The Empire Strikes Back 114 - The Brothers' War
1 Febrauary 1936
Alvértos sat and waited before heading over to the conference room. A poor excuse for Senate chambers still, but better than a month ago. On the table beside him were three newspapers. Father had always made sure important papers ended up in the archives, though his choices were often inscrutable. Alvértos hoped that his choices would be more clear, both now and in the future. And he wondered how the past month had treated the senators and other notables who had joined him. He would find out soon.
News of the civil war over at the Imperial heartland quickly spread its way internationally, and as such it quickly made its way to Aotearoa. Though preparations had been made already, the official statement released on the 2nd of January would be noted as slightly rushed, as to avoid running against the 4 Day Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ and the incoming Christmastide season. Both Kyrene and Nestorius would be present.
“Today, a most shocking revelation has hit our shores. The Imperial heartland finds itself in conflict once more, not by the hands of a malicious third-party wishing upon it destruction, nor by those seeking to tear it apart and/or carve it into their own dominion, but as a result of familial infighting. Princes Alvértos and Konstantinos have rendered the heartland in two, in a struggle for dominance over whom will take the Imperial succession,” Kyrene began, with Nestorius looking visibly exhausted beside her. He had barely been convinced to read the report by colleagues and family, and one could see in his eyes that he was still mentally processing everything going on.
“However, as it stands, the conflict appears to be contained to the heartland. Though we are Imperial subjects too, an example of not just Foederati excellence, but an example for all Foederati to follow,” Kyrene spoke, invoking not just the 1915 Imperial policy of federation that led to the Exarchate’s creation along with the other first early states, but also Aotearoa’s history up to this point, “we cannot allow the spread of violence across the Empire. Just as my fellow peers among the Foederati had done, Aotearoa too will follow a policy of neutrality in this conflict. Though we in government, my own and Mesazon Papadopoulos’s, may have our personal stances on the matter, we cannot allow them to influence any path other than anti-militarism. We can only hope and pray in this coming season that this conflict will see a quick end, not just for the sake of the Empire, but for all those living in the zones of conflict in the heartland.”
Kyrene moved to the side, allowing her husband to take the stage and speak his part. Nestorius struggled to start for a bit, a contrast to the man most at home would recognize as their cheery, stately grandpa.
“…I cannot speak a lie to you all, the words I wish to speak on all this escape me. I had suffered through conflict in the region before. At about age 5, I witnessed an attack on the City, secluded and in fear of what was to come. That fear returned to me at age 61, when the City once more suffered an attack. The fear was near paralyzing, and were it not for Kyrene and her tenacity, I am sure that I would have died that day. And now, at age 83, I feel the same way once more. Sickly at the thought of what is to happen to my motherland. Terrified at what damage and trauma it may induce in those stuck in the middle. And now, standing here before you all, I feel as secluded from my home as I had at age 5. Unable to aid, unable to stop what will happen… it pains me.”
Nestorius paused for a moment, as those present and those listening from the radio pondered his comments: “…the only thing that has brought me peace is knowing that some of my peers and colleagues, whether they be Senators as I am, or those ‘working under me’ at the Aotearoan Representative HQ, had managed to get away from the active front - with many I know personally escaping to Trebizond with Prince Alvértos. Though I too will take part in the policy of neutrality, I can only ponder as to why so many, including those representing you all here back in the heartland, would flee as well,” he stated, leaving the implication obvious for all to see; he may go with neutrality, but his heart supports Alvértos.
Kyrene approached the stand, putting her arm around Nestorius as to comfort him, knowing how he’s struggling. “May this incoming holiday season remind in us all to love our neighbors, and be at peace with them. Thank you all for joining us today,” Nestorius finished up, with Kyrene joining in on the thank you at the end.
Those in attendance applauded the two as they made their way away from the podium, with the press quickly approaching and subsequently being rebuked by security in their attempts to ask the two for follow-up questions. The only thing they were told is that they would have to wait until after Christmastide for further elaboration.
The holidays had proven stressful for all involved with the Thaddai, whether it be the impromptu Aotearoan Representative HQ in Trebizond, the Thaddai estate back in Komnenion, or those working with either in the country. The HQ worked steadily to improve their efficiency and living standards, while Timon and Kyrene did their best to celebrate holiday cheer for Nestorius’ sake, as to distract him from what was going on back home.
Timon bemoaned the situation, having wanted to confront his father over the fact that, from his research, ministerial and (more importantly) senatorial positions were not supposed to be functionally hereditary according to Imperial law, wanting to imply his anxiousness over getting the position from his father in a roundabout way, but he couldn’t find the will in him to stress him out over that. It did not help that soon after Christmastide and Epiphany was the Thaddai family saint day, the 20th of January for John the Baptist, and how this would be one of the rare times Nestorius wouldn’t return back home to visit what little family he still maintained connections to (having effectively broken off from the Septiadis family, and cut off his ties with most once he began accruing notoriety in the Senate).
Holiday celebrations in Trebizond were similarly limited, though at least the comfort from being family aided in reducing much anxiety. Franco maintained his reports as things continued to settle in, and those at the HQ began building up connections in the city, were they to ever need them, as well as find folks to hire, as they needed new blood to compensate for the fact that many of them were getting on in age by now. One prospective hire, one Halia Thisavropoulos, daughter of a mariner and partaker in the local women’s street pankration scene, was noted down for potential review.
The death of the Emperor only served to increase tensions after the holidays. Kyrene would make another public statement, to express her sorrow, but also to express Nestorius’ sorrow too, for he wouldn’t join her this time. Nestorius seemed more stressed than ever, incentivizing more extreme measures from Kyrene, Timon and co. to relax him, with trips around the Aotearoan countryside to see the silent beauty of nature, while Franco and co. found themselves concerned how the last opportunity for a quick peace had seemed to be dashed. None would realize in just how far the Emperor’s death would impact them.
The rest of the month flew by in a flash. After the interview concluded, Theodora had stayed at the MSI to continue her work, while Irene left early.
Nothing much happened the rest of that day. Irene went to the newsreel theater and consulted the paperboy near her place as often as she could, but there were few developments. Notably, the Prince had followed through on his plans and called for his father to intervene in the crisis. Other than that, nothing that really concerned her. There was a new movie that looked great, but they weren’t showing it in Trebizond, unfortunately.
Apparently, it was too difficult to get a copy of the film through an active warzone. Oh well. She hoped the library had some of the classic adventure or detective novels she liked.
The Dardanelles - January 4, night
“One! Two! One! Two!” Theodoros’ men whispered as they pulled on their oars with rhythmic precision. Their boats lurched forward through the dark waters of the Dardanelles. In the distance, they could see the lights of Gallipoli, the town on the other side. Their goal was not the town itself but the naval base next to it, which controlled maritime traffic heading to Constantinople. They would sneak in, capture its guns, and then signal for the rest of the force—crossing in larger motorized boats to carry their horses—to join them.
They reached the shores of Gallipoli without any issues, disembarking about half a mile south of the town proper. There was little there other than a few roads leading to outer villages, which made it the perfect landing ground. Once they had settled back onto solid ground, they grabbed their guns and approached the naval base. There were more lights here, coming from watchtowers and patrolling vehicles. Seemed Konstantinos had gotten to this base early and shored it up with new defenses. A pragmatic decision, as the Dardanelles was about two miles wide here and Gallipoli was well within range of their own artillery. He would rather not order them to fire, as that would likely destroy the guns they needed, but he banked on Konstantinos’ men not knowing that.
The attack began at about 11 PM. They first took out the patrols, using knives to quietly dispatch their targets. Next, they donned the uniforms from the patrols, rolled up to the entrance, and tried to bluff their way inside. When that didn’t work, they simply pulled out their guns and opened fire. The base was pretty small, and they overwhelmed it within an hour. Most of Konstantinos’ men were killed, and a handful were captured. What was more important, though, was the base itself. The classified documents stored in the commander’s office and the radio station would give them a good look at troop movements in the area for the next couple days. Most importantly, the naval guns were theirs. At 1 AM on January 5, the rest of the force crossed the strait. More reinforcements arrived three days later, and they immediately began shoring up the base’s defenses. Theodoros knew he didn’t have enough troops to go further, so he would have to focus on purely defensive operations.
The counterattack began on the 10th. By then, the orders seized from the base had long since been executed or were no longer valid, but Theodoros had expected this to happen. Konstantinos assaulted Gallipoli from the south, west, and north, relying heavily on infantry forces. There were few aircraft or armor aiding them, which meant they were either unavailable or sent elsewhere. With that in mind, Theodoros felt safe enough to order his troops to dig in and hold the line.
Over the next two weeks, Konstantinos’ men struck at Gallipoli, only to be driven back each time. The trenches dug around the town and base served Theodoros well, allowing him to minimize his own casualties while maximizing his army’s destructive potential. His infantry hit any enemies approaching the trenches, while the cavalry launched hit and run attacks at the back of the enemy formation, sowing chaos and disrupting supply lines. He was vastly outnumbered here, but he couldn’t call for more reinforcements from Anatolia. They were already stretching the limits of what Gallipoli could support with the troops he had. This would boil down to a war of attrition. He had to outlast the enemy or at least make it so the cost of taking Gallipoli was too high for them.
He hoped that cost was much closer to the current casualty rates than he feared.
Trebizond - January 21
The news everyone feared finally arrived on the 21st. His Majesty was dead. Theodora got the news earlier than most people, one of her few contacts still in the capital reporting as much within two hours of the event. So she got to watch as the rest of the city gradually shut down and ground to a halt later that morning as the news spread. First it was the cable cars which halted service. Then the cars stopped as well. After that, the pedestrians all stopped where they were and took off their hats. For several somber minutes, the entire city stood still, the silence only broken by the playing of taps somewhere in the distance. On one of the street corners, Theodora saw a military veteran turn to a flag and salute reverently.
The Emperor was gone. He had been reigning for 26 years. Theodora remembered the circumstances surrounding the start of his reign. The assassination of Konstantinos XX together with her father, the beginning of the Time of Troubles, and her first days in the Senate. That seemed like so long ago now. She remembered how bright-eyed she was the first time she stepped into the halls of the Great Palace as a senator. She remembered meeting the other senators and getting to know them over the next two decades. All of it was under His Majesty’s reign. Now that was over. She thought he would have more time. She thought he could at least have helped out with this crisis, but that couldn’t happen now.
What concerned her most was how people would react to this. Would Konstantinos blame Alvértos, or vice versa? Would the people point at the Cult or the communists? Would the rebels and their other enemies use the opportunity to attack? They had to find the truth quickly, before the rumors could spread. Though she was already certain at least three rumors involving the Cult had already entered the public consciousness.
In any case, she had a lot of paperwork ahead of her. She sipped her coffee and put down her newspaper crossword.
Nicaea, Opsikion - February 1
The air strike came early in the morning. Dive bombers from Konstantinos’ side crossed the Dardanelles, ignoring the siege of Gallipoli, and put themselves on a course for Nicaea, the capital of Opsikion. They were spotted by fishing boats in the straits, who reported their course to the nearest military authorities. Ioannes, in nearby Nicomedia, immediately scrambled aircraft to intercept and neutralize the incoming targets.
The two sides had solidified enough that Ioannes could act quickly now. Three weeks ago, numerous land and air raids by Konstantinos’ forces had caused numerous casualties because they were still transmitting authentic ID codes, claimed to be loyal to Alvértos, or had been part of units under Trebizond’s control. But now Konstantinos’ men had firmly sided with him, and the same went for Alvértos’. What’s more, they had devised their own impromptu identifiers.
As the enemy aircraft entered Nicaea’s airspace and dove down to begin their bombing runs, the first thing people on the ground noticed was that they were emblazoned with the insignia of an eagle set against a chi-ro and a black background, not unlike the symbol spouted on the black armbands of the blackshirt goons in Constantinople. The dive bombers released their payload, and bombs fell on two vehicle manufacturing factories on the outskirts of downtown. Fortunately, the advance warning had given Ioannes enough time to evacuate the factory workers and everyone else in the immediate vicinity, but the damage was not insignificant. It would take weeks to repair everything and another month to get back to normal production levels. Still, nobody had died, and help was already on the way.
As the bombers ascended again to prepare for another run, a radio broadcast came through their receivers.
“This is the imperial airship Scipio, commanded by General John-Loukas Picardie. Abandon your bombing run and turn back, or you will be destroyed. This is your first and final warning.”
The bombers refused to heed the warning and instead dove down for another run. In that instant, the skies became filled with lead as a squadron of fighter planes dove out of the clouds and strafed them. One bomber immediately began trailing smoke, its propellers sheared off and engines shattered by the bullets. Another fired back with its secondary gun, but it couldn’t hit the more agile fighters. Bullets tore through its tail and caused it to go into a downward spiral. A minute later, the two downed bombers crashed into the ground outside Nicaea and exploded. The rest pulled out of their bombing runs and retreated to the west.
With the battle concluded, the Scipio’s air squadron did a low altitude fly-by over Nicaea. The townspeople emerged from their bunkers to cheer on their saviors, waving Roman flags and shouting their thanks at the pilots as they flew overhead and returned to the Scipio to dock.
The townspeople saw a different insignia painted on the wings and sides of Alvértos’ fighters. The old imperial eagle remained set against bright red, but another symbol had been added: SPQR.
For the Senate and people of Rome.
From Lieutenant Nikos Stavros’s journal “The last week has been excruciatingly exhausting. The news of the civil war got to us quickly thanks to radio and the telegraph - such wonderful technologies, but the radio isn’t as widespread as it could be. Officially Sicilia has declared to be a neutral party in the conflict, which I understand given who we have to face to the north. What I don’t understand is the incompetence of the senior officers left in the province. Given the extraordinary nature of the situation, they gathered for a conference in Napoli, to decide the defensive stratagem for the near future. However, it appears that no one there really knows what to do. My, and my unit’s, orders keep getting changed from day to day, sometimes even a few times during the same day. ‘Hold your position!’, ‘Pull back here’ or ‘Pull back there’, in the end, it only introduces more chaos. If this keeps up I will have no choice but to make my own decision. And as important as orders are, I think there are more important matters, like the fate of the capital. I’ve already contacted some old friends from the airforce, and if this keeps up my good friend will make sure I’m on the next cargo plane to Thrace, and one of the last ones to make the trip for the time being. Thinking about abandoning my post brings me great shame, but I can’t sit idly by while the empire burns and fools squabble in Naples.”
That was it. The point of no return. Nikos has prepared his baggage, bringing only the necessities with him, and a pistol for self-defense, walking around with a rifle would be far too conspicuous. All that was left to do was to bid his men farewell, maybe try to convince a few to join him in his insane mission to fight the Anatolian rebels. At 12 o’clock sharp he gathered his men in their camp, waited for everyone to calm down, and delivered his farewell address.
“My fellow soldiers, I stand before you today, not as your commanding officer, but as a proud Roman warrior. We have all heard the news from the capital, of how our nation got torn apart by infighting. That is why - with a heavy heart - I wish to inform you all that I shall be deserting my post…”
Gasps and murmurs could be heard in the crowd, the men in disbelief at what they were hearing. Lieutenant Stavros wasn’t a man to just leave his posting, did he go insane?
“…I know it’s a cowardly act, some may call it treason, that by picking this path I am throwing away my honor. However when the heart of our great land bleeds, when enemies from within threaten our very way of life is it not the duty of a soldier to pick up arms and defend his fatherland? We have been entrusted with the duty to protect our nation, to ensure that future generations can live in peace and prosperity, the world is watching, and it is our duty to show that we are a force to be reckoned with, that we are the protectors of our nation and our people. I call upon each and every one of you to join me, to stand together and defend our fatherland, to make the journey to Constantinople and fight the traitorous forces of the Second Son. However, I will not force any of you to follow my lead, each and e