With the death of the Consort-King there was an unsubtle exodus of the nobles from the royal city of High Crest. Those who’d witnessed the final battle had an understandable desire to place several miles between themselves and both the Queen’s Knight and the Queen herself, neither of whom seemed in a forgiving sort of mood.
For those who had been ready to back Halrek, that was likely a life saving choice. In time, and with the proper shows of loyalty, the Queen might be willing to silently overlook the unvoiced treachery of her nobles. Until that day dawned however, quiet obedience was the only shield that was likely to hold her wrath at bay.
Whether the Queen’s Knight was ever going to offer forgiveness or mercy to those who had supported Halrek was another matter, and one which no one was particularly eager to wager their lives upon.
“This wasn’t how I pictured our reunion,” Alari said as the river sprites who bore her broken body eased her back into a prone position as though she were resting on a bed. They’d carried her to one of the larger guest bedrooms at her request, and after she’d made arrangements for the audience hall to be properly cleaned.
“I…” Day started to say and then choked up. “I didn’t think I’d ever be back here.”
“If you hated me for marrying Paxmer, it seems that you stand proven correct,” Alari said, her voice quiet and bereft of royal privilege.
“Gods no!” Dae said. She had reverted by to her human form and stood to the side of the sprite’s watery bed. Her splinted leg was in slightly less agonizing shape than it should have been, thanks to Kirios’ upgrade in status to a Pact Knight’s spirit, but the broken leg was still far from healed.
“Halrek was a viper all along,” Alari said. “He laid his schemes from before the first moment we met and I saw none of them.”
“It’s my fault,” Dae said, looking down. A part of her truly believed that with the moment of madness passed, Alari was going to come to her senses. Without the rage against Halrek blinding her, Alari would take back Dae’s name, her status and any affection which Alari had ever felt for her. She could see the steps so clearly that lead from her failure years ago to the suffering Alari had endured in almost losing her throne.
“What? Adae, did Telli hit your head harder than it appeared?” Alari asked. “How can you claim any share of this misfortune?”
“Star’s Watch,” Dae said, knowing that Alari would see the whole miserable chain of failure that started with the trust that Dae had been too weak to uphold.
Alari blinked and then frowned, looking away as she spoke.
“I hoped you might have forgiven me for that,” Alari said. “But I understand if you cannot.”
Dae understood each of the words which Alari said individually, but as a group they didn’t make any sort of coherent sense. She tried to form a question to illuminate Alari’s meaning, but the concept was so alien to her mind that she couldn’t capture it at all.
“I was glad when you picked the Nath barracks to join,” Alari said. “It was comforting knowing that if you weren’t here, you at least hadn’t fled impossibly far away.”
“I couldn’t go any farther,” Dae said. “Anywhere else and I couldn’t get back to you if you needed me.”
Dae felt like she’d stepped off the bank of a shallow river and fallen into the center of the ocean. She’d imagined being with Alari again. Across thousands of night’s she’d woven dreams of how and why the moment might occur. She’d envisioned everything from tender words to seething rebukes from the one who meant more to her than anyone else in the world. Across those many imaginings, Dae had sketched a map of all the ways she might meet Alari again, but somehow none of them had proven accurate.
“I can ask no more of you than that,” Alari said, a sad smile gracing her face.
“You can ask anything of me,” Dae said. “Always and forever.”
“Then don’t leave me again!” Alari said, tears rolling down her cheeks and into the watery embrace she floated in.
“I…” Dae choked out again. “I failed…you didn’t need me.”
None of the lovely, clever words that she’d dreamed about came to her. None of the stirring arguments that would, in her brightest hopes, have been enough to win back Alari’s love found their way to Dae’s tongue. Despite years of practicing, without ever admitting to herself that she was doing so, Dae couldn’t find any of the carefully prepared strategies she’d created to convince her love to love her back.
But that didn’t matter, because of course you can’t win back something which you never lost in the first place.
The river sprites moved at Alari’s unspoken command, parting to allow the Queen to step forth in her Royal regalia. Her human form was shattered and broken and would be months or longer in healing, but Alari wasn’t limited by her broken bones and torn muscles.
With arms clad in gossamer, she drew Dae into an inescapable embrace.
“You idiot,” the Queen of Gallagrin said. “I have needed you since we were ten, and you’ve never failed me. Not once.”
Dae felt her knees buckle and give out. She could have blamed that on her broken leg, but her earthly pains were so far distant from where her mind and heart were that they had no say in anything that occurred.
“I lost,” Dae said. “I couldn’t hold them back. You had to fight Paxmer and Gallagrin because of me.”
“Gods Beneath Us!” Alari said. “That’s not what happened at all! How could you think that?”
“You gave me one duty, one command,” Dae said. “All I had to do was hold Paxmer off our borders so that you could fight your battle. You upheld the promise you swore yourself to. You freed Gallagrin from your father’s reign. But I broke my promise. Paxmer burned us. Your people died because of me. Thousands of them. Because I was too weak and naive and unworthy. And you fixed that too. And today the price you paid back then almost killed you.”
All of of the words Dae had ever feared Alari would say felt ready to come pouring out. Every accusation she knew Alari could lay against her struggled in Dae’s mouth to blurt itself forth, each more horrible than the one before it, and it was the best she could do to simply hold them back in silence.
Alari held Dae close and let her finish speaking, allowed the torrent of words to dwindle away, before she spoke.
“You’re right,” Alari said. “I gave you one command, asked for one promise from you, and that was just this; for you to come back to me. And now you have, in the hour of my greatest need. You came back to me, my Adae.”
Dae looked up at Alari but Alari laid a finger on her lips to halt any objections her Knight might make.
“All those years ago, I asked you to come back to me because I knew Paxmer could hit us harder than we could withstand,” Alari said. “I sent you to Star’s Watch in the case the worst came to pass, knowing that you would buy the precious time I needed and I hoped, beyond reason, that you would somehow pull through the terrible task I asked of you. I had no one else I could ask for that, no one else who I could trust, and no one else who I believed in as I did you and I still didn’t want you to go.”
“Why?” Dae asked.
“Why did I have to send you?” Alari asked. “Because to become the Queen, I had to act like one, and that meant putting the good of my subjects ahead of my own desires. Why didn’t I want you to go? Because I knew that if Paxmer moved in force against us you would give everything you had to stop them, and I was jealous. I was jealous of my country for taking away from me the one person I held most dear.”
“But I failed you,” Dae said. “I didn’t stand against Paxmer, I broke.”
“Star’s Watch burned,” Alari said. “Thousands died. But thousands more lived. I mourned those who were lost, but when I saw you afterwards, so shattered and angry, I knew I’d laid a heavier burden on those who survived. I sent you to a battle that could not be won, not with the forces I gave you, and not with the one’s I held in reserve. All the pain inflicted on you might as well have been done by my hand.”
Dae was silent for a moment before speaking again.
“The last time we spoke,” she asked, “did you feel like this then?”
“The last time we spoke I thought you hated me, and that I’d given you every just cause for righteous anger,” Alari said. “You didn’t want to speak and I could find no fault in that desire as I could see no forgiveness for what I had done to you and all the people of Star’s Watch I placed in your care.”
“I wasn’t angry at you,” Dae said. “I was afraid.”
“Of me?” Alari asked. “Sleeping gods why?”
“I was afraid you were going to order me away,” Dae said, a rueful smile breaking across her face.
“But you left,” Alari said. “You went away without a word of how I might convince you to return.”
“Yes,” Dae said. “In hindsight that may not have been the most sensible action I’ve ever taken. It just seemed easier. I knew I didn’t have a place at your side anymore. With the crown and the Paxmer Prince, I knew you didn’t need me any longer, but I couldn’t bear to hear you say it.”
“Adae,” Alari said. “You are a fool. And I am bigger one. I wanted so much to order you to stop, to command you to return with me, but I let you go because I couldn’t bear the thought of you following me out of nothing more than duty. I told myself that if I had broken your trust, then I didn’t deserve your company any longer. Halrek wasn’t my consolation, he was my punishment. The political burden that I was yoked to because I chose the path of the Queen despite the costs that others paid for me to ascend to that position.”
“I will never call you a fool,” Dae said, relaxing at last into Alari’s embrace. “But I see six years behind us where it seems that perhaps there were two somewhat foolish women who possibly should have spoken to one another more than they did.”
“I do not like those years,” Alari said. “I’m more inclined to look towards the years that are still to come.”
“I don’t know if they’ll be good ones,” Dae said. “I did sort of behead your husband. That’s likely to have left a mess that we’ll have to deal with.”
“In removing his head, you’ve taken a great weight off my shoulders,” Alari said. “And so long as I have my Knight, I will gladly face the storm that is brewing on that front.”
“There is also the small matter that I killed one of your Dukes too,” Dae said. “That will have a more local impact I believe.”
“The only shame there is that you stopped at just one,” Alari said. “The Telli family will need to be dealt with though, and I confess, that’s not a judgment I am overly cheerful to dole out.”
“If I may, my Queen,” Dae said, stepping slightly away from Alari to formally address her. “The Duke’s son Ren is blameless in this matter. It was he who uncovered the plot against you and gave me the evidence which I presented against the now departed conspirators. He spoke also of his sister helping him, not to mention a certain vampire with whom I believe you are acquainted?”
“If there is cause to proclaim amnesty for the family, I will gladly take it,” Alari said. “I believe they likely suffered the most of all from the Duke’s character.”
“There is the matter of Prince Lorenzo’s family as well,” Dae said. “Things may not go well with Inchesso in the days to come, though I can promise that no Inchesso assassins will live to get within twenty feet of you.”
“We are so recently reunited and troubles flock to our bower,” Alari said. “It’s good to know that somethings never change.”
Their clasped hands shifted and each entwined their fingers around the others.
“Always and forever,” Dae said. “For now though, cast off your Pact form and rest in soothing waters. You have much healing to do, and I’m going to make sure that at least for tonight no one bothers you at all.”