Empire at War

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Chapter One: The Anti-Hesper Alliance - Clouds over the Capital

The day after Kyron’s flight and nearly two month before Hypatios was cut down by Leontis at Edessa, Chancellor Hesper pardoned Vasilis of Histria, Minister of Education. Baltsar had implored his adoptive father, due to the fact that he had fallen for Vasilis’ adoptive daughter, Calantha, to set the old minister free. On grounds of Methodios’ betrayal, any judgment he had passed down was now considered nullified, and the old minister’s involvement in the attempted assassination was turned over to put him in the position of a victim, as someone who had been coerced by the traitorous Kyron.

On the very next day after Vasilis returned to his home, Baltsar came to pay him a visit and ask for Calantha’s hand in marriage. Led to the garden pavilion where the minister was waiting, the general had the gait of a young boy hopelessly in love, rather than the graceful step of a weapons master.

“Dear Minister Vasilis,” Baltsar greeted the man he wished to appease even more than his adoptive father at the moment with a deep warrior’s bow.

“What can I do for you, oh great general?” Returning the gesture, Vasilis feigned ignorance.

“I came to apologize, again, for my rough treatment of your esteemed person. Please tell me how I can make it up to you.” The general fell on his knees and earnestly expressed his regret.

“Please, general, stand up. You have done nothing wrong. Kyron is a cunning fox who fooled even Chancellor Hesper with his lies. You acted on the chancellor’s orders, and in good faith, so no blame falls on you,” Vasilis quickly walked up to Baltsar and pulled him up from his kneeling position. Of course, as the general was wearing full armor and the minister was weakened in his advanced age, the young man rose, understanding his elder’s intention.

“Dear Minister, I wish to ask for your daughter hand,” Baltsar finally confessed, laying bare his true intentions for the visit with a respectful bow. Acting astonished, Vasilis looked at the general with an expression of disbelief; he had witnessed Baltsar’s interaction with Calantha and had immediately understood that this was an opportunity too good to miss.

“I cannot accept this,” Vasilis began, quickly continuing when the general looked up in surprise and ready to complain. “You are the Great General of the Northern Forces. She is the daughter of a deceased attendant of mine, who had served my family for all his life. I took pity on her soul and adopted her, but she is of low birth. How could you wish to marry a lowly commoner such as her? You are meant for greater heights.”

“Even if she is of low birth, her beauty surpasses that of even the Ljosalfar. Tell me, what is higher than that, dear minister?” It appeared that Baltsar was adamant about his wish. Secretly, Vasilis had to admire the general for his burning affection; he was reminded of his own youth, when he had chased the woman of his love and defied all odds to gain hers in return.

“Then, if the general is so insistent, I can only accept. However, you will have to gain your father’s approval, first. I will have to know that she is welcome in the family of her future husband,” Vasilis finally gave in after acting reluctant for the longest time. Secretly, he had barely been able to hold himself back to agree readily, but doing so may have seemed suspicious.

“So you believe your daughter is sure to agree to it?” Baltsar asked, showing a rare moment of uncertainty.

“Oh, how could she oppose a marriage with a person such as you? She would be mad to refuse you,” Vasilis laughed and eased the young man’s worries. “I will tell her the good news, you go and persuade your father.” Standing up, the minister implied that it would be best to strike the iron while it was hot, and immediately go to fulfill their respective tasks. With many bows and words of gratitude, Baltsar left and silence returned to the manor.

Vasilis sighed and all tension left his body; the general’s imposing martial presence put a heavy strain on even those who had little understanding of it. The old minister had been in the military and had learned the basics of armed combat, so he was able to recognize Baltsar’s skills instinctively. If it had such an effect on a pencil-pusher with only a little fighting background, what would it be like on a veteran of many battles or a martial arts master?

Pushing those idle questions aside, Vasilis hurried to Calantha’s room to inform her of the general’s intent to marry her. Knocking on the door, a bell-like voice beckoned him to enter. Inside the sparsely furnished room, more befitting of a warrior than of a rich minister’s teenage daughter, Calantha sat cross-legged on a small cushion on the floor. Her eyes were closed and she was meditating, her presence combined with the easy to move in clothes belonging to all but a sheltered girl.

“I assume you have heard, Calantha,” Vasilis began. His tone of voice was the same as when he spoke to the officials in his employment, not the way one would address one’s daughter, even if she was only adopted. Taking her silence as a confirmation, he sat down on a chair across from her. “To save the empire, you will marry Baltsar and alienate him from his adoptive father.”

Finally opening her eyes, a set of cold jade green irises peered up at the minister. Her gaze was filled with neither surprise nor hid opposition at the one-sided demand, but showed the will to fulfill a duty. Indeed, she would not question Vasilis’ decisions or plans, all that was required of her was to do as she was ordered.

After all, she was from the line of assassins that had served his household for generations.

The chancellor allowed the marriage, stating that whatever his son wished for would be granted. Over the following month, preparations for the auspicious event were underway in the capital, the citizens forced to pay horrendous taxes and work to support the decoration of the entire city. Hesper only thought it appropriate that the security and prosperity he and his son brought be repaid by the people.

Masses of delicacies and fine wines from around the empire were brought to the capital, even as a food shortage ran rampant among the common people - a result of the reckless war of the Mad Emperor. None of the imported goods ever came into the hands of the citizens and were all directly brought into the imperial palace, where it would be laid out in the most lavish banquet ever seen, surpassing in wastefulness even the famed Zenter Imperial Feast with over a hundred dishes and spanning three days. The chancellor ordered more than three hundred dishes and for the festivities to last an entire week of twelve days.

The Minister of the Treasury was bedridden with an immense headache and unable to attend the morning assemblies after the plans were imposed on him, testament to just how wasteful he considered the entire undertaking to be. In the meantime, the threat of a new rebellion looming over the empire was pushed out of everybody’s minds in the wake of the preparations. The fact that the chancellor openly announced the festivities across the lands only served to cement the rebellion’s position on his tyranny.

Despite oppositions even within the imperial court, the marriage went through as planned and on the first evening, when the groom and bride appeared before everyone, all negative thoughts were forgotten. Baltsar’s gallant figure, a paragon of valor and the very symbol of what all men should strive for in these times, struck awe into the hearts of men and women alike. Calantha’s radiant countenance, an avatar of beauty and the very definition of elegance, struck the perfect balance in the pair. Neither overshadowed the other, and all could only watch the perfection that was their union in reverent silence . An earth-shattering cheer resounded throughout the capital, when the marriage ceremony was concluded and the gathered masses gave voice to their emotions.

However, once the two disappeared into the imperial palace to partake in the banquet, the people gathered outside were reminded of their own hunger and misery once again. They would return to their cold homes where the meals would consist of old bread and some stale vegetable soup. None could even begin to imagine the feast of three hundred dishes, when they could barely scratch three dishes together to last them for a week. The common folk was unable to take action against this injustice, but those court officials who had declined the invitation by feigning illness had the resources to write to the brewing rebellion and inform them of the tyranny in the capital.

In the month following the festivities the capital streets, previously so beautifully decorated with fresh flowers imported from the warmer south, became desolate and were blanketed by a feeling of oppressive depression. Many merchants had left the city to find better luck elsewhere, leaving the inhabitants to starve alone. If it had not been for Vasilis, asking Calantha to persuade her husband and father in law to give the many leftovers and remaining ingredients of the banquet, that would have otherwise been thrown away, to the starving masses, they may have risen up in revolt. That danger had been compounded on by the fact that Loukios and Miltiades had set out with an army of a hundred and fifty thousand strong, taking many supplies with them and leaving the city defenses lacking.

The greatest couple of the capital, blissful in their marriage, lived far away from the harshness of life, however. Calantha was genuinely happy, despite the fact that she had been ordered to deceive Baltsar and Hesper. Of course, she would not forget her mission to break apart the strong bonds between those two, and would put her life on the line to achieve that.

And she knew exactly how she would do it.

“Congratulations, general. Your wife is with child,” The imperial doctor said, smiling to Baltsar with an almost proud expression. Completely taken aback by the news, the young man could only stare at his opposite in disbelief.

“Are you certain, doctor? She is not ill - her life is not in danger?” Baltsar was finally able to speak, and asked hesitantly. Different from his usual cool self, he was clearly distressed and uncomfortable with the situation. After all, he was still young and did not understand the many mysteries of life.

“I am certain, she is very healthy. Morning sickness often results from being pregnant, although it is not a certainty,” The doctor responded, but continued before Baltsar could interject. “But I located the pressure points on her body, and they tell me that she is indeed carrying a child. Of course, I cannot tell whether it’s a boy or a girl yet, but this is certainly an auspicious event.”

The fact that the woman he loved was with his child finally sunk in, and Baltsar jolted up in joy. Rushing into his wife’s room, he embraced the surprised woman of his life lovingly, eliciting a giggle from her. “Not so rough, my dear,” She said and tried to wiggle free from his steel-like arms. Upon these words he quickly let go and shirked back, a fearful expression distorting his face.

“Do not worry, my dear husband. I am sure this child, whether it be a boy or a girl, will grow up as strong as the father,” Calantha said, stroking her abdomen. There was no physical sign of her pregnancy as it had only been a month since conception, but the gesture conjured a smile of pure affection on Baltsar’s face. For a moment, she was enchanted by this sight, the ambitious general from the North, adoptive son and supporter of a tyrant, making an expression filled with endless love. The moment was interrupted when a servant came to report that a messenger from the palace had arrived. Calantha looked up in worry, to try and discern the emotions beneath her husband’s face, which had returned to being the mask of a warrior.

“Excuse me, my love. My father is asking for me,” Baltsar stated and stroked his wife’s cheek gently. “I will return as soon as I am freed of my duties.” With these words he stepped out, his stride befitting that of the Great General of the Northern Forces. Calantha could only watch his shadow disappear out the door, uneasiness filling her heart.

The reason for being called to the palace was that news of Hypatios’ death at Edessa had arrived. Baltsar’s reaction to this information was reflective silence, as he considered the rumors that accompanied it: A gigantic man of seven measures had beheaded the general on their first bout. However, the young general never regarded Hypatios especially strong; it was not that he was weak, but Baltsar was just on such a high level that to him someone as formidable as the fallen general was only considered to be mediocre.

The opponent of Hypatios reportedly taunted him by saying that he had no name to give to a dead man. Just from hearing this, the young general understood what kind of person the giant was. Anyone else would have named himself for the whole world to know, especially if they were confident about their skills. However, this individual had displayed his superiority by slighting someone hailed as a strong warrior and killing him easily afterwards. He had turned himself into a legend through actions before titles. Finding out the name of a man who was now regarded highly by the rebel army was an easy feat for spies hiding among the common soldiers.

As expected, the name Leontis of Dion had spread even among the troops from Naxos, and many spoke of it fearfully. Rumors had that this individual was a young Formido, who had not yet grown to his full size, while others even thought him a descendant of the Aesir, godlike beings who lived on Yggdra when the first humans arrived. But the most important piece of information was that none had ever heard of him before he had stepped out onto the battlefield to face Hypatios in a duel.

When Baltsar beheld these rumors, for a moment he forgot about his wife and unborn child, and a feeling he thought he had lost boiled up inside him. It was the burning excitement before a battle, the emotion swirling inside someone about to face death and fight for survival. There had not been any challenge to his might ever since he first stepped on a battlefield, and he was even a match in a duel with Formido warriors. If this Leontis could illicit such a feeling, the young general was only looking forward to meeting him on the field of battle.

“Baltsar, my son. Loukios and Miltiades have requested your aid against the rebels. They are scared of this Leontis upstart, who has slain my beloved General Hypatios.” Hesper was visibly enraged at the loss of one of his veteran commanders, alongside whom he had fought in the North on many occasions in the past. Of course, the chancellor was aware that his adoptive son was much stronger than Hypatios ever was. “Ride out and bring down the hammer of justice on this rebel vermin. Bring me the heads of their leaders, I want to drink out of their skulls!”

“As you command, father,” Baltsar responded, a fearless smile creeping onto his lips. No thought was spared on his pregnant wife and that he would leave her behind, for there was no doubt in his heart he would return alive. Under the Heavens and on this Earth, none could best him on the field of battle. “I will show them the might of Baltsar of Naxos.”

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