With the cooling steam from her fiery flight falling from her shoulders like a cloak, Dae looked over the assembled nobles, the ones not hidden in shadows at least, judging each one in turn with a glance, until her gaze rested upon the Consort-King.
“Where. Is. She.” Dae repeated. She didn’t enhance her voice with Kirios’ power. In the silence that gripped the room, she didn’t need to.
Halrek rose slowly from his throne, the only one willing to address the mad warrior who had disrupted the gathering.
“If you seek the Queen, she is dead,” he said. “Slain by Inchesso assassins last eve.”
“No,” Dae faltered, her weight pressing hard on the sword she used as a cane.
“The blood found in the royal chambers bears horrid testimony to our loss,” Halrek said. “We arrived too late to save her, and even too late to fully avenge her. With my own eyes I saw the assassins flee her room through the wards which their only foreign sorcery allowed them to breach.”
“No,” Dae said, pushing herself back up to her full height. “She wasn’t slain by assassins. You, Halrek of Paxmer, you faithless, honorless, traitor. She died at your hand. And now, you’re going to die at mine.”
Dae took a step forward and buckled halfway to the ground before catching herself. Even splinted and with a makeshift cane, walking on her leg wasn’t easy to manage.
“These are serious charges,” Duke Genli, the Queen’s Chief Justice, said. “And they are delivered in a harsh tongue unbecoming speech to your King. What evidence do you have to support such a claim?”
“He is not my King,” Dae said, and advanced another pace towards the throne. She was still too far away to be any threat but several of the nobles were settling back in their chairs warily. “And my evidence are witnesses who carry documents written by the traitor’s own hand, detailing his every machination against our Queen.”
“Why would the King write such an incriminating missive?” Genli asked.
“He needed to coordinate his plans with his accomplice, the Duke of Tel” Dae said. “They exchanged the messages in code. Probably didn’t consider that someone else might break it. Wasn’t too smart of the Duke to hang on to the messages either but if he’d kept them hidden I suppose they would have made a powerful lever to use on the waste of human flesh sitting on the throne there.”
“I have endured the dislike and mistrust of the people of this, my adopted realm, for many years now,” Halrek said. “But I will not be spoken to in such a slanderous tongue. Produce your witnesses immediately, if you have them. I will not have my name tarnished by the implication of wrongdoing. Not with grief so freshly upon me.”
“I’m not imply anything,” Dae said. “And I’m not going to tell you anything while your assassins are still on the loose.”
“First you say it was his hands that killed the Queen and now you speak of his assassins,” Genli said. “Which is it to be?”
“Both,” Dae said. “The traitor’s plans run deep, and broad, and the murder of the Queen was only the first step. He holds the reins of the assassins you saw. They’re a death sworn guild who will spend their lives carelessly for enough coin, which makes them the perfect tools for a conspiracy like this.”
“This is an insanity of lies,” Halrek said. “Against every question she posits greater and more convoluted schemes.”
“You had six years to prepare for this,” Dae said. “Perhaps we should send you home in six separate boxes.”
“I sit upon the throne of Gallagrin,” Halrek said. “You cannot threaten me.”
“I’m not threatening,” Dae said.
“No, you’re not,” Halrek said. “Who are you to stand before this assemblage? By what right do you accuse me? If you will provide no support for your claims, you must at least provide your name and rank so that we may know who it is we are to try.”
Dae paused her slow and painful progress towards the throne.
“I am Daelynne Kor of the Dawn March,” she said. “By the right and mandate of my position as watchguard for this realm, I accuse you, Halrek of Paxmer, and name you murderer.”
Halrek smiled broadly at that declaration.
“So I see,” his voice held a malicious satisfaction. “You are the one who sent the Inchesso Vampire to the Queen. The same Inchesso Vampire that was seen sprinting from her chambers and flying from the castle, shortly before she collapsed.”
“He should have stayed with her,” Dae said, bristling that there’d been a chance to save Alari and it had gone awry.
“Yes, I suppose you would want a foreign vampire at the Queen’s side when she took ill,” Halrek said. “That’s exactly the sort of thing someone in league with the assassins would be looking for.”
“Don’t try to place your sin on me,” Dae said.
“Except of course it is your sin exactly, is it not?” Halrek said. “The assassins were supposed to make a clean getaway from the murder. That’s what assassins do. But they were caught and identified. We know they hail from Inchesso and we know Prince Lorenzo’s family is furious at his loss. They had agents within the country to lookout for their son, clearly, and who better than a member of our own Dawn March to corrupt to their needs. I hear the March was once a noble organization, but the years have not been kind and many in it succumb to the temptation of gold. This one surely has a fortune stashed away for her role in the assassination but once it looked like the scheme might unravel and all her ill gotten wealthy flow away from her, she flew here with a wild tale to cast the blame off herself.”
Dae felt a sick drop in her stomach. It would be no effort at all for Halrek to make a sack of gold appear in her apartment before she could get back there. Kael might even volunteer one of his if it meant he wouldn’t have to work with her anymore.
“We don’t even need to look far for motivation,” Halrek said. “I loved my wife. I gave up my country for her. Everyone saw that. This one though? The Queen spoke of her, the woman who was her childhood friend. The woman who shut her out, who refused to see or speak with her after the Queen took the throne.”
Dae felt her knees sag for reasons that had nothing to do with the pain of her broken leg.
“There was anger, even hatred, which drove them apart after so long and close an acquaintance,” Halrek said. “For that distance to finally be closed at this hour, one too late for any proper reconciliation? It is clear that it was not charity or duty which moved Officer Kor to appear before us tonight. It was fear. Fear of discovery and fear of just retribution.”
Dae sagged even further where she stood, Halrek’s every word a thorn pumping venom into her heart. Through long dry veins the venom flowed, burning as it crossed over happy memories that lay buried in the reaches of her heart that Dae didn’t dare to look at anymore.
It was too late for those memories, but they rose to the surface anyways. Alari, mischief in her eyes leading Dae on an adventure. Alari, trembling with anger at her father’s cruelty. Alari laughing in the sun as it kissed her hair and framed her in a glowing halo.
They had spoken so many times, shared so many secrets and planned so long for their future together, but there were still words Dae hadn’t spoken. Not in the right way and not at the right time. With that time passed, Dae knew it didn’t matter what she said, but still, the words were there.
“I don’t fear you,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “I fear no discovery and no retribution.”
Exhaling, she pushed herself up once more.
“There is nothing for me in this world anymore,” she said. “I have lost my dearest friend. I have lost the one person in this whole sad plane who ever saw me for who I am. I have lost the woman I love, and will love until breath leaves my body, until my bones rot away, until my spirit turns to dust.”
“I did not speak with her, I did not seek her out, or stand beside her,” Dae said, and took another slow step. “I did not do these things and that was because I failed her.”
The glass from the shattered stained glass window crunched under her feet as she took another careful step towards the throne.
“She gave me one duty, to save this country from the ravenous hunger of Paxmer while she delivered it from the evil of her father,” Dae said. “And I failed. I failed Gallagrin, I failed Star’s Watch and I failed her. Instead of me defending her, she saved me and she saved us all by feeding herself to Paxmer.”
“You do the Queen a disservice even as you praise her,” Halrek said. “She gave nothing to Paxmer and gained the throne and the kingdom whole and undamaged in the process.”
“Not undamaged,” Dae said. “To win the throne, she had to let a rat into the palace to gnaw on Gallagrin’s heart. There was no chance that Paxmer could conquer Gallagrin, yet they launched an attack anyways.”
“That was a disaster averted,” Halrek said. “Paxmer could not allow the Butcher King’s power to grow unchecked and the civil war offered us the best opportunity to excise him from his throne.”
“And it was the only chance Paxmer had of gaining control of Gallagrin,” Dae said.
“Paxmer gained nothing,” Halrek said. “No land was usurped. No trade routes were ceded. All that Paxmer saw out of Gallagrin’s war was the loss of one of its sons.”
“Being rid of you is no loss,” Dae said. “Not when you planned for this day from the beginning. You knew you had to get this close to the throne to have a chance to steal it. You watched Alari battled for the rule of Gallagrin and you learned from her. It takes a strike from inside, from someone who can make a claim of authority over the spirit of Gallagrin and who holds one of the rune stones of its name. Without that, no assassin’s could overcome the power the Queen held.”
“The Inchesso have mysterious poisons,” Halrek said. “Who is to say that their magical brews wouldn’t be enough to overwhelm even the protections of the Gallagrin pact spirit?”
“The Inchesso would never waste a poison strong enough to kill a Queen on anyone but each other,” Dae said. “And they would never make it obvious that they’d used a tool like that if they had one. If they did, every kingdom in the Blessed Realms would descend on them. Otherwise there’d be a spate of regicides that would follow the discovery of any elixir that was that powerful.”
“And how come you to claim such knowledge of what the Inchesso are and are not capable of?” Halrek asked.
“Because if there was a poison capable of killing a sovereign of the Blessed Realms, then the Butcher Sathe would have used it on Paxmer long ago,” Dae said.
“That is supposition and nothing more,” Halrek said.
“It’s a truth that everyone here who ever met the Butcher King should recognize,” Dae said. “But none of that matters. Words aren’t going to conclude this debate. This isn’t going to end until one of us lies lifeless on the floor of this chamber.”
“There are ample guards and my noble brethren here who are quite capable of seeing this resolved then,” Halrek said.
“I don’t want to go through them to get to you,” Dae said. “So I offer you a Judicial Challenge. Your life vs. mine.”
“You are a Pact Warrior,” Halrek said. “Even injured as you are, I am not permitted to take up your challenge as I have no Pact spirit to call upon. Unless a Champion will step forward to take my place?”
Halrek turned to the assembled nobles, none of whom seemed overly eager to venture into a mortal duel on their soon-to-be ruler’s behalf.
“Since this slanderous one has named my house in her suit as well, I shall stand as your champion,” the Duke of Tel said, stepping out of the shadows, unharmed and in his full Pact Regalia.