On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Zuk » Mon Jul 01, 2019 10:13 pm

The Hippodrome, Irae

Everyone present sat silently while he read. Down below the emperor's box, the charioteers were rounding a corner, and the people were screaming joyously. The scroll rolled itself up, revealing the sour face of the Crown Prince Kritodemos "Monopthalmus", his left eye covered by a black patch that hardly concealed the scar tissue around it. He scratched his thick black beard and said to his servant, "Thank you, Doulos. You've done well."

The servant bowed and silently slinked away. The prince looked over the waiting faces of his gathered allies - what was left of them, anyway. Most of those who had acted as direct intermediaries to the Strategoi had been picked off in the Emperor's purges, but it seemed that none had revealed the true source of their actions. What was left was an unhealthy smattering of Geronts and Logothetes, lower magistrates and officers in the Stratos. It wasn't nearly enough for an effective coup, not anymore, and the Strategoi were now out of reach. "The army is on the move," he said, "He has won over the Strategoi. Our window has closed."

He let the wave of anger wash over the room for a moment. They had their own reasons for being here. Some were Pantheonists, still bitter over the Basiloktonia. Others were stalwart Antarteran unionists. Kritodemos had spoken to each of their concerns, promising to welcome the spread of new Pantheonist temples, and to pursue reconciliation with the Republic. All agreed, however - there must be an emperor, and he must be a Mandromenid. For now, that left them with Kritodemos to rally around - he had made sure of that. There were no brothers left, and he had found ways to minimize his powerful Jasonid cousins, who had produced several Strategoi in recent generations.

"He's done it again," grunted old Logothete Hymandos of Skaea, slamming his fist against the arm of his chair, "Damn the gods who stand beside him!"

Hymandos had been a member of Anaksarxos I's bureaucracy, had negotiated directly with Dumani magistrates as they moved toward a goal of Antarteran integration. He assailed them all regularly with tales of the feel of those days, the "energy" as he described it. Like so many others, he'd felt a sense of hopelessness since, which had given way to despair as coup attempt after coup attempt was subverted, sabotaged or outright defeated by Anaksarxos II and his Mandators. Dozens of assassination attempts had failed, from poisonings to shootings, to having dedicated men suicide-charge him with knives - none of it had ever worked. If not the Spathion, always immediately present, then the Mandators would step in, and on one occasion, the emperor himself had merely, by chance, chosen not to eat something that had been poisoned and served to him. Most of these attempts had not been directly coordinated by any single group of people - rather, a faction of people loyal to the first Anaksarxos acted out through various forms of decentralized resistance.

That faction of people was rapidly shrinking these days. Hymandos was more a representative of them than an outlier - a sickly, fat old man who was long past his prime, set aside or lost in some glory-less bureaucratic position. Kritodemos had found it easy to rally what was left of them behind the promise of fulfilling the dream they'd never let go. Now, he was left with the shell of that, and a smattering of younger men he'd gathered to his cause while serving in the Stratos. Lower officers, not a Strategos among them, but some armored units and a number of gunship pilots. They had discussed on more than one occasion simply assaulting the Kastroudeos head-on, but in the end ruled it out as even more audacious and insulting than the Basiloktonia had been.

"We need not damn any gods," said Kritodemos, "at least not yet. Some yet remain by our sides, too, or we'd all be dead as well. I think it best we disperse, however, for the good of the cause. We are without opportunities. Perhaps its best we wait until my father has died, and I may ascend naturally."

"He doesn't DESERVE it!" hissed one of the others, old Geront Eroneos. "He doesn't..."

There were nods of agreement from some of the other older members of their group. Kritodemos felt for them, in a way, but this was his father they were talking about nonetheless. He frowned, "Be that as it may, we are in no position to act. We should bide our time, remain silent, and reconvene when necessary. As it stands, we are outmatched. In the end, the result will be the same. I will undo my father's actions. Take solace in that, if you do not live to see the day."

Once Kritodemos convened their meeting, they left in short order and scattered to the four winds. Kritodemos, for his part, sat alone in the emperor's box, watching the chariots round the corners below. What a meager following I've mustered, he thought, If only I had some way of countering the Mandators...

He felt nervous even thinking it, and impulsively checked his surroundings. I'm being foolish, he thought, Even if I can't see them, of course they're watching me. He grimaced, his hand tightening into a fist. He knew there had to be a way - not because he agreed with the ramblings of sad old men, or because he held some deep malice in his heart toward his father, but because he knew he was the better man. He had merely yet to prove it. He took a deep breath. There is one way, he reminded himself. He had contacts, good, honorable Antarteran men all, in the Republic. Barbatio.

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Dumanum » Tue Jul 02, 2019 12:01 am

There was a tremendous amount of paperwork that needed to be done to ready the legion for war. Just that morning, Marcus Aradus had signed off (or rather, his adjutant had) on a request for 2,000 new uniforms. Apparently spiders had gotten into one of the supply warehouses- a tremendous number of spiders, by the sounds of it. One of the younger men had thought it expedient to try to “smoke them out”, as he’d called it. One thing lead to another, and now they were down 2,000 uniforms.

More paperwork filed in. More paperwork was signed. Calls were made.

This situation was about as ideal as he could have hoped, under the circumstances. Of the some twenty-three thousand men nominally assigned to his command, roughly a quarter had been pulled out and shipped to other units. Unfortunately for him, it included many of his younger, better troops. The ones who’d received their military diplomas within the past two to three years. Those men had gotten orders to report to their old legions rather than the Thirty-Second.

Still, all was not lost: the Thirty-Second still had a good core of experienced officers and NCOs. Some of them were a bit long in the teeth, but Marcus Aradus knew and trusted them all.

“You will be receiving reinforcements before this kicks off, don’t worry,” the fellow from Manpower had told him over the phone. He’d called as soon as he read the orders, praying that there’d been a mistake. He knew there wasn’t: the first twenty-two legions always had priority for reserve call-ups. Any below-strength units were to be replenished with the most recent Citizens before they were sent off to the front.

And so, at the moment, he had a skeleton legion. He did not lack in leadership, but he did lack in warm bodies: men to drive his trucks, to crew his tanks, to drive the machines that dug ditches and, when those inevitably broke down, dig the ditches themselves.

“A cohort graduated at Campus Caetronii just yesterday afternoon. The first of them should be arriving later today.”


He did need fresh bodies, but he didn’t need children. They’d be at war within a month’s time, if the rumors held true.

His leaders would now be saddled with the extra task of training 17- and 18-year old graduates of Secunda Disciplina for a real war, and that was on top of getting out-of-practice and out-of-shape reservists back up to speed and all their machines running smoothly. As it stood, those kids would know how to take orders, shoot straight, maintain his weapon and wargear, run swiftly, march steadily, and some rudimentary small unit tactics. But this was the Faithful Thirty-Second: they were an armored legion. Another few months at a technical school is what they really needed, and even then it’d take still more time to really get them up to speed once they got to their unit.

Still, he needed fresh bodies, and this is what he had to work with.

What the man on the phone didn’t really make clear was that the Thirty-Second would be getting the first pick of recruits.

“Aradus,” a voice called from beside him.

“Sulinus,“ he responded without turning.

They were standing out on the parade ground- that was grass at least, and the bugs were even leaving them alone for the moment -baking in the hundred degree Ubaidian heat. The legates- those were the commanders of the legions -stood off to the side while the tribunes took charge of the draft. It was a very old system- some said thousands of years old. The new recruits would be arrayed in formation, and they’d be inspected by the tribunes. The recruits would have on hand their records from Campus Caetronii, the only information anyone had to judge them on other than their bearing. The tribune of the first cohort would then select one of the recruits, and he then belonged to the first cohort. The tribune of the second cohort would then get a turn to select a recruit, and so on and so forth until they cycled to the end. The tribune of the second cohort would then get the next pick, and the tribune of the first the last, until every man had been chosen.

In this case, the Thirty-Fifth Subartan Legion under Sulinus was also taking part in the draft- 812 recruits to split between two understrength legions. Fresh-faced boys, not even issued a weapon or gear yet. It was summer time- the sleeves of their desert fatigues were crisply rolled the regulation four fingers.

“Ooh! Watch that one!” Sulinus nudged him. He quickly saw what he was getting at.

Fourth rank, second file. The kid looked strongly built enough- some kind of Quardacian by the looks of him- but, sure enough -there he went, tipping ever so slightly forward until he hit the ground with a thud.

“Medic!” came the inevitable shout from outside the ranks, and within moments he was being hauled to his feet and dragged to the aid station to get the silver bullet.

“You can have that one,” chuckled Aradus.

The rest of the recruits did not break ranks; they stood immobile, like statues. They were fresh out of Secunda Disciplina, and that meant they were in peak physical condition and wired to obey. That was at least one positive.

“I’m told they’re shunting all the navy and air force contracts in Prima over to our side,” Sulinus said, more seriously.

“Handless Oswin, what a clusterfuck. This is definitely for real, then.”

“Certainly looks like it. I hear they expanded the recruitment age as well- thirty-two year-olds I think they’re at now.”

“Oh, I can imagine the lines they’re giving the kids in school now- well, probably the same ones they gave us I suppose, no?”

“Service Guarantees Citizenship.”

“That’s the one. But now they get the promise of a real war. The real war.”

It was almost 3 o’clock, and the sun was in no hurry to go anywhere. The formation was rapidly thinning- it’d taken less than an hour to get down to the last fifty.

“How do they plan on processing all those new recruits?” Aradus wondered aloud.

“Didn’t you hear? They just stood up two new castrae last week. They both have Prima and Secunda on site, but it’s going to be abbreviated. Once they’re all up and running, they’ll be able to pump out another ten thousand or so every two months.”

Great. Can’t wait to throw boys with two months of training into a warzone.

That bit went unsaid.

Aradus didn’t need to watch anymore, his tribunes had it all well in hand. He bade Sulinus farewell for the day; he’d likely see him the next day for another draft. He had more paperwork to do.

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Dumanum » Tue Jul 02, 2019 3:50 am

“Titus, my good friend!” the corpulent figure in the garish robes bellowed at him from atop his throne, staggering excitedly to his feet and nearly knocking his vizier off his feet. His long curly beard swayed before him, even has his extravagant turban nearly tumbled from his head.

He flung his goblet of wine in the general direction of a servant, who scrambled to pick it up.

“None of this swill for my friend here, bring out the good stuff for us!” he clapped his hands twice, to accentuate the command. Faster than Titus could blink, a pair of lithe, provocatively-dressed serving girls appeared before him. He didn’t quite understand why it required two of them to bring him a goblet of wine- an Estrian red of a fairly nice vintage. King Sarkon always knew his audience- it was how he’d survived this long.

Taking the goblet from the girls, he waved them off- his wife sufficed for those purposes.

“While you know how I delight in surprises, my friend, I must say I am especially surprised at your so sudden arrival here in my humble abode,” he got a little too close as he tossed an arm around the Dumani; his breath reeked of wine and whatever he’d been smoking.

“Yes, Your Majesty- I had thought you and I might talk in private. I did not want word of our meeting preceding me lest any…unwanted guests invite themselves.”

“Ahhhhh, intrigue! Most excellent!”

He turned to the gathered court. There were dozens of slightly-less garishly dressed figures- locals, of various sorts, and perhaps a few foreigners that had gone native -and some more conservatively dressed foreigners. And then there were the guards: Sarkon’s private mercenary army. He didn’t trust Crataeans for that purpose, so he employed Wallaseans, and maybe a few Fantasians. They were all a serious-looking bunch: Marbo had files on all of them. Ex-Force 316, DOPE, DZU, and OMSDON, mostly. They were all exceptionally well-paid, and surprisingly loyal. Sarkon may have appeared outwardly ridiculous to the casual observer, but he knew what he was doing.

The whole court had been quietly glaring toward Titus Junius Marbo, but he merely gazed on with detached indifference.

The smile disappeared from the king’s face.

“Out, all of you! I must speak with my friend the senator.”

There was murmuring as they filed out, encouraged by the guards.

“Come with me.”

They proceeded behind the dais upon which the throne was situated- it was twenty steps high, and Marbo marveled that Sarkon could ascend and descend it with such ease, given his enormous girth. Behind the throne was a balcony that looked out over the city of Elam.

They were at the very top of the Tower, Sarkon’s personal fief from which he ruled over all the Elamite peoples- even if only in name. Though his city had been partitioned between the warring Antarterans over a century prior (quite literally- the legal border of the Sukarian Empire and Dumani Republic ran straight down the middle of the city), he still exercised a strong degree of influence over not only those Elamites living within its limits, but those inhabiting the surrounding provinces. He was a religious figure of sorts- descended from the goddess Damgalnuna and divinely ordained to rule by all the gods. This was something the Elamites took very seriously, even if they took little much else seriously.

And so, neither the Dumani nor the Sukarians really cared to bother with him. It was simply easier this way. And he, for his part, like his father and his father before him, paid lip service to both. He was “vassal” to both the Emperor and Senate, but in practice ruled on his own whim. He did not stir up trouble, and kept those who followed him from stirring up trouble, and the Antarterans were content to let things lie as they were.

The sun was setting over the city. It sprawled out in all directions: simple mud brick structures that had likely been there as long as the Tower. Still, the city was not impoverished, for it sat on the crossroads of four countries. Far down below, men drove expensive sports cars and SUVs, and Elam International Airport was crowded with private jets. Sarkon, like his father and grandfather, had resisted all attempts at developing the city beyond this. “I do not wish to tempt the gods with my hubris,” he’d told Marbo when asked.

“So, Titus, what did you wish to speak of?”


“Let me guess, it is something to do with this war you have brewing with your cousins?”

Marbo hated when he did that.

“Indeed, Your Majesty. It is highly likely that we will see open war with the Sukarians within the next several months. I come here as a friend to bring warning that this war will likely affect your city,”

Sarkon paced- more like wobbled -and nodded his head, reading between the lines, “Yes, it is good that you come to me like this. You come to me first, you know? I appreciate that.”

“Still, I do not like to, how you say- rock the boat. I remember the last time your people came through. I was only a child, but I remember it was quite the mess you made!” he said as if playfully admonishing a child, wagging his finger. “And your cousins, they were not so pleased with my father letting your men by without a fight. They took his eye for that.”

Marbo’s eyes narrowed. He’d not smiled this whole time, but he somehow seemed more serious. That caused Sarkon to stop pacing.

“You see, Your Majesty, that is what I wished to make clear to you. We only came through, the last time, on our way in and out of Ubaidia. You see, when we come through this time…we think we may be staying in Ubaidia.”

Sarkon sighed, his grin not quite disappearing.

“I see. Well, hopefully it isn’t because you are dead!” he laughed at his own joke.

“I think that is unlikely.”

“Yes I suppose that is true. After all, and correct me if I am wrong, but my spies tell me the Sukarians seem to have lost interest in this part of their empire.”

“You are not wrong.”

“Yes, and that is most unfortunate, because a great many people are being killed in Ubaidia, Titus. My people.”

“We are aware, and had thought it may interest you to know the Senate does not take kindly to this butchery of the Elamite people. They are, after all, friends and brothers to the Dumani People.”

“So you say,” Sarkon’s grin had lost all humor. “And so I say to you…I shall think on your words, old friend.”

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Zuk » Thu Jul 11, 2019 7:20 am

Kastrou Kamferia, Kamferia Exarchate

For nearly a week, men had been driving in from the provincial countryside. Some came quickly, alone, in pick-up trucks usually, fully loaded with supplies; guns, ammunition, their uniforms, ration stockpiles. Those men had been waiting for the call eagerly, had been itching to get back into the Stratos since fulfilling their dues. Others took longer, only arriving at the Kastrou after spending some time with their families, or arranging their affairs. Some brought with them debt-slaves, usually youth debt inheritors, who they donated to the Evzones to be dispatched toward Kastrou Ubaidia.

Arrivals were organized into Kentarchies and began drilling and conditioning immediately. It was quickly clear who had kept up with their training and who had not. Those who hadn't were beaten severely by their peers as punishment. Mechanics rolled old Kataphrakts out of warehouses and worked round the clock to make them ready for war. Endless lines of Hippeis trucks and armored fighting vehicles were rolled out and inspected, while armies of Logothetes from the Imperial Intelligence Logothon and magistrates working for the Domestikos Estratos took tallies and requisition orders. All this took place in the area surrounding a fortress built in the 1700s, overlooking them like a dark monolith. In one of its high towers the Megas Disasteros, Tagtheridox Arteros, had just arrived to address a council of Strategoi, who each led a Tourma within the Second Theme.

Arteros was tall - one might judge him seven feet at a glance - and hugely muscular. He had bronze skin, a square jaw, and dark eyes, with which he surveyed those before him. He was adorned in a traditional officer's uniform - a crested bronze helm, bronze lamellar-scales and kilt over a silken purple tunic, with a crimson chlamys which fell over it all. "Honored Strategoi," he said, his voice like a rumble, "I thank you for receiving me so well. I do enjoy the sight of an army in motion."

"Yes, Megas Disasteros," said the Strategos of Delta Thorax, a Perioikoi-born Sukarian named Argentarios Oieraphanes, "Soon the empire's enemies will be cremated screaming with liquid fire and stamped into the earth by the marching of Antarteran boots."

"Let the Gods will it so," agreed Arteros. "In short order, I will charge Delta Thorax with the command of the Second Theme. Along with Epsilon Thorax, you will be supported by the Grand Spears in taking regional command of the Evzones," he nodded toward noble-born Strategoi Philandros of Agali and Esis of Nika respectively.

"It will be my life's honor," said Argentarios, standing tall and proud, "I will meet the Dhoumoi in the field and drive them back with the right and true dispensation of our subject forces against them. With rockets and fire and bullets and swords we will drive them back to the edges of the world and bid them to swear fealty to their lord, the Emperor of All Antarterans. Let them test all their men and machines against our wall of men and missiles."

"Well-spoken," said Arteros wearily, "truly... uh... Where was I? Yes. You're to take command of the Evzones, and help keep the Republicans occupied in the southern reaches of the empire. Useless territories, the lot of them, and if truth be told the emperor would like to see some collateral damage if at all possible. You will be given everything you need, however, I think it best you not overstretch your forces. Its unlikely you will outright win a protracted offensive. You'll be best off pulling the Republicans into ill-advised offensives themselves. Your forces will, after all, be easily under-estimated."

"What of the other reservists? Will they be joining us?" asked Philandros, scratching his beard.

"They will not. For now, Zeta Thorax and the other two Mechanikoi will be rallying to join the rest of the Stratos as it moves into position. With luck, they'll be at full strength by the time they arrive in Kyrenia."

"So, you're hanging these provinces out to dry?" asked Philandros, looking perturbed. "Meaning no offense, sire, but it seems the emperor fully expects us to lose."

"You're not understanding your role," said Arteros, giving Philandros a look that froze him solid, "your goal is not to win. For you and your men, the size of your victory will be directly proportionate to the resources you force the Republicans to invest against you. Do you remember the Ubaidia War, generals? I wouldn't suppose you do. I certainly do not. Who do you think won the Ubaidia War?"

Philandros pursed his lips. "Conventional wisdom would suggest Dumanum gained a tactical victory. It defeated the Sergelts, and greatly disrupted the social cohesion of the Exarchate."

"Aye, conventional wisdom," said Arteros. "Conventional wisdom is wrong, in this case. The Dumani won nothing. They expelled resources unnecessarily on a land filled with savages, and will do so again. They defeated the Sergelt invasion of Ubaidia for us, and allowed the Stratos to engage in the much more meaningful conflict with the Danteri. Now do you see, kind Strategos?"

Philandros only nodded silently.

"Thus will be your guiding light," said Arteros to them all, "Be the mud that stops the wheel, the light that blinds the eye. Leave the vast tracts of Vekhia littered with smoldering wreckage and burnt corpses, and do the same in Elamia, and Ubaidia, and Cadimirria if you must. And if the Gods deliver us victory, let the Republic know the disruption and instability that we have overcome time and again, so that we may see them truly tested, and know that they are Antarterans, not starving Motaps or slack-jawed Ulans. They should only pray Arete blesses them with such opportunities as we have had. O Sukaros Nika!"

"O Sukaros Nika!"

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Zuk » Fri Jul 12, 2019 1:59 am

Oiregei had never known anything but the farm, his entire life. They told him he was born owing a debt to the Antarterans who fed and clothed him, and kept him close to his family, and that only a life of labor now could hope to earn a life of freedom for his descendents one day. Like his father, and his grandfather before him, Oiregei had inherited this debt from his ancestor Bargul, who they said fell into ill fortune after taking out a loan to pay for a prospecting venture in Danteri that came to nothing. As imperial law dictates, the Antarterans who made the loan could collect on the debt through forced labor, and set their own interest rates when dealing with someone of the Helot class.

His father had been beaten into submission years before he was born, and kept his head down. He had impressed on Oiregei the need to do the same, to bend the knee, to bow the head, and call the Antarterans master. "They'll take your eyes," he always said, "there's nothing worse than that - to see a man waste away in despair and darkness with no reprieve, laid low by the simple stair."

That hadn't been enough for Oiregei. He could see that the land continued beyond the farm of their Antarteran lord, Marsentios. He'd seen a debtor leave with Marsentios once before, the last time the couriers came with orders to report at the Kastrou, and resolved that this time it would be him who left. His father and mother begged him to stay away from Marsentios or his family, as approaching could mean death, but in the end he'd been taken along gladly. "The wife will want a few less mouths to feed while I'm away," he remembered the master telling him, while they drove to the Kastrou. That was a few days ago - now, Oiregei had seen more of the world than he dared dream of since then.

He wasn't sure where he was going, or where Marsentios was, or if he would ever see his family again, but none of it mattered when the ziggurats came into view, passing below the elevated, fortified rail line in the dried out marshlands of Cadimiria and Ubaidia. He saw people walking freely here and there below, tunics on their backs, only halted by guards at periodic checkpoints. What freedom, he thought, if only he could be among these prosperous peoples who the Antarterans treated with respect.

Sure, he was scared, but once he and the others were shoved off the train at the Kastrou station, there was no more time for fear, or to even think. Suddenly there were Antarterans screaming at them in Sukarian and Ostic, saying, "take this duffle bag," and, "run with the others to the barrack." He tried to ask what was a barrack, but an Antarteran smacked him with a lamellar-mail glove, breaking skin on his cheek. After that he didn't ask any questions, and ran barefoot across the rocky earth, slaves and Ubaidians and Elams and Ohns all around him bleeding sweat that drenched their faces in the merciless sun.


Long lines of Ubaidian men attempted jumping jacks, poorly, as Antarteran officers screamed at them to go faster. They were all poorly timed and mismatched, and few could complete the motion even after being shown repeatedly. Many were in poor shape, and lacked discipline, and were beaten thoroughly for it and even lashed in cases where individuals were too fat.

Raw recruits like Oiregei were given old Galilos rifles and drilled on how to use and clean them. Shooting a gun, at least, came easily to even the slowest peasants, even people like Oiregei. Even if one had never held a gun themselves, they'd surely seen an Evzone or a Shesh patrolling their neighborhood. Perhaps they'd looked down the barrel themselves, on occasion. The same could not be said for driving, and certainly not vehicle maintainence. Most of the Evzones' mechanics and engineers were poor Antarteran Perikoikoi, or otherwise Maranese or Danteri. This sometimes created communication issues between them and the Ubaidian or Elamic operators, who themselves created unnecessary issues by not really understanding how an engine worked, or not really caring about working one too hard.

Other vehicles were welded together to make impromptu mobile artillery, or a cheap tank. Many trucks were found to be in poor condition, with many flat tires which had to be pulled off and replaced. The scrap rubber was thrown into long trenches, ready to be set afire to create a thick, acrid black smokescreen to conceal movements or suffocate an advance. Others were wrapped around captured deserters, set afire, and rolled down hills as a form of execution.

Many Ubaidians simply didn't report for duty when called upon, and were either replaced by a Shesh supplied by a local Abu, or were actively hunted down and killed by the Salamudi. All told, some units failed to contact or locate as much as a quarter of their manpower, requiring spot replacements who were usually slaves or impressed into service from a local village.

Meanwhile, border villages were subjected to forced evactuations, the buildings flattened by tanks or, if they were mudbrick, methodically bulldozed. As with elsewhere, thousands of displaced refugees were driven south toward the border, their former homes laid over with mines, barbed wire, and tank traps. Huge stockpiles of munitions and supplies were trucked in or hauled downriver from Ohn, while the rails remained mostly in use shifting units north and south.

War was in the air, all around. One need only breathe deeply.

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Zuk » Sun Jul 14, 2019 5:36 pm

The Strait of Arterus, Huranese Coast

The helicopter cleared a layer of clouds, and below them the Horn of Crataea came into view, the very northern tip of the continent, straddling the Strait of Arterus. The clear-blue Axackal shone beneath them, reflecting the midday Sun brilliantly, reminding all why the Sukarians called this the "Thalassa Kalos" or, "Beautiful Sea". Here, it was said that the hero Arteros pushed apart the Pillars of the Earth during Globalization, allowing the Ingenic Ocean to join with the Axackal Sea as a favor to the Sea God Thalassos, who wished to bed the Axackal Sea Nymphs. As reward, the wild continent to the north bore his name, granting him a form of immortality.

Why, exactly, his father had brought him here was unclear to Kritodemos. There was nothing but a small town, some farmland, a few military bases, some scenic mountains. Huran had some lovely beaches, it was true, if only it were safer. "Glorious, isn't it?" asked the Emperor, "The Province of Ouraeia. Not yet, I know, but just you wait... they say I failed here, you know, just like my father."

"Neither of you failed," said Kritodemos gruffly, "Huran is ours. Its a matter of formalities."

"Another Exarchate at best," said the Emperor, watching the landscape draw nearer below. Kritodemos couldn't be sure what he was thinking. "What good is another Exarchate? That system has shown its age. See what good Exarchates do us. The Dumani do not have Exarchates."

The town at the very tip of the continent was coming into clearer view, but something didn't look right. There was smoke, and for miles around, dump trucks, pickup trucks, cranes, earth-movers, bulldozers. Then there were the lines of people, being force-marched down a coastal road at gunpoint by Huranese mercenaries. "I don't understand," said Kritodemos, "I haven't heard of anything like this."

"You wouldn't," said the Emperor with a knowing eye that made the crown prince shiver, "The Shah answers to me, after all."

It became clear that most of the town had been bulldozed, and that new construction of buildings and infrastructure was underway all around its carcass. A patch of packed dirt and earth came into view below them, just in front of what looked like the beginning of some grand temple, as marble pillars were being raised, and grass laid out near a new street. Theirs and two tailing helicopters landed there, and the emperor and crown prince stepped out into the Huranese heat. The Emperor's Spathion joined them from the other helicopters, suddenly flanking them at either side.

"What do you think?" asked the Emperor, gesturing toward the rising edifice before them.

A... fine temple, father," he said, unsure what to make of it.

"It isn't a temple," he said flatly, "Its a palace."

"A palace?"

The emperor scratched his white beard, his crimson himation flowing in a light breeze, "Yes. I've been thinking - how might I secure our branch of the family an enduring legacy to match that of Pelagius, or Heraclius? So that the throne might never escape our grasp - YOUR grasp, your son's grasp... Sure, military glory. Of course that remains on the table - I intend it to be just one facet of my greatness. I've come up with something even better... a new capitol for the whole Antarteran World, straddling the edge of the civilized world in this strategic location granting us control of the Strait... I will build a grand navy to protect it, I will conquer the south of Arterus, I will defeat the Regeners... I will right all the wrongs of history, from this, my city... Anaksarxople."

Kritodemos felt frozen, a bead of cold sweat forming on his forehead. He felt his mouth was dry, so he licked his lips and said, "A new capitol, sire... father, would it be appropriate to abandon Irae?"

"Who said abandon? I won't abandon it. It will remain the capitol of Sukaria, merely subordinate to the capitol of this new, restored Antarteran Imperium. Urbs Dumanus, too, will become subordinate to this Golden City."

"I see... I - submit humbly to your great ambitions," he said with the courteous bow that was expected of him, "and hope merely that I meet your expectations..." There was no response. The Emperor merely watched him silently a moment, as he lifted cautiously from his bow.

That was when he first realized something was truly wrong.

The emperor gestured toward a pair of his Spathioi, who returned to one of the tailing helicopters and retrieved a man, bound at the wrists with a bag over his head. They brought him before Kritodemos, kicked him to his knees, and unveiled his face. It was old Hymandos of Skaea, one of the magistrates who often met with Kritodemos and his followers. His mouth was gagged, his old face beaten purple, bloody and swollen. Suddenly, the Crown Prince was looking for an escape route, but he was met at all sides by Spathion guards.

"Quit being a fool," said the emperor, "I can't just kill you... you've done your best to make sure of that, by killing you brothers. That's fair. I'd have done the same."

They cut the cloth that gagged old Hymandos and he gasped for air, coughing and wheezing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept saying repeatedly.

"You didn't think you could truly conspire against me in secret did you? Of course not," the Emperor said, as if disappointed in his heir. "This one, he made a big show of his hatred for me, his determination to see me gone, and what did it get him? Only torment for days without ceasing. He understands now that it is I who has the power to give and to take, to make, to unmake, and to remake as I see fit. He sees now that he is nothing, doesn't he?"

"Yes, lord," Hymandos moaned, "yes, lord, I understand, I swear..."

"He sees too late, and so he will not see at all. Take his eyes and his tongue," said the Emperor.

"No, no!" cried Hymandos, but the Spathion pinned him and borishly cut his eyes from his sockets as he kicked and fought, then did the same with his tongue. When it was done, they threw him to the ground bleeding, and he grasped at his face, making only a strange groaning sound from his throat.

"I made you," said his father, approaching Kritodemos with a look of satisfaction on his face, "Don't be so naive as to think I don't have methods with which to unmake you. I see myself in you - the cunning, the will to do what must be done - but know that I am the master. I give you one chance to embrace this legacy of marble I build for you, to kneel before me as your emperor, and to rise, and embrace me as my son. I offer this to you only once - or perhaps I'll take your sons as my heirs instead."

After just a moment to ponder, Kritodemos fell to his knee and said, "Your wish is my command, Autokrator."

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Dumanum » Tue Jul 23, 2019 7:52 pm

He heard the grinding of tracks on sand and howling of diesel engines long before he saw them. They came often enough to this village- more of a town, these days -though the days on which they came varied. They kept their patrol routes irregular, as is good practice. They’d become something of a regularity in this barren corner of the steppe ever since they’d broken the back of the Ulangazor in the eighties.

Things had been far harder for his people, then. At the dawn of the twentieth century, when the Sukarians had been driven from their province and the Saratovians overthrown in the north, the Ulans had been merciless in their persecution of those they considered other. His people had unfortunately qualified; though he’d not yet been born, the stories told by his parents and grandparents had instilled a healthy dose of fear of the marauding savages that had driven them to this place.

They’d never sought to exterminate Naravas’ tribe, nor their kin. That would have been selfish of them, for it would have denied future generations of Ulannic warriors the sport of hunting them. Those days had been better than what followed, his grandfather had told him. When the Sergeltists became acutely aware of the failings in their system, and of their vulnerability to their heavily industrialized neighbors, they’d declared Naravas’ people Baga-Ulan. That was when they started taking whole villages to toil in their filthy nightmare-cities far to the west.

It was something of an irony, for Naravas’ people had built the very cities they were bundled away to. He knew this, for he, like his kin, were a well-read people. His tribe, and many others, still kept the few books they’d saved from the Great Scouring nearly a millennium hence, their people’s greatest treasure. The land had been known as Midia in those days, and his were the unfortunate descendants of those who had lived there when the Ulans came- the ones who had been foolish enough to flee across the steppe to the east rather than to the south. Once a civilized, educated people- a city-dwelling people -they’d been reduced to a semi-nomadic existence on the far side of the steppe. They’d dared not stray any closer to the river, for the Ubaidians were even crueler than the Ulans, and so they found themselves stranded between worlds, eking out an existence on the periphery of Ulannia and Sukaria.

That was not to say they were miserable- quite the contrary. His people, the Jugurthines (named for the semi-mythical warrior that had supposedly lead them to this place in the twelfth century), always took their due when the raiders came. Many a young Ulan marauder had been sent home in pieces after thinking to make sport of them- Naravas himself had seen to that on a few occasions.

Indeed, the Jugurthines were a Blessed people, for they had been among the first (the very first, if his people’s chronicles were to be believed) to bear witness to the Truth. The chronicles spoke in great deal of the blind foreign man who they’d found wandering the steppe over three centuries ago. He was a messenger from the Gods: when he spoke even the mightiest stopped what he was doing to listen with all his attention, with a mere glance from his blind eyes immolate the fiercest raider, and with his strange stringed instrument could charm any beast. Dumani and Wolohannic historians dismissed these stories out of hand, for this blind man was clearly the prophet Näkö, and by the reckoning of the chronicles he’d have been well over three hundred years old when he died (though, even the date of his supposed death was of great contention among the Believers.)

Everything had changed when the Dumani had come with their jets, and their helicopters, and their tanks: the Illuminated among the Ulans were given power, and those who refused to accept the Truth were dealt with appropriately. The unceasing raids against his people came to an abrupt halt. Elders of his tribe, and of the other Jugurthine tribes were invited to attend the Great Khan, and accept their place as his loyal subjects. For the first time in living memory, his people knew peace.

And yet, Naravas feared what came with this peace. This village- more a town now -had once been nothing more than a way station, a place the Jugurthines would meet for a time to trade and relate what they’d seen on their travels before continuing on their separate ways. Sometime in the past two decades some had chosen to settle there permanently, and as time went on more came to join them. Soldiers of the Ordu and the Comitatus often passed nearby on their long range patrols, and they always had more money than sense. As it grew in prominence, it attracted more foreign money: young men and women came here from foreign lands to heal the sick, and to educate the children.

And so, the village had grown into a town- soon to be a city -and Naravas’ own clan found they could not resist its siren song.

He cursed the new generation for taking the easy path: his grandchildren grew soft and fat on Dumani gold and promises. His great-grandchildren were learning the language of those foreigners, even as they learned to speak their native tongue. This, he reflected, was perhaps the most tragic way for a culture to die: not by the murderous conquest of an enemy, but by their own free will. Which generation would be the last to speak the Jugurthine language, he wondered?

Naravas lived on the outskirts of the town. He despised the town, the smells and ugly architecture offended the senses, but he was too old and infirm to continue on with the nomad’s life. His children and grandchildren would not hear of it, regardless. It was simple thing of concrete cinderblock, one room with a place to sleep and a place to cook. It had real tile floors over which he’d tossed carpet, and a well-stocked bookshelf. It even had electricity, and a little air conditioning unit his granddaughter had purchased for him. He sometimes wondered if he too grew soft. If he was, at least he had the excuse of age.

He spent most of his days reclining on a small wooden stool beneath a canvas awning he’d pitched above the front door. It faced out toward the steppe, and so he could look out in that direction instead of at that ugly little town. He watched trades come and go, and he read. And occasionally, he saw foreign soldiers come and go.

This past month a great deal more foreign soldiers had come and gone in their squat tracked vehicles with the snub nose guns sticking out of the turrets. A few groups would come in at a time, no more than three vehicles worth. He knew there were others out there, watching. Usually, they smiled and waved at him as they passed by, and he returned the greeting if he was in a good mood. He’d even gotten to know a few of them- one young man from Angimannia even brought him books from time to time. That one spoke a bit of the language of the Angimanni, distant kin of the Jugurthines, and so they’d been able to make something of conversation. Lately though, the smiles and occasional conversation had disappeared, and the soldiers were all about business.

Today for instance. The tracks passed perhaps ten meters away, grinding up the dirt with its tracks: painted tan with brown stripes in a desert camouflage pattern, its occupants rode with the hatches open. Their faces were concealed behind goggles and a thick cloth wrapped around to protect them from the dust. One seemed to stare right at him as they passed, though he couldn’t see his eyes.

Another passed. Then another. Then another. There were even more coming through today than yesterday. He thought to ask his grandson about it, but decided it wasn’t worth it. He’d give the same tired old story about joint exercises- the young man from Angimannia had told him the exercises had ended months ago!

Naravas simply wasn’t sure whether the young man was trying to hide the truth out of some misguided attempt at making an old man’s last few years a bit less stressful, or whether he was deluding himself into thinking there wasn’t another war coming. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t the later.

Naravas’ introspection was interrupted as a pair of helicopters made a low level pass, kicking up dust in all directions. A bit drifted toward him, and instinctively he raised his hood to shield his face. With a bit of effort, he stood and walked around his little concrete hut and looked toward the village: the little idiots were running about like panicked chickens to shield themselves from the dust. He couldn’t help but chuckle aloud for nobody in particular to hear; this generation was soft. He was grateful he’d be dead soon. At least he’d no longer be forced bear witness to the debasement of his people.

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Dumanum » Thu Jul 25, 2019 3:58 am

The bridge was a good deal larger than he remembered- though,he supposed it wasn’t the same bridge he’d encountered the better part of a decade earlier. Despite the area of Qolestan Province, Sadari to the immediate north of the Nimrus River theoretically being in another country, it hadn’t stopped the Dumani from improving the river crossings. Existing bridges had been reinforced or replaced entirely to support the weight of multiple MAD.IV tanks, and additional bridges had been built to serve as backups in the event of destruction by enemy forces or natural disaster. The bridges obviously served a mainly military purpose, for the normal cross-river traffic could never justify the level of infrastructure that had be emplaced.

The Sanfidesti who used the bridges more often than anyone certainly never complained. Although all militia groups in Magna Siracusa had been theoretically disarmed after the last war, the Senate had left a loophole for its favored groups: the Senatus consultum de foederati Dorii, passed in late 2012, permitted the sitting magistrates to make allowance for select groups in the province of Magna Siracusa. The Sanfidesti’s allowance had been renewed every year at the start of each consulship, permitting them to openly carry arms provided they were traveling with a destination north of the Nimrus River. This had effectively legalized the Sanfidesti’s de facto safe haven across the border.

No, this was certainly not the same bridge. The old bridge had been a decrepit two lane structure that looked as if it could collapse at any moment. When the legions went across the river in 2012, the Proconsul at the time- now one of the sitting Consuls -had insisted on utilizing pontoon bridges for heavier traffic until a suitable replacement could be constructed.

This new bridge had been the crowning achievement of Calvinus’ immediate predecessor’s term as Military Proconsul of the North. It wasn’t that Lunaris was a bad soldier- on the contrary, he was a great soldier, a fine leader, and a reasonably skilled tactician. Rather, he lacked understanding of the subtleties of the war being fought within his purview. That had resulted in the Varns and their Sadar puppets taking Nizarq and then Ahan, thus placing the State in its current predicament with regards to the current balance of power beyond the northern frontier. He’d not bothered to ask for the renewal of his office at years’ end; his failure was evident enough.

The bridge, though, and the others like it Lunaris had ordered built- that was one small thing Calvinus could thank him for. It would make the coming task far more straightforward on his logisticians and would take a great deal of the burden off the shoulders of his engineers. As an added bonus, it meant he didn’t need to worry about needing his vehicles to swim across the river like last time: that meant being able to apply the heavier armor packages, a necessity when dealing with irregular forces.

This new bridge was a monstrous thing: eight lanes wide with spans thick enough to soak up artillery fire digging deep into the Nimrus River bed. A fine example of Dumani engineering. To the west, perhaps half a kilometer away, was its sister railroad bridge, a similar albeit narrower example.

“What happens when they hit it with a cruise missile?” he asked without turning around, though the question was obviously aimed at his Master of Engineers.

“As you are aware, Proconsul, cranes and pre-fabs, along with the men to assemble them, are forward staged as of last week. Provided there are no other interruptions, and depending upon the extent of the damage- assume a hit on the decking and all spans intact- bridging units will have it back up and handling traffic at thirty-percent capacity within six hours, fully operational within twenty-four.”

Calvinus sighed.

“You know I don’t like best case scenario assumptions, Hanno,” he motioned toward the bridge, “Tell me what happens when they blow that span, the right middle one?”

“Double that time. Twelve hours, two days,” Hanno replied without hesitation. “Regarding the accompanying railroad bridge

Calvinus nodded.

“Cut an hour from that first scenario, double that for the second.”

Probably an impossible task, but it was the sort of motivation that worked with Hanno.

“And how does that effect our timelines, Tasius?” he asked his Master of Horse.

Tasius rattled off a figure, and then went into a detailed explanation as to what impact it would have on which units. Tasius, had of course, already begun working the problem when Calvinus had asked the Master of Engineers the initial question. The impressive thing about Tasius was that even in the age of computers, he still carried that ancient programmable calculator with him to double check what the tablet was telling him.

He only half listened to the answer; it was ultimately irrelevant to him, as he trusted his staff to know their business. The importance of this exercise was in keeping them thinking about the worst case scenario. The enemy likely would hit the bridges with cruise missiles, or some other form of precision guided weapon, which was precisely why he’d been pleased with Hanno’s initiative in forward staging his bridging units at these crossings. Would they destroy one of those massive spans? Probably not, but there was always the possibility.

Calvinus realized that Tasius had stopped speaking.

“Very well. And our model?”

“Anticipates such occurrences. Staging of equipment north of the river continues on schedule.”

He turned back to his staff. Ten kilometers to their east was the city of Shizarq- a series of white and grey specks on the horizon warped by the hundred degree heat. Were it not for the desert heat, would likely could have seen much further; the land was so flat as to remind him of the steppe in the far west where he’d begun his military career.

They stood off to the side of the fairly recently built 10-lane highway that cut across the dusty scrubland; there was minimal military traffic moving by at that moment, for a Varnian spy satellite was due to make a pass within the next ten minutes. Their Sanfidesti host, a chubby balding man by the name of Lyrrhos who had been so chatty when Calvinus and his party had first arrived, had remained silent throughout the inspection of the forward positions. The commander of the so-called Shizarq Vexlliation. Calvinus couldn’t quite tell whether the man’s grasp of the Ostic language couldn’t keep up, or whether the topics at hand simply went over his head. Regardless, he’d proven able enough at the task of keeping the Sadar Defense Force from driving them into the river.

“Thirty kilometers in that direction, gentlemen,” he motioned toward the city, “There is fighting. The Varns and their Sadar dogs have held Ahar ever since our friends let it slip from their grasp,” a few glanced in the direction of the Sandfidesto, who remained silent.

“We will be placing a good deal of trust in our friends in the coming days,” now he looked directly at Lyrrhos. “I assume you’ve been briefed by your superiors on the chain of command, my friend?”

“Yes, Proconsul. As you are undoubtedly aware, the Senate has formally federated the Shizarq Vexillation, and a number of others I am told. Myself and Tribune Casabius have established working protocols. He commands, I obey.”

Calvinus looked him up and down for a moment. This one was too fat for his liking. But, Lyrrhos had been vouched for by none other than Casabius. If that monstrous little Qorboq said the fat fellow would do, then do he would. So long as his rear remained clear of partisan activity- handling the traffic of an Army’s worth of troops and supplies would be complicated enough without them being shot at or blown up -he didn’t particularly care to look into it further.

“Tribune Voren.”

The group parted, leaving the hulking tribune standing alone; he promptly snapped to attention.


“No need for that here, Voren. Tell me, how are your men?”

Voren was tall for a Dumani- 6’2”, a wall of muscle. Blond-haired, blue-eyed; Paralentan by his name and appearance, certainly. Word was his family had once been Oswinite; luckily for Voren, one of his ancestors had been smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing and correct that most serious of discrepancies. Now here he was, the descendent of one of the great Oswinite gentes of Paralentum, a Tribune of the Dumani Senate and People. A living example of Ultor’s Dream fulfilled.

“Proconsul, my men are well-prepared for the operation and eager to do their duty. Equipment is sufficient, and morale is high.”

“Morale is high,” Calvinus nodded echoing the words. “Tell me though, what’s prevailing opinion on the more…unusual aspects of the operation?”

Voren furrowed his brow for a moment, but knew better than to do anything other than answer honestly.

“They…do not approve of the masks, Proconsul, or of the lack of insignia. They shall do their duty, sir, and fight as hard as any of their ancestors, but the obfuscation does not sit well with them- it is beneath the dignity of the Dumani soldier…so they say,” he almost forgot to add.

Calvinus nodded again, satisfied with the answer. “They are right, and they are wrong, Voren. I certainly am not pleased with how this will need to be done, I don’t think any of us are. It is a thing that ought not to sit well with any of us, for we were all raised to be forthright and truthful in our actions, always. But remember this and remember it well; tell your men: there is no task in the service of the State and Gods so grim or savage, or unseemly as to be beneath the dignity of the Dumani soldier. Our duty is just that, duty. The State commands, and we obey. Leave it to the Fathers of the Senate to worry about what is just and honorable, what is lawful and what is criminal.”

He let the words hang, letting his gaze drift from man to man.

“Someday, it may be you sitting as one among that august body deciding such lofty matters. If you do your duty well, I’d even say that is a likely possibility. Not now, though.”

He sighed. “Yes, an insufferable cliché, all of it, and one you’ve likely already repeated verbatim. But it is true all the same. Your men are in the vanguard. See that they understand full well the honor bestowed upon them.”

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby flm » Thu Jul 25, 2019 11:02 pm

Emanuel had the women line up and present their rifles. The weapons presented were a mismatch, whatever had been drawn from the village armoury that morning. Some of the trainees held out Dumani weapons, some Sukarian, and some Taihei-made examples. Emanuel’s little group had not been assigned a high level of priority, and the fact that they were all out on the small drill-field south of the village was already good enough. This was not Puerto Blanco, and women didn’t handle guns. At least they hadn’t, not until the war. His “platoon” had some training, but knew little more than how to shoot, march, and cover each other. They lacked their own weapons, uniforms, or armour. They had black armbands emblazoned with little golden palms. They had their armbands, and they had the clarity of mind with which to die for their village, for their families, and for their God. But more importantly, they had a newfound sense of respect.

The men thought more highly of the women more now. The men would not admit to it in public, but some of the women had told Emanuel that their husbands had in fact said so in their homes. Two weeks ago and three villages over, in Qara Aqach, a mixed patrol of men and women had stumbled onto some Pantheonists and ran them ragged. One of the men from the village had been in Qara Aqach, and he had returned and told everyone back home. They had slain five of the heathens, while one of the women fighters had passed to immortality. The women had fought like beasts, he’d said. They had been eager to prove themselves, and they charged time and time again into the bullets of the enemy. Shocked by the display of recklessness, the soldiers from Qara Aqach had said, the enemy withdrew from the field. The Pasdars had taken the woman’s body back to the village and cremated her, while the heathens had been left so the animals may eat.

The next time the women had come to train they had presented themselves proudly, sharing in the feelings of the women that they may or may not know, three villages over, who had vanquished the enemy out in the fields past Qara Aqach. This was real women’s work, one recounted how she had told her husband. They would clean the Pantheonists out, and leave the country more spotless than their kitchens. All the women had laughed and gone into their training with redoubled enthusiasm. They had trained with grenades that day.

Emmanuel had to pick his top two recruits, ideally he could pick four. Someone had gotten the idea to raise a female battalion. Command said they needed at least 400 women, and that presently they only had 150. The call had gone out to all the villages, with their half-trained women’s militias, to provide their best. Emmanuel had fought, not in Sadari but back home. He’d been on patrols in this country, but not seen action yet. In Valimero he had put a machete halfway into a man’s head. In southern Zavala he’d blown a gendarme’s leg off with a rifle-grenade. He wondered which of his recruits could do that more than once. They had much to learn, about advanced small unit tactics, about using crew-served weaponry, about operating with vehicles. But all of that could come with time, as it once had for Emmanuel and the rest of the boys and girls from his year. Two, or three, or ideally four, of his women would get sent onward, and pick up soldiering for a living.

The Oswinists in Sadari had been left relatively alone. They came from a poor land, with little infrastructure, and lacking in oil or any other such desirable resources. They were only rich in stubbornness. They fought when pressed, of course. But the strategy was clear, to let one group of Pantheonists whittle down the other, all the while both Pantheonist factions fought with the Varnian puppets. Up in their hilly province, the Oswinists waited and the Pasdars drilled. They did not have much in the way of manpower, but they had time and space. Unfortunately, the prevailing thought was that they were running out of both. A quick way to get more manpower, command had decided, was to bring in the women. In Puerto Blanco all the women could shoot just as well as the men, something that had also arisen from necessity, and then never gone away.

That woman from Qara Aqach would have been a good pick. They needed women like her, who clearly showed disregard to death so she could trade with it for the enemy’s. It was important for a soldier to know when to take to cover, but this too, came with time. The spirit was not forged on the drilling field. It was formed in the village and forged in battle. Emmanuel would have to take his little band on patrol, sooner than later.

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Re: On the Nature of Emperors and Empires

Postby Srf » Tue Jul 30, 2019 8:46 am

Arxat waved dust out of his eyes as he stepped into the blackened shell of a mud-bricked house, and pulled a bandanna with the motif of several angry-looking skulls up over his mouth and nose. He used the butt of his rifle to smash open the few remnants of furniture that survived the fire and then the muzzle to swipe through the remnants of a family's existence - birth certificates, wedding photos and various legal forms went flying while he pocketed about three Denarii worth of notes that fell out of an envelope. He took another quick scan and left the house.

As he was walking toward the main square a volley of shots rang out, and upon turning a corner he saw that his comrades had already shot dead all the villagers they had managed to get their hands on.

"Why did you shoot them, Bassan?" Arxat asked. "They probably have all sorts buried around the village. Now we'll never find it".

Bassan spun to face Arxat, so fast that his beret threatened to slip off his bald head. He readjusted it as he took a step toward Arxat.

"Because these people are our enemies, Arxat! They are on our land, on Pantheonist land, and we must purge them from it as soon as possible!"

Arxat hated Bassan, and very much wanted to beat him for his rudeness. But he conceded.

"Sorry, Bassan. You are in command. I shouldn't question your orders".

Bassan smirked at Arxat's loss of face and status in front of the men. He drew himself up to his full height, which was still somewhat diminutive.

"Yes, don't forget that, Arxat. Me and my boys appreciate having you here, but this is our struggle. You are welcome in this land as our guest." He placed his hand on Arxat's shoulder and held his gaze for ten more seconds, then walked away, pointing his finger the air and waving it in small circles. "Alright! We are going back to base! Get the trucks!"

Arxat watched him go, then looked down to check the magazine in his rifle. As he did a second man broke off from Bassan's group and walked toward him.

"You shouldn't antagonise him, Arxat" he said in their native Qorboq.

"The man is an extremist, Boqos" Arxat replied, looking up to watch the short little bald man sauntering toward a white pickup truck. The door showed a faint square discolouration in the middle where some unfortunate NGO's logo had once been. "They're unpredictable and dangerous and not promoted on merit. That idiot will end up getting most of this group killed. How old are these guys? Some of them aren't a day older than 16".

Boqos stared. "You're getting soft in your old age".

"I wouldn't be here if I was soft" Arxat spat. "I'm a veteran of ten years. I'm a Manus Dei liaison officer and this twerp treats me like a village conscript because I'm not born from his soil. I'd like to see him talk to a legionnaire like that".

"It's for the cause, Arxat" Boqos yawned, and lit a cigarette. "He did embarrass you though. In front of all those kids as well. You're lucky I don't kill you myself for your weakness".

"Fuck you, Boqos. You couldn't if you tried".

Boqos blew smoke into the air, where it mixed with the thick dark plume pouring from the village. "Maybe. I'll take your word for it. Anyway, just kill him tomorrow. We'll be in Ahan, unless they come take this village back overnight. If he doesn't get himself killed in an artillery barrage or whatever, it's not your fault if he trips into your line of fire. Nobody would miss him".

Arxat nodded and looked toward the north, where Ahan was clearly visible among the sand dunes. Already some smoke was rising from the city where light rocket fire had peppered the suburbs over the past few days. "Would anyone miss us, Boqos?"

"Ha-ha" Boqos replied, throwing away the butt of his cigarette. "Maybe Bassan".

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