The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 18

Alari sat in her Sunrise Garden and watched the early blooming flowers stubbornly refusing the call of the impending spring. They’d been planted with an exact plan in mind for when the petals would unfold so that each day would see a new color added to the garden as the day began. With the sun full over the horizon however there was still nothing more to see in the garden than the brown branches of the bushes and the black loam they’d been planted in.

During her father’s reign, a similar mistake on the gardener’s part would have resulted in the garden being decorated in a festive shade of blood red. Which by afternoon would have faded to a dried blood brown and then at night into the reds and yellows of purging flames.

Alari was not her father however. In her mind, the thought of a plan running to its initial course was laughably unlikely, no matter how small or grand the plan was. She enjoyed the Sunrise garden on the years when it bloomed properly, but she enjoyed more the conversations with the gardeners as they explained their ideas to her.

In the garden she got to see one vision realized, but in her conversations the staff who tended to the arrangement of the bushes and flowers she was gifted with hundreds of variations.

Of all of her staff, Alari thought she was probably fondest of the gardeners. Well, fondest after her Knight, but it had been a long time since she’d told herself that she was merely “fond” of her Adae.

For the thousandth time, Alari questioned the wisdom of sending Dae off on a quest to recruit Estella sur Korkin to their cause. It was an insanely dangerous and difficult mission, adding the complications of family and betrayal on top of it made for a duty that no one could hold up under.

Nobody except for Alari’s Knight. Alari knew her plan was going to go wrong. She knew that the pieces she’d carefully put into place were going to fall apart at some point. She also knew that Dae would find a way to put them back together. Or at least she believed.

Like a gardener, Alari could know only what had happened in the past. She could cut and prune away some possibilities and work to add in others, but she couldn’t know that her design would come to fruition.

Like a perennial though, Dae had come through for her time and again, when she most needed it, and so, in a real sense, Alari had planted the garden of her plans around the impossible task she set before her beloved Knight.

No matter how long she mulled that over, no matter how much she looked for contingencies and options that would put her Guard at less risk, Alari ultimately couldn’t find a stronger solution to the problem that vexed her. The problem that had vexed Gallagrin for centuries. Paxmer.

Originally the two countries has been the best of neighbors. Under the care and tutelage of the Sleeping Gods before slumber claimed them, Gallagrin and Paxmer had once been steadfast partners in developing the peninsula they inhabited. Gallagrin possessed abundant hard resources like metals and gems and wood while Paxmer possessed numerous trading ports and an abundance of soft resources like food and textiles. Trade between the two countries had been to the benefit of both for centuries.

As the world grew and the realms became free to interact with each other though, the relationship between the two neighbors changed. Gallagrin found cheaper sources of imported food and clothing and Paxmer watched the money from their northern neighbor flow elsewhere.

If there is one thing dragons are not forgiving of, it is anything that removes treasure from their grasp, even if that treasure is in the form of future earnings.

That made the problem of Paxmer, the problem of Dragons. With the souring of Paxmer and Gallagrin’s relationship, and the absence of the gods removing their ability to enforce good behavior, war had followed quickly along. An invasion of Paxmer was impractical given the power of its guardians. Paxmer’s invasions of Gallagrin hadn’t been able to draw on their power, but in the attacks on the ships at sea, Alari caught glimpses of a future catastrophe that awaited Gallagrin.

If dragons could be sent to fight on the waves, then it was only a matter of time before Paxmer would work out a method to deploy them on the land as well.

Like the buds that had not yet bloomed though, there was still time, Alari thought, to nip that problem while it was manageable and not leave it as a pending nightmare for some future queen to deal with.

“Your Majesty, am I intruding?” General Karlin Limli asked as he entered the garden  He came carrying an armful of scrolls and other documents, a sign that left Alari to suppress an involuntary sigh.

The best part about a garden that hadn’t bloomed was that few people visited it. That along turned the gardener’s design failure into a stellar success in Alari’s eyes. The rolls of scrolls in General Limli’s arms suggested that Alari’s idle time was at an end though, so she turned to face the Senior Commander of the Gallagrin Southern Royal Army.

“Not at all General,” Alari said. “What news do you bring?”

“A number of reports that I am to invite you to look over, but will most likely summarize so that you can discard them at your leisure,” Limli said. “Or not, they may possibly have bearing on a deeper matter.”

“What matter would that be?” Alari asked.

“Paxmer seems to be redeploying its draconic forces,” Limli said.

“That’s not uncommon with the change of seasons,” Alari said. “But we gather this is not their usual sort of springtime migration?”

“You are correct Your Majesty,” Limli said. “The reports that we’ve received indicate that this is a far more extensive mobilization of the big land dragons than we’ve seen in previous years. From what we can tell, virtually all of them are in motion.”

“And we will hazard a guess that they are heading towards the northwestern corner of Paxmer?” Alari asked.

“I am not sure whether to be astonished or concerned that you could guess their destination so accurately,” Limli said. “Has someone preceded me in bringing you this news?”

“No General, you are the first to confirm the dragon’s movements for us,” Alari said. “Other reports had hinted that such a migration might occur but with the confirmation of it, we can proceed with our own agenda at last.”

“I am cheered to find you in an active mood Your Majesty,” Limli said. “I had been concerned you might without forces from supplementing the Royal Army divisions in the region.”

“We are not uncaring of our border regions,” Alari said. “They bear a terrible burden, and we will not see their service go unrewarded.”

“In that case, perhaps you will be receptive to some of the strategies the Southern Army’s tacticians have developed for this eventuality?” Limli asked.

“We have reviewed the plans which were developed last year in haste following the Consort King’s demise,” Alari said. “We have even kept in contact with the architects of those plans, so there is likely little to discuss.”

“I know that an invasion of Paxmer is a drastic step, and presents untold risks to our forces, but we believe we can overcome their dragons with the proper tactics,” Limli said.

Alari had seen those tactics worked out in countless variations on a similar central theme. Dragons were immense creatures and were only vulnerable to extremely powerful weapons. Their weakness, as much as they had a common weakness, was that their size made them easy targets for siege weaponry. A standard bow and arrow couldn’t pierce dragon scales but a five foot long, enchanted ballista bolt was another matter.

The challenge with using siege weaponry on dragons lay in keeping the dragons from charging the siege engines and fearing then slaying all of the operators. To counter this the best laid plans called for a number of approaches, from traps and trenches to take advantage of natural terrain. None of that was enough to stop a dragon on its own though, which was where the Pact Knight’s came in.

Dae and other Pact Knights had proven that it was possible to stand before a dragon and delay them briefly. Any delay in battle was an opening for fatal attacks to exploit. Unfortunately that worked in both directions. While the Southern Army could possibly succeed in killing dragons with their tactics, it would come at the cost of several Pact Knights for each of the beasts they had to take down.

“We will not be authorizing an invasion of Paxmer,” Alari said.

“But that’s our best chance for defending the people we’re trying to defend,” Limli said.

“No,” Alari said. “The only sure method to preserve their lives is to ensure they are not in the dragons’ path. You will have your extra troops General, but your orders will be to evacuate the people from border towns once the order to leave is given, or as soon as Paxmer begins to march on our border.”

“Your Majesty! You can’t mean that!” Limli said.

“We are in complete earnest as to our intentions,” Alari said.

“But you can’t just give them Gallagrin! Our people have fought and died for that land!” Limli said.

“We are supposed to say that they fought valiantly and that their lives are a beacon to those who survive them to carry the battle forward,” Alari said. “The truth is harsher however. In the past, Gallagrin spent the lives of its sons and daughters poorly. Our predecessors wrestled with saving inches and bought that space with blood and sorrow. We will not make their mistake.”

Limli shrank back, his eyes wide as he regarded his queen.

“What doctrine of defense will you pursue then Your Majesty?” Limli asked.

Alari was able to translate that easily to its proper meaning of ‘what flavor of insanity has gripped you, my queen?’

“Several,” Alari said. “Some of which are already in motion, others we may begin to enact now that Paxmer has started to thaw and is committing itself to our destruction.”

“Evacuating the border is going to be difficult Your Majesty,” Limli said. “We may not, no, will not, be able to get all to leave their homes behind.”

“That too is part of our plan,” Alari said. Given the hard headed idiocy of her subjects, and the mindful races in general, it didn’t take a tactical genius to account for the certainty that some number of them would remain entrenched on the border even in the face of a draconic invasion. Alari was determined that those people, foolish as they were, would not be sacrificed to Paxmer. None of her subjects would be, but that didn’t mean their stubbornness couldn’t be make to serve her interests.

“My apologies then Your Majesty,” Limli said. “I do not see how this will not be a debacle. If that  means I must resign commission then I shall and will retire as quietly as you desire.”

“General, we cannot accept your apology,” Alari said. “We are not our father. We will not hold your opinion or your council against you.”

“Truly?” Limli asked.

“Truly,” Alari said. “We are well aware of the scope of the task we are engaged in. We are also aware of the need for security around the sensitive elements of it. This is why you have not been fully briefed, and why we cannot discuss the entirety of the machinations which are in motion. Despite that however, we would still have your council. We retained you as one of our Senior Commanders because we trust your judgement.”

“I don’t believe those are words your father ever uttered,” Limli said.

“You are likely correct,” Alari said. “The amusing thing is, if our schemes succeed, history may judge us to be a far worse calamity than our father ever was.”

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