Iana’s heart felt like it was pumping liquid confusion through her veins. Less than a day earlier she’d been swallowed up by a pure crimson certainty, righteous anger thundering in her ears as the tread of her Warbringer thundered across the land.
“The interfaces are all under your control now,” the Gallagrin Queen said. “You can do as you wish with your machine.”
Being nestled in the heart of the Warbringer held both a disquieting warmth and a comforting dread.
She shouldn’t be inside a Warbringer. Only if a sanctuary was breeched were the pilots evacuated inside their war machines, and even then only if the pilots lives were in immediate danger.
Iana’s sanctuary was more than breeched. The Gallagrin Queen had destroyed it utterly. Using the power of Iana’s own Warbringer. The destruction had been almost incidental though, a casual shortcut to facilitate their conversation. Despite that Iana’s life didn’t seem to be in immediate danger. At least not from the Gallagrin Queen.
Iana felt more unsure than she ever had in her life, but against her deepest wishes, she found herself believing the Queen’s words. Whatever else Queen Alari wanted, Iana didn’t believe the Gallagrin meant her any harm.
Which made no sense. They were enemies.
Except it was her own people who’d abandoned her. Who’d tried to kill her.
Iana had no illusions about the Stone Warriors’ attack. It had been aimed at her, and the raw flood of power they unleashed was hundreds of times more that should have been required to ensure a kill. The only reason Iana was still alive was because the Gallagrin Queen had reacted without a moment’s hesitation and had been strong enough to weather an attack that could have obliterated a hundred armored soldiers.
“You’re weapons systems are live and loaded as well,” Alari said. “We can disable them if you’d prefer, but we don’t believe a fiction that you are our prisoner will serve you as well as a real capacity to defend yourself.”
“I don’t understand this,” Iana said, testing her Warbringer’s responsiveness. A lifetime of training sent her fingers and toes flickering over the sensory vines inside the Warbringer’s command bower.
The layout was the same as the remote bower she’d been piloting the machine from but the resonance strength was profoundly greater. Good pilots talked about “becoming one” with their Warbringers when they reached a state of perfect focus and synch with their living machines. Sitting inside the plant machine though provided such a direct and unfiltered connection to its systems that Iana felt herself slipping deeply enough into the Warbringer’s senses she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to part from it again.
“There is very little to understand,” Alari said. “You have your machine restored to you. You are free to leave with it, attack us, stay here, or to travel with us. We would advise against attacking us, but if the Council requires such a show of loyalty we will not hold your actions against you. We are well aware of the unreasonable demands those in authority can place on young girls.”
“I don’t understand why you’re letting me go,” Iana said. The weapon systems tested out as fully functional. Which was an even greater mystery. She couldn’t picture why she wasn’t dead. The Gallagrin Queen was an enemy. The moment she found Iana’s bower Iana should have been vaporized. Dagmauru, Iana’s closest mentor, had ordered her to burn. The flames should have taken her, reducing her body to ash and sending her spirit to the Wintering Green. She should have been dead, but she wasn’t because some pillar of her world was broken. Something she knew as a certainty wasn’t right.
“We are not enemies,” Alari said. “Even under the current circumstance, Gallagrin claims no animosity towards the Green Council.”
“You attacked us!” Iana said, amorphous confusion boiling into anger then bursting as she spoke into chilly fear.
“Let us call that non-verbal negotiation,” Alari said. “If we intended to attack the Green Council, our tactics would have been very different.”
“What do you want me to do?” Iana asked, choking back a sob as her emotions threatened to overwhelm the dams of professionalism her mentors had disciplined into her.
“Help us,” Alari said. “Show us what you’ve seen. Walk with us and let us see your realm as you see it. We refuse to judge and act from a position of ignorance. We need your story to understand the story of the Green Council and why events have led us to this place.”
“Really? You don’t want anymore than that?” Iana asked. “You have so much power, and you’ve fought on the same side as Senkin. How can I believe that this isn’t a trick to help them conquer us?”
“We cannot reason you into believing in us,” Alari said. “Any argument we make would allow for counter-arguments. We can ask for your trust however, and for the opportunity to show you who we are.”
Iana felt her world reeling under her feet. The Queen’s words weren’t anything profound. There was no magic spell wrapped within them. Somehow though they upset so many long held belief that Iana felt like she was in danger of falling off the world if she believed them.
But believing seemed so right too. Maybe it was the residual terror at almost dying in flames. Maybe it was gratitude for being spared the Stone Warriors’ wrath. Maybe it was as simple as the Queen demanding nothing and offering only respect.
“Ok,” Iana said. “I’ll take you there. Everyone should know what Senkin did.”
“Thank you,” Alari said and, with a single light step, leapt up to the Warbringer’s shoulder.
With her passenger sitting comfortably, Iana began to plod towards the last place she ever wanted to revisit.
They’d traveled no more than a few dozen yards before the next of the Council’s attacks descended on them. A flight of Razor Crows, each bearing a vial of Demon Bile, swooped down from the clouds, their wings slicing through the wind faster than any natural bird could manage.
Instinctively, Iana readied the Warbringer’s defenses. She was under attack. Panic and confusion were no longer useful. Calculations were required. With practiced efficiency Iana determined how far out she could intercept the attacks and how close the birds needed to get before the Demon Bile would be effective.
She didn’t like the answer to either question. The birds were moving so fast that they could slip by all but the closest of her defenses and the Demon Bile would enter an effective dispersal range long before then. Barring phenomenal luck, Iana knew that her Warbringer was seconds away from being dissolved into a large puddle of goo.
As she jerked away from the birds to buy time though Iana saw the phenomenal luck she needed manifest directly in the crows path. From nowhere a storm of serrated daggers appeared, tearing upwards as though hurled by a legion of giants with immeasurable strength..
Pact Knights are able to call forth weapons and armor. Pact Queens were apparently able to call forth entire armories when they desired.
The hail of enchanted daggers spun through the Razor Crows like a tornado, reducing the magical birds to a cloud of feathers and viscera. The force that accompanied the daggers blew the crow remains and the Demon Bile back in the direction they’d been traveling, on an arc that took them safely away from Iana’s Warbringer.
“It would be agreeable if your commanders would cease trying to kill you,” Alari said.
“Maybe they were after you?” Iana said.
“They’ve seen me blow back their forces across the space of a mile,” Alari said, switching to common speech. “I don’t think a flock of birds would strike them as a likely assault force.”
“Yeah,” Iana said. “I’m not sure what we could throw at you that would work.”
“I’m sure they have something in mind,” Alari said. “If they believed I was unstoppable, they’d send everything they have at me now. This feels more like they waiting for me to exhaust the magic I carry as much as possible before they put their real forces into action.”
“How do you know that?” Iana asked.
“I don’t,” Alari said. “It’s just how I think a smart opponent would react. Idiots can be dangerous, since they’re difficult to predict, but their efforts don’t tend to build on each other like an intelligent adversary’s work does.”
“Is that something you have to worry about as Queen?” Iana asked.
“Most days, yes,” Alari said.
“Have you been Queen all your life?” Iana asked, not clear on how Gallagrin ranks worked. It had never been an element that was important enough for her mentors to touch on.
“No, when I was born I was just a princess,” Alari said.
“How did you get to be Queen then?” Iana asked.
“I ripped my father’s head off his shoulders,” Alari said, speaking as though it was a more common subject than the weather to talk about.
“Is that how the rulers of Gallagrin are selected?” Iana asked, puzzled at the kind of realm that would allow for such a barbaric transfer of power.
“Not usually,” Alari said. “How about you? Have you been a Warbringer pilot all of your life?”
“No, it takes a long time to qualify,” Iana said. “We spend years practicing before they let us connect to even the training models.”
“You seem to be something of a prodigy,” Alari said. “How long have you held a command rank?”
“I was groomed to be a leader early on,” Iana said.
“That couldn’t have been easy,” Alari said. “Fulfilling and exciting I would imagine, but never easy.”
The Gallagrin Queen spoke with notes of longing and wistfulness painting her words to reflect a time long ago. Despite the chasm between them, Iana felt an echo of familiarity in the mix of emotions.
“They always ask for so much,” Iana said. “And I get why. We have to make sure we can handle everyone’s problems not just our own, but sometimes you just want a break.”
“Five minutes away from the world. Ten minutes where no one can find you,” Alari said. “Somedays those would be worth a pot of gold.”
“I always wanted a coin I could give people that would say ‘Solve it Yourself’ so i could pay them to go away,” Iana said.
“That’s a brilliant idea,” Alari said. “You have no idea how tempting it is to tell the royal minters to cast a hundred of them.”
“Can’t you do that?” Iana asked. “You can do anything as the queen right?”
“Not anything,” Alari said. “My nobles have direct governance of their subjects. My powers are mostly involved with arbitrating the interactions between them.”
“Can’t you just kill them if they don’t do what you want?” Iana asked.
“My father thought he could,” Alari said. “That didn’t turn out so well for him though and I’m trying not to repeat his mistakes.”
“Dagmauru says that humans don’t live long enough to develop true wisdom,” Iana said.
“The gods claimed that none of the Mindful Races had the capacity for true wisdom,” Alari said. “I think they’re both wrong though.”
“But we die so soon,” Iana said, “It’s why we’re so good at war. We don’t have as many years to save as the long lived races do.”
“Just because they’re brief on the scale of the mountains and the trees, doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless flashes in the night,” Alari said. “What we do, who we are, the people whose lives we touch? Those all matter. With each breath we change the world, and sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that matter the most in the long run.”
“Maybe that’s true for Queen’s, but I don’t think it’s the same for the rest of us,” Iana said. “I don’t matter like that.”
“Don’t you though?” Alari asked. “Right now you’re changing the world, and right now the Council is spending a lot of effort on stopping you from helping me.”
With the next step that Iana took, the ground underneath her Warbringer collapsed, sending her and Alari tumbling into a cavern that had been hastily repurposed as a pit trap.
From the walls, Iana saw a variety of the Council’s rapid strike forces pouring forth.
“Case in point,” Alari said, a blazing sword in her hands and the crescent of a dangerous smile splitting her lips.