Iana didn’t find reading easy. The tight wiggly marks that Gallagrin used for its standard script had none of the grace or clear imagery of the Green Council’s basic symbol set. It hurt her eyes to stare at them for hours at a time, but she was used to pain and used to pushing her limits. That someone was creeping up to stab her while she was working so hard was either a great relief, or a mild annoyance. She hadn’t decided which.
The intruder was stealthy, nearly indetectable by Gallagrin standards, but those were the standards of people who wandered around in enormous metal platemail and thought tactics like “hit them with your offhand” were true examples of subtlety.
Iana stayed focused on her text, a simple picture book fit for toddlers, but tracked her assailant by the scritching the talons on their gauntlets made on the stone as they maneuvered onto the ceiling directly above where Iana was sitting.
It was a good spot to attack from. From directly above, the movement as they dropped down onto her wouldn’t catch Iana’s attention. If the attack was executed well, Iana would die before she was aware she was in the slightest danger. Merciful and sensible. Iana appreciated the effort and diligence the attacker showed, despite their ineptitude at actual stealth. That they were trying to kill her would have been frightening if she wasn’t used to the attempts from their frequent repetition. Her certainty of surviving the attempt was fueled by that same level of well worn experience.
She’d been a Princess of Gallagrin for a little over a year and in that time, she’d survived over a dozen attempts on her life. That was due in part to the diligence of her adopted family, in part to the care and talent of the people assigned to guard her, and in part because whoever was sending the assassins didn’t seem to be interested in actually harming her.
The attackers always arrived bent on mayhem but they never came equipped with sufficient tools to enact the violence they attempted. Instead they had, to the last, been outfitted exceptionally well for quick escapes.
Alari (Iana was still working on attaching ‘Queen’ before her name, something daily and informal contact made increasingly difficult) explained that the attempts were a message from one, or more, of the nobles. The attackers left subtle clue pointing towards various noble houses of Gallagrin. Nowhere near enough for Alari to bring the indicated Duchess or Duke to stand before her and answer charges, but enough to open questions as to their loyalty.
“Whoever’s behind this is testing me,” Alari had said. “Trying to see where I’m likely to break and against whom.”
She’d promised to reinforce the guard, and move the princesses and princes to a safer location, but Iana had spoken with her fellow heirs to the throne. Gallagrin was a foreign realm and, despite it’s monarch’s kindness, the group of Ex-Green Council Warbringer pilots felt safest staying together and staying near Alari’s sheltering influence.
That kept them in the royal castle and Iana’s insistence kept the guards and protections at a reasonable level. She didn’t want the attacks to stop, she wanted to discover who was behind them. There were sins in the world and then there was causing Alari pain or grief and Iana found herself agreeing with Dae that the latter was far worse than the former.
Thanks to Dae, the heirs were uniquely well protected too, which was part of why Iana had voted to keep them all within the castle. The sorcerous wards that Dae placed on their dwelling prevented anyone with a full Pact Spirit from entering who was not the monarch of the realm. That eliminated the truly dangerous threats and left ones like the somewhat clumsy attacker who was scuttling across the ceiling like an inebriated spider.
Iana gave them the time to get in place, using the slow minutes to try to puzzle out the next few words in her picture book. Reading was a form of magic she’d only barely been exposed to as a Warbringer commander. Her orders were all conveyed directly via the Deep Root network she’d been grafted into while she lay in her command bower. Even the readouts within the Warbringer used a pictographic symbology set that was much simpler, in Iana’s mind, than the largely arbitrary arrangement of curling lines that Gallagrin stored its information in.
If she was going to be a proper princess though, she needed to understand her newly adopted homeland and it’s history lay in books far more than it did in any oral tradition. That was why she had to master the magic of reading.
There were other perks to conquering the challenging of reading too. Alari and Dae spoke of the adventures they’d had in their youth, raiding forbidden libraries and learning all manner of esoteric things. Dae credited that as one of the foundations of the sorcery she was able to work. According to her, becoming a sorcerer had been relatively straight forward, being able to work magic effectively was something else entirely though.
Iana didn’t expect that she would ever manage to cast spells like Dae did. Privately, she didn’t think she would ever really merit the title of ‘Princess’ either, but she liked challenges, especially ones which helped her understand her world better.
She’d worked out the fifth word on the page when she heard the distinctive scrap of metal talons sliding free of the stone they gripped. The poor assassin would have starved in the forests of the Green Council with an ambush technique as bad as that, she thought as she rolled away and drew the enchanted dagger Dae had gifted her with.
Halfway through her roll, she heard a cry of dismay ring out from her attacker. The beauty of falling was that it was reasonably silent, very quick and generated a lot of force behind the initial blow the attacker struck. There was, however, the slight problem that once you began falling it was exceedingly difficult to change your path unless you had wings.
As her attacker was not a fully bonded Pact Knight, wings were pretty much out of the question, which meant that instead of a nice soft Iana-body to break their fall, they got to meet the stone floor of the library that Iana had been sitting in at full falling speed.
Falls are funny things. Iana had seen creatures make and survive all manner of drops, some intentional, some not. One of the common elements though was that landing on something other than what you planned to was never a fun experience.
Neither was having an enchanted dagger pressed to the unarmored flesh of your throat while you tried to recover from the pain and disorientation of cracking bones against an unyielding surface.
“Standard protocol when dealing with hostile enemies calls for immediate termination to ensure the health and safety of all members of the command unit,” Iana said, citing the Green Council regulations that had been drilled into her head from the time language had meaning to her.”
“Go ahead and kill me,” the girl who tried to assassinate Iana said.
“If the situation allows it, the commander in charge of the scene may choose to use the hostile as a baiting mechanism to draw out additional enemies,” Iana said. “Regulations suggest maiming the hostile in a manner that renders them permanently harmless and will elicit sympathy from any allies they might have is the most efficacious method of proceeding in most cases. Typically removal of the eyes is sufficient to accomplish this goal.”
The girl startled at that and tried to break free. Iana had expected her reaction and removed the knife from the girl’s throat before the assassin could managed to inadvertently slash herself on its edge.
A bracelet on the girl’s arm glowed a orange-red, like the center of a forge, and pulled her from Iana’s grasp. The primary escape provision had been deployed.
Iana slashed the metal bracelet off without harming a hair on the girl’s wrist.
Enchanted daggers were wonderful tools when they were enchanted properly.
The girl’s necklace glowed silver-blue next, the secondary escape provision deploying jagged wings that tried to lift the girl into the air.
Those fell by her side, sliced from the necklace in a single stroke.
The escape options defeated, necklace changed it’s glow from a soft blue-white light to a deep green one.
In less than an instant it too lay on the ground. Iana severed it before the necklace was able to do more than constrict the girl’s throat and leave a shallow crease behind. As it lay on the ground, the necklace finished it’s constriction and wound up the size of one of Gallagrin’s smaller coins.
Iana frowned. None of the previous assassin’s had been slain by their tools but none of them had come close to being captured either. The assassin’s handlers hadn’t made a serious play against Iana’s life but they seemed quite willing to terminate their agents rather than risk exposure.
“My teachers taught me never to show mercy to an enemy, never to expose myself to peril unless it was absolutely necessary,” Iana said.
“Why did you cut the necklace off then?” the girl asked, her glare filled with what Iana could only read as unbridled rage.
“Because my teachers were wrong,” Iana said. “They betrayed me the same as your masters just betrayed you.”
“I wasn’t betrayed,” the girl said. “I’d rather die than tell you anything. I wore that necklace on purpose!”
“They betrayed you when they sent you to kill me,” Iana said. “They knew they hadn’t given you the tools you needed and they sent you anyways.”
“That’s a lie, just like all your other lies,” the girl said.
“Do you know how many they’ve sent before you?” Iana asked. “They know very well what won’t work, and yet they’re not sending anyone better equipped to do the job. Why do you think that is?”
“I could have done it.You just got lucky!” the girl said.
Iana pulled the girl to her feet, and put away the enchanted dagger.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked.
“Try,” Iana said.
“If you can kill me, then try.”
The girl hesitated and Iana swept her off her feet, knocking her to the ground before stepping a pace away and gesturing for the girl to rise.
For their next exchange neither held back. The girl lunged upward, aiming a clawed hand at Iana’s throat and trying to overbear her at the same time.
That didn’t go well for the girl. Iana didn’t have pact spirit reflexes, strength, or toughness. What she did have was training in hand-to-hand combat since before she could walk. Warbringers were biologic machines of vast power, but their combat skill stemmed from their driver’s capabilities and strengths and Iana had been one of the best the Council had.
After three more attempts the girl remained seating. Her shoulders drooping and her head bowed.
“You weren’t meant to succeed. You were meant to try and escape,” Iana said.
“No! I was meant to send a message,” the girl said.
“What was the message?” Iana asked. “All these times, none of you have ever said why it is you are doing this. How does my death serve your needs?”
“You corrupted the queen and you’re going to corrupt Gallagrin!” the girl said. “Gallagrin’s spirit can never be held in the hands of a foreigner!”
“What is your name?” Iana asked.
“Yuehne,” the girl said.
“And how did I corrupt the Queen?” Iana asked.
“You ensorcelled her with your blasphemous magic and forced her to accept you as her heir when your invasion failed!” Yuehne said.
“Who told you that?” Iana asked.
“Everyone knows it’s true,” Yuehne said.
“”Who’s everyone?” Iana asked. “General Kemoral doesn’t think it’s true. Dae doesn’t think it’s true. Am I supposed to have ensorcelled the strongest spell caster in the world? Is my magic stronger than a god’s?”
“The Sorceress is in league with the Green Council! The whole war was a lie,,” Yuehne said.
“You were there? You know what we fought?” Iana asked.
“It was all for show,” Yuehne said.
Iana thought back and remembered the sensation of a god’s fury raging around her. She thought of the soul numbing dread she felt when her Warbringer was drained by the Blighted Legion. She thought of the repeated and sincere assassination attempts Dagmauru had made on her life.
Wordlessly, she pulled the shoulder of her tunic down to reveal the residual scars from where the flame beetles had tried to incinerate her.
“Is this for show?” she asked. “They tried to murder me too. My superior and his allies in the Council. They tried to burn me alive when I became inconvenient for them.”
Yuehne stared at the melted flesh on Iana’s shoulder.
“I was caught, helpless in my command bower,” Iana said. “I couldn’t move. No matter how hard I struggled. Vines were grown into me and the beetles had their orders. Alari saved me from that.”
Iana pointed to the small pock marked areas on her arms and neck, the last visible markers of the interface points that she used to be connected to her Warbringer by.
“I foreswore my realm for her because of what she did for me,” Iana said. “So think whatever evil you wish of me, I don’t care, but do not think less of her. Ever.”
“She shouldn’t be giving Gallagrin to a foreigner,” Yuehne said.
“I have no realm, so this is my home as much as any other,” Iana said. “I can never return to the Green Council’s domain, not after what they did to me. But I also know I’m not fit to bear the Spirit of Gallagrin and when the time comes I am sure it will choose to pass to a worthy successor instead.”
“But you’re the Princess,” Yuehne said. “You’re the heir!”
“Alari only did that to show people that we were under her protection,” Iana said.
“She didn’t protect you from me.”
“I asked her not to,” Iana said. “I knew if we let your people keep trying we’d catch one of you eventually.”
“I won’t turn on them,” Yuehne said.
“I won’t ask you to,” Iana said. “I want to know what you want. What convinced you that I should die.”
“It’s not about you,” Yuehne said. “It’s about maintaining the purity of our realm.”
“I’ve heard that argument all my life,” Iana said.
“It’s how the gods designed us,” Yuehne said. “It’s why you’re an abomination.”
Iana let a bitter chuckle escape her lips.
“I’ve spoken with a god, and seen what a true abomination is,” Iana said. “Abominations are born from fearing and hating others. We…I have done terrible things from fear and hatred.”
“But they still made you a Princess.”
“What if I wasn’t?” Iana asked. “What if I left here with you.”
After a year of listening to Alari and Dae’s tales, Iana was able to recognize when a mad plan had gripped her mind, but, thanks to the example they set, incapable of resisting it.
“Why?” Yuehne asked. “I mean why would you do that?”
“I have a lot to learn about Gallagrin, and I’m not going to learn it here in the castle,” Iana said. “And you have a lot to learn about me.”