Viking 3: King’s Man, page 1
To my holy and blessed master, Abbot Geraldus, in humble obedience to your wish, I send this, the third and last packet of the writings of the false monk Thangbrand. Inauspicious was the day when I first found these pages in our library! May I be forgiven for reading them with my sinful eyes, for I was urged on by my imagination and impatience.
Here I have found false witness artfully woven into a tale intended to beguile the credulous. This serpent in our bosom levels vile and wicked allegations against our brothers in Christ, and shamelessly admits piracy and the desecration of hallowed relic. Even when among the schismatics of the East he cannot restrain his viper’s tongue.
Nothing has grieved me more than to learn that this false monk made a journey to the Holy Land, a pilgrimage which is the greatest desire of those who are as poor and unworthy as I. Yet he besmirches his witness with profane mistrust, and thereby seeks to undermine the faith of all those who believe in the Incarnation of the Word. As scripture avers, to an evil, unbelieving man, the truth becomes a lie.
His spew of corruption is the more disturbing, for it touches on high matters of state. Questioned is the very ascent to the throne of England itself, and his words must surely be judged treasonable by those who have competence in these matters.
We will speak no further of this matter, but will leave the pious labours of the faithful to be rewarded and paid for by the Just Judge.
Will there ever be an end to the deceit and mendacity of this impostor? I pray for his salvation in the fear of God, for is it not said that even one sparrow cannot fall into a snare without his providence, and that when God wills the end may be good?
Sacristan and Librarian
Written in the month of January in the Year of our Lord One Thousand and Seventy-two
THE EMPEROR WAS pretending to be a whale. He put his head under water and filled his mouth, then came back up to the surface and squirted little spouts across the palace plunge pool. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, not knowing whether to feel disdainful or sympathetic. He was, after all, an old man. Past seventy years of age, he would be relishing the touch of warm water on his blotchy skin as well as the feeling of weightlessness. He was afflicted with a bloating disease which had puffed up his body and limbs so grossly that he found walking very painful. Only the week before I had seen him return to the palace so exhausted after one of the endless ceremonials that he had collapsed into the arms of an attendant the moment the great bronze doors closed behind him. Today was the festival the Christians call Good Friday, so in the afternoon there was to be yet another imperial ceremony and it would last for hours. I decided that the emperor deserved his moment of relaxation, though his whalelike antics in the pool might have surprised his subjects as the majority of them considered him to be their God’s representative on earth.
I shifted the heavy axe on my shoulder. There was a damp patch where the haft had rested on my scarlet tunic. Beads of sweat were trickling down under the rim of my iron helmet with its elaborate gold inlay, and the heat in the pool room was making me drowsy. I struggled to stay alert. As a member of the Hetaira, the imperial household troops, my duty was to protect the life of the Basileus Romanus III, ruler of Byzantium, and Equal of the Apostles. With five hundred fellow members of his personal Life Guard, the palace Varangians, I had sworn to keep the emperor safe from his enemies, and he paid us handsomely to do so. He trusted us more than his fellow countrymen, and with good reason.
At the far end of the baths were clustered a group of the emperor’s staff, five or six of them. Sensibly they were maintaining their distance from their master, not just to give him privacy, but also because his advancing illness made him very tetchy. The Basileus had become notoriously short-tempered. The slightest wrong word or gesture could make him fly into a rage. During the three years I had served at the palace, I had seen him change from being even-handed and generous to waspish and mean. Men accustomed to receiving rich gifts in appreciation from the imperial bounty were now ignored or sharply criticised. Fortunately the Basileus did not yet treat his Life Guard in a similar fashion, and we still gave him our complete loyalty. We played no part in the courtiers’ constant plotting and scheming as various factions sought to gain advantage. The ordinary members of the guard did not even speak their language. Our senior officers were patrician Greeks, but the rank and file were recruited from the northern lands and we continued to speak Norse among ourselves. A court official with the title of the Grand Interpreter for the Hetaira was supposed to translate for the guardsmen, but the post was in name only, another high-sounding title in a court mesmerised by precedence and ceremonial.
‘Guardsman!’ The shout broke into my thoughts. One man in the group was beckoning to me. I recognised the Keeper of the Imperial Inkwell. The post, despite its pompous name, was one of real importance. Officially the keeper proffered the bottle of purple ink whenever the Basileus was ready to sign an official document. In reality he acted as secretary of the emperor’s private office. The post gave him open access to the imperial presence, a privilege denied even to the highest ministers, who had to make a formal appointment before being brought before the Basileus.
The keeper repeated his gesture. I glanced across at the Basileus. Romanus was still wallowing and spouting in the pool, eyes closed, happy in his warm and watery world. The pool had recently been deepened in its centre, yet was still shallow enough for a man to stand upright and keep his head above the surface. There seemed no danger there. I strode over towards the keeper, who held out a parchment. I caught a glimpse of the imperial signature in purple ink even as the keeper indicated that I was to take the document to the adjacent room, a small office where the notaries waited.
It was not unusual for a guardsman to act as a footman. The palace officials were so preoccupied with their own dignity that they found it demeaning to carry out the simplest tasks like opening a door or carrying a scroll. So I took the parchment, cast another quick look over my shoulder and walked to the door. The Basileus was still blissfully enjoying his swim.
IN THE NEXT room I found the Orphanotrophus waiting. He was in charge of the city orphanage, an institution financed from the royal purse. Once again the title was no reflection of his real importance. John the Orphanotrophus was the most powerful man in the empire, excluding only the Basileus. Thanks to a combination of raw intellect and shrewd application, John had worked his way up through the various grades of the imperial hierarchy and was prime minister of the empire in all but name. Feared by all, he was a thin man who had a gaunt face with deep-sunk eyes under startlingly black eyebrows. He was also a beardless one, a eunuch.
I came to attention in front of him, but did not salute. Only the Basileus and the immediate members of the imperial family warranted a guardsman’s salute, and John the Orphanotrophus was certainly not born to the purple. His family came from Paphalagonia on the Black Sea coast, and it was rumoured that the family’s first profession when they came to Constantinople was to run a money exchange. Some said that they had been forgers.
When I handed over the parchment, the Orphanotrophus glanced through it, and then said to me slowly, pronouncing each word w
I stood my ground and replied in Greek, ‘My apologies, your excellency. I am on duty. I cannot leave the imperial presence.’
The Orphanotrophus raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, well, a guardsman who speaks Greek,’ he murmured. ‘The palace is finally becoming civilised.’
‘Perhaps someone could call a dekanos, ’ I suggested. ‘That is their duty, to carry messages.’ I saw I had made a mistake.
‘Yes, and you should do yours,’ the Orphanotrophus retorted acidly.
Smarting at the rebuff, I turned on my heel and marched back to the baths. As I entered the long chamber with its high, domed ceiling and walls patterned with mosaics of dolphins and waves, I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. The Basileus was still in the water, but now he was lying on his back, waving feebly with his arms. Only his corpulence was keeping him from sinking. The attendants who had previously been in the room were nowhere to be seen. I dropped my axe to the marble floor, wrenched off my helmet and sprinted for the pool. ‘Alarm! Alarm!’ I bellowed as I ran. ‘Guardsmen to me!’ In a few strides I was at the edge of the pool and, fully clothed, dived in and swam as fast as I could manage towards the Basileus. Silently I thanked my own God, Odinn, that we Norse learn how to swim when we are still young.
The Basileus seemed unaware of my presence as I reached him. He was barely moving and occasionally his head slipped underwater. I put one hand under his chin, lowered my legs until I could touch the bottom of the pool, and began to tow him towards the edge, taking care to keep his head on my shoulder, clear of the water. He was limp in my arms, and his scalp against my chin was bald except for a few straggly hairs.
‘Guardsmen to me!’ I shouted again. Then in Greek I called out, ‘Fetch a doctor!’
This time my calls were answered. Several staff members – scribes, attendants, courtiers – came running into the room and clustered at the edge of the pool. Someone knelt down to grab the Basileus under the armpits and haul him dripping out of the water. But the rescue was clumsy and slow. The Basileus lay on the marble edge of the pool, looking more than ever like a whale, a beached and dying one this time. I clambered out and pushed aside the courtiers.
‘Help me lift him,’ I said.
‘In Thor’s name what’s going on?’ said a voice.
A decurion, the petty officer of my watch, had finally arrived. He glowered so fiercely at the gawking courtiers that they fell back. The two of us picked up the emperor’s limp body and carried him towards a marble bench. One of the bath attendants had the wit to spread a layer of towels over it before we laid down the old man, who was moving feebly. The decurion looked round and ripped a brocaded silk gown off the shoulders of a courtier and laid it over the emperor’s nakedness.
‘Let me through, please’.
This was one of the palace physicians. A short, paunchy man, he lifted up the emperor’s eyelids with his stubby fingers. I could see that he was nervous. He pulled his hands back as if he had been scalded. He was probably frightened that the Basileus would expire under his touch. But the emperor’s eyes stayed open and he shifted his head slightly to look around him.
At that moment there was a stir among the watching courtiers, and their circle parted to allow a woman through. It was Zoë, the empress. She must have been summoned from the gynaeceum, the women’s quarters of the palace. It was the first time I had seen her close to, and I was struck by her poise. Despite her age she held herself with great dignity. She must have been at least fifty years old and had probably never been a beauty, but her face retained that fine-boned structure which hinted at aristocratic descent. She was the daughter and granddaughter of emperors, and had the haughty manners to prove it.
Zoë swept through the crowd, and stepped up to within an arm’s length of her husband where he lay on the marble slab. Her face showed no emotion as she gazed down at the emperor, who was ashen pale and breathing with difficulty. For a brief moment she just stared. Then, without a word, she turned and walked out of the room.
The courtiers avoided looking at one another. Everyone, including myself, knew that there was no love between the emperor and his wife. The previous Basileus, Constantine, had insisted that they marry. Zoë was Constantine’s favoured daughter, and in the last days of his reign he had searched for a suitable husband for her from among the ranks of Constantinople’s aristocracy. Father and daughter had both wanted to ensure the family succession, though Zoë was past childbearing age. That had not prevented her and Romanus when they ascended the throne together from attempting to found their own dynasty. Romanus had dosed himself with huge amounts of aphrodisiacs – the reason for his hair loss, it was claimed – while his elderly consort hung herself with fertility charms and consulted quacks and charlatans who proposed more and more grotesque ways of ensuring pregnancy. When all their efforts failed, the couple slid into a mutual dislike. Romanus had taken a mistress and Zoë had been bundled off to the gynaeceum, frustrated and resentful.
But that was not the whole story. Zoë had also acquired a lover, not two years since. Several members of the guard had come across the two of them coupling together and turned a blind eye. Their tact had not been out of respect for the empress – she conducted her affair openly – but because her consort was the younger brother of John the Orphanotrophus. Here was an area where high politics mingled with ambition and lust, and it was better left alone.
‘Stand back!’ ordered the decurion.
He took up his position a spear’s length from the Basileus’s bald head, and as a reflex I stationed myself by the emperor’s feet and also came to attention. My axe was still lying somewhere on the marble floor, but I was wearing a dagger at my belt and I dropped my hand to its hilt. The doctor paced nervously up and down, wringing his hands with worry. Suddenly Romanus gave a deep moan. He raised his head a fraction from the towel that was his pillow and made a slight gesture with his right hand. It was as if he was beckoning someone closer. Not knowing whom he gestured to, no one dared move. The awe and majesty of the imperial presence still had a grip on the spectators. The emperor’s gaze shifted slowly, passing across the faces of his watching courtiers. He seemed to be trying to say something, to be pleading. His throat moved but no sounds emerged. Then his eyes closed and his head fell back and rolled to one side. He began to pant, his breath coming in short shallow gasps. Suddenly, the breathing paused, and his mouth fell open. Out flowed a thick, dark brown substance, and after two more choking breaths, he expired.
I stood rigidly to attention. There were the sounds of running feet, of tumult, and in the distance a wailing and crying as news of the emperor’s death spread among the palace staff. I took no notice. Until a new Basileus was crowned, the duty of the guard was to protect the body of the dead emperor.
‘Thorgils, you look like the village idiot standing there in your soaking uniform. Get back to the guardroom and report to the duty officer.’
The instructions were delivered in Norse and I recognised the voice of Halfdan, my company commander. A beefy veteran, Halfdan had served in the Life Guard for close on ten years. He should have retired by now, after amassing a small fortune from his salary, but he liked the life of a guardsman and had cut his ties with his Danish homeland, so he had nowhere else to go.
‘Tell him that everything is under control in the imperial presence. You might suggest that he places a curfew on the palace.’
I squelched away, pausing to collect my helmet and the spiked axe which someone had obligingly picked up off the floor and leaned against the wall. My route to the guardroom lay through a labyrinth of passages, reception rooms and courtyards. Romanus III could have died in any one of his palaces – they all had swimming pools – but he had chosen to expire in the largest and most sprawling of them, the Great Palace. Standing close to the tip of the peninsula of Constantinople, the Great Palace had been extended and remodelled so many times by its imperial occupants that it had t
‘Change into a dry uniform and join the detail on the main gate,’ the duty officer ordered when I reported to him. No more than twenty years old, he was almost as edgy as the physician who had attended the dying emperor. A Greek from one of Constantinople’s leading families, his family would have paid handsomely to buy his commission in the Life Guard. Merely by placing him inside the walls of the palace, they hoped he might attract the attention of the Basileus and gain preferment. Now their investment would be wasted if a new Basileus decided, out of concern for his own safety, to replace all the Greek officers. It was another deception so characteristic of palace life. Byzantine society still pretended that the Hetaira was Greek. Their sons prided themselves on being officers of the guard, and they dressed up in uniforms which denoted the old palace regiments – the Excubia, the Numeri, the Scholae and others – but when it came to real work our Basileus had trusted only us, the foreigners, his palace Varangians.
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