Dae woke to the feeling of Alari’s arms wrapped around her and the soreness in her throat that told her she’d been screaming in her sleep again.
For a long moment the Queen’s Champion did nothing but force herself into a pattern of long, steady breaths while her heart quieted from its nightmare induced pounding. The image she woke from was always the same. One step. Just one backwards step. That was all it took. Her dreams rarely showed her what came next, but they were so clear on the moments leading up to it, perfectly capturing the memories of the pain and terror she’d suffered and mixing them with the fears that she’d never survive an encounter like that again.
“You woke faster this time,” Alari said, the words warm on Dae’s neck.
“And woke you again,” Dae said, trying to force levity into her voice. It was a hollow effort though and she added in a softer voice, “I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be like this.”
Alari squeezed Dae into a tight hug for a long moment before releasing the embrace and trailing her hand down Dae’s back. They were together in Alari’s personal chambers, in the tallest tower of Highcrest Castle. The room’s previous resident, the Butcher King, had ensured that the room was completely soundproofed. Most people assumed King Sathe’s motives for doing that were diabolic, but in the years since taking the throne, Alari had come to see that being able to block out the world was, at times, a priceless gift beyond anything else in her treasury could offer.
“You’re wounded,” Alari said. “And it was my plan that put you in harm’s way.”
The Royal bedroom wasn’t large as chambers went in Castle Highcrest, but there had always been an emptiness to it despite the personal touches that Alari added to make it feel like a proper refuge. In the early years of her marriage to Prince Halrek of Paxmer, they’d shared a bed in the room, and even conceived a child in it. There may not have been love filling that bower, but, at the time, Alari imagined that there was at least respect and camaraderie.
She and Halrek had weathered days of strife together and had tasted the fruits of victory after becoming the Queen and Consort-King of Gallagrin. With their unborn child, Alari had imagined that the emptiness in her world would at last be filled, but in place of filial devotion, Halrek had filled the room with poison. Literal poison. Administered so carefully and with such devastating precision that she’d nearly died and their child had been lost.
After that, the royal bedroom had been empty. Halrek had fled to other quarters “to allow her time to heal” and Alari had greeted each night as little more than an empty void of darkness where her dead spirit could lay unmoving until the time eventually came to go to her final rest beneath Gallagrin’s soil.
Dae had changed that. Even beyond slaying the abomination that Halrek Paxmer had become, she’s breathed new life in Alari’s world. With Dae’s bright fire burning beside her, Alari woke each morning to discover that she was far from dead. There was too much left in life for her to let the past steal away her future.
“You shouldn’t have to care for me like this,” Dae said, sounding more tired than even the lateness of the hour could explain.
Alari drew her back into an embrace and kissed her. Dae was cold for a moment, returning neither embrace, nor kiss, but by degrees she melted in Alari’s arms and carefully lifted her arm to drawn Alari in as tightly as Alari held her.
When they finally parted, it was Alari who spoke first.
“You’ve cared for me since the first time we met,” she said. “For all of my powers as princess and queen, I’ve never been able to return half of the love you’ve given to me, so, please, let me help you, don’t push me away.”
“Never,” Dae said, allowing a small smile to break across her lips. “But I’m not much of a knight for you if I’m so broken that even a little dream wrecks your slumber like this.”
Alari leaned her forehead to press against Dae’s.
“You will always be my knight,” she said. “What you are not, is giving yourself enough credit. You stood against the Divine Dragon of Paxmer. Your bravery is something no one is allowed to question.”
“It wasn’t really bravery,” Dae said, and dropped her gaze to the billowing white blankets that covered the bed they shared like an expanse of clouds.
“Whatever it was, whatever you want to name it, you came back to me,” Alari said. “And that’s all that matters.”
“I don’t like being like this,” Dae said.
“With me?” Alari said, asked in a lightly teasing tone. “In my bed?”
Dae looked up, and smiled, just in time for Alari to kiss her again.
“Ok, it’s not all bad,” Dae said twining her fingers in Alari’s hair, after Alari broke the kiss and let her breath.
“No,” Alari said. “Not all bad at all. But not all right either. You’ve been through a lot. No one’s ever done what you did. It’s not surprising that it came with a cost, and the need to heal afterwards.”
“Yeah, part of me knows that you’re right,” Dae said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to feel so weak. Not when I’m supposed to be the strong one.”
“I don’t think this kind of thing can be easy,” Alari said. “And you don’t have to the strong one, I just need you to be mine, and you just need time.”
“Time sucks,” Dae said. “Not that I mind this particular time, or any time we get that’s like this, but I can’t feel myself getting any better. What if this is just how I am from now on?”
“Then we adapt,” Alari said. “I want you to feel whole and well, but in this case what I want doesn’t matter. What matters is what you need, and if you need me to hold you every night? Well I I’ll never get tired of doing that.”
“Thank you,” Dae said. “I know this can’t be fun for you either, but, thank you.”
“You really did wake up sooner this time,” Alari said. “It may not feel like you’re getting better, but I think you’re healing little by little.”
“That’s good,” Dae said. “I just wish Kirios was recovering at the same time.”
“He’s a spirit,” Alari said. “I’m sure he’ll be back to full strength soon.”
“Maybe,” Dae said. “But he shouldn’t be able to get injured in the first place.”
“Maybe he isn’t?” Alari said. “You did something incredible with your Pact Bond when you faced Haldraxan. Anyone else would have lost themselves to the magic and become a Berserker, but together you and Kirios held on. Maybe he’s not hurt, maybe he’s just drained. That had to be more magic that you would have normally channeled in a year. The poor guy might just be tired still, or whatever the spiritual equivalent of that is.”
“I’ve let him rest for a month now,” Dae said. “No transformations, no summoning, no magic at all, and it still feels like we’re tapped out.”
“Yet another reason to not push yourself,” Alari said.
“It doesn’t feel like the rest of the world agrees with that idea,” Dae said. “How much longer can you hold the noble’s here?”
“Till the last of the Nine Hells freezes over,” Alari said. “And, if they’re wise, not one of them will complain about it.”
“When was the last time one of your nobles was wise?” Dae asked.
“I’m not sure,” Alari said. “I’m also not sure I care.”
“I agree,” Dae said. “None of them are worth a moment of your concern, but I know you. As mad as you are at them, you can’t escape from thinking about the filthy bunch of traitors. Or feeling responsible for them.”
Alari closed her eyes and sighed.
“I’m not concerned about my responsibility towards them,” she said. “I’m worried at how much I want to throw that responsibility away.”
Dae leaned back and allowed herself to take in the tension that curled Alari’s hands into fists within the blanket.
“After we toppled my father, I forgave those who sided with him,” she said. “I lost allies by trying to treat my former enemies fairly. I wasn’t being weak or merciful. I wanted Gallagrin united so that what few resources we had could be used to build back the strength that my war took from the realm.”
“I saw what looked like for the common folks,” Dae said. “There was some confusion, but your people were with you,” Dae said. “No one wanted pockets of fighting to break out again.”
“No one except my allies who thought they’d grow rich on the plunder of the losing duchies,” Alari said.
“That would have been costly plunder,” Dae said.
“Yes,” Alari said. “Every life lost would have been another Gallagrin citizen I failed to protect. So I spent six years carefully juggling all of their competing interests, only for Halrek to build up enough backing to feel secure in trying to overthrow me.”
“And you forgave them again,” Dae said.
“Because I couldn’t prove who his backers were,” Alari said.
“Well, we knew Duke Telli was backing him,” Dae said.
“And you cut his head off,” Alari said. “Which I am still grateful for.”
“That suggests an obvious solution to the current problem,” Dae said. “I don’t need to transform to wield a sword. Or a headsman’s axe.”
Alari offer her a weak and conflicted smile.
“And that’s the problem,” she said. “I am tired of them. My allies and my enemies. All of my nobles. They all sided with Sanli. She tricked them with the simplest of ploys, not because she was a genius at deception but because they wanted to be tricked.”
“Some of them abstained from calling for the contest against you,” Dae said.
“So some of them were brave enough to admit that they hate me, and the rest are cowards,” she said, clutching the covers tight enough to her chest to turn her knuckles white.
“Most of them came to power under your father’s rule,” Dae said. “That doesn’t excuse them, but it does explain why we have such a rotten bunch to work with now.”
“And there’s the heart of my problem,” Alari said. “I know what to do with them. I even know where the headman’s axe that I should be putting into your hand is.”
“My blade’s already tasted royal blood,” Dae said. “Clearing the current slate of traitors off the board won’t dirty it any further.”
“The blood on your blade shows nothing more than your honor and your prowess,” Alari said. “If I slay my nobles, I will need to slay their families too. And their supporters. And those who would stand in their defense. Or who might take revenge for their loss. That was the road my father walked down, and more and more it seems that it’s the only one that’s open to me.”
“That’s not true. You’re better than he was,” Dae said. “You’ve always been better than him.”
“Am I?” Alari asked. “His madness waits in my blood too. I feel like with just the right push I’d slide down into the same abyss that he did.”
Dae reached out and took Alari’s hands in her own.
“That’s not true. You have been pushed farther than anyone I have ever known or heard of. You’re never going to be swallowed by your father’s madness.”
“Maybe,” Alari said. “But I still don’t trust myself to deal with my nobles yet.”
“What about the other monarchs?” Dae asked, changing the subject to a less fraught topic. “Are you sure that the council you’ve called is going to work?”
“Sure? No, not at all,” Alari said. “On the positive side though, the only other Realm monarch I’ve ever wanted to murder is locked up in my garden, and has become surprisingly charming.”
“Haldri’s plotting to escape then I take it?” Dae asked.
“Of course,” Alari said. “It’s one of the things we talk about.”
“I still find that amazing in a very disturbing sense,” Dae said. “But I think it also speaks to your fears too. You’re not going to become your father, and you’re not going to drown in the blood of Gallagrin’s nobles. Not if you could hold yourself back from killing Haldri Paxmer, and especially not if you could hold me back from killing her.”
“Well, tomorrow the formal invitations to the Council of the Realms go out,” Alari said. “So I suppose the Grand Convocation I’ve held our nobles under will have to start drawing to a close.”
“Whatever you choose to do, I’ll be there with you,” Dae said.
“That’s what makes it all bearable,” Alari said and snuggled deeper into Dae’s embrace as they watched the night slowly give way to the first light of a new dawn.