Negotiations were tense.
No – scratch that. Negotiations were at an impasse. Both sides issuing thinly veiled threats.
No – scratch that. One side issuing thinly veiled threats. James Fletcher du Morn, make that Prince James, had come to hammer out an agreement with Fath Tulonkul of Sansuatir. A large dwarven mine and fortress. It was not going well.
“You see, Fath”, he said with sneer and no honourific, “human armies are vast. Why, any of out neighbours could overwhelm your little fortress. It may be true that one dwarf is worth two men, but what can you do when yo face an army of a dozen men for every dwarf? And our armies are even greater than those of our neighbours. But a small tribute will keep you, your family, and your people safe from such nuisances.”
Civilisation is and always has been a protection racket. Even the gods play the same game. In our own reality, we have a god named Jehovah, who’s scam is to not throw you into hell to be tortured unceasingly forever if you will worship and obey him. All he wants is your eternal soul. Charming.
“Aye, Prince James”, Fath Tulonkul replied, “but no human army would be fool enough to attack the dwarves. Why, even if you win, you lose.”
“Oh really?”, sneered the prince. “I place little credit in these myths of dwarven secret weapons. You have nothing but steel, which is fine, but not enough.”
And so, in the veiled and indirect language of diplomacy, the threat was made. Show me this secret weapon of yours, convince men not to attack, or I will go ahead and do it.
“Secret weapon, is it?”. Foreman Tulonkol considered. He was backed into a corner and knew it. “Aye. Secret enough. Call me overdrmatic, but merely the knowlege that we have this weapon would be fatal, if it were to escape. You be a military man, I see. D’ye have a man in yer party ye trust? A man good with numbers? Knowledgable in affairs – trade, management ‘o the kingdom? A man who can keep a secret? Ye’ll not want this noised about, trust me. I’ll show ye, then ye’ll know the whole truth. And if ye do not understand it, your man will.”
Prince James tried to judge the foreman’s intent, but his face was inscrutable behind his cursed beard. “Very well. I would see this terrible weapon of yours. Geoffrey! Attend! No, I need no guard. We are guests.” He did not make threats to assure his safety. A ruler must not be seen to care for it.
The foreman called for torches, as human were effectively blind in the dark. “We are going to stock room nineteen.” The other dwarves reacted, startled, but swiftly composed themselves. “Intriguing” thought the prince. He and his factotum descended, down into the depths of the mountain, to see this fearsome weapon.
Stairs stairs stairs, they descended what seemed a mile, and may have been. Prince James and Geofrey’s legs ached from treads just a little too shallow for one step, a little too deep to take two at a time. But wonderfully well made, and broad, and populated with dwarves scurrying up and down. They came to an archway without even a door. “Here we are”, said foreman Tulonkol, “stock room nineteen”.
Beyond was gold.
Gold, gold, gold. Palletloads of gold ingots. A kingdom’s – an empire’s ransom in gold. Neatly stacked. Each bar hallmarked and numbered in dwarf script. More gold than either the price or his factotum ever dreamed existed in the whole world.
“Now you two just sit for a moment and look your fill, because I know that whats in this stockroom is what your pretty threats are all about, and then I will explain to you a little about how the world works.”
The prince recovered first. Despite appearances, he had been trained in a hard school. “Now look ye at all this gold. First thing ye need to know is: we have assayed that stuff ye use in yer coins. It’s about one third gold, the rest mainly copper. This stuff is pure. We adulterate it to match before we trade with humans: you humans have never seen pure gold. So look at this lot and triple it in yer mind’s eye.”
“We dwarves mostly have no idea why ye humans value this shit like ye do. It’s heavy, it’s soft. The only thing about it is that it doesn’t corrode – which makes it useful as a cladding, it’s pretty, it’s an unusual colour for a metal, and ye think it’s rare. Now Geoffrey: ye are a trader, ye have a chest ‘o coins under yer bed. What was it worth an hour ago? What is it worth now that ye have seen this? A lifetime of yer accumulated work – I could replace it with a bar or two off that pallet there.
Geoffrey paled. “I see yer beginning ter understand. There’s enough in this stockroom to buy yer whole kingdom five times over … but here’s the thing: if we tried to actually do that, it wouldn’t work now would it? Because people would change their ideas about what gold is worth. Not that it would matter to you, because what is in your treasury right now would become worthless within a week of people knowing just how much of this stuff we have down here.”
“Now, you’ve been making threats. All pretty and disguised, but threats all the same. Armies and whatnot. Well you listen to my threat: if you do anything even half as stupid as beginning to mass an army anywhere near this fort, we will load this stuff into saddlebags, put them on oxen and horses, and drive those animals into your lands – the gold free for the taking. A river of the stuff. Your kingdom will collapse, because ye’ll be unable to buy the loyalty of yer barons.
“But I see his highness is unconvinced. So let me put it this way:
“If ye bring an army against this fort, we will mold this stuff into half-pound darts, tip them with steel, and catapult them by the bucket into yer troops. Now you think, yer highness, you pay yer troops -what – two silvers a day? What will happen to their order and morale when we do that?”
And now the prince paled.
“Those darts will kill a lot of men. The ones that are left will be scrabbling about in the wounds of their brothers, looking for the gold. They’ll fill their pockets with it and then they’ll run home to spend it. They’ll never forget their shame. Yer army will be broken for a generation or more.”
“And, of course, we could always simply start shipping this stuff to yer neighbours. We wouldn’t even have to be obvious about it – just arrange for our traders to give better terms to theirs. Ye can shift a surprising amount that way.”
Foreman Tulonkol paused for a bit. “Well, there it is. There’s yer secret weapon. What do ye say to all that?”
Geoffrey, still stunned at the implications, blurted “we can switch to sterling for coinage…”. The foreman shook his head and replied, “would ye like to see what’s in stock room twenty-seven?”
The prince was silent. Shocked and angry, his mind replaying the scene of his men deaf to orders, scrabbling about in mud and blood for the gold. Foreman Tulonkol said, “If ye’ve nothing more to ask, we can climb back up. But before we go,” he took an ingot from a pallet, “this is dwarf gold. 99 percent pure. The real stuff. Want it?” Geoffrey reached out, and then recoiled as if he were about to touch a snake. “That’s the spirit!”, said the foreman. “Shall we go?”
The prince turned to his factotum. “On pain of death, for you and whomever you reveal this to, you will never speak of this.” The factotum nodded. “I understand, your highness.” Then they turned and ascended the stairs in silence.