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Can a Leopard Change its Spots?


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“Like the tiger, a big cat native to more southerly Europan climes than our own Arhomaneia, the leopard sometimes takes to man-eating. In my experience, a man-eating leopard is to be dreaded even more than a tiger that has gained the same taste, as it possesses greater agility and stealthiness, as well as its silence.”

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 Leopard Throne.

One of the most important symbols of Arhomaneia.

It stands on a dais of porphyry that is covered with a cloth of gold, under a canopy of the same material, at the end of the grand state throne room, the Asprotriklinos, of the Basilikon Synkrotima Palatión, the Imperial Palace Complex. The heart of the Megas Agios Basileia, the Greater Holy Empire.

It is actually a dual throne – the left hand side is the vacant seat of Christ. The Holy Emperor, the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaion kai Isapostolos, the Holy Emperor and Autocrat of Arome and Equal to the Apostles to give the more formal title, is the representative of God on Eurth, sitting at His right hand. The throne itself is gold and studded in precious stones, a shining example of Aroman craftsmanship and nothing that mere barbaroi could hope to imitate. Its seats are covered in leopard skin upholstery and the sides are in the likeness of snarling big cats, ready to pounce. The teeth of the leopards on the sides are ancient elephant ivory, the red tongues made from coral, their spots picked out in pieces of carved jet and the eyes are crafted from amber. This imagery gives the throne its name.

To enter the throne room, two vast gold-plated doors have to be opened. These magnificent works of art are perfectly balanced and swung outwards smoothly and silently. They are kept oiled and were polished regularly by one of the myriad of servants within the Imperial Palace Complex. It is considered a high honour to be selected to carry out the task. Once inside the room, a visitor is greeted by one of the most striking sights in the wurld. The walls of the throne room are a shining white, representing the purity and holiness of Arhomaneia. The floors are a gilded mosaic, breathtaking in its magnificence. Glass, gold and ceramic tiles displaying proud moments in history, fearsome hunting scenes and the glory that is embodied by the Arhomaioi. Behind the throne is a multicoloured stained glass window of vast size which bathes the room in jewelled light when the sun shines through it. Unlike other, more heterodox Christian nations, there are no recreations of heavenly scenes or the Saviour Himself – depictions of holy figures are considered to be idolatrous by Arhomaneia's particular brand of Christianity, the Aroman Church.

Great pillars hold up the high roof. These are alternatively shining white marble or porphyry. Beyond them, the walls are as richly decorated as the mosaic floor and more large windows of stained or clear glass, alternating in the opposite way to the pillars, allowing light to flood into the state throne room. It is designed to overawe any visitor to the throne room, as if being in the presence of the Holy Emperor wasn't enough in itself. The throne itself, on its raised dais, sits under a semi-dome at the apse end of the room with the words “Christ, King of Kings” inscribed across the conch of the apse. It is no mistake that the throne is under the eastern end. The ruler of Arhomaioi is appointed to this role by God Himself, manifesting His will on Eurth.

As a sign of the Agios Basileos' lofty position as the Thirteenth Apostle, those that approach the Leopard Throne's occupant are expected to acknowledge their lowly position. This act, called the Proskynesis, signifies the subservience of the one doing it and the recognition that the Holy Emperor is their rightful overlord. The act involves throwing themselves to the floor and kissing the Holy Emperor's feet with their arms outstretched. It has, however, become impolitic to expect foreigners to perform it these days. The overly proud barbaroi find it very offensive, as they often do not recognise the primacy of the Arhomaiki ruler over their petty overlords.

And as there was one Kingdom in Heaven, there is one Empire on Eurth.

That Empire has stood for centuries as a bastion of civilisation in a wurld of barbarism, a beacon of faith and light shining out and inspiring the lands surrounding it. It is a centre of culture, ever changing and evolving, and yet maintaining a link to the glorious past of the Aroman Empire before it, even if that past had yet to find the enlightenment of Christianity. This cultural heritage meant that it is Tagmatium's duty to shepherd the rest of Eurth towards that enlightenment and the civilisation that it brought with it.

The throne is flanked by a soldier from each of the six guard regiments of the Tagmata, the Palace Guard, the unit that had inadvertently gave the common name to the Megas Agios Basileia, the Greater Holy Empire. Their positions near the throne is kept in a strict rotation to avoid one being favoured over the others. The bodyguards are all brightly dressed, with horse hair plumes on their sallet helms the colour of their robes, clothes embroidered with golden thread and carrying shields decorated with symbols of Christ and Arhomaneia.

A soldier from the Exkoubitores, their name meaning “Sentinels”, currently stood on the right of the throne, the closest to it. Perhaps the most famous of the units from the guard corps, their red robes and black lacquered armour, a mix of lamellar and plate mail, made them a distinctive sight throughout the capital of the Greater Holy Empire. They regularly accompanied members of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, the Imperial Government, abroad on diplomatic missions. Behind the Exkoubitor was one from the Ikanatoi, the “the Able Ones”, wearing red armour, cream robes and carrying a spear. Next to the Ikanatos, dressed in red robes and cream armour, was a Optimatos, holding a shield and a sword.

To the left of the throne stood a soldier of the Athanatoi, “Immortals”, in green robes and wearing a similar mix of lamellar and plate, although their armour was coloured blue. This soldier was armed with a short-shafted axe as well a sword. Behind the Athanatos was one of the Paramonai, the name coming from those who stood close to the Agios Basileos. They were armed with maces and shields, dressed in blue robes and steel armour buffed to a mirror shine. Like the Exkoubitoi, their role was to closely guard the members of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, the palace complex and Tagmatika itself. Completing the row of three was one of the Arkhontogennhematai, “the sons of officers”, in shining steel armour contrasting with pitch black robes and holding a spear.

The appearance of the guards might be deceptive - they were drawn from decorated combat veterans from the Tagmatine army or from candidates that had especially impressed their instructors during training. They would die to protect their charges and took their roles extremely seriously.

As well as soldiers from the Tagmata, at all times dignitaries and attendants from the amongst the government, the civil service and the court aristocracy waited on the throne, even if it was vacant. They were dressed in jewelled robes of ancient, although not out of date, style. Whilst the positions within the court aristocracy were not hereditary, members of it were often granted great estates within Arhomaneia. This meant that they would have the time to wait on the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator without having to worry about money or inability to afford the splendour in which they would have to dress. They may not have been as powerful as the military or bureaucratic aristocracies in the reign of Kommodos III, but there was power in proximity to greater power. They were the cup bearers, the concierges and ushers, with their families having been in the service of the Greater Holy Empire for generations, even centuries. Being close to the Holy Emperor for many hours meant that they often had his or her ear and even become valued confidantes. They might be perceived as useless hangers-on by some but that often couldn't be much further than the truth. The Greater Holy Empire would last, and they would have their day again.

With the guards around the throne and the attendants surrounding it, completing the groups within the throne room were a choir of monks, chanting praise to Christ. They were dressed in black clerical robes that were a sharp contrast to the sumptuous dress of the courtiers and the elaborate uniforms of the bodyguards. Bishops and other prelates were often in the state throne room too, as the Holy Emperor has such an important role within the affairs of the Church. The smell of incense permeated the cavernous room. If the Holy Emperor was present, then the chanting would cease and a respectful silence would dominate the room. Only if the Vice-Gerent of God willed it would that be broken. Court ceremony was entirely designed to emphasise the dignity and prestige of the monarch and to imply the superhuman nature of the one that sat upon the Leopard Throne.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in activity from the Greater Holy Empire. At first, its attention had been focussed beyond Europa, then Arhomaneia turned somewhat quiet. Unlike @Adaptus, Tagmatium's closest neighbour, ally and fellow heir to ancient Arome, the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion has not become destabilised. Eurth had seen the influence of the Megas Agios Basileia spread. Several programmes to improve Tagmatium's environmental impact have taken precedence over the military actions that had seen the nation's international prestige increase over the years. Sustainable power generation has been stepped up across the country, from wind farms to hydro-electric power stations. There has been some rumblings within the nation's borders, primarily from pro-democracy campaigners, although these had been dealt with peacefully. They did not shatter the tranquillity and prosperity that had been earned after the hard shock of the Civil War in EK7513 (AD2005) and the struggle of the nation finding its feet again in the years that followed.

Arhomaneia had once again become a main player on the wurld stage, with much of Eurth seeing its influence. But the same wurld was changing, and it was said by some that the Megas Agios Basileia needed to change with it, lest it become stagnant and lose its place as the country that all others looked up to. Arhomaneia could not afford to slip back into the background. It had come a long way since the Civil War and had reforged itself under Kommodos Iakoumos, who had been elected to his position in the aftermath. As yet, it remained to be seen how this most ancient and glorious nation would deal with the changes that had happened around it.

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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 Exousiokrator 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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“The leopard can stalk and jump, and can climb better than a tiger, and it can also conceal itself in astonishingly meagre cover, often displaying uncanny intelligence in this act.”

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.

 


 

Fillipos sat back in his chair and raised an eyebrow at his monarch. The statement didn't surprise him, however.

Well, no. That was a lie.

It did surprise him. Democracy in the Megas Agios Basileia had long been an awkward topic. Nominally, it existed at almost every level of the state, from the Agios Basileos down. There was an election for the position of the Tagmatine monarch every time the Leopard Throne became vacant. It was just that the list of those standing as candidates were often chosen by the previous incumbent. Or the military. Or so heavily whittled down by exceptions and limiting factors that the result was entirely predictable. This pattern followed down the levels of the state, to the Thema to the Boulai, so that the regime of Kommodos rarely had any upsets when it came to enacting the Autokrator's will in Arhomaneia.

“Why now?” asked Fillipos. He shook his head, indicating that he didn't actually want Kommodos to answer. “No, I think I can work out why, your majesty. It's the death of the Exousiokrator, isn't it?”

Kommodos sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. It was the man's typical gesture, one of thought, observance and, perhaps most importantly, distance. “Ji'Mar's death was perhaps something of a shock, I will admit. I did not expect him to be killed, nor in the manner that he was or when he was. The souring of the alliance between our two nations was a blow, as you can imagine. It did, however, provide Arhomaneia with an opportunity to connect more with other nations on Eurth and show that those who defy God get what they deserve. And I do not believe that the Gharoi are aware of just how badly Ji'Mar has damaged the relations between us.”

On the face of it, that was the answer to Fillipos' question, but the Kouropalates kept looking at the Agios Basileos with a bland expression on his face. Kommodos stared back, equally impassively. The souring of relations between Machina Haruspex and Arhomaneia had been a body blow to Kommodos. The alliance between Parthen and Tagmatika had been one of the biggest achievements of his reign. To see it cast so readily aside by the Gharoiki monarch's son had been a vast disappointment. Push came to shove, however, and it seemed like membership of TRIDENT would be a better deal than any continued close relationship with the northern Occident nation. The Tagmatine monarch was not going to be the one to blink first, however. Fillipos knew that well enough, so he was the one who broke the silence.

“There is more to it than that, however, your majesty, isn't there?”

“Yes, Kouropalates,” said the Agios Basileos. “Of course there is.”

He slowly stood and walked to the large window that made up the rear of the Imperial Office. It looked out over part of the roof top of the palace and towards the Square of Agios Konstantinos. The cold wind was still blowing snow across the wide open space of the square, although it seemed to have lessened since Fillipos had walked across it. The day seemed to be getting brighter. Kommodos stood looking out from the window for a minute or so and Fillipos almost said something before he thought better of it. He waited until Kommodos chose to break the silence.

“With God's blessing, I have ruled Arhomaneia for fifteen years. I have, and I say this with little self-aggrandisement, been one of the most successful monarchs the Megas Agios Basileia has seen in decades. If not centuries.”

It was true, in all honesty. The Navarkhokrateia, despite their authoritarian rule, had never had the control that Kommodos had been able to wield and the corruption had watered down everything else. Theodosios VI, who had defeated them, had the popularity but not the same level of respect and saw the themata start to go their own way. Despite how Kommodos, then as the Rhaiktor or High Chancellor, and the then Mesazon or Prime Minister, Maurikios Amfonos attempted to bring the themata together, the country fractured.

The current monarch may not been as well liked as Theodosios and is more controlling that the naval emperors, the borders of Arhomaneia had once again been restored. They now stretched again from the Iaehos river in the west to the Krankes Thalassa in the east, from the island of Akhbiseia in the north to Ragas Thalassa in the south. He had seen off several existential threats to Arhomaneia, leading the nation through the chaos of the EK7513 Civil War and the crises of the Fatherist Uprising and the AdSoc War.

Yet despite this apparent success, something was clearly on Kommodos' mind. He lapsed into silence and the Kouroapalates shifted his gaze from the back of his monarch's head and to first the private secretary and then to the chief bodyguard. Neither the Mystikos or the Protospatharokandidatos met Fillipos' eyes. Then he knew that Kommodos had discussed the matter with the pair of them before this meeting with him. Part of him was offended, as he had known Kommodos since before he had been elected to the the Leopard Throne. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising – the Mystikon was the private bureaucracy of the Autokrator and the bodyguards, by definition, spent more time in the monarch's presence than anyone else. Fillipos wondered who else might know what was in the Agios Basileos' thoughts. Perhaps his personal priests? That would be something to possibly investigate later, even if it was not a Christian thought.

Kommodos spoke without turning away from the window, interrupting Fillipos' nascent schemes.

“I do not wish to meet my end like Ji'Mar, cast down because I ignored my people and put to death like a rabid dog.”

As yet, no one in Arhomaneia precisely knew how Ji'Mar had died but no one imagined that it was a dignified end. Fillipos was silent. Often, when someone had something on their mind, asking questions would distract them from their thoughts and interrupt them. Letting them fill the silence of their own accord often got them to say much more than if they were prompted to say something. Because of this, Fillipos sat in his chair and slowly finished his cup of tea. Kommodos stood at the window in that silence, seemingly looking out of it into the square below. He was likely not actually seeing what was going on, however. The Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaion was lost in his own thoughts. The realisation was somewhat surprising – Kommodos had caused enough bloodshed that Fillipos was sure that his own thoughts was the last place he would want to be. Perhaps his conscience was clear, unlike that of Fillipos.

It felt like a long time before anyone spoke again.

“I am an old man,” the Arhomaiki monarch continued and then paused again. There was an element of sadness in his voice. It was more emotion than Fillipos had heard out of Kommodos in over a decade. When the monarch spoke again, his voice was as steady as it had always been. “I do not wish that the Arhomaioi be shackled to me in my decrepitude. I do not believe that that is the will of God, either.”

The Agios Basileos still looked out of the window and shifted slightly. That slight shift meant that, for a brief moment, there was not the Thirtheeth Apostle, the Vice-Gerent of God on Eurth, the Sole Ruler of the Aromans and the Leader of the Free Wurld, looking out of the window across the capital. In the place of the iron-willed monarch who had done much in the service of his country and his God was an old man in his late seventies, wearied after years of the uneasiness of the head that wears the crown.

“I have grandchildren now,” Kommodos said quietly, as much to himself as to Fillipos. He sounded tired. “I would like to spend time with them, for once.”

In as quick an instant, the walls were back up and the same cold, distant ruler as ever before turned around and placed his hands on the back of the throne behind the desk.

“I would be the first Agios Basileos kai Autokrator to step down from the Leopard Throne since Leon III, fifty-seven years ago. And for the same reasons.”

For a moment, the Kouropalates thought that he had misheard Kommodos. He sat further forward in his chair but he then caught the eye of Boioannes. The Mystikos just shrugged slightly.

The words were said with the same force with which Kommodos had always spoken but Fillipos felt for the first time that they were brittle, like cast iron. It took the proud man a lot to admit that he was, in effect, defeated. Democracy was not an instinct that came naturally to the Tagmatine monarch but he was finally having to admit that it could well be the only way forward for the Megas Agios Basileia.

“F*cking hell,” said Fillipos, when he realised he'd not misheard. He'd known it had been coming since the start of the conversation, to some extent, but the news was still shocking. Realising he should say something more fitting to the historical importance of the information that he had just heard, the Kouropalates paused for a moment. He was one of the trusted members of Kommodos' inner circle and had been regularly used as a chief diplomat to foreign nations and as the mouthpiece of ruler of the Heart of Civilisation. He paused for a moment before speaking again. “I mean... your majesty, that is certainly a momentous decision.”

The emperor that Kommodos spoke of had been installed at the end of the Long War after overthrowing Konstantinos VIII, the last of the Epifanios dynasty. Leon Theonikos had been chief of staff to the famous general Tagmatios Katakalkon, and had been acclaimed emperor in the aftermath of that disastrous war. He had surpassed any expectations of a military regime and had used his power and the almost revolutionary atmosphere at the start of his reign to presided over a genuine flowering of democracy in Arhomaneia. This start of democracy had been facilitated by a military coup and was eventually done away with by another military coup, the one that had brought into being the Navarkhokrateia, the Rule of the Admirals.

“However, that will not be until we put into place a proper plan for any transition. I will not step down and allow Arhomaneia to just slip into chaos. We have all spent too much of ourselves for that to be the case. Because of this, Kouropalates, I am going to put you in charge of working out the best process for the democratic changeover, although with myself as the eventual adjudicator.”

“God willing, it will be done, your majesty.” Kommenos stood and bowed to his monarch. As he sat down again allowed himself a secret smile. Despite Kommodos' apparent willingness to retire from the rulership of Arhomaneia, the old tyrant still wanted to make sure that everything was going according to his plan, rather than anyone else's. That likely should always be expected. Even in retirement, it would take more than an allotment and home-grown cabbages to distract Kommodos from meddling in any new emperor's reign.

“There is also the question of the Synkletos,” Kommodos continued. “It is time that august body met once again, although there will have to be reforms.”

“Of course, your majesty.”

The way the Agios Basileos phrased it made it sound as if there was another factor in the Synkletos, the Senate, not meeting. The only reason was that Kommodos had decided that it wasn't necessary to his rule of Arhomaneia. He had seemingly decided that he didn't want any oversight of his actions, although the Synkletos had had very little power. At best, it had been able to issue resolutions and act as a consultation body. At worst, it had been a hotbed of supporters of the Navarkhokrateia and been a key player in the EK7513 Civil War. The Agios Basilikon Vestiarion acted as the advisory and sounding board that Kommodos wanted, so the Synkletos had never been called to sit, once they had taken part in the acclamation of him as Agios Basileos. In theory, that was not something that the Arhomaiki monarch could do, but if that person had the loyalty of the armed forces and the people, there was little the Senate could do.

Fillipos looked into his empty teacup. He realised why Kommodos dismissed the servants and aides that were in the room but it meant that he was going to get his own refreshment. The monarch caught the Kouropalates' action and nodded. He stood and walked over to the urn at the side of the room and helped himself to a fresh cup of tea.

“The next and most obvious point, your majesty, is Isaakios Niketas. He will want involvement in any attempt to reopen, or re-found, the Synkletos. Whilst he has not had much traction in recent years, he could cause a stink if he's not invited to at least consult on any developments.”

Kommodos sat himself back down in his chair. He rested both of his hands on the leather writing pad on the desk.

“Yes. Niketas could well be something of a stumbling block.”

He shared a brief, brief glance with Adrianos, the Protospatharokandidatos. That one look was all that Fillipos needed to know. Another loose end to be tidied up, in one way or another.

“As it is, I have decided that Niketas will not be asked about the future of the Synkletos. His Nea Demokrateia is nothing more than a personal vehicle of vindication. We both know that. He was born into the role of a Synkletikos and he has no right to demand democracy. If I decide that Niketas is to take part in any future aspect of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, then it will be at my invitation. Not because he has acted in the manner of a demagogue. Giving such actions any credit would destabilise the Arhomaneia that we have made.”

The gold armoured, white robed figure to Kommodos' right didn't react further after the shared glance. It was to be assumed, then, that Niketas wasn't going to meet any clandestine end. And it seemed like the Agios Basileos was not going to allow the ex-president of the Synkletos to steal any of his thunder as the one who brought democracy back to Arhomaneia, after a fashion. Perhaps Niketas had genuinely found belief in the role of the people in government, in a way he never had before. Perhaps Kommodos was correct in dismissing the man's attempts to win back his old role with popular support.

“Of course, your majesty,” answered the Kouropalates. He shared the opinion of Niketas. The man was a hypocrite of one of the highest orders. He had spent his career as Proedros of the Synkletos feathering his own nest and making sure that democracy didn't edge its way in and undermine what he had. Now, the man was trying to whip up public feeling to back his attempts at getting back the prestige he once had, using those he once scorned.

Fillipos hesitated for a moment. Fifteen years was a long time, after all. The Arhomaioi did deserve to know what was going on. That their monarch had not forgotten about them. They did not love him but they also did not hate him. If a monarch was the parent of their nation, the Arhomaioi had a cold, distant, stern parent, one that they respected but could never truly love.

“Perhaps, your majesty, you should suggest to our people that you are taking steps to make sure that their voices are heard again. This should not come as a shock and it should show that you are not going to end as the Exousiokrator.”

There was a slight creak of hinges behind Fillipos and the smell of incense began to waft through the room again. It signalled that this private meeting was over. The priests, bodyguards and lesser Mystikon agents began to filter back into the room. The Agios Basileos' short break was over it, it seemed.

“I shall make sure that we discuss the situation further, Kouropalates.” It was a bland statement that any of the new listeners could take for anything. Despite his carefully neutral expression, Fillipos knew that Kommodos had a lot to think about.

“My child, I thank you for bringing this to my attention. May the blessings of Christ be upon you.”

With that, Kommenos stood and began the ritual that allowed him to leave the presence of the representative of God on Eurth.

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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 Rhaiktor, 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 Rhaiktor 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 Aemilian 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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  • 4 weeks later...

“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 Exousiokrator 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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“The leopard is mainly linked to Tagmatium due to the Leopard Throne, which was originally commissioned during the rule of Emperor Auxentius, who also commissioned three other thrones, one for each of the quarters that he split the Aroman Empire into in AD281. It is the only one that survived the Burning of Arome in the summer of AD297.”

From An Introduction to Ancient Arome, by Oddmund Hermansen (editor), Sankt Thorbjørns Universitetforlaget, Saint Thorbjørns University Publishing House, in EK7496 (AD1988).

 


 

There had been one question dominating Zemarkhos' thoughts for days now. Everything else just seemed secondary to it. It started to consume his thoughts and whenever he couldn't distract himself with his work, he started to dwell on it again.

Precisely who was the person that that damn demagogue meant?

Every night, as he drifted off to sleep, the invasive thought slipped into his brain and jolted him awake. It was ruining his sleep, whether he was in the town house near where his Logothesion had its main offices, or the apartment near the Palace, or one of the grand villas his family had dotted across Arhomaneia. His wife had started to ask about how tired he was beginning to look. Even his secretaries and the under-ministers had shared glances when he wasn't looking. Zemarkhos had started to nod off at his desk during the day and that was going to start tongues wagging, sooner rather than later. Rumours would fly around and even if they were outlandish, they would start to gain traction.

The Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon was at his desk now, in the offices apportioned to his Logothesion within the Basilikon Synkrotima Palation, the Imperial Palace Complex. The Logothesion ton Ilektrikon might be one of the newer ministries within the Megas Agios Basileia, and therefore rank much more lowly than others in the table of dignities, but it was now one of the biggest. And lived up to its name as one of the most powerful. Accordingly, due to this unequal mix of honour and strength, he was in one of the largest suites of rooms available to the Logothesia but on the outskirts of the palace itself. The rooms were, however, centred around a small colonnaded courtyard with a garden laid out with in the classical style and even had a small fountain in the middle. It made the annoyingly long walk to the heart of the palace bearable and the affront to his personal and family dignity almost pleasant.

Now Zemarkhos found himself with an idle moment, in between meetings with his inferiors or petitioners from other Logothesia, his thoughts turned back to the what the ex-Proedros said.

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

Those two sentences echoed around his head, as did the smug tone of Niketas.

He rolled his fountain pen back and forth in little arcs across the green leather pad on the top his desk and wondered precisely who it could be.

Really, it could be only one of two people. The Megas Logothetes tou Praitoriou the Minister for Police, could be ruled out instantly. Helena Glabria was of the wrong gender, after all. Unless Niketas was trying to lay down a false trail to start with, but that would seem completely pointless if he took the man's words at face value. Which may not be a good idea, as they were likely the opening shots in a treasonous plot, but be that as it may. Anyway, the police would have needed a warrant to tap either of their phone lines and neither of them had done anything illegal, yet. And Frantzeskhos was sure that he had enough family friends within the judicial system to have heard of such a move against him.

The other outside chance was that it was Honorios Kontarian, the Megas Logothetes tou Stratiotikou, the Minister for War. Kontarian had access to the military intelligence service, the Mandatores, but that seemed unlikely. It would be a gross breach of the law and the remit of the military intelligence service to spy on important public and governmental figures like himself and Niketas, although perhaps not entirely unthought of. However, that then would mean that not only the Logothesion tou Stratiotikou was involved but also the Epistrategaion, the High Command. Both were a nest of snakes loyal to Kommodos, as the old tyrant had given both of them heaps of glory over the years of his reign. And Honorios was likely far too caught up in the ideas of honour and loyalty, as inspired an upbringing in an ancient military family. Although the history of Arhomaneia showed that that would only go so far until one of those families rose up and unseated whoever was sat on the Leopard Throne and placed a scion there instead.

The Megas Logothetes suddenly found the movement of his own pen irritating and stood up. He pushed his chair back, walked across the thick carpet and over to the paned doors that were the entrance to his office from the colonnade and looked out. Two tiled paths quartered the garden and a small group of sparrows hopped around on it, looking for anything edible. Another two bathed in the fountain, the rapid movements of their wings spraying water onto the low wall that surrounded the base of the fountain. Sunlight came in through the light well in the centre of the garden and caught the drops of water from the fountain's water jets and the activity of the sparrows. The man started to watch the birds without really seeing them.

It should also be assumed that Niketas was being ironic in his use of the term “mutual friend”, or so Zemarkhos thought. Whilst Zemarkhos actually did consider Kontarian a friend – or at least his monstrous arrogance and sense of entitlement and pride recognised the other Megas Logothetes as an equal – he had no idea whether Niketas even knew him that well. Certainly, they would have met a handful of times before the president of the Synkletos had been removed from his position. And Niketas hadn't been a complete exile from high society since then, as the Niketai were a family as old and as wealthy as the Zemarkhoi and the Kontarianes. The loss of his position wouldn't have eroded the ties with the other great families, especially since it wasn't his fault.

No, Isaakios had done that himself when he established Nea Demokrateia as a stick to try to use to beat that jumped-up peasant. It had been an activity considered unworthy of the aristocracy, primarily because of the fact that there was a deep-seated and primal fear amongst them that it could lead to the lower classes becoming empowered and trying to snatch the privileges that had been so carefully hoarded and curated for such a long time. He had attracted some of the more idealistic younger aristocrats and the keener members of the middle classes. Perhaps what had doomed it to failure in the end was that the ex-Proedros was never a revolutionary at heart. He was a reactionary, through and through. He was just throwing his toys out of the pram.

If it wasn't Kontarian, then who might it be? The view from the window started to distract Zemarkhos from his own rambling thoughts and he walked away from it, slumping into one of the armchairs in a corner of the room.

The other candidates were the Megas Logothetes tou Dromou, the Minister for Internal Affairs, or the Kefale of the Arhomaiki Noimosyni Dykton, the Head of the recently combined intelligence agencies. Neither man was particularly impressive and both were just examples of the nea anthropoi that Kommodos had surrounded himself with. The former was a grey blur in the manner of the Agios Basileos himself – quiet, competent and useful. Although that Logothesion had the police split from it several years ago, when it seemed that too much power was accruing in Logothesion tou Dromou – it was also in charge of immigration, the postal service and much more besides. Including the EEP, the secret police. No, it didn't seem as if Pantaleon Tonaras would risk all of that to try anything against Kommodos.

And then the final person, Andronikos Keftedes?

Another grey blur, although of a different sort. He was rumoured to be a fanatic and an ascetic. Certainly, his pallid and skeletal appearance seemed to bear that out. He was a man devoted to God, his country and his monarch but not necessarily in that order. For whatever reason, he and the old tyrant got on very well, to the point that Kommodos had amalgamated the foreign and internal intelligence services and put them under the control of Keftedes. Again, he seemed in danger of throwing all that away. Although, perhaps if his fanaticism was more to God and country than monarch, Keftedes could have been convinced that toppling him would be the best way to do glory to both.

The intercom on the desk rang and Zemarkhos almost jumped out of his skin.

Slowly, he got out of the armchair and walked over to it. He pressed the answer button.

“Hello?”

“It's your 14:00 meeting, Megas Logothetes,” replied his personal secretary. “Megas Logothetes Kontarian has just arrived.”

Several thoughts struck Zemarkhos at once. The first was that he had been so deep in thought that he'd entirely missed his lunch. The second one was that he could have sworn that he had had no such meeting when he had looked through his schedule earlier that morning. He slid behind his desk and sat back in his chair.

“Thank you, sekretikos,” replied Frantzeskhos. “Please show him in. And see to it that we are brought some refreshment.”

He retrieved his fountain pen from where it had rolled and took out a report he had been reading through earlier on in the day, to make it look like he was actually doing something when Honorios came into the room. When the other Megas Logothetes entered the room, Frantzeskhos stood and both of the men gave each other a half bow. They briefly exchanged pleasantries before Zemarkhos gestured towards the chair opposite the desk and Kontarian sat in it.

Neither of the men said anything whilst several aides brought in tea and a selection of small pastries and olives in oil and laid them on small tables specially placed to be with arms' reach of the ministers. They continued to sit in silence for a moment as the aides busied themselves, the tension building within Zemarkhos whilst Kontarian seemed to be totally oblivious to it.

All Zemarkhos could think of was how wrong he had been with his estimations earlier.

The Megas Logothetes tou Stratiotikou was the first to break the silence.

“Our mutual friends have been bugging me about you, Frantzeskhos,” Honorios said blithely. He picked up a pastry and looked at it for a briefly before taking a bite. He chewed for a moment, swallowed and put the pastry down on a delicate porcelain plate that had been set out for him. “They seem to think that you're up to something.”

“Like what?” Zemarkhos' mouth was so dry that he could barely get the words out.

“They think you're hiding something from them,” the other man continued. This time, he took a sip of tea. It was almost as if Kontarian was doing it intentionally. The expression on his face seemed to be entirely unconcerned. “These apparently sleepless nights, the fact that you've been looking much more pale recently...”

“I'm not sure what you're getting at, Honorios,” he asked calmly. However, he was screaming inside.

Kontarian looked him in the eye, genuine concern on his face. The man looked uncomfortable and he shifted on his chair, hesitating before he said anything else. “You've not had any serious, ah, diagnoses recently, have you? Everyone's been worried, especially after what happened to poor old Skeles, may God rest his soul.”

“What?” asked Zemarkhos, completely thrown off by the question. The panic over where Kontarian had been going, what he had been building up to was completely gone and replaced by genuine puzzlement.

“Well, you know... We've not seen you about much recently and your wife might have said to mine that you've not been sleeping that well.” Kontarian looked sheepish, as if he had embarrassed himself.

“No, just work, may God be praised.” The smile of relief that Zemarkhos had on his face was broad and genuine.

The other Megas Logothetes seemed to relax. “That's good, then. Thank God indeed.”

They both sat in a slightly uncomfortable silence for a moment before Kontarian finished his pastry.

“It'd be good to see you out, though,” the War Minister said, putting his plate back on the side table with a slight clatter. “I realise that we have the honour of running God's own country on Eurth, but we must also take time for ourselves, to make sure that we can keep doing His work.”

“Oh, of course,” agreed the Megas Logothetes ton Ilektrikon. He took a sip of his tea and selected a pastry of his own and nibbled at it. The feeling of tension hadn't completely gone, however, and it was difficult to swallow anything. Another sip of tea washed down the crumbs before he could choke on them.

“My brother's on leave from the Tagmata and is hosting a tzykanion tournament at his estate this weekend. You should come and join us. It'd give you a chance to relax for a bit. Get away from all of this.” Kontarian gestured around at the office, as if the luxuriously furnished room was somehow oppressive. “You still have your horses, of course?”

Zemarkhos felt himself calm down a bit. The Tagmatine version of polo was very popular amongst the aristocracy and was one of the activities that was thought to make a true member of the upper classes. Before becoming a member of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, he had been considered to quite good at it but becoming professional would have been unbecoming of someone of his family. He was back on much more solid ground, distant from conspiracies, spies and treason. He smiled at his friend. “Of course, Honorios. It would be good to see Alexandros again. I've not seen him since his wedding.”

Kontarian clapped his hands together. “Excellent! I shall tell him to expect you and your wife, then. It will definitely set everyone's minds at ease to see you.”

He stood up and Frantzeskhos did as well. Both men gave each other a half bow and the Minister for War left the room.

As soon as the door closed, Zemarkhos suddenly felt sick. He span around and dry heaved into the waste paper basket next to the desk. His heart was racing and he could feel the blood pulsing in his veins. How in Christ's name had Kontarian used the exact same language that Niketas had? Was it sheer dumb luck or had it been a warning shot? Did he know? He had to confess. Step back, be done with it and let that peasant know.

The intercom rang again, breaking these thoughts before his resolve could crumble.

Straightening up, Zemarkhos wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. He pressed the button on the intercom.

“Yes, sekretikos?” he asked, an element of caution in his voice.

“Your 14:30 appointment is here,” the secretary said. “The Megas Logothetes tou Dromou, to discuss a plan to consider an inter-ministerial working group about liaising about the security of wind turbines.”

Comfortably boring and mundane. Typical bureaucracy. Such a group could wind on for years without much coming of it. Zemarkhos began to think about which of his inferiors had displeased him particularly recently and whether he could throw them into the career black hole that was a working group. He knew that his opposite number would be thinking exactly the same thing.

“Send him in, sekretikos.”

The door opened and Tonaras walked in. They went through the same motions as before – half bows were exchanged, as well as idle greetings. Refreshments were offered but both men only asked for tea. As soon as the aides had retreated, a knowing look passed across Tonaras' face.

“I was told that you wished to meet with me, Zemarkhos.”

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  • 2 months later...

“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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  • 1 month later...

“The leopard had very little significance to the Aromans specifically, other than being a symbol of a heathen god adopted from the Laimienes. It was just another predator to use in their arenas. It was only when Eudoxius decided to use its likeness for one of his thrones that it started to gain some significance.”

From The History of the Decline and Fall of the Aroman Empire by Edvard Onasger. Published by Sjoholm and Opdahl of Canastota, in EK7281 (AD1773).

 


 

At night, the view from Trofimos Onosandros' twelfth floor flat was actually pretty. The constellation of street lights and the headlights of late night traffic of the city of Resafa made the city look beautiful, where during the day the flat looked out across suburbia, towards the marshalling yards and the rail junction that marked the city as the main transport hub in the north-east of Arhomaneia. That certainly wasn't pretty, unless one was a train-spotter. Even now, after dark, the clanking of freight wagons, the chug of diesel engines and the blasts of horns could be heard in the flat, especially since the windows were open against the summer heat. And it had been a warm summer.

Onosandros himself did often look out the window towards the marshalling yard. It was easy to get distracted by the business of it, even if he didn't care about what they were actually doing, much less why a certain sort of locomotive often found in southern Arhomaneia was pulling coal trains this far north. Onosandros was staring out towards it now, sat at the table in the living room and holding a bottle of beer. He'd not taken a swig in a long while and it'd got warm in the hot night. He sat in a t-shirt and shorts against the summer heat and, against usual Arhomaiki fashion, he had a moustache rather than a full beard. He worked as a para-legal for an insurance company and he saw first hand how the system ground people down. Perhaps that was why he was in favour of Nea Demokrateia and a change in how the Megas Agios Basileia was run.

“You know it won't change anything,” said one of the other two people sat in the living room. The speaker was also clutching a beer and staring out the window. He wasn't saying anything that the other two didn't agree with, or hadn't said before. He wore his dark hair and beard short and had on a set of overalls, which were clean despite the fact he'd spent all of his day in a garage. “Even if we have elections, even if Kommodos steps down, he'd still be organising things behind the scenes.”

Onosandros turned his gaze away from the window, looked over at the speaker and took a drink from his warm beer. It was the last bit and he put it down on the table, slightly disturbing all the empty bottles, including two bottles of wine. Other than all the bottles on the table, the flat was clean for that of a single man. It was painted in neutral colours, with cheap pine furniture.

He knew the other man well. Nikeforos Evangelopoulos had been a good friend for the last five years, a fellow member of Nea Demokrateia. He had a better reason than Trofimos to join the group, as a veteran of the Civil War in EK7513 and a soldier until that very year. An injury had seen him pensioned out of the Noumeroi and he'd taken up work as a mechanic. A lorry was a lorry, after all, and civilian ones needed fixing.

Things had seemed like they were finally getting better under Theodosios after the Navarkhokrateia, Nikeforos held, until he'd been martyred. Then Kommodos, who had always been a dark figure behind the Leopard Throne, had taken over and reigned with an iron fist. To an extent, Trofimos took his word for it – he'd been seven years old when the Civil War had happened and only really remembered his parents hiding with him and his sister under the table as the house shook around them. The rebel forces had bypassed Resafa in their drive towards the capital, apart from some brief shelling. He did remember seeing the Basilikoaeroporeia constantly harrying the rebel forces, especially at night. Trofimos remembered all of his family watching them in the dark, the flares of jet engines passing overhead as they struck the traitors and seeing the ground fire coming back at them.

But one of the widely unspoken things after the rebels were defeated was the fact that many of the officers who'd been taken prisoner never made it to trial. They'd disappeared, declared “missing in action” despite people seeing them led off onto buses nominally going towards captivity. Not many people, other than their families, truly missed the rabid supporters of the Navarkhokrateia, though.

“I don't know,” Onosandros replied cautiously. He knew that they were treading old ground over this. “I do think the Agios Basileos does act with the best intentions for us, as Christ does guide his actions.”

It was a formulaic response and both Evangelopoulos and Ioulia Halimeda, the final occupant of the room, turned and looked at him, raising their eyebrows. Those two shared a glance and a smile after he said that. Onosandros sighed and walked over to the fridge to get himself another beer, placing the empty bottle on the table as he walked by. The fact that there were a dozen empty bottles spoke of the long evening the three of them had had so far.

“I'm sure he's got the best intentions for Arhomaneia,” Ioulia said. She glowered at her beer bottle before she continued. “Just not necessarily the best intentions for us.”

She took a drink of her beer and put it back on the table, slightly harder than she must have meant. A bit spurted out and landed on her t-shirt, which she wiped down with the palm of her hand before wiping that hand on her long skirt. Trofimos could only guess at what she meant, although it was an educated guess. It might not have been the “us” that signified the three of them in the room, the supporters of the democracy movement or even the Arhomaioi, but something that he'd not tried to pry about.

He knew that Ioulia had never had a boyfriend or a husband, despite being in her mid thirties, long after the point where most women of her age had already married and started having children. She had a good female friend who she shared her flat with and they had two dogs that they loved. He also knew that it was something that he ought not ask questions about – Nikeforos had warned him off some years before. There was a reason why there was a steady flow of immigrants who couldn't conform to some of the norms of life in Arhomaneia westward towards Adaptos. Like there were those who didn't want to be part of the hyper-competitive and very elitist system of Adaptos went eastward, to the open arms of Christ.

“Well, we've done better than most other countries in recent years,” offered Trofimos, not quite sure why he was defending someone he felt more or less inherently opposed to. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and looked at it, before grabbed two more for the others. There was another one and a half cases in there. The little 330ml bottles barely lasted. “We've had over fifteen years of peace, after all. Most other countries in the wurld have barely seen half of that.”

Nikeforos snorted and reached for a bowl of shelled hazelnuts that sat at the centre of a rampart of beer bottles. He picked up a handful and thumbed a couple into his mouth. He spoke whilst eating them. “You'd not really remember all the scuffles between the alliances back after Kommodos took the throne. Arhomaiki soldiers being thrown into all sorts of conflicts to show that our nation could stand on its own two feet again. It was madness, and I thank the saints we've not seen the likes of that again. There was the threat of invasion once or twice.”

“No, I don't remember it,” Trofimos admitted. He walked back through the kitchen towards the living room. The flat wasn't huge but it still had a separate kitchen, living room and bedroom. It was a shame that much of the floor space in the hall was taken up with Nea Demokrateia posters that they'd never put up now. “But recently, the last decade, we've been able to show the wurld we're not to be messed with. And that's thanks to Kommodos. Although there is still Ceris.”

He shrugged to show he wasn't being completely serious. The conflict on that island hadn't really been taken much notice of by the average Arhomaios compared to the conflict in the Exousiokrateia, despite the size of the deployment there. It had seemed like a distraction in the New Wurld. That had changed when the footage of the destruction of Liechnenfax filmed by the Basilikoploimon was made public. Then popular support entirely swung behind the actions of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion with regards to troop numbers on the island and the support of the ethniki country that Arhomaneia was supporting.

“I don't see why we should send off our troops to die for some foreigners,” said Nikeforos, unthinkingly rubbing his shoulder, where Trofimos guessed he'd been injured during the Civil War. “They're heretics, too. Worshippers of images, as if they're somehow windows into heaven.”

It was half-hearted, though. The utter destruction shown by the images of the capital of Hodrea was shocking. Although the size of the Arhomaiki force wasn't being discussed openly within the media, there were rumours that it'd reached the size of an army. Arhomaneia was planning on putting a hammer blow against the Sentists.

“That's not what we're talking about, though,” Ioulia pointed out, trying to remind the other two why they were in Trofimos' flat. “We need to try to revitalise Nea Demokrateia. Everyone saw how Niketas was treated in that interview.”

All three of them took a drink and put their beers down on the table with a resounding clonk. It had been a travesty. Hagiokhristoforitissa had clearly been in the pocket of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, even though the Arhomaiki Alfa Tileoptikou Diktyou promised that it was free of the influences of the government. But, on the flipside, the three of them had been at the protest in the city over a year ago. At the time, it'd seemed like Nea Demokrateia had been running out of steam.

“I've not watched them since,” Trofimos said. “I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Hagiokhristoforitissa should have been better than that.”

“She should have been better than that, yeah. But what are you going to f*cking do against the government?” asked Evangelopoulos, although Onosandros guessed it was rhetorical. He shifted in his chair, going from a slouched position to sitting upright. “We literally have a f*cking secret police sniffing about. For all we know, they had her at gunpoint and told her to ask these questions.”

“But the questions were obvious and heavy handed,” pointed out Halimeda, apparently playing devil's advocate. “It just made them look stupid, doubly so after the Logothesion ton Deesion tried to explain it all away. It seemed like something else was going on there.”

The blocks of flats were usually known as “insoulai”, after the ones in ancient Arhoma. It was a vain attempt to channel the glories of the capital hundreds of years ago, glossing over the fact that “insulae” had been notoriously overcrowded and ramshackle. Many of them had been built in the hopeful years after the Long War, when the new emperor, Leon III, had brought peace and prosperity to Arhomaneia, sweeping away the slums that had grown up in most cities and replacing them with modern high-rise buildings, each topped with its own chapel to allow the people easy access to a centre of worship. That was possibly why such blocks didn't have a reputation of having shoddy lifts in the Megas Agios Basileia as they did in other nations on Eurth – they were kept in good order, lest the maintenance crews get excommunicated. They continued to be built in the population boom in the years after war, too, as it was often easier to build up than build widely.

“They just got wrong footed.” Evangelopoulos sat back in his chair, his arms crossed. He inhaled deeply and breathed out slowly. “They got caught out doing something f*cking stupid and had to try to back pedal.”

“Nah,” she shook her head. “I don't think so. The ABK is usually pretty heavy handed but that just seemed to be more heavy handed than they would usually be, you know? Something struck me as off.”

“As off as the number of Eepoi at our demonstration last year?” asked Onosandros pointedly. Evangelopoulos looked at him whilst taking a drink, the expression on his face showing that he thought that Trofimos had taken the words from his mouth. “You know they have snatched people before. And beaten them, or done worse.”

Halimeda looked shocked for a moment and Nikeforos stood up and put his hands out in a conciliatory manner. The woman shot him a look and sat back with her beer. “Yes, they have. And I'd definitely be one of the first to criticise this government but there is every indication that it has only ever been supporters of the Navarkhokrateia. And the last one was years ago.”

“It's still monstrous,” said Trofimos.

“You have no idea,” replied Ioulia, in an icy, polite tone.

Evangelopoulos sensed something starting to brew between the friends. It was probably the booze, and there had been a lot of it. The veteran stood up, ready to catch anything that might spoil an otherwise good friendship. Before anyone else could say anything, there was a knock at the door. More than a knock, a proper bang. At first, he thought it might have been someone getting the wrong door in the block of flats, but the look on the face of the other two suggested otherwise.

All three of them looked at each other and the stacks of Nea Demokrateia propaganda in the hallway. It wasn't illegal, just frowned upon. Onosandros straightened his t-shirt and walked towards the door. However, Evangelopoulos sensed something was different and held his hand up, which meant that Trofimos stopped in the hall doorway.

The veteran found his voice first, unsurprisingly. He approached the door and started to slide the cover of the peephole out of the way.

“Who is it?”

The only answer he got was the door being kicked in and a truncheon hitting him behind the ear as he fell back. As soon as he was down, the grey-uniformed Eepoi shoved past him. They didn't even look at the stacks of undelivered leaflets before they clubbed both Onosandros and Helimeda to the ground, handcuffed their hands behind their backs and dragged them off.

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  • 1 year later...

“Once a leopard has killed and eaten a human, they are likely to persist as man-eaters—they may even show a nearly exclusive preference for humans.”

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.

 


 

Diplomacy was more interesting than heading a committee, Kommenos reflected. At least it got him out in the fresh air, even if that often was tainted with the fumes of jet fuel as he went from aircraft to awaiting motorcade. The Kouropalates had spent the last year intermittently listening to competing theories and ideas, pouring through ancient texts and modern treatises and generally ruing his monarch's command that he was in charge of bringing democracy back to its ancient home. From across the Aroman wurld, experts and academics had been called to advise the committee that the Kouropalates headed. The Mystikon, the Tagmatine monarch's personal civil service, helped compile thousands of pages of reports, notes and examples. Virtually no stone was left unturned in the Occident. The ancient constitutions of Adthens and Arome were run through with a fine toothed comb, trying to see whether they might fit their modern successor. They were discarded in the main, however. Neither of them were democratic, in the modern sense, and would not fit the modern wurld. At least the modern wurld as to how Kommodos envisioned it. Some, of course, would hold that the ancient constitution of Arome had never been abandoned, just added to over the years.

Slowly, the Kouropalates' search moved forward through the history of the Arhomaioi, trying to search for historical examples that might guide the future. There were the occasional lower class rebellions that broke out across Aroman territory, and their aims and simplistic ideas were looked at. At the time, the likes of the Zilotai of Petrion in the 14th Century, the later Adiutatores of the 17th Century or even the socialist Skaptonoi, who sought to give the poor more of a say in how their nation was run, were crushed as those who sought to overthrow God's chosen order ought to be.

Now, their ideas of an elected Synkletos were being seriously studied by a man whose ancestors led armoured cavalry against them and pored over by an organisation that masterminded campaigns of oppression to put them down.

The irony certainly was not lost on Kommenos.

From the Aroman wurld, experts had been invited from Adaptos and Sporseia, the parts of that sphere that were actually democratic, to discuss their nations' methods with Kommenos. The former's method was viewed with an element of scepticism – after all, the Megas Omospondí Autokrateia, the Grand Federated Imperium, had collapsed several times over the last few decades, partially through its own democratic processes. It was only the strong hand of two autocratic monarchs had brought it back from the brink of completely fragmenting. As well as the military intervention of Tagmatium. And the latter was currently undergoing internal turmoil, with the Patriarkhes of Tzius heading a caretaker government.

Recent Aroman attempts at democracy, it seemed, had a tendency to fall apart when not guided by a strong hand. That seemed to be the Tagmatine take home from the situation. Certainly, it meant that the Old Tyrant could point out that there needed to be an autocrat in place in order to prevent Arhomaneia from tearing itself apart like its western and south-eastern neighbours. Those experts that had been consulted were taken before the Leopard Throne itself and asked to place their hands upon ancient and holy relics and swear that they would not reveal anything of what they were asked.

Although it had been done through proxies, even the former Megas Krites of the Hexanesa, Ioannes Hegesinos had been met with. It had been a long time since Kommenos had interacted with the man, but he was both pro-Tagmatika and a known democrat. And, of course, a pan-Aromanist. Despite the fact that the Hexanesa was nothing but a nest of traitors, they were still arguably the longest functional democratic state in the Aroman wurld. For almost seventy years, they had elected their government without any dictatorial interlude or civil strife. Even though they had turned their backs on God's Representative on Eurth, they seemed to be able to run things in an orderly and civilised manner. That was something that the Kouropalates and his committee needed to understand, so that Arhomaneia did not tumble down in the manner of so many other democratic nations, not just in the Occident or Europa, but the rest of the wurld.

It was a state secret, even more so than contacting of a former member of the Hexanesa and the AND developing its Gigai Agroktimai, “Giant Farmers”, plan in order to test the limits of foreign democracies, that Arhomaneia was actually turning towards representatives of foreign nations for help. The chosen nation of God on Eurth was turning to those very countries it was partially scheming to undermine in order to build its own democratic framework. There was certainly an irony there, but even the Kouropalates couldn't – or wouldn't – actually see it. Several political theorists from Prymont and Iverica, the two Argic democracies that Tagmatium was closest to, had been consulted and their ideas sought. It was suspected that the religious oaths that their Aroman equivalents had taken as binding due to following the Truth Faith would mean little to those heretic barbarians. Instead, they were requested to sign non-disclosure agreements that would remain in force until a date chosen by the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion, who then retained lawyers within those countries in order to enforce those contracts.

Now, as a way of relaxing, Kommenos sat on a horse between Honorios and Alexandros Kontarian. They were be half brothers and very different from each other. The former was a Megas Logothetes and the latter a Stratelates, a senior officer in the Tagmata, the palace guard. The ancient pedigree of their family put Kontarian at ease. The Minister for War had invited the Kouropalates over to take part in some horse archery, as well as dinner and some drinks later on. It was too easy to get washed away in all this talk of democracies and Honorios had thought the his friend needed some downtime. Horse archery was considered to be a skill of the aristocrat, where using firearms demonstrated that one did not have the time to practice enough to perfect the skills needed for a bow and arrow.

Or, indeed, the money or the space. A horse needed to be fed, exercised, stabled. These things cost money and required a lot of space. Some amongst the middle classes took up the sport, too, in order to show that they were also good Arhomaioi. Occasionally, there was even talk of some sort of wurld equestrian events but they had never gone anywhere. It was a shame in the minds of most people – it would do the barbaroi good to be trounced by the proud Aromans once again.

“It's your shot, Fillipos,” stated Honorios, as he slowed his horse down to where his brother and the Kouropalates were waiting.

Honorios' own attempt had struck quite cleanly in the side of the wooden target, a life-sized imitation of a red deer. The arrow had green fletching and would likely have been a killing shot, had it not been a lump of wood that had been hit. The Megas Logothetes had hit the target well, despite moving his mount at speed. The Megas Logothetes tou Stratiotikou patted the neck of his horse, which stomped in a small circle. The other two looked on as Honorios moved his animal back towards the rest of them stood. He leaned down and handed his bow and quiver to an aide and then sat back up in the saddle. He looked on at the other two, waiting for them to take their shots in turn.

“Take the shot and we can just sack it off for the moment,” said Alexandros, with a petulant tone not really suiting a senior officer. He wasn't as good an archer as either his half-brother or Kommenos. He was certainly passable but it seemed that horse archery was just not his sport. Polo was, however, and he'd represented his unit before being promoted beyond where it was dignified to take part in a match. “We can have a ride up to the lake and back again.”

“No, it needs to be a proper go,” said Honorios, something more than frustration in his voice. “I didn't invite you up here to just shoot randomly into bushes. You need to hit the target. Both of you do.”

Honorios was said to hate Alexandros and the feeling was supposedly mutual. It apparently went beyond a mild dislike that an older brother might have for a half-sibling. Kommenos knew that there had been a falling out several years ago, involving the misappropriation of funds of a guards unit but it was said to have been sorted out. At least to the satisfaction of all involved and it had not obviously caught the attention of the Agios Basileos. Rumour had it that it was something to do with gambling and their late father's estates. The Minister for War was supposed to have gone as far as to have one of Alexandros' dogs shot, the poor thing, by another officer with the implication that further gambling ceased. Or it would be worse in the future.

As Kouropalates, and more importantly being a member of another great family, it was beneath Kommenos to ask what had actually gone on. He knew Honorios well and doubted that he would have had an animal shot. And that Alexandros was here at all showed that the Megas Logothetes was attempting rebuild some bridges and the two seemed to be getting on quite well. So it was likely all just wild gossip, the sort of thing more suited to household staff and not the likes of the Kommenoi or the Kontarianes.

Fillipos knocked his heels back and urged his horse onwards, into a trot, then a canter and then a gallop. Showing off, he pulled an arrow from the quiver as he came towards the target, knocked it to his bow as he drew level and then aimed and fired after he had passed. Clearly, even the members of the ancient families weren't above showing off at times. At least he suppressed the grin he felt as he came back around to where the two Kontarianes were waiting. The sour look on Alexandros' face was enough to make him almost laugh out loud. He heard the Stratelates mutter something rude about showing off. As he drew his horse level with the other two he gave them both a slight smile, acknowledging he had indeed taken the piss a bit.

“So, why did you invite us up here, Honorios?” Kommenos asked. A servant scuttled forward from the clutch of them that had been waiting discretely nearby and offered a tray of wine glasses to the three men. Kommenos reached down and picked up a glass and took a sip. Once each of them had taken a glass, the servant scuttled off again. “As you said, it certainly wasn't just to launch arrows into bushes, or targets.”

The Minister of War looked like he was about to point out the fact that his half-brother hadn't had a go at one of the targets yet. Kommenos raised an eyebrow. He wanted an answer.

“Fine.” Honorios took a mouthful of his own watered wine. “I thought you needed a break. You've been struggling with this whole democracy thing for a while now. You need fresh air and a chance to do something fun for a bit.

What the Megas Logothetes really meant was that he wanted to be nosy. Likely, he'd been putting out discrete inquiries as it was but hadn't really got anywhere with them. So he had decided to outright ask.

“It's going... OK,” sighed Fillipos. “There are a lot to work with, trying to make a system that works properly for us. And I'll admit that it's not my realm of expertise.”

He looked around and moved his horse onward, away from the knot of servants, aides and bodyguards. The other two were obliged to follow. They moved out into an area of well mown lawn and then stopped.

“Kommodos, may God guide him, does not want something like the hereditary senate we saw before,” the Kouropalates continued. “It must reflect modern Arhomaneia much more. It needs to be democratic, too. But then there's the question of whether it's to be a single house or several, whether it's a combined body instead of one for each capital as before, how members are elected from the themata, age limits... It goes on and on.”

He was silent for a moment, looking out across the lawn towards a stand of trees. There was movement in amongst them and a small group of deer emerged from it and then turned to look at the three horsemen. None of them even considered taking a shot at them. Hunting live animals had been banned years ago.

“It turns out, trying to make a representative system almost from scratch is difficult. Of course, we have the systems in the themata and below to work with, but bringing it to life for a nation the size of ours was always going to be a hell of a lot of work.”

Honorios nodded but his brother looked decidedly bored.

“And, of course, Nea Demokrateia...” the Minister of War said, trailing off intentionally.

Kommenos made a dismissive gesture. “That fat windbag is his own worst enemy. No one takes his shit seriously these days and he's brought it on himself.”

“Nonetheless, he'll keep kicking up a stink, the more these plans move along,” carried on Honorios. “He wants what he thinks his rightful place is.”

“And he'll be damned lucky if we even left him stand for election,” growled Kommenos. He might be trying to build a new, democratic Tagmatium but the authoritarian streak that ran all the way through the political establishment of the Greater Holy Empire was never far from the surface. “His imperial majesty has decided that Niketas will take no part in any aspect of this. He can piss and moan from the sidelines.”

“Why not let him stand?” Alexandros said. Kommenos wouldn't have thought that the guards officer was even following the conversation. “He's a f*cking idiot. Most people will see through him once he has to do anything of substance.”

“Well, he's been leading his damn rabble well enough for years,” pointed out Honorios. “If he was as much of a f*ckwit as people like to paint him as, he would never have been able to last as long as he has. And Nea Demokrateia have had something of a resurgence lately. Something about the Esoteriki Epitheorisi Pliroforion knocking people's heads together too hard. I'd heard that the Logothesion ton Deeseon had had to keep things out of the national press, so as to not cause undue controversy.”

The Logothesion ton Deeseon, the Ministry for Information, was one of several bodies that helped to censor or at least monitor the press and communication within the Megas Agios Basileia. But that wasn't something that Kommenos had heard. He frowned to himself. If he had spare time, he would have to look into it. Could Tonaras be acting too much on his own initiative? That was not really out of character for that jumped-up thug.

“And Mercy International will be sniffing around,” carried on Honorios, seemingly warming to his theme of pointing out all the potential problems that might happen. “They always do.”

“Little more than Orhioniki puppets,” his half-brother said. “We should never have let them set up shop in our nation. And the buggers that work for them should be treated as the traitors they are. Especially that Lupakena.”

He made a fist with his right hand and extended his thumb, index and middle fingers and aimed the pretend gun downwards, roughly like someone carrying out a so called “execution-style” murder. He brought his thumb down, made a popping noise with his mouth and mimed recoil.

It was Kommenos' turn to feel frustration with the officer. Honorios' expression displayed uneasiness at Alexandros' comment and action as well. “Relations between us and the Omorfoautokrateia are already pretty poor. The imperial sovereign would not wish to risk them by doing anything so damn foolish. There is absolutely no way that this problem is going to be solved by blowing people's brains out. Not this time. May God have mercy on you.”

He turned his horse around and moved back towards the target range, leaving the other two behind him.

“By the Saints, Alexandros,” said the Minister for War, shaking his head. He urged his horse after the Kouropalates.

Alexandros Kontarian was left alone, looking in the direction the other two had left in.

“What?” asked the Stratelates, seemingly puzzled about precisely where he'd gone too far. It's not like none of them knew that it hadn't happened before.

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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 Hexanisa. 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 large islands and innumerable smaller ones 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 Hexanisa 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 Hexanisa. A savoury pastry lay untouched on a plate in front of her. Several newspapers were spread across the table, some from the Hexanisa, 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 Hexanisa. 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 Exousiokrateia 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 Hexanisa 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 Hexanisa. 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 Hexanisa 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 Hexanisa.
      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 Hexanisa. 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 Hexanisoi 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 Hexanisa, 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 Hexanisa 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
      As Droungariokomes (Commodore) Sofia Ooryfaina looked the bay and the town of Basilikolimanion that was nestled around it, there were several things that struck her.
      The first was that was a good, sheltered anchorage for ships, and the concrete wharves that jutted into the bay would make the unloading of equipment easier. So long as they were still in good condition, although they likely wouldn't have been used intensively for decades. They could well be corroded and weakened by years of being battered by the elements and unable to take much heavy equipment moved across them.
      The second was that the large cathedral and equally large palace were incongruous amidst the dilapidated and crumbling houses and industrial buildings. They were from a significantly more prosperous time, when the Hermitages were at the centre of Arhomaneia's whaling industry a century ago. The islands where then, briefly, used for coal and iron ore mining until the Long War made it too dangerous for ships to cross. An attempt was made thirty or forty years ago to restart the mining, but it was deemed uneconomical to ship it across the Sea of Storms. She couldn't tell what state the wharves were in from out where her ship was. Or the palace and the cathedral, as they were just dark silhouettes against the the bare rock and small patches of vegetation that made up the hinterland behind the main settlement of the Hermitages.
      The third was that it looked bloody cold out there. The wind was whipping off the tops of the waves and it looked like there was snow in the air.
      “No sign of any life?” She asked the ship's captain, or Droungarios in her nation's naming conventions, taking her binoculars from her eyes and turning to her left to look over her shoulder. His name was Eufemios Kamoteros and he looked like the typical Basilikoploimon officer – smartly turned out in his black uniform, with a dark beard that was starting to show edges of grey. He was of below average height, not much taller than Ooryfaina herself. Both of them had regulation short hair and were wrapped up against the cold, despite being on the bridge of the command ship of the mission.
      “None from the Foussatores or Vestiaritai, Kyriossa,” came the reply from the officer standing at her left shoulder. The Border Guard and the Financial Guard respectively, they were only on the island to protect what little Arhomaneia considered to be of worth on islands. Which was little. “The monks, though, have acknowledged our approach. I've asked them to get in contact with the others.”
      Droungariokomes Ooryfaina gave a heavy sigh. The need for secrecy and the speed at which the operation was assembled meant that it hadn't been able to contact the remote stations that kept the Tagmatine claims to the faraway islands alive. It also didn't help that the islands were considered such a backwater deployment by the organisations in charge of them that it would probably have taken weeks for them to contact their subordinates on the islands. It was considered by the Epistrategaion to just contact them once the flotilla was close enough to the island. It could well have been something of an oversight on the part of the High Command.
      “Well, keep having your people try them, Droungarios. I don't want any unfortunate accidents taking place.” The Droungariokomes turned away and walked over to the windows on the bridge's starboard side to look at the handful of vessels that were following the cruiser BPP Trapezon she was on.
      Three tenders, filled with supplies and equipment to establish a proper base on the island, as well as a troop ship with a Apelatai regiment on it. Although it had initially been deemed a risk to withdraw a unit from the western border, the elite infantry were equipped and prepared to deal with the harsh conditions this far north. There were two corvettes and a destroyer accompanying the flotilla, watching for any ships or aircraft that might have suspicious intentions. A pair of submarines lurked nearby, acting as an unseen screening force. A conspicuously civilian vessels with too many antennas lurked between the tenders and the troop ship. It was from the Arhomaiki Noimosyni Dykton and other than its presence and its immediate movements, no one had explained to the Droungariokomes what it was going to be doing.
      Ideally, the attention of the Gharoi would be on both Corinium or the Prognostikator watching them in the Thalassa ton Kataigidon, the Sea of Storms. No one should really have seen anything as the Tagmatine ships slipped anchor in the various ports on the Kentriki Thalassa, the Central Sea and then amassed on the eastern side of the island of Vanarambion. They kept to international waters as best as they could as they did so. The vessels then made their way north by slipping through the Fillipou Thalassa, the Kosscow Sea and between the islands of the Hexanesa under the cover of darkness. Nights were still long at this time of year and this latitude. The flotilla was approaching from the east, in order to try to further escape any possible prying eyes from other countries. The few ships they had seen were trawlers, although you could never be sure.
      It seemed a good enough plan to the Droungariokomes when she'd been briefed on it but it was clear that it could spark off something, especially as the Seilosioi (@Seylosians) and the Iberikoi (@Ivericans) had tried to block Gharoi (@Haruspex) plans for Corinium. Only partially successfully, as the Gharoi pretty much now controlled the northern entrance to the Adlantic. There was a good chance that the northern barbarians were eyeing up the Hermitages, probably to create naval bases and despoil of their natural resources. Which was something that the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion wanted to avoid, as it would entirely put the seas surrounding Arhomaneia at their mercy.
      As the Droungariokomes ruminated on the chances that Arhomaneia might kick off something bigger with establishing direct control to the northern islands, another officer leaned over to the Droungarios and muttered in his ear. He nodded and turned to Ooryfaina.
      “It looks like we still can't get a hold of anyone but the monks, Kyriossa, but they've sent someone over to to warn the Foussatores and the Vestiaritai,” he said, a frown on his face. “Apparently it's common, or at least common enough, that someone's radio goes down and they rely on the others to communicate.”
      Ooryfaina grunted. “Good start.”
      The other officer shrugged. “As good as any, really. I suppose it can't be expected that this out-of-the-way shithole would be up to scratch. They have to get everything sent up to them and it's not like any of them are trained military.”
      “Well, two of them are law enforcement of some sort,” the Droungariokomes said, shaking her head and walking over towards the windows in the bridge that looked towards the islands. “The buggers should really have their shit together a lot more. Especially out here.”
      “It'll be a shock when two-odd thousand pissed off soldiers start stomping around the island,” replied the captain, a grin showing through his beard. The smile disappeared and was replaced by a more serious look. “The monks also suggest that we use the eastern wharf, as the western one is a bit degraded.”
      “What's 'a bit degraded'” the female officer asked her subordinate, turning towards him, eyebrow raised.
      “They didn't really say,” the other replied, with a shrug. “I suppose that we'll have to see as soon as we get there.”
      Both of them turned to look towards the island. It was low down towards the sea but rose up towards the north east to a hill. A glacier covered the mountain and below that, bare rock. They were much closer now, able to see the individual houses that made up much of the settlement, as well as the walls of the fortress. Most of the houses were little more than ruins. The palace and the cathedral were easily seen.
      “They call it the Palati ton Oston,” said Kamoteros. “Pretty ominous. Apparently, they made much of the flooring and door frames out of whalebone, from all the years of hunting.”
      Again, the more senior officer grunted in reply.
       
       
      The BPP Trapezon was too large to moor directly alongside the wharves, as it was much bigger than the colliers and iron ore cargo ships it had been designed for, some seventy or more years ago. That didn't bode too well for the plans to bring the port itself up to the standards necessary for acting as the Europan end of the Argic trade route. But, Ooryfaina considered as she stood in ready to climb out of the ship's boat she had left the cruiser in, it was likely already known by the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion. The iron rungs of the ladder from the water level up to the top of the wharf were slippery, corroded and occasionally missing. She almost lost her grip a couple of times. Getting a dip in the frigid Thalassa ton Kataigidon was not something that she was planning on doing today. As she hauled herself onto the top of the wharf, a band struck up the Arhomaiki national anthem.
      Badly.
      The smell of incense wafted over the sea air and was whipped away by a strong wind and she looked towards where the music was coming from. The band was made up of ten musicians, half in the winter uniform of the border guard and half in that of the financial guard. It did not sound like they had every practised together. A group of monks, well wrapped in winter gear, were waving thymiata and carrying holy relics to bless the new arrivals. Striding towards the Droungariokomes was an elderly-looking priest carrying a crozier and with a mitre perched on a woolly hat, followed by what must be the two senior officers of the enforcement agencies that occupied the Herimitireia. They seemed to be having a typically Aroman struggle over who would greet her first in their order of seniority. The border guard could trace their roots to the forces that conquered Europa and Amutia whilst the financial guard were, strictly speaking, a unit of the Tagmata. Thus the two officers were surreptitiously trying to step in front of the other. Soon it was likely going to come to elbows jabbed in ribs.
      “Welcome to the Herimitireia,” said the Arkhiepiskopos Dorothios Maliasenos, vapour from his breath curling away in the wind. He gave an appraising glance over Ooryfaina's rank tabs. “It is rare that we get anyone from the Basilikoploimon here, let alone a droungariokomes. Usually, it's a ship chartered from a civilian firm that drops of supplies for us. A supply tender for them comes from the navy but it's never someone of such a rank.”
      The archbishop punctuated the last part of the statement with a jab of a gloved hand over his shoulder. The two behind him had finished their bickering but waited until the archbishop had finished talking to the naval officer. The statement of the archbishop seemed to be a bit dismissive of the other two officers but she couldn't quite tell.
      “And now you arrive with that,” he said, giving a nod towards the flotilla sat in the bay.
      “Yes, your beatitude,” replied Ooryfaina. “The Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion has decided that it is time for the Herimitireia to truly become part of Arhomaneia again.”
      A pretty pompous line. The naval officer winced internally almost as soon as she said it.
      “Some of it has already been explained to me by a communication from emailed over to me,” the archbishop said. “I am not sure I wholehearted approve, for many reasons. For one, we have got used to the peace and tranquillity of these islands. I rather it wasn't disturbed by building work, ships or soldiers.”
      “I believe that will come a bit later, your beatitude,” the Droungariokomes replied. “I'm not sure when but I think that, considering what the Gharoi and Seilosioi have done, I imagine it will be soon. I'm not in charge of the building work, just securing the islands.”
      Again, the expression on what little of the archbishop's face was visible between his beard and his woolly hat was unreadable. He turned on his heel without another word and started to walk back down the wharf towards his waiting entourage, who were still waving incense and chanting. Ooryfaina found herself staring after him, frowning. She hadn't been told anything about the Church disapproving of the increase in activity on the islands but, as she had said to the archbishop, that wasn't really her problem. Her job was to stop any other nation to trying to meddle in the affairs of the island.
      Another woolly hat bobbed into view, but this with a tall domed hat crammed on top of it.
      “Tribounos Pankratoukaina Tzamplakonissa of the Foussatores,” said the well wrapped little shape that lay under the hat. From the name, Ooryfaina guessed that the speaker was female but the amount of clothes rendered any physical appearance hard to discern. And in order to nip any pretensions of the other officer being anything other than inferior to the speaker, they continued. “And this is Komes Theognostos Maroules.”
      The other officer narrowed his eyes at the slight but gave a half-bow towards the naval officer.
      “Welcome to the edge of the Eurth, Droungariokomes,” the shorter figure said, with unnecessary dramatics. “We'll get you and your staff somewhere warm.”
    • By Haruspex
      REHL
      Haru Imperial Naval Command HQ
      Perya Naval Base #2
      K2/02/24
      Fleet-Lord Raz stepped into the anteroom and clicked jackbooted heels together smartly. The man was just under sixty years of age and slim of figure in an athletic sense. He bore numerous medals, most of them from the days when the Imperium had been seen briefly in the war with Beautancus. With formality out of the way, he handed a few sheets of teletype to a seated individual before him. " Grand Admiral Xun , we have orders from the Empress and the Council of the Nine. We are hereby ordered to seize the western island near that of the island occupied by the Adapton Federalists, though with measures of soft-touch applied to whatever natives live there, the royal court and the council do not wish for a repeat of the Northern debacle."
      A brief moment spent considering before a glance paid the man ever so rigid in stance before his desk. " Very well, we shall alert Vice-Admiral Tor'Van of the 2nd Grand Ranke Fleet to make preparations to deploy from the Ttoile Taskforce via the port of Hades, by the end of the month and re-direct a fleet towards this island."
      Tihun placed his thumb gently upon the biometric register near the computer at his desk, and with that printed out a new and authorized set of orders. He then slowly arose from behind the desk. He to wore a uniform similar to the Fleet-Lord's. Stepping about the left side and out, allowing the decorated officer a dip of head and to lead the way towards the communication and control level. Great oak doors trimmed with silver opened outwards and lining the walls, legionnaires of the Imperium stood stock still, weapons in arched salute.
      Sengar'd Isto Hiatori meanwhile strode down the centerline of the communications center. Apart of the Peryan Defense Security Fleet, the his duties were to monitor sea-lane traffic, as well as transmit orders to the various ships of the HIN on active duty. A nervous tuck at his collar before stepping out to the overlook station, supervising the junior officers at their station, relieving Prata-Khan Hido from such duty. Taking his stand before the primary console, just as the much higher ranked admiral and fleet-lord made their appearance.
      He turned as they approached, the newly made orders were handed over, they were authorized and he spoke. " Very good sir, orders are authorized, we will begin transmission to the 2nd Grand Ranke Fleet command vessel in the next few moments." A a salute followed before he turned around and such was done, giving the Vice-Admiral Tor'Van his new mustering orders.
      Kataigidon
      Near Adapton Claimed Island
      2nd Grand Ranke Fleet Deployment
      K2/03/06
      Vice-Admiral Tor'Van stood upon the bridge of the Dreadnought Duilr uv Vnucd (Touch of Frost), command ship of the 2nd Grand Ranke Fleet. The strike carriers Luhtun (Condor), Cdaat (Steed), the assault carriers Syla (Mace), and the Cryng (Shark). Additionally there were two Taro-Class (Guided Missile Heavy Cruisers), four 210 Dekan (Tiger) Class (Assault Frigates), three Chuf (Snow) Class Guided Missile Cruisers.
      Two Cay Kut (Sea God) class Amphibious ships, seven 205 Ymekydun (Alligator) Class corvettes, one Pmaccat Duilr Class (Blessed Touch) Hospital ships, two Naviaman (Refueling Oilers), six Uqah (Oxen) Class troop transports with a combined landing total of sixteen thousand legionnaires. 
      Currently reading his new orders had come straight from REHL (Haruspex Imperial Naval Command) near the end of the previous month, and yet he was still gently rubbing forehead in slight vexation as the newest teletype was set upon the command table. A mutter or two before calling his second in command over, Commodore Ure'Dane. " Once the officers from SVHY (Ministry of Foreign Naval Affairs) are on board, set our course towards the island just past the Adapton island to our west." There was a bit of a sigh and Ure'Dane spoke. " Sir, we are to capture the island and occupy it then as planned?" Tor'Van nodded a bit. " Ah yes, we are at the mercy of the court and our friendly Grand Admiral has taken an interest in us, as sailors who can do the job whatever it means."
      " By the gods, we're be doing whatever he wants.." Ure'Dane sighed again, rubbing the bridge of his nose before continuing. He muttered a bit and walked over towards the communication officer and began to issue the re-deployment orders. Glanced up as a headset was against one ear. " Sir, the officers of the SVHY are finally here, and are proceeding to land on the heavy cruiser Cay Vyhk (Sea Fang). "
      Tor'Van nodded. " Then give the order to sail, arrange us in battle formation seven, half our corvettes to the front, cruisers and frigates to our starboard and port sides, the other half behind the transports. Once within range of the island, alert the SVHY to helicopter in to the island, relay our intents to the civilian traffic or what constitutes radio command there."
      " Furthermore, deploy the rest of the fleet upon reaching the island, to one of defense while we wait. Transports will land the troops and equipment once the officers reach the desired deal." Ure'Dane nodded and proceeded to relay his orders as he himself could feel through the deck as the dreadnought began to turn about and assume the position within center of the fleet. 
      It had taken nearly a week to make sure the provisions, troops, and of course ships could be properly redirected from the harbor of Ttoile where they had come to rest in anchor for the moment. Munitions had been loaded, foodstuffs, and of course fuel for some of the vessels that did not operate the standard Haru reactor system. Once such was done, it shouldnt be to long of a sail, the island beyond the Federalist island, wasnt far away really.
      The rest of the fleet, roughly half of it, was currently anchored outside of Hades, whose port had been secured so that the naval landing force could then invade Ttoile. The rest of some forty-thousand troops deployed in sweeping up whatever remained of the insurrection royalists. 
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