Everything was wrong. That was all Dae knew as she fell back onto her bed after Ren finished speaking.
“My father’s notes were in code, but he’s not as brilliant as he thinks he is and the King apparently had trouble with even the simple cipher my father worked out,” Ren said.
“Nine bleeding hells,” Kael said. “Why did you have to bring this here boy?”
“You were the closest agent of the Queen’s that we knew we could trust,” Teo said.
Dae was barely listening to them. Alari was in trouble. The plan that Ren had described could work. It was a modification of the one Dae and Alari had dreamed up as children. The one that had overthrown a tyrant king.
“Lorenzo was a smokescreen,” she said, numb and unthinking.
“Not quite,” Ren said. “My father’s plan covers more than capturing the throne.”
“What else matters?” Dae asked, her heart freezing with the certainty that she had learned the truth too late. As hard as she’d fought, as careful as she’d been, it hadn’t been enough. Once again, she’d fallen short.
“They’re going to set us on a course for war, my father and the worthless bastard King who’s going to be sitting on the throne,” Ren said. “In the time it takes for sky carriages to carry the official word to Inchesso and Paxmer, Gallagrin will be embroiled in a war with the first and an alliance with the second.”
“This is above my pay grade,” Kael said. “You should take this to the commander.”
“His loyalties seem to lie with the Duke, do they not?” Teo asked.
“You’re not going to the commander,” Dae said, staring ahead. Her voice was a dull monotone but there was an edge to it that suggested argument on that point was not a wise move.
“I still don’t understand how you discovered this plot in the first place?” Kael asked.
“My father foolishly left me alone at our estate in Elinspire,” Ren said. “I was looking for material to blackmail him with.”
“You were going to do what now?” Kael asked.
“Blackmail him,” Ren said. “I make no bones about it. My father only respects those who can help or hurt him. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to do the former, to be the good son who can win his respect and acceptance honorably. Then he beat Teo and cast him out. That’s what ended my desire to help my father. From that point on, I knew the only language he would understand was the promise of a blade at his throat.”
“How sure are you?” Dae asked.
“Of my father’s unwillingness to listen or compromise? Completely,” Ren said.
“No,” Dae said. “Of the translation. Could it have been anything else they were talking about?”
“They refer to Queen Alari by name,” Ren said. “This monstrosity is within the reach of my father’s greed and his malic, and I’m not mistaken in my decryption of the text.”
“Everything that has happened has been to paint a picture where the Queen and Inchesso were set against each other,” Teo said. “All in preparation to explain both the Queen’s death and the need for war on Inchesso, the weakest of the Blessed Realms.”
“You can’t know that though,” Kael said. “Even if there are some nobles who would go along with that plan, not all of them are bad. It’s not the kind of thing that would really become an issue. Anyone smart enough to pull it off would be smart enough to see they’d never get away with it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dae said.
“See, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Kael gestured towards Dae in agreement.
“No, the nobles who won’t go along with it don’t matter,” Dae said. “The people will be calling for Inchesso blood. Even the nobles who wish to avoid war will be pressured from within and without, or ignored altogether.”
“Doesn’t sounds like there’s much we can do about it then,” Kael said.
“How did you get here?” Dae asked, turning to face Ren and Teo at last.
“We ran,” Ren said. “After I found Teo, he was able to feed and regain his strength.”
“How did that not kill you?” Dae asked. “I saw Teo in Nath, he didn’t look good even then.”
“My Pact Spirit sustains me,” Teo said. “And my blood carries more than just my own lifeforce now.”
“Where did you get a Pact Spirit that was strong enough to withstand that?” Dae asked.
“From my sister,” Ren said. “She came to visit while I was imprisoned at Elinspire.”
“Pact Spirits aren’t children’s toys, where did she get one?” Dae asked.
“My sister isn’t a child, but she is…special,” Ren said.
“Maybe she could do something about your dad then,” Kael said.
“She has her own issues to deal with I am afraid,” Ren said.
“This is happening,” Dae said, addressing no one in the room. “My leg is broken, I’m miles away, and she needs me.”
“Nothing to be done for it then,” Kael said. “It’s almost like Duke planned for this.”
“He did,” Ren said. “He kept his own notes for plan in the same secure vault as the correspondence with the King. It was all buried under a ton of locks and hidden rooms within the archives. If I hadn’t been driven to leap at a wild chance, and only because I also had the time I needed to search for them properly, those papers would have never been found.”
“Why even keep them?” Kael asked.
“Blackmail,” Teo said. “And insurance against the king. If Duke Telli goes down, he plans to take everyone else with him.”
“Then there’s only one thing for it,” Dae said and moved the covers off the bed.
“Given it a rest Kor. You’re in no condition to walk, must less fight,” Kael said.
“Not planning to do my own walking,” Dae said and with a small and careful effort of will, she conjured her Pact armor.
Moving was easier after that. With her natural body help outside the bounds of the world, Dae was able to walk on solid and unbroken Pact armor legs.
Pushing herself past her visitors and the dumbstruck Kael, Dae strode out into the hall, down the stairs and out the door of the Inne before Teo caught up with her.
“You can’t challenge the Duke here,” he said.
“Don’t care about the Duke for now,” Dae said and cast her gaze skyward.
“You can’t carry a message to the Queen in the state you’re in either,” Teo said. “Let me do it. I ran most of the way here with only a few drops of blood in my body. I’m in vastly better shape now.”
“You’re not going to be able to keep up,” Dae said and then added with the whisper of actual warmth and gratitude in her voice, “But thanks. You had a rough time of it, I’m glad you didn’t give up.”
“What are you going to do?” Teo asked.
“Ask a question and hope I get the right answer,” Dae said. “While I’m doing that though, you have a job that you need to do.”
“What’s that?” Teo asked.
“Protect Ren,” Dae said. “If I come back here, there will be a vacancy on the Ducal Throne of Tel shortly thereafter. Make sure your man’s around to claim it.”
“He has an elder brother and sister,” Teo said.
“Yes, and that might even still be true when I’m done,” Dae said.
Teo covered his shock with a frown and then a nod. The Duke was a traitor to the kingdom. His life was already forfeit, the only thing that remained was the task of taking it from him. His treason was such that it threatened to bring down far more than just himself though. Anyone in his family who was privy to the conspiracy could be considered a part of it and would face summary justice as well.
“How are you going to reach the castle before your power runs out?” Teo asked.
“Like this,” Dae said and called on Kirios for another transformation.
This was a deeper and more profound change that her usual Pact Armor. Kirios’ power was still bound by her will and her station, but Dae gave the magics much freer reign in assembling her new form than they ever normally enjoyed.
The layer of plate armoring that covered her shrank away, revealing a long, featureless body covered in a down of quicksilver grey feathers. From Dae’s back, three pairs of wings unfurled. Where her helmet had been, there were only two long feathers of fire streaming on either side of an almost featureless quicksilver face. In place of eyes, molten coals burned and rivers of a hot, red, lava-like substance coursed down from loops below the fire feathers to streams that flowed to the end of Dae’s fingers and toes.
One moment, she stood beside Teo and the next a fiery trail blazed up into the air and across the sky.
Out racing the wind was something Dae had only dreamed of doing before, but she had dreamed of it for a long time. Ever since the day she was first called to be away from Alari, she’d planned for how she could return to her princess.
When Alari became Queen, those plans had been tucked away. Alari didn’t need her anymore, Dae believed. Between the new Consort-King and the mantle of Gallagrin’s power, Alari should never have needed anyone else, ever again, and most especially not a foolish failure who dared to dream that she was brave enough to always stand as Alari’s shield.
Dae thought back to the death of that dream. To the last day she was ever called by the name Alari gave her. To the day that she failed Star’s Watch, and her kingdom.
Dragon Fear was a supernatural power. No one contested that. It overwhelms mortal reason and forces the Mindful Races to flee from the dragon’s presence.
Except for Dae it hadn’t.
She’d been so focused on her battle against the enemy general, that she hadn’t felt the first wave of the dragon’s power wash over the area. She hadn’t ordered the retreat when there was time to save the people of Star’s Watch.
Only when the dragon was upon them, had its influence broken through the battle haze she’d descended into. A strange calm had descended over the battlefield in that moment, when the dragon and Dae locked eyes.
For three breaths, neither side had moved. It was a memory that Dae had picked over thousands of times and in her heart she knew; if her spirit had been true, she could have held the dragon there. All it took was one person to stand against it.
For all their vast might and perilous mystical potential, dragons were creatures of caution. Being among the Undying, they bore the curse that a deep enough wound would be one they would need to suffer from for all eternity. Mortals fled from them because of the power dragons possessed. A mortal who refused to flee was either deeply broken or possessed of a power which was best studied from a distance before engaging with. In either case, unless circumstances compelled them otherwise, a dragon would generally yield the field to a mortal who refused to be swayed by fear.
Dae knew she could have saved Star’s Watch that way. All she’d needed to do was stand her ground.
For three breaths she had, and then the dragon had taken a step forward and its massive bulk had rumbled the landed. Dae took one step back, just one step, but that was all it took. Whatever strength she’d summoned to meet the dragon’s power evaporated and she knew nothing more until she woke up in the medical tent of the fallback camp.
The civil war was won by then and the Paxmer forces withdrawn. There were no more battles for her to fight. No possibility of making up for her failure and the lives it cost.
Alari visited her once, but Dae could barely look at her. She’d heard the stories of what Alari had been through, of the sacrifices she’d made. She’d asked Dae for one thing, to hold off Paxmer so that her kingdom wouldn’t face devastation from without. With Dae’s failure, Alari had been forced to turn to a union with a lesser prince of Paxmer who was looking to rise above his allotted station in life.
Bound by the mantle of Gallagrin to the country, and bound by politics to a wedding of convenience, Alari had no need for Dae anymore.
At their last meeting, Dae was curt and short with the woman she was no longer worthy of supporting, because however much Dae knew that to be true, she couldn’t bear to hear Alari say those words aloud.
She exiled herself before Alari could reclaim the honors Dae had received from her. It was cleaner like that, and easier for them both, Dae had told herself.
With no correspondence and no contact, Alari would never need to say the difficult words which Dae already knew were true, and Dae would never need to hear them, except as echoes of recrimination that played over and over in her mind, endlessly.
Flying toward High Crest and the royal castle, felt eerily similar to facing the dragon. Every sensible part of her told her to flee, but the built up self-hatred of six years of failure prodded her onwards. She knew her courage might break at any moment, as it did against the dragon, but still she flew towards her Queen, a song of joy stirring in her heart to finally be running in the right direction.
In the castle, Halrek was just sitting down to address the assembled nobles and give them the terrible news when a creature of fire and gleaming steel burst through the great stained glass window which stood opposite the thrones at the far end of the Royal Advisory Chamber.
Dae rose from ground, multi-hued fragments of glass running off her as she stood.
With the power for her flying form more than exhausted, the flames around her died away and she stood before the king and the nobles, balancing on a her sword as a crutch and asked the one question she cared about.
“Where is she.”