Undine tried to sit comfortably. It should have been an easy task. The cushions on his chair would have made clouds seem harsh and overly stiff. Whatever craftsman had manufactured the royal furniture for Senkin was beyond a master of his trade. Even the fruit of so skillful an artisan though was not enough to allow for relaxation in the presence of the monarch of Senkin.
“Have you tried the mistberry tarts?” Marie Senkin asked. “The berries are harvested from our estates in the Blue Coast Hills.”
“They are exquisite Your Majesty,” Undine said. “There isn’t any chance that they can retain that wonderful sweetness over a night of transport is there?”
The Senkin Queen huffed a small laugh.
“Thinking to start an import business?” she asked.
“Only for personal use,” Undine said. “I am spoiled by the fare you provide. For as much as I love my queen, her court cannot compare to the culinary mastery yours possesses.”
Undine felt spoiled by more than the cuisine the Queen of Senkin provided. She was also bestowing an unusual amount of attention on him, the latest of which being a dinner to which only he was invited.
Dining with royalty was something Undine was prepared for. He knew the proper forms of etiquette and had mastered the basics of making harmless and charming small talk when required, so as not to upset anyone’s digestion. Those talents were largely predicated around being in a group setting though. Having a monarch’s full and undivided attention was an arena Undine had never expected to find himself in.
“We are glad our people excel in that,” Queen Marie said. “Though we must confess that the greater variety of herbs and spices which grow in our climate work in our favor.”
“The blessings of the Sleeping Gods are nothing if not varied,” Undine said. “It’s a credit to your realm that you’ve learned to do so much with them though.”
“Yes, Senkin holds many blessings,” Marie said. “The question is for how much longer they will remain ours?”
Undine placed his cutting fork and knife back beside his plate and picked up his small portions fork. He didn’t spear the next tidbit of food though, sensing he would need to be able to speak freely for a while.
Monarchs were different from other people. They held power both magical and political that only another monarch could understand the weight of. For all that though, they were still mortal. Human or Elf, Merrow or Sylph, whatever the ruler’s race, they were still prone to the frailties and insecurities that beset any other sapient being.
Marie Senkin was no different. She was many things and more powerful than Undine knew he could guess, but despite her strength and intelligence, she was also afraid.
Afraid of losing her kindgom, afraid of the suffering her subject would endure in the conflict to come. She was one of most powerful beings in the realms, but she still wasn’t strong enough to fix the problem before her on her own.
“I cannot speak for the future with certainty,” Undine said. “But I can say that Gallagrin will not stand for the destruction of any of the realms. The Council’s advance has been halted and we will see this conflict ended in a sustainable peace.”
“Yes, we have ample evidence of that desire in the insanity of your Queen’s actions so far,” Marie said.
Undine remained silent. Even in private with the Senkin Queen he couldn’t voice his support of the notion that Queen Alari’s solo trip into the Council’s realm was lunacy, however much he agreed with that appraisal.
Marie used her fork to pick up a slice of pear that had been coated in a thick raspberry sauce. Between nibbles on the sweet fruit she said, “We have been presented with a plan to assault the Council’s territory.”
“A bold move,” Undine said, wheels turning in his mind.
“Uncharacteristically so,” Marie said. “Our generals are not prone to extremes of action, or any action which could expose them to harm. And yet, one of our most sensible generals, Pentacourt chose this afternoon to present us with a plan to assemble our Grand Army and take the battle to our enemies homeland.”
Undine held off eating anything for a moment longer.
“The circumstances are unusually dire,” he said. “Perhaps General Pentacourt was pushed to unusual action by the unusual gravity of the threat before you?”
“Or perhaps he was inspired by one of our guests from Gallagrin,” Marie said. “Judging from your Queen’s actions, a direct frontal assault seems to be the sort of strategy which your realm favors.”
Undine smiled, a sliver of his confusion at being alone at dinner with the Queen of Senkin resolved. She wanted answers, and she didn’t want them clouded by what her flock of advisors might say or think. Without them around, Undine could afford to ignore the geopolitical implications of what he said since it only mattered how Marie Senkin reacted to his words, not how her advisors would expect her to react to them.
“That also seems likely,” Undine said. “I believe General Pentacourt had dinner yesterday evening with Duke Telli. I would be shocked if they didn’t speak of the state of the invasion.”
The Queen knew who her Generals were dining with. Undine was sure of that, so acknowledging it wasn’t a violation of any confidences. More importantly trying to be circumspect would have sent exactly the wrong message to Queen Marie. She wasn’t looking to punish either Duke Telli or Undine. If she was interested in that, she would have had them dragged to the dungeon as spies.
“That leaves us in the precarious position of allowing Gallagrin to rule our realm, if only indirectly,” Marie said.
“Anyone who would claim such is unworthy of gracing your presence,” Undine said. “In his role as your advisor, Pentacourt collected strategic information. That it came from a foreign Duke is a credit to his ability to draw on diverse sources of intelligence.”
“But as the source was foreign, the plan presented is necessarily flawed,” Marie said. She took a long pull from her wineglass and relaxed back into her chair, the resignation that twisted her lips the only visible sign of the turmoil that gnawed at her.
“All plans are, by virtue of attempting to predict the unpredictable future, flawed,” Undine said. “Is there a particular weakness with the plan Pentacourt presented that renders it nonviable?”
“Yes,” Marie said. “Althought it would be kinder to say it is suboptimal. That’s the most damning part of it.”
“I am certain Duke Telli would be willing to incorporate any operational intelligence he lacked when fabricating the original plan,” Undine said.
“He wouldn’t dare,” Marie said. “Not to correct this mistake. Not if he wished to remain in our good graces. And yet, curse your Queen, he must have known that. Wretched Duke.”
“What is it that Duke Telli omitted from the plan to assault the Council’s lands?” Undine asked.
“His plan is bold and reckless and daring,” Marie said. “It’s success is success in all arenas, and so its failure would be similarly complete.”
“The Duke has played for high stakes before,” Undine said. “It was his report to my commander Lady Akorli as to the treason of his father which prevented the attempted coup last fall. If she had failed to end the threat the previous Duke Telli posed, Ren and his husband would have been executed in one of our spectacularly messy fashions.”
“We are unused to such dire stakes,” Marie said. “We are not certain that our constitution is the equal of them.”
“I don’t believe anyone is equal to the tasks life puts before them,” Undine said. “The deepest trials we face are the ones where we become more than we are.”
“And yet we can never be more than we can be,” Marie said.
“No one can ever know what we can be though,” Undine said. “That is unwritten and can only be sketched from the choices we make.”
“We wish we had your youth and optimism,” Marie said.
“I wish I had your wisdom and bearing,” Undine said.
“They would ill suit you,” Marie said. “You make too fine a gentleman to be wasted on royalty.”
“Are we not all meant to aspire to the example which royalty sets for us?” Undine asked.
“Sleeping Gods, no,” Marie said. “We had the misfortune to be mistaken for a princess when we were born and so our whole life has been shaped by the duties therein, rather than the duties of the peasant girl we sometimes feel we should have been. We make a terrible role model for those who can find their happiness without the oppression of a court and realm depending on them.”
“You make me feel that I am the fortunate one among us,” Undine said.
“Born to greater freedom were you?” Marie asked.
“Ultimately yes,” Undine said. “As you were taken for a princess when you were born, I was taken for a daughter. I won’t claim that impression was easy to correct, but it was worth the effort.”
“Your family stood against you?” Marie asked.
“No, their spirits stand with me even today,” Undine said. “My adoptive family was more mixed. Pa was delighted, he’d always wished for a son to share his craft and time with. Ma took a bit longer to come around, but once we started forging my armor together we found common ground.”
“Gallagrin is the realm of transformations,” Marie said. “Couldn’t you simply magic yourself into a more accurate form?”
“I couldn’t wait until I gained a pact spirit to resolve the issue of my identity,” Undine said. “And, in truth, pact magic offers few options in that regards.”
“We were under the impression that bodily transformation was at the heart of Gallagrin’s magic,” Marie said.
“It is, but by necessity such transformations are temporary,” Undine said. “In any pact bond there is the mortal host and the spirit. During a transformation the two are fused more strongly together than at any other time. That is why it’s so important that a clear line be maintained between the two at other times.”
“So that the spirit doesn’t overwhelm its host?” Marie asked.
“So that they don’t overwhelm each other,” Undine said. “To retain our individuality, the core essence of who we are, we must maintain some separation from each other. If we merge for too long then the distinctness that defines each of us is lost. That’s what leads to Beserkers. The essence of the host and the spirit are blended together and neither has enough sense of self to exercise any restraint. Since most transformation take place on the battlefield that means the situations Berserkers finds themselves in are invariably violent and hostile, and so they react in kind.”
“So you cannot permanently transform yourself then?” Marie asked.
“Not via pact magic,” Undine said. “I am not quite as I would have been, thanks to some alchemical potions, and not quite as I would wish to be, but I am happy with who I am now, most days anyways.”
“You’ve lead an interesting life Guardian,” Marie said. “Perhaps we would have your courage if we’d be faced with such challenges.”
“You do not wish to be me, Your Majesty,” Undine said. “The world needs a Queen Marie Senkin and anyone else would be only a poor imitation.”
“A poor imitation would be appreciated at this hour,” Marie said. “Though we would not inflict this calling on anyone else, we suppose.”
“Calling Your Majesty?” Undine asked.
“Your Duke’s plan,” Marie said. “It calls for our best and strongest forces. It calls for us.”
Undine blinked and set down his fork.
“Our forces must succeed in this endeavor,” Marie said, drawing herself up in her chair and breathing in regal authority. “We will accompany them ourselves. We will follow the example of your Queen and bring the might of Senkin’s throne to bear against the forces the Council has assembled.”
Undine saw the courage that Marie thought she lacked. The Senkin Queen knew the terrible risk she was taking. She knew she would be the prime target for every Council soldier on the field. She knew she couldn’t couldn’t hide behind her troops but would have to march in front of them, blazing a path with the power she carried as she led them all into greater danger than anyone in their realm had ever faced, and yet she was going to go anyways.
“Though I am sworn to another, and though my loyalty and honor lies with Gallagrin, if you would have me, I would march at your side and defend you from all harm,” Undine said.
Marie Senkin nodded and allowed a small, willowy smile to grace her countenance.
“We would like that,” she said. “Though you are not sworn to us, we would feel our courage bolstered if you were by our side.”
“My course is chosen then,” Undine said. “Gallagrin fights against the Green Council and I fight by your side.”