Viking 3: King’s Man, page 5
‘Think of it, my lord, like a service in the most lavish White Christ church,’ I said. ‘Everything is ceremony and pomp. The courtiers wear special silken robes, each man knows his exact duties, the spot where he must stand, the exact gestures to use, the correct words to say. Everything focuses on the emperor himself. He sits on his golden throne, wearing the jewel-encrusted costume they call the chlamys. Across his shoulders is the loros, the long stole that only the emperor may wear, and on his feet are the tzangia, the purple boots exclusive to his rank. He will be motionless, gazing down the hall towards the door where you enter. You will be ushered in and then must advance down the hall and perform proskynesis.’
‘What’s proskynesis?’ Harald asked, leaning forward on his stool.
I realised that I had got carried away with the splendour of the ceremony, and hesitated because I did not know how Harald would react to my explanation.
‘Proskynesis is the act of homage,’ I said.
I swallowed nervously. ‘It means lying prostrate on the floor, face down, and staying there until the word comes from a courtier for you to rise.’
There was a long pause as Harald thought this over. I feared that he was about to refuse to debase himself this way, but instead he asked, ‘How far am I from the throne when I have to do this lying-down performance?’
I had been holding my breath, and let it out gently. ‘As you walk down the hall towards the Basileus, look downward and you will see that there is a purple disc set in the marble floor. That marks the spot where you should lie down.’
Harald asked promptly, ‘How do you know all this?’
‘Because a detail of the guard stands behind the emperor’s throne during the ceremony, and I have watched it happen many times. The guardsmen get to know the little tricks which make the ceremony seem more impressive. In fact sometimes it is difficult to keep a straight face.’
‘If the court chamberlain thinks the visitor is impressionable enough, the Basileus’s throne is made to elevate during the proskynesis. While the supplicant is face down on the floor, a team of operators winds a lifting jack hidden behind the throne so that when the supplicant lifts his head he sees the emperor seated higher than before. The look of astonishment on the supplicant’s face can be very entertaining. But,’ I added hurriedly, ‘I don’t think they will try that ruse on the day you have an imperial audience.’
Recalling my first conversations with Harald, it occurs to me now that I was possibly making a mistake. I thought I was merely preparing him for his meeting with the Basileus, but I fear that Harald was in fact learning a very different lesson: the importance of establishing dominion over others, how to dazzle them. If so, in my enthusiasm for Harald’s success I was preparing the seeds for my own later disappointment.
The Orphanotrophus had also instructed me to familiarise the Norwegian prince with the imperial navy, so I took Harald to the naval arsenal on the Golden Horn. There the eparch of the dockyard, fearing espionage, received us coolly and insisted that an official from the dromos as well as his own deputy accompany us on our tour. I showed Harald rank upon rank of slipways, where the warships were built and repaired, warehouses filled with naval stores, mast sheds and sail lofts, and I explained how most of the seamen were recruited from the coastal peoples across the straits in Asia Minor. Harald, who had an expert eye for shipwright’s skills, asked such probing questions of the master carpenters that I was sometimes at a loss for the right words as I translated into Greek. Then he demanded to inspect a warship in commission. When the eparch’s deputy hesitated, Harald insisted. If his men were to serve on the imperial ships, then at least they should know what to expect. He pointed at a dromon of the largest size, a three-masted fleet battleship which lay at anchor in the Golden Horn, awaiting orders. He would like to inspect that vessel, he said. As I was to notice many times later, when Harald Sigurdsson put a request, it sounded more like a command.
A naval pinnace rowed us out. Close up, the dromon was even larger than I had expected. I had never been aboard one before, and she was immense, at least half as long again as the largest longship that I had seen in the past and two or three times as broad. But what really made her seem imposing was her height above the water. Our Norse warships are low and sleek, but the imperial battleships are built upwards from the waterline. The intention is to overawe the enemy and give a superior platform from which archers can shoot downwards. So the dromon loomed over us as we approached, her height increased by a castle-like structure built amidship. We clambered up her side and on her deck immediately came face to face with her kentarchos, her sailing master. Angrily he demanded to know who this strange-looking foreigner with the long moustaches was who came climbing aboard his ship as though he owned her. When the man from the dromos explained that Harald had a letter from the sekreton of the Orphanotrophus, the kentarchos glowered, then accompanied us at every pace around her deck, watching us suspiciously.
Harald missed nothing. Fascinated by this unknown design of war vessel, he asked how the dromon handled in a seaway, how her sails were set and reefed, how nimbly she could alter course, how fast she went when all two hundred oarsmen were at the benches and for how long they could keep up a cruising pace. The kentarchos answered reluctantly. To him a bearded Norseman was a natural foe. Time and again I had to remind our guide that it was the Orphanotrophus’s order that Harald should be familiar with the imperial war fleet, and one day Harald’s men might be aboard as his marines. The kentarchos looked as if he would prefer to scuttle his vessel.
Finally we reached the forecastle in the dromon’s bows.
‘And what is that?’ asked Harald.
A bronze tube protruded through a metal plate, pointing forward like a single nostril. Close behind the tube stood two metal baths, joined by copper pipes to an apparatus that looked like a pump.
‘That’s the vessel’s siphon,’ said the man from the dromos.
The kentarchos glared at him, then rudely walked in front of Harald, deliberately blocking his view.
‘Not even the emperor’s direct command allows me to tell you more,’ he growled. ‘Now get off my ship.’
To my surprise, Harald obeyed.
Much later, when we were safely back outside the arsenal and no officials were in earshot, Harald muttered, ‘So that’s how they launch the Fire. But how do they create it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m not even sure what it is.’
‘When I was in Kiev I heard people describe how it destroyed a war fleet in their grandfathers’ time,’ Harald said. ‘People marvelled how the Fire ignites in the air, turning to cinders anything it touches. It even burns underwater. It’s amazing.’
That evening, when I asked Pelagia about the Fire, my normally reliable source of information was little help. She told me that only a handful of technicians knew how to create it, and that the ingredients were among the most closely guarded state secrets. Rumour had it that the Fire was made of quicklime mixed with an oil that comes from the earth. I told her about the strange bronze tube aboard the dromon and she laughed. She said that there were foreign sailors who believed the imperial navy had a breeding programme of fire-breathing dragons, which they stowed below decks before setting out on a campaign and then let loose in the bows of their ships just before a fleet action.
Shortly after the feast day of the Transfiguration, one of Constantinople’s major festivals, and two months after his arrival Harald finally had his audience with Michael. It took place in yet another of the splendid halls within the Great Palace, the Magnaura, which was often used for greeting foreign ambassadors, and as luck would have it I was a member of the imperial escort. As I took up my position behind the throne and rested my axe on my shoulder, I felt like a nervous schoolmaster who waits to see how his star pupil will perform. The interior of the hall was like a vast church, with columns and galleries and high windows glazed with coloured gla
A trumpet blast announced that the ceremony was to begin, and the assembly, facing towards Michael on his throne (Zoë had not been invited), raised the customary paean in honour of the Basileus. After several minutes of praise and acclamation I saw in the distance the ostiarios, the palace eunuch whose duty was to introduce dignitaries to the emperor, approach Harald and indicate that he was to walk forward. The crowd had now parted, leaving an aisle which led towards the throne. On the marble floor, in the open space before the throne, I could see the purple disc where Harald was to lie face down and perform proskynesis. At that moment I suddenly realised that I had failed to warn Harald about the automata. I had told him of the elevating throne, but forgotten that in the Magnaura, on each side of the purple disc, stood the lifelike bronze statue of a lion. The statues were hollow and articulated; by an ingenious system of hidden air pumps the animals could be made to lash their tails, open their jaws and let out a roar. The operators of the automata, concealed in the crowd, were instructed to make the beasts roar at the very moment the supplicant was about to prostrate himself before the throne.
I watched Harald as he stalked down the great hall between the lines of watching courtiers. He was bare-headed and wearing a velvet tunic of dark green with loose silk pantaloons. His only jewellery was a plain gold torc on each arm. In such a glittering and flamboyant assembly he should have been inconspicuous, but his presence dominated those around him. It was not just his height and obvious physical strength which impressed the onlookers, it was that Harald of Norway walked the length of Magnaura as if the ceremonial hall belonged to him, not the Basileus.
He approached the purple disc and halted in the open space before the throne, clear of the watching crowd. There was a pause, a long moment of silence, as he faced the emperor. At that moment the hidden operators of the automata opened the valves and the mechanical beasts lashed their tails and roared. If the audience had been expecting Harald to flinch or look startled, they were disappointed. He turned his head to look into the open jaws, first of one beast, then the other. He seemed thoughtful, even curious. Then, nonchalantly, he lay down on the marble floor and performed proskynesis.
Much later he told me that it was as he stared into the open mouths of the bronze lions and heard the hiss of the air pumps that made them move and roar that he understood the Fire.
I DID NOT SEE Harald again for nearly four months. After his proskynesis to the Basileus, he and his men left Constantinople. The Orphanotrophus had given them the task of dealing with the growing menace from Arab pirates who regularly attacked ships sailing from Dyrrachium on the west coast of Greece. The port of Dyrrachium was a vital link in the empire’s communications. Through its harbour passed imperial couriers, troops and merchandise on their way to and from Constantinople and the colonies in southern Italy. Recently the raiders had been so bold as to establish bases in the nearby Greek islands, from where their fast galleys pounced on passing ships. The Orphanotrophus’s original plan was to send to the area additional units of the imperial navy with Harald’s men aboard. But, according to my colleagues in the guard, the drungarios, the admiral of the fleet, refused. He baulked at taking so many barbarians on board his ships, and Harald had made matters worse by stating that he would not take orders from a Greek commander. The deadlock was resolved when Harald offered to use his own vessels, the light monocylon, and base them at Dyrrachium. From there he would send them out as escorts for the merchant ships and to patrol against the enemy.
With Harald gone, I returned to my previous duties with the guard and found that the whispers about Michael’s ill health were true. The young emperor was afflicted by what the palace physicians tactfully called ‘the holy sickness’.
I first noticed the symptoms when Michael was dressing for the festival which celebrates the birth of the White Christ. With five other members of the bodyguard, I had escorted Michael to the imperial robing chamber. There the vestitores, the officials who solemnly place the imperial regalia on the Basileus, ceremonially opened the chest containing the royal garb. The most junior of the officials took out the cloak, the chlamys, which he solemnly handed to the next most senior in rank. From hand to hand the garment was passed until finally it reached the senior vestitor, who reverently approached the waiting Basileus, intoned a prayer, and settled the cloak on the emperor’s shoulders. There followed the pearl-encrusted stole, the jewelled gloves, the chest pendant. All the time the Basileus stood motionless until the crown was presented to him. At that moment, something went awry. Instead of leaning forward to kiss the cross on the crown, as ritual demanded, Michael began to tremble. It was only a slight movement, but standing behind him we, the members of the escort, could see that his right arm was shaking uncontrollably. The vestitor waited, still proffering the crown, but Michael was paralysed, unable to move except for the trembling of his arm. There was complete silence as the interval lengthened and everyone in the room stood still, as if frozen in place, the only movement the rapid shaking of Michael’s right arm. Then, after the time it takes for a man to empty his lungs slowly seven or eight times, the arm slowly grew still, and Michael resumed full control of his body. Later that day, as if nothing had happened, he joined the procession along the garlanded streets to a service at the church of Hagia Sophia, then held several formal receptions in the Great Palace at which senior bureaucrats received their Nativity gifts, and in the evening appeared at a great banquet in the lausakios, the dining hall of the Great Palace. But the Orphanotrophus must have been advised of the emperor’s brief moment of paralysis, because the normal seating arrangements had been modified. Michael was seated alone at a separate ivory table, on view to all his noble guests, but no one could come close to him.
‘They say this kind of sickness is caused by demons in the brain,’ Halfdan commented to me as we were removing our ceremonial armour later that evening in the guardroom.
‘Maybe,’ I replied. ‘Yet some people see it as a gift.’
‘Among the ski-runners in Permia,’ I said. ‘I spent the winter with the family of one of their wise men, who sometimes behaved in the same way as the emperor, only it was more than just his arm trembling. Often he would fall on the ground and lie without moving for as long as an hour. When he woke up again, he told us how his spirit had been visiting the otherworld. It could happen with the Basileus.’
‘If it does, the Christians won’t believe he visited any spirit world,’ Halfdan grumbled. ‘They don’t hold with that sort of thing. Their saints show up on earth and perform miracles, but no one travels in the opposite direction and comes back.’
My analysis turned out to be correct. As the weeks passed, Michael’s eccentric behaviour became more pronounced and the episodes lasted longer. Sometimes he would sit mumbling to himself, or begin chewing rhythmically though there was no food in his mouth. On other occasions he would suddenly start to wander about the palace in a state
By contrast, as this crisis gradually developed, my own troubles seemed to recede. Having successfully obeyed the Orphanotrophus’s instructions in dealing with Harald and his men, I calculated that John would keep me as a go-between as long as Harald proved loyal. Pelagia encouraged me in this thinking. I was spending more and more time with her, and in the evenings when off duty I would go to dine at her apartment – she always brought back fresh delicacies from the market where she kept her bread stall – and we would sit and chat together, ostensibly to practise my Greek but more and more because I found her company to be a pleasant change from regimental life and because I valued her shrewd commentary on the power play that I was observing in the palace.
‘As long as you might prove useful to the Orphanotrophus,’ she said, ‘you should be safe. He’s got much to worry him now that his brother is showing signs of ill health.’
‘So news of the emperor’s condition has leaked out?’
‘Naturally,’ she replied. ‘There’s not much that goes on in the palace that doesn’t eventually become gossip in the marketplace. There are too many people employed in the palace for there to be secrets. Incidentally,’ she added, ‘your bearded northern friends who went off to Dyrrachium with their ships must be doing well. That cheese I served with the first course this evening comes from Italy, and until recently it was almost impossible to get. The Italian cheese-makers were reluctant to send their produce when so many of the merchant vessels were falling into the hands of the Arab pirates. Now the cheese has reappeared in the market. That’s a good sign.’
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