Eorn enjoyed marching. Hiking was appealing too, the connection to the world that came from traversing it one step at a time and breathing in its myriad scents was its own form of magic, but marching added a unique social dimension to their experience.
“For a realm without any notable mountains, Inchesso seems amazingly adept at finding roads that are uphill for the entire length one has to walk on them.” Teo’s grumbling was forgivable in light of the fact that they were marching at high noon. His bloodline wasn’t one that found the sunlight anathema – he wasn’t going to burst into flames in other words – but that didn’t mean he enjoyed developing a good healthy tan either.
“You were the one who negotiated for us to be here though,” Eorn said, looking at the ranks of Inchesso troops that they were marching with.
The war between Gallagrin and Inchesso was officially underway. Hence troop movements were required. That the Inchesso troops being moved were heavily armed was no surprise. That they included one of Gallagrin’s most recently appointed ambassadors and his personal guard was more of a novelty.
Generally advancing armies don’t make space for their enemy’s diplomatic staff to join them after all, but this was a rather unique sort of war.
Eorn cast her gaze at the Inchesso livery that both she and Teo wore. It fit well. Better than her usual clothes did if she was honest. Her family had skilled tailors and seamstresses, but Inchesso’s textile skills were on a level beyond what a simple Ducal court in Gallagrin could match, even when it came to something as common as how they well they outfitted their rank and file soldiers.
Marching in Inchesso garb almost made it tempting to truly defect. Between the comfort of the fine cloth and the camaraderie that abounded in the troops, Eorn felt more at home than she had at any time since she’d been called to the Royal Palace in Highcrest.
The marching chants were by turns crude, and loud, and surprisingly stirring. There were long jokes about the backstabbing and treachery the Inchesso were famous for, and longer chants about the bawdy romances that filled the rest of the realm’s reputation. Underneath those though, Eorn saw people who were so very similar to the ones she’d known her whole life.
The boy who walked beside her, not yet sure of his place and trying to spend his enthusiasm where others could let experience speak for them.
The girl in the next row ahead of Eorn who was blessed with the confidence to dare the rest on when the talk turned to darker speculations as to their coming fates. She had experience the boy lacked and where that tempered her naive enthusiasm, she turned to humor to cast aside the morale killing cloud of grim dread that always threatened to swallow up an armies endeavors.
Even Teo’s grumbling complaints seemed perfectly ordinary, though Eorn noticed that none of them strayed into concerns for the battles to come.
It was a strange war indeed when maintaining the morale and combat fitness of the other side was a priority one had to keep in mind.
“The next time the Queen asks me to deal on her behalf, would you be so good as to break my spine,” Teo asked. “I’ll heal from it, I assure you, but the delay should cause the Queen select someone else.”
“Perhaps, but she would probably fire me for doing that,” Eorn said.
“I’m sure Ren could hire you,” Teo said. “Between running the Dawn’s March in Nath and acting as the Duke of Tel, he’s somewhat drowning in open positions he needs to fill.”
“I thought the Dawn’s March was supposed to be separate from the nobliity?” Eorn asked.
“It is,” Teo said. “The Dawn’s March is an oversight organization, so, officially, it is controlled by an appointee of the crown with the only restriction being that they can’t be part of a noble’s office – otherwise that noble would lack supervision.”
“But your husband is both?” Eorn asked.
“Not entirely by choice, and in any case, not for long,” Teo said. “Once the current issue with the nobles revolting against Queen Alari is resolved, his status as Duke will have to be addressed. The original hope was that his sister would be ready to assume the title by then, but recent events have suggested that she’s not likely to place an official claim on the title any time soon.”
“Why’s that?” Eorn asked.
“Because she seems to have taken up dragon taming as a hobby,” Teo said.
“She has done what now?” Eorn asked.
“Ren’s sister is part of your order,” Teo said. “Mayleena is a her name.”
“The guardian who stayed in Paxmer after the war there?” Eorn asked.
“I don’t understand why she did that,” Eorn said. “Or how. People seem to only speak of her in cryptic phrases.”
“Mayleena is unique,” Teo said. “That’s not a new quality. She was always an exceptional girl. Her Pact bonding followed that trend.”
“What happened?” Eorn asked.
“No one knows exactly,” Teo said. “Even Mayleena hasn’t ever been able to explain it completely, at least not to me. The closest I can come to understanding it is that the walls between the Pact Spirit and Mayleena never really formed. What should have been a bond became a merger.”
“But that can’t work,” Eorn said. “That would drive someone insane. It’s how Berserkers are formed.”
“Mayleena’s not a Berserker,” Teo said. “I can take a Berserker in a fight, if I’m well fed and don’t mind spending a lot of strength. Mayleena though? She scares me. Not for who she is you understand. I’ve known her since she was a tiny little thing. The woman who emerged from the bonding ritual though carries something within her that I don’t know though. She’s like a diamond, some facets are familiar and others are truly alien and altogether there is an unbreakable hardness that I have no interest in ever testing my strength against.”
“So why is she taming dragons?” Eorn asked.
“She was part of the mission to Paxmer,” Teo said. “From what I’ve heard, she was instrumental in its success too. Somewhere along the way though she discover something in the Paxmer dragons that called to her. An affinity of some sort. I’m not sure if she’s there to teach them, or if she’s learning something from them. Some form of control perhaps?”
“So no chance of her being Duchess until she’s done with that, which could take how long?” Eorn said.
“Probably until Gallagrin has some major crisis they need to recall her for,” Teo said.
“And going to war with Inchesso doesn’t count as a major crisis?” Eorn asked.
“Given that we’re most likely not going to be stabbing each other, I suspect not,” Teo said.
“That still seems strange to me,” Eorn said. “Not that I like the idea of Gallagrin and Inchesso painting battlefields with blood, but why are we calling this a war? All we’re doing is moving troops around.”
“The troops movements are for the benefits of those spying on us,” Teo said.
“Should we be more careful of what we say then?” Eorn asked.
“We have a small obfuscation field on us thanks to the oil that Eldest Lialarus provided,” Teo said. “That’s the stuff I had you rub across the bridge of your nose. To any spies or scrying spells not specifically searching for us, we’ll appear and sound like bog standard Inchesso troops.”
“And are we sure anyone is spying on us?” Eorn asked. “It seems like this could all be for nothing.”
“It’s less a question of ‘is anyone spying on us’ and more ‘is there anyone who is not spying on us’,” Teo said. “And also, of course, are the right people spying on us.”
“How can we tell that?” Eorn asked.
“If we wind up being slaughtered then, probably, the wrong people were spying on us,” Teo said.
“Will we get any sort of warning about?” Eorn asked.
“Yes,” Teo said. “We’ll find ourselves surrounded by people with drawn weapons. Also there will likely be a good deal of screaming.”
“That’s acceptable,” Eorn said, without sarcasm. If failure meant fighting, then that meant failure didn’t mean being poisoned in her sleep, and of the two, fighting seemed infinitely preferable.
Of course, as Teo had said, Inchesso’s reputation for being a realm of poisoners was as overstated as Gallagrin’s reputation for being a realm of rock-eating berserkers. A few extreme edge cases might make for entertaining stories, but by and large people were just people, no matter if they were human, dwarf, elf, sylph or any other of the many Mindful Races. Eorn knew the biggest risk of being poisoned she faced in Inchesso came not from the soldiers walking in formation around her but rather from the native cuisine that, while delicious, was not as well adapted for travel as Gallagrin road rations were.
“So, do we have people in Gallagrin spying on us?” Eorn asked.
“That I can guarantee,” Teo said.
“Could we use that to pass a message back home?” Eorn asked, her thoughts trending as they often did towards a certain slim young man.
“We are,” Teo said. “I said the low level obfuscation field would shield us from anyone who wasn’t looking for us specifically. Well there will be plenty of people on the Queen’s staff who are very interested in where we are. That’s one reason I wanted us to march with the Inchesso forces. It will give our people some free intelligence on where this army is going.”
“There’s more armies in motion?” Eorn asked.
“Each alliance of families in Inchesso controls an army,” Teo said. “I imagine that they’re all on the move at the moment. The key is whether they’re moving in the right direction or not.”
“If they’re move in the wrong direction, that will make things much worse won’t it?” Eorn guessed that would lead to the aforementioned drawn weapons and screaming.
“It will complicate things,” Teo said. “Our job will switch from intelligence gathering and diplomacy to convincing the wayward factions that they would be better served following the plans Queen Alari has for them.”
“How will we do that?” Eorn asked.
“You and I? We’ll speak with them,” Teo said. “Being that there’s only two of us, our military options are limited, and we are diplomats after all.”
“And when talking doesn’t work?” Eorn asked.
“Swords and screaming,” Teo said. “It’s barbaric, but we are all barbarians in some corner of our hearts.”
“If we have to fight an Inchesso army, we are going to die you realize?” Eorn asked.
She looked around them. The Lialarus family’s forces were far from the largest military in Inchesso and there were still several thousand fighters in the formation they had joined. Even in Pact Armor, backed up by vampiric powers and leaving aside any tricks of Inchesso magic the arm could bring to bear, that was not a fight which was going to fall in Eorn’s favor. In a positive light, a fight of that caliber would ensure that epic tales and songs would be performed in remembrance of her glory. Realistically though, Eorn was less interested in epic tales and more intrigued by the idea of living to see Gallagrin again.
“That’s why we are not going to fight an Inchesso army,” Teo said. “If we fight, we will be picking our targets very carefully.”
“And if our targets happen to have an army of their own?” Eorn asked.
“Then we’ll bring one of our own to meet them,” Teo said, smiling as his eyes caught a glimpse of something overhead.
Eorn cast her gaze skyward. In the air high above them soared the sun shadowed silhouettes of a flight of dragons.
Gallagrin was definitely not alone in Inchesso.