”
“It gives things back too,” Jyl said, “We’re safer now, I mean all of Gallagrin, and Paxmer too I suppose, and I had a hand in bringing that about. And I’m one of the lucky one. I get to come back to my safer home and keep chasing after honor and duty.”
“I heard there were loses,” Merrin said. “Was it bad?”
“It wasn’t good,” Jyl said. “The catacombs were supposed to protect us, but when Haldraxan collapsed them we lost a lot of good people in the rubble and the lava.”
“Are they being brought back to Gallagrin?” Merrin asked.
“Some of them,” Jyl said. “The others are being laid to rest there.”
“They’re getting proper graves?” Merrin asked.
“The catacombs are being rebuilt,” Jyl said. “They’ll be a joint Paxmer and Gallagrin monument. The miners who dug the tunnels are pitching in to help the Paxmer craftworkers who were maintaining the place. They’re going to rebuild it bigger and tougher than ever before. I guess the idea is to turn them into an ongoing shared site and keep the land as a shared space between the two kingdoms.”
“That sounds complicated,” Merrin said.
“Relationships always are,” Jyl said and yawned.
“So what happened with the other dragons?” Merrin asked. “I mean why did they let you take the gem off their king?”
“That was Nui and Mayleena’s doing,” Jyl said. “Nui turned me invisible and Mayleena held back the dragons that could see through that illusion.”
“She held them back?” Merrin asked. “How do you hold back a flight of dragons?”
“You’d have to meet Mayleena for this to make sense I guess,” Jyl said, “But basically all she did was walk out beyond where Dae and Haldraxan were fighting and open her arms.”
“That doesn’t sound like it would hold a toddler back much less a dragon,” Merrin said.
“Mayleena’s kind of special,” Jyl said, “I think she was daring them to come fight with her. Or maybe she was projecting a fear aura back at them. All I know is that I’m glad she was there, and I’m very glad that she’s on our side.”
“I’m surprised she’s not heading back with you?” Merrin said.
“I am too,” Jyl said. “She had issues with dragon fear that were as bad or worse than mine.”
“That definitely sounds like a good reason to leave Paxmer then,” Merrin said. “Why did she stay?”
“I think she wanted to talk with the dragons,” Jyl said.
“No offense meant,” Merrin said. “But is she insane?”
“Strangely, I don’t think so,” Jyl said. “Or if she is, I think staying to talk with the dragons is a step towards reclaiming her sanity.”
“Is she fearless or something?” Merrin asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Jyl said. “More ‘part-spirit’, so I think she sees the dragons as a sort of kin to what she is now.”
“That sounds sort of crazy,” Merrin said.
“We live in a crazy world,” Jyl said. “We just do the best that we can to get by in it.”
“And that’s why I stick to gold,” Merrin said. “There’s no craziness with gold at all.”
Jyl frowned and raised an eyebrow until she saw the smile on Merrin’s face.
“And how much gold would it really take for you to sell out Gallagrin?” she asked.
“So long as Alari is Queen?” Merrin said. “I’m not sure anyone has that much.”
“Well then it’s a good thing that Sanli wasn’t able to take the throne I suppose,” Jyl said.
“I wish I’d been there to see the debate end,” Merrin said. “I mean there’s winning a contest through force of arms and then there’s landing a dragon the size of a castle right next to your castle and declaring that you’ve done the impossible and conquered another realm as proof of your fitness to rule.”
“I heard Sanli tried to throw herself from the royal balcony into the streets below,” Jyl said. “I guess that seemed better than letting Haldraxan get his hands on her.”
“Yeah, about that,” Merrin said. “What in the Nine Hells is the Queen thinking making Sanli a Royal Advisor?”
“Well, she stripped the Duchess of her lands. And her household. And her servants. And her privileges for Pact Spirits,” Jyl said. “So my guess is that she’s thinking the best punishment for Sanli is to make her serve the throne that she tried to steal for the rest of her life. Basically the same thing Queen Alari did to Queen Haldri. Also, Sanli was smart enough to engineer a coup that had a decent chance of succeeding. She probably can provide some valuable advice.”
Jyl yawned again, feeling the weight of the days and weeks of struggle sinking deep into her bones.
“That’s all stuff to worry about later I guess,” Merrin said.
“Yeah,” Jyl said. “For now we’ve got along trip back home.”
“Don’t worry,” Merrin said. “We’ll pass the miles faster than you know it.”
“Just so long as I don’t fall off,” Jyl said and rubbed her eyes.
“Lean against me, hero,” Merrin said. “I’ll make sure to get you back safe and sound.”
Together, and with all the rest of those who’d fought on Paxmer’s soil, they looked across the long miles and the stark clear mountains and saw the first flags of Gallagrin flying off the border keeps that still stood watch over their home and shelter.
“Let’s go,” Jyl said, slumping against her new friend. “It’s time I headed home.”