The Komneniad: Flowing Like Water

Children of the fertile lands often think of the Khanate in terms of steppe, of grassland: A featureless plain, stretching boringly empty to the horizon, with only the occasional herd of horses to lend it interest. And it is true, even in a land that stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific, that much of it is taken up by such plateaus; and it is not unknown for outsiders to find the sight of them disorienting to the point of dizziness – even to fall down in vertigo at the complete lack of any reference point, and to cry out in joy at the tiniest stunted tree or the most minor rise in the ground.

Georgos of the Komnenoi knows better. In his twenty years, he has thrice ridden the circuit from New Byzantium to the Caspian Sea; he has seen all that the Khanate has to offer. Mountains to rival any in the world, deep forests that stretch for hundreds of miles, lakes larger than some bodies of water that the untravelled call ‘seas’, and, yes, miles upon miles of steppe and taiga. And even within the steppe proper, as he would point out if anyone asked, there is endless variety, and no lack of feature: The tiny changes of hue that signal water nearby, the little dust-puffs that herald a storm, the fields of gopher holes that riders must avoid lest a horse’s leg be broken. The idea of a featureless plain would be incomprehensible to him, who has lived in it all his years.

If the endless stretch of dry grass is a false image, what then of the other thing that most outsiders know about the Khanate: That its rulers, the Komnenoi, burn for vengeance and a return to Rome? Is that also a mirage, an unfair simplification? A fair question; but in turning from geography and biology to the motivations of men, we enter the realms of the subtle, the labyrinthine, and the hard-to-answer. Turning again to Georgos, we find that, of a certainty, he hates the Persians with a passion, and will gladly tell you so if you ask him. Along with the others of his tribe, he cries full-throatedly “Death to Persia” at the yearly recital of the wrongs done to the Romans and not yet repaid; is not this the custom? (And is it not a rare man who will break the custom of his tribe, whatever the strength of his own feelings?) And yet – it is also true that Georgos has never in his life seen a Persian, and that, if he should meet one, he is too much the warrior – conscious always of the nearness of death – to draw his weapons and kill without provocation, as his ritual shouts might imply.

For, if the truth were told, the Komnenoi have closer enemies, these days, than far-off Persia. There is no Roman now living whose grandfathers fought at Jvris Ugheltekhili, though a few grey-bearded ancients can recall hearing tales of the Long March from men who spent their childhoods on the trail. As for doomed Nicaea, or the still-more-distant towers of the City of Men’s Desire, they are as well remembered and as much thought of as lost Troy and seven-hilled Rome. Over such a gulf of time – a single century! – human purpose flows like water. The men who fled Anatolia shone with diamond-edged, flame-forged will; in them the single dominant urge was to return to their lost estates, and their every effort bent to that all-consuming idea. Their sons were willing enough to conquer a steppe realm, to become a power in the land, “for the purpose of defeating Persia”; when have men been unwilling to fight for wealth and fame? And their sons, in turn… proved willing to administer what they had won, to work as judges and soldiers and advisors to the tribes that acknowledge Komnenoi sovereignty, and to build upon their fathers’ legacy. And to shout “Death to Persia” once a year is no great trouble, and men need rituals almost as much as they need bread and salt; if ritual is all that remains of the once-heartfelt outpouring of hate… well, there is nobody now alive to remember the terror of fleeing from Persian armies with only what you could carry on your back, and notice the difference.

Georgos of the Komnenoi claims, with pride, to be a citizen of Rome, and he is well suited to his station. Can he not ride and shoot and wield the lance with the best of his generation? Has he not thrice ridden the circuit, and given judgements in the disputes of the tribes that have been upheld even in the High Court at New Byzantium? Has he not learned by heart the text of the Three Great Grievances, and recited them to shouting crowds at the yearly celebrations? These are the not the accomplishments of a common tribesman, of the merely equestrian ranks; Georgos is the son of a Senator, and will himself become a Senator in turn. The forms are observed at New Byzantium, the traditions of millennia are maintained, although the content is changed nearly beyond recognition. But as for riding to war with Persia to avenge the Long March, it is not likely. The Khanate has no border with Persia, and a grudge cannot be kept burning for a hundred years, when there is no source of fresh oppression to keep it hot.

And yet men do not like to be inconsistent, to have their deeds not match their words. True, Georgos bears no personal animosity towards any Aryan noble, however much his mother frightened him as a child with those terrible bogeymen. He has fought Russians, Germans, and rebel tribes; for these he can muster a healthy sense of vengeance, of desiring retribution for dead comrades and hard days. If you asked him to list the reasons he might go to war, the slow, steady push of Russian settlements from the west would come up in his mind before the long-ago conquest of Anatolia. But a man who shouts “Death to Persia” and can recite the Three Great Grievances does not need much of an excuse for war, if even a slight opportunity presents itself – he already has one ready made. Georgos does not feel such hatred for Persia as his great-grandfather did, that he would make war for its own sake, as a point of vengeance. But his ritual is not empty; it cannot be. Let there be even a small thing to be gained from such a war, and Georgos will go to with a will.

The pure flame of vengeance cannot burn for centuries. But even its ashes are poisonous seeds for war.

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