The shores of the Duchy of Weselton were always covered in a thick fog, especially in the early hours of the morning. Usually the watchguard patrolling the fortifications of the coast would wait for the first rays of dawn’s light to penetrate the mist, before greeting the beautiful rising sun with a breakfast of bread, fruit, and tea atop their forts.
There wasn’t much to do here. Every ship that passed through this coastal border was either a trade delegation, civilian tourist ship, or diplomatic vessel. Day after day, the soldiers’ rifles would be idly lined up against the walls of the forts as they patrolled away the mornings and afternoons. When evening came, they’d return to their barracks to dine heartily, play cards, and even go for a dip in the waters. The seaside wasn’t a bad posting for a soldier with little appetite for real battle.
That would change today.
It wasn’t even six o’clock. There were disturbed, panicked mutters and arguments between the troops on the highest points of the Weselton defences as the mists began to part, sliced aside by the smooth hulls of powerful, stately war clippers. The coastal guard shot several warning fires into the sky.
“Stop and prepare to be boarded for inspection!” he barked, but the ships ignored him. “Oi! OI!”
The troops, sensing something was wrong, joined in the shouting, and a flag of final warning – red – was raised. But the ships continued sailing towards them.
“Sir!” cried a uniformed sergeant, pointing at the ships as he peered through a telescope. “These aren’t trade ships. They’re warships! They’re bristling with cannon ports!”
“What?” said an older-looking man, in a more elaborate uniform than his men. He glanced at the gathered soldiers behind him. They all looked shocked, almost confused – there hadn’t been any military confrontation or maritime scuffle near Weselton shores in decades. “What are you doing, standing there and gawping at me like idiots? To your positions!” he barked, waving his hand. “Hurry!”
“They look American-built, but they don’t have the United States flag on them! They’re private ships,” cried the sergeant, who was trying to get a closer look at the billowing flags. “There’s an emblem of some trading company.”
He felt a chill. “A wheat stalk imposed over a shield? Isn’t that the coat of arms of Arendelle’s queen, Anna?”
“So they do belong to some Arendellian merchant? But why are they primed to fire on us? What in the blazes is Arendelle’s leader thinking?” barked the commander in disbelief. His stomach felt queasy. They’d been caught completely off-balance. “Ready the howitzers, hurry!”
“Wait – on the other flags… it’s… it’s a family crest!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” cried the commander. He grabbed the telescope from the sergeant, moustache bristling, and peered inside. “An… an eagle on top of a knight’s helm… three eagle heads over a black stripe, on a yellow shield…”
His eyes widened. “That’s the insignia of the Harrisons of James River! That American First Family?”
A small fleet of Harrison’s private ships, numbering five, had been lent to Skau-Krogh. The ships emerged from the Weselton mist and cut across the saltwater, preparing to bombard the Weselton defences.
Leading them: the Virginian heir’s terrifying flagship, the Enslaver.
Inside the incredibly spacious and comfortable cabin of the Enslaver was Harrison’s secretary, Tiffany Hunsecker, who lounged about on a comfortable couch. She stroked her luxurious mink coat as the captain stood before her. “The cannons are primed and ready,” he said, saluting and doing his best to ignore her expensive yet strangely tasteless dress.
“Good. I hope Lars Krogh doesn’t get too drunk on power just because Mr. Harrison lent him a few ships from his fleet of nineteen,” tittered Tiffany, comfortable amidst fur carpets, luxurious leather, and gently-lit candles.
The captain nodded in agreement. “I’m sure Mr. Krogh must feel rather good, as if he were reliving the glory days of Europe’s East India Companies. I’m sure he knows his place. If he doesn’t, Mr. Harrison will find out easily and punish him. No worries, Miss Hunsecker.”
“Ironic. As a major shareholder of the Brits’ East India Company, Mr. Harrison had ordered an attack on Kristoff’s clipper many months ago. Queen Anna managed to get Victoria to punish the EIC, but she never knew who really pulled the strings.” Tiffany put a finger on her chin, pouting. “I seem to recall Viola Mundilfari once almost consigned Arendelle to ashes with her own warship, Muspelheim. Or at least she threatened to, but faltered thanks to her own queen. The Countess actually cared about Anna! She surrendered to her, yet didn’t join the Exalted? What a pathetic woman.”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied the captain patiently.
“Captain, let’s show these undersized minnow the effortless power and majesty of an Exalted member,” she sniffed, standing. “Mr. Harrison warned us: no fantasies about annexing Weselton, please. This is about Skau-Krogh flexing the muscle of its new private military. Just shell the forts along the coast, and blow their defences to smithereens. We want every ally of Queen Anna to feel a chill, to think twice about coming to Arendelle’s financial or political aid so eagerly. We’re going to pick off each signatory to Anna’s silly alliance, one by one, until Arendelle is like an isolated, wounded gazelle, ready for the lion to enjoy.”
The ships began to turn, starboards facing Weselton’s coastline. At the command that was bellowed across all main decks – “Bombardment!” – a dizzying storm of cannonfire erupted from the fleet, pounding into the forts and towers protecting the Weselton inland. Screaming troops were hurled into the air and stone blown apart, chunks of fortifications flung into the sky and across the rapidly scarred landscape. The commander tried his best to rally his men, but another volley from row after row of ferocious, state-of-the-art armaments scattered the desperate regiments that struggled to even mount a resistance. Some scrambled to their positions and fired wildly at the warships with their rifles, but it was largely useless as Harrison’s ships intensified their barrage. Another round of relentless fire, and Weselton’s troops were soon staggering about their own forts’ smoky debris, disoriented, with many wounded.
The largest guns came from the Enslaver, which delivered the most devastating assault against the shoreline, pummelling the natural landscape and hurling up huge funnels of sand from its cutting edge Paixhans guns – advanced armaments that Harrison had astutely purchased from France and installed on his warships. They fired relentlessly, the onslaught reducing the Weselton defences to rubble. “Our lines are collapsing, commander!” screamed a soldier at the coastline commander, bleeding from the head. All around was cacophony and bedlam. “Dozens are injured! We can’t man the howitzers and we don’t have any space to make formations! Orders, please!”
Clutching his bleeding arm, the moustached leader clenched his teeth as all around him, his men scattered amidst ruined stone and metal. He closed his eyes in frustration as he groaned out the words: “We retreat. Retreat! Warn the Duke! We’re under attack! The duchy is under attack!”
He raised his hand, steering a managed rout as the troops fled. Some scooped up wounded comrades, carrying them on stretchers or supporting them as they limped away from the ongoing blasts.
The entire coastline of Weselton lay in ruins.
“Mission accomplished, Miss Hunsecker,” said the captain of the Enslaver. “My boys tell me that the coast has gone silent. They’ve probably beaten it.”
Tiffany smiled. “Good. Now send in the troops and occupy the shore. Set up a base of command and raise the Harrison family flag, darl! Mr. Harrison wants me to parlay with the Duke for some favourable terms.”
The captain frowned as a cabin boy burst in and ran to his side, whispering in his ear. His expression turned into one of concern. “It seems that Arendelle got wind of our attack a few days ago. The Duke was apparently ready to evacuate and has fled – typical of him to use his own troops as sacrificial bait. Now that he knows that we’re here, he’ll definitely head to Arendelle to tell Anna – should we pursue?”
“Always the wily survivor, that duke,” replied Tiffany. “Anna and friends now know that Lars has been lent Mr. Harrison’s war machine, but this changes nothing. The Duke will still have to return to his home unless Anna lets him squat in Arendelle Castle, which I doubt will happen. And when he returns… I’ll have him sign whatever I want.”
She began pacing about, debating with herself about the terms of peace that Harrison could force the Duke of Weselton to sign. After all, this would be a test subject for future intimidation against the rest of Anna’s friends: Zaria, Vakretta, and Chatho were next on Harrison’s hit list. It wasn’t about forcing them to abrogate Anna’s Entente of Small Kingdoms, although it would be nice if the defeated parties agreed to that. It was about forcing them to sign terms that would cripple their involvement in Anna’s alliance.
She stroked her chin happily. “After all, when all is said and done, it’ll be Mr. Harrison who drags the humiliated Queen of Arendelle’s hand across a piece of paper he’s prepared – the convention that concedes all of her trading rights with the Celestial Empire to him!”