Viking 3: King’s Man, page 2
I joined twenty of my comrades at the main gate. They had already slammed the doors shut without asking permission of the keeper of the gate, whose duty it was to supervise the opening of the main gate at dawn, close it again at noon, and then reopen it for a few hours in the early evening. But today the death of the emperor had removed his authority and the keeper was at a loss to know what to do. The decurion decided the matter for him. He was refusing to let anyone in or out.
Even as I arrived, there was a great hubbub outside the gate, and I could hear thunderous knocking and loud, impatient shouts.
‘Glad you’ve got here, Thorgils,’ said the guard commander. ‘Maybe you can tell me what those wild men out there want.’
I listened carefully. ‘I think you had better let them in,’ I said. ‘It sounds as though you’ve got the Great Patriarch outside, and he’s demanding admittance.’
‘The Great Patriarch? That black-clad old goat,’ grumbled the guard commander, who was a staunch Old Believer. ‘Lads, open the side door and allow the monks through. But hold your breath. They don’t wash very often.’
A moment later a very angry group of monks, all with chest-length beards and black gowns, stormed through the gap between the doors, glared at us, and hurried off down the corridor with a righteous-sounding slap of sandals and the clatter of their wooden staffs on the marble floor slabs. In their midst I saw the white-bearded figure of Alexis of the Studius, the supreme religious authority of the empire.
‘Wonder what’s brought them down from their monastery in such a hurry,’ muttered a Varangian as he pushed shut the door and dropped the bar back in place.
His question was answered later, when we came off duty and returned to the guardroom. Half a dozen of my colleagues were lounging there, smirking.
‘The old bitch has already got herself a new husband. The moment she was sure that old Romanus was definitely on his way out, she sent someone to fetch the high priest.’
‘I know, we let him and his crows in.’
‘Well, she certainly didn’t summon them to give her beloved husband the last rites. Even while the priests were on their way, the old lady called an emergency meeting of her advisers, including that foxy creep, the Orphanotrophus. She told them that she wanted her fancy-boy to be the new Basileus.’
‘Not the handsome rattle-brain!’
‘She had it all worked out. She said that, by right of imperial descent, she represented the continuity of the state, and that it was in the best interests of the empire if “my darling Michael”, as she called him, took the throne with her.’
‘You must be joking! How do you know all this?’
The guardsman gave a snort of derision. ‘The Orphanotrophus had ordered four of us to act as close escort for the empress in case there was an attempt on her life. It was a ruse, of course. When the other courtiers showed up to dispute the idea of Michael’s succession, they saw the guard standing there, and came to the conclusion that the matter had already been settled.’
‘So what happened when the high priest arrived?’
‘He plunged straight into the wedding ceremony for the old woman and her lover-boy. She paid him a fat bribe, of course, and within the hour they were man and wife.’
This bizarre story was interrupted by the arrival of another of our Greek officers, who scuttled into the room, anxiously demanding a full sovereign’s escort. We were to don our formal uniforms and accompany him to the Triklinium, the grand audience chamber. He insisted that there was not a moment to be lost.
Thirty of us formed up and marched through the passageways to the enormous hall, floored with mosaics, hung with silk banners and decorated with rich icons, where the Basileus formally received his ministers, foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries. Two ornate thrones stood on a dais at the far end of the hall and our officer led us straight to our positions – to stand in a semicircle at the back of the dais, looking out across the audience chamber. A dozen equerries and the marshal of the Triklinium were busily making sure that everything was in order for the arrival of their majesties. Within moments the Empress Zoë and Michael, her new husband, entered the room and hurried up to the thrones. Close behind came the Orphanotrophus, some high-ranking priests, and a gaggle of courtiers associated with the empress’s faction at court. Zoë and Michael stepped up on the dais, our Greek officer hissed a command, and we, the members of the Life Guard, obediently raised our axes vertically in front of us in a formal salute. The empress and emperor turned to face down the hall. Just as they were about to sit down there came a tense moment. By custom the guard acknowledges the presence of the Basileus as he takes his seat upon the throne. As the emperor lowers himself on to his seat, the guards transfer their axes from the salute to their right shoulders. It is a signal that all is well and that the business of the empire is continuing as normal. Now, as Zoë and Michael were about to settle on their throne cushions, my comrades and I glanced at one another questioningly. For the space of a heartbeat nothing happened. I sensed our Greek officer stiffen with anxiety, and then, raggedly, the guard placed their axes on their shoulders. I could almost hear the sigh of relief from Zoë’s retinue.
That crisis safely past, the proceedings quickly took on an air of farce. Zoë’s people must have sent word throughout the palace, summoning the senior ministers and their staff, who came in one by one. Many, I suspected, arrived thinking that they would be paying their respects to the body of their dead emperor. Instead they were confronted with the astonishing spectacle of his widow already remarried and seated beside a new husband nearly young enough to be her grandson. No wonder several of the new arrivals faltered on the threshold, dumbfounded. The matronly empress and her youthful consort were clutching the emblems of state in their jewelled hands, their glittering robes had been carefully arranged by their pages, and on Zoë’s face was an expression which showed that she expected full homage. From the back of the dais I watched the courtiers’ eyes take in the scene – the aloof empress, her boyish husband, the waiting cluster of high officials, and the sinister, brooding figure of John the Orphanotrophus, Michael’s brother, noting how each new arrival responded. After a brief moment of hesitation and calculation, the high ministers and courtiers came forward to the twin thrones, bowed deeply to the empress, then knelt and kissed the ring of her bright-eyed husband, who, less than six hours earlier, had been known as nothing more than her illicit lover.
The next day we buried Romanus. Overnight someone – it must have been the supremely efficient Orphanotrophus – arranged for his swollen corpse to be dressed in official robes of purple silk and laid out on a bier. Within an hour of sunrise the funeral procession had already assembled with everyone in their correct place according to rank, and the palace’s main gates were thrown open. I was one of the one hundred guards who marched, according to tradition, immediately before and after the dead Basileus as we emerged on to the Mese, the broad main avenue which bisects the city. I was surprised to see how many of the citizens of Constantinople had left their beds this early. Word of the Basileus’s sudden death must have spread very fast. Those who stood at the front of the dense crowd lining the route could see for themselves the waxen skin and swollen face of the dead emperor, for his head and hands had been left uncovered. Once or twice I heard someone shout out, ‘Poisoned!’, but for the most part the crowd remained eerily silent. I did not hear a single expression of sorrow or regret for his passing. Romanus III, I realised, had not been popular in Constantinople.
At the great Forum of Amastration we wheeled left, and half a mile further on the cortège entered the Via Triumphalis. Normally an emperor processed along this broad avenue to the cheers of the crowd, at the head of his victorious troops, as he displayed captured booty and files of defeated enemy in chains. Now Romanus was carried in the opposite direction in a gloomy silence broken only by the creaking wheels of the carriage which carried his bier, the sound of the horses’ hooves and the muted footfalls of hundreds upon hundreds
Then, as the crowd was dispersing in a mood of sombre apathy, our cortège briskly retraced its steps to the palace, for there was no a moment to be lost.
‘Two parades in one day, but it will be worth it,’ said Halfdan cheerfully as he shrugged off the dark sash he had worn during the funeral and replaced it with one that glittered with gold thread. ‘Thank Christ it’s only a short march this afternoon, and anyhow we would have to be doing it anyway as it’s Palm Sunday.’
Halfdan, like several members of the guard, was part-Christian and part-pagan. Superficially he subscribed to the religion of the White Christ – and swore by him – and he attended services at the new church to St Olaf recently built near our regimental headquarters down by the Golden Horn, Constantinople’s main harbour. But he also wore Thor’s hammer as an amulet on a leather strap around his neck, and when he was in his cups he often announced that when he died he would much prefer to feast and fight in Odinn’s Valholl than finish up as a bloodless being with wings like a fluffy dove in the Christians’ heaven.
‘Thorgils, how come you speak Greek so well?’ The question came from one of the Varangians who had been at the palace gate the previous day. He was a recent recruit into the guard.
‘He licked up a drop of Fafnir’s blood, that’s how,’ Halfdan interjected. ‘Give Thorgils a couple of weeks and he could learn any language, even if it’s bird talk.’
I ignored his ponderous attempt at humour. ‘I was made to study Greek when I was a youngster,’ I said, ‘in a monastery in Ireland.’
‘You were once a monk?’ the man asked, surprised. ‘I thought you were a devotee of Odinn. At least that is what I’ve heard.’
‘I am,’ I told him. ‘Odinn watched over me when I was among the monks and got me away from them.’
‘Then you understand this stuff with the holy pictures they carry about whenever we’re on parade, the relics and bits of saints and all the rest of it.’
‘Some of it. But the Christianity I was made to study is different from the one here in Constantinople. It’s the same God, of course, but a different way of worshipping him. I must admit that until I came here, I had never even heard of half of the saints they honour.’
‘Not surprising,’ grumbled the Varangian. ‘Down in the market last week a huckster tried to sell me a human bone. Said it came from the right arm of St Demetrios, and I should buy it because I was a soldier and St Demetrios was a fighting man. He claimed the relic would bring me victory in any fight.’
‘I hope you didn’t buy it.’
‘Not a chance. Someone in the crowd warned me that the huckster had sold so many arm and leg bones from St Demetrios that the holy martyr must have had more limbs than a centipede.’ He gave a wry laugh.
Later that afternoon I sympathised with the soldier as we marched off for the acclamation of our young new Basileus, who was to be pronounced as Michael IV before a congregation of city dignitaries in the church of Hagia Sophia. We shuffled rather than marched towards the church because there were so many slow-moving priests in the column, all holding up pictures of their saints painted on wooden boards, tottering under heavy banners and pennants embroidered with holy symbols, or carrying precious relics of their faith sealed in gold and silver caskets. Just in front of me was their most venerated memento, a fragment from the wooden cross on which their Christ had hung at the time of his death, and I wondered if perhaps Odinn, the master of disguise, had impersonated their Jesus. The Father of the Gods had also hung on a wooden tree, his side pierced with a spear as he sought to gain world knowledge. It was a pity, I thought to myself, that the Christians were so certain that theirs was the only true faith. If they were a little more tolerant, they would have admitted that other religions had their merits, too. Old Believers were perfectly willing to let people follow their own gods, and we did not seek to impose our ideas on others. But at least the Christians of Constantinople were not as bigoted as their brethren further north, who were busy stamping out what they considered pagan practices. In Constantinople life was tolerant enough for there to be a mosque in the sixth district where the Saracens could worship and several synagogues for the Jews.
A hundred paces from the doors of Hagia Sophia, we, the members of the guard, came to a halt while the rest of the procession solemnly walked on and entered the church. The priests had no love for the Varangians, and it was customary for us to wait outside until the service was concluded. Presumably it was thought that no one would make an attempt on the life of the Basileus inside such a sacred building, but I had my doubts.
Halfdan let my company stand at ease, and we stood and chatted idly among ourselves, waiting for the service to end and to escort the acclaimed Basileus back to the palace. It was then that I noticed a young man dressed in the characteristic hooded gown of a middle-class citizen, a junior clerk by the look of him. He was approaching various members of the guard to try to speak to them. He must have been asking his questions in Greek, for they either shook their heads uncomprehendingly or ignored him. Eventually someone pointed in my direction and he came over towards me. He introduced himself as Constantine Psellus, and said he was a student in the city, studying to enter the imperial service. I judged him to be no more than sixteen or seventeen years old, about half my age.
‘I am planning to write a history of the empire,’ he told me, ‘a chapter for each emperor, and I would very much appreciate any details of the last days of Basileus Romanus.’
I liked his formal politeness and was impressed by his air of quick intelligence, so decided to help him out.
‘I was present when he drowned,’ I said, and briefly sketched what I had witnessed.
‘You say he drowned?’ commented the young man gently.
‘Yes, that seems to have been the case. Though he actually expired when he was laid out on the bench. Maybe he had a heart attack. He was old enough, after all.’
‘I saw his corpse yesterday when it was being carried in the funeral procession, and I thought it looked very strange, so puffed up and grey.’
‘Oh, he had had that appearance for quite some time.’
‘You don’t think he died from some other cause, the effects of a slow-acting poison maybe?’ the young man suggested as calmly as if he had been discussing a change in the weather. ‘Or perhaps you were deliberately called away from the baths so someone could hold the emperor underwater for a few moments to bring on a heart attack.’
The theory of poisoning had been discussed in the guardroom ever since the emperor’s death, and some of us had gone as far as debating whether it was hellebore or some other poison which was being fed to Romanus. But it was not our job to enquire further: our responsibility was to defend him from violent physical attack, the sort you block with a shield or deflect with a shrewd axe blow, not the insidious assault of a lethal drug in his food or drink. The Basileus employed food-tasters for that work, though they could be bribed to act a sham, and any astute assassin would make sure that the poison was slow-acting enough for its effect not to be detected until too late.
But the young man’s other suggestion, that I had been lured away to leave Romanus unguarded, alarmed me. If that was the case, then the Keeper of the Inkwell was certainly implicated in the Basileus’s death, and perhaps the Orphanotrophus as well. I remembered how he had tried to send me on to the logothete of finance with the parchment. That would have delayed me even more. The thought that I might have been a dupe in the assassination of the Basileus brought a chill to my s
Suddenly I was very frightened.
‘I think I hear the chanting of the priests,’ said Psellus, interrupting my thoughts and fidgeting slightly. Maybe he realised he had gone too far in his theorising, and was close to treason. ‘They must have opened the doors of Hagia Sophia, getting ready for the emergence of our new Basileus. It’s time for me to let you go. Thank you for your information. You have been most helpful.’ And he slipped away into the crowd.
We took up our positions around Michael IV, who was mounted on a superb sorrel horse, one of the best in the royal stables. I remembered how Romanus had been a great judge of horseflesh and had built up a magnificent stud farm, though he had been too sick to enjoy riding. Now I had to admit that the youthful Michael, though he came from a very plebeian background, looked truly imperial in the saddle. Perhaps that was what Zoë had seen in him from the beginning. Halfdan had told me how he had been on duty when Zoë had first gazed on her future lover. ‘You would have been an utter dolt not to have noticed her reaction. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. It was the Orphanotrophus who introduced him to her. He brought Michael into the audience chamber when Zoë and Romanus were holding an imperial reception, and led him right up to the twin thrones. Old Romanus was gracious enough, but Zoë looked at the young man as if she wanted to eat him on the spot. He was good looking, all right, fresh-faced and ruddy-cheeked, likely to blush like a girl. I reckon the Orphanotrophus knew what he was doing. Set it all up.’
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