Eorn thought it was her imagination at first that the temperature had plummeted in the room, but looking around the small Penitent’s Court she saw that there was actual ice forming on the windows, despite the pleasant warmth of the day.
“You’re going to do what?” the Lady Daelynne Akorli asked with a voice as light as a blade that was about to strike.
“We are going to lead the delegation to Senkin and the Green Council personally,” Queen Alari said. “We stand on the brink of a cataclysm greater than the loss of our gods. The world knows what we did to Paxmer and now it watches to see if another realm will fall. We cannot let that happen through warfare, or our world will drown in the blood of the innocent.”
“We can not risk you,” Dae said. “Gallagrin with disintegrate if you fall.”
Eorn wasn’t especially adept at reading social dynamics, but the tension in the room had risen so fast and thick that even she could feel it. The Queen and her Knight weren’t arguing how Eorn’s family would. There were no thundering voices, no creative profanity, just calm words spoken with the greatest of restraint, which was somehow a thousand times more terrifying.
“I’m afraid the Lady Akorli is quite correct,” the nobleman Ren said, bravely entering the conversation. “Without someone holding the Gallagrin Pact Spirit, the noble houses will rip themselves to apart vying for the succession.”
“If you named one of them as your heir, that could be avoided,” Jaan Lafli said.
“Typical,” Vice Commander Jyl said, her contempt for her sister not even thinly veiled.
“I do not offer the Lafli house as a candidate for that title,” Jaan said, dismissing her sister’s anger with an airy wave. “We have been mislead recently and the honor of being the presumptive heir should clearly be bestowed on a House which has remained true to you. House Lafli will look only to support them.”
Eorn thought that sounded reasonable on the surface, but she’d listened to too many tales featuring the corruption of the nobility not to look for the hidden agendas in Jaan Lafli’s words.
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have to look far. House Lafli had backed all of the attempts to take Queen Alari’s throne. They were lucky she hadn’t executed them all weeks ago. Pledging support for a new House early did nothing to make up for those betrayals, it only served to put the Lafli in a better position if the Queen was killed and the Gallagrin Pact Spirit went up for grabs.
The issue of who would next rule shouldn’t have been in dispute, of course. Gallagrin had, at one time, possessed very clear lines of succession. The Queen’s father had seen to the destruction of that though. Among his first victims were those who held an uncontested claim to the throne should he and Alari be slain. The remaining nobility had to trace their connections to royal blood back a half dozen generations or so, which meant that the specifics of who held priority as the legitimate successor was a murky question at best.
“We have thought of this as well,” Queen Alari said. “As there is only one in this realm who holds our unquestioning trust, the choice of naming our heir is a simple one.”
She turned to her right and Eorn watched the Lady Akorli’s face pale at what was coming.
“You already speak with my voice, and you have given more for this realm than we could ever have asked,” the queen said. “This burden is one we lay on you out of our love and trust, though we fear there is no kindness in our doing so. Lady Daelynne Akorli, Queen’s Knight and Champion of Gallagrin, we name you our successor, to hold in trust the people and spirits of this realm until you pass from this life or find a worthy successor to whom to pass the royal mantle.”
The queen’s words echoed with more than human weight behind them. It didn’t matter that there were human witnesses in the room. The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin had taken notice of Alari’s proclamation and would seek out Dae on its own should Alari fall.
“You can’t be serious,” Dae said, her eyes those of a rabbit discovering itself surrounded on all sides by wolves.
“If the throne would seat two, you would rule beside me already,” Alari said.
“Dammit,” Dae muttered. Then her eyes flew open and she repeated, “Dammit!”
“Yes, we are afraid you are correct,” Alari said, before Dae could speak. “This time you must stay and bide your here while we travel to resolve the crisis at hand.”
“No!” Dae said, jumping to her feet and breaking, from what Eorn was aware of, every kind of protocol in addressing the queen so bluntly. “There is no chance in the Nine Hells you are leaving this castle without me, much less this country.”
Eorn began to sense that being anywhere else, even the Nine Hells, would be preferable to being present for the argument that was to come between the Queen and her Knight. A quick glance around the room told her that everyone else felt the same, but the tempest that was building was broken with only a few quiet words.
“I must and you must,” the Queen said, her voice softer than Eorn imagined ever hearing it. “I need you here to handle so many things.”
Everyone else in the room was sitting silent, listening to the exchange, and it took a moment for Eorn to notice what had caught their attention. It wasn’t just the argument. The Queen had slipped into familiar speech. That was something no one, except apparently the Lady Akorli, had ever heard before.
“Such as?” Dae asked, her eyes glassy with repressed tears.
“We have only received a representative from Senkin,” Alari said. “There must be someone here who can speak with royal authority if and when the Green Council opens an official dialog with us.”
“I’m not the one you want speaking with them,” Dae said, settling back into her chair.
“I believe she does,” Ren said. “And with good reason.”
Dae shot a glance at him that was as hard as a crossbow bolt to the chest.
“And what reason would that be,” she asked, anger grinding the words across her lips.
“The Green Council will listen to you,” Ren said. “And yet your words won’t bind the realm unless the Queen wishes them to be binding.”
“Through you, Gallagrin can address both Senkin and the Green Council without tying our fate to either one,” Alari said. “Together, we can act as arbiters to resolve the underlying dispute which has placed our northern neighbors at war with one another.”
“Is there really a dispute to be resolved though?” the man who spoke was someone Eorn only barely recognized. The Duke’s husband if she remembered correctly. Outside of the Penitent’s Court, he wouldn’t have had the standing to speak directly to the queen. Inside the court, Eorn wasn’t sure he should have either, but Alari recognized his point nonetheless.
“There have been actions which Senkin and the Green Council will point to as the cause and justification for their animosity, but you are correct. As always there will be deeper reasons for the bloodshed,” Alari said.
“Can you, or even all of Gallagrin, address those reasons?” Teo, Duke Ren’s husband, asked.
“Certainly,” Alari said. “Anything we do, even abstaining from the conflict is an answer to the question they raise. If you are asking whether we can create peace between the two realms though, that is not the reason for our conference with the two sides.”
“You want to support the stronger realm in their conquest of the other to limit the damage inflicted?” Jaan asked.
“There’s the Lafli family for you,” Jyl said.
“We’re not going to support either realm are we?” Dae asked.
“It is too soon to say, but most likely not,” Alari said.
“What other option is there?” Jaan asked.
“You crush both of them as a warning to other realms not to try this sort of thing in the future,” Dae said.
“That’s going to be a tall order with Gallagrin in its current state,” Ren said.
“It’s current state can change quickly though, can’t it?” Teo asked.
“Which current state do you mean?” Jaan asked. “At present our realm seems beset by a number of fractures.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Jyl said. “Not with all of the fractures still here for the Grand Convocation.”
“What are you suggesting sister?” Jann’s expression had sharpened like a knife.
“Just that if a pyre needs to be built for our grandfather, I’ll be happy to throw the first logs on the pile,” Jyl said.
Eorn didn’t miss the Vice Commander’s meaning, and from the looks of it, no one else in the room did either. Murdering the nobles who tried to oppose the queen seemed like a brutal step, but under the circumstances Eorn wouldn’t have been opposed to taking a few swings with the axe. There were nobles she’d met who might become much less disagreeable if their mouths were no longer connected to their lungs.
“We will not strengthen our realm by bleeding it out,” Alari said. “Our father proved the failures inherent in following that path.”
“Who are you taking with you?” Dae asked. She didn’t look like she’d given in to the notion of the queen leaving her behind but something had changed in her demeanor.
“Vice Commander Lafli and her sister will escort us,” Alari said.
“That’s not enough,” Dae said. “And don’t tell me you need to travel quickly. Take the rest of the Guard. It’s what we’re here for and we can all travel quickly.”
“We planned to recall Mayleena as well,” Alari said.
“My sister’s not in the palace?” Ren asked. “What is she up to?”
“She’s playing with dragons,” Dae said. “Or terrorizing them. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”
Eorn blinked. She’d heard rumors of the missing member of the Queen’s Guard. Some people had claimed she was lost in fighting to take Paxmer, but Lady Akorli had said she was on a special assignment. Working with dragons wasn’t something she could do in Gallagrin which suggested the Queen’s Guardian had never left Paxmer.
“Okay,” Ren said. “That’s not what I had expected, but…ok.”
“We will take Lord Greis with us as well, to make use of his contacts in Senkin,” Alari said.
“I would be delighted to be of service Your Majesty,” Ren said.
“Lord Greis? I thought you were part of the Telli family?” Jaan asked.
“It’s complicated,” Ren said. “I serve the Queen in two capacities, though in one of them I fear my service has been lacking.”
“If you’re going to Senkin then I am going too,” Teo said.
“About that Mr. Greis,” Alari said. “The crown has need of your services as well.”
Teo looked wary at that and replied in a cautious tone, “And what duty can I serve?”
“We need to send a diplomat to Inchesso to speak with our allies there,” Alari said.
“Your forgiveness Your Majesty, but there are forces in Inchesso who will move against my husband if he sets foot back in his homeland,” Ren said.
“We are counting on that,” Alari said. “That is why we will send one of our own Guardians with you as well as a squad of the Royal Army loyal to our person.”
“Stirring the kettle in Inchesso too?” Dae asked. “That’s not going to make this situation any calmer.”
Eorn noticed a dangerous smile spreading across the Dae’s face, but couldn’t spare the time to decipher it as she tried to figure out who the queen was thinking to send with Teo. With dawning horror, she worked out two terrible facts. First the queen had said she was sending only one of her guards with Teo and second the only guards who hadn’t been assigned a task yet were Undine and herself. One of them was going to Inchesso and the other wasn’t, Eorn felt her stomach twist at the idea, but the gravity of the situation kept her in her chair, silently praying that she was missing something.
“It is not our intention to place a lid on this political cauldron,” Alari said. “Allowing hostilities to simmer will only turn today’s problem into ones which will plague all of our tomorrows.”
“Then I take it I have one other task,” Dae said. “If we’re not going to let tomorrow’s problems come down to roost then we’re going to need the Ducal armies unified as well won’t we?”
“Yes,” Alari said. “We leave that particularly thorny problem in your capable hands as well as one other.”
“There’s more?” Dae said, sighing and slumping into herself.
“The matter before us touches on more than Senkin and the Green Council, and more than Gallagrin and Inchesso,” Alari said. “We need to gather all of our allies”
“You want me to contact my mother,” Dae said, without looking up.
“Paxmer and Gallagrin have centuries of blood between them,” Alari said. “If our world is going to flirt with centuries of war to come, let it be those of us who are familiar with its cost who lead the rest away from that precipice.”