Bonds of Blood – chapter three

3

“My daughter, Prince Alondo’s queen……”

Brook repeated the envoy’s words in a voice that sounded as if his soul had dropped out of his body.

They were in one of the many interior drawing rooms in Skard’s royal castle. Ever since Brook had invited Wort, the Sage of the Wilds, to the castle, anti-magic wards stretched over each one of the drawing rooms.

Wort didn’t only know how to cast magic, he also understood how to put it to use. He wasn’t like the so-called research magicians at private academies. As far as he was concerned, magic was no different from a sword in a knight’s hand, except for how one got to the point of proficiency with the tool.

“That’s right.” With no break in his arrogant attitude, the envoy from Vennon nodded. “We’ve allowed your country to refuse this offer multiple times. Princess Reena was just a baby. But Her Highness is fourteen this year, and lacks nothing required for marriage.”

“Age doesn’t come into it. She’s still a child. Marrying her as she is now would cause His Highness nothing but trouble. Can’t you wait a little while longer?”

“Our king has made his wishes clear. That’s enough waiting. He’s wondering if you’re not accepting this offer of marriage because you’ve got something else on your mind.”

“No, nothing like that……” Brook hastily denied the envoy’s words. Under the circumstances, he didn’t have any other choice.

Sending a secret envoy instead of an official one was a ploy to secure the answer they wanted. This wasn’t any kind of diplomacy, this was a kind of threat.

“That’s what our king is saying. He thinks Skard is plotting it independence from Vennon. Inviting the Red-Headed Mercenary, Beld and the Sage of the Wilds, Wort is proof of that.”

“Wha- what did you say?” Brook put a surprised expression on his face. “It’s only because of Vennon that Skard exists. Inviting the Sage, employing the Mercenary, I was merely thinking to play a roll for His Highness in some future battle. If Vennon’s king thinks that my daughter is suitable for a duke of Moss……”

“Cut the crap,” Vennon’s envoy said sharply.

Brook reflexively lowered his gaze, although he wasn’t overawed by anything.

The envoy was a decade younger than Brook, and was not a model human being, no matter how one looked at it. Except that thanks to his stupidity, it was impossible to change his mind on anything. Those eyes were filled with hostility towards Brook, and looked like he was ready to stab anyone, providing he was carrying out orders from Vennon’s king.

(Does this young buck think he can defeat me?)

The flames of hatred burned Brook’s heart on the inside, while on the outside he pretended to be flustered. He felt as if he’d been made a complete fool of.

But even if he was better than this kid, he had been born into this small country, and had to bow his head even to this fool.

Brook once again etched onto his heart the hated facts as he understood them. He would not allow Nashere to taste humiliation like this. He was determined…

“I understand,” Brook said, looking withered. The reply didn’t commit him to anything, but it was a response the knight would be satisfied with.

“There is one more thing I wanted to ask you,” the Vennon envoy said, his attitude growing even larger.

“What might that be?” Brook asked, holding his anger in check by sheer force of will. His fingertip twitched on the chair arm like he’d had a cramp.

What more do they want to demand? he thought.

“Hereafter you will pay eighty percent of your profits from your trade with the Dwarf tribes in taxes,” the envoy said arrogantly, puffing out his chest.

“What did you say?” Brook stood up from his chair without thinking.

“Our last war with the Dragon’s Flame, Harkenne, was your country’s fault. Three famous knights of our kingdom died in that war, have you forgotten?”

In the face of the Vennon’s envoy’s shout, Brook embraced truly murderous intentions.

“I haven’t forgotten. We here in Skard paid a huge war chest for that very reason.”

It had occurred last year, when Harkenne’s Princess Elanta suddenly visited Skard. After she returned to her country, she apparently reported to her father that she had been roughly pushed by Prince Nashere. The furious king of Harkenne dispatched troops to demand Prince Nashere be handed over. Vennon, being Skard’s guardian country, took it as an affront, and a petty war rose up between the countries.

The charges that Nashere had done any violence to Princess Elanta were, of course, groundless. The truth was, Princess Elanta had tempted Nashere, and had made the false report out of spite at his refusal.

Elanta, frightened at the gravity of the situation her lie had caused, told her father the truth, and a cease-fire was immediately enacted. However, in the absence of any apology from Harkenne, Vennon decided, for whatever reason, that the deterioration of its relationship with Harkenne was, in the end, Skard’s fault.

And they had demanded a large war chest.

At the time, Brook had followed quietly along. He knew his daughter Reena was partly to blame. But their demands this time……

“Trade with the Dwarf tribe is this kingdom’s only lifeline. We’re just a small country, we don’t have any other industry.”

“It’s a trade that seems to flood your country’s coffers with treasure.” Settling himself heavily into his chair, the envoy crossed his arms and stared up at Brook.

“That rumor has no roots, let alone a leaf……”

“Silence!” the envoy said in a violent tone, as if he thought Brook was only making excuses. The envoy got to his feet like he was going to kick the chair. On his face was an expression like he was drunk on his own power. “We’ve gotten our information from a reliable source. If you’d like, I can make a guess as to how much you’ve got saved up down there.”

Having spoken, the envoy began to list the treasure saved up in Skard’s national treasury.

Struck dumb with astonishment, Brook could only listen to his words. The size of the treasure the envoy listed was just about in agreement with what Brook knew of it. Someone of influence here in Skard must have been in secret communication with Vennon. Maybe they had given up the fate of this small country as hopeless. They must have been promised handsome treatment when Skard was annexed.

But what surprised him more than that, was that Vennon was envious of their riches, and that they would have the nerve to make such demands like a thief.

They must be anxious about something.

They must be afraid of something.

Questions rose to the surface, one after the other, and disappeared. They wouldn’t be able to make such inhuman demands without some cause.

“Know that if you refuse these demands, we will resort to force.”

So they said today, but Brook wondered if that was Vennon’s true intention anyway. Maybe they wanted to use military power and annex his kingdom. If they succeeded, they could have a monopoly on trade with the Dwarf tribes and amass huge amounts of wealth. With those riches behind him, the king of Vennon could think of unifying the Moss region.

He was an ambitious person, the king of Vennon. Brook had known it full well for a long time now. Brook wasn’t particularly qualified to accuse him, though.

After all, Brook himself harbored those same ambitions. However, in Brook’s case, it was not an aspiration for his own sake, it was the thought of his son Nashere……

“Your country’s demands are quite serious. It’s not a question I can decide on my own. After I’ve had a meeting with the court, and consulted with my subjects, then I’ll give you a reply.”

“Do you think you can carry on with these half measures?” the envoy threatened, placing his hand on the sword at his hip. A blue vein stood out on his temple.

After a moment’s silence, Brook spoke in a low mumble. “……You should draw your sword.”

“Wha- What was that?”

“I said, draw. You don’t seem to know it, but I’ve taken part in the Highlands fencing tournament, and I earned my victory in the final round. Even Highland’s King Mysen wasn’t beyond my ken,” Brook said, in a voice without intonation.

The envoy’s face changed color distinctly. The bravery of the knights of The Dragon’s Eye, the Highlands was said to be higher not only than those of the Moss dukedoms, but of all Lodoss. Performing well enough to remain in the finals during the fencing competitions sponsored by that country should have been impossible even for a Vennon knight.

Brook’s participation in the contest had been specifically for that reason. He had gone as Vennon’s proxy, from their subject state Skard, for Vennon’s honor. Although, if he hadn’t taken part in the competition that year, he would never have met Eliza, and wouldn’t have gained Nashere for a son.

Seeing Brook’s power for the first time, Vennon’s envoy lost the vigor he’d had thus far, and took on an embarrassed expression. He tried to say something, but he only moved his mouth, and in fact did not utter a peep.

“It’s not a business that will be concluded in a day or two either. The envoy will, on this occasion, return to Vennon. Once there has been sufficient consideration, we’ll send out reply on the issue of the demands to hand.”

“Is- is that right? Well then, I’ll send His Highness word of it,” Vennon’s envoy answered, displaying his recovered bravado once again in the face of Brook’s courteous attitude.

After that, he reversed direction almost at a run, opened the door, and exited into the hallway.

Brook followed after him, seeing him out of the building. The foolish envoy’s attendants held the reins of his dappled grey horse, holding it in the courtyard.

“Give my regards to His Highness.” Brook turned to the envoy and bowed his head reverently.

Taking an attendant’s help to straddle the horse, Vennon’s envoy took the horse’s neck without a word. Turning toward the castle’s gate, he walked the horse out of the building.

Brook stood by the entrance until the envoy’s shadow disappeared from view. He wasn’t seeing him off. He wanted to be certain that the envoy had disappeared from the castle.

The instant that shadow disappeared, Brook’s feet hit the ground as hard as they could.

He had no intention of consulting with any of his subjects, despite what he’d told the envoy. He had to consider this problem and come to a solution on his own.

He did harbor intentions of declaring Skard’s independence from Vennon one day. But he hadn’t dreamt of taking action like this, in circumstances like these.

Maybe he had underestimated the Vennon king. Maybe he had seen through the ambition lying in Brook’s heart.

Right now, Nashere was young, and there were no preparations for independence. If they fought, Skard would be certainly be defeated. If they asked the Highlands for assistance, even though they were his late queen’s ancestral homelands, and even though their relationship with the Dragon Flame had deteriorated in recent years, they were too far away to be of much good. Only Skard’s alliance with the Dwarf tribes, called The Ale Vow, was dependable, but he didn’t know to what extent the earth sprites would seriously intervene in an argument between humans.

The situation was hopeless, in the extreme. What was the best way to get out from underneath these pressing circumstances?

Brook scolded his stagger-prone feet and started back to his private room, feeling like everything was going dark before his very eyes.

The corridors of the royal castle, called Grain Hold, felt more narrow, longer than ever before.

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