Vahan Aliih walked through his mansion with quick and purposeful strides, heading straight for his great office and the man awaiting inside. Nasir, a messenger that also served as an advisor, waited for him next to a large window that overlooked the city Triarda. Its protective walls was currently under reconstruction to rebuild and patch the damages from the war, its remnants looked more like open wounds than broken bricks. When Vahan entered the office, the messenger, clothed in brown robes, turned around to face him.

"The rebuild takes long," the messenger commented. "Problems with the workers?"

"That is saying it mildly," Vahan admitted. "Supporters of Luvor sabotages their equipment, tries to advocate Luvorian supremacy and even bribes the workers."

The messenger grunted a disapproval. "You know we can take care of them. These troubles are unnecessary, Senator."

Vahan shook his head. They frequently had this conversation, and even though he wanted their aid, he could not accept it. The people of Triarda needed to see that their Senator was able to rebuild their homes self-sufficiently. An important strategy in gaining their support had been precisely this; he promised them independence, promised they would never have to fear a repetition of the past. Triarda would rise to be a stronghold that could support itself if necessary. It was a tedious and slow work, especially when supporters of Luvor tried to destroy them, but it was heading in the right direction.

He looked at the messenger. "I am in a hurry. You had word for me?"

"Yes," the messenger answered and produced a small parchment from his pouch. He handed it to the Senator.

"Another refusal?" Vahan asked, weighing the parchment in his hand, not needing to read it to know what its writing had to say.

"I am afraid so," the messenger bowed his head, looking apologetic at him.

Vahan threw the parchment aside and sighed. "Five years," he grumbled. "Do you know anyone as stubborn as her?"

The messenger's eyes glittered with fragments of humor. "I am afraid not, sir."

Five years, he repeated in his mind. For five years, he had tried to make Leylah acknowledge him as her father. He wanted her to take his name so that she could leave her exile and walk safely amongst the people of Peralem. Leylah, Kharon or Qadir, cursed among the people and associated with treachery, was publically a dead woman.

Leylah Vahan, however, was not. If he could legitimately announce her as his daughter, she could have freedom to make life for herself, and her children. People would question her, of course, suspect her true identity, but they would not dare to go against the Senate if he had them announce her as Vahan Aliih's daughter. At least not officially. Her children would also be able to live freely with a steadfast grandfather that could support them and grant them everything they needed.

Leylah, however, continued to refuse.

The messenger looked at his fuming frustration with calm amusement. Vahan wanted to scorn him, but knew it was useless. The Sherokahns would not appreciate it if Vahan treated this man poorly. It was a silent agreement between the Brotherhood and himself. He kept the man as his messenger and advisor, and the man kept him updated of the tidal undercurrents in society. The man reported to the Sherokahns, of course, but Vahan did not mind. It had proven to be a valuable agreement during these five years; having a Sherokahn advisor whispering in his ears had earned him influential power within the Senate. In return, he offered the Sherokahn Brotherhood information. Besides, Nasir had become a friend during these last years.

The Brotherhood had retreated after the battles against Luvor, to restore their strength and former invisibility. Their absence was fruitful; most people believed the Brotherhood dissolved and destroyed. Vahan knew better. Even though weakened after the battles, they were just as present as they had always been.

Instead of scorning the messenger, Vahan settled with glaring.

The messenger bowed slightly in mock admiration of the Senator's ability to hold his tongue. "I understand you are about to make your leave for the Capital?" he asked. "A meeting with the Senate?"

Vahan walked over to his large desk, feeling small next to it, a strange sensation in comparison to the power he had gained through it. "Yes. A representative of Haven has requested an audience." The words left his mouth drenched in distrust. Haven would claim their payment for aiding Peralem in the battles and liberating them from Luvor's influence. It was simply a matter of time. This 'request' was a mere curtesy. Possibly a warning that Haven was about to demand their payment.

The messenger waited in silence.

"Pack your things, Nasir. I suppose it is easier for both of us if you attend as my advisor and not a spy."

The messenger smiled. "Definitely easier, sir." He nodded to the Senator before he turned and left the office.

Vahan Aliih sighed and also left the office, through a different set of doors, wanting to speak with Ceren and Sara before he left.

"We do not have the necessary manpower to comply with your request, lord Jarva," A Senator objected. "Our forces are still recovering from the battles with Luvor and the civil war that followed."

"It is in your best interest. Thurayya will exploit your current weakness, unless Haven stops them," Jarva responded calmly.

Lord Aaron Jarva had come to the Peralemic Capital with a warning from the Majesty of Haven and his Council. They suspected that Thurayya, Peralem's neighbor to the west, was planning to expand its borders into Haven. If that succeeded, the probability that Peralem was next in line was very high. Weakened internally, Peralem would never be able to withstand such attacks. The Thurayyan army was nothing like the Luvorian, and they would succeed if they tried. The enslavement Luvor had wanted to place upon Peralem was a bureaucratic and political one. Thurayya had no such finesse; they would literally enslave everyone they conquered, and then sell the slaves on international markets or use them as free labor to produce goods for trade. In Thurayya's culture, a slave's value was equal to the financial profit he or she earned for the masters, and no one was irreplaceable.

As one of the many large countries that shunned slavery, Haven had no interest in allowing Thurayya expand into their territory. They had always considered Thurayya a possible threat and enemy, and always acted cautiously thereafter. Lord Jarva's warning was legitimate and an honest concern, the Senate understood that, and appreciated the fact. However, Peralem had no means to aid Haven if they decided to take the offensive stance rather than the defensive. A decision they obviously had made.

Jarva continued, "Haven needs you to send battleships to face the Thurayyan coastline and watch it while Haven's forces march the mainland. I understand that your battleships are highly functional." He looked at the Senators, addressing the men that represented the cities on the Peralemic coast.

"You are right, lord Jarva. Our battleships are highly functional," a Senator answered wryly. "It is men to operate them we lack. If we send our men out to sea, it compromises the safety on land."

"You should lend Haven your aid," Jarva commanded. "You will have to watch your sea borders when Haven marches regardless. Thurayya might respond with brutality."

They understood. This was Haven's demand for payment. When Peralem had asked for Haven's aid against Luvor, they had known this day would come. Jarva indirectly threatened them when he reminded them of their own weakness in case Thurayya sought to expand into Peralem. If Peralem refused to aid Haven in this, Haven would allow Thurayya to take them.

The only way to prevent those scenarios was to aid Haven and make sure Thurayya never succeeded in the first place.

The Senate finally agreed to send their battleships. Lord Jarva was pleased, and he thanked the Senators warmly with a generous smile. However, he was not quite finished with his 'requests'. Addressing the Senators again, Jarva had a masked expression in his face that only came from years of practice in concealing his opinions.

"There is a second matter I wish to discuss with you. It has come to the Royal Council's attention that the Sherokahn Brotherhood, whom we initially believed dissolved in the aftermaths of the war and their Master's death, is still very much active."

The Senators looked back at Jarva with equally masked expressions.

"Jabbar Qadir died of illness two years ago," one Senator responded. "The news of his death was sent to us out of mere politeness and as a recognition of our collaboration during the war. We have not been in contact with them ever since."

Vahan Aliih watched lord Jarva with the same expression as his fellow Senators. In his peripheral vision, he saw that his advisor Nasir observed them all with apprehension. Vahan cleared his throat, knowing very well why Nasir looked worried. The Brotherhood had never been more careful.

"May I ask, out of mere curiosity, where did the Royal Council come upon such information?"

Jarva turned to Aliih. "We have our sources."

"Your sources may be wrong. Have you considered they might be traitors that deliberately wishes to deceive you and stab you in the back while you hunt for ghosts?"

Jarva considered the Senator's words a few seconds, realizing that if he wanted information on the Sherokahns, Aliih was the man to get it from. No one else in the Senate was willing to brush the Brotherhood of assassins away as dead. No one except Aliih. Jarva quickly corrected the victorious grin that threatened to expose his thoughts.

"Haven's Royal security have discovered activity within the castle and the courtrooms that holds a disturbing resemblance to how we know the Sherokahn Brotherhood worked. If the Brotherhood wishes to know about our businesses, all they need to do is ask. We wish to seek their assistance."

Aliih laughed. "What makes you think the activity is not your own men's lively imaginations? Besides, if the Brotherhood still existed, what makes you think their new leader would want to cooperate with you?"

Jarva chose not to respond to Aliih's first question, and instead calmly addressed the second. "Because the Sherokahn Brotherhood are honor-bound fighters of freedom. Haven wishes to enter an alliance with them against Thurayya."

Vahan Aliih exchanged glances with his advisor, and then rose to his feet. "The Brotherhood does no longer exist, I am afraid. If they did, I am sure they would have found a way to contact you already. The fact that they have not, should warn you that the 'activity' at His Majesty's castle are not Sherokahn activity. If I were you, I would want to look into that, and possibly evacuate the King."

Jarva nodded once, gracefully and respectfully. Aliih had a valid point. He had to send word to the Royal security as soon as possible. Preferably yesterday.

The Senators declared the meeting finished, and offered Jarva and his men to stay in the Capital a few days to resupply before he returned to Haven. Jarva accepted the invitation with gratitude.

"Are you certain, Nasir?"

The advisor followed Vahan's hasty strides through the corridors of the large building, towards the guest wing where Aaron Jarva and his men currently resided.

"I am," the advisor confirmed. "You are wise to warn him, sir. The Brotherhood does not have any men stationed within the castle of Haven."

Nasir had a special respect for the Senator. A respect earned both through trust and mutual interests. Leylah and the Brotherhood had earned Vahan his special position within the Senate. Vahan knew this with painful clarity, but he was also grateful.

"Have you sent word to the fortress yet?"

"Not yet, sir. There is no need to send word that lacks proper explanation, and it will do nothing but infuriate our Mistress. I do not appreciate her anger, if I may be so bold."

Vahan concealed a grim smile as they continued through the corridors. "Good. Let us consider this situation, and then you can send your eagle. Besides, it is not nighttime yet. A falcon soaring over the Capital will draw speculative attention. Someone might be tempted to shoot it down just for fun."

Nasir bowed his head in agreement, and they finally reached the guest wing.

Vahan spoke with the guard outside the door, and the man opened for them. Familiar with this part of the building, Vahan did not linger in the hall, but walked straight to the doors he knew led to Jarva's rooms and knocked. The advisor looked at the Senator with a questioning gaze.

"You forget I attended many meetings here when I was still a lawyer and friend of the deceased El-Amin. I practically furnished this wing."

Nasir smiled, but quickly wiped the expression away once Jarva opened the door for them. Vahan stepped inside without a word, and the advisor followed, looking humble and unimportant as he always did when he was not alone with Aliih. The Senator and his advisor stopped when they saw that Jarva was not alone. A rather large man dressed in a suit made of thin pelts sat in one of the comfortable chairs, smoking a water pipe with great delight. The scent of citrus clung to the air.

"Ah, Senator Aliih. What brings you here? I thought our session was over?" Jarva said and welcomed them into the chambers.

"Only the official one," Vahan answered and closed the door. "Have you sent word to the Royal security yet?"

"I have," Jarva confirmed with a frown. "The courier will be there within the end of this week."

"Good. Ever considered birds? They are fast, after what I hear." He smiled secretly when Jarva did not seem to understand but simply frowned in response. Vahan glanced at the unknown man who seemed like he had no intention of leaving the room. "I wished to discuss your request. In private, if you do not mind."

"Ah, this is Barak Volkov," Jarva motioned to the unknown man, who bowed his head in greeting from his comfortably seated position. Jarva frowned slightly. "Forgive his rudeness, he is born and raised amongst barbaric savages in the north of Haven where courtesy is a rarity." The man threw his head back and responded with a bellowing laugh, even though Jarva had spoken in Peralemic. Jarva's mouth twisted with condescending humor, before he turned back to the Senator and his advisor. "Volkov comes from the province of Karèsec and is one of my most trusted men and leader of the northern army. He can stay. In fact, he leads the force I had hoped the Sherokahns would join with."

The Senator cleared his throat and cautiously eyed the man, who had resumed to enjoying his smoke and looked like he cared very little of the visitors. He had heard about the people from Karèsec. Leylah's bodyguard who had followed her mother to Peralem, Radovan, had been from there. Radovan, however, had possessed a politeness this Volkov seemed completely oblivious to.

Deciding to say nothing more about the man's presence, Vahan turned to Jarva again. "You should know; the Senate are very much aware of the Sherokahn Brotherhood's continuance. They are, however, wisely careful men. The Brotherhood are extremely dangerous, and anyone that possesses knowledge the Brotherhood do not wish them to have, will surely find themselves quickly silenced. They keep such a tight rein on their affairs that if they are exposed, they will know exactly where to look for the perpetrators."

"I see," Jarva answered calmly, understanding what Senator Aliih was implying and the subtle threat. "The senate knows very little then."

"The Senate knows close to nothing. All they know is that the Sherokahns still exist, and that very few people have knowledge on how to contact them, and the means to do so."

Jarva's eyes narrowed slightly, but a smile played around the corners of his lips. "You are one of those people," he concluded questioningly.

Vahan bowed his head once in confirmation. "I am. I also know that they have no men stationed at your Royal Castle. Which is why your words bring me great concern. You have to consider the possibility of a hostile breach."

"Noted. Any comments or words of advice on the alliance request?"

"I am not sure if they can be convinced. We can send word for a representative with influence on their leader to come here, but I am not certain it will be a productive event for you. The Brotherhood will take offensive actions the very moment they learn of your interest in them."

"Is it possible to go and meet their leader directly?" Jarva asked carefully.

Volkov glanced up at the men a few seconds while he rearranged the coal around on the plate.

Vahan noticed that Volkov looked at them from his seat, and was about to open his mouth and respond to Jarva's question when Nasir stepped forward. He had his arms respectfully linked on his back and his head bowed slightly, but his eyes looked directly at Jarva.

"Meeting with the Sherokahns and their leader may prove lethal, sir. I strongly advice against it," he finished his objection with a small glare towards Vahan, knowing that the man was looking for a valid excuse to see his daughter.

"Really?" Jarva's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Are their new leader really that dangerous? The suspicion of Sherokahn activity at the castle in Haven should worry them as well. Someone may be out to frame them."

"She is certainly someone you want to be very careful around," Vahan mused. "I agree with your reasoning though, they should be warned. I also believe they may be able to help, if convinced properly by the proper people."

They discussed their options back and forth a while, and finally Senator Aliih offered to follow Jarva and his men to the Sherokahn fortress.

"Do not tell anyone, not even your own men, where you are going. The road may be dangerous and full of raiders and remnants of Luvorian supporters, but that is nothing in comparison to the danger you face if the Sherokahn Mistress perceives you as a threat. She can have you mutilated before you even realize your limbs are missing."

Jarva and Volkov exchanged glances. "I understand."

"Good. My advisor and I shall accompany you. You will need someone who knows the roads, and someone who knows the Brotherhood. We will approach them under Triarda's banner, and not Haven's."

Aliih and Jarva shook hands and agreed to meet the next morning.

When the Senator and his advisor had left the chambers, Volkov looked up from his pipe towards Jarva. "A woman, huh?"

"A bloodthirsty one as well," Jarva answered, deep in thought. "The rumors are true then."

Barak Volkov grumbled something incomprehensive and focused on his pipe again. Certain things about this dry and hot country was very enjoyable, and he had already decided to buy crates of this tobacco and take with him back to his city in Karèsec.

Nasir did not like this at all, but he was grateful that Vahan was the one who had insisted on going there, against Nasir's advice. The Mistress could not hold him responsible. He looked at the Senator with a small smile.

"I suppose, now you will get your next refusal in person, sir."

"I suppose I will," Vahan responded equally humorous in return.

"Let us hope she does not tear our heads off when we arrive."

"Oh, she will be angry," Vahan chuckled.

"Indeed she will," Nasir agreed and fell into a silent pace behind the Senator.