Nine sat around the old oak table. Some were dressed in enough finery and magic to beggar a city. Others were so non-descript their features would not be remembered once this meeting adjourned. The power inherent in this gathering was so great the very act of them being in one place could easily start a war or shatter a nation.
In fact, the matter up for debate involved both.
Though none were technically in charge, most at the table looked to one in particular more often than the rest. Broad shouldered and as comfortable in his plate armor as one might be in tailored silk, he stared back at them with an impassive, noble calm no matter how heated the argument became.
The same, unfortunately, could not be said for some of the others. Some, like the thin-faced man seated closest to the door, had a great deal to say and none of it nicely.
“This situation is growing more intolerable by the day!" Quiet nods from many at the table emboldened him to keep speaking. “We had an agreement, a bargain. One that has so far yielded very little return for our investment!”
The woman beside him, her face veiled in the deep shadows of her hood, picked up before he finished drawing his next breath. Her black-tinted lips, curved in the smile they had held for most of the meeting, parted as she spoke in a breathy whisper. “Many here, truth be told, have profited handsomely from our mutual arrangement. I do not think any of us are exactly paupers, especially you.”
The man glared, his brow wrinkling over his thin, hawkish nose. “Money isn’t the point here. This is not about coin; it’s about power." Again, several of the others nodded in silent agreement.
One, a man dressed in courtly garb with a dark cloak covering his lavish clothes, was eager to speak as well. “I could not have said it better myself. There is no question we are making a profit off the green new world. But what we are gaining in coin, we are losing in influence over the Coin Lords.”
“Here, here!" A tall man with thick red hair and a small scar on his left cheek raised the ale mug he’d been draining for more than an hour. Until this moment, the only times he spoke were to summon the tavern’s single serving girl for more dark lager. “We profit because we have leverage. Our houses could just-”
He was cut off by a stern look from the weasel-faced man. “This has nothing to do with our houses. Don’t let drink addle you into thinking we can rely on our positions. We cannot afford to make our involvement with each other public knowledge. Rank and title will not make this problem go away.”
The hooded woman, her lithe jaw and long neck suggesting elven blood in her ancestry, held up one hand. “A problem, I might remind everyone, that not all of us are convinced even exists." That got a few murmurs and, much to the obvious disappointment of some, a few nods as well. “Goods keep arriving on time and dividends keep being paid.”
With another withering glare, the hawkish man placed a hand deliberately over the map spread in front of them. “Yes, but for how much longer? You say we have all profited, and that might be true." He drew his hand up into a partial fist, one finger extended to point at a small dot on the coastline of the map. Lettering beside the dot read Stormreach in fine cartographer’s script. “But can anyone here deny that this year was a pale comparison to the last one?”
He looked around the table but no one, not even the woman with black lips, could deny his point. Several looked to the armored warrior as they had many times before, but when he did not decry the point, they stayed silent as well.
“That, to me, is a problem. One that needs to be dealt with swiftly if our investments are to remain safe. We have to do something, perhaps something drastic.”
Those words got everyone’s attention. The only other woman at the table, a blonde halfling as serious in demeanor as she was short of stature, was the first speak after him. “All right. I’ll hear you out.” Around her, others murmured the same. Only the man in plate stayed quiet. Utterly, completely quiet.
“I suggest we move up Endgame. We need to put it into effect while we still have pawns left on the board.”
The red-haired man was the first to respond, shouting what most around the table were about to say. “Are you mad?! We don’t have anywhere near the resources to do that and besides, this isn’t a game. You are talking about—”
The weasel faced man stood suddenly, staring hostilely across the table at him. “I know exactly what I am talking about! Don’t forget that it will be my fleet, my ships and crews, on the line! I stand to lose as much as the rest of you. A lot more than some!" He stabbed the map with his manicured finger, circling Stormreach hard enough to tear the parchment. “Is anyone here willing to sit by while we lose all control over this port and the people in it?”
He looked at each and every person seated around him, stopping with his eyes fixed on the big man in armor. “Any of you?”
For quite some time, nothing was said. The silence was only broken by the shift of heavy metal plates. Leaning forward, the adamantine clad warrior spoke in a rumbling tone that suited his rugged frame. “We started doing this to bring peace to Xen’drik – the kind of peace we knew we’d never see in Khorvaire." He looked at the others, searching their faces with his one good eye, the other hidden beneath an engraved patch of dark steel and leather. “Are we really willing to resort to war just to keep our coffers full? Has our aim slipped so low?" He asked the question only once, but his gaze implored each person at the table in turn, repeating the words with the stare of his unflinching, storm grey eye.
The lack of an answer from any of them was all he needed to hear and, from the slow set of his shoulders as he rose form his chair, was exactly what he’d expected. “I see." From a scroll case on his right leg, he drew forth a gilt-edged roll of parchment and touched its end to the flame of the lantern beside him.
“I cannot be a part of this. I wish none of you ill, but I cannot follow where you are going." With that, he threw the rapidly burning contract into the nearby hearth, its spirals turning to ash as he walked slowly from the room.
The sound of the door closing behind him sent the motionless gathering into a frenzy of murmurs and motion. Some looked disgusted; others looked concerned. The man who’d started the discussion of Endgame just looked furious. “He could ruin everything,” he muttered under his breath.
Only one other person at the table could hear him, but that was fine. She was the only person that needed to, after all. Thin black lips parted, though the smile was gone from them now. “Perhaps. If you can convince the others to go along with this, I will deal with him."
It was not a hard condition to meet. With the warrior’s departure, the others were looking for someone to guide them. There would never be a better chance than this. In a way, the noble fool had made things so much easier by leaving.
The vote was unanimous.
Endgame was at hand.