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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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Kleintje Feelfaaier was a story on his own, even though the lad had only turned 23 a month back. The child of a Lukan mother and a Variotan Reisiger father, he had been shunned by both cultures. The Lukan family of his mother had disowned him and her almost as soon as they had heard of the pregnancy, his mother declared a prostitute for fornicating with gypsies, while his father's clan, the Feelfaaiers, felt nothing for the bastard son of an already married man and a non-Reisiger woman. 

While the irony of being shunned by a group that was generally shunned themselves wasn't lost on Kleintje in his later, adult years, the beginning of his life was thus sealed as difficult, poverty-stricken and centered around ingenious ways to survive. While his father did move both him and his mother into a trailer in one of the Feelfaaier camps, his mother was restricted in what she could do without being thrown out, fulfilling menial tasks for the other residents in order to eek out an existence. 

School wasn't easy either for the young boy, as the Reisiger-led schools only allowed him to take certain classes; classes such as clan traditions and music, required for following higher education within the Reisiger schools, were denied to him. And yet, the last of the two, music, would be the one to lead him to a better life. When one of the music teachers, taking pity on the boy, allowed him to partake in a lesson, it was found that he had a natural talent for singing, a skill highly favoured among the Reisiger clans.

His father, smelling opportunity, had the kid running the local club circuit at ten years old, signing at folk evenings. Not that he was singing Reisiger songs, mind you. The boy was still far too much of a foreigner to teach him the songs of the clan and thus, he was forced to bring Leeffessang songs following Reisiger tunes, tunes that the background band was able to play. His father had arranged for the background band, all mates of his that were able to play some basic tunes.

You see, his father was a crook, like most of the Reisigers. If you asked some unorthodox university professor, they'd probably tell you it's in their blood, a primal part that helped them when they were still sailing around, selling subpar goods to needy villages and double-crossing bosses. And as such, the background band was part of various schemes. If you sing and dance long enough to keep an eye on your band once in a while, you pick up a lot. And when 'uncle' Piet asks you to pass along a package to some shady looking man often enough, you learn even more. At the age of 13, Kleintje struck out on his own.

Having gathered his own background band, or gang depending on who you'd ask, from his school, he started circling the circuits himself. His mother became their manager, moving out of the shabby trailer that they'd lived in for so many years and into a newer, if still well-used one. Things were starting to look up as the gang's side jobs made them all a fair bit of money. Occasionally, they'd even have a small hit which made it so that they could earn their money solely through performances.

Of course, all good things tend to come to an end. In the case of Kleintje, it happened to be when they took up a job that 'was sure to earn them a heap'. One of those types of jobs where questions being asked is a faux pas and answers are rarer than a drug-free Variotan nightclub. Usually given by a man with a vague reputation and a strange nickname like 'Nico No-Nose'. Grab a package, deliver it in the club before you perform. Easily enough, right? Until the package turns out to be four times the size and weight they said, badly concealed and the club you're planned to perform at seems eerily empty.

You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that something was up and Kleintje thought the same. As the rest of the band was relaxing near the bar of the club, he went to explore the rest of the club and, thanks to that, probably saved the entire band from being executed by Het Apparath agents. Turns out that that nice man that wanted them to earn a heap had previously worked with Het Apparath, although he didn't know that, but now refused to give them their cut. And while not paying your partners was a bad choice when it came to criminal gangs, it was an even worse choice when your partner turned out to be a well-armed, ruthless, morally-grey intelligence agency.

But what do well-armed, ruthless, morally-grey intelligence agencies love? Well, they love it when the couriers of their enemy offer to lure said enemy out into the open. They even love it more when you offer to work for them, giving them a way to launder their dirty money, smuggle people and perform wet work when needed. The rest of the band would never know how close they'd been to horrible, horrible death. For Kleintje, though, this was a rebirth of sorts.

He'd been lucky, very lucky. Not a lot of Het Apparath operatives would have allowed a 17-year-old to speak about making a deal, let alone accept it. Anton, as the agent in charge called himself, was an old school man, a man that still appreciated the unofficial gentlemanly code that had been devised among agents to keep Het Apparath from becoming completely void of morality and values. And one of those unwritten rules was to respect your opponent and their skill set. In this case, this brat, the wannabe gypsy pop star managed to sneak past all his men, standing in front of him waving a shabby pistol around.

Could he have smacked the gun out of his hands and make the boy regret his decision for the rest of his short life? Sure. But if the kid could do this, get this far, what could he do when properly trained and motivated? These Reisiger bands could get enormous, imagine what you could do with fifty of these men. A hundred, even. And when the kid made a good offer, Anton couldn't do anything but accept his offer. 

Kleintje and his band would work directly for Het Apparath, although only he'd know the true nature of their employers. In return, they were paid handsomely, were given a stipend to make a new CD each year and their side businesses were left alone so long as they didn't push it too far. Kleintje himself had ensured that his mother was well taken care of, getting a luxury apartment in Reierferplattoterp as well as a monthly stipend. His father was also taken care of, but in a totally different manner. He's currently serving twenty-five years in the hardest Werklaagher of Het Huisselant, courtesy of Het Apparath. Every so often, at a random enough pattern to make him constantly wonder when it's going to happen next, he gets a highly invasive cavity search.

And that moment, that deal was what brought him and his band, now indeed numbering one-hundred as Anton had once envisioned, to Zaspa. Standing on the deck of his ship, the Symphony, Kleintje looked at everything surrounding him. Zaspa and it's similarly named capital had been offered a substantial sum to join Het Huisselant. And Het Apparath wanted it to succeed. And what is a better way to secure a small nation surrounded by enemies than by sending an armed gypsy band and an armed merchantman? Please send your answers to Het Apparath HQ.

The Symphony and its crew had been armed to the teeth with the ship itself receiving mounted machineguns and a pair of ship-to-ship missiles disguised as shipping containers. The missiles were a last resort in case the ship ran into any genuine military vessel, not that the Symphony would have lasted long in such a case. His band had been hired to perform at one of Zaspa's larger venues. This would allow them to stay for a week, a short amount of time, before they'd get questions from authorities about their ship not leaving.

The concert was mostly a smokescreen, the organizer being the sole agent of Het Apparath in the entirety of the nation. Not even an agent from an interesting bureau, able to kick ass and murder the anti-Variotan part of the Zaspan parliament while on a cocaine binge. No, an agent from Bureau 68, the Legal Economic Development Department. A LEDD, only the ICD’s of Bureau 30 were worse, often seen and used as passport checkers and sometimes condescendingly called ‘watermark autists’.

The LEDD’s were agents that set up businesses to bring in legal funds. Most of the time, these would partner with an agent from bureau 69, the Economic Tricks and Deception Department, the ones that would arrange cover stories for other agents, launder money and smuggle goods from and through these businesses, the cool agents. The Bureau 68 agent would be kept in the dark to maintain deniability, keep interrogations under control and ensure the business could go on, either by taking the fall or by getting acquitted, depending on the situation unfolding itself.

And in reality, the only reason why there even was an agent in Zaspa was because he had retired there. Similarly to gangs, no one generally left Het Apparath; an agent could retire from active duty but was still able to be activated for certain situations. In this case, the Variotan offer had reached the shores of Zaspa pretty quick and two sides had formed. Obviously, Het Apparath had one side they wanted to win.

The KRB Extravaganza, as they called themselves, were one of the options that Het Apparath had for situations where there were no real operational assets in play. The retired agent had greased enough palms of Pro-Variotan Zaspans to have the authorities wave the Symphony through without making a fuss. Not that this took a lot, piracy and resource shortages meant that the authorities welcomed any chance at commerce and foreign visitors.

One-hundred-and-one men aren’t exactly cheap to maintain and, in a rare stroke of luck, this is where the experience of a Bureau 68 agent helped out. While the concert, their cover story, would most assuredly lose money, any funds made through ticket sales and merchandise were funds that could help mitigate the costs. Posters had been made and distributed and to gain hype, the band was to visit some of the more pro-Variotan establishments.

Of course, the visits served more than one cause. Intelligence gathering, looking for opportunities, getting a feel of where to act. There’d been border conflicts, a famine in a nearby nation, piracy, all things that influenced the nation. Kleintje and the Symphony had met the last problem themselves when four small boats, badly disguised as fishermen, attempted to board them just outside the waters of Nesneubar.

There are a few things that a pirate shouldn’t do and attempting to board an Apparath-staffed and armed vessel is one of them. Out of the four small vessels that attempted to get close, one was disabled by machine gun fire with the crew bailing out, one was sunk when a band member fired an RPG at it and the other two fled. When they fished one of the survivors out of the water, they heard him mumbling some borkbork language, similar to what one would expect from a Derthaler citizen.

The reports would say that the man died shortly after from his wounds and water inhalation and that the Symphony couldn’t find any other survivors. Whether or not that was true, if there ever was a survivor they fished up or if the Symphony murdered any survivors that they saw in the water was a question that only a higher being or one of the band could answer; not that either one would do so.

This too was something that could be used to sway opinion. After all, if a simple merchant vessel could resist, what could a proper warship from Het Huisselant do against these pirates? But for now, Kleintje was simply happy that they had arrived. Solid ground under his feet.

Seeing his contact, the retired agent, walking towards the ship, Kleintje took a packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and lit one up. ‘One week, one week and this will all be our soil.’ was his thought as he walked off the ship. Patting his jacket, he felt his high quality, great to conceal Varinco-made PPP-99 pistol. A last resort, the pistol provided him with eight accurate shots, eight chances to save himself. 

Sometimes, Het Apparath would provide them with guns and weapons to use from local sources. Looking around, he was glad that they had to provide their own for this occasion. If he saw it correctly, one of the soldiers guarding the harbor was wearing a misfitting uniform and a rough looking AG-56. If the military was issuing their soldiers with that, nothing on the local market would be worthwhile.

Of course, this also raised a question. With piracy being such a problem, why was the army sending their second-rate troops to the harbor? Because, even with the poverty of Ceris, Kleintje refused to believe that this was the best Zaspa could offer. Were the border issues taking up all the genuinely combat-ready troops? Were the tensions in Zaspa so high that the army had been called in?

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Kieron grabbed the helmet on his head and hid behind the top of the wall, dropping his gun in the process. For the first time in days the people outside the walls were making a decisive push.  He was terrified. He fumbled for a bit trying to pick up his old rifle but glanced over to the top of the decaying concrete fortifications that held the city. There were constant flashes from across the tree line obscured in the light early morning fog. He would feel the bullets as they impacted across the old concrete around him, and from inside the city he could see the mortars hitting the streets and buildings.

“How much longer do you think?” Kieron said, looking over to his aunt.

She looked at him solemnly, just trying to think of something to say but nothing reassuring could come to her mind, “I’m sorry junge, I know these people. Es wird eine lange nacht.”

“You know them…?” Kieron started before more shouts began across the walls. He took a peek over and didn’t understand what he saw at first. The fog was moving toward them, how was that possible, he thought to himself.

Nicole glanced over, her eyes widening, “Now come on junge, we don’t have any time!”

------

It had been a day since they had passed Homburg. Each member of the squad had been horrified by what they had seen. Major Arran and Lieutenant Maura had kept a cool demeanor, but Claire and Oswin hadn’t been able to shake what they had seen. Homburg has been nothing but a grave, not a battleground as they had assumed when first approaching the pillars of smoke from afar. In Fulgistan it had never been murdered villagers and torched cities, just a war. A bloody war, but something with some sense of rules. Every man, woman, child had been slaughtered in Homburg and they were afraid of what was next.

In this distance a familiar sight greeted them, smoke columns. They drove for a small while longer and then stopped, Arran simply saying, “We don’t leave here without her or her intel.”

-------

Nicole dragged Kieron into their home as the fog began to envelope the city. She shut the door, stuffing rags in every cranny she could fine.

“Tante, what’s going on? Why are we leaving? The wall can’t hold…”

Nicole rand up to up grabbing Kieron by the face, “Shut up. I have to find what I’m looking for.”

She turned her attention through rummaging through the piles of things all over the home. Eventually she came up holding two masks. She spent a moment looking at them, a look of dread, then acceptance coming over her face. She unscrewed the front of one replacing it with another and handed it to Kieron.

“Quickly put this on,” she said, glancing up in paranoia. The gunshots from outside were coming closer as well as the screams. “We have friends coming, and I have something you need to know.”

Suddenly the door to the basement burst open, a man with a rifle and gas mask ready to fire.

----------------

They wormed their way through the city, a thick cloud obscuring their vision. All of them had donned their hazard gear before entering the main walls. Nobody on the team had seen this before, but luckily they had a map of exactly where this ‘Nicole’ woman would be living. All around them gunshots and screams could be heard. Occasionally Claire and Oswin would stop for a moment trying to get it out of their heads, they had been trained to run towards the suffering of others, but they knew their mission. Each of them advanced slowly through the fog, their protective gear on knowing the probability of what they were walking into.

“The map says twenty more meters, ready up,” Arran said, gunshots ringing out close to them. His mask was obscuring his vision but he could still see the dead lining the streets, some still alive writhing in pain. He knew what the rest of his team would think but he was positive they understood the importance of the mission.

Arran came up on a door, marked with the address number he had memorized. The rest of the squad came to a half behind him, their arms on each others shoulders.

“Ketzerin! Stop!”  he heard. He didn’t wait for the others, he rounded the corner of the doorway and quickly fired two rounds into the man he found. Arran waited for a moment before he heard a woman call out from the stairwell that led down.

“Seylosi!?”

Arran suddenly remember they hadn’t had any callsign or password to establish who they were. He glanced back at the others, all of whom gave some form of shrug.

“Ambassador Finaley sent us!?” He yelled out, sounding more like a question than a statement. He hoped she would listen, hearing the storming of the city outside.

“Hurry quickly, inside!”

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Ganlin Republic State House, January 15th, 2020.

oregon-capitol-gop-fled-1200x800.jpg 

"Welcome, Prime Minister Verbrugen. Please, take a seat."

The poor man looked rattled. His face was ruddy behind a long red beard, and his brow was beaded with sweat. He had good reason to look so poorly; he was, at present, the captain of Ceris' worst-ranked ball team, the failing republic of Edrela, which in recent weeks had seen several prominent local officials kidnapped and assassinated by Rusheau-sponsored militias. And now, the nation's primary water treatment plant had been hijacked and a hostage crisis only ended in the hours before the prime minister's arrival.

"Thank you, ambassador."

The Ceriser clasped Zhuang Wei's hand before settling down at the conference table. He was the second foreign representative to arrive;  Qi Shaoying, the President of Ganlin, had been here when Zhuang Wei had arrived by convoy from the embassy that morning. She looked up from the conference table, and put her third cigarette in the ashtray.

"Prime Minister, I'm glad you're well."

"Thank you, Madame President. It's good to see you too."

The door creaked open again; a gaunt older woman entered the conference room, flanked by a Fulgistani soldier.

"Vice President Maria Geller, of Ubraioria."

"We were expecting President Wohl, is everything alright?"

The woman blinked once, twice, and began.

"The president is dead. His car was destroyed last night by an explosive. The Sentists claimed responsibility, and the government has stopped working altogether. It was...difficult to arrange transportation to this meeting. I will do my best to represent the people of Ubraoria nonetheless."

"I'm so sorry, Madame Vice President. Please, rest assured than in my capacity as ambassador, I will do everything I can to secure the assistance of my government in relieving the situation in Ubraoria and in all of Ceris. Please, have a seat. Sergeant Zhao, please tell General O'Malley we're ready."

The delegates waited nervously at the long, mostly empty table in the hot, bright windowless room. A single TV hung on the wall, tuned to static. Before long, more figures appeared at the door. A trio of men in Criasian dress uniform, a garb more reflective of the early 20th century than the early 21st. One man wore stars and braid on his shoulders, and a neat red moustache on his face. The two other were majors, in the same baggy cavalry trousers and peaked red-star cap. One carried a clipboard, the other a submachine gun. The general took a seat near the delegates, while his subordinates stood on either side.

"Good morning, President Qi, Prime Minister Verbrugen, Vice President Geller and Ambassador Zhuang. Thank you all for attending this summit, which has been called in response to the ongoing Sentist crisis in Western Ceris as well as the ongoing hostilities perpetrated by Rusheaun actors in the nations of Ganlin, Criasia, Ubraoria, and Edrela. I am pleased to announce that, in cooperation with the Fulgistani Revolutionary Guard, the Republic of Criasia has developed a comprehensive plan to combat both of these threats and exterminate the presence of terrorism in Ceris, and for redeveloping and restoring the economic landscape of the Western Ceris region. With your help and cooperation, we will win this war, and emerge united, prosperous, and establish a longstanding peace."

There was a silence; there was no opportunity to refuse, implicitly or explicitly. The Fulgistanis, with the help of the Criasians and the Ganlinese, were offering peace and security on their terms, with no time to negotiate. Rusheau was in bad shape, but the smaller countries of the West coast were even worse off, and they would not hold out without help. And there was no one else coming. Verbrugen cleared his throat.

"What will you need of us?"

"You will retain your positions of leadership and ensure the continuation of civic order. Your nations' military assets and personnel will be temporarily reassigned to Fulgistani formations in order to coordinate the war effort against Rusheau and the swift liberation of the territory. You will nationalize major industry as much as you are able, and coordinate production in accordance with the demands of the war effort in whatever capacity you are able. After the cessation of hostilities, a token force shall remain in Western Ceris to ensure the peaceful demobilization of the enemy and the resettlement of refugees. In return, the ICEB will provide Western Ceris with as much material aid for civilian relief as you require, and ensure the safety and sovereignty of your respective governments."

"Can you win, General? Will you win against the Sentists and the imperials?"

O'Malley locked eyes with Vice President Geller.

"Yes, ma'am, I believe we can. With the help of the Worker's Republic, we are increasingly in a position to launch a strategic attack deep into southern Rusheau. The armored units of the Fulgistani Demonstration Army have proven highly effective against the infantry that makes up the bulk of Rusheau Reichsarmee personnel, and we're continuing to muster Criasian soldiers to support a large-scale action. Rusheau is large, but it is ultimately a paper tiger, on its last legs."

"Fulgistan has fought the Sentists in the past," Ambassador Zhuang interjected. "We have experience in the deescalation and pacification of terrorist threats."

There was silence around the table.

"I've prepared a copy of the Western Ceris Treaty for you all, which you're free to examine at your leisure. If there's no further questions, shall we proceed with the formalities?"

An antique fountain pen was passed between the delegates, and five signatures went numbly onto the paper.

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Phou and his company had traversed Rusheau for a twelve days now. If he did not have Ankwer writing daily journal entries, he knew he would have lost track of which day it was. It was a Monday. A few days prior the transport had imploded on itself, in typical Batengdeian fashion. Fortunately Meido was useful for more than the occasional quip, and took to repairing it. That had left them stuck for a day, and not in friendly territory.

As to be expected, the military presence was low, but not unsubstantial, especially for the jingoistic regime that was the Holy Empire of Rusheau. There was not a city to be passed without some few armored vehicles and troops in it. Though the quality of these patrols were shoddy, it was a testament to the fanatical militancy of Rusheau. It was no wonder the Fulgistani were having issues with direct military involvement.

There was a sudden shout,

"There it is! The bunker, just saw it!"

Phou looked over. It was Pyough, eagle-eyed as ever. They had finally made it to their comrades in Rusheau.

The bunker itself was no easy find; had they not been given the coordinates by the Rusheauan People's Liberation Front, they would almost certainly have missed it. It was set within a hill which looked as though people hadn't been in it for fifty years. There was no real signs of human habitation, bar a few rusted-out cars which looked at least fifty years old from the design. In the bunker itself was a small grate, it looked almost like a manhole. Apparently it was an old bombing shelter from some old Rusheauan war.

bunker.jpg

Banlea Chea strode forward into the booth, up to the circular entrance to the bunker. Everyone else, including Phou, came after her. They had put their weapons away, but there was still a level of tension: this whole operation could easily have been a Rusheauan trap for Batengdei, but it seemed unlikely that the country would ever encourage espionage of any kind, even to stage an ambush. Chea took the butt of her rifle, and pounded out a series of knocks to emulate the theme of the Rusheauan march.

Chea backed away hesitantly, but there was no response.

As Chea approached the hole again, however, there suddenly came a sound from the bunker. A sort of muffled cry which echoed awkwardly out from the grate. A few moments later, the grate was pushed open and a grinning man appeared. His beard looked scruffy and unkempt, and there was a maddened look in his eyes, but he shouted out in some poor attempt at Khaymer:

"Hello comrades! We am so happiness to be seeing us!"

It was a good effort, but fortunately Chea began in Ceriser,

"Thank you comrade, but do not worry, we all speak your tongue. We have equipment for you, and fuel as you requested, but not as much as we originally indicated. I hope you do not mind..."

"Pah! My proletarian friend, when you are an 'enemy to the public' you learn to make do with what you can get. Please come inside quickly."

And at that they slowly climbed down into the lower bunker. The climb itself was very tense, what little natural light came through was mostly obscured by whoever had decided to go in after Phou, and the person after them.

"f*ck!" came a cry from below them. It was in Khaymer and sounded like Meido. Everyone stopped momentarily before he shouted, this time in Ceriser, "Be careful there's a rung down here which is not very secure in the wall!"

After some fifteen minutes of intense climbing, everyone was down in the bunker. The industrial lights on the walls illuminated cold concrete walls. Some of those lights were damaged or missing, which created a terrible inconsistency in the lighting of the passageway ahead of them. Various pipes led to and fro from the ceiling and walls, like a tangle of vines, with no real direction.

"Down this hall here, we will take a right at the third door." came the Ceriser in the front.

Finally, they entered a cramped little room. The walls were draped with banners of the Rusheauan flag, converted into a simple red-and-yellow socialistic banner. The centerpiece of the room was a large table which had a large map of Rusheau, illuminated by floodlights so as to ensure legibility. In the center was a woman wearing Rusheauan military fatigues enhanced with various stitchings of roses and traces of red.

"Welcome to our humble home, comrades." said the woman, "I am comrade Gabriela Stein, but you may call me just Gabriela, if you like."

She continued, "We of the Rusheauan People's Liberation Front seek to end the terrible state of Rusheau's long shadow of tyranny. You said you will help us, yes? You have brought the supplies we need to begin our war, but the battle is not yet won. We need your help and guidance in our battle to liberate the proletariat of this country."

Chea strode over to the table, and looked at the map before smiling at the woman, "We can help you, Gabriela. Our motives are one and the same. Tell me, how do you intend to incite a revolution?"

For a moment, Gabriela Stein looked ready to burst with joy, but she quickly composed herself and responded, "We have eyes across the nation; it's maybe the only benefit of living in a country everyone hates. We have some, ah, friends, who are currently stationed in Karkamann, a Rusheauan military supply depot. Recently there have been reports of them diverting a great many troops from there to the front lines to wage war against our Fulgistani friends. We can't get in with the forces we have, we only have thirty people with weaponry we managed to take from the Rusheauan military. You all, however, can coordinate and plan out strategy much better than us, not to mention you can all shoot straight. Can you help get the means of revolution to the people of Rusheau?"

"I believe so, yes. I have means of contacting comrades in the Fulgistani Army, and I am sure they would be willing to coordinate with our cause. While we do that, I will have Pyough working at a raid strategy with Phou. We will all be there for fire support, too. I assure you we have this quite under control."

Gabriela Stein grinned, "Let's liberate Rusheau."

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Cardinal Sean McKinley had rarely visited the Papal Palace and had to be guided to the office of the man he was looking for.  The winding corridors, brightly lit even in the evening hours, were filled with Baroque art and their floors covered by ornate rugs.  A couple thousand housekeepers took care of the expansive palace that resembled more of an imperial palace than the home of the administration of the Church.  The place was spotless; McKinley could not spot a speck of dust on even the oldest of tapestries and pieces of art as the nun guided him. Weaving through the palace, they made it to the office of the head of the Magnissimum Comitium Cardinalicium, Cardinal Mark D’Angelo.  Here the nun stopped at a large and decorative wooden door. A small golden plaque that hung left to the door at head height read ‘D’Angelo Cardinalis’- they had reached their destination.   The nun knocked on the door and bowed towards McKinley before walking away the way they had come. The cardinal heard a tired, soft voice replying wearily, “Per favore entra*.”

McKinley opened the door gently as he peered in.  D’Angelo sat behind a large desk that was covered with papers and letters, his glasses at the bridge of his nose and his face buried in a letter.  His zucchetto was on top of a pile on the corner of his desk, revealing his mostly bald, spotted head. D’Angelo looked up from his letter and smiled wearily as he stood up.  “Salve, frater**.”  D’Angelo walked around his desk to embrace the cardinal before inviting McKinley to take a seat and went back to his seat.  

“I appreciate your graciousness in hosting me, brother.”  D’Angelo just continued smiling as he waved his hand and started in Anglish, “The pleasure is mine.  Anything to distract me from this crisis.” His smile disappeared from his face as he said the last sentence and looked at all his papers on his desk.  He shook his head gently before looking back up at McKinley, pushed up his glasses, and inquired, “So, what can I help you with, frater?  Could I help you to some tea?”  McKinley at first had trouble deciphering D’Angelo’s heavy Salvian accent but was soon able to understand him.  

“Yes, that would be nice.”  D’Angelo rang a small bell that was placed on his desk.  Maybe ten seconds had passed before a nun entered the room and bowed.  “Maria, potresti portarci del tè? Grazi.”   The nun nodded and left.  D’Angelo waved his hand towards McKinley, indicating to him to speak.

“Well, I come to you from my post, Occidentalis Cerisae.  You’ve no doubt heard the crisis unfolding on my island?”  D’Angelo nodded, “Yes, I have. The Concilio Clerici was in fact the driving force behind the state’s commitment to aid.”  McKinley nodded and continued, “Yes, and the Church has also committed aid, the funds and supplies have helped my priests in their mission.”  D’Angelo nodded back, “So what are you to ask of me?" 

“Well, brother, it is seen by both me and the other bishop on the island, Bishop James Flynn, that more aid must be committed to Ceris.  The forces opposing our ministry only grow stronger as the days passed and I fear the Church on the island only grows weaker. The scourge of communism threatens my dioceses and we do not have the resources necessary to both deal with them and continue our ministry.

D’Angelo sighed wearily while rubbing his eyes under his glasses.  “I was hoping for good news, but yes, the situation is most certainly dire.”  McKinley looked at D’Angelo intently, waiting for him to continue. “You must understand, frater, our resources are spread thin since our involvement in Cussia and the investigations.  And now with Ceris… we are taking on too much. I’ll tell you this: you will be given more.  As to the time it is delivered, only God knows, but I will try to get it to you speedily.” A knock on the door interrupted the conversation as the nun entered with two cups of tea.  Handing one to each of them, she bowed before hurrying out once again.

“Brother, I am afraid that money might not be the way to solve this issue, especially any that shows up months too late.  Is there nothing your Concilio can do?  Money will mean nothing to the communists when they take power- men are needed.”

D’Angelo answered incredulously, “My Concilio?  Absolutely not- no, it’s not possible.  With the investigations? The Salvian people- devout as they are- would not even buy that at this time.  If funds are not good enough for this cause, I can’t do anything else for you. Armed force or intervention of any kind wouldn’t be allowed by any sane politician and to even suggest anything like that to the public sphere would draw instant criticism.”

“Please, brother, do you not understand the direness of the situation?  Ceris is not stable, we’ve been attacked countless time over these years.  And now communism! What will happen?”

“God’s will.” D’Angelo said nothing for a moment.  He took a sip from his tea before replying, calmly, “I will do all that I can.  But I tell you this: Salvia will not get involved in a sphere of influence it does not belong to or have any interest in.  We’ll see if the situation of the Church gets any worse- more drastic action might be taken then. At this time, however, I will give you 100 members of the Papal Guard to protect yourself and any church that is under attack.  I will finalize the details in the coming days with the Guard.”

McKinley sat there, silent and unhappy, but nodded.  D’Angelo breathed deeply before ringing the bell once more.  He stood up when the nun entered. “It is getting late, frater.  Maria will show you to your room.  I will see you tomorrow at breakfast.”  McKinley stood up as D’Angelo walked around the desk to embrace the other cardinal.  McKinley walked towards the door that the nun held open and exited, himself now tired and worried.

 

__________

*: “Come in please”

**: “Hello, brother”

Edited by Salvia
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 “Half.”

Makarios shifted slightly in his chair. It was a well padded green leather armchair and so made little noise as the Arhomaios moved about in it. The man sat opposite seemed to notice the slight movement and what seemed to be a smile crept up under his walrus-like moustache. He was as well padded as the chairs the pair of them were sitting on and wore a similar suit to the Protologothetes. Despite Makarios' perception of Ceris as a poor backwater, the nobles of Secyrae didn't seem to stint on the finer things in life. The delicate cups of Mauridivian coffee that sat on a mahogany table between them spoke of that.

“Your excellency, due to the skilled nature of the work that is to be carried out, it would be better if at least two thirds of those involved in it were Arhomaioi, rather than half locals and half Arhomaioi.” Makarios gestured towards the sheafs of paper on the table. It was the treaty that had been outlined by the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion and handed over to the government of Secyrae a week before by Makarios himself. He had thought them overawed by the magnificence and power of a visiting official from the heart of civilisation. But, it seemed the stereotype of the greedy ignorant barbarian was true. The damned Cerisers didn't know a good thing when they got it.

The fat man, the head of the council of nobles that ran this benighted nation, the Erzkanzler, babbled something in the guttural tongue of the natives. The young, skinny man standing behind his chair listened and then repeated it in a truly civilised language.

“Your excellency, that may be so.” The young man speaking remained impassive and neutral but there was a gleeful twinkle in the eyes of the Erzkanzler. It had become quite quickly clear that the fat man knew the language of Arhomaneia and the translator was some strange affectation, probably an attempt to keep the balance of power on the side of the Cerisers. “However, it is necessary that the people of our fine country familiarise themselves with what you will be building here. And you have emphasised that we are equal partners, no? It would look poorly if the start of your great nation's involvement in Ceris seemed to be nothing than an unequal treaty.”

And it would look poorly for Makarios if he allowed himself to be manipulated by a bunch of backward yokels. He looked out of the window towards the sea. Somewhere out there, the BPK Nystras patrolled the waters off of Secyrae. When they were about to start the negotiations, the Protologothetes had turned down the suggestion of Navarkhos Ethelred to have the aircraft carrier closer to shore, as a visible reminder of the power of the greatest nation on Eurth. However, the foreign minister had turned it down – he was sure that his dignity and ability alone would turn the discussion in his favour and Makarios didn't want it to look like the nobles had signed any treaty at the barrel of a gun.

And he would never have had the fat f*ck smirking at him if he had done that.

“I feel two thirds would be a more reasonable number,” said Makarios. “After all, it will be the Arhomaioi who will start off doing the bulk of the work, as your countrymen would need to learn the ropes, so to speak, before they can handle the same sort of technical tasks.”

The walrus murmured again and the translator leaned closer. Although the room had a high ceiling and was furnished in a tasteful, fashionable manner that spoke of the expense of it, Makarios found it suddenly quite cramped.

“Half, your excellency. Although we do accept that it would also be reasonable for a larger number of Arhomaioi remain in supervisory and management roles as the projects progress.”

Makarios nodded. That did not seem entirely unreasonable and would allow better oversight of the way any project went. And especially where any funds were going. Undoubtedly, the nobles were used to creaming off any and all business that was going on in Secyrae. It was probably one of the reasons that the country was in such a poor state to begin with, as most attempts to repair the degrading infrastructure withered up as corruption took its toll. “The Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion does not find that unreasonable, your excellency.”

The Erzkanzler gargled again and the young translator leaned in over his shoulder. When the noises had stopped, he stood up again.

“Your excellency, it is also the view of the Republic that any of our citizens that work alongside the Arhomaioi ought to get the same pay. After all, it is the Republic that will be footing the bill for the work. How could we justify it to our citizens if all the money was to flow out of Secyrae?”

Makarios' eyes darted down towards the papers again. He wondered if he should have even bothered getting them printed out in the first place. Just sending it as an email would have been more suitable since the buggers were just tearing it to pieces anyway. And the idea that those living in this hellhole warranted the same amount of money as an Arhomaniki worker was verging upon the ridiculous.

“In return for that money, you are going to get the infrastructure that the rest of Ceris could be dream of,” replied the Protologothetes, an element of scorn creeping into his voice. “After all, there is no one on this side of the Adlantic with my nation's expertise in roads, sewers and the rest. Your republic would prosper and your people would find their lives immeasurably improved. Arhomaneia is taking all of the risk on this venture.”

More grunts and gurgles.

“This proposed venture, your excellency.”

The Protologothetes sat up in his chair with an intake of breath. He narrowed his eyes at the Erzkanzler but kept his voice level and even.

“Your excellency, my government is offering yours generous loans with much better interest rates than you would get from any other nation or bank. We are offering to carry out infrastructure work at the same cost as we would in our own country. I cannot see where else you might get similar terms.”

The walrus narrowed his own eyes but Makarios continued.

“Seylos is the most likely prospect. But they are a young, keen people and led by a young, keen monarch. They would be much more interested in making sure the money ended up wear it was supposed to. Arhomaneia is an ancient nation and much more aware of the ways of the world than to monitor where all the money goes.” It was obvious what the Arhomaios was hinting at and that the fat man didn't bat an eyelid meant that he was right on the mark. The buggers were going to cream off as much as they could and the best anyone else could do was to make sure it remained at manageable levels. “The Seylosians would also take a much more pressing involvement within your government's affairs as well. You may end up with them trying to exert the same manner of influence as they do on the countries in the east. And although you may think me some ignorant outsider, it is clear to the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion that they will end up just like Eire, sooner or later. Swallowed up by the rising power of eastern Argis.”

Now it was time for the Erzkanzler to shift in his chair. Clearly he was also aware of the influence that the Seylosians had on the countries in Ceris that were across the strait from the Kingdom. And he also guessed that Seylos intended to draw them even closer into its orbit.

“Instead, I offer the guidance of a power that is much further away and much less likely to meddle in your affairs,” carried on the Protologothetes, spreading his hands in what he imagined to be a gesture invoking the generosity of Arhomaneia. “And one that will also keep out the interference of any more foreign nations on top of that. You know that the increasing piracy in the Makhaira Thalassa is turning the eyes of the wurld towards Ceris. Some nations, especially those of a more... radical slant, might even see your Republic as a good target for their wild ideologies, with their ideas of wealth redistribution and classless societies.”

The foreign minister leant forward in his seat and picked up the fragile coffee cup and took a sip. It was bitter and stale, likely from having been stored for far too long. As much as the Republic and its nobles wanted go demonstrate their wealth, they were still not in the same league as the great Old Wurld power Makarios represented. He masked his distaste with what he felt was a benign smile.

“In fact, perhaps any Arhomaniki-backed projects could help with that. It would give your population a chance to better themselves and see their country stride into the 21st century. They would be less willing to listen to demagogues once they see the benefits that our two countries working together can bring them. After all, work now is more likely to put food on their plates or their children through school than any promises of bloody struggle in the future.”

He sat back in his chair and watched the occupant of its counterpart. The great moustache slowly shook from side to side, as if the Erzkanzler was literally chewing over what Makarios had said. The nobility of Secryae had likely spent generations leeching off of the masses of their country. They would be keenly aware that it might not take much for such dangerous ideas to take root amongst the working classes. Whilst trying to wring what they could from the development projects would definitely be something they were aiming to do, the fact that it could even reduce the chance of the nobles being overthrown was going to be a key selling point.

“I can also, if you so wish, discuss with my government the possibility of training the armed forces of the Republic, bringing them in line with the famous military of Arhomaneia. And perhaps offering military equipment, at a reduced cost.”

The walrus' eyes flicked from a point out of one of the room's windows and back onto Makarios. The movement of the moustache stopped. The translator leaned in again but a pudgy hand came up and stopped him.

“Your excellency,” said the Erzkanzler. His voice was surprisingly high pitched but otherwise spoke the tongue of Arhomaneia perfectly, with no hint of an accent. “I, and the Republic of Secyrae, are willing to accept your terms. I would like you to discuss the potential for military training with your government.”

The Protologothetes nodded, feeling smug with himself. He lifted the small cup to his lips and took a sip of the coffee again.

“Secyrae is certainly glad that the Megas Agios Basileia was able to agree to half the workforce and equal pay.”

The walrus stood up to shake Makarios' hand and the Protologothetes realised he had been played quite well.

F*ck.

 


 

FF2GAwK.jpg

 

To: the Government the Arab Democratic Republic of Sayf; 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

Honoured friends,

It has come to the attention of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion that it is not just the the Royal Navy of Seylos and the Basilikoploimon that are operating in the Makhaira Thalassa, the Dolch See, and attempting to combat the scourge of piracy that has arisen within those waters. The navy of the Arab Democratic Republic has also been sighted within the Makhaira Thalassa and has been observed to have been attacking suspected pirate vessels. This is certainly laudable and will certainly help to reduce the threat to shipping and the lives of civilians that are under threat because of the actions of these vile predators.

However, that there are three naval forces operating within the Makhaira Thalassa poses certain problems. At the moment, the Basilikoploimon and the Royal Navy are closely cooperating in the efforts against the pirates and defending civilian shipping regardless of nation. The presence of a third force that is not working with the other two could very well mean that accidents might happen, and this would be a needless, tragic waste of life.

To this end, the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion suggests that our governments act in concert against the piratic threat. This will mean that the Makhaira Thalassa is swept clean of pirates all the sooner and no unfortunate incidents happen between our various naval forces.

United, God will surely grant us victory,

Eugenios Goulielmos,

Megas Logothetes

of the

Logothesion of Foreign Affairs

of the

Megas Agios Basileia ton Arhomanion

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