Jyl raced up the side of the Star Seer’s tower like a bolt of lightning. Ahead of her, another bolt of lightning, shaped not at all unlike her sister flew up the sheer stone surface, keeping pace at the same two body lengths apart that they’d been when they started.
“You can’t get away from me.” Jyl spat the words out between the breaths that her transformed state didn’t require her to take.
“And you can’t catch me.” Jaan’s words were torn apart by the winds of the chase but enough fragments survived for Jyl to make out their meaning.
Metal claws and metal toes found purchase in the stone walls (or made it as necessary – a feat Jyl hoped the Queen of Senkin would forgive them for). She didn’t intend to damage the Senkin Royal Castle but when the alternative involved allowing her sister escape and wreak havoc on Gallagrin’s relationship with Senkin Jyl felt her path was pretty clear.
Jaan didn’t seem as determined to avoid damage, which was part of the reason she was able to stay ahead of her sister. Jyl had spent years training with her Pact Spirit. Jaan had only a few months of experience to draw on, but, as always, she had an artificial leg up on her twin. Where Jyl’s Pact Spirit was one she’d discovered for herself in a complex of lost and forgotten tombs, Jaan’s had a long and active history of previous bearers.
Jyl hated her for that, except even if she was given the option to trade, she knew she’d never take it. The Pact Bond was more than a business contract, or at least it was for Jyl. Some Pact Warriors seemed to regard the bond as little more than a power up. Their spirits were silent in a manner than Jyl found chilling.
For her, the magic of the Pact Bond had always included a sense of connection. Even from the beginning, she knew hadn’t found a lost treasure when she found the naming stones for her Pact Spirit. She didn’t have words for it then but as she’d pronounced the oath and shared her name with her spirit, she had the sense of being reunited with an old friend. Their bonding was the affirmation of a compatibility that already existed between the two of them.
People said the Pact Spirit’s never spoke, and Jyl couldn’t help but look at them strangely at that thought. It was true Pact Spirits didn’t use verbal language like one of the Mindful Races, but the steady ebb and flow of emotions from the spirit was as clear a form of communication as any other that Jyl had ever witnessed.
In standard Pact Knight doctrine, there was supposed to be a sharp line between the host and the spirit, with no influence from the spirit realm crossing over to corrupt the Pact Warrior. With a deep separation between the two, the chance that a Pact Warrior would lose themselves in a Berserker frenzy was, supposedly, diminished and controlled.
In theory that sounded good, but in practice it was all wrong. The relationship between the host and the spirit, or her relationship at least, was nothing without the depth that openness brought. People were right to fear the power of an unrestrained Berserker but it was only by being connected with her Pact Spirit that Jyl believed she was able to avoid going berserk given the situations she’d been placed in.
That was what made her pursuit of her sister so infuriating.
Jaan was a model Pact Warrior. She received her Pact Spirit as an ancestral gift, as so many other Pact Warriors did. Her skill with Pact magic came almost entirely from the spirit’s learned competency rather than anything Jaan brought to the relationship. Jaan asked for the magic and her spirit worked it for her. Simple and clean and, ultimately, limited.
From everything Jyl could see, Jaan evidenced no particular connection or accord with her Pact spirit, beyond the minimal contact needed for each to achieve their goals in the relationship.
And yet Jyl couldn’t catch her.
Jaan reached the top of the Star Seer’s tower, flipping over the parapets and onto the roof with the inhuman grace of someone whose strength far exceeded their body weight. Jyl hurled herself to the rooftop in a similar manner, but stopped at the near edge, knowing her sister’s penchant for striking back when cornered.
“There’s nowhere to go. Give back the ledgers and give up whatever this insane plan is,” Jyl said. She refrained from screaming only because letting the entirety of the Royal Castle know of her sister’s breach of their security would do noone any good, least of all anyone from Gallagrin.
“It’s not insane if it works,” Jaan said. “Then it’s ‘daring’ or ‘brave’. Haven’t you seen how accolades work?”
“I’m not interested in arguing this out,” Jyl said. “Give me the ledgers or I will take them from your broken and shattered body.”
“Why?” Jaan asked. “Why do you want these so much that you’d harm your loving sister to get them.”
“Oh, you don’t understand at all do you,” Jyl said, slowing edging a path around the Star Seer’s tower. The tower was narrow enough at the top of its spire that Jyl could have crossed the flat rooftop in a dozen paces but stalking around the edge meant she was able to keep the crenelated wall to her back. Always wise when dealing with her sister, she thought. “I’m hoping you don’t give me the ledgers. You see I really want a reason to hurt you that will stand up in court. It’ll work out better when I can’t stop myself from beating your stupid face in.”
“We would bring this castle down if we really went all out,” Jaan said. “And I know you don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident like that.”
“I don’t know, it’s not my castle, and not my country,” Jyl said. “At the rate things are going, it might not even be anyone’s country soon, so maybe there wouldn’t be so many complaints.”
“And yet you still want these ledgers back,” Jaan said. “Don’t lie. You’re watching them more than you are me.”
“That would be because seeing you makes ill,” Jyl said.
“Mirrors don’t do you any favors then, do they?” Jaan asked.
Her family always told Jyl that she and Jaan were identical twins, but Jyl had never seen how that could be possible. In her eyes, there was a resemblance between them, but Jaan’s face was always so twisted by mocking cruelty that it seemed like it should have been impossible to confuse the two of them.
“Why did you even steal those?” Jyl asked, certain that the reason would be terrible.
“These show the provisioning status for each of the forts and towns from her to the Green Council’s borders,” Jaan said. “It’s not much, but the Green Council should be able to use these to plan their attacks more efficiently don’t you think?”
The battle at the front line had become a siege instead of an unstoppable invasion. Haldri Paxmer’s touches were visible to anyone who knew she was there, with a dozen unconventional strategies stymying the Green Council’s forces from advancing further into Senkin.
If the Council knew of other, less resilient targets it could attack though, they could confidently renew their thrust into Senkin and leave behind only as many troops as were required to keep Haldri and her troops contained.
“Senkin will never forgive us. You can’t betray Gallagrin like that,” Jyl said.
“But I’m not betraying Gallagrin,” Jaan said.
“We’re allied with Senkin,” Jyl said. “They trust us. If you plunge that knife into their back, Senkin will hate us as they never have before. You’re dooming Gallagrin to fight against a new enemy when we just defeated our longest standing rival. There’s nothing else you can call that than a betrayal of Gallagrin and what it stands for!”
“What Gallagrin stands for?” Jaan mouth crooked into a familiar, unfriendly smile. “Gallagrin stands for survival. That is the heart and soul of our people. I thought with all the fighting you’d done, with how hard you’ve struggled, you understood that.”
“And how does putting us at war, again, help us survive,” Jyl asked. “People are going to die if you hand those ledgers over.”
“Yes, Senkin’s people,” Jaan said. “Except they’re going to die anyways. The Council is going to destroy them all.”
“Not if we can stop this war!” Jyl said.
“We can’t,” Jaan said. “This isn’t a war that wants to be stopped. Look at what’s happening. You know I’m right. The Green Council is too prepared for this, and Senkin, if it manages to survive, will never forgive them for it.”
“Our Queen doesn’t believe that,” Jyl said. “She’s out there, right now, working to put an end to this madness.”
“And she’s going to fail,” Jaan said. “You saw the reports. The Green Council is so incensed by her actions that they’ve started sending troops through the Frostmoon Pass. Gallagrin is under attack right now and these ledgers can help fix that.”
“You think the Council is going to call off the attack on Gallagrin because you give them a few papers?” Jyl asked.
“No, they won’t call it off for that,” Jaan said. “The ledgers are a gesture of good faith. They prove that there are those of us in Gallagrin that still value our old friendships with the Council. More importantly though the ledgers also give the Council somewhere else they can expend their military force.”
“You want to trade Senkin lives for Gallagrin lives?” Jyl asked.
“Yes,” Jaan said. “At any conversion rate. We’ve fought against the crown, opposed Alari on numerous occasions now, but our family has always been loyal to our realm.”
Jyl was stopped sidling along the wall and just stared at her sister.
“You really believe that don’t you?” she asked. “Somehow in all the lying and backstabbing and betrayals, you managed to convince yourself that our families actions are motivated by anything beyond greed and self concern.”
A low growl escaped Jaan’s lips.
“You are tiresome, do you know that?” she said. “You are so convinced of the evil in your blood that you’re incapable of seeing the world as it is. Yes, we look out for ourselves, because that’s what a family does. Yes, we supported the Butcher King, because our support meant that we and ours were safe from his excesses. And yes, we would sooner see Senkin fall than a drop of Gallagrin blood be spilled, because the people of Gallagrin are our people, and we are the ones who protect them. The rest of the world is not our concern, and if we try to make it our concern then we won’t be able to support and protect those who depend on us.”
“You think you’re too weak to protect strangers as well as kin,” Jyl said, resting back against the wall. “The truth is you’re too weak not to. We all are.”
“That’s ridiculous gibberish,” Jaan said. “Is that what Alari has been feeding you?”
“You think you’re justified in making hard choices today, in giving in to the expedient and self serving courses of action, but those have long term consequences that you never count and are far too weak to mitigate,” Jyl said. “Look at supporting the Butcher King, it kept the family safe in the short term, but he was routinely murdering his allies. Queen Alari saved you when she usurped his throne.”
“And so we owe her some kind of debt you believe?” Jaan said.
“That’s irrelevant,” Jyl said. “The point is your support for an insane monarch is still costing you. The people of Gallagrin hate the Lafli family for both the cruelty they supported in King Sathe and the cruelty our grandfather was all too free with inflicting because he thought his position near King Sathe sheltered him. Queen Alari received death threats for adding me to her retinue, despite the fact that our grandfather stripped me all connection to the family. I’m still too Lafli for anyone to trust, and that’s going to be true for all of the family’s descendants for a long time to come.”
“That’s why we have to seize the chances that are laid before us,” Jaan said.
“No, that’s why we need to rise above what we were and prove that the sins of our grandfather aren’t carried down into our generation,” Jyl said. “We can be better than he was. We have to be.”
“There are many ways to be better,” Jaan said, a trace of what sounded in the neighborhood of regret sneaking into her voice.
“We’re part of the world,” Jyl said. “Like it or not, its problems are our problems, and whether they’re kin or strangers, we need to protect and support people. It’s the only way we can buy a better future.”
Jaan frowned and shook her head.
“I wish it was really that easy,” she said.
“It’s not,” Jyl said. “Nothing’s easy, right or wrong. It’s like you. You’re never easy.”
“Maybe it’s good we both exist then,” Jaan said. “If your ideas are right, then there’s someone amazing working on them. And if I’m right? Well then at least there’s someone making sure that the important people will be around when everything falls apart.”
And with that she pitched herself backward over the parapet.
Jyl ran to the edge of the tower and saw her sister sprout wings from her Pact armor at the bottom of her fall, using the momentum gained to race out of Senkin’s capital city.
With a deep sigh, Jyl hurled herself off the parapets too, welcoming the embrace of gravity as it lent her speed and power.
She wasn’t going to let her sister get away. She couldn’t.