Jyl wasn’t surprised that her Queen intended to fly to the front lines and try to hold off the war that was beginning to rage out of control. She wasn’t surprised that Alari was bringing Haldri with her either. The Queen of Paxmer was a cunning old serpent and someone Alari was wise to never let stray for her sight too long. What did surprise, and aggravate, Jyl was that Alari had flown to the front lines and left the rest of her entourage behind.
“Why are we still here?” Jaan asked. “I came along on this mad excursion to act as a liason with the Lafli contacts on the Green Council, not to rot in a Senkin jail while we waited for the country to be overrun.”
“You came along because our Queen ordered you to,” Jyl said, forcing herself not to throttle her sister.
“Also, these accommodations are far from a jail cell,” Ren said. “Her Majesty Senkin hasn’t yet decided what to do with us and until she does I suspect we’ll enjoy a suitably posh existence.”
“Is that all it takes to woo you to their side Telli?” Jaan asked. “A little gold on the trim, some nicely burnished wood on the mantle, and your loyalty is bought?”
She brushed her hand along a finely worked silk throw pillow embroidered with the Senkin crest of a firebird rising to catch the sun in its wings. Jyl frowned. Of course her sister wasn’t impressed by the trappings of wealth and power, she’d been coddled and pampered her whole life.
“Well there are these tasty little hor d’oeuvres too,” Ren said. “Hard to find fault with a realm that makes such ingenious use of simple garden vegetables and pate.”
“And yet it makes such poor use of its troops, sending them into battle against a force they cannot beat,” Jaan said. “The Queen has abandoned us on the losing side. If we stay here, our necks will grace the chopping block before this war is done.”
“If you try to disobey Her Majesty, your neck will grace my chopping block before today is done,” Jyl said. Their position was tenuous enough with the loss of the Queen, any further defections from the ranks and they’d lose what little hope they had of negotiating a truce on Senkin’s side of the fight.
“As if you would, or could, defeat me,” Jaan said. “No, you will be the first to run away. Just like you’ve always done.”
Jyl felt a mad rush of heart blaze within her. A thousand unresolved fights and arguments surged to the foreground. When she was younger that anger would have swept away all reason and restraint. As children, Jyl and Jaan had waged epic battles against each other over the smallest of slights. Jyl didn’t remember winning many of those fights, but she couldn’t claim to have lost many of them either. When fighting your twin over petty issues fueled by raw emotions, there was little in the manner of victory to be secured. Such battles were concerned primarily with hurting the other and each of them were far too good at that.
“And you will stay huddled, too terrified of the powerful people around you to ever change anything unless they let you,” Jyl said. As much as Jaan’s words had cut into her, Jyl’s world hit the same sort of hidden fears and shames that lurked in Jaan’s heart. Even with all their armor against each other, no one could strike either as deeply as family could.
“And I will make no choice at all, as I apparently should have done the last time I thought the Queen needed my aid,” Ren said. “And we will all be true to our natures and the whole world will come to ruin and misery and pain because we are no more than beasts with delusions of free will.”
Ren punctuated each declaration as a player on the Grand Stage of Gallagrin would, full of overwrought emotion and sweeping gestures so the people in the cheap seats could still guess as to what the course of the action was. As he finished speaking he collapsed over the side of one of the couches landing face down in a cushion.
“Or,” he added in a conspiratorial tone that was muffled by the fact that he wasn’t looking up from the cushion his face was buried in, “we could step up and play the game before us.”
Jaan looked like Ren’s uninvited theatrics had put her on her last nerve. As much as she wanted to Jyl couldn’t entirely fault her sister for that. They weren’t faced with a situation where simple platitudes and a clever spirit would see them through. When the realms moved, the people caught between them inevitably got ground up. Jyl didn’t mind that. As a Queen’s Guard it was her duty to weather that kind of grinding. She just wished there was a purpose to it beyond allowing Alari to follow whatever mad vision possessed her. Also, she had a feeling that Dae was going to murder her in a new and profoundly imaginative manner for allowing Alari to venture off into extreme danger, not alone, but with her greatest enemy beside her.
“I have to confess, I don’t understand why the Queen left us behind at all,” Undine said. The junior Queen’s Guard spoke in a soft voice which but his question was one that roared loudly in everyone’s heart.
“She will have a better chance at diplomacy if she’s alone,” Jyl said, offering her guess as to Alari’s motivations.
“She doesn’t trust us,” Jaan said. “Too many conflicting agendas, too many unknowns. We represent complexity when she needs to certainty and simplicity.”
Jyl was sure that wasn’t right, but she could see why Jaan would assume it was. The eyes of the Lafli family always measured the trustworthiness of any potential ally or partner. For those outside the family, the judgment, in every case, resolved around when a betrayal would occur and who would be the first to break faith. With a strong partner it was assumed that they would betray you the first moment it was profitable to. With a weak ally it was assumed that a suitable occasion would arise when their help would no longer be required and the relationship could be mined for the fullness of its potential value.
Alliances within the family were fraught with similar calculations of betrayal but they were played out on a longer scale and for more critical goals.
Jyl had spent the early years of her life stewing in the cauldron of her family’s toxic expectations and understandings. She’d spent the years since trying to unlearn those lessons after discovering that they separated her from the people in her life that she truly valued. To some extent she’d been successful in changing her view of the world, so she knew Jaan’s argument was wrong, but she hadn’t come far enough that she could place why.
“I think perhaps she’s hoping to hold back,” Ren said and Jyl saw what he meant. Between herself, Jaan, Undine and Ren, they presented a concentrated amount of force that even a small army of another realm would be hard pressed to match. With such a squad to call upon and add to whichever army she chose, Alari would be that much more tempted to determine the course of the battle directly through arms rather than negotiating terms acceptable to both sides.
“Hold back? By flying into danger?” Jaan said. “That’s not what holding back looks like in any sane ruler.”
“And yet it is what our Queen is known for,” Ren said.
“What do you mean?” Jyl asked, intrigued by Ren’s theory though she couldn’t fit the pieces together quite properly.
“I mean that if you observe the pattern of our Queen’s choices over her life, she has only rarely used the full extent of the power available to her,” Ren said.
“She raised half the realm to fight against the half that was loyal to the crown,” Jaan said. “How is that refusing to use the full power she could call on?”
“Her father presents a special case I admit, but even there; what do you know of her battles?” Ren asked.
“That she was saved by the alliance with the Paxmer prince,” Jaan said.
“And did you learn that from your family?” Ren asked, amusement lighting his lips into a smile like a bear trap.
“It is common knowledge,” Jaan said, her pride ruffled at the insinuation that her view of history was not the inarguably correct one.
“Not so common outside a narrow circle of those most loyal the Butcher King,” Ren said. “If you study Queen Alari’s battles though what you observe is that many of them occurred days or weeks after her forces were in place.”
“She was afraid to commit to action even then?” Jaan said. “How did she ever win?”
“She won because she wasn’t afraid,” Ren said. “She focused the timing of each battle in order to maximize the impact her forces had on her father’s armies while minimizing the damage done to the populace or the towns they lived in.”
“She delayed to spare the lives of those who rallied against her,” Jaan said. “It must have been Paxmer’s influence that changed her fortunes.”
“Halrek of Paxmer did change Alari’s plan for the war, and he did speed it to the final battle, that is true,” Ren said. “But the ending was a foregone conclusion by the time he joined her ranks.”
“Then why would she need him?” Jaan asked.
“And why would she marry him?” Jyl added. From everything she knew, Alari and Dae had been madly in love with each other from well before the Unification War erupted. Whether they’d ever let the other know that was something Jyl was uncertain of, but she’d always wondered how Alari wound up with a sack of scum like Halrek when she had such a better option available to her. The pretty stories of a foreign prince rescuing the brave native princess had always seemed out of character even before Jyl got to know what Alari was really like.
“Marriage to Halrek of Paxmer ended the threat on Gallagrin’s southern border,” Ren said. “It allowed Alari to conclude the war against her father easily a year sooner than she would have had she been required to fight him and defend the realm at the same time.”
“A year earlier,” Jyl said. “That’s a year that Gallagrin got to start rebuilding rather than continuing to tear itself down.”
“And a year when we weren’t murdering each other any more,” Undine said.
“Yes, and I believe that took the realms more by surprise than the marriage between Gallagrin and Paxmer,” Ren said.
“You believe the other realms were planning to join Paxmer in pillaging us?” Jaan asked.
“No,” Ren said. “Or, well, yes, because the realms are a terrible place filled with terrible people. And also good people. Who are sometimes terrible people as well. And the terrible ones are sometimes good. And…what was I saying?”
“Pillaging,” Jyl said, trying to decide how much of the quasi-Duke of Tel’s manners were real and how much they were an affectation to keep people interested in his ideas, thereby preventing a return to the near lethal atmosphere that sprang up whenever Jyl spoke to her sister for longer than ten seconds at a time.
“Ah yes, pillaging. Pillaging wasn’t the problem,” Ren said. “Realms love a good border pillage but it’s very temporary wealth and so no one is too disturbed when is proves to be transient. The problem was we stopped killing ourselves, and that’s something that’s never happened before in the wake of a violent change of the monarchy.”
“Once the war was done, why would we continue killing each other?” Jaan asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ren said. “You’ll have to ask all of the monarchs who gained their thrones through violence why they chosen to execute the losing side. It’s more or less unheard of to spare them as Queen Alari did.”
Jaan looked disturbed at the thought, which gave Jyl a bubble of unkind happiness right in the center of her chest.
“By all rights, you and I and hundreds of other nobles should be sharing the same shallow, unmarked grave somewhere,” Ren said. “But our Queen likes to do things differently than one would expect, which I am quite grateful for. Another queen might not be so forgiving.”
On that cheerful note, there came a knocking on the outer door to their suite and a page appeared with an official summons.
“Queen Senkin wishes to meet with the Gallagrin delegation once more to discuss your fate.”