Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 8

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.”


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 7

Dae felt Alari’s words like the deepest storm of the winter. An anger that was too old to burn hot flared to new life and spread shards of ice outwards from a hole in Dae’s heart that she’d thought sealed over long ago.

“My mother is dead,” Dae said without a hint of external emotion.

“To you, yes,” Alari said. “But to the world, she is still as she was; a faithful and living daughter of Paxmer.”

“No,” Dae said. “Never faithful. Not that woman. She can never claim to be that.”

In her eyes a fury ignited which dared even the heavens to oppose her on that point.

Alari offered no argument, no words to contradict the pain she saw in Dae’s eyes. The queen’s only expression was a tight frown to hold back the surge of emotion that echoed in her heart. She’d known Dae wouldn’t welcome memories of her mother, but she hadn’t imagined that after close to two decades the wounds would still be so raw.

“We need her.” Alari said after a long silent moment.

“Do we, Your Majesty?” Dae asked, stepping away from her Queen and struggling to keep her voice level.

“I’m not speaking as the Queen of Gallagrin, Adae, though the queen needs your mother too,” Alari said. “You and I need her in this, or I would never ask it of you.”

“Tell me why,” Dae said, turning back to face Alari, her eyes hard and her jaw set in hard lines. “You said you were going to destroy Paxmer? Why would you need her for that?”

Dae had no power to compel answers from her queen. Even in her role as Knight, Dae was not given the right to place demands on the woman she served, but in the empty garden it wasn’t a queen and a knight who stood on opposite sides of the widening void between their hearts. Alari and Dae weren’t equals in station, but they were too long together for either to think of the other as anything but of equal value. So Alari spoke, her word reaching across the space between them in a way that a command never could.

“Haldri Paxmer knows my intentions,” Alari said. “She knows I am going to bring her downfall, but to do that I need more pawns on the board than she’s aware of.”

“And you think my mother will act as pawn for you willingly?” Dae asked, wanting to listen, but not yet able to believe.

“Willingly or unwillingly, I believe that we, you and I together, can convince her to save a vast number of Gallagrin lives,” Alari said. As a queen, she couldn’t beg. She couldn’t clasp Dae’s hands and plead her case based on love or trust or respect. As Alari though, she was able to let her voice soften, not in weakness, but in hope.

Dae heard the question in Alari’s words. The woman, not the queen, asking for Dae’s trust and faith. Looking inside herself though, Dae also felt the yawning, mother-shaped void, in her heart as it cracked with the return of memories she never wanted to recall.

Betrayer, Abandoner, Murderer. So many names that stood as a substitute for “mother” that Dae couldn’t see beyond them for a moment as long forgotten screams of rage echoed in her ears and held her in a rictus of silent, motionless, hate.

“If I see her, I may kill her,” Dae said. It wasn’t a refusal anymore. She looked on the wastelands of her soul, the parts of her which remained scorched by the shame, and guilt, and sorrow, and rage at her mother’s departure and saw the limits of her own endurance.

There were rivers of anger whose depth she couldn’t plumb, and with the power she held, it wouldn’t take much loss of control, no more than a single second’s worth, for Dae to commit an irrevocably violent action upon the last person in the world she thought she could ever forgive.

“I know,” Alari said. “And if that happens, then her blood will be on my hands, not yours. I know what I am asking of you. I know the risk here. The Sleeping Gods damn me, I even know how I would turn that to our advantage.”

“If I can go with my blade unfettered…” Dae started to say and paused to compose herself. “No. This can’t be on you. My actions are my own, as is my duty. If I go, let the journey be on me. If Estella sur Korkin can save Gallagrin lives, then you have every right to command me to go.”

None of her muscles had relaxed but Dae felt a quiet calm settle over her. It was a calm devoid of peace, but it was an acceptance of what had to be nonetheless. She wasn’t the child who’d awoken to an barren house anymore. That girl’s fear no longer ruled Dae’s heart, even if the rage remained.

“I will never command you to a duty like this. I won’t allow Gallagrin to demand it of you. I can’t,” Alari said. “But I will trust you. Whatever happens, whatever you choose to do, know that you have my faith. I have held you to a promise of vengeance already, and since that means Gallagrin is in your debt I can speak as a queen once more. Know that we, Gallagrin, will carry you and support you in vengeance or forgiveness, in unity or discord, giving unto you all the powers of our judgment and voice in the matter which we lay before you. You have never failed us Lady Daelynne Akorli, and so you travel with our utmost blessing.”

“My Queen,” Dae said, bowing her head in acceptance of the formal charge.

“We have arrived at too early an hour?” whispered the wind.

Dae memories dropped away from her. On instinct she spun, placing Alari at her back and searching for the source of the words. Her ceremonial sword was in her hand without any conscious thought to draw it.

“Our apologies,” a woman of smaller and softer proportions than Dae said. She stood a short distance behind them on the path they’d walked and was dressed in the black robes and veil of a woman in mourning. Despite the startling nature of her arrival, the woman’s hands were folded peacefully in front of her, her posture was penitent, and she held no weapons. Nothing about the woman should have seemed threatening, but try though she might, Dae couldn’t put her sword away.

“You are indeed early, Lady Telli,” Alari said, a note of irritation in her voice that Dae knew only someone familiar with the queen would detect. “Did not our chamberlain offer you refreshment?”

“We did not observe your staff, Your Majesty,” Mayleena Telli said. “I fear we are in disaccord this morning.”

“We thought your condition had reached a sustainable state?” Alari asked.

“It has Your Majesty,” Mayleena said. “But there are still times when I am afraid. I apologize again for coming before you when we are like this.”

Dae squinted, trying to catch the thread of the conversation which had flown past her. Something was setting her Pact Spirit’s nerves on edge and almost nothing bothered Kirios. Neither Dae nor her mystical companion could place the source of the ‘wrongness’ they felt from the woman who refused to be the Duchess of Tel though.

Or they couldn’t until Dae noticed that where Alari spoke with the royal “we” demanded of her station, Mayleena’s use of the plural form was entirely different.

“Why are you veiled?” Dae asked, mistrusting of the disguise Mayleena wore.

“It is more comfortable,” Mayleena said.

“For who?” Dae asked.

“Those we encounter,” Mayleena said.

“You may put your weapon away, my Knight,” Alari said. “And Lady Telli, you may dispense with the veil. Lady Akorli must see and understand your condition if the two of you are to work together.”

“That is what frightens me, Your Majesty,” Mayleena said, her voice small as she reached for her veil.

Dae expected to see some hideous monstrosity waiting under the dark lace but as Mayleena lifted the cloth and exposed her face, Dae saw nothing more than a woman a few years younger than Alari. Mayleena’s features were somewhere between the hard, muscled angles that Dae had chiseled her into body through constant training and the gentle and graceful curves Alari was blessed with as the scion of a gods-touched line.

Dae forced herself to relax, willing away the irrational concern that gripped her heart. Then Mayleena opened her eyes.

Even after being named Queen’s Knight, Dae preferred, on most occasions, to transform only into her common regalia. She loved being Alari’s knight, but she had little need for the attention her full armor brought her. On most occasions the might of the Knight’s regalia was a vast degree of overkill as well.

The moment Mayleena opened her eyes though, Dae was transformed into the strongest version of her Knight’s regalia that she could summon and a new terror beat through her heart. Even with power at her disposal to rival the Queen’s, Dae wasn’t sure she was going to be strong enough.

In Mayleena’s eye, Kirios saw the steel and fire of a fully unfettered Berserker.

It was Alari’s touch on Dae’s shoulder that drew the situation back into focus though. In Mayleena’s eyes the might and madness of a unlimited Pact Spirit burned, but her body was shrunk in on itself. Trying to hide from Dae’s unkind eyes. Ashamed at what she was and so, so terribly afraid.

“What…” Dae tried to form words but it took her a second attempt to regain control of her thoughts. “What happened to you?”

Dae’s sword, her true blade, the one that dripped red with the stain of royal blood ever since she beheaded Halrek the Consort-King, vanished back into the magical aether but her armor remained.

“My father did,” Mayleena said and Dae’s heart broke anew.

Stepping forward, Dae let her armor fall away, and transformed back to her physical self.

“Lady Telli, please forgive my rudeness,” Dae said, turning to confirm her suspicions. Alari’s gentle smile told her everything she needed to know. The queen was not one to easily give her trust, but she was not afraid of Mayleena Telli. The young noble’s demeanor was no act to lure Dae into a false sense of security.

“It was our rudeness,” May said. “I’m sorry that we interrupted you.”

“I think Her Majesty and I reached an accord,” Dae said. “So the interruption doesn’t have to be an unwelcome one.”

“Indeed,” Alari said. “If you are up for it, why don’t you walk with us? There is still more of the garden we must inspect, and some little time of privacy that remains before us.”

“I would like that very much Your Majesty,” May said.

“The Queen tells me that you wish to be part of her guard?” Dae asked as the two of them fell into position behind Alari.

“If I can pass your review Lady Akorli,” May said.

“My review?” Dae asked. “I think with the monarch of the realm asking for you to be part of her personal guard, you’re pretty certain of a position.”

“I’m asking for more than the Lady Telli to be part of the Queen’s Guard though,” Alari said. “I believe she will be invaluable on the mission we were discussing.”

Wheels began spinning in Dae’s mind as she turned to look at Alari. Sending the Queen’s Knight to Paxmer was a bold move. Sending whatever Mayleena Telli had become was the sort of act one took when one expected an inconvenient army or two or three to be in the way and you wanted to eliminate them with a minimum of fuss.

“In that case I believe we should retire to the Royal Study and the queen will need to break out some of the wine she reserves for her special guests,” Dae said. “Because we have a lot to talk about.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 6

Alari, Queen of Gallagrin and Supreme Protector of the Divine Throne of Highcrest, wandered through her southern gardens trailing her fingers along the barbed vines which would burst into a riot of color and rich scents within a few weeks.

“I thought you were going to burn these things to the ground?” Dae, her Knight and dearest love, said.

“I tried,” Alari said, drawing her hand back slowly, before the hungry thorns could claim a drop of royal blood from her fingers. “The screams were a little much though.”

“Screams?” Dae asked. Her hand strayed to the ceremonial sword she wore at her waist. Alari’s Knight wasn’t a superstitious sort, but no one could discount that Castle Highcrest was haunted, especially in the wake of the Butcher King’s residence. Dae didn’t fear ghosts, but she was ever so slightly over protective of her liege.

“It turns out that the legends are true,” Alari said, walking to a thick cord of interwoven dark and pale green strands. On the vine’s tiny branches the first hints of brilliant buds, from an almost white pastel orange at the top of the vine to dark and vibrant dots of red on the branches at the vine’s base, were beginning to peek forth from their winter slumber. “This garden was watered in the blood of thousands during my father’s reign. The plants drank up the reddened soil and should have withered but instead they changed. They’re quiet now, still asleep, but in the  spring and summer and fall they sing.”

“Your south garden is full of blood drinking plants?” Dae asked. “That sing?”

“Yes,” Alari said. “Hundreds of different songs. I thought they would all be dirges and laments, but it turns out those are few and far between.”

“And they scream too?” Dae asked.

“Only if you burn them,” Alari said. “Or uproot them. And it’s not just one of them. Pull up a single rose and all of the rest scream.”

“So they’re lovely and disturbing,” Dae said. “I see why you kept them.”

“The amusing thing is that they never sang for my father,” Alari said.

“I seem to recall them moaning a lot,” Dae said. “We scared ourselves silly the first time we snuck in here.”

“To be fair, I was scared silly,” Alari said. “You had a look on your face that said you were ready to chop them to kindling. It looked almost exactly like the one you’re wearing now.”

“I’m not wearing an expression now,” Dae said. “This is how I normally look.”

“Yes, like you’re ready to chop something or someone to kindling,” Alari said.

“Not ready,” Dae said. “Just willing to, if need be.”

Alari laughed lightly and swept away from her knight to inspect another of the plants; a low and long shrub with the early signs of white and blue blossoms. It had been sculpted to look a series of stylized ocean waves but the rampant overgrowth after the chaos of the previous autumn left the waves looking more naturalistic and powerful than the designer might have intended. Alari had no intention of allowing anyone to change the shrubs appearance back to the original design though.

“You are a dangerous person to have around, my Adae,” Alari said.

“Yes,” Dae said. “I just hope your enemies are aware of that.”

“You are dangerous because my enemies are aware of that,” Alari said. “They’ll come for you next, before they come for me.”

Dae flexed her hands and cracked her knuckles.

“That sounds delightful to me,” she said.

Alari sighed and looked away, caressing the shrub and letting its tiny spurs dig into the palm of her hand.

“That’s the one order I can’t give you, isn’t it?” Alari asked.

“What?” Dae asked, walking up to her queen and touching Alari lightly on the shoulder.

“I can’t order you to protect yourself before me,” Alari said. “Or from me.”

“My queen,” Dae said. “As your knight, I can never put you anywhere except first before all others, most definitely including myself.”

“But…” Alari began before Dae cut her off.

“And even if I wasn’t your knight,” Dae said. “I can’t risk losing you. It’s greedy, and it’s selfish, and I don’t care. In protecting you, I’m protecting myself too. You saw the state I fell into when we were apart, and that was when I could cling to the hope that you were doing fine without me. There is so much farther down I could go if you were lost for real.”

“Don’t,” Alari said. “Let me at least command you there. You don’t get to be the only one who’s selfish and greedy. I have to think of the whole kingdom in every other choice I make, give me at least this; if I fall, if I’m lost, do not follow me down. I don’t care if this isn’t fair to ask of you, but if I die, you have to live. And live well.”

“You are truly cruel, you know that don’t you?” Dae asked. “Dying for you is such a simple proposition. Living is complicated, and if I’m going to do that, I insist that I not have to do it alone.”

“I have plans to die when the reaper has lost count of the winters I’ve seen,” Alari said. “I envision being asleep in a comfy bed in a far away cabin, while the successor of my successor’s successor rules the kingdom with peace and prosperity for all.”

“I can allow that,” Dae said. “Provided I am in the cabin to fight the reaper when they arrive.”

Alari rolled her eyes and laughed.

“Well enough, my knight,” she said. “I shall hold you to that promise at least then. As we come upon dire hours where hope seems lost, you will remember the goodly cottage we shall build in our age and infirmity, and remember that you are bound to this life until our bones can rest together there.”

“You are a wise queen, my lady,” Dae said. “That is a promise I can bind myself to freely and without reservation.”

“Good,” Alari said, quiet and serious for a moment. “Though, would you say the same if I asked you as myself, rather than commanded it as your queen?”

“Alari,” Dae said, “You have always been more than my princess, and more than my queen. I am bound to you by more than duty, and more than rank, and more than any promise you could ever ask of me. You are Gallagrin’s Queen, and are owned in part by all it’s people, but while my mind knows that, in my greedy heart, we are still young and the cares of the kingdom are far away and your are mine and I am yours.”

“I’m not worthy of you, my Adae,” Alari said. “You give me so much of yourself and I can only give you the parts of me which Gallagrin has not already stolen away.”

“Gallagrin has taken nothing from you that matters,” Dae said. “I know there are parts of your life that I can never share, burdens which I can never help you carry, commitments that must come first before me.  Those don’t matter though. They’ve never mattered. They’re a part of what it means to be in your life, and I accepted that a long time ago. You are worth that price.”

“And now who is the cruel one?” Alari asked, wiping a tear from her eye.

“You,” Dae said. “Definitely you. Because I know you’re going to ask me to do something terrible next.”

“It’s not terrible,” Alari said. “Or at least not physically painful. But before I get to that, tell me of the new candidate you’ve found?”

“I cannot express how much ‘not physically painful’ is failing to reassure me,” Dae said. “So, yes, let’s talk about Lady Lafli.”

“This is Jyl, not Jain, correct?” Alari asked.

“You know your noble families better than I remember,” Dae said.

“A necessary evil of ruling them,” Alari said. “Minor families have the same basic needs as major ones and can be a stronger base if they’re united.”

“You always did like having more chess pieces on the board didn’t you?” Dae asked.

“It’s the easiest way to win,” Alari said.

“Unless your opponent notices that you have seven rooks in play,” Dae said.

“I only used that gambit once,” Alari said. “It turns out pawns are much harder for your opponent to keep track of.”

“Jyl is definitely not a pawn,” Dae said. “She earned her Pact Spirit the hard way.”

“Stole it from another family?” Alari asked.

“No,” Dae said. “She quested for it. Found one of the old ruins, ventured in deeper than anyone else had gone before and woke the spirit that was sleeping there.”

“With a young spirit her powers must be significantly limited,” Alari said.

“They should be, but that’s not what I’ve observed so far,” Dae said. “It’s possible that either the spirit has had previous bearers before it dropped into slumber, or that she’s a prodigy with working magic. Or, and this is my guess, both are the case.”

“You were looking for more than just skill and power though I believe,” Alari said, resuming her walk through the garden.

“Yes, and that’s why I want her as part of your guard,” Dae said. “Her thoughts are slippery and sneaky. She’s not concerned about winning so much as achieving her objectives.”

“That seems a rather fine distinction to draw,” Alari said.

“It’s the difference between trying to score a point and making sure if you wind up on the ground that you’re foe goes down too,” Dae said. Alari’s pace was a relaxing one, designed to draw out their time alone together as long it could reasonably be stretched. In theory, since they were in a secure location, Dae should have walked several paces behind her queen, but Alari had disallowed that sort of nonsense since the first day they met. Instead, the two women walked side by side, each dutifully not staring at the other.

“You wish my personal guard to prioritize defeating my foes by any means necessary rather than performing their duties to the technical limit of what is required of them?” Alari asked.

“That’s the general idea,” Dae said, and then winced. “And I am going to regret saying that before this conversation is over aren’t I?”

“I could lie if that would calm your nerves?” Alari said.

“Please do,” Dae said.

“Alas, to you, I will never lie, my Knight,” Alari said.

“You are fortunate that I love you so dearly, my Queen,” Dae said. “So much that I would never imagine mixing Inchesso Mudbloom into the royal hair tonics.”

“I thought it was your duty to protect my body from all forms of harm?” Alari asked.

“Indeed it is, dear liege,” Dae said. “But who can say that you wouldn’t appear most fetching with blue and green streaks in the royal mane?”

“I believe I know who shall be testing the royal tonics before I next use them,” Alari said.

“As you command, Your Majesty,” Dae said, bowing low with a delighted grin on her face.

“You are a wicked knight,” Alari said.

“Yes,” Dae said. “Every bit as wicked as you need me to be.”

“Then perhaps you’ll enjoy what I have to ask you,” Alari said. “I need someone to infiltrate Paxmer. And it needs to be someone of unparalleled skill whom I can trust with more than my life.”

“I hate the idea of being parted from you,” Dae said. “It worked out rather poorly the last time we tried it seven years ago, but if it means eliminating a threat to you before it can cross into Gallagrin in the first place, you need only name the target.”

“It’s not that simple,” Alari said.

Dae sighed.

“It never is, is it?” she said.

“I’m going to destroy Paxmer,” Alari said, without breaking her stride or placing any more emphasis on the words than if she’d announced what she was going to have for breakfast.

“That’s understandable,” Dae said. “Am I to start slaying them from a particular point in the country or shall I begin with the largest obstacles and work down from there?”

“Your blade has shed all of the Paxmer blood I need it to,” Alari said. “And for this mission, you will need more than Kirios for support.”

“Kirios and I can do quite a lot together,” Dae said.

“Yes, including save my kingdom and my position in it,” Alari said. “But this venture will require more than one of the Queen’s Guard.”

“Jyl is untrained,” Dae said. “She’ll learn fast, but I don’t think she’ll be able to handle more than a tenth of Paxmer or so on her own.”

“It is fortunate then that I have another candidate for you to review for the Queen’s Guard,” Alari said.

“Who?” Dae asked. “I thought I saw all of the candidates for the Royal Guard this year?”

“You did,” Alari said. “The person I speak of is Mayleena Telli.”

Dae stopped short, and shook her head to make sure she’d heard Alari correctly.

“The Duchess of Tel?” she asked. “Duke Telli’s daughter?”

“She still refuses her title,” Alari said. “But she has sworn her allegiance to me directly.”

“What took her so long?” Dae asked. “I thought we were going to have to root her out of Elinspire with a team of wild horses.”

“I doubt very much the horses would have come away from the encounter in a serviceable state,” Alari said.

“Why will I need her help?” Dae asked.

“Because you will need at least two ladies in waiting,” Alari said. “Any less than that and it will seem suspicious when you call upon your mother in Paxmer.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 5

Jyl Lafli wasn’t supposed to have a Pact Spirit. She knew that. Her family knew that. Everyone who’d ever met her knew that.

The Lafli family were minor nobles, more honored army captains than true nobility. As such, they were entitled to bear arms for the crown and rely on the crown’s funds to support them in a lifestyle which would be considered lavish for a peasant but only barely adequate for true nobility.

Families like the Lafli’s weren’t uncommon in Gallagrin. Between the threats of border fighting that had gone on since the formation of Gallagrin and the various non-sapient monsters that lurked within the dark corners of the kingdom there was always the need for a plentiful supply of soldiers and skilled captains. Good fighters could demand high pay for the work they did but Gallagrin found it useful to offset some of that expense with the social prestige and privilege that came with a noble title.

The Lafli’s had been as pleased with the arrangement as any other family. There were things which gold alone could not buy one access too after all, and like many of the lesser families the Lafli’s had seen their title as the stepping stone to consolidation with a larger, more influential family through marriage or treaty.

Those dreams had come crashing to earth with the coronation of Alari, the Red Handed Queen because, like many others, the Lafli’s had aligned themselves with the wrong faction in the civil war.

In their defense, in the early days of Alari’s revolt against her father, her cause had seemed like a dangerous gamble at best. King Sathe held ancient power at his fingertips both in the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin and in the defense of Highcrest. Those advantages were layered on top of a strong reserve of Royal troops and the armies of many of the country’s noble houses. Viewed with a coldly analytical eye, the Lafli’s could be forgiven for siding with the known power of the legitimately crowned King of Gallagrin.

And so they were. One of Alari’s first acts as Queen was a review of those who had sided with her father during the war. Most of her enemies were granted pardons or forgiven their misplaced loyalties. Alari had inherited a realm divided and painted in deep shades of kin-shed blood. Healing the wounds that she had helped cause, and lancing out the truly depraved malignancies that had grown in the course of her father’s reign had been the focus of Alari’s early years as queen.

It was work that ongoing as well, though some forgivenesses came slower than others.

In Jyl’s case, the Lafli family had been reinstated to their traditional position, but requests for new Pact Spirits had been stonewalled. There were fewer available in the wake of the war when so many had geared up for combat. Those men and women who’d taken on full or partial pact bindings had settled into quieter lives, but the spirits they were bound to were with them for the rest of their lives.

Neither Jyl nor her twin sister Jain were even interviewed to become Pact Warriors. As scions of a lesser house, they would have normally held the right to compete for a full Pact Spirit binding. The families who had allied with Princess Alari in the civil war were given priority though and in the time of shortage that meant few of those who didn’t stand with her were granted the opportunity to advance.

Jyl had looked at her position and seen that she was destined to be part of a generation which fell behind. It wasn’t fair, but she’d also seen, even as a young girl, what life under the Butcher King had been like. From the partial understanding she had as a child and the stories she collected as an adult, she couldn’t fault the Queen for her actions. Gallagrin had been injured by the civil war. There were great pains which the country was in the process of healing, and that healing had come at great price, both to Gallagrin and to Jyl’s family, but it had been worth it.

That wasn’t a popular opinion to hold in the Lafli family. Jyl’s two eldest uncles and six of her cousins had perished in the war. Jyl didn’t see that as Queen Alari’s fault. It had been her grandfather’s decision to openly support King Sathe in an attempt to wedge the family deeper into the King’s good graces.

Once upon a time, she’d hated her grandfather for that decision. That had been an easy path to take when her mother returned home from the first campaign of the war with horror stories of the manner in which the King’s forces were made to fight.

Her mother had refused to return to battle and had been disowned from the family for cowardice but in Jyl’s eyes no braver woman had ever lived.

That was why she’d refused to give up when she grew old enough to call for a pact bonding.

The noble families of Gallagrin held the runic stones on which were inscribed the true names of the Pact Spirits that were passed down from generation to generation. Those were not the only Pact Spirits one could call upon though. When the Sleeping Gods walked the earth they crafted many spirits and set them to many tasks. Once those tasks were completed, the spirits either returned to the god who formed them, or fell into a slumber of their own, usually within something they were invested in.

With no ancestral Pact Spirit to call her own, Jyl had been required to forge her destiny and seek out one on her own. All the work that had gone into that though, all the trials she’d overcome and in the end she’d failed anyways.

“You didn’t fail,” Daelynne Akorli said, throwing a dry towel to the small, sweat covered girl.

“I didn’t make it to the top,” Jyl said, wiping her face dry and uttering a silent prayer that her workout had left her flushed. Standing before the Queen’s Knight, the daughter of the Lafli family felt every bit as insignificant as she’d ever imagined herself to be. Being able to hide her embarrassment behind her labored breathing was an unexpected mercy on a trip that had seen her hopes crushed under the weight of her own inadequacy.

“The test wasn’t to get to the top of the mountain,” the Queen’s Knight said. “I was looking for something else there. Can you tell me what that was?”

Jyl hid her face in the towel for a moment to buy herself time to think.

They’d been tasked to climb a mountain without the use of their Pact Spirits. So it was a test of their bodies, rather than their mystical might. Except the Queen’s Knight was saying that she hadn’t failed. So not her body then, which she knew to be woefully unprepared for the task, but perhaps her spirit?

“You wanted to see if we would give up?” Jyl asked.

“I wanted to see a lot of things. That was one of them. What else though?”

Jyl tried to remember the climb. The long, brutal climb. What had it shown about the applicants?

“If we would cheat, if we could take orders,” Jyl said working through the question as she spoke. “You wanted to see how we would approach an obstacle like that. One that we weren’t trained for.”

“Yeah, you didn’t fail at all,” the Queen’s Knight said.

“But I gave up,” Jyl said. “Before the storm.”

“Let’s talk about that. Why were you climbing after the storm?”

“I hadn’t reached the top yet,” Jyl said. “I was hoping if I continued on I wouldn’t be too late, but then you and the others came down first.”

“And why did you turn back?”

“The storm was too close,” Jyl said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it and I didn’t want anyone to have to risk themselves rescuing me.”

“Flying’s pretty fun too isn’t it?” The Queen’s Knight handed Jyl a canteen filled with a sweet and slightly salty beverage.

“I’m not very good with it,” Jyl said, draining the canteen. She was thirstier than she’d noticed, which wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Checking in with her pact spirit, Jyl saw that her companion was feeding her a slow trickle of magic to ward off the effects of mild dehydration.

“You reached the base camp and didn’t break any bones. Somedays that’s good enough.”

“It’s difficult to practice with,” Jyl said, finding it easier to talk about the intricacies pact magic with the legendary Knight than about personal matters, especially personal failings. “It takes so much magic to power the wings that it’s hard to have any left for control.”

“I can give you some pointers on that,” the Lady Akorli said. “The most basic trick is to use the air around you rather than fight with it.”

“Thank you,” Jyl said. “I’ll probably need to go back to my family in a few days though won’t I?”

“That all depends,” Dae said and took her cloak off. “Want to go a round?”

“With you?” Jyl asked, coughing in surprise.

“Yeah, light sparring,” Dae said. “We don’t have to count points, I’m just curious about something.”

Jyl’s mind went fuzzy for a moment, but her mouth blessedly worked on its own.

“Yes! Certainly!” she said.

The two women stepped into one of the open sparring circles and a crowd began to gather to watch them. This did nothing to alleviate Jyl’s nervousness but at least when she got her butt handed to her no one was going to say it was because she was weak.

All I have to do is last till the end of the round, she told herself, knowing that even a simple action like that would win her back the respect that her trick on the mountain had cost her.

“When you’re ready,” Dae said and in the blink of an eye the Queen’s Knight was garbed in a set of basic grey steel armor, fitting for a senior guardsman perhaps.

Sharply aware that she had to make the most of the time given to her, Jyl followed suit and transformed in a blink into the strongest, fastest armor she could conjure forth.

Dae offered a cheerful salute, and assumed a basic ready stance with her sword held in front of her.

Jyl knew an instructor’s invitation to begin a battle when she saw one. She’d trained too long in various fighting arts under her mother’s tutelage to miss either the opening that was provided or the various traps for the unwary who tried for too aggressive an offense.

When she was a young girl, Jyl had tried any number of wild and unpredictable openings but time and experience had taught her that, against a more experienced foe, wild opening attacks translated to wildly unpredictable gaps in her defense which her foe was better able to see than she was.

Her initial attack therefore was a probing series of blows. The first few lacked commitment and served to simply ask how aggressive the Queen’s Knight intended to be. If Dae had answered them with a blistering offense, Jyl was in her best position to fall back and parry any blows that were sent towards her.

Dae’s response was measured though. She had the height and reach advantage on her foe and wasn’t going to be drawn into over committing herself easily.

With every nerve singing with excitement, Jyl stepped up the pace of the battle. Her armor was focused on granting her speed over strength, but she was small enough that even the mild improvement of her physique allowed her to project force that seemed out of place with her stature.

Dae wasn’t fooled by the size disparity though. Any experienced Pact fighter was used to discounting their opponents appearance when it came to evaluating their capabilities. Despite that though, Jyl’s speed did take Dae off guard.

Pressing her advantage, the smaller fighter stepped in quickly and bound Dae’s sword arm in a grapple. Jyl wasn’t able to hold the grapple longer than a second, but that was enough time to get in a long slash across Dae’s back and a stab into the armor of Dae’s upper arm.

Neither attack penetrated Dae’s armor, but Jyl felt wildly ecstatic that she’d managed to land the blows at all.

Her delight turned to terror as she saw that she’d left herself open for a takedown to the floor and that Dae looked to have every intention of driving her into the earth.

Jyl rolled at the last fraction of a second, taking Dae down with her but managing to ensure that they landed on the ground side by side.

A whistle blew, signaling the end of the round and Jyl danced up to her feet breathless and blown away by the struggle. She’d expected to be unconscious, or at least knocked out of the ring and instead she’d landed two blows and escaped a grapple. She wasn’t certain but she thought that if she died that very moment, she’d leave a very happy ghost behind.

Then it got better.

“I was going to offer you a job, but after that display it’s not an offer anymore,” Dae said. “Pack your things, you’re coming to work with me.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 4

Of the many meeting rooms and presentations halls and audience chambers in the grand castle of Highcrest, Dae had never foreseen herself sitting in the Memory Room. With the everburning pyre of divine fire that sat in the center of the room, it was easy to believe the legends that claimed no lies could be uttered by those seated at the spirit-etched central table that ringed the heavenly bonfire.

The Memory Room was, again according to legend, where the Gallagrin’s Spirit Intercessor was entombed. When the Sleeping Gods fell into their great (and presumably eternal) slumber, the auxiliary spirits which they maintained largely fell into the godsleep with them. The Spirit Intercessor had once been the one who communicated with Gallagrin’s ruler on whatever divine matters the crown was meant to pursue.

In the centuries since the Intercessor went down to slumber in the earth, the room where they were spoken too had become one of the highest level planning rooms in the castle. The myth that no lies could be told in the Intercessor’s presence was less believed to be a magical geas and more a warning that was best heeded by anyone who didn’t wish to invoke the Intercessor’s wrath.

“Thank you for joining us today,” Alari said, addressing the four men and women she’d assembled for what Dae thought of as a pre-War Council.

“We are a surprisingly small group, Your Majesty,” General Karlin Limli said. “With the immanence of spring, I thought you might be inclined to summon the full council to discuss the possibility of an early campaign?”

Dae steepled her hand in front of her mouth to cover a smile. Karlin was as delightfully direct as Alari had warned Dae he would be. That directness was clearly attributable to his position.He was the senior commander of the Southern Royal Armies, the same Southern Royal Armies which had endured the worst of the fighting with Paxmer six years previously and on earlier occasions during the Butcher King’s reign. Karlin hadn’t been the commander of the crown’s southern forces until after Alari took the throne, but he’d still been shaped by the pressure of holding Gallagrin’s most vulnerable border despite the lack of overt attacks on it during his tenure.

“Just the reverse General,” Alari said. “We do not wish to wage either an early campaign or a late one this year.”

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Karlin said, “but I don’t believe Paxmer is going to allow you a choice in that matter.”

“Paxmer can’t do anything to us,” Admiral Yonda Kemere said. “Not on land at least.”

As the senior commander for the Gallagrin navy, Yonda’s dismissal of land-based threats was as common as it was understandable.

“That’s not what our spies are telling us,” Karlin said. “Paxmer’s been building up stockpiles of weapons and armor for years.”

“You didn’t need spies to tell you that,” Yonda said. “Just ask anyone in one of my ships. We’re the ones those weapons are getting used on!”

“Bah, you just run away on the wind,” Karlin said. “That’s not an option when you’ve got an army in front of you and your house behind you.”

“Paxmer is a threat,” Alari said. “We acknowledge that and grant both of you your concerns. It is still our desire that no formal levy of royal or noble troops be made this coming season.”

“If you acknowledge the threat, you must act on it Your Majesty,” Karlin said. “If we leave Paxmer the option of taking the initiative we’ll lose every keep, fort, and border town that we have along our entire southern expanse.”

“That sounds bad, but I’m sorry to say that the Navy’s needs are more dire than that,” Yonda said. “You’ve seen the reports haven’t you Your Majesty? We’re not facing wood and steel on the waves any longer.”

“What do you mean?” Karlin asked. “Has Paxmer put new ships into the sea?”

“No,” Alari said. “They’re simply crewing their existing ships with new weapons.”

“We face dragons on the borders Your Majesty,” Karlin said. “Whatever they’re throwing at the navy, it can’t be as bad as that.”

“It can be exactly as bad as that,” Sir Faen Kemoral, the commander of the Royal Guard, said. The Royal Guard were, essentially, one of the Royal Armies but their command structure reported directly to the crown rather than to a General and while the Royal Guard’s charter called for them to secure the capital and provide for the defense of the royal city, history had stretched the definition of the areas they were allowed to work in to include acting as special supplementary troops in any area where danger might arise that could threaten the crown.

“What’s as bad as a dragon?” Karlin asked.

“Another dragon,” Yonda said. “That’s what they’ve been sending against us!”

“I can confirm that,” Faen said. “I’ve lost a full squad and a half trying to safeguard shipments sent from the Sunlost Isles.”

“Those squads were on only two of the seven ships which have been sunk in the last three months,” Yonda said. “We can’t run away on the wind when we’ve got dragons in front of us and slow moving cargo ships sailing in our wake.”

“How are they getting dragons out onto the water?” Karlin asked. “That’s impossible. Paxmer dragons can only live in Paxmer.”

“We have tasked some of our scholars to answer that question,” Alari said. “Their belief is that so long as the ships remain under Paxmer control, the vessel counts as ‘Paxmer territory’ and thus the dragons can abide there.”

“That’s an enormous risk though,” Karlin said. “And dragons aren’t risk taking creatures.”

“The ones that live to an old age aren’t,” Yonda said. “These are young ones though.”

“That’s a poor turn of fortune then.” Karlin said. “But I am still unclear on why we’ve been assembled here?”

“Gallagrin faces many problems,” Alari said. “The threat of invasion is real, although the form it will take is likely not the one we are familiar with. The challenge to our claim on the sea is real, and the solution to it is one which does not present itself readily. You are not hear to discuss Gallagrin’s problems though. You are here to discuss the solutions to Gallagrin’s problems.”

“The solution I recommend is an early assault into Paxmer territory,” Karlin said. “If we strike deep and hard, we can force their hand and make them play out the campaign seasons of the year in response to us. If we make them focus on mitigating the damage we’re doing, we can keep them from having the time or resources to do damage to us in return.”

“That is a tried and tested strategy,” Alari said. “But it falls short for our needs on this occasion. Firstly because it requires too great a commitment of forces, forces which we do not have and cannot raise without doing material harm to the Duchys of the south.”

“The crown has imposed troop levies on the populace since the first time it was worn,” Karlin said.

“Troops levied for defensive battles enjoy the benefits which Gallagrin provides us,” Alari said. “We are not an easy country to assault. Soldiers fed into the plains of Paxmer will not be sheltered by our mountains, or protected by the creatures with which we hold unspoken truces. But there is another reason an assault on Paxmer will fail.”

“The troops would be green,” Karlin said. “I know the limitation of our forces but I ask that you have faith in our people. It may cost them, but they can see a campaign such as this through to the end.”

“It will be a bitter end for all if we allow them to go,” Alari said. “Even should they return home in victory, there would be no food awaiting them.”

“No food?” Karlin asked. “But the restoration of the farmlands has been the crown’s primary concern since your rule began. How can the farmers still be lagging at their work?”

“They are not,” Alari said. “Our fields are restored and produced full crops last year.”

“They must have,” Yonda said. “We shipped more goods in the fall than we have in years.”

“And therein lies the problem,” Alari said. “In his bid for the throne, Halrek needed a war chest. Those funds came from authorizing the sale of not only our storable crops last year but also the future sale of the crops this year promises to produce.”

“That’s insane,” Karlin said. “Why should we be bound by the actions of that lunatic?”

“Because he accepted payment for the crops from Senkin, Sunlost, Inchesso and Authzang. Payment which we have as yet failed to locate,” Alari said.

“Can we deliver the crops and not starve if the farmers remain on their land?” Faen asked.

“Our advisors believe so,” Alari said. “Halrek was borrowing from the future, not seeking to destroy it.”

“And if we renege on the contract?” Karlin asked.

“In the worst case, we’ll be facing invasion from more than just Paxmer,” Alari said. “A more likely course however would be that Paxmer’s campaign against us would gain the support of the countries with whom we broke faith.”

“So either we face an invasion with too few troops or we face several invasions with troops who will starve at the end of the fighting?” Karlin asked. “That does not paint a picture which offers many solutions, Your Majesty.”

“It sounds like my request for larger squads of marines is not one you’re willing to entertain either?” Yonda asked.

“In the face of dragon fire, more troops do not strike us as a workable answer,” Alari said. “Neither is abandoning our place on the waves though. There is too much we cannot produce within our borders and too few fair markets across our neighbor’s borders.”

“It sounds as though you want it all, Your Majesty,” Faen said. “A secure country, prosperous citizens and good relations with those we border.”

“You are correct Sir Kemoral,” Alari said.

“But not with Paxmer. certainly?” Karlin asked.

“With Paxmer, we will be on the best of terms,” Alari said. “But it will not be the Paxmer which stands today.”

“I do not take your meaning, You Majesty?” Karlin said.

“Then allow us to be clear,” Alari said. “Paxmer invaded our country. They violated  the sanctity of our realm, our person, and our holy trust. We do not forgive them for this.”

Dae wasn’t certain, but she thought the eternal flame burning at the center of the room flared steadily brighter as Alari spoke.

“Paxmer thinks they want a war with us,” Alari said. “They think they can weaken us with their stratagems and then march their troops in to claim dominion over our realm. They are patient and cunning and, given time, they would be correct.”

Dae flicked her gaze from Alari to the eternal flame and saw that she was correct. It was glowing ever brighter the more the Queen of Gallagrin spoke.

“That is why we will not give them time,” Alari said.

The light from the eternal flame was mirrored in by the white elements of the royal regalia to the point where Alari was surrounded by a nimbus of faint light.

“We will wage no early or late campaign against Paxmer this season,” Alari said. “What we will do to Paxmer will be no sort of campaign at all. We are going to destroy our enemy utterly. Paxmer called us to war six years ago and set the terms as a battle of subterfuge and betrayal.”

In the eternal flame, Dae saw the shape of a figure starting to form, as though the fire were a messenger recording a royal proclamation.

“We accept those terms,” Alari said. “If Paxmer wishes to see how far the Red Handed Queen will go to secure her realm then we will be glad to educate them as we educated our father on that matter.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 3

Queen Haldri Paxmer escorted her guests into an interrogation chamber the size of gladiatorial arena.

“We afford you a rare honor today,” Haldri said to her three visitors from Gallagrin. “It is not often that we take a personal hand in the dispensation of our court’s justice.”

In the center of the grand, dark stone room, a man lay strapped to an inclined table. To his left, a pit of coals glowed bright orange. Various implements were heating in the fire, but from the burns on the man’s body it looks as though he was already well acquainted with them.

“And what has this poor wretch done to deserve your royal attention?” Baron Gedli asked.

The Baron was a simple man. He aspired to be a wise commander, but his wisdom was born out of fear. He feared for his family. He feared for the people he commanded and the people he was sworn to protect. He feared for them so much that he walked willingly into the stronghold of his enemy and offered his surrender without ever being aware of what he was doing.

It helped sustain his delusion that he was entering into a peaceful covenant with Paxmer rather than betraying Gallagrin when Haldri invited him to attend her as an honored guest rather than demanding his supplication and surrender in the face of her undeniable might. The truth was that both parties knew the fate which awaited Gedli’s garrison keep on the day when Paxmer found it expedient to move against Gallagrin in force. Since the Baron was capable of swallowing wildly blatant lies however, Haldri felt the need to impress upon him in a visceral manner what happened to those who invoked her wrath.

The man strapped to the table, the bandit who had earned the queen’s displeasure, didn’t move or react as the interrogation party drew near, but his labored breathing gave away the fact that he was still alive. Haldri made a note to have her Chief Interrogator brought up for review. The prisoner’s case had been escalated to her attention but there was still basic work that could have been done on him. Even a cursory glance revealed that the subject still possessed all of his digits and that suggested other techniques had been abbreviated or skipped entirely.

Haldri expected better workmanship when it came to dealing with those who gave offense to her or her realm than what she saw before her. She could grant that her method of interrogation was more certain than anything the Chief Interrogator could manage but her time was too precious to be squandered on cleaning up his half performed duties.

“This one was accused of banditry,” Haldri said, drawing a red hot poker from the fire beside the man. It had been used but only sparingly so far, as though that were some form of mercy?

“I take it you don’t have many bandits in Paxmer?” Master Merrin Quick asked. As the head of a Gallagrin-based transportation guild, Merrin was drawn to focus on the elements in Paxmer that could impact the safety or viability of moving goods through the country. Particularly, goods that were illicit in Gallagrin. Haldri smiled at that. Of the queen’s three guests, Merrin was the most blatantly mercenary. It was refreshing. The woman had levers to pull, and she didn’t try to hide them. Instead she put a price tag on each one and made no attempt at pretending to be anything except what she was.

“You will find our highways and tolls free of the perils which plague your country’s thoroughfares,” Haldri said. “The harshness of the punishments we inflict serve as a shield to all of those who abide by our rule.”

“And yet you don’t make a spectacle of the punishment?” Duchess Sanli asked. She watched the Paxmer queen with unfeigned interest. Haldri saw in Sanli’s eyes a hunger for the sort of definitive power which a queen wielded. Sanli was, from everything Haldri could see, a kindred soul. The two of them, duchess and queen, had minds which sought power before all else and security of that power second. All of the rest of life was either an amusement or a means to discover exploitable weaknesses in others.

On a personal level, the Duchess of San was the guest Haldri most enjoyed entertaining. The two women could speak for hours at length with little in terms of fundamental disagreements to come between them.

That was why Haldri trusted the Duchess of San the least of any person present, and that included the bandit who had sworn a life oath to destroy the Paxmer Queen.

Haldri was willing to work with the Duchess of San, but Gallagrin was a pit of scorpions, as her brother Halrek’s fate had proven. Even scorpions could be useful tools when properly employed but careful handling was always required.

“The spectacle comes during the trial and after the interrogation is concluded,” Haldri said. “Our techniques are not for anyone to see, only their results.”

“People see a lot of dead bodies,” Merrin said. “Anyone with the guts to rob a queen isn’t going to let a little thing like a full body mauling slow them down.”

“Those who are found guilty of stealing from the crown of Paxmer or its people are not slain,” Haldri said. “That would be a waste of a perfectly good resource.”

“What do you do with them?” Baron Gedli asked.

“We let them go,” Haldri said. The Duchess of San smiled, understanding the implications of that, but Merrin frowned. The guildmaster was clever enough to see where the queen’s words were leading them but she lacked a frame of reference to judge the impact the queen’s interrogation could have on a subject.

“That doesn’t seem like it would dissuade further banditry,” Baron Gedli said. He was struggling to understand how showing what he assumed to be mercy could stand in for making the hard calls that were required to keep lawlessness in check. Haldri was more than willing to let that misconception stand until Gedli saw the final results of the interrogation.

“Are you not dissuaded?” the queen asked the bandit.

Predictably, the man didn’t answer. His will was unbroken and he had nothing to gain by answering questions the queen posed to him. Or rather he had nothing to gain until she casually traced the glowing poker up the inside of his bare leg.

Haldri didn’t watch the man’s reaction to the pain. It was too predictable. Instead, she glanced at her guests and measured their appetites for tableau before them.

Gedli scowled, his jaw rigid in suppressed empathy with the captive.

Merrin’s gaze by contrast showed only a clinical sort of interest. What was happening held neither profit nor loss for her. The uniqueness of the event lent the act of observing it interest but given enough time that would wane and Haldri guessed that Merrin would find the affair nothing more than dull.

It was Sanli’s attention that surprised the queen though. Haldri had expected the Duchess to be delighted by the occasion. The queen didn’t indulge in torture as a general recreation but when her duties called for it, she’d always found a certain thrill in taking a personal role in meting out her kingdom’s justice. For a moment it struck Haldri as odd that Sanli would disdain corporal punishment, but then the Duchess flashed Haldri a small smile and gestured with her eyes for the queen to continue.

Haldri applied the poker again, and saw another smile light across Sanli’s face. Haldri’s lips parted in appreciative understanding a moment later. Sanli’s frown hadn’t been one of disapproval for the proceedings but rather disapproval of the lazy technique the queen employed.

The man rambled off some pain addled diatribe against Haldri’s reign to which she paid little attention. “You are the true bandit” and other ridiculous claims tumbled out between the man’s screams as though he was hoping to goad the queen into killing him in a rage and ending his misery.

A younger Haldri might have fallen prey to that strategy. Even with more than a decade behind her on the throne, the Haldri who held the poker felt surges of bloodlust tremble down to her fingertips with each word the man spoke. Age brought self control though. What lay in store for the man was far worse than anything Haldri could do even if she was given every tool and toxin she could imagine.

“You are right good Baron,” Haldri said, pausing from her work. “This one’s will is intact. If we release him now, he will grow to be as terrible a thorn in our side as he can manage to be. Worse still, he will inspire others in his revolt.”

“Then you will end him?” Baron Gedli asked.

“No,” Haldri said. “He will depart this chamber alive and free.”

“How can you allow that? Is it because even at his worse he’ll have so little power to affect you and yours?” Gedli asked.

“Only a fool would think that an enemy could never harm them,” Duchess Sanli said. “And the Queen of Paxmer is no fool at all.”

“I’m noticing how big this chamber is,” Merrin said. “Interesting given that I only see one interrogation table in here.”

“You are very observant guildmaster,” Haldri said. “But now we are afraid we must bid you leave. The next stage of the interrogation is not one you would survive observing.”

All three guests were caught off guard by that.

“Exit through the south door,” Haldri said. “One of our retainers will be waiting for you and will see you to our banquet hall.”

“Will you have an appetite after this work?” Gedli asked.

“Of course,” Haldri said. “It will be noontime.”

“And will we see the results of your interrogation?” the Duchess Sanli asked.

“We shall present our findings and release our prisoner following tea,” Haldri said.

From the north end of the great chamber, a deep rumbling of stone on stone arose. That, as much as the queen’s direction, motivated the Gallagrin guests to move towards the south door. All three counted themselves fortunate to reach the safety of the room beyond before the next phase of the interrogation began.

Haldri on the other hand was glad to stay. Her royal duties kept her awash in the problems of the kingdom. She spent nearly every waking hour dealing with her people and their problems. That was right and proper for a queen, but it meant Haldri didn’t get to spend anywhere near as much time as she wanted to with her other half.

“Hello Haldraxan,” Haldri said as a beast of scale, and claw, and fire, and smoke pushed himself into the room. Despite the vast size of the interrogation chamber, Haldraxan’s presence made it feel full to the bursting point.

“Hello Haldri,” the dragon said and lowered his head to be beside her.

Between them there were no titles and no honorifics. Haldri ruled Paxmer’s people. Haldraxan ruled Paxmer’s spirits. Together they ruled its land and wealth and all was as it should be.

“What have we today?” Haldraxan asked.

“A bandit,” Haldri said. “One who has stolen from us.”

“I smell the blood of Paxmer within his veins,” Haldraxan said.

“I know,” Haldri said. “I shall remedy that.”

“You will never make me forswear my country!” the man said.

“We do not need to,” Haldri said. “We are you country and by our judgment we forswear you and yours. You and those descended from you are no more children of Paxmer. We cast you out of our circle. We strip you of name and hearth and home. Though your body may linger here, you spirit is unwelcome and you shall not enjoy the solace or protection of our reign.”

“You use and destroy us at every turn! You offer no protection at all!” the man said.

“You shall discover just how wrong you are about that,” Haldri said.

Haldri watched her dragon focus on the trapped man. She watched the dragon fear roll out like a wave through the bandits flesh.

“What does he have that we wish?” Haldraxan asked over the inhuman screams that filled the gargantuan chamber.

“He and his compatriots stole one of our tax shipments,” Haldri said. “There was gold there. Not much in the grand scheme of things perhaps, but it was our gold.”

The queen and the dragon breathed as one in anticipation of reclaiming their plunder and in their hearts there was a song of joy.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 2

Dae ran her hand down Alari’s back gently tracing the outlines of the queen’s spine. Or at least Dae was being as gentle as she could. With three layers of royal silk already draped over the queen, locating where Alari’s spine lay was proving to be a tricky proposition.

“It’s ok if the over-corset is off center,” Alari said. “I only have meetings with the Wagoneers Guild and the Corsi Shipping Syndicate today.”

“You are speaking to an ex-handmaiden, Your Majesty,” Dae said. “We take the job of making you look your best rather seriously.”

Threading up the garment with one hand was a skill Dae had perfected years prior but, as with any skill, lack of practice blunted the edge of perfection a great deal.

“Adae, my dearest and most infuriating, if I wanted to look my best I would have assembled the small army which is usually required to engineer the royal regalia,” Alari said. Despite her complaints, Alari held still, arms reaching towards the ceiling to allow Dae the freedom to adjust the fourth and fifth layers of the queenly garb which Alari was being buried under.

“Are you casting aspersions on my training Your Majesty?” Dae asked. “Training which I will remind you, that you, yourself insisted I be subjected to?”

“It was convenient at the time,” Alari said. “We got to avoid hours of boring meetings and hours of even less pleasant balls, which you can’t tell me you were ungrateful for.”

“I recall being grateful then, yes,” Dae said. “Just as I’m grateful now.”

“So this is revenge?” Alari asked, turning to face Dae as Dae swiveled her around to work on the lacing that ran along Alari’s waist.

“Yes,” Dae said. “Revenge for you allowing yourself to be thrown out a window.”

“And yet, strangely, this is leaving me with the impulse to repeat that trip,” Alari said.

“You are welcome to try,” Dae said. “I would point out though that I have enough lace and ribbon here that I am reasonably certain I could mummify you before you reached the sill.”

“If this goes on much longer I may be inclined to take my chances,” Alari said.

“You’re grumpy when your discomforted, my liege,” Dae said. “Could it be that your wounds still bother you more than you claim?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Alari said. “I am fully mended.”

Dae pulled the laced wrapping cord at the queen’s waist tight and her a squeak of pain escape Alari’s lips. With a triumphant smirk, Dae release the cord by a few inches.

“Fully mended I see,” Dae said, meeting Alari’s disapproving glare with a challenging gaze.

“Mended fully enough that I needn’t rest any further,” Alari said altering her claim in the face of Dae’s implied threat to tighten the waist cord again.

“And the Royal Chirurgeon agreed with that assessment did she?” Dae asked.

“She did not gainsay it,” Alari said, unwilling to meet Dae’s gaze.

“My Queen, my beloved Majesty,” Dae said. “I am sworn to protect you from all threats. Please remember that oath applies even, and most especially, when you are a danger to yourself.”

Dae straightened the last of the ribbons around Alari’s neck ruff and stepped back to judge whether any more adjustments were needed. Alari was right that the process would have been faster with the usual squadron of handmaidens who were responsible for dressing the queen. During Alari’s long convalescence though she’d been loathe to allow anyone except Dae to see the full extent of the wounds that Halrek’s betrayal had inflicted.

“I appreciate that my Adae,” Alari said. “But the quiet of winter is already beginning to thaw to a boisterous spring. As tempting as lounging in the royal bed is, there are wheels that must be set in motion before we are run down by history.”

“Paxmer has answered?” Dae asked, picking up the queen’s favorite brush and indicating for Alari to sit so that Dae could begin work the royal tresses.

“Not as yet,” Alari said. “And while that alone is enough to send a clear signal as to their intentions, we must be ready to respond once they take an overt course.”

“And the meetings today with the transport guilds?” Dae asked, sitting behind Alari and taking up a handful of her hair.

“Our royal court will see it as my returning to direct and active rule rather than acting through proxies as I’ve done for these last four months,” Alari said.

“The transport guilds may not be happy about that,” Dae said. “Your proxies have been more accommodating than you were from the accounts I’ve eavesdropped on.”

“That was at my urging,” Alari said. “The plot against me didn’t get as far as it did without a solid base of support from my nobles. I’m not ready to move against them yet, and I haven’t sifted those who claim to support me from those who actually do.”

“Telli was a great loss wasn’t he?” Dae asked, brushing the tangled ends of Alari’s hair out into smooth waves.

“He was an early supporter,” Alari said. “And he brought a solid contingent of the realm’s nobility with him when he joined my side of the war against my father.”

“Were they all following him, or did his presence give the undecided the courage to back you personally?” Dae asked.

“I suspect I will only know that for certain if I discover one of their daggers in my back,” Alari said.

“Then I’m afraid you’ll be left to wonder about them forever,” Dae said. “Or at least as long as I’m on the job.”

“Even you must sleep though my Knight,” Alari said.

“Which is why you’re allowing me to create the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said.

“Against my better judgment,” Alari said. “With Gallagrin uncontested once more, there is no one who can protect me better than myself.”

“And yet you still named me as your Knight,” Dae said.

“I am a selfish creature,” Alari said. “It was that or you were going to leave for Nath again.”

“I go only where you direct me,” Dae said, putting down the brush and gathering up three strips of Alari’s hair.

“So long as you are beside me, I need no other guardians,” Alari said.

“If you are attacked again, it won’t be by poison and it won’t be by a few assassins,” Dae said and began braiding the queen’s hair. “The next strike against your life will be backed by overwhelming force. After what we did to Telli and the Paxmer prince, the price of failure is too clear. Anyone who attempts to oust you will make sure they have a completely decisive advantage to put in play.“

“Then why place innocent men and women in the path of destruction like that?” Alari asked.

“To raise the level on what will count as a completely decisive advantage,” Dae said. “Ideally I won’t need to protect you from any attacks because I’ll be able to convince people to not attack you in the first place.”

“And how is the search for those extra protectors going?” Alari asked.

Dae finished off the first thin braid and gathered up three strips of hair from the other side of Alari’s head to start the next.

“Not as well as I’d hoped,” Dae said.

“The applicants for a position in the Royal Guard failed their test?” Alari asked.

“Not for a position in the Royal Guard,” Dae said. “Kemoral was happy with what he saw.”

“But you were not,” Alari said, seeing the shape of Dae’s thoughts in nothing more than her words and the tone she spoke them in.

“They were miserable,” Dae said. “One simple physical challenge and they met it with nothing except complaints. They didn’t display the first instinct towards teamwork or any signs of creative thought. I gave them simple rules and they met the challenge without ever testing the boundaries of what they’d been told.”

“Some people do follow instructions better than you do,” Alari said. “That’s not technically a sin you know.”

“I am aware,” Dae said. “I am also aware that a talent for following orders unthinkingly may make them excellent material for the Royal Guard, but your protectors are going to need to be able to see things coming from unexpected angles and react accordingly. Ideally I want people who have that capacity but who don’t think like me.”

“You don’t want them to share your blindspots,” Alari said

“Exactly,” Dae said. “I only have two eyes, I want a hundred watching out for you, in all directions, at every hour.”

“I feel quite safe when your eyes are with me,” Alari said.

“I find that comforting too,” Dae said and then sighed as memory overwhelmed her. “Six years. Six foolish years.”

“If not for those years, we would not be here today,” Alari said. “I regret every wasted moment of them, but I do not regret the today which they led us to.”

“You are wise, my Queen,” Dae said, a warmth blossoming in her chest. “I do not regret our today or our tomorrows either.”

For a moment the queen and her knight, enjoyed a satisfied silence covered by the familiar ritual of hair braiding. Whatever training the queen’s handmaidens received, none of them ever quite mastered the simple act of weaving Alari’s hair the way that Dae had.

For the palace personnel, it was a task which required skill and technical proficiency so that they wouldn’t draw the hair too tight or craft the slim braids with one of the strands being too large or too small.

For Dae it was more than a skill though. It was a form of communion. She didn’t simple weaving Alari’s hair. She spoke to her princess with each layered crossing and her princess responded in kind.

As always the process took less time than Dae would have preferred but as much as she dared claim for it. In the end, Alari looked wonderful, though to Dae’s eyes that had little to do with the preparation of the royal regalia or the careful design of the queen’s hair but rather everything to do with Alari herself.

When Dae met Alari, she had been impressed with the princess’ poise and presence. The child Alari possessed only a small fraction of the force of personality she developed as she grew into her role as queen though. If Dae looked for it, she could catch a glimpse of the girl she first met lingering within the queen, but the years had both given and taken so much that the woman who was the queen was as much an exciting mystery to Dae as the princess had ever been.

“There was one candidate who looked promising though,” Dae said, jumping back to an earlier point in their conversation to take her mind off how intense it was to be with her princess again.

“I thought no one passed your test?” Alari asked.

“No one bested the mountain,” Dae said. “Or me. But there was one who displayed the kind of thinking and perseverance I was looking for.”

“What did they do?” Alari asked.

“I asked them to climb the mountain in a storm without their pact spirit’s help,” Dae said. “The one who impressed me was at the back of the pack and wasn’t going to make it on her own, and none of the other idiots thought to help her.”

“Were you trying to kill my applicants?” Alari asked.

“No, no,” Dae said. “I just wanted to break them in a somewhat specific manner.”

“And how did this one break?” Alari asked.

“She jumped off the mountain,” Dae said. “And flew down to the base camp we’d setup.”

“So she cheated?” Alari asked.

“Yes, but she did it right,” Dae said. “I’d told them they couldn’t use their pacts to climb up the mountain. She only used hers to get back to safety and then as soon as the storm was over she started climbing up again, without her pact spirit’s help, as instructed. The rest of us were coming down the mountain by then, so I had her turn back but I want to see her again. There might be something I can work with there.”

“Good,” Alari said. “That’s excellent. Then perhaps you’ll wind up with two candidates for the Queen’s Guard.”

“Two?” Dae asked. “Who’s the other?”

“The Duchess of Tel has agreed to pay us a visit at last,” Alari said.

“Duke Telli’s daughter is coming here?” Dae asked. “I thought Ren said, she was sickly and couldn’t move till the spring.”

“He didn’t use the word sickly,” Alari said. “He claimed she was beset by a troubled spirit and needed to address that before she could withstand the trip from Elinspire.”

“What does that mean?” Dae asked.

“I don’t know,” Alari said. “It might be that her period of mourning her father has passed and she feels ready enough to confront his killer.”

“Why would you think that?” Dae asked.

“Because she claims she doesn’t care for the title of Duchess,” Alari said. “And that she is coming here because her dearest wish is to meet you.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 1

Below Dae, a chasm twelve hundred feet deep waited like a demon hungry for offerings to fall into its maw. Above her, the mountain called Heaven’s Pillar, Tola-Veyne, soared into a sea of heavy cloud cover. A storm gathered above the summit, building winds and rain, sleet and hail, to scour the foolish and the unwary from the craggy rock face and send them plummeting to their demise far below.

“The air’s gone still,” Dae said, shouting to the dozen of climbers around her, “We’ve got ten minutes, at the most, until the skies break open and washes everybody here away.”

“We can’t get off the mountain in ten minutes,” Kemoral said, his irritation matched only by the unkind mirth it brought to Dae’s heart.

Sir Faen Kemoral was the Senior Commander of the Gallagrin Royal Guard. As such he outranked the commanders and generals of any noble’s house forces, even though the troops he commanded were far fewer in number. Unlike many in the royal capital, Sir Kemoral could also boast of having direct and immediate access to the Queen. His concerns were those of the realm, and therefore her concerns as well. When he spoke, people had good reason to listen.

Despite that, Kemoral was not an attention seeker. He was able to boast of his importance but he rarely, if ever, did. He rarely, if ever, needed to. His face and heraldry were well known, both in High Crest and in the various barracks and military stations which he had cause to visit. He enjoyed an inherent deference from those he interacted with and was careful not to overplay the demands he put on those beneath him in the social order. It was a lesson he’d learned from observing the previous ruler of Gallagrin, King Sathe, the Butcher.

Sathe’s reign had been one of constant fear and humiliation for those around him. Sathe always pushed over the boundaries of tolerable behavior when dealing with those beneath him. It was a tool the tyrant used to keep his underlings beaten, and broken, so that fear would sap away any thoughts of rebellion.

Kemoral hadn’t been the commander of the Royal Guard then, but he’d been high enough in the ranks to see the kind of impact that behavior had on people. In an atmosphere of terror, no one could act efficiently, no one had the drive to do better than what was demanded of them, and no one was willing to say when something was wrong and a better solution existed to a problem.

On those points, he and Dae were in complete agreement, as they were on many other points as well. Despite being largely compatible in their views though, the Senior Commander of the Royal Guard and the Queen’s Knight differed on enough of the “smaller” details that each found the other decidedly antagonistic.

“There’s one path that’ll take you off the mountain in less than ten minutes,” Dae said, looking downwards.

“What should we do then Lady Akorli?” one of the Royal Guard candidates asked, glancing over towards her.

Spread across the mountain face, a dozen of the most promising Pact Warriors of the new year clung to the rock with all of the strength and tenacity they could muster.

“This is part of the test,” Dae said, using Kirios, her Pact Spirit, to amplify her voice. “Your goal is to survive. That’s it. There’s cave entrance a hundred feet above us. That’ll protect you from the storm if you can make it there in time.”

“This test is insane,” Kemoral said, whispering so that only Dae could hear him.

“I thought we agreed,” Dae whispered back and she hoisted herself up to a new set of handholds. “The Queen’s Guard is going to have only the best.”

“You ask too much of them,” Kemoral said, grimacing with the strain of pulling himself up the mountain at Dae’s speed.

“I need to know where they’re going to give up,” Dae said. “We can’t afford to induct quitters into the Queen’s Guard. Not after the problems you’ve been having since Halrek lost his head.”

Kemoral lost his grip as he reached for a new spot, but was able to stay on the sheer wall with one hand and both feet braced properly.

“He didn’t lose it, it was taken from him,” Kemoral said. “A move that, however well justified it was, we are still paying for.”

“You lost over half of the Guard,” Dae said. “Think what that means in terms of how many of them would have betrayed you and the Queen if Halrek hadn’t been stopped?”

“There are many threats to our Queen and Country,” Kemoral said. “In neutralizing one, you exposed her more openly to the others.”

“Given that the threat I neutralized thought he’d successfully killed the Queen, and that he managed to divert the blame for that onto someone else, I don’t think there was ever going to be a path that didn’t expose her to some other perils,” Dae said as she found a pair of solid handholds that brought her another six feet up the cliff.

“You certainly don’t shy away from perils,” Kemoral said, trying and then abandoning three grippable spots before settling on a traversable path upwards.

“I don’t often have the chance to,” Dae said.

“This is ridiculous!” one of the other recruits yelled. “We could have climbed to the top  by now if we could use our Pact spirits!”

“I already told you the rules,” Dae said to them all. “No using your Pact transformations to climb up the mountain.”

“I don’t see the point in this,” Kemoral said. “There’s not a noble son or daughter who applies to the Guard who doesn’t have a strong Pact Spirit bound to them already. What purpose does it serve to torture their bodies like this?”

“You bought your commission, didn’t you?” Dae asked.

“Duke Morli, my grandfather, did,” Kemoral said without self consciousness.

While anyone in Gallagrin could enlist under the banner of their local Duke, those who wished for a position as an officer had to purchase that commission. For command ranks in the individual noble armies, the prices were set by the Noble families in question. Commissions in the Royal Guard were given by the King or Queen and required far greater sums than in a provincial army. Dae’s commission when she had been awarded command of Star’s Watch had come with a cost, despite the fact that the Queen (then Princess) had ordered it of her. Alari had provided the funds from her war chest to, which in turn had paid the salaries of the officers who served under Dae at the time. It was a complicated system, rife with possibility for corruption, but somehow people made it work anyways, though it often left those in charge with little experience directly managing the troops. That task was given to those who’d earned their position the hard way.

“This isn’t a test of their bodies,” Dae whispered. “I want to see what they’re spirits look like.”

“You will push them to their deaths to see in their ghosts what they might have been,” Kemoral said. “That’s brilliant. Simply brilliant.”

The cave mouth was still roughly fifty feet above them as the first, precursor drops of rain began to fall.

Dae looked over the small team that she’d assembled. They were a miserable looking lot. Most were paler cast than Dae from having spent the greater portion of their lives indoors. That sort of lifestyle, even for those who had put in some time training for their Entrance Trials, was showing through in the candidates by the panting and cursing and general displeasure at the activity required of them.

A part of Dae felt sorry noble young men and women, even as she devised still harder challenges to throw against them. The poor children around her, just barely into their adulthood, had come to the Royal Guard Entrance Trials expecting to be judged on their inherited worth. Each bore a Pact Spirit which had served the noble family they belonged to for generations and was therefore quite powerful regardless of how adept the applicant was with the Pact Bond.

In other years, it had taken little more than a willingness to pledge themselves to the crown’s service and a demonstration to show the capabilities of their Pact Spirit, for a candidate to secure a place on the Guard’s roster. Noble sons and daughters were not in such great abundance that the Royal Guard could afford to turn too many away.

With Halrek’s death and the shifting political landscape which followed it though, an unfortunate number of noble families found excuses to call their scions back from the pledge of service to the Royal Court.

That happened at the same time as Dae was trying to piece together a special team dedicated solely to the Queen’s well being. Her goal had been to skim the cream of the crop from the Royal Guide and forge an elite unit, but with the crumbling of the Guard’s membership rolls, there wasn’t enough “cream” left to skim off anymore.

That is what lead Dae to the challenge of clinging to a mountain side as one of the early storms of spring, or late storms of winter, descended upon her. If the Royal Guard couldn’t supply the personnel that she needed, her next best option was to train them herself, and the first step in that formula was to find people whom she could actually train.

There were a lot of elements that went into the analysis of each candidate though, from the ability to listen, to the ability to set aside their egos and give up being the most important and special of all children just because of what they’d been born with. Dae wanted to see creativity, and passion, and attentiveness in them but most of all she wanted the Queen’s Guard to be effective and agreeable to Alari.

Dae knew her Queen. If Alari didn’t feel her special guards could save both themselves and her, she wouldn’t allow them to risk their lives in her defense, and if she simply didn’t like them, she’d refuse their service even if she was in peril.

There was a real chance that the climbers might wash off the mountain but it wasn’t going to be because they fell. Alari and Kemoral were fast enough to catch anyone who pitched off into the abyss below them. Even if everyone made it to the cave though, Dae wasn’t certain that any of them were going to survive the mountain in terms of making it onto the Queen’s Guard.

In all likelihood, after the testing, Dae would pass on them and Kemoral would take them into the Royal Guard instead. Those who had made it to the mountain had at least the prowess to serve in that capacity, and Kemoral was desperate for bodies to refill his diminished ranks.

Dae glanced around, inspecting the candidates climbing above her. Most were grumbling openly. Several were whispering insults that they either didn’t know or didn’t care that she could hear. And then there was one, a young girl, likely just turned eighteen, who had stopped climbing altogether.

The girl’s eyes were closed and her head was tipped to the side as though she was considering something or having an internal conversation. She opened her eyes and measured the distance to the cave mouth with her gaze. Of all the climbers she was the slowest and from the looks of things, the one least likely to make the entrance in time. From her expression, Dae could see that the girl was aware of this too.

Dae frowned. If she let the girl climb a little further, she could catch up to her before the storm hit and help the girl into the cave before real danger struck. There were a couple of others who were likely to be in need of that kind of aid as well, but Kemoral was already moving towards one of them and the other transformed his hands into clawed Pact Armor gauntlets to aid in his ascent.

The girl saw this too and her frown matched Dae’s. Despite being in last place, she apparently wasn’t going to cheat.

Dae started moving towards her, but Jyl, the young girl, had other ideas and reached her decision before Dae got within twenty feet of her.

With her frown changing to a frightened smile, Jyl let go.

For a long fraction of a second she was poised, precariously standing on her footholds on the cliff’s face as gravity slowly pulled her off balance and into the chasm.

Dae readied her transformation, wings and power surging into her mind’s eye, but before the fateful second was up she paused and held herself back.

Jyl wasn’t falling to her doom.

She was gliding.

Before she’d dropped more than dozen feet, wide, gossamer wings spread from the young girl’s back carrying her softly downwards, and if not away from the storm then at least to a safer, more secure camp to wait it out in.

It wasn’t how Dae had suggested that the challenge before them should be met, but it was within the rules that she’d laid out for the candidates. Depending on what Jyl did once the storm was passed, Dae though she might have found one candidate who could qualify for the Queen’s Guard after all.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 34 – Epilogue

Change is rarely easy when it comes and with the slaying of the Consort-King the wheels of change began to grind once more in the Blessed Realms.

“Please tell me again that it’s a good thing that we’ve been summoned to the Royal Castle,” Ren said, trying not to fidget in the richly appointed chair in the Queen’s study.

“I will never lie to you,” Teo said, placing his hand on Ren’s and giving a comforting squeeze.

“You know, I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been, but I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared before,” Ren said. “It doesn’t seem like those two things should be true at the same time.”

“And yet they often are,” Teo said. “As we get older and wiser, I think the principal lesson we learn is that we are smaller than we ever imagined. And part of something much larger than we can ever hope to handle on our own.”

“This definitely qualifies as ‘larger than I can handle’,” Ren said, looking around the oversized study.

In addition to the quartet of comfortable chairs arranged before an dark wood desk which was polished to a shine so rich is practically illuminated the room on its own, there were the towering bookshelves which adorned every inch of the curving walls and gave the room an aroma of concentrated knowledge, which would have lent authority to anyone who took the empty seat behind desk.

“I will say that this is a more imposing sort of venue than the last place I saw the Queen,” Teo said. “From that experience though I believe we have less to fear than we have on similar occasions when your father called you to account for something.”

Ren tensed at the mention of the Duke, but managed not to curse, which was progress of a sort.

“Even after his death, he is still causing trouble for me,” Ren said. “I think he would be proud of that, if he remembered that I was his son at all.”

“He has no hold on you any longer,” Teo said, moving his hand from Ren’s hand to his shoulder.

“But he’s still a problem from Gallagrin though,” Dae said, hobbling into the room at a respectable speed on her crutches.

“Lady Akorli!” Teo said and stood so quickly that it appeared he’d never been sitting at all.

“Master Si’Nostrum,” Dae said, nodding her head in place of a bow. “You can sit down, we’ve got some time before the formal meeting starts.”

“Formal meeting?” Ren asked.

“There’s a few other guests coming,” Dae said and smiled as she dropped into one of the chairs on the same side of the desk as Teo and Ren.

“It sounds like you know what the purpose of this meeting is?” Teo asked. “Could you perhaps fill us in?”

“The Queen has a few questions for you,” Dae said. “I do too.”

“And what would you and the Queen like to know?” Ren asked, clutching tighter to the arm of his seat.

“You have a Pact Spirit now,” Dae said. “How’s that working out for you?”

“Well,” Ren said. “We seem to be agreeably matched.”

“You’re lucky,” Dae said. “Some folks fight with their spirits for a long time. How does it like you feeding Teo?”

“It finds the notion intriguing,” Ren said. “It’s never been bonded to someone who was bonded to a vampire before.”

Dae let out a chuckle.

“They’re strange little beasts, but predictable as hell sometimes,” she said. “Give them a unique experience and that’s all they’ll ask for from you.”

“I understand there might be some concern over my bonding,” Ren said, not yet releasing his grip on the chair’s arm.

“There’ve been worse bondings,” Dae said. “That’s not why the Queen asked you here though, that was just something I was curious about.”

“Why?” Ren asked.

“I was curious if when I fought your father there was a contest for his Pact spirit,” Dae said. “If you’d laid a claim on the Tel Pact Spirit, it would have weakened him significantly.”

“No, I was given a different spirit,” Ren said. “Not one of my family’s ancestral ones.”

“That’s good to know,” Dae said. “I’m glad that was a fair fight.”

She thought for a moment and then added. “How do you feel about the outcome?”

“Do you mean, am I glad that he’s dead?” Ren asked.

“That and how do you feel about the fact that the person who killed him is in the room with you now?” Dae asked.

“Those are two separate questions with at least three answers,” Ren said.

“Leave me out of it for the moment then,” Dae said.

“Then the answer is simple,” Ren said. “I don’t know yet.”

He paused and Dae waited for him to continue.

“I could say that I am glad, and I certainly feel enough joy to make that true,” Ren said. “My father was a horrible man. I’ve known that since I was too young to put the thought in words. I dreamed of him leaving, or dying, thousands of times, but now that he’s gone it’s like I’ve been left with a lot of things undone. It’s a relief, but it’s also a burden too. It’s hard to describe because I never saw myself in this position as anything more than a day dream.”

“That’s a fair answer,” Dae said. “I think anything else might have worried me.”

“For the other part of your question, there are two answers I can make,” Ren said. “I could settle on one of them though if I knew more about why Teo and I were called here.”

“You were called here because we have an offer to make to you Rendolan Greis Telli,” Alari said. She was carried into the room by her attendant river sprites and while her body had healed remarkably well in the days since her injury, the Queen of Gallagrin was still far from whole.

“An offer your Majesty?” Ren asked. “I do not deserve your kindness, not after the woes my family inflicted upon your noble house.”

“Our offer is neither a kindness nor a punishment,” Alari said as the river sprites carefully laid her into the regal chair behind the grand desk. “I am in need of a trustworthy overseer for a grand endeavor and my Knight has recommended you.”

“You want to give me a job?” Ren asked, his hand slowly unlocking from the arm of his chair.

“More than a job,” Alari said. “This is a role of authority which will report directly to my Knight.”

“I am honored your Majesty,” Ren said.

“You should ask what the job is,” Dae said.

“Yes, we put this forth as an offer and not a royal command Rendolan Greis Telli,” Alari said. “What we will ask of you will be no easy task.”

“What would you have of me, my Queen?” Ren asked.

“She wants you to clean up the Dawn March,” Dae said.

“I’m sorry Lady Akorli, I believe I misheard you,” Teo said.

“No,” Dae said. “You didn’t.”

“How am I to undertake this task?” Ren asked.

“You will start with one small piece of it,” Alari said. “We will appoint you as the Commander of the Dawn March division located in Nath.”

“There’s no commander there now?” Ren asked.

“Strangely, no,” Dae said. “Somehow when the Dawn March returned from its fool’s errand to comfort Prince Lorenzo’s family with an army, Commander Ketel wasn’t among their numbers.”

“He fled his post?” Teo asked.

“It’s not advisable to be under the patronage of a traitor to the crown,” Alari said.

“About that Your Majesty,” Ren said. “My own familial connections…”

“Are of no concern,” Alari interrupted him sharply. “The evil of the former Duke of Tel will be buried with his remains. We will not hold anyone liable for the sins of their father. Our own ledger would run far too red if such inheritance were to burden the generations to come.”

“Then my brother will be the next Duke of Tel?” Ren asked, neither hopeful nor protesting.

“On the condition that a trial of his noble peers cleared him of any involvement in his father’s plottings, that might have come to pass. Word has reached us that your brother has quit his home and fled though. We do not look well upon this.”

“You know where he’s going, don’t you?” Dae asked.

“Inchesso,” Ren said. “He seeks the aid of my father’s allies there.”

“Nothing good will come of that,” Teo said.

“We expect you are correct,” Alari said. “If we could invite any assassins he might find to aid his cause to make another attempt on our life that would make for a diverting pastime. Since he likely is aware of that however, we believe he will focus his attention elsewhere.”

“He’s going to try to kill Ren isn’t he?” Teo asked.

“And he will fail,” Alari said. “We would offer you a position as Lord Greis bodyguard, but it is not an offer when you are unable to refuse it. So instead allow us to offer to make you one of our Personal Guardsman. You will report to my Knight as well, and will be on special assignment to Nath for so long as it takes my new Commander to return the Dawn March to the organization it was meant to be.”

“I am to be Lord Greis then?” Ren asked. “Is it true then that you will grind the Tel family to nothing? I received reports that your oath against my father was rather all encompassing.”

“That was our original intent, but my Knight has given us another interpretation of our vow which we will hold to,” Alari said. “Your father will be stricken from the Tel family record. His remains will be ground up with offal and buried in an unhallowed grave along with all of the belongings which he carried. His personal riches will be distributed to the poor of the Tel Duchy, and as he no longer has a family, the Tel fortune will be untouched.”

“You’ll need to be Lord Greis for another reason though,” Dae said.

“Yes,” Alari said. “You will act in my place, to accuse the nobility and stand against them when they commit the crimes which no one else can bring them to account for. As such you can be loyal to no one house.”

“Who will rule Tel in my brother’s absence?” Ren asked.

“The second heir of Tel is your sister,” Alari said. “She is the one who gifted you with your Pact Spirit is she not?”

“Yes, she is.” Ren said, shrinking back into his chair.

“We will bring her to court,” Alari said. “It has been too many years since we have seen her, and we would see Tel ruled by a Duchess who is up to the challenge.”

“She may not wish to come to court,” Ren said, thinking of his sister’s unique circumstances.

“Then I might pay her a visit in Elinspire,” Dae said. Ren had no illusions as to the nature of that visit. Despite the aid she’d rendered to him, Ren’s sister could still be a threat in the Queen’s eyes and the Queen’s Knight existed to investigate and eliminate the people and things which might threaten Queen and Country.

“We will strive to renew her acquaintance under more favorable terms however,” Alari said. “We will likely need her aid against the troubles which are brewing.”

“Troubles Your Majesty?” Teo asked.

“Yes,” Alari said. “There is war on the horizon.”

“Who is left to wage war on Gallagrin?” Ren asked.

“Paxmer,” Alari said.

“Would they dare?” Teo asked.

“She sent them back their stud prince,” Dae said.

“No, we sent them back a piece of their prince,” Alari said. “The head, torso and limbs we gave to Prince Lorenzo’s family in payment of the debt owed to them.”

“The Inchesso can do terrible things with dead bodies,” Teo said.

“Yes, we are rather counting on that,” Alari said. Her smile was small, unkind and entirely heartfelt.

“Your Majesty,” a page said. “Officer Javan Kael of the Dawns March is reporting as ordered.”

“Send him in,” Alari said.

Kael walked into the room with his head held high and proud. Then he saw Dae pouring a set of drinks for everyone and his whole body sagged in resignation.

“Ren, meet your new second in command,” Dae said. “Officer Kael here can help you find every last bit of corruption in the Nath March. If you leave him a piece of it, he’ll even make up some new corruption for you to find, so I suggest limiting him to only his standard wages.”

“Do you hate me Kor?” Kael asked. “The fences alone are going to string me up from the bridges in Nath. All of them!”

“All of the fences or all of the bridges?” Ren asked.

“Both,” Dae said, her smile as wicked as Alari’s though tinged with a dram more kindness. “Unless of course his very powerful commander is pleased with him and agrees to keep him safe.”

Teo took the glass of fine wine which Dae offered him as Kael sank down into the last open seat at the meeting.

The vampire smiled and saluted his new boss, as Dae relaxed into her chair, closed her eyes and enjoyed a well deserved moment of peace.