The Komneniad: A New Crusade

After the three-week diversion of missed posts, we are now back up to date and return to the Deeds of Achilles sequence. To remind you, in “Twenty Thousand Strong”, Achilles failed in his attempt to persuade the chief of the Ortai to fight the Russians without kataphrakt support.

February 13th, 1612
New Byzantium, Roman Khanate
Home of Achilles Peleides

Sweet oblivion beckoned, but there was a ritual to be observed. He might be down on his luck, but he was still a Komnenos of a Senatorial house. Gulping wine straight from the bottle simply would not do; Achilles poured carefully into a goblet (wooden, but it was an actual serving utensil), sniffed to judge the quality of the wine (horse piss, but the point was that one did not just pour it down the throat), and then sipped rather than quaffing. Consequently he was startled when his mother walked into his apartment, but he did not feel any urge to hide the bottle behind his back; instead he was able to raise his eyebrows in a perfectly civilised manner and say quite unashamedly, “Good evening, mother. Would you care for some wine?”

“Not just now, thank you.”

“As you like. But have a seat! If I had known I would have such a distinguished guest, I would have laid in food, flutists, a philosopher to engage us in discussion, dancing girls – but alas, I fear you find me unprepared. To what do I owe such an honour?”

She regarded him steadily. “You do not entertain the possibility that I simply wished to see my son?”

“Your disgraced son, the black sheep of the family? The one whose actions had to be disavowed, and an apology given to the Czar? The son whom you have not seen in three years, and who was turned away from the gates of the family estate, and left to support himself by menial labour? No, actually, I do not think it very likely that you have simply come for a chat. What do you want, mother?”

“That was not my doing. I think your father would have been less angry if he had not secretly agreed with you. If he’d listened to me instead of the Senate… well, that is all wind over the steppe now. I have finally been able to cool his anger enough that he’s agreed to offer you a century in the army that will invade Tibet.”

“A century? Rather a comedown for a man who has been envoy to the Orkut tribes, isn’t it? By seniority I should have a cohort, at an absolute minimum. And really, for a house that commands as many equestrians as ours, anything but a full Legion is an insult.” Even so, Achilles felt a tug of temptation. To have an official position, even a lowly one; and even more, to serve, to work for something more than enough food to get up the next morning and do it all over again – he squashed the treacherous thought firmly. He had gone down that path before, and what had it got him? Disgrace, an apartment whose door didn’t lock, and cheap wine.

“You’re right,” his mother said, “it is a step down. That can’t be helped. If you had kept your mouth shut and eaten the rage like the rest of us had to – well, wind over the steppe. Now it’s all I can do to give you a chance to redeem yourself. To show that you’re good for more than raging about appeasement and dishonour, and drowning your sorrows in cheap drink. Are you a Komnenos or a whiner?”

Achilles felt a flash of anger. “I was right, dammit! Giving up Siberia was a shameful act. And we call ourselves the heirs of Alexandros? The men of the Long March rolled over in their graves. And the Senate knows it, and the People know it too! They couldn’t face truth, so they sent me to this – exile, to hide from the only one who’d tell them truth. Better if we’d gone down fighting!”

His mother leaned back in her chair, which creaked alarmingly but did not collapse. She nodded slowly. “There’s some truth in what you say, yes. Once I felt as you do; and acted similarly. I was there in the Forum, you know, when the Death of Hope was announced. I lost a brother in that war, but I hadn’t cried; for the news from Tibet was good, we were winning. Ajax hadn’t died in vain, I thought. And then came word of the Treaty, and I went home and wept. And when I was done weeping I gave up; I decided that if all our sacrifice couldn’t give us victory even when we held the field, what was the use? So I discarded the modest life of a proper Komnenoi maiden; and my father turned me out of the house. You look shocked, Achilles; did you think you were the only one in all of history to quarrel with his parents over a matter of principle?”

Achilles felt shock and fascination overtake his anger; here was a side of his mother he’d never seen before. “Then – what happened? How did you live?”

Her lips twitched. “Don’t worry, Achilles, I didn’t have to dance on tables. I went to your father’s family, and for his sake they took me in. As you might have gone to Aglaia’s family, and perhaps you’d be married now – eh, no matter. She wasn’t really up to your level, anyway. I lived in rebellion against House and custom for five years; drinking, dancing, wearing all the jewelry I could afford – it was a wild time. All the old traditions collapsed; we didn’t see the point anymore.”

“But – you must have reconsidered.”

“Well, yes and no. The old sumptuary laws are gone beyond recall.” She gestured to the heavy bracelets decorating her arms, the gold headband that held her hair. “But in the end, we found that rebellion was no answer either. We had to have some purpose beyond being right, dammit. There are no easy answers, Achilles. We couldn’t give up Siberia, it would be dishonourable; we couldn’t fight Russia, it would be futile. What would you have us do? Yes – ” she held up a hand, forestalling his hot response. “I know, I know. Fight to the death, rather than accept dishonour. Easy for you to say, who have no children. For myself, and your father too even if he would die before admitting it… dishonour passes. There is life after defeat; that’s what I learned, when I was your age. I was surprised, I remember that, but it’s true. If I have any wisdom, that’s all of it in a nutshell: There is life after defeat. Won’t you take up that challenge, Achilles? Live, lead, win? This half-death, suicide by wine, it was fine as a gesture but it can’t be very satisfying. How about showing the Tibetans that Rome is not to be trifled with?”

“And if the disgraced son happens not to come back from the war in which he found redemption…” Achilles suggested cynically. His mother looked down. “Your father, perhaps, is making that calculation. On some level. He can’t help it. But I’m not. They don’t issue shields to the Legions any more, you know; and you can do anything with a bayonet except use it to carry the glorious dead. So you’d better come back alive.”

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