For someone who’d considered themselves alone in the world for over half a decade, Dae found the growing number of family members confronting her an unexpected and unpleasant sensation.
“I don’t have any sisters,” Dae said, looking the girl before her up and down.
The girl stood beside her mother, arms bent and her balance distributed in good form to dodge or lunge forward. Someone had trained her in at least basic fighting principals.
In support of the girl’s claim, there were a few familial feature that tied them together as well. Their cheekbones and eyes were cast from the same mold and Dae’d seen the frown that the girl wore more than a few times when a mirror was nearby.
The girl lacked Dae’s muscle tone though and she was shorter by half a head. Strangely, it was the girl’s fingers that caught Dae’s primary attention however. They were slender and twitched with an agitated grace that Dae had only seen in Sunlost glamor casters.
“That’s technically true,” Estella said. “Nuilynne is your half sister. You are both my daughters.”
Dae did the simple math of considering when Estella had fled to Paxmer compared to Nui’s apparent age. The girl was in her middle teenage years somewhere. Sixteen perhaps. That would place her birth several years after Estella left Gallagrin. Several years after Phob Korli’s death.
“Who was her father,” Dae asked, knowing that the answer didn’t make any difference in at all, but wanting to know all the same.
“The former leader of this resistance cell,” Estella said.
“A Sunlost ex-pat was leading the Paxmer resistance?” Dae asked, reasoning that Nui’s Sunlost features had to come from somewhere, as did her glamor casting.
“Paxmer has never been a pleasant neighbor to anyone,” Estella said. “Nui’s father lost his first wife to Haldri’s pet, so he was uniquely motivated to aid the cause of Paxmer’s liberation by sharing Sunlost’s powers.”
“And that’s why you’re here?” Dae asked. “To liberate Paxmer?”
“Of course not,” Estella said. “Liberation from the reign of the dragons is not within our grasp. Not yet at any rate. The resistance exists to protect the resources and personnel that will be needed when the current King or Queen has grown weak enough that they can be deposed.”
“How will the future be any different than today?” Dae asked.
“Nothing lasts forever in this world,” Estella said. “After centuries of rule, the Paxmer throne shows the cracks of age starting to form already. In another few generations the one who sits on the throne will be too weak to call the dragons to support them. That is when we’ll strike.”
“And until then you’ll horde wealth and build power?” Dae asked. “You think like a dragon.”
“No, she thinks reasonably,” Nui said. “You live a nice life in your fancy castle with nothing to worry about. You haven’t seen a dragon, you don’t know what they’re like. You can’t fight them. You can’t even resist them. The only choice we have is to weaken them over a long time, and then strike when they’re brought low.”
“Dragons are beasts of magic,” Dae said. “They’re never going to weaken with age. That’s what makes them so powerful. Age only makes them stronger, like Pact Spirits.”
“Dragons are nothing like your Pact Spirits,” Nui said. “You think you’re mighty because you’ve got that bloody blade, and the armor that you can summon, but you’re still just a human.”
“No, she is more than just a human,” Estella said to Nui and then turned back to Dae. “I never dreamed they would make you a Pact Knight. I thought that honor was reserved only for those controlled by the monarchy.”
“Sathe was not the only royal within the palace,” Dae said.
“And now you are champion to the queen?” Estella asked, eyeing her daughter with curiosity.
“It is a change of title only, my duty is the same as it ever was,” Dae said.
“And what duty compels you to venture into this country?” Estella asked. “You spoke of a ‘retrieval mission’ I believe?”
“We’re here on orders to seek out an artifact,” Dae said. “My queen sent us to look for a mythical object from before the gods entered their slumber. It’s supposed to allow the wearer to command Pact spirit’s directly.”
“Command them how?” Estella asked.
“What the wearer thinks, they’ll do,” Dae said. “It compels absolute loyalty, above and beyond the control of the host the spirit is bonded to. Whatever the Pact Spirit is capable of, the wearer can command them to do, regardless of the cost the entails for the person the spirit is bonded to, even up to their death.”
“That sort of control is impossible though, isn’t it?” Estella asked.
“It’s supposed to be, but the gods did all sorts of impossible things while they were awake, didn’t they?” Dae asked.
“Why would something like that be in Paxmer?” Nui asked.
“Because it was meant for the monarch of Gallagrin to protect them from uprisings but the courtiers at the time weren’t fond of their liege holding that kind of power over them so they stole it and things went horribly wrong as they generally do,” Dae said.
“If Queen Haldri gained that sort of power…” Estella trailed off, the expression on her face shifting ever more horrified as she imagined what the outcome would be.
“If she had that sort of power, then no army in Gallagrin could stand against her,” Dae said. “Only it’s worse than that.”
“What would be worse than that from your perspective?” Estella asked.
“Haldri wouldn’t stop with Gallagrin,” Dae said. “With power over both dragons and Pact Knights, Haldri could expand outward, like Paxmer has always wanted. Inchesso would be the first to fall, followed by Senkin perhaps? Or maybe she’d sail out and wage war on the Sunlost Isles?”
“That would be strategically insane,” Estella said. “Paxmer could never hold all that land, even if they could win it by force.”
“They wouldn’t need to hold it themselves,” Mayleena said, piping up from under her veil. “They are risking dragons on their sea voyages, they have plenty to spare I believe.”
“How would they have plenty of dragons?” Nui asked. “In a war against the Blessed Realms each side is likely to lose things that were irreplaceable.”
“When do you think was the last time Haldri of Paxmer counted anyone beside herself as being irreplaceable?” Dae asked.
“You’re right,” Estella said. “Dragon births are rare, but that’s not because of the dragon’s life cycle, but rather their wishes. There are tempering cycles the creatures are put through even while they are within the egg. Since dragons do not like to share their wealth or territory, many will ensure that the tempering cycle is set to allow only impossibly tough offspring to arise with the rest being reduced to ash.”
“But if they decide that quantity is more important than quality then they can adjust their tempering down a notch and have more dragons than they could ever hope to raise to adulthood.” Dae said.
“Which wouldn’t be a problem because the weakling dragons would just be sent to the front lines to die anyways,” Nui said. Dae heard herself in the girl’s words and noticed that it was a trait they’d both inherited from their mother. Her distaste at the thought was something she decided to deal with later though.
“That’s what may come to pass in the future,” Dae said. “At the moment we have a more important issue to consider.”
“Would that be ‘getting out of this city’?” Jyl asked. “Cause I’d really like to get out of here before the dragons decide to eat us.”
“As luck would have it,” Estella said. “We have been discussing how to pass out of city unseen for the last several days.”
“You are natives of Paxmer. Are you not free to travel within it’s borders as you wish?” Mayleena said.
“Yes and no,” Zana, their dwarven guide, said. “With the proper papers you can go wherever you like, but you still have to pay taxes to each town and duchy that you pass through.”
“We can handle paying for our passage,” Jyl said.
“Perhaps, but you’d be scrutinized at each checkpoint,” Zana said. “Are you sure you want to attract that kind of attention?”
“It’s worse than that,” Nui said. “You’re foreigners so they’ll fleece you for everything you have at the first checkpoint and then the second one will clap you in chains and sell you to a debtors prison.”
“Surprisingly they have that covered,” Zana said. “Their travel papers grant them the duke’s protection.”
“How did you arrange for that?” Estella asked.
“We forged it,” Jyl said. “Amazing what the harbormaster leaves lying around in his office under only a half dozens locks or so.”
“That’s daring, but potentially fatal if you are caught,” Estella said.
“If we’re caught, they’re going to try to kill us whatever we do or say,” Dae said. “The ducal protection is really more for their benefit than ours.”
“They will do much worse than kill you if you are caught my daughter,” Estella said. “Queen Haldri feeds her captives to her pet dragon, but only after their are destroyed by dragon fear.”
“I know,” Dae said.
“No, you don’t,” Nui said. “If you knew what Haldraxan was like, you would never have come here.”
“I know what dragon fear is like,” Dae said.
“You can’t,” Nui said. “I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it. My father…” Her words stumbled to a halt.
After a moment, Estella spoke.
“It was a public execution. They had no idea that my second husband was connected to Nui or I, otherwise we would have shared his fate.” she said.
Dae thought back to when she was sixteen. To the pain that lingered from watching her father’s hanging. She and Nui had more in common than they ever should have she decided.
“I have faced dragon fear,” she said. “And it broke me. Even with the full power of my Pact Spirit, I couldn’t stand against it. I spent years thinking about that.”
Nui looked up, her glassy eyes focused on Dae.
“I faced it again on the sea as we traveled here. With a more powerful pact bond to draw on. And I was still helpless before it.”
Dae looked at her sister to see if the girl understood what she was saying. There was no condemnation of Nui’s father in Dae’s heart. Dragon fear was more than just being afraid. It was a magic that reached inside you and forced terror into your bones.
“I know what Haldraxan and the others of its ilk are capable of, I know what it will do to me if I have to face one of them again,” Dae said. “But that’s not going to stop me.”
“Why?” Nui asked. “Why would you care so much about the country that killed your father?”
“I don’t,” Dae said. “Gallagrin holds my loyalty for one reason only.”
“The Queen,” Estella said, understanding lighting up her eyes. “You love her?”
“Forever,” Dae said.
“That’s not going to be enough to fight against the dragons,” Nui said. “Nothing is.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Dae said. “I don’t mean to fight them. I mean to destroy them.”
“You intend to use the relic yourself?”
“Haldri’s dragons are used to shattering their opponents with the sheer magical might of their aura,” Dae said. “I don’t think they’re ready for what will happen if the Pact Soldiers and Knights who stand against them are driven by a compulsion that cannot feel fear.”
“You would unleash an army of bersekers bent to your will upon Paxmer?” Mayleena asked.
“They tried to kill her. Haldri Paxmer was as much a part of the plan last fall as her brother was,” Dae said. “So yes, I would unleash every form of hell on that monster, and I would do it with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart.”
“Life has not been kind to you,” Estella said. “Nor have I.”
“Life gave me Alari,” Dae said. “It’s been kind enough.”