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In from the Cold


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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 weraing, 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 Arhomaion 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 . 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 unrelated. 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 dee 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 polices 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 te table. She unlocked it and opened it. From within, she pulled out two letters, the one that she had written to the Old Tyrant and the one that she had received from him, via his minion. Without looking at anything in particular, although her gaze was towards the heavy wooden doors that led into the room, she passed both pieces 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 both letters, swore tersely, and read them again before passing them 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 both letters back to her in silence, after reading them both 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 at 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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