Off the Coast of Imasicia
Sarasvati Kusari Adwani
Aasmi Achaerikar Sayyanvar
Sujati Khvamahant Enazhal
“They are late.” Grumbled Shridaveh, her boot tapping rhythmically on the deck of her ship. “We were told we would meet at half past the thirteenth hour. And yet I see neither hide nor hair of them. I do not like being exposed in this manner.”
“Be calm, Shridaveh.” cautioned another, Sarasvati, her expression serene. “I do not fear the Imasicians at sea. They may possess a navy greater than our own, it is true, but they will not attack us so brazenly this close to Arcana. For all intents and purposes, we are a simple diplomatic mission to their city. To assault us here and now would make them a pariah in the eyes of all, and would reveal their true nature. No, no, though the dogs of Imasicia may be bound only by a tenuous leash of fear, it still binds them nevertheless. We will be safe here for now until they come.” She smiled, folding her arms, “Besides, Shridaveh. Have you so little faith in your sailors?”
Shridaveh’s face fell, and she shook her head slightly. “I am afraid not, your Honor. We have suffered great setbacks in the training and construction of a new navy, and I am afraid even my personal fleet is far cry from a true force, in quantity or quality. Were those hounds to attack us now, we would be lucky to escape with our lives.”
“Oh, come now, Shridaveh!” spake the priestess Sujati, entering the conversation unannounced, a prominent blade visible sheathed on her back even now. “Sarasvati may be a little infuriating at times, but even she is right! Even if they had the audacity to attack here, our soldiers are the finest in the land. We may not outsail them, but we can always throw them overboard if the need arises! Away with these negative thoughts, they do you no good! We shall dock in Arcana soon to negotiate with them and the Imasicians - and even if those go awry, we have our friends due to arrive soon to count on!” Sujati beamed, “And besides, I’ve seen you strutting about, danger or no danger, the sea is in your blood. You can’t lie to us, you’ve enjoyed being out on the ocean once more. Just smell that air! Nothing compares to it!”
Shridaveh allowed herself a small smile at these antics, nodding slightly. “It is true, I have missed the waves. These legs were meant for the deck of a ship, not sitting in Rhaputira listening to the council deliberating over grain shipments.”
The priestess’ eyes sparkled, and her grin turned mischevious. “I’d say they’re suited for more than that, but I suppose you would know more than I, wouldn’t you? Tell me, did you re-”
Sujati was cut off by a call from the ship’s mizzen, “Sails ahoy! Sails ahoy!” A Sanghar sailor rushed over, his red skin tanned and toughened by years in the sun and salt. “Your Honor,” he said, speaking to Sarasvati. “We have sighted the delegation of the Imasicians.”
Sarasvati’s lips tugged upwards in a small smile, and she looked towards her companion, a slight twinkle in her eye. “See? What did I tell you?”
“Do Surabhi foreigners speak Imperial? Do they speak Old Imasician?” asked the young Tingitus Ieder, scratching the scruff around his neck. He did that often, especially now, when it had grown in tufts over the sea journey.
“We will speak to them in Imperial, worry not about it,” responded Munatas, looking out at the masts approaching from the horizon. “As long as we do our part and they theirs, we need not fear any misfortune befall any of the Gentes Optimates, which, fortune willing, shall instead pass onto the Gentes Unitates and their sickly lap-dogs the orkh-lords.”
“Everything should be in place,” said Udadus, in his rumbling voice. “Even should something go awry. Let us hope it does not come to that . . .” his eyes glance to the door leading down to the lower deck. There is enough crystal in there to blow their boats, those of the Surabhi, and the nearest beach straight into the spiritual world. All that would be left of any of them is horrific wasteland, dotted with monsters of unthinkable proportions.
“I shall make sacrifice and prayer after. If you would join me,” said Munatas. “Very well, young Ieder. Let us make your uncle our grandmaster proud with our silver tongue and diplomatic manner. It is most befitting of the greatest families, the Optimates, that we keep our demeanor pleasing, lest we become seen as the animals we seek to fight. Signal the landing. Let us bring honor to Imasicia Patria.”
Sarasvati inclined her head slightly towards the Imasician delegation, her robes neatly arrayed in the customary fashion of a diplomatic priestess. “Greetings, friends.” She called in Imperial, a thick accent sticking to her words “I am sorry if my Imperial is poor, it has been long since I had need of it.” She gestured to her companions in turn, “May I introduce Shridaveh Enheduana, our naval leader. It is on her ships we have traveled here today. Sujati Khvamahant Enazhal, a protégé of our order. Aasmi Achaerikar Sayyanvar, a commander of our armies. And I myself am Sarasvati Kusari Adwani, appointed negotiator for these meetings. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She took a step back, allowing the Imasician party to board via ramp, “If you will, please follow us into the cabin. We have more comfortable accomodations arranged within.”
Leading the small party to the specified area, she gently undid the latch holding its door in place, permitting their entry. Within was the personal quarters of Shridaveh, her small bunk visible off to one corner, and an even smaller shelf of tomes adjacent it. Centrally located was a strong mahogany table, around which was arrayed nine chairs. Upon the table sat a large pot of tea, steam rising gently from its spout. A small array of candied fruits, rich cheeses and dry crusty breads, and a small bowl of sugar lay fastened to the table. Though a sailor, Shridaveh had had a difficult time without these ‘essential’ foods, and had thus spent no small fortune equipping her personal vessel to provide for these ‘needs.’
“Please, take a seat.” Sarasvati said, motioning the Imasicians towards the table, “I apologize if you hoped for some accommodations from your own home. I am afraid we lack experience with many such things.”
“Something . . . naval . . . something . . . ships . . . appointment?” Ieder said, speaking in Old Imasician. “She talks silly. I can hardly make sense of it.”
“No, you twit,” Udadus snapped. “You’re lucky you had the good sense to speak the old tongue. Those very words could mean the end of negotiations for the rest of either of our lives. A diplomatic incident!” He reached over to slap the young man, but his partner grabbed his shoulder before they could humiliate themselves before the Surabhi company.
“Please, let us deal with this another time. What’s important is that he learned,” said Munatas, flashing that signature charismatic smile of his, that peeled apart his skin like an oily lemon. He switched to Imperial and began to address the Surabhi. “We are honored that you would speak to us in the tongue of our ancestors, and those of our kin here in Arcana. The Imperial language, I fear, is dying. The newer generation prefers the vernacular of the native tongue of Imasicia. Children, yes? They must be taught.”
“We are more than happy with what you have granted us,” Udadus said, picking a small date and setting it on his tongue. “Eager, dare I say, to partake in these cultural gifts of which we have been given.” He shoots an evil glare at Ieder, shoveling sugary raisins into his mouth without any regard for the world around him.
“Indeed. The foul gentes who disease our senate claim to be sworn enemies of Surabhumi, yet we see their merchants same as ours on the same desert roads, buying the same delicacies as our own, straight off the coming wagons,” Munatas says, gesturing with his hands at the cheese in his hand. When he gets going, he truly is a force, a storm of words. He alone could carry the Optimates through countless victories in the senate, if only he had been born a patrician of the old families. “The Gens Inumedigus, how detestable their manner! It is in their blood, passed from paterfamilias to filius minoris. Say, I believe I have had this before, yet not nearly as delectably fresh as what you have served to us. They call this, I believe . . . paneer?”
Sarasvati smiled slightly, shaking her head. “I am afraid not. It is… Shridaveh, what was it again?” She inquired, turning to the Sanghar woman - mid-bite through a heavily laden slice of bread laden with another cheese. She held up a finger, chewing slowly as she savored the flavor, before clearing her throat.
Speaking in the dialect of Surabhumi, she did well to mask her scorn. “No, Sarasvati. It is nothing close to paneer. I believe the merchants informed me the common name outside of our borders is… brie, however. I do not expect them to be familiar with our cheeses, simply keep them away from my pecorino. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
Sarasvati pursed her lips, shaking her head slightly, before turning back to the Imasicians. “I have been informed the name you might be most familiar with is ‘brie’? I do seem to recall it not being an invention of our own. Nevertheless, I am sure you have had it at some point. It originated from Annotilus, as best I can remember.” She allowed herself a smile, plucking a candied lemon wedge from the table. “But alas, we did not come here to discuss things as pleasant as our cultural delicacies, though I am sure Imasicia has many good things too.”
Reaching down, she pulled from a small bag a detailed map of the region, Imasicia, Arcana, and all other small states that dotted the coast. “Though it pains me, war seems likely if our negotiations in Arcana do not bear fruit. While we have some cursory understanding of your nation’s geography, we are unfortunately ignorant of much of it. We will depend upon you and your people to aid us in bringing justice to… Masinissa, was his name, yes?.”
“Masinissa! The dog’s whelp!” Munatas shouted. “On behalf of all of Imasicia, he has wrought a stain! He is of the cursed Gens Fesus, you see. I warned the old king Bogudus Senior, believe me I did. They are a sorry lot, poor in house politics and too quick with their marriages. That they would have the gall to call themselves a great dynasty, when the elder took that whore for wife . . . “
“What my colleague means to say, is that the actions of one gens is not representative of our kingdom,” Udadus says, barely hiding his disappointment. While Munatas was a performer at heart, and loved his theatrics, he did tend to put a bit too much ham into his act. “We cannot speak on behalf of the king nor the Fesi, but only ourselves. We, who call ourselves Optimates, would never dare any similar action. Very well then, what is it you ask of us to do regarding our . . . man of the subject?”
Unfazed by the outburst, Sarasvati simply smoothed her robes, allowing the young man to exhaust his bluster, and for his older counterpart to continue. She remained silent for a time, simply observing the Imasicians before her, sipping from her mug of tea as she did so.
At length, she spoke, “I am glad to see we are of one mind on this man. The demands of Surabhumi are simple, in truth. We seek to be given custody of this man that he may stand trial for his crimes on our soil, under our own laws, that he may face the repercussions of his actions. We would also demand reparations for his actions, taken from his own finances. The people of Aasiti have suffered greatly at the hands of his army, and the suffering of many a grieving dhutris would be alleviated by this. The liquidation of the estate to which he belongs, if such is necessary, would be well received as well.”
She set down her tea, looking Udadus in the eyes. “In turn, we are prepared to assist your faction within Imasicia. We hold no grudge with your people, nor do we wish vengeance upon them. But I think it would be to the betterment of all that the Regnum’s leadership be of a more… reconcilable nature with the other nations of this world.”
“Sol Inuictus! That’s-” Ieder began, but was silenced by Udadus’ hand gripping his shoulder. They looked into each others’ eyes, and knew immediately they were in understanding. They were talking about treason. The two of them then turned to Munatas, and even behind his unflappable demeanor they could see the fear in his eyes.
“The things you ask, the things you offer, both are very grave,” Udadus said. “It may not be in our power to promise such an arrangement. That lies solely in the hands of the king, and any man who is familiar with his temperament, as we are, will know that he is no friend to Surabhumi.”
“Yes, and your support for our cause, while admirable, may be a bit . . . hasty,” continued Munatas, clasping his hands together. “I am impressed that you are familiar with the factional system present in our governance. However, these things are . . . complicated, dare I say. If everyone could grasp the nuances, then what need have we for senators?” He laughed nervously, just enough to make the point that it was a joke. Even the self he kept in his mind, his honest self, was sweating like rain. Imagine if their enemies caught wind of them making clandestine deals with foreign powers. Imagine if the public did.
Sarasvati smiled. “What seems to be the matter, sir? We are merely sitting around a table, enjoying some delicious tea and discussing our views of politics and matters of state.” She showed no hint of guile, her face a serene mask of innocence. “Any meaning you take from this conversation is, of course, your own. I am but the messenger of my people, as are you. I can do nothing but represent the wishes and best interests of the people whom I owe allegiance to - and the same goes for you.”
In her fingers she toyed with a cube of candied plum, “But, in these little discussions of ours, perhaps it might slip that the Realm of Surabhumi is fully prepared to embark on a military expedition as a certain General threatened, should our negotiations with Imasicia in Arcana fail. It might be said that her demands are reasonable and just, to judge and to sentence one who has committed crimes against her and her people under her own terms, on her own soil.” Slowly, she slid the morsel between her lips, studying the men before her evenly. “And it might be said as well that if the monarch’s whim is not the best for their people, the people’s whim might not be best for the monarch.”
The threat was clear. Ieder wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. The eyes of the Surabhi woman stared him down, forcing him back from the table by the force of her will. In his mind, he could see villages, burning. Cities, turned to dust under hails of fire and thunder. Great Mirgamas, and its Castra Senatorum that dominates the skyline on its hill, turned to nothing but pebbles of marble. The Surabhi armies were a legacy even the Imperials knew. It was said the shield of the old Venda was unbreakable. Masinissa must have found out for himself.
“It is true, what you say,” Munatas began, letting the smile creep back into his face. It was more false than an orkh merchant. “I do not know how much you are aware of the political machinations within Imasicia. We, who call ourselves Optimates, have in late generations fallen out of favor with the kings. From Guba Quartus to Bogudus Tertius, they have been Unitates all. I fear our golden age is long past us. Are you suggesting that to guarantee our continued success, the position of Rex Imasicianus may be . . . rearranged?” That was it. He has crossed the line. The other two would either follow him into treason or betray him to his death.
Sarasvati’s expression remained neutral, and she sipped at her drink serenely. “My dear Optimas - if you will pardon my use of the term in such a manner - I am suggesting nothing. I am merely stating my view of the world. In Surabhumi, we once had a war the likes of which dwarf even our great clashes with the Sangharans. Those who held much power and influence used those for ends that harmed the people. Eventually, a tipping point was reached.” She set down her cup, staring him in the eye. “The census two years before the war reported a population of some one hundred and seventy five million, three hundred and twenty six thousand, four hundred and ninety two. Twenty years later, after the war had been over a year, another census was taken.” Idly, she plucked a small piece of cheese from the platter, toying with it before popping it in her mouth. Silence reigned as she turned her gaze back to him. “That census reported a population of eighty three million, two hundred and seventeen thousand, five hundred and eleven. Even today, farmers find mass graves in their fields. Fields strewn with armored skeletons, their names and memories lost. Entire dhutrisi disappeared, the priestesses who would have marked their passing likewise falling before they could do so. Surely, you know of my peoples’ fondness for libraries and records - did you know we must rely on Sangharan accounts of many of our past rulers? Stolen documents from Odhisa for many arcane works? We not not much of our own history, for it was destroyed. In turn, those who destroyed it were rendered extinct.”
A long sigh escaped her, and for once the diplomat’s expression showed a hint of genuine emotion, “I am telling you of what has happened in the past, and what will happen in the future. Whatever the people of Imasicia choose, the Realm of Surabhumi must react to in order to benefit our own.” She gestured in the direction of land, towards Imasicia. “Imasicia will do what it wishes, and you Optimates shall do as you see best befits yourselves. If you wish our support in changing Imasicia’s leadership, for the betterment of your home as a whole and to spare it calamity, that I can promise you.”
“Can we refuse? It doesn’t sound like we can refuse,” Ieder said, the words passing through his mouth in Old Imasician as he chewed on his piece of cheese.
“The boy has the right of it,” Udadus says, staring grimly at the table. “She has Imasicia at the point of her scythe-weapon. There is no winning, not for us, not with the senate we have now.”
“Faith, my friends,” Munatas said. “Keep hope in your hearts. There remains many paths by which-”
“Let me be direct, for these negotiations must be done. Should you support us, then we in turn shall support you. As our ancestors would say, quid pro quo,” Udadus said, switching to Imperial. “You are right, of course. Radical action may succeed where machination has long been trapped. Just tell us what we are to expect from Surabhumi in the coming moons, and when the optimal time comes that we should raise arms.” He stood up, and extended his hand to Ieder to do the same. Munatas sat, mouth agape, like he had been struck in the back with an arrow. For once, he was speechless.
Sarasvati smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. “Aasmi will discuss the military minutiae with you, know that we each speak with the full authority of the Electorate Council behind us. I am glad you have taken such initiative, Optimas. We will aid you in bringing benefit to both of our peoples.” She stood, inclining her head slightly. “I will take my leave for now and allow you and Aasmi to negotiate these matters. Please, call if you need me.” Making for the doorway, she paused, turning back to the assembled Imasicians, “And do bear in mind, if word of this leaks to the wrong ears - there will be consequences.”