It was Ungernazern who had broken the tranquillity between the three figures on the swaying howdah, the journey that had continued past two of the great walls of Tel-Belit, spared from interruption but for the base rumblings of the elephant and the clattering of ironclad hooves.
“Come now, my Lord Dakatha,” replied Ahassunat as she reclined languidly on plump cushions of silk and smiling at him banally, “Clearly you jest.” As she spoke she absent-mindedly she fed dates to a conclave of chirping red-coated monkeys, a gang of six which had clambered up the elephants gilded sides to squat before her inquisitively. Ungernazern turned to fix her with a scowl, and the monkeys chirped and hissed at each other over the dates, squabbling over their small feast.
“I do not.” The Prince of Tel Belit retorted, voice tinged in bitterness and brow furrowed into deep craggy lines - a feature worn in deep by the chains of his office. “The matriarchs of Surabhumi will not keep this agreement for long, this will only allow them an opening to rebuild their fragmented fleets into a fighting force to challenge the republic once more. We endanger our mastery of the seas, our trade monopoly and Tel-Belit itself for what? For backstabbing Abbot-lords chanting to a dark, blood hungry gods? a mob of obstinate mountain men who smell of goat, and cut each others throats on a whim?”
Ahassunat snorted, amused at his tone even as she fixed him with single raised pale eyebrow. Her face was of the blood of Old Sanghara; imperious, sensual and haughty, with dark red sun-kissed skin matching an strong aquiline nose, enhanced by oceanically carved and bejewelled horns. But for numerous thin scars across her jaw and cheeks - and the ruthless lilt of her tigerish orange eyes - she could have been mistaken for a sorceress priestess of Ishareth in robes of an Asurbaal, if she had not instead chosen the office and brine-stained leathers of a sea captain.
“Calm yourself Lord,” she said, attempting to sooth the rancorous old leathery Sangharan Prince. “The Surabhuma have built fleets before and what has become of them? Why, they have all burned! For a thousand years they have tried to contest our dominance of the Ebon, each attempt greater than the last, and every one of them has been turned to kindling within a generation by our Dragonships. What is really contested is not the sea but the land, and surely you must admit that the reconquest of our wayward subjects will ensure further stability of Tel-Belit’s position?”
“Bah!” Ungernazern waved her away, turning to stare across the dwindling edge of the city.
Ahassunat watched him as he brooded, studying the man as he looked out across enclosed rice paddies and vegetable gardens tended to by the Hazarpresh, eking an existence in this small sliver of territory that Tel-Belit governed. The haggard old Sanghar did not sit well in his purple Dakatha robes or the baubles and gems of office that fitted his fingers, and he fidgeted with them constantly. The gilded scale and leather underneath however… that, Ahassunat noticed, sat as easy on him as a second skin.
“Even if we accept that this is so,” he continued at last, “there is no assurance the war won’t just be a waste of manpower and resources. If Surabhumi chooses to challenge us, we will face the same overwhelming odds our people always have. This is not the age of Hamilkarr, there will be no saviour to leap in and change the course of destiny, no Arcana to balance the scales between us, no… this will be a war both inclement and bloody… a brutal conflict Sanghara has not seen since the first two Century Wars.”
It was their third companion, the doughy Machezzar of the Guilds of Trade who had interjected. Easy living had smoothed his features beneath layers of fat, and rich trade deals had decked him in gold and silver. Unlike Ungernazern and his discomfort with finery, these decadent gems fitted him like a silk glove, for he was a man accustomed to indulgence and leisure. His chubby fingers swept to both sides, taking in the retinue that followed them as he spoke. “Do you trust so little in the power of our armies my lord? I admit that the bovids may bring forth a unwashed horde of untrained peasants on whim, but such armies are easily broken and dispersed by nothing less than a good charge of steel clad cataphracts and elephants. Numbers mean nothing to quality, and the armies of the republic are the most disciplined, supplied and well armed fighting force upon Ishareth’s blessed earth!”
Ungernazern smiled drily at that, “I imagine my good guildmaster, you have seen little of war with the Surabhi? They are better trained and equipped than you realise. A direct charge by them causes fear even in the boldest of soldiers, and their numbers are only matched by their tenacity.”
“Numbers and tenacity matter only so much my lord Dakatha. It is coin that wins wars, and it is we who are mightier by far there!” Machezzar’s face practically glowed with pride, the blood of generations of Sanghar merchants shining through to glorify this supposed primal ‘truth’. “Our merchants sail to all corners of the world whilst the Surabhuma make do with poor desert caravans and the exorbitant trade tithes. They can neither challenge us navally nor compete with our merchants in any port, and would be fools beyond belief to try. It is we who control the greater wealth of Vehndathaya and its future, not them.”
“For now at least…” Ungernazern seemed to muse once more on the topic, watching the honour guard of horsemen whose steel glad hooves clattered beside the giant elephant.
He could well understand Machezzar’s trust in them. They were fine looking soldiers, veterans of a dozen fierce campaigns through enemy territory, and with the phalera’s to prove it pinned upon their tabards. Clad in amber cloth and fine steel, their proud lances were raised high above them with snapping orange pendants that bore the feathered serpent of Sanghara. Glossy chestnut and milk white stallions snorted and stamped with pride beneath their riders, as sure in themselves as their own masters were. Their bodies were coated in silvery tide of interlocking scales, only matched in splendour by their gilded and coloured bridles and harnesses of polished leather. Above their riders were no less magnificent; equipped in turn in crocodile leather pteruges and reinforced by scale and banded steel, they stared out behind grimacing silver war masks and helms with cunning, fierce eyes. Each one bore the pelt of a snarling lion or tiger across their heads and shoulders, slain single handed in the dense jungles and dry southern forests of Shanrilaath, or the mountain wilderness of Tsang-Mah. Each one had had to prove themselves worthy of becoming Lion Guard, prove themselves worthy of becoming a elite rider, and so they earned such status through this token of their courage, this symbol of their brotherhood in the equestrian order.
Yes, Ungernazern mused, these were unparalleled warriors. Each one was a titan amongst their kin, a Sanghar of many virtues, and a keen bladed slayer when the time came for blood and steel.
“I apologise master guildsman, I did not mean to so greatly disrespect the fine soldiers of the republic. Truly they are without peer. But… they are not without number. Do we so easily forget the Battle of the Red Rivers? One wrong move could lose all the nobilitas and skill of tens of thousands of warriors, and Sanghara has not the means to easily replace them.”
Machezzar shrugged, his eyes were dark and deep set in his skull, and his pate and face clean shaven. Ungernazern mused almost inexplicably, that the merchant could have almost been mistaken for a eunuch in the right light. “True enough my lord, but the territory we shall be fighting in is well known to us, Tsang-Mah was an imperial province for centuries. If the Surabhuma betray the agreement, we, not them, shall know the terrain best. Besides…” he chuckled, flicking a silver coin through the air, “there is always thousands of sellswords willing to serve in our ranks for gold, pillage and glory.”
“Regardless to all that,” Ahassunat interjected as she shooed away her monkey familiars with a brush of her hand, “the Dakathan Senate has declared that this deal must happen. We small players cannot change the course of a nation, no matter how we might personally disagree with it. Instead we must play the part assigned to us, and look!” she gestured smiling to the final gate of Tel Belit before them, “the stage now opens up before us all, shall we not strike a pose?”
As the mahout brought the great elephant to halt before the great ebony gates, waiting on the forty guardsmen to pull the iron studded heavy doors open for them, his passengers lapsed into silence. Regardless of their personal outlooks on the issue, that was the fundamental truth of it. None of them could or would dare to oppose the motion politically, least they attract the ire of the Senate. Thus they were here in this place, marching towards an embassy just as unsettled as they upon the sandy shores before Tel-Belit, to ‘make peace’ with their nations most ancient enemy.
A peace they each knew could never last.
The personal fleet of Shridaveh Enheduana rested upon the beach, steadily disgorging their contents. Gleaming, mail encased infantry marched in a steady column from the decks of the vessels. They formed a steady column as they streamed from the ramps, seeming to melt into neat rectangular formations, each soldier holding her shield at ready and her spear by her side. Behind them marched archers, similarly armored in mail, but not nearly to the same extent, their bows were unstrung and had only just been taken from the protective wrappings that sealed them from the damaging moisture and salt of the sea. There were of course almost no cavalry with them, save for a small squad of about ten. Each rider sat astride a massive bull, almost unrecognizeable as such beneath the chainmail and segmented plates of steel that covered the beasts. These mounted shock troopers sat silently behind the persons they had been sent to escort, faces obscured by masks of bronze cast in the image of a scowling face.
Behind the soldiers flowed a thickening tide of scribes, attendants, artisans, laborers, and merchants. Heavy crates of goods, gleaming ingots of Ukkayan steel carried by burly smiths, laborers marching with lumber and canvas to erect pavilions, bundles of sugarcane, and more. Even cooks swirled among their number, barrels of both water and rum, exotic delicacies from every corner of Surabhumi. Expensive and lavish gifts and display from the empire in the north.
“It is impressive.” Noted one of the few individuals not bedecked in armor, “But I cannot help but question the reasons for bringing them. We are here to negotiate, not do battle or build a town. Surely a smaller party would have been more practical?”
“You are a genius in many ways, Khalya, but I do not know why you were assigned to this. You are a blacksmith and an accountant, not a diplomat. I do not know why many of us are here, in truth - but bringing such a large escort is a show of power.” The new speaker was also unarmored, but richly dressed in luscious violet and yellow robes. “It demonstrates to Sanghara that we are not a… ‘paper tiger’ I believe is the term they use. It shows we can afford to send a party of such size and magnificence with ease, that we do not come to their meeting cowed and seeking cessation of hostilities. They know as well as we do that they cannot match us on land, and we cannot match them at sea. This is how it has been for some time, and only fools believe otherwise. This is nevertheless an opportunity to flex our muscle and let the might and wealth of Surabhumi be felt across the land, no longer hampered by mountains and marauding Sangharan pirates.”
“You are optimistic, Sujati.” Observed a third beside them. Unlike the first two, she sat astride her mount bedecked in full armor, heavy chain gleaming dully in the light of the sun, a sword and an axe at her sides. “I am hopeful that none of you are under any delusions about this meeting, yes? This is no peace treaty or commerce agreement, this is a temporary armistice. We both have our plans for expansion - Sanghara wishes to reclaim its old continental holdings, we wish to reclaim more of the old empire and to engage in broader trade with the rest of the world. These are incompatible goals in the long run. Say Sanghara conquers some of the land they seek, and we acquire a proper fleet and send trading missions abroad - it can only end in bloodshed. As we begin to cut into their profits the Sangharan lords will clamor to stop us and preserve their coin purses. As Sanghara claims more of the mainland we will have to put our foot down lest they lay eyes on Odhisa, Ditadisha, or other nations in our sphere of influence. The Sangharans know that and so does every one of those soldiers you see marching before you.”
On the other side of the small cluster of individuals, a lone Sanghar woman cleared her throat, drawing the attention of the bickering party. “It is my fleet you sailed on to reach this meeting. And it is my fleet, and the fleet of the nation at large, that we hope to gain some respite for. You speak wisely, Aasmi. The rest of you - yes, Surabhumi is vast and immeasurably powerful on land - and at sea? We have fallen far. My grandmother assembled an armada that could threaten Sanghara itself, only taken from us by cruel fate. Now, a scant eighty three years later - look at us. Sixteen warships. Sixteen warships is all that remains of a force of thousands. My southern brethren may see themselves as the rightful masters of the seas - but I say we haven’t given them enough of a challenge. We must use this… armistice for what it is - a chance to build a fleet that can stand with the mightiest in the world!” She pumped her fist to punctuate her point, the armor she wore jingling with the motion. She was dressed in a curious fusion of Sanghar and Surabhi attire, the loose flowing garments of a more Surabhi bent combined with the intricate ornamentation often worn by Sangharan nobles.
Aasmi, the armored Surabhi, turned her eye towards the impetuous Sanghar woman. “I will not speak of what happened in the past, what needed to be said has been said long ago. But you do realize, my dear - you have in your personal employ half of the shipwrights in Surabhumi capable of equalling Sanghara. The grand total would only be impressive for a middling lord among them. Rebuilding our fleet is an admirable goal - but if you think we can do it on our own, I am afraid you are sorely mistaken.”
“Enough of this.” Spoke yet another voice, its composure and cadence different from the previous. “We are here to negotiate with Sanghara, not to bicker among ourselves.” Atop the fifth mount, a normal horse in place of the bulls ridden by the others, sat Vaidihe Nijasureh Mallam, an experienced diplomat personally assigned by Raani Anushravati. “The effects of this meeting and our forward policy can be determined after we conclude our dealings with the Sangharans.” She nodded towards the procession making its way towards them. “And I believe they are here now.”
The main party of thirty riders crossed the shadow of the Third Tiger Gate without incident, and made its way along the imperial road with good time, passing by hamlets and villages that clustered around the edge of the looming tripartite walls of Tel-Belit. Behind them a trail of seventy scribes, priests, diplomats, servants and footsmen kept pace with the elephant, bringing with them the assembled pleasures of the city in expertly carved and painted carts, pulled by heavy draft horses to the shores of Tel-Belit. As he looked upon the wall, Ungernazern mused that the jungle that now lingered just beyond the horizon had once touched the very gates long ago. But then war had come, and steely sinewed Sanghar had cut it back further and further with each generation, leaving only a plain of farms, grasslands and villages to inherit its remains. Tel-Belit had been a tenth of its current size then, a sleepy township barely beyond constructing its first ziggurat, surrounded by walls better used to oppose bandits than armies.
The Century Wars had changed all that.
It had survived by inches to begin with, then by deliberate measures. Its defenders had staunchly held their ground against the armies of Surabhumi with stubborn tenacity, and families of wealth and power had taken note of this seemingly inconsequential speck on the tip of Vehndathaya. The city had bloomed in a matter of decades, its population swelling with thousands of new arrivals as all clamoured to become citizens of the “Sapphire of Vehndathaya”. Its ports and shipyards soon burst to the seams with trade, the cities geographical position becoming useful as a major stopping point in trade both east and west; and necessitating an explosion of dock construction to support with the commercial hub it was soon to become. With prosperity and patronage came the impetus to build the mighty bastions of Tel-Belit, and it quickly rose from a single heap of cemented sandstone to three titanic red-brick walls over the course of two centuries. Infused with the magic of ancient rites and mystic alchemy, reinforced with granite and basalt, and entrenched by ditches, moats and murderholes, these massive structures towered over all but the purple ziggurats and cinnabar pagodas of the Dakatha in their immensity. Up to seventy feet high and forty feet thick, they had provided a nightmarish obstacle for any invading army, and although the Surabhuma had once overwhelmed two of them, they had never overwhelmed all three. The cost of those two alone had seem the deaths of many tens of thousands, and since then Surabhumi had attempted more guileful and patient tactics to seize Tel-Belit, the last of which had lit up the night sky in black and crimson, and turned the very seas to flame. Spreading above even the villages, walls and towers of Tel-Belit however, hung the true monument to its glory, and the staunchest reminder of Sangharan imperial power upon the continent.
The three ziggurats of House Escharaddon.
The central pyramid seemed so immense and huge that it almost cleaved the clouds, mists of vapour drifting around it like the smoking volcanoes of Shranrilaath. Each had been painted a rich non-fading purple and engraved with multicoloured bas-reliefs of festival, war, religious ritual and love-making betwixt brazen bands of shining copper which topped each tier. The sweat and toil of tens of thousands of Sanghar, Surabhi and Tu’mong labourers had ensured that no matter what came, these symbols of the Republic would never fade. With every coming dawn the three daughters of Tel-Belit were lit by the halo of the sun, which crowned them in regal, indefatigable majesty.
Ungernazern found it poetic. No matter how the republic waxed and waned in power, a new dawn would rise over the tops of these structures and signal the beginning of a new day. Dawn would always come again, and with it the resurgent glory of the Sangharan Republic.
“One wonders how much money the magisters could have saved to pay soldiers and build ships if they did not insist on building such massive gaudy palaces.”
Ungernazern shot Ahassunat a look and she smiled wryly in turn, cleaning her nails with a dagger. He knew she was baiting him and he did not rise to it. It was her way of testing the waters, of feeling out her prey and finding the right time to strike. If she ever found her ways into the Dakatha Senate, he would be loathe to give her that advantage over him.
“Much, one would imagine.” He replied in an even tone. “But would it have changed our situation for the better? Our guildsmaster here puts his faith in coin, but even coin cannot avert disaster. Regardless of the waxing and waning of the empire, the pyramids that our grandparents and forty times great grandparents still stand upon the shores of Ditadisha, Jatapu and Odisha. Crumbling though they may be, but they still stand.”
“True… true…” Machezzar cut in before Ahassunat could reply, “and they may stand still longer with the right moves in the great game.” He blinked, and peered into the distance, his jowls bunching as he scrutinised the sight, “and if I’m not mistaken that is our fine guests disembarking on the sands. We best hurry to meet them, the work of several months will not be undone by tardiness.”
As the mahout stirred the elephant to a quicker pace, their retinue spurred their horses to gallop to precipitate their arrival. The sound of trumpets erupted from the four outriders ahead of them, and brought all to a halt before the host that had gathered on the beach. The elephant was the final part of the forward embassy to arrive, its heavy feet grinding to a halt like a monolith as it rumblingly took its place behind the line of Lion Guard.
The first of their escort spurred his horse before the Surabhi and raised his mask, revealing the amber eyes and dusky complexion of a Tu’mong, staring imperiously at the assembled legions of Surabhi almost as if daring for them to challenge him. “We introduce our most esteemed excellency, lord of ships and sails, master of coin and ruler of Tel-Belit - the Sapphire of Vehndathaya, the unconquered city - his majesty lord Ungernazern of House Escharaddon. Furthermore accompanied by Lady Asurbaal Ahassumat Kesh, admiral of the twelfth fleet and victorious captain of the battle of Shamarazil Bay, and his noble eminence guildmaster Machezzar of Tel Taram-Ish who speak today for the Provincial Assembly of the Republic of Sanghara, long may it endure!”
A silence fell as the two groups squared off, examining each other with tense expectancy. It almost seemed as if they might have come to blows there and then, despite the numbers of the Surabhi, when Ahassumat swung down off the side of the elephant and took to heel the ground beneath her.
Dusting herself off, she looked up at the assembled host in amusement. “My oh my! You Surabhi do love to put on a good show, if we thought you’d bring an army with you we’d have brought extra pavilions with the carts. I do hope your soldiers are not going to stand like that all day. The midday sun ... well, it can be brutal around here.”
As Ungernazern lowered himself gracefully from the howdah, waving away servants with his hand Ahussunat eyed the ships with a look of faux-shock. “And what’s this? Sailing under the affectations and ships of the arch-traitoress herself! Tut, tut. Then again, I suppose we did burn the rest didn’t we?” Picking out Shridaveh Enheduana from amongst the assembled dignitaries she smirked viciously at her. “Now, you must be the granddaughter of the traitor I’ve been hearing about. Tell me if this is true, I’ve heard it bandied about the ports so often but I simply must know for myself. Did your grandmother, really drunkenly shit herself to death in a seedy brothel in Surabhumi? I really am desperate to know how ended the days of our most illustrious kindling provider, especially since our throat-slitters failed to find her.”
“Please, please!” It was Machezzar, the guildmaster almost tumbling off the back of the elephant - only saved from shame by the numerous straining and huffing servants beneath him - to intercede before diplomacy soured further, face flush with embarrassed. Now that coin and profit was on the table, he was all smiles and platitudes, but Ahassunat knew his daggers were still drawn behind all this flattery. “We are not here to trade in barbs but finalise the agreement between both nations. Shall we let petty grievance and old feuds get in the way of shared prosperity and peace? Come now, we must do better than that for our own people's sake.”
He turned to Ungernazern, bowing as graciously as his aching knees would allow “My lord Dakatha, you carry the final treaties with you of course?”
Ungernazern nodded stiffly to the assembled host, barely hiding a scowl of distaste as he did so. They’ve practically brought a war host to my city for the signing of a diplomatic treaty! Do they think to insult me with threats and sabre rattling? An aloof sigh was all he gave however to the his smouldering contempt, and he mellowed his features into something of a less grim countainence.
“All is ready to be read and for mutual parties engage in final alterations before signing.” He stated dryly, “I trust you have assembled a suitable pavilion for that purpose? Good. Then let us not waste any more time dallying. The midday sun will soon begin to roast us alive if we wait any longer. Your women can find water beyond that dune there, now let’s get this over and done with.”
“Unfortunately,” began Shridaveh, “My grandmother died in her bed at the grand age of a hundred and thirty three, her health had begun to decline. I believe she did have a little too much wine that evening and had flirted with a few servants, but beyond that she passed onto Ishareth surrounded by loving family.” She smiled, “But, my dear Ahassumat, I have to ask the same of you. Is it really true that Hamilkarr was crushed to death ‘neath the folds of fat of her favorite slave-whore? Or that she drowned in the aforementioned slave’s milk? I’ve heard conflicting tales, and am dying to know the truth of the matter. I do hope it wasn’t too fast, such an individual must not leave this plane too quickly after all.”
Another member of the delegation from Surabhumi spoke, a Surabhi priestess of Ishareth who also wore armor, though it was largely concealed beneath the loose flowing grey robes that covered most of her body. Its hood had been thrown back in favor of the kind of straw hat favored by field laborers, and a hint of a smile graced her lips. “Now now, Shridaveh.” She chided, “It is certainly enjoyable to engage in a little… wordplay, but there is time for the two of you to flirt after we have finished our business today.”
“You will find we have brought ample supplies of our own, and I and our entire party invite you to mingle and partake of the dishes and company we have brought. It is a great step we are taking, and we thought it only fitting that we take the appropriate steps to mark the occasion.”
The dusk of the evening gave way to the dim glow of candles and lanterns, and the murmur of instruments as Sanghar and Surabhi musicians filled the coming night air with song and revelry. Tu’mong dancers - their graceful agile limbs flickering through the haze of brazier smoke and incense like wraiths - caught the stare of many an onlooker in their passionate, focused gaze. Before them on a low table a banquet prepared by both dignitaries lay spread, steaming and filling the air with perfumed, spiced and exotic aromas.
On each wing, both sides soothed centuries of tension for a moment, choosing to enjoy the experience. Laughter and conversation rippled melodically through the assembled mass as they feasted, sang and drank, giving the meeting an air of festival which would have surprised folk of other nations. Only a small oasis of tranquility remained, cloistered between the notables of both nations as they hunched in and listened above the celebrations of their courtiers, surrounded by keen eyed scribes who listened to every word they said.
Ungernazern skewered a piece of curried duck with a two pronged fork and brought it to his lips as he eyed his counterparts. Now no longer bound to the conventions of reception, he and the others had shifted to something more civilian and functional. A bluegreen robe of patterned silk, featuring colourful dancing birds of Shanrilaath, lay loose down his shoulders and in great folds around his arms. His chest was bared, opals, sapphires, gold and silver amulets and medallions of service across scarlet skin. He was still well built for a man of his age and it showed, easy life had yet to mellow the hardened lines of his limbs. Then again, as the Dakatha of Tel-Belit, there was little ease in his position.
“So… six thousand bolts of patterned silk from the groves of Tel-Hanat and Tel-Kathit, along with three thousand unpatterned bolts from Tel-Eshtak in exchange for twenty thousand ingots of pure Ukkayan steel. Both merchants will have the right to examine the quality of the goods prior to exportation I assume?
Across the table sat the head of finance for Surabhumi, Aaliyu Navamaba Mallayeh, bedecked in finery, and scarcely touching the sumptuous feast arrayed before her. “Naturally.” She replied in an even tone, “A thousand talents of the finest Ukkayan steel in twenty thousand ingots. Your merchants will be able to examine every ingot personally if they wish.”
Beside her sat the priestess from earlier, still wearing chainmail underneath her plain robes. She seemed wholly uninterested in the mercantile proceedings, instead eagerly eating her fill of the feast arrayed before the assembled delegates. The keen observer would note that her ears remained perked up even as she seemed to gorge herself upon spiced duck and curried fish. Vast dishes of seasoned rice, vegetables in thick curries of spices from both empires. Turning to Aasmi, the similarly armored commander, she gushed effusively. “My dear, you simply must try this - it has been far too long since we received a shipment. I had forgotten how well the two spices complement each other. This dish alone would be worth a thousand treaties.”
Aasmi demurred. She did, of course, partake of the feast - but kept a reserved and aloof air as she observed the proceedings. “Please, Sujati.” She whispered to the priestess, “You do realize we are here to negotiate, not to eat ourselves silly?”
In response, Sujati merely smiled, “No, my dear - it is you and the others who are here to discuss. I am merely a scholar and priestess who was assigned to officiate any rituals and oaths we might make. Besides - how often do we have the chance to enjoy such fine dining in the presence of such esteemed guests?” She held aloft a spoon, vegetables swimming in a heady cocktail of spices alongside mouthwateringly tender slices of crocodile meat. “Humor me and taste this, at least.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Machezzar gushed, eyes glinting at the very thought of counting through such high quality steel. “I’m sure you will honour the agreement as willingly as our silk merchants shall, a gesture of good faith between both our peoples. Truly it has been a long time since such quality steel passed through the ports some of our cities.”
Ungernazern nodded, signalling to the scribes to write down the adjustment to the agreement, only to be interrupted from his elbow as Ahassunat snorted, a mouth full of sweet potato and succulent lamb reducing her chuckles to a mild cough. “For now at least.” She retorted, clearing her throat and giving a cheerful smile to Shridaveh across the table. “Our smiths continue to explore the deeper alchemy of metals and the forging of steel, for now Surabhumi holds supremacy in such matters, but for how long I wonder?”
Looking up from her meal, Sujati quirked an eyebrow, a broad grin creeping across her face as, further down the table, Khalya’s head jerked sharply in Ahassunat’s direction. “Excuse me, but I must have misheard you.” She called over, frowning. “But I could have sworn you claimed that you would surpass the smiths of Surabhumi in metalworking techniques? Please forgive me, but I find this assertion preposterous. Sanghara may have the edge in the sophistication of magical technique, but to claim a Sangharan smith could outdo those of Surabhumi is akin to claiming I could build a better warship than your finest shipwright. I am afraid, my lady, that you sorely overestimate your capabilities. It is somewhat amusing, in truth.”
Sujati frowned, “Now now, my dear. We cannot fault Ahassunat for what she does not know. Do not be too harsh.”
Ahassunat shrugged, “Times change. What has been may come again, and what will be can disappear as quickly as it appears. The world is not a static, stagnant thing. Who knows what the future holds? Certainly not you or I. Perhaps you water-shy Surabhi will learn the craft of shipwrighting, perhaps we shall discover the secrets of steel.” She smiled at that, “perhaps we shall supercede you in both? One decision can change the entire course of history.”
“Irrelevant.” Ungernazern interjected, a scowl across his face as he shot Ahassunat a searching glance, “We are here to discuss tangible realities, not scry futures like two-penny street magicians.”
Ahassunat rolled her eyes and turned back to the food, picking up a rib of paprika and chilli dusted beef and gnawing on it voraciously. Ungernazern, satisfied that Ahassunat would not interrupt further, turned again to Aaliyu, eyeing her evenly. “Naturally there are other topics to consider; the flow of sugar and spices between both nations being one, I assume our financiers can discuss the minutiae of such things. One matter that has doubtless been of some concern will be the flow of coffee from the southern nations of Vehndathaya, Tsang-Mah and Nam Leng in particular. I believe this has been discussed prior, but a settled agreement in economic terms has not yet been decided upon. I propose that in return for a… generous price drop in expenses of coffee exportation, both nations agree to mutually declare for the recognition of Nam Leng’s neutrality for the extent of the pact.”
Machezzar nodded agreeably, “that would benefit both empires, with the subduing of rogue provinces and the formation of more natural natural borders, doubtless tensions might potentially arise that we do not yet foresee. Respecting Nam Leng as a neutral nation - with the consent of their emperor of course - would allow us a far less politically charged environment to maintain this mutually beneficial peace.”
A barking laugh came from Machezzar’s elbow, followed by coarse, drunkenly slurred mockery. “Peace? Pah! Who is anyone at this table kidding? No sooner than we agree to terms than they’ll be at our throats, taking advantage of every bit of leeway we give them. Peace is an illusion, there can be no peace between us and heterodox heathens who barely share the same goddess as us. The Great Children preserve us, Ishareth worship polluted with half a billion black hearted pagan demons has taught them nothing but trickery and deceit! I’d sooner make a peace treaty with a tiger, it at least would be more honest with its intentions.”
A dead silence descended upon the assembled diners, and it was Sujati who first broke it. “Excuse me,” she said, smiling sweetly as she stood. “Pardon me, Aasmi, I have something to attend to.”
Slowly, she made her way around the table, the armor underneath her robe clinking in the still air. “Now, my dear.” She asked, approaching the Sangharan who had spoken, “Could you please repeat to me what you just said? I’m afraid there was a bit of a din, and I don’t think I heard you correctly. But it sounded as if you claimed I, and all Surabhi, are heathens and ‘black hearted pagan demons’ who besmirch the worship of our Mother?”
The Sangharan snorted. “Prove me wrong! we’ve had nothing but trouble with Surabhi for over a thousand years, with their fantasies of putting us back in our place in ‘their’ empire. Your obsession with enforcing rustic superstition and farcical irredentist heathenry can be called nothing less than black ignorant savagery. It’s amazing you haven’t totally drowned out the goddesses scripture with peasant totems and retrograde customs, especially with those bands of prancing conniving crones you call priestesses!”
Sujati’s faced darkened, her eyebrows furrowing into an expression full of hatred. “You ignorant, loudmouthed, shrieking eunuch of a man.” She snarled at him, drawing in close and jabbing a finger hard into his chest. “You know nothing! Nothing! Every word that spills from your mouth reeks of centuries of societal decay! You call the order of priestesses a band of crones, yet you profane the name of our Mother with revolting orgiastic frenzies! Maelstroms of wanton excess and decadent carnality! Our customs hail from centuri- no, millenia of history, from the inception of the old empire onwards - and you dare insinuate I and my sisters are the ones who corrupt the scriptures while you slake an unholy thirst for vulgar excess and profane Ishareth’s name by saying it is in devotion to her!”
As Ungernazern watched the spiralling chaos unfold, he began rubbing his eyes with frustration, shooting the Surabhi emissaries a look of askance before signalling to the Sangharan Lion Guard to bring this farce to a halt. Quickly the armoured soldiers marched forward like lockstepped automatons, swords pulled an inch from their sheath as they warded off the irate priestess from further advances.
“We are here to complete a peace treaty, not rip each others throats out over doctrinal differences.” He growled irritably, shooting a look that could kill at Sujati and the drunken Sangharan, “Leave theology to those goddess-mad black-pyramid scholars to argue for an eternity, it won’t make a lick of difference.”
“Like hell I will after what that blasted cow just said!” The drunk roared, trying to pull his blade from its sheath but only getting more tangled up in his scabbard, “I challenge you to a duel you withered old whore! Prove your courage or be called a coward as well as a heretic!”
Sujati’s eyes widened for a moment as he made for his sword, then narrowed, a spark of righteous indignation and excitement burning in them. “I accept.” She called to him, turning her back to him and marching away. “Please inform your next of kin of your last wills.” She taunted over her shoulder, exiting the pavilion.
Ungernazern’s face darkened, eyes practically burning holes in the back of the drunks head as he tottered about. Quietly, very deliberately he spoke, each word measured and controlled in a voice that dripped with potential violence.
“Our guest is wearied, Captain Ekurzakir, escort him to his tent.”
The drunk still hadn’t realised the situation and stammered incoherently, confused by the turn events as he gaped open mouthed and bleary eyed at his master. “B-b-but my lord!”
Ungernazern’s voice was uncompromising, and at last the drunk seemed to realise the ramifications of his situation. He made one last attempt to convince Ungernazern, stumbling towards him to plead his case. The Lion Guard stopped him before he even took four steps, clamping gauntleted hands on his shoulders as they took him away. As he stumbled off muttering silence quickly fell across the table, until Ungernazern turned once again to the Surabhumi emissaries.
“Now…” he spoke evenly, hardly even acknowledging the prior interruption, “I believe we were discussing trade and diplomatic recognition in the southern half of Vehndathaya?”
Vaidihe nodded, steepling her fingers. “I will speak with the priestess after we conclude meetings. Your proposal is fair, Dakatha. We will, of course, discuss minutiae after. I endorse the suggestion of formal with Nam Leng, but I propose an addendum - should Nam Leng come under assault, both empires will contribute militarily to assure the independence of the supply of coffee you enjoy so much.” She smiled slightly, adding with a hint of playfulness, “And, I suppose, the nation itself too.”
“Done. I assume both parties will also curtail any piratical or privateering activity in the region? Doubtless Sangharan and Tu’mong ships can assist in that capacity and ensure the trade lanes are opened properly once again. I shall inform the diplomatic embassy being sent there when I am next able. Besides…” he smiled thinly at her, but beneath it there was a hint of mirth. “you act as if you haven’t been missing a proper supply Tsang-Mahan and Lengi coffee, but you can’t fool me. I heard the administrators of both nations wail across the ocean in terror the last time shipments were sporadic.”
A small chuckle escaped her, “Yes, I believe I heard tell at least one general threatening to go to war if her administrators did not receive the coffee they apparently required to function.” Shaking her head, she sighed. “Well, the details can be sorted later, Dakatha. For the time being there is a great feast before us, we would not want to disappoint the cooks would we? Tell your retinue they are free to partake of it if they wish, we have brought enough to feed twice our number and yours combined.”
Ungernazern nodded and signalled to his men, turning back to Vaidihe he smiled, “my gratitude, one can always appreciate the bounty of Surabhumi, although perhaps you should not have brought so much. The wastage of such an abundance of quality food would be quite a shame.”
Her smile broadened into a genuine one, “Clearly you underestimate the appetite of the average soldier. Whatever they do not finish now will surely be gone by tomorrow morn.” She raised a ladle full of a rich curry, spices exclusive to Surabhumi and Sanghara flavoring its contents, “Besides, who could refuse an extra serving of something this good?”
“Perhaps...” Ungernazern mused, accepting the proffered ladle onto his own plate, “I should enjoy it while it lasts shouldn’t I? As oafish as our missing companion was not long ago, he was right about one thing. This peace does not feel meaningful, if anything it is more a calm before a great storm. I very much doubt it will be many years before the politicians of both our nations are baying for each others blood, no matter how economical the peace is. This pact …” he looked saddened, his stern demeanor crumbling slightly, “I lost four brothers to the last war. How many of my kinsmen will I lose in this one?”
He was silent for a moment before breaking from his ruminations with a start, taking a heap of fresh curry on his plate with naan bread and saffron coloured rice. “Yes… we should enjoy it while we can Vaidihe, true peace may come in some new and distant age, but I cannot see it being so in our lifetime. For now, let’s enjoy what little small luxuries we can gather from this antebellum.”
Grimly, Vaidihe nodded. “I understand. I too lost loved ones in the last war, and I do not relish the possibility of another. Sadly, the wheels of politics grind away, and I doubt our masters will stand the sight of the other growing stronger. But…” she trailed off, before a small smile crept back, “Let us enjoy this peace while it lasts, and the curry that comes with it.”
The light of the new dawn peeked over the horizon, lighting up a dozen figures that stood on the sandy shoreline of the beach, the fluttering of banners and red sails providing a harmonious ambiance to the scene. Ahassunat blinked, bleary-eyed in the sunlight from the the nights hard drinking and covered her eyes as she rubbed them, trying to clear the film that had clouded her vision. Before both delegations a ornate teak table stood, its mother-of-pearl embellishments and claw-footed legs somewhat out of place on a barely occupied beach, which rarely if ever even saw the disembarkation of fishing boats let alone the pride and glory of two great nations, once unified, now divided.
A length of parchment lay before them, worked in beautiful calligraphy and scrollwork, and displaying in detailed intensity the terms of the pact. Beneath, tens of dozens of seals flapped, each with the symbol of a major house of the Sangharan state to officiate the agreement, and numerous of the Surabhumi political elites following suite in their own manner.
Last night had been enlightening for Ahassunat, both in probing the pacts preexistent tensions, as well as the access it allowed her to explore a foreign culture, its traditions, and its leaders weaknesses. Ahassunat felt she had learned a lot amidst the feasting, drinking and debauchery... perhaps some of which might even prove useful later.
As the mist of the hangover began to ease off, she watched the scribes of both nations scamper around the agreement, combing it for any errors or loopholes in its structures that they might oppose before its signing. When both sides looked up and nodded to their respective dignitaries, she let out a sigh of relief.
At last I can get my toes back on ship planks again…
“My Lords and ladies!”
It was Machezzar, looking far less worse for wear than most of the other emissaries in his loose cloaked tunic of teal and gold trim. Ahassunat scowled at that, clearly she’d underestimated the fat little penny-pinching worm, he’d drank as heartily as the rest of them - or at least had seemed to do so - but he’d been keen eyed all throughout the festivities and was just as much today.
“What we complete this morning begins a new epoch in Sanghar and Surabhi history, a new age of growth and prosperity between both nations. We must each ensure that this pact becomes a foundation stone from which future and meaningful peace will arise from, and abide by the word of its law. May it ensure a greater future for both the high halls of Surabhumi, as it does for glorious pyramids of Sanghara, and ensure eternal cooperation between both nations from this moment into all perpetuity!”
With that, the short Sanghar took a step back and bowed to Ungernazern and Vaidihe. Ungernazern worked a shoulder uncomfortably in his robes of state and ceremonial armour, the shifting of his weight resulting in a clinking sound of the golden scales across hippopotamus leather buckles and straps, even as his cinnabar and tyrian robes fluttered in the wind. A snarling tiger skin strapped to his right shoulder and silver warhammer in the other completed the effect, giving him an almost regal aspect. He turned to Vaidihe, and for a moment it almost seemed as if all the weight of his office has flowed from his shoulders, leaving behind a younger, less haggard man. It lasted only a few seconds before it returned with a stern nod, his face contorting into a look he almost constantly had of grim cynicism, but for a moment, the Sanghar had looked almost relieved at the completion of the treaty.
“Do you wish to do the honours first?” he asked her, genuinely deferential to her compared to Machezzar’s flattery and Ahassunat’s mockery.
Vaidihe frowned, considering his offer for a moment, then shook her head. “It was Sanghara that first reached out to begin these dealings. It should be the Sangharan representative to sign the treaty first. It is only fair.” She inclined her head, stepping back half a pace and gesturing for him. She could feel the robes of her office weighing heavily on her - even a lifetime of service as a diplomat could not erase the sheer weight of responsibility placed on her. Even with the immunity granted to her - a centuries old law protecting diplomats such as her from prosecution should the treaty end poorly - she could feel the responsibility for potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of lives resting on her. She silently prayed that she had made the right choices.
A slight blink of surprise was all that Ungernazern gave in reply, a silent moment of understanding passing between them as they shared each other’s gaze. Then he turned, striding towards the table and taking an ornate phoenix-bird quill from one of scribes who hovered around the parchment. With a flourish he wrote his name, the more organic advanced cuneiform of Old Sangharan coming back to him from lessons neared with his old tutors half a century ago. With a final mark and dot he finished, and another scribe followed with hot red wax in a pourer placing it before him.
Taking his time, he found the central fray in the bottom of the parchment and poured, the quickly beginning to cool as he watched. With one age worn hand he pulled on his finger, taking from it a signet ring of his personal sigil and pressed it into the semi-hot wax, before pulling it back after a time, leaving behind the symbol of Esharaddon upon the now hardening liquid. Shifting pose, he made room for his counterpart as she advanced in turn, allowing the Surabhumi emissary ample room to make her mark. Vaidihe in the manner of the Surabhumi completed her own mark, looking on it with relieved finality.
“The pact has been completed!” called out Machezzar, raising his hands in the air at the assembled crowd of both emissaries, “The decades long conflict between the Sangharan Grand Republic and the Realm of Surabhumi is at an end. Long may it endure!”
As both sides erupted into appreciative roars of celebration, Ungernazern clapped armed together as a final sign of respect between the both nations.
“Long may it last, Vaidhe.” Ungernazern smiled, both relieved and thankful that their diplomatic efforts had been successful. Still… a small aspect of it wormed away inside him, and he knew that for his counterpart it was the same.
"You wished to see me, grandfather?" Estazar whispered. Just earlier, she had been pacing outside those great woven flaps that separated the diadem room from the main hall, for how long she could not say. The sun stood at its greatest height when she had entered the palace. It was now rapidly approaching night. Would she be in trouble with grandfather? Would he be displeased at her lateness? Does he even recall her meeting with him? She stopped, biting her lip and squeezing her eyes shut, in a near perfect emulation of one of the statues in the main hall. It was of the death of Vedad "the Arm of Wise Fire", who brought the Garmardom and Giyamardom under the sway of the shahdom. The statue depicted him kneeling, clutching at a spear rammed through his chest by the last Chief Bizamid "the Infidel" of the Garmardom, when Vedad and his band of converts were ambushed in the mountains. The way Estazar felt, she might as well have been pierced as thoroughly as he. The longer she waited, the more her grandfather would be angry with her, but the sooner she approached, the sooner his wrath came. Enough! She pulled the flaps aside, and called to him.
Her voice carried across the silent room, bouncing off the marble and sandstone, refracting her one voice into hundreds. The room was dark, with the blinds pulled down over the glass such that only minuscule amounts of the evening sun may enter. At the end of the room sat the diadem of Shah Demes, perched on its place so far above her. The blinds, by design, would not stop the sun from shining upon the diadem, and each of the five jewels embedded within it were alight, as if the gods were peering through them at her from the other side. To its immediate left, sat in a humble stone chair with an arm propping up his face, was her old grandfather, who in his sleeping form, looked as if dead. Perhaps he had not even heard her at all, and she could sneak off before he awoke.
"Don't bother thinking about it," boomed Shah Koudad's voice, more emanating from his still form than speaking. Estazar yelped in fright, and nearly jumped straight back into the hall. Koudad's eyes snapped open, to reveal the brilliance beneath. Harsh green eyes, rarely found in the entirety of the empire, stared deep into her brown ones. He looked less a shah and more an evil magus from the stories, here to place a curse upon her forever and ever. "I'm not stupid. I've seen the same look in the faces of my goat-brained satraps, when they come to bear ill news. Is that how you intended to carry yourself to me?"
"Not at all, grandfather," Estazar replied, breaking her gaze away to focus on the ground before him. "I . . . I've come to answer your summons, like you said. Please don't punish me, I tried my best to be here on time."
"Pull up that blind there," Koudad said, pointing. Estazar did so, letting Wise Air's sunlight wash through the chamber. "From here, I could stand and watch as you and your escort approached the palace, some . . . six candles ago." Estazar nodded slowly, squeezing her eyes shut again. In fourth a candle, this would all be over. Maybe even two stories. Then she could go back to her books and never have to worry about this again. Something in her told her otherwise. She would reach this point eventually, whether she liked it or not.
"I'm sorry, grandfather, I was scared. I know I should not be," Estazar stuttered, but Koudad stopped her with a wave of his hand.
"Enough," he said. "You were scared. I know what that means. You have never met your grand-uncle Nafolosh, but he could bring a giyamardom to heel with his glare. I . . . had never realized I could possess the same presence." His face began to soften somewhat, and Estazar could see just a little bit of the grandfather under the shah. As quickly as the crack in his face opened, it closed again. Perhaps he was a magus, and could control his face with magical powers. Perhaps he intended to steal hers, and add it to his collection of bodies he puppets about pretending they are still people within. She had to get out! She had to escape! She had to . . . ignore these foul impulses. "Put your hand on the diadem," Koudad instructed, pulling her from her internal conflict.
"I cannot, grandfather. I am not shahbanu," Estazar replied, staring up at it. If the stories are to be believed, Demes was as old as she when he united the many peoples living in what is today the Kera province of Kera-Bijan. He was only a year older when he conquered the unbreakable city of Bijan and made their language the standard across his domain. However, a tired huff from her grandfather sent chills down her spine, telling her that it would not do well for her or if she were to disobey. With shaking hands, she reached for the grand diadem, running her hands first along the golden band, then each of the five colored crystals lining its face. Red for air, yellow for fire, green for water, blue for wood, and finally white for metal.
"Do you recall why a shah touches the diadem when passing judgement, but does not wear it?" Koudad asked, his hands wrapping around hers to lock them against the metal monstrosity.
"B . . . " Estazar was at a loss for words.
"You're not leaving until you answer."
"B . . . " as her finger crawled towards the white crystal, she suddenly recalled. "B-Because the shah borrows power from Demes' judgement, but may not equal him. In that manner, the shah recognizes himself as great, but not so great as to challenge the gods themselves, who granted their wisdom to Demes. Thus, it is a lesson, given to the shah every time he touches the diadem, to be strong in times of weakness, yet remain humble, even in the face of his inferiors." The words tumbling from her mouth were not hers, but rather belonged to something else entirely, borrowing her mouth as an instrument of noise. She was under his spell, he the magus, who is the true power behind her grandfather.
"Good," Koudad said, letting go of her hands. "You would be surprised as to how many of your cousins either do not know this, or have chosen to forget. Go find Satraps Abafrir and Farrodana. They have been tasked with escorting you from the city to our allies in northern Kammir, where you may avoid the daggers of our more . . . upstart relatives. Go to your room, and gather your things. You leave as soon as may be done." Estazar nodded, and nearly ran from the room, tucking her arms close to herself. She had only ever left the city of Zanateyin a few times in her life, and now she was to leave it behind. Her mind was racing with thoughts, and how many of them truly belonged to her, she didn't know.
Al-Dourem was the jewel of the Usharid crown, an entirely new city built near the abandoned Hijarki metropolis of Tar-Vamir. Not that one would notice it with a simple survey of the region. The Usharid conquerors were incredibly efficient in reusing what material was available in the ruins and destroying the rest. Leaving Tar-Vamir to inhabit solely the realm of history. Subsequent generations of Usharid Sultans and magnates spared no cost or effort in further building up Al-Dourem. The city was, after all, theirs from the beginning. Built from the ground up by the former desert nomads and not simply another urban area subjugated and colonized.
Not to say that the city's layout and architecture is utterly devoid of foreign influences, for the Usharid themselves have no hesitation when it comes to adopting concepts and ideas if it benefits them. And if one were to look closely, the influence of Hijarki, Surabhumi, Neferher and even Kera-Bijani styles had on Al-Dourem. But for once, the Usharid managed adapt and build upon instead of merely copying what their "civilized" neighbors already possessed.
Architecture, however, was far from the minds of the great potentates gathered in one of the Sultan's sumptuous solar rooms.
Grim news from the far east had once again made Sultan Ishaq gather his trusted councilors (or at least which ones still remained in the capital) for another round of emergency meetings.
"This pact will not hold for long." Spoke short and stocky Grand Vizier Tawus as he paced the length of the -now empty- musician's platform. "It won't. There can be no lasting peace between Sanghara and Surabhumi."
"It will hold long enough." Prince Kasim, sprawled atop the pillowed divan, countered. "Too much work has gone into it. And the way news travel." He shrugged. "The armies are already on the move. For all we know, the fighting has already started." He paused to pop another grape into his mouth. "Barring a miracle, the small realms of the Far East will fall. Only then will Sanghara and Surabhumi turn on each other. As they often do"
"The shift in the balance of power might prove disastrous." Spoke the goat-like Emir Rubbayat. Propping himself on his hands as he rose up from the veritable nest of feathery pillows he had built over the course of the meeting. "But for all that a decisive victor in the Far East might influence us, the real danger lays much closer."
"Anahama." The Sultan added. "The Mountain Realm also claims overlordship over all the former Empire. With both Sanghara and Surabumi busy for the foreseeable future, and most likely soon to fight each other again, there's no great power at hand to stop them from striking out against Ikkam, Jabpu or the other lesser nations."
"Surely you dont believe Anahama can overcome all the might of the region, father?" Kasim asked as grape juice ran down his chin.
"It doesnt matters. Whether Anahama wins or not, the entire balance of power will be uspet." Sultan Ishaaq replied grimly. "Cities razed, fields salted, armies slain, nations toppled. Anahama marching to war will upend the whole region."
"That's not even thinking of what those fanatics of Kera-Bijan might do." Rubbayat sighed, leaning over to grap a succulent tangerine from the bowl by his pillow fortress. "No matter what action we pursue, we must always keep wary eyes to the northern desert."
"Let them come!" Kasim shouted suddenly, sending the plate of grapes tumbling into the floor in his excitement. "Those inbred savages are no match for our steel. Slaying a few of their hosts ought to teach those arrogant fanatics to stay away from our lands."
"If they come, then we shall fight them." The Sultan replied evenly, as he often did when his firstborn got into one of his boastful moods. "But it will do us no good if we set out seeking a fight. We are already maligned as it is. Besides, we can't afford to have our attention diverted if war does starts to our immediate east."
"So are we simply to stand and watch?" Kasim frowned. "Like scared merchants clutching our purses at the thought of raiders riding over the dunes?"
"We prepare." The Sultan replied as he moved closer to the center of the room. "I have already sent emissaries to assess the readiness of the Junds. Call upon our agents and spies for information, specially on the happenings to our east." The Sultan paused, looking over the room to ensure he had everyone's attention. "Soon, emissaries shall depart to Perishem and Mihajla, to offer terms and seek treaties to secure our western border and our seas."
"Which kind of terms?" Kasim interrupted.
"Favorable trade deals, more promises of friendship and non aggression, gifts, a coalition to drive away piracy from our shared sea lanes." Grand Vizier Tawus replied, giving the Prince an annoyed look.
"I've talked with your brother, son." The Sultan spoke up. "He has agreed to take one of their ladies as wife, should they prove amenable to the idea. And your daughters are old enough to marry. It would please me greatly and render our people a great service if you were willing to consider offering their hands to them, should the opportunity arise in the future."
Kasim remained silent for a few moments, weariness clear in his handsome bearded face, before finally relenting with a nod.
"Thank you, my son." Ishaaq smiled. "These coming months will demand much of us all. We shouldn't shirk from our duties."
An audible sigh went through the hall. It was a shivering, fearful sound, like dry leaves over stone. The crowd seemed to shudder slightly, a candle flame blowing in a cold wind; almost snuffed out, bringing darkness, before stabilizing once more and allowing light to return. Only Enessea was silent, hunched back against one of the smoke-stained walls of the Kinlord's hall. Her crooked fingers clutched a greasy silver platter; the knuckles were white, and shook slightly. Her painfully bright blue eyes were wide and staring. In this, she was not alone. Every Vaesir in the hall gave the Speaker their rapt attention. Drinks were forgotten, food sat in congealed puddles of fat and bone.
"Everything dies," the Speaker repeated, his imperious gaze slowly and majestically sweeping across the gathering. "Men, women, children. Earthshaker and rabbit, weed and soldier pine, every beast and plant, no matter how mighty or humble. Gods die. Even ideas perish." He stamped his staff in to the dirt floor, startling several members in the front of the crowd; several children shied away. "Civilization. Society. Intentions. Philosophies. Entropy is the natural state of every piece of existence, down to the last ember." His gleaming green eyes found the fire; unconsciously, many eyes followed his gaze, including Enessea's. The fire pit was near twenty feet long and five feet wide. Stripped carcasses, the meat long since carved, were suspended over the flames. They had nearly gone out, leaving the occasional tongue of flame and smoldering embers.
"And all that dies...!" The Speaker's voice rang out once more in to the utter silence, causing another jump and gasp to ripple throughout the crowd. "Leaves behind a small part of itself. A dream. An Echo. These Echoes build up over time, clashing across each other and the corners of eternity, like spears off a shield wall." Several of the elders and Carls in the room spoke in unison, a dull monotone, the grinding speech of tradition. "An Echo, Resounding," they spake. "The clash of souls, the tongue of kings, the dying gasp of gods." The Speaker lifted his staff in both hands above his head. Crafted of ironwood it was, wrapped in bands of bronze and gold worked with ancient runes. His head tilted back, causing his rough-spun hood to fall to his grey-maned shoulders. The Speaker was grizzled and worn, positively ancient by Vaesir standards at seventy-three winters. Pale scars mottled his thin hide; his arms and legs were thick cords of knotted muscle. He howled to the blackened beams above; "And we are the Bringers of the Echo!" he sang in a keening wail. "We are the Reaper's Toll, the Youth-Born, the Youth-Slain!"
Those Carls and Thralls not already on their feet stood, drawing oath-knives. The razor edges were drawn across palm and forearm, thigh and chest. "We are the Gallows Tree and the Hanged Man upon it!" they roared back, blood dripping from their hulking bodies to mingle together in the red dirt below. The Kinlord himself stepped forward, an imposing armored beast from the deep in his Kura'thyr. From the depths of his monstrous mask he answered the call; "There is no silence; only the absence of our song!" The Speaker lowered his staff with a thunderous crack to the floor; a flash of purple light emanated from its teeth, bathing the gathering in an eldritch glow. Enessea squeaked in terror, her crooked arms rising to cover her features. His eyes glowed like jewels pulled from the forges of some forsaken abyss.
"And what do our enemies see when our sails crest the wave?" he demanded of the Vaesir. "Death!!" the Kinlord and his warband answered. "And what does the world hear when our spear-din breaks upon the moor?!" "Death!!!" And what will your ring-givers bestow upon you?! What is the blood-moon's price?! What is the answer to the raven-song?!?!" "Death!! DEATH!! DEEEAAAATH!!!"
The call and response rose to a deafening roar. The Kinlord's retainers beat their chests and tore their shirts; guards lining the walls rang their war-spears upon great shields. The walls and ceiling of the broch shuddered ominously, near matching the storm outside. Enessea silently withdrew from the hall as the warband fell upon the serving girls, mates, captives, and each other, ripping aside clothing and armor as they engaged in an orgy of violent sex, wrestling, drinking, and feasting. This would continue for the better part of the night, before the Kinlord Lachlann and his warband departed for the mainlord. Keramallt was a Canumbrian Kinhold, on the "hospitable" southern shore of the gods-forsaken island. Equally at home harpooning whales and seals as they were raiding the "soft south-landers," Keramallt was preparing for a Great Raid. They would be joining numerous other Kinlords from Canumbria on a five year or more journey to the east, to raid isolated Attolian holdings before going south. For great riches and greater glory awaited enterprising warriors willing to take risks and go far from home for an extended period of time.
Enessea was Mornblooded; her father a wealthy Vaesir retainer from Edenperth, her mother a nameless High Mornish house-hold slave. After Enessea was born, it was clear (To everyone's great surprise) that she'd inherited more of her mother's shapely traits than the father's. But the taint was still clearly there, and when she was old enough, she'd been sold for a pittance to a passing slaver out of Jansport. Her first fifteen years of life were dark, wretched, and less said of them, probably the better. She'd lived in Jansport and various other Skornish Clanholds before a strange turn of events had changed her life and fortunes forever. The Kinlord Lachlann had been on a raid to honor a blood-feud against the Kinlord of Estein. Enessea had been a glorified camp-follower in the warband of the Kinlord Argerac; his shield-wall was broken by the Canumbrian's ferocity, and she (Along with the rest of the less valuable plunder) had been abandoned in their hasty retreat. She'd been taken a'prize by the Kinlord Lachlann and brought back with him to become part of his household. It was an honored position, as she was responsible for caring for his wife and children, in addition to general cooking and cleaning duties. And the Canumbrians seemed to express no interest in her womanly features, such as they were.
At just over five feet tall, Enessea was incredibly short to Vaesir standards and tastes. Her fore-arms, thighs, calves, and shoulders were covered in a fine coat of silvery fur, and a pair of tufted canine ears poked out of her shaggy, unruly mane of grey fur. Her feet and hands were the usual Mornblooded crooked, almost useless but for simple tasks, her face was ashen in hue and asymmetrical, and her lips were constantly bleeding and torn from her jagged teeth. So by Half-Mornish standards, she wasn't all that hard to look upon, especially with her bright, innocent blue eyes. But the Canumbrians seemed more than content with their Vaesir wives, though the occasional horny red wench or lad could be seen among the "pillow-slaves". While not a gentle ruler or kindly man, the Kinlord Lachlann and his family did not mistreat her without cause. All in all, things could much worse for the young mutant.
"What did you think of the Raid Ceremony?" a creaking voice rasped out of the shadows. Enessea's heart nearly stopped as she jumped nearly a foot in to the air. Her mouth was opened in to a great round O of surprise as she landed, wincing in pain as the shock went through her crooked feet. "Er, ah, em..." she stammered out, trying to remember not to press her lips and teeth too close together. It made for awkward conversations and simple sentences and words. Many thought her simple as a result. "It was good," she said in her slow, halting way. "The Carls will slay lots and take lots gold." She stared at the ground and shuffled back and forth in the dirt, still clutching her befouled serving platter almost like a shield before her. From the corner of her vision, she saw the Speaker approach, his staff thumping firmly in to the ground as he hop-skipped forward. He'd taken a spear to the thigh forty some-odd years ago and the wound had never healed properly, ending his raiding career. So he'd become a Speaker, discovering a latent talent for magic, oration, and language as he traveled the wilds of Canumbria, spreading news, history, and faith between its rough-and-tumble brochs and holds.
The Speaker, Treugarth by name, halted mere inches away from Enessea. His expression was curious, condescending, like he was examining an insect or a dead fish. "Good. Very gold. Much slay." He snorted derisively, looking the Mornblooded up and down while leaning heavily on his weathered staff with both hands. After a moment, his gaze softened and he shook his head. "Your wyrd is tangled, young one. You will not spend much more time in this land." Enessea looked up in surprise, her eyes wide, her expression startled and sad. "I -ill leaf Canurria?" she said in a hush, wincing as her teeth scraped her gums. Treugarth snorted again, closing his brilliant green eyes, his head bowed and shaking side to side. "Nay, child," he whispered, his voice low and gravelly. "Your wyrd takes you from the Mornlands entirely. I see a great worm coiled around a greater tree with fruits of many colors; the tree is rotting, and many of the fruits have fallen. Ravens quarrel over the slime and ruin." One eye cracked open, transfixing her with the weight of prophecy. "You will cut down this tree. Or you will hang from it." He shrugged dismissively, his cloak falling about his shoulders; the pitch-black cloth caused him to meld with the darkened hallway, almost making him disappear. "Your choice in the end, girl. We all have a choice, and we all have a voice." With that, he was gone, leaving Enessea alone, and very confused.
The next morning she was aboard the Kinlord's flagship, the newly crafted drakkar Cthonian. A fleet of ten more lesser ships followed in wake. Swathed in a sealskin coat, Enessea stood at the ship's aft, looking out at the frozen shores of Canumbria as the snow-cloaked towers of the Keramallt broch faded away with the horizon. She was afraid, but she was also hopeful. Perhaps she was destined for great things. Perhaps she was to be a sacrifice on fate's altar. Regardless, her life had been nothing but a desperate struggle since she'd gasped for her first breath. Her history of pain, abuse, and humiliation had been forged in the Mornlands; in the south, perhaps she could rewrite her fate.
Untold Ages Ago The Vyrnul Archipelago The Island of Ssthrlihe Mt. Mandjet The Carmot Throne
The night was dark - there were no stars in the sky, and the moon had been occluded. Even the normally radiant lights of the surrounding den spires were but dim motes in the background. Here, at the peak of Mt. Mandjet, the very earth shone with alchemical providence - a star-like gem upon the world. No other light could compare - it drowned, saturated in the empyrean light cast by the throne by the Rashommai Matriarch. Yet the light of the mountain was dim, dusken in quality - as it enraptured and suffocated the natural light from the world around it, the air in its presence dimmed and darkened. It was 'twixt profane and hallowed at once, and so it would remain.
Until the Matriarch anointed the throne.
Lystunet - a Rashommai, one of the half-serpent, half-fair rulers of the Archpelago - swayed up the temporary, suspended ramp of ceramic. Nothing that had ever lived could make contact with Carmot without suffering transublimation, and so an elaborate network of ramps, catwalks, and suspended paths criss-crossed the peak, leading up the throne itself. Lystunet and her brood had been responsible for its assembly, which by necessity had occurred after the the peak of Mt. Mandjet had been transmuted. For her role in making the Matriarch's ascension possible, she was thus privileged to observe the ceremony as it took place. She was accompanied by her trail of slaves - pitiful and frail Humans, though not so wretched and stained as their ilk were wont to be. These specimens had been thoroughly sterilized in every sense of the word and clad in spotless ivory samite to render them tolerable merely to proceed in her wake and tend to her whims here, at the culmination of her efforts.
Lystunet herself was a towering braid of scales, muscle, and arms. In the dark of Mandjet's peak her serpentine eyes were alight with pale, sickening light. Her visage, swathed in the dingy and oppressive light, was thankfully too unresolved in clarity to be discerned properly by her attendants.
Winding her way onto the terrace beneath the throne's dais from where the anointing would be viewed, she found waiting her peer, the Naga Ructys, augur of the Iris, who would speak on its behalf. Her form was much the same as Lystunet's own - colossal and terrible, her frame wreathed in squirming uncertainty. They greeted each other silently in the way of the highpool, subtle gestures made with their off-limbs, a nuanced shift in the posture of their midriffs and their alignment of their spines. They speak in their pitiless language with vocal cords thicker than twine, longer than a finger and more plentiful than trees in a grove.
'Augur, does all proceed according to the design of our masters?' Lystunet inquired. Her voice was gravel disturbed by rain, more defined by its volume than by its substance. Her inquiry is neither impatient nor rhetorical. She already knows the answer, but seeks confirmation.
'Yes. Our servants were wisely chosen. They render due seizen unto us in due time.' The Augur answers, and her voice is embers, popping and hissing as a log is tossed to the flames.
'...Yet upon supplication to our master, they have deemed that all which is unnecessary shall be undone. The ceremony has room enough, certainly, for those of privilege, for those of need, for those who must witness, for the reagents. No other shall be worthy of the dignity of the Demiurge who is to come.'
'I see. Is it yet certain as to all who are necessary?'
The augur's head tilts, ever so faintly in the dark. 'No. Yet soon. The chaff may yet subdominate those who presently serve our purposes. If they should fail to do so...' She silently indicates the incandescent mountainscape, the flawless, smooth, rolling curvature of the transmuted peak.
The Naga then both turn to look upon you. Your effort to evade the notice of your betters so as to evade their displeasure with your unworthy existence a failure. Their eyes are pale citrine flames. They do not move, but your skull is riven as their wills drive hooks, nails, and flensing rods into it. They do not ask of you. They determine of you. What you are is not enough.
They turn away. You are not even worthy of their attention, now. When the time comes, you shall be cast to the mountainside with the rest of the worthless chattel, insensate failures that you are, useless as anything but ceremonial offerings for the sake of formality and traditional observance. Already the other darkened forms of the Nagas' attendants approach you - they lay their equally unworthy hands upon you, sink their fingers into your flesh. You skin shall burst! You shall be torn to pieces!
You fall, screaming and flailing as they start to tear away your fingers and teeth, flailing and swiping blindly at the air. You choke on nothing and bite your tongue, your limbs feel weighted as though with lead, you cannot move...!
You blink. You are in your chambers, on the floor, ensnared within your bedsheets as your writhe in panic. They are soaked through with your sweat and tears. You glance at the door. You hear nothing in the distance - your turbulent slumber went unnoticed. Your body seethes with heat, as though you were in fever, but a chill has seized upon your nape.
You are running out of time. Your Adversaries tighten the noose around your neck.
Present Day The Caelrumoste Archipelago The Island of Apocea Mannet's Bastion, Depot 4
Iikka Guiomar, newly appointed broker and ambassador for the Caelrumoste Regency, hurried through the forlorn cobbled streets of the small, desolate township that had once grace the Eastern shore of Apocea. He was perhaps 1.78 meters in height, with a slim build and lanky arms. His face was tall and thin with paunch and pale cheeks accentuating feline cheekbones and amber-colored eyes. His hair was dark, his skin an ashen bronze, and he wore the faded azure and violet robes of his newly appointed station. The surrounding dwellings were decayed and barren, and if not reclaimed soon would likely be condemned. Iikka was accompanied only by a single guardsman. Although he was now counted as one of the highest ranking political officials in all of Caelrumoste, there simply were not enough men or resources to go around to afford him a larger guard - or even so much as a carriage. He had set forth out from Old Yearning the better part of a week and a half ago with his guard, on foot, and made his way hurriedly to the coast. The roads had been crowded with haggard trains of refugees, seeking the nearest ports so they could beg and ply for passage back to their native ancestral islands, where hopefully the famine would be less severe. Thankfully, few bodies lined those same roads - otherwise unemployable mages and wrights, wearing starkly colored yellow armbands to identify them as magic-users and accompanied by haggard but wary militia watchmen, traversed the roads and cleared them of bodies, moving them to consecrated - if improvised and roughshod - burial sites a bare step above mass graves.
The foot traffic had died down as Iikka and his man had come to what remained of Mannet's Stead. There was nothing here but ruin, unless one counted the bastion. Since the township surrounding it was abandoned, at the first sign of trouble the whole lot of it could be burnt and razed to the ground, depriving potential attackers of easily fortified terrain. The Bastion itself - a six-walled fort with a renovated keep and dungeon serving as a warehouse now - was still, its wall crowded with stern and watchful sentinels manning siege engines. They would not have been able to beat off a determined and disciplined assault, but there was hardly enough of anyone or any order in all of Caelrumoste left for an actual attacking force to be either of those things.
Iikka and his guard were stopped at the portcullis leading into the interior, and the both of them were subjected to the standard battery of tests. They were stripped naked, thoroughly frisked, and dowsed. Their blood was drawn, a lock of hair cut off, and fingernails clipped away for examination. They sat in awkward, naked indignity in the middle of the road while a mage carefully examined each sample before determining that, yes, these two people were, in fact, human, and were not carrying nor recently exposed to refined Ammacre.
"You are clear. For now." The sergeant said flatly as the two of them struggled back into their clothes. "You will be reexamined every time you leave, and every time you return. So don't be doing that unless you have a fancy needs ticklin'."
"I must speak with your cohort commander immediately, under orders from the Regent." Iikka indicated glumly as he shrugged his undershirt back on. "I have a letter-"
"Found it when we searched your pack, its been verified already. You're expected." The sergeant supplied. "Corporal Raish here will be accompanying the both of you for the duration of your stay. You are not to leave his sight for any reason, or else he shall raise the alarm and we'll use you both to repaint the insides of the latrines." The sergeant smiled faintly at the thought.
Absolutely nobody commented upon the indignity or unusual nature of the conditions by which a formally appointed ambassador would visit the Bastion. Anything less during the Cursed Days could have led to the entire fort being compromised from within. The Cursed Days were over, at least in theory, but what remained of the Royal Army of Caelrumoste remained vigilant. Too many loyal soldiers, comrades-in-arms, and blood brothers had died to treachery and subterfuge. A lifetime of caution and wariness had been bred into the survivors that remained. Death waited behind each soldier's eyelids. Few of them would ever let their guard down again.
Iikka, his guard were both guided by the corporal into the keep, and down a level, where the proverbial serpent's hoard was lain under the earth. Long pallets, each stacked high with thirty-six sealed bronze coffers and secured with repurposed cords of halyard. Faint iridescent light shone betwist the seams. The supports for the roof had been very selectively sabotaged and supplemented with supports connected to switch-blocks, overseen by swarthy men with hammers. At the first sign of trouble, the whole ceiling could be brought down on the Ammacre reserves here, burying them. It was merely a token measure - any Adversary who penetrated this far in would hardly be deterred by a few hundred tons of rock and stone.
The commander for the Cohort garrisoned at the bastion awaited Iikka below, at a wooden table already prepared, graced by a map of the known world, with upholstered (if dusty) chairs already set out and a small cask of wine with goblets lain out for them. The Commander himself was on the young sign, but already hardened - and plagued. A chunk of flesh was missing from the left side of his neck, and his eyes were habitually wide and attentive. He stared right through Iikka as they clasped arms and exchanged their greetings.
"You will be sent directly to the Ivory Palace in Sanghara." He stated. "As a reminder, you are not to sell off any of the allotments to individual delegates, senators, princes, or families, at least at first. You are selling them directly to the collective assembly of the Senate. You are a representative of the sovereign authority of Caelrumoste, not a guild merchant. If you get tangled up in trying to dispose of all of...this..." He waved to the contents of the vault. "To individual parties, the biddings will get cluttered up with the dredging of all of their pissant movers trying to one-up each other. Establish a formal line of bidding between the Regency and the Republic first, and when and if you finally cave to individual offers, all sales must be finalized and notarized through the proceedings of the senate itself."
The instructions sounded almost rehearsed - which they might have been. Iikka was hardly the only ambassador being sent out abroad to manage the bulk exportation of Caelrumoste's native ammacre. It was possible the commander had recited this segue before.
"Am I already expected at the Ivory Palace itself?" Iikka inquired.
"Oh yes. At least formally. We officially sent notice and were given a receipt." The Commander said, somewhat absently. "Now whether or not that means anybody has actually seen that notice is another matter. But there is an established chain of communication. You'll have all the proper documentation and references to prior correspondence you'll need to get into the halls the proper way, although depending on how obstructive they are feeling it may take a few weeks. Or months. But if they're smart, they will lay out the Amaranth carpet for you." He paused for a moment to take a sip from his goblet, grimacing faintly at some unvoiced and unpleasant thought. "You have broad discretion otherwise to act as you see fit - but please, no bribes and graft. You do not have much of an operational budget for your stay over there. You'll barely be able to stay in laundered robes, let alone grease any palms."
"It might help if I have samples to showcase. I understand I am being sent with..." Iikka began.
"Your carrack is sailing out with a full two allotments of assorted bulk cuts." The Commander cut him off. "Varied-up shipments rather than uniform, so you have more of it to show off." He gestured to three nearby footmen, who hauled up a number of bronze coffers onto the table and began undoing their metal clasps before throwing open the lid.
Stacks of multicolored, crystalline gemstones alight with power shone from within. Shimmering gold-and-orange octahedral suns, opalescent cubes that glittered darkly with twilight, icosahedrons of blinding white brilliance, tetrahedral emeralds, rubies, and saphires the size of pebbles sparkling in heaps - all offset by a single tray of carefully wax-set and leaden-textured dodecahedrons, stark and harrowing in the absence of any internal light.
"Are those..." Iikka squinted. "...are those pieces in the wax warmage cuts?"
"Not as such. As I understand it, those are...volatile ritual cuts."
"Volatile...As in depth and density." Iikka licked at his thumb and pressed it against one of the dodecahedron's flat tops. He immediately pulled the digit back with a hiss, shaking his hand as though it had been caught in a snare, faint wisps of steam rising from the tip of his thumb as his saliva was flash-vaporized.
"Very deep. Very dense." The Commander agreed, though if he was concerned it did not show. "I believe one of the craftmages who was running deliveries said one of those could, perhaps, keep an open flame burning for twelve kalpa using one of those. Or animate something big for twelve minutes."
"Is it wise to be selling...weapons of this nature?" Iikka asked, giving the commander a look.
"Perhaps not. But perhaps wiser than keeping it here." The commander retorted. Iikka nodded somewhat sullenly in response.
"And also, I have something special for you here..." The Commander opened a smaller lockbox set near the corner of the table - within were held perhaps three-dozen or so pyramid-cut, amethyst-colored stones. Their internal light was dull.
"These are our gestalt stones for this endeavor." The commander supplied, carefully picking one of the stones out carefully with a pair of calipers. "Touch one with your bare hand, and the knowledge of every leading bid per-allotment enters your mind. We'll be giving you six of these, to distribute amongst the Senate and Assembly and one or two for yourself. However, you are advised that you should not distribute any of them until such time as you receive an initial leading bid for the allotments."
"What, so we keep our buyers in the dark until they actually put forward actual value? That's a little discourteous." Iikka commented.
"'Discourteous' would be wasting our and their time fretting about statistics they don't yet have a stake in." The commander retorted. "It's all the same either way, but the way forward is clear." He turned in his seat to look back at the vast rows and columns of the assembled pallets and the bronze coffers stacked on them.
"The sooner we can rid Caelrumoste of every scrap of Ammacre there is, the sooner we can stop looking over our shoulders, jumping at every shadow and waiting for somebody to plunge the knife."
An eagle soared overhead, riding high on the updrafts from below. Its keen, all seeing eye cast its gaze across the land, out to the horizon, down to the tiniest speck of land. Sprawling beneath lay the vast metropolis of Rhaputira. A city of over a million souls, situated at the convergence of two rivers flowing down from the mountains. Through its streets passed farmers and carpenters, blacksmiths and potters, soldiers, artisans, hucksters, wealthy merchants foreign and domestic - all people of all walks of like filled the open plazas or relaxed by open topped water fountains. Around them rose the city, magnificent pyramids, towers, and fortifications loomed overhead where once there was naught but trees and grass. Aqueducts ran throughout the city, water pumping stations operated round the clock by beasts of burden - or more rarely, prisoners of war. Through every structure, small domicile or vast estate ran water, and beneath the city ran an intricate system of sewers whose contents spilled into vats. Unlike many cities there was no rank smell of habitation, water readily available from the aqueducts. Sprawling away within the walls was the city's housing, constructed of brick and plaster and arranged in neat, orderly clusters seemingly without end. Some houses were vast affairs to house over a hundred inhabitants, others much smaller affairs to room at most five. Each building was arrayed in a group of seven, evenly spaced around a small central plot of open space. Many of these sported well tended gardens of herbs and spices, others boasted proud trees, their canopies granting the buildings below shade from the sun above. Whilst constructed of brick and plaster, many homes were decorated in colorful murals, painters and artists filling the walls of the city with vibrant depictions of old stories, historical events, or religious tales. Intricate patterns of alternating color and shape filled the eye with wonder, and colorful awnings which granted further shade granted yet more life to the city.
The city had once been nothing but an empty river plain, almost uninhabited since the fall of the Ashammai thousands of years past. But then had come the Old Empire, its generals marching at the heads of great armies, vast caravans of migrants seeking new lives following in their wake. When they faced conflict and war, it was swift, the disciplined marching of Surabhi armies spelling the death knell for many a petty king or lord. Hundreds of thousands crushed beneath the steel clad feet as the empire sprawled ever outward, seemingly unstoppable. And when the Empire fell, its heartland falling into toxic oblivion, these lands remained almost untouched. Millions fled, and many found their homes in the fertile plains, valleys, and plateaus of eastern Vehndathaya. Growing swiftly from a minor township to a sizeable city, the inhabitants found themselves under attack by hostile neighbors, rival city states vying for power in the wake of the collapse. And so the residents had begun to build. Rhaputira’s first walls had been measly affairs, scarcely ten feet in height, constructed of wood and earth. Then the city expanded, conquering its neighbors, and so the walls grew to match, quarried stone reaching twenty feet in height, strong towers and fortifications strengthened by the best Surabhi mages still living. And still, the dominion of Rhaputira’s influence expanded, becoming the realm of Surabhumi, one of many claimants to the title of successor to the Old Empire, and so grew the city’s walls. Vast constructs of stone that soared eighty feet into the sky and 60 feet across, towers, crenellations, murder holes, moats, trenches, and more. Within the city rose even greater walls, soaring a hundred feet in height and as many feet across they protected the inner citadel of the city, within them lay the chambers of the realm’s highest council, and one of the true masterpieces of Surabhi architecture and engineering - the palace of the Samraajni.
Constructed around a vast pyramid as its base, the towering spires and grand central pyramid seemed artificial mountains, their tops seeming to kiss the clouds that dotted the sky. It served not only as a stark reminder of the capabilities of Surabhumi and its denizens, but housed the headquarters of the army, the magery, and the clergy. Each had a sub-pyramid sprouting from the main that, in any other city, would have served as the centerpiece all in their own right. Within each dwelled hundreds if not thousands, military commanders formulating strategy; priestesses deep in the study of not only the religious matters, but temporal affairs too, and new ideas seemed to pour forth from them as readily as water from the city’s aqueducts; mages toiled away the hours deep in their own study, seeking to reclaim the lost lore of the Old Empire. Its central pyramid housed the Samraajni, her entourage, guard, and many others - and could be seen for miles from the city, a stark sight against the horizon. In its shadow lay the council chambers, a proud, domed edifice of marble, granite, and silver. Four spires rose into the sky around it, atop each a depiction of Ishareth in the four recognized incarnations, each facing one of the cardinal directions.
To the north was the Surabhi Ishareth, naked, three arms on each side, one side holding a child sucking at its mother’s breast, another holding a bundle of grain; on the other a bloody sword in one hand, a shield in the other. The lower hands on each side clasped a hammer of indistinct nature - the hammer of a blacksmith, the mallet of a carpenter, the maul of a warhammer, like its goddess it could create and destroy. To the south, towards Shanrilaath faced the Sangharan Ishareth, a proud, naked, haloed female Sangharan standing over an open sea, her hair floating about her head, a pregnant belly and bearing a great sword in one hand and a burning flame in the other. To the East faced the universal primordial Ishareth, flaming and winged, many eyes that saw and perceived all, a central halo aglow with blinding light, a being unearthly in every manner. To the west, the Tu’mong Ishareth (insert description here).
Ringed by a wall of guards to deter would be trespassers, the council was in session.
"This is quite the proposal you have for us." Spoke one councilwoman, her brow furrowed. "Our liaison assures us of the honesty of your intentions, and we have all heard of the terrible events that have plagued your land for many years. But... in truth I find it hard to believe an entire realm as broad and diverse as yours, with such a long reaching history of the arcane, would commit to ridding your entire land of thalazhaad. It is... difficult to comprehend, in truth."
"Councilwoman." The Ambassador - or Broker, if not both - for the delegation representing the Regency of Caelrumoste was a Human woman by the name of Alethea. She was perhaps in her early thirties, with an oval-face, bronze-toned skin, and wavery brown hair along with amber eyes. Many of the other humans amongst her delegation seem to bear similar appearances, so perhaps such characteristics were common in Caelrumoste. She was dressed in an ornate, flowing azure-colored robe, with dim purple embroidery, and bore upon her breast a badge emblazoned with an unfamiliar mark, apparently representing the interim Regency itself as opposed to the traditional emblem of Caelrumoste's throne. "If I may beg your indulgence. You are quite correct that the Numinous Islands'...determination in this matter is likely extreme. Uncommonly specific and absurd, perhaps. If our agenda might seem this way, know it is only because of the equally extreme and absurd lengths to which our enemy has demonstrated they are willing to go in order to plague our lands. I pray that all here have heard of and are familiar with the one-time and eternal Adversaries of the Numinous Islands?"
There was a general murmur of acknowledgement from the stands, and the councilwoman from before spoke. "Yes, we do have a basic understanding. Doubtless, there are some who could provide an exhaustive account down to the most insignificant minutiae of the events. But I digress - they are outlaw mages who waged a civil war within your lands for decades, is that correct? We received emissaries from your lands warning us of these individuals and their nature.
"Indeed - though they are hardly mere 'outlaw mages' as you put it." The Ambassador indicated, albeit with a polite bow of her head in deference. "They are uncommonly capable and driven. The Cursed Days, which spanned three decades, were greatly prolonged by their willingness to go aground, wait, and exploit every opprotunity available to regain power. I myself have experienced such a tactic employed. My home town of Ardovin, some six years ago, had stripped all native Ammacre from the chapels and markets and sealed it away in vaults. But..." She raised a finger emphatically. "We missed a single piece. A cufflink with a small Ammacre stone perhaps the size of a pebble embedded in it. An Adversary used that single pebble to, in turn - corrode a lock, taint two goblets, and kill one guard. They then seized the very vaults we had stored all our Ammacre away in for the express purpose of keeping it away from their ilk."
She paused for a moment, turning her head down. After a brief moment of reflection, she returned her gaze to the Councilwoman.
"I am the only living survivor of Ardovin. And only because I was not there at the time. We learned of that particular individual's methods after the fact through cursory divination. Understand, this was one of the least amongst the numbers of the Adversaries. They cannot be bargained or negotiated with. They are not interested in wealth, prestige, fame, or even political power. All of them, individually, possess an obsessive - compulsion - akin to a glamor, and they will not stop, ever, until they have brought all of the peoples of the Numinous Isles to bear underneath their heels. We do not pretend to understand their motives - only that such motives exist. Even today, we are far from certain that all of them have been apprehended. It is more than likely than one or more may be secluded in some rat hole of the isles, waiting for their opprotunity to strike." Alethea's tone was perfunctory and matter-of-fact, as though she were reciting the contents of a list of groceries.
"And in the face of such...persistent enemies, we must deny them their source of power."
There was a murmur of discussion amidst the council, hundreds of Surabhi discussing amongst themselves, before a different voice spoke. Much younger than the previous councilor, her face showed the marks of an experienced fighter. A nose that broken and never healed properly, scars that crisscrossed her skin, and most prominently - a leg leg that terminated in a stump below the knee, a simple prosthetic lay on the floor in front of her seat, and she seemed skeptical. "While I and my colleagues don't doubt that you speak the truth..." she trailed off, searching for words. "I must ask - if these 'Adversaries' are mages of such power and skill, what fixates them upon your land in particular? There are many nations in the world, such as Anahama, with thalazhaad in seemingly limitless quantities. Surely if these Adversaries seek to gain power over others through magery, they would install themselves in these locations and not an archipelago with comparably less of... if I am to be truthful, everything? If they seek dominion, there are vast lands that could be theirs and yet they war with each other over one particular area? What's more... while I am no shipwright, the logistics of your plan utterly baffle me. Such an undertaking - transporting the enormous quantities of thalazhaad across the world, is something that even Sanghara would struggle with - even with its vast fleet. What's more, if such a plan is viable, would it not simply be possible for one of these Adversaries to load a similar vessel to the brim with the material, land upon your shore, and wreak havoc despite your best efforts. Thirdly, and most importantly - you know the risk of catastrophe with such a plan is immense, surely? The extraction of thalazhaad is a delicate balancing act. More empires have fallen, the planet swallowing their civilizations, than I can even count. You threaten not only yourselves but millions throughout the world should your plan go awry. What's mo-"
Alethea raised a hand in the midst of the Councilwoman's speech.
"The councilwoman is most observant." She said, her voice clear and firm. Not disrespectful, but notably unaccomodating.
As far as overt displays went, this one was quite pointed. Each coffer was filled to the brim with heaps and stacks of opulent, shining, gleaming, glistering, glittering stones of every shape and cut, as big as peas and the size of clenched fists, flawless in composition, radiating an intensity. The very air seemed to tremble. Several nosebleeds broke out amidst the audience as the pressure in the room seemed to shift with the exposure of the magical crystals to the naked eye, where their dread wonder becalmed the mind with dreams, and yearning.these matters, none of them are the reason for which the council has nobly privileged me with the right to speak here today." She turned and gestured to her gathered retainers - massive and long sinuous, scaled creatures known as Ambucane, who closely resembled drakes after a fashion. With their immense strength, they easily wheeled two covered pallets along, despite their immense tonnage. They calmly - and carefully - wheeled the two pallets towards the center of the chamber, both draped with sheets of fine, silken turquoise. Alethea removed these each in turn with a brief flourish, revealing stacked bronze coffers, thirty-six to each pallet, each one rising to waist-height on its own. The ambucane, with their scaled and corded appendages, removed several of these in turn, opening the lids and setting them upon the floor.
The reaction of the council was mixed. Some gasped in surprise, some snorted in derision. The majority remained silent, simply observing the display impassionately. "This is impressive, no doubt." Spoke another voice, a priestess whose plain robes belied the weight her words carried. "But I and my compatriots are unsure of its meaning. If you seek to bedazzle us with fine craftsmanship, we can certainly appreciate it. But our interest in procuring an allotment of thalazhaad, not in decorative carvings. Thus, while these crystals are pleasing to the eye, I..." she turned to her colleages, obviously at a loss for the correct words, before sighing. "We fail to see the value in it. Our interest is in volume of thalazhaad for active use, not in aesthetics and decorations. It is at the end of the day, a fuel, not a precious metal."
"The councilwoman is entirely correct." Alethea nodded. "What you see here before you are, speaking openly, samples of what we are prepared to offer in bulk. As we are divesting the entirety of our lands of all native Ammacre, and taking advantage of our...perhaps unfortunately sophisticated magecraft and arcane techniques, it has been deemed that it would be wasteful not only of our efforts, but of your time if we were to offer it in any form that would prove less efficacious than possible. All of the bulk allotments the Regency proposes to sell shall ultimately be of similar cuts of Ammacre - already mined, refined, seasoned, treated, and worked into discerning cuts for particularly purposes. The selection you see here before you is a display of every individual form of our native Ammacre we are willing and able to sell in bulk amounts - and, of course, should the council wish to assess and examine their quality, they are more than free to do so. I can assure you that if there is a need and purpose, we have a form of Ammacre available which shall suit both."
The Ambucane continued to work as Alethea spoke, rearranging the coffers in rows and columns, each individual box containing - as indicated - different cuts, colors, and sizes of the crystaline gems.
"And." Spoke the first councilor, rising from her seat, "Were we to take Caelrumoste up on this trade deal, it is our understanding you require foodstuffs? The realm has many wonders to trade, but such a magnificent offer carries with it an equally magnificent cost. What do your people require most? Foodstuffs, engineers to rebuild infrastructure, farmers to tend the fields, soldiers to pacify the land?
"At this time, the people of the Numinous Islands are in need of many materials, as you said. Foodstuffs and cereals, building materials and tools, textiles, lumber, worked metal, medicinals, herbs, spices - anything that might be of help to us. We are also in need of ships and sea-faring vessels, and although Caelrumoste is presently concerned with its material needs the Regency will nonetheless consider offers in the alternative of various natures." Alethea elaborated. "All sales shall, naturally, be finalized and proferred to the highest bidders, and the Regency, in addition to negotiating with the Council herein, is already in the process of making similar overtures to other..." She paused as she surveyed the room carefully, picking her next words with care.
"...Interested powers with a need for such items."
The councilor nodded. "The Sangharans too will be interested in these crystals. There is no need to hide your meanings beneath gilded words and layers of obscurity. The truth is clear to all in this room. I will speak bluntly. Surabhumi, in its present state, cannot provide you with ships. We have precious few of our own. Our recent treaty with Sanghara will, no doubt, alleviate this ailment of ours, but such rectification will take time. However, your other needs our own people can, I say without exaggeration, meet in far greater capacity than the Sanghar of Shanrilaath. I am sure you saw the fields of rice and wheat on your journey inland, and I can assure you, such bounty is near universal across our domain. Building materials and fabrics - you can see plainly our abundance of such in this very city. While it is true, the Sanghar have silks, there is rarely such a need for such expensive fair that a sturdy sheet of linen or wool cannot satisfy. Furthermore..." she trailed off for a moment, smiling. "I hope your people have heard of Ukkayan steel? Barring the wildest rumors, that a blade of our steel can slice cleanly through that of lesser make, the stories are true. It is harder, stronger, more workable, and lasts longer than any other steel that is not of an expensive thaumaturgical origin. We produce it in great quantities - ask any farmer, they can attest to it. As far as spices, while Shanrilaath produces a bounty - we produce no less."
"Councilwoman, I am certain there is no need for you to act as gatekeeper as to my interests in possible bids of the Sangharan Senate and Assembly. I am here for your convenience, and will only be entertaining offers directly from the Council. Likewise, there is no need for you to validate your own worth. The specialities of Surabhumi, of course, are well-known factors." Alethea responded blythly. "If the council can achieve consensus both as to its interest in our bulk Allotments of Ammacre and is confident you can make a competitive initial bid for any of them, I am authorized to supply the council directly with Gestalt stones which may keep your administrators abreast of the present disposition of all active bids for all of our available allotments. If there are no further matters of address, I would like to humbly propose the formulation of an initial bid. Please be advised, all bids shall be anonymous - only terms, quantity, and quality shall be made available to possible competing parties."
The councilor nodded. "In that case, representative, do tell us of what it is you seek most. I assure you, if the price is right our realm can provide it."
"It is anticipated that the bids shall eventually be made of and to the specific capabilities of each individual party in turn, councilwoman. I would suggest you simply play to your strengths and make a token initial offer if only to see what others might be bidding. There is no need to deliver more than you absolutely must, I think we can all agree." Alethea responded cooly. The Regency's ambassador, it seemed, had no intention of supplying a firm request.
"If so, I believe we are capable of an initial offer of 250 maund of Ukkayan steel, and..." she smiled. "The Realm of Surabhumi sports, if I remember the last census correctly, around 120 million souls. We grow enough to feed every one of those hungry mouths, and we have ample surplus after. How much do your people need? We grow rice, potatoes, and wheat in abundance."
"It has...been some time since a formal census of the islands was performed, councilwoman." Alethea remarked faintly. "Those that remain on mainland Apocea exist in varying states of indigence. Many are refugees and exiles. I am afraid the Regency cannot readily give you a firm estimate of its own populace."
"Certainly, we understand. Civil disturbance makes an accurate assessment of the population difficult. Nevertheless, in addition to our steel, we are prepared to offer the assistance of our engineers and farmers, and... let us say, to begin with, about one and a half million bushels of rice per year. We can, of course, increase this supply as needed. This is our initial offer for ten allotments, nature irrelevant. It is at the end of the day, a power source, and will be used as such."
"Of course. A start." Alethea said neutrally, waving over a swarthy-looking elven attendant carrying a small silver tray. Four clear pyramid-cut gems rested on its surface. Alethea then retrieved a small slip of parchment from within her robes, along with a hand-plank and a quill, and wrote out a short line in shorthand.
"The Council of Surabhumi's initial bid has been recorded. I hereby offer the council these four Gestalt stones for use in perusing all active bids. The coffers you see here before you, I leave in your care for examination and appraisal. If there are no further inquiries, the delegation for the Regency of Caelrumoste shall yield the chamber."
"The Council shall deliberate. Thank you, ambassador. You may return to your quarters, or travel the city at your leisure."
"Oh Wise Metal, protect my journey," Estazar whispered. She felt like crying, but she didn't know why. Was it because she was leaving? That seemed the most likely answer. This had been her home, once. Her first memories came to her in flashes, never a full picture. She was in a room, reaching up to the high ceiling painted in gold and red and orange. They were twisting and winding shapes, dashes and chunks, they were fire. She could hear rumbling, the steady rumble of a voice. What words they were saying had been lost. Then, she was on her hands and knees, scurrying about on carpeted floors. Shouts of surprise and fear followed her, and finally, a word pierces through that she understood. "No!"
Had so much time passed between those two moments? Estazar knew there was at least a year between them, but they seemed so close, she could have been in one scene one second and the next in the next. Her hand made its way to her arm, tracing the long scar that wound itself about it up to her shoulder. A mobad had told her, years later, that she was lucky to have suffered such a merciful cut. She was there again, crawling towards what she could not say for sure. The carpet loomed before her, stretching into the distance. This was far before she could stand up, and view the ground from above in a standing position. As far as she knew, the horizon dipped below the world into a void of nothingness. Of course, she realized now that she'd been told that it was no void. It was merely a flight of stairs. Down she tumbled, towards the statue that stood at the bottom. A statue depicting Shah Bandaves "the Scourge of Qaro", his spear jutting towards the base. Her arm struck home, sliding across the brutal stone. She opened her mouth and screamed.
More scenes came, they became longer and more complex with her developing memory. She watched her grandfather destroy the statue of Bandaves, taking a great hammer to it again and again and again, screaming and shouting vile curses, until nothing was left of it but pebbles and dust. Entire conversations followed, none related to what she was seeing second before. She reached out her arms to a tall, muscled man, sporting a wide smile and a close-cropped beard. "Pick me up, daddy!" she heard herself scream, and he did, laughing and tousling her hair. Then, he set her back down, and kneeled so that they met eye to eye. She had learned to stand, sometime between the last scene and this.
"I can't be picking you up for a long time. I'm going away," he said. His face began to blur away, when it had once been so clear. His voice, too, passed into muffled territory, and soon she could hear nothing and see nothing but vague, far-away shapes and sounds. Then, his voice pierced though, with a simple message. "I'll be back within a few months or so, and I'll bring a new mommy with me." Then, although she did not see, she somehow recalled, if recalling was the right word for it, that he had left to fight the Qaroitn raiders. That was seven years ago.
The door behind her opened, and she jolted back into the present. She stood up and turned, to be greeted with two figures. One was a Garmardom, of her own height and skinnier even than a man from Nithush province. The other, a Giyamardom, towering over her at perhaps three or even four times her own height. Together they bowed their heads and kneeled before her.
"You shahbanu. I Satrap Farrodana, Zirpin Province. Little shahmardom, many garmardom. I serve you," the garmardom said.
"I Satrap Abafrir, shahbanu," the giyamardom said, standing back up and ducking his head as not to bump it on the ceiling. "Tansa province. Many grass, many giyamardom. We chosen by shah. Take shahbanu to Tammir."
"Is safe, Tammir. No Kehmeyid. No assassin," said Farrodana. "Come. No time."
"I have wagon. Big space. Food. No worry," said Abafrir. He reached out his hand to take her own, one strong and steady and the other trembling. "Many speed. Go Tammir." Nodding slowly, Estazar allowed the two of them to lead her out of the prayer room, towards where the wagon awaited her.