Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 25

Nothing about sharing wine with her mother felt right or natural to Dae. After the tense standoff between them ended though, Estella had invited Dae and her companions to break bread with the Resistance fighters as they planned out their strategy.

“We’ll need to move fast,” Dae said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover inland to the location our Queen asked us to search.”

“Speed will attract attention,” Estella said. “Something has the Paxmer army on its toes in this region and their eyes are peeled for anything unusual.”

“That’s probably our fault,” Dae said. “I’m sure the Paxmer ships reported the sinking of the Fearless, and our borders have been permeable enough for the last seven years that I’m sure Haldri Paxmer knows of the troops that Gallagrin is marshalling.”

“You can’t be planning an invasion,” Estella said, her features tensing in concern.

“That depends what you mean by invasion,” Dae said, offering a wolfish smile.

“This Spirit Crown!” Nui said. “If you can’t retrieve it, Gallagrin’s going to send an army to get that job done, isn’t it?”

“Technically there’s more than one army massing on the Gallagrin side of the border,” Dae said, without denying Nui’s claim.

“They can’t cross the border,” Estella said. “Paxmer is waiting for them. It will be a slaughter.”

“Haldri Paxmer only thinks she knows how far my queen is willing to go to collect the blood price that’s due,” Dae said.

“She would invite death on such a grand scale? How much does she take after her father?” Estella asked.

To her credit, Dae noticed the concern in Estella’s voice and was able to refrain from killing her mother on the spot for the implied insult of comparing Alari to the Butcher King.

“She is nothing like King Sathe,” Dae said. “His madness caused him to lash out and destroy everyone and everything around him. His rage controlled and consumed him, but his daughter is not as weak as he was.”

“Our Queen does not let us see her anger,” Mayleena said. “But it burns within her, a weapon bound in her will, and sharp enough to cut through the heavens.”

“She’s not the kind of person to sacrifice her subjects lightly though,” Jyl said. “Which is why she needs us to move fast so that she doesn’t have to.”

“There’s only one fast option for escaping the city,” Nui said, passing a pot of stew to her mother. “You’ll need to fly out of here.”

“That’ll probably draw a lot of attention,” Dae said. “If that’s our best option though, we may have to go with it.”

“You can’t,” Estella said. “The dragons wouldn’t let you get half a mile from the city before they swooped on you.”

“Being paralyzed in mid-air might not be too fun,” Jyl said, taking a hunk of bread from Mayleena to soak up another bite of stew.

“The dragons will only assault them if they’re seen leaving the city,” Nui said.

Estella’s eyes widened and she looked at her younger daughter.

“They can’t turn invisible,” Estella said.

“They won’t need too,” Nui said, an unspoken argument passing between mother and daughter. Estella was the first to look away, sighing as she did so.

“We would need a sky carriage to keep everyone together,” Estella said.

“The mayor has one,” Nui said.

“It will be heavily guarded,” Estella said.

“You can leave the guards to us,” Dae said.

“What guards?” Mayleena asked.

“The guards on the sky carriage we’re going to steal so that my mother and sister can accompany us in our escape from the city,” Dae said.

“And they are joining our entourage why?” Mayleena asked.

“Because I can wrap a sky carriage in a glamour that will let us fly free of the dragons that are encircling the city,” Nui said.

“Except it’s not just going to be you five on the sky carriage,” Zana said. “You’ll need backup.”

“The more we try to move the harder it’s going to be,” Nui said.

“Can you handle cloaking six of us?” Dae asked.

“Six or sixty, if we’re all in one sky carriage then it’s the same effort,” Nui said.

“Zana should join us too then,” Dae said.

“Why?” Zana asked, pulling back where she’d previously been leaning forward.

“You’re quick,” Dae said. “You picked us out of crowd and worked out who we were without alerting half the tavern to our identities. I don’t think your forces can afford to lose a noblewoman like Lady sur Korkin or an exotic magic wielder like her daughter. My team has a mission to achieve though, so I can’t say their protection is our top priority. For you, I think it would be.”

“And what if that conflicts with your mission?” Zana asked.

“Then you’ll follow your mission, and we’ll follow ours,” Dae said. “Ultimately our goals lie in the same direction.”

“And if we try to betray her, my daughter will have all the confirmation she needs to strike us down where we stand,” Estella said.

“There is that as well,” Dae said.

“So assuming that matricide is not on the agenda, how are we going to steal a sky carriage?” Jyl asked.

The answer, Dae discovered, was “easily”.

The mayor’s estate was well guarded, but since she had to entertain foreign guests, the dragons were positioned so that their fear auras didn’t encroach on the mayoral mansion.

The mayor’s guards were brave and well trained. Even with the presence of the dragons to ensure peace and safety, the guards maintained a strict patrol and good discipline. They were alert and prepared and capable of capturing an intruding force of any reasonable size short of an army.

In the dead of the night though, with the talents of a skilled illusionist and three Pact Knight’s of surpassing prowess, the guard regime was confronted by a force that was more powerful than even an unreasonably large army of attackers would be.

Quietly, the defenders of the mayoral estate were dispatched into unconsciousness by attacks which they didn’t see coming and would not be able to reconstruct the details of later.

When the sky carriage lifted off and took to the winds, no candle flame was disturbed and no personnel were awoken. The theft was begun and finished in less than a minute’s time without the slightest sound being made.

The major’s sky carriage was broadly spacious and appointed lavishly enough to pass for one of the finest ducal carriages from Gallagrin. Windsmer’s position as a major trading hub generated enough wealth that it’s overseers had to appear as though they enjoyed a station far higher than their actual influence warranted. To do less would be to suggest that Paxmer’s glory was clutched in miserly hands and if there was one thing that the nobility despised it was accurate depictions of the world they created.

Mayleena, Jyl, Estella and Zana took their places within the sky carriage, while Dae took the reins of the wind steeds in the driver’s bench and Nui sat beside her to maintain the illusionary cloak that concealed them.

“I was twelve before she told me about you,” Nui said as they passed over the walls of Windsmer and began to place distance between themselves and the restless monsters that guarded its perimeter.

“You can hold the glamour and speak at the same time?” Dae asked, honest surprise creeping into her voice.

“We’re high enough up that I didn’t have to add an auditory element to the cloak,” Nui said. “So I can use my voice. I just can’t open my eyes.”

“You didn’t have to come along on this,” Dae said.

“I think I kind of did,” Nui said. “You were serious about killing her weren’t you?”

“I don’t draw that particular blade in jest,” Dae said.

“I think she knew that,” Nui said. “Even before she broke the glamour I cast on her.”

“That probably wasn’t her wisest move,” Dae said.

“It worked out ok though, didn’t it?” Nui asked.

“I wish I could say,” Dae said. “A part of me is still wondering if I didn’t make a terrible mistake there.”

“Was it really that bad? What she did?” Nui asked.

“Yes,” Dae said. “And no. Now’s probably not the right time to ask that question.”

“You can’t forgive her?” Nui asked.

Dae was silent as the miles flew by beneath them, mulling those four words over and searching for an answer. When that proved to be impossible, she turned to the question of why the answer to such a simple question was so elusive.

“I don’t know her,” she said at last. “The woman I met tonight is not the mother I’ve known for the last twenty years.”

“But you haven’t even seen her in twenty years!” Nui said.

“Since I was eight, there’s been a knot of hatred in my heart and its name has been ‘mother’,” Dae said. “I’d spent most of my life with the name Estella as a synonym for the deepest, vilest of betrayers. There hasn’t been a day that passed when she wasn’t with me.”

Nui was silent, and leaned away from her sister.

“Now that we’ve met again though, I don’t know who that woman is,” Dae said. “Is she my mother, the one who abandoned me to the mercy of a Butcher King? Is she Estella sur Korkin, the betrayer of my murdered father? Or is she some new creature, one with a life almost wholly apart from my own? I almost want her to be my mother so that I can hate her and kill her and be done with carrying the anger that fills me every time I hear her name. But I don’t think things can ever be that simple.”

“Don’t kill her,” Nui said. “Promise me that.”

“What difference would a promise make?” Dae asked. “I have to be a monster from your perspective aren’t I? Why would you trust anything I said?”

“A monster would have killed her back in the hideout,” Nui said. “A monster is someone you can’t reason with. Someone who treats you as a thing instead of a person.”

“That’s one kind of monster,” Dae said. “But anyone can do monstrous things.”

“But you won’t,” Nui said. “You don’t hate my mother, you hate the memory of what happened. You had how powerless you were, and the people who made you feel like that. But you don’t hate her.”

“Maybe,” Dae said. “I knew this meeting was coming, but I never envisioned it like this. I never envisioned you either.”

“That could be why I can see things more clearly here than anyone else,” Nui said.

“Really?” Dae said, offering her sister an amused smile.

“I’ve known about you for years,” Nui said. “I’ve thought of a thousand possibilities for how we might meet. If nothing else had come up, I was going to petition to visit Gallagrin two years from now and see if I could find you in Highcrest.”

“That would have been an interesting meeting,” Dae said. “I think I’m glad we met under the circumstances we did.”

“Believe it or not, I considered that we might meet like that too,” Nui said. “I won’t say your reaction didn’t surprise me, but it wasn’t the farthest thing from what I’d imagined it might be. And I think it went a lot better than how mother thought it would.”

“That was better than she guessed it would be?” Dae asked.

“She grieved for you twice over,” Nui said. “Once when she fled your country and again when she learned that you were alive because she believed you would never forgive her for what she’d done. Her visions of you were of someone who would hurt her in every way possible. The you she encountered tonight is possibly a kinder person than she ever imagined you could be.”

“Perhaps both my mother and her daughter are dead then,” Dae said. “I’m far from the girl she knew, and I don’t know if she was ever the mother I saw her to be.”

“Then maybe you can both begin as new people to one another,” Nui said.

“I might be able to manage that,” Dae said.

“And I’d still like you to promise not to kill her,” Nui said.

“I might be able to manage that too,” Dae said.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 24

Alari knew that she was walking into a trap. In fact, she knew that she was walking into more than one. As she stepped into the God’s Hall and felt the ancient magics which governed the aerial palace of the slumbering divines, she could feel the skeins of fate shifting and knotting in her wake. Power woven by the will of the creators of the Blessed Realms surrounded and infused her. Within the confines of the God’s Hall she was safer than she was anywhere else in the world. The insurmountable will of the divine insured that. That didn’t mean that she was safe though.

Alari had arrived at the most peaceful hall in all the world with the fires of war burning in her soul and the certain knowledge that her adversary held that goal in common with her. Two queens of the Blessed Realms were entering a sacred realm and neither had any intention of allowing the other to leave with their crown, or ideally their lives, intact.

“The sun will finishing setting in a few minutes,” Alari said to the crew of the sky carriage that had ferried her to the God’s Hall. “You will need to cast off and return for us when you see the signal fire lit.”

Only at certain times of the day were people allowed to approach the God’s Hall and if the sky carriage tried to remain, or if anyone else tried to disembark they would wake a wrath that no earthly creature could withstand.

“We understand your majesty,” General Karlin Limli said. “Though I do wish we could send some form of guard with you.”

“Here, we must tread alone,” Alari said. “As must Haldri Paxmer.”

The queen of Gallagrin shivered. The magics of the God’s Hall meant that each of the queens was safe from the other, but Alari wasn’t sure if even the gods would refuse her the wrath she felt and what she would do if their peace was suspended for even an instant.

“The signal fire of Paxmer is lit already Your Majesty,” Admiral Yonda Kemere said. “She’s waiting for you.”

“Yes, she is,” Alari said. It was rare for any of the rulers of the Blessed Realms to meet directly. Correspondence was common, but it was delivered by ambassadorial couriers. Outside of the God’s Hall monarchs of the realms preferred to avoid the company of their equals. In the eyes of the royalty, only other royals were seen as legitimate threats. In that sense, Alari felt she held the advantage. She knew that despite the powers bestowed upon the monarchs of the Blessed Realms, there were still so many things that could hurt or destroy them.

“If you need us, signal early and we’ll come,” Limli said. Despite their differences, his face was lined with concern. There was trust and respect there, but also concern for the safety of someone he had sworn to protect and concern for the safety of a realm he’d spent his life shepherding to a better state. If Alari’s gambit failed, the best scenario Gallagrin could look forward to would be a far more protracted civil war than the one between Alari and her father. There were countless worse outcomes than that though and Limli looked to be actively repressing those from his thoughts.

“If we need you early, something cataclysmic will have occurred and we doubt all the armies of Gallagrin could save us then,” Alari said and turned to walk into the Hall of Celestial Mediation.

The room was vast, it’s borders extending beyond the physical limitation of the outer hall. Hints of architecture remained from whatever original building had been uplifted into the sky and sanctified by the gods for there work. Here a half-transparent pillar of white marble carved with a  thousand prayers to the absent gods. There the hint of a great dome, arching above the room and fading away to reveal the majesty of a sky filled with more stars than even the heavens could hold at one time.

When the gods had constructed their meeting hall, they had gifted their mortals followers with a glimpse of the divine view of the cosmos and it never failed to take Alari’s breath away. Though the creators of the Blessed Realms slumbered in an eternal sleep, in the God’s Hall their presence still lived and breathed.

They had willed peace for all within the hall, but Alari’s long delayed rage refused to be blown out completely. The flames of her anger offered no more light than a single matchstick but that was all she needed to illuminate the path before her.

“Gallagrin, you’ve arrived.” Haldri Paxmer was seated on the throne of her realm. The true throne of Paxmer, where the kings and queens who ruled it came at the conclusion of their coronation ceremony to receive the lingering blessing of their realms creator. The thrones within their castles were only pale imitation of their proper seats as monarchs of the world.

“Paxmer,” Alari said, taking a seat upon her own throne. “Were you waiting long?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Haldri said. “I enjoy the solitude.”

Alari returned Haldri’s smile. They were in agreement as to the room being more enjoyable with the absence of the other.

“Busy social schedule?” Alari asked, thinking of how many generals and dragons Haldri must have spoken with in the last two weeks.

“The spring is coming,” Haldri said. “The long frost is thawing from my lands and leaving me with much to attend to.”

The winter when neither queen could move their forces en masse. Haldri clearly believed that the spring would be a red season rather than a green one. Alari’s plans however were blacker than that.

“Indeed,” Alari said. “And yet you were able to find time for this discussion. That’s wonderful. There is much that lies between us.”

“A queen must always listen to the needs of her realm,” Haldri said.

“And what has Paxmer spoken of to you?” Alari asked.

“I listen and I hear drums upon my borders,” Haldri said.

“And what song do these drum ring out?” Alari asked, amused at how direct Haldri was willing to be in discussing the build up of the Gallagrin Royal Army on Paxmer’s border.

“It is too early to say. They seem muffled, as though the orchestra was not yet in place,” Haldri said, revealing her awareness that the Royal Army was still in a gathering stage.

“If the drums are muffled, then perhaps they hold no song,” Alari said. “Not every gathering is a cause for song and celebration.”

“Or perhaps it’s that the players simply have farther to travel than than their conductor expected?”

Alari allowed a look of concern to flicker across her face. In less than an instant it was gone, but it didn’t escape Haldri’s eyes. The Gallagrin Royal Army was usually spread out across the country. Concentrating it on the Paxmer border did take time, and came with certain complications.

“And where do you suppose these traveling players might be journeying from?” Alari asked. She held no illusions that the movement of her troops were a secret to Haldri, but she was curious how much she could get the Paxmer queen to reveal.

“I suppose very little,” Haldri said. “Though I am curious as to what the cost of this performance will be. Transporting so many players so far is not without difficulty and danger.”

“Danger can be assessed in many degrees,” Alari said. “Perhaps the risks of travel are outweighed by the benefits opening up a new venue would bring.”

The risk of assault Paxmer with a less than sufficient force would, of course, be the annihilation of the army that was sent on the campaign.

“Perhaps,” Haldri said. “But there are only so many performers, and in enriching one area, all of the others are lessened. Especially if one must command one’s own performers out on a journey.”

Paxmer was Gallagrin’s most troublesome border, but Gallagrin’s other neighbors, Inchesso, Senkin and the Green Council were not without their own perils.

Alari watched as Haldri took a sip from the cup of tea that was resting on the arm of her throne. With a wave of her hand she called forth the Mundus Globe and beneath the two queens the floor turned transparent, revealing the blue sphere of their world beneath them.

It was only a projection, a magical image that could be manipulated by any of the royals who were present, but it looked real down to the tiniest leaf and detail. Haldri spun the globe and enlarged it under the western coastal border between Gallagrin and Paxmer was focused on. She left the globe in that position but made no additional comment. Even without words though, Haldri’s message was clear. She knew of the advance of the Gallagrin Royal Guard to the Paxmer border. Alari had ordered her troops to the coastal border area with Paxmer and their arrival had been read exactly as she hoped it would be.

The Paxmer queen knew that the troops that were massed on the border would be capable of a devastating invasion. It was one which would ultimately fail once Paxmer’s dragon forces were in play but in a short time, Gallagrin could inflict significant damage on Paxmer’s land and cities, and much worse (from Paxmer’s perspective) capture a great deal of wealth in the process.

Balanced against that was the fact that in moving Gallagrin’s forces to the south, Alari had left her northern and eastern borders more lightly defended that at any time during her or her father’s reign. If Inchesso, Senkin or the Green Council wished to invade, she had all but extended to them the invitation to do so.

“It seems as though the drums of Gallagrin are not the only band that is assembling to play,” Alari said, sliding the globe to the south to show the Paxmer provinces that were clustered around the border.

“And what does your realm whisper to you?” Haldri asked.

“It is hard to hear whispers over the thunder of the approaching storm,” Alari said, letting the globe drift over the rest of Paxmer following the routes that she knew Paxmer’s dragon armies were traveling as they assembled on the Paxmer side of the contested area.

“You believe a storm is gathering against you?” Haldri asked.

“I do not need to believe when eyes that I trust have reported seeing it,” Alari said, adding a small smile as though questioning whether Haldri had really believed that Gallagrin did not have as many spies in Paxmer as Paxmer had in Gallagrin.

“And that does not worry you?” Haldri asked, a frown wrinkling her lips.

“What is a storm besides gusts of meaningless wind and some tears from the sky,” Alari said. “If you prepare properly, even the worst of storms comes to nothing.”

“Lightning can kill quickly, and the rains can flood the land and kill slow,” Haldri said. “Against some storms there can be no preparation or defense.”

“I’ve often been advised of storms such as that, but I’ve yet to see one that lived up to its claim,” Alari said. “Perhaps they’ve all appeared stronger than they were.”

Dragons were creatures of pride, and Alari knew that the dragon queen was much the same. Small, goading insults weren’t going to make Haldri fly off into a foolish rage, but pecking and poking at the Paxmer queen’s defenses would nibble away tiny bits of her attention.

“It’s a pity you’re experience is so limited,” Haldri said. “It will be heartbreaking when you encounter a proper hurricane.”

“I have no fear of a broken heart,” Alari said.

Her voice escaped her and crackled with shards of ice. The world thought the Queen of Gallagrin bereft from her Consort King’s betrayal, but for Alari that was one of the lesser wounds that she carried.

In her heart, Alari knew that the actions she took were done to benefit her realm and the people who were entrusted to her care, but that wasn’t the fire that drove her onwards.

She had never truly loved Halrek. Not deeply and without reservation. That space in her heart was claimed long before the Prince of Paxmer appeared in her life, and the distance she kept between them was enough, in the months that had passed, to cushion the blow of his betrayal somewhat.

She didn’t fight for revenge on him, she fought for someone who never got to be, and for the life that was denied to her. In honor of the princess who never was, she fought for all of Gallagrin, and for all the people who would never reach their cradle if Paxmer had its will done, but mostly she fought for that one small life that had been lost.


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 23

The problem with working through minions, Haldri decided, was that you had to refrain from letting your dragon eat them, even when they truly deserved such a fate.

“Gallagrin doesn’t breed idiots,” she said, turning a knife over in one hand.

“I’m pleased you think so,” Duchess Sanli said. She was reading through another stack of papers that had been forwarded to her. Haldri marveled at how well the Duchess could manage her resources remotely. It spoke to a great deal of trust between master and underling.

As with most such displays of trust though, it was horribly misplaced on the part of the weaker parties. Sanli was a generous overlord but she knew the value of sacrifice, most especially the sacrifice of others to attain one’s goal. In the conflagration to come between Paxmer and Gallagrin, Sanli was poised to burn away her ties to falling Gallagrin and embrace her role of advisor within the rising court of Paxmer. She was intelligent and pragmatic enough to see that it was the only sensible course of action. Unlike Baron Gedli who was proving to be a disappointment.

“We can only conclude that the idiot Gedli is trying to goad us into an ill considered offensive,” Haldri said. Her grip on the knife’s hilt left fingerprint impressions in its steel surface.

“You underestimate the force of the impression you made upon him,” Sanli said. “He left here firmly a creature at your command, whatever his official loyalties might be.”

“He all but declared that aloud,” Haldri said. “And yet not a week later and there are reports that he is fortifying the border with five times the troops which he had before coming here.”

“Five times or fifty times, it won’t matter,” Sanli said. “It is not with armies that the usurper queen will be cast down.”

“Alari Gallagrin doesn’t worry me,” Haldri said. “She lives in her father’s shadow and struggles too much to escape it.”

“Then why the concern over the troop build up?” Sanli asked.

“You’ve claimed that Gallagrin is at heart a simple woman,” Haldri said. “She seeks to redress the harm inflicted by the Butcher King directly to the people who suffered the most under his reign.”

“That seems to be the limit of her imagination, yes,” Sanli said. “She has focused her energy on restoring the provinces which were the most damaged by the war against her father, whether or not those areas were allied with her or not.”

“She’s done this despite the resistance from her own court, and despite the fact that it is senseless and will cause her immense harm in the future when her enemies regain the power to strike back at her,” Haldri said.

“She’s young and naive,” Sanli said. “Just as a princess who was sheltered from the world for most of her life would be.”

“That simplicity suggests that her current actions may be simple as well,” Haldri said. “The easiest use of an army on the border is to have them begin marching over it.”

“Invasion?” Sanli asked. “That would be madness. No army has ever invaded Paxmer and returned to tell the tale.”

“Her father was a mad king,” Haldri said. “Perhaps his daughter longs to become the Butcher Queen?”

“From every speech she’s given, that seems to be the last objective on her mind,” Sanli said. “It seems, in fact, to be what she is striving the hardest to avoid.”

“She may say she wants peace, but her actions speak of war,” Haldri said. “Selling my brother to the Inchesso in pieces leaves little question as to her feelings.”

“An invasion would serve no purpose though,” Sanli said. “Even if they could capture a major city, it would still be accessible by your dragons. Any forces they tried to place in the city’s defense would be crushed. All that a venture like that would earn her is the hatred of her people and the delivery of somewhat damaged weapons and armor into your hands.”

“Gallagrin doesn’t breed idiots,” Haldri said. “So she is aware of that as much you are. Which means her scheme is of a different design.”

“It seems you are correct that it is her scheme at least,” Sanli said, fishing out a report from the middle of the pile she was perusing. “This may not be a full reprieve for Gedli, but it looks as though the troops that are building up on his side of the border were ordered there by Faen Kemoral.”

“The commander of the Gallagrin Royal Guard?” Haldri asked.

“The same, and a loyalist to the queen,” Sanli said. “If he gave the order then it originated with her.”

“Tell me, does Alari Gallagrin believe in myths and fairy tales?” Haldri asked.

“She seems to believe that the common people are good and worthy of her concern,” Sanli said. “So, yes, I’d say she’s childish enough to still cherish that sort of story.”

“And would you spend the lives of several thousand soldier following one?” Haldri asked.

“That seems less likely,” Sanli said. “Her victory against her father was delayed by weeks because she refused to spend the lives of her troops to secure an early victory when the opportunities presented themselves.”

“Interesting. That gives us a lens to measure her through,” Haldri said. “If she prefers to play the long and certain game, then any action she takes now is because she believes the reward is overwhelming or the risk of not taking action is unbearable.”

“From a first glance it appears that an invasion of Paxmer would be just the reverse; no reward to be gained, and an overwhelming risk of failure the moment they set foot on Paxmer’s soil. But you have a report that suggests differently I take it?”

“A Sunlost warship, the Fearless, was sunk not far off the coast of Windsmer recently,” Haldri said.

“Weather was not to blame, I presume?” Sanli said.

“The skies were clear, according to the reports,” Haldri said. “The first fascinating thing about the sinking was that the Fearless was in battle against Paxmer ships when it sank, but each of my captains has sworn that they were not the one to bring the Fearless down.”

“Then who did?” Sanli asked. “And what is the second fascinating thing about the sinking?”

“The answers to both of those questions are the same, we believe,” Haldri said. “Our spies in Gallagrin report that your queen dispatched three of her personal guard to attend to a task, and they were seen leaving by a sky carriage bound for the coast.”

“What connects them to the ship sinking?” Sanli asked.

“Three women from Gallagrin boarded the Fearless before it set sail in pursuit of my ships,” Haldri said.

“Why would the Gallagrin queen’s guard sink a Sunlost ship that was in combat with Paxmer vessels?” Sanli asked. “That sounds hopelessly tangled.”

“We don’t believe they had a choice,” Haldri said. “Dragon riders were boarding the Fearless after their mounts paralyzed everyone onboard.”

“The Queen’s Guard shouldn’t have been able to act at all in that case,” Sanli said.

“No they shouldn’t, unless they’ve developed some new magics,” Haldri said. “These are, presumably, the three most powerful Pact Knights in the realm.”

“Powerful enough to shrug off dragon fear?” Sanli asked. “I haven’t heard reports of anyone that strong in court. Even the Queen’s Knight isn’t that powerful.”

“From the extent of the destruction, it seems more like a desperate ploy than a casual ability,” Haldri said. “But it is still worrisome. There is something in Paxmer which Alari Gallagrin wants badly enough to spend her prized guards on and then thousands of soldiers.”

“My contacts in the palace may be able to provide clues as to the sort of mission the Queen’s Guard were engaged in before they drowned,” Sanli said. “This feels like a bold play for her though.”

“Indeed, it’s possible that she’ll stumble into her own undoing with no help from us,” Haldri said. “But to be safe, we wish to make sure our plans are in place to guarantee that stumble.”

“If the transportation guild master can fulfill the promises she’s made, we should be ready to put things in motion within two weeks,” Sanli said.

“We will set the date for the peace negotiations as two weeks from today then,” Haldri said.

“If all goes according to plan, you will be with her in the God’s Hall when she is deposed,” Sanli said. “What will you do with the former queen of Gallagrin once the lingering divine protection of royalty no longer applies to her?”

“It’s a tempting idea to pitch her from the top of the battlements,” Haldri said. “The idea of listening to her scream and knowing that she will see her fate coming and be helpless to prevent it is a delicious one. The only drawback is that it’s such a brief entertainment. A few moments of terror and then oblivion. We can engineer a much more prolonged passing if we bring her back with us, which we expect we shall.”

“How will you convince her to meet with you at all though?” Sanli asked. “As you’ve said, she’s not an idiot. She’ll suspect a trap, even in the God’s Hall.”

“If we are correct, she’s already convinced herself to come,” Haldri said. “She is planning some action against Paxmer and she believes she holds the initiative. She will want us outside of Paxmer so that our forces cannot react as quickly to stop her advance.”

“Can your seneschals handle defending against a Gallagrin assault in your absence?” Sanli asked.

“Haldraxan can,” Haldri said.

“What plans will she have for him then?” Sanli asked.

“Useless ones,” Haldri said. “Haldraxan cannot be planned for, anymore than an earthquake or a maelstrom can be.”

“He has been a cornerstone of Paxmer for generations,” Sanli said. “But if he takes to the battlefield he may still be snared in some unexpected stratagem.”

“With his centuries of experience, there is very little which Gallagrin can throw at my Dragon King that would prove to be unexpected, and nothing at all that would be effective,” Haldri said. “His scales are so thick and his mind so sharp that he has no weak points for a Gallagrin assault to penetrate.”

“If Haldraxan is proof against assault then there seems to be even less reason to worry about an invasion,” Sanli said. “And even more reason to suspect a trap.”

“I am certain that there is a trap being laid here,” Haldri said. “But Gallagrin is unfamiliar with traps and treachery. Her idea of subtlety seems to send a small group in and then follow it with an army so that we will mistake the threat she poses to us. Both of those efforts are clearly a distraction though.”

“I agree,” Sanli said. “If Gallagrin troops march into Paxmer, they either already possess a means of tipping the balance against you, which is impossible with the might of a dragon like Haldraxan to support you, or, more likely I imagine, they believe that one can be found here.”

“That is what I would like you to focus on Duchess,” Haldri said.

“You want me to find out what it is they’re looking for, and how close they believe they are?” Sanli said. “That’s a secret the queen is likely to guard closely.”

“When it was a mission for her trusted Guard, we believe you were correct,” Haldri said. “If she has turned to the Royal army to fulfill her objectives though, more will have been brought in on the secret.”

“She’ll limit the full details to her trusted staff, but, yes, there should be room to work there,” Sanli said. “With the right form of persuasion, I should be able to procure that information for you.”

“Two weeks from now, a new era will begin for Gallagrin,” Haldri said.

“Two weeks from now, a new era will begin for Paxmer,” Sanli said. “And you will go down in history as the one who ended the mad reign of Gallagrin’s first monarchy.”

“What we do will echo far beyond our reign,” Haldri said. “We will be the first monarch to depose the monarch of another country. Once that is proven to be possible, it will be on Inchesso’s shoulders to decide whether they will join us as a vassel state, or be destroyed.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 22

For someone who’d considered themselves alone in the world for over half a decade, Dae found the growing number of family members confronting her an unexpected and unpleasant sensation.

“I don’t have any sisters,” Dae said, looking the girl before her up and down.

The girl stood beside her mother, arms bent and her balance distributed in good form to dodge or lunge forward. Someone had trained her in at least basic fighting principals.

In support of the girl’s claim, there were a few familial feature that tied them together as well. Their cheekbones and eyes were cast from the same mold and Dae’d seen the frown that the girl wore more than a few times when a mirror was nearby.

The girl lacked Dae’s muscle tone though and she was shorter by half a head. Strangely, it was the girl’s fingers that caught Dae’s primary attention however. They were slender and twitched with an agitated grace that Dae had only seen in Sunlost glamor casters.

“That’s technically true,” Estella said. “Nuilynne is your half sister. You are both my daughters.”

Dae did the simple math of considering when Estella had fled to Paxmer compared to Nui’s apparent age. The girl was in her middle teenage years somewhere. Sixteen perhaps. That would place her birth several years after Estella left Gallagrin. Several years after Phob Korli’s death.

“Who was her father,” Dae asked, knowing that the answer didn’t make any difference in at all, but wanting to know all the same.

“The former leader of this resistance cell,” Estella said.

“A Sunlost ex-pat was leading the Paxmer resistance?” Dae asked, reasoning that Nui’s Sunlost features had to come from somewhere, as did her glamor casting.

“Paxmer has never been a pleasant neighbor to anyone,” Estella said. “Nui’s father lost his first wife to Haldri’s pet, so he was uniquely motivated to aid the cause of Paxmer’s liberation by sharing Sunlost’s powers.”

“And that’s why you’re here?” Dae asked. “To liberate Paxmer?”

“Of course not,” Estella said. “Liberation from the reign of the dragons is not within our grasp. Not yet at any rate. The resistance exists to protect the resources and personnel that will be needed when the current King or Queen has grown weak enough that they can be deposed.”

“How will the future be any different than today?” Dae asked.

“Nothing lasts forever in this world,” Estella said. “After centuries of rule, the Paxmer throne shows the cracks of age starting to form already. In another few generations the one who sits on the throne will be too weak to call the dragons to support them. That is when we’ll strike.”

“And until then you’ll horde wealth and build power?” Dae asked. “You think like a dragon.”

“No, she thinks reasonably,” Nui said. “You live a nice life in your fancy castle with nothing to worry about. You haven’t seen a dragon, you don’t know what they’re like. You can’t fight them. You can’t even resist them. The only choice we have is to weaken them over a long time, and then strike when they’re brought low.”

“Dragons are beasts of magic,” Dae said. “They’re never going to weaken with age. That’s what makes them so powerful. Age only makes them stronger, like Pact Spirits.”

“Dragons are nothing like your Pact Spirits,” Nui said. “You think you’re mighty because you’ve got that bloody blade, and the armor that you can summon, but you’re still just a human.”

“No, she is more than just a human,” Estella said to Nui and then turned back to Dae. “I never dreamed they would make you a Pact Knight. I thought that honor was reserved only for those controlled by the monarchy.”

“Sathe was not the only royal within the palace,” Dae said.

“And now you are champion to the queen?” Estella asked, eyeing her daughter with curiosity.

“It is a change of title only, my duty is the same as it ever was,” Dae said.

“And what duty compels you to venture into this country?” Estella asked. “You spoke of a ‘retrieval mission’ I believe?”

“We’re here on orders to seek out an artifact,” Dae said. “My queen sent us to look for a mythical object from before the gods entered their slumber. It’s supposed to allow the wearer to command Pact spirit’s directly.”

“Command them how?” Estella asked.

“What the wearer thinks, they’ll do,” Dae said. “It compels absolute loyalty, above and beyond the control of the host the spirit is bonded to. Whatever the Pact Spirit is capable of, the wearer can command them to do, regardless of the cost the entails for the person the spirit is bonded to, even up to their death.”

“That sort of control is impossible though, isn’t it?” Estella asked.

“It’s supposed to be, but the gods did all sorts of impossible things while they were awake, didn’t they?” Dae asked.

“Why would something like that be in Paxmer?” Nui asked.

“Because it was meant for the monarch of Gallagrin to protect them from uprisings but the courtiers at the time weren’t fond of their liege holding that kind of power over them so they stole it and things went horribly wrong as they generally do,” Dae said.

“If Queen Haldri gained that sort of power…” Estella trailed off, the expression on her face shifting ever more horrified as she imagined what the outcome would be.

“If she had that sort of power, then no army in Gallagrin could stand against her,” Dae said. “Only it’s worse than that.”

“What would be worse than that from your perspective?” Estella asked.

“Haldri wouldn’t stop with Gallagrin,” Dae said. “With power over both dragons and Pact Knights, Haldri could expand outward, like Paxmer has always wanted. Inchesso would be the first to fall, followed by Senkin perhaps? Or maybe she’d sail out and wage war on the Sunlost Isles?”

“That would be strategically insane,” Estella said. “Paxmer could never hold all that land, even if they could win it by force.”

“They wouldn’t need to hold it themselves,” Mayleena said, piping up from under her veil. “They are risking dragons on their sea voyages, they have plenty to spare I believe.”

“How would they have plenty of dragons?” Nui asked. “In a war against the Blessed Realms each side is likely to lose things that were irreplaceable.”

“When do you think was the last time Haldri of Paxmer counted anyone beside herself as being irreplaceable?” Dae asked.

“You’re right,” Estella said. “Dragon births are rare, but that’s not because of the dragon’s life cycle, but rather their wishes. There are tempering cycles the creatures are put through even while they are within the egg. Since dragons do not like to share their wealth or territory, many will ensure that the tempering cycle is set to allow only impossibly tough offspring to arise with the rest being reduced to ash.”

“But if they decide that quantity is more important than quality then they can adjust their tempering down a notch and have more dragons than they could ever hope to raise to adulthood.” Dae said.

“Which wouldn’t be a problem because the weakling dragons would just be sent to the front lines to die anyways,” Nui said. Dae heard herself in the girl’s words and noticed that it was a trait they’d both inherited from their mother. Her distaste at the thought was something she decided to deal with later though.

“That’s what may come to pass in the future,” Dae said. “At the moment we have a more important issue to consider.”

“Would that be ‘getting out of this city’?” Jyl asked. “Cause I’d really like to get out of here before the dragons decide to eat us.”

“As luck would have it,” Estella said. “We have been discussing how to pass out of city unseen for the last several days.”

“You are natives of Paxmer. Are you not free to travel within it’s borders as you wish?” Mayleena said.

“Yes and no,” Zana, their dwarven guide, said. “With the proper papers you can go wherever you like, but you still have to pay taxes to each town and duchy that you pass through.”

“We can handle paying for our passage,” Jyl said.

“Perhaps, but you’d be scrutinized at each checkpoint,” Zana said. “Are you sure you want to attract that kind of attention?”

“It’s worse than that,” Nui said. “You’re foreigners so they’ll fleece you for everything you have at the first checkpoint and then the second one will clap you in chains and sell you to a debtors prison.”

“Surprisingly they have that covered,” Zana said. “Their travel papers grant them the duke’s protection.”

“How did you arrange for that?” Estella asked.

“We forged it,” Jyl said. “Amazing what the harbormaster leaves lying around in his office under only a half dozens locks or so.”

“That’s daring, but potentially fatal if you are caught,” Estella said.

“If we’re caught, they’re going to try to kill us whatever we do or say,” Dae said. “The ducal protection is really more for their benefit than ours.”

“They will do much worse than kill you if you are caught my daughter,” Estella said. “Queen Haldri feeds her captives to her pet dragon, but only after their are destroyed by dragon fear.”

“I know,” Dae said.

“No, you don’t,” Nui said. “If you knew what Haldraxan was like, you would never have come here.”

“I know what dragon fear is like,” Dae said.

“You can’t,” Nui said. “I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it. My father…” Her words stumbled to a halt.

After a moment, Estella spoke.

“It was a public execution. They had no idea that my second husband was connected to Nui or I, otherwise we would have shared his fate.” she said.

Dae thought back to when she was sixteen. To the pain that lingered from watching her father’s hanging. She and Nui had more in common than they ever should have she decided.

“I have faced dragon fear,” she said. “And it broke me. Even with the full power of my Pact Spirit, I couldn’t stand against it. I spent years thinking about that.”

Nui looked up, her glassy eyes focused on Dae.

“I faced it again on the sea as we traveled here. With a more powerful pact bond to draw on. And I was still helpless before it.”

Dae looked at her sister to see if the girl understood what she was saying. There was no condemnation of Nui’s father in Dae’s heart. Dragon fear was more than just being afraid. It was a magic that reached inside you and forced terror into your bones.

“I know what Haldraxan and the others of its ilk are capable of, I know what it will do to me if I have to face one of them again,” Dae said. “But that’s not going to stop me.”

“Why?” Nui asked. “Why would you care so much about the country that killed your father?”

“I don’t,”  Dae said. “Gallagrin holds my loyalty for one reason only.”

“The Queen,” Estella said, understanding lighting up her eyes. “You love her?”

“Forever,” Dae said.

“That’s not going to be enough to fight against the dragons,” Nui said. “Nothing is.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Dae said. “I don’t mean to fight them. I mean to destroy them.”

“You intend to use the relic yourself?”

“Haldri’s dragons are used to shattering their opponents with the sheer magical might of their aura,” Dae said. “I don’t think they’re ready for what will happen if the Pact Soldiers and Knights who stand against them are driven by a compulsion that cannot feel fear.”

“You would unleash an army of bersekers bent to your will upon Paxmer?” Mayleena asked.

“They tried to kill her. Haldri Paxmer was as much a part of the plan last fall as her brother was,” Dae said. “So yes, I would unleash every form of hell on that monster, and I would do it with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart.”

“Life has not been kind to you,” Estella said. “Nor have I.”

“Life gave me Alari,” Dae said. “It’s been kind enough.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 21

Dae knew that holding a blade to her mother’s throat wasn’t going to produce the stable, calm environment necessary for the delicate negotiations between the Queen’s Guards and the Paxmer Resistance. She also knew that no one in the room, even including Mayleena or the glamor caster were going to be fast enough to stop her from claiming a vengeance that had been due for twenty years.

“Lady Estella sur Korkin, you are charged with betrayal, treason and murder,” Dae said, marveling at how even her voice sounded.

Alari had claimed their plan needed Lady sur Korkin’s support, and that was before anyone in Gallagrin knew that Dae’s mother was also the leader of the Windsmer cell of the Paxmer Resistance. Politically and strategically Lady Estella’s worth was incalculable. Dae knew that the lives she held in balance against that worth, the long lost life of her father, and her own near-forfeit existence didn’t amount to enough to sway the balance into the negative and condemn the Paxmer woman’s life. That didn’t change the fact that a reckoning was owed and that, as the last of the Korli family, it fell to Dae to collect what was due.

The rest of the people in the chamber, for quite understandable reasons, did not share Dae’s particular view on the matter.

To their credit, Jyl and Mayleena both turned and placed their backs to Dae’s. At the same moment, the remaining glamors fell away, revealing that the small and empty cavern they’d been escorted to was neither small nor empty.

What had looked to be natural stone when they arrived was revealed to be a worked chamber with walls that were heavily decorated with enchanted glyphs and sigils.

Beyond the illusory wall stood roughly a dozen armed resistance fighters. Half of them had bows drawn but had been taken by surprise by Dae’s lightning quick advance on their leader. Poor form for guards waiting in ambush, but no one from Paxmer had access to the sort of personal enhancement magics that Dae and the other Pact Knights did.

Part of Dae’s mind wanted to spare a glance at the forces arrayed against them. Whatever sort of battle occurred, it wouldn’t be a pretty affair, and the aftermath would be worse. With proper leadership, the Queen’s Guard could limit the number and severity of the casualties they would need to inflict to escape the Resistance’s hidden chamber. Without it, there might not be anything left of the Windsmer Resistance by the time the next day dawned.

That sort of rational thought was able to gain little ground against the overwhelming thunder that rose from Dae’s long buried memories though.

Before anyone (other than Dae) had the opportunity to do anything foolish though, Estella raised her hand in a gesture of command, bidding her troops to hold where they were.

“So far this has gone better than I imagined it would if this meeting were ever to occur,” Estella said. “Shall I answer your charges, or did you present them so that I would carry the words with me to the grave?”

“This isn’t a trial,” Dae said. “I already know that you’re guilty, but you can answer them if you wish. Fair warning though, if you begin to lie you won’t finish the first word before you head is parted from your shoulders.”

Dae didn’t touch her blade to her mother’s throat. It was too sharp and too hungry for that sort of display. From a hair’s breadth away though, Dae knew that Lady Estella could feel the animosity the weapon carried and since there was no doubt in Dae’s mind that she would follow through on her words she was sure Estella could see the sincerity in her eyes too.

“You lay betrayal, treason and murder before me,” Estella said. There was a softness in her voice that Dae couldn’t place or understand. “In each of those there is truth, and in each of those there is a lie.”

“Where is the lie?” Dae asked. “I know you betrayed Duke Phob Korkin. You conspired against the crown of Gallagrin and, when you fled, he bore your guilt to the gallows. Your hand was hundreds of miles distant but it was the one which left him dangling from the hangman’s noose, gasping for a breath that would never come.”

“That is the truth,” Estella said. “I fled and your father died, and I have carried the weight of that for two decades.”

“You’ve carried nothing,” Dae said. “You weren’t there. You weren’t forced to watch him dance at the end of a rope. You didn’t see how long it took. How much he suffered. You weren’t there!”

Dae didn’t mean to draw blood, not yet, but a thin scarlet line marred Lady Estella’s otherwise beautiful light brown skin. Dae pulled back, struggling to keep control of herself, but Lady Estella didn’t flinch.

“I wasn’t,” Lady Estella said. “Maybe in the end that’s the only truth that matters, but there is more to the story than I believe you know.”

“There’s always more to every story,” Dae said. “But that doesn’t necessarily change anything.”

“Yes, not necessarily,” Estella said. “But you should still hear the full tale.”

“Go on then,” Dae said. She didn’t want to listen but she knew she had to. It was too easy for let herself believe that her mother had some saintly reason for what she did, it was what the eight year old Dae had wished for more than anything. With the benefit of two decades worth of experience, Dae had learned the value of cynicism but whether she believed her mother’s words or not she knew she still needed to hear them.

“I was a traitor to Gallagrin,” Estella said. “As was your father. And not just Gallagrin, but Paxmer as well.”

Dae nodded, not yet believing the claim but acknowledging that she’d heard Estella’s words. There was at least a kernel of truth in what her mother said, Dae had to acknowledge. Estella being a traitor to both kingdoms had the support of the situation they found themselves in since one didn’t just stumble into becoming the leader of a resistance faction against a group of nobles who controlled a horde of dragons.

“Our marriage was an arranged one,” Estella said. “At the time King Sathe was looking to forge alliances with his neighbors and was encouraging his lesser nobles to seek out marriage contracts with the sons and daughters of Paxmer, Senkin and Inchesso. I was an expendable younger daughter, so Phob and I were deemed a suitable match. On my eighteenth birthday I was packed off and sent to the mountains of Gallagrin, never to be heard from again I suspected at the time.”

“What happened?” Dae asked. Her early memories of her mother were spoiled by the later ones, but she remembered some moments of laughter before all the tears.

“What often happens with two young people who are placed close together,” Estella said. “It wasn’t love at first, but the Korli estates were more appealing than I imagined they’d be, and Phob was surprisingly gentle and warm. And, attractive in his own manner, once I grew to appreciate Gallagrin features.”

“So you loved him once?” Dae asked, not seeing how either answer would change things.

“I love him still,” Estella said. “He was, in my eyes, the best of Gallagrin.”

“And yet you left him,” Dae said. It had never made sense to her, the wordless abandoning of family and country. That there’d been no final goodbye, no parting gesture.

“I left Gallagrin,” Estella said. “Which given the state of the country at the time I think I can be forgiven for. And I left you, which may be unforgivable.”

“Why,” Dae asked. “Why did you leave?”

“Your father and I were part of an organization which sought the downfall of both kingdoms,” Estella said. “When the Gods entered their eternal slumber they took more than their power with them. They took their guidance and their voice away. Centuries ago, the kings and queens of the land ruled by virtue of the wisdom the Gods bestowed on them. Their descendants do not wield those insights and so we are left with monsters like the Butcher King or Haldri Paxmer.”

“So you took the fight to Paxmer while he stayed behind in Gallagrin?” Dae asked. Another question burned on her lips but she couldn’t find the will or courage to ask it.

“No! Gods no!” Estella said. “I had no position in Paxmer to work from and we were a team, your father and I. I left because I was discovered. By Sathe’s minions. They found me in a meeting with Duchess Bonli who had already been declared a traitor to the realm. I fled from them and ran to the one place I knew Sathe’s long arm couldn’t reach.”

“Your home in Paxmer,” Dae said. She didn’t want to believe her mother’s words. They were like the echo of a dream and while they touched the eight year old who woke to find herself without a mother one day, they did nothing to sop up the pain that had followed.

“By that time, Sathe’s policy on inter-kingdom relations had changed drastically,” Estella said. “It wasn’t difficult to convince my remaining family that the Butcher King was going to slaughter me.”

“Did you even think to warn my father about what had happened?” Dae asked. “Or did you just settle in here and try to forget him.”

“I couldn’t communicate with him,” Estella said. “His only hope was to denounce me as a traitor and an unfaithful wife. If he’d laid the blame on me, Sathe might have spared him.”

“No, the Butcher was too far gone by then,” Dae said. “He spared no one who might be a threat.”

“So I learned,” Estella said. She was silent for a moment before adding. “They told me of Phob’s death, but no one knew what became of you. I prayed that you swung beside him.”

One of the Paxmer resistance fighters drew in a sharp breath at that, but Dae understood her mother’s words better than anyone else in the room.

“I should thank you for those prayers,” Dae said. “The fate Sathe gave to the children of traitors was far crueler than death.”

Handless, footless and eyeless, Sathe had sentenced the young of families he deemed guilty of treason to life in the mud, begging along the roadways to the capital. He called them the “worms of judgment” and believed they were the sort of incentive that would inspire other families to stay loyal. In that belief he had been proven very wrong.

“I learned that you lived, but only many years later,” Estella said. “When you were presented to the court after your Pact bonding, you wore the name Akorli. I couldn’t understand how you came by it.”

“The Queen, or princess at the time, gave me that name,” Dae said. “Her father had long since forgotten us, there was a mountain of corpses piled on top of Phob Korli by then and the Dukedom had been transferred to another family entirely. You could have returned and no one would have known your were a criminal.”

“After a decade?” Estella said. “After I left you behind? I dreamed of seeing you again every night after I learned you were still alive, but none of those dreams were as kind as this encounter.”

“So you were afraid?” Dae asked. “Afraid to face what you’d done?”

“Yes! I could think of no reason you would wish to see me again, and no manner in which I could improve your life,” Estella said. “Seeing you would have been a balm to my heart, but could have destroyed your life, the same as it destroyed Phob’s.”

“And after the Butcher King was put down?” Dae asked. She couldn’t imagine encountering her mother in the dark days that followed the Reunification of Gallagrin. Dae had been in so much pain then, she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have simply slain anyone who claimed to be her mother before they could get two additional words out of their mouth.

“By then it seemed too late,” Estella said. “I knew that Gallagrin’s intelligence network was aware of my public life, and the villa where I spent most of my time. I reasoned that if you wanted to seek me out, you would be capable of finding me.”

“And why did you think I would seek you out?” Dae asked.

“I hoped for so many things, but in the end I assumed the most likely reason would be for revenge,” Estella said. She was still and silent after that, as though she accepted the inevitability of the judgment against her.

Dae weighed her mother’s words. Lady sur Korkin’s words hung together and painted a compelling picture. Reason suggested they might be believable. Reason also suggested however that with twenty years to plan her story, a woman who had left her husband and daughter to die would probably come up with a story exactly that appealing.

Looking to her heart, Dae found a similar divide. Estella’s performance matched her words perfectly, but even so, the long ago betrayal whispered to Dae, asking her if she could trust someone who was proven to be a master of deception.

WIth neither her mind, nor her heart to follow, Dae turned to her faith. Not her faith in the Sleeping Gods, and not her faith in the woman standing before her. With nowhere else to turn, Dae looked for guidance in the faith Alari had shown her.

“Revenge won’t bring my father back,” Dae said and lowered her blade.

“No, it won’t,” Estella agreed, relief passing through her like a wave. Around the cavern, everyone else relaxed as well. “But there is someone you should meet.”

“Who?” Dae asked.

“She probably means me,” a young girl said, stepping forward from the ranks of the Paxmer resistance fighters. “Sister.”


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 20

Dae watched the Windsmer town guards leave and through a vast effort of will managed to avoid fainting into her drink. The stuff was terrible but spilling it would still have been a crime against nature.

“What did you just do?” Mayleena asked. She hadn’t reached forward to offer Dae any support but she was looking at Dae with the sort of cocked twist to her head that spoke of puzzlement and curiosity among most of the Mindful Races and many of the Blessed Realms animal species as well.

“Took a page from your book,” Dae said, fighting off a wave of vertigo that threatened to send her plummeting to the floor.

“We have never done whatever it was you just did,” Mayleena said, pulling back and tipping her head in the other direction.

“Let’s say you inspired me then,” Dae said. She pushed herself up to a position that disguised how close she was to collapsing and forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly. The patrons of the bar had more important matters to consider than one hooded woman who wasn’t an obvious threat, and so as far as Dae could see none of them were paying any attention to her or Mayleena. The city guard and the dragon that was nearby held the entirety of their interest.

“We do not know if we wish to inspire that kind of behavior,” Mayleena said. “It seemed unpleasant for you and for your prey.”

“You’re not wrong about that,” Dae said. “But it was effective, and tonight that’s what counts.”

“We suspect we’re glad you did not warn or consult us before frightening the guards like that,” Mayleena said. “You were close to truly losing control weren’t you?”

“That’s sort of my natural state,” Dae said. “Hasn’t happened yet though.”

A momentary vision of what the tavern would look like if a berserker was let loose inside it sent a chill rippling through Dae. She’d risked the gambit of emulating Mayleena’s disquieting aura knowing that it was dangerous but in hindsight she found herself questioning her own sanity. She knew Kirios well, they were a fantastic team, but even so he could overwhelm her if she ignored the limits of their pact bond. It wouldn’t be an act of malice on the spirit’s part either, no more than a river flooding was malicious if a dam on it was broken.

“How did you know the guards would respond as they did?” Mayleena asked. “Wasn’t it more likely that they would call their dragon for support?”

“If they hauled you outside, they were definitely going to call their dragon,” Dae said. “If they were smart they’d call all of the dragons in fact. So that risk was worth it, I think. In hindsight, I was gambling on their authority response being fear derived though.”

“Because they work with dragons?” Mayleena asked.

“Yeah,” Dae said. “They’re not subject to dragon fear, but fear is an inherent tool for dragons, and even if they can’t magically compel it in the guards, their sheer size and power means they can use the more natural forms of it to keep the people they work with in check. The guards are powerful too, you can see how nobody here actually opposed them, so some part of me figured out that the only thing they have to be afraid of are their bosses. Reverse that on them and their brains will accept anything they’re afraid of as their boss, so they complied.”

“And how long is that compliance likely to last?” Mayleena asked.

“Somewhere between ‘not very’ and ‘they’re already heading back here’, I’d guess,” Dae said. Across the room, she caught sight of Jyl standing and chatting with an unfamiliar dwarf. Jyl looked as though she wanted to follow the dwarf into the kitchen so Dae tapped Mayleena on the shoulder and the two of them pushed their way through the crowds to join their companion.

The dwarf lead them through the crowd that was alternately milling about trying to finish their last drinks or pushing to exit the tavern. Their path lead them in the opposite direction the crowd was moving, until they eventually reached the swinging door to the tavern’s kitchen area.

The tavern’s cooking space was smaller than Dae would have guessed it to be. Nothing more than a narrow hallways with a pair of large stoves built into the walls. There was a sink beyond the stoves which was piled high with the day’s unwashed dishes where a lone dishwasher struggled to make a dent on the tremendous tide. The cooks though were oddly absent.

In fact the whole kitchen was subtly wrong. The dishwasher had his hands in the water but he was spending too much time on a single dish as the dwarf lead them down the narrow area.

“This is a nice trap, how many people are behind the walls?” Dae asked.

“Fewer than I’d like,” the dwarf said. “But more than I should be risking, so let’s keep moving.”

“We are walking into a trap?” Mayleena asked.

“Yes, but apparently it’s not meant for us,” Dae said.

She didn’t voice her belief that there were multiple layers of trap in play and that the one the dwarf had in mind for them was simply more subtle and less violent than the one waiting in the “kitchen” for any interlopers who tried to follow them.

“I’ve got some presents for you,” Jyl said.

Dae studied the travel papers the young elf handed to her.

“What does Ducal Protection give us?” Dae asked, seeing the addendum and signet at the bottom of the small writ.

“I’m not sure,” Jyl said. “I only had a small stack of them to use for reference, and it looked like the pricy ones had that.”

“It means you’ve been fleeced by the Duke’s tax collectors already and bribed them well enough that the Duke wants to see you bring your business here more often,” Zana, the dwarf, said. “It’s not worth much, but it’d probably be enough to convince a dragon to ransom you rather than eat you if you got caught doing something stupid.”

At the far end of the kitchen, Zana opened a closet door, and rapped three times on the back wall. A moment later the slid away to reveal a ladder leading down into misty darkness.

“It’s a good thing we’d never do anything stupid then,” Dae said and followed Zana and Jyl down into the mists.

She’d expected to descend no more than a single level. They were close to the harbor so digging a basement that was too deep was likely to produce severe flooding problems. That didn’t seem to be a problem for the taverns architects though. They were a good three stories down before they reached their destination and the cavern they arrived in was as dry as it was empty.

“So let’s get the obvious things out in the open, shall we?” Zana said. “You’re spies. From Gallagrin.”

“And you’re working against the Paxmer Queen,” Dae said.

“Mostly correct,” Zana said. “It would be more accurate to say that we’re working against the existing Paxmer royalty, with the queen as our more direct opponent.”

“Fair enough,” Dae said. “Then in the interest of honest disclosure, it would be more accurate to say that we’re special operatives from Gallagrin, more than spies.”

“And what makes a special operative different from a spy?” Zana asked.

“You send a spy into a country to collect information,” Dae said. “Operatives have other mission objectives.”

“Other objectives like assassination?” Zana asked.

“If the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t be inclined to pass it by,” Dae said. “But this is more of a retrieval mission.”

“We’ve had contact with a few other…operatives, from Gallagrin,” Zana said. “Can you prove your words?”

“I can,” Dae said. “After you prove that you are a part of the Paxmer resistance.”
Zana slid her sleeve back and called a bright silver tattoo of a haloed dragon to appear on her forearm.

“We didn’t think you were still in Windsmer,” Dae said. “It looks like we should have sent a few more spies here in preparation for this mission.”

“We survive largely by being difficult to track down,” Zana said. “Now if you’ll be so kind?”

Dae nodded and transformed into her Pact Regalia. From her collar, she took the royal seal of office that she was able to incorporate into her armor following her promotion to Queen’s Knight.

“This isn’t the mark of a common operative,” Zana said.

“No. It’s not,” Dae said.

“I studied the heraldry of the realms when I was a little sprog,” Zana said. “Had a fascination with secret languages. Probably what led me to where I am today. Is this symbol what I think it is?”

“It carries a unique distinction,” Dae said.

Zana whistled.

“I thought we were in luck when I caught sight of the elf,” Zana said. “Is it true that your sword still drips royal blood?”

Dae pulled the sword that was conjured with her armor partially out of its sheath. The blade was coated in a thick, red liquid covering.

“One of the costs of slaying royalty, even treacherous, unworthy ones,” Dae said.

“Hard to move about unnoticed with that,” Zana said.

“If I draw this sword, I’m well past caring whether anyone will notice me,” Dae said.

“What happens if you kill another royal with it?” Zana asked.

“I don’t know,” Dae said. “There’s not much precedent for someone slaying multiple sitting kings or queens.”

“Royal blood burns with divine will,” Mayleena said. “Wet the sword with too much of it, and your blade will blaze with an unbearable light.”

“How do you know that?” Zana asked.

“Observation, I suspect,” Dae said, releasing her transformation. “As I said though, our mission is concerned less with slaughter and more with the retrieval of a particular item.”

“It would have to be an artifact of some significance to bring the Queen’s Knight of Gallagrin across the border into Paxmer?” Zana said.

“If Haldri Paxmer could lay her hands on an item like the one our queen spoke to us of, it would do more than change the balance of power between our nations, she could sweep through the Blessed Realms like an avalanche,” Dae said. “So, yes, our queen sent us to make sure that wasn’t allowed to happen.”

“That sounds well above what my people are equipped to deal with,” Zana said.

“Can you get us out of the city at least?” Jyl said. “Those dragons might be willing to ransom us if we’re caught, but I’d rather not be caught in the first place.”

“We would rather slay the dragons,” Mayleena said. “Though that would not be likely to end well for us.”

“Dragon fighting isn’t something for people outside this country to do,” Zana said. “The dragons are our curse and our responsibility.”

“If you can get us outside the city, we’ll be happy to let you handle the dragon here however you’d like,” Dae said. “We need to make for a contact who’s deeper inland.”

“Smuggling people out of the city is more difficult these days,” Zana said. “And before we do that, I think you need to speak to my commander. She needs to know of this, and I’m sure she’ll have information you can use.”

“Is she hiding down here?” Dae asked.

“Not hiding,” a woman said as she stepped through the solid wall at the far end the cavern. “Observing.”

“You know, I thought there was a glamor here, but I couldn’t find the seem,” Dae said.

“You are the Queen’s Knight?” the woman asked. “What is your given name?”

Dae looked at the woman and caught the ripple of a further glamor.

Glamors were Sunlost magic, and while it wasn’t in the least surprising to find Sunlost casters working to undermine Paxmer’s royalty, it was surprising to find so talented a glamor caster by happenstance.

“You were born to mixed parentage, weren’t you?” Dae asked.

“I am Paxmer born,” the woman said.

“No one from Paxmer could ever cast glamors that well, and no one from Sunlost could cast the glamor you’re wearing in a foreign land,” Dae said.

“You know much of Sunlost’s magic,” the woman said. The glamour covering her faded under Dae’s scrutiny until only a simple white mask obscured the woman’s true features.

“I had an eclectic education,” Dae said.

“Did you grow up in the castle at Highcrest?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Dae said. “From when I was eight. From the day my father was executed as a traitor.”

“You are Duke Phob Korli’s child?” the woman’s voice caught a strange hitch in the middle of her question.

“I am Daelynne Akorli, daughter of Duke Phob Korli.” Her father’s name felt strange on Dae’s tongue after so many years. “How do you know me?”

The glamor cracked and faded away, revealing a woman in her late forties. Though the years hadn’t been gentle, Dae recognized Estella sur Korkin’s face the moment she saw it.

“Mother,” she said, her bloody blade materializing in her hand.


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 19

Jyl managed to find her fellow members of the Queen’s Guard through a process of clever deduction. Her thought process went something like this; They need somewhere to go, it’s late, they’re foreigners, and I have their travel papers. Clearly, they’re at a tavern. Where else could people posing as sailors new in port blend in? It hasn’t been that long either, so the tavern’s probably still intact.

It wasn’t that Jyl knew Dae or Mayleena to be trouble makers, or likely to burn buildings down in their wake, but after the sinking of the Fearless and running into a trio of giant sea serpents, Jyl felt comfortable in assuming that their mission was under some kind of curse and that nothing was likely to go according to any of their original plans.

Armed with the guess that they’d be at a tavern, Jyl then followed a process of elimination that started and ended with “I’ll check the closest one” and ended with “Oh look, there they are!”

Instinct, more than deduction or cleverness, caused Jyl to pause before joining them. The crowd was loud and boisterous, a good celebratory revel for those who’d survived another voyage on the merciless seas. As Jyl listened though, the tenor of the celebration changed. Boasts and uproarious laughter quieted and were replaced by snarls and taunts.

With the skill of someone who’d practiced being unnoticed since childhood, Jyl shrank back, disappearing into the crowd around the bar. The servers were busy filling orders, but there was a hitch in their steps, as though they’d sense something was off with the world too.

“The Talons’ll be here soon,” a woman in the canvas overalls of dockworker said.

Jyl didn’t respond. There was no sense drawing attention to herself yet.

“You’ll want to vanish if you can little elf,” the woman said. “Even if they’re not here for you, the Talons won’t like finding a Gallagrin spy here.”

That caught Jyl’s full and undivided attention.

“They’re not going to care whether I am a spy or not I take it?” she asked, looking at the woman and searching for a sign of how much the woman knew of what was going on.

The dockworker was a dwarven woman, which complicated Jyl’s appraisal of her.  In Gallagrin, dwarves were a reasonable portion of the population, just not anywhere that Jyl had lived for long. By Jyl’s best guess, the dwarf was likely in her mid fifties, so just barely middle aged by dwarven standards, but the guess could have been twenty to thirty years short and Jyl would have easily believed it too.

The dwarf stood slightly taller than Jyl, in part because Jyl’s family naturally ran on the small side of elvish heights and because Jyl was short even by her family’s standards. Jyl always countered claims that her height was a disadvantage by pointing out that she packed more muscle per pound than anyone else in her family, including her brute of a sister. In that department she also came up short compared to the dwarven woman, whose light grey skin and thick solid muscles made her look like she’d been carved directly out of steel, rather than born to any earthly mother.

“Better safe than sensible, that’s the Talon’s philosophy,” the woman said, and shifted away from the bar to let someone else crowd in and get the server’s attention. In the process she also hid Jyl even better from the line of sight of the people entering the tavern.

Jyl peeked out as conversation slowed and quieted throughout the bar. In her gut, she felt a creeping terror take root and start to grow with alarming speed.

“Did they bring a dragon here?” Jyl said, forcing the words out through teeth that were starting to chatter together.

“There’ll be a rider overhead,” the dockworker said. “You can feel it already though? That’s impressive.”

“It’d be more impressive if I could stab the damn thing,” Jyl said.

“You’re not the first one to want to do that,” the dockworker said. “Or the only. My name’s not Zana. Who aren’t you?”

Jyl took a second to process that through the edge of dragon fear that was crowding into her thoughts. Whoever “not Zana” was, she at least recognized that Jyl wasn’t in a position under the best of circumstance to reveal information about herself. Names were still useful though.

“My name isn’t Jaan,” she said. Which was true, and had the advantage of being a name she was likely to react to and remember easily since people had been mistaking Jyl for her twin since they were born.

“We’re close enough to the kitchen, would you like to go visit my friend who cooks here?” Zana asked.

Jyl felt herself being split in half. Escape, at this point, was of utmost importance. She had the forged travel papers for the three Queen’s Guard. If she was caught with them and the papers were scrutinized too closely, Jyl was certain that the forgery would be spotted. She was an expert at slipping into places undetected, which had made breaking into the Harbor Master’s office blindingly easy. She was less practiced at forging perfect copies of someone’s handwriting, in the dark (since she couldn’t light a candle without risking being seen), in a foreign language (since the travel papers were all written in Old Paxmerese, rather than modern Realms Common) and under a time restriction (since she had minutes, not days to pull off the whole caper).

From the samples she’d had to work from it hadn’t appeared that there was anything special about the text of the papers and that the official seal that was pressed into the bottom was the most important identifying mark. Just because she didn’t know of anything important in the text though didn’t mean she was willing to gamble their lives on that assumption.

So she had to escape.

But she couldn’t leave Dae and Mayleena behind.

Zana, apparently being a frighteningly perceptive sort, noticed Jyl’s flinch of hesitation and the glance that she cast towards the table where Dae and Mayleena sat.

“Looks like we’re going to have a scene here after all,” Zana said. “It’s a shame, I liked this bar.”

“Will the dragon land if a fight starts?” Jyl asked. In her mind that was the worst case scenario since it meant paralysis and the elimination of any options for dealing with whatever was to come.

“They usually stay in the air,” Zana said. “The Talons are tough enough to take care of themselves. They didn’t need the dragons until a few months back.”

“Last fall?” Jyl asked.

“Around then,” Zana said.

Which would place their arrival shortly after the decapitation of the Consort-King. Jyl doubted it was a coincidence, but she had more immediate problems to resolve.

The Talons wore blood red armor adorned with worked pieces of bone in the shape of fangs, and claws and full skulls. There were an even half dozen of them who walked silently in through the door and as they passed through the crowd, silence descended.

“Thanks for the offer to see your friend the chef,” Jyl said. “If this goes poorly, I’ll forget it entirely.”

Jyl felt safe in making that promise as, if things went as poorly as they imagined they might, she was likely to be ashes blowing on the wind. Despite the paralysis that she felt creeping down into her fingers and toes though, Jyl was fairly certain she could wrestle a better fate for herself than that. The dragon fear was distant and if it approached she could hide. There was no ocean trapping her here after all, and while she didn’t want to abandon her companions, she for damn sure wasn’t going to throw her own life away when she could live and avenge them instead. It was what she would demand they do for her if their situation were reversed.

“If it goes well, I’ll remember that,” Zana said, and tugged her sleeve back to reveal a bare forearm. Or it appeared bare at first. As Jyl watched a silver tattoo rippled into existence and then vanished just the same. The tattoo had been the image of a dragon in flight but in place of horns on its head, there had been a halo.

Zana nodded to Jyl and pulled her sleeve back down.

Jyl, for her part, was bewildered. She’d never heard of magical tattoos in Gallagrin, and unlike Dae, she was unversed in the traditions of the other kingdoms.

Or at least mostly unversed. From what Jyl knew, the dragons of Paxmer were the partners of the Paxmer nobility (not property, even as an “ignorant Gallagrin savage”, Jyl knew the tales of people who’d mistaken dragons for property or pets, and those never ended well). What connection a dockhand might have with a dragon, or dragon cult, was something Jyl couldn’t begin to form a guess about.

She desperately wanted to turn the matter over to Dae, both to dump it on her superior officer and because Dae was the only one Jyl knew who might be able to make sense of what was going on.

Unfortunately Dae had problems of her own. Though she and Mayleena sat at one of the side bars and were heads down in their drinks, they still drew the Talons attention. That was likely Mayleena’s fault Jyl guessed. The daughter of the Telli clan had an aura that was arresting and unmistakable. Her veil did nothing to help her hide or distract attention from her. At best it insulated people from the worst edge of the disquiet she emanated if you didn’t know her well enough to see the woman underneath the magical aberration she’d become.

Jyl watched one of the two Talons reach out to grab Mayleena’s arm. The other Talons were harassing other patrons but Jyl saw how that was no more than a handful of seconds away from changing drastically. The destruction of the Fearless jumped into her mind with vivid clarity and Jyll paused a second to consider whether she was in the path of destruction that Mayleena was sure to unleash.

Surprisingly though, it wasn’t Mayleena who responded to the Talon.

Jyl was too far away to hear what was said, but she was close enough to see Dae’s features when the Queen’s Knight looked up from her drink and spoke to the Talons.

It wasn’t a woman speaking to the guards. It was an unrestrained Pact Spirit. Metal and fury twisted Dae’s features and the Queen’s Knight seemed to swell in both size and power. She spoke again and the Talon’s turned away, visibly shaken and confused.

Elsewhere in the tavern, the Talons rounded up a pair of the patrons and growled the rest out of their path as they led their quarry out of the tavern in conjured chains.

“Well, that was intriguing,” Zana said. “And unexpected. I didn’t know someone could do that.”

Turn into a Berserker at will? Jyl thought. Yes, we don’t tend to do that because now we’re all going to die.

Except when she looked back, Dae was not long an uncontrolled Pact Spirit. She was a normal, if very tired looking, woman.

What in the Sleeping Gods Hells did she just do? Jyl wondered.

“I would very much like you to come meet my friend the cook,” Zana said. “I believe we have concerns that are closely related.”

“That sounds like an invitation I may not be allowed to pass up?” Jyl asked, wondering if there was an implied threat lurking under Zana’s words.

“If this is a bad time, then we can arrange for some other appointment,” Zana said.

Dae finally looked over and saw Jyl speaking with an unfamiliar dwarf. She tilted her head as an open ended question for Jyl. Jyl replied by shifting her gaze to the kitchen door and then shrugging, asking wordlessly if it was ok to follow the lead Zana offered. Dae nodded and tapped Mayleena on the shoulder, who rose from her seat in response to the prompt.

“I think now will do just fine,” Jyl said. “But I may need to invite some guests.”

“The more, the deadlier,” Zana said. “And in this case, that’s a good thing.”


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 18

Alari sat in her Sunrise Garden and watched the early blooming flowers stubbornly refusing the call of the impending spring. They’d been planted with an exact plan in mind for when the petals would unfold so that each day would see a new color added to the garden as the day began. With the sun full over the horizon however there was still nothing more to see in the garden than the brown branches of the bushes and the black loam they’d been planted in.

During her father’s reign, a similar mistake on the gardener’s part would have resulted in the garden being decorated in a festive shade of blood red. Which by afternoon would have faded to a dried blood brown and then at night into the reds and yellows of purging flames.

Alari was not her father however. In her mind, the thought of a plan running to its initial course was laughably unlikely, no matter how small or grand the plan was. She enjoyed the Sunrise garden on the years when it bloomed properly, but she enjoyed more the conversations with the gardeners as they explained their ideas to her.

In the garden she got to see one vision realized, but in her conversations the staff who tended to the arrangement of the bushes and flowers she was gifted with hundreds of variations.

Of all of her staff, Alari thought she was probably fondest of the gardeners. Well, fondest after her Knight, but it had been a long time since she’d told herself that she was merely “fond” of her Adae.

For the thousandth time, Alari questioned the wisdom of sending Dae off on a quest to recruit Estella sur Korkin to their cause. It was an insanely dangerous and difficult mission, adding the complications of family and betrayal on top of it made for a duty that no one could hold up under.

Nobody except for Alari’s Knight. Alari knew her plan was going to go wrong. She knew that the pieces she’d carefully put into place were going to fall apart at some point. She also knew that Dae would find a way to put them back together. Or at least she believed.

Like a gardener, Alari could know only what had happened in the past. She could cut and prune away some possibilities and work to add in others, but she couldn’t know that her design would come to fruition.

Like a perennial though, Dae had come through for her time and again, when she most needed it, and so, in a real sense, Alari had planted the garden of her plans around the impossible task she set before her beloved Knight.

No matter how long she mulled that over, no matter how much she looked for contingencies and options that would put her Guard at less risk, Alari ultimately couldn’t find a stronger solution to the problem that vexed her. The problem that had vexed Gallagrin for centuries. Paxmer.

Originally the two countries has been the best of neighbors. Under the care and tutelage of the Sleeping Gods before slumber claimed them, Gallagrin and Paxmer had once been steadfast partners in developing the peninsula they inhabited. Gallagrin possessed abundant hard resources like metals and gems and wood while Paxmer possessed numerous trading ports and an abundance of soft resources like food and textiles. Trade between the two countries had been to the benefit of both for centuries.

As the world grew and the realms became free to interact with each other though, the relationship between the two neighbors changed. Gallagrin found cheaper sources of imported food and clothing and Paxmer watched the money from their northern neighbor flow elsewhere.

If there is one thing dragons are not forgiving of, it is anything that removes treasure from their grasp, even if that treasure is in the form of future earnings.

That made the problem of Paxmer, the problem of Dragons. With the souring of Paxmer and Gallagrin’s relationship, and the absence of the gods removing their ability to enforce good behavior, war had followed quickly along. An invasion of Paxmer was impractical given the power of its guardians. Paxmer’s invasions of Gallagrin hadn’t been able to draw on their power, but in the attacks on the ships at sea, Alari caught glimpses of a future catastrophe that awaited Gallagrin.

If dragons could be sent to fight on the waves, then it was only a matter of time before Paxmer would work out a method to deploy them on the land as well.

Like the buds that had not yet bloomed though, there was still time, Alari thought, to nip that problem while it was manageable and not leave it as a pending nightmare for some future queen to deal with.

“Your Majesty, am I intruding?” General Karlin Limli asked as he entered the garden  He came carrying an armful of scrolls and other documents, a sign that left Alari to suppress an involuntary sigh.

The best part about a garden that hadn’t bloomed was that few people visited it. That along turned the gardener’s design failure into a stellar success in Alari’s eyes. The rolls of scrolls in General Limli’s arms suggested that Alari’s idle time was at an end though, so she turned to face the Senior Commander of the Gallagrin Southern Royal Army.

“Not at all General,” Alari said. “What news do you bring?”

“A number of reports that I am to invite you to look over, but will most likely summarize so that you can discard them at your leisure,” Limli said. “Or not, they may possibly have bearing on a deeper matter.”

“What matter would that be?” Alari asked.

“Paxmer seems to be redeploying its draconic forces,” Limli said.

“That’s not uncommon with the change of seasons,” Alari said. “But we gather this is not their usual sort of springtime migration?”

“You are correct Your Majesty,” Limli said. “The reports that we’ve received indicate that this is a far more extensive mobilization of the big land dragons than we’ve seen in previous years. From what we can tell, virtually all of them are in motion.”

“And we will hazard a guess that they are heading towards the northwestern corner of Paxmer?” Alari asked.

“I am not sure whether to be astonished or concerned that you could guess their destination so accurately,” Limli said. “Has someone preceded me in bringing you this news?”

“No General, you are the first to confirm the dragon’s movements for us,” Alari said. “Other reports had hinted that such a migration might occur but with the confirmation of it, we can proceed with our own agenda at last.”

“I am cheered to find you in an active mood Your Majesty,” Limli said. “I had been concerned you might without forces from supplementing the Royal Army divisions in the region.”

“We are not uncaring of our border regions,” Alari said. “They bear a terrible burden, and we will not see their service go unrewarded.”

“In that case, perhaps you will be receptive to some of the strategies the Southern Army’s tacticians have developed for this eventuality?” Limli asked.

“We have reviewed the plans which were developed last year in haste following the Consort King’s demise,” Alari said. “We have even kept in contact with the architects of those plans, so there is likely little to discuss.”

“I know that an invasion of Paxmer is a drastic step, and presents untold risks to our forces, but we believe we can overcome their dragons with the proper tactics,” Limli said.

Alari had seen those tactics worked out in countless variations on a similar central theme. Dragons were immense creatures and were only vulnerable to extremely powerful weapons. Their weakness, as much as they had a common weakness, was that their size made them easy targets for siege weaponry. A standard bow and arrow couldn’t pierce dragon scales but a five foot long, enchanted ballista bolt was another matter.

The challenge with using siege weaponry on dragons lay in keeping the dragons from charging the siege engines and fearing then slaying all of the operators. To counter this the best laid plans called for a number of approaches, from traps and trenches to take advantage of natural terrain. None of that was enough to stop a dragon on its own though, which was where the Pact Knight’s came in.

Dae and other Pact Knights had proven that it was possible to stand before a dragon and delay them briefly. Any delay in battle was an opening for fatal attacks to exploit. Unfortunately that worked in both directions. While the Southern Army could possibly succeed in killing dragons with their tactics, it would come at the cost of several Pact Knights for each of the beasts they had to take down.

“We will not be authorizing an invasion of Paxmer,” Alari said.

“But that’s our best chance for defending the people we’re trying to defend,” Limli said.

“No,” Alari said. “The only sure method to preserve their lives is to ensure they are not in the dragons’ path. You will have your extra troops General, but your orders will be to evacuate the people from border towns once the order to leave is given, or as soon as Paxmer begins to march on our border.”

“Your Majesty! You can’t mean that!” Limli said.

“We are in complete earnest as to our intentions,” Alari said.

“But you can’t just give them Gallagrin! Our people have fought and died for that land!” Limli said.

“We are supposed to say that they fought valiantly and that their lives are a beacon to those who survive them to carry the battle forward,” Alari said. “The truth is harsher however. In the past, Gallagrin spent the lives of its sons and daughters poorly. Our predecessors wrestled with saving inches and bought that space with blood and sorrow. We will not make their mistake.”

Limli shrank back, his eyes wide as he regarded his queen.

“What doctrine of defense will you pursue then Your Majesty?” Limli asked.

Alari was able to translate that easily to its proper meaning of ‘what flavor of insanity has gripped you, my queen?’

“Several,” Alari said. “Some of which are already in motion, others we may begin to enact now that Paxmer has started to thaw and is committing itself to our destruction.”

“Evacuating the border is going to be difficult Your Majesty,” Limli said. “We may not, no, will not, be able to get all to leave their homes behind.”

“That too is part of our plan,” Alari said. Given the hard headed idiocy of her subjects, and the mindful races in general, it didn’t take a tactical genius to account for the certainty that some number of them would remain entrenched on the border even in the face of a draconic invasion. Alari was determined that those people, foolish as they were, would not be sacrificed to Paxmer. None of her subjects would be, but that didn’t mean their stubbornness couldn’t be make to serve her interests.

“My apologies then Your Majesty,” Limli said. “I do not see how this will not be a debacle. If that  means I must resign commission then I shall and will retire as quietly as you desire.”

“General, we cannot accept your apology,” Alari said. “We are not our father. We will not hold your opinion or your council against you.”

“Truly?” Limli asked.

“Truly,” Alari said. “We are well aware of the scope of the task we are engaged in. We are also aware of the need for security around the sensitive elements of it. This is why you have not been fully briefed, and why we cannot discuss the entirety of the machinations which are in motion. Despite that however, we would still have your council. We retained you as one of our Senior Commanders because we trust your judgement.”

“I don’t believe those are words your father ever uttered,” Limli said.

“You are likely correct,” Alari said. “The amusing thing is, if our schemes succeed, history may judge us to be a far worse calamity than our father ever was.”