Crisis. Negotiations. Revelations. Compromise.
Guards swung the double doors open to allow Joliver Barleywood, a learned Halfling Bard of the Aevalorn Parishes, entry into the private apartments of Ser Roham Baz, the esteemed emissary to the King of Nodderton. Baz’s attaché, Balem Dask, received Joliver in the sitting room.
“Balem! Merry evening. I came as soon as I received the summons,” Joliver said, removing his cloak and tossing it onto the furniture. “Is he alright?”
Balem gestured for Joliver to follow. “Ser Roham is in his study. His need is urgent.”
They walked through a stately dining room and came to a split-level stairwell fashioned with grand mahogany railing. Balem escorted Joliver down the stairs and opened a pair of ten-foot-tall exquisitely crafted oak doors. Within, Ser Roham Baz sat at his desk positioned in front of three stained glass windows; heavy velvet tapestries were roped open to each side. Shelving overflowing with books ran from floor to ceiling on both walls.
Roham Baz lifted his head as Joliver entered the room. Balem shut the doors behind him and remained stationed there.
“Old friend!” Joliver exclaimed, opening his arms.
“Foresworn enemy!” Roham hissed, gesturing apologetically. He removed his glasses, slumped into his chair, and ran an exasperated, quaking palm down his wizened face.
Joliver’s expression soured as he halted halfway into the room. He glanced concernedly over his shoulder at Balem Dask, who simply shrugged and said, “He’s been this way for hours.”
Tucking his thumbs into his gold satin waistcoat, Joliver curiously approached Ser Roham’s desk. “Balem, what afflicts him?”
“I am unclear. However, when the emissary speaks,” Balem explained, “his words reflect the opposite of his intention.”
Cautiously rounding the desk, Joliver extended his hands to Roham, who accepted them in delightful greeting. Joliver’s smile returned. “So his hullo is expressed as goodbye?”
“Precisely,” Balem confirmed.
Joliver patted Roham’s hands reassuringly. “Hours? I presume he’s spoken clearly? Never nonsense or backward?”
“No sir,” Balem acknowledged.
“And his faculties?” Joliver asked, releasing Roham’s grip.
“As sharp as an assassin’s knife,” Balem said uncomfortably. “It pains me to see him this way.”
“Undoubtedly,” Joliver whispered, folding his arms and leaning his shoulder against the desk; the top of Joliver’s head arrived at its surface. “Roham is a kindly statesman who uses words to make peace. His words betray him as if the aforementioned knife had plunged itself into the assassin’s gut.”
“A terrible irony, sir,” Balem agreed.
“Irony, indeed,” Joliver considered, placing a thoughtful finger under his lip.
Ser Roham smoothed his circle beard, withdrew a parchment, and handed it to Joliver. It was only recently inked; a puff of cuttlefish dust followed it off the desk.
Joliver removed his own pair of glasses and studied the letter. “Obviously, the scope of his malaise is restricted to the spoken word.”
“Apparently, sir,” Balem nodded.
“Please, take your time,” Ser Roham barked sarcastically. He covered his mouth and angrily waved at Joliver, frustrated and apologetic.
Joliver smiled, raising the letter. “Alright, old man. Let me read it.”
Going around to the front of the desk, Joliver paced the floor and thoroughly read the note. “Great Green. Balem, he’s saying you’re presently in the midst of critical trade negotiations with Dumbria.”
“Their delegation’s remained in Nodderton for three weeks, sir,” he replied. “We’re in the concluding phase, and talks are to resume within the hour.”
Joliver removed his glasses. “Can they be suspended?”
“No,” Balem admitted. “This was our last unscheduled recess. They’re eager to conclude the proceedings and leave for Dumbria in the morning.”
Joliver pointed to the parchment. “He’s saying the situation’s volatile? The outcome dire?”
Balem nodded. “These agreements are the culmination of five years of effort. If Nodderton leaves the table-”
“-Nodderton will lose a generation of prosperity,” Joliver breathed, tucking his glasses in his waistcoat. He glanced at Ser Roham slouching behind the desk and snapped his fingers.
Striking a theatrical pose, the bard placed his hand on his chest and raised his palm into the air. In a dramatic baritone, Joliver announced, “I hate tomatoes.”
Ser Roham and Balem regarded the halfling oddly.
“Indulge me, will you?” Joliver said, pointing to Ser Roham. “Repeat after me. Ahem, I hate tomatoes.”
“I adore tomatoes,” Ser Roham said flatly.
Joliver clapped. “Excellent! I wish it’d rain today.”
“We could use some sunny weather,” Roham replied, shocked at what came out of his mouth.
Balem raised a dubious finger. “Sir-”
“A moment,” Joliver interrupted, dramatically striking a stage pose. He melodramatically said, “Sir, I shall happily accept this agreement.”
“This isn’t what we discussed all,” Roham growled, and his eyes opened wide in excitement, applauding.
And Balem lowered his finger.
“I’ve an idea,” Joliver said, tapping his temple and turning to Balem. “If we’re lucky, it’ll offer us a two-fold fortune, saving Nodderton’s position and revealing the bard whose cursed Rohem!”
“Sir!” Balem exclaimed, putting his arms behind him diplomatically. “Wizardly attachés were expressly disallowed-”
“-exactly why they brought a bard, Balem,” Joliver said, “as there’d be no record of them attending Pax Arcana.”
Removing his pipe, Joliver tucked a thumb full of pipeweed in the chamber and struck a match. He sucked on the stem and puffed a bit of white smoke. He addressed Ser Roham Baz. “My good friend, I am so sorry to report that you’ve been cursed with verbal irony.”
“Terrific!” Ser Roham exclaimed, rolling his eyes.
Joliver continued. “It’s an old thespian trick meant to ruin a rival. When the cursed player would take the stage, they’d speak in gibberish, repeat their lines backward, or, convey the opposite of meaning. Thus they’d be booed, dismissed, their career in shambles.”
“But sir,” Balem argued, “Our own mages would have detected the subterfuge. Focuses, spell components, magicked artifacts?”
“Nay,” Joliver dismissed, pacing the floor. “Bards employ a more subtle magic. Cunning words can cut as easily as a dagger, Balem. Ours sway moods and opinions instantly, and if used surgically, may become a perfect diplomatic weapon.”
“Balem!” Joliver cried, hoisting his pipe. “There’s no time to waste! These talks must carry on in Nodderton’s favor! You will arrange a chair for me at the negotiation table adjacent to Ser Roham; I am to be his special counsel. After the proceedings have started, you will assign two sentries outside of the chamber doors to await my signal!”
“Sir!” Balem bowed, and, as he was to leave, turned, and asked, “Er, what is the signal?”
Joliver smirked cleverly, gripping the pipe in between his teeth, and said, “The agony of forgetting one’s lines.”
* * *
The council chamber prominently featured a long Ziricote table with eight chairs, a wide hearth made of shaped Coquina, and Nodderton banners strewn down its old castle walls of cold granite blocks. Parchments and maps were strewn across the table’s surface; old tomes were stacked atop each other on the floor. The room was lit with rows of wall-mounted iron sconces bearing ceramic oil lamps suspended by chains. The room’s only window was shuttered.
“Master Barleywood,” Balem gestured from Nodderton’s side of the table, “may I introduce Minister Dak Hegenzo of the City State of Dumbria.”
Minister Hegenzo briefly nodded. He was a bald man in his early seventies. The marks of his station were tattooed on the side of his head. Hegenzo gestured to the three others in his delegation, all of them equally shaved bald and tattooed, their skin as pale as porcelain. “Hom Zargon-Zurn, Azem Raithwail, Brezid Urdom. Advisors, scribe.”
“A pleasure,” Joliver bowed, standing on the chair beside Ser Roham.
“A point of order,” questioned Azem. “Is it regular to introduce a new advisor so late in the round?”
“Unorthodox,” grumbled Hegenzo, staring at Balem.
Balem responded cordially, “We are permitted to exchange advisors at any time in the proceeding. Master Joliver will assume my role from here. I bid you good day.”
The Dumbria delegation shared glances, and Balem, leaving the room, shut the twin doors behind him.
Joliver leaned in and whispered to Ser Roham, “Minister Hegenzo, say nothing to my special counsel concerning our discussion.”
“Minister,” Roham repeated calmly, “please inform my counsel where we stand in our discussions.”
Hegenzo sighed and pointed to an unfurled map on the table.
“Our final contention remains over transit tariffs levied at the ocean’s inlet.”
Ser Roham dipped his quill and wrote a note for Joliver on a blank parchment.
“The duty is too high,” said Hom flatly.
“Nodderton erodes Dumbria’s profit,” said Azem.
Brezid busily wrote the conversation out on parchment.
Joliver asked, “Surely Nodderton deserves to profit from your shipments transiting their waters? Three sovereign coins for staples like tin, butter, cheese, and lard; six sovereigns for every sack of wool; twelve sovereigns on the last hundred leather hides.”
Their delegation stirred. Azem whispered into Hegenzo’s ear.
Still standing in the chair, Joliver raised a finger to his chin and said, “Perchance, you profess it a petty practice to profit from primitive products?”
Joliver smiled wryly while Ser Roham just glared at him.
The Dumbrian delegation abruptly stopped whispering amongst themselves and raised their heads, all save Brezid, who was too busy recording what Joliver said.
Azem glared at Minister Hegenzo.
“Yes, we, er, do feel taxes levied against staple goods is a petty custom,” Hegenzo countered. “Nodderton would raise prices on our aged and poor, Dumbria’s most vulnerable citizens.”
“Perhaps while predicting proportionally ponderous prices upon penurious people, Dumbria promises persistent poverty should perpetuate in Nodderton?”
Brezid’s quill snapped, and a wet ink blot marred his page. He retrieved another quill and returned to work, stealing angry glances at Joliver.
Paused, blank-faced, Hom, Azem, and Minister Hegenzo returned to whispering.
“It’s not the scribe,” Joliver whispered to Ser Roham, “and it’s not Hegenzo.”
“I’m so impressed with what you’re doing,” hissed Ser Roham, panic flashing in his eyes. “You should continue!”
“Not to worry, old friend,” Joliver chortled, putting a hushing finger over his lips. “We’ll get to the bottom of this!”
“You’re so helpful!” Ser Roham growled.
Joliver urged him on, encouraging him to say, “There’s no chance we’d ever consider lowering duties on wool.”
Sighing, Ser Roham rolled his eyes and repeated to the room, “There may be an opportunity to reconsider our wool tariffs.”
Azem watched their exchange inquisitively.
Minister Hegenzo irritatedly nodded, looked to Azem, and said, “A reduction of, say, three sovereigns could redress the disproportionate impact?”
Ser Roham shook his head at Joliver.
“Fifty percent is considerably steep,” Joliver said, tapping his finger against his chin. He shrugged and casually offered, “If Dumbrian blankets were as Nodderton coin, it’d warm only half our people-”
Hom interjected, “And if Nodderton taxes were as food, Dumbria consumes gruel and is sickened for it.”
Azem leaned wearily into his armrest.
Joliver faced Hom and raised a finger, saying, “Now, gentlemen, Nodderton fears not inequitable injustices-”
“-for karma’s coat is worn inside-out,” Hom growled. “Eglaçian proverbs, twenty-sixteen.”
“Eloquence of the tongue leaves barren a battlefield,” cajoled Azem. “Eglaçian seven-six, except, smallfoot, yours wags as a prelude to war.”
“Keep going!” Ser Roham whispered desperately to Joliver, clawing at his arm.
Joliver leaned over to whisper in Roham’s ear.
“Nodderton could see its way to five sovereign marks per wool sack,” Ser Roham said, almost as a question to Joliver.
“Unacceptable!” Hom burst out loud, at once losing his poise.
“What if twelve were ten for a hundred tanned skin?” mused Joliver with a flourish of his wrist. “Two sovereigns for every bale of hide is most certainly a deal Dumbria could abide?
Azem sat up in his chair, glaring menacingly at Joliver.
Hon barked, “Can we not speak plainly? What is going on?”
Minister Hegenzo eagerly seized his opportunity. “Ser Roham: Nodderton offers three sovereigns for staples, five for wool, and ten per a hundred leather skin?”
Joliver pretended to march in place in his chair, “An implicit compromise so our treaty may begin!”
“Absolutely!” reeled Ser Roham Baz, egregiously slamming his fist to the table.
Azem’s face fell ashen. “No, wait, we can’t-”
A joyous expression crossed Hegenzo’s face. “Dumbria accepts!”
“Minister Hegenzo!” Azem exclaimed, bolting out of his chair. “Er, we, I, no! House Raithwail will not tolerate-”
Azem withdrew a wicked dagger hidden in his sleeve.
Joliver leaped from his chair to stand on the table and mocked, “Azem’s the snake in affairs of state!”
A swift wind raced across the table from under Joliver’s feet, kicking up unsecured documents in the flurry. Hom covered his face with his arms, and Brezid was knocked backward off of his chair.
“Argh!” Azem cried as his knife hand scorched and burned. Azem dropped his dagger and pointed his singed, bloody hand at Joliver and quavered, “Specious words for a halfling-born; I stab at you with wrathful scorn!”
Joliver’s whole body was blown backward by Azem’s attack, throwing him off the table to thud into the nearby wall.
Just then, the doors burst open and sword-wielding guards rushed into the room. Balem pointed and cried, “Seize Azem Raithwail!”
“Aegia’s voice doth crack the still of night!” Azem bellowed, and a thunderous wave exploded the window shutters, smashing them into chunks of wood that careened sixty feet to the courtyard below; the concussion threw Minister Hegenzo to the ground and toppled Ser Roham from his chair.
Reeling from the blast, the guards recovered and pushed themselves away from the opposite wall to climb precariously over Brezid and Hegenzo.
Rolling over on his side, the wind knocked from his lungs, Joliver gasped, “Don’t let him-”
“Traitor!” Hom cried as he tried to wrestle Azem from approaching the window.
Shoving Hom out of his way, Azem thrust Hom backward into the wall; the back of Hom’s head sickly impacted the stone.
Dashing, Azem growled, “An offering of dandelions for my woe-,” and he leaped, throwing his body out of the window.
In moments, plummeting from the tower with a handful of yellow flowers retrieved from his pockets, Azem blurred and transformed into a crow. The bird cawed, spread its wings, flapped, and took to the sky to sail out of view.
“Ser Roham!” Joliver exclaimed, crawling over to help him.
“Guards! Aid Minister Hom!” Roham barked from the floor as he struggled to get up. “Dak! Dak, are you alright?”
Assisting Ser Roham to his feet, Balem cried, “Sir! The curse is broken!”
“Don’t fuss with me, boy!” Roham scolded.
The guards lifted Hom Zargon-Zurn’s unconscious body from the floor and rested him on the table while Balem helped Minister Hegenzo and Brezid to their feet. Blood oozed from Hom’s head and pooled on the table.
Wincing, Joliver rose and returned the chair so he might stand on it. Painfully, the halfling pulled himself into the chair and put his tiny palm on Minister Hom’s forehead.
Concentrating, he recited four lines from an older and much larger poem:
Lingered had I o’er the distant garden,
Idled intentions eased mine tormented thoughts
to unburden your spiteful dagger,
shedding the weight of your hostility.
Minister Hom’s eyes shot open, and he gasped for breath.
“Azem!” he groaned.
“He’s stable. Take him to the infirmary!” Joliver commanded the guards, achingly rubbing his own ribs and collapsing in the chair.
Minister Hegenzo approached, leaning on Balem. “How did-”
“I was cursed, Dak,” Roham acknowledged, kneeling beside Joliver. “It twisted my words and rendered me mute. Master Barleywood taunted the villain out of the woodwork.”
“Hmm,” Joliver moaned. “I think … I believe I cracked a rib. Haven’t … sparred like that in an age.”
“Rest, old friend,” Ser Roham comforted before turning to Hegenzo. “The curse was meant to silence me, Dak. They were counting on ending these proceedings without agreement.”
Hegenzo’s eyes narrowed. “Gods. If he’d succeeded, our delegation would’ve returned empty-handed. House Raithwail would have rallied their allies for war.”
Joliver squirmed, saying, “Azem’s allegiances in this matter were … painfully revealed after … pushing his patience.”
“A priest of Denier has been summoned,” Balem interjected.
Hegenzo folded his arms and glanced at Brezid. “And we will alert the Dumbrian authorities at once.”
Brezid fled the room.
“Dak,” Ser Roham stood, faced the minister solemnly, and extended his hand. “Despite its irregularity, Nodderton will honor Master Barleywood’s proposal. Three, five, and ten sovereigns, respectively. In the spirit of goodwill, I urge you to return to Dumbria with a treaty. Let’s not give the Raithwails or anyone else an excuse to destroy a lasting peace.”
Slapping his own hand into the crook of Roham’s arm, Minister Hegenzo wrested Roham close and hugged him, and swiftly patted his back. Releasing Roham, Hegenzo rested his hand on Joliver’s shoulder and said, “Irregular, yes, but in the end, it took the courage of an Aevalorn halfling to broach a compromise, arriving at a place where we dared not go ourselves. Dumbria thanks you.”
“Minister,” Joliver Barleywood grimaced, holding his side. “It was the least I could do … for an old friend.”
Ser Roham crouched beside Joliver’s chair and whispered, “Clearly, I’ll never invite you to a negotiation table again.”
“Roham,” Joliver rasped and looked incredulously at him. “Are you still cursed?”