Viking 3 kings man, p.19

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 19

 

Viking 3: King’s Man
 



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  ‘Let me go first,’ he said quietly. Then, turning towards the crowd, he said firmly: ‘I ask you to step back a little further still, so that there may be sufficient witnesses to the fact that I met my fate with courage.’ Then he calmly lay down on the paving slabs, flat on his back, face to the sky, eyes wide open.

  I wanted to look away, but found that I was too appalled. The executioner came forward with his iron rod and deftly pressed the tip into Constantine’s right eye. The man’s body arched back in agony, and at almost the same moment the iron rod was dipped into the left eye. A little hiss of steam came with each movement. Constantine rolled over on to his front, his hands pressed against his sightless eyes. He let out a deep, agonised groan. Hands reached down to help him back on his feet. Someone had produced a silk scarf, which was quickly bound around his head, and I saw two courtiers, themselves weeping, support the Nobelissimus, who was unable to stand unaided.

  The executioner now turned towards Michael. He was squirming in the grip of the two Varangians and blubbering with terror. His gown was wet where he had soiled himself. The executioner nodded, indicating that the ex-Basileus was to be forced to the ground and held there, face up. The two Varangians pressed Michael to his knees, then pulled him over backwards. Michael still flailed about, twisting and turning, trying to escape. Two more of Harald’s men knelt down and took a grip of his legs, pinning them to the paving stones. The Varangians who held his arms pulled them out straight, then pressed down on his wrists so that he was pinioned in the shape of a cross.

  Michael’s howls had risen to a desperate pitch, and he whipped his head from side to side. The executioner was reheating the iron, blowing gently on the charcoal. When he was ready, he sidled softly across to the spread-eagled ex-Basileus, and, without bothering to clamp the head steady, he again made a double dart with the burning spit. A sound rose from deep within Michael’s throat and burst out in a terrible howl.

  The executioner stepped back, his face still expressionless, and the Varangians released their grip. Michael curled up in a sobbing ball, his arms wrapped around his head. Mercifully, his courtiers picked him up. Then they turned and carried him away, as the crowd, silenced by the terrible punishment, parted to let them through.

  NINE

  LIKE A SHIP BUFFETED by a sudden great wave, the empire of the Romans heeled, almost capsized, then began to right itself when the ballast of centuries of obedience to the throne made itself felt. During the days which followed the blinding of Michael and his uncle, there was widespread disquiet in Constantinople. The citizens asked themselves whether it was possible that two elderly women could run an empire. Surely the machinery of the administration would stutter and come to a halt. Foreign foes would then take the chance to attack the imperial frontiers. There would be civil war. But as day followed day and nothing dire occurred, tensions eased. In the chancellery, in the tribunals, and in the myriad offices of state, the bureaucrats returned to their records and ledgers, and the government of the empire resumed its normal course. Yet not everything was quite as it had been before. During the insurrection the mob had broken into the Great Palace. Most of the crowd had hunted for valuables to loot, but a small and determined band had headed for the archives and burned the tax records, as those officials who came back to the treasury discovered.

  ‘Simeon the money changer suggested that we torch the files,’ Halldor told me in the guardroom where the Varangians had once again taken up their duties. ‘I doubt that Harald himself would have thought of it, but Simeon sought us out during the uproar. He too had been released from jail by the mob, and he gave us directions as to where to find the archives.’ And with a chuckle he added, ‘It means, of course, that now there is no evidence against those accused of collusion with the tax collectors.’

  ‘I’m surprised that you found time to destroy tax records when you were also carrying out the instructions to arrest Michael and the Nobelissimus.’

  ‘There was time enough,’ said Halldor. ‘The sister empresses argued for hours over what should be done with the former Basileus. Zoë wanted him imprisoned, awaiting trial. But Theodora was all for having his eyes put out, and as quick as possible.’

  ‘Surely it was the other way round? Theodora was a nun, or at least had been.’

  ‘No,’ said Halldor. ‘Theodora was the bloodthirsty one.’

  I murmured something about the idea that the Christians, especially the nuns and monks, were meant to practise forgiveness and charity, but that evening, when I crossed over to Galata to spend the evening at Pelagia’s villa, my friend soon set me straight.

  ‘You still don’t understand, do you, Thorgils? When it comes to the pursuit of power, nothing matters to those who are really ambitious. Take the example of Araltes. You think so highly of him and you assist in every way you can. Yet he will stop at nothing to achieve his ambitions, and one day you may regret being so loyal to him.’

  I was thinking to myself that Pelagia probably resented my allegiance to Harald, when abruptly she changed the subject: ‘Next time you are on ceremonial guard duty, take a good look at the two empresses for me, will you? I’d be interested to hear what you make of them.’

  I did as she asked, and at the next meeting of the supreme state council in the Golden Hall I made sure that my position in the circle of Life Guards was right beside the imperial throne. In fact there were now two thrones, one for each of the empresses, and Theodora’s throne was set back a fraction, signifying that Theodora was very slightly junior to her sister. I could see that court protocol had adapted remarkably smoothly to the novel arrangement of twin female rulers. All the usual high functionaries were present, dressed in their official robes of silk brocade and holding their emblems of office. Standing nearest to the empresses were their special favourites, and behind them were the most senior ministers. Then came an outer ring of senators and patricians, and finally, in the background, a group of ranking civil servants. Among them, I identified Psellus who, judging by his green and gold robe, was now a senior official of the chancery.

  I took careful note of details to tell Pelagia. Zoë was more plump than her sister, and had managed to retain a remarkable youthfulness, perhaps as a result of all those ointments and perfumes I had heard about. Her skin was smooth and unlined, and it was difficult to equate the harassed supplicant whom I had turned away from her husband’s deathbed with the poised and immaculately manicured woman who now sat on the throne in front of me. Interestingly, when Zoë was bored she amused herself by eyeing the more handsome men in the room, and so I judged that she was still man-hungry. Theodora, by contrast, fidgeted as she sat. Taller than her sister, she was rather scrawny, with a head that seemed too small for her body, and I had the impression that she was unintelligent and frivolous.

  While I was wondering which of the two sisters was dominant in their partnership, I heard Harald’s name mentioned. The akolouthos, the commander of the Hetaira, was making a formal request on behalf of spatharokandidatus Araltes. He had asked permission to leave the imperial service. The logothete of the dromos who was hearing the petition turned to consult Zoë, bowed obsequiously and asked for her decision. Zoë had been gazing at a handsome young senator, and I doubt that she even knew what the subject was. ‘Denied,’ she said absently. The logothete bowed a second time and turned back to face the akolouthos. ‘Denied,’ he repeated. The business of the day moved on.

  ‘Harald won’t like that at all,’ said Halldor when I told him the decision that evening. ‘He’s heard that his nephew Magnus has been declared King of Norway.’

  ‘What difference does that make?’

  Halldor looked at me as though I was a dimwit. ‘Harald has as good a claim to the throne as his nephew, probably better. That’s what all this has been about – the amassing of loot, the gathering in of valuables. The money will be his war chest if he has to fight for what he considers rightfully his. Sooner or later he will seek his inheritance, and the longer he delays, the more diffi
cult it will be to press his case. My guess is that he will ignore the government’s decision and leave.’

  ‘But where will he find the ships to take him back up the straits to the Pontic Sea and along the rivers to Gardariki? ’ I objected. ‘It is not like when he sent those three ships back with the emir’s ransom from Sicily. What’s left of his war band is now a land force, without ships. If he tries to leave without permission, he’ll be arrested again. Then he’ll never get to claim the throne.’

  ‘They’ll have to catch him first,’ said Halldor stubbornly, but I could see that he lacked a solution to the problem.

  ‘Let me see what I can come up with,’ I said, for something told me that this was my chance to make myself indispensable to Harald and win his trust for the future.

  Psellus was so swamped with work that I had to sweeten the chartularius of his office with a small bribe to give me an appointment.

  ‘It’s all very well having two empresses,’ Psellus complained when I finally got to see him, ‘but it doubles the workload of the officials. Everything must be prepared in duplicate. Every document has to be written out twice so that a copy can be sent to the staff of each empress, but frankly neither woman seems much interested in dealing with the chores of government when the papers do arrive. They prefer the more frivolous aspects of their role. It’s very pleasant having so many banquets, receptions, pageants and the like, but the administration moves very slowly, mired in honey, you might say.’ He sighed and shifted the pile of paperwork on his desk. ‘How’s your friend the spatharokandidatos doing?’

  ‘You’ve guessed correctly,’ I said. ‘My visit is about Araltes.’ I lowered my voice. There was no one else in the room, but I knew that very little was truly private in the Great Palace. ‘Araltes urgently needs to resign his post and leave Constantinople. It is very important that he does so. But he has been forbidden permission by Zoë. ’

  Psellus got up from his seat and went over to check that there was no one loitering outside.

  ‘Thorgils,’ he said seriously, ‘it was one thing to suggest how Araltes might be cleared of charges for tax fraud. That could have been arranged with some judicious bribes. It is entirely another matter to connive at the direct disobedience of an imperial decision. It could lead to my impeachment and – at worst – the death penalty. I have no wish to be scourged, tied up in a sack and thrown into the sea.’

  ‘I know,’ I said. ‘It gets worse. It’s not just Araltes who should be allowed to leave. The surviving members of his war band – there are about eighty men – will want to depart with him. They’ve got what they came for. They’ve made their fortunes.’

  Psellus sighed. ‘That’s outright desertion. Army regulations call for punishment by mutilation or death.’

  ‘I know,’ I said. ‘But don’t you have any suggestions as to how Araltes and his men can get away?’

  Psellus thought for a while. ‘Right now I don’t have any idea,’ he said, ‘but I can assure you that if Araltes does succeed in leaving without permission, there will be a violent hue and cry. There will be a hunt for those who might have helped him. His close associates will be picked up and interrogated. You have worked with Araltes for several years now, and you would be the first to fall under suspicion. I suggest that if Araltes does leave the city, you make sure that you leave with him.’

  ‘That’s something that I’ve already been thinking about,’ I said.

  Psellus came to a decision. ‘Thorgils, I promised that I would assist you. But this request of yours goes beyond anything I had expected. I have to protect myself. If the scheme fails and you, Araltes and the others are caught, I must not be traceable. If an opportunity for Harald’s departure with his men presents itself, I will contact you, but not in person. That would be too dangerous. Even your visit here today is now a risk to me. I do not want you to come to this office again. Instead I will write to you, and that message will be the last you will hear from me.’

  ‘I understand,’ I said. ‘I’ll wait for your contact.’

  ‘It may never arrive,’ Psellus warned. ‘Anything could happen. I may get transferred out of this office, or I may never see the opportunity for Araltes to slip away. And if the letter falls into the wrong hands, that would be a disaster for all of us.’

  By now I had guessed what Psellus was leading up to. I remembered how Harald had used rune symbols as a private code to set up the ambush of the Arab pirate, anticipating that his letter would be intercepted.

  ‘You will use code?’ I asked.

  Psellus blinked in surprise. ‘As I’ve noted before, Thorgils, for a barbarian you are remarkably astute. Here, let me show you.’ He reached for a sheet of paper and wrote out the Greek alphabet, arranging the twenty-seven letters in three equal lines. ‘The principle is simple,’ he said. ‘One letter substitutes for another that falls on the same line but in the mirror position. Thus, the second letter on the first line, beta, is substituted with the second to last letter on the same line, eta. Similarly with the other letters. It’s a very basic code, and any senior bureaucrat would recognise it immediately. But it would baffle a mere messenger who might open the letter and read it out of curiosity.’

  ‘I understand,’ I said. ‘I’m very grateful.’

  I HAD TO WAIT nearly five weeks for Psellus’s coded message to arrive, and it was a bitter-sweet interval. As Psellus had remarked, the reign of the Augustae, the two empresses, was characterised by frivolity. It was as if the terrible events of the fall of the Basileus Michael had to be followed by a period of gaiety so that the people could expunge the memory of the rebellion. Apparently, when Halfdan and I had been taking the Basileus to the Studius monastery, hundreds had died in the streets during skirmishes between the rebels and the troops loyal to the Basileus, as well as among the bands of looters fighting over the spoils. Now the populace wanted to be distracted, and Zoë and Theodora dipped into the treasury reserves to pay for parades and spectacles in the hippodrome. They gave lavish banquets, and even allowed selected members of the public to visit the Great Palace and see its marvels.

  This gave me the opportunity to repay Pelagia for her kindness and hospitality, and I showed her as much of the Great Palace as was permitted. As a commoner she was banned from the great apartments of state, of course, but I took her to see the private zoo with its collection of exotic animals, including a hippopotamus and a long-necked African cameleopard, and in the Tzykanisterion sports ground we watched a horseback tournament. Young patricians were playing a game which involved using long-handled mallets to hit a leather ball the size of an apple into a goal. The game bored Pelagia, but she was fascinated by the horologion, a Saracen-made contraption which calculated hours by measuring water draining from a bowl and opened and closed small doors from which carved figures emerged according to the time of day.

  ‘Isn’t it strange,’ she commented ‘that the palace tries to make sure that everything endures and remains the same as it has always been. Yet it is also the place that measures how time is passing. It is almost as if the palace believes that one day they will discover how time could be stopped.’

  At that moment I should have told Pelagia that my own time in that city might soon be coming to an end, that I would be leaving Constantinople. But I shirked the opportunity, and we went instead to visit the gynaeceum, where Pelagia’s sister was waiting to show her around. I was forbidden from entering. As I stood in the courtyard of the beardless ones, the guardian eunuchs, I agonised that perhaps I had been too hasty in seeking Psellus’s help in extricating Harald and the others from their service to the emperor. Maybe, instead, I should make my life in the Queen of Cities, just as Halfdan had done. I was now forty-two years of age, past the prime of life, and the attractions of Constantinople with its luxurious lifestyle and pleasant climate had a strong appeal. Pelagia had never remarried since the death of her husband, and the two of us had become very close, so there was every chance that she would accept me as her partner, if that
was what I proposed. There was no doubt that life with Pelagia, whom I respected deeply, would be very agreeable. I would retire from the Life Guard, live harmoniously with her in the villa in Galata, and give up my ambition to restore the Old Gods in the northern lands. All I had to do was ignore Psellus’s message, if it ever came.

  I was on the verge of making this decision when Pelagia emerged from the gynaeceum. She was marvelling at the luxury with which Zoë had surrounded herself, yet dismayed by the tedium of life within the women’s quarters. ‘They eat their meals with golden forks in there,’ she said, ‘but the food must taste like the ashes of the living dead.’ Her remark, following so closely on my thoughts about my dilemma, made me wonder if, by taking the more comfortable path, my life would become a hollow shell; and whether, should Pelagia ever learn that I had abandoned my deeply held ambition, she would blame herself.

  Even so, perhaps I would have stayed in Constantinople had not Loki strained at his bonds. There was a shaking of the ground on the evening after Pelagia and I visited the Great Palace. It was only a minor tremor, scarcely felt in the Varangian barracks. A few statues fell from their plinths along the Mese, several apartment blocks were damaged, and the city engineers had to come with ladders and hooks the next day to pull down the structures that were too dangerous. But on the Galata side of the Golden Horn the damage was far more severe. Several of the new houses collapsed as a result of shoddy workmanship. One of them was Pelagia’s villa. She had just returned to her house, and she and several of her servants were crushed. I heard of her death from her sister Maria, who came to fetch me the next morning, and the two of us crossed the Golden Horn to visit the scene of the calamity. As I looked on the tumbled ruins of her house, I felt as desolate as if I was standing on the edge of a great void into which Pelagia had disappeared and from which she would never return. Numbed, I was overcome by a profound sadness that someone so full of spirit had gone, and I wondered whether Pelagia, who had believed neither in the salvation promised by the White Christ nor in my Old Gods, now existed in some other world.

 
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