Nothing about sharing wine with her mother felt right or natural to Dae. After the tense standoff between them ended though, Estella had invited Dae and her companions to break bread with the Resistance fighters as they planned out their strategy.
“We’ll need to move fast,” Dae said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover inland to the location our Queen asked us to search.”
“Speed will attract attention,” Estella said. “Something has the Paxmer army on its toes in this region and their eyes are peeled for anything unusual.”
“That’s probably our fault,” Dae said. “I’m sure the Paxmer ships reported the sinking of the Fearless, and our borders have been permeable enough for the last seven years that I’m sure Haldri Paxmer knows of the troops that Gallagrin is marshalling.”
“You can’t be planning an invasion,” Estella said, her features tensing in concern.
“That depends what you mean by invasion,” Dae said, offering a wolfish smile.
“This Spirit Crown!” Nui said. “If you can’t retrieve it, Gallagrin’s going to send an army to get that job done, isn’t it?”
“Technically there’s more than one army massing on the Gallagrin side of the border,” Dae said, without denying Nui’s claim.
“They can’t cross the border,” Estella said. “Paxmer is waiting for them. It will be a slaughter.”
“Haldri Paxmer only thinks she knows how far my queen is willing to go to collect the blood price that’s due,” Dae said.
“She would invite death on such a grand scale? How much does she take after her father?” Estella asked.
To her credit, Dae noticed the concern in Estella’s voice and was able to refrain from killing her mother on the spot for the implied insult of comparing Alari to the Butcher King.
“She is nothing like King Sathe,” Dae said. “His madness caused him to lash out and destroy everyone and everything around him. His rage controlled and consumed him, but his daughter is not as weak as he was.”
“Our Queen does not let us see her anger,” Mayleena said. “But it burns within her, a weapon bound in her will, and sharp enough to cut through the heavens.”
“She’s not the kind of person to sacrifice her subjects lightly though,” Jyl said. “Which is why she needs us to move fast so that she doesn’t have to.”
“There’s only one fast option for escaping the city,” Nui said, passing a pot of stew to her mother. “You’ll need to fly out of here.”
“That’ll probably draw a lot of attention,” Dae said. “If that’s our best option though, we may have to go with it.”
“You can’t,” Estella said. “The dragons wouldn’t let you get half a mile from the city before they swooped on you.”
“Being paralyzed in mid-air might not be too fun,” Jyl said, taking a hunk of bread from Mayleena to soak up another bite of stew.
“The dragons will only assault them if they’re seen leaving the city,” Nui said.
Estella’s eyes widened and she looked at her younger daughter.
“They can’t turn invisible,” Estella said.
“They won’t need too,” Nui said, an unspoken argument passing between mother and daughter. Estella was the first to look away, sighing as she did so.
“We would need a sky carriage to keep everyone together,” Estella said.
“The mayor has one,” Nui said.
“It will be heavily guarded,” Estella said.
“You can leave the guards to us,” Dae said.
“What guards?” Mayleena asked.
“The guards on the sky carriage we’re going to steal so that my mother and sister can accompany us in our escape from the city,” Dae said.
“And they are joining our entourage why?” Mayleena asked.
“Because I can wrap a sky carriage in a glamour that will let us fly free of the dragons that are encircling the city,” Nui said.
“Except it’s not just going to be you five on the sky carriage,” Zana said. “You’ll need backup.”
“The more we try to move the harder it’s going to be,” Nui said.
“Can you handle cloaking six of us?” Dae asked.
“Six or sixty, if we’re all in one sky carriage then it’s the same effort,” Nui said.
“Zana should join us too then,” Dae said.
“Why?” Zana asked, pulling back where she’d previously been leaning forward.
“You’re quick,” Dae said. “You picked us out of crowd and worked out who we were without alerting half the tavern to our identities. I don’t think your forces can afford to lose a noblewoman like Lady sur Korkin or an exotic magic wielder like her daughter. My team has a mission to achieve though, so I can’t say their protection is our top priority. For you, I think it would be.”
“And what if that conflicts with your mission?” Zana asked.
“Then you’ll follow your mission, and we’ll follow ours,” Dae said. “Ultimately our goals lie in the same direction.”
“And if we try to betray her, my daughter will have all the confirmation she needs to strike us down where we stand,” Estella said.
“There is that as well,” Dae said.
“So assuming that matricide is not on the agenda, how are we going to steal a sky carriage?” Jyl asked.
The answer, Dae discovered, was “easily”.
The mayor’s estate was well guarded, but since she had to entertain foreign guests, the dragons were positioned so that their fear auras didn’t encroach on the mayoral mansion.
The mayor’s guards were brave and well trained. Even with the presence of the dragons to ensure peace and safety, the guards maintained a strict patrol and good discipline. They were alert and prepared and capable of capturing an intruding force of any reasonable size short of an army.
In the dead of the night though, with the talents of a skilled illusionist and three Pact Knight’s of surpassing prowess, the guard regime was confronted by a force that was more powerful than even an unreasonably large army of attackers would be.
Quietly, the defenders of the mayoral estate were dispatched into unconsciousness by attacks which they didn’t see coming and would not be able to reconstruct the details of later.
When the sky carriage lifted off and took to the winds, no candle flame was disturbed and no personnel were awoken. The theft was begun and finished in less than a minute’s time without the slightest sound being made.
The major’s sky carriage was broadly spacious and appointed lavishly enough to pass for one of the finest ducal carriages from Gallagrin. Windsmer’s position as a major trading hub generated enough wealth that it’s overseers had to appear as though they enjoyed a station far higher than their actual influence warranted. To do less would be to suggest that Paxmer’s glory was clutched in miserly hands and if there was one thing that the nobility despised it was accurate depictions of the world they created.
Mayleena, Jyl, Estella and Zana took their places within the sky carriage, while Dae took the reins of the wind steeds in the driver’s bench and Nui sat beside her to maintain the illusionary cloak that concealed them.
“I was twelve before she told me about you,” Nui said as they passed over the walls of Windsmer and began to place distance between themselves and the restless monsters that guarded its perimeter.
“You can hold the glamour and speak at the same time?” Dae asked, honest surprise creeping into her voice.
“We’re high enough up that I didn’t have to add an auditory element to the cloak,” Nui said. “So I can use my voice. I just can’t open my eyes.”
“You didn’t have to come along on this,” Dae said.
“I think I kind of did,” Nui said. “You were serious about killing her weren’t you?”
“I don’t draw that particular blade in jest,” Dae said.
“I think she knew that,” Nui said. “Even before she broke the glamour I cast on her.”
“That probably wasn’t her wisest move,” Dae said.
“It worked out ok though, didn’t it?” Nui asked.
“I wish I could say,” Dae said. “A part of me is still wondering if I didn’t make a terrible mistake there.”
“Was it really that bad? What she did?” Nui asked.
“Yes,” Dae said. “And no. Now’s probably not the right time to ask that question.”
“You can’t forgive her?” Nui asked.
Dae was silent as the miles flew by beneath them, mulling those four words over and searching for an answer. When that proved to be impossible, she turned to the question of why the answer to such a simple question was so elusive.
“I don’t know her,” she said at last. “The woman I met tonight is not the mother I’ve known for the last twenty years.”
“But you haven’t even seen her in twenty years!” Nui said.
“Since I was eight, there’s been a knot of hatred in my heart and its name has been ‘mother’,” Dae said. “I’d spent most of my life with the name Estella as a synonym for the deepest, vilest of betrayers. There hasn’t been a day that passed when she wasn’t with me.”
Nui was silent, and leaned away from her sister.
“Now that we’ve met again though, I don’t know who that woman is,” Dae said. “Is she my mother, the one who abandoned me to the mercy of a Butcher King? Is she Estella sur Korkin, the betrayer of my murdered father? Or is she some new creature, one with a life almost wholly apart from my own? I almost want her to be my mother so that I can hate her and kill her and be done with carrying the anger that fills me every time I hear her name. But I don’t think things can ever be that simple.”
“Don’t kill her,” Nui said. “Promise me that.”
“What difference would a promise make?” Dae asked. “I have to be a monster from your perspective aren’t I? Why would you trust anything I said?”
“A monster would have killed her back in the hideout,” Nui said. “A monster is someone you can’t reason with. Someone who treats you as a thing instead of a person.”
“That’s one kind of monster,” Dae said. “But anyone can do monstrous things.”
“But you won’t,” Nui said. “You don’t hate my mother, you hate the memory of what happened. You had how powerless you were, and the people who made you feel like that. But you don’t hate her.”
“Maybe,” Dae said. “I knew this meeting was coming, but I never envisioned it like this. I never envisioned you either.”
“That could be why I can see things more clearly here than anyone else,” Nui said.
“Really?” Dae said, offering her sister an amused smile.
“I’ve known about you for years,” Nui said. “I’ve thought of a thousand possibilities for how we might meet. If nothing else had come up, I was going to petition to visit Gallagrin two years from now and see if I could find you in Highcrest.”
“That would have been an interesting meeting,” Dae said. “I think I’m glad we met under the circumstances we did.”
“Believe it or not, I considered that we might meet like that too,” Nui said. “I won’t say your reaction didn’t surprise me, but it wasn’t the farthest thing from what I’d imagined it might be. And I think it went a lot better than how mother thought it would.”
“That was better than she guessed it would be?” Dae asked.
“She grieved for you twice over,” Nui said. “Once when she fled your country and again when she learned that you were alive because she believed you would never forgive her for what she’d done. Her visions of you were of someone who would hurt her in every way possible. The you she encountered tonight is possibly a kinder person than she ever imagined you could be.”
“Perhaps both my mother and her daughter are dead then,” Dae said. “I’m far from the girl she knew, and I don’t know if she was ever the mother I saw her to be.”
“Then maybe you can both begin as new people to one another,” Nui said.
“I might be able to manage that,” Dae said.
“And I’d still like you to promise not to kill her,” Nui said.
“I might be able to manage that too,” Dae said.