Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 13

Dae didn’t want to go to war. Wars were messy, and costly, and in her current state a war would involve her sending a lot of people to die in her place rather than fighting for Alari’s domain like a good Queen’s Knight was supposed to.

“You will want to reword your statement ambassador,” she said, sitting back onto the Champion’s seat beside the Gallagrin throne. “You did not come here to declare war. You came to ensure that the Green Council would not come into conflict with the first and only realm to have successfully conquered another realm.”

“How can you claim to know the Council’s motivations for this embassy,” Gala asked. The dryad was still offended from Dae’s tone and manner of speaking, but Dae didn’t care. Gallagrin wasn’t in a position to be friendly with the Green Council at the moment, but it didn’t necessarily need to be hostile either. The sooner the ambassador could be made to see where their common interests lay the sooner the real negotiations could begin.

“The Council’s motivations in sending you here are clear because, and we are taking this as an article of faith, the Council is not composed of idiots,” Dae said. “You have nothing to gain from opening a new front in your war and likely everything to lose if you do.”

“If Gallagrin is allied with Senkin then there is nothing for the Council to gain from waiting, and everything to lose from allowing you to bring your forces together,” Gala said, their leaves quivering with suppressed emotions.

Dae wanted to bury her face in her palms. She wasn’t meant to be a noble woman. A good noble woman wouldn’t want to set an ambassador on fire.

“You presume that the conflict between Senkin and the Council has no other resolution than war.” Dealing with Alari had spoiled Dae. It was too easy to converse about weighty matters when the person you were speaking with could understand and see the ramifications of the things you said without the need for extensive elaboration.

“War is upon us. The only course open is to bring it to a swift and just end.” There was something odd underlying Gala’s words. Dae grasped at the shape of the sounds and the speed of the fluttering leaves in Gala’s crown.

Reading the body language of the dryad yielded little more than vague guesses as to what was going on in Gala’s mind, but Dae had the prickling sensation that Gala was struggling against the position she was in. They either didn’t want to be an ambassador or they were opposed to the war their realm was waging.

“Gallagrin agrees,” Dae said. “A prolonged conflict will have dire consequences for all of us, not just Senkin and the Green Council, and Queen Alari will not allow injustice between the realms to flourish.”

“And yet she is not here to listen to our cause,” Gala said.

Dae let her head slump forward before her frustration could tear itself loose from her throat. Losing her temper would cost the realms more than they could bear, and, worse, might endanger Alari.

Still though, the ambassador’s attitude grated on her. More than it should. As a yunger woman Dae wouldn’t have noticed that but she’d spent months since reuniting with Alari unraveling the lies she’d told herself that kept them apart. The practice helped her catch the other moments when she was lying to herself, the ones where she wasn’t consciously aware she was doing so.

Gala’s inability to accept Dae as a legitimate voice for Gallagrin was infuriating but when Dae looked at the source of that fury, she saw its roots grew down into her own insecurities.

She didn’t want to take Alari’s throne. Apart from loving Alari too much to ever want to see her diminished, Dae knew she wasn’t cut out to lead one of the realms. She didn’t have Alari’s talent for working with people, or for finding compromises that retained the essentials of what she believed in while allowing the other party to feel they had gained what they desired as well. She wasn’t good enough for the job in her own estimation but she was still stuck with it and Gala’s refusal to accept her as the Voice of Gallagrin made Dae feel the depth of her inadequacy for the role she was stuck in even more thoroughly.

“Queen Alari is not here,” Dae said, taking a deep breath and centering herself. She was afraid of failing, but it was a small fear compared to others that she’d faced. Even small fears though can be stumbling blocks for the unwary. “She is absent but Gallagrin is present. We are Gallagrin’s Voice and We pledge to hear you words and convey them to the Queen. Your claims will be weighed fairly against those brought against you by Senkin. This We declare.”

Speaking for Gallagrin was not a matter of letting the spirit of the realm possess her. Dae’s words were her own, but when she spoke in Gallagrin’s official voice they became something greater. What Dae declared more than a bound herself. Her words bond the whole realm. Alari herself would be required to abide by them or issue a formal declaration denouncing the pledge, which would in turn have unpleasant consequences for Gallagrin.

Gala rippled as Dae spoke, as though each word carried with it the weight of a surging gale. For a long moment the dryad was silent, processing what they had just experienced. When they spoke the tone of their voice was different, quieter and more thoughtful.

“Can you pledge Gallagrin to the Council’s side?” Gala asked. “Not will you, we do not ask that you commit to our cause yet, but is that decision within your power to make.”

“Yes,” Dae said. “Though we will make no rush to judgment without our Queen.”

It was the only sane alternative in Dae’s eyes. Whatever Ambassador Gala told her, Dae had to account for the fact that the Queen of Senkin could be refuting those same claims to Alari and offering a more accurate telling of what had transpired. Making any decisions without hearing both sides of the matter left open a huge possibility of being duped into supporting the wrong side of the conflict.

“The we shall accept you in the role of Gallagrin monarch,” Gala said.

“We are the monarch’s Voice and so act as an element of the throne,” Dae said. It was a bit of flowery verse she’d heard uttered as a refrain on sacred holidays. In passing she wondered how true the claim might be though. Only one monarch ruled each of the realms. If they chose to share that power, did doing so make the bearer of the new authority another aspect of the monarchy. It was a horrible thought since it led to the idea that Dae might already be “the Queen of Gallagrin” in some sense.

“Then we shall present our case to you,” Gala said. “You already know of the conflict between the Green Council and Senkin. As we are the first dispatched from the Green Council we must assume that your knowledge of the war’s beginning was given to you by Senkin or a Senkin loyalist.”

“Senkin has sent a representative to speak with Gallagrin,” Dae said, confirming the statement with a nod.

“And did they claim the attack was unprovoked?” Gala asked. “Or did they acknowledge their crimes and claim their actions as an early victory?”

“The representative we spoke to claimed the Council’s attack was unheralded and that they knew of no reason why it was begun,” Dae said.

“There was nothing unheralded about the retribution which was paid to Senkin,” Gala said. “They were the ones who broke the faith we have shared in each other for centuries. They were the ones who viciously attacked us first. The current state of the conflict, where we have shown them our might, has sent Senkin scurrying to your court, but they must not find support here or there will never be justice between the realms.”

“That is a strong claim to make,” Dae said, pleased to hear that the Green Council at least believed itself to have a legitimate grievance. With that in play, there was the possibility of resolving the conflict by resolving the issues it arose from. “We will need what details and proof you can provide.”

“We knew this,” Gala said. “And so we offer to let you see for yourself what transpired prior to our assault on Senkin:”

They held forth a small red marble.

“What is that?” Dae asked, her reading of ancient Green Council texts having missed a chapter on strange offerings to foreign powers.

“It a memory fruit,” Gala said. “If you ingest it you will see the memories of those who first discovered Senkin’s crime.”

“How can we know that the memories are not distortions or illusions?” Dae asked. The memory fruit could be a poison as well, but if the Green Council was willing to declare themselves irrevocably an enemy to Gallagrin, then Dae felt they’d try to get more out of the declaration than just the loss of one non-royal life. Also, since Kirios hadn’t abandoned her entirely, Dae was reasonably confident she could survive most poisons which Gala might throw at her.

“All memories are distortions and illusions,” Gala said. “In this case however, the memories do not need to stand alone. We can take you to the sites you will see in them. While you are not allied with Senkin, we will permit you to inspect the locations and confirm the memories for yourself.”

That offer was where a trap would lie if there was one, Dae thought, but put forth her hand anyways.

Gala walked forward and passed the red orb to Dae’s waiting hand.

“How long will these visions last?” Dae asked. Trapping her in a magical sensorium for a week wouldn’t count as an attack on Gallagrin but it would be highly inconvenient.

“The memory transfer is instantaneous,” Gala said, “but processing and understanding them may take a few minutes. You will likely be disoriented by the process unless you have experienced it many times already.”

“Please, wait here then,” Dae said and rose, calling Kemoral with her. On cue, guards from the Royal Army stepped into the room from all sides to keep an eye on Gala.

When they were back in the antechamber, Dae turned to Kemoral and asked the question both of them were wondering.

“So, is this reasonably insane or just flat out crazy?”

Faen drew in a deep breath and fixed Dae with a solid stare.

“For anyone else? Complete foolishness,” he said. “For you though? Just normal foolishness I’d say.”

“You’re not going to even try to talk me out of this are you?” Dae asked, please at that turn of events.

“My Lady Akorli, do you mistake me for someone incapable of learning?” Faen asked. “I’ve known you since before you bore most of the syllables in your name. Over time one does eventually notice certain…consistencies in your behavior.”

“Consistency? I suppose that’s an upgrade from ox-headed idiocy,” Dae said.

“Calling a new recruit an ox-headed idiot is done with the hope that it will motivate them to change their behavior,” Faen said. “Once that hope is lost, we simply say that they are ‘consistent’.”

“Well, in that case, I don’t need to ask you to watch over the realm until the Queen’s return if this doesn’t work out well for me,” Dae said.

“You need never ask me to do my duty,” Faen said. “I can be ‘consistent’ too.”

“Here’s to being consistently right then,” Dae said and popped the memory fruit into her mouth.

The world melted away as the fruit melted in her mouth. In its place, visions swarmed up from the dark roots of the earth and swallowed her mind. She’d expected the memories to be unpleasant but what she saw laid out before her was a wasteland and in her heart she felt the horror that gripped the Green Council at the abomination the world had become.


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 12

Gallagrin’s throne didn’t intimidate Dae. It was just a chair. A large chair that seemed to hone the craziness of anyone who sat in it to a fine point. But there was no reason to be afraid of it. Nevertheless, she plopped down on the Champion’s seat which stood beside the throne. Fear was a terrible motivator, but knowing one’s own limits was a sign of wisdom, and with Alari gone, Dae felt like she was going to need all the wisdom she could get.

I’m already crazy enough thank you, Dae thought, glaring at the chair she had no interest in ever occupying.

She’d left Eorn and Teo behind at the sky carriage platform. If Alari felt matters were dire enough to race off on the spur of a moment, Dae wasn’t going to delay Teo from performing his ambassadorial duties to Inchesso.

Dae trusted Alari’s judgment in the matter, in part because she trusted Alari and in part because she suspected there was some amount of magical augmentation that Alari was drawing on in her appraisal of the course of world events.

The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin granted physical might and sensory powers but not intellect or wisdom. At least not directly. Alari had plenty of those qualities on her own, but Dae had long guessed that her princess knew the workings on the Royal Pact Bond better than any of her predecessors.

While the Spirit of Gallagrin didn’t speak directly to those it was bonded with, it did contain the memories of all the former rulers of Gallagrin, and it seemed to be closer to Alari that it had been to the Gallagrin monarchs for several generations. That may have been due to Alari being the first monarch in several generations who fought for Gallagrin – both the realm and the spirit. Her father, grandmother and great grandfather had all inherited their rule without any particular effort on their part. The spirit was passed to them because they were the chosen successor. In fighting for and defending Gallagrin, Alari seemed to have won a connection with the Gallagrin Spirit that was missing for a long time.

That connection didn’t extend to a spoken dialog from what Alari said, but she did have the sense of a broader perspective than- her own when she considered matters outside of the scope of her experience.

“I can’t picture the details, or hear the voices of my ancestors, but when I observe a poltical situation, or consider how the realms might act overall, I get a sense of what feels right, and if I ponder it for a while, I start seeing the reasons why. It’s not enough to trust on its own but it helps me work things out faster than I could without those insights, I think,” Alari had explained when she and Dae were discussing the matter one lazy winter afternoon when the snows howled and there was little work to be done.

Those memories plus Alari’s native wits were a foundation Dae felt comfortable basing her own actions and thoughts on. That didn’t mean she felt comfortable trying to take Alari’s place however. Negotiating with the representative from the Green Council was one of the duties she’d never expected she would need to fulfill as the Queen’s Knight.

“Why exactly am I here?” Sir Faen Kemoral asked. “I’m not a negotiator, and there are roughly a thousand things I need to see to in the Royal Army since the Queen has gone off to wage a solo war without giving us time to keep up with her.”

Dae was happy to see that Kemoral was as uncomfortable about playing international receptionist as she was. Neither of them were suited to the role but he had more of the Charisma of Command than she did, and they both knew it.

“Think of this as doing the army’s job proactively,” Dae said. “If we can deal with the Council’s representative properly, we may not need to involve any other part of the army to clear this mess up.”

“Do we even know what they’re here for?” Kemoral asked.

“They wouldn’t say. They would only demand an audience with the queen.”

“And they will be pleased to see you instead?”

“Probably not,” Dae said. “But that’s going to tell us something too.”

“So this is a fact finding mission?’ Kemoral asked.

“Yes, though the representative is protected by their diplomatic credentials,” Dae said. “So our facts will probably come mostly through inference.”

“This is insanity,” Kemoral said and straightened his posture.

“Welcome to Highcrest,” Dae said. “Hell, welcome to Gallagrin, or maybe even the Blessed Realms in general.”

“Is there a reason we haven’t brought the Council representative in yet?” Kemoral asked. “The soon we start the sooner I can get back to things that actually matter.”

“They’re acclimating to the realm,” Dae said. “So the delay is on their part.”

“Acclimating to the realm?” Kemoral asked. “The Council’s not that far away by sky carriage, how could they still be travel-sick?”

“Because the Council’s representative is a dryad,” Dae said.

“A tree-lady?” Kemoral asked.

“No.” Dae said. “They are a sapient wood elemental. Regardless of the form they take, they are still a dryad and neither a tree, nor a lady, not a gentleman.”

“Dryad, tree-lady, what does it matter?” Kemoral asked.

“One will make them feel welcome, the other will construed as an insult,” Dae said. “They may hear that sort of insult from people on a daily basis, but they will not hear it in Queen Alari’s court.”

“Sweet Merciful Sunrise,” Kemoral said. “This is why I shouldn’t be here. I’m going to put as at war with the Council before five minutes is up.”

“Don’t worry,” Dae said. “I’ll run interference for you. You’re here primarily to address questions of Gallagrin’s military readiness. The Council knows about the situation with the nobles being held on for an extended Grand Convocation, and they know the Ducal armies outnumber the Royal army significantly. That could have factored into their calculations about attacking Senkin.”

“So, I am to make it seem as though our armed forces are one well organized whole and not the fractious lot of bickering malcontents I actually have to deal with every day?” Kemoral asked.

“Nope. Your job is to explain how, with just half the Royal Army, you would break the Green Council like a piece of kindling if they tried to expand into our lands.”

“Half the Royal Army? Why would I need that much?” Kemoral asked.

“Yes, excactly,” Dae said and signaled the page at the other end of the room to summon the Green Council’s representative.

Dae had chosen to meet with the Council’s lackey in the castle’s Grand Reception Hall, thinking that the seat of Gallagrin’s power would give her the advantage she needed in dealing with a foreign power. She looked over the room and began to question her choice though. Without the nobles and without Alari, the room was still physically grand, but it was the grandeur of a great past rather than a reflection of the realm’s present power.

“Their Humble Embassy, Gala Ragranprimort of the Green Council,” a page said, and stood aside to allow the ambassador to enter.

Dae had read of the Green Council, but the ancient texts hadn’t prepared her for meeting a dryad in person.

Gala Ragranprimort’s form only suggested a resemblance to the common morphology of humans and dwarves and elves. Their limbs curved away from the central trunk of their body as a branch springs from the body of a tree rather than through any complicated shoulder or hip mechanism.

Gala’s central trunk was long, making them easily eight feet tall by the time it formed a vaguely head shaped area which was crowned by a canopy of leaves which was similar to hair only in terms of being atop the dryad’s body.

Where a face would have been, the wood of Gala’s body bore features that looked like they’d been stamped into the wood by a mighty pressing machine. Eyes, nose, and mouth were all cast from the same wood as the rest of the body but there was an animation to them which no natural wood could have possibly mimicked.

That same unnatural quality captured Dae’s attention in the dryad’s movement. Gala didn’t so much walk as flow, rolling like a supple tree caught in a wind which blew it long, steady, gusts.

Dae weighed the idea of rising to greet Gala as they moved down the wide aisle leading to the throne. It would have been a friendly gesture, but Dae stayed seated. Gallagrin wasn’t necessarily interested in retaining the Council’s friendship. Not if Alari decided Senkin was the victimized realm.

“What insult is this?” Gala asked. “I come before the throne of Gallagrin, but Gallagrin will not treat with the Council?”

“Ambassador Ragranprimort,” Dae said, remaining in her seat but leaning forward. “Gallagrin will hear the Green Council’s petition. We speak with the Voice of Gallagrin in our queen’s absence and have been given full license to treat with you until her return.”

“When is Gallagrin expected to return to her throne?” Gala asked.

“Queen Alari’s has instructed us to treat with you,” Dae repeated. “She will return in due time, but the matter you have to bring before her is one of some urgency is it not?”

Dae felt the confines of Royal Speech twisting her tongue. She knew she wasn’t quite managing to sound properly royal but under the circumstances that might play in her favor.

“I bring news of greater import than a simple seneschal can be entrusted with,” Gala said. “You must urge for your queen’s immediate presence.”

A tremor ran up Gala’s body and shook the leaves one their canopy.

For that, and for their words, Dae stood.

“Have care, Ambassador,” Dae said, letting her voice drop low and dangerous. “We are no seneschal. We are the Queen’s Knight, We are Gallagrin’s Champion, We are the Crown Successor. Present your petition before you try our patience further.”

“You carry many titles, but you do not carry the weight of the realm,” Gala said. “If we treat with you, we will be forced to assume that Gallagrin places the Green Council as being of secondary importance.”

“Good,” Dae said. “Because you are.”

A tremor rippled through Gala’s body and was followed by a rigidity which Dae couldn’t interpret as anything other than shock and rage.

“The welfare of Gallagrin and its people is, and ever will be, of primary importance to Queen Alari,” Dae said. “The concerns of the Green Council will take second place to that. That does not imply however that the Council’s concerns are unimportant to Gallagrin, or that Gallagrin is unwilling to balance its own needed with the broader needs of all the Blessed Realms.”

“And what of the needs of Senkin?” Gala asked. “Will Gallagrin place the Green Council’s needs ahead of those of that traitorous realm?”

“No,” Dae said.

Gala’s reaction was muted this time. They learned quickly it seemed, which worried Dae.

“Gallagrin makes no judgment at this moment between its neighbors,” Dae said. “We would listen to your testimony on the conflict which has erupted before reaching a decision on who, if anyone, we will support.”

Gala went silent in response to that, but Dae could see the leaves on the ambassador’s canopy swaying independently of each other and their roots twitching in tiny motions.

If Dae’s research was correct, Gala was speaking which someone, or even a group of people, back in the Green Council. Via her Pact Knight bond, Dae knew how to eavesdrop on distant conversations, but that was a result of enhancing and refining her hearing. There was no magic she knew of which would allow her to tap into the Green Council’s distant speech magics.

“We cannot allow that,” Gala said, emerging from their conversation. “Gallagrin must not side Senkin. We will declare war to prevent the possibility from occurring.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 11

Dae watched the Royal Carriage depart and felt a great weariness steal over her. She’d expected to be smothered in anxiety thanks to Alari exposing herself to danger, or enflamed by anger at her own inability to join the entourage, but neither came easily. Within her swirled a chaotic storm of every color, each flash of emotion washed out by the next before Dae could piece together much sense of where she really stood or how she really felt.

It wasn’t surprising, she decided, that she wasn’t terrified for her love’s safety. Alari was stronger than anyone knew, including Alari herself. With the Pact Spirit she carried, Alari had almost overwhelming mystical might to call on, but her strength went well beyond the magic she was gifted with.

Gallagrin’s Queen was a driven woman and had been for as long as Dae had known her. This flight of seeming-insanity was every bit in keeping with the princess Dae had grown up with, and if there was one thing Dae had learned in those years it was that when Alari put her mind to something, the safe bet was on her winning the prize she sought, no matter how long the odds looked.

The separation still left a hollow pit where Dae’s heart should have been though but pride in Alari rushed in to fill that void. The thought of Alari at her best, pitting herself against all the realms of the world brought a wry smile to Dae’s face. The realms would have to be very careful or they would never know what hit them.

“I have to confess, this is not how I imagined things going when I awoke this morning,” Teo said. The vampire stood beside her on the platform as the squad from the Royal Army scrambled to fall in for a last second inspection before being loaded onto a transport carriage that would pursue the queen and act as backup for her, should the need arise.

“It’s the problem with Royals,” Dae said. “Ask them to do something and occasionally they will.”

“I don’t recall asking to be made ambassador to Inchesso,” Teo frowned as the sky carriage requisitioned for his use began to fill with supplies, brought on board by the honor guard assigned to him.

“You were the one who picked today to come before the court,” Dae said, her gaze remaining on the rapidly departing Royal Carriage.

“That was Ren’s decision. I thought we should have fled the castle today.”

“You are a man of insight and intellect then.”

“I hope not,” Teo said, his frown deepening as he snuck glances at the far distant carriage bearing his husband. “My insight told me the queen would rule against the nobles soon and that her verdict would not go over well.”

“Insight, intelligence and ignorance then,” Dae said, amending her words. “The queen wasn’t even close to working out what she was going to do about the nobles.”

“Perhaps it’s due to my upbringing, but I have a hard time believing executions have been ruled out.”

“There are certainly nobles who deserve it.”

“And certainly ones who don’t.” Teo turned to face Dae, eyes narrowed and jaw hard set.

“You’re worried about what she might do with Ren?”

“I’m terrified. And enraged.” Teo said, biting at his lower lip. “He tried to help her. He tried to stand in her defense. And this is how he’s repaid? He wasn’t even supposed to be the Duke of Tel!”

“I know,” Dae said. “I think I owe him an official reprimand for that. He was supposed to be working for me. Now the Dawn March has no Commander in Nath.”

Teo rounded on her, pulling Dae’s gaze away from the vanishing Royal Carriage.

“How can you treat him like this, when he has been nothing but loyal to you and the Queen?” The vampire was teetering on the brink of losing control, but Dae made no move to resist him or defend herself.

Eorn took a step forward, but Dae shook her head, warning the recruit off.

“I need my Commander in Nath.”

Dae knew she was pushing Teo, and knew she was in no position to fight back if the vampire lost his patience. Against that though stood his lack of faith in her or Alari. Dae needed to push Teo, needed to get him to bring all of his fears to the surface before they could be addressed. He wasn’t going to believe her when she told him that Alari wasn’t going to slay the man he loved, that his queen wasn’t the monster that the former king had been.

“He’s more than your damn Commander,” Teo shouted, grabbing Dae by the front of her tunic. Eorn started forward but Dae waved her to stillness.

“Yes,” Dae said, unperturbed. “He’s also the Duke of Tel, and he abstained from voting against the challenge to Alari’s reign.”

“He didn’t abstain! They blocked him! And the others! The one’s who didn’t believe Sanli’s ridiculous story.”

“We know,” Dae said. The nobles who’d remained loyal to Alari, of which there were a sizable number, though far from the majority, had been physically restrained from entering the Convocation chamber when Sanli put the proposal before the assemblage to allow herself to contest for the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin. Ren had been one of those nobles, and had only been a noble because he’d claimed the fallow title of the Duchy of Tel at the last moment in order to block Sanli’s efforts against Alari. It was a valiant effort which had come to nothing, and one which Alari and Dae had only learned the particulars of well after the events were sorted out.

“Then why haven’t you freed him?” Teo’s eyes had a glassy sheen of tears covering them. “If you’re going to murder the Dukes who plotted against the queen, why haven’t you freed the ones who remained loyal to her?”

“No one’s been imprisoned,” Dae said. They were drawing a bit of an audience from the troops who were preparing to go after Alari, and the ones who would be supporting Teo’s mission into Inchesso.

“Like hell they haven’t,” Teo said. “We haven’t been able to leave the palace in a month! The lodgings are very nice, but this castle is still a prison.”

“The Grand Convocation isn’t done yet,” Dae said, repeating the explanation that had been offered to one and all since Alari’s return from the God’s Hall.

“That’s because it’s going to end in a river of blood,” Teo said.

“Is it?” Dae asked, and allowed herself to smile. She couldn’t have built a scenario like this if she’d tried. Alari could have, probably in her sleep, but people weren’t Dae’s forte.

“How else can it end?” Teo said.

“How else indeed?” Dae asked. “What do you imagine you would see if the Queen were asking herself that same question?”

“She would arrest the nobles who worked against her and release the ones who supported her,” Teo said.

“Arrest more than half the nobles in the land?” Dae said. “She could. Since taking care of Paxmer, Gallagrin’s Spirit has been solidly united behind her. But what of the Ducal armies? How would the ones loyal to the disloyal nobles take their masters imprisonment?”

“Poorly,” Teo sagged and dropped his hands to his side.

“And with only the rebellious nobles in custody what might people assume their fate to be?” Dae asked.

“Execution,” Teo said, understanding burrowing through the thick haze of worry and anger that clouded his mind.

“And the Ducal armies would do what in the case of their master’s imminent deaths?” Dae asked.

“There would be rebellion,” Teo said. “But you said the queen was in control of the realm more firmly than ever.”

“She is,” Dae said. “But its people are still free. The Ducal armies could chose to oppose her, they are simple unlikely to win, or even survive.”

“It is a problem which resolves itself then, isn’t it?” Teo asked.

“It’s a problem that resolves into a variety of new problems,” Dae said. “The queen would win if it came to another civil war, but Gallagrin would lose. Every death would be a blow against us. Every injury would be a wound the entire realm would need to recover from.”

“So what is the queen going to do?” Teo asked.

“Keep all of the nobles here to start with,” Dae said. “If she retains both those who were her allies and the ones who worked against her, there’s less support for the notion that she’s gathering victims for a massacre.”

“But she can’t keep everyone here indefinitely,” Teo said. “They’ll rebel just the same.”

“I know,” Dae said. “And she has a plan for that too.”


“Yes, apparently she noticed that if the world is in crisis, she could fly off to deal with it and leave the problem of our nobles to me.”

Dae offered Teo, and those who were eavesdropping, a wolfish smile.

“And you were in favor of executions?” Teo asked, his uncertainty over the turn the conversation had taken plainly evident.

“For those who deserve it?” Dae said. “All I need is a sword and I’d be glad to start on them myself. Today.”

A hush fell over the load platform as people abandoned even the pretext that they weren’t listening. If Dae was willing to lead them into another civil war, then everyone present would have a personal and immediate interest in how it began and how it turned out.

“But that’s not what we’re going to do,” Dae said, drifting faintly into the formality of Royal Speech. “We’re going to respect the Queen’s kindness and mercy. We’re not adverse to spilling blood in her name or for her cause, but neither will we stain her reign with more slaughter or diminish the realm by the destruction of its children.”

Dae glanced away from Teo and took in the small assembly that had gathered around her.

“At least not while our patience lasts,” she said.

“Was the Queen serious when she said you’d be the next queen if she didn’t return?” Eorn asked, voicing the question most of those present had as to whether Dae could make good on her implied threats.

“She’s going to return,” Dae said. Alari’s declaration had been every bit as official as it needed to be. Dae had no doubt that the Gallagrin Pact Spirit would seek her out if Alari was slain. She also knew that Alari wouldn’t allow that to happen.

“Can you be sure?” Eorn asked. “No one’s ever done this before have they?”

Dae frowned. Eorn’s concern was true. They lived in an age without precedent. It didn’t help Dae sleep to think of that, but it wasn’t the hardest problem she faced getting through the night.

“Nothing that happened today was a surprise to her,” Dae said. “She’s known this was going to happen, sooner or later, since Paxmer fell.”

“Why didn’t she warn us then?” Eorn asked. She looked even more worried than Teo had, which Dae hadn’t expected. Teo’s spouse was at risk, but Eorn…

Dae blinked at having missed what should have been an obvious connection. Eorn wasn’t worried about Alari, or the fate of the Royal entourage. She was worried about Undine. Alari had selected the two of them to join her personal Guard, but Eorn and Undine had known each other for years before being called to the palace by Royal Request. Alari knew they would be loyal to the realm and to her, but their loyalty to each other was something Dae knew would be a foolish thing to discount.

“Because she’s evil, and enjoys tormenting us,” Dae said. “Also, because there was no point discussing the broad ideas she could see forming without specifics that we could act on.”

“We could at least have had her carriage ready,” Eorn said. “And the guards prepped to go with her.”

“That’s likely one of the reasons she held off telling us,” Dae said. “Not everything the queen does is deliberate or part of a greater plan, but arriving with unexpected speed and without an escort strikes me as sending a deliberate message to Senkin, the Green Council and all of the other nations who are watching this play out.”

“I still wish she’d taken us with her,” Eorn said, plain disappointment undisguised in her voice.

“Same here,” Dae said. “But we have work to do that’s not in Senkin.”

“The sooner begun, the sooner completed, I guess,” Teo said, regaining his composure. “I just hope she brings Ren back.”

“And all the rest,” Dae said.

“Lady Akorli?” a breathless page said as she raced to stand at attention before Dae. “There is an ambassador here who wishes to see the Queen.”

Dae sighed.

“Let me guess, they’re from the Green Council aren’t they?”

“Yes Lady Akorli.”

“Well this should be interesting then,” Dae said. “Let’s go see if we can avoid setting fire to a tree-person, shall we?”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 10

Alari always found the Royal Sky Carriage pleasant to ride in. It was pulled by the finest Wind Steeds in the realm. It was lavishly appointed. It was the perfect get away from the insanity of the palace, and despite the reclined seats, the heavy layered curtains that keep out the high altitude cold and elaborate silver-inlaid engravings which held spells to provide both comfort and entertainment through the song, she hadn’t been able to enjoy using it in years. Since she’d won her throne, her life had been focused on the heart of her realm. That Gallagrin still stood, and had risen in power from the ruins of its civil war to be capable of toppling other realms was a testament to the work she’d done, but as she flew faster than the wind away from Highcrest Castle, she felt the toll of those years.

Absently, she ran a hand along the knotwork trim of the carriage, tracing the tiny animal carvings on the edge of the window. The carriage was a gift from the Green Council to a distant ancestor of Alari’s but the magics they’d laid on it were still vibrant and strong. Its ancient pedigree spoke to its more primitive design than modern conveyances, but the carriage took to the high winds with ease and Alari was able to watch the miles race by below them through windows that were undimmed by time.

“Is the squad from the Royal Army going to be able to catch up with us?” Jyl asked.

Alari knew that the answer was ‘No’. One of the benefits of having the finest Wind Steeds in the realm was that no one else could match them. She also knew that, tactically speaking, racing ahead of the people who are assigned to keep her safe was extraordinarily foolhardy. Dae had been on the verge of outright begging Alari to stop and wait, but as that tactic had never worked in the past, Dae had swallowed her worry and in heart breakingly few words extracted a promise from Alari that she would return. Alari, in turn, gave that promise willingly and truthfully. She wasn’t eager to fly to her own destruction. She knew that, just as deeply as she knew that she couldn’t stay safe, locked away in her castle any longer.

She told herself the unfolding crisis was too large for any one realm to resolve. That as a monarch of one of the Blessed Realms, she had to intervene because there was no one else who could. Those rationalizations had the benefit of being true, but from the way her spirit took flight as the carriage raced onwards, told her that there were other, unseen, motivations driving her as well.

Being away from the castle felt wonderful and liberating. Nestled in the bright blue sky, and caught in the action of the spur of a moment, Alari was struck by the idea that the only tie in Highcrest that she coudn’t, and didn’t want to, slip free from was Dae. That then lead to the thought of sneaking back into the castle, kidnapping Dae and vanishing into the night. It was a disturbingly tempting thought. It was a ridiculous one, true, but still her imagination was all too willing to begin drafting plans around the idea.

All her life, Alari had wanted to nurture her realm, she wanted it to be amazing and wondrous and could see so many way for that to come true, but in her six years of ruling over her realm she been struck time and again by how bent on destroying itself Gallagrin seemed to be. Simple compromises designed for the benefit of all were rejected time and again, because the participants believed that they had to stake the widest claim possible and extract the most revenue that they could from any arrangement, rather than looking for mutually beneficial terms which would create a stronger and better society for all, including themselves. Nobles consider those they ruled to be unworthy scum, and commoners invented divisions purely so they could hate each other more efficiently.

“You can always count on people to desire more power.” Haldri, the former Queen of Paxmer had told her. “Commoners believe power will bring them security, nobles have power and know they are not secure and so desire even more.”

Alari couldn’t agree with Haldri’s  appraisal, even though her own life looked like it bore out the truth of it. She’d plunged Gallagrin into a civil war to take the throne from her father, but no matter how history would see her, Alari knew it hadn’t been power that she’d sought. The fighting during those long months was hideous, but even a battlefield full of the dead was less of a horror than the terror that her father inflicted on his people.

They’d cheered her when she overthrew him. Even his allies. At first. Then, as she moved to change Gallagrin, to move it away from the decades of internecine rivalry that had fed the Butcher King’s madness, her nobles and her people had started to turn on her. Her policies were too forgiving, or too punitive. Her efforts to direct aid and reconstruction were fought by ally and enemy alike, based solely on whether they were benefiting from the it directly rather than any appraisal as to need or overall impact.

With the Wind Steeds carrying her ever farther from the nexus of insanity that was her throne, Alari felt shackles falling away from her. The nobles that she left behind were the better for her departure she felt. She knew that killing the lot of them wasn’t an option. She would never allow herself to become the regent her father had been, but a part of her could see no other path forward. Her enemies like Duke Lafli would never stop opposing her and her allies could turn on her at any moment when she didn’t give them what they wanted. Getting rid of the lot of them seemed like the only sane course of action.

“Will the Queen of Senkin see us when we arrive?” Jyl asked. She looked uncomfortable, swallowed up in the pillowy seats of the Royal Carriage. Beside her, Jaan wore an expression of poised aloofness. Alari didn’t think Jaan was any more comfortable than her twin sister, but a lifetime as a courtier had schooled her in how to conceal discomfort to a degree that Jyl’s years as an adventurer had never managed.

“My Queen will be honored to receive you,” Corine said. “If you had allowed a messenger to precede our arrival, you would have been met with the utmost in hospitality.”

“That is one reason we did not wish our arrival to be heralded,” Alari said. “This is not an occasion for pomp and ceremony.”

“What are our orders if the Queen of Senkin is unhappy with the surprise visit?” Jyl asked.

“If Senkin will not treat with us on the matter of the Council’s invasion, then we shall depart and treat with the Council instead,” Alari said.

There was something delicious about playing a political game where she held no responsibility towards any of the other parties. With the Gallagrin nobles, even her enemies represented her people, and however much the nobles infuriated her, Alari was determined that her people would not suffer from her wrath. She clung to that and ground it into her self image as a shield against her father’s madness. In too many reflections, she saw pieces of him in the impulses she fought to control. She had to believe she was different than he was though. Nothing else could excuse what she had done.

“And if Senkin doesn’t want to let us depart?” Jyl asked.

“If Senkin wishes Gallagrin to enter the fray on the Council’s side then she is more than welcome to try to keep us from departing,” Alari said, “In that eventuality you will be given full leave to use any and all powers at your disposal to follow the path we shall blaze.”

It was a risk to venture into a foreign land with only minimal guards, but Alari was far from helpless. She carried the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin and with no one casting a counter claim over it, she had access to its full and unrestricted power.

Senkin was aware of that, which granted Alari a significant umbrella of protection. While Senkin could order her forces against Alari’s small entourage, the losses Senkin would suffer would be extreme, and the realm couldn’t afford that when it was already fighting an invasion.

“I assure you, my Queen will be glad for your wisdom and advice,” Corine said. “Senkin did not seek this quarrel and if you can restore justice between the two realms, we will be forever grateful.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Ren said.

Alari glanced at him, raising an eyebrow.

“Justice on its own is a terrible force,” Ren said. “Queen Alari has shown Gallagrin the virtue of Justice tempered with Mercy, but has not been paid back kindly. If you would ask only for justice, she may be willing to grant that to you, but grand issues like this are never so simple that justice can find only those wholly guilty.”

Corine looked as though she was going to protest the notion that Senkin could be in any sense at fault for the invasion it had suffered but stifled the remark. Whether that was due to the knowledge or suspicion of guilt on Senkin’s part or whether it was out of a desire to avoid needless arguments with Alari’s entourage was difficult for Alari to tell.

“Are you suggesting that our Queen would punish the innocent along with the guilty?” Jaan asked.

“Are you innocent?” Ren asked. “Am I?”

“In this matter we do not seek to address guilt or innocence,” Alari said. “We do not stand as judge or jury over our peers, but rather as mediator.”

Mediator was the role Alari would claim, though she knew that in stepping onto the stage of the conflict, her role would be far broader than that of a simple negotiator.

“We sovereigns understand something which our lessers do not,” Haldri had said. “There is no security in having power, only in its use.”

Alari enjoyed the time she spent with her hated rival. Partly that came from childish gloating, though she took care never to express that openly to Haldri, and in part because for all the unforgivable harm that Haldri had done to Alari, they were still sisters of a sort. No one else in all the realms, no even Dae, understood the weight of the crown that bore down on a monarch’s soul.

Haldri had a very different method of grappling with that weight. Where Alari had struggled to hold it up and be the mountain her people could stand upon, Haldri had taken the opposite approach and placed her people below her.

The former queen never offered a word of sorrow for her deed or regret, but there was a weary relief that clung to her in defeat. Some small sliver of Haldri Paxmer had been disgusted with the choices she made. Some far larger piece of her had been exhausted from the constant strain of holding the yoke on those who hungered for her throne. In her destruction and exile, Haldri had found freedom at last from the choices she was called to make and the constant control her rule required.

In some tiny corner of her soul, Alari felt envy for the fallen queen. Had the battle between Paxmer and Gallagrin turned out differently, she knew that Haldri would not had spared her or treated her so kindly, but that would have been Haldri burden to bear. In keeping the Paxmer Queen as prisoner, Alari had spared herself the trauma of more royal blood on her hands and had gained an unusually useful sounding board.

“Your Majesty, if I’m not out of line, may I ask why you brought her with us?” Undine asked, pointing to the former Paxmer Queen who sat silently in the far back of the Royal Carriage.

“I am an object lesson for our peers,” Haldri said. “She wishes to remind people what happens to those who would chose to oppose Gallagrin.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 9

As the Senkin representative to Gallagrin, Captain Suncourt Corine was able to observe that some facets of dealing with royalty were universal. Despite the differences in their culture, their values and their day-to-day lifestyles, Gallagrin evidenced the same trait as Senkin when it came to dealing with messengers; no matter how urgent the message, or how fast its bearer had traveled to deliver it, there would be an interminable delay before the message’s royal recipient would find time to receive it.

“Are they almost ready yet?” Corine asked, certain in the knowledge that if she tried to burn a path into the royal sanctum with holy fire her message would not receive the attention it required. As Corine was not an especially patient person, the temptation to smash down the door to the audience chamber with a Sun Lance was nigh unto overwhelming. She’d been instructed very specifically however that no use of her magics, except a last resort for self-defense, was allowed as part of her mission.

But still, the door looked so tempting to reduce to ash.

It was saved from that fate, when one of the Queen’s Guards, an elf woman a good foot and a half shorter than Corine, beckoned her to step inside the audience chamber.

“Queen Alari is ready to see you,” the elf said, evaluating Corine with a measuring gaze. The size disparity was a trap. Corine’s first impulse was to dismiss the elf as non-threatening but the casual smile on the elf’s face and the fact that she was directly responsible for protecting the Queen suggested that short woman was not just more dangerous than she looked but more dangerous than Corine could guess.

Pact Warriors were said to be able to shrug off holy fire and shatter sun shields with ease. If that was true of the standard troops, Corine was unhappy contemplating what an exceptional one like a Queen’s Guard could do.

She nodded and followed the elf into the audience chamber, expecting to find only the Queen and her guard waiting within. The message was a confidential one between the realms, and Gallagrin had a history of secrets and betrayals. Rather than the tight, easily controlled group Corine had imagined though, she found a veritable horde of people already assembled in the room.

Several were clearly members of the Queen’s Guard, including the infamous Lady Akorli of the Bloody Blade. The rest were of noble stock, judging by their adornments but not of sufficient renown that Corine could identify them on sight.

“Welcome our audience, Captain Suncourt Corine,” the Queen said. “You have brought us tidings from Senkin. Would you please share them with us.”

“Your Majesty Gallagrin,” Corine said, snapping to a formal posture. “I bring confidential words from Her Majesty Senkin. I have been sworn to deliver them to no one else except you.”

“We have been advised of the generalities of your message,” the Queen said. “Those assembled here must be advised of the details as well, so you may speak freely before them.”

“As you wish Your Majesty,” Corine said, not relaxing her posture but sighing inwardly and accepting that she was still following the dictates of her orders, however strange the Gallagrin Queen’s court was. “Senkin has declared war on the Green Council following an invasion by the Green Council’s forces, the destruction of one of our towns and the murder of those sent to reclaim it.”

“We would hear a recounting of these events from a witness if one is available,” the Queen asked. Beside her, Lady Akorli leaned forward, evaluating Corine in much the same manner that the elf guard had moments earlier.

“I can speak to the events of the original invasion,” Corine said. “I am one of the surviving commanders from our border garrison.”

“Please start at the beginning then,” the Queen said. “We would hear as many of the events as you can bear to repeat.”

The Queen of Senkin had dispatched Corine for this exact eventuality. Apparently Gallagrin and Senkin were on familiar enough terms that Corine’s Queen was able to guess how her counterpart would think and what she was likely to require from an ambassador announcing the beginning of a war.

“The attack came swiftly Your Majesty,” Corine said. “I did not see the initial charge, so I can only relay the reports of other survivors.”

“How many survivors were there of the initial assault?” Lady Akorli asked, with a look of concern on her face that Corine couldn’t quite read.

“Most of the garrison survived,” Corine said. “The attack came without warning, but the nature of the Council’s forces prevented a stealthy approach on the town.”

“What did they come at you with?” Jyl, the elf guard, asked.

“Enormous monsters of wood and vine,” Corine said. “Even our strongest attacks couldn’t fell the creatures.”

“Warbringers,” an elven noblewoman said. An elven noblewoman who was a perfect replica of one of the queen’s guards. “The Council uses them for the same things we use Pact Knights for.”

“Not exactly,” Lady Akorli said. “Warbringers are an active defense army but their efforts are directed almost entirely at the monsters which inhabit the Council’s lands. The Green Council hasn’t made peace with the creatures their gods left behind the way we have, so Warbringers see significantly more combat than the average Pact Knight does.”

“They are more than a defensive army,” Corine said. “It only took a small number of them to invade and destroy our defenses.”

“Did you have any casters present, or was it only regular troops who were on hand?” Lady Akorli asked.

“The garrison was not considered a lofty appointment, due to the long peace we have held with the Council, but it was still staffed with a full compliment of officers,” Corine said. Not the best officers Senkin had to offer, though not the absolute dregs either. Her own appointment to the garrison had been a punitive one, brought on by wine soaked actions she dearly wished she had a better recollection of performing.

“Fully staffed but not prepared, given the circumstances?” Lady Akorli asked.

“Yes, that is a fair statement,” Corine said. “Even with more warning though I do not know if we could have been truly prepared for the monsters.”

“The Green Council fields an unstoppable force?” the Queen asked.

“Not perhaps unstoppable, but their power was beyond anything I could have estimated they would possess,” Corine said. “So even with time to prepare, I doubt we would have prepared enough.”

“What happened with to the townspeople?” Lady Akorli asked.

“Most of them fled as well, though a few weren’t lucky enough to escape the initial onslaught of devastation,” Corine said. “Those of the garrison who didn’t break and run at the first sight of the Warbringers managed to buy enough time for the people to evacuate.”

“So that’s why most of the garrison survived?” Jaan, the elven noblewoman, said. “Because they ran rather than fought?”

Corine’s blood flamed to a white hot pitch. To disparage the honor her comrades, even the cowards and the sneaks and the lowlifes, was an unforgivable sin. That Jaan was largely correct as to why Senkin hadn’t suffered more losses stoked the flames even high as they burned shame, as well as wounded pride.

“They retreated because the battle was lost before it was begun,” she said, forcing her rage into a box labeled ‘why I hate diplomacy’.

“We’re lucky that they did,” Lady Akorli said. “If Captain Suncourt had fought to the bitter end, her garrison would still be lost and we would have no insight into the troops the Green Council was marshalling, or how they were deployed.”

“The Warbringers were not preceded by a Windstrider?” the Queen asked.

“I am unfamiliar with that term,” Corine said, wondering why both the Gallagrin Queen and her Knight seemed to be well versed in the military apparatus of a realm which Gallagrin had little contact with in terms of trade or travel.

“The Windstriders are the Green Council’s diplomats,” the Queen said. “They can move at remarkable speed and can assume the form of one of the eight winds. The council uses them to communicate with monsters who are destructive by nature rather than volition.”

“We were offered no communication, and no warning, Your Majesty,” Corine said. “One moment it was a peaceful morning like any other and then the tremors began and the Warbringers came crashing out of the treeline on the Council side of the border. We threw fire at them, and we conjured our strongest shields but nothing could hold the giants back.”

“Any answer to this question must be speculation,” the Queen said, “but do you have any sense of what provoked the attack? Or what the Council’s aim might be in beginning this conflict?”

“I must confess I do not, Your Majesty,” Corine said. “Senkin and the Green Council have enjoyed peaceful relations since the creation of the realms.”

“Peaceful but not friendly, is that right?” Lady Akorli asked.

“The Council does keep itself at a distance, but Senkin has always respected that distance,” Corine said. “There is no true border between our two countries, just the Silver Torrent river, and that runs straight into my realm without blocking transit between the two at all.”

“The Green Council owns the headwaters for the Silver Torrent doesn’t it?” Lady Akorli asked.

“Yes, though it has never been a point of contention for the realms,” Corine said. “Our gods crafted the river to bring life to both realms and it’s path has been inviolate since it was made.”

“What response has Senkin made to the invasion?” Lady Akorli asked.

“A squad was dispatched to reclaim one of the old forts which stood on the border,” Corine said. “The attempt met with tragedy though. The Green Council is using cloud weapons from their arsenal, with lethal results.”

“Cloud weapons?” Lady Akorli asked.

“Yes,” Corine said. “Delivered by some form of aerial creature. The clouds are contained in a large shell which bursts on impact which releases a cloud of toxins which slay any who even touch the vapors, unless they are from the Green Council it seems. The Warbringers, at least, are refreshed from what we observed.”

“Interesting,” Lady Akorli said.

“Yes?” the Queen asked.

“Pulling out special armaments this early in the conflict,” Lady Akorli said. “That suggests a number of things, none of them good.”

“Chief among them being the conclusion that the Council will have even deadlier devices held in reserve?” the Queen asked.

“That’s a certainty,” Lady Akorli said. “But there’s also the matter of the intent and the impact. The Council wouldn’t use a weapon like that without being aware of the impact it would have on their enemies. They want Senkin to be cautious about quick strikes behind the lines, and they intend to continue to pursue this campaign.”

“How can you tell?” Jyl asked.

“They’ve moved decisively to create fear about attacking behind their line,” Lady Akorli said. “Senkin can’t launch strikes that targets the Council’s resources without risking exposure to the Death Cloud or other weapons. If they planned to give up land they’d gained, the Council would have retreated and used the Death Cloud on any who tried to pursue.”

“What makes you think the Council will continue to pursue aggressive action?” Jaan asked.

“Because the area they’ve taken is indefensible, as Captain Suncourt said. The gods didn’t plan on the two realms coming into conflict, so only good positions for erecting solid defense works are deep within both realms. The Council will need to push forward at least until they’ve captured those if they intend to have any long term hope of holding the territory they’ve acquired.”

“In light of that, what call does Senkin make to Gallagrin?” the Queen asked.

“My Queen has bid me to solicit from you news of the stand Gallagrin will take on this issue, whether you will stand with us or allow us to prosecute our claim against the Council on our own,” Corine said. “I am to deliver you declaration to her personally by the most expeditious manner I can procure.”

“You will be traveling by Royal Carriage then,” the Queen said. “My Knight, the realm is in your hands. Vice Commander please procure a squad from the Royal Army for our use. Guardian Undine, arrange with our Senseshal for travel necessities to be gathered and forwarded Senkin by fastest air carriage. We shall not wait longer. We travel to Senkin to begin settling this matter now.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 8

Eorn thought it was her imagination at first that the temperature had plummeted in the room, but looking around the small Penitent’s Court she saw that there was actual ice forming on the windows, despite the pleasant warmth of the day.

“You’re going to do what?” the Lady Daelynne Akorli asked with a voice as light as a blade that was about to strike.

“We are going to lead the delegation to Senkin and the Green Council personally,” Queen Alari said. “We stand on the brink of a cataclysm greater than the loss of our gods. The world knows what we did to Paxmer and now it watches to see if another realm will fall. We cannot let that happen through warfare, or our world will drown in the blood of the innocent.”

“We can not risk you,” Dae said. “Gallagrin with disintegrate if you fall.”

Eorn wasn’t especially adept at reading social dynamics, but the tension in the room had risen so fast and thick that even she could feel it. The Queen and her Knight weren’t arguing how Eorn’s family would. There were no thundering voices, no creative profanity, just calm words spoken with the greatest of restraint, which was somehow a thousand times more terrifying.

“I’m afraid the Lady Akorli is quite correct,” the nobleman Ren said, bravely entering the conversation. “Without someone holding the Gallagrin Pact Spirit, the noble houses will rip themselves to apart vying for the succession.”

“If you named one of them as your heir, that could be avoided,” Jaan Lafli said.

“Typical,” Vice Commander Jyl said, her contempt for her sister not even thinly veiled.

“I do not offer the Lafli house as a candidate for that title,” Jaan said, dismissing her sister’s anger with an airy wave. “We have been mislead recently and the honor of being the presumptive heir should clearly be bestowed on a House which has remained true to you. House Lafli will look only to support them.”

Eorn thought that sounded reasonable on the surface, but she’d listened to too many tales featuring the corruption of the nobility not to look for the hidden agendas in Jaan Lafli’s words.

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have to look far. House Lafli had backed all of the attempts to take Queen Alari’s throne. They were lucky she hadn’t executed them all weeks ago. Pledging support for a new House early did nothing to make up for those betrayals, it only served to put the Lafli in a better position if the Queen was killed and the Gallagrin Pact Spirit went up for grabs.

The issue of who would next rule shouldn’t have been in dispute, of course. Gallagrin had, at one time, possessed very clear lines of succession. The Queen’s father had seen to the destruction of that though. Among his first victims were those who held an uncontested claim to the throne should he and Alari be slain. The remaining nobility had to trace their connections to royal blood back a half dozen generations or so, which meant that the specifics of who held priority as the legitimate successor was a murky question at best.

“We have thought of this as well,” Queen Alari said. “As there is only one in this realm who holds our unquestioning trust, the choice of naming our heir is a simple one.”

She turned to her right and Eorn watched the Lady Akorli’s face pale at what was coming.

“You already speak with my voice, and you have given more for this realm than we could ever have asked,” the queen said. “This burden is one we lay on you out of our love and trust, though we fear there is no kindness in our doing so. Lady Daelynne Akorli, Queen’s Knight and Champion of Gallagrin, we name you our successor, to hold in trust the people and spirits of this realm until you pass from this life or find a worthy successor to whom to pass the royal mantle.”

The queen’s words echoed with more than human weight behind them. It didn’t matter that there were human witnesses in the room. The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin had taken notice of Alari’s proclamation and would seek out Dae on its own should Alari fall.

“You can’t be serious,” Dae said, her eyes those of a rabbit discovering itself surrounded on all sides by wolves.

“If the throne would seat two, you would rule beside me already,” Alari said.

“Dammit,” Dae muttered. Then her eyes flew open and she repeated, “Dammit!”

“Yes, we are afraid you are correct,” Alari said, before Dae could speak. “This time you must stay and bide your here while we travel to resolve the crisis at hand.”

“No!” Dae said, jumping to her feet and breaking, from what Eorn was aware of, every kind of protocol in addressing the queen so bluntly. “There is no chance in the Nine Hells you are leaving this castle without me, much less this country.”

Eorn began to sense that being anywhere else, even the Nine Hells, would be preferable to being present for the argument that was to come between the Queen and her Knight. A quick glance around the room told her that everyone else felt the same, but the tempest that was building was broken with only a few quiet words.

“I must and you must,” the Queen said, her voice softer than Eorn imagined ever hearing it. “I need you here to handle so many things.”

Everyone else in the room was sitting silent, listening to the exchange, and it took a moment for Eorn to notice what had caught their attention. It wasn’t just the argument. The Queen had slipped into familiar speech. That was something no one, except apparently the Lady Akorli, had ever heard before.

“Such as?” Dae asked, her eyes glassy with repressed tears.

“We have only received a representative from Senkin,” Alari said. “There must be someone here who can speak with royal authority if and when the Green Council opens an official dialog with us.”

“I’m not the one you want speaking with them,” Dae said, settling back into her chair.

“I believe she does,” Ren said. “And with good reason.”

Dae shot a glance at him that was as hard as a crossbow bolt to the chest.

“And what reason would that be,” she asked, anger grinding the words across her lips.

“The Green Council will listen to you,” Ren said. “And yet your words won’t bind the realm unless the Queen wishes them to be binding.”

“Through you, Gallagrin can address both Senkin and the Green Council without tying our fate to either one,” Alari said. “Together, we can act as arbiters to resolve the underlying dispute which has placed our northern neighbors at war with one another.”

“Is there really a dispute to be resolved though?” the man who spoke was someone Eorn only barely recognized. The Duke’s husband if she remembered correctly. Outside of the Penitent’s Court, he wouldn’t have had the standing to speak directly to the queen. Inside the court, Eorn wasn’t sure he should have either, but Alari recognized his point nonetheless.

“There have been actions which Senkin and the Green Council will point to as the cause and justification for their animosity, but you are correct. As always there will be deeper reasons for the bloodshed,” Alari said.

“Can you, or even all of Gallagrin, address those reasons?” Teo, Duke Ren’s husband, asked.

“Certainly,” Alari said. “Anything we do, even abstaining from the conflict is an answer to the question they raise. If you are asking whether we can create peace between the two realms though, that is not the reason for our conference with the two sides.”

“You want to support the stronger realm in their conquest of the other to limit the damage inflicted?” Jaan asked.

“There’s the Lafli family for you,” Jyl said.

“We’re not going to support either realm are we?” Dae asked.

“It is too soon to say, but most likely not,” Alari said.

“What other option is there?” Jaan asked.

“You crush both of them as a warning to other realms not to try this sort of thing in the future,” Dae said.

“That’s going to be a tall order with Gallagrin in its current state,” Ren said.

“It’s current state can change quickly though, can’t it?” Teo asked.

“Which current state do you mean?” Jaan asked. “At present our realm seems beset by a number of fractures.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Jyl said. “Not with all of the fractures still here for the Grand Convocation.”

“What are you suggesting sister?” Jann’s expression had sharpened like a knife.

“Just that if a pyre needs to be built for our grandfather, I’ll be happy to throw the first logs on the pile,” Jyl said.

Eorn didn’t miss the Vice Commander’s meaning, and from the looks of it, no one else in the room did either. Murdering the nobles who tried to oppose the queen seemed like a brutal step, but under the circumstances Eorn wouldn’t have been opposed to taking a few swings with the axe. There were nobles she’d met who might become much less disagreeable if their mouths were no longer connected to their lungs.

“We will not strengthen our realm by bleeding it out,” Alari said. “Our father proved the failures inherent in following that path.”

“Who are you taking with you?” Dae asked. She didn’t look like she’d given in to the notion of the queen leaving her behind but something had changed in her demeanor.

“Vice Commander Lafli and her sister will escort us,” Alari said.

“That’s not enough,” Dae said. “And don’t tell me you need to travel quickly. Take the rest of the Guard. It’s what we’re here for and we can all travel quickly.”

“We planned to recall Mayleena as well,” Alari said.

“My sister’s not in the palace?” Ren asked. “What is she up to?”

“She’s playing with dragons,” Dae said. “Or terrorizing them. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”

Eorn blinked. She’d heard rumors of the missing member of the Queen’s Guard. Some people had claimed she was lost in fighting to take Paxmer, but Lady Akorli had said she was on a special assignment. Working with dragons wasn’t something she could do in Gallagrin which suggested the Queen’s Guardian had never left Paxmer.

“Okay,” Ren said. “That’s not what I had expected, but…ok.”

“We will take Lord Greis with us as well, to make use of his contacts in Senkin,” Alari said.

“I would be delighted to be of service Your Majesty,” Ren said.

“Lord Greis? I thought you were part of the Telli family?” Jaan asked.

“It’s complicated,” Ren said. “I serve the Queen in two capacities, though in one of them I fear my service has been lacking.”

“If you’re going to Senkin then I am going too,” Teo said.

“About that Mr. Greis,” Alari said. “The crown has need of your services as well.”

Teo looked wary at that and replied in a cautious tone, “And what duty can I serve?”

“We need to send a diplomat to Inchesso to speak with our allies there,” Alari said.

“Your forgiveness Your Majesty, but there are forces in Inchesso who will move against my husband if he sets foot back in his homeland,” Ren said.

“We are counting on that,” Alari said. “That is why we will send one of our own Guardians with you as well as a squad of the Royal Army loyal to our person.”

“Stirring the kettle in Inchesso too?” Dae asked. “That’s not going to make this situation any calmer.”

Eorn noticed a dangerous smile spreading across the Dae’s face, but couldn’t spare the time to decipher it as she tried to figure out who the queen was thinking to send with Teo. With dawning horror, she worked out two terrible facts. First the queen had said she was sending only one of her guards with Teo and second the only guards who hadn’t been assigned a task yet were Undine and herself. One of them was going to Inchesso and the other wasn’t, Eorn felt her stomach twist at the idea, but the gravity of the situation kept her in her chair, silently praying that she was missing something.

“It is not our intention to place a lid on this political cauldron,” Alari said. “Allowing hostilities to simmer will only turn today’s problem into ones which will plague all of our tomorrows.”

“Then I take it I have one other task,” Dae said. “If we’re not going to let tomorrow’s problems come down to roost then we’re going to need the Ducal armies unified as well won’t we?”

“Yes,” Alari said. “We leave that particularly thorny problem in your capable hands as well as one other.”

“There’s more?” Dae said, sighing and slumping into herself.

“The matter before us touches on more than Senkin and the Green Council, and more than Gallagrin and Inchesso,” Alari said. “We need to gather all of our allies”

“You want me to contact my mother,” Dae said, without looking up.

“Paxmer and Gallagrin have centuries of blood between them,” Alari said. “If our world is going to flirt with centuries of war to come, let it be those of us who are familiar with its cost who lead the rest away from that precipice.”


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 7

Iana squeezed the fingers of her Warbringer into a tight fist. In her years as a pilot, and her months in command, she’d never felt the need to question the Council’s orders. She’d learned what was taught to her, she’d done her duty, and she’d never raised a fuss about it. The rage she felt was a new experience therefor.

“Patience,” Dagmauru said. “This is not the time for the hasty actions of the Quick. This is the time to sink deep and seize the land below us.”

Dagmauru spoke to Iana through the Deep Root Speech. He was an Elder, and she a commander, so their discussions began in the privacy of the speech only accessible to those who were tied into the deepest level of the Green Council’s workings.  

Iana knew that Dagmauru’s orders came from the Green Council itself but every fiber in her burned with the urge to disobey them.

“The Senkins are getting away,” she said, struggling not to scream. If they were listening, the Council could hear her words, but if she gave into the tumult of fear and hate which boiled within her then everyone in the realm would hear her words.

The same as everyone had heard the cries of the ones who burned when Senkin invaded.

“You seek to forestall the battle to come by ending it before it arrives,” Dagmauru said. “The war we fight is not one which can be avoided though.”

“I don’t want to avoid the war,” Iana said. “I want to win it. If we let the Senkin’s go they’re going to tell their troops about us. They’ll know how to hurt us.”

“You are thinking like one of the Quick,” Dagmauru said. She felt him extend vibrations of calm and certainty through the Deep Roots. “They will attack us again. It is what the Quick do. They will come in force and we will meet them. They will hurt us, but we will draw on more strength than they, because, in their haste, they will be only loosely tethered while we will be sunk deep.”

The Deep Roots brought more than just Dagmauru’s words to Iana. She felt the flow of the future that he foresaw. What was to come would be rapid, but one didn’t need to be quick to answer the changes before them. As with the arrival of an early snow, the key to surviving and overcoming was always to grow broader and deeper than that which sought to overwhelm you.

Iana knew this doctrine. She’d been nurtured on it from when she was first given to the Council’s Military Creches. It had long served the Council well in dealing with the monsters which prowled the many Lost Glades of their realm.

Those creatures were cast-offs of the Slumbering Gods though, failed experiments if somewhat deadly ones nonetheless. The Senkin weren’t anything like the monsters of the Lost Glades. The monsters might prey on the people of Iana’s realm, but there was no illusion of peace between them. Senkin was supposed to have been the Green Council’s friend, the realm most closely connected to Iana’s homeland through treaty and trade and centuries of shared history.

That had all been a lie though. The moment someone proved that the gods weren’t waiting to punish those who overthrew another realm, Senkin’s civility had fallen away like dead leaves caught in a fierce storm. In place of friendship, Senkin had shown its greed, raiding the the Green Council’s lands and slaughtering the ones they thought defended the border.

They had been wrong. Terribly wrong. The creche they burned didn’t hold the Green Council’s defenders. Only new growths and the newborn had been secreted there, along the shores of a secluded highland lake.

When the treachery was revealed, Iana’s forces were ranging deep within the Council’s lands, hunting a tribe of Blood Boars who had been driven mad after tasting the flesh of a traveling caravan. They returned triumphant only to discover the ruins of the fledgling creche. Iana world crumbled with that discovery, the embers of the ruined creche sparking a blaze within her heart that she knew would never burn wild or hot enough to subside.

“You will have a chance to answer the villiany of the Senkin soon,” Dagmauru said. “They will respond to our advance with haste and well before they have gathered their full strength.”

“And if they don’t?” Iana asked. She was stepping beyond her bounds, challenging Dagmauru’s advice so directly, but she needed to be right. She needed to do something.

“Then we will spread,” Dagmauru said. “Slowly. Inexorably. We will sink into the land and claim it as our own step by step. They will not win by trying to outlast those for whom the seasons pass as days do for the Quick.”

This argument struck a chord in Iana at last. The idea of taking the Senkin’s land, inch by inch, was appealing. There was no one neck she could wring or trunk she could shatter that would make up for what Senkin had done, but squeezing the life out of the realm and making its bounty into the Council’s own strength had the right sort of merciless ferocity to slake Iana’s need for vengeance.

“They can’t let us do that, but what if they strike across the border again?” she asked. “We’ve never fought a war like this, and their magics are strange.”

“The Senkin have always been dabblers with their arts,” Dagmauru said. “Theirs is a glorious and dazzling power which blinds them as much as it does their enemies.”

“You think we can beat them,” Iana asked. “Even if they all come at us at once?”

“The secrets of every long season are ours to command,” Dagmauru said. “We remember the deep mysteries and the words given to us by the divines who await our arrival in the Wintering Green. In opposing us, their defeat is inevitable.”

“We can’t let them win again,” Iana said. “Not even once.”

“There is no victory that can hold off the winter for all,” Dagmauru said. “You must embrace this and let it fill you. Your strength is not yours alone. You are part of our realm and even should you fall, even should you burn down to ash, the Green Council will remember you and your spirit will find shelter and renewal in the Wintering Green before returning to us.”

“I’m not afraid of the Wintering Green,” Iana said. “I will give my strength and my life for our realm, but I will not give anyone else’s.”

“You speak like a warrior,” Dagmauru said. “But you are no longer just a warrior. You are a commander. You must see your place and the place of those around you. We do not begrudge the falling leaf, but if the trunk is lost or the roots are torn up, then sorrow will follow. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Advisor,” Iana said. She knew what the Green Council needed of her. She had to spend the lives of those she commanded. She could shepherd them, she could refuse to waste their potential but when the need arose, she needed to send those beneath her to perish in her place. She needed to survive and carry out the will of the Council up and until those above her needed to expend her to further the strategy that would save the realm.

“Good, then we must continue this discussion in the High Roots,” Dagmauru said. “We have many plans to make with your company and…”

A scream along the High Roots cut him off.

Iana force her attention upwards, stumbly mentally back towards the light and the high vantage point of their winged sentries.

“The Senkin are back!” Wylika Selmondel, Iana’s second in command, said. She was rousing their forces, dragging the Warbringers back from their restorative slumber.

“Where are they?” Iana asked, scanning the fields where her forces had begun raising bulwarks.

“Above us,” Wylika said.

From the sky, chariots draw by horses of fire and shrouded in golden light descended from the cloud cover.

“They’re heading for the border keep,” Iana said. “Get the troops moving, we can’t let them dig in.”

“Yes commander!” Wylika said, the ground shaking with the departure of her Warbringer.

Iana dove her mind down to the Deep Roots again. She had to report in.

“They’re here. They’ve come back early,” she said, focusing on Dagmauru.

“As we foresaw,” Dagmauru said. “They come on swift wings which carry them only to their deaths.”

“If they take the border keep, they’ll be able to attack us whenever they want,” Iana said. “Our bulwarks won’t mean anything if they can just fly people right over them.”

“Trust the Council young one,” Dagmauru said. “This is all part of a greater design.”

With a vast effort of will, Iana stayed silent. Any design which called for allowing their enemy to attack them from a fortified position seemed like an idiotic design in Iana’s estimation.

“For now, you have the battle which you craved,” Dagmauru said. “Your part in the Council’s design is to slow and contain the Senkins. Assail their battlements. Turn their attention to safety and defense.”

“As you instruct Advisor,” Iana said and brought her attention back to her Warbringer.

Crashing across the landscape left her with conflicted emotions where it should have brought her joy. The battle to come quickened the blood in her veins and focused her mind, while the tangled skein of the Council’s plans left her vexed. She wanted to march to victory. She wanted to expend the immeasurable strength of her Warbringer on making her realm safe once more. Following orders which didn’t seem capable of producing that result was tearing her apart. Disobedience was unthinkable, but in the heat of battle not much thinking happened.

That was a dangerous thought though, and overstepping her boundaries was an ill-advised notion. What power the Green Council gave to her, it could also take away. So she obey. For the moment. She would engage the enemy. She would contain them. If any were foolish enough to expose themselves or try to break through her forces, then she would take advantage of the opportunity to its fullest extent.

“They’re starting to set up devices on the keep’s ramparts,” Wylika said.

“Must be some kind of heavy weaponry,” Iana said. “Tell the troops that we’re going to split and head in from different angles.”

“I’ll take the northern approach if you want?” Wylika asked. Her Warbringer was well ahead of Iana’s, it’s lighter structure making it faster though less powerful too.

“Take a quarter of the our forces,” Iana said. “I’ll take another quarter and approach from the south. I want the rest to stay back until we know what our foes are capable of assaulting us with.”

“Understood commander,” Wylika said.

Iana wasn’t thrilled with the idea of sending Wylika in on a separate attack vector. She liked the younger girl, and valued her as a Second-in-Command. Dagmauru had just warned her about thinking like a warrior rather than the Commander though, so she forced her heart to go still. She didn’t need to worry. She didn’t need to question. She just needed to do what the Council ordered her to.

A blistering bolt of light confirmed her decision. The Senkin felt secure enough in their fort to begin attacking. That was going to cost them.

Iana pushed her Warbringer forward into a thundering advance. Her giant arms absorbed more hits from the Senkin’s solar lances without breaking stride.

Stronger beams followed the solar lances cast by the Senkin defenders though. From the devices they’d setup atop the walls, torrents of concentrated white flame flashed across the battlefield like lightning.

When one hit Iana’s Warbringer, it blasted her left leg completely off and she fell hard into the dirt.

A great cheer went up from the Senkin ranks only to die out an instant later as vines from Iana’s Warbringer’s hip lashed out and reattached the plant giant’s severed leg.

More bolts and flares followed but despite the tremendous damage they inflicted, they couldn’t stop Iana and her forces from reaching the walls.

The border fort had stood for centuries for centuries but not been maintained in decades. Iana was still concerned about the protection it would provide the Senkins, but that was because she wasn’t comfortable with them having any protection at all. Against the might of her assembled Warbringer forces, she knew it wasn’t going to stand for very long.

The Senkins seemed to know that too, and at first she thought they were fleeing when their chariots took the air again.

That impression was dispelled when they wheeled around and began a low diving run on the Warbringers in Iana’s group. She tried to bring down the first that swooped towards her but the fiery shield around it vaporized the vine tendrils she threw at it before they could gain a hold on the chariot.

As it passed, the Senkin onboard dropped a small barrel which burst to pieces as it passed through the chariot’s shield.

White flakes fell from the destroyed barrel and the light wind carried them past Iana’s Warbringer. Her nearest subordinate wasn’t as lucky though. It caught a partial dusting of the white flakes and exploded in flames.

The pilot of the Warbringer sent it to the ground, trying to roll out the flames, but nothing would stop them.

Nothing would ever stop them.

Iana had heard of this weapon. The Senkin called it “Everfire” but that was far too pretty a name for the abomination that Iana saw before her. The flames it conjured never stopped burning, they would destroy the land itself if the magic powering them wasn’t undone. Not destroy as in reduce to ash. Things could grow from ashes. Destroy as in transform into energy that radiated away into nothingness.

Fresh rage kindled in her heart, and Iana lashed out with far more vine tendrils than she should have expended. She felt the knees on her Warbringer freeze up as the life was sucked out of them. It didn’t matter though. She was able to swarm so many vines around the chariot that she burst through its shield and crushed it into a shattered mess. The Senkins onboard it were an indistinguishable part of that mess, but her victory and their deaths brought Iana no joy. The stakes were rising too quickly.

That was when the Council’s Fell Birds arrived.

Magic-woven constructs of a size comparable to the Warbringers, the Fell Birds were only dispatched when a monster tribe had grown so powerful that it was a danger to an entire province. Iana looked up and was pleased with their arrival.

Then she saw they were carrying a new payload. Globes as wide as a man was tall, filled with a yellow-green liquid.

The Fell Birds made only one pass over the Senkin Fort. They weren’t particularly careful where they dropped their globes. Neither precision nor repetition were needed. Where the globes landed, large billowing clouds of fungal vapors blossomed, filling and overflowing the fort.

The yellow-green clouds energized Iana’s Warbringer where they touched it, but against the unprotected Senkins the mists had a different effect. As though being consumed by a billion starving insects, the enemy soldiers melted away as the clouds settled over them.

Her need for vengeance overwhelmed by the sight, Iana understood why Dagmauru had arranged for this scenario, or one like it to occur. There had to be observers watching this battle, and when they saw what became of their forces, there would be no more attempts to land troops behind the Green Council’s lines.

Her people were secure, but that didn’t mean that their advance was going to stop.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 6

Alari sometimes understood her late father’s desire to burn the world to the ground. Not to the extent of breaking out the head chopping axes but enough to indulge in some fairly gruesome daydreams as she waited for her Petitioner’s Court to assemble.

In the early days of Gallagrin, the Court had been setup to allow those with worthy cases to present their plight directly to the monarch of the realm. It was intended to serve as a protection against the noble’s being able to abuse the citizens who lived within their Duchy.

Over time the Court had grown to include Petition Reviewers whose duty was to sort the cases that came before the throne into one’s with legitimate grievances and ones whose issues could be handled by other judges.

Under the reign of King Sathe, the Petitioner’s Court had first devolved into a mechanism for eliminating political rivals and then been abandoned entirely once the nobles discovered that convincing the Butcher King that someone needed to be eliminated was far too easy. There were as many nobles who died from accusing their rivals of disloyalty as there were who died from being on the receiving end of an accusation of treason.

Alari had reinstated the court, over the complaints of a wide number of the noble houses. Even her supporters believed that time spent on minor individual problems was time that was more profitably used sorting out concerns that touched on the whole realm. To Alari though, the Court represented a chance to learn of the wider state of her realm from those who were most affected by the policies her nobles were discussing.

A part of her felt that if she could just find the time to become fully invested in what was happening within her realm that she would be able to see the solutions to the problems it faced. Nothing was impossibly complex, or at least none of the broader problems that Gallagrin had to deal with were. There were relatively simple solutions to its issues, and to the problems faced by the Blessed Realms as a whole. The trick was finding those solutions faster than the peoples of Gallagrin, and the Blessed Realms in general, were able to devise new problems to vex her.

“Jaan Lafli is recovering,” Dae said as she entered the small courtroom and took her position at Alari’s right hand. “The geas she’s under seems to be meant to inflict pain if its restrictions are pushed, rather than doing real damage. It’ll probably take her long enough to recover that you could see a few petitioners in the meantime if you want though?”

“I’m tempted to wait for her,” Alari said. “If the reports I’ve received already are correct, we may have to cancel Court for the immediate future.”

“That bad?” Dae asked.

“Maybe,” Alari said. “Possibly worse.”

They’d known for weeks that the success of their campaign against Paxmer would lead to repercussions that would be felt throughout the realms. By all their projections though, armed conflict shouldn’t have become an issue until mid-summer at the earliest and that was still months away.

Alari watched Dae sag into her seat and pinch the bridge of her nose. It had been customary for past monarchs to make a showy display of the Petitioner’s Court. Alari had chosen an alternate path though. To her, the point of the Court was to allow the petitioner to speak frankly to their queen and explain the problems they were facing. A small courtroom, without unnecessary observers, seemed more conducive to that than forcing the petitioner to present their case in front of a thronging mass of spectators.

The one exception that she’d made to her policy was to allow her Knight to join her. With the Spirit of Gallagrin to back her, Alari had little to fear from anyone in her realm, but the demeanor she wished to project was not one of awe inspiring power. For the Petitioner’s Court to work properly, she needed to be approachable. That left Dae to provide the proper level of menace so that the more quarrelsome petitioners would not make the mistake of assuming they could treat Alari with anything less than the utmost of respect. If she had to correct them, it wasn’t likely to be an experience they would enjoy, or potentially even survive.

“There is another special petitioner who’s waiting to see you,” Dae said, her eyes still closed.

Alari sighed. “More new problems to deal with? I thought the world falling apart would be enough for today.”

“This one’s not a new problem,” Dae said. “It’s the Duke of Tel. He wants to discuss what your plans are for the nobles.”

“His timing is…” Alari started to say and cut herself short as an idea blossomed. “Perhaps fortuitous.” Her smile broadened as the idea took hold further. “Yes, let’s bring him in.”

“You want to speak to him?” Dae asked, confused by the sudden change in Alari’s mood.

“Yes, we’ll bring him in when Lafli gets here,” Alari said. “Having one of my former supporters in the room while speaking with a scion of one of the opposing houses will present the right air to the situation I think. Each side will assume that I’ve nominated those two to act as their voice.”

“Are you ready to talk about what you plan to do with the nobles yet?” Dae asked.

“No,” Alari said, “But we’re going to have much more important things to cover.”

“Something tells me that I should bring the other Queen’s Guard in on this one too,” Dae said.

“I suspect you’re correct,” Alari said. “If things are progressing this quickly I don’t believe we’ll have long to debate our actions.”


Alari watched Jaan Lafli enter the room and enjoyed the brief flash of surprise and concern that flashed across the elf’s face when she discovered that more than the Queen of Gallagrin awaited for her.

The courtroom was small as royal chambers went. On the other side of the petitioner’s table there was just enough space for Dae, Jyl, Eorn and Undine to sit comfortably in their chairs. Alari sat on the throne in the center of them, the slight elevation reinforcing the impression that her position was the centerpoint of the room, despite being set back against it’s far wall.

A seat had been left open for Jaan beside Duke Ren Telli but it was the Duke’s husband who drew Jaan’s gaze. Teo was well fed, so there weren’t many tells as to his vampiric nature, but the ones he retained; the slightly washed out complexion, the discoloring of his irises, the preternatural stillness he naturally adopted, these were able to unsettle her enough that even from across the room Alari could see the catch in her step as she walked to take her seat.

“You bear a message,” Alari said, nodding toward Jaan, “and you come with a question,” she added, shifting her gaze to Ren and Teo. “The one will impact the other so let us hear the message House Lafli wishes to send to us.”

“Of course Your Majesty,” Jaan said. “I am instructed to inform you that the Duke of Laf has received reports from our contacts within the Green Council that there has been a breach of their sovereign border which they have responded to with force. The treaties between the Green Council and Senkin have been renounced and the Green Council will be declaring war shortly.”

“We have received other reports of the disturbance on the Council/Senkin border,” Alari said. “What else does House Laf have to report?”

“Our contacts there say that they Green Council is unwilling to send a representative to your court,” Jaan said. “They claim the Council believes any diplomat they send will meet a dire fate and that your court will not support the prosecution of their rights against Senkin.”

“Their judgment relies on the history of this realm without sparing an eye towards the particulars of our reign,” Alari said. “But that is not all you have brought is it Lafli?”

“No Your Majesty,” Jaan said. “My grandfather the Duke also instructed me to offer our services to the crown in this delicate hour. Our family can trace its origins back to the Green Council in the early days of the Realms.  In the last several years, we have reached out and renewed old ties which had lain dormant for centuries.”

“It’s always good to have bolt holes in another realm when you’re planning to betray your ruler,” Jyl said.

Alari had heard of Jyl’s altercation with her sister and wished she’d been there to see it. From the looks of things, one word would be all that was required to trigger a renewal of the brawl, but for the time being Jaan Lafli was more useful intact and cooperating.

“And what would those services entail?” Alari asked, neither chastising Jyl nor allowing Jaan a chance to deny the accusation.

“We can send an emissary to meet with the Green Council and negotiate on behalf of Gallagrin once their demands and motivations are understood,” Jaan said.

“And the surety House Laf would provide as to their intentions on behalf of Gallagrin would be what exactly?” Alari asked. Expecting a disgraced House to be allowed to negotiate on behalf of the throne it tried to usurp was just the sort of insanity Alari had come to expect from her nobles. In that sense Lafli hadn’t let her down, but she also knew that Duke Lafli wasn’t quite the idiot that some of her other opponents were.

“The Duke of Laf will formally cede command of the Laf Army to the crown,” Jaan said.

“So he’s going to give away something he already lost?” Dae asked. Alari hadn’t formally seized control of her noble’s private armies, but the question as to whether she would was on most of their lips.

Jaan scowled at the jibe but had the political acumen to hold back any return barbs. Instead she offered, “We can also vouch for Gallagrin’s intentions with our contacts on the Green Council and provide any hostages against Gallagrin’s good faith which the Council might require.”

Alari knew exactly who the first hostage would be and felt a brief pang of sympathy for Jaan Lafli. The nobility valued their offspring, and cherished them, but all too often that was in the same sense as a merchant valued and cherished their gold.

“The Green Council has long been a peaceful neighbor to us,” Alari said. “As has Senkin. If we are to meet with one, we must meet with the other as well or we shall be taken as having chosen a side in their conflict.”

“The Green Council is the offended party, from the reports we have received,” Jaan said. “House Lafli wishes to suggest that a delegation be dispatched to meet with the Council first, so that they can reveal the details of what has occurred. Our contact on the Council claims that once those are known, siding with their interests will be the only path which Gallagrin would wish to pursue.”

“I suspect a representative from Senkin would say the same thing for themselves,” Ren said, joining the debate in response to Alari’s nod of encouragement.

“Your suspicions are correct Duke Tel,” Alari said. “A representative from Senkin arrived a short while ago. She speaks of personally witnessing the Green Council attack on Senkin and the brutality of their tactics.”

“You must speak with the Council then Your Majesty,” Jaan said. “Their side of the story will surely help the truth emerge.”

“Indeed,” Alari said. “That is why Gallagrin will visit both Senkin and the Green Council.”

“If we can be of service Your Majesty, I do have some friends in Senkin, associates the Tel family has done business with for the last few generations,” Ren said.

“Your offer is accepted Duke Tel, as is the Lafli family’s offer,” Alari said.

“And which of the Houses will lead the delegation Your Majesty?” Jaan asked.

Alari could see the wheels spinning behind Jaan’s eyes as the elf weighed the balance between the prestige of heading the delegation and the ability to dodge the responsibility for the failures it was likely to endure.

“Neither,” Alari said. “When we said Gallagrin would visit Senkin and the Green Council we were not speaking in metaphor. We shall lead this delegation personally as we take our fellow monarchs to task for breaching the peace of the Realms.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 5

Dae entered the training room for the Queen’s Guard to find a brawl underway. Battles weren’t uncommon in the training room. Hosting them was part of its function. Normally those fights didn’t involve fully manifested Pact Armor and live blades wielded in anger though.

A jolt shot through Dae’s chest with each clang of metal on metal. An old part of her wanted to dash into the fray, she’d trained for battle so long it was practically her homeland, but the part of her that woke her in the night froze her feet to the floor.

In battling the Dragon King Haldraxan, Dae had managed to overcome divinely granted mystical might and the fear it produced, but the lengths she’d pushed herself to had taken their toll. She was still a Pact Knight, still bound to Kirios, but in the weeks since her battle in Paxmer she hadn’t been able to transform into her magical armored form even once.

Only Alari knew of her limitation. Everyone else’s knowledge was limited to the undisguisable fact that she had required weeks of healing following the battle, which no one seemed to begrudge her. Even without his fear aura in effect, her foe Haldraxan had loomed as imposing figure in the Queen’s Gardens. The mere sight of him made the battle against him difficult to believe and impossible to refute. That sentiment started to fade slightly once Estella, Dae’s mother, flew him back to Paxmer to begin the transformation of both that realm and its draconic defenders, but there lingered in the minds of those who had seen the Dragon King that he could be recalled all too easily if the need arose.

For her part Dae was grateful for the wild stories that people were telling about her. The mystique that clung to her following the battle in Paxmer and her return to Gallagrin was useful so long as she didn’t overplay it. The nobility were already half terrified of her from the visceral demonstration she’d provided when she slew the Duke of Tel and lopped off the Consort-King’s head. Arriving, tarnished and battle weary with a dragon the size of a small mountain answering to her beck and call had been sufficient to cow even the worst of Alari’s opponents into meekness for a time. In place of “Kingslayer” they whispered “Dragonslayer” when speaking of her though neither appellation was correct.

Dae wasn’t attached to the titles much. They amused the eight year old that remained within her, but what mattered more was the sentiment they arose from and how much that could help Alari retain her throne. So long as the nobles feared Dae, they wouldn’t move against Alari without first trying to deal with Dae and that suited her perfectly.

The brawl raging in the training room had nothing to do with Alari though, so Dae’s mystique didn’t seem like it would be called into play.

Her comrade Jyl was battling a woman who was matching her blow for blow and parry for parry. There were differences in their styles, but more in the flourishes than the basics of their martial forms. Even without the aid of Pact Magic, Dae could follow their movements and tell that they’d been trained in the same house from a young age. More than that, they could read each other well enough that Dae could see this wasn’t their first battle.

Jyl shifted out of the line of attack from her opponent’s thrust, capturing her foe’s wrist and pulling her forward. The other woman spun into a fluid pommel strike with her other sword aimed at Jyl’s head, which Jyl smoothly blocked with her own blade as she snapped a long kick towards her foe’s knee.

The woman dropped away from the kick, throwing her weight against Jyl to knock her off balance and into a roll. The fighters split apart at as they got up, neither favoring ground techniques against the other.

In the brief moment where they paused and took stock of each other again, Dae spoke up.

“That looks entertaining,” she said. “Anyone want to explain why there’s entertainment being offered in my training room?”

The other woman, Jyl’s twin sister Jaan, was the first to put her blade down and dispel her Pact armor.

The two new recruits, Eorn and Undine relaxed out of their Pact armor as well.  They’d been holding position at the edge of the central battle arena in the room, commanded to stay in place by Jyl when the fight began if Dae’s guess was accurate.

The only one who retained her armor for longer than the next breath was Jyl. She stood unmoving, her glare fixed on her sister and from the tremble in her blade, Dae could see that she wasn’t finished with the fight at all.

“Commander Lafli,” Dae said. “You’re needed at the Petitioner’s Court. Unless there’s something you need to address here first?”

Jyl lowered her blade and released her transformation at last, the armor peeling away into nothingness with a growl of ripping metal.

“That won’t be necessary Lady Akorli,” Jyl said, her gaze remaining on her sister who smirked back at her.

“You can’t leave just yet,” Jaan said.

“Commander Lafli can do as she pleases,” Dae said. No blood had been spilled from what she could see, so whatever argument the sisters had fallen into hadn’t escalated to the level where it was politically necessary to acknowledge or deal with it.

“But if she leaves now then she won’t have the message which the queen needs to hear,” Jaan said.

Dae’s ears perked up. She’d been watching Jyl to see how the young woman was doing. Rage was not the elf’s normal state and her struggle to bring it under control filled Dae with concern. They weren’t old friends, or dear long-term acquaintances but the weeks they’d spent together had been among the most intense in Dae’s life. As a commander, Dae tried to understand and shepherd her troops, but she didn’t readily accept new friends. Trust was simply too precious a resource to offer that freely. If Jyl wasn’t yet her friend though, the young elf was well on the way to becoming one, and so Jaan’s taunting words set Dae’s nerves on edge almost as much as they did for Jyl.

“If you have a message for the Queen, then deliver it,” Dae said. “Now.”

“I cannot,” Jaan said.

Dae’s eyes narrowed. Jaan Lafli was a noble’s daughter. The Lafli family had sided with the Butcher King until late in the war, and had almost certainly backed Halrek’s ill-advised attempt to take the throne. Dae’s patience for nobles who fell into that category was thinner than the edge of her blade.

“I am bound by oath and geas to speak only to Her Majesty,” Jaan added, raising her palms in supplication. “Tell her, sister, it’s how our family works.”

“Your family,” Jyl said.

Dae stepped into the fighting circle to stand beside and a hair’s breadth ahead of Jyl.

“Your family,” she said, echoing Jyl’s declaration, “uses magic to compel their own?”

“Of course,” Jaan said. “It’s common enough to ensure that messengers are required to deliver the messages they are entrusted with. And to the correct people.”

“Also very convenient,” Jyl said, “The Queen’s not speaking with any of you but if she doesn’t make an exception you’ll, what, burst on fire?”

“Trust me sister nothing about this is convenient,” Jaan said. “The geas won’t kill me, which I’m sure you’re delighted to hear, but I must deliver this message, immediately. It involves more than the Lafli clan’s fortunes.”

“And yet you’ll twist it, whatever it is, to make sure that the Laflis are the ones who benefit the most from it,” Jyl said.

“You do your family a disservice sister,” Jaan said. “We are not as wicked as you imagine.”

“Don’t,” Jyl said. “Just don’t. We both know what you’ve done. All of you. Gods-be-damned monsters.”

“You should go back to your family’s quarters,” Dae said, focusing her full attention on Jaan. “Have them remove the geas. Whatever they have to say can wait until the queen is ready to speak with you.”

“No,” Jaan said, clutching her stomach, “No it can’t. I…” she paused, pain shooting across her face as she fought to speak. “I have to speak with her because it involves something that’s happening right now.”

She gasped out the last word before racing into her next breath and spitting out words as fast as she could.

“It’s about the Green Council. There’s been an invasion and I need to speak to the Queen about what happened in response.” She was trembling in pain and only standing through sheer force of will when she finished, but her words had the desired effect. Dae’s expression had shifted from one of angry rejection to worried suspicion.

“What’s happening to her?” Dae asked, already knowing the answer.

“The geas, probably,” Jyl said. “My grandfather is bastard.”

“Is she being damaged?” Dae asked.

“Depends on how merciful he was feeling today,” Jyl said.

“The Queen needs to hear what she has to say,” Dae said.

“Half the things she’ll say are going to be lies,” Jyl said.

“But the…other half are what’s…important,” Jaan said before collapsing to the floor.

Dae sighed and strode over to her, picking up the elf before saying, “The Queen is holding the Petitioner’s Court soon, we’ll make her the first petitioner.”

“The other nobles won’t be happy,” Jyl said.

“Good,” Dae said, a wolf-ish smile breaking across her face. “Let’s hope they try to complain.”

“Lady Akorli,” Eorn said, stepping forward. “I can carry the elf if you’d like?”

Dae looked over at her newest recruit, and then looked up at her newest recruit, taking in the sheer size of the giantess.

“I can manage,” Dae said, smiling again at the thought of getting to wrestle Eorn in training at some point. That was going to be fun.

“I think she’s less worried about you capability and more about how important it will make the messenger appear if you’re seen walking through court carrying her in your arms,” Undine said.

Dae glanced over to the other new recruit. Undine would be an entirely different sort of challenge. Where Eorn had strength and endurance to spare, Undine was like a razor. Thin and sharp and, unless Dae’s early evaluation was wrong, quite deadly. Wrestling would be wasted on Undine, and Dae wasn’t sure she’d be able to lay hands on the man in the first place. Their battle would have to be one of blades and skills and wits. Dae was looking forward to that every bit as much as she was the eventual scraps with Eorn.

For the time being though, political matters held sway and she had to give both of her new recruits credit in that department.

“That’s a good observation,” she said. “Eorn, would take our messenger then?”

“Certainly!” Eorn said and lifted Jaan from Dae’s arms like the elf was as light as a sack of loose leaves.

“Take her through the barracks entrance please,” Dae said. “Commander Lafli and I will go speak with the queen and let her know what to expect.”

“Yes, Lady Akorli!” both Eorn and Undine said.

“This is a mistake,” Jyl said as the two marched off. “I know we have to hear what Jaan has to say, but I’m saying this now because I’ll murder her if I don’t. Listening to her is a mistake. She’s going to wreck everything. She always does.”

“That’s why I wanted you with me,” Dae said.

“So that I wouldn’t kill her?” Jyl asked.

“No, that’s between you and her as far as I’m concerned,” Dae said. “I want you to help make sure Alari is ready for this. Whatever tricks your sister likes to use? Whatever agenda she’s going to be pushing for? You’re our best chance at being prepared for those.”

“So you think I’m right?” Jyl asked.

“Of course I think you’re right. You know her and the Lafli family best,” Dae said.

Jyl gazed over at Dae as they walked the path back to the Royal Tower.

“I could be wrong though,” Jyl said.

“Maybe,” Dae said. “You’re not unbiased, but you know them and I trust your experience here.”

“I…thank you,” Jyl said. “That’s not something I’ve heard very often.”

“If I don’t mention it next time, just kick me,” Dae said.

“I think the queen might string me up if I started assaulting her Knight,” Jyl said.

Dae laughed at that.

“We need to get you to spend more time with her,” she said. “If I give you cause to kick me, she’ll be the first one in line to do it, and she’ll hit the hardest.”

“I have a hard time picturing the queen holding anything like that against you,” Jyl said.

“You definitely need to spend more time with us then,” Dae said. “Alari’s not the soft graceful doll some people mistake her for. She’s got a mean streak in her, and she’s not afraid to use it if I’m being an idiot.”

“No one gets to call my Knight an idiot,” Alari said, meeting them at the door to the tower. “Especially not my Knight herself.”

“Is that Royal Privilege speaking?” Dae asked. “Because I’m pretty sure I can make you regret a command like that.”

“If you ever fall for someone, make sure they’re not impossible,” Alari said, addressing Jyl as she narrowed her eye as Dae. The sternness of her gaze was wrecked by the playful smile that curled up her lips though.

“Speaking of impossible,” Dae said. “We’ve got news for you, Jaan Lafli needs to speak with you immediately.”

“Interesting, this must be about the Green Council,” Alari said.

“Yeah, she said something about an invasion?” Dae said.

“It’s more than an invasion,” Alari said. “It looks like my Conference of the Realms is on hold. If the report I read is correct, we have a war that we’ll have to deal with first.”