Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 19: Bargain (Part 1)

Baron Jazinsk’s private quarters reminded me greatly of the ones at Deterikh Keep: a high-ceilinged room dominated in the center by a massive hardwood table, with seating around the walls for more relaxed conversation. The chairs were rougher-hewn, but the rugs covering the stone were thicker and the designs woven into them were more ornate. The greatest difference between the two was really in the portraiture hanging around the walls. Where the Deterikhs showcased six generations of a single lineage, the subjects of these portraits had only the Jazinski uniform in common. Couches lined the walls beneath the paintings, and Miss Rena and Mister Dagos took their seats there, present but away from the negotiations. The guards holding Erik’s chains remained near the door, standing guard over the entrance as well as their charge. I knelt by the door, hoping for a chance to at least touch him before we left.

A heavy thunk snapped my gaze back from the edges of the room to its center, where the elderly baron had jammed a knife into the wood of the table. Despite his age, the blade held when he removed his paw. “Answers, and now.” His thin voice hissed like a whisper in the spacious chamber. “What game is Datsia playing?”

“I’ll share what I know, Your Excellency,” My master agreed as he leaned against the back of one of the wooden chairs. “Datsia staged an elaborate coup-by-proxy, using you as her sword. How long she’d been planning this, I can’t know, but she started positioning her pieces years ago. Dion became envoy to Jazinsk last year, remember?”

“A little over that, yes,” Mister Dagos confirmed. “I remember it was early spring; the frost had cleared but the ground was still too hard to plant.”

My master nodded, but his eyes were hard and his ears stayed flat against his head. “That was Datsia’s second suggestion to Erik, after he inherited the throne. She took the captaincy of Deterikh’s army as a grand gesture to remove herself from succession, clearing Erik’s path, but she stayed close and acted as a self-appointed advisor.”

The baron’s eyes narrowed. “And the first?”

My master chuckled and looked to Miss Rena, while Erik grimaced and hung his head. “Removing Aura from Deterikh Keep.”

That brought a grim chuckle from Baron Jazinsk. “Fitting. She and her husband did kill my daughter.”

Erik’s chains rattled in protest at that, followed quickly by a strangled whimper as the guards silenced their prisoner. My master, however, kept his attention narrowly focused on his rival. “I might differ on interpretation, but the substance of your charge is correct. Melka’s death was likely hastened by Erik’s birth, and that was in possible only because of Aura’s and Izidor’s efforts to make Melka’s and Wilik’s joining fruitful. That, however, is less the point than the fact that Datsia’s been isolating Erik from better counsel for over a year.”

“And you?” Baron Jazinsk stabbed a finger in my master’s direction. “Did she get you your station as well?”

My master sighed and hung his head. “Sadly, yes. I served under her briefly, before she suggested me to Erik for his sergeant-at-arms.” He looked to Erik, but the ex-baron’s gaze was aimed at the floor. “I suspect she thought me too trusting to question her, and she was right, at first.” His voice quavered slightly as he spoke, but my previous master didn’t appear to be listening.

Baron Jazinsk finally dropped into his chair and tugged his knife free of the table. “So, you and Dion, positioned at her whims. Why?”

My master paused, then gestured to the chair against which he was leaning. “May I?” Baron Jazinsk nodded, and he took his seat, folding his paws in front of him on the table. “When I took my job, Datsia told me to watch the young baron for signs of instability. Weakness, erratic moods. Iladin had pronounced him fit, but who would trust the word of one alchemist in support of a half-breed?” Baron Jazinsk grunted his assent, and my master continued. “My father raised me on stories of Deterikh’s history, its legacy. I… feared Erik represented the end of the family, and the end of the barony. Datsia couldn’t just take the throne, but she could turn the people against their leader. She could make him so unpopular that they would demand his abdication or his head, then step into the vacuum.”

The elderly baron considered, then shook his head. “Not enough. What’s Jazinsk’s role in this?”

My master spread his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Wilik was popular, Your Excellency, but he wasn’t universally loved. His relationship with Melka tarnished his reputation. Naming Erik as his successor even moreso. Many of us saw the peace with the Jazinski as fragile, and with Melka’s death many feared reprisal. Wilik kept that from happening, but some in Barony Deterikh saw his yielding of the southern Ezustia range during the talks as—”

“Those mines are ours by right!” Baron Jazinsk burst out, slamming his dagger against the table. “You stole them and then sold them back to us at a king’s ransom!”

My master fell very still at the sudden eruption, then held out his paws placatingly before him. “Listen, Your Excellency. You asked me for what I know. You wanted to know what Datsia is doing, and why. She put Dion in a position to spread lies about Erik to you, then had him report back on the growing storm to convince him to draft more soldiers. Each escalation became the excuse for the next, with just enough truth to keep either side from suspecting trickery.”

“And you?” Baron Jazinsk glared daggers at my master. “What part yours?”

“I—” My master stopped, then looked to Erik again with ears perked. “I was to keep Erik on the throne, to tell him what a good job he was doing, to keep him placid until Dion could convince you to declare war.” Erik tensed, and his tail curled tightly between his legs, but my master kept talking, his voice starting to crack. “I tried to warn him, to teach him how to rule, but… I also feared he would lead the barony into ruin if he stayed, so I played my part. I don’t think he ever suspected.” He paused and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. “I… don’t think he knew.”

Baron Jazinsk leaned back at that, worrying at one of his claws with his knife. “Why war? Why not a coup?”

My master cleared his throat and took a deep breath, then coughed. “Two deer with a single arrow, Your Excellency. A coup would have put her on the throne, but it would’ve kept it a purely local affair. By goading you into war, she put the Ezustia Range—and more—into play as well. If the battle fares poorly, she can offer Erik over to you as a peace offering. If it fares well….” He leaned forward against the table, his paws steepled before him. “Jazinsk’s army is hungry and ill-prepared; Deterikh’s is well-fed and well-trained. She could afford to spare a force to travel south to the mountains to retake the mountains, then attack Krolik from the side. Your forces might hold our main approach at bay, but you’d be vulnerable to a secondary strike.”

My master stood and leaned heavily on the table. “Listen, Your Excellency. Datsia’s plan is nothing less than assimilation of Jazinsk in total.” His voice dropped to a heavy growl. “Dion is leading the bulk of our army towards your border as we speak, with instructions to dig in and let you wear yourselves out against our pikes. Once they’re in position and their mission is clear, he’ll be breaking rank with a smaller unit to sweep through Ezustia, then take this city from the flank. With your army weary from those failed charges, they’d be no match for a fresh unit attacking from behind. I’m no sage or soothsayer, but if I can’t put your grandson back on the throne, then I predict inside of a month, you’ll see Deterikh green flying from the spires atop Krolik Tower.”