The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 31

Dae braced herself before entering the assembly room. In one sense the nobles waiting for her inside were her prisoners. She held their lives in the palm of her hand, and they had already witnessed proof that their noble standing wouldn’t be enough to spare their necks if she was driven to move against them.

In another sense though, she was at their mercy. Their realm was being invaded, and it was on Dae’s shoulders to not only prevent that, but to turn the tide around so that Alari’s plans could run their course. Alone, Dae didn’t have the power to make that happen. Even if her bond with Kirios was healed and she could transform at will, the movements of the realms were simply too broad for her stand against alone.

The worst part was that the nobles knew that. The good ones, the bad ones, even the ones who didn’t want to be involved with realm-level disputes at all, all of them were looking to the meeting Dae called to see what they could get out of her.

As she stepped through the central doors to the Grand Assembly room, Dae felt a stab of concern lance through her. There were so many missteps she could make. So many different possibilities for how she could fail Alari. She could even win the war, but trade away so much in doing so that Gallagrin would tumble down into ruin anyways.

“All Rise for the Queen’s Voice,” the Grand Seneschal called out. The door to the hall closed softly behind Dae, with a hush that had the finality of the closing of a coffin lid.

The last time she’d stood before the assembled nobles of Gallagrin, she’d been flooded with enough rage to render her immune to their stares. With a cooler heart came the flush of self-consciousness though and her trip to the throne left her more unraveled than composed, despite her careful breathing.

The assembled Dukes and Duchesses sat in their familiar spots ringing the throne. None of them were directly behind her though. For as foolish as they were, Gallagrin’s nobles weren’t stupid enough to try to claim that level of unfettered trust under the circumstances.

“None of you want to be here, do you?” Dae asked as she sat down. She’d considered a variety of clever openings, elaborate traps of words and wit that she could fence Gallagrin’s elite in with. One by one she rejected each of them though. Political stratagems were not her weapons, and if she came to battle with them, she would be out fought in seconds by those who’d mastered the Noble’s Stage long before she’d been born.

Instead, she chose to be blunt. It was the tool she was most experienced with and one which she knew they would never expect.

“Our stay has been longer than anticipated,” Duchess Harli said,speaking up before the others could reply. It was a tactful and non-committal answer, which was one of the many choices Dae foresaw the noble’s making.

“Have you come to your sense about releasing us,” Duke Varsli asked. “Some of us at least that is?”

Varsli had been one of Alari’s staunchest supporters, but when Sanli put out the call to challenge Alari for her throne, Varsli had been silent in response.

In some cases the silence of Alari’s supporters had been due to physical coercion. Ren Telli and Duchess Harli were an examples where Sanli’s supporters had locked them away from the meeting room so that their voices wouldn’t be cast against her plan.

For other supporters though, like Varsli, the coercion had been less bold. Silent threats, for example, were effective against parents with child who were in exposed situations. The credibility of Sanli’s claim to the throne was backed up by the extensive research she and her allies did into the other nobles of the realm. For a large number of them, the levers to push were obvious to those without scruples or restraint. The key simply lay in pushing them in the correct order and at the right pace so that the weak fell under her influence first and, by the time Alari’s strongest supporters were contacted, Sanli’s cabal was riding a tide of unwilling support that made her victory seem inevitable.

“Or are you here to slaughter us all at last?” Duke Zendli asked.

Zendli belonged to a third class of noble. He had backed Alari throughout the civil war, hoping to emerge among the rich and powerful at its completion. When Alari refused to allow her supporters the right to plunder their defeated neighbors though, his loyalty had shifted. Not to the opposition of course. He still despised them for backing King Sathe, to whom he’d lost both of his sons. That hatred had not secured his affection for Alari though, so when the time came to support her again, he found silence a perfectly welcome state.

“Is that what you want?” Dae asked. “It would be the simplest path forward wouldn’t it?”

“You can’t kill us,” Duke Linli said. “You don’t have the power or the authority.”

Linli was the last class of noble, and the least in Dae’s mind. His loyalty was to those who opposed Alari at every turn. Though there wasn’t much proof concerning the members or the working on Duchess Sanli’s cabal, Dae was certain than Linli had joined her early and had campaigned for her cause with all of his influence and cunning.

Reaching back into her earliest discipline drills, Dae managed to remain still and calm. Linli was the worst of a bad lot, but there were many tied with him for that title.

Dae understood why Alari didn’t want to murder her nobles, why she’d taken great pains to offer reconciliation to even those most adamantly opposed to her. She understood, but she didn’t share the sentiment. Linli and those like him couldn’t be swayed by kind words or a forgiving heart. They lived to hate, and in their hate, they could do real and permanent harm.

A younger Dae would have known the answer to the riddle they posed. How to deal with those who could and would harm you at any opportunity without becoming as bad as they were? The Dae from as recent as the previous fall would have said the answer lay in the edge of a blade.

One quick cut, drawn in defense of those who would be harmed by the raging malevolence of Linli and his fellow disciples of unreasoning hate. It was such an easy, seductive image to picture. No more insults, no more lies, no more taunts and jeers. Every stupid, hurtful utterance silenced at last. The world a better place for their absence from it.

The Dae who sat before the assembled nobles though held a different view. Fear of what Linli could do to her was something she could dismiss with ease. He was an awful, evil man, but he held no power over her, and she wasn’t going to let his malevolence twist her decisions. He wasn’t that scary.

In the fight with Haldraxan, she’d faced fear beyond reason, beyond the capacity for a soul to endure and she’d come out, if not intact, then at least functional. Her triumph, she knew, didn’t lay in any superhuman reserves of will or wisdom, but rather in the fact that even standing before Haldraxan without anyone else one the battlefield, she hadn’t been standing alone.

“You are mistaken as to the Lady Akorli’s capabilities,” Faen Kemoral said. “I believe we have seen ample demonstration of that last fall. In fact, I believe there’s still some evidence on the high pillars that the grounds crew has not been able to clean off yet.”

“If she touches one hair on any of our heads, there will be war again,” Linli said.

Dae sat up to her full height. Mixed feeling stirred in her chest. Part of her relished what was to come, gleeful that Linli had given her an excuse to act against him. He was an idiot, but an influential one, though that was about to end.

Another part of her though was concerned. Everything would have been so much smoother and more beneficial to all if the nobles would put aside their jockeying for power for a single minute and worked towards everyone’s mutual benefit.

With a small sigh, Dae reflected that this had been Alari’s life for years. Struggling to steal small victories out of the jaws of idiocy.

“Our capacity is of less importance than our intention, Duke Linli, but know that you have misjudged both of them today,” Dae said, slipping into her best formal speech as she felt the mantle of Alari’s authority settle over her. “You, all of you, are here at the queen’s sufferance. You imagine her the equal of her father and expect treatment from her as you would expect from him. You, all of you who think that, are fools. The Queen is far more than her father ever was. Far more kind, and, for appointing me to oversee your fates, far more cruel.”

A wave of murmuring swept through the crowd, but no one made the mistake of interrupting Dae, guessing that such a faux pas could have fatal consequences.

“Monelle Linli, step forward,” Dae said, addressing the young woman who stood behind  the Duke of Linli.

Monelle wore an expression caught halfway between a scowl and a trembling frown. Many of the family members of the Dukes and Duchesses were present in support of their parents or children. Monelle was typical among them, though the distance she placed between herself and the Duke of Lin suggested an unwillingness to be associated with her father. Dae allowed that to kindle a spark of hope.

“Monelle, eldest daughter of the Linli family, has your father named an heir to his seat yet?” Dae asked.

“Don’t ask her,” Duke Linli said. “You can’t threaten her. You can’t threaten any of us. You have nothing here. We own this realm. We own you.”

“Answer the question Monelle,” Dae said, ignoring the Duke’s outburst.

“He has not,” Monelle said. By proper form she should have included an honorific in there as well, but Dae was willing to let it slide given that the girl clearly thought she was facing an execution.

“Would you see the Duke of Lin live?” Dae asked.

The room went silent awaiting Monelle’s answer.

“I will not…” Duke Linli began, but his daughter interrupted him.

“Yes. He should live,” she said quickly. She was visibly shaking with, what Dae took to be, anxiety over what her request was going to cost her.

“We acknowledge your choice,” Dae said. “Place your hand on his forehead.”

“Why?” Monelle asked.

“Shut up, you don’t do anything she says,” Duke Linli said.

“Place your hand on his forehead,” Dae said again, making eye contact with Monelle and offering the girl a small, reassuring nod.

Monelle blinked and then did as she was instructed. Her father tried to slap her hand away, but Faen drew his sword and dimpled the flesh at the Duke’s throat to insist on the nobleman’s compliance.

“Duke Olgovauld Linli, you are charged with sedition and treason,” Dae said. “In lieu of a trial, the throne forgives these charges, and releases you from the threat of capital punishment for them. Let all know that your service to Gallagrin has been seen and is valued.”

Stunned confusion greeted Dae’s words, even from Faen who she’d discussed the handling of the nobles with at length.

“You have also given insult to the throne however, both in deed and in word, and given insult to those of your domain and the domains of your peers,” Dae continued. “In this matter, we shall act as the final arbiter and pronounce our judgement.”

Wide eyed panic graced more than a few faces as the collected nobles prepared to witness a gory spectacle. Duke Linli didn’t share their opinion however and greeted Dae’s words with crimson faced rage.

“Duke Olgovauld Linli, you are unfit to serve this throne. We do hereby strip you of your title and lands. We cast you from this court, never to return, on pain of mortal consequence. Lastly, we break the bond which ties you to your family’s Pact Spirit and name Monelle Linli as the new Duchess of Lin, with all the lands, right and privileges thereof,  as well as being the new bearer of the Lin Pact Spirit. All hail Duchess Linli.”

The nobles gazed at the young girl who was literally glowing with newly invested authority and magic, and at the unconscious form of the former Duke of Lin who’d been overwhelmed by the shattering of his power on all levels.

“Nobles of Gallagrin, this is the judgment we lay upon you,” Dae said, rising from the throne. “You have failed your queen, you have failed each other, but for all that, you have not yet failed this realm. For all of the internal strife we so love to engage in, in our hearts we all know one thing to be true; for as bad as we are, our neighbors are a thousand times worse. So today, as Gallagrin stands in peril, this last choice is before you. Stand with us, with our realm, or stand aside and let someone more fitting rule in your place.”

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