Haral listened to the drums beating in the harbour below the tower window. The sound from the Mesmer ships started up every evening at dusk and continued well into the night. Before him on the hardwood desk rested the letter from the Mesmer ambassador, opened and discarded. Another demand for more access to his court. He sighed. Their game was doomed before it had started. Bergen’s history was littered with upstarts and would-be heroes who sought to conquer the small island state. All of them gone now – absorbed into the country’s insatiable bowels.
“Ser?” his aide Barlon looked at him with the question writ heavy on his brow.
“I know, I know. We’ll have to see them soon. But I keep hoping that they will realise the futility of it all and go home. There is nothing here for them except disappointment. They’ll have that in spades,” Haral shook his head in sorrow.
“She is waiting at the tower’s base, ser. The guards did not want to raise their weapons at a guest.”
“Fair enough. We don’t need blood on Bergen’s conscience too. Make her comfortable in the library. I’ll be down now.”
“Yes, ser.” Barlon bowed his way out the door.
Haral took one last long look out the window of his study at the ships that were now only visible by their lanterns shining in the first shadows of night. Soon, he thought, soon the island will claim them too. He pushed the dark thoughts out the way and swept out the library to meet with the Ambassador of Mesmer.
Her eyes met his in a determined stare from her seat at the other end of the library. She held a thick volume from the shelves behind her, forgotten now that her quarry was in sight.
“Madam Arden,” Haral inclined his head to her as he walked closer, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Pleasure, Master Haral? How do your guards receive enemies then?”
“Do excuse my servants, ma’am, they had strict orders not to disturb me. I have much that occupies me.”
“I hope some of what occupies you is our request for trade concessions from Bergen.” she held his gaze for a moment longer than was polite, even for a Mesmer.
Haral gave her a grim smile. “Indeed, that is part of what occupies me. Unfortunately I do not have an answer for you yet.” He shrugged his shoulders, feigning regret.
“How long do these matters normally take?” she asked, blunt.
“Time moves differently in Bergen. We are all bound by it.”
“I do hope time will start moving differently on your dealings with Mesmer.”
“I sincerely share your hopes, Madam,” Haral inclined his head again as she swished past him.
Boom boom-boom boom. Boom boom-boom boom. The drums had not stopped their incessant pounding that day. Haral tried to push his irritation into the background as he stared at the package from the Ambassador on his desk. The Mesmers had not taken to waiting very well at all. He assumed that ‘no’ wasn’t in their vocabulary either.
After another sip from the cup of klatch that Barlon had brought up earlier he slipped the letter opener under the twine binding the Mesmer package. Inside the carefully wrapped brown paper was a small blue box and a letter. One handed he lifted the lid on the box, reluctant to view the contents. A heavy silver ring spilled out and Haral’s heart sank.
“Ser? Is everything alright?” Barlon asked.
Haral held the ring out to him in answer. He didn’t need to read the accompanying letter to know where this was going. Neither did Barlon.
“So it’s come to this?” Barlon’s voice was heavy with regret.
Haral nodded and carefully unfolded the letter as if his actions could stop the malice from flowing off the page and into Bergen.
“Dear Master Haral,
You leave us no choice but to resort to these crude methods. Three months we have waited for your response.
The waiting is over. The enclosed ring is proof that we have your daughter.
In return for her safety you will cede all trade rights to Mesmer. I will join you in the morning to discuss the terms of Bergen’s surrender.
“Well, she showed us, didn’t she?” Haral murmured, sarcasm heavy on his breath.
“She sure did.” Barlon concurred. He couldn’t hide his shock, “What will you do, Ser?”
“I will meet with the Ambassador in the morning as instructed.” Haral seemed unnaturally calm now that the worst had happened.
“But what about Lorel?”
“Hmph,” Haral snorted, “I would bet all of Bergen that Lorel let them take her without a fight. That one knows how to bring matters to a head.”
Haral closed his eyes as he tried to block the memory of the last words he had with Lorel. They were not kind and neither were her parting shots. She was young and hot headed and had much to learn about the duties of the Master and Servant of Bergen. Everybody assumed that as Master of Bergen he was the most powerful man in the isles. Everybody forgot about the rest of his title. Being a Servant of Bergen was a duty much harder than Master of Bergen. Lorel would find out soon enough what that meant.
The morning sun glared off the keep’s white walls. Haral tried not to squint in the glare as he waited for the Ambassador to arrive at his tower. The calm that had settled over him the previous night had deepened. He could see the guards casting glances his way, wondering and full of conjecture and doubt. They did not remember the last time Bergen faced annex.
The island country was known for its trade in precious gems. No one knew where they were mined but at one point or another most of the surrounding countries and islands had tried to force access to Bergen’s riches. Memories were hazy about the details but everyone knew that Bergen was impenetrable. Haral could see the question etched on all the faces around him. How had Bergen come to this? How had the Master let the enemy walk in without a fight?
The wonderful cover image is by Timothy J. Reynolds. Go check it out!
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