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Can a Leopard Change its Spots?

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“Many animals, when disturbed, consume their own children. The Tagmatine Leopard is no different in that respect, although it is more rare. But not unheard of.”

Gilbert Cleckheaton, famed Seylosian natural historian, writing in EK7341 (AD1833) in a letter to his nephew. He never visited Arhomaneia himself.

 


 

A bitter wind swept across the Plateia tou Agios Konstantinou, Agios Konstantinos Square, bringing with it flurries of snow. It wasn't unusual to have snowfall this late and the freezing temperatures made the stone flags of the square very treacherous. As he walked carefully across the square towards the gates of the Basilikon Synkrotima Palation, Imperial Palace Complex, Fillipos Kommenos was very careful in where he put his feet. He'd already slipped once and banged his knee quite hard. His bodyguards, golden armoured, white robed Spatharokandidatoi, had scurried towards him make sure that he was unhurt. It had been slightly embarrassing. It was still early morning and there were few people in the square and most people were too hunched up into their hats and scarves to really take notice. As part of the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator's drive to reduce the environmental impact of the government, officials were told to consider whether short distance travel with motor vehicles were really necessary. It meant that even the members of the cabinet would often walk between their offices and the seat of the government. Kommenos didn't usually mind it but now, as he hobbled slightly across the square, he definitely was thinking twice about it. It would have been so much easier to have used one of the vehicles assigned to his office to pull up at the front gates. He looked around him, trying to see if anyone had seen him go down on one knee.

There were very few who looked towards Kommenos. Most of the inhabitants of the capital had grown used to officials and their entourages walking through the square. Those who weren't walking through it as a shortcut to their workplaces were gathered into three distinct groups and were very focussed on the thing that they were gathered around. Several dozen stood at the foot of a column that had been taken over by a stylite just before last summer. The now ragged figure had stayed on the top of his column all through the baking summer, the wet autumn and the frigid winter. It had impressed even the most impious of hearts, and inspired many followers of Christ to carry out the same devotional act up and down Arhomaneia, further across Europa and beyond. Even through the deadening effect of the wind and the snow, the Kouropalates could hear the stylite preaching to his flock. It was a group that was being carefully monitored by the Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion, the secret police, as well as the Church. He could see the grey uniforms of the former and the black robes of the latter at careful distances from the column. Either one would pounce if there were any hint of being against either the political or religious orthodoxy of the country that stood at the heart of civilisation on Eurth.

The second group was about the same size as the first and was gathered around a small van that was parked at the edge of the square. One of its sides was open and it was selling souvla and cups of soups like fasoulada to fend off the cold. The wind, as cold as it was, seemed to spread the appetising smell of the vendor's food across the square. The people gathered around it seemed to come from a true cross-section of Arhomaiki society – most of the people seemed to be office workers, likely working for the logothesia that edged onto the square, but some likely from the private companies that had gathered in Tagmatika since the boom of private enterprise during the Navarkhokrateia. There were also uniforms of members of most of the various branches of the armed forces. There was even a Spatharokandidatos grabbing something to eat. The food van was the only one allowed to operate in the environs of the square, and it was said to be entirely under the sufferance of Kommodos. There were two of the EEP lurking in the shadow of a column nearby and one of them was munching on a vegetable stuffed flatbread.

Kommenos' stomach growled slightly as the smell wafted over to him. He'd had breakfast that morning but the food vendor always smelled good. The Kouropalates guided his train of bodyguards and aides more directly towards the gates of the Imperial Palace Complex, far away from the double handful of the third group that now seemed to be permanently gathered in the square. It was a small group of Koussoeioi and they marked a spot that a prince of their royal family had attempted to burn himself to death in protest several months ago. The man had been stopped before he could do anything completely foolish. He was currently under arrest but the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion just didn't know what to do with him. On the one hand, he had tried to commit suicide, a heinous crime against God. On the other, almost all Arhomaioi had sympathy towards their plight and deeply regretted the current situation. He was still in the hospital attached to the Church of St Alexios, with a guard from the Tagmata.

Support for the continued alliance with the Gharoi was at an all time low, after once being considered the high point of the reign of Kommodos. The news of the death of the Exkousiokrator had not become known outside of the Agios Basilikon Vestiarion but when it was, it was not going to be met with much sadness.

Kommenos arrived at the gates of the Imperial Palace Complex. One of his aides stepped forward and announced his presence to the two soldiers from the Tagmata who stood guarding the gates. They turned towards Kommenos and bowed to the Kouropalates before moving back. The gates slid smoothly open and permitted Kommenos to walk into the grounds of the palace itself. There was always a level of power play – the Agios Basileos had to show everyone else that he was above them, their rightful ruler, which was why he had been made to wait despite coming at Kommodos' command. But it was something that was almost instinctive. Not just for him, but probably all Arhomaioi. And the wurld would be a better place if the barbaroi accepted the same as well. The Kouropalates knew that he wouldn't act any differently had he been on the Leopard Throne.

The distance between the gates of the Imperial Palace Complex was short. It was through some gardens laid out in the classical style and up a flight of marble steps. Unlike his predecessor Theodosios VI, Kommodos had taken an odd sense of pride in the gardens of the palace, although he had never wanted to show it. Theodosios, although he had been the one to overthrow the Navarkhokrateia, had not gone on to be the great man either Kommodos or Fillipos had thought that he might have been. Instead, they had spent their time cleaning up after his numerous affairs before they had leaked to the public. Sometimes using bribes, sometimes using the EEP or the intelligence agencies.

Fillipos shrugged to himself and put those thoughts aside as he walked deeper into the Imperial Palace. He'd done what he felt that he had to do, and lived with it. Arhomaneia had needed a clean hero at the time, after the excesses of the Navarkhokrateia. The minions of the old regime had done such things as throw dissidents out of aeroplanes whilst they were drugged. The murders carried out after the end of the EK7513 Civil War had felt like they had been justified at the time, as they had been against those who had tried to recreate that former regime.

Nonetheless, the Kouropalates always hesitated to call them “executions”, because that implied legitimacy. They hadn't been legitimate. Kommodos' new regime had shot hundreds of rebels in an attempt to quash the old one. And it had worked. There had never been an attempt to overthrow Kommodos and the legacy of the Navarkhokratreia had seen fit to dispel any objections.

He'd never say his own conscience was clear, however. Sometimes he dreamed about them, a mass of reaching hands and bursts of gunfire.

Agents of the Mystikon, the civil servants of the Agios Basileos, guided Kommenos through the palace. Every so often, one of them, dressed in a conservative business suit and wearing a purple tie with a lapel pin of the Arhomaiki flag, would step aside and another would take their place. A priest would emerge out of the shadows and perform a short blessing before the Kouropalates was allowed to carry on. The guards had changed from being from the Tagmata to being from the either the Spatharokandidatoi or the Maghlabitai, distinct in their red robes, gold armour and their maces. Now, Fillipos was deep within the heart of the palace itself. It wasn't as if Kommodos was stalling for time. This was how every visitor to the Complex was guided. However, Fillipos knew where he was going and he knew his monarch's schedule. Kommodos was a man of habit and the schedule of the monarch of the Arhomaioi was dictated by hundreds of years of tradition. The Kouropalates knew what his monarch would be having a meeting with representatives from the Themata of eastern Arhomaneia and leading a prayer meeting with them, before having a private discussion with the Patrikarhhos Nikolaos IX of Tzankhia, that treacherous dog. It was all part of maintaining not just physical links with the rest of the nation, but spiritual ones, too. A break between those meetings for the monarch to take refreshment had been repurposed for a meeting with the Kouropalates.

Soon, Kommenos was guided towards a door. As all of those within the Imperial Palace Complex, it was the one that he had seen the most often. The Imperial Office. It overlooked Agios Konstantinos' Square and Kommodos could well have watched him make his way to the palace. The Maghlabitai barred the door as the priests carried out further blessings. Kommenos undertook the usual ritual of meeting the Agios Basileos informally.

The Kouropalates bowed for seven seconds and was further blessed by members of the priesthood. He was suddenly aware that no one else had entered the room with him.

“You may rise, my child,” said Kommodos from behind the desk at the end of the room.

Kommenos walked further into the room, across the ancient mosaic of Europa, updated as it was with political realities of the continent. He stood before the desk and bowed again, for five seconds to represent the wounds of Christ.

“Be seated, my child.”

The Kouropalates sat in his chair, the only one that was positioned before the desk of the Agios Basileos.

Kouropalates Kommenos, may the blessing of Christ be upon you,” said Kommodos, intoning the words of the ancient ceremony. “I thank you for coming. May I offer you some refreshment?”

“I thank you for allowing us some of your precious time, O most Christian majesty.” replied the Kouropalates. “I hope that it will be a fruitful meeting, God be willing.”

Kommenos stood again and bowed for a count of three, representing the Holy Trinity. Once he had done so, members of the Mystikon stepped forward and placed a cup of tea with milk but no sugar on a side table to the right of Kommenos, as well as several pink finger biscuits. They were his favourite ones, although he was sure that he had never told the Agios Basileos. It was merely another power play. As could almost always be expected with Kommodos.

Although, in fairness, he had worked with Kommodos for years. It wouldn't take much for someone to note their friend's favourite biscuit in that time. If anyone could ever truly be a friend of ice-cold Kommodos Iakoumos.

As soon as the biscuits and tea placed down, the ruler of the Aromans nodded. It wasn't a nod to Kommenos, who put his tea down mid sip. The rest of the room filed out. The bodyguards left, the civil servants left and the priests left. The cavernous room was empty, besides the Kouropalates, Kommodos' personal secretary, Boioannes, the chief bodyguard Adrianos and the Leader of the Free Wurld.

Fillipos had known Kommodos for over two decades. Nonetheless, when he met him on individual terms like this, there was always an element of fear. Only Kommodos, Fillipos and the head of the the Arhomaiki Noimosyni Dykton knew the full extent of murders. The man had ordered the politically inconvenient to disappear in the past and it had always been one of the tightest of state secrets. Unlike other regimes, Kommodos preferred not to rule through fear but he was still more than happy to iron out any bumps. Fillipos himself was a public figure but the Agios Basileos had ordered anyone who might have been a problematic witness out of the room just then. He washed down the wafer biscuit with a mouthful of tea. A feeling of unease began to sink in. Could this be the time that the loose end that he was was cleared up?

“Your majesty?” He kept any emotion out of his voice. He was a Kommenos – he had a lineage of generals and emperors behind him.

Kommodos held the gaze of the Kouropalates for a long moment, entirely aware of the fact that both of them knew that he'd ordered extrajudicial murders in the past. The monarch of the Arhomaioi leant his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers together.

Kouropalates, we are going to bring back democracy to Arhomaneia.”

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“In our distant and pagan past, the ancient Arhomaioi used to trap leopards and use them in their great shows, where – along with other animals, such as wolves, bears and more - they would be hunted for sport and the amusement of both emperors and common folk. The animals would also be used for executions and it is said that many early Christians found martyrdom at leopards' fangs and claws.”

From Life in Ancient Arome: A History for Children by Nikeforos Basiliskos. Published by Panepistímion Petrion Typos, Petrion University Press, in EK7506 (AD1998).

 


 

He took a sip from his brandy glass and stared into the fire. It was set in a brick-built hearth and the movement of the flames and the pop and crack of the wood acted as punctuation to his thoughts.

It had become a ritual over the last decade and a half, as he rued the insults done to his family by the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaion. His was a great family, one that had done much – and sacrificed much – in the service of the Megas Agios Basileia. One of his ancestors had been appointed, over one thousand years ago, to lead an embassy to Ide Jima, going through all of the dangerous barbarian lands in between. They had led armies, they had been servitors, they had been industrialists and churchmen. They had given everything to Arhomaneia and they had never expected anything in return.

Well, of course they had been rewarded well and who could blame them for imagining that they might see recompense for their actions, for all that it had cost them? No one could blame them for that. But they had never acted solely for their own personal gain. Not at all. They were Arhomaioi and their civilisation came first.

The carved wooden panelling that made up the walls of the room added to the atmosphere of brooding, along with the dimmer switches had been turned down low and the flickering of the flames. The fire was something of an ostentation – the hypocaust kept the room perfectly warm and in a good, traditional manner.

The worst part of it all was always that Kommodos did not know the insults that he had handed out. But then why would he? He was just some jumped up peasant. He could not know what he was trampling into the dust. But he should know and he should care. At least Theodosios VI had come from true aristocratic stock, even if his father had been an egalitarian, almost edging towards a socialist. Theodosios should have guided his minions better, chosen his advisers from more distinguished stock.

Even the Navarkhokrateia knew otherwise and disposed of those who tried to derail God's favoured land with their thoughts of egalitarianism and leftist ways. The brandy glass came to his lips again but it paused before it met them and he pondered on that thought for a moment.

Perhaps those naval emperors hadn't known better. They allowed that... grey blur of a civil servant to carry on, when he should have been one of the many that they drugged and threw out of aeroplanes into the middle of one of the seas, like so many other threats to the regime, real or imagined. The Thalassa ton Kataigidon, the Krankes Thalassa or maybe the Kentriki Thalassa. Either of those three would have been good enough. But, of course, there was nothing remarkable about Kommodos Iakoumos that long ago. He was little more than another pen pusher, good at doing what he was told.

And remembering to write down who told him to do it.

That, after all had been said and done, had been the key.

The key to his success as first as a hypologothetes in the Logothesion ton Barbaron and as he wormed his way up to ever greater heights. No one had batted an eyelid when Iakoumos was made Khartoularios, High Chancellor, although those with a true love of Arhomaneia perhaps should have been more concerned that a peasant had attained such a high rank in the government. But then he wasn't the only one of a lowly birth that Theodosios had chosen to put so high. There was that dog Amfonos as Mesazon as well. Iakoumos had been able to use the position of Khartoularios to act as a springboard to become the Leader of the Free Wurld – the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaion.

The title of Agios Basileos was to be respected – of course it was. It was the epitome of civilisation. Arome had been guiding force for Europa for over two thousand and a half years and the rest of the wurld for half of that. All of the other nations strove to catch up to what the Arhomaioi had done and tried their best to even equal it. One of the most keen examples was, of course, flight – Ioannes Glauketes, a good Christian, was the first person to successfully and repeatedly carry out powered flight and the barbaroi fell over themselves to copy him. And do it better – the name of Wilbert Verneson should be a curse word to all true Arhomaioi, as he had striven to ape Glauketes and steal all of the hard work that true Arhomaios and true Christians had put it.

The brandy glass was empty and he opened the crystal decanter that sat on the table next to his armchair. The neck of the decanter rattled slightly on the rim of the glass but the drinker was too deep in his own resentful thoughts to recognise that he was probably more than a little drunk.

And Kommodos was little more than an ape, as well. A brutal, ham-fisted ape who shot those who disagreed with him. Iakoumos was merely the grandson of a coal merchant. He had no pedigree behind him. He could not comprehend the traditions that he threw aside as he was held above crowds of soldiers and civilians when he was acclaimed as emperor. The great families of Arhomaneia should have shuddered when he was hoisted upon the shield and acclaimed the Agios Basileos. Shuddered and thrown him down, rather than let him sit upon the Leopard Throne.

Another sip of brandy didn't take away the bitter taste of the hand that fate had dealt him.

It never did.

He was sharp enough to know that no matter the amount of brandy, or wine, or whatever, would never take away the awful feeling of failure if he fell into the trap of alcoholism. If that happened, he would never be able to get back the power and authority that had been stolen from the aristocratic families, from his family, by Kommodos. That lower class piece of trash dared to promote new men, nea anthropoi, or basilikoi anthropoi, the emperor's men, to positions of power. Positions that they didn't deserve and their ability let them down, too. They didn't go to the right schools and came from lowly families, they allowed Arhomaneia to be bullied by not just the Gharoi or the Adaptoi, but the savages that lived futher afield as well. The fact that they were treating that Alharan state as equals rather than sending a Basilikoploimon battle group to just pound them into the dust to liberate the slaves was a madness. And that was an opinion that he knew was not just shared by him and other aristocrats, but many ordinary Arhomaioi as well.

Turds like Goulielmos, Khalkeos and Narses floated to the top. They shouldn't, not when they eclipsed true sons of Arome, whose proud lineages stretched back long enough that it would take entire books to list their glorious exploits. Like himself, or Kontarian. And arguably Makarios and Tzimekhes, but the former was a paranoiac and the latter a glorified tax collector, hated by everyone who had any sense. And Kommenos, who had thrown himself at the feet of the virtual pretender to the Leopard Throne. Especially now that he was in charge of the reformation of the Synkletos.

That was a role that should rightfully be his. He sipped his brandy again. His family had been members of the Synkletos for one and a half thousand years! That coal merchant's grandson could only – should only - appoint those who he had shut out back into their old roles. Anything else was the work of madness and an offence to God. Even if Niketas had been nothing but a squawking idiot – which he had been – then he still warranted his old role back. He came from good stock and he had acted well in the role.

But he wouldn't. Kommodos had developed a dislike towards Niketas. And, the brandy drinker would admit, that he knew where the coal merchant's grandson was coming from. Niketas had spent too much of his time trying to whip up popular support from amongst the common people and workers, like some sort of socialist, despite having embodied everything that was wrong with the old organisation. And it was clear that even Iakoumos saw it as little more than a transparent act, a work of desperation by an unpopular man. One of his closest allies, Plakidia Lukapena, deserted him when it was clear he was sinking and joined that foul barbaroi organisation, Mercy International.

The Agios Basileos would undoubtedly stock the new Synkletos with those sympathetic to his cause. There would be very few who would embody the true history of Arhomaneia there.

He took a sip of his brandy again. This wasn't consistent habit but one brought on by the news of the apparent reformation of the Synkletos.

He was still the Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon, the Minister for Electricity. It had taken him years to gain that position, and part of it had been through luck. After all, the previous Megas Logothetes Aemelian Skeles, had happened to die of cancer. If that was not the action of God's will, then what was? Some had taken it as a divine indictment of nuclear power and had tried to make Kommodos steer away from using it but the old tyrant had ignored them. That nothing had befallen the monarch in turn seemed to indicate that the death of Skeles hadn't been anything other than a mischance of fate.

The phone next to the chair rang. Frantzeskhos Zemarkhos dug around for his mobile in the cushions of the chair before he slowly looked at the phone on the table. He sat staring with puzzlement for a moment before he picked it up. The number on the too-bright screen came up as unknown. Briefly, he wondered if he was actually more drunk than he realised.

“Hello?” he asked. He licked his lips nervously.

Who could it possibly be, at this time of night? Who even rang landlines any more? And, perhaps the most pertinent question of all, knew his number?

“This is Isaakios.”

For a moment, Frantzeskhos didn't quite know who that was. It wasn't exactly an uncommon name, but then there were few would would introduce themselves with it alone. For a moment, paranoia kicked in but then he realised that there was no need to. Despite his hatred of the coal merchant's grandson's regime, he was one of the basilikoi anthropoi. He'd been so slavishly loyal over the years that Kommodos did not suspect him in anyway. But the voice wasn't one that could be all that mistaken. Isaakios Niketas couldn't really be mistaken for anyone else. The man could not be trying for anything honest. The pathetic demagogue should be grateful – Niketas had achieved everything that he had wanted to. The Synkletos was about to be refounded. The Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion was on the cusp of carrying out the very thing that he had campaigned for for the last fifteen years.

But Zemarkhos knew exactly why Niketas was ringing. He knew exactly why Niketas would be full of a sense of failure and coursing with resentment. It wasn't that the possibility of democratic reforms were about to happen, but the fact that they were about to happen without him leading the charge.

Kommodos had outmanoeuvred him completely and perhaps tellingly. And now he was trying to seek revenge. But Niketas should likely have known that this was going to be the only outcome. The Agios Basileos was never going to let someone else steal his thunder, especially since Niketas had spent years trying to make the old tyrant look bad. What else did he genuinely expect? But, more was the point, it was still where Kommodos was the most vulnerable.

If someone was able to unite the people of Arhomaneia and use mob rule to take control of the situation, Kommodos could be forced to give concessions that he was never planning on giving. If that someone literally had control of the power of the country, then that person could use it to steer the future.

No wonder Niketas had called him.

“I think I will have to introduce you to someone,” said the supposed pro-democracy reformer. “But you know him anyway.”

That statement intrigued Zemarkhos enough that he let himself get lulled into a false sense of security, as it implied that he was actually just a piece in a grander conspiracy. Part of the Megas Logothetes screamed to put the phone down then. Put the phone down and ignore it, pretend that Niketas had never called him, that he had never heard him say anything. Put the phone down and call his bodyguard from the Spatharokandidatoi, and report whatever treasonous activity was about to come about.

After all, he was a Megas Logothetes. He was one of the most important people in Arhomaneia. His family was incredibly influential and vastly wealthy. What more could this demagogue, scrabbling at his last chance at relevance, offer that could compare to that?

But put the phone down and confirm whatever the f*ck it was that the coal merchant's grandson wanted to do to the Megas Agios Basileia was the only way that God's nation on Eurth could be run.

“Isaakios,” the Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon said, knowing that everything that he said from there on in was likely to constitute a mounting case for treason. “I think I would like to meet this person.”

Frantzeskhos Zemarkhos lapsed into silence for a moment, almost as if he was trying to ascertain the thoughts at the other end of the phone. His own were feeling slightly jumbled but it was obviously because of the gravity of the situation and nothing to do with the spirits he'd been drinking for the last few hours. He hadn't disliked the old Megas Logothetes. He had just never seen the opportunity available to him. And why would he? The man had been a Iakoumos loyalist. And he had been dead for years. His own sucking up to the commoner-monarch had meant that his private schemes had gone unnoticed. He had quietly petitioned for the guards for nuclear, renewable and non-renewable power stations to be recruited separately from the Logothesion tou Praitoriou, the Ministry for Police, and it had been granted. They still had police powers, but they had been his for years. He had given his all to back the Laren Agreement, as it meant, directly and indirectly, an expansion of his own powers.

Could being in charge of power be the true step to being in power?

“I knew you would. And if you were worried about our conversation being listened to, I wouldn't worry too much. It is our mutual friend doing it.”

The other end of the line went dead and the Megas Logothetes was left staring at the receiver. He was suddenly, cruelly sober and a sense of crawling dread washed over him, wiping away any thoughts of glory and success. Zemarkhos should have thought of that.

He may have made an error.

Another mouthful of brandy calmed his nerves somewhat. There was still time to come clean. He could come to the Agios Basileos and tell him everything that had transpired, that he had had a moment of weakness and said some things that he wouldn't ever dream of actually following through with. Crawl on his belly before the coal merchant's grandson and dishonour the name of the Zemarkhoi.

No. He shook his head to himself. That would never do. Instead, he sat back in his chair and stared at the flames in the fireplace.

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“The leopard is a territorial animal. It dislikes having to share its range with another of its species. Their aggressive actions towards each other are usually limited to defending its territory or squabbling over kills.”

Excerpt from Man-Eaters: The Memoirs of a Professional Hunter by Khristoforos Iagoupes, first published in EK7400 (AD1892). Iagoupes was later awarded the courtly title of Protokynegos, or “First Hunter”, in recognition of his exploits.

 


 

As the car drove through the underground car park and towards the space that had been allotted to them, Niketas stared out the window, unseeing, deep in thought. He had kept out of personal interviews for years, as he had been advised by his staff – and others – to not step on the toes of the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator. Now Kommodos had stolen his moment from him. It should be him leading the charge and leading the Arhomaioi towards democracy, not the man who had done so much to undermine it in the first place. Next to him was sat his personal chaplain, as was one of the privileges granted to a great family such as the Niketai. The priest looked across at the leader of Nea Demokrateia, a look of worry on his face.

Proedros, I...”

Isaakios shook his head. He needed to steal a march on Kommodos somehow. He needed the people of Arhomaneia to realise it was him who had been the catalyst for the changes that were going to be made. The chaplain had being trying to dissuade him from this interview for some time, as had Niketas' wife and many others. There was nothing that was going to stop him. Truth would come out. He got out of the vehicle, stood and buttoned his jacket before pausing for a moment.

The car stopped in its space in the underground car park for Arhomaiki Alfa Tileoptikoú Diktyou, Aroman Alpha Television Network, or AATD. It was the main private televsion network in Arhomaneia and therefore more likely to put up more of a fight against the censors that Kommodos would likely wield. They were also more sympathetic towards Nea Demokrateia than some of the other stations. He could have pulled up outside of the main entrance to the building and had more of a grand entrance, but his security advisors had warned him against it. A handful more of his staff got out of the car and he watched as another two vehicles pulled up behind the one he travelled in.

He narrowed his eyes as he looked at them. Both of them were saloon cars and a dark silver in colour. They both contained his protection detail, assigned to him by the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion. Or, rather, one contained his protection detail and the other his monitoring detail. A group of black-uniformed Praitorioi got out of the first car and the lead officer gave him a companionable nod. Out of the second, another small group of uniformed men and women got out. They were in the grey of the Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion, the secret police. They were merely here to watch what he did, see who he met and just lurk in a general, thuggish sense. The democracy campaigner gave them a nod as well and was met with a blank, vaguely hostile stare from all of them. Except for one, who winked back. The former Proedros felt a spike of fury and he tried to not let it show in his face. He turned on his heel and marched towards the car park's entrance to the AATD's building.

The door to the building opened automatically and Isaakios strode through it, his chaplain, staff, protection and monitoring detail following him. The room was made of white marble and floored with a darker stone. It was in a sparse, modernist style and the main entrance was opposite a long sweep of a reception desk. Evenly spaced about the lobby were the logo of the television company, a stylised version of its acronym, as well as crosses and other Christian imagery.

The pretty young woman sat behind the desk looked up at Isaakios and then over at the train of escorts that followed him, doing a double take at the sheer number who piled into the lobby after him. Niketas knew that it wouldn't even be the full number of those who were spying on him and watching his every move. The Arhomaiki Noimosyni Dykton, the intelligence agency, would undoubtedly have at least someone watching him, as would probably the Epistrategaion, the high command. And he wouldn't have put it past the old tyrant to have someone from his personal staff, the Mystikon, watching him, too.

“Good morning and may the blessings of Christ be on you, kyriossa,” Niketas greeted the receptionist, who tore her eyes away from the crowd who had filled up the reception area. “I'm here for the interview with Theoktiste Hagiokhristoforitissa.”

The receptionist gave Isaakios a smile. “Good morning, Proedros, and may the blessings of Christ be on you, too.”

She moved a touchscreen on an arm towards Niketas. “Sign here, please.”

Niketas bent towards the touchscreen and scribbled his name with the stylus. He preened himself about the fact that the receptionist hadn't asked him his name and had used his old title. She either knew who he was or had been briefed on his arrival. It was probably both – he was one of the most famous people in the Megas Agios Basileia and he was expected. The Eepoi and Praitorioi shared a glance. They didn't appreciate the old title being used. Although Niketas was allowed a courtesy title as a former member of the Synkletos, the title of the president of the senate wasn't the one he should have been addressed with. That was certainly going to be something that was reported back to the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion.

“Thank you, Proedros,” said the receptionist, giving him a slight smile as Niketas handed back the stylus. The receptionist turned the touchscreen back towards her and looked back at her computer screen, but not before casting another look over the group that was still milling within the lobby.

A young man appeared at Niketas' elbow, having edged his way through the crowd of guards and minions that had gathered around the campaigner and gave a half-bow, which Niketas returned. He wore a sober suit and didn't seem to be quite as enamoured with the presence of Isaakios as the pretty receptionist. He didn't quite have a disapproving look on his face but it was certainly a carefully neutral expression.

Endoxotatos, may the blessing of Christ be upon you. I am Stephanos Volousianos and I am to show you to Kyriossa Hagiokhristoforitissa's studio. If you could follow me, please.”

Frowning slightly, he nodded nonetheless. “Of course, kyrios. Please lead on.”

The man started walking towards the other end of the lobby, towards a bank of lifts. He pressed the button for the third floor and then looked over his shoulder to make sure that Niketas was following him and then drew up sharp as he saw the entirety of the entourage coming, too.

“Are they all coming with us?” Volousianos asked, somewhat incredulously.

“I don't know. You'd have to ask the buggers themselves that,” Niketas growled in reply. He didn't even look at the train of people following him. It was almost like being a great officer of state again. Twenty years ago, he would have had Maghlabitai making sure his path was clear for him with their staffs, Spatharokoubikoularioi – the Synkletos guards – making sure he was safe and a host of robed attendants and clerics gathered about him, all dressed in the splendour that befitted the centre of civilisation on Eurth. Now it was just his personal chaplain and gaolers sent by the Leopard Throne, dressed in dreary blacks and greys.

“They won't all fit in the lift,” warned Volousianos, looking slightly nervously at the protection and monitoring details. Obviously he hadn't much business with this aspect of Arhomaneia.

“Then they can walk,” Niketas shot back. He made room for his chaplain and then stabbed a finger at the door close button. It was a petulant move but it made the former Proedros feel a bit better about the situation. The door slammed shut as the police and secret police got to the door. He also gained some satisfaction from the image of the minions of Tagmatika struggling up the three flights of stairs up towards their destination.

The three of them stood in silence as the lift rose through the floors. The network employee looked slightly disconcerted at the display of contrariness of aimed at the agents of the government. A ping sounded, the doors slid open and Niketas stepped out of the lift.

“Which way, Volousianos?” he asked as he stood in the corridor, looking around at the numbers on signs next to the doors.

The other man gave no sign that he felt disrespected by Niketas' tone. He had already made up his mind on the former Proedros.

“This way, Endoxotatos,” the network's employee said, gesturing with an arm and starting to walk down the corridor. “You will need to get briefed and have makeup applied before filming starts. Kyriossa Hagiokhristoforitissa is keen to meet you.”

Niketas followed him down, with the priest following on behind. There was a clatter of a door opening and the thud of boots in the corridor as the two details finally caught up with the democracy campaign. He didn't deign to look in their direction as they did so.

Volousianos led them towards a door that didn't look too much different from any of the others and knocked at it before turning the handle and opening before he got a response from anyone within. It was a small waiting room, fitted out with a kettle, a water cooler, a selection of probably stale pastries on a plate, several chairs, a low table with several magazines and a couple of plant pots. The room was nowhere nearly up to the standard that Niketas, as a one of the richest men in Arhomaneia, was used to. The former Proedros looked around and then sat in one of the chairs. The chaplain took one next to him. Despite Volousianos' barely concealed distaste for Niketas, he did look a bit sheepish.

“I apologise for the surroundings, Endoxotatos. At AATD, we pride ourselves on spending our money on the quality of our programmes, rather than the creature comforts.” It sounded like a sentence learned by rote and the man seemed a unconvinced by it. “Someone will be along shortly to take you the briefing and then to makeup. Can I at least get you a cup of tea whilst you wait? And for you as well, father?”

Both men nodded. The aide busied himself making tea for a moment before the Praitorioi and the Eepoi came into the room. Both groups looked around the room, as if the space could have possibly have contained some threat to their charge. As they did so, they contrived to get in each others' way as the rivalry between the different law enforcement agencies came to the fore. The priest and the democratic reformer shared a sigh and a glance whilst Volousianos watched with a look of disbelief on his face. It was something that they had had to put up with over the last decade and a half. After a moment, they sorted themselves out and an officer from each group stood on either side of the door whilst the rest of them stood outside.

There was a moment of awkward silence and the network worker stood for a moment, looking about with uneasy look on his face.

“I'll go and see if Kyriossa Hagiokhristoforitissa is ready,” he said and slipped out of the door.

Silence again came to the green room. The only noise was the rattle of crockery as the priest and the ex-Proedros took sips from their cups and then returned them to their saucers.

A woman with an expensive, light grey suit with a long skirt suddenly opened the door. She was approaching middle age and had light brown hair with a streak of grey and the force of her personality hit everyone in the room. She gave the two seated men a half bow and they stood up to return it.

“Good morning, Proedros and may the saints bless you,” beamed Theoktiste Hagiokhristoforitissa. “I'm glad to have you here and finally meet you. The work you have been doing with Nea Demokrateia has been some of the most important undertaken in Arhomaneia in years.”

An equally big smile split the features of Niketas. He was flattered, in the way of vain men who were complimented by other important figures. After all, Hagiokhristoforitissa presented one of the most watched TV programmes in the Megas Agios Basileia, if not Eurth.

“And you as well, Kyrios Hagiokhristoforitissa,” replied Isaakios, looking almost bashful. “I am honoured that I was invited to take part in your programme. It will do the Arhomaioi good to hear from someone who has campaigned for years for what Kommodos has finally decided to do.”

Niketas didn't notice the wince that passed over the TV presenter's face when he was disrespectful towards the monarch of Arhomaneia. The chaplain did, however. He knew that that was something that the leader of Nea Demokrateia needed to be careful of. It would be a very quick way to lose the sympathy of the Arhomaioi by being rude about God's representative on Eurth. He coughed to attract the Proedros' notice but it seemed to pass him by. He was still basking in the attention of Hagiokhristoforitissa. Perhaps the presenter was getting an inkling of just how bitter the Synkletikos had become over the years.

“Well, I should let make up know that you'll be along soon,” said Hagiokhristoforitissa, making her excuses and turning to leave. She seemed to notice the two police by the door and did a slight double take before shaking her head and leaving.

Almost as soon as the door had closed, it opened again and more network workers came through. They hauled Niketas off to make-up and then moved him into the studio proper. They sat him down on a leather sofa opposite the cameras. There was no audience, just an array of lenses looking at him. He moved a hand through his hair and someone hissed at him to not mess it up. Hagiokhristoforitissa came into the studio and more aides stepped forward, placing papers on a desk and making sure there was a glass of water to hand before the woman sat down behind it. Lights came on and started to count down and the presenter stood in front of the desk. A red light turned on, showing that the cameras were now recording. The presenter stood up and gave a brief prayer, as was traditional at the start of any programme in Arhomaneia, and everyone else in the studio bowed their heads and were silent. Once it was over, she sat back down and shuffled the papers on her desk.

“Good evening,” said Hagiokhristoforitissa, giving the cameras a smile. “Welcome to the programme. Tonight's guest will be the Endoxotatos Isaakios Niketas, the leader of Nea Demokrateia. We will be discussing the announcement by his majesty, Kommodos, by the Grace of Christ the God, Agios Basileos kai Autokrator to reform the Synkletos and try to usher in a new age of democracy for Arhomaneia.”

Niketas suppressed the urge to look at his watch. It was mid morning and he knew that the programme was broadcast at night. He tried to not look disappointed that the woman had used his courtesy title rather than the one he felt he was personally entitled to. She had used it earlier but the presenter was probably told to be more careful whilst being filmed. Several cameras turned to Niketas and he nodded to the presenter.

“Thank you, Kyriossa Hagiokhristoforitissa, and may God's blessing be upon you.”

“My first question is: are you surprised about the timing of the announcement?”

“No, I am not,” said Niketas. “It is the culmination of over a decade and a half of campaigning by my organisation and myself. I thank God that years of careful argument finally were able to win the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion over.”

“So you don't think that it was influenced by the death of the Exkousiokrator ton Gharon, Ji'Mar?” The presenter raised an eyebrow as she asked the question.

“Well...” Isaakios paused for a moment. He had rehearsed most possible questions and answers carefully. “I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the activities by the northern barbarians. I hardly think that the death of that arch-heathen would mean to much to even Kommodos.”

Out of Niketas' eyeline, the chaplain ran a hand over his face. If the ex-Proedros wasn't careful, he could dig himself into a very deep hole.

“You mean 'his majesty', the Agios Basileos?” The expression of the interviewer was carefully neutral but she was probably worried about about attracting too much controversy, more so than having Niketas on in the first place.

“Forgive me, of course,” backpeddled Niketas, putting on an expression of contrition. “I have nothing but a deep and abiding respect for the Leader of the Free Wurld. I do not mean to be overly familiar. He and I worked closely together for years under the martyred Theodosios, may he rest in peace.”

“You're assured that this u-turn is to do with your campaign, then?” continued Hagiokhristoforitissa. “Many newspapers reported that Nea Demokrateia had seen a significant downturn in membership. The Kronografia reported that your demonstration in Resafa last year did little more than block traffic before getting dispersed.”

Nea Demokrateia has kept the light of democracy burning in Arhomaneia, despite it all but being expunged at the national level,” replied Niketas indignantly. “That... rag doesn't show just how much good we have done over the years. Without us reminding the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion of our people's long history of democracy, there would continue to ride roughshod over our ancient rights.”

“Democracy has never gone away in Arhomaneia,” countered the interviewer. “There are elections at almost every level of our country, from themata downward.”

“But the government rarely takes into account the opinions of the people, like perhaps it should.” This was a much more hostile interview than Niketas had been expecting. The AATD had always been sympathetic to him. Had that old tyrant put pressure against them to make him look stupid? “Even in the states of the barbaroi, the government has to listen to the people. It isn't just the case that they can run the country as they want to, disregarding the will of people.”

“The Agios Basileos was elected by the people, through whom God chose his representative on Eurth. And it is not as if the Synkletos before the Civil War was democratic – all appointments to it were made by the Agios Basileos or were inherited,” pointed out Hagiokhristoforitissa.

“That is not the point,” returned Isaakios hotly. “I would be happy to stand for election in a democratic Synkletos. I have always been a firm believer in the principles of it, even if the system as it stood then meant that I was not tested by it. I would hardly have spent the last fifteen years acting in such a manner if I didn't feel as strongly as I do.”

“Some have stated that this has always been a vehicle for your grudge against the Agios Basileos. Even your old aide, Plakidia Lukapena, stated that that was your main reason for carrying on Nea Demokrateia.”

“And Lukapena deserted to a heathen body, puppeteered by the Orhionioi. That is not the actions of a true patriot,” shot back the campaigner. “Mercy International is an organisation of suspect intent. I, however, have always striven hard for the betterment of my fellow Arhomaioi, without enabling barbaroi, allowing them to meddle in the affairs of our ancient nation.”

Hagiokhristoforitissa nodded, as if satisfied with that answer.

“There are those who have charged you with acting as a demagogue, rather than in the true interests of Arhomaneia.”

Nodding, Niketas sat back in his chair. “To an extent, I would accept the charge of being a demagogue, in the loosest sense. I have often spoken to crowds and I have tried to carry on the spirit of the blessed Leon III, who tried to bring a proper sense of democracy to our nation. I would never act against God's chosen land on Eurth.”

“So you accept that you have whipped up ill-feeling towards the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, trying to undermine the rule of our holy monarch?” the presenter asked it with almost a smile on her lips. It was the sort of question that Niketas had been guarding against for years, however.

“Of course not,” replied Niketas. “The Agios Basileos has led our nation ably and well since he was elected. I have never said otherwise. All I am doing is trying to bring our nation and people back to a time when the people had more of a say in their future.”

“That could be construed as arguing against the God-ordained rule of the Agios Basileos, almost a blasphemy in itself.” Again, the almost innocent smile. It was a very threatening question, however. Blasphemy was a serious charge in Arhomaneia.

At that, the campaigner shook his head. “That I cannot accept. If anything, I was merely pre-empting the actions of our monarch. Acting ahead of the curve, so to speak. I feel satisfied that my arguments have finally been heard.”

The presenter took a sip of water, covering a slightly exasperated expression. If the former Proedros noticed that, he gave no sign of it.

“Now that the Agios Basileos has set this course towards democratic reforms, would be content with allowing the government to carry out these reforms? Will you now disband Nea Demokrateia?”

“That is an interesting question,” said Niketas, giving himself some time to formulate his answer. “I, of course, trust their intentions. However, I don't think that I would be willing to disband it yet. I feel that the Arhomaioi would not forgive me if I didn't act as an independent oversight for what was going to happen.”

“Which, I suppose, comes naturally to the next point – are you disappointed that you were not placed in charge, rather than the Kouropalates Kommenos?” Another loaded question, one that was set to needle Niketas' bloated sense of entitlement and self-importance.

“Of course I am disappointed in that decision,” responded the campaigner, shaking his head slightly. “I wish that I had been invited to chair that body, or at least take part in it. It would have been an honour to serve God and the Arhomaioi in such a manner. I do not doubt that the Kouropalates is a man of experience and a veteran politician and diplomat. I am just not sure that he has the right expertise, although I am certain that he will given the best advice and guidance.”

It was perhaps the best answer that Niketas could have given, although the criticism of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion was plain for all to see. At that point, however, the presenter shuffled the papers on her desk. The segment interviewing the democracy campaigner was over and the director gave a hand signal.

“Thank you for giving us your time, Endoxotatos. May God be with you.”

“And with you, Kyriossa Hagiokhristoforitissa.”

The red light showing that recording was going on turned off and both of them stood up and gave each other a half-bow.

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“A man-eating leopard frequently breaks through the frail walls of village huts and carries away children and even adults as they lie asleep. They usually prefer to ambush prey, however; that is when they are most successful.”

Excerpt from Man-Eaters: The Memoirs of a Professional Hunter by Khristoforos Iagoupes, first published in EK7400 (AD1892). Iagoupes was later awarded the courtly title of Protokynegos, or “First Hunter”, in recognition of his exploits.

 


 

The most dangerous man in Ahromaneia was currently sat reading a book on a patio. The patio overlooked a large, neatly tended garden that spread away from a relatively modest villa, down towards a meandering brook. It was a rare moment of peace and quiet in an otherwise busy life and high ministers of state only very occasionally had time to themselves. He paused for a moment in his reading, put his book down on the glass topped table in front of him and took a sip of mixed fruit squash before picking his book back up again. After reading for a few more pages, he kicked off his shoes and put his feet up on the chair next to him. The book wasn't that interesting, not really – it was some trash historical fiction about a common soldier during the Octarchy, who through his newfound Christian faith was able to save the Empire from being overrun by barbaroi before his piety and devotion was able to sway the heart of the pagan emperor to True Religion.

It was utter trash on a few levels – the emperor Auxentios never became Christian, not even on his deathbed. He reportedly died of a broken heart, all his efforts to reunite Arome dashed to the winds as the struggles between Methodianos and the other, later Oktarkhoi shattered the peace he'd striven hard to make. And the emperor had instituted an official persecution of Christians, something that had never been enacted before. Still, it was trash that let him turn his brain off and not think of very much for a few hours, especially on a day off. It was uncommon to get any decent time off and the Megas Logothetes imagined that something would pop up before the day was out to mean that he wouldn't be able to enjoy it completely.

He did have underlings, of course, who would deal with anything before he had to but the sort of government that the Megas Agios Basileia had meant that it often required a personal touch. The old tyrant would come sniffing about sooner rather than later, demanding answers whilst sitting and staring. Not that he had any real issue with Kommodos Iakoumos, other than the fact that the man was in the way of the reader's own ambitions. The only thing that he truly had against him was the fact that he had split the Logothesion tou Praitoriou, the Ministry of Police, away from his own Logothesion some years ago. It had weakened his own power but it was understandable. If Kommodos allowed an underling to gain too much of that, then it meant that his perch on the Leopard Throne was fundamentally weakened.

If there was one thing that the man reading the book had an understanding of, it was power. It was why he had worked for years to get himself where he was. He didn't genuinely care about ruling, or keeping God's chosen nation on Eurth strong, although those were part of the parcel. It was all about power. And, as the Megas Logothesion of the Logothesion tou Dromou, he was amongst the most powerful people on Eurth. But there was someone above him. For years, he thought that he could tolerate that, as he felt that he could predict what the old tyrant wanted or wanted to hear. But with this move towards democracy, everything was now much more unstable. As the face of the ministry that was the source of the low level oppression that every Arhomaioi faced on a day to day basis, from the grey-uniformed Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion they saw on the way to work or on street corners to the price they paid for stamps, he was never going to win any elections. So he had to make sure that there was not one in the first place.

And that was why Pantaleon Tonaras was the most dangerous man in Arhomaneia. Not just because he wanted to overthrow the God-ordained monarch of Arome but because he had the plan and the means.

Tonaras turned the next page of his book. He knew himself that an election victory would be entirely out of his grasp. That was why he was planning on acting before Kommodos stepped down. He was also cynical enough to think that this was little more than an attempt by the Agios Basileos to go down in history favourably. He had brought peace and strength back to Arhomaneia but it was at the cost of repression. Something that Tonaras knew about quite well, since he was the one in charge of doing a lot of the repression. Sooner rather than later, the Arhomaioi would look upon the rest of the countries of the wurld and think that they were missing something. Now that the country was being drawn closer to the nations of TRIDENT, they would see the likes of Iverica and Prymont and realise that they could also have a say in how their country was run. Kommodos was trying to stay ahead of the game by announcing a move towards a democracy but it was certainly going to be a managed one.

The old tyrant was lucky that the loudest voice in favour of democracy was that fat windbag, Isaakios Niketas. The man was a strange mix of a reactionary and an idealist. He had slowly but surely morphed from wanting nothing more than a return to a sinecure position to genuinely being in favour of democracy. Of course, as with most people leading a crusade, he saw himself being borne aloft by worshipping crowds. Unfortunately, it tended to fall flat because he had spent over a decade whinging about how life was unfair to him on TV programmes paid for by his family's billions whilst sat in a palace.

Now the Megas Logothetes was working hard to make it look as if life was unfair to him. The Logothesion tou Dromou was a very useful tool in that regard. Not only was the Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion a part of his ministry but post service as well – that was what the name meant, after all – the Ministry of Post. It didn't take much to find blackmail material on Theoktiste Hagiokhristoforitissa and get her to ask questions that looked as if the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion had got to her and made her try to make Niketas look like a fool or a traitor. And the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion had been left scratching its head, as it was exactly the sort of ham-fisted thing it would do. When it had adamantly – and truthfully – denied that it had anything to do with the questions, people became even more suspicious. After all, it was known that Niketas was effectively being bullied by his team of “bodyguards”. What other lows would Kommodos' regime stoop to now that the country was once again edging towards democracy?

Now all Tonaras had to do was to curate that. Make Niketas more likeable in the eyes of the common Arhomaioi or, something that was much more realistic, less dislikeable. The pro-democracy campaigner had a resource of a hardened following, who had stuck by him for many years. Even though it had been undermined by high-profile members leaving in recent years, Nea Demokrateia was still fairly strong. To allow it to flourish again, all it would take was to lessen the pressure put on it by the Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion and reduce the amount of mail being intercepted.

The book was placed on the table again and Tonaras stared down the garden, towards the rushes edging the stream. It was a beautifully manicured garden, with a natural look that only came from a horde of gardeners carrying out the actual work. The villa was an official residence of the Megas Logothetes tou Dromou, near Skouton. Surprisingly for the ancient country, it wasn't as old as it looked. The building had been heavily damaged by during the Civil War of EK7513, shelled and burned during a battle between traitor army units and the Tagmata, who were trying to stop the rebel penetration towards the capital. It didn't seem that Pantaleon Tonaras saw any irony in plotting a coup whilst sat where blood had been split the last time Arhomaneia had suffered one. It was a double irony that there were Tagmata soldiers here still, acting as guards for the residence of the Megas Logothetes. If they knew the thoughts going through his head, they probably wouldn't stop to drag him before the Leopard Throne, instead shooting Tonaras where he sat.

Perhaps it would be better to put more pressure on them, make the secret police more overt and heavy handed. The people would end up backing them more, in all likelihood. He stroked his beard for a moment. Of course, that could well backfire – he didn't actually want Niketas to become a hero of the people. And, in the end, Niketas needed to be put back in his box or put under the ground without anyone giving overmuch of a f*ck.

He picked up his book again. It wasn't as if Tonaras wanted democracy to flourish in Arhomaneia, any more than he thought that Kommodos wanted it to, either. The Agios Basileos likely wanted to be able to retire from public life and puppeteer any new incumbent of the Leopard Throne. And it made sense that the Kouropalates was the man heading the plan for a democratic changeover. Fillipos Kommenos was little more than a younger version of Kommodos, although with an ancient pedigree that made him much more palatable to the aristocracy of the country. The Kouropalates would make decisions that Kommodos would approve of and the pair of them would shape a democracy that was little more than facade on the autocratic regime. The Megas Logothetes wasn't criticising them for that, though. He would do the same in their shoes. Their plan, such as he saw it, made perfect sense to mind of Tonaras.

The other player in Tonaras' own plan would blindside Kommodos. The Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon was thought of as a key member of the Agios Basilikon Vestiarion, which didn't cease to surprise Pantaleon. It often seemed completely clear to him that Zemarkhos disliked Kommodos but even he hadn't imagined the depths of vitriol that had spilled out when he had met him in the suite of rooms put aside for the Logothesion ton Ilektrikon in the Basilikon Synkrotima Palation several weeks ago. Zemarkhos had a deep hatred for anything that damaged the dignity of the aristocracy, which Kommodos was the root of in his mind. The bile that had erupted forth took Tonaras aback and almost, almost stopped him from including the other Megas Logothetes in his plans. On top of that, Zemarkhos likely saw himself as the rightful ruler of the Arhomaioi and wouldn't allow anything other than that, so Tonaras was going to have to deal with that later. Likely terminally.

Until that point, the Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon would be able to bring any other dissatisfied aristocrats on board, just as Niketas would be able to tap into the democracy fanatics. There was a large amount of them, as it turned out, all moaning about how Kommodos was favouring competency over breeding. Honestly, if this coup did fail and the upshot was that these arseholes were washed out of Arhomaneia, then Tonaras thought he should be hailed as a hero rather than a traitor. But they would be useful fodder when the plan was set in motion. Most of them had military training and ties with the armed forces, which would be able to counterbalance the fact that Pantaleon knew that he had little sway with them, not when compared with the old tyrant. That Zemarkhos was literally in charge of power was also why Tonaras had brought him on board. Between the two Megaloi Logothetai, they controlled much of the communications of the country. Neither of them directly but they would be able to disrupt it significantly, either through shutting off power or subverting it. Although there were obviously backups and redundancies built into the system, Tonaras had calculated that they could sow chaos for the crucial first day or so of the coup. Even the military response would be slowed, as rail lines were without power, traffic lights wouldn't work, anything like that.

As well as that, with the secret police and the Viakoloutai, the Logothesion ton Ilektrikon's armed police, they could seize control of much of the infrastructure and centres of power. With a resurgent Gharoi menace to the north and deployments to Ceris, Tonaras calculated that the military would acquiesce to any changeover of civil leadership, so long as he was careful to give them the sort freedom and glory that they had come to expect under Kommodos. And if the democratisation facade was kept up with Niketas on board, then the ordinary Arhomaioi would follow on, too. In all, Tonaras was satisfied that the plan would succeed and he would see a smooth accension to the Leopard Throne.

The only stumbling block as yet would be to the elimination of the old tyrant and getting the Church to back him. With regards to the former, it would only be a matter of seizing the opportunity when it was presented. The latter he was less concerned about. Kommodos had never been a particular friend of the Church, especially after he and the former monarch, Theodosios VI, had meddled in church affairs and got Maurikios Amfonos appointed as Patriarkhes Nikolaos IX of Tzankheia. That was still a black mark in their eyes against Kommodos and Tonaras assumed that they would just fall in line.

He put his book down and closed his eyes, relaxing in the sunlight that was falling on the patio. All in all, it was good to have some time off from one's job. It allowed one time to think.

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    • By Tagmatium Rules
      Spring was finally coming to Gournaion, the capital of the island of Efmoseia and the nation of the Hexanesa. It had been a hard winter across all of northern Europa and even the western countries of Machina @Haruspex and Tagmatium had suffered in the coldest weather in decades. Despite being the two most functional nations in either the Occident or Burania, many of their citizens had died in the cold weather and parts of them had been cut off due to the deep snow and blizzards. In the band of six islands that marked the division of the Thalassa ton Kataigidon (Sea of Storms) and the waters of inner Europa, the weather had been especially hard because the islands had very little resources of their own to call upon. Some of the small fishing villages and semi-permanent logging camps that made up the settlements on the exposed northern coasts of the islands had to be completely abandoned. Vessels and aircraft from the Stolos, the militarised coast guard, were now going out to assess the damage to the settlements and to see if the inhabitants could return. The weather had been a shock after the warm temperatures of the summer and very few people had been prepared for anything other than the usual winter weather, although that was always quite harsh. The economic damage would have to be counted before the country could move forward. The long cold winter had delayed the planting of crops and prevented fishing for weeks when the fleets should have been out laying pots for crab or trawling for Adlantic salmon. Whilst the people of the Six Islands were unlikely to starve over the coming months, the finances of the country and its inhabitants would suffer. The last decade hadn't been kind to the Hexanesa and it seemed like the start of the new one wasn't going to be great, either.
      Those were the thoughts going through the head of a warmly wrapped little old lady as she sat at a cafe table and took sips of a cup of tea whilst looking out over the harbour of Gournaion. The cafe had cast iron furniture arrayed around tables and segregated from the street by low planters with hardy plants, although most of them had died over the winter. A heavyset stheneloser dog lay curled at her feet, its thick black and white fur proof against the cold of the northern islands. There were still boats in the harbour, although most of them were out to sea, trying to catch up with the season's fishing. She had just come from a morning service at the Panagia Theotokos, the cathedral of the Hexanesa. A savoury pastry lay untouched on a plate in front of her. Several newspapers were spread across the table, some from the Hexanesa, some from Tagmatium and even one from @Orioni. It was the old lady's habit to look through the headlines in the morning after church before she pottered back to her house. The headlines, at least of the Tagmatine ones, were mainly about the Megas Agios Basileia's involvement in Ceris – two carrier groups and a corps were now in action there, with suggestions that more might follow on. She shook her head. It was unlikely that “Arhomaneia” was involving itself there for the benefit of the Cerisers, although no one could deny that the Sentists were a plague that wouldn't go away of its own accord. The Orinese paper was at least more hopeful, although it focussed on the ongoing EOS mission in the Bainbridge Islands.
      The papers were full of just more examples of the powers of the wurld bullying the smaller nations. Although the Orinese were much less... conservative, blunt and chauvinistic than the Tagmatines, they were perhaps a bit more hypocritical. They tended to frame all of their actions as good for the people they were subjecting them to, even if it was entirely against their will. The intervention in the Bainbridge Islands had been going on much longer than any operation the Tagmatine armed forces had undertaken in decades. Under the aegis of EOS, the Orinese were bringing peace and stability to the south of Europa, whether it was wanted or not. After a moment looking out to sea again, she broke off a corner of the pastry and crumbled it up further. She then tossed the crumbs to a wagtail that was scavenging around the tables of the cafe but keeping a wary distance from the stheneloser. Another joined it and the two birds bickered for a moment amongst the table legs before seemingly deciding that the amount of crumbs was enough for the pair of them. She watched the small birds briefly before sighing to herself and pouring more tea from the pot into her cup.
      A passerby called a greeting and waved at the old lady. The wagtails, always timid, scattered and chittered their outrage at being forced away from their crumbs. The stheneloser raised its heavy head and watched the passerby and the old lady's reaction to them, its eyes darting between the two. When she waved back, it put its muzzle back on its paws, content that there was no threat there and closed its eyes. She reached down and scratched it behind its ears and broke off another bit of the pastry. The dog put its head up again and gave a begging look. The old lady smiled at the big dog and gave it the rest of the pastry, saving a corner for herself. It chewed messily for a moment and nosed up the crumbs that it had dropped. She ate the corner she had broken off and sipped the cup of tea.
      Of course, to the locals it wasn't just an old woman – it was Evangela Leotykhidissa, the Megas Kritissa, the Great Judge, of the Kritakrateia of the Hexanesa. A small bodyguard called the Skouterioi lurked nearby, attempting to make themselves unobtrusive but also trying to be a visible barrier between her and any possible threat. Unlike the bodyguards of the islands' western neighbour, they weren't in ostentatious armour and robes but coats and suits. It was clear that they were still bodyguards, as the tailoring of their suits couldn't quite hide the presence of holstered pistols. The Skouterioi had always made it clear that they weren't happy with the fact their head of government was content to sit in public and let the islanders greet her as they walked by. Although the islands weren't rich, they were strategic. The Arhomaiki Noimosyni Dykton was an ever-present threat, as were the secret services of the Exkousiokrateia or the Volskoi. Any of them might try to engineer a takeover of the islands or assassinate the Megas Kritissa. They would likely then try to take advantage of either the islands' position or the possibility of mineral or oil wealth possessed by them. The Gharoiki have been carrying out “hydrocarbon mining” in the areas of the Thalassa ton Kataigidon under their control. It seemed to be a pompous way of saying “oil and gas extraction” and it couldn't be doubted that the Hexanesa were being eyed up by the northern barbarians.
      Evangela took another sip of tea. The Megas Kritissa had been voted into the position in 2016 as a reaction against the regime of Kommodos Iakoumos, as she had been in the election six years before that. The old woman was one of the few of the Lipotakai, the Deserters, still actively involved in the politics of the Hexanesa. She had been repeatedly elected because she was seen as taking a hard line with Tagmatika. There was still an arrest warrant out for her in the Megas Agios Basileia, even though it had been over sixty years since the events at the end of the Long War which had caused the Hexanesa to break away from Arhomaneia. It looked like the relationship between the islands and the mainland were warming up in the reign of Theodosios VI but his death at the hands of an assassin and the civil war that followed had halted that.
      At the time, some of the other Kritai had considered throwing in their support behind the cabal of naval and army officers attempting to revive the Navarkhokrateia but that scheme had been stopped by the then Megas Krites, Ioannes Hegesinos. It just would have meant a vengeful Kommodos landing forces on the islands and bringing them to heel by force. Some of the defeated rebels had tried to flee to the islands in the aftermath of the civil war but they had been turned away, most of those disappearing further east or south. There were rumours that the new regime in Tagmatika had shot dozens, if not hundreds, of rebellious officers. Handing over any refugees would have been as bad as murder even if it would have meant that Tagmatika might have warmed up to the Hexanesa.
      The pot of tea was empty and Leotykhidissa stood to her feet, using the arms of her chair to help her get there. One of the Skouterioi stepped forward to take her arm but the old woman waved him off. The big dog stood up and followed the old lady at her heels as she started on the walk towards her official residence. It wasn't too far away from the harbour and the cafe. Gournaion was not a bustling metropolis by the standards of most nations, even New Wurld ones, but it was the largest city of the Hexanesa. The other people walking the streets knew the Megas Kritissa by sight and waved at her as she passed. Many other heads of state would use a car to get around but the size of the capital meant it was unnecessary and Leotykhidissa also loved to see the city. It meant that the old lady felt like she was more in touch with the ordinary people of her country than others in her position might be. And she could see the effects of the policies that she enacted or the repercussions of wurld events.
      In recent years, the numbers of boarded up shops were more noticeable than ever before. As she walked through the cobbled streets of the port, it was obvious where the road surface had become worn or damaged and been replaced with cheaper tarmac. The Great Europan Collapse had not impacted the islands as badly as others – the government hadn't fallen apart due to economic ruin like in many other countries but the primary industries of fishing and logging had taken a hit. The tourist trade had been nascent but starting to bear fruit, with southerners coming to see the relatively unspoilt landscapes, although others came to see the remains of the battlefields of the Long War. Those were mainly Tagmatioi and their money was as good as anyone else's, even if the Hexanesoi didn't like their government. However, that had dried up and the tourist board of the Kritakrateia just didn't have the money or the pull to try to attract more people to the islands. Foreign faces were now entirely uncommon on the islands.
      The Megas Kritissa got to the official residence of the head of the islands. It was no towering edifice but a low villa, almost in the classical style, if not for the modifications made to the architecture to take into account the frigid winters. A pair of guards in the dress uniform of the Taxiotai, the island's paramilitary police, stood either side of the door. Their faces were slightly reddened from the cold and their breath clouded in the early morning air. Leotykhidissa would make sure that the guards changed over a bit earlier than scheduled to get them out of the cold. The big dog walked up to the nearest and sniffed at the gendarme's boots.
      “Arkadios, come.”
      The dog stopped sniffing about immediately and trotted after the old woman and into the building. It was a comfortable enough building, if slightly more grand than many others in the city. It was the old seat of the Exarkhos, the governor, of the Hexanesa, back before the Long War had dashed that all to the winds. It was, imaginatively, known as the Palati tou Exarkhou, the Palace of the Exarkhos, although “palace” was far too grand a name. Arkadios' nails clicked on the tiles in the hall. The vestibule was cold and a draught blew through it, even with the front doors now closed by the Taxiotai on guard. The only real nod to being in the building was when an aide stepped forward to take the Megas Kritissa's coat and held out a warm indoor robe. Waving the aide away with a gesture, Leotykhidissa took off her coat and changed into the offered robe.
      “A cup of tea to warm you up?” the man asked. He was almost as old as Leotykhidissa and had the air of a trusted retainer about him.
      “Yes, thank you,” replied the Megas Kritissa, giving him a thin smile that still managed to be warm. “Can you take it through to the study? There are some papers I wish to go through before I get anything else done today.”
      “Of course,” he sketched a quick bow and stopped to give Arkadios a pat on the head before he did so. “Anything for this boy?”
      “No, he's had a pastry already this morning,” Evangela said, looking down at the big dog, who was in turn looking up hopefully at the aide with big eyes. He was trying to suggest that he'd not been fed at all today, despite what was being said. “He sat patiently outside, waiting for the service to finish. He's been a good boy.”
      Arkadios' tail wagged at the words.
      “I will bring the tea through when it is ready, Megas Kritissa,” said the aide, finally stopping rubbing the fur on top of the stheneloser's head and walking down the hall. “The heating's on, so the study should be nice and warm.”
      “Thank you, Leontios,” the old lady said and walked further into the residence.
      One of the main changes from the traditionally designed Arhomaiki home was that the study wasn't in a commanding place in the building, open to both ends to allow a good view throughout. Instead, in a nod to the cold weather, the room abutted the kitchen, to allow it to take warmth in from the ovens in the walls. That, along with the underfloor heating, made it one of the most snug rooms in the depths of winter. For an elderly person, it made it very liveable. Arkadios padded into the room and went straight over to the dog bed that lay in between the desk and the door and curled up in it. His eyes were on the Megas Kritissa as she pulled out the chair behind the desk and took out a pad of paper. She looked ahead almost blankly for a moment before taking a fountain pen from the mug of pens on the desk and started writing. It took a long time for the words to start properly coming and the cup of tea that Leontios placed on the desk was stone cold before she took notice of it. Eventually, the big dog had started to fidget and whine slightly, making it known that he needed to go out to go to the loo before Leotykhidissa finally stopped her fitful writing and looked down at the words on the page.
      She sighed and made the sign of the cross in the Aroman fashion – thumb, index and middle finger together, going from right to left – before sitting back in the chair. Of course, as she herself was not a despot, Leotykhidissa would put it before the other five Kritai to see what they would think. Personally, it seemed to be the only way to guarantee the fate of the Hexanesa but she had no idea whether it was the right choice. She was just tired of seeing her beloved nation rot and its people suffer like they had been doing for the last few decades.
      Her status as a Lipotakissa and her stance on Arhomaneia meant that she would probably be the only person who could propose a reunion with the Megas Agios Basileia without it being immediately shouted down and the proposer being arrested for high treason. It was certainly shocking, even to Leotykhidissa, but perhaps it was time for her country to come in from the cold.
       
       
      OOC: It's time to get the ball rolling on the first part mentioned here.
    • By Tagmatium Rules
      * Most Secret, for the eyes of King Aidan I only*

      To: His Majesty, King Aidan I of @Seylos, Eire, Pleinmont, and Sark
      From: the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion of the Megas Agios Basileia ton Arhomaion
      Your Royal Highness,

      It is felt by the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion that our nations have demonstrated a good ability to work together, as shown by the Aluxian Civil War and the recent crisis in the Makhaira Thalassa (the Dolch See). The Kingdom of Seylos is a stabilising influence in eastern Argis, and one that Ahromaneia is keen to support. Your nation has stood as a bastion against the influence of your north eastern neighbour, which, despite its recent silence, will likely remain a threat to civilised nations for years to come.

      In light of this threat, and that eastern Argis seems to be, by steps, becoming ever more fractious, the Megas Agios Basileia comes to your government with a proposal.
      Some years ago, the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion purchased a pair of aircraft carriers from the Greater Queendom of @Suverina. The circumstances surrounding this purchase was that Arhomaneia and Suverina had had a deterioration of relations, after starting the development of these carriers as a joint project. It resulted in my nation being forced out of this project, with no reimbursement of costs incurred. Later on, relations between our nations improved and the Megas Agios Basileia was invited to purchase two carriers at a reduced cost. At the time, it was considered to be an offer too good to pass up. The Prince Michail II carriers were classed as the Despotes class when purchased by Arhomaneia.

      However, they have proved to be surplus to requirements. With the Grand Federated Imperium of @Adaptus, Arhomaneia had co-developed the Protathlitis tou Christou class aircraft carrier and the Despotes class never became part of the Basilikoploimon. The two vessels have therefore remained mothballed since then, although every effort is taken so that it would take little to make them operational once again.

      In light of our good relations and the sterling effort Seylos makes in keeping eastern Argis from descending into anarchy, I have been charged by his Imperial Majesty, Kommodos III, by the Grace of Christ the God, Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaion, to offer the Despotes class to the Kingdom of Seylos.

      If you are willing to consider this, I am to invite your majesty to dispatch a delegation to inspect the Despotes class ships, in order to see if one or the both of them are to your nation's liking. Then our governments can discuss a price that is fair and equitable to both.

      May Seylos continue to be a beacon of light in a dark wurld.

      Honorios Kontarian,
      Megas Logothetes
      of the
      Logothesion ton Stratiotikou
      of the
      Megas Agios Basileia ton Arhomaion
    • By Indo-Stan
      This is information that the Indostan Government do not want being seen. They deny this ever happened and there is very little evidence left to support that it did. Captain Arjun vanished from the forces a week after the events before re-appearing 8 years later as a crazed Aaryarlivatraguo terrorist who blew himself up in the Northern Provinces. Some information from his diary entry on this day has been erased or lost in the transference to our base which we know to have been caused by some double agents and also the weather. What we have saved is on this document, typed up by someone who is most definitely dead from the hands of the regime, all we can hope now is that reforms are made or the Emperor is assassinated.

      You'll probably never see my name or hear of me because by the time this goes public, I'll be dead as well and my name erased from existence by the order to protect my family.

      - [REDACTED]



      23/05/97

      [REDACTED]

      In my 25 years of serving on the Indostan Police Force Hasheiv Regiment, I never experienced what I had today.

      I woke up thinking it would be an average day. Stop some kids from littering, give directions to some people, help in the arrest of a drunken tourist who got their hands on some Libiza Absinthe and then go home. But the day was far from that. I was on patrol in sector 2 of the city keeping an eye on a group of six people who were wearing masks and bandannas, they weren't doing anything that broke the law but they looked extremely suspicious just standing on the corner of the street. Before I clocked it, there were more of them walking around. Some with complete body coverage, others completely naked and then it started. 

      I couldn't see who but one of the group members started throwing rocks at us, the rest began chanting [DELETED]. We took cover behind our vehicles, and I used our megaphone to demand they cease their actions and go back to their day whilst my colleague radioed for riot control. Whilst we waited for riot control to arrive, we were forced to use our tasers and pepper spray on some of the hooligans who were throwing rocks and trying to get close enough to us to fight us in hand to hand combat. Then it went from bad to worse. One of the pr*cks threw a Molotov at one of the officer's cars creating a fireball, blasting some of the rioters and officers back. I'm cursed to say that one of my closet friends, Officer [LOST], [LOST] in the blast. Disgusting b*stards took my friend's life. 

      Riot control arrived and things only escalated, buffoons went from throwing rocks to damaging, destroying and injuring. Riot control had no mercy. They opened fire with their airsoft guns and began beating some of the criminals down to the ground with their batons and staffs. Many were [DELETED] in the long hours that followed, mostly from [LOST]. 

      Come the time of 22:37 the streets were engulfed in flames, covered in [DELETED], [DELETED] and rubble. I couldn't count how many officers were [DELETED] both in riot control and on our regular forces. The screams, explosions and chanting will haunt me forever. It was strange, even though they took my friend, I felt [DELETED] for them. I actually agreed that reforms were needed, but I didn't want the Emperor's death. That's what these criminals wanted. Revolution. 

      24/05/97

      The events ended around 2:18 am when the riot control dragged the remaining hooligans hiding among the rubble and debris out into the streets and [DELETED]. After it all, the Sargent of the riot control turned to us and said we should return back to HQ and rest there until further notice, he congratulated us on helping put down heretics before rushing off to probably give a report to the Congress. 

      By the time we returned to HQ the remaining officers broke down, none of us could even fathom what had happened to us. 
       
      ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
      The rest was lost in the transference to us. We may never know who Captain Arjun's friend was or what happened to Arjun during his 8 years of disappearance for him to become an insane terrorist, but we know his existence and this diary entry will help us in later progress.  
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