Alari rode on the Warbringer’s right shoulder, her high perch giving her as much visibility as the thick forest they moved through would allow. Thanks to the Gallagrin Pact Spirit, she had stronger and richer senses than anything else that walked in the enchanted woods, but she knew that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to alert her to the next attack the Green Council sent against them.
Since they began their trek, Alari and Iana had faced a flight of murder birds, a deadfall into a pit filled with a variety of subterranean enemies and a river that rose up on its own and tried to drown them. None of the attacks had been announced, and none of the ambushes had gone well for the Council’s forces.
Each cost Alari some of the magic she carried, but, for as formidable as their assailants were, the Council had yet to bring a serious threat onto the game board.
“I don’t understand why they’re blocking me out,” Iana said, the Warbringer rendering her voice into a bass so deep it shook the trees they were passing back. “They’re supposed to trust me to make decisions. Why aren’t they trusting me on this?”
The plant giant swatted a pair of trees with enough force to reduce them to kindling.
“You were afraid I would corrupt you,” Alari said, “That’s likely what they’re afraid of too.”
Alari leaned against the Warbringer’s head, allowing herself a moment of real fatigue. Banishing the weakness of her human form with Gallagrin’s magic was perfectly possible, but conserving her strength wasn’t a bad thing either. With Gallagrin’s help Alari could have lived free from pain or the need for rest, but doing so came with a price. To live as a human, meant to experience human weaknesses. Some of the past monarchs of Gallagrin had ignored that and become cold and removed as time went on, their empathy for their people withering as their power insulated them from the struggles that beset those they ruled. Alari knew she couldn’t afford to be fully human under the present circumstances, but her designs were forged, in part, from her empathy. The ability to understand and care for others wasn’t a weakness in her hands, but rather the most dangerous weapon she possessed and she knew she couldn’t afford to let it grow too dulled from disuse.
“But you’re not doing that, and from what Dagmauru said it should be stupid to worry about that,” Iana said. “Our magic is deeper and stronger than yours. Even if you could enchant me, the Council is supposed to be protected. From everything.”
“No one’s protected from everything,” Alari said. “But I’m sure their defenses are formidable. Certainly beyond any enchantments I could cast. That’s not Gallagrin’s speciality.”
The Warbringer’s rolling gait wasn’t the most comfortable transport Alari had ever taken, but it was relaxing nonetheless. The big problems, the ones that faced the realms in general, she was moving through the heart of them, but her die was already cast. The temptation to keep trying to do more was hard to fight, but she had to comfort herself that some steps in her scheme had to be given time to play out. The other realms needed the opportunity to see what was happening and to react to it.
For the realms which didn’t have a border in the conflict, like the Sunlost Isles or Authzang, those reactions would be slow and carefully considered. The world was changing and, until people had a sense of what the new rules were, no one in power would be overly anxious to risk their positions by moving too quickly.
“Hmm, is that why I’m doing this?” Alari didn’t mean to speak her thoughts aloud but they slipped out before she noticed them flittering over her lips.
“You’re try to learn to how to enchant people?” Iana asked, confused by unspoken the change of context.
“No, I was just wondering if I’m here because I don’t want to be queen anymore,” Alari said. It was a thought that had bubbled close to surface hundreds of times but when she’d always managed to avoid paying too much attention to it.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be queen? You’re so powerful!” Iana asked, the steps of the Warbringer slowing as she twisted to see Alari and read her expression.
“I never wanted to be powerful,” Alari said. “I just didn’t want the wrong people to be in charge and the only choice I thought I had was to take over myself since there wasn’t anyone else who could do the job.”
“What about now?” Iana asked.
“That’s the question I’m asking myself,” Alari said.
“That doesn’t sound like a leader,” Iana said. “Dagmauru taught us that we had to project strength and confidence no matter what we faced. If someone who’s following us sees that we’re hurt or scared or weak, they’ll lose their faith that we can make things ok.”
“That’s pretty standard leadership advice,” Alari said. “My tutors taught me the same thing. I don’t know that they had it right though. Pretending that a role is effortless, or that you’re not afraid of terrifying situations is a lie, and when the shell of lies breaks you’re left in a worse position that if you’d been honest all along. ”
“That sounds nice but running scared in battle will lead to people being killed,” Iana said.
“It depends which direction you’re running,” Alari said. “Run towards the enemy, even when you’re full of fear, even when your troops know you’re full of fear, but they can see you rising above it? That can be one of the most powerful forms of leadership.”
“It’s easier if you don’t feel the fear at all,” Iana said, her voice dropping to a whisper.
Alari narrowed her eyes.
“Did Dagmauru give you elixirs to help with that?” she asked.
“Not for me. For some of the weaker recruits, yes,” Iana said. “Leaders are allowed to tap into the Deep Roots through.”
“What are those?” Alari asked.
“They’re how we communicate,” Iana said. “In battle we commune with the Elder Thanes and draw on their courage and strength. It’s still hard, but with their strength directing us it’s a little easier.”
“When they commune with you are they offering encouragement or do they take control of your actions,” Alari asked.
“They encourage,” Iana said. “At least, now they do. Most of the time.”
“When do they take your control of yourself away?” Alari asked.
“When we’re not doing what they want us to,” Iana said.
“That may be why they’re not letting you contact them,” Alari said.
“Why? I didn’t do anything wrong,” Iana said.
“No,” Alari said. “They did. And if they try to take control of you again, I’m likely to do something politically unwise about it.”
“But I don’t want to lose my command,” Iana said, stopping the Warbringer. “You’re going to talk the other realms into backing us and they’ll see that I’m still loyal.”
“I’m going to tell the realms what Senkin did,” Alari said. “I don’t know things will turn out after that. Not exactly. I just know that the next steps the realms take have to be built on the truth. Without that we’re going to fall apart.”
“Would that be so bad?” Iana asked. “Senkin’s terrible, Gallagrin’s bad enough that you don’t want to be queen of it, and all the rest of the realms are worse than that.”
“So burn it all then?” Alari asked. “Even your troops? Even your friends?”
“No,” Iana said. “They haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Neither have you. But if the realms fall apart, they’ll suffer with the rest of us just the same. That’s the problem with letting things fall apart,” Alari said. “Everything’s connected. If Senkin burns it’s going to affect Gallagrin, and Sunlost and even the Council, no matter how isolated you try to be. There’s a better way though.”
“What’s that?” Iana asked.
“We work together,” Alari said. “Even with all the power I’m carrying, I can’t do something as simple as take a walk in these woods and get to where I need to be. That’s all on you.”
“But that doesn’t count, it’s too simple,” Iana said.
“Nothing’s too simple to count,” Alari said. “And talking with me? That proves you’re braver than anyone on the Green Council. They didn’t foresee that I’d bring Gallagrin’s power into the their domain like this. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re half terrified trying to figure out what I really plan to do here and half ecstatic about the opportunity my being here offers them. If they had an ounce of your courage, they’d be demanding a meeting with me rather than desperately trying to keep me isolated from them.”
“What can you do to them though?” Iana asked.
“Talk to them, and then tell the other monarchs of the realms the truth of what they’ve done,” Alari said.
“Why would they be afraid of that?” Iana asked.
“That’s an excellent question,” Alari said. “I didn’t expect it to be, but based on their behavior, I have to guess the answer is something worse than treating people how they treated you.”
“What’s wrong with how they treated me?” Iana asked. “They always provided for me.”
“For your body, yes,” Alari said. “But turning children into weapons is the kind of behavior the other realms won’t be comfortable with endorsing.”
“I’m not a child,” Iana said and Alari could hear each of Iana’s ten years striving to back up that assertion.
“That’s the problem,” Alari said. “They stole that time from you.”
“But humans have such short lifespans, if we’re not trained early we barely live long enough to do anything useful at all,” Iana said.
Hearing the desperation in Iana’s voice, an odd thought occurred to Alari.
“We’re not quite that transient,” Alari said. “How old do you think I am?”
“Twelve?” Iana’s guess was met with instant laughter from Alari. “No? Well how old are you then?”
“Over twice that,” Alari said. “And I should easily live more than double my current years, and hopefully even double that again.”
“That’s impossible,” Iana said. “That’s long enough to watch trees grow. No humans live that long.”
“How long do you think humans live?” Alari asked.
“Between twelve and thirteen years,” she said. “Beyond that we change and our senses dim so we can’t be Warbringer pilots anymore. That’s when we go to the Wintering Green and wait to be reborn into a new life.”
“When I was twelve, I started to change,” Alari said. “My father was well into his madness by then, and so my caretakers were growing more distant. I had no idea what was happening until…until Dae found out for me.”
“Who was Dae?” Iana asked.
“She was my best friend,” Alari said. “She was the one who kept me sane, who kept me myself.”
“What happened to her?” Iana asked.
“I made a terrible mistake and let her go away,” Alari said. “I thought it was the right thing to do for her.”
“But it wasn’t?” Iana asked.
“I don’t know,” Alari said. “She learned a lot, and I learned a lot, but we were both miserable.”
“So what did you do?” Iana asked.
“Well, I got thrown off a castle and she came to rescue me, and aside from silly things like invading foreign realms, we’ve been together ever since,” Alari said.
“Do you love her?” Iana asked.
“More than my heart can bear,” Alari said. “She’s what I’m doing all this for. She’s why I have to make this world a better place.”
“I wish I had someone like that,” Iana said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world quite like my Adae,” Alari said. “But there may be someone who could be to you what she is to me. That’s the world I’m willing to fight for; one where you can find that person.”
“But what if they banish me?” Iana asked. “They’ve cut me off from the Roots. What if I’m cut off from everything? What if I have nowhere to live anymore?”
“The ones who cut you off have something to hide,” Alari said. “I promise you that we’ll bring it to light. You will have your home back when this is done even if I need to depose those who would keep you from it with my own hands.”
For a brief moment, the ghostly echo of royal blood ran down Alari’s hands, giving the sickle of her smile a terrifying finality.