Dae enjoyed the feeling of sleeping in, even if she’d spent the past several hours in a state that was closer to a coma than to actual sleep.
As the early spring sunlight dappled itself across her eyes though, consciousness returned grudgingly as well. Underneath her, the soft, supportive comfort of a real bed told her that she was somewhere safe, and for a moment, that was all that mattered in the world.
“I could stay here for hours,” she mumbled, still clinging to the last wisps of sleep as they evaporated in the midmorning sun.
“And I would be happy to watch you for those hours and more,” Alari said, half playful and half teasing.
“What the?” Dae asked, sitting up abruptly and discovering what a terrible idea that was.
“Careful,” Alari said. “You’ve been through a lot, and we’re not needed anywhere for hours still.”
“Where are we?” Dae asked, settling back onto the bed to allow her head to stop spinning.
“Highcrest,” Alari said. “My room. I wanted to make sure no one would disturb you while you slept.”
“Tell me you didn’t watch over me all night?” Dae asked.
“You’ve done the same for me on many an evening,” Alari said.
“And I will do so again,” Dae said. “Whether or not the world decides to stop spinning at some point.”
“And that is why you are in the most secure location I could find in my realm,” Alari said. “You saved me yet again. It’s time to let me return the favor.”
“Didn’t think we were keeping score,” Dae said, and smiled as the world stopped wobbling and she got a good look at her queen.
Alari wasn’t clothed in royal dress. She was wearing the simple garb that she only permitted herself the luxury of when she was certain of her privacy. It was a good look for her, Dae decided. She liked the idea of Alari being able to relax and put aside, even if only for a short while, the burden of her position.
“That’s only because you’re so far in the lead,” Alari said. “I owe you more than I can ever repay.”
“Is that why I get royal recovery room privileges?” Dae asked, raising an eyebrow at Alari’s serious tone.
“No,” Alari said. “You’re here because I’m greedy.”
“Greedy how?” Dae asked.
“Greedy because I want to keep you all for myself,” Alari said. “Greedy because as long as you’re here, I don’t have to even think about letting you go.”
Dae tilted her head and felt curiosity roll over her like wave.
“Has anything made you think there’s even the slightest chance that you could get rid of me even if you wanted to?” Dae asked.
Alari smiled, and brushed away a tear that hadn’t yet fallen.
“You’ve been more faithful than I could have ever dreamed or hoped,” Alari said. “But there are other callings that you may want to listen to, and, in my more reasonable moments, I know that I wouldn’t hold you back from them.”
“Other callings?” Dae asked, bewildered.
“Your mother is here,” Alari said. “And your sister.”
Dae nodded, surprised they made the journey so quickly, but not feeling the need to question how they managed it.
“And?” she asked. The thought that she would leave Alari in favor of family in Paxmer was an absurd one. Alari was her family. They were a small family, but no less vital for being sol.
“And there’s the matter of your gem,” Alari said, glancing to headboard of the bed.
Behind her, the softly glowing Divine Gem of Command shone from a position atop the central spire of the headboard.
“We didn’t want to take it from you since it seemed to be enforcing your previous command on Haldraxan still,” Alari said.
“Haldraxan?” Dae said, as memory came flooding back to her. “Sleeping Gods! What happened with the Dragon King?”
“He’s in the garden. Where you left him,” Alari said. “He’s been motionless since you commanded him to land.”
“Oh,” Dae said. “Well, that’s, good? I guess?”
“It’s more than good,” Alari said. “You’ve ended it. The rivalry between our realms. The centuries of skirmishes and bloodshed? They’re over. Gallagrin and Paxmer are truly at peace at last.”
“That was more you than me,” Dae said. “This was your plan after all.”
“My plan failed,” Alari said. “I sent you into Paxmer on a mission that no one could have finished, and the Royal Troops paid the price for my arrogance.”
“It wasn’t arrogance,” Dae said. “What you setup worked perfectly. We just didn’t know how strong Haldraxan really was. Or what he really was. And there was no chance we could have. He’s been holding back for centuries. Even our ancient records didn’t hint that he was effectively indestructible.”
“And yet you found a method to destroy him anyways,” Alari said.
“Not quite,” Dae said. “He’s still alive after all.”
“You could change that in a moment with the Gem,” Alari said. “Just order him out of the garden and the nature of his magic will do the rest.”
“Just give me the word,” Dae said.
“I appreciate that, but it’s not my place to tell the Queen of Paxmer how to dispose of her resources,” Alari said, her eyes glistening, but her smile one of pride.
For a moment, Dae heard Alari’s words like they were a child’s gibberish before she was able to connect them together and understand what Alari was really saying.
“What?” Dae said, all her breath leaving her body with that one word.
Alari simply smiled and shrugged.
“No!” Dae said. “Not just no, Nine Hells No!”
“You control all of the dragons of Paxmer now,” Alari said. “You have noble Paxmer blood in your veins. The throne is yours to claim, and there is no one in the world who can oppose you.”
Dae recoiled to the foot of the bed.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t want it. Get that thing the hell away from me.”
“I’m afraid if we do that Haldraxan may eat Highcrest,” Alari said.
Dae glanced from Alari to the Gem of Command and back again. If the Dragon King ate everything except for Alari then maybe that would be a viable trade.
Alari saw the look on Dae’s face and laughed.
“If you’ll be willing to hang on to it for a bit longer though, maybe we can find someone else who would wish to bear the load it represents,” Alari said.
Dae looked at Alari and Gem again, before relaxing by half a breath.
“Good,” she said. “I like that plan. Let’s do that.”
“You would really give up a throne of the Blessed Realms?” Alari asked, looking relieved more than astonished.
Dae pushed the covers that still bound her to the bed aside and climbed into the wide, comfy chair that Alari was seated in nearby.
“Is there some part of ‘I don’t want to leave you’ that’s unclear?” Dae asked. “It took me six years to wake up and realize what an idiot I’d been, I have no intention of making that same mistake again. Not for all the gold in Paxmer. Not for all the crowns in all the realms.”
Royal privilege meant that no one was allowed to touch a king or queen who was of lower standing. Dae ignored that, as she had a hundred times in the past, and pulled Alari close to her, welcoming both the softness and the strength with which Alari embraced her back.
Later, as the sun completed its rise into the sky and began its descent, Dae and Alari greeted the afternoon in the southeastern garden, under the shadow of the motionless Dragon King.
“His fear aura doesn’t seem to be affecting you anymore?” Estella asked as she, Dae, Alari and Nui took a lunch outside in the sunny day.
“There’s too little Paxmer magic in this small plot of land for him to project one,” Dae said. “If I hadn’t ordered him to motionlessness, he’d be consuming more magic than would be available to sustain him.”
“Are you going to order him to his destruction?” Nui asked, visibly unsettled by their choice of dining location despite her Paxmer immunity to dragon fear.
“No,” Dae said. “That’s a decision for the queen of Paxmer to make.”
“And who will that be?” Estella asked.
“Someone who knows Paxmer better than I do,” Dae said, and brought forth the Gem of Command.
She stared at the star-like jewel for a moment before extending her hand towards her mother.
Estella shied away from the gem, wide-eyed and rigid.
“Do you know what you’re offering me?” she asked.
“I’m offering you my trust,” Dae said. “Once this passes to you, you will control the loyalty of every dragon in Paxmer. With a thought you could send us back to war. Or you could turn inwards and make Paxmer a living hell for those still there.”
“And you would risk that?” Estella said. “I have done you terrible wrongs, Daelynne, and you’re handing me the power to do even worse, both to you and your realm.”
“I know,” Dae said. “But I’m not afraid of that anymore. What you do will speak to who you are, not who I am. And if you turn your power against us, you’ll get to find out what I know about your Dragon King.”
“Ok, that sounded ominous,” Nui said. “So maybe you should just keep the gem. The dragons have caused Paxmer nothing but trouble.”
“They weren’t always like that,” Estella said. “Before Haldraxan, the legends say that dragons were our peers and companions. Those who served to defend the realm did so willing and because it was their home as much as ours.”
“If you destroy him, will that free the other dragons from the madness and greed that consumed them?” Alari asked.
“No,” Estella said. “It’s not that simple. The dragons of Paxmer who live today are bond by the commands Haldraxan forged into them when he tempered them into adulthood. They are his creatures even when he is not around to command them.”
“Whoever bears this gem is going to have a hard path to choose then,” Dae said. “Destroy the dragons and cleanse Paxmer of their poisons or keep them and retain Paxmer’s ability to defend itself from the other realms.”
“There is another option,” Estella said. “It is slower and can only be chosen willingly but it offers the hope of a new dawn for our realm.”
“Paxmer will never be my realm,” Dae said. “My place is here and always will be. But what’s this other path?”
“Dragons are part spirit, part mortal creature,” Estella said. “They can transfer their awareness into new bodies and leave behind their old forms and bindings. It will take a generation to raise our dragons as free beings, but I believe it’s the task we must set ourselves to if there is to be a lasting peace between our realms.”
Dae sat forward and placed the Gem of Command in front of her mother.
“In a sense this as much my revenge as it is a gift,” Dae said, folding her hands in front of herself as she reclined back into her seat.
“What do you mean?” Nui asked, alert for a trap about to be sprung.
“Controlling Paxmer’s dragons means controlling Paxmer,” Estella said. “She’s offering me more than a gem, she’s offering me Paxmer itself.”
“A realm is difficult control, even under the tightest of rules,” Alari said. “That’s part of what makes the burden so heavy and also part of what makes it bearable.”
“You can turn away from it,” Dae said. “If you know someone better suited to the role, then turn it over to them.”
“This is a test isn’t it?” Estella asked, her hands still folded in her lap.
“Yes,” Dae said. “We missed a lot of years together, as many that I don’t know who you are now, but after these last few weeks, I think I would like to change that. So please, take Paxmer and show me the kind of woman that my mother is. I think it’s long past time that I got to know her.”