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End of Empires - N3S III

Discussion in 'Never Ending Stories' started by North King, May 20, 2008.

  1. Luckymoose

    Luckymoose The World is Mine

    Joined:
    Jan 15, 2006
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    Prince Eater

    Other Chapters: (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8)
    Arc Word Count: 32,160


    Naevu, Professor of the Faith
    Seniar Palace, Sirasona, Halyrate 919 SR


    "A man's tongue is the swiftest of instruments." - Whispers, First Dawn

    ~*~*~*~

    He chased a dream through the crowd. Sought beauty and gained on it at last with each stinging step.

    A thousand faces wandered the halls, not aimless but with lost expressions, going on instinct rather than passion. Across tiled floors, their forms clung in groups as if a single living organism, pouring as water over stone. Yet they broke for him, as if he were a boulder in their stream dividing them down the middle. He tromped along with cane tapping the floor with every limp of his soured legs, son in tow.

    They filled the halls as a blur of color, both clothing and skin. Order functionaries, clerks, acolytes, and others of all rank and purpose flowed loose and free, pulled along in the motion of government. Craftsmen with chisel and hammer broke new tiles, always building and rebuilding. In a bird's eye they must've appeared as a school of fish in the shallows, directed in perfectly formed channels in the sand. The Seniar woke to a new day of politics and economics and theology. A world of paperwork and whispers.

    He'd wrapped the boy in cloth, made him a man of the Faith, educated. The man in return had given him a piece of carved driftwood, finished with linseed oil. Humility in the hand. A piece of wood to lean on when he'd left, when he was gone. But he wasn't gone, and wouldn't be. Saeron took the blue shawl upon his shoulders. Said the words to make him whole for his mission. A Chorusman. A voice. But he'd taken his son's dream, like a thief in the night. Used his sister's power to throw the boy on the southern winds, to a city far from war. How to explain to youth that love is not reason?

    The top of the cane was carved to a fine, rounded ball fit snug to his palm. Applied weight pressed the engraving there into his skin. His name in script. Naevu, as the sea is deep and far reaching. How optimistic of his master. How overestimating a name. A reminder he was as shallow as those passing him by.

    There were marble tiles ripped up in new construction, piled in ruin near the walls. Wooden boards lain across gaps in the work, where the sand and gravel of old foundation was exposed. Decades of wear shown on the old tile where the polish had dulled and there were grooves cut in by the million footsteps of great men and women before him. They were replaced, unceremoniously, with roughhewn stone tiles yet to be worked over, incomplete. He watched old become new beneath his feet. As if observing the metamorphosis of life, a circle completed as he walked. A story painted in chisel marks and dust, in the smell of quarry still on the stone. Rain and salt.

    The old stone shattered and tossed aside. It was him, and he sympathized with it. Why did the crowd part? For his rank, his cloth, or for the limp in his step? Was he the thing now torn up to be replaced, having served all his usefulness to this world? Were they parting to save themselves from his ailment, his speed, for fear that if they slowed down their own mortality, as his, would catch up with them? Saeron did not go around him, did not worry for his image. He walked in step, in respect at his side, and did not allow his own anger to overcome him. Even though he'd been denied his wishes, he still walked at speed.

    And for that Saeron was as the new stone, rough still but with potential. Sun cast shadows over imperfections, showing the world what was wrong and how to fix it, shape it. Where polish would shine brightest to bring out the marbled veins. Naevu envied the new stone, and in that he knew he envied his son as well. Young with the world ahead, new history to be lived and written by someone long after Naevu had turned to dust. Maybe he would grace the halls as sand beneath the next tiles? Forgotten, erased, buried.

    Forgotten, he mused. He'd come here to forget. Forget the black stone castle, the icy sea, and the silent starving masses hidden behind wooden masks. To forget the pain in his gut when all he had was soup. Soup of his rations, shared with far too many people. A good deed, a sacrifice. He'd sacrificed much, for Saeron, and for himself. But no longer would he need to, not in Sirasona. Not in the warmth and freedom that meant. He'd committed his time, raised and protected his pupil, his son. He'd given everything, would still give everything. He'd meditated over these moments, over what he'd say to Elea Gyldwin or how it would all go. Endless daydreams.

    Aelea told him he never looked forward, never captured the moment as she did. Always looking backwards. But now that he did he didn't know what to expect. And that was fine. Exciting and terrifying.

    They came to a point where the halls met in a cross. He'd never been this deep, this far into the Seniar. The Concourse was back from where he'd come, in familiar corridors. The Alonite estate sat to the west, outside among the others. But here the Seniar Palace itself, where the High Ward resided, remained a mystery to him. Gardens flanked columned halls, a reconstruction of passionless, minimalist architecture for the vision and beauty of an artist.

    Red deer, tiny and fragile, lapped from a fountain fed pond filled with gold and white fish. None of those who passed paid attention to the details. The way the sunbeams bounced on the water to reflect waving ripples across the plain tiled ceiling. How the arrangement of flowers perfumed the air in a complex and multilayered aroma, strong enough to mute the smell of man but faint enough to only tingle the nose, not singe it. How the sea could be heard with eyes shut and ears free to absorb the sound, even though it was a mile away. He stood to catch his breath and enjoy the scene.

    Men spent their entire lives searching for the beauty right in front of them.

    "Professor," called a man. He'd broken off from the crowd to join them in their pity bubble. He wore the colors of an Eskarite, though his face was red and sweaty enough to be confused with an Accan as of late. "Do you have a moment?"

    The question was directed at Naevu, but he ignored it. The prolonged silence agitated the Eskarite, as he fidgeted in place. Perhaps he thought he'd gone unheard? Naevu tightened hold on his cane whilst scanning the various halls for the way forward. He sniffed at the air in hope of catching the lightest whiff of pear or spice, to draw him towards her. He drew only flowery breaths. Saeron's eyes stabbed holes clean through him.

    His son said, "Yes. What do you need?" Finally, Naevu thought, he pokes forth from the shell. Saeron's posture straightened a bit, dominating height wise. He stood a head taller than Naevu or the Eskarite.

    The Eskarite flushed, inhaling deep. "This is unusual, but do you speak Satar?"

    "I do," said Saeron.

    Naevu grumbled in thought, watching the crowd. Maybe I should ask them for directions? No. That wouldn't do.

    "We're dealing with the Accan Quarters, you know?" Saeron nodded to the Eskarite. "There's a lot of property claims, damages, deeds. We're swamped. Not enough translators to meet demand. Came looking for more, saw you two. We could use your help."

    Saeron glanced over with furrowed brow. As if to question how much freedom he had. Naevu gave him little to work with, focusing instead on the bizarre dance that occurred when one clerk tripped with arms full of papers. Sheets scattered in the air, zigzagging down like leaves in fall.

    "You know where I'll be," said Naevu, tapping his cane on the floor. "And if not?"

    "I'll see you tonight," said Saeron. He told the Eskarite, "Absolutely."

    The Eskarite pulled Saeron away at a hurried pace and merged into the flow as two more fish in the school. The boy deserved freedom, a loosening of the collar and leash. They weren't in the north. No one here would hurt him. They needed him. A sweetener to bitter medicine.


    This was better, he figured. Saeron didn't need to see what came next. His old man fumbling around a beautiful woman. A woman he'd dreamed about and been frustrated over for years. Naevu combed his fingers through his hair, realizing the ridiculousness of his circumstances. Hell, he didn't truly know why he was here at all. Aelea had been vague, too vague. As vague as some passages in Whispers, unexplained mysteries, poetic. He walked blind into the politics of two women he did not wish to displease or disappoint. One his sister, and the other, well, the other he wanted for more. The thought soured in his belly like too much milk, rolling and knotted.

    His eyes may have weakened to miniscule writing, but they were as a hawk's to patterns in the world. A few extended moments in his personal, lonely island in the flow gave a hint of trend in the momentum. Alonites favored the eastern hall, and so would he.

    He made his way slower than before, dragging his feet along. It wasn't for his muscles grew tired, but his mind had quickened. He acted out a hundred conversations with a hundred Elea Gyldwins, one for each step. The longer his steps the longer his thoughts, and hidden among them some gems might emerge that he could ill-afford to miss. Nervousness churned in him like it hadn't since he was Saeron's age.

    He followed the wall as a rat might. Not cowering, but calculating. He took his time as the world practically ran by. The busied people were consistent in their distance from him. Suspicion must've clawed at their hearts. He heard some of their conversations, words plucked by his mind from the murmuring. He was foreign here, and need not be reminded of how some among them felt of his beliefs. But none, as he was aware, were out to stab him in the spine as they had been when Prince Alxas came to speak.

    But Alxas was long dead, and even in his maimed state Naevu imagined he could win a foot race against the Crippled Prince. Surely there was a joke in there he'd need to write down. No Satar haunted them here. They were safe and warm. He could let the boy go, be free in the city.

    The crowd eventually thinned as the halls grew smaller, more compact. Rooms and doors and courtyards appeared where gardens and long chambers would've stood back in the primary canals of the palatial complex. Here the new construction was far more prominent.

    There were fountains of children at play, so well sculpted and decorated they could've been frozen moments in time. Mosaics of the night sky lined the triangular roof, lit by candle and sun. Flowers stuffed in vases, arranged precisely. Attractive female servants darted through the shadows, cleaning here or there, as they remained flirtatious flashes of skin in his periphery. The walls were painted landscapes in contrasting light and shadow. There was a mural in black and green of the Nechekt hills in exaggerated but recognizable form. The shading, he thought, was quite extraordinary a style.

    The rooms gained an intimacy. There were personal possessions, here or there, on tables or stands or left on cushioned couches. A half-empty glass of wine placed haphazardly on the floor. A book turned to a page midway through, fluttering in the light breeze.

    He passed through three solid and plain plank doors, temporary by the look of them, until he entered an oval chamber. There two guards in magnificent plate with spears in hand stood adjacent yet another door of dark wood. They wore a blue dawn upon their chests, Alonites. He did not startle them, nor did they change their stance. Cold eyes acknowledged him in silence. These men knew him, as they should if they were any good at their jobs. And their presence meant only one thing.

    This door was the one.

    He need merely walk, of course. It was never the door that drove apprehension in men, but what lie beyond it. Unlike their first encounter in the chambers of the Concourse, he had no messages or gifts to deliver. Unlike their second, this was no short dinner between friends. It'd been years. Dreams and letters were all he had.

    The door was heavy in hand, dense. It opened towards him on smooth, oiled hinges, making not a creak or groan. He walked through to another short hall, beyond which the room opened. He drew a breath, and held it. Be confident, he thought, and the rest will come.

    Incense and conversation greeted him.

    "-the situation in Aldina is evolving," said a man, young. "He'll be cautious with how he handles it."

    "As he should," said Elea Gyldwin. "He'll learn to accept the order of things."

    "None of this will be easy," said the man.

    Naevu saw their small council, gathered round a large table at the center of the room. Three men and her.

    "She doesn't want it easy," said Naevu. He grit teeth at the needles in his legs as he arrogantly removed weight from the cane to improve his posture. Elea leaned over the table, arms propped against it as she examined some paper or map. And hazel eyes rose to greet him.

    His mind forgot every damned plan he'd conjured.

    Southern spice made the air heavier, an invisible fog, as if the heat and humidity of Spitos was rolled in to the burning incense itself. There were bookshelves and cushioned seats, decorations on the walls. But his vision focused, blurring out all the rest. It was her.

    "Professor," she said, not hiding a half-smile. A devious, dangerous curl of the lips.

    "A penetrative entrance," said the man on the left. Deep, and cold as steel in winter.

    "How else should a spy enter, Sildras?" she said, not breaking her gaze on Naevu. Her eyes were shining as gems, begging attention as if some snake charmer's song.

    Naevu felt a sudden shame for the cane in his hand, more than ever. As he knew she must have seen it and thought less of him. Seen the same sickness of mortality as those in the hall. He didn't care what the others thought, only what she did.

    Elea was as a wisp of smoke in motion. She glided by the table, around the back of the man who'd spoken. Her footfalls made not a sound, or maybe his heartbeat drowned them out? How had time been so cruel to him?

    She was a defiance of nature, of age. Not a grey hair among the cinnamon curls cascading over her shoulders. She was fuller, slightly, than he remembered, but it made her figure all the more beautiful to him. Even his dreams lacked the artistic vision to match the real thing. A dress of seamless indigo silk draped from her neck to her feet, and there spread about the tiles. It fit to her form as if part of her being. She was a summer flower blooming deep in autumn.

    Elea raised her hands to him and cupped his cheeks in her warmth. He clutched the cane in palm, wanting so badly to crush it and prove he didn't need it. Her thumbs traced circles under his eyes as her smile softened.

    "Naevu," she said.

    "Elea."

    They kissed in greeting. The heat of her lips, the taste of spice and wine, sent a shiver down his arm to the cane. It wobbled in his grip. He couldn't close his eyes, wouldn't, though she did for a moment. He had to remember where he was, for all he saw was her sun-kissed skin and the galaxy of freckles across her face as unique as the infinite night sky. He knew the rest of her, hidden under silk, was as marvelous. As his mind took need to remind him of her body glowing moonlight, hands playing between her thighs. And when she opened hers, and saw, she traced her tongue over his lips as she broke away. A poisonous tease that woke every desire within him. He stayed his cane with much difficulty.

    "You seem tired," she said. "Carrying the weight of the world in the shadows under your eyes."

    "We're not all graced with eternal beauty," he said. His heart sank into his belly at the words. He wanted to say so much more than that.

    "I've missed you, Naevu." She pinched his cheek. "Letters cannot compete with flesh, can they?"

    "No," he said. A tightness took his mind, constricting out everything but her. She brushed hair over her shoulder, revealing her neck and the silver chain partially concealed by the fabric of her dress. It can't be, he thought. "You still-"

    "It's lucky," she said, fingering the chain. It drooped low against her chest, but now that he knew where it was he could see the outline of the pendant through the silk, beneath her breasts. A gift from a different time, a different him. "I'm moving up in the world. Do you like it, all this?"

    "Seems a bit rough, but serviceable," he said.

    She walked to the table, and he saw bare feet under the tail of her dress. It was all hers now. And the men who gathered around the table were hers too.

    "That's the thing about change," she said, running a hand along the table. "When you want it, it's slow. And when you don't, well. There's wine, Naevu, help yourself." She gestured for him to join them. "I assume you know Vikin?"

    Vikin, he thought. The same? It was. The Eskarite archivist he'd met so many years before in the Saepulum basement, a ratty little man with peculiar interests and a fast, arbitrary mind. He still wore that same beard, now patched through obvious picking and plucking. Quite the promotion to gain a spot at the High Ward's council, especially for someone as bizarre as Vikin.

    "Yes," said Naevu, nodding to Vikin, who paid him no mind. He was instead focused on another man at their table, a skeletal figure with pale skin and fingers too long to be human. The third man had stepped away, sipping at his wine.

    "Sildras Muirac," said the pale man in that same chilling voice from before. Naevu felt as if his spine had twisted at the sound, like fingernails on stone. A boney hand extended to shake. "You have a delightful face, professor."

    Naevu shook the hand. It did feel rather cadaveric.

    Vikin dry heaved. "Eugh, what is wrong with you? You just, ah, you're the weirdest - I don't even know. Why can't you just talk normal for once in your life?" The third man turned his back from the outburst and pretended better things lined the bottom of his cup.

    "Vikin," said the High Ward, snapping her fingers. She let her hand float against Sildras Muirac's back as she circled the table. "Be nice."

    "We all have our preferences, professor," said Sildras, dropping Naevu's hand. "Not all of us can be rat friends." Sildras put on a wide smile as Vikin ranted about his hatred for rats. Furry little monsters.

    "My treasurer. The best, a Piriveni," said Elea. "And when he's behaving, Vikin does something useful, I assume." Vikin stopped murmuring on rats and how to kill them, as if Elea's eyes had cut out his tongue. The round of man-herding had calmed the two, but the third meandered away from the table. "And this one," she said, floating over to the third, "is my warrior, Fris Yurda."

    The man wore the same armor as the guards outside, with a blue sun painted on the chest plate. A sword hung at his belt. Naevu couldn't place the man's race. Red haired, but not from the north. Worse still, he was young and strong, maybe only a few years older than Saeron. Elea laced her arms around his neck.

    F#ck you, Naevu thought. "Nice to meet you, Fris." Naevu helped himself to the wine. Thankfully Elea did not linger with the young soldier, pushing him back to the table as a shepherd with her flock. He sipped the bitter wine as he eyed the sword on the Alonite's belt. An intensely phallic object, and in none of the ways he imagined did a cane hold more sex appeal.

    A bowl of grapes and sliced cucumber sat on the table, atop a rolled out cloth map of the Kern Sea and the Halyrate. There were wooden figurines of ships and men, and little flags here or there. The north had changed quite a bit in the years he'd spent traveling or in the dark of Vainarim. Some realms grew larger, others had vanished completely. Elea reached into the bowl and pulled a slice of cucumber to her lips. Naevu placed a finger over the island of Aldina.

    "Before my rude interruption, you said something of Aldina," said Naevu. Change the topic, he thought. Ignore the man.

    The men at the table held their tongues. Elea's eyes moved to each of them. Cucumber crunched.

    "I'm not certain a foreign diplomat's presence would add to the conversation," said Sildras Muirac.

    Elea wiped her mouth. "Don't be so melodramatic. Naevu's as harmless as a fly. You're free to speak."

    "Flies follow the dying with astounding regularity," said Sildras. "Maggots in the sick." He placed his hands on the table with fingernails tapping at the wood. Vikin's head sank.

    "The island associated," said Fris Yurda. "If that's any of your business." This one's bold, he thought. And it made him hate him even more. "Moril Vaban played the game and won."

    "Present a hole for the snake and he'll slither through," said Sildras.

    "Vaban's adorable when he's angry. He's like a buzzing hornet that I've captured under a cup. He makes a fuss, Naevu. You'd laugh. But if you dare to play, he will sting," said Elea. She traced her finger along the coast of Acca on the map, cooing. "He takes the law very seriously."

    "To the word," said Vikin, raising his head. His twitching had slowed considerably with age. "Now I'm not saying it was illegal, technically, but association law in that country is in dire need of reform. I don't agree with it, but-"

    "It was a tiny bit illegal," said Fris, cutting in as he popped a couple grapes in his mouth. "As far as the princes are concerned." He shrugged as if he didn't care.

    "Nuh-uh," said Vikin. "I mean, get down to the word of law, man. Some folks are really into like literal interpretations and all. It doesn’t make it perfectly true, and it isn't in the spirit of the law, but the Sadorishi did nothing wrong. All about your worldview, man."

    "It isn't difficult to spin a web for Accans. They're predictable, like water," said Sildras. "They'll give the bank away before they catch their error."

    "See, if you claim the people as your property and offer a loophole through association," said Vikin, gesturing wildly. "Man, it's practically forfeit. I'm tellin' you. The prince loaned them indefinitely."

    "Wait, you've actually seized Vellari territory?" asked Naevu. He shifted his weight onto the table as he sipped the wine. Elea's hand brushed into his over the bowl. He hesitated; she handed him a slice of cucumber.

    "Depends on your definition of seize, professor," said Sildras Muirac. "More of an acquisition."

    "And I thought the quarters here were bad enough," said Naevu, biting into the crisp, mellow cucumber. "I'm sure their little prince will be delighted."

    "They're certainly more concerned over their money," said Fris Yurda. His armor clanked, and for a moment Naevu had a flash of Saerhun and Aelie on the black rock.

    "What money?" asked Naevu.

    Sildras Muirac let loose a laugh as dark and terrifying as the caves under Athsarion. What have you done? Lakatar swam in black clouds in the back of his mind, the storm brewed. He gripped the table's edge until his knuckles turned white.

    "Millions," said Sildras, slit-like nostrils flaring. Elea snapped her fingers as if to accentuate the audacity of it. "There is no such thing as an assured investment, professor. Some men lose."

    "You can't reward a child's bad behavior, Naevu. You have to take away their toys for a while, show them how the world is. Can't feed their delusions of grandeur," said Elea. She backed away from the table, crossing her arms with cup in hand. She licked the wine from her lips.

    Naevu laughed, trying to keep it light. Trying to force doubt out of his mind, that he hadn't just dragged his son into the viper's pit. "Are you trying to start a war?"

    "It seems that way," said Fris. "Doesn't it?" Naevu shot a weary glance at the soldier.

    "You disagree with our actions?" asked Elea. She swayed at a slow pace, gentle as a butterfly. You know better than this, he thought.

    "No," said Naevu. He released the table, and blood rushed back into his fingertips. His weight fell to the cane and the engraving was evident again. Needles stabbed at his left leg, though he tried his best to hide it. Saeron could protect himself. He hoped he wouldn't need to.

    "What would your counsel be?" Elea asked him, curious. Her tone carried no sense of slack to her confidence, but her eyes did. The faintest hint of reassessment. Vikin played with the Accan flags on the map, moving them closer to Gallat. Sildras tapped his fingers, as if to egg him on.

    "Back out of the wolves' den before they've realized you've been in it," said Naevu. Don't be a fool, Elea, he thought. Power isn't everything. "Don't tempt the Satar with war. They live for it. They breathe it. Even the lion fears the wolf."

    "You want us to bow to their demands?" asked Elea. Of course he didn't, and she knew.

    "I think the professor means we should walk carefully," said Fris, thumbing his sword's hilt and nodding along with new found wisdom. "Deal with the Satar delicately."

    Naevu glared. "I can speak for myself. Thank you."

    Fris gripped the hilt. "I meant to say that I agree with you. They won't act. Only fools want war."

    "You think they're fools?" asked Naevu. The others watched in silence.

    "That's one word for them, a nicer one than most," said Fris, snorting. "If they come across the sea-"

    continued below
     
  2. Luckymoose

    Luckymoose The World is Mine

    Joined:
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    continued from above

    "What? You'll draw that sword of yours and have an honorable pitched battle? Somewhere on the beach with the sun and wind at your back? War isn't flags on a map, or set pieces on a table." Naevu knocked over a dozen figurines on the table, scattering them across the Face of the Moon. He pointed to the sword. "That blade peels meat from bone and saturates the earth with blood. You can't escape that smell. War isn't a play, these aren't costumes and make-believe. These are real people. One slip, one mistake is all the wolf needs to draw blood." He raised his voice. "They care far more about their money and pride than they do about honor in war. War is dark and violent and never the first choice of sane men. They'd go much further than we ever would, and I can't believe I have tell you that."

    "Naevu," said Elea softly. Her voice was like cold water poured into a boiling pot, calming his nerves.

    "I'm sorry," he said. "This isn't-"

    She sat her cup on the table. "Your advice holds more weight here than you know."

    "And what does a professor of the Faith know of war?" said Fris, cutting in. He stood a bit straighter, both hands resting on the hilt of his sword. Naevu held in a laugh. There wasn't a scoff mark on him. A virginal brag. "What do you do, huh?"

    "Fris," said Elea.

    "How to survive one," said Naevu, softly. "If they cross, we'll see how you fare."

    "You think you're better-"

    "Leave, Fris," said Elea.

    The red-haired soldier bit his tongue. Sildras and Vikin kept to themselves. Fris dared to stare down Naevu for a moment longer, and then, with head held high, he strode from the room with sword steadied at his side. The door slammed, sending a gust of air at them as one last act of aggression. He could be heard kicking the wall in the next room.

    "That shouldn't have gone that way," said Elea.

    "No," said Naevu. Had he overstepped?

    "His heart's in the right place. Forgive him," said Elea. "He's not always like this. He's a good man."

    "I don't doubt it," said Naevu. "He's passionate, but young and reckless."

    "He doesn't know you, Naevu. Or what you've seen."

    "Born in peace, lived in peace." Naevu sighed. "I hope he never needs to draw that blade."

    They all nodded, solemn.

    To no one's surprise, the absence of Fris Yurda cooled the conversation. Civility reigned at the small council, as cucumber and grapes gradually vanished into hungry mouths and wine ran low. There was no glorification of war there, no desire to see it through in some dramatic display of ancient warrior code. There was, primarily, discussion of the law. Vikin and Sildras debated association. Debated the legality of Aldina, or the seizure of funds from failed investments, or the way nuccion collapsed under new pressure. Naevu joined them, expressing concerns and informing them that the Satar cared little for their laws or interpretations. And they talked at length about the preservation of Accan architecture in the quarter, a surprisingly detailed and heartfelt position they all agreed on. Elea Gyldwin stayed quiet, oddly. Observing. He hoped the confidence that ran in her veins, the quickness of tongue and body, had not overwhelmed her sense of reality.

    Servants brought lunch a while later, in a great convoy of plates. They were women, beautiful, and to say they were scantily clad would overstate their attire. They brought still more wine, that bitter aged Gallatene specialty, and a course of roasted chicken and greens. A bowl of honey, imported from Cyve, proved a delightful surprise. The small council palavered, but did not stray far from Kern politics or Accan Quarters.

    He shut his mouth and watched Elea eat. He felt stupid, taken for a fool. All the effort of weaseling Saeron to Sirasona, for what? Torn out his heart over the Chorus, over working with his friends on the islands, and this city was no less dangerous than the north. Hell, they might be trapped if war came.

    The sun peaked in the sky, as they ate in a sunroom of her quarters. It fell lower over the Kern, painting the horizon red and gold through a hundred tiny windows. An ominous sign of what was to come. The princes of the west riding once more.

    The hours slipped by, words flowing on and on as the wine seemingly never ended. Their bellies were filled, and Naevu couldn't recall the last time he'd been so well-treated, so well-fed. Sirasona was a dreamscape, an actual heaven unto earth. When he forgot to worry, about destruction and pyres, he felt young and free again. In the peaceful world he scarcely remembered.

    The small council broke. The men had other duties to attend in the closing hours of the day, and Elea Gyldwin had grown tired of their company. She wanted Naevu alone, to speak about the things he'd come to speak of. They left that sunroom for another larger one, adjacent.

    This was more private, sincere. The ceiling formed in panes a pyramid of glass. A desk with a chair, where she could work. A lone pear balanced atop it, next to an inkwell and quill. He couldn't hold back the smile at the sight, and she saw him and smiled too. The center of the room was a pile of pillows and cushions and blankets as high as a mountain. A cushioned paradise. He thought to ask her what her fascination with large beds was, as it seemed the higher she climbed in life the bigger they became. He tapped the cane on the floor as he eyed it, wanting to relieve the weight on his legs and just succumb to the wine and comfort, flat on his back. But he resigned himself to the chair at the desk that Elea now leaned against.

    She kept her back arched, chest forward, sitting only on the edge of the desk. Her cup ran dry, with no more wine to refill it. She let out a longing sigh, and he felt her pain. One does not simply stop a good thing.

    She looked through the glass above. "Do you stargaze, Naevu?"

    "When it's not too cold," he said. "But I'm an amateur, at best."

    "This was the first room I had remodeled. My favorite," she said. "Sometimes, I stay up through the night just to watch the stars drift across the inky black. Gives me a bit of something to latch on to."

    The red of the evening sun had faded to pinks and purples. In a short while he'd see her stars, too.

    "I hope the politics haven't ruined your day," she said. She laced her fingers around the lip of the desktop. "All this war talk."

    "No. It's been pleasant, actually. Was good to see Vikin again. The other two . . . need some time to warm up to me."

    "Sildras never warms, but Fris is a good a man. He got a little frustrated, is all," she said. "He's not usually so energetic."

    "Does he stargaze too?"

    "He's married," she replied with a playful grin. The weight left his shoulders. "I don't cross the married. I'm not that depraved."

    Something sharp pierced his leg as a sudden weight flopped into his lap. A ball of grey fur with golden orb eyes looked up at him and meowed. A cat, he thought. None of those left in Vainarim.

    "Hello," he said. The cat replied with another meow, eagerly thrusting its head towards his hand when he let it. He scratched it under the chin and on the neck.

    "Whispers," said Elea, and the cat perked. "He was a stray."

    Naevu picked the cat up, noticing how fat its belly was. "So was I," he told the cat. "The Faith's done well by us." He poked Whispers' fat belly. Elea laughed. "You couldn't have picked a better home."

    "For the price of food, he keeps me company," she said.

    "So would I," said Naevu.

    Elea scratched Whispers' back while he lay in Naevu's lap. "I can send someone to look after him, if you want," she said. She meant Saeron. He remembered the guard in the shadows, sitting with Saeron all those years ago. And the fortress of pillows the boy had built to hide from the Satar.

    "He'll resent me for it," admitted Naevu. "Think I'm holding him back, or spying on him. He'll be alright. He's good with people, good at helping where needed. They'll like him down there." He patted the cat's head. "Besides, he's not a child anymore. Not like before. He's capable now, strong. Siran forged. A fight with him wouldn't end well."

    "He's your son," said Elea. She kept petting her cat, but stared at the floor. "I should've warned you, maybe you wouldn't have brought him here."

    "Nowhere is safe, Elea. We both know that. I heard rumors, but I weighed the options. You won out. Too late to worry now. It's done."

    She twirled the cup in hand. "What's it like?"

    "To have a son?"

    "A child."

    He paused. She bit her lip.

    "Terrifying and wonderful, comedy and tragedy. Love, but no single word for it," he said. Her lips curled, delicate, but she let her head dip. Cinnamon hairs hid her face. He held his tongue as they pet the cat.

    She didn't speak. The minutes passed in silence, long and agonizing. Only their breathing and the incessant purring of Whispers made sound. He reached for her hand as it ran down the cat's furry back. But she pulled it away.

    She said, "Do you regret your life?"

    How much did you drink? he thought.

    "No," he said. Hazel eyes steadied on him. "It's easy to question your past, the decisions you've made. Question if you could've done one thing or another differently." Naevu drew a breath, and let it out slow. "It's easy to get caught up in what ifs. Overanalyze. For someone of my passion, hindsight is often confused for wisdom. Too easy to say things would have turned out better. But what is better? Maybe if I'd spent those final hours with Hyra, I'd be a better man? Maybe if I'd saved Ibilie from prostitution or Aelea from sailing west . . . I would never have met Saeron. I'd never have-" He stopped before he said too much. "Regret moments, Elea, but never the Path."

    She stood pensive, biting down on a knuckle. Her belly, flat under the silk, expanded and contracted with each deep, slow breath. "Have I made mistakes, Naevu?"

    The cat flopped from his lap to the floor. "I don't know. You've been brash, and fiery, and quick, yes. You've been you."

    "You'd have advised alternatives, I know." She placed the empty cup on the desktop. Her hand pulled out a drawer opposite him, hidden behind her thigh. Fingers played at papers.

    "Don't let it consume you. If you spend too much time-"

    "I kept them all." She pulled the stack of papers to her lap, thick enough that it required both hands to hold together. She stood, slapping the stack on the desktop. It toppled and spread.

    His letters.

    "Don't you find it a bit pathetic?" she asked, walking from him. He stood, leaning on the desk. The letters were all neatly opened, the wax broken. The folds were creased to utter softness, worn in. He laid his cane atop them. Stick, papers, and pear. A beautiful mess. "That the most powerful woman on this world can say for certain she has only one friend."

    "You have friends here," he said, not knowing what else to say. The letters were memories for him, too, of where he'd been and what he'd done before writing each of them. A history of his decade as much as it was a history of them.

    "No I don't," she said. Elea raised her voice. He didn't dare look at her. "They're all sheep, or wolves at worst. I rise higher, and they just want to ride my wave to shore. Or they stab me in the heart, trick me, play with me, pleasure me, so they can have what I have. Power. That's all I am to them."

    The cat circled her feet and pawed at the skirt of her dress. It let out a meow, a sweet, worrisome meow. He turned to see her pull the chain and pendant from her dress, exposing it. The blue gem turned over and over again in her fingers. It had lost its luster to her hands.

    "That's not true," said Naevu. But he knew it was, he just couldn't admit that to her. Politics were nothing but false friendships and imitation love. I'm not a politician, he thought. "You're High-"

    She snorted. "Don't even start, Naevu." She thumbed the pendant. "You know so much about me, intimate details, yet we don't even belong to the same world. I confide in you, seek your counsel. Write to you across the sea, and you reply with such . . . honesty." She approached the desk again, standing at his side. She grabbed a letter. "These are art, Naevu. The way you speak to me is art."

    "That's the way it's supposed to be."

    She dropped the letter and walked off. She lingered under the glass, looking up, bathed in the purple light of a dying day. There were stars to the east.

    She raised her voice, saying, "And you. You don't lie to me. You don't make me invincible. I feel human when I read those." She pointed at him. "And you're not even mine. You're hers. It's pitiful," she growled the word, "that my only friend answers to the woman who claims my title."

    Her tone was acidic.

    "I don't answer to anyone. I'm a free man."

    "Then why are you here?"

    Naevu looked down at the letters on the desk. "Because," he said, low, "I can't get you out of my head. Is that what you want to hear?"

    "What?"

    "Whenever I shut my eyes, whenever I dare for a moment to relax." He gritted his teeth. "I see you in Aresha's light, on that bed. You-"

    "Oh," she said as gentle and soft as fresh powder snow. "One of your regrets?" The growl was gone from her voice.

    "No," he said, a little louder. "Never." He turned to look at her, to see her standing with both hands on the pendant at her chest. "How could I ever regret the moment you showed me I could be the man I needed to be? That I could lie next to you, while you- You." He thought to reach for his cane, but left it, and stepped away from the desk on his own two legs. "Celad was wrong. Beauty doesn't exist in some timeless ethereal state, pure and withheld from us. It's right here in front of me. You are beauty, Elea. You are the reason kings march armies and empires tear themselves asunder. You are the fire that jumps the break and burns the forest anew. That if I could be so close to you and-"

    "Say no," she said, nodding. There was the faintest smile upon her face, or maybe his mind put it there, playing tricks.

    "Say no," he agreed. "I could do the impossible. I could be what Saeron needed in his life. Not a teacher, but a father. I can't regret you. You're the proof I can change."

    He leaned on his left leg, to steady himself.

    "Are you aware of what you do to men, Elea?" He laughed. "You gave me everything I wanted in my dreams, everything I denied my body. But it wasn't a failing or regret, it was a reminder. My Path goes east, and each waking day was a night of darkness where I could only hope I remained on it. And when I shut my eyes, when I dreamed, you were the sunrise. Correcting. Aligning. Showing me the way."

    "So that's why I'm here," he said. "Not because she wants me to be, or you. Or your politics or compromises. Whatever you have in store for me. Mediation. I'm here because we each only have one life. And you, more than any other person, gave me hope for mine. And now I'm nearing the end, the closing act of it all. I'm glad I lived to see you again."

    "The Naevu I know," she said. She took her time in walking to him, each step swaying her hips. "I like you being here, with me. We've always talked about what matters. Spoken our truths. The years are passing us by."

    "Youth is life's great deception," he said, watching her legs as he walked. "We never learn to appreciate it until it has left us behind."

    She came to him, and stopped. Hazel eyes drew him into their depths, and he lost himself in them. Her hand was on his face before he could flinch, fingers dug in to his cheeks. Forced to behold her. She held him still, chin to her, as if in examination. Captured.

    "Are you in love with me, Naevu?"

    He said "yes" through her grip. The most powerful woman in the world called him on his words, and he'd answered. Was it really that simple?

    "Was that so difficult?" she said. His heart sank clear to the floor. "You are the most verbose man I've ever met."

    She released him. The heat of her fingertips still burned on his face, too-hot. Elea's mouth was open, but no words came. Naevu wanted to kiss her, taste the wine on her tongue. A hand travelled up his left arm, warm.

    "A lot of men have said those words to me," she said. "But you're not like them, Naevu. You spoke to me as an equal, no pretending, since the moment we met." She placed both hands to her belly, pressing the silk flat against her skin. "What can a thousand words get you that three cannot?" She stepped in, one foot between his as her whole body stood a mere inch away. "Try again."

    "I love you, Elea."

    She bit her lower lip. "Now I believe," she said. "And you came all this way to say those words. Why?"

    "Because I mean them."

    He placed his hand on her side, working down the curve of her midriff. The silk was smooth, Tantaras, the finest. But it was nothing but cloth, worthless without her beneath it. The softness of flesh, the heat in hand. He couldn't have recalled his name if someone asked for it.

    "Prove it," she commanded.

    Blood flowed where it need go, and he pulled her close by the waist so she could feel him against her. A proof with no need for explanation. He kissed her, then, as if the world depended on it. Not a greeting kiss, or the playful lick of his lips she'd given earlier. No, it was a proper kiss. Deep and messy and breathtaking, but you'd rather suffocate than break it.

    In the instant it took for lips to meet, the pain in his body vanished. It didn't matter. He wasn't young, no, but he didn't have to be old in that moment either. He could just be alive. Alive with her in his arms.

    He cupped her ass and a breast. But that wasn't enough. He'd been away from a woman far too long, let himself suffer to the point where no other woman could arouse him. But she did. By every line in Whispers, she did. He tasted her lips, and her chin, and the lobes of her ears. He licked at neck until she shuttered in his arms, but he wanted more.

    He would feast upon her.

    They backed into the mountain of pillows, kneeling down. He pushed her to her back, fanning the dress out about her feet. She gasped as she hit the cushions, her face as red as the sky had been. The stars were out now, and the ambient light of the universe illuminated the joy upon her face, the fluster.

    He fell to his knees before her. Elea tried to sit up, but he denied her that as he shoved her on her back. He peeled the dress up her tan legs to her waist. Nothing under the silk but her bare flesh. He took a knee in each hand and spread. She gasped out, crying, "You are Cyvekt."

    Kissing up her thighs, he came to her center. Glistening wet, her body begged him. He tasted her honey, sweet and northern. Eight years since he last came so close to her, and now he knew her warmth in his mouth. Like a language he hadn't spoken lately, it took only conversation for his tongue to remember its way. His hands climbed north, under the dress to her bare breasts. Fingertips singed as if raking over hot coals. She was a flame, still, after all that time. And he feasted as if he was starved, as if nothing else in the world could satiate his hunger. Her legs went over his shoulders, thighs squeezing his head tighter as he ate. Nephrax's kiss. Her moans grew louder and her body rocked more eagerly. Until finally, in a great scream of bliss she dove from the cliff, release.

    She slid out of the dress, over her head, and tossed the silk aside as if it were nothing but a common rag. She brought herself up to his face to kiss him. Her legs wrapped around his waist as he kneeled in the pillows. Elea's hands worked into his professorial cloth, angrily struggling to get it off fast enough. Without a word, faces pressed together, they just breathed and took it all in. Her hands found him, grasped him, and stroked as their eyes met.

    She lay back and guided him into the furnace of her being, so hot he felt he'd been tossed onto a pyre. And his vow was ended. They laced their fingers together, hands locked. In twelve years he had kept his oath, his promise. But this was different than anything he'd experienced before.

    Aelona's wisdom came as a wind over him, blowing the fog from his mind. The passages on love, how it felt, what it was. It wasn't just sex, not this, it was beyond the low pleasures of the flesh. It was real. He never wanted it to end, but all things must. When it did, her legs wrapped around him, tightening, refusing to let him go. And as he peaked, diving from that precipice to join her in the sea of bliss, he was consumed.

    He opened his mouth to speak, but she pressed a finger to his lips.

    "Shut up, Naevu."
     
  3. North King

    North King blech

    Joined:
    Jan 2, 2004
    Messages:
    18,134
    End of Empires - Update Thirty-one
    A Song of Immolation

    Ten Years
    920 - 930 SR by the Seshweay Calendar
    809 - 819 RM by the Satar Calendar
    1834 - 1844 AR by the Amure Reckoning
    802 - 812 by the Charitan Assumption

    Spoiler :


    “We are all now about to enter legend. It's not the time for sadness.” ~ The Halyr, Altaro Javan

    “Forgive me, but I wish to know – what is your name?”
    “My parents named me Eri.”
    “I had presumed you to be the Aitah.”
    “Some call me that.”
    ~ Giuthup and Eri, the Sixth Aitah


    * * * * * * * * *​

    Four men walked by the river, which gleamed like ink in the evening twilight. A stone bridge was being raised in the distance, with long, elliptical arches still supported by scaffolding that rose out of the water like a many-tentacled beast that had been frozen in a moment of desperation. It was quiet, this late at night, even in a city as large as this one. Even in a city men desired.

    They could have been anyone, these men. They talked in the local tongue, and you would have had to listen closely to hear the accents. They laughed amiably, but quietly, neither sneaking nor annoying, but simply there. And if one of them carried a backpack that clanked softly when he took a step too long, well, so, too, did many people in the world.

    They told stories to pass the time.

    Tepecci began, “Once upon a time, there lived a horse in a port town. Horse was no usual manner of horse – he could talk and think and generally ran his own life how he wanted to. And he had trampled dozens of men under his hooves, and ran the town from one end to another. He could graze from any lawn, browse from any garden. It was his town.

    “One day, he walked along the waterside, and found himself before a saltmonger's house. The saltmonger had left lumps of his most prized product hanging out to dry over the waterfront, as the sea breeze came in over the docks and crafted them into the pieces that his sons would take to market. Now, horses love salt, and Horse was immediately intrigued by this, and began to poke at the salt pieces, but they were just out of reach. Stamping his hoof on the pier, he roared for one of the townsfolk to help him, but the waterfront was deserted, because everyone flees when Horse comes to their part of town.

    “So after a while of the horse stamping his feet and the pier shaking, and the saltmonger hiding deep within his house and hoping no one will notice him there, finally Horse decides he's had enough, and reeeaches out – ” Tepecci stretched out his neck as he said this before going on.

    “ – And he just barely manages to touch his tongue to the salt lump, and even as he gets the littlest taste of the salt, it bounces away with every touch. So he reeeaaaaaaches out a little bit further,” Teppeci leaned further himself, “and manages to almost curl his tongue around it and drag it back towards him, but it isn't enough. So he reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaches again,” Tepecci leaned so far forward that he lost his balance and fell –

    “And falls into the water and drowns.”

    There was some laughter as Tepecci picked himself up, brushed off the dirt, and bowed. Beside him, his cousin Sattoros tilted his head in a way that could have been a smile. “Salt pans are bad luck.” Tepecci made a thoughtful noise before their third conspirator spoke up.

    “Well, I've got a better story.” Ivicco took a long drink of wine, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked out over the water, where the first sliver of the moon had mounted the horizon. “Once upon a time,” he started, “there lived a pack of wolves. And the wolves lived by the sea, and greatly desired to possess its bounty. So, one after another, they went into the sea, trying to kill the fish that lived there and taunted them, but they were awful swimmers, and the wolves drowned, one after another. And the fish laughed, and exclaimed, 'They can't swim at all!'

    “The fish decided they would conquer the rivers, too, and the lakes, and all the waters, and gathered into an enormous school, swimming to the shore.”

    He paused dramatically. His timing was off.

    “And the wolves ate them all from the shore.”

    They began to laugh, and had to quiet themselves for fear of giving away their location to passers-by. After a while, in a hushed voice, Tepecci raised the flask of wine to the heavens: “Arto Rutarri!”

    After a moment of thought, Oryan chimed in: “I have a story about wolves, too. My mother told it to me.”

    They all looked a little surprised at that – Oryan hadn't talked much before now, except on the job, or to practice his languages.

    “Once upon a time,” he mimicked, “A family of pigs lived on a farm. They rolled in the mud all day, and ate the food the farmers did not want, and they did not really care about what other things did. They ate and slept and rolled in the mud, until one day a wolf wanders out of the woods and eats the littlest piglet in front of them.

    “The brother pig is very afraid, and he asks his father why he is not defending them, and the father says, 'This is how things go; wolves eat pigs. If we do not fight he will go away.' And yes, the wolf eats and eats and finally walks away, and the pigs do not look at the dead pig. A few days later, the wolf comes again, and eats the brother pig in front of the mother and father. The mother pig says, 'Sweetie, we really should fight him,' but the father pig says, 'This is how things go; wolves eat pigs. If we do not fight he will go away.' And the wolf does, after a while. A few more days pass and the wolf comes back, and eats the mother pig. And as she cries out for help, the father pig says to himself, 'If I do not fight, he will go away.'

    “Finally, a few days later, the wolf comes back one last time, and eats the father pig. And as the father pig cries because of the mistakes he has made, the wolf says, 'This is how things go; wolves eat pigs. If you do not fight, I will go away. Mostly because there is no more food here.' And he does.”

    There was a long silence.

    They looked nonplussed. “What's that a metaphor for?”

    “What's a 'metaphor?'”

    “You know, the hidden meaning,” said Tepecci, reddened.

    Oryan shrugged. “There is none.”

    “Then what's the point of the story?”

    “To laugh. Stupid pig.” He slapped his belly as he faked a laugh: “Haw haw.”

    Ivicco laughed at this, but the Tepecci was stone faced, and did not speak for several minutes until he finally said, “Aresha is behind the clouds. It is time, now.” Mist had begun to curl around their feet, too, and looking up, one could see stars through the black gaps in the sky. Around them, buildings drifted through the fog like silent ships, bearing no passengers. One loomed next to them, its sides unassuming – just another great house with attendant walled gardens. Nothing of its form betrayed its function. But such was the way of all the most vital buildings.

    They moved into action, the fourth man taking off his backpack and removing a metal hook. Loop after loop of rope slithered from the pack, until finally he had the whole thing at his feet or in his hands. He took it up like a sling, and after whirling for a moment, hooked it over the edge of the nearby wall.

    “Remember – ”

    “Quicker than a bat. Yes.” Oryan climbed up the rope easily despite the smooth plaster walls, years of sinew all focused on that singular goal. He summited the wall and noted a thicket of bushes lining all around the inside of the compound – to prevent climbers like him from entering in silently. But they had not counted on someone his size or shape, and he let himself down the rope a little at a time, squeezed in between the plaster and the thorns that would betray his position before his feet finally set on solid ground.

    His hands burned from the rope, but he ignored them and fell to his hands and knees, crawling beneath the thicket and finding a path to the other side.

    He waited there, briefly. Before they'd set out, they debated whether it was better to stay long enough to count the times between the passages of guards, or to try to get in and out as quickly as possible. In the end, the Tepecci had told Oryan to use his instincts, to do whatever the situation seemed to demand of him. And in that moment, his instincts screamed to run.
    Only a moment after he had scrambled to his feet did he think about whether that had been a good idea.

    But it was too late; he set down the path, darting from shadow to darker shadow, all the while on the lookout for that singularly beautiful item. Tantaras. Silk. Once or twice, a guard shuffle towards him, but he always heard them from afar, and remained still as a statue – apparently passing for one, in the end.

    The harvest had just gone in; only wisps of silk clutched to trees here and there, in tatters after the cocoons had been ripped away. But where had they been put? Surely they couldn't have collected them all and boiled them already? He searched and searched and searched, and he was about to conclude that he'd have to break into the house itself – a complete fool's errand – when he noticed a little box lying almost on its side, as though kicked over in the collection. Could it be – ?

    He crawled over, and gently plucked a cocoon out with one hand.

    That was it.

    He stuffed two dozen in his pack, and then stood up abruptly and began to dart back the way he came. This part was pure speed. No sense in lingering; down one path, and then the others, to the hedge, and he fell to his knees to crawl underneath and to safety –

    – a shovel whacked him over the back of the head.

    He blinked.

    Noise.

    “...to bribe the guard and not the gardener...”

    More noise.

    A face stood over him, and shouts were coming from all around him.

    “Stealing silk, boy?”

    “I didn't want to,” he blurted, automatically – rehearsed, but he'd rehearsed the panic, too – “They made me. The others. They're Accans, they're trying to steal the silkworms, and they made me do it!”

    “Do you know what the penalty for stealing is here?” he asked, a grin spreading across the whole of his face.

    “I – ”

    An enormous man waddled over to him – truly enormous; you could fit five of Oryan into his bulk – and stared at him. From his dress, you could immediately tell he was important.

    “What accent is that, boy?”

    Oryan blinked again. That wasn't the question he'd expected. “Vischa.”

    “You work for your friends as a translator as well as a thief?”

    He nodded.

    “How many languages do you speak?”

    “Eight.”

    The man looked at him a long time, contemplating. “You can keep your hand. We're taking you with us. Acceptable?”

    Oryan shrugged.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    “Burn the witch.”

    Whatever other qualities you might assign the Satar, understatement is not one of them.

    As if fearful that the rhetoric tossed about by Alxas might overshadow what came after, both sides – the newly masked High Prince Zakraphetas and the new High Ward Elea Gyldwin – escalated their rhetoric. Neither side wanted to back down from the confrontation. The Accans had worked themselves into a corner, and to admit defeat would be to admit the coup of their greatest ally by the Aitahists they had just alienated once more. The Alonites could not allow the dismantling of the Halyrate, or even simply its domination by foreign powers. While amusing, then, the diplomatic exchange could do little but provide the names of the forthcoming war:

    The Witch's War.

    The Cripple's War.

    As the words faded to silence, both sides braced themselves for conflict. The Accans had raised an enormous army by 809 RM, and the trade deficit meant they would continue to leak money until it was reduced in size, one way or another. They had to strike, and fast, if they didn't want to waste it. Tens of thousands of troops embarked on hundreds of ships, but before they had even begun to cross the Kern Sea, the war began in a different place entirely.

    Crossing the border into the Xidevi Sartashai, thousands of Accan soldiers aimed to overthrow the regime of the Shadowed Princes. While this might have seemed like a curious move – alienating yet another power that could perhaps have been neutral – the Xidevi had already proven themselves unreliable in Vellari eyes by their cooperation with the Piriveni at the Straits of Inm Anmar (moreover, it would serve a much more valuable purpose down the road, but we shall have to leave those implications be for a while).

    A student of history, the High Prince was not one to believe that brute military strength could wear down the Shadowed Princedom. Indeed, the great epics of the Xidevi frequently talked of their fight against unimaginable odds to remain independent. Thus, though thousands of troops might have been at the ready, far more crucial to his strategy was the rebellion of the one who only later chroniclers would have the privilege of calling Zna, a Taudo boy who had already been instrumental in his rise to power. Assassinating the Taudo prince with his trusty bow, Zna would raise a rebellion of thousands to oppose the Xidevi, who, he and his supporters pointed out, had aligned the the hated Cyvekt across the sea.

    But things did not go easily for them. The Xidevi and Cyvekt had been at peace for quite a long time now, and time healed many wounds. More to the point, the mere fact that the Ardavani had largely supported Zna's rebellion solidified Maninist resistance, as it unveiled the invasion's true nature. Thousands rallied to the banner of the young Shadowed Prince, who escaped Zna's assassination attempt, and drove the rebels out of the capital in a furious fight that would come to be known as the Battle of the Pillar of Smoke.

    While the rebellion faltered, though, the Accans arrived in force at the city of Adua, at the very tip of the peninsula. A vital fortress on the brink of the Inm Anmar, its heavy fortifications were designed to withstand a long siege. But Zakraphetas had no intention of giving them one; though his soldiers invested the city and began to dig siege trenches, a small and secretive group of sappers mined a great breach in the walls. The men landed in force and swarmed through the break in the walls by the thousands, dying in great droves before they overwhelmed the heroic little garrison.

    At the same time, Vellari forces advanced in full splendor from Kanethar towards Tan, some twenty thousand strong. It was in a small valley near a river called Sus that the Shadowed Prince met them in a short but decisive battle – striking from the forests in a dozen different places, and making use of the bizarre combination of home, castle, and wilderness that the Taudo called home to set the Vellari off balance and force them back. Stymied for now, the Vellari pulled back and prepared for another assault.

    Less than half a year had passed since the beginning of the war.

    Across the Sea, the preparations for battle had already commenced, but far more important in the opening months of the war was a Great Synod at Edrim. Called by the High Ward at the height of her influence, the Synod was to tackle numerous issues (though of course the war would loom over all the discussions). At its head was a clarification on the role of the Aitah. Effectively restating what had already been said – that the Aitah was a Haradyr, the highest of the Haradim, and that she returned to help guide man along the Path – it nonetheless nailed down what might have been a rather problematic point of contention between the Orders. While some might have voiced tacit opposition to this bit of theology, the Sadorishi, being rather more than irked over the declaration of war targeting their order, stood pat, and the rest of the more moderate orders fell into line behind them.

    But more important than that was the much-anticipated acceptance of Cyve into the Halyrate under the auspices of the Ephasirite Order (named after the famous martyr of an older era). While the move might have seemed radical to those on the outside, the rival High Ward Aelea saw little choice in the matter: her influence had waned with the relative unenthusiasm and collaboration with the Alonites that Ereithaler had demonstrated, and the taxes levied on their merchants when they came to do business with the Halyrate – and the protection that the Halyrate could offer – was crucial to their continued prosperity.

    Though backroom deals would make this a little more complex than it seemed at first glance, the cumulative effect was that the the Faith had no outstanding theological disputes heading into the war (though certainly numerous differences), and a united and enormous entity could be fully focused on the prosecution of the battle with the Vellari.

    But they had already been put on the back foot by the speed of Zakraphetas' assault.

    For even as word came of the fall of Adua, so, too, came the Vellari fleet. Some four hundred ships in strength, they were initially split between the twin duties of attacking Adua and the rather more difficult task of raiding the coastline of the Halyrate. Determined to blockade the land against grain imports, and to cut off the Halyral extremities from their heartland, they struck at many of the ports, hoping to catch any new ships in drydock.

    They found, to their confusion, very little work ongoing on the fleet, for the Halyrate had effectively ceded control of the sea to the Vellari early on. This served to intensify almost unopposed Vellari raids, and though the Accans could not land for long or penetrate any distance into the interior, they played merry havoc with the narrow strip of coastline immediately accessible.

    But by far the more important battle would happen around the Inm Anmar, where the Halyral fleet had gathered in force. Hoping to hold it as a chokepoint, they had over two hundred ships (thanks to the aid of the new Ephasirites) to oppose what was initially a smaller Accan fleet.

    Meeting them under cover of darkness, the Accans swooped forward on a favorable breeze, hoping to catch the Halyral ships unaware, or at least off-guard. Pumping forth a cloud of Accan smoke (as the quicklime had come to be known), they emerged with specialized masks that allowed them to breathe unhindered and sail unblinded, tearing the center of the Halyral forces to pieces. Despite the initial setback, the well-trained and heroically disciplined Gallatene sailors did not break, and called the retreat instead. It was a small setback, perhaps, but not one to sacrifice the whole fleet over.

    With control over the seas and a costly army to maintain, many expected the Accans to land in Gallat as the Satar had of old, where a vast Halyral army waited to oppose them.

    But Zakraphetas had a different target in mind.

    An army of almost a hundred thousand embarked from Adua, and with the strait broken wide open, sailed through with much pageantry. Crossing the Yadyevu, they emerged practically unharried on the other side, landing a force of some twenty thousand at Lexevh, where they invested the city and began a long, steady bombardment of the place. This, however, was a mere diversion – the Palace on the Rock and its attendant fortress were simply too strong to waste soldiers on in a direct assault.

    Instead, the bulk of the force circled around and landed in the west.

    Here, centuries old watchtowers had gone disused for some time, as fear of Lusekt raiders had dwindled to nothing, but they had been temporarily remanned in fear of a potential Zalkephai invasion. With the signal fires lit for the first time in centuries, the Cyvekt were warned of the invasion of the Vellari, but it was unclear what they could do – some fifty thousand Vellari soldiers had landed on their shores, and they were bent on the destruction of the holy city of Lemdeh.

    Yet the Cyvekt had had some warning of all this: the Sadorishi had a huge network of friends in the Taudo country across the way, and they knew an assault had been prepared for the northern end of the Halyrate, even if none could be entirely sure where it would land. More to the point, where the Satar had expected a simple and quick route from the sea to the capital of Lemdeh, the forewarned Cyvekt garrisons were able to enact numerous minor raids to harry the Vellari forces, and as they had already been scattered across the coast by unreliable winds, it took some time to gather the soldiers in one place.

    Even so, by autumn of 923 SR, the Vellari had put together the pieces at long last, and commenced the work of smashing one little garrison after another, marching the rugged and rather treacherous path up to the city of Lemdeh.

    An initial assault withered in the face of some of the most fanatical resistance they had yet faced, and they settled in for a long winter.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    The ambassadors had seen more of the world than most kings: setting out from the fog-bound bays of Tin Tan Tar and up the river Eskana, while the landscape withered and dried until they passed through the salt-scored desert of the Nevathi. As their kinsmen scraped mussels off the wooden bows, they rode by camel across a crust of sand that shattered beneath hooves and wheels, trapping some of the more audacious wagons. These, they left to desiccate like some alien life-form, while the rest continued on past crooked arches and piles of red stone, winding their way where three mountain ranges came together, the cut-canyon roads revealing layers of earth patterned like fine silk. Onward, past Kerch and the white temple of the western faith, across the Toasha, once so dangerous, now a lawful and orderly place, quiet but for the mighty thunderstorms that gathered with the coming monsoon; here they had to pause for a month to wait for the rains to pass.

    The old cities of the Hai Vithana had been rebuilt over the centuries more than once, ringed by rough-hewn walls, with little square towers rising from many points in their skylines, so many that they were more like map-drawings of cities than cities themselves. The land greened, and the cities grew, from Yashidim to Magha, where they witnessed first-hand the reconstruction of the mighty seven sided Matraxes (some called it the Matraxeshim), built after the shadow of an idea, with white walls and high windows. It did not yet have the blue dome that would revive the memory, but the Ashelai representatives described it with enthusiasm to their visitors, and let imagination do the rest as they showed them the enormous molds for concrete sections of the interior shell, larger than a carriage, and the enormous cranes that had to be built on site.

    Down the sides of the red canyon, and by riverboat down that most ancient of rivers, through the land that has become Oscadian, with their lions carved at the gates and faces framed by tousled hair in the windows, past the lemon tree at Nashehta, the place-where-the-river-splits, staying a week at Sies and discussing investment and insurance and such things that only bankers truly care about.

    They skirt the Kern, for there are rumors of war here; only passing under heavy escort, and they see a hundred ships well constructed at Pa, in a new style, wooden towers making them resemble nothing so much as floating fortresses, before finally pulling into Caroha, city of cities, and the only place that had the power to awe the emissaries from Tin Tan Tar. Truly, they picked their destination well, for surely this city alone can surpass their western home, if more in sheer size than beauty. They pass the Iralliamite temple, built to allow light, and they are astonished to learn this is the home of merely the fourth most important faith here. They make their way up an enormous avenue, past eight more temples, a market that dwarfs most cities, and finally to the towers of the Council at Caroha, and all the while, the locals tell their overstimulated visitors of the history of this place, how it was built on bone and blood, only to become the greatest city in all the world.

    And now it is their turn to impress, as they draw forth long bolts of silk that go on and on and on, more silk in one place than any of their hosts have ever seen in one place; then they place beside it what might someday turn mundane but is today a marvel of technology: a stack of paper.

    There is a long moment where the Council takes sheets of paper and examine them closely, and a quiet pause, and then one of the master craftsmen asks the emissaries how it is manufactured, and the explaining begins.

    But the technicalities of such devices are beyond most of the politicians in the room, and so while the engineers remove themselves to discuss such matters, the rest of the parties stay and talk of the feasibility of long-term exchange between the two lands. The barriers between them are daunting – as the embassy itself knows quite well, having climbed many mountain passes and seen more than a dozen major cities en route – but even more daunting might be the prospect of having to maintain friendly relations with all the countries in between.

    In the end, though, it might all be worth it, as the Carohans marvel over their freshly printed banknotes, and the embassy returns to Tin Tan Tar with half a dozen foodstuffs – most of which they had never seen before, let alone eaten – and an embassy of Carohans.

    And the world shrinks a little more.
     
  4. North King

    North King blech

    Joined:
    Jan 2, 2004
    Messages:
    18,134
    * * * * * * * * *​

    Contact having finally been established with the distant west, attention turned to the more mundane matters at home. With the introduction of paper banknotes, the Carohans had a potentially limitless source of credit – even if they guaranteed them all with a matching supply of bullion in their reserves – but it didn't seem to matter in these economic times. The problems that the Accans had encountered had forced the whole region into a recession, but they had likewise opened opportunities for everyone. While the Ashelai were quick to jump on the bandwagon as well, the Carohans were better positioned to jump into the markets immediately vacated by the northern financiers. With plenty of credit, and plenty of people both hungry and struggling to pay soldiers, Carohan money would be lent to both sides in the war (though obviously with a heavy bias to the Athisi).

    Hoping to build on this, the Seshweay in particular founded a number of new, secular Orders, imitating the structure of both the Accan nuccia and the Halyral Orders. The theory went that these could do business on a large scale in the Halyrate, and provide the Halyral Orders with similar groups to negotiate with. Naturally, they lacked the tax-exempt status of their northern brethren – these acted more as an instrument of state control than as a subversion of that – but they could work around most of that the further their operations went into the Halyrate, a powerful incentive. They were able to leverage quite an impressive position by the end of the decade.

    While finance had been the edge of this wave of growth, it was followed closely by industry. New guilds had sprung up across the country, and the weaving industry which had only just begun to flourish in the Sesh Delta and Caroha expanded still further. Tapestries and lighter fabrics for garments were woven by the thousands in great guildhalls in Pa, Sies, and Caroha, and some had begun to construct truly enormous and elaborate looms, though these were largely novelties at this point.

    Less initial success would be had with an effort to transplant new crops to the region. Indigo did not take well to the desiccating air of the west, and while sugarcane had some more success on the very southern shore of Siere, it remained only a local curiosity, a luxury good reserved for the highest in the o'Aya'se and its friends, not the sweeping sweetener that some entrepreneurs had dreamed of. Rather more would be gained from early investments into a curious little beetle from the west – the cochineal insect. Living on a cactus that immediately took to the Parda uplands and the Peko, the insect could be scraped off by the hundreds and crushed to extract a brilliant red dye – easily the most beautiful and eye-catching color that had been invented to that point.

    Nearly simultaneously, men of the Dyer's Guild, experimenting with various clays in their effort to find still newer colors, happened upon an absolutely stunning new type of pottery in their ovens – porcelain. While ceramics had been a vehicle for art since time immemorial, the Carohans suddenly had a medium which was a dozen times more delicate and a thousand times more beautiful – one that could trace fantastic outlines against itself, and shine through with a subtle translucence. While it was still only in its infancy, the porcelain was soon exported practically everywhere as a luxury item – not so much to the north, for obvious reasons, but certainly to the Ashelai, Hailsia, and even the distant west.

    Perhaps the only thing that could have slowed down the practically unrelenting bull market was a sudden credit crunch that followed a troubling series of reports from Banh. After thousands of years of production, new veins of gold had been petering out, and with the new demand for bullion they were quickly depleted. With other sources of gold distant – and in the hands of other rulers – one wondered how the o'Aya'se would find the money to keep up with its own growing economy.

    Religious unease had been brewing, too, especially after the announcement of the High Wards' paring, but no one really wanted to fan those flames, especially after the geopolitical climate turned once again only a few years later.

    We have already seen, if briefly, that the Ashelai moved into that same financial sector as the o'Aya'se, hoping to capitalize on the collapse of Accan banks. While they had less immediate success, that owed more to geography than anything else; politically, they might have been positioned to win even more greatly. Where the Carohans had a certain aversion to dealing with the Satar, even after years of reconciliations and speeches, the Ashelai ha an easy way in. While the Accans had recovered enough to largely defend their home turf, much of the rest of the Satar world – particularly the Telhan, but also the Vischan Exatai – needed a new creditor.

    They got several.

    The Hekelanai were less like the nuccia than they were almost like the Trahana companies that had begun to rise about the same time. Cooperative enterprises involving dozens of merchants, they provided a way to pool resources towards any of a number of endeavors. This ensured limited liability in the face of collapse, insulating them from the sort of disaster that might befall a nuccia, and insuring any of the investing merchants against a significant loss. While they got their start in funding the construction of the new Metraxes, they soon delved into numerous other enterprises – trade missions to the north and west, or the south, where they found new markets and commodities in the Shuhar Empire, and even to distant Tin Tan Tar, as they had become middlemen on the principal route between that distant land and the Carohans.

    (The Metraxes, it should be noted, continued along splendidly, though, unsurprisingly, it went over budget in the end and could not be completed quiet yet. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade, its stunningly beautiful blue dome rose over the city of Magha once more, and even in its largely unpolished state, pilgrims had started to come to marvel at what was becoming a temple for a new kind of Ardavan. The hope was that it could become a center for a mystical and more scholarly brand of the faith, and in this it was already succeeding, even if the new Sephashim that the Hekelanai officially founded had not yet received the funds to make any real scholarship yet.)

    Still, though relations had moved steadily towards the positive side of things with most of their neighbors, things had begun to deteriorate in the west. The aggressive moves of Tiagho had already been noted, and the signs were not encouraging with news of further wars in that region (as we shall soon see). While the Highland states remained unmolested by the expanding city-state's armies, they had begun to grow rather worried – and were soon appealing to the Exatai regardless of how indirect the threat might have appeared at first.

    The Exatai had already planned a response: a move southward into the jungle kingdom of Suchai, where the armies of General Bystes marched forth and made their way to the capital of the smaller state, demanding the kingdom submit peacefully in the interests of its own protection against the new empire-builders on their borders. While this might have seemed a rather transparent maneuver by some, Bystes had a rather impressively detailed plan to back up the apparent ploy, one which did involve the vast majority of the country's autonomy being retained – and, as parts of his army grew sick from the proximity of the great jungle, there seemed to be little reason to doubt his sincerity.

    Everything went to the dogs rather quickly, though, when Bystes was assassinated, apparently as part of a power ploy within the Exatai itself. His replacements were rather less competent, and a little pillaging took place before one Prince Teipses of the Arrow managed to restore order to things, and went about installing the system they had envisioned in the first place – protectorate status.

    Naturally, all this rather outraged the Tiaghama, but their reaction will have to wait.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    On the other side of the world, the Tantari expedition finally returned with a host of Carohans in tow, bearing strange gifts of their own. While the o'Aya'se had expected the gifts of silk, Tin Tan Tar had very little inkling of what strange goods might be brought from the far east, and were pleasantly surprised to realize that their new contacts had plenty of trade goods themselves. While many of them salivated over goods that were barely Carohan at all – spices and food crops most notable among them – the one that surely caught the most attention was the splendid porcelain ceramics that seemed to defy description.

    Though the Tsindaet had very much wanted to maintain a healthy import/export ratio in order to ensure the Carohans would be as eager to continue the route as they were, they also saw immediate potential in the new industry, and more than a few of them sought to replicate the fine porcelains. While the Carohans were not nearly as tight-lipped regarding porcelain as their counterparts had been about silk, the Tantari found it exceedingly difficult to manufacture – the clay described by their compatriots seemed to be largely absent from their landscape, and what little they could find and shape into crafts lacked the workmanship of the Carohans.

    Nevertheless, perhaps it was a good thing – a healthy balance was now maintained, and merchants found it more profitable to make the long (not to mention dangerous) journey between the two powers).

    But in addition to these rather fantastic efforts to stretch their trade network across a continent, the Tsindaet had concerns far closer to home. New settlements extended up both the Eskana and Kolgir valleys, anchored by the towns of Kanyar and Aumojun, respectively. The intention had been not only to secure the southern extremity of the empire, but also to facilitate trade with their nearby neighbors in the Vischa and the Tephran Exatai. Reprisals from the Kyumai had been few and far between, and for the moment it almost looked as though the steppe might have been tamed.

    One only had to look to the other side of the steppe to see this was not the case. Here, the Tantari had decided to take an aggressive stance against the growing influence of the Chamshi vashaluy, and armed a major expedition to strike towards Polokh. Sailing on riverboats all the way to the beleaguered city, they brought it under their protection, and after a brief struggle, managed to drive out the steppe raiders. Following this with gifts to the lesser Chamshi vassals, they hoped that this would lead to the marginalization of the tribe before too long.

    But while the gifts were sufficient to protect Teptak and Polokh from the worst of the raids, they couldn't win the war through bribes alone, especially after the Chamshi vashaluy distributed gifts of his own to solidify loyalty. Soon, the steppe raiders began to gather in force, responding with raids all around the borderlands. Tantari forces found themselves under siege from a military force they were entirely ill-suited to fight, as the Chamshi danced around the awkward and heavily armed Tantari forces. While the Khatri portions of their forces could at least drive the Chamshi off, they were too far removed from the steppe themselves – their heavier cavalry had no hope of actually catching the Chamshi, or indeed forcing them into melee combat at all.

    A stalemate settled in before too long – the Tantari lacking the mobility to strike at the heart of Chamshi power, and the Chamshi lacking the staying power to strike at the fortified compounds around the rim of their territory. Nevertheless, many among the Tsindaet worried at the situation; the Tantari were stretched to the very limits of their supply lines, and they doubted their ability to win a lasting victory here.

    At the same time, Tantari agents had begun to make a move to the southwest, where a number of them had begun to buy up marginal lands, where they introduced new crops from the far east, the productivity of which rapidly outstripped the local maize farmers, and produced a profitable enterprise that could export grain back to Tin Tan Tar.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    Off the southwest point of Gallat, there lie a thousand little islands, most of them too small to be seen on any but the sailors' maps. It was here, many years ago, that the first great Synod had taken place, the Wards seeking to avoid the clamor of public opinion that was sure to overwhelm them in Sirasona, and it was here that a strange community of communities had taken up residence: reclusive Orders of ten monks or fewer, some scattered camps of the Great Orders, and hundreds of little villages, known for little more than fish or clams, where men and women alike dove in between the thick roots of the mangroves to find their treasure.

    Maneletto had never been one to contemplate history, though, and he cared little for the stories behind these little islands. He had seen an opportunity to moor their ships – and beyond that, a few opportunities for loot and ransacking.

    But there would be little ransacking to do today. Word had it that the Halyrate had finally gathered some forces to face them in the region, a few ships built hastily, on the deep eastern inlet of the Crene Sea, and that they had finally begun to sail forward in force, to challenge the Accans on the open sea. He had little doubt that they would win, true, but that did not mean that nothing was at stake. For he had hatched a little plan of his own, and after some discussion with his superiors, they had agreed to it. Should they be able to strip the Halyrate of this last little bit of sea power, they might deliver a pleasant surprise to the High Prince himself.

    And so, they slithered forward in the midmorning light, the golden haze of the sun giving everything a surreal texture, and once or twice he jumped at what turned out to be nothing more than the spidery silhouette of a mangrove.

    Too long on campaign.

    He needed a nap.

    They passed one of the fishing villages then, a hundred little homes, many of them wood, but some of the richer ones mud-walled with red-tiled roofs like the scales of a fish. He surveyed it from the aftcastle, and the analytical part of his brain had already begun to identify what places he would target first for the most wealth. Some small part of his brain recoiled in disgust, still, but it was getting smaller every day. The only thing that shut down the analysis was the cold thought that he would not have time for that today, and that he needed to focus on the battle ahead.

    The fleet slipped into a quiet lagoon, two islands to their left and a little one to the right. The water lapped innocently at the shores, and it looked as though the smallest island was uninhabited, though a single deer peeked from between the rushes in curiosity.

    No matter. He paced back and forth, checking the steering, checking every tie of the rigging, making sure every detail was perfect. Below him, in the aftcastle, he could hear the Accan marines begin to shout as they readied themselves for battle, but it was a different thing for the sailors. No one screamed for the flesh of the enemy when they raised a sail. No one felt a righteous fury when they rowed in time with their comrades.

    The ideal battle for a sailor is one where he is never bothered by anyone.

    But none of them go that way, and Maneletto could not help but feel a certain impatience as he waited for things to begin. The stretching noise and slosh of the oars did not soothe his unsettled mind, nor did a draught of wine.

    Something caught the corner of his vision.

    A sail!

    This was it: his men had already raised the alarm, and the rowers slowed to a quarter a heartbeat per stroke. It was the pace just before they accelerated to ramming speed. He already barked out orders to the crew, even as he looked to and fro, seeing if there were any signals, and his brain was largely working on autopilot. He'd done this enough times that the sight of the enemy ships did more to calm him than to excite.

    As he began to steer towards them, the back of his brain noted that some of the ships looked quite bizarre – like a tower on the sea – but he put it out of his mind. The white and gold banners fluttered as if to paint a target against their superstructure.

    ...white and gold? –

    – the Aitah's name, in cursive script –

    – these were Carohan ships –

    * * * * * * * * *​
     
  5. North King

    North King blech

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    18,134
    With five hundred ships from the south and eighty more from the Halyrate in the Crene Sea, the allied fleet was perhaps the largest that had ever been gathered in one place. Though the Accans had been prepared for some kind of climactic battle, this outweighed even their wildest nightmares. Immediately, they tried to backpedal, but they had been turned into a difficult situation by the Gallatene knowledge of the coastline, and they did not want to entangle their ships in the mangroves or run them aground, easy prey for the waiting Halyral forces on the land.

    Instead, they gathered themselves and threw their whole weight at one piece of the ring, hoping to break through. Releasing Accan smoke all at once, they bellowed with great fury, and though their ships were outnumbered, they managed – ever so barely – to escape the trap to the north. The fighting had been brief, if furious, and neither side had really tested the other's capabilities; both could still fight.

    But the arrival of the Carohans completely changed the dynamics of the war. Suddenly lacking command of the sea, all of Acca might lie open to the enemy, and though the forces had not yet met on the field of battle, there were certainly enough Halyral troops to land a punishing blow on the Exatai. Worse still, the Carohans had begun to advance northward along the coast, and there was a very real possibility that they could seal the Inm Anmar from the other side and trap the Accans in the Yadyevu, exposing the whole coast of Acca to the alliance of the Aitahists. Desperate, they called for the return of the bulk of their fleet from Cyve.

    As fate would have it, the call would be unnecessary.

    Alerted to the presence of the Accans in the north, enormous numbers of Halyral forces began to filter through to the north, and though the bulk remained in Gallat to defend against a possible second incursion (for they were well aware of Zakraphetas' propensity for feints), the rest still numbered nearly a hundred thousand themselves. The question, though, remained – would they get there in time?

    Though the Cyvekt fleet pulled back from Sarkanda, neither fleet nor army wanted to fight with the Vellari on such uneven terms. The army mostly contented itself with acting as a distraction, trying to avoid the fall of Lemdeh. In the end, though, that effort proved impossible – the Accans held off the army with one force and assaulted the city with the other, and in a great bloodbath, managed to surmount their walls and set it afire.

    The Cyvekt had been lucky. Enough warning had been given to shuffle the most important of the religious treasures from the city, and most of the inhabitants. But Aelea herself had remained in the city, determined to never let the morale dampen. As the sack began, though, she was nowhere to be found, even though the Satar tore the city to pieces half with the intent of looking for her. She had, quite simply, vanished.

    Either way, the sack had lasted long enough to allow the Halyral forces under one Saeron time to cross the Gilbok into Cyve themselves, and, maneuvering down the coast, prepared themselves for a truly decisive battle against the gathering Vellari forces near Lemdeh. Still full of fury over her dispossession, Venari Velexi was eager to test them.

    They met at a village named Salyc in late summer, 925 SR.

    Drawing up on either side of a small river, the two sides eyed each other for some time before the battle began in earnest. A thunderstorm had passed through the area the night before, and some parts of the ground were still slick and wet, while limestone outcrops pockmarked the landscape here and there, the karsts providing treacherous footing and a dozen obstacles to be avoided, but few trees provided cover here – the land was almost all pasture, though the sheep had long since fled.

    The Vellari army had drawn up in an impressive array, the famed Accan pikes in columns before a central line, each column trailing a group of enormous war elephants. The tectari stood on the flanks of the phalanx, while behind them all, a great contingent of catraphracts stood at the ready to plug any gaps, and to provide the final, decisive charge. But they did not expect it to come to that – the Cyvekt, after all, had never seen a war elephant, and even with the number that had died in the winter, there still remained more than a few at the ready.

    Saeron's army was perhaps less impressive at first glance, for no such beasts lingered here. Halyral infantry stood in a staggered formation, ready to offer enfilading support to one another, while a reserve stood behind them; on the flanks, cavalry and the Cyvekt soldiers readied to battle the tectari.

    They did not have to wait long. A long horn call came from the Vellari rear, and the elephants trundled forward, their tails of pikemen in tow. The very ground itself seemed to quake beneath their feet, and the Accans gave a great shout as they splashed through the stream and up the little knoll, into the thick of the Halyral forces.

    Saeron had read much of ancient tactics, and he knew of several ways to combat them. But he was not one for drama when it came to battle tactics – instead, the fluid Halyral formation simply opened up and let the elephants plow on through the gaps, avoiding combat where they could. Even as the Moti handlers tried to get them to turn, the elephants had coursed through the enemy front line without doing much damage at all – but luckily for the Accans, they were far from the only force on the field.

    The pikes continued close in their wake, and sought to shred the Halyral forces in the gaps that had arisen now. But it was now that the Halyrate unleashed the deadly weapon they had held back until now.

    Massed crossbows on either side of each pike column were raised, and the thrum of ten thousand bowstrings seemed to pluck at the foundations of the earth itself.

    No matter what poetry you assigned them, the crossbow bolts flew into the massed pikes and made utter mincemeat of their prey.

    And again.

    And again.

    The Halyrate had drilled and drilled and drilled, and the crossbowmen fell back as quick as they could to let another group open fire. When the Accans finally rallied and charged forth to do melee battle, the Halyral crossbows stepped back and let the spears do their work instead, holding the pikes at bay while more crossbow fire strummed around them. Pikes littered the fields like broken matches, and the bodies had already piled up.

    Screaming in fury, Venari ordered her tectari forward, and the more fluid formations struck at the flanks of their enemy. These Vellari acquitted themselves rather better than the famed pikes had – at first, perhaps, because they faced the Cyvekt, but they soon came into combat with the crossbows of the center and fared rather better than the pike core had, and covered their withdrawal and rally behind the line of battle.

    Even so, the tectari would soon face a worthy foe of their own. Saeron ordered forward his own wildcard – the Chorus of Aelome, with whom he had risen to such glory beforehand, and the Sirans cried out the Haradyr's name, and the name of Lemdeh, before plunging in to fight the tectari in man to man combat. The heavy swordsmen of both sides were at an impasse, but neither side intended to let that remain so for long.

    Again, Venari struck first. With her tectari holding the attention of either flank, and the pikes covering the center, she ordered the great host of cataphracts forward, and the wolf banner streamed out behind them as the cavalry charged into the fray, leaping the creek in great bounds.

    But the Halyral infantry stood fast, and again, the crossbows sank their bolts into the enemy again and again. The cavalry charge had been disrupted by the creek, and the broken ground, and coming forth in fits and starts, they made easy prey for the crossbows, which were soon supported by a charge of Sadorishi pikes. Crying Talad's name (in what was surely one of the more ironic moments of the war), they plunged forth into the confused and frantic cavalry, and soon, their defeat seemed all but certain.

    The elephants, meanwhile, had tried to reorient themselves, but soon found their beasts under siege from hundreds of crossbowmen, who were only too happy to fight the creatures from a distance, and under the direction of Saeron, the mahouts were picked off one by one.

    With only the tectari and surviving pikes still standing firm, Venari might have cut her losses – but knew well that what little capital she still had could not long survive a defeat. She rode forth and tried to lead the cavalry to one last victory, only to be cut down herself by the relentless scythe of ranged infantry. With a rather more conservative set of battalion commanders, the rest of the Vellari soldiers sounded the retreat and fought off the Halyral forces the best they could as they filtered back to the west.

    But this was not a war for giving quarter, and Saeron pressed them hard, giving pursuit with what cavalry the Cyvekt had on the field. Here, the cataphracts had a more meritorious performance, covering for their allies, but every time it looked as though they might turn things around, the infantry eventually caught up and set them to flight once more. The occupation of Lemdeh had to be abandoned (and Aelea emerged from the caverns beneath the city, triumphant), as did the siege of Lexevh, and in the end, the Satar only narrowly managed to avoid getting caught on the beaches as they left in a panic.

    But even as the remnants of the invasion force landed near Talore, trying to regroup, the ships were called south, to try and make it into the Kern Sea before the noose was closed too tightly.

    The fleets drew up in the Eastern Straits of the Inm Anmar, out of sight of Adua. With the Halyral and Carohan fleets drawn up alongside one another, it was a staggeringly enormous armada, near seven hundred ships in total (enough to actually reach from end to end in the straight, had they wanted to), but the Accans were prepared here, and even if they were outnumbered, many pointed to the Accan Expedition. The Carohans had never beaten the Accans at sea, and with the more skilled sailors, it was still possible for the Vellari to pull out an unlikely victory here. More to the point, if they could occupy the Carohans for long enough, even if the battle went sour, many of their fleet would be able to escape to the west.

    As the fleets closed on one another, the Accans noted for the second time the bizarre shape of the Carohan vessels – with great towers, higher than the typical aft and fore-castle of the Kern fleets at the time – and their strange striking poles that lurked like the arms of trebuchets over the heads of the ships. There was no time to waste, though – once again, the cloud of Accan smoke was released, and the Accans plunged forth, hoping to ram a few, or engage them hand-to hand.

    The Carohans had come prepared this time, though, and their own sailors wore thin cloths over mouth and eyes, obscuring their vision a little, but sparing them the worst of the smoke. And then it became quickly evident what the poles were for, as they swiveled overhead and latched onto the superstructure of the Accan vessels, entangling pairs of ships, allowing crossbowmen to fire en masse from the high castles into their enemy's faces, and allowing the marines to pour over the deck and fight the Accans on their own ships.

    It was a stunning reversal of fortunes, and the numbers began to tell. Panicking more, now, the Accans pulled free as best they could and slipped around, into the Kern, but many of their vessels had been caught by the striking poles and could not be freed.

    The bodies began to litter the water as some jumped overboard to try and escape their ends, and many oars were broken by virtue of the lumps of flesh and bone that floated about the ships.

    It was over.

    But then, the war was not.

    Even as the allied forces clobbered the Accans in the east, the Accans made some headway against their surprisingly resilient foe in the shadows. Zna's rebellion had done little, and neither had an attempt to advance into the wooded hills that were the heart of the Xidevi strength, but a concentrated assault against Sohai and Tan brought both cities under Accan control, the first after a lengthy siege, but the second falling without too much trouble at all.

    Progress slowed to a crawl, though, with the news of defeat in the east, as the commanders of all the fronts had to shuffle their forces to deal with a possible assault from the sea.

    But the war took another turn again, as the news came, long-delayed, out of the south – the Daharai had joined the fight.

    The Halyrate could not begin the counteroffensive quite yet.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    “Burn the witch.”

    The phrase had ramifications far beyond even what Elea or Alxas might have imagined at the time. The conflicts had spiraled out of control – quite quickly, at that – but one of its immediate effects had been to force both the Chorus of Aelome and its Cyvekt allies to withdraw much of their strength from the Hymn in the north. While they still had considerable garrisons in the area (and a fleet to match them), they still lay vulnerable in the face of a Zalkephai counterattack.

    Exactly that came about almost immediately. Having poured all of their considerable energy and enthusiasm into the prosecution of this particular war, the Zalkephic fleet was rebuilt in very little time at all, and their soldiers soon scurried to and fro across the Sea of Chamar, and before too long, they had begun to push the Parthecans back in the north, and even landed on Sarkanda in force.

    The Cyvekt did not have the strength to stop these widespread raids – before too long, both Damrath and Xaishas were under siege, and as this all happened concurrently with the Accan invasion of Cyve itself, things seemed bleak indeed.

    But fortune smiled on the Faithful, as word came from the south that the Tephran Exatai had launched a new attack against the Zalkephai in hopes of impressing the High Oracle, and prompting him to name their High Prince to the mask of Redeemer. Even if these hopes evaporated rather quickly, the attack still went forward, and the Tephrans marched as far as Sartasion, sweeping aside the Zalkephai at first, and seemingly making easy work of them.

    Perhaps they should have hesitated.

    The Wars of Prophecy had been among the most brutal and ferocious of any Satar wars, and with the invasion of the Tephrans, a Fourth War of Prophecy seemed to be imminent. Many considered it to have commenced with the Tephran assault on Sartasion, where their armies met a Zalkephic force just below the walls of the city of prayers.

    The Tephrans arrived in high spirits, having met no effective Zalkephai before this point; moreover, the Zalkephic force that stood before them was considerably outnumbered, not least by virtue of its forces having to be reshuffled from the north back to defend the Einan. Confident of victory, the Tephrans ordered their army forward, planning to utterly crush the Zalkephai before they could bring more forces to bear on the situation.

    But even as the two forces came together, another Zalkephai force emerged from the fields north of the city, and struck at the Tephran flank. For the Zalkephai were able to rapidly raise thousands of peasants to support their cause – few of them wanted to return to the rule of the princes – and after a costly battle, the combined Zalkephai were able to drive the Tephrans back.

    Not to be deterred, the Tephrans retreated and gathered to make another assault, this time massing their cavalry for a dramatic charge at the last moment that put one of the Zalkephai wings to flight. It was enough, perhaps, to push the Zalkephai back, and the High Prince's single-minded determination to capture Sartasion finally paid off when the city of prayers was captured and thoroughly sacked.

    Now, though, the Tephrans were in quite some danger. In the midst of a hostile countryside, and with little help likely to come from any quarter, they had still further worries on their hands when word came from the north that a young man had emerged from the Setton.

    His name was Zalkephis.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    Compared to their immediate neighbors, the Vischa seemed to take the news of the High Oracle passing over them for the title of Redeemer in stride. No one had really expected them to be acclaimed; at best it would have been a pleasant surprise. And by the same token, since they'd never expected to be so honored in the first place, their failure here didn't bother them. Instead, the High Prince continued much as he might have done without worrying about the title at all, focusing on agricultural expansion around Lake Eshka and the difficulties of internal politics.

    But some started to suspect that the High Prince might have held a grudge towards the High Oracle after all when he proclaimed religious tolerance throughout his lands. Patronizing multiple faiths had always been a staple of Vischa religious policy, to be sure, but they'd somehow always managed to make Ardavan feel as though it were the chief of those faiths regardless of that. The new tolerance policy erased all those gains, and it certainly offered some respite to the beleaguered Enguntithi religious community, not to mention the scattered conclaves of Aitahists in the country.

    Word had it, though, that there might be rumblings of rebellion in the Nevathi region even so. While this was surely frustrating to a Redeemer who had done little but include them in his own inner circle, he managed to maintain his patience despite that, and the rumblings quickly died away when he visited the region personally. Simultaneously, the region had begun to see considerably more trade, as the Tantari had begun to exploit the southern route to Caroha more and more.

    Far to the south, trouble seemed to bestir the region between the Thala and Abrea Rivers.

    Tiagho's imperial expansion continued almost unabated, with an invasion of the Raighama on the books, but even after the imperial armies made considerable headway behind their new dragon warriors – and as their allies in the Taidhir joined in the fun – the Raighama had not completely fallen before word came from the west that things had gone entirely sour there. For while the rest of the Dulama sphere had heretofore seemingly been content to let the two dominant states acquire an even more dominant position, a coalition of smaller states finally decided they had enough, and decided to put the Taidhir and Tiaghama in their place.

    First defeating the Taidhir on the field of battle, the coalition laid siege to their capital at Elapo, reducing it and putting it under the control of Fetlar before marching across the Taidhe to attack the Tiaghama. Only the continued resistance of the Taidhir managed to stem that particular tide – and the mutual distrust of each of the allies – but the Tiaghama must have considered themselves lucky that the Highland states had not joined in the war.

    Even while this state of affairs continued to grow worse, news on other fronts hardly seemed any better.

    Slow and steady settlement of the northern fringe of the Taidhe had seemed like only sensible statesmanship; after all, the land was lightly populated where once it had formed one of the core regions of the Dulama Empire. But it soon became quite evident why older rulers had steadfastly avoided entering the region, as the settlements provoked a response from the fiercely territorial Hai Vithana and Hai Vischa tribes in the region. Reprisal raids soon sliced deeply into the Taidhe, and even reached towns a mere dozen miles from Tiagho itself.

    All of this would be ultimately overshadowed with the Ashelai move into Suchai.

    The Tiaghama had been steadily building contacts in the Exatai, as well as with the Gaarim to the south, but this new development put all those into jeopardy. With the war brewing on the one flank and any potential allies in the Highlands unnerved by the aggressiveness of both sides, they had very few places to turn to.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    While at the time of the death of the Dowager Empress, the aristocrats had found the ear of the young Emperor of the Trahana to be quite open to them, even the youngest child will at some point grow up. Though the Emperor had found himself hopelessly ensnared in the snakepit of court politics at a very young age, as an adolescent he finally came into his own, and began to push back against his “advisers”. Only a few years later, with the conjunction of the merchants at the port of Mara, who had turned over control of their port facilities to a contingent of the Golden Ships, he invited prominent members of the merchant guild into Traha itself, where he received them with the splendor that had been afforded only to the most prominent of the nobility before.

    It was a spectacular fall from grace for the oldest of the nobility, who watched with jealousy as a huge Great Hall was constructed in Traha to display the power of the Golden Ships, with chambers specifically dedicated to visits by the imperial family; on the other side, the Emperor offered the corporations numerous and generous charters, allowing them relatively free reign over the Airendhe, and even further.

    Though the reversal had happened swiftly, that did not make it unopposed. Most in power had concluded that the greater nobility would be unable to resist in any real capacity – they owned vast estates in the center and west of the country, but had little to do with the transport of their goods to market, and thus their wealth depended wholly on the Golden Ships.

    But that was an ephemeral state of affairs – tea and spices could be exported through Amheshi and Lasimin (and, indeed, already were) – and these ports could be served as easily by the Noaunnaha as they could by the Golden Ships. Such an act would be mere passive resistance, and it would hurt their own profits a little, seeing as they would have to sell to the rather less lucrative northern markets or through the overland route to the east... but it hurt the Golden Ships and the Emperor far more.

    They did not draw the line here, however.

    Reaching out across the merchant network of the northwest, their contacts came into touch with probably the most feared group in the entire region – the Nivarberrie mercenaries. Though the group had become a largely settled population along the coast of the ocean, the nobility were able to convince a large contingent to sell their swords to a brewing rebellion in the western half of the Empire – one that suddenly flared to life in the latter part of the decade.

    The nobility were only one segment of the discontents. The Trahana Decadence had led to massive gaps between the very rich and very poor, and where the nobility tended to fund public fountains and feed the poor, the Golden Ships had done rather little. The high aristocracy enjoyed immense popular support, especially in the regions where they took direct control. Even as they assembled their mercenary army, another group raised the banners of rebellion in the hinterland around Lithm and Sechm, voicing long held grievances with the Empire.

    It stopped there, for the moment, just short of breaking out of control, but it was not a good situation, and while the Emperor commanded most of the fleets and a large army, even the most level-headed of moderates worried at what concessions the Golden Ships would wring from this mess.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    The great success of the Prosperity, capped by a conquest of the final independent city in Mashineshtotang, had won Xochipepe many honors when he returned home to Tsutongmerang – enough so that he managed to clamber to the very top of the confusing mass of factions that struggled over control of the island country. It was a coup of popular support, but it was all wasted when the relatively youthful (at least, compared to the other Triarchs) man suffered a swift case of influenza, dying unexpectedly mere months after his achievement.

    His successor, a young member of the watu wu bahari, Ehen, had traveled to the capital for his Ascension before being almost immediately denounced and cast back among his native boat people, leaving the Prosperity headless, and opening the door a crack for the rise of the Talents, under Tepin, with her enormous army of “dregs” that had been raised over the previous Accounting.

    But the Prosperity had only taken a short tumble, and Ehen reorganized his people behind him, readying for a confrontation with his detractors before running into further problems on the periphery, where disputes between the watu wu bahari and the Conclavist hierarchy over local practice of the faith very nearly broke into open conflict. In the end, the two managed to set aside their differences – largely by targeting their common foe, the pseudo-animist and very hostile Tepin.

    With a new army raised by the watu wu bahari coupled to a supporting cast from the faithful, the allies marched on the interior of the island, where the dreg army had made camp. In the beginning, it was a relatively scenic marching route, with little hostility meeting them as they wandered through a mostly supportive countryside.

    The first indication of a dreg presence they saw was a flight of poison-tipped arrows.

    And so, the Battle of the Xibalta began in a flurry of violence, and both sides took cover as the darts flew thick and fast in either direction. The dregs had taken up a position on a series of high bluffs overlooking the road, but they had not had time to prepare their ambush as much as they might have liked, and there was still significant foliage below them that sheltered the watu wu bahari, allowing them to avoid the worst of these initial attacks. Under the direction of Ehen, small teams of them began to ascend the bluffs, choosing as best they could routes that snaked through the overgrown hillsides and avoided exposing them to fire from above, but it was difficult going, especially as the dregs rolled stones, repurposed from terrace foundations, directly into the path of the climbers.

    But all this had been a diversion. Ehen used the cover of the trees to mask the withdrawal of the greater part of his army from the valley, and sent a thousand men climbing up the back side of the bluffs, a much shallower slope, and they emerged behind their enemy, shouting as they plunged into the exposed flank with spear and dagger.

    The move sent the dregs into flight, and soon the feared warriors had scattered into the countryside, disintegrated as a fighting unit; in the absence of a central leadership, many would turn to banditry. Though the dregs had been defeated, their influence would still be felt through the next few years. An enormous Conclavist church was to be constructed in the capital, and many noted its striking resemblance to the totems that had been worshiped in the interior. Imitators relied on the shape to draw in the somewhat suspicious inhabitants of terrace country.

    Meanwhile, the process of integrating Mashineshtotang hit a few snags despite the meticulous planning of Itoshia. While the northern cities were easy enough to control, given their proximity, the ones on the southern side of the island were not, mostly by virtue of their sheer distance from the power center of the country. Though the sea route around the island was well-explored and fairly secured by the Trahana, it was not an easy voyage, especially as any return trip faced a powerful current through the straits.

    In the end, the growing influence of the watu wu bahari proved invaluable here, too – the boatmen pioneered new routes up the small, previously unmapped streams into the interior of the island and through half a dozen portage routes, found an almost unimpeded way through the cloud forests of the central mountain spine.

    New connections allowed the southern cities to share in the prosperity of Tsutongmerang as a whole, and soon a busy export market was set up based on the local cowrie shells.

    * * * * * * * * *​
     
  6. North King

    North King blech

    Joined:
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    * * * * * * * * *​

    Through all this, Gaarim and Zar had remained mostly spectators. The old reliance of the Tsutongmerangi on mercenaries from the two countries had been entirely broken by the raising of the dreg and watu wu bahari armies, and so both of the countries ran the risk of becoming wholly isolated from the rest of the world.

    For Zar, at least, this risk was more or less realized, as the country withdrew wholly into trying to wring some productivity from its new jungle territories, encouraging the growth of new kinds of crops and learning from their new subjects on the best ways to settle the interior. Some small effort was made to connect with Trahana military experts, but especially after the explosion of violence in the Trahana homeland, these were rather hard to come by – only a few second rate instructors ended up making their way to the Zarian to teach them the disciplined style of their pikes. Many complained that these newfangled ways would suit the Zarian better if the majority of their fighting were not in a jungle – and indeed, the Zarian pike regiments did not fare well against a new wave of resistance in the north.

    Gaarim, by contrast, actively fought against isolation, sending a new round of trade and diplomatic missions through the region, focusing extensively on Tsutongmerang and Trahana. At the order of the king, a Trade Organization was founded exclusively to deal with the foreigners, and they managed a growing number of contacts with merchants as far away as the Khoskai and Hailsia. Nor did they have any lack of things to export – word had come from the north that prospectors had found an enormous treasure trove of diamonds, including one particularly enormous specimen that was rapidly found to adorn the Gaarimic king.

    One country they had conspicuously avoided visiting was the Empire of Shuhar. Many in the region hesitated to trade with the young empire – not least because of its long and rather famed hostilities with the Kothari Exatai. This did not seem to bother the Shuhar, who launched a new effort at colonization of the south, sailing to the very edge of the known world and setting up ports on the islands there. The intention – one which they share with the Trahana – was to bypass the Talents' tolls around Tsutongmerang, sailing entirely around the island of Toha.

    While the colonies themselves were easy enough to set up at first, the process became considerably tougher as time went on. Separated by a broad channel of minimal winds and a powerful current, it was very difficult indeed to resupply the islands, and the Shuhar found that their own agriculture could not sustain them on the islands, similar as they might have seemed at first glance. As for the Trahana, foul tropical diseases took a heavy toll on their numbers, and many of even the bravest Golden Ships pulled out of the endeavor entirely.

    But the Shuhar were not to be deterred, and soon a minor, secondary trade route ringed the south of the island, too.

    More important, probably, was the Emperor's new directive to pacify the interior of the continent. Where Zar had unleashed overwhelming military force to try and cut their way through to the center, the Shuhar took a much more peaceful approach, prying open the strange villages with merchants and missionaries, bringing the tribes into the fold of the Empire without ever actually fighting them. While it afforded them much less direct control, it also meant much less resistance. All this was coupled with renewed emphasis on infrastructure, as new and repaired causeways snaked from the coast deep into the jungle.

    Hailsian explorers, meanwhile, had furnished new expeditions, hoping to push back the veil of darkness a little further, but they ran into the same problems they always had – the awful diseases of the equatorial region sometimes taking the crews entire, and heavy currents and storms pushing them back. Much more progress was made in mounting a new expedition to the far west, where Hailsians met with the Emperor of Trahana, and even sailed up the coast to Naran before the outbreak of violence in the region forced them to turn back.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    While by now it is probably evident that the Cripple's War had not gone according to the Accan plan, things had not been so bleak for them at the beginning of the decade. Indeed, the Vellari had scored two great diplomatic coups: the conversion of the Acajuren being the first, while the second was the first great rapprochement that had ever taken place between the Faronun and the Dahaiaou. By now far from the Exatai, and consequently having fairly little to fear from it, the Haifaio Hailsia saw the new Vellari olive branch as a significant opportunity, and hesitantly agreed to exchange ambassadors.

    While the Hailsian ambassador in Atracta likely recalled the Second Feast all too well, the exchange of knowledge that had begun was not one to be underestimated. Thousands of books from the Sephashim and the assorted libraries of Faerouhaiaou, Dremai, and Trovin were meticulously copied, and great academic debates began to take place on subjects and in places one would never have expected. Most symbolic of all, perhaps, was a copy of Slave, translated into Accan, and offered personally to Zakraphetas, who is said to have found it deeply moving, even in translation.

    But the great exchange of goods that had been envisioned by the leaders of both states at the beginning never materialized; quite obviously, the war between Caroha and the Vellari got in the way. Nevertheless, it was an important first step.

    The cultural exchange did dredge up the old Satar Apologist writings, and performances of these old works inspired the production of both Utopian Revivalist works, and a new genre of plays and music – the exotic fantasy, typically taking place in a land such as Tantaras or Trahana, but sometimes places as near as the Vellari Exatai itself. These had Utopian, Ieraitan, and Apologist themes woven throughout, as they usually emphasized the commonality of man, and renewed faith in the omnibenevolent nature of Haiao.

    Meanwhile, their Kothari neighbors seemed to largely content themselves with funding new fortifications at the extreme points of the Exatai (notably Rangi and Hiuttu) and the construction of an enormous royal road, linking Jahip with Zeray.

    It was an ambitious project, one that took nearly the whole of the Exatai's free budget and labor force, and it cut nearly straight through the mountains, ringing sweeping mountain vistas and stunning views, with more than a couple of bridges, tunnels, and dangerously narrow switchbacks. Its intention, clearly, was to unite the southern and northern halves of the empire by adding another trade route, and in this it had mixed results early on. Merchants were only too happy to use the road, but it had to be closed frequently in winter, and more to the point, the culture of the two halves was different enough that some amount of culture shock would always be expected.

    Still, it certainly did make communication easier, and in the end, perhaps that's all the Redeemer really wanted out of it.

    But by far, the most important event in the Exatai – or indeed, in the whole of southeastern Athis as a whole – would be the Conclave at Bysrium. An enormous religious event with possibly global implications, it had been called at the behest of the Grandpatriarch and Kothari Redeemer, with the explicit intention of resolving the differences between the two branches of the Church – the Orthodox and the Conclavist schism.

    The four articles had been promulgated long before the Conclave had ever taken place, and their reception was predictable. While Conclavists were only too happy to hear that Doru o Ierai had been accepted as a perfectly legitimate practice within the Church, they could not accept the elevation of the Grandpatriarch as one voice above all – nor, indeed, even as the first among many. Conclavist theology held firm: one perspective could never be as effective in understanding the totality of the cosmos as many, and they would not accede to the ultimate authority of the Grandpatriarch.

    An even more strident statement was made by representatives from distant Tsutongmerang, who sent a troupe of women to perform one of their society's rather typical puppet dramas. This one in particular depicted the trouble that their people had undergone under the predation of the old Orthodox Church, and their relative prosperity now that the Conclavists had taken up the proselytizing in the region. More to the point, they ended the performance with the mock execution of the Orthodoxy, and flung severed heads (actually wax figures) into the stunned audience before leaving the Conclave in style.

    Nevertheless, the Conclave had achieved its principal goal: the Conclavists within the Exatai, or at least the most prominent among them, agreed to follow the Redeemer back into the fold. Significant dissension continued, especially in some of the more anti-establishment regions, like Zyeshar and Palamyr, but the broad sweep of Satar priests had accepted the new dictates, and accepted still more gratefully renewed patronage from the Redeemer.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    With the Halyrate plunged into war, one might have expected its immediate neighbors to take advantage of the situation. In truth, few of them were in a position to do so. Of the most obvious sources of hostility – the Daharai, the Acaya, and Ereithaler – two did in fact get drawn into the conflict, but only one of them fought with any effectiveness.

    As for the Acaya, their pursuit of the war was immediately hampered. A Vellari Oracle by the name of Etadevas had entered into extensive negotiations with the local Acajuren, and in the end managed a spectacular geopolitical coup – the conversion of the Acajuren elite to Ardavan. While this might have seemed an odd choice, given how far the country was from the center of Ardavani worship, the traditional faiths had some basic similarities to the ideals of Ardavan, and more to the point, the warrior religion appealed to the ethos of the ruling class.

    The problem was, not everyone agreed with the ruling class.

    The conversion of the Acajuren elite was immediately followed by the more or less total collapse of the Old Ways, as the cult of the old gods had been so invested in the success of the republic – and the Republic so invested in theirs – that when the Republic abandoned it the bottom quite simply fell out. Immediately, most of the common people converted to one faith or the other, and while it was a boon for the nascent Ardavani faith in some ways, in another way it lay the seed for civil disorder on a level unheard of.

    Angered at the betrayal of the old ways and fearing an assault on their ways of life, Maninists began a series of riots that would extend through practically every Acajuren city, and in some cases come close to overturning the rule of law entirely. These never manifested into outright rebellion, to be sure, but they did come remarkably close; in any case, they stymied any Acajuren war effort before it could ever begin.

    Meanwhile, Ereithaler continued its aggressive policies of expansion, attempting to finally subjugate Anhalter. Though they had no small great liking for the Cyvekt, or their new union with the Halyrate, they saw little point in getting drawn into an offensive war; as the war began to turn against the Accans this became less and less desirable. More importantly, the war against Anhalter did not proceed quite as smoothly as might have been expected – the mountain country seemed quite resilient, and the few people who had already resisted the advance of the lowlanders managed to stave off the enemy in simple holdfasts located in deeply forested valleys, almost impossible to reduce without knowing exactly where they were.

    At the same time, an anti-expansionist sentiment began to take hold in the academies of the larger country, seeing the wars as what were essentially land-grabs by the aristocracy, exploiting the cooperation and warmaking of the peasantry to expand their own holdings. While they did not revoke any of the gains the aristocrats had made, they blocked any further efforts at expansion, even as some nobles looked to invade what was seen as the vulnerable east.

    In contrast to previous years, then, a great exchange was begun with the Ethir, where the Ereithaler king allowed the travel of some of his most beloved court musicians to the country, where they composed a vast array of new hymns and songs for the occasion of the great festival to celebrate the reign of Oddether. Here, great merriment was had, as the Ethir bgan to sing, dance, and otherwise amuse themselves with things like riding, ceremonial duels to first blood, and axe-throwing.

    More importantly, perhaps, the Ethir closely studied the tradition of the teltalher peasant assemblies, and soon began to host them in their own country, with many eagerly attending in the hopes of actually changing their circumstances. But these were just a facade of change – without the sort of academy and tradition of peasant-aristocrat dialogue that Ereithaler maintained, most feared that the Ethir would continue right along the same path they always had.

    Meanwhile, the new Ethir king, Eidikar, sent his two most beloved children to study abroad, one, Edra, traveling to the famed academies at Lemdeh in Cyve (though he had to flee the city briefly in the face of the Satar incursion, finishing his studies instead at the northern city of Udel), and the other, Loduil, to the far eastern capital at Parta (where he would learn much of the strange Archives, and ended up overhearing numerous conversations regarding a daring Parthecan expedition deep into the unknown of the east; he would return home with secondhand stories of the famed Kitaluk continent). Given the famed loose morals of the Cyvekt and the famously private nature of the Parthecans, one has to think one of the brothers had a rather better time.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    Having fully committed to the war, the Daharai sent an expedition of some fifty thousand against Zirais and Nahar. Little resistance was expected initially, but this had been based on the twin assumptions that the Halyrate would have few armies in the region (true) and that the people on the ground would themselves have little investment in which way the wind blew – which turned out to be false. Even with bribes flowing into the pockets of the Piriveni, and with titles having been bought up so that the head of the Anthon-Soliens could claim to be a lawful ruler of the region, numerous people still opposed the invasion of the Daharai, seeing it as a a combination of great betrayal and, probably more importantly, threatening their cherished place in the commercial sphere of the Halyrate.

    Thus, while the Daharai landed without too much trouble in Zirais itself, they soon found their occupation fought by large segments of the population, who sometimes fought in the streets, killing individual or small groups of Daharai before melting back into the houses there.

    But the sheer force of arms that the Republic could bring to bear was enough to control that initial outburst of violence. Their advance didn't become less problematic as they progressed, however, with the forces in Nahar itself refusing to surrender regardless of how stridently the Emperor threatened or cajoled. In the end, a siege had to be invested, with a blockade of thickly arrayed Daharai ships preventing its resupply; the siege lasted nearly a year before the city finally succumbed to hunger and repeated assaults.

    By now, the threat of a Halyral counterattack was becoming quite serious, and the Daharai decided to advance on Hrn as quickly as possible, hoping to capture the city before the Halyrate could arrive on the field and challenge them – and thus have an overwhelming advantage in length of supply lines.

    Still, they had not counted on a few things. The Sadorishi had rebuilt Hrn in a brutalist, solid manner, specifically to resist such a siege; by now the city was as much fortress as it was commercial center. More to the point, Halyral citizens in the interior regarded this intrusion as distasteful, and soon the Savirai had begun to harass the flanks of the Daharai even as they attempted to bring the siege to bear. It was slow going, then, and the Daharai hadn't made much progress when word of the inevitable counterattack began to filter down their intelligence chains.

    While they would have been all too happy to test their own strength of arms against the Halyral forces in the area, this presented something entirely different. The Satar had never actually begun to attack the Halyrate, and so the expected preoccupation of Halyral forces never happened. With this in mind, the Halyrate could bring a considerable force to bear against the Daharai; indeed, the Daharai found themselves fairly outnumbered. But the emperor Arasos decided to chance a limited battle – if he could hold them here, his prospects would be rather better over the long term than if he let them reach Nahar.

    Drawing up his armies in several ranks, the Daharai advanced in a formation that bore no small resemblance to the Halyral forces across the field – pikes in front, crossbowmen behind, and cavalry screening the flanks.

    But where they had only grudgingly adopted newer weapons into older tactical formations, the Halyrate had fully accepted them; indeed, based their formations wholly around them. When the two infantry forces met in the center, the thonos found itself besieged by a hail of crossbow fire, and though the rondori returned the favor, they could not quite keep up the same rate that the northerners could. Worse still, their cavalry started to fold under the pressure of the local Savirai, whose skill in horsemanship outpaced their foes.

    Judging the situation to have gone somewhat south, Arasos ordered a withdrawal.

    While they had faltered at Hrn, another crack team of Daharai had managed to take the forces at Kest by surprise and set fire to the city, making away with some valuables in the process before retreating to the sea, but they made no real effort at holding the city; it was merely a nuisance in the long run.

    As the war in the north had turned to a disaster for the Accans, meanwhile, they began to pat themselves on the back for various contingency plans that kept the Exatai from wholesale collapse.

    For the other side, however, the question became what to do next. An invasion of Acca proper was mulled several times, even with the specter of the Accan Expedition hanging above everyone's heads (especially with the Carohans involved), but to have such overwhelming superiority without using it seemed foolhardy. The desire for peace cut both ways: they wanted to end the war more quickly, and at the same time, they wanted to avoid a high body count at all costs.

    In the end, they decided to probe at the enemy with a limited expedition – but in the War of the Cripple, a limited expedition meant nearly forty thousand men. Charged with bringing the war to the Satar, they crossed the sea in righteous fury, and landed on the isle of Ritti, hoping to find a relatively supportive Maninist population. The Maninists they found were not so inclined, however, having never been in the Halyral sphere, they regarded the invading force as being exactly what it was – an invading force – and resisted accordingly.

    But with a large force and the Accans having withdrawn to defend the coastline, Ritti was a fairly easy target. The Halyral forces went about securing the entire island, and before long had bases that were well within striking distance of the Accan mainland – even Atracta itself, though the impeccably maintained fortifications there dissuaded any attempts on it even at this late a juncture. Instead, the Halyral forces contented themselves with more minor raids, some as far south as Acca, but never straying too close to Accan forces.

    The war seemed to draw down for the moment, with the Halyrate massing its forces for a final push into Acca itself, but this tempo was interrupted with a daring Accan raid on the northern coast of Gallat, against the city of Halandata.

    The hope had been to draw the Piriveni into placing a good portion of their treasury there, but even with the Accan voters in the Piriveni guild, they hadn't been able to convince anyone of that – it was, after all, insanity to store gold so close to a war zone, and the vast majority of the reserves had been left inland, at the city of Krsh. Nevertheless, the city had not been prepared for a raid, particularly when the Halyrate was convinced of its own superiority at sea, and the Vellari raid managed to set fire to large quarters of the city and make off with considerable amounts of loot.

    This was considered something of the final straw – the Halyrate launched a similar reprisal against the city of Ceralle, burning much of that ancient city as well – but more pertinently, they decided to eliminate the base that had allowed the raid in the first place, and landed Halyral troops at Adua, placing the fortress city under siege.

    Thus it stood, ten years after the beginning of the war, neither side close to victory, but one clearly on its back foot.

    * * * * * * * * *​

    The desert seemed to go on forever.

    They'd passed by the ruins of the Arch a few days before, and stopped for an hour to let the children run their hands over it, marveling at the smooth curve of the stone, the way that it bent away and away and away, like some god had carved it fully formed from the heart of the world itself. Of course, it did end, rather more abruptly than it had before: great cracks scarred the stone, and its pieces were only reachable because they lay supine on the ground. What manner of man created such a thing? Perhaps it was not for mortal men to conceive of.

    They threaded the gates of the city after a few more days, and to their surprise, saw a nearly identical arch still standing. Someone, perhaps the Rosh, had seemingly decided that ruin ought to be no impediment to the glory of the old, and with the brilliance that was modern concrete, recreated the stone. It did not have the same... aura... as its predecessor, certainly, but perhaps that was simply because the desert had not yet had time to wear at it.

    The children grew restless, so he'd assigned a couple of the adults to watch them, and let them play in the streets with the local children.

    Remarkable how if you were young enough, no barrier of race or creed was enough to separate playmates.

    The city streets were oddly quiet for this time of day. Perhaps it was the war. Even with the distinct victory the Lady's armies had won on the fields of battle, some things remained scarce. Or perhaps when there was a war, even without scarcity, people felt obligated to remain indoors, on the off chance that even here, deep in the recesses of old Siere, somehow the enemy would strike. He could sympathize.

    But the children were out, and as their camels plodded through the streets, he watched them with some amusement. It hurt to think of the pain they had gone through, but here, perhaps, they would finally be at peace. For a time, anyway. What if they chose to join the Chorus? His brow furrowed at that, but he supposed he could offer them nothing.

    The estate stood near the edge of town, built to let air sift through it, to never let the heat of daylight linger too long in any one place. Pools of water and gardens ringed it, but somehow it felt less like extravagance, and more like a... a sort of humble endeavor. As though the people here sought the work of gardening less as a luxury and more as a Path.

    Guards stopped them from getting too far, but as soon as they mentioned who they were, things opened up for them quite quickly. Before too long, he left the children behind to play, and he and his companion were escorted deep within the bowels of the palace. There, they were left to wait for a bit while the guards announced their presence.

    He'd had a knack for waiting things out, and he never fidgeted. Instead, he drew forth a long pipe, filled it with the dark leaf of cured sisak, lit, and began to puff merrily away. His comrade seemed antsy, but calmed immediately when presented with the smoke of the leaf.

    A long while passed. Finally, a well-built Sierdha man emerged, brushing the hair from his face and staring at the travelers as though they were from another world entirely – which, perhaps, was fair.

    “Welcome,” he said.

    The traveler bowed, and the slight clinking of ivory jewelry could be heard – a string of beads hanging from one ear, and telling quite an old story, if one knew how to read them.

    He hesitated, and finally said: “I came to the palace of the Chorus.” Another pause. “I'd presumed you to be a Voice.”

    The Sierdha flushed. “Some call me that, yes.” But he did not look like the one that had been described to him.

    “What of the other?”

    “What?” The man's eyes narrowed. “Who?”

    “The other Voice. The one they say has Returned, in this time of Ordeal?”

    “Ah, yes. He is in the north.”

    “A pity, I should liked to have met him.”

    A girl with a hair like flame emerged from the next room, and smiled. “My apologies. I let him leave. But perhaps you shall settle for meeting an Aitah.”

    * * * * * * * * *​

    Maps:

    Spoiler :

    Cities

    Coming Soon!
    Economic


    Religions


    Political


    * * * * * * * * *​

    OOC:

    Some NPC Diplomacy to come.

    I'm really sorry for the delay on this one. I wanted to get it right, for one thing, but I also had a very busy week – something I told people about extensively on #nes, but it occurred to me earlier today that I really ought to have said that in here. On the other hand, that probably would have fooled people into thinking it was the update.

    But yes, sorry, it shouldn't take this long next time.

    I'll have a new place name map up in a couple of days, a new econ map, and stats as well. Look forward to a couple of new map types by the next update, and some of you should be receiving PMs.
     
  7. Luckymoose

    Luckymoose The World is Mine

    Joined:
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    18,349
    Location:
    Get Back
  8. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,534
    Location:
    In the desert
    So far, so good.

    From: Zakraphetas
    To: The Haifaio Hailsia


    I am very grateful to receive a gift from a foreign land that is not made of fire. As the smoke of the Aitahist raids rises even near to the great city itself, I ponder destiny, fate, and our role in the universe. What a poor High Prince they have chosen, to be reading theatre when he should be preparing for the apocalypse.

    I have read Salei before, but to read the poet's words in the language of my childhood truly caused me to think. What is slavery, truly? And if a man's exatas is not determined by the station of his birth, as Talan and all the philosophers have said, then how could his freedom be determined by who a man's father was?

    Slavery by blood is hereby abolished in the Vellari Exatai. If slavery is to exist, it shall only do so as a punishment for a crime, or a desperate man selling himself into servitude for a time, and not as a curse that passes down to one's descendants. This blood curse of slavery, truly, is not esvet, it is not exatas, and it is not ieraita. I have made this decision because of your gift and your ambassador's words. I sincerely hope that I survive to enforce it.
     
  9. Daftpanzer

    Daftpanzer There may be more posts after this.

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    ^^ What Lucky said :)

    Dayum being at work and seeing this updated. And seeing this before I posted any stories whatsoever. Dayum your intolerable update speed, NK :p
     
  10. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    7,112
    To: the Ashelai Exatai
    CC: Dula, Anraugh and Tara
    From: King Fionnach of Tiagho


    We wish to note that despite our displeasure at the reduction of the Principality of Suchai, we have no quarrel with the Ashelai exatai so long as the current state of affairs in which Suchai remains under independent native rule (albeit under Ashelai patrimony) is maintained, and so long as the Ashelai Exatai respects the peace between Tiagho and the Exatai, and the absolute, sovereign, independence of the highland Dulama Kingdoms under the current status quo. Indeed we treasure the good relations and friendly contacts our Kingdom has made with our partners in the Ashelai Exatai, and have no desire to see the mutually beneficial bonds between us be broken by misunderstandings, false perceptions, and least of all the rhetoric of those with invested interests in sowing discord between us. It is our belief that such mutually beneficial bonds are best maintained by continued respect for the sovereign independence of the respective powers in our region.

    To this end, on our part we reaffirm that we have no designs upon the Highland Kingdoms, as is clear by our longstanding policy of peace towards our northern neighbours and fellow Iralliamites. Indeed such a policy of friendship we extended even unto the Raighama, who if they had not spurned our offer of alliance not twenty years ago, and persisted in treating our Kingdom as an enemy, would not be at war with us today for we would have no reason to treat them as an enemy. Our sole imperative concern, just as it is the concern of our allies in Gaarim and Taidhir, and our fellow Dulama princes in the Highland cities, is maintaining the peace, security and sovereignty of our peoples.

    sincerely

    King Fionnach Amatir.
     
  11. Crezth

    Crezth 話說天下大勢分久必合合久必分

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  12. Shadowbound

    Shadowbound Scourge of God

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    Messages:
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    From Darnaces, High Prince of the Wheel

    Stately words given by stately messengers, and it would be remiss to heaven if they were not given a chance to be followed by stately actions. In such good manner was notice of our intents upon Suchai given, and the manner of that intention has not changed. The preservation of strong ties between east and west, untroubled by war, shall hold, much like a friendship between two cousins: divergent in interests, yet united by common bonds. In Suchai we do nothing but ensure that these bonds will not be harmed by some rash action: life continues, as it did before, and the Prince sits yet on his throne instead of being brought to Magha in chains, unfitting a ruler of men. The wheel keeps turning.

    From Haraxes-ta-Vesa, Prince of the Wolf

    I hear the words of your messenger, but know not to trust a serpent when it speaks. You desire peace only so long as it benefits you, and bluster in the face of greater powers. Your threats are hollow and not worth the paper they are written on: you, Taidhir, and Gaarim would be a poor obstacle if I led my wolves to your lands. You would be best served to send gifts to Magha instead of words: a well-fed predator has no need to hunt.
     
  13. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    7,112
    To: The High Prince Darnaces and Prince Haraxes-ta-Vesa.
    From: King Fionnach of Tiagho


    We are grateful to the honourable princes of the Exatai that they accept our request that the prince of Suchai be maintained in his throne, and that the sovereign independence of the Highland princes be maintained. In gratitude at your acquiescence to our request, we are pleased to send hither unto your seat in Magha appropriate gifts granting due tribute where it is merited and maintaining as ever the friendly bonds that exist between Tiagho and the Exatai, and the fraternal bonds wrought in kindred blood that have seen us maintain particular closeness to the Vithana who reside in your lands, and share with us the mantle of Sartores, Karashas and all the great redeemers of the west.
     
  14. m.t.cicero

    m.t.cicero Good Kid

    Joined:
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    Location:
    m.A.A.d city
    Once again you've outdone yourself NK! (Especially with that story at the end; your choice of setting was impeccable ;))
     
  15. spryllino

    spryllino Chieftain

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    3,150
    Location:
    England
    Excellent update. Long live the one true faith!
     
  16. spryllino

    spryllino Chieftain

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    The terms promulgated before, and agreed to at, the Conference at Bysrium:

    1. The concepts of the Doru o Ierai should be made altogether licit and practicable within the Orthodox Church, to absolutely the greatest extent possible without denial of the principle of the Grandpatriarch's authority;

    2. The first term of the Accords of 920 SR should be respected permanently, and the second term until agreed otherwise by the signatories;

    Spoiler From the Accords of 920 SR :
    1. The Orthodox Church will not engage in any disruptive action, or attempt to encourage any action of foreign policy on the Exatai's part that it has not agreed to the Church encouraging;

    2. The Exatai will not sponsor the construction of new Conclavist churches in areas where there are not already Conclavist churches, or provide more than one quarter more patronage in funds intentionally disseminated to the Conclavists than to the Orthodox Church, one quarter being a reasonable margin of error;


    3. The Conclavist churches should acknowledge the guidance of the Grandpatriarch in doctrinal matters, but yet should have such independence of practice and custom as is required to maintain local traditions and the principles of Doru o Ierai;

    4. The organs of the church's governance, and the bodies of prelates, especially those responsible for the choice of Patriarchs and the Grandpatriarch, should have Conclavist members added to them in numbers and proportions to be determined by negotiation.

    [Conclavist here refers, of course, to Conclavist churches assenting to the Conference.]
     
  17. Wrymouth3

    Wrymouth3 Chieftain

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    1,069
    Location:
    Fort Lauderale, Florida
    To: Un Na Daharai
    From: Aortai Republic

    Our people are tired of the aloofness and corruption to the east. We will listen to, and possibly be convinced one last time why we should not join the Light/Faith against the Red Chamber.
     
  18. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Chieftain

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2008
    Messages:
    203
    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    To: the Chamber of the Aortai Republic
    From: the Xarc Arasos Anthon-Solien, in the name of the Inan and its People


    The Red Chamber is concerned by this sentiment your Republic has expressed. I am concerned. Our friend and ally questions our nobility, and the nobility of our Precepts. The Inan has succored and supported the Aortai Republic for nearly four centuries, and the strength of the friendship that is between us has never faltered, never failed.

    I struggle to understand what circumstance has led your Council to question even the evident truths of our shared religion. Does the eternal bounty offered by Indagahor no longer please the Councilmen of the Republic? Does your Council now find chafing the sublime embrace of Iehor?

    The love of Spitos for its cousin of the Aortai does not fade. We shall feel it always, even unto the breaking of our bonds. Turn not away from us, noble cousin!

    Palans Xarcai, Arasos Anthon-Solien
     
  19. Masada

    Masada Koi-san!

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    12,509
    Location:
    Osaka
    From: O'Aya'se ta Caroha
    To: Haifaio Hailsia

    We note brothers that we have done more in a decade of war to bring the Vellari towards civilization than has been achieved in a thousand peaceful decades.
     
  20. m.t.cicero

    m.t.cicero Good Kid

    Joined:
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    The Rosh and the Pearl Chamber can of course corroborate the claims of the O'Ays'se.
     

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