The Komneniad: Penchisky Penance

I invested heavily in universities, and thus built them in fairly absurd places, such as Penchisky, well north of the Arctic Circle and on the Siberian coast. Ingame this makes perfect sense, but why would anyone in their right mind put a university in such a place? I came up with a reason for the Komnenoi to do so.

It was made quite clear to me that Penchisky was my last chance. Then as now, the only university north of the Arctic Circle was where the Khanate sent those who had not completely disgraced themselves. Boys who – to pick an example perfectly at random, and certainly having nothing to do with me – got into fights with others of the merchant class in which, perhaps, bones were broken but no knives drawn; boys who were caught in the wrong bed once, but not twice; boys who got publicly drunk, but managed to vomit only on their own feet – such were my classmates at Penchisky. After all, there was nothing in such escapades to show that one could not learn the classics, only that a certain amount of discipline and lack of distraction was needed.

From the memoirs of Kim Khan Minjun.

——————————————

December 22nd, 1765
Penchisky University barracks
Two months after sunset

The whale-oil lamp flickered, and Minjun cursed silently as the words of the sage Confucius escaped him for the third time. For a moment he wished, futilely, that the Khanate would conduct its business in Greek, which was after all the official language of the overlord Komnenoi and which, more to the point, didn’t have an alphabet of twenty thousand different characters. But fifty thousand Greeks obsessed with serving in their Legions could not provide a legal and administrative tradition, and their tribal muscle were more noted for horsemanship and archery than for literacy; and so the actual work of administering their empire fell to their Korean and Chinese subjects. And so, of course – how could it be otherwise? – the influence of the damn Chinese bureaucrats wafted subtly north from the Great Wall, and their sages were studied even here, north of the Arctic Circle. Could the Koreans, who were three in four of the non-tribal subjects, get their traditions respected, their (simple! syllabic!) alphabet used from the Amur to the Altai? Not a bit of it; always the sheer size of China, the numbers of their damn scholar-bureaucrats, triumphed, even in a realm where only one subject in ten spoke Mandarin. Who, learning a second language and script, would bother with Korean for the sake of a hundred wise men, when he could gain access to ten thousand by learning Chinese? Still, there was no denying that Confucius made some good points, such as not bemoaning what one could not change. Minjun sighed, but he bent over the book again; good grades, after all, were his ticket out of this godforsaken wasteland.

Nonetheless, he was relieved half an hour later when the door opened and Kwan stuck his face in. “Still studying, Minjun? We’re building the Virtuous Man, aren’t you going to come out?”

“Oh, fine, I suppose so. I don’t know how anyone learns anything around here, what with holidays every six months and meals twice a day. Next they’ll declare the ocean is within bounds and we’re allowed to go swimming in it, and then the sages will be completely forgotten.”

Kwan’s lips twitched; the Bering Strait was perhaps unlikely to tempt anyone to skip classes for bathing, even in summer. “Oh, I’m sure the famous Minjun discipline would survive the temptation.” He waited patiently while Minjun dressed for the outdoors; inland Siberia had places that were colder than Penchisky, but their dry air did not suck heat from every exposed inch as did the chill wet breeze off the Pacific. When Minjun was ready, Kwan held open the door for him with an exaggerated courtly bow. As usual, Minjun was secretly amused by the sheer effeminacy of his friend’s gestures; high tenor, delicate facial bones – no prizes for guessing what had gotten him sent to Penchisky. But he kept his smile to himself. The superior man controlled his urges, and if Kwan’s lusts were unnatural, it was all the more to his credit that there had been no hint of scandal in the year Minjun had known him; not so much as simple flirtation. In a college with a hundred boys for every girl, there were many, even among those who had been sent north for sleeping with the wrong woman, who couldn’t say the same.

The air struck like a hammer, even through the thin layer of grease he had smeared on his face; but for the first time in weeks, the unrelieved blackness of Arctic winter was broken by the huge bonfires, profligately squandering precious wood shipped in especially for this occasion, that dotted the quadrangle. In its center the Virtuous Man was going up, teams of students rolling enormous snowballs to be lifted up rickety scaffolding and carefully maneuvered into place by the seniors. When he was done he would be fifty feet high, surely the world’s largest snowman. He would watch over the quad until the sun finally killed him sometime in May, allegorising the importance of keeping a cool head at all times.

Minjun bent over to grab enough snow to start his own ball rolling. That was fortunate; it caused the first flurry of missiles to go over his head and strike the door behind him with flat crack sounds – not the mushy splosh of a friendly snowball, but the hard snap of packed ice meant to injure. Kwan, on the other hand, caught one with his mouth; the sheer surprise of it knocked him off balance, and he fell onto Minjun, tumbling them both down in the snow.

Had Minjun been a scion of one of the legendary warrior families of Europe, he would have reacted instantly, his hand, perhaps, going for the knife he would certainly have hidden in his boot, or a gun holster under his shoulder; by the time his assailants knew that they had missed, one of them would already be dead and Minjun spinning with instant deadliness towards the kneecap of another. Alas, Korean merchant clans did not teach their children personal combat and small-arms maintenance from the age of five; Minjun reacted with the ordinary confusion of an untrained human, taking several seconds to realise that he was in a fight. Fortunately for him, his enemies were likewise untrained, and in fact quite unlikely to seriously hurt anyone even with a mean-spirited snowball which from other hands could easily break bones. Thus, by the time they had surrounded Kwan and Minjun – taking their time, to demonstrate that they were in charge – he was on his feet again, and ready to fight.

“Shen,” he snarled; of course. The Chinese student had had it in for him since Minjun had bumped him down in academic ranking. Shen nodded pleasantly in return, as though they were two gentlemen who had met each other while out for an evening stroll. “Minjun, how nice to meet you here. Come out with your catamite to see the Virtuous Man, have you?”

Minjun felt himself grinning, or rather baring his teeth; blood thundered in his head. The old hot rage ran through him, the vicious need to pound someone’s face into pulp and feel their bones break under his fists. But that sort of thing had got him sent here; he dreaded to think what would happen if he got in a fight at Penchisky, his last chance. He throttled back his rage and instead ground out “Unfortunately, all I see are scum. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to give us the road.”

Shen raised his eyebrows, perfectly supercilious, making Minjun’s blood boil. “Why, certainly. I would hate to think I was standing in the way of a gentleman. Catamites, on the other hand, should rather give the road to their superiors.”

So it was Kwan they were after today; of course, divide and conquer, that was the Chinese style. Well, Minjun was damned if he was going to let any Korean be beaten by these thugs, even if he was a catamite. He looked quickly at Kwan, who was holding a hand to his bleeding mouth and looking wide-eyed, then back at Shen and his two comrades. One against three, not good odds; but at some level he didn’t care. The high frozen singing of adrenaline in his bloodstream didn’t think the odds mattered; only that there should be blood and the feeling of fists smashing faces. Thoughts of consequences faded, just as they had when Hyung taunted him and ended up with a broken arm. He stepped forward, hands up in a boxing stance; but Kwan grabbed him by the shoulder before he could strike. “Wait, Minjun,” the smaller boy said thickly. “He’s trying to get you expelled. He’s not worth it.”

The swelling of his friend’s lips from the iceball did nothing to cool Minjun’s temper; but a fragment of the Confucius he had been studying floated up from somewhere at the back of his mind, and he saw at least how he could get the last word. Not as satisfying as punching in faces, perhaps, but much safer.

“The superior man,” he quoted venomously, “is able to attain his ends without violence. Looks like the catamite is superior to you, Shen.”

Shen’s eyes narrowed, but for a crucial two seconds he was left without a retort. Minjun used the silence to take the initiative, moving past Shen towards the quad. Then Shen’s fist arced out in a punch, and Minjun’s heart leapt with battle-joy even as his arm came up to block. Shen had thrown the first punch! That was entirely different; now it was the other boy who was at risk of expulsion. He threw himself into the fight with mad abandon, grappling Shen and bringing them both down in the snow. His forehead smashed into Shen’s nose with a crunch that, in other circumstances, might have been sickening, but which in his rage gave him only joy.

For a minute he knew only pounding, red madness; he came to himself when Kwan’s increasingly urgent voice cut through the haze. “Minjun! Stop, he’s had enough. Minjun! Don’t kill him!” By then Minjun was sitting on the Chinese boy’s chest and hitting his face with satisfying, meaty thunks. Shen wasn’t even trying to fight back anymore, just to escape. His friends hovered at the edge of the fight, unable to muster quite enough aggression or decision to either intervene or get out of range of their erstwhile victim. Minjun looked down at Shen’s rapidly purpling face, and slowly lowered his fist from where it was poised to strike again.

“I guess I’m just not all that superior. But then again, what about the man who can’t attain his ends even with violence?”

He got up with a cautious glare at Shen’s friends; but they didn’t seem inclined to continue the fight, the duel of the leaders had settled it for now. He’d have to watch his step the next few days, though. “Right,” he said. “We were about to see the Virtuous Man; and affairs of the world should not be allowed to distract from thoughts of virtue. Come on, Kwan.”

They had gone about halfway across the quad when Kwan spoke up softly. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you in the fight. But I’m not a, a – what he called me.”

Minjun looked at him, unsure what to say. After all, facts were facts, friend or no friend; but there was nothing to gain by being rude about it. He settled on “I know you haven’t slept with anyone here.”

Kwan rubbed his face. “Yeah, no, that’s not – look. Why does everyone think I’m, um, perverted?”

Well, if he was going to ask directly… “Because your voice flutes like a eunuch’s, your face is very delicate and so are your wrists, and you flutter your hands when you talk.”

Kwan stared at him. “Really? Do I?”

Minjun stared back. “Um. Didn’t you know?”

They had stopped walking, and were standing halfway to the Virtuous Man, outside the circle of bonfires; the dark gave them at least the appearance of privacy. Kwan looked at his hands as though he’d never seen them before. “No,” he said slowly. “I had no idea. What if I talk like this?” With a clear effort he dropped his voice perhaps an octave, roughening it but sounding much more masculine. He crossed his arms, stilling his gestures as well.

“Better,” Minjun nodded. “But I’m afraid you’re too late, the gossip mill has pretty much finished spitting you out. I mean, sorry, but I’m almost your only friend here and I thought, well…”

“Yeah, I guess.” Kwan bit his lip. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you knew, and just couldn’t help it.”

“Oh.” Kwan bit his lip, pensive. “Well. Thanks for the advice. Um. My name’s not actually Kwan.”

“No? What is it?”

“Kyon.”

Minjun furrowed his brow, confused. “That’s a girl’s name – oh. Oh!” It became clear with the abrupt conceptual shift of a geometry problem coming into focus, and suddenly he couldn’t believe how stupid he had been. Incredulous laughter – at himself, at every stupid student on the campus who had seen what they expected to see – bubbled up in him. “You’re a woman!” he said intelligently.

“No,” Kwan – Kyon – said. “I’m a fucking lady, thanks.”

“And I’m an idiot!”

Kyon’s lips twisted in humour. “Well, I’m not going to argue with the top-ranked student here, am I? Especially not after what you did to Shen.”

“Gah. I can’t believe – Buddha’s belly, I must have been blind.” Once he had seen it, it was impossible to unsee; the fine eyebrows with no bony ridge under them, the delicate lips and pointed chin – how on Earth could he have thought this vision of beauty a boy? “But, if I can ask, why?”

“How many women at Penchisky?”

“Five, or six counting you. Or, actually, who knows? I wonder if Yeon – well, anyway, five who dress like it.”

“Right, and they are never out of each other’s sight, because if they were the boys would be all over them like flies on honey. Probably they’d be friendly about it, but ancestors save us, there are five hundred of them and none of them have seen any other women in at least a year. I thought I could avoid that.” Her lips twisted wryly. “Not my brightest idea ever, maybe.”

“Well, at least now you’ve got Shen’s negative attention. Much better than having him trying to flirt with you, no?”

Kyon laughed, slightly hysterically. “Much!”

“So, what are you in for, then? I thought they’d sent you here to make a man of you, but no?”

She shrugged. “The usual. If I was that resistant to the duties of a woman – ” Minjun nodded; he was familiar with the aphorism. “Then you could try the duties of a man, and see how you liked it.”

“Right. So I thought, I’d try the clothes of a man as well, and see how Penchisky liked that.”

“Well, anyway. You want to build the Virtuous Man?”

Kyon smiled. “Oh, I think I already have; but why not?”

It wasn’t until five later that Minjun understood what she had meant; but he smiled to himself all through the festival.

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One response to “The Komneniad: Penchisky Penance

  1. Pingback: The Komneniad: The Northwest Frontier | Ynglinga Saga

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