The Komneniad: The Reason Why

March 24th, 1896
Near Mashhad, People’s Republic of Persia

“We sent men out to fight in this?”

Lysandros looked without favour at the staff tribune; the broad stripes on his collar proclaimed high rank, but his question was idiocy.

“Of course we did,” he said calmly. “Didn’t you know?”

The ground in question had the characteristic look of land that had been fought over with heavy artillery: Mud, churned and rechurned by tens of thousands of shells until not even the craters could be discerned, so fine was the consistency of the powder that remained. The fine grains absorbed water – and blood – like a sponge, clinging to any liquid that fell on it to form a glutinous mass on which it was unsafe to stand for very long. Lysandros could already feel it sucking at his boots, trying to drag him down. The smell attested to the presence of many men who had not been able to move fast enough. Here and there a limb broke the surface; there were strange currents and eddies in the mud, and sometimes things long buried would rise to the surface again. Indeed, there were rumours about Persian “special units”… but there always were; soldiers were a superstitious lot. Lysandros shook his head, dismissing the thought. He had come here for a reason, and medieval claptrap wasn’t it.

The tribune looked shocked, and wasn’t likely to be useful for some time; Lysandros turned instead to his aide, who bore the same red staff stripe as his superior, but over the crested-helmet rank tabs of a centurion. “How many attacks were launched over this ground?” he asked.

The centurion returned his gaze coolly, showing no signs of being intimidated by an Arch-Strategos who was also the most influential Senator in New Byzantium. “It depends, Strategos,” he said. “If you refer to formal attacks of entire army corps, preceded by a week’s barrage, then the tally would be three of ours, two of theirs. If you refer to local actions of a Legion, to straighten this or that bit of the line, then I should say several dozen. And, of course, any action at all consisted of many hundreds of movements of every size from contubernia to cohort; I do not think any accurate count could be made now.”

“Thank you, Centurion. I appreciate your precision.” Lysandros turned again to look at the trench line. Without soldiers constantly repairing the walls, the soggy mud was filling it in. In a year only a trained eye would be able to see the line for which tens of thousands had died. By then the grass might even be growing again.

“You knew?” The tribune had recovered from his shock.

“Of course I did, Tribune.” Lysandros raised an eyebrow. “If I had not known the conditions in which I asked men to fight, I should have been derelict in my duty.”

“Then why?” The tribune gestured wildly at the barren mud. “What possible purpose… you must have known we couldn’t break through!”

“Well, no,” Lysandros said mildly. “All men are initiates in the mystery of death; the Persians no less than we. There was always a possibility that their hearts would break and their armies shatter under the flail of the guns.”

The tribune frowned. “And you flung the Legions at the mountains for that slim chance?”

“Not at all. Oh, if the Persians had broken, then so much the better. But if they didn’t, it was no great matter. True, Persia must be destroyed, eventually; but after all, between our border and Persia is mountainous Punjab. To destroy Persia is necessary but not urgent; I do not expect it will happen in my lifetime.”

“Then… what enemy do you see, sir?”

Lysandros looked at the aide with respect; that was the sort of quick thinking he wanted on his own staff. He would have to get over the horror Lysandros could see in his eyes. There was no room for sentimentality in steering the Republic; if a hundred thousand deaths were necessary, then you took the actions that produced them, and didn’t waste time agonising over it. But he had brains, and that was valuable. Ruthlessness could be learned. After all Lysandros himself had once balked at a single death, when he was a little younger than this officer.

The tribune, on the other hand, would have to be removed from his position; even with the broad hint of his aide’s intuitive leap, he wasn’t getting it. “All this… as preparation for some other enemy? What war could possibly justify all these deaths?”

“Surely it’s obvious, ” Lysandros said. “Whose arrogance brings the anger of the Powers down upon Asia? Whose ambitions have for centuries entangled us in India and IndoChina, distracting us from the great task of return to Europe? Who, above all, has allowed filthy communist rebels into the halls of power, and preaches state ownership of the means of production?”

“China…” the tribune breathed. “You would fight China.”

“No,” Lysandros snarled. “I would fight the Dragon, the swinish idea that killed my sister.” He felt purpose filling him, the purpose that gave meaning to his life now, that had guided his climb from a minor officer of the Legions to the most powerful Senator in Rome. “Communism,” he hissed. “The envy of grasping little toads for their betters, made into a system of government! The opposite of all that is good in Rome. The righteous State makes every man a soldier: A noble calling, a life larger than a man’s petty concerns. What does the Communist state do? It makes every man a nasty little rentier, assiduously drawing his dividends from other men’s labour! It appeals to the very worst in humanity: Greed, envy, the instinct to pull down anyone who does well. And the Chinese allowed this poison into their halls of power! It is intolerable; it shall not stand. Death to China.”

He became aware that both officers were looking at him warily, and that he had perhaps glared a little more wildly than he really intended to, or spoken a little more truth than was really necessary. He deliberately calmed himself down. “But China’s a large place, it’s true; and while we have some friends in the People’s Army, still, that’s not to be relied on. So it’s necessary to study the true conditions of modern warfare. Here, for example, I wanted to learn the precise power of a well-prepared defensive in good terrain. And so I did: No amount of blood, it seems, will shift an army that can be reinforced as fast as new attackers are brought in. Well then, that’s useful to know, and will serve us well when The Day comes.”

“You sacrificed a hundred thousand men just to learn about modern warfare?”

“More like three hundred thousand, counting the cripples. On the other hand, don’t forget that we now have a really excellent experienced cadre for the vast expansion of the Legions.”

“You’re mad.” The tribune spoke with conviction.

“Am I? Perhaps so. You were young when the Revolution raged; too young to join the colours. Perhaps the slaughter drove me mad. But if I’m mad, there’s method to my madness; and there are many in high places who think like me.” He grinned, deliberately leaving his eyes still, knowing the effect was hideous. “Try to cross me, if you dare. I’ve personally ordered the crossing of a thousand traitors. What’s one more? Speak a word against me, and you’ll command the officer cadets at Penchisky for the next forty years.”

The tribune tried to stare him down; but Lysandros had looked men in the eye before condemning them to death. An officer who had stayed behind the lines for most of the war was no challenge.

“All right,” Lysandros said at length. “I’ve learned what I came to learn. Let’s go. There’s work to be done before China dies.”

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The Komneniad: Red Banners

Well… the Communist risings are occasionally useful when your neighbours have them. A series of three allowed me to annex China and thus rise from regional power to a significant world player.

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The Komneniad: Unhealed Wounds

February 17th, 1877
A mansion in New Byzantium

“Crucifixion,” the Chinese ambassador pontificated, “is the very pinnacle, the finest invention of Roman culture! The truly sovereign remedy for all rebellion and unrest. I only wish I could persuade my own government to adopt this wonderful custom; this little unrest in the provinces would vanish like dew in the sun.” He paused to gulp his wine, imported from Japan and liberally spiced with opium. It was his fourth cup, but he showed no effects beyond a slight heaviness in the eyes, and a complete obliviousness to the reaction of his audience. The foreigners considered crucifixion a barbarous custom; the Romans considered it a necessary evil, but hardly a fit subject matter for discussion at a party.

For a moment Lysandros considered intervening. It would probably not be possible to cause the ambassador to stop with a clinical description of the actual effects of crucifixion; he was too drunk for that. But a suggestion that he try the brandy would likely distract him, and then he could change the subject and get his sister’s party back on track; he’d be the hero of the hour… bah. He shook his head; the effort would be vast, and who cared about the damn party, anyway? He was only here to please his sister; let her rescue her own conversations.

The slight spark of interest faded, and he wandered off to refill his own drink. The haze was making him nostalgic; he remembered parties in his youth, before the Rising, where he’d hardly touched a drop, and yet had talked himself hoarse and gone to bed smiling. That had been in the old mansion, of course, the one the rebels had torched. It had had gaslights, not the flashy and expensive electrics that this party was showing off; there had been dark corners suitable for seduction. The soft blue light had made young faces enchanting, old ones wise; gold jewelry had glowed then, it hadn’t flashed vulgarly as the harsh electric lights made it do. He looked with sudden distaste at his fellow party-goers, at their brittle nervous laughter and too-energetic gestures that made their rings flash. But no; the change wasn’t in the lights. Surely the Revolt had not changed the Komnenoi that much? Yet he could not recall, before, having seen grinning skulls so close to the surface of the skin. He’d had vague thoughts, earlier in the evening, of talking to some suitable woman, perhaps starting a courtship; it was time he married. But all the women he saw had haggard eyes and thin faces. Who knew what they had done, to survive the siege? Only one of his sisters lived; what had Eudokia done that Aikaterina hadn’t? Or had it been luck? It was impossible to ask. But the eyes of the Komnenoi women who had lived through the New Byzantium Commune spoke silent volumes.

He felt a tinge of sympathy for the sweating ambassador; perhaps he had sisters too, or daughters. His pomposity was a mask for deep anguish; the regime he represented was tottering, its armies struggling to hold even the mountain capital at Xian. The Senate and the People had declined to intervene – Lysandros had voted against it himself, in fact – and so had the European Powers. Any day now the word must come that the new government in Nanking had been recognised, and that the ambassador was recalled, to who knew what fate.

Hard-faced men in the uniforms of the Legions, women old before their time… but it wasn’t just the Komnenoi. The party was a major event; theirs was the first Senatorial family to complete a new mansion, and it had electric lights at that – all the upper crust of New Byzantium was here, rejoicing in the return of normalcy. The foreigners could not have been so badly affected by the war; they had not lived through the siege. Yet in Lysandros’s eyes they were all become ugly: Oleaginous German merchants gobbling imported sausages; the swarthy Persian envoy looking down his hooked nose at the non-Aryans; two arrogant Croatians in togas, of all things, as though the usurping bastards had any claim to being Romans… the change couldn’t be in them, Lysandros realised. The ugliness was in the eye of the beholder.

He was contemplating getting seriously drunk when there was a shingle of breaking glass and a burst of screams. His hand went to the pistol strapped to his leg under the formal toga; all over the room Komnenos males were grasping for weapons, while foreigners stood frozen in shock. The paraffin had, praise the bodhisattva, not splattered anyone, but the lacquered wood floor was starting to burn fiercely. Lysandros ignored it to run for the door; his sister was quite capable of handling a mere fire. His lethargy was gone. An enemy! A traitor rebel, quite literally at the gates! His lips drew back in a snarl.

The cold air hit him like a hammer, sobering him. If there had been more than one rebel, they might have someone waiting in ambush precisely to kill the first few Komnenoi out the door. But the winter night was still, and dark as Satan’s heart; the only light was what spilled out of the open door behind him. He caught a movement from the corner of his eye, and whirled to fire. The muzzle flash lit the scene for a second; in the harsh orange light he could see the rebel struggling to get up from where he’d stumbled on a decorative bench. His bullet had gone wild, but no matter; Lysandros sprinted the twenty meters to where the terrorist had just managed to disentangle himself, and leaped at him with a savage scream. They went down together, Lysandros uppermost. The rebel flailed wildly with his fists, but Lysandros hardly felt the blows. He smashed his elbow into the other’s head, then got his knee into his stomach. The other stopped struggling as Lysandros’s weight drove all the air from his lungs. In the sudden calm Lysandros could see that his enemy was tiny, not an adult terrorist but a mere boy. His pride in his accomplishment suddenly faded; a grown man, and an officer of the Legions at that, against a teenaged terrorist who hadn’t even managed to plot an escape route without stumbling over a bench… it had been no fair combat.

Still, this boy had, after all, tried to kill him. Lysandros gave his captive another blow to the head, to keep him dazed and still, and rose, lifting the boy by his wrist twisted behind his back. Others had come rushing to his aid, and there was a circle of excited, somewhat drunken party-goers offering congratulations. Loudest was the Chinese ambassador, calling for summary execution; “Crucify the little swine, I say! Teach him a lesson!” There was nervous laughter, and someone said, “That’s right, a lesson he’ll remember all his life!” Someone else called for a hammer and nails. “We don’t need timber, that tree will do fine.”

So it would, Lysandros knew; he’d presided over any number of such improvised crucifixions, in the savage mopping-up campaigns after the siege of the Commune had ended. Nor was anyone likely to object, if a man of Senatorial rank took the law into his hands, against a bomb-thrower taken on his own estate. But something in him rebelled at the thought. Not in my garden! he shouted silently. Not in the new mansion that had been untouched by the war. He thought of walking past a tree where a rebel had taken three days to die, every morning for the next thirty years, and shuddered; and found his voice again.

“Enough!” he shouted; then when that wasn’t enough, fired his revolver again, into the air. That cut off the excited babble around him. He looked coldly at the guests. “Is this Rome, or some barbarian country outside the law? I’ll have no lynch mobs here, if you please.”

Most of the guests looked down, shamefaced; but the ambassador – who else? – was drunk enough to stand his ground. “Come, Senator! This rebel swine just tried to kill you! You surely have the authority under the law; was it not you who ordered a thousand rebels crucified, and another three thousand shot, after the siege?”

“Yes, ambassador, it was. The Senate and the People of Rome authorised the expedited tribunals, because there were too many prisoners for the usual courts; and I carried out their mandate. Then that lawful authority came to an end, because its task was done. The war is over; the courts have resumed their tasks. Let them do their work.”

Something in his tone got through the alcohol and opium, and the ambassador looked down. The rebel, on the other hand, laughed derisively. “Komnenoi courts! That’ll be justice!”

Lysandros shrugged. “More justice than being nailed to that tree in the next five minutes. And anyway, what do you call it when you throw lighted bottles of paraffin through someone’s window? Lighthearted pranks?”

“I call it justice! You sent my brother to the mines!”

“Ah.” Lysandros was quiet for a moment. “Did I, indeed? And for this mercy, you repay me with arson and attempted murder?”

“Mercy!” There was something like laughter in the rebel’s voice, and tears as well. “You call it mercy! The Communards were right. We’ll have no peace until you’re all gone, all you rich bastards. Your words don’t mean anything. Mercy and justice! Christ have mercy on us all!”

“Kyrie eleison, indeed,” Lysandros said softly. “Christ have mercy on the Republic.” A vast weariness was descending on him, and suddenly he didn’t feel like arguing. To sit in the Senate of Rome was to have power and privilege; and with privilege came duty, no matter how much he would have liked to tend his own garden, and his wounds. The body of the Republic took precedence. And it would be a long time healing.

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The Komneniad: First International

The Communist rebellions of Victoria 2 are its worst feature. They happen without rhyme or reason, whether your population have aeroplanes and radios or half of them are in labour camps. They’re not actually that hard to put down, since the rebels don’t have any guns, unless of course half your army joins them. And there are three more risings in the middle of the first one.

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The Komneniad: The Law West of Yenisei

This should have been posted last week, as it comes before the bayonet charge. (I have no idea why I apparently published it back in 2012; anyway, here it is again.) As is my custom in Victoria, which has a timespan short enough that a man’s life will covert most of it and long enough that the man can do a lot of different things, I start off by following the career of someone born in 1836, and aging with the game. The system does tend to break down around 1910, when my subject is over seventy and no longer plausibly very active. But here, with Lysandros 19 years old and riding the Circuit as the Cursus Honorum proscribes, it works very well.

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The Komneniad: Bayonet Charge

July 3rd, 1863
Hills surrounding Latakia, Persian Syria

The thunder of the guns had faded slightly since the bombardment began – or was he just going deaf? Lysandros looked again at the Ethiopian position. He had to admit that the results looked very impressive, great spires of dust rising in the still morning air, flashes of red fire in their midst. The return fire was desultory, a muzzle flash here and there, unimpressive among the huge explosions; perhaps the colonel in command of the artillery was right and he had indeed suppressed the enemy batteries. If so it would be a first.

It wasn’t that he would particularly care to be on the receiving end of that fire… but he also knew that the Ethiopians were even deadlier with the spade than with their rifles, and that the Chinese fuses were often bad. Who could tell how much of that fire and fury was wasting itself on empty space, or merely frightening men safely entrenched? And now the tempo of the barrage seemed to be slowing as well. The Chinese gunners had begun their work hours earlier; not the three rounds a minute that broke armies and exhausted men, but even at once a minute they were shifting ton weights of metal to get their guns back into battery, and were inevitably tiring. The attack was supposed to have started by now.

Lysandros turned his attention back to the staff quarrel – staff discussion – ah, staff meeting, that was the polite phrase – behind him. He was attached to the Army of the Palestine ostensibly in order to learn how the Khanate’s allies conducted their wars; but he rather thought that the staff meetings would be filed under “do not emulate” when he gave his report. The Chinese general in overall more-or-less command was shouting at his Persian more-or-less subordinate, whose back was getting more ramrod stiff by the second.

“I ordered your division to be ready to attack at half past nine, sharp! So it should have been drawn up in ranks an hour ago. Where the devil are your men?”

They spoke, by a minor historical irony, in Greek. Speakers of that language were still, five hundred years after the Fall, a significant minority in Persia, and educated Chinese often learned the official language of their most important ally. Still, although both generals had been chosen partly for their command of the least-inconvenient common language, they had learned it as adults and often fumbled for phrases. Thus Lysandros saw the disaster in the making a good minute before the two generals realised their mistake.

“You ordered my division to be ready to attack at half past ten“, the Persian said stiffly. “And they are forming up now, and will be ready at the appointed time.”

“Half past nine, you imb – ” General Umar cut himself off before he could utter an unforgivable insult. The Chinese army was here to rescue Persia from foreign conquest; but the stiff-necked Aryan nobles liked foreign assistance only marginally better. The last thing they needed now was for yet another Persian officer to resign in protest, as they seemed to do at the slightest hint of criticism. Especially they could not afford to lose the general in command of the division they were about to launch into attack.

“If I may, sirs,” Lysandros interrupted. Both generals glared at him, but Umar gestured permission to continue; glaring at an observer not in the line of command was more productive than arguing with a chief subordinate. “I believe the source of the unhappy misunderstanding is that the esteemed general Umar thought the phrase in his native language, and translated into Greek, `half of ten’. But the esteemed general Azada translated, into his native language, `half past ten’. An easy mistake to make.”

General Umar compressed his lips, but nodded. Blaming the Greek language seemed to calm him, or perhaps he merely realised the futility of anger; at any rate he said shortly, “I believe you are correct, centurion. I apologise for my hard words.”

“I, too, apologise,” Azada replied. “The error may well be mine.” For an Aryan noble speaking to foreigners, that was a vast concession. “Still, an hour’s delay need not be fatal. It gives the gunners more time for their work.”

“True, but it also gives the monkeys more time to bring up reinforcements; and our gunners’ stamina is not unlimited, nor is their ammunition. Still, it cannot be helped. Let the attack go in at half past ten, then.”

“Sirs,” Lysandros said softly. The chances that they would listen to him were slim, but he had to try. “I must recommend against this attack. The enemy are well and truly warned, and well dug in. You cannot take that hill with any fifteen thousand men in the world.”

Umar looked him up and down, apparently taking out the condescension that it wasn’t safe to show the Persians on the ally who commanded no troops and couldn’t gum up his plan by getting in a temper. “Well, centurion,” he drawled; this time the rank was no title of respect, but a reminder that Lysandros held the most junior commissioned rank in the Legions. “I understand you have your opinion. But I’ve been leading armies since before you had hair on your balls, and so it’s my opinion that counts. And I say that the position is strong, but hardly untakeable. And what’s more, if we do take it our guns will command the road Mideksa is using to shuffle troops back and forth, and we’ll split his army in two and defeat them in detail.”

Lysandros nodded acceptance; there was no use in arguing, and anyway it would be undisciplined to do so after his suggestion had been so thoroughly squashed, even if Umar wasn’t strictly speaking his superior officer. Even after the setbacks of the past few weeks, neither Chinese nor Persians had really internalised what breech-loading rifles could do. Lysandros had been trained by the Legions, and if he had been in command of the other side, he would be praying to all the bodhisattvas for the allies to launch precisely this sort of blunt-force infantry assault into his entrenchments. But there was nothing for it; so Lysandros turned his attention again to the Ethiopian entrenchments being battered by the Chinese artillery.

Unfortunately, the sight did not really encourage him. The barrage had faltered noticeably even in the few minutes it had taken to discuss the timing of the attack. The battery commanders, no doubt, were waiting for the movement they had been told would start at nine thirty, conserving their mens’ strength for an all-out effort when the infantry launched itself across the killing field. Some of them would be looking nervously at their ammunition wagons, too; Lysandros knew that their supply was badly snarled by cavalry raids against the ridiculous single-track railroads. The Persians had one, count it, one, rolling mill in their whole vast country; replacing rails bent over a fire, the work of an hour for a single cavalry squadron, could take months.

After a minute or so someone came up to join him; he turned to see that it was Nicolaus, one of the aides on general Azada’s staff. The Persian officer was actually a Greek; in fact he was in a sense a Komnenos, a descendant of the stay-behinds who had made their peace with the Fall and retained their estates as vassals of the Shahanshah. It was just a family name now, common in Anatolia among the landowning class. It was sometimes unsettling to realise that there were thousands of ‘Komnenoi’ who did not give loyalty to Rome, and saw nothing wrong with the fact; indeed, they cheerfully and loyally served the Persians, the hereditary enemy. Lysandros had been uncomfortable around Nicolaus to start. But there weren’t many men of his own age or near his own rank in the staffs, and so they had become friends.

Nicolaus gestured grimly at the hills. “Do you think they’ll be suppressed enough?”

“No. I’m afraid not.”

Nicolaus nodded. “I don’t think so either. If I don’t see you again, then: Fare well.” It was a minor superstition among the Persian soldiers not to say ‘goodbye’, lest their god overhear and decide, indeed, to go with the one addressed.

“You’re joining the attack?” Lysandros was surprised; Persian officers led from the front in regiments and brigades, certainly, but for divisional staff to do so was unusual. But Nicolaus nodded confirmingly. “I think the general wants to make up for his mistake. Perhaps he’d be better arguing for that flanking march… well, the monkeys have a better road for that, anyway.” He shook his head, dismissing the thought; decisions had been made, and it was time for junior officers to obey orders.

“So they do,” Lysandros agreed, loyally not mentioning that Ethiopian troops also marched half again as fast as Persian, on any kind of roads. He looked again at the hills, still spouting fire against the increasingly choppy Chinese bombardment. He was no expert on artillery, it was true. But somehow the slow Ethiopian counterbattery fire didn’t feel suppressed. It felt like the calm, aimed shelling of men who were saving their powder for a moment of decision; who might even have been deliberately tapering off their shelling to fool enemies into thinking their barrage successful. Lysandros shivered, and was glad it wasn’t he who was about to walk into the killing zone; glad, and guilty. He looked again at his friend. “Luck go with you,” he said, carefully not mentioning what kind; good luck wouldn’t come if you called, but you always had some kind of luck. Nicolaus nodded and stuck out his hand to be clasped, then turned on his heel and left without further words.

It seemed to take forever to get the regiments in position, endless lines of brown uniforms tipped with white turbans, shuffling in the dust and growing heat. Bayonets glinted. The Persian conscripts still used muzzle-loading rifled muskets, a vast expense for the treasury of unindustrialised Persia twenty years before, when they had been the cutting edge of military technology. Now they were made obsolete by breech-loaders, and the Persian infantry could not compete in firepower with their enemies; but the loans that had paid for the rifled muskets were still being paid off. So the attack would succeed with the bayonet, or not at all; there could be no question of a duel of volleys.

At length they were ready. Lysandros looked at his watch; 1015. General Azada had been quick. Bugles blew, and twelve thousand men stepped out – not quite in unison, but close enough; it wasn’t a parade. Despite his doubts Lysandros felt his heart stir. Twelve thousand men was an amazingly large army when you could see them all at once. Even so it was only a tenth of the men under Umar’s command; but that was information, a number, not really real. To actually see twelve thousand bayonets glinting was something else again; to the hindbrain it looked unstoppable, invincible. And perhaps it was. The Ethiopians weren’t ten feet tall, even if they did march fast and shoot straight.

Then the guns, that had been hidden on the hilltops that anchored the Ethiopian line like fortress bastions, opened up.

Lysandros watched helplessly as the Persian line shrank and shrank. There was no wavering or trying to come back; the men fell as they marched, closed ranks, and marched stolidly on. He could imagine, all too vividly, being down there; the heat, the sun beating down mercilessly, the itching irritation of sweat and thirst that would somehow seem magnified by the death falling randomly all about. The constant dread, not so much of death, but of crippling wounds. The terrible noise of ton weights of metal and gunpowder; and the constant cry of “Close ranks! Close ranks!” And they did close. The advance had been a mile in length when it started. It was down to two-thirds of that now, as men instinctively flinched away from the deadly fire on either flank.

“Is it not magnificent?” someone said beside him. He turned and saw general Umar, watching stone-faced as his last fresh division marched into a maelstrom of fire.

“It is indeed magnificent,” Lysandros agreed, for it was: A magnificent show of gallantry and obedience to orders. But is it war? he added to himself, silently. Butchery, certainly, but not war as he understood it. Then they came within rifle range; and he could not hold back the exclamation. “It is folly!”

Umar looked thunderous, and for a moment Lysandros thought he was going to be ordered off the field in disgrace. Then the general’s eye was caught by the continuous blaze of muzzle flashes coming from the Ethiopian trenches, and he fell silent. Thousands of men were firing, professional troops trained to marksmanship, and with a massed target. Ten aimed rounds a minute, with training. The Persian ranks were crumbling, a man hit every second, visible at this distance only as ripples in the ordered ranks; but there were too many ripples. “Call them back, General!” Lysandros urged. “They can’t make it!”

“No,” Umar said, ashen-faced. “If I call them back now it’s all for nothing. They can reach the top of the hill, if they’ll only keep going. And see, they’re not stopping. Dying, but not stopping.”

He was right, Lysandros saw; the Persians had picked up the pace, running now to get through the beaten zone as quickly as they might. Their line had shrunk to half a mile; but they were halfway up the hill. If their nerve held they would reach the top. If they could take the stone wall there that sheltered the Ethiopian troops… the muzzle flashes changed, subtly. They were firing canister now, making vast tears in the Persian line where the shells had blown circular holes. But they were at the fence. Bayonets flashed. The Ethiopian batteries were silent, they couldn’t fire for fear of hitting their own.

Lysandros held his breath. Against all that maelstrom of fire the Persians had reached the top of the hill. But the Ethiopians held the crest, and were fighting from behind a wall; and they hadn’t marched a mile through horror to get to the fight. Yes – there. At the edge of the Persian formation, terror had become too much; men were coming back, peeling away from the fight for the fence and marching back, some in formed squads and some as individuals, but retreating from what had become too much for flesh and blood to bear. Like all routs it fed on itself; in a minute the retreat was general, the whole division recoiling from the crest they couldn’t take.

“Kyrie eleison,” Lysandros whispered; “Christe eleison”. If the advance had been bad, how many would die in a rout? But the Ethiopian guns were silent. Was there indeed mercy, then? The Ethiopians were Christians of a sort, he recalled. Perhaps they had heard his prayer; or perhaps they were offering a gallant gesture to match the gallant charge. Unmolested by pursuit, the Persians came back, gathering their wounded as they went.

At length Azada stood again before Umar, who flinched at his steady gaze. Nonetheless, there was steel in the Chinese general. He kept his voice steady. “General Azada, I am sorry; I accept full responsibility. It was all my fault. But we must prepare for their counterstroke. Put your division into line here.” He gestured to show the ground he wanted the Persians to occupy.

“General Umar, I have no division.” Azada turned and walked off with the remnants of his staff. Nicolaus was not among them.

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The Komneniad: Legalities

From the New Byzantium Herald: This newspaper has hesitated to add its voice to the clamour surrounding the Qaratal Line, lest a hasty judgement should lead it into error. But the facts are now in, and we can state unequivocally that the obstructionist attitude of certain parties to the dispute is, not simply a hindrance to progress and industry, but also unpatriotic and even actively dangerous.

In defending the “traditional right of Rome’s allies to their ancestral grazing lands” there may, at least, be a certain, if possibly misguided, honour. It is true that these lands have customarily been understood as being, in some sense, the property of the tribes, even though they are not enclosed and the peaceful passage of other parties has always been permitted, facts which would weigh against any claim of property in settled lands. Thus, if the dispute were merely of one private party against another, the claims of the Alukhai against the right-of-way of the Qaratal Consortium, men of good faith might reasonably disagree, and this newspaper could remain above the dispute, taking no more interest in it than in any other public matter of the day.

But now the trumpets of responsibility to the State have been sounded, and this paper can no longer remain silent. Inter armes, silent leges; and we have heard, from no less a person than the Legate Herakles of the Sol Invictus, that the Qaratal railroad is “an absolute necessity to the defense of the Russian border”. In the face of such testimony, quibbles about private property must fade; where the defense of the State is concerned, the interests of private parties must give way. The Qaratal railroad must be built, and built at speed; and as for those obstructionists who stand in its way, our ancestors invented the excellent customs of decimation and crucifixion for precisely such cases.


From the Tempora Romanum: It is no light matter to suggest that the recommendations of a public servant may have been bent by private interest; and indeed no responsible journalist would dream of doing so. Your editor wishes, therefore, to completely disavow any claim of insight into the mind of the Legate Herakles. The worthy Legate has risen to command so famous a formation as the Sol Invictus; and it must be clear that the Senate and People of Rome do not give such a position to a man who is liable to be swayed this way and that by any consideration except hard military fact.

But where the minds of men, and especially of generals, are beyond the ken of responsible journalism, statements of verifiable fact are not. Your editor wishes to bring two facts to the attention of the public, which may conceivably have some interest. The first is that several Legates, commanding Legions perhaps less well known than storied Sol Invictus, but not without their own honour and merit, have stated the case for the Qaratal Line in terms much less emphatic than those used by the Legate Herakles. One might almost say that some of the alleged military support for the project is expressed in terms that, were they not uttered by the legendarily decisive officers of the Legions, could properly be called `lukewarm'; as when, for example, the Legate Kallistos (commanding the Victrix) testified to the Senate and the People that “it would certainly be better to have it than not to have it”. In the testimony of the Legate Lykurgos, placed at the head of no less a formation than the I Komnenoi, one might even detect a hint of what, if it were not for the fact that so sure a military judgement can hardly disagree with that of the Legate Herakles, one would call opposition; for in his sworn words to the Senate and the People, the phrase “possibility of other projects taking priority for the time being” occurs in a desirable sense.

The second fact that the public ought to know concerns the membership of the Qaratal Consortium. Although this is not a matter of public record, the Tempora has gained access to the accounts of the Consortium, and discovered there that, not the Legate Herakles, but his wife Leonora, holds no less than 10 per cent of its voting shares.

We feel confident, of course, that so upright a man as the Legate Herakles would not inquire too closely into the details of his wife’s portfolio; for like Caesar’s wife, our high officers do not content themselves merely with being incorruptible, but hold themselves to the higher standard of also appearing so. Nonetheless, we regretfully acknowledge that not every citizen shares our high opinion of the Senatorial class, and we therefore present this information in case anyone might think it has relevance to the question of whether private interests ought to be allowed to run roughshod – perhaps ‘rail-shod’ is the phrase for these modern times? – over the grazing lands of Rome’s sovereign allies.


April 23rd, 1843
Office of Papandopolous and Sons
New Byzantium, Roman Khanate

“Well, come now! Five percent of the net is exceedingly generous.”

“Fuck you, Greekie!” Remembering where he was, the chieftain of the Alukhai Tatars moderated his language, but not his demands. “Do you think we’re some sort of rubes from Utmost Siberia?” The Greeks in the room were forced to hide undiplomatic smiles, which perhaps had been his intent; with his belt full of knives, a musket over his back, and a powder horn slung over his chest, Timur did look rather like the stereotype of an unsophisticated tribesman. “We know what kind of tricks you pulled with the Nenet. We’ll have twenty percent of the gross, and we’ll have our own accountants checking it; or no deal.” He crossed his arms across his chest, making the knives rattle.

Papandopoulos, the lawyer, was slight and unimpressive compared to the squat tribesman, although like most Komnenoi he had served his time in the Legion. Nevertheless his careful adjustment of his rimless eyeglasses was as much a declaration of intent, and threat, as any ostentatious flaunting of weaponry. “I think you’ll find,” he said carefully, “that my clients’ friends in the Senate would not find acceptable such a contract, if it came to an open vote; and would instead vote for a straightforward expropriation of the lands in question. Which would leave you with precisely zero percent, gross or net.”

“Your client isn’t the only one with friends in the Senate. Do you know how many of the Alukhai are Equestrians?”

“When last I looked into the matter, you had six hundred and forty-three voters on the rolls; although only ten of them are here in the City.”

Perhaps Timur was a little taken aback at the lawyer’s ready command of the figure; but he shot back “Right. And our neighbours will back us; they know a precedent when they see one. So by all means, take it to the Senate; see who has the more friends when push comes to shove. You’ve got the money, but there’s still honour in New Byzantium.”

“Indeed there is,” Papandopoulos said levelly. “And I have personally heard five Senators, representing a total of one-hundred-fifty-two thousand, four hundred and sixty-eight voters, say that they would rather, and I quote, `expropriate the damn savages and be done with it’ than, you should excuse the expression, `give the sheepfuckers a single thin rouble’. I suggest, then, that your tribes, with their total of perhaps ten thousand Equestrians, are likely to be somewhat outvoted. Honour or no honour.”

Timur swallowed his bluff without a quibble, leaning back in the chair, which creaked under him. “Well. In that case, I suggest your friend with the straight-shootin’, hard-hittin’ mouth on him contemplates just why Herakles could make some kind of case for the `military necessity’ of the railroad. I mean, that’s horseshit, and the horse is pretty sick at that, and we all know it. But the reason he can make some idiots believe it is that we’re right on the Russian border. Maybe the Czar would see things our way, eh? Then your friends can watch their clients blame them and walk right off the rolls.”

“That possibility is, indeed, why we are here. But I suggest that you should not put too much faith in this method of bargaining. There are… certain elements… in the Senate who would like nothing better than a good casus belli for war with Russia.”

Timur smiled grimly. “So we all know where we stand. Why don’t you make me an offer.”

“I am authorised to offer you as much as five percent of the gross.”

“And an accountant we hire, to check it.”

“That is acceptable.”

“Very well, then we have a deal.”

The lawyer smiled, reaching across the table to shake hands. “I am glad to hear it. Emotions have been running quite high here lately. It is a pleasure to negotiate with someone not married to dubious points of principle.”

Timur grinned. “Well, I’m not saying I’m above using some editor’s idea of the sovereign rights of Rome’s allies to put a bit of pressure on. A vassal tribe has to use the weapons it has. But yeah, in the end we wanted a cut. The sacred-ancestral-lands bit was for show. Pff, don’t any of these City people read books? We moved onto that land in my father’s day.”


From the City Tribune: The recent settlement of the Qaratal Line dispute must fill patriots with joy; once again the democratic process of Rome has proven its merit in amicable resolution of conflicting claims. Indeed peaceful arbitration, in open Forum, of the friction of modernisation is among our greatest strengths, and sure to grant us a long-term advantage over our rivals, whose processes often feel the influence of smoky back rooms, political maneuver, and mere bribes…

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