The Komneniad: A Sky Full of Anvils

Imagine that the sky is full of anvils.

At any moment they may fall, destroying houses, killing men. There is no controlling them, or predicting the day they will finally fall; and while you can build your house sturdy, if you are wealthy enough, you cannot spend all your days indoors. So you watch the skies anxiously, and batten the hatches when storms come nigh. But in the end, you go on with your life. What else is there to do?

And after all, the anvils are only metaphorical. In the world of the literal, the lived experience: Why, the sun is shining! Historians, no doubt, will write of the decade as a dark time. They will compress the events into single chapters: A coup, a purge, a dictatorship, border frictions… and inevitably, the war. For war is coming; all men know it, though not the day or the hour. And that view is not without merit. But in the day, in the here-and-now – events pass one hour at a time; men do not skip, as a book can, from skirmish to crisis, from quasi-legal coup to the construction of new weaponry. Nor does the darkness of the decade, in a historian’s view, translate into a darkness in men’s souls, or in the weather; a dark decade has its long months of summer sun. If newsreels are in flickering black and white, still, the world has as much colour as ever. Even a primary source is not the thing itself.

And here, on this quiet street in the working-class parts of New Byzantium – no primary source will mention what happens here, unless you count the memories of those involved. Perhaps, in the distant future of five decades hence, some curious graduate student will seek out those old enough to remember, and write down their accounts, and – who knows? – piece together some narrative of the day; and it will be published in a respected but not a top-notch journal, and as many as a dozen people might read it with some attention, before moving on with their day. And yet in the minds of those who are gathered here today, the marriage of Aleksios and Erika, showing that Erika’s mother Glykeria is not quite the invincible harridan everyone thought, looms quite as large as the renewed alliance between Ethiopia and Kongo – which shows that, if Konstantin ever had mind-control rays gotten from Persian colonies on the moon, they have now stopped working. The effort to keep the Anatolios brothers from brawling with the Nikandroi is as important, and takes as much thought, as smoothing over a skirmish in the Himalayas with deaths on both sides.

Eat, drink, and be merry? There is something to that; but if the truth were told, these minor Komnenoi rarely indulge, especially in these straitened days when the State dividend has been cut to the bone. In their daily round they scrimp and save, and put money in the bank; on the first Monday of each month they make a ritual of going to the local branch to have their account books stamped, and so-circumspectly brag about the interest they earned. (Indeed the size of Aleksios’s monthly payment is not the least of the reasons Glykeria ceased her customary opposition to all Erika’s doings; if that number was, perchance, inflated by temporary contributions from friends of the happy couple, well, nobody is like to tell the Harridan of Hippocrates Street.) They do not drink and celebrate because they wish to forget their troubles; they have forgotten their troubles because they are far away, and they celebrate from genuine happiness. Ephemeral happiness, perhaps; but real enough for all that. The war will come, the anvils will fall; perhaps even tomorrow, for some of them, when the telegram that started in a centurion’s office in the Himalayas finally reaches its destination. But that is tomorrow, or the next day.

One hour at a time. And today, the sun is shining.


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