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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 Diktyo Pliroforion 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.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Evangela waited in the vestibule of the Palati tou Exarkhou, Leontios standing just behind her. He was partially there to take the expected visitor's coat but also as moral support. The old lady had a carefully neutral expression on her face but even someone who didn't know her that well would be able to tell that the look was covering a sense of nervousness. A nervousness that would surprise any of the people of her country, as the woman had a reputation for being formidable. The guest was to arrive at nine o'clock at night, late enough that there would be few pedestrians in the street to catch a sight of them arriving at the Megas Kritissa's house but not so late that it was remarkable in itself.

A sign of the Megas Kritissa's nerves and discomfort was that she had been waiting in the hall since half eight.

Every now and then, Leontios opened his mouth to ask if his employer was feeling well, but he closed it again. She wouldn't appreciate his concern. He occasionally shifted on his feet, feeling uncomfortable in the draughts.

Arkadios sat behind the pair of them, confused as to why his mistress was waiting in the draughty hallway when there were much warmer rooms he could be snuggled up in. After a while, he yawned and lay down on the floor, sprawling out so that if either Leontios or Leotykhidissa had wanted to get past him and deeper into the building, they would have had to step over him. A fourteen stone dog would be hard to manoeuvre around.

The sound of the clock in the hall to the right of the door started to become more prominent. The eyes of both the Megas Kritissa and Leontios were drawn to it. It was past nine o'clock. The guest had said that they were coming and it was always a foolish move to spurn the head of a nation. The old woman finally moved and shifted on her feet. There was a knock at the door from one of the Taxiotai honour guard standing outside the building and three in the hallway jumped. The big dog had fallen asleep where he was lying. Almost as soon as the knock echoed around the room, the door swung open as one of the police pushed it to allow the guest in.

“Good evening, Megas Kritissa Leotykhidissa,” said the guest, almost as soon as he had stepped through the door. “It has been some time since we last met. It was this very place, wasn't it?”

The guest was a former Megas Krites himself, Evangela's predecessor, Ioannes Hegesinos. He was a tall man, over six foot, with a salt-and-pepper beard, although his head was shaved. He might have been handsome, had his right cheek not been slightly marred by some slight scars. He entered into the vestibule and the door was closed behind him. Leontios stepped forward and took his coat. Hegesinos bowed towards Leotykhidissa, once his coat had been taken. She returned the bow, although she did not answer directly.

“Good evening, Kyrios Hegesinos,” Leotykhidissa replied. “I hope this not too late in the evening for you?”

“I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback by your request for a meeting,” he said, ignoring her question as she had ignored his. He spoke with a breezy charm, which did not really covering up his own curiosity, or hostility. “Especially one so late at night. It's almost as if you have something to hide.”

The smile he gave the old lady at the end of the sentence made her frown. It was quite obvious she had something to hide – this very meeting. At the very least, it would look somewhat strange. The two had been very opposed when Hegesinos had been in office, as he had been in favour of warmer relations with the Megas Agios Basileia and she was utterly against such an idea. And she had stood against Hegesinos when the election had come around in 2010 and decisively defeated him, although there would have been very little that he could have done to win by that point. The tyrant on the Leopard Throne had done that much.

Before the Megas Kritissa could reply, Arkadios had got to his feet and padded forward to sniff at the stranger, tail wagging despite the edge of hostility in the air. He stepped forward and Hegesinos ruffled the big dog's ears, who responded by trying to lick the hand that was touching him.

“Please follow me through to the study, Kyrios Hegesinos,” the Megas Kritissa said. She turned before she could see if the man was moving behind her. “I'm sure you remember the way.”

Hegesinos raised an eyebrow at Leontios, who did not respond at all, but followed him in turn.

The ex-head of state shrugged to himself and disengaged from the dog, who quickened his pace so that he could be behind Evangela. The building was warm at night and the heating had been on all day, even though it was beginning to be a fine spring. The temperature still dipped below freezing at night, especially on a clear night like it was. The Megas Kritissa seemed to be in a hurry but Hegesinos wasn't. It was the first time he had been in the residence since he had been voted out of office and he was interested in how the old building had changed. At first glance, little seemed to be different, despite the fact that an old widow lived there now, rather than a family with children. The biggest difference was the large dog that walked along in front of him. There was the occasional sign of his presence in the building – a discarded dog toy in a corner, for example, or a lead hanging from the hooks where Hegesinos had hung his coat.

Once he was in the study, he found the Megas Kritissa had already taken a seat, not at the desk that dominated one side of the room, but in an armchair in a corner. She sat, staring at nothing, whilst playing with the ears of the big dog, who had his chin on her leg. Hegesinos frowned and looked around for a chair. The aide had disappeared off somewhere before he had got to the study. With no obvious option other than the other armchair opposite Leotykhidissa, who did not seem inclined for a conversation, Ioannes took the seat behind the desk. As soon as he sat down, his eyes caught on a sheaf of paper on the desk. Involuntarily, he read the first line and his head snapped back up to stare at the old woman, who was still looking off into the distance.

“Read it,” she said.

Suddenly, Hegesinos was angry. Angry at this little old woman, who dragged him away from his house on a cold night, who had painted him the stooge of a tyrant during the last years of his incumbency as Megas Krites and who had cost him much more than an election with her nationalistic zeal.

“No,” he said, his voice calm but the hostility that had been in the air since he arrived crystallising. A clock on a side table struck a quarter past nine. “You can't just 'invite' me to a late night meeting and command me to do things, Megas Kritissa. You know that very well. That was a stick you beat me with, after all. All you did was say I was a puppet for Tagmatika. I acted with the best intentions of my country at heart.”

“I know,” the old lady replied, quietly. “So do I. Read it.”

Hegesinos didn't want to. Partially out of spite of the hateful old woman but also partially out of fear. He was worried he might read something that he would come to regret. Some state secret that would cost him, or his family, dear. But what secrets like that did the Hexanisa actually have? He loved his country but he also knew that it was an isolated backwater. Even the country, Tagmation, that the credulous feared was ready to take them over at any moment was no longer looking towards them. Its attention was to its own border in the north or across the sea to an island ravaged by conflict and misery.

Before Ioannes could snarl out a comeback and storm out of the room, Leontios opened the door, carrying a tray with tea, biscuits and carafe of wine with two glasses. The aide frowned slightly when he saw Hegesinos sat behind the desk and his employer sat in an armchair but quickly placed the tray on a side table and put out the drinks before retreating out of the room again. It almost seemed as if he didn't want to know what was going on within the study. The phrase “plausible deniability” crept into Hegesinos' head. He shuddered involuntarily.

As if to confirm that idea, the Megas Kritissa waited until the door clicked closed before saying anything else. She picked up her cup and saucer but didn't drink from it. Instead, she just stared down into the cup.

“Hegesinos, at this moment you are the only person whose opinion I want to hear.” Her voice was little more than a whisper. “Read it. Please.”

At that last word, Ioannes' resolve to spite the woman wore down. The stern old lady who had been a bulwark for the islands through the turbulent events of the the last decade seemed so small and frail at that moment. With a sigh, he looked down at the paper in front of him and started to read it. It wasn't, as it turned out, that long a document. When he got to the end he looked up at Evangela, laughed to himself, at himself, at her or all of those and read it again. And for a third time.

He then sat back and drank the tea in one long swallow before getting up, pouring himself a glass of wine and taking a long drink. Only when he had half drained the glass did he sit back down and look over at Leotykhidissa. It was a long, long look and she seemed to wilt under it. He only stopped staring when the big dog looked around to see why his owner wasn't stroking his head any more. Arkadios' eyes then looked over to see the strange man staring at her and his hackles started to rise. Hegesinos realised that whilst the dog did seem to be a big softie, it was ultimately big – probably weighing more than he did and certainly with bigger teeth. He sat down and felt tired, much more tired than he would usually at this time of night.

“You plan to do everything that you accused me off,” Ioannes said, a sardonic edge to his voice. “And more.”

At heart, Hegesinos was a pan-Aromanist, if such a phrase existed. He firmly believed that if the Aroman people could work together, then they would truly be a force for good in the wurld. At times, Tagmation and Adaptos had worked together and the wurld had been moved for the better. If the other Aroman nations, the Hexanisa and Sporseia could also join that, then only great things could come from it. Part of the shine had been knocked from that as Tagmation had lost a monarch who had humanity, to be replaced by a cold autocrat with a willingness to sweep aside those who stood against him. And then Adaptos had once again plunged into isolation.

“I know.” She still stared into the cup of tea in her hands. “I wanted you to read it, to see what you thought of it. And whether I could convince you of what needs to be done.”

“It isn't me that you need to convince.” He lifted his right hand from his lap and put it on the table. The Megas Kritissa's eyes were drawn to it.

In the end, it hadn't been the growing strength of a resurgent Tagmation that had defeated Hegesinos' hopes for re-election, or the fact that Leotykhidissa was able to play on the fears for the country's independence, although those had made him unelectable to the people of the Hexanisa.

What had truly destroyed his campaign in his own eyes were the threats to his life and his family. He had finally, although not formally, withdrawn from the campaign when a letter bomb had been delivered to his house. Unfortunately, it had been missed by both the Taxiotai and the Skouterioi. It took off the top joints of Hegesinos' index and middle fingers on his right hand and scarred his face when he had opened it. Leotykhidissa made all the right noises and her own campaign hadn't suffered in the long run, although she hadn't won in the landslide that had initially been predicted. The bomber had proved to be nothing more than a lone nationalist, obsessed with the Long War and the events after it. But it was enough for Hegesinos to realise that he could no longer have a political career.

Leotykhidissa's eyes were still on the damaged hand. The warning could not be more explicit. Nor more of an accusation against her.

“I imagine that they will come after you a lot harder than they did me,” the man carried on, although he moved his injured hand back onto his lap and out of sight. He had sat back in the padded desk chair and a slight grimace touched his mouth. It wasn't clear whether it was at his hand or what his words were pointing out. “They will see you as even more of a traitor than you painted me as.”

The little old lady didn't look quite so withdrawn any more. The steel that the Hexanisa had come to expect from her flashed again. “No, I don't think they will. I hope to convince our people that this will be the best way towards the future.”

Hegesinos breathed deeply and was silent for a bit. Long enough for Arkadios to settle down at the foot of the Megas Kritissa's chair and drift off to sleep. The clock on the side table chimed the hour. It had felt a lot longer than that since Ioannes had come to the Palati tou Exarkhou. He drank the rest of his wine and noticed that, despite the old woman's firm tone and seemingly strong belief in her own actions, she had slipped into staring at the wall again.

“I never blamed you for this,” Ioannes murmured, gesturing with his left hand towards the right side of his body. He was looking at nothing in particular, either. “As I said at the time, after the trial, it was clear it was the actions of an unstable individual. You might have been the spark that lit the fuse but I believed, and still believe, that if it hadn't been you, it would have been someone or something else.”

He caught her eye, gave an ironic smile and twisted the knife further.

“Although perhaps I might not have been the target that time.”

That was mean. Perhaps too mean, but then the Megas Kritissa hadn't spent years having to stop herself before she picked up a cup or tried to do up buttons with the wrong hand. To disarm the barbs in that comment, he stood up and walked over to her.

“I will, of course, help in any way that I can,” Hegesinos said. “I am not sure that what I can do will be all that helpful, though. There is too much baggage attached to me, even ten years later. I can talk to my friend in Tagmation, Isaakios Niketas, but he's got as much baggage attached to him as I have. I can show myself out.”

He stood up straight and walked over to the door. As he put his hand on the door handle, he turned.

“Good night, Megas Kritissa. May God give you the strength to see this through.”

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  • 1 year later...

A man waited at the passenger terminal on the docks of Gournaion. He was well wrapped, wearing a dark coloured woolly hat pulled down over his ears, a dark scarf wrapped up over his face and a dark woollen pea-coat. His feet were in heavy boots and even then he stamped them against the cold. Winter in the Hexanesa was no joke, even after the worst of these recent winter storms passing. He walked over to the electric fire that was in between two rows of seats along one of the walls of the terminal. It was glowing fitfully and he reached out his gloved hands towards it, trying to warm some feeling back into them. The building had definitely seen better days – like the rest of the islands, the hard winter could not be completely to blame for the downturn in fortunes. The white plastic seats that lined either side of the room were worn from use and had never been replaced. They dated from when the terminal was built, back when relations were normalising under the Navarkhokrateia. That was always a strange juxtaposition of history. The Rule of the Admirals had been instituted by a group of officers who had served in the Long War. That they were friendly to a breakaway state that was formed from Arhomaiki deserters didn't really fit. The electric fire blinked and emitted an audible click before going dark.

The general décor was almost hopeful, in a way – the main entrance from the docks was decorated in a mosaic of the sights of the island, as well as a welcome message in the most widely spoken languages of Europa. Paths picked out in different colours led towards booths marked for international or internal travellers, although all of those booths had roller shutters down at the moment. The walls showed murals of the islands in better, more hopeful days, with busy ports and fishing vessels reeling in nets bursting with fish. Most of it was looking faded and chipped, although here and there, it was clear that someone had taken some time to repair the worst of the passage of time. The islanders were fiercely proud of their history and the fact that they had defied one of Eurth's great powers for more than sixty years.

The man looked at the electric heater in puzzlement for a moment before he reached towards it, trying to see whether it had broken or if there was some sort of timer. From the feel of the room, with a temperature that could not have been much above freezing, he couldn't guess which one it was. From the look of the place, he imagined it was the former. He patted the top down, trying to feel for a button or switch through his thick gloves. The other electric heaters spaced about the waiting room had the occasional traveller gathered around them. For a moment, he watched as one of them leaned forward towards a heater, pressed something on the right hand side and then leaned back again. It started glowing after a moment. He did the same and was rewarded with the electric elements starting to glow again.

It was not long after the coldest part of the year, and the weather this year had been particularly harsh, but the terminal still did seem very empty. Gournaion was supposed to be the busiest port on the island but the scattering of travellers didn't show that to be true. Or, rather, if this was the busiest port, then God help the others. Part of that was always going to be the economic sanctions laid against the Hexanesa by its former ruling power. The Greater Holy Empire had tried to strangle the breakaway state at birth; the economic collapse of Europa over a decade ago had almost put the final nail in the coffin in that regard. When the man had undertaken less... clandestine visits to the islands in the past, the passenger terminal had been bustling. It was disappointing to see it as it was now. Of course, as a true Arhomaios, he should have welcomed anything that showed the Lipotaktai, the Deserters, as being unable to run the islands that they had unjustly stolen from Arhomaneia. In truth, he just found it sad.

Reports from civilian ships and the intelligence services had said that the Hexanesa had suffered badly from the storms from the Argic Circle. Northern Tagmatium and Machina @Haruspex had seen dozens die in the freak cold weather over the winter. The reports on the islands had stated that the impact had been even worse than on the Occidental mainland, with entire communities on the northern coasts abandoned as the inhabitants fled south to the more sheltered areas. The death toll, as unfortunate as it was, hadn't been much higher than in Arhomaneia, but it was much more marked due to the smaller size of the population. And the economic devastation that it had undoubtedly wrought was still becoming clear.

The sound of a roller shutter being raised turned on one of the booths turned the man's attention away from his own thoughts and the glowing elements of the electric heater. He looked towards it and then tried to look at his four travelling companions as surreptitiously as possible. All of them were dressed almost identically to him – but almost everyone else in the terminal was as well. Two were sat together a few metres away, ostensibly a couple of sightseers from Sporsia, come to see the wild, rugged beauty of the Barrier Islands and their wildlife. The pair, a woman and a man in their late twenties, were excitedly chatting about the possibility of seeing whales at this time of year. Another of his fellow travellers, a man in his mid thirties with a bobble hat, was leaning against the wall near a side door to the terminal and leafing through a local newspaper, seemingly focussing on the life advice pages and chuckling to himself. The fourth and final one, a well-wrapped woman whose age and even body type was obscured by the amount of clothes she was wearing, was buying a cup of tea from the small cafe that made up the far wall of the terminal. He would never have recommended it. His own one was sat cooling next to the chair he had been sitting in. Despite tea being a ubiquitous part of Aroman civilisation for over one and a half thousand years, since the spread of the Empire had opened up trade routes to the Orient, there was just something plain wrong with the taste of what was being sold here.

All four of the fellow travellers, even though they all looked like they were occupied with whatever it was they were distracting themselves with, were fully alert and watchful. Two of them were from the Arhomaiki Diktyo Pliroforion, the Tagmatine Intelligence Network, whilst the other two were from the Spatharokandidatoi and the Maghlabitai. Although those names might be almost gibberish to anyone who was not either a student of Arome or Arhomaiki themselves, it meant that this was a mission from the most high authority. If Tagmatine national propaganda was to be believed, it was handed down by the Leader of the Free Wurld and the Representative of God on Eurth. It didn't quite matter which of them was from what organisation – the man wouldn't really be able to recognise any of them if he had seen them, especially since the former two organisations tended to be seen in masked ceremonial uniforms. But he had been assured that his safety would be their only priority.

But that was not really he worried about that. To anyone here, he was just a traveller, someone here on business, to visit relatives, or to see the beautiful landscapes. Or to see what damage the winter had done to a business or a relative... He was, however, worried. His hand gave his nervousness away and he touched it to his left chest pocket, subconsciously trying to feel if what was in there was still there. It was a movement caught by the couple talking about whales and they shared a look that he could not see. Although the roller shutter had been raised a few minutes ago, only now was the booth actually filled. The sign above the booth indicated that it was for internal visitors only but the customs official just gestured to the nearest person, who walked up and showed an Akiiryan passport. Once they were dismissed, the people in front showed Hexanesan documentation. Soon enough, he was up. He put down a Tagmatine passport.

The customs official, from the Taxiotai, didn't even raise an eyebrow. The official looked at it, looked at him and handed it back without further comment. He had had a whole cover story memorised, about coming to see the grave of a great grand uncle who had been killed in the early stages of the Long War but it seemed as if it wasn't necessary. The official didn't recognise him. It probably helped that, physically, he could have been anywhere from a bad late thirties to a good early fifties. He did fall towards the end of that range but, with his dark hair and beard, he looked almost like any other Tagmatine or Adapton. Very few people who didn't make a habit of watching the business of the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion would know be able to recognise him.

It wasn't until he was through customs that he ducked into a toilet and unwound the upper layers of his winter clothes. He took off the generic dark tie that he wore and replaced it from one taken almost reverently from the case he had been towing behind him. Only those who knew what they were looking for would recognise the fact that the fresh tie was in an exact shade of purple, one reserved for the Holy Emperor himself, and the Mystikon, the personal bureaucracy of the Agios Basileos kai Autokrator ton Arhomaioi kai Isapostolos. Again, he touched his left chest, unconsciously. He wrapped himself back up in his winter clothes and walked out into the lobby of the passenger terminal, though a set of automatic glass doors and into the cold wind coming from the Argic.

Last time he was here, it was... well, not bustling with taxis, but there were certainly more than the pair of elderly looking vehicles that were here today. Despite that, he walked past them and into towards the town itself. Someone huddled against the cold, the person who had been looking at the life advice pages, walked briskly and overtook him before settling down into a more measured pace. To anyone else, it just looked like they were being unfriendly. He knew for a fact that their hand was hovering over a pistol adjusted to take a gloved finger, in a shoulder holster modified for a quick draw. The other three had spread out surreptitiously and were positioned to cover other possible avenues of attack. Not that anything should, of course. Only a handful of people knew he was here in the Hexanesa. And those that did had no interest other than to see this be successful.

He ambled along, taking a look as he walked. It was certainly pretty here, so long as one kind of ignored the fact that it was also very run down. The last time he had been here, Gournaion had seemed like a flourishing place, a city that was finally becoming something more than than the sum of its history. It appeared to have a future. Now, it sadly seemed far different. There were a lot of closed shops and the roads themselves were patched. Rather than being just cobbles, there were obviously blobs of tarmac, presumably poured in to patch repairs. For a moment, he stopped and looked at his phone to check his destination. The four guards did an excellent job at seeming to be unrelated to him. The couple had stopped to look at an advert for a whale watching cruise, the tea drinker was asking someone the direction to a hotel and life advice was looking at the display of an estate agent.

He rounded the corner and saw his destination – a cafe with cast iron furniture that overlooked the harbour of Gournaion. An old lady sat at a table with a cup of tea and a pasty that had hardly been touched. She was well-wrapped against the cold, with several newspapers spread in front of her. A large dog was laid at her feet, watching those that came near her with sad eyes. Several individuals that screamed “bodyguard” – Skouterioi, as they were known in the local terminology – were positioned unobtrusively about the cafe.

There was a moment as the various bodyguards looked at each other before it was clear from their charges that nothing further was going to happen. The big dog raised its head and sniffed before getting to its feet. It ran its nose over the man, looked over at the old woman and then settled down at her feet again. It occurred to him that there was perhaps no better way to have won her trust than that, but equally that had already happened.

The elderly lady – Evangela Leotykhidissa, the Megas Kritissa – looked over her paper at him. Despite her pretence of a calm facade, he could tell that she was incredibly nervous. Her voice was calm when she spoke to him.

“Did he read the letter, Mystikos?” she asked, not bothering with any pleasantries. He couldn't tell whether she was genuinely trying to be rude to him or if it was her nerves. After all, Tagmatium still had a warrant for her arrest and he was here representing that very nation. The calm tone belied the look in her eyes. Hope but also fear.

“He did, Megas Kritissa,” replied Nikeforos Boionannes, the Mystikos, the head of the Holy Emperor's personal civil service. He put his hand in his jacket and took out the letter that Kommodos had been sent by Leotykhidissa. “I am presenting you now the same one you sent, with his Aroman Majesty's signature upon it.”

Boionannes paused for a moment.

“And caveats, which he has added to it, on the back. Whilst the Leader of the Free Wurld will ask certain things of your nation, it is feared that those might pale in comparison of those your compatriots might well ask of you. May God give you the strength to see this through.”

For a reason he didn't know, the Megas Kristissa stiffened when Boionannes said the last sentence. Her reaching hand hesitated just before it touched the letter but then she took it. He stood and waited whilst she unfolded the paper and laid it down in front of her.

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  • 4 weeks later...

“As must be patently obvious to everyone present, the winter was not... kind to our islands.”

It was an understatement, certainly, and it was delivered with a tone of sadness. The man giving it, Gnaios Sozokleios, was the Hexanesa's Logothetes ton Sakellion, Minister of Finance. He was sat at a large circular table, to the left of the Megas Kritissa, with the five other logothetai of the island's ministries. He was the third seat along. One her right were the five Kritai, representing the executives of the islands, with one deputy in the place of the Megas Kritissa. The round, expansive table was there to emphasise the the equality of the government of Hexanesa when compared to the pomp and ceremony that surrounded the governments of other nations, especially that of Tagmatium. Despite this conscious attempt to cast aside the ceremonial trappings of Tagmatium, the room was typical of governments of the Aroman nations – grandiose, designed to emphasise the glory of the nation and of God. It was wooden panelled, marble-floored and with a mosaic on the domed ceiling and numerous symbols of the Christian faith placed about the room. Unlike Tagmatium, however, there were no ostentatious bodyguards or clergy swinging incense. Other than the thirteen government officials, the room was empty, apart from the large dog curled up on a rug behind the chair of Leotykhidissa. The room and the building itself had come from a more hopeful time, almost fifty years ago, when the future looked bright for the six islands.

It was cold and all the occupants in the room were still wearing their coats, scarves and gloves. Breath plumed in the air and the sight of it emphasised the finance minister's words. The room was too large to heat effectively, with large windows that let in the weak spring light, and the government couldn't really afford to do that at the moment. It was another sign of the dire straits that the government of the six islands were in. If the government itself was having to tighten its belt and reduce itself to only heating rooms that could be kept warm, then what hope did the ordinary people have?

“The damage inflicted was especially severe on the northern coasts of Polyagios but Kouttasios suffered as well,” Sozokleios continued, shuffling the sheaf of papers in front of him. “The fishing fleets aren't going to be able to hit the numbers that they did last year because of that damage. Numerous ports have lost dozens of boats and some of them still remained locked in ice. The Hexanesa didn't have the ice-breakers of other nations. “We likely won't see the same level of income from the fishing fleets this year as we did last year. I've been asked by representatives from the industry to see if we can put forward money to help with the damages that they've suffered.”

It wasn't a surprise. Everyone knew what the Minister of Finance was saying was true. Evangela looked around at the rest of the table and the faces around it wore their worry on their faces. They all looked down at the table surface or out of the window, avoiding looking at each other or the Megas Kritissa. It was going to be a difficult year for the island nation and there was likely going to have to be the question of cutbacks raised, if not more. That wouldn't go down well, in all likelihood. The people were already suffering.

Sozokleios coughed into his fist, more out of nervousness than any illness. He did wipe his nose with the back of his hand, though, as it was running somewhat due to the cold. “It doesn't really get better. Depending on what happens, even if the situation doesn't get any worse, there is the chance that we may end up defaulting on the loan repayments before the end of the next financial year.”

There wasn't even a groan of disappointment from the other twelve people in the room. A couple of them looked down at the table in front of them or listlessly picked up and put down their papers. Things had been going down hill for years, after all. The islands could probably have squeaked by for a few more years. Maybe they could have slowly gotten back on their feet again. But perhaps this was inevitable. The economy had been sinking for a while and the islands were suffering from a brain drain. The best and the brightest left for the other Aroman countries, or to other parts of Europa, where they would see better pay and a chance of a life that wasn't fishing, logging or sheep farming.

Arkadios sensed the change in the room and got up from where he had been sat and looked up over the edge of the table towards the finance minister. Absently, Evangela reached out her hand and patted the big dog on his head. After a moment, the dog yawned and then laid back down and started to close his eyes again.

“So, what can we do about it?” asked the Kritissa of Skhronos, one of the smallest islands, breaking the silence that had settled on the room. Skhronos was protected from the bitter Argic winds by the larger islands, which meant that it was one of the warmest and most hospitable. It was also one of the richest, as its weather meant that it was much more pleasant than the other islands. The better weather meant that it had a much more reliable agricultural sector than the others and tended to export its crops to the other islands. It was also the southern-most and the closest to the Occidental mainland. The tended to mean that its inhabitants either looked west or were vehement in their nationalism. Kritissa Melania Gourakes was the latter. “I presume its not just a case of enforcing more austerity policies and trying to get on by.”

The Kritissa was a hard-faced woman in her mid forties with greying brown hair. She looked over to Sozokleios, who shook his head.

“No,” said said the finance minister. He paused for a moment and shuffled his papers around again, as if they might reveal an answer to him that would be more palatable to the other twelve people in the room. “Although that will be something that we have to do as well. We will likely have to turn to an outside source for help. Either we go to our creditors and try to convince them that we need more time or to help us re-organise our loans, ask... beg for a later repayment date or we turn to another country for help.”

Again, an ominous silence settled over the room. As a country, the Hexanesa had had a troubled birth. The Long War had devastated it and the depredations of the Volsci occupiers were deeply engrained in the national memory. But as well as that, the feeling of betrayal at the Tagmatine government when it tried to demilitarise the island and then the sanctions it inflicted when it tried to strangle the Six Islands at its birth. Still, at some level, the national psyche craved acceptance from its parent nation.

“But who?” asked the Krites of Agios Methodianos, the smallest of the Six Islands. It was a rhetorical question and he shook his head afterwards. He sat back in his chair and raised his hands before slapping them against the arms of the chair. “The Adaptoi have always backed the Tagmatioi. The others? The Sporsoi and the Euandroi are hardly in the position to offer anything. One's on the cusp of a civil war and the other is as bad as the Kyptoi.”

“What about the Volskoi?” asked the Logothetes tou Kommerkiarionikou, Vipsanios Nikeforopolous. It was something that he had been trying to push for closer trade links with the Volsci for years, since Tagmatium was always keeping the Six Islands at arms' length. The Volsci had never been truly interested, looking north, east or south, rather than west. They had strung the Six Islands along for years. “They have been looking to prospect our EEZ for years, to see if there's oil or gas there. That would give our country the boost that it needs.”

Once again, silence reigned.

The Logothetes tou Amynou, the Minister for Defence, broke that silence. It sounded as if it was an argument that the two ministers had been having for years. “That likely wouldn't fly with the Tagmatioi. And you know well enough that that would end up sparking something that none of us would like. And maybe vice versa as well, although that's never been tested, although I am sure that the Volskoi would like to get their tendrils within us. The treaty that was signed after the end of the Long War explicitly denies the militarisation of the islands.”

“Although they were to remain Tagmatiki, too,” replied the Logothetissa tou Dromou, Berenika Petrissa, who scratched at her chin whilst looking over at the Minister for Defence. It was very strange for Evangela to hear her nation referred to in the third person like that. “We were to remain Tagmatiki. But disarmed and with any military bases removed. There was to be little more than a police force and coast guard left here. But it remains to be seen what would happen if Tagmation did provoke anything. The Volskoi are at their lowest ebb that they have been for years, even since the Long War. The Old Tyrant might be bold enough to make a play for us, if he is aware of our weakness. And theirs.”

“And what about the Gharoi (@Haruspex) ?” asked Nikeforopolous. “They would like to see a situation where both entrances to the Central Europan Seas weren't entirely in the hands of the Tagmatioi.”

“We've seen how the Gharoi treat Christians,” the Logothetes tou Amynou said. Mikhael Abonotamites was referencing the Gerenian Crisis, which had seen Machina Haruspex ethnically cleanse their newly conquered territories of Christians, chasing them to other lands. “I'm not genuinely sure that you could seriously entertain the idea of that.”

“None of us know that they would do that.” Nikeforopolous sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. He seemed to know that what the Minister of Defence was saying was likely true but still tempted to deny that it would be a problem. “They've been looking into significant 'hydrocarbon mining' in the Thalassa ton Kataigidon. We could definitely use this to our advantage. If we open or sell of areas or claims of this, then we would certainly be able to patch the holes in our finances.”

Nikeforopolous used air quotes when he said “hydrocarbon mining”.

“It would be the thin end of the wedge and you know it,” replied Petrissa. She looked like she was about to thump her fist against the table but thought better of it. “The Gharoi are not subtle. It wouldn't be too long before they started to try to deploy naval forces within our seas or on our islands. This is not something that we could consider.”

“Sooner rather than later, they would see the chance to start to try to populate our islands with their own people,” Abonotamites continued. “The Gharoi cannot be trusted, not after Koussoeia. They would be more than happy to supplant us true Arhomaioi, destroy our churches and put up their heath shrines instead.”

Nikeforopolous shook his head. “Even if it doesn't lead anyway, letting other countries or company buy 'hydrocarbon mining' claims would absolutely boost our nation's finances. This is the tack that we need to be taking. It would solve a lot of our problems.”

Again, Nikeforopolous used air quotes when he said “hydrocarbon mining”. Both Petrissa and Abonotamites rolled their eyes. An international coalition had to involve itself to try to prevent the Ghariki ethnic cleansing. Although it was unlikely that the Tagmatioi would not get involved, it couldn't be relied on.

“It would cause a lot more problems that it would solve,” the Logothetissa tou Dromou said. “I'm not sure why you can't see this now, when you crisis has been kind of been brewing for a while as it is.”

Sozokleios remained sat and looked bemused. It seemed as if his attempt to break the news that the Hexanesa needed serious thought to the decisions that they needed to take in the short term was getting seriously derailed. Instead, the leadership of the small nation was breaking down into recrimination and conspiracies, rather than properly attempting to tackle the economic crisis that had been damaging their nation for several years now. He looked over at the Megas Kritissa, but she looked away.

Evangela closed her eyes. She reached her right hand down and stretched it back towards the dog lying behind her seat. After a moment, she felt a warm tongue licking at her fingers. On her left hand side, there was a briefcase. Slowly, the elderly woman picked it up and placed it on the table. She unlocked it and opened it. From within, she pulled a letter, the one that she had written to the Old Tyrant and been given back, with his additions. Without looking at anything in particular, although her gaze was towards the heavy wooden doors that led into the room, she passed the piece of paper to her left, to the Logothetissa tou Dromou. The movement made all the others in the room fall silent and just watch the action. Likely, all of them secretly hoped that the old woman who had seen their country born would be able to do something that could rescue it from its current ignominious position. That was an extremely bitter thought as it flashed through the old woman's mind. Whatever happened next, whether it was the saving of the Six Islands or its destruction, it could solely be laid at her feet.

The Logothetissa tou Dromou read the letter, swore tersely, and read it again before passing it to her left. It was a reaction mirrored to a greater or lesser extent by everyone in the room. Some of them were silent. Others were very vocal. The Megas Kritissa's own deputy sat to her right, as the representative of Efmoseia. He handed the letter back to her in silence, after reading it several times. It had been a surprisingly long process. It had taken over an hour for everyone present to read both the letters and comprehend them. Silence filled the room again but this time, for the Megas Kritissa, it was an awful, soul-sucking silence. Everything that she had ever done had led to this moment, and she had even shot a member of the Vigla, back when they had tried to get them to leave the islands that they had spilled so much blood over. An arrest warrant still remained for her and when it had been written it would almost certainly have meant a firing squad.

She was reminded of the reaction of Hegesinos but at least none of them had been physically mutilated by her own actions or inactions, although she could never admit it, to him or lest of all to herself. The silence dragged on and on and all of them were staring at her. Suddenly, the elderly woman was extremely angry.

“Say something, God damn you all!”

Arkadios was on his feet at the explosion of emotion. His hackles were raised and he was defensive but he couldn't tell what it was his owner was annoyed about.

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  • 10 months later...

Evangela Leotykhidissa sat in the armchair that sat to one side of the private study of the Palati tou Exarkhou, the Palace of the Exarch. The room was not as warm as it often was, as the heating had only been turned on an hour or so ago by the few staff that she employed. The heating system could be heard making clanks and groans as water went through its pipes. The main occupant of the official residence of the head of state of the Hexanesa was an elderly lady and felt the cold more keenly than the young. She was sat in a comfortable robe as well as warm slippers and, despite the warmth that was beginning to build in the room, Evangela still felt a chill. It wasn't one due to the cold air of the islands, perhaps unsurprisingly. The window that looked out onto the private garden showed that it was a clear day, with spring beginning to show itself. A robin could be heard somewhere in the bushes that edged the garden, singing clearly in the crisp morning air. The chill she had was within her.

Instead of taking her breakfast – habitually a cup of sweet, milky tea and a bowl of porridge with a spoonful of jam, usually of whatever sort was available – in the small, less formal dining room that was near to the kitchen, Evangela had retreated to the study. The bowl of porridge sat abandoned, having gone cold some time ago, on the side table placed next to the armchair. The tea cup was empty and next to the bowl. She found herself with no appetite this morning, as she hadn't for some time after the meeting where she had presented the letter to her ministers. Evangela also seemed to be drawn to sitting in the study more, although away from the desk itself, as if it had been tainted by the treason that had been composed at it.

The phrase “like a dog to its own vomit” passed through her head at that thought. And she knew a lot about that, especially recently. She looked down at the large form of Arkadios, currently lying at her feet. The poor thing. He had just learned the trick of how to navigate his puzzle-bowl, which was designed to slow down his eating. The big dog had gobbled down his breakfast incredibly quickly before then puking it up on the floor in the kitchen very soon after. There was a wet patch on the tiles still, where that had been cleaned up, and a slight scent in the air. The elderly head of state had made a point of cleaning it up herself, rather than letting any of the residence's staff clean it up. It was her mess, after all. Or at least a metaphor for it.

As if sensing her attention on him, the Stheneloser rolled onto his back and presented his tummy for rubs, his forelegs folded up and a serious look on his face. The Megas Kritissa smiled, a rare expression on her face at the best of times and certainly at the moment. She leant forward in her chair to run her fingers through the thick white fur.

After a moment, she stopped and sat back in her chair again. Perhaps the worst thing about it all was that there were no protests. The Skouterioi had been convinced that there was going to be some sort of protest or at least a demonstration outside of the Palati tou Exarkhou. There had not been anything so far. There was no group of people waving placards demanding her resignation or the repudiation of the letter that she had sent to Tagmatium. Nothing whatsoever. It wasn't as if the cold was keeping people of the streets – the temperature across the islands had steadily been increasing over the week, as northern Europa slowly moved out of the coldest part of the winter. It still remained below freezing, by and large, but most people at these latitudes were used to that.

For the last few days, the presence of the bodyguards at the residence of the Megas Kritissa had been doubled, at the insistence of Logothetes tou Amynou Mikhael Abonotamites, but it was apparent that it was unnecessary. The Minister for Defence had been more supportive of Leotykhidissa than some of her other ministers. But there were no mobs in the street, howling for the blood of the arch-traitor, the one who had sold them all out to the Tagmatioi. The Lipotakissa had finally even deserted the country she had struggled to found. Although Leotykhidissa had felt very guilty about the thought, at points she was even worried that her own bodyguards might have turned on her. None of them had met her with rage or anger in their eyes at the news when the content of the letter had been leaked by someone. Worse, to an extent, was that the look in their eyes seemed to be understanding. That the people of the island nation felt that the time for the Hexanesa might have finally run out.

In truth, Evangela Leotykhidissa would have been relieved if there had been outrage at her actions, once the letter and its contents had been leaked. She wasn't sure which of her ministers had done so or if it might have been someone else. It probably hadn't been the Mystikos, as she couldn't work out how Kommodos might have gained from any leaks and she knew that there was little that that such a bureaucrat would do it without his monarch's blessing. That didn't really matter to her. Not any more. Leotykhidissa would have liked to think that her actions had probably saved her country and given it a future, one that might not have otherwise have had. A part of her didn't think that her letter had given it a golden future. Perhaps only saving it from a more violent takeover in the coming years.

The Old Tyrant had acquiesced to her requests and Tagmation would re-absorb the Hexanesa. But she wasn't a despot, not like the Old Tyrant. The oppressive, outraged silence that had ended the last meeting of the government of the Kritakrateia had been broken by the various ministers and Kritai over the days that followed. They had, one by one, agreed. Whether that agreement was regretful or not, they had given her their blessing. It was deeply bitter, though. None of them seemed to be enthused by the idea of suborning their home to the Leopard Throne but the other options only seemed worse. Only Nikeforopoulos seemed entertain the idea that any of their other neighbours could be a preferable option. Most of her cabinet had grown up in a hopeful independent state, albeit one fundamentally influenced by the nation that it had broken away from. Over the last decade, that same hope had slowly died. Soon, it would be time to put the question to the rest of the nation.

Kommodos had promised better funding for the islands – far better than the Hexanesa could have generated with its own declining economy. Alongside that, there was to be debt relief and the promise that the islands' traditions – as new as they were when compared to the ancient traditions of Arhomaneia – would be respected. There would not be a governor appointed by Tagmatika and forced onto the Hexanesoi, at the barrel of a gun or through some political chicanery. The islands would still be headed by a Megas Krites, elected by the inhabitants of the islands. Economic links between Tagmatium and the islands would be encouraged, but done in such a way that it did not overwhelm the local businesses. At least on paper.

In reality, the Megas Kritissa guessed that some of that would not hold true, or that some of it would come to be ignored over the next few years. She had no idea how the Volskoi would react to what was going to be laid before them. It seemed that the Agios Basilikon Kounsistorion was going to present the annexation of the Hexanesa as something of a fait accompli. One that the Volskoi would have to accept it or be prepared to go to war over it. She guessed that it would be the former, at least for the time being. Tagmatika had agreed not to extend any military presence to the islands, which was what the original treaty between Tagmatium and the Volsci Republic had stipulated. There seemed to be the hope that that would be good enough for the Volsci. The Taxiotai would be folded into the police organisation of the same name of Tagmatium, whilst the Stolos would remain distinct from the Vestiaritai but become part of them operationally. The Skouterioi, the bodyguard of the Megas Krites, would be allowed to remain and it would join the other varied bodyguard units of the Greater Holy Empire, although it would be considered to be subordinate to them due to the fact that it was formed much more recently.

Leotykhidissa sighed to herself. Arkadios knew that there was something upsetting her and he placed his chin on her lap and looked up at her, his eyes sad, although he could never understand what was actually going on. Evangela stroked his head absent-mindedly, before looking down and smiling at the seeming expression of sorrow in the dog's eyes.

Very few other heads of state had presided over such a systematic dismemberment of their own nation and even fewer had done so at their own instigation. Other leaders had only seen their own nations subordinated in such a manner due to military or political defeat. In another wurld, with stronger international organisations, perhaps the Hexanesa could have held on as an independent nation. But trapped between three encircling powers and battered as it was, starved of funds after the collapse of Europa and hit by several harsh winters, Leotykhidissa couldn't see that independence being maintained. If the Hexanesa was to disappear as an independent country, they would do it by their own choice. Making that choice on their own had some dignity to it. The other choices were stringing out the pain and misery until they found themselves suborned and absorbed.

There was a heavy cost, though.

The option for a future vote for independence had been ruled out, literally and figuratively. A steady hand in the purple ink reserved for the Holy Emperor and Autocrator of the Aromans and the Equal to the Apostles alone had drawn a line through that sentence in the letter. It was followed by two words, one she had expected and another she had not.

No.

Then the unexpected, the one that spoke of at least some sympathy for the plight of her islands and herself. And some humanity of the occupant of the Leopard Throne. Kommodos was not some ghoul after all. It looked like it had been added as something of an afterthought, from a man who was infamous for his icy and unfeeling image. One Leotykhidissa knew had ordered the extra-judicial murder of hundreds of detained officers in the aftermath of the EK7513 Civil War in Tagmatium. Perhaps that made it worse, that even such a person could feel something that could only be described as pity towards her.

Sorry.

And that was that.

Although she had had read the reply before she had handed it out to the rest of the meeting, the eyes of the Megas Kritissa were drawn back to those two words time and time again. They were bitter and they would likely be her epitaph, one way or another.

No. Sorry.

She had asked, and received, a pardon for all the Lipotakai, even those who had without a shadow of a doubt shot and killed Arhomaiki soldiers and military police as the islands rebelled. Such as herself. That had likely raised some eyebrows across the Ranke Sea but it wasn't as if that mattered too much – the figure that sat on the Leopard Throne was hailed as the Nomos Empsychos, or living embodiment of the law and able to amend or change the constitution of Tagmatium as they saw fit. What she had asked would remain, at least whilst Kommodos sat upon the Leopard Throne. Whether whoever came after Kommodos felt themselves bound by the agreement between their predecessor and herself was another matter and Evangela knew that Kommodos was not much younger than she was.

A knock at the door broke her from her thoughts. Leontios, the Megas Kritissa's trusted long-time aide, opened the door and sketched a half-bow. He seemed hesitant, in way that he usually wasn't.

Arkadios looked over at the door and his tail wagged.

“What is it?”

The head of state's tone was brusque and unwelcoming. The look on Leontios' face wasn't one that suggested hurt but instead almost disappointment. Probably more disappointment at her actions over the last few days than her current rude behaviour. Leontios was used to the elderly head of state acting as a dynamic leader, rather than an elderly shut-in. Leontios sketched a very cursory half-bow and then turned away, back into the corridor that led from the study. The manner suggested disapproval and, almost, contempt.

“You have a visitor, Megas Kritissa,” he said as he stood in the threshold of the doorway.

Leotykhidissa looked around at the study. It wasn't messy, not in the least. She would never let it get like that. But there was still her empty tea cup and unfinished bowl of porridge. Anyone who knew her would know that that was not like her at all. Even though she wore a robe against the cold, under that she was as respectfully dressed as any Arhomaiki widow might be. Indoor robes were an expected part of the clothes worn by the inhabitants of the Hexanesa.

“Send them away,” she replied. She pulled the robe tighter about her and picked up the tea cup and looked in it. “I cannot see anyone at the moment.”

At the tone in the Megas Kritissa's voice, Arkadios got to his feet. The big dog looked uncertainly over at Leotykhidissa and then over at Leontios, before looking back to the elderly head of state again. His tail wagged uncertainly. Activity was happening – might a walk be happening in the future? Or was it something more serious?

Leontios' expression was carefully unreadable. That in itself was enough of a clue to the Megas Kritissa. “Kyrios Hegesinos is most insistent that you see him, Megas Kritissa.”

Had her old enemy come to crow over the mess that she had made of everything, after she had done pretty much all that he had ever wanted? That was never Hegesinos' style, admittedly. She was about to stand up and be equally insistent that Leontios show her predecessor the door, when the her aide stood aside and let that very man into the study.

For a moment, she was flabbergasted. It was an intrusion of the highest order. Although any Arhomaioi could never forgive such a breach of decorum, Hegesinos still gave the half-bow that would have been expected of him had he been invited in. Leotykhidissa gathered herself and stood up and returned the bow, despite the monstrous offence that had been given to her.

“This is an egregious liberty, Kyrios Hegesinos." Evangela bristled at the temerity of the man, to wander into her home, even it was the official residence of the head of state of the Hexanesa. That made it even more sacrosanct in her mind. She was deeply offended that the man had come without an invite and even more so that Leontios had done it without her explicit permission. “You have no right to be here, not without my say-so.”

As she said those words, other thoughts tumbled through her head. If Leontios had let Hegesinos in, then he or someone else had given permission to the guards at her door to let someone in to the Palati tou Exarkhou without her being involved. It was tantamount to a coup. Had things really fallen that far? Was this the first step towards Leotykhidissa being put against a wall and staring down a half-dozen rifle barrels?

Arkadios, ever-loyal, picked up on the change in the mood of the Megas Kritissa and began to growl. The low rumble emanated from the fourteen-stone dog and Leontios, despite knowing the animal for years, flinched and stepped back. After all, Arkadios was a big dog with big teeth. Ioannes Hegesinos did not flinch. The tall man, handsome if not for the scarring on his face, kept his gaze steadily locked on that of Evangela. Scarring that she knew, and she knew he knew, she had caused. Leotykhidissa deflated and her stance became less pugilistic. The air of tension in the room dropped and the Megas Kritissa took several steps backward, although her defiant air was still there. Hegesinos himself didn't step into the study and it was less out of respect of the large dog than it was the Megas Kritissa. In turn, Arkadios ceased to growl and padded back over to Evangela and licked her hand, trying to get reassurance from her, his eyes remaining on both of the men who were lurking in the doorway.

“I apologise for my intrusion, Megas Kritissa,” said Hegesinos. It sounded as he was entirely sincere. Evangela realised that the man had clearly been putting up a front – this was the first time he had even breathed since the Stheneloser had begun to growl. Hegesinos had been very much intimidated by the threat of a dog that weighed more than he did. “But your people need you. As trite as that sounds...”

The former Megas Krites seemed stumped for a moment and he looked over at Leontios. Leontios shook his head. He wouldn't damage his role as a trusted servant any more by getting involved. He had already done far too much and feared that he had broken the trust that he had with Leotykhidissa completely. Allowing an unauthorised person into the Palati tou Exarkhou might already have been too much, especially since he had disarmed the security protocols involved. Heads might roll and probably would. Out of unconscious habit, Heseginos held his right hand in his left, to protect his injury from any scrutiny.

She had never admitted to causing it – not directly – but still Leotykhidissa felt her eyes stray to the man's injured hand. And she looked up to see that Hegesinos had seen her look, too. A half-smile creased his face and he shrugged. That guilt had never left her, even after a decade. If it had been one of Ioannes' children, instead of him, who had opened the letter, then she had no idea how she could have lived with it.

“As I said to you before, Megas Kritissa, I will do anything to help you. The first thing that I will suggest is that you need to show yourself to your people. They need you now, more than ever.”

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  • 8 months later...

Perhaps a half-dozen rifle barrels would have been preferable.

At least they would have been quick.

The weather had warmed up but the little old lady felt chilled to her bones. Well, no. That wasn't true. It felt as if they had been filled with lead. The taste in her mouth was bitter. The apology from the Old Tyrant still rolled around her head. She had lived most of her life knowing that her erstwhile homeland considered her a traitor whilst her adoptive one thought her a hero. Now the roles felt... not reversed but turned on their head.

The faces that looked up at her weren't looking at her with hatred or disgust, though. But the expressions that they wore weren't ones of gratitude, either. There might have been some expression of hope in their faces, after awful winters that they had suffered recently. Almost everyone in the island nation had read or heard the announcement that the Hexanesa were about to rejoin the Greater Holy Empire. It was something that none of them thought that they would see in their lifetimes although many of them feared that it was inevitable. Especially as they saw their nation's economy crumble around them. Some of them may have even thought that it was, at the very least, better than being absorbed by the Volsci or the Haru, who might drive them from their homeland at the barrel of a gun.

But none of them seemed to be enthused by the future that awaited them, despite the assurances from Tagmatika that their laws and culture would remain intact. Theirs was a purely secular state and with no laws, official or otherwise, against how its citizens led their private lives. Now they were being handed to an authoritarian, autocratic regime that had its own moralistic laws about who it was proper to love or not.

The promises of increased investment, at a level per capita that the mainland itself had, didn't seem to be winning any converts, either. Two schools of thought about it were emerging. One stated that it was the least that the Tagmatioi could do, after years of trying to strangle the economy of the islands. The other school was that they would see it to believe it. Leotykhidissa herself guessed that Tagmatika wasn't going to be lying about the money that would flow into the island. If nothing else, the islands themselves had one of the few places in Aroman territory that could grow wine and wine was very much a part of Tagmatine culture and hitherto only available as imports from @Adaptus, @Gaellicia or even further afield. They would also want to show that there was at least some value to rejoining the Aroman Empire, other than protection from other predatory nations.

The old lady stood at the foot of the stairs that led to the low stage that had been set up in front of the Palati tou Exarkhou, the Palace of the Exarch. Leotykhidissa's fingers bunched in the ruff of fur around Arkadios' neck and, much to the surprise of the large dog and herself as well, bodily pulled him closer. He seemingly sensed her trepidation and leaned against her legs, almost pushing her over. She looked down at him and he looked back up at her, meeting her gaze in the adoring way that only dogs could. Despite her own feelings at that point, she smiled down at him. His tail swept backwards and forwards. Nothing that she could say next would stop Arkadios feeling the way he did about her. She covered her face with a hand as if she was coughing into it or stifling a yawn but she actually gave a sob. Even if she was doing the best for her country, it was the most bitter thing she had ever done.

The Megas Kritissa refused to look at the sea of faces in front of her for support but found her gaze dragged towards the man who stood off the stage to the right. If Ioannes Hegesionos had done anything other than return her gaze without any other gesture, Evangela would have hated the man for the rest of her days, and his. Instead, her predecessor calmly looked at her before turning his eyes back towards the crowd. She watched as he closed his eyes and mouthed what must have been a prayer.

No.

Sorry.

Those two words echoed through her head still.

With a slight gesture of her left hand, Leontios came forward and took Arkadios from the steps behind the stage. For a moment, he refused to go but Leontios produced a favourite toy, a slightly ragged looking furry advocato with a cartoon face and visibly re-sown seams. The dog's eyes locked on it and he gently latched on to the toy and allowed himself to be towed from the steps behind the stage and into the small crowd of government officials that had gathered behind it. It was going to be a historic moment, no matter what the outcome was. The vultures were gathering to see it.

And she allowed herself to be towed onto the stage by herself.

Each step felt tall, taller than it ought to have been but by the time Leotykhidissa reached the top, she was standing tall herself. She was, after all, the elected Megas Kritissa of the Six Islands. She had lived on these islands almost all of her life and she had given everything for their freedom. She had rebelled with much of the rest of the garrison some seventy years ago and shot those who would sell them out to the hated Volskoi. The people in front of her knew what she had done and knew that she, of all people, had done it with their best interests at heart. No one else would have been able to do what she had done. Probably none of them would have thought to do it, either.

She breathed deeply and very nearly puked. Leotykhidissa fought down the rising wave of nausea and swallowed. Her mouth felt extremely dry and she had not thought to bring any water up with her. As if summoned by her thoughts, Leontios appeared and handed her a glass of water before disappearing back down the steps behind the stage. She took a sip and then licked her dry lips and felt how they were chapping in the cold wind that had started to blow. It threatened to be strong enough to take her voice away, so she leaned in to the microphones set up on the podium in the centre of the stage and began to speak.

“I shall cut to the chase. I respect you all too much to do otherwise. As you all know, as you all will have read or have heard, I have asked the Holy Emperor Kommodos to take us back under the wing of the Aroman Empire.”

And despite the fact that everyone would have heard, or read, that information by now, something approaching a groan or a sigh echoed across the square. There might have been a hope that the news wasn't true, that it was just a rumour repeated so much that it was being taken as the truth. Or that it was some sort of twisted hoax, something that the Megas Kritissa was going to dispel when she started to speak. Any hope of that was now dashed to the icy wind.

“This does mean that our nation's apartness will come to an end. Its independence does not. We remain the Six Islands. A Megas Krites will always rule our nation. They will always be elected by our citizens.”

Despite everything, Leotykhidissa still couldn't really meet the eyes of any of the citizens of Hexanesa in front of her. She knew what she was doing was probably for the best of her people. It would remain to be seen whether the purple ink used by Kommodos was worth it. The Old Tyrant likely knew that, as old as she was, she would fight to her last breath for her people, too.

“Our laws, our culture, our history and our rights remains ours. We have stood alone for almost seventy years, free of the influence of any other Europan nation. We have withstood the worst that both the weather and the political situation has thrown at us. But it is clear to see that this fight has been a losing one for some time. The last few winters have been harsh and the summers have been little better. We have all become poorer for it. We have all suffered. Our shops have become more empty and the tourists that used to visit our islands have ceased coming. Enemies have begun to circle. The Volsci have been violating our territorial waters and air space more often than ever before. The Haru (@Haruspex) have been undertaking military exercises in the Ranke Sea with little regard for Tagmatium, let alone us. We all know that both of those nations dream of a Hexanesa under their banners.”

It felt like low hanging fruit to invoke the names of the two ancient enemies of Aroman civilisation but there was truth in those words. After the Haru invasion of Beautancus and the repeated naval exercises in the Ranke Sea, despite them having no port on it, it had been all too easy to envision the ravening northern hordes trying to lay claim to the islands. And everyone knew that the Volsci cast envious eyes on the Hexanesa. That was what the last war was fought over, after all.

“That is why I sent a letter to Tagmatika, requesting that we rejoin Arome. This was not a decision that I took lightly. We have – I have – struggled for our nation's independence from that same country for a lifetime. But we are faced with an uncertain future. I thought it better to choose which of those gathering nations to submit to than have that choice made for us.”

This time, she did look around the stage, the stage set in front of the palace that she knew to be her home. Her eyes went across her ministers, who either nodded or remained impassive. Although that was exactly what she had been accused of before, Leotykhidissa knew that she did not need their permission. Hegesinos stood and stared straight ahead without catching her eye. Leontios, of course, was standing in the background. His watchful eye was on Arkadios, who was hunched over in that awkward pose dogs took when they were taking a shit. The face of the dog look around and caught her eye and she laughed, despite herself. The poor thing looked lost without her.

The Megas Kritissa took a deep breath and continued.

“I have been assured that our culture, our history, our rights and our laws will be respected. And that our independence will remain. Some of you may think that any such assurances might be little more than lies made so that we drop our guard and submit without a fight. But I know that you will fight for our independence and our way of life, if it seems threatened by any power, even one that we choose to submit to. I will lead the way, as I always have. I will never see our laws, our culture or our rights taken from us. Our history, my history, shows what will happen if they try to do so.”

Her eyes stopped drifting across the faces of the crowd in front of her and returned to a fixed point above them all. She couldn't really meet any of them directly. Instead, her gaze took in things like the poor repairs in the cobbled streets or the closed shops. On one level, she was trying to assure herself that she had made the right choice for the inhabitants of her nation.

“As I stand here in front of you, in front of you all, I say that I will treasure our country's future as much as I have treasured our country's past. I know that is true for you all, too. We are the Hexanesa. There are few countries on Eurth that can say they held all of Europa and Burania at bay for seventy years and were then able to choose which country to join. Just as once we turn our backs on the Aroman Empire but never stopped being Aroman, now we join the Aroman Empire but we will never stop being the Hexanesa.”

“May God give us the strength to see this through.”

There were no cheers at the end of the speech and Leotykhidissa knew that there never could have been. Although she knew that she had said it in the best terms possible, it was still the end of an era. An end she would have preferred to have come under someone else's rule as Megas Krites rather than hers. The old lady pulled her clothes closer about her and turned off the stage and walked back down the steps. No one came to her as her feet hit the bottom and she felt somewhat disappointed. But there was no one she actually wanted to see. The ministers and kritai of the rest of the islands just watched as she walked past. Ultimately, she knew that she had taken a decision that none of them could have. Or, at least, none of them would have.

The little old lady felt angry on some level as she walked back towards the Palace of the Exarchs. To an extent, all of the judges and minsters of the islands had thrown her under the bus. It seemed that they felt that only a Deserter could have made the decision that she had made. None of the rest of felt that they were able to make that call. None of them have the balls to do so.

The Taxiotai guards standing on either side of the door of the Palace opened it as the old lady walked towards it. From the footsteps behind her, she knew that two people and a dog were following her. She ignored them both and continued to walk into the bowels of the Palace, towards the study that was at its heart. The old lady manoeuvred herself behind the desk and watched as the other three filed into the room. One of them stood at the door, another made himself at home on his bed near the empty fire and began to gnaw at one of his paws whilst the other sat in the arm chair near the desk. Leotykhidissa nodded towards Leonitos, who disappeared to get a pot of tea for the others. For the first time that evening, the Megas Kritissa addressed someone directly. She looked over at Hegesinos directly and he shifted uncomfortably under her gaze.

“I have been elected for three terms as Megas Kritissa. I have two more years to serve before the completion of my current term. I believe they will be the longest of my life. I will guide our nation through those years, as I have done the four before and last two terms that I have served. Then that will be it from me. I have done the best that I feel that I could have.”

Weasel words, if there could have been any. Both of the politicians sat in the room knew it, too.

“But I have done the worst that I could have, too.”

Hegesinos drew in a deep breath and held it. He had always been in favour of warming the relationship the islands had with the Aroman Empire but he would never have been able to have done what the Megas Kritissa had without being unseated, or worse. He put his hands on the arms of the chair and looked ahead, trying to avoid the gaze of the old lady. The room was warm, heated as it was by the rest of the building, but he knew that Leotykhidissa probably felt as cold as he did.

“It is the end of an era and there can be no doubt about it. You did what you thought was best.”

He winced at his own words. That wouldn't console the Megas Kritissa but he guessed that little would. There was a saying about the road to Hell, after all.

Leontios bustled into the room and laid down a tray of tea on the side table next to the desk. There was also a bottle of the sugar beet rum that was common in the Aroman Empire on the tray, likely to try to warm them up after the time they had spent in the cold. Despite being the guest, Hegesinos got up from his chair and poured two cups of tea. It smelled like the sort of blend that was available in the islands – cheap and likely a lot lower in quality than the rest of the Occident was used to. He pointed a finger – not one of his mangled ones – towards the rum. The old lady shook her head and he didn't add any to his own cup, either. He sat down again afterwards.

“If it means anything, Megas Kritissa, I believe that our islands will flourish. Tagmatika will want to show that joining them peacefully means that the benefits of one of the largest economies on Eurth will spread to all of those in it.”

The old lady had drifted back from her own thoughts and looked at him again, with an eyebrow raised. He was kind of glad of that, as it showed that she was beginning to return to her own true self. They had been opponents for years but he suspected that it might be better that the old Deserter was in charge and leading the country through the next stage of the islands' future. She would fight where he might not.

“Your leadership through these times will be what is needed. No one on these islands doubt that you have their best intentions at heart and that you will safeguard our rights and freedoms, no matter what Tagmatika does next. And if it means anything, I will be at your side for it all.”

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