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The Leopard and the Lion

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Early Spring, 1450 A.D. (3458 on the Cussian Calendar, or the 3rd Year of the Reign of the Blessed Shahanshah Manūkehr), The Eastern March of Kalupsis Province


Morning came to the southern foothills with all the dreary, moody bluster any experienced Occidental traveler would expect from early spring in the eastern-most portion of the Cussian Dominate. A light drizzle wafted down from the still-gray heavens, tossed about by a wind that seemed to forget that winter had passed. Cooking fires crackled under wisent-hide lean-to?s in dogged and rambunctious clusters in spite of the precipitation. Camp life continued despite the miserable weather?as the scent of salted beef and ham frying over fires spread, and the thick, rich Cussian coffee began to flow the legions of men gathered together in the camp-city began to truly stir.


It had been a long winter spent in the camp, with most of the fighting men and camp followers hundreds if not thousands of miles away from their homes. Boredom and dysentery had scourged the army throughout the bitter winter, one of the coldest and wettest in the long memory of the Cussian race, and the sprawling camp had been held to order only through the growing legend of the Shahanshah, and the creeping, hacking terror of his Immortals- who were now something of legend as well. More than once a simple soldier?s brawl had escalated into a protracted conflict between regiments and their noble commanders, resolved only through the swift and unforgiving intercession of the Immortals, armor clad heavy-cavalrymen unconcerned with station, and their foot-squires?a peace enforced with bardiche, matchlock, seax and shamshir. Careful to avoid depleting the numbers of his mighty army through such displays, the Shahanshah had been careful to slay only the ringleaders of these regimental brawls- impaling those not slain outright and displaying them in plain sight, regardless of noble birth. The grim determination of the Shahanshah and his picked men had been evident before?now it would never be underestimated again- a constant reminder of where power rested in the Cussian Dominate.

With the promise of slaughter, of victory against the rebellious March-Warden looming ever larger in the coming days the camp had come out of its wintertime stupor, drilling in the muddy valleys around the camp. As the sun rose above the horizon, the sound of steel on whetstone rose with the steady babble of a myriad of Cussian dialects. The more pious nobles in the army gathered for their morning devotions in the hastily constructed Fire-Temple, perhaps the only truly permanent structure in the camp-city, each vying for the right to kneel within earshot of the Shahanshah.


Manūkehr was himself a pious, if vicious man. Rising from obscurity as a royal bastard in the chaotic months after his Great Father?s passing, the Cussian warrior-king seemed to be cut from the same clothe as those warlords of old?calculating, cold, and unfathomably savage Manūkehr cut an impressive figure, even kneeling. Broad shouldered, and thickly muscled from physical labor of the sort that no legitimate Prince would have grown accustomed to in youth, with a fierce raptor?s countenance rimmed with dusky auburn hair and a neatly trimmed and curled beard of the same hue. His voice rising and falling in the morning invocation of his faith, Shahanshah Manūkehr allowed his mind to ease a bit, flowing with the familiar words:


??The will of the Lord is the law of righteousness.

The gifts of the Good Mind to the deeds done in this world for Mazda.

He who relieves the poor makes Ahura king.?


The words brought comfort for a short while, as did the flame born of the Great Flame of Ttoille- a flame which in part promised its lesser ?brothers? to consume the city of the rebellious March-Warden Tūr- Eskendabelık. Even in his devotions the thought of that city grew to consume the Shahanshah, threatening to break his momentary serenity. With great effort Manūkehr pushed the blood-thirst back?long ago he had ceased to see the rebellion here as a personal affront, coming to recognize it for what it was, the greed of one man. That greed would prove to be the ruin of an otherwise prosperous region and its once honorable people?as Manūkehr now feared that there would be no other way to end the rebellion save to put the entire population of the city to the sword, and to sell the country nobles and their serfs into slavery in the west. It would put an end to this, the most stubborn of the rebellions against his rule, which had been called illegitimate and unholy. Few alive outside of the Eastern March would dare to utter such treasonous words now.


The devotion came to an end and the Shahanshah rose; he offered a still boyish smile to his closest retainers and to the Priests that had accompanied his host for this campaign. Those priests had been the wise few, many of their former compatriots were now dead, or huddled in Eskendabelık around the would-be Shah Tūr. The others?the others had been ostracized or assassinated outright. Such was the way of the new kingdom, the Dominate that Manūkehr had built.


Stepping out into the early morning drizzle, the Shahanshah craned his head at the familiar sound roaring up from the northern portion of the camp-city?s palisade. Mighty lambeg-like war-drums sounded the approach of a lance of Immortal cavalry. Earlier in the day prior they had gone out to determine how far the spring melts had progressed in the higher hills to the north of the camp, where the passes that would lead to Eskendabelık were located. Their journey should have taken far longer than a single day- piquing Manūkehr?s curiosity instantly.


Resolving to meet them halfway, the Shahanshah mounted his own horse, despite the squawked protest of his eunuch servitors. Those creatures still disgusted Manūkehr, but there were many customs that even he could not reverse. His horse was a massive beast, resembling a modern Percheron, black as night and ungelded- which was against the protests of his eunuchs as well. He?d named the beast ?Bastard,? in honor of his own illegitimate birth, and also to smite at the honor of any number of haughty nobles who still had secret reservations. There were few warhorses so envied in all the Dominate. Riding before, to either side, and behind the Shahanshah was another detachment of Immortals, picked-men amongst the picked-men. All of them were friends of Manūkehr?s from youth, and amongst the most savage of his murderous host. Their faces were impassive even now, though surely they grasped the strangeness of their comrades early return also. Shamshirs bobbed against their backs as their horses trotted, and matchlocks sat jammed into their saddles within reach of their free-hands. Glittering lances rested easily on their saddles, held stock straight in vice-grip mailed hands. Their own slightly green tinted plate-mail armor matched the Shahanshah?s, emblazed with his own livery, the Sun and Lion motif that he had chosen upon ascending to the Throne.


Within moments a host of Cussian ?knights? nearly identical to the one flanking Manūkehr faced them, massive warhorses slowing to a canter and then a stop, iron-shod hooves pawing at the muddy ground. ?Hail Great-King, King of Kings, Lord of the Four Corners of the World, Scion of the Kings that Bestrode the Universe! Hail Manūkehr, friend to the Fighting Man!? The commander of the Immortal host, a seasoned and heavily scarred Kalupsipolitan veteran called Eleutherios bowed his head slightly, and dipped his lance in recognition of Manūkehr. That was all the proskynesis that the Shahanshah required of the Immortals, a sign of his favor.


?Hail noble Eleutherios, Commander of the Hosts of the Sun, Picked-Men of the Picked-Men?you may report.? Manūkehr was eager to ascertain the reason behind the Immortals swift return. Eleutherios motioned swiftly with a mailed hand, and a bound and beaten man stumbled forward, nearly collapsing before the Shahanshah. Manūkehr recognized the man?s look- a Marmakoi mountain-dog, with the looked of the Ten-Times Cursed Haru-Dakat about his eyes. He was from rebellious Eskendabelık then?


Eleutherious prodded the man?s shoulder with his lance. ?Speak dog, lest I end your worthless life now.? The lance apparently pricked a wound that had barely scabbed over, as there was a sudden blossom of red down the man?s tattered sleeve, and a more than obvious wince. The Marmakite started to babble in his up-country dialect, which was not proper before one so noble as the Shahanshah, and then checked himself, switching to clear if slightly accented High Cussian. ?I beg your pardon o? Great-King, Lord of the Four Corners of the World, Scion of the Kings that Bestrode the Universe! King of Kings, Great-King of Beautancus, King of Kalupsis, King of Feizon, King of Marmak, Warlord of the Hosts that Cause the World to Tremble at their passing! I am but a humble mountain scout- ach!? Eleutherios? lance dipped down again, piercing deeper this time. ?That?s the last warning. A simple scout wouldn?t have taken the time to learn our proper dialect of The Language as you have. Speak with an unforked tongue Dog!?


The Marmakite seemed torn within for a moment, and finally began to speak as he noticed the shadow of the Kalupsipolitan Immortal?s lance descending upon him. ?I am Moctesumeh, of the Lineage of Nahehwa, a Lesser Holding in the Hills north of here- and that is the Truth, so Swear I by the Beard of the Wise Lord Himself!? Moctesumeh lifted his gaze to towards the Holy Sun. Manūkehr allowed his gaze to slide to Eleutherios for a moment, and the Immortal nodded. Apparently he believed that bit.


Before the Marmakite could continue Eleutherios spoke up again. ?We came upon this dog and his kin blazing a trail towards the camp as we ascended towards the mountain passes. Some few dozen of them, and better armed than I would have expected?little good it did them.? The savage grin that split the Immortal?s beard was one that the Shahanshah understood perfectly. The Marmakites had probably died nearly to the last man before they?d realized the Immortals had charged them. ?Now tell the Blessed King of Kings why you were coming down from your traitorous mountain.?


Again the Marmakite hesitated, but only for a moment. ?Shah Tūr wishes to meet you in battle here with a full host, and with the advantage of surprise before you are able to make it through the passes and lay siege to Eskendabelık.?


Manūkehr leaned forward in his saddle slightly, and without warning swung down from horseback. He stepped close to Moctesumeh, eyes boring into the captive?s face. The man was not lying, surely. It was too big a lie? ?How soon before they reach us, and from what direction will they approach??


The Marmakite hesitated, and the Shahanshah?s yatagan lashed up from his waist-sash without warning- slicing up through the man?s testes. The Marmakite dropped to his knees, sobbing and slavering. ?Speak, or I will feed that ruined nub to you dog.? The Shahanshah?s voice was a snake?s hiss- a true clarion call of cruelty if ever there was one.


?Days?and from the north-west?they seek to flank your western tents?they know that unrest abides there?? Between sobs the Marmakite tried to roll in a vain attempt to avoid the pain of his ruined manhood. The Shahanshah?s yatagan licked out again, severing the Marmakites head.


?Prepare the host. We may well crush this rebellion without chancing a long siege.?


The Immortals dispersed, bellowing commands at the top of their lungs wherever they rode.

Edited by Beautancus (see edit history)
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The garden sat at the southern end of the Imperial Palace Complex, and had been built on the orders of an empress in the 10th century, so that she may have somewhere to retire away from the hectic life of the Imperial Court. It had ornamental shrubbery, cherry trees and a view which looked out across the harbour of Tagmatica. Usually, in the spring and summer, the air would be full of the calls of house sparrows, starlings and other birds drawn to the small oasis of green amidst the massive brick, marble and title expanse of the Palace. However, today, there was just the song of a solitary blackbird, one of a pair who had stayed, despite the sudden cold snap.


Two men sat in the centre of the garden, seated around a chess table. Others, including several red-robed, black-armoured members of the Imperial Household Guard, watched from the cloisters that edged the garden. Both were dressed in thick, richly embroidered woollen cloaks against the chill wind blowing off the sea, but one wore thick leather boots and was in his thirties, whilst the other was much older, wearing purple, pearl studded boots.


?Check mate, again, I?m afraid, your majesty.?


The second man, wearing the purple boots, sighed. ?I could never get the hang of this game, Alexius.? He was Allectus IV Pertinax, the Holy Emperor of Tagmatium.


?Don?t worry, your majesty. It?ll come to you,? replied Alexius Commenus, the Parakoimomenos, or Imperial Chamberlain. The fact that the Holy Emperor had played the game well was of no matter; the man didn?t consider anything but a victory worth while. Had he not pushed the borders of the Greater Holy Empire back to Areopatene for the first time in a century?


?Any more news from Areopatene?? asked the Holy Emperor, as if he was reading his chamberlain?s thoughts.


?No major news, your majesty. Merely that the Nestorian heretics continue to press hard against the true followers of Christ in that country. Happily, those heretics are in the minority, and are loosing ground against our people. King Tigranes continues to listen to the word of the Imperial Court, although he has been somewhat reluctant with the giving of tribute in the last few years.?


Allectus sighed again. Tigranes XXII, the king of the feudalistic Kingdom of Areopatene, was a cousin to the Holy Emperor through a marriage made by his grandfather to secure an ally for Tagmatium during a period of attempted Tagmatine resurgence. The marriage of an Imperial princess to a barbarian had been greeted with much consternation, as it was thought that the barbarians, with their crude idea of primogeniture, would attempt to usurp the Imperial Throne without heed to the tradition of the Imperial Election. The dreams of a once-again ascendant Greater Holy Empire had come to naught when the fleet dispatched to re-conquer the Borea had foundered in a storm, but the marriage-alliance had remained.


Areopatene itself was a buffer-state between Tagmatium and the Cussian Dominate. As it was of the same denomination as the Greater Holy Empire and therefore subservient to the Patriarch of Tagmatica, at least in Tagmatines? minds, so Areopatene was left alone and allowed to go its own way. In theory, the monarch of Areopatene only sat on the throne because of the Imperial Sovereign, and each sucessor was supposed to be vetted by the Holy Emperor and ascend the throne at his pleasure. In practice, especially in recent decades, this had been ignored. The country was in fact a valuable asset to both powerful empires, as it meant that neither had a direct border with each, so no excuse to fight each other. They, in fact, both had an interest in its continued existence.


?And what of the Ttoilloi Dominate? Does the Shahanshah still work to secure his throne against his rebellious marcher lords??


The Parakoimomenos took a sheaf of crude paper scrolls from a waiting scribe and thumbed through them, trying to find his place in the reports. He had been reading them before his weekly game of chess with the Imperial Sovereign. He found his marker of red ribbon.


?The last reports we received from our agents indicated that he was still in camp and was preparing to advance against this mutinous magnate of his.?


The Equal of the Apostles tugged gently at his greying beard, a sign of thoughtfulness. Allectus was wary of Manūkehr, or Manucerus, as the Shahanshah was known in the east of the Occident. The man had ambition and power in equal measures. Had Tagmatium been as strong as it was two centuries ago, then he would have gladly gone toe-to-toe with Beautancus. But now, even one hundred and fifty years after the Battle of the Plains, the Greater Holy Empire was a fraction of its old strength.


?And of the Hetaeroi of the Spatharii of the Ecclesaia??


?They are gaining strength in the north, your majesty, but??


The conversation trailed off as the Holy Emperor and his retinue re-entered the Imperial Palace Complex.

Edited by Tagmatium Rules (see edit history)
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Three days after word arrived of Shah Tūr's attempt at launching a surprise attack...


"This was an abortion of a battle." Eleutherios, Commander of the Hosts of the Sun paused to wipe the collected gore from his warblade with a scrap of a fallen warrior's cloak. Abortion that it was, the vultures had already begun their hopping dance of death over it, gathered in great clusters around the mounds of dead that had collected here and there over the field of battle. Eleutherios' retainer, Fereydūn smirked and paused to end the writhing of a man not quite dead. "That it was noble lord. For all the trouble that we went through because of the Pretender, you would think that he'd have been able to field a force at least partially worthy of facing us on an open field. I did take a few scalps worth boasting over though." Fereydūn patted the still "soggy" collection of scalps and ears dangling from thong fastened to his belt with the knuckles of the hand that clenched his warblade.


Eleutherios chuckled blackly. Young men such as Fereydūn were given to such gestures as that, and always had since time immemorial. It had been years since Eleutherios had finished his own "coat" of honor, having long since switched to taking only heads, and only then of the most worthy foes...none of which had materialized on the field this day.


The archery exchange that had opened the battle had been almost no contest, with most of the Shahanshah's mounted-archers dismounting and bolstering the numbers of conventional archers, fielding almost twice the number of what Shah Tūr had brought. The rebellious Pretender's pikes had clattered across the dead-ground, suffering heavy losses, and at last collided with the Shahanshah's own pike formations. The push of pike had been bloody, as any push of pike was, but Eleutherios' own company of Immortals had broken that. They'd dismounted as well, firing their matchlocks at point-blank range into Tūr's formation, and then the Immortals had charged. In joining the melee, they'd swiftly decided the outcome of the battle.


The Immortals under the direct command of Manūkehr hadn't dismounted and were able to chase down Tūr himself to hold him in place, which was where Eleutherios and Fereydūn were picking there way their way towards. The clusters of men pinnioned to the ground by arrows grew as they moved, as did the moaning and screaming, familiar cries such as, "Water!" and "Mother!" filled their ears. Such men as they were long hardened to such as that, and in truth both looked upon such with scorn. Rarely did Immortals die in such a fashion...but such was the luxury of fighting men such as they.


Approaching the ring of heavy cavalry that marked the Shahanshah's place on the field, the two Immortals checked themselves and steeled the satisfied expressions on their faces.


"Eleutherios, Hero of the Day! I have long awaited you!" Manūkehr called out as he caught sight of his favored warlord. The Shahanshah looked fully satisfied, almost bursting with joy it seemed. And so it should have been, with his most stalwart enemy to date badly beaten and bound before the iron-shod hooves of his mighty destrier. "I have saved the death-stroke for your honored blade."


Eleutherios almost coughed, and inclined his head slightly. "O' Great-King, King of Kings, Lord of the Four Corners of the World, Scion of the Kings that Bestrode the Universe, this is too great an honor for a simple fighting man such as myself."


Manūkehr laughed, and dropped nimbly from his horse. "Nonsense! It is after all you who will take these lands, to ensure that they remain loyal to the Crown!"


Again Eleutherios was caught off guard. Truly, he served the best or Lords, the best Lord a fighting man could ask for. "The honor is beyond words Great-King. I will see to it that the stroke of blade is the surest it has been."


Sweeing the warblade from its scabbard, Eleutherios gripped the well-worn hilt with two hands, lifting it directly above his head and slightly at an angle over his shoulder. Tūr looked up at him, through the pulp of his battered face but did not flinch with the cruel Cussian blade sliced down, severing his head cleanly, half-way down the neck. The head rolled once and came to a rest. Eleutherios gripped it firmly by the thinning strands of hair wisping about the scalp of it, and lifted it high, before the Holy Sun and all those gathered.


The Shahanshah beamed. "And thus, we might turn our attention to the East."



Edited by Beautancus (see edit history)
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The bandit turned in his high-backed saddle, aiming a short bow as his long-legged, piebald horse thundered along at a run. Behind him, his target raked back his heels and lifted his shield higher. At this range, the chances were that the arrow would pass through the shield and hit its wielder, but it was the only chance the intended target would have to stop the arrow. Suddenly, the bandit lurched sideways his saddle and then fell. The pursuer at first couldn?t see the reason for the man?s death, but then noticed a white-fletched arrow sticking from his neck.


?Good shot, Pentekontarch. That bastard would have had me had he released that arrow.?


The Pentekontarch grinned behind his sallet and bevor as he moved up on his own horse. It was an honour to be thanked so by the great Grand Domestic. The Grand Domestic himself was fairly shaken. It had been a long time since an enemy had nearly killed him like that. He?s spent the majority of the years since he was a combat officer commanding the remaining defences of the Greater Holy Empire from incursion by the petty states that bordered it. They had sprung up from land once ruled by the Leopard Throne, but shaken it off after the collapse of Imperial power following the events of the Battle of the Plains. The Grand Domestic himself had been touring the defences of the Jaihu River when a small group of bandits had attacked.


The small Trapezitae patrol the Grand Domestic led had quickly and efficiently defeated the bandits; the only moment of worry was when one being chased down had attempted the difficult ?Parthian Shot? manoeuvre. Bandits and their ilk regularly preyed upon travellers along the ancient paved roads that criss-crossed Tagmatium, which meant that the Greater Holy Empire had to employ Trapezitae ? or light cavalry ? to police the roads. The band accompanying the Grand Domestic was soon on their way, leaving the bodies of the bandits where they lay, to act as a deterrent.


?So, sir, what brings you to this part of Tagmatium? Bar the fact of the defences, of course,? asked the Pentekontarch, who now rode alongside the Grand Domestic. The junior officer had taken off his sallet and bevor and attached them to his belt. It was much more comfortable out of the heavy armour than in it.


?His Imperial Majesty is worried about both Areopatene and Manucerus,? replied the commander, running a hand through his hair. ?Especially Manucerus. The river traders are muttering that he?s got ambitions towards Areopatene, which would mean that our nations would share a border.?


The junior officer nodded. He?d heard as much when his patrol had been out west.

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?? and thus, Most August and Serene Christian Imperial Majesty and Sovereign of the Occident, that sums up the request of his Royal Majesty, King Tigranes XXII.?


Allectus IV sighed. The Areopatene king was becoming more vocal in his requests for Tagmatine troops, primarily for pogroms against the Nestorian heretics that made up a small minority of his kingdom. Granted, there was friction between them and the Tagmatine-supported Iconoclasts, but the Nestorians also looked towards the Cussian Dominate for protection. A move against them might well force the hand of Manucerus against either Areopatene or Tagmatium, or even both of them.


?Ambassador, I?m afraid I cannot answer at this time. Allow me to confer with my advisors and leading generals. Then I can answer your royal master?s request.?


The Areopatenite ambassador, who had expected that answer, bowed with a flourish and backed away from the Holy Emperor, keeping low to the floor until he was passed a marker on the floor of the Imperial Throne Room. Once past the marker, he turned and walked out of the room, several minor Areopatenite dignitaries detaching themselves from the sidelines and trailing after the ambassador.


The Holy Emperor sat back in his chair, the famous Leopard Throne of Tagmatium. The seat was covered in a leopard?s skin whilst the arms and legs were carved into the likeness of leopards and covered in gold leaf. Traditionally, a real one had also been chained to the throne, but it had stopped after an embarrassing incident where an apparently tamed beast had turned and torn the throat out of a previous Holy Emperor before anyone could stop it.


?His majesty gets more insistent each time, doesn?t he, Alexius?? the rhetorical question was aimed at the Parakoimomenos, who was stationed to one side of the throne. ?I fear that if I keep denying him support that he will act rashly, against the heretics or ourselves. We may find that Areopatene will begin to look away from Tagmatium for support.?


He rose from the throne and walked down towards the exit, a train of courtiers following him but made to keep behind by a pair of Imperial Household Guards, dressed in blood red robes and black lacquered armour, a combination of plate mail and lamellar. Their sallet helms were plumed with red horsehair, unlike the rest of the army. The only person allowed to keep pace with the Imperial Sovereign was the Parakoimomenos.


?Indeed, your majesty, but I suspect that he won?t. After all, the other two major powers in the area are the Ttoilloi, who obviously support the Nestorians in his realm, or the Haru,? Commenus pronounced the last word with obvious distaste. They were a barbarian people and not to be considered seriously by the civilised nations of the Occident, if such a phrase could be stretched to describe the Cussian Dominate. ?Every other nation is too weak to give any more than lip service in support.?


Allectus nodded. ?You may well be right, Alexius. Still, I think that we must give the king?s request serious thought this time. It may well be time to move the armies onto the offensive, rather than have them guard the borders against mere brigands and horse-tribes. A string of victories, even against a heretical rabble, would instil pride, once again, in Tagmatine battle prowess, something that has distinctly been lacking in recent years.?


?Our armies are still strong, your majesty. I am sceptical of the idea that they lack morale. After all, they have held the borders. Your reign is the first in decades that the frontiers have not crept back. Indeed, Tagmatine soldiers once again garrison the eastern banks of the Jaihu, which has only happened with you at their head.?


The Holy Emperor waved his hand dismissively, irritated by the sycophantic talk of his advisor. ?That happened twenty years ago, Alexius, when I was a young man, capable of riding into combat at the head of the Kataphractoi or standing in a bill block with the Imperial Household Guard. Since then, we have been content on keeping the borders static; making sure that those petty, illegitimate states don?t encroach on our northern and southern borders any more, a situation hardly fit for the Greater Holy Empire. I dislike such lick-spittle behaviour from you.?


Commenus looked contrite. ?I do apologise, your majesty. You have managed to keep Tagmatium?s territory stable whilst barbarians, heathens and heretics attempt to gnaw at our borders and oust Imperial garrisons. That, in these troubled times, is no mean feat.?


?Indeed. It would be, however, a greater feat to work against these adverse forces.?


The Holy Emperor halted in front of the oaken, heavily decorated doors of the Imperial Office, where the business of running Tagmatium was done. Some monarchs rarely used the room, preferring to leave it to the armies of bureaucrats the scurried about the halls of the Imperial Palace Complex. Allectus, however, ran the Greater Holy Empire in a top-down manner ? all decisions were made by him.


?Parakoimomenos,? he said formally to the chamberlain, who was still puzzling over the Imperial Sovereign?s rather cryptic words, ?I require you to summon the Megas Mystikos, as well as the heads of the army, the Megas Logothetes and the representative of Theis. I believe its time we discussed the request of Tigranes and the Areopatenite situation.?

Edited by Tagmatium Rules (see edit history)
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Tsarevo, Bulgaria


For much of the second Bulgarian Empire the Tsars' have lead an increasing isolationist Bulgaria. The Tsars' dream of bringing Bulgaria out of the dark ages had yet to be fully accomplised. The Tsars wanted to emulate and replace the flickering light of civilization that was Tagmatium with a Bulgarian one. The closest they had come to this was under the reign of Simeon I. Dispite its isolation Bulgaria was all but quiet. The Tsar's armies were continueing the conquest of the "Bulgarian Island." One by one on the edges of the Tsardom, local Bulgar tribes were forced to bow to the will of the Tsars.


Nevertheless it had been three years since the lastest "anneaxation" and Tsar Constantine III had been eagerly planning the next move to the South. The tsar was forced to grow up fast as he was the youngest son of Constantine II and he had to systematically kill his brothers to assume control. Constantine was a soldier more that a Tsar. During the planning of each campaign Constantine grew more and more disgusted with his eldest son and heir who enjoyed lavish parties which were paid for by the vast treasures from conquered tribes. The Tsar and the upper elites continued to hear rumours of these parties which almost always turned into large orgies. The only thing that prevented Constantine III from giving the throne to another son was the fear of a succession war.


"Your Most Christian and Just Majesty, here are the documents you requested." The elder man said as he laid a map and notes of the region.


"Thank you Hassan." stated the Tsar as he unrolled the map of his latest enemy. "Gavril will definatly regret not accepting my gracious offer." Hassan was the Kefaliya of the Tsardom, the leader of the nobles and chief advisor of the Tsar, and Gavirl was king of the Alcek tribe of Bulgars, who had refused to pay a tribute to Constantine a terrible mistake.


"Yes your majesty he will regret that he ever crossed you and the generals say sire that the army will be ready to march on Alcek in a week or two."


The Tsar looked up and poured a glass of wine. "That is good Hassan. That is good." He stood up and walked over to the doors leading to the side garden at the palace. As servents opened the doors for the tsar, Hassan followed his leader. "Now Hassan What else is going on in the world?"


"Well my leige we haven't had any new reports of pirates on our shores. We still watch our old nemisis Tagmatium and our spies hear rumours of a possible confrontation with one of their supposed vassals."


"Well Hassan, depending on what hapens over there we will be able to get something out of it. Perhaps we could offer assistance."


"I don't understand."


"Well Hassan, if Bulgaria provides assistance to them we will be able to get and edge on Tagmatium. Be it by economic domination or political. Either way it would be good for us to have the "Holy Emperor" come to us for help."


"I understand sire, but where would we get the man power?"


Constantine looked back to the doors to his office area. "We will use the Alcek campaign. I'm sure King Gavril will be able to wait, plus we can just hurt him a bit without conqiering the Alceks. Getting our hands on Tagmatium would be more important. Continue the preparations for the Alcek campaign, but hold off with attack and we will wait to see what happens to the west."


"As you wish my lord."

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Northwestern Areopatene, three weeks after the end of the campaign against Shah Tūr


Babai, Bishop of Kapan (often in absentia), one of the last Bearers of the True (Nestorian) Interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had lived most of his adult life on the run. Preaching more often than not from horse, or even more commonly mule-back, he had grown accustomed to the hardships of the "road," as well as growing accustomed to the martial lifestyle that went along with it. Even now, half-way through the fifth decade of his life, he carried a great warhammer as easily as he carried the Gospel. Both had gone into action not so long ago, in defense of his people- what few of them seemed to be left after this most recent round of genocide. Areopatene's Nestorians, had long been oppressed by the "Basileus" and his heretic Diakonoi- seemingly with the express permission of the Great King of the Tagmaromoi. Even now, Babai was sure that Basileus Tigranes had hounds on his trail...Soon, that would not matter.


The two men before Babai were obviously butchers of the worst sort. Truly, he'd requested that they come some weeks before, and hadn't really expected that they would. But here they were, in their grisly, green-enamelled plate-mailed glory. Sitting around a camp fire, huddled against the slight highland chill barely an hour before dusk Babai and the two Cussian Immortals discussed the near future, and the possible salvation of the Nestorians of Areopatene.


The superior of the two Immortals, Fereydūn- a vassal of the new Shah of the Eastern March of the Cussian Dominate, spoke again in a hushed tone. "We are more than sympathetic to your plight o' Saintly One. It is most dispicable, the fashion in which the false-king Tigranes deals with you and yours. Such an affront cannot go unpunished. Will not go unpunished, if anything in the world is right."


Babai cocked an eyebrow at that last bit. "Will not? How can we," Babai waved his hands out, indicating his men in the camp, who were few in number and very haggered, "hope to stop him, when he now wields an army nearly so great as that of the Shahanshah of the Tagmaromoi?"


Fereydūn smiled wolfishly. "You cannot, to be perfectly honest Holy Babai. Not alone. Should you so choose, the army that will carry your cause against this man would be greater than any seen in these lands for many decades...one even greater than what the false-king Tigranes commands."


Babai chewed on that for a moment. Such a promise, though not clearly stated, but clear enough, was surely weighted with any number of contingencies. "That is a most worthy offer noble Lord...and one that I would be a fool to refuse...but there are more leaders to my people than myself alone...and I am reluctant to accept all aspects of such an offer without first speaking with them."


Fereydūn laughed this time, almost startling Babai. "We do not ask you to trade one bloody tyrant for another." Before Babai could protest Fereydūn held up a mailed hand. "We do not fool ourselves into thinking that we serve a Lord of Sheep, Bishop...we know better than most that our Great King is amongst the bloodiest Lords the Occident has ever seen. And much more blood will be spilt before he is done...it will be spilt here, whether you accept this offer now, or we come on our own later. We merely wish this process to benefit you- so that we might have...someone on the ground here to work with. When the time comes."


Babai sighed. So, the Immortal had layed it all out, with no pretensions. Fereydūn spoke again, this time more smoothly, "But, we shall enthrone you- or whoever you so choose as the Shah of these, and all the lands of western Areopatene- subservient only the Shahanshah- and to Jesus Christ naturally. With the franchise to dictate the laws of Christendom in these lands, as you never have before. And the blades of the Dominate will fortify this right, forever more."


Almost unsure that he'd meant to speak, the Bishop responded. "Done. I must still speak with the others, before I submit the name of he who would be Shah of these lands."


Fereydūn nodded. "Good enough. Our armies await only my word. They will come in force within four days. After which time, justice will be done."



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The Holy Emperor sat on his throne and in front of him stood several military and administrative officials. Beside the Imperial Throne, although not sharing the same dais, was a second chair and a desk, where the Grand Mystikos, or Imperial Secretary, sat and recorded the minutes of the meeting. The military officials were the Domestics of the Imperial, People?s Guards and Kataphraktoi, whilst the administrative officials were the Megas Logothetes (High Chancellor) and the Parakoimomenos as well as the Sacellarios of Theis, a representative of the Manichean City State, a nation which was closely allied with the Greater Holy Empire of Tagmatium, to the point that the Stately Council regarded the Holy Emperor as its sovereign.


?As you all know, the situation in Areopatene has become increasingly dire, with the Nestorian heretics becoming more of a problem and Tigranes XXII embarking on pogroms against them,? said Allectus IV. ?Whilst there has been no real risk to the Iconoclastic Christians the kingdom, the fact that Tigranes attacks the Nestorians risks the wrath of Manucerus and the Ttoilloi. A move by the Ttoilloi against the Areopatenites would undoubtedly be swift and crushing, without support from our troops. Thus, I wish to see what forces we can muster in order to prevent our Christian brothers from being defeated by the Ttoilloi heathens and their bloodthirsty tyrant.?


?Imperial majesty, I believe that I speak for rest of us in this room when I ask who will be in charge of this venture,? said the Kataphraktoi commander.


The Holy Emperor sighed. He knew that this would was going to be a key question but hadn?t expected it to arise so early in the meeting. Soldiers always wanted glory, and dearly wished that it would be solely their glory, especially as it would give their political influence a massive boost. ?Domestic, the commander will be the Grand Domestic Campanares who is currently undertaking a survey of the defences in the west. His command will also forgo usual debates of orders. He will be in sole command.?


The Kataphraktoi and Imperial Guard commanders grumbled to themselves, whilst the People?s Guard Domestic, a chubby man that Allectus - to his own surprise - didn?t recognise, looked relieved.


?Domestic Tzintziloukes, I would like to know how many men you can commit to this,? said the Holy Emperor, addressing the Imperial Guard Domestic.


?Imperial Sovereign, your Imperial Guard would be able to muster about six thousand men to put into the field, split fairly equally between cavalry, heavy and light, and infantry. Of the infantry, about half would be billmen and the others arquebusiers.? The Imperial Guard were the only unit in the Tagmatine Army that were allowed to use black powder weaponry, due to the expense of its manufacture and the relative difficulty in the alchemistic process in making the black powder itself.


The Holy Emperor nodded and looked over towards the People?s Guards commander. ?And you, Domestic? What can the People?s Guard send into combat??


?In the region of fifteen thousand, O Equal of the Apostles, mainly billmen and archers. A goodly number of horse in that number as well, mainly Trapezitae and Sagittarii. A battalion of Caballarii can meet up with us on the march, though, King of Kings Ruling Over those Who Rule.?


Allectus looked over to the Imperial Secretary, to make sure the man was noting down the numbers. Earlier in his life, his secretaries had to invent their own shorthand in order to keep up with his orders, especially on campaign when he gave both his commands to his armies and also instructions to the bureaucracy in Tagmatica.


The Kataphraktos spoke before being asked. ?Imperial Majesty, I can put into the field about one thousand horse. They would smash anything the wretched Ttoilloi can put into the field. Beneath their iron-shod hooves even the Immortals of Manucerus would be ground to dust.?


The Holy Emperor rolled his eyes at such bravado, although it did show that at least one of the divisions of the Tagmatine Army still had good morale.


?I am worried, Imperial Majesty, about the size of the forces being moved westward,? said the Megas Logothetes, Justin Aurelius, a man slightly older than the Holy Emperor and known to have vast experience. ?Surely this would encourage the barbarians from across the water to attack? They have been unusually quiet of late. I fear that Konstantin, their High King, is planning an attack against us, as he envies our achievements and wealth.?


?I am sure Konstantin is a reasonable man, Justin. I would have you dispatch an embassy to him, to make sure he will not endanger the Greater Holy Empire at this time. If that doesn?t succeed, we may have to look at more? forceful coercion.?


The Megas Logothetes looked concerned, but didn?t voice any more opinions.


?And what of you, Sacellarios? Where does the Stately Council stand on this matter??


The Sacellarios, who had been quiet until this moment, stood up straighter whilst being addressed by the Holy Emperor directly. ?Imperial Majesty, the City State would happily contribute to any campaign against a recalcitrant tributary state. However, the Stately Council is concerned about this? new found zeal against heretics. They wonder if it will affect the relationship between our two nations. After all, were not the Manicheans regarded as heretics until Constantine the Great decided to declare that they were, in fact, a separate religion rather than an off-shoot of Christianity??


?If I can assure the Stately Council that this isn?t a war of oppression against the Nestorians, how many troops can I expect to bolster my forces?? The Holy Emperor could see this becoming a costly exercise. Theis, unlike the rest of Tagmatium, had not suffered during the Greater Holy Empire?s down turn in fortunes. The city state was nominally under the control of the Holy Emperor, but recently it had been acting independently, carving out its own trading empire and reacting to Tagmatine requests of aid only after it had been given concessions.


?Well, O Imperial Sovereign, the Stately Council could despatch one thousand heavy infantry and a similar number of crossbowmen, but we will have to discuss how much assurance is necessary for such a large force to be sent.?


Allectus turned to look at the military commanders. ?Domestics, please go and gather your forces. The Megas Logothetes, the Sacellarios and I have policy to discuss.?

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Port Harbor


The Tsarevo harbor was the busiest is had been in centuries. Merchants from all over Europa were coming to sell their products in the Bulgarian capital. It was this business and the wealth of conquered nations that was making Tsarevo a growing city. It was quickly becoming a vast urban area that would soon rival Europa's largest and ancient cities.


Next to the crowded merchant harbor was the naval facility over flowing with the Tsar's best crews and vessals. However, by this time they should have been participating in a large blockade of the Alceks as the army crushed all resistance. Instead they were sitting in the docks wasting valuable time. Constantine III had put the entire campaign on hold pondering whether to take advantage of the possibility of Tagmatium's troubles. It wasThis site that the Tagmantium emissaries saw as they traveled into the harbor of Tsarevo.


Nevertheless, Admiral Closimir Rangelov quietly strode into the naval headquarters at the naval area of the harbor. In the meeting room sat several captians and commanders. Before speaking to the Tagmantium ambassador the Tsar gave his chief naval commander as small covert order. "His majesty has ordered us to begin operations against Tagmantium merchants and to sink any Tagmantium warships and to not leave and survivors." Closimir said the delighted comanders. "We are however to keep this quiet and the Tagmantines are not to know who is doing this. We are to fly the colors of raiding pirates from either Vocenae or Haruspex. It doesn't matter the choice is up to the individual captains since both are equally barbarians. We are trying to cripple Tagmantium economically so that they will not be able to fund their future plans against the Tsardom."


The captains smiled at the prospect of being able to fight and even better it would be fighting against Tagmantium. It wasn't long until the large caravels and carracks sailed out of the Tsarevo harbor and into the Ranke Sea in the direction of Tagmantium unbeknownst to the Holy Emperor.

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Northwestern Areopatene, one month after the end of the campaign against Shah Tūr


The day had grown intensely hot by noon, hotter than any for years it seemed. It wasn't as humid as might have been in the middle of summer, but the air was still heavy with recent rain. Wiping another sheet of sweat from his face, Orontes, the Crown-Prince of Areopatene raised the water-bladder up and allowed a bit of its contents to splash down on his reddened face and itchy beard. "I do so wish these damnable heretics would give it a rest. I'm as tired of chasing them through the brush as I ever have been of anything. They're not even worth fighting when we catch them." After rinsing his mouth out, Orontes spat a glob of something a little too dust colored to be comfortable, and sneered at his thoughts even more.


It had been almost two weeks since Orontes' force had actually found enough of the Nestorians to call their actions a skirmish, much less an engagement, and yet all the signs and talk from local informants still pointed to a general marshalling of their forces in this region. Rumors were also spinning of Ttoilloi coming down from the highlands- and Immortals at that. Orontes doubted that there were any Immortals here, but he didn't exclude the possibility that the new Basileus of the Ttoilloi. It wasn't that he didn't want to someday face the vaunted Immortals on the field- he in fact did. His family had a long history of facing the Ttoilloi; Orontes' own grandfather had slain the grandfather of the current Ttoilloi Basileus in battle two generations before. If his grandfather could do it, so could he, or so Orontes reasoned.


Orontes was so lost in his thoughts that he'd ceased scanning the treeline just ahead, and nearly missed the forward guard's cry of alarm. The erratic thunderclaps and great cloud of smoke rising from the edge of treeline almost jolted him out of his saddle, and it spooked his horse violently enough to cause the animal the rear. Barely able to get the animal back under control, Orontes nearly missed something else- what seemed to be a full cavalry charge cresting the ridge almost opposite the treeline where the gunfire was coming from. "How did our scouts miss this!?" His clarion call pierced the growing din of the chaos that his forces were descending into.


His lieutenant turned to answer, but was struck in the side of the head by a musket ball, and toppled from his horse, dead before he hit the ground. "Form up, in the name of Christ form a wedge! Meet these traitorous dogs head-on!" Orontes caught himself in mid-thought. The Nestorians couldn't have firearms. Not unless they'd stumbled into a store of salt-peter and gold that the King's surveyors hadn'd discovered yet...so it had to be the Ttoilloi. Another crackle of little thunders, and another volley of musket balls hissed through the air in Orontes' direction.


Orontes ripped his helmet up from the thong dangling at his saddle-bag, and jammed it down onto his head, and likewise ripped his sword from the scabbard at his side. Raising the blade high above his head, Orontes drew in a great breath in preparation for the command. The armored men now rushing down the face of the hill were arrayed in a similar fashion as Orontes' own men, though their armor was slightly heavier, and of a greenish hue. It would have been quite striking, had they not been rushing directly at him, lance-points down.


"Charge!" And with that, Orontes' cavalry launched forward. There seemed to be enough space between the onrushing Cussians and his own forces to build up sufficient speed for a good strike- if there were no other surprises...And a musket ball struck his horse- by horrible chance- directly behind the ear. The animals' great long head tossed up, and then the entire front portion of the animal dropped. Orontes was able to get his feet free of the stirrups as the rear-end of the beast toppled over, launching him several feet before the disaster. He rolled, hard, and his heltmet twisted on his face. He did have the clarity of thought to let go of his sword in mid-air, as he'd seen far too many such accidental dismounts result on one spitting themselves on their own sword upon landing.


Frantically yanking at his helmet, Orontes was careful to remain crouched, to avoid any other stray musket shots. The thunder of hooves had grown distant now, and the high, woman like screams of more horses sounded as the two cavalry forces collided. Finally free of his helmet, the Crown-Prince whirled to take in the carnage. It was too chaotic to tell, but he knew for a fact that his own standard bearer was missing from the fray...His eyes went back to the ground, searching for his lost blade. Another clap of thunder sounded- this time much closer, and he whirled back to face the tree-line. The musketeers who'd lain in wait there were now racing from their cover, followed closely by men armed with wickedly oversized axes- bardiches he'd heard them called. The infantry attached to his force was scanty- and they rather far away- seperated by some few hundred yards. Resolving himself to his fate, Orontes took to flight, attempting to salvage what bit of his future he might have left. As it was, he didn't see the cloud of smoke rise from the next volley, and he barely felt the sting of the seering hot musket ball as it struck him at an odd angle in the throat, sending him heels over head.


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The Tagmatine column marched westward. Its number was in the region of 22,000 foot and horse, with baggage trains behind and innumerable camp followers trailing the main force. There was also a small artillery train, mainly light anti-personnel pieces of the type known as ?culverins?, but there were also several light siege pieces. All crew were members of the Imperial Guard, as the use of firearms was left to the more prestigious in the Greater Holy Empire.


Light horse, such as the Sagittarii horse archers, walked their horses on the outside of the column, providing a screen for the heavier cavalry and the infantry. The wagons, carts and limbered artillery travelled along the ancient paved road at the heart of the column, taking advantage of the smooth surface. The infantry, even the Imperial Guard, slogged along in the mud at the sides of the roads, coated in dust kicked up by the horses and oxen and showered in grit by the grinding wheels of the carts.


At the head of the column rode the commanders of the many brigades and divisions marching to support the Areopatenite Iconoclastic Christians. The Grand Domestic was yet to join them, as he was still inspecting the fortifications on the Jaihu River, which acted as a natural barrier between the Greater Holy Empire and the Kingdom of Areopatene, but the column was currently under the command of a minor general. Amongst the front ranks of the column was a small unit of the red-clothed, black-armoured Imperial Household Guard, which showed how much value was placed on Grand Domestic Campanares. The elite soldiers of Tagmatium protect their charge with their lives and attempt to keep the man out of trouble.


The column was the largest Tagmatine force assembled in several decades, since the re-conquest of the far west by Allectus IV, and its passage could be seen, and heard, for miles. The dust cloud it kicked up was titanic, as was the thud of thousands of feet, both of man and beast. Outriders rode ahead of the force as a precaution against roving horse-tribes and bandits, but these outlaws were miles away, knowing better than to attempt to strike against such a show of Imperial power. Above the marching soldiers could be seen many different standards, pennants, colours and guidons, filling the air with the snap of cloth and an array of bright colours, reflecting the role of the units carrying them.

Tagmatica harbour was the sea port of the capital of the Greater Holy Empire. It was one of the busiest ports in Tagmatium and it saw a steady flow of traffic, as it lay at the easterly tip of the Greater Holy Empire. Most days saw the harbour full of masts of many different kinds of ship, from small cogs to caravels and carracks, biremes and triremes. Many different Occidental peoples were also represented, and many others from further away. Many goods were traded, anything from wool and grain to metal ores and more exotic products, like silks, tea and wines from the vineyards of Tagmatium.


The trade in the port was managed by the Harbour Master, an old job which had been around since before beginning of the Greater Holy Empire itself. The current occupant of position was Nicetas Choeroboscus, a man of middle years who had been a destinguished officer in the Holy Imperial Navy before taking up the prestigeous role of Harbour Master.


Currently, Choeroboscus was looking over the shipping records of the last week with several scribes, noting the discrepancies between the numbers of Tagmatine-registered ships leaving foreign ports and those arriving in Tagmatica.


?Perhaps the weather has been unusally bad, boss?? one of the scribes asked the Harbour Master. ?They say that weather has been worse recently, especially in the Kosscow Sea, beyond the Sea of Kings.?


Choeroboscus shrugged. It didn?t seem that the ships were being battered by the weather. After all, that often meant that survivors would be washed ashore, or that some ships would make it through, hulls battered and rigging tattered by the fierce storms. The ships had just been disappearing into thin air or entirely swallowed by the ocean.


Another scribe spoke up. ?Maybe the barbarians have begun preying on shipping again??


The Harbour Master sighed. ?That?s more likely. Not sure what we can do about it at the moment. It?s only a couple of ships every few weeks. I doubt the Imperial Government will really care about it at the moment. It could get worse, though.?

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Ranke Sea


The merchant ship was one of the most recent participatn of the Bulgarian pirate campaign. The Bulgarian captain, Alibrahim Sirakov, ordered that every man aboard the Tagmantine vessel be put to the sword and declared that all gold and jewels property of the crown. Captain Sirakov walked upon the deck of the ship as his men dragged crew members and passengers and held them as another soldier ran each Tagmantine traveler through with a sword. He was to leave no survivors.


Alibrahim ignored the screams of the victims as he watched over the transfer of any valuables from the Tagmatine ship to the Bulgar one. He gave his men leave to take what they wanted as long as it wasn't already claimed for the crown. This meant various goods and fabrics that the men knew would fetch a good price back at Tsarevo.


Captain Sirakov remained quiet during his overseeing until a screaming woman was drug from the lower decks to be killed. He walked over to the sreaming woman. "STOP!." The crewman looked up in surprise. "The women and children are to be taken back as slaves. They are sure to catch a good price back home." He smiled as they were shackled.


When he and his men had reboarded their own vessel the Tagmantine ship was set on fire erasing all trace of the invaders. Alibrahim Sirakov began to search the sea for his next victim.

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Northwestern Areopatene- just inside the gates of the city of Yerazgavors, three days after Orontes, the Crown-Prince of Areopatene fell in battle


Hooves and bootheels pounded the ancient cobblestones of the city of Yerazgavors' main street in unison with the thunderous drums of a triumphant army. Nearer to the city's interior, church bells tolled the visceral glory of the hour, ironically enough, in celebration of a victory won by men who were not at all Christians- of any sort. It had been two generations since any army other than that of the King of Areopatene had strode upon these streets- and then, in a past grown dim to all save the eldest, it had also been the Cussians.


At the head of the column of victorious warriors, atop of a warsteed that would have done any Prince proud, rode Fereydūn an Immortal Savārān Sardār (Chief of a Cavalry Divison), and vassal to Shah Eleutherios that commanded the Hosts of the Sun. Now a hero in his own right, victor of a battle fought against one of royal blood, Fereydūn greeted the people of

Yerazgavors in the same manner that he would have the folk of a Cussian city...with a kind and knowing smile, proudly brandishing his ancestral war-blade every few yards as if the victory were achieved only moments before.


To Fereydūn's side rode his own lieutenant, Makan brandished a long spear- at the top of which was skewered head and hands of the fallen Prince Orontes. The gun-shot that had killed the poor young man had nearly severed his head, and in order to polish the nature of his death up a bit, Fereydūn had order the beheading finished, so as to make it appear he'd fallen by the blade. That was a far more "noble" death by anyone's reckoning, here in this half-kingdom, and in Beautancus. After the parade was finished, and Fereydūn had officially taken possession of the city's citadel, the head would be packed in salt and sent off to the false-Shah of Areopatene, that he might know the fate that waited for him once the true King-of-Kings, Manūkehr, arrived.


The very thought humbled Fereydūn. He sincerely hoped that all that he meant to accomplish was, for failing so great and terrible a lord was more than the Immortal wished to contemplate. As things stood now though...Fereydūn tossed the thought out of his head. It was best for Immortals not to wish for such honors...but still, the warrior in him, the Cussian in him craved honor and titles as much as any man. Already glutted on the taking of heads, and with a coat of bloody honor nearly completed, Fereydūn reasoned that he should rightly concern himself with more lordly pursuits. After all, did he not now hold the "greatest" citadel in this forsaken corner of this forsaken half-country?


Casting a friendly glance over his shoulder to the Nestorian Bishop, Babai, who was comically enough riding into town on the back of a donkey, Fereydūn gave thanks to the true God, Ahura Mazda, for the small favors that He paid his true followers. Without Babai, much of this would have taken much more time, and would have been much more difficult. But with one such as him, crafty and hard-headed though he might be, Fereydūn would be able to bolster the numbers of the force he'd been sent with. Perhaps it would even be enough to take a few more of the walled towns in the region- and to ward off a serious counter-offensive until the Shahanshah arrived with his vast host- which could in truth only be rivalled by one other power in all the Occident. That of the so-called Shahanshah of the Tagmaromoi. Should the Eastern infidels be so foolish as to make war on behalf of Areopatene, they would soon learn the folley of facing one so great as Manūkehr. Whatever army they might be able to raise was sure to be pretty, but would it have a true thirst for blood the way that Manūkehr's did?


Fereydūn doubted it.



Eskendabelık, capital of the Eastern Cussian March, now under the rule of Shah Eleutherios, several days after the "capture" of Yerazgavors


Though it had been some time now since Eskendabelık had been subdued, with relatively little bloodshed, the celebrations had yet to cease, particularly in the Palace of the former Shah Tūr. Since the weather had taken a turn for the slightly more tolerable, the revelries had been moved into the great open garden at the core of the Palace.


The racous nature of the celebration was far from what anyone might have expected from Lords of Men so solemn normally, but today was a great day, punctuated by news of the acquisition of the greatest city of western Areopatene. In a particularly festive mood was the new Shah of Eskendabelık, Eleutherios, and his own master, the Shahanshah Manūkehr.


"It is but the first of many victories in the King-of-King's new Provinces! The first, but one well deserved and well orchestrated! I knew that I had not misplaced my trust in that young man by sending him there." Eleutherios pounded the table before him, as proud of Fereydūn as he would have been if the Immortal were his own son. Raising his wine glass above his head, and laughing, Eleutherios waited for his Monarch to acknowledge as much before going on. Manūkehr looked up from the slave-girl bouncing on his knee long enough to return the gesture, though more than anything it focused his mind on the fact that his own wine glass was nearly empty.


"More wine! And yes, yes old friend! I knew that your faith was well founded. His showing in our campaigns of the past few years had been enough, but now we know that you have trained us up a true lion, worthy of being your vassal, truly." The Shahanshah rarely drank as heavily as he had the past few days, though it was due more to swiftly alternating moods than anything. Word had arrived that his mother had fallen ill, and the knowledge that he was too far away, and too involved in the affairs of the Dominate to return had rocked him slightly. News of the birth of his first son, and third child altogether had offset that news slightly, and now word of the small, but important string of victories in Areopatene had almost reversed his melancholy.


The slave girl, Henninganian from her fair-skinned and light haired appearance came off the Shahanshah's knee and bounded off for more wine, giggling as his hand followed her posterior for part of the way. Manūkehr looked to the man directly at his side- who bore a striking resemblance to him. Slapping his near-twin on the back and roaring with laughter, he began, "Soon brother, we will be on the move again, and we will be able to put this awful news of our mother behind us! We will have new blood to slate our terrible thirsts, and new prostitutes to occupy our others!"


The other man, Rhahzadh, was the Shahanshah's half-brother, and only surviving sibling. He'd been born to Manūkehr's mother a year and a half before the previous Shahanshah had bedded the woman, and sealed the fate of Beautancus with his single night's actions. Rhahzadh smiled and nodded, breathing out a great cloud of shisha scented hashish smoke. "Aye. More of all, if there surely is enough left for us when we get there!"


Manūkehr laughed again, and extended his knee to the Henninganian girl as she arrived back, now with a jub of wine and his glass full. "Such a good girl. We shall have to see to it that you are taken care of." The girl blushed and leaned in close. The Shahanshah burst into laughter yet again, leaning forward and scooping up his glass. Downing most of the contents in a single gulp, he offered a brief excuse. "Now, if you will excuse me, it seems the lady has an idea of how she might be taken care of!"


All those gathered around the table laughed and raised their glasses. "To taking care of good girls, and for good! And to battle plans, which are better left for tomorrow." Eleutherios offered his best attempt at solemnity, despite his growing drunkenness. His words would have counted for less, if only those battle plans had not involved so many thousands of men, now bored from more than a month of restful drinking and fornicating.

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