Undine relaxed back into his chair and let the Duke of Tel’s fine vintage of wine wash over the aches that remained.
“Still feeling a few of those hits?” Ren asked, slumping back similarly in his own cushioned chair.
The two of them were waiting in the Duke’s apartment in the Royal Castle, and enjoying one of the Tel province’s better efforts in terms of winemaking. Teo and Eorn were late, predictably so, but with a pleasant evening before them, neither Ren nor Undine were unduly troubled by the delay.
“The bruises have been healing up well since we got back yesterday,” Undine said. “I’d hoped to be blemishless by the time Eorn returned but I’m afraid the Blighted Legion lived up to their name a bit too well.”
“Indeed, I expect Teo to have fodder for months to come based on this,” Ren said, indicating the black eye he was still sporting. “Is it wrong to hope they come back sporting a mild amount of battle damage too?”
“They were at the front lines, the same as we were, and from all reports were not overly harmed in the fighting,” Undine said. “Some mild show of their efforts for us to chide them about wouldn’t seem unfair to wish for.”
“I hope their front lines weren’t like the one we fought on,” Ren said.
“And why would that be my love?” Teo asked entering the room with vampiric grace. Eorn followed shortly behind him, graceful in her own manner, but far more noticeable than whisper of Teo’s presence.
“Why because then you wouldn’t have as interesting a set of war stories to share as I imagine you must,” Ren said.
Teo dropped into the chair beside Ren’s and gestured for Eorn to take the last and largest of the deeply cushioned seats.
“Our stories are very dull,” Teo said. “Barely anything to speak of, it was all over and done with before we even noticed, isn’t that right Guardian?”
“Before you answer that Eorn, you should be aware that we have read the official reports and the redacted ones prior to the redactions,” Undine said, his eyes crinkling with the faint smile that played on his lips.
“Well, after you fought a god, who are we to compare our paltry little victory to yours?” Eorn asked.
“Oh, we were well away from the god-battle,” Ren said. “We’re not that senseless after all.”
“So you weren’t on the front line of a conflict between two realms, neither of which was this one?” Teo asked.
“Not at all,” Undine said. “The front line was, what, fifty or a hundred yards behind us?”
“Closer to two hundred I think,” Ren said. “We were moving pretty quickly after all.”
“You retreated from the battle?” Eorn asked.
“No, two hundred yards on the other side of the front line,” Undine said. “The enemies side.”
“What?” Teo said, leaning forward. “That’s not being off the front line. That’s being the front line itself!”
“The queen said something to that effect too,” Ren said and poured a glass of wine for Eorn and then Teo.
“Queen Alari reprimanded you?” Teo asked.
“No, Queen Senkin, and it was more a matter of offering us a position in her realm than a reprimand,” Ren said.
“Apparently there are going to be few less Dukes in her court as she works out which ones conspired with the Council agents who triggered the war,” Undine said.
“She offered me one of the Ducal rings if I would stay and defend the border,” Ren said.
“But you don’t want the Ducal ring that you already have?” Teo said.
“Which is exactly what I informed her of,” Ren said. “She wasn’t entirely pleased with the response but apparently was willing to offer a ‘Solar Star’ in its place.”
“A what?” Eorn asked.
“It’s a medallion,” Undine said. “I looked it up, it’s the highest award that can be given to a non-native of Senkin by the Senkin crown.”
“Did she offer you one too?” Eorn asked.
“Yes,” Undine said. “A dukedom and a Solar Star.”
“But you’re still here?” Eorn asked.
“I told her, regretfully, that I am as bound to Gallagrin as I am to my pact spirit,” Undine said.
“Sacred oaths to the queen?” Teo asked.
“Yes, and more sacred pledges to my friends and family,” Undine said. “Without them I likely wouldn’t be here today and I certainly wouldn’t be who I am.”
“So enough hedging and humility,” Teo said. “Tell us what happened in the battle for Senkin!”
“You know already how Queen Marie decided to make an attack into the Green Council in retaliation for their invasion and to confine the fighting and the damage to the Council’s lands rather than Senkins, correct?” Ren asked.
“Yes,” Teo said.
“What you probably don’t know is that Duke Telli was the one who convinced Queen Marie that the plan was feasible,” Undine said.
“I did nothing more than suggest it to one of her high ranking officers who in turn convinced her,” Ren said. “Unfortunately it was a terrible plan.”
“That doesn’t seem too likely,” Teo said. “You lived and the war is ended.”
“Both of those are true, and they are related but not through any merit of my designs,” Ren said. “When we arrived at the front line with Queen Marie we discovered that the Green Council had almost certainly set a trap for us.”
“So we decided to spring the trap,” Undine said.
“You rushed right into it didn’t you?” Eorn asked.
“How did you guess?” Ren asked.
“Is there a braver or more stupid thing to do?” Eorn asked. “No, no there is not, and as I know my friend, and know his ability to be a bad influence on people, the answer was all too clear.”
“It wasn’t an entirely bad idea,” Undine said. “We did succeed in triggering the trap.”
“Well, you are alive, so I suppose you showed some sense in how you went about it,” Teo said. “What did they send against you?”
“The Blighted Legion,” Ren said.
“A few hundred of them,” Undine said.
“I stand corrected,” Teo said.
“How are you still here?” Eorn asked. “We had to use dragons on those things and even that was a tough fight.”
“To be honest, we very nearly didn’t make it,” Ren said.
“The Blighted Legion had us surrounded and depowered when Queen Marie intervened,” Undine said.
“It seems the Legion’s ability to drain magic has an upper limit, too much and they sort of explode,” Ren said.
“Fortunately for us, they weren’t capable of absorbing the sort of power the Queen of Senkin has at her disposal,” Undine said. “It’s going to be an interesting subject in tactical classes for generations to come; the wisdom of designing and planning for the effects of the monarch themselves intervening.”
“So she saved you then?” Eorn asked. “Why was she willing to make you both Dukes?”
“Her rescue was somewhat incomplete,” Undine said.
“She was capable of overpowering the Legion, but it took time and energy and there were a lot of them. More than she could handle,” Ren said.
“We fought beside her for a while, Gallagrin’s magic combined with Senkin’s proving to be another design hole that the creators of the Legion hadn’t anticipated,” Undine said.
“Even with that though, we lost ground, and they managed to outflank us,” Ren said.
“That’s when support arrived,” Undine said.
“What kind of support had you called for? I can’t imagine there would be much available that would be more powerful than the queen herself,” Teo asked.
“You would be right,” Ren said. “But where one queen was not sufficient to turn the tide of battle, two proved most capable.”
“What other queen was in the area?” Eorn asked.
“More of a former Queen,” Undine said.
“Former? Wait, Haldri Paxmer saved you?” Teo said barely managing to avoid spitting his wine out.
“It may not have been her exact intention but I’m not going to argue with the results,” Ren said.
“I thought she lost her power when she was removed from Paxmer?” Eorn said.
“Mystical power? Yes. Political power? Also yes. Personal power though? Most decidedly not,” Ren said.
“She’d rallied the troops that had been left on the front lines and got them to one of the Senkin fortresses,” Undine said. “She made it so hard for the Council to dislodge them that the attack into Senkin was stymied until Queen Marie launched her counterattack.”
“Haldri didn’t stop there though,” Ren said. “She’s not one to do things by half measures it seems.”
“Apart from our queen, I’m not sure there’s a strategist alive who can match her,” Undine said. “The counter attack was the one chance for her forces to escape the fortress they were contained in, and she took advantage of that.”
“Why didn’t she just run away?” Eorn asked. “She didn’t have a stake in that fight did she?”
“Apparently the Council made the mistake of irritating her with their battle tactics,” Undine said.
“I think she just wanted a win under her belt,” Ren said.
“Whichever was the case, when she struck it was devastating force,” Undine said.
“She brought in every piece or air mobile conveyance the Senkin forces could scrounge up, and rained literal fire on the battlefield,” Ren said.
“The Legion has an absorption limit, and without long range attacks capable of piercing Senkin’s barriers they couldn’t make any answer to Haldri’s attacks,” Undine said. “Our desperate defense became much less desperate at that point.”
“That really does make our story sound a lot less thrilling,” Teo said.
“I know that can’t be true,” Ren said.
“You created an alliance of three nations and played a critical role in starving the Green Council of the resources it needed to tip the balance of the war as a whole,” Undine said. “That’s sounds rather thrilling to me.”
“Most of it was negotiations about logistics,” Teo said. “If it wasn’t for the ever present threat of our Inchesso contacts betraying or poisoning us for the novelty of it, it would have been a rather sedate trip.”
“You fought a battle with dragons. On your side! How could that possibly be sedate?” Ren asked.
“There were only three of them,” Teo said. “Dragons I mean.”
“It was a good thing that we had them though,” Eorn said. “They only sent a small contingent of the Blighted Legion after us but if we didn’t have the dragons I don’t think we could have beaten them.”
“Getting pulled off the battlefield in a dragon’s claws was an experience I’m not eager to repeat,” Teo said.
“Hold on a moment there,” Ren said. “You’re going to have to explain that in just a bit more detail. The dragons did what to you, exactly?”
“They got us back to the front lines,” Eorn said.
“Back to the front lines?” Undine asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“We might have been scouting for the enemy and engaged them far enough away from the main force we’d assembled that we required some help getting back into our formation,” Eorn said.
“Why did you engage them if you were scouting?” Undine asked.
“Engaged them in conversation,” Teo said.
“You talked to them?” Ren asked, disbelief floating his eyebrows up his forehead.
“We offered them terms,” Eorn said. “They didn’t like our offer.”
“So we unleashed the dragons on them.” Teo said.
“And the combined forces of Inchesso and Gallagrin,” Eorn said.
“It wasn’t a particularly long battle,” Teo said.
“It would have been longer if we’d burned out their eastern glades,” Eorn said.
“Yes but then Inchesso might have felt inclined to invade the Council and we’d have been fighting on the other side of that conflict,” Teo said.
Ren burst in out in laughter.
“To dear friends who lack a whit of sense between them,” Ren said, raising his glass.
The others joined in the toast cheerfully.
“Has the queen, our queen, said whether she’ll release you from your obligations as the Duke of Tel yet?” Teo asked.
“I haven’t had a chance to ask her,” Ren said. “She’s been rather busy with resuming the affairs of state after upending the world and keeping her nobles on ice for a month.”
“Also there are several new Princesses and Princes about which I gather has caused something of a stir,” Undine said.
“Yes, and that got me thinking,” Ren said. “Gallagrin has no blood requirement on inheritance. I can name anyone as my heir.”
“So all we need to do is find someone on the street who’ll take the job and you’ll be free?” Teo asked.
“I was thinking of being a bit more responsible than that,” Ren said. “I have a candidate in mind who’s shown the kind of nobility of spirit that even our best Dukes and Duchesses should aspire to. Someone I would trust with my province because I’ve trusted them with my life and not been in any measure disappointed.”
Undine’s mind raced through a variety of possibilities but each seemed far too outlandish. General Pentacourt had the same sort of conflict of interest that prevented a Gallagrin native from taking a position of power in Senkin. Teo becoming Duke would do nothing to let Ren escape from the pressures of a political life. Haldri Paxmer as a noble in Gallagrin was sufficiently ridiculous that even the thought of it made Undine smile at the imagined absurdity.
Then he noticed how Ren was looking at him and his mind went a little blank.
“What do you say Guardian Undine Kebrom,” the Duke of Tel asked, accenting his words into a formal offer. “Would you be willing to take up my mantle and join the nobility of Gallagrin?”