Jiaan ducked under the tent flap, boots skirting a mud puddle that was forming from the morning's light winter rain. He walked towards Rakesh, a second pack ready to be strapped to his saddle.
Kadesh looked remarkably better than it had two years ago, when Patrius had laid claim to the land as Governor. Originally, Barmael had been the primary candidate to rule, but he had declined the position in favor of continuing the Hrum's military conquests. The army had breathed a sigh of relief—Barmael was the best tactimian they had, and while Patrius had been a loss, Barmael's tactical and strategic expertise were irreplaceable. In fact, with it, the Hrum had conquered Rubel, a small nation beyond the borders of Kadesh, in just a month.
It was Barmael who had commanded the relentless siege on all of the Kadeshi warlords once Farsala's alliance with the Hrum was finalized. Almost immediately, he had sent back all of the soldiers weary from the war with Farsala and had a fresh set of ten tacti ready to obliterate the Kadeshi raiders, who, as the peddler had predicted, had came to undermine both Farsala and the Hrum. In the meantime, Jiaan's army had held them off. Once they had been taken care of, the Hrum, plus his soldiers, were at the borders of Kadesh within days, under special pardon given them by the Council to travel through Farsala by land instead of around by sea.
The villages had surrendered immediately. Horrible pity had consumed Jiaan when the peasants threw themselves at the Hrum in welcome, in begging cries for salvation. All except the Kadeshi warlords embraced the invading army—but even their deep wells were drained in four months of relentless siege. Patrius had been assigned the job of keeping the patrols tight, and with some of Jiaan's, and the Farsalan army's, suggestions from knowledge of Mazad's resistance, the patrols caught every attempt to smuggle in food, and every attempt to smuggle a warlord out. Less than one hundred lives had been lost in the subjugation of Kadesh.
So, since Barmael had declined the title of governor, Patrius, as the second most crucial tactimian in the war, had been given the responsibility of reshaping Kadesh's future. Jiaan knew the Kadesh would be better off under Hrum rule—not only because of the Hrum's standards and organization, but because Patrius had proved, time and time again, that he was one of the best men that Jiaan would ever meet.
Jiaan finished tying the bag to Rakesh's saddle, but not before his warhorse stomped a hoof impatiently. He smiled and said, "Just one more, and we'll be heading home."
It had been two and a half months since the Councilherd's last letter about speculation of going to war with the Suud. Usually, it took two weeks to deliver the reports back and forth between Rubel and Farsala, so between Jiaan's letters and Kavi's, they were only able to communicate about once a month—Kavi kept Jiaan updated on Farsala's plans, while Jiaan gave him news of the Hrum's advance.
Jiaan had sent multiple letters in response to the Councilherd's last report, but it had been Siddas—now the governor of Mazad—that had sent word that Kavi was in the desert, on a mission to quell the Suud. It was foolish to send Kavi into the desert, away from his real duties, Jiaan thought, because without the Councilherd, Farsala would head towards chaos. If there were even a fraction of the disagreements Kavi had mentioned in his letters, how would the Council compromise without him?
It was a stupid move, and why they would agree to it, Jiaan didn't know. Why Kavi would agree to it was even more of a mystery. At least, if he made contact with Soraya… But was Soraya still alive? Had the rebels killed her too, for being a Farsalan?
He skirted the mud puddle again on his way back to his centrimaster's tent, troubled with a newfound sense of urgency. However, Jiaan was surprised to see Governor Patrius standing, relaxed, in front of the entrance.
"Patrius. It's good to see you." he greeted warmly in Hrum. He could speak it fluently now.
Patrius smiled in response. Jiaan motioned for him to enter the tent, and together they sat. Patrius's smile, however, faded. "What's wrong?" Jiaan asked. He understood Patrius very well—it had taken a year for the tactimian to break down from the strain of conquering and ruling Kadesh, but when he had, Jiaan was the one who had witnessed it. He'd gained more insight into Patrius's mind than he had ever needed, but now, Jiaan could see that his friend was troubled through the faint lines that strained across his face.
The Governor of Kadesh shook his head. "I'm just sad that I will be missing a very important friend in the months to come."
Jiaan hadn't told him about his departure. He kept silent, even as he realized that Patrius could only be here, a few hours' ride from the border between Farsala and Kadesh, because of him.
Patrius sighed. "Why are you leaving? I'm not going to accept that you're really here for the extra paperwork."
Unbidden, Jiaan grinned. The only down time a commander ever really got was when he did paperwork—tedious, boring paperwork. Jiaan avoided doing anything more than battle reports; anything more extended into politics, something he had become notorious for avoiding. "No, I'm not."
Jiaan pondered on what to tell his friend. He felt reluctant to reveal the entire story, even to Patrius. "Farsala needs me," he said instead. There would be a time when he would tell the truth, but it wasn't now. It felt a little ridiculous to make such a mad sprint home based on a broken string of letters, and he was certain it would seem that way to Patrius. But no matter how much he had tried to dispel this disturbed feeling in his heart, Jiaan couldn't.
It was the real reason why he was going to Farsala.
Patrius looked at him, his piercing gaze thoughtful. "I suppose I'll have to explain why you suddenly disappeared from your five-year term," he remarked after a moment.
Jiaan felt relief lighten his heart. "Thank you," he said gratefully. He was leaving the Hrum with the knowledge that he might not be able to return to his post, and he knew that he still had much more to learn. Patrius's reassurance lifted that sense of loss from his shoulders.
They both rose to clap each other on the back. "I will miss you, Patrius."
"And I you, Jiaan."
Without another word, Patrius exited the tent.
Jiaan left not a mark later. Siddas had mentioned a town a few days from Mazad where he would meet with him—he should be able to make it there unnoticed by week's end.
He urged Rakesh forward.
Surprisingly, they made it a day before week's end—although Rakesh was getting older, he was still a great horse. Something about being in Farsala again had picked up his hooves, because Jiaan felt like he had to stop Rakesh more often than urge him forward. Though, Jiaan couldn't say that Rakesh was the only one happy to be back in Farsala. It was a blessing to speak Faran on the road instead of Hrum, and just seeing the familiar landscapes instead of the mud in Kadesh was heartening.
The town that Siddas had picked was quaint and small, but bustling with life. It was called Tenafon, barely a dot on any map—why Siddas chose to meet here was a mystery, but Jiaan found him within an hour of wandering the town's shops and its single inn. He had just finished settling Rakesh in the stables when he saw a familiar silhouette talking amongst a group of three men.
"Siddas!" Jiaan called out, walking towards him. The man turned, and Jiaan grinned. The ex-captain of Mazad's guard hadn't changed in the last four years—in fact, the worry lines accumulated during the siege on the walled city had smoothed over to make him look younger.
"Jiaan, it's good to see you." Siddas returned the smile, clasping hands with him. The men he had been talking to had turned as well, their conversation falling silent at the sight of him. It was only a moment, but Jiaan felt as if he was being checked against some unknown set of standards, before Siddas said to them, "This is him."
"He doesn't look like it," one of them commented with derision. He was a middle-aged, bearded man whose black hair identified him as a deghan. He stood haughtily, muscular arms crossed in what Jiaan guessed was an attempt to intimidate. Jiaan spared a glance at himself—his plain Farsalan tunic, trousers, and muddy boots made him look like any other Farsalan. But with another look at the man's embroidered green tunic, Jiaan had to suppress a flash of irritation. Deghans no longer ruled, Kavi had written to him, but apparently, they hadn't lost their sense of superiority in the stupidest of things.
"He could be my son!" another exclaimed—this one was an older, also muscular man whom, to Jiaan, upon realizing his height, didn't seem as tall as he should have been. The exclamation hadn't been meant to ridicule, but the same amount of cynicism and a large amount of patronization set Jiaan on guard.
But then, upon closer inspection, Jiaan recognized the third man—"Hosah!" he said with surprise, even more confused upon this turn of events. The boy Aram had promoted to squad leader in the desert seemed so out of place in this inexplicable situation, freckles and youth and all. Hosah, who hadn't grown much since the war, grinned uncertainly in response, and they clasped hands.
"This is him," Siddas repeated firmly. It was fleeting, but Jiaan sensed contempt in Siddas's voice. "He led the army four years ago."
"Siddas, what's going on?" Jiaan asked, eyes narrowing. He didn't like surprises, and this one didn't seem like it was going to make them any more likeable. If it was about his command in the war four years ago, he wasn't looking forward to any unwanted recognition. Similarly, he had battled with this type of condescension too often to charge into it with the foolhardy intention of proving these two wrong. Besides, he didn't need to prove that he had commanded four years ago. It was a fact. However, what made Jiaan cautious was that Siddas had obviously left him in the dark about more than a few details, starting with who these people were, and what, exactly, Jiaan had been getting himself into when he came to Tenafon.
Siddas shook his head—it was a small motion, almost unnoticeable, but it was there. "Come, let's sit down first," Siddas said, gesturing towards the inn. "We have a lot to talk about."
It didn't take long to find a room in the inn—not many people would go out of their way to visit a small town like this, it seemed. It was small for all five men, but spread out like they were, it still had the atmosphere of a meeting. That was what it was, Jiaan realized, a meeting—but of whom, and for what?
"How much has Kavi told you about our relations with the Suud?" Siddas asked suddenly.
Jiaan contemplated his reply carefully, wary of how the two men he didn't recognize continued to stare at him. "The Suud have closed their connection with us, and all people going into the desert are never seen again." He hadn't received this sort of treatment since serving under Soraya as a bastard son, and its return wasn't welcome. Hosah offered him a weak smile when his gaze landed on him, but the man's body seemed lined with tension.
Jiaan turned to Mazad's governor and asked again, more tersely, "What's going on?"
Siddas was silent, overcome by something, Jiaan didn't know, but he wanted answers—now. Being thrown blind into a situation he had no control of, much less an inkling of what was going on, agitated him. Searching Siddas's face, Jiaan's only answer was through the governor's eyes, which were requesting he be prepared for what was to come—and behind that, an apology.
Jiaan's building fury faltered and cooled, as he slowly understood the meaning behind Siddas's apology: this was a test—one that he had to pass.
The middle-aged man snorted scornfully from the other side of the room. "Is that all you know? Maybe you should just go back with your Hrum friends for all of the use you'd be here. You, a peasant bastard son, leading us?" He spat on the floor.
Jiaan went deadly still.
"Hassir, he hasn't been in Farsala for over four years. Of course he wouldn't know anything," the older man said placatingly, "although I don't see much point in calling this boy to organize us. The desert barbarians don't even know how to use swords." He chuckled in amusement.
Hassir. Jiaan remembered the name from Kavi's letters, and it dawned on him who these people were. He didn't remember Hosah being mentioned as part of this fiasco, but with a little more thought, he understood.
The leaders of squads patrolling Farsala's borders are a noble deghan and some old commander—Hassir and Ithrum, I think their names are. Never heard of either of them. Armies or no, Hassir insists on only deghan volunteers, or else he won't command. He has that witless idea that peasants can't fight! That idiot can fight, sure, but when will it get through his thick skulls that deghans don't rule anymore? Our people will fight for their own country, and do it better than they ever did!
His fists clenched as he took in Hassir. The deghan stared him down, belittling him for his peasant blood. Yes, there was no doubt, even though nothing had been said about Ithrum's character. Slowly, the pieces were coming together, and Jiaan didn't like what he was coming to understand. After another look at Siddas's contemptuous expression, Jiaan exhaled forcefully before facing the two deghans.
"Neither of you have any right to say anything," Hosah snapped angrily. "Commander Jiaan freed Farsala from the Hrum, you ungrateful—"
Jiaan rose, silencing Hosah, and said evenly, "I am Commander Jiaan. Commander Hassir, Commander Ithrum, it is a pleasure to meet you." The words tasted like bile on his tongue, but he managed to keep his tone neutral.
Both Hassir and Ithrum seemed to be taken off guard by his sudden switch to formality, but both of them straightened in their seats. However, Hassir's gaze was still hardened with spite, and something else, Jiaan realized: this man hated him.
Nevertheless, Jiaan continued with his façade of civility: "The Councilherd has told me that you, Hassir, command the guard who patrol the area west of Desafon, and that you, Ithrum, patrol the area south of Setesafon." He cut a look at Hosah. "You must command the group that guards the Kadesh border." Hosah nodded in confirmation, and dread lodged itself in Jiaan's throat. If all of these were true, then there would only be one reason why this situation had been set up.
"That is correct," Ithrum said, slightly surprised. Hassir looked as if he had just smelled something rotten, and scowled.
Jiaan turned to Siddas. He must have seen something in Jiaan's searching gaze, because he inclined his head once. It's as you think. Mazad's governor spoke finally, "The Council wants you to take command of all three armies, and become the commander of Farsala's army to defend against the Suud."
Jiaan swallowed thickly.
"There isn't anyone else to take on this position," Siddas continued. "You're younger than our current commanders, but you've learned from the Hrum. You haven't been here in the last four years, but you served as Sorahb's right-hand man to free Farsala. You don't have your own army, but the men that fought with you four years ago will fight again if you command." Siddas's eyes bored into Jiaan's. "You're level-headed, and I trust you to get the job done."
Jiaan's entire being felt like it was being weighed down with lead. If he was sure of one thing in this situation, it was that he didn't want to lead an army, especially against the Suud. They had helped the Farsalans win the war against the Hrum!
"I need to think about it," Jiaan said.
"Of course he wouldn't want to do it. He's just a boy, and a peasant boy at that," Ithrum said, waving his hand in dismissal. "He shouldn't have even been asked."
"I agree," Hassir said with disdain. "He hasn't been in Farsala—or even been a Farsalan—ever since he joined the Hrum. As far as I'm concerned, he has no ties with this country."
In an instant, Hosah jumped from his seat, knocking back his chair. Jiaan raised a hand, stopping him from physically advancing on the deghans.
"Commander Jiaan's got more loyalty to this country, and from this country, than you'll ever have!" Hosah shouted, fists clenched.
Hassir had risen as well, red flaring in his cheeks. "What does a peasant like you know about loyalty? Did you hide in your homes when the Hrum came pounding on your doors, instead of fighting? I became a slave for this country!" he bellowed, ripping off his tunic's sleeve to reveal the dark tattoo of a Hrum slave. Jiaan recognized it instantly as the same one from the lady Soraya's arm.
In the shocked silence that followed, Hassir stalked out of the room, his tattered sleeve fluttering to the ground. Ithrum looked at Hosah, then at Jiaan with distaste, before he too walked out the door.
Hosah's ragged breathing filled the quiet, as his fists slowly clenched and unclenched. He stared at the open doorway. "He's still got no right, speaking like that," he muttered as he placed his chair upright again and sat heavily.
Jiaan sat slowly as well, resting his elbows on his knees. So that man had been a slave—it explained the hatred. But that wasn't the main problem. Wearily, he looked towards Siddas, who had also leaned forward in his chair.
"I'm sorry, Jiaan, for throwing you into a situation like this," Siddas said apologetically. He shook his head and grimaced. "I shouldn't have sprung this on you all at once." He shook his head again, harder this time. "They came here a few marks before you arrived—sent by the Council, they said. I didn't know, but I should have talked to you first, before letting them at you. I'm sorry."
Tired, Jiaan nodded once in acceptance. "But why were they sent by the Council?"
Siddas's expression darkened. "A lot's happened since you left, Jiaan," he said grimly. "There's a power struggle and a lot of politics involved." At the incredulous expression Jiaan wore, Siddas's face cracked with a weary, bitter grin. "Even if the new Council's only just begun, there are always politics, I'm afraid.
"Once the war was over, some of the representatives that were gathered from the cities, towns, and small villages had never been given responsibility before, especially the ones from the small villages. I don't know if Kavi mentioned this to you, but it was a big mess, getting any third of them moving in the same direction—think about it, Jiaan. Over a hundred delegates, gathered in Setesafon, half of them used to letting deghans make all of the major decisions, the other half petitioning so hard for their city, town, or village, that they wouldn't budge an inch, all in one room.
"If the deghans didn't come back, maybe those who weren't used to making their own decisions would have grown into it, but it didn't work out that way. Some of the deghans that were put back into power are pleasant folk, who've lost the attitude, but others… Others were put back because some of the villages didn't know how to do anything else.
Siddas sighed heavily. "About a quarter of the Council is made up of deghans, Jiaan, and I don't know how, but I guess hundreds of years of rule brainwashed us peasants a little. They have a lot of sway, and that's how those two—" Siddas gestured at the door, where Hassir and Ithrum had left not so long ago, "—were elected as two of Farsala's armies' leaders."
Jiaan nodded slowly, absorbing the information. Kavi had told him about deghans being in the Council, but not nearly with this depth of reasoning. He supposed it would have taken a long time to explain everything that would happen within Farsala in a month, every month, and that would be the reason Kavi's letters had never delved too deep into Farsala's issues… but what if the Councilherd himself didn't know about these undercurrents?
"In better news," he said, "Kavi's alive and well, by the way, even though the Council is a mess without him. He's made it into the desert safely after meeting Soraya." Jiaan looked up, surprised and relieved.
They're both alive, thank Azura.
Siddas smiled at his relief. "He sends his regards, and hopes you'll consider the Council's proposition. I hope you'll accept as well, Jiaan."
Suddenly brought back to the decision he had to make, Jiaan froze. Could he take on the responsibility of commanding a nation's army? Even though he had taken command of the remnants of Farsala's army after Sendar Wall, this was different. It would be arrogant to assume that he could bring together the fractured Farsalan army and make it into a united whole—Hassir and Ithrum had made sure he understood that it wouldn't be easy. In fact, it would probably be harder than convincing Fasal. Jiaan felt the familiar twinge of regret as he remembered the young deghan's death. But, he thought, at least Fasal didn't hate me. He just thought he was better than me.
Hosah looked up at him then, eyes shining with hope. "You can do it, sir. You proved you could do it in the war, and you can do it now. You aren't overconfident like Ithrum, and you respect the Suud, not like Hassir." Hosah's broad accent was overtaken by enthusiasm. "I'd be behind you. All the way."
Jiaan smiled tenuously at the last comment. Hosah's speech had revealed more than he liked. It meant if he didn't accept, there would be a war between the three army commanders for the role of commander of Farsala's army. And, if settled the deghan way, it would end in a circle drawn in the ground, and someone dead.
And, if in the end, Farsala went to war with the Suud, would the commander pause before trying to utterly obliterate the desert people, when, after all, Farsalans had been the one invading the desert tribes and killing their people? Would the commander pause to kill Soraya's family and to destroy her home? Would the commander pause to think, just once, this is a war that shouldn't be fought?
Jiaan shut his eyes as he rested his head on his clasped hands.
What should I do?
"I'll do it," he said roughly. "I'll take command."