“This pact is a folly.”
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 smiled 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 Grand Councilors 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 Sanghar 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 and Indaskian, 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 brood over 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, Machezzar, the doughy faced master of the Traders Guilds 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 one of 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 iron 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 silken tabards. Clad in amber cloth and fine Belitarian Bronze, their serpentine Tombaks were raised high above them with snapping white pendants that bore the gold 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 golden 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 belts and reinforced by scale and banded bronze, they stared out behind grimacing golden 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. Within their belts hung ornate Kris Blades, ready to deliver final blows, and the brutal short-bladed Golok to hack down opponents in fierce close combat. Every one had been force to prove themselves worthy of becoming Lion Guard, forced to prove themselves worthy of becoming a elite rider, and so they earned their stirrups 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 experience 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 Drakonese 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 footmen 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 the city. 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 “Vehndathayan Sapphire”. 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. 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 countenance.
“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 - with their graceful limbs of burnt copper, 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 bronze and iron-craft, for now Surabhumi holds supremacy in steel, 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 rather than flounder, 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 Komodo 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 divine 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 bovids 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 face darkened at his words, her eyebrows furrowing into an expression of loathing. “You ignorant, loudmouthed, shrieking eunuch of a man.” She hissed at him, drawing in close and jabbing a finger hard into his chest. “You know nothing! Nothing!" Her eyes narrowed into slits, centimeters from his own. "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. My dear inbred noble scion of the bleakest womb, every word that falls from your mouth is utter rot, the same rot that affects what small vestiges of a mind you still cling to.”
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, Goloks 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 Kris 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 gold 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. Golgossar shall be tricky, but despite what the pirate lords claim they are still small men squabbling over their small world. 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 mighty hurricane. 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 kris blade 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.
Long might the peace last… but for just how long?