Pasaday, Quintar 5, 4:38 p.m., the office of the Baron of Heslan.
Sir Talair Wersil raised his glass to his lips to take another sip of wine, but hesitated as he locked eyes with his visitor, who politely smiled back. Only days ago, he'd gotten a letter requesting an audience, from a name he didn't recognize. Thinking it a scheme, but having nothing better to do, he agreed to an appointment today. Now that he'd had some time to chat with this "Lord Vincent," he'd also had time to discreetly study his appearance and mannerisms. So far, the ruse was convincing. The young man (young for a half-elf, at any rate, but he may well have been in his forties the way they aged) was dressed in appropriate finery, gold and aquamarine, well-maintained, though perhaps outdated by ephemeral human fashion standards. He moved and spoke with the affectations of a man used to luxury and had all but ignored the servants as they brought refreshments, taking a wineglass and caviar from the tray without addressing them. Thanking them was usually the tell Sir Wersil looked for. When he smiled, his mouth was closed, but when he spoke it was clear he had perfect teeth, a rare trait for a criminal or beggar. The baron put the glass back down and furrowed his rather hirsute brow, while leaning ever so slightly forward. He spoke in a low, gravely voice, and a subtly condescending tone. This was, after all, his place of power, however temporary it might be.
"Well, enough small talk, I suppose. Exactly why did you make this appointment? I do not regularly meet with foreigners, noble or not, but I assure you, if you are here to test my loyalty to the crown you will not find me wanting. I know the reputation of those who have sat in this chair before me, but I am not a man to be bought."
"Oh, not at all, not at all." chirped the visitor, his black curls bouncing over his pale face as he shook his head. "I don't think I could afford you, anyway. No, I'm here because I think we can both give assistance for each other's problems."
The Baron of Heslan remained silent, but the end of his mustache twitched momentarily. He raised an eyebrow, and leaned backwards, almost sitting upright. His visitor took this as a sign to continue.
"I am offering an end to some of your local problems. I understand you have an issue with bandits extracting tolls from travelers on the Old Road as it passes through the Vastwood to Radimyr. I mean no offense, but I have spoken to some of your employees and I happen to know you've sent at least four regiments to flush them out, and all have come back empty-handed, before you – and correct me if I'm wrong about this – gave up? Somehow these forest-dwellers are infiltrating your city and spending their ill-gotten gains. They disrespect the crown, they make a joke of your soldiers, and they subvert your authority by extorting travelers under the guise of keeping them safe on the roads – your job, if I'm not mistaken. I have a simple plan to take care of them, and permanently, but I've only told a few trusted members of my staff. You could say it was your idea, if you like. With the bandits gone, put to better use, you could take the road back. People are already used to paying for its use, so it would be a simple matter to set up a tollbooth and tax them legitimately. Have a few soldiers patrolling to keep the road safe. You'd have a show of power, and all of the coinage would be guaranteed to come back here to Highridge. And that's only a start. I'm sure that you have other problems that need solving, and in return for what I ask, I'd be happy to assist."
Sir Wersil nodded, and reached for his wineglass again. This time, he drank deeply, and licked the drops from his thick mustache. He set the glass down with some force, not enough to break it, but enough to be heard. When he spoke, his voice was louder, and his condescension far less subtle than before.
"And how do you intend to succeed where my officers and soldiers have failed? Do you own a mercenary company? Do you bargain with fell powers, or command the might of the gods? Are you wealthy enough to buy them out, or do you think you can capture one and torture the location of their camp out of them, which has been tried more times than I can readily recall to no benefit? And more pertinently, what exactly do you want in return? You say you can solve my problems better than I can, so you clearly think quite highly of yourself and your abilities. What could I possibly do for you that you cannot do for yourself?" By this point, Sir Wersil had risen to full upright posture, and the inch or so of height he had over the young foreigner may as well have been a foot or more. Sir Wersil was a man who knew how to take advantage of physicality during negotiations, and though the half-elf was tall by human standards, the Baron's seat was higher-set, and positioned before a window so that a shadow was cast upon his guest. Confident that he had sufficiently chastised the stranger, he sneered and waited for the usual stuttering of a con-man called out on a boast. But the young stranger only smiled and blinked before responding.
"I want an alliance. You, Baron Wersil, have the political clout that I lack and need. I understand you think me an impostor, because you are a shrewder man than your predecessors likely were. That is forgivable, because we both know that I am not listed in any of your heraldry books, which I can explain by having been stripped of rank many years ago. Though I suppose if you were to borrow some older editions than the ones you brought here, the County of Narsiik in Estardana, where I was born and raised as a nobleman, may still be mentioned, before it was subsumed into the neighboring duchy of Brevil. I am, you might say, a political exile, sadly due to no fault of my own, but I digress. I have been left with a large sum of money, which has diminished as I require the services of a retinue of servants and guards, To slow my descent into poverty, I have made use of my extensive education to take a couple of apprentices. I still have my collection of books and clothing, a carriage to store them in, and horses to pull it, but no land to speak of, which I find unbefitting to my bloodline. What I am asking from you is your help in raising my station to where it should be, to reclaim my family's wealth, honor, and power. And power, as you know, is built on alliances." Lord Vincent broke eye contact, and shifted his gaze to the window, sights and voice growing distant. "I would speak to your king and queen and request a claim to land just beyond the borders of their kingdom, just south between Heslan and Radimyr, including Swordbreaker Pass, and a portion of the Battlefield of Iron Dreams. Such rich plains would make ideal farmland, if one had a fiefdom and serfs to make use of it. I have neither, and cannot discuss such a matter without one of the barons of dukes of your fine kingdom to vouch for me. Naturally, I would not ask for you to put your honor on the line without doing you a favor in return, hence my offer to rid you of your bandit problem, among other things. Also, I'll be making the same request of your neighbor, Baroness Zelcir. I've a similar offer for her, and I've sent a messenger to arrange things so that we meet her on the road. Presumptuous, I know, but I knew that if you refused my offer, I'd just send another messenger with my apologies. So, Baron… shall we make some history?"
It was a lot to take in, but Sir Wersil did his best to feign nonchalance through a couple of genuine laughs. "Oh, is that what you wanted? Usually I get requests to keep someone's nephew in the nicer barracks or out of jail, or some beggar trying to cheat me out of a large sum of money, but this is the first time anyone's proposed an arrangement like this. I'll admit I'm interested, but still – you haven't told me exactly how you were going to take care of those bandits. Was one of my guesses correct?"
The young Lord Vincent hadn't lost his smile. "Sorry, nothing so sinister. No gods or fell powers, no army of mercenaries, though a good noble never leaves home without a handful. I don't know if there is enough money in the world to truly and permanently buy the loyalty of a common thief. And I don't believe in torture. But I do employ a few spies with a knack for persuasion. I'll share the details with you after we meet the king. I'm not in the habit of showing my hand this early in negotiations."
"I see. Well then, I'll make arrangements for travel immediately. I trust you are prepared for the road?"
"But of course, Lord Baron. I'm always ready for anything."