Viking 3: King’s Man, page 3
‘Didn’t Romanus notice, if it was that obvious?’ I asked.
‘No. The old boy barely used to look at the empress by then. Kept looking anywhere except in her direction, as though her presence gave him a pain.’
I mulled over the conversation as we marched back to the Grand Palace, entered the great courtyard and the gates were closed behind us. Our new Basileus dismounted, paused for a moment while his courtiers and officials formed up in two lines, and then walked down between them to the applause and smiles of his retinue before entering the palace. I noted that the Basileus was unescorted, which seemed very unusual. Even stranger was the fact that the courtiers broke ranks and began to hurry into the palace behind the Basileus, almost like a mob. Halfdan astonished me by rushing off in their wake, all discipline gone. So did the guardsmen around me, and I joined them in pushing and jostling as if we were a crowd of spectators leaving the hippodrome at the end of the games.
It was unimaginable. All the stiffness and formality of court life had evaporated. The crowd of us, ministers, courtiers, advisers, even priests, all flooded into the great Trikilinium. There, seated up on the dais, was our young new emperor, smiling down at us. On each side were two slaves holding small strongboxes. As I watched, one of the slaves tilted the coffer he held and a stream of gold coins poured out, falling into the emperor’s lap. Michael reached down, seized a fistful of the coins, and flung them high into the air above the crowd. I gaped in surprise. The shower of gold coins, each one of them worth six months’ wages for a skilled man, glittered and flashed before plummeting towards the upstretched hands. A few coins were caught as they fell, but most tumbled on to the marble floor, landing with a distinct ringing sound. Men dropped to their hands and knees to pick up the coins, even as the emperor dipped his hand into his lap and flung another golden cascade over our heads. Now I understood why Halfdan had been so quick off the mark. My company commander had shrewdly elbowed his way to a spot where the arc of bullion was thickest, and was clawing up the golden bounty.
I, too, crouched down and began to gather up the coins. But at the very moment that my fingers closed around the first gold coin, I was thinking to myself that I would be wise to find some way of resigning from the Life Guard without attracting attention before it was too late.
THE THOUGHT THAT Romanus had been murdered nagged at me in the weeks that followed. I brooded on the possible consequences of my unwitting participation in a regicide and began to take precautions for my personal safety. I only ate mess food prepared by the army cooks, and I did not leave the barracks unless I was on duty or in the company of two or three of my colleagues, and then I only visited places I knew to be safe. Had my companions realised my fears, they would have scoffed at my timidity. Compared with the other cities I had known – London for example – Constantinople was remarkably peaceful and well run. Its governor, the city eparch, maintained an efficient police force, while a host of civic employees patrolled the marketplaces, checking on fair trade, cleanliness and orderly behaviour. Only at night, when the streets were given over to prostitutes and thieves, would my colleagues have bothered to carry weapons to defend themselves. But I was not reassured. If I was to be silenced for what I had witnessed in the imperial swimming pool, then the attack would come when I was least expecting it.
The one person to whom I confessed my fears was my friend Pelagia. She ran a bread stall on the Mese, and I had been seeing her twice a week to practise my conversational Greek because the language I had learned in the Irish monastery was antiquated and closer, coincidentally, to the language spoken in the imperial court than koine, the language of the common people. An energetic, shrewd woman with the characteristic dark hair and sallow skin of someone native to the city, Pelagia had already provided me with a lesson in the tortuous ways of Byzantine thinking, which often succeeded in extracting advantage from calamity. She had started her business just days after her husband, a baker, had burned to death in a blaze which had started when the bread oven cracked. A city ordinance banned bakeries from operating in close proximity to town houses, otherwise the accident would have sent the entire district up in flames. The ashes of the fire were barely cold before Pelagia had gone to her husband’s former business competitors and worked on their sympathy. She coaxed them into agreeing to supply her stall at a favourable discount, and by the time I met her she was well on her way to being a wealthy woman. Pelagia kept me up to date with all the latest city rumours about palace politics – a favourite topic among her many clients – and, more important, she had a sister who worked as a seamstress for the empress Zoë.
‘No one doubts that Zoë had a hand in Romanus’s death, though it’s less certain that she actively organised what happened in the bathhouse,’ Pelagia told me. We had met in the spacious rooms of her third-floor apartment. Astonishing to people like myself from lands where a two-storeyed building is unusual, many of Constantinople’s houses had four or even five floors. ‘My sister tells me that poisons of every sort are readily available in the empress’s quarters. They are not even kept locked up for safety. Zoë has a mania for creating new perfumes and unguents. Some say it’s a hangover from the days when she was trying to rejuvenate herself and bear a child. She keeps a small army of women servants grinding, mixing and distilling different concoctions, and several of the ingredients are decidedly poisonous. One young girl fainted the other day merely from inhaling the fumes from one of the brews.’
‘So you think Zoë was the poisoner, but not the person who arranged for Romanus to have an accident during his swim,’ I asked.
‘It’s hard to say. If the empress did plot with her lover to do away with Romanus and rule the empire through him, she’s been disappointed. Michael, my sister tells me, has been acting as if he alone is in charge. She is not consulted on matters of state – they are all taken care of by his brother, the Orphanotrophus. So if Zoë had nothing to do with the murder, she may well bring an accusation against the new Basileus in order to overthrow him. Either way, you are in real danger. If there is an enquiry, the investigating tribunal will call witnesses to Romanus’s death, and their usual way of interrogating witnesses is to torture them.’
‘I don’t follow you,’ I said. ‘Surely if there was a conspiracy between Zoë and Michael, neither party would want to risk it being discovered. And if only Michael is guilty, and perhaps the Orphanotrophus as well, then Zoë would be unlikely to harm the man with whom she is infatuated.’
‘You don’t know what a silly and capricious woman Zoë can be, despite her age and position,’ Pelagia replied witheringly. ‘My sister has been talking to some of the people who look after Zoë’s wardrobe. Apparently Zoë feels that she is a woman scorned. Michael has banished her to the gynaeceum, and doesn’t even visit her bedchamber as often as when she was still married to Romanus. Now there is even a rumour that Michael has some sort of incurable sickness and that the Orphanotrophus deliberately hid that fact from Zoë when he first introduced him to her.’
The intrigues of the court were beyond normal comprehension, I thought to myself. Never would I be able to untangle the subterfuges of those who seek or wield absolute power. It would be better for me to make myself as unobtrusive as possible and place my trust in the protection of Odinn, the arch-deceiver. I promised myself that next time my Christianised comrades in the guard went off to pray in the new church to St Olaf, I would find a quiet spot and make an offering to the All Wise. Perhaps the God of Cargoes would show me a way out of my predicament.
It turned out that Odinn answered even before I made the sacrifice. But first he gave me a fright I was to remember for the rest of my days in the service of the Basileus.
Early in June Pelagia told me that a report was sweeping the city that a force of Rus were about to attack Constantinople. A war fleet had been sighted making its way down the great river which leads from the kingdom of Kiev.
‘Of course you know that route yourself, Thorgils. That’s th
‘No, I came by a different route, along another river further east. But it’s much the same thing: all paths lead to Constantinople.’
‘Just as all Rus are much the same thing – violent, hairy barbarians who worship idols.’ The jibe came from one of Pelagia’s fellow stallholders, another bread-seller who had the chirpy swagger of a true city-dweller. Over his stall hung a crudely sketched picture of the White Christ issuing loaves and fishes to the multitude, so I knew him to be a vehement Christian.
‘Well, not exactly,’ I corrected him mildly. ‘The people you lump together as Rus are all sorts and types – those who come from Kiev are Christians and acknowledge your own Great Patriarch. Others like myself are from the lands of the northmen and, while we follow our own gods, we come to trade not to fight. Half your churches would be in darkness if those so-called barbarians didn’t bring beeswax from the northern forests for you to turn into candles to illuminate your painted saints while you adore them.’
The stallholder was not to be placated. ‘This city can defend itself whatever that scum throws at it. You would have thought they had learned their lesson last time.’ He saw I had missed his point. ‘My grandfather loved telling me how we dealt with those ignorant savages the last time they dared to assault the Queen of Cities. They showed up with their fleet expecting to swarm in and put the place to the sack. But Blessed Mary and our Basileus protected us. The enemy never even got past the city walls – much too strong for them. So they muddled about, went here and there in their stupid, mindless way, raiding and raping in small settlements along the coast. But all the while our Basileus was biding his time. He waited until the Rus were off guard, and then sent out our ships and caught them fair and square. We burned them to cinders with the Fire. They never knew what hit them. Less than a hundred of them returned home. It was a massacre. My grandfather told me that burned bodies were washing up on the shore, and you could smell the stench of burned flesh . . .’ At that moment he must have remembered how Pelagia’s husband had died, for his voice trailed away in embarrassment and he looked down at his feet before finding an excuse to turn away and attend to the display on his stall.
I was about to ask Pelagia what the man had meant by ‘the Fire’, when I heard my name called out, and turned to see Halfdan pushing through the crowd towards me. Close behind him was a palace messenger.
‘There you are, Thorgils. Thought I might find you here with Pelagia,’ Halfdan exclaimed, though without the innuendo that normally accompanied his mention of Pelagia’s name. ‘There’s some sort of flap on at the palace, and it involves you. You are to report at once to the office of the Orphanotrophus. It’s urgent.’
Panic gripped me as I glanced across at Pelagia. There was no mistaking the alarm in her expression too.
I quickly followed the messenger to the palace. He brought me to the office of the Orphanotrophus, where I noticed that the emperor’s eunuch brother had appropriated for himself the chambers immediately beside the staterooms of the Basileus. My colleagues who were on duty glanced at me curiously as I passed them. Never before had any of them seen a mere guardsman summoned in this way.
A moment later my stomach was churning with anxiety as I stood in front of John. He was sitting at an ornate desk, reading through a document, and when he raised his head to look at me, I thought how very tired he seemed. His eyes were sunk even deeper than usual. Perhaps the cares of state were weighing more heavily than he had expected, or maybe the rumours in the marketplace were true: that the Orphanotrophus never slept, but in the night dressed up as a monk and walked the streets of the city, eavesdropping on conversations, questioning ordinary citizens and learning the mood of the people. It was little wonder that people feared him. Certainly I felt sick with apprehension as I waited for him to speak. And his first words told me that he remembered exactly who I was.
‘I have summoned you because you speak excellent Greek as well as Varangian,’ he said. ‘I have a mission for you.’
The tight knot in my stomach began to relax, but only for a moment. Was this another court deceit? Was the Orphanotrophus putting me at ease before revealing his true intention?
‘My agents tell me that a large force of Rus is approaching. It appears that there are about five hundred of them travelling in monocylon, the vessels which traders from Rus normally use, and they are coming by the same route.’
Five hundred Rus did not amount to an invading force, I thought to myself. The market rumour was greatly exaggerated. It would take at least ten times that number to pose a threat to Constantinople’s well-tried defences.
As though reading my mind, the Orphanotrophus added, ‘I’m not concerned about the safety of the city. What does interest me is that my informants tell me these men are not merchants. They do not carry trade goods, they are heavily armed and there is a report that their leader is some sort of prince or nobleman. His name is Araltes, or something like that. Do you know anyone by this name?’
‘No, your excellency,’ I replied. ‘It’s not a name that I am familiar with.’
‘You soon will be,’ the Orphanotrophus replied dryly. ‘I have given orders that the foreigners are to be intercepted at the entrance to the straits. They will be escorted to the district of St Mamas on the opposite side of the Golden Horn and held there, well away from the city, pending an investigation of their intentions. That is where you come in. I want to know who they are and why they have come here. If they are Rus, you will understand their language when they speak among themselves, and you seem to be an intelligent man who can make his own judgements and ask the right questions. Afterwards you come back to me and report your impressions in person.’
‘Yes, your excellency,’ I answered, beginning to think that I had been unnecessarily suspicious of John. ‘When do you expect the foreigners to arrive?’
‘In three days’ time,’ he answered. ‘Now go and report to my chief chartularius. He will write out your instructions. Officially you will be serving as escort to the deputation from the office of dromos.’ He paused, and then said something which – as intended – reminded me of the words I had used when delivering the message that lured me from my duty to guard the Basileus. ‘As I’m sure you are aware,’ the eunuch continued softly, ‘the logothete of the dromos is responsible for foreign relations, secret intelligence and embassies, as well as the imperial postal system – a curious mixture, don’t you think? – while the dekanos are the palace messengers. So the men from the dromos will manage the official contact with these five hundred barbarians, but you are my eyes and ears. I want you to eavesdrop on the foreigners for me.’
My interview was at an end. I looked into the hooded eyes of the Orphanotrophus and, with numbing certainty, understood why he was so confident that I would act as his spy, even against my own people. It was just as Pelagia had said: it did not matter whether John had plotted to put his brother Michael on the throne. Basileus Romanus had died during my watch, when I had been responsible for his safety. John had witnessed my dereliction of duty and he could bring me to account at any time he chose. I was at his mercy. Yet he was too subtle to mention that fact outright. He preferred to rely on my fear and make me his creature.
So it was that three days after my interview with the Basileus’s sinister brother I was aboard a small ferry boat, being rowed across the choppy waters of the Golden Horn towards the landing place at Mamas. With me were two dour-looking officials from the secretariat of the dromos. To judge from their manner, they thought it was a vile imposition to be plucked from the calm shelter of their offices and sent to interview a gang of uncouth barbarians from the north. One of the officials wrinkled his nose with distaste as he clutched his robe so that the hem did not get soaked by the slop of bilge water. Since they were on official business, both
As our little boat approached the landing stage, the sight of the moored flotilla of a dozen or so boats suddenly made me homesick for the northern lands. The monocylon, as John had called them, were a smaller version of the curved seagoing ships I had known all my life. The boats docked at Mamas were less well built than genuine ocean-going vessels, but they were handy enough for short sea crossings and very different from the tubby hulls favoured by the Greeks. My nostalgia grew as I scrambled up on to the quay and walked across the open ground where the foreigners had been given permission to pitch their tents. There were piles of flax sails, wooden kegs, spars, coils of rope, anchors and other ship’s gear, all so familiar to me. I could smell the tar on the ropes and the grease on the leather straps of the steering blades. Even the stacked oars were of the same pattern I had used when I was a youngster.
The encampment, with its neat rows of tents, had a vaguely military feeling, and I understood why the imperial spies had reported their unease. This large assembly of travellers had definitely not come to Constantinople to buy and sell goods. The men strolling around the camp, hovering over the cooking pots, or simply lazing in the sun, all had the look of warriors. They were big and self-confident and they were Norse – that was sure. They had the blond colouring of the Norse, the long hair and luxuriant beards, and they wore the characteristic heavy leggings and cross-garters, though their tunics were a motley of colours and cloths, ranging from linen to leather. One or two even wore sheepskin jerkins, which were highly unsuitable in Constantinople’s sunshine.
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