Alari looked across the table at two of the most powerful women in the world and felt strangely relaxed. She had no plan for this occasion, no grand scheme to enact, not even a secret trick to play. All she desired was the chance to dine with two fellow queens in an environment that called for no statecraft, no maneuvering, and no performances for the public.
“I suppose since I wear no crown, I should open the next bottle,” Haldri said.
Their glasses had run low and the first bottle was drained already.
“You’ll keep your seat,” Marie said. “There’s no servants here tonight, and I’m closer.”
“I meant to ask about that,” Haldri said. “The food is excellent, but this is the first time I’ve seen royal cuisine served buffet style.”
“It was my idea,” Alari said.
“You wanted to create a secret meeting between us so that people would have cause to wonder what hidden plans we’d concocted?” Haldri said.
“No, but I like that idea,” Alari said. “Honestly I just wanted a chance to sit down with you two and talk without having to worry about gossipers spreading what we say to the far corners of the realms.”
“So you do have a secret dialog in mind then,” Marie said, she poured from a fresh bottle into Haldri’s glass, then Alari’s, then her own.
“I suppose, though I have no great secrets to reveal I’m afraid,” Alari said. “The realms know fairly clearly where I stand on the issue of inter-realm warfare now.”
“Indeed, you put on a most terrifying show,” Marie said. “How much of it had you planned out in advance?”
“Very little I imagine,” Haldri said.
“That’s pretty much true,” Alari said. “I could see the general shape of what was to happen, and the broad strokes that would play out. The specifics though were impossible to predict.”
“Well now that couldn’t be quite true either,” Marie said. “The alliance you forged with Paxmer and Inchesso took some very specific insights to put together in time.”
“Less than you might think,” Alari said. “Inchesso has had a weak border for a while now. The only thing that’s kept them safe has been the cost of a long term occupation in a realm where everything is unpredictably toxic.”
“Yes, but once the Council launched the attack on my realm, what made you think they would pursue the mad course of attacking Inchesso as well?” Marie asked.
“It’s less mad than you might think,” Haldri said. “They could easily have taken Inchesso and drained it to fill their needs, then come back later to deal with it once they’d worked out the toxicity issues.”
“It wasn’t hard to see what the Council’s overall strategy was either,” Alari said. “Gallagrin managed a victory over Paxmer only because the Dragon King was both an absolute strength and a specific weakness in Paxmer’s defenses. Honestly, Haldri played that conflict better than I did – Paxmer only lost because my Champion did the unimaginable, and that’s something neither of us planned for.”
“Senkin doesn’t have that same issue though,” Haldri said. “You lack the control I had over my realm, and therefore also lack the weakness inherent in centralizing power like that.”
“Since the Council couldn’t count on a single point of failure, they had to hit you with overwhelming force and be ready to follow it up with something even stronger,” Alari said. “And that’s not inexpensive.”
“The Council has always been a realm of inventors, so it was obvious that they would have some creation that was hideously powerful,” Haldri said. “Hideously powerful also means magic intensive, at least in this context, and to operate it long term they would need steal from the easiest source of magic around.”
“The two of you both saw that?” Marie asked.
“She saw it more clearly than I did,” Haldri said. “But then I largely ignored the Council since Gallagrin stood as a buffer between Paxmer and any conquest related ambitions the Council might have.”
“However much you knew, it seems I still owe you both my crown,” Marie said.
“Be careful of the offers you make,” Haldri said. Her words were gravely intoned but the smile she wore cut their menace apart.
“You want my crown?” Marie said. “Half my nobles would be glad to give it to you.”
“You enjoy admirable support if half your nobles would see you keep your crown,” Alari said.
“The other half would only object because they wish to take it for themselves,” Marie said.
Alari smiled and sipped from her wine glass. Some problems were universal it seemed.
“Why on earth would your subjects want me to have your crown?” Haldri asked. “Is my reputation as the Dragon Queen sufficiently degraded that foreign peoples no longer fear me?”
“I’m afraid that saving Senkin’s frontline army in their hour of greatest need has left them rather enamoured with you,” Alari said. “Isn’t that correct?”
“Disturbingly so,” Marie said. “I’ve received several requests to name you the Master of Ceremonies at the Fire’s Day Festival.”
“What is a Fire’s Day Festival?” Haldri asked.
“The people want to see those responsible for torching the Council’s creche and provoking this war burned at the stake,” Marie said. “They’re planning to make a show out of it. Fireworks, various flambe dishes, and of course a new noble added to the roasting spit every hour until we run out of ones that were responsible.”
“Did we ever confirm why Senkin forces went in and burned the land?” Alari asked.
“Yes, apparently there was concern that the Council was doing earthworks to divert the river’s flow,” Marie said. “The local governors sent an ambassador to discuss the matter and they went missing, so they sent a fire team to make sure the river would continue to run and provide water for their province.”
“They did that without consulting you?” Haldri asked.
“They believed it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Marie said. “Given the ramifications of their actions though, they will be hard pressed to find any forgiveness no matter how hard they ask.”
“If I might offer a suggestion,” Alari said. “Perhaps turn them over to the Council for judgment and sentencing. Their crimes were against the Council’s citizens and performed on Council territory.”
“And what of the Fire’s Day Festival?” Marie asked.
“Celebrate it. Burn in effigy those found guilty and name them as dead to the realm,” Alari said.
“You’ll become known as the Merciful Queen if you are not careful, Gallagrin,” Haldri said. “And that is not a compliment. The world destroys the merciful.”
“The world destroys us all,” Marie said. “It just takes varying amounts of time to do it.”
“If the world can just come to its sense long enough not to destroy itself, I’ll count that as a win,” Alari said.
“Have any of the other monarchs responded to the invitation to your summit?” Marie asked.
“All of them,” Alari said. “It seems as though we will have all of the leaders gathered together for the first time in the history of the realms,” Alari said.
“And the estimated number of assassins that will be joining you?” Haldri asked.
“Presumably all of them as well,” Alari said. “Or at least all of the ones who can traverse into Divine Space.”
“I thought we destroyed the God’s Hall?” Haldri said.
“We did,” Alari said, nodding. “That’s why we’re going to build a new one.”
“There seems to be a small detail you’ve overlooked there,” Marie said. “You’re not a god. None of us are.”
“As it turns out the building itself wasn’t the important element of the God’s Hall,” Alari said. “The space they located it in was enchanted to enforce peace.”
“I distinctly recall attempting to strangle you in there,” Haldri said.
“Yes, I needed you to do that for a variety reasons and so we found a loophole in the prohibition against violence,” Alari said. “Our actions moved the God’s Hall out of the sacred space, but while we destroyed the building, the holy heaven it was located in remains. So we’re going to place a new building there.”
“You’re just going to build a meeting hall in the sky? It’s as simple as that,” Marie asked.
“No, not simple, but doable and that’s the important thing,” Alari said.
“Perhaps we should all move up there,” Haldri said.
“I think we’re better suited on the ground,” Alari said. “We make horrific mistakes down here, but we learn from them. Not always the right lessons, but bit by bit we move forward.”
“Is that why you think I should turn my errant governors over to the Green Council’s mercies?” Marie asked.
“That’s mostly meant as a peace offering to the Green Council to begin healing the rift between your realms,” Alari said.
“I don’t know if the rift can be healed,” Marie said. “There is literally a bottomless chasm where there used to be beautiful forests and fields and a river.”
“You’re going to lose that province aren’t you?” Haldri asked. “Without water for irrigation, the fields there will fail and your cities will dry up.”
“Yes, thanks to the Divine Sanction’s attacks, my governors have helped to create the exact problem they broke faith with our neighbors to avoid,” Marie said.
“That may not be the problem you imagine it to be,” Alari said.
“How could the loss of the primary water source to the eastern eighth of my realm not be a problem?” Marie asked.
“I’ve spoken with my Mining Guild contacts,” Alari said. “The chasm is deep, but it’s not truly bottomless, and it’s not that wide.”
“It was at least a half mile across,” Haldri said.
“We have bridges that span much larger gaps than that,” Alari said.
“How will a bridge help?” Marie asked. “I doubt there will be much desire for people on either side to crossover to the other for a friendly visit.”
“You might be surprised there,” Alari said. “What the Mining Guild is proposing isn’t a bridge though. It’s an aqueduct.”
“They’re going to recreate the riverbed? Across a half mile gap?” Haldri asked.
“They dug through a mountain range in a single season and moved an army across your border,” Alari said. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised at what they can do?”
“Why should I be. It’s a mad folly, of course Gallagrin will try it,” Haldri said.
“The land will still be weakened for this year,” Marie said. “Months without fresh water will leave the crops dead in the soil.”
“We can help there with shipments of food,” Alari said. “And Paxmer has pledged aid as well.”
“I would almost rather cede the land as a buffer state, to be ruled by neither the Green Council or Senkin,” Marie said.
“Who would rule such a realm?” Haldri asked.
“It seems like you would be a good candidate for the job,” Alari said.
“I am your prisoner though, am I not?” Haldri asked.
“The damages I can claim against you pale compared to the good you’ve done for the people here,” Alari said.
“You no longer blame me for the loss of your child then?” Haldri asked, an uncharacteristically gentle note in her voice.
“That was your brother,” Alari said. “I reviewed his correspondences with you from around that time. He only told you of the plan after it succeeded.”
“I wish I could say I would have told him to abandon it before he tried the first poison,” Haldri said. “Maybe, maybe I would have, from pride in Paxmer if nothing else. Certainly as a queen, empathy was a trait I thought I could ill afford.”
“To hear you speak such words leaves me feeling I could quite accept standing beside you as a neighboring monarch,” Marie said.
“There you have it then,” Alari said. “A crown awaits you once more, if you wish to take it.”
Haldri gazed at them both and Alari could see calculations and appraisals whirling behind the former-Dragon Queen’s eyes.
“Your traps are subtle and cruel Gallagrin,” Haldri said. “You offer me what I wanted most just when I’ve learned that it’s what I’ve fought to escape my entire life.”
“You don’t wish to take the crown of the new realm?” Marie asked.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve only recently escaped the burden of one crown,” Haldri said. “Since then I’ve enjoyed the sort of peace and calm I only dreamed of as queen of Paxmer. And that includes the time I spent fighting an unstoppable army for you. No, I think I’ve had my fill of bearing that particular weight on my brow. Let someone else be torn apart by the stress. I am a prisoner of Gallgrin, and I will happily return to my confinement as soon as my jailer sees fit to take me home.”
“You are welcome to return to my hospitality,” Alari said. “But I do not promise not to call on you from time to time. Idleness is nice for a while, or so I’ve heard, but your talents cannot be forever be wasted like that.”
“So long as it is someone else’s problem to deal with in the end, I will be happy to lend you any expertise or wisdom I have,” Haldri said.
The three queens toasted to that and to the start of a friendship which would outlast them all.