February 17th, 1877
A mansion in New Byzantium
“Crucifixion,” the Chinese ambassador pontificated, “is the very pinnacle, the finest invention of Roman culture! The truly sovereign remedy for all rebellion and unrest. I only wish I could persuade my own government to adopt this wonderful custom; this little unrest in the provinces would vanish like dew in the sun.” He paused to gulp his wine, imported from Japan and liberally spiced with opium. It was his fourth cup, but he showed no effects beyond a slight heaviness in the eyes, and a complete obliviousness to the reaction of his audience. The foreigners considered crucifixion a barbarous custom; the Romans considered it a necessary evil, but hardly a fit subject matter for discussion at a party.
For a moment Lysandros considered intervening. It would probably not be possible to cause the ambassador to stop with a clinical description of the actual effects of crucifixion; he was too drunk for that. But a suggestion that he try the brandy would likely distract him, and then he could change the subject and get his sister’s party back on track; he’d be the hero of the hour… bah. He shook his head; the effort would be vast, and who cared about the damn party, anyway? He was only here to please his sister; let her rescue her own conversations.
The slight spark of interest faded, and he wandered off to refill his own drink. The haze was making him nostalgic; he remembered parties in his youth, before the Rising, where he’d hardly touched a drop, and yet had talked himself hoarse and gone to bed smiling. That had been in the old mansion, of course, the one the rebels had torched. It had had gaslights, not the flashy and expensive electrics that this party was showing off; there had been dark corners suitable for seduction. The soft blue light had made young faces enchanting, old ones wise; gold jewelry had glowed then, it hadn’t flashed vulgarly as the harsh electric lights made it do. He looked with sudden distaste at his fellow party-goers, at their brittle nervous laughter and too-energetic gestures that made their rings flash. But no; the change wasn’t in the lights. Surely the Revolt had not changed the Komnenoi that much? Yet he could not recall, before, having seen grinning skulls so close to the surface of the skin. He’d had vague thoughts, earlier in the evening, of talking to some suitable woman, perhaps starting a courtship; it was time he married. But all the women he saw had haggard eyes and thin faces. Who knew what they had done, to survive the siege? Only one of his sisters lived; what had Eudokia done that Aikaterina hadn’t? Or had it been luck? It was impossible to ask. But the eyes of the Komnenoi women who had lived through the New Byzantium Commune spoke silent volumes.
He felt a tinge of sympathy for the sweating ambassador; perhaps he had sisters too, or daughters. His pomposity was a mask for deep anguish; the regime he represented was tottering, its armies struggling to hold even the mountain capital at Xian. The Senate and the People had declined to intervene – Lysandros had voted against it himself, in fact – and so had the European Powers. Any day now the word must come that the new government in Nanking had been recognised, and that the ambassador was recalled, to who knew what fate.
Hard-faced men in the uniforms of the Legions, women old before their time… but it wasn’t just the Komnenoi. The party was a major event; theirs was the first Senatorial family to complete a new mansion, and it had electric lights at that – all the upper crust of New Byzantium was here, rejoicing in the return of normalcy. The foreigners could not have been so badly affected by the war; they had not lived through the siege. Yet in Lysandros’s eyes they were all become ugly: Oleaginous German merchants gobbling imported sausages; the swarthy Persian envoy looking down his hooked nose at the non-Aryans; two arrogant Croatians in togas, of all things, as though the usurping bastards had any claim to being Romans… the change couldn’t be in them, Lysandros realised. The ugliness was in the eye of the beholder.
He was contemplating getting seriously drunk when there was a shingle of breaking glass and a burst of screams. His hand went to the pistol strapped to his leg under the formal toga; all over the room Komnenos males were grasping for weapons, while foreigners stood frozen in shock. The paraffin had, praise the bodhisattva, not splattered anyone, but the lacquered wood floor was starting to burn fiercely. Lysandros ignored it to run for the door; his sister was quite capable of handling a mere fire. His lethargy was gone. An enemy! A traitor rebel, quite literally at the gates! His lips drew back in a snarl.
The cold air hit him like a hammer, sobering him. If there had been more than one rebel, they might have someone waiting in ambush precisely to kill the first few Komnenoi out the door. But the winter night was still, and dark as Satan’s heart; the only light was what spilled out of the open door behind him. He caught a movement from the corner of his eye, and whirled to fire. The muzzle flash lit the scene for a second; in the harsh orange light he could see the rebel struggling to get up from where he’d stumbled on a decorative bench. His bullet had gone wild, but no matter; Lysandros sprinted the twenty meters to where the terrorist had just managed to disentangle himself, and leaped at him with a savage scream. They went down together, Lysandros uppermost. The rebel flailed wildly with his fists, but Lysandros hardly felt the blows. He smashed his elbow into the other’s head, then got his knee into his stomach. The other stopped struggling as Lysandros’s weight drove all the air from his lungs. In the sudden calm Lysandros could see that his enemy was tiny, not an adult terrorist but a mere boy. His pride in his accomplishment suddenly faded; a grown man, and an officer of the Legions at that, against a teenaged terrorist who hadn’t even managed to plot an escape route without stumbling over a bench… it had been no fair combat.
Still, this boy had, after all, tried to kill him. Lysandros gave his captive another blow to the head, to keep him dazed and still, and rose, lifting the boy by his wrist twisted behind his back. Others had come rushing to his aid, and there was a circle of excited, somewhat drunken party-goers offering congratulations. Loudest was the Chinese ambassador, calling for summary execution; “Crucify the little swine, I say! Teach him a lesson!” There was nervous laughter, and someone said, “That’s right, a lesson he’ll remember all his life!” Someone else called for a hammer and nails. “We don’t need timber, that tree will do fine.”
So it would, Lysandros knew; he’d presided over any number of such improvised crucifixions, in the savage mopping-up campaigns after the siege of the Commune had ended. Nor was anyone likely to object, if a man of Senatorial rank took the law into his hands, against a bomb-thrower taken on his own estate. But something in him rebelled at the thought. Not in my garden! he shouted silently. Not in the new mansion that had been untouched by the war. He thought of walking past a tree where a rebel had taken three days to die, every morning for the next thirty years, and shuddered; and found his voice again.
“Enough!” he shouted; then when that wasn’t enough, fired his revolver again, into the air. That cut off the excited babble around him. He looked coldly at the guests. “Is this Rome, or some barbarian country outside the law? I’ll have no lynch mobs here, if you please.”
Most of the guests looked down, shamefaced; but the ambassador – who else? – was drunk enough to stand his ground. “Come, Senator! This rebel swine just tried to kill you! You surely have the authority under the law; was it not you who ordered a thousand rebels crucified, and another three thousand shot, after the siege?”
“Yes, ambassador, it was. The Senate and the People of Rome authorised the expedited tribunals, because there were too many prisoners for the usual courts; and I carried out their mandate. Then that lawful authority came to an end, because its task was done. The war is over; the courts have resumed their tasks. Let them do their work.”
Something in his tone got through the alcohol and opium, and the ambassador looked down. The rebel, on the other hand, laughed derisively. “Komnenoi courts! That’ll be justice!”
Lysandros shrugged. “More justice than being nailed to that tree in the next five minutes. And anyway, what do you call it when you throw lighted bottles of paraffin through someone’s window? Lighthearted pranks?”
“I call it justice! You sent my brother to the mines!”
“Ah.” Lysandros was quiet for a moment. “Did I, indeed? And for this mercy, you repay me with arson and attempted murder?”
“Mercy!” There was something like laughter in the rebel’s voice, and tears as well. “You call it mercy! The Communards were right. We’ll have no peace until you’re all gone, all you rich bastards. Your words don’t mean anything. Mercy and justice! Christ have mercy on us all!”
“Kyrie eleison, indeed,” Lysandros said softly. “Christ have mercy on the Republic.” A vast weariness was descending on him, and suddenly he didn’t feel like arguing. To sit in the Senate of Rome was to have power and privilege; and with privilege came duty, no matter how much he would have liked to tend his own garden, and his wounds. The body of the Republic took precedence. And it would be a long time healing.