Dae entered the training room for the Queen’s Guard to find a brawl underway. Battles weren’t uncommon in the training room. Hosting them was part of its function. Normally those fights didn’t involve fully manifested Pact Armor and live blades wielded in anger though.
A jolt shot through Dae’s chest with each clang of metal on metal. An old part of her wanted to dash into the fray, she’d trained for battle so long it was practically her homeland, but the part of her that woke her in the night froze her feet to the floor.
In battling the Dragon King Haldraxan, Dae had managed to overcome divinely granted mystical might and the fear it produced, but the lengths she’d pushed herself to had taken their toll. She was still a Pact Knight, still bound to Kirios, but in the weeks since her battle in Paxmer she hadn’t been able to transform into her magical armored form even once.
Only Alari knew of her limitation. Everyone else’s knowledge was limited to the undisguisable fact that she had required weeks of healing following the battle, which no one seemed to begrudge her. Even without his fear aura in effect, her foe Haldraxan had loomed as imposing figure in the Queen’s Gardens. The mere sight of him made the battle against him difficult to believe and impossible to refute. That sentiment started to fade slightly once Estella, Dae’s mother, flew him back to Paxmer to begin the transformation of both that realm and its draconic defenders, but there lingered in the minds of those who had seen the Dragon King that he could be recalled all too easily if the need arose.
For her part Dae was grateful for the wild stories that people were telling about her. The mystique that clung to her following the battle in Paxmer and her return to Gallagrin was useful so long as she didn’t overplay it. The nobility were already half terrified of her from the visceral demonstration she’d provided when she slew the Duke of Tel and lopped off the Consort-King’s head. Arriving, tarnished and battle weary with a dragon the size of a small mountain answering to her beck and call had been sufficient to cow even the worst of Alari’s opponents into meekness for a time. In place of “Kingslayer” they whispered “Dragonslayer” when speaking of her though neither appellation was correct.
Dae wasn’t attached to the titles much. They amused the eight year old that remained within her, but what mattered more was the sentiment they arose from and how much that could help Alari retain her throne. So long as the nobles feared Dae, they wouldn’t move against Alari without first trying to deal with Dae and that suited her perfectly.
The brawl raging in the training room had nothing to do with Alari though, so Dae’s mystique didn’t seem like it would be called into play.
Her comrade Jyl was battling a woman who was matching her blow for blow and parry for parry. There were differences in their styles, but more in the flourishes than the basics of their martial forms. Even without the aid of Pact Magic, Dae could follow their movements and tell that they’d been trained in the same house from a young age. More than that, they could read each other well enough that Dae could see this wasn’t their first battle.
Jyl shifted out of the line of attack from her opponent’s thrust, capturing her foe’s wrist and pulling her forward. The other woman spun into a fluid pommel strike with her other sword aimed at Jyl’s head, which Jyl smoothly blocked with her own blade as she snapped a long kick towards her foe’s knee.
The woman dropped away from the kick, throwing her weight against Jyl to knock her off balance and into a roll. The fighters split apart at as they got up, neither favoring ground techniques against the other.
In the brief moment where they paused and took stock of each other again, Dae spoke up.
“That looks entertaining,” she said. “Anyone want to explain why there’s entertainment being offered in my training room?”
The other woman, Jyl’s twin sister Jaan, was the first to put her blade down and dispel her Pact armor.
The two new recruits, Eorn and Undine relaxed out of their Pact armor as well. They’d been holding position at the edge of the central battle arena in the room, commanded to stay in place by Jyl when the fight began if Dae’s guess was accurate.
The only one who retained her armor for longer than the next breath was Jyl. She stood unmoving, her glare fixed on her sister and from the tremble in her blade, Dae could see that she wasn’t finished with the fight at all.
“Commander Lafli,” Dae said. “You’re needed at the Petitioner’s Court. Unless there’s something you need to address here first?”
Jyl lowered her blade and released her transformation at last, the armor peeling away into nothingness with a growl of ripping metal.
“That won’t be necessary Lady Akorli,” Jyl said, her gaze remaining on her sister who smirked back at her.
“You can’t leave just yet,” Jaan said.
“Commander Lafli can do as she pleases,” Dae said. No blood had been spilled from what she could see, so whatever argument the sisters had fallen into hadn’t escalated to the level where it was politically necessary to acknowledge or deal with it.
“But if she leaves now then she won’t have the message which the queen needs to hear,” Jaan said.
Dae’s ears perked up. She’d been watching Jyl to see how the young woman was doing. Rage was not the elf’s normal state and her struggle to bring it under control filled Dae with concern. They weren’t old friends, or dear long-term acquaintances but the weeks they’d spent together had been among the most intense in Dae’s life. As a commander, Dae tried to understand and shepherd her troops, but she didn’t readily accept new friends. Trust was simply too precious a resource to offer that freely. If Jyl wasn’t yet her friend though, the young elf was well on the way to becoming one, and so Jaan’s taunting words set Dae’s nerves on edge almost as much as they did for Jyl.
“If you have a message for the Queen, then deliver it,” Dae said. “Now.”
“I cannot,” Jaan said.
Dae’s eyes narrowed. Jaan Lafli was a noble’s daughter. The Lafli family had sided with the Butcher King until late in the war, and had almost certainly backed Halrek’s ill-advised attempt to take the throne. Dae’s patience for nobles who fell into that category was thinner than the edge of her blade.
“I am bound by oath and geas to speak only to Her Majesty,” Jaan added, raising her palms in supplication. “Tell her, sister, it’s how our family works.”
“Your family,” Jyl said.
Dae stepped into the fighting circle to stand beside and a hair’s breadth ahead of Jyl.
“Your family,” she said, echoing Jyl’s declaration, “uses magic to compel their own?”
“Of course,” Jaan said. “It’s common enough to ensure that messengers are required to deliver the messages they are entrusted with. And to the correct people.”
“Also very convenient,” Jyl said, “The Queen’s not speaking with any of you but if she doesn’t make an exception you’ll, what, burst on fire?”
“Trust me sister nothing about this is convenient,” Jaan said. “The geas won’t kill me, which I’m sure you’re delighted to hear, but I must deliver this message, immediately. It involves more than the Lafli clan’s fortunes.”
“And yet you’ll twist it, whatever it is, to make sure that the Laflis are the ones who benefit the most from it,” Jyl said.
“You do your family a disservice sister,” Jaan said. “We are not as wicked as you imagine.”
“Don’t,” Jyl said. “Just don’t. We both know what you’ve done. All of you. Gods-be-damned monsters.”
“You should go back to your family’s quarters,” Dae said, focusing her full attention on Jaan. “Have them remove the geas. Whatever they have to say can wait until the queen is ready to speak with you.”
“No,” Jaan said, clutching her stomach, “No it can’t. I…” she paused, pain shooting across her face as she fought to speak. “I have to speak with her because it involves something that’s happening right now.”
She gasped out the last word before racing into her next breath and spitting out words as fast as she could.
“It’s about the Green Council. There’s been an invasion and I need to speak to the Queen about what happened in response.” She was trembling in pain and only standing through sheer force of will when she finished, but her words had the desired effect. Dae’s expression had shifted from one of angry rejection to worried suspicion.
“What’s happening to her?” Dae asked, already knowing the answer.
“The geas, probably,” Jyl said. “My grandfather is bastard.”
“Is she being damaged?” Dae asked.
“Depends on how merciful he was feeling today,” Jyl said.
“The Queen needs to hear what she has to say,” Dae said.
“Half the things she’ll say are going to be lies,” Jyl said.
“But the…other half are what’s…important,” Jaan said before collapsing to the floor.
Dae sighed and strode over to her, picking up the elf before saying, “The Queen is holding the Petitioner’s Court soon, we’ll make her the first petitioner.”
“The other nobles won’t be happy,” Jyl said.
“Good,” Dae said, a wolf-ish smile breaking across her face. “Let’s hope they try to complain.”
“Lady Akorli,” Eorn said, stepping forward. “I can carry the elf if you’d like?”
Dae looked over at her newest recruit, and then looked up at her newest recruit, taking in the sheer size of the giantess.
“I can manage,” Dae said, smiling again at the thought of getting to wrestle Eorn in training at some point. That was going to be fun.
“I think she’s less worried about you capability and more about how important it will make the messenger appear if you’re seen walking through court carrying her in your arms,” Undine said.
Dae glanced over to the other new recruit. Undine would be an entirely different sort of challenge. Where Eorn had strength and endurance to spare, Undine was like a razor. Thin and sharp and, unless Dae’s early evaluation was wrong, quite deadly. Wrestling would be wasted on Undine, and Dae wasn’t sure she’d be able to lay hands on the man in the first place. Their battle would have to be one of blades and skills and wits. Dae was looking forward to that every bit as much as she was the eventual scraps with Eorn.
For the time being though, political matters held sway and she had to give both of her new recruits credit in that department.
“That’s a good observation,” she said. “Eorn, would take our messenger then?”
“Certainly!” Eorn said and lifted Jaan from Dae’s arms like the elf was as light as a sack of loose leaves.
“Take her through the barracks entrance please,” Dae said. “Commander Lafli and I will go speak with the queen and let her know what to expect.”
“Yes, Lady Akorli!” both Eorn and Undine said.
“This is a mistake,” Jyl said as the two marched off. “I know we have to hear what Jaan has to say, but I’m saying this now because I’ll murder her if I don’t. Listening to her is a mistake. She’s going to wreck everything. She always does.”
“That’s why I wanted you with me,” Dae said.
“So that I wouldn’t kill her?” Jyl asked.
“No, that’s between you and her as far as I’m concerned,” Dae said. “I want you to help make sure Alari is ready for this. Whatever tricks your sister likes to use? Whatever agenda she’s going to be pushing for? You’re our best chance at being prepared for those.”
“So you think I’m right?” Jyl asked.
“Of course I think you’re right. You know her and the Lafli family best,” Dae said.
Jyl gazed over at Dae as they walked the path back to the Royal Tower.
“I could be wrong though,” Jyl said.
“Maybe,” Dae said. “You’re not unbiased, but you know them and I trust your experience here.”
“I…thank you,” Jyl said. “That’s not something I’ve heard very often.”
“If I don’t mention it next time, just kick me,” Dae said.
“I think the queen might string me up if I started assaulting her Knight,” Jyl said.
Dae laughed at that.
“We need to get you to spend more time with her,” she said. “If I give you cause to kick me, she’ll be the first one in line to do it, and she’ll hit the hardest.”
“I have a hard time picturing the queen holding anything like that against you,” Jyl said.
“You definitely need to spend more time with us then,” Dae said. “Alari’s not the soft graceful doll some people mistake her for. She’s got a mean streak in her, and she’s not afraid to use it if I’m being an idiot.”
“No one gets to call my Knight an idiot,” Alari said, meeting them at the door to the tower. “Especially not my Knight herself.”
“Is that Royal Privilege speaking?” Dae asked. “Because I’m pretty sure I can make you regret a command like that.”
“If you ever fall for someone, make sure they’re not impossible,” Alari said, addressing Jyl as she narrowed her eye as Dae. The sternness of her gaze was wrecked by the playful smile that curled up her lips though.
“Speaking of impossible,” Dae said. “We’ve got news for you, Jaan Lafli needs to speak with you immediately.”
“Interesting, this must be about the Green Council,” Alari said.
“Yeah, she said something about an invasion?” Dae said.
“It’s more than an invasion,” Alari said. “It looks like my Conference of the Realms is on hold. If the report I read is correct, we have a war that we’ll have to deal with first.”