The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 23

Undine wasn’t the type to want to stab people. He liked to think of himself as a gentleman, refined and assured and with his impulses towards violence well under control.

“If you decapitate the General, our Queen will take the blood price Gallagrin has to pay for him out of your yearly bonus,” Jyl said as she worked the etchings on her ceremonial sword of office clean with a fine needle. “For reference though, our yearly bonus is pretty large.”

“You wouldn’t dare offer violence to me,” General Pentacourt said, his gaze flicking rapidly from the mundane (but still quite functional) sword at his throat, Undine’s grim expression and the rest of the Gallagrin delegation.

“Violence is already offered,” Undine said, pressing the General back into the wall with greater force. “Retract your statement regarding our Queen or I shall assume the offer has been accepted.”

“You can not threaten me,” Pentacourt said. “If you draw so much as a drop of my blood, the entire force of the the Senkin army will be turned against you.”

In his life, Undine had faced many challenges that revolved around being taken seriously. From declarations as to his basic identity, to support for his dream of becoming a Pact Knight, he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t struggling to have someone believe the very simple words that came out of his mouth.

With a resigned sigh he drew his blade across the General’s throat. Not far, and not deep. Just enough to open a nick the size of a shaving cut. Just enough to allow a single large drop of blood to run down the General’s neck and into the white collar of his uniform.

“General, you will want to know that Guardian Undine has only recently come into the service of Her Majesty the Queen of Gallagrin and that he takes his service to her quite seriously,” Jyl said. “As his commander, I could order him to release you but there is a problem which prevents that.”

“What problem?” Pentacourt asked, the whites of his eyes full revealed.

“I don’t want to,” Jyl said. The elf looked up from her maintenance work and flashed Pentacourt a bright smile.

Before the General could say anything else and escalate the conflict to a level where decapitation was the only viable outcome, the doors to the Senkin Royal Strategy room drew open and a proclaimer announced; “Her Royal Majesty, the Queen is present, all rise.”

Undine didn’t need to rise, nor did General Pentacount. They’d been seated side-by-side before Pentacourt’s ill-advised declaration had lifted Undine from his seat and inspired him to drag the General by the throat to the nearest wall.

The rest of the room hadn’t remained calm in the face of that sudden burst of violence, but it had become very still. With the Queen’s arrival it looked like that stillness would be broken and the room would descend into a chaotic melee.

“General Pentacourt, why are you here?” Queen Marie asked, with no evidence of surprise or concern coloring her tone.

“He claimed he received reports from the events at the border yesterday and what has transpired since then,” General Skybright Phillip said. “The reports in question seem to be…biased, however.”

“Pentacourt, leave this assembly at once,” Queen Marie said, disregarding the fact that the General would have certain issues with obeying that order if Undine wished to insist on the apology for Queen Alari.

Undine considered that, and considered the kind of enemy he’d made in striking a General in the Senkin army. As long as they were within Senkin, Pentacourt would have resources to strike back against the insult Undine had given him.

Slaying one of the Queen of Senkin’s Generals in front of her wasn’t a brilliant move for a number of reasons of course, not the least of which being that the Queen would have to kill him, perhaps personally.

Oddly, that didn’t feel like it mattered that much to Undine. He had no wish to die, and no belief that he could withstand the displeasure of a monarch of the Blessed Realms, but what mattered more was being true to who he wanted to be.

In his mind, Undine’s ideal, most perfect self, was as the definition of “a true knight of the realm”. Poise and confidence, strength and courage, daring and sacrifice; those were all elements of what a True Knight was, but the most important qualities were far more challenging and elusive, right-action and merciful restraint.

Any fool could be confident and any bully could be strong. Those who cared for nothing could sacrifice everything on a whim and courage was a goad that led people to the stupidest of deeds.

Knowing the right thing to do though? That was something that required a lifetime of practice and a spirit that didn’t shy away from reflection on all of its weaknesses. For as difficult as it was to admit one’s own shortcomings though it was the quality of mercy, that was the greatest of challenges to embrace.

Undine’s blade hesitated for a moment at Pentacourt’s throat. The General would only understand an answer of steel to his words. Undine knew that. And he knew it didn’t matter.

What the General did, would be on the General’s head. What mattered in that moment wasn’t the General’s guilt or innocence, or the Queen of Senkin’s commands. What mattered was that the Queen Undine had sworn to serve wouldn’t want him to kill the man who slandered her name. Vice Commander Lafli looked willing to deal with the political fallout from spilling noble blood on foreign soil, but that didn’t make it right, just convenient, for certain oddly considered values of “convenient.”

Undine could be better than that.

With a flourish, he spun his sword in a parrying circle as he backed away from the General, wiping it clean of the drop of Senkin blood that ran across it before sheathing the blade at his side.

General Pentacourt blinked, caught  between his fear, his rage and the commandment of his Queen. Self-preservation won out, beating the other impulses he harbored and he wordlessly nodded as he fled the chamber at a pace that only barely qualified as dignified.

“What is the word from the front?” Queen Marie asked, pointedly ignoring the flight of one of her senior generals.

“The Green Council’s advance has been checked,” Skybright Phillip said.

“We asked for word from the front,” Queen Marie said. “Not what we already know.”

“In this case your General is reporting new information Your Majesty,” Vice Commander Lafli said. “The situation on the war’s border seems to have shifted over the last evening.”

Queen Marie shuffled over to the Royal Commander chair at the far end of the room and dropped into it like a pile of weary bricks landing in the shape of a queen.

“Explain,” she said, closing her eyes and rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“We learned late yesterday that the Gallagrin Queen arrived at the battlefield as the momentum of the conflict was against us,” Skybright said.

“We were getting our guts handed to us in a horse bag,” the Queen said, somehow mixing commoner phraseology with noble speech rhythms.

“Yes,” Skybright said. “Guts everywhere from the reports.”

“And Gallagrin saved us,” Queen Marie said.

“From all reports, yes, she did,” Skybright said. “We’re not clear exactly how, but her arrival at the main thrust of the Green Council’s forces was described by several witnesses as ‘apocalyptic’.”

“So she’s still holding that front for us?” the Senkin Queen asked.

“”Apparently not,” Jyl said. “That’s what General Pentacourt came to tell us.”

“Pentacourt’s an ass,” Queen Marie said. “Knowing him, we’re sure his word choice was close to worthy of decapitiation, but we would still know of what he spoke.”

“If his report is credible, and in the larger details it likely is, the Queen of Gallagrin did not stop at the Green Council’s front line,” Skybright said. “She apparently ventured into the territory held by the Green Council’s forces and then into the deadly mists that shelter their troops.”

“The Council’s mist weapon won’t be fatal to her,” Jyl said. “Your General cited that as proof that our Queen had betrayed Senkin and left those of us behind to enact nefarious deeds in her name.”

“His words were no doubt more quarrelsome than that?” Queen Marie asked.

“If I hear him speak again, I am likely to cut his tongue out,” Undine said, providing what he felt was a fair warning on his limitations and lack of maturity as a Knight.

“We shall have to remember that the next time a ball promises to be too dull,” Queen Marie said. “There is more news though. If Gallagrin has passed into the Green Council’s region of control then was a truce negotiated?”

“We have received no word of a truce Your Majesty,” Skybright said, “And you are correct, there is more news. The Council launched another attack under the cover of darkness.”

“After Gallagrin stopped their first advance?” Queen Marie asked.

“Yes, hours after,” Skybright said.

“And how did our troops fair on this engagement? Did the extra time to rally perhaps improve their skills to a degree where they were less of a colossal disappointment to Senkin?”

“The troops fought valiantly You Majesty,” Skybright said.

“Yes, yes, how much land did they give up to the nighttime sorte?” Queen Marie asked.

“None,” Skybright said.

“None?”

“Their lines held Your Majesty,” Skybright said. “The commanders in charge regretted to report that they were not able to secure more than one keep in the area which had been taken, but the Green Council advanced no further, and has not successfully advanced since.”

The Queen was silent for a long moment and everyone else in the room followed her lead.

“Do you mean to say that the worst troops our nobles could provide somehow managed to stem the tide of the Green Council’s most determined attack, one the Council has been planning for centuries or longer?”

“It does seem incredible when put in those terms,” Skybright said. “But the couriers who brought the reports are among our most reliable.”

“We would sooner believe that the Council has developed a means to suborn our messengers than accept the reports they bring,” Queen Marie said. “Otherwise there is too great a chance that some strategy is afoot and the Green Council has outmaneuvered us again.”

“Is it impossible to believe our cavaliers and paladins cannot rise to the occasion? Perhaps the Gallagrin Queen’s attack exposed some weakness in the Council’s troops which our own have learned to exploit?” Skybright looked barely convinced by his own argument and the Queen even less so.

“And is this new weakness mentioned in the reports?” Queen Marie asked.

Skybright looked down at the paper in front of him.

“No, Your Majesty, not that I have seen so far.”

“Then it is no weakness of the Green Council that we see in their failure to move forward, but some deeper, more cunning plan.”

Undine wondered if the Senkin Queen was as paranoid (or insightful) as she appeared to be, why the Green Council’s attack had come as the surprise that it so clearly had.

“There is another possibility,” Jyl said.

“You would advise us that the Green Council is not moving to attack us along unseen paths?” Queen Marie asked.

“Oh, it’s very possible they’re doing that too,” Jyl said. “But there may be another explanation for the Council’s failure to advance.”

She passed one of the reports over to Skybright who passed it along to the Queen.

“What are we to see in here?” the Queen asked.

“This one was written by one of the field lieutenants,” Jyl said. “Or, if I understand your military structure correctly, one of the  guys who has to actually fight. Notice that he mentions how well his troops were able to enact the strategy drawn up by their new advisor?”

“Yes,” Queen Marie said. “This advisor sounds quite exceptional. We would have learned of them sooner had we known our forces possessed such a genius.”

“I don’t think your forces do,” Jyl said. “Not before today, and not in an official capacity anyways.”

“Who is this genius of who you speak then?” Queen Marie asked.

“Do you notice who’s not mentioned in any of these reports?” Jyl asked. “They all speak of Queen Alari venturing into the Green Council’s mists alone. Because she was the only person there who could survive them. The thing is, she didn’t leave here alone.”

“The Queen of Paxmer?” Queen Marie said. “She’s the one leading our forces!”

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