The Path Travelled - Part 11
 
part 9 & 10   


11 – the Council Hall, Zaffre

The leadership and cognoscenti of all of Zaffre were gathered in the great forum. There were the eight Consul-primaries, their respective secondaries, and dozens of other local orderlies and officials, not to mention the foreign diplomats and guild lords. 

They were all stood beneath the great dome, its gilded interior a wonder of local architecture. Beneath, the great hall was an ornate paragon of the region’s baroque past. Granite columns of grey flesh veined with pink supported the dome, flanking pale walls that were clothed in frescos. The floor echoed the circular plan of the dome with wide shallow steps leading down to a central stage of intricate marble designs.

Chronicler had spent the better part of the morning trying to fathom those designs, but the ever-shifting group of people had foiled his attempts. The only way he could see for sure what those designs were if he could get up to the oculus that crowned the dome and look down, as the gods of old might once have. Perhaps that was the point, he wondered.

He sighed, rubbed his face and returned to his writing. 

The Consuls were arguing, something he’d learnt they were very good at. After the display outside the walls a few days ago, Chronicler had been convinced that the city was unanimous in its stance, though he’d learnt that it was little more than a tactic to give them the time needed to assemble the grand council. Even in such times of war there were those in the council who had more important things to do.

Even worse had been the revelation that the council was not fully in agreement as to what course of action it should take. There were those who refused to budge, echoing the independent personalities the Saviud was renowned for. No amount of coercion, not even the threat of war, would make them stand down. They would rather die – would rather the city itself die in defence – than see those nascent cultists take it. The nationalists, whose passion and patriotism was seen by others as reckless.

There were others who sought a compromise and feared the innocent deaths that would result from war. Independence was a fine target, but what was the point if it lead to the city’s extinction? Was it not better to survive as an enclave within a conquered city than die for the ideal? The humanists and artists, whose love of life was greater than the love of their city.

Then there were those who sought survival at all costs. They cared not for the legitimacy of the Principal’s claim, nor the history of their city or the independence of the region. They wanted to keep their status quo with the populace and avoid conflict. Chronicler was not surprised to find many of the consuls and their aides in this camp.

There were a few who expressed unease at the prospect of facing a newly-risen otherworlder. Though rare, they were not unheard of, but to be alive during the rebirth of an otherworlder and its reassertion over the material realm was something else entirely. Most records pertaining to otherworlders had them as solitary beings, as much troubled by the woes of mortal life as mortals were disquieted by their otherworldly nature. It was a rare otherworlder who craved material power, it was even rarer for one to crave such things at so young an age. 

They feared what the otherworlder was capable of.

Well, the heart of the matter was its unprecedented nature. They had no references that could be consulted or acted upon. They were acting blind, and that was possibly the hardest thing. No one was sure they were right as no one had done it before.

By the end of the first day they were mired in an impasse, no one group able to convince another that it was right. 

The next day was little better. Within an hour of commencing, the hall was filled with shouts and dozens of groups arguing amongst each other or ganging up on other groups. Insults were hurled and old debts brought up in the hopes of swaying opinions. Some did change their minds but they just swapped camps rather than see a particular division grow in popularity. 

Chronicler was trying his best to write down what was happening, though he was green, unfamiliar with consul names, offices and other local details. Luckily he was not the only one there recording the sessions, but still, he felt useless. He had been sworn in quickly the day after the army appeared. It had been a soulless ceremony, over in moments and still he was not sure what his role was in the city. He just did his best to appear busy with the other scribes. It didn’t help much that the others were no more than children, their deft fingers nimbly recording details that he had missed. 

Guards had to be brought in to separate a quarrel that had broken out to one side of the hall, between some nationalists and another group that had formed, comprised of theosophists and mythographers who had grown curious as to the verity of the otherworlder’s existence. A fallen star had been recorded over three months ago, but they reasoned it was too soon for an otherworlder to develop a mortal personality and amass an army as it had. It must have been an older event. The nationalists felt the conjecture was useless at that point and that their resources would be better spent elsewhere.

After the fight there was a lull in the conversation and the hall broke for lunch.

The men and women scattered to their chambers (a wise decision, following the heated debate, was made for the consuls not to dine together).

Chronicler returned to his chambers where Mahr was waiting. He’d been allowed to remain with Chronicler following his move to the upper lodgings, with the other civic workers.

“How go the talks?”

Chronicler removed his official clothes and slumped down into a sofa. “What talks? It just looks like a normal election preamble. People are canvassing their personal causes, can you believe it? There’s a lot more bureaucracy in this city than I first imagined.”

“Same as everywhere else I suppose.”

“Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off with a tyrant. At least he’d have the ego to make decisions without this dilly-dallying.”

“Isn’t that what they’re trying to avoid?”

Chronicler sighed and nodded, “Of course, you’re right. I don’t know what I’m saying, really. I’m not used to all this.”

“New job not living up to expectations?”

Chronicler laughed. “Damned right it’s not. But it’s not like I had much choice.”

“Any news on Hadia?”

Chronicler shook his head. “Amid all this chaos, no one’s paying any attention to me.”

“We’ll get her out.”

Chronicler returned to the hall without having eaten anything, his appetite altogether absent.

Before the full council had reassembled, those who had already gathered there were already busy arguing amongst themselves. A few stood alone, perhaps weary of the whole thing, or still unsure of what to do. Most there were just elected officials, many of them in their first term and had no experience in such important matters. Indeed few there had any experience in such things. This was new territory and perhaps the arguing and shouting was just their way of exploring it.

When everyone had returned, the chief Consul-primary stepped down to the middle of the hall. Bodies parted as he moved. He raised his hands, “We begin the second session of the second day with nary anything to show for our work, all this while the armies of our enemy continue to spread around us, blocking us off from the world without. Soon we will be cut off from our food. If we do not act soon we will have starvation and a siege to look forward to.

“Though we are not yet in agreement, the various opinions have solidified into concrete camps. If we do not come to an agreement of sorts by the term of this session, we will put it to a vote amongst the Consul-primaries, with any ties resolved by a vote put to the Consul-secondaries.”

Utter chaos. 

No sooner had the words been uttered did the hall erupt into a cacophonous uproar. Men were shouting at the Consul-primary, pointing at him, accusing him of fixing votes that had not yet been cast. Some left the hall. The others just returned to their quarrels and in more than one part of that hall did things once more turn physical. 

The guards were brought in again, but by that point the meeting had degenerated into a brawl. The centre stage was a roil of bodies pushing and shoving, people wrestling with each other and throwing punches. Around them others were either withdrawing from the hall or urging them on. 

By the end of it the chief Consul-primary was forced to call off the session, putting things to a vote later that day. 

An uneasy tension hung over the city.

The conflict spread throughout the city, with some of the diplomats taking their woes with them to their clubs and eating halls. Word spread that the Council was unable to come to an amicable decision and that they would have to vote. Not everyone liked this. Some saw it as a sign of weakness on the council’s part. 

Noon was signalled by a call from the eastern walls, a trumpet wailing low, like the braying of a pained beast. A runner was dispatched to the Council Hall with word of the enemy army. An envoy had ridden up to the wall, demanding to speak with the Consul-secondary.

She rode out of the city with Shadonn and her new mushir in tow to find the same man as the previous day, unaccompanied this time. He rode the same belligerent chiter he had the previous day, though its form was covered in a heavy caparison that bore the livery of the Followers and the white-figure symbol of their god. Behind him the Follower’s armies had spread, their numbers clearly greater than the previous days. They had encircled the city fully, forcing it to close all door. The Consul-secondary pitied any locals who had not been able to reach the safety of Zaffre in time. 

The man bowed his head in greeting, green eyes alert. He wore an open qaftan and overcoat with intricate brocade over a decorative light steel breastplate of fine workmanship and acid-etched designs. On his side he wore a long slender ‘gunblade. “I have been bidden to ride to offer you our terms once more, given that conditions have changed,” he grinned.

“The High-council is still discussing the matter. Until a decision is reached we will hold our ground. Any further movements against the city will be considered acts of aggression, and therefore war.”

“We have nothing to fear from war. The Followers are all here by choice. Everyone knows what may come to pass and accepts that fate. It is your people – the elderly, children, those with no say in the matter – who I fear for. It is they who will suffer should things come to war.

“But that is not why I am here. The Principal is among us. He despises bloodshed and wants – ”

“Why does he act through lessers? Does your god fear us so?”

“He wants,” said the envoy, his voice raised, annoyed, “To offer you any and every chance to resolve this amicably.”

The Consul-secondary smiled, shaking her head. “If it is an amicable resolution you seek, why the army?”

“You need full facts to make an informed decision. We have nothing to hide. We have revealed our troops. No doubt you have seen the tarragon. He have halfbloods amongst our ranks, and shapers – Atramentists and Firmamentists. You do not need me to tell you what shapers are capable of in warfare.”

Chronicler turned to Nimah, whose face had darkened. She was silent, mulling the words over. The man was right, Chronicler knew. Shapers were a powerful and random force to behold. He had once seen a man turn a boulder into sand and conceal himself behind a sandy veil, like a miniature sand storm. He’d heard countless other things that classical shapers were capable of. Who knew who the Follower’s had attracted to their banners, what they were capable of? 

Then again, he remembered Hadia mentioning needing a licence to enter the city. That meant that Zaffre was big enough to require an office dedicated to registering shapers, which meant there was enough shapers there to require such an office.

“We will consider your requests only if the Principal speaks personally. If he can do that, I will personally ensure that the person he speaks with is our highest authority.”

Rashado grunted, but was otherwise silent. His chiter snorted, shook its head violently and he had to pull on its reins to control it. It stomped with a bifurcated hoof, drawing out a cloud of dust from the earth.

His face a grimace, Rashado turned the mount and rode off.

“Consul-secondary,” said Shadonn after the rider was a safe distance, “Ieddonon will not be pleased with your offer.”

Nimah nodded. “We will see.”

The Council had already convened for the afternoon by the time Nimah returned to the hall. She explained what had happened, garnishing the tale with her thoughts. “I do not believe that the Principal is yet here, or if he is a real figure at all. Why not send their most powerful figure before us to awe us? The people will not know what to think if they saw a living breathing otherworlder standing in front of the gates. There would be panic. It is a weapon our enemies cannot afford not to use,” she said.

Many were in agreement, nodding. But the response was not unanimous. There were those who thought her foolish, her thoughts little more than an uninformed hunch. They needed evidence. And there was little means of gaining such evidence. They had augurs, shapers, who could see at distance, though without more details on the enemy camp, it was like a thief entering a house in utter darkness. They had other means of divination, but again, their use was specific and required more information than they had. They could send spies into the enemy camp, but they were already surrounded, their gates under the Follower’s watchful eyes. Already they had sent messages to their vassals and allies around the Plains, but they could not hope or rely on a response, at least not a speedy one.

After they discussed the matter, the chief Consul-primary Habbadon raised his hands, “Regardless of these developments, we must still come to a decision. Today’s vote was interrupted by the earlier events. We can now carry on.”

He proposed a list of actions to vote on. Fight the siege. Accept the terms. Propose their own terms: an alliance, similar to that brokered in Mern. Continue stalling, demanding to see the Principal. Abandon the city. Few were fully considered and many were vocal in their objections of some proposals. Finally deciding on a list of various options, they put the fate of Zaffre to the vote.

Of the eight votes, one was invalidated. Two proposed to accept the impending siege. One suggested accepting the terms offered by the Followers. Two wanted to see evidence of the Principal before continuing and, most surprisingly, two demanded the council be temporarily disbanded in accordance of an antiquated ritual that would hand over the eight Consul-primaries’ to a single representative, voted from amongst them. 

That was an unexpected turn of events and immediately there were accusations of corruption and brokering of votes. It was not unknown for personal power struggles to sway such votes. 

Regardless, the result was a three-way tie and the law only allowed the Consul-secondaries a chance to vote in the event of a two-way tie.

They deliberated at length, mired in a debate of whether or not the vote should be public or kept secret. Finally the vote was put out again. The council then disbanded for lunch, meeting in the afternoon for the vote.

Again, one was invalidated. Two wanted to weather a possible siege. Two wanted evidence of the Principal. 

Winning by three votes was the request to disband the council, handing over powers to a single representative, effectively elevating one of them to emperor, until the hostilities were at an end.

Whatever furore Chronicler had heard the previous day was as nothing to the pandemonium that erupted then. It was obviously a controversial move, but one that three out of eight Consul-primaries wanted. Yet still, it was not the majority vote that was required.

Another vote was cast, with those wanting to disband the council winning four out of seven votes.

It was decided.

Where before the outcomes had been laced with murmurs, shouts of disapproval and hollars of agreement, now there was only a stunned silence as everyone realised what had happened. An old law, likely thought dead, had disbanded the council. It hadn’t been enacted in decades. Many present had never even heard of it. And yet somehow it had come to pass.

What followed was the decision on who would rise to the role of Emperor-interim. Another round of votes, resulting in a five to two majority for the former Consul-Primary Iedonon, Nimah’s superior.

There were stomps and claps and boos and applause as the crowd scattered, leaving the floor open for the man. The chief Consul-primary was quiet, his face stoic. He bowed and embraced the Emperor-interim stiffly. “Historically, the newly-elected Emperor-interim would be awarded the staff of governance. I hope you will forgive the break in tradition, but the vote was somewhat sudden. We will need to retrieve the staff from a vault and dust it off.”

Ieddonon smiled, and turned to the crowd of officials and dignitaries, raising his hands, commanding the floor. “This is a role I take on with no light heart. We are in a time of crisis and as you have shown us through your actions today, we need action, not indecisiveness. And that action can only come from a single voice, representative of the wants and needs of the people. I will not shirk my responsibilities, though nor will I shy from difficult decisions. I thank you this honour and will do my utmost to represent Zaffre with justice and honour.”

There was an absence of spontaneity to the speech, thought Chronicler as a stifled applause broke out.

Messengers were dispatched throughout the city to spread the news and soon the sounds of bells were echoing throughout the streets of Zaffre.

The new Emperor-interim wasted no time in placing his mark on the council hall. He dismissed all unnecessary members, leaving only the Consuls-primary and secondary (who all kept their same roles, though in an advisory capacity) and their immediate aides, and a mere handful of other dignitaries. This included Chronicler, who remained as personal mushir to Nimah.

“Though I value everyone’s opinion, it is that consideration to hear everyone’s voice that has seen us stall for two days while our enemy awaits without the city. It is my belief that if this Principal were a true figure he would have revealed himself by now. This either means he is a charlatan or absent altogether. Either way, we have the advantage. We must tell our people that he is not real, grow a sense of defiance in the lies these interlopers would sow. We must tell the people that these are outsiders who want to impose their own laws and rules and traditions on those of our hard-earned city. We must play to our strengths – Saviudi independence and gall.

“We must expect the worst. I understand the militia is assembled and ready to act. Good. Continue training the levy. I want numbers. Consuls-primary and secondary of defence, I want papers detailing our defences and the forces opposing us. Conscript all engineers and carpenters. We must begin restoring our catapults and strengthening our walls and especially the gates. We must know what food reserves we have and if there is anything we can do to increase such reserves. If things do escalate into a siege, see to any livestock, kill anything we can eat that is not vital. We cannot waste food on beasts. We need to know how long a siege we can withstand. The catacombs: what condition are they in and how many people can they accommodate in the event of a bombardment? Restore them if need be, clear them out, get them filled with provisions, medicine, bedding.

“The enemy: do we have any means of pinpointing their numbers and positions? I want to know where their numbers are strongest, weakest. I want to know what these halfbloods and shapers they claim to have are, and where they are. Consul-secondary Sihida, get the shaper registry and conscript any able-bodied shapers who may be of use to us. Any farseers, diviners, Oneiromancers. We need the edge.”

And on he went spouting commands and suggestions as though he had been preparing for years. His assertiveness caught Chronicler off guard. From his few previous short meetings with the man, Chronicler could not have guessed at this confidence.

Chronicler felt confident for the first time since arriving in the city. Could it be they might survive this? Might they even emerge on top? He pushed the thought down and concentrated instead on recording the session.

By the end of the meeting, most of the Consuls had been given their orders and had left to carry them out. The hall itself, a crossroads where corridors and various annexes and offices met, was busy, with adepts and clerks rushing about their duties. 

All who remained of the meeting were the Emperor-interim, his newly appointed pair of guards and adjutants, and the Consul-primary Nimah and her own adjutants, including Chronicler. 

The two Consuls were walking, talking, the urgency of the meeting behind them.

“In the panic I never had chance to congratulate you, Ieddonon,” Chronicler heard Nimah say. He was walking behind her, two steps back, as told by the Emperor-interim’s mushir, and wished he could see her face. Her voice seemed flat. Perhaps she was trying to keep a formal tone.

The Emperor-interim raised a hand, “This is no cause for celebration. It is an honour and duty that any Consul-primary must be prepared for.”

“Yet still, it is an achievement,” said one of his aides, a pot-bellied man Chronicler had not yet identified by name.

Chronicler felt he could see the Emperor-interim’s head nodding gently in response. 

“Sadly we cannot waste our time on such extravagances. There are more matters that need addressing.”

“What of the enemy armies, Emperor, should we – ”

“Please, it is Emperor-interim,” replied Ieddonon, stopping the procession. He had turned to the pot-bellied man and was facing him now. “I have no desire to carry this mantle forever.”

“Of course,” replied the man.

They carried on walking, in silence for a moment.

It was Nimah who broke the silence. “Minister Rajasid raises a valid point however. What of the enemy armies? No doubt they have heard the bell peals celebrating your election. Whether or not they know their meaning is another matter, though they will know something is up.”

“Tell me Nimah, how comfortable were you speaking with the Followers’ envoy?”

“Comfortable isn’t the word I’d use to describe it, but… it was exciting,” she replied. Exciting was not exactly the word Chronicler would have chosen, either. 

The Emperor-interim was nodding. “Good, as I would not ask this of you if you had said otherwise. I want you to go back there tomorrow morning, speak with the envoy and tell him we have reached a conclusion. This so-called Principal is to make himself shown by the end of tomorrow. If he does so I will speak with him myself. If not, tell them that Zaffre is closed to them. Forever. 

“If anything is to happen to me you are to act as Emperor-interim in my place.”

Again Chronicler wished he could see Nimah’s face. She replied without missing a beat. “Of course. I will meet them at dawn.”

The Emperor-interim stopped, nodded and held her by the shoulders. “Your words will be a declaration of war, make no mistake about that. This is dangerous territory, Nimah. May the true gods smile upon us.”

The Emperor-interim left, followed by his entourage, leaving Nimah with Shadonn and Chronicler. “Come, we have much to prepare.”

Chronicler was fidgeting on his horse. The city had been alive with noise and work for most of the night and he’d barely slept. They were riding towards the enemy camp, their soldiers and followers rising with the sun to their backs. It was early and their sonorous calls had echoed across the fields in answer to their approach.

He’d been fitted with new clothes. The fabric was still new, the seams itchy. He was in armour and wore over his vest a padded overall, over which was a hauberk of light mail and metal lames that were fitted to his shape. Over that he wore a tabard bearing the colours of Nimah’s household married with the livery of Zaffre. Over that was an ornate deep blue qaftan, with gold thread lizards on either shoulder, their tails wrapping around his arm, tapering into nothing at his wrists. He wore a delicate silk scarf around his mouth. Its silver thread was promised to provide him with protection to the neck and shoulders, though he felt bare, still. It seemed odd, facing cannons and powderguns to be wearing such idiosyncratic clothing, though it was customary in such times.

It was amazing how quickly they had prepared the costume. He pitied the seamstresses and armour smiths who must have surely been up all night. Then again, there were likely many men and woman from various vocations who had been conscripted by the government to work in aid of the war who’d been forced to work harsh hours. Indeed, he’d been up most of the night with Nimah.

He looked at his horse, and that of his two companions. All were caparisoned with padded armour beneath. Shadonn’s horse had been dressed in rich barding, also, covering its chest, with an ornate chamfron crowning its head Shadonn was wearing heavy leather armour and carried a large sword on his back, with a pair of ‘gunblades hanging off a new armoured saddle. His banner had been affixed to the new saddle, saving him bearing its full weight. 

Nimah had dressed in white lace, her own robes delicate and sovereignly, echoing the first costume Chronicler had seen Ohrima wearing. She wore silver earrings, each with delicate chains trailing across her sharp cheeks to her nose. She carried a slender ‘gunblade, its housing covered in silver filigree and ivory etching, that encompassed its tapering blade. It was beautiful, and completely ceremonial. Chronicler had some experience with powderguns and it didn’t look like it was much of a weapon.

They had stopped about a hundred feet from the main camp and were awaiting an envoy to meet them. After a while someone rode up to them on a small horse. He was not armoured, in fact his clothing seemed somewhat haphazardly put on. The horse itself was a simple farm breed, likely stolen from one of the fields. “The Principal’s emissaries are currently indisposed.”

“And you are?” asked Nimah, her tone in competition with Ieddonon’s for confidence.

“Emissary Rashado’s mushir, Consul-secondary.”

Chronicler raised an eyebrow and looked to Nimah, hoping she would never be indisposed, leaving him to act in her stead. He wondered if anything were to happen to Ieddonon and she was forced to replace him, would he assume her position? Gods, he hoped not.

“Perhaps your forces are not as well-organised as I had thought,” she said, adding the last words dismissively. “As his proxy, you will hear my message and relay it to your superiors, should they find the inclination to care. 

“You are defiling our soil, our farmsteads, with your presence and you will now listen to our final demands. There will be no option other than between two words – yes or no – so listen carefully as I will not repeat myself. You will grant us an audience with your Principal by the end of the day. IF this does not happen or is we are dissatisfied by the individual presented before us, you can consider the gates of Zaffre closed to your people forever. Is that understood, or do you need me to repeat this?”

The mushir nodded. He repeated the demands, waited for the Consul-secondary’s nod of approval, and he left, breaking the meeting. 

Nimah returned to the city with her adjuncts in tow.

And then they waited.

The wait was good, as it afforded the city more time to prepare. All the gates were covered in carpenters and engineers, whose armies of workers were busy strengthening them. All around the city, men and women were busy setting up barrels of water and sand on street corners, and otherwise clearing the streets of obstructions. Groups of militia and citizen levy were patrolling the streets, their presence heaviest around the walls, where they were on lookout for any enemy activity. Jezzail squads were stationed atop the defences as well as minarets and other towers close to the city borders, ready to snipe at the enemy at the sound of attack. Bells continued to chime almost continuously, their distinct sounds bearing messages that none without the city and few within could understand. 

Priests of various faiths and denominations were marching solemnly throughout the streets, followers in tow, blessing buildings. Chronicler saw many holy symbols as he moved through the streets: the nimbus of Rahana; the dichotomous symbol of the Misanomnists; the golden idol of the Cynosiates; as well as many others he could not identify.

Chronicler wandered back up to his quarters where Mahr was waiting for him.

“I’ve been doing a bit of my own work,” he said.

Chronicler was looking at his desk, the papers and chapbooks scattered across it. He shrugged and instead plonked himself down into what had become his sofa. 

“I went to the Office of Public Records and found the registry you mentioned yesterday.”

That got Chronicler’s attention. “Yes?”

“She’s in it. Was registered a couple of days ago as a first grade shaper of domestic abilities, whatever that means.”

“Anything about her whereabouts?”

Mahr smiled.

“Well?”

“The whole point of the registry is so that the shapers can be easily found. Registrees are obliged by law to keep it updated with their current address. I know where she is, Niyush,” he said producing a piece of paper.

“Where is she?” said Chronicler getting up, snatching the paper. “Panopticon, the second annex of the council hall, Consuls’ Parcel, Upper Zaffre, the Autonomous City of Zaffre.

“Right under our noses.”

Mahr nodded. 

Chronicler left without a word.

He found the place easily-enough. He’d been expecting a room similar to his first quarters in the lower annex, found a prison instead. It was deeper than his quarters and only accessible from its own spiral staircase and a single corridor that opened up into a panopticon around which were situated perhaps a dozen doors. In the middle of the room was an open office behind which sat a pair of guards.

Chronicler showed them his seal, which bore the livery of Nimah’s household and asked them where the Follower shaper was help.

“What’s your business here?” said one of the guards, after perusing the seal.

“You haven’t been told yet? Consul-secondary Sihida has been charged with conscripting any shapers that may be of use in the siege. I know for a fact that there is a shaper here who has ties with the Followers.”

“Siege? Has it started? They never tell us anything here.”

“It started the day the Followers trampled over our fields and had Zaffre surrounded. It’s only a matter of days, if not hours, before negotiations break down, and we need every edge. Now can I go in there to see her.”

The guard turned to his companion, who shrugged and handed him a set of keys.

“Follow me. You do not go into cell. You do not touch. The only contact you can have is verbal. Got that?”

Chronicler nodded, waiting for the man to open the door. Inside there was a narrow corridor, hewn from the bedrock of the city, damp and grey. The walls were lit with meagre oil lamps that left the place bereft of true light, the walls dancing in flickering shadows. To the left was a barred cell, around ten feet wide, with a simple bed on the floor and a pot in a corner.

“I’ll be near the door,” said the guard, leaving Chronicler with her.

Chronicler barely heard the words. Instead he was looking at her. She was on the floor, back to the wall, arms resting on her knees. He could not see her face. 

“Hadia, it’s Niyush,” he said. He hadn’t spoken his given name in such a manner in a long time. It felt strange.

Slowly her head lifted, strands of dark her framing her face. The whites of her eyes gleamed in the half dark of the cell. “The hell are you doing here?”

I’ve come to…” he wanted to say rescue you, but he knew that would be lying. “see you.”

She looked at him, eyes staring hard into his own. Chronicler wondered what she was thinking. He could think of a dozen things she might want to say to him at that point.

“And you’re seeing me.”

He winced, shook his head faintly, and moved closer to the bars. “They know you’re a shaper, had you registered in a directory. Have they spoken to you since then?”

“You’re in the know for someone who entered this city my equal,” she said.

“They had you taken away. It was your message, your past dealings with the Followers. There was nothing I could do.”

“So you’re free? Able to visit me in prison?”

He nodded, reticent of sharing any more than that, at least for the moment.

“Tell me Hadia, your shaping, what can you do? What’s the limit of your abilities?”

“Still beating that horse? I told you, I don’t know and I’m not exactly in the mood for talking.”

“It might get you out of here.”

“How?”

“They’re conscripting shapers from the city to help in the siege. If you have anything that might be of use I could arrange a release.”

“Arrange a release? Who the hell are you here?”

“I may have a small degree of influence. Not much, but I can try. How can you aid the defence in a siege.”

She shook her head. “Nothing useful.”

“But you can heal.”

“It’s eye for an eye, though. Whatever I heal must be balanced by some form of death around me. Not exactly helpful in a siege.”

“Anything else you didn’t tell me?”

She hesitated for a moment, but shook her head as before. 

“I’ll think of something,” said Chronicler. “How are they treating you?”

“Ignoring me for the most-part. I get fed twice a day, nothing special, but no worse than what I was subjecting myself to on the road with you.”

Chronicler nodded. “I’ll come back, I promise.”

“That’s it?”

“I didn’t tell anyone I came here. I’ll think of something.”

He was standing in front of Consul-secondary Nimah, the paper on her desk. “You have to let her go.”

“Didn’t take you long to figure it out,” she said, taking the paper, giving it a cursory look. “I cannot stop you from seeing her, so you do not need my permission, but remember that we are in a state of war. She cannot be released.”

“She is a shaper, and you have my word she is not a Follower.”

“The fact that she is a shaper gives us more reason to keep her locked up.”

“But she can help us. She is a healer.”

“My knowledge of shapers is limited but I do know that they use their abilities in two ways. A shaper who can push someone out of harm’s way can also push someone off a building. We cannot trust her.”

“Yet you can trust a handful of nameless shapers, just because their names are registered in some book?”

“The shapers we are conscripting are citizens, who have lived their entire lives here. They stand to lose everything in this siege. Tell me, what does she stand to lose?”

“Her life?”

“Really? She could sabotage our engines, send messages to the enemy with word of our troop positions and other sensitive information,” she said, and then with a sigh, “There are those in the council who do not accept your appointment. To them you are little better than her, and to make matters worse, you are now working within the government. Do not make me regret my actions.”

“Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?”

“Nothing. Only her actions – or lack thereof – can save her now. You may leave.”

Chronicler remained seated for a moment, nodding slowly to himself. When he was a few steps from the door the Consul-secondary called out to him. “And if I learn that either you or your friend have been down there again, you will both join her. Is that understood?”

Chronicler nodded.

“I have far more important things to worry about now than imprisoned shapers. One of the court shapers has received word from our allies in Daktra. They have offered to send us relief, in the form of supplies and mercenaries to help break the siege.”

Chronicler knew enough about Daktra to find the words unexpected. “The City of Blades would offer us aid?” he said. “The Daktrans are as likely to stab us with a blade as they are to offer it to us in aid.”

Nimah nodded. “That is true and the Emperor-interim has weighed the options. Under other circumstance we might refuse them, but I fear we may have little option. This gives us the hope needed to fight, with the hope of buying the time we need.”

“And what do they ask for in return?”

The Consul-secondary was mulling over her thoughts.

“Nimah?”

“Whatever they ask for, it is better than battle or starvation.”

It was a deal he knew she would rather not make, but given their options, it had come under the guise of a welcome one. “And how long before the relief gets here?” 

“Zaffre is over five-hundred miles north of Daktra. The road is well-kept though we do not know how many Followers lie in wait.”

That was about as far as Zaffre was from Yeppo. Chronicler’s hope dimmed as he remembered his journey to Zaffre, how long it had taken.

“If we are lucky they may have already been on the march before sending the message. If not, then we have three weeks to hold out.” 

Three weeks, though Chronicler. Could they do it?

He was nodding without realising and went to leave, but a loud knock at the door stopped him. 

Nimah bid whoever it was to enter. Chronicler moved aside as the door burst open and a messenger appeared, panting. “The enemy has sent an envoy. He wishes to speak with the Emperor.”

The Consul-secondary was on her feet immediately, “The Principal?”

The messenger remained still. 

“Was there a message?”

He shook his head. “Only that he wished to speak with the Emperor.”

“What did he look like?”

“A man of black skin and ornate clothing.”

Nimah nodded. “I will speak with the Emperor-interim myself. Return to the walls with instructions for the envoy to wait.”

She spoke for some time with the Emperor-interim in his offices, though Chronicler had to wait outside. After a while they emerged, the Emperor changed into clothes more befitting of his forthcoming trip without the walls. In one hand he held a slender staff that looked to be made out of marble, crowned with a golden capital. Had the staff of governance been found?

Both his and Nimah’s faces were grave. 

As they emerged, Nimah gave Chronicler a faint nod.

He followed them, two paces behind, as they marched solemnly to the gate.

Once there Ieddonon picked his bannerman and selected his personal mushir to accompany him – both Nimah and Chronicler would remain behind. As he left the gate Chronicler rushed up the battlements to see the event from above. He wanted to see what this otherworlder looked like, after all these tales and rumours, it was exciting to finally get a chance to look upon such a figure with his own eyes.

He reached the top as the Emperor-interim was walking towards the enemy camp. Marching towards him was a group of people: an armoured man of black skin; a woman in white; a pair of figures, each carrying one end of an enormous tapestry-banner; and finally four mean carrying what effectively amounted to a silk-embroidered tent, beneath which Chronicler could just about make out a pair of feet slowly walking. Was that the otherworlder?

The disparate groups met and began their meeting. Chronicler could just about see their lips moving, but they were so distant he could not make out the words. He had to rely on their actions. There was a lot of gesturing from the enemy speaker, who Chronicler thought might be the Visyon Orkon. The woman beside him was none other than the priestess Ohrima. Just their presence, he knew, signified a meeting of great importance.

They spoke at length, the black man gesturing every-so-often to the tent, but the Emperor was shaking his head, pointing to the walls. After a while they bowed and the Emperor-interim returned to the walls.

Chronicler and Nimah rushed down to meet him.

“They claimed their god was hiding beneath that veil. I was bidden to speak with him, but I refused. If their god really is amongst us, we all deserve to see for ourselves. Nimah,” he said, turning to the Consul-secondary, “I think you are right. Something about this feels wrong. I will confer with my supranatural council.”

“What is the outcome?”

He hesitated, went to speak, then held his tongue, looking around at the various people who had gathered around him. He licked his lips, blinked, “It is war.”