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Doom of Ceris

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“Of course, Navarkhos, it all comes down to money. It always does, especially with barbaroi.”

Navarkhos Ethelred eyed the man that sat across the table from him with a slight feeling of irritation. He guessed that he was about to be the recipient of a lecture. And on a subject that he knew quite well, too. The surroundings of the admiral's personal quarters on the aircraft carrier BPK Nystras did seemingly little to warn the man that he was talking to someone who knew all about the matter at hand. The man, Protologothetes for Wider Wurld Affairs Konstantinian Makarios, was dressed in a sober business suit, swirled the wine glass that he held in one hand and looked intently at the admiral. Something about him reminded the naval officer of a rat, despite him having blond hair and a beard shading towards ginger. Perhaps it was the shifty eyes, or the way he occasionally sniffed at his wine. The wine wasn't of great vintage, Ethelred would be amongst the first to admit. Good wines didn't travel all that well about supply ships and the Basilikoploimon, the Tagmatine navy, wasn't about to risk a good wine to the pirates in the area. It had been flavoured with cheese and onion to a classical recipe that was still very popular, which also helped to cover up any injury the wine might have suffered in its travels from Arhomaneia.

“But, money. That's what piracy comes down to, Navarkhos. Most of the little countries around here can't afford to pay their coast guards or buy fish from their fishing fleets. They start eyeing up all the cargo and passenger ships that come through here. It's risky, certainly, but it's a more sure way of getting paid than hoping the teetering bureaucracy or petty warlord will fork out the cash that they're embezzling instead.”

Ethelred pursed his lips together under his beard. He knew that. He'd spent the last few months chasing the buggers up and down the Makhaira Thalassa, the Dolch See. Sometimes they caught them and sank them, sometimes they managed to get away. It had become officially discouraged by the Basilikoploimon to drop anti-shipping missiles on the rickety boats the pirates used. The colourful language the naval commander had used when he'd received that message was still the talk of his bridge crew.

“It's a busy shipping lane, after all. And not all companies that go through here are able to afford armed guards. Or want to pay for them.”

The man sniffed at his wine again and the Navarkhos brought his own glass to his nose and smelled it as well. It was fine, damn it.

“No. Many of them are happy enough to try to hide behind us and the @Seylosians and get any passengers to sign waivers,” sighed Ethelred. “Or just try their luck.”

“Exactly, Navarkhos,” said Makarios. “Exactly. The rest of the wurld is waking up to the threat of pirates, too. In sourthern Europa, the EOS has been carrying out anti-piracy operations for some time. It just a shame that the damned Gharoi mean that we can't put more resources into our own attempts.”

At that, Ethelred shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He, and the rest of his officers and sailors, would have been much happier in supporting the rest of the Basilikoploimon in the worsening situation in the Occident. From the last that he had heard, the Sovereign Imperium had reversed its decision to allow Arhomaniki observers and aid in the occupied Glorious Dominate. They were savages, nothing more. It had been a mistake by the ancient Aromans to not do more than just pen them into their frozen wastes. The wurld would be a better place if they had been annihilated like many other barbaroi who had defied the Aroman Empire.

The Navarkhos banished that thought from his mind. “The problem remains, Protologothetes, that the pirates have just too many places to hide. Every time I sink a ship or two, the rest of them go scuttling back into the holes that they came from. Even working with the Royal Navy, we just cannot cover the coastline of both Ceris, the other islands and landmasses surrounding the Makhaira Thalassa. But I suspect that that is why you're here.”

“Yes, Navarkhos,” grinned Makarios. “Obviously, it's not every day that the Basilikoploimon gets a visit from the Logothesion ton Barbaron. After all, it's a very strange thing to happen, isn't it?”

The question was completely rhetorical and the Protologothetes sat back in his chair across the desk from Ethelred. The wine glass was once again lifted up to his face and this time he took a sip of it.

“Chasing pirates around and around, sinking one here or there and sometimes pounding some harbour to rubble and ash is a waste of time and, of course, money.”

Tactless motherf*cker, thought Ethelred but he let it slide.

“No, the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion is starting to realise that these pirates are a direct threat to our increasing interests around the Makhaira Thalassa. And because of the antics of the Sovereign Imperium, sending more ships here to increase the coverage isn't really an option at this point.”

The minister paused at that point and looked at the Navarkhos expectantly. He wanted Ethelred to ask the obvious question and Ethelred decided that he was petty enough to let it hang for a moment. The naval officer took a sip of his wine and watched the look on Makarios' face begin to falter. Before the wind left Makarios' sails entirely, the Navarkhos asked the obvious question.

“So what is the option at this point, endoxos?” The naval officer used the courtesy title for Makarios, who seemed pleased by it. The man seemed like a suck-up, which was probably why he was using Ethelred's rank so often.

“Well, it is clear that our current operation is not making the situation much better and might in fact be making it worse. The Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion has decided that an entirely new strategic direction is needed – we will begin to work on stabilising the states in Ceris, to try to the opportunities of piracy much less attractive. To make sure that these coast guards and fishermen get paid. To make these petty warlords and teetering bureaucracies less, well, teetering.”

That caused Ethelred to raise an eyebrow. That was pretty much nation building, far beyond what the scope of what Arhomaneia usually tried to carry out.

“That's... very magnanimous of us,” the Navarkhos said.

“Of course. It is our God-given duty, is it not? To spread civilisation into the benighted corners of the wurld? To guide the poor barbaroi into Christ's light and to provide them with the gift of sewers and aqueducts?” Makarios continued with not a little amount of grandiosity. He seemed to think it was two thousand years earlier than it actually was, in the opinion of Ethelred. Pax Aromana and all that. “And it will provide Arhomaneia with opportunities in this part of Eurth that we haven't really had before.”

That sentence was said with distinctly pride and with the shiftiness that seemed to characterise the Protologothetes. It was likely one of the main reasons that the Megas Agios Basileia wanted to involve itself in Ceris, beyond stopping the irritation that were the pirates.

“And has the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion decided where our benevolence will start?” asked the Navarkhos, with a bitter edge of cynicism that was very hard to hide. So he didn't bother.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, they have.” Either Makarios didn't detect the cynicism or he just ignored it. Makarios stood from his chair and walked over to the map that was above the admiral's chair, who had to stand as well to avoid looking up awkwardly. “It has been determined by the Logothesion ton Barbaron and the Arhomaniki Noimosyni Dykton that the best place to start would be here, a state called 'Secryae'. They seem to be likely to be much more amenable to us than some of the neighbouring states. It's ruled by a caste of nobles and you know how barbaroi like that love things like grand titles, ancient institutions and proud lineages. Everything that we have in spades.”

He stood and pointed at the part of Ceris that was occupied by Secryae. The borders were drawn on to the map, even if Ethelred didn't really care much about what was happening on land.

“They also have a significant shipbuilding industry, which is thought to be a source of the vessels that the pirates are using. The thinking goes that if the pirates were closed off from where they were getting their ships from, then the pirate activity in the region would reduce proportionally.”

“It stands to reason, certainly,” said the Navarkhos cautiously.

“The Logothesion ton Barbaron has already sent a letter of introduction to their government. Both via email and a courier from the AND. I am to negotiate further with them, and discuss the aid that Arhomaneia is prepared to send.” He leant towards the naval officer and continued in a conspiratorial tone. “I have been instructed that this could be very far reaching and potentially include military as well as financial trade. And if they decide to piss about too much, then there is the presence of a carrier battle group of the Basilikoploimon off their northern coast. That could well be the deciding matter in any debate.”

“I, Navarkhos am the carrot,” Makarios said in a grand manner, pointing at his own chest. “You are the stick.”

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An open letter to the citizens of Zaspa from Heere fan'es Oferheit and Minister of Foreign Affairs Reemy Loopentlant

Dear citizens,

Rest assured that your plight, your issues, your virtues and your dreams are seen by powers beyond your government. The citizens of Het Huisselant, the freighters, the businesses and anything in between that has visited your nation has extolled its virtues and the untapped potential that can be found throughout the land and within you, its proud citizens. Not even the many issues from outside your borders have stopped you from growing and developing.

Yet, that potential, that growth could be stimulated far more, nurtured by a power greater than your own. A power that has a long history of nurturing and fostering growth, freedom and potential throughout history. A power like Het Huisselant. And thus, we come with an offer that is unique for your situation, your nation, your people. An equal seat within Het Huisselant, a proper place in a regional power. A place within a brighter, more prosperous future.

We understand that the proper procedures have to be followed within a proud republic such as Zaspa. And we understand that its difficult to decide without something tangible, something that you can hold and use. Thus, Het Huisselant offers you, if you decide to accept our gracious offer:

  • An immediate cash injection of ₩185.000.000, equally divided among the men, women and children of Zaspa, to be claimed from, to be founded, offices of the Ministry of Zaspan Integration in the form of a voucher. These vouchers will be redeemable at Variotan banks or Zaspan banks that handle Waarttemun.
  • An additional cash injection of ₩185.000.000, five years after the inclusion date of Zaspa within Het Huisselant, to be divided and claimed in a similar fashion.
  • The ability to invest the vouchers of children into an education-intended savings account at any of the major Variotan banks with the government of Het Huisselant doubling the initial amount.

This monetary injection into the nation will be able to be spent however you see fit. Whether your house needs a new roof, you seek to expand your business, seek to treat yourself or something entirely different, Het Huisselant will not judge you. But these are not the only benefits that you will gain from participating within Het Huisselant.

  • Representation within the Parliament of Het Huisselant, on an equal or better basis as currently exists.
  • The maintaining of current governmental institution at an equal or better level within the framework of Het Huisselant.
  • Full protection of freedoms according to the constitution and laws of Het Huisselant.

You will not lose your voice. Multiple people and governments maintain their independence within Het Huisselant, their voice not only carrying weight within their own territory but also for the greater good of Het Huisselant. The Zaspan culture and people will be fully protected within the warm embrace of Het Huisselant. And speaking of protection:

  • The immediate establishment of a Zaspan command, to compliment local forces. This command will be staffed first by proper and vetted personnel from selected Folke Milisies and Varinco Security, one of Het Huisselant's premiere PMCs and part of the world-renown and world-wide GFWFA Varinco, until a time when a detachment of the HAP can take its place.
  • The importation of new, proper armaments from GFWFA Varinco to arm the Zaspan forces, Het Huisselant paying for half of the costs while financing the other half, to be paid once the Zaspan nation is bearing fruit of our unification.

No longer will you fight alone against piracy and outer influences, Het Huisselant will stand with you. Yet, I can see some of you thinking already, what good is a secure nation if we're still going to suffer from issues such as shortages, unemployment, poverty?

  • Immediate expansion of Variotan business operations within Zaspa through a varied means of economic stimulation as put forward by the Ministry of Economic Issues and tweaked by the, to be founded, Ministry of Zaspan Integration to further suit the local situation.
  • Improvement of Zaspan businesses and their competitiveness on the international market through similar means.
  • The establishment of a Zaspan work program through the Ministry of Zaspan Integration, allowing currently unemployed Zaspan citizens to fulfill open positions in other parts of Het Huisselant for fair wages and benefits, under fair circumstances.
  • The integration of Zaspan equivalents into the Variotan welfare program as put forward by the Ministry of Welfare and Personal Growth, allowing Zaspan citizens to enjoy the security that is granted to citizens of Het Huisselant.

Het Huisselant has a plan, our people are ready and able to aid you, the proud Zaspan people, within the shortest amount of time possible. You deserve the best you, you can be. Het Huisselant can give you that. Write your representatives, write your leaders, hold a meeting at your parliament, rise up if all else fails if you seek to accept our offer and loving embrace. So long as my cabinet remains in power, the Zaspan people and the Zaspan nation will always have a place within Het Huisselant.

- Reemy Loopentlant,
Heere fan'es Oferheit & Minister of Foreign Affairs of Het Huisselant

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"Your Majesty," A voice from behind Aidan said. He glanced behind him to see Minister Tatum.. His office was dark as he had been busy watching various films on an older projector in the room. Aidan stood up and faced the minister.

"Sorry Geoffrey, I've been a bit distracted as of late."

Minister Tatum nodded, "Of course sir, however I do bring news. Both good an bad."

Aidan inhaled lightly before he replied, "The bad then."

"We've had continued reports from Ceris. It's becoming worse faster than we predicted. The government of Stroiyhein has... collapsed. The only reliable government we still have contact with in that area is Zapsa. And if they fall to the Variotan offer..."

"I'm aware, we will have another meeting on this soon," Aidan replied sounding distant. He took a moment to look at the time on his computer screen, "Assembled another emergency session for midnight. And your good news?"

"The governments of Cenia, Seskoaburg, Esnos, and Atrya have approached us for assistance. They wish to express that our common cultural ties could result in some form of assistance for their countries..."

Aidan waved his hand, "Set it up Geoffrey. We'll hear them out."

Minister Tatum nodded, sensing he was no longer wanted in the room, "Yes Your Majesty. I'll get back to you soon on the details."

Aidan simply grunted as the minister left the room. He immediately returned his attention to the films that were on display before another knock on his door, "Come in..."

Dustin slowly opened the door, peeking through as he came in, "I'm sorry, I just wanted to check in -"

Aidan interrupted him, pointing at the films on the projector, "Did you know that we had a hand in all of this."

Dustin walked in gazing at the films on the screen. He could see soldiers, what he assumed were Seylosian, holding their weapons over a group of people. He tried his best to watch as the Seylosian opened fire on them. He had been a soldier, but never in his life had he ever been a participant to such brutality. Aidan stopped the film, lightly hitting a switch on the projector. "We may not have caused this Dustin... but we helped pushed the over the edge"

Dustin, pushing away his feeling went to his partner, "Aidan, what did we do?"

Aidan still seeing far way gestured at the film reels, "My father killed so many people, just to prevent the people of Ceris coming together. To rival us. My grandfather, he recorded it all as a failsafe. He wanted to make sure that he had... a sort of blackmail against Seylos."

They stood in silence for a moment before Dustin spoke up, "Are you him?"

Aidan glanced at him before staring off at the closest wall, "Am I just some monarch? Just another king in a long-"

Suddenly Dustin grabbed his face, forcing Aidan to look at him, "Aidan Redmond, that's who you are. You aren't your father, you aren't your brother, and by god you aren't your damn grandfather. They did terrible things, but you haven't. I love you and you're a better man do you hear me?"

Aidan gazed into his eyes, "I don't want to be like them..."

Dustin with a bit of tears in his eyes made him stand up, and look him face to face, "Then what are you going to do Aidan?"

Aidan gently grabbed Dustin's hands and held them down, straightening his back while standing up, "Save Ceris."

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No power in heaven or hell could save Ceris. This was the hypothesis Phou had come upon as they had been approaching the border of Criasia and the Oclait territories. The first two days had seen some signs of activity, at least, even if much of it was in the form of refugee caravans making their slow journey to the southern region of Criasia. Today, however, there was nothing. The only signs of habitation were the occasional column of smoke from some distant building, but it seemed far more likely that they were indicators of death, not life. The empty shells of buildings littered the landscape like garbage along a highway. The heart of Ceris was a rotted corpse.

It was a grim commute, one which put even Meido in a somber mood. The drive so far had been almost entirely silent, bar the occasional “holy shit” from one person or another. It was a warzone out here, and it could only get worse.

As if to break the silence, Chea called out,

“We are approaching the border of Criasia and the former nation of Oclait.”

Were it not for GPS, it would have been impossible to tell. The road simply continued out without any indication of a gate or security check. The only change was some bombed out building which must have served as the customs gate before the collapse. Pyouh Apuok, a seasoned and grizzled veteran of Team Khla spoke,

“Let’s not forget we’re in a warzone from here on, no one is our friend out there, even if they wear the flag of Criasia or Fulgistan, for that matter. We’re going to move as quickly as we can and avoid anything that looks like trouble. This vehicle is designed to emulate the Rusheauan military transports, but we still can’t risk confrontation with them.”

As he finished, Phou could see everyone looking around nervously. And what reason there was to be nervous: they were sitting ducks out there. Anyone, be it a Rusheauan military group, a band of rebels, even a Criasian force, could attack them in a moments notice. Their vehicle was unmarked and as such was far more likely to be designated “foe” than “friend”. They would be staying away from roads whenever possible here, there was less likelihood for activity in the rolling hills of central Ceris.

“I guess all that matters now is finding a good spot for lunch,” announced Phou, in hopes of lightening the mood. No one bit. This part of the operation was tense for everyone, and being alert and stressed was preferable to being relaxed and dead.

Phou fiddled with his assault rifle, checking for any signs of wear. This was perhaps the thirtieth time he had done so today, and it was only noon. “f*ck,” thought Phou to himself, “I don’t know how we’re going to get through here in one piece.”

Phou should have knocked on wood. As he finished his thought, the transport screeched a sharp turn, punctuated by the sound of rifle fire from the right side.

“f*ck! Someone’s already at us!” shouted Pyough from across the vehicle.

Phou turned quickly in an attempt to make out the aggressors. It was a couple disheveled men: young, and clearly not in the military. They scrambled around awkwardly from within the ruined building, shouting some unintelligible phrases in Ceriser. They looked as though they had been hiding in the building, and whether in ambush or as a deterrent, they had opened fire on the transport. Fortunately, nothing of note had been harmed and their shots had only made a few holes in the canvas cover where light now beamed through.

Phou readjusted his hold on his rifle, and fired a few shots, and the rat-tat-tat-tat of the gun echoed around the landscape. He intended for the rounds to dissuade further combat, not to kill anyone.

“What a warm welcome from our comrades in the Oclait!” joked Meido, who seemed to have regained his sense of humor in the sudden burst of combat. 

“Hopefully the rest of the people we meet are less jumpy,” conceded Chea, who looked frustrated at Meido’s utter lack of conscience about the terrified refugees, “I don’t want to have to kill someone who doesn’t deserve it.”

“So you’d be okay if we got jumped by Rusheau, then?”

“Ughhh!”

“Shut up back there!” shouted Pyough.

How nice it was, seeing the team back at each other’s throats, it added a bit of levity to the situation they were in. Phou considered how much sleep he would be willing to get in the next couple days. Not much, probably. The transport kept moving through the countryside, now maintaining a good distance from any structures.

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To: His Majesty, King Aidan I of the Kingdom of @Seylos, Eire, Pleinmont, and Sark

From: the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion of the Megas Agios Basileia ton Arhomanion

 

Your majesty,

It will undoubtedly not have escaped your notice that the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion has attempted to start relations with one of the nations on the island of Ceris, the Noble Republic of Secryae. It is believed by the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator, may God guide him, that the partnership between our governments is best served by stating this to you. After all, we have an agreement to help combat piracy in the Makhaira Thalassa, the Dolch See, and reduce this threat that is plaguing the shipping lanes through that area. Attempting subterfuge may weaken these attempts and weaken the rapport your Kingdom and my nation have.

In the interests of keeping the relations between our nations cordial, and may God keep it so, the Megas Agios Basileia will admit to attempting to contact the government of Secryae. The reason behind this is that Arhomaneia hopes an atmosphere of cooperation can be fostered with that nation, with the aim of trying to prevent it from sinking to the lows of some of the other nations on Ceris. Some of these, as you undoubtedly know, are little more than collections of warlord territories and fiefdoms of cultists, as well as the fact that parts of your neighbours are facing increasingly dire humanitarian situations. Ceris continues to slip into a desperate condition and it appears to be likely that it is beyond the efforts of any one country to try to prevent it from becoming worse than it already is.

The Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion is of the thinking that Secryae, at the least, is a good starting point to prevent the complete collapse of civilisation, if it may be called as such, on the island. It still retains a semi-functioning government, one that may be worked with, and is also one of the primary centres of the shipbuilding industry on the island. If this nation is helped back onto a more steady path, with international trading partners and the basic infrastructure that the peoples of our own nations take for granted on a daily basis, then it could be that the source of the pirates' vessels then becomes less accessible to them and that the inhabitants themselves do not feel that piracy and other such acts are a viable livelihood.

Such a policy may not reduce the numbers of pirates in one fell swoop, but combined with our continued policing of the area, it will mean that simple attrition will steadily reduce the numbers of pirate vessels that are active in the Makhaira Thalassa. It could also mean that there is a knock-on affect on the rest of the benighted countries on the island and that they also become much more stable, although that could well be too much of a hope at this stage. Perhaps the best that can be aimed for is that they become less anarchic.

It is also clear that the Kingdom of Seylos has significant interests in making sure that the eastern seaboard of Ceris remains stable, especially since the petty states there have marked Seylosian influences. If your majesty wishes, Seylos and Arhomaneia could continue to work together in the manner that our nations have in the recent past – namely sharing expertise and intelligence, as well as supporting each other military, if you so wish. I do not wish that Ceris should be plunged into a situation of out and out war – that is something that God, the Seylosians and the Arhomaioi would wish to avoid at all cost.

May God grant the poor people of Ceris a respite from their woes,

Eugenios Goulielmos,

Megas Logothetes

of the

Logothesion of Foreign Affairs

of the

Megas Agios Basileia ton Arhomanion

 


 

It was a clear winter's day. A heavy frost had laid across the ground for most of the morning and it was still cold enough to send plumes of breath into the air. The horses' hooves crushed frozen leaves as they picked their way through the woodland. The weather didn't bode all that well, considering the severe winter storms that the Sovereign Imperium was suffering under, especially this early in winter. However, in the carefully managed parklands of a villa to the east of the ancient fortress-city of Skouton, the cold weather made for some very pretty days. It hadn't come this far eastwards yet. It was often cold in the Occident – people just wore a few more layers than normal. Mist still lay in the bottom of the valley that the horse trail wound along and it was early enough in the morning that the weak winter sun still had not burned it off, and still cast long shadows across it. Two members of the Agios Basilikon Vestiarion, the Holy Imperial Cabinet, rode through the valley, along with a smattering of aides and gold armoured, white robed bodyguards.

The horse that Valentinian Tzimekhes was sat on was gently walking, keeping pace alongside that of Eugenios Goulielmos. The former was a much bigger animal – although the Genikos Logothetes was not a fat man, he was certainly heavyset, breaking a stereotype of the weedy accountant. He didn't follow the ancient art of wrestling like other Arhomaioi or the modern, New Wurld boxing. Cruel rumour said that it was because he personally liked lifting the sacks of gold that his ministry extorted from the populace to increase his physique, but that wasn't true. Perhaps it was an unconscious defying of what people thought an accountant should be like – weak, hunched and cowardly. The Civil War of 2005 had shown his nerve and he didn't feel like he needed to prove it to others.

Instead, Tzimekhes rode his horse with a better posture than his host, Goulielmos, who tended to sit like a sack of grain. Horse riding was still expected to be a skill of the Arhomaniki aristocracy, and those who aspired towards it from the middle classes, even in these modern times. After all, it was the quick reaction forces that had kept Arhomaneia from falling when the rich western provinces had broken away and the road system had collapsed through anarchy and lack of money. It was the latter that always kept Tzimekhes concerned. It was his job, after all, to make sure that the heart of civilisation didn't collapse through lack of money.

Which is why he hated this latest scheme.

A wooden target crept into view through the trees and both men knocked an arrow to their bows. Hunting animals had been banned many years before, during the reign of Theodosios IV, and hunting animals with guns was considered to be something that the lower classes did, anyway. It was thought that hitting something with a bullet required less skill than an arrow. It was also that the less well off wouldn't have the leisure time to practice with a recurve bow, and certainly not from horseback, which added to the expense even more. Goulielmos pressed a control that hung around his neck and the target juddered into life and shot off along a rail through the undergrowth, disappearing behind trees and bushes as it went. Both men quickly stilled their horses and released their arrows at their target.

“Good shot, Endoxotatos! You must have hit it right in its heart!”

Goulielmos started forwards and cantered his horse towards where the target sat at the end of its rail, seemingly excited that his fellow 'hunter' had hit the fake so well. Sure enough, Tzimekhes' yellow-fletched arrow was sunk in a good kill-shot in the wooden deer's chest. Tzimekhes couldn't fail to notice that the Megas Logethetes ton Barbaron's green-feathered arrow was right in the deer's arse. Even though Tzimekhes thought that Goulielmos might have shot before the target had even started moving. The man used the formal title of member of the Vestiarion. If they had been true friends, carrying out horse-back target shooting for fun, then the formality wouldn't have been necessary. But they weren't, and would likely never be. Although, in fairness, there were numerous people in the party who did not come close to their exalted rank, so the impressions had to be maintained. Tzimekhes guessed as soon as he had received the invitation that his fellow Megas Logethetes had formulated this visit to the country estate in an attempt to woo him towards this Ceris venture.

The Autokrator ton Gharoi was more likely to accept Christ into his life and perform the full proskynesis before Kommodos on the Leopard Throne before that was going to happen.

The two Megas Logethetai had known and worked alongside each other for years, so Goulielmos would also know that Tzimekhes would not be open to mere bribery, especially with something that was well within his own power and wealth. Clearly something else was planned, then. He urged his horse closer to that of Goulielmos. It likely didn't matter if anyone else in the party heard them. Likely some of them were spies from another ministry or the monarch of Tagmatium. Either way, others would have guessed what this meeting between the two ministers was about.

Goulielmos turned towards the finance minister and motioned him onwards. “It opens into a meadow in a bit. A target has been set up so that we can try to hit it whilst we're moving.”

There was something of childlike enthusiasm from the minister of foreign affairs. For a moment, Tzimekhes felt like he should wait until later to get to the point of this trip to Goulielmos' country house. Perhaps over a glass of wine or brandy after dinner, as seemed to often be traditions in conspiracies. He put that idea out of his mind. It would be best to ask now, rather than faff about in the meantime.

“This is about Ceris, isn't it?”

The smile on Goulielmos' face wavered and became fixed. He looked over at the rest of the party, especially the bodyguards from the Spatharokandidatoi. They were the emperor's men and women, after all.

“Of course it is,” hissed the foreign minister. The rest of the party weren't out of earshot, so he was trying to keep his voice down.“What else could it have been?”

A witty retort framed itself in Valentinian's mouth for a moment but he knew that would be mean.

“That is the only thing that I could imagine that the Logothesion ton Barbaron might be asking the Logothesion tou Genikou about. And wanting it to be kept out of formal channels.”

And asking for money was the unsaid part of that statement and both men knew it.

“I wanted a nice day out before bringing it up,” said Goulielmos, sounding slightly hurt. He rallied a bit, however. “After all, how often do you see scenery like this?”

The Megas Logothetes ton Barbaron gestured with his arm to take in the meadow that they had come to. It was certainly very pretty and Tzimekhes knew that he didn't get out into the countryside as often as he ought to. He always seemed busy.

“I wanted to keep business until after dinner. Perhaps over a good vintage.”

Ha.

Tzimekhes pressed on. “I have seen what you are proposing when it came through to my office several weeks ago. You have no idea whether these nobles of Secryae would even accept the offer. And it seems like a roundabout way to stop pirates – blowing them out of the water could be cheaper and it would give the Basilikoploimon a source of live-fire exercises for about as long as they wanted.”

He shook his head. “Nation-building...”

“It isn't as if there aren't other nations already trying to get themselves involved in Ceris.” Goulielmos shrugged. “It would be foolish to not try to get our foot in the door. All we wish to do is make the Noble Republic look favourably on Arhomaneia and it seems like the easiest way would be to send out plumbers, masons and ground workers, rather than spend the rest of eternity making widows and orphans. And it isn't like we'd be doing it for free.”

It was the turn of Tzimekhes to remain quite for a moment. There could certainly be possibilities there. He didn't know what sort of mineral wealth Ceris had on it, let alone Secryae itself. They might even be happy for Arhomaniki companies to help them extract it and to provide a market for it. It would likely take some time for them to be completely comfortable with the presence of Arhomaioi within their nation and working in concert with them, but it wasn't as if the Megas Agios Basileia didn't like playing the long game.

“We'd probably spending more than we got out on bribes and greasing the wheels in this barbarian country,” pointed out the Genikos Logothetes, trying to get back to his oppositions to involvement in Ceris. “Any returns may take years to justify the initial cost. We cannot throw around bribes like we did a thousand years ago. We are still recovering from the Great Europan Collapse, like the rest of the continent. This foolishness on the part of the Gharoi makes that process all the harder.”

“Of course,” nodded Goulielmos. The other man seemed to be unusually calm and contented, even though his 'nice day out' had been ruined and he was supposed to be trying to turn Tzimekhes over to his way of thinking. He found himself getting annoyed at the man's calmness.

“You cannot just expect me to just go along with this, Endoxotatos.” Tzimekhes urged his horse forward, so that it blocked Goulielmos' path. “The Gerenians as well, may God aid them. Setting up camps, transporting them across our nation, making sure that they don't freeze to death... Now throwing money at some small group of savages in the hopes that it'll make that cesspool of an island less, well, cesspool-like is an expense that we just don't need.”

“I know.” The man was now looking down at his bow, making a show of looking at his bowstring. He ran a thumb along it, as if inspecting it for any wear and tear.

“You know as well as I that we have had to cut back on things like the modernisation programme for carrier aircraft. And sell two of the things. The Epistrategaion was most unhappy about that.” The High Command had argued long and hard about that. They felt that they needed the two idle Despotes class carriers to build up the strength of the navy, especially as Arhomaneia's northern neighbour was starting to throw its weight around again.

“This is much more of an investment than that. For Arhomaneia and for us,” said Goulielmos. The way he said it made Tzimekhes look at him sharply.

“So, what was it you wanted to do? Try to bribe me?”

Goulielmos didn't look offended. He merely raised an eyebrow. “It strikes me that attempting to bribe a man in charge of an entire country's finances is rather foolish. After all, you could be skimming enough off that you have entire villas made of gold. Could being the operative word there, Endoxotatos.”

This time, he paused whilst making a show of picking some fluff out of his horse's mane. Tzimekhes looked on at him in anger, fighting the urge to knock Goulielmos out of his saddle. He didn't know this, as he hadn't looked, but the group of aides were hanging back, somewhat embarrassed at the brewing argument between the two Logothetai.

“But I know that you are not,” the foreign minister finally stated. “No. As I said, I wanted a nice day out before I raised this. I know that I cannot bribe you, a man who could lining his pockets from the wealth of one of the most powerful countries on Eurth. If you were bribable or corrupt, you would not be where you are and I would be talking to someone else entirely. So, instead, I was going to ask you. Nicely. I thought that you might be more inclined to listen to me after spending a pleasant day doing pleasant things.”

Tzimekhes' anger hadn't subsided but he had had the wind knocked out of his sails. “Really?”

“Yes.” For the first time in a few minutes, Goulielmos looked into his eyes. “You have Kommodos' ear, more so than myself or others. He trusts you more, in his way. If you are on board, then anything that we do with Secyrae will be less of a half-measure. It seems like it is rapidly becoming something of a scramble for Ceris, and I do not believe it will do Arhomaneia any good to be sat on the sidelines.”

He nudged his heels into his horse's flanks and walked it around Valentinian's animal. “Now, do you want to try for the next target?”

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