The Komneniad: Bloody Shirts

June 23rd, 1918
A villa in New Byzantium
Late afternoon

Ave, Nika!

The chanted slogan, shouted by ten thousand deep male voices, resounded down the brick alleys. Even here, a full mile from the stadium and through windows shuttered against the summer heat, you could not avoid hearing it, though it lacked the mind-shattering force of being in the epicenter. It droned out with near-metronomic regularity, whenever the speaker, inaudible here, paused in his cadences.

“Fucking Lysandros,” one of the silent men around the table said at last. The obscenity had become a mantra to them over the campaign, wavering uneasily between in-joke, curse, and prayer; now it signalled the beginning of business, a nearly ritual invocation.

“Fuck him, yeah, but what are we going to do about it now? Election’s over, we lost. Go home, get drunk. Pray.” Kleitos didn’t look up as he spoke, directing his remarks to the table, Ethiopian mahogany inlaid with ivory. Kleitos had two sons in the Legions.

“Pretty shortly you’ll be able to pray at the shrine of Lysandros,” Eusebius said. “Fucking Lysandros! If that goddamn assassin hadn’t – ”

“Yes, yes,” Leonidas interjected impatiently. The assassination was an obsession of Eusebius’s – of them all, really, but Eusebius was the only one who spoke of it regularly. Still Georgos felt his mind whirl down the old familiar path. Lysandros had turned the Forum around with his speech; Lysandros had been shot; Lysandros’s last words had been of justice against Russia; Lysandros had given the war party everything it needed, and then died, making it impossible to argue with him. Fucking Lysandros. The assassin had been a Roman subject, some disgruntled survivor of the Rising and the labour camps; but what was the use of mere truth, against a demagogue who had an actual, literal bloody shirt to wave around at his rallies? He shook himself; the thought was ancient, useless. Had he no new thoughts in him? Perhaps the maura poukamisa were right after all, that the Komnenoi families had grown tired and old, that fresh blood was needed.

“There will be war,” Georgos said at last. The others quieted to listen to him; he was still their leader, for whatever leadership of the Industry Party was worth these days. “It can’t be helped now. Well then, we have lost this round, this decade; but there comes another. This is Rome, after all. Surely if three thousand years of history are good for anything, it is to show that there’s always another decade. So. This war will kill a hundred thousand men; half a million, if Germany comes in. That’ll curb their enthusiasm; and we’ll be there to pick up the pieces. The tumult and the shouting dies, and what happens? The border moves, ten miles, a hundred miles; and the ancient problem is still there. How shall men live in peace with each other?”

He paused. They were listening, rapt; not lost in their private bitternesses anymore, but lifted out of themselves. Had he finally found the words? Perhaps the defeat had been necessary, if it brought him this inspiration; all his life he had struggled to express the ideas that flowed so easily now.

“Once, Roman soldiers killed a man who had taught nothing but peace; and the echoes of that vast mistake are still reverberating. To kill a man who taught nothing but war – well, the event made its splash, no doubt, and there will be shrines built and there will be men who call him a bodhisattva… but they will be wrong, that’s all; and in the end the truth comes through. There will be a stroppy little cult of blood and war, strutting its hour – its decade – on the stage; and in the end it will be sound and fury, signifying nothing, and the vastness of Truth will encompass it all, and erase it as though it had never been.”

Georgos felt his own words rush through him like cool water, clearing out the petty bitterness, the filthy grudges of party politics; in their wake was calm. Was this a vision? He felt uplifted, exalted; this was the speech he had been trying to give since he first entered politics. It was almost a pity that it should be given here, to these few friends – but no; he knew with calm certainty that the words would come to him again, that he would speak these truths to listening thousands.

“We have been defeated, today and for many days to come; but not for all days. Let our defeat be our lesson, then. We have erred; we have tried to compromise with the dragon War, have sought influence among the Senate and the People by the accepted methods; have sent our sons out to kill. There is our mistake. Peace can make no compromise with war. We have sought tactical advantage – ha, there’s a phrase! – at the expense of principle. We must do so no longer; we must abandon all thought of showing the Komnenoi their error by their own methods. Kleitos, your sons must resign their commissions, or their party memberships.” Kleitos nodded gratefully, tears in his eyes. He had fought in the Persian war; the thought of his sons doing the same had driven him to distraction. Yet there was no path to power in Rome, except through the Legions; and so he had seen them take the oath, and swallowed his despair.

“Eusebius: We will speak no more of `fucking Lysandros’; he was a man, that’s all, and no spirit or devil sent to torment us. Leonidas: We will publish no more accusatory pamphlets. The party may become smaller, but it will be the better for it.”

He looked at them challengingly, but they nodded, offering no resistance, and he went on. “It is said that the last word of Lysandros was ‘Russia’, but that is not true. I was there, and I heard. It was ‘justice’. Perhaps he was wise, in the last fading seconds of his long life. Between justice and war there is, in the long run, no middle ground. Let us cleave to justice, then; and in the end truth will prevail. And truth will make us free.”

Through the windows, faintly now, came again the roar of the crowd at the stadium; “Ave, Nika! Ave, Nika!”


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