Viking 3: King’s Man, page 15
Pelagia was dismissive of my military career. I returned to find her just as energetic and self-confident, and even more successful. She now had commercial interests in shipping and olive production as well as owning an entire chain of bakeries and bread stalls. With her newly acquired wealth she had bought a brand new substantial villa in a pleasant suburb on the Galata side of the Golden Horn, with its own garden and overlooking the straits. It was there that I found her in the main reception room, reading through bills and documents relating to her business.
‘Thorgils, you come back from Sicily with a suntan but little else,’ she said after I had briefly sketched in the details of my time on campaign. ‘You’re looking thinner, and you’ve got several grey hairs, but no promotion. Fortunately I’ve been investing your salary for you, and you’ll find that you’ve returned to a nest egg.’
I decided it would be wiser not to tell Pelagia that I would eventually be receiving a portion of the emir’s ransom money, nor that I had placed my share from the salvage from the pirate ship with Halldor to look after.
‘You’ll find little changed in the palace when you get back to the guardroom,’ Pelagia went on. ‘John is still running the government, and Michael has less and less to do with affairs of state. He’s become more pious than ever. A couple of soothsayers – charlatans the pair of them – managed to convince him that he sold his soul to the devil before he married the empress Zoë in return for a glorious future, and now he punishes himself for this lapse. I’m beginning to feel sorry for the poor man. His suffering comes in waves. When it is at its worst the pain nearly drives him out of his mind, and he makes matters worse by humiliating himself.’
My colleagues in the guardroom confirmed Pelagia’s sombre description.
‘You’ll need a strong stomach for guard duty outside the royal apartment nowadays,’ I was warned by my company commander, the same Halfdan who had taken charge of the detail when the Basileus Romanus drowned. ‘You should see the diseased creatures who are brought up to the imperial bedchamber – tramps picked up from the street by the nightwatch, or invalids from the hospitals. It’s said Michael washes their clothes, cleans their wounds, even kisses their open sores, in emulation of his own God. He insists that they sleep in the royal bed while he lies down on the cold marble floor with a stone as a pillow so he suffers mortification. I looked in the bedchamber one morning when the Basileus and his attendants had left, and there was a stinking pile of old rags by the bed. Looked like a beggars’ nest.’
My summons to the office of John the Orphanotrophus was not long in arriving, and as usual the eunuch came straight to the point.
‘What’s your impression of Araltes now?’ he demanded. ‘After two years in his company, I trust that you have won his confidence as I required.’
‘I believe so, your excellency,’ I replied. I was as wary of the Orphanotrophus as on the first day he had sent me to spy on Harald, but I was bold enough to add, ‘He has served the Basileus well. He has been created spatharokandidatos.’
‘I know, I know. But the administration of the empire rests on two pillars: honours and cash,’ retorted the Orphanotrophus irritably. ‘Your Araltes benefits from the honours, but what about the cash? I’ve been told he is gold-hungry.’
‘I know nothing about that, your excellency,’ I answered evasively.
‘Strange that he hasn’t complained about the division of booty after the fall of Syracuse, like those Frankoi mercenaries who made such an issue of it. Over a horse, I believe.’
I began to wonder if there was any limit to the eunuch’s network of spies. Careful to avoid an outright lie, I told him, ‘Araltes gives the impression of being content with his booty from Sicily.’
The Orphanotrophus’s next words made me feel as if I had fallen through the ice of a frozen lake.
‘I’m hearing that certain bullion transactions are going unreported to the city archon. One of the money changers seems to be making unusually high profits. What’s his name . . .’ and the eunuch made a pretence of looking down at the note on his desk, though I was sure he had no need to refresh his memory. ‘A certain argyroprates named Simeon. Mention has been made that he is dealing with Varangians.’
‘It could be any of the Varangian units, your excellency,’ I said, trying to keep panic out of my voice, ‘not necessarily those who serve Araltes.’
‘Guardsman,’ said the eunuch slowly and deliberately, ‘if anything is going on, I want to know it.’
HARALD HAD BEEN living in his own quarters away from the Life Guard’s barracks, and after the interview with John I had to restrain myself from going straight there to warn him. I suspected that I was being watched by the Orphanotrophus’s agents, so I went instead to seek Pelagia’s advice, and she was not reassuring.
‘Simeon has been looking particularly smug these past few months. He dresses in the latest fashions, wears expensive jewellery, and generally likes to show off how well he’s doing.’
‘Can’t he be persuaded to be less conspicuous? If he keeps this up, sooner or later John’s people will call him in for questioning.’
‘I doubt it. Simeon thinks too highly of himself.’
‘Couldn’t Harald switch to using someone else on the Mese, a more discreet money changer, to handle the booty?’
‘Simeon’s the only man who would take the risk of Harald’s monetary affairs.’
‘What about those shifty-looking characters I sometimes see walking up and down the Mese in the financial zone, offering better rates for foreign exchange.’
Pelagia snorted with derision. ‘I wouldn’t advise Harald to deal with them. They’re unlicensed traders. They’re likely to run off with any valuables entrusted to them, or give back dud coins. And they don’t have the resources to deal in the amounts that Harald brings in. Their working capital is in those grubby bags they carry about. At least Simeon has the iron table. That’s what it symbolises: a metal surface on which you can bang suspect coins to hear whether they ring true. You had better tell your tall friend with the lopsided eyebrows to be very, very discreet whenever he brings any valuables to Simeon for exchanging into cash.’
My daily life, now that I was back with the Hetaira, reverted to its former pattern. There were the familiar drills and kit inspections, the regular rotation of guard duty – one week inside the Great Palace, the next week in barracks – and of course the endless parades. I found it truly tedious to spend hour after hour solemnly marching out from the palace to some great church, waiting outside for the service to finish, going back along the same route, and then having to clean up my equipment and prepare for the next ceremonial outing, which could be the next day.
Harald avoided most of this mind-numbing routine because he, Halldor and a few of his immediate followers were assigned to assist the exaktors. These were, as their name implies, the tax gatherers. How Harald got in with them is something I never learned, but later I came to realise that it was part of his own grand plan. There was certainly nothing unusual about a detachment of guards accompanying the exaktors. In fact it was a necessity. When the tax collectors set out from the capital to visit some area in the countryside that had been assessed, naturally the local inhabitants would be reluctant to pay up, so the exaktors took along an armed escort to bully the taxpayers into compliance. Few things were more terrifying to a local farmer than the menacing sight of foreign barbarians who were prepared to smash up his property if he did not pay his dues to the emperor – the arrival of a squad of Varangians was usually sufficient to loosen the purse strings. Harald, with his ferocious appearance, must have been particularly daunting, nor was he reluctant to resort to force, and that may be why he and his men were picked for the work.
Thus Harald and the others missed the bizarre event which surprised even someone as well informed as Pelagia: the proclamation that the Basileus and Empress Zoë were to have a son. Physically, of course, this was impossible. Zoë was now at least sixty years old, though as vain as ev
The actual ceremony of adoption was even more grotesque than when the youthful Basileus had married Zoë, who was old enough to be his mother. This time the ritual took place in the church of the Blachernae Palace and culminated with the new Caesar symbolically sitting down on the ageing Zoë’s lap, so he could be acclaimed by the congregation of dignitaries and high officials as her ‘son’.
A few days later I was crossing a courtyard on my way to the guardroom when I passed a middle-ranking official of the chancellery. His face seemed familiar, but I would have walked right past him if he had not stopped suddenly and said, ‘Excuse me, aren’t you the Greek-speaking Varangian who told me how Romanus drowned?’
‘That’s right,’ I answered, recognising the young man who had interviewed me on the day of the funeral parade. ‘You’re Constantine Psellus. You seem to have come a long way since you were a young student watching a funeral parade. I congratulate you.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like a courtier yourself. This time you must tell me your name.’
‘Obviously you’re still with the Palace Guard.’
‘Back with the guard, more correctly, after service in Sicily.’
‘So you know what this new Caesar is like? After all, he is, or was, your commanding officer.’
I hesitated, and Psellus said softly, ‘You may speak freely. This is an opinion for posterity. I’m still compiling notes for my history of the rulers of the empire.’
Once again his frank approach won my confidence. ‘Well,’ I admitted, ‘from the little I’ve seen of him, the Caesar is vindictive and shallow. His one true talent is that he is superlative at hiding his true feelings.’
‘Sounds as though he was an excellent choice for the throne,’ said Psellus with irony. ‘I’ll make a bargain with you, Thorgils. As a guardsman you sometimes see things which we outsiders never get to witness. If you’ll be so kind as to keep me informed about what is going on behind the scenes, I won’t forget you when the time comes – as it surely will – that you need a friend within the bureaucracy.’ And he hurried on his way.
Over the next few months, there was little I could tell Psellus that he would not have observed for himself. Michael’s health was in rapid decline. His limbs swelled, bloating so that his fingers became as thick as sausages. To hide his physical deterioration from public gaze, the Basileus spent less time in the city, and withdrew to his country residence. He left behind the usual intrigues inside the palace, which grew more viperish as it became evident that he did not have long to live. John the Eunuch still held the real power, but some courtiers began to pander to the young Caesar, preparing for the day when he mounted the throne. Other sycophants coalesced around his favourite uncle, Constantine, another of the Orphanotrophus’s brothers. A few diehards again paid attention to the empress Zoë, though she was still confined to the gynaeceum, the women’s quarters, and the Basileus had cut off her allowance so she was living in near poverty. No one trusted anyone else, and there was a growing sense that the whole structure of government was on the verge of collapse.
I came to appreciate how far the decay had spread when an official arrived in the guardroom late one December evening. He was out of breath and flustered.
‘I’m looking for the guardsman Thorgils,’ he announced.
‘What can I do for you?’ I asked.
The man looked nervously at the other off-duty guardsmen, who were watching him with open curiosity.
‘You are to select one reliable colleague,’ he said. ‘Bring heavy cloaks, and accompany me.’
I glanced at Halfdan. ‘Take Lars with you,’ he ordered.
Lars was a stolid guardsman who had been with the Hetaira almost as long as Halfdan himself. Lars and I gathered up our weapons, and the official took us, half running, to the office of John the Eunuch. We found him dressed in his monk’s clothes and ready to leave the palace.
‘You are to accompany me as an escort in case of trouble,’ said John. ‘Be discreet, conceal your uniforms, and you may leave your axes behind. Swords hidden under your cloaks will be sufficient.’
We slipped out of the palace through one of the minor gates, where the doorkeepers were clearly expecting us, and hurried through the streets of the city. We kept to alleys and side streets, but I recognised the direction we were taking. It was towards the area known as the Venetian quarter because of the number of foreign merchants, mostly Italians, residing there. It was also the district of several of Constantinople’s most important monasteries, and when we stopped and knocked on the wooden doors to one of them, I knew that we stood before the gate of the monastery known locally as the Kosmidion. It was the same monastery which the Basileus had funded so generously because it was dedicated to the doctor saints, Cosmas and Damian.
A grim-looking monk let us in without a word and ushered us along several stone-flagged corridors. In the background I heard chanting, and, as we turned a corner, I detected the hurried withdrawal of some cowled figures who had been waiting in the shadows, curious to see who the visitors were at such a late hour. Finally we came to the door of an ordinary monk’s cell. The door stood open. Inside, on a simple cot, lay the Basileus.
I recognised him by his gross and swollen hands, for he was wearing not the clothes of an emperor, but the simple black tunic of a monk. Also, his head had been shaved in a tonsure: I could still see the nicks and cuts where the work had been done hurriedly and very recently. The Basileus looked truly ghastly, and I had no doubt that he had only a few hours left to live.
‘Watch the door and passage,’ snapped the Orphanotrophus. ‘Let no one in.’
He appeared genuinely distressed at the sight of his sickly brother. He stepped into the room, and I had a glimpse of him dropping to his knees beside the bed and embracing the invalid before I turned my back and stared down the passageway. Behind me I heard John croon comforting words to the man whom he had manoeuvred on to the throne of the empire. I found it difficult to believe that the young and handsome courtier who had married Zoë was now the bloated and sweating wreck who lay on the cot behind me.
Nothing could be kept secret in the palace, least of all the disappearance of the emperor. At dawn we had our first visitors: the new Caesar Michael and his uncle Constantine arrived. By then the Basileus was in great pain, and the Orphanotrophus allowed them to stay only for a short time before ordering them to leave. Two physicans, one from the monastery infirmary, the other from the palace, came and attempted to relieve the patient’s suffering with pain-killing drugs. Then I heard the Basileus shout aloud that he wanted to die like his Lord, in agony, and the Orphanotrophus ordered me to no longer let the physicians pass. One monk at a time was to be allowed into the cell, where he could pray for the invalid’s soul. The rest of the brethren were to say their prayers for him in their chapel.
Lars and I guarded the dreary corridor for twenty hours without a break, cooped up in the heart of the monastery complex, hearing only the shuffle of feet, the moaning of the Basileus, and the muttered prayers for the sick and dying. The strangest interlude was when the empress herself appeared in the passageway, demanding to see her husband. The doorkeepers of the monastery had let Zoë in – she was, after all, the emperor’s wife – but Lars and I obeye
‘Tell my husband that I want to see him,’ begged Zoë.
The Orphanotrophus went back inside for a few moments, then reappeared.
‘He does not wish to see you,’ he said to Zoë in a flat tone. ‘He asks that you go away.’
Zoë clenched her hands and looked miserable.
‘Go away,’ John repeated, ‘otherwise I’ll have the guards throw you out.’
Fortunately, for I would not have relished bundling the old woman down the corridor, Zoë turned and left. As I watched her walk away, the smell of the aged empress’s musk perfume lingered in the still air of the passageway, and I remembered how she had looked upon the corpse of her first husband as he lay cold on the marble bench by the swimming pool, and wondered if she could have known that events would come to this gruesome conclusion.
At about noon the Basileus must have recovered his strength, for I heard him ask whether it was time for the midday service. He announced that, as a monk, it was his duty to attend. Then came an outburst of petulance. Trying to get up from the cot, he found that no one had provided him with the suitable monk’s sandals; beside his cot were the purple boots that only the reigning emperor might wear, and he refused to put them on. Two of the monks came to fetch him, and physically carried him to the chapel, barefoot. When they brought him back an hour later, hanging between them, Michael was scarcely breathing. They took him into the cell, laid him on the bed, then left. After that there was a long silence, and then I heard nothing more. Basileus Michael had died.
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