General Zalaz stood before the council dressed in his blood red linen tunic with the purple and gold sash at his waist that bespoke his rank at the highest of the generals in the empire. Beneath that sash, the dark leather baldric held his sheathed sword. That long, gently curving blade had drunk the blood of many and was rumored to be blessed by Ashur himself. More then the sash, the sword spoke of his authority. Gifted to him by the last emperor, the spouse of the previous high priestess of Julara, it was shocking austere in its apperance.
Where the others in the council chamber would have kept such a gift aside and worn it only for official purposes, Zalaz used the weapon with great ferocity on the field of battle. Standing before the council, Zalaz found himself wishing that the matters could be settled by combat. With his strong right arm and his trusty sword, Zalaz knew he could defeat any comers. This, however, was not a battle of weapons but rather words. Silently, Zalaz damned his fate that moved him from a mere soldier in the field to a political figure.
The council members were of varying ages but all bore a measure of softness in their bearing that disgusted Zalaz. These politicans were not people who would have survived the vigors of Zalaz's life, though with their lofty attitudes they seemed to assume that they would by virtue of their title. The fat man sitting at the extreme right of the semicircle of the chamber spoke nasally of the prices of grain and how disappointed he was that the taxes were not raking in as much as he desired. The wan light filtering into the room gleamed off the man's bald head and hilighted the deep shadows in his face from the folds of fat about it.
They knew that the general had something of importance to discuss. They, however, felt that he was unfit for their company. His long hair and stern disciplined life struck them as unnatural. The way he lived with his concubines, specifically Yaeli, disgusted them. They were of the mind that all women but for the silent sisters and the priestesses of Yulara were beneath them. The general's favorable treatment of his concubines ran too closely to treating them as equals. This, the other council members, believed could never do.
Thus, when Zalaz did not take his customary seat at the far left seat of the council dias, they decided to ignore him until he did. Quietly, Zalaz waited. Inwardly, his anger was rising. He knew the council would decry the situation that Marcos was in. He suspected that they'd argue that the priest-king should be executed and then insist that someone else be installed in his place. He suspected, also, that they would focus upon the problem of Marcos rather then the danger that the sons of Omaurath presented.
Zalaz had thought about the situation in the last two days. His nights had been sleepless, much to the concern of Yaeli, as he struggled to think of what to say to the council. As he considered the situation, he came to the conclusion that the danger of the sons of Omaurath was far greater then what he initially thought when they began to be discussed years ago. The fact that they had gone to Selath in search of aid for their cause told him that the accord was going to break. Zalaz had no questions that the govenor of Selath would send word to his superiors and eventually the king of Tamna. Tamna had long sought to win the fertile plain between the great rivers and the wealth of Dacia.
Zalaz learned from his predecessor, a general named Tuvius, that Tamna had repeatedly attempted to gain access to the western cities of the empire. The capital, sitting at the meeting of the fertile lands with the desert was unfortunately vulnerable but there was no ways that it might be moved for it was the very place where Julara and Ashur came together. There were cities farther west of Dacia but they did not have the strength of the cities in the floodplains. Zalaz was fairly certain though those cities would fight hard, they would fall before Tamna's armies. Zalaz knew they stood on the edge of war. And yet the council bickered and flattered themselves, ignoring him as he stood before them.
Unable to stand there silent any longer, Zalaz's anger burst forth with a single cry. Bellowing with all the volume he used to order his troops on the field, Zalaz's voice was deafening in the sandstone chamber. “Silence!” he roared. Shocked silence filled the room as all eyes turned to him. Zalaz noted with some disgust that almost all of the faces had some measure of fear in them. Deciding that he could use that fear to goad them into action, Zalaz said in a quiet growl, “I have word from the king and emperor that we are on the edge of war and yet you would continue to ignore me because I have stood before you rather then taken my seat. You will listen to me and a judgment will be made.”
In the minds of his listeners, the vague fear that Zalaz could send assassins into their midst crystalized and the soft men of the council trembled. Their arrogance faded before Zalaz's anger, for he had always been quietly spoken and courteous. This unexpected change of demeanor made them fearful. They had waited for him to turn on them and now they feared it had happened. So caught up in their fear, they missed the first words of the general's statement. Only the word war cut through their fear and served to heighten it at the same time.
“General, we are civilized men,” the boldest of them, an elderly man with hands that trembled, started. Zalaz's expression darkened and the man nearly fourty years his elder fell silent. Zalaz looked at each of the six men sitting before him. He could feel a headache building as his anger at their simpering behavior came to full force. They had denied that the armies of Dacia required more funding, insisting that there were no threats. They said that the accord with Selath was a sign that Tamna was an ally and to be a trade partner by how quickly it was signed. They argued that the army was better served policing the trade routes of bandits rather then preparing for conflict. Now, that conflict stood on the horizion, as Zalaz had warned for the past several years.
“Civilized men,” Zalaz said, “Civilized men, you say, Althas. Tell me, old man, how does a civilized man deal with broken treaties and an army coming to his door?” Althas's watery grey eyes widened at Zalaz's low, threatening tone and the horrible words he said. “The sons of Omaurath are raising an army as we speak. They are courting Selath and the kingdom of Tamna as we speak. The northern reaches of the empire are coming under regular attacks by the tribesmen of the mountains. The bandits that you have worried about interrupting your trade routes have become more organized due to the influence of Omaurath's three sons and the raider Althar, who moves into alliance with them in the hopes of dividing Dacia between the four of them for their own kingdoms. And yet, you declare that you are civilized men and ignore me when I have come to you with word of these movements.”
Althas started to open his mouth to argue with Zalaz when the man sitting to his left placed a hand over Althas's trembling hand and shook his head. The old man closed his mouth and looked at Zalaz. “I require a force of arms sufficient to defend Dacia in the immediate future. This means conscription. I will draw from all families. Men will be put to work according to their measure,” Zalaz said. Another man, sitting at Althas's right, opened his mouth to argue. Zalaz pointed at him as his expression turned thunderous.
“Do not argue against me, Zafar,” he ordered, “Your vineyards will be burned to the ground as Tamna moves through. Your women will be captured and your servants will be slaughtered, if not enslaved. You, of everyone on this council, stand to have the greatest amount to lose, for sitting in the west of the empire. It is in your best interests to approve what I propose.” Zafar paled as Zalaz described what would befall his lands and property. As he fidgeted with a jeweled necklace that he wore, Zafar, looked uncertainly at the others. Zalaz turned his bright gaze upon the other men in the chamber.
“All of you stand to lose more then your wealth,” Zalaz continued, “When the armies come into Dacia city, they will sack the city. All men will be slaughtered, even the priests of Ashur. The women will be raped, captured, and enslaved. Children will be killed down to the least babe in arms. All your wealth will not save you. It will be the reason why you are among the first to die.”
Shaken the council looked between themselves. “Give me the means to defend Dacia and the emperor freedom to do as he will. Release him from the ancient binds that require him to consult the council so that he might have the opportunity to take council from his generals and actually win this war that is coming.” One of the younger council members coughed. Zalaz looked over at him.
“We can not do that,” he said, “It is tradition that dictates our...”
Zalaz's expression contorted with fury. “It is tradition that digs all our graves,” he roared, “It is your blind adherance to the words of your fathers that keeps us from being prepared for this. Your fathers would not want you to destroy the very lands they bled for. It is spitting in their faces to do so.”
Shocked silence reigned.The obease man who had been complaining about his tax revenue raised his right hand. It was a silent vote in affirmation of Zalaz's demands. After a few minutes, two more hands joined him. Althas and Zafar exchanged a troubled look as the man sitting beside them raised his hand. “I have a majority,” Zalaz said darkly, “I could force the vote.” Althas frowned.
“We don't know for sure...” he started when Zalaz stepped forward. Althas went quiet and leaned back in his seat, as though Zalaz's hand could slay him from several yards away. “It is with reluctance, I vote...” he began as he started to raise his hand. Zalaz glared at him. Zafar locked eyes with Zalaz. A silent battle of wills took place. As Zalaz set his right hand upon his sword in a silent threat, Zafar paled and raised his hand.
Zalaz turned sharply on his heel. As he started to stride out of the chamber, he noted the scribe doing his best to not be noticed. “You,” he ordered, pointing at the man nearly cowering, “Send word through the city that I am calling my men to me. And make it known that all able bodied men are to prepare themselves for service in the army. I expect by sundown that all of Dacia city will be aware of this. And riders will be sent out into the empire.” The troubled scribe bowed deeply to Zalaz, not daring to raise his head until the general had left.
As Zalaz made his way to the palace, some of his anger cooled. While he had secured for Marcos the freedom to take this man Sorenan into his union, the general also knew that he had the means to secure the rights to command all the armies in all but name. He walked up the steps into the palace, noting that the skies had taken on an almost pink tinge though it was still hours before dusk. “Ashur comes at my heels,” Zalaz muttered, “I don't know if this is a good omen or not.”
He walked into the chamber where Marcos saw his officials. Marcos's dark head was bent low as he conversed with a scribe and read the document. It was an uncommon thing that Marcos could read, but it made sense with his history as having served as a scribe in his life before rising into priesthood. Zalaz strode through the long chamber and stopped a few feet away from where Marcos sat on his raised chair. Zalaz cleared his throat and the two men looked up. Upon realizing that Zalaz was standing before him, Marcos said in a ringing, “Clear the chamber. I have private business to discuss with the general. Any who listen in will be punished, severely, am I understood?”
The various servants and petty nobles that sought to bask in the presence of the emperor made their way out of the chamber. The two guards who stood at the main entrance into the room followed the attendants out of the chamber. Zalaz fixed the guards at the secondary entrance into the chamber behind Marcos with a dark glare. Knowing who Zalaz was looking at, Marcos said, “They can stay. They can not repeat what is said here. They are mute.” Zalaz looked back at Marcos.
“You are freed from consulting the council at all times and at liberty to do as you will,” he said. Marcos looked at him in amazement. “You will pay my debt,” Zalaz continued. There was none of his earlier anger in his words, only the dry tone of fact. Marcos swallowed.
“What would you have of me? I, who owe you all,” Marcos asked. Zalaz looked Marcos in the face with an appraising look. Though Zalaz knew that Marcos lived a pampered life and was not half so bold as himself, he suspected that he had steel within him yet.
“You will follow my orders in the movements and actions of the troops,” Zalaz said and Marcos's eyes widened. “If I tell you that all males over the age of twelve are to take military service, then you will put that word through out the empire as a decree. If I tell you that the cities of the west are to be abandoned, you will order it. The sons of Omaurath and the kingdom of Tamna move towards war. You know it as surely as I do. You know that the forces to the north will need little convicing to join them. I want to see this war won, with the sons of Omurath and their supporters feeding the vultures.”
Marcos swallowed and looked a little green. He nodded, however. “I can not go against Mina,” Marcos said. Zalaz's expression was solemn.
“We will require the blessings and the witchcraft of the priestesses of Julara,” Zalaz said, “I would not expect you to do otherwise. I wish to speak with her and your … third as soon as possible. We have much to discuss.”
Marcos nodded. Somewhere within himself, a knot of tension uncoiled. For the first time since hearing about the rumors and considering the prospect of facing the council, Marcos felt something of hope.