A battle rages for the Cuian homeworld, Xinar, and few Cuians think it will end well for them, most of all Titrius Mertinus, Chief of Xinar’s Ministry of Defence.
A request for assistance has been sent high priority to their neighbour’s, the Lledumar, begging Duke Dweg Lohwrune to send his best warriors to defend Xinar against falling into the hands of the marauding Hrexan. If Xinar fell, so would Lled.
Lohwrune must decide which is better: to die on Xinar, or to die at home. The situation is unprecedented, the outcome of the war could change the course of history, change the galactic neighbourhood forever. If he refuses to send troops to Xinar, the next battle would be waged for Lled, his beautiful homeworld.
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Zann was blunt when he called him ‘Aelius Maximus’, rather than his actual name – Aelius Aronnum. And sarcastically claimed, ‘Nimbus is illuminated by your brightness.’
Aronnum groaned at Zann’s demeanour, to hint his annoyance. He wasn’t sure whether to have Zann flogged in public for showing such disrespect in front of his patrons and guests and hangers-on or pay him more laros to say something better. After he’d made Zann feel uncomfortable with a stern stare, he said, ‘Sit, friend.’ He nodded to the occupied seat beside him. The seat was occupied by a local merchant. The merchant was surprised, looked first at Aronnum and then at Zann. The man soon realised for whom he should give up his seat, opened his mouth to speak, but speechless, the merchant made a swift exit and bowed many times as he backed away.
Unlike him, Zann didn’t stand on ceremony. His dislike for him was public knowledge. Felt the man’s loathing like the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. He’d made the kinds of decisions Zann would never make, would never entertain, if he were sector politico. But the man would never be sector politico, so he dismissed the thought with a pout. When it came to managing the local situation, Zann would have done something different. Aronnum knew he played with fire by appearing to praise the gods of lesser mortals. That was one of their main differences. Zann was a stickler for the true article of faith, whereas he was a moderate and appeased as many as he could, without drawing criticism from Xintito when he did. So long as there were a few extra denarii, laros if it were on offer, in it for him, he’d take advantage of it. His balconies by the sea in Uother, a rumour had spread, suggested it must have been purchased with the laros of unusual agreements, if not generous gifts from invisible, unnameable acquaintances.
Unnameable shall they remain, he thought.
Zann would admit though, that he had made Nimbus rich in culture. Filthy with laros, Zann would probably say.
Zann soon said, ‘I bring news that may interest you.’
‘Oh?’ Aronnum heard Zann’s sincerity, if not the respect.
Aronnum said, ‘Do tell,’ as he sipped a bi-carbonated ginger drink. The bubbles tickled his nose as he drank, and caused him to rub the bottom of his nose after each sip.
‘The word on the street is that strangers are among us. They’ve been spotted on the outskirts of Nimbus, and were seen to buy large quantities of supplies with illaros.’
‘Illaros?’ Aronnum was surprised and interrupted Zann before he could add more to his tale. ‘Isn’t that …’
‘An older currency, yes,’ confirmed Zann. ‘But one that still holds some value.’
Aronnum waited as Zann paused to watch a dance brigade perform nearby, as though he waited for the moment he should laugh at a bad joke.
Zann continued. ‘Apparently, the strangers have been asking questions about Nimbus’s military bases and installations.’ Zann looked at him to suggest there might be something in it.
There it is, Aronnum thought. ‘Unusual, yes. But it’s a constant issue in every city on Xinar. And rarely turns out to be of great significance.’ Zann was disquieted, though. ‘So, do you know who the strangers are?’
Zann said, ‘Not sure. But I have sent people into the streets to find out. We’ll know soon enough, and go from there.’
Aronnum turned from Zann, was quiet as he watched the dance brigades twirl and jump to the cymbal music as it tinged in the background. As he watched, he wondered what it meant to ask about military places. If the strangers were only after supplies they’d probably be gone in a few days, a week at most. Get what they want and get out again. Offworld traders sometimes used the old illaros because they came here so rarely. There was nothing untoward about it, he knew, never any real problem. He shouldn’t worry, he thought. Just enjoy the celebrations and let Zann, the zealot, deal with it. That’s what he did; that’s what he was good at. And what he paid him for, he thought, sourly. But he had to watch his back with Zann. Had to be extra-careful. He was never quite sure about Zann. A malodorous taciturnity often hung around him, like the hint of sandalwood on a night feline.