Dae watched the Royal Carriage depart and felt a great weariness steal over her. She’d expected to be smothered in anxiety thanks to Alari exposing herself to danger, or enflamed by anger at her own inability to join the entourage, but neither came easily. Within her swirled a chaotic storm of every color, each flash of emotion washed out by the next before Dae could piece together much sense of where she really stood or how she really felt.
It wasn’t surprising, she decided, that she wasn’t terrified for her love’s safety. Alari was stronger than anyone knew, including Alari herself. With the Pact Spirit she carried, Alari had almost overwhelming mystical might to call on, but her strength went well beyond the magic she was gifted with.
Gallagrin’s Queen was a driven woman and had been for as long as Dae had known her. This flight of seeming-insanity was every bit in keeping with the princess Dae had grown up with, and if there was one thing Dae had learned in those years it was that when Alari put her mind to something, the safe bet was on her winning the prize she sought, no matter how long the odds looked.
The separation still left a hollow pit where Dae’s heart should have been though but pride in Alari rushed in to fill that void. The thought of Alari at her best, pitting herself against all the realms of the world brought a wry smile to Dae’s face. The realms would have to be very careful or they would never know what hit them.
“I have to confess, this is not how I imagined things going when I awoke this morning,” Teo said. The vampire stood beside her on the platform as the squad from the Royal Army scrambled to fall in for a last second inspection before being loaded onto a transport carriage that would pursue the queen and act as backup for her, should the need arise.
“It’s the problem with Royals,” Dae said. “Ask them to do something and occasionally they will.”
“I don’t recall asking to be made ambassador to Inchesso,” Teo frowned as the sky carriage requisitioned for his use began to fill with supplies, brought on board by the honor guard assigned to him.
“You were the one who picked today to come before the court,” Dae said, her gaze remaining on the rapidly departing Royal Carriage.
“That was Ren’s decision. I thought we should have fled the castle today.”
“You are a man of insight and intellect then.”
“I hope not,” Teo said, his frown deepening as he snuck glances at the far distant carriage bearing his husband. “My insight told me the queen would rule against the nobles soon and that her verdict would not go over well.”
“Insight, intelligence and ignorance then,” Dae said, amending her words. “The queen wasn’t even close to working out what she was going to do about the nobles.”
“Perhaps it’s due to my upbringing, but I have a hard time believing executions have been ruled out.”
“There are certainly nobles who deserve it.”
“And certainly ones who don’t.” Teo turned to face Dae, eyes narrowed and jaw hard set.
“You’re worried about what she might do with Ren?”
“I’m terrified. And enraged.” Teo said, biting at his lower lip. “He tried to help her. He tried to stand in her defense. And this is how he’s repaid? He wasn’t even supposed to be the Duke of Tel!”
“I know,” Dae said. “I think I owe him an official reprimand for that. He was supposed to be working for me. Now the Dawn March has no Commander in Nath.”
Teo rounded on her, pulling Dae’s gaze away from the vanishing Royal Carriage.
“How can you treat him like this, when he has been nothing but loyal to you and the Queen?” The vampire was teetering on the brink of losing control, but Dae made no move to resist him or defend herself.
Eorn took a step forward, but Dae shook her head, warning the recruit off.
“I need my Commander in Nath.”
Dae knew she was pushing Teo, and knew she was in no position to fight back if the vampire lost his patience. Against that though stood his lack of faith in her or Alari. Dae needed to push Teo, needed to get him to bring all of his fears to the surface before they could be addressed. He wasn’t going to believe her when she told him that Alari wasn’t going to slay the man he loved, that his queen wasn’t the monster that the former king had been.
“He’s more than your damn Commander,” Teo shouted, grabbing Dae by the front of her tunic. Eorn started forward but Dae waved her to stillness.
“Yes,” Dae said, unperturbed. “He’s also the Duke of Tel, and he abstained from voting against the challenge to Alari’s reign.”
“He didn’t abstain! They blocked him! And the others! The one’s who didn’t believe Sanli’s ridiculous story.”
“We know,” Dae said. The nobles who’d remained loyal to Alari, of which there were a sizable number, though far from the majority, had been physically restrained from entering the Convocation chamber when Sanli put the proposal before the assemblage to allow herself to contest for the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin. Ren had been one of those nobles, and had only been a noble because he’d claimed the fallow title of the Duchy of Tel at the last moment in order to block Sanli’s efforts against Alari. It was a valiant effort which had come to nothing, and one which Alari and Dae had only learned the particulars of well after the events were sorted out.
“Then why haven’t you freed him?” Teo’s eyes had a glassy sheen of tears covering them. “If you’re going to murder the Dukes who plotted against the queen, why haven’t you freed the ones who remained loyal to her?”
“No one’s been imprisoned,” Dae said. They were drawing a bit of an audience from the troops who were preparing to go after Alari, and the ones who would be supporting Teo’s mission into Inchesso.
“Like hell they haven’t,” Teo said. “We haven’t been able to leave the palace in a month! The lodgings are very nice, but this castle is still a prison.”
“The Grand Convocation isn’t done yet,” Dae said, repeating the explanation that had been offered to one and all since Alari’s return from the God’s Hall.
“That’s because it’s going to end in a river of blood,” Teo said.
“Is it?” Dae asked, and allowed herself to smile. She couldn’t have built a scenario like this if she’d tried. Alari could have, probably in her sleep, but people weren’t Dae’s forte.
“How else can it end?” Teo said.
“How else indeed?” Dae asked. “What do you imagine you would see if the Queen were asking herself that same question?”
“She would arrest the nobles who worked against her and release the ones who supported her,” Teo said.
“Arrest more than half the nobles in the land?” Dae said. “She could. Since taking care of Paxmer, Gallagrin’s Spirit has been solidly united behind her. But what of the Ducal armies? How would the ones loyal to the disloyal nobles take their masters imprisonment?”
“Poorly,” Teo sagged and dropped his hands to his side.
“And with only the rebellious nobles in custody what might people assume their fate to be?” Dae asked.
“Execution,” Teo said, understanding burrowing through the thick haze of worry and anger that clouded his mind.
“And the Ducal armies would do what in the case of their master’s imminent deaths?” Dae asked.
“There would be rebellion,” Teo said. “But you said the queen was in control of the realm more firmly than ever.”
“She is,” Dae said. “But its people are still free. The Ducal armies could chose to oppose her, they are simple unlikely to win, or even survive.”
“It is a problem which resolves itself then, isn’t it?” Teo asked.
“It’s a problem that resolves into a variety of new problems,” Dae said. “The queen would win if it came to another civil war, but Gallagrin would lose. Every death would be a blow against us. Every injury would be a wound the entire realm would need to recover from.”
“So what is the queen going to do?” Teo asked.
“Keep all of the nobles here to start with,” Dae said. “If she retains both those who were her allies and the ones who worked against her, there’s less support for the notion that she’s gathering victims for a massacre.”
“But she can’t keep everyone here indefinitely,” Teo said. “They’ll rebel just the same.”
“I know,” Dae said. “And she has a plan for that too.”
“Yes, apparently she noticed that if the world is in crisis, she could fly off to deal with it and leave the problem of our nobles to me.”
Dae offered Teo, and those who were eavesdropping, a wolfish smile.
“And you were in favor of executions?” Teo asked, his uncertainty over the turn the conversation had taken plainly evident.
“For those who deserve it?” Dae said. “All I need is a sword and I’d be glad to start on them myself. Today.”
A hush fell over the load platform as people abandoned even the pretext that they weren’t listening. If Dae was willing to lead them into another civil war, then everyone present would have a personal and immediate interest in how it began and how it turned out.
“But that’s not what we’re going to do,” Dae said, drifting faintly into the formality of Royal Speech. “We’re going to respect the Queen’s kindness and mercy. We’re not adverse to spilling blood in her name or for her cause, but neither will we stain her reign with more slaughter or diminish the realm by the destruction of its children.”
Dae glanced away from Teo and took in the small assembly that had gathered around her.
“At least not while our patience lasts,” she said.
“Was the Queen serious when she said you’d be the next queen if she didn’t return?” Eorn asked, voicing the question most of those present had as to whether Dae could make good on her implied threats.
“She’s going to return,” Dae said. Alari’s declaration had been every bit as official as it needed to be. Dae had no doubt that the Gallagrin Pact Spirit would seek her out if Alari was slain. She also knew that Alari wouldn’t allow that to happen.
“Can you be sure?” Eorn asked. “No one’s ever done this before have they?”
Dae frowned. Eorn’s concern was true. They lived in an age without precedent. It didn’t help Dae sleep to think of that, but it wasn’t the hardest problem she faced getting through the night.
“Nothing that happened today was a surprise to her,” Dae said. “She’s known this was going to happen, sooner or later, since Paxmer fell.”
“Why didn’t she warn us then?” Eorn asked. She looked even more worried than Teo had, which Dae hadn’t expected. Teo’s spouse was at risk, but Eorn…
Dae blinked at having missed what should have been an obvious connection. Eorn wasn’t worried about Alari, or the fate of the Royal entourage. She was worried about Undine. Alari had selected the two of them to join her personal Guard, but Eorn and Undine had known each other for years before being called to the palace by Royal Request. Alari knew they would be loyal to the realm and to her, but their loyalty to each other was something Dae knew would be a foolish thing to discount.
“Because she’s evil, and enjoys tormenting us,” Dae said. “Also, because there was no point discussing the broad ideas she could see forming without specifics that we could act on.”
“We could at least have had her carriage ready,” Eorn said. “And the guards prepped to go with her.”
“That’s likely one of the reasons she held off telling us,” Dae said. “Not everything the queen does is deliberate or part of a greater plan, but arriving with unexpected speed and without an escort strikes me as sending a deliberate message to Senkin, the Green Council and all of the other nations who are watching this play out.”
“I still wish she’d taken us with her,” Eorn said, plain disappointment undisguised in her voice.
“Same here,” Dae said. “But we have work to do that’s not in Senkin.”
“The sooner begun, the sooner completed, I guess,” Teo said, regaining his composure. “I just hope she brings Ren back.”
“And all the rest,” Dae said.
“Lady Akorli?” a breathless page said as she raced to stand at attention before Dae. “There is an ambassador here who wishes to see the Queen.”
“Let me guess, they’re from the Green Council aren’t they?”
“Yes Lady Akorli.”
“Well this should be interesting then,” Dae said. “Let’s go see if we can avoid setting fire to a tree-person, shall we?”