Yuehne wasn’t sleepy in the slightest but she climbed into the giant hostel’s oversized bed and pushed back the mountain of sheets and blankets that lay on it.
It had been hours since most of the people she’d traveled to the giant’s aerie with had departed to investigate a warren in the depths of the earth. The Faenirel wanted to see what sort of death trap the elven leader of the Queen’s Guard was proposing for their new home and somehow the group had garnered enough collective wisdom to determine that bringing the Princess they were trying to protect along wouldn’t be a wise move.
Yuehne didn’t see how leaving Iana with her assassin was a wiser move, until Pelay, the other Queen’s Guard offered to stay behind and ensure that Iana was properly protected. The presence of a full Pact Knight terminated all of the plans that Yuehne could bring to mind. The presence of that particular Pact Knight was even worse though. Even with significantly greater resources at her disposal, Yuehne wasn’t sure there would be any viable options for finishing her mission. Pelay seemed more than half enchanted even when outside her pact armor, and Yuehne wasn’t at all sure where, or if, the Queen’s Guard’s senses ended.
Pelay never even watched Yuehne directly, but every time Yuehne edged towards Iana, Pelay was there, an inch closer, not so much blocking Yuehne from trying anything but taking up the right space to make it clear that any move against the Princess would necessitate going through her Guardian. It was done with the sort of unconscious grace that suggested a form of freakish omniscience.
Or, Yuehne tried to reassure herself, it might have just been her nerves speaking.
She’d tried to kill the Princess. She should have succeeded or died. Or both. Instead she found herself in a weird twilight state where victory hadn’t been achieved and yet neither had she failed. Not yet. Except in not-failing, she’d fallen under the power of her target who was trying to do…something with her?
“Are you sleeping?” Iana asked.
Terror shocked Yuehne’s limbs. She flew to the far side of the bed. Her heart lodged in her throat and she was only spared the need to suppress a scream because she couldn’t make any noise at all.
“I guess not,” Iana said.
The door to Yuehne’s room hadn’t opened. Iana hadn’t entered it. She’d simply appeared, like a vengeful wraith at the side of Yuehne’s bed.
“What are you doing here?” Yuehne asked, fighting to keep her voice calm and even and failing on both counts.
“They’re tracking you aren’t they?” Iana asked. She stood beside the bed, unmoving. Her voice was neither accusatory, nor frightened, nor pleading.
“They who?” Yuehne asked.
“Your backers in the Shadowfolk,” Iana said.
“I’m not working with them,” Yuehne said. “I don’t know where they came from.”
“And you won’t tell me who you are working for,” Iana said. “Great. Then they’re Drone Drivers. Not what I was hoping for, but not so surprising I guess.”
“What are you talking about?” Yuehne asked, irritation flaring as she was left with the feeling that despite there being on two people in the room, she wasn’t part of the conversation that was occurring.
“The Shadowfolk,” Iana said. “They’re supporting the people who gave you the order to kill me.”
“That’s impossible,” Yuehne said.
“Do you think your sponsors would turn away the gift of observation and intel a race who can turn invisible would be able to provide?” Iana asked.
“No,” Yuehne said after a moment’s consideration, “But what do you mean by Drone Drivers?”
“It’s a type of enemy we trained to fight,” Iana said. “There are creatures in the Council’s lands which can plant suggestions in the minds of those they encounter. Usually they rely on a mix of chemicals delivered via powerful pheromones, but whatever the method, their principal tactic is the same; get other creatures to enact their plans for them, so that they’re shielded from discovery and reprisal.”
“That’s not what the Shadowfolk we saw did. The attacked directly and without hesitation,” Yuehne said, more and more convinced that she had fallen into a strange ‘other realm’ where everything was nonsensical.
“We saw them turn invisible and strike slowly enough that Keeper Qui-Kel was able to stop them,” Iana said. “What we didn’t see, but can imply, is that they were there for a reason related to someone in the room. That reason is unlikely to be the Faenirel based on both the ease with which Keeper Qui-kel stopped them and the fact that the Faen were in that location for years.”
“But the Shadowfolk attacked the Faenirel first?” Yuehne said.
“But they attacked the wrong Faenirel,” Iana said. “They chose the two people in the room who were the most obviously experienced and who were bearing weapons. They considered Daloth and Che-chara to be the biggest threats.”
“If they weren’t there for the Faen then why would they attack at all?” Yuehne asked.
“Because Keeper Qui-kel acknowledged their presence,” Iana said. “She wasn’t going to let them leave, so they had to fight.”
“But they teleported away,” Yuehne said.
“Did they?” Iana asked. “I talked with Che-chara about that. In Faen’s battles with the Shadowfolk, she never saw evidence of the Shadowfolk using mass teleportation either for moving troops into battle, or when retreating. So it must be limited, probably greatly so.”
“Fine, but what does this have to do with me?” Yuehne asked.
“The Shadowfolk followed us to that meeting,” Iana said. “Of everyone there, you are the most likely to have been in contact with them. Even if you didn’t know it.”
“The same’s true for you isn’t it?” Yuehne asked. “Who would watch a perfectly normal citizen of the realm when they could watch one of the new princesses?”
“You’re easier to get to than I’ve been,” Iana said.
“I got to you,” Yuehne said.
“You weren’t a threat though were you?” Iana asked.
Yuehne scowled. She hadn’t failed yet. Better that the princess think she was safe though. That opened the path to a lot of possibilities.
“You weren’t a threat, because you weren’t given the right tools to be a threat,” Iana said. “That was necessary though for you to get past the protections that are in place on the royal castle.”
“You keep saying that but I almost had you,” Yuehne said.
“I gave you the chance to attack me,” Iana said. “I let you try again and again. It’s not your fault that you didn’t succeed. From your style, I would guess you’ve had a few rigorous weeks of training. I was being taught how to fight before I could walk, and I’ve been fighting since I could understand language. I was pleased with our skirmishes not because I won, but because I didn’t kill you. I am not a good person, or a safe one.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t ever be Queen,” Yuehne said. “We’ve had too many bad rulers already.”
“I agree,” Iana said. “As I am now, I should absolutely not be made Queen. I don’t understand your realm, and my training and reflexes are all wrong. I can’t be the ruler that Alari is.”
“Well at least that would be good,” Yuehne said.
“You don’t know the things she’s done, do you?” Iana asked. “You don’t know what this realm would look like without her?”
“I know that without her whole wicked family, there’d be a lot more left of Gallagrin,” Yuehne said. “We lost so many people during her coup that entire towns were obliterated. There are fields that are nothing more than mass graves now. We’re like Authzang, with places where nothing will ever grow again!”
“And so, what, you want someone else to take her throne? Someone you feel is wiser?” Iana asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Yuehne said, inwardly cursing that she’d opened up even that much. The Princess was too perceptive by far, and the Queen and her wife even more so from the horror stories Yuehne had heard.
“Maybe you think a Council would work better?” Iana asked. “I could understand that. It seems bizarre to put all of the power of a realm into one person’s hands, but I’ve seen up close how even with checks and balances, a single bad leader can turn a government of the multitudes astray.”
“Who says we need a queen or a council?” Yuehne asked.
“You’d prefer to live like the beasts of the forest?” Iana asked. “Anarchy for all? I’ve seen that too. It works out well. For the strong. Or for those who will cower properly before the strong. It also well for those who would overthrow anarchy and replace it with the order of their choosing since the weak have been taught to kneel already. Cut the head off the leader and those being led will gladly trade one yoke for another. Until they don’t and there’s more blood to be spilled.”
“Fine,” Yuehne said. “What do you want from me?”
“Very little,” Iana said. “Mostly just that you’ll stay alive.”
“Why? Why do you care? I tried to kill you! Even if you are merciful and forgiving, why would you care if the Shadowfolk killed me?”
“Do I need a special reason?” Iana asked.
“Yes. Yes you do,” Yuehne said. “People aren’t like this. They don’t shelter people who try to hurt them. They’re not kind and willing to listen to people who hate them.”
“Maybe they should be,” Iana said. “Maybe I know that I should be. Maybe this is all an act to convince myself that the things I did are in the past and that I’m a different person now.”
“No. There’s more than that,” Yuehne said. “You say those words, but you don’t look guilty. You don’t sound sorry for whatever happened. You have some other reason, you’re pulling some other trick, and you don’t want me to notice it.”
“That’s probably true too,” Iana said. “I’ve spent the last year learning what it means to rule people rather than command them. Do you know what the difference is?”
“Rulers get to keep their hands clean?” Yuehne said.
“No. Rulers have the dirtiest hands of all,” Iana said. “The difference between commanding and ruling is that Commanders have objectives and issue orders to achieve those objectives and that’s all they need to care about. Rulers on the other had have a broader mandate. They need to issue their edicts with consideration for all of the impacts those edicts will have. A commander is responsible for the success or failure of the mission. A Ruler is responsible for everything that happens as a result of the choices they make.”
“So if I kill someone else, that will be your responsibility?” Yuehne asked.
“Yes, and yours,” Iana said. “In sparing you, I chose to act as the arbiter of your fate. I’m responsible for what I did and anything that I chose not to do. None of that would absolve you of the guilt of choosing to do something like that though.”
“So I’m guilty and you’re guilty and we’re both not worthy of the roles we’re supposed to play,” Yuehne said. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Yes,” Iana said. “How would you like to have a chance to become more worthy?”
“How?” Yuehne asked.
“Run away with me,” Iana said.
“It’s been suggested,” Iana said.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you? You just don’t want to do it here.”
“No. Like I said, I need you to live. If I let you die, that will mess up a whole lot of plans, and probably wind up getting me killed too.”
“You think I’m going to protect you?”
“I think you’re going to try to kill me,” Iana said. “I think as long as that’s a possibility, the people backing you are going to be cautious about overextending themselves. If you’re out of the picture though, they’re going to send a much better equipped assassin to deal with me. Probably several much better equipped assassins. If I’m lucky they’d be looking to capture me, but there’s a lot of princesses and princes at court now. One less might fit exactly with the message they want to send.”
“Why run away though?” Yuehne asked.
“Because they’re tracking you,” Iana said.
“But if we run, that means the Shadow folk will find us without the rest of your retinue around to protect us?” Yuehne said.
“Yes,” Iana said, an emotion like glee finally entering her voice. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on.”