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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning
Prologue - The Ashina Clan

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Hello everyone, and welcome to my first attempt at an AAR!
This is the story of the once great Ashina clan that's been reduced close to extinction and struggles to find its place in a perpetually shifting environment. They're also the historical founders - but no longer the rulers - of what in 867, when our story starts, is the only Jewish realm in the world to speak of, namely the Khaganate of Khazaria.

Basic Guidelines:
  • Playing out the characters and the narrative goes before winning the game (though a certain sense of self-preservation is always assumed). I'm not set for any particular in-game goals despite the title. It all depends on who leads the realm and where alternate history takes us. That also makes for a rather slow in-game pace - after I started writing, it took me two evenings to just unpause. It doesn't go on exactly like that, but it's safe to assume that fast progress is not to be expected (or attempted) anytime soon.
  • It's alternate history from the first letter on. I'm neither an expert on the true history of the Khazarians nor on nomadic lifestyle in the Middle Ages or Jewish liturgy at the time. According descriptions will often be hilariously implausible to more educated people - that's because they're likely made up.
  • All DLCs except Rajas of India, Monks & Mystics and the beloved Sunset Expansion are enabled. I'm also new to most of them (and not terribly experienced at CKII in total), so that makes for quite the realistic impersonation of a young ruler slowly growing into his responsibilities.
Without further ado, enclosed are the first two chapters that mainly set the scene and introduce some people. I hope you enjoy the read and am looking forward to comments!



Prologue - The Ashina Clan
December 23, 866 AD

It was a cool and cloudy day in Theodosia, and a sharp wind blew from the seaside. Two black-bearded men were standing on a ledge, quietly beholding the simple settlement of Yurts and makeshift accomodations on the verge of a seemingly endless plain stretching to the horizon. Both sons of lowly descent, through diligence and loyalty they had made it to the most trusted councillors of Tarkhan, Khan of the Ashina Clan, ruler over the lands around the Sea of Azov and the only legitimate successor to the legendary Khan Muhan Ashina (at least as far as his tribesmen were concerned).



Muhan had lead his people to freedom over the oppressive Rouran Khaganate three centuries ago; he and his close followers took up banners and constituted the first generation of the Ashina clan. His great-grandson Irbis eventually founded the realm that was known as Khazaria by the time our story starts. A century of peace and prosperity followed (again, according to Ashina lore – historical evidence is hard to come by in the rough circumstances of the Steppes), the Khazarians reached the Black Sea and bonds were made with the local populace in the coastal settlements.
Muhan had become the stuff of legends in the meantime; some Jewish traders had brought books with themselves containing the ancient tales of their faith and soon rumors circled Muhan was a descendant of the lost Israelite tribes the Jews' Holy Book mentioned. Soon, many of the tribesmen were considering themselves the rightful successors of these mystic forsaken people and conversions to Judaism were more and more prevalent. When the higher ranks of the Khaganate recognized this, many of them followed suit – some out of genuine conviction, some because they figured it would be a convenient way to secure their power.

Baghathur Ashina, the Khagan of Khazaria at the time, showed himself indifferent. He was a born soldier without the slightest knack for theological debate and in all honesty could not care less what his people were praying to in private. He refused to convert for all his life and kept riding with his men until earth and sky would finally take him back into their eternal embrace.
At the same time, his ambitious and far more erudite son Bulan made a name for himself at home, preaching the religion of their forefathers and defending the realm from several infidel (at least now they were considered so by most people) raiding groups. When Baghathur died, Bulan decided to open a new chapter for Khazaria – the Khagan would from now on be chosen exclusively from his newly founded Clan, further known as the Bulanids. The Ashina remained in power over the southern Khazarian lands, but were reduced to one among several Khanates under the Bulanid Khagan, who now proclaimed to be the true successor to Muhan and also the rightful protector of the Jewry all over the world.

The current Khagan was Manasseh II, a cunning man of brutish and arrogant manners, who had ruled Khazaria for the past three years and focused on extorting tribute from his smaller neighbours. Manasseh was no great warlord, but he secured his authority through a network of spies and favors that kept him in full knowledge of everything going on in the realm.



The Ashina had put up camp some time ago near the Crimean Mountains. The hilly terrain to the West and the Black Sea provided an amount of protection from weather and unruly neighbours that was unusual for these lands. Theodosia was also close to the rich Byzantine enclave of Kherson at the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, which was valuable to the locals for trade and diplomacy and posed a decent opportunity for the occasional looting and pillaging. When the Khan's entourage had moved in from the other side of the narrow strait between Crimea and the vast plains stretching until the Caspian Sea looking for new pastures (and appropriate distance from an Alanian raiding band Tarkhan had suffered a humiliating loss against before the Khagan stepped in with his own troops and routed the Alanians), little did they expect for how long this would become their home.



Papaçyz, Spymaster of Ashina and the younger of the two men, broke the prolonged silence.

"I've made arrangements to keep the tribal council's ruling secret among the population – at least until it comes into full effect upon the Khan's demise. How did Zachariah take the news?"

Ezra, Chancellor of the Ashina realm, gave him a grim look.

"He stormed off cursing and refused to talk to anybody for hours. Our delegation got delayed so much it was almost nighttime when we arrived back in Theodosia. A little later, and we would have been little more than free booty to even the lowliest heap of steppe raiders.
And this is the man who's supposed to be Khan in a few days. As if it's not enough that we're losing a whole chunk of our lands for good and aren't able in the slightest to do anything about it."

The aging Khan had not taken the new circumstances after their relocation well. The local climate and diet were different from anything the tribe had been used to, and while most of his people were naturally adaptive, the Khan's health began to deteriorate rapidly upon arrival. Three weeks ago he had fallen ill so gravely that he was soon no longer fit to rule. He had been barely awake for the past days and rumors had started to circle he did not have much time left before his son Zachariah was to take over the Khanate.
When the Khagan got wind of this, he immediately made arrangements for a realm-wide council and in absence of Tarkhan declared his claim on the plains east of Crimea known as the Great Chiefdom of Azov. Tarkhan had left the lands in disgrace and Zachariah had absolutely nothing to show for himself that justified the return of those lands from the authority of the Khagan who had restored order where the Ashina had failed. It didn't help Zachariah's case that the other Khans held little regard for him or his father and had no reason to possibly anger the Khagan when his plans went to the Ashina's expense, not their own.

Thus it was ruled, against the vote of Ezra as the official Ashina representative, that technically Tarkhan was not stripped of the land (that would have violated Khazarian laws), yet Azov would not be part of Zachariah's inheritance upon Tarkhan's demise, but fall to the Khagan instead.

Papaçyz sighed.
"Hard times are ahead. Zachariah isn't remotely fit to the task, and everyone who would even come close lacks royal blood. Looking out for this fool is not going to be a pleasure."

"Not in the slightest. And there are all kinds of rumours – apart from the usual threats to Khazaria from the hordes in the north and east, the Magyars in the west are raising a sizeable army, some adventurous Norsemen are settling in their vicinity and the tributaries of Khagan Manasseh are always on the brink of revolt. We'd better be prepared for the succession. I wouldn't count on Zachariah giving the best example of sensible leadership anytime soon."



On the brink of what the Christians far in the West considered the first day of a new year, Tarkhan, Khan of the Ashina Clan, took his last breath. His only son Zachariah would soon rule over the lands between the Don and Dnieper estuaries and the Strait of Korchev. The Ashina, once one of the greatest Clans in the steppes, looked out on an uncertain future.
 
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Crimson Lionheart

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This certainly looks interesting. Subbed, welcome to AAR-ing!
 
Chapter 1 - The Novice

terr0rizm

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Chapter 1 - The Novice

January 1, 867 AD

The sun stood high above the shores of Theodosia when Yeldem Ashina, daughter to the deceased Khan Tarkhan, burst into her older brothers' yurt.



Zachariah awoke with a start and nearly fell out of his hammock, uttering Hebrew curses when he found himself entangled. He tried haplessly to escape the grip of what had been a perfectly comfortable lair until seconds ago, until it finally gave way and Zachariah hit the floor with a thud. A small cloud of dust emerged around him. He had only wanted to close his eyes for a few more minutes, to gather his strength for the big day ahead of him.



"Zachariah?! You HAVE to be kidding me! The coronation's supposed to take place in less than an hour, and here you are, literally losing the fight to get out of your goddamn bed. The council is meeting up at this very moment to make the final arrangements. Even the Khagan himself has sent a delegation. You're making a fool of yourself from the very beginning."

Zachariah got up in a hurry.

"The Khagan? What new troubles could this wretch who's just betrayed me of my fathers' lands with a few scratches of a pen bring?"

"Yes, the Khagan. It's common to send diplomatic regards upon the demise of a ruler and the emergence of a new one, but they also spoke of a sealed note not to be opened until your official recognition as Khan of Ashina."

"Oh, by the almighty and merciful Lord, they are going to drive us off these lands, too! What else would it be? Manasseh must have found a new loophole in the Khazarian laws. Is there any way to get rid of the note or dispose of the delegation without causing further trouble with the Khagan? If the message never arrives, ..."

Yeldem rolled her eyes. She knew of her brothers' habit to see threats around every corner, and the Khagan's legal trickery that made him the lord over Azov without a single arrow fired had certainly not convinced him otherwise. It got even worse when he was upset, sometimes to the point where he would accuse lifeless objects of conspiring against him.

"Not now, Zach. Get dressed. I'll dispatch two maids and the steward to get you in proper shape and explain everything you need to know for the ceremony."

Zachariah despised his younger sister talking to him like she was superior, even now as he was about to be the ruler over the whole clan, but he knew she was right. It would have been too late for protests anyway, as Yeldem had already left in a hurry, busy just as Zachariah knew her. I really have to make her stop calling me Zach once I'm ruler, he thought. It's inappropriate for a man in my position.



Khan Tarkhan had never taken a wife but sired two children on his visits to various parts of the realm, both with local women whose identities were never fully disclosed to his court. With Tarkhan being away from the main settlement most of the time, the children were of course taken care of for all they needed, but otherwise largely left to their own devices. Yeldem showed to be of remarkable talent in management and administration early, constantly pestering her fathers' steward with questions. When she came of age, Tarkhan made her an advisor on the tribal council. This had rendered Yeldem much more familiar with a Khan's business than her brother, who spent most of his time gambling and gossiping with the court or just aimlessly riding his horse through the steppes.

Zachariah had been a disappointment to his father in every respect. No one fully understood why Tarkhan never resorted to siring more children to provide at least some sort of competition for the lad. He dreaded everything remotely risky (not counting gambling for his fathers' money) or the prospect of having to actually work and was prone to hot-headed reactions when things did not go his way. He showed no interest in the governance of the realm whatsoever, figuring he'd be the Khan one day anyways and he would have people at his disposal to do the tedious daily work.
He had not even been motivated enough to get himself a wife or even a concubine, although as the Khan's son he would have had practically free choice. Zachariah rather bedded the occasional peasant girl or flirted with tavern maids, as if carefully avoiding everything that had the potential to benefit his reign in the long run.

This very man was now about to be proclaimed the Khan of the once glorious Ashina tribe. The spectators – the commanders and councilors of the realm as well as the mentioned delegations from the Khagan himself and the neighbouring Khanates under his rule - had gathered in the large yurt at the centre of the settlement, with a large mass of curious peasants lingering outside, hoping to catch an impression of the ceremony.

The coronation clearly bore Yeldem's handwriting, turning out rather short and functional. (Also, there was no literal crown to be passed. Although after their conversion to the Jewish faith the Khazarians had adapted some customs and terminology of the European and Middle Eastern feudal realms, they were still children of the Steppes, where leaders traditionally wore particularly pompous felt caps to show their rank.) Kayghalagh, the court Rabbi, spoke a short liturgy before two hand-picked children from Theodosia presented the scroll with the declaration of Zachariah's reign to the council of the Eldest, a ceremonial body that only got together for this occasion. The chairman, who was the oldest man in all Ashina lands, read out the proclamation stating that by Khazarian laws, Zachariah would now be known as Khan Zachariah of Ashina, ruler over the lands of Korchev, Crimea, Oleshye, Lukomorye, Lower Don and Theodosia.



Zachariah stepped forward, expressed his due respect to the Eldest and named his new council. As expected, Ezra kept his position as chancellor. He was one of the realms' most talented and experienced men and his services indispensable. Papaçyz and Kayghalagh also remained on their respective positions as spymaster and court Rabbi, mostly because the realm wasn't in excess of ambitious and capable people to fill out government functions for an essentially nomadic society.



The Steward and Marshal that Tarkhan had employed were from the lands that had been seized by the Khagan effectively today and were on their way toward their homes, so the positions had to be newly assigned. Luckily, it turned out Yeldem knew a very capable administrator from a minor noble bloodline in the countryside which she recommended as Steward. Ezra, the chancellor, had an old friend only a few hours' ride away who had once marshaled for a mercenary band they'd both been part of. Zachariah figured that trying it with them couldn't hurt more than picking anyone else and had messages with the order to join the Clan Council delivered to both so the new council could take up its work the same day.

"Khan Zachariah!" it sounded with a booming voice from the back of the tent. Everyone turned around to Khagan Manasseh's delegation, three elusive men in dark linen clothes with large cowls over their heads that had kept to themselves until now.



Their apparent leader pulled back his hood and revealed a broad smile. "Khan Bulçan of Bulçir, Chancellor to Khagan Manasseh II. of Khazaria.
I'm here to submit deep condolences for the loss of your father and awe and respect to you as the new Khan, personally and in the Khagan's name. Furthermore, I shall give you this" and he handed Zachariah a sealed letter. "To be opened immediately by the Khagan's orders."

Zachariah had a bad feeling about this. He looked around the room anxiously, but finally realized there was no way to get out of this, with his whole court and the Khagan's delegates all looking at him full of expectation, and opened the letter. The surprise on his face was visible for a moment before Zachariah regained his composure and explained that he had been declared the Khagan's steward with immediate effect.



"I take it that you'll accept this proposal, unless you're planning to disobey the Khagan", Bulçan responded. "You're expected to make your service with the Khagan in no more than one week. It won't be trouble though. The Khagan has moved to Tmutarakan shortly, just across the Strait of Kherson."

"I will be there. Tell the Khagan my thanks for his trust and my deep admiration. I would invite you to be my guest until your horses have rested, but you know how it is – duty calls. So many arrangements need to be made...and tasks handled." Zachariah tried to put on an important face while thoughts raced through his head what this movement of the Khagan's court might mean.

After further minor legal proclamations, the ceremony was closed and Zachariah bid himself some time to think before the council would meet again in the afternoon in its new formation.
When everyone had left, he lay in his hammock and stared at the yurt's top. This had been exhausting. Was ruling always this tedious? And instead of delegating things to other people, he was now the one expected to help the Khan with his finances. Why me? I can't possibly be the most competent steward in the realm. There has to be some plan behind it. There are plans everywhere...to be a proper Khan, I need to discover what is really going on around me, he thought before slipping into a nap.
 
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This certainly looks interesting. Subbed, welcome to AAR-ing!
Thanks a lot for the warm welcome! :)

Zachariah isnt exactly a ruler that inspires confidence....but maybe he will surprise.
That is very true. His advisors are in for a hard time. Then again, by foregoing work as well as possible he can't botch too much. Thanks for commenting!
 

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To steal a phrase, Zachariah sounds like a modest man with much to be modest about
 

terr0rizm

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To steal a phrase, Zachariah sounds like a modest man with much to be modest about
That's pretty much on spot. :D Thanks for joining in!
 
Chapter 2 - First Day at Work

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Chapter 2 - First Day at Work

January 1, 867 AD



In the afternoon, the new councillors had arrived and Khan Zachariah's council, including Yeldem as special advisor to the Khan, got together for the first time. After the future marshal and steward of Ashina had paid their respects and introduced themselves, everyone sat down around a large table made of light wood and bast.

The Khan spoke up. "Good that you're all here. Tabghaç, Kundaç - I appreciate you coming on such short notice. I expect you to always put my...uh, the realm's good before anything else. In exchange for your loyalty, you shall be rewarded richly in coin and in reputation."

Tabghaç and Kundaç stood up again, bowed to the Khan and pledged their loyalty to the Ashina clan and its rightful ruler.



"Now that the formalities are dealt with – I'm eagerly awaiting your propositions for the realm. Ezra, give me an overview of what is transpiring around our borders.", and Zachariah laid back in his chair, visibly content he now had people required to keep him prepared and informed. Yeldem rolled her eyes and Papaçyz could not prevent a small sigh he immediately turned into a keen cough, while Ezra remained stoic.

"My Khan, as you already know the lands to our North and East are the territory of the Khagan, his vassal Khans and his tributaries. Right now the situation is largely stable in the realm, but things are in constant flux in the Steppes. You experienced it yourself not too long ago."

The anger was visible in Zachariah's face. The humiliation from the Khagan would not be forgotten anytime soon.

Ezra went on. "Should anything unusual arise, I will notify you immediately. There's also the issue of the Magyars across the Dnieper having raised a huge invasion army – it turns out their direction is Bulgaria. They claim to be the rightful lords over a large chunk of land beyond the Carpathians and are marching towards the border as we speak. We won't have anything to fear of them – at least for now."

"Good. What was that earlier about the Khagan moving to Tmutarakan? What would he be doing there and does it possibly pose a threat?"

"I don't know more about it than you do, although I'd figure the Khagan is mainly there for the immediate access to the Black Sea. There have been many beneficial trading opportunities in the past, and the Georgians and Byzantines are much closer this way. He might also want to establish his rule over the new lands properly – or he fears retribution and wants to keep you on close watch. This would also be an explanation for your assignment as his steward."

"If that's true, I'll make the deal as bad for him as possible", Zachariah scoffed. "Even the Khagan has to consider his council before making important decisions, and I am in no way willing to make even the slightest concession."



"That's your unrestricted right, my Khan. Just remember that you'll need allies eventually. Making an enemy of the Khagan without proper support is a quick way to lose everything up to one's life. I recommend you send an envoy to Khan Bulçan along the way with him. He's a capable man with a lot of influence in the Khagan's court and our interests might align. At the very least it should be evaluated further."

Zachariah was not fond of the thought of standing alone against the Khagan. Only now he realized that being a ruler also meant there were threats beyond imagination. I have to be prepared for everything, he thought to himself. Never trust anyone. I have to be more careful from this day than ever before.

"Thanks...I guess. You have the permission to assemble a delegation and follow Khan Bulçan. Figure out whether he might constitute an ally in the future. Papaçyz, what's the report on inner security?"

Papaçyz' duty as a spymaster was to keep an eye on potential plots among the court, as well as maintaining a network of informants in the more remote parts of the realm.

"As the illness of your father had not been known to the public until your coronation, the succession has not caused further trouble we knew of. Maybe not yet. My men will have an extra close eye on irregularities in the coming months."

Zachariah had never trusted Papaçyz, although he knew he was the most capable man in the realm when it came to spying and scheming and had always been fully loyal to his father. Papaçyz was a shadowy figure nonetheless, and his sentiments towards his new liege were lukewarm at best. I'll have to keep an eye on this one, Zachariah thought to himself.

"Your men seem to be doing fine, Papaçyz. If that is so, I have a special assignment for you prepared. I've heard that the Arabs, far south beyond the Caucasus mountains and the lords over the Holy City of Jerusalem, employ material and tactics when they go to war that are unknown of to the people of the Steppe. It would be a tremendous asset over anyone else in the region to know more about this. Are you capable of finding and securing such knowledge if I were to present you with all necessities?"

Papaçyz thought he had misheard Zachariah. He was sent to Arabia? To gather knowledge about military-grade secrets? The Khazarian officials had a basic understanding of the language and the way of life as traders from there had regularly traveled the lands for centuries, but it was a whole different ordeal to build networks in a capital many miles away. Then again, he would have the chance to experience the conveniences of a proper city instead of a yurt town amidst the desert.

"Yes, my Khan." he answered, not sounding as confident as he wanted to. "I will make preparations immediately and head out as soon as possible."

The rest of the council was to stay in Theodosia. The newly assigned marshal Tabghaç was ordered to start a recruitment campaign and augment the Khan's standing horde by conscripting an additional squadron of lightly armored riders. The steward and the court Rabbi suggested they might – in addition to their regular daywork - participate in the analysis of Papaçyz' material from Arabia, to also promote knowledge from the rich South in non-martial matters.

Kundaç also suggested that as a Khan, Zachariah needed a proper war horse to meet the expectations of his people. "If the price seems high to you, my lord, might I remind you that war horses are still mostly bred in the steppes far to the North. If we would professionalize our own breeders, this might become less of a necessity in the future. It would also obviously benefit our army."

"A very good idea, but I can't wait this long. You're hereby instructed to fund more professional horse-breeding, but also get a suitable horse for myself as fast as possible. I don't want the people to think of me as cheap."




Yeldem, who had been quietly listening until now, answered him. "I don't think this is ever going to be a problem. But tell me, dear brother, how are you expecting this to be paid for?"

Zachariah looked to her with surprise. "We have a treasury, don't we? If it's empty, why did nobody tell me yet?"

"It's not", Kundaç interrupted, "the funds your father left are sufficient for both. But Lady Yeldem is right. We need to consider ways to get to coin eventually. Not everything can be paid for by the respect of your peasantfolk."

"I have a proposition", Tabghaç spoke up. "Cherson, the Byzantine exclave a short ride to the southwest is largely unprotected by now, save for the larger settlements. There are several prosper trading posts and villages scattered throughout the province. It would be quick and easy to loot the countryside, and it's remote enough for us to be gone before the Byzantines can dispatch troops to the defense – if they manage at all."

"Fair enough.", Zachariah said. "See that the troops are prepared and assign one of your commanders. I can't lead troops personally before I've caught up on everything that needs management. Also, the raiding group is expected to avoid fights at all costs anyway and for a timely retreat they don't need the extra motivation my graced presence would beyond doubt incur."

Tabghaç did not look thrilled about this open display of what could easily come off as weakness, but took the order obediently. Being responsible for the military matters of Ashina was a big leap to his career, and although many of the new Khan's shortcomings were all too apparent, he felt a sense of thankfulness for this opportunity.

"Is there anything else of importance, or can I now return to the many important matters that demand the Khan's attention?", Zachariah exclaimed. He was getting tired of all the information and the decision-making.

"There's one thing left, majesty", Ezra let himself hear again.
"The people didn't really care about your way of life until yesterday. Now as a Khan, things are different. It's important you grow yourself a family. You need to get married, maybe also take up a concubine or two. Without sons, you know what happens to the realm should anything happen to you, Adonai forbid?"
"I do." Zachariah's expression turned sinister again. "The Khagan gets everything and the Ashina clan is landless."



He had tried his best to push away this particular responsibility for all his life. He never felt like he was ready to have a wife and children in the slightest. His life had been simple and free, and he never felt the need to change anything about it. Then again, as long as his first responsibility as Khan was to bed women, he could probably avoid going to war himself. Everybody would understand it was much too dangerous for a ruler without heir to throw himself into battles, especially if – like Zachariah - he didn't really know how to fight. Also, he figured that having a wife close to him would mean one more person to throw unpleasant work at.

"It shall be my first priority from now on to sire heirs for the clan and secure the bloodline of legendary Muhan Ashina", Zachariah proclaimed. "It will be Yeldem's task to search for suitable marriage candidates and present me an overview with the pros and contras of each candidate. I will look out myself for a capable concubine in the meantime."

With this, Zachariah dismissed his council for the first time. He was content – everyone had his task, and his one was minor. That was a considerable success for his first day as Khan.
 
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stnylan

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Zachariah has his duties to perform :)

Personally I am not so sure he should be content. But then, I do not doubt he would tend to be somewhat optimistic, as that would mean there is less work to do
 

terr0rizm

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Zachariah has his duties to perform :)

Personally I am not so sure he should be content. But then, I do not doubt he would tend to be somewhat optimistic, as that would mean there is less work to do
It doesn't take much for him to be happy. :D
 
Chapter 3 - Warm Rain

terr0rizm

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Chapter 3 - Warm Rain

February 1, 867 AD

The first weeks of Zachariah's reign had come and gone. After his first courtesy call with the Khagan as the new steward of Khazaria, his task was to evaluate the economic potentials of coastal Tmutarakan compared to the open steppes. Luckily, this kind of knowledge was present in abundance with his tribesmen. His own steward Kundaç had proved a proficient aid, so his position would not take up too much of his time and energy.

Finding a concubine was even less of a deal than he had imagined. There were several unmarried girls in the settlement, and Zachariah picked a charismatic and elaborate young woman who went by the name of Shurkka and had been adopted as an orphan on one of Tarkhan's campaigns. In the following days, he arranged marriages for his councillors and commanders with other girls that had caught his attention. Coupling kind of entertained him, and his entourage founding families would make them more content and deepen their loyalty in the long run.

Yeldem would return from her inquiries about a wife for her brother with an intriguing proposal. The Khagan of Cumania, a large nomadic realm far north of Khazaria, was looking to marry off his three daughters. Asli, the oldest of them, was talked of as educated and of a calm perseverance in her ways of thinking and talking. Yeldem figured she would make a fine complement to her brother, and marrying the daughter of such a mighty man would gain Zachariah some regard in the eyes of his people. After short correspondence, Zachariah and the Khagan approved of the plan and the marriage was formally arranged. After consulting his steward who assured him that a suitable ceremony was within the capabilities of the treasury, Khan Zachariah decided to invite the populace to a feast for this special day.



A week later, the marriage was celebrated. Everybody was happy – except for Asli, who seemed estranged by the strange beliefs and traditions the ceremony had revealed to her. She had heard and read a lot about the Jews in the south, but never had imagined she would one day be thrown in the middle of these weird worshippers of an invisible creator in an invisible place.



While life in Ashina seemed easy to Zachariah, the peace in and around Khazaria had not lasted long. The Pechenegs to the north had refused to pay their tributes and instead declared war upon Khagan Manasseh in the early days of January to break free of his yoke. Furthermore, fighting had broken out between the Hashimids and Alania, both tributaries to Khagan Manasseh II who had decided to side with the outnumbered Alania. Now the Hashimid troops were on their way across the border while the Khagan's troops were still on their way to join with their Alanian allies. Further to the south, conflicts between Muslim and Christian rulers had erupted into all-out warfare.



Even farther away, the Byzantines had been attacked by the Aghlabid Sultanate on Sicily. Marshal Tabghaç took this as a good sign when he reported to Zachariah. He stated that Cherson, the enclave they were currently stripping of valuables, would less likely be defended by the Emperor with a war being fought on the other side of the empire. With some perseverance, it would even be possible to siege down the walls of the Byzantines' weakly defended main fort and multiply their spoils.



Now the first month of the new Khan's reign had passed. Zachariah was taking a bath when a squire entered his yurt. Zachariah daunted, splashing water over the floor, and the lad stormed out again in embarassment.
"I- I'm sorry, my Khan. I didn't expect....I mean....it's...."

Zachariah sighed. One could not catch a break as the Khan. "What is it, boy?"

"There's a messenger from the Khagan waiting for you by the horsepens. He has a sealed message and says he may give it to none but you, and that it's to open in strict privacy."

"Again? These super-secret messages...Manasseh is just making himself look important. As if he couldn't just tell me that kind of things when I'm in Tmutarakan anyways. Tell the man I'll be there for him in just a few minutes."

Zachariah made no efforts whatsoever to get out of his tub and had the messenger waiting for half an hour. He was the Khan after all, and not willing to take messages on any but his own terms.

"Khan Zachariah", said the visibly annoyed man waiting in front of the horse pens and took a bow.

"In person. Who do I owe the honor to?"

"I am Kibar, messenger to Khagan Manasseh II. My liege wants you to have this package. Its content is a matter of strict secrecy and unbeknownst to me. He said it is to be opened right away and that you are to provide me with a response within an hour. "Yes" or "No" are sufficient. If you refuse, the package is to be handed back to me."

Kibar handed Zachariah the package in his hand. It was heavier than expected. Zachariah tried to assert if this could be a trap, but the package did not look, smell or feel unusual in any way.

"I thank you, Kibar. I will do as instructed by the Khagan. In the meantime, you might want to get yourself accomodated in the tavern. They're giving out delicious ham from Cherson for free today."
Zachariah never missed to cater to visitors. Only a few weeks into his reign, he already knew how to indulge in the spoils of being Khan.

When he opened the package in the privacy of his yurt, he found a satchel whose content made his eyes go wide.



The Khagan was essentially offering him a preemptive bribe. 100 pieces of gold right in front of him – for nothing more than, well, a favor. Zachariah was unsure if he'd ever seen this much gold in one place. But an uncertain favor in the future? This might well be a pact with the Devil, he thought. His palms started to sweat. And he had so little time. Not enough to summon his council, apart from the required secrecy.

Zachariah thought back and forth what favor the Khagan could eventually ask for, spiraling into increasingly catastrophic scenarios. When Yeldem checked after him, he could not resist and told her everything. Yeldem convinced him that the Khagan had many enemies and was in desperate need of support among his vassals. Although concessions would be eventually demanded, the gold would secure the realm's finances for years and potentially fund further investments into troops and structures.

Minutes later, the Khagan's representative was provided with a positive answer and headed back to Tmutarakan. The coffers of Zachariah were filled again without much effort. Additional funds were flowing in from the raiders in Cherson while the neighbourhood was busy fighting each other. Two women would now potentially carry his heirs and spread the diminished Ashina bloodline again.
It was good to be the Khan. For now, at least. He would have to observe the Khagan closer to be ready for everything this man would throw at him.

 
Last edited:

streaker77

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The bit about the Khagan having many enemies is concerning, hopefully Zacharia hasnt bound himself to a sinking ship.
 

terr0rizm

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The bit about the Khagan having many enemies is concerning, hopefully Zacharia hasnt bound himself to a sinking ship.
Yeldem knows exactly what she's doing and what her brother needs to hear to make the right decision. ;)
In this case, she might be actually correct though.
 

stnylan

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Zachariah has some testing times ahead no doubt - the sort that require him to make difficult decisions :D
 

terr0rizm

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Zachariah has some testing times ahead no doubt - the sort that require him to make difficult decisions :D
Another accurate observation of you - ducking and covering won't work forever.
As they say in the Steppes: The next sandstorm comes eventually.
 
Chapter 4 - War Drums

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Chapter 4 - War Drums

February 23, 867 AD

Only three weeks later, Zachariah's misgivings were somewhat disproved. Manasseh turned out to be much less secretive about his intentions with the promised favor than the Khan had thought.
Zachariah had received a carefully worded letter stating that for his recent generosity, Manasseh expected non-interference in all legal matters from his steward for the coming three years at least. Should Zachariah not comply, he would have no choice but to conduct a further investigation about the disappereance of a sizeable amount of money from the treasury and the suspicious inaction of the steward in this case. Enclosed was the proposal to shift the nobles' obligations in Khazaria toward a higher tax and less raisable levies. There were no noble vassals under Khagan Manasseh, but future conquests of lands under feudal rule would be governed by those laws.

Smart move, Zachariah thought to himself. The Khagan had bought his loyalty and made sure Zachariah would fulfill his side of the deal. There was nothing wrong with that, and he wasn't planning to break his word either way. He had learned quite a bit about clandestine activities in the past weeks and knew well he was in no position to double-cross the Khagan. I might also think about changing vassal obligations as long as there is no one with anything to lose. Much less resistance this way.

He signed the proposal to increase the hypothetical nobles' taxes, thinking this was not the most painful way to earn 100 gold.





The following day, Zachariah had lunch with Asli, the steward Kundaç and his spouse Tähtani - a caring and well educated, if somewhat over-eager woman - when scouts brought word of an official delegation from Tmutarakan on its way to Theodosia. It was lead by a high-rank Khazarian ambassador and it would not be long before they arrived. The Khan sighed upon the interference with his meal and ordered the rest of his council to be summoned. Can't the Khagan state his business at once instead of perpetually sending new people? All those messengers and delegations always arriving at the worst time.

Half an hour later, the delegation arrived in front of the tall yurt in the center of the Ashina settlement, where the diplomatic and political business of the Khanate was conducted. The ambassador and his scribe were accompanied by ten heavily armed men who flew tall banners in the colours of Khazaria. Zachariah had only seen this kind of troops a few times in his life, and each time his father went on trips afterwards that lasted for months. A suspicion crept up in him, one he did not particularly like. A hint of sweat showed on his forehead.
Yeldem stood beside him. She knew very well about the diplomatic customs of Khazaria and the according symbolism. The composition of a delegation and the specifics of the banners they bore was giving off crucial information if one knew what to look for.
"War is coming", she muttered to herself.

Zachariah gave her a panicked look and Yeldem could not help but snicker. "No, not what you think. We're not attacked anytime soon - at least not by those guys. Just follow the protocol."



The Khagan was rallying his allies for the war against his disobedient tributary Sol of Pechenegs and the ambassador was there to bear the word to Ashina. Khazarian traditions obliged the Khans to honor a call to arms against outsiders by the Khagan, though by law this decision was always up to then respective Khan himself. Declining would come off as a sign of weakness and dishonor, but was no punishable offense.

The council retreated and after short consultations Zachariah presented the khagan's ambassador with his acceptance of the call to arms. He and his advisors had unanimously decided there was more to gain from this war than from staying out of it. The countryside of Cherson had been largely stripped of valuables, the Ashina troops were itching for blood and glory and refusing would have considerably hurt the clan's reputation.
On the same day, Tabghaç' commanders ordered their troops to pack up in Cherson and made their way northwards. The Ashina clan was at war.
 
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stnylan

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Well, this sounds like an opportunity, though somehow I imagine Zachariah will try to do as little as possible.
 

streaker77

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A shame nomads didnt have female rulers, Yeldem looks as if she would be a fine ruler if given the chance
 

terr0rizm

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Well, this sounds like an opportunity, though somehow I imagine Zachariah will try to do as little as possible.
His military staff mostly takes over at wartime, if only because otherwise the army would probably never leave home. :D

A shame nomads didnt have female rulers, Yeldem looks as if she would be a fine ruler if given the chance
My thought upon firing the game. I would have much rather gone with her - as it is, she's pretty much in charge for now and it benefits the realm a lot, but Zachariah will eventually grow to have his own ideas for his reign.
 
Chapter 5 - Two Birds With One Stone

terr0rizm

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Chapter 5 - Two Birds With One Stone



July 5, 867 AD

The sun was searing over Theodosia, although it was well before noon. The war in the East hadn't properly unfolded so far, and Khan Zachariah had made some minor rulings, mostly uneventful disputes about peasants insulting each other or breaking stuff belonging to other peasants. A tedious task he mostly handed to his administrators as he felt those pesky squabbles didn't really demand his attention, but a bare minimum of effort had to be kept up to avoid unnecessary questions. The heat and the boredom had exhausted him, and he was contemplating in his yurt whether or not to take a nap before lunchtime.

"Khan Zachariah!" sounded a voice in front of the yurt. Wrath flooded Zachariah's body.

Earlier...

Papaçyz, the spymaster, had arrived from Karbala timely for his quarterly visit four days ago. His dealings in Arabia had produced some gradual progress, but no breakthrough was in sight and the spymaster reported his associates were struggling with increasingly suspicious Aghlabid officials.
Zachariah wasn't particularly convinced and sent him off with further instructions about the knowledge he was looking for and the order to redouble his efforts. if the Aghlabids got too close on their toes, his men were to move places – there was enough to gain outside the capital, far from the Caliph's reach. Papaçyz had been visibly discontent with these orders, which in turn didn't go well with the Khan who had steadily become more proficient in shadowy antics since his accession and was much more aware of the flaws in Papaçyz' handling of things than he had been a few months ago.

On the same evening, the Khan followed Papaçyz in secret after the council had concluded its regular monthly meeting, just to make sure the man wasn't up to anything fishy. His loyalty was unclear and he was clearly unhappy with his position and his orders. And as spymaster, there was no one responsible to watch him. Who watches the watcher? And who does watch the watcher-watcher in turn? Zachariah had stood in front of this seemingly unsolvable questions many times. As heir to the Khanate and now its rightful ruler, dangers had been everywhere and the philosophical implications had to wait. It's me. I watch the watcher. At least myself I can trust.

And then he saw Papaçyz fiddling where he wasn't ordered to.



When the Khan confronted Papaçyz the next day, the man was furious (and so was Zachariah). He dismissed all accusations, called the Khan a delusional liar who was sabotaging his work and stormed off after a heated argument. The only reason Zachariah had not fired him yet was his weariness to find a suitable new councillor.

***

And now the guy was pestering him again! Zachariah's contempt was growing.
"Why do you keep insulting me with your presence?"

"It won't take long. This is my resignation letter. I'm not going back to Arabia and risk my skin for a dim-witted wannabe accusing me of treachery for doing my duty."

Zachariah jumped up, his face red with anger. You could tell he was just short of going at his – now obviously former – spymaster's neck. "I'm not taking resignations, you fool. You're fired. FIRED! I'll tell you what to do with your letter: stick it up your wife's arse, she's waiting for you in the pens where the squire tethered here after this morning's hunt!"
He snatched the scroll out of Papaçyz' hands. "Or no, I'll keep this. You're still fired, but it saves me a scroll of paper and precious time too valuable for harebrained, traitorous mongrels."



When Papaçyz had left the yurt, not without the exchange of further pleasantries, the Khan sank back into his chair. This resignation was favorable to dismissing a councilor, but a new spymaster had to be found, and quickly. Someone elusive but trustworthy to him, someone proficient but not indispensible at home as the mission to Arabia would have to continue.

Asli entered the yurt and asked absent-mindedly what was wrong, and Zachariah had an idea. He was full of respect for his wife's capabilities and her advice had been useful to him more than once. Nonetheless she gave off a certain coldness that terrified him and would continue to openly frown upon the beliefs of the Khazarians, making her somewhat of an outsider among his court. Moreover, their marital duties were fulfilled regularly, but only with tangible resent from both sides. In secret, Zachariah liked his concubine much more. All this convinced him both of them would be no worse off if she was the one conducting investigations in Arabia.
The ambitious Cumanian princess was immediately fond of the idea to be Zachariah's new spymaster. They spent the evening making plans for her coming assignment to the Aghlabid empire. Two birds with one stone, Zachariah thought to himself. I get a break from her and she'll have less reason and time to grow unruly. I just need to keep watching the watcher.



Later, the new spymaster was introduced to the rest of the council and Asli immediately went packing for the trip to Baghdad, where they would scour for knowledge next.
 
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