The Paxmer night sky faded from a gem speckled swath of dark blue velvet to an ever lighter blue as the night progressed towards next day’s dawn. Dae loved seeing the break of dawn from the air, but under her present circumstances she wasn’t sure if the beauty was worth the risk to their safety.
“Can you keep the invisibility cloak around us once the sun’s risen?” Dae asked. They’d flown for hours but thanks to the trickle of magic that Kirios fed to her, she was still alert and ready, if the need arose, to seize control of the Wind Steeds that pulled the stolen sky carriage. Traveling on a High Stream path of wind and magic that lead eastward into the heart of Paxmer meant that the need to seize control of the steeds would only arise if they came under attack and, while that seemed unlikely under normal circumstances, Dae knew that nothing about their mission could be considered normal circumstances.
Against the near certainty of an assault from Paxmer’s forces, Nui was their best defense but the teenager didn’t share her older sister’s magically-enhanced stamina and was visibly flagging in her seat beside Dae.
“I let the cloak drop hours ago,” she said. “We’re high enough up that no one’s going to notice us unless they know to look for our passage.”
“And if they are looking for us by now?” Dae asked, searching the sky around them and finding it empty in the pre-dawn light.
“Then I’ll cloak us again before they can get too close,” Nui said. “The trick with glamour is that a little can go a long way if you use it right.”
She offered Dae a small smile and with a wave of her hand appeared bright, rested and perfectly made-up.
“I’ve sparred against Sunlost duelists,” Dae said. “I don’t think any of them had your skill though.”
“Thank you, but why would you think that?” Nui asked.
“You hid a room full of people and you maintained a cloak of invisibility that even the dragons couldn’t see through,” Dae said. “The duelists I sparred with were well trained but none of them pulled out any tricks like that.”
“Oh, I’m probably not better than them then,” Nui said. “Not necessarily anyways. Turning invisible in the middle of a fight is extremely difficult. Your opponent knows you’re there and they expect to keep seeing you unless you can get them to look away somehow. A good glamour caster plays on the expectations of the people who observe their glamours. That’s a more powerful aspect of the art than the direct creation of illusions. ”
“That makes sense, but I wasn’t expecting the room in your stronghold to be empty of people,” Dae said. “I thought we were going there to meet Zana’s contacts, and you managed to hide everyone.”
“True, but you didn’t have any set expectations for what you’d find in that particular room,” Nui said. “That made it easy to present you with a simple environment that you wouldn’t question too much. The cloak of invisibility was very similar. No one saw us leave, so no expected to see us flying out of the city. That made it a lot easier to keep the cloak held around us.”
“Even against the dragons?” Dae asked. The giant monsters had more powers than just their dragon fear, but Dae didn’t know of anyone who’d pushed them hard enough to force them to unveil all of their tricks.
“They are a different order of magic from Glamour or Pact Magic,” Nui said. “They’re powerful but they’re not immune to the gifts from the other realms gods. And it helps that I’m protected from them too.”
“You wield Sunlost’s magics but you still qualify as a citizen of Paxmer?” Dae asked.
“It’s in my blood,” Nui said.
“We share that same half of our blood and I can assure you that it alone is not enough to protect you,” Dae said. She bit back both her first memory of dragon fear and her most recent one.
“You really fought a dragon?” Nui asked. “And you lived?”
“Barely,” Dae said, the image of waking up broken in body and spirit in a battlefield tent surging to the forefront of her mind. She was a long road past the person she’d been then and while there was nothing to suggest that her body couldn’t be broken just as badly again, she wasn’t sure the same could be said about her spirit. Then she’d lost everything, or thought she had. In learning that she’d been wrong, Dae had found a stronger core to cling to in the face of the despair that swallowed her back then.
“Maybe your blood protected you to some degree?” Nui said.
“Not enough to make a difference,” Dae said. “I was supposed to defend one of our border keeps. It’s gone now and so are most of the troops I was given to defend it with. I survived, but it was mostly because my Pact Spirit is a tenacious monster who wouldn’t let me pass on.”
“What’s it like?” Nui asked. “Having a Pact Spirit?”
“Hard to describe,” Dae said. “Each bond is unique. For us, we’re like partners. I’m still myself, but I’ve got this very odd friend with me at all times. He’ll help me out, give me strength when I need it, and keep me from killing myself, but he doesn’t stop me from trying. In return, I try to make sure that I give him as many new experiences as I can, since that’s what he gets out of the deal, and I work with him as often as possible which makes us both stronger.”
“Is he awake now?” Nui asked.
“He’s always awake,” Dae said.
“So he can see me?” Nui asked. “And hear what we’re saying?”
“Yes, though he’s an old spirit, so however interesting this is to you and me, I’m pretty sure he’s only vaguely paying attention,” Dae said.
“I’m not sure if that’s creepy or comforting,” Nui said. “At least with your companion Mayleena it’s clear that you’re speaking to both a woman and a spirit at the same time. With you I could be speaking to either couldn’t I?”
Dae barked out a short laugh.
“No, it’s not like that,” she said. “I’m always here, and the Pact bond means I’m always the one in control. My spirit isn’t possessing me. It’s more like I’m possessing him.”
“That sounds even weirder and more disturbing somehow,” Nui said.
“It should,” Dae said. “Magic wielders of any type are dangerous. Gallagrin’s magic gives phenomenal physical ability, but the magics you control are much more terrifying.”
“I’ve been told that, but it’s hard to accept it when I see how limited glamour is,” Nui said.
“You can rewrite our perceptions of reality,” Dae said. “All my power as the Queen’s Knight amounts to nothing if I can’t understand the world I’m using it in. You could make me think I was stabbing Haldri Paxmer through the heart when the woman before me was my own queen.”
“That’s probably not actually possible,” Nui said. “Not with how you’ve spoken of her. There are bonds that even the strongest glamours can’t disguise.”
“That’s comforting to know, but it leaves open a chillingly large number of horrible possibilities,” Dae said.
“There are other limitations too, but I see your point I think,” Nui said. “Under the circumstances though both of us would probably be better off if we’d taken after our mother than our fathers.”
“Why’s that?” Dae asked, puzzled at the thought since Paxmer magic had always seemed far distant and alien to her.
The sun crested the horizon and the first light of day fell on the sky carriage and woke the slumbering women inside it.
“You bond yourself to Gallagrin’s magic and I began fiddling with glamour before I could speak, but after sixteen years in Paxmer I’m kind of wishing I’d taken up the native magic here instead,” Nui said.
“Dragon magic?” Dae asked. “But that’s only practiced by the highest of nobility isn’t it?”
“I thought you had a wide education in magic?” Nui said.
“Wide does not mean comprehensive,” Dae said. “What I know I’ve gleaned from a haphazard variety of sources.”
“Let me ask you a question then,” Nui said. “You mentioned that the Sunlost boat that you were on was assaulted by dragons. Do you think there was a high-born noble controlling them?”
Dae blinked and stared at her sister.
“No,” she said. “No there wasn’t. The dragon’s carried riders. Riders who attacked independently of the dragons, but were common enough to risk sending into a minor battle.”
“Those rider’s shared a bond with their dragons that might not be the same as the Pact Bond you have but there’s some similarity I think,” Nui said.
“In hindsight that makes a terrible sort of sense,” Dae said. “But how does Haldri control a legion of Dragon Warriors if even a commoner can become one?”
“By controlling the dragons themselves,” Nui said. “It doesn’t matter if a commoner learns to speak the dragon tongue or is willing to exchange their heart with a dragon if there’s no dragons who will answer their call.”
“Dragons aren’t that docile a creature I thought though,” Dae said. “Do they really all take orders from the Paxmer Throne?”
“That’s a complicated question,” Nui said. “The Paxmer Throne is shared. Haldri Paxmer governs the peoples of the Mindful Races who live in her domain, while Haldraxan Paxmer governs the dragons who serve the crown.”
“And no one can oppose them?” Dae asked.
“We oppose them,” Nui said. “But we can’t do so openly or Haldraxan’s dragons will destroy both us and our lands.”
“Your protection from the dragons only goes so far,” Dae said.
“It’s tied to our citizenship,” Nui said. “If Haldri strips us of our citizenship, which she can do with a word, Haldraxan’s forces will gladly devour us. Or most of us.”
“So what good would it have done for you and me to have embraced Paxmer’s magics?” Dae said.
“Citizenship is one protection against the dragons of the realm,” Nui said. “But it’s not the only one.”
“Someone who knows Dragon Magic can fight the dragons here even if they’re not a citizen?” Dae asked. She was bond to Gallagrin’s magic, and she would never give up Kirios while she lived, but the idea of being to resist the dragon fear was an intensely appealing one nonetheless.
“Not quite fight them,” Nui said. “More command them.”
“That sounds even better than fighting them,” Dae said.
“The problem is that dragon’s don’t like being commanded, and if there’s someone else around who knows Dragon Magic, like one of the Paxmer High Nobles, then it can become a true battle of wills and wits,” Nui said. “Which, still sounds more appealing that being eaten while you’re too terrified to defend yourself.”
“How would a single person win against a dragon and a noble though?” Dae asked, intrigued by the notion.
“By not being alone,” Nui said. “The easiest method of commanding a dragon is to have another dragon repeat your command in clear and specific terms.”
“I can imagine we would have a problem in that regards,” Dae said. “With the Paxmer nobles controlling all of the dragons, it seems like they have the decided advantage there.”
“Whoever said that the nobles controlled all of the dragons?” Nui asked.
Dae froze in her seat.
Nui held up her forearm and showed the silver tattoo of the haloed dragon.
“Not all of Paxmer’s defenders have been bent to the greed of the Royal Throne,” Nui said. “Haldraxan may have them bound in a sleep as deep as that of the absent gods but their souls are still tied to this realm and their hearts are still buried in its depths.”
“That’s what the resistance is trying to discover, isn’t it?” Dae asked.
“We know where they are,” Nui said. “But while Haldraxan’s around, they’re limited in how they can help us.”
“What can sleeping and buried dragons do?” Dae asked.
“That’s something you should talk to our mother about,” Nui said. “She leads the Resistance in this province for more reasons than the blood she was born with.”