Alari always found the Royal Sky Carriage pleasant to ride in. It was pulled by the finest Wind Steeds in the realm. It was lavishly appointed. It was the perfect get away from the insanity of the palace, and despite the reclined seats, the heavy layered curtains that keep out the high altitude cold and elaborate silver-inlaid engravings which held spells to provide both comfort and entertainment through the song, she hadn’t been able to enjoy using it in years. Since she’d won her throne, her life had been focused on the heart of her realm. That Gallagrin still stood, and had risen in power from the ruins of its civil war to be capable of toppling other realms was a testament to the work she’d done, but as she flew faster than the wind away from Highcrest Castle, she felt the toll of those years.
Absently, she ran a hand along the knotwork trim of the carriage, tracing the tiny animal carvings on the edge of the window. The carriage was a gift from the Green Council to a distant ancestor of Alari’s but the magics they’d laid on it were still vibrant and strong. Its ancient pedigree spoke to its more primitive design than modern conveyances, but the carriage took to the high winds with ease and Alari was able to watch the miles race by below them through windows that were undimmed by time.
“Is the squad from the Royal Army going to be able to catch up with us?” Jyl asked.
Alari knew that the answer was ‘No’. One of the benefits of having the finest Wind Steeds in the realm was that no one else could match them. She also knew that, tactically speaking, racing ahead of the people who are assigned to keep her safe was extraordinarily foolhardy. Dae had been on the verge of outright begging Alari to stop and wait, but as that tactic had never worked in the past, Dae had swallowed her worry and in heart breakingly few words extracted a promise from Alari that she would return. Alari, in turn, gave that promise willingly and truthfully. She wasn’t eager to fly to her own destruction. She knew that, just as deeply as she knew that she couldn’t stay safe, locked away in her castle any longer.
She told herself the unfolding crisis was too large for any one realm to resolve. That as a monarch of one of the Blessed Realms, she had to intervene because there was no one else who could. Those rationalizations had the benefit of being true, but from the way her spirit took flight as the carriage raced onwards, told her that there were other, unseen, motivations driving her as well.
Being away from the castle felt wonderful and liberating. Nestled in the bright blue sky, and caught in the action of the spur of a moment, Alari was struck by the idea that the only tie in Highcrest that she coudn’t, and didn’t want to, slip free from was Dae. That then lead to the thought of sneaking back into the castle, kidnapping Dae and vanishing into the night. It was a disturbingly tempting thought. It was a ridiculous one, true, but still her imagination was all too willing to begin drafting plans around the idea.
All her life, Alari had wanted to nurture her realm, she wanted it to be amazing and wondrous and could see so many way for that to come true, but in her six years of ruling over her realm she been struck time and again by how bent on destroying itself Gallagrin seemed to be. Simple compromises designed for the benefit of all were rejected time and again, because the participants believed that they had to stake the widest claim possible and extract the most revenue that they could from any arrangement, rather than looking for mutually beneficial terms which would create a stronger and better society for all, including themselves. Nobles consider those they ruled to be unworthy scum, and commoners invented divisions purely so they could hate each other more efficiently.
“You can always count on people to desire more power.” Haldri, the former Queen of Paxmer had told her. “Commoners believe power will bring them security, nobles have power and know they are not secure and so desire even more.”
Alari couldn’t agree with Haldri’s appraisal, even though her own life looked like it bore out the truth of it. She’d plunged Gallagrin into a civil war to take the throne from her father, but no matter how history would see her, Alari knew it hadn’t been power that she’d sought. The fighting during those long months was hideous, but even a battlefield full of the dead was less of a horror than the terror that her father inflicted on his people.
They’d cheered her when she overthrew him. Even his allies. At first. Then, as she moved to change Gallagrin, to move it away from the decades of internecine rivalry that had fed the Butcher King’s madness, her nobles and her people had started to turn on her. Her policies were too forgiving, or too punitive. Her efforts to direct aid and reconstruction were fought by ally and enemy alike, based solely on whether they were benefiting from the it directly rather than any appraisal as to need or overall impact.
With the Wind Steeds carrying her ever farther from the nexus of insanity that was her throne, Alari felt shackles falling away from her. The nobles that she left behind were the better for her departure she felt. She knew that killing the lot of them wasn’t an option. She would never allow herself to become the regent her father had been, but a part of her could see no other path forward. Her enemies like Duke Lafli would never stop opposing her and her allies could turn on her at any moment when she didn’t give them what they wanted. Getting rid of the lot of them seemed like the only sane course of action.
“Will the Queen of Senkin see us when we arrive?” Jyl asked. She looked uncomfortable, swallowed up in the pillowy seats of the Royal Carriage. Beside her, Jaan wore an expression of poised aloofness. Alari didn’t think Jaan was any more comfortable than her twin sister, but a lifetime as a courtier had schooled her in how to conceal discomfort to a degree that Jyl’s years as an adventurer had never managed.
“My Queen will be honored to receive you,” Corine said. “If you had allowed a messenger to precede our arrival, you would have been met with the utmost in hospitality.”
“That is one reason we did not wish our arrival to be heralded,” Alari said. “This is not an occasion for pomp and ceremony.”
“What are our orders if the Queen of Senkin is unhappy with the surprise visit?” Jyl asked.
“If Senkin will not treat with us on the matter of the Council’s invasion, then we shall depart and treat with the Council instead,” Alari said.
There was something delicious about playing a political game where she held no responsibility towards any of the other parties. With the Gallagrin nobles, even her enemies represented her people, and however much the nobles infuriated her, Alari was determined that her people would not suffer from her wrath. She clung to that and ground it into her self image as a shield against her father’s madness. In too many reflections, she saw pieces of him in the impulses she fought to control. She had to believe she was different than he was though. Nothing else could excuse what she had done.
“And if Senkin doesn’t want to let us depart?” Jyl asked.
“If Senkin wishes Gallagrin to enter the fray on the Council’s side then she is more than welcome to try to keep us from departing,” Alari said, “In that eventuality you will be given full leave to use any and all powers at your disposal to follow the path we shall blaze.”
It was a risk to venture into a foreign land with only minimal guards, but Alari was far from helpless. She carried the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin and with no one casting a counter claim over it, she had access to its full and unrestricted power.
Senkin was aware of that, which granted Alari a significant umbrella of protection. While Senkin could order her forces against Alari’s small entourage, the losses Senkin would suffer would be extreme, and the realm couldn’t afford that when it was already fighting an invasion.
“I assure you, my Queen will be glad for your wisdom and advice,” Corine said. “Senkin did not seek this quarrel and if you can restore justice between the two realms, we will be forever grateful.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Ren said.
Alari glanced at him, raising an eyebrow.
“Justice on its own is a terrible force,” Ren said. “Queen Alari has shown Gallagrin the virtue of Justice tempered with Mercy, but has not been paid back kindly. If you would ask only for justice, she may be willing to grant that to you, but grand issues like this are never so simple that justice can find only those wholly guilty.”
Corine looked as though she was going to protest the notion that Senkin could be in any sense at fault for the invasion it had suffered but stifled the remark. Whether that was due to the knowledge or suspicion of guilt on Senkin’s part or whether it was out of a desire to avoid needless arguments with Alari’s entourage was difficult for Alari to tell.
“Are you suggesting that our Queen would punish the innocent along with the guilty?” Jaan asked.
“Are you innocent?” Ren asked. “Am I?”
“In this matter we do not seek to address guilt or innocence,” Alari said. “We do not stand as judge or jury over our peers, but rather as mediator.”
Mediator was the role Alari would claim, though she knew that in stepping onto the stage of the conflict, her role would be far broader than that of a simple negotiator.
“We sovereigns understand something which our lessers do not,” Haldri had said. “There is no security in having power, only in its use.”
Alari enjoyed the time she spent with her hated rival. Partly that came from childish gloating, though she took care never to express that openly to Haldri, and in part because for all the unforgivable harm that Haldri had done to Alari, they were still sisters of a sort. No one else in all the realms, no even Dae, understood the weight of the crown that bore down on a monarch’s soul.
Haldri had a very different method of grappling with that weight. Where Alari had struggled to hold it up and be the mountain her people could stand upon, Haldri had taken the opposite approach and placed her people below her.
The former queen never offered a word of sorrow for her deed or regret, but there was a weary relief that clung to her in defeat. Some small sliver of Haldri Paxmer had been disgusted with the choices she made. Some far larger piece of her had been exhausted from the constant strain of holding the yoke on those who hungered for her throne. In her destruction and exile, Haldri had found freedom at last from the choices she was called to make and the constant control her rule required.
In some tiny corner of her soul, Alari felt envy for the fallen queen. Had the battle between Paxmer and Gallagrin turned out differently, she knew that Haldri would not had spared her or treated her so kindly, but that would have been Haldri burden to bear. In keeping the Paxmer Queen as prisoner, Alari had spared herself the trauma of more royal blood on her hands and had gained an unusually useful sounding board.
“Your Majesty, if I’m not out of line, may I ask why you brought her with us?” Undine asked, pointing to the former Paxmer Queen who sat silently in the far back of the Royal Carriage.
“I am an object lesson for our peers,” Haldri said. “She wishes to remind people what happens to those who would chose to oppose Gallagrin.”