The Komneniad: The Weight of Metal

Last of the three catch-up posts; this occurs immediately before The Death of Hope.

2 g 17 CB, Alexandros read from his hastily-scratched notes, and began to painstakingly transcribe the information into his ciphered report. Two new guns delivered to Seventeenth Caucasian Borderers; but the words lay emptily in his mind, powerless, as though the cipher had robbed them of conviction. They did not speak of the cheers of the conscripts who had dragged the guns into their regimental compound, stripped to the waist in the harsh sun, smelling of gunpowder and oil and sweat even a hundred meters away where Alexander had stood with the civilians. The spiky marks of the code could not convey the power of five hundred men marching in snappy new uniforms, taking pride in thumping their heels down in a precise cadence, drumming out their discipline and courage. The Senators in distant New Byzantium would read his report, and think to themselves, “dull-eyed peasant conscripts”, and take comfort in the thought of the horsetail banners and a hundred thousand warriors riding free across the steppes. They did not understand. They had not been there the day before, when the officers were executed for keeping dead men on the rolls of their regiment; had not heard the deep snarl of five hundred men growling their satisfaction at seeing justice done.

The signs were there for those with eyes to see, and Alexandros could make that clear enough to his masters: The crackdown on corruption, the delivery of new weapons and fresh supplies, the increased pace of drill and marching. All that was obvious, and no Komnenos would miss the implication: Russia was arming for war. But he could not make them feel the [i]power[/i] of it, the crushing force of a settled realm awakening to the possibilities of gunpowder. They were right, in a sense: The conscripts really were dull-eyed peasants, not impressive if you spoke to them as individuals. Alexandros would match himself against any two of them, or any four, if he had a horse and a good bow, and they had muskets; or even in close combat, sabre and lance against bayonets. But the number] of them! And worse, the way they were brutalised into acting like a single man, marching and shouting and firing in unison, like a waterwheel, mindlessly turning and breaking anything in its way. It was inhuman; but how could he convey that to the Senate?

Perhaps it did not matter, in the end. The Senate would base its decisions on a cold calculus of numbers and weight of metal. The romance of the free horseman might appear in the rhetoric of the Forum, but in the back rooms where decisions were made, they would count forges and mines, muskets and fodder. Wouldn’t they? But even so, the point remained, that their calculation would be wrong: For they had not felt the earth shake to the trampling of a thousand iron-heeled boots; they had not seen cloddish peasants lifted by conscription and drill into a single great beast that moved like the fingers of a man’s hand.

But, after all, perhaps it was better so; for when would the matter improve? The Russians sensed only dimly what was so clear in Alexandros’s mind: They did not see that in their conscript infantry they had made a new thing under the sun, and that it would shatter kingdoms and thrones and sweep mere courage and skill before it, irresistible as the tide. And perhaps, if it was fought here, in its infancy, it need not be so: Perhaps the Russians could be forced to give up their experiment, to fight with the savage dash of their Cossacks as they had done before. Bad enough, for the Cossacks were numerous and fierce; but that was a warfare men could understand, and excel at; and there was glory in it. In the unison trampling of a thousand brow-beaten peasants there was no glory; only efficiency and death.

Alexandros bent again to his report. The next item was 11th Georgian Infantry moved to the Persian border; but the true message needed no cipher.

Russia arms for war.


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