Haldri of Paxmer was displeased and the castle shook with her wrath.
“At least the bandit died screaming,” Haldraxan said, looking at the corpse chained to the table before him. The body had literally shattered under the assault of the dragon fear Haldraxan had subjected it to. Haldri knew that in his younger years Haldraxan would have found the resulting mess appetizing but humans were a taste he’d claimed to have long grown tired of. He would still eat people when she requested it, but feeding the giant beast the odd malcontent here and there didn’t earn her the same appreciation it had garnered for her predecessors.
“It boggles my mind how someone can be so fragile as to die of fear and yet so resilient that they manage to withhold the information we demand of them,” Haldri said, ignoring the physical ruin that remained of the subject in question and the impossibility of any mortal survival that level of destruction.
“Perhaps I am becoming unsteady in my age,” Haldraxan said, stretching his vast neck as though working out a long standing kink. Dragons did not suffer the pains the Mindful Races were prey to, so the gesture was nothing more than an affectation. Haldri found it amusing how human-like her dragon had become over his long association with her family. Despite that, she was careful to never make the mistake of actually thinking of him as a human. Theirs was a close relationship but not so close that she was incapable of offending the great beast.
“You are more steady than the mountains and more powerful than the sea, my Haldraxan,” she said and pressed herself to his giant leg. No other human was allowed to touch, or even be near, Haldraxan’s regal body. He was as much the embodiment of Paxmer as Haldri was, with the distinction that he did not need to mate to ensure the continuity of his line. As an immortal, he was the sum total of his line. Any who would claim to be his successor, be they son, daughter or other, were doing no more than presenting a challenge to his rule and were answered promptly in kind.
“Will it inconvenience us that the prisoner did not name the location of our treasure?” Haldraxan asked. Dragons didn’t purr but there was a particular rumble which built in their chest when they were pleased. The loss of the prisoner and his treasure was bother but both of them knew it offered the possibility of wrecking a broader level of mayhem on those they oppressed and that was a pleasing prospect as well.
“Yes it will,” Haldri said. “There may be malcontents entrenching themselves against even now.”
“Splendid,” Haldraxan said, the delight of future fires burning in his eyes.
“I should go and entertain the guests I called,” Haldri said. “Perhaps when I am done though perhaps we can plan where we shall begin looking for our missing hordes?”
“Another night, my Haldri,” Haldraxan said. “Tonight I am promised to the whelps. Their scales must be hardened if they are to serve aboard our ocean vessels.”
“Another flight of younglings is ready so soon?” Haldri said. “That is excellent news.”
“I urge you not to raise your hopes,” Haldraxan said. “It is a small flight. Few have survived the trials in this group.”
“Will they survive your firing?” Haldri asked. Dragon rearing had many differences from child raising among the Mindful Races. For a litter of dragon young to survive to adulthood was unheard of, but the few members who did were uniformly terrible in their power.
“I have my doubts,” Haldraxan said. “If we see one or two make it through, I will be glad and content, but I fear only disappointment awaits us.”
“Then look forward to the morrow,” Haldri said. “We shall plan a proper excursion and if we should loot some of Gallagrin’s hordes in the process then perhaps the Red Handed Queen will be drawn out of her hiding hole all the sooner.”
“Mmm, Gallagrin blood is lovely and their meat roasts up so nicely,” Haldraxan said. “Thank you, my Haldri, you have improved my evening immensely.”
“You are an inspiring presence, my Haldraxan,” Haldri said and pulled herself away from the dragon.
The two parted without a glance backwards, which for Haldri was the deepest sign of trust and affection she could show.
Stepping out of the interrogation chamber, Haldri felt the midday sun on her face. The questioning had taken longer, and ended more poorly, than she’d planned but her guests were not in a position to complain.
Haldri detoured from joining them and stopped at one of her lesser wardrobes. She liked to think of the wardrobes as clothes hordes, each one balanced by against the others in terms of value and size and each one cleaving to a different theme or purpose.
Since it seemed the day for it, Haldri chose her closest “fear” wardrobe. She knew she didn’t need to intimidate the traitors to Gallagrin she was hosting, they were each terrified of her already. Haldri didn’t believe it was possible to command too much respect though and the right pressure exerted early on could save her a tremendous amount of back talk later on.
When she finally joined her guests two hours later, she wore a simple set of regalia that was overlaid with a fine chainmail of dwarven black steel. It gleamed as she moved and reflected the violet colors of the rainbow from the gem-like links of polished metal.
To a commoner like the guildmaster Merrin it was an outfit that would speak of incredible wealth, which was the form of power Merrin could most easily recognize. To a military campaigner like the fortress lord Baron Gedli though, the few dull patches on the attire would stand out like a signal fire.
Haldri’s attire was not Gallagrin style formal wear. It was fully functional battle armor. The kind one would wear if one wished to retain the option of slaughtering one’s guests by hand rather than bothering to call the palace guards.
Haldri didn’t watch either Merrin or Gedli when she entered the dining room though. She instead observed Duchess Sanli, who met the queen’s gaze with a light smile and remained silent. Haldri smiled back. The Duchess was shrewd enough to read the true intent of the dress.
Don’t ask me how the interrogation went, the dress said. And don’t ask to see the prisoner.
Haldri regretted allowing her guests to the see the bandit before the interrogation. She could have substituted some other figure to demonstrate the power she possessed if her guests weren’t familiar with the bandit’s face. As it was, the destroyed body left in the interrogation room would only convince the Gallagrin traitors of her savagery though, and any half mad brigand could create a similar or even more disturbing scene.
“Your chefs are exceptional, Your Majesty,” Duchess Sanli said. “They seem to have mastered a much wider variety of spices than our poor mountain cooks have been exposed to.”
The Duchess wished to speak of trade, as a cover to discussing other, less allowable exchanges. Haldri nodded but allowed Gedli to speak next.
“The deserts are certainly novel,” the Baron said. “Perhaps if we should visit again, we can bring some of our homelands delicacies for you to enjoy?”
The Baron found the hot spices of Paxmer’s cuisine difficult to tolerate much less enjoy. He wished to have more comfortable food to dine on but was wise enough not to disparage his host’s offerings.
Haldri made a note to have the dinner chefs prepare Gallagrin pastries for the night’s deserts. Gedli’s seduction was one he was willing to do all the work to accomplish. All Paxmer’s queen had to do was give him the faintest of threads to hang a belief that he wasn’t betraying his homeland so much as joining the side that should have been his home to begin with.
“How’d the interrogation go?” Merrin asked.
“The prisoner proved to have an unexpectedly weak heart,” Haldri said, without grinding her teeth, “It was unsatisfying.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Merrin said. “If we can come to an arrangement, I can have my teamsters keep their eyes open for other bandits like that one.”
Haldri suppressed an urge to drag the woman to the interrogation chamber straight away. Haldraxan was busy for one thing, and for another the offer of an additional spy network roaming her country held a certain appeal.
“You are very forward with your offer Master Quick,” the Duchess said. “Are we to be privy to your entire negotiation?”
“I don’t have anything to hide from the Queen,” Merrin said. “Aside from the obvious of course.”
“And what would be obvious to hide from our host?” Baron Gedli asked.
“The true costs and profits to her operation,” Haldri said. “If we are to discuss special tariff exemptions for her guild, the guildmaster will not wish us to know how slight a slice of revenue would be enough to entice them to increase the volume of trade they bring us.”
Nor would the guildmaster want it to be known the type or quantity of the goods which Paxmer was interested in having her guild deliver. Even Gedli would grow concerned by the weapon build up Haldri was planning to order.
“You’ve got to keep some things hidden Baron,” Merrin said. “It’s just good business.”
The Baron’s eyes flashed wide at the insinuation that he had something to hide. Duchess Sanli interrupted in time to save him from the embarrassment of a reply though.
“Not all of us have the concerns of a tradesman,” Sanli said. “Or are here for more the social reasons.”
“Relations between ourselves and Gallagrin have been chilled for far too long,” Haldri said. “By our will, this will be the first of many gatherings with the tradesman and nobility of our northern sister.”
“That’s good to hear,” Merrin said. “A lot of bad blood has been spilled over that border. It makes it hard for working people to feel safe crossing it. If we’re looking at a new era of peace though, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of revenue for us to split from all the deliveries my guild will be making.”
Haldri thought of the royal blood that had recently been spilled on the far side of Gallagrin’s border. She’d held little love for her brother Halrek, but much anticipation as his plan slowly matured to fruition. They had been so close to seizing the throne of Gallagrin only to have it snatched away by some old love of the Gallagrin Queen.
Haldri would never have forgiven the monarch of Gallagrin for retaining the throne, but the body parts of Halrek that were returned to Paxmer and the insulting note which accompanied the small package left no doubt as to the divide between the two nations. There would be peace between Paxmer and Gallagrin, their animosity required it, it simply also required that one of the two monarchs be sent to hell at the earliest possible opportunity.
Haldri felt a warm joy rise in her heart at the thought of Alari Gallagrin burning in dragon fire.
“Yes,” Haldri said. “Peace is why we have called each of you here. From trade to an opening of our borders to the extending of an invitation.”
“What invitation do you wish to extend, Your Majesty?” Duchess Sanli asked, seeing her role clearly among the three options provided.
“We wish to extend a call to the Queen of Gallagrin to join us at a parley table,” Haldri said. “We would meet with her on neutral ground, at the Gods Hall, that we might discuss the rift which divides our peoples.”
“The Gods Hall?” Baron Gedli said. “Only the ruling monarchs of a realm are allowed to ascend to sky kingdom, would you really meet with our queen alone?”
“There are supposed to be enchantments on that place to prevent any violence being done there right?” Merrin asked.
“So long as the power of the Sleeping Gods hold,” Duchess Sanli said.
“Yes, which is why we hope Gallagrin will respond favorably to our entreaty,” Haldri said. “We must show the other nations of the Blessed Realms how we are able to put our history behind us.”