August 19th, 1625
Achilles watched impassively as the endless column of prisoners trudged past on their way to the Siberian mines. Some still wore scraps of orange; the Buddhist monks were the core of the resistance. Otherwise the Tibetans all looked much alike: Flat brownish-yellow faces, brown eyes lined with creases from squinting against the eternal dusty wind of the highlands, hair shaved in token of taking the Path of War against the Roman invaders. Except for the shaven heads they looked much like his own troops, very unlike the aquiline features and gray eyes of the Komnenoi cohorts; but after ten years in Tibet Achilles had lost his desire to command Roman troops. The elite kataphrakt cohorts, recruited from their own sons, were the capital assets of the Komnenoi, committed to battle only when great issues were at stake. And since every ambitious young Roman hungered for a kataphrakt command, promotion was glacial and fiercely contested. In the auxilia legions that did most of the actual fighting, even a man recovering from a youthful mis-step could advance.
There was no particular military purpose to Achilles’ inspection of the column; but Achilles felt he owed it to his enemies. They had fought bravely, and not many would return from distant Siberia. Nine in ten would be leaving their bones in the deep pits of the iron mines. Achilles did not object to the policy; raids by these brave men and their fathers had been a scourge of the fertile lowlands for decades, and the threat of Tibetan armies on the southern flank had hamstrung Rome in its quarrels with Russia. But he felt it cowardice to send men to their deaths in the mines without looking them in the face at least once; and so whenever he had no pressing business, he came out to watch the columns passing by.
It was, nonetheless, a depressing sight; and so he was relieved when his aide rode up and saluted. No doubt there was some new disaster in Qamdo, and he would be required to comb out his half-strength centuries yet again to reinforce them; but no matter, that was better than watching men whose lives were at an end through his skill.
“Legate, there is another Senator to see you.”
“Very well; I come.” Still another who wanted to shine in reflected glory. Well, in the end they were all Komnenoi, and not everyone could be an officer in time of war; the course of honour moved older men into civilian ranks for good reasons. He returned to his tent without too much resentment. The Senator – tall and lean in the manner admired by Komnenoi for older men, but moving with the stiffness of injury or illness – rose to greet him, and Achilles flinched in shock. It had been fifteen years since he saw his father, and then their quarrel had ended with Achilles being thrown into the streets. Even when his mother had won a measure of forgiveness and enough influence had been exerted on his behalf to win him a century in the auxilia, his father had not deigned to speak to him face to face.
An inchoate anger rose up in him, and a confused longing to reconcile; he sought refuge from emotion in sere formality, raising his right hand in salute. “Ave, Senator”.
“Ave, Legate,” his father replied dryly.
They stood silent for a moment, while Achilles sought for a polite way of asking what do you want; then his father took pity on him. “You’ve done well, son; to rise from centurion to Legate without exerting influence is not easy.” In spite of himself Achilles felt his shoulders straighten; estranged or not, those spare words of praise meant more than he would have thought possible. “So now it is time for you to come home.”
So that’s it, Achilles thought; it was almost a relief, to know that his father hadn’t made the long journey to Tibet just out of a desire to reconcile with his son.
“And which brood mare did you decide to harness for the breeding project?” he asked pleasantly.
Achilles felt his lips twist in unwilling appreciation. Aglaia wasn’t the wealthiest heiress in the city, or even the most beautiful; but she was the one he’d dreamed of, before he left to take up his Great Circuit and all the disasters that had followed. His father was clearly trying his best to make the return pleasant. Still, it had been nearly two decades, and the inchoate dreams of that young boy didn’t have to inform the actions of the man he’d become. Best to make his position clear from the start.
“Thank you. But no; I will not return home. There is much to be done here; a wild land to be tamed, a wild people to bring to the obedience of Rome. I won’t return to New Byzantium to debate the forms of dishonour in quiet rooms. As for Aglaia, send her here; let her marry as a soldier’s wife does, under the swords of the Legions.”
His father sighed. “So it comes down to that old grievance again, that we abandoned the tribes to the Russians.”
“Yes; it does! Do you think honour is like grain, a new crop to be grown every year?”
“Not for men, no.” His father looked down; and for the first time in two decades it seemed to Achilles that he was actually ashamed of the Senate’s bargain. “Not for men. But for nations? I hope there may be. May not our sons be better men than ourselves? The Senate that signed the Czar’s treaty is all but gone, you know; but we are not old men. My father took his place in the Forum every day until he was seventy; I am fifty-eight, and here I am to ask you – beg you – to come home and take my place. I’m not the only one. The men you loathe are leaving while still in their prime. `Retired to his estate’, `taking vows and becoming a monk’, `ill health’ – but I’ve seen it in their eyes; it is because their sons despise them. As mine despises me. So… what’s past cannot be undone. But nations are not like men; nations can have a fresh hand at the tiller, a restored honour. Will you not come back, and take your seat in the Senate, and debate matters of honour in the sunlit Forum?”
Achilles’s father was a Komnenos, and proud; he had spoken with quiet dignity, without drama. But Achilles felt the enormous effort it had cost him, to stand before his son and ask rather than command. It was, perhaps, the one thing that could have caused him even to consider leaving his Legion. And yet – his father had always been a consummate politician; his speeches had swayed hostile Forums, enemy diplomats, and rival Senators alike. Was it not possible that this was one final act, that even quiet despair and shame could be used for cynical manipulation? A man leaving public life in dishonour might still wish to arrange his succession to his own taste. He might even feel perfectly genuine contrition, and shape it into a weapon to wield against his own son, to make the ungrateful bastard do what he’s told one last time.
And yet, if that were so, what of it? He was still leaving; someone would have to take over. The work of a Legate, after all, could be done by many men; and had not Achilles come to Tibet to serve his country, and not his own ambition? Let the old man have his victory, then, if indeed this was a ploy; it was an empty one. He took off his helmet, with the bright red plume of a Legate that he had been proud to wear these scanty six months.
“Not for any begging of yours, Father; not even for your contrition and apology. But for restoring the honour of Rome. Yes. I’ll come home.”