December 11th, 1645
New Byzantium, Roman Khanate
The air was a dismal grey that promised pneumonia for anyone out in it for long; but the Forum Romanum blazed with the heat of three thousand close-packed bodies, keeping the winter at bay. Or perhaps, Achilles thought mordantly, it’s the heated rhetoric. A minor tribal dispute over who should have grazing rights in a particular oasis would not usually have packed the Forum; but that was when the tribes all gave loyalty to Rome. When the Cossack Host of the Urals clashed with the Oroteg, that was something else again. For behind the Cossacks loomed the Czar; and the Czar did not give offense by accident. The skirmishes were a clear challenge to the authority of Rome. If the Komnenoi backed down, they would look weak… but the last five decades had demonstrated all too clearly the sheer weight of metal that the settled lands could bring to bear. The debate had raged for hours, lurching between fear and aggression; there was an ugly undertone to the crowd noise as adrenaline sought an outlet.
Achilles waited for the current speaker – Ioannes was like himself, one of the New Men, heir to an ancient House but new to his position of power – to finish fulminating against the machinations of the Czar with the formal invocation “I thank the Forum for allowing me to speak”. Then he rose, catching the eye of the Consul Honorius who was presiding. Honorius had been expecting it, but – consummate politican that he was – managed to make it look not the least premeditated when he ignored three Senators senior to Achilles. “The Forum will now hear the advice of the Senator Achilles, son of Peleus,” he announced, and Achilles walked up to the podium, keeping his face carefully under control. The Forum was a lot like the Tibetans, or the Russians, or the various tribesmen under Khanate rule – well, like any humans, really. It was never a good idea to let them see you sweat.
“I thank the Forum for its courtesy; my words have been long considered,” he began formally. Then he was out of the shelter of ritual and custom, and had to carry through on his own words. “I agree with my honoured colleague. The Czar is testing the waters. He has no intention of stopping until he reaches the Pacific. If we do not fight him now, we will fight him later, on worse terms. Therefore, I request that the Forum issue the Ultimate Decree; and I nominate myself for the position of Dictator.”
There was silence, more of confusion than of shock. At length Honorius spoke. “Achilles,” he said gently. “Yours is an honoured House. But you have not gained the support of one-third of the Equestrian order; you may not call for the Ultimate Decree.”
Achilles took a deep breath. This was the moment when he passed beyond the safe boundaries of law, debate, and order, and into the debatable uplands between coup and legalism. “Ah, but I have, honoured Consul. Look there.”
Honorius followed his pointing finger to the edges of the Forum, where a hundred men were in the process of donning armour and raising an Eagle. His lips tightened, but he gave no other sign of distress. “Those are men of the twelfth Legion, Senator; the Victrix, not the Komnenoi. They bear arms in the service of Rome; but they are not Equestrians, with the right to give weight to words spoken in the Forum.”
“That is old law, Consul. I remind you of the reason for the law: So that words should not be too far removed from the reality of power. But our fathers wrote in the days when there was only one Legion on the steppes; one Legion, and a hundred thousand skirmishing auxilia. To fight the Czar, and to conquer Tibet, we have raised eighteen Legions. Eighteen Eagles, led by one! The word of the Equestrians does not carry the weight it once did, honoured Consul. I propose that we remedy that imbalance. Declare these men to be Equestrians, and announce that every man who has served his twenty years shall have the same privilege, whatever his birth. Unite the tribes behind the Eagles, by giving them a voice in its councils. And fulfil the destiny of Rome: For is not every man a citizen?”
Honorius’s face was grey, but he spoke calmly. “Once Rome ruled from Hadrian’s wall to the Euphrates. Then came a year in which an ambitious Legate crossed the Rubicon, in defiance of written law. Caesar had good reasons for his act; he, too, thought of the spirit and not the letter of the law. But when the letter was broken by the threat of force, the spirit died. Your suggestion is not without merit, Achilles. But the Forum cannot, cannot, allow itself to be threatened into any decree, no matter how good the reason. The law must stand supreme. If that legitimacy is once lost, the year will inevitably come when four Legions each declare their Legate emperor; and the Czar will fight the Chinese for the mouth of the Amur. Don’t do this, Achilles. Once the Senate made a mistake, and Rome was dishonoured; and you wish to ensure that we avoid repeating that mistake. I agree with you. But please, I beg as one who has seen what misplaced cleverness can lead to, please do not do it this way. Act within the law; and if Rome falls, let it at least fall to barbarians outside our gates.”
Achilles bowed his head, drawing his sword. Honorius had not become Consul of a fractious people by being indecisive; he drew breath to speak, and Achilles knew he had only seconds before the order to kill was given, and blood spilled in the Forum. “You are right, Honorius,” he near-shouted; and knelt. Honorius froze in surprise.
“You are right,” Achilles repeated, more quietly. There was utter silence in the Forum. “I intended no coup; I make no threat of force. But I call for a necessary measure.” He flipped his sword, holding it out to Honorius hilt first. “I call again for the vote: Let the veterans of the Auxilia be declared Equestrians, able to support me in the Forum. And while the vote is taken, hold this sword to my throat; and if you still think I have gone too far, drive it home.”
Honorius took the sword, and Achilles held his breath. It was quite possible that the old man would decide to kill him. He locked gazes with the Consul, fighting not to flinch. They stood thus for minutes, until Achilles thought he would scream from the tension of it. At length Honorius nodded, once, and took the blade off Achilles’s throat.
“Very well,” he said. “The Senator has made submission to the State, as all citizens must; he makes no threat. This being so, we may consider his proposal on the merits.”
December 12th, 1645
New Byzantium, Roman Khanate
“Ave, Achilles! Ave, Achilles, Imperator!” The deep-throated chant shook the Forum, and Achilles smiled grimly as he took the podium again.
“My people,” he began.