All day the survivors of Ha-Leothe have toiled to rebuild their town after the fires, and all day the mighty Western Army sharpened their weapons, mended their armor, and prepared for the coming war. It wasn’t until the moon started to emerge from the dusky sky that the tent of the Tsar was suddenly lit with candles - a meeting of commanders.
Darragh stood alone to represent the Fakir, and next to him stood a few Boyars of equal rank and commanders that often wore the yellow mane in battle. Along with the military men stood Dmitri, the Auspice. They all stood around a table, a map of the region splayed across it. Jjonveyo alone was sitting, a large wooden chair wrought with carvings of old tales under him. He sat with his beard in his fist, dark eyes brooding over the map.
“By now our agents would have made it to a few towns and villages with our messages and promises,” He grunted, “The war of the mind has begun, and our scouts have already picked the next settlement to approach. Ha-Tinn is close by and no better fortified than Ha-Leothe was, not that I think it would come to bloodshed -- a spy has relayed their interest in joining the Tsardom peacefully.”
“Cowards.” Darragh said. Loud enough so everyone in the tent could hear it. His eyes were roaming across the map. He didn’t care for what villages decided to surrender peacefully. What he needed was blood.
"You chose the same path, Darragh," Jjonveyo rumbled without looking at the man. "There are, however, reports of cowards -- or at least fools -- burning the land and retreating to Ha-Dûna; I wish to see this scorching myself, I think it could provide us with a great boon." He sniffed.
“I wasn’t at war with you.” Darragh returned, but remained quiet for the rest. Jjonveyo looked over at Darragh for a moment, a blank look upon his face.
“Speak your mind,” The Tsar grumbled.
For a second Darragh remained silent. But seeing as the Tsar was insistent he simply said: “You know my mind.” One in ten men should be dead. The price for the peace they so desperately desire. Of course, the merciful Tsar wouldn’t do it.
"Speak your mind," Jjonveyo insisted heavily. The eyes of the other officials fell to Darragh.
The Fakir didn’t care about eyes. His own were fixated upon the Tsar. After a tense pause he finally let out a sigh and said: “They’re only surrendering now because they know what happened to Ha-Leothe. If they were first then they would’ve made us bleed. Yet now you’re letting them kneel. Is that your price for peace?” He looked around to the officials staring him down. Did they know nothing of who they’re fighting? “Dûnans crave war. Conquest. What’s stopping them from rising up in ten years? What if they’re just biding their time. Staying strong until we are weak?”
Jjonveyo rolled his jaw, the silence palpable. Finally the Tsar spoke, "I appreciate your concern, Darragh, but it is much easier for them to rise up against me when they don't already have my soldiers integrated into their settlements -- soldiers spared needless battles. Do you see what I'm saying? Unrest comes no matter what route you take, it's better not to waste resources making more than necessary." The Tsar tugged his beard, "Does this not satisfy you?"
Silence reigned. Darragh was not about to break it. It wouldn’t be his own people that would be stationed in the deathtrap. If Jjonveyo was so keen on having his own men slaughtered then so be it. For a while he kept his eyes locked on the Tsar, but after a while they fell upon the map again. Scouring it for prey.
Jjonveyo narrowed his eyes, a deep growl rumbling from his throat, "You dare show such disrespect?"
Darragh let out an exasperated sigh as he looked up. “As your Boyar, I would advise you to drop this matter and focus on what counts right now.”
Jjonveyo stood up, "I have done nothing but given you a platform to advise and speak and be a part of the Celeviak Tsardom, but I increasingly notice your spite and sarcasm. Dissent has no place on our journey, if you do not wish to be treated as Celeviak -- fine." He looked at the yellow maned soldier. "Round up the Fakir." He looked back at Darragh, "I will see the root of this matter cured before another step be taken with the Cenél."
“Dissent?” Darragh said. Perhaps the first time giving a hint of some heated emotion brewing in his heart. “We burned the walls of Ha-Leothe for you. We fought beside you. We have followed every order! Is this how you treat anyone who disagrees with you on any matter?”
Jjonveyo folded his arms behind his back, "No, but as you said -- I should keep my eyes open against those who simply bide their time."
A tense moment passed before the yellow maned soldier returned, "They are lined up outside." Jjonveyo looked at his council.
The group shuffled outside the tent, the Fakir waiting outside. Jjonveyo looked directly at the first one on the left. "What is your name?"
“Faas,” He said, then looked at Darragh standing behind Jjonveyo. “, my Tsar.” He quickly added. He was younger and his showed it.
"What do you think of my decision to spare the children of this settlement," Jjonveyo asked quietly.
“Children...sir?” Faas asked. He looked at Darragh, then back at Jjonveyo. “I-I… a merciful choice my Tsar.” He said swallowing deeply.
"Why are you looking at him when I'm the one speaking?" Jjonveyo asked.
Blood drained from Faas’ face. “I-I wanted to be sure I wasn’t speaking out of turn, my Tsar.” He quickly said.
"It's just you and I speaking," Jjonveyo said deadpan, "What of the women, Faas, what should I do with them?"
Something shifted in the young man’s eyes. He swallowed again. “Sparing them is a merciful decision, my Tsar.” He said, but it was strained. It was almost too obvious he did not agree with it.
"Is that what I should do, then?" Jjonveyo asked a little louder. He pointed at another Fakir, "Do you agree with Faas' judgement? Should the women be spared?"
“Yes?” Said the next Fakir. Quickly added: “My Tsar.”
But Darragh set a step forward. “Tell him Faas.”
The young man’s head dropped in shame and he looked down at the ground. “They have the one I was supposed to marry.” He said. “Right now I can’t even imagine what they’re doing to her. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see her again. I-I’m not a leader. I may never be. But why should they get mercy when she doesn’t?”
"Oh I see..." The Tsar's voice rumbled thoughtfully, dark eyes scanning the fakir before snapping to Darragh. A crude smile formed and he paced along the line of Fakir. "So this is the root of all the grumbles and stares and snaked eyes? You all have felt loss and now you wish for revenge, for them to feel it too?" Jjonveyo spun on a heel to face Darragh, "Do you agree with my assessment, Boyar?"
“I do, my Tsar.” He said. The other Fakir gathered were growing more resolute in their agreement by the second.
Jjonveyo nodded, "Would you go as so far to say that these feelings may be the true purpose of your advice rather than care for future uprisings against my banner? Do not be ashamed if that is true, but correct me if it is false, please."
“No.” Darragh said. “I’m not blind to the future. Dûnans are warmongers. Greedful and spoiled. Five years ago they raged a war here as well. Killing and massacering through these lands. When they were beaten back they professed their love of peace. Yet five years later they chant for war in their arena again. I have no desire to fight this same war every five years.”
Jjonveyo nodded once again, "Would you say the Dûnans in this settlement are already, then, guilty of conspiring and unrest?" He stood up straight, "I will not stand for it, if they are."
“I know for a fact that mothers are already whispering in their children’s ears to avenge their fathers. Lose a battle, look as if you can be beaten after all and those in Ha-Tinn will murder those you’ve left behind there in the streets.” Darragh spoke with a venom he had never used before in the presence of Jjonveyo.
"So you," Jjonveyo jutted a chin at Faas, "Want revenge. And you," he looked at Darragh, "Tell me the people of this settlement are already guilty of treason." The Tsar pinched his beard in thought, looking away and towards the horizon. After a moment of contemplation, Jjonveyo tipped his head at Faas, "Thank you for voicing your concerns to your Tsar -- clearly -- it is communication that will lead us to unity, not passive grumbles. Know I have heard your words, and will now consider them with your Boyar." He waved a hand, "The Fakir are dismissed."
The Fakir walked away. Often looking behind their backs at Darragh. Who remained motionless. Though he had eased up. A little. “Know that I will accept it if you choose to not believe them. And I will make them accept it as well. This is why I did not want to raise the issue further. It wasn’t disrespectful. It’s the fact that you are merciful… and we are not.”
Jjonveyo considered Darragh thoughtfully for a moment before looking towards the tent. "Have any of them ever killed someone defenseless before?" He asked idly as he walked back into the privacy of the tent, the council following.
“A handful.” The Boyar said as he followed Jjonveyo in. “They killed thieves and criminals. Cenél laws are as harsh as winter.” He then further explained. “But they will stay in line.”
"The penalty for treason is to be nailed to a tree," Jjonveyo explained as he sat back in his seat, "Usually through the stomach, sometimes upside down. It's not very quick but serves as a reminder to others. It helps denote the traitor to be too dishonest for an honest demise." He paused and his brow fell in thought, "Those found guilty of treason will be given this punishment, and I wish for the investigations and execution to be done by the Cenél. There is a place in unity for those who seek justice fervently, seek it through the authority of the Tsardom."
A smile cracked upon Darragh’s face. “We will be thorough.” He said. In his mind he was already devising the ways to flush out the traitors. Some would be fools and whisper to all who’d listen. Others would be too clever and would first pretend to be a friend. Offer their services. Burrow into whatever they wished to fight.
“Ha-Tinn will give us ease of passage then.” Darragh continued. Truly wishing to know the battles soon to come. “So who is stupid enough to stand against us then?”
"Before we get into that," Jjonveyo cleared his throat. "Take as many men as you need from your own Boyardom to form the investigative force, they will be a permanent mark until mentioned otherwise. They will be present in all captured Dûnan settlements even if by rotation -- but the investigation will begin only after we take Ha-Tinn or if they change their minds towards aggression. Expecting Ha-Tinn to submit willingly, we will clip their claws to prevent future uprisings by conscripting their able-bodied men and women into the front lines. They will have little choice but to comply at that point, and the recruits will be spread evenly to prevent clustering. Does the council agree to this course of action?"
Thought lingered for a while, as if the commanders and boyars were digesting Jjonveyo's words -- thougj some admittably were just trying to make it seem like they weren't just going to agree with everything the Tsar said without thought. Finally a wave of agreement came in. Jjinveyo looked at Darragh for his final say on the matter.
Darragh bowed down. “A wise choice. It will be done.”
"Great, our generals will conspire a war path moving forward," Jjonveyo nodded over the nap, "Demtri should be meeting up with us within the month on top of it all." He mumbled, "Everyone is dismissed - except you, Darragh, I'd like a private word with you. Dmitri you stay as well, shuffle the copper cards."
The Fakir was one step turned to walk away as well when Jjonveyo bid him to stay. And then ordered the soothsayer to start shuffling his metal cards. Darragh frowned for a second at Dmitri. The Cenél had no real faith in such practices. But then his attention turned towards Jjonveyo. “My Tsar?”
"I fear a divine presence actively works against us," Jjonveyo explained.
Dmitri nodded slowly. “That may be the case, my Tsar. Earlier this morning, I turned over the Priest in upside-down position - indicating that the enemy has been speaking actively with the Divines. Just what sort of foe is this?”
"I'm unsure of her origin, but a Goddess who named herself Celestine has spoken to me," Jjonveyo looked at his Auspice. "She spoke against our cause, I can only assume her power will be used against us."
“By Thaa,” mumbled the Auspice. “W-well, I’ll see what the cards say, then.” He shuffled the copper plates carefully and laid out an array of five cards. Slowly sucking in a breath, he turned the first card, frowning. “... The Commander in upside-down position… It would seem that they summon help not only from the divines. I can’t say anything about the size of the force, but they have gathered a force, that’s for sure.”
He turned the second card. “The Ambassador, upside-down. This… This is an odd draw.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “... I… I think it’s not meant to represent them sending a peace offering, as it would normally be. In all honesty, this is the first time I’ve turned the card in this manner - never before have I ever seen an upside-down Ambassador.”
Jjonveyo hunched over the cards, completely invested. His face turned to a snarl, "Then what does it mean?"
The boy hesitated. “Uh, uhm… It’d-it’d have to depict something the enemy is doing. M-maybe they’re sending out messages asking others for help? Do they have allies? Do we know?”
"A blind spot," Jjonveyo grit his teeth. "We will send spies and learn every faucet of their capabilities and support and I know just the spies to do it." Jjonveyo looked away from the cards. "Jonathan?" The name was funny on Jjonveyo's accent, but a previously unheard voice popped up seemingly out of thin air.
"Take leave at once and report on the aid Ha-Dûna has received."
Jjonveyo pinched his chin and looked back at Dmitri, "Do the cards speak of anything else?
Dmitri quickly flipped the third one, blinking quickly. “The Wolf, upside-down once again. We will be attacked by something and it’ll cause us terrible losses. It, it won’t be human - some sort of animal. We should have scouts on the lookout for beasts.”
The fourth card. “The Uncle. We, too, will receive aid from somewhere we did not think about. How far away is Demtri?”
"He should be on his way south soon enough," Jjonveyo nodded..
Dmitri shrugged. “I think this indicates that he is bringing aid from the north. I think.” He blinked. “I will just read the final card.” He turned it over and pursed his lips. “... The Cave… Someone close to you will perish, great Tsar.”
"In what form?" The Tsar was hovering once again, eyes picking the art of the card apart.
Dmitri shook his head. “The cards cannot reveal that much. For now, all they can tell is that someone will perish. It might be a close relative, a close friend, a close rival…” He paused. “... It, it might even be you, great Tsar,” he whimpered carefully.
"Not before I'm finished," Jjonveyo grunted. "While the small ones gather intelligence required for mortal assault, I'm placing you, Dmitri, in charge of leading the Auspices and Wise speakers in finding favor with the gods. I will meditate on Thaa tonight, myself. The machinations of this unknown Goddess cannot jeopardize the liberation of mortality from suffering. I will also send word to Demtri..." He trailed off, eyes on the map.
“M-me?! I’m just a novice, though! I’m-I’m sure Master Bradislav would be better suited to lead!”
"Then delegate to him but never question me again." Jjonveyo moved away from the cards, "I shall retire to prayer now."
Dmitri swallowed and bowed silently, shuffling his cards together in a hurry so he could leave as fast as possible.
"Darragh." Jjonveyo didn't even look at the man, "I have a final word for you before I retire."
The Fakir had no time or interest in soothsayers. For most of the reading his mind was somewhere else. He almost left with the others when Jjonveyo stopped him: “Of course, my Tsar. What can I do for you?”
"I fear that the enemy's use of the divine and unnatural put our physical superiority in jeopardy," Jjonveyo began. "This may be beyond your scope but it is no secret that magic won us Leothe and that it is your people who have a stronger covenant with violent magics. Do not tell me if it isn't possible, but tell me you'll look into it when I say; we may need to devise such a devious spell, such a dangerous magic - as to level the playing field. I do not know what form this will take, but I put it on you to bring me solutions to this query."
“This is a dangerous request my Tsar.” Darragh’s expression grew even more grim than before. Yet he spoke with a tone of extreme caution. “Magic is offered to us by our own gods. And if it’s what you say – that some of the divine have turned against us – then crafting such a spell might only insult them further.” For a second he closed his eyes. Contemplating the idea. “I will do my best to bring you what you seek but it will cost time.”
"Of course," Jjonveyo agreed, "Take what time and resources you need."
Darragh gave a short bow of acknowledgement before he left the Tsar alone.
Jjonveyo and the gang discuss how to destroy everything that Celestine loves... Kidding. They do discuss the Cevel's place in the Tsardom and then they do a reading. Lots of planning involved. Lots of details. The cevel are secret police. Thumblings are tiny spies. Celestine's a jerk. Dmitri is a soothsayer. Demtri is coming south. Jjonveyo is gonna pray. Big devious spell being made. Fin