Viking 3 kings man, p.16

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 16


Viking 3: King’s Man

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  John the Eunuch stayed in that cell for two more days, sitting beside his brother’s corpse, mourning. It was the one truly human act I remember of a man whom, until then, I had thought of as the most cold-hearted, calculating person I had ever met. Monks came and went, washed and put new clothes on the dead emperor, and mounted a vigil in relays. The Orphanotrophus barely stirred. Officials arrived from the palace seeking instructions, and he told them that he would return to his office only when he was ready; until then they should consult the Caesar.

  Finally, on the third day after his brother’s death, John came out of the cell. He looked haggard.

  ‘Guardsman,’ he said as he looked straight into my eyes, ‘for the second time, you’ve been present at the passing of a Basileus. On the last occasion you showed great discretion. That is why I chose you. These are matters of state, and the personal details are rarely dignified. They must be kept from public knowledge. A seamless transfer of power is needed; appearance is all.’

  He brushed past me, and as I followed him along the passageway I promised myself that the next time I saw Psellus, I would make him swear never to reveal the source of his information.

  In fact, Psellus was among the cluster of officials waiting anxiously in the outer courtyard of the palace as we came back from the monastery. Standing at the back of the group, he caught my eye. I kept my face expressionless. Now, I was just another member of the guard.

  Halfdan had been hovering at the palace gate with a squad of men waiting to escort the returning Orphanotrophus to a meeting in the grand audience chamber.

  ‘Thank the Gods you brought him back,’ Halfdan hissed at me. ‘The place is all in a heap. Nobody knows what’s going on, or who’s in charge. Everyone was waiting for the Eunuch to make decisions. What kept you?’

  Before I could reply, Michael the Caesar approached. With him was his uncle, Constantine. The two men began to fawn over the Orphantrophus as we headed towards the audience chamber. They commented how tired he looked, and asked repeatedly how they might assist. It occurred to me that the two men were frightened out of their wits. They wanted to know what the Eunuch had decided for their futures, and were relying on him to guide them through the next few days until the succession of power was established. As we entered the packed Trikilinium it was evident that everyone, including the palace officials, was on edge and overwrought. Even the empress Zoë had appeared from the women’s quarters. She stood there, looking at the Orphanotrophus. She too was waiting for his decision. The atmosphere was thick with fear, ambition and duplicity.

  ‘Now is the time to stand together, to assist one another. We should carry out the wishes of the deceased,’ announced the Orphanotrophus, raising his voice so he could be heard by everyone in the waiting audience. He had recovered his composure, and his words had their usual quality of slight menace. ‘We proceed with the arrangements envisaged at the time when our dear nephew, Michael – ’ here he gave a thin, insincere smile – ‘became Caesar. It is appropriate that he is acclaimed as Basileus at the earliest opportunity. He will, I know, value and accept the advice and support of his family.’

  There was a general easing of tension in the chamber at this. The Orphanotrophus’s statement was interpreted as meaning that the various factions were to share the power between them. The young Caesar would occupy the throne, but his family – John himself, his brother Constantine, and the empress Zoë – would be his silent partners. It was to be a web of alliances.

  The spider at the centre of the web now stepped forward. The Caesar was a slender, sallow-complexioned young man going prematurely bald. Turning to the assembled officials, he announced that he would only accept the imperial mantle if he could share its burden and privilege with his ‘revered guide and mentor the Orphanotrophus’. Here he kissed his uncle’s hand. Then he walked across to his elderly adoptive mother and embraced her theatrically. ‘I want all of you to bear witness,’ he called out to the assembly. ‘When I am crowned, there will be a second throne beside mine, occupied by my mother and mistress. I will be her slave-emperor, obedient to her commands.’

  ‘This makes you want to puke,’ muttered Halfdan near me. ‘I wonder just how long that little shit will keep his word.’

  Michael was crowned as Basileus by the Patriarch in a glittering ceremony the very next day. As promised, there was a second throne for the aged empress. Psellus, who watched the coronation, came away with the same opinion of the new Basileus as my company commander.

  ‘That man reeks of hypocrisy,’ he said. ‘I was at a meeting of the family council taking notes, and you should have heard the way he speaks to her. Always asking her opinion, saying that he defers to her judgement, that he “is hers to command” and on and on in similar vein. He’s got her quite addled. She seems to believe him.’

  ‘It does seem odd that he should crawl to her so blatantly,’ I commented. ‘He’s the emperor, not her.’

  ‘Thorgils, the citizens of Constantinople are calling their new ruler “Michael the Caulker” or “The Little Twister”. You may not be aware that at one time his father Stephen worked in the shipyards as a humble labourer. His job was to caulk the seams of planks with spun yarn and slop pine tar on the hulls. His family are base born, not from the sort of background that the mob respects or forgets. To the ordinary people, Zoë is the only one who has a genuine claim to wear the purple. She and her sister Theodora are true aristocrats. There’s a dangerous feeling in the city that the antics of John the Eunuch and his jumped-up family have soiled the status of the Basileus, that they’ve gone too far with their ambitions.’

  ‘I didn’t know Zoë has a sister.’

  ‘Hardly surprising. The two women hate one another. Zoë arranged for her sibling to be shut away in a nunnery years ago. What a pair,’ the bureaucrat sighed. ‘Sometimes I think the palace is like a large rock. When you roll it aside you find all sorts of unpleasant creatures creeping and crawling around underneath. At least Zoë is open in her dislike of her sister, whereas with John the Eunuch and his brother Constantine, I get the feeling that they are a pair of scorpions, tails up and circling one another warily, each always ready to deliver a fatal sting. God help us when that happens.’

  Pelagia was equally alert to the impending clash. The Orphanotrophus owned a large estate very close to her villa in Galata, and he often came there to relax. Pelagia was worried that the more vicious aspects of palace politics might accompany him.

  ‘John the Eunuch always brings an escort with him, at least twenty soldiers. He must be expecting trouble. You couldn’t arrange for some private security guards for me, Thorgils, could you? Perhaps half a dozen of your colleagues might like to spend their free days here in Galata. I would pay them well, and they would have as much wine to drink as they liked.’

  ‘Nothing could be easier,’ I replied. ‘The new Basileus appointed an entirely new batch of bodyguards just last week. They are loyal only to him. We Varangians are kept on, but we don’t have much to do. Besides, the Basileus’s new Life Guards are an odd lot, and clannish. They’re Pechenegs from the north. Michael purchased them, and every one of them is a eunuch. I’m sure that many of my colleagues would like to get away from the atmosphere in the palace. It’s becoming more and more freakish.’

  IN FEBRUARY MY world came crashing down around my ears. Harald and Halldor were arrested, as were Simeon the money changer and three of the exaktors. All of them were accused of swindling the state treasury. It was a simple enough fraud: they had terrorised their victims into paying more than the official tax assessment and pocketed the difference. One of their victims had complained to the chancellery, and when a clerk checked the ledgers it was clear that the tax collectors had been underreporting their receipts.

  ‘What idiots,’ said Pelagia when I told her. ‘It’s no good stealing from the state unless you can cover your tracks properly. All those files and written reports pile up in the archives. They may seem a waste of effort, but if someone has the m
otivation they can be used to bring down even the most powerful person.’

  ‘What’s going to happen to them?’

  ‘The tax collectors will be dismissed from their posts, all their private property will be seized to pay the massive fines levied on them, and they will be lucky not to be sent to jail. As for your Varangian friends, I don’t know. They might be able to bribe their way out of trouble and flee the country, or they might be made an example of. Depends who their friends are. I’m sure you remember that Bulgarian who was paraded through the streets last autumn.’

  Indeed I did. Like Harald, the unfortunate man had been a foreigner at court. He had decided to raise a rebellion in his native country, slipped out of the capital and gathered an army. The tagmata had crushed him, and he had been brought back to Constantinople, where he was paraded through the streets on a leading chain, his nose cut off, then strangled.

  ‘My best guess,’ Pelagia continued, ‘is that the authorities will hold Harald and his associates in jail and interrogate them until they reveal where they’ve put the stolen money so that the treasury can try to recover it. The interrogation will be a nasty business. The interrogators pride themselves on being able to extract information without spilling blood. It’s not that they’re squeamish – it’s a matter of having pride in their work.’

  Pelagia and I were standing in her garden, overlooking the straits. The moment I had heard about Harald’s arrest I had fled the city, crossing the Golden Horn on one of the public ferries to Galata. I knew very well that the Orphanotrophus would want to question me. He would ask why I had not alerted his office to Harald’s conspiracy, and I was sure that Simeon would soon reveal that Harald had extorted a ransom for the emir’s son. Then my failure to report truthfully to John the Eunuch would concern not theft from the state, but an act of treason.

  ‘I can hide you here in Galata for a few days,’ Pelagia offered. ‘Long enough for you to find some way of escaping from the reach of the Orphanotrophus, though that will be difficult. Luckily the Eunuch has troubles of his own, and may be distracted from your case. Matters are coming to a head between him and his nephew. The Basileus has been scheming – he’s fed up with doing whatever John says – and he’s been playing John off against his other uncle, Constantine. No one knows who’s going to win. My guess is that it will be the Orphanotrophus.’

  Pelagia was wrong, and spectacularly so. The young Basileus delivered his masterstroke right before our eyes. Several days had passed, and we were once again in the garden, overlooking the straits, when we saw a state barge about to put out from our side of the harbour and return to the city. We recognised the vessel at once: it was the boat reserved for the personal use of the Orphanotrophus, and the pennant showed that John himself was aboard.

  ‘I wonder why he’s going back so soon?’ Pelagia mused. ‘My servants tell me that the Eunuch only came here last night, and in a towering rage. The Basileus had publicly snubbed him at court, refused to grant him an audience, and went to consult with Constantine instead. If the Orphanotrophus is being summoned back to the Great Palace, it must be to arrange some sort of truce between the family factions.’

  We watched the barge cast off from the landing stage below us. A small cluster of brilliantly dressed officials stood amidships, among them the soberly dressed figure of the Eunuch himself. It was a bright sunny day, with a gentle breeze, and the personal standard of the Orphanotrophus rippled prettily. Everything seemed peaceful and normal. A few fishing boats had their nets down in the bay, a couple of merchant ships were on passage down the straits, and an imperial dromon was heading into the Golden Horn. I guessed she was on her way to the naval arsenal to pick up stores.

  We saw the gap widening between the dock and the departing barge. Down on the quayside the bodyguard of Varangians which had accompanied the Orphanotrophus to his embarkation turned and began to march back up the hill to his residence.

  ‘I wonder what the Basileus has got to say to him, and whether he’ll manage to patch up his quarrel with his brother Constantine,’ Pelagia mused.

  Even as she spoke, a bright flash came from high up on the walls of the Great Palace. At first I thought it was the sunlight reflecting off a polished metal shield or a pane of glass in one of the palace rooms, but then the flash was repeated, and I knew it was a signal mirror. Someone in the palace was sending a message across the water. Even as the mirror stopped flickering I saw the dromon, inbound to the arsenal, suddenly change course. Her oars began to thrash the water as her rowers were urged into action, and their blades left a line of small whirlpools in her wake as the warship accelerated. Her target was the Orphanotrophus’s barge which was making its way sedately across the harbour. Capture was inevitable. Within moments, the dromon had laid alongside the slow-moving barge and grappled with her. A boarding party from the dromon – I guessed it must be a squad of the Basileus’s Pechenegs – rushed across the barge’s deck. In a few strides they had surrounded the Orphantrophus and his entourage, who were so astonished that they offered no resistance. For ten years no one had dared challenge the Eunuch’s authority, let alone lay hands on him.

  I could just make out that the Pechenegs had seized the Orphanotrophus and were carrying him back aboard the dromon, then saw that the warship cast off her lines. She pulled away rapidly from her victim and set course out of the bay, southwards towards the horizon, carrying John with her. The entire operation had lasted less time than the Orphanotrophus’s bodyguards took to return back up the hill to his house. The most powerful man in the empire until now had been kidnapped.

  ‘His eyes have almost certainly been put out,’ said Psellus with a grimace when I managed to get an appointment with him at his office in the chancellery a week later. ‘He may even have been executed. The rumour in the palace is that the Basileus himself stood on the battlements and gave the signal for the Orphanotrophus to be carried off.’

  His remark made me realise how lucky I was. I could have been similarly maimed if the Eunuch had set his interrogators on me.

  ‘I’ve come to ask for your assistance,’ I told Psellus. ‘Can anything be done to extricate the spatharokandidatos Harald and his colleagues from jail, now that the Orphanotrophus is out of the way? They were put there on his orders.’

  To my disappointment, Psellus shook his head. ‘I can’t risk anything at this time. Not until I know who really holds the reins of power now. Is it the Basileus or is it his uncle Constantine? And what’s going to happen to Zoë? Is she still going to be treated as the Empress Mother, as her “son” promised? It’s better to wait for things to settle down. There’s no need to be distressed about the prison conditions for your friends. I’ve heard that Araltes has been very generous, spreading his money around, so that he and his companions are living very comfortably. No dark dungeons, heavy chains and that sort of thing. They’re being held in the Prandiara prison, and have their own suite of rooms. He has even hired his own staff. Your Araltes lives like a prince.’

  ‘That’s what he is, in his own country.’

  ‘My advice to you is to act normally, as if nothing has happened. Carry on with whatever duties are allocated to the Varangians, and not to those Pecheneg ruffians whom Michael brought in as his enforcers. I’ll contact you as soon as I see an opportunity to get Araltes’s case reviewed by the officials in the Treasury. However, I must warn you that there’s no way of knowing when that will be. The civil administration is in paralysis. Everyone believes that the arrest of the Orphanotrophus heralds the start of the power struggle. It has shown that our new Basileus Michael is capable of lashing out suddenly. Who the next victim will be is anyone’s guess. Yet as fast as he cuts down his rivals, he makes enemies for himself, not least among the priests. Our religion tells us that the Basileus is Christ’s divine appointment, so the Church thinks that it should have a say in how the emperor conducts himself. If Michael alienates the Patriarch, he will have a dangerous foe.’

  I did as Psellus recommended and
spent the next month as a dutiful member of the Hetaira. Apart from the usual round of ceremonies, there was really very little work to do now that the Pechenegs were responsible for the emperor’s personal safety. Former Life Guards gave a wide berth to the Pechenegs, whom we judged to be little more than professional cut-throats unworthy of the tradition of the Hetaira. Their loyalty was only to Michael himself, while our Varangian tradition had been to serve whoever was the legally recognised emperor. In consequence I had ample time to spend with Pelagia, and I must admit that I was finding her style of life increasingly agreeable. Like many people who have worked their way from humble beginnings, she knew how to run an efficient household. As a former baker’s wife, she had clear ideas about what should be served at her table, whether it was the quality of the ingredients or the way the food should be cooked. Never in all my life had I eaten so well. Her kitchen staff prepared poultry marinated in wine and stuffed with almonds, served caviar followed by fresh cuts of sturgeon, wild game cooked in olive and garlic, and rich casseroles of pigeon. Most meals concluded with something sweet flavoured with cinnamon, Pelagia’s particular favourite. After such banquets I found it necessary to stroll in the garden to aid my digestion, as my stomach was protesting so noisily. One afternoon Pelagia made a joke of it.

  ‘You should make a living in the market. Set up your pitch among the snake charmers and the showmen with their performing dogs, and tell fortunes as a stomach talker. They claim that their rumbling guts speak of the future in the same way the brontologists say that they can interpret the meaning of the thunder claps. Mind you, with the din your stomach makes, I’m not sure to which group you should belong.’

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