|Dance of the Hours
Author: Hawki PM
Oneshot: Time was running out for Elibe, even if many of its people couldn't see it. Running out to choose a side in the war that Bern was about to launch. Yet in a way, the prospect of facing that choice was no better than remaining ignorant of it.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Fantasy - Tactician/Mark - Words: 1,160 - Reviews: 1 - Favs: 1 - Published: 01-20-13 - Status: Complete - id: 8926243
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Dance of the Hours
"You're not much of a dancer are you?"
"Really? What gave you that idea?"
The barkeep didn't answer at first, which suited Mark just fine. He didn't want to talk. And despite being on his second pint, he wasn't at the Hungry Hearth to drink away his memories anyway. Rather, he was here to think.
"Well, here's how I see it," the barkeep said.
Light help me.
"You're not dancing along with the rest of the patrons. You haven't drunk yourself into a stupor, so your physical and mental skills are at an adequate level to do the jig. And since you don't seem intent on changing that, I can only assume you just don't like dancing."
Mark took a sip of the ale. It was thin and bitter. Probably a cheap Ilian import. "Astute observations you've got there," the tactician murmured. "With your powers of deduction, I don't know why you're not working in Ostia."
"Or in Bern."
Mark remained silent. He just watched the bard in the corner. At the people dancing up and down the tavern floor, moving from one partner to another in tandem. He watched, drank, and thought.
War was coming. Anyone who'd been in Bern or at its borders could see that. Or at least he could see it, because given the lack of preparation he'd seen in any of the other Elibian nations suggested that their leaders were naïve, ignorant, or both. He wanted to think better of Hector. He wanted to believe that Zephiel was still the decent person he'd helped rescue two decades ago. But above all else, Mark believed what his eyes told him, and the number of soldiers moving around Bern's borders told him that they were there for reasons that extended beyond their host nation.
The tactician finished the last of the grog. It still tasted bitter.
Mark remained silent. He wanted to think. Grog wouldn't help that process. But when war came, chances were alcohol would be hard to get.
Mark nodded. More swill was poured. He took it, got up, and walked to a table. A table where another individual was that wasn't dancing, or singing, or even just clapping along to the all so jolly tale of bears, maidens, and honey that didn't sound like honey at all. He stood. Then sat down.
"You know," the man said. "I was beginning to wonder when you'd notice me."
"Were you trying to be inconspicuous?"
The man shrugged. "I watch. I wait. I'm meant to contact you, but since we're in Lycia, I figured I'd extend you the courtesy of coming to see me first." He gave a small smile. "It's good to know that years of apathy haven't dulled your keen eye Mark."
"And it's good to know that emissaries of Zephiel can at least address me by my name," Mark said, taking a swill of the grog and deciding that Ilia could go the way of the dragons if this was the best beer it could produce, snowy climate or otherwise. "Legendary Tactician is a title I'm not sure I can live up to."
"Well, Zephiel's sure. Etruria's sure. And I'm sure if you went to one of your old Lycian friends, they'd stake their armies on it as well." The man took a sip of his own ale. "What's the largest army you've ever commanded?"
Mark remained silent. The bard and patrons didn't.
"Let's be honest here," the man said. "War's coming. A war that will unite the continent under a single ruler. One last war to end all wars."
"You're pretty confident of victory then," Mark mused.
The man shrugged. "I have no reason not to be. Sacae is indefensible. Ilia breeds hardy stock, but any conquest of it would be made easy with Sacae as a staging point for supplies. Lycia can defy Bern for awhile, but you know as well as I do that its territorial division is its Achilles heel in a military sense."
"Well, that's where we may need you," the emissary said. "Of course, having you sooner rather than later would be much preferred. You know Lycia. You personally know its ruler, and the head of one of its most prominent houses. At the least, you can help us defeat them. At best, you could convince them not to fight at all."
"Or I could ride to Pherae right now and tell my old friend that I have undeniable proof that Bern is preparing for war," Mark said, taking a sip of the beer despite its taste.
"You could," the emissary said. "But that would be quite stupid."
The emissary remained silent. Mark watched him. Black hair, black cloak, brown eyes. He wanted to assign some kind of mental name for him, but he came up with nothing.
"Do you want to know why I think you should aid my king?" the emissary asked. It was rhetorical question. "Well, for starters, when you're in the war tent planning with some of the greatest generals this land has ever seen, I can promise you you'll be served actual wine, not this piss-poor excuse for grog."
"And yet you still want Ilia…"
"But to spare a lengthy speech that would require delicate circumvention of specific numbers, I'll just point you to the dance floor," the emissary continued. He gestured towards the crowd.
Mark looked over his shoulder. "What?" he asked.
Mark watched. It was a simple dance. Right hand met right hand, the dancers circled each other, then moved on to the next partner.
"Hand of friendship, however brief," the emissary said. "It's a mercenary's life, isn't it? Hands meet, you do your little dance, then you move on to repeat the process."
Mark turned back to face him. "I've heard better metaphors."
"Perhaps. But I'd like to point out that the music is about to stop. Bern's hand is going to close around Elibe. At the least, I'm offering you the position of one of the fingers."
"Pinkie? Ring finger?"
The man's gaze narrowed. "Don't be smart Mark."
"No? Strange. I thought you'd say I should do the smart thing and start asking how much gold is being offered for my services."
"Well if it's gold you want-"
"No. I don't." Mark set the pint down. "I want some beer that doesn't taste like my grandmother's piss."
The emissary sighed. The music stopped. Clapping filled the tavern.
"The dance is over," the man said. "Music's stopped." He got to his feet. "Just make sure you end up singing in the right corner by the time the coda is reached."
Mark watched the emissary head to the counter, depositing a pile of silver pieces that were more than enough to cover his expenses. He watched as the emissary left. He watched as a new song started, and another dance began.
He stayed there watching for a long time.