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Prologue

 

 





 

 





 

 

It was the Emperor's first public appearance since he had been acclaimed the new sovereign of Rome, and he was nervous. The ambassador from Persia was about to be presented to his court.

"He's going to be mean to me, Mommy," predicted the Emperor.

"Hush," whispered the Empress Regent. "And don't call me 'Mommy.' It's undignified."

The Emperor stared up at the tall imposing figure of his new mother, seated on her own throne next to him. Meeting her cold black eyes, he hastily looked away.

His new mother made him nervous, too. Even though his old mother said his new mother was a good friend, the Emperor wasn't fooled. The Empress Regent Theodora was not a nice lady.

The Empress Regent leaned over and whispered into his ear:

"Why do you think he'll be mean to you?"

The Emperor frowned.

"Well—because Daddy gave the Persians such a fierce whipping." Then, remembering: "My old daddy, I mean."

The Emperor glanced guiltily at the figure of his new father, standing not far away to his right. Then, meeting the sightless gaze of those empty sockets, he looked away. Very hastily. Not even his real mother tried to claim that Justinian was a "nice man."

Theodora, again, hissing:

"And don't call the Empire's strategos 'daddy.' It's not dignified, even if he is your stepfather."

The Emperor hunched down on his throne, thoroughly miserable.

It's too confusing. Nobody should have this many mommies and daddies.  

He began to turn his head, hoping to catch a reassuring glimpse of his real parents. He knew they would be standing nearby, among the other high notables of the Roman court. But the Empress
Regent hissed him still.

"Stop fidgeting! It's not regal."

The Emperor made himself sit motionless. He grew more and more nervous, watching the stately advance of the Persian ambassador down the long aisle leading to the throne.

The Persian ambassador, he saw, was staring at him. Everybody was staring at him. The throne room was packed with Roman officials, every one of whom had their eyes fixed on the Emperor. Most of them, he thought, were not very nice—judging, at least, from sarcastic remarks he had heard his parents make. All four of his parents. The scurrilous nature of officialdom was one of the few subjects they did not quarrel about.

The ambassador was now much closer. He was rather tall, and slender of build. His complexion was perhaps a bit darker than that of most Greeks. His face was lean-jawed and aquiline, dominated by a large nose. His beard was cut in the short square style favored by Persians.

The ambassador was wearing the costume of a Persian nobleman. His gray hair was capped by the traditional gold-embroidered headdress, which Persians called a citaris. His tunic, though much like a Roman one, had sleeves which reached all the way down to the wrists. His trousers also reached far down, almost covering the red leather of his boots.

Seeing the bright color of the ambassador's boot-tips, the Emperor felt a momentary pang. His old father—his real father—had a pair of boots just like those. "Parthian boots," they were called. His father favored them, as did many of his Thracian cataphracts.

The ambassador was now close enough that the Emperor could make out his eyes. Brown eyes, just like his father's. (His old father; his new father had no eyes.)

But the Emperor could detect none of the warmth which was always in his old father's eyes. The Persian's eyes seemed cold to him. The Emperor lifted his gaze. High above, the huge mosaic figures on the walls of the throne room stared down upon him. They were saints, he knew. Very holy folk. But their eyes, too, seemed cold. Darkly, the Emperor suspected they probably hadn't been very nice either. The severe expressions on their faces reminded him of his tutors. Sour old men, whose only pleasure in life was finding fault with their charge.

He felt as if he were being buried alive.

"I'm hot," he complained.

"Of course you're hot," whispered Theodora. "You're wearing imperial robes on a warm day in April. What do you expect?"

Unkindly:

"Get used to it." Then:

"Now, act properly. The ambassador is here."

Twenty feet away, the Persian ambassador's retinue came to a halt. The ambassador stepped forward two paces and prostrated himself on the thick, luxurious rug which had been placed for that purpose on the tiled floor of the throne room.

That rug, the Emperor knew, was only brought out from its special storage place for the use of envoys representing the Persian King of Kings, the Shahanshah. It was the best rug the Roman Empire owned, he had heard.

Persia was the traditional great rival of the Roman Empire. It wouldn't do to offend its representatives. No, it wouldn't do at all.

The Persian ambassador was rising. Now, he was stepping forward. The ambassador extended his hand, holding the scroll which proclaimed his status to the Roman court. The motion brought a slight wince to the face of the ambassador, and the Roman Emperor's fear multiplied. The wince, he knew, was caused by the great wound which the ambassador had received to his shoulder three years before.

The Emperor's real father had given him that wound, at a famous place called Mindouos.

He's going to be mean to me.  

"I bring greetings to the Basileus of Rome from my master Khusrau Anushirvan, King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran."

The ambassador spoke loudly, so everyone in the huge throne room could hear. His voice was very deep, as deep as anyone's the Emperor had ever heard except church singers.

"My name is Baresmanas," continued the ambassador. "Baresmanas, of the Suren."

The Emperor heard a whispering rustle sweep the throne room. He understood the meaning of that rustle, and felt a moment's pride in his understanding. For weeks, now, his tutors had drilled him mercilessly in the history and traditions of Persia. The Emperor had not forgotten his lessons.

Officially, the Suren were one of the sahrdaran, the seven greatest noble families of Persia. Unofficially, they were the greatest. Rustam, the legendary hero of the Aryans—their equivalent of Hercules—was purported to have been of that family. And the Persian general who shattered Crassus' Roman army at Carrhae had been a Suren.

Sending a Suren ambassador, the Emperor knew, was the Shahanshah's way of indicating his respect for Rome. But the knowledge did not allay his fear.

He's going to be mean to me.  

The stern, haughty, aristocratic face of the Persian ambassador broke into a sudden smile. White teeth flashed in a rich, well-groomed beard.

"It is a great pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty," said the ambassador. Baresmanas bowed toward Theodora. "And your mother, the Regent Theodora."

The Emperor reached out his hand to take the scroll. After unrolling the parchment, he saw with relief that the document was written in Greek. The Emperor could read, now, though still with no great facility. And this document was full of long-winded words that he didn't recognize at all. He began studying it intently until he heard a slight cough.

Out of the corner of his eye, the Emperor saw the Empress Regent nodding graciously. Remembering his instructions, the Emperor hastily rolled up the parchment and followed her example. Then, seeing the hint of a frown on Theodora's brow, he belatedly remembered the rest of her coaching.

"We welcome the representative of our brother," he piped, "the Basileus of Pers—"

The Emperor froze with fear at his blunder.

By long-standing protocol, the Emperor of Rome always called the Emperor of Persia the "Basileus" rather than the "King of Kings." By using the same title as his own, the Roman Emperor thereby indicated the special status of the Persian monarch. No other ruler was ever granted that title by Romans, except, on occasion, the negusa nagast of Ethiopia.

But Persians never called themselves Persians. That term was a Greek bastardization of the Persian province of Fars, the homeland of the old Achaemenid dynasty. Persians called their land Iran—land of the Aryans. They were immensely snooty on the matter, too, especially the distinction between Aryans and all lesser breeds. Many non-Aryan nations were ruled by the Shahanshah, but they were not considered part of the land of the Aryans itself. Those were simply "non-Iran."

The Emperor's paralysis was broken by the slight, encouraging smile on the ambassador's face.

"—the Basileus of Iran and non-Iran," he quickly corrected himself.

The ambassador's smile widened. A very friendly gleam came into his brown eyes. For a moment—a blessed moment—the Roman Emperor was reminded of his father. His old father.

He glanced at the mutilated face of his new father, the former Emperor Justinian. That sightless face was fixed upon him, as if Justinian still had eyes to see. That sightless, harsh, bitter face.

It's not fair, whimpered the Emperor in his mind. I want my old father back. My real father. 

The ambassador was backing away. The Emperor of Rome began to sigh with relief, until, catching a hint of Theodora's disapproval, he stiffened with imperial dignity.

Maybe he won't be mean to me, after all.  

The ambassador was fifteen feet off, now. He still seemed to be smiling.

It's not fair. The Sassanids are from Fars, too, so why can't we call them Persians?  

Now, he did sigh, slightly. He felt the Empress Regent's disapproval, but ignored it.

It's too much to remember all at once.  

Another sigh. The Empress Consort hissed. Again, he ignored her reproof.

I'm the Emperor. I can do what I want.  

That was patently false, and he knew it.

It's not fair.  

I'm only eight years old.  

The ambassador was thirty feet away, now. Out of hearing range. Theodora leaned over.

The Emperor braced himself for her reproach.

Nasty lady. I want my old mother back.  

But all she said was:

"That was very well done, Photius. Your mother will be proud of you." Then, with a slight smile: "Your real mother."

 

"I'm proud of you, Photius," said Antonina. "You did very well." She leaned over the throne's armrest and kissed him on the cheek.

Her son flushed, partly from pleasure and partly from guilt. He didn't think being kissed in public by his mother fit the imperial image he was supposed to project. But, when his eyes quickly scanned the throne room, he saw that few people were watching. After the Empress Regent had left, to hold a private meeting with the Persian ambassador and his father (both of his fathers), the reception had dissolved into a far more relaxed affair. Most of the crowd were busy eating, drinking and chattering. They were ignoring, for all practical purposes, the august personage of the Emperor. No-one standing anywhere near to him, of course, committed the gross indiscretion of actually turning their back on the throne's small occupant. But neither was anyone anxious to ingratiate themselves to the new Emperor. Everyone knew that the real power was in the hands of Theodora.

Photius was not disgruntled by the crowd's indifference to him. To the contrary, he was immensely relieved. For the first time since the reception began, he felt he could relax. He even pondered, tentatively, the thought of reaching up and scratching behind his ear.

Then, squaring his shoulders, he did so. Scratched furiously, in fact.

I'm the Emperor of Rome. I can do what I want.  

"Stop scratching behind your ear!" hissed his mother. "You're the Emperor of Rome! It's undignified."

The Emperor sighed, but obeyed.

It's not fair. I never asked them to make me Emperor.  

 

 

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