[FV] In The Box - Sihreen
— VISMINA, PASSANE, BIVVE —
Sihreen averted his eyes, directing his gaze to the glass of water placed in front of him. Fingers tucked into his elbows, discomfort evident in every inch of his body, he nevertheless kept his breathing steady and stare blank. Confidence - something that often came naturally to him - had emptied itself of his chest and crawled out through the bile in his throat when he'd received the summons.
His country was neutral. They were far from Passane, from Tine Lumes - warlord, conqueror, immortal, invulnerable. Were Passane to turn its eyes to Tashen, it would only be a matter of weeks until they were chewn apart and swallowed as a territory. He flexed his fingers again. Or, at least, so many of his people thought.
Of course, they knew little about the constant negotiations he and his cabinet negotiated with Passane naval commanders, or the lesser members of the royal family, ascended through military and merit, without even a drop of Lumes blood in them. His predecessor, the previous president of Tashen, had even walked him through most of their discussions, the dozens of meetings he fielded. That was what he had been trained for, of course.
But no one mentioned a summons from Tine himself.
His mind buzzed with questions - Tine's motives, his desires, his wants. He'd poured over dozens of records in the governmental archives, well into overtime, every night the week before, searching for any sort of mention, any sort of idea. And he'd stumbled on one: land control of Lake Vis, mentioned offhand by several prior presidents.
Which, if he was honest, was rather interesting. As Tashen had no borders with Lake Vis, nor the rivers feeding into it. But, after he'd mulled it over on the train ride, he had a hunch: Tashen's positive relations with Alleria could give them an edge, to perhaps convince Alleria to demilitarize the lake, give him rights to its vital river systems.
But they'd never do that. Ever. So there had to be something else, something deeper Tine was digging for. Maybe he just enjoyed unnerving new Tashen officials. It certainly worked on Sihreen, considering his shaking arms.
Not that he would consider himself a man easily terrified. Arguments, debates, decisions, all fell well within the parameters of his work. But to meet Tine Lumes himself, face to face, in a private room - it was far different from glancing at his face during Bivve peace talks, when they stood on neutral Vaervan ground.
Here, it was just them - and regret had long since set into his bones.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside, pausing appropriately in front of the small meeting room's door. Sihreen sucked in a breath and sat up straighter, smoothing out the twinges in his expression and steeling his hands into fists. Though he was woefully unprepared for whatever Tine would demand, he could at least put on a brave face for his country.
The handle clicked, opened. Flanked by no guards, of course - there was no need.
Lingering in the doorway, Tine looked over the room. As if satisfied by its near emptiness, he slipped inside, the door closing shut automatically behind him. Deliberate, steady steps took him to the chair across Sihreen, where he stood, one hand on its back, and did not sit.
How much did he know? How much did he assume? Surely plenty, if others of Sihreen's station were called here. He knew how fearful Tashen was of Passane, knew that Sihreen couldn't refuse for fear of his retaliation. The power of their conversation, held squarely in Tine's hands.
It made him sick and furious, in some equal measure - to be someone's toy, to have his countrymen dangle by this warlord's amusement. But the anger was short-lived, withering the longer he stared at Tine's half-lidded eyes, his slight smile.
It was almost as if his presence filled the room with authority and leadership. Like he radiated an aura of demanded respect, of wilful servitude. But - Sihreen stopped himself, fingers twitching slightly. It was the power of Tine's Dominion. Nothing more. Will it away.
"Good evening," he said, throat dry.
"I'm sure you know why I'm here," Tine said, voice smooth, voice calm.
"Of course." he lifted the glass to his lips. "Of course. You want rights to move troops across Lake Vis. And, since the Allerian territories won't agree to you occupying the banks, you want me to negotiate on your behalf."
"Astute." Tine slid into the chair opposite Sihreen, face a mask of impartial nonchalance.
Silence hung in the air. Expectant, choking silence. Tine was waiting for him to play a card, say something. But he'd already laid his information out. So, then, he'd have to muster an answer.
"My predecessors never agreed to your demands," Sihreen said, willing himself to meet the other's eyes. The reason went unspoken: open Lake Vis, and invite Passane to Tashen's border.
"Pitifully clinging to inevitability," Tine said. "I will outlive any protests you dredge."
"Then we have nothing more to discuss." it couldn't be this easy.
Tine raised an eyebrow. "Not necessarily. I am always willing to extend an offer for Tashen to willingly surrender to Passane."
Firmness. Coldness. "Under no circumstance." keep his voice steady.
Tine held his stare, expression teetering between blank and vague surprise. Was he expecting grovelling, or begging? His slight reaction churned in Sihreen's head, his hand curling instinctively again. Had he misspoke, been too offensive, too bold? Was Tine about to descend on him in a fury?
He'd heard he was difficult to read, but this seemed on another level. A handful of sentences, and a blank face, carved from more arguments than Sihreen could fathom.
And yet, he couldn't shake the intuition that - perhaps, Tine was pleased. Somehow, someway, with something he said. Like an inscrutable cat, of sorts? What an odd thing to think about such a warlord.
"Excuse my silence." a demand, of course. Tine's fingers tapped on the tabletop. "I was thinking. If you were to willingly surrender the country, at least for occupation, I could offer you a position in the royal family."
"Under no circumstance," he repeated, despite the skipped-beat of his heart, and frowned.
Instinctively, he reached to touch his chest, as if injured - but the breathless excitement dissipated as fast as it'd came, and was swiftly replaced with disgust. He wasn't so much of an ambition-drunk bastard to consider selling his country, was he? The very idea seemed wrong, repulsive - and yet, when the brief image of himself at Tine's side flashed into his mind, something warm settled in his chest.
No. It was just Tine's Flame. He'd heard of its breadth of powers before. And many Dominions were mind-warping, of sorts. He merely had to remain steadfast.
Tine tilted his head. "Have you heard complaints of vassals of Passane? Welcomed more than a handful of disgruntled refugees? It interests me that you so desperately value your land's independence. What does it earn you but insecurity and anxiety?"
"Refugees of Passane?" Sihreen's frown deepened, "What of refugees of the entire continent? How many people does Bivve collectively bleed a year, fleeing your country's wars?"
"You dodge my question."
"I could list a dozen reasons. Your country's involuntary military services, its taxation on incoming ships, demands to first-pick of merchant cargo, several laws regulating - it doesn't matter." Sihreen sat up, straighter, squaring his shoulders. "Even if I lacked reasons, it's not ultimately my choice. That decision falls to the democracy. The people's vote."
Tine's fingers slowly drummed against the table. His gaze, distant, as if considering something. A threat? An offer? Sihreen tucked his trembling hands under the table.
Finally, he spoke. "You, too, worship the Fervor. No?"
What kind of question was that? Was it supposed to be unnerving - or perhaps an appeal to their shared religion? "I do."
"Who do you find yourself most drawn to?"
Sihreen leaned back in his chair, uncertainty a leech on his spine. "Lethe. Fhalla, of course."
"I see." when he caught Sihreen's confused frown, Tine smiled. "You just remind me of someone, that's all. He, too, had a fondness for Lethe."
Who was he speaking of? The previous president? Or was this a fluke, to garner a reaction - to garner intrigue? Perhaps his sympathies? Tine's expression remained cold, the smile doing little to warm his face. But it wasn't sadistic or hateful, not that he could detect. Rather, Tine seemed... simply interested in his response.
Which, of course, was all the more reason to raise his own hackles. But letting on to his discomfort was a fool's errand, to give Tine an angle to pick at. He seemed so calm - picking up a pen idly from the table, flicking it between two fingers, glancing to Sihreen from the corners of his eyes every few seconds. Expectant. Waiting.
But the pressure on his chest didn't choke.
"I see," was all Sihreen mustered. Though the acrid side of him begged for a spat insult, such things could not be fed in Tine's presence.
"This has been rather short, then, don't you think?" Tine's voice, monotone without droning, filled his head. "You knew what I was to ask, and had your responses well-prepared. Did Varmen coach you on what I would ask?"
"I simply researched previous discussions."
"Ah, so they are going on a record." Tine hummed, and Sihreen internally cringed. "No matter. It's not as if they understood my real reason for calling them here."
Sihreen turned himself just slightly away. "Forgive them for their trepidation. I'm sure you could understand its source."
He barked a laugh. "As if I care that deeply about that ill-watered lake. They fear nothing."
"Any border you gain closer to our nation is seen as a threat."
"If you want the truth? To why I ask every elected president of Tashen to put their neck on Alleria's guillotine, for my favor?" Tine leaned back. His fingers twirled the pen, deftly, Sihreen's stare caught in the motion. "Think of it somewhere between grace and interest. I look to see if anyone is drawing back the curtain themselves, coming to conclusions. Seeking beyond their mere station, looking for something greater."
Sihreen's eyes flicked to Tine's face. Distant, once more, looking past him. There was a touch of genuinity in his words and face. A liar would stare at the nuances of his expression, searching for any signs of mistrust or doubt, panicked eyes despite how cool-headed they'd compose themselves.
"You think me intimidated by Alleria enough to beg Tashen for help? You think I extend such invites as if I needed the assistance? As if any of this war could draw my attention thusly." a hum punctuated his sentence. "As if I, who has sat on Passane's throne since the inception of this continent, could be scared enough to crawl to you, tail between my legs."
"You're fishing for reactions. Why?"
"You flatter me, not assuming mere boredom."
"If you were bored, you'd busy yourself on a battlefield. Not harassing every president to see what way you'd be turned down next." even as he spoke, full of certainty and verity, something in his throat twisted itself.
"How very interesting, for you to know that."
A flash of white-hot embarrassment filled Sihreen, from his fingertips to the tips of his ears. His ears instinctively drew back, a light flush on his cheeks. Before he could will it back, a bright smile flashed on Tine's face - almost grotesque on his calm features, startling enough to make Sihreen freeze. The embarrassment died, melting back into his stomach.
"Acknowledge this," Tine said, the smile fading to a more reasonable spread, "I didn't say you were wrong."
He stared at Tine.
"I like how you are, in this visage," Tine said, with an appreciating glance up-down Sihreen. He stiffened further. "I had thought, when I first saw you - and it seems my long wait is over. What a long mess you've put me in. Strangely, I thought I would feel elated. But rather, I feel almost content."
The sheer strangeness in Tine's voice, the almost tinge of affection, strangled the words from Sihreen's mouth. Though he scraped uselessly for any retort, nothing shambled free of the foggy confusion.
"Of course, you don't even remember. Not now, as you are. But you will, in time. And I am a very patient man."
"Enough of this," he said, tone strained and small.
Tine laced his hands in his lap. "Before you return to Tashen. Allow me to make you an offer."
No choice. Not with Tine. "Very well. Merely an offer."
"When your term ends, come to Passane. I will welcome you with more than open arms."
More mysteries, more uncertainty, more insane requests and mumblings that didn't make sense. Were they just meant to unnerve him, to weaken him and Tashen? Was Tine such a masterful liar that he could perfectly mimic a full breadth of emotions?
Why invite him after his term - to extract state secrets? To use him as a hostage, or to ruin his career? Brand him as a traitor, destabilize the country? How did it all tie in to what he'd rambled about?
Sihreen gathered his thoughts with a shake of the head. "How do you expect me to trust that? Why do you think I'd willingly come into your country? Or abandon my people? My station - my service?"
"There is curiosity in you." Tine's stare, red, intense, bored right into him, "and a familiarity towards me. Is there not? You fell so easily into talking with me. So many of your so-called predecessors either shake like a beaten dog, or bark incessantly like a mad one."
"With due respect, we've never met for longer than the Triune's damned peace summits."
Tine hummed, averting his eyes once more. "Then, consider an admission. I lost a friend of mine a very long time ago. He was in a place he should not have been, and such an accident cost him his life. But - the Fervor remake the world, no? You remind me so very much of him."
Sihreen's mouth drew into a fine line. "You imply you have knowledge of previous reincarnations."
Tine flashed a smile. "There are so many things I could tell you, Sihreen. Consider my offer."
"I said I would consider it."
"Then we are done here." his smile twitched an inch wider. "I do not say this often. But thank you for your time, Sihreen."
A shudder ran down his spine at the way his name rolled in Tine's mouth, the way he spoke it so intimately. Before he could speak or stand, though, Tine rose from his chair, and with a flourish of his cape, exited the room in a fell swoop, so abrupt that Sihreen was left blinking.
As if it were nothing, the ordeal was over. The discussion, ended, with Passane not at Tashen's throat. A success? Perhaps by his countrymen's figuring. But Tine's words and allusions swam in his head, the implications dripping into his hands, drops of blood.
Did he trust the words of the warlord, of Bivve's terror? Did he trust them enough to dig through them, to assume that Tine had spoken truth, truth he was willing to share?
Sihreen let out a groan, holding his head for a brief few seconds. Before contending with any of the many questions swirling in his mind, there was a different priority: returning home. In the safety and comforts of his bed and office, he could dedicate as much thinking as he liked to Tine's whispers.
Perhaps he could find some truth in them after all.